A/N: I KNOW I KNOW IT'S BEEN FOREVER. I still exist, I've just had some things go down in life. Long story, doesn't matter. Anyway, this year I decided to participate in the newly-minted Reverb 2015, along with my lovely partner Kona, who drew art for this piece. Enjoy!
There weren't many green places near Death City, and Maka wouldn't settle for anything but a green place. Spirit had tried plying her with the Mojave Preserve, and even Death Valley National Park, but his little desert-dweller wouldn't have any of it.
"I want to see a forest," Maka said, tugging on his black coat.
He bent down to pick up his little pigtailed daughter, slinging her onto his hip. She was getting just a little too big for it, but he never complained.
"Little Angel, don't you remember that pretty wildflower field in Death Valley? Green for miles and miles!"
Maka kicked her feet gently against him. "That's a field. I mean a forest, like the one in The Last Unicorn, or the one in Where the Wild Things Are, or Tarzan, or Call of the Wild -"
"All right, all right, I get it. I should have known better than to teach you to read," Spirit sighed as he walked over the crackled cobblestones of Death City. The sun chuckled overhead and he felt a bead of sweat lace its way past his red hair and down his temple. They could probably do with a change of scenery, after all.
When Maka whined to be put down, he let her, though she immediately laced her hand back into his. The warm glow of pride flickered in him when he looked down at her. His daughter, smartest girl in her primary studies class and only a few lessons behind young Black Star in practical training. Spirit grit his teeth. That little blue-haired twerp. Six years old or not, the kid got on his nerves. If he weren't so fond of Sid, he'd have put the hyperactive ball of kinetic energy in an extended time-out ages ago. No one showed up his Maka, especially when she got a shine in her eye.
He felt a tug on his hand and turned to find that same shine trained firmly on the front window of Death Robbins, where a pair of kids licked around large ice cream cones.
With a smile, Spirit said, "You still like strawberry this week?"
Maka wrinkled her nose and shook her head hard enough to make her hair whip back and forth. "No, ick. Chocolate chip?"
After he presented her with her cone and they sat on the bench to eat, he cleared his throat.
"Maka, did you keep track of how long we were at the library?"
"Um-hm," she answered around her ice cream. "Two hours and twelve minutes."
Spirit flinched. The kid was smart, all right. Smart and observant.
He took a bite of his own cone. "I think, sweetie, that Mama might not like that we stayed there so long."
Maka paused and looked up. "Why not, Papa?"
"Well." He scratched the back of his head. "Mama thinks you should be outside more."
"Shyah, that's what I've been saying, like in a forest," Maka said. "I'd be outside lots then."
"Right, right. Well, I was thinking that it might be better when we get home if you let Mama think we went walking to the fountain park, then to ice cream. We don't have to let her know we spent so much time in the dark library, okay? She'll feel better then."
Maka tilted her head and regarded her Papa while Spirit tried to keep his face pleasantly passive. Sweat rolled down one of the tendons of his neck and he could feel the ghost of lips tracing along behind it. He swallowed.
"Okay," Maka said, turning back to her treat. "I don't want Mama to worry."
Spirit let his breath out. "Good," he said. "That's good."
The finished their snack and walked the rest of the way home. Maka regaled him with the latest book she'd devoured at the library - something about cataracts? Or tesseracts? He wasn't sure. There was a giant brain, that much he knew. It reminded him of something.
With a shudder, he chased all thoughts of his creepy old partner from his head. Stein had been before Riyu's time, but even with a new partner, the scars and jitters lingered.
The door to their apartment banged open as Maka leveled her latest kick at it and Riyu was waiting just inside to scoop her into a hug. Another mother probably would have scolded her daughter, told her to act more ladylike. Not Riyu. Riyu was raising a warrior, and warriors knew how to kick doors in.
"What's on your face?" Maka's mother asked, running a thumb beneath her daughter's bottom lip. "Did Papa take you for ice cream at three o'clock?"
"Yeah," Maka said. "Don't be mad, Mama, I promise I'll still eat supper."
Riyu put her hands on her hips and slung a dish towel over her shoulder, a move that was deceptively domestic when you didn't know she could just as easily kill you with that same towel. "I certainly hope so, or else Papa's in big trouble." Her tone was teasing, the smile playing at her flower petal lips light, but when she turned her eyes on Spirit, there was a flicker of something else there.
She cleared her throat. "What did you two do this afternoon? Besides eat ice cream before supper?"
"The park," Spirit volunteered, painting on his easy smile and slouching against the breakfast bar.
Maka nodded. "The one with the fountains, and we walked around the city and it was sooooo hot, and we went to the library, too."
Riyu pulled the towel off her shoulder and went back to drying the glasses she'd been washing when they came in.
"The library," she repeated. Chestnut brown bangs fell over her eyes, hiding them from view. "Did you stay there long?"
Spirit swallowed again. Lips against his collarbone, a whisper in his ear, fingers on his chest.
Maka rocked back and forth on her heels and toes, her small body sensing the stillness in the room. "No, I just read a little book. We were outside lots after that."
The smallest tension went out of Riyu's shoulders and Spirit could breathe again.
"That sounds nice," Riyu said. "Why don't you go read some more before suppertime?"
The pair of them watched their bouncy little meister-to-be make a beeline for her bedroom, followed by rustling and shifting books as she selected her pre-meal reading.
Riyu polished the last glass and put it away in the cupboard before turning her tired smile to Spirit. "You were gone a long time," she said. "I worried."
In one smooth movement, he wrapped his arms about her waist and drew her in close, reaching out to brush her soul. She wasn't his meister anymore, but the sensation was as familiar as ever. Something sounded slightly off in the chiming of their souls together. They both ignored it.
Spirit brushed his lips against her ear. "I was thinking," he said. "Of requesting time off for a family trip. Maka wants to see a real forest."
"That's a bear," Maka whispered, peering through binoculars to the river far below. "Like, a real bear! Can we go closer?"
"I don't think so," Riyu laughed from the picnic blanket they'd spread across the grass.
"Why not?" Maka looked to her mother. "You could take him, Mama!"
She shook her head. "My skills aren't for hunting bears, sweetling."
Maka's disappointment was short-lived as a brilliant blue jay swooped by, teasing her with his call. "I love the forest!" the little girl laughed as she sprinted after it.
Around the edge of the cabin, she ran headlong into her Papa, who scooped her up in one fluid motion. "Where's my Little Angel running off to?"
"Can we go on another hike down to the creek?" Maka pleaded. "And can I have another story? Please?"
Her Papa put her back down and she thought he'd refuse, that he'd make another excuse to spend time with Mama (they were spending so much time together on this trip and it was boring, even if she did bring a dozen books to read). But instead, he smiled and took her by the hand, leading her down the path.
Forests were amazing. Papa had brought them to a California national park with towering sequoias and lots of fairy circles. In the morning, everything was misty and magical, just like a storybook. Walking on the undergrowth released a damp, resin-y smell that was undeniably green. There were birds of all kinds, and chipmunks, and bitty deer with black-lined tails that flicked their ears to and fro while they chewed. She'd read that there were wolves, too, but Mama and Papa wouldn't let her look for those.
As they walked down the well-worn path, stepping on stones to avoid the muddier areas, Papa started weaving a tale about wood sprites plagued by an evil witch who wanted to lure young children into the forest to eat their livers.
"And she raised an army of dead bears, just like that one you and Mama saw earlier, and they were all razor sharp teeth and hollowed out ribs. The biggest one of all had started going green with moss, and you could see his still heart right through his bones," Papa said as he balanced on a mushroom-covered log. "He loved to eat little girls especially, and pigtailed ones were his favorite!"
Maka giggled as another pair of hikers passed by them, looking positively horrified at the story her Papa told. Papa just gave them a wide grin and winked at her.
That was what she adored most about her Papa. He told her stories she wanted to hear, not sanitized bedtime fairy tales like people outside Death City told their kids to help them sleep at night. When you grow up alongside Lord Death, nothing about death is all that scary. Not really.
Well, maybe the actual dying part.
The creek burbled over the rocks just as it'd done when they'd visited before, but this time the sun shone at an angle through the trees that made the water sparkle like crystal. Maka laughed and ran along the edge, searching wildly for tiny trout and other fish. She wondered if bobcats hunted here, or baby bears.
Papa watched from a nearby rock, smiling as she tried to construct a fish hatchery out of long grass and sticks. When her muscles grew sore from digging and pulling, she soaked her bare feet in the water and he joined her.
With a yawn, she leaned against his shoulder and he wrapped an arm around her, pressing a kiss to her hair.
"You know Papa would do anything for you and Mama, don't you, Little Angel?" he murmured.
"You'd go to the moon and back," she said, sleep lilting her voice.
Maka yawned. "Lord Death knows you're the bravest, that's why he calls you to the school so often, huh?"
Papa paused in stroking her hair. "Yes, lovey. That's why."
"You and Mama, you both save lots of souls. You make the bad things go away and keep people safe."
The air was warm and sweet, wrapping Maka in a blanket that felt like home - the home in her heart, not the home in Death City. The home she shared wherever Papa and Mama were.
"You'll protect my soul," she mumbled, nodding. "Won't you?"
The water whispered at their feet.
"Yes I will," Spirit said at last. "Forever and ever."
Maka whispered. "Good."
The creek faded away into the dark, and a while later, Maka woke on the small bed she used in the cabin. The smell of sautéed noodle and egg floated through the air and drew her toward the sounds of soft laughter coming from the kitchen. Peeking around the corner, she spotted Papa with his arms wrapped around Mama from behind. They swayed slowly, circling, even as supper started to burn.
The warm glow in Maka's chest, the place where she knew her soul lived, grew bright. She believed that light would never go out.