(Companion to Silent Fortress)

Soul finally figured it out on the day that they'd tried and failed to collect their thirtieth kishin-egg.

It had been a nasty little creature: long and slender and faster than lightening, with distressingly sharp claws. They'd tracked it to Southern California, where it had been lurking near the ocean and attacking tourists, surfers, and swimmers on a fairly regular basis. They'd caught up to it on a tall bluff covered in pine trees, overlooking the water. It was a popular hiking spot, well known for the beautiful view at the top, which was why they'd found themselves surrounded by a small crowd of terrified people when the kishin-egg revealed itself unexpectedly, in broad daylight.

Hindered by the proximity of so many innocent bystanders, Maka had tried desperately to maneuver the creature away from the edge of the bluff and down along one of the trails onto the open stretch of sand below, where she'd have more freedom to fight. But the frightened people had continually gotten in the way, wanting to help but not understanding what was happening, preventing her from drawing the creature away from them. And naturally, the creature had used the distraction to its full advantage, attacking viciously from every side of the group until the people had been forced into a tight knot around her, which kept her from swinging Soul.

Finally, with a brutal shove, Maka had managed to break loose from the herd. She'd launched herself off a tree and landed a nasty, bone-jarring blow on the creature's neck, wounding it. But not without being hurtled violently through the branches of several trees and over the edge of the cliff, with some hundreds of feet to fall into the sand below.

Soul had seen the ground rushing to meet them and made his choice.

"And it hurt a lot more than I thought it would," he managed to think semi -coherently, as he lay in the debris of broken branches and pine needles over damp sand, with his arms still locked around Maka.

But he didn't regret it. If he hadn't used his own body to cushion her fall, Maka might have been killed, especially given the height from which they'd fallen, and the odd angle that she'd been falling in, with her head lolling back like it had been. Besides, he'd willingly give up his life for her sake, without hesitation. Who knew he had such a loyal streak?

There was a terrifying moment when Maka stirred against him and murmured a weak threat directed at the escaping kishin-egg, and then went limp as a ragdoll. But even as her hand had flopped lifelessly down onto the sand on which they lay, Soul had felt her breath on his neck and managed to calm his frantically beating heart.

Still alive…still breathing meant she was still alive, and that was all that mattered. They were injured, yes, but not dead. Down, but not out. Maka was still alive. And the adrenaline rush from that thought alone made Soul forget all about both his own injuries and hers for several giddy moments.

Then the sharp pains in his back made themselves known, and he managed to sit up awkwardly with his still-unconscious technician clutched tightly to his chest. From what seemed like a million miles away, he could hear the shouts and cries of the people at the top of the bluff, who were peering over the edge to see where they'd fallen and would hopefully be calling for help. Maka would need to be checked out, as she probably had a concussion. Soul peered anxiously into her face, and raised one hand to brush some of her hair out of the way.

And it hit him like a bullet in the back—just like that, he'd just reached out and touched her so casually, without even thinking about it. Without worrying about losing control. Like it was nothing. Just when had that changed? He'd been so careful at first, so wary of touching anyone, especially her…

So of course Maka had known about it all along. In typical Maka-fashion, she'd dug her stubborn feet in until she'd gotten her way. She'd somehow managed to gradually do away with an aversion he'd never even told her he had. How had she known? And how had he missed the fact that she'd known?

Looking back, Soul realized that he'd given himself away almost the day he met her.

"So, what do you say, Soul? Will you be my partner?" the girl asked, with a bright genuine smile.

She was actually serious. She really wanted him, out of all the weapons in this huge ballroom, to be her partner. Her big green eyes sparkled, and her cheeks were flushed pink in excitement. She reminded Soul of a little kid who'd just been handed a gift. And most importantly, she'd listened to him play, and she was still here, and still smiling like that.

How could he resist?

"Yeah, all right," he said as nonchalantly as possible. His heart was beating fast, though, and his palms were sweaty. She smiled even more brightly, if that was possible, and stuck out her hand. He hadn't wanted to touch her; half afraid of himself, and what he was capable of and half afraid of simply scaring off yet another person who was interested in taking him on. But it was clear that she expected him to shake on it, to seal the deal. So Soul just stared at her for a second, surreptitiously rubbing his sweaty palm against his pant leg. Finally, he took her fragile hand as gently as possible in his, and shook.

Soul had known from the beginning that Shibusen was different, and that the other students were people just like him. He knew that the whole point of this place was to become stronger, to hone those latent abilities in order to become an efficient weapon in Lord Death's armory. To learn to control and use those abilities to their full potential, and to wield them with a purpose.

But it took him some time to wrap his head around the full meaning of all of that jargon, and at first all he'd been able to think about was fear of what lurked beneath his own skin—the cold, sharp steel within him.

Maka was so open and accepting and cheerfully friendly, Soul couldn't help but begin to like her right from the jump. She was a determined little thing, and he admired her courage and ambition. True, she was a little bookish, and he had already noticed a tendency to nag. But she'd given him a purpose, a goal to work towards. For the first time in his life, Soul felt like he belonged.

"Great, now that THAT's all settled; how about I show you around the city, Soul?" she chirped, after they'd hung the last of Soul's posters in his new room. She practically skipped out the door ahead of him, beyond excited to be able to show him her hometown.

"So…you've lived here all your life?" he asked. She'd been pointing out the local record store, which was tucked between a popular café and a tiny movie theater, just a few blocks from their little apartment. She looked back over her shoulder at him.

"Yep! I didn't have much to do when Mama and Papa were gone on assignments for Lord Death, so I did a lot of exploring growing up," she explained. "Oh, and Papa used to take me with him sometimes when meeting up with Lord Death, so I know the academy inside and out too. Would you like to see it now? Oh!" She clapped her hands together in delight, looking up at the sky. "It'll be getting dark soon, and you just have to see the view from the top of the academy steps. Come on!"

Maka reached out as though to grab his hand to pull him along with her. Soul immediately tucked his hands in his pockets. It wasn't even a conscious thought, really, more like a defense mechanism. But he saw her face fall and suddenly felt like a jerk. Clearing his throat and trying to act as though nothing had happened, he thought back to something she'd been saying earlier.

"So, you said earlier that Lord Death isn't as careless and carefree as he pretends to be…How'd you know that, anyway? Have you ever seen him being really serious?" She shook her head, thoughtfully.

"No, but Papa has. He said Shinigami-sama is actually really scary when he's pissed off," she sounded a bit distracted, as though her mind was elsewhere.

They climbed the stairs to the academy in silence. Panting, Soul vowed to get himself in better shape. Maka hadn't even broken a sweat, and he'd been barely able to keep up with her. At the top of the stairs, she found her good humor again.

"Okay, turn around, Soul!" she said excitedly. Soul obeyed.

"Wow…" he breathed.

The city was spread out before them. In the fading light, the buildings were blue and purple shadows against the soft yellow of the surrounding desert sands. And, because it was growing dark, lights were suddenly shimmering on all across the city, all around them.

In moments, the city lights twinkled like a blanket of colored stars at their feet. And in the half-light, Maka had beamed so brightly at him that he couldn't help offering a twisted little half smile in return. Being there, with this strange girl…it was kinda nice. As he thought this, Soul felt a strange tug in his chest. Was it really okay for him to be here, to let his guard down?

The first time she got hurt, he'd blamed himself. He'd nearly run away from Shibusen right then and there. The only thing that stopped him was the knowledge that he had nowhere else to go.

When he finally trudged back to the practice room where he'd left her, clutching a bandage for her leg, Soul was shocked to find Maka back on her feet, with a wooden staff in her hands and a stubborn expression on her face. Ignoring the sluggishly bleeding gash on her leg, she was resolutely practicing the move she'd just messed up on, the one that had caused her to get hurt in the first place.

Her face lit up when she saw him standing in the doorway.

"Oh good, you're back! Look, I think I've got it now. Watch me, Soul!" she cried eagerly. And she made him sit and watch her run through it again. Beaming, she turned to him as she finished.

"Great," he managed to choke out. She reached out for him.

"Let's try again together, ok?"

And just like that, his doubt and fear had vanished like smoke in the face of her bright and cheerful determination.

She'd have known about it already by then, Soul realized now. He should've caught on that she knew…it was right after that incident that she'd started asking questions in class that could have no practical application unless you were a weapon.

But then Maka was such a little bookworm, so he'd chalked it up to sheer curiosity even as he listened intently to the answers. That's also when she'd started touching him more, tapping his shoulder and such. Bumping his hand with hers when they were walking together, and ignoring it when he flinched and pulled away.

But when had he stopped pulling away in fear? When had he gotten accustomed to her casual touches? When had he gone from flinching to grudging acceptance, and from acceptance to expectation? When had he started allowing her to grab his hand to drag him somewhere, and started to do the same to her in return? When had he started to shift over and make room for her beside him on the couch? Or to slump heavily against her when she accepted the unspoken invitation?

And how was it that now, with his half-conscious technician warm on his back, literally breathing down his neck, Soul felt more comfortable in his own skin than he ever had before? A wave of affection rolled over him. He'd have to find some way to let her know how much he appreciated everything she'd done to help him.

That would be the cool thing to do, after all.

A.N. For SoulxMaka99 and scorpioneldar, who very sweetly asked for more. I may possibly add more one-shots to this collection if the muse strikes, but it might take me another year to make good on that threat ;)

Thanks for reading!

xoxo Janieshi