It was early December.
The park's trees were bare. Their branches cut clean silhouettes against the pale sky, and the air was cool and crisp. Chrona sat next to Maka on a picnic blanket, their shoulders touching, their breath pluming in little white clouds.
"Hey Chrona, catch!" Black Star flung the Frisbee across the grassy clearing.
Chrona lifted his hands and tried to catch the Frisbee, but it bounced off his head. He winced.
"Almost!" Black Star shouted.
"You throw that thing too aggressively, Black Star," Maka said. "You're going to give someone a concussion one of these days."
"Ih-it's okay." Chrona smiled as he rubbed his stinging forehead, wondering if the Frisbee had left a mark.
Beside them, Soul stood up and said, "Here, toss it to me."
"Here it comes! Ya-hooo!" The Frisbee sailed through the air with the force of a missile, and Soul casually lifted one hand and caught it.
Maka sipped from a mug of cocoa. Instead of her usual coat, she was wearing a light brown jacket trimmed with white faux-fur, a pair of matching gloves, and a snowflake-patterned scarf. Chrona kept looking at her and blushing.
They'd just finished their weekly group resonance practice. Dr. Stein stood near the edge of the clearing, leaning against a tree and smoking, while Kid, Liz, Patty, and Tsubaki sat on a picnic blanket, munching sandwiches and sipping from bright red mugs. Chrona had made a batch of hot cocoa that morning and brought it in an extra-large thermos, along with a can of whipped cream. He'd worried the cocoa wouldn't stay hot, but it was still steaming.
Maka took another sip. There was a bit of whipped cream on the tip of her nose. Chrona stared at it. "Maka, you've got…"
"Hm?" She looked up at him.
"H-here, let me." He wiped away the whipped cream with a finger. It was the sort of thing he would have been too shy to do just a few weeks ago, but now it felt oddly natural.
"Oh." Maka looked at his fingertip. She smiled and licked off the whipped cream, and his cheeks grew warmer.
Ragnarok popped out of Chrona's back and settled atop his head. "Damn, you two can't keep your hands off each other for five minutes. It's ridiculous. Hey, someone gimme a sandwich!"
Tsubaki smiled sweetly and handed him a BLT. "Here you go, Raggy."
Maka blinked. "Raggy?"
Ragnarok devoured the sandwich in one gulp and licked crumbs from his face. He paused, looking at her, and when he spoke again his voice was unusually subdued. "Um…hey, Tsubaki…"
"Yes?" She tilted her head.
Ragnarok looked away. "Nothing." He retreated into Chrona's body.
Tsubaki tilted her head, looking puzzled. After a moment, she resumed eating her turkey and Swiss sandwich.
Maka linked her fingers with Chrona's. They sat side by side, watching as Black Star and Soul tossed the Frisbee. Liz painted her nails, blowing on them to make them dry faster, while Kid counted the number of sesame seeds on his sandwich bun, lips moving silently.
Without warning, Patty thrust a sandwich-half in Chrona's face. She'd used toothpicks to pin two olives to the top like eyes, and now she moved the bread-slices up and down like lips. "Eat me. Eat meeeee…"
Chrona squeaked and fell backwards in surprise. Patty giggled and took a bite out of the sandwich.
Liz sighed, still examining her nails. "Don't tease him, Patty. He's not used to that kind of thing."
"Ih-it's okay." Chrona sat up and offered a tentative smile. "I don't mind."
A cool wind sighed through the park, and the trees swayed. Maka shivered, and Chrona draped his arms around her, pulling her closer. Black Star's loud laughter echoed through the clearing.
Chrona marveled at how right it all felt, how natural. Once, his life at Shibusen had seemed like a sweet dream; a fleeting illusion, to be snatched away at any moment. There were still moments when he felt like that. But each day, his new world felt a little more real. He belonged here.
These were his friends.
This was his home.
Long after the others had gone home, Chrona and Maka sat on the grass together near the edge of the duck pond, their fingers interlaced.
There weren't any ducks. They'd flown off to wherever ducks went in the winter…though Death City was already pretty far south, so Chrona wasn't sure where that might be. A few leaves drifted lazily on the water's surface.
It had been just over a week since Medusa's death, but the memories were already cloudy in his mind, like a dream. Maybe that was for the best.
"You know, Chrona," Maka said. "Christmas is coming up in just a few weeks."
"Oh, that's right…this is your first Christmas in Death City, isn't it?"
Chrona had never celebrated any holidays. He nodded and ducked his head, self-conscious—there was so much he didn't know—but Maka only smiled and squeezed his hand. "We'll have to make it special."
He knew it would be. Every day with her was special. "What do people do for Christmas?"
"Lots of things. Maybe we'll get a tree for the apartment this year…a little one, anyway. Hopefully Blair won't try to eat it, like she did with that hyacinth. Kid always throws a Christmas party at his house, so we can go to that. It'll be fun. And…" She sighed. "Much as I don't want to, I should probably pay Spirit a visit for the holidays. Maybe we can have dinner at his house or something. But we'll make it quick."
Chrona tensed. We?
Well, he was Maka's boyfriend now. He supposed it made sense for him to go with her. He felt a small flutter of excitement at the idea that she wanted him there. But still…
"Are you okay?" Maka asked.
Chrona realized he was squeezing her hand too hard and loosened his grip. "S-sorry," he murmured. "I'm fine, it's just…I'm a little scared of Spirit. I don't know how to deal with him."
"Oh." She gave him a small, uncertain smile. "Well, you don't have to come if you'd rather not. After what he did last time, I couldn't blame you."
"It's not that I don't want to," he said quickly. "It's just…I'm worried I might do or say something wrong and then he won't like me anymore, and h-he won't approve of me being with you, and…I want to be with you, I want it more than anything, and if he tries to come between us, I don't know what I'll do."
To his surprise, Maka laughed.
"Don't worry so much about what he thinks," she said. "He can't stop us from being together. I mean, what's he going to do? Lurk outside our window and make faces at us?"
"A-actually, I can imagine him doing that…"
"Then we'll close the blinds." She smiled. "But I think it'll go fine. Spirit likes you. He's not going to change his opinion on a whim."
Chrona gave her a tiny smile in return, and she kissed the corner of his mouth. He hoped she was right. Nothing would tear Chrona from her side now—he'd fight anyone or anything to be with her—but still, he didn't want to cause her any trouble or stress.
The wind had picked up. A few drops of cold rain struck Chrona's face.
"We should probably head back soon," Maka said.
He nodded, but neither one of them moved. Despite the chill in the air and the gray clouds gathering overhead—the promise of a rare desert rain—he found he was perfectly content just sitting here with her on the grass.
As he gazed at the pond, however, his mind drifted. Dark memories tugged at the edges of his consciousness, and a shiver ran through him.
Since the incident last week, he remembered certain things he'd once forgotten. Maybe that was good. Repressing the past wasn't healthy, was it? Still…some things were easier to forget. "You saw it, didn't you? That memory."
Her smile faded. "Yes."
He started to tremble.
Until now, he and Maka hadn't really talked about that at all. So much had happened. They'd both been overwhelmed, and Maka—he sensed—had not wanted to breach the topic before he did.
"Does it seem strange to you?" he whispered. "That after everything I went through, that was the one thing I couldn't deal with?"
"It doesn't seem strange," she said quietly. "Seeing something like that would have terrified any child."
"It w-wasn't just…what I saw. Wh-what happened after…"
Maka's hand tightened on his, but she didn't reply; just waited for him to continue.
Chrona stared into space. "The killing, the starvation…all those days I spent locked in that little dark room…that was all horrible, but at least I understood it. I knew what she expected from me, and I knew what would happen if I disobeyed. But that night…" He trailed off. His breathing had grown ragged and unsteady. "After that, I didn't understand anything anymore."
Maka was silent, but he felt her gaze on him.
"Why did she have to hold me so gently?" he whispered. "If she'd been cruel, I could have dealt with it. I was used to that." He swallowed, his throat tight. "She'd never held me before, except as a reward when I killed something. But that night…it was different. A-and the next morning…" He closed his eyes. "I woke up in my own bed. I was naked and confused, and my head hurt from that stuff she made me drink. When I went into the kitchen, she was there. She was cold and distant, like usual. As if it hadn't happened. But I knew it hadn't been a dream, because my head was still hurting, and I j-just…I couldn't deal with it. I couldn't fit it in with everything else. So I just tried to push it away."
Maka gave his hand another squeeze.
He bowed his head. "But…even if I made myself forget, it was still there in my head, somewhere. It took me a long time to really understand what I'd seen, and I wonder now—" He drew in a wobbly breath. He couldn't stop shaking. "I wonder if that's why I was so scared of sex. I mean, there were other reasons, b-but…" His voice dropped to a whisper. "Maybe deep down, I was afraid that when the moment came, I would see those snakes in my head. I would see them doing things to her. I didn't want to think about that when I was with you."
Maka's breath hissed between her teeth. Her grip on his hand grew painfully tight. For a moment he wondered if he'd made a mistake, if he shouldn't have said anything. The familiar iron bands of panic squeezed his chest. He waited, heart knocking against his ribs.
"I'm sorry," Maka said.
He looked at her in surprise. "Why?"
She stared out at the pond, her breath fogging the air. "I should have been more careful," she said. "I shouldn't have pushed you so much. If I'd known…"
"There's no way you could have known."
"I should have. The way you would tense up…the way you'd freeze sometimes when I kissed you, I should have known there was something…"
"You didn't do anything wrong," he said.
She looked at him, green eyes shadowed with pain, and he knew she didn't believe him.
"Don't be sad, Maka." He stroked her cheek. "Please, please don't be sad. I'm alive and sane now because of you. And I—I don't want you to have to be careful with me all the time. I don't want you to always be afraid of hurting me. I'm okay now. I really am. I can deal with it."
His palm still rested against her cheek. She lay a hand over his and closed her eyes. He smoothed a few strands of hair away from her face with his other hand.
She leaned her head against his shoulder and hugged his arm. "I know the world isn't fair," she said. "It's never been. But still…" She hugged his arm a little tighter. "It seems wrong, that so many bad things happened to such a good person."
It took him a moment to find his voice. "I—I'm not—"
She touched his lips, gently silencing him. When she looked up again, she was smiling, though her eyes still held a trace of sadness. "I won't hear any argument. Not about that."
"Sorry," he murmured, his lips moving against her gloved fingertips. "I'm trying to stop that. Really."
"Don't worry. We have plenty of time to work on it."
Thunder rumbled faintly overhead. The wind whistled through the trees.
She looked up at the gathering clouds. "We're going to get soaked if we stay here."
Chrona nodded. He wondered if they should stop at the store on the way home. They didn't have much food at the apartment, just cereal and ramen. "What do you want for dinner?"
"I feel like potato soup tonight," she said. "How about you?"
"I've never made it before, but I'll try."
"We'll make it together," she said.
"You know how?"
"Not really. But we can learn as we go."
The shadow of a smile flickered across his face. "Okay."
She stood and offered a hand to him. He took it.
They walked out of the park and through the streets of Death City, still holding hands.
The gray sky opened and rain poured down, as if the clouds had burst. Rain slicked down their hair and plastered their clothes to their bodies.
Maka looked at him and grinned, strands of wet hair draped across her face. "I guess we're going to get soaked anyway."
They kept walking. Rain ran in rivulets under the collar of his robe and struck his face like a thousand tiny, cold kisses.
It had been a long time since he'd walked in the rain. He imagined the cool water washing away the past, washing away the scars, the pain, making him new and clean.
He knew it didn't work that way. The scars were a part of him; he couldn't disown them anymore than he could change the color of his eyes.
Still, the rain felt good.
Chrona turned to see Marie-sensei standing in the street, holding an umbrella. She was waving to them. "Come over here! You're getting drenched!"
Maka let out a breathless laugh, and they ran over to Marie. The three walked in a tight huddle down the street, Marie doing her best to shelter all of them with her umbrella.
"What are you two doing out on an afternoon like this?" she asked.
"We didn't mean to stay out quite so late," Maka said. "We lost track of time. What about you?"
"Oh, I was walking home from the school and I…got a little turned around." She let out a small, embarrassed laugh. "Could you tell me…"
"Dr. Stein's house is that way." Maka pointed.
"Thank you." Her golden eye focused on Chrona. "How have you been feeling?"
Aside from Maka and Ragnarok, no one knew the details of what had happened inside Chrona's soul; just that Medusa had tried to possess him, failed, and died. But over the past week, everyone had been treating him more gently than usual, asking if he was okay.
Now, Marie was looking at him with obvious concern. "When I heard about what had happened, I was so worried for you," she said quietly.
A slight flush rose into his cheeks. Even now, the kindness of all his friends and teachers never failed to astonish him. "Th-thank you. But I'm okay. Really."
She stopped, her gaze searching his face. "You know, if you wanted to request a break from missions and give yourself some time to recover, I'm sure the higher-ups would understand."
Chrona shook his head. "Meisters and Weapons have an important job. I don't want to take time off unless I really need to, not when there are people in the world who need saving."
She tilted her head. "You know, Chrona, you've grown a lot."
He blinked. "I have?"
Ragnarok sprung out of his back and settled atop his hair. "Are you kidding? He's the same scrawny bean-sprout he's always been! Sure, he's taller than me, but he's still just a rack of bones in a dress!"
Maka rolled her eyes. "She means he's grown emotionally, not physically. Anyway, don't be bitter just because you're shorter than Chrona."
"Who's bitter? I don't care! I can still kick his ass!" Ragnarok hooked his tiny hands into the corners of Chrona's mouth and pulled.
"Ahhh, Rah-nah-rah, stah ih!" Chrona whined, his voice muffled.
"Make me!" Cackling, he stretched the corners of Chrona's mouth upward into a distorted grin. "Smile, emo kid! Smile, or I'll put Tabasco sauce up your nose!"
That night, while Chrona and Maka were cutting up carrots for the soup, the phone rang.
Soul was sitting on the couch, playing videogames. Blair was curled up at his side, dozing, tail-tip draped over her nose. "Should I get it?" he called.
"Oh, just ignore it," Maka said. "It's probably Spirit. I told him to stop calling my mirror five times a day, so now he's using the phone. He has a knack for missing the point."
She sighed and looked at Chrona. "I swear, that man drives me nuts. I say 'thank you for being there' and he takes that as an invitation to stalk me. He really needs a new hobby."
The phone kept ringing.
Soul paused the game and grabbed it. "Hello?" he said. A pause. He held the phone up, glanced at Maka, and said, "It's for you."
"Tell him we're busy!"
"It's not Spirit."
Maka blinked. A puzzled look crossed her face. She approached, took the phone, and held it to her ear. "This is Maka," she said.
A moment went by, and her expression remained blank. Slowly, her eyes widened, and the color drained from her face. She stood silent, motionless, mouth open slightly.
Her gaze darted to Soul, then to Chrona. She retreated swiftly into her bedroom and closed the door.
Chrona stood motionless, uncertain, still holding the carrot-chopping knife. He could hear her voice from down the hall, very faintly, but he couldn't make out any of the words. "Is she okay?" he asked at last.
"I think so," Soul said. "She probably just doesn't want us to see her getting emotional. You know how she is." At Chrona's puzzled look, he added, "That was Kami on the line."
It was a bit of a shock, to realize that until that moment, he hadn't actually known her first name. Maka hardly ever talked about her mother, and Chrona was reluctant to bring up a sensitive subject. Still, how could he not have known something like that? The dull burn of guilt spread through his chest.
"She'll probably be awhile," Soul said. "They've got a lot to catch up on."
Chrona nodded, not sure what to say. He set down the knife, turned off the stove, and sat next to Soul on the couch. Blair was still asleep, sides rising and falling evenly with each breath.
Soul picked a second controller up off the floor and offered it to him. "Want to play a few rounds?"
The click of buttons filled the silence as they played. Soul won the first round. Chrona won the next three. Once he relaxed and focused, it wasn't difficult.
"You've got good reflexes," Soul remarked.
"Th-thanks." Chrona glanced at Soul from the corner of his eye.
He'd lived here long enough now that he was comfortable with Soul…at least when Maka was around. When they were alone, it was a different story. He never knew quite what to say.
He tried to focus, but he found himself thinking of the conversation they'd had shortly after Chrona moved in—the words Soul had spoken to him: When the time came to make a choice, she chose to abandon the mission and go after you. You realize what that means, don't you? It means that you were more important to her than the entire world.
He remembered the look on Soul's face when he spoke those words. That sad, complicated, knowing smile.
Chrona had been thinking about that look too often lately. He'd been thinking about a lot of things he shouldn't. Now, his mind wandered, despite his efforts to keep it on the game.
Soul had been close to Maka long before Chrona ever met her. They had a strong bond, both on and off the battlefield; the ultimate Meister and Weapon pair.
It shouldn't bother him. They were just friends, after all, and Soul had always been supportive of Maka's relationship with Chrona. Amazingly supportive, all things considered.
Still, there were moments when Chrona wondered how Soul really felt about all this. Considering all the time Soul and Maka had spent together before Chrona came to Death City, it would only be natural if, at one point, they'd at least thought about…
"I wasn't in love with her," Soul said without taking his gaze from the screen, "if that's what you're wondering."
Chrona gave a start and nearly dropped his controller. "I—th-that is—" His face flushed, and his breathing quickened. By now he was accustomed to Maka's uncanny knack for reading his mind, but when Soul did it, it was a bit…disconcerting. Could everyone just look at him and see his thoughts displayed on his forehead in red neon?
He fidgeted. "Um…"
"Sorry," Soul said. "Guess that kinda came out of nowhere, didn't it?"
They'd both stopped playing. Their characters faced each other on the screen, crouched in fighting positions, bobbing lightly up and down. "Y-you…you and her…you were never…"
"No." He fiddled with the controller. "A lot of people assumed we were. I mean, we're partners, and we're living under the same roof. People are gonna gossip. But even if we had been attracted to each other, I don't think it would've gone very far. Maka and I…we work as friends, even if we argue. But on that other level, we don't really click." His gaze remained fixed on the screen. "In some ways, we're too alike."
Chrona wondered what Soul meant and why he was telling him this now.
"Though, to be honest..." Soul looked at him from the corner of his eye. "I was a little jealous of you at first."
Chrona tensed. The thought of Soul being jealous of him for any reason was strange. Soul always seemed so comfortable in his own skin, so at ease with himself and the world. The total opposite of Chrona. "Wh-why?" His voice emerged a little squeaky.
He shrugged and looked away. "For the longest time, it was just me and her. That was all we needed. And suddenly you were there, and…" He shrugged again. "It was different."
Chrona had started to shake. The controller slipped from his hands, and he clutched his arm, struggling to control his breathing.
He glanced down the hall, at the closed door of Maka's bedroom. He couldn't hear her voice anymore, but she was probably still talking.
This was the first time in a long while he and Soul had been alone. He wondered if Soul had been waiting for a chance to say this to him. "D-do you…" He swallowed, his throat tight. His fingertips pressed into his arm, hard enough to send tiny twinges of pain shooting through his nerves. He was afraid of the answer, but he forced the words out: "D-do you…n-n-not want me here?"
Soul blinked. "No. I mean, that isn't—that's not why I'm saying this," he said quickly. "I just…I dunno. We've been living in the same apartment for a month but we've never really talked, and if I were in your shoes I'd be wondering about this stuff, so I guess I thought I should come clean." He paused. "I was, but I'm not anymore. Jealous of you, that is."
Chrona wanted to believe that. But if it was true, why had Soul brought it up in the first place?
His gaze darted nervously back and forth. This wasn't like confronting Spirit. Soul was Maka's best friend. She actually cared what he thought, and if he didn't want Chrona living here…
Well, Maka wouldn't throw him out, but it would make things very tense.
He lowered his head and hunched his shoulders. He didn't want things to be tense between Maka and Soul because of him. He didn't want to cause any problems in her life. Maybe he should just go back to living by himself in his own apartment. This arrangement was supposed to be temporary anyway, wasn't it? He'd only moved in here because of the kishin egg attack. That had been arranged by Medusa, and she was gone, so it wouldn't happen again.
But he'd gotten used to this. He liked being close to Maka all the time, he liked having breakfast with other people around, he liked not being alone. He'd miss this, if he left. But if he wasn't wanted...
He felt a little sick to his stomach. "Tell me the truth," he whispered. "Please." I will not cry. I will not cry.
Soul sighed. "I'm making a mess of this, aren't I?"
Chrona said nothing.
"Look, what I really wanted to say is—at first I didn't know how to feel about you being here, but I'm fine with it now."
Chrona drew in a quick breath. Slowly, he raised his gaze to Soul's. "Y-you don't have to say that for my sake. I m-mean...I can handle it, if y-you're not..."
"It's the truth."
Chrona's teeth caught at his lower lip. "I'm not…intruding, or anything?"
"No, you're not. Not at all." Soul rubbed the back of his neck. "If anything, I feel like I'm intruding. I mean, you and Maka probably don't have as much privacy as you'd like with me here."
"It isn't like that. This is your home."
"It's your home too." Soul glanced down at Blair, who was still curled up beside him, and lay a hand atop her head. Her ears twitched, but she didn't wake. "Blair and I, we're both glad to have you around. And not just because you make Maka happy. Or because you're a better cook than any of us." He gave a small, awkward smile, looked away, and scratched his cheek with one finger.
Chrona looked at him, uncertain.
Soul rubbed behind Blair's ears with his thumb, his gaze still averted. "There was a time, before I met Maka, when I lived alone. And it felt perfectly natural. I couldn't imagine living any other way. Then we ended up moving in together to save on rent. It was weird at first, having her around all the time, sharing my life with another person…but it made me realize how bored and lonely I'd been in that empty apartment. I got used to it. Soon, I couldn't imagine living any other way."
Chrona was silent, holding his breath.
"Then we met Blair, and she started hanging around. At first it was a pain. It seemed like the apartment was too small for three people, even if one of them was a cat. But now…" He gave a small chuckle. "Can't imagine the place without her. It's a lot livelier with her here, anyway. And it's the same with you. I mean, now that you're here, it feels like you belong here, and if you left, there'd be something missing."
For a moment, Chrona couldn't speak.
Until then, he hadn't realized just how worried he'd been. Deep down, he'd never been sure if Soul was truly okay with him being here, or if he was just putting up with him for Maka's sake, secretly wishing he would leave.
Maybe it really was okay.
It took him awhile to find his voice, but at last, he whispered, "Thank you."
"Just the truth."
Chrona looked up through messy bangs, still clutching his arm.
A memory flashed through his mind; Soul unconscious on the floor of a church, blood soaking through his shirt, his chest sliced open. Chrona flinched, fingers tightening on his arm. I did that. I hurt him.
Blood everywhere. Maka's frightened cries, the way she clung to him, Soul's voice, weak and broken. Run. Run away…
He started to tremble.
"I'm sorry," he whispered.
He bowed his head. "Th-the church. In Italy."
"Oh, that? That's in the past. Don't worry about it."
Chrona blinked back tears. "I c-came so close to killing you. Both of you. And…I know. Th-that the reason you have the black blood now is because of me. And that scar…"
"The black blood's an advantage in battle, as long as I don't let it get out of hand. And I don't mind the scar." He tapped a fist against his chest. "It makes me look tough."
How easily everyone forgave him, Chrona thought. How quick they were to dismiss all the hurt he'd caused. He lowered his head and squeezed his eyes shut.
"Chrona? Hey." Soul nudged his shoulder, and Chrona looked up. Soul smiled, showing sharp teeth. "We're good, okay?" He held out a fist.
Chrona stared at it, confused—then he caught on. Shyly, he bumped his fist against Soul's and gave him a timid, wobbly smile in return.
For a moment, neither of them spoke. The silence was still awkward, but somehow it was a more comfortable awkwardness than before.
Soul picked up the controller. "'Nother round?"
They hadn't been playing long when they heard footsteps coming down the hall. Chrona paused the game and looked up. It was Maka, still holding the phone, her expression a little dazed.
"You okay?" Soul asked.
"Yes," Maka said. Her voice sounded oddly distant. She looked at the cordless phone in her hand, set it back in its cradle, closed her eyes, and rubbed at the corners.
"Maka?" Chrona said.
"All those months," she whispered. "All that time, I never heard from her. I never got anything except postcards. And now…"
Chrona waited, but Maka didn't seem inclined to say anything else. He debated asking, but in the end, he remained silent. This was something private, something between Maka and her mother. If she wanted to tell him, she would.
At last, Maka took a deep breath, opened her eyes, and smiled. It looked a little strained. "Let's make dinner," she said.
The soup turned out well—especially considering it was the first time either of them had made something like this—but Chrona was too concerned to really enjoy it.
He'd expected Maka to be happy about hearing from her mother, but she seemed preoccupied throughout dinner, staring into space and eating mechanically. When Soul asked her to pass the salt, she didn't seem to hear him, and he had to repeat himself.
Maybe she was just overwhelmed, Chrona thought. Maybe she was still processing her emotions.
After they'd eaten, Chrona and Maka retreated to his room. She closed the door, leaned against him, and rested her forehead on his shoulder. Chrona slipped his arms around her waist. For a few minutes, they stood, not moving or speaking. He just held her.
"I told her about you," Maka said quietly.
His heartbeat quickened. "What did you say?"
"That I'd met someone special. Someone I was very in love with."
"And…what did she say?"
"She said that she can't wait to meet you."
He exhaled a small breath of relief. "Do you think she'll like me?"
"Of course she will."
Then what's wrong? Rain ticked softly against the bedroom window. Chrona rested a hand on the small of her back. He could feel the tension in her muscles. "Maka? Are you sure you're okay?"
For a moment, she was silent. She didn't look up. At last she spoke, very softly. "A week ago…right before that whole thing with Medusa…Mama sent me a postcard with a phone number written on it. The number for the hotel she was staying at. I called as soon as I got it, but she'd already checked out. Tonight, I asked her why she hadn't waited for me to call. She said she'd meant to, but…" Maka let out a tiny, choked, humorless laugh. "She lost her courage. So she ran away again." Her breath hitched. "I always thought she was so brave. The bravest person I'd ever known. But she's been running all this time. Ever since she left Death City."
Chrona held her a little tighter.
Maka's face remained hidden against his chest. "I told her that I understood why she'd divorced Spirit. That I'd have done the same thing, in her shoes. It's amazing how long she put up with him, considering what he did. But…I never understood why she had to leave me. Why she couldn't have stayed in Death City, or at least somewhere close enough that I could visit. I asked her. I asked her why."
Another silence followed.
"Wh-what did she say?" Chrona asked at last.
"She said she was afraid," she whispered at last. "She was afraid that if she stayed here, she'd forgive him again." Her fingers tightened on his robe. "She said she needed to get away, to get her head straightened out, and…th-that she knew I would be okay, because I was strong, and because he'd be there…but…" Her hands clenched, fisting in his robe. "I don't want to be strong anymore. I just want her. I want my Mama. She says she'll come home, but when? How much longer am I supposed to wait?"
Chrona didn't know what to say.
Maka's face remained hidden against his chest. She began to cry—very quietly, almost silently, in little hitching gasps and gulps.
He wasn't used to hearing her cry. Maka always hid her pain. He wondered how long she'd been hiding this. His arms tightened around her. He closed his eyes and kissed the top of her head.
"It's s-silly, I know…crying over this now…"
"It's not silly." He rubbed a hand gently up and down her back. "You always tell me it's okay to cry. Remember?"
"I know." Her face was still pressed against his robe, her voice muffled. "I just hate this feeling. I want to believe that she'll come back, but I…" Her voice broke. "I don't know anymore."
He wished he could go and bring her mother back right now. He wished he could at least promise Maka that she would come back. He knew that would be an empty promise, though. He couldn't control what someone else did. But there was one thing he could do, one thing he could promise.
He framed her face between his hands and tilted it upward. "I won't ever leave you." His voice shook, husky with emotion. "I'll always be here. I'll never run away again. I promise."
Maka looked up at him, eyes shiny with tears.
He wiped her tears away with his thumbs. "I'm yours."
She leaned upward until her lips brushed his ear. "Make me believe it," she whispered.
His breath caught.
"Show me…" Her voice was a soft plea. Her fingers slid into his hair and clutched. Green eyes filled his vision. An instant later, her lips were pressed against his in a hard, fierce kiss. Chrona's eyes slipped shut.
She filled his senses. Even after all this time, the scent of her hair and skin still made him weak with longing. He slid his hands down her back to rest on her hips. His lips parted, and his tongue pushed forward to meet hers.
Rain lashed the window as they fell to the bed, fingers tangled in each other's hair, mouths pressed together. She trailed kisses over his jaw and throat. He kissed her cheeks and tasted the salt of tears. An ache spread through his chest. He'd do anything to erase those tears, to make her believe. He'd kiss her a hundred times, a thousand, ten thousand.
"Chrona…" His name escaped her lips as a sigh.
She said his name like it was something beautiful. She whispered it like a prayer. He'd never get used to that.
"I'll never leave you," Chrona murmured into her hair. "Never ever. I'll stay with you, Maka, I promise. I'm yours." He dropped another kiss on her forehead. "I'm yours." He kissed her lips, the bridge of her nose, her chin. "I'm yours." He whispered the words over and over, punctuating each repetition with a kiss.
She gripped his robe in both hands, flushed and panting. He started to slip a hand under her blouse and hesitated, looking into her eyes. She gave a tiny nod. His palm slid over her smooth stomach, up to her chest, to rest against the spot between her breasts.
Unlike her, Chrona didn't have Soul Perception. But they were linked, and he could feel her soul floating inside her. He'd recognize it anywhere. That warmth. He closed his eyes and touched his forehead to hers, and that warmth spread through his body and mind. A sweet shiver ran through him, and a sigh escaped his lips.
Slowly, he raised his head. Half-lidded green eyes gazed up at him, reflecting the dim lamplight. Her cheeks were still streaked with tears. "I don't want to lose you," she said.
"You won't. We're never really apart." Chrona tapped a finger against his chest; the place where his own soul resided. "You're right here."
Holding his gaze, she reached up to touch his cheek. Her fingertips rested against his skin, cool and soft. "Look at me," she said.
He did. Her eyes moved in tiny flickers, searching his, and he kept them wide open. There was nothing he wanted to hide from her.
"Whatever you need," he said. "Whatever I can give. It's yours."
"You," she whispered. Her hands fisted in his robe again. "I need you."
This time, there was no hesitation, no fear.
Later, he cuddled against Maka's side, his cheek against her hair as their sweat cooled. Her skin was smooth and warm against his.
Outside the window, wind howled, and rain pattered against the glass. Chrona closed his eyes. He floated, his mind wrapped in fuzzy bliss. A pleasant exhaustion tingled in his numb limbs, and weakness suffused his body, but at the same time, he felt like he could fly.
His mind was clear and still. Her touch reached where words couldn't, cooling the fevered burn of his ever-present doubts and fears. The fleeting high brought on from physical pain was just a pale shadow of this feeling, he thought; this was so much cleaner, more intense, more penetrating—and with this, there was no bitter aftertaste of shame, just warmth and peace.
He wondered if it was like that for her, or if it was different; if he gave her something else entirely, something he couldn't understand.
She ran her fingers through his hair. Her other hand rested on his chest, close to his beating heart.
She looked at him drowsily in the soft lamplight and smiled. "I believe you," she murmured.
"I believe you'll stay."
"Of course. I'll stay with you always." He ran his palm along the curve of her side, the dip of her waist. His hand lingered over the scar there, the one he'd given her during their second battle. His thumb ran gently over it, back and forth.
She tucked her chin into the nook between his shoulder and neck. Her fingertips wandered down his spine, tracing the little bumps of his vertebrae. "I'm glad I met you, Chrona."
"I'm glad I met you." Her heart beat against his, gentle and steady, a rhythm he could happily follow for the rest of his life. "Every day. Every moment." He closed his eyes. "I'm so glad."
Chrona sits on the beach, his arms folded atop his knees. Waves wash over the shore, surging and ebbing; the ocean's heartbeat. His shadow stretches out before him. "Are you happy?" it asks.
Chrona hesitates. He wants to say yes. But it's a little more complicated than that.
Right now, he is happy, but he knows there are thorny paths ahead. He knows there will still be days when he can't deal with anything, when he'll huddle in the corner and tremble as if the walls are falling down around him. There will be nights when he can't sleep because the memories loom too close. There will be moments when he hates himself. Wounds of the soul don't heal so easily.
But as the months and years go by, those dark moments will become fewer. Little by little, the knots inside him will begin to unwind. He hopes—no, he knows—that the joy will outweigh the pain.
"Let me ask that another way," the shadow says. "Is it worth it?"
"Yes," he replies at once.
"You want to live, don't you? You never did, before you came here—not really. You were just afraid of dying. You wanted to escape the fear. That was as far as it ever went. But now you want more. You want to feel the sun on your face. You want the taste of ice cream and the coolness of sheets against your skin. You want the sound of her voice."
"She said she wants a lifetime with you," the shadow says. "Can you give that to her?"
"Yes," Chrona replies.
There is no question about it. He will wake up each morning and have breakfast with Maka. He will fight by her side. They will make love, they will comfort each other after bad dreams, they will drift off to sleep in each other's arms.
"Are you still afraid?" the shadow asks.
"Of course I am. But I won't let that stand in my way."
The shadow gives a small nod. "Then you're ready."
"Tomorrow. And the day after, and the day after." A pause. "You probably don't need me anymore."
"Don't be silly. I'll always need you. You're part of me, after all."
A tiny smile curves the shadow's mouth. "You're really a nice person," it says. "You know that?"
Chrona stared at the ceiling.
Maka had already drifted off to sleep. Her breathing mingled with the sigh of wind outside their little apartment. The rain had died down to a gentle patter.
Ragnarok emerged from his chest and peered at him. "Hey," he whispered. "I've been thinking. You know how I'm human when we're in that beach place?"
"You think I could ever like...take someone on a date there?"
He blinked. "In my soul?"
A pause. "Yeah, I guess that would be weird, wouldn't it? It's just, with you and Maka boinking like rabbits, it's got me thinking about stuff and...I don't need to look human all the time, you know? But it'd be nice if I could have legs just once in awhile. And a dick."
"M-maybe we could figure something out. I could talk to Dr. Stein." He didn't know if it was possible. But it didn't seem fair for Ragnarok not to have a body of his own. "Ragnarok?"
"Huh? For what?"
"I used to think that you didn't understand feelings. But I think I was wrong. I think I understand you better now. We just, um...communicate differently. I think."
For a moment, Ragnarok just stared at him. "You know, for a dude, you're such a chick." He vanished into Chrona's chest.
A tiny smile flickered across his face. He closed his eyes and listened to Maka's breathing.
His life stretched out before him like an open road. A life in Death City. A life with her.
There had been a time when he could only think about surviving the moment in front of him, because the idea of spending years or decades in his own skin was too frightening. He didn't feel that way anymore.
There was still a little flicker of anxiety when he thought about the hardships ahead—and there would be hardships, no doubt. But it helped, knowing that Maka would be with him. And not just Maka, but Ragnarok and Soul and Dr. Stein and Marie and all his friends. At times, he could feel their love like a tangible presence, wrapped around him and supporting him. It was warm.
A part of him still ached at the thought that Medusa had never felt that warmth.
Or had she?
He found himself thinking back to her last moments. Her final word.
He still hadn't told Maka about that. He wondered why. Maka had walked through his mind and seen the deepest recesses of his soul, yet somehow, he hesitated to reveal this simple thing.
If she asked him, of course, he would tell her. He could deny her nothing. But whatever she said about it, however she reacted, it would influence and change his own perceptions. Maybe it was better to let it be...even if it confused him.
Perhaps it had been Medusa's last act of possessiveness—to give him a parting order, one he desperately wanted to follow, so he would in some sense always be in her thrall.
Or perhaps she'd just wanted to ensure that some part of her would go on existing; that even if she disappeared, her child would remain, a legacy of magic and madness.
Or perhaps, in her last moments, she'd found the capacity to feel something for Chrona. Perhaps as his soul swallowed hers—as she'd faded into him, losing the boundaries of her own identity—she'd experienced the warmth that had eluded her all her life.
Somehow, that possibility hurt the most.
Medusa…Mother...if there's anything left of you, please tell me.
But of course, there was only silence within. Medusa was dead—and this time, she wouldn't return. All he had left was the memory of her dying moment.
One last command. A single word, a single syllable.