A Sound Soul

Part II

They search along the creek for what seems like hours, the sky fading back into the oranges and pinks that come with end of day, finding no such scythe, but Maka comes up with an idea that both disgusts and intrigues him.

"Mud."

"Huh?"

"Didn't you ever make mud pies and sculptures when you were little?"

He was lucky he had even been allowed in the sandbox, honestly. But he just nods, unwilling to elaborate on his stunted childhood. She accepts his silent answer, seemingly too excited to catch the wave of discomfort within him. He's thankful for it.

"If our strength together is enough, we may be able to sculpt a golem out of it. Just a temporary fix, but it could work! If only for the purpose of practic-"

He interrupts and he can feel their face draw into a bitter scowl that does not belong solely to him for once, but she allows him to continue.

"Dreams aren't even tangible though, so I really don't understand why we need bodies to fight these fuckers off."

She cocks their left eyebrow, "Well I personally don't know how to spiritually fight off a pit of venomous snakes, so if you figure that out, feel free to let me know, but otherwise just fucking work with me, please. This is a dream realm and you're trying to think logically. Cut it out."

He scoffs, indignant, but deep down he knows that she's right. Nothing really makes very much sense around here. At least if he had fallen down the rabbit hole, he would have known what to expect. This place is a whole new experience for him, and he admits to himself that it's actually quite frightening. Thus far they haven't run into anything all too abnormal, but he gets the feeling that will change far sooner than he'd like.

She skids them both to a stop, their motions intertwined soul-deep, her sudden excitement causing their fingers to twitch impatiently. She runs one of their hands through their hair, and when Soul looks at what is tugged out, he sees long silver and golden strands clinging to blunt fingernails, hands covered in scars; some he recognizes and some he does not. The callouses on the fingertips are his, but the callouses on the palms must be hers.

He runs their tongue across their teeth, and she gasps at the sharp edges, which he can't help but laugh at. He can't imagine what they look like now, joined together this way, but it must be quite the sight. The dismayed little minor key melody that twists through her mind only makes it more amusing.

"Shut up, I just need time to get used to it is all, sheesh…"

His chuckles vibrate in her chest almost musically.

"If you bite my tongue I'm never gonna let you live it down."

"Technically I'd be biting our tongue, so don't get too full of yourself there champ."

He's only a little disconcerted by how much he likes it when she says things like 'our' and 'us' and 'we'.

She drags him from his thoughts by pointing their finger upward into the trees, leaves shimmering iridescent like the wings of dragonflies. The bark weeps deep indigo sap, and for the first time since he's gotten here, he can truly see why some souls just never leave. All wound up in the branches are glowing blue and purple orbs. It reminds him of the colourful Christmases he never had, but used to see in those movies about tight knit families in little cottage homes, with their instant Ovaltine and warm looking hugs. They would hang all their lovely ornaments with such care. He doesn't remember the last time he decorated his own tree. Maybe he never did.

She sends a wave of warmth and apology through him, whispers,

"Beautiful, aren't they? Such a shame."

"What's a shame?"

"These are the souls of those who gave up. They had no bodies to return to, but had no wish to stay here. There's a special group of souls who help escort them to these kinds of trees to give them some semblance of peace. It's not perfect, but it's better than the alternative. If I never got back to my body… well, I think that's what I'd want to do. Bring people peace. And rid this realm of the corrupted souls who torment the rest."

He feels her passion burn through them, and he's a little proud of her, but he's also confused.

"Corrupted souls..?"

"Tirelessly trying to defeat your own worst fears and never succeeding has to get to you at some point, right? Some latch onto the nightmares of others and work with them. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em kind of mentality, I think. Anger and frustration does funny things to people after a prolonged period of time."

He snorts humorlessly, "Don't I know it…"

They stand in silence as the pink sky melts to purple, then blues and blacks and speckles of stars, staring at the tree of souls laid to rest. They're all so beautiful this way. He wonders what sort of people they had once been. He wonders how their families mourned, or if they had families at all. What of the parents that left children behind? Or the children who awaited their parents' rescue for so long, held out hope for so long, but finally gave in to their new reality?

Suddenly he feels cold.

"Parents leave their children every day of their own volition. No reason to dwell on it."

Minor chords crash so violently that it makes his head spin. He risks,"Are you okay?"

"Just dandy."

He'd like to say she's full of shit, but judging by the ominous string of notes he hears in her side of the Bond, she's already caught on to the thought, and it would be in his best interest to keep his damn mouth shut.

But he's struck with an odd thought.

"Hey, you said you were pretty new here, right?"

"Yeah."

"So how do you know all this shit about the lost souls and the corrupted ones and all that jazz?"

He feels their shared face heat up, souls intent on remembering the body's reaction to embarrassment, and he internally grins. It must be something nerdy, but he can't really talk, he the one who just used the phrase 'all that jazz' unironically in a sentence.

"Kid lent me a book, one of his enchanted Soul Objects that he had Liz fill out with some things about the realm. I never got to finish it but… I think it'll help. I hope it will."

Soul grins, baring their sharp teeth.

"You're a loser, but at least you're a smart one."

"Thanks, jerk. I think - Ohhhhkay we should really at least attempt to make ourselves a golem body… thing. We wasted a whole day looking for that damned scythed. You ready to try?"

No.

"Wait, how the fuck do we even do this? We can't even touch things that aren't Soul Objects, how are we supposed to make a body?"

"Our joined souls should be strong enough to enchant the soil, especially considering how malleable the material is. Or maybe it'll be more like a suit? I don't really know how to explain it. Trial and error. It's the best I've got." She sounds a little sheepish and disappointed in herself. He knows the feeling, knows just how much the feeling of helplessness and inadequacy can eat away at someone.

"Hey, it's better than anything I could come up with. I'll try whatever you think may work," he tells her.

Their face heats again, and he tries not to feel too smug.

"O-okay. So um. I think we just both have to focus on the same objective. If we both visualize what we want to happen, maybe things will just fall into place?"

He almost rolls their eyes, but refrains, because they're in a goddamn dream realm without their bodies and she's right, logic has long since been thrown to the wind.

"Alright," he cracks their knuckles, and they both let out a satisfied sigh that sends a strange little shiver through their Bond that is not at all unpleasant. The fine white and gold hairs stand on the back of their neck. He tries so hard to ignore it, but knows she feels it too, knows she knows his reaction and that scares him, until a sweet tinkling of notes runs from her mind into his. He smiles to himself, and they close their eyes, focusing on their Bond, focusing on the idea of a body made up of the black silty soil they find all around them. He feels a sort of magnetism, like gravity has gotten stronger for only them, and weaker for the clay. When they open their eyes, they see the clay forming around them, sealing over their joined souls like armour. It covers them from their toes to their neck, flexible like fabric, but durable. He can actually feel the texture of it against them, and he feels a little more human now, more solid. He's not sure if that's a good or bad thing anymore, but it's certainly something.

They're silent for a second, then Maka shouts joyfully, throwing their mudcaked arms in the air in celebration, and Soul can't help but feel her overwhelming joy surge through the both of them.

"We did it!"

Yeah, they did.

Then the mud sluffs off of them, but when Maka breaks their Resonance, Soul is hit with the most intense feeling of loss he's ever experienced.

She turns to him and embraces him so tightly that he wheezes though. He is dumbfounded, if only for a moment, shocked at the affection that's so foreign, but then he finally wraps his arms loosely around her waist, enjoying the warmth of her. He feels her cheek heat against his neck just before she pulls away, still blushing, but grinning triumphantly. He grins back.

"That - that was fucking awesome. Shit."

She giggles and shoves his shoulder playfully, saying triumphantly,"I guess we really do make a pretty good team, huh?"

His phantom heart lurches in his chest at her words. He digs his toes into the silty soil at the edge of the stream, and he can feel the texture, he can touch it. He's not sure why, but it makes him feel reassured.

"Yeah, I guess we do nerdlord."

She hipchecks him and he falls to the dirt. She's embarrassed now, flustered and apologetic, and she helps him up from where he has fallen, her face shrouded partly by her hair.

Then she gasps though, seemingly forgetting her embarrassment entirely.

Before he can ask, she puts a hand to his cheek, strokes it, and he leans into the touch, but she pulls her hand away and shows him the streaks of filth clinging to her fingertips. It's then that he remembers; becoming more tied to the realm is not the objective.

At all.

"We have to work faster."

The dark glow and determination in her eyes gives him hope that they can succeed.

But he admits to himself when he knows she can't hear, he's getting pretty worried.

They rinse off in the water, silent and solemn in the knowledge that their time is ticking by far more quickly than they had thought. Their tangibility starts to fade and falter after a while of being out of resonance, and soon enough they can't feel the water on their skin anymore, but that vague ominous dread still clings to them persistently. He doesn't understand why they're becoming bound to the place so quickly, but it's unsettling. For some reason, guilt lurks in his heart, like maybe somehow it's his fault. Most things usually are.

"We just need to not dilly dally so much is all. Don't be such a worrier, Frosty, it won't help you or me."

He nods, but the feeling of guilt and discomfort remains. She pokes his ribs,"You tired?"

He thinks back to the spider queen and the helplessness she imposed upon him.

"No. Are you?"

"Not a bit. Maybe we should start in on some nightmares to face..?"

Well that wasn't exactly what he was thinking. He kind of just wanted to sit at the base of the soul tree with her and try to organize his thoughts, but he can admit to himself that it would be a foolish expenditure of time.

"Alrighty. Play by school rules?"

"Huh-"

"OnetwothreeNOT IT. You go first. I'll be here for moral support."

She shoves him so hard that he falls into the stream face first this time, and he gasps, but no water enters his lungs; another perk of not quite being bound to this beautiful potential purgatory. He really, really doesn't want to die by way of waterlogged lungs.

She snaps him out of his thoughts,

"You're a real smartass sometimes, you know that?"

He turns back around to face her, still sitting in the stream, doing his best to look nonchalant, leaning back on his palms and crossing his legs at the ankles. The heart boxers kind of throw it off.

He retorts,"You prefer I be a dumbass?"

She rolls those gorgeous, fierce eyes."Ugh, shut it. Fine. Start basic, right? The sillier nightmares?"

Well, makes enough sense to him. Though he can't really think of any nightmares that don't leave him deeply disturbed.

He shrugs, pulling himself out of the little creek, dry as a bone.

"Sure, why not."

"Okay… Soul?"

"Hm?"

"Resonate with me?"

He tries not to notice the pleased little shiver that runs through him at the thought of being joined with her again.

"Yeah, I just, ah..."

Her brow furrows, and he almost reaches up to smooth it out, but quickly rights himself, disguising the gesture by scratching at the back of his neck, embarrassed and clueless.

"What's wrong?"

He winces at her sweet, concerned tone. He feels like an idiot, a failure of a companion, their so-called Bond will only keep her here longer, she should just go on without him, he's sure she can become strong enough on her o -

"Soul, calm down. We're in this together, alright? Tell me what's wrong, please?"

His eyes are downcast as he mumbles, "I dunno how we did it before."

A look crosses her face that is very distinctly an expression of 'Oh shit', and it just makes him feel worse. He can tell she senses it, because she links her pinky with his. He feels like a dorky little kid.

It's better than feeling like a lonely little kid, though.

She blows a large breath out through her nose, pushes her bangs back from her eyes, then offers a tired smile. "Okay, what were we doing when it happened?"

His face flames at the memory. A fucking ticklefight is what they were doing, how is he supposed to tell her that with a straight face?

But he doesn't actually have to say anything. She turns toward him, places her fingertips over his ribs, holding gently, and looks up into his eyes. The green of her own eyes is not cool, or acidic, but warm and pure. It reminds him of the summers when he and his brother would sneak out into the forest behind their house and play hide and seek among the baby green ferns. Everything was so beautiful and thrumming with life so loud he could almost hear it like a song. He rests his hands on her shoulders delicately, returning her gaze with a surprising amount of ease; he'd never been big on eye contact, he sees too much, shows too much that way.

For some reason though, it's not so terrifying when it's with her. The glow of the lost souls illuminate her face, her hair dipped in crystal and skin porcelain. He's hyper aware of the way his tongue sits in his mouth, his throat tight and lips dry. She's leaning in towards him, and he's panicking, flustered and confused, and he feels the memory of a rapid heart rate fluttering in his chest.

Her face is so close, her breath ghosting along his lips.

Then she presses her forehead to his, and he's relieved and disappointed, but mostly relieved, because he's absolutely positive he would not know how to handle that situation.

"Just let me in."

So... he does. They meld together, two as one, and he feels that sense of completeness again. His mind is flooded with the loveliest melody, filled with hope and innocence, but also bearing undertones of hurt and betrayal. This is how he hears her. He thinks as loudly as possible that he's sorry, but she just laughs and asks,

"For what? You're gonna stick by me, right? We'll get out of this. Together." He hears the notes of her soul waver, unsure beneath her confidence. It's strange realizing how similar they are when skin and pretense is stripped away. Things he hates within himself, he accepts within her. It's frightening and exhilarating. She's a stranger, yet she knows him better than anyone now. And he knows her.

It's an honor.

She closes their eyes and sifts through her dreams, flashes of burnt feathers and singed pages and glistening scalpels flickering on the insides of their eyelids. It spirals like a roulette wheel and makes him dizzy, tic tic tic tic ticking until she finally settles on one of her fears.

She opens their eyes, looks down to their bare feet, and hundreds of black snakes slither between their toes, curl around their legs, but they feel nothing, not the slick of the scales or the flick of the forked tongues. Little golden arrows cover the reptiles, pointing in every direction imaginable, undulating and writhing, but never making a move to strike.

Soul swallows down the lump of her panic in their throat and asks, "What do they mean?"

It seems like a strange question when he voices it out loud, but she tries to answer him all the same, voice shaky and soul trembling. "I-I don't know. I'm not even scared of snakes usually, it's just, it's like a bad omen and -" he feels something constricting around their chest, and she gasps out, frustrated and scared, "I don't know what it means."

Her music is frantic, the discord ringing painfully in his head, and he hates it, so he focuses on the memory of awakening to her lovely face, thinks of the most peaceful music he can imagine, and the tightness in their chest begins to loosen.

"Maka."

"Y-yeah?"

"I'm right here with you. Now lets try to figure this out, okay?"

Her song slows, levels out and quietens.

"Okay - okay, whenever I have this dream... I just get this intense feeling of dread. I want to get away from them, but I cant - I mean - I just don't know where to go, and they point me in all different directions and god, it's so overwhelming that I'm just-"

"Paralyzed?"

"...Yeah."

The hissing is white noise, no rhyme or reason to it. Chaotic and confusing and harsh.

"Well shit. Sounds like a school guidance office to me. Tell me. Do you know what you wanna do in your life?"

Her anger flares. "Who the fuck does?! Why does it even matter either way, I'll just end up doing whatever everyone else thinks is best for me anywa-"

"No."

"W-what?"

"You're going to do whatever you decide. You're too strong to let all the assholes in your life stomp all over you. You're gonna do what you want for you. Fuck what anyone else wants."

Her soul vibrates with frantic excitement and tenuous hope.

"It's not that easy though…"

"And why the fuck not?"

She's stunned silent.

Because she doesn't really know.

She doesn't know what's so difficult about it. He can feel that she doesn't know.

"I… I don't want to disappoint anyone."

Soul snorts, "Well, you're gonna have to get over that Maka. You're always gonna be disappointing someone, but if someone actually cares about you, they'll support you no matter what. Unless you're like - an ax murderer, but even then I think you'd only be going after bad people. Speaking of, if you ever choose to go that way, look me up and I'd be happy to help."

She giggles a little, and their chest is free from the constriction now, snakes slithering away one by one. He doesn't know where his little pep talk came from, doesn't even know if he really believes it entirely, but he knows that it's true for her at the very least, because he will stand by her, even if everyone else is dumb enough to leave her, which he can't even imagine.

It's not worth much, but it's something.

"It's worth a lot actually."

"Huh?"

"You accepting me. It's worth a lot."

Oh.

What a strange concept, his opinion mattering…

He likes the idea of it.

Maybe a little too much.

He just has to ask, can't help the compulsion, "Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why does it matter to you?"

She's quiet for a moment, then tells him, "You know, I'm not exactly sure yet, but when I am, you'll know."

The idea that she would ever be sure thrills him.

She asks him, "Hey Soul?"

"Yeah?"

She grins, almost catlike.

"Up for another round?"

He smirks back at her.

"You got it, nerdlord."

They only conquer one more of her terrors before going to bed, which involved her childhood pediatrician with a smoking problem and a penchant for scaring his patients with his 'super cool, shiny tools' (aka a metric fuckton of unnecessary scalpels and other crazy looking items that still fascinate and terrify Maka to this day).

They sleep under the soul tree, out of Resonance but still close enough in proximity to get a bit of mental feedback from each other. She catches a few stray thoughts, he catches a few stray notes, and they fall asleep beside each other, hands barely touching but buzzing with their harmonized frequencies.

It's not quite enough to keep the nightmares away, but it's enough to keep him sane.

When he awakens, it's to the sound of screaming, and Maka isn't beside him anymore. He is immediately frantic, because it sounds as if the the screams are coming from the sky, but that would be impossible, so impossible -

He looks up and she is hurtling toward the earth. The smell of seared feathers and burning books assaults his senses, but he ignores it, just holds out his arms and braces himself. She slams into him with a force he didn't know possible, throwing them both to the ground, but she quickly rights herself, stands up and springs forth a fountain of apologies.

He's irrationally angry that he is the one she's worried about when she was the one falling from the goddamn sky like a meteor. If they were both more solid at the moment, they would have made an idiots-sized crater in the soil. His chest aches from her slamming into him; he can't even imagine how she feels. He unsteadily gets to his feet to poke her all over, making sure she's still intact. Her arms and face are covered in soot, and when he pokes at her shoulder, he feels something quite like what his favourite pillow is stuffed with.

She has the wings of an angel, but most of the feathers are missing or burnt, and the image is one he is sure will haunt him until he dies. Her hair is singed short, and as he looks closer, he sees little drip tracks of burns running all down her arms and torso. He's afraid to touch her.

She sheepishly explains, shying away from his scrutiny, "My papa used to call me his little angel. My mama liked to tell me the story of Icarus before bed. Funny, isn't it? How people who love us so much with the best of intentions can fuck us up so badly…"

Funny wouldn't be his word of choice. Tragic, infuriating, awful, unfair, dispicable, unfuckingbe-

"Hey now, Soul, it's okay. It doesn't hurt or anything anymore, it just caught me off guard is all. I guess me dreaming about it summoned it without me trying. Thanks for uh, catching me, by the way. Are you alright?"

The words of the story of Icarus flutter through the air all around them.

He grits out, "I'm fine. Stop fucking worrying about me and worry about yourself goddamnit."

She chuckles, "In all fairness, worrying about you is in my best interest."

"Yeah yeah, laugh it up asshole. Just try to have some sense of self-preservation please? You're gonna make me prematurely grey."

"Ha, Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I think that ship has sailed buddy."

"Hardy har," he halfheartedly mocks, but there's no real energy behind it. "Seriously though Maka. Are you gonna be okay?"

"Of course, just give it a minute. Look, see?"

She spreads her arms out wide, the burn marks already fading, her battered wings falling away in ashes. She gives him a smile that doesn't reach her eyes, tells him, "It never lasts long. The present is easy to deal with. It's the future you imagine as you're falling that's the real problem."

Soul is again forcefully reminded of the concert he will have to perform before hundreds, and it makes him feel sick, scared, and unprepared. She looks at him curiously, eyes belying her wish to ask, but he quickly banishes the thoughts of his soon-to-be-failure (if he even succeeds in escaping this place, just in time to fail in another).

"Maybe we should take a break, yeah? Go and explore for a little while. You deserve a breather. Sound good?"

It takes her only a split second to agree to the proposal. She ponders, "I wonder if we'll meet anyone interesting -"

He scoffs, "Please god, don't jinx us. Our luck, we'll end up meeting that weirdo from the twelfth century."

"Aw cmon, I hear he's not that terrible, just… don't make eye contact. Or start a conversation. Actually, Kid said it's just best to avoid him entirely."

"How will I know who he is?"

"Liz said, and I quote, 'Look for the white penguin looking guy with the dick nose', so I imagine he's hard to miss."

He tries to imagine it, but quickly gives up, too disturbed with the image his mind provides him with. Maka lets out a little gasp that startles him, running over to the edge of the stream and leaning over the rippling, glowing water. He darts after her, muttering profanities and angry words of caution, but when he reaches her, she's speaking. Not to him, he's sure, but not to herself either -

He lays a steadying hand on her shoulder and leans over to see what she is seeing.

And Mr. Le Pew is back, his gunslinger girls on either side of him, speaking from the water, telling Maka about some sort of party?

Liz is the only one to even acknowledge him.

"Hey, Casper, you and your girlfriend are invited to a little get together we're having tonight. You get to meet the Reapers. See you then?"

The connection is cutting out, ripples taking away the image of the three of them. He's not even given time to splutter indignantly that she's not his girlfriend, but he does have the time to shout, "How the fuck will we know where to go?!"

Liz laughs, "Follow the yellow shroom road of course!"

And they're gone.

"The fuck does that mean!?"

"Exactly what it sounds like, it seems."

Maka points to the area around his feet where the tiniest little golden toadstools are popping up, leading them on a winding path back through the massive forest of grass. The little glowing fungi beckon them forth, but something uncomfortable lurks in the back of his mind.

"Don't you think their timing was a little too perfect?"

"Pff, Kid has eyes all over this place, don't even worry about it."

"That reeeally doesn't make me feel any better. Like, at all."

"Aw, quit worrying so much, I'm ready to dance! Let's go!"

He thinks back to all those stingy parties after Wes's performances, with old people who wore too much perfume or aftershave and liked to pinch his cheeks in a way that crossed the line from endearing to excessively condescending.

"I, ah, m'not much of a party person."

She laces her fingers with his and grins,

"There'll be music."

Welp.

Shit.

Guess he's going to a party.

They aren't walking for very long before their pathway dissipates into golden light and rises to decorate the trees like fireflies, and Soul can't hear any music yet, but he's still hopeful. Kid greets them pleasantly, cordially, and Soul is uncomfortable with the formality of it, but makes no mention.

Maka asks Kid, "Who did the mushroom trick?"

And he is poised to answer when they hear a gleeful shout of, "Meeeeeeee, that was allllll me! Pretty groovy ain't it?" Patti runs toward them, in heels and a matching red dress, and almost pulls Maka into a hug, but with a sudden remembrance of the harm it could cause, and a slightly crestfallen look, she waves instead. Soul can feel Maka's melancholy, curls his pinky finger around hers surreptitiously and is rewarded with warm static and a quiet melody of gratitude. It's comforting in an otherwise extremely distressing situation.

Patti continues after her brief lapse,"Me and sissy can share our abilities. I always wanted to be a grower, she always wanted to be with the Fuzz. Guess we both gotta bit of what we wanted huh sis?"

Liz strolls up next to her sister, clad in a red dress identical to Patti's, grinning proudly.

"My 'lil sis sure is somethin' else. She can control her wavelength and use it however she wants. You all seen what a killer shot she is with it?"

Soul cringes at the memory of having the wind knocked out of him, spitting out a sullen 'yes'. Maka has to stifle a giggle, and he tries to twist her pinky in a childish game of mercy, but quickly gives up. Good god, what gave her such a ridiculously strong grip?!

She laughs, perching herself up on her tiptoes to whisper softly in his ear, "Captain of the varsity lacrosse team, Frosty. They call me Iron-Arms Albarn."

A shiver runs through him, and he would swear he could feel her eyelashes brush against his throat, but he keeps the thought to himself, coveting it. After having a shaken, molting angel in his arms earlier, he has to admit to himself that seeing the bolder side of Maka again is really, really relieving.

And kind of hot.

Before he can continue the thought, a stocky, dark-skinned guy with short cornrows tight along the sides of his head walks up to them. He is wearing a bloodied private school uniform, but seems wholly unconcerned, and raises his hand casually in greeting.

"Yo, I'm Kilik, nice to finally meet you. Soul and Maka, right? Liz hasn't shut up about you lovebirds since you showed up." He says it innocently enough, but Soul can detect the chuckle he's hardly holding in.

What a snarky dick.

Soul likes him already.

And Maka made no attempt to correct the 'lovebirds' assumption. Whether that be out of annoyance, indifference, or agreement, he's far from sure, but he kinda hopes it's the latter of the three.

Kilik just smirks, like he's seen right through Soul instantly. Soul resists the urge to flip him off.

Kid interrupts the staredown, "Anyway, the rest of the Reapers are on their way, we should head over."

The name of their gang isn't very comforting.

But Soul is confused, the place where they've met up is nice enough, wide open spaces and plenty of places to hide away.

"The party isn't gonna be here?"

Even Soul can hear the distress in his own voice.

Kid offers him a vaguely sympathetic look when he replies, "No, it isn't.

They're lead back to the tree where Kid first introduced himself and offered some guidance. Apparently, Liz, Patti, and he had all worked for years to make it home, creating Soul Objects to build and fill it.

And Soul has to admit, the place is an architectural masterpiece.

Two staircases twist upwards to meet in the middle, perfectly symmetrical when seen from the front door, their railings beautifully carved into polished black curls that almost remind him of smoke. The floor is white marble and black granite, stretching out before him in a pattern that almost reminds him of the backgammon board he and his gran used to play on, complete with black and white beanbag chairs arranged perfectly along the points like checkers.

He wishes he could feel the coolness of it against the soles of his feet. Just beneath a carpet that reminds him of a Rorschach test (which he actively avoids focusing on) he can see the vague outline of a trapdoor.

Interesting, if not a little worrisome.

He's glad for the fact that only a few people are there when they arrive, because it gives him a chance to explore. Maka is instantly immersed in conversation with a girl with long black hair tied up in a loop and a petunia tattooed between her shoulderblades. He tries to ignore the echoes of wounds mark her skin, faint purple and blue and green washing out along her back before pulling away again like waves. She didn't get here the same way as he did, that much is obvious, but he's not sure he can stomach the possible scenarios which put her here.

It's difficult to feel as sorry for himself when he watches the girl with the dark hair and bright eyes talks to Maka amicably, smiling kindly at her and leading her over to a pair of seats. The excitement and interest in Maka's eyes is something that gives him hope, do he holds onto the feeling greedily, but leaves her to socialize. Making his way up one of the staircases, he shakes his head as if the action might actually dislodge the images of the dark haired girl's skin blooming with old pain.

He nearly slams into someone at the top of the staircase, too trapped in his own looping, pessimistic train of thought to even notice that anyone else had been near. The shock of the wavelength he comes into contact with feels like that time one of his very few, very unfriendly friends dared him to grab the wire of an electrical fence. He almost falls backward down the stairs, but catches himself on the railing and rights himself, trying to look anywhere but at the stranger he just smashed into, but ultimately failing. When looks up to apologize to whoever he walked into, still shaking off the feeling of being an absolute idiot, his voice catches in his throat.

A veiny web of pink scars creeps from under the guy's shirt collar and up the side of his pale face, curling around one of his dark eyes. His brow is split in 3 places, the scar tissue shining in the eerie glow of the bioluminescent mushrooms clinging to the ceiling. His skin resembles wood that's been burrowed into by carpenter worms, the bark peeled away to show the damage done.

It's amazing and terrifying.

His dark hair hangs shaggy and long, but not long enough to conceal the abnormal markings.

Before Soul even gets a chance to apologize, the guy speaks, his voice low but clear. "Don't worry about it. I was pretty amazed the first time I saw this place too. It's a lot to take in. Name's Harvey."

Soul finds his voice and tells Harvey his own name.

The guy just snorts, his nose wrinkling, scars catching the light again, and Soul makes a note to stop staring, stop staring, stop fucking staring you weirdo. What was that trick? If he just looks at the point directly above Harvey's head, it'll seem like he's making eye contact, and not like he's studying the scars on Harvey's face.

If Harvey notices Soul's inner panic, he has the intuition not to mention it, for which Soul is incredibly grateful. He reminds himself that he himself isn't exactly the average guy-next-door type, and tries to take comfort in that fact. Maybe if Harvey would stare rudely at Soul's grandpa hair, he'd feel better about being the dickwad who can't bring himself to make eye contact. He's so pathetically fearful, and it pulls at him from all corners of his mind, tearing at the walls and -

He snaps out of his haze when Harvey addresses him.

"Soul, huh? Ironic."

Funny. That's exactly what Maka had said. Maybe that's Soul's purpose in the world.

To be ironic.

Harvey blows a breath out of his nose boredly, sighs,"These parties are always such a wash."

Ah, finally, some common ground, some way to break the ice.

"Never been fond of parties myself. Too many people, too much white noise. It's disorienting."

Harvey shrugs, "Bad luck to gather so many souls in one place. But it is what it is."

It's a strange thing to say, Soul thinks, but it seems to usually be true. Nothing good has ever come from large crowds of people. Not for him, at least.

"Yeah, guess so."

They're both quiet for a moment, and Soul looks at anything but Harvey, because that dark gaze is like a fucking x-ray and it freaks him out just a little.

Okay, maybe a lot.

Harvey pushes off from where he's been leaning against the wall, patting down the back of his hair where static electricity has made it stand up and clearing his throat. "Well, I'll leave you to it. There's a balcony on the forty-second floor. You can take the elevator on floor three to get there."

And he's gone before Soul can even thank him. Maybe it's better off that way though. He doesn't really feel like talking at the moment.

The rooms he has to walk through to get to the elevator are incredibly mismatched and not at all what he expects. The first has giraffe print wallpaper and toys strewn everywhere, clothing heaped in the middle of the room. There's a table covered in art supplies by a large window, and while it's far from his personal tastes, there is something charming about it. Perhaps it's just fact that the opportunity for creativity still exists here? Not that it matters much for him, he's shit at art and gets lightheaded around wet paint.

The room above it is far different, the walls the colour of gunmetal, carpet thick, shaggy, and dark. The bed is unmade, but massive, with countless plush looking pillows. A dresser the colour of charcoal sits beside the bed, filled with strange contraptions (is that a fucking eyelash curler? They're practically dead, who the fuck needs a goddamn eyelash curler?) and a collection of nail polish and clothing that almost rivals the one his own mother has accumulated over the years. He's incredibly confused as to how all of these Soul Objects came to be, but he decides that he doesn't much care at the moment. Getting some fresh air is the real objective.

The elevator is directly across from the opening in the floor he crawled through, and when he gets inside, he has to laugh a little; just like in any building with enough stories in the real world, the thirteenth floor is missing. It's amazing how unreal yet strangely normal the place has begun to feel. The unsettling weight lurking in his chest implies that maybe getting used to being a rejected soul may not necessarily be a good thing, but he ignores it in favour of pressing the button that will take him to temporary freedom.

The quiet hum of jazz surrounds him when the polished, mirror-like doors close. He tries not to dwell on the threatening points of his teeth peeking out from under his lips. He knows his eyes are the colour of blood, but he can't bring himself to look and check, and he wonders whose cruel idea it was to construct a tiny box entirely of reflective surfaces. He hopes that they can stand themselves far more than he can. Suddenly, he misses Maka's presence a great deal. Being left to his own thoughts is more difficult than he remembers it being.

But the elevator indicates that he's already at floor thirty-eight, and he resigns himself to wasting away the night on the balcony while the rest of the attendees converse and make connections, share secrets and laugh and cry and do - well, whatever it is that friends normally would do.

The elevator doors roll open with a cartoonish little ding, and he thinks it might have been a trick, because the room is entirely bare, but as he sluffs his way into the room, it morphs into something that makes his skin crawl and bile creep into the back of his throat.

The tiles on the floor are checkered, black and red and oh so garish, and he feels that familiar silken noose around his throat. His arms are stiff in the fabric of his pinstripe performance tux, and his toes complain angrily at being stuffed into such awful shoes. Blood coloured curtains cover the walls, and he can see it, his way to freedom, but that gaping hole in the wall isn't as comforting as he thought it might be, because in the center of the room lay a piano, fallboard already open, keys covered in unsightly dust.

His heart fills with the lead-heavy feeling of shame as he stares down at it. What a beautiful instrument, left all alone for so long, unable to sing or speak. He's always felt such a kinship with it.

The only way it can ever convey any idea is if someone else manipulates its strings.

He walks past it, as fast as his crisp suit and tight shoes will allow, eyes firmly ahead on the opening to the balcony. He will not allow a hallucination, a redundant nightmare to have such control over him. It's how he got twisted up into this mess of a realm to begin with.

A jazz record skips, and skips, and skips, and he speeds his steps, the tie tightening ever so slightly with each and every glitch.

The moment he steps foot on the balcony though, his formal attire melts away, and for once he's actually glad to be only in his ridiculous boxers. His chest feels lighter, and with his toes free he can feel the frequency of the voices below rumbling through the tree, a sound he can't hear, but rather senses as it thrums in the rings of the tree. He wonders if it makes them a bit like time travelers, to inhabit something that existed in all those different periods, lived through all those years.

Then he wonders if he's just an idiot. Seems more likely. He doesn't even understand fully how time works here. Maybe decades, centuries all happen at once, and everything that could ever possibly be thought of is being though right now.

Lame. Brooding over time and all the bullshit of the world and all the things he can't comprehend alone on a balcony?

Way, way fucking lame.

He never realized how much he despises being alone until now. Feeling everyone's wavelengths vibrate pleasantly through the soles of his feet - up his legs and into his chest - makes him wish to know what they're like, how they got here, why it's so fucking easy for them all to reach out to each other. Even the dude with the scarred up face seemed to be alright with mingling (though Soul has to admit that the scars were pretty rad looking; what could they be from?).

"Soul?"

He almost falls over the railing, so startled by Maka's voice that if he had a physical heart, he's sure it might've exploded in irrational panic. He takes a deep breath, not out of necessity, but purely for the sake of the comfort that comes from normalcy, and asks without looking at her, "How the hell did you find me?"

"Harvey told me where to find you. He's a pretty cool guy. I think you two might get along if you'd actually come downstairs and - ya know. Mingle."

He hums noncommittally, deftly dodging her request. "I met him. He's alright. Weird scar."

She gently chides, "You'd know how he got it if you'd just get your butt down there and socialized a little bit."

He's a bit ashamed of his cowardice, but says it anyway, the words leaving a sour taste in his mouth as they leave it. "Why can't you just tell me how he got the thing? Or things, whatever, it all looked connected like this kind of river splitting off into separate streams or something, it's pretty aweso -"

A strange look comes into her eyes. She looks very far away even though she's standing close enough for him to feel her wavelength reaching for his own. He apologizes.

"Sorry, I'm kind of a dick, huh? Scars aren't awesome. They come from pain."

"Yeah. But scars just mean you survived. He survived, in a way. I think he wears it proudly. Like a badge of honor."

Her voice is so close, it's unnerving and wonderful and melodic but sweet as well, tinged with something else he can't quite place. Dark amusement? Yeah, that must be it. He turns to look at her, curious as to what expression goes with such a voice, and has to stifle a gasp.

She is wrapped in a gown of dripping, molten onyx, the smooth fabric clinging to her skin in a way that he can only think of as sinful and heavenly. An oxymoron, he knows, and it frightens him how his fingers twitch; he wants to know the feel of that fabric on his fingertips.

Was it his mind that dressed her this way? With such sexual beauty, such obvious confidence, hugging her curves and caressing her skin in what he is sure is black silk? Should he be ashamed? Should he apologize?

The hem of her dress creeps further up her thighs, and he thinks of anything and everything but her. She deserves far better, shouldn't be objectified in such a way by an asshole like him, purely because she wanted to include him in the festivities before he would have to face the very fears that landed him here to begin with.

But she pays her exposed thighs no mind, simply strides proudly onto the balcony with him and clasps his hand in one of hers, placing her other hand over both of theirs and squeezing. Her dress melts away once again, and she's left in her original garb, the sports bra and pajama shorts somehow downplaying the womanly figure her gown had made apparent. He is - disappointed? Relieved? Perhaps ashamed.

She squeezes his hand again and jokes, "Stop worrying so much. You might go prematurely grey."

He shakes his head, his sinful thoughts rattling against the walls of his brain and scrambling into something more suitable for the situation at hand. He looks into her eyes, held by her gaze. He tugs the fingers of his free hand through the back of his hair, scratching at the back of his neck and arranging the follicular anomaly clinging to his head into a mess that he's sure is at least slightly amusing. If he can make her laugh, he may just get through this yet. If he can make her laugh, he may forget his own pain, if only for a moment.

He tugs on his bangs, glancing up at her through them. "Like you said, that ship has sailed. At least you still like me. Right?" He bats his eyelashes at her theatrically, putting on his best 'adopt me' face.

She laughs, and though she tries to conceal it in a cough, he knows better.

She shrugs,"Eh you're alright. Though I don't think everyone else will just take me by my word, me being a newbie and all too. So, wanna come down and make some friends with me?"

He thinks of all those hours he spent hiding in bathrooms and corners and storage rooms during fancy galas with too much food and too much chatter and too little true communication.

He thinks of the disappointment on the faces of all of the most important people, the associates of his parents, the richest and most talented. The people who really matter.

And then he thinks of how irrelevant that all is here, and he smiles at her, pulls her into a soft embrace and says, "You know what? Yeah, sure. I'll follow you. Just lead the way."

He thinks he might follow just about anywhere she would lead him.


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