(A/N Heavens above, I haven't posted here in so long! This is so weird! Okay, well this is my fic for the Soul Eater Resonance Bang challenge! There is some glorious art to accompany this fic, made by the lovely keksfanxxx, and you can find it here: post/70088526507/here-is-my-entry-for-soul-eater-resbang-i-drew ( hates links, but just put keksfanxxx dot tumblr dot com before the post stuff and it should work) Thanks go also to my beta, professor-maka, who took on editing this fic super last minute and helped me so much.
It's great to write something for this fandom again after so long and thanks to marshofsleep and victoriapyrrhi, me fellow mods, for making this challenge be a thing! Anyway, I hope you guys enjoy the fic!)
Soul swam to consciousness with the sense memory of a woman's neck under his fingers and the sound of Maka's voice in his ears.
"—but he's going to be fine, right?"
His hand twitched, searching for the curve of a throat, for the fear fast beat of a pulse. Streaks of sunlight toppled onto his face, warring with the dream images already fading. He kept his eyes shut for a moment longer, trying to hold on, trying to see the face of his victim, but he could hear more voices now, like spears puncturing through the fabric of the dream.
"Well, he's stable at the moment, but we aren't sure what exactly is wrong with him. Did he encounter anything on the mission that could've put him in this state? Could he have inhaled some sort of toxin?"
"No! If he'd inhaled anything, it would've gotten me too, wouldn't it?"
"It could've been a poison targeted specifically at weapons—"
The pain hit him abruptly, and his vocal chords chose that moment to join the conversation, a long, gut-deep groan ripping out of his chest. There was the sound of running footsteps, and then Maka's face came into focus just above him, her pigtails dangling down on either side of his face.
"Soul!" she said, relief and worry doing the tango in her voice. "You're awake! How do you feel?"
How did he feel? Like he'd been the peanut butter in a sandwich between a rock and a hard place. The pain was centred in his stomach, crawling up his chest with slow, inexorable movements. Things were growing clearer, and he could see the roof of the doctor's room beyond Maka's head. He had no memory of getting here.
"I—" he started, before breaking off into a fit of coughing.
Stein appeared behind Maka, slowly drawing her backwards.
"You collapsed," he said, getting straight to the point. "An hour after you returned home from a usual mission. Do you remember anything of what happened before that?"
Soul remembered the kishin, remembered its spindly, steel arms snaking around buildings, remembered the shock of them thudding into him as Maka blocked. Remembered the sound of Maka gritting her teeth before they shoved the kishin off, spun forward as one and sunk Soul's blade into the chest of the thing. He remembered the brief, familiar, gut-wrenching sensation of ripping deep into flesh before the pressure around him vanished, leaving nothing but a soul hovering in the air.
He tried to bring to mind some sort of recollection about travelling home, but there was a giant blankness in his mind, a huge gap. A black hole.
One second he was awake, his eyes fixed on Maka, and then the next he was slipping back into the blackness again, tumbling towards it like he'd been pushed off of a cliff.
She was asleep, her head pillowed on the curve of her elbow, propped up against the window of the train. Trees and scenery rushed by just beyond her head in long, delirious streams of green, but his eyes were caught on the curve of her eyelashes on her cheeks, bizarrely delicate against her skin. A long strand of hair had fallen down directly in front of her face, and it fluttered with her every breath.
He wanted to reach over and brush it away. He wanted to put his hand on her shoulder and pull her away from the window and the awkward crook of her elbow. Wanted her to lean on him instead and fall asleep on his shoulder.
Soul squared his jaw and glared at the seat in front of him. It was uncool to stare at his sleeping partner, and even more uncool to keep entertaining weird, selfish thoughts about her. Just because he would be more comfortable with the steady weight of her pressed against him didn't mean that she would be.
He could feel the thread of the connection between them humming through his body, a low, distant buzz. Over the years, they had gotten so good at soul resonance that it had started to become instinct to reach out for the other's presence even when they were out of battle. He had been resentful of it at first, didn't like that whenever he was acting cold, Maka could easily get a glimpse of his soul and see his real emotions, see whatever he was trying to hide at that moment. They'd made rules about it, stating that they were only allowed to reach halfway, and the other needed to respond before they would let the channel actually open.
But when Maka was asleep, she reached out her soul to him unconsciously, and Soul never denied her it then. She didn't know about it, and he hadn't told her. Didn't want to have to explain that he liked it, that it calmed him when she was a soft and warm and sleepy presence in his chest.
She had fallen asleep about an hour after they'd gotten underway. Earlier they had eaten a quick lunch (or dinner—it was sort of the wrong time for either, but they were both hungry, and train food wasn't that bad). While they ate, they had discussed Kid's recent problems in diplomatic action with the witches: they were asking for reparations for the years of being hunted down to make Death Scythes, they didn't appreciate the food that had been supplied at the last annual "Witches and DWMA Collective Gala", and they had to warn him that a high-status witch had gone off the rails and was now on the loose. Both Soul and Maka agreed that having Kid's job was not something they would want.
The train started slowing, and Soul elbowed Maka awake, breaking off the slight resonance between them. It felt like a violin string snapping, a high ping of disappointment running through him, but she was blinking owlishly and rubbing at her eyes, completely unaware. Her shirt had left a strange red pattern on her face where her cheek had been smushed up against it, and he pointed it out, laughing when she blushed and glared.
"We're there?" she asked—a rhetorical question, obviously, as she could feel the train rolling to a stop. "That wasn't long."
"For you, maybe," Soul snorted. "You started snoring about three minutes into the ride."
"I do not snore," Maka said indignantly. The passengers around them were standing up, and they both slipped out into the aisle. This was going to be a simple mission, cut and dried, so they hadn't needed to bring any luggage to stay overnight anywhere. They would be done probably within the next couple of hours, and they'd be back home in Death City before nightfall.
"You keep telling yourself that," Soul muttered. His feet followed Maka's down the aisle and his eyes followed the slightly bowed curve of her neck, cataloguing the wisps of hair that had escaped her pigtails. His fingers twitched at his side and he looked away, longing sitting thick in his throat.
Just one more mission, he thought. One more mission.
And then tomorrow, at her eighteenth birthday party, you tell her.
He didn't know how long it had been before he finally drifted awake again, but the room seemed to hang around him in dark curtains. The air felt thick, and something was pinning his chest to the bed, heavy on top of him.
He squirmed, making some sort of confused murmur, and the weight disappeared as Maka's head popped up. In the darkness, all he could see at first was the gleam of her eyes, strange and sinister in their brightness, but as his own eyes adjusted he realized that her hair was out of the pigtails, falling soft and tangled around her face, flat on one side as if she'd been—
"Were you sleeping on me?" Soul asked. The words came out strangely, not fitting quite right in his mouth, as if his tongue was swollen.
"I—yes," she replied. It was the kind of situation that would mean her blushing up a storm usually, but there was something odd in the way she was looking at him. Something distant.
"Soul, do you..." she hesitated, and that was out of place . She tipped her head to the side, staring off somewhere above him, and a faint, silver light poured over the side of her face from the window, illuminating her expression. She looked tense, drawn, and his eyes fixed on her mouth, waiting for the rest of the sentence to stumble out over the bright slice of her bottom lip.
"Do you remember the last time you were awake?" she asked.
He stared at her. She still wasn't looking at him, and he was torn; half of him wanted her to stay still, so that he could see her face, and the other half wanted her to turn and meet his eyes, even if it meant that her features would fall into shadow again.
"Yeah," he said slowly. "You were happy that I was awake...and you and Stein were talking about poisonous stuff targeting weapons...and...and then you told me I collapsed on the mission and you asked if I remembe—"
She was shaking her head before he'd even finished, her hair flying and her face flashing in and out of view, giving him snapshots of her expression in moonlight, twisted and upset.
"No, no, that was the first time you woke!" she insisted. "You've woken up twice since then, not counting right now! Do you remember those?"
Even under the blankets and with the heat of Maka right next to him, Soul felt cold. He couldn't feel the pain anymore, he realized. For some reason, that only made him more uneasy. Pain like that didn't just disappear.
"No," he said. "What I just told you was the last thing I remember. Why, what happened? What did I do?"
She flinched, just a tiny movement, and Soul tried to push himself up onto his elbows, needing to get nearer to her.
For a split second, he thought that his body was failing to respond because of fatigue. But then he tried to turn his head, tried to do something other than move his eyes or mouth. It was as if every nerve had been cut off, leaving him a tiny consciousness stranded in an unmoving shell.
"Maka, why can't I move?" he asked, trying to keep the panic out of his voice.
She stood up. Took a sharp step backwards. Away from him.
"Soul, you are moving," she said softly.
Instinctively, he tried to crane his neck to look down at his body, but it turned out he didn't need to. A hand came into his view, drifting slowly up across his vision. His own hand, moving independently of his will. The world started tilting as his body sat up, both arms now reaching out towards his partner. And he couldn't feel any of it, couldn't feel the natural connection to his limbs.
Maka's face was stark in the light from the window, bleached in fear.
"Maka, I'm not—it's not me—it's no—"
Before he could even finish his sentence, Soul's eyes suddenly rolled back in his skull, and darkness swallowed him up again.
It didn't take them long to find the kishin, and it didn't take them long to defeat it. It was a hard enough monster to have merited Soul (one of the only Death Scythes) and Maka being assigned to it, but for them it wasn't a very difficult fight. For a monster that had been terrorizing the city for a week, it was almost...easy.
The kishin was lurking in a building at the edge of the town, a warehouse plastered with graffiti and wanted posters of a sallow faced witch. They heard it before they saw it: a low, hissing sound leaking out from the walls of the building as if it were alive.
They lured it out and killed it. The battle took maybe ten minutes: Maka leaping over rooftops and dodging whip-like limbs, just waiting for the right moment to strike. When they found that moment, it was a one-hit kill; they blocked an attack and then easily ducked under the steel arms to sink Soul's blade straight into its chest.
The kishin shrieked, and then disappeared, leaving behind its glowing red soul.
Maka stretched her arms up over her head in triumph as Soul transformed back into himself, shaking the kinks out of his limbs.
"We did it!" she crowed.
"Was there any doubt that we would?" Soul snarked, reaching out for the kishin soul without really looking.
"Hey, there's no harm in savoring the victory!" Maka retorted. The end of her sentence got slightly lost in a yawn.
"Yeah, yeah," Soul muttered. He could feel a fond smile growing on his face and so he looked away from her, popping the soul into his mouth and swallowing in one movement.
It was like an oil slick pouring directly down his throat, thick and slimy and wrong somehow. The texture, the taste, even the consistency—it was all alien, unlike any kishin soul he'd ever had before. His stomach lurched unpleasantly and suddenly his entire body felt like it was burning up.
He turned slowly, fixing suddenly fuzzy vision on the image of his partner. He opened his mouth, tried to say her name.
But then there was black.
There were flashes of light—slashes of it across his eyes.
Disembodied voices yelling indistinguishable things. All around him, noise, noise, noise.
Movement like when he was a weapon, when he was not the one in control. The world spinning around him—a hallway ceiling, moon faces with stretched open mouths, hands reaching for him—spinning around him like he was in a car toppling over the edge of a cliff.
The feel of flesh giving under the spine of his knuckles.
Then predictable black.
He'd been planning it for months.
He'd thought it over for a while, weighed the pros and cons, and in the end, it was the thing that made the most sense. Things had been different between them for long enough that a change was overdue; they needed something to fix what Maka didn't even seem to notice was broken.
Because Maka was sort of everything Soul had ever wanted. It was a frightening thing to realize, especially after something as simple as a long movie marathon, something they'd done a million times before. It was frightening to look down with fondness at her sleeping form, slumped on his shoulder, and understand with sudden clarity that all that he was was tangled up in all that she was.
He didn't know if she had seen it yet, if he had already given himself away. If maybe she had spotted something in his eyes when they were babysitting for Stein and Marie a couple of weeks ago and he'd been deliriously high on the idea of this being the kind of situation that could be their future; the two of them and a little toddler. Or maybe she'd seen it in the twitch of his face when Tsubaki had been complaining about Black Star's serial dating spree and Kid pointed out that she couldn't control her partner's choice of lovers. It could have been anything. Soul felt like he'd been bumbling around for months, his thoughts practically dripping off of his face everytime she looked at him. And yet, she still smiled and acted like everything was normal.
He decided upon her eighteenth birthday party as the day to spring it on her. She'd be flushed and happy and maybe he'd ruin that happiness for her when he opened his big mouth, but eighteen meant something. It meant that they were both adults now (his birthday had been a few months back) in the eyes of the world, and that meant that this thing in his chest was no longer a product of teenage emotions and lust. It wasn't something he could ignore.
Maka was the most important thing to him, but he was inadvertently ruining their relationship with his idiocy.
So, one final mission, and then he'd tell her.
In the end, Maka had to come first, before whatever stupid thing he thought he felt.
"Someone get—someone get some rope. Fuck, some chains, we need to—to restrain him, quickly—"
"Oh shit, he—"
"No, get him AWAY from her, NOW!"
"Don't hurt him, don't hurt him, it's not him—Soul!"
"TAKE HIM DOWN."
Maka blinked. Once. Twice.
Then she shut the door.
She stared at the wooden grain, distantly registering the muffled sounds of her friends' voices bleeding through it.
"Maka? Come on, open up!"
The door didn't look any different, she thought to herself. The paint was still slowly flaking off, the white falling away to reveal the uneven brown underneath it. There was still that dent where she had accidentally slammed the end of Soul's scythe form into it while participating in an ill-advised practice session indoors. There were the scratches at the bottom from Blair's claws, from back when she still lived with them.
No, the door didn't look any different, but last night was the first time in...in years...that she had walked through that door without Soul beside her, or waiting for her inside, or with his words that he was "going out with Black Star" and would be "home later" ringing in her ears.
Technically, it hadn't even been last night; it had been this morning already, maybe 2 or 3 AM, when Soul had woken up for the fourth time and then—
Maka yanked the door open again and had to duck back as Black Star, who must have been leaning on the door, lurched forward. He only just caught himself, straightening up and waving cheerfully at Maka.
"Hey!" he said. "It's time for a party!"
Over his shoulder, Tsubaki winced apologetically at Maka.
"Sorry about this," she said, following Black Star as he pushed past Maka into the apartment. "He insisted. Seemed to think it would make things better."
Maka opened her mouth to say something—to kick them all out or yell that the last thing she was in the mood for was a party—but somehow Liz and Patty were carting a giant cake inside and Kid was trailing behind them in his Shinigami cloak and they were all setting up camp on Maka and Soul's couches.
Maka closed the door and rested her forehead against it for a second before she turned back around to face her friends.
"Guys," she started.
"No," Black Star interrupted. "We have been planning this party for weeks, and now we can't even have half of the people here who were invited because Tsubaki thought that you wouldn't want a huge group of people anymore, but we are going to throw you whatever small party we can, because that's what Soul would want."
"Everyone deserves an eighteenth birthday party," Patty put in.
"He's not dead," Maka said weakly. "You don't need to put it like that."
Tsubaki gave Black Star a dirty look and stood up, making her way over to Maka and taking her hand.
"Maka and I are going to have a quick talk, okay?" she said. "You guys just stay here. And don't eat the cake."
Maka trailed after Tsubaki down the hallway, past Soul's empty room (it looked like a hurricane had hit in there; he'd promised earlier that he would clean it this morning before the party) and into Maka's. She closed the door behind them and primly sat down on the edge of Maka's bed.
"They mean well," she said. "They think it's best to take your mind off of things while Stein and everyone else figures out what's going on. And they want to make sure that your eighteenth birthday isn't completely ruined."
Maka closed her eyes. The skin around them felt tight, and she could feel tears threatening.
"Tsubaki, can you just make them all leave?" she whispered.
"Maka, the birthday thing isn't even all of it, we also were going to—"
"I don't want an eighteenth birthday party anymore," she said slowly. "I want Soul to be back."
"They said they would call you the second they have some sort of theory."
"He's locked up! He's not going to do anything to me if he's in a cage, I just don't understand why I can't at least...be near him somehow, wait outside his cell or something—"
Tsubaki was standing then, holding out her arms, and Maka shook her head, backing away.
"No, I'm fine," she said. "I'm totally fine. Incredibly fine. So fine, in fact—"
She broke off, pulling open her bedroom door and stomping down the hall, Tsubaki in flustered pursuit. She rounded the corner into the living room and caught only a glimpse of her friends' pleased expressions before they seemed to register her face and slid into a resigned sort of pity.
"Hi, guys!" Maka said cheerily, plunking herself down on the couch between Patty and Liz. "Thanks for all of this! This is such a great birthday!"
She smiled at each of them in turn.
"What a great cake!" she exclaimed. The corners of her mouth were starting to hurt. "Where did you get it? Did one of you make it? Looks good!"
The pity was gone, she noticed. Now they were looking at her like one might look at a particularly gross alien.
She stuck a hand out towards the giant cake in question, which was sitting on the coffee table, and swiped a finger through the white frosting flowers on the top. With another mildly deranged grin, she stuck it in her mouth, candy sweetness flooding her taste buds as she licked her finger clean.
"Tastes good too!" she said. "What a great, great—"
"Okay, this is getting creepy," Liz interrupted. "Can we put Maka out of her misery and stop pretending that we're here just for a party now?"
"What?" Maka said.
"We're not here for a party?" Black Star said. "But—"
"We know you can't just sit here and wait for Stein to get back to you," Kid said, smoothly cutting across Black Star's ramblings. "Any of us would feel the same way if our partner were in danger in some way."
"Or, you know, going insane and attacking us," Patty said helpfully.
"Patty!" Tsubaki hissed, perching on the edge of the sofa and pinning the other girl with a glare.
"The point is," Liz said, "that yes, we want you to have a birthday, but we also know that you can't do that without Soul."
"Oh," Maka said. She sank back into the couch, glancing over at Tsubaki, who smiled softly.
"So we're going to figure out what is going on here for ourselves," Tsubaki explained. "After all, Soul is our friend ."
"And you guys always forget that Kid is literally Shinigami," Liz pointed out. "You want to get in to see Soul? We want to do some snooping around? There's no way that anyone could tell Kid that he can't do something."
"This party would be funner with Soul here anyway," Black Star said (mostly to himself. He looked like he was still catching up with the change of plans).
For a moment, Maka couldn't speak, just gazing at the circle of her friends around her. Even with the gaping hole at her side where Soul was meant to be, she couldn't help but feel that this was what home really was: friends who understood her.
"Okay," she said at length. "Okay. So what do I have to do?"
Kid leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees and gazing at her intently. Since he'd become Shinigami, many of his eccentricities had mellowed somewhat, and he'd gained an air of authority that even now had everyone focusing all of their eyes on him.
"First of all," he said, looking steadily at Maka. "You have to tell us exactly what happened."
He was asleep, his head tilted back against the seat and a shining trail of drool leaking from the corner of his fanged mouth to stain the collar of his shirt. Beyond his head, blocky buildings shunted by the train window, drenched in amber evening light. There was an audible click of the rails and a lurch of the carriage as they moved out of the city; he gave a jerk and a grumble, his head lolling on the seat until it was facing her, soft breaths ghosting out across the side of her forehead.
She wanted to push his face away. She wanted to pull it closer and let him nestle into the cup of her shoulder. Wanted to wipe the drool off of his face and make fun of him for it later. Wanted him to fall asleep leaning on her.
She pointedly looked away from him. They had just finished a mission and he had been a bit weird after they'd killed the monster, silent and strange until falling asleep almost instantly on the train back home. This wasn't the time or place to be thinking about this sort of thing, especially when she had hopes that those thoughts would be fixed soon. Her wants either purged or fulfilled. Much as she wanted the warmth of his shoulder pressed solid against her own, there was no point in dwelling on it.
She could feel the thread of connection between them humming through her body, a low, distant buzz. Over the years, they had gotten so good at soul resonance that it had started to become instinct to reach out for each other's presence even when they were out of battle. Soul had been resentful of it at first. He said that he didn't like that whenever he was acting cold, Maka could easily get a glimpse of his soul and see his real emotions, see whatever he was trying to hide at that moment. They'd made rules about it, stating that they were only allowed to reach halfway and had to wait for the other to respond to go ahead with the connection.
But when Soul was asleep, he reached out his soul to her unconsciously, and Maka never denied him it then. He didn't know about it, and she hadn't told him. Didn't want to have to explain that she liked it, that it calmed her when he was a soft and warm and sleepy presence in her chest.
His hand lay near hers on the seat, his fingertips slack against the ugly red velour. She thought about covering his knuckles with her palm, thought about slipping her fingers in between his. Softly, ever so softly, so he wouldn't wake up.
Instead, she pulled her hand into her own lap, longing sitting thick in her throat.
Less than twenty four hours now, she thought. Just one more sleep really.
And then tomorrow, at your eighteenth birthday, you'll tell him.
"When he first collapsed, it was just that: he collapsed. He slept on the train ride back home, and then when we got off of the platform here at home, he didn't really speak all the way home. I thought he was just tired. But when we were about a block from our house, he said my name, just once, and when I turned to him, he smiled and he just—fell over. I got him to the doctor's, and he was just lying there unconscious for about twenty minutes before he woke up. Not because of anything Stein did, but just because he woke up."
"Well, he seemed confused and so we told him what happened, but before he could really tell us anything, he passed out again. And then a few minutes later, he was awake."
"...Yeah? What happened then?" Black Star chimed in loudly.
"Shut up Black Star, Kid's running this interrogation, not you," Patty said.
Kid shot them both a look.
"Stop arguing, all of you," he said. "Continue, Maka."
"Well, he was awake. But...and I didn't get it then, but looking back now, I realize that that was the first time that it wasn't him."
"It wasn't Soul. He opened his eyes and looked around, but when we asked him questions, he didn't respond. He just started smiling, wider and wider, until suddenly his head snapped to the side, like he'd been slapped, and he was gone again."
"...Weird." Black Star muttered.
"An hour later, he woke up again, still...not himself. This time he just...laughed at everything we said. And when Stein turned his back, he put his hand on my arm and he started squeezing, and it...was not the kind of strength Soul normally has."
"What did you do?"
"...Hit him over the head with a book. Which accidentally knocked him out again."
"Maka!" Tsubaki exclaimed.
"Hey, in my opinion, that's just more proof that it obviously wasn't really Soul! Have you ever seen Soul be actually hurt when I do that? His head is made of...rubber or something!"
"Alright, alright," Kid said, taking control of the conversation again. "So what then?"
"Some more hours passed. Stein wanted to throw me out of the room, but I convinced him to let me stay. Said that I'd call for him if Soul woke up again. It got dark, and I...er...fell asleep myself. I woke up a little while later and Soul had only just woken up. This time...this time he was lucid. He was Soul. He said he didn't remember the last two times he'd woken up, the times when he was really weird. And then..."
"Then he asked me why he couldn't move, except that halfway through his sentence, his arms started reaching for me. And then he started sitting up in bed. He babbled something about how it wasn't him, but then in the middle he just cut off and went silent and started grinning and—"
"...hey, you don't have to tell us it all if you don't want..."
"Quiet, Tsubaki. Even if it's hard, we need to know. Maka, whenever you're ready."
"You guys know this bit anyway. He attacked me, okay? He attacked me."
"Describe it. Remember, this is so we can get Soul back."
"He turned his arms into scythes and went for me. I did a lot of dodging, then kicked him in the chest, which gave me enough time to get into the hallway. I guess we were making a lot of noise because people—doctors and patients alike—were coming out of their rooms. I yelled at them to get out of the way. And then Stein and a bunch of security guys were trying to grab him and I didn't want them to hurt him, but eventually they got him knocked out."
"And through the whole thing, he was still trying to go for you."
"Yeah. He finally spoke, right at the end, before they got him down."
"What did he say?"
"That was the weird bit. He just looked at me and...hissed something that sounded like 'late bean'."
"I don't know! That's what it sounded like!"
"Alright. Alright. And after that?"
"They put him in one of the cells in the bottom level. The same place Medusa went, remember? They chained him up and everything . And I asked to stay, to wait by his cell to see if I could reason with him or interrogate him when he woke up, but they didn't think it was safe as I was his primary target, so they banned me from the cell block. And then from the two bottom floors. And then the whole building. Stein said he'd review the blood tests they took and try to figure out what could've gotten into his system to make him act like this. I came back here, slept for like five hours, which apparently was long enough for the rumours of what happened to spread to you guys, and now here we are. The end."
Maka sat back, feeling weirdly drained. Everyone was staring at her, and she kind of wanted them all to stop. She leaned forward and stole some more icing off of the cake, just to have something to do with her hands.
And because it was good.
"So it wasn't the Soul we know," Kid said, obviously turning the information over in his head. "But what could have possibly made him act so oddly? Was it really him that was acting strangely, or was it an entirely different person?"
"I was with him the whole mission and the whole train ride and everything," Maka said. "I never left his side. He couldn't have been replaced with a doppelganger."
"Besides, there were moments when he was himself, right?" Liz put in. "So it's more like..."
"Like he was possessed."
They all turned to look at Patty, who shrugged and continued eating the slice of cake she had apparently procured without anyone noticing.
"That's what it sounds like to me," she said. "Sometimes he was him, and sometimes he wasn't. So, it's like he was fighting the thing trying to control his body, right? And he lost."
There was a brief moment of silence.
"It's really weird when Patty says smart things," Black Star muttered.
"Anyone sitting here would say the same thing about you," Liz shot back.
"Guys!" Maka exclaimed. "That's not important right now!" She turned back to Kid. "How could he get mystically possessed?"
"Did he ingest anything?" Kid asked.
"We had some food on the train at the start, but we ate from the same plate and I'm fine and he didn't eat anything other than that—"
"Maybe it wasn't necessarily something he ate," Tsubaki said softly. "Maybe it was something he swallowed."
"What do you mean?" Maka asked. She could feel somehow that something was about to happen, that Tsubaki had hit on something they needed.
"Well, what do weapons ingest that meisters don't?" Tsubaki said.
She paused, and Maka could feel the air change as the realization crept up everyone's spine.
"The souls. The kishin souls."
She'd been planning it for months.
She'd thought it over for a while, weighed the pros and cons, and in the end, scary as it was, it was what she needed to do. Things had been different between them for long enough that a change was overdue. They needed something to fix what Soul didn't even seem to notice was broken.
Because Soul was kind of everything that she'd ever wanted. It was a frightening thing to realize, especially after sneaking up on him while he was doing the dishes and flicking soapy water in his face, something she had done hundreds of times before. It was frightening to duck away from his retaliation and watch the puffs of soap drip off of the curve of his laughing cheek and understand with sudden clarity that all that she was was tangled up in all that he was.
She didn't know if he had seen it yet, if she had already given herself away. If maybe he spotted something in her eyes when they stumbled across the original music room they had first met in and he sat down and played the same piece of music for her again. Or maybe he'd seen it in the twitch of her face when Kim and Jackie started dating and Tsubaki had mentioned how strange she thought the idea of partners being romantic was. It could have been anything. Maka felt like she'd been tripping over her own feet for months, her thoughts practically shining out of her face everytime he looked at her. And yet, he still smiled and acted like everything was normal.
She decided upon her eighteenth birthday party as the day to speak her mind. It was her big day, and maybe she'd ruin the party for him when she opened her big mouth, but eighteen meant something. It meant that they were both adults now (his birthday had been a few months back) in the eyes of the world, and that meant that this thing in her chest was no longer a product of teenage emotions and lust. It wasn't something she could ignore.
Soul was the most important thing to her, the exception to all of her rules, and she couldn't stay silent and smile at him as if there weren't something more that she wanted. It simply wasn't fair to him.
So, she was going to tell him.
In the end, she just couldn't keep lying to him by omission. Soul was more important than the safety of her feelings.
"So we're going to—?"
"Yes. If it's who—and what—I think it is, then I'll need Black Star, Liz, and Patty to all come with me."
"I'll stay with you, Maka. In case you need a weapon."
"And you're sure Tsubaki and I will be able to get in without anyone noticing us?"
"I'm positive. Almost everyone will be in a fuss over my news, so they won't even remember to keep you out."
"So we're set?"
"Yes. Good luck, Maka."
"Good luck to you guys too, Kid."
The fourth time Soul woke up, it wasn't to an outside world.
He was lying on his back on the familiar surface of a black piano, his legs hanging awkwardly over the edge. When he turned his head, he could see the deep red curtains that made up the distant walls of the room, their strange shadows curling like sleeping dogs on the floor. When he sat up and looked down at himself, he was clad in the usual black and red striped suit, the one he always wore when he was here.
In the Black Room. In his mind.
And yet, something was different. The floor and curtains and piano were the same. There was even the table with the the gramophone, sitting a few metres away, playing its soft jazz tune. Over the years, the music had changed; it was classier now, not the cheap sound it had had at the beginning, back when he and the demon were on bad terms—
The demon. The little demon was what was missing. He wasn't lurking in a corner of the room or dancing around the gramophone or making snarky comments as some disembodied voice. He was simply...gone.
Soul slipped off of the piano, landing on the ground with a dull clack, the hard soles of his shoes ringing out sound with his every step. He walked into the centre of the room and spun around, trying to see if he had missed something. It was only on his third rotation that he spotted it.
Hanging from the ceiling was an enormous black cocoon, silken inky threads winding all around it and catching the dim light of the lanterns. It was dangling next to the piano, so large that it was only about a foot off the ground, slightly pointed at its top and bottom, bulging horrifically in the centre like a misshapen egg. He'd had his back to it before, he realized, when he had sat up on the piano. It was the only reason he hadn't immediately noticed it.
Now that he had though, the shape—menacing in its sudden appearance, in how clearly out of place it was in a room that was supposed to be his—seemed to swell, to take over the entire room. He could see the edges of the room distorting, the cocoon ballooning up in his vision like the prow of an advancing ocean liner seen from a rowboat that it was about to crush. And it was moving, a sickly twitch like something was kicking from the inside, trying to punch its way out of the black womb encasing it.
Soul tried to back away from it, but the floor underneath his feet had changed somehow, tilted or fractured, and he fell, his head cracking against the ground.
The last thing he saw before he blacked out was a long, thin arm stab out of the side of the cocoon and the flutter of a familiar black dress.
Soul's cell was silent.
Maka stood outside, staring at the metal plated door gleaming dully in the flickering fluorescent light above. She could see her partner through the small barred window in the door. He was slumped against the very back wall, arms chained around his back and then more chains wrapped around his torso. His head hung down, hair obscuring what little of his face she might have been able to see from where she was. She couldn't tell if he was unconscious or awake. And if he was awake, she didn't know if it would be him...or whatever else was inside him.
She was too afraid to call to him and find out which it was.
She knew people were running around pell-mell only a few floors up, officials in chaos over what Kid had told them, and classes being shepherded somewhere else or even shut down. However, down here, she couldn't hear any of that, not even the distant sound of footsteps.
A hand landed gently on the shallow dip between her shoulder blades and she gave a jerk.
"Sorry," Tsubaki said softly. She gave a small smile, and Maka couldn't help but be glad that she was there, even though she hadn't needed to use her to do any fighting; they had been ignored in the corridors, no one even remembering to try and stop her.
"Can you really do it?" Tsubaki asked.
"It usually takes both people though," Tsubaki fretted. "If it's too much of one person, then doesn't their soul start to take over the other? I just—"
"It'll work with me and Soul," Maka replied. "Sometimes it happens accidentally with us. We don't even need to try."
"That's...that kind of connection is really rare," Tsubaki said. Her voice was low, almost reverent. "Even with him...like this?"
Maka shrugged. "It's all we've got," she said. "I know that Kid could theoretically fix this on his own, but if whoever is in there isn't distracted, they could possibly—we need me to be there on the inside as well."
Tsubaki nodded. She was fidgeting, looking nervous, and Maka was just turning to face the cell door again when she spoke up.
"Maka, there's one thing that Kid didn't tell you before," she blurted out.
"What is it?" Maka asked, pushing down her foreboding as best she could.
"Well, I don't know if you've ever actually had a fight while inside—the Black Room is what you call it, right?—in Soul's mind, but things might be a bit different this time around."
Maka had only ever had a brief disagreement with Soul in there, years ago, one that resulted in him getting a skinned elbow when she pushed him and he tripped. He'd been unscathed as soon as they came out of his mind, naturally.
"Different how?" she said slowly.
"His mind's been invaded with foreign magic and another person," Tsubaki explained. "Kid says that Mabaa-sama thinks that might have broken down the difference between the metaphysical and the physical. There's a possibility that it could be...a real fight. As in, you could get hurt in there and your actual body might get hurt. And if you die..."
"Then I actually die," Maka said. Somehow, the news wasn't frightening; she'd felt like things were shaping up to be too easy. "And Soul?"
"The same would go for him. So you have to take care of yourself and him. Be careful."
Maka ducked her head for a moment before looking up and meeting her friend's gaze.
"I'll do everything I can," she said.
"Okay. I'll be right here for you."
Maka turned away and closed her eyes. She leaned forward and pressed her forehead to the cool metal of the cell door, letting the cold steal through her body from that one point of contact, calming her. Behind the darkness of her eyes, she could still see colours pulsing against her eyelids, and she squeezed them shut harder, focusing only on the idea of her partner, separated from her by only this door and a few steps.
She took a deep breath and let her soul's arms unfold from her chest, reaching—like they always did—for their other half.
Reaching for resonance.
Maka had always been able to sense the answering pulse of her partner's soul, no matter where they were or what they were doing, but this time it took her a moment. She had a split second of panic where she thought that it simply wasn't there, that he was dead, but then she recognized it—dim, like a lantern struggling to shine its light through a thick blanket thrown over top of it, but there.
She dove forward, into the connection, and everything went black.
The first thing Maka saw in Soul's mind was the woman.
She was standing in the centre of the Black Room, tall and thin, with long brown hair and a sallow, pinched face, years older than the athleticism of her form would suggest. She was smiling, the expression sitting false and ugly on her face, and she stood slightly off balance, like a tree distorted in shape from constant, powerful wind. She was wearing the same dress that Maka always wore in this room, and the forced similarity between them was jarring.
But it wasn't her that Maka really cared about. It was the fact that she had one high heeled foot propped up on the back of Soul, who was sprawled unconscious on the floor beneath the woman.
Maka took one step forward.
"Ah, ah, ah," the woman tutted, shifting her foot up Soul's back and pressing it lightly against the back of his neck. "I think I'd prefer it if you stayed there. Don't worry; he's still alive. Only one of us can be awake at a time in this mind, and I'm the one in control right now."
Maka stopped. She could still hear Tsubaki's voice, telling her that injuries in here could mean injuries in real life. That death in here could mean that. She forced herself to remain calm, her hands uncurling from fists to hang loosely at her sides. She tried to take in everything in one glance; the room appeared to be mostly the same, but there was no sign of the demon, and there was a giant splotch of shining black liquid on the floor beside the piano, slowly growing larger like an oil slick spreading across the waves of an ocean.
"What do you want?" she asked, her voice steady.
The woman laughed.
"That's your first question?" she said. "You get straight to it, don't you? Not interested in who I am, are you?"
"I think I already know that," Maka replied.
"Oh, do you?" the woman said, raising an eyebrow. "Smart one! Like your mother."
That hit Maka, knocked something off kilter.
"My mother?" she said, almost without meaning to.
"Guess you don't know everything," the woman said. The woman whose name and face were splashed all over posters across the land: Sangen Johns. "Didn't you wonder why the first witch to break the treaty in three years chose you and your partner to go after?"
Her stance was unsteady, Maka realized. She could easily be knocked off balance. The danger was in the heel pressing against Soul's throat.
"You didn't choose us specifically," Maka said. "How could you have known when you made that fake kishin and set it loose that we would be the meister and weapon that sent to take it out?"
"Because I'm not an idiot," Sangen snapped. "I made it powerful enough that they would have to send a pair with a death scythe, and the only ones in the country right now are your partner and your father. Of course, your father would've worked for my purpose too."
"And what purpose was that?" Maka asked. She slowly shifted her weight to her left foot, popping her right heel slightly out of the shoe.
The curve of Sangen's mouth became—if possible—more sinister than before.
"Killing you, of course," she replied.
Maka swallowed, her eyes flicking back to Soul's prone form. The puddle of black goo had almost reached his pant leg.
"Doesn't look like that's your goal right now," Maka pointed out, gesturing to the foot on Soul's neck.
"Just making sure you don't try anything funny before I'm done talking," Sangen said. "I've waited a very long while to do this. Didn't know how I would get my revenge at first, but when you were born...well then, then I had to wait until you were the right age."
Maka edged her right foot back, easing it out of her shoe until only her toes were truly still in it.
"Are you having a good eighteenth so far?" Sangen continued.
"What do you think?" Maka said dryly. Her left leg was starting to burn from standing so long with all of her weight on it.
Sangen smiled again—this time tight and small, the lines on her face lengthening.
"You see, my daughter didn't make it to her eighteenth birthday," she said thoughtfully. "No, she was hunted down the day before she could reach that age. Hunted down to be the last soul that your mother needed to get a full set. To turn your father into a Death Scythe." She leaned forward suddenly, baring her teeth in a grimace. "My daughter died to make your mother her death scythe. And my plan was that Kami Albarn's daughter would die at the hands of her own Death Scythe. Give this whole plot some sort of symmetry."
Maka closed her eyes for a second, letting this new information soak into her and then flow away. She couldn't afford to feel sympathy for this woman; this was not someone who deserved it.
"But, of course, my little puppet here couldn't quite do it, could he now?" Sangen said, nudging at Soul's chin with her shoe. "Fought a bit too hard for me to finish the job. But you, you're here now. Came straight to me like a sacrificial lamb. Like you're trying to help me in my quest."
"Or maybe I'm going to kill you," Maka said, tightening her muscles, steeling herself for what she had to say. "Kill you like my mother did your daughter."
Sangen's eyes blew wide in fury and she took her foot off of Soul's neck so that she could step forward towards Maka.
"You little bit—"
Maka kicked her right foot up abruptly; her shoe flew off of her foot and she grabbed it out of mid-air, hurling it with all the strength in her body at the witch. The shoe hit Sangen directly in the face, knocking her backwards, away from Soul. She barely had time to let out a furious shriek before Maka was surging forward towards her, kicking her in the stomach and sending her skidding across the floor.
There was nothing Maka wanted more than to crouch down and press her cheek to Soul's chest, to feel his heartbeat and assure herself that he was still alive, even though the fact that the walls of the Black Room still stood around them should've been sign enough that he was. There was no time in a battle for that though; she paused only long enough to press the back of her bare heel against his warm side before taking a firm stance and launching herself at the witch again.
At the last second, Sangen scrambled out of the way, dodging Maka's strike.
"You're a feisty one, aren't you?" Sangen hissed, creeping along towards the back wall—or curtain. "But you must realize that you putting up a fight is pointless. You're just a meister, alone. And I..."
She straightened up and lifted her hands, flickering balls of fire rising in her palms.
"I am a witch."
Fire streaked through the air, and Maka threw herself behind the piano, wincing as the heat washed over her. Another fireball soared overhead, lower than the first, scoring across the surface of the piano and sending a shower of sparks spitting down on her back. She lurched forward, one hand smacking out against the ground to brace herself, splashing directly into the puddle of black goo.
"That's right," Sangen yelled. "Hide! That's all you can do when you're on your own, isn't it? You're nothing without your precious death scythe."
A third fireball streamed underneath the piano and Maka only just got out of its way, the edges of flame singing across her palms as she flipped backwards. Her feet hit the top of the piano and skidded for a second before she found her grip and spun around to face the witch. It was blue fire this time that she had to dodge, heading straight towards her face, and she jumped to the side, one foot slamming down onto the piano keys in a cacophony of sound. She wobbled, off balance for a split second, before leaping backwards and landing in a crouch on the ground behind the piano bench. She grabbed the bench by two legs and tipped it on its side to block her just in time for a fireball to smash against it.
She threw her hands up over her face as sparks spat out and suddenly noticed that the hand that had landed in the black puddle wasn't wet at all—it was completely clean and dry.
"Come on!" Sangen shrieked. "My Elsa would've put up a good fight against your mother, I know it, so don't you be a coward now—oh, not you again."
Maka peered around the side of the piano bench.
The puddle was spreading across the floor at an incredible pace towards Sangen, seeming less and less like a liquid with every slithering movement. As Maka watched, astounded, the shimmering black goo started to bubble upwards, slowly forming a familiar shape: spindly arms, bulbous head, horns—
"No you don't," Sangen hissed, throwing out a barrage of ice. The demon dodged the first shot, but he wasn't fully formed and couldn't move in time to avoid the second—he froze, the cage of ice preserving the glint of a snarl on his small face.
"That's more like it," the witch said, her lips curling in a satisfied smile. "You just stay there." She raised her eyes to meet Maka's, shrugging carelessly as she slowly advanced, fire once again simmering in her palms. "That little creature kept messing up everything before, assisting this boy"—she kicked out at Soul as she passed him, her pointed shoe digging into his shoulder—"in keeping me captive so that he could wake up and have some control for awhile. Very inconvenient."
Maka slowly stood up, clutching the bench in front of her as a shield and moving backwards, her eyes fixed on the witch's.
"Defeated by a bucket of black goo?" she said softly. "Yeah, I'm definitely scared to be fighting someone as dangerous as you."
Sangen's face twisted in fury and Maka raised the bench in front of her face quickly as another fireball flew at her. She could feel the heat bleeding through, almost unbearable on the sides of her exposed fingers, and she knew this wasn't going to last much longer. Flame licked at the edge of her hands, still clenched around the legs of the bench, and she gritted her teeth, holding on despite the pain.
Just a little bit longer. Just a little bit longer to give them more time to—
She only had a soft whuff of sound as warning before she was blasted off of her feet, soaring backwards through the air to land hard on the floor, skidding several feet until her shoulders smashed up against the wall. Her head snapped forward onto her chest and the bench fell from her hands, clattering to the ground next to her. The pain felt like a paralyzing hand, crushing her to the floor.
Maka raised her head, her spine protesting loudly, and fixed suddenly unstable eyes on the figure pacing towards her, a grin contorting features that—surely—must once have been sane.
"I got tired of drawing this out," Sangen said. "Why should I have thought that you would be difficult to defeat at all? A meister without a weapon is nothing. More than nothing." She laughed as she reached Maka, dropping down to kneel just above her. "Useless."
Maka winced, easing her hand out from where it was trapped underneath her body. She slowly curled her fingers around the leg of the piano bench.
"Oh, does that hurt?" Sangen said mockingly. "Does it hurt to hear that you are absolutely useless without a weapon? That you're not fit to be anything? In fact, it's pretty much a kindness that I'm going to kill you." She smiled, sharp and insane, and reached a hand out towards Maka's throat, the glow of fire building up in her palm. "Just ridding the world of a useless human being."
The fire was close enough to sear Maka's skin when she finally saw it—a shudder run across Sangen's skin, her form blinking out of sight for just a split second before returning.
Maka slid down the wall away from Sangen's hand, simultaneously bringing the bench up and across her body in one sweep to smash it into the witch's head. She didn't even pause to register the screech of fury though, rolling forward onto her feet and running across the room to the piano again. She grabbed the long piece of wood that was supposed to come down and cover the keys when they weren't in use, tugging hard. The hinges held, and Maka knew she didn't have much time.
"Come on, Soul," she muttered. "This is your head, help me out here."
She planted her foot on the side of the piano and pulled again. With a groan, the hinges tore free and she staggered backwards, adjusting her hold on the curved plank of wood until she could hold it like a weapon.
She spun to face the witch.
Sangen was standing where Maka had been, staring down at her hands. She was flickering faster now, in and out of existence like a tv that couldn't quite stay on the right channel.
"No," she gasped. "No, how did you—what did you do?"
Maka shifted her stance, balancing the piano key cover in her hands until she could grip it like Soul's scythe form. This time it was she who moved forward, edging around the side of the piano to stand over Soul's prone body.
"You know, that kind of stuff would've worked on me once," Maka said conversationally. "All of that stuff about being useless without a weapon. But you know what? Now I know that it's okay to rely on people and it doesn't make me any less strong." She smiled. "And unlike you, I'm not alone."
She could hear it.
If she stopped focusing so much on her presence in Soul's mind and tuned back into the things going on around her physical body, she could hear Tsubaki on the phone to Black Star, could hear her whispering in Maka's ear that "they found her! Maka, Kidd and the others found out where she was hiding! They're starting the process now!"
It didn't take long for Sangen to realize, not with the evidence of her own body fading and her grip on the spell that was keeping her here unravelling.
"You sent people," she said slowly. "To find my physical body."
"How did you not realize that one of your precious target's best friend was the Shinigami?" Maka said. "The Shinigami who has been working with the witches to track you down ever since they warned him that you had gone rogue. And apparently, this spell was your signature move back in the day, so as soon as I told Kidd what had happened and he told the witches, they knew it had to be you. And that allowed them to narrow down the list of places they thought you might be, since you can't perform this spell if you're too far away from the subject. If you hadn't been so busy fighting me, you might have noticed them starting to undo the spell, and you might have been able to stop them, or get back to your body fast enough to put up a fight."
Maka took another step forward, putting herself firmly in front of Soul. He still hadn't moved, but she wasn't letting herself think about that.
"It'll take maybe one more minute before they undo the spell completely and you'll be back in your own body, weakened and about to be arrested."
The expression on Sangen's face slowly morphed, twisting from shock into outrage and then into a burning hatred.
"I can do a lot in one minute," she snarled. She raised her hands, blasting needles of ice directly at Maka, weak and insubstantial with her loss of power, but still sharp. Maka didn't let herself think, just gave over to muscle memory, whirling her makeshift weapon and blocking each projectile.
Frustration clouded the witch's face and she leapt forward, trying to engage Maka in hand to hand combat instead, a last resort as her power faded more. Her clawed fingernails scored across the surface of the wood plank, trying to wrench it from Maka's hands, but Maka planted her feet and shoved with the force of her entire body, throwing Sangen back. As the witch struggled to regain her balance, Maka swung the piano cover like a sword, slamming it into Sangen's side and throwing her to the floor.
Sangen was almost completely gone, her body appearing completely translucent, waves of static running across her from head to toe as she flickered in and out of sight. She raised her head, fixing her eyes on Maka—eyes that still seemed sharp and focused.
And then she was gathering her legs and arms beneath her and jumping across the room like a cat, aiming not at Maka, but at the motionless body that Maka had accidentally stepped too far away from in the fight. It happened too quickly for Maka to move, but she tried. In the space of her taking one step back towards Soul, Sangen had vanished halfway through her pounce, her feet going first, the disappearance travelling all the way up her body, leaving her outstretched hands for last. Outstretched hands that manged to brush just once across Soul's forehead before they too blinked out of existence.
Maka felt a tug in her body, somewhere just above her stomach, the whole world giving one frightful lurch, and then she was staring at the cell door, Tsubaki hovering at her side.
She staggered backwards, unsteady with the sudden switch from heels to boots. Her head was whirling, and she couldn't feel Soul anymore through the door. She couldn't feel the answering pulse of his soul.
"Maka, are you alright? You've got burns—"
"I got kicked out," she gasped. "The witch disappeared, but I got kicked out of Soul's head and I can't feel him."
She could feel Tsubaki freeze beside her, sucking in a sharp breath.
"Did the witch touch him at the end? When she was disappearing?"
"Yes? No? I don't know!" Maka clutched at her head, pressing closer to the cell door and peering through the window. Soul hadn't moved from his slumped position, chained up. "I think at the end right as she was going for real, she might have brushed against him. It was too fast to see for certain. Tsubaki, why can't I feel his soul anywhere?"
"If she touched him while Kid and them were undoing the spell," Tsubaki said slowly, tentatively, like a doctor trying to give bad news to a family waiting outside the ER. "...then there's the possibility that she could've absorbed some of his soul and pulled it out of his body when she went."
Maka felt something in her chest grow quiet and cold.
"Which means?" she said.
Tsubaki dropped her head to her chest, hiding her eyes.
"If it was enough of his soul, it would kill him," she answered.
Maka laughed. The sound was hysterical, uncontrollable, like the shudders taking over her body, the electricity coursing through her veins.
"No, no, no, that's not what happened, that's not going to happen. No."
She pressed closer to the door, flattening herself to it, her shivering fingers curling into her palm until she was hammering fists against it. The laugh started to mutate in her throat, falling out of her mouth like a sob. She barely registered the feel of metal denting under her hands, or Tsubaki slowly backing away. A crazy energy was building inside her, crackling out of of her skin into the air and when Tsubaki spoke, she barely heard her over the roar in her ears.
"Maka, how are yo—"
The next few seconds didn't really make sense, no matter how many times Maka would replay them in her head later. One moment there was the locked cell door, solid under her hands, and then it was gone, ripped open off of its hinges and thrown backwards. She distantly heard someone yell something from behind her, but she didn't even pause, surging forward and crossing the space between her and her partner in an instant. She fell to her knees in front of Soul, hands scrabbling up his chest to his chin so she could raise his head, look at his face.
His eyes were closed, his skin ashy, yet still warm under her fingers. She shook him once, twice, the chains around his waist and arms rattling slightly. The chains were in the way, and so she ripped them off of him, tearing through the metal links as if they weren't even there. Once free from them, his body slumped forward into her arms.
"Soul?" she said. "Soul, come on."
There was the clatter of footsteps, and then a shadow fell across Soul's face, blocking the slight light filtering into the dark cell. She could sense Tsubaki hovering in the doorway and she wanted her to leave, to leave her alone with her partner.
"Soul, Soul, Soul—"
Maka didn't know if it was his name she was repeating, or the word for the thing itself that she was searching for, all of her senses stretched out to find even the tiniest hint of answering resonance in his chest. But all she could feel was a blank, echoing hollowness.
The "no" swelling up inside of her was practically shoving out of her skin, a panicky gust of emotion ballooning through her body. It was as if that feeling was pushing out all of the energy in her, making the air crackle in bright, vibrant electricity around her and Soul. She didn't know what it was that she was doing, only that she couldn't leave it like this, couldn't accept that Soul was gone—
Before she could even register that she intended to do it, she was tipping forward and pressing her mouth to his.
There was no time to give thought to the way the contact felt, to the softness of his lips, their give against her own, or how she'd wanted this for years before she'd even put a word to the feeling and years after that—her hands were gripping either side of his face to pull him closer and she was trying to shove her soul into his body, trying to jumpstart him.
The power was pulsing through her and into him, her soul wavelength jumping all over the place as it resonated with itself for the first time—the foundations of that attack that Stein had showed Black Star that Maka had never been able to master—and then poured into the place where what was left of her partner's soul lay curled and dead. For the first time in years, she wasn't holding anything back at all, not for her own self-preservation or his. Secrets like her being in love with Soul didn't seem to matter so much when she was fighting for his life.
A burst of light flared up between the press of their bodies, seeping through Maka's closed eyelids. She pulled back, her fingers still clutching at Soul's face, and looked down to see a tendril of pure white light snaking out of her chest and into Soul, the shuddering connection between them growing wider and stronger with every passing second. It took her a second to realize that she was physically seeing their resonance, and then she felt a thump go through her, the strand of resonance expanding and retracting like a heart beating. Like it was trying to make his heart—or his soul—beat again.
She dove back in, kissing him over and over for each squeeze of her soul and his. Every kiss held the word "please". Every kiss held the words "I love you". And she felt it, felt the moment it worked, when his tattered soul flared to life underneath the caress of her own, the feeling surging through the rope of connection between them and burning hot through her entire body. Soul's mouth opened under hers on a gasp, and she drew her head back so she could watch him suck in his first breath in this new reborn life.
His eyes fluttered open just long enough for him to catch a glimpse of her face hovering in front of his. A tiny smile curved his lips before he was passing out again, sinking into Maka's arms. For a split second she was terrified that all of that had only bought her that one moment of life, and that he was gone once more, but then she realized that he was breathing. All of the tension drained abruptly from her body, the lights and electricity and energy shooting back into her body and going silent in the back of her head. She fell forwards, propped up against Soul who was propped up against her, burying her face in his neck and simply breathing. Soaking in the feel of his chest moving against hers with his own breaths.
He was alive.
Tsubaki's voice came out of the darkness, tiny and hushed.
This time when Soul woke up, it was to the sound of friends' voices and full control of his own limbs.
Above him was the familiar ceiling of his and Maka's apartment. He could tell by the softness under him and pressing all along his right side that he was lying on the couch, his feet hooked over the arm (he had outgrown it a couple years ago). He felt like he'd woken up from a long, satisfying nap, his entire body feeling deliciously heavy and warm and somehow...renewed.
There was a distant memory in the back of his head, the idea that something bad had happened, that maybe he should speak up and let them know that he was awake, or at least do something, but he felt too tired and comfortable to put effort into speech. Luckily, he didn't have to, because suddenly a blue-haired head was shoving itself in front of his face and exclaiming,
"Guys, he's up!"
Moving wasn't actually as hard as he'd expected it to be, and Soul easily swatted Black Star's head away.
"Get out of my face, you idiot," he grumbled, trying to fight down a smile. Footsteps and excited voices were swirling around him and he pushed himself up into a sitting position, looking over the back of the couch to see Kid, Liz, Patti, Tsubaki, and Maka moving out of the crowded kitchen towards him. His eyes instantly zoomed in on Maka; she was the farthest away from him, frozen in the act of pushing herself up from where she was leaning against the counter. She was staring back at him as well, a mixture of relief and something unidentifiable filling her face.
"You're awake," she said, her voice quiet, but somehow cutting through all of the other voices.
"Yeah," Soul said, scrubbing a hand through his hair. The lethargy was falling away and he felt energized, like he could run a mile. "What exactly happened?"
"You're lucky to be alive, that's what happened," Kid said seriously. Soul noticed that he was dressed in full Shinigami regalia, which he usually only wore if he had to operate on an official basis. The outfit clashed with the mickey mouse plastic cup he was sipping pink juice from.
"You died," Patty said bluntly.
"Do we really have to go through all of the gory details?" Maka interjected. She looked flushed.
"Whoa, hey, I want to know what happened!" Soul exclaimed. "Last thing I remember was attacking Maka and not being able to take back control! What was up with that? What even happened? What do you mean I died?"
He was starting to feel slightly panicked, weirdly out of depth. Everyone was staring at him.
"You got possessed by the witch that Mabaa-sama and I have been hunting down," Kid explained matter-of-factly. "She tried to use you as a vessel to take down Maka as a revenge plot for something Maka's mother did. Maka entered your head and kept her busy while we hunted down the witch's physical body and undid the spell tying her to you. However, while the spell was being undone, the witch managed to steal a bit of your soul and essentially kill you."
Soul pressed his hand to his chest absently, feeling his heart thumping away under his palm through the thin material of his t-shirt.
"So how come I'm still...alive?" he asked.
"Don't misunderstand," Kid said. "You were actually dead. For about five minutes. That was how long it took for Maka to rip open the cell you had been locked up in and bring you back."
Maka wouldn't meet Soul's eyes when he looked at her this time. She was staring down at the floor, scuffing her shoe against it.
"Maka?" Soul said. She glanced up then, and her face was pinched, redness staining her cheeks. He couldn't remember what it was he had been about to say. Thank you? What? How the flying fuck did you manage that?
Maybe some of it was telegraphing on his face, because Tsubaki spoke up.
"I think she invented a new healing technique for partners," she said, laughing slightly, disbelievingly. "It was incredible, she—"
"Tsubaki!" Maka said sharply.
"She resonated her soul with itself and then shoved it into you," Tsubaki continued, flicking reassuring eyes towards Maka. "Like Black Star's attack. Except that instead of causing damage because of the incompatibility between the souls, since you two have such a strong resonance usually, she was able to heal you with it, bring what was left of your soul back to life."
Maka and Tsubaki seemed to be having some sort of conversation with their eyes, but Soul wasn't paying attention to that. It was hard to wrap his mind around the fact that Maka had been able to do that, to come up with it on the spot, something no one had ever done before. For him.
"You won't be able to resonate with anyone but me though," Maka said, drawing his eyes to her. "Sorry. We took you to see Stein before you were cleared healthy enough to come back here. Stein said that that would be a side effect, since part of your soul was rebuilt with mine." She smiled, wan and nervous. "So I guess you're stuck with me."
Soul smiled back, then ducked his head into the side of the couch as the expression melted off of his face. That would mess with his plans a bit. But it was alright. He could fight on his own. He didn't need a meister when it all came down to it.
The thought rang incredibly untrue in his chest, but he ignored it.
"Oh!" Maka said abruptly, her eyebrows flying up. "The demon! Soul, can you feel in your head if he's okay? He got frozen by the witch in the fight at one point."
It was a testament to how strange their lives were that no one seemed surprised by that sentence.
Soul closed his eyes and blocked out the sounds and feel of the world around him for a second, just long enough to get a grasp of the demon's voice grumbling something about being "soaking wet" and "damn witches have no respect for a quality suit".
"Yeah," he said, opening his eyes and smirking at Maka. "He's definitely fine."
"So," Black Star said, drawing out the word. "Can we eat that cake now?"
"Black Star!" Tsubaki said, visibly fighting back a grin.
"Oh, right," Soul said, so taken aback that he spoke aloud. "It's Maka's birthday today."
It felt almost impossible that it could be, that only yesterday he was watching her sleep on the train and planning today as the day to tell her—
"Man gets possessed and dies and comes back to life and he still remembers his partner's birthday," Black Star said, clapping a hand down on Soul's shoulder. "That is the mark of a true connection." He leans down and stage-whispers in Soul's ear. "Tsubaki forgot mine last year."
"That is not true!" Tsubaki sputtered. "It's not my fault you didn't give me a chance to surprise you with anything because you burst into my room at 5 in the morning yelling that it was your birthday and asking why I had forgotten."
"No one can forget your birthday, Black Star," Liz chimed in. "You literally won't let us."
"He has a good point though," said Patti. "Can we eat the cake now?"
Cake was eaten and birthday wishes were spread around. Embarrassing memories were brought up and embarrassing songs were sung and everyone treated Soul like he was made of glass even though he felt only a little tired. Soul was glad that Stein had said it was okay for him to be brought back home. He was definitely glad that Maka's birthday hadn't had to be ruined by his untimely death. And even though he didn't remember dying, he couldn't help but look around at his friends with a new perspective and realize how damned grateful he was for them. All of them.
But yes, especially Maka. Especially when she seemed to notice that the shiny, glowing energy of new life in him was fading and that exhaustion was creeping up on him. She herded their friends to the door and shooed them out, sending them off with extra bits of cake and promises to update them on Soul's progress. Soul watched through the haze of his eyelashes, his eyes drooping closed and then jolting open as he struggled to stay awake.
"And you'll call us if anything happens to him unexpectedly? Actually, you should probably call Stein and then us—Patty, stop pushing Liz—"
"WE'LL BE BACK TOMORROW, SOUL!"
"He can hear you without you yelling, Black Star—and I know you said your hands were okay, but I left some salve on the counter for when you change your bandages, okay?"
"Thanks, Tsubaki. All of you, thank you so much."
"It's no problem, Maka. And once again, happy birthday."
Soul felt himself drifting away, and it took him a few long moments to become aware that the apartment was quiet again. He sat up, clutching at the back of the couch until he was upright enough to see Maka. She was standing in front of the closed door, her forehead pressed to the wood, and he was speaking before he realized he was going to.
"What did Tsubaki mean?"
She turned around, looking at him in surprise.
"Oh, I thought you were asleep," she said, bustling around the other couch and into the kitchen. "You seemed like you could barely keep your eyes open two minutes ago."
"Hey, I died, I think I'm allowed to feel a little tired," Soul grumbled. He didn't miss the way Maka's shoulders tensed for a second at his words.
It took five minutes of him absently watching her put the cake away in a tupperware in the fridge before he remembered that he had asked a question and Maka hadn't answered.
"Your hands," he said. "What was Tsubaki saying about them?"
Maka shrugged, gathering up the dirty plates strewn across the counter. Soul's eyes caught on her fingers, and he realized that she was wearing her old gloves. They were a little bit small, the delicate insides of her wrists flashing pale skin at him where the fabric was too short to cover it.
"It's not a big deal," she said. "My hands got a little burned in the fight with the witch. Stein has already seen to them and they're bandaged and everything, it's fine."
Soul pushed himself off the couch, crossing the space between them in a matter of seconds. She was just turning around, plates in hand, and he carefully took them from her.
"If your hands are hurt, you should let me do that," he said. "Why didn't you mention it earlier?"
She was probably wearing the gloves just so he wouldn't notice. It was just like her, and he was torn between fondness and irritation.
"Like you said," she shot back. "You recently came back from the dead. I think burned hands are a little less serious than that."
"Yeah, but I feel completely fine," Soul said. "No injuries."
He moved past her to set the plates in the sink. He could feel the hard edge of the counter pressing into his hip and he slumped forward, all energy leaking out of his body through the bottom of his feet. He wanted to lie down and sleep for a billion years. With Maka lying beside him, if possible.
"Can't believe I actually died," he mumbled, barely aware of the words passing his lips. "Would never have gotten to tell you—"
He bit off the end of the sentence, his brain catching up with his mouth too late. When he looked over his shoulder, Maka was staring at him, her gloved hands hanging by her sides and her face painted stark and open in surprise.
What had he said?
"Tell me what?" Maka asked. It didn't feel like only her hands had gotten burned—her entire body felt like it was throbbing, tingling with something akin to pain or maybe just the anticipation of it.
Soul had gone rigid, so unlike the soft relaxation that had filled him mere seconds ago. He turned to face her fully, pushing away from the counter and smiling, a tiny, grim line stretching across his face.
"It's nothing," he said—an obvious lie considering the way he wouldn't meet her eyes.
"No, it's not," Maka said. "What is it?"
Soul ducked his head, staring at the kitchen tiles for a moment before he spoke, in quick, staccato sentences.
"I was just. Before all this happened, I thought I was going to tell you something today. I planned to. But it's—all this happened, so. It can wait."
And Maka knew she could accept that, could use it as an excuse to postpone what she had to say as well. And she meant to—she had thought she wasn't going to say it, not after all of this insane stuff had happened and Soul had died and come back, but maybe all of that happening had filled her with a reckless sort of urgency because she opened her mouth and said:
"I planned to tell you something today too."
Soul looked up then, red eyes fixing on her face.
"You did?" he asked. There was something like nervousness in his voice, but it barely registered with Maka. She knew that whatever he had to say couldn't be as important—as potentially horrifying or wonderful—as what she had to.
"What was it?" Soul said.
She shook her head. Smiled slightly.
"You first," she said.
He laughed, brief and humourless.
Maka just crossed her arms over her chest, staring him down until he cracked.
"Look, I just wanted to tell you—" He cut himself off, scrubbing his hands over his face. There was something about the way he was looking at her, like they were both about to go over the edge of a cliff, that filled the pit of her stomach with a mounting dread. For the first time, she realized that maybe what he had to say would actually be more important than hers.
"No," he said abruptly. "I'm just not going to, it was stupid, never mind—"
He was backing up, hands flung out as if to ward off her questions, but she wasn't going to let him escape the issue with just that. She moved around him, blocking him from running out into the hallway.
"C'mon, Soul, you can't just bring something up and then not explain it," she exclaimed. In a moment of stubbornness, he tried to push past her and she shoved him backwards, hands planted against his chest. She let out a hiss of pain, her palms throbbing, and Soul made a weak little noise in the back of his throat, grabbing her wrists and holding her still.
"If you do that, you're going to keep hurting your hands, you idiot!" he said.
"Well, maybe you should tell me what it was you were going to say so that I don't have to!" she snapped. She felt guilty the second the words had left her mouth; her hands being hurt wasn't his fault, no matter how much he probably thought it was, and she wasn't being fair to him by demanding all of this information when he was practically falling over from fatigue. Her words hit him more harshly than she had meant them; his grip went slack around her wrists, a terrible sort of guilt filling his eyes.
"Look," she said, pulling her wrists away from him. "I didn't mean that. You're right, this has been a horrible day and we should both just get some—"
"I'm moving out," Soul blurted.
Maka stopped moving so suddenly that she thought she could almost feel her bones grinding to a halt. Her hands were still hovering between them, trapped halfway there on their trip back to Maka's sides.
"What?" she said.
Soul looked down at the ground, then up again, meeting her eyes with effort. She could see it: he wasn't joking around, wasn't throwing out a red herring before he told her his real news.
"That's what I planned to tell you today," he said quietly. "I think it's time for me to move out. Go live somewhere else."
Maka shook her head automatically, and once she started, it felt like she couldn't stop. She was all at once aware of the space of the room, of how wide and empty it would feel if she was the only one taking up that space. The walls were expanding around her, racing away from her and Soul like a crowd away from an explosion.
"What?" she choked out. "Why, why, why the hell would you do that? Partners always live together—"
"Well, maybe we should give being partners a rest for a little while," he said. His words were calm and measured, and she couldn't understand how he could stand there and just say that. For a split second she felt almost like she was back in that cell, clutching at his cold, unresponsive body. But no—that had been the worst moment of her entire life. She could fix this, whatever problem had arisen to make Soul talk like this, she could fix it!
"You can't mean that," she said. "Whatever I did, I can stop or I can apologize, if you'd just—"
He let out a bitter laugh, his eyes wide and panicked, his hands flying up to sink into his hair, tugging in obvious frustration.
"It's nothing—nothing—that you've done!" he exclaimed. "You have to believe that; it's all in my head, it's all because of me, and I—"
He cut himself off and tried to move past her again. She stepped in front of him.
"Soul, you can't move out," she said, pleading. She could feel it rising in the back of her throat, the words she had been planning to tell him on this day, on her birthday. It was the only thing she could say to try and convince him to stay, and then they were both speaking, words overlapping.
"Maka, I have to leave—"
"Soul, you can't leave—"
"—because I'm in love with you."
Their words rang out in their apartment like the clear, pure note of music that she could hear every time she and Soul resonated. It was fitting that they would say it together, she thought absently, staring at the boy mere feet from her—her partner—the boy who had just said the one thing she'd always wanted to hear from him.
"And it's not fair to you to keep living in the same house while I'm feeling this about you," Soul continued. "And you're not—" He broke off abruptly, and she could practically see him rewinding the past few seconds. "Wait, what did you just say?"
It felt like such a rush, giddiness overflowing the riverbanks in her heart and flooding through her body. She could feel the smile stretching across her face and she stepped closer to where he stood, frozen, hope unfolding slowly in his eyes.
"I told you that I had something to tell you today too, didn't I?" she said, reaching up and fitting her hands to the curve of his cheeks, angling his face down to hers. "Well."
And it was nothing at all like the kiss in the cell, because he was alive and she wasn't desperate anymore. It was simple, his mouth soft and warm against hers, pressing back lightly. There was no fear, no urgency, and she could afford to kiss him the way she'd always imagined: gently, and so, so full of love that there was no way he wouldn't be able to feel it.
Their lips stuck together slightly when she pulled back, clinging on a moment longer. She swept her tongue over her bottom lip, trying to see if she could taste him there, and watched his eyes follow the movement, wide and dark.
"That was what I was going to tell you," she said. And nothing in the entire world could match the brightness of the smile that took over his entire face then, except possibly her own. "You're not going anywhere."
He shook his head. They were so close that she could feel his hair brush across her forehead with the motion.
"No, I'm not," he said. She could taste his words across her lips. "Never again."
And maybe there was a little urgency in the next kiss, but Maka certainly wasn't complaining.
Soul looked good in her bed.
He was sprawled over on his side, his legs flung out and twisted in the sheets, one arm draped in a bizarre angle over his head and the other flung out towards her side of the bed. They were both still in their clothes from the day before, his shirt rucked up around his stomach. She shamelessly let her gaze linger on the strip of skin bared, remembering her hands spread flat across his hip last night and his muscles shifting underneath her fingers. They'd kissed until they fell asleep, tangled together. They'd moved apart in the night, gravitating to more comfortable sleeping positions on different sides of the bed, but when she'd woken up, only moments ago, she'd had her fingers wrapped lightly around the arm he'd had reaching for her.
The window was half open and the breeze was leaking warmly through, ruffling the thick curtains. The morning light, struggling to shine through the aforementioned curtains, left mottled shadows on Soul's face, shifting slowly over the planes of his cheeks as the curtains moved. Soul made a tiny, grumpy noise of sleep, pushing his face deeper into the pillow and squeezing his eyes shut when a bright pinprick of light slid over his face, and Maka couldn't help laughing.
"Get up, you lump," she said, grabbing her pillow and jamming it down on his head. She hopped out of bed with a laugh, ignoring his slightly more alert grumbling, and making her way out of the bedroom.
Everything in the apartment somehow looked different after last night. Brighter. More...theirs. Because that was what it truly was now, she realized. This wasn't just a place where two people were roommates, the threat of temporariness hanging over their heads. This was their apartment.
She was just crossing to the kitchen when she noticed that there was something on the ground in front of the door. She walked over and stooped down, a smile growing on her face when she recognized what it was.
On one side there was a picture of two mountains, a bright blue river threading between them. On the other was her mother's handwriting, wishing her a happy birthday.
She straightened up slowly, reading over her mother's message. Somehow, her mother always managed to make sure her postcards arrived either on the day they were supposed to or the morning after, and Maka still wasn't certain how she pinpointed it so exactly when she was travelling all around the world. The postcards were always a bright spot in her day, and she could already see where she would fit this one in on her wall of postcards she had received from her mother.
Abruptly, she remembered the witch. Sangen. Remembered her fury and grief, the way she had spoken of her daughter. Of how Maka's mother had killed her. She thought for a moment where Sangen was going to go now, what sort of jail she would spend her life in.
She stared at the postcard, turning it over and over in her hands, waiting for her to feel differently, to feel resentful of her mother for inadvertently causing Soul's death. But the anger never came. She loved her mother, the way Sangen's daughter must have loved her. Maka's mother had only been doing what she had been told to do. Things were different now though, what with the truce, and a warm glow filled her chest as she realized that situations like this one would never happen to future generations.
"What're you looking at?"
An arm hooked around her waist and pulled her back against Soul's slouched form. She felt him drop a soft kiss on her shoulder, easy and quick, like they'd been doing this for a hundred mornings instead of only this one, and the simple gesture lit up something inside her.
"My mom's birthday postcard," she answered, letting her body curve back into him and lifting the postcard so he could peer over her shoulder and read it.
"What's the picture?" he asked.
She flipped it over to show him and he grunted his approval. Everything about the conversation and the embrace felt like second nature, and she wished that it was the hundredth morning, that they could've gotten their act together earlier and been doing this for months.
"Your mom's got the best timing, I swear," Soul said. "Hey, so I know yesterday was kinda crazy—"
For the tiniest second, Maka tensed, thinking he was referring to everything that had happened between them, and he wrapped his other arm around her as well, circling his fingers soothingly over her hip.
"What with me being possessed and then dying," he clarified. "The other stuff—it's kind of uncool to say it, but it was pretty much the best part of my life so far."
He shoved his face into her neck, hiding from her reaction, and Maka smiled so hard that it just had to bubble over into a laugh.
"Are you mocking me?" Soul mumbled into her skin. It tickled.
"Of course not," Maka said, taking one hand away from the postcard to lace her fingers with Soul's across her stomach.
"Good. Well, since all that shit went down, you didn't get to have much of a birthday," Soul continued. "I thought that maybe we could just kinda extend your birthday to today. Just sit around and celebrate. Or, you know, go back to bed and celebrate. Either way,"—he smacked a kiss to her cheek—"happy birthday."
Soul wasn't dead, Maka thought. He was alive and warm and wrapped around her. And he loved her the same way that she had loved him for years. He was all she'd wanted for her birthday. He was all she'd needed, and she had brought him back and made him safe.
Her eyes fell back to the postcard, and she flipped it over again, scanning her mother's writing until she reached the final line.
"Happy eighteenth birthday, Maka," she read. "Happy birthday to me."
And happy it was.