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He was hired without her knowledge in mid-winter.

She couldn't raise hell about it, or rather she shouldn't, because she was neither the owner nor the foreman. She was just Maka, owner's daughter- not someone to ask advice or take orders from, and low on the totem pole of her own design. She'd decided from the start not to be that kind of ranch princess.

Still, she found herself wishing murder to befall the guest house. A sellout! How could they possibly have hired a sellout Evans!? If anyone was going to act the princess part it'd be that guy. Angel's End would be the laughingstock of the next stock show when word got around they were so desperate for hands that they hired a- a- a dude.[1]

"Spirit didn't like him at first either, Maka," said Sue Strickland, actually Tsubaki Nakatsukasa-Strickland, twenty-seven, as they cleaned up the catastrophe that was the breakfast table.

"Oh good, maybe there's some sense in him after all," Maka muttered, sweeping toast crumbs off the table and onto the floor.

"At first. Patti made him watch the guy rope and he changed his mind."

"What? Just over that- that's ridiculous, I can rope so we don't need a-"

"Maka you're not home everyday anymore, remember?"

Her hands tried to choke the broomstick handle into little plastic pieces. Maka was sometimes forgetful of the fact that her hesitant career path had recently placed her in the city on weekdays. If she wasn't forgetful, she was resentful. "Urgh."

"Mifune and Kyle are decent but Kyle's a deputy now and Mifune can't do it by himself. We both know Black Star can't rope his way out a paper sack, and I'll be beyond pregnant come spring."

Maka eyed the small bump that was Tsubaki's stomach and groaned. "...Why an Evans, though?"

Tsubaki laughed. "He ropes better than you."

"HAH. Fat chance!"

 

\\

 

He did rope better than her. It was utterly infuriating, but Maka Albarn, dishwater blonde, twenty-four, wasn't the type to not give full credit where credit was due. Turned out the Dude wasn't so much a dude, and was also district roping champion last year.

Maka hadn't participated in any rodeo contests, because rodeo was still a place segregated by gender, and she didn't want to compete unless it included men. Wasn't any sense in testing her mettle if the arena wasn't close to simulating real life. Oh no, but the delicate women had to compete in a girls-only rodeo. Misogynistic swine! She may as well be riding sidesaddle! Women's rodeo only gave a fraction of the winnings that men's awarded, and any title Maka could have won in competition didn't mean horseshit to the men's circuit.

In any case, the numbers didn't lie. Evans could rope a calf in just a hair over six seconds while she was pushing six and ninety-two hundredths.

She wanted to bash his face in and tie him up with his own damn piggin' string.[2]

Maka scowled as the YouTube video ended, regretting the time she'd spent waiting on it to buffer with their sub-par internet just to watch something that would give her indigestion at five thirty in the morning. Black Star, actually Blake Strickland, actually eternal thorn in Maka's side, twenty-five, made the mistake of trying to cheer her up by saying, "Well you're so damned short, you hafta try twice as hard with your little legs," before she knocked his hat off his stupid head. "What? Maybe you should get a little Shetland so you don't gotta jump down so far, shortstack."

She snapped her laptop shut and stalked out of the house, glaring at the rising sun as she climbed into her truck and turned the engine. She gave a disgruntled wave to Black Star as he stomped into his boots, still laughing.

Unfortunately, the drive to town was long and boring, so she had plenty of time to mull over that disgusting six-point-eleven-second calf rope, that irritating grace Evans exuded jumping off his horse and tearing across the arena, the matter-of-fact way he wrapped the calf's legs, all the while his horse keeping the rope taut like she wouldn't rather do anything else in her life.

God, and Evans's horse was something else, too. Six months prior, a rowdy bunch of Morgans were put up for bid, and Patricia Thompson, buxom, just barely seventeen, stalked the daylights out of the sale. Angel's End's wrangler always had an eye for good horses, and even if she couldn't buy one herself she'd wanted at least one of them to go to someone she knew.

(Fate saw fit that a mare would go to the younger brother of Pat's sister's boyfriend. This absurdly coincidental transaction had been the starting point of what Maka does not fondly call 'The Sellout Weeding onto Albarn Property'.)

The horse was a ridiculously handsome blue roan, beyond energetic, and responded to Evans with such enthusiasm it made Maka consider keeping antacids in her saddle bag. The fact that the horse hated her guts didn't help, either.

Well, the feeling was mutual! Who'd want to get along with the horse of a cow's ass whose family would give up their ranch to land-greedy, market-inflating, corporate cattle assembly lines and move to the city?

Maka growled angrily at her steering wheel while the radio finally picked up an FM station.

 

\\

 

She met the county sheriff for lunch. Or rather, she waited for him impatiently at the usual cafe while Elizabeth Thompson, southern bombshell, twenty-eight, raved about her rodeo star boyfriend.

"A man that can ride a bull like that knows a thing or seven, if'n you catch my drift," Liz said while pouring Maka's sweet tea with such a lecherous grin that Maka could only grimace. "He's real nice though, specially accountin' for the rep he gets 'cause of his family. Which is jus' dumb, seein' as how that had hardly nothin' to do with him! S'not like he gave up ridin'. He jus' got a pool now is all."

"Mmm," Maka inadequately said to her tea glass, the guilt for adhering to certain bad reputations like fly paper and eagerly using said stigmas to openly condemn certain ranch hands with whom she hadn't even exchanged words leaving her a tad mentally exposed.

"I'm sure his brother gets much less trouble, still cowboyin' and all. He's a good kid."

Maka spread the guilt more thickly over her conscience.

"He used to bullride too, didja know?"

"What, really?" Evans didn't seem the type for such an outlandish, dangerous sport- that was more of Black Star's territory. "I thought he just roped?"

"Well he does now, but before? He was 'bout as good as Wes, til that black one hooked him good. Wes worried hisself sick over that. Said his brother got a scar from shoulder clear to hip!" she said, drawing a line diagonally across herself. "Hum," she muttered, resting the sweating pitcher of iced tea on her own hip, "bet that's fancy lookin'."

Maka scoffed. "Your appetite will go down in the history books."

"I'm jus' sayin'," Liz smiled brightly. "If he's anythin' like his brother, you outta look into rippin' that tag off before someone else does."[3]

"Whose tag are we ripping off?" a male voice interrupted their conversation, as one-sided as it was.

Liz, ever used to Sheriff Albarn's overprotective temperament, explained without missing a beat, "Why, there's a big sale goin' on at the Justin Boot, and I was just tellin' Maka how she outta get herself a new pair seein' as her present ones ain't even hardly fit for a sixteen step!"

Oh, she was good. Maka tried her hardest not to openly gag. Liz was always great at playing on cowboy heartstrings for a girl vying to move to the city. Maka couldn't help but shake her head in wonder, watching Liz pour the sheriff some coffee. "I wouldn't be caught dead doing a sixteen step," said Maka.

"Whaaat?" Liz dramatically says. And then, in a stage whisper, "Shut up, I'm tryin' to get your daddy to buy you some new shoes, geeze!"

 

\\

 

After lunch, she was inevitably led to the boot store by her father and, despite her intentions -- or at least lack of interest -- she was drawn to a certain pair.

Black snakeskin, punchy toed with a shallow scallop and ready for asskicking, she looked up to them, because the designers for the displays hadn't considered criminally short women browsing the shelves. Worked leather permeated the air-conditioned western store and Maka dully regarded the boots though she pictured them quite easily on her feet.

"Do you want them?" asked Spirit Albarn, reddish brown hair, forty-two, still wearing his cowboy hat, handheld radio chattering on his belt.

"No," she replied. Because they're expensive and he would buy them for her regardless of price, and she wouldn't be that kind of freeloading ranch princess.

She found them in the bench seat of her pickup when she got out of training that evening. Scowling at home, she noted they fit her perfectly. Tsubaki rubbed her belly and noted that snakeskin looked good on her. "Like that moccasin you killed last summer."

Maka hated snakes. The black serpent had been stalking Crona, two-and-a-half, chihuahua, at a campsite near the lake. "Shoulda left my dog alone," she muttered with mild satisfaction, fixing the drape of her jeans over her new boots. "You want more... pickles or something?"

"Maka, I hate pickles. I'm fine. DON'T TRACK THAT COW CRAP THROUGH THE KITCHEN, WE HAVE A MUD ROOM FOR A REASON."

Black Star slinked across the hallway and accused his wife of sonar and hidden cameras.

As if the outburst hadn't occurred, Tsubaki teased Maka with, "I thought you weren't taking handouts?"

"I said 'no'! He snuck them in the damn truck when I wasn't looking. ...Which means he still has my spare key that son of a-"

"He knows you so well."

"That'd be fine if every housewife in the county didn't know him so well, too."

 

\\

 

Winter was a hardworking season, even for the more southern climates such that Angel's End enjoyed. Ice could still cover all the grazing pastures, and cattle must be fed every day, bright and early. Freezing temperatures would seal up ponds and stock tanks, leaving cows dehydrated. A winter workday on a ranch started before sunrise and stretched beyond sunset, and supper for a cowboy wasn't so much a sit-down meal as it was a drive-through.

So, it wasn't any surprise that after Sue cooked a feast fit for dixie kings, the sovereign couldn't come in to immediately enjoy it. The woman napped in a recliner in the living room, little Crona in her lap, while Maka dried the newly-cleaned cookware, keeping an eye on the pot of chicken and dumplings still keeping warm on the stove top.

Spirit, still in his sheriff's uniform, finished his supper and looked over the financial records his general manager had left for his perusal. The papers rustled as he flipped through the many pages. He didn't mention the fact that his daughter was still wearing her new boots in the house.

Maka didn't mention not knowing if her father was home late because of work or because of desperate housewives.

She glanced at him out the corner of an eye, running a dishtowel over a wet rolling pin. Her papa didn't look pleased with what Sue had left him, but he didn't mention that, either. Standing and grabbing his empty plate, Spirit walked up to next to Maka, sneaked the dish into the soapy water still drawn in the sink, and kissed the top of her head. "Stay warm. Storm's rollin' in."

"Are you working with us tomorrow?" she asked, trying to keep the hopefulness out of her voice.

"Not this time, 'hon. I need to look into some complaints 'bout that Lazy S ranch, first thing."

Her disappointment was quickly overtaken by this interesting information. "Aren't they the ones that bought the, ah, Evans property?"

"That'd be the one."

"...What kind of complaints?"

"Just some questionable reports. I want t'find out for myself first, sweets. I'm goin' to bed. G'night."

Maka sucked her lips into a thin line, and put away the rolling pin. "Mm. Night, Papa."

The stairs leading to the bedrooms on the second floor creaked as her father climbed. Half-hoping she'd be too quiet to be heard, she said, "Thanks."

"You're welcome," his voice softly echoed down the stairs.

Maka finished drying the dishes in relative silence, kept company by only the whistling kitchen window. The north wind was solid with cold, crashing into the fogged glass and worming its freezing temperatures into the house. She sighed, curious as to what kind of complaints had been lodged against that other ranch.

Lazy S had a lot of rumors circling it -- most of which sounded far-fetched and just a hair short of old wives' tales -- but the hard truth was the business running the place had a lot of money to throw around, and their practices were making it rough for ranches like Angel's End to make profit every autumn. Maka wondered if they'd manage to break even next year. She didn't want to think what would happen if they didn't.

She hung her dishtowel on a drawer pull and walked over to the kitchen table, taking her own gander at the books Tsubaki meticulously kept for Spirit. The numbers were strong, indicative of a promising calving come spring, but even so she knew once they were shipped off in the fall, they'd somehow be outshone by cattle with that Lazy S serpentine brand.

Hearing boots on the back porch, Maka swallowed her unease and looked to the door. The cowboys were finally coming in from the weather, close to midnight. Blake came in first, followed by Mifune and Patti, with Evans bringing up the rear. They all look tired and cold, but Maka was surprised to see Liz's younger sister still present.

"Pat, what're you still doing here? Does Liz know?" she asked, quickly bringing down clean plates from the cupboards for the newcomers.

"I decided to stick around an' help," Patti replied, yawning. "Lizzy's out with Wesley tonight."

(A man that can ride a bull like that knows a thing or seven, if'n you catch my drift.)

"Oh," Maka said dumbly, only half-aware of Blake eagerly taking the plates from her hands.

"Aaaand my Jeep's broke."

"What? What's wrong with it?" Maka hissed, concerned. "Did you wreck it again?"

Patti gave her an exasperated look. "That weren't me, it was Lizzy, I keep sayin'! And no, I didn't wreck nothin'- Soul says it's prolly the alter-nayter." She turned her head to Evans. "Right?"

"Should probably get it tested, but yeah." Evans walked by the counter long enough to grab two biscuits in a basket to Maka's right, and inclined his head marginally to her in passing. She tried to keep her eye from twitching with irritation.

To her curiosity, Evans didn't take an empty plate from Blake. He walked back to the door again, turning his head to Patti. "I'll warm up the truck," he said, before taking a giant bite out of a biscuit.

"Okee dokee, thanks," the girl replied quietly, as to not wake up Tsubaki in the adjacent room. Wind whistled through the back door as Evans shut it behind him. Patti bumped her hip against Maka's, interrupting any confused thoughts regarding certain Sellouts, and held her hands near the still-warm pot of chicken and dumplings while Blake scooped out a mountainous serving for himself. "Sorry I'm not stayin', but I got somethin' in the crock pot at home waitin' for me. Ooh, nice boots..."

"Buh, ah," Maka stammered, looking down at the footwear in question. "Thank you?"

"I'll see ya'll tomor- er, today. I'll come back to get the Jeep workin'."

"Bye, Pat."

"G'night."

"Later."

"Tell Sue I sed 'bye'." Cold air swirled in again as the younger Thompson left.

Maka swatted at Blake. "Wash your damn hands first, Black Star." He rolled his eyes and obliges. "Papa says a storm's coming in," she informed him.

"I believe it. Prolly ice more'n anything." The faucet handle squeaked as Blake shut off the water. "How's she doing?" he asked, jerking his head in the direction of the living room.

"Ate like you and went to hibernate."

He laughed, relieved, and took his plate to the kitchen table to dig in. As Mifune pulled a fork out of a drawer, he quietly mentioned that the calf count was wrong.

"You're sure?" Maka asked, now more fully aware of the incoming weather than ever.

"Counted twice." Twice was a big deal for the meticulous foreman. "Missin' one."

Blake swallowed a mouthful of chicken. "Thought so. One of the fall calves, wasn't it."

Mifune nodded, crossing his arms. "If ice is comin', it won't make the night."

Both men looked to the back door as if they could somehow see through it and into the pastures beyond. Maka read the weariness on their faces.

"I'll go," she announced. "I don't have class tomorrow."

"The horses are put up," Mifune warned.

"I'll take a feed truck. It has searchlights anyway. You guys eat and rest up."

Blake didn't bother swallowing this time. "Take a radio or somfin' wif you."

She was already shrugging on her thick parka. "Yeah I know. Which pasture were they in today?"

 

\\

 

Searching for a black calf in the middle of the night during an ice storm was one of the more irritating things a person can be tasked with, unless that person was Maka Albarn. She loved a good challenge, and perhaps a bit too much more than a normal person. She found it easy to think like a critter, and she took pride in almost always knowing where a stray calf was wandering, or when a copperhead might be hiding in a pail, or when the coyotes were making their rounds. Maka didn't understand how gut instinct can be so right- maybe living on the land every day allowed a person to pick up on patterns and cues without knowing.

The northeast hills of the property were rocky, erratic, and all-around not friendly in the dark. It was riddled with ravines and drop-offs, shallow ponds, and plenty of places for a young calf to hide. Maka carefully maneuvered the heavy diesel feed truck around obstacles she nearly knew by heart, slowly inching forward while piercing the night with searchlights and hi-beams. She had a feeling, for whatever reason, that a calf would have enjoyed the area in this direction, when the sun had still been a little warm, and before a cold front had blown in.

She parked the truck, leaving the lights on, and hopped out of the cab. The wind cut into her like knives, slicing through the neck of her coat and into her sleeves. Her new boots were stiff and ungainly, and she walked less than gracefully to the edge of a narrow ravine, holding a flashlight. The end of her ponytail whipped into her face as she tried to discern any movement below.

The wind was so loud that she didn't hear the other truck approaching -- it was the headlights moving across the ground to cast her shadow in another direction that caught her attention. She looked back and instantly regretted it, her night vision destroyed by looking directly into another truck's hi-beams. Maka heard a door slam shut and watched a cowboy's silhouette cut across to her. She squinted, but then balefully recognized that lean, six-point-eleven-second gait, and frowned.

They were the first words he'd ever spoken to her directly. "Mitch's calf?"

For a guy that hadn't been on the ranch but a week, he sure caught on quick. "Not yet, but I have a feeling," she called over the wind.

"You're alone?"

He didn't say it incredulously, so she probably shouldn't have taken it as a challenge to her ability, but she did, and her pride quipped back, "They trust me." Blood hot, she shined her flashlight back down, searching more deeply into the ravine. As much as she valued her instincts, she still didn't know whether to go left or right. Immediately, her irritation tripled -- she hadn't been on the ranch much this week, and the longer she was away, the less connected she felt. "I'll take east! You have a light?"

Evans clicked his own flashlight. "Be careful."

"Ah, uh, you too," she awkwardly returned, Liz's reenactment of Evans's scar flitting through her mind a moment before she turned eastward. The north wind buffeted her left side as she traced the edge of the ravine, shining her light alternately at her feet and into the drop-off. A small (but not small enough) part of her wanted to find the calf she knew was around here somewhere before him, but she tried to choke out this weed of competitiveness, knowing full well that it didn't amount to shit who found the critter as long as it was found before it froze to death.

Her new boots fought her feet as she stumbled over rocks and clumpy, half-dead vegetation. It was when she regained her balance, arms flailing, that she saw the beam from her light reflect off two bovine eyes in the dark.

"There you are, sweets. We'll get you outta there soon." Maka darted around, looking for any kind of defining landmark, and settled for scraping together some loose gravel and dirt into an obvious mound with her boot. She took off west, left ear glad to be away from the wind; right ear sending tingling shocks of cold through her system. "Evans!" she called out, hoping her voice would carry and not be trampled by the storm. Sleet began to fall, pelting loud against her parka. "Evans! This side!"

She saw a distant pinpoint of light shine in her direction. Maka shined hers back, waving it around to get his attention. The ranch hand trotted back as quickly as one safely could in the dark next to a ravine. "Alive?"

"Looks stiff already. We're gonna have to haul it out."

"Lemme grab a tarp."

Maka walked back to her makeshift cairn, Evans not far behind her. She directed her light back in the ravine, and those two little eyes were still there, watching. When he caught up to her, they shared a hesitant look, though his wasn't much more than a shadowy cowboy hat and a clenched jaw as far as she could tell.

"Welp," he said, and hopped in.

She was thankful that much communication wasn't needed; Mister six-point-eleven had a ration of common sense, and seemed to know what Maka wanted before she asked. Together they maneuvered the weak calf into the tarp, and helped carry it out of the ravine with few mishaps. Honestly, the low point of the evening was the moment of being distinctly aware of new boots sinking into a less-than-day-old pie, but she only ground her teeth at that.[4]

They got the calf settled in Maka's truck, laying it across the passenger side of the bench seat. She clapped her boot on the side of a tire before walking around to the driver's side, shaking the sleet from her hair. Climbing in, she watched Evans point the heater vents to point at the critter, sleet gathering on the brim of his hat. "Meet at the barn?" he asked.

"The house."

He nodded, and gently shut the passenger door before hopping in his own truck. He led the way, a little slower than she'd like, but she was still grudgingly impressed (and slightly disappointed) that he didn't get a flat.

Maka shut her vents to direct more warmth through the ones pointed at the shivering little calf. It was already beginning to look a little more lively, its long, gangly legs twitching in the tarp it was wrapped in. She turned on the windshield wipers before draping her arm across the small, cluttered console separating her and the calf. Reaching to scratch the critter's ear, she asked, "Have I been unfair to the sellout, little one?"

The calf, not wanting to be touched by anyone who wasn't its mother, tilted its head away. Maka replaced her hand back at the wheel.

She heard a crackle of static, and a beep. "Wouldn't know. Have you?" replied the handheld radio in the console's cup holder. Maka regarded the painful silence in the cab, recognizing that six-point-eleven voice. She groaned, reaching over to switch off the handheld.

 

\\

 

In the mud room of the main house of Angel's End was an over-sized, scratched-up, cast-iron bathtub. Maka filled this halfway up with warm water. Mifune -- who had stayed up waiting for her return -- and Evans eased the calf into the tub to help stave off any lingering hypothermia. Maka rested her hands in the water with the animal to bring feeling back into her numb fingers.

"We'll have to cut the ice tomorrow," Mifune said quietly.

Evans took off his hat and rubbed his bandana-covered head. It was the first Maka had seen of the top half of his face not shrouded in shadow. She didn't get more than a glimpse of curiously pale lashes and flaxen eyebrows before his hat went back on. "Alright," he gruffly said. "I can in the morning."

Maka piped up against the complaints of her weary body. "Both of you go get some rest. I can mother up this one myself."

The ranch hand looked like he was about to protest, but the Mifune spoke up before he could. "Appreciate it. See you in the morning, Maka. Evans," he said and took his leave.

"G'night."

"Night, Mitch."

The calf shook its head, floppy ears splashing up water. Evans hesitated a moment before crouching next to her and stretching a hand to scratch under the calf's wet chin.

"If you're sure."

Maka couldn't stop the wry, sideways smile. She may have made an ass of herself over the radio, but that didn't blind her from seeing a guy who'd just worked a twenty-something hour day. "Go sleep. ...And thank you. For stopping."

He gave a small shrug. "Was planning to look anyway. Glad I wasn't alone." It was the longest string of words he'd said to her. He grunted, standing upright. "G'night," he said, heading to the back door.

"Night, Evans."

Slowly his feet stopped, and his bootheel quietly rested on the mudroom tile. He swiveled around a quarter turn. "Soul."

Maka looked to him, unable to see his face, and settled for focusing on the familiar brim of his hat. To her dumbfounded blinking, he repeated, "My name is Soul." With that, he turned back around and walked out into the cold.

 

\\

 

Well, she knew his name was 'Soul'. Soul Ethan Evans, district roping champion, twenty-six to his brother's thirty, and, after a long YouTube buffer, victim to the black bull Ragnarok two autumns prior.

Anyway, she'd been calling him 'Evans' in an attempt to stop calling him 'Sellout', but it seemed he disliked either brand equally. Maka closed her laptop and settled more deeply in the bed she'd had most of her life and absently stroked Crona's fur. Her feet ached, and her body seemed to retain a chill she knew she wouldn't be rid of until she saw the first blade of grass in spring.

There was a deep-rooted part of her that wouldn't forgive a person who would give up the kind of life she cherished, but she'd found that out of all the Evans family, she may have been nailing her judgment on the one person who had tried to give up the least.

(Wouldn't know. Have you?)

In the dark, she tried to slap the embarrassment off her face.

 

\\

 

Morning found her in four and a half hours. The coffee Tsubaki brewed for everyone could pass for tar, it was so strong, and Maka was grateful enough to drink two cups of it before the other cowboys had rolled out of bed. She rinsed her cup in the sink, exchanged words with bleary-eyed Blake, nauseated Tsubaki, and her father. Glancing out the kitchen window, she noticed the horse stable and a very unsaddled resident. Evans's mare, Harley, stood out like a sore thumb.

Oh, how quickly her judgment jumped on this occasion. "Looks like our hand isn't up yet. Wasn't he supposed to be cutting the pond, Mitch?"

Mifune clucked his tongue once as he spooned a portion of Tsubaki's scrambled eggs onto his plate. "I'll get it then."

"Oh no, I've got it. You go ahead and eat," she said a shade too chipper. "You have to worry about feeding them today, don't you?"

"Mm."

 

\\

 

Harley, by way of predictable, indignant snort, relayed a snooty 'I'm watching you, Albarn' as Maka passed by. Maka blew back out of habit, not even rising to the bait as she toted tack.

"Hey Skully," she called out to her partner in crime. Skully was an easy-going Quarter Horse, which suited Maka just fine. A horse that didn't startle as someone of her stature struggled to get a foot in a stirrup was immediately an ally. The bay gelding was bald-faced, the white patch covering the majority of his face giving the impression of a clean skull.

The horse nickered to her, breath coming out in big puffs in the frigid air. Maka's gloves were stiff with cold as she struggled with saddle buckles. When everything was situated, she led the horse out of his stall and to the nearby toolshed. There, she finally mounted, axe and shovel draped carefully across her lap.

She made her rounds to all the ponds, hacking long stretches of ice along the water's edge, and then overturning the frozen surface in segments to leave exposed water behind. It wasn't backbreaking work for her -- she was used to this kind of thing -- but it wasn't the most pleasant exercise at sunrise in boots that still needed breaking in. Resting a moment, she waved when Tsubaki, slowly driving a feed truck, passed by, Blake gradually knocking off hay for the cattle that followed them around the pasture.

Either Maka or Evans should have been helping Mifune in another pasture, because feeding was not a one-man job by any means, but she'd been cutting ice all morning, and Evans was still yet to be seen.

Her temper was hot and the weariness in her back and shoulders only made her angrier. After her rounds were finished, she mounted her horse once more, juggling axe and shovel, and headed straight for the guest house.

No hired hand slept in on her mama's ranch, no matter how late a night it may have been.

"Evans! " she hollered, and her horse twitched with her sudden outburst. She stroked his neck in apology before dismounting. "Evans, what in the hell is wrong with you? You better be dead in there else you will be soon!"

"'Bout time someone showed up," she heard a hoarse voice from a tiny window. "Been yellin' since sunrise."

Maka's face scrunched up in confusion, but she didn't let this deter her ire. "You best have a good explanation as to why I've been doing your work all... morning," she trailed off, glancing at the guest house and the placement of the window. "Are you... standing on the commode?" she ventured.

"I am."

"..Wh-"

"Albarn, I am iced in, and my horse needs fed, and the goddamn phoneline's been eat by some critter. Who in their right mind builds a house what faces north?!"

Maka's mouth opened, a cloud of breath erupting before she snapped it shut again. Her idiot papa was who, but that had been a long time ago and the only people who got to give him hell about it was her mama and herself. So like hell she'd volunteer that information to an Evans! "Don't fall in," she said lightly, and walked around to the front door of the small guest house, shovel and axe propped on her shoulder.

"Hey, wait. My horse-"

"That cow can wait another half-hour!" she shouted back.

"Cow!" His voice was faint but his irritation rang loud and clear in the crisp air. "Better than a rat that barks!"

"My dog is not a rat!" Maka took out her anger on his front door, using her shovel to wedge it under the thick ice covering the frame. "And neither is my dog any kind of-" she gave a mighty stab with the shovel, "fancy-assed," stab, "spoiled foul," stab, "high-collar," and her shovel was stuck into the doorframe, wedged, and this was when she realized she was chopping even more ice for Evans, "Lipizzaner dressage circus beast!"

The door slammed open, Evans having thrown his weight on it. Maka nearly stabbed him with the business end of the shovel. "AHH!"

A gust of warm air whipped out of the house as Evans stumbled into her. His look of surprise was quickly overwritten with a scowl. "She ain't no dressage horse, though your damned yappy dog is at least short enough to be yours!"

Maka was surprised to see his eyes: some kind of weird, thick hue of blood which accentuated the flush in his cheekbones. It distracted her a moment before she realized he'd made her the butt end of a joke regarding her lack of personal altitude, and she promptly smacked him with the handle of her shovel.

"Ow, son of a-"

"You... ass of an ass! Get to work!" Maka tossed her shovel at his feet for no reason other than just outright refusing to touch anything that had come into contact with him. She picked up her axe and took long strides back to Skully, mounting in one smooth motion. "You're welcome, your HIGHNESS!" she shouted, leaving Soul Ethan Evans behind.

Chapter Text

She spent the rest of the day fuming in her gut, though she did her best not to take her temper out on innocent bystanders. Maka kept one eye on Evans, who she couldn't decide was working twice as hard as usual to appease Mifune, or because he was just plain angry. Eventually, Maka went off-property to pick up Patti, who had called for a ride to town to pick up a new alternator and grab some dinner.

"I would be pleased if he just fell up a ladder and into a windmill."

"You gotta admit, a chee-hooa-hooa ain't exactly a cowdog."[1]

"I don't pass Crona off as a cowdog! Regardless, you don't call someone's dog a rat."

"'Magine you don't call someone's horse a cow, neither."

Maka choked on her pickle. "How'd you find out about that so fast?"

"Black Star is mighty quick with the text messagin'," Patti smiled before chugging her Dr. Pepper. "Looks like he's gettin' on well with Soul."

Maka sighed, wiping her hands on a paper napkin. "That's just what I need, two thorns in my side."

Patti responded with a mighty belch and gave a friendly wave to the other patrons in the diner who stared. "I'm beginnin' to wonder which of you is the thorn and the other the side," she mused. "Sometimes I think the Soul you tell me about ain't the same as the one I talk to every day."

"So, I should just take all the short jokes like a church sermon?" Maka replied, indignant.

"I didn't say none of that, I'm sayin' you're actin' like his horse, all stompin' and snortin' without givin' anybody who ain't family the time of day."

Maka shook her head, rolling her eyes at the very thought. "That's not true."

"It ain't? Then how come you never once congra'juated my sis 'bout her boyfriend?"

Blinking, Maka paused while pulling out cash to pay for the lunch ticket. "W-what?"

Patti stacked her silverware and napkin on her empty plate. "How many times has Lizzy told you 'bout Wes? Do you even know how long they've been goin' now?"

"I... I guess a couple of months? I don't know, what're you getting at?"

The younger blonde pursed her lips, displeased. "Over a year. And you, not so much a 'I'm happy for you Elizabeth Thompson'! 'Cause you got a thing 'bout," Patti raised her fingers up, "'sellouts'-"

"Well of course I'm happy for your-"

"-and anybody that ain't someone Mrs. Albarn hired for the ranch is an enemy."

The sounds in the diner were too casual and mundane for the feelings simmering in Maka's blood. Patti's hard, blue-eyed stare implied that horse wrangler knew exactly just what she'd said and how much it weighed on the parties present.

Maka didn't know whether to blow up or implode. She knew what her friend was saying was true, but it was the kind of truth no one wanted to hear because it meant admitting being wrong. To have her mother mentioned was just the icing on the emotional bomb, so Maka slowly counted to five, smoothly stood out of the booth, and exited the diner.

She waited in her truck for Patti to get in the passenger side, and silently backed out of the gravel parking lot. Patricia Thompson was a girl who got along with horses a lot better than people; she refused to go out of her way to be 'polite', and always got straight to the heart of a matter. Maka admired this aspect of her, though to have it directed at herself was hard to swallow. Having logic hammered into her by someone she practically considered a sister was a blessing and a curse.

After eight mile markers and the last set of stoplights long behind them, Patti spoke up: "I talked to him last night, when he gave me a ride home."

Maka said nothing.

"He asked me about you, he says," and she poorly imitated his voice, pulling her hat low on her brow so her face was nearly hidden, "'Is she always givin' people the evil eye or is it only me?'"

Setting the cruise control, Maka scoffed, adjusting the temperature of the heater. "What did you tell him," she asked in resignation.

"I tell him, 'You thought your horse took a long time!'"

"Okay, okay, I admit to being... a bit stubborn, are you happy?"

"You think? And Harley 'bout bit his finger clean off that first week, too!" The girl guffawed, telling Maka about that hospital visit and how Soul had tried to gross out Liz on the way to the emergency room. That tale spiraled from there to her sister and her usual shenanigans, but Maka still understood the point of the whole anecdote, even if it had fallen off-topic.

He tried, was what Patti meant. He was trying, and Maka ought to try at least as much.

...And maybe not call his horse a cow.

 

\\

 

When it came time for the ever-dreaded stock show, Maka was both irritated and grateful that she was too busy with the ranch and starting clinicals for her veterinary program to even find time to go. Winter gave them a steady list of things to do, never letting up on the freezing temperatures long enough to skip a day of cutting ponds and driving feed trucks.

She would admit, though never out loud, to having a certain insatiable interest in whether or not Soul Evans was going to participate in any part of the stock show, and on several occasions had drained her laptop's battery buffering YouTube coverage of the rodeo events long into the night. Despite several days of living vicariously through the internet, she turned up nothing about the ranch hand competing at all.

With only a few days left of the stock show, Maka was contemplating breaking down and finally asking Mister Six-Point-Eleven directly when, on a crisp Sunday morning, the second feed truck caught fire.

Maka watched her spare pair of good leather gloves burned to a crisp in the cab. "This is gonna make feeding even more of a pain."

Grunting in agreement, Mifune waved in the stocky, volunteer fire department's truck into the pasture.

Turning to make the long trek back to the house on foot, Maka said sourly, "I'll go and call Papa. Hopefully someone's selling a flatbed on the bulletin in town." She stomped her way through the frost-covered field. An out-of-commission truck wasn't a terrible thing on most days. It was a hassle in winter, when they were used the most, but they could be rebuilt and put back to work.

Unless, of course, they're on fire and a profit had been barely made last autumn.

Halfway across the pasture, she saw Evans on horseback, Harley in an effortless lope. They slowed and passed her before turning around to ride at her side. "What happened?" he asked, hand steadying the worn axe and shovel in his lap.

"Engine's on fire," she spat, more displeased with the situation than actually having a one-on-one with Evans. "Firetruck's here. It's fine. I gotta figure out where we're gonna get another truck that isn't the cost of a firstborn and my tuition."

She thought she heard a snort, but she didn't want to look and confirm if it had actually come from the man and not the horse. "Wanna lift?" he asked.

At this, Maka did stop, and she gave both Evans and Harley a skeptical look. "No thanks," she flatlined. That horse had it out for her, and she knew better. The mare gave her an obligatory snort for anyone having the audacity of looking at her highness directly. Maka bit back a handful of belittling cow comments and continued to the house. Behind her, she heard the clanging of tools knocking together and boots hitting the earth. Irritated to look back again, she was confused to see Soul leading his horse to catch up with her. "What're you doing?"

He gave her a quizzical look. "'Don't talk down from a horse'?"

Maka stammered, slightly thrown off-course by his display of cowboy politeness. "N-no I mean... don't you have some ponds to be chopping or something?" She began walking again, trying to balance stubborn disdain and lectures about giving strangers a chance.

"I finished."

"You, uh, don't have to stop on my account."

"Figured I ought to. Think I can find you a truck."

Maka looked to him in surprise, awaiting further explanation, but Evans only began to walk backwards, blowing his frozen breath into his horse's face.

 

\\

 

On the phone with her father, Maka sat at the kitchen table, dully assuring Spirit that everything was fine.

"I was driving. Yes, I'm fine. Smoke was coming in through the- yes, I'm fine. No, nothing else caught on f- Sue is fine too. Everyone is fine. Yes. Yes, I'm sure." She held the phone away from her ear a moment, clapped her hand over her mouth, and muffled her own scream before replacing the phone back against her cheek.

Across from her sat Soul, who propped up his chin with a hand. He was still as a statue, despite her outburst, and if she didn't know any better she would say he was asleep sitting up -- it was pretty hard to tell with his damned hat always shading his face. He still hadn't spilled any beans about whatever truck he thought he could catch for them, and between her irritation with her father and the unhelpful silence from the person across the table, Maka's mood skipped right over sour and fell straight into curdled.

"Papa, we need a new truck," she groaned, trying to get past all the preliminary questions regarding her safety.

Evans perked up at this, hand sliding out from under his chin and motioning for the phone. Scrunching her eyebrows this much in one sitting was making her forehead fatigued -- the end of her sanity was nigh. She covered the mouthpiece of the phone with a hand, blowing her bangs out of her face. "What."

"Lemme talk at him."

Maka closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Why the man couldn't simply tell her directly and let her suffer her father in peace was beyond her. Opening her eyes, she frowned her displeasure, but he only curled a finger in come-hither fashion and she felt herself cease all further effort wasted dealing with this absurd situation. Sighing, she handed over the cordless phone.

When Soul stood up and walked away with it for privacy, she just wanted to throw her boot at him. She rested her head on the table, defeated.

Whatever, she had other things to worry about, like finding sleep before her next shift at the clinic. She should probably go back out to the pasture to make sure nothing else exploded, or help finish feeding the cattle, or do anything remotely productive without constantly battling her instinct to give Soul Ethan Evans hell for simply breathing.

She was trying, damn it! After having her fallacy pointed out to her both directly and indirectly by the Thompson sisters, Maka was stuck self-analyzing every flare of annoyance she felt regarding Soul, trying to sort out which peeves were based on his being an enigma, and which were only a by-product of her prejudices. The fact that she was intensely jealous of that stupid champion roping time didn't help matters.

Her head was swimming when Soul rounded the corner and stepped back into the kitchen.

He looked disgruntled. Placing the phone quietly on the table, he cleared his throat. "Could you tell me how your father got the impression that I have, erm, 'impure intentions' towards you?"

She groaned into the table. "Don't... take it personally," she said, though she did note seeing his discomfort was exceptionally gratifying. "He's like that with anyone that's a man who isn't either married or Mitch."

Soul sat down in his previous chair. "How often would you say he used that pistol?"

Maka found herself smiling, lifting her head. "I make him unload it before supper every night. That'll give you a head start."

He made an uneasy noise in the back of his throat and placed his hat on the table, upside down. "Well anyhow, it's settled. You don't have to worry 'bout another flatbed."

She was stuck trying to classify just what kind of color his eyebrows officially were, watching him rub that bandana-covered head with a hand. Was he bald under there or what? "That so?"

He grunted evasively. Suddenly, Maka's focus was on his behavior rather than appearance. She watched his eyes dart to one side.

"What did you do." she asked, no question mark.

"Don't matter."

"Evans, did you-"

"Soul."

"-j.. Soul," she drew out his name, her impatience blooming, "Did you just have your richy family buy us a-"

"Hell no, like I'd ask them for money," he shot back, voice not raising in volume but rather gaining a depth that cut through the kitchen. "Look, I dunno what kinda misconceptions you got about me, but-"

"Then why're you all shifty-eyed? You look guilty."

He scowled, finally looking at her directly. "'Cause whenever my last name gets said, your eyes brand me."

She flushed, but refused to glance away on principle. Some acknowledgement regarding how she did not automatically respond with any kind of retort involving the word 'sell-out' would have been nice, but she had a feeling it wasn't forthcoming. "W-well if they didn't buy it, then where's it coming from?"

"You're buying it," he tiredly answered.

She blinked.

"Well, your pop is," he corrected, rubbing under his nose. "It's our old one what we didn't sell. S'got no purpose now, so."

"Oh." Maka winced. It only took half a second for her to substitute herself into a world where all aspects of her familiar life are labeled 'No Purpose'. She swallowed an indefinable emotion -- something that urged her to latch on to her surroundings and preserve them in her memory. "Thank you," she ground out.

In the awkward silence, Soul stood, replacing his hat back on his head and adjusting the tilt of the brim. As he did so, Maka found herself standing as well, her voice popping out of her mouth. "Ah, wait a 'sec." She walked around the table to face him, and his back straightened as she drew near. She reached, pushing the brim of his hat up half an inch, glad he wasn't so tall she had to stand on her toes. "I might not glare so much if I could see your damned face," she mumbled.

The corner of his mouth twitched up a moment as he blinked. His hand reflexively came up to fiddle with the brim, but she smacked it away.

"Quit it."

He exhaled noisily out his nose, hand dropping. "I got work to do," he said, tilting his head down enough to stubbornly hide his eyes with his hat.

She caught the small smile. Maka scoffed, stepped to the side to let him pass, and watched him leave.

Behind her, the sound of the refrigerator door slamming caused her to jump. She whirled around, finding Tsubaki munching on a celery stalk. A big grin was plastered on the general manager's face.

"I saw you lookin' at his butt."

 

\\

 

A combination of scrambling around to finish the day's feeding and avoiding conversations about cowboy butts took up the rest of the day Maka had originally reserved to finishing up paperwork before her next rotation at the vet. She got up before the sun the next morning, filling out worksheets while drinking coffee.

To her shock, she was startled awake twenty minutes past the time she was supposed to leave, her father's hand nudging her shoulder.

"You're gonna be late, sweets."

She was horribly disoriented, back and arms stiff from having fallen asleep on the kitchen table. Heart thundering, Maka glanced to the paperwork beneath her. It was completed. She sighed with relief and rose from her chair, hurriedly gathering her things. "Crap, crap, crap, crap, bye Papa-"

"Don't speed."

She sped, though not to spite her father. When she pulled into the (relatively) local veterinary hospital, she was nearly an hour late after the traffic in town. However, her supervisor and mentor, Miranda Nygus, didn't look as disappointed as Maka had feared. If anything, the middle-aged woman was surprised.

"Good morning, Maka... What are you doing here?"

Maka made an unseemly noise of sleep-deprived, harried confusion. She looked at the dry-erase calendar mounted on the wall behind the desk which Miranda sat.

She'd read it wrong. Her shift of clinical training wasn't until the following week. The trainee properly on duty- her classmate, Kimberly Diehl- stepped out of the back room, one side of her strawberry-red hair sticking up at an odd angle.

"I have just had it with these slimy critters, Miss Nygus!" she complained, rubbing a paper towel in her hair with disgust.

"Maybe if you didn't smell like peaches, they wouldn't lick you so much," Miranda laughed.

"Momma bought the soaps in bulk... I hafta use it all 'fore we can get a different smellin' one." It was then she noticed Maka. "Oh hey! What're you doin' here?" Kim asked, confused. "Gotta sick cow?"

Maka gave a wan smile, distantly wishing she was still asleep at the table. "No, I just can't read. Came by accident." She turned back to Miranda. "Can I borrow the wifi? Since I'm all the way out here for no reason."

"Sure, go for it. Awe, is that all your paperwork? You finished it, didn't you."

Maka nodded glumly while her superior laughed again.

She checked her email on her laptop, occasionally giving input to the other two ladies regarding overall bovine health. When Miranda and Kim were both otherwise occupied, Maka skimmed over her student loan statements for a moment before muting her laptop's speakers and opening a separate tab to YouTube.

Still no news on the stock show front, which didn't particularly surprise her. Evans had been on-property all day yesterday, and she'd be more than a little confused if he had somehow managed to sneak in a calf roping downtown.

Out of curiosity, she searched for 'Wes Evans rodeo', which brought up an impressive slew of results. There was almost no buffering time after she clicked the most recent video, dated last night. She watched the elder Evans brother ride a monstrous bull around the arena. After the performance, Wes hobbled to the person recording the video, a big smile stretching across his face.

Muted, Maka had no idea what he was saying in the impromptu interview. A few seconds in, and he was nearly tackled by none other than Elizabeth Thompson, dressed to the cowboy nines, who planted a big wet kiss on his dusty cheek. Maka laughed. Of course Liz would be at the stock show -- she'd worked the ticket counter every year since high school. In the video, Liz said something directly to the camera, complete with saucy grin. Wes then took off his cowboy hat and carelessly flung it into the stands.

Hand possessed, Maka paused the playback.

Atop Wes Evan's head was a close-cropped, sweaty mop of pale, almost-blonde-but-not-quite hair, which matched his silvery eyebrows. Overall, he had a stockier jawline than his brother. They shared a chin, though. And that peculiar, ruddy eye color.

"Huh," she said to no one.

 

\\

 

Driving home after having found nothing else of interest online, Maka's curiosity would not stop obsessively picking Angel's End's newest hired hand potentially having similar physical attributes to his older brother. She wasn't sure why it mattered -- even less sure why her mind kept floating back to Evans and all the incessant posterior comments Tsubaki had plagued her with.

When she pulled into the driveway at home, she noticed Soul's truck was missing. Walking inside, Maka found Tsubaki in the living room, who was habitually rubbing her stomach and typing away on a ten-key, adding figures. The financial records were spread in front of her on the coffee table while she sat on the floor.

"Sue," Maka said, exasperated, "we did clear out that spare room so you'd have an office, you know."

Tsubaki smiled, taking off her chic reading glasses. "I know. But the fridge is a lot closer to here than there."

"...There's a kitchen table."

"Leave me be! I'm comfortable."

"Alright, okay!"

Maka debated a moment over whether she should ask the older woman where their hired hand had run off to -- desperate to know if maybe he'd gone to the stock show after all -- but on the other hand, she did not want to be teased about butts.

"What're you doing home so early?" Tsubaki asked. "I thought you had to go to the clinic?"

"I did already. Apparently I can't read calendars properly."

"Oh, no."

"Yep. So... I have a week off, how about that?"

Laughing, Tsubaki put her glasses back on and shuffled through various receipts. "Is it dinner time yet?"

Maka glanced across the room and into the kitchen, squinting at the clock on the microwave. "Not quite. Quarter to noon. Maybe, ah, time for an appetizer?"

"I'll need a cheeseburger for an appetizer," she replied dryly, fingers quickly snapping across the keys of her calculator. "Mmm, with onions and tomato and lettuce, on a roasted, golden bun... Oh! Speaking of-"

"Lord."

"Are you gonna butter those biscuits, or what?" Tsubaki blandly grilled her, stapling invoices together.

"I have no idea what you're talking about, Sue," Maka blurted, retreating to the kitchen to peer in the refrigerator to make herself look busy.

"Of course you don't."

"Are they coming in for lunch, today?" she called, trying to change the subject.

"I doubt it. They ate so much in the morning I felt bad for their horses."

Horses! Maka whipped her head around, peeking out the window over the kitchen sink looking for a particular Morgan. If Evans had gone roping, he wouldn't have left without his irritating sidekick.

Alas, Harley was wandering the corral and waggling her lip at Crona, who sniffed around nearby.

Well, now she was plain stumped. Where had that lone ranger gone off? She grabbed a leftover pancake sealed in plastic wrap and shut the door. Walking back into the living room, she handed this to Tsubaki.

"Oh! Thanks." She unwrapped the gift and tore off a piece to pop in her mouth. She typed in a few more numbers. "He went to see his family," she bluntly said.

"Oh." Then, a beat too late as Maka tried to save face, "...Who went?" Tsubaki merely raised an eyebrow over the frame of her glasses, not buying the act. Maka's shoulders rose up in defense. "Don't give me that look, alright? I just... wanted to know if he was roping at the show, that's all."

Tsubaki made an enlightened sound. "I see. And you haven't asked him, yourself, because?"

Maka opened her mouth, but had no excuse at the ready. Luckily, she was interrupted by sudden and obnoxious honking. "...What the hell?"

"I guess they're here."

"They?"

Tsubaki munched on the rest of her cold pancake and stood. "With the new truck. Come on then."

This whole feeling lost and disconnected thing was really shooting down Maka's amiability. She glumly followed the general manager out to the rarely-used front porch and watched a noisy cavalry drive up.

In the lead was Soul in his rusty red pickup, followed by a relatively new Suburban with tinted windows, and in last place was a bright red, flatbed hay bale hauler with some weird contraption attached to the rear bumper.[2]

Maka tilted her head to the side, leaning on a post of the covered porch. Crona came running with his short little legs, skittering across the cement to stand at her side. "Hey, buddie," she called. The dog's tail wagged once before he was reduced to nervous, excited jitters from all the commotion. She let him hide behind her boot.

Soul engaged his loud emergency brake after parking. Maka watched him slide out of the cab, looking stiff from a long drive, and he waved to the Suburban to park next to him as he walked up to the idling flatbed diesel.

Maka was surprised to see Patti run out from the stables to the Suburban, opening the driver's side door with a laugh. Elizabeth Thompson stepped out, which was confusing because Maka knew Liz drove a beat up, four cylinder coupe. If she was driving someone else's vehicle, then the person driving the flatbed must've been...

"YOU BIG GOOBER, you didn't tell me it was Angel's End you was cowboyin' on!"[3]

Next to Maka, Tsubaki covered her mouth to stifle a giggle as Wes Evans stole Soul's hat and gave his twenty-six year old brother a noogie through his bandana.[4]

"Dammit Wes, what the hell, ge'roff!"

Maka was suddenly pleased she'd been mistaken about her clinical schedule today. 'Silver linings' and all that.

 

\\

 

After a lengthy how-to session regarding the usage of the hydraulic bale-lifting arms on the back of the new truck, Tsubaki implored everyone to stay for supper. She and the Thompsons prepared a table-crowding spread, warming up the kitchen.

Wes's right hand waved around the table as he talked. "Yeah, Officer Albarn tried damn hard to pin the horseshit going on at our place on Georgian. Nearly did it too, but her lawyers- plural! Lawyers!- gave hell 'bout 'reasonable doubt', buncha lowlife, gravy-sucking-"

Liz smacked him on the shoulder. "Not at the table!"

"Right, pardon."

"Georgian?" Maka asked, confused.

Tsubaki spoke up. "Maddy Georgian is the owner of Lazy S."

"Damn rat'ler, she is," Wes said lightly. Liz didn't correct him.[5]

Maka's eyes flickered across the long table to Soul, who was seated on the opposite end, next to his brother. He made no comment, neutrally chewing his food.

"Well anyhow," Wes resumed, turning to face Maka. "Our folks have lotsa respect for anything with your daddy's brand. No wonder my brother was glad to take the job," he grinned, leaning forward to look at Soul.

"That was coincidental," the younger Evans grumpily said around a dinner roll.

Patti, seated to Maka's left, guffawed. "That weren't how it sounded to me, Spitfire!"

Blake's cutlery scraped loudly across his plate. "Wait, whoa there. Spitfire?"

Maka watched Soul rub his face with the palm of his hand, anguished. "Pat, you damned traitor..."

Over the various snorts that broke out around the kitchen table, Wes happily clarified. "Yeah! 'Cause he hates spicy food. He gone and ate a hally-peenyo when he was but six, and just spewed like a 'lil machine gun-"

"I'd be much obliged if this conversation went in any other direction."

"Soul... you could've said something whenever I made enchiladas last week! I would've gone easier on the-"

"Don't even worry about it, Sue, s'not a problem."

"Are you blushin', brother?"

"You touch my hat again and I'll tell Liz about The Collection."

Liz took a sip of her tea. "Oh, don't worry 'bout that darlin', I already seen it."

Soul's entire body winced. "Believe I just lost my appetite."

"Lizabeth," Black Star said quietly, "Is it any good? OW."

Tsubaki placed her fork back on the table.

"So," Wes started up again, "Maka. Can I call you Maka?"

Of course he'd catch her mid-chew. She spoke behind her hand. "I... yes, that's fine."

"Lizzy tells me you're a fine roper like my kid brother," he accused, jerking a thumb at Soul.

Pride warred with unease at being the center of attention. "Well... I know where to keep my piggin' string, anyway." She pushed her green beans around on her plate with a fork as Wes gave a hearty laugh. Her eyes darted once more to Soul, who gave her a curious look.

"But I ain't seen you compete! From how Lizzy tells it, surely you'd place."

A flattered smile stretched across her face. "That may be," she shrugged. "But, I don't see much a point in competing if it's not coed."

Wes slowly nodded, eyes watching her carefully. "Fair enough. Well, I'm sure you could give Soul a run for his money," he beamed.

Maka heard Tsubaki snicker behind a napkin. She grit her teeth in a forced smile. "Hah, I don't think I can quite beat that championship time," she admitted, which tasted an awful lot like a bucket of lemons.

"That six-one-one is somethin' else, ain't it? Far better than I could do. Though I'll tell you a bit," Wes said, leaning forward in a guise of confidentiality. "That horse is all the talent- throws the loop with her own teeth and cheats for 'im."

Caught off-guard, she bit her bottom lip and tried not to laugh.

Soul's mouth stretched into a grim line. "I'm sittin' right here."

"Miss Sue, would you pass them great potatoes over here?"

Conversation drifted across multiple subjects, spanning from Blake and Tsubaki's coming child, Wes's next bullride, Mifune's constant silence being a front to steal all the string beans unnoticed, and the big dent in the side of Patti's Jeep that absolutely wasn't her fault. All the while, Maka found herself grinning widely at the group's animated, playful arguing, and kept noticing the quieter of the two Evans brothers glancing her way.

 

Chapter Text

Maka came home late one evening, toting a bag of miscellaneous goods Patti had requested. She walked over to the stables, having seen a light still on, and looked for the younger blonde.

"You stroppy brat, jus' hold still for ten minutes," was what she heard before she turned the corner.[1]

Peeking around the large barn door, she saw the farrier forge was lit before a cloud of steam laced with the smell of burning hair suddenly wafted into her face.[2,][3] When it cleared, her attention was drawn to the top of a hat. "Squirrel brain," Soul Evans growled, horseshoe nails held to one side of his mouth, between his teeth. He was bent over in the middle of the stables, wearing Patti's farrier apron (decked in pink and brown giraffe print), one of Harley's rear hooves pulled back and resting between his thighs.[4] He pulled a hot horseshoe away and examined the burned impression before releasing her leg. The mare's tail swatted at his head, smacking his hat.

"No, you can't go yet," he garbled around the nails, groaning as he straightened.

Maka watched the ranch hand immerse the hot shoe in a nearby bucket of water a few times, steam clouding up again. She figured now was a good time as any to speak up.

"Where'd Pat run off to?"

Soul froze in place for a good two seconds before his hat swiveled in her direction, his eyes once again in shadow. Maka made an impatient motion with her hand at her forehead, lifting an imaginary cowboy hat. With an irritated frown, he flicked the brim with a finger at her behest. "Mitch sent her home. Runnin' a fever," he said, turning his attention back to the horseshoe and carefully checking its temperature with his fingertips.

"Oh." Maka looked down at the contents of her paper sack of goods. "Hope she'll be alright."

Walking back to Harley with the cooled horseshoe, Soul ran a hand down the horse's leg and eased her foot back, straddling it once more. The mare smacked him with her tail again, which he ignored, grabbing a nail from his mouth and hammering it through the shoe and into the hoof. "Liz and Wes're over there. Won't be alone." He twisted off the exposed end of the nail with the back of the hammer.

She was still unused to associating Soul's brother to both Liz's boyfriend and to the person she had met last week at supper. Her head tilted to one side, watching Soul efficiently drive more nails into the shoe. He wasn't as quick as Patti, but there was an admirable, second-nature in his process. Having no business with him, there was no reason to stay, yet her curiosity was transfixed, audience to his work. She tried to look less interested, walking over to Skully's stall and scratching the side of his face.

After adjusting the shoe's fit with tools she didn't know the names of, Soul released Harley's foot and untied her lead. "Alright, fine, git out," he said, and the horse turned around and knocked off his hat with her nose before eagerly going into her stall and rubbing her face on a post. "Weirdo," Soul accused, gathering Patti's farrier gear. Without turning to face Maka, he asked, gesturing a hand towards her bag, "What's all that about?"

Her arm tightened around it, the contents shifting. "Pat asked me to pick up a few things while I was in town." Soul warmed his hands by the portable forge. "Do you... need help cleaning up? It's near supper time, I bet."

"Uh." He turned to look at her and, after a second, tilted his head up so his eyes were exposed. "Naw, don't worry 'bout it. I'll be in in a bit."

With a stiff nod, Maka gave Skully one last rub and turned to leave. Awkward interactions aside, she hadn't called Soul's horse a cow, and he hadn't called her dog a rat, so that was probably a form of victory. Or making par.

"Um- Albarn."

"...Yes?" she asked, looking over her shoulder.

Side-lit by the hot forge, red light tinted his clothes and bounced off his face. "After supper, if you got a minute..."

She pivoted back around on boot heels, leveling him with a dubious squint. "A minute for what?"

Soul shifted, diverting his attention to the farrier forge and turning a valve to cut off the fuel supply. "Have a favor to ask."

She waited. Impatiently, but she tried.

"...It can wait 'til after."

She huffed, her breath coming out in a frozen cloud. "But you can't ask me now."

He looked somewhat embarrassed as he took off Patti's loud apron. "Just don't go straight off to bed, s'all I'm askin'," he bit out. Turning away, he waved her off and said, "Now go on, I gotta clean this disaster."

Traitorously, her eyes are drawn to an old horseshoe hooked in the back pocket of his Wranglers. She nearly dropped the paper bag in her haste to turn away. "Whatever you say Spitfire," she loudly replied, relishing Soul's silence.

She mentally cursed Tsubaki for bringing ranch hand butts to her attention. She had no intention on 'buttering' anyone's 'biscuits'- whatever on earth that meant- but ever since the general manager had started pestering her about it, she was now painfully aware of its existence.

When she walked inside, shucking off her boots and placing them in a boot tray, she heard Japanese being quietly spoken from the living room. Mifune and Tsubaki conversed at the coffee table. Both were perusing financial records scattered across it, and Tsubaki held an opened letter in her hand.

Mifune (or 'Mitch' to just about everyone) often advised Tsubaki when it came to ranch business matters. He spoke and could converse in English easily, but to speak in his native language with the general manager was simpler.

Maka had still been a freshman at the time when Tsubaki, not wanting to leave after having completed high school through an exchange program, had asked Suzanne Albarn to stay and work for the ranch. As a result, Mifune, in his early twenties, had been flown in from Japan with the instruction to bring the Nakatsukasa daughter back home and carry out an arranged marriage.

Tsubaki refused, wanting to choose her own life. Mifune was relieved, having no romantic inclinations towards anyone at all. And, because Mama had never been one to turn a stray away, Suzanne gave them both work when their respective families cut off financial ties.

Now the general manager and the foreman, the two shuffle papers around, comparing numbers in a combination of English and Japanese. Over the years, Maka had picked up on a few foreign words and phrases, but she tried not to make it a habit to eavesdrop. She was, however, quick to notice Mifune's stern posture, and the crinkle of Tsubaki's forehead as she took off her reading glasses.

"How that woman does it, I can not understand," was all Maka caught before she walked into the kitchen.

Before she could dwell on whatever was bothering them, she met Blake at the sink, who washed his hands while whistling. "Heya, shortstack."

"Hi Loud. What's for supper?" Maka asked, smelling something savory and comforting emanating from the oven.

"Only the best thing ever. What's in the bag?"

She'd forgotten she'd been carrying it entirely. "Oh. Pat's stuff. Some saddle oil, curry combs, Oreos, you know."[5]

"Oreos?"

"Actually," she said as she placed the bag on the counter and pulled out a blue package, "these are mine. And you can't have them."

"Says who?"

"Says, oh you cheating sack of-!"

It was when Blake Strickland was dangling the stolen package of Oreos twenty stories too high above her head that Soul entered, holding open the back door for Spirit Albarn to walk in.

Maka's father carried a warped cardboard file box that looked entirely too laden with reading material to be structurally sound for much longer.

"Papa," she greeted, arm still extended in the air, grasping for the package of cookies. She pointedly ignored Soul's quizzical look. "You're home," she said, surprised. Ever since looking into the goings-on at Lazy S, her father had been very much absent most evenings.

"So're you," he replied, setting the heavy box on a counter top while Soul shut the door behind them. He gave a small grin, blue eyes flitting up to the Oreos in Blake's hand. "Them for me?"

Her voice squeaked, emphatically replying, "No!"

"No, they're mine," Blake said causally, wincing when Maka elbowed him in the gut.

From the living room, Tsubaki and Mifune walked in, the former of the two saying, "Oh, you made it just in time for supper, boss."

Spirit took off his hat and hung it on a peg near the door. Next to it, he hung his gun holster as he made a show of sniffing the air. "I'd rather get trampled than miss your pot pie, Sue- you know that," he said as he walked up the stairs. Over the handrail, he shot to Blake, "You'd best give my cookies back to my daughter."

"They're not yours," Maka huffed. Then she noticed Soul still standing at the back door, the front of his hat directed at the gun holster hanging on the wall. Maka stifled a snort and walked away from Blake to set the table.

"Aw, it's no fun when you give up."

"I don't give up," she chirped, grabbing a stack of plates. "I get even."

Blake gave her a wary frown that attested to his personal experience. "Eh." He tossed to package to the counter. Mifune sidled up nearby and proceeded to nonchalantly peel open the Oreo package and steal a cookie. Blake looked appalled, head flipping back and forth between the foreman and Maka. "What, so it's okay if he takes one?"

"Yeah."

"Thanks, Maka."

"You're welcome."

"What the hell?"

Supper was a subdued event; most everyone was too busy stuffing their faces with Tsubaki's cooking to carry on a full conversation. Maka, not having realized how ravenous she'd been, finished quickly and before everyone else. As she blinked at her empty plate, Soul's request for a moment with her after eating rang in the back of her head.

Well, he was still eating. Everyone was still eating. She stood to put her plate in the sink, and she saw Soul's brief, discrete glance, which kindled a flame of paranoia in her. What did he want to talk about so badly?

"Finished already, Maka?" Tsubaki asked.

"Ah, yeah. It was really good, thank you. I'm gonna... take a shower." She excused herself, noting the lack of verbal reminder from Evans. What, so he'd shoot her a look across the table, but wouldn't mention anything in front of other people? She liked this less and less.

As Maka climbed up the stairs to her bedroom, she liked the sly look Tsubaki gave her even less.

Actually, she had already taken a shower that morning before she left for the vet. She was wasting water to kill time for reasons she wasn't sure she wanted to understand. After her needless shower and running a comb through her damp hair, she exited the bathroom in sweat pants and a loose-fitting t-shirt, towel wrapped around her neck.

Somehow, she wasn't surprised to hear the most agitated 'psst' she'd ever heard in her life while passing the stairway on the way to her bedroom. Maka paused, slowly turning her head to look down the flight. Soul stood at the bottom.

"Can I come up?"

A flabbergasted noise gurgled out of her open mouth. She didn't know how to handle his weird politeness at all. She also felt like she'd somehow been transported back to middle school, when boys found out about cooties. "What am I, Rapunzel?" she muttered, stalking off to her room.

She didn't hear his footsteps creaking up the stairs, so she called out a loud and resigned, "YES." Maka dumped her dirty clothes into her personal hamper before putting her face in her hands, groaning. Everything remotely related to Soul was maddening -- it'd been far easier when she could guiltlessly hate him.

"You okay?" he asked, and she let her hands melt off her face as she turned to face him. He leaned on her door frame, refusing to enter this area too.

Maka sighed, sitting on her bed and scrubbing the towel in her hair. "M'fine... what did you need?"

Soul hooked a thumb into his pocket. "Sue tells me you have a laptop?"

She blinked, not expecting all of Soul's embarrassed hedging around his favor to be about something this benign. "Y-yes? Do you need to look up something?"

"Sorta?"

"Our internet is pretty slow, but it'll get the job done. You ca- wait. Sue?" Maka asked, face contorting with instant suspicion. Soul didn't reveal anything though, only tilting an ear closer, expecting a less vague question than just the general manager's name.

"S'that bad?"

She wasn't sure, but she had a feeling Tsubaki was trying to arrange certain biscuits. "Ehhh, nevermind," she mumbled, throwing her towel into the hamper. "Let me put in the password and you can do whatever. What do you need to look up?" Maka asked, unplugging her laptop from its charging cable at her night stand and prying it open. She sat back down on her bed, computer in her lap, and looked at him expectantly.

Soul rolled a shoulder. "Could we... do this somewhere not here?"

Maka frowned. She glanced around her room, which might be slightly cluttered, but was more or less clean and maybe somewhat utilitarian. "What's wrong with here," she challenged in monotone.

"S'not that," he clarified. He carefully looked over his shoulder a moment. "Just like to make it through the day without gettin' shot," he muttered.

Tilting her body to one side to see around the ranch hand, she found her father glowering at Soul's back, paused at the top of the stairs. Maka narrowed her eyes at Spirit, who noticed and casually turned around, making his way to his bedroom at the opposite end of the hallway.

Cooties.

\\

Deciding that the living room would deter an overprotective father-figure from taking the law into his own hands due to potential witnesses hanging around in the kitchen, Maka relocated her laptop. She sprawled on the floor, gently playing with Crona, while Soul sat on the couch, hunched over her little laptop on the coffee table.

She sincerely hoped he was too busy hunting and pecking at the keys to read her search history. A conversation regarding why his name was in the auto-fill of his employer's daughter's computer was something she would like to avoid at all costs. "So," she said, too friendly, "What're you, uh, looking for?" She tried to alleviate her jitters by way of taking an Oreo from the package sitting next to the laptop.

Soul took a deep breath. "...My brother," he admitted. "I missed his last ride at the stock show. Said it was probably online somewhere, so."

She paused, mid-chew. "Oh!" Soul looked up from the screen at her voice. "S'on YouTube, prolly," she garbled with her mouth full. She shuffled around the table on her knees, carrying Crona in an arm. Maka had forgotten about the bull ride Wes had talked about when he was there last -- she wanted to see it, too.

Navigating at snail-like speeds to the video site, Soul came to a stall when his brother's name popped up in the search bar as he typed.

"A-ahah, haha," Maka laughed nervously before he could ask. "Liz kept going on and on about him, so I just..."

He said nothing, but the side of his mouth picked up in a lopsided smile. It faded when he was assaulted by all the videos of his brother that existed. She grudgingly offered him an Oreo as they waited for the most recent video to buffer.

Maka knew the basics of bull riding, which mostly consisted of not using one hand and not falling off to be trampled and/or gored to death. Soul, on the other hand, had a lot more knowledge and emotional investment on the subject. His attention was intense, eyes nearly glued to the screen. He grimaced at things Maka could not pick up on.

He leaned back into the couch when Wes was awarded a giant belt buckle for his efforts. "Huh," he said.

"Hm?"

"That was Rag."

Rag? Rag. "Ragnarok? The- that- your bull?"

Soul nodded. "Guess he's back to normal."

He didn't elaborate further, and she wasn't sure if it was her place to ask about something she knew almost nothing about. Before she could dwell on it, Soul was already leaning forward again and searching for something else. He typed in 'Wes Evans Stock Show Calf Roping', and Maka nearly choked.

"What?" she blurted. "He roped in the show?"

"He conveniently left that out, didn't he," Soul quietly said, amused. "Actually, he took my place."

The video buffered. "So, you didn't go." He nodded once. Maka fidgeted on the floor next to his feet. She gave him a pained glance. "I'll fess up. I'd been, ah, curious if you'd compete there or not."

Soul paused in the middle of rubbing his nose. "Naw, I hate the stock show." Seeing her flummoxed expression, he set his hand in his lap and gave a small shrug. "Loud. Crowded. Tourists. Not my kinda thing."

Her attention was drawn away by the discordant cheering from the laptop. In the video, a calf ran out into the arena, closely followed by Wes atop a paint horse. Leaning closer to the table, Maka faintly heard Soul say behind her, "Oh man, what are you doing?"

Wes Evans's roping technique was far from polished. "Who taught him to rope?" she asked.

"Not me," the hand dryly replied, quick to absolve himself of any fault related to the disaster on screen. They both cringed when Wes fumbled with the piggin' string, the calf's legs tangling up his hard work. Soul's voice sounded entertained. "How'd they even let him in there?"

After the sub-par roping, Wes untied the rope from his horse's saddle and rode to the cameraman. He said something with a wry smile, but Maka's speakers were too quiet.

"Wait," Soul murmured, pausing the video. "Go back. What's he say?"

Maka reached across the laptop to turn up the volume when Soul couldn't find the means. She moved the video back a few seconds, and they both leaned in. Over the laughing crowd, Wes said, "That one was for you, Spitfire, I hope yer happy!"

She watched Soul tuck his chin to his chest, leaning back to cover his grinning face with an arm as he quietly cracked up. She found herself smiling with him. "How big is he into revenge?"

The top of his hat moved from side to side. "I'm a dead man," he managed to say between snorts. "Bet that was on TV, too."

"Even Black Star's better than that," Maka said with a laugh.

Soul attempted to compose himself, shutting the laptop and standing. "Don't tell him that to his face, you'll break his heart," he said with a smile he didn't bother hiding. "I better git. Ah," he sobered, his lips forming into an awkward not-quite-frown. "Thanks, 'preciate it."

"Sure," she said, letting her eyes fall to the chihuahua in her lap. "Anytime."

"G'night."

"Night, Soul."

She didn't look up to see if he made any kind of acknowledgement to the use of his name. But she did hear him chuckle on the way out the back door.

Very briefly she wondered if that was how he acted when he was with people that didn't judge him before meeting him.

\\

Almost bored to tears, Maka was finally excused from her veterinary duties by Miranda. She'd had plenty of practice vaccinating animals and bottle-feeding newborn critters, and seeing as it was the last day of her weekly shift, her mentor had practically shoved her out of the building.

She hurried home, windshield wipers furiously working to keep up with the heavy spring rainfall hammering the truck. It'd been nearly three days since Maka had noticed one of the first-calf heifers starting to separate from the herd, giving signs that she was about to go into labor.[6]

She came home to twins.

"Argh! I missed it!" Maka exclaimed as she walked into the barn, where Mifune and Blake were trying to bottle-feed the two newborns without getting rained on.

Blake scoffed, tilting his head in an attempt to get his calf to do the same and facilitate nursing more easily. "I dunno why you're so upset, you seen it a million times already."

She ignored this. "The mother?"

"Wouldn't take to either of them," Mifune said. "We'll wait a bit."

Blake stood up and handed his half-empty feeding jug to Maka. "Since you're here. I gotta get back out. Soul's pullin' another one."[7]

She fumbled with the jug in her hands, watching him exit the barn and rain shoot off the brim of his hat. "A-another one?" she asked, but Blake just waved and jogged away. She plopped down in some hay next to Mifune, trying to convince the second calf to drink. Not only was she back to feeding newborns, she noted with displeasure, but she was again reminded that her absence on the ranch kept her out of the loop she used to dominate.

"He noticed this morning. One of the cows.[8] You couldn't've known, you were already gone."

"Mm," she grunted, petulant. The little calf clumsily suckled on the large nipple of the jug. She knew Mifune was trying to make her feel better, but it only made her more frustrated, like she was losing some vital part of her identity.

Over the next several weeks, the majority of Angel's End's gestating stock had calved, mostly without major incident. Maka was caught between home and school, the only constant between both schedules being some variety of meal. She was either nursing baby calves, trying to stay awake at the supper table, or meeting the sheriff for lunch in town.

And she was beginning to worry about her father. The past few days she'd noticed the slight furrow between his brows, and the frequency in which he would zone out of a conversation, deep in thought. Maka had a feeling it had something to do with that cardboard file box, which she rarely saw him without. If the box wasn't in his hands as he walked in the door at home, it was sitting in his patrol car.

On a particular Wednesday at the diner, he'd received a phone call. Spirit Albarn excused himself from the table, stepping outside to talk on his scratched, outdated flip-phone. Maka watched with veiled interest when he re-entered and called Elizabeth Thompson over. The young woman's face drained of color as he exchanged words with her. He gave her a supportive pat on the shoulder, and she tersely nodded her head. Liz then turned to face the front window as Spirit walked back to the table.

"Sorry, sweets," he said. "I need t'go." He unfolded a few bills and tossed them on the table, ignoring Maka's complaints of being able to pay her own meal. After much apology and a hug, she dully waved goodbye, more than just a little confused and worried. She was already done with her food, but she hung around, filling out the paperwork Nygus had given her this week while keeping one eye on Liz's stiff behavior.

Fifteen minutes later, Liz took her break. The older woman sat across from Maka in the booth and waited for her to look up. Then, voice dark, she said, "Momma's out on parole."

A pregnant silence sat heavily between them. Not knowing what to say, Maka nudged her ice water over to Liz, who took an unfeeling sip. "...Where is she gonna stay?"

"Where else?" the woman sourly said.

"Is that- Do you think she's gonna...?"

Liz shook her head. "If she contests it, there ain't no way. I'd hafta get a lawyer, Maka. I can't afford that!"

Maka drummed her fingers on the table. "Surely there's some way. There's gotta be somebody."

Dabbing carefully under her mascara-coated eyes with a paper napkin, Liz scowled. "Pat's gonna be hell," she said, voice thick.

\\

 

And she hadn't been wrong. The normally outspoken and free-spirited Patti had gone cold as stone. When Maka arrived home later that evening, Tsubaki gave a recount of the events that had transpired in her absence over rhubarb pie.

"Kyle's the one that dropped her off in the police car. She was supposed to go to the girls' place, but the locks were changed and her key didn't work," Tsubaki smiled, chewing and swallowing. "She came here for Pat, instead." Deep in thought, she cut off another bit from her slice of pie with the side of her fork. "It's been a long time since I've seen her go quiet like that. No 'hi' or smile or anything. Just gone. She put her things up and drove her momma home."

"Liz is worried Tina's not going to give up custody rights," said Maka.

"By the way she was acting, I wouldn't be surprised. She was trying really hard to get into good favor with Pat. With all of us."

"Of course she was," Blake said, walking into the kitchen. "If Pat has a good payin' job, all she gotta do is sit back and reap the benefits." He peeled off his work gloves and tucked them into the side of his belt.

"Black Star," Tsubaki tiredly pleaded, as if she had heard this particular tirade already today.

"Tell me it ain't exactly what she did with Liz the last time."

Maka blankly regarded her little saucer of pie. The Thompson sisters were exactly that -- she considered them her own siblings. All of Angel's End thought of them as family, ever since Mama took them in when Cristina Thompson served jail time for possession and multiple DUI's. Patti had only been five at the time, following Maka around the ranch, finding another sister to cling to.

Liz, being nearly eleven years Patti's senior, looked up to Suzanne Albarn, and worked hard at her various part-time jobs under her guidance. While their biological mother was absent, Liz cared for her sister with very little financial help at all.

After Cristina Thompson served her time, she came back into their lives, repentant and eager to make amends. It had only lasted so long before she took over her elder daughter's income to return to her bad habits, landing herself in prison for a longer sentence. Since then, the woman had popped in and out, going from prison to rehab and back again. As a result, Patti grew up with very little interaction with the woman and, now that she was making a small income of her own and was still a minor, Maka couldn't feel optimistic about the situation.

"Is there nothing we can do?" she asked no one in particular.

In reply, the back door wrenched open, revealing a harried Soul Evans. "Is Maka-" he started to say, her heart stumbling at the use of her name. "You're here," he blinked. "Mitch wants you."

Confused but already up on her feet, she asked, "What's happened?"

"Prolapse."

\\

 

Maka held her head to the side a moment, trying to breathe evenly and keep the world from spinning the wrong way. Soul held the spotlight steady while she and Mifune did their best to slowly, carefully put the cow's insides back inside. Uterine Prolapse was the given term for female reproductive organs essentially turning inside out; the cow had recently given a successful birth, but sometimes, on rare occasions, things like this happened. The best anyone could do on short notice was to ease the uterus back into the animal, stitch it up, and hope for the best. Waiting for a vet to drive out as far as their ranch would only prolong the animal's suffering, so Angel's End was usually tasked with dealing with this personally.

It took a fair amount of strength to put everything right, fighting the pained animal's muscles and the slick mud that spring rains had gifted them. Mifune had already administered painkillers to the critter, but Maka couldn't imagine the whole ordeal feeling very pleasant.

The both of them were up to their gloved elbows in blood, but after half an hour, the cow's innards were at least no longer outwards. Mifune gave a high dose of antibiotics while Maka sewed up the business end of the cow. Her face was schooled into stone by the time she finished, and she exchanged nods with Mifune, turned around, and numbly walked away.

She didn't stop walking until she arrived at the nearest water spigot to the pasture, which was attached to the side of the guest house. She systematically peeled off her long gloves, pooled water into her hands, and splashed her face. She took water into her mouth and spit it back out. She splashed her face once more, turned the water off, and heavily sat on the porch.

Maka stared into the night, watching Soul's spotlight move around in the dark until her heart approached something like calm.

The night sky was clear of rain clouds for the first time in awhile. The steady presence of the multitude of stars held her in place, easing the churning in her stomach. Cool air filled her lungs and, after awhile, Soul Evans found her on his porch.

"Hey."

"Hi. Sorry I ran off."

"No," he said, voice sincere. "You did your share. I was jus' standin' there like a... clueless lamppost."

"You helped," she said to the sky. Frogs chirped their gentle song in the distance, and she heard Soul sit down a few paces away, stretching out his legs.

In the silence, she heard his unasked question. "Mama usually handled stuff like that. Then Papa. Now me."

"You done that before?"

She shook her head, but she wasn't sure he saw it, so she said, "No. I'd only ever watched."

He said nothing on this directly, but instead offered, "She's already up and around. Sure she'll be fine in a few days."

Maka took a deep breath and slowly let it out. The stars didn't move.

"I dunno if it means much coming from me... but you did good."

Maka shut her eyes, Polaris burned into her vision: steadfast, supportive. "Thank you," she said, and stood up.

\\

 

Some combination of muscle memory and the aftertaste of stress made her dream of inverted organs, and she woke too early in the morning. She ate a slice of pie and went back to bed, thoughts lingering on the cow, the twin calves nursing on surrogate mothers when their own had refused them, and the Thompson sisters.

She thought of her father, his comforting hand on Liz's shoulder, his partiality to Oreos.

She dreamed of the tree Mama was buried under, her headstone unmoving like the stars.[9]

Chapter Text

Maka was sipping her steaming mug of coffee one Saturday morning, her father's oversized jacket draped over her sleeping clothes as she sat in a squeaking rocking chair on the back porch. Thick fog had settled on the property, the lights coming from the guest house's windows bouncing off the mist. She watched Soul Evans exit his quarters and start up his truck, and after he pulled away she returned to the kitchen.

"Where's he gone?" she asked Tsubaki, not bothering to pretend she wasn't curious about the ranch hand, seeing as the older woman would have preemptively assumed it regardless. "Aren't we working calves today?"[1]

Tsubaki scooped a combination of hashed browns, onions, and scrambled eggs into a large tortilla. "He's coming right back," she said with a frown, sprinkling shredded cheese onto the burrito. "Pat needs rides now."

Maka poured the remaining contents of her coffee in the sink. Rinsing the mug, she watched the running water overflow. "Her Jeep break down again?" she asked hopefully.

Rolling up the burrito and wrapping it up in aluminum foil, Tsubaki replied, "It's under... new management."

"Really." Maka set her cup in the bottom of the sink, incredulous. "She took the Jeep but won't give her daughter a ride to work."

The loud splat of another spoonful of filling landing on a fresh tortilla accurately described Tsubaki's feelings on the matter.

\\

For Maka, starting a day of working calves began with donning clothes that she didn't mind getting soiled beyond all recognition. This was followed by pulling her hair up into its usual ponytail. An old baseball cap went over this, as cowboy hats weren't friendly with her hairstyle of choice.

She descended the stairs and grabbed two breakfast burritos and her boots on the way out the back door. If nothing else, she noted her shoes were at least starting to feel worn in as she entered the tack shed. Maka was glad to see her rope was still in good shape despite the dreary weather, and headed off toward the stables.

Patti had arrived on the ranch sometime while Maka had been getting dressed. The young woman appeared to be more or less herself, if not looking a little tired in the face. She already had Harley and Blake's horse, Excalibur, saddled and waiting, and was putting Maka's rig on Skully.

"Ah, thanks," Patti said when Maka handed the spare burrito to her.

"How're you holding up?" she asked, adjusting the fit of her chinks.

Patti gave her a bright smile, though it wasn't at her usual wattage. "Kin I move in with ya'll? Like, I promise I won't take up more space'n yer closet."

Maka winced. "That bad?"

Patti only rubbed her hand down Skully's bald face, smile muted. Off to the side, Harley wuffled at her rider's approach, while Excalibur reached over with his long neck and yanked Maka's ponytail.

"Wuah!" she whirled around, glaring at the chestnut Arabian.[2] "You scrawny butthead!" Blake's horse tilted his head to the side and grinned. Maka heard Patti's stifled laugh and turned back around. Adjusting her hair, she said, "You sure you wanna live here? You'll be surrounded by idiots."

"Maybe you should take to wearin' scarves like Spitfire over there," the horse wrangler said, tilting her chin in Soul's direction.

"S'not a scarf," he insisted as he finished buckling his chaps.[3] When he hopped the corral, Maka's eyes flitted to the coiled rope he draped to one side of Harley's saddle horn. Intense interest plagued her, so she glanced away, hoping her anticipation of watching Soul rope later wasn't plastered on her face plain as day.

"Well," she said, attempting to stay on topic. "I'd rather the horse grab my hair than my bra strap," she scowled over her shoulder at Excalibur. "Again."

With a bored expression, Patti yanked open the collar of her blouse and looked straight down to her generous assets. "Yeah, s'why I get the kind that buttons in the front."

Upon hearing this, Soul made an indescribable noise, pulling his hat low over his brow. "Gonna pretend I didn't see that. Mitch already started the fire, ya'll better get movin'," he said, looking pained as he led his mare out of the gate.

Patti rolled her eyes. "Like you never seen a brassiere!"[4]

He shot back, "That ain't never gonna be your business!"

Shaking her head as Soul mounted and rode off, the horse wrangler adopted a thoughtful look. "He ain't like his brother at all," she said, cracking a smile when Maka choked.

Digging into her back pocket, Maka pulled out her truck's keys, hoping it would help keep Patti in a better mood. "Here. So you don't have to hoof it yourself to come watch."[5]

"Ooh!"

\\

 

After the process of separating the calves of the desired age group from their mothers and herding them into the working pen, Maka and Soul were on roping duty, while Blake and Mifune ran the fire, branding, immunizing, and, when necessary, castrating. Patti had pulled up in Maka's truck to watch the proceedings, and sat on the top rung of the pipe fence, enjoying her breakfast burrito.

It took ten to fifteen minutes for the team to establish a proper rhythm with Evans, but thereafter things went smoothly. On horseback, he and Maka kept a steady stream of calves in queue for the two men working the ground.

This was all well and good, but Maka soon found that Soul roped completely differently on the job than in the arena. That six-point-eleven was naught but a horse fart on a breeze; if it was possible for a man to look both alert and asleep on a horse, Soul Evans had mastered the ability.

Hands down, she was utterly baffled. For Maka, roping a calf went particularly so: find a target, work with one's horse to separate it from the group, throw the rope (preferably for the back feet, but the neck was also acceptable), and have the horse pull the calf to the ground team.

Soul, on the other hand, for all Maka could tell, boredly sat in the saddle with his coiled rope held in a lazy hand, and let his horse prance around wherever the damn hell she pleased. Just when Maka was starting to worry that Mifune and Blake would have to be waiting on Soul's slow work, he would throw his rope in a seemingly random direction, and drag another calf to the fire. There was never any lag in the queue to speak of.

After about an hour of watching him and being unable to explain his actions, Maka finally rode to the side of the pen, where Patti was sitting and idly kicking a rail with the back of her muddy boot. The young girl had a big grin on her face, which faltered upon seeing Maka's furrowed brow.

"What?"

Maka tilted her head marginally in the other roper's direction while her horse curiously sniffed Patti's swinging foot. "I don't get it," she admitted, voice pitched low for only the girl to hear.

Patti blinked. "What's to get? She's great!"

Now Maka was confused more than ever. She glanced back at Soul, who appeared to be staring out into space. Looking back at Patti, she was afraid to ask the obvious.

"The horse," the girl said flatly. "Well, Soul's good too, but..." She shook her head with a frown, as if unable to believe such an (insufferable) creature existed.

Before she could ask Patti any questions, Soul had roped another calf and it was her turn. With an irritated huff, she directed Skully to keep pace with a stray critter while she cleanly roped it by a heel, dragging it to the fire just as Soul's last calf was done being worked. Once hers was free of the lariat, Maka recoiled her rope and rode back to Patti at the fence.

The girl had a smug smile that Maka couldn't interpret. She got right down to business, though. "So anyway, watch 'em. I know it don't look like a whole lot, but they're both workin'. Look, look," she quietly announced in earshot as Maka determinedly watched Evans go through his lazy routine. "See?"

"See what?"

Patti huffed. "Where're yer eyes? Lookit, he's pointin' that mare at the calves. When she figures it out, she'll flex back and- there, you see?"

Just then, Harley turned her head to one side, far enough to tap Soul's stirrup with her nose. She'd seen the horse do this a few times the past hour, but she hadn't thought much about it, more focused on Harley's rider and his lethargy.

The horse wrangler continued. "She's great," Patti restated. "She's gotta lotta cow-sense. Like you, yanno?" Maka clenched her teeth at once again being compared to that demon on stilts. "She knows what they're gonna do. Watch her."

Harley sneaked her way around the group of calves, cutting through them to single out a calf and separate it from the herd. She stretched her neck and paced it, keeping the animal from returning to the group.

"That's all her. All he's doin' is hangin' on and waitin' for a good shot," Patti said simply.

Sure enough, just when Maka would personally throw her rope, Soul let his loop fly. After having the process explained to her by someone who spoke horse better than human, her mouth fell slightly open in dismay.

"She really does do all the work!" she exclaimed, remembering Wes Evans's words. Patti gave an amused giggle.

"I gotta get 'er to foal at least once," she murmured. "Just once! S'all I ask. It'd be the best cuttin' horse there ever was," Patti said, voice reverent, before she hunched over, elbows on knees, placing her chin in her hands.[6] She'd gone into intense thinking mode, and Maka knew when to take her leave before getting caught up in a lengthy discussion of horse genetics. It was her turn to rope again anyhow.

A handful of calves later, and Maka was already back to the railing once she noticed Patti's feet had gone back to swinging idly again. "Pat, what's with that boot touching thing?"

The younger blonde tilted her head to one side as she watched Soul rope the last calf. "Well, his horse was a stubborn butthead. Is. Is a stubborn butthead," she corrected. She nodded to Maka's horse for comparison. "Skully's a fair bit easier. You drive him, he goes. He don't care. Harley rose hell just for puttin' a saddle on 'er. So, he taught her to flex. Makes a horse stop'n pay attention, 'coz the rider's in charge and won't give up slack 'til it listens."

The two women watched as Blake branded and Mitch inoculated the calf. Across the working pen, Maka noticed the brim of Soul's hat pointed in her direction, as if knowing he and his horse were being discussed out of earshot. She looked away just in time to see Patti waving goofily at him with her tongue sticking out.

"Anyway, she got the hang of that after 'while, and then she jus' figured out it was a good way to talk. Without him tuggin' on the rein, she'll tap him. Specially when she's bored. I bet he's regrettin' it, 'coz she's a right spoiled brat," she laughed. A little louder, she said, "Yes we're talkin' 'bout yer horse, get over it!"

This was the moment Blake decided to chuck a calf nut in the girls' direction.[7] It sailed in front of Maka's face and landed on Patti's knee.

"Aw, you sonnuva-"

Maka re-coiled her rope as she wisely nudged Skully forward and out of the line of fire. She watched as even Mifune joined in on the 'fun', contributing to the effort of keeping Patti in high spirits. Uneasiness settled over her like a thundercloud; everyone on Angel's End was aware of the girl's strained attempt to act her usual self. Maka hung her rope off the saddle, took off a glove, and somberly pulled flecks of mud out of Skully's mane.

Before she could get too far deep in thought, her horse was greeting Harley. Soul casually rode up alongside Maka, watching the projectiles fly across the pen.

"Hey."

She shifted in her saddle, still not quite sure what kind of attitude to adopt around this man. She settled for a calculative neutral. "What's up?" she replied, going back to plucking at Skully's mane. Maka heard nothing in reply for awhile, and she wondered if he was gonna spit anything out at all.

After Blake's loud laughter, Soul finally said, "Rope something."

Maka turned her head to the side and gave him the most skeptical of frowns. Why in heaven's name would the district roping champion ask her to rope anything?

Scratch that-- he hadn't even asked. Which he seemed to recall, after the fact, because knocked his hat out of his eyes and said, "If, ah, it's alright with you."

...Well, she didn't think he was out to ridicule her abilities. She twisted her mouth to one side, deciding to humor him, even if he sucked at saying 'please'. "What should I rope?"

A grunt. "Don't matter. Rope Pat, I guess."

They both glanced at Patti, who threw a fastball at Mifune's behind with a battle cry.

"Uh-uh. I'm not getting sucked into bovine organ warfare."

"No?" His face cracked into a crooked grin. Maka shook her head vigorously, her lips sucked into a tight line to keep from smiling back. "Ah well. Truthful, I just wanna see ya swing. Don't really have to rope nothin'."

"Oh," she replied dumbly, heart thudding at the idea that he'd want to watch her do anything at all. "I can do that easily enough." Maka picked up her rope once more, guiding Skully to a spot more out of the way so she had room to swing a loop over her head. She hoped that the battle of calf nuts wouldn't interrupt her, but would also continue violently enough that the participants wouldn't notice her steadily reddening face.

And just this once she wished Soul Evans would tug his hat too far down his brow so she couldn't watch him watching her. She placed her spare coils in one hand, leaving some slack to the loop in her other. She probably should put her glove back on, but muscle memory took over, her elbow and wrist smoothly swinging the rope above her head.

She saw him nod once, and she stopped. "Hold on a 'sec," he said loudly enough for her to hear, which made her shoulders stiffen, because he was also loud enough for everyone else to hear as well. She dared not to look in the ground crew's direction and draw attention to herself. Maka curiously watched Soul maneuver his horse to stand facing her directly. "Now, swing like you're goin' for a back leg," he directed.

Now that he mentioned it, she could count on one hand how many times she'd watched Soul rope a calf by the leg today. Everything else he'd thrown had been around the neck. Maka began to swing again, adjusting the angle so the loop dipped low to the right and high on the left. Soul watched her for several long seconds, and she was grateful when he nodded, because her arm was starting to tire, and if her pulse got any faster under his eyes she would likely suffer a heart attack.

He was looking at his left hand, rotating it slowly in imitation of her. So this was why he was facing her directly: Soul was left-handed while she was right. It was easier for him to learn with a mirror. Maka nudged Skully forward, hanging her rope again. When she was close enough to not have to raise her voice, she asked, "Help at all?"

Soul's head suddenly jerked in her direction, pulled out of concentration. "Ah, need some work," he said wryly. His hand fell to his lap. "Your heel-loop's good. I like how you throw."

Well, if she hadn't been blushing before, she was now. She laughed uneasily. "Thanks? You're the roping champion, though," she said, a shade bitter.

"Eh. That don't matter in here," he replied. "Fast is nothin' if it's easier on everyone to catch 'em by the leg."

Coming up with no sensible thing to say to this, Maka heard herself say, "That's true." This was not good. In very quiet horror, she tamped down the small, grudging glimmer of admiration that made itself known in her gut.

"Anyway, thanks."

Now she had the urge to hide under the bill of her own hat. "Sure." She became acutely aware of the eerie silence in the surrounding area, and she worriedly glanced to where she'd last seen the calf nut warriors. The pen was empty save for a still-smoldering fire pit.

"Ahem."

Without Maka knowing, Patti had hauled herself back to the top rung of the fence, all mud and smiles. Mifune and Blake were already on horseback, the latter cowboy also in various states of filth. Patti was swinging Maka's truck keys around her finger.

"It's oyster time," she airily informed them. "That is, if yer not too busy gettin' flustered over each other's loops."

Soul harrumphed, backing up his horse and making his way out of the working pen without a word. Between the flush on the back of his neck and the smug grin on Patti's face, Maka briefly considered the idea of the younger Thompson sister as Soul Evans's harrassing equivalent of Tsubaki.

\\

 

Lunch (or 'Dinner', in the south) was pandemonium. Tsubaki happily took a break from the record books to prepare her legendary Calf Fries while her husband made a scene of the kitchen, daring the new ranch hand to try a cowboy delicacy.

"They're not legendary. I just searched the internet," she said, coating the morning's haul in batter.

"Plus, oyster's a natural afra-deezy-ack," Blake added, elbowing Soul in the side.[8]

Maka, seated at the table, put her fingers to the bridge of her nose. "That's only real oysters, you empty socket."

Blake playfully hissed at her, whispering, "I know it, but don't let the missus know!"

Tsubaki said nothing, her long, dark ponytail waving from side to side as she shook her head and dipped the 'oysters' into hot oil. Soul, looking both bemused and uncomfortable, said, "Can't say it looks very appetizing. No offense, Sue."

"None taken!"

Scoffing, Blake looked Soul up and down, skeptical. "How long you been cowboyin'? And you never ate calf nuts."

"Pop did, but, uh..."

"It's okay, I've never had them either," Maka cut in. "Black Star hogs them all for reasons that should not be discussed at the supper table," she growled at Blake, who sat in the chair next to her and made a mocking face. He then gestured towards Tsubaki, imitated her pregnant belly with a hand, and gave a smug thumbs up.

Patti smacked him on the back of his head.

"Thanks, Pat," Tsubaki said, still facing the stove.

"Ye'welcome!"

"Eyes! I swear it, they're in the back of her 'ead," Blake grumbled. "A'right, fine! Seein' as I'm a generous fella of immeasurable ability, I will forfeit my portion to ya'll greenhorns."

"How thoughtful," Soul deadpanned.

Blake grinned. "For a price."

Patti giggled, leaning on the counter. Maka gave her a wary glance before taking the bait. "What is it."

"If ya can't get it down, there'll be uh, a small penalty."

Maka breathed in the smell of Tsubaki's cooking with a big sigh and said, "Bring it, loudmouth." Soul appeared far less confident, sitting across the table from her.

Seven minutes and an impatiently burned tongue later, Maka said, "That... wasn't that bad, actually. Tender." She sucked on a piece of ice to soothe her scalded tongue. A hint of Tabasco tingled her mouth. Patti applauded her bravery.

Expectant eyes turned on Soul, who, after rolling his own and tugging his hat over his brow, reached for the basket of 'oysters' in front of Maka and popped one into his mouth. Tsubaki, frying another batch of the testicles, suddenly turned around and cried, "Oh! Wait!"

It was in vain. Maka shied away when Soul stood from his chair like being struck by lightning. Robotic, he pivoted on a heel and made his way to the paper towel dispenser just as Tsubaki belatedly said, "They're... spicy."

With his back turned, Soul discreetly spat into his napkin. Tsubaki was torn between fretting and letting the calf fries burn in the oil. Mifune went to the dish cabinet for an empty glass.

Slapping a hand over her mouth, Maka realized she was so used to spicy food that she hadn't even thought twice about it.

"Oops," Patti said, which effectively represented all parties in the kitchen apart from Blake Strickland, who was in the process of guffawing himself to the moon.

"Well, Spitfire, for wasting such a delicacy prepared by my wife-"

"Sorry, Sue," Soul croaked, reluctantly taking a filled glass of milk from Mifune.

"No no no, I'm sorry, I should've-"

"-I do believe your penalty shall be-"

Maka suddenly found herself defending Soul, "You knew the whole time you no-good weasel!"

"-at the next rodeo you'll dance with yer very own Shortcake!" Blake announced, holding his hands out to Maka in presentation.

The kitchen went silent save for bubbling oil.

"Haah?" Soul exclaimed while Maka, infuriated, said over him, "I BEG YOUR PARDON?! I ate mine why do I have to-"

Patti cheered over Maka's hollering with, "A sixteen-step!"

"Perfect," Blake said, clapping his hands together. "It's settled then."

"Over your dead body it's settled! Do you realize how hard it is to twirl a man a foot taller than you? GIMME THOSE TONGS- I'm gonna rip your damn nose off your damn face!"

As she chased her chortling nemesis through the kitchen and into the living room, between her stomping footfalls she heard Soul admit, "Figured it'd be somethin' worse'n that."

\\

 

Suzanne Albarn hadn't cared much about the layout of her home. She'd spent most of her days outdoors, on horseback. While the house was being built, her only stipulation had been there be a deep, covered porch that wrapped around the entire two story farmhouse. Maka was grateful for this, because the roof was a tried and true, middle-of-the-night escape route she'd used since she was strong enough to open her bedroom window.

Currently open to let the cool night breeze breathe into her room, Maka itched to go outside. The night was alive with insects, their noises loud through her window. Spring was in full swing, and it plagued her bones with incessant buzzing and energy. All she had to do was pop open the bug screen and slide down the metal roof to freedom...

That was when she heard the muffled giggling. Curled up next to her, Crona's head popped up, ears working around and settling on the source of the laughter. Maka glanced at her alarm clock, scowled, and got out of bed. Well, she'd wanted an excuse to escape, and fate decided to give it to her, so she really oughtn't complain.

Spring fever had evidently latched on to other members of Angel's End as well. To be fair, Maka would attest to Blake and Tsubaki Strickland's attempts to keep their 'bed wrasslin'' quiet, but a single wall separating Maka's room from theirs just wasn't enough. Mama hadn't thought that one out all the way, apparently.

As Maka went to her bedroom window and popped open the bug screen, Crona hopped off the bed and squeezed through his doggy door, accustomed to this routine. Maka would like to follow the dog down the stairs, but, small as she was, she was still heavy enough to set off the loud, conspicuous explosion of every creaky stair of the flight on the way down. From personal experience, she knew that would only result in not only an embarrassed married couple, but her father emerging from his bedroom in only his undergarments and a shotgun.

Maka easily ducked out her window and carefully slid down to the corner of the roof over the porch. Turning around, she dropped her feet over the edge and hung by her fingers, searching for the wide handrail below with her bare toes. Once she made contact, she let herself down, gripping a porch column to keep steady.

Crona exited another doggy door and greeted her the moment her feet touched chilled concrete.

Outside, the air was cool and the breeze was just a sigh across mesquite and red oak. She would be far enough away from the Strickland's activities if she went through the back door and slept on the couch in the living room, but Maka decided to stay out for a little while. A quick coat of bug spray kept the mosquitoes at bay as she settled down on the porch.

Taking a deep breath, she found she was more comfortable on concrete outside than indoors on her bed. An owl hooted somewhere from the barn. And faintly, just as she was beginning to doze, she heard a reedy slew of notes dance in the distance, her sleepy brain bubbling with dreams.

But the owl hooted again, and her eyes snapped open. Her gaze was drawn to a glimmering of campfire light bouncing off the corner beam of the guest house's porch. She rolled to her side, propping herself on her elbow, her chihuahua hesitantly wagging his tail at her movement. She waited for the wind to die down, ears straining.

A slow, wavering harmonica teased the night.

Making up her mind (or rather, her mind made up for her), Maka got back up to her feet, still listening to the sound, and eased open the back door to grab her boots out of the tray. Hurriedly stuffing her bare feet into them, she hopped off the porch, running her fingers through her ruffled hair.

Crona led the way. They traveled down the gravel driveway which curved towards the guest house, disjointed music growing clearer. The dog walked considerably faster, and was long out of sight for half a minute before she heard a loud, surprised squeak of the harmonica and a metallic clatter.

Finally catching up, Maka poked her head around the side of the house. She found Soul, thoroughly spooked, bent over and grudgingly patting the dog on the head. Shirt untucked and missing his hat, his head was still wrapped in that signature bandana.

"Where's yer owner," he groused.

She tried to sound the least threatening as possible, but Soul still jerked when she softly called out, "Here I am." He huffed, standing and rubbing his face with a hand while she came around the corner, palms held up in peace. "Sorry."

He shook his head, frowning. "Jus' didn't think anyone else'd be up," he said, bending low again to pick up a scuffed harmonica. He made to stick it in a shirt pocket, but Maka interrupted him.

"Ah," she blurted, "You... you don't have to stop."

Hand paused over his pocket, Soul looked at her a moment before his eyes darted away, a line forming between his brows.

"Well," she amended, looking away and into the fire, "You don't have to play, either."

He slinked off the porch to a rickety lawn chair seated close to the campfire. Her eyes followed the metal plating of the harmonica, reflecting firelight as Soul slowly twirled it in his hands instead of putting it away in his pocket.

Maka approached the fire and sat on the edge of the porch, Crona hopping into her lap. She noticed it was the same spot she'd been when she had played veterinarian a few weeks prior. Head slowly drifting back, she searched for the stars; the brightness of the fire made it difficult to see, but Polaris still shone.

"What're you doing out, anyway?" Soul asked, bringing her back to the earth.

She flushed, thinking about her present predicament. "Um, well? Black Star... had too many oysters, I think." Maka smiled, watching Soul wince at the mention of the calf fries.

"Get sick?"

Her boots clacked together. "You could say he got a fever. Of a sort." To his blank stare, she added, "Along with his wife?"

She watched the cogs fit together in his head, his hand coming up to bashfully rub under his nose as a single laugh escaped him. He gave her a sidelong glance. "Their room's right next to yours, ain't it."

"Yep," she said, popping the 'p'.

"Aww," he chuckled, sympathetic. "That ain't right."

Maka blew her bangs into the air, hoping to let some embarrassment out of her system.

"You know, if it'd be, ah, easier for them to live in this place, I could switch out with them," he offered.

She was already shaking her head. "Impossible," she said, shooting him down.

"...Okay?"

"I mean, thanks for the offer, but unless you're married or, well... a gelding-"

Soul leaned away, aghast. "What-"

"-Papa would sooner shoot you where you sit."

He held up his hands, a mirror of her peace offering from earlier. His harmonica glinted briefly. "I seen death close enough already."

Maka laughed loudly at this, but covered her mouth, unsure if the man's brush with what she assumed had been a near fatal wound was something she should laugh over. But Soul's smile as he looked away eased her, somewhat, and he leaned another log into the fire. She asked what he was doing up at this hour. "Playing a concert?" she prodded.

Put on the spot, he looked the tiniest bit bashful. "What, this?" he asked, tilting up the little instrument. "Naw, that's just a... habit." A silence. "I, uh. Dropped off Pat after supper," he supplied carefully.

Turning her body to the side, Maka picked up her legs and stretched them across the porch, leaning back against a pillar. Crona resituated on her thighs. "Was Tina there?"

Soul nodded once, sneering into the fire. "Can't say I know much about what's goin' on over there, but," and Maka noted that, like his brother, Soul used a hand to gesture as he spoke, "I pull in, right? And the window's wide open and we can hear them hollerin'. Liz and their momma." He shook his head. "But Pat. Just said 'bye' and 'thanks' and got out and walked in actin' like it weren't even goin' on."

For a fleeting moment, Maka wondered if Patti was closer to Soul's heart than she first thought, but this was neither here nor there. Soul looked away from the fire to her, trouble lining his eyes. "I know it's far from my place to inner'fere," he said, eyebrows furrowed under the edge of his bandana, "but it was damn difficult to drive off like I heard nothin'."

Maka leaned her head back, tiredly resting it on the pillar with a dull thud. "I thought about asking Papa to let her stay for awhile. My room is big enough. But then I remember Tina really is their mother, and she's... Well, for starters, she's not dead." Her voice came out flat and clinical with that admission. "And it's not my business. Because they're not my family." After a silence she quietly added, "But they are."

Her eyes slowly moved back up to the stars, searching for that certain one. The whole situation just made her miss Mama. Suzanne would've been able to figure a way out of this mess, instead of sitting around in the middle of the night, wishing for something that would never happen. Because dead was dead, and the North Star only turned in place in the sky.

She ought to elaborate on the hows and whys of the Thompson sisters being so close to her as to be considered family, but Soul didn't ask, and her throat was feeling pretty tight on the subject.

The silence went on for miles, the warmth of the fire sinking into her clothes, the stars quietly shimmering thousands of years away in space. Maka wondered if she'd outstayed her welcome, but she also didn't exactly want to get up and disrupt the quiet calm. She heard Soul place another log on the fire, and she relaxed a little further into the porch.

Crona twitched in her lap when that quiet harmonica started up again. Maka sat perfectly still, not wanting to give any indication that she might like or dislike the music, in fear that Soul would clam up and stop. His playing was different than the bits and pieces she'd first caught this evening. In her presence, he played soothing, lethargic notes.

She wondered how playing such an instrument when one couldn't sleep became a 'habit'.

She wondered if he'd known it was her favorite; If he'd known that all he'd have to do was play into the night and infallibly draw her in. It was unlikely, yet she kept entertaining that nonsensical what-if.

She wondered if he'd care at all that she kept Mama's harmonica in a keepsake box in her closet.

\\

 

She was gifted with a late morning in the beginning of April; she didn't need to go in for her shift at the clinic until noon. Maka sat at the kitchen table after having enjoyed breakfast with the rest of the outfit. Her father, on a rare day off, sat across from her as everyone else got ready for a day on the ranch. Spirit browsed through a stack of mail, sipping his coffee. He nodded at a few suggestions Mifune offered in regards to the fields and stock. He eyed an open letter and blankly looked to his general manager.

Tsubaki pursed her lips and dumped used coffee grounds into a bucket. Spirit took the letter and stowed it in his shirt pocket. Maka noted these events while glancing at a handful of charts copied from the veterinary hospital that Nygus had asked her to look over.

She couldn't concentrate. Between the strange results from routine blood tests at the vet, frequent days of working livestock, and the presence of fine weather, all Maka wanted to do was ride to the far ends of the property and lay in the sun to watch the baby calves play in the pastures.

Mifune and Blake were geared up and headed out. Tsubaki scraped more vegetable scrap into the bucket for the compost. Her father finished his coffee and excused himself to his office. Soul lurked at the sink, taking an awfully long time clearing off his dish and looking otherwise like a sore thumb.

Maka startled when Patti spoke up from the back door; the girl had been so quiet this morning Maka had forgotten she was there. "Sue," she said softly, "Kin I talk with you a minute?"

Tsubaki sounded as accommodating as ever. "Sure honey, come with me and help me turn the heap," she replied.[9] Carrying the bucket of scraps, she exchanged the briefest of glances with Maka before following Patti out the door.

Maka tapped her highlighter on the table, contemplative. The knot in her gut shifted with gained weight. She couldn't think much more about it, because Soul spoke from the sink-- and with her name, no less.

"Maka." He finally put his plate in the drying rack.

She looked over, surprised, and her line of sight unfortunately landed on his cosmically-aligned butt. She closed her eyes in defeat. "Yes?"

"...Got a favor to ask," he gruffly said, turning around and leaning on the counter.

Opening her eyes, she looked up at him earnestly. "If you need to borrow the laptop again, you can just go for it, you know," she offered, but not halfway through her sentence his hat was pointed to the floor as he shook his head.

"It's a bit more'n that."

"Oookay," she warily replied. Maka slowly put the cap back on her highlighter, suspicion pulling her lips into a tight line.

Soul took a breath, lifted his face, opened his mouth a tense moment, and sighed anticlimactically.

She growled in the back of her throat. "Well, spit it out then."

He hooked his thumbs in his jean pockets. "Look, I need you to... accompany me."

Maka squinted, all systems on alert. "Where?" She was not pleased that he was purposefully hiding under the brim of his hat again.

"To my family's Easter thing next weekend," he ground out.

The kitchen seemed to stick in freeze-frame, and her head tilted to one side. Voice faint, she asked, "What," at which point Soul Evans lifted his hat and gave her the most pained, desperate look she'd ever seen on a grown man.

Chapter Text

It wasn't a date, he'd fervently explained before he left her questions half-answered with the excuse of needing to drive Pat to the bus stop. And this was what she told Tsubaki at the grocery store two days later when she couldn't contain it any longer. "He said that he hated get-togethers and he wanted to use me as an excuse to leave early."

Tsubaki, pushing a giant grocery cart through the wholesale shopping club, smiled like she'd just won the quick pick lottery.[1] "Why you?"

"I... I don't know, he was mumbling a lot," Maka said, eyebrows pinched together with frustration. "Something about Wes having a big mouth and revenge for the stock show," she complained, grabbing two large bags of flour and putting them in the cart. "I mean I understand the revenge part, but I don't get why I'm always involved in his punishments!"

Tsubaki laughed, marking a line through her grocery list. "Think about it-- the Evanses have 'high respect for your daddy's brand', and that means you, too. Their son is working with Spirit Albarn's daughter, who cowgirls, ropes like he does, and is close to his age."

Maka glowered at the taller woman, dropping a sack of pinto beans into the cart. "That's all irrelevant and I don't like where you're going with this," she growled. "...And I don't rope like he does."

Rolling her eyes, Tsubaki ignored her and went on to say, "If Wes told them how you and Soul were playing eye games at the supper table last month, I can just imagine what they're expecting."

Her boot loudly scraped on the concrete floor when she came to a halt in the middle of the dry goods aisle. "We what?" Maka blurted. "That-- no way, that was all him, he was staring, and dammit, Sue, it's not a date, it's a favor!" Tsubaki kept walking ahead, leaning on the shopping cart to give her stressed back a rest. Maka huffed, trotting to catch up with her.

"Why'd you accept? I thought you wanted 'nothing to do with the Evans family'," Tsubaki asked, voice bored.

"I don't," she insisted. Tsubaki didn't verbally mention that Soul was also an Evans, but the upward tilt of her mouth did it for her, accusing her of having increasingly fewer reasons to have nothing to do with the ranch hand. Maka's eyes darted to the side, avoiding her friend's glance. "He asked nicely," she added, somewhat with disgust. "Begged, really."

"Uh huh," the woman replied, snagging a free sample of fresh fruit from an endcap. "If Spirit asked you 'nicely' to line dance-"

"Hell no." At Tsubaki's unsurprised expression, Maka was back to babbling. "No, that's different, public humiliation is totally different than... I don't know, okay? He's got a really effective kicked puppy look," she admitted, taking her own fruit sample and munching on a kiwi slice with contempt. "I wasn't expecting it."

"I'll send you with cookies," Tsubaki said. "You'll need all the help you can get to make a good first impression."

"Don't waste your time, I'll eat horse snot before I start caring about what any Evans'll think of me."

\\

 

She'd helped with the grocery shopping during her lunch break, but she may as well have gone home with Tsubaki for all the good she was doing at the vet in her frazzled state. Maka sighed, waiting for blood test results, swinging her short legs off the edge of a high stool. She should have known better than to go to the general manager to sort out her troubles brought on by Soul's random request. Oh, she'd sorted them alright-- directly into biscuits and buns. No one should be wearing such a knowing glance when they didn't actually know anything.

Maka sighed at the blood test machine. She had twenty minutes until she was excused for the day. All her duties were completed, barring this last blood test, and in her boredom she most certainly did not wonder if she needed to dress nicely for an Easter get-together with a family she hadn't had any intentions of meeting in the first place. And she wouldn't be bringing any cookies! She'd just go and be Soul's excuse to 'leave early', and while she was there she would see for herself the kind of people that would sell their land and give up ranching for money.

The familiar burn of her prejudices made itself known, though it felt halfhearted. She hated that Soul Evans had made things complicated; until he came around, she'd been far more sure of herself.

Her results came in, the machine beeping with insistence. The printer spewed out numbers and charts, and they were just the same as they'd been all week: the blood tested was positive for an unknown substance.

Maka frowned, wondering what was going on with the stray, unbranded calf that had been dumped at the clinic. It bawled in its pen for its mother while Nygus made another bottle for it to nurse. "Same results, Mira," she said.

Miranda shook her head. "I don't understand it. Guess I'll send a sample elsewhere. Until we're sure he doesn't have anything infectious, we'll just have to keep him quarantined. Poor thing."

"Nobody's reported a missing calf?" Maka asked, tapping the bottom edge of the printouts to staple them.

"Nothing at all, so says your Daddy-Sheriff," the woman replied, shaking the large bottle in her hand. "Go ahead and pack up. I can take care of the rest."

Maka's hand paused as she placed the results in a marked file. "Are you sure? If there's anything you need help with..."

"I'll let you and Kim know, trust me. Go on, get. Head's been up in the clouds all afternoon," she smiled. "Gotcha a boyfriend?"

Maka accidentally slammed the filing cabinet, startled. Cooties. "No," she said, aghast.

\\

  

Her truck was thirteen years old. It'd been her mother's until she learned how to drive. There was a long crack in the windshield, and the beige paint was beginning to chip on the hood, but the air conditioning was cold, and the engine still ran strong. Though the stereo played CDs, Maka used the cassette player the most. Her mother had had a large collection of tapes, and Maka kept her personal favorites in the truck.

She'd been listening to a lot of blues harmonica, as of late. It made her remember sweltering summer nights, the smell of cut hay, and her parents dancing to music in the living room. And now, just a little bit, it made her remember their newest ranch hand facing a warm fire under the night sky.

Still a little lost in nostalgia and wistful feelings she couldn't name, Maka was mostly driving on auto-pilot as she pulled onto the property, and didn't notice her usual parking spot was already occupied until she was nearly in it. A car she'd never seen before was parked there, and not far away was Patricia Thompson ineffectually trying to restrain Soul Evans, who, judging by his face, had a mighty need to get into the house and raise hell. Maka parked off to the side in a spot usually reserved for visitors, killed the engine, and trotted over.

"Soul, you kint!" Patti warned him, hanging on to his left arm with all her strength.[2] "Jus' calm the hell down an' stay out!"

"Ge'rrof me, Pat!"

Maka raised her voice, bewildered by Soul's behavior. "What's going on?"

"I know that car anywhere, too clean for any decent person what lives out here," he snarled, dragging Patti along the yard.

"Maks, do something," the younger blonde urged, digging her heels into the ground.

As if she knew what was going on! Still, Maka did her best to block Soul's path, hands held up in peace. To his credit, he attempted not to plow through her, and she moved from one side to the other, making it her business to stall him for as long as possible. "Soul, what's got into you? Hang on a minute!"

"There ain't no time, dammit, she's in there prolly lookin' to see where to put her damn furniture!"

"What on earth are you talking about? She, who?"

And then a woman stepped out the back door. She was thin, not much taller than Maka, with long, pin-straight platinum hair and sporting a casual dress that came to her knees. On her feet were cowboy boots of such a design and color that made plain were for fashion and not function. She glanced nervously over to the three of them before straightening her bangs and holding the door open for yet another woman to step out.

This one was taller, dressed in a long duster buttoned over a blouse and crisp dress pants, all in a uniform shade of black. Her hair draped on one side of her neck in a golden cascade. The first woman, more a mere girl by comparison, shadowed her across the porch.

Soul froze in his tracks when the taller of the two strangers looked over in their direction and smirked. "Hello, Mister Evans," the woman said, amusement tinting her smooth voice. "So good to see you're doing well." Patti reluctantly let up on her tugging, settling to keep on hand on Soul's elbow.

Maka's attention flipped back and forth between the newcomers behind her and Soul's clenching jaw in front of her. She was near ready to introduce herself and ask what all the fuss was about when the woman spoke again: "The silent treatment still? Surely there's no hard feelings after all this time," she said with the slightest tilt of her head.

Soul made no response, though Patti forced out a long, measured breath through the nose, her blue eyes glacial.

"It looked pretty grim there for awhile," the mystery woman drawled, undeterred. "I was so glad to hear your family was able to take care of your health expenses."

"I bet you were," Soul growled, so low that only Maka and Patti could hear. His voice made the small hairs under Maka's ponytail stand on end.

In her left arm, the woman in black held an envelope-type purse, and she pulled from this a dark pair of sunglasses. "You gave your folks quite a scare," she said as she unfolded the glasses and smoothly placed them on her serene face. "I just can't imagine what got into Ragnarok that day."

Soul's body stiffened. Looking at him, Maka found his mouth faintly ajar, his shoulders slowly inching up in defense. "Get out," he said, voice carrying across the porch. He leaned forward with his anger, as if he wanted to personally escort the strangers himself. He only took one step forward before Patti was back to pulling his arm again. Maka braced her hands on his chest in alarm.

"Whoa! Soul, what's wrong with you?" she hissed. He stayed in place, but wouldn't acknowledge her, wearing a look that could melt through the toughest of hide.

"You don't belong here and you certainly ain't welcome," he snarled at the strangers.

Maka glanced over her shoulder at the women, finding the shorter one eyeing Soul with a nervous frown while the taller lets out a single laugh, more smug than before.

"You can't order me anywhere, ranch hand," she teased.

Well, Maka may not have much of a clue about what was happening, but a part of Angel's End's crew was upset and this woman was most certainly the cause. Keeping one hand on Soul, she whirled around. "Begging your pardon," she said, projecting her voice the way Mama always did, "but if your business is done here, I'm going to have to ask you to leave."

Doubts and reminders that she wasn't anyone special either climbed up the back of her throat and left a bitter taste on her tongue; that totem pole of her choosing placed her even lower in rank than the hand, but she was her father's daughter, damn it, and just this once a ranch princess might serve a purpose.

The woman finally acknowledged her existence and gave a little chuckle, as if finding her quaint. "My business is done, for now. And you might be?"

Her first instinct was to proudly shout her name, but it was more satisfying to turn that condescending tone right back to the stranger. "That's none of your concern. Now go on," she sneered, nodding her head to the shining sedan in her parking spot.

Finally, the woman looked less than amused. She held her envelope to the side, and her shorter companion quickly took it and went to the car, hopping into the front passenger seat. The engine started. "You must be Spirit Albarn's daughter," the stranger said. As if this statement spoke for itself, she went right back to ignoring Maka and addressed Soul, instead. "My regards to your family, Mister Evans," she said dismissively, walking down the porch steps.

A third person -- a hulking man with scruffy sideburns and a chest that was only barely contained by the buttons of his shirt -- got out of the driver's seat of the sedan and walked around the vehicle to open a back door for the woman in black.

Glad to see her finally leaving, Maka turned back to Soul to get to the bottom of this circus, but he wrenched away. Anger rolled off him in waves as he headed away from the house. Patti followed him, saying, "Oh you best not be goin' to the horses!"

Before Maka could follow, she heard a deep voice from behind her shout in surprise. The driver of the sedan was waving his hands threateningly towards Crona, who had come to investigate the unfamiliar tires of the car. "Oi! You little mongrel, git outta here."

The chihuahua urinated on a tire.

"Crona!" Maka exclaimed, embarrassed but proud all the same. "Come here, you," she called, before the man decided that her dog was perfect kicking size. The dog obediently came to her, jumping into her open arms. Maka exchanged glances with the driver, who snorted and walked back to the other side of the car, getting in behind the wheel.

The powered rear passenger window rolled down, and dark sunglasses were pointed in her direction. "You have a nice piece of property here, Miss Albarn," the woman in black said with a smile. "Cherish it."

Uneasiness seeped into her gut, but she tamped it down. "Good afternoon, ma'am," she replied, unfriendly voice at odds with the polite farewell. The woman gave one last smirk before her tinted window rolled up, and Maka couldn't help but feel as though a bulls-eye had just been painted on her as she watched the car circle the driveway and leave.

Eager to get to the bottom of any of the mysteries she'd witnessed, she carried Crona and jogged after Patti and Soul, who were now at the corral just outside the stables. The horse wrangler stood in front of the gate, refusing to let the other pass. When Maka was in earshot she heard the girl say, "You ain't goin' in there when you're hot, you'll spook every last one."

"Pat," Soul said, attempting to at least appear calm. "She's my horse, I'm goin' for a ride."

Patti only shook her head, glaring. "Goin' fast won't help nothin' if yer lost."

Maka caught up with them just as Soul growled, pulling his hat off and angrily rubbing his head. Slightly out of breath, she said, "Will someone tell me who the hell that was?"

"She's a witch, is what. Did you hear what she said?" Soul said to Patti, whose expression immediately darkened.

"She sed a lotta things."

Between his bared teeth, he grit out, "About the bull."

"I heard it, alright? That don't mean nothin', Soul, she's jus' messin' with yer head."

The hand huffed with frustration as he stalked off a couple yards away to cool off. Crona twitched and trembled in Maka's arms.

"What's he talking about? Who was that woman?"

Patti looked to Maka with a knowing kind of worry lining her young face, looking remarkably like her older sister. "That was Maddy Georgian."

Maka blinked. Two facts of information swirled in a never-ending loop in her mind, reminiscent of vultures: Maddy Georgian was the owner of Lazy S, and was the one who bought out the Evans property. 

"You better go in and talk to Mr. Albarn 'cause there ain't no friendly reason on this earth for that woman to come 'round here," Patti said.

Heart lurching, Maka turned her head to look at Soul standing a few feet away, who also uneasily looked in her direction. That 'No Purpose' world was pressing in on her at his expression, and she carefully handed her dog to Patti before turning around and breaking into a run.

(She's in there prolly lookin' to see where to put her damn furniture!)

\\

 

The longer she thought about it, the more she realized her father was home unusually early. He'd already had a day off this week, but here he was, in his little office, pouring himself a measure of whiskey in a small tumbler while it was still daylight outside.

"Hey, sweets," he said, raising no fuss when he saw her out of breath and still in her boots. Spirit was in his ranch clothes -- now a strange sight after becoming accustomed to his work uniform. He took off his hat as he walked by an occupied saddle stand, and sat in his worn chair behind his desk.

"You're home early," Maka accused.

Spirit took a sip of his whiskey. "Miss Georgian requested a meetin'," he sighed. "How's your day been?"

She tossed her head to one side, annoyed. "What kind of meeting?" she said, air puffing through her nose as she caught her breath.

He set the glass on the desk, a finger scratching his eyebrow. She'd skipped over his question, so he did the same. "How's your schoolin' comin' on?"

"It's fine," she said, giving in. "...Why?"

Spirit picked up his glass only to idly swirl its contents. His gaze fell on the saddle next to his desk. Maka shifted her weight, crossing her arms and denying her own anxiety. "D'you think, hypothetical, that doctoring critters is somethin' you could make a livin' from?"

She hated that he didn't ask her directly, his eyes never leaving the saddle. "Just what are you saying?"

He sucked in a deep breath and leaned back, opening the desk's pencil drawer. He pulled out a folded paper, set it on the desk, and nudged it over to her with a finger, the sheet skittering across the stained wood. She didn't let herself hesitate, walking forward and snatching it off the desk.

She recognized it as the one he'd pocketed at breakfast a few days ago. The letter had the Lazy S brand stamped at the bottom. "W-what am I looking at," she asked, though she knew exactly what she was reading. Involved in the bulk of the text was a number with several zeros trailing after it.

"Her offer," Spirit murmured. To the outraged betrayal on her face, he said, "I didn't say 'yes'. I didn't express any interest at all, 'hon." The familiar eyes she'd known all her life were finally, earnestly making contact with hers. "That woman is hell-bent on kickin' us outta here by any means necessary."

Maka heard the letter crinkle in her hands, and she had to concentrate to put it back on the desk and not crumple it further. "Why?" she asked, swallowing a powerful desire to say some undignified things about a woman she'd hardly spoken to. "We've done nothing to her."

Spirit shook his head. "You haven't. Miss Georgian hasn't taken kindly to the county sheriff snoopin' around," he said with a sigh. "And she's a businesswoman. She wants to take out the competition, and when they don't take the easy way," he said, indicating the paper on the desk, "then I suspect she makes it tougher on them."

On 'us', is what he meant to say. "We're not giving up Mama's land," she hissed, fists clenching at her sides.

"That's the last thing I wanna do, sweets," Spirit said quietly.

"Then why're you lookin' like that!" she said, and the waver in her voice made her feel like a child. But he looked defeated already, resigned to a fate she refused to accept!

"If we don't break even come fall, I'm not sure we can keep goin'. We might be able t'keep the land with my salary and if you get a job with your schoolin', but we couldn't pay our outfit normal, much less cattle upkeep."

The boots on her feet felt painfully expensive all of a sudden. The memory of Tsubaki rubbing her stomach and speaking worriedly in Japanese to Mifune flitted through her mind and tied her up in knots.

"Cherish it," Georgian had said. The 'while you still can' had been implied.

Her eyes burned, feeling very much the No-Purpose ranch princess. "We take her offer and everyone loses their home anyway!"

Spirit set his whiskey down and got out of his chair, coming around his desk to gently put his hands on Maka's shoulders. "I don't wanna sell Angel's End anymore'n you. I'm tellin' you how it is. I planned on dyin' here and bein' buried next to your momma. But you are my daughter, understand? You're my pri-ority. I care 'bout everyone else, but I'll do what needs done to keep a roof over your head."

Her maturity went at war with the mental image of a second headstone. She understood his perspective, but she could manage just fine on her own without being supported by her father.

The land, however, was different. In a very intimate, lonely corner of her heart, Maka Albarn admitted to having no idea whatsoever if she could manage without the land supporting her feet.

"We jus' gotta break even, sweets. Nothin'll change if we manage that."

Choked silent by her greatest fears, her gaze fell on Mama's saddle. Her eyes followed the outline of the brass horn down to the delicately worked seat. Was this how it felt, to consider selling out? Like negotiating to have one's blood be siphoned? Like the stars burning out in the sky?

"You concentrate on your schoolin', Maka," Spirit said with finality, giving her shoulders a gentle squeeze.

"Yes Papa," she managed to force out her tight throat, pulling away and stepping out of the room.

Her eyes blurring with anxiety and frustration, she damn near ran into Evans. He leaned on a wall in the hallway, clearly within earshot of anything that may have taken place in her father's office. She was torn between either punching him for being so blatantly casual about his eavesdropping, or simply dropping to the floor, in terror of sharing his fate.

Between them at their feet was Crona, urinator of tires. He must have escaped Patti; perhaps both of them had. She bent to pick up the dog, letting him soak up her turmoil.

Soul gave her a careful look and tilted his head up slightly, exposing his eyes. They were considerably calmer than earlier. "Mitch wants me to ride fence. Wanna come with?"[3]

It was such a left-field subject that her own confusion calmed her down just the slightest bit. It was closer to night than noon, and riding fence was a one man job -- but being on horseback sounded therapeutic enough to overlook those facts. She gave a curt nod, not trusting her voice, and Soul pushed off the wall and left without another word.

As she watched his back, she found herself wondering how he could function. She'd seen how violently he'd reacted to Maddy Georgian stepping foot on Angel's End, and how he'd defended it despite the few months he'd been living here. He obviously carried resentment; the loss of his home seemed to weigh as heavily on him as a summer's day was long. And she'd never noticed.

More accurately, she'd never asked.

Maka reluctantly followed after him, seeking answers from a man she'd unfairly judged for simply having the experience required to obtain those answers.

\\

 

He was waiting for her at the tool shed, gathering fence repair tools and spare wire. She led Skully over, who'd already been saddled by a glowering Patti. Her horse made soft wuffling noises against the hood of Maka's light jacket.

They rode out to the far west fence line and headed north. Crona stood in her lap, watching the land go by, enjoying the late sun. Harley seemed bored of the slow pace while Maka's horse flanked the mare, content. The rhythm of being on horseback, the soft thud-thud of Skully's hooves on the earth, and the harmonic companionship of a fellow rider lulled Maka into a pacifying trance that cooled her head and negated any further attempts of her eyes threatening to leak.

After three quarters of a mile, Maka softly broke the silence. "Is that how it started?"

He didn't turn to face her. "Hm?"

"When your land was sold," she clarified, though she was fairly certain she hadn't needed to.

They reached the cross fence to the northwest pasture, and Evans dismounted and moved the gate aside for the both of them. After shutting the gate and climbing back onto his horse, he finally answered.

"My family's property was... maybe thrice this size," he started. After a pause, he amended with, "Not to sound competitive or anything. Just givin' you an idea." His horse picked a route around a copse of mesquite, Skully following. "The land was always 'The Evans property'. Some distant great-whathaveyou grandmother of mine took claim of it.

"Wes and me, the both of us were nearly born with hats on. That land was our life. M'sure you know how it is." He briefly glanced over to her then, nothing but a hat brim and half a smile. It was gone in an instant, and he was back to watching the fence as they rode on.

"And then, outta nowhere this outfit snatches up old JB's place. Surprised us, seein' as he'd just died all of a sudden, and instead of the land goin' to his folks, it goes to some name we ain't ever heard. Gets changed to 'Lazy S' and we start seein' the brand poppin' up. That snake-arrow," Soul sneered, voice gone bitter.

"Bought the neighbors. Knocked on our door. Made the offer." His chin tilted up, and it took a few seconds for Maka to realize that Soul looked somewhat proud. "My folks refused, o'course. We'd been raisin' the best Angus this side of the Divide, so like hell we were gonna quit on account of money.[4] Didn't need none of that. But when it came time to ship?" Soul shook his head. "That Lazy S had so much head of cattle, so bulked up and fat.[5] After long, our buyer wouldn't shake hands on the deals we'd been makin' for years. 'Ventually, he wouldn't buy from us at all.

"Couldn't make ends meet after that. Few years and our cushion was runnin' dry. All the while that Lazy S would be givin' us hell, sabotagin' the windmills, settin' fire to the fields, cuttin' the fence-"

Maka couldn't hold her tongue at this. "Are you serious? Who even does that anymore? Didn't Papa-" she cut herself off, shaking her head a moment, "Didn't the authorities ever do anything?"

Soul scoffed. "Weren't no proof." He looked to her suddenly, one hand raised to speak with. "Ah, not for yer pop's lack of tryin'. He was over all the time, tryin' to get to the bottom of it."

She wasn't sure what to say to this, so she avoided the topic, saving this information regarding her father for later. "Is that why Mitch is having you ride fence?"

"Might've given him the notion," he said, rubbing under his nose.

Maka sorely doubted that Maddy Georgian, or anyone working for her, would cut a fence on the same day she set up a meeting to make an offer on the property. That would take a lot of assuming that she'd be declined, not to mention a lot of just plain meanness.

"Better safe than sorry, I suppose," she said mostly to herself.

Soul agreed with a grunt.

Crona turned in her lap as they kept riding, settling down to keep warm in the folds of Maka's jacket. The sun was falling to the ground, making the shadows of their leggy horses stretch long. "So, is that it?" Maka found herself asking. "What happened after that?"

Soul seemed to deflate in his saddle. His words came out snide. "Well. I got my dumb ass in the hospital, and that took up what was left of the savings. And then some. They took the next offer she gave. I didn't even know it, bein' in phys'cal therapy. Then they all packed up. Wanted nothin' more to do with cattle n'snakes."

"But you didn't," said Maka.

She watched him look beyond the fence and towards the orange horizon. "I ain't meant for city life," she thought she heard him say.

After counting a measure of T posts, she replied, "Neither am I." [6]

He glanced back, giving her that half smile again. "Can't let it go either, huh?" After a moment, he sighed. "Look, I don't wanna see it happen all over. Not to anyone, but specially not to you and yours."

She'd figured believing him would feel stranger than this, but it didn't. It rang so true there was no room for doubt at all. "You're ours too," she heard herself say.

He laughed, grin as genuine as the rest of him. "Am I now?"

And his horse tripped on cut barbed wire.

Chapter Text

Harley gave a short squeal, the twisted tangle of barbed wire catching her legs. It snapped across the mare and rebounded erratically with the horse's dancing, cutting across flesh and tack and rider before Soul could urge the horse far enough away to get out of the mess. Twitchy and panicked, she fought the reins, sidestepping until her rider could calm her down.

Maka was busy with her gelding and dog, both spooked by the whole event. She guided Skully clear of the fence though he circled around in the process; Crona scrambled all across the saddle and Maka's chest, trying to keep from falling off the horse. After several adrenaline-filled seconds, Skully was mostly settled, though tense and keeping a wary eye on both Harley and the scary tangle-monster on the ground. Maka, obliging her dog by letting him crawl under her jacket, called out to Soul to ask if he was alright.

His hat had fallen during the ordeal. Soul swore under his breath, but got his horse under control. He leaned from side to side, inspecting Harley. "Did it catch her?" he asked, voice hoarse.

Maka gently nudged her horse forward, circling Harley at a safe distance while squinting for damage in the fading light. "Just a few scratches. Ah, but her hock is bleeding." Soul cursed loudly that time. "We can take care of it at home, it doesn't look bad. Should do it soon though, before the flies get to her."[1]

Soul nodded, face furious as he dismounted. This was when Maka noticed Soul's hand pressed to his thigh, a dark stain seeping under his fingers. "You! It got you too?" she asked, dismayed.

He tilted his palm away for half a second, only giving a flippant, distracted glance on himself before he was back to finding his horses injuries. He growled, "Just a scratch. Ruined my jeans, god dammit."

Far from satisfied, Maka slid off her horse, one arm carefully supporting Crona's weight in her jacket on the way down. Once near, she grasped Soul's wrist to see the shallow scrape for herself. She blushed at the wide rip in his pants, criminally high on his thigh.

He damn near growled at her interference. The wound didn't look that bad-- the horse's hocks were worse, as minor an injury they'd suffered-- but it bothered her on principle. They'd both been hurt as a result of something that needn't involve them. "You should get a tetanus," she said, quiet.

Soul immediately yanked his wrist away. "Hell no I shouldn't," he said.

Maka gave him a stern look before letting a squirming Crona out of her jacket and depositing him on the ground. "Hell yes. I'll call the doc when we get back."

He was adamant in his refusal. "No way am I gettin' a needle from any sawbones over a paper cut," he protested. Maka squinted at him dubiously as he walked away to pick up his dusty hat. "S'not gonna kill me." [2]

"Barbed wire's a bit heftier than paper," she chastised, cocking a hip. "Are you scared of doctors or something?"

"Course not!"

"Whatever. I'm calling him, regardless."

He snarled. "Woman-"

He thought he could be bullheaded with her? She wrote the book on being stubborn. She snarled right back, "Don't you 'woman' me like it means anything different from 'man'! Now shut up and help me with this fence so we can get home. Your horse needs doctoring."

\\

 

When Maka finished putting Skully up for the night, she walked out into the corral, where Soul was rubbing his shoulder with a grimace. "It wasn't his fault, I was distracting him, Pat," she insisted while Patti caressed her knuckles.

When the horse wrangler turned her glare to Maka, Soul sullenly cut in with, "Don't listen to her, I wasn't payin' proper attention. S'my own fault."

Patti wheezed with pent-up anger a moment before she gently unbuckled Harley's saddle and shoved it into Soul's arms with enough violence to make him grunt. "I ain't mendin' yer rig." She glanced down at his leg, but said nothing about the bloody hole in his jeans, only rolling her eyes. She walked just inside the door to the stables to get some supplies for the injured horse.

The girl was a force to be reckoned with, so Maka tried her most soothing voice possible (though she still had nothing on Tsubaki's) when she tentatively asked, "Is there anything we can do to help?"

With Soul occupied by the loose ends of his tack and Patti out of reach, Harley turned to regard Maka at the sound of her voice, ears pointed with alert distrust.

The only possible way for Patricia Thompson to look any more mad as she leaned around the stable door would be for her eyes to catch fire. "I kin handle. The horse. I kin't handle you two buzzin' round in my face," she gritted between her teeth while she slung a water hose over her shoulder and grabbed a brown sack of gingersnaps. Patti jutted her chin out at Soul. "You. Get out 'fore I punch you again. And you," she said to Maka, "get out 'fore you get bit by Miss Snootypants. You call Frank, yet?"

Maka eyed Soul's bratty horse. "...No, but I'm fixing to," she replied.

"Who's Frank?" Soul asked warily.

Patti hooked up one end of the hose to an indoor spigot. "The doc. Didn't I tell you to git?"

"I don't wanna leave my horse, alright?" Soul shot back, shifting the gear in his arms. "And I don't need no doctor or tetanus, I keep sayin'."

The young wrangler looked at him, nonplussed. "What got you?" she asked, motioning to his leg.

"Barbed wire," Maka happily supplied when Soul stubbornly hid his shifty eyes under the brim of his hat.

"Then you need a tetanus, Spitfire." The nickname rang synonymous with 'idiot' the way Patti said it.

Soul seethed. "No, I don't."

"He hit his head too?" Patti asked Maka, feeding Harley a gingersnap to distract the horse from potentially biting visitors.

Soul grumbled under his breath (something about taking advice from a kid and a cow-doctor) and stalked out of the corral, lugging his rig to the tack shed. Maka shifted from side to side, not sure whether to follow him or stay and help with a horse that would sooner sit on her than let her near its injuries. After a withering glance from Patti, she hastily apologized and trotted after the ranch hand into the darkening evening.

He refused her help putting up his saddle, and commented on her lack of silence ("Would you pipedown?!") as she followed him to the guest house. When he came to terms with her not leaving him be, he allowed her into his quarters with a reprise of sighs and grumblings.

Maka came to a stop the moment she walked through the door. She hadn't been inside the guest house in some years, and Soul had rearranged the area to his own liking. He looked confused by her hesitation, but said nothing and simply left her at the open door.

The guest house was used primarily for storage for a long time before Suzanne had died. The last time Maka had been here, it was to sort through Mama's old things after the funeral.

She was a little relieved that the house smelled less like dust and more like something she hadn't analyzed before until that moment, filtering around her in such quantity: a familiar presence of Soul Evans and shaving cream thinly layered over leather. There was a tall table off to the side, littered with random items. Keys, gloves, harmonica, loose change, and a mostly empty pack of sunflower seeds lay scattered on the surface.

The kitchen was small, and looked unused as it always had (which was little surprise as Tsubaki cooked meals enough to feed an army daily). One other part of the house had remained the same: underfoot was an old, lopsided rag rug her mother had made. Maka swallowed, caught unprepared for this sudden reappearance of something she hadn't realized was part of her memory in the first place.

She slowly straightened a folded-over edge of the rug with the toe of her boot. Looking up, Maka saw Soul silently observing her, and she remembered where and when she was. Maka belatedly closed the front door.

"How's your leg," she asked, trying to sound normal.

Soul sat on the edge of the bed, keeping the leg in question straight to keep his jeans from aggravating the cut on his thigh. "Still attached," he said, bland.

Stepping forward, Maka's eyes drifted to the hole in his jeans. He shifted under her gaze, looking away with a frown and pulling off his gloves. He tossed these to land near the other pairs on the table. "Let's just get this overwith," he muttered.

The guest house telephone was hidden underneath his bed, dusty with disuse. Its phone line trailing to the wall was stiff and curled, still new from being replaced after the Lipizzaner-Rat incident of last January.

She knew the number by heart.

(Sweets, you go in the house and you call Frank, understand?)

The doctor didn't sound the least bit surprised to hear from her on a random Thursday evening, but he never did sound surprised about anything. Maka explained the gist of things. "I'll be there after awhile," Frank said before he hung up.

After a length of irritable silence, Soul asked, "Your doc makes housecalls," without the question mark.

"He's been a friend of the family for a long time. Everyone here knows his number." Her eyes were drawn back to his leg without her knowledge. "You should learn it, too," she faintly said, nudging the phone back under the bed.

He tilted his head up a little, shifting her focus. Quietly, he said, "I been hurt worse than this." With the tips of his fingers, he tapped his chest twice with his left hand before removing his hat.

Some indescribable part of that motion made her neck feel warm, and she looked away, the rug back in her sights again. "I know it's not serious. But still."

"Still?"

"The fence was cut," she said, angry and confused. "You're not even involved this time." She looked up when she heard him scoff.

"Maka, I've been involved since the first time Maddy Georgian knocked on the door."

She shook her head, eyes blazing. "You don't get it. This is my- ...my mama's land. We hired you. I know that cowboys getting hurt comes with the job, but the fence was cut. That's not part of the job- that's you getting drug into our business."

Head cocked to the side, Soul regarded her for a breath before standing and ambling to his narrow bathroom. She heard the light switch flip, and watched him shut the door to only a small crack. The sounds of the ranch hand undressing filtered through the gap. "So," he said behind the door, "you feel guilty."

She flushed, feeling exposed in the center of the room by herself. She settled for perching on the corner of his bed. "I feel a little responsible," she admitted, trying to sound more professional about the matter as opposed to emotionally invested in whatever physical mishaps may befall Evans.

"You ain't the one who cut the fence," he said, accompanied by sounds of first-aid tape and a clatter of cardboard on counter top. "Didn't exactly push me into it, either," he added sourly.

She prodded the edge of the rug with her boot. "You're still one of ours, though. Said it before," she replied to the bathroom door. "I feel like... I should make sure everyone's taken care of."

Soul didn't respond to this, and she was relieved, because if she was going to be forced to admit any more by-proxy feelings of worrying about his well-being, she'd rather get the tetanus shot, herself.

After what seemed like eons of forcing herself to think of anything unrelated to bandages, wranglers, and stupid comments from stupid Tsubaki, Maka heard (or rather, smelled) Frank's familiar truck pull up outside. The scent of rancid french fries sifted through the guest house's open window, bright headlights spilling in and angling across the wall.

"God almighty," Soul said as he wrenched the door open and hurriedly buttoned his jeans. He pulled up the collar of his shirt over his mouth and nose. "Please explain to me why it smells like a bag of asses just got dropped on my house." He squinted at Maka over his collar.

She scoffed as she stood, making her way to the front door. "Your house?" She grinned. "That'd be Frank's truck. Runs off cooking oil."

Hand on the doorknob, she was interrupted from letting the doctor in by Soul hurriedly forcing the front door shut again. "I know this smell," he said.

"What the-"

He looked distraught as he searched her eyes. If his shirt collar hadn't been so comical pulled up to his nose, Maka would have had half a mind to become flustered by his proximity. "You mean to say it's a biodiesel?"

Maka blinked. "Y-yes?"

The man became even more panicked when Frank spoke on the other side of the door. "Ding dong. Anyone home?"

Soul violently shook his head, collar falling off his face, but Maka still called, "Yeah! Just a second!" And then, more quietly, "What is the matter with you? Do you have an actual thing about doctors?"

"Just one," he hissed, struggling to keep her from re-opening the door.

"Would you just... knock it off!"

"OW shit, my fff- think you broke my goddamn toe!"

Maka shoved Soul out of the way while he cringed and limped in defeat. She opened the door. "Hi, Frank."

Frank, Doc Stanley to his patients, pushing fifty, spectacles, stood outside. He smelled vaguely of hushpuppies. "Hello, Maka. You seem to be doing well. Taking those vitamins?"

"Of course."

"Mister Evans," he nodded to Soul, not looking surprised at all to see someone else he knew.

Soul was slowly inching backwards from the doorway. "Doctor Stanley," he greeted, and then glared accusingly at Maka for reasons she didn't understand.

"You two are acquainted?" she asked.

"Of course we are," Frank said, stepping into the house. He was exceedingly tall, and had to duck his head to pass. "Though, Soul, you never came back for your follow-up."

The younger man rolled a shoulder. "Musta slipped my mind," he said lowly.

Watching the exchange, Maka felt somewhat out of place but not enough to want to miss the chance of Soul Evans making that kind of face about something other than her father's firearm.

"Maka tells me you met a fence today."

"M'fine."

"Yes, well, better safe than sorry." Frank smiled, opening up his satchel and investigating the labels on a handful of small vials.

"So I hear," Soul replied dryly, shooting another displeased look in Maka's direction.

"Ah, Clostridium tetani. Your favorite, if I remember correctly."

"You seem to recall the exact opposite of everythin'."

Frank smiled, serene. "Deltoid, please."

Soul, wearing a standard, long-sleeved pearl snap shirt, unhappily untucked his shirt from his pants. As he popped the top button, Maka was suddenly confronted with a dilemma.

"Uh. I. Um?" It was just a chest, for heaven's sake- she didn't know why she was so bashful all of a sudden. "I should go."

"Stay," Soul said casually. "I need to, er, talk with you. After." A glance from him completely negated his statement with a desperate look as Frank loaded an injection needle, unaware; his face clearly read 'Don't leave me alone with him'.

She hid a smile behind a hand for a moment. "...Okay," she said, after regaining her composure. But then he pulled the last snap and she caught a glimpse of that line Liz Thompson had drawn in the diner, peeking up from beneath his undershirt. Her breath caught and she looked away, eyes pulled to the floor and riveting to the rug.

Maka tried to recall when his last bullride had been, but the date her brain gave her did not want to match up with that angry-looking scar reaching his left shoulder. It looked too recent, too aggravated to be from two autumns past.

She winced when Frank remarked, "This is looking much better."

"Jus' gimme the shot already, quit pokin' it," Soul complained, but Maka recalled something else he had said earlier today.

(Did you hear what she said? About the bull.)

She couldn't make heads or tails about what Soul and Patti had been referring to. All she could piece together was that, in Soul's mind, the bull that gave him his scar and Maddy Georgian were associated in some way.

"You sure you don't want any stitches for that?"

"Never been more sure of somethin' in my life."

Maka tuned out Frank's teasing and Soul's defensiveness, thoughts falling back into the disparaging subjects of Maddy Georgian and Lazy S ranch. Soul had predicted the fence being cut. She had a feeling he'd probably know what came next, too. And then, at the end of that line, Angel's End would be sold when all other options ran out.

Her eyes followed the muted colors of the floor rug, its faded, frayed ends of cloth spiraling around a center knot.

"You guys come in for supper," she said abruptly. "I'm sure there'll be plenty." Even though she'd agreed to stay, she ignored Soul's questioning eyes as she spun to open the front door.

Frank turned around, adjusting his spectacles. "I'm hoping Sue will let me fill up the truck?" he asked, optimistic, while his patient quietly buttoned his shirt.

"Now, you know she saves all the frying oil just for you," Maka replied, wearing her sweetest smile while her mind raced in other directions. She gave a generic farewell before rushing out of the guest house and trotting across the porch.

She was a grown adult, and she could prioritize, too. She loved her papa, but the land was her priority. Some sassy downtown glamor-woman wouldn't bully her or anyone else off of Mama's land, and she sure as hell wouldn't hurt any more of Angel's End's outfit.

First thing was first: Maka needed more information. She needed to talk to people who had a better estimate of what it would take to keep from going under -- the number crunchers.

Whatever needed doing, even if she had to do it single-handedly, the ranch would break even.

\\

 

The coffee table echoed her fingers' incessant drumming. It was a late Saturday evening, and last autumn's records were fanned in front of her. No matter the arrangement of numbers and papers, the outcome remained the same.

Polishing off the remainder of what was likely to be her sixth glass of water that evening, Tsubaki said, "And we don't know how well she's doing this year. Judging by how much she offered the boss, it's safe to say 'not poorly'."

Maka recalled all those zeroes. "What about the buyers? Will they keep their promises when we ship?"

Tsubaki slowly shrugged. "That's more for Mifune to answer. He said he's been looking into other people in case they don't." She looked hesitant before adding, "But finding people who do things without hormones is pretty difficult, lately."

Something about this tickled the back of Maka's brain, but she wasn't sure what or why. She looked up from the table. "We'll have to look harder. I don't want them to finish at some place where they'll be treated like hell and get liver abscesses and pumped full of ionophores and-"

The older woman held up a hand before Maka could rant her way through a long list of scientific and medical terminology. "I know it. If we don't, though, we may suddenly have a whole lot of pets to feed through next winter."

Maka blew her bangs out of her eyes with an irritated huff, resting her chin in a palm. The house was quiet, most everyone gone off to bed. Which is where should be as well, because tomorrow she had to leave early to make it to the Evans' Family Easter Lunch-Thing, and rest would probably be necessary to handle that with a straight face. She glanced down at the papers again.

"Well. What do you think?"

Idly swiveling from side to side in her recliner, Tsubaki made no reply, her nails ringing against her empty water glass as she thought.

Maka continued to prod the manager for an answer. "If it goes like last year-"

"It'll be worse than last year," Tsubaki said definitively.

"I know, but let's say it won't be. Would we break even again?"

Tsubaki sucked in her bottom lip while she ran mental figures, reading glasses slowly sliding down the bridge of her nose. "With the new truck, and paying Soul, probably not." She looked sideways at Maka. "If we do what we've always done."

One look at the general manager's rounded stomach, and Maka knew a lot of things couldn't be done as always. Things changed. They must adapt. Her fingers drummed faster on the table.

"Speaking of," Tsubaki said, "yesterday morning Pat asked for an advance."

"Did she not get paid last week?"

"She did."

Scowling, Maka meticulously organized last year's records in an effort to not strangle them. She knew she shouldn't be jumping to conclusions, but it shot from her mouth before her conscience could check it: "It's her mother, isn't it."

"She wouldn't say, so probably."

"...Can we do it?"

Tsubaki shifted uncomfortably in her chair, swiveling halted. "I said I'd have to talk to Spirit first, but... after Frank coming over and all that business with the fence, and Soul, and Lazy S, I haven't had the chance."

And Papa hadn't come home that evening, either. It wasn't unusual for him to be absent, as of late, but seeing as certain snake-arrow-women have been sabotaging their ranch, Maka was a little irritated that her father wasn't home. She knew and understood that, as sheriff, he had several obligations, but his rare appearances did little to deter the feeling that everything was slowly slipping from their hands.

"What're you thinking, Maka?"

She was thinking about how her education was burning a hole in their finances. She was thinking about how much worse this year's profit on the cattle would potentially be. She was thinking of what to sell, what to give up, what to raise from the depths so they could break even.

"I'm thinking on how I'm not going to give that woman an inch of our land." Standing, Maka handed the neat bundle of papers to Tsubaki, thanking her.

\\

 

Wrapped in aluminum foil, the plate was still warm in her hands. Her mouth twisted to the left, daring him to say anything.

The unmoving brim of Soul's hat focused on her for a long beat. "What," she challenged. She knew she looked like a little girl-child in a spring dress, and she waited for him to make any kind of wisecrack so she could have a proper reason to shove her foot up his ass. She hadn't known what to wear (weren't Easters supposed to be churchy-dressy?), but she supposed she hadn't overdone it seeing as Soul appeared to be wearing the cleanest pair of dark denim that no cowboy should ever own. "You don't have to look so surprised about it," she said.

He said nothing, only giving a slight roll of his shoulder before he meandered to the passenger side of his truck and opened the door for her.

She gave him the most accusatory glare she could muster. "I can open a door."

"Your hands're full."

Maka shoved Tsubaki's cookies in his hands and climbed in. She buckled her seat belt and grudgingly re-accepted the plate of cookies. Soul sighed as if she were a horse who had soiled a recently mucked stall, and shut the door. Maka tilted her head back to thunk on the rear window of the pickup. Why was she doing this?

Which is what she asked aloud, and to which Soul responded, "Because Wes lies like a goddamn rug," climbing in behind the wheel. Depressing the clutch pedal, he turned the key in the ignition.

She didn't get the chance to ask just what his brother had lied about, because the truck's engine continued to noisily turn without the loud roar firing. "..Um?"

Soul frowned, turning the key back a moment. He tried the ignition again, the starter turning earnestly but the engine making no reply. He sniffed once. "Welp."

They exchanged glances.

"Guess we can't g-"

"Do you need to borrow my truck?"

He made a face that was quickly approaching that kicked-puppy look. Honestly, it was like the man wanted to see his family even less than she did. Maka rolled her eyes and unbuckled her seat belt. "We're supposed to be there by when? Eleven? We're gonna be late- let's just take mine." Opening the door, she slid off the seat and fell the short distance to the ground. Plate of cookies in one hand and dusting off her light colored dress with the other, she said with her chin in the air, "You should probably tune up your truck."

Soul sullenly pulled his keys out the ignition. "If the truck says I shouldn't go, then I just don't," he replied.

He followed her up the driveway to where her truck was parked, which was also where they proceeded to have an awkward dance going around the tailgate to both get to the driver's side.

"Excuse you," she spat, patience at an all-time minimum.

"I figured I would-" he started.

She gawked at how casually he acted on his ridiculous presumptions. "Get your butt off your shoulders!"

"Maka... I can-" He looked at such a genuine loss she could nearly hear her blood steaming out her ears.

"No you can not drive my truck!"

Irritated, Soul pulled his hat low over his eyes. "Albarn, I can't have my... my g-"

"If you're about to say what I think you're about to say," she warned, "I will run you over."

"My guest," he said with a snarl, "drive me to my own family's damn get-together. It's humiliatin'!"

She wanted so badly to not be holding cookies so she could wring her hands around his six-point-eleven neck. Instead, she smacked his hat up and back out of his face. "You make the biggest fits over the weirdest things! Can't eat spice, can't look at someone without a hat on, scared of doctors-"

"I ain't scared of doctors, dammit, and if Wes sees you bein' my chauffeur I'll never get a peaceful night's rest til the day I see Peter."[3]

"Well you should've thought that through before you neglected your only means of going places."

Soul slapped his hand over his face with a huff and turned to pace away a few feet before whirling back again. "I'll get you Oreos."

Her mouth caught air for a moment. "Pardon?"

"Month's supply. If you let me drive."

His solution was to bribe her with cookies? (Wasn't she already holding some in her hands?) Her back straightened into an angry, steel rod. "I won't be bought by food, what kind of a-"

"Six months."

"W-what in the hell am I gonna do with six month's worth of Oreos?"

He waved a hand, exasperated. "Use 'em to bribe Strickland, I don't care- just let me drive to my own house."

Maka had no response to this other than openly staring at him, the quick-warming spring sun beating down overhead.

"I'll pay for fuel," he added.

Her thumbs crinkled the foil covering the plate of fresh cookies. "Alright fine!" she said, stomping around to the passenger side of the truck. She just wanted the whole stupid thing overwith. "Money can't buy you everything, though, so you best keep your word good, Evans, or so help me your brother will look like a saint." She was relieved he didn't try to open the door for her again; murder was not something on her to-do list for the day, tempting though it may be.

She laughed victoriously when, climbing into the driver's seat, he bashed his knee on the steering column.

"Mercy." Soul moved the seat back to accommodate his longer legs.

Once they were both situated, he looked at in blank silence. Without ceremony, Maka reached over and violently flipped down the driver's side sun visor, spilling her keys into his lap. "And if you wreck it, I'll skin you alive."

Apart from a small, lost moment in which Soul's right hand went for an imaginary stick shift before he realized the transmission was an automatic, he didn't seem to have any issues with Maka's truck. She still watched his every movement, waiting for anything to break.

She couldn't remember the last time she rode passenger in her own vehicle. Everything was mirrored and backwards, and she had no steering wheel to drape her wrist over. Her crossed feet shifted restlessly on the floorboard while she tugged the hem of her skirt closer to her knees.

It wasn't until after it happened that she remembered the last set of cattle guards at the end of the driveway were rough enough to jar the truck in the exact way to rattle the dashboard and kick on the radio. Immediately, the cab echoed with loud harmonica via cassette. Soul started, foot on the brake, while Maka nearly knocked the cookies from her lap to scramble for the volume control.

Her face steamed. "Sorry," she said, voice sounding loud in the sudden silence of the cab. "I had the windows down the other day, so..."

"Wait," he said, faintly amused, or maybe preoccupied. "What is this?"

Maka had not anticipated being embarrassed over what was playing, and even more bothersome was not pinpointing the reason she was flushing in the first place. "It's... my mama's favorite tape," her mouth said before her brain could process why, along with any other useful things. She was caught between telling him to mind his own business and throwing herself out of the passenger door.

Soul slowly turned the volume back up to audible levels, only humming in acknowledgement before pulling the truck out of the driveway.

There was nothing to make of his expression; he didn't turn off the radio. She wanted to say anything to divert his attention from the music, because that tape had become something personal to her, something cherished, and to have him sit through it looking like he was in deep thought made her unreasonably anxious.

Mama had loved harmonica. Maka loved it too, but sometimes it was more than just because it was her mother's favorite. She liked hearing the instrument from any source, and this trail of thought invariably led to the fact that the man sitting next to her was one of those sources, and, for reasons she did not want to analyze in any shape or form, this aforementioned fact made her slap out the bricks and mortar around herself to keep the lone wolves from blowing her over.

In the time she'd spent trying to keep her face temperature under control, the song ended, and Evans said, "Your tape's wearin' out."

She blinked and looked at her radio as if it would tell her something. "Is it?"

"Can hear it. Should copy it soon."

"A-ah. I'll... keep it in mind." She hadn't even noticed. The tape was played so frequently, any signs of it gradually wearing out over time had easily slipped by her ears. The thought of her mama's tapes being lost to the abyss wasn't something she had previously considered, the idea very idea making her blood go cold. "Thanks."

He didn't comment on the music or otherwise.

Maka watched familiar trees twist away on the curving back roads, sunlight flashing through open branches. "So, is there anything I should know about your folks?" she asked, then realized that this sounded like a weird, meet-the-parents date.

Soul grunted in disgust. "Not really. They'll prolly fawn all over you as you're Spirit's daughter."

She almost decided to let the road noise in the cab speak for her, but she couldn't let it be. "That makes a whole zero of sense," she blurted. "Have they not met him?"

He nodded, slow as everything else he does. "The have. Saw him a lot, remember? You'll see. My gran is the one to worry about, anyway. She's jus' like you."

"W-what? How do you mean?"

His fingers tapped on the steering wheel as he counted off in a drawl, "Stubborn, quick to judge, holds a grudge like a thorn, and gives everyone more hell than what exists in the underworld."

Maka's eyes narrowed with her rising ire. "...How is that me at all?" she challenged. He said nothing but gave her a sidelong glance that spoke volumes. "If I could be sure you wouldn't wreck us, I'd hit you."

"Much obliged." He pulled on the highway, taking care to not over-rev her truck. "Oh. Erm. Hope you like dogs." Soul made a small glance to her lap before clearing his throat. "Prolly shoulda worn pants."

She gave him an openly incriminating expression, face blazing as she tugged her hem a little lower. "Just where are you looking," she hissed.

He only shook his head. "Ain't me you should be worried about," he said, ambiguous.

\\

 

Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen? There were dogs everywhere. She couldn't count them on account of them jumping and running around so much, swarming around her bare, bare legs.

"Oh gosh, I should've asked Ethan if you're allergic," said a tall, willowy woman with crinkled eyes. "Hello," said Mrs. Evans, soft brown hair, cotton pants, paint-splattered t-shirt, no shoes. "Good to meet you, call me Tanya. Are you allergic to dogs?"

Maka found herself laughing at the rapid-fire greeting as Soul's mother took the plate of cookies from her hands. Grateful to have her hands free, she glued them to her dress, attempting to keep dog snouts from where they shouldn't be. "No, I'm not," she replied. "Maka Albarn, pleased to meet you." And she truly was, to her surprise.

Tanya Evans ushered them inside the large home, stepping over dogs with ease. The woman seemed to have very little physical traits in common with her sons at first glance, but after a few moments of watching her animated face, Maka got the impression of Wes from Tanya, with that easygoing smile and scrunch of nose. "Spirit's daughter! Oh, look at you, you're just a darling. William! William they are here, heavens, I need to bring in the tea. Right this way, come in, come in! Ethan, take off that hat."

Maka heard a soft sigh behind her. "Yes ma'am." Over her shoulder, she gave Soul an amused look, and he just tiredly shook his head at her. "She only calls me 'Soul' when she's mad," he said. And then he was tackled by a greyhound.

Walking further into the large house, she was overwhelmed by the unfamiliar surroundings, the swirling mass of dogs in all colors and sizes, Soul staggering and cursing ("Eisenhower, dammit!"), and a balding man opening a sliding glass door on the opposite side of the house tiredly saying, "Whew! I'm as wore out as a cucumber in a convent."

After slapping a hand over her mouth, Maka believed her composure to be somewhat reasonably stable. She wondered if that was the singular, muffled laugh of Wes Evans filtering around an unseen corner.

"Pop!" Soul loudly hissed, struggling with the greyhound excitedly greeting him while heroically scooting another canine that was attempting to stick its muzzle a little too far up Maka's dress. He grit through his clenched teeth, "We have mixed company."

William (Bill) Evans, stout belly, ruddy-eyed, at least a foot shorter than his wife (and only slightly taller than Maka), introduced himself loudly across the living room. "Call me 'Pop'! 'Pologies in advance for anythin' what might be 'fensive outta my mouth." And then, to Tanya, he remarked, "She's cute ain't she," before gesturing behind him to the open glass door. "Hey, you reckon this tea's done?"

Soul's mother placed Tsubaki's cookies on a coffee table, sternly pointing at the nearest dogs to keep away from the goods. "I'm fixin' to get it here right now. Why're you sweating- did you catch fire again?" she asked, following him outside.

Unable to learn if 'Pop' Evans had lit himself on fire (he hadn't appeared singed in any way), Maka looked to Soul again only to find him permanently attached to his signature, aggravated grimace. She sucked in her lips to keep from smiling too widely while he struggled to keep his face away from the greyhound's tongue.

"D'you understand now?"

"What, why you wanted to stay home?" The smile escaped, despite her sub-par efforts, and her grin was as smug as it was broad. "Not in the slightest."

The entire world would be curds if it could, courtesy of Soul Evans's glower. "Wes," he called loudly, "Come git yer stupid dog!"

Chapter Text

Wes gave her a big hug like they've met more than once and have known each other for years. He smelled like mustard.

"Hey! How's it goin'? Glad I could convince Soul to bring ya!"

He was too tall, or rather, she was too short, and her cheek was pressed uncomfortably into his shirt. "M'good," she tried to say. She heard Soul's boots whistling across the carpet as he struggled with all the dogs.

"By convince you mean blackmail, right?" said Soul.

"Tomato, potato."

Once she was free of Wes's crushing, giant grip, she asked, "Blackmail?"

The elder brother smiled congenially. "Revenge, really. Don't suppose you saw me rope, Maka?"

Soul made an annoyed grunt and interrupted before Maka could worry about whether or not to laugh outright at Wes's roping skills. "I was busy, I said. And don't believe that accounts for you draggin' her into this anyhow."

She was beginning to understand that she was not entirely present for this conversation as they ignored her questioning stare.

"Plans within plans, little brother."

"So you don't know how to mind your own business, is what."

Wes waved a flippant hand, his expression very nearly annoyed. "Not everythin's 'bout you. I want her to meet Gran." At this, Soul went pensive in short order, chin tilting down and habitually hiding his face with a hat that wasn't there. His brother gestured with an open palm and added, "Makes sense, don't it?"

"...Still don't like your roundabout way gettin' somewhere."

"Yeah, yeah."

"At least ask her directly next time."

"Okay, yes, fine, I'll even do it now. Maka, would you like to meet our Gran-gran?"

Wet dog noses were sniffing every square centimeter of her ankles and knees. With a sour twist of her mouth at finally being acknowledged by not one, but two cryptic Evans brothers, she replied, "Don't see I've got much of a choice, now do I?"

Wes was all smiles and apologies, assuring her that it wasn't as bad as all that. "You'll love her, I promise. She's old-school! You'll get along like boots n'spurs," he said, leading her further into the living room.

"Both're painful bein' kicked by," Soul remarked behind her just as Tanya and Bill Evans returned from the backyard, each carrying a large pitcher of sun-brewed tea.

Every one of them made a fuss over where she should sit, and Wes looked pleased once she was settled in a worn loveseat. Maka was not entirely sure why, until she realized the pristine recliner on the other side of the coffee table was untouched and evidently reserved for someone other than Soul.

He was going to sit next to her, and the notion settled over Maka's shoulders like a nauseous weight. The ranch hand would only keep his attention on the one greyhound still prancing around him, confirming her suspicions by avoiding her accusatory gaze and passing up the empty chair to head towards the loveseat. From a longer couch, seated next to his wife, Bill Evans said, "You got a hitch in yer getalong, son."[1]

Soul paused a moment before continuing to casually seat himself next to Maka. "I'm alright," he said, rolling up his sleeves. She hadn't noticed him favoring his leg at all, and she found herself giving him a worried once-over. Her attention must've irritated him, because he finally made mild eye contact with a frown the size of the Grand Canyon. "M'fine, I said," he muttered quietly before growling, "Damn it, dog, just sit," to the greyhound.

Wes draped an ankle across a knee, seated in a folding chair instead of obviously more comfortable recliner to his right. "Lookit you, dog whisperer," he said, amused, as the greyhound pretended to be a lapdog for his younger brother. "What'd you do this time? Harley dusted you again?" He gave Maka a conspiratorial wink across the living room.[2]

"Again? You got thrown from that horse and I wasn't around to see?" she said, but tried to convey with her uneasy smile that she was still worried about the injury on his thigh. Soul gave her the smallest tilt of an eyebrow before deftly avoiding a sudden collision with Eisenhower's streamlined head.

"Weren't nothin' like that," he said. "Few days ago a mule got after my foot."

It only took one incriminating glance out of the corner of his eye for her to flush.

"You seem to pick the rowdiest equines to work with, Ethan."

Soul wanly replied to his mother, "S'not that I'm lookin' for them. They seem to find me just fine, though."

A look at Wes and his little smile told Maka that the elder Evans brother fully recalled a lack of mules on Angel's End. Eager to direct her blushing face away from anyone who might be staring, she turned to the greyhound sitting as daintily as a boulder in Soul's lap. She scratched under the dog's chin. "Is the silly ranch hand being a grumpy butt? Yeess."

Silly Ranch Hand scoffed and glowered first at her, then at a snorting Tanya before asking, "When's Gran s'posed to get here?"

"Should be here on the hour," Bill replied.

Wes glanced at a walnut-colored grandfather clock steadily keeping time near the back door. "Ma, that's five minutes ago, go put on some clothes already!"

Tanya Evans only slid off the couch to sit on the floor, scratching various dog ears. "I am wearing clothes," she smiled.

Maka watched the familial interaction with wary interest. Wes rolled his eyes at his mother's falsely-benign naivety. "I know it, but you know how Gran gets."

"Oh, boy," Bill said, and leaned comfortably back into plush couch cushions. He appeared to be a veteran of whatever type of storm was approaching.

"I know full well just how your father's mother is," Tanya said, giving a sidelong look to her son.

Soul shifted uncomfortably next to Maka, his dark denim grazing the side of her leg. Maka shot him a worried glance, but he gave her a bored shake of the head in response. "Don't worry 'bout it," he mouthed.

"I'm just givin' a friendly-like reminder, Ma. She's very particular 'bout some things- right Pop?"

"I'm only a spectator, son. Leave me out y'all's debate."

Wes sighed at Bill's neutrality. "C'mon, Ma, I want her to be nice an amiable to meet our special guest-"

"David Wesley Evans," Tanya smiled cheerfully (though Maka saw the crinkle to her nose was especially absent), "I will do as I please in my house, and you'll not be playin' diplomat, today."

Groaning, Wes stood out of his chair and walked over a handful of hounds, making his way back to the kitchen. "Yes ma'am," he airily conceded, waving off the troublesome weight of his full name being spoken. "I'll go and finish them deviled eggs."

Dusting her rounded, hot-roller bangs off her brow, Tanya said, "Married to the family thirty-four years, you'd think a person deserves a sanctuary." She gave an imploring look to Maka, who nodded automatically, and perhaps in self-defense.

"Congratulations," Maka side-stepped. "Thirty-four years is..."

"A long time," Bill said, deadpan. He nudged his knee playfully against Tanya's shoulder after she glared at him. "Would ya like to hear how we met?" he asked, eyebrows raised and smooth forehead wrinkling into an amused array of ridges.

Behind her, Maka heard Soul mutter in agony. "Absolutely," she said with sadistic glee.

Wes cried a dramatic, "Nooo!" in the distant kitchen, but the Evans couple remained unfazed.

"Well, we met on a starlit night," Bill started, fingers lacing over his belly.

Tanya corrected this. "It was broad daylight at the feed store."

"She had flowers in her hair-"

"Dandelions, actually. I'd been weed eatin'."

"And she turned to me n'said," Bill then attempted a horrible falsetto, "'Does anyone here sell four-cycle oil?', and I knew it was love."

Maka giggled behind a hand, and looked to Tanya for further correction. The woman only said, "That part's accurate."

With complete lack of enthusiasm, Soul said, "That's downright poetic, Pop."

"Damn right it was and be grateful, else you would'na been born."

Soul tilted his head back to rest on the couch with a sigh.

This was when every dog sprawled around them- including the greyhound in Soul's lap- lifted its head and perked its ears in the direction of the front door. Eisenhower immediately launched from his perch, presumably racking the ranch hand in the process. Maka laughed in a combination of entertainment and nervous pity.

"Augh, Christ-"

"Language, Ethan. Get the door, your brother is busy."

"I'm goin' already," he said, sulking and valiantly attempting to walk without wheezing. "Askin' for just a scrap of mercy today."

Maka could not have predicted that when the moment Ruth Evans, stonewash-silver hair, stoic posture, seventy-five, walked quietly into the house, every animal in her proximity would calmly trot after her. No baying, barking, jumping, or chaos of any sort was to be found.

All of this helped mirror and accentuate Soul's countenance as he respectfully led his grandmother to the living room. The woman's hand was wrapped around his offered elbow, and as they walked, it was all at once apparent where Soul's less stocky, leaner frame came from.

"Happy Easter, Gran," he said.

"Thank you, honey. I see you've hurt yourself again." The two shared a look before Soul made a face and led Ruth to her seat.

It was clear that the recliner-throne was meant for her. Several dogs flopped at her feet as she sat. Ruth gently patted Soul's hand in either gratitude or dismissal- it was difficult to tell one from the other. She did not lean back into the chair.

Despite all the things that Soul had warned her about on the drive here, Maka felt a glimmer of admiration already, though she hadn't spoken a single word to the woman. She couldn't decide if it was the older woman's obvious riding experience showing through the way she held herself, or the near-reverent way Soul treated her, or even just the strangeness of fifteen-too-many composed dogs, but Maka very much wanted to make a good impression on Ruth Evans.

Automatically, Maka found herself standing from her seat as Soul's parents did. Tanya and Bill both made their way around the coffee table, stepping around hounds and bending over to hug and greet Ruth. If Soul's grandmother said anything about Tanya's appearance, Maka missed it, because she was too busy having a silent conversation of eyebrows across a living room with Soul. As disquieting as it was to admit, he was the most familiar face here, and she had to look to him for guidance. She stood off to one side and shrugged her shoulders at him. Should she go introduce herself? Should she pretend she didn't exist? He shouldn't leave her cluelessly standing here!

And hold on a minute -- just why in the hell did making a good impression matter in the first place? Wasn't this the family of sellouts? Hadn't she told Tsubaki she hadn't cared one way or the other what any Evans would think of her? 

She had a feeling horse snot would be on the menu in the near future.

It was an Evans Family team effort in the end that brought her forward to Ruth, with Soul quietly motioning her over, Bill announcing there was someone for his mother to meet, and Tanya grasping her by the elbow to deposit her in the direct center of everything. The heavens seemed to twist around her as she locked eyes with not the diluted red she had expected, but a mirror-shine of icy blue.

Lightly, between her shoulder blades, Maka felt the faint warmth of a hand seeping through her dress. It took her a moment to realize whose it was.

"Gran, this is Maka. I work on her ranch."

The room seemed to gain twenty degrees of warmth; she really oughtn't cause a scene the moment she needed to introduce herself. Maka held out an unsure hand. "Pleased to meet you." Ruth took her hand in both of hers, enveloping it in strong, boney thumbs and warm wrinkles.

"Your ranch?" she asked.

Maka stammered. "Ah, it's not really mine- my papa's the owner."

Ruth shook her head, eyes watching her. "No, the name of your ranch, honey."

Oh. Her fingers were gently squeezed. "Angel's End," she heard herself numbly say, wondering if she would ever be able to name it in the same lilt everyone else still could.

"That's what I thought," Ruth said. Her head tilted up in recognition. "You're Suzanne's. A pleasure."

The hand between her shoulders, the dogs, the people, even the very ground beneath her feet all vanished in wake of this woman. Maka's eyes flew wide. "You knew Mama?" she asked, voice almost a whisper.

Ruth nodded, the carefully styled grey of her hair moving with her like a crown. "When she was younger. You remind me a lot of her. In the face." After a once-over, she added with an almost-smile, "Mmm. And height."

Maka's face hurt with the size of her smile. A laugh escaped her throat. Not knowing what else to say, she replied with, "Thank you."

"I was sad to hear she passed. My condolences."

An alienating, but all-too-familiar rush of cold crashed into her from all sides. Her face felt tight, but she managed a sincere smile, and nodded. Ruth's hands slid away from her offered one, and, in a daze, Maka found herself walking back to her seat, the spot between her shoulders feeling chill as she went out of Soul's reach.

After wrapping up greetings and sitting next to her again, sans greyhound, Soul's eyes prodded her with some kind of silent question, but Maka studiously toyed with a fold in the skirt of her dress instead of meeting his gaze. It took everything she could give to simply concentrate on breathing. Anything more than that might tip the scale from casual ache to drowning misery.

She told herself to act normally. She'd been fine until just now, but she can't quite grasp the feeling anymore. Why did this always happen? Why couldn't she seem to get by the way anyone else could?

Once Soul's parents were re-seated, Ruth asked in a raised voice, "Where is my other grandson?"

Wes poked his head around a corner. "Right here! Merry Easter, Gran. I'm fixin' yer favorite."

Ruth did not appear to smile or frown, but her eyes crinkled in a warm, amused way. "No paprika for mine or your brother's, I hope."

"Of course," Wes said. "I dipped Soul's in the kai-yan pepper, but yours're perfectly safe."

She pointed a gnarled finger at him. "That's no way to treat our Spitfire, young man," she chastised before cool eyes swiveled to her younger grandson.

Soul rubbed his hand over bandana-covered head, complaining how little slack he'd been given his entire life regarding 'that stupid pepper', and Maka let out a long breath, relieved by his focus moving elsewhere. Whether grabbing his attention had been purposeful or not, Maka decided in that moment that Ruth Evans was her favorite.

The deviled eggs were delicious. As were the kebabs Bill had grilled, the salad greens and various sides Tanya had prepared, and, unsurprisingly, Tsubaki's cookies.

"Now Miss Maka, you never did tell us how you two met," Bill prodded.

The implications of his question forced Maka to stop chewing and pin a poorly-veiled glare at the ranch hand. To her greatest displeasure, he did not immediately affirm that he and Maka were not in any kind of relationship and should not, by any means, be compared to Tanya and Bill.

All he said was, "Well, on the ranch," matter-of-fact.

Wes's smile, which beamed from across the room like a spotlight, reminded her that any misunderstandings involving Soul and herself had likely been brought to life by him. He dusted crumbs off his jeans, the nearest dogs swarming like a school of starved fish. "Yes, but how? The 'how' is somethin' to always make note of," he said.

She made note to never hug that man again.

"Our son is awful tight-lipped about his job," Bill said to Maka. "We'd love to hear anything about it."

Soul gave her a bland look that seemed to read 'I told you so' before taking a long sip of his drink.

The job fell to her, then. "Well, actually," she started, trying to remember the first time she'd spoken a word to him, "I didn't ever talk to him until we were looking for a lost calf."

"Pretty sure you hated me," Soul interjected, placing his glass on the coffee table.

Maka couldn't bring herself to deny this, so she awkwardly shrugged, smiling. Wes guffawed.

"Oh, my," Tanya said.

"You need to work on yer first impressions, son," Bill added.

"I don't need nothin'."

Maka waved her hands a little, to clear Soul's name. "No! I, um. I had initial... misgivings." She struggled to start the story. "But he- You said- This guy just goes 'welp' and jumps in the hole like to heck with breaking a leg!"

"I seen where I was goin'-"

"Right."

"I did!"

Ruth shook her head with an utter lack of surprise. "Did you find the calf?"

"Oh, he was fine. Soul helped me carry it to my truck."

"...Then you stepped in the mother of all pies."

Maka clapped a hand over her mouth. She mumbled, "You saw that?"

"You looked so mad I prayed I wouldn't laugh and get killed," he said, finger rubbing under his nose. The others in the room all wore some type of amused smile (or, in Bill's case, was holding a stomach and chortling), and Maka's mouth hung open, unable to respond.

"Man," Soul directed to Wes, "she kicked a tire like it was what dropped anchor in the first place."[3]

Embarrassed, she exclaimed, "I just got these boots that day, okay? They were still shiny! Anyway, we're both driving back to the house and I'm reaching over to pet the calf and-"

And suddenly, she recalled the rest of the memory, of her forearm accidentally pressing the transmit button on the handheld radio, and what she had said unknowingly into it. The words stopped in her mouth and the room is met with silence that she didn't know how to fill.

"You hit the pothole," Soul supplied.

Maka turned to him, confused and lost. "...Pothole?"

His eye contact was steady and unwavering, a murky blood unshaded by the brim of his missing hat, which was something she wasn't accustomed to at all. "Saw the headlights in my mirror. Thought you bounced the poor thing to the floorboard," he teased with a nearly charming smile she was also not accustomed to.

She realized what he was doing, and that locked gaze was there to inform her that everything out of his mouth was now truth, if she went along with it.

"I-I did not! He was perfectly fine!" she argued, trying to sound offended. At least it wasn't a lie on her part. She blushed a deep scarlet, and the family seemed to take that as her shame for hitting what Soul explained as the Most Obvious Hole in Existence, because Bill assured her that it happened to the best of them. They were unaware that her flush came from somewhere else, stemming from the heavy shame that it was this very family she had put to the stake that night.

(Have I been unfair to the sellout, little one?)

Curiouser still, Soul had covered for her instead of jumping on the chance to incriminate her in front of his family. By all rights, she deserved it, but he had done nothing of the sort. The subject changed from sinkholes to the new-old hay bale hauler, and while Maka answered these questions automatically, she couldn't wrap her head around why Soul Evans had lied so smoothly to his family.

"It's too bad 'Lizabeth couldn't make it," Tanya said during a lull in the light meal, back on her preferred spot on the floor.

"Yes, I noticed your... girlfriend isn't present, today," Ruth added.

The sudden lack of amiable smile on Wes's face seemed to charge an electric intensity to the atmosphere. Voice neutral, he replied, "She spends Easter with her sister."

"And her mother," Ruth said shortly.

Maka's eyes shifted between the two of them, unable to gauge just what was going on. Wes smiled a default smile and said, "And their ma, yes."

Ruth hummed once, dabbing her mouth with a napkin. She sounded displeased, and Maka supposed that Ruth had previous dealings with Cristina Thompson. She couldn't fault the woman for appearing sour; it wasn't as if Maka liked Tina, either.

Still, the uneasy air of the living room grated on her, as well the dubious looks Bill and Tanya were giving each other on the sidelines. She spoke up, voice bright. "How is Liz doing, anyway? I haven't been able to visit her much lately at work, I've been so busy."

Wes looked both surprised and gratified at the shift in subject. "Ah, she's doing alright," he said. "Still working hard. Oh, told me to tell you her cell's changed- she gave the old one to Tina. I can give you the new number if you want?"

"Sure, I'd appreciate it."

The gravity of Ruth's stern frown dragged Maka back from her temporary escape from awkward. Her polite words seemed like an accusation when she asked, "You're acquainted with Elizabeth?"

Maka could hardly remember life before the Thompson sisters. She found herself smiling despite the tense room. "Yes ma'am. She and Pat are practically family to us at home. They're like sisters to me."

Across the room, Wes rubbed under his nose, which struck Maka as something familiar. She turned to look at the person beside her, who had taught her to recognize this tell in the first place, and watched Soul smile a small smile as he took a drink from his sweet tea.

Bill Evans found something about the situation hilarious, belly jumping with his chuckling as Ruth replied with a simple, "I see."

Tanya swatted at her husband before standing. "Well. Let me grab your plates."

Maka, being polite and rather weirded out by every other Evans member in the room, asked if she needed any help, but Tanya shook her head a little too eagerly, grinning. "Thank you dear, but I know Ethan would love to give his mother a hand."

"Good luck," Maka heard Soul mutter before snorting and happily stacking her empty plate over his.

It occurred to her that this was an orchestrated abandonment. They were trying to leave her with 'Gran-gran'! She didn't understand the purpose behind it, but she knew she was right because the next thing Wes said, all too conversationally, was, "So, Gran! Maka here's got herself some ropin' skill."

Feeling very much the pawn, Maka tugged her dress closer to her knees and wished fire upon him. "Better than you, anyway," she quipped.

"Not to be makin' light of yer ability, but it'd be safe to say just 'bout anyone's better'n Wesley with a rope," Bill said, thumbnail scraping between two bottom teeth.

"Wow," Wes deadpanned, handing his plate to his mother. "Thanks for the support, Pop."

"Nothin' but the finest for my firstborn."

The two Evans brothers simultaneously scoffed. Soul called as he strolled into the kitchen, "What rank was that anyway? A two? Three?"[4]

"Quit tryin' to fluff me up, it was a one, alright? Goob." Wes turned to Maka and added, "Quit yer snickerin'."

Maka grinned, holding up her hands. "You're right, you're right. I'm not even ranked at all."

"Wes mentioned you've never competed," Bill said.

Looking briefly at Ruth, who had yet to say anything on the subject, Maka shook her head. "I haven't. I've done a few timed runs at home, but I couldn't tell you where I'd rank. None of it was official." Soul entered the room again, this time picking up trays with leftover food. With mister six-point-eleven himself in her midst, Maka was torn up over how to feel about her own, unofficial time. All she knew for certain was that his curious glance before he turned back to the kitchen made her hands clammy.

"Well?" Bill said with a smile. "What was your best, then?"

"Uh, i-it doesn't really mat-"

Tanya leaned around the corner of the kitchen, hands busy with opening a large freezer bag. "Six-nine-two."

And then Maka was completely ejected from the conversation.

"Really," Ruth said with interest.

"It was jus-"

"Wes told me." Tanya disappeared back into the kitchen.

"W-wh-"

"Lizzy told me."

Maka's shoulders slowly inched to the ceiling, unable to get a word in edgewise.

"How come no one told me?"

"Plainly 'cause you laugh every time I mention ropin', Pop!"

"Ahah, true."

"Crazy for not competin', I say," Tanya's voice echoed around the corner.

Throughout all the comments thrown around, Maka was slowly pulled by the magnetism of Ruth Evan's scrutinizing eyes, blue like a crisp winter sky. "And why haven't you competed?" she asked.

"Because!" Maka blurted into the sudden silence. She nervously swiped her bangs out of her eyes. "...Because it's degrading to not compete alongside men. Everything's already separated by rank- I don't see why they have to make it even more so just 'cause I'm a woman. So I want nothing to do with it."

Ruth rested her elbow on an arm of the recliner and thoughtfully placed her chin in her waiting hand. She nodded faintly, and Maka got the sudden feeling she'd just earned a rank in the woman's eyes. "I'm sure having such a skill is more than enough for ranching, though," the woman said. "Are you planning on taking over in Spirit's stead sometime?"

Papa's words murmured in the back of her mind. (You concentrate on your schoolin', Maka.)

She'd been eager to change the subject from roping -- bashful about it in the presence of a certain district champion -- but this wasn't much of an improvement. Her voice sounded hollow when she finally brought it to life. "I haven't decided. I'm currently in veterinary school, and my plan was to stay on the ranch and doctor the stock myself, but..." Her eyes automatically followed Soul, who'd walked back into the room, weaving around dogs for the last of the leftovers.

"But?" Bill prompted.

She wasn't sure where the compulsion to share this information to relative strangers came from, but she supposed if there was any one family on this planet that could share an understanding, it would be the Evanses.

"Maddy Georgian made an offer."

Ruth's eyes widened slightly, her chin lifting off her hand with interest. It was the first that Bill Evans had appeared troubled at all since Maka's arrival, while Tanya and Wes both exclaimed "Did she really," from various parts of the house in the exact same cadence. Soul paused in his trek to deliver empty dishes to the kitchen, cautiously peeking over his shoulder at Maka.

She looked away from that No Purpose shadow in his eyes. "So, I may end up at an actual vet in town anyway."

Ruth looked suspicious. "Spirit plans on selling?"

"No," she said, back snapping straight. "Absolutely not. I'd be taking the job to keep us from... from going under." Having the words being spoken from her own mouth made her heart burn.

Bill nodded in the silence. Tanya came into the living room, standing next to Wes and bending to pick up one of the smaller dogs. "I'm sure you'll do fine, darlin'," she said, stroking the animal's face.

"Thanks. Still, I'm not really looking forward to it, I guess," Maka admitted, and faintly she wished, just a little bit, that the spot between her shoulders didn't feel so cold. "My mentor told me there are already a few places that're waiting on my certification, but I..." And It danced off her tongue before she could think about who was lurking in the kitchen doorway: "I'm not meant for city life."

Tanya solemnly replied, "Neither are we, honey."

Like a shade, Soul quietly drifted out of sight.

 

\\

 

For the most part, she was silent for the long drive back home. In her lap was the plate Tsubaki's cookies had been sent on, but was now occupied by multiple plastic baggies of Easter lunch leftovers. Soul was driving again, and Maka hadn't made a fuss over it.

When the road wheedled down to the familiar, two-lane backroad that they would follow for many miles to her family's property, she asked, "Why'd you lie, anyway?"

Soul blinked a moment, fingers shifting on the steering wheel. "What abouts."

After seeing his brother and mother feign innocence when avoiding a question, Maka felt she could now accurately spot an Evans playing dumb. "You could've made me fess up. About what I said that night over the radio."[5]

He heaved a sigh as heavy as a heifer. "They like you. Specially Ma."

She didn't know what to say to this, feeling worse than before and glaring at herself in the passenger side mirror. "E-even so, I don't deserve it."

His fingers raised atop the steering wheel, casually greeting another truck that drove by. "Maybe. Maybe not." He drove a distance, slowing for a sharp curve. The worn suspension of her truck creaked and groaned. "They get enough hell as it is. Jus' didn't wanna bring it in their own house, n'all."

'Hell' being the word 'sellout', she gathered. "Sorry to make you lie," she said quietly.

"Won't say it ain't your fault," he said, voice tense. "But m'not sore about it as long as... about my folks- I mean, you can hate me til kingdom come but-"

"No- your family was wonderful!" She was torn between wishing he didn't have to watch the road to see her sincerity, but being thankful he couldn't see the shame radiating from her entire body. "I'm really glad that, um..."

"That they weren't what you thought?"

"No," she blurted, indignant. "That I got to meet them," she corrected. That being said, she still didn't quite understand why she'd been invited in the first place. But she was happy to have visited, nonetheless. "It's nice, to see-"

And her throat abruptly locked up, catching her by surprise.

"To see..?" Soul asked the road.

She swallowed, the concept of seeing 'a whole family' threatening to silence her. "Nothin'," she forced out. She reminded herself to breathe through it, to not let the scale tip, to not look at the ranch hand who made quick, worried glances at her sudden change in behavior.

"Maka."

"And I don't hate you," she said scathingly, trying to save face, herself, anything.

She heard him quietly huff. "You sure?"

Maka spoke to the trees winding away, their shadows blending into a place where she sometimes felt only ghosts were allowed to live. "Usually I'm sure. Sometimes you throw me for a loop."

"You toss your own rope just as far, darlin'," he gently said.

She rolled her eyes, turning away from the window. "Don't call me 'darlin''."

"Ma'am."

"That's worse, I sound old."

"You are old."

"You're older than me! Sir."

Soul scrunched his face in disgust, turning on the truck's headlights to shine through the oncoming twilight.

"See?" Maka insisted.

He cracked a smile. "Alright, alright. Shortbread."

"Spitfire. ...And I'm sorry about your foot."

He had that same tilt to his eyes as his grandmother when he looked pleased. "It'll just come out of your Oreo paycheck," he said.

She wondered how a person could be so forgiving.

 

Chapter Text

 

Her hand ran across the saddle in her father's office, and she was infuriated to find dust on it. Mama's pride and joy was covered in thick layers of sandy grit; she made it her business to clear it all off, swiping over and over and over to make it clean again. The dust revealed only more dust, which revealed more dust, which gave way to dirt and thick, twisting tree roots. She looked around for something to use, a shovel or pick or any kind of tool to help her get past everything in the way, but instead, she found something else.

On Papa's desk was that old cardboard file box. What had once been white had faded a grey-beige over time, held together with peeling packing tape. It sagged to the side with the weight of its contents. The flimsy lid, creased from being bent more than once, beckoned her.

She wanted to know how such a benign object could keep her father from home so many hours a day. It was a Pandora's box of information, but she thought that the chance of hope at the bottom might not be worth releasing all the horrors in between -- the things that etched dark lines under Papa's eyes and kept his gaze focused somewhere far from home.

Even after deciding to leave it be, her hand was somehow already on the lid, lifting it away. She'd expected all manner of things to come flying out, but when nothing did, she leaned over and peered into the dark.

At the shadowy bottom, darkness squirmed and writhed, all hope smothered by snakes.

\\

 

Maka woke forty minutes before her alarm. She felt with a certainty from intangible sources that she would be better off staying awake. She took her shower early, hoping that the corpse-like weight under her skin would ravel away in the steam, but a residual sense of foreboding only continued to drag along behind her.

She shuffled her way downstairs, navigating through the dark kitchen and needing only the glow of the pre-dawn sky to find the familiar essentials for starting the pot of coffee. And so, this was how she managed to startle Soul Evans when he came in the back door and flipped on the overhead lights.

His reaction only gave off more of the sense that today was just not going to be an easygoing day. The ranch hand froze in the doorway, hat already shading his eyes from harsh fluorescence, and Maka couldn't help but scowl at his less-than-friendly demeanor so early in the morning. Hadn't they been more or less on comfortable speaking terms after yesterday?

Well, if he wasn't going to say 'good morning', neither would she. Maka blearily poured water into the coffee maker, questioning the powers that be how on earth she had let someone who could make her so instantly irritable listen to Mama's cassette tapes. "You're up early," she said.

At this, the man seemed to recover, quietly shutting the door behind him. "...To pick up Pat," he explained. "Cept my truck ain't runnin'."

Maka paused in her scooping of fresh coffee grounds. She looked up with realization. "Oh."

"Came lookin' for you, to tell the truth."

She groaned, rolling her neck around in weary resignation. "You've already paid for gas, so you may as well," she said, dumping coffee into the filter with a tap of the scoop.

He made a noise that might have been a laugh. "What's that? Not gonna threaten to kill me?" The slight teasing drawl to his voice finally broke the awkward atmosphere since he'd flipped the lights on.

Maka gave him Suzanne Albarn's patented Look. "I think it goes without saying you know what's coming to you if so much as a paint fleck is missing."

His quirk of a smile was brief, but real enough. That hat brim dipped down in a nod. "That's better. Feels like a normal day, now."

Her mouth hurt from trying to be displeased and amused at the same time. She ended up asking if he wanted some coffee, but before he could answer, a cacophonous banging erupted outside.

Without sparing each other a glance, Soul took off for the back door to investigate while Maka hurried to the boot tray to slip on her shoes. No sooner had she sunk her heels into her black snakeskin, she heard the ranch hand shout up a storm. The clover covering the ground near the stables was slick with dew, and she slid a little in her rush to see what Soul was cussing over.

Harley pranced by, out and free, a giant plastic bucket between her teeth. As she trotted along the fence line, she purposefully smacked the bucket against each rail and post, scraping and rattling the entire way.

"You're gonna be glue you brat!" The horse had evidently felt too cooped up the past few days while her hock had been healing, and managed to escape the stables as well as let herself out of the corral. "Get your overpriced ass back here!"

Maka yawned to stifle her smile. "She needs to get back in before she breaks that scab open," she said.

Soul growled. "I know it, I know it. Where's Pat keep them ginger cookies..." He stalked off to the stables, but he got only as far as three paces before he stopped himself. "Ah, hell." Soul looked at Maka. "I still need to get Pat."

They both looked at his horse, who'd nearly manage to shatter the plastic bucket into shards, then looked back at each other.

He thumbed towards Harley. "You think you could..?"

"Like hell," Maka blurted.

Soul rubbed his face, looking apologetic. "Are you busy? Do you, uh, have to go to class or anythin'?"

Upon witnessing his attempt to grasp after what he'd noticed of her schedule, Maka's stomach took that moment to make a very efficient somersault. She immediately decided some spicy food for lunch today should stamp that circus right out.

She turned back to the house with purpose, cheeks heating for reasons she sincerely hoped weren't actual reasons and more of some type of... social allergy. "Don't worry about it," she said over her shoulder. "I'll get Pat. Go catch your 'rowdy equine', Spitfire." And she retreated too quickly to catch what he'd sputtered.

It was too early in the morning, clearly. She wasn't firing on all cylinders. On a normal day, the idea of Soul Evans actively trying to know her better through careful observation would not have caused any inkling of pleasure whatsoever. She self-prescribed a travel mug of coffee to take with her to Liz's house -- it should help clean out her mental issues.

Soul was still coaxing his stubborn horse to him as Maka circled the driveway and left, all the windows of the house coming to life one by one in her rear-view mirror. The cattle guards knocked her radio on as she passed over them, and Mama's tape began to play.

Maka sipped her coffee on the smoother expanses of road between memorized potholes, and she believed she just might be feeling better. The brightening sky was chasing away the dread her dreams had given her -- dreams which she could hardly recall in the first place by now. The sun peeked over the far horizon, pebbled by silhouettes of trees. And then Patricia Thompson's signature red Jeep Wrangler flew past Maka, speeding the opposite direction.

Her foot involuntarily let off the gas pedal, the truck coasting while she tried to make sense of what she had just seen: as long as she had known the woman, Maka had never seen Tina Thompson up before ten in the morning, so her driving her daughter anywhere before the sun was even fully up was both surreal and disconcerting.

The cassette tape clicked and switched sides as Maka slowly pulled off into the shoulder to make a wide u-turn on the narrow road.

\\

 

The spot by the front door was a place where visitors parked when they 'requested a meetin'', and was not a natural place for Pat's Jeep to be.

Maka noted that in the time spent driving halfway to Liz and Patti's house, her father had already left for work, his cruiser missing. If Papa was already gone, why would Tina have bothered to come calling? As Maka walked up the back porch steps, she saw a very occupied kitchen through the front window. The presence of multiple bodies created a quiet murmur which filtered outside, punctuated by Tsubaki's voice in higher, polite key -- which wouldn't be much of an unusual thing to hear were it not a quarter after sunrise on a Monday morning.

When she let herself in through the back door, Tsubaki's strained words cleared. "I'm sure I've mentioned this already, but, as you know, the owner has already left for work-"

"You're the gee-em though, ain't you, honey? You handle all the money."

"Under his supervision, yes ma'am," Tsubaki politely answered.

Maka quietly shut the door behind her, the silence of no one turning to greet her making apparent the tenuous act everyone was putting on in the kitchen. Seated at the table was the general manager, who, though dressed, hadn't had time to put her long hair in her usual ponytail, and the dark threads clung haphazardly to her face. Across from her sat the woman in question, who'd made an overcompensated effort at looking professional for this meeting, which made her appear less like an adult and more like a young girl attempting to dress maturely but hadn't had enough practice.

At Tina's elbow sat Patti, wearing her usual clothing to muck the stalls before having to attend class, but her face was glowing in embarrassment.[1] She studiously looked away from the table, focusing on Mitch who was starting up another fresh pot of coffee.

Seemingly oblivious to any kind of professional goings-on at the kitchen table or any kind of inconvenience Tina was causing, Blake Strickland mopped up egg yolk from his plate with a half-eaten slice of toast. He smiled brightly at the woman though she was clearly irked at his unneeded presence.

Despite the situation being anything but a casual affair, the whole outfit appeared to be deliberately carrying on with the morning. Maka sighed and toed off her boots to put back in the tray, one hand on the wall to keep her balance. She looked to the side and exchanged glances with Soul, who gave her one silent, implied warning while he dried his dishes: a slight raise and dip of his hat said beware.

Tina pressed onward. "Surely he trusts you enough to not hafta watch every little thing?"

"That's not for me to say," Tsubaki replied.

Maka pulled a mug from the cupboard and leaned on the counter next to Mitch. She grabbed a slice of buttered toast from the mountainous pile of it by the stove and held this out to Patti. "Morning, Pat," she said.

The girl wore the ghost of a smile and took the offered toast. "Mornin' Maks."

They were ignored.

"Everyone in town knows Sue Strickland," Tina said, sitting forward with her elbows on the table as if everyone in the room couldn't hear their conversation. "You're the one who's really runnin' this outfit while Sheriff Albarn's busy patrollin' and whatnot."

Maka watched a shadow pass across Tsubaki's face, a brief shimmer of anything but the calm she was presently displaying threatening to break through.

"So, I know you don't hafta call him up for every little decision. Patricia's not askin' for a million dollars, just a little advance to help her make it to next payday, you know?"

"Yer right, she ain't askin'," Blake said as he loudly scooted up and out of his chair, empty plate in his hands. Patti scrunched her eyes at that comment, visibly attempting to teleport anyplace away from the kitchen. Tina's back straightened high, frowning mouth already filled with venom to spit her indignation, but Tsubaki hurriedly interjected to thwart any incident.

"I do apologize for not talking with him about it when Pat first brought it up, but I've already told you I feel uncomfortable with making these kinds of decisions without the owner's input. I'll speak with him this evening to see what we can do."

The kitchen subtly shifted, relaxed, as Angel's End knew a dismissal from the general manager when they heard one. Blake whistled as he rinsed his dish, Mifune poured Maka a cup of coffee, and Soul made his way to the back door to get to work.

Cristina Thompson, however, either did not hear the end of the conversation, or simply could not take 'no' for an answer. A falsely-amiable laugh burst from her mouth like buckshot. "Well, you see, this evenin'? That's a little too late for us."

Patti placed her uneaten toast on the kitchen table, mouth pinched as if nauseated. Tsubaki's eyes flitted between the two Thompsons, trying to gauge whatever the hell that meant. Maka froze with her coffee mug halfway up to her lips while Blake and Mifune exchanged glances. Soul paused at the door, his hand on the knob.

Tina held her chin high. "As you may know, I am unemployed," she said matter-of-factly, with a shifting of her shoulders that challenged anyone who'd judge her for that statement, "and I am acceptin' my daughter's help to get on my feet."

Maka's hand tightened around her coffee as she watched Patti bitterly roll her eyes.

"But the bills're a little higher than normal this month? And if they don't get paid today, we'll be findin' ourselves in a bit of a situation."

She didn't like the sound of this one bit. "Pat," Maka said, "Is there gonna be some kind of troub-"

"Excuse you," Tina cut in with a glare like barbed wire. Maka bristled at being interrupted, but said nothing as she'd interrupted the conversation in the first place. What grated her most, though, was the way Patti's mother then turned her head back to Tsubaki, as if Maka wasn't even worth fully reprimanding. Incensed, she scowled, but Patti caught her attention.

The girl shook her head and mouthed a 'no', though Maka didn't know if she was answering her question or if that was her own version of beware.

"As I was sayin', that's why we're here askin' you for help. Even half a week's pay'd be fine!"

Conflict was apparent on Tsubaki's face, and the woman knew she had the attention of every pair of eyes in the kitchen -- save Patti's. She sought after eye contact with the horse wrangler, but never received it. She sucked in a deep breath and let out a sigh, one hand rubbing the underside of her slowly-growing abdomen.

"I'm sorry, but this really is something that should be discussed with the owner, not just me," she said with sincerity.

All attempts at professionalism were dropped by Tina at this. "Really?" she asked, skeptical.

Patti finally turned her head towards her mother and hissed anxiously, "Would you quit, already?" but Tina paid her no attention.

"And Patricia speaks so highly of you."

Tsubaki's eyebrows shot to the ceiling, her voice bewildered just as much as offended, both. "I'm sorry?"

"What're you insinuatin'?" Blake blurted, abandoning the still-running faucet at the kitchen sink.

Cristina Thompson stood from her chair, hand slapping the table. "This is an emergency, here! Are you just gonna sit there and let-"

Maka knew the exact moment her vision bled to red. After seeing Tsubaki's polite mask fall off like peeling paint, watching Blake stride to the table and align himself at his wife's shoulder, and feeling the slight shift in the air around Mifune as his sights focused on Patti's mother, the very last straw that snapped Maka's control was Soul's wary call of her own name, which might have been his attempt to calm her down but only fanned the flame of her anger instead.

"Now wait a minute," she bellowed, slamming her coffee mug on the counter and ignoring its sloshing contents spilling over. "If you're gonna be making underhanded remarks about our manager, do you mind also telling us just what kind of 'emergency' you're in?"

With her hand still firmly pressed to the wooden table, Tina turned her head to regard Maka as one would upon finding a pebble in their boot. Her tone was sweet and heavy Southern Belle, reminiscent of her elder daughter but with enough condescension to set Maka's teeth to grinding. "I came here to have words with someone with authority, honey. So you kin butt yourself right on out of this, 'cause it ain't none of your business."

Needles rolled up her spine. Maka's mouth kept flapping despite knowing somewhere, beneath the deep fathoms of her pride, that she should probably shut it. "Regardless of my job here, I'll make it my business. If you got her into some trouble, I wanna know it, because Pat's family to us."

What the other members of the ranch might be doing or saying around her, she was completely unaware -- all her focus was solely on Tina Thompson and the almost amused shake of her head, a vicious smile tugging up on one side of her mouth. "No," she said. "She ain't." 

For all Maka knew, the kitchen could have been in an uproar or complete silence; the din of her boiling blood rushing through her ears was a deafening roar, and the only thing that cut through it was the whip of this woman's voice.

"What you need to understand," said Tina, "is that Patricia is an em-ploy-ee, not your sister." The words seared into Maka's bones, acid permanently etching into her marrow. "She don't live here. She's never lived here. She lives with me. She's my daughter."

Maka's jaw began to ache, her fists just itching to make contact with the Tina Thompson's smug face.

"She's my daughter and she'll do as she's told, 'cause she's a good girl. 'Cause I ain't dead."

Echoes of screeching chairs and scuffling boots vaguely made it through the haze of anger to what was left of Maka's rational consciousness. Her throat burned, hot combs dragging their teeth across her vocal chords. She didn't know what she howled -- only vehemently wished it would rip Tina Thompson to shreds. It must have worked, because that woman who dared call herself anyone's mother was on the retreat, tugging Pat by the wrist and baring her teeth at the people herding her towards the front door.

But then it occurred to Maka that she didn't mean for Patti to be taken away, and in fact was the exact opposite of what she wanted. Her blind fury blanched and evaporated, and she became aware of her surroundings: of Blake's fuming face in her line of vision, of his hand tightly gripping her arm to keep her from going any further across the front porch, of physically being on the front porch despite having no recollection of passing through the door.

"The hell do you think you're doin'?" he hissed at her, while beyond him, in the driveway, Tina Thompson called at the same time, "Don't worry, Patricia will be findin' work elsewhere!"

Wait, no, what was happening!? What had she done? Panicked, Maka tried to move around Blake's roadblock of a body, and called out, "Pat?"

"We're goin'!"

Pitched high and child-like, Patti's voice cracked as she screeched, "I don't see why I gotta go anywhere with you, who weren't never around but for a blink!" She tried to twist her wrist out of Tina's hand. "Lemme go! Maks!"

Maka rushed forward to pry her away from Tina, but she was harshly yanked back by Blake. He wrestled with her a moment before she finally looked back at him, infuriated with his interference.

"Would you knock it off," he said. "Your fat mouth's made enough mess of everythin'!"

Behind him, Patti continued to call for help, but to Maka's incomprehension, no one went to her. Then Patti began to call out single names. "Sue? C'mon! Black St- Blake!" she pleaded, eyes wide as Tina ordered her to get in the Jeep.

Blake swallowed, grip never letting up on Maka's arm as he responded, "Mind your momma, Pat."

Shock splashed across the girl's face, her mouth forming around a 'what?' in silent disbelief. With minimal nudging from her mother, she melted into the passenger seat. Tina firmly shut the door, ignoring everyone from Angel's End as she marched to the driver's side.

Nothing before her eyes made a single lick of sense to Maka. This wasn't how things worked on Mama's ranch! Behind the windshield, Patti's eyes focused to the left, where Soul stood on the porch a few feet away. His eyebrows were drawn low, jaw in a tight clench.

The engine started, and Patti hurriedly cranked down the passenger window, her voice carrying over the lowering glass and through the dewy morning, ringing for any one adult to step in. "Soul, please!"

Heart in her throat, Maka realized that, through his brother and her sister, Soul and Patti had a connection outside of the ranch, and she vehemently hoped that this was a good enough reason to get anyone on this damned property to do something useful! At Patti's plea, she watched the ranch hand's entire body jerk forward, but Maka's hopes were swept away as Soul restrained himself.

Leaning partially out the window, Patti's face fell and collapsed into betrayal as Soul said, "Go on now. You'll be late for school."

Tina backed up the Jeep and drove down the driveway, Patti numbly sitting in her seat. Why was everyone standing around with their goddamn thumbs up their asses? Maka tried to yank out of Blake's grip again, but the man held her fast just the same.

"No!" she shouted at Soul, who looked at her in shock. She wanted to sink her fingers into his dumbstruck face and rip him apart. "How can you let her go!? You're like a brother to her, aren't you? You just abandoned her!" She relished the pained look bleeding into his eyes. "Why didn't you do anything?!"

"Because he's got more sense than a mule, unlike you," Blake growled, forcing her to turn back and face him squarely. "What in god's name is your problem?"

"Wait," Tsubaki said worriedly from the door frame. "Black Star-"

"Did you not hear what she said?" Maka blurted, shrill. "That-"

Blake Strickland leaned close and snarled, "You think you're the only one still hurtin'?" so fiercely it threw her heart off-balance.

Rage utterly tranquilized, she could only feel the ache of his fingers around her wrist and stutter out, "W-what?"

"We all miss her, Maka, but you just can't control yourself, can you?"

"I... I wasn't gonna stand there and let her talk about Mama like-"

"Like she was dead?" he finished, stunning her into silence. Blake huffed out an uncomfortable sigh, and there were less knives in his tone when he spoke again. "I hate that I gotta make it plain to you, but everythin' Tina Thompson said was true."

Maka would rather die than agree with him. There had been a maliciousness to everything Tina had said, an offensiveness that turned even the most factual of truths into lies, but Maka neither knew how to explain it nor properly convey why she had needed to react so violently at the mention of Suzanne. In the end, all she ended up murmuring was, "You don't understand."

"Of course I don't," he ground out, and in his face Maka saw with sudden and painful clarity something which she had never once noticed her entire life. "None of us were hers but you. I get it!"

Her stomach dropped to the earth. "Blake..."

Whatever kind of expression she had on her face only embittered him further. He shook his head angrily, changing the subject. "We're shorthanded as it is, alright? So what you gotta figure out is that the rest of us? We're still here. And if you keep tryin' to run everyone off 'cause you can't get a grip on your damned pride, then Maka, there ain't no purpose of any of us stayin' here."

Maka shied from him, burned. He let her go without any resistance, but as she turned to walk away from the house, he said, "I ain't through with you, where d'you think you're goin'?"

"I'm gonna muck the damn stalls!" she shot back, shaking voice caustically echoing along the covered porch. Maka's shoulder brushed past Soul's as she misjudged the distance between them through her burning eyes.

 

\\

 

She didn't know what to tell her father. Explaining to him that, while he had still been driving to work, she'd screamed at a grown woman, ran her out of the house, and lost Angel's End's horse wrangler while she was at it, was not something she looked forward to.

Re-incarcerated, Evans's Lipizzaner-wannabe snorted at her from the other side of a jerry-rigged gate lock. Soul's rushed handiwork shone with a length of heavy chain snapped together by a simple carabiner.[2][3]

Blood still roiling with frustration and misery, Maka's first instinct was to simply shout at the stubborn horse. But having been around animals all her life, studying to become a veterinarian, and sitting through many lectures from Patti (the mere thought of whom made her gut twist) had taught her negative emotions towards a horse only brought trouble. She held her tongue.

If only she could remember that when she was around people. She'd failed that with flying colors, and now she had to take responsibility for her actions. Even if she felt such actions had been justified. At least... she thought so. The more time she had to reflect on it, the less sure she became.

Mama probably wouldn't have condoned her behavior. (But if Mama had been around to not condone anything, this morning's conversation wouldn't have happened in the first place, would it. )

Maka's throat was tired from abuse, aching from yelling and holding back tears. She felt unprepared, directionless, and altogether a failure. She longed for the guide that her mother had always been, because everything was falling from her hands, and the problem now wasn't so much the exodus but rather from whose hands it was all escaping.

She regarded the horse in front of her and sighed in resignation. Harley shifted anxiously behind the gate, having heard all the morning's commotion, and the rest of the horses in the stables were making a ruckus, feeding off the cues from their snooty ambassador and accustomed to being let out by now.

"I really don't have time for you," she growled at the stubborn mare, whose ears were focused on Maka like the twin laser sights of a gun. "How'm I supposed to clean up after you if you won't get out of the damn way?"

The horse, being a horse, didn't reply. Maka was not eager to open the gate separating them.

Luckily, just as she was coming to terms with having to go ask for help to distract the horse so she could get to mucking (which wasn't a pleasant thought as she didn't know who she could possibly face with dignity after this morning), Harley turned away from her, called by silence.

Of all the people Maka had been bracing herself to speak with, Soul Evans had not been anywhere close to the top of the list, even though it was his own horse that was hindering her work. He stood outside the corral, Harley walking away to greet him. The sun felt very warm on her cheeks, her body a statue made entirely of guilt and embarrassment.

"Go on," he said to her conspicuous silence. "I'll keep her busy, but I got work to do."

The correct response in this situation would be to thank him or, better yet, apologize first and then thank him, but the expression on his face when she'd accused him of abandoning Patti this morning was too easy to picture under that hat brim. Maka fumbled with the carabiner clip and let herself into the corral, hurrying to the stables without a second glance.

She'd never felt more of a ranch princess in her entire life.

The hand stuck around long enough for Maka to clean out Harley's stall, and disappeared into ether the moment he'd locked the horse back up again. He hadn't seemed eager to talk to her any more than she'd wanted to look him in the face.

She let her frustrations do her work for her, quickly and vigorously mucking stalls to keep abreast of the sun mercilessly arcing across the sky, but even so, the job should've been long done by now. She was working on the stall belonging to Mifune's horse (three-year-old gelding, paint, fondly named 'Cow'), when she was startled to find Soul had materialized back into existence.

He was leaning on a support beam, and she had no idea how long he'd been standing there. Maka huffed, stinging from adrenaline. She tried her hand at a snide remark, because that was what she would have done any other day, but it came out timid and petulant at best. "...Thought you had work to do," she said, redoubling her efforts at mucking the stall.

"I do," he replied behind her.

She waited for his boots to scuttle off somewhere but, alas, they remained firmly planted. Maka would have done a lot of things to avoid any confrontation with this man so soon. She settled for sifting out manure from the bedding and ignoring him as best she could while having the distinct knowledge she was being watched.

After a nerve-grating silence, Soul drawled, "Now that Pat's gone, I imagine I'll be helping with her chores, so you may as well face me when I even got my hat turned up and everythin'."

She cringed in the stall, pitching a clump into an almost-full wheelbarrow. Pride warred with reluctance as Maka attempted to not-sheepishly look over her shoulder. Soul's face was more or less neutral, bordering on uncomfortable. She wasn't sure what to make of the dark smudge high on his right cheek, but didn't let it distract her from what was undoubtedly coming.

He said, "I need a ride to town."

Maka's eyebrows dragged together. "W-what?"

Soul's eyes shifted off to one side as he idly used the post to scratch a spot between his shoulders. He sighed. "There's a part in town I need to fix my truck."

Was she relieved he hadn't brought up this morning, or aggravated that she'd braced herself for nothing? She turned away and got back to sifting through bedding. "Go ahead and take mine. You were about to earlier today -- I don't care."

But he just wouldn't leave. He was making her so anxious she wished he would simply spit it out and put her out of her misery. Maka glanced once more at the hand. "...You know where the keys are."

The words were barely out of her mouth when he shot back, "Come with me," as if he'd been waiting on her eyes to meet his.

She tried to say any number of excuses to get out of it. She had work to do, or she didn't need anything from town, or she trusted him with her truck, but all that came out was a handful of stammering. Something in Soul's expression, or posture, or imploring tone of voice only made her recall a conversation from the night prior- of her admission that she didn't hate him and his skepticism of that fact.

It's this and knowing she owed him an apology that made her turn back to her work and say, "Mitch's horse gets a scoop of sweet feed." And her heart tumbled around in her chest when she heard him walk to the feed barrel.[4]

 \\

 

It wasn't until she buckled her seatbelt that she realized his intentions for bringing her along. Up to that point, she'd been too busy trying to figure out why he'd wanted her to go in the first place -- she wasn't even driving. But it was something in the finality of her seatbelt clicking together on top of the constrictive feeling of the strap over her chest that clued her in.

This was a trap.

The ranch hand had lured her with a false sense of security by not bringing up the scene she'd caused in the kitchen, and now had her trapped in a moving vehicle so she couldn't escape when he finally could bring it up. She knew some words needed to be exchanged, and she'd planned to get around to it, but on her own terms, not corralled in a small space.

They traveled almost to the point on the road where she had turned around after Tina Thompson this morning, when he started with, "So."

Maka thunked her head on the passenger window, hoping she could somehow phase through the glass. "Get it over with," she groaned.

She heard the familiar sequence of button clicks for the truck's cruise control. "About earlier... Pretty turned around on what happened."

Her sigh fogged up the window.

"Just wantin' to get my facts straight."

"Well get to straightening."

The seat creaked a little. "First point bein': you're sore 'bout your mother and I should skip right over any mention of her."

Maka tensed, her bones aching with leftover acid.

"Second: the reason you're actin' all sullen is 'cause you know all that with Pat's momma coulda been handled different."

Bitterness seeped into her mouth as she recalled that woman standing in her family's kitchen, who'd reached out with her words, grasped the knife still embedded in Maka's heart, and given it that casual quarter-turn. Half of her insisted that her reaction had been justified, but the other half -- the part of her that understood yelling only made things worse -- told her she should've just held her tongue and kept her accusations for someone who did have authority, like her obvious 'daddy-sheriff'. Instead of keeping her head, she'd lost it. Instead of handling the situation like the grown woman she was, she'd thrown a tantrum.

Instead of going to the police with her fears over what kind of trouble Tina may have put Patti in, she'd made everything worse by shoving the girl even further into Tina's hands, and yelled at other people in the process.

"Thirdly," Soul went on after a silence, "...you said some ugly things to me, Maka."

She wanted to curl in on herself and rot. "I know it," she said to the window.

"But Tina is Pat's momma, so... there weren't anythin' I coulda done different from anyone else."

The apprehensiveness in his words caught her off-guard, dragging up memories of firelight glinting off silvery harmonicas. Maka looked away from the window, finding Soul watching the road as anyone with trouble on their mind watched without actually seeing.

She'd been wrong once again: this hadn't been a trap for her at all.

Without needing to grasp after what to say, the words came in an instant, knowing them to be true as she spoke them aloud. "There wasn't anything you could do, no matter what I said."

The scant buildings and faded water tower of the nearest town slowly bloomed into view. Soul took in a big, calming sigh, though it did nothing to lessen his stormy expression. He took off the cruise control and coasted to stop at a train barreling by at a crossing.

"Her face," he said, and the inflection spoke for itself.

Like counting calves in the spring and fall, her eyes automatically followed each passing train car. She realized they were both sick with heartache at the memory of Pat's broken expression as her mother drove away. "She'll forgive you. Probably not me, though." She felt rather than saw his glance. "If I had just kept my mouth shut, none of this would've happened." The end of the train sped out of sight, the crossing's signal arms slowly reaching for the sky. "There's nothing to blame you for," she murmured.

Soul didn't reply. He drove over the tracks and pulled into the town's single auto part shop, parking in the pot-hole-ridden lot and leaving the truck running. As he opened the driver's side door and slid out, he stopped for a moment to look at her, adjusting his hat over his eyes.

He said, "She still shouldn't've said that about your momma, or you. Tina, that is." And he shut the door and ambled inside the shop.

Words of gratitude still had a tendency to get caught in her throat just like everything else. She waited alone in the truck, chewing on her bottom lip and grateful for the reprieve. It gave her some time to will away the emotional flush that had overtaken her face.

When he returned, he deposited a heavy bag of various objects -- small boxes, quarts of motor oil, tools, shop rags -- into the empty space between them, which she transferred into her lap for safekeeping the moment he turned out of the parking lot and it had all threatened to slide to floorboard.

"Sorry," he said, but he sounded a little too amused to be sorry.

She huffed a little as she tied the handles of the bag into a knot. Then she noticed they were taking the long way home through town. "...Where are we going?"

"One more stop. Won't be but a minute."

To be accurate, he took six minutes, and he came out of it with a small paper bag rolled shut at the top.

"You wanna hold this one too?" he teased as he settled behind the wheel. Maka pursed her lips and took the bag from his hand, giving him a mild glare as she settled it next to her on the seat and kept her hand securely around it.

He turned up the volume on her radio a little and began the trip home. No more attempts at conversation were started by him, and Maka felt strangely at ease during the quiet drive. Mama's tape kept them company, and soon enough Soul was pulling into Maka's usual parking spot.

She was still unbuckling her seatbelt when he slowly reached over and retrieved the bag filled with auto parts from her lap. Before she realized what had just occurred, he was already out of her personal space and replacing her keys in the overhead visor. Then she saw he'd forgotten the paper bag at her side.

"Ah, don't you need this?"

Soul opened the door and exited the truck. Without looking at her, he said, "Naw, that one's yours."

Her seatbelt hissed as it retracted. "...What?" Maka opened the bag, peering into the shadows and finding a glint of blue at the bottom. She scoffed.

Soul leaned down a little to see her beneath the roofline of the truck and said, "Just keepin' my word good, Albarn." And he straightened and shut the door.

Maka watched the ranch hand climb the steps to the back porch and let himself in through the familiar door of her home. She took in the slant of the roof, the sturdy pillars, the thrown-open windows. Her hands slowly tightened around the paper bag, wishing to close the gaps between her fingers so nothing could slip between them.

At the bottom of the bag was a package of Oreos.

 

Chapter Text

 

Her father liked a spoon of sugar and two glugs of cream in his coffee.

"Sweets." Seated in his usual booth at the diner, he said, "I already know what happened," knowing full well that his daughter had a tendency to fix his coffee for him when she felt guilty. Liz wasn't on shift, so another waitress brought them their food. Maka scooted his mug towards him and glumly regarded her salad.

"What'd she say to you," Spirit asked with a concerned dip of his chin.

A wry smile made a home on her face as Maka unwrapped her napkin from her provided silverware. "Nothing I didn't already know," she replied. In fact, as she'd gone through yesterday's incident a hundred times last night, unable to sleep, she'd realized she had admitted much the same things Tina Thompson had said -- not all that long ago, either, to a cowboy next to a campfire under the stars.

Her father sipped his coffee. After a moment, he said, "I'm in contact with her parole officer."

Maka looked up from her salad in surprise.

"We'll keep an eye out, should they get mixed up in anythin' they shouldn't."

A heavy pressure gently eased from her chest. "I'm sorry," she blurted as relief filled her heart.

"I know you are."

"I'll take care of it."

"I know you will."

Maka mixed dressing into her salad, solemn and grateful.

"How was your Easter," her father asked, and the heavy moment was over.

At the mention of the holiday, her memory flitted to the ghost-like sensation of a hand between her shoulder blades, and she shifted uncomfortably under Spirit's stare. "Ah... it was alright," she hedged. She recalled all too easily Spirit's dark glare when Soul had been standing in her bedroom doorway, and it was clear he knew exactly where she'd gone on Sunday. Maka attempted to avoid the ranch hand as a direct subject.

She made a show of counting all of Soul's family members on her fingers. "Wes, Tanya, Bill, and Ruth all say 'hello'. Oh, it seems like Ruth doesn't like Tina much, either," she said, a tiny smile creeping on her face.

Spirit shook ketchup over his fries. "She doesn't like any of the Thompsons."

Her smile was wiped clean. "Really?" Though she remembered getting a strange feeling about it during Easter, she'd given Ruth Evans the benefit of doubt. "Even though Wes and Liz have been together for awhile?"

He nodded and took a hurried bite out of his patty melt. "Thinks 'Lizbeth is one of them buckle bunnies."

Maka stared at her father, having never heard him use the term 'buckle bunny' in her life. "A bu- what?  No she is not!"

"Of course she's not, 'hon," he said, trying to placate her. He waved a hand, gesturing to lower her voice. "I'm sayin' what Ruth Evans thinks, is all."

"So she thinks Liz is after him for money?" she hissed, a fire riling her in her seat. "I know she's wanted a nice set-up for a long time, but she's not that kind of person!"

"I know it, Maka."

"I know you know, I'm just mad," she spat. She had really liked Ruth, but now she didn't know what to think!

Spirit motioned for more coffee to be brought over. "Ruth's tryin' to protect her grandson. Miss Tina has a reputation that's runnin' off to her daughters. That's all what's happenin'," he calmly explained as a waitress refilled his cup.

"That doesn't make it right! They shouldn't be judged just over what their mother has done."

After hearing it spoken aloud, Maka sat in silence, wondering if she had any right at all to say such a thing. Her father said nothing, merely nodding once more in agreement as he tipped cream into his cup.

"Your mother'n Ruth used t'know each other. Maybe you'll talk some sense into her." Part of her reflexively winced at the mention of Suzanne, but the majority of her attention was focused elsewhere as Maka watched, rather worriedly, as Spirit drained his coffee like it was water. He set the empty mug down. Food half-eaten, he tossed the napkin from his lap on the table.

"Maybe," she said, distracted. "Papa," she started to ask, but distantly felt she was opening a lid to a box of which contents she didn't want to examine. After another glimpse of those dark smudges under his eyes, she changed her question to, "How's work been?"

He stood from the booth, pulling his wallet out of his back pocket with the familiar motions she had seen countless times before. With a sigh, he gave a cryptic answer that didn't reassure her like she'd hoped:

"Keep your wits on, sweets. Mama's not gonna call us out when we've gone too far, anymore," he said, paying for lunch.

One worry replaced another as her father left the diner. Looking up at a yellowed wall clock, she realized she needed to head back to the vet. She asked a server for a take-out box, deciding to save Papa's food for him.

Maka gathered her belongings and headed for the diner door. She was thrown off-balance as it was pulled from the outside by an incoming customer, who held it open for her. As she stepped out of the building, she turned her head up to a tall man and habitually thanked him.

She was startled to recognize his face: Maddy Georgian's burly chauffeur.

Her feet faltered when, in turn, recognition flashed across his scruffy features as he spied her from his towering height. She watched as he paused a moment, then deliberately looked away, greeting someone out of her line of sight.

She dared not turn her head when he said, "Afternoon Miss Georgian." The man shifted on his feet, not invading Maka's space but still subtly suggesting that she should move out of the way.

Her blood was already boiling, remembering the owner of Lazy S and her voice forever in the back of her mind repeating 'cherish it'. She moved out of the way, resolutely walking to her truck and telling herself that she could not make another scene, because every time she lost her temper nothing good ever came from it. She shouldn't look. She shouldn't look. She had to keep her wits on.

Reaching for the handle to the truck's door, she looked.

It wasn't who she'd expected. The unfamiliar woman's features were similar to Maddy Georgian's only in that the two women were beautiful in some refined way, but that was as far as the similarities went. Perhaps they only shared a last name. Perhaps they had nothing to do with each other and everything was coincidence.

Even her manner of speaking was different, vowels drawn long in a way that called to more of Georgia or the Carolinas. "Boone. Ah know we're here on business, but ah must insist: call me Renee."

Maka forced herself to open her truck's door as she heard 'Boone' laugh good-naturedly, though it sounded a little hollow. "Force of habit, Miss Renee. Your sister ain't the most personable employer," he said, the diner door chiming as it closed behind them.

 

\\

 

She knew she was being nosy. There was no justification for booting up her laptop and Googling 'Renee Georgian', but she was watching the painfully deserted front desk at the vet, her paperwork was done, and there was high-speed internet for the taking.

Maka hadn't expected to find anything, much less see a professional photograph of the woman she'd seen at the diner, complete with Wikipedia article: Renee Georgian, CEO of Hourglass Diagnostics, brunette, and an appallingly youthful fifty-three.

Hunching closer to her laptop, Maka found Renee to have her fingers in an impressive array of pies, various businesses with her influence scattered across the country. On top of the diagnostic labs, she was involved with textiles, oil refineries, cosmetics, wineries, and even a brief mention of a law firm. Known philanthropist and a rising figure in the stock market circuit, she sounded amazing and entirely too rich to be seen eating at the local greasy-spoon diner in a town with a population of less than two thousand.

But the photo was a dead ringer for the woman she'd seen, complete with dark eyes, darker hair, and a shock of blood red lipstick on her pale, porcelain face.

"That has to be a typo," she muttered, double-checking the woman's date of birth.

Maka closed her laptop and drummed her short, blunt nails on its surface. To be honest, there hadn't been anything outright suspicious about the woman, so she shouldn't feel so apprehensive. Judging people for the actions of their relatives is something she was trying to avoid, these days.

The phone at the front desk began to ring, jolting her out of distraction. She tried to relax on her bar stool, the plastic handset chill against her ear. "Nygus Veterinary- how can I help you?"

"That you, Maka?"

She blinked, trying to place the voice on the line as she numbly waved to the local mail carrier walking past the front windows. "...Wes?"

\\

 

David Wesley Evans was the type of person who gave directions though landmarks and approximates, because street names were too beyond him to remember accurately. It was a common practice for those who'd grown out on farm-to-market roads with road signs bearing naught but buckshot scars, but impractical for a town that had actual lights and street names. It took Maka fifteen minutes longer than necessary to navigate to his one-story brick house in a quiet, back pocket of town.

"Honestly, if you'd just given me the address I could've looked it up before I left work," she pouted at him after she parked her truck near his mailbox. He laughed, giving her that bear hug that she still wasn't accustomed to, and she saw the tightness at the corners of his eyes.

"Yeah, prolly. Glad you made it though." He gestured toward the front door. "Lizzy's inside."

Wes's living room contained a small arrangement of cardboard moving boxes and Elizabeth Thompson sitting on the floor, head resting on a plush couch behind her. Upon seeing Maka enter with a case of Keystone Light, the older woman didn't say hello, though she half-way smiled. Worrisome awkwardness bounced between all three of them until Wes left to take care of errands he wished he could put off, trusting his girlfriend into Maka's care.

"You know," Liz said with the opening hiss of her beer when it was just the two of them, "this is about all I ever wanted." She swept her arm wide, indicating the bright windows facing the backyard, sliding glass door revealing a glittering swimming pool. "Central A/C, a house with a concrete slab under it, loungin' around with cheap beer-"

"Liz..."

"Thanks fer bringin' it, by the way. I'll pay ya back."

"It's on me."

"You're prob'ly busy."

"I have time."

"You don't wanna hear my drama."

"Yeah I do."

Liz slumped a little further into the blue-gray carpet, her hair sticking to the couch's microfiber cushions. After tilting the can back for a sip, she helplessly said, "He's such a good guy, Maka. He didn't even ask it like a question when he found out. Jus' said 'you'll live with me and we'll git through it', and showed up like a knight on a big... Chevrolet horse." Her dim-wattage smile reminded Maka fiercely of Patti. As if reading her mind, Liz lifted up her wrist and glanced at an old, scratched watch. "Pat's gettin' home 'bout now, figurin' it out."

Everything in Maka's chest tightened. She tried to keep her voice neutral, but her hatred for Tina Thompson bled between her teeth. "Why'd she kick you out?"

Liz shrugged. "We fought 'bout gas money. Pretty dumb, huh? Then some creep came knockin' on the door lookin' for her and wouldn't tell me what for, and I was scared she was gettin' in drugs again so we fought about that too. Then I heard Pat lost her job- I'm really sorry for whatever Tina musta said to ya'll," she said in earnestness, veering off the subject. "Don't take it to heart, she's jus' gotta stir up trouble everywhere."

Maka groaned, face warming. "Don't apologize, it was my fault she took Pat away. And besides, Tina's not your responsibility-"

"Yeah she is," Liz scoffed. Her tired gaze floated to the living room ceiling. "She's got this need, like everyone's out to get 'er, so she's... harsh, and she's dramatic, and so damn tiring. All it do is git her more up shit creek." She sighed, the dry sound trapped between squat pillars of faded cardboard.

Uncomfortable with how heavily-weighed her friend's shoulders appeared, Maka said, "She's your mother though, and a grown woman."

"Naw, she ain't," said Liz. "Well, she's my momma, but she never growed up." The glowing, sun-kissed makeup she always expertly wore couldn't hide the age in her face. She idly searched the ceiling for something Maka knew couldn't be found in daylight. "I abandoned her, Maks. I left her alone with Momma."

Maka already had the recent personal experience of throwing that word around incorrectly. "No you didn't," she said, vehement.

\\

 

Patricia Thompson would be eighteen in two months. Until then, Wes planned to speak with a family friend who would try to help Liz fight for custody, though Liz had seemed unwilling to accept any more of her boyfriend's help.

Still troubled with the thought of the Thompsons and also extremely late for supper, Maka finally pulled onto Angel's End. She went to the stables first, finding what she'd unhappily suspected: Soul had taken care of the horses in her absence. She wasn't ungrateful, and they had agreed to split the duties because of Maka's veterinary work, but she still hadn't wanted the ranch hand to take over her responsibility the very first day -- she had enough guilt to deal with as it stood.

Patti, Liz, Tina, and Soul all jumbled her thoughts as she walked into the kitchen, and she was entirely unprepared to see Blake Strickland still sitting at the kitchen table, peering intently at the screen of an old flip phone too small for his hands. At her entrance, Blake gave her a contemplative stare.

"Where've you been," he said, no question mark.

Maka glanced at the phone, then back at his guarded eyes. She moved to the cabinet that held the drinking glasses. "Wes called me. I helped Liz unpack." And got the older woman inebriated, but she kept that to herself. Though she no longer faced him, she could feel the intensity of Blake's stare lifting away, the relief not unlike having narrowly missed a confrontation with a branding iron. Behind her, she heard quiet button tapping. She poured milk into a glass.

He finished his text and snapped the phone shut just as she heavily set the glass directly in front of him.

"You want milk," she said, no question mark. Blake looked at the glass; looked at her. Maka frowned. "What, did I sprout horns or something?"

"That's what I'm still decidin' on," he said warily.

She stalked off to the kitchen pantry, digging around to her secret space behind the canned artichokes that no one named Blake Strickland would ever touch. She pulled out a brown paper sack, sat in the chair next to him, and placed the bag between them.

Elbow on the table and chin propped in a hand, she feigned indifference as he opened the bag and set out the new package of Oreos. Without a word, Blake peeled open the plastic, took a cookie, and dunked it in the milk. The only sound in the kitchen was muffled crunching until his phone buzzed on the tabletop.

He ignored it. He ignored the next two after it, but the air still hung heavy with words unsaid. It wasn't until he was through the first row of cookies, the glass of milk speckled with chocolate crumbs, that she finally opened her mouth.

Maka said, "You're hers, too."

Blake had nothing to say to this, only chewing for awhile and giving the cell phone a spin on the kitchen table with a lone tap of his finger. But he did hand her the next Oreo.

Nothing else was said as they ate, and it slowly became a challenge to finish the entire package like a gluttonous symbol of reparations -- the session couldn't be complete until it was empty.

Maka rested her face on the table and groaned. "I think I'm gonna be sick."

Face pinched with a nauseated kind of sneer, Blake twisted the last cookie apart for them to split. "Quit whinin'. I ate the first row by myself."

She chewed on the cookie-half like an unwanted vitamin and swallowed. She stuck out her tongue in disgust.

Chugging the last of the milk, Blake let out an uncomfortable belch that rang throughout the kitchen like signalling the end of a rodeo ride. "Oh yeah, 'fore I forget," he said before slapping a crookedly-folded sheet of paper next to the carcass of Oreo packaging.

His chocolate-marred grin put her on edge as she cautiously closed her hand over the paper. "...What is it."

"Bought and paid for is what. So you'n the spitfire better not waste my cash, right?"

Maka opened the sheet and dimly registered the creaking of the stairs as Blake Strickland's hasty retreat from her growing ire. She gazed at her name snuggling up next to 'Soul Evans', both listed in a sixteen step competition for an upcoming rodeo.

Nobody said anything about a competition! "Black Starrrr," she hissed, wishing to roar but not willing to wake anyone who might be asleep at this hour, and that damned skunk-heart's evil chuckle cartwheeled down the stairs to her steaming ears.

 

\\

 

Tsubaki made a sigh of relief as she sat down. "I'm worn out. Will you call in the stragglers for me?" she asked, propping her feet up on an empty chair.

Maka took a quick headcount of who was already tucking into lunch (which was easy, because it was only Blake), and made her way outside. Three missing. No, she corrected, two missing, the third in guilt-tripping absence (but it didn't sting so much because she was usually still in school during lunch time). Then Mifune bumped into her on the porch.

"Ah-"

"Pardon."

"Dinner's ready."

For a moment, they stood in silence as she took in the worn laundry basket filled with what would normally have been considered a random assortment of clothing, but she knew better. Maka didn't mention it or the tell-tale rattle of a sewing kit in his shirt pocket. They parted ways without incident.

One down, one to go. She knew the ranch hand had been spending his free time working on his truck. She hadn't yet had a chance to talk to him alone since their joint trip to town the day before last, and she thought she might, maybe, if she felt like it, if he didn't call her some variant of 'short', thank him for a few various reasons that she would not catalogue right this moment.

Also, that dance registration paper had been burning a hole in her back pocket with the fury of a hundred summer suns. She wanted to know if Soul already knew about it -- and what his reaction had been when he found out. Walking down to the guest house, she found Soul's truck parked in the gravel driveway. Various auto guts were scattered across a tarp on the ground, including a recently scrubbed fuel tank.

She neither saw nor heard any sign of him. She hesitantly bowed to look under the truck, but found the space unoccupied. A knock and a peek behind the unlocked door of the guest house proved the same result.

Maka shut the door, eyes scanning the surrounding fields. Had he gone in the house from the other direction and she'd somehow missed him in the process? Annoyed, she walked back to the main house and entered the kitchen.

Tsubaki noted her befuddled expression and asked a question with her eyebrows.

"Did Evans get around me?" Maka asked.

Blake was already wiping crumbs from his decimated lunch off his shirt. "Wasn't at his truck?"

"Or in his place, either."

The kitchen went very still.

"...He couldn't have gone far," Tsubaki tried to reassure as Maka stomped over to the counter where the handheld radios were charged and were all very obviously present and accounted for. She yanked one from its cradle: the oldest, and yet the least scratched and battered from ranch use, because it had become the least used.

She didn't wait to see which directions Blake and Mifune chose to go ranch-hand hunting, she simply walked straight to that old red truck and let her guts do the rest. Fuming, Maka studied the horizon for idiot-sized shapes, wondering if she should've taken Skully, wondering if she should've taken a gun to shoot that idiot-sized-shape in the foot so he couldn't wander off...

Then Crona came around a tree, pushing his way through fresh spring grass already taller than himself to come greet her. She scowled, but tried to keep her voice light for the dog, seeing as he wasn't the one she wanted to strangle to a pulp. "Hey buddie," she grumbled, and hurried in the direction the chihuahua had come.

Ankles crossed and hat over his face, Soul Ethan Evans was having himself a doze under a budding cottonwood tree. His chest rose and fell, and Maka, two steps beyond irate, started cussing so colorfully her mother would've been proud. Her intensity scared the poor dog away, and Soul bolted upright, hat falling off his face to tumble out of his lap.

He yelped in surprise, swearing his own slew of words. "What in the hell's wrong with you!?"

That was precisely what she wanted to say. "I'm gonna knock you so hard you'll see tomorrow today!"

"Well mornin' to you too, sunshine," he sneered, dusting off his hat.

Incensed, she wedged her boot under his knee and shoved, wanting nothing more than to kick him in his grumpy face but settling for this instead because she didn't want his stupid brains dirtying her boots. "You jackass fool! If you aren't at home, you take a goddamn radio!"

"Would you quit kickin'-" he said, struggling to get on his feet and away from her. His breath came out in a rush once he stood, because she immediately jabbed the radio into his gut. "It weren't like I was far, dammit," he wheezed. "You can see my truck from here."

Maka grabbed a fistful of his shirt and hauled him down to her height, hearing a couple snaps pop open. She hissed, "I don't know what it was like on your ranch, but on mine, if you're by yourself where no one knows, you take a radio."

"Alright, fine! My mistake!" Soul shrugged out of her grasp, anger splotching high on his cheekbones. "Calm the hell down, why're you so red-assed about-"[1]

"Dinner's ready so you best get in and say sorry to Sue for waiting on you and then apologize to everyone else for wasting their time looking for your dumb ass!" Spinning away, Maka set a determined march back to the house to try to cool her head and maybe reassure Crona that none of her anger was with the dog.

"Albarn. Maka, jus' wait a minute," he called. A hand wrapped around her upper arm and held fast until he could twist her to face him. His mouth opened and started to form around words Maka did not give a good damn about, but then his anger and confusion were wiped clean, replaced by bewilderment the moment he took in her face.

With the weight of that silence, she didn't want to know what was on it. Whatever it was, she tried to mask it with a glare, shoulders inching up as she wished for a thousand miles to appear between her and Soul Evans.

"...Maka, what," he started to ask, and his voice was too soft, too horribly gentle for her to keep a grip on the fury she kept sealed around something she hadn't wanted to feel -- something she hadn't wanted him to see her feel.

Baring her teeth in a helpless snarl, she could only say, "Ask Sue," in desperation before she slid out of his grasp and retreated. Nothing else could have been squeezed out of her closing throat but that, anyhow.

 

\\

 

 

Once back in the kitchen, she tried to absorb the normalcy her surroundings offered, but other things were pressing in that she couldn't confidently hold at bay. She tried her best not to stomp up the stairs, attempted to appear serene, apathetic, uncaring, as Tsubaki radioed the other cowboys to announce Soul was accounted for; as Soul both apologized and asked halting, cautious questions; as Maka holed herself up in the bathroom and securely locked the door.

She leaned heavily against the sink's tiled countertop. A glance to the mirror clued her in to what Soul had seen, and she averted her eyes. Her hands, which tried to suck the stability out of the very bathroom tile because she needed to get a grip, seemed to belong to someone else -- as if this particular splay of fingers or this collection of blunt, uneven nails or this combination of vanity lights and midday sunshine streaming in from the small window above the bathtub temporarily disguised them as her mother's hands -- and she's caught between wanting to stare with a guilty, craven sense of homesickness, and wanting to look at anything besides another mirror.

Through the door, even though Tsubaki's words were muffled and indecipherable, Maka could hear the cadence, the amount of syllables, the unforgiving, still-waters-running-deep ring to them; her voice was so familiar that it was the easiest game of fill in the blanks.

"Mrs. Albarn forgot her radio, once," she said to Soul.

And it was his, now. Older, but just a little more pristine than the others.

\\

 

Somehow, in the moment she'd believed she was safe from those not subtle glances at the kitchen table from a certain nosy ranch hand (for whom she still held a grudge after making her heart momentarily collapse at the sight of him at the foot of a tree, motionless), he appeared. He seemed to be very good at that. Around her, horses munched on feed as she cleaned out and refilled water buckets, and there he was, pulling his shady materialization trick, shock shooting to her toes.

"Keep that up and I'll cancel your birth certificate," she said.

"...Keep what up?" he slowly asked.

Maka growled to herself and kinked the hose as she walked to the next stall. He hadn't shown those typical signs of an Evans playing innocent, so she didn't pursue it. Instead, she said, "I can take care of it all today, so don't worry about it."

He merely replied, "Then take care of it," which made her want to chew up her tongue and just spit it at him.

If he wasn't here to help, then he was here to confront her about earlier, and past events had taught her that she wouldn't find a way out of it. "Just ask it," she said, weary to the core.

There was a long silence, punctuated by the splash of water in the bottom of the bucket she was filling. Eventually, Soul said, "I won't."

Water swirled in the bucket. Her hands tightened around the hose, heart uncertain.

"You still look pretty sore about it, so."

She wished she could decide if she was grateful for his observation or frightened that he had observed anything to begin with. If she glanced at him now, would his hat brim be up or down? She couldn't bring herself to look.

"Ain't why I came here, anyhow." He paused while she moved on to the next stall, which was, unfortunately, closer to where he was leaning on his preferred post. "'Pologized to everyone else, but didn't get a chance to say it at you."

Was every confrontation with him going to involve falling into an entire ocean of guilt? She shook her head, trying to concentrate on her work and failing spectacularly. "Forget about it," she said, head bowed. "I overreacted. I was..."

Seeing ghosts. Seeing ghosts that lived in the shadows knit by familiar trees, who left caricatures of her mother in her face and on the backs of her hands when she hadn't been looking.

Soul moved close, sneaking in from the side to stand before her. He stooped a little, to catch her eyes. On a better day, she'd spray him with the hose to get him out of her face, but as it was, she could only scramble for a thin veneer of calm, unable to keep up with his myriad of little polite surprises.

The hat brim was pushed out of the way. He said, "Sorry. If you got worried 'cause of me."

It was programmed in her, it seemed -- her response to his apology something deeply ingrained from hearing it so many times in her youth, refreshed in her memory from receiving it the day before yesterday.

"I know you are."

That ruddy color was saturated with a dusty cinnamon, even in the darkening evening. "I'll not do it again."

She was back at the diner, but it felt as if she hadn't switched booths, though the words in her mouth belonged to the other side.

"I know you won't."

Satisfied with this, he took a step back, straightening in silence as she moved on to the next stall with the hose. Maka heard his boots scrape across the floor, headed towards the door. But they stopped, and, damn her, she looked back.

He turned on a heel, and she was reminded of that icy night in the mudroom, when he'd told her his name.

"But, don't tell me to ask Sue again," he called from the door. Maka's eyebrows furrowed, wary and toeing the edge of defensive anger on pure reflex, but then he added, "Jus'... whenever you feel like answerin'. I'll ask you."

Why this distinction was important she couldn't fathom, and why this distinction seemed to ease just a little bit of the tightness in her throat, she equally couldn't fathom. She said, "Okay," but so quietly she wasn't sure anyone in the world had heard her, and Soul adjusted his hat back over his eyes, disappearing around the corner.

 

\\

 

Bluebonnets were beginning to bloom on the unkempt shoulders of the backroads, though it was hard to pick them out in the slate grey gloom of a spring storm. Water sluiced up the windshield of her father's old diesel pickup, occasional gusts of wind tugging on the empty gooseneck trailer she was hauling.

She'd asked for the day away from the vet so she could help haul the yearling cattle born the spring prior, and though she knew the full shipment wouldn't have been able to be taken without her, she regretted having taken the day off, considering the outcome.

The morning had started sub-par: riding out in the rain to gather the herd and trailer them had taken longer than it should have, the cattle being uncooperative and breaking away multiple times.

Their buyer had been the worst of it, though. She didn't know the figures off the top of her head like Tsubaki, but she had a feeling the deal they'd been cut didn't even cover the upkeep of the yearlings they'd just sold. Going into the deal, they had expected a loss, but not one quite this large.

A handful of pea-sized hail dropped from the sky before the storm mellowed to a warm drizzle, thunder rumbling far away. By the time their caravan of empty stock trailers pulled onto Angel's End, the rain had stopped completely, which at least made unhitching a little more bearable, and gave Maka enough time to take care of the horses before supper.

If there was one thing she was grateful for today, she decided as she mucked stalls, it was a lack of strange men appearing from the ether.

The evening meal was a chatterless, subdued event, with an air of defeat made more apparent by Mifune's silence. The foreman was naturally a quiet sort of man, but this brand of quiet was loud. He was always pensive when he found he'd miscalculated something, and with an error this large, Mifune wouldn't even touch his string beans or cornbread, and excused himself from the table early.

Tsubaki, who looked ready to fall asleep in her chair from stress and work and growing a human being in her belly, still had her reading glasses forgetfully perched on her head. She must have already gone through the finances and reported the results to Spirit. Also noticing her exhaustion, Blake and Soul offered to clean up the kitchen after supper, so Tsubaki hobbled her way up to bed.

Still seated with most of her food on her plate (she'd found she hadn't much of an appetite, either), Maka gazed at her father's chair and the nothing which sat in it, wondering how Spirit had taken the news, if that offer letter he kept in his shirt pocket felt a little heavier. And wondered how heavy it must become before he couldn't stand under the weight of all those zeroes anymore.

She ate a few more bites and then replaced them from the spread still on the table, adding them to her uneaten food and saving the plate for when her father came home, whenever that would be.

Before going upstairs, she made a stop at the laundry room, grabbing her designated basket of clothes and carrying it to her bedroom. She set to the task of folding her things, mind focused inward. She'd already decided she would find a way for Angel's End to break even, but with all the drama and work going on, she hadn't come up with a decent idea on how to do it. The situation weighed heavily on her mind, especially after the loss they'd taken today; she had to do something soon.

Shaking out a pair of jeans, something was flung to the floor and skittered under her bed. Maka groaned as she bent to hands and knees, pulling out a small, unidentifiable wad. After an eyebrow-scrunching moment of silence, she finally placed it: washed and dried into a stiff, almost velvety block, the sixteen-step registration paper had faded to near illegibility. She sighed. She still needed to talk to Soul about that.

Maka tossed the folded paper to her bedside table like skipping a rock on a pond, but then, as if the idea of the rodeo had been dragged up from the depths by the ripples, she suddenly knew what to do. She flew out of her bedroom, hurrying down the stairs to shove her feet into her boots.

She'd sworn off segregated rodeo games, and coming out on top wouldn't be enough to break even, but it would be a start, at least, even if she had to sacrifice a bit of her pride. That stuff was getting too much in the way lately, right?

Maka half-ran through the soggy gravel all the way down to the guest house. He must have already made himself comfortable before she knocked, because he was preemptively loaded with a drowsy glower when he answered his door, but she was too breathless and excited to care. She said, "Did Black Star tell you about it? The competition. At the rodeo."

The glower was replaced by surprise when he looked down to her height, but her straightforward dive into conversation got him over his surprise quick enough. Soul sighed. "He did," he said with a sour twist of his mouth.

Maka waved off his attitude -- she had more important things to tackle, excitement pushing her ever forward. "Look, I'm- I know I said I wanted nothing to do with it, but things keep getting crazy, and now our buyers have gotten spoiled rotten 'cause of that Lazy S ranch, so something needs to be done! And so I'm thinking about entering," she said rapid-fire, only now taking a moment to catch a breath. "For the purse, that is. I decided if I have to lose a little face to keep Mama's land, then I'll do it."

After her spiel, Soul simply blinked, though it would be more accurate to say the cowboy closed his eyes for a long moment while a small crease slowly formed between his eyebrows and he rubbed his bandana-covered head with a hand. "Okay?" he said dubiously, opening his eyes. "I'll... help you? Is that what you're askin'?"

In her haste, she realized she hadn't asked him a question in the first place; no wonder he looked so confused. Ears getting hot, Maka flashed a shy smile. "Y-yes, that's why I'm... if you don't mind, that is." As much as she hated to admit it, the ranch hand was district calf-roping champion, and there were probably things she could learn from him. If she entered for the competition, she'd be stupid to not seize any opportunity to help her win the prize money.

Soul shrugged, eyes askance. "Not particularly," he said. "But what is it you're needin' help with?"

She had to coach herself to say it, to shove her pride away for just five seconds to allow the words to escape her mouth. "It's been, um, a long time for me, so I was hoping you could help me practice?" she asked, every inch of her skin alight. "Whenever you got some time."

His weight shifted over to one foot, and if she didn't know any better, she might say he was suffering some second-hand embarrassment with that tint to his cheeks. "Yeah, sure," he said, rubbing under his nose. "Got time now, I 'spose."

It was her turn to do that long, perplexed blink. Maka glanced over her shoulder at the darkening spring sky, murky with the leftovers of the day's storm. "Now? It's getting kinda dark, isn't it?"

Soul gave her a quizzical look. "It's light enough inside," he replied, leaving her at the open doorway.

Critically eyeing the small guest house and not seeing any way for there to be nearly enough room inside to swing a rope, Maka balked. But Soul didn't appear to be speculative about the practice space -- only expectant and slightly bemused at her hesitance.

Well, she thought as she stepped forward, she had to admit that he was mister six-point-eleven, so it was possible the man had some tricks he could teach her that didn't require a practice rope. Maybe.

Even in her head, the idea was a bit of a stretch, but the ranch hand stood in the middle of the room at one edge of Mama's floor rug, openly waiting on her with his thumbs hooked in his pockets. She closed the door behind her, leather and shaving cream filling her lungs. She pushed her ponytail off her shoulder. "Sooo..."

Exasperated, Soul quietly grumbled, "Well come here, then."

Maka took a big step forward, unwilling to show any weakness, though she still lingered on the outskirts of the rug.

He wasn't buying it. "Would you jus' stand in front of me?" he griped.

She snapped back at his tone. "Well say so in the first place!"

As if she were his damned horse caught being an idiot with a bucket, he said, "I'd think at least that much shouldn't need sayin'."

Maka bristled. Just because he was a stupid champion didn't mean he had to be so condescending about it! She glared needles at him, but stepped forward again until she was directly in front of him. He stared at her a moment, and then scoffed. She deserved an award for not decking him.

"It really has been awhile, hasn't it." His eyes crinkled around the edges. "You said 'practice', but I didn't think you meant 'teach'," he teased, and, heaven as witness, Soul Evans smirked in such a way that, if she weren't in full control of her faculties and were mercilessly tortured by relentless horse wranglers and general managers, she might admit was becoming on him. While Maka battled her dismay at this observation, Soul put his hands on her shoulders and spun her to face the opposite direction, with him standing (closely -- close enough to dance along that boundary line between 'necessary' and 'Now Wait A Minute') behind her.

The faint scents of the guest house and its main occupant appeared to prevent her from thinking properly. Why was this position necessary? Wouldn't it be easier to teach her if they faced each other? He was left-handed, after all.

Which is what she asked him, though it came out like a squeak. "But aren't you left-handed?"

Adjusting to his voice emanating from behind her at her height was an experience she did not desire to explain to anyone, because a person simply did not give up potential blackmail material about oneself. He asked, sounding sincerely curious, "That don't matter much for this, do it?"

Warning bells were going off in the distance (the distant-distance, beyond the crickets and frogs and wild dogs and owls, and perhaps beyond even the stars), and her knees suffered the tiniest of precarious wobbles. She felt more than heard Soul take one step to the side, and a familiar warmth seeped through her shirt, blooming on her shoulder before running down her arm, molding to the shape of it in a dizzying balance of firm gentleness. She had seen him do this to calm a horse before lifting its leg, but instead of fitting her for a shoe he simply took her hand.

He raised their connected fingers so they were near her shoulder, her palm facing upward, while her other hand was smoothly seized by his opposite, held out to the side and in such a manner that she was reminded of words like 'gentleman' and 'chivalry' and all order of things that had absolutely no bearing on calf roping no matter how hard she tried to fit them together.

It took her an entire four seconds of frozen silence before she realized what was happening.

She bolted, blazing like a supernova from head to toe. "N-not! Not a- NOT!" she stammered while Soul backed away, hands held up as if she had him at gunpoint.

"What, what, what'd I do-"

Her scrambled brain finally made the appropriate connections required for human speech. She sucked in an anxious breath. "I was talking about roping, not dancing!"[2]

And in that instant, she rolled back two months (and twenty years) in time, to that top-of-the-stairs, You'll Get Cooties state of being, in which the two of them were both children who realized they had touched, which for some reason was a big deal.

Soul's arms fell to his sides, Long-Blink already initiated. "Well then say that in the first place!"

"I thought I did!"

"Obviously you neglected that bit," he said as he sat down on the edge of his bed, rubbing his face with his hand. "Left-handed," he muttered, in either disbelief or embarrassment. "Shoulda figured."

A nervous giggle bubbled up her throat. "Sorry, I was just... I got ahead of myself." The idea of how cooperative he'd been about it just made her laugh. "Thanks anyway, for going along with it? Kinda question your mentality though," she teased.

Soul glared at her. "Preacher to the choir, shortstack," he said wryly. "Found that goin' with it's the safest thing to do on account of not knowin' what to expect from you."

She wanted to take offense at that, but for some reason the admission stroked her pride just the smallest bit. "So a-anyway," she said, fiddling with her bangs, "about the roping. Could I get some advice or anything from you?"

He sighed. "Already said 'yes', didn't I?"

"For something you misunderstood..."

"Well it's not like I woulda said 'no'."

At that statement, what little composure she retained was shaken by the thick thump of her heart, and she couldn't find it in herself to reply.

Soul also seemed to realize his words had sounded a bit suggestive, so he added, "Jus' wanna help how I can, to break even n'all." He rubbed the back of his neck. "Thought about ropin', myself, but with Harley still healin'..."

"Why?" she asked, all lightheartedness bleeding away to be replaced with apprehension. "That doesn't concern you- it's got nothing to do with you."

"Of course it does," he said. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, and leveled a flat stare. "Or were you jus' talkin' when you said 'you're ours too'?"

She tried to catch flies with her open mouth before stammering, "I-I wouldn't say something like that if I didn't mean it!"

He seemed to gauge her for a moment, then freed her from that stare, face and eyes turning away with a new expression that would normally be hidden with a hat on.

Lacing his fingers together, Soul said, "Lost my home once, already. So if I can stop it from happenin' again, I will."

With a long silence, Maka thought of what she wanted to prevent, protecting her home from an end that Soul had already been living. She thought of the hay bale hauler, and how it had no purpose until it was brought here, given new meaning.

She thought of the floor rug between them, the guest house feeling lived-in. A peculiar sense of pride filled her then, though maybe a different kind.

Finally, she said, "Do you think you'll have some free time tomorrow?"

Chapter Text

 

One moment Tsubaki was musing aloud on the emptiness of the deep freezer, and the next she was dashing out the kitchen, hand covering her mouth.

The cowboys had already left for the morning's work, so Maka kneeled outside the bathroom and dutifully accepted a list of beef cuts that slid under the door.

"...Should you still be getting morning sickness?"

Tsubaki's voice bounced off bathroom tile, sounding shy and seventeen again. "Frank said it wasn't abnormal."

"Oh. Well that's good," Maka replied in what she hoped was an encouraging tone -- that small note of uncertainty in the general manager's voice shook her nerves more than she'd like. "He helped Mama with me and all. N-not that throwing up breakfast is great, of course."

Tsubaki groaned.

Repentant for making the general manager more nauseous than she already was, Maka folded the slip of paper and stuck it in the front pocket of her shirt. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"

The woman sniffled loudly behind the door -- her allergies had multiplied ten-fold with the pregnancy. "Broccoli?" she said weakly before flushing the toilet.

"...Broccoli?"

"Yes."

"Well, uh, I can bring everything home after the clinic today. How much do you need?"

There was a pause before Tsubaki murmured something dark and foreign that Maka was fairly certain translated to an ominous, "All of it."

 \\

 

Originally spurred by imagining a five-month pregnancy in the midst of a down-spiraling financial situation, Maka ended up slumped in her stool in frustrated defeat. Her lunch break had ended, and she flicked her laptop shut without ceremony.

She had hoped the internet would help her stir up new ideas to raise funds, but the more common suggestions weren't tailored for a person in the middle of Cow Country, Nowhere. She didn't have time for another part-time job, she didn't have much in the way of possessions to pawn for money, and she didn't have a trade or craft to profit from. She couldn't even bake.

She'd be twenty-five this year, and what did she have to show for it? Maka's only skills were raising hell and doctoring animals, and she couldn't be paid for the latter until becoming certified in another nine months. She may as well be stomping around in a fluffy gown and tiara.

As excited as she'd been last night while talking with Soul, her heart wasn't in it anymore. Calf roping was all well and good, but even if she did manage to win any prize money at the competition, one round at the women's circuit was a long shot away from covering Angel's End's encroaching debt. Maka needed a Plan B -- and preferably plans B-through-Z. She slumped further on her stool, leaning over the front counter of the clinic.

Staring at her blurry reflection in the stainless steel, it was with horror that she remembered she would eventually have to dance with a certain ranch hand. The steel counter fogged up as her face warmed.

That being said, the sixteen-step would be a competition like anything else. Maybe they really should practice dancing, if not only to learn how to avoid knocking the hat off a person a foot taller than her, then to also have a shot at the cash prize, however small it would be.

Maka reluctantly admitted to herself that was kind of like a Plan B. And Soul had seemed ready enough for private dance lessons, hadn't he?

(It's not like I woulda said 'no'.)

She noisily blew some of the heat building in her lungs out her nose, willing his voice far away from herself and out of the damned universe. Beside her, Miranda gave her a bemused look before ultimately dismissing her behavior and opening a large envelope of outsourced lab results.

Maka plopped the side of her face on the chill countertop, resentful that it felt cool at all. She further resented the parts of her that felt as hot as her face: the spot between her shoulderblades; the burning path he'd trailed down her arm in the intimate quiet of the guest house.

He'd moved so slowly last night -- deliberate as one would around a skittish horse -- and she was as equally angry for being treated like a rowdy beast as she was rattled over his touching her so carefully.

She reached for one of the discarded manila folders Nygus had already looked through and quietly leaned it on her face like a funeral shroud. After a while, Mira asked, "Are you dying? Do you need to go home?"

"I'm not dying," Maka groaned. Going home would probably make things worse, to be perfectly honest. He was waiting on her so they could practice roping this afternoon. "How're the results?"

Miranda sounded perplexed, if not annoyed. "Look for yourself," she replied.

Confused by her mentor's tone, Maka quickly flipped the folder off her face and sat up in her stool. She was half-surprised to recognize the black and red stylized hourglass stamped in the center of the folder. The timeless face of Renee Georgian flashed through her memory as Maka browsed the report's contents.

She flipped through the tidy pages. Flipped through them again. Eagerly gestured for the rest of the information still in Miranda's hands.

Maka's face twisted into a frown. "Did we send them the right sample?"

"We only had the one test subject, so I can't imagine us getting it mixed up with anything else."

All results from Hourglass Diagnostics had come back clean; the stray calf quarantined in Nygus Veterinary had tested negative for anything unusual.

\\

 

She drove home from the butcher's later that afternoon with the windows down, enjoying occasional whiffs of flowering peach and plum, the passenger seat cradling two paper sacks of broccoli crowns. Brilliant cardinals flitted in front of the truck, playing in the bright green patches of wet grass on either side of the narrow road, almost dancing to the music of Mama's tape.

The sounds of the harmonica lifted her spirits. On this stretch of countryside, in this tunnel of budding trees pierced with shafts of angled sunlight, the failures of yesterday became a faint memory, the uncertainty of the ranch's future felt conquerable, and she thought she might yet fit in her boots properly.

Her wrist idly rotated, stretching for roping practice. She was nervous, but there was also comfort in knowing that she had a goal to work towards -- she was moving forward to meet a challenge, a purpose, a solution -- and that even a princess could help contribute to the ranch.

She was five minutes from the driveway when the cassette player started smoking.

\\

 

Soul strolled through the back door right on schedule, unusually talkative. "Worked another batch of calves this mornin'," he said by way of greeting when he saw her. "Can't do much with 'em today. They learn quicker'n... horses," he trailed off, catching up with the scene in the kitchen.

Maka dully nodded as she surveyed the charred and melted remnants of the tape she'd pried out of her dashboard. Her gloved hands hovered over the open trash can in a misplaced funeral rite, the lid held open by her foot on the floor pedal.

Standing to her right, Mifune made a sympathetic noise in the back of his throat and gently patted the sun-bleached baseball cap on her head. Tsubaki, paused in her demolition of what could have been her fifth or fifteenth orange, softly asked if Maka knew the name of the tape.

As she gazed into the tangled knot of destroyed memory, sour fear turned her stomach, twisting like a summer storm. She shook her head. The motion made her head swim, tempered by the smell of burned plastic. "The label was already worn off before I got it."

Before a lot of things.

"Boss might know," Mifune offered.

Maka grunted half-hearted agreement and let the lost music fall into the garbage, the lid shutting with a baleful clang. Taking a breath, she slowly turned to Soul. "Guess I should've copied it when you warned me," she said with a cardboard smile before walking around him to get the groceries out of her truck.

\\

 

In life-sucking self-awareness, she wondered if there would ever be a time when something as small as an outdated tape would stop feeling as painful as if the funeral were yesterday. How did a person decide what to keep and what to let go? Was there a dividing line she just couldn't see?

Maka rummaged around in the tack shed and brushed a fine layer of dust off a pair of skid boots.[1] She was old enough to know that sentimental objects were merely things a person projected their ghosts on, and it had been just a tape, after all. Just like a harmonica was just a harmonica; just like Angel's End was just a stretch of dirt with some trees, a few buildings, and a grave.

Not that she could ever accept that. From the saddle in Papa's office to the tiny footnotes on the backs of recipe cards to the handheld radio that had 'Soul' labelled carefully over 'Mama' on the battery cover, there was no dividing line, no way to rank the sentimental ghosts amassed in her life from greatest to least.

If someone asked her, as she stood in the tack shed and reeled with the familiar, hollow sensation of being adrift in a starless void, if she was tired of being emotionally wrecked by every hint of a woman named Suzanne, she would have said yes. She sometimes wished for the loneliness to ease just the slightest bit; has long awaited for that mythical 'time' to pass. But likewise she never wanted to be accustomed to this sadness, and could not help but clutch it greedily, terrified that the only thing to feel after it would be silent acquiescence.

It was only Skully and his skidboots that finally brought her back to earth. After gearing him up for roping practice and securing the boots on his hind feet, the horse simply refused to walk.

"Oh c'mon, it hasn't been that long," she chided, still a little dizzy with grief.

When she managed to coax him forward on his lead, the horse picked up his back legs not unlike an ungainly cat with wet feet. His dismay was so comical that she snorted despite the tightness in her throat. Skully waddled daintily behind her as she led him out the stables. "Were you always this dramatic or did I just forget 'cause of that snooty Lipizzaner?"

A scoff echoed in the distance. "S'pose I should be thankful you didn't call'er a cow."

Soul perched on the top rung of the closest working pen, low voice rolling to her. Though the distance was an improvement from his usual materializations from thin air, she glared at his surprise-appearance nonetheless.

"I've learned my lesson," she called back. "Bovines are better mannered!"

Soul grouchily mumbled something she didn't catch and rotated on the pipe, facing inward as he waited for her.

Despite the embarrassment that came with being caught badmouthing a horse to another horse, Maka found herself latching to any feeling, embarrassment or otherwise, to get away from Suzanne for just a little while. She led Skully along, who was already marching less and nearly resigned to the fact that he was not escaping his footwear.

Once in the pen and mounted, Maka tried with every fiber of her being to not dwell on how the ranch hand kept his wire-cut leg slightly extended as he sat. He caught her looking at his thigh almost immediately, his height on the fence such that he didn't have to bother tipping his hat back to shoot her a dry expression of impatience.

She got her worrywarting from her papa, though, and couldn't stop herself. "How's your-"

"Fine."

"I'm just-"

"Well, don't."

Maka huffed and glowered her saddle horn. Excuse her for caring! She had half a mind to go back to hating him and not give a damn about trying to become a better, unprejudiced person. Also being hot with fury had been a far stretch easier to handle than getting flustered simply because their hands touched last night.

She shut her eyes, swallowing the nettles of her pride. "I can practice roping a post if all the calves are skittish," she eventually said, letting him know she had heard him earlier in the kitchen and still wanted his roping advice enough to not pick a fight with his contrary ass today.

Even if only seen from the corner of her eye, the gauging look he wore made her thoughts feel naked. "You rope fine. Think you throw better'n me anyhow," he said, and Maka was so pleasantly surprised with the unexpected compliment that it took her a moment to register his next words: "It's your horsemanship what sucks."

She stared as the cowboy slouched over on his pipe fence perch, chin boredly resting in his palm as he propped his elbow on a knee.

"...Excuse me?"

One of his bootheels struck a lower rung, making it resonate. "Don't be gettin' all sore when I tell you facts. Your horsemanship sucks."

Skully shifted as he felt Maka's ire over this posture-inept cowboy radiating through the saddle. "I've been riding all my life-"

Soul looked off the the side, thoroughly bored. "Folks talk all their life- don't make them good at it," he said.

Maka openly scowled at both him and his horrendous grammar. Still, she'd asked for his help and she would not start a shouting match, heaven as her witness. "Shouldn't I at least ride around first before you make a judgement?" She swatted a fly buzzing near her face, eager to take her anger out on something.

Soul leaned to one side to pull a bag of sunflower seeds out his back pocket, ripping the package open with his teeth with well-practiced efficiency. "If it'll make you feel better," he said around the plastic before taking it from his teeth and shoving it back into his pocket. "But I seen you ride already so don't see how that'd make any difference."

The chorus of her grinding molars sang in her skull, and she about ground them to dust when an annoying, insistent part of her eagerly interpreted his criticism as evidence of his having watched her do anything. She pleaded for the powers that be to throw her into the nearest stock pond.

"...What would you suggest, then," she forced out.

He gave a thoughtful grunt. "Y'need to talk to your geldin' more," he said definitively before pouring a measure of seeds directly into his mouth.

Maka glanced at the back of Skully's head; the horse's ears were politely attuned to her. She stroked his neck with kindness, carefully directing all her irritation to Soul and his boggling advice. "What do you want me to do, read him a bedtime story?" she hissed, and witnessed just how far back Soul's eyes could roll.

"You use too much rein," he said good and slow, as if speaking plain and comprehensible English was somehow beneath him, "-and not enough... everythin' else." He turned and spat some sunflower shells behind him, waving vaguely at both her horse and her person. "Half the time you drive him like he's short a brain."

She placed her hand flat on the horse's neck, as if the animal would be offended, otherwise. "Of course he has a brain! I love him, I'd never want to treat him like a- a..."

"Tractor?" Soul supplied.

Maka nodded with a frown, now wary in an area she'd never once before been unsure. "I mean, horses are tools, but I know they have a heart."

His head tilted to the side a touch. "Knowin' ain't doin'," he told her shortly, though his voice was not unkind. "You're makin' him stupid with those reins. How long you had him?"

Dismayed with the whole conversation, it took her awhile to remember. "Uhh, Mama picked him for me..." Immediately, thoughts of Suzanne tried to crest over her heart, that icy wave piercing through her skin and gripping her throat.

Yet Maka didn't instantly drown this time, steadied by her desire to improve and her frustration for needing to improve in the first place -- and, perhaps, the presence of patient eyes.

"He'll be six this year," she managed.

He made a small nod, indicating her reins with his chin. "Betcha don't even need those," he said. Empty shells shot behind the railing again. "S'not like you don't know how. The other half of the time you ride right. Try."

Self-conscious (just how studiously had he watched her the last time she rode?) but also determined, Maka held the reins loosely in her hands and gently squeezed her legs, nearly startled with the immediate response from Skully. The horse plodded forward and Maka slowly directed him around the pen with only her legs and shifting her weight in the saddle.

"He ain't dumb," Soul said, pitching his voice to carry between them as she rode away. "You got your hands full in the ring; can't be thinkin' for the both of you on the clock."

Maka nodded absently, a small smile creeping on her face as she reveled in her horse's attentiveness. A little lean and press of a leg, and he would turn this way or that. Sitting heavily in the saddle with a 'whoa' would bring him to a stop. She'd known all this before, of course, but had never realized how much her body and voice communicated without reins. It took experimenting, but she eventually discovered how to tell Skully to back up with a press of her thighs. She was so caught up in riding around in the pen in sync with her horse that it took Evans a few tries to get her attention.

"-arn. Hey. Heeyyy. Maka."

Skully came to a stop when Maka abruptly sat up straight. "Yes? Sorry." She nervously laughed, flushing as she realized she'd tuned out everything in the world around her and the horse.

Soul scratched under his chin, looking vaguely amused. "Was sayin' he's cowy enough, so next time we work calves you should let him cut. Get him used to thinking for hisself and save you the trouble."[2][3]

More than a little giddy, she blurted, "When do I get to teach him to throw the rope?"

Caught off-guard, Soul shot his hand to his mouth to partway cover his surprised cough. His head tilted low enough to hide his eyes under his hat. "That's the 'vance course."

She giggled, gratified that he was the one embarrassed now, that detached attitude of his breaking away. "What, you mean I'm not in the advanced course?" she threw back.

Soul wisely avoided answering that question, laughing eyes emerging from under his hat brim. His lips held back a smile while he changed the subject and said, "Wanna see you slide-stop, first."

For a moment she had no idea what to say, as the phrase 'wanna see you' did peculiar, paralyzing things to her tongue. Maka quickly turned her attention to Skully for stability. "H-he stops on a dime," she boasted, running her nervous fingers through the horse's mane.

"Hm," he said, noncommittal once again, and poured another measure of seeds in his mouth. "Go on, then."

Eager to put some distance between herself and the ranch hand, she urged her horse into a trot to warm him up a bit more. After practicing a few easy stops to give both herself and Skully a refresher, Maka brought the gelding to a lope and asked him to stop with a shift of her weight and lightly setting the bit with the reins.[4] She felt the horse pull his legs under him and almost sit to slide to a tidy halt.

Maka gave slack immediately and praised him before looking across the pen to her teacher. Soul lazily waved her over, making a motion with his hands for her to drop the reins on the way -- she had already gone back to using them in habit after the last exercise.

"Decent," he said, which she interpreted to mean 'could be better'. He ignored her displeasure, spitting shells out of view again. "Now that I'm lookin', he's built for it. Clean neck. Gotta good backside."

Praise, even if only for her horse, did make things less frustrating. She raised an eyebrow, a smile tugging the corner of her mouth. "Are you checking out my gelding, Evans?"

Soul gave her a blank look. "What. Big rear's a desirable tr- would you quit."

"Well quit flirting with my horse," she countered. "No wonder you and Pat get along so well."

"I ain't fli-" Soul cut himself off just to tug his hat down, exasperated. "Listen, if I was flirtin', you'd know it."

"Hah! Is that a fact?" She was indebted to that hat brim, as it kept him from seeing her cheeks flare like a campfire.

"It is."

Her gelding took this moment to lift his tail and punctuate the moment with a fresh pile of manure. Maka gently patted her horse's shoulder, mouth stretched into a big grin. "I think so too, Skulls."

Soul shook his head, noisily cracking shells with his teeth. "Should you really be pokin' at the person you asked for advice?"

Holding her hands up in defense, she replied loftily, "I'm just saying those are some tall claims, Spitfire."

"...And we're back to the name callin'," he sighed, taking off his hat and rubbing his head.

"Would you prefer 'Ladykiller'?"

Gesturing with his hat, he said, "For one, no- that's one of the more awful names I ever heard. Two, if you haven't noticed, I don't got someone to flirt at, and ain't lookin', besides." Soul meticulously replaced the hat on his head, ruddy eyes glinting with his displeasure on the whole subject.

But that surly, embarrassed tint to his cheekbones made her ask, "Why not?"

Soul leaned back for a moment to give a pointed look to the sky, grouchily beseeching the heavens. He slouched forward again. "Jus' get. Go do another slidin' stop."

"Again?" she complained, though she was more disappointed by his changing the subject than more horse riding.

"Slack in the reins," he countered. "No bit."

"Slack in the…" That threw her for a loop. Maka set her shoulders back, eager for the challenge. "Fine, but if we do it on the first try you gotta answer my question." Making a show of keeping the reins slack in her hands, she nudged Skully forward while tacking on, "And none of those Evans-dodging tricks allowed."

Soul was the picture perfect spokesman for bewilderment. "I don't gotta nothin'. And your cue was early 'lasstime so watch it." Then, belatedly, as her horse began to lope, "...Evans-what?"

"You better be watching!" she threatened.

She couldn't catch what he said over Skully's hooves beating against the earth, but the way his frowning lips moved suggested a wry, "I'm watchin'."

\\

 

Unfortunately (or not, depending on who was relieved to dodge a question and who was irritated with her own lack of perfection), Maka and Skully did not do a sliding stop to Evans's standards on the first try. Or the second. Or ever.

She despondently mucked stalls and cared for the horses after practice, sorely missing Patti. The girl's absence echoed loudly from every stall, and Maka could easily picture being lectured by Pat's endless equine knowledge.

She wished she could go check up on her -- she missed seeing her cheerful face -- but it was probably in the best interests of the entire earth for Maka to avoid any accidental interaction with Tina Thompson. She wasn't confident she wouldn't throw her wits to the wind and simply punch the woman on sight.

Maybe she could have Blake text Patti and see if she was doing alright. With this in mind, Maka finished up her chores and made her way to the main house to clean up for supper. Honeysuckle was strong on the evening breeze as she knocked her boots on the porch, clearing out caked bedding and manure before walking through the back door.

She hadn't even had time to look at the boot tray when Blake barked, "Shortstack, get the sour cream."

Too startled to make a fuss, Maka scuttled over to the refrigerator and quickly dug through the haphazard stacks of leftovers, produce, and the growing collection of untouched take-out containers for her father. Behind her, the clacking of Tsubaki's ten-key blended in with the sizzle of supper while Blake said, "Today. Today would be helpful."

She sighed and fished out the bulk-sized tub of sour cream. "I know Mama taught you how to say 'please'," she groused, restraining from throwing the entire lot of it at the back of his head.

The man was having an intense stare-down with a giant pan of sizzling food, armed with a plastic spatula. As Tsubaki added sums at the kitchen table, the general manager absently recited one of Suzanne's recipes: "'Remove from heat. Gently stir in three-fourths cup sour cream."

Maka warily watched a whole hell of a lot more than three-fourths of a cup plop into the pan. "This isn't gonna poison us, is it?" she asked, eyeing the mess that might have been some kind of stroganoff if anyone but Blake Strickland had prepared it.

"Hush yer mouth," he scoffed, scraping the pan. "I cook good as you."

"That's why I'm worried. Did you measure anything?"

"Measurin' cups're for chumps. Would you go set the dang table, munchkin? Damn."

"How many names do you have for me?" she hissed.

Blake made a show of counting on one hand as he stirred with the other. "Shortcake, Shortstop, Shortbread, Shorty, Short, Smallfry, Shetland, Arm Rest-"

Maka gave him a swift kick to the rear before stomping to the cupboard and grabbing a stack of plates. Then she discovered the kitchen table was overrun with papers, mismatched file folders, bags of receipts, and… legal forms?

"Sue, are those our taxes?" she squeaked. "Isn't the deadline soon?"

Tsubaki blinked behind her reading glasses, seated at the head of the table and slowly nursing what Maka sincerely hoped wasn't a broccoli milkshake through a bendy-straw directly from the blender pitcher. She didn't look up, all the while thumbing through paperwork and diligently tapping, tapping, tapping on her outdated ten-key. "Tomorrow is the last day, actually. And heavens no- I did ours ages ago. These belong to other people."

"Slackers," Blake said from the stove.

"You've never filed taxes in your life," Tsubaki teases.

"They coulda asked, ya'know, sometime afore the last day possible," her husband insisted. "You're busy makin' a person in there!"

As Tsubaki took a long draw from her green concoction, Maka developed a new respect for someone who could drain that much frozen 'food' and not suffer frostbite. "Thank you," the general manager said, "but being pregnant doesn't render me unable to do math." Tsubaki smiled like a cat with a plate of cream. "Besides, I charge more for rush orders."

Maka was so dumbfounded that she hardly noticed Mifune and Soul walk in. Tsubaki glanced up at her silence.

"You didn't think I'd do all this for free, did you?"

"W-well, no," Maka stammered. "I was just impressed, I guess. Can you really finish it all by tomorrow?"

The older woman looked over the thick rims of her glasses. "I'm no help on the rest of the ranch, but with this I'm a bit useful, at least," she replied, pausing in her sums to carefully stack her work in separate piles to make room for supper. "Can't do things like we did before, right? Noodles are done, by the way."

Blake swore from the stove. Mitch scooted to lend a hand.

Maka ignored any potential culinary disasters, holding the dinner plates to her chest with a frown. "You say 'at least' like you're not the biggest help here," she blurted.

This took Tsubaki by swift surprise, her cheeks dusting such a bright pink that it made Maka blush a little, too. Not that what she'd said wasn't anything but truth -- all the finances of Angel's End had been left behind in wake of Suzanne's abrupt death, and only Sue Strickland, who'd favored studying in the kitchen more than cowboying, had seen enough of how the ranch ran behind the scenes to be able to pick it all up and keep it together. It was a hell of a lot for a young woman to tackle so suddenly, but instead of weighing her down, Tsubaki seemed to flourish the moment she took on Suzanne's responsibilities.

"...We all do our part," the general manager bashfully replied, looking away.

"And yours is important," Mifune added from the sink as he strained a frankly absurd amount of egg noodles.

Maka nodded, prepared to say every truth it took for Tsubaki to acknowledge herself properly, but the phone chose that moment to ring. She spun around to reach for the receiver on the skinny telephone table, but her hand bumped into someone else's.

"Ah-"

"You're busy," Soul murmured, gesturing towards the plates she still had in her arms before picking up the phone. Into the mouthpiece he said, "Evans Pr- uh." He rubbed the side of his jaw with his free hand, shifting a little to keep his back to the rest of the kitchen. "...Angel's End, who's callin'."

The kitchen seemed to miss a beat as Soul listened to the caller, but started up again when the ranch hand wordlessly walked over and handed the phone to Tsubaki, curtly nodding when she thanked him.

"Sue Strickland," she greeted, voice a little painfully bright.

Still standing by the phone table, Maka's thumbs absently traced the worn blue flowers that decorated the outer edge of the topmost plate in her hands, skin crawling at the thought of the her ranch disappearing only to have its name resurface as a reflex when answering a telephone.

"That's fine," Tsubaki said, "but you'll have to bring it over by, oh, I don't know, eight."

The ranch carried on, Blake throwing a few things carelessly into the sink, Mifune dumping noodles into an oversized serving bowl, and Tsubaki talking cheerily to whomever had called. Maka heard familiar footsteps and Evans appeared in her line of sight once more.

He held out a hand. She gazed at this but didn't truly see it, hypothetical no-purpose ghosts still drifting behind her eyes for a good few seconds before she escaped and looked up into his face.

"You waitin' til Christmas or you gonna set the table?" he teased, which would have sounded convincing had he not been standing this close and had she not been short enough to see the thinly-veiled ache in his eyes under the hat brim.

The taut pull of his mouth and the set of his shoulders told her he was still feeling something she could now only call 'sore', and so replied blandly with, "That kind of impatience will get you Tabasco in your tea."

He grimaced, which was closer to his usual default expression than before. She handed him the plates; he seemed eager to have something to do.

"Oh- someone's on the other line," Tsubaki said to the phone. "We'll see you in a bit. Alright. Buh-bye. ...Angel's End, this is Sue?"

"Everyone knows Sue Strickland," Maka murmured as Soul set the table. Hands empty, she finally went to the boot tray to take off her shoes.

"Sure, hang on just a second." Tsubaki held the phone out in Maka's direction. "Not everyone does social networking through Facebook. It's for you, by the way."

"Oh." Self-conscious, she tugged off her boots and shuffled back over in her socks. She sat in her chair at the table, taking the phone in one hand and accepted a scoopful of noodles Mifune offered for her raised plate in the other. "This is Maka," she said, propping the receiver between her shoulder and cheek.

"Guess who."

When she squeaked out a surprised, "Wes?", Soul came to a complete standstill, plate hovering in the air even after having been served. Blake smacked it out of the way.

"Howdy."

Maka wasted no time hounding the elder Evans brother with questions. "What's going on? Is Liz okay? Do I need to come over? What happened?"

"Whoa there, now hang on! Everythin's just fine, this is a real social call for once," he reassured.

"Oh," she said again like a broken record. Sitting back in her chair, she glanced at Soul, who only partially bothered to hide his curiosity as to why his brother would call and not ask to speak with him. He shrugged one shoulder. "Um. Hi? How are you?"

Wes just laughed. "I'm alright. How're you?"

"Fine, I guess," she said, beyond puzzled. "Suppertime."

"Well I'll get to the point then. How do you feel about seein' fifteen dogs for Memorial Day?"

"Uhhhh-"

Everyone was seated at the kitchen table and was in plain view of her face reaching molten temperatures, because the only other time she'd 'visited' fifteen dogs, she'd been wearing a dress and been protected by Soul from their questing noses. The dog-whispering knight in question was still watching her, and Maka stood back up, leaving the table to escape out the back door for some privacy and cool off the brand he'd left between her shoulders.

"My brother gave me hell for not askin' directly last time, so I'm askin'."

Maka quietly shut the door behind her, curling up in a rocking chair. "You mean to visit? Your family?"

"Yep."

Now without worrisome distractions, she was able to recall feeling very much used and manipulated the last time she visited the Evanses. She still hadn't gotten down to the bottom of that mystery, either.

"The family'd be more'n happy to see you again-"

"But why are you inviting me," Maka cut in with a glower he couldn't see.

Wes didn't miss a beat. "You'd rather my kid brother ask you, is that what I'm hearin'?"

"I'm afraid you're going deaf at an alarmingly early age, Mister Evans."

"Alright, alright, don't rub that formal talkin' in my face," he chuckled. "You'd be doing me a big favor. See, Gran-Gran is pretty partial to you and your folks…"

Maka sighed. "And she hates the Thompsons."

"Caught that, didja?"

"Eventually. So… what? If you want me to pick a fight with your grandmother, you're calling the wrong person."

"Well of course not!" Wes exclaimed. "I'm tryin' to stop a war, not start one."

She idly rocked in the chair, swatting away a mosquito edging too close to her elbow. "I don't get it. What do you want from me, then?"

It was Wes's turn to sigh, thought it was a touch too dramatic for her liking. "To be very honest, I'm tryin' to convince Lizzy to come, and if you're goin' I think she'd be a lot more comfortable. Both of us."

Maka paused mid-rock, eyes wide. "Oh! Oh, well say that from the start! Of course I'll go for Liz," she said. Then she saw headlights pull into the driveway. Squinting, she made out a brush guard and a light bar; Papa had come home in time for supper. "Ah, as long as things aren't busy here, that is."

Wes thanked her profusely, promising many favors in the future as she stood to go set another place setting for her father. "I'm sure Soul will happily be your chauffeur~"

Her body became marble, her hand fused to the door handle. Though the temperature of her face climbed another ten degrees, she was proud of the bored tone she feigned in her voice. "He'll be as pleased as last time, probably."

He gave a strange chuckle she couldn't interpret. "Oh, there might be some yard games goin' on, so if that's your thing, uh, dress accordingly."

"Yard games?"

"Fifteen dogs. And 'bout fifty head of frisbee."[5]

"W-wow."

"Yeah. Well I'll let you get to supper! Thanks again Maka!"

Perplexed by the whirlwind David Wesley Evans left behind after hanging up, her blush was more or less under control as she ended the call and opened the back door. She had one foot in the house when she heard someone call out to her.

"Maks!"

Everyone in the kitchen looked up at her in confusion. Maka pivoted in the doorway, blinking rapidly as a man in a police uniform who was very much not Spirit Albarn walked up the porch steps.

"Oh gosh, I thought you were Papa-" she exclaimed.

The deputy sheriff halted in his tracks on the back porch, frowning in dismay. "It's not that dark out yet, is it?"

She laughed, standing aside and waving him into the kitchen with the phone. "I only saw the cruiser and assumed. Sorry."

Kyle Rung, glasses, wide smile, twenty-seven, took off his hat and exposed neatly shaved temples astride immaculate cornrows. He had a thick manila folder tucked under his arm. "Got a complaint sayin' the party here was getting too rowdy," he greeted when he walked in, hanging his hat on a peg.

There was a scuffle of chairs as the men stood to meet the officer, though midway through loudly clapping and fist-bumping Blake's hand, Kyle hurriedly pointed at Tsubaki and insisted she remain seated.

"Are you drinking the garden- Mitch, how's it goin'- You look nearly ready to pop."

"I have a while yet," Tsubaki replied as Kyle shook hands with Mifune. "And it's only a bit of spinach, don't faint."

Kyle laughed. "Well there's worse, I guess." To Mifune, he added, "Good luck with that slop on the table."

The older man nodded, solemn.

"Hey." Blake Strickland's offense was unheeded.

Soul stood off to Tsubaki's side, looking supremely out of place. His hat brim pointed in Maka's direction, and it took her a moment to realize why.

"Ah- And this is Soul, our hand," she introduced, awkwardly saying it from across the room and worried about it coming across as rude. When Soul had introduced her to someone new, he'd had his hand between her shoulderblades; she'd be very pleased if she would stop remembering that.

Spine tingling, Maka and Kyle walked over to the table, and she waved the phone still in her hand towards the officer at her side. "This is Kyle. He works with Papa now."

The two men shook hands. Soul dipped his chin a little. "Evenin'."

"Hi. 'Evans', right?" Kyle Rung never was one for awkward silences, so he plowed right through Soul's. "Thought so. They work you to the bone, yet?"

"Uh-"

Maka lightly slapped Kyle's arm with the phone. "We did not work you to the bone."

"Hah!"

For Soul's sake, Tsubaki looked up at him and helpfully added, "He was our hand before you."

"Ah," Evans said, contemplative. "...In the interest of keepin' my job, I'll shut my mouth."

Maka frowned as the deputy sheriff cackled. "What're you trying to say?"

Evans only glanced away, rubbing under his nose.

"In any case, he's more useful than you were," Blake said to Kyle, burr still under his saddle over the 'slop' comment.

Kyle scoffed, working his way around the table to bend and give Tsubaki an awkward, fumbling hug, hindered by trying to not drop his folder. "More useful? I'm helpin' to protect the peace 'an all that, what more you want from me?" he complained.

Mifune evenly replied, "Help durin' haying season," without missing a beat before he returned to the table. He seemed intent on getting a head start on the green beans in favor of Black Star's stroganoff. Soul and Blake followed suit, worried for their share.

"Yeah, I'd rather direct traffic," Kyle said with a shit-eating grin. Then, suddenly sober, he turned to look at Maka, who had remained standing. "Oh, though I heard what happened," he said, absently giving up his folder as Tsubaki slid it away from under his arm.

Guilt folded her guts twelve different ways, the memory of what she'd caused in this very kitchen coming in fast and somewhat claustrophobic. "Yeah," she thinly replied, distracting herself by returning the cordless phone into its charging cradle. "Not my finest moment- you know how it goes."

"Yeah."

There was a silence punctuated with the clatter of silverware before Tsubaki asked if Kyle had time for supper. He declined. "Nah, I've got people waitin' on me so I'd best head out. Thanks Sue, you're a lifesaver."

"It's no trouble. I'll just take it out of your return," she teased.

"You can have every penny if you invite me over next time you make brisket," he shot back, walking to the hat rack and retrieving his. "Bye y'all. Good seein' ya!"

The outfit said their goodbyes ("And quit hittin' on my wife!"), but before Rung went out the door he waved Maka over. "I got somethin' for your dad in the car, come with?"

She followed him outside and down the porch, though she remained on the last step as she was still in only her socks. Kyle's car door groaned open. "But seriously. If you're short-handed this summer, I can try to come by on a day off- oof." He hefted a box out of his cruiser.

"Thank you. We may have to take you up on that depending on the baby."

"When's she due? July?"

Her response was delayed; in the twilight, she had finally recognized the rippled creases in the lid of the box he carried. Her throat went dry. "Uh. August. I think."

"Here's this. Want me to…?"

"I got it. Thanks."

The worn, swayed handles that had been cut out of the sides of the cardboard dug into her palms. Her father's hands were always here. This heavy weight was everything that kept Spirit in his uniform instead of pearl-snaps and denim. Maka whipped up her head, searching Kyle's eyes.

"How is he?"

On ground-level, he was a little bit closer to her height as she stood on the porch step. Rung shifted his weight to one side, somewhat at a loss. "I don't see him a whole lot, honestly. Weird stuff's been poppin' up all 'round the county," he said and immediately held up a hand, "-and I won't tell you any specifics, so don't even ask." Kyle's hand fell, resting habitually at his utility belt. "He's been checkin' things out himself, so he's spread kinda thin."

Her fingers clutching around the handles, she only thought of Papa downing his coffee in the diner. To whatever it is Kyle saw in her face, he added, "He knows what he's doin', Maks."

"I just-" she started to say, but whatever words she had wanted eluded her, staying tangled in her chest. "We don't see him as much, lately."

Kyle gently sighed. "We usually have opposite shifts, but I'll keep an eye on him when I can."

Maka nodded, grateful. "Take care of yourself out there."

"Hey, you too, you know."

"I know."

He reached forward and squeezed her elbow, briefly helping support the weight of the file box in her hands. His voice went soft in that way he always had when he carefully trod personal waters. "Go on back- not even wearin' boots. Be good." He released her arm and returned to his car, gravel crunching under his tires as he drove away.

Maka balanced the file box on a hip to let herself back in the house, the weight of it pressing uncomfortably into her side. As she carried it into the kitchen, she wondered if any of this heaviness was related to the 'complaints' Papa had been looking into since mid-winter; if those went hand in hand with the incidents Kyle had mentioned; if any of the history in the files belonged to ranches whose names have been erased.

"You gonna eat or what?" Blake said from the table.

She jolted, unaware she had been standing in place, head so far away from the ground she could have breathed the stars. She took the box off her hip, suffering the handles digging into her palms instead. "I'm gonna put this in his office. Be right back."

In lieu of juggling the damned thing again just to hit the light switch, Maka blindly scooted the box on her father's formidable desk. Off to the side, the silhouette of Mama's prized saddle lurked, deathly still, and for a brief moment Maka experienced a ghost-memory of writhing, tangled things.

She strode out the room and shut the door securely behind her.

\\

 

At half-past too-damned-late, she groggily slid open her bedroom window.

"If you had you a cell-phone there wouldn't be a problem," Patti said from below.

Maka scrubbed at her eyes and squinted at the dark shapes on the lawn. "Pat?" she croaked through a cotton-filled mouth. "Whaddya wan- What are you doing here?" she hissed, higher thought-processes returning to her. "Who's that with you?"

Any lingering drowsiness she may have retained from waking up at two in the morning snapped away at the sound of a low, "It's me."

Her hand flew to her disheveled hair, trying to flatten it into something less like a rat's nest. Then, upon the realization she was wearing only a thin camisole and panties, slid an arm across her chest and prayed the two down below were just as night-blind as she was. "What's going on?"

Soul called back, "Jus' git down here, Rapunzel."

So he remembered that, did he? She huffed, turning away from the window and refusing to feel flustered at this hour. More importantly, why had Patti been spirited away to Angel's End in the middle of the night? A handful of non-encouraging scenarios played out in her head as she pulled on some cotton shorts and a worn sweatshirt.

Crona yawned while watching her move about the room. He lazily made his way to the doggy door after she popped the window screen and quietly leaned it against a wall. Maka swung her legs out the window with practiced ease.

Below, Soul stumbled over his surprise. "Wait, what're you-"

"She's fine, she does it all the time."

Now with her reputation at stake, Maka was more careful than necessary as she slid across the slanted porch roof and lowered herself down her usual post, Crona beating her to the finish line. Her lack of height when standing next to the ranch hand was that much more apparent without her boots. "I've ...had practice," she muttered to his tall shadow just as Patti crushed the air from Maka's lungs.

"Oof," she wheezed, and then she caught Patti's familiar scent and her self-consciousness evaporated. She hugged the girl back just as fiercely, belated burning apologies erupting from her in an endless stream.

"I'm so sorry for everything, I wasn't thinking-"

Patti held tight, voice muffled against Maka's shoulder. "I'm glad you run her off."

"I made it worse, I was just so mad-"

"It's all good 'cause she'll never step foot here again."

Maka held the girl at arm's length, trying to get a good look at her face in the dark. "But how'd you even get here? Did you drive?"

"Uh, well…"

"Nope," Soul answered for her, growling. "This lil' idiot walked here."

Whisper-screeching at each other on the porch and potentially giving away Patti's presence wasn't going to do the girl any favors, so Maka quietly opened the back door and grabbed her boots from the tray so they could conveniently argue elsewhere.

There was already a campfire started in front of the guest house, which helped ward the wet spring chill. Taking his usual seat in that awful lawn chair, Soul glowered into the flames, hunched forward like a disgruntled old man.

"I sed I was sorry," Patti insisted, snuggling closer to Maka on the porch, patting her legs for Crona to join them. They lounged against a support beam, and having the girl's arms wrapped around her midsection was more therapeutic than Maka had anticipated.

"If you wanted to come over, you should've called," she chastised.

"I didn't wanna wake up the whole dang house. And don't you say 'text Blake', 'cause he's bein' sucha mule's ass I don't wanna even look at him!" Patti rubbed the bottom of Crona's chin and added, petulant, "It's not like it's far."

"Coulda called here," Soul said, thumbing to his front door. "You know I woulda got you."

Patti scoffed. "I don't wanna wake you up neither- you're grumpy and you don't sleep enough in the first place."

Soul's started up those long-blinks in earnest, highlighted by the fire. "I sleep just fine," he hedged. "And anyhow, that's near on seven miles-"

"So?!" Pat challenged back.

Soul's sigh sounded well-used to this type of conversation. "I know you can handle yourself, but what were you plannin' to do if coyotes found you?"

"Uhg, God-"

"What if some creep drove by?"

"We're in the middle of nowhere! You're startin' to sound like Wesley."

"If that's what it takes to put a thought in your damned head. What if you-"

"Keep yer 'ifs' to yerself! I'm here ain't I?"

Maka hugged Patti to herself more tightly -- a warning squeeze to simmer down. Quietly, she said, "What about snakes."

There was a frog-chirping silence, the campfire occasionally popping as Patti squirmed uncomfortably. "It's too early for snakes," she murmured, though the fight in her had fled.

"What about snakes, Pat?"

Patti's head landed lightly on Maka's shoulder in remorse. Without any further argument, she conceded. "I'll call stupid Black Star next time."

Soul looked up through swirling clouds of woodsmoke and asked Maka a gentle, unsure question with his eyes. The idea of answering him touched the edge of her heart, and for a single moment she harbored the sick temptation to forcefully wring the story out of her bones and be done with it.

Marrow heavy and aching, she looked away.

Eventually Patti said, "You know, if I lived here I wouldn't hafta call no one."

"I thought you wanted to live with Liz?" Maka replied.

"It's not that I don't… but I don't."

"Paaaat."

The girl waved a hand around, swatting away Maka's testy voice. "I love Lizzy n'all, but she's livin' with Wesley. I don't wanna get all mucked up in their, you know, breedin'."

A few feet away, Soul's lawn chair gave an unhealthy creak as the cowboy suffered a fit of coughing. Maka clamped a hand over her own mouth to trap the noise that nearly escaped.

"I swear it, were Sis a mare she'd be in season every day-"

"I don't need to be hearin' that," Soul complained, looking queasy.

Patti griped back, "Well me neither!" She gently bumped Maka in the stomach with her elbow, knocking her for shaking the both of them around with her stifled laughter. "What're you gigglin' about- them two's the same as bein' next to Sue and Calf Fries all night. But worse."

Caught between a groan and a laugh, this became the worst possible time for Maka to recall all the things Patti's sister had revealed about bullriders in the bedroom. She tried to cover as much of her face as possible with her palm, as if that would somehow help facilitate pretending an ex-bullrider wasn't ten feet from her.

"For sake of my sanity," Soul started, brushing off his shirt as though the conversation had bucked him into the dirt, "I'll pretend you're exagger-"

"I ain't."

"...Even so, I'm sure livin' with Liz'd be better'n where you're at now."

"S'not like I gave up or nothin'," she said, absently rucking up Crona's fur to give him a tiny, full-body mohawk. "I talked to yer lawyer-friend, even."

Maka finally uncovered her mouth. "Good! How'd that go?"

Patti knocked her boots together a moment before stating, "I gotta crush on 'im."

Soul choked on what may have been the entire atmosphere. "He's my age, Pat!"

"Yeeaah, he's a 'lil younger than I'd like but he's goin' gray early."

"Tell me you're pullin' my leg again."

"He gave me his number, case I got dirt on Tina," Pat said, completely ignoring Soul with a broad smile. "Didja know he actually answers the phone with 'Mortimer'? For true. I call him Morty. He hates it."

"Y-you… Maka. Talk some sense into that one!"

Patti turned her head and looked up at Maka, expectant.

"I'm glad he's still in his twenties, Pat, but please behave yourself."

The girl saluted before sticking her tongue out at Evans.

"And call him 'Mister Kidman' for Pete's sake," Soul grumbled.

"I'd still rather live here, though." Patti then shifted, startling Crona while she turned in Maka's arms and earnestly stared at her in the flickering firelight. "Donchu hire nobody, okay? She can't tell me what to do when I turn eighteen, and I'm sure Mitch is spoilin' his horse rotten, and you don't even gotta pay me-"

"Whoa, whoa, I-" Maka stalled, overwhelmed and consciously avoiding the fact that hiring anyone else for the outfit was not even close to being a financial possibility in the first place. "You should just concentrate on graduating for right now, Pat," she said, and then felt very much like an accidental echo of her father. "Besides, are you sure you wanna share a room next door to 'Calf Fries'?"

Patti made a face. She pointed to the guest house. "I'll move in out here."

"Like hell," Soul laughed.

"You can move in with her," the girl countered, tipping her head at Maka.

Aghast, he spat, "Do what?"

Maka hoped her voice wasn't too revealing when she said, "P-Papa would shoot him the moment he walked in."

"Fiiiine," Patti said, an arm draped dramatically over her eyes. "I'll live in the stables."

Soul teased the girl about turning into a horse if she stayed in there any longer than usual in his gruff, brotherly way. Maka smiled along with their silly banter, even if only outwardly; the familiar sting of dread occupied most of her thoughts.

If Angel's End was close to going under, no matter how much she may want Pat moving in, taking another person under their roof may only make the situation worse. What would Spirit say about Patti living here? Maka supposed she would have to find time to speak with him in the first place -- he seemed so busy and exhausted as of late that she wasn't confident she'd be able to find a way to wedge in a conversation.

It was then, as her mind wandered inevitably to that ominous file box Kyle had dropped off, silent red and blue flashing lights outshone the campfire and lit up the guest house. The three of them squinted and shielded their eyes as a police cruiser parked next to Soul's truck.

Still on duty, Spirit Albarn stepped out of his car and gave Patti a pointed look under his hat. The girl clung to Maka even more tightly. "Nobody's home," the girl said, ineffectively trying to hide. Maka lightly thwapped her on the head as Soul left his chair by the fire and joined them all on the porch.

"Heard you'd been kidnapped, Pat," said Spirit.

"She's full of manure," Patti nearly snarled back.

The sheriff handled the comment with the familiarity of several years' worth of continued exposure to her disregard for tact. "It's past yer curfew."

Standing and brushing dust from her jeans, Patti said, "Why're you here anyway? She kin find me herself if she wanted to."

"Miss Thompson has a curfew same as you. She don't intend on breakin' any rules, you know that."

As Spirit led the grumbling horse wrangler to his cruiser (Let's get goin' little cayuse.[6]), Maka stood and lifted Crona in her arms. Perhaps Patti's visit hadn't been a homesickness-induced social call after all. It appeared Soul had reached a similar conclusion, as just before the sheriff shut the car door he called, "Don't be raisin' hell, Pat."

The solid thunk of the door being secured had a kind of finality to it that Maka didn't enjoy. The sheriff was somewhat of a stranger she had only heard about second-hand -- someone respected and admired for deeds she knew next to nothing about. He was in his uniform so often now, and as she watched him walk around the cruiser, utility belt clacking with every step, Maka felt the frog-chirping night with such a pained, encroaching loneliness that she almost called out for him.

Her father sat in the driver's seat and gave an update over the police radio. As he buckled his seatbelt, he wore an unreadable expression as he glanced at Soul (who shifted uncomfortably) before softening his gaze for Maka. "I'll see you in the mornin', sweets," he told her before shutting his own door.

Dispirited, Maka waved one of Crona's paws in goodbye. As the cruiser reversed down the driveway, she could only think it was already morning.

 

Chapter Text

Soul crossed his arms and leaned against the closest support beam, eyes still trained where Spirit’s police cruiser had disappeared down the driveway. “Don’t suppose she’s tryin’ to sabotage her momma’s parole, do you?” he asked.

“I was wondering the same thing,” said Maka. She resituated Crona in her arms. Maybe she ought to get her own cellphone, like Patti said. At least then she might have a better chance of keeping track of the girl, and maybe curb any wild ideas Patti concocted just to get away from her mother.

With a quiet sigh, Soul finally looked away and down his shoulder to her. “You should get back to bed. This one’s ‘bout ready to pass out,” he said, one hand reaching over to rub the top of the dog’s head with a single finger.

“Mm.” That was likely her cue to leave, but the unease in Maka’s heart felt just a little bit protected by the firelight here. Soul didn’t seem to be in a particular rush to get to bed, either -- Crona was heavy-lidded as he thoroughly enjoyed the ranch hand’s attention. “Though,” she said, nodding her chin toward the eastern sky, “is it even worth going back to sleep at this point?” The night was already bleeding into murky, pre-dawn grey, the horizon seeking the sun.

Soul took one look at the sky and donned that grumpy old man scowl. Re-crossing his arms, he said, “In my experience, not really.”

“Pat said something about you not sleeping enough.” Maka leaned forward to get a better look at his face. “You are up an awful lot.”

“S’not that bad, now,” he said, shrugging and avoiding her gaze. “Didn’t sleep a whole lot back when I met Pat. Was knee-deep in the phys’cal therapy, jus’ broke up with my ex… S’pose I weren’t at my most friendly.”

Shocked that now, of all times, he’d mention the smallest hint of his personal life he’d so doggedly avoided the other day, Maka took a moment to rub her hand along Crona’s back and wonder why Soul had given her the privilege of hearing it. “Well. You seem to sleep under trees just fine.”

He snorted so much like his horse that it made her laugh. Soul drawled, “Now, listen-”

“I won’t,” she said, chin high as she took her leave and stepped off the porch with Crona still in her arms. “Go get your beauty sleep, I’m not gonna go easy on you at practice today.”

“Uh, remind me again which of us is the student?” he said behind her, then muttered, “Beauty sleep?”

“Oh, right,” she said before she got any farther, turning around to face him. And she found Soul watching her with an open kind of attentiveness that felt akin to the firelight; something trusting there that in turn inspired a little bit of it in herself. A smile sneaked across her face as she asked, “What’s you at your ‘most friendly,’ anyway?”

Soul Evans’s eyebrows attempted to disappear under his bandana before one side of his mouth twitched, sly. “Have I called your dog a rat today?”

She hugged the chihuahua a little higher against her chest, narrowing her eyes. “N-not that I know of.”

Pushing off the beam, Soul turned around and walked to the front door of the house. “Friendly,” he said, matter-of-fact.

Maka scoffed. “You sure set that standard real high, Evans,” she called back. He didn’t reply, but he tilted his face down as he walked through the door, wearing a cheesy grin.

\\

She had every intention of trying for a small nap’s worth of additional sleep by the time she hoofed it all the way back to the main house, but when she silently oozed through the back door and into the kitchen, she was face to face with Tsubaki sitting at the table, tucking into a stack of pancakes that was a least a hand high.

There was a moment when the both of them shared identical deer-in-headlights impersonations, but smearing a gratuitous amount of peanut butter on the top of the stack became the more pressing matter for Tsubaki. “I wanted hotcakes,” she said defensively.

“Nmrgh,” Maka replied, putting Crona on the floor and taking off her boots before she shuffled to the coffee maker instead of up the stairs like she’d hoped. “It’s the fact that you’re eating them in the dark. Are you a creature of the night, now?”

“The stove light’s on,” Tsubaki said, as if that justified anything. She reached down to one side and helped Crona into her lap. “You sure were out late.”

“Nmrgh,” Maka said again and flipped on the overhead lights without remorse. “Don’t start. Also, it’s more accurate to say I was up early.” She shoved a filter into the coffee maker’s basket.

Still squinting unhappily at ruthless kitchen fluorescence, Tsubaki cut through the stack of pancakes with the side of her fork with a morbid kind of intensity. “Early morning dance lessons?” she asked, and Maka slowly turned to face her, clutching the can of coffee grounds in abject horror.

“Who t- Nevermind. It's not worth asking.” She kept forgetting about the inevitable grapevine of Soul to Black Star to Tsubaki, and could only imagine that mistaken sixteen-step practice incident must've tickled Blake Strickland to death. “It wasn't anything practice, Pat walked all the way out here at about two o'clock, throwing pebbles at my window.”

Tsubaki paused with the fork halfway to her mouth. “What.”

“Exactly,” said Maka, turning back to the coffee maker and measuring grounds. Tsubaki made a noise that Maka typically heard when the manager wanted to stab something with a letter opener. “Soul and I gave her a good talking-to. She promised to text Black Star if she wanted a ride next time.”

“...I'll let him know,” Tsubaki said, her eyes rapidly darting back and forth as she considered the situation, food forgotten. “Did you take her back home, or is she still around?”

Remembering the finality of Spirit's car door trapping Patti behind a thick window, Maka's guilt over having caused the girl to lose her job resurfaced with a vengeance. “Tina called the police and Papa came and picked her up.”

Tsubaki didn’t speak a long while, and it wasn’t until the coffee started dripping into the carafe that Maka heard the woman quietly say, “Times like this I really miss Mrs. Albarn,” sounding as lost as Maka felt.

\\

Walking into the vet to pick up some heartworm and flea preventatives for Crona, Maka’s worst case scenario appeared in the form of a woman holding up a smartphone and snapping a picture of an advertisement on the veterinary’s community cork board.

Cristina Thompson, the tendons at the backs of her heels looking raw from the pair of shiny dress flats she wore, did not notice Maka enter. But then Kimberly called out from behind the counter, “You didn’t get your shifts messed up again, didja?”

At this, Tina looked over and recognized Maka. Maka imagined a quick dozen scenarios in which she took this moment to deck Liz and Pat’s mother in her snide, condescending face, but none of the fantasies had a good ending. Every ounce of her blood screaming for justice, Maka looked away without saying a word to the older woman, and approached the counter. “Just here for the monthly chews,” she said to Kim, her smile straining like a too-tight shirt.

She heard footsteps and the hiss of chilly, conditioned air escaping around the shutting door as Tina took her exit. Maka busied herself with pulling her wallet out her back pocket to pay for the chews, and Kim said, “I take it y’all know each other.”

Maka froze with her debit card in hand, eyes wide. “Um.”

“We’re both vets, here, Maka. I seen a catfight before.”

Embarrassed she’d been exposed so immediately, she admitted, “I was trying really hard to hold back, though.”

Kim appeared exceptionally amused by the admission, taking the card and swiping it at the register. “That’s good, ‘coz if that’s you holdin’ back, I don’t wanna see what holdin’ it forward’s like,” she said as the receipt printed.

Maka held her head in shame for a breath before signing her name. Looking back at the billboard, she saw a new advertisement pinned to it, a picture of the lost calf they’ve been running tests on centered in the middle. “We have… a history. What’s that ad for?”

The other woman looked up from stapling shut the top of the paper bag containing the chews. “Auction.”

“Already?” Maka asked, wondering why Tina Thompson had any interest in such a thing.

“All them tests were negative, weren’t they? Can’t keep it in quarantine anymore, but we can’t afford a mascot, neither,” said Kim, handing her the bag.

\\

An onslaught of continuous downpours had turned every low point of Angel’s End into muddy swampland. Most of Maka’s time on the ranch was spent taking care of messy hooves while simultaneously glowering at muddy horses she couldn’t brush until the weather cleared up.

The best she could do to curb her compulsive need to keep the horses clean was try to unearth Skully’s bald face from under his mud mask -- she had a hunch he covered it every day just for the extra attention.

Soul did his share to help care for the horses, especially while Maka was away at the vet, though he was missing when she came home on a soggy Sunday evening. It was evident he had done his job earlier that day -- his horse’s hock freshly dressed -- but the ranch hand didn’t pop out from the shadows to scare her as she made her rounds.

Rain pelted loudly on the metal roof of the barn, and Maka actually caught herself searching for his quiet companionship. She blamed this moment of weakness on being eager to get more roping practice in before the competition in July; it felt more acceptable to notice his absence if he was reduced to a simple requirement for one of her goals.

After wiping down Skully’s face (and getting a maneful of mud painted on her in return), she trudged through the waterlogged grass to the house. She attempted to pry off thick, caked-on clay from her shoes with the boot scrubber before eventually surrendering them to the tray in defeat.

In some doubtlessly dirt-defiled bathtub in the house, Blake Strickland was belting out Dolly Parton in the bathroom. The quiet sounds of Tsubaki chopping vegetables in the kitchen managed to filter through the din, so Maka peeled off her muddy button-down and threw it in the wash, heading to the kitchen in her cleaner undershirt to help prepare supper.

But, as she found out, it was Mifune who was deftly slicing onions; Tsubaki was evidently upstairs, talking to someone.

As Maka passed by the stairwell, she heard the general manager say, “Absolutely not.”

The voice that followed was one Maka had known since birth, able to pick it out in a crowd of hundreds. “I’d like if you’d see it as... somethin’ for Mother’s Day. It’d be put t’better use with the three a’you.”

There was an airy, dizzying lurch behind Maka’s ribs, and it was then she noticed too many hand-picked wildflowers shoved into a repurposed peanut butter jar that sat in the kitchen window: Blake’s gift to the soon-to-be mother of their child.

A biting, acidic guilt choked her bloodstream as she was plagued by the fear that this was what it felt like to ‘move on’, because if it was, she wanted nothing to do with it. Without her knowledge, the holiday had quietly rolled in with the rain, and it was distressing to realize she hadn’t once thought of her mother today. Was four years all it took to be the daughter who forgot?

It was morbid interest that made Maka stiffly peek, transfixed, around the banister. She looked up the flight to see the shadowy edge of her father in profile, for once not dressed in uniform.

Tsubaki was mostly out of sight, little more than a stomach and the waterfall of her ponytail off the front of her shoulder, her fingers knotting together as she fretfully spoke. “This is your house. We only work here.”

“You’re practically runnin’ the place, so it’d be your room anyhow,” he softly replied. “Now listen, Sue. That room’s too big for one man, an’ I’m hardly home as it is.”

Tsubaki’s hands inched up, covering her mouth. “No. That’s yours, Spirit -- yours and Mrs. Albarn’s,” she struggled to say, voice thick behind her fingers. “It’s not right for me to--”

Maka watched as a subtle cloud passed underneath her father’s skin, a ghost in the forest of his crow’s feet and five-o’clock shadow. And yet he smiled through it with ease enough to provoke a yearning jealousy.

“Everythin’ in this house was hers, Tsubaki,” Papa said, reaching out and giving a mellow pat to an arm. “Even you. Jus’ give it some thought.”

There was no reply save a wet sniffle. With that, Spirit left the general manager to collect herself, and turned to make his way down the stairs. When he saw Maka still lurking around the end of the banister, his steps slowed just the slightest.

Though the ‘Sheriff’ was a mystery to her, she knew this man in faded jeans and pearl snaps, familiar hand sliding down the railing. So when a high-pressured, belligerent part of her wanted to strike at him for daring to overwrite a piece of the past, she swallowed it down and buried it, because Spirit Albarn was the only one who’d loved Mama longer than she had.

“Evenin’ sweets,” he said.

She sucked a breath into her stiff lungs. “Hi, Papa,” she replied, turning around and walking mechanically to the kitchen sink to wash her hands. Objectively, she recognized that her constricted throat over this was purely a matter of reflex. Tsubaki and Blake would be much better off in the master bedroom; she sort-of wished she had thought of it herself. It’s something Mama would have done.

Spirit still felt the echo of Suzanne’s absence from every stone, tile, and beam, but he never seemed to go crazy with it, only plodding unerringly forward. And as much as Maka longed to hear her mom singing Jolene in the shower, she might want this gift even more.

She felt rusted in place, an abandoned tool stuck in a field as the stars hung silently overhead an incomprehensible distance away.

\\

Her legs ached from another disappointing session of ‘less sucky’ horsemanship lessons, and she gingerly rubbed her thumbs into her thighs while waiting out the rest of her lunch break at the diner.

She sat alone in the booth, watching condensation bead on the outside of her iced tea. Hank Williams wheedled over the diner’s outdated speakers before he was casually interrupted by an announcement about another tornado watch. The majority of the diner’s patrons hardly acknowledged it.

“Frito pie to go,” Liz said, sliding a styrofoam takeout container across the table before sitting in the booth next to Maka. “And here’s last Sunday’s paper. What’re you lookin’ for?”

Maka carved ‘papa’ into the lid of the container with the edge of her thumbnail. “I wanna get a cellphone. I’m away from home often enough that I think I oughtta have one,” she said, not mentioning if she didn’t establish another form of communication with Patti, Maka feared the next time she heard anything from her would be after the girl up and eloped with a horse. Or ‘Morty’.

Liz pulled a compact mirror out of her serving apron, peering into it while she attempted to tame the humidity-frizzed wisps of hair that had escaped her ponytail. “I’m payin’ a hundred, but that’s for me and Pat, both. Texting, data, and all that.”

Maka winced, looking through a glossy advertisement insert. “Maybe I’ll train carrier pigeons instead.”

“Betcha could get a deal on Memorial Day. Everyone’s got specials on then.” Liz snapped her compact shut with a sigh, stuffing it back in her apron. “I’d help ya look, but I got work and then I’m goin’ to Wes’s parents’ place that day.”

“Mm,” Maka replied absently, flipping another page in the ad. “I’m going, too.”

“What?”

“What?”

Liz placed a warm hand on Maka’s forearm, urgent. “I didn’t know you were goin’! Lord, is that a relief.” She smiled brightly, her face a blue-eyed southern dream in her halo of gold hair. “Why didn’t you tell me,” she laughed.

Dumbfounded by Liz’s sheer elation, Maka could only helplessly stare back. “Uh, I figured Wes would’ve told you?”

At this, the older blonde made a moue. “He’s told me nothin’ ‘bout it, other than he ‘really, really, really, really’ wants me to be there,” she said with a huff. Looking off to the side, she added, “…Even so, I was thinkin’ about not goin’.”

Maka traced her fingers on the outside of her tea glass. Why was it anytime Wes was involved, she felt like a cog in a mysterious machine? She had no love for being a tool for him to use, but Liz looked so comforted by the prospect of not going alone that Maka failed to grasp what the right thing to do was. “Because of Ruth?” she asked.

Liz made an indecisive noise with her lips, tapping her blunt nails on the table. “Yes an’ no? Like, I’m more’n used to people not likin’ me -- that’s not groundbreakin’ news. Wes loves her though, so it... rips him up, you know? He ain’t used to bein’ mad at her. I don’t wanna cause that.”

“Well he should be mad,” Maka shot back. “I’m mad too for anyone thinking you’re some rodeo groupie after his money --”

“Maks,” Liz said, “it’s not like she’s wrong. You and I both know I was after a rich ticket to get me and Pat outta the sticks.”

Maka balked at this, shifting and grumbling in the booth. “Well, that's not the situation anymore, is it? It's obvious you care about him.

Liz laughed. “Yeah. My target ended up bein’ worth more’n his wallet, ‘magine that.” She slid out of the booth and stood, hands on her hips while leaning back for a stretch, but the thought of her boyfriend made her eyes soft. “Augh, I gotta get back to work.”

That lingering contentedness there reminded Maka of something Patti had said last winter, here in this very booth. “Hey. I am happy for you, by the way.”

Hand paused in the middle of fiddling with her hair again, Liz raised a brow. “Why, what happened?”

“T-the whole you and Wes thing. He seems good to you.”

Liz pressed her lips together, her cheeks threatening to pull her mouth into a wide grin. Girlish and bashful, she said, “Thanks, Maks. You better come on Memorial Day, ya hear?”

“I will. Soul’s supposed to be my ‘chauffeur’,” she replied, wry.

Striding away to seat another customer, Liz shot over her shoulder, “You have to tell me later how he asked you this time!”

Maka opened her mouth to correct her, but the words, ‘Actually, your boyfriend might have invited me to con you into going’ refused to exit her mouth, unwilling to disrupt Liz’s sudden glow of happiness. “O-okay,” she said instead, haltingly waving goodbye.

Upon realizing what she’d just said, her stomach tumbled to her toes.

\\

When she walked out the kitchen’s back door, she found him facing away from her, a radio clipped to his belt and setting up a new fence around Tsubaki’s garden patch.

As he drove a post hole digger further into the ground, Maka said, “Ask me to go with you to your family’s Memorial Day party.”

Soul came down crookedly with the tool, the twin shovels wedging in the ground at an awkward angle. Turning his head over his shoulder, he blurted a displeased, “What? as he tried to pry the shovel out of thick clay soil.

Mustering up the will to have this conversation in the first place was hard enough, and she’d halfway hoped he would just go along with it like he did with damn near everything else. “I-It’s entirely your brother’s fault, so take it up with him.”

He shot her an uncomfortable frown, turning back around and properly driving the digger back into the hole. “If it’s his fault, go bushwhack him in the middle of workin’,” he complained.

Maka sat down on the corner of one raised garden bed, crossing her arms over her chest. “Who even says that anymore,” she grumbled. “Just think of it as a favor? I mean, you pulled that on me for Easter.”

Flatly, he replied, “And just how is bringin’ you to my folks doin’ you favor?”

“Wes called me last month and asked if I could go to your family thing, ‘cause he thought Liz would feel more comfortable if I went…” Maka tapped the cinder block walls of the garden bed with the tips of her fingers, searching for the best way to word the situation that wouldn't make her feel quite so much like an idiot.

Metal scraped on loose bits of buried limestone. “...Okay?”

Slumping forward, she gave up and spewed it all out. “I saw Liz at lunch today and when I told her I was going she was surprised. She had no idea -- Wes hadn’t told her at all. Which makes no sense… Is there a moment when your brother isn’t scheming something? Because it sure feels like there isn’t,” she said in a huff.

Soul finally gave up on productivity and turned to face her, leaning on the shovel with his arms. “Prolly not, knowin’ him,” he said with a sigh, wiping sweat from his eyes with a forearm. “And? I ain’t involved in it this time, if that’s what you’re here for.”

Maka blinked. “Ah, no, I didn’t think you were…” Was she actually disheartened about this? Did the idea that he had no plans to invite her in the first place mean anything? She sat up straight, on guard for potential nonsense. “Anyway, Liz was so happy that I didn’t have the heart to tell her I was, what -- bait? Or that her boyfriend might be plotting and keeping secrets from her or whatever else I can’t fathom --”

“Waitin’ on the punchline.”

Her shoulders inched up as she forced herself to maintain eye contact. “So, when she left she said I gotta tell her how you asked me o-out,” she said, voice cracking, “and I wasn’t thinking and I just said okay.” Confession complete, Maka put her hands to her cheeks, mortified by her entire existence.

Soul jutted out his chin a bit, nodding with a weary lack of surprise as he turned back around and resumed digging. “Now lemme try’n figure this: you need me to ask you for a… for your company,” he said, emphasising that last word with a very particular stab of the shovel, “just so you ain’t lyin’ to ‘Lizabeth.”

She was staring at his shoulders and back and just about every bit of the ranch hand that faced her, so she slid her eyes away to scowl at Tsubaki’s rosemary instead. “Yessss,” she replied with a drawn-out sigh. Maka prepared for an earful of either heckling or some kind of lecture, because that’s certainly what she’d do in his place, but what she got instead was:

“S’that what you actually want?”

She looked back to him, head tilted. “What?”

Pausing in his work again, he peered over his shoulder with an expression so vague it had no name. “I mean to say, do you want to go to my folks’ place at all?”

Maka crossed one leg over the other, lacing her hands together around her knee, unsure how to respond. “...I already told Wes I would,” she said with a small shrug.

“That don’t answer my question, really.” He moved a few paces to one side and started a new hole. “Could always say no. Don’t particularly wanna make you go, if you’d rather not.”

Before she truly absorbed everything he’d said, she was already blurting, “You couldn’t make me do anything, don’t get ahead of yourself.”

Soul shook his head again and stabbed the dirt in response.

Shamefaced, Maka hastily added, “Anyway, I want to go. I… I think.”

“You think.” Stone crunched under the shovel.

She tilted her head back and groaned to the sky in frustration for having to say something as obvious as: “I already told you, I enjoyed meeting your family. I don’t think of them as… as sellouts, anymore.” Soul only continued to dig, which was fortuitous because Maka’s face would likely pass for a pepper right about now. “So I do wanna go, I just don’t know what your brother’s trying to pull. And I still don’t understand why I was invited last time.”

“Fair,” said Soul. He dug for a spell, long enough that she began to think he was simply done talking to her. But he did stop, catching his breath and wiping sweat off his brow again, and then with an uncertain pause, Soul held the tool in her direction just the slightest bit.

If anything, that hesitance felt like a challenge. She stood and took the post hole digger from him, though once it was in her hands, she realized hers were very bare. “Um. Got any spare gloves?” she asked as they switched places, and the moment the question left her mouth, she already knew the answer -- there was a pair tucked in his belt, next to the radio.

He slid these free and offered them without commenting on how oversized they were for her hands, which was likely because of her steely glare daring him to try. They were ungainly, but the task was simple enough for the gloves to not be a real hindrance. Maka got to work while Soul took her seat at the garden bed.

Taking off his own gloves and tossing them at his feet, he grabbed a half-drained bottle of water he’d stashed in the shade of the garden. “Don’t know what he’s thinkin’ this time, but I’ll tell you ‘bout Easter,” he said, and took a drink.

Maka brought the shovels into the ground with a well-practiced shove. “He said it was revenge, but what’d that have to do with me?”

Tilting his head to the side, his lips pulled back in a lazy kind of snarl. “Jus’ to give me hell. Ma and Wes both’re always pullin’ stunts to find me a woman and you got drug into it.” Maka steamed under her ballcap while he rubbed the back of his neck. “Sorry. Any case, that weren’t the whole reason. Evidently Wes wanted Gran to meet you.”

“Because... I’m Spirit’s daughter and friends with Liz?” she asked, lifting loose dirt from the hole and dumping it aside. With the dip of his hat in confirmation, everything about that fact made her feel as much of a tool as the one in her hands. “I understand what he wants to happen, but why’s he have to use people to do it?”

“Doesn’t mean any harm or nothin’,” said Soul, leaning forward in his signature slouch to rest elbows on knees, empty bottle in one hand and gesturing with it. “But he tends to only do things when it suits hisself. May be my brother, but I don’t like it much, either.”

Maka took a moment to exert some gratifying violence on a hard lump of clay. “I don’t get it. Wes doesn’t really seem like the type to let someone else’s opinion stop him. It’s not like he’s gonna stop dating Liz just ‘cause Ruth doesn’t like it.”

She didn’t think what she’d said was funny, but Soul laughed outright, chin tucked down until all she could see was the top of his hat. “That much is true. Still, can’t fault somebody wantin’ approval from one they love, n’all. Because it’s Gran is the whole point.”

This notion stung her swiftly and unexpectedly; pausing in her work, she recalled what Liz said about Wes’s struggle with Ruth and how it tore him up. This in turn brought up other things, like Blake Strickland thanking a fresh grave for being at his wedding, like how, conversely, Maka still sought the approval of someone who could no longer give it. It was simple and second-nature to imagine the heartbreak one could have if someone they respected died before ever giving their blessing -- the weight of that finality.

Maka finished off the post hole and straightened an oversized glove that had twisted in her effort. Searching nearby for any kind of marking to begin another hole, she asked, “What’s next?”

“That’s it?” he asked, incredulous.

His tone of voice made her testy on principle. “What’s it?”

He gave her a look so dry the garden might wither away. Soul pointed the butt-end of the water bottle in her direction and said, “You gave me such a hell ‘bout askin’ you to Easter, but Wes manipulatin’ you-- us -- so’s he can bring Liz around an’ start drama-- That’s it?”

“You’re the one who said I couldn’t fault him! So I won’t,” she said, applying his own Evans-esque logic used to avoid confrontation. Maka couldn’t stop herself from leaning away from the judgement of that bottle; the subject matter had brushed too close to the sore parts in her and she didn’t want to think about it anymore.

“So you’re fine with it.”

“W-well, no, obviously.” Her hands attempted to crush the handles of the post holer. “But Liz is my friend, and I want to help if I can. And... maybe punch your brother.”

He laughed again at that. And either he intended on showing her his face without the hat brim in the way, or he simply didn’t realize he was smiling and forgot to hide it, but Soul looked up at her with a crooked kind of grin and said, “Wanna go to Memorial Day with me?”

She was unsure if he said it only to humor her or for reasons additional to her request. She was, however, grateful to already be flushed from exertion if he happened to note the heat crawling up her neck. “Yes,” she said, mirroring that smile despite herself.

If anyone’s around,” said a voice from Soul’s belt, “I think I found somethin’ y’all should come see.”

The ranch hand leaned to one side and pulled the radio from its clip. “What’s goin’ on, Mitch?”

Northwest tank. There’s… a growth.”

\\

Blake, Maka, Mifune, and Soul sat atop their horses side by side, looking over the rounded edge of the stock pond.

“Dare ya to jump in it,” said Black Star, his horse stretching its neck at the wide expanse of something that could nearly pass for neon green covering the water’s surface.

Maka’s guts roiled at the thought, and she brought the collar of her shirt up over her nose and mouth. A foamy, foul-stenched fungus she’d never seen before had contaminated the pond. “You can go right ahead. How long has it been like this?” she wondered aloud.

“Just moved my camper out here but two days ago,” Mifune said, hands resting on the horn of Cow’s saddle. A ways from the opposite edge of the stock pond, his vintage airstream sat parked and gleaming in the midday sun, not far from the fence Soul and Maka had repaired weeks ago. “Looked the same as always. No idea how it got like this in that kinda time.”

Far less talkative than earlier today, Soul slouched lazily atop Harley, entire face darkened by the low shadow of his hat. His eyes never left the bright green of the pond, countenance so stony that his horse kept touching the left stirrup with her nose to get any kind of signal from her rider.

It was Blake who pointed out the elephant in the pasture, leaning back to talk around Maka and Mifune. “You seen this afore, Soul?”

The ranch hand kept Harley’s reins slack in his grasp, but his gloved thumb worried them with enough pressure that leather audibly creaked. Voice flat, he said, “We oughtta check the other tanks. The creek, too.”

\\