Chapter 17- You've got the world but baby at what price

Tsubaki lends Maka the keys to her Honda with barely concealed reluctance.

"I need this back by tonight, don't forget."

Maka rolls her eyes a little. "I'm not going to forget, worry-wart. I know when you need to be at work, I promise."

"Don't explode it."

"Tsubaki! That was one time and it wasn't my fault!" she hisses, darting a glance at Soul. "And you promised you wouldn't bring that up again."

"Tell that to the ice cream truck."

Maka scowls at her best friend and dangles the keys just out of her reach. "See if I give these back now!"

"Whatever, loser. Don't forget I know where you sleep."

"Yeah, yeah. You ready, Soul?" He slips into the passenger seat while Tsubaki mouths "Later," at him and Maka glares some more. "Don't think I didn't see that! You are not telling him that story. I told you that in confidence."

"Mmhm. Have fun, don't wreck my car."

"I won't. Goodbye." She starts the engine and risks a glance at her partner. "What?"

"Nothing," he says. His lips twist a little as he tries to bite back a laugh. Maka narrows her eyes and he snickers.

"UGH." She rolls her eyes and hits the gas, and Soul shuts up. The silence is mostly comfortable as they drive, if she doesn't take into account that Soul has one hand perpetually wrapped around the oh-shit handle and is looking a little paler than normal. If she maybe slings the hatchback into a parallel parking space a little faster than normal when they get to the coroner's office, well, Maka's always enjoyed parking.

Soul's a little shaky when he climbs out of the car, and she feels a little guilty about it, but probably not as much as she should. At the least, it means she's not trying to field questions about the Ice Cream Truck Incident. She can't help but keep a watchful eye on him as they approach the old brick building. If he's shaken up by her driving, he at least shrugs it off quickly. The remaining stiffness in his gait she attributes to the fact that he's been cooped up in his apartment for the last week.

The building that houses Stein's office looks like a hundred other inconspicuous government buildings-offices that have been moved into re-purposed areas-shifted due to space and budget concerns and people that no one else wanted to deal with on a daily basis. Stein pretty much fits all of those criteria, if what Soul's been led to believe holds any truth.

Soul tugs down the knit cap Maka had insisted he use to cover his hair, and shoves his hands in his jean pockets as she leads them deeper into the bowels of the building.

It's quiet inside, which Soul finds to be both creepy as hell and pretty fucking indicative of how his life's going at the moment. As far as he can tell, there's barely anyone in the building and it doesn't get more populated the further down they go.

"So, there is someone down here, right?" he asks, trailing behind Maka and eyeballing the dingy white-washed walls.

"Yes," she says, and Soul can practically hear her rolling her eyes.

"You're sure? You're not just leading me down here to dump my body?" She shoots him a look over her shoulder, and he grins at her. "You are, aren't you? You just don't want to have to tell me about the ice cream truck incident-I see how it is."

"I just might if you keep being obnoxious."

Soul smiled, "Hey now, I can't help how I'm made."

"I"m going to tell Stein he can keep you if you keep this up."

"Baby don't be that way," he jogs a half step to catch up with her and almost misses the way her spine tenses.

"I really ought to let Stein keep you," she says, but it sounds different this time. Before he can say anything to that, she's opening the lab door. She pauses, giving him a little smile. "Be good, and I might let you ride back in the car with me."

He swallows. "In the front seat, even?"

"Don't push it, Agent Tubs."

Soul doesn't know what he's expecting from Stein. He had heard a few rumors around the Vegas field office-he was the kind of coroner that you got lucky to have assisting on your case. There wasn't anyone in at least the four corners area that was half as thorough or experienced as Dr. Frank Stein. Unfortunately, there also wasn't anyone else that was as much of a pain in the ass to work with. Soul was beginning to revise that opinion given his recent experiences with one Officer Albarn, but the point remained. Too often he was just deemed too much for whichever sucker had to work with him, and most of the time, the FBI just didn't want to bother.

"Hey Frank," he hears Maka call out. Soul closes the door behind him softly.

"Maka. Is this our little patient, then?"

Soul blinks because his field of vision is suddenly full of lab coat and glasses and his nose is assaulted by something that smells like formaldehyde and….myrrh? What the fuck?

Stein isn't that much taller than him, but he looms with a practiced sort of ease, and Soul steps back automatically. "Wha-"

"Frank, this is my partner Soul. Soul, Dr. Frank Stein." Soul doesn't look at Maka; it seems like a poor idea to take his eyes off the good doctor lest he end up missing a kidney suddenly, but he can hear the amusement in her voice.

"Ah, hi," he stutters, and Stein continues his overly interested perusal. "Maka-"

She rescues him with a firm grip on the back of Stein's labcoat. "Alright, Frank, you can dial down the 'creepy doctor' routine. We just want to get Soul checked out; make sure that everything is healing properly."

Stein adjusts his glasses, and gestures behind him with a little grin. "Of course. How rude of me, Soul. Please, have a seat and we'll get started." Soul eyeballs the autopsy table and wonders if it's too late to just leave when Maka gives him a look; he perches gingerly on the edge of the table. Stein's smile widens as he snaps on a pair of gloves. "Excellent, thank you." Soul suspects that Stein's "creepy doctor routine" is less a front and more a lifestyle.

She watches as he unbuttons the flannel he's taken to wearing-it's a lot easier than pulling t-shirts on and off, and Stein makes an interesting noise in the back of his throat. Soul catches her eye for half a second, and she looks away, turning her concentration to the wall tiles. Her face feels red and that is too stupid for her to deal with at the moment.

"Hm," Stein mumbles.

"What does that mean?" Soul snaps.

"Nothing, just 'hm'."


"Don't flinch, it'll just hurt more."

"You're actually crazy, aren't you?"

"Certainly not," Stein says mildly. "And that's very rude. Maka, I had no idea you were hanging around such a rude boy."

That's enough to get her to turn around again, and she knows beyond a doubt that her face is red now. "I am not 'hanging around' him, Frank. He's my partner. For work."

"Hm. You know these FBI types, though-" and oh, Maka sees where this is going.

"I do, and it's work, Stein. Don't head down this road," she hisses.

"I was just commenting."

"I know exactly what you were 'just.' I will call Marie," she threatens, and Stein sighs dramatically and finishes prodding at Soul's chest wound.

"Hmpf. Well, it looks like you're healing well enough," he says to Soul, and Maka takes that as a sign that she's won that particular battle. "Raise your arms for me. Sides first." Soul does, and winces a little as the skin pulls. "All the way up." It pulls a little more, and he hisses through his teeth. "Alright, you're done," he turns and mutters under his breath, popping out of the autopsy room for a moment.

Soul glances over at Maka and she purses her lips. He doesn't ask what he wants to, just says, "Is he always like this?"

She shrugs. "More or less. He's a good doctor, though."

"Of dead people," Soul mutters.

"That isn't how that works."

"I'm sitting on a dead person table, Maka."

"Think of it as free healthcare. He's got the same degree as your general practitioner." Soul skates his glance away and Maka narrows her eyes. "You do have a general practitioner, don't you?"

"I really don't like doctors."

She stares at him long enough that he fidgets uncomfortably on the cold metal table. His balls are going to go numb if he has to sit here much longer. "So you'll go to a veterinarian for health care willingly, but you're going to bitch about a coroner looking at your chest?"

"I know Nygus, though."

"Nygus is not a qualified physician," she counters.

"She sews up pets."

"Stein sews up people all the time!"

"Yeah, dead people!"

Maka actually throws her hands up at that. "You are impossible, you know that?"

"You didn't have a problem with me going to Nygus before!"

"That's because I didn't have a choice and I thought you were going to die!" she shouts.

The door slams open cheerfully, and Stein walks in, carrying a small glass jar and some paperwork. "You know, I thought I still had some of this, but it was the damnedest thing-couldn't find it anywhere." He pauses and looks between them. "Am I interrupting something?"

She carefully relaxes her fists. "No," she replies. "What did you find?"

"A salve," he says, handing it to her and looking completely unconvinced. "Everything looks like it's healing just fine, Soul. Maka said that you were getting good antibiotics-I don't need to know from where. A lot of your discomfort is coming from the skin healing and pulling too tight. Apply this twice a day, and carefully stretch the area, and you should be fine. You could probably even go back to work."

Soul looks on skeptically. "And you just happened to have that lying around?"

"Oh, I have all kinds of things just lying around," he says with an enigmatic smile. Maka rolls her eyes.

"Heads up," she calls, and Soul catches the jar. "May as well slap some on now."

Soul unscrews the lid, "Yeah that way when I croak, we don't have far to go for the autopsy."



"Oh, he's clever for FBI," Stein smiles. "That's a nice change." Soul opens his mouth, but Maka turns her glare on him, and he shuts it again, scowling.

"Are you both done?" she snaps.

Soul rolls a shoulder noncommittally and concentrates really hard on rubbing the pungent salve into his skin. Stein adjusts his glasses.

"Actually, no. While I was in my office, digging around for questionably legal medical salve, I pulled the last file I received from Ox for you." Soul stops rubbing at his chest and glances between the jar and Stein, horrified. Maka stares, intent on Stein.

"Did he finally get the results back?" she asks, trying to tamp down her excitement.

"He said yesterday that he was almost done with the blood work. There's something particularly strange about Chrona's blood-he's had to try multiple tests, but he hasn't quite isolated what it is. He has, however, managed to identify our John Doe."

Maka's heart clenches a little, and Soul stops buttoning his shirt to meet her eyes. "W-who was it?"

Stein flips open the folder he'd been carrying and reads, "One Hiro Yuy, aged 21, height 5'9". He's been in the system since he was about 15 for the usual-petty theft, squatting, drugs."

Soul sighs and slips off the table. "Just another lost youth, then?" Maka glances at him sharply, but she knows that expression on his face; she's seen on too many of her coworkers over the years. Stein closes the file with a slap on the table and slides it towards Maka.

"Same shit, different day. Hiro just gets a little closure because he got lucky enough to take the hit for a cop. I need a smoke." Maka takes the file and resists the urge to join him. "Come on, I'll walk you both out. Government won't let me light up in here anymore, can you believe it?"

"Rude," Soul replies, voice droll. Maka's lips quirk slightly and she tries to ignore the weight of the folder in her hand.

"Very rude," Stein agrees, leading them back through his office. "But they gave me this little bench on the side of the building in recompense." Stein snatches a half-opened box of cigarettes off of the top of a stack of folders. He doesn't seem to notice when the stack starts to topple, and skids into the stack next to it. Soul winces, Maka doesn't even seem to notice it. "I suppose," Stein continues, "that that's the least they can do. Stick me in the basement, say I can't even smoke down here-" he opens his office door.

"Oh please." There's a petite brunette on the other side of the door, scowling slightly. "You love being in the basement-you're not fooling anyone for a second."

"Ah, Jacqueline, so good of you to grace my little dungeon." Stein smiles, somewhere between genuine pleasure and annoyed.

"Bullshit. What have I told you about transferring your phone to my line? I am not your fucking secretary."

"I was away from my desk," he's still smiling.

"That's why you have voice mail."

"Do I? I can never remember."

The woman makes an inarticulate sound of rage, and Maka's familiar with that particular brand of Frank Stein irritation. She shoves her elbow into Stein's ribs. He doesn't even flinch, the bastard, but he does introduce them.

"Jacqueline, have you met my colleague Maka Albarn before? I can't recall."

"You can't recall a lot of things, you senile old goat," it's only half snarled, and Maka figures that's an improvement-probably as good as they're going to get. Jacqueline turns to Maka and smiles. It's a little bland, but friendly enough, and she holds out her hand. "It's nice to meet you, Ms. Albarn. I'm sorry that it's under these circumstances-"

Maka takes her hand and shakes it. "It's fine. I understand how much a trial Frank can be."

Jacqueline narrows her eyes again. "Yes, he is, isn't he." Stein's smile is gleefully plastic.

"And this is my-" Maka stutters for a second because Stein didn't introduce her as a cop, and-fuck "-Soul." She is never going to hear the end of this.

Jacqueline blinks, "Ooohkay. Look, Stein, this is the last time that I'm going to take a goddamn message for you. I have my own work to do, and it doesn't involve answering your fucking calls." She turns back to Maka. "It was a pleasure," then does an about-face and starts to stalk back up the hallway.

"Well, what was my message?" Stein calls after her.

"Call Ox Ford back, you jackass!" And with that, she's gone, and Stein's smoke break is forgotten.

"I swear to god, you just like doing that for fun, don't you?" Maka asks as Steins shuts his office door.

"I don't know what you're talking about, Maka." Stein plants himself at his desk and plunks an ancient cordless into the one square foot of clear space on his desk.

"You know exactly what I'm talking about, you troll." Stein gives her a faint smile. Surrounded by stacks of files and books, he looks for the right phone number, and Maka tries to push back the nervous anticipation in her chest.

"I have a call to make. You can wait in here if you like, or outside. Your choice." She and Soul shoot him identical looks of disbelief, and Stein just shrugs. "Suit yourself."

Maka shifts a little as he dials. She doesn't want to get her hopes up-Ox could have results, or it could be another round of "It's something, but we can't figure out what," or hell maybe he just wants to have lunch with Frank. There's no way to know. It may be that, even after all of this, there's not actually anything that they're going to be able to use against Medusa and Maka doesn't know if she can deal with that reality.

There's a warm pressure just along the base of her spine, calming her, steadying her, and she relaxes into Soul's hand before she can stop herself. He's not looking at her-his eyes are still focused on Stein, and somehow that makes it all a little more bearable.

Seconds seem like hours before Stein's flat greeting rings out. "Ox? Stein. Mm, yeah. No, Jacquie's like that all the time. You had something for me?" He straightens in his chair a little. "No, that's…yeah. That's good. Can you bring it over? The fax machine here is dicey, you know how I feel about that thing." He spins a little in his chair. "Yeah, as soon as you can would be great. Mk, later."

He hangs up with a firm button press and spins back towards them, grinning widely.

Stein does manage to snag his cigarette break while they wait for Ox to make his way over with whatever results he has. Despite her wheedling, Stein is remarkably tight-lipped about whatever he'd been told over the phone, and Maka is strongly considering punching him just to get him to stop smirking whenever he looks at her and Soul.

She's trying to use their waiting time for something productive, holing up on a couple of fold out chairs in Stein's office and pouring over Hiro's medical and criminal records for anything that might give them some kind of clue as to why he was killed instead of Chrona. She definitely doesn't appreciate whatever Stein's knowing looks are trying to insinuate.

"This doesn't make any sense," Soul says, reading over her shoulder.

"Sometimes people are just in the wrong place at the wrong time," Stein offers, gnawing on the end of a ratty Bic.

"Sometimes, but it just doesn't feel right," Maka argues and god that sounds stupid. They need more than a feeling, more than just some vague hunch. Soul pats her shoulder. "Medusa doesn't do anything without a reason," she continues. "It's gotta be in here somewhere."

"We'll find it," Soul murmurs, too low for anyone but her to hear. It's more reassuring than it should be.

There's a knock on Stein's door, and Soul's hand tenses on her shoulder. Stein's voice is deceptively steady as he calls out, "Come in."

Ox Ford, as Soul finds out, isn't much taller than Maka, and he seems intent on making up for it by being a particularly obnoxious kind of brusque. He closes the door behind him sharply and fixes Stein with a disapproving stare.

"You didn't mention I was going to have an audience."

"Should it matter? You've got the results, right?"

"Of course I do."

"Excellent. These are the people that requested them," Stein gestures vaguely at them. Ox looks them over for a split second.



"Do you have some place where I can spread out my findings?" he asks, turning to Stein. Soul scowls a little; Maka shrugs. She's long since become accustomed to Ox's way with people. What she cares about is results, and if anyone could get them, it's him.

"Oh, I've got a table all set up," Stein smiles, opening the door back into the morgue. The look of disgust on Ox's face is priceless. "Don't worry, it's all very clean, I assure you."

"Hmph," is the only reply they get as Ox squares his jaw and starts spreading out his papers. "I didn't anticipate this analysis taking this long," he starts. "I was hoping to have it done previously since it was supposed to be a rush job, but it was quite the puzzler."

Maka can't quite tell from his tone if that's supposed to be a complaint or a compliment. "But you did figure it out?" she asks, and he shoots her a withering look.

"Of course I did. The analysis of the sample that you had Stein give me wasn't terribly difficult to identify on its own." He taps the topmost report. "It mostly matches the samples we have of something called 'Black Blood.' It's a relatively new drug on the market-we haven't had a whole lot of opportunity to dissect it and categorize its effects yet, so in a way, you've done us a real solid. We've never managed to get a sample of Black Blood in its purest form before, thus the delay." Ox pulls out another paper and lines it up next to the first. "Of course it would also help if we had some funding, but I suppose that can't be helped."

"You've done remarkable work anyway," Soul supplies, dry as a desert.

"I have," Ox acknowledges, and as much as Maka wants to roll her eyes, she refrains because it really isn't hubris. "This is the blood sample that we took when Chrona was admitted to the hospital. As I hope you can see, the two samples are remarkably similar once you isolate the drug from the blood. However, they're merely similar, not the same."

"So it isn't the Black Blood?" Maka squinted a little at the reports.

"Tch. I didn't say that at all. Chrona's sample is too similar to not be the Black Blood, but it's clearly been altered from its basal state. Which," he says, flourishing another report, "is where this all gets very interesting."

Maka bites her lip, and beside her, Soul makes a noise. "I can't tell any difference," he finally says.

"Of course you can't. That's because when we went back and tested your John Doe-"

"Hiro," Maka interrupts.

"Ah, yes. Of course." For a split second, Ox looks regretful, but then he adjusts his glasses, and continues. "When we tested samples of Hiro's blood, it had far more in common with Chrona's than the original Black Blood sample."

"That's great, but what does it mean?" She crosses her arms.

"Well, we can't be completely positive-we're looking at here are two examples of Black Blood that have been altered for some reason, but not altered in the same way. Hiro's Black Blood cocktail appears to have been administered prior to Chrona's. It's definitely Black Blood, but the formula is a little further removed from the base sample we have." Ox taps the report viciously. "Black Blood is supposed to work kind of like Ecstasy. It's a hallucinogen; people who take it are much more susceptible to suggestion, risk-taking behaviors-it's not great, though it could be worse...for certain definitions of worse." Soul and Maka exchange looks, but Ox forges ahead. "Where we really get into the deep shit is with these variants. Whatever Hiro took was effectively an X-LSD-meth cocktail."

"Jesus." It's breathed into the quiet, and Maka isn't sure if the culprit was Frank or Soul. She's too focuses on the reports, on all the things that Ox hasn't said.

She exhales slowly. "And Chrona?"

Ox's pause is a little too long. "Technically speaking, the mixture in Chrona's system wasn't as bad." He clears his throat. "Technically. Less of an LSD component. The catch is that there is no telling how long Chrona had been on the drug before-"

He doesn't say it, but she hears it anyway-before you sliced Chrona open. "How bad?"

"There's no way to know the long term effects. Black Blood is still relatively new; all we have right now are short term effects, and we haven't seen anyone else with this particular variant. There's no telling what kind of permanent damage there might be."

Ox might not be willing to take a guess, but Maka has a few just judging by what Kid's told her about Chrona's state of mind. There's no telling how long a full detox might take, or even if Chrona will ever come close to being the same.

"Well, what can you tell?" It comes out much more sharply than she'd intended, but she can't bring herself to feel sorry about it, even with Ox's reproving look.

"We can tell that Chrona will probably end up being the first case study on the long term effects of Black Blood," he snaps, and Maka feels Soul shift next to her. "Past that, Chrona is lucky to be alive at all, your little impromptu vivisection aside. There was enough of the altered Black Blood in Hiro's system that that very well could have been cause of death-it's a close call. And Chrona's levels weren't much better."

She breathes shallowly, can feel Soul's palm against her wrist, touching but not restraining, and Maka focuses on that sensation. It isn't Ox's fault. It isn't anyone here's fault, and she has to remember that, has to hold on to that knowledge. She already knows who is to blame for this, and pissing off their unfortunately brilliant forensics specialist isn't going to make anything easier.

"I'm sorry," she finally says, and it's forced, and everyone can tell that it's forced, but it's the best that she can manage right now. "We really do appreciate all your work, Ox. I don't think anyone else could have gotten us these kind of results so quickly."

They stare at each other for a long moment, Ox's eyes narrowed as he assesses her sincerity. Finally, he nods. "You're welcome. I'm glad I could assist. Will you be needing anything else?" It's a perfunctory question more than anything, but-

They leave Stein's office with both Ox's findings and Stein's report on their former John Doe, and a tentatively clean bill of health for Soul. There might have also been a few exaggerated eyebrow waggles from Frank Stein, which Maka stalwartly ignored and that she prayed Soul didn't notice.

What Maka wants is to take their haul back to Soul's apartment and take her time adding to their case file, but she's got a time limit on the car, and they really need to get the reports filed with Kid as evidence as soon as possible. So instead, she rummages through Tsubaki's glove box and pulls out a battered old composition book that she knows has been in there since before they graduated college, and digs a pen out of the armrest. She glances up at Soul through her eyelashes.

"You wanna write, or you wanna read?"

He gives her a little smile. "You've already got a system. Besides, I'm sure you write faster than I do, anyway."

He's right; it doesn't take her very long to jot down the relevant information. Soul skims for the facts, and her hand flies over the paper-it's not that they can't access the information later if they want, it's just that she feels immeasurably better for having it all in one place-she's gathered so much-they've gathered so much information, and Maka has the feeling that there's a bigger picture forming if they can just see it.

They pull up in front of DC Memorial less than an hour later. Maka had wanted to wait when Kid told her where to meet him, but they were still on a schedule. She's managed to turn off the car and get the keys out of the ignition, but that's as far as she's gotten.

"Maka." She doesn't want to look at her partner. She doesn't want the pity that she knows she'll see on his face, doesn't want the platitudes that he'll spill. "Maka we have work to do." It isn't what she expects, and it's exactly what she needs to hear.

"Right." She slides out of the car, Soul not far behind her.

The inside of DC Memorial is pretty much exactly like she remembers it. It's clean in that particular way that hospitals have about them, but Ox's complaint about a lack of funding definitely extends beyond the police department and its auxiliary units. Maka's still pretty sure that she recognizes the computers at the nurses' stations from the last time she was in here.

She doesn't like hospitals much.

Kid had given her the room number, and it's the work of a moment to pull out her id from her back pocket and flash it to the nurse once they get to the right floor. She recognizes Harvar lingering in the hallway and gives him a nod.

"Is Kid in there?"

She doesn't miss the way Harvar's gaze lingers on Soul next to her, but she's not entirely sure what to make of it. He must come to some sort of conclusion because he nods slowly. "Yeah, he's been in there since this morning." He doesn't offer anything past that, and Maka doesn't ask, just carefully opens the door.

It isn't as though a warning would have really prepared her anyway, she thinks, because there's Chrona, sweating and pale, eyes shut and-she bites her lip, hard, and then Kid's standing and tugging the privacy curtain closed. Maka breathes deeply, and tries to focus.

"Maka, Soul. You have something we can use?" His tie is a little crooked-not much, but just enough that it draws her eye, and she wonders for a brief moment if she should mention something before deciding against it. She nods instead.

"We've got our John Doe identified, and our mystery substance."

Kid flips through the files quickly, but his eyes are sharp. "You think this is going to be enough?"

"We think it's going to be crucial to the case," Soul says.

"Crucial, but not enough?"

"Not enough on its own. But we're close. I know we're close," Maka insists. Kid huffs out a breath, and she thinks she can see new streaks of white in his hair.

"Close isn't going to be enough," he says finally. "We have to move quickly-my sources informed me this morning that Medusa's left town for an undisclosed business trip, and we've had some rumblings from Soul's AD that Arachne herself is making some kind of move. If we can snatch Medusa as soon as she gets back, I think we can get some leverage against Arachne."

"Medusa's out of town?" Her heart beats a little faster. "Any idea for how long?"

Soul narrows his eyes at her as Kid responds. "Not sure-her trips tend to last no less than four days, no more than seven, but there's no way to gauge which end of the spectrum this is going to be on."

"Hm." It's non-committal, but Soul knows that look on his partner's face, and it has yet to bode well for his peace of mind. "We'll get this wrapped up, Captain."

"I know you will, Albarn. Did you want-" he gestures behind him, and Soul can see the way her shoulders go rigid again.


"I think you were wanted in the hall," Soul breaks in, giving Kid a significant look.

"Of course. I'll be outside," Kid says, mouth twisting in something that's not quite a smile. The door closes behind him with a soft click, and Maka looks stricken. Soul thought he was doing the right thing, but watching his partner's face, feeling the weird anticipatory clench of his guts-now he's not so sure.

"I can go-"

"No," her response is immediate, sharp in the stillness of the hospital room. "No, you can...I'd like it if you'd stay, please."

"Okay." He hangs back just a little awkwardly, shifting from foot to foot as she gently pulls back the privacy curtain. Chrona appears to still be sleeping, though it's anything but restful. Maka hesitantly smooths out twisted sheets, the material stiff against her hands as she watches her former charge.

"Do you mind if we just...wait?" she asks quietly.

"It's fine. I'm not going anywhere." Soul takes one of the visitor's chairs and sits and tries not to be completely obvious about the fact that he's staring. Chrona thrashes a little more, and he watches Maka cringe back, hand reaching out but still hesitating.

"Can you hear me, Chrona?" He can barely hear her, but that's probably the point. "I'm so sorry. I didn't-I should-fuck. I'm sorry." There's a hitch in her voice and Soul clenches his fists in his lap. "If I could have done things differently you wouldn't be here." Her head is bent and he hates this-hates watching her tear herself up over something that she couldn't control, hates the way his heart feels like it's going to break out of his rib cage and he's not sure why.

On the hospital bed, Chrona stills and then explodes upwards with an unholy wail. Soul nearly falls out of his chair, and Maka rockets to her feet. Gibbering resolves into words, a broken litany of,

"Mother, no, no please, mother-" Soul feels sick to his stomach. Chest heaving, Chrona quiets and blinks and looks and-"Maka?"

"Hey Chrona, it's-are you ok?" The moment the words leave her mouth, she wants to take them back because that's just stupid.

"I killed you."

She swallows and it tastes like bile. "Did you?"

"Mother said to steal them, and you found them and no one should have found them and I killed you." And oh, fuck she doesn't want to do this, but Chrona's talking and she has to try and make the most of it.

"What did you steal?"

"Bloody -" Chrona stops and looks past her, and Soul is caught in pale, eyes that are far too sharp for the crazy shit coming out of that mouth. "You were there, blue and bloody. Always showing up where you aren't wanted."

She's going to throw up, she can feel it, and she takes a leap. "Chrona what did Medusa make you steal?"

"Mother wanted the vials."

Maka drops Soul off at the precinct to retrieve his bike and drives back to her apartment on what feels like autopilot. She tosses Tsubaki's keys on the counter, and is out the door again before she can stop to think. Soul finds her in his apartment, making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; she's not sure she could say how she got there if asked.

"We missed lunch," she says when he shuts the door behind him. "How's your bike?"

"She's good. I tried to get Kid to comp me a wash, but he wouldn't go for it; something about not being a good use of precinct resources." He joins her in the kitchen, leaning a hip against the narrow counter. He's dangerously in her space, but he doesn't let himself think about that, just about the tightness of her shoulders and the slight tremble in her fingers. She doesn't seem to care anyway, just hands him a sandwich and a paper towel.

They eat in silence by the sink, and when she's finished, she brushes her crumbs into the drain and he wonders if this is her bid at normalcy, at regaining the equilibrium they had this morning. She takes so much on herself, he thinks-and that's something that he learned about Maka pretty quickly, but this is the first time that he's looked at her and can see the weight of this case, of the enormity of their task, physically weighing her down.

He lets out a small sigh, and herds Maka towards the couch. He knows that she lets him do it, and that's pretty telling in and of itself. She sits and he turns on the tv and settles across from her, perching on the edge of the coffee table.

"It's not your fault."

She meets his eyes, pupils blown in afternoon light, and for a long moment, he thinks that this is what's going to break her, and his breath catches in his chest. She blinks, exhales.

"I know."

A.N- I hope this has been even vaguely worth the wait. As I mentioned on Tumblr, I think I've got maybe two chapters to go after this, and I'm working on getting them plotted out so you guys won't have to wait a billion years again. Thank you so much for your patience and all of your kind messages and reviews here, on A03, and on Tumblr-it really means the world to me! You guys are the fucking best, hands down.