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Quantum Entanglement

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His brother is in a long distance relationship. It’s a lost cause, Soul thinks– perhaps not doomed to fail as quickly as all of Wes’s previous flings of varying romantic ineptitude, but it’s still, inherently, fucked.

Wes noisily tosses various shoes, sunglasses, and other model-level swag ornamentation into his hardshell luggage. “I’ll be out for the weekend. He’s picking me up so you can use the car to go get laid or something.”

“I’m not you, thanks,” Soul says, leaning against the doorframe of his brother’s bedroom. Also, he has a raid, tonight. “Isn’t he like in his forties? What happened with that one chick you were crying about? With all the leather.”

“Not cool to live in the past, bro. And anyway, this guy pilots jets. Looks real good in a flight suit,” he says, grin wide, bright, and insured for at least thirty grand. To Soul’s eyeroll, he adds, “Or would you rather I bring him here so we can make out and watch house renos on TV–”

“God, no, just go, friggin’ dilf chaser.”

“’Dilfchaser’. I like it. Sounds like a good name for one of your elf characters.”

“Okay, one, I only play Tauren. Two, I would purposely shit myself if that name hasn’t already been taken by some other creep like you,” he replies, and this is when Soul’s phone begins to sing in his pocket.

Wes, having recognized the tune, immediately blurts, “I’m not here.”

Mom’s ringtone: fifteen seconds of the opening to Gaga’s Poker Face, ‘mah mah mah maaah,’ repeated in mantra-like, dance-pop chant.

Soul pulls his phone out of his pocket, watching his brother shy away from it like a vampire facing a rope of garlic. “Damn it Wes, what did you do this time–”

Mah mah mah maaah~

Wes speeds up the packing process. “Uhhhhhhhh, I may have forgotten about house-sitting?” He actually smiles when he looks up and finds Soul’s flat, icy stare, which makes the eternal curse of getting the short end of the second-son stick that much more demoralizing.

Soul resigns himself to simply saying, “Man, fuck you.”

Mah mah mah maaah~

“Little brotherrrrr,” Wes pleads, wearing an ugly, spoiled face that would probably still land him at least a few modelling gigs. “But I hardly ever get to see my man! Please please please please take one for the team for me pleeeeeeeeeeeaaa–”

Soul’s face pinches at Wes’s ear-shattering plea. “STOP. FINE. FUCK. FINE.” His kryptonite is loud noises – he can’t think straight while listening to something hideous enough to make his skin crawl. “You owe me so much for this. Now shut up so I can answer the phone, asshole.”

“You’re my favorite brother, and I love you.”

Mah mah mah maaah~

He scoffs. “You are, literally, noise pollution. Go away, use condoms, love you bye.” Then, unlocking his phone, which displays one of his mother’s many over-exposed facebook selfies. “Good afternoon, Matriarch.”

“It would be,” replies his mother in a smooth voice that soothes the damage Wes had caused, “if I could get a hold of my firstborn.”

Soul waves his brother away for the weekend, who quietly oozes out the front door. “Sorry, Mom, but you’ll have to settle for the spare. He said something about house-sitting before he took off for some… last minute thing.” Closes his eyes, trying not to think about his brother and some dude nearly his mother’s age.

Mom sighs, the sound of her Tesla spitting out its door handle for her in the background. “You keep letting him do that to you, you know.”

“Yeah… He bribes me with expensive shit though. You know how it goes.”

A self-indulgent laugh, for that one. “Yes. Yes I do.”

\\

He’s packing up his desktop for the trip to Mom’s – hardcore raiding guild schedules aren’t a joke – when someone Kramer’s through the front door like they own the entire apartment tower.

Soul looks over his shoulder and tries his best Dad Just Found My Shitty Report Card face. “Why the fuck do they keep letting you in the building–”

“Such hostility, brosephina,” Blake Strickland says as he jumps and sail-planks his way through the air to land in a heap on the living room futon. He already has his phone out and is scrolling through instagram before the furniture has settled. “Why’re you still packing? We’ve been plannin’ this for like two months. B-Star is not to be kept waitin’.”

Blake, game name BlackStar, has hair as blue as his in-game character and is the only person in the guild Soul knows outside the game. The chances of this guy having been born with a megaphone fused to his windpipe are staggeringly high.

“I dunno what you’re talking about, but what will it take for you to understand that I despise you?”

“Not being my facebook friend, for starters,” Blake shoots back, unperturbed. “Gives a bro mixed signals.”

Soul grits his teeth and unplugs his monitor. “Just tell me why you’re here.”

This, apparently, is offensive enough to cause Blake to look away from his phone. “IRL meetup? Vegas? We’re staying at your mom’s for the weekend. This has been discussed.”

“Discussed? With who? I didn’t agree to shit.”

“Whom.”

“Fuck you, you can’t even spell.”

“Is this about RNGesus deeming you unworthy last raid, because I can’t help it when the heavens acknowledge me as superior, okay. Put some ice on your ass, let’s go.”

“No,” Soul insists before blowing dust off his case fan. “I hate meeting people, I hate get-togethers, and I HATE being stuck in a car with you for four hours. Plus we have a raid tonight.”

Blake scoffs and goes back to his phone. “Raid was moved to tomorrow for the meetup, noobert. And if you aren’t going, why’re you packing?”

“I have to house-sit for Mom over the weekend.”

Soul gets a couch pillow to the face for that.

“Your mom’s house, which is in Vegas. Where everyone else will also be.” Blake momentarily pauses his ire to flex and take a selfie before continuing his tirade. “Did you have to take classes at Impossible Bitch School to get like this? Just fucking go to the thing! It’s not meeting new people, it’s dudes you’ve been talking to online for like two years.”

“You know what’s great about online friends?” Soul asks with a heavy sigh. “I can log off and they go away.”

His best friend just clucks his tongue in disappointment. “Your loss. But you’re driving me and letting me crash at your mom’s.”

“Fifty bucks.”

Blake flips him the bird with both hands. “Suck me, I gotta explain to Reaper why you ain’t going despite fuckin’ around clown town ten minutes away.”

Soul pauses in tucking his keyboard into a duffel bag, hands halfway buried in computer cables. Looks up and warily takes in Blake’s self-satisfied arch in his thin eyebrows. “…Reaper’s going?”

“The great B-Star convinced our silent main tank to attend, yes. The shit I do for you, seriously.”

“Pfft– What do I have to do with anything?”

Blake rolls off the futon to swagger into the kitchen and check out the fridge situation. “Man, you and Reaper could be at opposite ends of Azeroth but whatever bullshit one of you is doing, the other is totally involved. It’s like physics. Y’all are quantum buttbuddies.”

Unable to process anything that has vacated Blake’s mouth without triggering some kind of bewildered, brain-seizing meltdown, Soul scrunches his eyes shut with such force that he sees neon swirling on the backs of his eyelids.

“I hate you so much.”

“Okay but consider this: if you go, you get to hear what Reaper sounds like.”

\\

It is hard to resist that kind of bait.

The thing is, ReaperMan never talks in voice chat, only relying on lightning-quick responses via in-game text channels, and usually in raging capslock. Spartoi’s main tanking death knight has one of the more rotten (and therefore entertaining) mouths in the guild, so Soul feels cheated, maybe even betrayed, when he learns ReaperMan’s a chick and her voice is cheery.

And she could have played him so easily, knowing from the start that he would have no idea who she is, or that she’s the one he’s been bullshitting with four nights a week (or more) in private messages about how stupid pick-up-groups are. But she doesn’t.

Doesn’t beat around the bush. Just comes clean right at the start.

“Hi,” she says to him after she ends a call on her cell and tucks the phone into her hoodie pocket. Waves with a blunt-nailed hand, voice bright as the sun. “I’m Reaper. Uhm, your cosplay looks great! Kaworu, right?”

He’s sitting next to her in the booth, trapped against her, really – Blake has squashed the three of them together on one side of the table. This girl looks like she’s thirteen, but he’s not about to give her shit for it because when your guild’s main tank is one of the best on the server, you try not to make her mad. Soul sends a withering glare over his shoulder at Blake (who ignores it as easily, if not more so, as his brother), and spreads complimentary pseudo-butter on his pancakes.

Who the fuck is Kaworu? Gotta be an anime thing – he’s not sure he could repeat that name back without stumbling over his own mouth.

“This is my actual hair color, but I’m eight months pregnant, to save you from assuming anything else about me,” he spits, feeling like the world’s largest asshat for having equally assumed ReaperMan wasn’t anyone but a man. “Why the hell would I cosplay at a friggen Denny’s?”

He watches her blush red in his peripheral, which is more satisfying than he’d like to admit, but the overall expression on her face reads dawning recognition.

“…Because there’s an anime con tomorrow-oh-my-god, you’re SoulEater!” Reaper slaps her hand on the table, an old-man move so juxtaposed by its performer that it makes his head spin. Various tableware jingles at their booth. “Sorry, I thought you were like some 60’s hipster Fifth Child. Now I see it’s just the eternally grumpy music snob in the flesh.”

God damn it, she really is Reaper. He’s kind of pissed, but he’s also amused despite himself because now he can put a voice to all the ridiculous snark she spouts to him in private tells, and it matches up too perfectly for him to stay angry. It’s Reaper. His friend.

Soul waves at his model-brother-acquired, haute couture Ugly Shirt in nauseating neon. He likes directing as much attention away from his face as he can. “Paisley’s coming back, okay? And when it arrives, I’ll be wearing something else,” he retorts with a confidence he doesn’t actually have.

Reaper tilts her head back to laugh, a note to her voice that makes her suddenly nowhere near thirteen. Different and more base parts of his brain waking up now, on alert, which is something he’d wanted to avoid because that whole sublevel of social interaction is fruitless at best and tiring always. He didn’t come here looking for cute girls. In fact, he’d wanted to get through this stupid IRL-meetup with as little effort as possible and maybe bullshit with Reaper as a bonus.

Except ReaperMan is pretty.

Soul concentrates intently on pouring syrup over his pancakes, but is interrupted by the continual focal point of his hatred for the evening.

“Attention!” Blake announces to the entire diner, hands cupping around his mouth.“Professional bamf has entered the building!”

While Soul’s sensitivity to horrendous noises is withering away in his soul, mortally wounded, ShadowStag waves politely from the front door of Denny’s, clearly accustomed to her arrival being broadcasted on the regular.

Soul has never actually met her, but she’s recognizable because she has a massive nerd cult on instagram. One of Reaper’s IRL friends, she’s also a hell of a druid, so adaptable she’s practically nine players at once, and is therefore his class leader in raids. He actively tries to stay on her good side. Blake actively tries to get in her pants.

Trailing behind Stag is a type-A-looking dude Soul immediately and instinctually knows is the guild’s raidleader despite never having seen him before. Death the priest is a stuck-up perfectionist jerkhole, and only the absolute dick who yells at them for hours on end throughout the week could have a resting bitch face like that. Meeting your raidleader in the flesh and watching him order a veggie omelette directly across from you at a Denny’s booth is a surreal experience only comparable to seeing your mother without her bra on.

More guildmates show up in bursts, and the group takes over three booths and two pushed-together tables. They shoot the nerdy shit well past midnight, some people floating between tables to meet everyone and complain about how BlackStar seems to have bribed the server gods for his good luck on loot rolls.

Socializing with them is a lot easier than Soul had thought it would be, made more so by everyone else at the table being adept with all the back-and-forth conversation ritual that he had never managed to learn. He’s easily caught up in their conversation, and it’s a nice distraction from his online friend-turned-cute-woman sitting next to him.

“The more important issue at hand,” Death says, carefully stacking tiny cups of half-and-half into a pyramid, “is that if we recruit any more recreational drug users, we won’t be able to live through hard mode. Once they’re high, our effective healing goes down by a third.”

“Ohhhhhhh my shit,” Blake whines. “The issue is that I don’t have my extra bacon. Don’t talk math at the table, I get enough of that from Reaper and her stupid ‘optimal threat rotations’.”

“I’ll remind you that my math saves your dumb ass,” Reaper chirps back.

Stag takes a mouth-watering insta of her crepes, fine-tuning her filters. “Well, we can either ban bongs on raid nights or start asking recruits if they get high, but once they realize the consequences, they’ll simply lie.”

Soul carefully accordion-folds his straw wrapper and doesn’t look directly into anyone’s face, because it’s easier to pretend he’s merely in voice chat and this conversation isn’t something worth sweating nervously over. “Just start kicking healers when they can’t perform up to standard.”

“Right?” Reaper adds. “They don’t wanna be replaced, so they’ll either stop using or start playing better while they are. They could lick fuckin’ toads as long as I don’t die twenty times a night.”

The absurdity of Reaper’s girl-voice saying things like ‘lick fuckin’ toads’ is problematic. Soul bites the inside of his cheek, stifling a laugh.

BlackStar eyeballs a heated carafe of artificial maple syrup for all of two seconds before pouring some into his coffee.  “I’m glad we can have this super serious weed meeting over pancakes, but like are we gonna go drinking later or mayhaps do something actually entertaining? This’s Vegas, isn’t it?”

\\

Thankfully, somewhere around that liminal, two-in-the-morning hallucinatory hour, ShadowStag shuts up BlackStar by offering him a ‘ride’ (to where, Soul does not want to think about in detail if he can help it), and some of the raiding crew make plans to go to a bar and attempt to get Death the Hardass drunk.

The rest of the party filters out, crashing for the night, until only ReaperMan remains – well, her and the ninja waitress who keeps refilling Soul’s coffee when he’s not looking.

His ass is asleep and he doesn’t think he can stand to get to the other side of the table, but he does scoot over to give Reaper more space in the booth. “Are you, uh, cool with being alone with a guy this late?” he asks, as if they haven’t spent scores of hours chatting privately online.

She shrugs. “Yeah. You’re a good healer.”

He waits for some kind of punchline, but she doesn’t say anything. “That’s it? That’s your basis on judging a person’s character?” Soul narrows his eyes. “I’m not even specced for healing.”

“I know. That’s why I run five-mans with you.” With the lack of people at the table, her voice has gone darker, deeper, playing inside his ears in a way only music usually can, not so much direct sun anymore as it is reflected moonlight, and he determines he has officially had too much coffee. “You’re always the first name that goes by when heals are thrown at me after I do something reckless.” She smiles. Moonshine, 120-proof. “I like that.”

Fuck him. He is fucked. He doesn’t know where the waitress is, so he puts his hand over his chipped mug and deigns to keep it there permanently.  “Because you’re insane,” he insists. “I had to write a macro to save your ass whenever the real healer’s AFK because you just throw yourself into danger.”

“That only proves my point. And aw, you wrote one for me? I’m honored.”

“You should feel guilty.”

She tilts her head, brown-blonde fringe scorching to gold in the overhead lights. “You always write the smoothest macros though. I have like seven of yours on my hotbar for raids.”

Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuc– “If you’re trying to butter me up, it’s only working a little.” He needs to get out of here, away from her, but he’s house-sitting for his mother and going back to an empty mansion is presently less desirable than possibly developing a crush on the guild’s main tank. “Seriously though, you probably shouldn’t be basing your trust on some heroic encounters. My actions stem from dodging an expensive repair bill, not because I’m trying to save you, personally.”

Reaper yawns behind a hand before drowsily reaching down to his plate and swiping leftover syrup with her finger. Sticks this in her mouth in the least sexual way possible, though it doesn’t particularly save him from any mental images. “So are you saying I should not trust you?”

“Bwuuuh.” He scratches his head at that, caffeine-addled brain making sloppy connections. “Well, okay, I wouldn’t hurt you. But if you’re relying on me to save you if someone else tried anything… I’m pretty much the same as in-game – a hit or two and I’m down, not gonna lie.”

That laugh of hers is more potent than the five or twelve cups of coffee he’s had. “I’m the tank, fear not. I’ll protect you.”

His heart is thudding at an unhealthy speed, so he takes a sip of some guildie’s untouched ice water. “Right. All hundred-ten pounds of you, I’m sure.”

“One-seventeen, thank you,” she sniffs. “Besides, I carry mace.”

“What, like two-handed?”

“The pepperspray, stupid.”

“It was a joke.”

“Yeah, your jokes are awful.” Reaper pulls her legs up on the booth cushion, crossing them. She’s wearing a schoolgirl skirt, which doesn’t help the thirteen-year-old look, though her really god-damn amazing thighs are another story. “That’s kinda why I started talking to you online, really. That and I thought you were a girl until I heard you in voice chat one time.”

Soul chokes on water. “What?” he croaks.

“’Cause I don’t trust guys that much. That’s why I never use my mic–”

“No, back up. Why did you think I was a chick.

She shrugs. “I dunno. The emotes? You wink a lot.”

“What does that have to do with– forget it. Let’s clear up any misunderstandings now: I’m a guy.”

“Yeah I know, already, sheesh…” Reaper's head then tiredly lands on the backrest of the booth. “Uhg, I better go. I’m getting delirious and I have a cosplay to finish.” She pulls out a cellphone too big for her hands out of her hoodie pocket. “Do you have one of these things? Stag’s been trying to get me to talk about stuff that isn’t, like, efficient threat generation.”

They exchange numbers, and he tries to tamp down whatever seizure his guts are having right now. After she takes his photo for her contact list, he can’t help but quietly blurt, “Why the username?” 

(Why had he, the one person he’d like to think talks to Reaper the most online, never known this girl?)

She smiles brightly, though her green eyes are a dark, dark contrast that make his toes twitch in his shoes.

Very carefully, she says, “It’s a Terry Pratchett novel,” and leaves no room for further discussion on the subject.

\\

Driving to Mom’s place, his brain blazes with thoughts and bad ideas.

Pushes this away with logic. Once he’s done house-sitting, he’ll go home, and Reaper will return to being a capslocking friend-slash-entity on the internet, because they live four hours apart.

There’s no way for him to say ‘let’s hang out sometime’– he’s not the type to casually drive that far to see a friend just for some overpriced coffee. That would insinuate a certain level of above-average interest; of pursuit.

He doesn’t pursue.

Better to stay away from her. Whether or not she’s even interested, he knows if he gets any closer, it is very likely he will end up miserable. He’s afraid he could really like her, and Soul is not cool with long-distance shit; he need only look at his parents’ marriage, his brother’s multiple failed relationships to know that distance breeds distrust every time.

He will cull the fruitless ideas of something other than online friendship with her. He hadn’t been attracted to ReaperMan yesterday, so it’ll be easy to erase tonight and go back to that simple, straightforward camaraderie.

Decides this firmly after he pulls into Mom’s driveway in his brother’s car, trudging through the yawning garage door into a silent house.

\\

Wakes, needing to piss, just shy of six hours of sleep, in last night’s clothes on the parlor’s couch that no one is allowed to sit on. Shuffles in his dad’s dinosaur slippers to the nearest bathroom. Does not stare too long in any particular direction, because his mom’s place is 4,200 square feet of clowns.

He is thankful that he had not acquired the same propensity for collecting terrifying-as-fuck antiques, but it doesn’t make the guest room any less impossible to sleep in, which is why he’d passed out in the parlor. Deftly avoids eye-contact with porcelain, red-nosed sadface on the back of the toilet while getting rid of possibly two gallons of coffee. Dinosaurs his way to the kitchen.

There’s a pile of mail on the kitchen island with his name on it – he forgets sometimes that his place of residence is still, technically, here, though his room has long since been sacrificed to Mom’s ever-expanding closet. Peruses through this, though it’s mostly junk, as he debates on taking a dip in the pool to wake up or grabbing some food first and then taking a dip in the pool, but then his phone cackles in his wrinkled pants.

ReaperMan’s ringtone: Emperor’s New Groove’s Yzma, evil cat version, laughing maniacally in a deranged squirrel voice, which had seemed the most fitting at two in the morning for some reason.

And he’d been doing so well, blood pressure nice and apathetic until just now. He pulls the phone out of his pocket. Answers while picturing Reaper’s game character instead of the leggy girl-thing from last night.

“Mornin’?” he tries.

What he hears in reply sounds far away, but still loud enough to shatter glass, like she’s been taking lessons from BlackStar in the past six hours.

“WHAT DO YOU MEAN MY RESERVATION’S CANCELLED?  I BOOKED IT THREE MONTHS IN ADVANCE!”

Conclusion: butt-dial.

“MAKA. ALBARN. Check again!”

Oh. Her real-life name. “Reaperrrrr, pick up! Your ass is talking to you!”

She doesn’t hear him. He hangs up, vaguely remembering the anime convention she’d mentioned going on in town. He calls her back, not really expecting her to answer. She doesn’t.

Soul, alone with clown magnets and teacups in the kitchen, recalls his stance on pursuit, on his decision to not dwell on fruitless possibility. Shoots a text, despite knowing on a molecular level that it is probably a bad idea, to ShadowStag.

[[ hey. i think reaper buttdialed me and was yelling about hotel rooms? do u kno wat con she’s going 2 ]]

Then, realizing it’s not yet eight in the morning, adds, [[ if ur not bangin my friend rn ]]

Stag appears to be a real human being with real life goals and responsibilities, but she’s also eerily integrated with technology to a level that makes even him somewhat uncomfortable, so he figures she’ll respond soon enough. He opens up the gigantic, clowntowned refrigerator to grab some string cheese. Leans on the counter and struggles with the wrapper.

His phone vibrates across the kitchen island. Stag has texted him an address downtown. [[ Not answering her phone? ]]

[[ neg ]]

The ease of which he predicts her next message borders on the painful, if only because it means he’s already had the same idea.

[[ You should go find her! I bet she would be glad to see you. =D ]]

Soul is extremely unhappy about ShadowStag’s intuition. And if she’s getting the smiley faces out this early in the game, he doesn’t stand a chance at winning. Heaven help him if she starts with emoji.

He bides his time, finishing off the string cheese before typing what she probably wants to hear (which also happens to be what he’d like to know).

[[ y me? ]]

Immediately after sending, he nearly throws his phone to the ground. This is not highschool. He is supposed to be above doing the text gossip bullshit thing, damn it.

His phone buzzes, Stag’s reply sent at a speed well beyond acceptable, casual conversation. He reads it eagerly.

[[ Well, you’re the only contact on her phone with a photo. ]]

How the fuck does she know that already? And why does she says this like it means something? He got one of Reaper, too – it doesn’t mean anything.

[[ ur speculating now ]]  Yeah. Exactly.

[[ Observing! ]] she replies, followed by heart, sunglasses, and winking emoji.

He can’t handle this insanity. [[ hallucinating ]], he insists, and then, trying to abort mission, [[ don’t i need like a ticket or something to get in anyway? ]]

[[ Hold please. ]]

“Oh god,” he says aloud, dread setting his nerves ablaze. Next to him, the ice machine in the fridge groans and crashes with another load, startling him. He realizes he’s slouched over his phone, absorbed in this ridiculous conversation.

Stands up. Walks to the french doors leading to the sparkling pool and pretends he doesn’t give a damn about specific nerds being less than 15 minutes away from him.

[[ You’ve just been registered. Go get your pass. ]]

“Are you fucking shitting me,” he blurts, startling the birds in the sprawling backyard. He starts to furiously type ‘i didn’t ask to be registered for shit’ but he is interrupted.

[[ Don’t worry about paying me back. There’s always some Shadow Clan eager to support a good cause. ]] 

Soul holds his phone as far away from his person as he can, like one daintily grasping a very poisonous snake by the tail, fervently wishing he knew some exorcism chants or whatever to cleanse bad, bad juju.

Shadow Clan: the creepy instagram fan base Stag had somehow accumulated online. They shower her with gifts at all hours of the day; sing praises to her both in-game and IRL.

[[ do NOT get me involved with ur freaky cultists ]]

She is not phased. [[ I won’t force you, though you know Blake would if I let him. ]]

How rude. She’s had him in her clutches for less that a day and BlackStar is already one of her minions.

[[ Show up or don’t. I’m just saying that Reaper is Black Rock Shooter today. ]] Devil face.

She used the devil face.

Soul sits on the edge of the pool, taking off the dinosaur slippers and dipping his feet in the water while he mourns his expectations of having a shenanigan-free remainder of the weekend. He waits a few minutes to see if ShadowStag has anything else to say, but gets only ear-grating silence. Scowling, he pulls up a search bar on his phone and types in ‘black rock shooter’.

An image search returns multiple iterations of tiny pigtailed girl in tinier bikini. Big Fucking Gun. Blue fire.

“Whaaaaaat the fuck is this,” he nearly wheezes, trying to parse this carefully-honed, sex-appeal-schoolgirl creature with the main tank in the booth at Denny’s last night.

…Thinks more intently about this for an additional five seconds.

His phone vibrates, just when he thinks he’s finally alone with his bewildering dilemmas:

[[ From one of my sources. ]] followed by an instagram link.

It’s not Stag’s usual filters, so some Shadow Cultist had evidently taken this artistically crooked snapshot of black-bikini-clad ReaperMan pointing a dangerous finger at a hotel receptionist, shapely legs parting her trench coat.

Completely unnecessary, Stag adds, [[ She’s been doing yoga with me. =D ]]

Soul sighs very loudly at the pool.

[[ ur the absolute creepiest person i kno ]]

Chapter Text

Parking is a nightmare. He squeezes Wes’s Maserati into a spot that he’s pretty sure isn’t an actual parking space, but hopefully no one will care that much during a con. It would have been easier on the bike, but if the sun is out in Vegas, he wants air conditioning. And also, maybe, having a car would be convenient if certain bikini’d death knights could use a ride somewhere.

Remains sitting in the car for five minutes wondering why he’s even bothering, but he ultimately knows the answer to that question and wishes he could rewrite the code of his excitable heart just a bit faster. 

He climbs out of the car and walks into a mildly outdated hotel lobby, finding Black Rock Reaper refusing to be consoled by some other chick dressed up as the wolf princess from that one Ghibli movie.

…He thinks, on second glance, that the princess is Halbird, one of the non-raiding hunters in the guild that had been at Denny’s last night. Further observation reveals Memenesia and Commontary as the princess’s white wolves, monk and paladin, respectively. Their blood-stained, white-furred costumes somehow make the Black Rock Shooter getup look tame.

Reaper makes a noise that sounds like it’s ripped from a Jurassic Park sound reel.

Halbird knots her fingers together in worry. “We have a panel to go to, but let me know if you need a ride home, okay?”

Now or never. Soul sidles up to the group of girls, dodging a pile of luggage and feeling out of place in his streetclothes. “Hey.”

Reaper whirls on him, her trenchcoat flapping open like a Hollywood slow-motion sequence, all previous thoughts of ‘tame’ rocketing out the window. Her eyes are almost as fiery as those google images, green subbed in for blue. “No one is talking to y– Eater?” Her countenance seems to shrink before his eyes, her arms crossing protectively over her bikini-clad chest. “Wh– hi? What are you doing here?”

“Uhhhh,” he says as Commontary quietly tugs on Meme and Halbird’s arms, exiting stage Anywhere But Reaper’s Aggro Radius. Then, to Soul’s increasing distress, the platinum-blonde paladin gives him a smile that leaves him feeling painfully transparent – this must be the ShadowStag’s cultist source from earlier.

He only has himself to blame for this. He’d known he’d be stepping into the fucking Twilight Zone the moment he texted Stag this morning. He waves Commontary off and hopes his pits aren’t sweating like a friggin’ hurricane.

“You buttdialed me,” he finally says, turning to Reaper. “Sounded like dumb stuff was happening and Stag said you’d be here. Thought I’d see what’s up.”

After a few seconds of long false lashes blinking in confusion, ReaperMan looks down at her chest, and so he, unfortunately, does that too. She slowly pulls her phone out of some kind of holster attached to the side of her bikini, hidden under her trench coat.

She frowns, a crinkle forming between her eyebrows. “Iiiii’ve called a lot of people. Apparently.”

He doesn’t bother covering up his laugh. “Boob-dialed. An honor, indeed.” Reaper gives him a barbed look that makes him quickly looks away and wish he could feign death. “You were yelling about the rooms?” he offers, and once she’s reminded of why she’s here in the first place, she’s thankfully sidetracked by her earth-melting outrage.

“My room’s gone! I was supposed to share with someone else, but their psychotic mother cancelled the reservation behind my back.”  She tilts her head back and actually hisses at the ceiling. “The resort didn’t even notify me.”

“Well… that’s shitty. Guessing everything’s full?”

Reaper scoffs. “Yeah. Along with every other place near the con. It could be worse – I only live like an hour from here but I rode here with Tsugumi– er, Halbird and them. Their room already has six, but they said I could sleep in their bathtub…” She scratches the side of her face very carefully, unwilling to smudge her makeup as she seriously contemplates sleeping in a bathroom for the weekend.

“Man,” and he’d known that this was his hopeless heart’s plan all along, but he didn’t think he’d actually execute it, “My mom’s place is ten minutes from here. You can crash there, uh, if you wanted.”

Her face, despite being framed in moody anime eyeliner, lights up like a supernova. “Really?!” Soul’s dimly aware of the collective sigh of relief of everyone else crammed in the lobby in wake of Reaper’s improved mood. “A-are you sure? I have a lot of stuff… You’re not doing anything? Like I can get a cab or–”

Soul’s trying to reconcile this scarily attractive, polite creature to the main tank who calls him a lazy bitchstick at least once a raid, and is failing with flying colors. “I’m free. Not doin’ anything important.”

Reaper tackles him with a shrill caw of victory, and his immediate world is filled with tiny bikinigirl-induced asphyxiation, six foot long styrofoam megagun smacking him in the head.

\\

She’s buckling her desktop into the backseat, trying not to get her wig tangled in the seatbelt.

“Are you kidding me right now?” he asks, trying to fit all her cosplay luggage into the trashed trunk Wes’s car – it’s already crammed with likely thousands of dollars’ worth of photoshoot freebies and designer shoes. “You even brought your machine.”

“I’m the MT, Eater,” she says, tossing black bangs out of her eyes. “Death’d blow up the guild bank if I missed a night. …Um, is this your car?”

With a drawl, he says, “What, didn’t expect me to drive a Maserati?”

No hesitation whatsoever. “Nope.”

Soul frowns. “What kinda car were you expecting?”

“…Public transportation?”

He doesn’t dignify that with a response; merely shuts the trunk with narrowed eyes.

“Look, you autofollow me through dungeons ninety percent of the time because you’re too lazy to steer yourself. I’m just saying.”

Well. He’ll give her that one. “It’s my brother’s car. Also, Death wouldn’t blow up the bank if you missed a raid– we have other tanks, you know.”

Reaper backs out of the car and stands, leveling him with a haughty stare over the car’s roof that’s dreadful to his blood pressure. “But are they as good as I am?”

He wishes the solar flares in his veins would stop trying to answer that question. “Okay BlackStar, your ego needs a time out. When do you want me to pick you up?”

“O-oh,” she stutters, no longer the snarky death knight and suddenly the girl he doesn’t quite know. “Um. Is there a good time, for you?”

He rolls a shoulder. “I’m not doing anything today. Well. Maybe grocery shopping, but let’s not get carried away. I’ll probably just go to Taco Bell.”

She gives him a laugh for that before fidgeting a bit. “Are you su–”

“Just text me,” he says. “I’ll show up.”

A slow smile picks up the side of her mouth, and some part of his brain is dutifully writing this image in the permanent archives. “Okay.”

\\

Back in the car again, hand hovering over the ignition button. The heat is climbing, Nevada sun slowly baking him alive.

He hadn’t needed to enter the con, so his Shadow Cultist voodoo pass had been for nothing.

He hates crowds, doesn’t know anything about anime, and is running on less than six hours of sleep. There’s a pool at the house. There’s over-processed Taco Bell nachos calling him. There’s nothing for him here.

Hand still hovering over the ignition button. “This isn’t your scene, Eater,” he says to the car.

Her mouth, slinking to the side.

Soul curses.

\\

First impression of con: Stank.

It’s like there’s a world shortage of deodorant. He supposes wearing multiple layers of anime-inspired costume in Vegas could only be a recipe for disaster, but damn. People walking by occasionally stir up a serious, sweet onion jockstrap breeze, and Soul is a few whiffs away from some highschool war flashbacks that center around Blake Strickland’s harrowingly belated rise into personal hygiene.

After a nearly eternal wait in line for his pass, in which he’d almost talked himself into ditching half a dozen times, he’s managed to merge into some human fast-travel lane without getting run over, wondering where it’s going to take him and if the dude in front of him knows his asscrack is showing.

No sign of Reaper, though he does find a drool-inducing ocean of computers set up with varying multiplayer games. Ends up sidetracked by a Starcraft II competition for a few minutes. Then, hooked by the nose, finds himself in front of an overpriced nacho cart like it’s destiny. Inhales this while keeping an eye out for over-sized megaguns.

Passes by a Nintendo merch table when someone shoves a Wii U controller into his hands and now he’s somehow in an SSB competition getting his ass kicked by a pokemon.

“…Eater?”

Uh oh. Quick glance to the left: skin and green eyes. Soul refocuses on the screen. “Hey, uh, shit–” He loses, his character flying off the screen.

As if being destroyed by a pokemon wasn’t bad enough, the winner turns to him and says, “Nice game, Kaworu.” Soul realizes belatedly that it’s Asscrack from earlier, and he’s holding out a hand for a clap and a fistbump.

“A-ah, yeah. Thanks,” he says awkwardly, returning the gesture as the tiniest snerk is heard behind him. Soul turns around with his lips pulled into a thin line, stalking over to a widely-grinning Reaper.

“Will you please tell me who the fuck Ka-wo-ru is,” he grumbles.

She hands him her gun and pulls out her phone. While she’s typing and struggling with her giggles, Soul is tempted to heft up the gun and smack people with it. “What are you even doing here?” she asks. “What happened to Taco Bell?”

“I don’t know,” he sighs, which is more or less true. “Shadow Clan?”

“Ah, yeah. That sounds right,” she replies, holding up the phone with some vintage anime art enlarged on the screen. “Meet your twin.”

Kaworu is apparently some stick-legged, effeminate, white-haired anime boy. Red eyes. Soul blinks at the kid’s outfit and, in sweat-inducing panic, looks down at his own clothes: white fitted button down, dark pair of Wes’s designer jeans, white converse high-tops.

“Son of a fuck.”

Reaper puts a hand over her eyes, bowing over with laughter.

His face is heating up. “Shut up. I do not smile that creepily.”

“You could, with practice.”

Soul’s jaw drops open, pushing her phone away. “Hoooh no, I am NOT gonna start roleplaying some scrawny 90’s-era potentially gay–”

“Canonically,” Reaper interrupts, still snickering as she takes her gun back from him. “Canonically gay.”

“Motherf–”

“All you need is a plugsuit and you’d be famous.”

Soul splutters. “I don’t wanna be famous– what the hell is a plugsuit?” he asks, horrified, which only makes her laugh harder.

\\

He has determined that cons, on top of causing strife to one’s sense of smell, are painfully awkward in about seven ways at any given time, loud, and are flamboyantly outrageous – yet the event also, in some strange fashion, comes across as down to earth, which is pretty cool.

It’s his turn to spam instagram with the some of the coolest costumes he’s ever seen, and he may or may not have some killer shots of Reaper doing action poses for passersby. An absurd amount of cash has been dropped on things he doesn’t need whatsoever, various gaming merchandise weighing down his arms and cutting off blood circulation.

Not to say he hasn’t enjoyed himself, but he’s relieved when Reaper says she’s ready to go– they have a raid tonight, after all – because he’s mentally exhausted being around so many people for hours on end. He wouldn’t mind spending the next few days floating in a sensory deprivation tank filled with hand sanitizer.

He’s too tired to even put forth any real effort into freaking out about bringing The Cute MT to the house, so it’s not until she’s carrying her computer in her arms and he’s holding open the front door for her that he suddenly remembers the freak show inside.

Soul frantically pulls the door shut before she can cross the threshold. “UH. Shit.”

ReaperMan is tired too, her eyeliner smudged and accentuating the bags under her eyes, but she is determined to raid come hell or high water. “What, are there naked people having sex in there?”

“No… that would be easier to explain. Um. How do you feel about clowns,” he asks, face pinched with the knowledge that the next minute of his life can only end in mortification.

Black Rock Reaper gives him a wary side-eye, hitching her PC a little higher in her arms to adjust the weight. “How do I feel about them?”

“Like, do you have phobic reactions to red noses or things of a circus-pantsed nature?”

“I don’t think so?” she says, looking as if she wants to laugh but hasn’t decided if it’s a good idea or not.

He nods. “That’s good. Maybe we should stay here so you can enjoy the last few moments of a normal life while you still can.”

“Just open the door, Eater.”

He gazes skyward, towards a heaven that is showing him no mercy right now, and pushes open the door for the second time. ReaperMan walks in, all business, her boots clack-clacking against the hardwood floor. Soul, rooted, waits in silence on the porch.

The boots stop. Her voice echoes from the parlor, a little breathless. “Clowns,” she says, the word having a new, radical meaning in her lexicon.

\\

“The good news,” he says while madly trying to de-clown one of the guest bedrooms, “is that you can’t walk ten feet in this place without running into a TV.”

Reaper sits on a circus-themed floor rug, plugging cables into the back of her computer. “It’s not that bad. I might be becoming a little blind to all the stripes already.” Soul focuses on removing the family collection in an effort to not stare at a scantily-clad girl hooking up her rig to the guest room television. “So, do you live with your mom? Here?” she asks.

Focus. Focus on the clowns. “Nah, I live with my brother. LA. He’s the one who was supposed to house-sit this weekend, but dumped it on me to hang out with his boyfriend.” Soul shoves sadfaces into a closet with a foot, struggling to shut the door. “He’s in this long-distance thing with some dilf – try HDMI-4,” he advises.

She changes the input channel on the TV and does a weary fist-pump when her desktop appears on the screen. Her wallpaper is a photo of a younger Reaper and someone who might be a sister or mother standing on a beach, a shuttle launchpad in the distance. It’s kind of adorable.

Reaper doesn’t even try to hide the fact that she’s googling ‘dilf’. After adjusting her knowledge, she glances over her shoulder in curiosity. “How old is your brother?”

“Twenty-eight going on twelve.” He huffs at the closet and then throws his weight at it, finally getting the door to shut. Walks over to the guest bed and wearily collapses. “When his last girl broke up with him, he moped for three months straight.”

Pulling off her wig, Reaper makes a sleepy, disgruntled face. “Heartbreak is kind of a big deal, Eater.”

He waves a hand. “Yeah, I get it, but they were together four days and she dumped him because she didn’t want to play with his ass.”

There’s a long beat of silence before Reaper curls up on herself, her laugh/cry hybrid muffled against the floor rug. “Some things just aren’t fated,” she says sagely between giggles.

“Some things just aren’t possible. His expectations are hopeless.”

Reaper rolls to her back on the floor and rubs under an eye, frowning when her finger comes back coated in heavy makeup. She asks, “What expectations aren’t, anymore?”

“Shit,” he blurts, sitting up. “For example: all I’m hoping for is someone chill and who doesn’t get upset about not being done in the butt four days into a relationship,” he pauses here, because Reaper’s laughing too hard for him to continue, “which I think is perfectly reasonable. That, and I don’t like weird mind games. Just someone straightforward. Cool and honest.”

“Someone you can trust,” she says simply, a mourning dove lilt in her voice that catches him off guard.

He tries to get a read on her face, but she’s looking at her desktop, one hand lazily stretched across the floor to push her mouse towards the World of Warcraft icon.

“Um. Yeah. I guess so.” Remembering her last night, in the Denny’s booth, asking ‘should I not trust you?’  Heart-rate picking up now with a vengeance. “…What about you?” he asks, hoping that hadn’t sounded too interested.

She shrugs against the floor. “Basic spec. Loyal. Honest. Intelligent.”

Well, there goes that.

“Kind, or at least not a big bag of dicks.”

This is looking bleaker by the second.

“Likes poetry and dubstep and can deal with me raiding four nights a week.”

He scoffs, propping an elbow on his knee and resting his chin in his hand. “Good luck with that. Go adopt a few cats. Get started early.”

ReaperMan’s head rolls towards him and she gives him a thousand-yard stare. Very seriously, she utters, “I already have one.”

Soul cracks up.

\\

She hadn’t brought a mic, so he plants his system and a spare monitor on the floor with her so they can share his for the raid, though she admits that she probably won’t say anything loud enough for it to register.

Watching her tank (on a giant television, at that), is nothing short of amazing. He can’t comprehend how her keyboard hasn’t been smashed to splinters with the force she uses to type and spam abilities.

Death gets on his ass about his shitty damage per second tonight (he’s distracted – she’s a skilled player and she still hasn’t put on pants), so Soul grumbles into the mic, “Careful what you wish for.” Then, because he’s immature and playing a video game, he ignores the threat meter, recklessly nuking the boss with a couple of fluke crits and grinning like a fool.

Continues in this manner until Reaper, fake-lashes fluttering as she watches the threat meter, screeches, “BACK OFF DIPSHIT OR YOU’RE GONNA GET FUCKING STOMPED ON,” which, one: is so startling he screams, and two: hearing it originate from her actual mouth is hilarious enough that he rolls away on the floor, nearly in tears while his character gets tail-swiped into lava.

She laughs at his expense, cackling in earnest, and his mic catches that too. Voice chat then erupts, the rest of the guild suddenly realizing SoulEater and ReaperMan are in the same room together.

The raid wipes in quick order, Death predictably losing his shit.

\\

Morning of day two of the con, his brain bleeding to wakefulness against the insistence of his still-exhausted body because he hears her struggling with clowns in one of the bathrooms. Rolls off the parlor couch with a bad case of post-raid aftertaste in his mouth. Relying heavily on the railing to plod up the stairs.

The bathroom door is open, so he peeks his head around the corner. She’s fresh out of the shower: short-shorts, black tee with ‘For the Horde’ across the shoulders, wet hair twisted up in three-foot-high towel turban.

“Why the fuck are you awake,” he rasps.  

His voice startles her, Reaper flailing so violently that a clown is knocked off the sink to cartwheel through the air directly into the toilet.

She makes a noise like a dying chew-toy. “He fell in,” she squeaks, hands flying to her mouth.  

Soul tries to tell her it’s not the first time that’s happened, but it comes out as,“Coffee.”

\\

“There’s a panel I want to go to this morning,” she explains at the kitchen table, using the front facing camera on her phone to help aim where to glue her elf ears.

Soul slurps his macchiato, fresh out of his mom’s candy-apple espresso machine. He needs to get one of these for Wes’s apartment. He numbly gestures towards his own ears. “Dare I ask?”

“Zelda,” she answers, mouth stuck open on the ‘-da’ as she concentrates.

Oh. At least he knows this one. “Where’s Link?”

Reaper looks up at him, one hand holding her ear together while the glue dries. “About that.”

Soul very slowly sets coffee mug on the table and says, “Why do I have a horrible feeling I know what you’re gonna say?”

“That’s a good sign, actually! I bet we’d be great in PvP arenas.”

“Don’t change the subject.”

She gives him a meek little smile that is nothing short of captivating, and he’s terrified of its power if it’s this good with only a few hours of sleep backing it. “My friend who couldn’t come was going to borrow my Link cosplay today, so I have it with me, and I think it might even fit y-”

“NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO.”

\\

His knee hurts from resting on the concrete floor. “I am very, very displeased with you right now,” he growls, camera flashes going off.

Zelda smiles a regal smile, knighting him with a foam Master Sword. “Well, I’m a little put-off that you can fit into the pants. I mean everything was baggy on me, but that means you look better in them.”

The pants, actually, are about a foot too short in the legs, but luckily there’d been a pair of adequate riding boots in his brother’s car that were enough to hide the hem.

“How come I don’t get the sword?”

“You get an ocarina!”

“I do?” He stands, adjusting the shield strapped to his back for the millionth time. “Where is it?” Because if he’s forced to look like an elf, he wants a toy to play with, damn it.

Princess Reaper clucks her tongue, digging into the leather bag tied on his waist. Goosebumps fly under his shirtsleeves. She produces the instrument, in canonical blue, slapping it into his hand. “Now summon me a pony.”

“Uh.” He glances to the various photographers and rubbernecked bystanders. Reaper’s costumes are really legit, seems like – she can’t make it fifteen feet before someone asks for a photo. “How’s it go again?”

Her face falls, one hand coming up to fiddle with one of the long bits of hair tied to the sides of her face. “I’m pretty tone deaf, so… Hey!” she says, turning to the cameras, completely fearless in the face of strangers. “Somebody whistle Epona’s song!”

The room breaks out in a cacophony of whistles, but after a few moments it magically solidifies into a synchronized performance, which is both fucking weird but also really neat and somewhat of an encouraging mark for humanity. Yeah. Okay. This is pretty cool.

And, completely against everything he’s ever felt about putting on a show in front of a crowd of peers, he finds the simple notes and plays it back to them, an out-of-place nerd trying to speak to the mothership.

The con-goers bursts into cheers and whistles, and Zelda gracefully claps her evening-gloved hands, her face plastered with a big, dorky grin that makes him spit-laugh all over the ocarina with a rotten shriek of music.

\\

He’s editing a frame-worthy insta of Zelda shoving a clusterfuck blob of cheese dip and jalapenos into her royal face, when he’s startled by some kind of blue-armored ninja wearing a white mask. Somewhere behind him, Reaper is shelling out cash for a carefully-wrapped fan comic, which leaves Soul to handle this sudden stranger alone.

“Uh. Hi?”

The cosplayer says nothing, merely hands out a flyer, pointing first at Soul and then at Reaper.

Soul reluctantly takes the flyer with a bemused frown. “Thanks…”

Turning the paper around in his hand, he recognizes the giant royal wingcrest from the Zelda games emblazoned across the top. It’s an announcement for a party of LoZ nerds or something.

“Was that Sheik?” Reaper asks, walking over to him while tucking her doujin reverently into a backpack.

Oh, Sheik. He should have recognized that one. Soul looks up, but finds the cosplayer has already disappeared. He blinks, wondering if he’s hallucinating from all the nacho cheese and lack of sleep. “Did that just happen?”

Reaper takes the flyer out of his hand. “Oh, we are so going to this.”

\\

‘We’ being the both of them, despite his protests, and ‘this’ being an outdoor impromptu gathering consisting of mostly green-garbed elves all carrying Master Swords. Soul had it in his head that he would simply be a spectator on the sidelines, auto-following the tank around, but is reminded he is also dressed up as a green-garbed elf.

Reaper’s voice has gone bright and extra cheery with this many people around, chatting about sewing patterns, armor shaping, and other cons she’s been to. She appears to be somewhat known for her detailed costumes. He’s happy that she’s enjoying herself, but he also kind of wants to disappear – the energy here is fast-paced and dizzying, and Soul’s struggling to keep out of the by-proxy limelight because he’s hovering near her for social protection.

The gathering is centered around one of the resort’s decorative gardens, a dedicated photographer organizing group shots around a large water fountain. People are squealing at each other constantly. People are squealing at him, asking him if he’s some alternate ‘Dark Link’ because of his hair.

“No, he just refused to put on the wig,” Reaper cuts in, bless her, even though this is a thousand percent her fault. “I kinda bullied him into being my Link today.”

Hers. Soul sighs, defeated.

Someone says, “Oh, you two came together? Go stand by the fountain,” and now he and Zelda are having a photoshoot, apparently. The other cosplayers at the gathering are getting into it, too, helping the photographer with light reflectors and arranging the princess’s gown just so.

Well, he’s used to photoshoots, more or less, by virtue of being Wes’s brother. Had a miniscule stint as a teen model, too, though he abandoned that ship the moment he could.

The majority of the poses the photographer is giving them he’s already mastered throughout the day inside the con – kneeling at Zelda’s feet, miming a kiss to her hand, accepting the sword from her, blah blah blah. This isn’t so bad. He can survive this much if he doesn’t have to talk to people he doesn’t know.

Zelda turns a little pink when someone suggests the two of them look like they’re about to kiss. Face blank in an attempt to act his age and not revert to a teen model who gets jittery at the thought of kissing a cute girl, he watches her as she steps closer, cautiously taking his gloved hand and very purposefully slipping it, snug, on the curve of her waist.

Okay then. This is apparently how they’re rolling, now. She’s warm through her dress and his gloves, and her eyelashes do this downcast, sultry thing that makes the sun feel twelve times hotter than it had a minute ago. The photographer waves for him to move in closer, so Soul tilts his head down just the tiniest bit. The LoZ nerds start up the squealing again.

“I’m not really sure what’s going on,” he murmurs between shots, praying that his costume is washable because he is sweating buckets under it.

“They really wanna take our pictures together for some reason,” Reaper replies, tilting her body towards him. “I-I don’t mind so much, but if you wanna stop…”

His chest is thud-thudding as he clings desperately to the group’s growing excitement. “It’s fine.” This is more than fine – this is a miracle in his hands. “I’m cool if you’re cool.”

“Yeah.” Zelda’s fingers hook into the leather strap that’s keeping his shield on, tugging him even closer with just enough force to light his blood on fire. “May as well make it look good.”

Their poses become more risque by tiny increments, his hand inching down to the small of her back for one shot, holding still as she grazes his jaw with her nose for another, and as long as he doesn’t think about how these few insane minutes will torture his memory for the rest of his life, he could say this is kind of fun.

Sitting on the fountain’s edge now, creamy-necked Zelda in his lap with her gown being micro-managed to fanatical perfection. Soul, attempting to call on all the ‘guarded, but painfully hormonal’ fuck-faces his brother makes in pretty much every magazine advertisement, presses his lips to Zelda’s temple as she’s looking at the camera. The crowd eats it up, and he’s so close to nervously laughing he almost ruins it.

Someone finally shouts it: “Make out, for Hyrule’s sake!”

This, despite coming in at number one of the top nerdiest things he’s ever heard in his life, causes him to lean forward, tugged along by weird second-hand fandom momentum, to meet her halfway for some staged fake kiss.

“Oh, no, we’re not actually–” she stammers, tense and anxious in his lap. He is audience to the eerie, almost imperceptible shift as Reaper resurfaces out of the Zelda mask, wide-eyed, a bright blush inking down her neck. Predictably, photos of this face are also taken, but he vaguely feels, by way of churning gut-twist, that they shouldn’t have been.

Very abruptly, he remembers what she’d said two nights ago at Denny’s, admitting her general distrust of guys. Remembers how he’d plowed right over that statement without a second thought as she turns that cornered look on him, panic flashing in the forest of her eyes.

Soul becomes achingly aware of himself and this budding crush of his – the one he’d decided that he wasn’t going to have.

(He’s the one being neither cool nor honest, entertaining any excuse to be near her, to pretend he’s near her at all.)

(This, therefore, probably qualifying him as a big bag of dicks.)

He gives her a close-lipped smile, and a bunch of camera flashes go off for that one, too. The moment feels more like paparazzi than studio, now, and he reflexively arms himself with his tried and true, generic expression of apathy. Leans away as casually as he can, but it’s already clear to everyone in a twenty mile radius that he’d been right there, ready to kiss her glossy princess lips.

This isn’t his scene at all, and his tenuous grasp on his brother’s skill for this situation has been thoroughly lost.

But then Reaper says, voice pitched high and tight, “Just one, understand?” The noise of the gathering, which now includes stray con-goers who’d been passing by, grows by an order of magnitude, the photographer scurrying around for the ideal shot.

Reaper shifts in his lap; the crowd instantly disappears from his awareness.

“…What,” he tries to say, his arm automatically coming around her waist to keep her from falling.

She’s fussing with his hat, tucking his erratic hair into place. “Sorry about this,” she murmurs only loud enough for him to hear, the world bursting into camera flashes. “You lead, okay?”

Lead? He can’t lead, he’s only ever followed her around. But his stupid mouth parrots back, “Okay,” automatic.

Twisting to face him, she places her hands on his shoulders, slowly bringing them up to his jaw to cup his face. Leaning down. Pressing in.

She could fake it – mime a kiss like a high school play behind her shielding hands – but even before she does it, he already knows she won’t. She doesn’t half-ass anything, and he’s entangled with her, so it’s impossible for him to do anything less.

The arm he’s using to support her back brings her closer, fingers playing in the laces of her dress. She sighs raggedly between his teeth, and then he’s taking one of her hands from his face, holding it away as his lips work against hers, leading, teasing, tasting.

Her lip gloss is sticky. She doesn’t do much, stoically accepting his mouth as is fit a royal princess, but there’s a blood-burning bit of curiosity in her tongue when he presses his own against it and feels her test his mouth. Her fingers fall down his jaw, crawling to his neck to fist in his collar, and he lets out the smallest accidental noise, praying the crowd is too loud for her to hear it.

He risks a small bite on her bottom lip, gently feeling up her leg just enough to ruffle her gown, and Zelda pulls away slowly, in character, with bright, bright eyes. He can feel her breathing heavily in his arms; the blush reaching to her ears dead-ends at the pointy elf extensions.

The crowd morphs into a lot of sloppy cat-calls and wolf-whistles. Soul nervously offers her a shaken-up smile, and it’s very much Reaper who gradually, girlishly returns it, shoulders hitching with a giggle as she takes a gloved hand and wipes lip gloss off the edge of his lips.

That picture is taken, too.

Her mouth is a little swollen, and it hits him then, with the force of a landslide, that he is in deep, deep shit.

Chapter Text

A week later, his brother happens.

“Nice makeout photos, dorkwich.”

This is the absolute worst thing to hear when he’s in the zone, dancing the fine line between maximum damage per second and aggroing a gigantic raid boss off ReaperMan.

Half a foot away from the microphone, Wes loudly slurps the airy remainders of his doubleshot on ice. Soul quietly panics. Just as phase two of the boss fight begins, Death barks, “Eater, stop drinking like a slob.”

“Sorry, Mom,” he quips back half-heartedly before covering his mic with his free hand and awkwardly navigating his character to his assigned spot with only his mouse. To his brother, gritting through clenched teeth, he says, “Asshole. What are you talking about,” as if he doesn’t have every clue. Soul’s eyes are trained to the screen, but it’s not like he needs to look to know Wes is wearing the grin that has plagued him for his entire life.

In one-to-one voice chat, Reaper in his ear like her mouth is touching him: “You okay over there?”

Heat shoots down his spine. Ever since the con, she’s been using a microphone during raids, though she mostly only talks to him on private binds, which is equally the best and worst thing that has ever happened to him. He is now at maximum multitasking – if any more distracting bullshit occurs after this moment in time, he is going to be fucked proper.

Soul lifts his hand off the mic for half a second to shoot back, “M’fine,” before covering it again. Of course she’d notice – she notices any character in her field of vision running around like a moron.

His brother leans on his desk like it’s a photoshoot prop designed to hold his ass. “I dunno who the pretty princess was, but if I were her father, you’d be six feet in the ground before the week was out.”

Soul shrugs one side of his headset off an ear with a shoulder, glaring at his brother. “How the shit did you find a bunch of nerd-con pics taken by Nintendotakus?”

“They’re viral, guy. There are gifsets.”

Left ear, Death, full-on bitch. “Eater, stay out of the fire.”

“FUCKIN’–” Soul blurts, mousing wildly to safety.

“Some of those shots’re positively filthy, little brother. I’m proud,” says Wes, shaking ice into his mouth and crunching loudly in the exact way Mother always hates.

“Just– not now, you stupid crotch.”

ShadowStag this time, smooth and deadly: “I’m not wasting a battle res on you, Eater. Move.”

Soul growls angrily, taking his hand off the mic and returning it to the keyboard in an attempt to avoid the many possible ways of dying during phase two of his life sucking this much. “I’m going, I’m going,” he gripes.

Seizing the opportunity, Wes chirps with, “I hear you have a fanpage on Facebook, now.”

“Uhhhhhg, go the fuck awaaaaay–”

Wes gets personal with the mic, pushing Soul’s head aside with a sturdy hand and completely blocking the computer screen. “They had to photoshop your hair and eyes,” he says, defending himself from Soul’s flailing fists, “but that dumbstruck look on your mug when Zelda plants one on you has the masses pissing themselves in fandom euphoria.”

For the second time in as many weeks, voice chat implodes. Despite this, ReaperMan continues to dutifully tank, spamming a text macro that floods every possible game chat channel with fourteen counts of, “I WILL TURN THIS DRAGON AROUND.”

SoulEater dies in a fire.

“Also, I tweeted some of the juicier ones. You should’ve stayed in the business, kid.” Soul sinks low in his chair as his brother whistles Epona’s song, strutting out of the bedroom.

“I hate every single one of you,” he says into the din of voice chat.

“Even me? I made the fan page,” BlackStar cackles, heedless of the feedback bouncing over his own speakers.

“How the f–” He rubs his face with a hand. “You’re a shizno, Blake.”

“Am I the only one here doing my fucking job?” ReaperMan says, the sounds of her spamming her keys echoing across the internet.

\\

The Kiss really is viral. Another week goes by and his Facebook is a slurry of notifications and friend requests. He’s forced to disable alerts on his phone to be able to concentrate on anything for more than five minutes. He even goes grocery shopping just to get away from the internet.

Arms laden with heavy plastic bags, he walks into the apartment and finds some half-naked redhead making out with Wes in the living room, happy trail like a Colorado forest fire peeking out from an unzipped jumpsuit.

Soul doesn’t have it in himself to scream about it. “‘House renos’,” he says accusingly.

Wes is straddling his boyfriend’s lap on the futon Soul had once enjoyed taking naps on until right this moment. “Hi bro,” he smiles, flush from activity. The swollen-lip-look is a million times better on Reaper, Soul thinks, and he refuses to take that thought back out of sheer contempt. “His kid’s got homework to do, so we’re here for the weekend. Go hang out with your princess, ‘kay?”

Well, that confirms that the boyfriend is, by definition, a dilf. He considers throwing up in the entryway just to make a statement. “First off, she’s not ‘mine’. Second, why must you defile everything I hold dear? At least put a sheet down or something, fuck.”

“You can take the caaaaar,” his brother sing-songs, which is actually code for: Get out or I will leave condoms in your bathroom.

Soul unceremoniously drops all the groceries and goes to his room to pack a ratty, highschool-era messenger bag. Tells himself he’s only complying because he doesn’t actually live here, and not because he’s had to purchase a full body suit to sanitize his bathroom in the past. “YOU GET TO PUT THE FOOD AWAY,” he yells.

\\

He’s in the Taco Bell parking lot, sucking up the air conditioning in Wes’s car, digesting one-too-many crunchwrap supremes. Calls BlackStar while simultaneously glaring at all the birds that dare sing as if today is a great day.

“Begin,” Blake answers, loud road noise already indicating that this will probably be a dead-end.

“Wes is loveshacking the apartment. I need a place for the weekend.”

He sits through the required laughter at his misfortune before Blake says, “Denied. I’m goin’ on a yoga retreat with Stag.”

“W-what? For real?”

“Yeah man, I’m gonna be the hardcore-est yogi of the century.”

The problem with Blake Strickland is that Soul can never tell when he’s being serious or psyching himself up to look like he’s serious when he’s actually just cluelessly diving headfirst into something.

“Are you sure you’re not doing this to see ShadowStag contorting on some beach?”

“It’s important to embrace all aspects of a ‘sitch, dude. Will I surpass the limits of my body and become a god? Yes. Will I also have mindblowing flexy-fucktimes with the best druid in Azeroth–”

“I hate you.”

“-Yes. Also, Sid and Miranda are renovating the townhouse, so my place is unlivable.”

Soul repeatedly thunks the back of his skull on his seat’s headrest. “I feel like I should be compensated for what you did to my Facebook.”

Blake scoffs. “Bitch, you should be thanking me. Or at least thank me for dragging your grumpy dick to the meetup, because looks like you’re gettin’ fuckin’ cozy with the MT.”

He’s torn between cursing ten different ways and desperately insisting that cosplay makeouts don’t count for anything worthwhile, and he just ends up whining, “Noooooooooooo–”

“Namaste, blueballs. Oh. And Tsubaki is making a lot of hand-flapping that indicates you should ‘just call her already’, sparkly heart, butcher knife, butcher knife, butcher knife emoji,” BlackStar recites.

Soul sighs, regretting the various crunchwrap and friendship decisions he’s made in his life. “At first I wondered how she puts up with you, but now I realize it’s a symbiotic relationship,” he says before hanging up.

Tosses phone into passenger seat. Takes conditioned air into his lungs and holds it, staring at the reflected sky glinting off the touch screen. He is not going to think about his brother and Blake being in what appear to be successful long-distance relationships (that, on top of it, are frequently getting ass). He is not.

Lets out his breath with a groan in that pressurized, throat-scratching way of toddlers throwing a fit in a cereal aisle.

Most viable option for the weekend that wouldn’t involve touching questionable hotel bedsheets would be staying with Mom. But if he’s driving out that far and has even the slimmest possibility of avoiding clowns, he should take it, right? Under threat of butcher knife emoji, this is what he tells himself as he picks his phone back up. He’s avoiding clowns.

One and three-fourths of a ring is all it takes for her to pick up. He blinks, her voice rendered differently over the phone than voice chat. “Eater? Hi!”

She actually sounds kind of happy to hear from him, despite all the shit the guild had given them over The Kiss. He’s smiling like a moron at the Maserati emblem on the steering wheel. He blanks. “Uhhh, hey.”

“…What’s up?”

He closes his eyes. He hears her four nights a week. This should not be any different. “Right. So, I saw Wes’s boyfriend half-naked on the couch and I’ve been exiled for the weekend.”

She doesn’t quite muffle her laugh fast enough. “O-oh my. Wow. Did you… see anything?”

“More than I would like. Is there, like–” He sighs. “Could I crash at your place? Or, oh. Do you live with other people? I guess I should’ve fuckin’ asked if–”

“I’m staying at my parents’ for school,” she interrupts. “My mom doesn’t live here anymore though. And Papa’s on another one of his ‘business trips’,” she says with heavy-handed skepticism, “and thank god, because I have so many finals to study for–”

“Aw, fuck,” he blurts, combing a hand through his hair. His head is spinning with all this information, trying to sift through it and determine if that was the all-clear to stay at her place or not. “I don’t wanna bug you or anything.”

Her voice comes back just a bit shaded, like she’s talking to him through his headset, or they’re alone at Denny’s. “Just come over.”

Soul shifts involuntarily in the driver’s seat, the parking lot fading to oblivion. “You sure?”

“Yes.” The simplicity of her delivery makes his mouth dry. “If you don’t mind driving out here, that is. It’s kinda far, isn’t it?”

He almost says ‘it was either you or the clowns’, but he feels that would cheapen something, so he doesn’t.

“Naw, I don’t mind.” And he, the one who does not pursue, wishes he minded at all. “Text me your address?”

\\

She has her hair up in Chun-Li Street Fighter buns, and it’s the first time he’s ever considered the style attractive, his eyes helplessly following the wispy hairs dancing on the back of her neck as she leads him to the living room.

“Your dad’s not gonna like, bust in here and destroy me, right?” Admittedly, Wes had given him something to worry about. He’s too young to be put six feet under by the father of someone he’s not even dating.

She hums thoughtfully, which is not an encouraging sign. “In theory. I told him I was gonna study all weekend. He may be a fuckboy manther, but he does respect my education.”

He laughs, but only because he understands her mortal pain. “Thanks again.”

“Sure! I mean it, though, about the studying. I’ll be really boring. Guest bed’s this way.”

Following her down a hallway, he tries not to be curious and guess which door is hers.  “You’re always boring.”

The buns wobble when she whips her head around to stare at him, horrified.“What?”

“If you’re not talking about dead poets, you’re spouting diminishing return algorithms on fuckin’ crit chance stats or something.”

She looks affronted at first, but an undeniable amusement creeps in at the corners of her face. “Nothing you just said sounded boring whatsoever,” she sniffs, a smile in her voice, leading him into a room.

The guest bedroom is mostly sparse, though one wall is entirely covered in a blown-up, high resolution image of space, courtesy of what could only be the Hubble.

He’s reminded of her desktop wallpaper, but doesn’t pry. “Just tell me your wifi password, nerdlord.”

\\

Facebook is as annoying on his laptop as it is on mobile. He logs into the game instead, though it runs choppily compared to his machine at home, and checks his mail and chats with a few people. Gets a few quests done on one of his low-level alts, which he’s more inspired to do today than he ever has prior, as any reason to get the reality of being in Reaper’s house out of his head is a welcome one.

It’s a quarter to midnight when his body finally forgives him for the Taco Hell abuse, and he wanders out of the guest room to see if Reaper’s still awake and wants some ice cream or something. Finds her in the living room, on the floor, surrounded by an educational mess.

This is the exact same position he’d found her in two hours prior, when he’d been looking for the bathroom. She’s one of those: the type who uses so much brainpower that basic necessities are forgotten, such as food. The concept is completely alien to him– nothing gets between him and food (except, perhaps, string cheese wrappers, but only temporarily).

Soul is about to try to catch her attention without startling her, because she has headphones on and they are blasting some awful high-BPM dubstep, but then, god save him, she starts dancing.

Just a bit–  just a torso-centric movement that makes her shoulders look a faintly mesmerizing, even if she is totally off the beat.

It’s more for his sake than hers when he waves a hand in front of her face to interrupt her. She blinks owlishly, trying to focus on him after being hunched over a textbook. Knocks her headphones off her ears to hang around her neck.

“Oh hey, what’s up?” A yawn. Small, pearly teeth, to which his tongue has already been introduced.

He’s getting sidetracked. “Have you eaten anything since I showed up?”

Reaper lolls her head to one side, looking at clock hanging over the fireplace. “No, I was just gonna wait til… dinner.”

“It’s so not dinnertime anymore.”

“Urrggh, this keeps happening.”

He sticks his hands in his pockets and scowls at her. “I was gonna get some ice cream but I think you should just give me your kitchen instead.”

\\

Reaper’s family’s kitchen is surprisingly sparse, but against all odds, he has procured pre-made waffles slathered in peanut butter, some probably-still-safe grapes, and a giant pitcher of blue Kool-aid that he may or may not have supplemented with some vanilla flavored booze he’d found buried in the freezer.

“I didn’t know we had Kool-aid,” she says, shoving half a dozen grapes into her mouth at once. “Are you magic?”

“Survival skills acquired from living with my airheaded brother. By the way, we’re getting drunk.”

Reaper shoots him a confused look before leaning over and smelling the contents of the pitcher. “But I gotta studyyyy.”

Biting into a waffle, he points an angry finger at her, imitating Black Rock Reaper at an over-booked hotel. “You’ve been studying for the past five hours, and that’s only since I got here. Drink the fuckin’ Kool-aid. I fought cobwebs in the bottom of the cabinet for this.”

She makes one long, obnoxious caw for the better part of a minute while shutting all her textbooks and shoving them to the side. “Fine. Considering your vendetta against spiders, I will drink the spiked blue stuff,” she says, carefully bringing the entire jug of Kool-aid to her lips and drinking directly instead of using the cups he’d brought.

He’s ten-million percent sure he’s never told anyone about his thing about spiders, especially her. “W-what makes you think I have a vendetta?

Reaper gives him the driest side-eye while picking up her waffle. “For the most part, you ignore critters in dungeons, unless they’re spiders. You’re always smacking spiders between trash pulls. I’d say there’s some history.”

She openly laughs at his flabbergasted face.

They end up watching that one Ghibli movie with the wolf princess on his laptop. ReaperMan uses a pen she’d been taking notes with and draws sharp-toothed smiley faces all over his arm, and he lets her, because they’re both tipsy and her hand is warm and her eyes are nice to watch when she’s giggling and not worrying about aggro.

“Maka,” he says, experimental, trying it out on his tongue.

She grunts automatically. Then, a little shocked, she looks up, pen poised. “Oh. Hi? Um, Soul.”

He smiles, and it’s probably pretty goofy looking, knowing him. “Hey.”

Maka beams back at him, blush tinting across her cheeks. And, after scrutinizing him very briefly, she reaches gently for his face with her hand, drawing a mustache on his upper lip.

\\

He visits his mom for lunch while he’s in town, but he spends the majority of the weekend napping around Reaper’s house while she studies, or distracting himself with Warcraft but inevitably thinking about kissing her a lot. 

She continues to dance from time to time, off-tempo to ear-grating electronic madness. He thinks about that a lot too, of her body shifting so subtly, of what that might feel in his lap without costume props and cameras.

He doesn’t fucking need this.

Sunday afternoon, he’s throwing his junk back into Wes’s car when she says, back ramrod straight, “We should do this more often.”

He turns around, shutting the car door behind him, wondering just how hopeful he can get in the span of seconds without hitting the redline and exploding. “Yeah?”

“Well, with less studying, maybe,” she says guiltily. “Sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it– you took me in at the last second, remember?” He shrugs. “Taking it easy is more my thing anyway.”

It’s as he’s saying this that she sidles in close, suddenly giving him a light, non-invasive hug. She won’t look him in the face afterward, but she does smile in his direction. “Raid tonight. Don’t be late.” And she turns and shuffles back into the house, only turning to wave at him briefly in the doorway.

He shoots back, “Yes, tanktress,” before getting in the car. Starts it. Gives one half-wave towards the back window before pulling out of her driveway and down the residential street.

At the first stop sign that is out of view of her house, his body does some weird possessed dance of its own, excitement and agony twisted together.

 

Chapter Text

Sitting in his computer chair in just his boxers, Soul absently rubs his leg while eying the familiar washed-out selfie of Mom for the third time in as many minutes.

Mother’s Day has arrived.

He’d rather do anything else than drive out of state, take her to dinner, and turn around to drive right back-- but Wes is in Argentina this week, and because Dad has no concept of timezones Soul had been subjected to a passive-aggressive text at two in the fucking morning which had simply read, [[ Ahem. ]]

Allows himself to once more test the idea of calling his mother, which immediately returns as a twist of dread deep in the gut. He can’t do it. He does not yet have the endurance.

Soul doesn’t dislike his mother-- they can laugh together and have meaningful conversations-- but sometimes she simply makes him tired. Mom lives her life in a way that’s completely alien to him, and loving her despite rarely understanding her wears him out.

He’ll take her out to dinner. Eventually. For now, he’ll put off the call despite not having anything better to do.

First instinct is to log into the game, but it’s nine in the morning on the weekend, and dealing with the annoying opposing faction ganking him in the middle of crowded daily quests does not sound appealing.

Shifting attention now to the rest of the internet: Twitter is loud about things while intermittently throwing up ads by 1-800-Flowers for the holiday; Facebook continues to intimidate him via the ever-growing slew of red-painted notifications; Shadow Stag is presently posting tier-9 level instas of shrimp boils on the beach like it’s still fucking spring break; Youtube has diligently piled up his subscriptions enough that the ambition to just pick one to watch can’t be summoned. He sinks in his chair.

This feeling is probably listlessness. Too nothing to feel anything. Pretty pathetic.

With all other procrastination outlets having failed to divert him, Soul stares at the blinking marquee in the web address bar for fifteen seconds before thoughtlessly typing in the first three letters of a porn site and letting the helpful and altogether unsurprised browser history do the rest.

Emotionless gaze falling on a sea of predictable titles and even more predictable skin color. Pressing palm to groin like a warm-up exercise to a required workout routine, he selects something that looks homemade (and, therefore, hopefully less horrifically scripted). Performs a lazy chair dance to push his boxers aside while the video starts.

He can already tell this is going to be a downhill battle. No introduction-- just bad lighting and a POV from a guy whose gut is almost blocking the show. Mid-90’s floral print couch, frame rubbing loudly against suburban-textured wall. Partner with faded Mickey Mouse tattoo on shoulder blade: Fantasia wizard version, with the hat and wand.

Soul grimaces. Unexpected childhood icons while trying to get it up is never cool.

Jarring, generic dirty talk overwhelms any otherwise titillating sounds, and he mutes the video while his sensitivities weep for the world. He considers finding a different vid, but feels the risk of future disappointment is not worth the effort; he’s never going to find what he wants, anyhow.

Allows himself to wonder what he does want, as if he doesn’t already know. The answer slips through the cracks between dark curtains he normally keeps pulled shut, mind gradually, grudgingly drifting instead to the impossible universe in which ReaperMan, hands digging into mid-90’s floral, slides around his lap. Reaper looking over her shoulder with sultry lashes. Reaper in makeup? Wigs? Oversized hoodies and Chun Li hair buns? Reaper rapidly switching among all these incongruous variants held together by blazing green eyes, moonshine in his ears.

Now he’s getting somewhere. He presses his lips together, sighing long and languid through the nose.

“You sound bored. Whatcha up to?”

With a hand outstretched to the desk drawer where he keeps the lube, Soul has the realization that his computer is connected to voice chat. He carefully pauses the porn clip, horror manifesting via cold sweat and something close to cardiac arrest.

What he’s doing right now is probably called praying. Praying hard that Reaper (or anyone, for that matter) hadn’t heard anything else loud enough to trigger the microphone. He finds himself suddenly developing a whip-crack hatred for wizard Mickey as he tries to steady his breath.

“Uh. Nothin’. Why?” As if every guilty person in the world hasn’t uttered those exact same words since the dawn of fucking time.

No signs of awkwardness in her voice, thank all fucks. “Friend of mine needs a run through some heroics. Looking for my kamikaze DPS-slash-clutch healer.”

He doesn’t know how he can feel guilty for using her as wank material while simultaneously happy that she considers him hers in any capacity, but he is and his face is steaming. He sucks. “You just want me to suffer another round of heart failure,” he says.

“Gotta keep you on your toes,” she says loftily, audible smile piercing him from miles away, and he thinks he can physically feel the life he used to have prior to crushing on Reaper packing its bags and abandoning him for someone less miserable. He resolutely tucks himself back in his boxers.

Then she says, “Unless I’m interrupting something.”

Soul pauses while adjusting himself. Refuses to panic, refuses to, refu-- “Like what?”

An unsure beat of silence that makes him sweatier. “Well, it’s a holiday-- “

Oh, yeah. The first phrase that comes to his mind following ‘Mother’s Day’  is ‘procrastinating shitbag,’ but he does his best to ignore it. “Right, I should probably leave after lunch. I’m free til then, though.”

“Cool.”

“Who’re we runnin’, anyway?”

\\

Blackheart is a guildless warlock in bottom-shelf, quest-reward gear, but they play well enough that Soul doesn’t feel the need to babysit-- in fact, the ‘lock’s pet is doing enough damage on its own that he feels a little threatened.

Not that he can do anything about it or his very quiet competitive streak. Reaper is determined to grab every single mob simultaneously and he has his hands full trying to keep her alive. He gripes at her in voice chat and Blackheart makes nervous emoticons in-game, but Reaper just laughs and laughs and it sounds maybe just a shade forced but he can’t pinpoint how or why.

While Blackheart is sorting through all the loot drops, Soul privately types, [[ u cool? ]] but he hesitates. Erases it before sending.

\\

He finds his mother at the restaurant, sitting at the bar in a slit skirt number that makes him want to carry black censorship rectangles around just to paste them on her legs.

Soul has a hot mom and it’s tragic. If these early-male-pattern-baldness types offering to order her fancy drinks knew she lived in a house full of terrifying clowns, he’s certain they’d reconsider. Also, she’s married.

She’s giving a winning smile to a man in slacks who has clearly been sitting in them all day, and Soul very purposefully slides between them. “Happy Mother’s Day, Mom,” he says loudly enough for everyone at the bar to hear. “Reserved a table.”

He gets a little snort and a kiss on a cheek before they’re seated in a booth that is thankfully far away from the loud music playing at the bar. After the server gives them their drinks, Soul waves to his mother’s outfit and says, “Surely you didn’t get all fancy just for this.”

Mom wipes stray tortilla chip crumbs off the table. “Do you mean to say I shouldn’t dress up on a day meant for mothers who have raised beautiful children? Because I’d like to think I qualify.”

Soul sinks a little in his side of the booth, wincing when his left knee collides into the beam supporting the table. “Nice try buttering me up, but Wes is the model, not me,” he grumbles while proceeding to throw a rancid glare over his shoulder, staring down the herd of receding hairlines that had offered to buy her drinks for a few gratifying seconds. Turning back around, he adds, “Not to diminish any maternal titles you’ve earned for yourself, but you’re overdressed for a fajita salad, Ma.”

“If I can’t dress nice in public, where can I?” Therese Evans says frankly over her iced tea. “Besides, cheap fake Mexican food is my fave. Don’t pretend like you weren’t excited when I suggested it.”

Even if she’s being evasive, they do serve some killer nachos, here.

“So what do you actually have planned after this,” Soul says on a bored sigh. “I know you’re not wearing Tiffany’s for the mere second son.”

Mom smiles, admiring the rings on her fingers. “You noticed.”

“You raised me to have taste,” he admits, the corner of his lips picking up in a smirk for all of two seconds before falling away. “Don’t dodge the question.”

She gives him one of those life-threatening, Mom-Is-Not-Pleased-With-Your-Smart-Mouth looks that is quick to return Soul to the age of eight when he’d accidentally called Wes a jackass in front of her. Before she can say anything, however, their server arrives to take their orders-- fajita salad with extra guac; loaded nachos with jalapenos on the side-- all the while heaping buckets of flattery on Therese before leaving again.

At Soul’s nonplussed look, she says, “I spent a lot of money on wrinkle cream for the past thirty years, I’m not about to let it go to waste.” She daintily accordion-folds her straw wrapper between circus-striped acrylic nails. “And I was only being evasive because I know how you get about it. Yes, I am going out to see some friends after this.”

He’s going to develop an eye twitch or an ulcer or something. Because by friends, she means sex friends, and by sex friends, she means Soul will forever regret not keeping a barf bag in his back pocket at all hours of the day.

As he tries to stifle his full body shiver, Soul once again tries to grasp the functionality of his parents’ relationship-- if it can even be called that-- and can only come up with the phrase ‘Loveless Clown Marriage’. His father is always traveling for Geographic, Mom is always buying shiny things and shacking up with her Friends, and, stomach churning, he accidentally blurts, “Does Dad even know?”

Therese sets the straw wrapper on the table. It springs forward to make a little paper bridge before falling over and absorbing the puddle of condensation from her iced tea. Somewhat surprised, she says, “Of course he knows, honey. Communication is the key to a long-distance relationship.”

“I-- mmrgh.” Despite what he feels to be a major point being missed, here, the words ‘long’ and ‘distance’ and ‘relationship’ in that very particular order triggers a series of feelings in his body that can be accurately described as ‘debilitating crush on his main tank’. Admittedly, thinking about Reaper is far more preferable over coming to terms with Dad essentially having a clowntown trophy wife or whatever, and so he sighs, “As long as you’re happy, Mom,” while entertaining ideas of texting Reaper to see if she wants to meet up after this.

“Thank you, I am very happy. Also, you know perfectly well you’re just as handsome as my first born.”

“Oh god--”

“And I really enjoy going to dinner with you. People think I’m a cougar.”

Soul groans. “Don’t ever say that again, and never while looking so pleased about it, Christ.”

She laughs heartily, and when the food arrives, he passes the plastic cup of jalapenos to her patient, outstretched hand. She then spoons over her heap of guacamole to slop it over his nachos.

\\

When he’s steadily approaching minute twenty on a bench in front of the restaurant, debating on whether or not to call ReaperMan because he still has a four hour drive home and he doesn’t want to interrupt if she’s visiting her mom for Mother’s Day, he gets an email notification.

Email notification noise: Warcraft’s orc peon accepting orders, responding with, “Work, work.”

Someone’s posted a new thread on the guild forum in applicant recommendations; he keeps tabs on it to check out promising players and vouch for them if he knows them. Also to make sure he isn’t about to lose his raid spot, but that goes without saying.

Loading the thread on his phone, he’s surprised to see the post is for Blackheart, the warlock from this morning, and rec’d by Reaper just minutes ago.

That’s not only interesting, but handy.

[[ i didnt kno lock wanted in ]] he texts, now that he has a reason to as opposed to chatting out of nowhere, and also knowing she can’t be terribly busy if she’s haunting the forum.

The reply comes in short bursts, because she’s still not used to her new phone and has a habit of hitting send while typing so quickly. [[ Ro’s too shy to app. I think if s ]] [[ Some guildies keep an eye out, they’ll realize h ]] [[ How shitty our raiding lock is. ]]

Soul laughs outright. [[ glad im not only 1 thinking that. ill vouch ]]

[[ Nice, thanks!! ]]

[[ np. they play well even w crap gear ]] and then, typing almost as quickly as she does before he can chicken out of it, [[ wat u up 2? ]]

Nervously sweating now, while waiting for Reaper’s next reply.

[[ Bid war with Bstar at the aucti ]] [[ Auction house. He doesn’t even need what I’m buying! Asshat. ]] Then, a belated, [[ Why? ]]

He mumbles, “Chill out,” to himself, but he doesn’t listen. Startling some people that are exiting the restaurant, Soul takes a breath and releases it in an obnoxious dying-animal wheeze while typing, [[ done visiting mom and still in Vegas. got time 2 kill? ]]

“Say no. Say no say no say no say no say--”

[[ Denny’s? ]]

Soul stares at his phone. Does not break line of sight while melting down so far in the bench that his head hits every wooden slat on the back rest.

[[ cool ]]

\\

It’s nearly an hour before she arrives, and though he’s still stuffed with nachos, he’d ordered coffee just to give himself something to do other than bounce his leg under the table. He concedes this was probably a mistake once she walks in; the sky is tinting orange behind her and his pulse is too fast. In ripped jeans and the usual hoodie, she beelines for his booth with windswept hair: national crisis version, not runway model. She doesn’t so much as slide into the other side of the booth than Tokyo Drifts there.

“I’m late,” she says, mouth pinched.

The leg under the table stops. Soul waves a hand. “N-no, don’t-- uh, are you okay?”

Reaper gives him a look he can not even begin to decipher before she digs in her hoodie pocket and procures a magazine that is surprisingly not about gaming or anime. Slaps this on the table and hurriedly flips page after glossy page until she lands on a stinking perfume ad. Violently bends the discarded pages back, the binding squealing in protest.

Soul is already cringing away as she spins the ad around on the table to face him.

“This isn’t you,” she says.

“...No. M’brother.” Wes is making that patented fuck face from Denny’s coffee-stained table while hovering over the shoulder of a woman holding a jeweled perfume bottle. “Who told?”

Reaper shakes her head, uninterested. “Where is he right now?”

Leaning back in his seat, dread drips down Soul’s spine. The leg starts up again. “Wwwhhyyyy??”

“Eater.”

“Fuck, I dunno, Buenos Aires, maybe? He’s on another shoot.” And that’s when ReaperMan, like a felled tree, tilts to one side and crashes into the seat of the booth, hair trailing after her as she disappears under the table-horizon. Soul raises a nervous hand after her but puts it back on the table. “Um?”

Voice muffled under the table, she begins spewing a monotone monologue. “I was walking out the door and Dad was Skyping in the living room with his boyfriend and he was dressed all fancy--”

“No,” he says, mostly to his himself, in an attempt to stop his brain from making logical conclusions.

“--with makeup-people fussing with him and he kinda--”

“No?”

“--looked like you and Dad said he was a model and he’s that one in the magazine doing the duck face.”

Soul desperately looks for escape in the surface of his coffee, but reality is too cruel. “Fucking fuck,” he mutters, “The other day. On my futon.”

Reaper slowly grows back, a mortified mushroom appearing across the table as curiosity forces her to sit upright. “What?” she asks, voice thin.

With a hand over his face, trying to contain previous forest fires and eradicate them from his memory, Soul says, “Your dad flies jets,” no question mark.

After a good twenty seconds of stillness, ReaperMan very calmly flags down the nearest Denny’s employee and asks if they serve anything alcoholic.

“N-no, I’m sorry, we don’t,” the server says, eying Reaper critically before glancing at Soul and not finding his apparent situation any more comforting. Reaper smiles politely and lets them get back to work.

“Yes. He flies jets. I should order an orange juice and pretend there’s vodka in it,” Reaper says, dead-eyed.

He can’t not say it. His desire to share his pain is too much. “Reaper, I’ve seen your dad’s happy trail.”

Whimpering, she crumples and digs her palms into her eyes. “He was the dilf the whole time.”

“We can NOT let the guild find out about this,” Soul wheezes.

Her hands fall away, face scrunched in disgusted extrapolation. “Oh God. There’s no conceivable way they would ever not give us hell about it every waking minute for the rest of our lives.”

“We can faction swap. Change our names, change servers... a nice PvE server with no ganking. Hell, I’d settle for an RP server-- I’ll practice my creepy canonically gay smile and everything.”

Though it’s a bit frazzled, Reaper actually laughs. “Are you saying we should run away together?”

If asked, he’d blame the blush on the situation, and not the borderline-suggestive way she said that. Exasperated, he blurts, “Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying. If Spartoi finds out, I’m following you. I refuse to run with any other tank.”

Reaper tints pink, the color high on cheekbones framing an unguarded smile. Soul’s mouth goes dry and he makes a mental note that flattery gets instant, dangerous results. “Black Star would be heartbroken if you abandoned him.”

He scoffs. “Shit. I see him in real life, that’s more than plenty.”

“Point taken. It’d never work though. They’d always find us,” she sighs, reaching over to steal his coffee. A cursory sip and a moment to analyze his taste preference; an additional moment to decide it’s not offensive before slurping more down. Soul wishes he did not constantly notice things like this and give them thousands of pounds worth of meaning they don’t actually have. “Death’s dad basically owns the game, remember? Ah-- I remembered what started this conversation,” she laments, resting the coffee mug back on the table.

“You’re not allowed to be more disturbed than I am, okay,” Soul shoots back, pointing a thumb at himself. Leaning forward, he maliciously stage-whispers, “Carpet matches the curtains.”

“Why would you say that?” she howls, causing the local diners to jump and glare over the interruption. “W-wait. His or Dad’s?”

Soul blinks. “Uh. Technically both, I guess.”

Reaper glances back down at duckface Wes for less than a second before yanking the neck of her hoodie over her head and violently shoving the magazine to the side. Soul laughs at her misfortune, but it ends with a sickened groan because it’s his misfortune, too.  Besides, that may have given her more info about himself by genetic proxy than she’d wanted to know.

She’s whining inside the hoodie when her phone chimes at her. Her bangs static-cling to her face when she re-emerges to check her text messages. He reaches for the self-distracting coffee to regroup and decide what subject to even try talking about that doesn’t involve their immediate family sucking face on his futon god damn it. Then he watches the horror-creases in Reaper’s eyebrows smooth away to a weird, porcelain apathy.

“Somethin’ important come up?” he asks.

She tries to shake off whatever had just hidden the person of less than a minute ago, but it still lingers in the corners of her eyes-- doll-faced, like every inch of Mom’s house frozen in the same neutral expression. He doesn’t like it.

“Nah, sorry.” She flashes her phone’s screen in his direction briefly, but not long enough for him to make much sense of it. “I signed up for this thing so I get notified when you can see the Space Station go by. It’s pretty cool, but there’s too many lights in the city to see it well.”

“Huh. It’s going over right now? The ISS.”

Reaper shakes her head a little, looking back at her phone. “Soonish. Like right after the sun is down.”

He wouldn’t normally peg her as a space nerd, but he remembers her desktop photo and the guest room in her house with the blown up Hubble image pasted to the wall. Tilting his head to the side, he unthinkingly asks, “So… wanna go see it?”

The green of her eyes is bright and searing. “Go?”

“Yeah, go. There’s no lights once you’re outta the basin-- I drive home that way all the time. Bet you could see anything.”

Mouth picking up in that slow smile he’s already long since memorized, Reaper says, “Y... Yeah! Let’s do it! That sounds really-- oh, we better go soon, or we’re gonna miss it.” She makes a mad grab for Wes’s face and shoves the magazine back into her hoodie pocket. “Shall I drive? Or you?”

Soul waves for the check for their shared coffee and realizes a golden opportunity has just fallen into his hands. He gives her a lopsided grin. “Ahh, that depends-- how do you feel about motorcycles?”

\\

She was made for them, clearly. She leans into the turns without prompt, and when he guns it on the interstate, she laughs-- not that strained thing from this morning, but moonshine meeting the night, the way it ought to be.

When they’re out far enough, she taps his back for him to pull over. “This should be good,” she says, hopping off the bike when he cuts the engine. Her voice hushes, the quiet of the desert taking on the air of a library. Gesturing vaguely northwest, she murmurs, “Should be coming from that way.”

“Dark enough for you?”

“Yeah.” Reaper gives him a sideways glance over her shoulder, watching as he props the motorcycle on the kickstand. “That suits you better than the other car.”

Soul hesitates mid-swing of his leg over the bike. Is that a good thing? Or a bad thing? “Well I should hope so,” he says with a confidence he doesn't actually have. The approaching night is ice on his burning face. “Better than too lazy for anything but public transportation,” he mutters, dismounting and leaning on the bike’s side.

Fluffing up like a bird inside her hoodie, Reaper snerks and simply says, “Yeah,” without further elaboration. Whatever-- he’s somewhere around seventy percent sure that was a compliment of sorts, especially given how she seemed to enjoy herself on the ride here. He gestures next to him and she shuffles over to carefully prop herself, too, but then her phone rings.

Reaper’s caller’s ringtone: the ending to Rocket Man, Elton John repeatedly singing, “And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time.” Surprising, because he’s only ever associated horrible dubstep with her, not anything classic.

Her phone is blinding when she whips it out of her hoodie pocket, the magazine falling to the dusty ground. “Fff- sorry, I gotta get this,” she says, bending to pick up the magazine while answering the call. Voice brighter than Vegas on the horizon, she says, “Hi!”

The desert is silent enough that Soul can hear the murmur of a voice on the other line, feminine and strangely delayed. Cheerily, Reaper replies, “I’ll be able to, for once! How did the repairs go?”

Soul catches something about broken tools and heavy suits, but he leans away a little, trying not to listen too closely because being an eavesdropper is lame as hell. Focuses instead on the layers in Reaper’s voice as she repeats a track of interested m-hm’s and oh really’s, her eyes on the sky. This goes on for a time until she nudges him with an elbow before pointing skyward.

Moving on a too eerily-perfect trajectory to be a falling star, a shining dot slowly arcs across the Nevada sky. Like a dewdrop on a spider’s web, it slides smoothly through the stars, lit by the sun that has already fallen past the horizon.

Then Reaper says, “Yep, I see you.”

He stares at her for a moment, whips his head to the sky, then back at her. “What?” he hisses, but she’s deaf to him, pressing the phone close to her face.

“Okay. Say hi to the crew for me. Mm-hm. Love you too. Happy Mother’s Day. Ha-ha, okay. Bye.”

The emptiness of the desert when she ends the call is stifling. His brain gives the order to look away from her to see the International Space Station once more before it slips out of view, but he’s still watching her eyes faithfully tracing that trajectory, her hand returning the phone to her pocket on auto pilot.

She says, “They have to share the phone and her time was up.”

He has nothing intelligent to say to this. “You... Your mom’s an astronaut.”

Reaper nods with a quiet, close-lipped smile. It dawns on him that there had been literally no way on Earth he could’ve interrupted her in the middle of meeting her mom on Mother's Day.

“She has another five months up there.” Reaper huddles up inside her hoodie once more. Then, so softly it seems like she’s talking more to the night than him, she says, “I’m glad I got to see it this time.”

Alone with his crush and surrounded for miles by unpopulated, dark wasteland, Soul realizes Maka Albarn is the one who hates long distance the most.

\\

He drops her off at her car in the Denny’s parking lot, which is some ridiculous station wagon filled with what he assumes is meticulously organized cosplay supplies.

Unlocking her car door, Reaper asks, “So how long will you be in town this time?”

“Oh. I wasn’t planning on staying.” He rubs the back of his neck. “Don’t think I can stomach the clowns today.”

“But, if you’re not staying here... Eater, it’s late! Isn’t that a long drive?”

He shrugs. “I’ll have some coffee. No big deal.”

Reaper gives him an incredulous look, but her obvious worry seeps through it. He should probably feel sheepish in some way but he’s too sidetracked by her face and remembering what her lip gloss tastes like.

“I don’t like it,” she grumbles. “Why’d you even text me if you had to--”

“I’ll be fiiiine.”

She growls while slowly sitting in the driver’s seat of her car. “I’d offer you my place, but Papa will be--” She stops mid-sentence to scrunch her face up in a pained grimace. “Urgh-”

“Don’t think about it,” Soul says urgently. “I don’t want to think about it.”

Reaper takes a deep breath before reaching for the magazine in her pocket and flinging it into the void of the station wagon like it’s poisonous. “You’re sure you’ll be okay?”

“Yes, tanktress,” he deadpans.

That doesn’t convince her, either, but he does get an eyeroll out of it. “Well... Hop on voice chat when you get there, okay?” she asks, two parts bossy demand and one part fluttering-eyed shyness. “So I know you didn’t die.”

\\

He feels gross from road grit and coffee breath but there hadn’t been a second when he didn’t think about her request during the whole four hour drive back to the apartment, so he wakes his desktop with a nudge of the mouse and checks voice chat.

Her screen name is sequestered in one of the smaller channels. Joining it, he asks, voice low, “You awake over there?”

She isn’t using push to talk, for once. He hears an intake of breath. “Soul?” she says sleepily-- not ‘Eater’-- and if this is death, at least it will be swift. “You’re home?” A mattress squeaks as she rolls over.

“Fully intact, as promised,” he manages to say.

“M’kay.” She yawns. “Mm. Thanks, by the way. For today.”

Having caught it from her, Soul yawns against his will. “Sure? I didn’t really do anything.”

A little more awake and maybe even with a touch of bashfulness, she replies, “Yeah, you did. Mother’s Day is hard, sometimes? So I’m, um, glad that you were here.”

His heartbeat may have stopped or has simply sped up so fast it has reached the event horizon, but it hurts either way. “...I was glad too. Go back to sleep. I’m alive.”

The bed creaks again. “Nrgh. ‘Kay. Night night.”

He can’t wipe the smile off his face. “Later.”

Soul remains standing at his computer desk, waiting for her to log off and go to bed. Seconds pass, but her name remains.

Leaves voice chat connected as he goes about his business, taking a quick shower and getting ready for bed. Comes back to the room. Still there. He knows, logically, that she probably just had been too lazy to close her laptop, but seeing her quietly present feels like she’s closer than four hours away.

Chapter Text

He leaves voice chat connected all the time-- or maybe she does? Whosever idea it was, neither of them directly acknowledges. It just becomes second-nature to hear her disembodied voice at random hours of the day, like a friendly ghost of the apartment.

She’s not around today, though, which is just as well because Blake has invaded, and if Wes isn’t around to annoy Soul over how ‘the cute warcraft voice’ renders him stupid, Blake will surely take up the mantle given the opportunity.

Soul pauses on a line of code, worrying if being perpetually connected to Reaper via voice chat is somehow unnatural. They’re about as inseparable as his brother and her dad, and mental ulcers about that aside, it’s probably weird, isn’t it? Because they’re just internet friends.

If it’s not weird, it’s certainly an eternal spring of false hopes, but that’s to be expected when one is an uncool bag of dicks.

Sitting on the floor with his laptop, Soul ‘supervises’ Blake, who is presently spreading his sweaty obnoxiousness all over Wes’s workout equipment. Somewhere between programming and sickening self-analyzation, his shoulders have become stiff, so he takes his frustration out on the apartment interloper. “I should be charging you for using our gym,” he complains with a stretch.

Without missing a beat, BlackStar says, “I pay you with my godly proximity,” while using the pull up bar. “My aura buffs your pathetic social stats.”

Soul replies with a mere grunt, which in hindsight is almost as bad as outright concession. “Just don’t leave your fuckin’ socks here.” Because those things should come with a surgeon general’s warning.

And then a timid, “Eater?” trickles to his ears from the other side of the apartment. His nervous system briefly short-circuits, and though he recovers quickly, it’s not enough-- Soul’s skin itches from Blake’s bored stare: the very loudest silence known to man.

“Q-B’s,” the rogue says, finishing his set.

Pausing as he shuts his laptop, Soul cautiously asks, “Cue-what?”

BlackStar looks physically aggrieved to spell it out. He loads up a weight bar. “Quantum Buttbuddies.”

“I hate that I’ve wasted time being alive to hear you speak.” Soul bolts to his feet, ears hot. Then, in overcompensation, he walks away as lazily as possible in lieu of scrambling across the floor to his bedroom like an excited dog on linoleum.

He calmly enters his room. Sits in the squeaky desk chair. Ignores how sweaty his finger is on the push-to-talk key.

He is Soul Evans, and he is cool. Be cool.

“...Hey.”

Nailed it.

“Oh. You’re home, um, ignore that text I just sent.”

From his pocket, Yzma demands he pull the lever, Kronk. The message reads, [[ You busy right now? ]]

He gauges how anxious he should feel when ReaperMan attempts to contact him multiple ways in quick succession. It feels urgent.

Urgency has a tendency to make him jump to the best and worst case scenarios. In this instance, he frets over her possibly asking him out, or maybe telling him someone died. Maybe she’s forcing him to roll Resto and become her personal heal-slave. Maybe Wes caught her house on fire trying to make waffles for his dilfy boyfriend.

There’s no appropriate level of anxiousness in this situation, so it maxes out just to cover all his bases. Soul puts a hand on his jittering leg to still it before answering.

“I’m working on a project, why?” Cooler than Antarctica .

“Project?”

“Yeah, uh. Programming.”

“Oh,” she replies, distracted. “Well, if you’re busy... I can just--” More background noise than usual: papers, cloth, a sense of fidgeting.

A hesitant Reaper makes him nervous. “Hey, make words already.”

There’s a distant dinosaur growl, like she’s leaned back from her mic to call to her pterodactyl ancestors. “It’s not for a while, obviously, but I was wondering if-- I mean, I’m getting my Bachelor’s. Would you wanna go?”

Soul squints until his brain parses his myriad of questions. “Toooo your graduation?” he says, somewhat dumbstruck by her thinking to invite him at all.

“That.” A nervous laugh. “That thing, yes.”

He slouches in his chair, rubbing the back of his neck with an antsy hand. “Geeze, thought somethin’ bad happened,” he tries to bitch, but the smile stealing over his face is trying harder and winning. If Reaper is bashful over something this benign, that means nothing, nothing, stop analyzing everything.

“Bad? No! Why would you think that?”

The smile has succeeded in taking the throne. “Wouldn’t you normally just assign me a time and threaten me to not be late?”

He tilts his head and backlogs whatever that noise just was, imagining her with that rosy flush: Denny’s version. She says, “That’s-- true. And don’t expect otherwise. But if it’s not in-game, I probably shouldn’t, you know, o-order you around.”

Nevermind that he would obey any command she gave because he’s a contemptible wreck, but still, he’s touched.

“So do you wanna go? Or not.”

“Yes, tanktress, I do.” Understatement.

And the semi-breathless way she says, “Yeah?” burns him alive.

Right now, she almost feels within reach. “Just tell me when. I’ll show up,” he says, listening to the faint, confidential laugh she gifts his ears, like there’s no one for miles but them.

Which isn’t the case. Reality, the Original Troll, returns in full force. Strolling into the bedroom like it’s his, Blake reaches for the push-to-talk key and cheerfully says, “IRL gratz, shorty!” Without looking, he tosses his sweat-soaked towel in Soul’s laundry hamper. Soul splutters as his dirty clothes becomes unbearably so.

“B-BlackStar?”

“The very same,” Soul says, dispirited and preparing for what will doubtlessly be a turn of events that inspire him to fling himself off the apartment tower at Mach IV.

“So when do I get my invite?” BlackStar asks while putting a foot to Soul’s office chair and rolling him away from the desk. Soul, plopping his head on the backrest and glaring resigned hatred into the ceiling, drifts away like an abandoned pool toy.

Reaper recovers from her surprise. “When you sprout goddamn wings-- I still haven’t forgotten that auction house shitshow you started.”

“You and I both know that was all in good fun--”

“Get bent,” Reaper interrupts, causing painful feedback over the speakers.

“Aw, come on.” Blake then gives Soul a look and gestures towards the monitor, imploring for his intervention. Soul presents him the middle fingers of his hands. “Alright fine, I’ll do arenas with you if you invite me,” he says.

“You only wanna go ‘cause Stag’s going!”

“Obviously.”

ReaperMan growls under her breath. “...You’ll really do arenas?”

Crossing his arms and nodding as if she can see it, BlackStar solemnly says, “A whole week of godly PvP with the great me, guaranteed.”

“3-v-3’s,” she demands, all business. “You, me, and Death .”

Soul witnesses the first time in known history in which Blake Strickland not only leans two inches away from a microphone, but does so warily. The moment is, unfortunately, too fleeting for Soul to whip out his phone to paste it on Instagram.

“Wha-- that guy?” Blake asks, shrugging a shoulder. “I’d rather roll Alliance just to meet him in arenas and wipe the floor with his clothy ass.”

Reaper is not impressed. “Do you want to be Tsubaki’s plus-one at my graduation or not?”

With a disgusted face, Blake agrees. “Deal. Why threes, though? We’d rock 2v2.”

“Eater’s my twos partner,” she says, matter of fact.

Soul rolls his chair hard enough to collide into the desk before he slaps his hand on the push to talk button. “ WHAT. Since when?”

“Since now.”

That jump off the apartment building is sounding more lucrative than ever. “Maaan, I hate PvP. I’m so squishy--”

“Yeah you are,” Blake says while Soul’s hand is on the button, hauling off his shirt like Soul’s apartment is a fucking locker room while walking down the hall. “I’m using your shower, QB.”

“You don’t live here. If I find pubes on the soap again I’m hacking your insta and posting your middle school photos,” he says, seething. Belatedly realizes he’s still pressing the talk button. “Sorry.”

After a moment, Reaper asks, “Cue-bees?”

No sooner than it’s out of her mouth, Blake’s loud footsteps stomp back down the hall and into the room. To Soul’s horror, he’s lost the pants and is only in underwear that Soul does not want to confirm is a leopard print jockstrap. He smacks Soul’s hand out of the way to talk.

“Quantum Buttbuddies--”

“Pants. Dude. Pan--

“Wh-what does that even mean?”

“You’re the other one, by the way.”

“Excuse me??”

“There’s no excuse for either of you, to be honest,” BlackStar replies, unfazed by Soul shying away from his sweaty underwear like he’s fleeing from Chernobyl. “But like, if I were to privately ask you, ‘hey, what kind of pizza do you like,’ Soul, through the buttbuddy continuum, would immediately ask me ‘wanna hit up CiCi’s,’ which, apart from being fuckin’ creepy, is just sick. Who eats at CiCi’s on purpose?”

Completely disregarding the subject matter, Reaper says, “They have mac and cheese pizza!” while Soul sneers a disdainful, “I would never invite you to CiCi’s.”

BlackStar rolls his eyes. “It was hypothetical. You only take your mom on dates there, I get it.”

“Please catch on fire.”

\\

“We met in Barnes and Noble,” she says as they run Blackheart through an easy 10-man raid. Half the group is on break while Soul attempts to climb on top of places players aren’t supposed to reach. “In the poetry section.”

He winces. “Oh, that’s… great--”

“Stop making that face, poetry is a legitimate artform!”

“I’m not making a face.” He turns his head away from the monitor, as if she can see him through it.

“Don’t say you’re not making a face while you’re obviously making it. Anyway, Ro helps with my cosplay stuff. Armor and weapons-- they’re really great! Well, you saw them, already.” ‘Ro’ being short for ‘Rowan’, who emotes with bashful denial in party chat. “And you stop making that face!” Reaper snarls to Blackheart.

The break ends, and the almighty tanktress wastes no time launching herself face-first into clusters of trash mobs. There are actual healers this time, so Soul can relax long enough to send a private message to Blackheart:

[[ u going to reaper’s graduation? ]]

A nervous, chubby emoticon of vaguely Japanese flavor is the immediate response-- the warlock replies at breakneck, ShadowStag-level speeds. Combat halts anything else for a few minutes, but then Soul gets a, [[ i won’t be able to! ]]  followed by a teary face. [[ i can’t take the time off ]]

[[ that sucks ]]

[[ are you? Maka said she wanted to invite you ]]

Something in the transmission of his brain grinds a gear, because ‘Maka’ is a name he doesn’t allow himself to think. Kind of like having the courtesy to not say ‘fuck’ in front of Mom. Reaper’s IRL name is a raw thing and he’s used it all of one time while mildly intoxicated.

He also doesn’t know why the knowledge of her wanting to invite him to the ceremony does anything to him at all-- she’s already asked him to attend, for fuck’s sake. This isn’t new information.

Shoves nachos in his face as a mental diversion. Starts and deletes four incoherent replies before settling with an anticlimactic, [[ yeah ]]

Feeling conflicted now, seeing as he started his conversation for advice but Ro isn’t allowed to partake in the fun. After the next group of mobs are down, Soul finally gets to the point and asks, [[ so if i were to get her a grad present, would u have any suggestions ]]

He’s bombarded with such a slurry of excitable emoting that Soul suspects Blackheart has an array of macros assigned to every key on the keyboard, and probably an equal amount of Redbull. [[ i don’t know if you would be interested but I HAVE AN IDEA :D ]]

\\

Soul hates every limbic soap opera his brain produces when he’s conscious. To say that he doesn’t involuntarily wonder how ‘ close’ two cosplaying poetry nerds can be would be a lie, but he does his level best to not dwell on it because it’s irrelevant. He’s not looking for a long distance relationship, for starters, and just because he’s crushing on Reaper doesn’t mean any of her real-life relationships are remotely his business.

Plus, Blackheart did have a pretty great idea, once Soul was able to sift through a wall of otaku emoticons to find it. The gift burns inside his wallet, which lives in his pocket at all hours, and he’s so impatient for the graduation ceremony that he’s starting to annoy himself. 

The creepy smile is getting a lot of mileage, lately. He’ll be ready to cosplay that one guy in no time.

“You look pretty happy over some gas station donuts,” Wes says too early in the morning.

Soul wipes his face clean of every emotion except suspicion, looking up from the bag of powdered donuts he’s failing at opening. “You’re conscious.” He looks over his shoulder for the microwave clock. “It’s not even nine.”

Hair limp and a thumb sliding into the waistband of his high-dollar pyjamas, his brother looks almost like a mere mortal, and the very thought makes Soul’s skin itchy. Like avoiding another one of Mom’s phonecalls, Wes shies away from eye contact and says, “You should start lookin’ for your own place.”

Soul’s hands freeze around the bag. Exceedingly more tranquil than he actually feels, he drawls, “Why, did you get fired? Develop a wrinkle?”

“No,” his brother says, scooting out a bar stool from the other side of the counter without sitting in it. His fingers drum on the backrest. “Okay, your options are really: move back to the Clownhouse, get your own place, or… maybe, potentially, sort-of moving in with me and Spirit.”

This feeling isn’t gut-sinking so much as a sensation of the earth rising up to swallow him whole. He nearly drops the donuts. “Wh-- I-- you??” Soul takes a lengthy moment to regroup himself. “Doesn’t he, uh, have a daughter?”

Wes finally eases into the chair and slides the bag from Soul’s motionless hands. “Yeah. I thought she was a lot younger. Turns out she’s graduating college. ” His face twists before rewarding himself with white, powdery hell in donut form.

A distant backlog of thought wants to find this humorous, but another process reminds him that the looks-like-she’s-a-Girl-Scout daughter is the same person whose ass is in his spank bank. Soul’s self-hatred burns him down and melts him to the kitchen floor, out of sight.

“You really like this dilf, don’t you,” he murmurs to the despairing reflection in the dishwasher door.

Wes loudly opens the donut bag again in lieu of answering, which is a Soul Evans Certified tactic. As the author of that instruction manual, Soul sighs.

How the fuck did this happen? How did his playboy of a brother get into a relationship that has lasted not only longer than four days, but has, against all odds, become serious enough to get him to talk to his little brother about it before breakfast on a weekday? This long-distance thing was supposed to be inherently fucked.

Why did it have to be Reaper’s dad??

Soul cringes. That’s irrelevant, and he knows it. He is Wes’s brother before he is anyone’s daughter’s not-even-actual love interest, so he resolves to feel sorry for himself later.

“I’m happy for you,” he says, watching his ‘normal’ life sprout wings and enter the arms of heaven. “...Tentatively.”

He hears Wes scoff. “I guess that’s better than not at all.”

Soul reaches overhead and grasps the edge of the counter, hauling himself back up to give his brother a flat stare. “You are co-signing for my new place.”

“Yeah, okay,” Wes replies, mouth full and tilting the donuts towards him.

Shoving his hand in the bag, Soul adds, “And getting me a new futon.”

“Fiiiine.”

“And you’re not living with me if you get dumped again--”

“Okay Dad.” The bag is taken out of joint custody, Wes hoarding it to himself. “I’m attempting to not mess this up. And moving in with him’s not even a for-sure thing-- we’re waiting to see how things… are. When his kid moves away.”

The back of Soul’s hand is stuck to the front of his face, mid-wipe of sugary cocaine. He blinks three times, compiling. Confirms what he’s just heard before he remembers what he’s doing. “Away?”

“For grad school, yeah. She’s gotta wait to see where she’s accepted, I guess?”

Soul strategically retreats to the sink to wash his hands. Lathers.

He can’t be surprised Reaper’s going to grad school-- it would be absurd if she didn’t -- but she hadn’t mentioned applying or moving. At least, not to him. Mechanically rinses, lather coursing off his fingers. It’s none of his business, just like the rest of her real life.

She’s the tank; he’s the kamikaze-healer. They’re internet friends. The end.

...Except she tells him the things she won’t say in guild chat. She says ‘good morning’ over his speakers, but quietly enough so that she doesn’t wake up his brother. She meets him spur-of-the-moment at Denny’s, even after finding out her dad is the dilf his brother makes kissy faces over Skype for.

She had invited him to a real-life event. But she invited Blake too, so… maybe that doesn’t hold as much meaning as he’d thought. Or rather, not as much as he’d secretly, silently wanted it to mean.

Water continues swirling down the black hole of the drain.

God, he’s a bag of dicks.

“Did she say which schools?” he doesn’t mean to say, but, unfortunately, does.

“Uh. I didn’t ask? Brother,” Wes says warily, leaning over the counter to get a better look at the predictable crisis of Soul’s existence. “Why do you wanna know?”

Soul laments over his head being too big to fit down the garbage disposal. “She’s the princess.” He risks a glance back to Wes, who has returned to model immortality: a picture-perfect expression of refined befuddlement on his face.

“Who is?”

“Spirit’s daughter.”

“...Wait. What princess?”

“Zelda.”

Wes squints. “I’m confused.”

Soul carefully turns off the sink, wishing that doing so would also stem the word-vomit that’s about to spew from him, but knowing it won’t. “Your boyfriend’s daughter is Princess Zelda. From the gifsets. That you spread all over twitter. She’s in my guild and we met and we found out you’re boning her DAD--”

Leaning even further over the counter, Wes says, “She’s the one you’ve been visiting?”

Soul makes a helpless noise in the back of his throat.

“How the fuck--” Eyes going wide in alarm, his brother asks, “Are you guys togethe--”

“No,” Soul says, nearly wheezing. Busies himself with drying his hands on his jeans. “N-no. We-- she’s-- no. We’re just friends.”

The horror abruptly vanishes and that insured smile takes its place. “But you like her.”

“I swear to God, Wes--”

“And she seems to like you plenty, judging by those nerd pics.”

Soul throws his face to the ceiling and groans. “That doesn’t count. She’s not even into me, man.”

His brother, who seems to have already forgotten the important part of the conversation where he’s banging Reaper’s father, wears the most satisfied, post-canary grin as he leans back in his chair. “Of course it counts. Have you even seen the gifsets?”

“I was fucking there , I don’t need to s-- ” Soul levels Wes with a blank stare fit for Mom’s house and all her frozen-faced clowns. “Do the women you kiss for photoshoots count?”

Wes initially tries to brush away that logic, but, after a small pause, his smile turns to something like sympathy when he accurately reads Soul’s face between the lines. He opens his mouth, but shuts it again on a sigh.

“You’re co-signing.”

“...Soul.”

“And getting me a new futon.”

Slinging an arm over the backrest, Wes concedes. “Okay, but have you even asked her?”

“We’re just friends,” he repeats, firm. Soul turns away, leaving the kitchen while saying, “Plus, she’s moving. You know I don’t do long distance.” Though he’s having a hell of a time remembering why.

\\\

“Healadins have no goddamn manners,” Reaper says, her mouse clicking rapidly in the background, competing with the loud hum of her computer fans in the summer heat. “I think BlackStar had the right idea. I should roll Ally so I can gank his stupid, bald ass .”

Underneath his desk and hunting for a free USB port in the back of his machine which he knows, deep down, doesn’t exist, Soul reaches up and around to blindly find his talk button. “In Bullhead’s defense, healing you is stressful as hell.”

“Why do you sound so weird? Also why is Mister I Only Play Tauren, who loyally confessed, ‘Let’s faction swap’ to me, now siding with--” Click click click click click click-- “the most obnoxious paladin in existence?!”

“Just ‘cause I’d roll Worgen for you doesn’t mean I won’t call you out,” he says. “I can’t help if Ox is better at picking internet flowers than you are. I drool in my sleep sometimes; you aren’t the best at everything. Embrace your flaws, Reaper.” She gives him a few colorful epithets for that. “Also I’m lookin’ for a USB port.”

“For his heated dino slippers,” says Wes in a smooth, leather-seat voice that is disgusting when one is related to him. Soul smacks his head under the desk and curses.

“WHY.”

“Hi, Wes.” Then, after a pause, “Uh, isn’t it June? ...In California?”

Soul gets a face full of dusty dress sock as his brother forcibly keeps him under the desk. “He’s a fragile thing. Poor circulation, you know? I need to find him a good family that can provide for his high-maintenance upkeep.”

“That’s a laugh, coming from you,” Soul bites back, trying to whack behind Wes’s knees with a karate-chop hand. His brother backs away, relinquishing voice chat.

“Somehow I’m not entirely surprised,” says Reaper.

Soul scrambles out from under the desk, double-checking to make sure his mic isn’t still triggered. “Stop talking about me like I’m a geriatric dog, crotchrot.”

When he turns around, Wes is holding a USB hub and a sanguine smile. “You never know. Maybe she’ll let you warm your feet on her when you snuggle. I bet she’s a big-spoon.”

Imagining the code to a macro that, were they in the game, would wreck his brother’s face up his own ass, Soul calmly accepts the hub without making a fool out of himself. “Why are you like this? Don’t you have a dilf to fornicate with,” he asks, but then remembers to whom the dilf is related. His organs all attempt to commit ritual suicide. “Hurgh.”

“Just trying to find you a forever-home,” Wes says. “Are you giving me permission to see my boyfriend, Mom?”

Ideally, he’d like to keep his lunch in his stomach. Soul retreats back under the desk to do some peripheral tetris for the USB hub, admitting defeat. “Leave me and my slippers in peace.”

“You’re welcome,” Wes says on his way out. “Don’t pee on the floor~”

Soul grumbles to his computer. It’s not his fault his feet are cold all the time. Probably.

Some time after Wes leaves, when Soul is back in his computer chair and his dino slippers are warming his toes, Reaper sighs over the mic. “I give up on potion farming. I only got online to put off dealing with my ancient printer, anyway.”

“Bullhead run you off?” Creepy smile.

“I’m. Admitting. My flaws,” she says between grit teeth. “ Do you have a baseball bat? I wanna go Office Space on this thing.”

“Why, what’re you tryin’ to do?”

“I was trying to print out labels to these stupid invitations. It gave up the ghost, though. Now I gotta hand-write a million of these.” Then she growls out, “Papa wants me to mail him one even though we live together. What a waste of a stamp!”

There’s a twinge in the vicinity of his chest, but Soul studiously ignores it. “Well, you don’t have to send me one. Already invited me.”

An unexpected silence follows, putting Soul on edge. “...If you don’t want one, that’s fine. I--”

He scrambles over himself to say, “Uh, I only mean you don’t need to, like, go out of your way?” Teeth gnawing on his lip, he adds, “Since you already have a bunch to do. Unless you just really want--”

At the risk of ear-splitting reverb, she interjects with, “I want to.”

“Oh.”

“If that’s cool.”

“Y-yeah, totally.”

“Sending invites to people I actually want to show up isn’t, um, an inconvenience? To me.”

He vehemently wishes he could reprogram whatever it is that makes his face burn so heatedly in what should be benign situations. Stares at his hesitant hand hovering over the talk button.

“Unlike my weirdo dad, who’s just gonna smother me to death like I’m graduating preschool.”

He laughs, but it’s an awkward, limping thing. “Ah-hah. Thanks, then. I’ll wait for it.”

Reaper’s laugh is hardly any better, yet she soldiers on. “Anyway, at least I don’t have to send one out to Mama, I guess.”

“Oh yeah.” That whole astronaut thing. Relieved to turn the subject further away from himself, he says, “That sucks. No spacemail?”

“Eh. I can send stuff once in awhile,” she says. Then, more quietly, “But it’s not like she can come, you know? Waste of a stamp.”

Having met her in person a few times, he’s been able to imagine her at her computer now and again-- smashing the keys, grinning victoriously-- but right this moment he sees someone else. She’s night-lit eyes in the desert, the space between the ground and a distant metallic speck drifting overhead written in her face.

Remembering her then, not as a tank but as someone named Maka, animates him. An idea blooms urgently in his chest, pushing aside his own conflict with surprising ease.

\\

Because of Blake’s megaphone mouth, ReaperMan’s graduation becomes an excuse for another Vegas meet-up for the guild. At face value, Soul doesn’t have any pressing complaints, but what neither he nor Reaper had taken into consideration beforehand was Spirit Albarn’s plus-one.

Traffic had been about as bad in Vegas as L.A., and Soul ends up in the nosebleeds of the convention center, watching an ant-sized Reaper trotting across the stage to accept her diploma. All the while, his phone explodes with messages from scattered guildies, his pants vibrating enough that the people seated around him probably have reason to suspect sex toys at play. The moment Reaper’s bit is done, Soul flees to the nearest set of restrooms to turn off his fucking phone and contemplate diving into a dumpster until the rest of the guild is gone and can’t force him into a Your Relatives Are Boning inquisition in person.

Soul stops short upon entering the bathroom, his shoes scuffing loudly on floor tiles-- he had not anticipated seeing his raid leader washing his hands at the long line of sinks. He shares a long moment of unnerving eye contact with Death the Priest’s reflection in the vanity mirror, the other man tilting his head to get a better look under Soul’s baseball hat.

Maybe he won’t recognize him.

“Eater.” Damn.

Desperate, Soul flings out a hand at eighty miles per hour. “Before you go into the sordid details of how Reaper and I will be related if my brother and her old man get married, please consider, uh, not… doing any of that.”

Death gives him a look through the mirror that roughly translates to, “I’m only keeping you for your crit damage,” which Soul now comes to accept is how the guy probably always looks whenever Soul opens his stupid mouth in voice chat. “Actually, I was going to warn you-- I sat behind Mr. Albarn and your brother during the ceremony.”

Deflating, Soul lets his arm fall and tucks both hands protectively into his pockets. “God. What did your blood-elf eyes see?”

Carefully replacing his various rings after drying his hands, Death says, “They were looking at condos together on your brother’s iPad.”

Admittedly, Soul had been expecting far worse, though he supposes this only means there’s very little that is. “Oh. This isn’t really news to me, but… thanks,” he says, awkwardness echoing in the bathroom.

Death has the grace to look mildly beleaguered on Soul’s behalf. “I can keep the heckling to a minimum during raids, but you’re on your own, otherwise.”

“Buh--” He stares at Spartoi’s raid leader, dumbfounded. “You’d do that for me? You would do that for me?”

Because the priest is the type to overdress for his main tank’s college graduation and give no apparent fucks about long sleeves in the middle of summer, Death adjusts his cufflinks while his face strains to not roll his eyeballs out of their sockets. “For me. I spend too much of my waking life with all of you to not lead a raid without some semblance of order.” He glances up and bores holes directly and mercilessly into Soul’s brain pan. “To do otherwise would simply move me to homicide.”

Soul shrugs not out of confusion but more as an effort to stay off Death’s hit-list. “Yeah, okay.”

A phone buzzes, Soul having a momentary Pavlovian cringe-attack to the noise before he realizes it’s not from his. Death pulls out a chrome-plated thing from a suit pocket and makes another one of those expressions that nudges Soul’s fight-or-flight reflex.

After returning the phone to his pocket, the man says, “I’ve been rudely informed by my latest 3v3 partner--”

“I had nothing to do with that, by the way.”

“-- that I should tell you there will be an afterparty at ‘The Black Door’, because you’ve turned off your phone.”

“Oh. Uh. Okay. ...Cool?”

And, having fulfilled his duty, Death leaves the bathroom without any other ceremony.

\\

Though instinct had urged him to just stay in the bathroom where it’s safe, he adventures outside to the sprawling concrete steps of the convention center. Graduates are slowly filing out of the building, scattered nuclei to their groups of friends and family, and there are cameras every six feet. Soul tugs his hat more firmly over his stark hair, the sun beating down on his back.

He would very much like to find Reaper before running into guildies, his brother, or her old man. Trying to find her shortness in this huge crowd initially feels like a futile effort, but his powerful, pitiable ear has become attuned to her, and he catches a ray of that public sunshine voice piercing through the mess.  

Looking over various shoulders, he finds her a few yards away, hugging fellow graduates and people who congratulate her. He should probably be over there doing that, but he stays rooted in place.

This is a new version he hasn’t seen: Reaper the Accomplished Adult. Her makeup is subtle and complimentary, hair half-up in a sensible-looking clip. When he sees the combat boots peeking from under the ceremony gown, the wave of loneliness that overflows into this grave he’s been steadily digging allows him to accurately measure just how far gone he really is.

And then, despite not having spoken or gestured or given any indication of his presence, spooky action at a distance occurs, as if his thinking of her forces Maka Albarn to look over her right shoulder and peer through the crowd across insignificant distance.

She spots him and smiles.  

Accepting a heavy-looking gift bag and a hug from a woman with a massive-enough chest that Maka borders on suffocation, she breaks away with a wave, sliding through the throngs of people to him. Something in the tilt of her eyes makes his overclocked heart ache.

“You made it,” she says, fanning her bangs off her forehead with her graduate cap. “I almost didn’t see you, with that hat.”

“Ah, yeah.” They stand before one another. For normal, real-life friends, a hug would probably fill this timeslot. “I figure the less chance of your dad seeing his kinky boyfriend’s little brother talking to you, the longer I’ll live.”

She scrunches her nose with a laugh. “Has your phone been exploding, too?”

Looking around for any nearby guildies, he flatlines, “Say the word and I’ll roll Alliance,” though it feels absurd talking about an online video game when she’s standing on the bright steps and holding a diploma.

Maka doesn’t seem to mind, though. Rocking forward on her feet with a grin, she says, “Don’t worry. I’m turning the next raid boss on them.” While Soul stifles a laugh, she hefts the gift bag higher on her arm, juggling her diploma and cap at the same time. “Geeze, what did she get me? Weighs a shitload--”

“Who was that, earlier? A profess- oof!”

“Hold this.”

So now he’s holding her grad cap and diploma. She tucks a bit of her hair behind an ear with a huff before pawing through glittery purple tissue paper. “Blair. She works at Barnes and No--haa, uhhh--” Her eyes go wide, color draining from her face.

Soul leans a little and peers into the bag. Catches a glimpse of glossy neon in various form-factor before Maka hurriedly tries to replace the tissue paper. He blurts, “That’s a lot of penises,” before she can slam her hand over his mouth.

“Shut UP,” she says with a hiss, pale complexion now quickly burning bright as the bag’s contents as she looks over her shoulders in paranoia.

He can’t help it-- he’s cracking up, pushing her hand aside and hooking the edge of the bag with a finger to look again. “You have a very thoughtful friend,” he chokes out. Maka makes a close-lipped noise akin to a police siren. “I didn’t realize they came with hotrod paint jobs--”

She snatches the diploma back from him and promptly smacks him with it. It doesn’t stem his laughter though, and she tilts her head back to look straight at the sun. “I shoulda known she’d pull something. I’m gonna throw these over the Dam.”

“Aw, that’s a waste. Her gift easily trumps mine,” Soul says, and the bait has barely touched the water before he gets a bite, Maka’s eyes whipping to his face.

“You got me something?”

He fishes his wallet out and slides an envelope out of the billfold. Dangles this in the air. “Sorry it’s not ribbed or painted in flames.”

Maka winces, but it’s a half-hearted thing, overpowered by a charming kind of shyness as she tucks her diploma under an arm and reaches for the envelope, green eyes searching his face. “Thank you.”

He lets her slide the gift from his fingers. “Congrats, Reaper.”

She giggles a little, still obviously taken aback as she had evidently not expected anything from him. “Thank you,” she says again, focused on opening the envelope. “I-- What are these?”

Soul watches her eyebrows screw together as she shuffles through the three cut squares of printer paper he’d stuffed inside. Each one has a QR code with no explanation.

“Technically, it was Blackheart’s idea,” he says. Watches her stew that around in her head, her palpable confusion stepping up a notch. “They’re uh, whatever it is you need to get VIP passes to Anime E--”

Maka shrieks. “AX? You got me tic-- Wait, VIP? Oh my shi-- These are-- Why did-- How are--”

She makes it easy for him to ignore the rubbernecking crowd. “Finish one of those sentences, please,” he says, smiling.

After another short scream, she says, “I just, Soul, VIP passes are expensive!”

“Chill. I got paid for my last project. Don’t even worry about it.”

Her excitement abruptly dies as she tilts her head to one side, considering him. “Paid?”

“Uhm… yes?”

“As in: you have a job?”

Soul’s mouth falls open, appalled. “Did you honestly think videogame macros were the height of my talents?”

Hands clutching the Anime Expo tickets to her chest in fear that he’ll take them back, she shrinks back and shrugs. “N-no, I’m just surprised you’re, you know, employed.”

“Reaper!”

“I’m just saying!”

Why is this more shocking than the clowns?

“I dunno, I just always figured you were the spoiled rich kid rolling around in designer jeans?”

He purses his lips into a tight line and plops her graduation cap back on top of her head. “I mean, you’re not wrong, but of course I have a job.” Spins the cap around and mucks up her hair for good measure. “I’m a freelance programmer.”

“O-oh.” Maka’s hands are still full, so she can’t do much about the cap other than push it out of her eyes with the backs of her knuckles and look at him with a new kind of blush blooming high on her cheeks. “My mistake,” she says, though her expression doesn’t read apologetic-- Soul doesn’t know what it reads at all. It’s fleeting, whatever it is, and she looks back to the loot in her hands.

“Um, I can’t help but notice there’s three of these...”

“I figured Ro’d wanna go, so,” he says, rubbing the sweat off the back of his neck.

She’s diverted for a moment, but not for long. “That makes two.”

“Right.” He picks at a mostly-imagined speck of fluff on his shirt, hoping to buy some time and maybe some courage while he’s at it. “Wes and my’s apartment isn’t far from AX. But if you wanted someone else to go--”

“You.”

It’s shocking how instantly his nerves and anxiety go quiet when she does things like this-- removes the world from his awareness, his doubts and unfulfilled wants evaporating while she demands his focus with a mere word.

His breath stills when she steps forward, scuffed boots followed by flowing gown followed by the freckles bridging across her nose as she leans in for eye contact. “You’re coming with us.”

Ears hot, he says, “If you want.”

Her smile dances on her lips, and she quietly asks in such intimate tones, “Can I put you in a plugsuit?”

He immediately agrees. Then he actually processes it. “W-wait--”

Maka steps out of his orbit, nearly marching in place with excitement. “You just said yes, no takebacks!”

“No, I-- takebacks? Is this preschool graduation after all?”

She opens her mouth to reply, but then her eyes go unfocused-- she hears it before he does: a distant, worrisome cry of, “Makaaaaa!” from the doors of the convention center.

“Is someone dying?” he asks with concern, and then he’s winded when a heavy collection of sex toys is shoved into his stomach.

“You will be if he sees us together with this stupid grab-bag of dongs. Take the dildos and run.”

“Did you just say that just so you could say that??”

Maka pushes him further into the crowd. “Go go go go go,” she urges, and Soul catches a glimpse of forest-fire hair and realizes how hazardous his situation is. “You’re coming to the afterparty, right?”

“Uhhh, yeah, sure--”

“I’ll meet you there.”

\\

He writes a comment in the mental code to stop blindly agreeing to everything she asks.

Reaper’s already out dancing with the more outgoing guildies when he shows up late to The Black Door, which is just as well, because these kinds of places are not his thing. He retreats to the darkest corner of the bar and nurses a very hardcore, non-alcoholic water with the bag of dildos tucked between his feet like an emperor penguin standing sentinel over a nuclear bomb of an egg. He has his leather jacket draped over it for safety, but the only way he’s moving from this spot is if Reaper drags him away from it.

At least the music is passable, if not outdated. Soul could go so far as to say he likes circa 2001 trip-hop, but not when he’s being hit on by Spartoi’s raiding shaman-- that just ruins the music by association.

HungRung, whose toon name is enough for Soul to fling himself off the earth merely for having to think it, has just performed the one-two once-over and smooth offer of a drink.

Soul growls under his breath before saying, “This is water so I guess I’m a cheap date. Also, damnit Rung, I’m Eater.”

The shaman squints in the dancing lights and gets a better look at Soul’s face. “Shit, what? Sorry, man. It’s your hat, didn’t recognize you.” Soul rips the damned thing off his head as Rung sits back with an easy laugh. Takes another glug of his Jack and Coke. “I mean, offer still stands--”

Soul withstands the secondary appraisal, now technically a twice-over, but only just. “Stop talking. Besides, I like someone else,” he says disdainfully-- and realizing a breath later that he feels a little more justified in his agony after having said it aloud. It’s almost a relief.

Kilik Rung, a guild officer and forum admin, has the decency to know when to quit. He waves a hand in defeat. “Yeah, alright. Forgive me for not asking if your brother’s single.”

Putting his head in his hands, Soul comes to terms with the fact that he’ll never be able to listen to Massive Attack ever again. “How did BlackStar react to Wes and Reaper’s dad, anyway?”

“Mmm... after the mass-text to the guild?” Rung taps a finger on the edge of his glass. “It was the first time I’ve heard his evil chuckle in person. Nice knowin’ ya. Leave your account to me when you go into self-imposed exile.”

Soul whimpers. Rung takes pity on him for a grand total of fifty-five seconds.

“Sooo… when you say you have ‘someone you like’--”

“No.”

“-does that mean you’re not dating Reaper?”

Rescinding the ‘knows when to quit’ title from Rung, Soul huffs. “I’d like to make it just one day without failing the Reverse Bechdel, so can we not have this conversation?”

Kilik shrugs. “Sure, but uh… have you had it with her?”

Sitting up straight, Soul’s unsure what he means by that and has three-fourths of a glare loaded and ready when he asks, “Had what with her?”

“This conversation,” Rung says, unimpressed. “She’s going east coast, isn’t she?”

Trip-hop goes loud in his ears, filling the vacant space that is his inability to reply. He doesn’t need to make any response-- whatever is on his face gets Kilik wincing.

“She didn’t tell you. I... would not’ve guessed that.”

Soul puts his hat back on.

Rung says, “Stag asked, after the ceremony. We were all there-- where were you?”

Slouching over the bar, Soul plops his chin into a hand. “Running away with dildos,” he says. East coast. As in: the complete ass-opposite end of Los Angeles. As in: the opposite direction of him. The distance between him and Reaper has never been relevant in their friendship, so why the fuck does this matter to him so much?

Kilik’s drink is paused mid-raise to his lips. “Do what?”

“Some lady gave them to her as a gift, her dad was coming, Reaper shoved them at me, I didn’t wanna die...” he says, counting off the bizarro sequence of events on his free hand. “Whatever. No. She didn’t tell me anything; I didn’t ask. It doesn’t matter.”

He’s subjected to a pensive stare for a long moment before Rung finally finishes off his drink and orders another. “Where are they?” the shaman asks.

“Huh?”

“The dongs.”

Soul shifts to the side, away from the leering smile that steadily spreads across Kilik’s face. “W-why?”

Stifling a laugh, Rung waves Soul back in while also leaning closer. He holds a hand near his mouth, as if to tell a secret; nothing about this can be good.

Making it clear with just his scowl that he does not trust this situation at all, Soul eventually obliges. In a low voice, Rung says, “I can think of a lotta things, but the majority of them start with BlackStar and end with Reaper punching him in the face in public.”

Call him seduced, but Soul already has his phone out and turning on before Kilik has even finished speaking.

\\

It’s not the first time Blake has gotten him kicked out of a bar, though this is the first time a dildo fight has been the cause. BlackStar waves around a double-ended variant at the rest of the guild lingering in the parking lot, street lights shining off its glossy, undulating surface while he discusses which bar to next crash. ReaperMan fumes on the sidelines, standing next to Soul in a half-and-half mixture of anger and mortification.

“I’ve never been banned from anywhere before!”

Soul shrugs into his jacket, free from dildo-guarding prison now that the bag is out of his care. “You get used to it, hanging around him.”

“You’re the one who got him started,” she says, smacking him on the shoulder.

“You’re the one who gave them to me!”

She crosses her arms, looking askance as a boot scuffs the asphalt. “That-- yes. Okay. But I definitely saved your life.”

“Yeah yeah, my death knight in shining armor,” he teases, and the pink that touches her ears both pleases and wounds him. He can’t stop himself from flustering her further. “I get you tickets to AX and you tell me to disappear . What a cruel tanktress.”

“That’s not what I--”

“If you were gonna tell me to get lost after giving you something, I figured it would be for the other present, not that one.”

Her eyes narrow. “Other?” she asks, and she’s turned the tables on him, somehow-- he’s the one feeling flustered under that gaze, now that he has to explain himself.

“Yeah, I…” Soul looks back over at the rest of the guild, assuring their attention is on BlackStar and his magic dildo wand. Returns to Reaper, leather jacket creaking as he rolls a shoulder. Quietly, he says, “I have somethin’ else to give you, by the way.”

He shoves his hands into his coat pockets. Maka carefully gauges his hesitance, watching as he steps between her and the guild, keeping his back to them. “What do you mean,” she says, tone cautious and just as quiet. “You didn’t have to get me anything in the first place, much less--”

“I know. I… had an idea after I already bought the other thing, and, I dunno.”  Soul blows nervous air through his teeth. “I’m not sure you’ll like it.”

His nervousness seems to infect her, and she fidgets, lashes catching street lights as she rapidly blinks. “What is it?”

“You might get mad at me.”

Accusatory, she says with an acidic glare, “More dildos?”

“No!” he says, emphatic, but then ends up snickering at her expression and cracks a smile. “I’m bein’ serious here, promise.”

She’s thoroughly stumped now, and he thinks her eyes dart to his mouth for a loaded second. Heat shoots down his spine.

He swallows. His hand fumbles a bit in his pocket before pulling out a pair of folding headphones. “Um. Anyway, put these on for a sec,” he says, unfolding them and carefully setting the cans over her ears before she has time to protest or he has any more time to think about kissing her.

The headphones are a little too big for her, but she’s too dumbfounded to adjust them, one hand coming up to keep the left side at ear-level. “W-what are you...”

But he’s already got the tail end of the cord, plugging it into the headphone jack of his phone. Pulls up an email in his inbox. Opens the video attachment. Adjusts the volume before handing it to her in landscape view. “Just watch it.”

Soul presses play, backing away a step to witness the single millisecond it takes her eyes to rivet on the screen, face lit by OLED glow.

As natural as a fish in water, Suzume Albarn floating around in the ISS is a strangely calming sight, though it doesn’t do enough to abate the thunder in his chest.

He hasn’t memorized the whole vid-- he’s only watched it once, just to make sure it worked, and not even all the way through because that felt like a stomach-turning breach of privacy-- but the part he did see was more than enough to be etched deeply in memory:

I’m so proud of you. More than anything, I wish I could be there for you right now. Did you know that, out here, the brightest thing is actually home? You make the Earth shine.

Maka watches it all the way through, her one hand on side of the headphones pressing the can as close as possible. She restarts the video the moment it ends.

After the second playback, she looks up at Soul, eyes red-rimmed and wet, and then she suddenly remembers the rest of the guild is a few parking spaces away. She scoots closer, using him as a shield to hide behind.

Crying is usually a bad thing, so he thinks he’s fucked up royally enough to be assassinated on the throne of his own making. Guilt eats him alive as he pulls some Subway napkins from his back pocket and offers them in atonement.

She drags the headphones to rest on her neck and accepts the napkins, though not without asking, “Why do you have--”

“If you think I’d walk around anywhere in Vegas and touch unknown goo on public door handles without being prepared, you’re insane.”

“What?” She dabs under her eyes, trying to capture errant smudges of mascara. Clears her throat, the phone clutched to her chest. “How did you do this.”

He moves a bit closer, the need to block her from Spartoi stronger than ever. “Well… a lot of emails, mostly. Does it even matter how?” Slowly easing his phone from her so she can have both hands to wipe her tears, he asks, “Am I in trouble? I shouldn’t have butted in. I’m really sorry if--”

“Just fucking kiss, assholes!”  says BlackStar from the other side of the lot.

Soul twists around with a hiss. “Can you shut up for three goddamn minutes??”

Then ShadowStag catches a glimpse of Maka and goes from pleasant to stone-cold predator in less than a blink. “Is she crying? Eater, God help me I will make pinatas out of your testicles if you’ve--”

Maka squawks and frantically waves off Stag’s death threats. “It’s okay! I’m okay, Soul didn’t-- I’m fine.”

The look Tsubaki gives Soul across five empty parking spaces is pure butcher knife emoji, but she makes no moves for his balls. “We’re heading out to another club,” she says.

“I’ll catch up,” Maka replies, reassuring the druid with another round of hand-flapping. The guild, BlackStar included, leave them to themselves, and it’s a fucking Christmas miracle. Then Soul is pinned mercilessly by Maka’s eyes.

He shakily sighs and answers her silent question. “Long distance sucks. And like, you’re literally the furthest anyone can be from someone else. I dunno.”

Silently crumpling the napkin in her hand, Maka threads her arms under his open jacket, moving close to encircle him as she plants her face in his chest with a tiny thump.

He’s never really hugged her. She’s always come in and made contact for the briefest of moments before he can even consider reciprocating, but she lingers this time, present, sharing the same space. More than a voice, more than a nebulous entity behind a character or cosplay, he tentatively curls around her, resting his chin on her head.

Oh no.

This is the only place he wants to be.

“Did you just snot on my shirt?”

“No,” she says, nasal. “Maybe some makeup, though. I hope you brought a Tide-pen.”

Soul snorts. “Whatever. So, I didn’t do a bad thing?”

Maka shakes her head, her hair scratching against his chin.

“Okay,” he says, relieved. His arms press her just a breath closer.

“Sorry about giving you dildo duty.” They share a laugh in the most literal sense, so closely held together that he wouldn’t be horribly opposed if the world ended with just this-- it would be enough.

And he almost asks her then: Where are you going? What is your plan? Am I in it at all?

“Thank you,” she says. She’s so very warm against his chest; it shoots a pang through him with razored longing.

He doesn’t ask.

 

Chapter Text

Though not on the official roster, Blackheart is allowed to listen in on the raiding channel, waiting outside the dungeon as a reserve. As a result, the guild is self-conscious and extra loud tonight, joking around between trash pulls in an unspoken attempt to show the warlock how cool raiding with Spartoi is. The effort is laughably transparent, but it still makes for a good night. Mostly.

“Eater, what’s your chest size?” asks Reaper, and Soul promptly loses track of his DPS rotation, pausing mid-nacho-chew.

Whaugh?” he garbles.

HungRung answers with, “A-cup,” to which both text and voice chat swell with obligatory waves of heckling spam. “I mean, he wouldn’t give me a test drive, but I have confidence in my craft.”

After a bout of furious chewing, Soul replies, “I hate you. Why are you even popular?”

“I’m an A-cup and I hate both of you,” says Reaper. “I meant in inches.”

Soul resists an enormously stupid urge to touch his own chest out of curiosity. “Why the fuck do you need this right this second? Or ever?” And couldn’t she have phrased that in literally any other way to spare what little peace he can get in the guild?

“I can tank this guy one-handed,” she boasts, her desk reverberating with the usual keyboard mutilation. “So I can design cosplays at the same time.”

Death isn’t impressed. “Either pay attention, or learn to generate more threat one-handed, I don’t care which. If we’re not in Phase Three in the next twelve seconds, I am raid-kicking all of you.”

“Urhg, fiiiine.”

“Also,” Soul says, “I would like to point out that if I asked you for your measurements, you would punch me through the internet.”

Over Reaper’s undignified squawking, BlackStar announces like refereeing a foul, “Double standards! Minus fifty DKP!”

“Half the people in this raid don’t even know what DKP is,” Reaper replies, sour. “Anyway, they were measurements for the plugsuit, okay? AX is coming up!”

Soul leans back in his chair and clamps a hand over his eyes with a groan. Nevermind that he still doesn’t know what a plugsuit is because he’s too afraid to Google it, but--

“The what??” says Rung on the edge of a laugh. “Does this have somethin’ to do with that huge bag of dildos? Because if so, I--”

What is it with this guild and dildos?” ShadowStag mumbles.

Sounding disappointed over not being able boot anyone out of the raid, Death drawls, “Phase Three positions.”

“Yeah, get into position, Eater,” says BlackStar.

The best way to confront garbage, Soul believes, is to set it on fire, but his resources are limited and there’s a surprising lack of lava in Phase Three. Just as he's debating if he can find a way to kill a particular rogue without compromising the boss fight, his phone rings.

Hands preoccupied with keyboard and mouse, Soul sheds off his headphones with a practiced shoulder. It takes a long blink to process the almost-forgotten ringtone: the Nyan Cat song, painfully catchy jazz edition. He can’t confidently say he’s heard it between now and the day it was assigned to a contact.

Because Emmett Evans does not call people; he emails them from the one village in whatever country he’s hiking through to update the family of his whereabouts for the past three weeks. He sends one-word text messages because he still has a flip phone and can’t be bothered with T9. Soul doesn’t even have a photo for him-- when he scrambles for his phone and anxiously double-checks the caller ID, Dad’s dino slippers are there, ironically posed like an instagram photo on the bottom-most stair of the clown house.

“Uh,” he says to no one. Remembers he’s on push-to-talk, today. Meanwhile, on his neck, Reaper chides people for not having watched Evangelion.

“Okay, but I see no one has disproved the dildo theory,” replies Rung.

“If someone says dildo one more time, they’re getting raid and guild kicked.”

Soul slaps his hand on the talk key, shrugging a shoulder to get a side of the headphones closer to an ear. “Uh. Death.”

“What.”

“Raid kick me.”

What?”

“The password is ‘dildo’, broski.”

“Are you okay?”

“I gotta get the ph--” In his rush, he can’t finish his own sentence as lets the headphones fall back to his neck and anxiously answers the call. “Patriarch?” he asks, and there’s a distant murmur of guild-amusement over his stupid parental nicknames because he was too slow to let go of the voice chat key.

“Morning, Son. Now listen, don’t panic--”

Phone pressed so close to his cheek it may as well be grafted there, Soul says, “Dad, it’s nine at night, you can’t start with that and expect me not to panic.”

Emmett sighs, the sound weakened by both distance and the background din of wherever the hell he is right now. “Worth a try. I just got a call. Therese was in an accident.”

Soul blinks absently at his computer screen, watching his character be auto-ported outside of the dungeon after being kicked from the raid. Therese happens to be Mom’s name, which sort-of makes this sudden collision of the game and real life impossible to process on the first try. “Um.” He stands, backing away from the computer, but then realizes he’s tethered by the headphones. Can not spare the thought process to take them off, so stands stock-still until he remembers how his mouth works. “I-- w-- Christ, is she okay? Where is she?”

“UMC, trauma center. I tried to call your brother, but no answer. Where is he?”

Fuck Wes, he’s not the issue here! “But is she okay? What the hell is a trauma center? What does that mean,” Soul demands, voice cracking on a discordant note.

“It means she’s not dead,” Dad says, succinct and commanding in a way that tranquilizes Soul’s fright to more manageable levels. Then, wrapped in something softer: “One thing at a time, alright?”

His knees give a little wobble, and Soul returns to sitting in the chair, perched on the end while his legs immediately begin rattling the junk on his desk with brisk bouncing. “Y-yeah. Okay.”

“Where is Wesley?”

“He’s, uh--” Soul closes his eyes and glues a hand over them. “He’s on some shoot in Belize? I think.” The background noise on the line reaches new levels of frenetically loud, his father speaking a language he could probably name if he wasn’t T-minus-fifteen to hyperventilating into a paper bag.

Some beeps from foreign machinery. The roar of engines. Dad says, “I’ll keep trying, then. You’re in L.A. right now?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re the closest, so head out when you can.”

Soul’s hand flies from his face. Not fully aware of why, something has him seeing red and feeling like a cornered dog, and he snarls back, “It doesn’t matter how close I am, I’m going!”

“Easy, I’m not implying anything. This is the situation.”

“Sorry. Sorry, I just--” His scrambled brain tries to piece together a plan for The Situation. He needs his keys. No, he needs pants, then keys. His phone needs charging. Mom is alone. He needs his keys, why is he just sitting here?

“Take a breath, son.”

He does. It burns down his throat yet seems to crystalize, frozen, in his lungs. He thinks, even if he’s unsure of the nature of his parents’ relationship, that he should be the one calming his father instead of the other way around. A new flavor of guilt sweeps through his bone marrow.

“I’m on standby, but I’ll get there as soon as I can. I’ll keep trying to get Wesley.”

“Okay.” Pants, keys, phone and powerbank, shoes, jacket. His bouncing legs quit. He feels marginally better knowing the algorithm, but he still sounds like a lost kid in the grocery store when he asks, “Where even are you, Dad?”

Another sigh, his father finally sounding shaken in the faintest way, and Soul immediately regrets thinking Emmett should be the panicked of the two of them. “Bangkok. Drive safe, okay? Keep me posted.”

Time to run program. He gets back up. “Yeah. I will.”

“Love you.”

“Love you too,” he says, and hangs up with a tremoring thumb. Stands in his room, the distant roar of Bangkok International somehow louder in his ears when it’s gone and silent. Calls Wes despite the futility of it, because that still somehow outweighs not even trying in the first place. Gets voicemail.

He’s adrift, a buoy with a severed anchor, the room tilting around him in tumultuous waves. He knows what he has to do-- pants, keys, whatever, whatever, Mom’s by herself and hurt and he’s four fucking hours away-- but the program keeps coming back with errors.

And then ReaperMan cuts through the raucous laughter of voice chat still hanging on his neck, which, until she speaks, he had forgotten utterly. Voice pitched for private binds, she asks, “Eater, are you still there?”

It takes a scattered moment for him to remember which key is set for only her. Leans over the desk to reach both it and the mic. “I’m here. Stuff... happened.”

“Are you okay?”

Compared to whatever’s happened to Mom, he can’t convince himself that any of his issues are worth mentioning. But the waver in Dad’s voice keeps looping in his head, stuck, because his father has always been the rock of the family and stones aren’t meant to tremble.

The squeak of a chair as Reaper leans forward to anxiously ask, “Soul?”

“Um.” His tongue is a lump of hot cotton. “My mom was in a w-wreck?” Hearing himself say it aloud brings the reality of it into a clarity he can grasp. He needs pants.

“Oh no!”

Pulling the headphones off his neck, he says, “She’s at the hospital, so I really need to go.”

“Shit! Sorry for keeping you,” she says in his hands. And then, after he tosses the headphones on his desk and turns away, she screeches, “Wait! Waitwaitwait--”

He yanks out the plug for the headphones in the exact way he shouldn’t. “What?”

“Is she here, in Vegas? Is there anything I can do?”

Soul, now somewhat irritated because he’s finally found enough braincells to move his fucking legs, is more clipped than he means to be when he slaps his hand on the key and says, “University Medical, some trauma center, and no, I don’t think there’s anything you can… do. W-wait--” Looking at his phone, he realizes his game life and real life have been colliding for a long time, already. Finally, his brain makes its first useful process. “Actually, this is kind of ridiculous, but is your dad with Wes?”

\\

When it comes down to it, he’d always known, yet he’d never viewed long distance from his mother’s perspective, or bothered to think of how she felt with an oft-absent husband and two grown sons leaving her with little except infrequent phone calls and a personal bank account for the clown collection that keeps her company.

And he could’ve stayed. His father and brother have travel-centric careers, but Soul works where the wifi is, for the most part. He hadn’t needed to move, but he’d been an Adult, freshly-minted, eager to get the hell out of the nest and reaching so desperately for that formless concept of away--

Well, mission accomplished.

Dad had told him to breathe, so he focuses on that while the dotted lines on the pavement nearly blur together. Mutes all extraneous thought, his anxiety pressurized enough to seal him shut. He can only hear the sound of the bike as he urges it down the interstate, engine screaming the things he can’t say.

\\

Mechanically eats an old gas station sandwich to retain function. Still has an hour to go, but rejects the idea of coffee given the nuke chilling under his ribcage, which would need only the slightest stimulated nudge to detonate.

Throws crinkled wrapper into parking lot trash can. Upon checking his phone, finds one text from ReaperMan:

[[Wes and Papa are flying back from Belize. Call when you can.]]

Doesn’t particularly want to, but can on technicality.

Two rings. “You alive?”

“Yeah.”

“Good. Wes and my Dad have a connection in Denver, but they are already on the way. Your dad should be boarding soon, connecting in Guangzhou and again in San Fran. He won’t get here until late tomor-- er, tonight.”

Soul slowly mounts the bike, uncertain if he’s hearing things properly. If he didn’t know any better, he’d say that sounded a lot like his main tank spewing out flight itineraries for his family.

Reaper goes on to say, “Mr. Evans said your mom’s out of surgery, and on the general trauma floor now.”

“That’s--” Alternating waves of relief and worry for Mom try their damndest to break the seal for a few seconds. He then hears himself blurt, “Wait, you talked to my dad?”

“You were driving!” she says, as if that explains anything. How had she even gotten his number? Had she just called him up and said ‘Hi, I’m your younger son’s friend from an online video game, what’s the health status of your wife?’

All business, she demands, “Where are you?”

It’s her game voice, and it’s ludicrous that the familiarity of it holds him steady; he latches onto it. “‘Bout an hour out.”

“Okay. I’ll let you know if anything else comes up.”

“Thanks,” he says, unable to drag out anything else because gratitude opens a door for other emotions he can’t afford. Gazes at the bright-lit overhang sheltering the fuel pumps, and the moths kissing the lights up there feel vague to him, like a distant hologram of some place to which he is only partially connected. Useless but deliberate, Soul murmurs again, “Thanks.”

She seems to know the precise thing he needs. “I’m not the main tank for nothing, Eater.”

\\

On the last fumes of autopilot, he exchanges words with one of the men behind the front desk at UMC who, upon a two-second assessment of whatever undertaking Soul’s face has attempted for public presentation, decides little in the way of personal identification is required and quickly provides a visitor’s pass.

He also gives a detailed explanation of how to get to Therese’s room, which Soul will promptly forget in under fifteen seconds. Still, Soul heads in the general direction the man had indicated, hoping to find some elevators and mumbling what he hopes is a coherent form of ‘thanks’. This is when he nearly runs into someone coming out of the restrooms, his shoes making a ghastly screech across the floor as he dodges.

The screech is still echoing through the building as he meets mussed hair and skeleton pyjamas.

“What’re you doing here?” he says too loud, a spectrum of banned emotions piling up his throat.

Reaper wears one in the morning the same way any normal person would, yet she’s here anyway, wiping wet hands on her pants. “Do you really have to ask that,” she replies, voice hoarse.

Yes. Well, he’s pretty sure. He’s also pretty sure she’d meant that rhetorically, but that’s too many mental steps to climb right now. He’s still stuck on the idea that his mom and Reaper are in the same building, unable to get past it for a couple of blinks. “...Yes?”

She sees The Situation when she looks up into his eyes. Ignoring the question, her expression becomes something soft and subtle as she asks, “Did they tell you which room?”

Short-term memory finally fires and he hears himself spew a number on the fourth floor. Watches dazedly as she pulls out her phone and zooms in on a map. Reaper considers the floorplan a moment and then reaches forward, chill fingers slipping underneath the sleeve of his jacket, gently taking his wrist. “Let’s go,” she says, leading him away.

Behind them, the man behind the desk calls, “Miss, for the last time--

“I’M TAKING HIM TO THE RIGHT BUILDING,” ReaperMan snarls, her voice shaking Soul’s ribcage. “I’LL FUCKIN’ BEHAVE.”

Soul has questions, and if it were nearly any other crisis, he’d probably ask them. Reaper blows her bangs out of her face like relieving pressure from an angry valve. Her voice cracks when she grumbles, out of earshot, “They wouldn’t tell me anything. I get why, but I’m still pissed.” She pulls him around a corner, and then another, through doors and different-smelling hallways, and he mindlessly auto-follows until they’ve reached a scuffed-up elevator door. “It’s after normal visiting hours, but I can take you most of the way.”

They wait for the elevator to arrive, though Soul has no recollection of either of them having pressed the call button. “They did say general trauma is where patients go after all the life-threatening stuff is taken care of, so. Elsewise she’d still be in ICU or surgery,” she says.

It’s not ‘everything’s gonna be okay’ or ‘I’m sure she’s fine’, which is what he wants to hear, but he appreciates that she won’t say anything she can’t prove, and he wouldn’t have really believed it, anyhow.

The doors open. She drops his wrist as they step into the elevator, but after they do the required dance to turn in place and face the door, she goes for his opposite wrist instead, her hand sliding down until their palms are together.

With the hum of the elevator pulling them skyward, a taut-lipped approximation of himself confronts him, his reflection in the buffed metal doors warped and sickly pale. He then realizes that Reaper is trying to still his trembling fingers -- that he’s trembling at all. It’s clear to him now just how alone he’d been since the moment he hung up with his dad, four hours of teeth-grinding anxiety crammed into the weakest parts of his spine to fester. And the more Maka entwines their fingers, the more everything he’s bottled is drawn out like poison from a bite.

Every worst-case scenario arrives, written on the face of the elevator reflection: Hollywood renditions of unrecognizable shapes beneath sterilized hospital sheets, gauze and tubes and beeping, Mom having no voice to tell him what he already knows. This is what he does, the modus operandi of his heart, but he can’t hold it back, because the warmth of another person -- maybe, specifically, this one-- is the exact curse to make it overflow.

He resents her slow-motion shattering of what composure he has, but now that she's here, he doesn’t want to go without her to a generic room with his last name taped to a door. He may dissipate if she lets go; float away to nebulously scream into the terror of space.

The elevator opens and Reaper leads him to a set of double doors she won’t go through. “It’s not far from here,” she says. He’s going to throw up, he’s going to break-- “Call me if you need anything, okay?” Her hand slides out of his, gone.

He’s weightless, and when the moment he’d been convinced he would detonate comes, a small, stabling hand on his back pushes him through the doors. And then it’s just him, the mere second son, folding straw wrappers and easily breaking into a run because he’s always been the closest one.

\\

The Tesla saved her life. She’s banged up, doped up, bruised and burned, but Soul is assured by people whose names and medical positions he can’t keep straight that she will have a full recovery in time. The worst of her injuries are a jacked-up leg and an angry seat-belt burn across her chest.

Still, until she can tell him all this directly, something childlike and rattled under his skin keeps him awake for several hours, listening to the digital beating of Mom’s monitored heart. His mind circles through haphazard plans to stay in Vegas to help her at home; he should never have left in the first place--

Wes wakes him with a hand on his shoulder.

“Oh,” Soul croaks, lifting his face half an inch before freezing in place. He has no recollection of falling asleep, and his forearm is numb after being the pillow for his face at the edge of Therese’s bed. Mom’s hand weighs his head down, fingers in his hair.

Frowning, he slides away, catching her hand and gingerly laying it on the bed. He hadn’t heard her wake up at all.

“When’d you get here?” he asks, sitting up and wincing as his entire spine complains. He takes in the Wes’s level of dishevelment: wrinkled dress shirt with damp shoulders, hair limp and soggy.

His brother smiles something that is both jetlagged and uncharacteristically self-deprecating. “Just got here. Sorry I took so long.” He takes care to sit in a spare chair without making its legs squeal on the floor. “I can take over for a bit.”

“No, I--” Soul pauses, brain startlingly empty. Looking over his shoulder for a clock and finding none, he discovers he has no clue what time it is, his body fully incapable of keeping track of it. He could’ve been asleep for five minutes or five years. “What time is it?”

His brother buffs the face of an Apple watch. “Quarter to nine. Look, I had a criminal amount of espresso on the way here. Mom’ll need clothes and stuff, so go and get some sleep and come back fresh.”

The child voice in him protests a number of things (he was here first; he still hasn’t heard Mom talk yet; the thought of the empty mansion right now makes his guts twist up), but Wes is his older brother and Soul is, evidently, in such a state of tiredness that deferring to older brothers is both reflexive and comforting -- like letting a current tow him down a calm river.

His legs are pillars of lead when he stands. Takes one step to the door, but after a second thought, reroutes to the corner of the room, retrieving a blanket the nurse had brought in for him. Pushes this into his brother’s arms.

\\

Soul could have been abducted, turned about thirty times, and placed in any unknown building in the world and be just as lost as he is now. He doesn’t remember any of these hallways, and kind of half-expects Reaper to simply appear from a random door to save him.

Finding the front desk is more a feat of coincidence than any kind of logic. Outside the main doors, he’s met with dreary, low rain clouds, the sky so uniformly grey it could pass as any hour between dawn and twilight.

Rain pelts the hospital entrance awning. Riding the motorcycle in the rain is a concept that makes him want to curl up on the nearest bench until he becomes zeroes and ones.

People bustle around, hurrying out of the rain to the safety of the awning and through the doors behind him. This constant movement of people trotting and scurrying about is probably why he notices the only still figure on the sidewalk, leaning over in the rain to speak to her father through the passenger window of a checkered cab. She stands; the cab exits the puddle-splattered parking lot stage left. She jogs over to the awning, noticing Soul only after she pushes her wet bangs over her forehead.

Eater,” she blurts, then glances at her soaked bone-pyjamas. Makes a resigned sigh. “How is she?”

Soul distantly wonders if his wanting her to appear comes with a price; if some cosmic fee will be charged in return for whatever warped universe this is, created at his whim. “She’s sleeping. Doctor said she’ll recover fine.”

A tired, but genuine smile. “Oh good.”

Rather helplessly, he asks, “Have you been here this whole time?”

“No, no.” Reaper shakes her head, her hands coming up to rub her face. “I went home and fed the cat, then went to the airport and waited for Papa and Wes, since their cars are in L.A.”

“Oh,” he says, in awe of the things she’s thought of. What has he thought of in the past twelve hours other than worst-case scenarios he can do nothing about? How and why is she doing any of this?

She looks over her shoulder, in the direction the cab had gone. “Papa had to go back to the air force base, so it’s just me again.”

This is the part where he’s supposed to thank her. He managed it before-- which hadn’t been that long ago yet already feels like a fever dream-- but right now any kind of verbal gratitude sounds so shallow in his head. Two words wouldn’t do anything to repay what she’s done.

Giving wet people things is his only skill today. He shrugs out of his jacket and flops it around her shoulders. Reaper clutches at it in surprise, hunching over to keep it from sliding off.

“Headed home?” he asks before she can say anything.

“Um.” He’s subjected to a brief, cautious glance before she shrugs. “Are you?”

Soul nods. “Er, no. The one here. Clown house.” He rubs the side of his face, the skin feeling rubbery and disconnected. “Mom needs clothes and Wes told me to sleep, I guess. Just trying to make myself drive in the rain.”

He already knows what she’s going to say, and immediately feels bad about it because he hadn’t been fishing for even more of her help. “I’ll drive you,” she says.

“Reaper--”

“One accident is enough,” she cuts in, voice firm. There’s a wild light in her eyes when she glares at him, however brief. “You’re exhausted.”

He remembers why he's here in the first place. “...I’m fine.” He’s not.

“Eater, even if you could hide it, which you can’t, we talk in voice chat every day. I can tell.”

If that’s the case, he can too; he knows every note of her voice. It’s been playing in his ears for months, and Soul can tell when she’s muffling how she really feels.

And she’s tired. She’s worried about him and his family. She’s already running out in the rain, hiding under his jacket, and his mouth hadn’t opened to stop her.

\\

On the seat is a battle-worn paperback of Terry Pratchett’s Reaper Man. Its faded blue cover is held together with two different types of tape. She moves it out of the way and makes to fling it to the back of the station wagon like he’s seen her do with other things, but she thinks better of it at the last second, gently placing it on the floorboard behind Soul’s seat.

The steady pace of the windshield wipers tries to tempt him to sleep, but he has to be Reaper’s GPS to the house, and his unshakable need to check his text messages for anything from Wes easily trumps his exhaustion.

Apart from ‘turn here’ and ‘take this exit’, nothing is spoken between them, and soon he’s getting out of the car again, the clouds spitting on him as he thumbs in the code at the garage door keypad. As the door rolls up, he’s faced with the unexpected void where Mom’s car is supposed to be. Soul walks across that vacant space and climbs the stairs to the kitchen entry door, a surge of something close to overwhelming him.

He looks back at Reaper, still parked outside the garage, her unsurety behind the windshield refreshed by intermittent wipers. Soul doesn’t know if he should invite her inside-- if she even wants to stay-- but he still hasn’t thanked her, and it’s awkward standing here staring at her headlights. He waves for her to pull in.

She cuts the engine and gets out of the station wagon, though she doesn’t shut the door and instead sort-of hovers next to it: a soaked main tank in skeleton pyjamas and his jacket, trying to gauge where she is allowed to be.

Soul means to tell her that he doesn’t know when he’s going back, and he can call a cab if she wants to go home and sleep because she’s earned it-- she’s a damn champion-- but when he takes a breath in to speak, he can just imagine that empty void in the garage after she leaves, and he ends up saying, “You wanna take a nap?”

Reaper takes a long moment to process that. In the silence, Soul realizes how ridiculous that sounded, and backtracks to add a hasty, “Whatever you wanna do. I can always call a--”

“Yes,” she says. “Please. I mean, unless you want time to yourself.”

He thinks time to himself is the last thing he needs.

\\

By the power of tunnel-vision focus, he finds towels and some of his mother’s (thankfully not risque) clothes, and even manages to deliver these items to Reaper without catastrophe. In fact, it’s not until she’s gone upstairs to change and he’s opening the kitchen cupboard to get a harmless, red-and-white striped glass that the clowns finally get to him.

Evidence of Therese Evans pervades every inch of this house, each one of the dolls or fridge magnets or circus-striped rugs something his mother had gone out of her way to choose, specifically, and the fleeting thought of having narrowly missed the responsibility of removing it all, packing each clown one by one, bubble-wrapping porcelain hands and faces to seal away in a dark box like a cardboard coffin and leave behind 4200 square feet of nothing, chews through him so swiftly that he’s forced to crouch by the kitchen counter, shaking as he listens to the ice machine indifferently fill up with water.

How is it now, when all is calm, that emotion sets in? Soul doesn't make a sound, but Reaper was bound to come and find him eventually. Her hand is chilled from the rain and brisk air-conditioning, her touch seeping through his shirt.

The thing about always being prepared for the worst is not so much the brace for impact, but the visualization of what the heart fears most. And it doesn’t leave. Not gracefully. Even if the worst-case rarely occurs, it’s the letting go of that fear that’s frightening. It brings forward what lurks all along, uproots the depths of love, and forces Soul to reacquaint with himself, his lowest points, and how thoroughly entangled these are with the things he cares about.

“You were really worried,” Reaper says, her cool hand rubbing between his shoulders for a moment before she gently nudges him away from the counter. She guides him to stand. “But you kept it in. So you could support her, right?”

Right. He needed to be here. And he needed to not be... like this.

He is desperate to bottle it back up. But Reaper turns him to face her, because he’s malleable as a mannequin at her touch, and it’s this same touch that prevents him from shoving all his feelings away.

Her hand is on the back of his neck, pulling him down until his face is hidden against her shoulder. “You were worried,” she says again, justifying the tremors in his body. She smells like the detergent his parents have used his whole life. “It was scary, wasn’t it.”

Soul hums in broken affirmation as Maka takes the bomb in the cage of his ribs and detonates it, carefully, in her embrace.

\\

 

Fresh out of a much-needed shower, Soul’s droopy, damp hair sticks to his face. It’s cool on his cheeks, which are still patchy and flushed from his ill-timed cathartic breakdown. Also there’s the added benefit of hiding his embarrassment when he pokes his head around the doorway to the guest room.

Reaper is testing one of the dozens of spare charging cables to see if it fits her phone. “I’ll be downstairs if you need anything. Raid the fridge if you get hungry,” he says, and doesn’t look to see if she responds, fleeing down the stairs before she can reply.

He’s been awake for over twenty-four hours, which feels a lot different in the brain now than, say, staying up too late for an expansion pack release does. He can’t tell if he’s dizzy, nauseous, hungry, or on any measurable physical plane to begin with. Soul dissolves into the forbidden couch, feeling as though he has three hundred things he should be doing right now but unable to focus long enough to be certain what any of those things are.

Settles for turning on his phone, scrolling through unread text messages to see if Wes or Dad have sent anything. They haven’t.

He watches the home screen and knows this is the time to sleep, to recharge and be useful again tomorrow (today?), but he needs to take a toothbrush to the sector of the brain that keeps painting Mom’s bruises and IV’s in the blacks of his eyelids. Soul rolls to the side, couch groaning. Wonders when Mom will wake up; what her first words to him will be.

Outside, the grayscale of drizzle-filtered daylight seems to have stilled the turning of the Earth, time paused in a useless, repeating moment when he can only be conscious and imagining his phone has vibrated when it really hasn’t.

He can’t measure the length of time he’s trapped in this stillness, but one moment he’s staring at the draining battery of his phone, and the next ReaperMan is sliding it out of his numb fingers, turning off the screen.

“Wha--” he says, and she takes his hand and yanks him forcefully off the couch. “Did I keep you up?”

Leading him up the stairs, the risers creaking under their feet, she says, “Yes,” and tugs him into the guest room.

At the rate his brain is functioning right now, he needs at least three weeks to be able to parse what’s going on. Soul balks, auto-follow not cooperating. “Um, sorry, I…” Reaper tugs him to the bed. He digs in his heels. “Why are-- Maka,” he says, exasperated.

After hearing her name, the look she hurls over her shoulder is bare and straightforward, and her voice is a physical thing that fills the ache in his ears. “Think of it as compensation for keeping me awake.” And she points at the bed like demanding a dog return to his kennel.

He’s too tired for this. He sighs. “At least give me my phone back,” he says, slipping out of her grasp to pour himself face-first into the guest bed.

“No,” she says, silent Fido on the end. “I’ll wake you up if it rings.”

Finally realizing what she’s doing, Soul pushes himself upright to argue, feeling stupid, ashamed, and irritated. But he finds Reaper unplugging her phone from the charging cable, substituting it with his. Places her phone next to it, on the nightstand. Turns back to the bed.

“Roll over,” she says.

“I’m not a dog,” he snaps back.

“Ah…” Reaper looks away, and fiddles with the hem of her borrowed shirt that is, thankfully, sans clown stripes. “Sorry. T-then scoot over, at least.”

Perhaps he hadn’t understood her intent after all. “Oh.” Soul moves closer to the wall, the whole situation a level of surreal that forces his compliance because he can’t think of any other options. Maka settles on her back, carefully moving her hair from under her neck before resting her head on the pillow next to him.

At a loss, he lies down too. “Didn’t mean to bite your head off,” he mumbles, staring at the ceiling.

Reaper weaves her fingers together across her stomach. “I was ordering you around again,” she says with a shrug. “I’m bad at saying things. I just want you to rest.

“No,” Soul groans, never feeling less cool in his life. “I get it. Sorry. I’m… You don’t need to baby me like this. You helped us a lot already, and you didn’t have to.”

Her feet rub together as she replies, “You helped me with my mom, so. I wanted to.”

“But I didn’t?” he says, turning his head to her, confused. “That wasn’t exactly --” He presses his fingertips into his forehead. “Ugh, I don’t know what I’m tryin’ to say.” What she’s done -- been doing -- makes a couple of emails and a video attachment chump change. That hadn’t been something he’d done in a crisis.

She’s just smiling as he struggles to form a complete sentence. She says, “Even if you hadn’t, I would still be here, though.”

Why?” That makes even less sense!

“Why do you keep asking that?” Reaper unlaces her fingers and rolls over to face him, and he’s quickly trapped in a staredown. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Because? I didn’t expect -- I mean, I’m glad. That you’re here,” he says, voice shrinking down to a murmur. Glad feels too insincere of a word, but that’s all he has right now. “I’m glad you stayed. But I’m just some guy from the internet, you know?”

“But,” she starts, then leans back a bit, her gaze darting away. Reaper’s expression goes porcelain-faced, defaulting to a neutral mask with a smattering of freckles. The only part of her that moves is her hand twisting up in the hem of her shirt, again. Cautiously, she asks, “Am I some girl from the internet to you?”

Now he’s done it. “No,” he says, turning to face her, too, but now he feels like an ass and he’s blushing on top of it. The back of his hand comes up to shield his stupid face. “No, that’s not what I meant at all.” He’s holding on to so many feelings for her, but conversely she’s moving away and he isn’t close enough to her to know where, and so he hadn’t thought he was eligible for this kind of kindness. “You -- you’re a lot more than that.”

He feels her shift, the bed moving beneath him, and his throat becomes tight.

Maka says, “It’s the same for me. And like, people want to help people they care about, whether it’s expected or not.” The bed shifts a little more, and her voice becomes fainter. “And you’re not just some internet rando to me… I think you’re probably my best friend.”

Stunned, Soul peeks around his hand and finds her curled up, trying to hide beneath her hair, though the fringe doesn’t do anything for the deep red her ears have become.

He reaches over. Touches the edge of her wrist with his, and rests here, wishing he could convey how much her words salve something in him he’d been convincing himself wasn’t a wound. “Me too,” he says. “You’re my best friend too.”

“Right?” Maka looks up with a bashful kind of smile. She doesn’t move her hand away. “So go the fuck to sleep. Let me stand guard or whatever.”

Her face is close to his. He’s never been more grateful to know her; to have her know he exists and want to keep it that way. “Can you really guard anything while taking a nap?”

“Shut up, Eater.”

Soul scoffs, closing his eyes. “Yes, tanktress,” he softly replies, clinging to the patch of warmth where they are connected. “Thank you.”

\\

She doesn’t wake him when his phone starts ringing. In fact, she hardly budges, and Soul must precariously reach over her to grab it off the nightstand. Groggy and disoriented, he’s soon caught resting his weight on a hand, leaning above her because the charging cable is too damn short.

It’s Wes calling: Natalia Kills chanting one’s shirt, shoes, jeans, all off. Shirt. Shoes. Jeans.

Beneath him, Maka finally wakes up to all of this, sputtering to life like a neglected lawnmower. “Hgh, mwhat? Is that noISE?” Her eyes slowly focus on him and his incriminating proximity. She squeaks, sinking into the mattress. “Hhhhhiiii?”

We ain’t even at the beach. Even at the beach.

“Phone,” he croaks, morning voice reminiscent of an eight-hundred year-old wizard. He has nowhere to go, so settles for clearing his throat and swiping the phone icon to answer. “Uh,” he says, waiting on the rest of English to buffer, “First-born. How’s stuff.”

“Stuff is ...fine? Little brother,” Wes replies. “Were you asleep? Figured you’d be pacing and pulling your hair out.

Just how bad is he at taking care of himself? “M’not awake enough to snark,” he complains. Then he flinches, startled when Maka reaches up to unplug the charging cable. Damn it, he isn’t mentally prepared to see her first thing out of unconsciousness -- she’s cute and her hair is criminally funny. “T-thanks,” he manages to say without laughing, leaning back out of her space.

“How’s your mom?” she asks, rubbing her eyes.

In his other ear, Wes says, “Who was that?”

Ah, fuck. His crush? Main tank? Best friend? “Einstein,” he says, leaning on the wall with a sigh. He folds his legs, tucking his frozen feet under him and grabbing the blanket for good measure. “How’s Mom?”

Your snark is working just fine. Mom’s like you’d expect --” Wes takes a moment for his customary, drama-queen princess yawn. “She’s high as balls and refuses to touch hospital food. That’s why I’m calling. She wants Chipotle,” he says, pronouncing the name ‘chi-poddel’, which he does just to annoy Mom.

Maka pushes herself to sit upright, face screwed with disgust. “What is it with you guys and cheap fake-mexican food?” she asks, picking up Wes’s end of the conversation. “Did he just say chipoddel?

“Tell Maka she’s an angel and you don’t deserve her.”

This is, obviously, an Older Brother Attempt at making him splutter -- which nearly works -- but Maka is right there, a foul-mouthed, violent death knight tank preening over being called an angel by a facetious and chaotic evil supermodel.

“No one deserves me,” she says, blushing with her Einstein hair.

Soul grumbles, leaning to the side and sliding down the wall to flop back to the bed. “Can I talk to Mom now,” he says, thoroughly annoyed with himself.

There’s a loud shuffling on the other end of the line, followed by Therese Evans’s indignant sniff: a quiet, comedic noise that Soul hadn’t known he knew or associated with her. “They thought you were my husband,” she says, tone disapproving for all of four words before her grin becomes audible. “Then they thought Wesley was.”

“Oh my god, Mom.”

You frown in your sleep, honey. I have some wrinkle cream for you. Oh, that reminds me, there aren’t very many, but I need the panties that aren’t t-backs, if you would, please.”

“MOM.” Maka looks like she’s close to throwing herself off the bed so she can literally ‘rofl’ across the circus rug. Rubbing his forehead wrinkles, Soul says, “I guess you’re feeling alright.”

Therese does that sniff again. “No, Soul, I am starving. It’s 2017 and hospitals still haven’t heard of carnitas.

Between Maka’s silent laughter shaking the bed, and Mom as opinionated as ever, it feels as if his lungs finally, finally allow him to take a full breath. “Panties and a burrito bowl. Anything else, Matriarch?” he asks, a smile inching across his face. Maka puts her head in her hands.

Hmm, and my laptop. You’ll have to help me buy a new Tesla. With the smarts.”

“The ...smarts?”

Yes, you know. All the programs? And smarts. The last one you got saved me, so you ought to pick it again.”

\\

Because she had re-equipped the skeleton pyjamas (and his jacket, just to feel less conspicuous), Maka had decided to make the final trip home after she drops him back off at the hospital. “But the chips and guac were pretty good, I guess,” she says as he gets out of the car.

He juggles the bags of Mom’s clothes and Chipotle. “Told you.” Leaning down, he looks back into the station wagon. “Hey. Thank you-- really.”

She shrugs, turtle-like, his jacket engulfing her. “You’re welcome,” she says, and the shy smile she has is a secretive, quiet thing, but he knows the secret. He can’t stop himself from mirroring it back-- not that he tries.

The moment is interrupted when she exclaims, “Oh!” Her hands slap to her shoulders. “Your coat! Lemme give it back.”

“Nah, don’t worry about it,” he replies, and she pauses while reaching for her seat belt buckle. “I’ll be in town for awhile. Wanna hit up Denny’s or something later?”

He doesn’t think he’s imagining the way her face brightens. “Yeah! Just t-- oh, wait.” She frowns, dropping her chin down and attempting to pitch her voice as low as his, which doesn’t work at all. “Just text me. I’ll show up.”

“O-okay?”

She lifts her chin back up. “I wanted to try saying it,” she says, and openly snorts at his face. “You do it to me all the time. Mr. ‘Cool Guy’.”

“Pff--” Soul can’t stop the laugh, even as his face becomes the embarrassed surface of the sun. “I have no idea what you’re talkin’ about,” he says, backing up. “BYE.”

BYE!” she yells back, and he can hear her cackling even after he shuts the door. He sees her wave as she leaves the lot.

The rain had stopped at some point, Nevada’s heat creating a steamy, humid evening, but even the laden-armed walk to the front doors isn’t so bad. He could still use a week’s worth of sleep, but he feels like he has full agency of his emotions for once, which is a vast improvement over this morning.

In the elevator, he shifts all the bags onto one arm, finally checking his unread texts. Most are from Blake, which are surprisingly thoughtful, all things considered, and Soul is even more surprised to see a few from other guildies, asking how he’s doing and if everything’s okay.

There’s even one from ShadowStag: [[I rolled tank spec to cover for Reaper. Blackheart took your spot and did very well. Take all the time you need. But remember: pinatas.]] followed by a modest two butcher knife emoji.

Soul steps out of the elevator and stops in the hallway. He’d expected some one-off texts giving him generic hell for ditching the raid, but not actual support from everyone.

Maybe he’s not just some guy from the internet to them, either.

Still trying to wrap his head around the concept, he slips the phone back in his pocket and opens the door to Mom’s room. Inside, he’s startled to see not only Dad, but also Maka’s dad, the latter returned from the air force base and bowing deeply before Emmett and Therese. He begs, “Please allow me to court your son!”

This is when Mom and Dad, in synchronized shock, turn to look at Soul.

“Wh- no, not me,” he yelps, voice cracking. He points angrily at Wes, who is turning purple in the corner in an attempt to hold in his giggling. “THE OTHER ONE.”