Hello! Hope you enjoy this little addition. Today, you get a brief preview of the Evans family! Notes to help you along are at the bottom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not satisfied with this answer, Maka slid off her horse, one arm carefully supporting Crona's weight in her jacket on the way down. Once near, she grasped Soul's wrist to see the shallow scrape for herself. Maka blushed at the wide rip in his pants, criminally high on his thigh.

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

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

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

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

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

"Course not!"
"Whatever. I'm calling him, regardless."

He snarled. "Woman-"

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

Don't corner something that is meaner than you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Who's Frank?" Soul asked warily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maka abruptly stopped as soon as she walked in the door. She hadn't been inside the guest house in some years, and Soul had rearranged the area to his own liking. He looked at her quizzically at her hesitation, but left her at the open door.

The last she'd been here, she had to go through Mama's old things. The guest house was used primarily for storage for a long time before Suzanne had died.

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

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

She slowly straightened a folded-over edge of the rug with the toe of her boot. Looking up finally, Maka saw Soul carefully watching her. She remembered where she was, and apologetically closed the front door.

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

Soul sighed as he sat on the edge of the bed, keeping the leg in question straight to keep his jeans from aggravating the cut on his thigh. "Still attached," he said blandly. Maka stepped forward, eyes drifting to the hole in his jeans. He shifted under her gaze, looking away with a frown and pulling off his gloves. He tossed these to land near the other pairs on the table. "Let's just get this overwith," he grumbled.

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

She knew the number by heart. ("Sweets, you go in the house and you call Frank, understand?") The doctor didn't sound the least bit surprised to hear from her on a random Thursday evening, but he never did sound surprised about anything.

Maka explained the gist of things. "I'll be there after awhile," Frank said before he hung up.

"Your doc makes housecalls," Soul asked without the question mark.

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

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

She looked away, flustered. The rug was back in her sight again. "I know it's not serious. But still."


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

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

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

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

She flushed, feeling awkward in the center of the room by herself while hearing Soul clean up his leg. She walked forward to perch on the corner of his bed. "I feel a little responsible," she admitted, trying to sound more professional about the matter as opposed to emotionally invested in whatever physical mishaps may befall Evans.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What the hell?"

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

Maka blinked. "Y-yes?"

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

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

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

"Would you just... knock it off!"
"OW shit, my fff- think you broke my goddamn toe!"

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

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

"Of course."

"Mister Evans," he nodded to Soul, not looking surprised at all to see someone else he knew.

Soul was slowly inching backwards from the doorway. "Doctor Stanley," he greeted, and then glared accusingly at Maka for reasons she didn't understand.

"You two are acquainted?" she asked.

"Of course we are," Frank said, stepping into the house. He was exceedingly tall, and had to duck his head to pass. "Though, Soul, you never came back for your follow-up."

The younger man rolled a shoulder. "Musta slipped my mind," he said lowly.

Watching the exchange, Maka felt out of place but too entertained (and interested) to do anything about it.

"Maka tells me you met a fence today."

"Yes, well, better safe than sorry." Frank smiled, opening up his satchel and investigating the labels on a handful of small vials.

"So I hear," Soul replied dryly, shooting another displeased look in Maka's direction.

"Ah, Clostridium tetani. Your favorite, if I remember correctly."
"You seem to recall the exact opposite of everythin'."

Frank smiled serenely. "Deltoid, please."

Soul, wearing a standard, long-sleeved pearl snap shirt, unhappily untucked his shirt from his pants. As he popped the top button, Maka was suddenly confronted with a dilemma.

"Uh. I. Um?" It was just a chest, for heaven's sake- she didn't know why she was so bashful all of a sudden. "I should go."

"Stay," Soul said casually. "I need to, er, talk with you. After." A glance from him completely negated his statement with a desperate look as Frank loaded an injection needle, unaware. His face clearly read 'Don't leave me alone with him'.

She hid a smile behind a hand for a moment. "...Okay," she said, after regaining her composure. But then he pulled the last snap and she caught a glimpse of that line Liz Thompson had drawn in the diner. Her breath caught and she looked away, eyes pulled to the floor and riveted to the rug.

Maka tried to recall when his last bullride had been, but the date her brain gave her did not want to match up with the angry-looking scar that crossed from left shoulder to right hip. It looked too recent, too aggravated to be from two autumns past.

She winced when Frank remarked, "This is looking much better."

"'Jus gimme the shot already, quit pokin' it," Soul complained, but Maka recalled something else he had said earlier today.

"Did you hear what she said? About the bull."

She couldn't make heads or tails about what Soul and Patti had been referring to. All she could piece together was that, in Soul's mind, the bull that gave him his scar and Maddy Georgian were associated in some way.

"You sure you don't want any stitches for that?"
"Never been more sure of somethin' in my life."

Maka tuned out Frank's teasing and Soul's defensiveness, thoughts falling back into the disparaging subjects of Maddy Georgian and Lazy S ranch. Soul had predicted the fence being cut. She had a feeling he'd probably know what came next, too. And then, at the end of that line, Angel's End would be sold when all other options ran out.

Her eyes followed the muted colors of the floor rug, its faded, frayed ends of cloth spiraling around a center knot.

"You guys come in for supper," she said abruptly. "I'm sure there'll be plenty." Even though she'd agreed to stay, she ignored Soul's questioning eyes as she spun to open the front door.

Frank turned around, adjusting his spectacles. "I'm hoping Sue will let me fill up the truck?" he asked hopefully as his patient quietly buttoned his shirt.

"Now, you know she saves all the frying oil just for you," Maka replied, wearing her sweetest smile while her mind raced in other directions. She gave a generic farewell before rushing out of the guest house and trotting across the porch.

She was a grown woman, and she could prioritize, too. She loved her papa, but the land was her priority. Some sassy downtown glamor-woman wouldn't bully her or anyone else off of Mama's land, and she sure as hell wouldn't hurt any more of Angel's End's outfit.

Maka needed more information. She needed to talk to people who had a better estimate of what it would take to keep from going under. She needed the number crunchers.

Even if she had to do it single-handedly, the ranch would break even.

The coffee table echoed her fingers' incessant drumming. It was a late Saturday evening, and last autumn's records were fanned in front of her. No matter the arrangement of numbers and papers, the outcome remained the same.

Tsubaki polished off the remainder of what was likely to be her sixth glass of water that evening. "And we don't know how well she's doing this year. Judging by how much she offered Spirit, it's safe to say 'not poorly'."

Maka recalled all those zeroes. "What about the buyers? Will they keep their promises when we ship?"

Tsubaki slowly shrugged. "That's more for Mifune to answer. He said he's been looking into other people in case they don't." She looked hesitant before adding, "But finding someone that does things without hormones is pretty difficult, lately."

Something about this tickled the back of Maka's brain, but she wasn't sure what or why. She looked up from the table. "We'll have to look harder. I don't want them to finish at some place where they'll be treated like hell and get liver abscesses and pumped full of ionophores and-"

The older woman held up a hand before Maka could rant her way through a long list of scientific and medical terminology. "I know it, Maka. If we don't, though, we may suddenly have a whole lot of pets to feed through next winter."

Resting her chin in a palm, Maka blew her bangs out of her eyes. The house was quiet, most everyone gone off to bed. She should be as well, because tomorrow she had to leave early to make it to the Evans' Family Easter Lunch-Thing, and rest would probably be necessary to handle that with a straight face. She glanced down at the papers again.

"Well. What do you think?"

Tsubaki didn't reply. She idly swivelled from side to side in her recliner, her own nails tapping lightly on her empty glass.

Maka continued to prod the manager for an answer. "If it goes like last year-"

"It'll be worse than last year," Tsubaki said definitively.

"I know, but let's say it won't be. Would we break even again?"

Tsubaki sucked in her bottom lip while she ran mental figures. Maka watched the woman's reading glasses slowly slide down the bridge of her nose. "With the new truck, and paying Soul, probably not." She looked sideways at Maka. "If we do what we've always done."

Maka's eyes flickered to the general manager's rounded stomach and knew a lot of things couldn't be done as always. Things changed. They must adapt. Her fingers drummed faster on the table.

"Speaking of," Tsubaki said, "yesterday morning Pat asked for an advance."

"Did she not get paid last week?"

"She did."

Scowling, Maka angrily organized last year's records. She knew she shouldn't be jumping to conclusions, but it shot from her mouth before her conscience could check it, "It's her mother, isn't it."

"She wouldn't say, so probably."
"...Can we do it?"

Tsubaki shifted uncomfortably in her chair, swivelling halted. "I said I'd have to talk to Spirit first, but... after Frank coming over and all that business with the fence, and Soul, and Lazy S, I haven't had the chance."

And Papa hadn't come home that evening, either. It wasn't unusual for him to be absent, as of late, but seeing as certain snake-arrow-women have been sabotaging their ranch, Maka was a little irritated that her father wasn't home. She knew and understood that, as sheriff, he had several obligations, but his rare appearances did little to deter the feeling that everything was slowly slipping from their hands.

"What're you thinking, Maka?"

She was thinking about how her education was burning a hole in their finances. She was thinking about how much worse this year's profit on the cattle would potentially be. She was thinking of what to sell, what to give up, what to raise from the depths so they could break even.

"I'm thinking on how I'm not going to give that woman an inch of our land." Standing, Maka handed the neat bundle of papers to Tsubaki, thanking her.

Life is simpler when you plow around the stumps

The plate, wrapped in aluminum foil, was warm in her hands. Her mouth twisted to the left, daring him to say anything.

Unmoving, the brim of Soul's hat focused on her for a long beat. "What," she challenged, feeling defensive. She knew she looked like a little girl-child in a spring dress, and she waited for him to make any kind of wisecrack so she could properly have reason to shove her foot up his ass. She hadn't known what to wear (weren't Easters supposed to be churchy-dressy?), but she supposed she hadn't overdone it seeing as Soul appeared to be wearing the cleanest pair of dark denim that no cowboy should ever own. "You don't have to look so surprised about it."

He said nothing, only rolling his shoulder slightly before he meandered to the passenger side of his truck and opened the door for her.

She gave him the most accusatory glare she could muster. "I can open a door."

"Your hands're full."

Maka shoved Tsubaki's cookies in his hands and climbed in. She buckled her seat belt. Grudgingly re-accepted the plate of cookies. Soul sighed at her and shut the door. Maka tilted her head back to thunk on the rear window of the pickup.

Why was she doing this?

"Because Wes lies like a goddamn rug," he grumbled in response when she asked aloud, climbing in behind the wheel. Depressing the clutch pedal, he turned the key in the ignition.

She didn't get the chance to ask just what his brother had lied about, because the truck's engine continued to noisily turn without completely starting. "..Um?"

Soul frowned, turning the key back a moment. He tried the ignition again, the engine turning earnestly but failing to start. He sniffed once. "Welp."

They exchanged glances.

"Guess we can't g-"
"Do you need to borrow my truck?"

He grimaced.

Maka rolled her eyes and unbuckled her seat belt. Honestly, it was like the man wanted to see his family even less than she did. "We're supposed to be there by when? Eleven? We're already late- let's just take mine." Opening the door, she slid off the seat and fell the short distance to the ground. Plate of cookies in one hand and dusting off her light colored dress with the other, she quipped, "You should probably tune up your truck."

Soul sullenly pulled his keys out the ignition. "If the truck says I shouldn't go, then I just don't," he replied.

He followed her up the driveway to where her truck was parked, which was also where they proceeded to have an awkward dance going around the tailgate to both get to the driver's side.

"Excuse you," she spat, patience at an all-time minimum.

"I figured I would-" he started.

She gawked at how casually he acted on his ridiculous presumptions. "Get your butt off your shoulders!"

He looked genuinely at a loss. "Ah- Maka... I can-"

"No you can not drive my truck!"

Looking irritated, Soul pulled his hat low over his eyes. "Albarn, I can't have my... my g-"

"If you're about to say what I think you're about to say," she warned, "I'm going to run you over."

"My guest," he snarled, "drive me to my own family's damn get-together. It's humiliatin'!"

She wanted so badly to not be holding cookies so she could strangle him. Instead, she smacked his hat back out of his stupid face. "You make the biggest fits over the weirdest things! Can't eat spice, can't look at someone without a hat on, scared of doctors-"

"I ain't scared of doctors, dammit, and if Wes sees you bein' my chauffeur I'll never get a peaceful night's rest til the day I see Peter."
"Well you should've thought that through before you neglected your only means of going places."

Soul slapped his hand over his face with a huff and turned to pace away a few feet before whirling back again. "I'll buy you Oreos."

Her mouth caught air for a moment. "Pardon?"

"Month's supply. If you let me drive."

Was he bribing her with cookies? (Wasn't she already holding some in her hands?) Her back straightened, offended. "I won't be bought by food, what kind of a-"

"Six months."
"W-what in the hell am I gonna do with six month's worth of Oreos?"

He waved a hand, exasperated. "Use 'em to bribe Strickland, I don't care- just let me drive to my own house."

Maka had no response to this other than staring at him, flabbergasted.

"I'll pay for fuel."

Her thumbs crinkle the foil covering the plate of fresh cookies. "Alright fine!" she exclaimed, stomping around to the passenger side of the truck. She just wanted the whole stupid thing over with! "Money can't buy you everything, though, so you best keep your word good, Evans, or so help me your brother will look like a saint." She was relieved he didn't try to open the door for her again- murder was not something on her to-do list for the day.

She laughed victoriously when, climbing into the driver's seat, he bashed his knee on the steering column.

"Mercy." Soul moved the seat back to allow more room to accommodate his longer legs.

Once they were both situated, he looked at her blankly. Without ceremony, Maka reached over and violently flipped down the driver's side sun visor, spilling her keys into his lap. "And if you wreck it, I'll skin you alive."

Apart from a partially lost moment in which Soul's right hand went for an imaginary stick shift before realizing the truck was an automatic, he didn't seem to have any issues with Maka's truck. She still watched his every movement, waiting for anything to break.

She couldn't remember the last time she rode passenger in her own vehicle. Everything was mirrored and backwards, and she had no steering wheel to drape her wrist over. Her crossed feet shifted restlessly on the floorboard while she tugged the hem of her skirt closer to her knees.

It wasn't until after it happened that she remembered the last set of cattle guards at the end of the driveway were rough enough to bounce the truck in the perfect way to rattle and kick on her radio. Immediately, the cab echoed with loud harmonica via cassette. Soul started while Maka nearly knocked the cookies from her lap to scramble for the volume control.

Her face steamed. "Sorry," she said, voice sounding loud in the sudden silence of the cab. "I had the windows down the other day, so..."

"Wait," he said, faintly amused, or maybe preoccupied. "What is this?"

Maka had not anticipated being embarrassed over this, and even more bothersome was not pinpointing the reason she was flushing in the first place. "It's... my mama's favorite tape," her mouth said before her brain could process why, along with any other useful things. She was caught between telling him to mind his own business and throwing herself out of the passenger door.

Soul slowly turned the volume up to audible levels, only humming in acknowledgement.

Maka didn't know what to make of his expression. He didn't turn off the radio. She wanted to say anything to divert his attention from the music, because that tape had become something personal to her, something cherished, and to have him silently sit through it looking like he was in deep thought made her unreasonably anxious.

Mama loved harmonica. Maka loved it too, but sometimes it was more than just because it was her mother's favorite. She liked hearing the instrument from any source. This trail of thought invariably led to the fact that the man sitting next to her was one of those sources, and, for reasons she did not want to analyze in any shape or form, this aforementioned fact made her slap out the bricks and mortar around herself to keep the lone wolves from blowing her over.

In the time she'd spent trying to keep her face temperature under control, the song ended, and Soul Evans said, "Your tape's wearin' out."

She blinked and looked at her radio as if it would tell her something. "Is it?"

"Can hear it. Should copy it soon."

"A-ah. I'll... keep it in mind." She hadn't even noticed! She listened to the tape so frequently, any signs of the cassette gradually wearing out over time had easily slipped by her ears. The thought of her mama's tapes being lost to the abyss wasn't something she had considered previously. "Thanks."

He didn't comment on the music or otherwise.

Maka watched familiar trees twist away on the curving back roads, sunlight flashing through open branches. "So, is there anything I should know about your folks?" she asked, then disturbingly realized that this sounded like a weird, meet-the-parents date, and twisted her mouth sourly.

Soul grunted in disgust. "Not really. They'll prolly fawn all over you as you're Spirit's daughter."

She almost decided to let the road noise in the cab speak for her, but she couldn't let it be. "That makes a whole zero of sense," she blurted. "Have they not met him?"

He nodded slowly. "Yep. They saw him a lot, remember? You'll see. My gran is the one to worry about, anyway. She's jus' like you."

"What? How do you mean?"

His fingers tapped on the steering wheel as he counted off in a drawl, "Stubborn, quick to judge, holds a grudge like a thorn, and gives everyone more hell than what exists in the underworld."

Maka's eyes narrowed with her rising ire. "...How is that me at all?" she challenged. He said nothing but gave her a sidelong glance that spoke volumes.

"If I could be sure you wouldn't wreck us, I'd hit you."

"Much obliged." He pulled on the highway, taking care to not over-rev her truck. "Oh. Hope you like dogs." Soul made a small glance to her lap before wincing and uncomfortably clearing his throat. "Prob'ly shoulda worn pants."

She gave him an openly incriminating expression, face blazing as she tugged her hem a little lower. "Just where are you looking," she hissed.

Soul only shook his head. "Ain't me you should be worried about," he said, ambiguous.

Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen? There were dogs everywhere. She couldn't count them, they were jumping and running around so much, swarming around her bare, bare legs.

"Oh gosh, I should've asked Ethan if you're allergic," said a tall, willowy woman with crinkled eyes. "Hello," said Mrs. Evans, soft brown hair, cotton pants, paint-splattered t-shirt, no shoes. "Good to meet you, call me Tanya. Are you allergic to dogs?"

Maka found herself laughing at the rapid-fire greeting as Soul's mother took the plate of cookies from her hands. Grateful to have her hands free, she glued them to her dress, attempting to keep dog snouts from where they shouldn't be. "No, I'm not," she replied. "Maka Albarn, pleased to meet you." And she truly was, to her surprise.

Tanya Evans ushered them inside the large home, stepping over dogs with ease. The woman seemed to have very little physical traits in common with her sons at first glance, but after a few moments of watching her animated face, Maka got the impression of Wes from Tanya, with that easygoing smile and crinkle of nose. "Spirit's daughter! Oh, look at you, you're just a darling. William! William they are here, heavens, I need to bring in the tea. Right this way, come in, come in! Ethan, take off that hat."

Maka heard a soft sigh behind her. "Yes ma'am." Over her shoulder, she gave Soul an amused look. He tiredly shook his head at her. "She only calls me 'Soul' when she's mad," he said. And then he was tackled by a greyhound.

Walking further into the large house, she was overwhelmed by the unfamiliar surroundings, the swirling mass of dogs in all colors and sizes, Soul staggering and cursing ("Eisenhower, dammit!"), and a balding man opening a sliding glass door on the opposite side of the house tiredly saying, "Whew! I'm as wore out as a cucumber in a convent."

After slapping a hand over her mouth, Maka believed her composure to be reasonable stable. She wondered if that was the singular, muffled laughter of Wes Evans filtering around an unseen corner.

"Pop!" Soul loudly hissed, struggling with the greyhound excitedly greeting him and heroically scooting another canine that was attempting to stick its muzzle a little too far up Maka's dress. He grit through his clenched teeth, "We have mixed company."

William (Bill) Evans, stout belly, ruddy-eyed, at least a foot shorter than his wife (and only slightly taller than Maka), introduced himself loudly across the living room. "Call me 'Pop'! 'Pologies in advance for anythin' what might be 'fensive outta my mouth." And then, to Tanya, he remarked, "She's cute ain't she," before gesturing behind him to the open glass door. "Hey, you reckon this tea's done?"

Soul's mother placed Tsubaki's cookies on a coffee table, sternly pointing at the nearest dogs to keep away from the goods. "I'm fixin' to get it here right now. Why're you sweating- did you catch fire again?" she asked, following him outside.

Unable to learn if 'Pop' Evans had lit himself on fire (he hadn't appeared singed in any way), Maka looked back at Soul, lips sucked in to keep from smiling too widely. Soul gave her an aggravated look, holding his face away from the greyhound's tongue. "D'you understand now?"

A giggle escaped her. "What, why you wanted to stay home?" Maka wore a broad grin. "Not in the slightest."

The entire world would be curds if it could, courtesy of Soul Evans's glower. "Wes," he called loudly, "Come git yer stupid dog!"




hock: ...kind of like the 'knee' of a horse's hind leg. Actually, I think it's more correct to think of it as an ankle? Anyway, they're a pain to keep wrapped and clean when injured, and tend to break open a lot when the horse bends its leg.

tetanus: as in a tetanus shot. If it's been awhile since your last booster shot (10 yrs), and you are injured (especially puncture wounds) it's recommended to get a shot to prevent infection.

sawbones: a kind of comically-old term for a doctor. The fact that Soul uses it makes Maka kind of amused.

rig: rigging. It's where the strap that cinches around the horse attaches to the saddle. Evidently Soul's had broken.

pipedown: shut up

hushpuppies: cornbread batter that has been deep fried into glorious submission

Clostridium tetani: hopefully, the correct term for the Tetanus strain. No guarantees.

deltoid: muscle located high in the shoulder.

'til the day I see Peter': as in Saint Peter, popularly the keeper of the gates of heaven. (Soul's saying Wes'll make fun of him til he dies.)

'wore out as a cucumber in a convent': ...if you need detailed explanation, you might should not be reading M rated things. The gist of it is, cucumbers refer to dildos, and convents refer to nuns. Extrapolate from there.


Marsh: Just another obligatory statement to let you know I have NO idea how horses react in certain situations. I've been informed that roan morgans probably don't exist anymore so.. yay! Oh well (sobbing). As for behaviors, I am very open to correction/suggestion, so please let me know if anything sounds awry.

Well, we're almost caught up to my backlog of stuff I had pre-written for this story, so updates will probably be a lot slower. Please be patient! I am trying my best! Thank you so much for your lovely reviews and support. It means everything to me.