I was talked into this, I swear. AU gold rush fic-thing for Marshofsleep and Victoriapyrrhi.

Of course none of this is mine and I stand to make zero profit by it; I will consider myself lucky if I'm not laughed off the stage, as it were.

Rating's mostly for violence at the moment.

It was a warm, sunny afternoon when the stranger showed up, but none of the mining town's occupants were inclined to pay strangers much mind: they came around often, after all, what with the town owing its existence to the California gold rush. Most of the town's residents were close to being strangers themselves, hardly settled long enough to be called residents and certainly not long enough to be called locals. They claimed that title only by virtue of the fact that they had gotten there first - to a new arrival, everyone in town was a local, and never mind the fact that none of them had been born nearby or even lived there for more than a few years.

There was nothing interesting about the stranger until one looked closely, and then the details became simply puzzling: he travelled without guards, generally accepted as essential to one's survival and continued possession of whatever valuables might be on board; said stranger, reins in hand, appeared to be the only passenger on his carriage; and, to everyone's confusion, drove said carriage right into the inn yard, declared that the stable boy could keep the cursed thing if he wanted it, and ordered his possessions taken to a room and his horses seen to with utmost care.

"They are the only members of the team I hired who have pulled their weight," the stranger said, loud enough that half the town must have heard, "and I will not see them mistreated. As I assume that this horrid conveyance of mine is of little use to you in these mountains except as firewood, I have no compunctions about paying for my room and board as is appropriate. Tell your master that if he overcharges me, I shall know it, and it would save everyone involved a great deal of trouble if he will simply extend me a fair price from the start."

With that, the stranger tossed the stable boy a coin, turned smartly, and strode across the street and into the saloon, gait as no-nonsense as his tone. The man on the saloon's porch, comfortably slouched in a rocking chair, waited for the double doors to cease swinging before he stretched and stood, laconic, joints popping. He'd watched the entire scene, noted the strangenesses of the carriage and an odd quality to the outsider's walk that he couldn't quite place, the long leather coat he wore that could have concealed a terrifying number of weapons and the low, wide-brimmed hat that hid the bulk of his features. It was hard to pretend that that kind of garb was a hallmark of dishonest or dangerous men given the general climate of California - lawless, and not inclined to succor those who entered it expecting civilization or who presented even a hint of weakness - but a good general policy was not to trust anyone in these parts, and the coat and hat and series of odd details made the stranger a thing to be examined closely, a real potential threat.

Which was why the man ambled into the saloon, located the stranger while he waited for his eyes to adjust to the building's dim interior, and sauntered over to the bar to order himself a drink once he determined that his target was currently occupying one of the barstools. He studied the traveller from under the brim of his own hat, sipping whiskey and allowing himself a thoughtful frown. The man was slim, but not what he'd call thin: a little too much muscle there, a smoothness to the other's movements that suggested skill in a fight, and that might be a problem. That build meant that the man was likely fast; the way of moving that he was agile; and the attitude that he had no compunctions about starting - and ending - a fight. Trouble was what this one was, and brash enough to travel without guards, which was alarming in and of itself. Except there hadbeen that comment over the horses, which implied that there had been other people at some point, and he wanted to know just what had brought this man here under such circumstances.

"Afternoon, stranger," he said in his best genial voice, motioning the bartender to pour a drink for the other. "What brings you to our little gold rush town?"

His question was met by a pair of analytical green eyes that stopped him halfway between moving from the stool he'd been on and one closer to his target, and the stranger looked him over head to toe without moving anything aside from his head before looking down at the glass of whiskey that the bartender brought and scoffing.

"Keep your whiskey," he said, and the other man's brow furrowed. "It is far too early in the day for spirits, and I have no time or inclination to muddle my reason with alcohol. I have come here with a purpose and the journey has been not only long but extremely trying, and I would thank you to keep our conversation short unless it happens that you have information which I need."

"Hard to know if I can help you unless you talk to me long enough to let me know what information it is you need," the man said, mouth full of sharp teeth as he grinned and grabbed the extra glass of liquor from in front of the stranger. "You a preacher, stranger? Think they're 'bout the only ones around here who would refuse a free drink, no matter the time of day."

His answer was a prim sniff. "A preacher? Hardly," the stranger said, eyes trained on the bartender as he moved about behind the bar. "Religion and I have never had much of a relationship, I'm afraid, and the preachers are more like to exorcise me than welcome me into their sanctuary."

"You'll fit right in, then," the man said, grin widening. "California is wild and lawless, and even the church is hard-pressed to keep any semblance of morality in these forsaken parts. There isa great deal of gold, however, and that can occasionally buy you civilized company. What is it that has brought you out this way all alone?"

The stranger sighed, then reached up to pull off his hat and set it on the bar, exposing brown hair caught in a braided bun, which made the other man raise a pale eyebrow. "I had hoped to speak with the proprietor of this place in order to determine how best to secure the resources I require, but I see now that he is not the man to ask, as he is foolish enough to allow his bartender to blatantly steal from him. I have come to this forsaken country looking for my father, who has been missing for some time now. I last had word of him from these parts, where he was aiming to stake himself a claim, and it would seem that his multitudinous vices have once again got the better of him."

"Hold a moment," the man said, frowning at the bartender and the stranger equally. "Stealing?"

This earned him a put-upon sigh. "I do not have the time nor inclination to explain how easily one may forge this or that in order to obtain some of one's employer's money. I require supplies, information, and guards who will not attempt to barter my life and my possessions for money. Can you assist me with these things, or shall I seek elsewhere?"

"I can help," the man said after a moment of silence, occupied as he was with staring - the stranger had turned towards him while speaking, and the coat had gaped; the movements had made visible several details he had missed, namely an attractive, fine-drawn face, even if the set to the chin was quite stubborn, and the unmistakable, however modest, lines of a female figure.

"Ma'am," he added, very belatedly, and those sharp green eyes narrowed in a way that implied a willingness to do violence.

"I hope you were not about to offer me your services as a guard or a guide," she said, gloved fingers of one hand tapping against the bar. "Such a lack of perception would do nothing but get us both killed. My name is Maka Albarn, and my father would have made himself known to you as Spirit. Have you seen him?"

"You'll have to pardon me, Miss Albarn," he said, grin growing huge and showing off the broad points of his teeth; she shifted ever so slightly. "I am not accustomed to having to look quite so hard for clues that I am speaking to a lady." This earned him an even sharper stare, and he was glad to see that Maka did not appear to be carrying a gun, because starting a shootout had not been high on his list of things to do that day. "You may call me Soul. I haven't seen your father, though I haven't been in town long. I was, until a few days ago, involved in a long-term bit of work that involved more travel than anticipated. As I am not presently employed, I can indeed offer you my services as a guard anda guide; you'll find I have a good reputation as both. As to information, if your father has vices, you would do best to inquire further down the street at the Silver Spur, where the ladies are for sale along with the drinks they serve."

Maka nodded, allowing her glare to slip in the face of helpful information. "An excellent notion, as my father's greatest weaknesses include spirits, women, and most especially buxom women who will serve him spirits. May I trouble you to remove your hat, sir? I like to see clearly the face of a man who proposes to work for me."

"Certainly," Soul said, and pulled his hat off, smirking as Maka's startled eyes took in his shock of white hair and the blood red of his eyes, put that together with his sharp teeth and gave him a puzzled, suspicious look.

"Your appearance certainly does not inspire confidence," she said, and Soul laughed.

"It's nothing to trouble yourself over," he said, and replaced his hat.

She sniffed again. "Not a concern? I am considering trusting you with my life - I think it in my best interests to be concerned with every detail I can find about you. Certainly I did not do enough digging regarding the guards I hired originally."

"About that," Soul said, emptying his drink and reaching for hers, torn between curiosity and suspicion. "What happened to them?"

Her response was an edged smile. "It's nothing to concern yourself with," she said, mocking, and slid off the bar stool, heavy boots thudding onto the floor as she collected her hat. "Would you care to accompany me to the fine establishment you mentioned, or shall I leave you here to drink and presume you are not interested in working with me?"

"With you," Soul repeated, rolling that word around in his mouth with a sip of whiskey. "Not foryou? What kind of job are you offering, if your previous guards have disappeared and you're leaving me room to act independently? Are there men hunting you, Miss Albarn?"

"There shouldn't be," she replied, and something in her tone made it clear that she was done discussing the matter. "But the situation may become complicated, depending on whom my father has managed to offend with his conduct. Depending also, I suppose, on whether or not the fool is even alive."

"That's fair, I suppose," Soul said, and left money for the drinks on the bar before he stood. "At least I can show you around town while I decide whether or not I want to go hunting through the mountains for your errant father, and while I'm doing that I sincerely hope you can find it in your heart to give me more information than you have. The more I know, the better I'll be able to fulfill my end of this bargain."

"Curiosity is not a sin," Maka said as they exited the building and she fell in beside him, "but asking too many questions can get you killed, and never mind actually knowing the answers. If there's anything else you need to know, I assure you that I will be forthcoming with that information."

Soul scowled, chewed on his lip until he remembered that he was going to chew it off if he wasn't careful, and finally shoved his hands in his pockets and gave Maka a disapproving look. "You are an extraordinarily difficult woman," he said, and was startled when her severe expression softened and she chuckled.

"I am very tired, sir," she said, eyes warming fractionally. "And I have had a difficult journey, all because my father is too foolish and irresponsible to attend to his obligations. You may find me more agreeable after I have managed to get some sleep and some more concrete information about my father's whereabouts. I don't fancy gallivanting about the countryside at random hoping to find the man."

"It'd be a great way to get yourself killed by the local wildlife," Soul said helpfully, and Maka gave him an unamused profile stare. "Don't worry," he said. "I'm sure one of the girls will be able to give you some information if your father has such an affection for buxom ladies. It'll probably even be easy to get them to talk to you, being as you're female, obviously no competition for their business, and being such an admirable daughter as to go looking for your wayward father out of the goodness of your heart."

"No competition?" Maka said, and her gait shifted a little as her hand strayed towards a detail Soul hadn't noticed: a knife sheath on her thigh, and he didn't wait to see what kind of knife it might be, let alone how skilled she might be with it.

"I mean," he prevaricated, desperately searching for something to say that would keep her from gutting him in the street, because at this range her knife would be up to the hilt in his belly before he could draw and shoot.

"That's twice now you've insulted me," Maka said, hand edging away from her blade, and Soul exhaled, managed to get his hand away from his gun. "Once more, and you and I will have to have a lesson regarding proper manners."

"Blind leading the blind," he muttered, and didn't know how to react when she laughed again, all her hostility disappearing in a flash of bright green eyes and a surprisingly pleasant smile. Thankfully he didn't have to endure confusion long, as they reached their destination while Maka was still smirking in amusement.

At least, she was;then she laid eyes on the busty woman reclining next to the establishment's door and her demeanor cooled considerably.

"Good afternoon," she said, deciding that this woman had an excellent chance of having spoken with her father at length, as her soulful eyes and equally soulful cleavage were exactly the type that her father routinely told secrets to.

"Why, what brings you here, sugar?" the woman asked, gracing them with an almost matronly smile that was completely ruined by her state of dress. "That man, I understand, though I understand you've had a falling-out with Star, little Soul, and he's inside. Perhaps you should steer clear."

"I was planning on it," Soul said in an unexpectedly deep growl, and Maka gave him a look that was half suspicion and half curiosity before returning her attention to the woman in front of her.

"I'm looking for my father, ma'am," she said, doing her best to look concerned and not irritated. "We're from the east coast, and he's been out of touch for so long that I was compelled to travel all the way out here trying to find him. I'm afraid he's gotten himself into trouble - he means well, but he has a gift for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. He's got red hair, blue eyes, and the uncommon name of Spirit. Might you have seen him?"

"I used to see quite a lot of him," the woman said, and her tone made Soul wonder for a moment if he was going to have to restrain Maka right there in the street. "But not in a while, honey. He did mention having a good claim, though, north and east of here in a valley. You follow the road into the mountains till you find his claim markers - green ribbons, he said, for his beautiful daughter's eyes."

"He is a sentimental and impractical man," Maka said, voice as dry as the desert she'd just traveled through. "Thank you, madam. I am sorry I couldn't live up to the paragon of feminine grace and beauty he no doubt painted me as."

"We never live up to the stories men tell," the woman said. "Don't worry, dear."

Maka gave her a faint smile and tossed her a coin. "Too true," she said. "For your time. And please - don't tell anyone else about my father. I'm afraid he might be in trouble, like I said."

"Out here, everybody might be in trouble. I'll keep it close," was the reply, and Maka nodded, turned away, and started to head back toward the inn.

"I'd like to leave at first light," she said once she and Soul were out of earshot. "To that end, I believe I am going to find myself a meal and retire for the evening."

"We haven't discussed any terms or payment," Soul said, eyebrows high. "And I was not aware that you'd decided you approved of me enough to hire me, nor had I come to a similar conclusion about yourself."

She gave him another unamused look, but kept walking in silence until they reached the inn, at which point she grabbed him by the arm and dragged him around to the back of the building where they wouldn't be seen.

"What, woman, christ almighty," he said, yanking his arm free. "Why can't you act like a normal person for more than two minutes at a stretch?"

"I can pay you," Maka said, annoyed again as she dug through a pocket in her coat over her heart. "No need to worry about that." Her hand came out of the pocket fisted around a handful of something - somethingthat turned out to be a small pile of gold coins, and Soul's eyes went impossibly wide at the sight.

"You're going to get robbed," he said fervently. "Robbed and raped and sold, or killed if you're lucky and they mistake you for a man - "

"Manners," Maka snarled, in a flash returning the gold to its hiding place and drawing her - jesus, her Bowie knife, and Soul found himself with eight inches of gleaming contraband steel pressed to his throat. He'd been right: she was fast, fast and ill-tempered and dangerous, and he supposed it was all part of the universe's twisted plan to make him serve penance for his sins that he seemed to be stuck with her.

Assuming she didn't slit his damned throat, anyway, but that danger was allayed when a greater one presented itself: there was a small sound, and Maka's head whipped around to face it not even a second before she leapt back and a bullet flew straight through the spot where she'd been standing.

Soul didn't pause to wonder just what the hell was going on; his gun cleared its holster in a blur, his return shot following a blink after, and a man toppled from the roof of the general store. Thenhe let himself wonder, except when he turned toward Maka to demand some answers there was a second man of a sudden, an obviously stupid man who thought Soul was the greater threat and tried to knife him. In his surprise, Soul didn't respond immediately, and found himself slammed into the inn wall; before the man stabbed him, however, Maka caught up to him and delivered a kick to his ribs that made Soul flinch in sympathy as the man fell and skidded a bit in the dirt.

"Don't even try it," she said when the man made to move, and knelt beside his head with one knee pressed hard against his throat, knife gleaming in her hand as she cut away his coat and shirt to reveal a tattoo underneath. "I knew it," she said, and looked him in the eye. "Were you told to kill me, or was this to be just a warning?"

"Kill you," he said, and seemed to find his nerve. "She doesn't give warnings. Forget your father, girl. Go home. There's nothing anyone can do for him."

"I appreciate you confirming that my father is, in fact, still alive," Maka said, and the look in her eyes made Soul more than slightly uncomfortable. "As thanks, your death will be fast."

And then she drove her knife to the hilt under the man's chin, removed it with clinical efficiency, and stood so she could clean it without a moment's hesitation or any outward sign that what she had just done affected her in any way.

It was, Soul thought as he gaped, a bit different, what she'd done, compared to what he'd done, which was kill an aggressor at a comfortable distance. This girl had knocked a man to the ground, threatened to crush his throat to get information, and put a blade in his brain without a single shred of hesitation or compassion, and thatwas not something Soul was all that comfortable with.

"I think you owe me some explanations, per your earlier comment," he said after he regained his ability to speak, and the look Maka gave him made his hair stand on end.

She didn't get a chance to say anything, though, because a little swarm of light-motes exited the man she'd just killed and circled around Soul's head, insistent, until he scowled and lifted his hand, offering it palm-up. The lights relocated immediately and coalesced into a gleaming sphere, shot through with crackles of black, and he sighed in resignation before popping the thing into his mouth.

"What," Maka said, eyes wide and back to holding her knife at the ready.

"Shit, that's bitter," Soul spat once he swallowed the foul thing, and gave her a look still tinged with distaste as he swiped the back of his hand across his mouth. "Hope you aren't one of those people who don't believe in magic," he said, "because I've got a bit of a curse on me, lady. Since you recognized our friend's tattoo, it seems we share a common enemy, as that bitch is the one who did this to me."

He paused; Maka stared; at length he said, "Soul Eater," and she gave him a look of incomprehension and dangerously short patience.

"My name," he said. "Soul Eater Evans. I was a bounty hunter. I killed a lot of good people, and Medusa cursed me because she is spiteful wretch of a woman and she thought it would keep me working for her. She made me into a bit of a - a revenant, I suppose, a thing that feeds on the souls of others and is always hungry. Long story short, it was around then that I had a moment of clarity and left her anyway. Don't look at me like that, I don't kill for sport or food. I am still a bounty hunter, among other things, and when it happens that I catch a man whose soul is tainted, I get to eat."

"You feast on the immortal souls of men whom you judge unworthy?" Maka said, and Soul gave her a terse look; when stated like that, it really sounded awful and not at all like the pinnacle of morality he liked to think of it as.

Except then she said, "It seems you and I have a great deal more in common than I thought," followed by, "We should probably just leave town before we end up spending the night in jail," which he wholeheartedly agreed with.

They were heading into the mountains within the hour.