This is the boring calf roping chapter. But there's quite a bit more Soul and Maka interaction in this one.

Warning: this chapter has some questionable food choices (read: Rocky Mountain Oysters).

A few notes at the bottom to help you along, and also a notice regarding this fic.

I do not own Soul Eater.


Maka was sipping her steaming mug of coffee one Saturday morning, huddled up in her father's oversized jacket draped over her sleeping clothes. 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. She walked back into the kitchen after he pulled away.

"Where's he gone?" she asked Tsubaki, not bothering with pretending 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?"

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 splat of another spoonful of filling landing on a fresh tortilla accurately described Tsubaki's countenance.


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. Her shoes were finally starting to feel worn in. She retrieved a few things from the tack shed before heading to the stables. Maka was glad to see her rope was still in good shape despite the dreary weather.

Patti had arrived on the ranch sometime while Maka had been getting dressed. The young woman appeared to be more or less acting normal, 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 her 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. "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. 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!"

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

Shaking her head as Soul mounted and rode off, she 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."

"Ooh!"


If you don't know where you're going, your horse will decide for you.


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 and Blake and Mifune ran the fire, branding, immunizing, and, when necessary, castrating. Patti had pulled up in Maka's truck to watch the proceedings. She 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 drag 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. Her horse curiously sniffed Patti's swinging foot. "I don't get it," she admitted, voice pitched low for only the horse wrangler 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 that such a horse 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 irritating beast. "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' 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. 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 touch 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. 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. Maka hung her rope off the saddle, took off a glove, and somberly pulled flecks of mud out of Skully's mane.

Her mind wandered to the Thompson family, uneasiness regarding Patti's future settling into her body. Everyone on Angel's End was aware of the girl's strained attempt to act her usual self.

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."

Skeptically, Maka turned her head to the side and frowned at him. Why in heaven's name would the district roping champion ask her to rope anything? Scratch that, he hadn't even asked.

He seemed to recall something suddenly, 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?"

"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, slightly embarrassed with 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.

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 have put her gloves back on. 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.

It dawned on her abruptly that 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.

He was looking at his left hand, rotating it slowly in imitation of her. She realized 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 being Soul Evans' personal Tsubaki.


There ain't no oysters in the Rocky Mountains.


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.

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 offence, 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, 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. "Whatisit."

"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 looked worried, 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.

Eyes expectantly 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. "Oh! Wait!"

It was in vain. Maka shied away when Soul abruptly stood from his chair like he'd been struck by lightning. Robotically, 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.

Maka slapped a hand over her mouth. So used to spicy food, 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," to which Mifune replied, "You don't know Maka."


Suzanne Albarn hadn't cared much about the layout of her home. She spent most of her days outdoors, on horseback. When her house was 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. She tossed in bed, restless. The night was alive with insects, their noises loud through her open 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 shouldn'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. Faintly, just as she was beginning to doze, she heard a reedy slew of notes dance in the distance. She thought it was her sleepy brain bubbling with dreams.

The owl hooted again, and her eyes snapped open. Maka squinted, focusing on a glimmering of campfire light bouncing off one 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, listening.

A slow, warbling harmonica teased the night.

Making up her mind (or rather, her mind made up for her), Maka quietly opened the back door and grabbed her boots out of the tray. Hurriedly stuffing her bare feet into them, she hopped off the porch, running her fingers through her doubtlessly ruffled hair.

Crona led the way. They traveled down the gravel driveway that curved towards the guest house, disjointed music louder the closer they walked. The dog walked considerably faster, not having Maka's problems with seeing in the darkness. He 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, looking spooked, bent over and disgruntledly patting the dog on the head. He was fully clothed, though his shirt was untucked and he was 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 slightly 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 picking up a shiny metal object. 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, confliction seeping into his features. Maka didn't know what this meant, but it became apparent to her that she was being intrusive.

"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. Her head slowly drifted back, searching 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?"

Oh, how to say it without actually saying it? "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."

"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... agelding-"

Soul grimaced.

"-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. Though Soul's smile as he looked away eased her, somewhat. 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 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 so we can hear them hollerin'. Liz and their momma." He shook his head. "What got me though was 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, troubled. "I know it's far from my place to interfere," he said, eyebrows furrowed under the line of his bandana, "but it was damn difficult to drive off like I seen nothin'."

Maka leaned her head back, tiredly resting it on the pillar behind her with a dull thud. Worry for Patti and Liz flooded her lungs. "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 felt like she should probably 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 Soul began to quietly play his harmonica. Maka sat perfectly still, not wanting to give any indication that she might like or dislike his music, in fear that he 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. She doubted it, so she further wondered why she kept entertaining the idea.

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 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 calves, 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 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. 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 that was the embodiment of her worry over Patti 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 eyes unfortunately landed on his cosmically-aligned butt directly in her vision. Maka closed her eyes in defeat. "Yes?"

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

Opening her eyes, she looked 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 than that."

"Oookay," she warily replied. Maka slowly put the cap back on her highlighter, suspicion pulling her lips into a tight line. She waited for him to speak up. 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 be stuck in freeze-frame, and her head tilted to one side, overweight with confusion. Surely she couldn't have heard him correctly. "What?" she asked faintly, at which point Soul Evans lifted his hat and gave her the most pained, desperate look she'd ever seen on a grown man.


Notes:

'working calves': the process of gathering, branding, innoculating, castrating, and tagging calves to keep track of the newest additions to the herd.

Arabian: a breed of horse

chaps: potentially the sexiest thing a cowboy owns

brassiere: a bra.

'hoof it': walk

'cuttin' horse'" cutting horse. A horse used for herding stock, in this case, cattle.

calf nut: quite literally, a cow testicle. This is a thing, I'm serious. The fur on the outside is also really soft? It's crazy.

'afra-deezy-ack': aphrodisiac. There is a belief that oysters stimulate the sex drive.

'turn the heap': as in, the compost heap. Compost needs to be turned to help the decomposing process.

Lodestar will be on a temporary hiatus so I can work on my Soul/Maka Christmas fic. The first installment of that fic will be released this Friiiidayyy, in theory. Once it is finished, or come January, (whichever is first), I will continue to update Lodestar. Sorry for the inconvenience, but please look forward to both of these stories!