It was late when they first met, but it didn’t look it inside the relentlessly gleaming light of the convenience store where Maka worked. She was just preparing for a slow end to her and Soul’s shift when the store let out an automated ding as the doors at the front slid open, signalling another customer. Soul gave her a scowl, obviously having prepared himself for the same slow night, and she held in a laugh.
Maka didn’t see them, having been distracted when they walked inside. They took to hiding from the counter behind the forest of shelves, and when Maka got bored enough to flick her eyes up to the NTSC to watch them from the eyes of the security cameras, she saw that they hid their face beneath a hoodie, and walked as though trying to appear as small as possible. They picked up the basics – bread, milk, vegetables, noodles, bags of flour and rice, all packed hurriedly into a large bag they’d brought with them. Maka had been trained to look out for all these things; she mouthed to Soul, as exaggerated as possible, “Shoplifter.”
Soul scowled again, and both their gazes drifted simultaneously back to the NTSC screen. Sure enough, they crept to the door and not the counter, still hiding themselves between the aisles. Their hesitance to make the final run to the street was clear as they leaned back and forth from the edge of the shelf’s protection. It could have been the screen, but Maka thought she saw them shaking.
As soon as they took a step onto the unprotected stretch between the aisles and the door, Maka called out a “Sumimasen!” They jumped – Maka saw this in person, now.
“Would you like me to ring that up for you?” she asked, not smiling despite the unassumingness of her words. Maka noticed that they were definitely shaking, that their baggy clothes were clearly hiding a stick-thin body, and though their face was as hidden as they could get with their pulled-up hoodie, she could see glittering spikes of fear evident in their eyes.
They opened their mouth as if to reply, and then closed it again. There was definitely no doubt about it anymore; they were shaking like a small tap on the shoulder would push them over. In fact, Maka was surprised her words hadn’t done the trick.
Their attempt to explain themselves out of the situation dissolved; Maka watched as they dropped a hand to the pocket of their baggy jeans. What had looked so easily fixed was quickly becoming dangerous. Soul stood from his chair instinctively.
They didn’t pull it out completely; just enough to have the artificial store lights glint against its surface. “N,” they swallowed, calming themselves, but that didn’t help the stuttering, “n-n-n-no th-th-thanks.”
Still, they wore the most terrified glint in their eyes Maka had ever seen.
Soul was practically growling beside her; he opened his mouth to say something, but before he could finish taking an infuriated breath, Maka interrupted.
“There are cameras here,” she said. “We’ve seen your face.” A lie; the hoodie cast enough of a shadow over them she wouldn’t be able to tell the police what they’d looked like, and the cameras hadn’t picked up their face either, again thanks to their clothing. Still, she knew their stature and approximate age; around hers and Soul’s. And the kid looked so scared there was no way they’d continue knowing they’d be caught easily, weapon aside.
Instead of swallowing again, stuttering something out and returning to their hiding place between the aisles, like Maka had expected, the glint in their eyes disappeared. Maka stared at the shadow over their face that seemed to get darker by the second. They pulled their hand out of their pocket completely, pointing the knife at them. They straightened their back and Maka did see their whole face then. Their eyes were no longer shining, but stony with a resolved idea stuck in their head that was honestly scary. I don’t care.
“N-no,” they repeated, the stutter quicker and less noticeable, “thank you.” Maka stared at them. Soul buzzed with an unvoiced anger beside her. They stepped closer to the door. Tucked their knife back into their pocket. Closer, and took the empty hand out again. Closer, and wrapped their fingers around the strap of their bag. They were starting to shake again. Closer, and,
Their resolve crumbled and they sprinted outside. Soul’s shout of “Hey” was cut off at the last syllable, as he immediately turned on the girl next to him. “Maka! What was that? They got away!”
“They had a knife, Soul,” Maka sighed.
“They obviously weren’t going to use it,” Soul snapped, his annoyance blinding him from the way Maka was playing with the register. “And you’ve dealt with way worse than them! We’re going to get in so much trouble for this! Oi, Maka, are you listening – what are you doing?”
The register flung open, and Maka dug into her pocket.
“What.” Soul watched as she carefully lifted notes from her wallet and sorted them into the register. “What are you doing. Oi, Maka. Maka!”
“You’re right,” Maka says, shoving Soul’s arm off of hers. “They were terrified. They won’t be back here, and they looked like they needed it.”
“So you’re paying –” Soul ground his teeth audibly. “Maka, that’s not how the job works.”
“No one has to know about it, okay, Soul?” Maka snapped, slamming the cash part of the register back in.
Soul crossed his arms and looked away. He was thinking. It was easy to tell this because it was such a rare occasion.
“Ugh.” He threw himself back down on the chair behind the counter. “Fine. If we get in trouble, it’s your fault.”
“I know,” Maka said, rolling her eyes.
They got chewed out for losing one loaf of bread. Maka cursed herself for forgetting it.
The second time was a month or so later. Soul was in the storeroom, which made Maka’s sinking dread less prominent when the kid walked in, because there was no doubt he would’ve run them out of the store if he’d seen them here again. He’d probably be in there for quite a while, so Maka let the kid wander for a while. They still hadn’t noticed it was the same girl at the counter, which she almost laughed at. It was the same stuff as before; bread, rice, milk, et cetera. They stepped onto the last stretch of their escape and were met with the same “Sumimasen”, jumped again, shook in their skin again. But this time, they recognised Maka, and plunged their hand into their pocket without waiting. They didn’t take out the knife yet, but Maka recognised the threat. She pointed to their bag.
“What have you got there? I’ve got to ring it up.”
They hesitated, thinking in the same obvious way that Soul did, but Maka got the feeling they did a lot more of it than her friend. The silence stretched on for year-like minutes.
“I.” Their voice came out cracked and dry, and they swallowed to clear it. “I c-c-can’t p-pay.”
Can’t, Maka noted. Not won’t, or not going to, can’t. The convenience store Maka works at is positioned fairly central in the city, so she meets a lot of shoplifters who underestimate her as a helpless teenager, but none of them had ever told her they can’t pay. It was always Are you going to pay for that? met with No or Fuck you. It was always Sumimasen met with Leave me alone and Have you got something to say? They never said what Maka had suspected countless times; that they didn’t have the money.
“That’s fine,” Maka replied, realising the kid was waiting for a reply. Another thing most didn’t do. She tapped her finger against the top of the register. “I just need to know what you’ve got so I don’t get in trouble for losing it.”
Something flashed against their face, their feet’s grip on the floor faltering for just a second. “S,” they began, but clamped their mouth shut and swallowed again. They looked to their bag and back to the counter, and Maka noticed again that feral glint. Like they could snap at any moment. They began walking closer with the cautiousness of someone expecting someone to jump from any shadow in the cracked tiles beneath them. Maka leaned back slightly, knowing if she treated them as anything other than a wild animal, they’d run and she’d get in more trouble.
Soon enough they were in front of the counter. They placed the bag softly on top of it, and Maka took out the scanner to get started. From up close, she really wondered how, with all that trembling, they were keeping on their feet.
With the rhythmic beeping of the scanner doing its job, they didn’t notice her taking them in. Smart shoplifters would have run when she spoke, of course; smart shoplifters would definitely never get this close to the counter or the human behind it; but smart shoplifters in this position would know when they were being sized up, would know to keep everything they could about themselves hidden. This kid was not a very smart shoplifter.
Their eyes, darting from place to place, were light violet; the same as the hair that hung like a ragged mop in front of their eyes. They had terrible posture, with a notable hunch in their back, and Maka confirmed, standing so close, that their clothes were definitely that size to hide their frightening skinniness. Their eyes only returned to Maka when the beeping of the scanner stopped, and they jumped when Maka spoke, holding out a carton of milk.
“There’s a cheaper one for more if you look back in the fridge,” she said.
The kid looked, once again, absolutely terrified. “I – I c-can’t –”
“I know,” Maka interrupted, holding the milk further out. “I have to make up for the loss, though.”
That expression flashed across their face again, their feet threatening once more to drop them to the ground. “S-so-” Maka could hear their teeth slam together, could watch them swallow. They nodded weakly and took the carton.
By the time they returned with another bottle, Maka was repacking their bag. They stood not so close to the counter that they could be touched, hugging the milk to their chest. Maka noticed their fingers were shaking even more, probably from the cold. She held out her hand and they jumped away.
“Could I have that?” she asked patiently, and it took a few seconds before they nodded and held it out, not daring to take a step closer.
She scanned and packed it. Held out the bag by its straps. “Here you go,” she said, trying to sound as friendly as possible. It felt like this kid needed it.
Their hand drew closer, as cautious as ever, and Maka noticed the protruding knuckles, the obvious bones. They took the bag carefully, and stood for a few more seconds at the counter, looking like they were about to say something.
They mumbled something incomprehensible and hurried out the door.
Maka had just finished closing up the register again when Soul wandered back in. “What are you doing?” he asked, suspicion clear in his voice as he fell to his usual chair. Maka rolled her eyes.
It was only a fortnight until their next meeting. Soul was sick today; again, a lucky absence, one that soothed Maka’s anxiety when she saw the kid enter once again. This time they just picked up bread and some vegetables, and this time they walked straight to the counter, though meanderingly. They placed their bag, the same one as always even though it held not nearly enough to fill it, on the counter, and Maka gave them a questioning look as they dug through their pocket – the right one, not the left, where they’d kept the knife these last two times. They pulled out a couple of coins and slid them across the table towards Maka. She stared at them as they mumbled out something that she was so close to missing: “Sorry.”
Their eyes flashed in the tangible moment their courage fled, and they grabbed their bag and ran. Maka stared after them for a while before ringing up the items and adding their 200 yen to the register; not enough to pay for all of it, but still something.
Another fortnight passed, and they picked up the same stuff as their first two times. It had been a while, so Soul didn’t place them right away, but was eyeing the NTSC anyway. Maka ignored him, trying to pretend she hadn’t seen the kid before.
“Think this kid’s gonna try to make a run for it,” Soul said after a few minutes. Maka hummed noncommittally. Soul frowned. “Don’t you think we’ve seen them before?” Maka shrugged.
Eventually they attempted to approach the counter, but then they saw Soul. Their eyes regained that glint and, to Maka’s disappointment, they did exactly what Soul expected; they made a break for it.
“Dammit!” Soul called after them, already flung upwards from his seat by his anger. “I’m calling the police.”
“Soul, don’t,” Maka snapped, grabbing onto his arm. Irritation flashed across his sharp features.
“Why do you keep doing this? We’ll get in trouble, Maka. When did getting in trouble not matter to you?” He pulled his arm out of Maka’s grip. “This is exactly what you did when –” And then, realisation dawns on his face, something also easy to recognise because of its rarity. “I knew I remembered that kid from somewhere! They’ve been here before and they did the exact same thing!”
Soul’s arm shot for the landline phone, and Maka’s followed, slamming it back to its place as soon as Soul picked it up. “Soul, forget it.”
“Oh my god.” Another realisation, just as obvious. “How many times have you done this?”
Maka rolled her eyes. “What do you -”
“Have you been paying for it with your money? Is that why you couldn’t go out for coffee the other day?”
“No, that was because you’re annoying,” Maka snapped, though Soul wasn’t entirely wrong.
“Why are you so obsessed with this kid? They’re just a dirty shoplifter,” Soul retorted, going again for the phone. Maka covered his hand with hers and kept him there with all her strength – enough to stop him from being able to even wiggle his fingers.
“Oh my god, you’re so stupid!” Maka yelled. “Didn’t you see how scared they were? And thin? They’re starving!”
Soul puffed himself up like he was about to blow, but he didn’t have an answer to that. Through all of his sharp, rough arrogance, he tried to be kind, just like Maka. They stood there, in stalemate, until finally, Soul deflated, and his hand relaxed under Maka’s.
He hissed at the counter, “If you try to help everyone who’s starving, you’ll end up just like them.”
“That’s not true,” Maka retorted, retracting her hand and tucking it against her chest as she crossed her arms. “It’s just one kid, anyway.”
Soul dropped himself loudly into his chair. “What is it with you and this one kid, anyway?”
There was a long silence, unfortunately not broken by the ding of another customer’s entry.
“When I told them there were cameras,” Maka said eventually, mumbling a little as she directed her words towards the counter just as Soul had done a few minutes ago. “They looked at me and it was like they didn’t care at all. If they got caught, or anything.” Maka didn’t fiddle like some of her friends; her hand’s grip on her arm just got stronger and stronger, her eyebrows furrowing as she continued. “Even though they were so scared.”
Silence again. Soul huffed as if he didn’t care, with all the care in the world in that single exhale. “So what?” he muttered.
Maka shrugged, looking back at the door. They just looked so broken.
A while passed, and Soul almost forgot about it. Maka did not. She held hard onto the counter after the first two weeks, wondering if she’d see them walk in again, still looking as guilty as they always had. A week of that passed and she convinced Soul that she’d given up. But a month from the last time she’d seen them, she watched the door meticulously once again, already having picked up on the patterns of their appearances, until Soul ushered her into the storeroom.
When she returned to the counter, Soul didn’t say anything for a while, which was odd; no teasing or remarks about weird people who’d passed by. Maka was about to ask if something was wrong when he spoke.
“Your friend came by,” he muttered. Maka had been hoping for a couple of days, but she still attempted to make Soul think she didn’t know what he was talking about. He scowled at her knowingly confused look. “The shoplifter.”
“Ah,” Maka replied, nodding as if she’d just remembered. She’d never been the best actor. Soul almost laughed before returning his lazy gaze to the aisles in front of them.
“They paid this time,” he muttered. Maka lit up.
Soul opened the register, collected a couple of coins from inside and waved them at her. 600 yen.
Maka narrowed her eyes; it wasn’t enough for their usual drop-in. “What did they buy?”
Soul dropped his hand, and his gaze. “They bought some bread and instant ramen.” Maka narrowed her eyes further.
“What was the emphasis on bought?”
“You’re such an idiot. Just tell me.”
Soul rolled his eyes, again hiding silent laughter. “What they actually bought was different from what they tried to buy, alright?”
“Did they steal again?” Maka sighed, dropping down on her own chair that she hardly ever used. She had to admit that she was disappointed.
Soul smiled. “Nope.”
Maka jumped up again. “What? Really?”
Soul eyed her from his seat with amusement. “Yeah. I talked them out of it.”
“You –” Maka held up her hands. “Wait, wait. You talked a shoplifter out of shoplifting?”
Soul looked back at the aisles. “Yeah. I think they like you.” Maka huffed and punched him on the shoulder, getting just a laugh in response. “Seriously. I just told them you were paying for their stealing and they got all upset and just took what they could pay for.” Soul scowled. “I had to put all their other stuff back though.”
“Oh my god, that’s so good.” Maka couldn’t help grinning as she thought about it.
“Nice to know you care about me,” Soul muttered. Maka punched him again, a little harder than the last time.
“Shut up, idiot. I can’t believe this.” She leaned forward, right into his space, still grinning. “They really didn’t steal anything!”
Again, she couldn’t help herself, and spun a little on her heel. Soul huffed. “You have such low standards.”
Only a few days passed before Maka got to see them again. She and Soul were chatting about something or other, and Soul was distracted rubbing his shoulder from Maka’s playful punches when she looked towards the glass storefront and let her gaze linger on a hooded figure that looked a little familiar.
Somehow, she could tell the moment when they looked up, and they watched each other from across the street.
“You really need to be gentler,” Soul complained, leaning back in his chair again, and Maka snapped herself out of their staring game when she remembered his presence. She looked back at him as if to resume the conversation, but already he looked suspicious. “What?”
“Nothing.” Maka scrolled desperately through her memory to know what Soul had just said. “And no.”
In the gaps between their next conversation, she glanced back to the kid on the other side of the road, who still didn’t try to cross it in favour of watching her with a nervousness obvious even from here. Eventually she did what she could to beckon them closer.
“Soul, your hair looks horrible.” Soul blinked in surprise at her and raised a hand absently to his head. He scowled.
“Probably because you keep punching me,” he muttered, standing.
“I don’t punch you on your head, genius,” Maka retorted. She graced him with a “What are you doing?” despite the fact she knew exactly.
“Fixing my hair,” Soul replied generously, turning around towards the staff bathroom and leaving him open to Maka’s attack on his hair. “Wh – hey!”
“You’re fixing it anyway, right?” Maka teased, leaning away from his irritation with a hand still outstretched. “Now you can go. I’ve been wanting to do that all day.”
Soul rolled his eyes and muttered something unflattering before heading back towards the bathroom.
Maka waited a few moments after hearing the click of the door closing before she turned around to catch a familiar gaze again. They still stood there, looking even more confused, before she gave them a wide enough smile to make them jump. Their nervousness still emanated through the cars zipping past and the storefront, so Maka looked away, trying not to smile again at the thought that they were almost playing a game of Grandma’s Footsteps.
It was long enough to make Maka almost want to turn back around before she heard the ding of the store signalling a customer. She still didn’t look, focusing on the incredibly quiet sounds of their footsteps that became fewer and fewer. Once they came to a stop, she turned to see them.
They looked just the same as always, skinny and scared and clinging to the sleeve of their hoodie with nerves. They didn’t jump this time, though, when they met eyes. Maka smiled and they swallowed.
“Soul’s in the bathroom,” Maka said, and again they flinched as she pointed a thumb in the direction of the staff restroom, “so if you need anything, take it. I won’t tell.” She smiled when she put a finger to her lips. Their staring was obvious; the glint she could see from beneath their hoodie didn’t move for a couple of long, frightened moments. Then they looked down, the hand on their arm clenching harder, their feet creeping towards each other and scuffing a little against the floor. They managed to make shaking their head look like an incredibly draining action.
Maka thought for a moment before attempting again to speak. “Why did you come, then?”
Guilt dug their fingers harder into their arm, and their legs began to shake with the effort of keeping them up. They looked less towards the floor and more their chest.
Words escaped from their lips and were lost on their way to Maka. Her heart thumped loudly in her ears. They’re talking to me? “Sorry, what was that?” They winced again, as if Maka had spat in their face. The hand on their hoodie clawed back and forth, fabric pooling in their spindly fingers, but they still managed to repeat themselves.
“Toire wa…?” The toilet’s…?
“Doko?” Maka filled in, where, and they nodded with the urgency of someone being rescued from a burning building. She smiled and raised a hand to point to the back of the store at the small toilet reserved for customers. “It’s over there.”
They looked up just enough to be able to follow her finger, nodded again, and as soon as they could turned around and headed hurriedly in that direction. The door slid shut with a soft rasp against the floor, and Maka threw herself back on her chair with disappointment there would be no point to hiding. Maybe she was being a little selfish, but she wanted desperately to see them for longer, or talk to them even, or interact in an extended way normal to most human beings. She stared at the roof and hoped unashamedly they would come back out soon and those dreams would be able to come true.
In reality, they took longer than Soul did to fix his hair, which was honestly a little worrying. Soul picked up immediately on her spike of frustration as he stepped back behind the counter, laughing drily. “That unhappy to see me?”
“Shut up,” Maka muttered.
They talked for another half hour and still the bathroom door remained solidly shut. At some point, a man came in to buy some cigarettes and asked them where the toilet was, and Maka had to reply to Soul’s confusion that it wasn’t in use in the moment. The man sighed and left with his purchase, and once the automatic door slid closed again, Soul gave her another eyeful of suspicion. “What was that?”
“What was what?”
“Maka, you’re not even looking at me.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“It means I know you’re lying.”
“I didn’t lie about anything. I just said ‘what was what?’”
“Maka,” Soul grunted, and she sighed.
“What?” she muttered, slumping over the counter. “It’s not in use.”
“Since just now,” Maka snapped, and put a hand to her head. She hoped the kid hadn’t heard her raise her voice just now. “What does it matter anyway? We’re not a toilet business.”
“How do you even know it’s out of order? Have you even used it?”
Maka groaned. “Maybe I used it while you were fixing your stupid hair.”
“You’re the one who messed it up!”
“Oh, shut up.”
She punched him and he growled. “Whatever. What do you mean ‘maybe’? Did you or didn’t you?”
“Oh my god, who cares?” Maka’s forehead dropped to the counter. “Just drop it, Soul.”
She felt his eyes boring into her back, could hear the gears in his head turning as he tried to place the familiar feeling of that phrase. He let out an audible gasp when he got it.
“Is this another thing about the shoplifter kid?”
Maka’s protective shh quickly turned into a shut up in a horrible attempt to deny him. Soul groaned through the hands he raised to his face. “What the hell happened when I was gone? Did they try to steal stuff again? Are you trying to hide them from me?”
“Shut up, no,” Maka hissed, giving him another punch. “Why would I do that?”
“Because you know I don’t like them?”
“Shhh!” Maka slapped a hand to his mouth, glaring at him. “Shut up!”
“So they are in there?” Soul questioned after pulling Maka’s fingers away from his mouth. “Why?”
Maka groaned in the loudest, most thunderous way she could, slamming her head back down on the counter. Her reply was muffled through the table. “Maybe they wanted to go the bathroom, idiot.”
Soul snorted. “They haven’t come out since I got here. It’s been like forty minutes.” Maka didn’t grace him with a reply this time. Soul huffed quietly. “Maybe they’re doing drugs or something.” Again, silence. Frustrated, he leaned back against his chair again. His fingers tapped on its arm. “Maybe they climbed out the window,” he muttered, quieter than his last words, knowing his suggestions were falling on deaf ears.
They sat like that for another twenty minutes. At exactly ten o’clock, Soul got up from his chair, stretching with an attention-grabbing grunt. “Maka, that’s our shift.” Maka lay still on the table. Soul huffed heavily. “Did you hear me?” A pause, and then she nodded. Soul huffed again. “Are you staying?” Maka nodded. Soul rolled his eyes and picked up a backpack from behind the counter. “Alright, fine. You can wait for Black Star and Tsubaki to get here. Tell me how it goes tomorrow.” He waved half-heartedly to a girl who couldn’t see him, and Maka was only alerted to his exit with the cheerful ding that accompanied the sliding front doors.
Maka and Soul knew better than anyone that if their replacement pair wasn’t at least fifteen minutes late, something had gone terribly wrong. Usually they waited together, seeing as the station nearby had pretty regular buses for Soul to catch, and Maka was usually left there waiting for her asshole of a father until he finally remembered to pick her up. Now, Maka lifted her head and surveyed the ghostly, lonely shop she’d been left in charge of, and the bathroom door in the corner. She lay there for a few minutes, feeling the minutes tick by more than seeing them on the clock above her. Outside was as deserted as ever at this time of night.
She got up from her seat.
Knowing the shop would likely be quiet for the next quarter of an hour, she walked decidedly to the bathroom and knocked on the door. “Hey,” she called. “Are you still in there?”
No response. She waited for a minute or so, her foot tapping, before her insatiable impatience got to her. She knocked harder. “It’s been over an hour,” she called, a little more forcefully. “We need this bathroom for other customers.” She didn’t like forcing them out, but she also didn’t like this. An image seeped into her mind; maybe Soul was right, and she’d open the door to find a body slumped over the toilet seat with needles stuck in it left and right. Or maybe she’d just open the door to an empty room and an open window.
Still no response. She took out the ring of keys around her neck. “Listen,” she told the door, “I’m gonna come in. I have to make sure you’re not dead or something.” Still nothing. Images of murderers climbing in through windows filled her mind. She stabbed the key into the lock.
“I’m coming in,” she called, maybe a little too late as she began swinging open the door. At first, her heart leapt to her throat when she saw their slouched body beside the toilet – but she calmed herself as she examined the whole scene. There were no needles anywhere, or lines of coke on the ground, or blood pooling in the cracks between the tiles. She watched their chest for a few moments and reassured herself their breathing was normal. She pulled a hand down her face when she realised what was going on.
They were asleep.
What an idiot, was her first thought as she watched them, curled between the toilet and the pipes of the sink, breathing so evenly it was like they were sunk into the depths of a mattress. What an idiot, she thought, smiling. She crouched and noticed their eyelashes fluttering. They were long. She reached out for their shoulder. “Hey -”
As soon as she made contact, she was stabbed with those flashes of violet as their eyelids flew up, and their hand, as scrawny as it was, managed to slam her own into the wall. They stared at her with that frantic wildness she’d seen in them when they first met, before realising who they were looking at. Their eyes, already big, widened further, and their pupils darkened as a sense of sanity crept in.
“Y,” they started, and bit down on their lip. “Y-y-”
“I’m sorry,” Maka interrupted, pulling her hand back and lowering it to her knee. “I didn’t mean to scare you like that.” Their eyes, up close, were watery, and unstable, and beautiful. She attempted to smile, and it came out wobbly and uncooked. “You just didn’t look very comfortable there…”
“You,” they breathed finally. Maka’s uncertain smile remained as confirmation. They stared at each other for another few moments, in which Maka watched their eyes darken slowly to a rich purple. Then they blinked.
“My name’s Maka,” she said, but when she raised her hand to shake the other’s they flinched back into the wall. Again, she retracted it. “Sorry.”
They blinked again, and looked down, burying their chin in their chest. She thought she heard them hum out a low “Iie” – “Don’t worry about it” – before a sound escaped them that was undeniably an attempt at a word. “M,” they swallowed again. “Mine’s C – Crona.” The hand they raised was shaking, but Maka grinned and took it anyway. It was cold.
“Nice to meet you.”
“U – un,” they replied, looking away again. It may have been the light, but Maka thought she saw a blush creep across their nose. It was probably because her hand was so warm in comparison to theirs.
They let go simultaneously, and Maka smiled.
“Are you… alright?”
The kid – Crona – stared at her for a few moments, and Maka watched thoughts flicker frantically through their mind. They swallowed. And nodded.
Maka knew there was something that had gone unsaid – perhaps many hundreds of things – but she ignored it, for now. “Well, it’s getting late. You should probably get going so we can use this bathroom again…”
They tensed up again. “S-s-sorry,” they stuttered, standing, an action Maka quickly mirrored. Their hand regained its hold on their arm. They swallowed again and breathed out another soft apology.
“It’s fine,” Maka assured, and stepped back into the store. They watched, making sure she was still before they followed. As the door closed silently, they didn’t look at her, and they didn’t move either. Maka’s toes clenched and unclenched inside her boots.
“Do you…” They jumped again. Maka pushed down a sigh. “…have a place to go?”
Their eyes widened again. Maka quickly put up her hands, her first step in backtracking. “I don’t mean to assume – ah, sorry -”
Crona shook their head once, quickly, and their eyes returned to the floor. Maka watched them expectantly. They scuffed the floor with their shoes, their fingers once again clawing into their hoodie.
“I,” their swallow now was audible, “I.” Their eyes flashed and suddenly brightened with fear, an emotion Maka had begun to recognise. A couple of clumsy words dropped from their mouth as they bolted to the door.
Maka took in a breath, walked calmly to her chair, sat down, and groaned as she slid halfway to the floor.
That was how Black Star and Tsubaki found her, her hands on her face, her feet dug into the floor to keep her from slipping further. Black Star had laughed and Tsubaki had fretted; she waved them goodbye and waited for the bus and not her father with Crona still on her mind.
A month passed. Maka wondered if Crona found it as painful as she did.
And then they walked in again. Maka lit up immediately and Soul snapped his head to her with surprise. His What’s gotten into you cut itself off in the middle as he lay eyes on the retreating shape of the shoplifter behind the shelves. He sighed as Maka suppressed her impossibly wide smile. “Seriously…”
They had the same bag with them as always, but after picking up the usual, they didn’t even look at the door. Maka punched Soul under the counter as he raised an eyebrow when they walked closer.
Keeping their distance from Soul like he was a flame, they placed their bag on the top of Maka’s side of the counter with the same care as the last couple of times. They still glanced at the boy every now and then with some sort of fear, which made it hard for Maka not to laugh, but she managed.
Once she was done scanning the contents of their bag, Maka held out it out, but Crona jumped and waved a hand loosely; they used the same hand to dig into their pocket, and Soul stiffened. Maka punched him on the thigh again.
They pulled their hand out, uncurling their fingers gently to drop a couple of coins and a crumpled note on the table. This time Maka really lit up. With a click, the register opened, and Soul had to grab at the money to count it before Maka dropped it in without looking. Crona looked down at their feet with a definitive blush on their skin.
“This isn’t enough.”
Maka turned to Soul with her fist clenched and prepared to hit him again, but was distracted by Crona’s waving hand.
“A-ah… w– wait…” They rifled through their bag, taking out the packets of instant ramen and canned vegetables they’d packed, pushing them tentatively towards Soul. “I-is th – is that…?” Maka watched as he punched the deduction into the register. He grunted.
“Yeah, whatever,” he muttered, pushing their bag towards them further. The action made them take a step back and for a moment they looked as if they were prepared to run, but they calmed themselves, nodded and took their bag. They gave an unreadable glance to Maka before heading out again.
“How much did they give you?” Maka leaned over to the register where Soul was sorting the money.
“A thousand five hundred,” Soul replied half-heartedly, pushing the register back into its place and scooping up the packets and cans the other kid had left.
Maka sighed, smiling, leaning her chin against the palm of her hand. “They’re doing better, don’t you think?”
Soul rolled his eyes as he headed toward the shelves where they kept the ramen. “You’re such an idiot.”
Maka punched him when he sat back down, and he rubbed at his shoulder. Maka imagined it was starting to hurt.
Maka waited for the two-week mark and it passed. She waited for the one-month mark and it passed. She waited another week and it passed. She snapped at Soul when he told her to stop worrying as they approached the one-month and two-week mark from when she’d last seen Crona.
Another week passed. Soul attempted to convince her to take a shift off and go out somewhere with him and the others, but she refused, which meant that she took this shift alone.
Which meant she couldn’t help herself when they walked in again.
“Crona!” They jumped, flashing bright eyes towards her. Maka grinned. “I was worried about you!”
A flinch. When they walked towards the counter, they had their eyes on the ground. Maka waited with a smile for them to get close.
“How are you?” Another flinch. They buried their chin in their chest. Shrugged. Maka frowned as subtly as she could. “You want anything? Soul isn’t here today, so you can get what you need.” She grinned again, an attempt to lighten the mood Crona had brought with them to the counter. Instead, the space Crona occupied just got darker. Maka cleared her throat and was met with a third flinch. She held onto the counter. “You alright?”
They gave her another, smaller, weaker shrug. She watched their hoodie slip a little, eyeing the shoulder bone that stuck out in the same way their knuckles did from their fingers. Before they covered it back up, she took in the deep hollow beneath their thin neck. She raised her eyes and realised the darkness beneath their eyes wasn’t entirely because of the shadows cast by their hoodie. Her grip on the counter tightened. “Is there anything you need?”
They looked up at her with a sorrow Maka could never imagine the depths of. They blinked slowly and bit their lip. “I-I, I c-can’t – I d-don’t -” They took in a breath that almost filled their baggy clothes. Their lips wavered as they spoke, which did horrible things for their already crippling stutter. “C-c-c-can’t, p-p-pay…” They cut themselves off, raising a hand – and their arm was so thin, had it always been that thin? – and pressing their bony face against it. Their eyes squeezed shut. Maka leaned forward. Their body trembled like rain.
Maka waited as they breathed, in and out and in like if they didn’t focus all their energy on it, they’d stop. They raised their head, their hand slipping down their cheek slightly. “C-c-ca –” Flinch number four, but this time it wasn’t Maka’s fault. They took in another deep breath before continuing, in the quietest voice that could still be called speaking. “Can I s-stay here t-tonight?”
Maka was frozen for a moment or so, and when her thoughts came flooding back to her mind, they at first screamed Yes! Yes! Yes, of course!
But she held herself back, giving them a smile as calming as possible. “There isn’t really a place for you to do that.” They closed in on themselves even more. “But you can stay with me until my shift ends.”
They both stood frozen at the climax of an inhale. Crona’s head lifted slowly, and carefully. “R –” They swallowed. Maka could see every movement of their skin-tight throat. “Really?”
Maka smiled wider. “Of course.”
She gestured to the chair next to her, empty because of Soul’s absence, and Crona eyed it uncertainly. She sat down on her own chair. They fiddled with their hoodie for a few moments before cautiously circling the counter and taking their quiet steps towards the chair.
They sat with as bad of a hunch as they stood, and looked unwelcome in their seat. Their hands, too big for their wrists, clasped together, their fingers wriggling against each other like worms. As Maka watched, she noticed the questions that lay unspoken against their lips.
“My shift ends in an hour,” she explained, pointing to the clock above her. Crona followed her finger up, then nodded. “Soul had something to do.” Silence. “Ah, Soul’s the boy who’s usually with me.” Crona thought for a moment and nodded again, plunging them both back into an awkward quietness.
Maka’s eyes wandered as she thought of something to say. She focused on the snacks that covered the shelf in front of them. “Do you want some chips?” Crona looked at her as frightened as ever, but she just smiled. “It’s your pay for sitting here with me.” Crona still looked at her with the same frightened expression, but Maka ignored it, standing. They shrunk into their seat as she walked past, and remained there as Maka returned with a couple packets of chips. She sat with hers and held out the other. “Here,” she said, shaking it a little. Crona stared at her as if she was handing them a weasel, but eventually took it. Maka smiled and popped open hers; flinch number five. They stared down at the packet in their hands.
“You want a different flavour?” Maka questioned. She’d gotten plain for this reason, but she could never be too careful. Crona glanced at her and back at the packet. Eventually they shook their head.
Maka tried not to make her staring too obvious as they tugged weakly on the packet as Maka had done, one hand on either side. But after she’d downed a few chips herself, and they still sat there struggling, she sighed and reached out for it. “Here.”
She pulled it open and handed it back. “There. Tell me if you don’t like it.” Crona stared for a few moments before nodding. Maka made a point of not watching as she ate her own snack, but she was washed with relief when she finally heard the crunch of a chip that didn’t come from her own mouth. After that, Crona’s food disappeared faster than Maka’s. She had to admit it was kind of cute how they sucked on each finger rhythmically once they were done.
There were a few customers who lazily filtered in and out, but despite a few weird looks, they didn’t disturb Crona, who took to watching their feet swing slightly beneath the counter, ignoring everything that wasn’t food or Maka or their shoes. Somehow, passing time like that wasn’t entirely uncomfortable.
Maka thought about their request in a lull of the conversation - Can I stay here tonight? – mixed with their response to the question of if they had somewhere to stay. She absently stared at the far wall as she thought about the end of her shift, approaching far too quickly. What would they do once Maka had to leave? Sit out on the street? Rob another convenience store for food they obviously, desperately needed?
It took her ten minutes of contemplation to remember she had company. She looked back at Crona, whose leg-swinging had begun to become a little more violent. “Crona.” They jumped, their feet hitting the counter, but they didn’t show any pain, just took their wide eyes to Maka and nodded as acknowledgement. Maka swung a single leg absently. “Do you want to come over to my place tonight?”
All movement ceased and their eyes got even wider, making Maka wonder if they’d be able to fill their whole face with those violet pupils if they were shocked enough. Crona’s mouth began to slip open before they even made a sound.
“Y-” they blinked rapidly, their eyelids like butterfly wings. “You w-w -” They swallowed again, their Adam’s apple travelling up and down the branch of their neck. Their eyes started to shine. “You c-c-c-can’t -” And that was apparently all they could say, because they broke off without warning in favour of clapping their hands over their face. Maka waited for a while to see if they’d continue, but other than their trembling, they didn’t move. She almost leaned over to touch them, comfort them, but she imagined how they’d react and stopped herself.
“Is that a yes?”
It took them a moment to gather the strength to nod.
Maka smiled and dug into the bag behind the counter where she kept her phone. “Hold on a minute,” she told Crona, who’d begun to sneak their eyes open through the cracks of their fingers. “I need to call my dad to make sure he picks me up.”
Maka didn’t like yelling around this kid – they seemed way too sensitive to deal with it well – but it was inevitable as soon as her father picked up the phone (it took a few tries).
“Hello, hello, who is it?” His voice was sweet with alcohol and lust.
“Papa,” Maka snapped. The other side of the line righted itself with a lot of loud scrambling and thumping and surprised shouting, footsteps, closing doors and apologies.
“Maka-chan!” Even after all that time to gather himself, he still sounded out of breath with shock. “What is it, sweetie?”
“Are you still picking me up tonight?” She was glad she wasn’t facing Crona while making this call; no doubt they would be staring at her with terror, considering how hostile she sounded. And was. “I really need you to this time. My shift ends at ten, remember?”
“Ah! That!” She rolled her eyes, even though he couldn’t see, at his panicked attempt to pretend he had, in fact, remembered. “Of course! I’ll be there in… um…”
“Forty minutes,” Maka filled in impatiently.
“Ah! Yes! Forty minutes,” he agreed. “Uh…” Will I able to drive in forty minutes?
“You’ll need to get a taxi.”
“Ah! Of course. Yes.” She could almost see him nodding vigorously, as if taking notes, like he always did when he pretended to listen. “I will. See you then.”
Maka hung up with a long, wheezing groan, took a moment to pinch her nose and breathe in and out, and managed to turn back to Crona with a smile on her face.
“He’ll be here in forty minutes.”
Crona’s expression was more terrified than Maka had expected. They looked like Maka had turned around with an axe in her head, or she’d told them they would die in thirty days. They looked completely and utterly petrified. Maka clenched and unclenched her toes. She laughed nervously. “Sorry,” she tried, smiling. “My dad sucks.”
Still, they were quiet, and still, they were frozen. Maka clenched her toes harder. “Are you alright?”
They blinked, looked down. The only answer was a small murmur of reassurance.
Maka decided not to push them about it, because it never ended well. She sat back down at her chair and noticed that Crona was no longer swinging their legs.
Maka’s father was late, as she’d expected. When he finally walked in, fixing up the scruffy tie on his neck, he jumped at the sight of Crona next to his daughter.
“Ah!” he choked out, and Maka watched him run through his memory as he tried to regain the knowledge of if he’d met this person before. “Maka-chan, your…!”
Maka stood, anger quickly filling her voice. “This is Crona.” She stuck out a hand towards the other kid, who flinched at the movement. “They’re staying over tonight.”
“Ah.” Again, he completed his ritual of nodding and humming like he was listening to an especially interesting lecture. “I see.”
Maka rolled her eyes. “Crona, this is my father.”
Crona nodded, and Maka noticed the trembling of their spine as they did so. She’d been happy to watch them calm down until her father arrived, but now the terror was back in full force. “N-n-n-n-nice t-t-to m-meet y-y-you,” they managed to whisper through the chattering of their teeth.
Spirit Albarn gave them a weird look, but quickly corrected himself by refocusing on Maka. Maka burned at his rudeness. “Well, are you ready to go, sweetie?”
Maka rolled her eyes again. “Black Star and Tsubaki aren’t here yet,” she snapped impatiently. She turned back to Crona, who was fixed on the empty space in front of them like they could disappear if they stared at it hard enough. “They’re the people with the next shift,” she explained, and Crona nodded, but still she wasn’t sure if they’d heard her.
Spirit attempted to make small talk that Maka shut down as quickly as she could, and finally the others arrived.
“You’re late,” Maka growled as they stepped through the door. Black Star grinned and Tsubaki sighed.
They talked for a few minutes but Maka knew time was of the essence; every time she glanced in Crona’s direction, they looked less and less… here.
“Crona, we’re going,” she murmured gently after the small talk faded, and they nodded. “Do you want to stand up?” They nodded again. For a second, Maka thought she’d have to repeat herself, but they carefully got to their feet, their head still ducked to watch the patch of air they’d attached themselves to.
“Ooh, who’s this?” Black Star cooed, grinning in Crona’s direction. “What’s your name?”
“Shut up, idiot.” Maka reached out and brushed her fingers against Crona’s arm, and they flinched away from her. Maka thought she’d stopped counting, but the number seven floated into her mind. “This way.”
Without daring to touch the other kid, she led them around the counter and towards the doors, ignoring Black Star’s snubbed frown.
“Can’t you talk?” He called, and Tsubaki hissed something about being rude when Crona flinched. Maka flung a glare from her shoulder.
“Shut up,” she snapped, and walked through the door, Crona following like they were on a lead.
Spirit whistled in a way he probably thought was as charming as it was awkward on their way to the taxi, still waiting outside the store. When he opened the backseat door, he bowed and gestured inside. “Ladies first.”
Maka punched his shoulder. He looked hurt, but she didn’t care as she pushed him out of the way. “I’m not a lady, Papa.” He hung his head dejectedly as he stepped aside. Maka led the way in, but she had to reach over her friend to close the door, and repeat her father’s request to fasten their seatbelts.
After a few minutes of silent driving, she began talking low. “Are you okay?”
“Sorry for all that,” she murmured. “I know that was a lot.”
Maka watched the buildings outside fly by, and then Crona shrugged again.
While her father paid the fee, Maka reached over to click open the handle of the cab and kicked the door outwards. “Let’s go,” she muttered to her friend, disgust for her father obvious in her voice. Crona quickly undid their seatbelt and slid off their seat.
Maka slammed the taxi’s door shut and walked towards the façade of her papa’s house, Crona trailing behind. By the time Spirit was done paying, he was calling out a “Wait!” as she swung the door open, her own key stuck in its lock.
“The bathroom’s there.” She gestured to the first door on the side of the entry hall. “There’s another one upstairs. I’ll show you.” As they walked through the mansion that was her father’s house, she pointed out the living room, the study, the kitchen. She was taking a step onto the staircase when she heard her father’s insufferable voice behind her.
“W-wait!” He laughed. Why did his laugh always sound so disgusting? “Don’t you kids want to have dinner?”
“Are you hungry?” Maka asked, turning to Crona behind them, who clung to their arm. Their eyes darted around, frantic for an answer, and eventually they gave an almost invisible nod. Maka turned the full way to face her father. “What’s in the fridge?”
He laughed that plastic laugh again, rubbing the back of his neck. “Ah, don’t be silly, Maka-chan! I can make you kids dinner myself.”
“Really?” Maka raised an eyebrow. His smile twitched.
“Yes, of course, sweetie.” His voice was strained with the effort of remaining civil. “Just give me a half hour or so, okay?”
“That okay?” Maka asked to Crona, who nodded again. “Sure.” She continued up to the second floor, listening for Crona’s soft footsteps behind her.
“That’s Papa’s room,” Maka muttered with another dash of clear disgust, pointing vaguely to a large door. “The door up there is the bathroom.”
She didn’t explain when they got to hers; she just took a fist to its handle and told Crona “Here it is.”
When she walked in, she headed for the cupboard, where she kept a spare futon. Only when she turned around with it and a couple of pillows in her arms did she notice Crona had stayed outside.
She dropped the futon on the ground next to her bed. “You can come in.”
Crona jumped, and seemed to debate it for a few seconds before deciding her offer was genuine. They took their first step onto the carpeted floor of Maka’s room like it was covered in invisible spikes.
“Do you want one pillow or two?” Maka questioned to her friend, who had stuck their back to the wall and was surveying their new surroundings with badly disguised caution. Flinch eight. They shuffled against the wall, thinking.
“One,” they whispered. Maka nodded and threw one onto the futon before turning around to put the other away again. When she returned her gaze to Crona, she noticed them fixed on a picture frame on Maka’s desk. She grinned, walking closer.
“That’s Mama,” she told them, picking it up. They followed its surface through the air as Maka raised it to her chest. “And me when I was little. See?” She pointed not to herself, but her mother, smiling and holding her tiny hand. She grinned at Crona. “Isn’t she cool?”
Crona looked confused. Maka put the photo back.
“Hold on.” She dug through one of the drawers in her desk, taking out a blue cardboard box and sitting cross-legged on the floor as she opened it. She showed Crona an array of colourful squares and rectangles. “She sends me postcards sometimes,” she explained. “See? This one’s from Barcelona.” She held out the card further, and Crona flinched for the ninth time at the realisation she wanted them to take it. They did, their thin fingers careful. Their eyes were as wide as ever as they looked at it.
Maka laughed, and Crona snapped their head up. “You can sit down, you know.”
“Uh – un.” They slid carefully down the wall, sneaking a glance at the way Maka’s legs were crossed and copying it thoughtfully. Maka shifted closer, and Crona didn’t flinch this time, but their eyes got even wider. She held out the box.
“Do you want to see them? She’s been everywhere.”
Crona swallowed and nodded, taking the box and peering inside. Maka stood up, pulling their gaze back to her. “I’m going to get changed. I’ll be in the bathroom down the hall if you need anything. Make yourself at home.” And with a smile, she collected the clothes she’d set out in a pile while making Crona’s bed and disappeared.
She returned with her hair in a bun, frowning at a loose strand of thread on her pyjamas and wondering when she’d get the time to fix it. Before she got to her room, she heard soft murmuring, and once inside, her eyes were drawn to Crona’s shape on the floor, their scrawny fingers clinging to the sides of one of Maka’s postcards. Crona somehow didn’t notice her and continued speaking.
“Sorry for not being able to make it,” they were reciting softly, “got caught up sightseeing. Did you know France – eeto…” Maka’s chest buzzed warmly at Crona’s concentrated expression on the words in front of them, their mouth hanging slightly open, and she cleared her throat. Crona jumped.
“What are you doing?”
Crona blinked up at her, again looking terrified, but Maka just smiled and sat down. They swallowed loudly and looked back at the card in their hands.
“S-sorry,” they murmured. “I-I w-was… I l-l-like r-reading.” They swallowed, deeper this time.
“Really?” Maka grinned. “That’s cool.”
“U-un,” they murmured, their skin turning slightly pinker. Maka hummed thoughtfully, skimming over the postcard.
“Was this the part giving you trouble?” she started eventually, touching her finger to the second or so line. Crona blinked hurriedly, their fingers tightening almost imperceptibly on the edges of the card. They mumbled another agreement.
“This one says jin,” she explains, in a way she hoped sounded helpful and not condescending. “See? Furansujin.”
Crona’s mouth falls open a little further, and the ‘ah’ that escapes them is very soft and very happy and very cute. To Maka’s surprise, they restart their reading. “Did you know French people get very annoyed when you can’t speak their language very well? Luckily, I found someone who settled for speaking English with me and I got to my tour on time. It was so fun. Hope you had a good day. See you soon Maka-chan. From Mama.” They leaned back slightly with a small and satisfied smile playing at their lips. Maka couldn’t help but mirror it.
Crona was placing the postcard neatly back in the box when Maka spoke again. “You don’t stutter when you read.” They froze for a second. Blinked a couple of times. They looked down.
“Un,” they murmured. The postcard back where it belonged, they raised a hand to scratch absently at their sleeve. “It –” They swallowed, eyes flittering across the floor. “It’s easier.” Maka smiled.
And frowned at the sound of her father’s voice floating from downstairs. “Maka-chan! Dinner’s ready!”
“Guess we better go,” Maka muttered, and Crona nodded nervously. She stood and waited for them to do the same before heading downstairs.
The kitchen is much messier than it was the first time Maka saw it tonight. On the table are three bowls of curry she’s certain she had yesterday. She didn’t bother hiding the rolling of her eyes. In the end, he’d just heated up leftovers as usual.
There was a plate at the head of the table and one on either side. Maka took the head. Her father hesitated, the gears in his head whirring. “Uh, Maka-chan -”
Crona sat at the side plate, shifting their chair almost invisibly closer to Maka. Spirit sighed and took his seat.
At the same time, Maka and her father put their hands together with an “Itadakimasu” that rang off the walls. When Maka took her hands away and glanced at her friend, they had their hands loosely together, confusion riddling their features, repeating a few syllables under their breath. “Ita – ta -”
“Don’t worry about it,” Maka told them, and they stayed frozen for a few seconds before lowering their hands and nodding a head that was heavy with something akin to guilt.
“Ah, so,” Maka tensed at her father’s voice, “where did you two meet?”
Crona flinched, ten, and Maka noticed the small clack of the ends of their chopsticks touching. “U-uh- uh-”
“We work together.” Maka shovelled food into her mouth to hide her horrible lying skills before remembering her father would never pick up on something like that, and if he did, he’d never call her out on it.
“Ah, I see,” said her father with a disgusting smile, and Maka took another angry bite of the food. “At the convenience store?”
“Yes,” Maka replied with an impatient snap to it. Spirit laughed nervously. After a few minutes of relative silence, he opened his mouth to say something else, but to Maka’s endless delight, he had no small talk left to get him through the conversation. He finished dinner with rejection and Maka with triumph. Crona stared at the table – they’d somehow finished the whole plate already.
Maka picked up the plates herself once everyone was finished, steering a course towards the kitchen. “Oh, Maka-chan, I can -”
“It’s fine,” Maka snapped back to her papa, not changing her direction. “Why don’t you just go?”
Spirit flinched as if he’d been punched but gave her a wobbly smile and a slimy laugh. “Ah… okay… if you need anything, let me -”
“…Alright. Good night, you two.” Maka only let out an angry breath once his footsteps on the staircase had faded to nothing. Crona fiddled with their hands on the table to the sound of Maka washing up.
“You know,” Maka started eventually, “you probably could work there with me.”
Silence. She took it as a sign to continue.
“I mean, the manager loves me.” She scrubs at a particularly stubborn stain. “I could easily convince him.” Why were they quiet? What did quiet mean? “You’d probably have to work with Soul, is the only downside.” She smiled to herself. What did ‘no sound at all’ mean? “But, you know…” You could use the money, right? She bit her cheek. “It could be fun.”
Were they even still there?
She rushed the end of the washing up and turned around after wiping off her hands. “So?” They were still staring at the table. She clenched her toes. “What do you think?”
Their eyes flicked briefly up to her, but quickly returned to the table. Their fingers tapped a beat into the air. They shrugged. “Un,” they murmured. Unconvincing. Maka held back a sigh and instead just smiled.
“Alright, well, let’s go to bed. Do you need a toothbrush?”
They blinked rapidly. “U-um. Y-yes.” They looked down further, their eyes beginning to drift to a faraway place. Maka walked towards the staircase and snapped them out of it.
“I have a spare.”
She wasn’t that surprised when she woke up the next morning and they were gone. Not really.
A few more weeks passed before she saw them in the store again. She almost forgot what she’d been packing in her bag since their last meeting when they crept to the counter, and would’ve forgotten if not for Soul’s tap on her shoulder and dip of his head to her backpack on the ground.
“Oh! Hang on,” she dived down and returned with a small, old book. One of her favourites as a kid. She handed it to them. “Here.” She grinned. “For reading.”
Their eyes widened, and then reached out tentatively, but flinched back as soon as their fingers touched the paper. Their eyes dropped to the floor. “I-I,” a deep swallow, “Th-th-thanks, b-but I d-d-don’t n-n-n-need it.” Maka sighed and held it out further.
“You don’t need to need it. It’s if you want it.”
They stared at her, a statue, for a few more moments, and eventually reached out again and took it with care. They looked down, the shadow of their hoodie almost hiding the small blush that brushed itself over their cheeks. “Th-thank you.”
Soul muttered something and Maka kicked him on the thigh. She grinned at Crona and they gave her a tiny smile back.
A few days later Crona hurried once again to the counter. Maka grinned and kicked Soul into action; he growled an insult but obeyed and retreated to the store room to get another chair.
“Do you like the book?” Maka asked, and Crona quickly got to nodding happily.
“It’s g-good,” they told her with a small smile and an equally small stutter. “I r-really like it.”
“That’s good!” Soul dropped himself loudly onto his chair after moving it next to Maka’s, and Maka patted the new chair on her other side. Crona circled the counter and sat. “Are you having any trouble with it?”
“S-some of the k-kanji,” they admitted quietly. Maka smiled and held out a hand.
“Show me, I’ll help.”
A drop of brightness landed on them, and then weighed them down. They fiddled with their hands. “S-s-sorry,” they muttered. “M – I-it g-g-got r-ripped.”
Maka pushed down her disappointment. “Show me.”
They looked up at her again, their eyes shining with something, before nodding, reaching into their bag and pulling out the book. The front cover had been ripped vertically in half. They swallowed, holding it out, and it shook like they were in a storm no one else could see. Maka took it and flipped through the pages, which were perfectly fine other than the dirt and stains and tiny tears her younger self had inflicted upon them. “Where are you up to?”
“P-p-page seventy-f-f-five,” they replied, their hands squeezing harder around themselves.
“Woah! You’re really getting through it.” She smiled at them, hoping it would be calming, and matched their words to the page number. “Anything on this page you had trouble with?”
To Soul’s annoyance as well as amusement, the rest of their shift went by helping Crona work through the harder pieces of the story. When the clock ticked to ten o’clock, they stood, and gave a small bow to Maka.
“Thank you.” Their fingers tapped softly on the cover of the book in their hands. “C-can I leave it h-here?” In response to Maka’s confused look, they hurried to explain, “I-I d-don’t w-w-want it t-t-to g-get r-ripped ag-g-gain.” They swallowed, looking down. “A-and. M-m-my h-house...”
So they did have a place to go. Maka still desperately wanted to invite them over to hers again.
She clenched her toes as she wondered what she could possibly say, feeling inadequate, stupid, terrible for not knowing how to fix this. All she’d done so far was talk to them, be nice to them, occasionally give them food for free – and thinking about that again, she wondered if they were getting enough. She bit her cheek.
“Sure.” She had attempted to sound casual, but instead she sounded like the word was a piece of barbed wire in her throat. “Oh, and why don’t you take something with you? You sat here all my shift, so, you deserve some sort of a wage.” Ignoring Soul’s frustrated glare, she smiled at them as her mind raced with questions she wished she could ask.
By the way, have you thought any more about working here?
Do you need more food? Are you worried I can’t pay for it? Don’t you know that I can?
Are you safe where you live?
How did it get ripped? It wasn’t you, was it? Do you know I wouldn’t believe you if you said it was?
“A-ah…” they swallowed, looking away with a cracking expression on their face. Could they tell all those questions just from my eyes? Maka wondered, but couldn’t reach an answer in time. “N-no th-”
Maka stood abruptly, making Crona jump, and headed into the depths of the store before returning with a loaf of bread. She held it out to them expectantly. “It’s nothing,” she told them. “Not even a quarter of my pay.”
Why don’t you work here? Then you could pay for it yourself.
She bit back the words and waited.
They swallowed after a while and took it gently. “Th-thank you,” they whispered, tucking it into their bag and bowing slightly. Maka waved her hand.
“Really, it’s no problem. Come back whenever you like to keep reading.” She grinned, and the smiled back. They nodded. Left. Maka collapsed back onto her chair, staring at the roof, and Soul eyed her.
“You okay?” he muttered. Maka hummed an agreement, putting her hands over her eyes.
“I wish they’d tell me what’s going on,” she muttered. “They obviously live badly. And they’re poor. And I’ve basically given them this job, but they still refuse to take it.” She groaned loudly through her fingers and Soul chuckled.
“Some people are just like that, Maka.” He smirked. “You’ve got to learn that.”
“I don’t want to,” she muttered quietly, but she resolved to do just that.
“Crona!” They flinched. “You’re back soon. More reading?”
It had only been a day since last seeing each other. They nodded and headed to the chair placed the furthest behind the counter it could get, looking down and scrunching the fabric of their hoodie in their hands. Maka took out the book from her bag and handed it to them. “You want to go through it together?”
They shook their head. “I c-can r-read it b-by myself,” they murmured, and Maka nodded with a smile.
“Cool. Tell me if you have any problems.”
They did; the rest of Maka’s shift went by chatting with Soul, hearing the gentle flip of pages behind her, and occasionally having a small “Ano” interrupt her to ask the meaning of a bit of kanji or a word.
The rest of the week went the same way.