A Sound Soul

Part IV

Somehow in the middle of the night they gravitated towards each other again, and when he wakes, she's studying him curiously. He cocks an eyebrow in question, and her face turns a dark shade of pink.

"Y-you've got freckles. On your eyelids."

Seems going to bed angry doesn't always lead to an unhappy morning.

God, that makes it sound like they're married.

Why was she watching him sleep?

Does she like his freckles?

Instead of saying any of these things though, he just dumbly blurts,

"Oh."

Patti saves him, ironically enough, calling down through the trapdoor, shouting at the 'lovebirds' to 'wake the fuck up' 'cause apparently it's 'time to get down 'n' dirty'. Whatever she means by that.

Maka is first to roll out of bed, stretching languidly, almost catlike, before walking over to his side to drag him out of the comfort. He groans dramatically, but she just flicks his forehead, grinning when he yelps.

He resists the urge to call her a cock, but only barely.

"Cmon, you bum, it's our first day as Reapers! Get a move on or all the good weaponry will be taken!"

"...Weapons?"

She smirks. "You'll see."

She's glowing with glee and a little mischief, and he swears she's gonna be the end of him, but he doesn't even care anymore.

She tugs him along with her, through the main room and back outside, which he's shocked to find is covered in a fine dusting of snow; the are trees skeletal and silent, glistening with ice that locks their bones and weakens their limbs.

He wants to retreat back inside, away from the eerie quiet of a world frozen stiff and littered with stagnating souls, but the look of joy and absolute wonderment on Maka's face seems to breathe life back into their surroundings. He hadn't realized he felt cold until she turns back to smile at him, and then he's melting.

It's so, so lame.

They meet up with a few of the others in a small clearing by a shed. No one seems concerned by the fact that half of the Reapers are missing. The ones in the field all wield various, strange looking weapons, groggily complaining about Kid's choice of scenery. Maybe since they've been here longer, they're truly affected by the cold. It must suck to have stiff joints while trying to kick ass.

Kid strolls out of the shed with a giant black and red scythe, and now Soul realizes why he and Maka had such an awful time of finding that damned thing by the river. Meddling bastard makes everything difficult without even trying.

Kid solidifies Soul's opinion when he calls out to everyone, "Seasons give structure to an otherwise intangible existence. If you walk far enough in any direction from here, I'm certain you'll find a climate you feel is more suitable, but for now, you'll just have to tolerate it. This is the zone we'll be clearing out today."

Kim groans and sinks to the ground, setting her strange looking weapon beside her with the kind of care one would use to lay down a lover. Soul is a little weirded out.

But then she just flops back to make a snow angel, and her weapon starts to glow menacingly, as if alive, and it's then he realizes that oh, it is.

Sort of.

He's an idiot.

Anything can be used as a golem apparently. Even weird ass lanterns that look like they were stolen from a train in the 20's.

Jackie emerges from the lantern with a frustrated sigh, and Soul nearly trips over his heels trying to back the fuck up cause oh god, she's on fire again. Saying she looks disgruntled would be the understatement of the year. Her hands sizzle when the snowflakes land on her skin, a puddle of melted snowfall forming around her feet.

Kim whines, "Aw babe, you ruined my snow angel!"

Soul tries not to think of the smell of burning feathers, of how Maka had hurtled to the earth, wings clipped and dreams turned. This is cute, what's happening now. A couple arguing, it's so normal.

He focuses on that instead.

Jackie splutters, smoke puffing out of her nose as she huffs, "Yeah? Well that little creep Crona ruined our day off!"

"Hey now, not my fault that the kid was a loon. 'Sides, promise I'll make it up to you later."

Kim gives Jackie a saucy grin, wiggling her eyebrows, and a few more feet of snow melt back from where Jackie stands, face steaming and hair aflame.

Soul looks away from what he thinks should be a private exchange, only to see a snowball hurtling towards his face. He instinctively braces for impact (he's still not quite used to the concept of tangible intangiblility), but of course it never comes. Instead he hears a sloshy smack, then a crackling pop.

With the caution of someone who has spent their entire life balancing on a blade's edge, Soul turns to see where the snowball (which apparently Patti had thrown, go figure) has connected, and he sees Harvey, hair standing on end like a frightened cat, scarred face covered in slush.

His split eyebrow twitches comically, fingertips sparking, but he simply wipes the snow off his face, flicking it aside with a flourish, ignoring the muffled giggling coming from a few of them and the outright cackling coming from Kim and Patti.

"Thanks for the pick-me-up Pat," Harvey deadpans, shaking the slush out of his hair, "better than coffee, really." Patti winks and blows him a kiss, which he catches and hands back to Ox, who smiles sheepishly, tucking it in his back pocket. Harvey gives her a look that Soul is absolutely positive was meant to be private, and he idly wonders if everyone here is not-so-secretly banging.

He guesses it must get boring when they're not out Reaping. Screwing is a good way to pass their supposedly limitless time.

Though, he wouldn't know personally.

Soul is pulled from his shameful daydreaming when Kid clears his throat, somehow having the good grace to only look mildly uncomfortable, and beckons everyone to form a semicircle around the opening of the shed.

"First off, has anyone seen Blake and Tsubaki?"

Ox grimaces.

"They're ah. Just freshening up."

Kid's nose wrinkles in distaste, and he asks no further questions.

"Alright, we'll move on without them for the time being. I know the majority of you are well acquainted with how things operate here, but Soul and Maka need to be informed. Shall I drone on about it, or would you rather train them yoursel-"

Several of the group call out, shouts of "We got this!" and "Stuff it already!" echoing through the clearing. Kid puts up his unoccupied hand in surrender, a smile tugging at his lips. He approaches Maka, scythe still propped on a shoulder (which looks incredibly uncomfortable, if Soul is honest), and places the giant tool beside her, ignoring the look of shock on her face.

"Tsubaki tells me that you're adept at ah, what was it - yes, 'fucking shit up with sticks,' so I figured this weapon would suit you well."

Soul is almost too absorbed in the hilarity of Kid cussing to notice the elated grin on Maka's face, but her music blares in his head, inspired and excited.

Then he realizes the implications of Maka wielding such a weapon.

Fuck.

"Wait wait hold up, so… I'm supposed to be in that weapon while she swings it around?"

"Exactly right, good deduction skills Soul, A plus."

"Don't be a prick, isn't that dangerous?"

Kid's smug smile drops.

"It is. Would you rather that Maka took your place?"

The low blow connects with the force of a freight train, and Soul nearly chokes on the pain of the idea.

No.

He wouldn't.

Kid's face is twisted into a fierce look of bitterness, and Soul is actually frightened by the intensity of it.

"That's what I thought. Learn your place and learn it well. Someday you may come to appreciate being the shield and sword. I know I would," Kid growls, eyes darkened to a strange shade of amber that screams of bad omens. Soul clenches his jaw and nods. He's not sure what has twisted Kid so thoroughly, but he's sure it's nothing good.

So he swallows down his pride as he is so accustomed to doing, and stores the 'advice' Kid has given him somewhere in the back of his brain, resigning himself to the fact that he'll just have to get over his motion sickness real fucking quick.

It almost gives Soul whiplash, how fast Kid's expression changes from barely contained rage to pleasant politeness.

"Now, as I said, our collective mission today is to clear this area of corrupted souls and whatever nightmares they've harnessed to torment others, but there's another thing you should be on the lookout for. The Enchanter has been more active recently, it seems, and quite frankly, I've gotten rather tired of it. If you see the man with the metal face, strike him down before he sees you, or retreat after reconnaissance, but whatever any of you do, do not face him on your own. He will end you."

Soul really, really doesn't like the sound of this Enchanter dude at all, but it seems like Kid's disclaimer just adds to the fire in Maka's heart. He's almost positive that she's gonna try to make him search for this guy with her, but he has to draw a line in the sand somewhere. He won't risk both their (presumably) eternal souls for a place they're trying to escape. No way in hell.

And a man with a metal face? How is that even possible?

On second thought, maybe he should remember to forget logic until they find their way home.

Kid nods respectfully to everyone in the group just as Tsubaki comes rushing into the clearing, Blake strolling along leisurely behind her, drinking in the new scenery with his arms crossed behind his head, a suspiciously satisfied grin on his face. Tsubaki apologizes profusely to Kid, but he just pats her shoulder in understanding. Soul can't hear their conversation, but he's assuming it's another brief recap of the mission, so he quickly loses interest, instead focusing on Maka, who is stretching her arms, as if pulling a hammy is actually a concern of hers. It's pretty damn funny in its absurdity.

He laughs outright when she tries to pick the scythe up and finds that her hands just distort around it, grasp impossible.

"I think that's kinda part of why I have to possess it Maka. So you can actually pick it up. Heh- guess that'd make it a Soul Object, huh?"

She scoffs and punches his shoulder, frustration clear on her face. She is obviously eager to go out and do something, but he's dragging his feet with good reason.

And fine, sue him; he doesn't really know how the fuck to become one with a scythe.

Luckily Harv and Jackie come over to explain the process to him, something about visualising becoming one with the object, (which admittedly, he first imagines in a highly unpleasant way before he adjusts the concept,) and he doesn't really technically understand, but he tries it a few times and finds he's gotten the feel for it, which is enough for him for now. It's only their first day, and the likelihood of them actually getting into real trouble is slim to none.

He hopes.

When Kid and Tsubaki finish their conversation, Kid addresses the whole group once more.

"Please understand that if you spot Crona, do not under any circumstances approach them. Their fighting style adapts in the cruelest of ways to whatever opponent they may be facing , as I'm sure some of you are aware. If sighted, turn and retreat. Oh, and guys? Please do your best to stick together. The forest seems to enjoy changing of its own volition. Kim, Jackie, you're with Kilik and the twins. Blake and Tsubaki, come with us. Ox, Harvey, you'll be taking Soul and Maka under your wing. Alright, off we go."

Patti happily trots over to Ox and Harvey, giving each a kiss on the cheek, electricity sparking subtly where their skin meets (Soul doesn't miss how Harvey flinches, however slightly), while Liz and Kilik share an inappropriately passionate kiss, and then they're off, arms linked with Kid's as they stride off into the thick, ominous white of the forest. Soul's a little at a loss, because even though plenty of instruction was given, he feels like he's more a colander than a sponge, letting important things slip through the cracks and left feeling and wobbly and unreliable.

Ox and Harv tiredly amble over to Soul and Maka, a lightning-tipped staff propped on Ox's shoulder, and Maka huffs frustratedly. He cocks an eyebrow, the 'what gives, nerdlord' unspoken but heavily implied, and she huffs again before she whines childishly.

"It's no fair! Why can he pick up his weapon without Harvey possessing it? I don't wanna hit people with something you're inside of! That's like tossing you into a woodchipper and hoping for the best!"

Soul has to bite back some morbid laughter, and much to his relief, isn't given the chance to answer as Harvey decides that explanations ought to be left up to the knowledgeable.

"The weapon is strengthened by the wavelength Soul gives off and adapts to any skills he might have. His possessing the scythe also makes it possible for you to channel your wavelength as well because of the bond you two have. You're both far safer this way. That's not to say it's foolproof, but it's still better. Not to mention, if you could hold that thing on your own, it would mean that you've become bound to this world, and as I've gathered, that's not really your objective. Sooooo. Ya know. Suck it up."

Soul guffaws, and can't quite avoid the smack in the back of the head from Maka, and though it seems halfhearted at best, he glares at her all the same. She just shrugs, telling him, "There was a thing. A bug thing."

"Lice? You're saying my soul has lice."

"Stranger things have happened. Anyway, I guess Harvey is right." The man in question snorts, amused.

"I usually am."

Maka rolls her eyes.

"Don't get cocky, it doesn't become you."

Harvey smirks, the scarring on his face somehow charming when accompanied by a smile.

"Point taken. Hey Ox, ready?"

Ox nods resolutely, holding out the lightning staff parallel to the ground, and when Harvey places a hand on the staff, he is pulled into the object, his image turning to warped static, disappearing in a flash of light. The end of the staff sparks. Ox looks at it, expression almost apologetic. Soul tries not to dwell on it.

Maka looks at Soul, her music wobbly and off kilter, and he smiles just a little, doing his best to be reassuring without looking like a dope. She shakily mimics Ox's motions from before, and Soul gives her a moment to steady herself, laying a palm on her shoulder.

"You good?" he asks, searching her eyes for that indecision.

All he finds is courage and determination.

"We're good."

And with that, he places a hand on the scythe and becomes one with the weapon, somehow now inside the cool metal golem. His hearing is amplified to the point where it becomes almost painful, and his bones feel rigid and brittle, but strong as steel. Her hands feel strangely warm on his staff, which doesn't really seem to be any particular part of him, more like she's got a grip on the entirety of his soul, which - he realizes with a little chuckle - is exactly what's going on. She breathes deeply through her nose, eyes closed as she centers herself and focuses on their loose bond. Her music becomes more serene the harder she focuses on him, so he does his best to think calm thoughts, safe thoughts, thoughts of them getting the hell outta here and going to meet at the park on Gallows Ave, and she responds. He hums happily to himself. They can totally do this.

She gives him a few experimental twirls and he immediately feels like puking his heart out. He's genuinely glad that it isn't actually a possibility.

"H-hey Makahhahum can you ah, hold off on that please. It's kinda... disorienting. Save the twirling for batons or something. Don't want me to puke on your pretty toenail polish, right?"

"Alright, alright, I get the point, not so much twirling. But to be fair, you couldn't even puke if you wanted to. Sorry to disappoint bud."

"Yeah, just rub it in why don't you. Come on, lets go Reap some stupid jerks."

He can see her face through a strange eye adorning his blade, and her determined little grin sends a tingling through him. She's a warrior in the making and it's beautiful.

She gently leans him against her shoulder as they begin their hunt, following Ox and Harvey into the fog. She keeps close enough to always have them in sight, but not so close that a potential battle could go awry because of proximity. It's strange to see the way the snowfall just passes right through her, as if she weren't there at all. He's glad for it. It means she still has somewhere to go home to, she can still get away from this place when all is said and done.

The further they voyage into the forest, the thicker it seems to get, skeletal trees giving way to ice encrusted evergreens. He supposes that maybe someday he'd like to get a cabin in woods like these, build fires and make Maka hot cocoa, bundle them both up in layers of blankets-

He stops the thought abruptly, embarrassed and feeling like an absolute creep, but when he peers up at Maka, a little smile is tugging at her lips, and her cheeks glow pink. He can tell that she got a vague idea of what he was thinking, and the fact that she hasn't scolded him or called him a weirdo makes his heart swell. He really would like to get out of this place if it meant he could experience things like that with her. He'll gladly suffer through whatever else he must for the sake of seeing her bundled up in his blankets with whipped cream on the tip of her nose.

But none of that will ever happen if he doesn't get his shit together and fight with her, so he has to focus.

Her steps don't even make a sound. It's eerily quiet: the wind at a standstill, fog heavy. At first it's peaceful, but after a long while of continuing on their path, something in the atmosphere shifts ominously. He can't hear any change, or smell one, or see, but he can feel that something is wrong, feel a chill in his bones that sets him on edge.

He keeps his voice low.

"You feel that?"

Maka nods, speeding her steps. They've lost sight of Ox and Harvey through the thick haze, and though Soul is pretty sure Maka can handle herself just fine, he also knows that neither of them have any real idea of what they will have to deal with in this situation. It's not their own minds that they are facing, but the mutated creations of fallen souls, ones with freshly made golems to live in and utilize however they wish.

God almighty, he really hopes there aren't any spiders. Fuck that.

He can feel something malicious, somewhere, but he can't see it, and she can't see it, and she's running now, gripping him in both of her hands so tightly it almost hurts.

Then it feels like the world has been torn inside out, reassembled into something entirely different. They're standing in the middle of a forest of melted, waxlike trees, the colours vibrant and overwhelming, and he feels some sympathy for poor Salvador, because it's disorienting, bordering on maddening. The air is thick with strange aromas, and he wants to hold his breath, but it would make no difference anyway.

Maka sighs deeply, twirling around to see all perspectives available to her. Soul can no longer feel that looming sense of dread, but something is off about this place, and neither of them have any idea as to how to find their way back to Ox and Harv. Hopefully Patti can use that shroom trick again to lead them toward safety by day's end, but that's a long way away.

Maka huffs and sits down abruptly, laying his scythe form over her crossed legs and hiding her face in her hands. He can hardly hear it when she says,

"And what fucking season is this supposed to be, Kid?"

He would laugh if it weren't a legitimately concerning thing. Aesthetically, the place is astounding, like stepping into a work of art and being able to explore its depths. But he feels a little high, and possibly a little paranoid, so he stays within his weapon form, ready for a fight.

But they sit for a long while, and nothing other than the slow bubbling of their environment occurs. It never seems to end; when one tree melts down, another gradually sprouts up beside it. He wonders what would happen if nothing new sprouted up, if it all melted and melted until this place no longer existed, just a floor of colours and a river of ink, a mere memory of what it had been.

They are torn from their false sense of security when a little voice shouts out, desperate and frightened,

"Daddy?! Daddy! I'm done playing hide and seek now, see? I'm right here!"

The girl sounds as if she's on the edge of tears, but Soul doesn't trust it, doesn't trust this world at all. It could be a trap, an illusion, a hallucination to draw them into chaos.

But Maka, bleeding heart that she can be, is immediately on her feet and searching, his form slung over her shoulder as she runs toward the source of the voice. She sprints past molten trees, and he remembers now, why this place exists. This is a place he's created. The melting crayons on the pavement, the waters so dark you could lose your soul in them. He's the one who has gotten them lost.

He doesn't understand why anyone else would be here, though. It's uncomfortable.

It takes him a moment to make the connection. There was a little girl who lived on the outskirts of his neighborhood, in a home far too expensive for a single father working as a security guard. Her name was Angela and her dad loved her very much. They took him away in cuffs one day, took her into the custody of the state, and he never saw either of them again.

Apparently, his subconsciousness still isn't over the horror of it, the injustice of it all. She had been such a happy child, her father so caring. He had been envious.

Then they were gone, both in places he was sure they didn't deserve to be, and he had missed seeing them in the neighborhood. He wonders if the Angela he hears is actually here, or if his guilty conscious is just playing cruel tricks on him. For once, he's really hoping he's just crazy.

"Maka, this could be an illusion set to trap us. Someone might have gotten into my head and made this to manipulate us. Be careful, okay?"

"Wait... so this is from your mind?"

He groans.

"It sure seems like it anyway. That's why I'm worried. Just watch what you do."

She nods solemnly, slowing her steps and raising his form, poised for battle. The river flows silently, black sand of its bank steadily eroding. His throat feels tight, dry as the sand beneath Maka's feet.

Desperation.

The scenery shifts again, and they're in the barren desert, chilled by the night, and he's been wandering for years, he knows it because he's been here before, so many dreams of being here.

He's going to die if he doesn't get a sip, he's going to die without a taste, he knows it.

He's out of his golem and running toward an oasis that never seems to get any closer, always just out of reach, and Maka is calling after him, but he just can't quite hear it, just doesn't quite care enough to stop. That oasis, it's so, so close.

Please, he just needs a taste...

He is standing above it, staring down to the black water, itching for a sip. He sees the reflection of a madman in the surface, and he knows that if he drinks from here, it may be the end of him, but it doesn't matter anymore. He's just so, so fucking thirsty.

He reaches toward it, cupping his hands to collect some of the liquid. It's thick, though... warm, and dark, and smells like loose change.

The surface looks just like the sky. Maybe if he reaches out, he could touch the stars, caress the moon and taste the universe.

When he falls, he realizes his mistake, realizes that he's going to drown in this, because it's his mind, and his mind has always betrayed him at every turn. He chokes and sputters, but it's like tar, coating his throat, burning him, consuming him as he thought he could consume it.

Hubris, he thinks to himself as the black swallows him up. I should have known better.

Then he just… lets go, lets out a burning exhale that only the drowning know, then breathes in his prison, accepts that this is it. What happens when you die in this place? Where do you go from here?

Should he care?

Surrender.

It's so peaceful now. So serene.

But there are hands gripping him, pulling him out instead of deeper, and some part of him reminds him that it's a good thing, he needs to get out, but it still hurts. He just wants to rest.

He's so tired.

He's tugged up and out of the all-consuming black, coughing and sputtering uselessly as he crumples on the shore. Maka is shaking him, shouting at him, beating on his chest, but he just coughs out weak chuckles, laughing at the absurdity of it. His own mind trying to exterminate him. How sweet.

She's in his face now, and she's livid, eyes glowing acidic green and lovely lips pulled back into a snarl. In all his loopiness and hysteria, something tells him he wishes he could taste her anger.

"Soul what the FUCK?!"

He's still dazed, admiring the fire in her eyes and the flush in her cheeks.

"I wuz thirstyyyy, fuck, so thirsty. I thought I was gonna die. But like, I'm already halfway there right? Woaaaah, 'm halfway theeere woaaah oh!-"

"Stop now, and I'll blame it on temporary insanity. C'mon you idiot, we need to keep moving. Everything keeps changing. I really need you to snap out of it and help me navigate this, alright? I need you right now."

Those pretty words dripping from those pretty lips, each one almost tangible, like he could reach out and hold them in his hands, covet them and protect them; they're almost irresistible.

She needs me.

He repeats it in his head, over and over as a mantra. No one has ever needed him, not for anything other than completing a family photo or filling in an ensemble, pressing down a chord

here or there; a place holder, a gap filler, replaceable at best.

She needs me?

And she wears her honesty all over her face, plain as day. She does, she means it, she needs him. Just for this moment, someone needs him and he dare not disappoint, especially not her. What kind of man would he be if he couldn't pull through for her?

So he tries, he tries so hard. He focuses on the chaos of her melody, and somehow it's grounding. The frantic desperation of it is something to hold onto, not the anchor.

The buoy.

Things start to come a little more into focus now as he regains some semblance of his equilibrium, and he sees that it's true, the world has shifted again, tar covered trees and strongly smelling black soil beneath him. He can't hear water running anymore, but he can hear the wind whistling through cracked windows. His heart sinks at the realization of what fun and exciting place has popped up now.

God, no. He screws his eyes shut, groaning at the absolute absurdity of all this shit he's brought with him. He thought that this forest only warped of its own accord. Why is it adapting to his subconsciousness?

Can he go back to drowning now?

"Hey, you here? Are you with me?"

He only groans, and she shakes him by his shoulders, irritated and impatient. Maka has no time for him to have his mini crisis, apparently. It's not like he can blame her. He takes a steadying breath.

"Yeah. I'm here."

She exhales breathily, relieved, and he can't bring himself to look at her, because the concern he knows he would see on her face would be too much to handle.

Maka's hands on his chest seem to burn, and he yelps, but she suddenly goes rigid, on guard, and shushes him with a harsh flick to the nipple. His eyes fly open, and he's just about to ask her what the fuck her problem is, but Maka is somewhere far away, right there with him but eyes clouded over as she stares out into the grotesque dream-scape he's conjured up. Her eyes are almost black, pupils unnaturally large, consuming the green.

Just like the inkiness that consumes the trees.

"Wha-"

"Seems we're not alone. Come on, we gotta go inside."

Inside. Inside that decrepit old Victorian, the home of some of the dumbest fears he's got. Of course that's where she wants to go.

Goddamnit.

"That makes literally no fucking sense. That'll just trap u-"

"C'mon, you big baby, let's go."

She tugs on him to stand up, and he finds himself being dragged behind her yet again, up the peeling stairs of the porch and in through the blood red door. He's unsurprised to find it lit by flickering flame, disguising itself as a haven when really it's a hell. She locks the door behind them.

The handle melts into the door.

He feels ill.

"Don't worry about it, that just means whoever was lurking out there can't get in."

"I don't really understand why you're so fucking calm. I wasn't really all that worried about whoever was out there to be honest."

"...Oh."

"Yeah. I'm not unfamiliar with this place."

"Sorry."

He sighs deeply, containing the urge to snap at her any more. It was done with the best of intentions.

"It's cool. Let's just- I dunno. Find a way out of this hellhole before shit starts moving around again."

She nods solemnly, gripping his hand tightly in her own, leading him through his own mind with a kind of surety that he envies and admires. The floorboards don't even dare to creak beneath her feet. The firelight of the candles glows higher as she strides past them, her fierce energy seeming to transfer into their surroundings. He tries not to think about that fucked up movie about the house that ate people.

Fucking hell, he just wants to get out of here.

She tugs him up a stairwell, ignoring the way the eerie, faceless paintings shift in their frames, ignoring the strangely cacophonous skittering along the floors as if she isn't scared in the slightest.

But he can feel her frequency, the way her music falters and falls into discord, and he knows she is only putting on a brave face for him. He can't say he doesn't appreciate it, but it does make him feel pretty guilty.

At the top of the stairwell there is a hallway, one he knows far too well, and he jerks to a halt at the upper landing, wondering just what his mind will show her when she opens the first door. Maybe if he wishes hard enough for it, the door will just lead to a balcony. A jump from this height wouldn't do shit to them, right? They'd be just fine.

He hears a sickening crunch of wood splintering from downstairs, and his stomach just about drops out his ass. Fuck everything, he just wants some goddamn peace.

It's right around then that he realizes they left their weapon outside, and a feeling of dread settles deep within him. This is gonna suck. For sure.

"Shit," Maka mutters, and drags him into the first door on the left.

Of course. Sinistra.

The irony is not lost on him.

She closes the door behind them with a quiet click, and he feels like they're in some deranged episode of Scooby Doo, some unknown possible (probable) lunatic following them through corridors of a decrepit old house. Being here makes him feel like a child, young and scared and absolutely helpless.

He realizes, infuriated, that all these thoughts are cyclical, things he's thought before, over and over, and yet here they are again. Shouldn't he be making progress? Shouldn't he be better, if only a little? He feels the same. He feels foolish.

Not alone. Not anymore.

But foolish all the same.

Maka grabs a chair from the corner, jamming the back of it beneath the doorknob and backing away from where they entered the room, eyes fixed on the strange carvings around the doorframe. He watches her watch the writhing ivy, watches the way she marvels at how the house breathes and twitches and quakes, as if it were a monster itself. The notion is more truth than he'd care to admit.

"Sooo," she starts," what exactly am I supposed to expect here?"

"I dunno, spiders and self-hatred? How the fuck should I know?" He feels kind of like a prick as soon as he says it, cause he does sort of have a vague idea of what to expect, it being from his mind and all.

Though, to be fair, spiders and self-hatred is actually a pretty good summary.

"Well excuuuuuse me, just kinda would like to be warned if you frequently have dreams that look like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I like my innards staying on the inside."

"Tch, as if I'd ever be so cliche."

Something slick and clammy circles around his ankle then, and he realizes that the carvings of vines from the doorframe have taken it upon themselves to creep him the fuck out. He bites back the potentially high pitched yelp that tries to claw its way from his throat as the frightfully animated vines inch closer to his flailing legs, and he scrambles away from them, back quickly meeting the wall of the room.

Maka looks at him like he's just lost his mind.

And then she screams.

It seems the vines are far more interested in her than him, and her breaths quicken to what might be considered hyperventilation in a world where air were relevant.

This must be why the vines had taken him by surprise.

Now the world is bending to the will of her subconsciousness as well as his.

Well.

Shit.

She's stomping around like she's in some sort of drug induced tapdancing frenzie, chanting something unintelligible that he assumes are curses, until his brain finally catches up and tells him go help her you royal asshole, and he stumbles over his own feet, grabbing an elaborately carved wooden chair from the corner of the room to thwack away at the greenery doing its best to eat the only person he ever really gave much of a shit about.

Before he can even get to her, her eyes slam shut and her whole body shakes, and she shouts at him,

"Ohhh god please no Soul tell it to stop thisissofuckedup."

"Me?! This isn't me, how the fuck am I suppose to make it stop?!"

"I don't know just figure it ou-ohgod one touched my knee oh my god oh god nonono-"

A feeling of overwhelming rage fills up his gut and spreads through all his extremities, hot and bitter and - logically speaking - almost entirely unwarranted. He tries to bite back the words of frustration, but they spill out anyway, sour on his tongue and heavy on his conscience, but he just can't stop himself, and he interrupts her frantic yammering.

"What is your fucking deal?! It's just a couple of plants, the only real problem right now is you! Calm the fuck down and think!"

Her eyes are wild as she snarls,

"Says the guy who tried to drown himself like, five fucking seconds ago! "

That one hurts, and the fire builds and builds, his anger reaching unreasonable levels, and he can feel the way her own burns hotter than the stars, barely contained within her skin as she fumes, frightened and enraged beyond belief. His own anger is only fueled further by the way she's acting, and he ends up lashing out even more because of it.

"Can you maybe just shut the hell up!? We need out of this room, shitshitshit."

She is snide, croaking,

"You know what would be suuuuuuper helpful right now? A fucking scythe."

"Oi, why're you looking at me like that!? You're the one who left it behind!"

She shrieks, "IDIOT! I can't even pick the damned thing up if you're not possessing it, how is it MY fault you pric-"

And it all makes sense in that moment, when her music scalds him from the inside out and her words lash at his skin, he knows what's happening, knows what has to be done to stop it, but isn't sure if he'll be able to do it, not without her help.

"Maka."

"What!?"

Off to an excellent start.

He closes his eyes, breathes slowly, trying desperately to get a handle on his temper, and says through clenched teeth, "Calm down."

It's obviously the wrong choice of words, which he should have known, but he's never had the strongest social skills.

It's like she completely forgets all other things irritating her at that particular moment, forgets the vines, and the nightmares, and the whole damn house around them, focusing only on him and the rage she feels for him, and she's scary as hell. Her nose is almost touching his, eyes far too dark as she snarls at him.

"Don't tell me to calm down. It's your fault we even have to deal with this twisted shit in the first place, this house only exists because of you!"

She is feral and cruel, and he can see the truth of her feelings, the fear and the pain, all within her eyes, screaming apologies silently, but right now her words ring far louder, and it takes all he has not to allow her to get under his skin. It's not like she was the one who insisted that they go into that rickety old shack or anything...

"I just mean - this - agh. I'm not gonna fucking argue, okay? This is the objective, Maka. To get us to turn against each other."

He can see her understanding, her shame of being overtaken so easily.

He lets the chair drop to the right of them, ignores the way the vines overtake it and demolish it, grabs her face in both of his hands and begs.

"Don't let them win."

Her eyes go wide, irises blooming out from beneath the black of her pupils, and she mutters "shit" under her breath. She tries to back up, but trips over a thick, ropey vine, Soul barely managing to grasp her around the waist before she can crack her head on the floorboards. His arm burns where their skin makes contact, and she yelps so suddenly he almost drops her before she gets a chance to regain her footing.

She staggers upright, arms hovering out at her sides to keep her balance as she glares at the insidious greenery creeping ever closer, uncaring of their problems with their 'feelings'. She hisses when one whips at her ankle, thorns biting into her deeply before retreating again. She spits, "What the fuck just happened?"

Soul can't help but scoff.

"Youuuu're gonna have to be a little more specific, cause a whole lot of shit just 'happened'."

"I mean, why did I just get the sudden urge to strangle you?!"

"I generally tend to have that effect on people, so I wouldn't think too hard on it."

"I'm serious! We need to get out of here, Soul, it was bad. The last time I felt that angry was-" She stops short, like her tongue has been superglued to her shiny white teeth.

"Hey," he prods," was when?"

Nothing. She ignores him entirely, eyes searching crazily for an exit, for escape, for an end to this madness, and like magic, a door appears.

It's black.

Soul's throat closes.

Maka grabs his hand, and though he knows it still burns, she seems to ignore it, pulling him along behind her as she rushes for a door that she thinks leads to freedom, a door that he knows only leads to misery.

He tries to warn her, but they're already through the door, and the floor creeps and crawls beneath them, curling around their toes and skittering up their legs. He can't see a damn thing, only feels her searing palm and hears her when she huffs, "You were serious about the spiders!?"

He chuckles a little at first at how absolutely done she sounds, laughs harder at how strange his laughter is in this room, like there are no walls, but he's being crushed all the same. When he speaks, it's almost lost to the void, swallowed up and forgotten as the darkness suffocates him.

He laughs until his chest aches.

"H-hey, it wasn't that funny."

Oh, but it was.

He can hardly even recognize his own voice, disembodied, tinny, almost in hysterics, and somewhere in his mind he's a little pissed that he's so easily thrown off by these things, that he's so unstable, so susceptible.

Another part, a very dominant, loud part, is just sick of this bullshit realm.

"Ohhh ho ho. T-this is tooooo perfect, absolutely fucking flawless. For fuck's sake, where'd the goddamn door go, I'd rather get violated by demonic plants, fuck this, fuck everyth-"

"Soul-"

"I'm so fucking done I can't eve-"

And there she is.

The queen, the puppetmaster, the one who pulls the strings, tearing at his seams and slipping beneath each little stitch, tingling in his fingers and skittering up his now ramrod straight spine.

His jaw locks and his joints freeze, his eyes wide though he can hardly see, and he can feel her web has got him by his scruff, pulling him up on his tippy toes until his ankles are limp and his feet leave the ground. He feels like a ragdoll made up of stuffing and wire, useless while being utilized, his mouth moving but no words escaping. His vocal chords are cotton fluff, his arms merely decoration, and it's cliche, so cliche, but he actually finds himself thinking, 'Why me?'.

Her voice is a silken black hole, all consuming and uncomfortably comforting, when she asks, "Why don't you just take a rest? I know you're tired darling, so let me handle things for a while."

He wishes he had never agreed to therapy four years ago, never let this woman into his mind, because she planted a seed that has never left him alone since that moment, no matter how twisted and awful he knew it was.

She gave him the hope that he wouldn't have to handle things on his own, the security of having others make the important decisions. He could just sit back and watch it all unfold, and everything would be alright.

Neuroscientists say that the frontal lobe of a human being's brain isn't even fully developed until around eighteen years of age.

That's the part of the brain that is equipped for logical decision making.

It's why he figured letting someone else call the shots would be better.

His brother had seen something was wrong. He put a stop to it, and Soul hated him, just for a little while, because Wes was responsibility, Wes was talent, Wes was the understanding of consequences, and it all made Soul's head throb and heart ache.

Give me simplicity.

Give me apathy.

Give me lies

Because my soul can't tolerate much else.

But how do you say something so awful to someone who cares so much?

He's still tired, maybe even more tired than he had been when all of these things first happened, and he really, really, wishes to give in, but then there's Maka, and giving up isn't an option, the easy way out isn't an option, lies are not an option. Her song is in the key of honesty, and it's amongst the most beautiful things he's ever heard.

The music does not lie.

There's no need for that.

Maka doesn't speak, but she doesn't have to; he can hear the chords of her heartstrings, her soul singing to him, and he knows that he is better than this. Better than a puppet, better than a pawn, better than a tool. Maybe a few minutes from now he won't remember this feeling, but at least he will know that it exists.

That will be enough.

In the darkness, he sees cold blue eyes, staring at him expectantly, watching and waiting, and it takes all his willpower to stare back as he finds his limbs, wiggling his fingers and toes first, unlocking his jaw, bending his knees. Seeing the confusion in those eyes is so satisfying that a ragged, harsh laugh escapes him, his vocal chords once again intact, and he can feel hands at his back, warm and real and true. That woman who crept into his mind and poisoned it from the inside out, she's not gone, the idea she planted isn't gone, but they no longer hold the power they did once.

And for him, for now? It's enough.

The floor gives way beneath him and Maka, and he holds his breath so he can't scream.

It's like it was in those old cartoons he used to sneak away to watch with Wes, the ones where a character would run off the edge of a cliff, and for about four beautiful, impossible, incredible seconds, sheer disbelief held them suspended, perfectly still. Then reality - or whatever it's called - sets in. And the character plummets downward in a panic, toward... whatever.

Except he can see what they're falling towards, and it really doesn't look like it will be a comfortable landing. There's a very small part of his brain that registers the fact that it shouldn't be such a large fall, you could fall out a window from two stories up and if you land correctly, you probably will hardly get bruised. But that part of his brain is pretty quiet while the rest of it is in full on panic mode. The sound of Maka's shriek isn't helping much in that department.

They hit the top few steps of the spiral staircase with a cacophonous clash of notes that makes his ears ring unpleasantly, and he realizes that the impact is painful, which he knows is really not a good sign. He doesn't spend much time dwelling on it though, because he can see the scythe not too far off, can hear one of the inner doors of the looming building being broken down. When he rights himself and helps a confused, disheveled, furious looking Maka to her feet, he tries not to dread the berating he'll probably end up getting for this later on.

He tries to tug her along with him down the staircase of black and white keys, but before his toes even reach the A note, she's got him by the back of neck, and his arms windmill around ridiculously to keep his balance as she pinches a pressure point that makes his vision a little blurry. This whole not having a body thing would be so much more convenient if it actually seemed to save him from physical discomfort.

But alas, this realm doesn't seem like the kind for convenience.

When she's absolutely certain she has Soul's attention, she hisses,

"You owe me all kinds of explanations when this shit is through, you hear me? You're gonna spill it. As soon as we're out of here. Agreed?"

He's overwhelmed and confused and, twistedly enough, just a little turned on by the way she grips him and speaks directly into his ear, so he goes the safe route and replies with snark.

"I'd nod 'yes' but I can't feel my neck."

She growls lowly, but releases her grip on him, grabbing him by the hand instead and turning him to face her. It was a lot easier to be a snarky jerk when he couldn't see her eyes. He thinks she knows that, the perceptive little nerd. Her eyes are wide and concerned as she stares at him, and he sees her petal pink lips part slightly as if to speak, but then her mouth snaps shut, her jaw tense as her eyes flicker back to the trapdoor they came from. They glaze over momentarily, then quickly clear just before he hears another crash, and he realizes what she's going to say before she says it. They have to go.

He squeezes her hand, and when she nods, the both break into a sprint down the spiraling piano, their bounds somehow harmonizing even when their steps falter and do not match. Vines coated in spiderwebs begin to spread from the building out the trapdoor, reaching for their stairs, and Soul really wishes he were a fucking scythe right now.

He skips half octaves at a time, ankles nearly buckling beneath the absolute desperation and terror, but Maka seems just as driven, if not more so, sometimes bounding an entire octave of giant keys, ankles sturdy beneath her. He envies the surety of her steps, wishes he could make moves with such confidence that they weren't a mistake. Sometimes she hits sour notes, but she pays it no mind at all, always moving forward, forward, forward. No time to look back, no, they have a mission, a purpose, and it doesn't involve second guessing or wallowing in mistakes they've made. He can see how deeply she understands it in the way she moves.

He risks a glance at their destination, the scythe useless and very distinctly inanimate, ink from the trees drooling onto the blade in a fashion that's almost sickly. It turns his stomach, but for the first time in what seems like ages, something goes their way.

It seems that though her behavior may come across as erratic at first, Patti is actually quite reliable. Those golden glowing mushrooms sprout up, lighting their path to some place he's absolutely certain is far better than where they are now. His left foot hits the 42nd key in just the wrong way, his excitement nearly sending him tumbling down the remaining 46 keys if not for Maka grabbing a wrist. He doesn't remember being so clumsy, but his nerves are fried and he's tired, and now that he knows it's actually a possibility, he just really wants to get back to the mansion and go to sleep.

The final few keys are chaotic, discordant in a way that makes his bones rattle and his teeth chatter. His blood vibrates the way one's joints would when cracking a baseball with an aluminum bat just so. It's electric and unpleasant and sends a violent shiver up his spine, and he has a strange moment of sympathy for Harvey before being jerked back into his reality by the realization that he's harmonized with Maka perfectly, just for a moment, before their feet hit the spongy black earth.

When they finally reach the scythe, Soul immediately binds himself with the weapon so Maka can grasp it. He takes a millisecond to look back at that house of horrors through his blade, and is hit with the jarring realization that the front door remains untouched, no sign of forceful entry, no indication that anyone other than he and Maka had been there. His gut lurches, and the truth hits him hard.

It was just another trick, playing on a fear. He knows that this one is unfamiliar to him, and so it must have been one of Maka's. He tries not to dwell on the implications of it and catalogs the piece of information deep within his mind, somewhere she shouldn't be able to find it when they resonate, behind that time he found his dad's stash of high class porn magazines and that other time he bothered to take out the trash on his own, seeing empty Valium bottles with his mother's name all over them stuffed in the plastic bag. If Maka has any sense of respect for privacy, he's sure she won't look any deeper than that.

Hopefully.

His spine pops when she grasps him tighter, her grip determined but slightly frightened, and he's so glad for the fact that they have someone watching over them now, so glad someone is watching out for them. He'll have to thank Patti when they get back.

He gratefully sips on the silence that stretches on as Maka flees the area, and he takes comfort in the way she leans her cheek against the haft of the scythe, her breath warming his blade from the uncomfortable chill. All the inky blackness that covered the weapon doesn't do a damn thing to her, and it's such a relief.

She's running for a long while before he breaks the silence, assures her that no one is following, she can relax for a minute, really she can. She's reluctant, to put it lightly, but eventually concedes. The environment stopped warping, shifting to a grassy meadow with a slow flowing creek beside it and remaining that way. In the back of his mind he thinks about how strange it is, the way everything once seemed so much larger than life, but now it's like they have their own realm within the realm. Daffodils and foxglove dapple the field with colour. It's slightly reassuring, the way they seem to fit now, in a strange way, if not for the words that escape Maka in the moment after he makes his observation.

"T-there wasn't even anyone chasing us, was there."

Honesty is the best policy, isn't it?

Soul shifts out of the scythe, paying it no mind when it lands in the grass with a soft whump. He crouches down beside her where she's flopped down, sitting crosslegged with her palms pressed hard against her eyes. It looks painful. He wants to stop her, but doesn't know how.

"Yeah. I mean no- no one was chasing us."

She sighs deeply, and his fingers curl into his own hair, tugging nervously as he waits for her to speak again.

"It was just a fear."

He glances at her, and she gives him a small, sad smile. She repeats to herself, "just a fear, only a fear," and he feels so very sick for her.

He gathers all the courage he can muster, and asks her, quietly, solemnly,

"Where'd that come from? Cause it- I mean- that wasn't mine."

"Well isn't this just a learning experience. Are you having a good time? I'm having a greeeat time." This hint of suppressed hysteria in her voice doesn't go unnoticed. It chills him through and through.

He leans a bit closer to her, his fingers curling cautiously around her upper arm, and she looks back at him with glazed eyes. Her waist is still an angry red from where his grip has burned her before. His is fraught with guilt, and she isn't looking at him, she's looking through him, which only intensifies the feeling. He's reminded of being a child again in a way that makes him want to run very, very far away.

But her music is so faint that it's frightening, and he knows that he'll stay, he will always stay until she decides she no longer wants him to. He squeezes her shoulder, murmurs, "Hey, seriously. You okay?"

She snorts out a humorless laugh, eyes refocusing on him, solidifying him, making him real again.

"Funny, I thought I'd be the one asking you that. Let's not dwell on it, okay? Please? I just want to go back and lay down. I'm tired."

He doesn't bother arguing with her, noting the sharp, harsh set to her jaw and letting the quiet sweep over them once more.

Her song has gone silent.


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