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Serotiny

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Serotiny

/ˈsɛrəˌtaɪni/

noun
1. an ecological adaptation exhibited by some seed plants, in which seed release occurs in response to an environmental
trigger, rather than spontaneously at seed maturation. The most common and best studied trigger is fire.


Outside of monsoon season, which was brief as it was, it didn't really rain in Death City. Ever. It was only the unspoken power Lord Death held over the cycle of life and what comes after that kept the great oaks of the training forest green in the middle of the shimmering Southwestern desert. Clouds were a distant rarity, and summer showers were a myth from the other side of the Sierra Nevada.

Generally, Maka Albarn preferred it this way. Her heritage might tie back to rainy Ireland and temperate Japan, but she was born and raised in the desert and she was not cut out for other climates. She'd tried the East Coast on for size and discovered very little to delight her in the rain or snow for more than a few minutes at a time. No, she was made for t-shirt winters and scorching summers that leave all but the hardiest desert-dwellers melting on the cobblestones.

Today, however, she thought she could stand for a little rain. August in Death City was one of her favorite times of year, but she would have happily exchanged today for March weather, if only because then she wouldn't have to see the damn sun. He was cackling today, as he did every day, and usually it didn't bother her, but this afternoon it felt like the sunshine was mocking her, in particular.

It hadn't been a great day to begin with. She'd spilled coffee on her blouse when she was halfway up the great stairs and didn't have enough time to run back to the house to change, so she'd stood through four hours of lecturing to sleepy and sweating NOT students- and another three with EAT kids who weren't quite enough years younger than she was to take her seriously despite her impressive reputation- with an enormous brown stain across the pretty cream silk. Then on her walk home she'd gone out of her way several blocks to stop by the grocery store specifically to pick up her favorite juice (Liz always conveniently forgot to buy it), only to discover that they were completely out, rendering the entire detour moot. She'd been craving the taste all day, but unless she wanted to walk another eight blocks out of her way, she was out of luck.

And, of course, like the shit-flavored icing on the turd cake that was her day, as she was leaving the store empty-handed, He walked in.

Maka preferred not to even think about the way they had scurried past each other, avoiding eye contact by appearing much too interested in their shoes and the window display and the nonexistent clouds overhead. It was too humiliating.

She'd woken up that morning feeling better than she had in a good two months (two months, one week, and four and a half days…,) and before she'd left the house, she'd dared to hope that maybe she was finally over the hump and things really would get better from here. Now she was plodding down the sidewalk with an anvil on her chest, praying for rain and feeling the sunlight mocking her for thinking she might be getting better.

She was so preoccupied with violently cursing at the sky that she didn't even realize that she had arrived back at the Gallows until she was standing on the front step. She stopped, took a deep breath, threw her shoulders back, pasted a smile on her face, and opened the door.

The Gallows wasn't the kind of house you'd expect a god to own, not that Kid had spent much time here since assuming the mantle of Lord Death. It was certainly large, but not nearly as large as Kid could afford, not by a long shot. The design of the house was a bizarre blend of Victorian architecture and Death City sensibilities. Fortunately, in the past seven years, Patti had taken great strides in reducing the overwhelming skull theme of the decor that had dominated the house prior to the Thompsons' arrival in the household. The interior design still suited the precise tastes of the young shinigami, but the house felt warmer and more welcoming to outsiders now.

The house and its inhabitants had certainly welcomed her with open arms when she showed up on the doorstep with a hastily-packed suitcase.

"Liz? Patti?" she called.

"In here!" a chipper voice called from the back of the house.

An educated guess and the distinctive sounds of Looney Toons directed Maka in the direction of the entertainment room. Sure enough, she found Patti lying on her back with her legs hooked over the back of the couch, her head hanging over the seat to watch the television upside-down, and sipping what appeared to be a peach daiquiri through a straw. She was wearing a tanktop and shorts that were tiny even by her standards, and her face was bright red.

Dropping her leather messenger bag full of papers in need of grading into an armchair, Maka flopped bonelessly down onto the couch next to her roommate.

"How're things?" she asked.

"Hot," Patti replied, prompting Maka to wonder if the flush on her face was from all the blood rushing to her head or the temperature.

"Don't you have the AC on?"

Patti shook her head, eyes remaining fixed on the TV screen. "Nah. As long as I've still got a layer of clothes to take off, it doesn't make sense to waste the electricity."

Maka couldn't help smiling slightly. Frugal was not how most people would describe Patricia Thompson, but having spent upwards of two months under the same roof with her, Maka had learned a lot of things about Patti that most people probably didn't know. Her reckless overspending on luxuries when she had her hands on one of Kid's platinum cards was nicely balanced by her extreme penny-pinching on food and utilities. Both Thompson sisters had learned the lessons of poverty well, and despite their current good fortune were not likely to soon forget it.

On the screen, Elmer Fudd switched over to a commercial for laundry detergent, and Patti's eyes came unglued from the television at last. She turned her head to glance at Maka, and her big blue eyes widened. "Your shirt's all stained!"

"Uh-huh. Had a little mishap going up the steps this morning," Maka explained listlessly.

Patti frowned and twisted her neck up so that her head was something approaching vertical. "Why didn't you call me or Liz to bring you a new shirt?"

Maka's shoulders rolled in a defensive, uncomfortable shrug. "I didn't wanna bug you guys. This is the first day off you've had in weeks, and Liz had that coffee date with Kilik-"

"Yeah, at like two after his plane got in," Patti interjected. "And even if doing her hair did somehow take four hours, I wouldn't have minded coming by to bring you clean clothes."

"Look, Patti, it wouldn't have been worth it. I only have one clean shirt left, and it doesn't match this skirt at all."

Patti's eyes narrowed. "How can you only have one shirt left? You just did laundry last week."

Maka said nothing, but she didn't have to.

"Oh," the older girl said, and the single syllable spoke as loudly Maka's silence had. "You haven't gone back yet, have you. Not even for your stuff?"

Eyes cast down, Maka shook her head.

"Why not?" Patti sounded incredulous.

Maka sucked in a sharp breath through her nose and let it out slowly, willing the churning in her gut to go away. "I'm not ready yet."

"You're gonna have to be ready sometime, you know, whether you're actually ready or not."

"That doesn't even make sense."

Patti folded her arms across her chest. "Yeah it does," she said firmly.

"Can we not talk about this?" Maka asked, not even caring that there was a noticeable edge of desperation in her voice. She'd seen Him today and she wasn't prepared to handle another interrogation on top of that. Before Patti could respond, she pressed forward, "Anyway, what do you want for dinner? I was thinking about making some spaghetti, maybe."

You could always count on food to be an effective distraction for Patti. "Ooh, yeah!" she exclaimed. "And since Liz is too busy getting busy to come home to eat, we can put mushrooms in the sauce!"

Maka's lips twitched upwards from relief and amusement at Patti being… well… Patti. "Mushrooms it is, then," she agreed.


The rest of the week passed mercifully fast.

The heat index climbed even higher, and the record-setting temperatures were more effective than a tranquilizer on her students. Maka was positive that not more than five percent of her class actually heard- let alone absorbed- the content of her lectures, but she found she didn't care. She thought she might have cared before. As a hardworking, straight-A student, she'd always been extremely irritated by people who didn't care about school and didn't pay attention. Now, though, when she had a stack of papers to grade that might actually be taller than she was and the heat was even getting to her, Death Child extraordinaire, it just didn't seem worth the effort to be continually calling them back to attention. Whether they learned or not was their choice, and since most of her students were NOT anyway, it wasn't like they would be relying on Advanced Soul Theory to keep them alive on the battlefield- especially since hardly any of them had enough soul perception to make the class anything beyond purely theoretical to them anyway.

Besides, there was something about the sight of the tops of two dozen heads buried in their crossed arms and dozing that struck her as strangely endearing. She pointedly did not examine why.

As she packed up her bag on Friday, she pondered the rhythm her life had fallen into since the new semester started. Maka had never really envisioned herself as a teacher; at least, she'd never considered it as a possibility before she had at least a couple of decades of field experience under her belt. But now that she didn't have a weapon (she flinched at the thought) she was low on options; while she didn't think she was cut out to be a teacher, neither was Professor Stein, and he was by far the best teacher she'd ever had, even if his methods were… unconventional. Maka hoped she was even half as good.

Somehow, though, she didn't think she was.

Kid- Lord Death- had offered her the position a few days after she'd set up residence in the Gallows. Marie's semi-retirement now that she and Professor Stein were expecting a second child had forced a reshuffling of the staff before the summer term commenced, and they'd come up one staff member short in the soul theory department. Since her original post-graduation plan of going with Him to take up one of the vacant death weapon posts had fallen through rather spectacularly, she had been a natural choice to fill the void.

She'd done her Nevada teacher's certification in a two-week crash course during the first half of July. It had somewhat surprised her that it would be necessary, but it shouldn't have. The DWMA transcended all physical and political boundaries, but the Academy was still required to adhere to state guidelines in order to be an accredited school, and since only 63% of students (counting the NOT class, which was after all 90% of the student body) continued to work for or within the organization after graduation, accreditation was absolutely necessary to ensure that the remaining 37% would be able to continue their education elsewhere or get a good job outside the DWMA. Of course, Maka was entirely unqualified to teach anything other than the kinds of courses EAT-tracked students took at the DWMA, but since she'd expected a career working for Lord Death since before she was toilet-trained, she didn't exactly mourn the loss of a potential future teaching long division to bored fifth-graders. She wanted to work at the Academy, and even if it wasn't in the role she'd been expecting to fill, it was better than nothing at all. And so she had gotten her certification.

Even for a world-champion studier, it had been a hellish couple of weeks, but Maka had welcomed it. She had been in desperate need of something to occupy her time and her thoughts, and completing a series of tests that most people did over the course of an entire school year in less than a fortnight had been exactly what she needed to keep her mind off of… stuff.

But once the whirlwind of getting her proper credentials had wound down, she had settled into a nice tidy routine and it was… well, she didn't want to say boring, exactly. Mostly because if she admitted it to herself then she'd have to deal with the consequences of the realization and she was absolutely determined to be content with her life. She had to be. She'd made her choices and she had to live with them.

What she needed, she decided, was a distraction.

Her phone was out of her pocket and in her hand in moments, and she was calling up a familiar number with something that almost felt like eagerness.

"Hey, Tsubaki…"


Rock-climbing at the DWMA's state of the art rec center was a significantly different experience from scaling some dime-a-dozen climbing wall at a YMCA in Reno, with the end result that even two seasoned warriors like Maka and Tsubaki returned home sore and with more than a couple unlikely bruises. All in all, though, Maka was thoroughly pleased with the afternoon's exercise.

"I'm glad we did this," she said to Tsubaki as they strolled down the street in the direction of the little flat the older girl shared with her meister. "I feel like with the teaching job, my endurance training has gotten all out of whack. It was nice to challenge myself a little."

Tsubaki nodded, a pleasant smile curling about her mouth. "Definitely. And it was a refreshing change not to have to keep up with Black*Star's pace."

Maka snorted. "As much respect as I have for Black*Star's work ethic, he pushes himself way too hard sometimes. One of these days he's gonna tear a ligament or something and put himself out of commission for months."

The other girl shrugged, one corner of her mouth quirked in a resigned half-smile. "I used to think so, too, but I've been waiting for it to happen for years and so far he's been just fine. He sets ridiculously high goals for himself, but he always meets them. It's one of the things I admire most about him."

"Yeah…" Maka stared down the street, a pensive look coming into her eyes. "You know, until pretty recently, I could never understand how you could work with him."

Tsubaki giggled. "Do you think that's because you looked at him too much like a sibling rather than as a fellow meister?"

Maka nodded violently. "Even though he's older than me, he's always sort of been my hyperactive little brother. If I'd been born a weapon, there's no way we'd ever have been able to work together. But you're way more patient than me, and you needed something different in…" She sucked in a breath suddenly, sharply; she hadn't realized where her thought was leading until she arrived, and she had no choice but to see it through. "...in a partner."

She hated the sympathetic look that came over Tsubaki's face as she stumbled over the end of her sentence. It was better than the outright pity she'd been getting from Liz and Patti and Kid and everybody else for more than two months now, but not by a whole lot.

Tsubaki opened her mouth, a tentative little motion that preceded her inhalation, as if she were still busy convincing herself she ought to say anything at all.

"Hey, we're already on your street!" Maka exclaimed a little too loudly. "Wow, it's been so long since I've been at your place, I didn't realize we were so close already."

"Yeah…" Tsubaki said, voice soft.

"Let's hurry. I'm dying for a glass of water."

If Tsubaki was still giving her those big sad eyes, Maka made a point not to notice in the slightest as she hurried on down the side street toward the door to Tsubaki and Black*Star's building.

The dark arm weapon and her meister had long since moved out of the little flat they had shared years ago. Shortly before graduation, they left their cramped one-bedroom in favor of a more spacious apartment in a much better part of town. Maka was still getting used to the new address, for all that the pair had lived there for months.

Then again, most of the time she'd spent with Tsubaki lately had been at the Gallows or out in the city. She hadn't wanted to hang around her friend's place too much, just in case…

When Tsubaki tried her key in the front door, she discovered it was already unlocked. "I guess Black*Star's home early." Looking concerned, she hurried to add, "If you'd rather not come in-"

"No, no," Maka interrupted. "It's your house, too. If Black*Star doesn't like the friends you bring over, he can go hide in his bedroom and play Mario Kart on that disgustingly expensive system he's got set up in there until I leave."

Tsubaki still looked hesitant, but pushed the door open and stepped inside.

"Black*Star, we're home!" she called out as Maka followed her over the threshold.

"Sweet, I'm starving!" her meister returned cheerfully, accompanied by the sounds of several simulated roars. "You were gone for ages, I've been playing Skyrim for, like, four days!"

At Maka's baffled look, Tsubaki laughed. "He means in the game. Boy, you really are a videogame virgin, aren't you?"

"I play pinball on my phone sometimes," Maka said, ducking her head as a bright flush spread across her face.

Before Tsubaki could make the cheeky comeback that Maka could just feel was on the tip of her tongue, Black*Star emerged from his bedroom, shirt in hand and his trademark sun-bright grin on his face. "Hey, 'Baki, I was thinking-"

He stepped fully into the hallway and spotted Maka. The instant he saw her, the smile dropped from his lips and his relaxed posture grew rigid. He dropped the t-shirt from his grip and crossed his arms defensively across his chest.

"Uh, I was thinking," he resumed, refusing to look at Maka and not even attempting to resume the bright note that had been plain in his voice moments before, "that you and I could have a nice dinner, just the two of us."

Tsubaki let out a shrill giggle, squirming under the tension that had suddenly lowered the temperature in the apartment a good twenty degrees. "Black*Star, that's what we always do! I thought, since Maka came by, we could-"

"Maka? Who's Maka?" Black*Star interrupted. "I don't think I know any Maka."

"Black*Star-"

"It's a real shame your friend didn't stick around. I'd like to have met her. I'm sure if I did she would be a really great girl, not the kind of person who goes around ripping peoples' hearts out of their chest or anything." At last he turned and gave a pointed glare in Maka's direction.

"Black*Star!" Tsubaki exclaimed, looking furious.

Maka shook her head. "I get the picture, Black*Star. I know where I'm not welcome."

When she'd said earlier that, essentially, Black*Star could just suck it up and deal with her invading his home for a couple hours, she'd meant it. But it was one thing to say that when she was outside in the neutral territory of the street. Maintaining that same resolve while face to face with the rare but terrible anger of the usually happy warrior was a different story. She just… didn't have the energy to deal with this. A hasty retreat was easier than sitting here in the unpleasant atmosphere of a house where she was an unwanted guest for the next couple of hours.

She seemed to be getting good at hasty retreats these days…

Tsubaki was looking at her imploringly, apologies shining in her eyes, so Maka dredged up a smile.

"It's okay, Tsubaki. We can hang out another time, okay?"

The tall girl gave a shell-shocked nod.

There seemed to be nothing left to say, so Maka turned and walked right back out the door, head held high.

She made it as far as the alley behind their building before the facade crumbled. She collapsed back against the brick wall, grateful for the shadow cast by the apartment complex that hid her from the cackling sun. Her whole body was trembling and her knees were so shaky she was sure it was only the support of the wall keeping her upright. She felt her eyes stinging and closed them, felt her lip quivering and bit down hard. She dragged in several long, harsh breaths through her nose as she willed away the lump in her throat.

After a few moments, the shaking stopped and her rigid muscles relaxed. Maka took an easier breath and let it out, long and slow. Eyes still closed, she dropped her head back against the brick wall of the building for a moment.

"I'm fine," she sighed.


It had been several years since Black*Star surpassed his weapon partner in height, and he now stood quite a few inches over her; when Tsubaki rounded on him after the door closed behind Maka, however, Black*Star suddenly felt shrimpy and thirteen all over again. Tsubaki lost her temper even more rarely than he did, but when her ire was raised, it was terrifying.

Fortunately for Black*Star, he was not easily frightened, or the sight of his partner seething in front of him would quite possibly have sent him running. Her skin had taken on a metallic shimmer and her eyes were sparking as she glared at him, hands planted furiously on her hips.

"What in Death's name was that?" she hissed. "Black*Star, you idiot!"

He tucked his hands into his armpits and stood his ground. "No more than she deserves."

Tsubaki's glare deepened impossibly. "You don't know that."

"Yes I do."

"No, you don't," she insisted, in the fiercest tone she possessed and one which he had never imagined he would hear turned on him. She softened only marginally as she continued: "None of us do. Maka's refusing to even discuss what happened, so unless Soul's told you anything- he hasn't, has he?"

Black*Star rolled his eyes at his weapon's suspicious glare. "No, he's not really the type to talk about his problems."

"There, then," Tsubaki said in that same steely tone. "We don't know what happened, so it's not our business to judge either of them. For all we know, Soul is the one who hurt Maka, so don't leap to conclusions without knowing all the facts!"

Black*Star snorted. He'd received plenty of lectures from his weapon over the years, but this was one topic he would not be swayed on. Tsubaki's heart was in the right place, but frankly she was the one who didn't have all the facts! She didn't know what Soul had been thinking about before graduation three months ago, before everything went to shit for him and Maka. He didn't know if the things Soul had told him— strictly between bros, of course— had anything to do with the falling out between the scythe and his meister, but whether it did or not was irrelevant. Soul couldn't be responsible for this; with the way he felt about Maka, there was no way he would just turn around and kick her out of the apartment. Just no way.

"Think whatever you want," he muttered.

"No, Black*Star, I'm not letting this go! You were horribly rude to Maka just now— no, not just rude, you were plain mean, and that's not okay!"

Tsubaki was so furious he thought she might actually start crying, and Black*Star began to panic, because he might be on a godly level, but he was not equipped to handle crying girls and especially not a crying Tsubaki.

"Look, Tsu, I—"

"No, you look," she interrupted sharply. "I understand that you're worried about Soul. We're all worried about Soul, and he's your best friend, so of course you're going to want to take his side, but Black*Star, we don't even know if there are sides to take." Her tone turned pleading. "It's okay to be concerned, but you can't just lash out at Maka like that. This has been really hard for her, too, and you're practically a brother to her. She's lost her partner and now with you turning on her… I can't imagine how she must be feeling."

Black*Star snorted again. "Yeah, I'm sure she's real cut up," he muttered. From what he'd seen of Maka these last couple of months, she hadn't exactly seemed to be suffering for her supposed "loss." Certainly nothing like the hell that Soul had been through.

From the set of Tsubaki's jaw as she glared him down, however, she wasn't going to be brought around to see things his way just yet. A bushin knew when to pick his battles; Black*Star uncrossed his arms and held his hands up in surrender.

"Just stop bugging me about this," he said with a soft sigh. "I promise I won't be such a dick to Maka. You can't make me forgive her, but I'll… I'll be polite, okay?"

Tsubaki was obviously far from satisfied, but she seemed willing to accept such a compromise. Her fists unclenched and she dropped her arms to her sides, shoulders slumping tiredly.

His heart went out to her at the sight. Tsubaki hated confrontation of any kind, so much so that he sometimes wondered how she could be such a fierce warrior, until he recalled that her urge to defend and protect others outweighed her loathing of conflict. Standing up to him like this had clearly taken a lot out of her.

"You're wrong about one thing," he said quietly.

She looked up, her sparkling pacific eyes a little bloodshot from tears she had refused to shed.

"Soul's not my best friend. You are." He pulled her into a tight hug. She wrapped her arms around his waist and buried her face in his chest.


Soul was studying the way shadows were moving across the living room ceiling. The sky was cloudless, but the Joshua tree outside the window was swaying in the hot wind, causing a pattern of dark spikes to shoot across the ceiling erratically. It was a nice complement to the old Stravinsky recording that was playing on the stereo. Well, maybe "nice" wasn't quite the word, but the music and his mood and the shadows matched, anyway.

The pounding on the apartment door had been going on for a few minutes now. Soul had deduced that it was unlikely to be Black*Star knocking, because the bushin would have given up at least a minute and a half ago and come 'round through the window instead. Liz would be shouting, Kilik would have gotten the hint and left by now, Kid was too busy to waste his time stopping by to chat, even with The Last Death Scythe, and Patti… well, if it was Patti, god help him once she got in. And she would get in.

He was just contemplating the possibility that he had forgotten to pay the rent and it was the building super coming to collect, when an ominous cracking sound from the entryway alerted him to the fact that whoever was at the door had found an alternative way inside after all. Soul vaulted over the back of the sofa with a lanky sort of grace born from long limbs and almost a decade spent chasing around a natural gymnast; he skidded into the hall just in time to see the long black blade that had been thrust through the now-splintered door transform back into a human hand. The hand slid back the deadbolt and withdrew, and a moment later the door swung open to reveal Spirit Albarn.

He looked, in Soul's opinion, much more annoyed than a man who had just broken forcibly into someone else's home had any right to be.

"What the hell?" Soul sputtered. "What did—? Why—? You just—! I should call the cops!"

"No, what you should do is show up for work," Spirit replied, casually plucking a splinter out from under his fingernail. "I'm aware that you're not currently on active duty, but you still have an obligation to report to the Death Room when Lord Death summons you."

Soul rolled his shoulders nervously as the other scythe stepped across the threshold. Pretending to ignore him, Soul shut the door. It was a fairly useless gesture, given that the latch now barely worked, let alone the lock, but it made him feel somewhat more secure to keep the apartment closed, and it also gave him an excuse not to meet Spirit's eyes.

He felt uncomfortable with the knowledge that he had blown off a few meetings. He hadn't really been feeling up to work lately, especially not desk work, and the guilt that came with skiving off meetings had amplified his disinclination to show his face anywhere near the DWMA headquarters.

"Look, old man," he said peevishly, turning back to face the intruder in the apartment at last, "I know I overslept on a couple of chats with Kid, but—"

"Six," Spirit interjected, his sapphire eyes narrowed. "And that's just in the last month. Two of those were meetings that had been rescheduled specifically so that you could be there."

"Yeah, well, still not really a good enough reason for breaking and entering," Soul snapped back.

"I suggest you consider the door payback for breaking my little girl's heart," Spirit suggested nastily. Pleased with this hit, the older man strode past Soul in the direction of the living room.

Soul remained rooted to the spot as the bottom dropped out of his stomach exactly as it had every time anyone mentioned Maka in the last few months. He'd been doing so well, too, he'd gone almost an hour without thinking about her. But now her father, of all people, had to come bursting into his apartment and forced him to think about her. And, in typical Spirit fashion, his heart was in the right place, but his facts were all wrong.

"News flash, Pops," he bit out, "Your darling baby schmoopie-kins isn't exactly innocent here. I get that you've gotten used to blaming me for shit, and old habits die hard and all that crap, but this time I'm not the one who screwed up."

Spirit eyed him with mulish skepticism clear in his expression, but ultimately, he sighed and plopped down on the couch, waving a hand to indicate that Soul should take a seat on the loveseat— as if it were his house and Soul was the guest! Nevertheless, he wasn't really inclined to keep standing around, so he took the indicated seat.

"Nice music choice," Spirit remarked. "What is that?"

"The Firebird. Stravinsky," Soul grunted.

"That's the one that caused a riot in the theatre when it was first performed, right?"

Wondering where exactly this unlikely thread of conversation was headed, Soul shook his head. "Nah. Right composer, wrong ballet. That was The Rite of Spring."

"You know a lot about music, don't you?"

Soul shrugged.

"C'mon, kid, don't pull your stonewall crap with me. Even if I hadn't heard you play for myself, Maka's talked my ear off about you enough times that I know just what kind of talent you've got."

Soul attempted— quite successfully, in his opinion— to hide the sick, shattering feeling this particular statement caused in his gut. He did not want to hear about how Maka used to speak well of him, before she threw him away like trash.

As long as Spirit didn't look at his hands, which he was pretty sure were visibly shaking, he could continue to make like he was perfectly calm and unruffled by whatever the hell this was.

"Yeah? What's your point?" he asked.

"The point is that you could be living a very different life right now. I've looked at your files; I know what kind of family you come from. And even if your father wasn't who he is, you've got what it takes to be a big name in the music industry, and despite whatever issue it is you have with that idea, you clearly know it. You don't have to be with the DWMA like so many of the weapons who come here do. You chose to be here." He had been staring intensely at the coffee table, but with this last statement he looked up and fixed his clear eyes with just as much intensity onto Soul's face.

Soul tucked his hands under his thighs.

"What I'm getting at is that you had all the options in the world available to you in ways that almost nobody does, let alone weapons, but you wanted this life. You can't keep putting off career decisions forever just because your circumstances have changed."

His stomach clenched as he finally realized why he was experiencing this extremely unorthodox home invasion. "Ah. You're here about me taking up one of the old death weapon's posts."

Spirit nodded. "Lord Death has been very patient with you. It's a big decision and you're very young, and we all get that. But we've been short-handed ever since we lost Justin and Tezca, and with Marie semi-retired now… well, Azusa can't keep taking on responsibilities for Oceania as well as her duties in Japan indefinitely. The DWMA needs a death weapon willing to relocate to one of the vacancies soon, and if you're not willing to take the job, we're going to have to start investigating other options."

Soul cast a blank eye in the older man's direction. He couldn't help but take note of the fact that that Spirit, at least, wasn't wrapping him up in cotton like a black blood-powered landmine that would go off if someone so much as breathed wrong in his direction. No matter how much he appreciated Spirit's rejection of tact, however, the subject matter was not at all to his liking, and there was a serious wrench in the works the older scythe was ignoring...

"Look, death scythe or not, I'm not a self-wielding weapon. I can't take a post like that without a meister." He was very impressed that his voice stayed steady the whole way through that statement.

"So choose a meister!" Spirit exclaimed, sounding exasperated. "You're the Last Death Scythe, for Death's sake! You've got your pick of any unpartnered meister on the planet, and a fair number of the partnered ones, too."

This was just too much. He dropped the mildly annoyed neutrality he'd been attempting to present to the other death scythe and fixed Spirit with a vicious glare. "No."

Spirit's eyes softened, and Soul hated it.

"Look, kid, I get it. I really do. It's hard to let go. But Maka's a lot like her mother, and these Watanabe girls… well, once you've hurt them badly enough that they leave, they just don't come back. It doesn't matter how long you wait."

"That's rich, coming from you," Soul snapped. "Did you even wait for Maka's mom's car to get out of the driveway before you started looking for your next booty call?"

Spirit winced, then glared at him. "I'm not here to discuss my marriage," he hissed. "I'm here because you need to decide what you're going to do soon, and you can't wait on Maka to come back and decide for you."

"Get the fuck out," Soul said. "You've officially overstayed your welcome. Not that you were welcome to begin with, but whatever."

The older weapon left with no complaint, but Soul was now in such a foul mood that he felt no compunctions shouting after him, "And you're paying to fix my door, asshole!"

Once he had fastened the barely-functional deadbolt, he swayed across the room and into the kitchen, thinking feverishly that maybe eating something would help him get his shit together. He had just gotten the fridge open and was reaching for a little white container of pork fried rice when his eyes caught on The Note.

He still hadn't taken it down. Why did he keep forgetting to do that?

It was scribbled on a standard index card and tacked to the fridge under a magnet shaped like a hedgehog. Maka's script wasn't as precise as usual, as if she'd dashed off the message in a great hurry— not that he'd needed her handwriting to tell him that. He knew for a fact that she'd packed her shit and left between the time that he'd stormed out of the apartment and the time he'd returned less than two hours later. Her message— Don't come after me. We obviously don't want the same things, so it's better if we don't see each other. You can have the apartment.— only served to confirm that he'd been a colossal fool to think that maybe...

Soul threw the refrigerator door violently shut, and he was pretty sure he heard something inside shatter, but he didn't care. Knees even more jellylike than before, he wobbled over to the living room and flopped face down on the sofa. He closed his eyes and breathed against the black despair pounding in time to his pulse, and The Note was forgotten until tomorrow.


"Hey, Maka, got a minute?"

Maka froze with her foot on the first riser of the stairs to the third floor, inwardly cursing her luck. After her confrontation with Black*Star she was in no condition to be social, and she'd been hoping to creep upstairs without encountering anyone. But of course Liz just had to be sitting in the second floor parlor that opened onto the stairwell, because why should the universe give her a break for once?

"Uh, sure," she said hesitantly, turning around and pasting a bland smile on her face as she abandoned the landing and joined Liz. "What's up?"

Liz patted the seat next to her invitingly, and Maka sighed, but sat down. Once she had sunk what felt like several feet into a cushy leather deathtrap, the older girl turned to face her, tucking her legs up underneath her on the couch.

"We're worried about you," she said without preamble.

Oh no. It was time for that talk at last. They'd left her alone about it since the first week after she'd moved in at the Gallows, but she'd known that sooner or later it was going to come up again. She'd hoped she could buy a little more time than this to regain her equilibrium, and she definitely hadn't wanted to have this conversation while reeling from yet another encounter with Black*Star's partisanship. Maybe she could head this off at the pass and put it off a little longer…

"I can't imagine why, I'm fine—"

"Patti told me you haven't gone back to your apartment since the night you came here," Liz interrupted. "You've been living out of a suitcase for going on three months because you can't bring yourself to face Soul. And see?" she cried in a desperate sort of triumph, pointing one beautifully manicured finger at Maka, "You flinch when anybody so much as says his name. You're not fine, Maka."

Maka couldn't decide whether she wanted to get out of this aggressively over-squashy couch so that she could just get the hell away from Liz's too-knowing eyes or whether she just wanted to sink into it and disappear. "Can we not talk about this right now?" she asked rather desperately.

Liz shook her head, waves of wheat-bronze hair sweeping across her shoulders as she moved. "Nope. We've been not talking about it for weeks. This has to be said, and I think you know it. You've never been the kind of person to run away from a problem, but now you're hiding out with us— not that we don't love having you, but you are hiding— and we're all really worried."

"I'm not… that bad, am I?"

"Like, you've been putting on a decent happy face for everybody, but it's pretty obvious that you're not really okay.

Maka sighed and leaned back into the couch, sinking another few inches into the cushion as she did so. "It's just… hard, you know?"

Liz crossed her arms. "No. I don't know, because you won't say a word about what actually happened between you two, and Soul's not talking to anybody either. You two had the most incredible resonance anyone's ever seen, but all of a sudden you're just… not partners anymore? Maka, what happened with you guys?" Her usually sardonic eyes were wide and full of genuine concern.

A part of Maka actually wanted to open up to Liz, like maybe things would feel more settled if she talked it over with someone else… but no, she knew better. She knew what people thought about the two of them. Even their friends had thought it for years; she'd spent enough time insisting that no, we're not like that to know just what everyone suspected.

If she tried to explain that awful night to Liz, she knew exactly what the other girl would think, what she would say, and it wouldn't be helpful. It would only make her feel worse, and Maka already walked around with a large enough knot in her gut.

Avoiding Liz's eye, she got to her feet, not able to stand the feeling of being sucked into the cushion any longer. "Look, Sou— he messed with my feelings in a really uncool way, and I couldn't stay with him after that, okay? That's all you need to know. Things got unpleasant, so I got out."

"What do you mean?" Liz asked, visibly confused. "Why would he—"

"It wasn't a healthy situation anymore, okay?" Maka interrupted, not wanting to hear Liz finish the thought, because she knew how that sentence ended and it was the same damn question she'd been asking herself for the last two and a half months: why? She wasn't any closer to an answer than she had been the night she'd fled their apartment. She couldn't understand, so how could she possibly explain to Liz why Soul had… why he had…

She couldn't even think about it. She didn't want to think about it.

"If that's all, I'm still all gross and sweaty from rock climbing, so I should probably go take a shower."

Ignoring Liz's protests that she hadn't really explained anything, Maka made her escape.


Three months ago…

It was only the beginning of June, but Death Valley was boiling. It wasn't as hot as it would get in July or August, but the temperatures were already miserable for anyone unaccustomed to the weather in this part of the world. Exams for the spring term had just finished. For most of the students of the DWMA, it was the start of a six-week break before the summer trimester started in August; for the seniors who would be graduating next week, after their finals had been graded, it was the start of the rest of their lives. Whether they were NOT students setting out for universities or a civilian job or EAT specialists who had finally earned their second- or third-star ranking and were preparing to join the legions of graduates around the globe in the eternal fight against evil and the things that went bump in the night, there was a sense of anticipation laying heavy on them all.

It was making Maka's partner behave oddly, and she was determined to find out what was wrong.

On Friday, after the end of their final exam as DWMA students, they had met up with a group of their friends in one of Death City's public parks for a celebratory picnic (an idea which Maka thought was sweet and Black*Star thought was nauseating). Soul had been quiet— well, quieter than usual— and once he had devoured his portion of their collection of sandwiches and fruit salad, he dozed off in the shade. Their little party continued on around him for another hour or so, but gradually their friends began to pack up their things and head for home until only Soul and Maka were left beneath the shadow of a tall oak tree.

As she waved goodbye to Kim and Jacqueline, she scooted closer to where he lay, propped against the tree trunk.

"I know you're faking," she said quietly.

One lazy red eye cracked open to peer up at her. "How'd you guess?"

She smiled. "Years of experience. We've been partners for… Death, more than eight years now, and we've lived together for most of that time. You really think I haven't figured out that you snore like a chainsaw when you sleep on your back?"

"I do not."

"Do too."

"How would you even know that, anyway?"

Maka rolled her eyes. "Our apartment has ridiculously thin walls and your bedroom is right next to mine. Also, you're always falling asleep on the couch like an idiot."

He chuckled quietly.

"Seriously, Soul, what's up with you? Why'd you pretend to be asleep? To avoid our friends?"

She just caught the tiny sigh he let out as he brought one arm up to rest beneath his head and opened his other eye. "What gives you a dumb idea like that?"

"Because you've been weird for weeks," she said, and though her tone was gentle, she was also insistent.

It wasn't just his sleeping patterns she'd learned over the years, and though her partner was still about as easy to read as a brick wall, she'd gotten pretty good at translating the many dialects of Soul Eater Stonewalling. She also knew just how to talk to him to get him to crack and actually own up to what was going on in his head; press too hard and he'd clam up, but if you didn't insist on the issue at all he'd just wait out your curiosity. Maka was pretty sure her tactics wouldn't work if anyone else tried them, because it was mostly Soul's soft spot for his meister that got him to open up sooner or later, but that was probably a good thing. The day some other girl started to decode the secret language of Soul Evans was the day she would start to lose him.

"Seriously, Soul, what's on your mind?"

Another nearly-inaudible sigh. "We're graduating next week."

Now that he'd made a start, Maka fell silent. If she waited for him, gave him the chance to choose his words carefully, he'd spit it out eventually.

"Marie's pregnant again, did you know?"

She nodded. "I think I knew even before Professor Stein did, this time."

"She's talking about retiring, officially giving up her post in Oceania."

Maka thought she saw where this was going, but she kept her mouth shut, letting him finish the thought on his own.

"Kid wants me to take one of the empty death weapon posts. Maybe not Marie's, but there are other vacancies."

"I figured he probably would," Maka said softly.

Soul turned his face away from her, staring out across the grass. "Things're changing all of a sudden," he said quietly.

"I know."

"And you… you've never lived anywhere but Death City. I mean, we travel a lot, but this has always been your home. Would you even want to leave? Permanently, I mean?"

And there it was. He hadn't said so in so many words, but she could read between the lines well enough. Their lives were about to undergo a major upheaval, and he was scared of losing his best friend and partner in the process.

"I'll probably miss Death City," she said carefully, "but I never planned on living here for my entire life."

Unsaid, she knew, was the implication that his worries were groundless. She loved him, and though they had never talked about it— not directly, at least— she knew he understood that she didn't care that the feeling wasn't mutual.

She'd learned to live with the fact that her romantic feelings weren't shared by her partner a long time ago. For a time, not long after she'd made Soul a death scythe, she'd held out hope that maybe the spark between them wasn't all on her end. She'd tried her best to coax that spark into a flame, and at first she'd thought that maybe it wasn't working because he was too focused on fighting Asura and the madness. But even after Asura was defeated and his black blood subdued… Well, there were only so many sledgehammer-sized hints a girl could drop before she started to get the picture. Either Soul was the densest creature known to man— and given how good he was at picking up on other peoples' subtle cues, she knew better than to hang irrational hope on so fragile a hook— or he was ignoring her blatant attempts at flirting for the sake of their friendship.

It was a painful reality, sure, but it didn't change their partnership. She was his meister, and she would be until the day he told her otherwise. She'd have thought he knew that much by now.

Then again, Soul always had had a hard time accepting how much other people cared for him.

Wordlessly, she reached over and buried her fingers in Soul's thick hair, stroking his scalp soothingly. Though he didn't look at her, she saw the corner of his lips tilt upward in a small smile.

Chapter Text

Monday.

Once upon a time, Maka was pretty sure she had enjoyed Mondays. The week began anew, and every Monday felt as if there was a promise in the air, rejuvenating her down to her bones even if she'd spent the entire weekend up to her neck in kishin blood. There was something comforting about knowing that every week came with, if not a blank slate, at least a fresh start.

Lately, though, Maka couldn't see much to look forward to. Another week of teaching, all her potential squandered on a stuffy classroom. Every day just the same, or near enough so that it didn't make much of a difference, and she doubted her students were really getting anything from her efforts anyway. The ones who actually had some soul perception were benefiting, definitely, but the rest… well, she didn't know how to get them interested, how to get them to really feel the material she was going over. How was she supposed to motivate a bunch of kids to get interested in something hardly any of them would ever have any practical use for?

It was true that she'd been a superb student herself not so long ago, but wasn't it also true that the best students made the worst teachers? Or was that doctors and patients…

Maka shook her head, trying to clear away the three o'clock cobwebs. She swung her bag up over her shoulder and strode into the corridor, heading for the front door.

She needed a change of pace. Liz might have brought up things she didn't really want to talk about the other day, but she was right to point out that Maka's life was at a standstill. She was stagnating. She needed to get out and do something different. She needed…

Her eyes fell on the mission board, and something clicked into place. Of course! She needed to go out in the field!

Someone else was standing in front of the mission board, a slight young woman Maka recognized instantly. Tsugumi Harudori was the notorious Weapon With Two Meisters. She was a little older than Maka, but had graduated in the same year, having started late at the DWMA. She originally entered the Academy in the NOT class, but when both of her meisters moved up to EAT, she had followed dutifully, and graduated as a two-star weapon.

Maka joined the halberd in peering up at the lists of available missions, and her eyes narrowed as she surveyed the options. She wasn't going to have a lot of choices open to her, because unlike some other meisters like Black*Star and Professor Stein, she didn't have much in the way of offense when she was working solo. For almost any combat mission, she would need a weapon, so she was going to have to look for something different… maybe surveillance…?

"Picking out a new assignment?" she asked Tsugumi conversationally.

The older girl sighed and shook her head. "Not this time," she said, sounding glum. "I'm meisterless."

"What?" Maka asked, shocked. The idea of Tsugumi Harudori being without a meister baffled her.

Tsugumi scuffed her toes idly on the floor. "Meme's laid up with a couple broken ribs, so she's on reserve duty until she's healed up enough to go back out."

Maka winced in sympathy. She'd been benched due to injury a few times herself over the years. "Ouch. What about Princess Anastasia?" she asked.

"I always knew that after we graduated Anya's time would mostly be spent on diplomatic stuff for her family," Tsugumi said quietly, avoiding Maka's eye, "So it's not really a surprise that she and I don't take many missions together. She's overseas negotiating some kind of tariff dispute with Bulgaria."

She'd heard about that on the news, she thought; she hadn't picked up the details, but it seemed like a messy piece of international relations. That "Anya" was prepared, at the age of barely twenty, to handle such a complicated situation was a testament to the kind of education DWMA students received.

Her classes deserved a better teacher than Maka had proved to be.

"Hey, Tsugumi… if you don't have a tech for awhile, what would you say to doing a little bit of field work with me?"

"With you, Maka-san?" Tsugumi asked, her violet-dark eyes going wide as she turned to face Maka fully. "Why would you want to work with a—" She blushed. "I mean… um… I thought you were teaching now?"

Maka shrugged. "I am, but I'm feeling a little stuck in a rut at the moment. I think taking a mission or two might be just the kick in the pants I need to put some passion back into my lectures!"

Tsugumi's smile was enormous, and Maka felt her lips stretching into a small but genuine grin in response.


If it weren't for Kilik's obsession with Deathbucks' jumbo hazelnut super ice-blended power beverage frappé (or "fancy iced coffee" in non-weirdo speak), he wouldn't even be here. But of course Kilik had to have his stupid power beverage, and of course it took forever to make because the brunette behind the counter was moving so slowly that whole species had probably gone extinct in the time it took her to pour a basic house drip, and of course Soul was left to stand around the front of the shop, aimless and out of place, while his friend waited on his coffee.

He would've just left, except he hadn't seen much of Kilik since he got back into town. He'd spent most of the last week "occupied" with Liz, and Soul couldn't really blame him for it. The pistol and the utility meister had just started to gain traction in their tentative relationship when a heavy-duty mission in Nicaragua had sent Kilik overseas for almost three months; Soul hadn't seen much of Liz during that separation because… well, because of stuff, but even with his own issues keeping him emotionally exhausted, from the few times he'd been in contact with Kilik during the interim, he'd been able to tell that the other man wasn't enjoying being separated from his girl.

Well, at least in Kilik's case, it was just a temporary distance. In light of that, he could understand the other man being a little preoccupied making up for lost time since coming back to the States.

But the end result of all this was that he was stuck loitering on the scorching hot sidewalk, waiting for his absentee friend to get his fucking coffee already, bored as hell and undoubtedly getting another horrible sunburn. The direct sun was hurting his eyes— an unavoidable side effect of his albinism was that whole light-sensitivity thing— and he looked longingly down the street at the sidewalk cafe next door, where awnings stretched invitingly over the pavement, shielding the handful of patrons from the direct glare of the desert sun, and… wait… hang on…

Was someone... waving at him?

He held up a hand to shield his eyes and try to get a better look at the shadowy group clustered around one of the little cafe tables. He still couldn't see quite who it was, but he could definitely tell it was him they were waving over.

Soul cast a glance back inside Deathbucks, but Kilik was still waiting, looking thoroughly nonchalant except for his impatient tapping foot. Ah, well. It was only right next door. Kilik would be able to find him when he came outside— Soul was pretty damn hard to miss in a crowd.

He jogged down the sidewalk, eager to get out of the sun. Once he had ducked into the shade, he blinked rapidly to clear his eyes of the bright spots floating across his vision, and found himself standing beside a rather unlikely foursome.

Jackie and Kim weren't a surprise. The two had always been close, and they'd been basically joined at the hip since they started dating. Seeing Ox with them, however, he really hadn't expected. As far as he was aware, Ox had been doing his best to stay out of Kim's way ever since their attempts at a relationship had failed due to Kim being spectacularly gay for her partner. Seeing him sitting here, apparently quite cheerfully, having lunch with the lovebirds was… odd. The fourth member of the group was also a bit of a head-scratcher. It was some girl from the NOT class that had graduated a couple of years ahead of the majority of Spartoi. Soul recalled she had been possessed by a witch once; he thought her name might be… Immortal Bird, or something? He remembered it was a weird name, anyway.

"Hey," he said, hands shoved into his pockets the second he entered the group's orbit.

"Hi, Soul!" Jackie said brightly, beaming at him as if she had not a care in the world. Given the fact that he could very clearly see Kim's hand on her thigh, creeping slowly up her skirt beneath the table, he supposed that from Jackie's perspective, everything was pretty hunky-dory.

He cast another glance around the table and raised one eyebrow at her. "So… if you don't mind me asking, what's with the bizarre posse you've got going on here, Jacks?"

The demon lantern turned a vivid scarlet. Soul wasn't totally sure whether it was because he'd resurrected a nickname he hadn't called his fellow weapon since they were about twelve, or whether Kim's sneaky fingers had finally found what they were looking for. Still, she managed to reply with some composure: "Oh, we're on a double date."

Soul's jaw dropped. "A double—?"

"Date, yes," Ox picked up, his expression a weird combination of smug and strained. His eyes darted to his left where his date— whose name Soul had finally recalled was actually Eternal Feather, which wasn't much better— was sitting with her hands folded in her lap, staring blushingly into her lemonade.

"Oh. Well. Uh. Good for you guys," he said, for a complete lack of any polite response. If they were on a date, why had they waved him over? "Uh, if you guys are on a date, I should probably…" He pulled one hand free from his pocket, jerking his thumb back in the direction he'd arrived from and beginning to take a step back from the table.

"No, no, stay!" Jackie said. "It's been so long since we've seen you!"

Soul ran his hand through his hair before shoving it roughly right back in his pocket. "Yeah, things have been pretty crazy lately…" It wasn't, strictly speaking, a lie.

Jackie nodded sympathetically, while both Ox and his date studied him like a specimen in a jar, but it was Kim who actually spoke up.

"How are you, though? I mean, are you… y'know, doing okay?" she asked. She was leaning forward, hand finally out from under her girlfriend's skirt, and there was outright pity in her eyes, but underscoring it was that same curiosity that was radiating from the other side of the table.

Oh. He should have known. Of course they would want to get a look at the death scythe who'd been dropped like he was contagious by his partner the day after graduation. He'd gotten used to the inquisitive staring he had been receiving from virtually everyone associated with the DWMA. He'd learned to ignore the whispering about "that mad death scythe" and "I heard the only reason he stayed sane was his meister's wavelength." He'd put up with Stein's probing questions about his mental state, but he'd hoped his fellow Spartoi members, at least, would be above that.

Fortunately, Soul was very used to being an object of curiosity. It was pretty much the status quo for him, even if he'd rather be stared at for literally any other reason.

"Don't worry, Kim," he said caustically, "my days of losing my shit and trying to infect people with my madness are long gone. Not being regularly exposed to an anti-demon wavelength isn't gonna change that."

Kim frowned. "That's not what I meant," she said, her tone sour. "I was actually concerned about your emotional state. Remind me not to bother in future."

Well didn't that just make him feel like a first-class heel?

He sighed and dropped his head. "Sorry," he muttered. "I'm…" An asshole. Not really in the best of moods lately. A fucked up dumbass even Maka Albarn couldn't love. "...sorry."

"It's okay, Soul," Jackie said sympathetically. "I know how hard it can be when your meister bails on you; nobody expects you to just bounce right—"

"Yeah, can we maybe not do the sympathy thing?" Soul interrupted. "I'd rather not talk about it, thanks."

"That's understandable," Eternal Feather piped up, speaking for the first time since Soul had approached the table. "I've never had a meister, but if I had, and she were running missions with another weapon, I know I'd be just devastated."

Soul whipped around to stare at the older girl. "What?" he asked.

Eternal Feather jumped, and he got the impression that she had just been kicked hard under the table. "I-I mean… oh. I thought you knew?"

He felt a little bit wobbly, like his blood sugar had just taken a nosedive. "Know what?" he demanded. "What's going on?"

Eternal Feather was scarlet and back to staring at her hands. Kim was glaring viciously at her, and even Ox had the grace to look embarrassed. Eventually it was Jackie who cracked.

"The thing is, um… Maka left yesterday on a mission. I'd have thought Kid would have told you, just so you wouldn't find out like this but…" She sighed, fiddling with the ends of her dark hair. "I guess not."

Soul was grateful, suddenly, for the years of experience he had with the Evans Family Everything Is Fine Face™. It was the only thing currently keeping him vertical and straight-faced, because he was dizzy and a little sick to his stomach.

"Huh," he said, hearing his own voice from a long way away. "Nope, hadn't heard about it. Who'd she… ah, who's she working with?" If it was that prettyboy battleaxe who graduated the year ahead of them, he might break something.

Well, he'd probably do that anyway, but he might break something important.

"Harudori Tsugumi," Eternal Feather supplied helpfully.

His eyes narrowed. "Doesn't she already have like three meisters or something? What does she need another one for?"

"You would have to ask Maka," Ox piped up. "As I understand it, she was the one to initiate their temporary partnership."

Soul winced internally. "Was she," he said dryly, more a statement than a question. "Well, I'd better be going, I'm sure Kilik is waiting for me…" Ignoring three expressions of concern and the cheerful wave goodbye from Ox, he all but bolted back up the street. He needed to get out of here, and fast, because he had officially hit his capacity for keeping a stiff upper lip in public.

He never had been quite as good at the Everything Is Fine Face as the rest of the family...


The mission was in the DRC, which was a first for Tsugumi. Mostly when she took missions, she stuck to Europe— for Anya's sake— or else her native Japan. She'd taken the occasional assignment in the Americas, but this was her first trip to Africa. It wasn't as hot as she'd expected, nor as humid, but there were far, far too many buzzing flies for Tsugumi's taste.

They had been assigned to eradicate a kishin egg that had been preying on a small town in the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains. Tracing the demon back to its lair in a remote part of the forest would have taken days with either— or even both— of her partners, but with Maka's powerful soul perception, it had only taken them a few minutes to locate the tainted soul, and then all that was left was to find the best route to the thing's hideout. This might be the fastest mission Tsugumi had ever taken, and it thrilled her.

"Alright, it's coming out!" Maka hissed beside her.

Tsugumi tensed, waiting for the order to transform, but it didn't come. After a moment, she glanced over at the blonde meister and realized that Maka's hand was outstretched, waiting, apparently, for Tsugumi's shaft to land in her palm. It was the unconscious gesture of a meister used to working with another partner, accustomed to a different way of doing things. Tsugumi knew better than most weapons that every meister had quirks and different ways of operating, and every partnership had its own flavors and habits.

Hastily she reached for the blade within herself and felt her body fizz and reform in a new shape. She hoped Maka hadn't noticed the delay; the last thing she needed right before entering battle was a reminder that she wasn't working with her own partner.

She felt Maka's warm hand grasp her and then, before she could so much as ask what their strategy was going to be, Maka was launching them out of the undergrowth and right into the path of a great hairy thing with wicked-looking claws.

It looked like some sort of horrific cross between a man, a wild boar, and those illustrations she's seen of giant, prehistoric ground sloths, with tusks and mean little eyes and moldy, shaggy fur the color of pus. This thing was human once, god only knew how long ago, but there was plainly nothing of that humanity left in it.

Maka stood before it, knees bent, rocking slightly in preparation for an immediate reaction to any move it might make. It roared, dove forward… and Maka took flight.

What followed was like nothing Tsugumi had ever experienced. The kishin egg was fast, but Maka was so much faster. Tsugumi's first rush of horror, an adrenaline-powered feeling she never quite left behind no matter how many monsters she faced, was swept away on a wave of pure exhilaration. Anya and Meme were both strong meisters, adept in the use of pole weapons, but Maka was clearly on a whole different level. Tsugumi had looked up to Maka for years, but it wasn't until now, being wielded by her personally, that she really understood Maka's true skill.

She was a symphony in motion, moving with fluid grace and absolute certainty. She hardly seemed to heed gravity, as if she had wings on her feet, and when Tsugumi caught sight of the meister's face, there was a vicious, bittersweet joy in her expression.

This was how Maka Albarn had created a death scythe at fifteen, the youngest meister ever to do so.

The beast was too far gone for discernible speech, but it made odd gurgling noises as they engaged. It took a swipe at them, piggy eyes watching them greedily, but never came close to touching Maka's soft human flesh. Tsugumi struck against steel-strong claws with a sound like a gong and a shower of sparks, and their opponent let out a screech that seemed far too high-pitched for such a large creature.

They swooped in close, matching the pre-kishin blow for blow as it tried fruitlessly to disembowel Maka, then danced away again, leaving it reeling dizzily after them.

It was almost over, Tsugumi could sense it. They outmatched their opponent by a wide margin, and it wouldn't be long before they claimed its soul.

Instinctively, she reached for resonance, as she always did at this point in a battle, whether it was necessary or not. Being joined soul-deep with Anya or Meme as they came in for the kill, feeling their pulse as if it were her own, sharing the triumph singing in their blood, was a feeling like no other.

But she was not being wielded by Anya or Meme, and when she attempted to join her soul with Maka's, the younger girl gasped, faltered. Her wavelength jerked viciously away, leaving Tsugumi's soul to recoil from the aftershocks of failed resonance. Maka dropped to one knee as their wavelengths rebounded and shuddered against each other, and the pre-kishin took the opportunity to move in, claws raised for what would surely be a vicious killing blow…

It was not for nothing, however, that Maka Albarn was the clear leader of the elite Spartoi. Even as she struggled to keep her grip on Tsugumi's haft, she drove her spike deep into the soil and used her like a vaulting pole to hurl herself toward their opponent, flying right over the downward arc of the thing's claws, to plant her booted heels firmly into its face. As it staggered backwards, Maka pushed off to swing back around, landing with one knee in the dirt.

"Maka-san, I'm sorry!" Tsugumi said, dizzy as their wavelengths realigned into the easy pre-resonance that seemed to be all Maka would allow. "I didn't—"

"It's okay," Maka interrupted. "Let's end this."

Maka got to her feet and yanked Tsugumi out of the earth with one hand. By this time, the pre-kishin had recovered itself and was charging for them again, one eye now a bloody pulp where Maka's feet had crushed it.

She raised her left arm and Tsugumi spun around her wrist as the meister feinted, taking a jab at the creature's left side, but by the time it had raised its claws to block, Maka had changed tack and momentum had carried Tsugumi back around, behind Maka's back, and into her right hand; and then before another heartbeat passed, Maka had whirled around like a striking snake and driven Tsugumi's ax blade deep into the pre-kishin's side.

The beast howled and began swinging after them with sharp, lightning-fast jabs, but it was injured now, losing blood so fast Tsugumi wondered whether he would begin visibly deflating, and it was heavily favoring the wounded right side. Maka tensed, lunged…

And then it was over, and the pre-kishin was dissolving into ribbons of fog, leaving its soul hovering in the air where it had fallen. After a few moments to make sure the coast was really clear, Tsugumi shifted out of her weapon body and reached out for the tainted soul. She brought it to her lips, took a fortifying breath, and popped the foul thing in her mouth. She shuddered as she swallowed.

"I'll never get used to that," she said as goosebumps rose all over her skin. "I know I'll feel great later, but the feeling of the soul going down is just… ick." She glanced over at Maka, and was surprised by the other girl's pallor. "Hey, are you alright? He didn't get you, did he?"

Maka shook her head jerkily. "N-no. I'm fine."

Tsugumi wasn't so sure. The meister hadn't even broken a sweat during their brief battle, but she was breathing hard and still unusually pale. Still, she didn't seem to be injured, so Tsugumi left it alone.

As they began the trek back through the brush to the dirt track where their ride would be waiting, she felt brave enough to impose on Maka's thoughtful silence to say, "I really enjoyed working with you, Maka-senpai. We should do this again sometime."

"Yeah," Maka said. Quietly, thoughtfully. "Yeah we should."


Someone was knocking again. Soul let out a tired groan and turned over onto his stomach, burying his face in the sofa cushion. All he wanted was to be left the hell alone. Nothing good had come from talking to people lately. He'd let Kilik drag him out of the house yesterday, and look how well that had turned out. Oh well. At least whoever it was seemed to give up after knocking twice with no response, unlike certain pushy Death Scy—

"Soul?"

As he picked himself up off the floor, Soul determined that if anyone asked, his response to someone creeping up behind him and calling his name had been to coolly flip them off. He absolutely had not shrieked like a little girl and fallen off the couch. Nope. Not him. No way.

"What is it with people breaking and entering lately?" he grumbled, plopping back down on the couch and glaring up at a worried-looking Tsubaki, who stood over him clutching a stack of tupperware.

"Are you okay?" she asked.

Well wasn't that a loaded question? "Okay is such a relative term," he hedged, and he thought at first that he'd managed to pull off "casual and joking" with his usual flair, but then Tsubaki was looking at him with those big knowing eyes.

Well then. Looked like once again he was being a dramatic emo piece of shit who made his friends worry about him. Real charming, Evans.

In a belated attempt to rectify the situation, he tacked on, "Just had the crap scared outta me, not really a great time."

"Sorry," Tsubaki said, smiling gently, but she wasn't fooled and he knew it.

"How'd you even get in here?" he asked. "I didn't hear the door open."

"I didn't open the door. You have a great big hole below the doorknob."

Soul blinked. "You mean you did your… your shadow melty thing through the hole in my door?"

Tsubaki nodded. "You really should have that fixed, someone might break in."

"But… but…" He stared at her incredulously, trying to decide if she was serious or not. "You broke in!" he sputtered. "And the hole's only there in the first place because Death Scythe broke in! Can't anybody respect a guy's privacy these days?"

She sighed. "Jackie called and let me know what happened when you ran into them yesterday. She thought someone should check to make sure you were doing okay. And then when you wouldn't answer, I got worried…"

Was everyone convinced he was a damn ticking time bomb these days? "Jeezus fuck, I'm not made of glass, I'm not gonna shatter just because my… my…" Or maybe he actually was made of glass, since he couldn't seem to bring himself to actually say it out loud. Pathetic. He was pathetic.

Tsubaki took mercy and completed the thought for him. "Because your meister is working with another weapon?" she offered, eyes sympathetic.

"Yeah. That."

She nodded. "I can't imagine how you must be feeling."

"Shitty," Soul said bluntly. "But I'm handling it."

"Are you?" she asked, and he hated how knowing she looked, like she could see right through him. Wes always used to look at him that way, too. He hated it, but he hated even more that in a twisted way, it was comforting.

"You know the answer to that," he said tiredly.

She sighed, but offered him an encouraging smile. "If it helps, you are doing better than you were at first."

"Not that that's hard." He grimaced as soon as the words were out of his mouth; Tsubaki had this way of getting people to open up and say more than they meant to. Or maybe she just had that effect on him, he didn't know. "Do me a favor and let's just… never talk about that again. I'm not proud of the way I fell apart."

She looked like she wanted to say more on the subject, but the really great thing about Tsubaki was that she knew when to shut up and not bug people. He really, really didn't want to revisit the place he had gone to during those first few weeks after Maka had stolen away and left him emotionally shattered in her wake.

Tsubaki changed the subject gracefully, holding up the tupperware she was carrying for his inspection. "I brought you some more leftovers," she said. "Mostly it's chicken, because Black*Star's been going through another poultry craze, but there's also some of that soup you like."

He dropped his head with a tired scoff, running a hand through his hair. "Thanks," he said. "You don't have to keep feeding me, you know."

"Yes I do. You really scared us when we realized you'd stopped eating, Soul. If I don't feed you, Black*Star's going to."

"Seriously, Tsubaki, I appreciate it and all, you're a better cook than me and definitely a better cook than Black*Star, but I'm fine now. I went to the grocery store last Friday and everything." With a sigh he added, almost to himself, "Saw Maka there."

He tried not to think about how they'd avoided each others' eyes, or how she'd looked so tired and disheveled with a great big coffee stain across her blouse. He didn't want to think about whether this was hurting her even a fraction as much as it was hurting him, because if he spent any time at all dwelling on that, it was going to sap his resolve not to go chasing after her like a puppy because dammit, this time it wasn't his fault! If she was hurt and wanted to heal the breach, then she was going to have to make the first move because he just couldn't.

Tsubaki grimaced in sympathy. "Was that the first time you've seen her since…?"

"No. We've passed on the street a couple of times." He shook his head. "Don't give me that look, Tsubaki. I'm okay. I'm… trying to stop dwelling on it. Living in the past doesn't do me any good, right?" Which was a fucking lie, but she didn't need to know that.

She bit her lip, but nodded. "That's good," she said. "But Soul… I think you two really need to talk. You're both being so stubborn and refusing to let anyone in to try and help you, but whatever happened to cause this, wouldn't actually talking to each other help?"

"Eh, probably, but I'm not gonna go crawling after her to apologize for something that's not my fault."

Tsubaki narrowed her eyes. "If that's the attitude you're taking to this, then you're going about it all wrong. To make a partnership work, sometimes you have to be willing to swallow your pride and make the first move."

He snorted. "Yeah, I did, and that's what got us into this mess."

"What does that mean?"

"It means that I appreciate the food, but the pep talk I could do without."

She gave him that overly-patient look that he usually saw directed at Black*Star when he was being particularly… Black*Starish, and it was annoying as shit to be on the receiving end. "Suit yourself," she said, "But I think you're both being very foolish by avoiding the problem instead of talking about it."


Maka arrived back in Death City to find that Kid was actually home for once when the airport taxi dropped her off, sweating and dusty, on the doorstep of the Gallows. She wandered into the parlor and discovered him sitting there with his weapons. He was playing a game of chess (which wasn't unusual) with Patti (which was). To Maka's amusement, she also noted that Kid, to her inexpert eye, appeared to be losing.

"How was the Congo?" Liz asked, deliberately bored as she glanced over the top of her magazine. She was seated with her legs slung over the arm of her chair at a little distance from where the others were engaged in their game, and the hickey her makeup couldn't quite hide made Maka's stomach hurt.

"It was great!" she said brightly, stretching a grin across her lips. "I can't believe I forgot how much of a rush field work is so quickly! It was great to really get out there and stretch my legs a little bit!"

"That's fantastic!" Liz said.

Patti snorted derisively, and at first Maka thought it was just in response to the goings-on in her chess match, but then Liz shot her sister a fierce look.

"Yay, go Maka!" Patti cheered, but the distinct lack of enthusiasm in her tone had Maka blinking in confusion.

"Uh… yeah. Anyway, since Tsugumi is still meisterless for another month at least, I think she and I are gonna keep running missions together on the weekends. To keep limber, you know? As long as that's okay with you, Kid."

"I see no reason why not," Kid said easily, not even taking his eyes off the board. "You're one of our best meisters. Having you back in the field can only make things easier, assuming it won't interfere with your teaching schedule, of course."

"No, no definitely not," Maka assured him, nodding enthusiastically. "Just on the weekends. Maybe a few afternoons, but only if it's something local."

"Perfect, then you may feel free to make whatever arrangements with Tsugumi you think will be necessary."

Maka nodded again. "I'll let her know." She gave an exaggerated stretch and a sigh. "I think I'll go freshen up. I'm stiff and I smell like the airport."

After receiving vague acknowledgements from the other inhabitants of the Gallows, she vacated the room, heading upstairs with her duffel bag clutched in her arms.

Once the sound of Maka's footsteps going up the creaking stairs had faded away to silence, Liz abruptly hurled her magazine at Patti's head. Her sister let out a squawk of protest, but Liz was unapologetic. "I told you to behave!"

"I don't care!" Patti said hotly. "She shouldn't be going on missions with anybody but Soul as her weapon!"

Liz sighed. "We've gone on missions with Kilik before. And Kid would wield one of his death weapons in a really serious situation."

But Patti was shaking her head violently. "That's different! We only go with Kilik when his weapons can't and Kiddo doesn't need us, and of course Kid's gonna use other weapons, he's Lord Death now!"

"Well there you go then!"

"No, I'm telling you, it's differentwith Soul and Maka," Patti insisted. "Their partnership is different! They're not just… they're… it's special with them, they're more than just regular partners. You've been in group resonance with them, you know what their bond feels like! I don't even get how this happened to them, because they're so close, but now she's avoiding him and it's not good and she shouldn't be fighting with another weapon and I don't like it and you can't make me pretend it's okay!"

She was breathing heavily when she finished, red in the face and furious.

"Patti, hon," Liz began cautiously, "Whether we like it or not, it's happened, and they have to deal with things the way they are now. I think it's probably good for Maka to try to move forward with her life. Right, Kid?"

But Kid wasn't listening. His eyes were narrowed as he stared up at the ceiling. One of the fringe benefits of being a god was the heightened sense that came with the territory; though his gaze was trained on the ceiling, his ears were focused on the upstairs bathroom from where, over the sound of the shower, he could hear Maka choking on gut-wrenching sobs.


The Death Room was much as it had been when Kid's father had inhabited it. The same endless sand and sky stretched out in every direction (although Kid had taken the time to remove the fluffy clouds, as they proved to be an intolerable distraction). When he had first taken up the mantle of Lord Death, he had tried working from an office like the ones maintained by many of the DWMA professors. He had thought it would be too difficult to occupy the same room where his father had reigned for so many years. Eventually, however, he discovered that it was actually easier to work in the otherspace the previous Lord Death had created within the school.

When Black*Star arrived, Kid was sitting at a mahogany desk that seemed wildly out of place in the otherwise natural-looking environment of the Death Room; he held a pen in his hand as he gazed down at a sheet of paper aligned with mathematical precision to the edges of the desk. At first, he seemed quite focused on the words in front of him, but it became apparent quickly that he was more likely lost in thought.

Black*Star cleared his throat. "Yo, Kid, why'd you wanna see me?"

Kid jumped, and looked up. "Oh. Black*Star, you're here already? I'm sorry, I've been a little distracted. I meant to have all this cleared up when you arrived…"

With a snap of his fingers, the desk vanished and was replaced with a pair of cushy black-suede armchairs.

'That's cool," Black*Star said, plopping into one of the chairs. "Have you always been able to do that?"

Kid shook his head as he sank gracefully into the other chair, resting his hands on the arms. Although the two chairs were identical, Kid somehow managed to make his appear like a throne.

"No, only since I took my place as a fully-fledged shinigami. And I prefer to do so only in the Death Room. It's possible even outside of this pocket space, but it tends to have odd effects on local weather patt—"

"Boringggggg!" Black*Star interrupted. "You didn't call me in here to compare the perks of godliness."

The reaper steepled his fingers, gazing thoughtfully at the slender digits. "We need to do something about Soul and Maka," he said.

Black*Star went abruptly still. "What?"

"From a purely tactical perspective, I need them working in the field again. Together, the two of them are stronger than either of us alone, and even you know that. The DWMA needs them. But as their friend…" Kid sighed. "Soul has been avoiding me, so I imagine you'd have a better idea of how he's faring, but I suspect he isn't handling the separation well."

He looked to his friend for confirmation, and Black*Star nodded. "You could say that. I'd be fuckin' amazed if he's gotten an hour of sleep in the last month."

"I was afraid of that. And Maka's no better."

Black*Star snorted. "Yeah, I'm sure."

"I'm absolutely serious," Kid said, in a tone that left no room for argument. "It's like she's sleepwalking. She's in shock and I'm not surprised. She and Soul have been a bonded pair for almost half her life, it's no wonder she's devastated."

Black*Star hummed skeptically, but his expression was thoughtful. "So what are you saying?" he asked.

"I am not my father," Kid said. "Manipulation and pulling the strings behind the scenes is not a habit I want to find myself slipping into. But Soul and Maka have had time to resolve their differences on their own, and they have not done so. I think that as their friends, it's our responsibility to step in."

Black*Star pondered this for a moment. "I… don't know if that's a good idea," he said. "Maybe it's better to just leave them alone."

"Why? They were happy before this falling-out they've had, and now they're both miserable. I see no reason not to at least try to initiate a reconciliation."

"Look, Kid, this isn't just them having one of their things and being extra dramatic about it, you know?" Black*Star said, looking unusually solemn.

Kid's eyes narrowed. "Black*Star, do you know something about why Soul and Maka have parted ways that you haven't shared?"

Black*Star shrugged. "I wouldn't say I know anything, exactly… it's more like an educated guess?"

One carefully-sculpted eyebrow lifted. "And what 'education' do you have access to that the rest of us lack?"

The ninja chewed thoughtfully on the inside of his cheek, apparently debating with himself. After a few moments, he sat back heavily in his chair. "Okay, look, maybe I'm wrong, but I think I know what this is about. A few days before graduation, Soul and I were hangin' out, playin' some Halo…"


Three months ago…

Soul threw his controller away in disgust. "You are obnoxiously good at this game," he groaned, flopping backwards against the back of the sofa in a lazy slouch.

"Man, it's not even my godly skillz," Black*Star crowed. "You're just a pussy who doesn't go for the goal!"

Soul groaned and covered his eyes with one broad hand. "Ugh, you sound like my old man," he muttered.

Black*Star looked like he was trying valiantly not to burst out laughing. "Your dad called you a pussy?" he asked before locking his lips down on a stray chuckle.

Soul spread his fingers to reveal one glaring red eye. "Maybe not in those exact words," he conceded.

Black*Star could no longer contain his glee and burst out in wild laughter that had Tsubaki poking her head into his room to make sure nothing had "accidentally" caught fire (again). Once the ninja had waved her away and gotten ahold of himself, he joined Soul in his casual slump.

"Speaking of your lack of kahones," he said conversationally, "when are you finally gonna tell Maka you have the world's biggest hard on for her?"

Soul rolled his eyes. "Man, I've told you, it's not—"

"—Not just a sex thing, it's a love thing," Black*Star overrode him in a high-pitched mimicry of Soul's voice. "Yeah, I know, dude, you've only said it a billion times. I get it, you're whipped, you're a sap, you're a whipped sap. Point is, are you ever gonna stop telling me about it and start telling her, or am I gonna have to lock you peons in a closet so you can work out some of that UST?"

Soul's brow furrowed. "UST?"

"Unresolved Sexual Tension, get with the lingo dude!"

He stared at Black*Star as if he had grown a third head. "Where do you get this stuff?" he asked. "And for that matter, why do you even care?"

"Uh, maybe because I'm tired of you bitching about your fucking feelings?" Then he got a slightly guilty look on his face. "Oooooor maybe Tsubaki is really curious and wants me to ask you? Whatever, stop changing the subject. When are you gonna grow a pair and 'fess up?"

Soul rolled his eyes again. Black*Star tended to provoke that in people. "First of all, I don't need to 'grow a pair,' I haven't been chickening out. We just don't really need to talk about it, you know? It just is with us. All I've been waiting for is the perfect time to take things to the next level."

"Death, you're nauseating," Black*Star grumbled.

"And," Soul pressed on, pointedly ignoring his friend's commentary, "I think I've finally figured out the perfect moment to do it. After graduation on Sunday, I'm gonna take her out to dinner, just the two of us. I've got great reservations, it'll be cool, real Cary Grant stuff. Then we'll go home, and I'm gonna get Blair to light the whole place up with candles before she leaves, create an atmosphere, you know? And then I'll ask her— oh my god, stop that!"

He reached over and gave the ninja— who had been fake-vomiting, complete with sound effects— a hard shove. Black*Star rolled with it and fell off the couch.

"Dude, you are gross," he said, dissolving into laughter again.

"It's not gross, it's romantic," Soul muttered grumpily. "Maka loves this kinda shit, remember how she got about that whole angel soul thing? Besides, if I'm gonna do this, I might as well do it right. Go big or go— Star, stop laughing!"

"Man," he said, rolling over and wiping his streaming eyes, "If I didn't know you were the sensitive genius type before you went and caught feelings, I'd've thought falling for Maka completely fried your brain!"

Soul looked like he couldn't decide which part of this statement he wanted to object to most strenuously, so instead of choosing one, he settled for kicking Black*Star in the head instead. Black*Star was too busy cackling like a hyena to take much notice.


When Black*Star finished his rather rambling explanation, Kid was looking at him blankly.

"So… you're telling me that Soul is romantically interested in Maka?" the shinigami said slowly.

Black*Star rolled his eyes. "Um duh. Where've you been? The only way the dude could've made it more obvious is if he tattooed 'I love Maka' on his forehead!"

Kid sat in thoughtful silence for a moment, apparently digesting this piece of information. "You know, I hadn't thought about it before, but now that you've brought it to my attention, several things make much more sense now. But… if they're romantically entangled, that just seems like all the more reason to help them bridge this gulf between them, doesn't it?"

The ninja shook his head. "You don't get it, Kid. Whatever happened between them when Soul told Maka how he feels, it was bad enough that they haven't talked to each other in almost three months. We're better off just letting them work through it on their own."

Golden eyes stared thoughtfully at Black*Star for a long moment before Kid finally said, "It's absolutely terrifying when you start making sense. You know that, right?"


Maka's pretty white eyelet button-down had seemed like a good option to throw on over her old green tank top when Patti bounced into her room and demanded that she put on "something nice" because they were going out for lunch with Tsubaki. Being dragged behind the bubbly blonde through the streets of Death City, she regretted that decision immensely, because the weather in Death Valley didn't seem to care that it was September now. The sun was blazing down from overhead and the cobblestones were reflecting so much heat back that her sandals felt as if they might be melting onto the bottoms of her feet. It was a bit like jogging through an oven— and they were jogging. Heedless of the extreme heat— which any sensible desert-dweller knew was cause to stay in the shade, preferably with air conditioning— Patti was practically dancing down the street, and with her death grip on Maka's hand, Maka didn't have much choice but to keep up.

"What's the hurry?" she asked, half annoyed and half amused as Patti whipped them around a corner so sharply she would have given Maka whiplash were she anyone other than a meister in peak physical condition.

"It's a surprise!" Patti called to her over her shoulder, tossing Maka an infectious grin she couldn't help but return.

Maka's smile lasted two more blocks and all the way into the restaurant, and broadened when she saw Tsubaki seated in a booth at the far end of the restaurant by the wall. Her expression slipped a little, however, when she spotted Black*Star sitting beside the shadow weapon.

"You didn't tell me Black*Star was gonna be here," she hissed to Patti.

The pistol shrugged. "Didn't know he would be," she replied in a tone of complete unconcern.

Despite the bad blood between her and Black*Star lately, Maka didn't have much choice at this point, because Tsubaki had already seen them come in and she could get through lunch, right?

Her attempts at complacency failed spectacularly, however, when Patti pushed her bodily into the booth across from the other two and she realized who was sitting next to her, in a seat that hadn't been visible from the doorway due to the high backs of the booths. She barely heard Black*Star's irritated exclamation of "What the hell is she doing here?" because she was too busy having what felt like a heart attack.

"S-Soul!" she choked.

It was the first time she'd spoken to him in close to three months.

"Maka!" He was staring at her in astonishment, clearly as ambushed as she was.

Even though he'd seen her in worse states, even though he didn't love her, even though it didn't matter, she was suddenly hyperconscious of the fact that she was sweating through her shirt and was, in all probability, red in the face from the heat and the exercise. Why was it that she only saw him when she was a walking disaster? Whether she was sweating like a pig or drenched in coffee, she couldn't seem to make it look like she had her shit together and she would really really like to not look like a hot mess in front of him. Of course, he'd probably know better even if she did look fine, because Soul was perceptive like that, but it was the principle of the thing, dammit!

"Uh… hi," Soul said awkwardly, at which point she realized she'd been staring at him in embarrassed silence for at least a minute… which did nothing at all to lessen said embarrassment.

"Hi."

"So… uh… how are you?" he asked, scratching the back of his neck awkwardly.

Maka, who had been distracted again by the realization that her thigh was touching his, attempted to pull on the sunshiney smile she had been wearing just a few minutes ago. "I'm fine! Just fine!" she chirped as she scooted away from him.

Somehow, she thought she might sound a little too hysterical for anyone to really believe her.

She had to get out of here. She wouldn't have been prepared for this with a month's warning, but having him sprung on her like this… she couldn't deal with it. She hadn't had any time to brace herself, to fortify her defenses against a sudden onslaught of Soul.

Maka fumbled desperately for an excuse to leave and came up empty-handed but, like an idiot, opened her mouth anyway. "Um, I need to… um… go. I just remembered that I have a thing. A...um… teaching thing?"

She turned to get out of the much too tiny booth, only to discover Patti sitting cheerfully in the end, blocking her exit. "Patti, let me out," she pleaded, feeling feverish.

"Nuh-uh," Patti said with a wicked grin.

"Patti," Tsubaki chimed in, looking concerned, "Let her go, she's obviously upset."

Maka was too grateful for the support to be annoyed with Tsubaki for pointing out the obvious so bluntly in front of everybody.

"Please," she implored.

Patti slid out of her seat with obvious reluctance and freed Maka, who bolted to her feet. Turning back to face the rest of them, and trying very hard (and failing) not to look at Soul, she blurted out, "Sorry I can't stay, I just really have to… you know… be somewhere else now."

"Are you okay?" Tsubaki asked, pacific eyes gazing at her with that maternal worry that was so intrinsically Tsubaki. "Do you want me to come with you?"

Maka shook her head rapidly. "No, no! Stay! Enjoy your lunch, I'm fine."

"Maka…" Soul's voice was warm and worried and she didn't dare look at him after she heard it because when he said her name so gently, his eyes were usually all soft and concerned, and she was absolutely sure she couldn't stick to her resolution to stay away if she saw him looking at her like that.

"Sorry," she repeated, and then she bolted.


The jingle of the bells over the door as it slammed shut behind Maka was the loudest sound in the mostly empty restaurant. The four left behind sat for a moment in stunned silence until Black*Star scoffed and muttered, "coward," which seemed to reanimate his companions.

"What the fuck?" Soul asked, glaring at Patti. "Why did you bring her here?"

Patti was pouting spectacularly. "You two need to talk," she said. "You're moping and she's moping and it's not right for her to go on missions with anybody but you, you know?"

Soul looked like he agreed completely, but was too angry to say so. "Don't fucking ambush us," he snapped. "It's not cool, Patti."

"Soul, we were just trying to help," Tsubaki said soothingly, but Soul just turned his glare on the other side of the table instead.

"You two were in on this, too?" he growled.

"Not me, man," Black*Star said, looking more than a little incensed himself. "I was just telling Kid yesterday that it isn't our business and we should let you deal with it. I figured he'd pass on the message. I'd've thought—" he added, with a scowl for Patti, "—that a fellow god would have better control over his weapon."

Immediately, all three of his companions stiffened.

"Hey! Weapons are people, too!" Tsubaki snapped, now looking as thoroughly irritated as everyone else at the table. "We obey our meisters on the battlefield and in training, but we're under no obligation to take orders regarding our personal lives!"

Black*Star looked abashed in the face of Tsubaki's chilly glower. He glanced around at the table full of weapons he was sitting with and sighed. "Yeah, okay," he relented. "Sorry, guys."

"Apology accepted," Patti said primly.

Soul just rolled his eyes.

Her point made, Tsubaki's eyes softened as she looked back at Soul. "I'm sorry bringing her here made you uncomfortable. We just thought maybe if the two of you had the chance to talk…"

Soul snorted bitterly. "I don't need to talk, I need a damn time machine."

Tsubaki looked infinitely distressed and Black*Star scoffed, but Patti was looking at Soul curiously.

"What happened with you guys?" she asked. "Maka won't tell us anything, even though it's been months. At graduation you guys were all lovey-dovey and holding hands and hugging and being ridiculously cute, and then the next thing I know, Maka turned up on our doorstep at midnight saying you guys had a fight and she needed a place to stay."

Soul looked as if he didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "A fight. She calls it a fight," he muttered darkly to the tabletop, shaking his head slowly. "Well, she's not wrong. We did have a fight."

"What about?" Tsubaki asked. "What could possibly be so bad you guys would split up over it?"

"Done with this conversation now," Soul said abruptly. "You know what, I'm not really all that hungry, I think I'm just gonna head home."

"Soul…" Tsubaki began, her tone apologetic, but Black*Star poked her in the side, causing her to yelp and fall silent.

"If my bro wants to go, my bro wants to go," he proclaimed loudly, to Soul's mortification. "Yo, Soul, man, you still down for Gears of War tomorrow?"

Soul nodded.

"Excellent! Get ready to have your ass handed to you by your god!"

Soul rolled his eyes and looked back at Patti. "Lemme out," he ordered.

Patti looked mutinous, but scooched out so that he could slip out of the booth. Once Soul had vanished with only the jingle of the bells over the door left behind him, Patti turned to the others and said, "You know he wiggled out of answering again, right?"


Once she had escaped the trap laid for her in the restaurant, Maka had run. The heat had suddenly seemed like much less of a concern than it was a few minutes prior, because she needed to get away from there in case Soul followed her outside. It wouldn't have shocked her if he had.

Actually, it was surprising that Soul hadn't come looking for her yet. She had vague recollections of scribbling a note asking him not to come after her, but the fact that he'd listened was… unanticipated. Soul had been a half step behind her for going on nine years, almost half her life, and the fact that for the first time since she'd known him he hadn't followed her felt fundamentally wrong. For the first month, she had half-expected at every moment to hear Soul pounding on the door of the Gallows, demanding that she come talk to him, dammit! Maybe part of her had been secretly hoping that he would. If he had turned up and insisted that she come home, insisted that they try to work things out, maybe it would've been a sign that he'd actually meant it that night, even just a little bit. Maybe it would have reignited that tiny spark of hope she thought had been extinguished years ago, hope that he might someday return her feelings...

But he hadn't come.

Maka was a born runner. It was the one area in which, right from the start, she had always outstripped the other members of Spartoi. Meisters like Kid and Black*Star might be stronger than her, and even Kim and Kilik (she refused to include Ox on this particular list) were more powerful. But Maka was a natural athlete in a way none of the rest could really claim, as flexible as a gymnast and fast. And even after several months of a (comparably) sedentary lifestyle, her body still remembered how to move, taking all possible advantage of her slight build.

Her shoes weren't really built for running, but she didn't care. Legs strong from a lifetime of training to face the nightmares of the world carried her down the cobblestone streets, her lungs and heart settling back into their runner's rhythm like coming home. She sprinted downslope steadily, erasing thoughts of Him from her head as if they had been blown free by the speed of her flight.

She ran aimlessly, pushing herself to keep going even when her lungs burned; she didn't dare stop because once she did, her mind would catch up with her and she wasn't ready yet, didn't know if she would ever be ready…

And then, after what felt like half an hour but might have been longer, she realized where her legs had carried her. Quite without her conscious consent, she found herself somewhere she hadn't been in years... and possibly exactly where she needed to be right now.

She nearly staggered in sheer relief as she gazed up at the quaint little house shaped like a pumpkin, right on the forested outskirts of Death City. Smoke was rising invitingly from the stem-shaped chimney. She had run, instinctively, to Blair's old house.

Maka dragged her sore feet up the walk and knocked on the door. Immediately from inside the door, she heard a familiar throaty voice croon, "Nya, Mister Y, I've been expecting y—" But when Blair opened the door and found a sweating, trembling Maka on her step, the words died in her throat.

"Oh dear," she said, and without another word she stepped aside to let Maka enter, then closed the door behind her.

The little house was as cozy and warm as Maka remembered, just exactly the kind of place you'd expect a magical cat to live, full of comfortable furniture and soft little pillows, with wide windows to let in bright streams of sunlight. It had taken Maka longer than she was proud of to realize why Blair had abandoned such a nice home to follow them back to their decidedly snug apartment: she had been lonely.

In fact, now that she thought about it, Maka wasn't sure why she had even come here in the first place. She had no earthly reason to have assumed that Blair would be back here, yet she had run here seemingly on instinct. Maybe she had been letting her soul perception guide her without realizing it?

She turned to face the cat-woman. Blair, she suddenly realized, was wearing an outfit that was skimpy, even by her usual barely-clothed standards. Before she could say a word, however, Blair tilted her head and with a puff of purple smoke, she was conservatively dressed.

Well… conservatively for Blair.

Well... important bits were entirely covered, anyway.

"I've been waiting for you to show up ever since Soul-kun kicked me out," Blair said.

Maka blinked. "Soul kicked you out?" she asked, flabbergasted. "But… why?"

Blair sighed, shaking her head sadly. "Who knows why boys do the things they do? But if Bu-tan had to guess…" Even in human form, it seemed like her whiskers were drooping. "Soul-kun doesn't want anyone to see how he's hurting."

Maka flinched. "So you think it's all my fault, too?" she asked. "Big bad Maka who can't trust men, who finally snapped and dumped her poor unsuspecting weapon—"

"Bu-tan thinks," she interrupted sharply, "that Soul-kun and Maka-chan love each other very much. But my kittens are little and stubborn and too young to know how to talk about the things that hurt, and they've made a little bit of a mess because of it."

All Maka could do was nod mutely, because despite being fully eighteen years old, at this particular moment she felt much, much too young to be able to handle this.

Blair's large golden-orange eyes were sympathetic and entirely free of judgment— which, Maka realized, was exactly why she had come to her, of all people.

"Come here, kitten." Blair didn't actually wait for Maka to approach but instead swooped down to wrap her up in a smothering hug. It was, perhaps, the first time in her life Maka had ever been grateful to be suffocated by a huge pair of breasts.

A long, long moment later, Blair let go of her. "Would warm milk help?" she asked.

Maka shook her head. "This isn't the kind of problem that you can solve with milk, Blair."

She grinned. "Then how about cream?"

Maka was on the verge of saying that cream wasn't much better than milk when Blair stuck out a hand and, with another puff of smoke, a bottle of Bailey's Irish cream fell into her palm. The cat's grin turned just a little bit wicked.

"I'm… not twenty-one yet," Maka said blankly.

"Bu-tan won't tell if you won't."

"But it's— it's only three o'clock in the afternoon!"

Blair slung an arm around Maka's shoulders and steered her over to one of her many cushy sofas. "Haven't you heard what they say? It's always five o'clock somewhere!" she trilled, with a conspiratorial wink. Slightly more seriously, she added, "Besides, Maka-chan, sometimes the best treatment for a broken heart is to talk about it with a girl-friend over a cocktail or four."

Reluctantly, Maka allowed herself to be pushed into a seat and presented with a lowball glass that Blair wasted no time in filling.


When the house phone rang at a quarter to three, Soul wasn't asleep. He was hardly ever asleep these days, truth be told. During the first couple of weeks after Maka had left, he'd been unable to close his eyes, unable to handle how quiet the house was without the gentle hum of her soul on the other side of the wall. He'd tried taking cold medicine and melatonin to knock himself out— but then he'd started having nightmares again. Or, worse than nightmares, the dreams where Maka loved him and they were together and together, the kind of dreams that left him waking up painfully hard, and too heartsick to do anything about it.

Long story short, it just wasn't worth it. Now he took caffeine pills and stayed up in the dim glow of the television, watching sitcoms or playing Final Fantasy to distract himself, and he made sure to drink at least a gallon of water— or, better yet, Mr. Pibb— before midnight. That way, even if he did doze off, his bladder would wake him up before he could have any unwanted visions of any kind.

So no, when the silence was split by the shrill of the telephone, he was most definitely not asleep. His left leg, on the other hand, apparently was, and he grumbled loudly as he wobbled into the kitchen, trying to put as little weight on that foot as possible while the blood flooded back in and left him with a limb full of pins and needles.

"What?" he barked after swiping the receiver from the cradle on the wall. "It's three in the fucking morning."

"Sorry," a heart-stopping voice on the other end replied. "I didn' re'lize. Shoulda checked the clock 'fore I called."

It was Maka. It was fucking Maka, at quarter to three in the morning, and she was slurring her words like a freshman pledge during rush week.

Suddenly, his dead leg wasn't enough to support his weight anymore, and he sat down right there on the floor, sat before he fell, and he loathed how shaky his voice sounded when he breathed her name, half question and half prayer. Dammit, he didn't want to sound vulnerable right now, he was sick and fucking tired of being the one hemorrhaging emotions everywhere, and god, he'd never resented his stupid unrequited love before, because caring about Maka Albarn taught him to be a better man, but it fucking hurt and if he could rip out the part of his soul that was still screaming for hers…

...well, he probably wouldn't, actually. Which was half his fucking problem.

But she's talking again and the connection isn't great— she must be somewhere with bad reception— so he listens close.

"-n't expect t' see you t'day," she was saying. "Jus' caught me off-guard, y'know?"

"Yeah. I know."

"And I… I needed to talk to someb'dy 'bout it but I can't talk t' Black*Star 'coz he hates me and I can't talk t' Tsubaki 'coz she'll talk to Black*Star, and Liz and Patti both have opinions and I can' deal with that righ' now and talking to Kid about feelings is just weird and Blair's been so nice but she's also not v'ry helpful and the person I talk to about real stuff i-is you, Soul, 's always been you, for as long as there's been real stuff to t-talk about, and I just... r-really needed to talk t'you."

She was crying, just a little bit. He could hear it in her voice, and it killed him even now because crying Maka wasn't a thing he was prepared to deal with ever, let alone under circumstances like this, when his own emotional reserves had been tapped out weeks ago. She virtually never cried. Even that time when they were kids, when she had dislocated her knee and he hadn't been strong enough yet to carry her so she had to walk almost three miles back to the highway, she had just gritted her teeth and borne it. It was such a rare thing that when she did end up in tears, he just didn't know what to do.

"I miss you so much," she said, so so quietly, like a secret.

"Maka…" he said helplessly.

"Why'd you do it, Soul?" she asked, and the sob in her words would have brought him to his knees if he hadn't already been sitting on the cold linoleum. Her next words, however, made his blood boil. "We had such a good thing goin', why'd you hafta ruin it?"

"Me?" he asked incredulously. "I didn't! You're the one who walked out!"

She made an odd choking sound. "It's not like you gave me a choice!"

"Oh, you had a choice!" he growled, struggling with everything in him not to shout at her. "Yeah, things might've been awkward for awhile, but we could've worked through it! You made the decision to bail instead of trying to fix things, Maka, you did that! Never pegged Maka Albarn for a coward, but—"

She cut him off with a burst of bitter, near-hysterical laughter. "Oh, I'm the coward? Tha's rich, coming from the guy who was so desperate to keep his partner close he was willing to resort to emotional mapit- er, manipulation to get his way!"

"What the fuck, Maka? Emotional manipulation? Did you and I even have the same argument that night?"

"'Parently not," she spat. "D'you know Black*Star hates me now? He hates me and ev'rybody thinks it's my fault b'cause 'm the one who got out but they don' know, they don' know what happ'ned an' I can't take that on top of losin' you, Soul—"

"Losing me? You call what happened 'losing me'?" he spat out, furious and flabbergasted. "You didn't lose me, you fucking threw me away like trash!"

"That's not—"

There was a rustling noise and the sounds of Maka loudly protesting in, which made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up because what was happening and who was she with and she was drunk and so many things could go wrong…!

But then a blessedly familiar voice said, "Who is this?" and then, slightly muffled as if she had turned away from the receiver, "Who are you talking to, Maka-chan? Bu-tan heard yelling."

He sighed, hating just how strong his relief was. "Blair, it's me."

"Oh Maka-chan," Blair said sadly. "Sorry, Soul-kun, I didn't realize she still had her phone on her."

"It's… it's okay." And wasn't that just the sickest thing about it all? Even though fighting with her was basically the worst, a part of him had still been so fucking happy to hear her voice, because at least it meant they were talking.

"You two need to talk, but not like this," Blair said sagely. "You hear me, scythe-boy?"

He nodded, even though he knew she couldn't see him, because the lump in his throat was huge and he didn't dare open his mouth.

"I said, you hear me, scythe-boy?"

"Y-yeah."

"Good. Now Bu-tan has to go, because Maka-chan needs me right now."

"Yeah."

The line went dead, and Soul leaned his head back against the cabinets with a thunk. He was unsettled, angry, royally confused, and not sure how to interpret any of what had just happened. He was grateful, at least, that he didn't have to worry about Maka for tonight. Blair might be certifiable, but she also wouldn't let anything happen to her.

He sat there on the floor with the receiver in his hand quietly broadcasting a dial tone until the sun rose.

Chapter Text

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.