Finally wrapping this story up! This last chapter is dedicated to Eis, for her amazing artwork that inspired this entire story. I'm so glad she allowed me to explore it! Thanks Eis!
Soul stepped over the threshold, his breath puffing out in front of him like a wisp of smoke as he sighed, finally getting into the warmth.
"You're letting all the hot air out!" Maka said teasingly. He grinned up at her a little numbly, his face frozen by the biting wind. "You brought the stuff?" she asked, eying the plastic bag clutched in his mittened hand.
"Yeah," he said with a sniff. He surreptitiously wiped his nose with his sleeve. "You're about to learn what real hot chocolate tastes like." Soul stomped his boots on the mat to shake the snow off, then leaned down to untie them. He tried not to stare at Maka's legs, which were now at eye-level. He had thought that with the colder weather, she would have been forced to start wearing pants, rather than her usual skirts, but instead she had only added brightly colored leggings to her fashion repertoire. It startled him how equally distracting her legs were even when wrapped in blue or red or green, which was what she was currently wearing. It matched her overlarge black Christmas sweater, with white reindeer leaping across her chest against a forest of small evergreen trees. Soul managed to move his gaze to her face, only to discover her watching him closely.
"Your cheeks are all red," she said.
"'Cause I was out in the cold!" he protested, sliding out of his boots. He was a step below her in the small mudroom, conscious of her studious stare. Maka held out her hands and pressed them against his cheeks. She smiled slowly.
"Your nose is all red, too."
"Guess we need to warm me up with some hot cocoa."
"Guess so!" she said, her hands falling from his face, her long sleeves rolling over them as she turned on her heel, and he entered the house behind her.
They stepped into Maka's bright kitchen, and Soul set his bag down on the kitchen table. He began to peel away the layers of his coats and sweaters, laying them over the back of one of the chairs. Maka bustled around the stove, lighting the burners and pouring milk into a saucepan.
"All right," Soul said, his face finally starting to warm up. "Whose cocoa are we having first?"
"You said yours was minty, right?"
Soul scoffed. "If by 'minty' you mean 'nectar of the gods of mint', then yeah."
"You sound like Black*Star."
"Don't say that."
Maka grinned over her shoulder at him. "In any case, we should probably have mine first."
She started pulling ingredients out of cupboards. Soul watched her, not paying full attention, but he straightened as he saw her grab a small bottle. "Is that cayenne pepper?" he asked incredulously.
Maka smirked wickedly. "You'll see."
"What the hell kind of hot chocolate takes cayenne pepper?"
"My kind," she said simply. "Stir the milk so it doesn't stick to the bottom."
Soul snorted, but obeyed. Maka lined up her pepper, cinnamon, and vanilla extract in a neat little row on the counter, the only sounds in the kitchen the domestic clinking of glass bottles, the hiss of the gas stove, and the slow bubbling of the milk.
"Oh, I brought my own vanilla 'cause I wasn't sure if you'd have any," Soul said, eying her ingredients.
"Why would I not have vanilla extract?" she asked. "We made cookies two weeks ago, we used it!"
"I know, I know, I wasn't thinking," he said, and she hip-checked him lightly. She leaned over his shoulder, watching the milk slowly turn in the pan.
"Uh, aren't you forgetting something?"
"The chocolate!" Maka yelped, and Soul laughed as she scrambled to find the powder mix. She pulled out a large can of store brand cocoa powder. Maka measured all her ingredients and threw them into the pot, Soul stirring dutifully.
"Okay, I think we're good," she said, producing two mugs from the cabinet. She put the mugs in the sink and poured the steaming hot cocoa into them ("don't spill don't spill don't spill" "Soul, you are so obnoxious, stop poking me!") and set the empty pot back down on the stove.
"Prepare to be amazed," she said smugly, carefully lifting the two mugs out of the sink. They took them to the little table and sat facing each other. Their fingers were clenched tightly around the handles of their respective glasses. Maka was smirking at him, and the way she perched over the table, ready to swig down her cocoa, made him think of a pirate. "Drink!" she commanded, and the comparison became even more apt.
"It's too hot," Soul groaned, and Maka rolled her eyes.
"Blow on it," she said flatly. He quirked an eyebrow at her. "Oh, stop that!" she demanded, her face turning red.
After a few minutes more of moaning, Soul managed to take a sip. "Whoa!" he said, smacking his lips together. "That has a zing!"
Maka giggled. "That's the point!"
They chatted amiably while they finished their hot cocoa. They discussed their classes, their friends, and what they wanted to do over winter break. Maka said she wanted to finish a number of books, and Soul teased her for being a nerd. Soul said he wanted to see the latest action movie, and Maka teased him for being "such a guy." As soon as the last drop of chocolate disappeared down his throat, Maka leaned forward eagerly.
"Hmm," Soul said, pretending to be contemplative. "Pretty gross. Never had something so disgusting in my life. Absolutely- ouch!" Maka smacked him on the hand (the only part of him she could reach) with a paperback. "Where did you even get that-"
"What did you think?" Her tone threatened more book-induced injury.
"Maka. It was delicious. I was just messin' with you."
"Never insult a man's hot chocolate," she said, a glint in her eye. "Or a woman's. Or anyone's." She gave him a pointed look. "Your turn. And even though your cocoa won't be as good as mine, I won't tell you that."
Soul chuckled as they approached the sink again. He quickly rinsed the large saucepan and placed it back on the stove. Maka poured more milk into the pot and handed him his plastic bag. Soul pulled out his own set of ingredients, the glass bottles still cold to the touch after having been outside. He placed his peppermint, vanilla, and cinnamon on the counter as Maka stirred the milk this time.
"Check this out," he said proudly, producing a small canister of powdered chocolate from the bag. "Highest quality cocoa, imported from Switzerland. Very good stuff."
Maka made a noise of appreciation. Soul set it on the counter, struggling with the lid. "Hmm," he said, trying to slip his short fingernails under the lid. "Hold on." He tried to get more leverage by standing on his toes.
"Want me to get it?" Maka asked, still turning the milk.
"No, I got this." Soul tried twisting the lid, but it was stuck fast. "Fuck. Hold on." He grunted as he placed the can between his knees to hold it steady. The lid didn't budge. "Okay, wait one sec," he said, grabbing a butter knife from the counter and trying to use it as leverage. "Wait." He pounded the top of the canister with the end of the knife in an attempt to break it. "Dammit!" he said, slamming the can down on the counter with a wide swing.
The top burst off and powdered cocoa was flung up into the air. It covered the cabinets, the counter, Soul's face and shirt, and Maka's left side. He coughed and a little puff of brown powder curled from his lips. Maka burst out laughing.
"Ha ha," Soul said over Maka's peals of laughter, grateful for the layer of chocolate dust hiding his burning blush. He grabbed a dish towel and tried to wipe up the counter, though all he really succeeded in doing was spread the powder around. Maka had her face in her arms on the counter, hiccuping with laughter. Her foot pounded against the ground weakly as she let out ragged giggles. "Are you done?" he asked petulantly.
"Ahhh," she wheezed out. "Maybe." She straightened, resuming her stirring. "Is there enough left to use?" she chortled.
"Yeah," Soul grumbled. He measured out his ingredients while Maka wet a towel and began to mop up the mess. She brushed her sleeve off and turned to Soul.
"Close your eyes," she said, and he obeyed. He felt her rub the wet towel across his face. She started giggling again, and he sneered at her. "Okay, you're good."
He opened his eyes to find hers in his line of sight. She was still grinning.
"I think the cocoa's done," she said.
Soul turned the heat off and repeated Maka's process of pouring the cocoa into the mugs ("I would tell you not to spill, but it's a little late for that" "Shut up Maka") and they helped themselves.
They sat down at the table again, cradling their newly filled mugs. "You should have seen your face," Maka said.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," said Soul, slouching lower in his chair. He smiled up at her shining face. "Pretty funny?"
"Try the cocoa."
She sipped lightly at it. "Mmm!" she squeaked. "That's delicious."
Soul gave a loud slurp as he drank his. "Right?"
"Y'know, it makes a good combination," Maka said thoughtfully, looking across the kitchen at all their little bottles on the counter, lined up like chessmen ready to play a game. "My hot and spicy cocoa followed by your cool and minty one."
"The perfect combination," Soul said, taking another sip.
"Cheers!" Maka said, clinking their glasses together.
"You know you don't have to do this if you don't want to, right?"
"I want to."
Maka slid onto the piano bench next to him, gazing at him with rapt attention. Soul nodded at her, keeping his eyes on her face. It was the only thing worth paying much attention to in the room; everything else was as it always had been. The heavy drapery hung on all the windows of his parents' music room was pushed back to allow the watery winter sunshine in, the polished hardwood floor was gleaming from disuse, and the other instruments were lined up neatly against the wall, like a silent, watchful audience. But Maka was the only critic he cared about at the moment.
"I wrote this myself," Soul said, turning to gaze at the piano keys below his fingers. She made a hum of acknowledgment, and he placed the pads of his fingers to the keys. They were cool to the touch, tiny imperfections apparent only under his practiced hands. He liked that this piano was no longer perfect, liked that his parents had no idea that his fingers had worn slight grooves into the ivory with use, the oil of his fingers writing his story into unmarked keys. And he liked that Maka was watching him intently, as if she concentrated hard enough, she might finally understand music.
He pressed down with one finger, slowly and gently, and the key made no noise of protest.
Soul lifted his fingers again and began to play in earnest. The haunting notes floated into the chilly air, dancing delicately as he guided them into a melody. His hands ghosted over the keys, his concentration on hitting the right keys at the right time.
As he played, he slipped into an almost trance-like state, and imagined pouring his soul into the music, channeling himself through the keys under his fingers. His playing grew louder and more forceful, almost erratic at times, and he stopped focusing on his style and form, his blood pumping through him like lightning.
Soul finished the piece and the last note lingered in the air, vibrating long after his hands lifted from the keys. He took a deep breath, feeling almost as if he had been through a warzone. He had played at more recitals than he could count, but he had never felt as nervous as he did now, turning to finally look Maka in the eyes.
She started clapping. "That was great!" she said enthusiastically. Her claps seemed loud and out of place, echoing in the tiny room. "I really, really liked it. I mean, I didn't really get it, but I liked it."
He grinned toothily at her. "As long as you liked it."
"I did! I can't believe you wrote that yourself. How were you able to do it?"
He didn't tell her that it was easy to write after hearing her tinkling laugh, watching her hair slip over her long smooth neck as she leaned against the couch, smelling her strawberry shampoo, feeling her fingers entwined with his.
Maka pulled into the darkened parking lot, gravel crunching under the tires of her car. The headlights swung out over the pond, illuminating the layer of ice that had formed at the surface.
"Yes! It's frozen over!"
Soul peered through the windshield of Maka's car from the passenger's seat. "Are you sure?"
"Yeah, look at it. Plus there're some marks from where someone else went skating, you can see the lines."
Soul shrugged. "If I fall in, you have to fish me out."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, you're not gonna fall in." She shut the car off, and the glaring lights went dark. The lighting changed from a harsh yellow to a soft blue as the full moon bathed everything in a cool glow. Maka pulled her mittens back on and she struggled out of the car, bundled up against the cold. For once, Maka was wearing pants over her leggings for extra warmth, but her hair remained in its signature pigtails, her ears covered by large earmuffs.
Soul was similarly dressed for the cold. Maka had told him he ought to wear long johns under his jeans in case he fell on his backside (which he fully expected to) to soften the blow.
They struggled out of the car and grabbed their ice skates. There was a bench overlooking the small pond, and they both sat down to switch their footwear. Soul was using a pair of Maka's father's skates, and they were a bit tight once he laced them up, but it was the best they could do.
They both stood up and clomped carefully to the frozen edge of the pond. They managed to get onto the ice without any problems, but Maka was still much more graceful than Soul. Maka had been right; the surface of the ice was milky with the grooves of other skaters. They clasped hands, as naturally as if they had been doing it their whole lives, and made their way around the edge of the pond. The surface was rough and uneven.
Maka seemed reluctant to break the silence of the winter air, and Soul was content to enjoy her company, their gloved hands holding each other's tightly.
"I really like this pond," Maka said after awhile. "I love that this neighborhood is so quiet."
"Yeah, pretty cool. And pretty popular," said Soul, indicating with his free hand the grooved ice.
"Lots of people bring their kids here. Plus if there are sticks under the ice when it freezes, it can cause bumps. But it's a really nice place." She turned to face him. Her lips were curling into a smile. "It's really- oof!"
Maka pitched forward, and in an effort to remain upright, grabbed onto Soul's leg as she fell. His arms shot out, but he managed to stay standing. Maka was curled around his leg, looking flabbergasted.
"Speaking of bumps," Soul laughed, throwing his head back as Maka glared up at him. She released his leg and shifted below him. Soul tried to stifle his chuckles, but offered her a hand. "Need help?"
"Thanks," she said, using his hand as leverage to stand again. She grinned at him and shoved a mittenful of snow into his face, his nose burning in protest. He spluttered as he wiped the powdery snow from his face.
"Oh, it's so on!"
Maka and Soul flung themselves sideways off of the ice and into the snow drifts that had accumulated around the edge of the pond. The dry powdery snow was not ideal for packing, but they managed to lob snowball after snowball at each other, their laughter echoing across the empty pond. Soul received two more snowballs to the face, but managed to pay Maka back with a very well-aimed smack to the back of her head while she tried to pack another weapon. Their arms grew heavy as they panted loudly, their smoky breaths wafting into the air in front of them.
Soul received another snowball to the ear and the snow fell from his hands. He grinned at her, and started crawling towards her. "No!" she screeched, trying to pack together another snowball to stave off his onslaught. He was a little clumsy – it was difficult to crawl with skates on – but he grew closer and closer, listening to her shrill giggles, like a shark closing in on his prey.
He flung himself forward only to land face first in the snow. He had misjudged the distance in the dark. Maka let out a happy shriek and scrambled onto her feet, sliding out onto the ice. Soul got up and shook himself, flailing to get his feet under him and pursue her.
Maka almost made it to the other side of the pond before Soul caught up with her, though he knew it had more to do with how she was laughing too hard to skate properly rather than his skating prowess. This didn't stop Soul from wrapping his arms around her and using his momentum to send them crashing into the snow bank on the edge of the pond.
She gave him a startled look from the snow, then burst out laughing again, her thin frame vibrating underneath him.
"Caught you," he said triumphantly.
"I guess you did," she said, still giggling.
Soul could smell the snow wreathed around her hair. Maka's cheeks were flushed with cold and exertion, and there were tiny snowflakes clinging to her eyelashes. His heart was pounding in his chest. He still had his arms wrapped around her. She smiled up at him, and he felt something stir within him, and leaned forward.
Their lips brushed together. Soul barely felt anything; he was too numb from the cold. He opened his eyes to look into Maka's, and he saw a warmth there that seemed to melt the snow around them, and he closed his eyes again and pressed against her with more force. Her lips were chapped from being outside for so long, but they warmed up the longer they rested against his. He felt a fluttering in his stomach. He had no idea what he was doing – all he knew was that this was one of the best things he had ever done and he did not want to mess this up – but Maka turned her head a little and their lips seemed to fit together better and he stopped thinking.
He moved his mouth gently against hers, tightening his hold around her waist. Their lips parted with a light crackle. Maka wriggled underneath him until he loosened his grip and she freed her arms. She reached up to rest them on his shoulders, smiling up at him. He couldn't help the oversized grin that spread across his face. Her eyes were soft as she leaned up slightly to join their lips again. Soul responded by turning his head again to adjust their angle and deepen the kiss, listening intently to the tiny sounds their mouths made together and the way her breath felt against his skin.
The moon glowed gently overhead. A screech owl perched in the pines called a soft warbling song into the night, and in the distance, his mate returned his song, hooting contentedly.