A Sound Soul

Part VI: Final

In his dreams, there are voices. So many voices that he's never heard. And music. So chaotic that it makes him want to crawl under a rock.

But there's no rocks here. He is nowhere. He is nothing but a part of a whole, a whole that is screaming and sobbing unintelligible things, but he catches one so loud, so desperate, telling him to wake up, wake up, wake up, now.

He jerks awake, and Maka isn't beside him.

She is shrieking, and someone is laughing, and he is lost, lost, lost.

She screams for him and he is scrambling, desperate, floating in space, and it seems all the souls' light has gone out, like they're cowering away from whatever has occurred, like if they don't see it, then it never happened.

"Ohhhh you're a feisty little cunt aren't you? This Soul your fuck buddy? Do they like to watch?"

Soul tries to keep a clear mind, tries to be objective, because he's never been good with emotions, he always either swallowed them down or rejected them altogether, but he can't, he can't think straight and he's blinded by the rage, the hatred, the need to find her.

So he plays. In his mind, in that place, the place that he was brought to in that room in Kid's mansion, that place deep within his soul where he hides the things of which he is most proud and most ashamed, he plays as hard as he can, begs with the notes to the souls in the trees to guide him, because he cannot, will not fail her.

He hammers at the keys, ignoring the way the shadows creep in closer, tangle in his toes and caress his fingers, pleading in the only way he knows how. Please, she is so important and I can't lose her.

Then a soul flickers. And another. Then fifty.

He sees the one who has Maka, the greasy looking man with metal in his face, large hands wrapped around her arms and knee pressed between her legs. When he leans in his face close enough, Maka bites down on his nose, hard. He growls, grip tightening. "I like a girl with a little fire in her, wanna show me what else you got baby?" he says, and Soul wants him dead. Maka's scythe is tossed to the ground off to the side, and the words slither out of this guy's mouth poisonously,

"You wanna tell me where you found my scythe, little girl? Or am I gonna have to fuck you with it first?"

Soul howls, enraged, and leaps, clambering up onto this guy's back and wrapping an arm around his throat in a choke hold. He hopes that the movies actually do it right, because otherwise he's fucked.

Unfortunately, the movies don't portray it accurately, and he's hurled into the ground, a booted foot placed squarely on his chest. The man grins, teeth shiny and white and vicious, and Soul's blood goes cold.

Like a mirror, isn't it?

"Well hey there, twerp, this one your girl? She sure is a hot piece of ass, ain't she? Bet she hasn't given it up to you yet, huh? If you want, I'll hold her down for you once I'm done with-"

Soul's fingers brush metal and he evaporates, into the scythe, and when the filth tries to grab his handle, he sears the man's flesh, feels the skin peel off and stick to his staff, the yowl of pain and anger rattling his brain. He's disoriented and fearful and where the fuck is Maka.

Then her hands wrap around him, her music swelling in pride, indignant and gorgeous and pure, and she growls out, "You are a tormenter and a terror, and you have no place in this world. Your soul is mine."

She lifts Soul high above her, arcing down in a vicious hack that ought to have sliced that miserable bastard in half, but his figure turns to ash before them the moment the blade makes contact, no soul left behind. Maybe there was no real soul left. Maybe they defeated him.

Then four more just like him sprout up around them, cackling wildly, manic.

"Aaahahaha ohhhh god, you thought you could just waltz into my fucking town with my fucking weapon and get away with it? You thought I'd be that easy?! I made half this world with my own hands, and I can break it just as easy you little whore."

All of his golems lunge inward, like a little army of his own personal puppets, and Maka hacks at them wildly, her movements gracefully chaotic, a masterpiece. But each golem just crackles into black dust the moment she makes contact, sprouting up again only moments after she slays them.

The dirt at her feet turns to clay hands and latches onto her ankles, tearing a scream of panic from her. Soul can feel the overwhelming fear; she's a caged animal, ready to lash out and kill, kill, kill, just to get out of this godforsaken place. He can feel the way her soul warps, from angelic to malignant in a nanosecond, and it's scary, all of this is so fucking scary.

He can feel her discomfort through the handle of the scythe, the way her palms heat and her fingers clench desperately.

The real one is leaning against a darkened Soul Tree, casually picking his teeth, eyes bored as he watches their futile effort, and Soul feels something scalding within himself, rising up into his chest cavity, filling his lungs with the wish to end this creature.

He's not afraid. He refuses to be afraid.

"Maka."

He allows his soul to flow freely, openly with hers, takes her rage and adds to it, sending it back to her once more. They refuse to be beaten.

Her grip tightens, and her jaw sets.

"Right."

She musters all the strength she possesses and tears her ankle from the grasp of the hands, stomping them back into submission, spiraling herself around in the place of their remains. She is faster than the 'Enchanter' can enchant, getting a running start and shoving the bottom of Soul's scythe shaft into the dirt. She flings herself toward the man with a battle cry so fierce, Soul's blade running through him as Maka's toes touch down to the ground.

A vibrant, red soul is all that is left behind in the wake of her strike. She reaches out to take it, but just before her fingers brush across it, Soul stops her.

"Wait. Watch."

It vibrates and pulsates and wriggles around, like a flaming hornet's nest, and then it just…

Dies. Dissipates into the night and is consumed by the souls of the tree he had leaned against. Soul can hear their chatter, their cries of victory, and he knows they've done this realm a favour.

He's so glad.

But the fact that the soul is gone does not erase the effects of its existence. Maka holsters the scythe in the sling Kilik gave her, and Soul shifts out of the blade, letting out a little whoop of elation when his toes touch down. But when he turns to Maka, the victory in his blood freezes over, turned to solid dread.

"Maka?"

She is white noise.

"Maka!"

She is chaos.

"MAKA."

She is lost.

Her eyes are wide and empty, frighteningly blank, cold, and he hesitantly reaches out a hand to place on her shoulder, but the moment it makes contact, his skin sears and melts, pulling his presence into hers abruptly and painfully.

And he sees…

No.

He feels why she was so disconnected. Why she detached from him in such a way.

He feels now what she didn't want him to feel.

Too many hands grasp at them, pinching and squeezing and groping in places that should never be violated in such a way. He can feel the way their throat closes up in fear and disgust.

He feels disgusting and angry and confused, he feels a scream mounting in their throat but making no sound, feels the grime on their skin and the confusion and guilt in their heart and he wants it to stop, please god make it stop.

It's then that he hears a clear thought from her for the first time, echoing through their consciousness and setting his nerves aflame.

Stop.

The grasp on them is clammy and filthy, sticking to their skin, and he latches onto her voice desperately to chase away the feeling of absolute revulsion.

He hears it again, louder, stronger.

Stop.

The hands are more demanding, more distressing, tugging at limbs and pulling at hair, and this time, he screams it with her, out loud, their voices harmonizing gloriously for one of the most important words in their vocabulary.

"STOP!"

It blasts away all the filth and rage and terror, obliterates the hands that had tormented them so mercilessly for what seemed like years, and Soul feels so relieved for a moment, but it doesn't last long. Because he realizes then that this is something that Maka has had to deal with before, whether it be consciously or unconsciously, and his blood boils.

He breaks off the resonance immediately, stomach lurching uncomfortably and thoughts scattered by the jarring, and he swears he would puke if he could, but he can't, so he tries to swallow down the horrendous flood of emotions that strike him, over and over and over, unrelenting and unforgiving.

He hears Maka gasping for breath that does her no good, can practically feel the way she vibrates in her sullied skin with fear and aggression, and he's not sure he can look her in the eye right now. Not after that. He's not sure he'll ever be able to touch her again without fear, fear of making her feel the way they both just had, feel like evaporating into the air just to be relieved of the possibility of ever being touched in any way, ever again.

He tucks his knees to his chest, face buried in his kneecaps as he tugs uselessly at his hair and chokes down the scream in his throat. How can she possibly deal with that, being tormented in such a way? How could anybody? He feels like a black hole has been punched through his chest, sucking away all that makes him who he is from the inside out and leaving nothing behind to ever signify that he had existed at all. He thought he understood what degradation felt like, but he hadn't.

Not like this.

"Soul."

If he had just stayed in his weapon form, she could have sliced all those hands away.

"Soul?"

If he had done what he was supposed to, she could have defeated those things as quickly as they had come.

"Hey, look at me."

He shifts his head to stare at her through his mess of hair, torn apart by the way her eyes glitter and her jaw clenches. When he speaks, he hardly even recognizes his own voice.

"W-was that… that didn't… who-"

"It was just some asshole in my school. I broke his nose and outed him to the entire school as the scumbag he is, I just… It was fucked up. I don't know why I never got past it, I mean he got expelled and all I just… I know he's not the only one."

He's scared by how much he wishes he could have broken that boy to pieces before her, laid the shards of that atrocious excuse of a human being at her feet for her to do with as she would. And yet, he knows he is justified, wishes she had done more than broken his nose and gotten him expelled, but feels why she couldn't.

It's a paralytic kind of fear.

"I'm so sorry. I'm so, so sorry, and I know that doesn't mean anything or change anything but god I just have to- I just- that was fucking awful and I'm sorry."

He tucks his face back into his knees, and they're both silent for a long time. He can't stop shaking, it plays over and over, he can still feel those greedy, uncaring hands and he's sick.

Maka stands from where she had squatted next to him, and when he chances a glance up at her, she is stoney-faced, eyes unfocused, her hand outstretched for his to help him to his feet.

She takes a deep breath through her nose and tells him, her face unsettlingly neutral,

"We need to get a move on. The others are probably going to get worried soon."

"Maka-"

"It's fine. Really. Come on, let's go, alright? I just want to rest."

He stares at her hand for a moment, glances at her drained tired expression, then back to her hands, then down at his own, noting the crescent indentations in his palms, and with a low growl he fists them once more and stands without her assistance. She huffs, but makes no further comments.

They wait again for Patti's pathway to appear, to lead them 'home'.

And just like before, it never comes.

Once again they find themselves wandering, but this time they don't choose to resonate, the foot of space between them a gaping chasm of fear and hurt and longing. It's harder to hear her music this way, and he hates it, but he won't get any closer. Only close enough to protect her if it comes to it.

The Soul Trees are at least helpful, attempting to lead them out of the place where such pain has been harboured, but it's so vast, and they could fly, but then they would have to resonate, and he isn't prepared for that, doesn't know if he'll ever be prepared for it again. They end up having to stop beneath another tree, but this time they don't curl up together.

"I'll keep watch," he tells her, voice so flat it makes him cringe internally. "You should get some rest. I'll let you know if Patti comes through for us any time soon."

She makes no argument like he thought she might, just nods, lips tight, and leans back against the tree, curling around herself protectively in a way that makes him wistful and heartbroken and ashamed. He sits a few feet away, with the scythe slung over his own back (for the purpose of faster bonding), and listens to all the souls murmuring in the wind. A breeze blows past him, shifting his hair, and he knows they're running out of time at the worst possible time.

He needs to get her out of here.

He's a little relieved by the souls speaking to him. It would have made him feel insane at one point, but now he just wants to hear their stories. When he filters out the chatter, he realizes they're just lonely. Not alone.

But very lonely.

He knows the feeling well. It's like talking to himself, but he isn't.

One soul tells him about having a dream of a black dragon that swallowed them up whole, and she awoke here. She mentioned something about how she was the one to lead Liz back to her 'family' when she got separated from Kid and Patti.

"That was back when they were real green, you know? They didn't know what they were doing. Maybe they still kinda don't. This place was a lot worse before they got here though. So much worse. If you meet Lizzie, tell her Kayla says hey, will you?"

There's a storm brewing not far off, filled with electricity and smoke, and he knows that once Maka awakens, that's where they'll have to go.

"Yeah," he mumbles," I promise I will."

"Hey, hey stay awake! You don't wanna fall asleep arou-"

His consciousness left him abruptly. He dreams of unwelcome hands and sharp teeth and exploding souls.

He is awakened by hissing, and he thinks that it's Maka at first, which would be somewhat amusing, but she is tugging frantically at his arm, and shit, he fell asleep, he shouldn't have fallen asleep!

A childlike voice, frantic and quivering, says, "You shouldn't be here."

When he looks up, he sees Crona, the one who had been abandoned out in this realm, the one who brought them their nightmares, the one who fell to the allure of spreading their pain instead of swallowing it down and handling it themselves. The one who reminds Soul too much of himself, in a another life, a life where he wasn't as privileged, wasn't as blessed.

They repeat themselves, with those damned hissing snakes winding higher and higher up their legs, their hospital gown stained with old, stale blood. "You shouldn't be here."

Their voice is a tiny hoarse cry, and then there's a shift, their eyes fading from navy blue to pale grey, pupils almost gone. Soul realizes that the hissing has stopped. "Oh hoho, you should have listened, why didn't you listen?"

Crona has a grin twisting their lips and tears in their eyes. They grit through their teeth, voice cracking with emotion, "Why does no one ever listen?"

Soul notices then, at the worst moment, that there is a nightmarish blade in Crona's hand, the tip of it tucked messily into the dirt. No one wields a weapon without the intention of using it. He can feel their intention, the intention to harm, to weaken, to end, because he felt it himself not so long ago. Maka is shivering, and begging, please Crona, what do you need? How can we help?

It all falls upon deaf ears.

But there's something beneath that vicious intent in Crona's soul, something just beyond Soul's grasp, and before he can even bother to do so, that blade is poised to kill, held high, just as Maka had lifted him up.

But Crona isn't aiming for him.

No.

For whatever reason, that blade is for Maka. Maybe because ending her ends hope, ends courage, ends all those things Soul had once been so scared of, the things he's always run from. Ending Maka is ending truth, and beauty, and love.

He can't let that happen.

Crona sobs, their grin melting and warping into a sorrowful grimace. They say, "This wasn't what I wanted," and then their pupils are turned to slits, their blade swiping through the air with a cartoonishly loud whistle. Soul shoves Maka behind him, and she screams.

It's strange, how everything slows down; he can see the souls' light refracting off Crona's tears as they fall, the glint on their ebony blade, and the chaotic clashing of three different melodies coming from them. He can't believe he never noticed them before, because it seems so obvious now, so apparent.

One is quiet, mournful, apologetic, and so deeply frightened.

Then another, though stronger, is disgusted and filled with the most intense guilt.

Only one of three, the strongest, loudest, is pulsing with malice, greed, curiosity and amusement. He doesn't know what to think of it, doesn't even have the time to think anything at all before all he knows is pain. That old seam in his chest from his nightmares has been torn wide open, and he chokes on the terrors leaking from it.

The last thing he hears is Maka's shrill cry of his name, then her sobbing it, over and over, telling him to wake up, wake up, wake up, and wasn't that the whole point of their journey?

To wake up?

He feels her hot tears dripping onto his neck, and he smiles, just a little, at the warmth of her, even at a time like this.

"Get out of- here," her hands grab at him, trying so hard to pull his seams back together, replace what he's lost, but he grabs her hands with his, "I'm okay a-as long as you are." He wishes she would leave him, she's given him enough, more than enough, more than he could ever deserve, and he could fade out of existence happily now, knowing that she'd be safe.

He blinks up at her blearily, wondering where those three melodies went, glad that they're gone, because all he can hear is Maka now. The sorrow sounds like a lullaby, for whatever reason.

But he wants to sleep, needs to sleep now. She'll be safe.

So he sleeps.

Something reeks of alcohol and hairspray, and he can't really see, but what he does gather is mainly just blobs of colour, meaningless. Everything is gaudy purple and pinks, and if this is what comes After, needless to say, he's a little unimpressed.

He's far more disappointed when things fade into black once again though.

He is awakened a long while later by a stinging ache in his chest, stretched all the way across him, nestled deep in his skin, but his lungs are free of ink and somehow he feels right. He did something he was supposed to do, meant to do, and it's peaceful.

So peaceful.

Until his mind is assaulted with pure, unadulterated thoughts from Maka, who seemingly hasn't left his side once since this began.

She can't understand why he could bleed in such a world, bleed ink from his chest and cough it from his lungs, but he had. Bled out life and inspiration and music and love, had bled so much she was afraid he might evaporate into the trees with those other souls she never had a chance to save. He's become too tied to this realm and it's her fault, all of this is her fault somehow -

He can't believe he ever wished to be able to see inside her head, because realizing she blames herself is agonizing. He knows exactly why this happened, and it has nothing to do with her.

"Maka."

His voice comes out hoarse and underused, and he wonders just how long he's been gone. She doesn't respond when he calls for her, merely presses her forehead to his shoulder delicately, going rigid the moment he says, "It's my fault." It becomes obvious very quickly that he's chosen his words incorrectly, and she doesn't shy away from making that clear to him.

She snarls, frightening in her ferocity, getting right in his face and hissing,

"How could you say that to me. I was the one who let us get caught off guard, I should have insisted you rest in the scythe while I made sure no one could hurt us! I let them into my blind spot and you almost died."

Her words cut him deeper than the swordsman had. He tries again, stifling the wounded tone in his voice. He's been trying to avoid the truth of this matter, but running is tiring, and he needs to be awake now, for her. He needs to be aware and truthful, while he still has it in him. He sighs deeply, trying to ignore the tugging in his chest as he tries to fill his lungs.

"The reason I got hurt- I just… fuck, Maka, it's not your fault. I shouldn't have fallen asleep but I did and I fucked everything up. You're the only thing that makes me want to get out of here. You're the reason I want to go back, so I can get you out of here."

The usually constant music that he hears from her soul ceases; she doesn't even breathe, and the silence deafens him.

They remain that way a while, with them simply staring each other down, until she whispers,

"I'm the only reason..?"

The memories of his grandmother's funeral, of his brother's announcement of his departure to France in the fall, of his mother weeping as his father handed her divorce papers, they all flood his mind.

He should try harder. His mother would be beside herself to be left all alone. His father would surely miss him. His brother would never recover.

He wishes that were enough reason for him to want to go back, but he's become cowardly and selfish, jaded by the years of obeying the whims of others. It's like his soul clings to Limbo entirely out of spite. She's what makes him want to be courageous.

And he can't allow her to get dragged down with him. She's strong enough to get back on her own, if that's what it takes, but he won't be the reason for her indefinite separation from her body, from her life. He isn't strong enough to deal with the guilt that would come with it.

It's only when a few tears drip from her glassy eyes onto his cheeks - a sensation that is so achingly familiar - that he realizes she's been lurking in his head again. His chest throbs a little when he reaches up to brush away her tears with the pad of his thumb, but he doesn't mind. It reminds him that he's not dead yet, that he can still do something worthwhile, even if it's just helping this incredibly important girl get back home where she belongs.

She offers a watery smile and whispers something that terrifies him.

"You have to find your own reason to go back. You can't borrow mine."

It's true. He knows it's true, Maka doesn't lie. But...

"I'm not borrowing, you are my reason."

She pushes his hair back from his forehead, her soul flooding him with unfiltered emotion, with what feels like love, and he can't breathe, he's so stunned with joy. But she looks into his eyes, a furrow in her brow.

"That's not enough."

He knows, but asks anyway, "And why not?"

She blows out a breath loudly in frustration, reeling back from where she had been leaning over him (a bed in an unfamiliar room that he assumes is one of the many in Kid's place, thank god). She pushes her own bangs back, refraining from tearing at the strands.

"You can't base all the things you do in life off of the whims of other people. Weren't you the one who told me that?"

Well shit, she's got him there. But still…

"I… Fuck. I don't know what I want. I mean I want to be wherever you are but- if that's not enough, I don't know what would be."

He lets his eyes slip shut, suddenly desperately tired, like the weight of all the world and all their fears has finally crushed him, taking his breath and his energy away.

But then he feels her warm palms cradling his cheeks, and he opens his eyes just in time to see her lovely face as she leans towards his. Impossibly warm lips press against his, so briefly he wonders if he merely imagined it, but the way the air chills his lips when she pulls away, and the blush on her cheeks as well as his own is proof enough.

He doesn't deserve it, her help, her affection, and he tells her as much. He has never deserved it, never been the type of person that she deserves to have in her life, but she just shakes her head, and kisses him again, on his brow, his cheeks, the corner of his lips.

"You're more than you'll ever know, Soul. Now find a way to make it so I have the time to convince you. I'll help you. And when we get home, I'm taking you out for ice cream."

He laughs a bit, his healing wound tugging a little when he reaches up to cradle the back of her head in his hand, but he quickly forgets his pain when she presses another kiss to his lips, and he smiles into it, tells her, "It's a date."

He won't miss it for anything.

He's half conscious for the next few days, hearing bits and pieces of conversations that don't make sense, but comfort him all the same. Maka talks to him a lot, tells him all about what happened for them to get stranded. Something about frogs and wolves and snakes? None of it makes much sense to him, his mind hazy with the throbbing in his chest, but her voice is comforting, warm and melodic, enveloping him. She tells him of someone named Blair saving him, and he tells her to say thanks, cause whoever this Blair person is must be pretty cool.

Every once in a while he'll spot a flash of pink hair, and then a weird glowy feeling spreads through his chest, and then he gets all sleepy again and wakes up a few hours later, only to have it all happen again. He kinda misses coherent thoughts a little bit.

The thing that snaps him out of his haze is waking up and not hearing Maka's melody anymore. It had been constant, something he even heard in his dreams, but it's gone now and where the fuck is she?

His eyes slam open and he propels out of bed, paying no mind to the way his head spins and his chest aches as he runs frantically out of the room, calling Maka's name over and over, trying to find her music, only to come up short. He doesn't recognize anything, and the disorientation only makes the heavy feeling of loss worse. He can't think straight, can't make any sense of anything, because she would never leave, he knows that she would never leave so what the fuck happened while he slept?

Harvey is the first person he comes across when he tramples down the stairs of whatever building he's in, and he's immediately electrocuted when he grabs onto Harvey's shirt, trying to shake answers out of him to no avail. The force of it throws him to the floor, but Harv seems only mildly apologetic when he leans over and offers, "Ah, whoops. Unintentional, but it happens."

Soul doesn't even care, he just croaks out, "Where's Maka?" and the nonchalant shrug that's given in reply is infuriating.

"Hey, listen man, I don't know details very often, but I know she's safe, and I know she'll be back soon. If you fuck yourself up getting all crazy over her, she's gonna be pissed."

From where Soul stands (or rather, is sprawled out on creepily pure white tiles) he doesn't have much of a choice but to listen to that logic. But all the same, he's freaked out, and even if Harv doesn't know details, someone will. Harv offers a hand to help Soul to his feet, then thinks better of it, sheepishly scratching at the back of his head, a somewhat apologetic look on his face.

Somewhat.

Soul scrabbles to his feet, and mumbles 'sorry' before asking again, a bit more calmly (though only on the outside) about Maka's wellbeing. Harv shrugs again and says, "She's with Pat. I know Maka is alright cause Pat's alright."

He guesses that'll have to be enough for now.

He spends the majority of the morning pacing around outside the building he had awoken in (which he was informed is a secondary headquarters for when problematic things occur), but when Maka arrives home he hears her before he sees her. She sounds… different. Strange and jittery, but herself nonetheless. He runs to meet her at the mouth of the forest and pulls her into his embrace abruptly, basking in the glory of her arms around him and the unsteady little laugh she lets out at his overly affectionate display. He doesn't even notice that she isn't alone for a solid minute or so, until Patti catcalls them, and a woman coated in glitter, with violet hair in a bikini top and booty shorts starts 'awwwwwww'-ing obnoxiously.

Soul blurts out an ineloquent "Who the fuck is this?", and the woman giggles coyly, "Blair is lady who saved you, kitten, so watch your mouth."

She punctuates her greeting with a little wink, and he cocks an eyebrow, muttering "What the fuck" under his breath to Maka, but she just pats his back and chuckles, whispering, "She grows on you."

He ignores her comment in favour of kissing the top of her head and muttering curses into her hair, telling her of how he awoke, and she was gone, and she's always there when he wakes up but she wasn't.

He can feel the presences of the others around them start to drift farther away when Maka slips her fingers into his hair, pressing her forehead to his, her eyes wide and apologetic. "I'm sorry," she tells him, and he kisses her nose cautiously before leaning his head into the crook of her neck. She pets the back of his hair soothingly. He was so worried, he had thought the worst. The last time he had woken up without her was…

Was in the forest of soul trees, when the Enchanter had taken her away from him.

When she crushes him tighter into the embrace, he realizes he's shaking. Just a little. Just enough to make him feel like a ridiculous, overly emotional idiot, just enough to make him forget that he cares about looking like an idiot, because she's okay, thank god or whoever or whatever that she's okay.

But when Maka tells him about where she's been, he's livid, so incredibly angry that she sought out the one who cut him open, tried to cut her open. How could she be so stupid, so incredibly dense?!

Except…

Except he knows she isn't. Try as he might to avoid them, the memories of those three melodies, echoing in his head, just won't leave him be. He can still see the fear and remorse in Crona's tearful eyes as they cleaved him open, and he tries so hard to be bitter about it, because bitter is familiar and safe. He knows bitterness well, he can deal with it, but this overwhelming empathy is painful. It would be so much easier to just hatehatehate, but he understands now, or has some approximation of understanding. He can't hate Crona because…

"Crona's mother's soul latched onto theirs, Soul," Maka tells him, and ah, yes, that's it, it all is falling into place now. Back at their first meeting, Crona had said it was a dream that had gotten them here, but it wasn't. Crona really did kill their mother, and apparently said mother hadn't taken too kindly to becoming a victim of matricide. Soul would demonize Crona for the horror they've committed, but he's heard their mother's very soul in its most honest form, heard the filth and greed and all of it. Maybe Crona hadn't been right from an objective standpoint but, well... Soul knows he wouldn't ever wish to trade places with the poor kid. Not for anything.

Maka cradles his face in her hands, her eyes pleading, and he already knows where they're going from here.

"Let's go Reap some unworthy assholes, yeah?" he asks, letting his lips lift into a half smile. She nods solemnly, eyes determined. Crona might not deserve her help, but hell, neither does he.

Maybe with this, he can do something to earn it.

They make their best attempt at slipping away unnoticed, Soul taking temporary solace in the scythe, but, to his surprise, Tsubaki ambushes them not far past the mouth of the forest, morphing out of the shadows and solidifying directly in their path. They aren't even given a moment for awe before Tsubaki hisses at them, "Just what the hell do you two think you're doing?! You should be resting, or better yet, trying to get home! "

He's stunned silent, grown used to Maka's occasional outbursts, but not at all equipped to deal with Tsubaki's wrath. She huffs, grabs the staff of his scythe slung over Maka's back, and the shock of her wavelength rips him from the weapon. "Don't hide like that, it's unbecoming. Honestly, I wouldn't expect it from the boy who threw himself in front of a giant sword."

Maka thankfully steps in, trying to calm Tsubaki's ire with words that don't really strike Soul as calming at all.

"Listen Tsubaki, I have to do this. Crona isn't the one who's choosing to do us harm."

"Maka… Do you not realize that they've been tormenting others all around this realm with nightmares? Their skill is harnessing the things that scare us most and using those things against us. How could it be possible that they aren't the one choosing to cause everyone pain? Their skill is causing others pain."

Maka shakes her head vigorously, and Soul places his fingertips on the middle of her back, trying to give her any comfort he can. Maka stands tall, her head held high, and looks Tsubaki directly in the eyes.

"I need for you to trust me, okay? I can read it in their soul, and Soul saw it too. They don't need to be reaped, they need to be rescued. Please believe me. Please."

Soul can sense the uneasiness in Tsubaki's music. And he realizes…

She's the only person who's story he has never heard.

It slips through his lips, unbidden and blunt, "How did you end up here?"

The shock of the question makes her music skip and stutter, before resuming more quietly, somber and slow.

"By trusting someone I shouldn't have trusted," she tells them, her gaze distant. She shakes the remembrance of whatever it was out of her brain. "Listen, I realize that you both are intelligent and capable, and I do trust your judgement, but please, please be cautious. I want you both to get home safely. Don't jeopardize that if you think even for a moment that this journey you're taking will be all for naught."

Soul is glad for her voice of reason. For the perspective, and the concern. He's concerned, too.

But this is something that Maka has to do, and that he has to help her with. They won't progress any further if this is left ignored.

Maka takes one of Tsubaki's hands, cringing at the pain of the contrasting wavelengths, but holding fast all the same. Tsubaki does not pull away, though her jaw clenches tightly.

Something occurs between the two of them that Soul can't quite grasp, but all he knows is that Tsubaki's entire demeanor has changed. He wonders if maybe Maka has found a way to give others truth through mere touch alone, words rendered useless. It wouldn't surprise him. Overachiever.

Tsubaki finally pulls her hand away, the look of understanding on her face quite clear.

"Do what you have to do. Keep each other safe." She stares Soul down, and he can hear her music telling him all he needs to know. She is placing her faith in him and Maka, and though he doesn't know Tsubaki well, he can tell that it is an honor to have her faith bestowed upon them.

Tsubaki melts back into the shadows.

Soul looks at Maka, takes her hand in his and initiates resonance, their souls melding.

He's through with letting people down.

As they venture deeper into the forest, Soul finds himself getting more and more unsettled by the silence within them. She doesn't ask him any direct questions, or ever really communicate with him. They share a mind now, but it's like she's off huddled in her own corner of it, replaying things over and over. He sees little flashes of the Enchanter, but from her perspective, feels the nails grip into his arms, and the humid breath slither across his neck. He sees Crona's blade arcing down, sees himself bleeding out and Maka's hands trying to put him back together.

He sees Crona sobbing at Maka's feet, telling her all about their mother, and he decides that it's time for a little distraction.

Hey Maka, what's your favourite colour?

...you're kidding right now, right?

No, I wanna know. I mean I know you but I don't know stuff like this. We share a soul and everything but it doesn't mean we can just totally forego normal dating behavior.

Oh so we're dating?

If he didn't feel the affection and mirth within her, he might've run right then.

Hey, you're the one who kissed me okay. And offered me ice cream. And I'm totally holding you to it, I hope you know.

Glad to hear it.

Mm. But seriously, favourite colour?

You're ridiculous. Um. Red, I guess?

You guess or you know?

God you sound like my 8th grade math teacher, don't do that. It's red. What about you?

Can't tell you, that's top secret information miss…

Albarn?

Yeah, that. I totally knew that. Strong-arm-Albarn, right.

God you're a dork if given the chance. We're about to march into god knows what and you're playing twenty questions.

At least it's not the sexual version like most dudes try to play. How did that even become a thing anyway? Like I have seen dudes go from 'what kind of music do you like' to 'are you wearing panties' in like .05 seconds and it's gross.

We're getting way off topic here. What's your last name?

What, can't make any questions up on your own? Or are you stumped because you already know what my panties look like? All the mystery is gone, I'm so ashamed.

Oh shut up, I have to find you somehow once we get back.

Just look for the albino dude running around in his heart boxers calling your name, shouldn't be too hard to spot to be honest.

Soul, I'm serious.

Nono, I know. You will, don't worry about it. I know you'll find me. And if you don't find me, I'll find you.

You're the dude, shouldn't you be the one making the effort first?

Gender stereotyping right now? Really? And here I was thinking you were all open minded.

It feels so good, the levity, the joking and the warmth in their chest. It soothes his worry, soothes his wound. They will succeed, however they have to do so.

As they stumble ever deeper though, their conversation dies down, both of them a bit offput by the trees riddled with disease and strangulated by black, thorny vines. The vines bear no fruit nor bloom, barren as the trees they've drained of life. The air doesn't move here, sick with the smell of rot and bad omens, and Soul suggests that he shift into the scythe so she has something for protection, but she refuses to let go of their resonance. In a way, he's sort of thankful. At least he has her soul for comfort as they wander into the snake pit. He'll do whatever is needed to make sure she stays safe.

Maka halts their footsteps abruptly, turning to their left, always, always left, and he sees a beach of ash, waves of ink lapping at its shore. This can't be the place. Surely it's a joke.

It isn't a joke, though; they had their time for jokes before. He guesses he'll just have to hold onto that until they get through this. It's enough.

It will be enough.

Maka opens their lips, calling out to Crona, and he's not sure why he's so surprised when Crona actually appears, but he is, almost tumbling backward and taking Maka with him, if not for Crona catching them first.

Crona's grip doesn't burn.

They let go though, and Maka takes this opportunity to gently cut the resonance between herself and Soul. He catches Crona staring at his chest and suddenly feels very self conscious, until he realizes what has caught Crona's attention there.

Soul looks down at himself for the first time since the incident, surprised at the angry, purplish scar running from his left collarbone to his right hip. He traces his fingers curiously along the scar tissue that's directly over where his heart should be , finding that it aches more deeply than before. He sees the look of guilt in Crona's eyes, drops his hand, and shrugs.

"It wasn't your fault. We know that."

Crona looks like they're about to start sobbing, which he is absolutely positive he won't be able to deal with, but thankfully, Maka steps in.

"Hey, hey it's okay, alright? We can help."

A deep, masculine voice with a thick Bronx accent calls out, "That fuckin' so?"

Crona cringes and mutters, "Oh dear god, no," then calls back behind themselves, "Rocco, they're friends! You don't have to be so rude…"

"I ain't bein' rude. I'm curious, so calm the fuck down. Christ, if only wine was a thing round this shithole, maybe you wouldn't be so fuckin' jittery all the time."

Soul's spine goes stiff at the intrusion. He doesn't recognize this voice at all.

But as they come closer, he finds the melody of their soul familiar, and it makes sense.

"You were in the sword, weren't you?"

Rocco replies gruffly, "Yeah, what of it? Not like we had any choice in the matter, so get over it."

Soul raises his hands in surrender. "Hey dude, I'm over and past it. We're good."

"Good."

Rocco emerges from the shadows, and Soul really wishes that Maka had given him at least a little warning, 'cause maybe it makes him a hypocrite given his own appearance, but facial abnormalities tend to throw him off for a second or two, and he'd rather not come across as the gigantic asshole he is when directly in the middle of the 'enemy's territory'. Rocco has two gashes, criss crossing at the exact point above the bridge of his nose and spreading across the rest of his face. Soul's not sure he can stomach whatever this guy's story is, but at least he doesn't seem the sharing type.

"Take a goddamn picture kid, it'll last longer. Fuckin' hell I swear, ain't nobody got any manners these days. Whatever, don't matter anyways. You gonna help us take down that cunty witch of a mother Crona's got, or what?"

Soul chokes on the laughter he's trying so hard to keep down, covering it as a groan of pain when Maka grinds a heel into his toes. Crona looks mortified, but Rocco looks quite pleased with himself. It's an interesting dynamic, and because of the way Maka can perceive them, Soul can tell that Crona and Rocco can achieve resonance. An unlikely pair for certain, but then again, he can't really talk. He and Maka are an odd couple, too.

"Ogod, Roc, be careful! What if she hears you?"

"This coming from the kid who jammed a butter knife in her carotid artery… sheesh."

Soul interrupts cautiously. "Hey, um, guys? I never really got filled in on the plan here so ah- any enlightenment would be helpful. Seriously. Any at all."

Rocco snorts derisively, "plan? You think any of us twits got us a real plan? Nah, we just know we gotta end Maddie."

"Maddie..?"

"Crona's cunty witch of an incubator."

"Oh."

"Yeah. She ain't someone you wanna fuck with. But she's gonna tear this place to bits and everyone in it if we don't end this slippery bitch so-"

"Rocco, she's still my mother-"

"Yeah yeah, Madam Matricide, whatever you say."

"I told you to stop calling me that!"

Soul silently wonders if Crona has more of a problem with the 'Madam' in the title, or the jab at them about matricide, but he quickly reminds himself that it doesn't matter; what matters is the fact that they're hurt by the title. He'd like to say something kind, something constructive, but as usual, he's coming up short. Luckily Maka is perceptive as always, and starts steering the conversation in a less offensive, more productive direction.

"Hey, listen, Maddie's thing is taking our worst fears and turning them against us, right?"

Crona nods, "Uh huh, I think she learned that from my aunt. S-she isn't very nice either. Y-you don't want to let her in your head, she does bad things with your thoughts. B-but she's not the problem right now. You two, you're weaker when you're separated. Don't get separated. My mother s-she's… I t-think you both know how she can gain control."

Oh. The snakes that took the wolf-man away from them.

The snakes that bit Crona, made Crona slice Soul open. But he isn't afraid. He can't afford to be afraid. He puts on a brave face and huffs, "That's all she is? Snakes?"

Crona's expression goes cold.

"Snakes. Plural. More than one snake. A-and no, that's not all she is."

Soul is starting to get a little tired of the cryptic bullshit, if he's honest.

"Then what the fuck else is she?!"

And now he hears it, that other melody, the one that brought the blade down. Then a voice, smooth as silk, sensually poisonous.

"Oh my dear, darling boy. Not to be cliche or anything, but I daresay that I'm your worst nightmare. Crona, be a dear, won't you? Prepare to end this."

Shit.

But Crona is steadfast in their resolve, their voice shaky but their eyes clear.

"No. I won't be your pawn anymore. I'm strong enough without you."

Madeline doesn't miss a beat, conjures something from the shadows that latches onto Crona and Rocco, pulling them off deeper into the forest. Maka lurches forward, but Soul stops her, speaking words he's not sure he believes. "Maka, they're okay, alright? They're together, just like we've been together through all of this, and they'll be fine."

Her soul wriggles with panic and guilt, but she agrees. Everything will be fine. He'll make it so.

Madeline's voice slips through the air, taunting and cruel, and he feels it slip inside his head, rattling around invasively.

"Is that so? Your outward optimism is simply outstanding, Soul, but good grief, you have some wildly disturbing things in that little noggin of yours, even for me. I like it, do tell me more about how sickeningly envious you are of anyone who has a father to hug, anyone who doesn't feel like the air they breathe is wasted."

It doesn't feel the way it does what Maka takes a look inside, no. Maka falls into place like a jigsaw piece. This woman slithers into his mind and poisons everything she touches. She's rotting him from the inside out in the worst possible way; using preexisting problems that he's internalized and ignored for so long, showing him all of them all at once and making them claw their way from the inside of his chest, the inside of his soul.

But he has something now that he never had before.

He has Maka's confidence in him.

And his confidence within himself.

Within the absolute best and worst of him.

In the depths of his mind, he strolls casually into the room with his piano, ignoring the acid-eaten curtains and the cracked tiles, sitting down at the bench. He strokes the fallboard reverently, speaking to Maddie distractedly, casually, never letting his tone belie the malice he holds for her in his heart.

"I know you," he says as Maka's hands press upon his shoulders, and he's glad she found him here, because he needs the moral support, "you're that fucked up sociopath in all those movies everyone is so scared of, the one that throws their kid in a pool to teach them how to swim. Did you kill small animals as a child? My therapist told me about people like you."

Maka's palm rests in between his shoulder blades, keeping him steadfast when Maddie retorts.

"Ohhhh, Ariana loves to play games, doesn't she? She's been perfecting the art ever since we were little girls. If you think you can use my own sister's tactics against me, you're dead wrong, darling."

He can admit, he really didn't fucking see that one coming.

Maddie continues on, her serpentine form dissipating into smoke and rearranging itself in the shape of a woman with reptilian golden eyes and a forked tongue that seems poised to destroy. He words slither from her lips so casually as she glides toward where Soul and Maka stand, petrified. "My sister did enjoy talking about her clientele quite a bit, you know. Told me they were a pitiful lot, a whole mess of mommy issues and daddy issues and tendencies towards dissociation. But she had a few favourites," she hisses with a poisonous smile, her pupils fattening as she stalks closer, "I'll still won't ever understand how she acquired a license to practice, but, well, I am glad that she did. If she hadn't I never would have gotten to know you so well, Soul."

No.

Nononononono.

He's trapped in the eye of a storm of fire, all the air in his lungs forcefully consumed, fuel fed to the flames that replaced the curtains. He chokes, tastes the ashes as the edges of his newfound confidence begin to burn away. It's the feeling again, that panic that eats away the corners of his vision and knocks him on his ass.

He has been so sure of himself.

Maddie continues on, slinking up to his side and whispering in his ear, "The girl doesn't love you, you know."

And that's the final straw. Maybe Maka doesn't love him. Maybe once they get out of here, he'll never fucking see her again in his life.

But they will get out of this godforsaken place, and this unholy wench isn't going to fucking stop them.

Maddies lips press to Soul's cheek, and he cringes away from her, her mouth clammy and slick with venom of her words. When he turns to shove her away from him though, Maka already has the she-beast's throat in her grasp, her fingerprints searing themselves into Maddie's pale flesh. Soul's mind reels with shock for a moment as he listens to the sizzle of it, but he's pulled back into the reality of the situation when Maddie starts laughing high pitched, rasping chuckles.

She dissipates into the atmosphere, becoming an apparition in the treeline a ways from them, twining herself in the branches and dipping down, staring at them boredly as she hangs upside down. She clicks her tongue thoughtfully, then slips from the branches back to the soil, her footsteps making no sound. Soul sees Crona clench their fists defiantly, Rocco at their back and trying to keep them steady as the shadow creatures do their best to break them down, but he can hear the terror in their melodies, knows that they're too afraid for this. He gets it.

He really does.

But he and Maka are probably going to need an ally very soon, and the kid quivering in their hospital gown, knees knocking so hard that Soul can hear it, well…

Soul isn't sure that'll be enough.

He isn't careful enough, too lost in his worrying about Crona to realize that Maddie's attentions have shifted away from him, focusing on his weakest part.

"Maka. Ohhhhh Maka, Maka, Maka. I've seen you in Crona's head before. My dear child seems to have a bit of a soft spot for you, but I'm sure you're already aware of that. It seems unfair, don't you think? To take advantage of a damaged person's affection for you? It's sick, really. It's what it seems you've been doing to this poor Soul as well, isn't that right? You couldn't make it this far alone, could you Maka. Riding on someone's coattails is unbecoming of such a beautiful young lady. Hm. I would have expected something a little…" she taps her finger to her chin thoughtfully, "more."

A snarl tears from Soul's throat, unbidden and unforgiving, tearing up his innards as it tumbles forth like broken glass. He always knew anger is destructive to those who hold it as well as those who it is unleashed upon, but he's never been this angry before, never been so enraged. Maybe he never had anything he cared about enough to have such a strong emotion evoked, but feeling it broil in his veins and prickle at his skin now is too much. He doesn't understand how Maka has tolerated it so long, swallowed it down and only heaved it back up at the worst of times. He can't hold this in, he needs to put it somewhere.

You know what to do.

You know where to go.

"Maka. Get ready."

He places a hand on her back, just over her scythe, and melds with it.

Her consciousness snaps together with his so swiftly it almost knocks him on his ass. They've never had a resonance so strong without becoming one entirely, but as she holds him in her hands, he realizes that they never needed that at all.

They needed to completely trust one another with all.

Before, he hadn't even opened the fallboard, hadn't stuck a single key before everything had gone up in smoke and flame, but he's in control now.

He's in control.

He has to be.

Their resonance is incredible, both joined in a human form as well as weapon. He can feel the warmed steel of his staff against his palms, and she can feel the cool keys beneath her fingers, feel the dust and soot that cakes on Soul's fingertips and the sweat that runs down his spine.

His demon, his crutch, it drips from the ceiling into the space beside Soul in the bench, and he can feel how Maka grits her teeth, clenches her fists, but he silently tells her that he can do this. There's no need to worry. She has to focus on what's going on up there, so he can take care of what's down here.

He can feel her tight grip on his very soul.

He plays, and the demon speaks, a voice eerily like his own meeting his ears.

"What good do you think this will do, eh? Do you believe if you play for long enough your enemy will just stab themselves in the ears to be rid of the noise, problem solved? You'll be the saviour of allllll the realm, you and your little girlfriend. What a fucking joke. You need my help, boy, don't you? I don't mind."

The melody that Soul plays, the one he's worked on for months now, is overshadowed by minor tones, dissonance, chaos, destruction. The demon plays too loudly, a counterpart too strong for the piece that Soul performs, and it takes over the song.

Soul's hands start to sweat.

"C'mon kid, you can do better than that! Play louder! Make me believe you. You won't be able to convince anyone with that pitiful conviction, face it! You can't even make yourself believe it. Play me something real, we're all listening. Don't disappoint us, boy."

The back of Soul's throat tightens and sours the way it does before he vomits, but he swallows it down, instead letting Maka's indignance for him and her pride she holds on his behalf wash over him, flow through him.

He plays on, shouting his frustration at the demon.

"Who the hell are you to tell me anything?!"

It's a poor attempt at pride, and the demon can tell.

"Well, at the moment, it would seem that I'm the better musician, wouldn't it? Can't you feel the way all the souls turn their ears to me? Don't you wish they would listen to you? Don't you have anything worthwhile to say?!"

He does.

Soul changes the position of his hands.

"I do have something worthwhile to say," his voice is calm. "This is a song in the key of G," he says, playing what he hears in Maka's soul, "C yourself the fuck out of it."

There's a spike of amusement in Maka's soul as he says it, and he feels his lips twitch upward as he adapts the song to her mirth.

He feels a large palm clap him on the back; the demon, Soul realizes, and the demon chuckles a little.

"See, kid? There you go. You don't need me anymore, just remember that."

And then he's gone, and Maka's music, the music of her resonance with Soul, courses through him. His fingers never slip, his bare foot toeing at the petals in perfect time. The cracks in the tiles of the room seal themselves, the curtains rebuilding from the ashes a vibrant scarlet. He closes his eyes with a blissful grin and sees through Maka's eyes.

The song brought them to the forest of fallen souls, or rather, brought the forest to them. Madeline is caught dumbfounded, and Maka stares in awe as all the souls begin to sing.

They sing to the song that Soul plays, harmonizing and amplifying it through the realm. It shakes the world, and they all converge into one entity, massive and magnificent, and exactly what Soul imagined God might look like.

It bellows at Madeline, whose form seems petrified, a figure of stone in the glow of the souls she once preyed upon. Crona and Rocco emerge from their shadowy prison, shaken but relieved. Crona looks to Soul, a question in their eyes, and he nods.

Crona and Rocco stalk toward the fractured obsidian statue that stands where Madeline had stood, and he hears the statue say only one word.

"Betrayer."

Crona stares mirthlessly.

"No, mother. Only humans can be betrayed."

With a simple flick of their finger, Crona topples that statue.

Madeline crumbles.

Glittering black dust gets caught in the light shed from all the souls of all the realm, shimmering every colour imaginable.

"Maka, I'm coming out now."

"O-oh!"

She holsters the scythe and Soul drifts into existence beside her, taking her hand in his own. They watch as Crona and Rocco bask in the purity of the light, shaking off the shadows and shame from their tired shoulders. They shed everything until they are nothing but light and the echoes of the song, becoming one with the other fallen. The being seems to take a shuddering breath, and with it's final moments it says,

"Thank you."

Then it shatters into billions of fragments, carried into the sky. Soul doesn't understand, but he thinks that maybe they were being thanked for freedom.

Maka breathes out, "woah' and he can't help the chuckle that escapes him. Woah, indeed.

They stay there a while, watching the colourful dots dancing in their eyes; after images of what they've just witnessed.

Maka laughs a little.

"That line was super corny."

"What line?"

"That line, about the key of G. So corny."

"Pfffft it was not corny!"

"It was so corny, I'm thinking about nicknaming you Kansas. Dide you get that from some B role movie?"

"Ohhhh fuck you, it got the job done, didn't it?"

She grins, placing a kiss on his cheek. A path of bright blue mushrooms shows up, and they blink at it dazedly for a bit before they catch on. As they walk back to their friends, hand in hand, they feel…

Alive.

"Holyyyyyyyyyyy shit you guys, what'd you do?!"

Patti greets them both with an enormous, bone crushing hug, followed by Blake, who nearly knocks them all over. Soul is so surprised by it that he almost misses important details, until he sees Liz and Kilik, comfortably walking toward them, each holding the hand of a twin. They're all grinning, and that's when it hits him.

Their touch does no harm.

Their wavelengths have harmonized. He listens closely and hears all different variations of the song he played ringing through their souls. They are all counterparts now, pieces of a whole while remaining whole on their own as well.

This was his and Maka's doing..?

Lightheaded, he tries to gather his thoughts coherently, but he feels scattered, and he vaguely registers some gasps in the distance, but it makes no sense. The only thing that he can remember is green eyes and an address, so he clings to the image and shouts out the address, hoping he's done the right thing.

He starts with a gasp, Maka's name on his lips, only to be met with his brother's relieved face.

"Sweet jesus, little brother, I was about to call a damned ambulance, what the hell was that?!" Wes pulls Soul into a crushing embrace, smoothing down the back of Sou's matted hair. "I was so worried," he says, and Soul is actually happy to be home.

"Wes, language," Soul mocks in a poor, rasping impression of their mother's voice. His brother bops him in the back of the head, but only hugs him tighter.

When Wes finally pulls away, his demeanor hardly passing for composed, he clears his throat. "You should, ah, start getting ready. I think Today will be a good day. On the news they said more children were born this morning at eleven then have been born in the last week. If that isn't a good omen, little brother, I don't know what is."

The light from the exit sign backstage makes the toes of his too polished shoes shine a strange, sickly red. He tries to think of things that will keep him composed.

Maka.

She wasn't just a dream, he knows that all too well. He can't remember what happened though, only that he shouted out the theatre's address like a total idiot. Stupid. Even if she had heard him, she has no obligation to show up.

He stops thinking when he realizes he feels far less composed now than he had before. Someone whisper-shouts "five minutes 'til curtain!" and Soul remembers that he forgot his sheet music at home, and he knows now from experience that he can't play it without guidance.

In other words, he's fucked.

Super fucked.

"Two minutes."

He never thought of a backup plan, didn't think he'd need one. For Christ's sake, he's spent a third of the past year just on this one piece. He was certain that it would at least be mediocre enough for him to get by without making a gigantic ass of himself. Seems he was mistaken.

"Evans, you're on."

Fuck.

He walks to the front of the stage, into the spotlight, taking the mic and tapping it experimentally, cringing along with the crowd when the device makes an unholy screeching sound. He mutters a little 'sorry' before readjusting

"Right well, now that I established that this thing is working by breaking all our eardrums," the crowd laughs, and he continues on with just a bit more sureness," I ah, suppose I should say something about the piece I'll be playing. So, ah…"

He searches the front row for someone to focus on, someone who looks as helpless as he feels right now. He blinks away the blindness, and what he finds beyond it makes his stomach do a joyful flip and his heart rate skyrocket. Beside his brother in the front row, Maka sits, her eyes alight with curiosity and what he now can recognize as love.

He grins at her, and she smiles back.

He knows what to play.

"You know what, the piece I've been working on? It's kind of shit-" he mouths out 'sorry mom' when the entire audience gasps at his language and the informality of it, his tie tugged loose and his sleeves pushed up, "but anyway, I'm not gonna make you guys suffer through that the way I've been suffering through it for the past four months. I'm gonna take a chance here. So, this is dedicated to a friend I made recently. Thanks for everything."

Maka and Wes are the only ones in all the theatre to cheer, but it's more than enough to give him strength.

He plays what he had for Crona, and Rocco, and all the lost souls. He plays the song of his bond with Maka, plays all of the pain and sorrow, and plays the elation. He plays every note like it's been ingrained into every fibre of his being, ignoring the burn of the stage lights, ignoring the burn in his eyes, in his muscles. He can see the forest of soul trees, see them all reaching toward their freedom as he reaches the crescendo of the song, the way they scattered into the atmosphere, into a new reality where they would find a second chance, find their redemption. He plays from the depths of his soul, tearing the music from his heart and spreading it throughout the theatre, laying his soul bare for this room full of familiar strangers, and when the song ends, after a long moment of silence, the audience erupts in a fit of cheers, and a single, relieved tear drips down the bridge of his nose that he pretends is sweat.

He stands, and the cheers grow louder as he bows, proud, before he strolls over to the front edge of the stage and leaps off, landing right in front of Maka. She gives him no time to catch his breath before pulling him to her, her lips meeting his in a fierce, warm kiss.

When they finally pull up for air, Wes is side-eyeing him so hard, Soul thinks he might actually combust. Wes clears his throat.

"So, little brother, I met your new friend. You certainly work fast." Maka chokes on air, and Soul splutters gracelessly, but when he collects himself enough he says,

"Wes, man, you don't know the fuckin' half of it."

He wasn't exactly expecting Blair to show up, of all people, but some-fucking-how she does, and Soul sees immediately that Wes is a goner. Fitting, he thinks, to have all the people who saved him in one place now. Maka walks him out of the theatre, undoing his tie entirely now and unbuttoning his collar just a bit, remarking on the strange line of freckles that starts at his left shoulder with a little wink that no one but Soul notices.

They walk hand in hand with no real direction, and he's silently admiring her sleek, scarlet minidress and her tightly laced combat boots when she stops him to ask a question that makes his heart squeeze affectionately.

"Sooo, Mister Soul Avery Evans… do you wanna go get some ice cream?"

He kisses the smug grin from her lips, reveling in how real she is and always has been.

"Lead the way."

After they say their temporary farewells to Wes and Blair (both of whom seem entirely too preoccupied with each other to give much of a damn about being ditched), Maka takes Soul to an ice cream vendor on the corner of 42nd Street and Gallows Ave, a place run by an affectionate one eyed woman who Maka claims had once worked a government job, much like Maka's father. It took a while, but Maka says that "Marie decided the government sucked and ice cream makes the world a brighter place", and he can't really argue with that.

He notices that Maka doesn't cringe when she mentions her father, and he's so proud.

She gets a scoop of green tea and a scoop of lychee, and while at first Soul might have figured her for a vanilla kind of girl, he can't say he's all too surprised by her choices now. He orders pistachio, and she insists on paying, saying " A promise is a promise!" before pulling a wrinkled twenty dollar bill from her sock. When he looks at her questioningly, she simply shrugs. "I like to keep my hands free. What, you got something against sock money ice cream?" she teases.

He laughs at the look she gives him, noting the little crinkle in her brow and the way her lips press into a pout and her nose scrunches up, and he has to remind himself that she had asked a question, however rhetorical it may have been. He puts up his hands in surrender, trying not to let his lips pull up into a grin and failing. "Hey, no way in hell I'll turn down ice cream with the coolest chick in the world. Even if you're gross and keep money in your gross socks." He punctuates his words by leaning forward boldly to steal a lick of her ice cream.

She laughs at the face he makes.

"Uhhh, acquired taste?"

Judging from her amused expression, he's making a pretty ridiculous face, but god it tastes so weird. It's almost sweet, but then not, and he just can't quite figure it out.

But not bad. Definitely not bad.

It suits her.

"Ah, I think I could get used to it. Totally weird though, you weirdass weirdo."

"Oh, c'mere" she says, rolling her eyes before licking her own cone. He approaches cautiously, melodramatic in his indecision, and she laughs before lacing her free hand into his hair, stretching onto her tiptoes and kissing him, her cool, sweet tongue pressing against his own.

Okay, maybe he didn't give her ice cream enough credit, 'cause he's positive it's his new favourite now.

"Come with me," she says, and he follows her to a place of surprisingly thick vegetation behind the little shop. She pulls apart some wild, hanging vines, and reveals a grassy area with a singular picnic table. There's no way that such a place could exist without a considerable amount of care in their city, but it looks like it belongs. A true oasis in their dust bowl they call home. Wildflowers bloom, and he can hear the telltale buzzing of honey bees at work, plundering and pollinating and helping the world continue to turn. A clear blue pond glistens, peppered with lily pads and lotus blooms, dragonflies fluttering through the little sanctuary. It's all so vital, so alive.

So much like her.

They carefully tip-toe their way to the table, sitting beside one another, and when she slips off her boots and striped socks, he realizes, with overwhelming affection in his heart, her toe nail polish is bright and scarlet. He thinks of how right it felt to wake up to see her face, how wonderful she feels in his arms and how she has helped him face so much. He thinks of her quick temper and her gentle heart, and he thinks of the fact that he could probably spend the rest of his life beside her, if she were to want that.

But first, some smalltalk is probably in order.

"So ah, how'd you feel when you woke up?"

Nailed it.

"Like I really, really had to pee." He laughs, accidentally inhaling some liquified pistachio cream and hacking once, twice, three times, only regaining his composure to a slight wheeze after she's slapped him hard on the back (which honestly does nothing other than sting, but at least her reaction to him choking is to try to help him not be choking anymore. With a deep, rattling breath, he wipes at his watering eyes as discreetly as possible and asks how she knew it would be such a formal event and not just a lame school talent show.

She pinches one of his cheeks and he nips at her fingers, just barely grazing her digits with his teeth.

"Google just takes all the mystery out of life, don't you think?"

He mock-groans, setting aside his treat to fold his arms on the table and dramatically flow his head into the cradle his crossed arms create. "Ew, gross, you googled my name? I thought you weren't a weirdo nerdbrain, you're lettin' me down." He pokes at her side and pretends she can't see him grinning into his forearms. Her soft chuckles are something he could spend an eternity listening to.

Her hip is flush with his before he knows what's happening, her arm looped around his waist and cheek pressed to his shoulder, and she sighs.

"Well, I guess I should probably ask for your number, huh?" she asks, and he forgets how to breathe for a second, because he's a loser, and he doesn't really know what they are, but he knows what he wishes for them to be.

He turns his face so his lips are only a hair's breadth from her temple, whispering his phone number into her hair, asking with a grin if she needs his social security number and date of birth as well. She turns and kisses him, her mouth insistent upon his, and she whispers that she'd like to see him again, tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after the day after that, and all the days that are sure to come.

He'd like that too.


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