Soul, in the early morning, stood in front of his bathroom mirror and examined, for the fourth time, a split in his lower lip. It didn't hurt when he pressed against it with his tongue, but careful pressure with two fingers, when he pulled it apart, showed bright pink skin ready to break. He gnawed briefly at the dead skin that was peeling away.
It wasn't working. Maka's voice careened around inside his head like a pinball, lighting up thought centers he didn't want touched. At least, not if he wanted to sleep, and certainly not by Maka.
He'd come home that fateful afternoon, worn out but exhilarated from an impromptu game of tackle football, and the myriad complexities that arose when one team called football "soccer" and the other called it "carnage". He felt a bruise somewhere on his upper arm, he smelled like mud, he was covered in grass stains, and a lucky flail with Harley's elbow had caught him in the corner of the mouth. He had the feeling Maka was going to chew him out for tracking over the floor, but he'd run into her just sitting in the living room, her knees tucked up with her chin on them. It had looked like she was staring at her toes, daring them to give her answers. Only Maka could interrogate her own feet.
He'd said Hey What's Up, and the look she'd given him had informed him they were as good as famous last words. She wasn't angry, or irritated. She had been curious. Curious and a little anticipatory, her eyes lighting up when they landed on him, not even seeing the mud.
She'd said, Have You Heard Yet, and he'd said Heard What, and then she'd told him.
Kid hadn't been able to sleep, having some kind of fit over something being off half a millimeter in his personal library, and had taken to the skies on his board. He'd seen Tsubaki walking the streets by herself, and had, like the gentleman he'd been bred to be, offered to walk her home. She'd agreed.
What they talked about hadn't mattered. What mattered was that Liz and Patty, chasing after him on foot, saw what Kid hadn't. The samurai with the long blond hair, the one who was always on babysitting duty, was watching her leave from the doorway of a small apartment building.
Tsubaki told Kid she'd been helping the samurai guy with the little witch since apparently he was great at fighting but not so good at braiding hair.
Soul had said, Yeah, So?
Maka had chewed her lip and said, Well, Don't You Get It?
Soul remembered the samurai guy. He had a lot of hair, and he always wore it down over his face. But apparently, according to Liz, who'd told Maka, who was telling Soul, it had been braided, pulled back.
Soul didn't get what was so important about a braid until Maka had told him that it was pretty close to certain that Tsubaki and the samurai guy were doing You Know What. After all, the little witch hardly had enough hair to keep her ears warm, let alone braid. Which meant Tsubaki spent a lot of time with her hands in the samurai guy's hair, and You Know what that leads toward.
The problem wasn't that Soul Knew. It was that Soul didn't know how much Maka knew, exactly, or what she thought You Know was, in comparison to his own concept of You Know. And he sure as hell didn't mean to ask, because, meister or not, there were some things he didn't ever feel he needed to know, especially where Maka and You Know were concerned.
The problem with thoughts like that was their relative stickiness in regards to the brain. They clung, while other, slipperier topics, like the weather, or football games, or homework, dropped away. It had been two days since then, and he'd been half-tortured with dreams of You Know, mostly with Maka's narration, and yeah, he'd noticed Tsubaki's gigantic hooters before, but who hadn't? He'd given her a level of respect and professional courtesy from one weapon to another that he thought was pretty commendable, especially when he thought they were a fraction nicer than Blair's.
His lip split open again and he winced. Fucking Harley. Fucking Blair! Fucking You-Know-What!
He realized too late he'd bitten straight through the loose skin around the cut on his lip and made the bleeding worse. He wiped the trail of blood from his chin, and one of those slippery thoughts came slithering back.
He wondered, not for the first time, about the other guy, the one he'd seen the day before. The guy who'd had eyes like his, only different, red as blood and black around the outsides. How he'd been bleeding from the mouth, too, and other places, and...
And he was going to tell Maka about it, he swore to himself, thoughts of You Know or not! It was still hard for him to meet her eyes after the revelation, having never thought before that the concept of any sort of You Know would ever make its way into her brain, crammed as it already was with school and competition. And those pigtails couldn't be good for her tension.
Weapons and meisters needed to be in contact, needed not to hide important things from each other like that. He hadn't seen Stein look so livid, not even after he'd come out of his crazy. He'd never heard the man give him an order like that before. You weren't here. You didn't see this.
He heard the water in the pipes as the other shower came on and frowned. He wasn't thinking of Maka naked, shiny and gold soul-naked or otherwise. Or Blair. And when he turned the thought over in his head, he realized it was true. He was thinking about how nosy his meister was. How, if he told her, it'd be an issue. A serious, Nancy-Drew Scooby-Doo mystery she'd want to get her fingers in and figure out.
Under any other circumstances, even You Know-based circumstances, he'd go along for the ride. But the bleeding guy, and Stein, that had been heavy shit. It had made his scar hurt, a little, to see how ruined the guy was. Stein had told him to forget it, which he could take as a sign of disrespect, or as a sign of desperation.
First-class meisters went on all kinds of missions Maka didn't know about. And they came back just fine, right? So. So maybe he wouldn't tell her, not yet. Given Stein, for acceptable levels of insane, he'd probably come out with it in class that day. He'd wait. Maybe it was easier to think about You Know than other things. Slipperier thoughts were easier to stumble on.
The day had not gone well. He'd even had the perfect opening, after Stein's class. Sid had been the substitute, and after, as he and Maka walked through the halls toward lunch, she'd asked, "I wonder where Professor Stein is?"
He could have said, You know, yesterday I saw this thing...
He could have said, I think he's at his lab. Here's why.
He could have said, I don't.
Before he had the thought to say any of that, Black Star had butted in with... with something. Soul couldn't recall, and it didn't matter, because in that exact moment, as Maka's expression froze into a smile, he'd realized Black Star had no idea about You Know and Tsubaki.
He hadn't heard the rest of the conversation, his mind racing behind his eyes. What would he do if his partner did You Know with - with - he couldn't even think about it! Was it the betrayal, or the weirdness? He thought he'd more or less be fine, but the only real You Know-type relationship he knew about as involved weapons and meisters involved... a weapon, and his meister! Maka's parents! That was all the You Know he knew! And, as far as he knew, he didn't have the slightest inclination toward You Know with his meister. There were weird power issues there, he knew, and she was so annoying, and flat-chested and-
And his brain kept coming up with all of these other things, the way she trusted him and believed in him and was loyal to him, and how she had this little freckle on the back of her left thigh that nobody else could see but him, because he only got a glimpse when she was wielding him-
No! No. He ran his hands through his hair, got two good handfuls, and tugged. The point was, he hadn't told her. It was that slippery thing again, like he could barely hold on to the thought. Like his brain didn't want to keep it because it ached. It was easier to think about that freckle, easier to be distracted even when he was frustrated by it.
He didn't notice Blair in his lap until she used her claws to demand affection. He kept his hands on his head as he yelped.
"Damn it, Blair!"
She pouted at him. "Love me."
"No. Can't you see I'm busy? I've got homework."
She pouted harder. "So-oul. I'm lonely! The stupid Mizunes got ahold of my fish shop guy and all he wants us to do is fight now. Love me."
Soul gritted his teeth, resolutely Not Thinking about why a cat witch and mice witches were good for a show. "You can hang out, but get off my lap."
She huffed. Then hopped up onto his homework, curled up, and started to purr, her tailtip twitching. Soul growled, she ignored him, and he got up. At her indignant squawk, he grabbed his coat off the doorknob and said, "I'm going on a walk."
She said, "Kay!", as he knew she would, and followed.
The cold air helped, really, that and the consistency of the cobblestones beneath his feet. It felt like his body knew where it was again, and it settled his head, even with Blair toddling along the nearest fences beside him. The night smelled like cooling stone, the dirt from a day's work, the odd cigarette. He felt more grounded in the cold, and his head lifted a little. He didn't think about Maka, or Stein, or blood, or-
He heard Tsubaki laughing like he'd never heard before. It was definitely her, but it was the kind of helpless giggle that made her sound younger. And kind of older at once. He stopped, looking for her, saw a light in a doorway nearby and slipped into an alley. Instantly Blair was beside him, peering around the corner of the building.
"What're we lookin' at?" she asked.
"Sh!" said Soul, and strained to hear it.
Tsubaki said, "No, really, it wasn't any trouble at all! I hope you didn't mind my singing."
The voice that responded had to be the samurai guy. Soul recognized it. "No, of course not. It was lovely."
"Please, that's a little embarrassing." She laughed again, her voice softer. Soul missed most of the rest, except for "Black Star" and "nice time". And "Mifune", which had to be the samurai guy's name. That sounded right.
Mifune said something even more softly, and Soul almost made it out when Blair said, "Well, hot damn! He's a cutie. But isn't he from your little school?" and sent him jumping nearly out of his skin.
By the time he'd managed not to shout, "God dammit, shut up!" and had instead managed a strangled and inarticulate shushing noise, the door was closing and Tsubaki was turning away from it, which sent Soul even deeper into the alley. Eavesdropping was shameful at best, and he had no fucking intention of getting caught.
Blair, however, had other plans. She trotted right out of the alley and came up to Tsubaki. Soul could hear them talking, and Blair laughing, and... no mention of his name whatsoever.
He'd have to put a little extra tuna in her bowl, maybe.
As Blair and Tsubaki passed the alleyway, Blair didn't even glance in.
Make that a lot of extra tuna.
When he asked her, later, what she was doing on his chest in his bed and could she leave please, she told him, "Don't worry about it, Soul-baby. It's a girl thing. I wouldn't let you in on it even if you wanted me to."
His third sleepless night began as soon as he kicked Blair out of his room, and heard her laughter echo down the hall.
The second day of Substitute-Teacher-Sid passed, and Soul could tell Maka was getting antsy. The last big string of absences Stein had taken involved Medusa, and neither he nor Maka were content to accept the Everything's-Fine answer from their teachers anymore.
Maka even took pains to walk home beside him, her hands curled into loose fists. "What do you think's going on with Professor Stein?" she asked him, her voice quiet.
He shrugged. "Can't say." It wasn't really a lie. But then again, he didn't know what she knew, and he knew she'd tell him sooner or later.
He watched her for a half-second longer than usual, then turned his head back to the road before them. Death City in the warm afternoon. There were still some pockets of wreckage, some craters in the streets. The battle with Arachnophobia and the kishin had left scars on the landscape. Some of the more sensitive trees within Death City were adjusting poorly to their new climate, and though it was spring, dead leaves crunched under their feet.
Maka said, "I asked Miss Marie about it. She wouldn't tell me anything." Her jaw was tight as she muttered, "She just told me it was going to be okay."
"So? Maybe it is. She still lives with him, and they're friends." He paused, debating between two Bad Things To Say To Maka, and picked the lesser. "Have you asked your dad?"
Soul sighed. "He's a deadbeat, yeah, but he's kinda weird where Professor Stein's concerned. He was his first meister."
Had Maka been a cat, Soul would have seen her bristled fur start to come down. The mental image was amusing enough, especially when he recognized the signs of her coming around to the idea. She said, "Huh."
Soul hummed. "And hey, it's my night to cook, right? So you can find him, grill him, and be back before dinner."
To his relief, Maka snorted. But his heart sank as she spoke. "Yeah-huh. If not, I think we'd better hit the source. Tonight."
So much for diffusing Nancy Drew Albarn, he thought. But as he watched her jog away, he admitted his own curiosity to himself. If anybody could uncover it, Maka would get down to the truth.
Maka had to be Velma, he thought. Which didn't work at all, because that made Tsubaki Daphne. Sure, she was more beautiful, but he knew Black Star sure as hell wasn't Freddy. Maybe Black Star was Scooby.
As they walked down the path to Stein's laboratory just after dusk, Soul decided he was the celebrity guest star, because he wasn't Freddy either. Freddy just seemed like a douche. Totally not cool.
Then again, he had to feel like Maka was a little uncool for blabbing to Tsubaki and Black Star about their plans. Sure, a girl was allowed to vent about her good-for-nothing father, but Black Star was a total stealth-killer and did not need to be reminded about Stein's absences. He knew Tsubaki had made note of it already, and that was fine enough, but he couldn't help but think that Maka complained to him enough about her father and didn't need to lay it on other unsuspecting civilians as well.
The little father-daughter chat had turned over absolutely zilch, except the bit where Deathscythe had turned about three colors and clammed up so fast Maka swore to Soul afterward she heard his jaw clack. Deathscythe being weird about Stein was an understatement, but this shade of weird was more extreme than usual, and had only served to convince her that something Needed Investigation.
As they crouched behind the bushes at the far wall of Stein's property, Soul felt more idiotic than ever. Sure they were worried about him, but why all the secrecy? Tsubaki and Black Star had to practice their ninja-ing, yeah, but he and Maka had a more bust-in-and-kick-ass style he didn't like to amend.
Maka said, "Okay, now, Soul and I will take the front-" which he liked, "-and Black Star, you'll- Black Star? Oh, no."
Black Star's battle cry of "Yeah-hoo!" confirmed their fears.
The first explosion was a smaller one, smoke billowing from a window on the first floor of the laboratory. With the glass blown out, though, Soul could see a blue glow, and then flame, and then more smoke. Tsubaki gasped and leapt to her feet as yet more explosions followed. They heard Black Star shouting, and then Maka was chasing after Tsubaki at a dead run, but Soul was caught by the vision that burst forth from the front door.
Stein was in a white t-shirt, customary stitching woven through it. Loose, black pants, bare feet, his glasses missing, his hair a mess of tangles and spikes. Stein's face was marred by dark, sick circles under his eyes, his expression that same taut, pure anger Soul had seen before.
He was reminded, then, forcibly, of the bloody guy. He'd been in all black, then, his hair long and dirty and loose around his shoulders, dark red. His eyes were redder, like Soul's own, and the jolt of recognition almost made him miss the fact that the whites of the guy's eyes weren't white. They were black. In the instant before the guy had pushed some sunglasses back up his nose, Soul had looked into his eyes and thought, quite clearly, holy shit.
He'd been bleeding, dry rusty trails over his face and down his arms, fresher wounds in his lips, his fingernails. He'd been stumbling, had pushed past Soul without touching him, without talking to him, though he'd called out to him to try and figure out what was wrong.
The guy had disappeared and Stein had come not half a minute after, his face hard with worry and anger, terrifying in its calm.
Soul had helped Stein find the guy. Had walked three feet ahead of them, as Stein wrapped the guy's arm over his shoulders and led him, limping, back to his lab. Soul hadn't asked questions. He'd cleared the way for them, hadn't looked back, and when they got to the door of the lab, Stein had looked at him and said, You weren't here. You didn't see this.
Seeing Stein exit the lab then, as the explosions came from the back of it, as Black Star shouted and Maka and Tsubaki pelted after him, Soul almost forgot what had come after.
Stein had said, Thank you, Soul. This is going to be a long night.
When Stein set eyes on him, he had the overpowering urge to shout, "I swear I didn't say anything!"
He must have, because Stein stepped past him, didn't touch him, didn't acknowledge him and went to the window that had blown out to extract Black Star from the outside.
Once he'd dragged Black Star through the frame, once he'd gotten the boy by the collar, and held him off the ground, and stared down into his face with the sort of silent fury that stopped even Black Star's explanations, Stein said, very softly, "Get out."
"But-" began Maka, who had been demoted in that instant to Freddy status.
Stein didn't look at her. Didn't look at any of them. His shoulders were shaking, but not with laughter. He lifted his head, dropped Black Star, and said, "Get. Out."
When Maka began to protest again, Stein turned his head. The bags under his eyes and the set to his mouth made Soul almost wish he'd start laughing.
Marie's voice cut through the tense moment as she darted forward, got between them and Professor Stein, her hands up. "Franken. I'll take the children."
Soul didn't see the rest of it, as Miss Marie herded Tsubaki first, then Maka, then Black Star together, and pushed them all outside the walls. Maka, badly shaken, kept saying, "We were just worried! We wanted to see the Professor."
Black Star kept saying, "That was awesome! I wish you guys could have seen him! He-"
Marie cut him off. "He is Professor Stein's friend, and he is very ill. It was incredibly rude to trespass! And after I told you, miss Maka-"
"No." Marie's kind face was set in its firmest lines. "You be grateful I don't tell your father about this, much less Lord Death. Breaking and entering on a professor is grounds for suspension!"
Maka withered like a dry weed, and Black Star pumped his fist in the air. "It was crazy! Guys! Guys?"
Soul tuned out the rest, from the set to Maka's mouth that showed she was very near tears, to Black Star's gloating. He knew already what the guy looked like. The explosions meant he was a weapon of some sort, and Stein's reaction meant. Something. Meant that they were friends. Meant he was protecting the guy. Though it looked, given the thrashing Black Star got, as though he could take care of himself.