A/N yay for my first Soul Eater fic! This was written for the 2013 Resonance Bang hosted by the lovely folk at the Grigori Wings forum (everyone, join if you haven't! all are welcome, and the environment is friendly!)
Gorgeous artwork for this fic can be found at aqua-art's tumblr (/post/70415938792/after-makas-death-she-somehow-joins-the-ranks)! Please let her know how amazing she is, if you have the time :)
I do not claim ownership over Soul Eater or Dead Like Me (which is the basis for this fic). Thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoy!
Maka dies, which – in hindsight – is probably the only exciting thing to have ever happened to her.
It starts here: the university's Board of Trustees decided that with the addition of a new computer lab, books as old as time itself were obsolete, and whatever information aforementioned books held could be found through various online portals. A computer lab proved faster, updated on a regular basis, and was much more economically-sound than shelling out the money needed to buy sturdier bookshelves and repaint the walls and maybe fix the water leak in the roof. After reaching this conclusion – and what an easy decision, funding was cut as was the library staff.
Maka, however, in her old-fashioned ways, actually liked sitting in the furthest reaches of the library – something magic in the way the yellowed, starchy pages felt beneath her fingertips and how the old ink smelled when she burrowed her nose into the spine. Computers were impersonal, and the labs always had a tendency of nearing over-capacity anyway, so the only logical place to go for peace of mind and some solitude was, in fact, the library.
So, Maka dies. It happens in this way: while skimming a row of literature about the west coasts of South Africa needed for Professor Stein's grueling essay on the native pelagic species there, the bookshelf wobbles and gives way to centuries-old texts that smell of dust, musk, and water-damage. It's awful, of course – that she dies, and in her favorite place at that! – but sometimes life, or well Death, happens.
She probably should have paid more attention to her horoscope when Kim read it to her. Beware of falling objects, it should have warned; or perhaps: you will feel that the weight of the world is upon you.
Her last thought is: dammit.
And it is here, under a pile of mangled books, a soul pushes from its fleshy confines. Here, our story begins.
Or not. It's such a shame to start a story with one's death as Death should never be the end or the beginning of anything, much less a story.
It starts with Kim Diehl – a flighty girl who had an affinity for dyeing her hair bubblegum pink (or maybe it had been a bit lighter; Maka had never been one for distinguishing colors) and ranking the boys in their classes based on any scale she could come up with (wealth, looks, personality, "length" – which oftentimes made Maka clamp her hand over Kim's mouth to muffle the following names and supposed sizes). Kim, who had been rather plain appearance-wise but made up for it with her charm and wit, had sidled up beside Maka once-upon-a-time and made a comment on the peculiar swell of Miss Marie's belly. The rest, as one might say in such situations, had been history. They were alike the two of them – unnoticeable amid the thousands who roam the campus.
Kim says, "Oi Maka! Come check out your horoscope today," too chipper for a morning class, and encircles her fingers around Maka's wrist, tight around the bone. Maka remembers Kim's nail polish (Tickle-me-pink, Kim had said in that patient, exasperated tone when Maka had confused it with, god forbid, rose or whatever) and the way the glitter caught the light like tiny crystals, all blues and silvers and flecks of gold.
She remembers the way the room tipped on axis, how the colors swam together in one chaotic swirl of pastel seasonal tints, and her head's sudden heaviness. Maybe she will see the nurse later, she thinks; she might be coming down with the flu – it's been going around lately, and so close to midterms too.
When Kim speaks again, her voice sounds spacey and far-away, but there's an undercurrent of sadness that is so un-Kim that Maka has trouble hearing the words. "I believe in you," she might say, but Maka cannot recall. Her head feels weighed down with bricks, or lead, and Maka blinks a few times to clear her vision. It works, for a beat, and everything is as it was.
Kim smiles, and Maka shakes away the feeling of there being something alien and strange about the situation and this particular smile. No one in class pays any heed to them, in the middle of this crowded classroom on a Thursday morning. The rain pit-patters outside the third story window, and mist settles like a lover in all the nooks and crannies the campus has to offer. Maka focuses on the lesson that sounds more and more foreign to her ears the longer she remains seated.
Three hours later, crushed beneath dictionaries and thesauruses and other texts she once considered loving companions and not brutal murderers (Et tu Brute? Caesar had said in a much similar fashion, once), Maka dies. This we already know.
It's Thursday, three or four in the afternoon, and the clouds continue to let loose torrents of rainwater – a rare, but not unwelcome occurrence in the drier states of the country. The library bustles with life, and Maka, confused, looks around to find the cause of such animation. The scuffed hardwood of the library has never seen so many sneakers and heels all at once. Not a willing participant in today's event, obviously, the floor chooses to voice such dissent with a sharp groan every time someone so much as shifts their weight from one foot to another.
"Excuse me," she calls; once, twice, and then another time before trying to tap the shoulder of the baseball-capped boy in front of her. She stalls, unsure, when she makes out the shape of a limp pale hand not even ten feet away. The arm connected to it is hidden beneath books, and the chipped wood from a broken bookshelf further obscures her vision.
Her hand clenches, still raised mid-air.
"You probably do not wish to see that," a voice says behind her, steady and calm but not exactly comforting.
She glances at him. He's dressed formally – stuffily, Maka corrects, taking in the tailored suit-jacket circa 1800s London and skull-shaped brooch at his neck – and paler than even she. His eyes give way to no emotion, simply calculating and calm. For some strange reason, Maka doesn't feel like she wants to know what is going on anymore or who belongs to the body crumpled beneath that bookshelf. She already knows, can feel it deep inside her; the knowledge unsettles her, but she thins her lips and makes no comment.
The man gestures for her, more with his eyes and the tilt of his chin upward rather than his hands. No, his hands he keeps in the pockets of his stuffy suit-jacket; all black from head to toe, dressed for a funeral.
It's funny, she finds much later when nothing much else is, that this had been her first thought of Kid.
What once was a one-in-a-million chance of Maka being noticed has now become infinitesimally smaller.
No one sees the ghost of a girl trailing a half-step behind this strange gentleman, and she cannot bring herself to prank or pass through the always-busy streets of this Nevadan city. Maybe if she were younger, back when she played pretend with the neighborhood children before her parents' divorce, she might have attempted walking through a living being's body – to see if they'd shiver from that peculiar, unexplainable chill that whispers through someone for no reason at all. The closest she comes is when she brushes her shoulder into a harried, balding man – possibly in his mid-40s, too old to feel young but too young to look old; he doesn't even stumble, and she catches herself mid-apology. He trudges onward, his gait comprised of quick, long strides, and all Maka had felt was a fleeting, fuzzy feeling – the hazy one similar to when your foot falls asleep, and you try to shake away the numbness but only feel tiny pinpricks of pain shoot up your calf instead.
Her new friend watches the exchange, and the gold in his eyes flickers in the late afternoon sunlight. Upon closer inspection, he's not just pale; no, he's almost gray in natural light, a ghastly pallor emphasized by his choice in wardrobe color. He looks dead, but as he's the only one in what may be the entire world who can see her, she trusts him and breaches the distance – three stripes of sunlight – between them.
He continues walking, and she glimpses all the nameless faces that swim through her vision. All living people who have no worries greater than what they'll have for supper or if, maybe, they'll spend the night alone; these are the thoughts she had, too: midterms are around the corner, I should return Papa's calls, Miss Marie and Professor Stein are getting married this autumn, maybe I should break down and buy a new sweater.
Now she thinks only: I died. I died. I'm dead.
The Waffle House tucked off the main street smells like too much grease, syrup, and sweat. Maka crinkles her nose and follows her guide to a booth in the back corner. The rain taps a gentle beat against the glass of the window; it would soothe her normally, but she just died and doesn't think anything will be able to comfort her now.
The evening dinner rush comes and goes. Maka had forgotten to eat breakfast today; she'd intended on working through lunch, and maybe – if Kim were up for it – trying out the new Italian restaurant a few blocks away from campus for a late dinner. Now, she's dead, and oh god, who's going to tell Papa? Who will tell Mama, out studying sea turtles somewhere in the Pacific Ocean? Maka frowns mostly to keep from thinking about it too much, looks up, and catches her only companion staring at her.
"You are taking this rather well," he comments, and he seems rather serious too. Maka balks. It's as though he were speaking of a test-gone-wrong, or the weather – something trivial and easily overcome, not her death.
Maka tries to upset the salt and pepper shakers on the table; when it doesn't work, she settles on glaring at them. "Am I?" she asks, annoyed.
Kid, however, doesn't answer. He blinks away from her and toward their waitress who bounds over, a bounce in her steps and smile on her pretty face.
"Kid," she chirps; Maka files away his name because if he's all she has now she better remember his name and what he looks like. The waitress clicks her pen, and it's purple, glittery, and unprofessional much like her uniform – short skirt, partly unbuttoned blouse, purple hair that she twists around her pen. She looks the part of Papa's-Latest-Conquest, and maybe – for entirely selfish, personal reasons – Maka resents this bubbly waitress for the fact. "How are you~?"
His response is curt, impersonal, but he does greet her by name, "Blair." Kid glances back down to his menu. He closes it and slips it behind the napkin canister. "The usual."
"Boo, you're no fun~" Blair coos, and her voice sounds as syrupy as the drizzle on the place's waffles. Maka glares at her, and then startles. Blair glances at her – not through her; Maka holds her breath and waits. She's dead – she knows she is, but how come Kid (and maybe Blair) can see her? Then Blair smiles her sultry smile, winks at Kid, and says, "Fine~ Blair will be right back!"
Maka tries to flick a crumb off the table. Her finger slips through it. "I'd kill for some pancakes," she grouses under-breath.
"Unfortunately, killing is not in our job description," Kid says. "The gravelings kill; we save."
"Is this Hell?" Maka asks because, well, Nevada is certainly not Heaven and Kid looks nothing like any angel she has ever seen in prints. Kid furrows his brows. He shakes his head, once, and Maka sighs. She's transparent, invisible, and it takes too much effort to concentrate on simply sitting. "Is it a nightmare?"
"You saw your body, Maka Albarn," Kid says, dry. Maka can tell that Kid has no time for her ludicrous questions, and she wants to hit him and tell him fuck you; I just died, you bastard but Kid continues, never wasting a word. "You are dead. Your soul felt no pain from that death because of the job we do."
Maka wants to ask questions; she's always been inquisitive, curious by nature. Maybe that was her undoing.
("Curiosity killed the cat," Kim had told her, over cappuccinos a month or two ago, when Maka had inquired about her life 'before Nevada'. Kim had flicked her nose and smiled. "Haven't you heard that?")
Kid looks as though he is waiting for her to ask, too, but the front door opens and the fresh smell of rainwater and earth permeates the building. Kid's eyebrow twitches.
Maka hears him before she sees him. "Hey bitches," says the disembodied voice prior to it developing a corporeal body.
Maka spies a spark of blue hair, sticking in disarray, and tan skin stretched over a too-toned body; she quickly categorizes him as all muscle, no brain. He shuffles to their table, disregarding the people trying to sidestep him and leave, and the beautiful woman who enters with him tries to appease the disgruntled patrons the man had shoved aside. When he speaks, it's all animated gestures and loud booming voices – the voice of arrogance, a too cocky general.
"Black Star," Kid says, low; a warning in his voice. "You are late."
Black Star grins, cheeky, and removes a chair from the table to their right. "Blair," he barks, "I want the usual; put it on Kid's tab." He plops into his stolen chair, arms across the metal back, and rocks forward. He will probably face-plant onto their table, and Maka secretly wants to see that; it'd be a definite pick-me-up on this otherwise glum day, and she has a feeling Kid would like the same.
The woman with this Black Star character reaches them, her last apology fading on her lips, and Maka takes the few seconds for her to join them to assess the woman. Tall – model-tall, leggy and toned, the kind of woman Maka would glimpse in one of Kim's fashion magazines – with a svelte figure; thin at the waist, but well-developed in her hips and thighs, and breasts doubly so; long black hair tied behind her head and brilliant blue eyes; effortlessly gorgeous in every single way. Maka hates her almost instantly, that bubble of frustration pooling once more in her stomach.
Black Star has launched into a tirade, spewing a disgusting combination of eggs and bacon everywhere, and Kid has begun to look more and more annoyed with every word. Maka thinks this must be a typical occurrence, and Blair – who makes her grand reappearance with a tinkling of a giggle and flourish – sidesteps the food-spraying Black Star and refills Kid's coffee mug.
"Hello," the woman says, kindly. She sounds genuine, taking the empty seat beside Maka, and folding her hands in her laps. Her eyes shine in the incandescent lighting, and Maka might hate her a little less. "They'll be like this for a while," and here she inclines her head at the arguing men. Her smile is pleasant, friendly, and Maka decides ok; she's not so bad. "Tsubaki," she says and lifts a hand from her lap.
Maka accepts her hand without hesitation, and to her surprise, her fingers slip against Tsubaki's warm palm and not through her. "Maka," she offers, intrigued and a little unnerved, and maybe tries to smile for Tsubaki too.
"Oh we got a noob?" Black Star asks, breaking his one-sided conversation with Kid. Black Star seems like the type who doesn't really listen when someone else is talking. To Kid he asks, "Dude, did that bastard Soul finally fill his quota? Dammit, and before his God too."
"No," Kid replies, short. "Kim did. Today."
Black Star whistles. "Ox is goin' to fuckin' love this." His gaze travels from the ceiling and settles on Maka. "Hey Noob."
"It's Maka," she says.
He braces himself on the table with his elbows, shit-eating grin stretched across his face. He looks maniacal, but mostly harmless – like the jocks in high school who shot spitwads at her teachers and tried to copy her homework. "Nah, I like Noob better."
Tsubaki places her hand over the space where Maka's rests. The sentiment is nice, welcome; she didn't realize how much she liked human contact until after she could no longer feel it.
She stresses, "Ma-ka," this time.
"I s'pose you're one of us now," Black Star says, ignoring her. Maka can understand why Kid has developed that certain twitch of irritation whenever Black Star is nearby.
"And what is that, exactly?"
"A reaper," Kid states, cutting in cleanly. "We assist the souls of the recently departed; we help them find their lights and pass over."
Maka frowns. "Scythes and black cloaks? I'll pass, thanks."
"Nah," Black Star says, swallowing a mouthful of hashbrowns. He's somewhat of a bottomless pit. Maka cannot understand how mild-mannered Tsubaki manages to deal with him, brash and loud. "We ditched the cloaks and shit a century or two ago. Good thing, too, 'cause no one could feast upon this godly body with that shit on." He laughs, uproariously, and Maka rolls her eyes.
"How come they can see you, though? And not me. I take it you guys are also..." She gesticulates, and wonders how to say dead without coming off as offensive or, well, like Black Star.
"All 'cept Kid, but he thinks he's some special snowflake and is all holier-than-thee or whatever."
"Holier-than-thou," Kid corrects, seemingly second-nature, as he swirls around the coffee grounds in the bottom of his mug.
Black Star tilts his head to Kid, scowling, and Maka thinks he might be subtly conveying the words: See? Look at this prick.
"We have these bodies to blend in," Tsubaki says, "It's... easier to do our job this way."
Maka furrows her brows, taking it in. "But. Wouldn't it be better to be invisible? In all the books I've read –"
Black Star whistles, disbelief etched all over his face. "So you're one of those," he says. "Look, Noob, we're kinda required to touch our clientele."
Kid glances at her with his unnerving eyes again. "You shall have a new body and begin your job after your funeral."
"But, wait, I don't even want this," Maka interrupts. "I'm not religious or anything. Don't I have a say?"
"Unfortunately for you, no," Kid says. "When Kim released your soul, she filled her quota and you took her place. Now you are bound to this task until you, too, fulfill the quota given to you."
Black Star intones, "It kinda goes like this: normal people, probably most people in the world... when they're dead, they're pretty much fucked." He flaps his hands about, upsets his chocolate milk, and Tsubaki and Kid both shift away from his overly-animated arm movements. "But we get to do it again and play god; it ain't so bad when you get used to it."
"We become the undead," Tsubaki says, smiling. "It's not ideal, always, but we are alive in some ways." She grasps Maka's hand again, squeezing tight, and Maka's fingers touch Tsubaki's wrist; she feels a pulse jumping from beneath the skin, beating steady and calm. "And we get to help lost souls find their lights."
"There are a shit-ton of us, too. EAT class and NOT class," Black Star says, sticking out his fist, "EAT class is Infectious Disease – the losers, External Influences – that's us, uhh Natural Causes..." he flicks his fingers up as he counts off each department, but stops. "I dunno the rest, but the NOT class is a bunch of assholes that do our paperwork and get us our IDs and do all the menial tasks that someone as great as me wouldn't be caught dead doing."
There may have been a joke in there, somewhere, if Black Star's expectant face is any indication. As it is, though, Maka feels weighed down with too many questions and not enough information to appease her. The door opens in the midst of her thoughts and rationalizing, and Black Star shouts out someone's name.
"Ah," Kid says, "about time. How was your reap?"
The newcomer apparently belongs to this rag-team of misfits, but looks a bit worse for wear. Mud and debris cake his white hair, staining it shades of gray and brown, and his mustard yellow rain-gear weeps large puddles onto the well-worn tiles of the Waffle House floor. His face has somehow twisted into disgust and disbelief and fatigue – like he can't quite figure out how he wants to feel at this exact moment so he chooses to express it all at once.
"Fucker didn't want to leave."
"You swimmin' in sewers?" Black Star reels back. "You fuckin' reek, man."
"Fuck off, 'Star," he mutters, severe, and plops down into the vacant seat at Kid's side, mostly deadweight at this point. He rubs his eye with the heel of his palm, but it just further smears what Maka thought was mud across his face. "I don't want to talk about it."
"Maka," Tsubaki says, and gains the attention of all at the table, "this is Soul. He's one of us."
Soul squints at her, probably trying to peer through his damp and clumpy bangs, and finally nods. "Yo."
Kid pushes his coffee mug to the side with the back of his hand and then proceeds to steeple his fingers together. "Now that we are all here, we can discuss business."
"Not until I eat, bastard," Soul grumps. He waves at Blair, using some odd and slightly elaborate hand gestures to convey what he wants, and Maka thinks these people come here way too often for the staff to remember them and their specific orders.
Kid carries on. "Until Maka's funeral, we shall be down to the four of us," he seems pleased by this, what might be a smile teasing at the corner of his mouth, but then continues and it's like the smile had never existed – even as minute as it was, "So we shall be picking up the slack that Kim left behind –"
"Ox's gonna be pissed," Soul says. Black Star mentioned Ox as well; she hasn't met him, but they seem familiar with him. Does he belong to one of the departments Black Star mentioned – or forgot existed?
Kid slides his eyes to Soul. Soul raises his hands in a sign of surrender. Maka realizes, they know each other so well – almost like a family, and she wonders – not for the first time since meeting this group – how long they've been together.
"She shall be shadowing each of us until she has her new body – which gives her plenty of time to learn and adjust to this." Maka doesn't think she'll ever adjust to being dead. "We typically hold our meetings at eight in the morning, here," Kid explains. "Do not be late," and at this point, he glances to the other three who wear various expressions from Tsubaki's sheepish bow to Black Star's wide grin to Soul's lackadaisical shrug. "Now, if you shall excuse me, I have other business to attend to. Meeting adjourned."
He leaves the Waffle House just as silently as he entered, measured and slow – like a peaceful death, and Maka bites her bottom lip. Black Star begins to yawn and stretch, cracking his spine just at the base, and Soul digs into his breakfast platter with as much gusto as 'Star had moments before. Tsubaki takes a dainty sip of her tea, and Maka finds herself blurting – without any careful consideration, "How did you die?"
Tsubaki's smile is strained, as if the wound is still new, and Maka feels like a prize idiot. "Oh, it's nothing interesting. 1946, camp," she murmurs.
"Mine's a massacre – rival ninja clan," Black Star adds, which, in a way explains the physique but Maka cannot see 'Star being a great ninja – not with how he likes to make his presence known at every turn. "Killed every last one of those bastards before I went." He flicks a straw wrapper in Maka's direction; it overshoots and passes through her shoulder. "How 'bout you, Noob?"
Maka had never liked being shoved into the spotlight, but Tsubaki and Black Star – even Soul – seem to be interested so, with her cheeks feeling a bit warmer (and can ghosts even, technically, blush?) she answers, "Present day, bookshelf."
Soul snorts. "What a way to go, Bookworm," he comments in a voice so dry it makes deserts seem like rainforests. Maka bristles.
"I like that," Black Star says, testing out the word bookworm as though he'd never heard it. "Bookworm," he says, grinning.
Maka feels embarrassed, yes, but her face is no longer hot with that alone; she levels her glare in Soul's direction. "How'd you die?"
Soul taps his fork against the side of his now-empty plate. He and Black Star really know how to pack away a meal, she muses. "I died, that's that," he says. "Just happened."
"Nothing just happens," Maka grumbles.
Right now, she should be eating dinner and working on her essay; bolting her door so her father cannot barge in like he's prone to doing; calling her mama and checking in with her; thinking about tomorrow, what she'll have for lunch or if she'll even have time to fit it into her schedule. As things stand now, though, she can't bring herself to think of anything but her death – something that once felt light-years away happening just hours prior. Everything jumbles in her head like technicolor, confusing and bright. She looks up; she sees Tsubaki's sympathetic, deep blue eyes first and feels guilt ebb away at her.
The worst part is, she never had a chance to say goodbye.
Time passes differently when she's intangible, she finds. Time is man-made, and it does not matter once dead. She has all the time in the world now, but somehow there is nothing to do. Life feels like vacation – breathing and laughing and enjoying someone else's presence are luxuries she no longer has. She wishes to go back to that, no matter how dull and meaningless it may have felt at times.
She no longer has to take the stairs to her apartment, or worry about whether or not the elevator works. She doesn't have to sneak into her home by chance her father is lingering in the hall, ready to drown her with hugs and demand she come with him for real food.
("Papa, McDonalds isn't real food," she said, her freshman year of college when she'd rented out the flat, and her papa had pouted and whined, "but you used to love getting a Happy Meal," to which she'd replied, "yeah, when I was four.")
When you're young, you're always growing up too fast.
"And then you die," she says, to herself or to the wall or to the dripping faucet she forgot to call about and have repaired.
She stands in her mostly unused apartment. She never quite finished moving in – busy with coursework and temping as a secretary at a law firm in the city. Someone new will move in later on, once her papa comes to pack away her belongings; someone will replace her at work. That's how the world works; people move on. When someone dies, the world keeps spinning; it can't slow just for one death, not one as insignificant as hers. It won't slow down or stop rotating because someone as little as her no longer exists.
She makes it to the Waffle House a half-hour early the next day. She had spent the night drifting about the city – visiting the campus and seeing yellow police tape blockading the newly-condemned library, slipping into the movie theater to finally get around to watching the film her class had raved about two weeks ago, wandering aimlessly here and there – and finally tried to close her eyes and ears to the lights and noise of the city somewhere around 4 am.
To her surprise, the others are already sitting in their usual spot – save Kid – and finishing off their "usuals" (or, in Black Star's case, his second order of).
"Yo, Bookworm," Black Star says around his forkful of pancakes.
"Maka," she corrects. "Just. Maka."
"Ready for day one of Hell?" Soul asks across from her. His eyes droop at the corners, perpetually sleepy-eyed, but they shimmer with teasing and laughter.
Maka shrugs. Black Star's pancakes look yummy, even when half-massacred. Tsubaki grabs her hand, says, "You'll be fine. Reaping souls is easier than it sounds."
"Yeah, they just pop right out," 'Star agrees. He makes a motion with his hands, accompanied by a loud pop. "Tricky part is locating the bastards."
Black Star yelps, and Maka assumes Tsubaki might've kicked him under the table. "Sorry," she mouths at him, perhaps kicking harder than she intended; then, she turns her eyes to Maka, saying, "You can come with me today. If you'd like." She has a habit of chewing her bottom lip when nervous, eyes downcast. Maka couldn't say no if she tried; she really doesn't want to try, either. Her safest bet is Tsubaki, if she wants to keep her sanity. She'd strangle Black Star within the first hour – even if he couldn't die again – and she can't get a read on Soul at the moment.
"You are all here I presume," Kid says, appearing to their left out of thin air. Maka jolts, but Soul and Black Star mumble a near-simultaneous "yo, Kid," while Tsubaki greets him with a simple, "good morning." Kid nods to them. "I have your assignments."
He hands to each of them a post-it note – the yellow squares Maka pasted all over her apartment during mid-terms and finals, ones saying test thursday! and don't forget the laundry and take out garbage on tuesday. She peers over Tsubaki's shoulder to see what Kid could possibly write on these notes pertaining to their "reaper duties".
"E. Ackerman?" she ventures, clueless. "Main St., blue car. 4:30?"
"Car crash," Soul says, cutting in cleanly; Black Star shoves him in the arm, shouting, "No way; too lame. Explosion."
Tsubaki – patient and understanding and Maka's only lifeline in this messed-up, crazy reaping world – explains, "E. Ackerman is who we'll be looking for. This is the location here," she points at Main St., blue car, and continues, "and this number is the ETD, or estimated time of death."
"What are they talking about?"
Tsubaki's smile borders on helpless. "They like to make bets on how the death happens."
Maka balks. "Sounds morbid." Tsubaki nods.
"I'm telling you, it's during rush hour and no one can drive in this fucking city," Soul complains while Black Star continues to mercilessly jab him with his butter knife. Syrup coats Soul's sleeve, whipped topping flecks smeared across the hemline of the shoulder. "Tsubaki, tell him I'm right."
"No, 'baki, you can't. I'm your favorite." Black Star sticks his tongue out at Soul, very much like one of the children Maka once babysat for extra cash (it paid the rent, but also had her addicted to Ibuprofen for a while before she found the job at the firm).
They don't wait for Tsubaki to respond, who would probably plead neutral party anyway, as they start bickering again. Maka tunes them out.
"Come with me, Maka," says Tsubaki. She straightens out her plain skirt – beige, with tiny purple swirls along the right side, and beams at Maka. "I'll tell you more about our job in the van."
There are many things Maka learns in the van that day:
1.) Tsubaki is the sweetest woman in the world. Usually. Unless someone cuts her off on the highway. Tsubaki suffers from a severe case of Road Rage; her insults and swears typically switch from English to an angry Japanese in three-point-five seconds.
2.) Tsubaki and Black Star work at a flower shop together.
"It was," she glances up, as if searching for the right word. "Convenient?"
"I can't imagine someone like him working in a flower shop."
Tsubaki laughs. "He drives the van for the deliveries. It helps to be with him." She furrows her brow. "Not everyone can control him."
Maka snorts. The hanging-dice dangling from the mirror shake to the beat of the radio and flow of traffic. They say Baller! in large, blocky black font; it screams Black Star. It perks up the van, swinging back and forth, the blue fuzz worn and sun-bleached a softer tint on one side.
From what she remembers of her mama, she never hung beads or tassels or anything in her car; it had always been just a car, something to get from Point A to Point B – nothing personal. Papa did, though, mostly beads gifted from other women but – when Maka graduated – he'd exchanged the beads for her tassel, the gold numbering glinting in sunlight. She wonders if it's still there now.
3.) Reapers have rules: Do not be late for an appointment. Do not follow a soul into their light. Do not look at the gravelings. Under no circumstances should a reaper intervene with someone's scheduled death; it gives Upper Management more paperwork to force upon those in the NOT class, and it has the gravelings on your ass. Do not make any attachments – to the living or undead.
4.) There is life after death, and it's shitty too.
After piddling around in the city's downtown for a while and Tsubaki taking a late lunch break somewhere between the hours of 1 and 2, the ETD draws nearer. Maka doesn't know how she should feel, so she wills herself to not feel anything. Tsubaki, however, remains chipper; she unties and reties her hair several times, all the while talking about the tiny convertible that suffered through her attempt at parallel parking.
"Thankfully no one was inside," she says at last, and Maka can practically see and hear the tension escape her body. For someone whose purpose in this world is to witness Death, Tsubaki doesn't handle injuries very well, especially those that she could have prevented. Apparently – occasionally, "not always," Tsubaki stressed – someone else might come too close to a reap and suffer through it as well.
"What does 'blue car' mean?" Maka asks, fingering Tsubaki's yellow post-it.
Tsubaki hums, focused elsewhere. Distractedly, she answers, "Ackerman will be in or near a blue car. Sometimes we get extra information to help us out."
Which, after gazing out at the chaotic traffic – people off work, teenagers joyriding in the fast lane, the safety-cautious man put-putting in front of a thoroughly pissed middle-aged woman – Maka thinks that that extra tidbit of information is more than welcome. How does Tsubaki figure out who it is that will die? How does she pick the right blue car – it could be any one of them on the road or lining the spaces nearby. Tsubaki unpacks a few roses and lines them in a basket; sun-kissed yellow and a soft pink, perfect for the spring season and the sunnier-than-yesterday weather.
"So, how do we find E. Ackerman?"
Tsubaki finishes her basket. "I've gotten good at the guessing game over the years," Tsubaki admits, finally, after a moment's hesitation.
Tsubaki nods and hands a rose to a nervous-looking young man who mumbles something about his girlfriend loving flowers and that it's their anniversary soon and maybe she'd prefer the yellow rose because it's her favorite color or birthstone or something. A couple follows, happy and in love, still in that honeymoon phase where there are no fights and love is all you need and reality remains on vacation for another week or two. An elderly woman stops by, exchanging pleasantries with Tsubaki, and she tells her a story – a beautiful story – of a man who served in the war on Germany; a man who wrote her letters everyday, and upon arriving back in the U.S. of A. he asked for her hand in marriage coupled with a single pink rose. The man's gone now, six feet under for twelve or so years. Did Tsubaki or 'Star or Soul or maybe Kid reap this man?
Maka tunes them out, looking for a sign of E. Ackerman.
When she glimpses Tsubaki again, she's flagging down a man who's clocking out early from his 9-to-5 office job; his shirt sleeves are pushed to his elbows, and imprints from his desk tattoo the skin of his wrists and forearms from where he's leaned for too long. The car parked behind him is an old blue sports car; there's a dent in the bumper and the back left tire is sitting too close to the ground.
Tsubaki offers a single pink rose, its petals redder near the center, her smile beatific and warm. The man shifts his suitcase from his left hand to his right, his jacket tucked under his arm, and reaches for the rose; their fingertips touch, and Maka watches the shimmer of a blue wisp lift from him and settle in Tsubaki's palm. His soul, smoky and quivering in the open air.
"Thank you," Tsubaki says to him, and the man dips his head in thanks, hurried but not rude as he pinches the rose's stem delicately between his forefinger and thumb. He shuffles to his car and tosses his suitcase in; Tsubaki tugs her shirt sleeve, whispering, "Now watch."
It does not take long for Maka to see what Tsubaki wanted her to notice. A small black thing sneaks up to the back of E. Ackerman's car; a graveling, she assumes. It snickers a sharp and piercing sound, as it tampers with the tires in the back, talons of his skeleton claws outstretched, and it looks as though it stumbled out of a cheap sci-fi film – the demonic hybrid of elf and goblin, razor-edged fangs, sinister and cunning, lurking in the shadows.
It all happens so fast, but Maka sees it in slow-motion. The tire that bursts beneath the body of the car, sending it careening into a sparking light-pole some feet away. The sparks that sputter from the dying beam overhead; the liquid dripping from the underside of the vehicle. The explosion that smells of burning flesh and yesterday's rain.
As far as deaths go, it's nothing gruesome, but this ghostly-body she inhabits – this manifestation of her own soul – retains the ability to feel.
She thinks, in any other form, she may have felt sick.
"How was it?" Soul prompts later after they assemble at an IHOP down the block. Eating at the Waffle House grows tiresome, and apparently Kid picked it as their official meeting spot decades before; since he's not there to bitch, they go elsewhere.
Bret was here, is etched into the tabletop of their quaint booth in the corner; beneath that reads: Casey + Mark 4ever. "What is it with reapers and breakfast foods?" Maka asks, but is ignored in favor of seeing who had the Reap of the Day – as if an award. Maybe it is; loser picks up the tab, after all.
"Lame," 'Star says, drawing out the long 'a' sound of the word. He stabs into his stuffed French toast.
Soul grins. "Vending machine fell on some college frat kid. Took me an hour to convince him that he was dead; completely uncool."
E. Ackerman – actually an Edward Ackerman, a recent divorcee with a three year old daughter and beagle back home – had cried before accepting his fate. Tsubaki held his hand the entire time she spoke to him; she offered to take him to his daughter, who stayed with the next-door neighbor until he arrived home. The ride to the nice apartments was a somber affair, the only sounds being that of the engine purring and Edward's soft hiccups.
He called his daughter Peanut. Her blond hair had been pulled back in a braid twisted by clumsy Papa hands, tacked down with barrettes of various shapes and sizes, and her outfit consisted of purple jeans and yellow t-shirt; her front tooth was missing, but she had the cutest smile Maka had ever seen.
"I'm ready now," Edward said after a long moment of kneeling before his daughter, telling her all the things that he thought were important – that are important ("listen to your mommy" "I love you, princess" "Daddy'll miss you, but be strong till you see him again"). He closed his eyes when his lights appeared – a swirl of blue skies and a long stretch of a sunlit beach, a kind-looking lady waiting for him on the other side – and let go.
"How 'bout your reap, Tsubaki?"
"Yeah! Was I right?" Before waiting for a response, he continues, jabbing Soul in the space between rib and hip: "I was totally right. I'm never wrong. It was a fucking explosion, and drinks are on you this weekend, bitch."
"Well," Tsubaki says, slow. "His car crashed into a pole." Here Soul gives Black Star a lazy, lopsided grin that's equal parts charming and obnoxious. "Then the car exploded." Tsubaki smiles at them both, holding her hands out in front of her, palm up, in a helpless fashion. "You both won."
The reap she accompanies Black Star on happens to be at 7:30 on a Saturday morning.
"Who dies at ass o'clock in the fuckin' mornin'?" he grouses, heel of his hand to his left eye. Kid called him last night, or so he said; all Maka heard was, "fuckin' prick never lets me sleep." He's mostly awake, though; or, more awake than half the city's population who drag their feet along like petulant children refusing to move. "Who's he to give orders to me?" Black Star's grumbles are 90% insults and 10% incoherent blubbering.
"Is the great Black Star unprepared?" Maka asks.
She had spent the night huddled in her apartment again; her rent isn't up until the end of the next month, and then it won't be hers anymore. It's strange, knowing you no longer exist. Everything that once belonged to her, had her name on it, will be someone else's in a matter of days. There will be no more Maka Albarn; only a memory of her is left behind.
"Bah!" he jerks his hand from his face and paws at her with it, the other hand gripping the steering wheel of the flower shop delivery van. He taps his fingers along to the bass of his music. "I'm ready for anything. Watch and learn from the master, Bookworm."
She shoots him a slightly unimpressed look, but knows not to comment. 'Star is someone not to be argued with; not because he makes for intelligent debates, but because of the headache one receives for even trying.
M. Fuentes cannot be any older than sixteen; old enough to drive, but not old enough to leave this city. A beautiful girl, sunny smile and smoky eyes. She's the girl who reads the magazines and follows all the trends, playing dress-up; still a Disney princess at heart, but trying out for the part of dignified young woman.
"I thought healthy was supposed to keep me alive longer," is the first thing she says upon materializing next to them.
"Never buy into their media play," Black Star says, solemn. M. Fuentes cracks a smile, and Black Star loses his facade. He whistles, gazing up her mangled body, bike handle knocked clean into her lower abdomen. "That's the best one I've seen this week."
"You're weird." She covers her smile with her hand, fingertips shadowing teeth from view. She claps her hands together; her ghostly form still bears the training gear she died in, sans blood and a handlebar-shaped hole. "Where to next?"
"The Olympics," is what Black Star says; "and you have the privilege of letting me, the almighty Black Star, be your guide."
M. Fuentes twists a lock of her thick, black hair around a slender finger, and her lights ripple in place of the quiet, empty street before. Maka cannot see into her paradise well – colors bright like camera flashes – but she hears cheering and clapping, and M. Fuentes takes a run-and-go leap and dives right in.
She ventures out with Soul next, sometime after twilight. They do not borrow the van; rather they walk the few blocks to their destination. ETD: 11:16, but they make it with fifteen minutes to spare. Maka's learned that the margin of error is within five minutes, but the reapers like to arrive early and scope out the scene. Never get to an appointment late.
Outside the hotel (location), a university-aged boy (C. Johnson) paces back and forth, mind somewhere else if the words he mutters are any indication to go by. Soul stuffs his hands deep into his pockets, the scowl she's come to expect marring his face – except deeper, if that's possible, and annoyed as well. It is late, and he and Black Star had made arrangements for a Halo tournament or whatever other weird game those two played.
He bumps into the boy, who hardly notices, and his soul slips away from him like an orange peel.
Soul sits on the curb, and Maka follows suit. The night is ghost-silent; the clouds block out the moon, and the streetlamps' glows are a foggy yellow, the color of egg yolk. 11:14 reads the face of Soul's cell phone.
Maka remembers Saturday morning cartoons with Mama and Papa; there was Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner and Sylvester and Tweety Bird. She remembers that when a character fell down from a cliff it was a comical affair; a shape of the body would be cut into the ground, but the character always survived the plummet. This, though – a real person free-falling from the highest floor of a hotel – is something that has her covering her mouth in shock, not laughter.
A crunch echoes throughout the still of the night. Bones crushed, skull burst open for all to see. C. Johnson's blood coats the sidewalk.
"Looks like it's your time, man," Soul drawls. His hands remain in his pockets, but his shoulders are hunched up near his ears as if shielding them from the weather. It's 80 degrees out tonight; dry, cloudy. "You ready?"
"Will it be better?" the spirit of C. Johnson asks. He looks so much like a boy. There's a triangular patch of acne on his right cheek, and his front teeth slant to one side; cute, not quite handsome. "There, I mean."
Soul's eyes are clear, bright in the hazy glow of the lamplight. Maka can't quite watch on without shifting her eyes to the breathless heap bleeding out before her; she stares out into the distant late night traffic instead. People in the lobby stand aghast behind the glass doors of the building; some have phones pressed to their ears, and others turn away.
"Sure," Soul says, "if you want."
C. Johnson nods. His smile is beautiful – courageous. He walks into his lights, stands proud and tall like a champion as his lights swallow his figure whole.
Maka's funeral is on Monday. Kid breaks the news the next morning over his shitty black coffee and the sound of disgruntled employees in the kitchenette.
Soul has yet to drag himself through the door, and it's a quarter till nine. Black Star scarfs down sausages like they are going extinct, or as if the world were going kosher within the next twenty minutes and pig meat will be banned for the rest of forever. Tsubaki's eggs are sunny-side-up, and she's tied her hair with a black ribbon today.
"After today at three in the afternoon, you shall join our ranks as a reaper," Kid says, as if this were good news. To him, maybe it is. The city's External Influences team had been understaffed since Kim's departure.
("My Kim?" Maka asked at IHOP three nights ago.
"I'unno," Soul said, noncommittal shrug and disinterested eyes.
"Kim burned at the stake during those witch trials back in the day," 'Star told her. Maybe, as his mouth had been filled with part-pancake/part-bacon mix. Under his breath, he said, in awe, "Fuckin' badass.").
Black Star grips her hand across the table, vice-like, and sings, "Welcome to our club. Welcome, Maka, welcome, Maka," on loop until Tsubaki offers him her hashbrowns.
"You are allowed clearance to attend your funeral," Kid says, slow in that calculating way of his, each word chosen with particularity. "To receive what you humans like to call 'closure'."
Maka considers this opportunity. Before now, she never thought about the 'after death' part; it happened, and you can't stop it. She had known people who'd questioned the 'after'; those who would want to attend their own funerals and see how many mourned their loss – how many truly loved them enough to cry over them and the fact that they were wiped from existence.
"It may be your last chance to say goodbye, Maka," Tsubaki offers, tone restrained in hopes to not offend. She offers comfort in the palm of her hand to Maka's shoulder. "Would you like me to drive you?"
Maka nods, remembering the ghost of a father who cried for his young daughter. Even if they cannot see her or hear her, she'd like to tell those she loves goodbye.
The funeral for Maka Albarn is a private affair, closed to anyone outside of family or close friend. On the way, chewing on her bottom lip, Maka considered a thousand-and-one ways for her funeral to proceed; she also thought of a thousand reasons to not go, but she climbed into the passenger seat with her stomach in knots and her heart in her throat (figuratively, of course, as she doesn't even know if those things exist in her current state.)
Papa's eyes are rimmed-red, cheeks a blotchy mess as though he had broken out in hives, and he looks haggard and frumpy. Papa liked to keep up appearances – for his job and for his lady-friends; seeing him so unkempt makes him appear to be someone else, not-Papa, but a body double or stuntman filling in for the day. He hasn't stopped crying since Maka'd first spotted him across the room. He doesn't look like he'll stop crying anytime soon, either.
And Mama is there, too, standing on the opposite side of the area. The last time Maka saw her mama had been during a Skype session the day after she graduated high school. ("Sorry, baby; traveling has me in a permanent state of jet-lag," she explained away, "You'll forgive your mama, won't you?"
Mama looked five years older, thinner, but happier than ever. "Of course, Mama." Happy looked good on Mama.
"You'll have to come with me on my next trip," her mother gushed.)
She had traveled to Spain in the fall of that year; Maka received a postcard in the mail – addressed to her new apartment away from Papa's house, but no phone call. Mama had crossed the breadth of Europe, sending a letter or signed picture here and there, but never another invitation to join. Maka had never given up hope, but now there are no more chances to adventure by her side. And her death did not mend any hard feelings between her parents; it just hammered the nail further in, deeper, to places where no one would be able to fix it.
Mama screams now, crows feet crinkling from the edges of her eyes, and her voice breaks. Papa takes it all in stride; he accepts her blame. Maka cannot bear to watch anymore.
"I want to go," she tells Tsubaki, quietly. Funerals aren't meant for the dead to see.
Mama used to ask her questions, on occasion, about Papa. She had never quite shaken the burning resentment and acrid bitterness that lead to their divorce – all those late nights, lies, and more; neither had Maka. But love is a strange emotion.
It's easy to fall into, but hard to ever fall out of.
The funeral happened yesterday. Today, Maka sits with her companions at their usual table in the Waffle House; she goes through the motions absentmindedly.
"Maka," she corrects 'Star when he unfailingly calls her Bookworm again. That would be the sixth time in the past half-hour.
'Star scowls at her. "What's your deal?" he asks. He flicks his straw wrapper at her, as he always does, but a very peculiar thing happens at that moment.
It hits her.
"Whoa, guess who got their reaper body!" Black Star whoops his delight. He proceeds to flick the others wrappers (and a syrup-sticky napkin) at her; all bounce off Maka's chest much to her own astonishment. She's solid again.
Maka picks the napkin off her shirt; a brown smudge is left in its wake. "I don't feel any different," she says, surprised.
Blair bustles around to their table again, refills Soul's coffee mug ("Tastes like shit," he grouses, but downs it anyway), and asks, "What can Blair get for you?"
Maka pauses, hands poised over the salt-and-pepper shakers, and realizes that Blair is in fact addressing her. In her time here, she's never bothered glancing at the menu, but her stomach rebels and demands food. "Um, eggs. Just eggs." As an afterthought, she adds, "and water."
"Wow, high maintenance," Soul drawls. He looks like he's not been sleeping. Do reapers sleep? What a human thing to desire – sleep, and food even. She cannot find it in herself to argue with Black Star or Soul today, distracted by the pulse she feels thumping beneath the skin of her wrist; she checks every so many minutes to make sure this isn't some sick, twisted dream. It's real – the heart beating, solid, breathing kind of real.
Kid stops by at exactly eight, ever the prompt one, and takes one long, hard look at Maka. "After today's meeting, we shall head to courthouse, Miss Albarn. We need documentation for your new life."
Maka nods, processing this. A new life; she never fully lived out the old one, she thinks – but not bitterly, just resigned to her fate. Maka Albarn no longer exists, Maka Albarn exists no longer, Maka Albarn –
Soul knocks her foot under the table with his own. It's weird, feeling the slight bump, and she glances at him and that smirk and the lazy squint of his eyes.
"Welcome to Death City," Soul says, low and soft; a pleasant voice. His toes are still pressing into her own – both of them solid now. Could this still be considered human contact?
When her eggs arrive, they are sunny side up.
Tsubaki ushers her into the tiny bathroom midway through her breakfast, fingers light against the small of her back. This is just another urge that all bodies feel – dead or alive, and she's thankful that Tsubaki noticed her distress signals through a mouthful of egg whites.
She hears Tsubaki hum over the sound of the whirring toilet. She feels better. That's one perk to being a ghost, she supposes; relief, hunger, pain – none of that mattered during those few days she haunted the city. Now it's all catching up to her, tenfold.
"There's something you should see, Maka," Tsubaki says to her. She ushers her forward, and Maka – perplexed – obeys. "Look," she whispers, and Maka glances into the eyes of stranger reflected from the mirror.
Her inhale is sharp, a sting in her nose and lungs. "Is this...?" She touches the surface, and the stranger copies her perfectly.
The reflection's build is almost the same as hers, but with less muscle mass and fat; it appears to be nothing more than bones wrapped in pale flesh, with sunken eyes and hollow cheeks. The hair is mousy brown, pin-straight, and her eyes – Mama's eyes – are a far cry from the once vibrant green she remembered. There is nothing memorable about this person in the mirror; this is someone who'd be just another face in the crowd, and not a very remarkable one at that.
This is not the only stranger hiding in the mirror, and Maka watches the way Tsubaki's mirror-self offers a weak smile. She isn't beautiful – completely different from Tsubaki – features flat, figure slimmed down, eyes set far back in her skull, skin washed out.
"This is what everyone else – the living – sees," she explains. "It helps us blend in without being noticed." Maka touches her cheeks; she feels the flesh give way, the warmth beneath her skin, and she feels the scar near her temple from the time she feel from the jungle gym. The mirror has no such blemish. Tsubaki's hand rests on her shoulder. "To us, you'll look like the Maka Albarn you remember. And Halloween – all reapers look the way they did before their death on Halloween."
"Oh," is all Maka can say, suddenly uncomfortable. The girl on the other side fo the mirror looks so sad, so desperate. She thinks that her reflection might be an accurate portrayal of how she feels on the inside.
Tsubaki slides her hand from shoulder to elbow. "Come on," she urges not unkindly, "Kid will want to take you to see Akane today."
Today, after one member of Maintenance ("Akane," the reaper had greeted courteously, a handsome and bespectacled man who could be no older than twenty-five) forges new papers and credentials, Maka Albarn becomes Mary-Jane – a twenty-three year old female, who shares Maka's birth date but nothing else, with a degree in Business Communications.
"It could be worse," Soul says. His new name apparently had been changed to Peter, and Black Star spends a majority of their usual-breakfast dinnertime making Spiderman-related jokes because he thinks he's funny even when no one else does. "'Star over here pissed off Upper Management."
"Circus clown," is what Black Star grumbles and Soul's grin grows wider. Maka doesn't know the story, but the mere mention of it has 'Star scowling at his stack of blueberry pancakes.
Mary-Jane, her new ID says. Her new face stares up in the reflective surface. As the days go by, she remembers Maka Albarn less and less.
The first assignment happens in much this way:
B. Caldwell is a nice girl; unthinkably nice, at that. She's a high school junior suffering from stress of college essays, parents' expectations, the track tournament in a week, and the tiny blip in her GPA from the Zoology class she took a semester ago. Maka idles with her for a moment after returning the wallet that "slipped" from Caldwell's backpack. She reminds Maka a little of herself – brilliant, bullied, but resilient. Even though she knows that at 4:16 Caldwell will die at the intersection of this street, Maka finds herself encouraging her and telling her that college isn't so bad. She thinks maybe, in another life, she and B. Caldwell might have been friends.
She crosses the street, sneakers tied by their laces and tossed around her neck; she does not anticipate the driver who, under the influence, does not yield to her. Her body lies broken on the pavement, and Maka sits on the curb with the spirit of B. Caldwell, waiting for her tears to subside and for her lights to come.
Ten reaps later and Maka no longer feels so squeamish. She had stopped throwing up after the third reap, wherein she and Tsubaki had worked together. Children were not supposed to die.
M. Mitchel is her twenty-second reap (gunshot, 34, male). S. Berry is the thirtieth (murder, 19, female). She learns quickly, but it doesn't make it any easier. A piece of her feels like it follows her reaps into their lights.
"Stop thinking about it, Bookworm," Soul advises. The gravy on his plate looks eerily similar to what was left of her latest reap (D. Goldwyn, 46, male); she pushes away her meal. "It's one of the rules of the undead, y'know."
"Didn't think you were one to follow rules," she shoots back on instinct, unthinkingly.
Soul eyes her. His expression and movements are unreadable, and this upsets her if only because she's always been good at reading people. He says, "I'm not, unless it benefits me," and they hold each others gaze for a beat longer. The moment breaks only when Blair sweeps through, collecting dishes and trash alike.
(She doesn't ask – too prideful to borrow money, but he pays for her meal; she supposes this is him being kind, understanding her grief. After all, he had been the new guy before she came along.)
She sleeps in her old apartment because no one has made any attempts at packing away what's left of her things (the milk, though, had expired and Maka fed it to some alley cats behind the building a week ago) and the rent is paid up till the middle of this month. Tonight, however, finds her staring at a familiar car with familiar graduation tassels hanging in the mirror. She hears Papa's voice not too far away, and Maka does the first thing that comes to mind.
She walks away.
The first night she spends wondering the street much like she did her first night dead. The second night she thinks she'll need a plan because the alleys are dark and the streets are dangerous; halfway through the night she heads toward the apartment complex where all the reapers in her team seem to live.
According to the slip of paper tucked away in her jacket, Tsubaki and Black Star stay in #41; they'd both been in the team for so long, it seemed like the best solution, Tsubaki had said. "Besides," she'd said, smiling, "he's not such a bad partner." And as much as Maka likes Tsubaki, she sometimes feels that her judge of character is a bit skewed. Maka can hardly eat within a foot of him for longer than an hour at times; she cannot imagine living with him, sharing space and air.
Tsubaki included Soul's contact details as well, and, after pacing outside #106 for five minutes, she decides that it beats sleeping outside again.
"It's kind of," he trails off, and Maka hooks a pair of boxers with her shoe and toes it out of the way. She glances at Soul, and his cheeks are pink with embarrassment.
"Messy?" Maka offers and makes her way through his living room to the worn-in couch in the middle of the room. Soul's apartment is pokey, messy, but quaint and cozy; there's an air here that her own apartment had lacked even before her death. "It's fine," she assures, smiling, and then, "thanks for letting me stay. You didn't have to."
Soul smiles. This is the first time since that reap so long ago that they've hung out away from the walls of the Waffle House. But Soul doesn't feel at all like a stranger; just an estranged friend from childhood, hoping to learn each other again – or in her case with Soul, for the first time.
"I know," he says and flops onto the couch beside her. Whereas she sits primly on the edge, he slouches and takes up a person-and-a-half's space with his arms and legs alone. She meets his eyes, and he sighs out: "Quit being so stiff, jeez. Relax some, would ya?"
She eases more into the cushions, and he accommodates the best he can without relinquishing too much of his space. Their knees bump, and it feels different than the touch between her and one of her reaps. This is touching for the simple sake of touching – no hidden agendas or soul needing to be 'saved'.
"You're givin' me a headache," Soul whines and nudges her knee with his. "I can hear your thoughts over the tv." Maka crosses her arms, and she hears Soul sigh – long-suffering and slightly annoyed. "Look, just." He rakes a hand through his hair. Maka never noticed before, but Soul looks young. There's still trace amounts of baby fat to be shed from his cheeks.
How old had he been when his life was taken from him?
Soul grumbles, "You're doin' it again," and snaps her out of her thoughts.
He encloses his fingers around her wrist. "Just, stop." He looks up; there's an old sadness in his eyes. Maka swallows, and Soul releases her hand; the build-up of tension easily breaks away as he turns back toward the tv. "C'mon, this is a good episode."
In her spare time – that of which she has a lot – she hangs around the flower shop with Tsubaki. She likes the simplicity of this, and the pay is decent enough for the work required. It also gives her time to connect with the only female reaper she's yet to meet.
The order consists of roses. "Have you ever been in love, Tsubaki?" Maka asks.
Tsubaki's fingers still, blue ribbon slipping through the spaces between, and she says, "Maybe, once. It was a long time ago." Her eyes are glassy, far-away; maybe Maka crossed a line. All reapers want to keep the past as nothing more than the past; besides, the Tsubaki who died at camp back then is not the same girl who arranges flowers and reaps souls for a living. Tsubaki laughs, but her eyes are still so sad. "I don't even remember his name."
"Sorry," Maka whispers; it carries through the shop, though, and she knows Tsubaki hears her over the soft trill of music from the radio. "That was intrusive and –"
Tsubaki waves her hand. She's smiling. "It doesn't hurt to remember it," she says. Her tone is wistful, reminiscent. "It would be nice."
Maka understands. It is in the unofficial reaping rulebook after all: Do not get attached to the living or undead. It's a reasonable rule, and a smart one as well. It had been made, Maka's certain, to keep the reapers' best interests at heart.
Those who are alive you may someday reap and lead to the afterlife; those who are undead may someday fulfill their quota and leave you behind. Neither of which sound appealing.
"Hey, 'Baki, got any deliveries?" Black Star yells from the storefront. There's a resounding crash that reaches the backroom where they tend to their orders. He has most likely tripped over the rug again and into the potted plants near the entry. "Fuckin' plant."
Maka rolls her eyes, but Tsubaki's smiling and maybe there's something more beneath that. The rule (no attachments no attachments) is there, but it doesn't prevent anything.
It's human nature to make attachments, and all reapers were human once.
"Maka," Kid says a few mornings into August. It's summer, but he still wears the impeccably pressed suit. "You shall be working with Black Star today."
Black Star takes the sticky note from Kid's hands; he whistles. "A massive reap, huh? Haven't had one of these in a while." He pastes the note on Maka's forearm. "You sure you can handle it, Bookworm?"
There are no names listed on this post-it; the note reads "bus" and the location, no more no less. Can she really handle this?
Maka meets Black Star's challenging grin with her own smile. "Yeah. I've got this."
Bus. Yellow school bus, filled with the first grade class, on its way to some destination it will never reach. Black Star exhales through his nose, and says, voice gruff and all false-bravado, "Let's do this."
They pose as chaperones for the trip, and the teacher and assistant – too harried with today's itinerary and keeping track of the children – accept this lie easily enough. Maka takes the right half and Black Star the left, stooping low and speaking with the children; they're all so excited to be here, and even without them saying as much it's evident in the way they gesture and smile. Maka touches their hands, but cannot bring herself to say much. She listens instead – all the babbles of a child finally venturing outside of the city limits, and from behind her, Black Star halfheartedly jokes with a young girl with bobbed brown hair and a gummy smile.
"Thank you for helping us chaperone," a teacher says to Maka while she ties the shoes of a girl wearing a Barbie backpack.
Maka looks up from the laces, but the sunlight obscures much of the woman's face. Maka tugs tight on the ends of the strings, and the little girl hugs her in thanks before skipping off to join her friends. Maka stands with the teacher, taking in her glasses and short dark hair; a stern woman, most likely, but the corners of her mouth are lifted in a relaxed smile. Maka wishes this dark feeling coiling in her stomach would leave.
"We'll be following in our truck," Maka tells her, trying to keep her voice steady. She brushes the woman's hand as she passes to join Black Star; the shimmer of her soul slips soundly in Maka's palm.
And an hour later, the bus takes a sharp turn around the corner. The shoulder is so low it's practically nonexistent. Maka pulls her eyes away from the sight and Black Star shifts the car into park. He hangs his head, says, "children shouldn't be allowed to die."
Even the strongest man has weaknesses, and Black Star is no exception; Maka grips his hand when the spirits of twenty-six innocents depart.
It happens on Thursday; not a particularly special Thursday in any way. It is sunny, low chance of storms in the night, and she's tending the register of the flower shop while Tsubaki works on arrangements in the backroom. Black Star comes and goes, nodding to her in a quiet respect; they've developed a better understanding of one another since that reap a week or two ago. She still has nightmares about it, and maybe he's haunted by the memory too – even if they made sure to walk those children and adults into their lights. It's something that will never be erased.
"Excuse me, I came to pick up some flowers," a familiar voice says, and Maka's neck cracks at how fast she turns her head up. Papa's bright blue eyes stare back at her. "Spirit Albarn," he says after a minute of her taking him in.
"Oh," she feels so dumb right now; where's the order at? "Right."
Papa smiles pleasantly, and while she waits for Tsubaki to bring his order, she takes Papa in. His face is fuller, healthier, tanner – a far cry from the papa who'd looked so haggard and old at her funeral. It's been a few months, and she didn't expect for him to be sad forever but. Was she that easy to replace? She scowls at the numbers on the register. She's not surprised, really; Papa's always been good at replacing people – first Mama, and now her.
She makes no more interaction with Papa, not even when he waves goodbye to them both – arm protectively cradling an arrangement of blue pansies.
"Stupid Papa," Maka mutters when the shop is empty aside from them. The sunflowers in the vase at the counter mock the raging emotions pooling inside her.
She feels Tsubaki's finger beneath her chin, and even though she glances at her she refuses to let Tsubaki know how hurt she is by Papa's betrayal.
"Maka," she says softly. It reminds her of Mama back before the divorce when everyone was happy, and Papa wasn't a big fat lying cheating bastard. "Pansies mean remembrance. He hasn't forgotten you."
"Papa's dumb," Maka says, confident in this fact, "he probably bought them because they were pretty."
"Maka." Tsubaki sighs. "Let's close up early for lunch, ok?"
Maka shakes her head no, dismissing Tsubaki; she doesn't mean to be like this, but Papa's reappearance has soiled her good mood. "I'll pass today. Besides, it's my turn to make dinner for Soul."
It's not really; she's on dish duty, but Tsubaki doesn't need to know that.
When she arrives to the apartment, Soul is stepping out of the kitchen looking incredibly sheepish.
"I know you don't like fish, but hear me out on this – hey, Maka, are you crying?"
Maka brushes past him. "No," and she isn't. Not yet, at least.
Soul moves to stand in front of her, and she never realized how cramped his apartment was until they stand together like this. There's hardly any breathing room between them and the walls and the worn-in couch to the right. She refuses to meet his gaze, but she's not shrugging out of his hold either. The contact is welcome; her vision blurs.
"Man," Soul moans. "Should I call Tsu?"
"It's okay," she whispers. It is okay; it will be okay. The words sound fake even in her own head. "Just. Stupid Papa."
Soul quiets; his thumb rubs over her pulse-point.
"Let's go for a drive."
"When you said a drive, I thought you meant we were taking an actual car!"
Soul steadies her when she shakily moves from straddling the bike. Her cheeks are flushed and wind-chapped, she knows, and she doesn't want to even think about her hair at the moment. But the break-neck speed had been comforting in a way. She puffs, blowing the hair from her mouth and out of her line of vision. Soul's smiling down at her.
"Where's the fun in that? This way's cooler."
"I think I know how you died," she says, self-conscious under his stare. She mumbles, "reckless driving," under her breath.
The line of Soul's body stiffens, and the look in his dark is less playful now – more reflective. Maka combs her bangs with her fingers, feeling as harried on the inside as she probably looks on the outside.
"You're probably right," Soul says, then, after a moment of silence. He stuffs his hands in his pockets and walks away from his motorcycle. "Still haven't learned my lesson, I guess."
They settle for a small diner and channel their feelings into hunger because Maka doesn't know where to start her story and Soul hardly listens to her anyway. Talking to Soul about her problems is similar in a sense to talking to a wall. A less friendly, better-looking wall, but the feedback is still the same. She supposes he's never had any reason to comfort anyone, but maybe – deeper than that – he's never had anyone to seek out for comfort either. Maybe they're both too stubborn to ask for help.
He steals spoonfuls of her strawberry swirl but lets her eat his fries. It's a fair trade-off, and even if memories of Papa rage in her mind and heart, Soul's presence lifts her spirits in a strange sort of way.
Soul drives slower on the way back to the apartment, and he actually yields instead of speeding through stoplights. She grips his sides tight even if she doesn't have to, leans her head back with the wind, and it's funny but she's never felt more alive than right now.
It's a week into September when things go to hell.
M. Mjolnir (& unknown) it reads. Maka drops the post-it note onto the table, feeling sick even though she'd only just ordered her meal (eggs and a piece of toast; water, too, please). Black Star reaches across and takes her note.
"Unknown, huh?" His brows furrow in an angry line. "I hate reaping pregnant women," he continues, but that's not the only problem here. M. Mjolnir is Marie Mjolnir.
Maka shakes her head. "I can't do this, Kid," she says.
Kid frowns at her. "You have to," Kid says, bland in tone as ever, "you have no choice, Maka."
"I've completed all my other reaps and never messed up," Maka reasons, grasping at straws even though she knows this is a losing argument. Kid is too bent on following these rules, and he doesn't understand why she can't do this; even if she told him, he still wouldn't understand because Kid cannot feel what she and Tsubaki and Soul and even Black Star feel. "I can't do this one."
The sky is cloudy, and there are a million people out there right now who go about never expecting that in a moment they could be dead. Maka's seen all types of deaths up to this point, and each one hurts her a bit to accomplish. This is asking too much of her.
"I'm not killing her," she hisses over the din of the Waffle House. Someone's playing a song on the jukebox that she doesn't know, but it's too upbeat and clashes with her emotions.
Kid's eyes flash with annoyance. "I have told you, Maka; we save these people. Do you want her to be in pain?"
Tsubaki's hand on hers feels cold. It brings her no calm this time. Maka shoves away from the table, away from Kid. She crumples the post-it in her palm and storms through the door just in time for the rain to begin its fall.
3pm is Miss Marie's ETD.
Maka has an hour to somehow prevent this from happening, and she speeds her steps in hopes of reaching the campus in time to apprehend Miss Marie after her last class.
But what will she say to her when she reaches her? How can she prevent Miss Marie and her unborn child from dying today? Can she even change this fate? Can Death be stopped? The rain whips across her cheeks like a slap to the face, and it stings in her eyes. She does not slow, even when her vision blurs from rainwater. She will save Miss Marie in her own way, Kid and his reapers be damned.
She rounds the corner as soon as Miss Marie is stepping out of the building, struggling to open her umbrella and carry her books all at once. Maka slows down to a jog, crossing the courtyard with the sense of doing something right; she will change Miss Marie's fate here and now.
"Miss Marie," she calls, and Miss Marie's blond head tilts up in her direction. Maka smiles as she slows to a stop, offering to hold the books for her while she pops her umbrella. I'm glad you're here, Maka thinks, catching her breath.
Miss Marie thanks her, accepting her battered books and test papers. "Thank you, um..."
"Ma – Mary Jane." The new name sounds so foreign, but the studious Maka Albarn Miss Marie knows is long gone now. "I take your Lit. class," and it's not a lie because Maka had been taking that class last spring, but Miss Marie looks confused and like she's trying to remember Maka's new face so she adds on, "I sit in the very back."
"Oh," Miss Marie says; then, sheepishly she adds, "I need to get better at remembering faces this year." There's a moment of silence where Maka grasps at straws, trying to think of a way to save her and her baby, and when Miss Marie opens her mouth – most likely to say goodbye, for now and forever if Maka can't stop this – Maka interrupts:
"I – I missed the assignment for today," she lies; "Can you go over it again?"
Miss Marie smiles. "Office hours are over, Mary Jane," and that's it. This is the end. Miss Marie will die just like that. Maka's heart drops, falling somewhere at her feet; she lowers her eyes to the ground. "I am hungry, though," and she laughs with her mouth tucked into her books. "Let's get out of this rain and discuss today's lesson, ok?"
Her talk with Miss Marie extends well past the ETD; Miss Marie smiles and breathes and continues to exist long after 3pm. A sense of accomplishment swells within Maka, and for once she actually feels like she's helping someone. Miss Marie thanks her for the company that evening, eyes bright and cheeks pink; she has a glow about her that Maka's never noticed till now. Kid wanted her to snuff that light today. A bitter taste fills her mouth at the thought.
The lightness in her chest follows her throughout the city, and when she reaches the location where Miss Marie was supposed to die she falters in her steps. There are spirits everywhere, all scared and crying; they look sick and thinned-out, like skeletons wearing skin. And reapers are running everywhere trying to soothe these frazzled souls.
"What happened?" If there had been a massive reap scheduled for today, Kid would've alerted every able body in the area.
She sees Kid speaking with a girl with long dark hair; her expression is annoyed, motions subdued, and Kid shakes his head at whatever she's saying.
"What the fuck did you do?" Black Star seethes, hands gripped-tight like a vice on her shoulders. The pain is subtle, pressed into her skin via his fingernails through her shirt, but it does not make it hurt any less. "This is all your fault, Maka."
Maka shoves him off. She's never seen 'Star so pissed.
"Black Star!" Tsubaki yells, voice rising to cut through Black Star's angry curses and the crying of the dead around them. "Not now," she says, tired and strained. Tsubaki doesn't even look her way.
Kid watches all this with those dull, golden eyes of his; his expression is neutral, voice steady as he directs the other reapers (two men: one with shades even though the sun isn't shining and the other with the oddest hair-do she's ever seen), and back straight. When he flicks his gaze toward her, she meets him straight-on. She will not back down; she stands by what she did today.
"Later," Kid says.
"What you did today was against the rules, Maka," Kid says to her later on. The spirits have long since departed, but Maka hears their wails ringing in her ears long after. External Influences has left, as well as the pinch-hit reapers of the Natural Causes department. Now, only she and Kid remain.
He sighs. Kid has never sounded so defeated, eyes so full of mixed feelings. "I am not angry with you. I am," he pauses, seemingly struggling for the proper word. Kid has been anything but inarticulate so far; seeing him at a loss for what to say is new. "I am disappointed in you," he settles on.
Maka folds her arms over her stomach. He did not wish to speak with her at the Waffle House; instead they remain standing at the scene of this accident, and the rain stopped an hour ago. Still, the air lingers with the scent of death and rainwater, and it clings to her clothes and hair and skin.
"I had to save her."
"Yes," Kid says, voice and eyes hardening, "at the cost of many others lives, Maka. Every action has consequences, and you saw the result of your meddling today."
"I couldn't just let her die," Maka argues. Miss Marie is getting married soon; her baby is due soon; she has so much life left to live, and it's not fair to take that away.
Kid blinks. His tone softens and quiets when he speaks. "Maka, you cannot prevent Death. What you did was postpone the inevitable." He touches her hand, and this is the first time he's ever made direct contact with her. His hands are cold, but soft. "Everyone you love shall face Death someday, and you cannot prevent it from happening – people grow old, people live, and people die. You are here to make sure they accept it gracefully and happily. The rules protect us as much as they protect our clients."
He lets her hand go. "Go home," he urges in the same light timbre. "Get some rest, and please apologize to your teammates. They are your family," his voice grows uncertain at the end, childishly innocent as he tests the word out. It's oddly human and alien from his lips, but Kid is learning humanity just as she learns about the undead. He clears his throat, facade once again in place, and says in his stern no-nonsense voice, "I expect you to be at the meeting place tomorrow morning."
"At eight exactly," she finishes. Kid nods, and when he passes by she thinks she sees him smile.
Soul is watching classic films from the 80s that she's seen a million times when she comes back to the apartment.
"Yo," he greets. Droopy eyes trail over her. "Lasagna's in the microwave."
"Thanks," is all she can say. She concentrates on toeing off her sneakers. The apartment is quiet when it should be loud with Soul's jazz music from his bedroom and the tv blaring obnoxious cartoons and Soul singing under his breath somewhere in the mix. It's unnatural.
"Y'ok?" he asks when she ventures toward the tiny kitchenette. "'Star was pretty pissed at ya, but he'll calm down by tomorrow." He does not speak again for a long time, but when he does it's soft, "Hey, Maka, about today..."
"Kid already lectured me about this," she interrupts. "I know I messed up."
Soul snorts. "Good, I'm glad ya know."
They watch the movie in silence. She thinks this might be the one about the girl whose family forgets her birthday; or maybe it's the one where she tries to date the rich boy. All the movies run together in her mind until they're all muddled, just like the rest of her thoughts.
"Suicide, 1976," Soul says during the panty scene. It's definitely the one about the forgotten birthday.
Maka blinks away from the screen, but Soul's gaze never strays from the movie. "What?"
"You asked how I died," he responds, clipped. He shrugs one shoulder, playing this off, but she can see the tension in his shoulders and neck. "That's how."
"Soul, I." She opens and closes her mouth several times. "Why?"
His laugh is humorless, bitter. "Got tired of living under my parents' pressure, in my brother's shadow, I don't know a lot of reasons I guess." He begins picking at the hole in his jeans, finger twirling loose threads. "Thought it'd be over after that, but nah. Got chosen as the next reaper when some ass followed his reap into their light."
Maka stares at their feet; there's not much difference in the size, just like there's not much difference in their height. There's not much difference in them in any aspect.
"I'm not doing a good job of saying it, but, Maka, none of us chose to be a reaper," he says, finally turning to her. His eyes look so much redder in the overhead light, so much brighter. "You, me, Tsu, or 'Star. But we were chosen, and now we're stuck with this gig until we reach our goals." He knocks his knee into hers. "People wish for second chances all the time; we actually get one, though." He flicks her forehead. "So don't waste it."
Maka sneaks out for some air after midnight. She wanders around the city, still bustling with traffic and bursting with lights well into the night. She passes the Waffle House and waves at Blair when she catches her eye through the window. She keeps walking, her brain going one way and her body another, and walks until she runs out of city and arrives at the cemetery where her body had been lowered into the ground.
She's not been since her funeral. At the time, the graveyard had been teeming with life and noises of goodbye; now, there's a quietude to it that is peaceful and welcoming. She strolls through rows of tombstones and adjusts one young boy's toy truck that's caked with mud; she places it beside the marker and hopes his lights took him to dirt paths and long winding-roads to travel. The lawn is well-kept, and she breaches the area where her monument rests. Maka stops and drops to her knees.
At her marker lies a bouquet of fresh blue peonies. The card says thinking of you signed with love and Papa.
(This is her second chance. She will not waste it.)
In a week's time, Black Star has forgiven her (after an apology, his response of "grovel more, peasant", and her fist in his face) and Tsubaki is making lunch for them all at their apartment. Kid had told her that this was her family, and – no matter how weird, dysfunctional, and annoying they are at times – she supposes he's right. Kid is always right. This is her family now.
She brushes her hair in the bathroom, watching her other-self do the same. One half is tied up in her signature pigtails – a look given to her from her younger days – and the other half is fitted in her hand, waiting to be tied back as well. She pauses and puts her brush down on the counter. Pigtails had been Maka's look, but Maka is dead and the girl on the other side of the mirror is not Maka. She looks wrong wearing her hair like this.
She's been clinging to her past for a long time now, and – untying the band from her hair – she decides it's time to finally let go.
("Your hair," Soul says upon her arrival at the TsuStar abode. He makes an awkward motion with his right hand, directed at her head.
She touches the ends self-consciously; she'd forgotten that it had been so long. "What about my hair?" she questions, and she can't help how defensive she sounds.
Soul coughs and looks down. "It's different," he says, shoulders hunched up around his face. He looks more and more like the young man he is when he does that. "It's cool."
She tucks her chin into her chest, eyes lowered to the ground. Her face feels warm, but it's not because of him; Tsubaki has the heat on too high. "Thanks, I guess.")
She sits in Tsubaki's living room after lunch is finished and dishes are clean, watching Soul and 'Star squabble over which console is better (PlayStation or Xbox, and Tsubaki intones Nintendo at one point), and this is her life now. She spies the magazine Kim had been reading months ago in Tsubaki's shelf; she reaches over, thumbing through past dates until she finds the issue from the time of her death. She pulls it out, and no one notices – wrapped up in their own little world of video games, but she doesn't mind. Their noise contrasts nicely with her silence.
Maka flips to the back, through pictures of handsome men and women and fashion she'd never wear or afford, and finds the horoscopes. Beneath her sign reads:
an adventure awaits you
T. Harudori is today's reap.
"Alright," says Maka, clapping her hands together. T. Harudori watches on with wide, unabashed eyes; she's nervous, which is to be expected, but Maka knows she'll be fine. So, she says, encouragingly, "Think of the happiest place you can. Your own paradise."
T. Harudori closes her eyes, skin unblemished and clothes still perfectly intact. They're away from the crime-scene now, on the stoop of a local diner, and the sound of ambulance sirens can barely be heard over the sudden whoosh of T. Harudori's lights.
"I," she begins, unsure. The lights ripple when she reaches for them. She turns to Maka. "What's it like?"
The world stops, Maka realizes, when she speaks to her reaps; it's almost to the point where nothing exists aside from them in this brief lapse in time. She cups the air where T. Harudori's hands tremble. She may no longer be able to feel her, but even so much as the thought of a comforting hand has Harudori visibly relaxing. Maka understands Kid now; he may not comprehend humans and emotions, but he realizes the importance of what one small touch can bring to a scared soul. She recalls his words: we save them.
"It's different for everyone," Maka says, remembering crowds cheering and long stretches of beach and castles and all the other lights she encountered before. She smiles at Harudori even if the girl is watching her lights quiver and vibrate. A new life for T. Harudori; a better life for T. Harudori. "You'll be fine," she assures in a tone that maybe she learned from Tsubaki.
Maka stares at the spot where the lights flickered long after Harudori leaves. She'll be happy, Maka thinks as her phone buzzes with new texts.
movie nite w/ star and tsu, Soul's text reads, bring pizza.
It's not about death or dying, even if you were crushed by a seemingly-innocent bookcase; it's not about saying goodbye, either. This really isn't goodbye, anyway, once you look at it closely. This is neither an end nor a beginning – because death should never be such things.
For Maka, well. It's about what happens next. This is her adventure, and she thinks – carrying two large pepperoni pizzas underarm – there are still miles to go. But:
"Dude, what took so long? You missed me totally owning Soul's ass."
"Yeah right I totally lapped you twice."
"They've been like this all night."
"I was giving you a head start, man."
"Pff, as if I needed your help, 'Star."
"Let me help you, Maka."
Maka smiles. At least the company makes the ride well worth it.