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Burning Bright

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It’s been a few days since they’ve emerged from the tunnel, to a world the girl had deemed as sad. He’d seen the light leave her eyes as she took more and more of the world in, possibly thinking about a world she didn’t know anymore, because Soul has no idea how long she’d been in there, but for her not to know about the blight, she’d been there longer than she should have. He had let her have a few moments to adjust, waited for her to ask him where he was going, because he was fairly sure she was. She did ask him, argued with him about the answer because she claimed it didn’t make any sense that he was walking towards the south without even knowing what he was looking for, but ended up going with him, for reasons unknown because she didn’t tell him and he didn’t ask.

It’s been a few days, but Soul can already notice the differences. It’s the light, he tells himself, because if they stay put for a little too long, the nature around her seems to wake up. Not the trees, they’re too big for her to have any effect on them in such a short time, but after they’ve spent the whole night in one place, he can see flowers and small plants growing, green and bright against the death around them. The animals are affected as well. They’re less jumpy, less prone to bite, once or twice they’ve even approached her, to her delight. She doesn’t realize it, but he does: she heals the madness. And then he notices that the voice in his head is quiet, hasn’t spoken since he fell through the hole, and the only voice he hears it’s hers. He also notices that he doesn’t mind it that much.

They don’t trust each other and they both know it. Whether they’re stealing glances at the other as they walk, waiting for them to strike, or sleeping on opposite sides of the fire, looking ahead, at the other, waiting for them to attack during their slumber, their mutual distrust hangs between them, keeps them from talking much.

He stays with her because she’s slowing healing him, without even noticing, but doesn’t trust her, because he’s seen how deceiving her appearance can be and he has to be prepared. She stays with him because she doesn’t have anyone else, but she doesn’t tell him that, because sometimes he looks a little bit like a rabid animal, when he’s mad and the light hits him in a certain way, and she’s too scared that he’ll attack her in his rage so she doesn’t trust him.

But after a week of walking aimlessly, trivial conversation held between them, he sees her writing on the ground, with a small stick, and leans forward, to see. “What are you writing?”
She startles, turns her back on him and quickly wipes out the small words, throwing the stick she’d been writing with away from her. He frowns, takes a few steps backwards and sits on the ground, staring at her back. “Sorry I asked.”

They stay like that, for some time, until he hears her sigh and turn to him, eyes downcast.

“I’m the one who should be apologizing. It wasn’t that big of deal, you just startled me.”

He scratches his neck, thinks about apologizing again, this time with feeling, but decides against it. “So what were you writing?”

“I’m not going to tell you.” She scoffs and looks up at him, mildly amused. “We’re not friends.”

He’s not fazed, shrugs and looks up at her. “We could be.”

His words are normal enough, but the way his eyes focus on her makes her heart skip a beat and she’s sure she’d fall if she wasn’t sitting. She catches herself and scoffs again, turning away from him to look at the forest around her.

They’d stopped to catch their breath and Soul had found a little glade with a tree stump large enough for one of them to sit. She’d taken the available space and he hadn’t complained, saying that he’d look for the river nearby. He’d found it and they were headed there, as soon as she felt less tired. She gets up and he follows, both soundlessly walking towards the river.

They follow the flow of the river, the same river Soul had fell in, and the fact that they’re walking away from it all, from Medusa and the Skaggen, makes it easier for him to breathe.

“What’s that?” They’d been walking for a while, in silence, so her words set him on edge.

He stops. Maybe he’d jinxed himself by thinking about it.

“What’s what?” Soul replies, hoping that she means something else other than them.
She looks at him, picking up on his nervousness, and then points at the ground.

Soul follows the direction she’s pointing in and finds two squirrels, currently sitting at her feet, tails waving. He looks at her, disbelieving, and she shrugs, looking apologetic because she didn’t mean to alarm him. “Those are squirrels.”

“Oh.” She says, quietly, as she seems to ponder something. “Can I touch them?”

He surveys the squirrels. They aren’t growling nor baring their teeth at her, they’re just waiting for her to give them something to eat, much like they used to do before the madness hit. “I guess. They want food, so watch out for the teeth.”

She immediately kneels, holding her hand out to pet the squirrels that happily climb up her hand and arm, playing like they used to before. She laughs, claims that it tickles, and then she’s so happy that Soul finds himself grinning, infected by her happiness. He doesn’t mention that she should know what squirrels are, regardless of the fact that she’d been locked away; squirrels, as far as he knows, have been around for millennia. He also doesn’t mention it when they start walking again and she starts asking him about all kinds of things. From certain trees, to plants, to how the river works and why is there water falling from the sky? It’s like a floodgate has been opened and she has so many questions that he’s scared if he doesn’t answer quickly, or well enough, she’ll be mad.

The rain starts pouring harder and they rush, looking for shelter – some trees are tall enough to keep them dry – but she spots a cabin, and before Soul can stop her, she’s running towards it. He follows, knows he has no other option, and is pleased to find out that it’s empty, and that it looks like it hasn’t been used in a while.

As soon as he’s closed the door and looked around the small house, the inquiry continues, and she seems so excited that Soul feels bad when he isn’t able to really properly answer her questions. Like when she asks him about the stars, or about why the world looks like it does. He could have answered the question, told her exactly what had happened, but she looked, for once, happy, and Soul didn’t want to ruin it by telling her there was a high probability that she was the last of her kind. He looks at her with new eyes, because she truly is alone, there’s no one coming for her, and because they’re looking for him, and if they find him, they find her and they’ll take her away. Nauseated, he answers a few more questions and then tells her he’s going to sleep, because he is tired, and because he
doesn’t think he’s spoken this much, ever.

He takes the floor, near the door, and she takes the bed, soaking up the sheets a little bit because her dress hasn’t dried properly yet, and she isn’t going to take it off.

It takes her longer to fall asleep, the house is much quieter than the forest usually is, and when she does fall asleep, it’s restless, light, like she needs to be awake, like something bad will happen.

She wakes up a lot later, the sheets and her dress are almost dry, and she wonders about why she had woken up. She’s almost asleep again when she hears it. It’s a whimper, quiet and restrained, and looking towards the door, towards Soul, she can see him shivering, contorting himself in his sleep, whimpering from time to time. She sits up on the bed, unsure of what she should do, but when he practically screams in pain, she jumps from the bed and kneels near him, grabbing his face between her hands.

“Soul.” She tries calling him, tries to make him hear her despite his screams. She tries again, louder, and they’re both screaming, because she doesn’t know what’s happening and he sounds like he’s in pain. He writhing again and she’s so scared that she can feel the tears falling down her face. “Soul, wake up!”

He bolts upright, nearly hitting her in the process, eyes wide and shallow breathing, and he looks around, erratically, looking dazed. He sees her, but she doesn’t think he’s really seeing her, because his eyes are foggy, like he can’t see. “What happened?” He asks, breathless.

“Soul, are you okay?” She asks, tries to keep her voice steady even though she feels like breaking down any minute.
He shakes his head, like he’s clearing the fog that took over his brain. “Yeah, it was just a nightmare. Go to bed.” He lays down again, facing away from her, but she is rooted to the ground, as the tears fall freely. It had sounded so real, like he was being tortured, like they were hurting him. She ends up falling asleep on the ground next to him. He doesn’t scream again.

She wakes up with a blanket covering her and a back ache, and only then remembers last night’s incident. She looks around, fails to see Soul anywhere, and sits up, startled, only to see him walking through the door, hair dripping and fresh clothes, and a small smile on his face.

“Good morning.” He says, shaking his head so the droplets fall. When he’s finished he looks at her, serious. “I’m sorry for last night. I don’t remember much but it must have been horrible.”

She had plans of admonishing him, tell him he should have warned her that he was prone to nightmares, but the shame in his voice makes her rethink her words. “You scared me.”

He nods, like he understands. “But I’m okay now.”

She nods as well, stands up, and places the blanket on the bed, once again.

“There’s a pond just outside. You can go and take a bath, if you want. There are even some clothes here.”

He smiles, and she understands why he’s dripping wet now.

He hands her a towel and a white dress, that seems to be about her size, and she goes outside, unsure of whether she’s taking a bath, or not. She discovers that the pond is away from the house, far enough that she’d be able to tell if anyone was coming her way, decides that a bath can’t hurt, because the water is clean enough, and she feels that she hasn’t bathed in years, and that Soul wouldn’t take advantage of it, not the Soul she’s come to know.

She takes her time, swimming and marveling at the way the water feels against her skin.
She feels free, like nothing can hurt her and like the world could be beautiful once again. She hears thunder, gets out of the pond and quickly gets dressed, mostly because she
remembers that the day before, it had started raining right after the thunder. She hurries to the cabin, feeling small raindrops hit her skin and manages to get inside right before the storm hits in full force.

Soul is sitting at the table, inspecting something in front of him and she nears him, curious. He’s holding what seems to be a black rectangle, quite uninteresting, really, but when he sees her inspecting it, he grins.

“What’s that?” She asks, as he hands it to her and she examines it to find out that it opens, and it has blank pages inside.

“A notebook.” He answers, getting up from the chair. “I found it in one of the drawers, and remembered you were writing on the floor the other day. Now you can write there.”

She looks at him for quite awhile, to the point where he wonders if there’s something wrong with him, before she holds the notebook to her chest and looks away. “How do I know you’re not doing this just so you can read it later?”

He shrugs. “You don’t.” He tries to sound serious, but she can detect an hint of amusement in his voice.

“What am I supposed to write with?” She asks, because she actually enjoys the idea of having a place where she can write what goes through her mind and she thinks Soul’s too scared she’ll hit him if he looks.

He scratches his head, making it fairly obvious that he hadn’t thought that far ahead. He looks around, surveying the room, and nears the fireplace, to grab a small piece of charred wood.

“It’s not the best, but it’ll do.” He tries, holding it out to her. She takes it and sits on the bed, opening the notebook and carefully trying to mark the paper.

Soul takes some time to observe her, the blissfull joy that overtakes her when she manages to write something. It’s not long before she has to stand up and get another piece of charred wood, the one he’d gave her already too small to write with. He lets her be, for quite some time, until a thunder sound overhead and an ominous chill runs through his body. The door is closed and all the windows as well, but a coldness takes over his body and he feels like he did when he was back home.

The demon is still nothing but a whisper, but the fact that he can hear it, that Maka’s influence is no longer drowning it out, makes him worry, and he shuffles closer to her just to make sure. He stumbles upon the bed and she looks up, but he can still hear it and can’t think straight.

“Are you okay?”

Her voice comes from far, far away, like he’s underwater, like she’s miles away and not sitting right next to him.

“We need to leave. We need to get away.” He tells her, but the voice doesn’t sound like his own, it’s warped, twisted.

He looks at her but can barely see her, the edges of his vision are going dark, and he’s moving towards the door before he knows it.
But Soul stops, a hand on his wrist, his vision clearer, his ears picking up the girl’s shouts -- his name. He turns towards her and she’s there, wide-eyes, afraid, and he wonders if she’s scared of him.

“There’s a storm raging on outside. We should stay here for today.” She says, and forces a smile, so strained that he wonders if it hurts her.

“I would really rather not.” He mumbles, his voice rough, like he’d been screaming. He notices she’s still holding his wrist but does nothing to move away.

“Please? We have nowhere else to go.” She begs, tugging at his wrist and taking him away from the door.

He sighs, concedes, seeking for the wellness that her presence usually gives him, and sits on the ground, near the bed as she takes up her previous spot, this time writing less furiously, and sneaking glances at him from time to time.

He doesn’t know how long he stays there, the rain hitting the roof lulling him into a state of unconsciousness. He zones out.

When he wakes up, the rain has stopped and he’s outside, laying on the ground, alone.
He sits up, tries to call for the girl but remembers he doesn’t know her name, although it feels like it’s there, just at the tip of his tongue. He shakes his head, trying to clear his thoughts, trying to find the cabin, but instead he sees it. The Skaggen, a younger Skaggen, the same faded pink hair and lean figure but the face of a child. He remembers it, the day he’d found them, and knows what’s coming before it does.

Slow footsteps come closer and he’s scared to looking, knowing he’ll find himself, just like he has for so many nights. But he forces himself to look, only to wish he never had. It’s not him that’s standing by the pathway, maniacal grin and glangy figure staring right in his direction. He knows it’s him, the demon.

Soul struggles to his feet to get away, run, but the demon is upon him in an instant, chewing dark fingernails as if he’s expecting something. “There’s no use in running, Soul and you know that.”

He knows it, but runs anyway, hoping to find the end, the place where his dream ends and reality begins, but the demon chases him.

“They’re going to find you.” He taunts, getting into his head.

“They’re going to use you.” He keeps running, pays him no mind, it’s all in his head, it’s all in his head.

“They’re going to take her.” He says, and the forest ends.