They say that before you die, you can see your life flashing in front of your eyes, like a movie.
At the age of 32, Maka Albarn-Evans had already had her fair share of close calls, therefore she was positive that it was all bullshit. Perhaps it was the adrenaline pushing her heart to keep beating, or Soul’s voice that always firmly anchored her mind in the present – or maybe it was even his well-known weigh on her hands –, but all Maka’s almost death experiences had been vivid, present, reactive.
Maybe that was the reason why she felt so disconcerted when her thoughts drifted to her kids, after the Demon’s sharp claws slashed her right arm open, from wrist to shoulder. Useless, shredded tendons failed her fingers, and her weapon – who also happened to be her husband and father of said kids – fell to the soggy soil.
Somewhere, not far, she felt their resonance effect dissipating, which was legitimately disconcerting. At that fraction of a second, she heard a scream, then a plea, then a roar. In her mind, she could picture her kid’s red eyes so clearly as if they were here – which was weird, considering that her own eyelids were closing, and her mind was slowly blacking out.
However, before the excruciating pain and sudden blood loss finally made her pass out, a single, simple thought came to her at full force. It wasn’t very different from all the times when she was almost falling asleep, only to remember that she had an important appointment in the next day that hadn’t been properly registered on her schedule. Some disconnected part of her mind found that comparison both fun and terrible.
“Black*Star is going to kill me.”
And for some reason, that thought cleared her mind enough for her to put her foot down decisively, before extending her left arm and screaming for her scythe one last time.
Prologue - 2 months earlier
Soul realized something wasn’t right at the moment they saw who else was in the Death Room.
Of course, his missions usually weren’t simple or easy, considering that he was not only The Last Death Scythe but also one of the few still on the job – Marie, Dengu and Spirit were retired, and Tezca was still trapped in the Mirror Dimension – or whatever it was called –, leaving only him, Jinn and Azusa active.
Aside from Kid and his inseparable pair of pistols, Jacqueline, Kim, Kilik, Fire, and Thunder were also there. Whatever the mission was, it was going to be big.
They exchanged the usual greetings, that included high-fiving Kilik and Patty, being roasted by Kim and receiving silent nods from Fire and Thunder. They were teens now, and they had fully embraced their shaman nature – the only word Soul had to describe their clothes was tribal. Fire had a mohawk cut now, and Thunder’s long hair was braided in an intricate pattern.
He didn’t want to imagine how his kid’s puberty would go. He was sure that Aika would finally transcend as the ultimate grumpy rebel, while Sound was one growth sprout away to become Wes Evans 2.0 – more handsome, smoother, and smarter. He would have fangirls on his back before he even realized he liked girls. Or boys. Or neither.
“Thank you for coming.” Kid’s voice pulled him out of his daydreams. “Kim has an urgent and worrisome report from the witch’s Council. Kim, please.”
“A witch found out an abnormality on a forest in Nepal,” Kim said, straightforward. “At first she thought it was some dark ritual being prepared, but when she tried to investigate, she felt insanity wavelengths.”
“Another Kishin?” Maka immediately questioned.
Kim shook her head.
“We thought that at first, so Baba went to investigate personally.” Kim turned to the Shinigami's mirror, and after a small gesture from Kid, it showed them the aerial vision of a dense forest, surrounded by a black mist. “She concluded it couldn’t be a Kishin, for a very simple reason – there was no human soul in there, corrupted or not.”
“What?” the question came from both Maka and Kilik.
Soul knew where this conversation was going, and he could almost hear a sarcastic laugh in a dark corner of his mind – a laugh he hadn’t heard since the Battle of the Moon. It was like an itch in the back of his neck, like claws slashing polished solid pine wood.
“It’s a demon,” Soul declared, and a heavy silence fell over the room.
“Ok…” Kilik said, slowly. “I heard about this before, of course. About Medusa and Chrona and her experiences with the black blood… Either way is kind of weird hearing that demons really exist.”
“Demons?” Liz questioned with a trembling voice. “As in, Biblical demons?”
“Let’s not get metaphysical,” Kid interfered. “You know I have for all of you the highest consideration, but believe me when I say that the human mind isn’t able to fully comprehend the truth about Gods, Heaven, and Hell.”
Soul felt Maka nervously stirring at his side – if it was for the prospect of facing a real demon or because she was ready to question Kid about the truths of the Universe, he couldn’t tell.
“It would be in your best interest if you just considered a demon as an inhuman being with madness wavelength,” the Shinigami continued. “It is true that demons are a rare apparition – I don’t know how Medusa was able to acquire one for her experiments, or what this one intends to do. However, demons feed on the human soul – we can’t allow it to expand its influence like this.”
“Are there any villages around that area?” Maka questioned.
“No,” Kim supplied. “It’s in a really dense and isolated area – the only reason for us to have discovered it in the first place was because the witch was flying over there on her way to Myanmar.”
“Good, that reduces the prospect of civilian casualties,” Kilik commented. “What’s the plan, then?”
It was only a small tremor on Kid’s eyebrow, a half-second of hesitation before answering, and that was enough to send a cold sensation over Soul’s body. He unconsciously scratched his neck.
He wasn’t going to like whatever the Shinigami was about to say.
“We must take the demon down, no doubt about that,” Kid declared, his golden eyes finally fixing on Maka. “For that, Maka’s anti-demon wavelength and the Demon Hunter are essential.”
“But we will need to enter the madness infested area,” his meister questioned, taking a step closer to analyze the mirror. “And it is a lot of ground to cover.”
“I suppose that that’s why we are here,” Kilik crossed his arms, and Fire and Thunder mimicked his movement. Honestly, it had been kind of cute when the twins were small children, but now it was a little disturbing. “You want us to help them with the perimeter.”
“Exactly,” Kid confirmed. “I understand that aside from Maka and Soul, who have a natural resistance to demon wavelengths, it will be impossible for anyone else to stay in the corrupted area, but I hoped that you would be able to use other means to help them.”
“We can do it,” Kilik declared, and his weapons solemnly nodded in confirmation. “We can help to track the demon down, even if it’s from the distance.”
“Kim and I will also help to set a perimeter and offer support in any way we can,” Jackie reassured, but at this point, it was already very clear where that conversation was going.
“Basically, we are going to be alone in the madness-infested area,” Soul concluded. His hands were firmly anchored on his pockets, and he hoped that no one noticed how tense he was.
Maka was the one who had an anti-demon wavelength and natural resistance to madness.
He only had the experience of being fucked up by a demon.
The Black Room had been empty for seventeen years. The Little Ogre had disappeared along with the Black Blood in the battle on the moon, thanks to Chrona. Getting infected by madness again was the last thing Soul wanted for his life.
“I understand it’s a tall order, but we have no other options,” Kid said, solemnly. “You’re the most capable duo we have for this situation, and we are going to provide all the support we can.”
“Don’t worry, Kid, you can count on us!” Maka exclaimed with confidence. Her assertiveness earned a small, thankful smile from the Shinigami, and Soul could only let out a resigned sigh. It was decided, then.
Not following Maka, stop working as a duo… it was never an option.
They exchanged more information with Kim and Kid and made a plan for their trip on the next day. They were still discussing logistics when Kid called them back.
“Maka, Soul, just one moment, please.”
The others left the Death Room, and the couple went back to their friend. Kid was absently minded righting his Shinigami cape, a known sign of his distress.
“What’s up, Kid?” Soul asked. The Death Scythe was under the impression that wherever this discussion was going, they were about to know why their old friend had hesitated before telling them about the mission.
“You understand this is a high-profile mission, right?” he started, receiving affirmative nods from Maka and Soul. “Of course, I’m going to do everything in my power to ensure your safety, but the risk is high and the unforeseen can happen.”
Soul observed how Liz and Patty deliberately avoided looking at them, and how cold Kid’s eyes seemed. It occurred to him, for the first time, that this was Kid’s real mask. Not the playful skull his father used to wear, so reassuring and disturbing at the same time. No, this Shinigami was staring at his friends dead in the eyes before sending them to a possible death trap.
“You should consider preparing your kids for a long absence, or even a worst-case scenario.”
Imaginary claws closed around Soul’s neck, and an old, maniac laugh echoed in his mind.
A high-profile mission.
Possibly a long absence.
Yes, there was a death risk involved.
They explained all of that to their ten-years-old twins the best they could. Maka also made sure to remind them that papa was a Death Scythe and that mama was the meister that had forged him like that, so they were strong, capable, reliable. They were explaining the situation because it would be a dangerous mission, but they didn’t have to worry about it. Mama and papa were definitely coming back. Nothing would stop them from coming back to their kids.
Sound beamed at that, his eyes full of admiration. He laughed away the worry from his face, asked for some Asian souvenirs and left the dinner table to go brush his teeth. He had always been a good-natured kid, who believed in his parents with the same adoration one day Maka had held for her own folks.
The problem, as usual, was Aika.
Twirling her red hair around her index finger, she stared at them with a heavy frown that was impressive even for her legendary grumpy standards.
“Who’s going to take care of us?” she asked, ever the methodical part of the sibling duo. “Blair? Grandpapa?”
“Both of them,” Soul answered before Maka had the chance. Which was all good, considering the thoughts she had been revolving in her mind ever since they had left the Death Room. “We trust you to take care of yourselves; Spirit and Blair are just going to make sure you’ve been properly fed and getting enough hours of sleep.”
“Oh…” she answered, slowly. She frowned even more, and Maka was sure her daughter would develop wrinkles before she was thirty if she kept doing that. “So, we are good enough to be left alone?”
Oh, she was so full of shit sometimes.
“Don’t be like that, Aika,” Soul scolded. His expression clearly said ‘don’t frown at me, I wrote the book about frowning’. “Aren’t you the one always complaining that we shouldn’t treat you like a child anymore? Well, we are giving you and your brother our vote of trust.”
He gave her a side glance, and Maka completed:
“We are trusting you to take care of each other while we are gone. Isn’t that what you always wanted?”
She pouted just a little, avoiding their eyes. Aika was not only the ultimate grumpy, as Soul liked to call her, but she was also the ultimate big sister. The idea of being responsible for herself and Sound was clearly appeasing her. Maka made a mental note to remind Blair to keep an eye on their little bossy kid.
“Do you know for how long you will be gone?”
“No, not yet, but it'll probably take a while,” it was Soul’s time to frown, and Maka knew that her husband was not at all pleased with the idea of going on that mission. They would have to talk about that later, too. “And we are going to keep our communications only with Lord Shinigami, so make sure to ask him about us.”
“As long as you come back…” she mumbled.
Maka avoided at all costs to think about herself – ten years old, sitting on the windowsill with a book on her lap, looking to the sky and questioning if her parents would come back.
Wordlessly, she hugged her daughter, Kid’s last words still reverbing in her mind.
Later, Soul would find her in her office, absently staring at some papers she hadn’t looked at since their wedding. Her work table was doing a good job of reflecting on how she was feeling inside. There were papers and pens scattered all over the surface because she was a proud child of the ‘90s and she liked notebooks, damnit. Computers were not that trustworthy. There were diagrams and photos of the Black Moon covering half of her wall and maybe all that made her look a little like a conspirator, but she hadn’t forgotten her promise to Chrona.
She would bring them back someday.
“What you reading?” Soul asked, after trying to read the papers from behind her. His hands came to rest on her shoulders, and she shamelessly let out a moan when he started to massage her tense muscles.
“Legal paperwork,” she mumbled back, closing her eyes and allowing herself a minute of peace. Used to her as he was, Soul didn’t push her to continue; he only kept massaging her shoulders and neck. Maka always thought that the real happiness of marital life was the unspoken communication – but again, that was something they had archived back when they were still just partners.
Maybe they were just really good together.
“We didn’t fill these forms when we got married, but we probably should now,” she finally explained, after enjoying a few minutes of blissful silence and her husband’s skilled hands. Hands that, unfortunately, left her shoulders to pull the other chair closer to hers. Soul sat by her side, leaning forward to read the papers.
“Custody?” he read out loud the first word that grabbed his attention. “As in…”
“As in, who’s gonna take care of our kids if something happens to us? Yes.”
Soul let go of the papers – he had no interest in the technicalities of the intricate legal process. His body rested heavily against the chair back; he crossed his legs and started to massage his own neck. He didn’t question her decision of going over that tonight, when they were only a few hours away from starting the most dangerous mission they had taken in years.
“Our options?” it was all he asked.
“According to the laws of the state of Nevada, if we don’t nominate a legal guardian for the kids, their custody goes to our parents,” she explained, and the tremor Maka saw running in his body told her that he liked that idea as much as she did.
Not much at all.
“Your folks, or mine?”
“Well, probably Papa, since he lives in the same city, and they wouldn’t have to move out. The judge would probably consider this option less traumatic for the children, but…” she bit her lip, and once more, he waited for her. “…but nothing prevents your parents from fighting for their custody if they wanted…”
“They would.” Soul interrupted, in a definitive tone. “And I’m not sending my kids to a home I fled.”
“Do you want them to stay with papa, then?”
“I’m… I’m not sure.” Maka left the pile of forms on the table, and turned around to stare at him. Soul was frowning, and that only reminded her of how much Aika looked like him. “I love Papa but… I think it would be too much to ask of him. If… if something happens to me, I don’t think it would be very… maybe asking him to raise my kids would be too much.”
After all, Spirit Albarn had many, many good qualities. But dealing with loss wasn’t one of them.
“So, we crossed off your parents and mine,” Soul concluded. There was no point in considerer Mama’s name, and Maka tried not to be bitter about that. “Who would be next?”
“Legally speaking? Your brother,” she said cautiously, paying close attention to his expression. Soul had come a long way with his brother complex, but she wasn’t sure if giving custody of his kids would be too much.
“Wes would… Wes would take care of them,” he conceded, massaging his neck harder. “But maybe that’s not fair to him either. He’s a famous musician, traveling around the world, and asking him to settle down would be…”
It was an egoistic thought, and Maka simultaneously knew that and didn’t care, but her brother-in-law’s lifestyle didn’t seem to be very much suitable for children. “Does he even have a steady home?”
“I’m not sure…?” Soul trailed off, and that was all Maka needed to know.
“Wes is out, then,” she declared, and Soul let out a deep breath. If it was of relieved, she couldn’t tell. “And since we don’t have any other relatives, we have to fill these papers appointing one of our friends.”
One could think that it was a matter that demanded a well thought out discussion. That picking the people who would raise their kids in case they perish in the mission wasn’t something to be decided with only a couple of minutes. They didn’t even bring out the possibility of one of them surviving and the other one not, because it wasn’t an option. Soul and Maka would never choose to leave each other behind, even if that meant leaving their kids orphaned. It was a terrible, absurd instinct craved in their very bones that was less about love and more about souls, about being a Meister and a Weapon.
They had failed each other before and could fail again in the future, but not about this, never about this.
They would come back together, or not at all.
In that terrible case, there was only one possible choice for who would raise their kids.
Maka grabbed her favorite pen and carefully started to write the kanjis of their names.
The first day
Jungles were hot.
It wasn’t their first mission in a forest but in the name of the Shinigami’s perfectly symmetrical eyebrows, Soul was already done with this one. It was humid, warm, and he was sure as hell he had seen a cloud of mosquitoes.
A. Fucking. CLOUD.
The witches had established an advanced surveillant post before they arrived. True to their aesthetic, the wooden watchtower was slightly crooked and the windows were weirdly shaped, but it was a solid construction. There wasn’t much space – it was only a one-room facility, enough for them to extend their sleeping bags. They would have to find water in the jungle and there wasn’t a bathroom in a hundred miles rage, but at least Kilik, Fire and the girls would be protected from the unstable weather.
Soul would pity Kilik for having to share that small cubicle with a moody Kim if it wasn’t for the fact that Maka and he would sleep in the godman madness-infested-jungle for who knew how long. They had the equipment, of course – a waterproof tent, insect repellent, flint, and a bunch of other survival items Liz and Maka had carefully packet in the heavy backpack he was caring – but even then, his next few days didn’t sound promising. Aside from Fire and Thunder, who seemed more comfortable with their – lack of – clothes, they all were wearing the special uniforms Shibusen had prepared for that mission – their pants and coats were made of thick, waterproof fabric, printed with a camouflage pattern. They also had matching hats to keep the sun out of their eyes, and heavy combat boots.
The boots were safe territory for Maka, but Soul observed her struggling a little with the cap – she wasn’t used to hats. Her long hair was stuck in a French braid, and she tried to hide her bangs under the cap too.
“This is the closest we can be without being affected by the madness wavelength,” Jacqueline explained, observing the said area in the distance through a triangular window.
“Don’t think twice about retreating here if the madness wavelengths become too much, but since we are an hour away from the infected area…”
“It would probably be counterproductive,” Maka completed.
“We don’t know yet,” Kilik intervened. “We don’t know yet how the demon moves. If it’s going to stay put in one place, we could probably locate it quickly.”
“I have the feeling it’s not going to be that easy.” Soul scratched his neck.
“Well, I for once have no intention of staying there more than necessary,” Kim declared, absently spreading sunscreen over her nose. “So, let’s get this mission started already.”
Using the maps Shibusen had provided, they divided the area into smaller quarters and established their searching rounds. The plan was quite simple, actually: Soul and Maka would use her Soul Perception combined with Soul’s amplifying piano to track the demon from the ground, while Kim and Jacqueline offered aerial support. Kilik and the twins would also try to track the demon using their shaman’s connection with the earth, but judging by the tense, tortured expressions on their faces, Fire and Thunder wouldn’t be able to stay in the infected area for too long. Soul wouldn’t be surprised if the trio’s part in the mission ended up reduced to emergency backup.
Yes, the plan was quite simple. The execution was the concerning part.
Transforming into a scythe was as easy as breathing for him, and he immediately obeyed Maka’s unspoken command. He wasn’t, however, used to carry a third – or in this case, also a fourth and fifth – person, therefore carrying Kilik and his two gauntlets was a weird sensation at first, like wearing your right sock on your left foot. It wasn’t wrong per se, only slightly bothersome. However, even though there was a clear difference between the easy-going and good natured human Kilik and the utterly complex and paranoid Death God Kid, both trios based their resonance in admiration, so adjusting his wavelength to stabilize their Resonance was easier than he had expected. They also had to include Kim and Jacqueline, so Maka’s anti-demon wavelengths could protect them too, but accommodating Kim’s demanding and pushing nature and Jacqueline’s stoic adaptability was nothing compared to Black*Star’s overbearing presence.
Therefore, even though they weren’t used to take missions together, their Resonance was strong. Soul couldn’t talk about the others, because maybe this was a sensation that only he had, but Maka’s wavelength was like a warm blanket enveloping them, protecting them from the madness. It was comforting and reliable in a way no other Meister could ever help to achieve; it made Soul feel like hunting down that Demon was not only possible, but it was utterly easy.
And then they entered the Madness Area, and it was like being crushing from the inside.
It lasted only a few seconds, just the time for Maka mumble an apology and adjust her wavelength – and their Resonance – according to the Madness waves around them, but it was enough. Like a needle slowly entering his ears and popping his tympanums, the pressure Soul felt at the moment was enough to make him nauseated and sick.
Maka’s wavelength washed over him like a breath of fresh air, and just like that, it was over. Their Resonance was strong again, his anti-demon wife was keeping the Madness out, and Soul knew there would be nothing but his piano waiting for him in the Black Room.
“I’m good,” he thought, and she knew it was true. Through their Resonance, he could feel that the others were feeling a little out of place, but adapting fast – after all, there wasn’t a wavelength more welcoming than Maka’s.
“Oh well, thank you.”
“You know it’s true.”
“Under the risk of sounding self-indulgent, I will remain silent.”
Soul could only chuckle at the irony, considering she was shouting orders to the others at that exact moment. Trying to maintain two conversations at the time was exhausting though, so he only focused on testing the piano’s keys, even if he knew it was perfectly tuned.
“Ready when you are,” he unnecessarily told her. As always happened every time he sat on a piano bench, he absently adjusted the bottoms of his suit, a habit that he was incapable of letting go. His audience today consisted only of his wife, friends, and clouds of mosquitoes, but once a concert pianist always a concert pianist, his mother would say.
Wow, that madness earlier really hit him hard, if he was thinking about his mother.
The Maka in his head hummed in agreement but didn’t comment any further. Saying ‘don’t think about your mother’ would only have the opposite effect, so instead the Maka out of his head called for the Soul Perception.
His finger hit a C key and their song spread around the forest through spiders’ web, amplifying Maka’s perception to her limit, trying to cover as much ground as possible.
And that was their first mistake.
Soul has an older second cousin called Sam. As his name suggests, Sam belongs to the less uptight, over the top branch of the Evans’ tree. He does share the musical talent of the family, although Sam’s inclination is for the good and old rock 'n roll. Sam is a good friend of Wes and probably because of that, he is also a little shit when he wants to be. Once, when Soul was six years old and was napping on their grandmother’s couch, Sam and Wes positioned Sam’s amplifier right at Soul’s head, who experienced firsthand what it feels like having Sweet Child of Mine’s riff being played inside his brain. His ears kept buzzing for a whole week after that, and it was one of the few times he could recall his parents being angry at Wes.
Right now, he felt like all overrated songs in the history of music were being badly played inside his head by sixteen-years-old garage-band-scene boys. There was just so much noise, reverberating through the spider’s webs and coming right back to him. Not to his piano, not to his fingers, but to him,
so much fucking noise.
The cacophony inside his head was suffocating, and suddenly he couldn’t breathe. It was like being engulfed in the Black Blood again, drowning while he was still sitting on that piano bench, dying while he was still playing. His feverish fingers couldn’t stop playing but how could he be playing if he was screaming and scratching his neck until he bled, until all the corruption left his body, just like sucking out the venom of a snake… Yes, snakes, it was all about snakes, it always came back to sna-
Maka’s hands held his but this was weird because his hands were not his hands they were sharp demon steel, black and red just like his blood, and Maka shouldn’t hold his blade without her gloves what if he ended up cutting her pretty pretty pretty skin…?
He felt a hard tug on his suit and the air was knocked out of his lungs when he hit the black and white tiled floor. He was breathless once again, but this time it felt natural, and the pain was a welcomed reminder that he was back to his own mind. He stared at his trembling hands, making sure there wasn’t anything wrong with them, that there was no blood and no-
Maka was hovering over him, her long hair loose like a cascade of light, which was a shame because he had really liked her braid…
Maka was in the Black Room.
“Maka?” He jumped up, instinctively reaching for her. “What happened? What the fuck was that?”
“The madness waves got you. I don’t… I don’t know how that could have happened,” she said tentatively, her soul reaching for his, like a second resonance inside the one they were still somehow sustaining with the others. He allowed her soul to hug him, and he slowly became aware of everything around him.
Soul could tell he wasn’t the only one affected by their mistake, but he highly doubted the others had been hit as bad as him. Kim’s waves were aggressive, Jacqueline’s were scared, and Kilik, Fire, and Thunder were exulting agony, but none of them had lost control as he did. They were still flying outside, but he could read in her mind that they had almost fallen to the ground during the seconds he had lost control.
“I’m so sorry, I had no idea something like that would happen with we tried to use Arachne’s powers…”
“Forget about that, how about you? Were you affected too?”
“I-” she hesitated, which translated to bad, bad stuff in Maka-corporal-language. “Yes, it was very… unpleasant.”
A second hesitation translated to ‘we will talk about that later when we are not in a group resonance’, so Soul let it rest. For now, he would prefer it if they could resume the mission as soon as possible. There wasn’t a piece of his soul Maka already didn’t know, but seeing her in the Dark Room always fretted him a little. The only times she had to descend here were when she needed to punch him back to his senses, which was never a good thing.
“Did you find it, at least?” Kilik asked outside, and Soul focused his mind on the present, closing the Black Room’s door.
He pretended his mind didn’t replicate an evil laughed while doing so.
“No such luck,” Maka negated, turning around just a little to look at their back passenger. “There wasn’t anything in this area that seemed like the source of the madness.”
“Ok, correct me if I’m wrong… But didn’t you sense the Kishin on the moon?” Kim interjected.
“That was different. I had sensed the Kishin’s wavelength before, I knew what I was looking for. And as you know, the moon isn’t that far away, it wasn’t a big deal. Anyway, demons don’t have souls.” Maka took a deep breath, trying to recollect her thoughts. “We can’t keep doing this. If we try, Soul and I will end up just like professor Stein before we cover half of this forest.”
“What’s the plan, then?” they heard Jakeline through the resonance.
“It’s the same plan, we will just have to take it… slower. Without using Soul’s piano as an amplifier. We will cover less ground but it will be safer.”
Hiding his profound disappointment with himself was nothing new to Soul, but he had never been good at tricking Maka. Only her was able to discern his frustration for letting his weakness get in the way of their mission. They had kids waiting for them, damnit, they didn’t have time to waste.
“Wait, Maka,” Kilik interfered. “You just said that demons don’t have souls. How are we going to find it, then?”
“Looking for it using our senses.”
“Do you want us to go look for a demon in a jungle as if we were searching for lost socks on our room?” Kim asked in disbelief.
“Do you have a better idea?” Maka retorted.
Kim’s indignant mumble was interrupted by Kilik’s forced laugh.
“Ready to learn how to pee in a bush, Kim?”
“I hate y’all so much right now.”
Soul laughed with the others, but it was forced light air and they knew it. Plan A – using Maka’s abnormal Soul Perception amplified by Soul’s piano – had failed miserably, but not before giving them a taste of how terrifying those madness wavelengths could be. Plan B was searching in the old way, what would take them who knew how long. Their prospect of future was not promising.
And it was all his fault.
“It’s not your fault it didn’t work, Soul.”
He didn’t respond.
The second day
Something was poking her ribs.
Maka woke up knowing exactly where she was. For starters, it wasn’t as if she had slept soundly throughout the night. Their tent had done a good job keeping insects, the wind and the dew away from them, but the ground wasn’t exactly comfortable – it didn’t matter how much they had tried to even the soil, there was always one stone or root poking her back every time she turned. Besides, Soul had clung to her all night, which was something she was surprisingly not used to. One of the first things she learned back when they started to sleep – and only sleep – together was that all her romance novels had lied to her:
Cuddling was uncomfortable and made it impossible to sleep.
They had always been perfectly happy in just sleep as far as possible on each side of their bed because Soul was always hot and sweating a lot, and Maka kicked while sleeping. Seventeen years together and the weight of Soul’s body sprawled over hers was as annoying as the stone/root poking her ribs.
The foundation of their relationship was buying a king size-bed just to sleep as apart as possible, and damn if it didn’t keep them happy through all these years.
“Soul, you’re crushing me,” she said before unceremoniously pushed him to the side. She had endured his unexpected clinginess during the night because she knew he was trying to use her wavelengths to protect himself from the madness around them, but now that she was awake, Maka could consciously resound with him.
The madness waves had been stronger than she had expected. It was hard to believe they could affect them like that after they had fought against the Kishin, after years of living with the madness slowly spreading from the Black Moon. They would have accepted the mission anyway, but Maka couldn’t deny that they had assumed that their resistance to madness would make things easier. The only logical conclusion was that something about demon wavelengths affected them differently.
Soul grumbled while getting up, the black rings under his eyes denouncing that he hadn’t slept nearly enough. He had been in a sour mood since their failed amplified soul perception. After that, they had flown around the forest with the others, trying to identify a source for the madness, but it was in vain. The demon didn’t have a soul to be found, and the vegetation was too dense to allow them to search from above. Therefore, while the others had flown back to their surveillance post, Maka and Soul had occupied themselves setting their camp for the first of many nights in that jungle.
Carrying too much stuff would only tire them more, so they decided to count on Jacqueline and Kim to bring them supplies. Munching her apple and wondering what time it was back home, Maka observed Soul silently unfolding their tent. She had tried given his time and space to come to terms with yesterday’s failure, but it was clear it hadn’t work.
She called his name, and threw him another apple went he silently turned around. He stared at the fruit as if it was an offense to everything he believed breakfast should be but didn’t complain. And Soul not complaining was a bad, bad sign.
“Do you want to talk about what happened yesterday?” Maka tried.
“Do you?” he retorted, without looking at her. “I still didn’t hear about how it affected you.”
Maka frowned, considering his words. Redirecting the conversation towards her was such a Soul move, always trying to escape coming clear with his feelings. On the other hand, maybe sharing how bad it had been for her would make him less frustrated with himself – she did promise to talk about it later, after all.
“I had… visions,” Maka started, trying to recollect her thoughts. Soul waited, staring her. “It was too fast but I think I saw… Chrona. Chrona and Ragnarok. And maybe my mom, I don’t know.”
During those brief, agonizing seconds they had amplified her Soul Perception, Maka had been able to see every living creature around them, their tiny souls were like bright balls of light in the midst of chaos and spiders’ webs. When Soul used his song, those ball of lights had assembled, stretching and writhing and mutating until they assumed the form of a boy who was also a girl who looked like her but had an extra body coming out of her back, and they said “Ma-ka” with that disapproving tone only her mother could use, and she screamed.
She wasn’t ashamed of admitting that. It’s not every day all of your biggest failures come together to haunt you.
And then she heard Soul screaming in her mind too, and that was what sober he up enough to break from the illusion.
“That’s… fucked up,” Soul commented after she finished her tale. She agreed, throwing away the apple core. She helped him pack the rest of their equipment, patiently waiting for him to talk again. “I didn’t see anything, but there was so much noise it was a pain, and I felt like… like I was possessed again.”
“Soul,” she used her gentlest tone, the one her husband always called condescended, but right now she considered it necessary. “It’s different from before. What Medusa did to you was an experiment, like she did to... Chrona. You’re not going to be infected again just because of the madness wavelengths.”
“But what about the blood?” he finally stared at her again, his face contorting with doubt and fear. “What if we cut the demon, and his blood mixes with mine again, and then…”
“No,” Maka said vehemently, holding his hand tight. “No, it’s not going to be like the last time. We were kids back then, we barely knew what we were doing. We are not going to lose to this demon – we are better now, stronger.”
She held both his hands, and stood before him, with a look so full of fierce determination, like he had seen only once, before – she was fifteen, grabbing his room’s door casing with a death grip to prevent her legs to fail her when she confessed, deadly serious, that she was in love with him.
“You are the Death Scythe I made,” she whispered.
Soul let out a resigned sign, squeezing her hands. He rested his forehead against hers and allowed himself a few minutes to breathe and clear his mind. Maka stayed in silence with him, because honestly, what else she could say beyond that?
Maka knew their situation wasn’t favorable. She hadn’t felt anything that could be the demon. Maybe it wasn’t in that part of the jungle, or maybe Soul Perception didn’t work on a soulless being, but either way, she was not taking the risk of opening her mind to madness again. She wouldn’t expose Soul to that risk. Whatever was in that jungle, it had a way to pass Maka’s anti-demon wavelengths, which made it probably the most dangerous enemy they had encountered since the Kishin.
They had gone through so much together. Maka always thought it was supposed to get easier with time, but maybe adulthood was about finding new things to make you weak and insecure.
Like knowing that you have two kids waiting for you at home.
Interlude – 11 years ago
His back hit the mattress with a muffled thump. Soul was sweaty, expended and utterly satisfied – he allowed himself to stare dreamily at the ceiling with a stupid smile on his lips.
Married life was great.
Maka was equally sweaty and satisfied, but she was also diligent in a way his lazy ass would never be. Instead of just staying in bed, she got up and went to the bathroom to take care of her post-sex-hygienic-ritual without saying a word. That was routine and he didn’t think much about it, just shamelessly stared at her very much naked butt living the room.
Lord Death blessed her soul perception that allowed her to know Blair wasn’t home.
She returned five minutes later, and he could tell her mind was already out of the gutter – there was this little wrinkle between her tiny eyebrows that told him she was thinking about something that would probably be a pain in his ass. He patiently waited while she climbed back to bed, but instead of snuggling against him, she opened the window just a little, to allow the cold night breeze to invade the room.
Maka sat with her back against the window, her arms firmly holding her legs against her chest. She rested her chin on her knees and absently stared at him. She was smiling, but the frown was still there – he could practically see the gears turning on her mind.
“I want a baby.”
His first reaction was to say something like “Come back here then and let’s get started”, but he knew better than that. He took a deep breath, sitting up against the headboard with folded legs. He knew she was probably staring at his soul at that moment, nervously anticipating his answer, which was a waste of effort, in his option.
He was incapable of lying to her, after all.
“You don’t want it?” she automatically retorted, her eyes widening.
“Is not that I don’t wanna… I wanna know why do you want a baby now? He scratched his head. “Wasn’t you who said tha’ we were too young to get married in the first place?”
“Wasn’t you who said we’re practically married since we were seventeen?”
“Don’t get smart on me, Maka,” he offered his hand, which she automatically held. “You’re 21, and you always said you didn’t want to be like your parents. Why now?”
She hid her face between her arms, her cheeks becoming a little flushed.
“Because I want to have a baby with you…” she mumbled.
Soul chuckle – she was just adorable. But she was so not dodging the answer with her adorableness.
“…and because I know we can make it. We can have a baby and not screw up everything.”
She raised her head again, still blushing and eyes full of expectation. To be honest, Soul wanted to tell her that at some point she would have to stop making decisions to prove her parents wrong, that she would have to do things because she wanted and not because she should or could. However, he also knew that he was the most hung up on family issues in their relationship, so he would be a big hypocrite if he decided to call her off her bullshit right now.
Maybe proving to his family that he wouldn’t fuck up his kids had a nice taste, too.
He gave her hand a reassuring grip.
“Ok, Albarn. Let’s have a baby.”
The wrinkle disappeared from her forehead, and her face lit up like a Christmas’ tree.
He could only roll his eyes in response while sneaking his arm around her thin waist.
“Yeah, sure, now come here, let’s get started.”
“I’m still on the pill,” she giggled but allowed him to pull her against his chest.
The only word she had to describe his smile was diabolic.
“Let’s practice then.”
The first week
By the end of the first week in the jungle, they haven’t made much progress. Even though they had covered a lot of ground following the orientations of Fire and Thunder, there was no sign of the demon. Soul wasn’t questioning the twins’ special connection to the earth, but maybe… maybe he was. Because whatever it was that the shamans were feeling, it wasn’t doing jack shit to help them to find their prey.
The worst part was the heat. The thermic sensation was 104 ºF, and he hadn’t felt a single gush of wind since they arrived. It was not only warm but also humid – Soul felt like he was permanently drenched in sweat; maybe that was the sensation of being boiled in Satan’s cauldron. The mosquitoes didn’t help either. It didn’t matter how many times he used the repellent, they still seemed to find a small piece of his flesh to bite.
Maka was enduring all that crap with her usual resolute, stoic attitude, and for her, he tried to keep his complaining at a minimum. Or, at least, he tried to not vocalize said thoughts. They were permanently resounding to keep the madness waves at bay, so she ended up hearing everything he was thinking either way.
However, when everything became excessive, he retreated to the Black Room, to be alone with his own pessimistic thoughts.
Today was one of those days.
Soul let out a relieved sigh when he stepped on the tiled floor. He was in a sour mood and Maka deserved a break from his mind – he would only take a couple of minutes in silence, listening to his jazz…
Jaz that was already being played.
It was like all the alarms in his head went off at the same time. And since he was literally inside his mind, all the dark red curtains around the Black Room were violently pulled, making the paths to the darker places in his mind visible. He frantically looked around, searching for what could have been listening to that record, his breath unsteady and heavy.
There was no little ogre to be found.
That didn’t relieve him at all. Standing still in the middle of the Black Room, Soul tried to collect his thoughts. Rationally speaking, he knew the Little Ogre couldn’t be here. He was gone along with the Black Blood thanks to Chrona’s sacrifice. There was no trace left from him in his body, Stein had checked that.
“You’re not here, you can’t be here,” he mumbled to himself.
He turned off the phonograph. Maybe his subconscious had started the song before he arrived. It would be the first time, but it wasn’t the strangest thing that ever happened to him here. The tiredness and the stress of the mission were probably getting him.
Soul absently ran his fingers of the piano’s keys. He would love to play, but it was too risky now, with the madness wavelengths lurking. When they finally went back home, he would…
His fingers froze over the ivory keys. He felt like drawing in cold water, suffocating while standing still, wearing a ridiculous suit in his ridiculous little private room. Why are you wearing this stupid Evans suit, Soul~~? Why are you hiding here while your wife is working hard outside? Why can’t you just stop failing and disappointing, failing and disappointing? Why…?
He violently pulled out his hands from the keys. Soul took only a step back because his eyes were fixed on the marks on his piano’s music rack. Five deep slashes had maculated the polished solid pine wood, as if a beast had tried to sharpen its claws in there. It seemed like the work of the most ungodly cat in the existence; like, like…
Like a demon.
On his piano.
In his mind.
Wasn’t that… hilarious?
The hysterical laugh boiling inside of him never made out of his mouth. Once again, Maka’s voice pulled him out of his mind. She had stopped walking and was resting against a tree, her worried face reflected on his blade.
“Soul, are you ok? Your wavelengths went crazy for a minute,” she said carefully. Soul focused his attention on her disturbed face and used that as the ladder that pulled him out of the Black Room.
“Crazy is the right word for it,” he sighed. “There’s something wrong with the Black Room.”
“What do you mean?”
With a flash of white light, the scythe once again became a human being.
“My music was already playing when I got there, and there were claw marks on my piano. Maka, do you think…?”
“No.” There was no space for doubt in her voice. “The little ogre isn’t back, Soul. It has to be something else.”
“Something else… as the Jungle Demon already infecting my mind?” he asked, with a self-depreciatory chuckle. He let his body fall against one three, tiredly scratching his neck. “It’s been only a week, and I’m already like this. This is not going to end well, Maka.”
The worst part was… she knew it was true. He could see in her calculated frown that she had already come to the same conclusion. She wasn’t going to deny it, because she knew he hated it when she patronized him, but she was trying to come up with something positive to lift his spirit.
He kind of hated her for it.
“Ok, this… this sucks,” Maka just gave up, equally tired. “Let’s just… Let’s focus on find it as fast as we can.”
She got up and resumed the path she was taking before, without giving him a second glance. It took Soul a few seconds to remember they were still resonating, and that she had heard him directing his frustrations on her earlier.
The second week
It was difficult to not give in to their frustrations.
Two weeks was a long time to be sleeping on the ground, rationing food, barely resting, and being attacked by mosquitoes, spiders and the rest of Satan’s offspring. The only reason why Maka wasn’t covered in two weeks’ worth of sweat right now was that it was freaking raining. The braid Jacqueline had carefully done for her was gone, and her hair was now on a precarious low bun. Her stupid jungle hat was doing a poor job to prevent the drops on her eyes, making it impossible for her to watch her step.
The worst part, however, was Soul.
Since they had no idea of what the hell was going on in the Black Room, he was avoiding retreating there. That basically meant that their minds were linked the entire time during their resonance, and she could hear every single furious complaining he was refusing to voice out loud.
At that point, there was no difference. Sometimes she wished he would just scream from the top of his lungs, instead of keeping the vicious mumbling. It was like white noise in the back of her mind, preventing her from focusing on her own thoughts.
And she knew that he knew she was also on the edge. There’s no barrier between their minds now and honestly? They were too old to be holding grudge against each other. They were too married to care. He was frustrated, she was pissed, and they would have to just deal with it. There was a ‘what happens in the demon jungle stays on the demon jungle’ policy being applied at the moment, because they knew it wasn’t personal.
If he wanted to drown himself in self-blame, she had more urgent matters to pay attention to.
Like that figure semi occulted by the trees.
“Soul!” she called, and it didn’t matter how moody he was, or how frustrated they felt: she started to run before he even reacted, but when she reached out her hand, her fingers closed over his steel.
It was impossible to fly in the narrow corridor of trees, so Maka ran. She put all her strength in her legs and ran at full impulse, deliberately ignoring Soul’s anxious warnings of “don’t drip and break your leg like an idiot”. His concern was legit since the rain was still pouring, the ground was covered in leaves and moss and she could barely see where she was going. Soul perception wasn’t working once more, so it had to be the demon.
It was time to end this stupid mission and go home.
They had kids waiting, and probably a very much pissed best friend ready to let hell break loose over them.
So, Maka ran, following the dark figure she could barely see in the rain. It would occasionally disappear in the threes and reappear when she started to become desperate. She tried to scream, to taunt it, but she was ignored, and the creature kept going. Soul frantically warned her about being lured to the deeps of the jungle, about that being a trap, about-
She slipped on the soaked moss, as he had warned. Maka tried to prevent the fall by using her scythe’s snatch, but she lost balance and fell head-first, hitting a tree hard. Her vision went black for a few seconds; she could feel her warm blood starting to drip from her eyebrow, and Soul half transformed back to check on her.
It wasn’t Soul’s voice.
Maka violently got up, which was probably another mistake, because she immediately felt her head cracking in pain. The rain was still pouring, but the real problem now was the blood covering half of her face, including her – now useless – right eye. She tightened her grip on the scythe’s handle and mentally warned Soul about what she intended to do.
It wasn’t Soul’s voice, but it was a voice she knew.
Soul didn’t try to question it, transforming back in a flash of white light. She skillfully swung back the scythe and called for the Witch Hunter, as they had done countless times. Soul’s blade widened, gleaming in blinding white light, and without a second of hesitation, Maka swung forward.
The impact of the blow made the trees fall in front of her, and that was what she was aiming for. Maka waited, scythe ready to strike at any minute, ignoring the rain and the blood and keeping her one good eye set on the path she had just opened.
Covered in darkness, the solitary figure rose from the fallen trees. Wobbling, their head hung limply to the side and whispered something Maka couldn’t hear, but she felt it, deep in her soul.
“yoU pRomISed uS, MaAKa”
Her scythe fell to the ground when Maka kneeled down, too scared and regretful to keep standing.
In the blink of her eye, they were gone, and Soul has kneeled in front of her.
“Maka! Snap out of it! Maka!”
“They were here…” she whispered, ignoring Soul’s gentle fingers trying to wipe the blood from her face. “They were right… here. How is that possible?”
“Maka, you’re not making any sense. What were you aiming for?”
“What do you mean?” she looked back at him. Concern and hesitation were all she saw on his face; there was no trace of the apocalyptical surprise she was feeling right now. “Chrona… Chrona was right there.”
His eyes widened, but Soul didn’t turn around to look at the destruction they had caused. Instead, he gently tilted her head up, so she could see the Black Moon still on the sky.
“Maka… you know it is not possible. They are still up there.”
It was true, of course. The Black Moon was still in the sky, just as it had been since their battle against the Kishin. The Kishin was still sealed, and Chrona with him.
“Whatever you saw… It wasn’t Chrona,” Soul insisted. He helped her to get up, protectively holding her against his chest. “Look, let’s… Let’s retreat to the observation point for a while. We need a good night of sleep, and we need to tell the others-”
“No,” Maka interrupted. Impatient, she tried to clean the blood from her eye, without success. “No, if what I saw as a hallucination created by the demon, it means we are close. It’s probably around here somewhere; if we can find it, we can end this mission and go home.”
She could tell Soul was clearly divided between retreating with her and finishing that horrible mission as soon as possible. Truth be told, there was only one thing she wanted more than getting out of the rain right now, and it was slaying that demon.
“…ok, fine,” he conceded. The threw his hat back, and took off his bandana. It was soaked from the rain and his sweat, but unfortunately, it was the only cloth available. He carefully cleaned the excess of blood and tied the bandana around her forehead to prevent her cut from bleeding more. “Fine, let’s chase it, but if we can’t find it or if this wound gets worse, we are going to retreat, deal?”
There was a tropical rain pouring over them, they were exhausted and emotionally expended, but not so much that she couldn’t send him a loving gaze.
He worried too much.
They found it by the end of the nineteenth day.
Every time he asked Maka how she knew where they were going, she would just mumble something about “instinct” and “madness wave intensity”. Now that she had a general location, apparently it was easier for her to read through the madness wavelength. They had barely slept in the past five days and Soul’s brain was unable to function properly at the moment, so he was basically just going with it.
He was too tired to care.
And even if he tried to say something, she would just push him away and tell him he was being too overprotective.
If he tried too hard, he would end up crazy and seeing things.
“anD yOu WeRe nEVer goOoOd AT tRyinG HARD, RighT, Soul~~?”
OH HELL NO.
That demon just did not try to taunt him using his brother.
Soul immediately sprinted after the fake Wes Evans, earning an indignant “Soul!” scream from Maka. Now he finally understood why his meister had become so obsessed after seeing Chrona. There was something entirely too wrongful in that hallucination, something that stirred his guts, boiled his
He was angry.
He was mad as hell.
Wasn’t that hilarious?
Whatever was in that jungle wasn’t that good at messing up with humans, because if there was someone in the world that could not be used against Soul, that person would be Wes.
Soul Eater Evans had thirty-three years of experience in self-torture by comparing himself to Wes. Did that demon really think it could come up with something Soul hadn’t already thought? Countless time? Did it think it could hurt him? More than Soul had already done?
Good try, (not really) but The Book of Eibon did it better.
Maka caught up with him just in time to hit his head with her fist (how many years had gone by since he had last received a Maka-chop?) and consequently, hitting his whole stupid being with her anti-demon wavelengths. He stopped laughing (when did he start to laugh?) and came back to reality.
“Stupid! Don’t. Underestimate. Demon. Madness. Waves,” Maka said through clenched teeth, trying to regain her breath. She took off the black bandana he had insisted she kept so far and wiped some sweat from her face. “What did you see?”
“Wes, but it wasn’t-”
“…him. Yeah, I know,” she rolled her eyes. “But good job following it, now we are closer to-”
It came out of nowhere.
That wasn’t quite true. Soul sensed it coming from the woods behind him, and pure instinct was what moved him to throw Maka on the ground, protecting her with his body. Tree branches and stones rained over them with a wind gust. Soul heard something big and heavy dragging against the fallen trees, preparing to attack them again, but this time he was alert.
He jumped up, pulling Maka with him, and transformed back. She spun the scythe in her hands a few times before stopping, standing ready to strike at any sign of movement. Soul was half-tempted to go the Black Room – they would need all their strength to fight against a real demon. Maka, however, mentally warned him about the dangers of using his piano before they could determine what was happening there, and as always, he complied.
The first thing they saw was the paws. Four big, black paws with long and sharp claws pushed the trees out of the way, and the Demon emerged, screeching, in front of them.
It was huge.
It was nothing like the Little Ogre. It was almost 10 feet tall, a deformity in any sense of the word. Not even Stein, in his weirdest dreams, could have created something like that. It had a mole’s head, with four prominent incisors, so big they didn’t fit its mouth. There were no eyes that Soul could see, and the fur was long, like a weird mane. It also had a broad torso – moles weren’t supposed to have torsos – and four strong, human-like arms that ended in disproportionate claws. The bottom side was a long serpent tail, with dark green scales.
Before Soul could fully process what the hell he was seeing, the Demon charged at them. It was unbelievable that something so massive could also be so fucking fast. Maka didn’t even try to block the attack – she jumped out of its way, in an attempt to reposition herself, but the Demon had no intention of letting that happen. Its tail followed her movements like a whip and hit Maka hard.
Even in his scythe form, Soul felt the pain deep in his bones when Maka used his snatch to parry the blow. They were thrown across the clearing, landing painfully against the fallen trees. The impact had expelled the air from Maka’s lungs, and he felt her suffocating through their resonance. However, her grip on his steel was still firm, and when Soul heard the Demon letting out another high-pitch screech, he didn’t wait for her orders.
He forced her wings to appear on his blade and flew away, just in time to avoid another attack from the Demon. Taken by surprise, Maka almost let go of the scythe, but she was able to hold her own weight. They were barely out of the Demon’s reach, flying, her boots hanging a few feet from the claws trying to grab them, but Maka had no intention of staying in the air.
Maka amplified their resonance and still in the air, barely holding onto him, and called for the Demon-Hunter.
During the second it took for his blade to widen and for Maka to do an elaborate twirl mid-air to get in strike position, the Demon reacted by grabbing one of the fallen trunks and striking them with its full force. By sheer dumb luck, the tree hit his blade and not Maka, but the impact sent them flying across the jungle.
Maka let go of him, their resonance was dissipated, and Soul heard her screaming “Soul!” one last time before he fell back in the madness-infested jungle.
And then, nothing.
“DO YOU TRY TO BE THAT STUPID OR DOES IT COME NATURALLY TO YOU?”
Kim was, for lack of better words, utterly pissed.
In the past three weeks, Kilik had observed the witch’s patience being tested in multiple occasions: the lack of proper bathroom facilities, constantly flying to get supplies in the closest village, being forced to share a tiny cottage with a grown-up man and his two adopted shaman kids, etc. He had expected Jacqueline to endure all of that with her typical stoic attitude, but surprisingly, Kim had also been quite reliable. He could tell the witch was making a consistent effort to not bitch about their situation every given moment, and he was legit thankful for that.
Their situation was already dire enough without him having to worry about a moody witch.
Right now, however, she was venting all her frustration on Soul and Maka and honestly, Killik couldn’t blame her.
“ARE YOU DELIBERATELY TRYING TO GET KILLED? BECAUSE TO ME, IT SEEMS LIKE YOU ARE TRYING TO GET YOURSELVES KILLED.”
“DO. NOT. INTERRUPT. ME. MAKA.”
Wow. It was a rare occasion when someone was able to shut Maka Albarn-Evans’ mouth, and Kilik decided to enjoy the moment a little more. After all, he had also been worried about those idiots.
“SO, LET ME SEE IF I GOT THIS RIGHT. YOU TWO FOUND THE DEMON’S TRACKS, BUT INSTEAD OF REGROUPING WITH US, YOU DECIDED TO FOLLOW IT, IGNORING US COMPLETELY AND MISSING OUR EVERY OTHER DAY CHECK IN.”
She stopped pacing around for a second – even if there wasn’t a lot of space for that in the first place – to regain her breath.
“DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA OF HOW WORRIED WE WERE WHEN YOU DIDN’T SHOW UP TO GET YOUR SUPPLIES AND REPORT TO US?”
“Kim, I know that-”
“I told you to not interrupt me, Maka,” she viciously whispered through clenched teeth, and that somehow was even more intimidating than her previous screams. “You two went full suicidal against a Demon, acting like we weren’t a fucking team, like we weren’t in this together, like you weren’t professionals. If Jacqueline and I hadn’t gone looking for you, who knows what could have happened?”
Kilik had a good idea of what could have happened. When Jacqueline and Kim had found her, Maka was struggling to walk because of her bruised ribs, nervously whipping because she could sense Soul’s wavelength getting overwhelmed by the madness around them. The girls didn’t disclosure in which state they had found Soul, but if his haunted expression was any indication, it had been bad.
“Irresponsible. Amateur. Fucking stupid. Do I need to go on?”
“No.” Soul’s voice was tired but decisive. “No, Kim, you’re absolutely right. We fucked up.”
“Damn right you did,” Kim agreed, and she seemed ready to start another round of angry complains, but Jacqueline held her shoulder.
“I think it’s enough, Kim,” her weapon said. “They clearly understand the situation they put us through.”
Kilik decided that now was a good time to intervene. Their moral was already down enough. Now it was time to get practical.
“Well, there’s no point in keeping arguing. Soul and Maka learned that they can’t face the demon like that. Let’s make a new plan.”
Kim mumbled something ominous, but she agreed. The witch kneeled in front of Maka and resumed her previous work: healing her bruised ribs.
Sitting on the floor with her back against the wood walls, Maka was the image of defeat. Her face had several ugly cuts from when she fell on the trees, and her clothes were dirty and ripped. When they had arrived, her right eyebrow was cut and bleeding profoundly, but that was the first wound Kim had healed. Maka’s eyes were full of uncertainty, and that was a disturbing look to see on the confidant meister’s face. Soul was in a similar state, but Kilik couldn’t see his expression: he was bracing his legs against his chest and hiding his face on his arms.
Whatever was in that jungle, it had utterly crushed one of the most powerful Shibusen’s duos. If they didn’t take that mission more seriously, they could all end up dead.
“From everything you told us, we can determine that the demon can create hallucinations, that it’s a huge mix of a mole and a snake with freaking arms, and that it’s absurdly fast and strong,” Kilik summarized.
Maka agreed with a nod, and Jacqueline, who had been writing something since they had told the story, held up a sketch. “Does it look like this?”
That made Soul lift his head and gawk at the paper. What Kilik saw was an impressive drawing of the most ungodly thing he could possibly imagine. It was like if a naga and a mole had a deformed baby, and he hoped it was not what they had encountered.
“Holy shit Jacqueline, it’s exactly like that.”
Fire and Thunder, who had been silently staring at the jungle through one of the windows until now, turned around to see the sketch too. Before they could ask, Jacqueline hand the paper over to Thunder, who brought it to her brother so they could take a closer look.
The twins had been under Kilik’s care since they were five. They had kept the appearance of kids for the longest time, since shamans aged slowly than regular human beings. They could look like teenagers now but they were already adults, and Kilik knew all their mannerisms. They had always preferred to communicate through facial expressions rather than words, so the meister could read them like a book.
For that reason, when Fire frowned at the paper and Thunder wrinkled her nose, he could tell something wasn’t right.
“What is it?” he asked.
The shamans exchanged looks, silently coming to a conclusion together.
“We… heard tales of creatures such as this one,” Thunder explaining, eyes still fixed on the paper. Her voice was low and calm, and Kilik always considered it somehow soothing. “Our people don’t call them demons, but we recognize it.”
“It’s an old creature,” Fire completed. “If it is this big, it’s old and powerful.”
“It’s… it’s different from the demon we encountered before,” Maka gasped. She was still having problems to talk and breath because of her bruised ribs.
Kilik had heard before about the little ogre that lived inside Soul’s head when he was still carrying the Black Blood. He had never resounded deep enough with him to encounter the creature, and the couple rarely talked about it, so he had no idea about how it looked like. That was probably a painful subject for them too – failure wasn’t something Maka and Soul were known for dealing well with.
He could only imagine how they were feeling now.
“We don’t know about other demons,” Thunder said. “but we know this one. It feeds on the life of the forest and corrupts the soil.”
“The soil… and it has a mole’s head…” Maka mumbled. “Do you think it’s hiding under the ground?”
“It’s possible. But under the ground is its territory – we must not hunt it there,” Fire concluded.
“What are you suggesting? That we simply wait for it to come to us?” Kim questioned.
“We didn’t find any holes or burrows, and we have been looking for weeks,” Soul finally got in the conversation. His head was resting on his folded arms and he seemed so freaking tired. “And even if we find one, there’s nothing we could do to lure it out – except playing bait, maybe.”
“You’re not playing bait,” Kilik hissed. “You guys have found it once – or it found you – and we can do it again. I think the most important thing is coming up with a battle plan.”
“I agree,” Jacqueline declared. “What we need is a flare gun, so you can quickly call for us if you encounter it again. Kim and I could buy one tomorrow and-”
The discussion continued through the night. Kilik, Jacqueline, and Maka had contributed the most for their plan of action since Fire and Thunder had retreated to their silent shells, Kim was too focused on healing Maka, and Soul...
Kilik was worried about Soul.
Later that night, after Kim had used a spell to force Maka to sleep, Jacqueline and she were preparing for the trip for supplies the next day and Fire and Thunder had left to patrol the perimeter, Kilik found Soul lying on their precarious rooftop. The Death Scythe had barely said something during their previous discussions, but what had really freaked out Kilik was how distant Soul and Maka seemed. It wasn’t like they had fought and they were angry with each other – they seemed to be pretending the other didn’t exist and that was fucked up in so many levels the meister couldn’t even start to describe.
He almost fell a few times but he finally was able to climb the roof and sit by the Death Scythe’s side. Soul had his arms crossed under his head and was staring at the night sky, deep in thoughts. He probably wanted to be alone, but Kilik wasn’t having any of that emo shit.
2009 was a long time ago, they were in a madness infested forest and he needed Soul to man the fuck up.
“I agree with Kim – you are trying to get yourself killed,” Kilik said, after almost falling. “What are you, a cat? Why are you here?”
“I want to be alone, Kilik,” Soul mumbled, without even deigning to look at his friend.
“Well, you don’t get your special alone space because, in case you didn’t realize, we don’t have space in here,” the meister deadpanned. “Dude, I get you are feeling down after what happened, and I know I’m not Black*Star or Kid but… but I’m here to listen.”
“I don’t feel like talking.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, did I give you the impression that you had a choice? Dude, I have been pissing in the forest and doing sleepovers with Jackie and Kim for three weeks – I’m stressed too.” Soul finally turned around to glare at him, making Kilik roll his eyes. “Not as much as you and Maka, of course, but I’m so done with this shitshow. And I know that we need you and Maka on your best game if we want to finish this mission, so spill. What the hell is going on with the two of you?”
Soul took a deep breath, still angrily staring at his friend. He was probably considering all the possible escape routes, but honestly, there wasn’t any. He could jump out of the surveillance post, but that was a bad idea – Kim would probably make him heal naturally just to prove a point. Kilik had him cornered and he knew it.
With a tired sigh, he gave up.
“I fucked up, Kilik.”
“Yes, we already covered that, Soul.”
“No, I mean…” he sat up, scratching his neck, once again avoiding the other man’s look. “As a weapon, as a Death Scythe, I fucked up. I didn’t protect her and Maka was hurt again.”
“I’m thirty-three Kilik, I’ve been Maka’s partner for twenty years, and a Death Scythe for most of that time. I’m supposed to be better than this, and yet… I’m letting madness waves affect me, I’m letting Maka getting hurt, I’m- I’m failing. Do you understand?”
To be honest, Kilik understood. He dared say he understood completely. Heck, he had been trusted with two small kids as weapons when he was still a kid. Weapons are supposed to protect their meisters but that wasn’t the case for his team: Fire and Thunder could be powerful shamans and trustful weapons but before all of that, they were Kilik’s children, and he felt responsible. Failing the twins, seeing them getting hurt… That wasn’t a thought he dared to have.
Yes, Kilik understood Soul completely. But there was a difference between being sympathetic and being patronizing, and maybe Kilik had spent too much time with Kim.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Soul, can you repeat? I can't hear you over the pitydick in your mouth.”
It took the Death Scythe a few seconds to process what he had just heard.
“I- wait, what?”
“Since Black*Star isn’t here to slap some sense on your face, allow me,” Kilik turned around to face him, and Soul unconsciously pulled back a little, maybe thinking the ‘slap’ part wasn’t metaphorical. After all, no one wants to be punched by a former boxing champion “Of course you’re going to fail, stupid. You are only human. Lord Death used to make mistakes, Kid fucks up all the time because of his paranoia, and not even Maka is perfect.”
“That may be true, but…” Soul shook his head. “I have two kids waiting for me, Kilik. I can’t afford to fail.”
“I understand how you feel, Soul, I truly do,” Kilik put a hand on his shoulder. “but you need to calm down. I don’t know what’s going on between you two, but you need to get it together and stop the marital bickering.”
“We are not bickering.”
“Yeah, sure,” Kilik rolled his eyes. “Well, stop whatever is keeping you here on the rooftop of eminent death when you were supposed to be babysitting your injured wife.”
All the color drained from Soul’s face, as if he had only realized now that he wasn’t by Maka’s side.
“Oh, shit,” he said, before jumping from the roof and almost giving Kilik a freaking heart attack.
The meister observed Soul hurrying back to the shed with a frown on his face. That was… odd, to say the least. Were Soul momentary confusion about where he was supposed to be and his pessimistic thoughts after-effects of the madness wavelengths? He should discuss that with Jackie and Kim later. Maybe that mission was just draining all of them pretty bad.
One thing Kilik knew for sure, though: Aika and Sound were missing their parents right now. He would be damned if he didn’t do everything in his power to make sure Maka and Soul would go back to them.
Interlude – 10 years ago
That was probably the first (and last) time Soul was happy to see Maka peacefully sleeping on a hospital bed.
Discovering she was expecting twins had been a surprise – after that when her doctor said they would have to do a c-section was only consequential. At first, she had been all moody, complaining she wanted to see her kids’ birth, but since it was the safest option, she eventually agreed.
He had never been good with words, not like Maka. He couldn’t describe what he felt watching the delivery.
He was a father now.
Sweet mother of Death, he was a father now.
Wait – Kid had a mother?
Now, that was an interesting thought for another time.
Chuckling, he sat by Maka’s side and gently pushed the hair from her face. The doctor had said that the anesthesia effects should be over now and that she would wake up soon. Nygus – who had acted as the nurse during the delivery – had taken the babies to be properly clean, and would be back with them as soon as Maka was ready to meet them.
He could hear Spirit, Marie and the others already making a fuss out of the infirmary, but for now, he wanted to appreciate this moment alone with his wife. This was their last moment alone in a certain way – now they were officially a family of four. They had a daughter and a son: Aika and Sound, because according to Maka “they had a family tradition to uphold with their names”. Soul wasn’t sure about that at first, but when she told him that in Japanese Aika could be written with the kanji for ‘music’ and ‘love’ he was immediately in for it.
Who was he kidding – he was a big, fat, sappy idiot and his wife knew that.
“Hmmm…” Maka mumbled, before slowly opening her eyes. Soul held her hand, caressing her palm with his thumb. “Soul?”
“Hey, wifey. How’re you feeling?”
“Sleepy…” She tried to sit up but stopped with a frown. “Ouch, the stitches…”
“You’re lucky Stein wasn’t the one who did the job,” he joked but helped her to sit straight.
She laughed, and then stared at him, full of expectation.
“And the babies?”
“Healthy. Perfect.” Her smile was so brilliant it could light the world. “I think you can hear your father crying in the hallway if you pay close attention.”
Which reminded him he still had to call his parents to tell about the birth. And Wes too. Probably.
That was a problem for future-Soul. Present-Soul was too occupied falling in love with his meister all over again.
“I want to meet them!” Maka exclaimed. She could barely contain her excitement. “I want to hold them, and feed them, and, and-”
Death, she was so freaking adorable.
“And meet them you shall, ma’am.” Soul kissed her hand before getting up. “Wait for just a second, I will ask Nygus to bring them here.”
“Aren’t you oddly gentle today?” she questioned.
“Hey, I’m always gentle,” he retorted, making her roll her eyes in response. “But the fact that we just had two kids may or may not have helped.”
She laughed again and tried to push him away. “Go bring me our kids, idiot.”
“I’m going, I’m going…” he answered. It was hard not to be in good humor after becoming a father, after all.
He hummed the lullaby he had spent the last nine months composing while walked out of the room. As he had expected, Spirit and Marie – holding the little Victor – were waiting in the hallway, together with Nygus, Tsubaki, Liz, and Patty. Kid wasn’t around yet because he had some Shinigami business to attend, but he would arrive soon. Black*Star was nowhere around.
“Nygus, Maka is awake. Can you bring-” and then he realized how tense everyone seemed to be. “Wait – what happened?”
Nygus took a deep breath. “Soul, I need you to stay calm, ok?”
That was the moment when Soul decided Nygus was a fucking terrible nurse. Wasn’t she supposed to know that the last thing you should say to someone who suffers from anxiety is to stay calm?
All alarms in his head went off like crazy simultaneously and he felt sick and dizzy. Never in his life he had felt so afraid, not even when he faced the Kishin.
“Nygus… What happened to my kids?”
“The babies are not in the infirmary. I don’t know where they are yet, but…”
“I don’t understand how this could have happened; I only took my eyes out of them for a second…”
Only a second.
Black*Star was nowhere around.
Tsubaki seemed to have reached the same conclusion because she had the horrified expression he was probably showing right now.
She opened her mouth, but before she could say anything, her meister’s voice echoed through Shibusen’s hallways.
“LISTEN, PLEBS, YOUR GOD BRINGS GOOD NEWS!”
“Ooohhh, he didn’t!” Liz exclaimed, covering her mouth.
“I’M HERE TO PRESENT YOU MY GODCHILDREN!”
“He did,” Soul, Spirit, and Marie whispered in unison.
In the next second, Liz found herself holding the little Victor, while the Death Scythes sprinted away, with Tsubaki behind them.
Soul followed his best friend’s boisterous voice without really paying attention to what he was saying. The only thing in his mind was to find him and kill him. He jumped the few steps at Shibusen’s entrance and landed dramatically on the courtyard. Soul looked up, and there he was.
Black*Star was holding his kids from the top of Shibusen while singing the Lion King’s theme.
“Tsubaki,” Soul said, very calm. “Bring him down.”
The shadow weapon didn’t need to be asked twice. She transformed into a shuriken, and Marie threw her up with all her strength. It wasn’t perfect since they were both weapons, but maybe the silent anger of two overprotective women watching newborn babies being held ten stories high was enough to replace a soul resonance.
Soul observed the shuriken flying high enough and then Tsubaki transformed back and landed behind her meister. He couldn’t hear what she said to him, but few words were all it took – or just one look at her face. She transformed into the Shadow Sword and controlled Black*Star shadow to swiftly bring him and the babies to the ground.
Those ten seconds of the descend stretched for a lifetime for Soul.
He was divided between punching Black*Star of picking the kids first, and then he remembered he had no idea of how to hold a newborn. The infuriating cherry on the top of the fucked-up sundae was realizing that the ninja seemed absolutely comfortable holding the kids in each arm. The babies seemed agitated but they weren’t crying; Soul could see their tiny – so tiny, pink, adorable – hands moving nervously, trying to grab the covers. And then he realized the other three things:
Black*Star had held his kids before him or Maka.
Black*Star had poorly painted little black stars on their foreheads.
Black*Star was a dead man.
Before he could unleash his anger, Marie stepped in first and solved his dilemma by gently picking one of the babies and passing him to Spirit, who seemed on the edge of a nervous collapse – from the emotion of being a grandfather or from everything else, Soul couldn’t tell. She picked the other baby, sent Black*Star a glare capable of freezing hell, and urged Spirit to take the kids back to Maka.
Oh, great. Marie and Spirit had also held their kids before them.
“Hey Soul, I was just-”
He punched him square on the jaw.
Now, this was something that wasn’t supposed to happen. Black*Star was a ninja assassin who was one step away to transcend God – he had insane reflexes; he had allowed Soul to punch him.
Good. That meant he already knew how badly he had fucked up.
“You are going to apologize to Maka,” Soul hissed through clenched teeth. “This wasn’t fucking funny Black*Star. You. Had. No. Right.”
The meister opened his mouth a few times to make sure his jaw was in the right place before answering. “Soul, come on, I had everything under control…”
Tsubaki interrupted by grabbing him by the back of his neck and forcefully pressing him down until he was bent in a bowing position.
“Black*Star,” the sweetness in her voice was terrifying. “Apologize to Soul for kidnapping his newborns before he could even hold them, now.”
His reaction was immediate.
“Soul, I’m sorry for kidnapping your newborns before you could even hold them,” he said in such a mechanical way that made clear for Soul that the ninja wasn’t sorry at all.
Tsubaki seemed to agree.
“You will give Maka a better apology,” she declared, leaving no room for argument.
As if to prove that point, she kept her firm grip on his neck and dragged him bent like that all the way back to Maka’s room, after Soul had ignored his half-assed apology.
When he opened the door, Soul was rewarded with the vision of Maka holding her babies and happily crying, while peppering kisses on their – already cleaned from the black paint – little foreheads. It was an amazing but somehow weird scene, since he wasn’t used to seeing Maka crying – and of happiness, nonetheless. Marie, Spirit and the Thompsons were around the bed, and the older Death Scythe seemed to be supporting Spirit to prevent him from faint from overwhelming emotion. However, that little bubble of happiness was popped at the moment Maka saw they entering the room.
Her expression suddenly became murderous.
“Black*Star,” she whispered and waited.
No one said a word.
“Look, Maka,” he said, still bent down by Tsubaki. “I know you’re upset, but I would never let anything happen to-”
“Try again,” she interrupted.
Black*Star took a deep breath, and sensing his change of demeanor, Tsubaki let him go. He stood straight and serious, sustaining Maka’s furious gaze. “I am sorry for upsetting you.”
There was no mistake about the way Maka protectively held her kids closer to her chest.
“For that, I can forgive you,” she answered.
What they left unsaid, however, spoke volumes in the silent room.
Death the Kid chose that exact time to uncharacteristically burst through the door, carrying two identical and perfectly wrapped gifts. “I’m so sorry I’m late, Soul, Maka, but…” and then he sensed the mood in the room. “What happened?”
“Drama, Kid. Just loads and loads of drama,” Soul interject before anyone else could. That day had already taken so many weird turns, and the only thing he wanted right now was to hold one of his children. He sat by Maka’s side and she immediately relaxed against him. He tried to open Aika’s closed fist with his forefinger and she grabbed it in return, with her tiny little fingers.
He melted right there.
“Come here, Kid,” Maka called, but there was still an unmistakable coldness in her voice that signed that she wasn’t ok with what had happened.
Knowing her, Soul doubted that she would ever forget that – Black*Star had a long road of redemption ahead. Maka had trust issues and the ninja had just made it to the top of her blacklist.
Death the Kid told her, many years ago, that Chrona once said that “hell is inside your head.”
She couldn’t agree more.
The few days they had spent in the surveillance post resting while Kim attended to their many injuries had helped to clear their minds a little, but the lack of space or privacy had prevented them from discussing what had happened. Add to that the tension of reporting their failure to Kid, and Maka’s level of stress was already sky-high.
It didn’t help that Kid had informed them that Black*Star and Tsubaki had already received the envelope she had left behind. According to the Shinigami, livid was a good word to describe their reaction.
Well, she would deal with that when they went back.
Right now, Soul was the only angry and frustrated man she wanted to deal with.
They were back in the jungle once more, to continue to track the demon from where they had encountered it. It was still dangerous and too exhaustive to keep a group resonance inside the affected area, so to assure their safety, Kim and Jackie were flying above the forest (and out of the affected zone), and Killik and the twins would also be tracking them using the shamans’ connection to the earth. She also had the flare gun Jacqueline had bought to them in case of another surprise attack from the demon.
Honestly, there wasn’t anything Maka wanted more right now than to be attacked again. She wanted that demon dead soon.
Soul hummed in agreement in the back of her mind, which reminded her they still had unfinished business.
“Soul, we need to talk about that last fight,” she declared, leaving no room for argument.
He didn’t answer immediately, but transformed back to his human form, maybe to show her how serious he was taken the issue. No, not maybe – it was exactly for that reason. They had been resonating for so long that sometimes their thoughts got messed up, and it was hard to tell what one was thinking and what the other was just imagining.
Soul sat down on a prominent root, his back resting against the tree. Maka kneeled in front of him, to make sure he wouldn’t avoid eye contact.
“Your thoughts are a mess, I can sense the perturbation in your soul,” she tried to sound like the Emperor, but her attempt of humor was received with incredulity and raised eyebrows. “Soul, please… tell me what’s going on.”
“Can’t you tell?” he retorted, in his typical avoiding-the-topic-Evans-maneuver.
“No, not really. As I said, your thoughts are a mess.” Maka smiled. “We passed the point of keeping secrets from each other a long time ago, right?”
His face simply fell, and she was surprised by how hopeless he seemed.
“Maka, this madness… it’s getting me. Even with your wavelengths I-” he swallowed hard. “We don’t know what’s going on in the Black Room, I can’t play the piano, we can’t use our full force against the demon, and…”
He stopped, biting his lip, eyes full of uncertainty and… fear?
Maka held his hands tight. “And…?”
“…we could end up dead,” he whispered.
Because not even demon madness could change that. It was the reason why they had to left that envelope for Black*Star and Tsubaki, after all. The consequences were terribly simple and they didn’t need to discuss them again.
“And I failed you and you got hurt-”
“No,” Maka interrupted, decisively. “The demon caught us by surprise and he was stronger than us. We fought like always – we didn’t fail. We were defeated, simple like that.”
“Because we couldn’t use our full force,” he insisted, frowning. “Because of my weakness to madness-”
“Because we were caught off guard,” Maka insisted, frowning back.
Soul shook his head, in denial.
“Don’t try to make me feel better, Maka.”
She sighed, tiredly. “Well, how about if you stopped pulling yourself down, for a change?”
“Well, how about you admitting I’m right, for a change?”
“I will admit you are right when you stop being stupid.”
“Oh, now I am being stupid? Wow, very supportive, Maka, I can feel the love for sure…”
“Oh, now you want me to be supportive? You just said that I shouldn’t try to make you feel better…”
“So, you admit you were just saying that to cheer me up?”
“Of course I’m trying to make you feel better, idiot, but that doesn’t mean I was lying…”
“Almost fooled me…”
“Why, why you… Why do you always have to be like that?”
“So fucking PeSSimisT.”
“Is that what you think? Is thAt what You ALWAYS thouGht?”
“Well, I’m thinking NoW…”
“hahahaha, you’re HILARIOUS mAaKa”
“ANd YOU arE the OPPOSITE oF Hillllllarious, SoUl”
It was the hysterical laugh that made Maka realize what was happening.
Soul laughed a little.
But Soul didn’t laugh like that.
“Soul doesn’t laugh like that.”
That thought slapped her back to reality, and she looked to her side to see him rolling on the ground, holding his belly and contorting hysterically.
““When did we fall?”
Maka rolled over him and tried to make Soul stop. She sat on his lap and held his arms, but he struggled against her, still laughing with his eyes closed. Tears were running down his face and she feared he would suffocate. Maka gave up in trying to immobilize him, and just pressed his arms against her chest when she leaned forward until their foreheads touched.
She amplified their soul resonance and dove into the Black Room.
The Black Dress enveloped her with a familiar, yet disturbing, sensation when her heels sank in the black goo overflowing the room. It was sticky, thicker than blood, making it almost impossible for her to walk.
Almost being the keyword.
Soul was playing the piano; the bench had disappeared and he was standing, curved over the instrument. It was a terrible posture for a pianist, she concluded, but that probably meant nothing to him now. Maka didn’t recognize the song he was playing, and she wasn’t well versed in music in general, even after living with him for so many years, but she one thing she knew for sure:
Those heavy, dark tunes, who seemed to ask for help and to be left alone, were unmistakably Soul’s.
She forced her way through the black goo until she was standing behind him. Soul didn’t react to her and Maka hesitated – she wanted to get him out of here as soon as possible, but this was also their chance to understand what was going on in the room. The weirdly shaped candles were lit, so she could see the whole room – aside from the goo on the floor and the missing bent, there wasn’t anything unusual that she could see, so…
Maka skirted over Soul to stare at the piano, and then she understood.
There were four sets of marks scattered on the piano – deep slashes, like claw marks.
The demon had four arms.
Soul was right – it was inside of his mind.
She had to get him out, NOW.
“Soul!” she called, but he still didn’t answer, or gave any sign that he had heard her. His fingers were dancing feverishly over the keys, his eyes were wide and his muffled laugh was escaping through his clenched teeth. “Soul, listen to my voice!”
She grabbed one of his hands.
She was five years old, and her feet didn’t reach the piano’s pedals yet
She was seven years old, but old enough to understand what “disappointment” meant
She was nine years old, and her tutor declared she should give up because someone who lacked will, would never be anyone in the musical world
She was ten years old, and her parent’s smiles seemed forced
She was eleven years old and Wes was never at home, but her family wished she was the one who would go away
She was twelve years old, and she concluded that there was no reason for her to be alive, since no one wanted her here. She knew exactly how to slice her wrist to make it quick…
They screamed together when he pushed her away.
Maka staggered but Soul was the one who lost balance and fell on his knees, his hands sinking in the black goo. He was trembling, and when Maka took a step forward, he whispered:
“You shouldn’t have seen that.”
She felt sick. She could cry. She wanted to cry.
She kneeled down and held his face between her hands.
“Let’s get out of here.”
She opened her eyes and found his crimson ones staring right back at her. Soul disentangled his hands and hugged her, pulling Maka closer to his chest. She hid her face in the curve of his neck, inhaling deeply the smell of grass and dirt. His skin was sweaty and hot, and irrevocably alive.
She pretended to not hear him crying and no one said a word.
The worst part was the mornings.
Soul could handle the night. He was usually so exhausted after setting the camp and having their frugal dinner, that sleep would come easily to him. On the first night back to the forest, Maka had been afraid of a surprise attack, but they agreed that taking turns watching the camp would only make their mission more difficult – they needed to sleep.
His nights were filled with nightmares: distorted memories of his past, mostly. Sometimes it was his parents chaining him to the grand piano, where his fingers would melt into the keys and he would play until nothing but his bones were left. Wes could come and go, always with a patronizing smile and venomous words.
When it wasn’t his family, old and new enemies would take turns to torture him: the mole-demon using his four arms to rip off all his limbs at once; Medusa would bond him with her snakes, and them would slowly penetrate every orifice of his body.
Free slashing his throat to play with his vocal cords.
Eruka exploding his eyeballs.
Even distorted versions of Stein and Blair paid him a visit now and then, but none of those were as bad as the ones where Maka was the one being tortured.
He dreamed about not being able to prevent Chrona from slashing her. The Kishin using him, his blade, to peel off her skin and trap her in a bag. Arachne immobilizing her with her webs while Mosquito sucked her dry.
Once, he dreamed about the Sloth chapter in the Book of Eibon, about what
could would have happened if he hadn’t stood against Giriko. That was the only night he woke up screaming.
Yet, the worst part was the mornings.
The nightmares he could handle. Most of those were nothing new; both he and Maka had rough nights after the Battle in the Moon. They started the habit of sleeping in the same bad, even if apart, to seek out some kind of comfort. Because of that, Soul had learned the hard way how to control himself and not release a blade while sharing a bed, it didn’t matter how distressed the dreams made him. Nightmares were just nightmares.
The mornings were real.
Maka woke him up, because he had cuddled her once again, preventing her from resting properly. The madness waves invaded his body like the air in his lungs – Maka’s wavelength would stop him from going bat shit crazy, but he could feel the corruption crawling in his skin, slowly poisoning his veins. His neck was killing him, burning as if there were fingers strangling it. He was still hearing the Little Ogre’s laugh, even though Maka had confirmed that there wasn’t anything in the Black Room aside from those marks on his piano.
His body would register those sensations even before he got up. During those breathless seconds, Soul stared at the tent’s ceiling, knowing he had another day ahead of him that would be just like yesterday: tiring, fruitless, maddening. The most significant change the day could bring was the rain: warm, merciless, maddening rain.
Soul would get up, take a piss on the trees and then be back to unfold the tent while Maka fixed something to pass for breakfast. He would spend the next hours making a conscious effort to not go crazy or be a jerk to her. He would avoid thinking about their kids because that made him anxious and Maka sad. He would transform into a scythe because sometimes Maka felt better knowing they were ready to fight at any moment. They would take a few breaks and ration food and water. By the end of the day, they would set the camp once again after another day like the others. He would fall asleep and the nightmares would welcome him, and he would be relieved because this… this he knows how to handle.
Unfortunately, the mornings always came.
The worst part was the nights.
The days passed in a blur, while she was occupied with her methodical routine. Wake up; eat; look out for the demon; keep a resonance; prepare to sleep. She consciously tried to keep a positive attitude and be careful with their mission – Maka could feel Soul’s frustration with the days that were always the same, with no results, and she couldn’t blame him for that. She was also feeling frustrated and even a little desperate, but it was against her nature to give in to those feelings. Maka Albarn-Evans was made of nothing less than persistence, and as long as she was breathing, she would keep fighting.
She wasn’t scared of the fruitless routine, but the nights were a whole problem in itself.
While it was easy for Soul to just pass out of tiredness, that wasn’t the case for her. Lying awake on her sleeping bag while trying to discern the shadows that moved over their tent, Maka would let her thoughts wander – the night was the time when she would feel most vulnerable and helpless.
Soul and she had an unspoken agreement, ever since they became partners: to never talk about things that would make them worse, or about which they had no control over. Soul never asked her about her mother, and she didn’t ask about his childhood either. She didn’t need to know why he was so self-conscious about his music – just that he was and she shouldn’t pry if he wasn’t ready to talk. Maybe it wasn’t a good way to deal with their issues, but it had worked for them so far, and during this mission, they had elected a new topic to be taboo:
They knew they were safe and sound back in Death City; that her papa, Blair, Marie, and the others were taking good care of them. If the worst happened, they had taken all the precautions to make sure their future was secured. They had talked and prepared the kids for their long absence, even knowing that as much as the twins claimed to be proud Death Children, the reality wasn’t that easy. They were missing their mama and papa as much as their parents were missing them right now. They were probably unhappy, stressed and afraid – Aika had probably transcended her grumpy status and became straight-up insolent, and Sound most likely built his walls so high that only his sister would hear his voice, and only when everything became too much for him to handle alone. Maka could see that as clear as the day – they could have her features, but deep down they were just like Soul.
She missed them so much it hurt.
Yet, their years-long-unspoken agreement remained. Their kids were safe, and the only thing they could do to go back to them was finishing the mission. There was no point in crying over it – it would only remind them of how hurt they were. On top of that, there was something profoundly wrong with talking about them in that forest – as if saying their names out loud, they would be bringing the kids here, where the demon was. If they didn’t say their names out loud, if they didn’t really think about them, the madness wouldn’t be able to use them. And considering that the kids hadn’t made an appearance in any of their nightmares or hallucinations so far, it had been worth it.
She didn’t know if she could handle seeing her babies being tortured, like happened with Soul every night in her dreams.
The hours she spent awake waiting for sleep to come, however, were still worse than the nightmares. “Hell is inside your head”, Chrona once said, and during those restless moments, every pessimistic thought she didn’t allow herself to have while resonating with Soul would come back to her at full force.
The demon could unleash a surprise attack during their sleep.
Soul could end up crazy just like Stein or worse.
They could get seriously injured, beyond Kim’s ability to heal them.
They could be killed.
If they were killed, she would never have a chance to apologize to Black*Star and explain everything.
If they were killed, they wouldn’t see their children growing up.
If they were killed, they wouldn’t be together anymore.
Those thoughts prevented her from sleep – sometimes even from breath. While Soul was asleep, she would let her tears of frustration and fear roll freely over her face because, at the end of the day, one thing remained the same: they were idiots who like to carry their own weight. Sometimes sharing a burden didn’t mean to make it lighter, on the contrary: it would make the burden multiply. If Soul had the Black Room to retreat to, she used those lost hours to vent her frustrations to the night.
It was the only moment she felt alone.
And the nights always came.
The water Kim and Jacqueline had provided were already gone when they finally found a small river. Soul would love nothing more than throw himself in the blessed cold water and open his mouth to drink as much as he could. However, they weren’t completely insane yet, so after Maka mumbled something about animal feces and dysentery, they started the campfire to boil the water they would consume.
He was so tired. It didn’t matter how many times he complained about that to himself, he was so fucking tired. The heat, the insects and lack of proper sleep were doing a number on his body – his soul had seemed better days, but his mind was the most fucked up. He needed something to focus on. He needed to clear his mind. He needed-
He needed to go home.
Maka seemed to agree with his mental rumble because she let out a mournful sigh. She was as tired as he was, heck, probably more, considering that she was sustaining a resonance with him daily. They had been in this shit mission for weeks, almost two months. That was the longest mission they had took since the war against the Kishin, since their kids were born. They had never been away for so long, and he couldn’t put in words what he was feeling.
‘Desperate’ didn’t even start to describe it.
She wasn’t looking at him. While Soul sat in the humid ground, unhappily taking care of the fire, Maka was kneeled by the river, washing her hair the best she could. “I’m remembering something I read a long time ago. It was an article about words that don’t have a translation to English, they only make perfect sense in their original language.”
The kind of thing Maka found interesting. But heck, he was in desperate need of some distraction for his mind.
The foreign word sounded strangely on Maka’s lips. That was probably not the right pronunciation since she had struggled with the ‘u’ a bit, but there was no point in bothering her with that, so he just went on with it. “What’s that?”
“Oh, from Brazil?”
“From Portugal, but yeah, in Brazil they speak a variant of the language,” she corrected, ever the nerd. Soul had come to the conclusion, a long time ago, that he wouldn’t love her so much if she wasn’t exactly like that, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t make fun of her.
“Cool,” was the only response he gave, still tending the fire with a long stick. With his peripheral vision, he saw her finally turn her head on his direction, face half covered with wet hair and brows squinting together in suspicion.
She knew the game he was playing, but she had no patience left for it. She wanted him to ask, but he wouldn’t, even if he was curious, so instead of asking him to question it, she just gave the answer: “It means a deep emotional state of melancholic longing for a person or thing that is absent.”
“Ooh, that’s… a lot of stuff for only a word,” he conceded. Maka had once again turned her back to him, still focused on washing her hair. “But isn’t it like… missing someone?”
“No, missing would be what they call sentir falta,” she explained, and once more Soul mentally asked forgiveness to all Portuguese-speaking-people around the world for her disastrous pronunciation. “Saudade is more than just missing someone.”
This time Maka was the one who stopped and waited because she knew she had his interest, and it was payback for his attempt to irritate her earlier. Aika liked to say they bickered like an old couple, but their daughter had no idea they had been like that since they were twelve.
Maka got up twisting her wet hair, her head slightly tilted upwards.
Still not looking at him.
“We miss someone because they are not here and we want to see them again. Saudade is… Is remembering all the good things and the bad things that make that person special. It is remembering everything you lived together, and wishing for more, hoping for more.”
She let her hair fall on her back and looked up to the Black Moon, visible even during the day.
“Saudade is the sentiment they used to describe the sailors’ wives during the Great Navigations. They would stand on the port, watching the sea and pray for their husbands to come back home. Saudade is the uncertainty of not knowing if you are ever going to go back to the time when you were happier.”
Her shoulders started to tremble, and he finally understood why she wasn’t looking at him.
More than thirty years later, she still hated it when he saw her crying.
“It’s wanting to go back home when you can’t,” Soul concluded, because saying out loud ‘it’s not knowing if you are ever going to see your kids again’ was too much, even for him, for them, now.
And they had an unspoken agreement to maintain.
Maka was as scared as he was feeling, and if blabbing about foreign words was her way to confess it, he could play along.
“It’s a beautiful word, Maka. Thanks… Thanks for telling me,” he said, still observing the way she was shaking.
She didn’t answer immediately; instead, she shoved her face in the river and let the stream carry her tears and frustrations away. The truth they knew but had refused to acknowledge for a while was simple: they were at the edge of a complete breakdown. ‘A sound soul dwells within a sound mind and a sound body’ was the first lesson they learned at Shibusen, but only now they were fully comprehending it.
Their bodies were sore, weak and expended.
Their minds were filled with negative thoughts and bad memories.
Their souls were slowly being drained.
It was only a matter of time now.
Maka got up and went to sit by his side. He took off his bandana and gently dried her face, paying attention to how red her eyes were. She held his other hand and rested against his shoulder.
“Maybe we should retreat to the surveillance post again,” he mumbled. “You could use a good night of sleep.”
“We would be only delaying the inevitable,” she answered. “It’s a waste of time. As long as we stay here, we have a chance of finding it.”
“We are getting weaker,” Soul observed.
She nodded. “Yes, I know.”
There was a slight note of guilt on her voice that caught his attention.
“Wait…” he turned his head and tried to see her face. “You want to stay here, you want to get weaker…” she didn’t contradict him, which made him widening his eyes. “You’re trying to lure the demon to us.”
She pulled away from him, blushing a little, but still defiant. “Well, you were the one who suggested it in the first place, remember?”
It took him awhile, but he eventually did.
“We are fucking playing bait!” he exclaimed, surprised. Maka always had a risky plan, but this was crazy even for her standards. “Are you insane?”
“Not yet, but I – we – will be pretty soon if we don’t wrap this mission!” There was no arguing with that, and he let out a tired and resigned sigh, that made her blush even more. “Are you angry with me?”
“No, I trust your decisions, I’m just… I just think I should care more than I am right now,” he massaged his neck, clearly frustrated. “I’m normally the one who stops you from doing this kind of crazy move and now I’m just going with it…”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” she tightened the grip on his hand. “Desperate times call for desperate measures, right?”
“When did that ever work on our favor?” he chuckled, humorlessly.
“Well, we are still alive, right?” Maka retorted, not without a pinch of desperation.
He hugged her close to his chest.
“Yes. We are still alive.”
Maka knew her bet had been a calculated risk, but maybe she was bad at math.
Maybe she should have predicted that, by lowering their defenses, it would not only lure the demon but also give it access to parts of their
souls minds that they had fiercely protected until now.
Day number fifty-six had been infuriatingly uneventful until that point. It had rained a little during the morning, her socks were wet and she had a blister on her right toe. Jackie and Kim had checked them the day before, and Soul was now rejoicing over the meat sandwiches they had mercifully delivered. Maka decided to change her socks before she ate her lunch, and sat down on a fallen trunk to untie her boots.
That was when she heard the first scream.
If someone stabbed her on her kidney it wouldn’t hurt as much.
She jumped up, knowing full well it was a trap, an illusion, a scheme to lure them to the deeps of the jungle once again, but…
“Maka, what is it?” Soul asked, alarmed, upon noticing her expression.
He hadn’t heard. He hadn’t heard, so it wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real. It was impossible, they were back home, they were safe…
“Son of a bitch!” Soul screamed, but he also didn’t move.
They stared at each other, equally terrified, knowing it wasn’t real but praying it wasn’t at the same time. Praying, however, didn’t solve their problems, because their God was a God of Death. That same God had sent them here, to this jungle, to kill that creature that was using their children to make them go mad, and they would be damned if they failed Him.
Serving the Shinigami meant saving the world, not saving their own souls.
“MAMA, SAVE ME!”
“PAPA, IT HURTS, IT HURTS SO MUCH!”
“Maka, it is an illusion,” he said, forcefully taking a step closer to her. Maka wondered if the air was heavy on his lungs as it was for her.
“I know,” she whispered, unmoving. It was close, she could feel it. It could attack them at any second, so why wasn’t she reacting?
“Maka, use the flare gun, warn the others,” Soul insisted, still on his human form. He seemed to be waiting for something, but she couldn’t tell what.
“MAMA! MAMA! MAMA!”
“Flare gun, sure, of course,” she mumbled, kneeling down to search for it on their backpack. Soul stayed by her side, nervously looking around, clenching his fist so hard she could see all his veins popping out.
“PAPA! PLEASE, PAPA, PLEASE!
“MAMA, I’M DYING, MAMA!”
NO, she wasn’t. Aika wasn’t here. Sound wasn’t here. It. Wasn’t. Possible.
“Maka, hurry up,” Soul mumbled, aggressively scratching his neck, eyes still fixed on the trees behind her.
Her hands were shaking so much that she let the gun fell on the ground when she finally found it.
“MAMA, MAMA IT HURTS, MAKE IT STOP, MAKE IT STOP!”
It indeed hurt.
Maka let out an agonizing screaming when she finally lifted the gun and shot it. The red flare quickly traveled up and exploded like fireworks over them. It was the signal that called the others to the fight. They had a demon to kill, and right fucking now, it was personal.
“Good, very, good,” Soul mumbled. She stared at him and realized he was trembling, covered in sweat. His breathing was heavy, just like hers. “They will take at least one hour to arrive, we should… we should fly. Stay clear from the ground.”
“You need to transform, Soul.”
“What?” he exclaimed. He raised his hands closer to his face, as if only now realizing he still had fingers. His eyes seemed distressed, unfocused. “Oh, yeah, right.”
Maka couldn’t deny she was worried about him, but when her fingers closed over the demon steal, his weigh and his wavelengths, although distressed, were just like they had always been. The Black Room was still locked, and under all the anxiety and fear, she could feel his fury boiling, just waiting for the right moment to make that demon pay for all their suffering.
She had to keep her mind focused, but it was hard to not feel blood-thirsty: they had searched for so long, waited so much, to slay that fucking bastard. They were prepared now, and they wouldn’t need a third chance – it was time to finish this.
They flew away just when the ground started to tremble. However, the demon didn’t suddenly appear, screeching, like before. Maka could see madness waves under them swirling around one point, getting thicker by the second. The screams had stopped, but another sound was slowly picking up, invading her ears and their senses like interference, like white noise:
“Moles aren’t supposed to laugh,” Soul mumbled in the back of her mind.
“Maybe we should stop thinking of it as a mole, and more like a creeper version of the Little Ogre,” which, honestly, was one thought so simple she was scared she hadn’t had it before. “What would he be doing right now?”
“Fucking me up and trying to devour my soul.”
“And if he was down there?”
“Something to bring us down so he could fuck us up and THEN devour our souls.”
“Nah, he wasn’t.”
To bring them down, hmm? Luring them with their kids’ screams hadn’t work, and they were flying so high that dodge a tree thrown at them wouldn’t be a problem. The only thing Maka imagined it could possibly try would be run away again, to force them to make a risky move. However, the demon wasn’t moving, on the contrary: it seemed to be gathering power, concentrating the madness wavelengths, and the guffaws were getting louder.
“Be ready to dodge whatever it’s going to throw at us.”
She was confident they could do that. As long as they didn’t lose sight of it, they only had to stay in the air while waiting for the backup to arrive. With Kilik and the others, they could go back to the ground and fight it, once for all. The plan was solid, unless the demon had a way to disrupt their soul resonance-
The condensed madness exploded around them like a wave of putrid corruption and familiar screams. The voices of their family and friends hollowed in agony in their minds, and Maka felt their resonance breaking apart. It was the same sensation from the fight against the Kishin: their soul wavelengths went out of synch, and it was painful, like having a limb been ripped off your body.
Her wigs disappeared, and just like that, they were once again falling to the ground.
Back into his human form, Soul screamed her name and reached out for her hand. Their fingers touched and he forcefully pulled her against him, hugging her firmly – one of his hands secured her neck, while his other arm seemed to try to cover her spine. He turned around in the air, in a way he was under her, their legs were tangled together, and Maka realized what he was doing just before the impact.
There was no time for him to answer.
She felt the impact when they hit a tree hard. Soul gasped in pain but tighter his embrace, while they kept falling, rolling over the branches cutting their faces. They finally fell on the soggy ground and Soul let go of her. She rolled away from him, feeling her whole body trembling from the fear and the pain, but no bones had been broken this time, for what she could tell.
However, Soul wasn’t moving.
She kneeled by his side and gently rolled his body until he was lying down facing her. His eyes were closed and there was blood dripping from his mouth, but his chest was mercifully moving. He had no exposed fracture, but there was no way for her to tell if he had internal bleeding or worse.
He could be dying.
Her mind was working a million miles per second. She needed to move him. She couldn’t move him; she could endanger him more. The madness around them was getting thicker. The ground was trembling. She needed to fight. The demon was coming. She needed to protect him. She could dislocate a vertebra and get him paralyzed if she screwed that up. They were going to die. The others wouldn’t arrive quickly enough. She needed to fight. She couldn’t fight. She wasn’t Black*Star. Black*Star would never forgive her. They would never see their kids again. She-
He had opened his eyes, but still wasn’t moving. “Soul! You need to-”
“There’s no time, Maka.” His eyes, she noticed, were unmistakably sane. “We can’t run away or hide. You need to fight. Use me.”
Without waiting for her answer, he turned back into a scythe. For the first time since forever, she hesitated before extending her hand to him. His eye on the blade urged her, a tree fell nearby, and pure instinct moved her body.
He was heavy on her hands, and that weight almost made her cry. Their wavelengths were still out of sync, the resonance wasn’t complete, and in the back of her mind, she could clearly see his naked body thrown, unmoving, on a dark corner of her his mind. He seemed broken – maybe he was – but he was fighting, and so would she.
The demon burst through the trees, throwing its enormous body over her, but Maka dodged in time and aimed for the long serpentine tail. Without the resonance, it felt like trying to cut a rock using a scissor, and Soul groaned in pain.
“Don’t stop. If you stop, we both die.”
She jumped over the frenetic tail, trying to stay clear from the demon’s vision, although she had no idea how it even saw anything without eyes. She tried to reconnect their resonance, but the madness was still interfering, she was so tired and Soul was so weak…
“They are waiting for us, Maka.”
“I know,” she whimpered.
The demon turned around, trying to grab her with its four paws, but she ran, making her way through the narrow path of trees, hoping that it would slow the creature down.
“We need a plan,” she said, breathless. It was so hard to run when he was feeling so heavy. “Soul?”
She didn’t dare to look at him.
“Soul, are you listen to me?”
Why was she remembering their fight against Blair now?
“Soul, don’t leave me alone.”
She wanted to cry.
“Don’t scare me like that.”
“ ‘ma sorry.”
It was disorientating trying to focus on so many things at the same time. She was running, listening to the demon getting closer, while also checking on him. Even in her mind, his voice sounded so weak, but she was momentarily relieved when he made an effort to stand up.
Until she saw him entering the Black Room.
“YoU arE goInG to dIE, Soul~”
The little Ogre had always been a little shit.
Every fiber of his body hurt, even in his scythe form. The good news was that the pain was so intense that it somehow kept him lucid. There was no floor but he was laying down, and above him, the open door and the red lights invited him back to the Black Room.
In the doorway, the Little Ogre was chewing his fingers, waiting.
“Soul, are you listening to me?”
“YoUr MeIsTeR is goIng to dIE, Soul~”
“You’re a little uninformed – she’s my wife now.”
“Soon TO bE yOur WidoW.”
“Fuck you. You aren’t real. You aren’t here.”
“MayBE I cAme to bRIng yOu to Hell wItH me.”
“Why don’t you take your demon pal instead?”
“YoU can’t wIn aGaiNst him. YoU Are WeaK wiThouT me, wiThouT the BLOOD…”
“Ok, I’m stopping you right there.” It hurt like a bitch, but he slowly got up. “I’m done with you, and I don’t care anymore. I don’t care if I’m weak, if I’m crazy, or even if I’m dying.”
“Soul, don’t leave me alone.”
“None of those things matter, so get the fuck out of my head, I have a job to finish.”
“WhAt Makes you thinK you can do it?”
“Don’t scare me like that.”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“ ‘am sorry.”
He pushed the demon aside and entered the Black Room. The goo was still covering the floor, but he ignored it, and a path was opened for him. The candles slowly started to lit, and when he sat down, his bench was there. He didn’t look at any of the marks on the wood and slowly ran his fingers over the keys, with the same delicacy he would touch Maka’s skin.
“That’s creepy even for me.”
He ignored him, and adjusted the bottoms of the suit. Freaking habits.
“It’s ok, Maka. Sorry for being such a downer until now.”
“What are you doing?”
“What are you doing? You can’t-”
“It’s ok, I can do this. Let’s finish this fight.”
“Don’t. Don’t force yourself. What if you-”
“If I die, then I die.”
“You ARE already mad.”
“But first, we are going to finish this fucking demon.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Did you forget? Isn’t it obvious?”
“Oh, you cheeky, silly boy.”
He started to play.
It was their song. The one he had played in the fight against the Kishin. The song they made together.
“Goodbye, Soul Eater.”
“I am the Death Scythe you made.”
The madness struck him like a lightning bolt, and their resonance started.
“I am the Death Scythe you made.”
Cheeky, silly boy.
“You are wrong, you know,” she said when their resonance picked up and his weight was once again comfortable in her hands. “If you die, then we die.”
Soul didn’t answer with words but, somehow, she could feel in his notes, in his music, a half-assed apology, since he wasn’t sorry at all. He was right about one thing, though: it was time to finish that mission.
She couldn’t run anymore. The demon surpassed them in both strength and speed. Soul was somehow keeping it together while playing, but there wasn’t any insurance that their resonance wouldn’t be disrupted again.
They had to end it with a single strike.
Maka called for the Demon Hunter and threw herself to the ground when the creature launched another attack. A tree flew over her head, and the gush of air messed her hair. The demon screeched louder than ever, Maka jumped up, and with a single and precise twirl of her body, the blade cut its chest.
But it wasn’t deep or fast enough, and the demon dodged in time.
Its chest was cut horizontally and black blood started to pour from the wound, but it didn’t kill it. When she turned to the side, still busted by the momentum of her strike, the creature reacted slashing her right arm open, from wrist to shoulder. The pain was unbelievable, she could no longer feel her fingers, and Soul, splashed by her blood, fell to the ground.
They say that before you die, you can see your life flashing in front of your eyes, like a movie.
Maka screamed in pain.
“MAKA! DON’T DIE! MAKA!” Soul pleaded.
The demon roared, his four arms frantically trying to cover the wound, its tail nervously hitting trees.
There is so much blood, Maka thought while seeing the red liquid pouring over her own boots. So much, so red, just like Soul’s eyes, like her kids’ eyes, her children, she needed…
She needed to close her eyes just a little, because everything hurt and everything was spinning so fast, her head was so light, and if she rested just a little…
Black*Star is going to kill me.
Oh, yeah. That was right. She had yet to apologize.
No time to die now.
Maka put her foot down decisively, before extending her left arm and screaming for her scythe one last time. “SOUL!”
The Demon Hunter came back at full force and Maka ran towards her target. The demon was still hysterical, its claws slashing more of its own skin while trying to stop the bleeding. They wouldn’t have another chance like that.
She aimed for the head.
She would like to say that the scythe beheaded the demon with a single, swift movement, but that wasn’t the case. Her strike with the left hand was weaker and poorly executed, and the blade stuck on the flesh of the neck. The demon roared in agony when a rain of black blood covered them, and grabbed the shaft with the four arms, forcing Maka to let it go.
Soul was quick to transform back, escaping the demon’s grip, and immediately became a scythe on Maka’s hands again. She had no strength left to use her technics, her eyes were half covered by the creatures’ blood, so she aimlessly slashed the demon, while roaring in fury. At every strike, the demon screeched louder, his head pending in a weird angle, but it was still not dead. One of the arms tried to pair Maka’s rampage attack, and a paw was cut off.
The reaction was immediate: the tail whipped Maka with the force of a truck, and she was thrown against a nearby tree like a rag doll.
When her face hit the soggy ground, the pain was unbelievable. That’s it, she thought, this is how I die. Soul transformed back, but his body had also reached his limit: he kneeled down at her side, struggling to breathe. He took off his jacket and tried to improvised a bandage, but he couldn’t stop her bleeding.
Behind him, she saw the demons’ enormous body falling and stopping moving.
Everything was so red.
The last thing she heard was Soul’s desperate call of her name.
Interlude – nine years ago
“I still can’t believe you guys are parents now,” Black*Star said, as he lifted Sound over his head. The baby laughed, delighted, and Maka sat down beside him on the couch, wishing her cellphone was at hand so she could take a couple of pictures.
“And why is that?” she asked.
The twins’ first birthday party was a small event. Marie had taught her how to bake and decorate a cake, and Soul and Tsubaki had cooked dinner for all their friends and close family. Soul’s parents couldn’t attend because of some important concert, but they had called earlier and even face-timed a little to see the kids. Wes was there, currently holding Aika and having some heated discussion with Death the Kid, who was utterly distressed by the girl’s uneven pigtails.
“I thought you were scared of the whole motherhood thing,” the ninja answered casually, as if what he had said didn’t stir every fiber of her body. Maka couldn’t tell if he was utterly clueless, tactless, or both.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Black*Star,” she rolled her eyes.
“If you say so…” he muttered, still focused on making Sound laugh. “Did your mother call?”
And the answer was: tactless.
“It’s her loss,” he shrugged. It was weirdly comforting, and Maka smiled just a little. “Is your old man already spoiling them?”
“He’s trying,” she answered, observing Spirit helping Soul to collect used plates and forks. “But he has also been surprisingly useful.”
Black*Star nodded. “Oh yeah, I heard you guys are finally taking a break and calling some people to help.”
Sound got tired of playing and extended his arms to Maka, pouting. She giggled while picking him up. “How did you know that?”
“Tsubaki told me. She was worried about you.”
“We are fine, I promised,” she said, accommodating Sound’s head on the curve of her neck. “Both Blair and Papa are taking turns to babysit for us.”
“Yeah, count me in for that too.” Maka just shrugged in response, rolling her eyes, and Black*Star frowned in response. “Oi, shortie, I’m serious you know.”
“Yeah, sorry, but you’re forever banned from my list of possible babysitters, Black*Star.”
“What the hell? I have more experience raising children than you, in case you forgot!”
“Are you seriously counting Angela?”
“That Angela?” Maka pointed at the young witch currently sat on the top of the refrigerator and eating cake with her hands. “Why is she even there?”
“It’s training. She wants to get over her fear of high. Witch-ninjas-meisters can’t get all coward just because they are hanging from a build.”
There were so many things wrong with that sentence, but for now, she chose to focus on the matter at hand. “Like how you hung up my kids from the top of Shibusen precisely one year ago?”
Black*Star let out a tired sigh and leaned forward, propping his arms on his knees. “Seriously? Because of that?”
“And you think it isn’t enough of a good reason?”
“Considering that I would never let anything bad happen to your kids? Yes.”
Maka knew that. Deep down, she knew that, in the whole world, there wasn’t a place safer for her kids than by Black*Star’s side. And maybe that was part of the problem – a problem that had very little to do with the Shibusen incident, and very much to do with herself.
She never said she was perfect. Maka also had a pity, ugly side, and because of that, she saw a chance – a chance to lie – and she took it:
“I don’t trust you to take care of my children, Black*Star, and I will never forgive you for that.”
There was a needle in his hand.
Even before he opened his eyes, Soul already knew there was a needle stuck in his skin – he could feel it and the sensation was horrible. He hated needles, especially in his pianist’s hands. Why the fuck the nurses would put that damn thing there, instead of in his arm? That was why he hated hospitals, and-
The memories came back to him and he violently sat up.
Maka was dying.
He tried to scream her name but his throat was so dry that only a muffled noise came out of his lips. The room was dark, aside from the faint moonlight creeping through the curtains. There was another bed in the room, but he couldn’t discern who was lying there-
“Easy, Soul. Drink this.”
He was momentarily confused when a plastic cup suddenly materialized before his eyes. He blinked a few times, still adjusting his vision to the darkness, but he recognized that soothing voice.
“Thunder?” his whisper was hoarse. He gladly accepted the water the shaman gently brought to his lips. He hadn’t realized yet how heavy his arms felt.
“Yes,” she confirmed. “You’re in Beijing Hospital. Maka’s here too. She’s alive, and out of danger.”
He let his body fell back on the bed. Never, in his entire life, he was more thankful for the fact that even though the shaman weapons rarely talked, when they did, it was always on point.
Thunder didn’t answer, and suddenly the room lights were on. Once more, he had to blink a few times to adjust his vision, but he discerned Fire by the door. He walked to the bed and stopped beside his sister.
“How are you feeling?”
“Like a demon tried to kill me,” he answered. The twins didn’t laugh, but their expressions were amused. Well, good thing someone was, because Soul couldn’t be further from that. His eyes drifted to the other bed; now that the lights were on, he could see Maka’s pale hand, but her face was mostly covered by an oxygen mask. “How is she?”
“Alive, which, honestly, is a miracle you can thank me for,” Kim half-said, half-yawned. Soul decided he was still disoriented because only now he noticed the couch on the corner of the room, where Kim, Jackie, and Kilik seemed to have been dog piled asleep until now.
“Extended sleepover?” he blabbed, like an idiot. The girls rolled their eyes in response, but Kilik laughed since only he understood the reference.
“Something like that,” he came to sit by the foot of his bed. “We had to make sure you wouldn’t try to die again, after all.”
“We had no choice; the demon disrupted our resonance and we crashed…”
“We figured out that much,” Jackie gently interrupted. She and Kim stood between his and Maka’s bed, and just like that, he was surrounded by his friends who had saved their lives. “It also made me and Kim fell, that was why we didn’t arrive sooner.”
“But we did arrive just in time to prevent Maka from bleeding to death and you from suffocating, mister-punctured-lung,” Kim completed, giving him a pat on the left foot – probably the only part of his body that wasn’t sore and stiff. “So, again, you can thank me for that…”
“What? But the hideout was one hour away…”
“As if we could leave you two idiots by yourselves after what happened,” Kim crossed her arms. “Don’t underestimate my healing powers. I may not be able to stay a long time in a madness-infected area like Maka, but I do can stay closer enough to keep us sane.”
“What Kim is trying to tell you is that this whole time, we have been coming and going from the jungle, trying to be ready in case you needed us,” Kilik explained. “You were lucky we were around when you shot the flare gun.”
“When the madness waves disrupted our resonance, we had to run, but Fire and Thunder easily located you.” The shamans only nodded solemnly at Jackie’s mention. “We arrived when the demon was still writhing on the ground, and you-”
“What happened to it?” Soul interrupted.
The others shared some apprehensive looks.
“We confirmed it’s dead – congratulations on killing it, by the way – but the body didn’t disappear,” Kilik explained. “After aiding you, we immediately contacted Shibusen, and Kid sent a military helicopter to pick us and bring you to this hospital. I believe Shibusen’s staff has dealt with the body.”
“Professor Stein is definitely eager to dissect it,” Jackie commented. “I bet he can’t wait to go home.”
“Don’t we all?” Soul mumbled, and then he realized what the other weapon had said. “Hold on – is Stein here?”
“Of course,” Kim confirmed. “After we reported the situation to Kid, in less than twenty hours Mr. Albarn burst through that door crying Maka’s name, and dragging Professor Stein with him.”
It shouldn’t have surprised Soul. It didn’t matter how much time passed, Maka would always be Spirit’s little girl.
“For how long I was out?”
“And where are they now?”
“They found a hotel room. There wasn’t more space on that couch anyway.” As if to reinforce his point, Kilik cracked his neck. Soul noticed that they were wearing new clean casual clothes, but they were wrinkled. On the floor beside the couch, there were piles of books, games and even a small manicure kit.
Oh fuck, those idiots were going to make him cry.
“You didn’t have to wait for us,” he said, falling back to his old habit of acting like a cool guy.
The girls (including Thunder!) sent him a glare capable of freezing hell.
“Shut up, Eater,” Kim’s tone left no space for argument. “We came to this hellish mission together, and we are going back together.”
“Told you, didn’t I?” Kilik grinned.
Soul blushed a little and avoided everyone’s eyes by looking over Maka’s bed again. “How is her condition?”
No one answered immediately, which made all alarms in Soul’s head go off like crazy. He glared at each one of them, and their serious, uncertain expressions made him jump directly to the worse-case scenario. “Did she lose her arm?”
“No!” Kim declared with conviction. “Nothing like that but… There was so much they could do for her. It’s better if the doctors explain to you.”
“Fuck,” he whispered, covering his eyes with his left arm. The tiredness of those last two months suddenly came crashing over him, and he made a conscious effort to not think about what would happen now.
Thunder gently held his other hand, being careful to avoid the freaking needle. “She’s alive, Soul. You both are.”
“That’s all that matter,” Fire completed.
They were right, of course. After holding her cold, pale body on his arms, while her blood painted the ground red, he should be thankful they were going back to their kids together. Even so, it was impossible to not think that somehow that could have been prevented. It was a terrible, egoistical thought, but Soul didn’t want to be wielded by anyone but Maka.
Burying his wife, however, was a thought a million times more terrible.
“Yeah,” he sighed, tiredly. “Yeah, that’s all that matter.”
Maka woke up screaming.
She couldn’t remember her nightmare, but her first impulse was to struggle in bed. She couldn’t move her arms, and something seemed to be covering her nose and mouth, making her more desperate. Her tongue was numb and her throat was burning; she wanted to cry but her eyelids were too heavy to open.
Was she dying?
“Maka, Maka, it’s ok, you’re safe, calm down.”
She felt his hands on her shoulders, stopping her struggle. His voice was filled with worry, but even then, it was more effective than any sedative.
“Soul?” her whisper was barely audible.
“Rest, Maka, we will be here when you wake up.”
She wanted to ask who “we” were, but unconsciousness caught her before she had the chance to.
The next time, she woke up at dawn. Maka’s brain slowly registered her surroundings, while her heavy eyes tried to blink the sleep away. There were particles of dust dancing in the air over her head, and the constant beep of the machines around her made she concluded she was in a hospital room. She still couldn’t move her arms, her whole body was feeling sore and numb and Maka could kill for a glass of water right now, but she was alive.
She inhaled deeply and let that thought cemented in her mind.
She was alive.
“Maka is awake,” Fire’s voice was higher than she had ever heard before, been followed by noises and low mumbles.
“Do shamans even sleep?” Kim’s voice was the first she discerned, but that strange question quickly disappeared from her mind. Soul’s face appeared above hers: he was unshaven and there were dark purple circles under his eyes, but the smiled lovely to her.
“How are you feeling, wifey?” he asked.
“Tired,” she whispered. “My throat…”
“Here.” Maka heard Thunder’s voice, but the shaman was out of her vision. Soul thanked the other weapon, and brought a small plastic cup to her lips.
“It’s water,” he explained, while she took smalls sips. The burning in her throat was momentarily relieved. “Do you want to sit?”
The bed slowly moved after he pushed some bottoms on the armrest. Now that she was almost on a sitting position, Maka could see the others approaching her: the twins, Kim, Jacqueline and Kilik. Soul sat at the foot of the bed and held her left hand.
There were a lot of things Maka wanted to ask, but a few she could concluded alone: they had saved her, they had been waiting for her to wake up, the mission was probably over. However, her unmoving right arm wrapped in bandages from wrist to shoulder was her more urgent concern.
“And my arm?”
Their expressions immediately became more sober, and with a heavy sigh, Soul tighten his grip on her hand.
“The demon slashed your muscles, tendons, and nerves,” he started, very serious. “You can ask Stein the details later – he’s here with your dad – but basically, you lost most of your arm’s movements for now.”
“For now?” she desperately hung up on that last word.
Soul sent Kim a helpless look.
“I used my powers to stop you from bleeding to death, Maka, but, honestly, there’s a limit for what even magic can do,” the witch explained. “The doctors had to reconstruct your arm. You’re going to undergo some serious therapy from now on, and in the future, you will be able to recover most of your movements, but…”
“Demon’s wounds are cursed,” Stein intervened. He was entering the room with a crying Spirit at his toes. The doctor had his usual blank-yet-freak expression, which wasn’t reassuring at all, while her father seemed to be biting a handkerchief to contain back his whining. Surprisingly, that was a little comforting. “The same way Soul’s scar reacts to the madness coming from Chrona on the moon sometimes, yours will have the same problem. It will also prevent you from ever completely heal.”
“So… my meister’s days are over?” she asked.
Her words hung up heavy over everyone’s heads; her eyes were locked with Soul’s. Retiring earlier was never an option; breaking their twenty-years-long partnership was never an option, not even when their kids were born. She was scared and he seemed on the edge of crying while they waited for Stein’s sentence. Being a meister wasn’t everything she was, but it was an undeniable big part of their us.
“Only you can know if your arm will get on your way or not, Maka,” Stein answered, uncharacteristically gentle. “You’ll need to take a long, extended leave to take care of that, but I trust you two to find a solution you can commit to.”
“It’s just another fight, Maka,” Soul reassured her, even though his eyes were full of sadness and regret. She would have to talk to him about that later.
She swallowed hard and turned to her father.
“Papa, what about the children?” she asked, and Spirit promptly kneeled by her side.
“They miss you a lot, but I told them I was coming to get you and they cheered up a little,” he explained, gently brushing her bangs from her forehead. “You will be discharged soon, and then we can all go home.”
With a heavy sigh, Maka looked at those people who had done everything they could to save her life. There was no mistake that she would have a long road of recovery ahead, but right now it was time to be thankful for everyone making it back alive. Saudades was a beautiful word but a painful feeling, and she was also a mother, a sister and a friend who had made a lot of people worry.
Home was also a beautiful word.
“Good job, everyone,” Death the Kid said, staring at each one of his friends. “I know these past months were hell for all of you, and Shibusen is lucky to have you as meisters and weapons. The demon was killed, and our agents in the Asian brunch are working to dissipate the concentrated madness. This threat was neutralized before any human causality happened, and for that, you have my gratitude.”
“I appreciate the gratitude but I would like a raise better,” Kilik said, making the others laugh.
Kid grinned. “Feel free to take your request to Azusa, she’s the one dealing with our countability right now.”
“I suddenly changed my mind; gratitude is awesome.”
There was a certain purpose on Kilik’s humor, and Kid was relieved the meister was able to keep the mood light. His Shinigami mantle had never felt heavier than when he received the news that Soul and Maka had almost died in that mission; she could even be forced to retire earlier due to her injuries. Sending their team had been the logical, methodical choice – they were the more capable people available to deal with a demon.
Not sending Black*Star and Tsubaki to help them – what could have insured their success and earlier return – however, was deliberately emotional. Soul and Maka had asked for it, and he had agreed. He could understand their reasoning, but shouldn’t he, the Shinigami, know better? If he had simply sent the ninja duo, or even if he had gone, wouldn’t it have been better?
He had brooded over those questions countless times in the past two months, but he always got to the same answer. The world was different from back in his friends’ teens days – he was a different Shinigami from his father; the last Death God. His duty was to the world; he had to see the big picture, plan for the future, and sometimes that meant making difficult choices and taking risks.
Risks such as endangering his friends’ lives for the sake of the greater good.
“What will happen with the demon’s corpse?” There was unmistakable apprehension on Maka’s voice, and he couldn’t blame her (and Soul) for being uneasy with the idea of experiments involving demons.
“Professor Stein – helped by Marie, of course – will conduct the research. We can’t know for sure if a situation like this one won’t happen again. We are in desperate need of more information about demons. You are free to track his progress or join him. This is classified information, but you all are veteran meisters and weapons.” He turned to Kim. “We will, of course, share our results with our allies in the Witch Council.”
“Maybe they will find something to help us to understand more about the Black Blood,” Soul said, holding Maka’s shoulder.
Her eyes immediately brightened.
“We could find a way to help Chrona!” she exclaimed.
That was Maka’s best quality. She never stopped fighting, she never gave up hope, she never abandoned her friends. She had just come back from a nightmare mission where she almost died and had lost the mobility of her right arm, but her mind was already sharp and focusing on the next goal. She never stopped amazing Kid.
“Let’s hope for the best,” he said. “Do you have any other questions?”
The others gave him negative head nods, but Soul bit his lip, uncertain.
“Just one,” he said, but didn’t elaborate further. His wavelengths suddenly were apprehensive, which didn’t go unnoticed by the others.
“I don’t know about you guys but I’m dying for a nap on my bed,” Kim commented, loudly. “Are we free to go, Lord Shinigami?”
They only called him that when something was off. “Of course, Kim. Once again, thank you for your hard work.”
They said goodbye to the others and left the Death Room, leaving only Maka and Soul alone with him. Liz and Patty had left earlier to pick their kids from the NOT! Class and he could feel their tension building up.
“What’s the matter, Soul?”
“Kid, I saw the Little Ogre again in my mind, but that isn’t possible, right?”
He was afraid. It was unsetting. Much more unsettling than his crooked bandana.
“It’s perfectly possible, Soul.” That startled both, and he decided to rephrase. “Not the real one – he’s gone since Chrona purged the Black Blood out of your body. However, you did live with him for a long time; it’s only natural that your subconscious would manifest him as the embodiment of the madness you were subjected to.”
“So, everything I saw, everything he said… it was only my mind fucking me up?”
Kid nodded. “Influenced by the other demon, yes.”
“Told you,” Maka said, but she had also let a relieved breath out.
“You’re no longer infected, Soul,” the Shinigami reinforced. “It was only the way your mind found to deal with everything.”
“Then my mind is a little shit,” he mumbled. Although his words, he was clearly more relieved.
Maka rolled her eyes, and she was about to add something when she suddenly froze. There were four well-known wavelengths approaching them, and she grabbed Soul’s hand for comfort. After observing the twins’ struggle during the past months, Kid couldn’t really blame her.
Sound was walking with his head hanging down, hands anchored in his pockets and shoulders tensed. Aika was frowning and her long red hair was tied in two – uneven – pigtails, and she was the first to see her parents in front of them. She stopped, eyes wide, and that caught her brother’s attention.
“Ai-nee, what is it-”
And then he saw them.
He ran and threw herself in Soul’s open arms. The Death Scythe hugged him tightly, while Maka peppered kisses on his white hair. Kid could feel their wavelengths change from apprehension to utter relief and happiness, and he couldn’t help but smile.
“I thought something terrible had happened!” Sound half-said, half-cried. “You were taking so long and no one was telling us anything and… Mama, what happened to your arm?!”
At those words, Aika finally seemed to recover from her shocked state. Still frowning, she slowly approached them. Maka was now hugging Sound against her chest with her left arm while mumbling something about her cast, and Soul was the one who walked over to their grumpy kid.
He crouched down in front of her but didn’t say a word.
“You’re late,” Aika started, crossing her arms. “And you made Sound worry.”
He didn’t answer.
“Do you have any idea of how hard it was to keep an eye on him? He couldn’t stop brooding all the time. He wasn’t paying attention to class either.”
Soul’s wavelengths were so amused.
“And don’t even let me start with uncle Star. He’s so mad at you two, he said he’s going to kick your asses,” her scowl deepened. “Aren’t you going to say anything?”
Kid could feel Soul grinning.
“Come here, trouble.”
He opened his arms and it was enough: her frown disappeared and her eyes filled with tears. Kid still had the time to notice her trembling pouting before she also threw herself at Soul’s arms.
She didn’t say anything else and copiously cried against his chest, hiding her face so no one would see.
Patty laughed and Liz discreetly wiped her eyes.
Still holding Sound’s hand, Maka kneeled at her daughter’s side. “I’m sorry for making you wait, Aika, Sound,” she said, while gently fondling her back. “But we are here now. We’re home.”
No one knew that, but Death the Kid was almost one hundred years old. He was already sixty by the time he met Black*Star and Soul at Shibusen’s doorsteps. He had no recollection of which form he had assumed when his father had first separated him from his body, but he remembered being a kid and slowly, very slowly, getting older. It took him ten years of search to find a pair of symmetrical weapons. He appeared to be on his thirties now because he had allowed his appearance to change to that point, and only to follow his close friends.
Soon, he wouldn’t change anymore, and he would have to watch those precious friends became older and older, until the day they died. At some point, he would have to create his own kid, to make sure the Shinigami lineage continued. There was so much he knew and couldn’t share with their mortal minds, so much he didn’t know and wished they would teach him. So much he wanted to say and see before their final goodbye.
Right now, he wanted to apologize for sending them on that mission, for putting that family – the friends he loved dearly – in danger. He wanted to promise that it would never happen again. He wanted to say that things would get better and that they didn’t have to worry.
But he was the Shinigami, and his words held too much weight. He had the world – simple human lives – to take care of, to prioritize. That took precedence over what he personally wanted, and sometimes his mantle was just so, so heavy.
So, Kid didn’t say anything, and just carved that image on his head, for it would still come a time when he would miss it.
Nakatsukaza Tsubaki didn’t have Soul Perception, but she was a ninja. Even with her meister’s heavy breathing while exercising, she could easily hear the footsteps approaching them. She knew those presences as the back of her hand; she knew to who belonged the heavy, dragged strides, and the small, precise steps. She wasn’t surprised, since Kid had warned them about Maka and Soul’s return, and she appreciated the courtesy of coming directly to them.
It was the only courtesy the couple had offered in a while.
“They are here,” it was all she said. They were in the woods surrounding Shibusen, Black*Star’s favorite spot to train when he was feeling frustrated.
Or utterly pissed.
The ninja didn’t answer or turn around; he only kept doing his push-ups.
Oh my, things were about to become ugly, and for a good reason.
“How are they?” Tsubaki asked when the steps stopped just behind her. She had no reason to ask about their well-being – she already knew everything through Kim’s report.
They had almost died, Maka lost her right arm’s movements, and they had barely made it out of the edge of becoming completely insane. What else was there to say?
“Emotionally exhausted. They are napping at home while Blair and Papa cook dinner,” Maka was the one who answered. Tsubaki felt the same exhaustion on her friends’ voice.
“Are you sure you want to do this now?” she asked, given them one last out.
“I do,” she answered, resting her forehead against Tsubaki’s back for a minute. The weapon could feel she was a little feverish. “Thank you so much for everything, Tsubaki. I can’t thank you enough for taking care of them until now.”
“We weren’t alone. Everyone helped us,” she answered. To tell the truth, Spirit and Blair were the ones who had been more involved in the kid’s routine. That was not their part to play.
“Even so, thank you,” Maka said once more, before skirting over her to walk until her meister. Tsubaki took that opportunity to register the cast in her arm, immobilizing most of the movements in the right upper part of her body. She was probably still high on painkillers, a decision she probably forced on her doctors to be able to be here, now.
Maka would never stop to make her worry, right?
“Tsubaki,” Soul called her attention. He positioned himself in front of her, keeping his back straight and his arms firmly glued to his sides. “We were selfish – we only thought about what would be better for our children and we didn’t take yours and Black*Star’s feelings into consideration. We imposed this situation without consulting you beforehand. Please, accept our apology.”
He then bowed the upper part of his torso, keeping his back completely straight. Tsubaki waited for a few seconds, registering that scene and how sincere he seemed. Maka probably taught him that Japanese apology. He probably spent hours practicing it on the plane when they were coming back.
Kim had reported that the demon gave him a punctured lung and cracked ribs.
“Apology accepted, Soul.”
His expression was still serious when he stood up, but his frowned brows denounced his pain. They would have to sit down and discuss the past months calmly some time, but for now, the real problem was about to be uncovered in from of them.
“Black*Star,” Maka called. She was only a few feet behind him, and Tsubaki’s instincts told her the scythe meister should put more space between her and the ninja. Soul seemed to agree because he tensed by her side.
None of them interfered, though.
Slowly, Black*Star turned around to face his oldest friend. He had a hard, intense expression on his face: his eyes were burning with fury, his jaw was clenched and so were his fists. His wavelengths were unstable, resentful – disappointed, even.
“I am sorry,” Maka started, but he interrupted.
“Cut the crap,” his voice was as sharp as a blade. “Sorry won’t do it this time, Maka.”
“What do you want, then?”
“The truth.” His vicious whisper made Maka tremble, but she didn’t move. Black*Star closed the distance between them, staring her down. “You spent the past ten years nagging me about the Lion King thing, saying I was irresponsible, that you didn’t trust me to take care of your kids. You even crossed me out of your list of terrible babysitters.”
“I spent the same ten years pretending I didn’t care about this shit because I know you’ve got issues with the motherhood thing. Pretending it didn’t fuck sucked.”
Pretending it didn’t hurt, Tsubaki thought, would be a more accurate description.
“And then, when Kid decides to send you to certain-death-mission, what you idiots do? You left without a word and ask Kid to tell us you’ve chosen us as your kids’ legal guardians in case you don’t make it back!”
They were in Japan at the time. They arrived back at Shibusen only four days after Maka and Soul had left for their dangerous mission. Kid had welcomed them with a tense smile and cold eyes, and delivered the envelope with the papers. Black*Star’s reaction was a muted fury that he redirected to his sparring sessions with Stein.
He dislocated the professor’s shoulder.
“And when it became clear you idiots weren’t coming back any time soon, I went to Kid to ask him to send us to help. And then Kid told us that you had asked him to not send us as a backup, because you wanted to make sure we wouldn’t die too. ARE YOU SHITTING ON ME, MAKA?”
He screamed that last part at Maka’s face and Soul took a step forward.
Tsubaki extended her arm, stopping him.
“Do you… How could you…” For the first time ever since she had met him, Black*Star was in a loss of words. He took a few steps back to watch Maka’s reaction better. “You told me so many times you didn’t want me taking care of your children, and then you suddenly decided to make me their godfather and give me full custody? I want the truth, Maka.”
She didn’t miss a beat.
“The truth is that I lied, Black*Star,” Maka finally confessed. “I lied back then when I told you I hadn’t forgiven you and that I didn’t trust you with my kids. I do think that what you did was a dick move. It was irresponsible, inconsiderate, stupid, not fun at all…”
“…but I also knew… I have always known…” she took one deep breath. “There is no place safer than by your side. I knew that if anything happened, you and Tsubaki would be amazing foster parents. You would teach them how to be strong and kind, brave and audacious. I wished-”
Her voice failed her and this time Tsubaki allowed Soul to walk to her side. He gently side hugged her, taking care to don’t pressure her right side.
“Our families are a mess. You guys would create a happy home for them,” Soul summed up, and honestly, it was hard for Tsubaki to stay mad with them after hearing that.
She had followed their parenthood journey through the last decade with avid interest. Angela was like a daughter to her, and she had started to love and adore Aika and Sound at the moment she first saw them, in Black*Star’s arms on the top of Shibusen. Tsubaki had a huge maternal side, even though she never wished or planned to have kids of her own. To hear that parents as dedicated and overprotective like Soul and Maka considered her as a good mother figure… it was more than she could possibly imagine.
Her meister, however, still had fuel to burn.
“Why did you lie, then? Why did you put me through all of this crap?” he insisted, crossing his arms firmly. He was stopping himself from punching them, Tsubaki could tell.
Maka sighed, tired.
“I didn’t want to admit that even though you’re reckless and impulsive and kind of a dumbass-”
“You’re pushing your luck, Maka.”
“…you could do it better than me. You could keep them safe and make them strong better than me. I was so terrified that I would screw up when they were born and you…”
Her voice failed again, and Tsubaki heard a low sob. Soul was gently pulled her against his chest, and she hid her face there. Seeing Maka openly crying like that was such a rare vision that Tsubaki decided to interfere.
She took a single step closer, only enough to catch her meister’s attention. Their locked eyes and Tsubaki smiled, letting him know that, for her, this was enough. They had made a mess and frustrated and infuriated them, but wouldn’t they do the same thing for Angela?
“Nope,” Black *Star answered through their resonance. “Because I don’t plan on dying and leaving her behind. Do you?”
“Fine, fine. But only because they almost died.”
“You’re too soft, Tsubaki.”
“You taught their kids how to curse like a sailor. I think that’s enough.”
“Oh fuck, Maka is going to kill me when she realizes it.”
Tsubaki laughed and Black*Star grinned. Truth be told, they were mostly just glad their friends had made it back alive.
“Tsubaki thinks you idiots already had it bad enough, but for now on I’m abusing my GODfather privileges.”
“It’s fair,” Soul agreed. He extended his fist. “I’m sorry, man.”
“Yeah, yeah, however.” Black*Star bumped his fist.
“Oh, thank KID!” Patty laughed, startling them. She came out of the woods carrying a mini cooler, with a grinning Liz at her side. Death the Kid came last, and he was no longer wearing his black cape and the skull mask – he was done been Shinigami for the day. “Lord Kid God Himself was afraid you would rip off each other’s throats.”
“No, I wasn’t,” he denied, but the amused smile on his lips told otherwise.
“Nah, he totally was,” Liz confirmed. “I think his exact words were ‘if they destroy half of the forest, they better destroy the other half too!’”
“I have no idea what you are talking about.”
“What are you guys doing here?” Maka asked. Her eyes were red and she was still hiding half of her face on Soul’s chest.
“We came to celebrate your happy return!” Patty exclaimed, raising the cooler over her head. “Things have been boring without everyone around.”
“I suppose you have to go back to your children at home, but do you have time for at least one beer?” Liz asked, opening the cooler Patty was still holding high and pulling out a bottle.
“I’m so high on painkillers right now that it would probably be better if I didn’t-” Maka started, but with a grin, Liz pulled out a Coke. “Ok, fine, we have time for one drink.”
They ended up sitting side by side on Shibusen’s wall, observing the sleepy sun setting down on the horizon. Maka and Black*Star were bickering like brother and sister, since her meister had insinuated he had initiated the twins on the ninja path. Patti was interrogating Soul about the demon, while Liz tried to cover her ears and chug her beer at the same time. Kid was analyzing his water bottle against the sunlight, making sure the it was, indeed, symmetrical. It was all so mundane.
She had missed being around her friends like this.
“What is it, Tsubaki?” Kid asked, after noticing her found expression.
That caught everyone else’s attention.
“I was just thinking that peaceful days like this, when we all can be together, are going to become rarer from now on. We should cherish it.”
She saw doubt, sadness and even fear quickly pass her friends’ eyes. They had surpassed so many challenges together, but that last mission proved they all still had room for failure. The future was uncertain, and they had come to an age when thinking about the next generation was their responsibility. They were Soul Eater, the Last Death Scythe and Maka Albarn, the one with a Grigory Soul; Lord Shinigami and the Thompson sisters; Black*Star, the strongest meister, and Tsubaki, the Shadow Weapon. At some point, they all had become legends, and now they had a school full of students looking up to them. Their duty was to uphold that legacy. Their mission was to protect the world. They were meisters and weapons.
Time to be just them was a luxury they often didn’t have.
“You’re right, Tsubaki,” Maka agreed, raising her can. “So, let’s cherish it.”
They toasted to their lives and to the future, because the past was a burden too heavy to think about now.