In which you meet a few people, Maka admits her heart is a mess, and I am terribly sorry about DTK's cowboy name. Notes to help you along are on the bottom.
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 like she was shy and seventeen again. "Frank said it wasn't abnormal."
"Oh. Well that's good," Maka replied, trying to sound encouraging- 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-"
"Is there anything else I can do for you?" Maka hurriedly asked, folding the slip of paper with a grimace and sticking it in the front pocket of her shirt.
Sniffling loudly behind the door- her allergies had multiplied ten-fold with the pregnancy- Tsubaki warbled out, "Broccoli?" before flushing the toilet.
"Well, uh, I can bring everything home after the clinic today. How much do you need?"
There was a pause before the woman 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 over, she flicked her laptop shut without ceremony, grumbling about the uselessness of the internet.
She had hoped to stir up new ideas to raise funds, but the more common suggestions weren't tailored for a person in the middle of cow country. She didn't have time for another part-time job, she didn't have much in the way of possessions to pawn for money, 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 Albarn'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. 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. Her neck warmed.
Though the sixteen-step was going to 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 she, 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 Evans 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 the memory of his voice far away from herself and out of the universe. Beside her, Miranda gave her a bemused look before shrugging 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 as it simply proved her face was a torch. She further resented the other parts of her that felt equally warm, like the spot between her shoulderblades, or that burning path that trailed down her arm hotter than a brand.
He'd moved slowly last night- deliberate as one would around a skittish horse- and she didn't know if she was angry for being treated like a rowdy beast or flustered knowing the man touched her so carefully.
("That don't matter much for this, do it?")
Maka 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, anyway. 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 at the tone of her mentor's voice, Maka quickly flipped the folder off her face and sat up in her stool. Peering at it, 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 frowned. "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.
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.
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.
She was five minutes from the driveway when the cassette player started smoking.
Soul strolled through the back door on schedule, unusually talkative. "Worked another batch of calves this mornin'," he said by way of greeting. "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 it like a summer storm. She shook her head. The motion made her head swim, tempered by the smell of burned plastic. "The label was worn off before I got it." Before a lot of things.
There was a silence. "Boss might know," Mifune quietly offered.
Maka grunted half-hearted agreement and let the lost music fall into the garbage, the lid causing a baleful, echoing clang as it shut. 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 weary 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 could 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 dust off a pair of skid boots. 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 his back legs up awkwardly, not unlike a cat with wet feet. His reaction 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, adrenaline stinging her nerves.
"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 the feeling 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 notice 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-"
Maka gritted her teeth and huffed, glowering at 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 was easier to handle than burning up simply because their hands touched last night.
She sighed. "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 only seen from the corner of her eye, the gauging look he gave her 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 on his perch on the pipe fence, chin boredly resting in his palm as he propped his elbow on a knee.
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 radiating through the saddle. The nerve of this cowboy! "I've been riding all my life-"
He looked off the the side, bored. "Folks talk all their life- don't make them good at it," he drawled.
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, damn it. "Shouldn't I at least ride around first before you make a judgement?" She swatted a fly buzzing near her face, irritated.
Soul leaned to one side to pull a bag of sunflower seeds out his back pocket, ripping the package open with his teeth. "If it'll make you feel better," he said around the plastic. "But I seen you ride already so don't see how that'd make any difference."
Her grinding molars echoed in her skull at his frankness, and she about ground them to dust when an annoying part of her eagerly interpreted his criticism as evidence of him having watched her do anything. She violently wished she could throw herself 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 slowly, 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've 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 washing through her skin and gripping her throat.
Yet Maka didn't drown this time, with help from wanting to improve herself and being angry that there was anything to improve in the first place. And, perhaps, from 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 hard 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 how immediate the horse's response was to the shift in her weight. Skully plodded forward and Maka slowly directed him around the pen.
"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 revelled in her horse's performance. 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 squeeze from 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, face heating up 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."
A bit giddy with excitement, 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 focused very intently on her horse for stability. "H-he stops on a dime," she boasted, running her nervous fingers through Skully's mane.
"Hm," he said, noncommittal once again, and poured another measure of seeds in his mouth. "Go on, then."
More than 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. She felt the horse pull his legs under him and almost sit to come 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.
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 a 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'?"
"For one, no- that's one of the more awful names I ever heard," he said, gesturing with his hat. "Two, if you haven't noticed, I don't got someone to flirt at, and I ain't lookin', besides."
Ruddy eyes glinted at her as Soul meticulously replaced the hat on his head with a scowl. He looked more than finished with the 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 horseriding.
"Slack in the reins," he countered. "No bit."
"Slack in the…" That threw her for a loop. Maka threw 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 that Evans-dodging allowed."
Soul looked bewildered. "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.
Maka despondently mucked stalls and cared for the horses after practice, finding herself 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 Maka felt it was probably best to avoid any accidental interaction with Tina Thompson. She wasn't confident she wouldn't lose her wits and simply punch the woman on sight. Perhaps Blake could 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 complain, Maka scuttled over to the refrigerator and quickly dug through the haphazard stacks of leftovers, produce, and the small collection of untouched take-out containers she'd been slowly accumulating for her father. Behind her, 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 his back.
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 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 blurted anxiously. "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 give their brain 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 blinked, 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?"
"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 frowned, ignoring potential culinary disasters. "You say 'at least' like you're not the biggest help here," she blurted.
Tsubaki looked startled by this, cheeks dusting with pink so brightly 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 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 woman somewhat bashfully replied, looking away.
"And yours is important," Mifune added from the sink as he strained an absurd amount of egg noodles.
Maka nodded vigorously, ready to say whatever it took for Tsubaki to acknowledge herself properly, but the phone rang. She spun around to reach for the receiver on the skinny telephone table, but her hand bumped into someone else's.
"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 stared at the worn blue flowers that decorated the outer edge of the topmost plate in her hands, skin crawling at the possibility of the name of her ranch disappearing only to 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 cluelessly before looking 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 weariness in his rusty eyes under the hat brim.
The taut pull of his mouth and the set of his shoulders gave the impression of something she could now only name as still being 'sore' about things, 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 whatever he'd been wearing. She handed him the plates.
"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." She awkwardly tugged off her boots and shuffled over in her socks. She sat in her chair at the table, taking the phone in one hand and absently accepting 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.
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.
Immediately, she hounded the elder Evans brother with worried 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.
Maka sat back in her chair, face scrunched up. "Oh." 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. "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?"
Oh no. 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?"
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 think you're going deaf at an alarmingly early age, Mister Evans."
"Alright, alright," he chuckled. "You'd be doing me a big favor. See, Gran-Gran is pretty partial to you and your fam…"
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. "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. "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 blinked. "Oh! Oh, well say that from the start! Of course I'll go for Liz," she said, pausing when 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. "A-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~"
She became stone, her hand glued 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, ah, dress accordingly."
"Fifteen dogs. And 'bout fifty head of frisbee."
"Yeah. Well I'll let you get to supper! Thanks again Maka!"
Perplexed by the whirlwind David Wesley Evans left behind after hanging up (had he told her the whole story or was he just 'playing diplomat'?), her blush was more or less under control as she turned off the phone and opened the back door. She had one foot in the house when she heard someone call out to her.
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 was walking 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 'bout 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 grimaced and nodded, solemn.
"Hey." Blake Strickland's offense was unheeded.
Soul Evans stood off to the side, looking 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 belatedly introduced, feeling somewhat peculiar. When Soul had introduced her someone new, he'd had his hand between her shoulderblades. She'd be very pleased if she would stop remembering that.
Spine tingling, Maka 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?"
Maka lightly slapped Kyle's arm with the phone. "We did not work you to the bone."
For Soul's sake, Tsubaki 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 him.
Guilt cinched around Maka's windpipe, blood burning at the memory of what she'd caused in this very kitchen. "Yeah," she thinly replied, distracting herself by returning the cordless into its charging cradle at the phone table. "Not my finest moment- you know how it goes."
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. "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 creaked open noisily. "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 the keeper of everything that kept Spirit in his uniform instead of pearl-snaps and denim.
Maka suddenly 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, looking uncomfortable. "I don't see him a whole lot, honestly. Weird stuff's been poppin' up all 'round the county-" he 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 curled reflexively around the handles, remembering Papa downing his coffee in the diner without batting an eye.
To whatever it is Kyle saw in her face, he added, "He knows what he's doin', Maks."
"I just-" she started, but whatever words she had been ready to say 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."
He reached for her and gently 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 left.
Maka balanced the file box on a hip in order to let herself back into the house. The weight of it pressed uncomfortably into her side, and she wondered if any of this heaviness was linked to Maddy Georgian- did any of the history in this box belong 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 cutting into her palms instead. "I'm gonna put this in his office. Be right back."
With no free hand to flip the office light switch, she blindly scooted the box on her father's heavy desk. Off to the side, the silhouette of Mama's prized saddle lurked deathly still, and for some reason Maka suddenly recalled an image of writhing, tangled things.
She hurriedly strode out the room, shutting the door 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 the lawn.
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 familiar, low voice.
Maka's hand flew to her disheveled hair, hurriedly trying to make it more presentable or at least less like a rat's nest. She crossed an arm over her chest at the realization she was wearing only a thin camisole and panties, 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. Maka took a moment to gather her wits as she pulled on some cotton shorts and a worn sweatshirt. More importantly, why had Patti been spirited away to Angel's End in the middle of the night?
Crona yawned while watching Maka move about the room. He lazily made his way to the doggy door as 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," Patti flippantly said.
Feeling exceptionally self-conscious, Maka slid across the slanted porch roof and lowered herself down her usual post. 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 found herself hugging 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."
Abruptly, Maka held the girl at arm's length, trying to discern her face. "But how'd you even get here? Did you drive?"
"Nope," Soul answered for her, growling. "This lil' idiot walked here."
Hissing 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 argue elsewhere.
There was already a campfire started in front of the guest house, which helped ward the wet Spring chill. Soul glowered into the flames, hunched forward on his decrepit lawn chair like a disgruntled old man.
"I sed I was sorry," Patti insisted, snuggling closer to Maka on the guest house 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 blinking hesitation was highlighted by the fire. "I sleep just fine," he hedged, his glare stinging with disapproval. "And anyhow, that's near on seven miles-"
"So?!" the accused challenged back.
Soul's sigh sounded well-used to this type of conversation with Patricia Thompson. "I know you can handle yourself, but what were you plannin' to do if coyotes found you?"
"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."
Hesitant, Soul looked up through swirling clouds of woodsmoke and asked Maka a gentle 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."
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'."
Maka clamped a hand over her own mouth to trap the noise that nearly escaped. A few feet away, Soul's lawn chair gave an unhealthy creak as the cowboy suddenly suffered a fit of coughing.
"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, complaining about all the stifled laughter shaking the both of them around. "What're you gigglin' about- them two's the same as bein' next to Sue and Calf Fries all night. But worse."
Caught between groaning and laughing, and this became the worst possible time for Maka to recall all the things Elizabeth Thompson 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 the 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-"
"...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 sighed, 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. She smiled broadly. "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." She shifted abruptly, startling Crona while she turned in Maka's arms and stared at her earnestly 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, feeling 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.
"Do what?" he blurted, aghast.
Maka hoped her voice wasn't too painfully squeaky when she argued, "Papa would shoot him the moment he walked in."
"Fiiiine," Patti said dramatically. "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, but was overcome with the familiar burn of dread- if Angel's End was close to going under, no matter how much she may want it 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 Maka wasn't confident she'd be able to find a way to wedge in a conversation.
It was then, as her mind wandered to the file box Kyle had dropped off, that 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. Patti held on to Maka more tightly. "Nobody's home," the girl stage-whispered, 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," Spirit greeted.
"She's full of manure," Patti spat.
The sheriff handled the comment with the familiarity of several years' worth of continued exposure to her disregard for tact. He closed his eyes a moment and opened them, taking a deep breath. He tried again. "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."), Maka stood and lifted Crona in her arms. She wondered if 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. Her father dressed as 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 stinging, 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 a seemingly 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.
Spiritless, Maka waved one of Crona's paws in goodbye. As the cruiser slowly drove down the driveway in reverse, she noted it was already morning.
skid boots - kind of like stumpy shin guards, but backwards? they protect the fetlocks and such. i kind of think of them like those elbow and knee pads you're supposed to wear when you roller-skate.
cowy - slang for having a lot of cow-sense; soul is saying Skully has aptitude in predicting cow behavior and how to counter it.
cut - to single out and separate one animal from the herd
lope - western term equivalent of english canter
head of frisbee - wes is being a ranchnerd, counting frisbees like one does cattle.
cayuse - a feral, wild horse (as in naturally undomesticated)
Marsh: Yeah. I don't know. Things happened. Things didn't happen. Yet here we are. This chapter is almost as long as the ResBang minimum requirement. You could fit a whole story in this same amount of space, but what did I do? I filled it with angst and poop jokes.
Special thanks to VictoriaPyrrhi, Chaoticlivi, Fabulousanima (Twin-Lupus), and Odat for looking over this chapter for me (and sometimes a year apart in viewings). Thanks to every single person both here, on tumblr, and and skype who have supported me and this crazy dramatic redneck thing. It means everything to me. Thank you so much.