Disclaimer: I do not own Soul Eater.
by. Poisoned Scarlett
"D…damn," she wheezed, cutting through the thick shrubbery as fast as she could. The loose straps of her boots tore on tree roots hidden under piles of leaves, the crunch of them loud in her ears. Her throat was alive with the beating of her heart, so hard and so loud that she was sure they could hear it. She was sure that was how they were tracking her. She heaved the duffel bag further up her shoulder, slapped a hand on a nearby tree and caught her breath for a second. She could hear them behind her, staggering through the woods like her, lost and oblivious to anything around them except her—her and her blood, the crusting red that was drawn down her skin from an earlier fall.
"Why won't they leave?" she hissed and reached into the duffel bag for a gun. She checked it for ammo, cursed when she saw it was half-empty already, and sharply turned and shot a Walker who had caught up with her. He fell like any other, writhing on the floor until she shot it still with the next bullet. She did the same with its companion when it appeared from behind a tree. She unloaded the empty cartridge afterward and dropped it, tossing the gun into the duffel bag. Ammo, she needed more ammo. Soul had ammo, he always did—
Maka heaved the bag up on her shoulder and continued her run through the forest, casting furtive glances over her shoulder. There was an increasing number of undead that followed her deeper into the woodland; had they caught onto her scent so quickly? There were so many, so many she could not keep up, but she needed to keep running. Running, ignoring the way her feet sloppily hit the ground and threatened to give. She could already feel herself reaching her limit and she had to take it easy, that was what the doctor had said, but how could she take it easy when she had practically been forced into the forest when she heard that first Walker moan right outside her window?
She did not know where Liz was.
But, more importantly, she did not know where Soul was.
There was a part of her, a large part, that feared for him—that panicked over him, that desperately needed to know where he was and if he was safe and—but before she could let those thoughts overwhelm her, she blocked them out. He was fine, he was the best strategist she knew. Liz also accompanied them on this trip, arguably the most important trip of their lives as they carried the cure for those in the beginning stages of Infection, and vaccine for those who had survived the worst of the plague, and she was very good with a gun. They made a killer team, she thought uneasily, perhaps they were better off without her dragging them behind but they would never leave her, right? They wouldn't just off her like this, right?
Of course not, Maka chided herself. He left to find some food with Liz because she's extremely good with a gun and she was born around these parts so she knows them better than both of us combined. I stayed because I wanted to. I stayed because—Maka reached into her duffel bag for a rifle, fumbling for a few bullets. Some fell in her haste but she did not dare to stop and pick them up: she only loaded up the gun with what she had and turned on her heel, shot at the Walkers that were beginning to swarm her—I stayed because I needed to take care of the cure. I stayed because that's more important than some stupid romance.
That's right: she was in charge of making sure it was kept at the proper temperature, that it did not mix or ruin. Kidd had left the suitcase primarily to her because she was the most responsible one out of the two of them. She knew more about how it was created and how it was to be cared for than the two of them combined. She was good at this, they were good at that, and this is how they had decided who-did-what for the day. It was reasonable, but what was unreasonable was her fear of being left behind despite all that had happened—
"AH!" Maka grabbed hold of a tree to stop her fall, the bark scratching her palms. She looked at her trembling and pricked hands, then staggered upright and continued her run.
Maybe it was because she felt like she and Soul were growing distant. There was a rigidness about Soul when he was with her, something that made her wonder if maybe, maybe he really did regret bringing her back? Leaving the group, leaving everyone, just to make sure she didn't succumb to the virus? She knew she was a little more than a liability, what with her chronic headaches and weakness. The virus might've been stunted inside of her, slowly but surely cleaned away through regular vaccines by Kidd, but the side-effects were sometimes worse than the illness itself. She suffered from migraines most of the time, her muscles gave out on her completely if she exhausted herself too much, and she was always thirsty.
Kidd said it was normal and it would pass with time but now, as her muscles shook with exertion, powered only by the adrenaline she felt through every vein and vessel, it was going to cost her her life. But she was also kidding herself. She was being stubborn again. This whole rigidness between them was just due to her stubbornness; the fact that she noticed how his hands lingered on her skin and how his eyes looked at her, at her neck, at her lips, and she was not afraid of being left behind in the sense of being betrayed. Maka had begun to realize just how easy it was to die in this new world and, with every instance that Soul was not beside her, it was another chance for the dead to snatch away what she considered to be her only life-line.
"Get away!" Maka snarled, using the butt of her gun to smash it into the Walkers head. She dropped her duffel bag on the floor, hammered the butt of the gun into the Walkers skull until it shattered. Black blood sprayed over the deadened leaves, leaked out of the infected mans skull as his jaw worked around silent howls. His eyes, filmed white and rolling around in their sockets, only told her that he was an old one—already decaying, falling apart inside. Just how long did these undead, for lack of better word, 'live'? Just how long could a rotting body go on before it couldn't any longer, when the flesh and blood it had consumed tore its own stomach open at the seams and rendered them immobile—death by their own hunger?
Stein estimated a total of one hundred and forty days give or take. He mentioned how the infection altered the body, preserved it, and mentioned many variables that could extend or shorten this estimate. However, he said she should not be worried about how long an undead could last before it succumbed to itself: she should be more concerned with how, exactly, the living would be able to cope with this sudden lack of morality, of order, of humanity. Because, as he'd told her, gray eyes steady on her own, cigarette hanging off chapped white lips, what they were doing was mass murder.
She murdered, that was what this was, and just how could she live with herself after all this? Because did she really think these undead were less than human—that just because she called them undead, they were another thing altogether? Stein had looked her straight in the eye, took some perverse joy in the way her face lost some of its color, because how could she call herself a hero when all she was doing was pulling the trigger on someone who had unfortunately succumbed to illness?
Illness or not, she had told him, they were volatile and rabid and, most of all, dead.
She did not look at the vaccine incubated behind her that day.
Stein did not mention it, only left her to her thoughts.
Maka snapped her head to her right, to the bodies she could see staggering towards her. The bony, black figures against the backdrop of the blinding sunlight, their broken limbs casting horrific shadows on the uneven ground make her run faster. She needed to keep moving because the cure was with her and she could not let that ruin—because everything needed to right the world, to put a stop to all this murder Stein claimed it to be, was cushioned inside a metal suitcase. It was all inside a few tiny vials made of glass. They held the potential to turn everything around, to bring back what made her laugh and what made her a child and what made her forget to look over her shoulder, forget the heavy metal of a gun in her hand, the thump thump of her heart in her head and shitshitshit repeated under her breath, halfway between a sob and a snarl—
She tripped and fell hard on her knees this time, her bones rattling with the force. The duffel bag fell beside her and blew plumes of late autumn leaves into the air. The ground was cold, wet, and she could feel remnants of snow from the previous night. Cold, yes, it was cold but she could barely feel it—barely notice that her breath created puffs of white mist, barely noticed that she couldn't feel her nose or cheeks anymore. Cold was not important, not as important as surviving this sudden onslaught of the undead. The cold could wait, like most things in her life now.
Maka dug in her bag desperately, pulled out another handgun and raised it to a Walker. She shot once, nailing him in the neck, and it was enough to propel him back enough to buy her some more time. Maka crawled to the duffel bag, wobbled upright only to shriek when a bony hand grabbed her arm. Maka shoved her elbow into its face, broke its nose and ignored the cold blood that dribbled down her skin. It left streaks of black; it was clumpy, puddling on the ground, a foul smell invading her nostrils. She shoved the decaying woman away, shot her in the head, ignored the raspy, unhinged laugh of professor Stein that cried murder, you're a murderer! How does it feel, living in a world without rules? It's madness! in her mind. Instead, she ran up the steep forest grounds with the dead at her heels.
Because this was survival, a dog-eat-dog world.
This was survival, she told herself, survival as she grabbed a mans neck and twisted it, hearing bone crack—a crack that resounded in her mind, in the part of herself that smiled and clapped and told her to do it again.
"Did you check that box over there?"
"No," Liz replied, wrinkling her nose. She crossed her arms. "I'm not touching it! It's got blood all over it!"
"So? Look through it!"
"No way! That's so unsanitary—what if, what if you contract something from it—like, like some sort of undead flu or—!"
"Y'know what?" Soul cut her off, casting her a flat look. "Forget it. I'll do it myself."
"Right..." Liz dully said, poking the box of bloody canned goods with the butt of her rifle. She turned to look at Soul, who had overturned another crate with his foot and caught his wrinkled nose. No good either, she thought grimly, but he was still looking. This supply of canned goods had been ravaged, cans crushed enough that their contents spilled out. It was covered in black blood, other spoiled foods, and frankly Liz would rather cut off half of her hair than dig through them to pick out something good like Soul was doing.
"Why don't we just look elsewhere? This is so gross!" Liz complained, a little nauseous as Soul continued to dig through the box and ignored the globs of blood that smeared his hands. He had better take a long and hot shower after this because she was sure the smell of rotten blood and spoiled goods would stick worse than skunk. "We can just go to the next store? There's one two blocks from here—!"
"Too far," Soul grunted and managed to pick out four good cans from the rest. He continued his search. "Maka's been getting weaker recently—she sleeps a lot more and Kidd said we have to make sure she doesn't exhaust herself. She's still recovering."
Liz pursed her lips. "Yeah, but she hasn't been doing much in the first place. She's fine."
"That's what you think—she goes out, when you're not looking. Caught her poking around the barn last night, that idiot. That's where I got that rake from…" His eyes shifted to the very same rake propped against the wall in two pieces because he had overestimated its strength and snapped it clean in two after impaling a Walker with it. "Came in handy."
"Well, even if she is going out sometimes, she still doesn't do much! Which is why I don't understand why she's so tired… has she been getting any sleep?" Liz narrowed her eyes a fraction when Soul faltered. "Soul?"
"That's it," he said, sounding like he could smack himself with a book. "She's not sleeping—that's why she was in the barn last night! She doesn't sleep."
"It might explain the bags under her eyes," Liz clucked her tongue. "Not attractive."
"Shut up," Soul snapped and went back to searching. "If she's not sleeping then something's keeping her up. I'll talk to her about it later."
"Y'know, you get pretty defensive when someone bad-mouths her," Liz smirked but Soul remained undeterred. "Got a little crush on her, is that it? It's okay, it's kind of obvious. It's not like you try to hide it, either. Last week, in the hall. Awkward," she grinned when he faltered, remembering the incident that involved his hands getting carried away again and touching her soft cheek—the eyelashes that curled to reveal bright emerald eyes, pink lips parted just enough to feel her hot breath. He would have noticed more, touched more, had Liz not walked in at that very moment shouting something about someone eating the last strawberry-filled cupcake on this side of the US.
"Maka's a lot more than what you think she is," Soul quietly told her. Liz's smirk gradually faded. "You might see her as this girl who needs to be protected but she's not. She's just a little sick right now but when she gets better, she'll prove you wrong. She doesn't like it when you treat her like she's about to collapse at any given moment. If you treated her with more respect, maybe she'd talk to you more," Soul said as he stacked four undamaged cans beside him. "She doesn't need to be babied."
"She's half my size, 'bout as young as, oh, I dunno', a highschooler?" Liz blew out a frustrated breath. "I don't mean to sound rude, but that isn't a lot to brag about."
"She took care of these kids," Soul started, startling her with his evenness. His fingers brushed away scabs of black blood on the cans. "Five of them, practically still in daycare, since the outbreak began. She took care of them by herself all those months before she met us. She foraged food for them, risked her life every day for them, and when I met her…she went back for one. She nearly died for her," Soul continued, holding a broken can in his hand. "She would have. She would have died for all of them if given the choice, but not before she fought until she bled out. Just because she's some highschooler doesn't mean she lacks any more courage than us. To be honest, she's probably more courageous than both of us combined."
Liz shifted her eyes to the windowpane of the grocery store they'd broken into, to the fading sun on the horizon. Perhaps she was being a little hard on Maka—after all, the girl had practically made it back from becoming one of the undead and, only a week later, demanded to be let out of bed rest so she could get a feel for the world again. A week after that they were hitting the road. Liz had followed because she needed to ensure that the vaccine cure was properly handled once in the hands of medical doctors. Patty would have come s well, although Kidd and Stein still needed someone with enough medical expertise to aid them in their experiments.
So Liz knew all about courage and being stronger than one looked. Except it was the opposite with her, really: she was petrified of this—this decline in society, this decline in humanity, this decline of resources and people. She was terrified of the undead, their gaping mouths and hanging skin and black blood that seemed to streak every street and wall and windowpane. So maybe it was not so much her being critical with Maka as it was that she admired the girls resiliency—her ability to still be able to smile and look towards some silver lining Liz was blind to.
"I guess…" Liz murmured.
Soul stacked another two cans then abruptly stopped. He looked at the window.
"What is it?" Liz asked, worriedly.
"Do you hear that?"
She strained her hearing but frowned when she heard nothing; absolutely nothing. "No. What is it?"
"It's too quiet—why is it so quiet?" Soul went over to the window, scanned the outside and saw it was completely deserted. "There were Walkers out there when we came here. Where did they go?"
"I don't know. What does it matter?" Liz asked, rubbing her hands up and down her arms. "Maybe they crawled back into their—their zombie holes or something!"
"No, they found something," Soul stared out the window. "They travel in packs, like wolves. There's a leader they follow because it leads them to food—their base instinct is to feed and if someone can give them that, they'll follow. So they've caught onto something alive."
"H…hehe, you sure know a lot about them," Liz forced a laugh. "Their behavior and the like. Stein wanted to…study them, for awhile. He even chained one up in the basement," she avoided his blank stare to look at her shoes. "Kidd eventually convinced him it would be too much of a hazard to keep a Walker in the basement…it could escape or—attack him or something."
"Maka told me," Soul answered a few seconds later. Liz dug her fingers into her arms. "She's been around them longer than I have." He went back to collect the stack of cans into his backpack and zipped it up, slinging it over his shoulders and walking past Liz without another glance. She stifled a sigh but followed, making sure to keep her gun cocked and ready.
"Do we head back to the house?" Liz asked once outside, both of them heading down the main street cautiously. Her eyes ran over dilapidated apartment buildings, the trash and human remains that littered the sidewalks. To think once this had been filled with people, walking to the store or back to their homes, holding hands with their daughters or sons or—
"Yeah, we've got enough to last us a few days," Soul answered, referring to the extra bag Liz carried on her own back. His carried more medical supplies and those soup cans for Maka. Liz managed a tiny smile at that. He cared for her so much. He was always looking after her and never looking away—not for a second, she was always in his sight. She figured this was probably the longest Maka had been out of his sight since they arrived at the CDC. She wondered if, maybe, if they weren't in such a crisis situation, they could have become something more—maybe even gotten married, had a few kids, always bickering in that fond way they did. She figured one way or another they would: their chemistry was enough to make her believe in things like love again.
"Hey, do you think we can head out tomorrow evening like we planned? We've got a time-limit on the vaccines and it's still a long way to the border," Liz spoke up nervously as they wove their way past stalled cars. Soul opened his mouth to answer when they both heard the echo of gunshots.
Liz stopped and so did Soul, listening.
It remained eerily quiet.
"Those gunshots—they came from…" he looked in the direction of the house, feeling his stomach drop like a block of lead. "…they came from house, didn't they?"
Liz stared in that direction, too, and flinched when two more shots sounded. "Maka," she uttered and no sooner than the words were out of her mouth, Soul was running—running faster than she could keep up with but she didn't need to. She only needed to follow muffled gunshots, ignore the sun that was already an orange strip against the skyline. Liz hesitated when she was at the edge of the forest but soldiered through before she could lose sight of Soul anymore than she already had. She pushed past trees and hissed when branches slapped her skin and sliced paper-thin cuts. Her eyes darted left and right for anything that staggered or moaned, the grip in her gun making her knuckles white.
"MAKA!" Soul screamed, muffled by distance.
"Shit, shut up, Soul, you'll bring them right to you!" Liz cursed and hurried. Her eyes bulged when a Walker suddenly came out from behind a tree, its lower jaw snapped clean off. Its tongue was ripped halfway, all hanging flesh and bleeding black. "Ugh, oh, god, so gross! Get away!" She rose her rifle and shot, using her foot to kick him away from her. "Gross!" She cried but continued on, shooting a few more that staggered her way. She had just shot her sixth, worry beginning to gnaw at her thoughts, when she heard Soul shout Maka's name again. She ran faster, shooting another, reloading her rifle and shooting another, and she shouted both their names because this was starting to get too dangerous, when she broke through the foliage and watched both of them fend off what looked like the start of a hoard.
"Shit, shit, shit!" Liz cussed, shooting more of them down. "GET OUT OF THERE! RUN!" Liz shouted, shooting the ones who had sensed her and staggered towards her. With her help, they reduced the numbers, but she noticed that the more they shot down, an equal amount were being replaced. She had no idea where they were coming from but, as Soul grabbed Maka's arm, pulled her in front of him and out of the closing mob of the undead, they needed to get out of there—out of this town—immediately.
"Head back to the road!" Soul shouted. Liz immediately turned heel and retraced her steps, aware of Maka's wheezy breathing, aware that for however strong Maka was there was no way this could be healthy for her, aware that maybe Kidd was right when he warned that it was too early to leave the CDC—no matter the cure, the breakthrough.
"Everything in its time," Liz whimpered to herself. Everything in its time her ass but damn if Kidd hadn't been right this one time.
Liz slid to a stop once her foot touched asphalt but she barely had time to take a breath before Soul was rushing past her, pointing to the house where the van was still parked.
"Are you kidding me?" Liz shrieked. "We can't go back for it!"
"We're gonna' have to!" He snapped back. Maka didn't look too good—pale, her brows scrunched together, sweat coating her forehead, her hand gripping her shirt hard enough that her dark veins popped on her skin. "Just follow my lead!"
"THERE'S DOZENS! There's no way you're going to be able to even get near it!"
"I just need to get inside!" Soul insisted. "Doors unlocked! I figured something like this might happen!"
"In the ignition!"
"Okay, that is so not smart—!" But Liz barely had time to reprimand him when Soul stopped and pulled Maka to his chest for a second, telling her something that Liz couldn't hear. It only lasted a second, then he was heading over to Liz and passing the pale-faced girl to her, ignoring her sputters in favor of reloading his gun and checking for his knife.
"Hold onto her for a sec, I'll go get the van!"
Liz balked. "What? You're not actually thinking about going? But what about us!"
"It'd be even more dangerous if you two came along," Soul silenced her. "I'll do it. I'll be fine." He looked at Maka, who shook her head at him but was too winded to really scold him on his reckless plan. "I'll be fine, Maka, and if you follow me, you'll regret it!" He warned and, smiling briefly at the dark look in her eyes, ran towards the van at full speed.
Liz shook her head, watching him grow smaller in the distance. She pulled them both toward a tree, hiding behind it. "That idiots gonna' get himself killed—there's dozens," Liz whispered in disbelief, casting a quick look around her to find them safe for now. She carefully wrapped Maka's arm around her neck and heaved her up, making sure to keep her own rifle at easy access. She couldn't hear anything but that could change in less than a second.
"He's," Maka panted, eye shut in pain, her lip twitching into a semblance of a smile, "special."
"You're tellin' me!"
"But he'll," Maka smiled weakly at Liz, "he'll come back. He won't die. He can't."
Maka nodded her head. She slumped against Liz when exhaustion finally set into her bones, still holding onto the duffel bag with white knuckles. She closed her eyes for a bit, tried to stave off the dizziness. She had overexerted herself and it was showing in how she could barely breath, her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. She was still in delicate condition, although she hated to admit it, and after this accident, she was sure Soul would be even more of a guard dog than he already was. She was definitely not anticipating the next few weeks until they reached the border. But she was anticipating one day, one day that was coming very soon: "He promised to be there for my birthday."
"Your birthday?" Liz stared at her, tightening her grip on her. "...When's your birthday?"
Maka smiled faintly. "Tomorrow."
Liz would have asked her how old she was turning if Soul hadn't pulled up beside them at that very moment, shouting at them to get inside before the Walkers and that one lunatic Runner managed to reach them. And when Liz settled Maka in the backseats, pressing a hand on her forehead to check her temperature, grabbing the headrest of the seat to keep herself steady, ignoring the way the car jumped and the way her head hit the roof with every one of them, she came to the solid conclusion that if these two didn't get themselves killed because of their recklessness, they'd get themselves killed for each other.
But maybe that's what had kept them alive for so long.