"This is the furthest thing from female empowerment," I groaned. My first instinct was to rip the flier but that wasn't necessarily fair to Tsubaki, so I slapped it forcefully against the board instead before waiting for her to staple it there.
"It's supposed to be cute, Maka." Tsubaki sighed for probably the eighth time since I started helping her. She held out the stapler to me. "Here, this might be more satisfying for you."
Nothing about this was gratifying. A Sadie Hawkins Dance. Girls asking boys meant you were giving over some kind of power, flipping gender roles, but realistically it was nothing more than an anxiety-producing mess. Didn't they know the actual story? A spinster woman, because if you were unmarried by 35 at that time you were considered unfortunate, literally running after men in order to force one to marry her. That's what we were supposed to be encouraging for our girls?
And I could go on for another hour on the insult to gender equality, but honestly, it was the fact that I, Maka Albarn, was facing the worst decision of my life. Who the hell do I ask? Even worse: do I even have the guts to ask the only someone who could be the answer to the first question? The answer: no times infinity because while who comes to mind immediately, it shouldn't. I shouldn't. I can't.
So, there I was, hanging these fliers in silent misery, taking out frustrated aggression on the black Swingline stapler because this would be the worst month of my existence, or at least my social existence. Tsubaki had even abandoned me, off in search of another stapler and another stack of papers to throw to the wind so that each girl could finally ask that darling guy she had been mooning over. A hand grasped one of the fliers, slipping it from the crux of my arm.
"What are you doing?" Soul was absently rubbing at his shoulder, probably something he'd done during weapons training.
I tried to let the stab of the stapler bring some words to life in my mouth but all I could manage was the obvious, "It's a Sadie Hawkins Dance."
Without prompting, Soul reached for the rest of the papers, giving me my hand back for easier hanging. "And that is…?"
"Girls ask guys," I mumbled.
A small affirmative grunt was all I got in return but when I turned to look at him, there was a wisp of his amused grin being covered up. I hated it when he did that when it was like he was keeping a secret. As if I had the rights to each one of his while I kept my own. "You're going?"
"Well," my words and thoughts came to a halt. I hoped that the wandering to the next billboard would kill that line of conversation.
"Well…" My face flared red. "I guess." Beautiful, eloquent, just grade A conversation, Maka.
I took a deep breath before turning back to him. "Did you get hurt?"
"Eh, Pattie didn't take it easy on me," he half shrugged while still rubbing away at his shoulder.
"If you make dinner, I'll give you a shoulder rub." This should be anxiety-producing, talking about touching him, making deals like we were some kind of couple, but this felt like normal Maka and Soul stuff. How we'd fallen into this pattern at sixteen, I'll never know, but it was getting harder to navigate and when I found myself at the other end of that strange boundary, like the thoughts of the dance, I couldn't stop myself from stuttering and stopping.
"Deal." He did nothing to hide the grin this time and it ate up his face, stretching from ear to ear. Death, how I hated that smile, how it threw my guts topsy-turvy and somehow left me feeling breathless even though I saw it about once a day. He stopped rubbing as if just the promise of it had fixed his problem and turned from me, waving a hand over his shoulder. "See you at home."
"Later." I waved with a withering sigh, even though he probably neither saw nor heard either. My options narrowed in front of me: I either curled up under a rock until this was all over or I somehow produced the courage to ask Soul Evans to be my date. I wondered if I could find a rock big enough.
Soul always waited for me outside of Meister class and the fact that he wasn't there the next day tilted my whole world on its axis. I tried not to look panicked, not to see the look of confusion on Black Star's face as he noticed the same missing part of this equation. My only hope was to make a beeline from Black Star before he could think of a smart comment and start the desperate but not so desperate looking search for my weapon. I only had to overreact for a minute because as soon as I turned the corner I spied that messy, white mop of hair, his back to me in that signature lean.
I would have called out for him, but he was definitely busy, a girl with delicate pink hair and violet eyes that she was batting at him standing to his side, a hand clutching onto his limp arm. My tongue felt like sandpaper and breathing was about as easy as swimming against a current.
"Sorry," he shrugged his arm away from her.
"Come on, Soul…" She was reaching for him again - who was she? Maybe one of the girls a grade below us? - but he turned away from her, arm safely out of her grasp.
"Like I said, no offense, not interested." Soul finally turned enough that his eyes fell on me, a scowl sticking to face. "Sorry, Maka." It was a grumble as he bumped into me, getting me to start walking down the hallway.
Everything in me was screaming not to ask, but I couldn't stop the words, my voice uncharacteristically high from the tightness in my throat. "What was that?"
He let out an exasperated sigh, one of his hands coming to rub at the back of his neck. "That stupid dance. That's the second girl from weapon class to ask me."
It took all of my mental reserves to keep my feet moving forward, to match his step, while my insides froze in place, my lungs threatening never to expand again. The second! "The dance?"
"It's not like it's my thing anyway, totally uncool." His scowl seemed to dull as his eyes widened for a moment as if surprised he'd put together a whole sentence. "I mean, it would be, to go with them, you know?"
"I…" I couldn't piece together a thought let alone a sentence. Uncool was not the word I would use to describe it - devastating, crushing, mortifying was more along the lines of what my teenage brain felt capable of. I had been able to avoid the reality of it for so long, but Soul was the object of other people - other girls! - interests. He didn't just live in a vacuum of my own desire and while I could say all I wanted that I was possessive because he was my weapon, I knew the truth.
The heavy silence followed us down the hallway and out into the commons.
Tsubaki's cheek was leaning on my shoulder as we sat together under the spotty shade of the half-dead willow tree. "Did you ask anyone yet?"
"No." I resisted the urge to look over at Soul who was lying next to me in the grass, but all I could see without really craning my neck was his stomach, his hand resting on the band on his pants.
Tsubaki lifted her head, peeking behind me to catch Soul's attention. "I heard you've had a few."
Soul grunted and I finally let myself follow Tsubaki's gaze, seeing him only lazily open one eye. "Five."
That number made my limbs go to jelly. It hadn't even been five days, only three, and today was still young, giving him the option to get up to six or seven by the end of the day. I always saw him as quiet, cool, rarely talking unless we were alone, rarely sharing without the occasional push of holding his hand. He brooded and skulked, characteristics I had assumed weren't making him anyone else's dreamboat but here we were. I adored all of those pieces of him and apparently others did, too.
"Who did you pick?" There was Tsubaki, now laying on her stomach so that she could lean closer to him, her interest perked with the opportunity for romantic information. She may not look it, but she has a soft spot for that kind of melodrama.
His sigh dripped oozed annoyance, "None."
"That's no fun, Soul. Why not? I thought Alice asked you, she's-"
"No." Soul swatted away the words like flies. "I don't even really want to go anyway. The only reason I'd go was the right person." In signature Soul style, to end the conversation he rolled onto his side, giving both of us nothing more than his back to look at.
"Maka…" I had expected a pleading whine, that common expression of 'please help me to get Soul to do what I want him to do, he listens to you' but her eyes were staring at me, her chin jutting out at my stubborn partner, and her mouth shaped the words I wanted to pretend I didn't see, 'Ask him.'
I swallowed a groan of 'no' and clutched my hands into my skirt, trying to squeeze the fabric enough that it would maybe release the tension in my chest. Doesn't she see how catastrophic that could be? I ask him, he says no just like he did for every other girl because why would a pattern break for me, and I'm left nursing the wound that he doesn't think of me like that.
Because Soul always knows himself. That stability, the steady-headed always thinking of solutions Soul is the reason we work perfectly together. He keeps me grounded when I jump too far, he protects me from getting myself hurt when I just let my courage lead the way. There was no logical way I could rationalize him keeping something like that to himself. He knows what he wants, usually after intense thought and reasoning, but he knows and he gets it for himself. Hence, I must not be one of those things.
But Tsubaki had left my name drifting in the air and if Soul was still listening it must seem so weird, so strange, like we were silently having this conversation without him. "Maybe I'll ask someone from Meister class," I offered lamely.
Tsubaki huffed but that wasn't what drew my attention: it was Soul sitting straight up, a mixture of disgust and disbelief on his face. "What? Why?"
"I don't know." I could feel a ferocious, biting yell starting to want to take over, to scream at him because it couldn't be him, so what other choice did I have? As if being angry at him would be helpful, but I was helpless against it. "What, you expect me to go alone?"
"No, but-" He cut himself off with a click of his tongue. Soul practically jumped to his feet, hands jammed into his pockets as he started to stomp off.
"Soul!" But there was no point since he was already well out of hearing range, swiftly moving back towards the building.
"Hopeless." Tsubaki's whisper drifted into laughter.
Yes, a hundred percent hopeless case, but I was too dumb to see it.
That scowl had become a permanent resident on Soul's face. The ordinary was that smirk or the blank, listlessness that I had grown to love but those were now locked away. Somehow, as he picked me up from Meister class, it had developed into something worse as his eyes seemed to be set even more grimly on his face, the red seeming to glow not in an inviting way but as if on fire. I greeted him, even was so brave as to touch his arm but got nothing in reply, just a turn of his body as he started in the usual direction. We got about ten steps before he stopped short, his shoulders hunching so his voice hit the ground rather than me. "Did you ask somebody?"
His tone of voice hit me more than the words since it almost sounded like an accusation. "What?" I took a step closer to him, hoping that would allow him to muffle his voice.
"The dance. Did you ask someone?" His voice was lower, each word enunciated but still at the ground, eyes focused on the tips of his shoes.
My lips pressed in a flat line as my mind raced. I had assumed his annoyance lately had been because of the dance, but I didn't exactly appreciate it being taken out on me. My situation still felt so raw that his dredging of it was making my heart ache. "Why?"
"Just-" He cut himself off with the click of him sucking his teeth. A hand came up to his hair and he pushed it back. It was only then that his eyes raised to mine as if he manually had to move his head to force the action. "Just tell me, did you?"
I was ready to ask my question right back but his stare made me pause. These weren't the eyes of Soul trying to be difficult or annoying, trying to get a rise out of me for a fight. The word desperation popped into my mind and I had to shutter it away. Why would he be desperate for anything? Why would he seem almost hurt that I was being withholding? "No," I murmured, but still crossed my arms to put on a good show.
Soul's breath in reply was loud enough to sound like a word all its own and his mouth gaped as if something else were to come but no syllables joined it.
"Soul…" I let my hand reach for him again, my fingers gripping at his wrist dangling at his side. He let me grab it, let my fingers trail into his for just a moment before making sure to break off the touch. "Why?"
He turned his head and focused his eyes towards the windows, lips pressing back into his scowl. "I didn't say yes to anyone."
"But you've had plenty of offers." I wasn't proud of the spite with a hint of jealousy that oozed through that statement.
"Maka," he growled back at me before shrugging his shoulders like his skin was crawling. "I just… damn it." Those frantic eyes were back on me and he just seemed so fragile that I couldn't stop myself from moving forward, from wrapping my arms around his middle and pulling myself to him. Hugging wasn't exactly a common pastime for Soul and I could feel it, the way he tensed up immediately, hands with nowhere to go.
"Tell me what's wrong." Now I sounded like the desperate one but I honestly couldn't have cared less. I was just tired of the stress, the built-up fuzziness between us that seemed to interrupt the way our souls usually just meshed. It was ridiculous the way worrying about my other feelings about him were getting in the way of the ones that worked, the ones that I at least knew were mutual.
One arm clumsily knocked across my shoulders, jostling me but at the same time pulling me a little closer. "Maybe tonight. At home." I didn't even have time to get an affirmative out before he disengaged and pushed past me, making space between the two of us in the hallway.
When I got home, I forced myself to sit in the oversized armchair and read. Or, really, do something that resembled reading because I found myself reading and rereading, my mind wandering off about when he was going to get home, what we were going to talk about, whether or not either of us would be honest with one another.
Maybe it wasn't just the dance, either. Hadn't it really just felt like this for the better part of this year? Like there was a gap growing between us, a hazy wall which used to be filled with our secrets, thick as thieves in our partnership. It was my fault because I had let these feelings creep in. I had wanted more than what we had and now I was ruining the little we had left. He was mad at me, that's what this was, and he was going to leave. The most important person in the world to me was going to leave me.
So, yeah, maybe not so much reading as watching tears warp the ink on the pages.
The door clicked, opened and shut. I tried my best to angle myself in the chair, to bring the book closer to my face and use my arm to obscure the side of my face. I didn't for a second think this seating arrangement looked natural but the only other choice seemed even more ludicrous, to let him see the redness of my eyes and the drying streaks on my cheeks. His footsteps were next and out of the corner of my eye, I could see the blur as the couch groaned in reply to him throwing himself into it.
He was shifting, trying to make himself comfortable. While he moved, I tried to inconspicuously run my fingers over my cheeks again, hoping against hope that my face would look relatively normal. The shuffling from his direction didn't stop and I risked turning my head. He was trying to lay back, to maybe rest his eyes, but as soon as he saw my head move he was staring at me, meeting my eyes and pulling himself back up to sitting. "You're busy."
"No." I took the chance of turning my head a little more, letting my arm fall. I could read it in his eyes, the way they fell from nervous to soft, his scowl coming back. Before he could open his mouth I shook my head, trying to close the subject of me. "Tell me what's wrong."
Soul was making some kind of decision in his head and I waited for it, his mouth remaining shut until he could push his hair back at least twice. "You like those dances, that kind of stuff, I know you do." He paused for my disagreement but there was none. "If you go you'll have a good time, you'll dance with Tsubaki and all the other girls. But you've been all crazy about it instead."
That little beast in me was feeding, whispering over and over again that it was me, I'm always the cause of discontent and here it was and here he's leaving me. I tried for nonchalant, but my voice still strained, "It's just the asking part. It's no big deal though, I'll just…"
"But that's-" He cut the words with a rush of air through his teeth, his hands flexing hard on his knees. "Look, why haven't you asked me?"
I couldn't stop the heat from creeping up my stomach to my face. Half of me wanted to fight, to shoot back why should I as if that would help the situation, but I had to be something better than a cornered animal. "I didn't think… well, you said no to everyone else."
"I never say no to you." He sounded fed up and the way that he crossed his arms and huffed was almost comical enough to make me laugh.
Only a meager serving of the feeling was ebbing away, but I drew in a terrified breath. "Will you take me to the dance, Soul?"
"Yeah." He was still holding himself, his eyes focused on a corner of the room that didn't include me, but the scowl was finally losing its grip, the faint whisper of his grin tweaking the corner of his mouth. "But don't think I'm going to do any of that dancing like you and the other girls."
"Black Star dances."
He rolled his eyes with a derisive laugh. "And you can get maybe one slow dance. Maybe."
My stomach muscles fluttered even at the mention, a new worrying focus taking hold. He was taking me and we would dance together. But he was setting boundaries, keeping this friendly, partnery, because that was it. He was doing me a favor because I had been nervous and it's not like he wanted me to ask him. Never in a million years. "OK."
"OK," he echoed and immediately got up from the couch. He stood for just an aching moment before he was practically out the door into the hallway. It was then that he paused, hand seeming to catch on the doorframe before he brought his eyes back to me. "Please tell me that wasn't what you were crying about."
"No," I squeaked, knowing it was mostly a lie and hoping he wouldn't see it.
Soul swallowed, looking down the hallway for inspiration before looking at me. "Did your mom call or something?"
I so desperately wanted to hug him at that moment, the worry in me only being able to abate when the worry in him was through. "No."
His fingers gripped tighter on the frame of the door. "I could… I'll listen if you need to, you know, talk about it."
He nodded and relaxed his hand, letting it fall from the doorway. His feet didn't move and it was enough time for him to stare at me again, those unsure eyes studying me. Something inside of me was hoping he'd see it and, as if he had sprouted the ability for soul perception overnight, he'd be able to read me like a book. Instead, he wandered into the hallway leaving half of the conversation unsaid.
Soul had gone back to his regular listlessness. He'd also gotten asked at least three more times in my presence and who knows how many times behind my back, but he now seemed to take each with a smirk and the apology that he was going with me. I should have been more careful not to let this sink in, to avoid analyzing that smile every time he mentioned my name instead of just a no, but as he said it the second time I caught myself grinning like a fool.
But there were boundaries. He'd already set them about dancing which was fine because I wasn't sure I could fathom how to operate with his body that close to mine when it didn't include fighting for our lives. We'd even decided to meet there instead of going together. At first, it had made no sense to me since, well, we lived together, but he had said he was going to Kilik's first, for reasons he refused to expand upon. I didn't want to fight; I had at least a small wish fulfilled and asking for more could only mean trouble.
I heard him rustling around his room and into the hallway but I couldn't convince myself to open the door and he didn't bother to knock. The only acknowledgment was a quick call from him as he was almost out the door. "See you later."
"Bye!" was all I could manage in return but I was sure he'd already closed the door behind him.
All I could do was pace the floor. Tsubaki had invited before over beforehand to get ready but I had absently refused, idiotically sure that I would be fine by this point, especially with Soul out of the apartment. It wasn't about picking something to wear - all the girls planned that ages ago, me included - but it was that constantly lingering questions of what had I gotten myself into.
We were friends going to a dance, just as if Tsubaki and I were going together. Yeah, right.
Having convinced myself that I should just call Tsubaki to beg her to let me come over and decompress, I opened the door to my bedroom but stopped in my tracks. Just out of the doorway, so that my first step wouldn't be right on top of them, was a small bouquet of flowers, not roses, not extravagantly large, just a handful of odds and ends. At some point a florist had touched this, the ends cleaned up and wrapped, arranged so the blues popped against the purples and reds.
Instead of picking them up I knelt down, expecting that on closer inspection they just wouldn't exist, that it was a figment of my imagination. At this close there was even the soft scent, negating any thought that this was make-believe. I picked them up, examining each blossom, fingers playing along the wrapping for a card, a note, anything to confirm that they had the purpose that my heart hoped for. There was nothing, no message other than the flowers themselves.
Soul was waiting on the steps, hands jammed into the pockets of his dress pants while his hunched shoulders crinkled the white shirt dress shirt split with a red tie. Tsubaki was holding onto my arm, whispering continuously about her guess about the flowers. I'd come to the decision that he had either left them there as an apology for ditching me or they had somehow spontaneously generated in space. Since the first option was definitely not it since he was standing there, not so patient but doing a good job of covering up his nervousness, my only hope was to take the second. There was no way he bought me flowers, no way that Tsubaki's soft words about his obvious affections were true.
I clung desperately to that thought as I ascended the stairs, watching him shift his weight so he was standing straight, forcing his hands to his side. Tsubaki released me with a little extra momentum in his direction and I had to stop short, almost tripping into him. Just for a moment, his hands came up, grasping my arms to steady me before quickly dropping. "You look pretty," it was almost too soft to hear but with how close we were there was no choice but for it to hit my ears.
I laughed lamely, trying to take a step back. "You're supposed to say that, right?" Because I could never admit that in this dark purple sheath dress I might actually look something close to alluring.
"I mean it." His eyes were moving towards the door but his body stayed towards me, his hand coming out and wavering in the space between us.
I'm pretty. He's trying to hold my hand. And I was halfway to euphoria as I let my hand slip into his, our palms locking together. "Thank you for the flowers."
Soul cleared his throat but his eyes stayed focused ahead as he led me towards the dimmed lights of the room. "You're supposed to get that stupid wrist thing, whatever it's called." He shrugged and I was almost afraid he'd take his hand away for the action but he seemed to tighten his grip instead. "They looked stupid. I thought that was better. Something you'd like more."
I raised an eyebrow, a small amused smile starting to spread across my face. "You get corsages for proms and stuff, not some little dance."
"This is important, too." I was too busy looking at him, trying to catch whatever look was in his eyes since he refused to focus them on me, to notice the decorations. After the fact, Soul had described it to me as a room that looked like Valentine's Day had thrown up in it, an oversaturation of hearts of assorted colors and fake red flowers. The music was already starting to throb, the volume at the point where you could feel it beating in time with your heart, and a few bodies had taken up the dance floor. "Go," he had to raise his voice over the music, but letting go of my hand was enough of a hint.
"What are you going to do?" He was finally looking at me but it felt like I was the one who was finally seeing him, the thin blush that was dissipating on his cheeks, the way his smirking smile struggled against the nervousness on his face.
"Kilik," he motioned towards the music set up. Kilik was there, leaning over equipment and frantically trying to keep things moving. He did look like he needed help, but it was too soon to lose Soul to something else. When I didn't stop him, my voice got stuck in my throat and my hands dangling limply at my side, Soul turned away and made a slow shuffle to the Kilik and a job that he might actually enjoy.
Remember, there are rules. You're pretty, you got flowers, but he's not here to dance. He brought you and that's it. I tried to make it feel like every other dance in existence, where Soul stayed at home and I went out for the majority of the night just to have fun with all the EATs girls. That was, after all, what dancing was for, and it had never required Soul before so there was absolutely no reason for it to now.
I tried to concentrate on making this normal or at least what could be considered mundane for me. At first it was easy, losing myself in the beat, laughing and joking with Kim or Patty or Liz or Tsubaki. As usual, Black Star was making a fool of himself, cawing for all to hear that he was the dancing king. It was all so effortless to get overtaken by, to forget anything else, that is until the music slowed and I found myself frozen on the dancefloor.
My first reaction should have been to move to the seats or to get some much-needed water, but instead I was trapped, surrounded by couples coming into each other's arms. He had said maybe one dance but I didn't even have the nerve to look for him and I wasn't even sure he was still there since I had avoided looking that way to begin with in order to keep the illusion that everything was normal.
"Maka." My name arrived at my ears at the same time his hand touched my elbow. I almost jumped out of my skin and I felt his grip tightened as if to try to keep me in it. "You OK?"
I turned to get a good look at him, seeing him experimenting with a smile, trying to gauge the look on my face. "I was just… I was going to sit down."
"Did you want to dance?" It wasn't stuttering or worrying but delivered with resolve, the hand on my elbow pulling me a little closer in the process. I let the momentum move that arm to his shoulder, his hand falling away from my elbow, while the other came up to meet his hand that was already waiting. I held my breath as he laced our fingers together and the other hand rested on my hip.
We were a respectable distance apart, no Catholic nun would be by with a ruler any time soon, but I could feel each nerve humming. What do you say when you're this close and you can't seem to break eye contact even though the look in his eyes is killing you? What do you do when you're so sure that this is right but at the same time so sure this is wrong? My only answer at the time was a concentrated silence.
"Maka, chill out," he murmured as if reading the sentences straight from my mind. In a way, he was because I could feel his soul poking and prodding at mine, trying to find its fit. "I'm not going to step on your foot or anything."
My hands flex into the fabric of his shirt, teasing at the muscle underneath. "You're nervous, too," I grumbled.
"Yeah." He shrugged but the smile was finding strength on his face, his eyes steadily staring into mine. "But you're supposed to be the courageous one, right?"
The heat flared in my cheeks and I broke contact, throwing my eyes over his shoulder to try to look at the other couples. I wanted to find differences in them and us, but it was mostly the same, some laughing, some talking, some quietly blushing like I was now. Maybe the only difference was an inch or two between bodies. Where was my battlefield courage? Definitely not waltzing around with the other couples, so I forced myself to look at him again, the smile that threw my stomach for loops back on his face.
The winding down of the song had me caught between distressed and relieved, the dramatic teenage part of me screaming that this was our one chance, the only dance he promised me and I had spent it moping in silence. His hand dropped from my waist first, but he finally looked away from me to stare at the interlocked fingers. "Try to be relaxed for the next one."
The words and the final separation of our fingers both had me reeling, "Next one?"
"Yeah," he shrugged. "Maybe I don't hate this so much after all." And as nonchalantly as he'd come he turned again, walking back off to his post next to Kilik to do nothing more than insist on changing the music and stare when he wanted.
I forced my feet to move, getting me off the dancefloor and over to the refreshments. The punch had a kick, not spiked but definitely too much mix and not enough water, and it left my mouth feeling grainy and saturated in sweetness. I still threw back a second cup before trying to find a place to sit for a moment, to collect my thoughts and dampen the excitement that was starting to bubble in my gut. Before I could even do that, Liz had her arm wrapped around my shoulders. "So…?"
"So?" I squeaked back, trying to get out of her grip.
"Slow dancing with your weapon?" Liz offered as a secondary and it wasn't her grip that was making my throat close up.
"He asked!" Why I was even being defensive was beyond me but I would feel myself reaching for reasons why that hadn't been exactly what it was.
Liz finally relaxed her arm, gripping my shoulder instead. "Maka, you're missing the point of this dance, you're supposed to ask him."
Yes, I know, I wanted to snap. Where was courageous Maka, the one who jumped into battle without hesitation? Courageous Maka who stood up to anyone and anything, except for her own feelings which she carefully hid in locked away compartments from those she loved. With a long sigh, I muttered, "I don't think I have any of the Sadie Hawkins' spirit, Liz."
"Sure you do." Liz let her hand slip down my arm, taking the hand Soul had only so recently relinquished. "Because next dance you're actually going to get close to him. Nobody's watching."
"Everybody's watching," I hissed.
"And you care, why?" Liz raised an eyebrow. "It's pretty obvious you're crazy about him and you can't possibly be stupid enough to not realize he's in the same boat."
"He doesn't." But even with my naysaying mind that claim was becoming more tenuous. "And I care because… Liz, what if he's just, I don't know, being nice and we're friends, best friends and if I lose that, I'll…" Here were the tears again, the same flavor that stained my book, the kind that screamed everyone I loved eventually left me in one way or another.
Liz sighed, "Maybe not stupid, then, but stubborn. And don't cry, please." She squeezed my hand while using the other to smooth some of my hair from my face. "Like I said, Soul's in hook-line-and-sinker and if I'm wrong, I'll lick the bottom of my shoe. I'm not saying storm over there and tell him all your feelings, but throwing your arms around his neck or maybe even getting cheek to cheek is a good start."
The tears were traded for a flush of my cheeks as the mental movie played in my head. Not of Liz licking her shoe, but of how my arms would feel around his neck, my cheek pressed against his, or more likely against his chest or shoulder as his last growth spurt left him a few inches taller than me. I wanted to just admit it was terrifying, but the suddenly want for it was overpowering. My only hope was that want to convince courageous Maka to get out there, to do what felt right.
"You're thinking about it!" Liz almost squealed.
"Thinking about what?" As if thought alone could conjure him, Soul was at my side, another glass of punch in his hand that he transferred to mine.
"Nothing," Liz didn't sound convincing for a second and the wink that she added didn't help in the least. "I have to get back to Pattie, she's probably wondering where I went! See you on the dancefloor!" Liz detached from me, making sure to walk past Soul and give him a little push, sending him a step closer in my direction.
Soul waited, watching me sip at the cup before clearing his throat. "You looked upset."
There was no way that I was going to get into this line of conversation with him, so I took a deep breath, putting on the best playful act I could. "Are you just standing across the room watching me?"
"No," he blurted, eyes going back towards the music set up. "I just, you weren't dancing, so I looked around and I thought Liz had you crying. I'm not watching you." His arms crossed his chest.
A genuine laugh tumbled from my lips, the absurd picture of his pouting starting to break me out of the spell of my nervousness. "You know, you could spend time with your date instead of just staring."
"My date?" His voice hit a high note and he instantly had his hand at the back of his neck, rubbing there. "I mean, you are, I didn't mean, you know, Maka." All the cool guy act was finally melting and he had held onto it for a surprisingly long time, usually caving much earlier. "I'm not good at dancing, you know that."
"We don't have to dance." I gave him back the cup and he took a sip, grimacing a little at the quality of the liquid.
"Talking either," he grumbled.
I let out another laugh, "I noticed." Tentatively, I let the tips of my fingers touch the palm of his dangling hand. His eyes fell to the sensation, widening only for a moment as I let the rest of my hand slide into his. "Just stand with me, then."
You could almost hear the click of his swallow but no more words came, his eyes drifted back away from our enclosed hands and out to no particular place on the dancefloor. His hand was clammy within the first few minutes but I stayed put, watching him as he watched the room. It wasn't until the music slowed down again that I pulled on the connection wordlessly, bringing him away from our standing spot to the dancefloor. "Maka…" he started but stopped, his eyes settling on me with that desperation again.
I did what I had to do, circling my arms around his neck and pulling him into something closer to a hug than what would be considered a dancing position. I was thankful to be away from that look in his eyes and even more thankful when his trembling hands came to my waist, steadying me against his body. Oh, and did that feel good, the way I fit into him, my face close enough to his neck that I could see the goosebumps rise there after my exhale.
The song didn't matter, our bodies not exactly moving at the pace of the music but swaying as if this wasn't just an excuse to hold each other. This was a clear sign, it had to be it, and I let just a little excitement take hold in my heart, digging in. I concentrated on the way our souls seemed to meld together, it feeling electric and almost steadier than it had in weeks, maybe months.
My grip stayed tight even as the music faded out again, the beat coming back to something a little more alive. "Can we take a walk?" The only reason I heard it over the music was the closeness of his lips to my ear.
I tilted my head to return the favor, my whisper right next to his skin. "Alright."
Soul didn't wait, not taking my hand again or gently coming out of the embrace but jamming his hands into his pockets, forcing me to trail after him. My mind was starting to write over my clear answer from before, watching him close himself back off after being so close. He didn't slow even as we hit the night air and I found myself kicking off my shoes to keep up with him in the grass. Soul was leading us out towards that withering old willow, away from the voices, the music, from everything else.
I didn't expect him to stop short and I practically ran up the back of his legs, having to put my hands out flat against his back to keep myself from falling into him completely. I let my fingers linger in the fabric of his shirt, feeling his back rise and fall with each frantic breath. "Maka, I suck at this." One of his hands ran through his hair. "I tried tonight, I really did, and I know it's probably not what you want, the way I am, and the way I've been, but I swear I'm trying."
"Soul, I don't understand," I murmured back, almost sure that it didn't matter what I said. His soul was exploding, nervously zapping in the air.
"I'm mean to you." His sigh stuttered out as if it pained him. "I tease you and I pick fights. I don't do nice things and when I do I don't even have the nerve to look you in the face. Those flowers today, I was supposed to give them to you but the best I could muster was leaving them at your door."
"You told me I was pretty," I offered honestly, wholeheartedly, but got another withering sigh in reply.
"Yeah, that one really makes up for the first couple of years where I called you flat," he muttered. "And I know I pissed you off these past couple of weeks and it's all because I just…" He finally turned, my hands floating between us as they lost purchase on his back. "When you told me about the dance, I was honestly happy, I thought it was a no-brainer and it would be you and me just like always. The more I thought about it the more I hated the idea that you'd go with someone else and when you said you might ask someone I lost my damn mind and instead of being a man about it I acted like a child, pouting and scowling."
He was yelling and even as I tried to reach out for him, both with my hands and my soul, nothing seemed to calm the electricity in him. "But… it's not always you and me, Soul, especially when it's… well, this is more like couples stuff, right?"
"And why can't couple stuff be our stuff?" He shot back before his eyes rolled, his hand coming to his face to try to mask to feelings leaking through his words.
I tried to breathe, the air rasping thinly through my lips. "You want us to be a couple?"
Soul stared at me, holding that hand over his mouth as if forcing the words to collect there, to be thought about before letting them go. He finally let the hand slip, resting it against my cheek while his thumb grazed under my chin. "I feel like you're getting away from me, like something is blocking us even just as partners. I was afraid it was because… Maka, did you know? Your soul perception and stuff, did you know what I've been thinking?"
"No." I didn't dare shake my head and upset his hand, too in love with the sensation of his fingers. "I try not to read your secrets. Just the surface feelings, like now, all nervous and frantic." I let my hands rest on his chest, tugging a little at his tie. "So you have to answer me, Soul, about what you want."
"Isn't it obvious?" There was a painful pleading in his voice I'd never heard before. "It's killing me to pretend that all I want is partners. I wanted tonight to be perfect, to show you I could do this because I want us to… you know, be something more."
"Alright, Soul." My smile couldn't possibly stay small, it looking more like one of his signature looks.
"What?" The storm in his soul was dying down, but that nervousness was still lingering, making reaching for him hard. "Maka, I thought you knew and you just hated the idea. I was sure you'd sensed it and you were closing off because I'm just… I told you, I suck."
"No," I tried to be forceful, my hands clutching at his chest. "Everything tonight, Soul, it was perfect and I was just worried… I put up those walls because I was afraid you wouldn't want me the way I wanted you. You'd find out and you'd leave me, you know?"
That scowl came back to his face and it seemed obvious that he understood the implications. Mom left me. Spirit was, well, Spirit with his little too late love. Soul had quickly become the steadiest part of my life. "Yeah, but you know that's not going to happen, right? I…" He sighed and I could feel his hand trembling against my cheek. "Just trust me, OK? Never."
I put my hand over his, trying to steady him and myself at the same time. It felt like I was holding my breath, that ache in my chest overwhelming. "That's a big promise, Soul."
"I know, but I'm making it." I finally felt it, the way his soul suddenly rearranged, carefully easing and fitting against mine, solidifying a bond there as he did with his words. That wasn't the only thing drifting closer, his face hovering in towards mine, his eyes darting from mine to my lips. His thumb lifted my chin a little, creating a clear route that his mouth took to find mine, lips so soft and gentle that I almost thought I'd imagined it at first. It wasn't until his other hand slipped around my waist, pulling me close as if we were dancing again I felt the real pressure of his kiss, the urgency finally breaking through.
He dissolved into clumsiness, pressing and needing, his lips now bordering on rough. I pushed softly against his chest and he took the hint, finally giving my mouth an inch of space. "Slow down," I whispered.
"See? I can't even do that right." He tried to pull away but I reversed the pressure of my hands, pulling him back to me, this time just brushing my lips against his, feeling him take my lead. His hands still gripped at me but at least his lips were slow, caressing nerves that I didn't know I had until my stomach felt on fire. With a sigh closer to contentment, Soul pulled away. "That was… way better."
"We just need practice." I brought one hand to his face, running my fingers back through his hair in a motion I had sometimes fantasized about doing, finding the blush that brightened on his cheeks a reward. All of this felt like fantasy, imagination, and as the months grew into years, I'd always feel like there was something surreal about us, that it wasn't possible to love someone so much and to be loved so deeply in return. Even though it started clumsy, the two of us definitely embracing the idiot teenage trope, Soul never went back on his promise, though he never did get any better at dancing.