A/N: Chapter four is finally here-I am so sorry for the long wait. Chapter five should be uploaded by tomorrow, hopefully. Also small note that italicized text means a flashback is happening. I hope you enjoy the chapter!
Four Years Later
Soul was home, in his bed. He sleepily blinked his eyes and rolled over, pulling the blanket over his head.
He sneezed as he got comfortable in his nest of blankets. As he tried to drift off again, an uneasy feeling wound his stomach into knots, rousing him from his beckoning dreams.
He sat up. There was just something…wrong.
It felt like something was off with the world, a slight tilt to his world that made everything seem unfamiliar and terrifying.
Soul swallowed hard and felt his throat scratch painfully. Like it was on fire. Anxiously, he remembered the conversation between his mother and father at breakfast.
His father had been reading the morning paper, like he always did, while Soul's mother had laid out the meal.
Soul hadn't been paying much attention to his father as he and Wes had been competing over who could eat more pancakes in the shortest amount of time.
What had caught his attention, though, was the dejected sigh his father gave as he tossed the newspaper on the table. He had looked curiously at his father, who was picking at his pancakes with an unneeded viciousness.
His mother had picked up on it as well. "What happened, dear?"
"It's coming closer," his father had replied, shaking his head. "The sickness is coming closer. It's passed well into Wall Eibon's territory already and made a mess in Wall Brew. They're saying it might actually make into Wall Asura this time."
Soul had piped up then. "But we're safe in the country, right, Father?" He smiled assuredly, confident his father would say yes, they were very safe in their home.
Instead, his father had looked down and hadn't answered.
Soul's smile had faded and he looked anxiously at his parents. "We're safe, right?"
Wes had interrupted. "Soul, I want to practice on the piano today."
Soul's attention shifted instantly. "No, the piano's mine!"
"You can practice on my violin, If you want," Wes offered with a sly grin, knowing his brother detested playing the violin.
"The violin is for babies," Soul had said, sticking out his tongue.
"Well, it's perfect then since you're the baby," Wes had rejoined, sticking out his tongue as well.
Their mother had intervened then. "Boys, no sticking out your tongues. It's bad manners."
"Sorry, Mother," they had replied in unison, returning to their meal.
The rest of the day had passed like any other, with Soul and Wes roaming the grounds until dark after music practice. Soul had entirely forgotten the conversation at breakfast.
Soul flopped back into bed, kicking up the covers with his feet. The sheets floated down back onto his body lazily. He shut his eyes firmly, determined to ignore any and all signs that he might be sick.
He wasn't sick, he repeated to himself over and over until the words mashed into each other and lost meaning altogether.
A few minutes later, however, the scratchy feeling had intensified to a burning pain and pierced through his sleepiness like a red-hot brand. Giving up, Soul lifted the blanket, peeking cautiously into his darkened room.
Perhaps if he got some water, his throat would stop hurting.
Reaching for the candle that stood on the nightstand to his left, the room became illuminated, chasing the darkness into the corners of the room.
Soul's bare feet came into contact with the cold stone floor as he searched for his slippers. Grumbling incoherently, he finally found his slippers. Yawning, he stumbled for his door.
As soon as Soul opened the door, he could feel the wrongness he had sensed before intensify tenfold. All traces of sleepiness faded away as he considered the tension in the hallway, unsure whether to move forward or retreat back into his room. He looked around, heart beating fast.
He glanced at Wes' room, just across the hall. Strangely enough, his door was slightly ajar. Soul bit his lip worriedly. He knew from experience that Wes hated keeping his door open in the night.
Silently, he eased his way across the hall, eyes darting around nervously for any monsters.
He pushed open Wes' door, wincing as it creaked.
"Wes?" Soul whispered uneasily, rubbing at his aching throat.
He raised the candle high when he received no answer. The candlelight illuminated Wes' room. Or what had been Wes' room.
The room was a mess. Wes' desk, where he wrote his music, was overturned while his bed, which was empty, had its sheets thrown all over the place.
Soul's mouth ran dry, anxiousness turning into full-blown fear. He backed away slowly, fully intending to go back to his bed and pretending he never saw a thing.
Out in the hall, he heard a muffled sob coming from downstairs. It sounded like his mother.
Soul hesitated in the hall, torn by the desire to see what was wrong and the voice in his head screaming at him not to go downstairs.
The sobbing continued.
Gritting his teeth, Soul tightened his grip on the candle, making his way down the hall.
He paused when he reached the end of the hallway and the beginning of the staircase. Soul peered over the landing and into the hall below it.
The door to his father's study was open and a mix of jumbled voices came from it, sounding like when Soul and Wes were out of sync with each other during music practice. His mother's sobbing (because that was definitely his mother's voice) intensified into wailing, scraping at Soul's ears.
Soul ran down the stairs, heart in his throat.
He burst into his father's study with a crash. "Father, why is Moth-?
Several strange people looked at him, various degrees of shock on their faces.
In the center of the room was someone who looked like a doctor, needle in his hand. And beside him were his parents. His father stood, a tortured look on his face.
And his mother knelt down, sobbing wildly.
Sobbing over his unmoving brother's body.
The candle fell from his hand and clattered onto the floor, tiny flame snuffing out.
Soul meant to yell but what came out instead was a horrified scream.
It seemed to snap everyone back into action, except his mother.
The doctor rushed forward. "Perhaps, it'll work on this one!"
Soul's father moved to block him. "That's what you promised before!" he roared.
Soul tried to run out of the room but a couple of the people grabbed him, holding him in place. He writhed in their arms, struggling to get free.
The doctor gave a strange giggle. "You asked your contacts for a cure and this is what you got!" He gestured at Soul with the needle. "And just take a look at him, the sickness is already upon him. He'll die for sure, if you don't let me do this!"
There was a long pause. Soul's father stepped aside.
The last thing Soul remembered was the man coming at him with the needle.
Then the world went black.
With a start, Soul jolted into consciousness, the bare room of the barracks coming into focus. The dream clung to him like a spider web, weaving half-formed and quickly fading images before his eyes.
"About time!" Maka's face darted into his vision, chasing the last of the dream away. Her face was set in an impatient pout. "You overslept, of all days! Hurry up!"
Yawning widely, Soul stumbled out of bed, searching for his uniform. "Relax, they're not judging us on perfect attendance."
Maka snorted, already fully dressed and equipped with her gear.
"Can't exactly pass the graduation test if you're not there to take it, can you?" She tossed his uniform at his face.
Soul's response was cut off as he received a mouthful of clothing.
Maka strode out of the room. "I'm leaving with or without you in five minutes, got it?"
Soul began to change. "Yeah, yeah, pigtails."
He heard a yell from outside. "I heard that!"
Soul grinned. A strange feeling gnawed at him as he got dressed, however, whispering in his mind that his dream had been important. That it had something to do with his brother disappearing all those years ago.
Soul gave his head a vigorous shake as he pulled on his boots. It had been seven years since Wes had ran away in the middle of the night. That was all there was to it, no other explanation. His parents had shown him the note themselves, Wes' handwriting undeniable even to Soul's heartbroken ten year old self.
A few minutes later, he emerged, fully dressed and gear in hand.
Maka danced fretfully around him, talking a million miles a second, speculating on what would be on the test, whether Commander Stein would make a guest appearance like he had on graduation test days in the past.
"He knows my father pretty well so if he brought my father with him, that would be…" Maka trailed off, shuddering. "Terrible."
Soul shuddered as well, recalling the first and last time Spirit visited Maka at the military camp.
It'd been exactly one week since Ox had unceremoniously announced who Maka was, after dinner. Luckily, everyone else had long gone, save for Soul and Maka who had been tasked with clean-up duty.
Maka had taken it surprisingly well when the door to the dining hall flew open and a man with long red hair tied back in sailed in, yelling Maka's name. She'd set her face in a mask and continued clearing the table.
Soul had nudged her. "Is that…?"
"My father," Maka confirmed, tossing a cup into a collecting bin with a tad too much force. She'd turned to face her father, a dangerous glint in her eyes.
With a single wave of her hand, Maka had silenced her father and strode out of the dining hall. Spirit had followed her without a word.
Soul had known better than to follow.
Maka had slipped back in eventually, without her father. She'd quietly reclaimed her place next to Soul. For a moment, a slight frown had pulled at the corner of her lips. And then the frown disappeared as she straightened her back determinedly and said, "I'm okay," to Soul's unasked question.
Soul had nodded and that had been the last they had spoken of the incident or her father for the four years.
And now as he watched Maka move onto worrying about her father to rapidly spitting out four years' worth of training almost verbatim, he could almost see the nerves from when they first met slam back into Maka.
Soul interrupted her. "You're psyching yourself out, Maka. Don't you want to beat that egghead Ox?"
Maka's eyes, narrowed in concentration, widened. "Of course I do!"
"Then stop worrying about everything under the sun and relax before we get our butts kicked by whatever hell Sergeant Barett and Corporeal Nygus have planned for us." Soul gave a not-so-internal groan as he realized the truth of his words.
His words, however, succeeded in raising Maka's spirits.
Her face, which had been creased in worry, smoothed itself as she gave a hearty chuckle. "I guess you're right."
He gave her a sidelong grin. "Of course I am. I always am."
Maka aimed a half-hearted swat at his head.
Soul ducked, easily dodging. "Don't be bitter about it!"
Maka snorted as they reached the training field. "As if."
The sun beat down on Liz as she sighted the end of the forest. Sergeant Barret's idea of testing their skill individually had been to take the practice course they had first trained four years ago and riddle it with every kind of obstacle they could possibly encounter in real life, save for actual Titans.
Though she was sure if the sergeant had had his way, he would have had a couple Titans roaming the forest during their test.
Liz's grapple hook buried itself into the trunk of the last tree of the forest. Releasing the trigger on her handgrip, the hook retracted back into her sheath. Using the momentum of her swing, she angled herself and bent her knees so the impact wouldn't jolt her too much.
"Not bad, Thompson!" Corporeal Nygus called from where she stood at the finish line. "You made it out of the forest with ten minutes to spare."
Completely winded, Liz just nodded. She could feel sweat pouring down her face and neck. She could feel her hair hug to the sides of her face, particularly sticky where dirt and sweat had mixed together. Not the most pleasing sight, she was sure.
The corporeal made a little note on her ever-present clipboard. "Go get your ration of water and go join your team. Group testing is coming up."
Liz nodded again and walked where a queue of trainees who looked as drained as she felt waited for their measly cup of water.
Damn them and their rations, Liz thought as she eyed the jugs of water that one of Barret's men stood in front of. It wasn't like Loew, where they received their supplies from, was all that far away. But then again, she knew it wasn't like the sergeant had any say in the crown's ridiculous rules and regulations.
Panting slightly, she peeled off her jacket, which clung to her like a second skin, and raised it above her head in a feeble attempt to block out the sun.
The line moved slowly but the first sip from her cup tasted like liquid heaven to Liz. Weaving her way through the unorganized groups of trainees situated here and there, she finally spotted Kid's distinctive head of hair.
Maka sat cross-legged next to Soul, who was sprawled out on the ground like it was his bed instead of hard-packed dirt. In front of them, Black*Star was fighting an invisible opponent while Tsubaki, the only person that Black*Star listened to other than the instructors, called out pointers and corrections.
Patti, sandwiched between Kid and Maka, wore a look that plainly said she was dangerously close to snapping. Meanwhile, Kid was busy checking his gear for the umpteenth time, blissfully unaware of the growing storm that was Patti.
Liz hastened her pace. It had to be just her luck that test day also had to be the hottest day in the time they had been here. She wedged herself in between Patti and Kid, folding her jacket over her arm. "Hey sis! Well, that wasn't so bad?" she said with false cheer.
Kid nodded. "Certainly not unexpected. Although I assume it'll be much more challenging in the real world."
Patti merely grunted.
"Ha! It was child's play!" Black*Star declared from where he dueled his imaginary enemy.
Patti's face turned dark. She opened her mouth to respond, grinding her heel into the ground.
"It was pretty easy, wasn't it Patti?" Liz said quickly.
"You were second only to Maka," Kid agreed, catching onto to Patti's dangerous mood.
Patti scowled. "I only wanted to get to the water before anyone else."
"And wasn't it refreshing?" Liz said brightly as her heart plummeted. She had hoped that four years in this damned desert would lessen Patti's loathing for the heat but clearly that hadn't happened. "Ready for the group test?" she asked, hoping a subject change would lift Patti's mood.
Patti was undeterred, however. She peered into her cup, eyes narrowed. "My cup is empty."
"And now," Liz said, hastily pouring half of her water into Patti's cup, "It's not."
Shockingly, Patti does not immediately gulp down the water. She looked down at the cup and then hesitantly at Liz. "You sure, sis?"
Liz waved her off. "Please, this is more than enough," she said, draining the last of her water.
Patti gave her a grateful smile before throwing her head back and drinking the water in one swallow.
Turning her cup upside down, Liz caught the last few drops in her hands. She rubbed her hands on her forehead, enjoying the cool feeling.
She shrugged her jacket back on, digging in her pockets for a hair tie. Once she fixed her hair in a suitable ponytail, she plopped onto the ground with a thud.
Kid joined her in a more dignified fashion. Meanwhile, Patti has magically gone from sullen and sulky to energized and giddy.
She bounced on her feet, jabbing the air. "Is it time to go yet? I wanna mash all the other teams into a pulp!"
"Ha! Not if I do it first!" Black*Star called, finally stopping his shadowboxing.
From where Kid sat next to Liz, he whispered to her, "Is this really an improvement from her mood before? She looked like she was going to skin Black*Star alive before."
"By far," Liz says drily, examining her gear. "She'll only nearly skin him alive in this mood."
Patti put a hand on her hip. "That a challenge, mister?"
Black*Star scoffed. "You may have beat me once a long time ago but there's no way you'll defeat the rising star I am now!"
Patti bared her teeth in a grin. "I'm gonna go make you a falling star!"
Black*Star's face went blank in shock for a moment. His eyes narrowed dangerously, mouth pressing into a thin line. He balled his hands into fists and raised them. "When you're ready, blon-"
The rest of his sentence was cut off by Patti. She charged at him with a wordless cry, landing a direct hit to Black*Star's jaw.
Tsubaki walked up to Liz and took a seat in one fluid motion. "They put on quite the show, don't they?"
On the other side of Tsubaki, Maka commented, "Just as long as they don't tire themselves out. The group test is going to be just as challenging as the individual test was. And a lot more rides on this test than the individual one."
"How so?" Tsubaki asked, frowning.
Maka drew little circles in the dirt. "Your rank is based on three things: hand-to-hand combat and the group and individual tests. The individual one has a practical part, which tests your stamina and your ability of the 3D maneuver gear, and a theoretical part, which assesses your knowledge of strategy and the mechanics of our gear. We took the practical part today and the theoretical test is tomorrow."
She brushed her hands clean. "And the group test sees how well you can put together all that information and skill together in a team setting." She pressed her palms together. "Fifty percent of your score that makes up your rank comes from hand-to-hand combat and the individual test combined and the remaining fifty percent comes from how well your team does in the group test."
"So how well you rank is mostly based on a test result you're not wholly responsible for?" Liz complained. "Doesn't seem so fair to me."
Kid spoke up. "Maybe it's not but it's the most practical one. Regardless of where you go, you need to be able to work together. The way things are now, being good on your own is not worth nearly as much as being good on a team."
A somber silence fell over the group, only interrupted by Patti and Black*Star's yells.
Liz broke the tension. "Well, they certainly look like they're having fun." She raised a hand to block the sun from her face, watching the two blurs that were Patti and Black*Star.
Kid said mildly, "They'd certainly make a formidable duo. Especially if they joined the Survey Corps."
Tsubaki's face took on a slightly stricken look. "Really?"
"Yes." Kid answered. "However, those two would probably kill themselves trying to top each other in Titan kills."
Liz snorted. "Are you kidding? They wouldn't be able to last a day without trying to kill each other."
"That reminds me," Tsubaki started timorously. "What division of the military are you all going to join?"
"The Survey Corps," Kid said steadily. "I can make the most of my abilities there."
"Same here," Liz drawled. "Patti and I are sticking with Kid."
Kid frowned. "I told you that you didn't have to stay, Liz."
"And I told you that we already made our choice," Liz countered. She looked over at Tsubaki. "And where are you pledging your heart to?"
Tsubaki smiled. "The Garrison or the Corps, I think." Her smile faded a little. "Though Black*Star's dead set on joining the Corps."
"And you, Soul and Maka?" Liz called.
"The Corps," Soul mumbled from where he lay. "The uniforms are coolest."
Maka hunched her shoulders. "I-"
"Trainees!" Sergeant Barret barked. "Enough lagging around! Send a team member to receive your assignment while the rest of your team lines up!"
"I'll go!" Maka said quickly, nudging Soul out of his doze.
Without another word, she sprang to her feet and strode off. Soul got to his feet and ambled after her.
"She seems to be nervous," Kid observed.
"You think?" Liz snorted as she got to her feet, brushing the dust off her uniform. "We're only going out into a world where soldiers like you and me die like the ants under our feet. She deserves to be more than a little nervous. We all do."
She looked at Patti, who was laughing her head off as she sparred with Black*Star. "Our time is running out."
Tsubaki tightened the straps of her gear, humming tunelessly under her breath. She unsheathed her swords, inspecting their sharpness. Her blue eyes stare at her, tinted dull silver by the metal.
She ran a finger lightly up and down the blade, testing it. Tsubaki pulled away her hand with a hiss, drops of blood bubbling up from where the sharp edge of the blade cut her. Stupid, she berated herself as she stuck her finger in her mouth, hoping the cut wasn't too deep.
"What's wrong, Tsubaki?" Black*Star asked, halting his debate with Kid over the practicality versus the coolness of their uniforms.
Tsubaki pulled her finger out of her mouth, wincing against the salty metallic taste. "I accidentally cut myself," she sighed, showing her finger to Black*Star. "It doesn't look too deep but it won't stop bleeding."
Black*Star frowned for a moment. Then, he grinned. "I know, here!" With a little grunt, he ripped a small strip of cloth from his shirt and began to wrap it around Tsubaki's finger.
Tsubaki protested. "You didn't have to do that! I could have just gone to Corporeal Nygus, you know."
"Except you wouldn't. You'd do something like this…" Black*Star countered as he finished knotting the cloth. He put on a high falsetto voice, ridiculously batting his eyes. "Oh, Black*Star, it's nothing really!"
"I do not sound like that!" Tsubaki said, feeling her face burn red.
Black*Star ignored her, placing a hand dramatically on his chest. "Besides, how could I bother Corporeal Nygus with a silly thing like this?"
"Nor do I act like that!" Tsubaki crossed her arms to bury her sudden urge to introduce Black*Star's face with the ground.
Black*Star dropped the act. "Not all the time anyways." The grin Black*Star gave her was a strange mix of cockiness and shameful puppy.
Tsubaki felt her lips twitch upward. "All right, you're forgiven." She sighed. "That was your best shirt though."
"It's just a shirt," Black*Star said, shrugging. "I wouldn't be a very good partner if I just let you bleed."
The blush on Tsubaki's face returned with the force of one of Black*Star's sucker punches.
"Aren't you two cute," Liz observed slyly from behind Tsubaki, snaking an arm around Tsubaki's shoulders.
Tsubaki blushed harder, watching Liz's know-it-all smirk growing wider. "Black*Star is just being sweet," she said.
"Right," Liz drawled.
"Got the assignment!" Maka announced, Soul at her side.
"Oh look, they're back," Tsubaki said, relieved. She shrugged her way out of Liz's grip. "C'mon."
They made an informal huddle. Tsubaki wedged herself between Black*Star and Kid, determinedly not glancing at Liz's still smirking face.
"So," Maka began, "The whole test is basically Capture the Flag. We're up against Ox's team."
"Of course, they couldn't give us a break and had to pit the two hardest teams together," griped Liz.
"They're the only ones that can give us a challenge anyways," Black*Star declared. He gave Liz a sideways glance. "Or are you that afraid to break your nails?"
Liz's eye twitched dangerously. "I'll break my nails on something all right."
A shrill whistle cut off Black*Star's retort.
"To your stations!" Sergeant Barret barked.
"C'mon," Maka said, taking the lead. "We're over here."
Tsubaki fell into step with Black*Star. She glanced down at her bandaged finger. For as long as she could remember, it had been her taking care of others, not the other way around. "Black*Star?"
He looked over at her. "Yeah?"
"Thank you," she said, lifting her hand.
Black*Star shrugged his shoulders. "No need to thank me. That's the kind of team we are."
Maka stared at her team's flag lying limply in her hands, practically vibrating with rage. It rested in her palm, crumpled from being snatched by Ox right before her team had nearly captured his team's flag. She had hardly been able to bring herself to look at his overly smug face.
"It's not that bad, Maka. It's only the first round." Soul speaks to her in a soothing tone somewhat reminiscent of how her mother would talk to five year old Maka after losing at Soldiers and Titans.
Maka glared at Soul. "It's a terrible start."
"You should really listen to Soul, Maka," Black*Star piped up. He leaned casually against the trunk of the tree that their station, no more than a wooden platform high in the trees, was set on. "It's not that big a deal. We'll smoke 'em in the end."
"The person who all but handed them our flag would say that," Maka growled.
An uncharacteristic frown lined Black*Star's face. "What do you mean by that?"
From the corner of her eye, Maka can spy Soul shaking his head frantically but she ignores his warning. "Exactly, what I said. You and Tsubaki were supposed to guard since you're the strongest team while the rest of us got the flag. But instead you left your post and left our flag wide open like the sitting duck it is."
"But it was boring," Black*Star complained.
"No," Maka said, taking a few steps toward him. "It was smart. And it would have worked if you hadn't come screaming like a banshee from out of nowhere. It completely messed up our strategy and you know it."
She threw her hands up in the air. "You're going to get yourself killed as well as Tsubaki if you throw yourself into situations without thinking ahead of time!"
Clearly stung, Black*Star snapped, "Better than plotting out your every move and freezing up when things don't go to plan because guess what?" He widened his eyes mockingly. "Life doesn't care about your plans!"
Maka knows that their blades are strictly meant for Titan extermination only but that doesn't stop her from reaching for them.
Soul's hands clamped down on hers just as Tsubaki stepped in front of Black*Star. "Now, now," she said calmly. "There's no need for fighting."
Kid stepped forward as well. "Tsubaki's right. Let's not lose our heads. If we come away from this angry, we won't win. And emotions are never the best weapon for battle."
Soul put it more bluntly to Maka. "Chill out."
Maka swelled with anger for a moment before abruptly deflating. "Yeah, I know."
Beyond her, it appeared that Tsubaki has talked some sense into her partner as well.
Maka and Black*Star's eyes meet and they both nod at each other once, calling a silent truce.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, trying to re-focus when she becomes aware of two things.
Opening one eye, she noticed Patti staring at her neck curiously. "Yes?" she asked.
Patti tilted her head to one side. "How can you lose your head if it looks like it can't fall off?"
"Invisible stitches," Maka answered dryly. "They come undone when I get really mad."
For a moment, Patti looked quizzically at Maka. Then she replied, "Cool!"
Maka shook her head in amusement as Patti bounced away and then turned to address the second thing she'd noticed. "Soul?"
She raised an eyebrow. "You can let go of my hands now."
"Oh, yeah." His face turns a shade of pink only she can wrangle out of him. He dropped her hands hastily. "I just wasn't sure if you'd gotten over your murderous impulses yet."
"Right," she said, rolling her eyes.
"Break time's over, everyone!" Liz called. Before she jetted off, she pointed off to where Ox and the others had emerged from their station, lined up at a rope boundary more brightly colored than Kim's hair. They all wore triumphant expressions with varying degrees of self-assuredness.
"We're going to crush you!" Patti cried cheerfully, following her sister.
"Not literally though!" Kid yelled warningly after Patti.
"Hell yeah!" Black*Star launched after the three with his own war cry while Tsubaki headed gracefully after him.
Soul grinned at her. "Ready to show these clowns who we really are?"
Maka returned the grin, disengaging her swords from their sheaths. "Thought you'd never ask."