10,203 A.A.-Winter Solstice
Mabaa takes care of her. At least, that's what the other voices call the person that tends to her wound. In the times when she's lucid, the pain in her chest pounds away at her, leaving her body feeling as if it's been ironed out by the pounding waves of the ocean. When the pain recedes, she feels pristine and whole.
Her memories are not pristine.
They are filled with ashes and blood. A different kind of pain that sucks the air from her lungs. She pushes those away and sinks gratefully back into oblivion. Then there are other memories that aren't terrible but hurt all the same. A cat with fangs the size of dinner plates. The feeling of being one with the push and pull of the ocean. Friends that make her smile. A boy with white hair, a dragon curled up around his neck.
Her heart constricts when she sees him.
There are more memories but those slip through her hands like water; these memories stick with her and she doesn't know why-she can't even remember their names. She doesn't remember her own name either. But when she finally opens her eyes, Mabaa calls her Maka and she supposes that's her name.
Mabaa informs her that Maka is a spirit like them, newly transformed. She doesn't answer when she asks how she came to be like this nor when she asks about the scar cutting across Maka's chest. She doesn't pursue the subject, visions of monstrous snakes and spiders accompanied by an earth-shaking roar stilling her tongue. It takes several weeks for her to gain back enough strength to leave her bed and even longer for her to venture out of the caves Mabaa and the other spirits live in.
They treat her kindly enough and once she's fully recovered, she tries to enjoy her new life. But it's the memories dancing on the edge of her mind that hold her back. They refuse to go away and haunt her dreams, leaving her with the nagging feeling she's left something precious behind, and they give her no rest, rising up every time she looks into the river near her home and spies the jagged edges of the scar peeking out from the white dress Mabaa gave her.
The frustration stretches and stretches until one day she feels if she stays any longer, she would scream herself into nothingness.
Mabaa lets her go with extreme reluctance, extracting from her a promise to return. Maka roams the land aimlessly. She tells herself she isn't searching for anything but everywhere she goes, she finds herself keeping an eye out for the fanged cat or the boy with the dragon.
It vexes her the longer she travels and the longing in her soul doesn't fade away but rather increases in intensity, as if she's being pulled to something she can never reach.
She breaks a month after Maka left the spirits. It happens as she's crossing a field of golden grasses, a mountain in the distance. A feeling that she knows this place gnaws at her.
Maka yells out when she comes across a patch of the plains scorched black, the scar on her chest suddenly burning as if it was on fire. She doubles over and falls on her side.
The only thing she feels is the pain, the pain is the only thing she is. For a long time, she can do nothing but breathe.
She lets herself go limp when the burning sensation finally begins to ebb. In pieces, she becomes aware of the other things: her face pressed against the ground, the smell of burned earth, the tears running down her face.
And the sound of purring. A vivid image of the cat and the boy enters her mind. They sit on a boulder by a river, which bends to flow into the ocean.
She recognizes the stripes running through the cat's fur. She had the same ones, she thinks, a distant memory of glimmering marks on her arms returning to her. "Blair," she murmurs. "Blair."
Her words shatter the vision into pieces and she's back to staring at the burned plains.
Maka pulls herself into a sitting position. She should be angry or disappointed but a contentedness settles over her. She holds on resolutely to the picture of the Blair and the boy in her mind, focusing on the quiet smile on the boy's face.
"I will find you."
Black Star waits for Tsubaki outside her home, leaning comfortably on Shadow. People greet him cheerfully as they pass by while a few brave children even dare to pet the badgermole. He hides his grin. Even now, the change in people's reaction to him still amuses him.
Stein is mostly to thank for that-his connections with the World Council had ensured that the news of what happened on Ember Island had reached all ends of the earth. As soon as the news went global, Kid was summoned to Republic City, boosted from pariah to beloved in the blink of an eye. The World Council had paraded him around the city like a mascot for the past six months.
He'd kept in touch with Black Star and Tsubaki through letters and invited the two of them to join him on his upcoming diplomatic trip across the four nations. It was an offer both of them had eagerly accepted.
But even as Black Star had looked forward to the trip, a dark cloud had hung over his head. His nails dig in his skin as he tries and fails to not to think of Maka. Even before Tsubaki, she had been his friend, the first person see him as a person and not for what his family had been. He glares at the ground, eyes prickling. It had been bad enough when they'd thought she was dead but he's not sure what to think with Soul's resolute insistence that she wasn't dead, that he had seen her. If he believed Soul, only for Kid to find a way to open the portals again and prove them wrong...
He swallows hard. Either way, it had been the worst when he, Tsubaki and Soul delivered the news to Spirit. The way Spirit had crumpled in himself, looking completely shattered, had dug up all the pain he had buried since the summer solstice.
The only person who had been equally painful to see was Soul.
"You're early!" Tsubaki opens the gate to her home, holding a bag.
He shrugs, taking her bag. "Didn't want to keep you waiting."
She tilts her head to one side as they head out of town and to the base of Mifune's mountain, where Kid wrote to meet him. "Are you all right?"
"It's nothing." He swallows hard as they enter the shadow of Mifune's mountain. "Just remembering."
Tsubaki stops walking abruptly and seizes his hand, pulling him into a hug; he stiffens before returning the hug. She hums softly in his ear and through his struggle to keep the tears from coming, he recognizes the tune as the mourning song of the Earth Kingdom. He closes his eyes and rests his head against her shoulder, allowing the tears to fall.
When Tsubaki's humming comes to an end, he holds onto her for a few more moments. The pain is still there but the warmth of her embrace has made it easier to breathe.
Black Star looks up. Even in the shadows, Tsubaki's face is radiant.
He wipes his eyes. "Thank you."
She smiles. "I'm always here."
A shout comes from above. "Hey!"
Patti waves enthusiastically at the three from atop Beelzebub. Shadow darts forward to greet the air bison as he lands, tail moving excitedly. Liz and Patti descend first, jumping from the saddle. Patti crushes Black Star in a hug before releasing him. "It's been ages!"
"How was Republic City?" Tsubaki asks Liz.
"Divine." A dreamy look comes across Liz's face. "The hotel we stayed at had everything I could have wanted and more. And the shops have all the latest fashions."
"And the zoo, sis," Patti exclaims, outstretching her arms. "Kid finally got to see giraffes!"
"Which were every bit as strange as you described them," he says as he lands next to the sisters. His hair is still growing back from when he shaved it to receive his head tattoo. He exudes a more confident air now.
"You decided to keep the hair?"
"As a reminder," Kid answers. "This trip isn't going to be all fun and games." His face falls as he looks from Black Star to Tsubaki. "I thought Soul was with you."
"We don't know where he is," she says. "He stayed in town with us for a while after we came back from the South Pole but he just left without telling us one day."
Kid frowns. "He didn't go back to the North Pole. I sent a letter there and his brother was the one who answered."
A knot of worry forms in Black Star's chest. He should have gone after Soul the moment he found out he disappeared from Tsubaki's home.
"We shouldn't look for him."
He stares in surprise at Liz.
"I know what it's like to run off and not want to be found." Liz shifts from side to side, meeting no one's gaze. "Blair and Oni will take care of him. He'll come when he wants to." She glances at Kid. "In the meantime, what we should do is search for ways to open a portal."
Soul passes by Ember Island's temple before heading to the river. He's pleased to find it still in ruins. Blair yowls mournfully when they come to the Four Points and he scratches her head. "I know."
Above them, Oni flies silently. In the past three months, his baby scales had shed into crimson red ones and he's gone through a massive growth spurt, at least three heads taller than Soul. If he keeps it up, he'll soon be big enough to carry Soul and Blair.
The moonlight shines off the surface of the river, which Oni swoops down to lounge in. Soul clambers up on one of the boulders and Blair plants herself next to him, laying her face in his lap. He strokes her head and lets his feet dangle over the boulder's edge. It should be unbearable to even be here. But Soul's belief hasn't changed in the past six months and it guards him from the pain.
He had seen Maka back when they left the spirit world, after Crona. She had looked different than she usually did, dressed in a white gown, but he had recognized her. And no one was going to convince him otherwise of that. Soul feels the smooth scar on his chest, yawning.
Sleeping, always something he never looked forward to, was something he avoided even more now. In his dreams, his conviction crumbles and a different madness than the one Oni put him through threatens to swallow him whole. He lets himself fall onto his back and lets his eyes drift close. Maybe here, where the nightmare was in reality, the bad dreams would pass him over.
His sleep is dreamless for the most part. Except the end.
Soul only sees her for a split second. Maka sits in the plains where they faced off Asura; tear tracks stain her face and her dress is smudged with dirt but she's wearing a smile. She lifts her head and for a moment, it's like she sees him.
Soul wakes up, the sky a faint blue as dawn approaches. Blair purrs as he sits up and Oni stirs from the rock he settled himself on.
He sits up and watches the sun break over the horizon. "I will find you."
(10,204 A.A.-one month later, Fire Nation Capital)
It's midnight and Kid is still going over the last-minute requests for supplies for the next leg of their trip. He shakes his head at some of Black Star and Patti's more ridiculous requests when he hears a knock at his door. He yawns as he rises from his chair, expecting to see Liz or Patti.
He is speechless when he opens the door and there stands Soul, Oni and Blair at his side.
"Hi." Soul's fingers tap nervously against his sides. When Kid doesn't answer, he says, "I saw in the newspaper you were here. It wasn't hard to find you. I thought we could talk, if you don't mind."
Kid opens the door wider. "Of course not."
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