He's angry with her. She knows the exact moment it had happened; even as the words fell from her mouth in an attempt to absolve a misunderstanding, she had still known the act of clearing up one would create another.

Soul will yell at her when she does anything potentially dangerous, and will argue with her when he thinks she's wrong, but when he's offended, he won't say anything at all.

She knows this, and it hurts, because she's done this before and has watched him internalize her words and keep his feelings far away from her. He won't complain, and this is the greatest indicator that she's dropped a big one.

These roller coaster rides happen from time to time. They are a part of being paired, and there are measures that can be taken to help smooth things over. If the synchronization is suffering, time must be spent together. And it's simple enough to do benign, everyday things to help mend broken tears in relationships, but then again anything written on paper sounds simple. In practice, suggesting a picnic to a person who would rather not look in one's direction is a harder battle than slicing off a kishin's head.

Yes, her social skills need some fine-tuning. She's trying.

So when Soul doesn't so much as complain about the uncoolness of going on a picnic, she knows she needs to try harder. He even helps make sandwiches. Every ziplock baggie silently filled with potato chips or grapes is another stab wound to the chest. Way to screw up, Maka. Stab. Way to hurt his feelings, Maka. Stab. Some meister you are, Maka. Stab. Her guilt is going to need stitches.

She hadn't meant it to sound so awful! She'd been irritated. Kim had dealt her that saucy smile, that suggestive tilt of hip, and that horrifying, all too telling intonation on the word 'partner'. It had grated on Maka's nerves and given her cause to royally flush; her hand easily called on her face. It wasn't like that, she'd explained. Even if Soul Evans had been lingering in parts of her brain that he probably shouldn't, she hadn't explained.

"We're not partners! He's just my weapon."

And she turned around with her accepted mission slip, glad to be out of line and away from the pink-haired font of all of Maka's internal embarrassment. But before her words had finished ringing down the hallway, they'd left an abrupt, sour taste in her mouth that she couldn't pinpoint until she saw the cold expression on her weapon's face.

She was met with a telling silence before he lightly said, "I'll just head home and pack myself into your suitcase, then."

Despite his words, he'd waited for her in the parking lot to give her a ride home. Holding his back as they rode his motorcycle had been the only casual physical contact between them since the Halloween Closet Incident, and it was a bittersweet realization that now even this was strained when her weapon was angry with her.

Once back at their apartment, and eager and hasty to repair her collateral damage, she'd suggested a picnic lunch. "The mission isn't until tomorrow."

"Thanks for letting me know," he had bitten back- the last full sentence he had said to her before dutifully packing half of the lunch, and following behind her to the park rather than walking at her side.

He's still offended and simmering, and his lack of amiability sears into the back of her head as she carries the basket down the park path. She knows he's here because this is what they must do, but it feels more like a required assignment than an attempt at reparations.

It's a mild spring afternoon: warm in the sun, cool in the shade. Soul soulessly spreads the quilt under a tree she indicates. Shadows of budding flowers and new leaves dapple the blanket. Maka eats her sandwich robotically, thoughts spinning in circles. Soul occasionally bites his sandwich in between car races on his PSP. He's brought his own entertainment, all the better to ignore her with.

She doesn't understand how boys work! She'd grown up with Black Star as a child, but even she is aware that experience gained with that one should probably not be considered as any part of the control group. But although she doesn't know how to handle a half-asleep boy that unthinkingly pets her arm in a library, or a flirty boy that wears suggestive costumes, cuddles her for body heat, and threatens to bite her in a dark closet, she'd much rather try to figure those enigmas out than this guarded, hurt one she had accidentally created.

Very much rather. In fact, she's painfully aware of every holiday between Halloween and the present, and how all opportunities for party closet rendezvous had been negated by work or an ill-timed headcold. Though at this rate, she should worry more about their friendship than anything more than that, imagined or otherwise.

"Look, I'm sorry. For earlier," she blurts out, her voice sounding misplaced between the chattering leaves.

She hears a loud car wreck emanating from Soul's handheld after she's effectively thrown off his concentration. He sighs. "I know."

Her mouth opens and shuts. This feels too easy. She fiddles with an apple in her hand, bemused. "Ah.. oh. Well... I'm going to apologize anyway."

Soul talks over his irritated button mashing. "Don't worry about it, it was dumb anyway. It doesn't matter."

"...Yes it matters!"
"Seriously, I don't care. It's fine, I-oofmgh-"

"You..!" she growls after having shoved her apple into his obnoxious mouth, "Shut up, I'm trying to apologize!"

Her weapon sighs angrily through his nose, tossing his handheld to the blanket and carefully working the embedded fruit out of his mouth. "Bossy even when you're saying sorry-"

"Shut it." Maka glares at Soul's glower and neither win the silent stare down. "Anyway, uh. I know I say things and they don't turn out the right way."

She watches him sit up, busying himself with the apple and a finger-turned-scythe. She pointedly keeps her gaze away from his face, not sure if she wants to see whatever expressions it may contort into the longer she talks and possibly digs her grave deeper. "I didn't mean to, like, deny our partnership or anything- that's the last thing I wanna do. But Kim was... teasing me, I guess, and I didn't want there to be a misunderstanding. But it came out wrong and," and she's rambling, slightly nauseated from having to balance feeling okay with having been mistaken for being in a relationship with her partner and feeling like shit over making her partner feel like an inanimate object. "I mean, you're a lot more to me than just a piece of metal, you know?"

Soul slowly slices into his apple. "I know," he murmurs quietly.

He says he knows but she doesn't feel like her point has been brought across, except she doesn't know what her point is, and she doesn't know how to say things without making everything worse. She opens her mouth anyway. "So, I'm sorry. For making you think otherwise. And I'll try to... ask you about missions and stuff beforehand and not to just-"

"Maka... I don't even mind that so much- it's not like I care where we go." His shoulders slump, slightly relaxed, and she can't stop herself from feeling a little hopeful. "I'm fine with whatever you choose. I don't mind being called your weapon, either, 'cause I am your weapon, and I like being your weapon." He's silent for a moment, removing his blade from the apple and attacking it from another angle. "Just when you were so 'we're not partners!'... it snuck up on me, I guess. I dunno. My reaction was dumb, that's all."

"It wasn't dumb," she says, more sure of this than anything else she has said all day, and this must be easy to hear in her voice because his glance rivets onto her, piercing and intense. "Your feelings aren't dumb," she repeats. They're important, she wants to shout, but she's afraid if she says anything else about it, his Boys Don't Have Those Things attitude will overtake the conversation. But she's so eager, so desperate for him to understand that she knows he's a boy, a person, a human with emotions and not a blade attached to a stick that she swings around for a job. She sees him, but she doesn't know how to make him believe her.

Soul looks away again, snapping a slice of apple away from its core. "Well, here's how I feel," he says, popping the slice in his mouth. It's as if he's extra intent on talking with his mouth full to nullify any seriousness of his words. "Let her or anyone else think whatever the fuck they want. It's no one's business what we do or don't do. We're partners, so." He shrugs.

They're partners. Good. Hearing these words from Soul gives her the greatest relief. Maka greedily sucks in the spring air, attempting to calm her nervousness. "Okay." She leans forward to dig in the picnic basket for another apple, seeing as she'd given up rights to the first one. "But," she says, and she's horrified because why in heaven's name is she opening her mouth not two minutes after regaining peace? "Won't that cause trouble for you later?"

Soul, who picks a stray apple peel from between two teeth, looks confused. "Wha? What will?"

She samples from her neutral classroom voice and steadily explains, "If people think that we're dating." Her heart trembles, but her voice is safe. Any worry she may have about letting certain cats out of bags is sidelined as she watches her partner suddenly choke. It's his turn to dig in the basket, pulling out a chilled bottle of water.

Maka takes this as a cue to keep talking. "I mean, if you try to go out with anyone later, won't that be a pain?" It's a valid question, she thinks, and it had been the basis of this whole day's problems. That being said, she's not sure if she's ready for his answer; any talk about Soul's future prospects for relationships is not something she likes to consider directly. She swallows, mouth dry.

Soul clears his throat, recapping the lid on the plastic bottle. "Nah, that's not a big deal," he replies, shooting her a boyish glance that she can't read. His face is still red from his episode, but he gives her a peculiar smile that transports her back to crowded closets with snarky Spartans. "I'll worry 'bout that when I get there." He pops another slice of apple into his mouth.

Maka is thankful for the spring breeze, which helps cool off her cheeks. Boys are enigmas, but Soul seems to have forgiven her, so she's content. She's not sure how to digest his answers, but she isn't immediately dispirited by them. That's a plus. Or not a minus. She brings her apple to her mouth and takes a loud bite.

Soul tosses his jagged apple core into some nearby brush. He stretches out on the blanket, kicking off his shoes and wiggling his socked feet into a patch of sunlight. Maka eats and watches his movements with mildly masked interest, each motion quietly reaffirming her weapon's improved mood.

He picks up his PSP and starts up a new game, but this time strikes up conversation. "You sound like a porno over there."

It's her turn to choke. "Wh-what? What're you-"

"You do," he insists, head tilting as he races. "What with all the nomming and slurping."

Her face must be steaming. "You're disgusting."

"No, you. Didn't you ever learn table manners?"

"...There's no table here."

Soul scoffs. "Smartass."

"Sunday driver."
"That's messed up. I'm leading this race, you know."

Maka self-consciously wipes apple juice from her lips with the back of her hand. Had she really been slurping? Or is he just picking on her? She never knows! "Did your mother let you use scythes at the table?"

"What? No..?"

Curious, Maka leans over to watch her partner's screen, and consequently any conversation-induced driving errors. "So why do you always cut your apples?"

Soul's car skids sideways into a barrier. He gets passed by two artificial players. "Asses." He maneuvers back on the road. "Uh, well. I can't eat apples otherwise."

"Why not?"

"I dunno, they're shaped funny," he says, exasperated. His body shifts with embarrassment. "My teeth... I just shred them. It's easier to slice 'em."

This concept has never occurred to her before. Soul and his jagged teeth had always seemed to be able to take a big bite out of anything, closet zombies included. "Oh," she simply replies, spine tingling.

"At least I don't sound like a porno."

She frowns. "No, that's just when you eat anything else." This statement comes out a lot more perverted than she had intended, and she's witness to Soul's car exploding. Pressing her lips together to keep from smiling too broadly, she plucks the device out of her partner's hands and starts her own race.

"Hey! Sabotage..." He makes annoyed, whining noises as she makes herself comfortable, resting her head on his stomach. He's frequent to tell her she sucks at driving as he slowly runs his fingers through her hair. "...How would you know what a porno sounds like anyway?"

Her head bounces on his stomach as he laughs at her horrified squeak.

It doesn't help that Ox's collection of porn has made it down the line to him via Black Star via Killik via Havar via Jackie, and that he had just made a cursory glance at a subtly arousing photoshoot of a famous porn star in a fitting room this morning. Thank everything that he only skimmed over it in favor of actual action shots than studying the finer aspects of softcore, because otherwise he doesn't believe he'd be able to handle this situation at all.

"Tighter, please, Soul?"

Soul, stone faced and tingly, swallows as he ties the back of the string bikini his meister is trying on. The strings gently bite into her supple skin as Maka critically eyes her own chest in the mirror before them to regard the fit. He tries not to avidly follow her gaze and settles for her jeans hanging off the slight swell of her hips, but this doesn't help his situation, either.

He reroutes back up her reflection, quickly skipping to her face and wrestling with the urge to focus on her pale skin dappled with scant birthmarks and freckles.

She doesn't even sigh. "I don't like it."

It's the fourth one she's tried on, and it's the third store they've visited. He's exasperated, and can't hold his tongue any longer. "What's wrong with it?"

"Nothing's wrong with it," she says, and crosses her arms protectively over her chest. "Undo it please," she mumbles.

Her skin is warm and tense with a frustration he can't fathom, unless it is comparable to being repeatedly subjected to the bare skin of her back and having to smother certain urges in fear of making an ass of himself. Somehow, he doubts this.

"We're running out of time, Maka." The party is this evening, and he is almost certain she has been looking forward to it as much as he, though his reasons stem more from personal gain than socializing. They've missed so many get-togethers since last October, and this time neither of them are working or have a cold for once.

"I'll just wear a shirt," she whispers, waiting for him to turn around before getting dressed in her street clothes.

"Why? You looked fine."
"I didn't like it."

Soul frowns at the locking mechanism of the dressing room. He had liked it- in fact, he'd liked all of them- but he supposes his opinion on the matter means jack all to her.

Maka is in full morose mode now, having slid to this depth of self esteem slowly over the course of her shopping expedition. He hears her already attaching the swimsuits back to their respective hangers and risks a glance around. Her shirt's still partway unbuttoned. He drifts his eyes away, shifting his weight to hopelessly ease the pressure of his half-hard dick.

"You sure you don't want to keep looking?" he asks, though he's not sure who he's asking. However, he's positive he would rather be anywhere but here in this awkward Maka depression atmosphere.

"Not unless you had something in mind," she replies dully. By her tone he can tell she isn't expecting anything from him, and is also somewhat apologetic for dragging him around all day.

He sighs. He doesn't know what he's thinking, and hopes he doesn't make shit worse. "Wait here," he blurts, and unlatches the door to squeeze out before shutting it behind him.

The middle-aged woman at the fitting room desk gives him an appalled look for coming out of the women's section, but hers is not the first he has had to bear today, so it just bounces off him harmlessly.

Once in the swimsuit section, his mind betrays him, flitting back to Ox's softcore magazine and quietly overlaying Maka's face over the model's body, supplementing it with all the multicolored, two-piece bikinis before him. He shakes this out of his head and tries to come up with a masterplan for his meister to accept the fact that no swimsuit is going to magically make her tits bigger. Because that was the problem: no matter how smoking she looked to him, she never looked right to herself.

He picks a plain thing. Black. Simple. Not much for frills. If asked, he'd be forced to admit liking the classic aspect of it, but Maka wouldn't ask because she's seen inside his soul and witnessed what kind of style he upholds in the Black Room.

Anyway, what he chooses is little the point. It's what he must say to her that will matter.

He has no idea what to say. He just knocks, kicking himself for having no plan as the latch loudly slides and the door opens a mere crack. He lets himself in and is immediately greeted with, "It's like all the others."

"It's not," he insists.

"It is."
"It's not."

His masterplan has apparently boiled down to stubborness.

She's tiredly glaring at him, but he gives only a blank stare in return. "Need help?"

This irritates her, and despite that he'd been helping her change all morning, she shoves him out of the stall, locking it behind him. Her clothes shuffle and hit the floor, hangers clattering together as she dons the black swimsuit. Well, if she could do it herself, why the hell had he been helping her all day?

Soul leans against a full length mirror, attempting to look bored and cool but feeling like he's on the field, battling the kishin that is his partner's body image.

There's half a minute of silence. "It's the same." And the shuffling noises start up again.

"Woah, woah! Let me see at least."

An exasperated sigh floats above the dressing room stall. "No."

"Maka," he trails off, suddenly very aware of the dressing room attendant staring at him. "...Please?"

The door slowly opens, and his meister reluctantly walks out. She's even put on the bottoms, her jeans in a sad heap on the floor behind her. The fit is good but she looks awful with that cloud of despair darkening her universe. "Stand up straight," he urges, not without finding it strange that he's the one telling her to fix her posture when it's usually the other way around.

Complete with mild glare, she sort of straightens, though her shoulders still arc forward. He doesn't have to lie to say it's perfect on her, but he knows the compliment would fall on deaf ears.

"Can I take it off now?"

He has mixed feelings answering this. "No."

Bemused, she frowns. "What the hell. I just wanna go home."

Masterplan turns into more of a suicide mission as he walks forward to usher her back in the dressing room, closing the door behind them both. In the privacy, he twists her around to look at herself in the smaller mirror. Her ass nudges against the front of his jeans, and he swallows down the fire it ignites.

"What's the problem?" he asks, hoping that, by being confronted directly, his meister will actually give him a straight answer.

He gets more than what he bargained for. Maka suddenly mashes her small breasts together with her hands, pushing them even higher on her chest. "THIS."

He'd known this was her problem the entire time, but his brain short-circuits at the presentation, regardless. His hands are clammy when he grasps her wrists and gently pries her hands away from her tits. He doesn't know if he'd prefer explaining his way out of a boner or suffering from a cerebral aneurysm. "Q-quit that. There's nothing wrong here."

She can't hold his gaze in the mirror, her head hanging low. She looks so frustrated that he's worried she's about to either murder him or burst into tears. He's surprised how much more willing he is to be a murder victim, given the choice.

"You don't have to try so hard," she sighs out.

"No, you look really good, Maka."

Her face lifts at this, but only to shoot him an unamused, skeptical glower. "Enough with the jokes. You can stop now."

Soul blinks. "I'm not laughing."

The glower clears up into a confused wariness. Soul stoops a little to rest his chin on her shoulder like he has done once before, hands tempting fate by resting casually on her hips. "I'm not," he repeats. "Your body is..." He can't take that direct stare at all! He swallows hard enough for her to probably hear, face burning, and glances back to her wary, reflected eyes. "You're very attractive."

She doesn't believe him, but her cheeks darkly flush.

The corner of his mouth lifts in a smile. "So, you gonna buy it?"

He's terribly aware of the way Maka trembles slightly against his chest. She looks away, stubborn.

"Why black?" she asks.

She wasn't supposed to ask! He takes a deep breath to maybe hide his embarrassment, which is a bad plan because her skin smells like meister, and her body is still pressing a little too closely to the front of his pants. His mouth opens and nothing comes out for a few painful seconds. A peek in the mirror proves he's as red as she.

"I... You look good in it. You always have."

He pulls away, more than ready to escape after that stupid statement.

"Wait." Damn, he was so close to freedom! "Will you, um, untie it for me? Please."

There's a silent beat filled with accusations regarding her 'inability' to dress and undress herself, which she acknowledges by simply crossing her arms over her chest as usual. Soul scoots close again, fingers catching on the thin, black strings as he pulls her knot loose. And perhaps he undoes her top a little too slowly, pulling down to have his fingers trace along her skin and linger on the small of her back. And maybe his partner is a little too quick to turn and redress, giving him a glimpse of skin before he's completely turned around to wait for her.

"If you say it looks good, then I'll take your word for it." He listens to the rustling of her jeans, and even the sound of the zipper doesn't derail him from the realization that she gives a damn about what he thinks about her appearance.

So, even though he's facing the door to the dressing room, he says, "You look good."

"Okay," she quietly replies.

If she had blinked she would've missed it.

Floating on her back, she's witness to Soul Eater's silhouette sailing across the night sky overhead, falling, falling, to cannonball her serenity with a chlorinated splash. She squeals, voice loud in her waterlogged ears. The formerly abandoned pool is a tumult of waves and loud slaps of water. Maka wipes her face, moving to cling to the safety of the edge of the pool as her weapon bubbles to the surface. He shakes his head like some kind of animal, hair spraying her with errant droplets.

"Would you- haha stop it! Jerk."

He merely grins, arms helping him tread water in the deeper end of Black Star's pool. He looks increasingly rakish with his hair plastered to his face at random angles. "What're you still doing out here? You're gonna be a big prune."

"I was just relaxing," she says, dangling by her fingers and idly kicking. "Pretend it's a closet."

Well, maybe that flippant statement retrospectively feels a lot more suggestive to her than to him, because he only laughs. She blushes, glad of the semi darkness of the backyard while the rest of spartoi continues festivities indoors.

"Alright then." Soul floats to her right, joining her next to the wall. "Do I have to pay a toll again?"

She blinks, glancing his direction. "Toll?"

"Yeah, you know- like a mohawk helmet."

Remembering the previous Halloween, a laugh simmers up her throat. Maka extends an arm, watching Soul curiously watch her. "Same price. 'Cept you have to wear it, this time."

"Wait, what- Aw. Seriously?" Soul presents her with a mild scowl as she attempt to manipulate his uncontrollable hair into pointy, vertical spikes. She notes, with satisfaction, that he doesn't try to stop her. "Are you enjoying yourself?"

"Well, it's hard to do-"
"-one-handed so, if you could make yourself useful for like ten seconds..."

"You're so demanding," he grumbles, one of his palms blindly pressing against hers to arrange sections of his hair into a mohawk. He gives in to a smile after being bombarded by her perpetual giggling.

And suddenly, while facing him and feeling the current of his legs kicking alongside hers, Maka is forced to recall all instances of their physical proximity today, no matter how long she may have shoved her thoughts to back burners. The memories in reverse, they come like a wave: the scenic route Soul had taken to get them to Tsubaki's birthday party, Maka clinging tight to him as they twist around back roads; the lengthy stop at a gas station to fill up the bike's tank, her partner fiddling with her helmet hair; the rushed return to a department store before it closed, after having realized Soul's swim trunks from the summer prior no longer fit him; and then-

And then, the fitting room, in which he'd said, "You're very attractive," his fingers twitching cautiously at her hips, trailing down her spine...

"Am I a Spartan or what?"

Jolted out of heart-thundering reverie, her eyes focus on his ridiculous hair. The spikes are slowly drooping to one side, rejecting their joint efforts. Maka laughs despite herself before making an attempt at hardening her face. "You're officially a Trojan Man," she deadpans.

Soul immediately scrubs his head with a hand. "Sparta, Sparta, Sparta, I'm telling you..."

It's all she can do to keep the laughter out of her voice. "If you don't have a mohawk, I guess you can't pay the toll," she says in mock regret.

He snorts, locking his gaze with hers as he subconsciously combs his hair forward. "Guess I could... strip tease for you?" he quietly suggests with an ever-widening grin.

She flushes and smiles while a hint of nervousness paints his laughter at her reaction. It's this uncertainty- well, that and the way his index finger twitches and taps the edge of the pool- that pulls her forward through the small distance between them.

"Hey," Maka says. Soul abruptly sobers, expectant. "Don't blink," she warns him, floating slowly to his lips.