Everything hurt. Everything, from the top of his head to the tips of his toes, hurt. Every nerve had been flayed open and carefully painted with acid. There were spots where the pain was more concentrated, but mostly it was all over, a watercolor wash of red-hot pain. He was so empty. Someone had taken him and hollowed him out, left him emptier than a pumpkin at Halloween. There was nobody with him. No madness was singing in his veins, counterpoint harmony to his secret thoughts, and no ogre was hissing in the depths of his brain. Maka was gone too, and after being together for so long, he was having a hard time thinking at all, beyond simply being lonely. It felt like he'd been sleeping for a very long time, but whenever he swam up to the top of it all, poked his head out and raised his face to the white light and the voices he couldn't quite understand, his agony spiked and pulled him back down.

The voices were always there, but they were outside of him, so he didn't listen. He caught his name a lot, but beyond that, they were just white noise interspersed with a few things that sounded distantly like sobs. Once, when he was above the thick darkness for a long time, he thought he managed to ask them for Maka, but he wasn't sure. He wanted her, though, yearned for her touch.

He slept again, and stored up his energy carefully, until finally he could break the surface again and open his eyes, and there she was. He closed one eye, to conserve energy, and studied her. It was like seeing her for the first time. She was in plaid flannel sleep shorts and a t-shirt he recognized as his own, and her pigtails were messy. She'd probably slept on them. She was asleep now, head propped on the bed facing him, and her hands limp in her lap, palms facing up, beautifully relaxed, curled like lotuses. He could see the callouses on them, darker ridges and bumps blossoming on her pale skin, and it was like he'd branded her, because she'd earned those callouses by wielding him. He loved it. He wanted to feast on her neck and leave a mark there, to match, to tell the entire world that she was his and his alone. He moved his gaze to the scabbed slash on her thigh, the one that had opened in the Black Rooms and given them the key to escape. It would be a beautiful scar. As much as he hated seeing her scars, this would be one that they could look at fondly together, because they'd moved past it in perfect synchronization.

"Mmm," he hummed raspily, trying for her name. She didn't raise her head, just opened her eyes immediately, green and lush, speaking of safe places and home to him.

"I love you. I love you. I love you," she said promptly. They reached out for each other at the same time, souls almost sighing as they meshed together. Her love was loud and earnest and a little pushy inside his head, and he gave a snorting rasp meant to be a chuckle. She felt like an overeager puppy, clambering all over the resonance wriggling with grateful glee.

The way she was smiling at him was like a sunrise. He widened his open eye just a fraction, asking. "You don't remember," she stated after a moment, reading him like one of her books. "Okay. I woke up in China, I'm fine, just kind of wobbly from lying around, you know? Delun helped me escape. We had to dodge the nurses like ninjas, you should have seen it. Totally James Bond. Uh, and I called Tsubaki and she told me they trailed you to a hotel, and were trying to bring you back with them. And it must have happened right when we played the piano together, because they said you started arguing with yourself, with the ogre I'm guessing, and he- um..." She trailed off for a moment, grimacing, and then inched to the edge of her seat to delicately settle her face in the crook of his neck. "He made your body jump off a roof," she whispered. "But the doctor told me you're stable. You should be okay, nothing permanent. Concussion, broken bones, you had an internal bleed but that was a few days ago, they patched it up. You'll be fine."

He considered that, closing his eyes again and breathing deep. She smelled like soap, fresh and clean and all things wonderful. "Ow," he finally settled on. Falling off a building- that would explain the obnoxiously white casts currently immobilizing his left arm and left ankle. He could guess which side he'd landed on. Death, but his head hurt. That would be the concussion. Breathing was painful too, which meant he'd probably at least cracked a rib or two. All in all, though, he felt pretty lucky to be awake and not crippled. Waking up with his sleepy adorable meister beside him, and in the real world no less, was just the icing on the cake.

"Yeah. Ow," she said against his neck, a hint of smile in her voice. She was doing something through the bond, and whatever it was, it was soothing his throbbing cranium. "That's interesting. Is that helping?"

"Yep." One-word answers were the easiest. It felt like she was pouring cool water on his bruised brain, sending her wavelength into his in relaxing little trills not unlike a lullaby.

"Are you mad at me?" she asked. He grunted in confusion. "You wouldn't have been hurt like this if I hadn't ran away. My anti-madness wavelength would have kept it under control."

"No," he told her. "Would have happened at some point. M'not mad."

She exhaled roughly like she'd been expecting a scolding, and nevermind the fact that simply speaking in a whisper was taxing on him right now, much less shouting. "Are you sure? I'm so sorry you're hurting, Soul, I hate this."

"Not again," he groaned. "No guilt. Partners. Okay?" He sent as much of himself at her through the bond as he could, let her see how absolutely silly he thought she was for feeling like this was her fault, that he didn't blame her at all. It was part of their meister-weapon relationship. Things happened, people got hurt, and guilt would just weigh them down. She swallowed and he heard gentle chimes before she pulled back and smiled at him, a thank-you and a promise of some kind, one that he couldn't fully read.

"Okay." She kept smiling at him, like she didn't even know what her face was doing, and he cricked the corner of his mouth up to return it. He thought about what she'd said and wished he'd been able to be with her when she woke up, back in China. They'd made sort of a ritual of it, being at each other's bedside whenever an injury was dealt, dating back to her guilt-ridden vigil over him when he'd taken Ragnarok to the chest. Right now she looked weary to the marrow, blurs of blue-black exhaustion shading the skin under her eyes, and the rest of her overly pale. He squinted and saw the fading pin-prick scab on her hand that spoke of an IV. He reached over and set a finger on it, covering it, not wanting to picture her caged in a bed for so long, motionless and still. Did he want to know what exactly that goddamn ogre had done with his body, while he'd been wandering the Black Rooms? No, probably not. Definitely not. Not yet, anyway. Black Star would tell him later, when the time was right. He had vague flashes of blood and shrieking laughter lurking way down, but they could wait. Right now was a time for happiness.

She nestled closer, being very careful of all his many bruised bits. He coughed and nearly screamed, because there was something on his lower stomach that really, really hurt. "Surgery stitches," she muttered, looking mournful.

"Ow," he said again. It seemed apt. She stroked his hair back from his forehead, touch feather-light.

They sat there for a while, just basking in each other. "I want to keep playing the piano," she said eventually.

"Cool," he said softly. He didn't think he had ever in his life been so content.

"I'm serious. You'll have to be patient, though. I don't think my fingers out here will remember what they learned in there."

"Maybe. Love you."

"Love you too. Want anything? Ice cream for your throat? Stein will be by soon to check on you."

"Nooooo," he creaked despairingly.

She snickered a little and petted his ragged bangs, still far too long here in the real world, sympathetically. Half the dread students had of getting injured was really about being subject to the whims of the Academy's resident mad scientist. "Yes. Sorry. I'll be on scalpel watch, don't worry. I won't leave."

He sighed, blinking at the window, which was flung wide open, odd for a hospital. "Black Star...?"

"Has been popping in through the window every few hours, yes, he'll probably be by soon. Everyone will. Are you too tired? I can beat them off. I have a book."

"Oh god. No chops."

"Not for you. Not till you heal, anyway," she said tolerantly.

He grinned weakly. "So I can say anything?"

She withdrew her head from his neck just long enough to squint warningly and waggle a finger. "Don't push it." Then she promptly returned to her previous spot. He caught her shifting uncomfortably a few times from her awkward half-seated position and pulled weakly on her shirt. Well, his shirt, but he didn't think he'd be getting it back any time soon.

"Up," he insisted when she tried to demur, pointing at his casts, but after all, she could lay on the other side, and he was basically immobilized, and she was small. "Up." She sighed and gave in, swinging her legs up onto the bed like he was made of glass and curling close beside him. They put their foreheads together. He touched his nose to hers; she giggled.

"We did it," she mused sleepily.

"Yeah."

"We're badass."

"Yeah."

She took a deep breath, and let it out slowly, haltingly. "Is it all gone? The madness, the black blood, the ogre?"

He took a moment, rummaged around in his head to make sure, but really he already knew. He knew by the roaring emptiness he'd felt in his medicated dreams. Whatever that powerful new resonance was that he and Maka had done in the Black Rooms, their spiritual duet had incinerated that ogre, burned away all the black blood from him. He would know if it was left. He had enough natural madness in him that the artifical type could never hide. "Yes. Gone, very gone." It felt strange to say. For half a decade he'd lived with things so bad inside him that only Maka really knew their full depths, and their absence meant that now any terrible thoughts he had would be on his own head. It made him a little nervous, honestly.

But then, there was so much he wanted to do now; the future opened up with the same tantalizing potential as an empty highway in front of his motorcycle. He wanted to take Maka out to a fancy dinner, watch her sway and complain in high heels, to see her wriggle into something sparkly and elegant that she would hate, but would wear anyway, for him. He wanted to take her home and introduce her to his family, show her the very first place he ever played a show, and the piano he grew up with. He wanted to help her put her father to rest. He wanted to lie in bed with her, all day long and into the night. He wanted to go on missions to every corner of the world and clean up evil beside her. He wanted to write songs for her and with her. He wanted her and no one else, forever, playing alongside him, chiming her love into his soul. "Girlfriend?" is what all those wants distilled down into, a single scratchy question.

She smiled into his skin and nodded gently. They'd made it.

It was a blessing that Tsubaki had preceded Black Star into the window, because he would have entered in a flurry of shouts and well wishes and ruined everything. She managed to clamp a hand over his mouth as he dove past her before he could start shouting, though, and neither of the two peaceful sleepers in the hospital bed woke up.

Kid, Patty, and Liz blinked at them from their seats across the room. Kid lifted a dark eyebrow and nodded a greeting, apparently deciding not to comment on their unorthodox method of entry. Liz rolled her eyes and Patty just hugged her stuffed lion tighter, slouching down until the brim of her hat hid her face. Black Star, unable to stay pent up for long, licked Tsubaki's hand in retaliation and she let go, making a face.

"Ew," she told him, very, very quietly. He grinned triumphantly and stuck his tongue out at her, but then he took her hand and gallantly helped her down from the windowsill, as if she were a dainty princess rather than a fully-trained ninja and notorious weapon.

"Look at 'em, cuddling and shit. About time," he said, just as quietly, which was nothing short of a miracle. He pointed at the bed. Stein was hovering over the sleeping pair in a rather predatory manner, glasses gleaming as he peered at the heart rate monitor hooked up to a clip on one of Soul's fingers, poking forlornly out of a big white cast. Black Star had, of course, already defaced it yesterday with multiple copies of his signature and several inappropriate drawings.

"How is he?" she asked the doctor, deciding not to think about how sweet Black Star was being, because if she did that she'd turn red, and then he'd get that funny crooked smile, the one that made her toes curl, and then she wouldn't be able to think of anything all day long except how he looked shirtless.

Stein shrugged and see-sawed a hand in the air. "He's fine, he should be back to full consciousness once he wakes up. His soul's back at nearly full capacity. It's a shame, really," he sighed, adjusting his glasses again. "I had so many plans for him and that black blood."

"Stein, you're a monster. Get out," Liz hissed ill-temperedly, twirling a strand of her hair in an aggressive manner.

"Manners, young lady," Professor Stein said amiably, waggling a finger at her in mock sternness, but he stuck his hands in his moth-eaten lab coat and wandered out of the room all the same. The very fact that he left so easily told them all that Soul was indeed well on the road to recovery.

"They are pretty cute," Tsubaki whispered to her meister. Maka was pressed up against Soul's side, and his head was turned towards hers, both of them angled very close together. She had one hand twined in his hair, and her other hand was linked with his between their bodies. Soul was drooling, but somehow Tsubaki didn't think Maka would mind much.

Kid stood up with a yawn and flapped a hand. "I really don't think they're going to wake up any time soon," he murmured fondly. "Let's go. It's good to see him getting better." They all trooped out into the waiting room, and Black Star took even used the door this time, albeit not without a little protest, something about needing to practice his sneaking skills. Now there was a hopeless cause if she'd ever heard one. Tsubaki took one last glance at her sleeping friends and closed the door softly.

Sitting at a desk and nearly hidden in stacks of paperwork, Mira Nygus blinked at them from under several layers of bandaging that managed to be even whiter than her crisp nurse's uniform. "Still asleep?" They all nodded. "Good. He needs it. Well, she needs it too. Stein said he's doing much better. I'll tell them you came to visit, all right?"

Minds at ease now, they wandered through the streets for a while, talking randomly about nothing in particular. Black Star offered Tsubaki his elbow and she rested her hand on his arm, fighting one of those traitorous blushes. "Do you think they'll work? I mean, do you think Maka is okay? She was so different when we picked her up at the airport than she was when she left," she asked him.

He tilted his head consideringly. "Eh, I think so. They'll explain it to us eventually, but I think they really went through some shit while they were out, you know? She's figured some stuff out. She's on the downhill now, anyway."

She beamed at him. "Yes, you're right." Inspiration struck and she turned to the rest of the group. "Everyone! Would you like to come over for dinner tonight? And I can make something really good for dessert! Dango, maybe! Or pie!"

"Yes please!" Kid and Patti answered in enthusiastic unison. Black Star gave a great yodel and grabbed her up around the waist, swinging her around.

"Yes! Food! I am a very hungry god!" he bellowed at the top of his lungs. Across Death City, birds took startled flight. She smiled at him once he'd finally put her down. He was back to his old self, no question about it. With the whole group chattering happily together, and the empty spots of Soul and Maka soon to be filled, she felt for the first time like this awful nightmare was finally over. There would always be a storm brewing on the horizon, inevitable in their line of work, but as long as her friends were together she was pretty sure they'd soldier through.

"Okay. I need dessert ideas, guys, come on!" she said, smiling hugely at them all.

"Daiquiris?" Liz suggested with a lifted, perfectly plucked brow.

"Ice cream!" Patti gushed, eyes lighting up maniacally. Their meister rolled his golden eyes despairingly.

"Don't give her sugar," he begged, then turned on Liz, who was sniggering as her sister pouted. "Or alcohol! Whatever we make, let's make sure to save some leftovers for Soul and Maka tomorrow, all right? That hospital food is a sin."

"Good idea," Black Star said immediately. They all stopped to gape at him, because Black Star actually offering to save food instead of inhaling it as fast as possible was a huge rarity. "What? Boy needs to eat. He's gonna need his energy once he's healed up if you know what I mean." Here he waggled his eyebrows lecherously, thrusting his hips.

"Okaaay, let's go shopping!" Tsubaki broke in hastily, ushering him forward. Everyone followed together, young and happy, breath blossoming whitely in the cool fall air of their city.


Epilogue


Maka wasn't next to him when he woke up, which he disliked immensely, and it wasn't until he groggily checked the calendar on his phone that he realized why. When he wandered into the kitchen, he caught her stretching for something on the top shelf, which was making her oversize shirt ride up in a very interesting way, exposing every inch of her long legs and some nicely toned ass to boot. He took a moment to enjoy, then went over to stand beside her. He didn't touch her, other than a peck on the lips good morning, because as much as he wanted to drag her back to bed caveman style, he had no idea how she'd be feeling on this particular date. He didn't see any books, but still. If he'd learned anything about his girlfriend, it was that she could conjure one anywhere at any time.

"Hey," she greeted him, waving the dark smoke curling up from her attempt at a pancake away from her face. He nudged her over with his hip and took over, turning down the burner and flipping the pancake deftly. Maybe he could still salvage this one. At least she'd made the batter right.

She watched him for a moment like she was thinking, and then poured herself a fresh cup of coffee. He frowned when she started to drink it black. "We out of creamer?" he asked.

"No," she answered after a moment, sitting down at the kitchen table. She'd let her hair grow and it was loose now, hanging in a muted gold sheet around her slightly absent expresion. "It just felt like a black coffee kind of day. You know?"

He did, even if he didn't drink the stuff. "Yeah."

"Love you. Thanks for rescuing breakfast."

"It's not like I don't have to time you try to cook."

"Shut up. I made you a cake for your birthday, didn't I, and it tasted okay. I can totally cook. Hey, Blair," she greeted as the cat wandered into the room, nose twitching delicately. With a soft crackle and a swirl of fragrant lavender mist, she was a woman, busty and semi-nude as always. She'd turned up back home about five months ago, spent a long time in silent vigil at Spirit's headstone, and then had resumed life as normal, though she'd seen which way the wind was blowing almost instantly and didn't hang all over Soul anymore. He was unbelievably grateful for that fact. It turned out Maka had a bit of a jealous streak in her.

"Hi, Maka. Hi, Soul," she chirped. She poofed back into a cat and jumped up on the table to peer into Maka's coffee cup. "If you don't want cream in your coffee you could share it, you know."

Maka rolled her eyes and got up to dig in the fridge, pouring a little puddle of cream into the saucer they kept in a corner for Blair. "You do realize dairy products aren't actually good for cats," she told her friend.

"Hmpf," Blair said, blinking up at them and shaking droplets of cream off her purple whiskers. "Girl's gotta have a treat every now and then. You of all people know that, Maka, right?" Here she paused to wink and steal a sly look at Soul's ass as he poured another pancake, giving up on the one Maka had originally burned. "At least, you sure sounded like you were indulging some cravings last night."

"I will chop you into next week," Maka said sternly. Soul, finally bothering to listen to the girls' conversation, glanced at her and was impressed when her face didn't flame up. It appeared she could finally allude to their sex life without hyperventilating or maiming someone innocent.

Blair just sneezed daintily, finished her cream, and then wandered off to torment someone else. She really was the same, except for the occasional faraway look in her eye and a habit of watching the sun set, something she'd never done before. He knew Spirit had liked to do that, though; he'd often taken Maka up on the roof of the Academy to view it when she was younger and they were still trying to hash things out. Cats and witches were both resilient things, and Blair, being both, had truly landed on her feet, even though she hadn't resumed her old job at Chupacabra's yet. He suspected she and Spirit had been more serious than anyone had realized, probably keeping it on the low down to spare Maka's feelings. Did Blair know what day it was today, a year after Spirit's death? He caught her tail drooping as she ankled out the window and thought that yes, she probably did, and was putting on a brave face to spare Maka's feelings yet again. Blair and her odd, sometimes aggressive brand of love; he shook his head, smirking to himself. Having her back was a good thing.

"Thanks," Maka said when he slid a plate of pancakes in front of her. She snagged the syrup before he could grab it and doused her breakfast liberally. He retaliated by grabbing her coffee cup and stirring in a few heaping spoonfuls of sugar. She gave the steaming mug a funny look, but took a sip anyway. "Can we go kill something?" she said after a moment.

That was not at all what he'd wanted to do with his Saturday. He sputtered and choked on his overlarge mouthful. "Mmwhaf?" came out at last.

She fixed him with a level emerald stare over her cup. "It's been a year. You don't have to dance around it."

He swallowed, a little painfully, and then sighed, slouching down. "I know. I just- well, I figured I'd let you run it however you wanted today."

"Okay. I want to go take a mission." She stuck the tines of her fork in her last pancake and punctured a neat little line of holes, as carefully as if she were performing surgery. He watched her hands, because they never ceased to amaze him in what they could do. "Please?" she added. Her request wasn't an order, like it might have been a few years ago. She'd softened.

He thought about it for a while, getting a nervous feeling in his chest, because she was staring out the window after Blair as if all she wanted in the world was to slice something to pieces. He prodded at the bond gently, and the familiar sizzle of her bloodlust came through loud and clear. Under that was an equally familiar swamp of grief, but it was no longer like it was. It couldn't pull her under anymore. "You okay?"

She scooted away from the table, stretched, yawned, and flung her crossed legs up on the corner, ignoring his blatant ogling at all the interesting bits the position happened to expose. "I'm not going to run off to China, if that's what you're asking," she teased.

That reminded him of something. "When's Delun coming to visit again, anyway? He and Patty sure got on nicely last time."

She snickered gleefully. "Yeah. He handles crazy pretty well for someone who says he hates it so much. I don't know, like, a few months or something? Whenever Azusa lets him go again."

"Cool." He took another, more careful scan through their resonance and was satisfied. She opened it a little wider, let him examine her motives. She really did just want to get out of the house and release some stress. "I could help you relax if that's what you want," he volunteered, grinning at her.

She made a face at him, but he caught the rough husky ripple of notes that told him she wasn't entirely averse to his plot of staying in bed all day long. "Ummm," she said consideringly, tilting her head back to stare at the walls; they still hadn't painted over Kid's handiwork. Black didn't bother them anymore. "I don't know. I suppose I could be persuaded," she mused, sending him an arch look. He swallowed his final bite and was around the table in an instant, scooping her up and heading to the bedroom as she giggled madly between kisses


Author's note: That's all, folks! I hope this end satisfied you all, and please let me know what you thought! I am so, so, so grateful for all the wonderful reviews and support I've gotten over the course of this story. You all were so great, and I truly think your reviews have helped my writing, which I'm endlessly grateful for. Thanks so much for reading! It has all meant so much to me, to know that people are out there enjoying something I've written.

P.S.: Sooorrrry no lemon. :( It just didn't feel quite organic to this story, and I'm awful at them anyway, so I've changed the rating to reflec that.

P.P.S.: If anyone's interested I have another SoMa story going, my roaring '20s circus AU. Look for 'Dire Circus' under my author profile.