"Hey, Chrona…" Ragnarok rested his tiny, round hands atop Chrona's head and peered down at the cutting board, where Chrona was dicing cabbage. "What's all this?"
"We're making pork dumplings," Chrona replied.
"I want to do something nice for everyone. Tomorrow we're having resonance training in the park with Maka, Soul, Tsubaki and Black Star. So I'm going to bring them lunch."
"I like it better when people bring food for us," Ragnarok said. "Besides, you nearly burned down the kitchen last time you tried to make something."
Chrona hunched his shoulders, a blush creeping into his cheeks at the memory. He'd managed to extinguish the cutlets, but he'd singed the cuffs of his robe, and the apartment had smelled like smoke for days. "I'm still learning," he said. "But this is an easy recipe. If I follow it exactly, I should be okay. Besides…" His gaze strayed to the framed photo on the counter, of himself and Maka standing side by side at the first party they'd gone to together. "Everyone here has been so kind to us. I just…want to do something." And it would be nice to have a skill. Something aside from killing.
"Suit yourself." Ragnarok recoiled back into his body.
Chrona started mincing the pork.
He had moved out of Shibusen's dungeons and into his own apartment about a week ago. He would have been content staying in his cell. Small, confined spaces suited him. But Maka had seemed troubled by the idea. It doesn't bother you? she'd asked. Living in the same room where you were a prisoner?
It hadn't occurred to him that he should be bothered by that, or by the bare stone walls and floor. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized that he'd have to move out at some point. He was no longer a trial student, after all, but a full-fledged member of Shibusen, and all the other students either lived in the dorms or had places of their own.
The apartment had daisy yellow walls and sky blue curtains. With his mostly black wardrobe, he felt out of place—like a stick of charcoal someone had accidentally left in a box of pastel crayons.
He surveyed the ingredients. Cabbage, blanched and minced. Ground pork. Ginger. Wrappers made from a paste of flour, water and salt. Was he forgetting anything?
Scallions, thought. The recipe called for scallions. But Tsubaki didn't like onions—
The knife slipped, and Chrona's breath hissed softly between his teeth as the blade slid across his fingertip. He raised one hand and stared at the line of black blood welling up. Ragnarok always hardened the blood from his battle wounds right away, but when it came to little cuts and scrapes, he usually didn't bother. Chrona held his hand over the sink and watched the drops of jet black blood well up and drip, drip, drip to the chrome. The sharp sting had mellowed into something softer, almost pleasant, and his gaze lost focus as he watched his blood sliding slowly toward the drain…
…and then he was sliding, back and back.
There is a little girl bound and gagged in the corner of the room. She is bruised and dirty, staring up at Chrona with wide, terrified eyes. He stares back, and his chest tightens. The girl is five or six, no older than he is.
Medusa stands behind him, arms crossed over her chest. "Kill her," she says flatly.
Chrona turns to his mother. "But…" He looks over his shoulder at the girl. She has blonde hair, and her pretty brown eyes are wet with tears. He looks down, twisting his little black dress in his hands. "I…I don't…"
Medusa sighs. "Regardless of what you do, she will never leave this place alive. She's seen far too much. If you refuse to kill her, I will use her for my experiments, and I can assure you she'll find that much more unpleasant than death. Look at it as sparing her the additional pain, if you will."
Chrona's breath comes in little hitching gulps. "I can't," he says in a small voice. "I can't kill a person."
"You've killed animals. This isn't much different." Her tone is calm, coaxing. Reasonable. "You have to get used to killing people, Chrona."
Tears spill down his cheeks. "Please," he whispers. "Please don't make me. Can't you just let her go?"
Medusa's eyes narrow. "If you refuse, you will spend the day locked in your room without food or water, and then I'll bring you back here and ask you to kill her again. If you still refuse, I'll think up some more inventive punishment for you."
"I can't—I can't—" He walks up to Medusa and hugs her leg, still pleading through his tears, but she pushes him away.
"You worthless little coward," she says. "Is there nothing you can do? Can you not kill a single helpless little girl? I can scarcely believe you came out of my body. Perhaps my real child sneaked away and is hiding somewhere. Perhaps you're just the afterbirth. I should have thrown you away with the rest of the blood and filth."
Her voice turns icy. "I've told you, never call me that."
"Medusa-sama…I don't understand." He looks at the little girl, who has gone silent and glazed-eyed, trembling like a fawn before the hunter's gun. "Why do I have to kill people?"
"Because that is why you exist. That's the only reason." Her voice turns smooth and gentle again. "Why make this more difficult than it needs to be? Why drag out her suffering, or your own?"
Ragnarok flows out of his back, plants his hands on Chrona's head and shakes it. "Just do it, already! You heard her. The kid's gonna die no matter what, so you might as well get it over with."
"But—but I don't want—"
"If you get us locked up again you can bet I'll punch you the whole time!"
Chrona doesn't care. By now, he's used to Ragnarok's punches and insults. But he's afraid of Medusa. Afraid of her cold eyes, afraid of her disappointment, her rejection.
Medusa reaches down to squeeze his shoulder. Her fingers bite into him like claws, and pain shoots through his body. He gasps. The fingers dig in deeper, until the very tips of her nails puncture his skin. When she wrenches them out, her fingertips are wet with his blood. He watches it drip, black and shiny, to the floor. "Do it," she says.
In the end, he cannot disobey her. She is his mother, his creator, his owner, his universe. Her contempt has the power to erase him, to make him less than nothing, to cast him into a cold, dark, empty hell from which he can never return.
And it is that—even more than the pain—which pushes him over the edge.
"Ragnarok," he murmurs.
"Finally!" Ragnarok flows into his hand as a sword.
Chrona approaches the girl in small, shuffling steps. He can't meet her gaze.
The first cut is too shallow. Blood spurts from her throat, and she makes strangled choking sounds. Her eyes bulge. The second cut silences her. She convulses, then lies limp and still on the floor, blood pooling beneath her throat.
That night, when Chrona is curled under the covers, Medusa enters the room. She walks quietly to the side of the bed, sits, and gathers him into her arms. "You did well today, Chrona," she whispers into his ear. "I'm proud of you."
Even at age six, he knows this is a lie. He is a tool to her, nothing more. But he clings to the lie—to her—because it is all he has. Because he is starved for this. This touch, this warmth.
She strokes Chrona's hair. "My child," she whispers.
When Chrona came back to himself, he was sitting on the kitchen floor, huddled in a ball, head tipped back and resting against the side of the counter, the knife cradled against his chest. His bleeding finger was in his mouth, the taste of his own blood on his tongue, and there were tears on his cheeks.
Ragnarok poked his face. "Hey, Chrona. You there?"
He blinked. "Ragnarok? H-how long was I…"
"Just a few minutes this time."
Chrona hunched his shoulders and bowed his head.
Ragnarok leaned down to peer into his face, tilting his head. He licked the tears from Chrona's cheeks, like a puppy, and Chrona squirmed. "That tickles," he murmured, his gaze shifting away. He wanted to think that Ragnarok was trying to comfort him, but he probably just liked the taste of salt. Ragnarok didn't understand human emotions; not really. Maybe that was for the best.
He closed his eyes.
"The water in that pot's about to boil over," Ragnarok said.
Chrona gasped and scrambled to his feet.
Maka looked around the grassy, forested area where she, Soul, Black Star and Tsubaki had gathered to train. Black Star was busy doing pull-ups from a tree bough, sweat rolling down his face as he counted to himself. Tsubaki was sitting under the tree reading.
"Where's Chrona?" Maka asked, turning to Soul. "He was supposed to train with us today, right?"
"Maybe he got caught up in something." Soul interlaced his fingers behind his head. "Let's give him five more minutes, and if he's not here, we'll get started."
She bit her lower lip, staring in the direction of Shibusen. Chrona's apartment was close to the school; it wasn't a long walk. "He's never been late before. What if something happened?"
Soul smiled. "Give him a little credit. He kicked our asses the first time we met him, remember? I've still got the scar where he sliced me open, right here." Soul pounded a fist against his chest. "He can handle himself."
"I know. But…" She trailed off.
Chrona could protect himself against physical dangers. She knew that. But that wasn't what she was worried about. For the past hour or so, she'd been plagued by the vague feeling that something was wrong, that Chrona needed her. It wasn't a sense of danger, exactly. Just…something empty and quiet and sad.
She hadn't told Soul, because it would sound ridiculous, and it was probably her imagination anyway. But a shadow of worry hung over her heart.
She heard soft footsteps and turned.
A familiar, thin figure stood before her, clad in his usual white-collared black robe and holding a covered picnic basket in both hands. The tension eased out of Maka's shoulders, and she smiled. Maybe it had been her imagination. "Good morning, Chrona."
"Good morning," Chrona murmured. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, head tipped forward so his pink hair hung in his eyes.
"What's in there?"
"Um…" His gaze shifted away, and a flush rose into his pale cheeks. "Pork dumplings. And rice balls." He knelt on the ground, removed the checkered cover from the basket, and unfolded it into a picnic blanket, which he spread across the grass.
Black Star approached, eyes brightening. "You brought lunch?"
"I made it," Chrona replied.
"All this?" Maka asked, surprised.
He nodded. "I'm still learning, so…it's probably not very good. B-but if anyone wants some…"
"Thanks!" Black Star sat on the blanket, grabbed a dumpling from the basket, and stuffed it into his mouth.
Tsubaki winced. "Black Star…"
"Whuh?" Black Star said around a mouthful of dumpling, spraying crumbs. "'E seh we coul' hab some."
Maka smiled at Chrona, who was still blushing and fidgeting, staring down at his hands. "Thank you, Chrona. They smell delicious."
Chrona ducked his head and mumbled something inaudible. His face had turned a bright red. This close, it was easy to sense his soul wavelength, and Maka could feel the vibrations of shy pleasure and self-consciousness coursing through him.
He was so different now. She remembered the first time she'd seen him—his bleak, half-crazed eyes, haunting and haunted. The way he'd seemed to look at her without really seeing her, as if she and everyone else in the world were just a shifting mass of shadows and bad dreams. The way he'd cut down Soul, slashed through him without even flinching, without ever losing that glazed, detached look. He'd been a killer, consumed with darkness.
But this gentleness had been there all along, under the surface. Maybe he'd just been waiting for someone to touch him, to penetrate his darkness.
Ragnarok burst out of Chrona's back and planted his tiny fists on Chrona's head. "Let's just eat already!"
Maka, Tsubaki and Soul all reached into the basket and pulled out more dumplings and rice balls. They all murmured approval as they ate, and a tiny smile formed on Chrona's face.
Black Star was already on his third helping. He licked sauce from his lips and grinned. "You can really cook! You'll be a great wife for someone, Chrona."
Everyone fell silent. Maka, Soul, and Tsubaki all turned their heads toward Black Star.
He started to fish a rice ball out of the basket, then paused, looking around. "Eh? Why is everyone staring at me? Did I say something weird?"
Tsubaki leaned toward him and whispered something in his ear.
Black Star blinked a few times. Then his jaw dropped. "Are you serious?" She nodded. He stood, staring at Chrona as if he'd just grown a second head. "You're a guy?"
Chrona hugged his knees to his chest. His gaze shifted uncomfortably away.
Ragnarok snickered. "Well, he's not a girl. Not last time I checked, anyway."
Chrona let out a small, dismayed squeak. "Ragnarok…"
"Sit down, Black Star," Maka said, "you're embarrassing him."
"But—but—" The corner of Black Star's eye twitched. "She's wearing a dress, and…"
"It's a robe," Maka said, irritation creeping into her voice. "What's the big deal, anyway? Chrona can wear whatever he wants."
Black Star stood there for a moment longer, looking as if he'd been smacked on the head with a cudgel. Then he thrust a dramatic arm out, pointing at Chrona, the tip of his finger nearly touching Chrona's nose.
Chrona's eyes crossed, as if trying to keep it in focus. "Uh…?"
Black Star grinned. All traces of confusion and shock had been wiped neatly from his features. "I challenge you!"
Chrona blinked. "What?"
Black Star planted his hands on his hips. "Well, a big guy like me can't go around challenging girls. But I've fought just about every other boy I know. Kid, Soul, Oxford…"
Chrona looked mystified. "But they're your friends. Why would you fight them?"
"To measure my strength, of course!"
"Ha!" Ragnarok said. "You want to fight Chrona? That's funny."
Black Star frowned. He tilted his head and stared, brows scrunched up, as if Ragnarok were a strange bug he'd found floating in his juice. "Huh?"
"Chrona would pound you into the ground like a tent peg," Ragnarok said. "He may act like a pussy, but once he gets revved up he's a total psycho. You wouldn't stand a chance."
Black Star's frown deepened. "No one asked you, weirdo."
Ragnarok shook a fist at him. "You're the weirdo, dickcheese!"
A vein popped out in Black Star's temple. "Watch your mouth or I'll bust it for you."
"If you try, I'll bite your hand."
"Now, now," Tsubaki said, her polite smile never wavering. "We're all friends here. Let's not get carried away."
Black Star huffed. His gaze met Chrona's, and he smiled again. But this time, the expression was harder, fiercer. "So, you wanna?"
Chrona hugged his knees tighter against his chest and lowered his gaze. "I…I don't think it would be a good idea," he murmured.
"Scared?" Black Star crossed his arms over his chest. His expression relaxed, the hard edge of his smile softening. "I guess I can't blame you. Sometimes I even scare myself! Well, if you want to back down, I won't hold it against you. But that means I win by default."
Maka shot a glare at him, which he ignored. She still didn't understand how Tsubaki could put up with Black Star constantly strutting around and shooting his mouth off. "Just sit down and eat, already," she said.
"It's just…" Chrona's gaze darted nervously back and forth. "Y-you're my friend, Black Star. I don't want to hurt you."
Something dangerous flickered in Black Star's eyes. "You're that confident you can beat me, huh?" He smirked darkly. "Maybe you've got more balls than I thought."
Maka stood up. "This is ridiculous," she said. "Chrona didn't mean it like that, and you know it. No one is going to fight anyone, so no one 'wins,' okay?"
Soul took another bite of his rice ball. "Let Chrona decide," he said.
She spun to face him, surprised. "Soul…"
Soul shrugged. "He can say no if he wants to."
"But…" She turned back to Chrona and Black Star. Chrona was sweating, his gaze skittering around wildly, as if looking for a place to hide.
Something had shifted in Black Star's demeanor. The playfulness was gone; the demon stared out through his eyes, its bloodlust awakened.
Tsubaki seemed to notice it too. Uncertainty showed in her expression as she rose to her feet. "Black Star…"
Black Star's smile widened, but it looked more like a snarl. "Fight me," he said. "And if you hold back, I won't forgive you. I want everything you've got."
Chrona twitched, his breath catching. For a moment he huddled on the ground, shaking, hair hanging in his eyes. Then, slowly, he rose to his feet, arms hanging limp, head bowed—a puppet pulled by unseen strings.
"Now you've done it," Ragnarok said gleefully. "You flipped his crazy switch."
"Shut up," Black Star said.
"Fine." Ragnarok chuckled. "But don't blame me for what happens next."
Black Star licked his lips and held a hand out. "Tsubaki. Katana form."
She hesitated, glancing at Chrona, then back at her partner. "I don't think this is a good idea," she said quietly.
"Tsubaki…" His teeth scraped together. His breathing had grown heavier.
"No, Black Star." Her voice was soft but firm. "Not this time."
Thank God, thought Maka. The tension eased out of her shoulders.
"Fine!" Black Star snapped. "I'll fight Weaponless. I don't even need you to beat him!"
Tsubaki's eyes widened. "Black Star…"
Black Star extended a hand and beckoned to Chrona, then settled into fighting stance, legs apart, one hand raised. "Come at me," he said. "Let's see how strong you really are."
Chrona clutched at one arm, fingers digging in until the knuckles whitened. His head remained bowed, hair hanging in his eyes, and tremors shook his thin shoulders.
"What's wrong? Chickening out, after all? I'm disappointed."
Chrona's head lifted slowly, and his lips stretched open in a strange, cold smile. A chill rippled down Maka's spine.
Chrona's eyes had gone wide and glazed. Maka recognized the look.
"That's more like it," Black Star said.
Chrona extended one hand. "Ragnarok," he said quietly.
"Been awhile since we cut someone up," Ragnarok said. "This oughtta be fun." He flowed back into Chrona's body, then reemerged in his hand as a sword.
Chrona giggled, a high-pitched, unnatural sound.
-To be continued