Notes and vaguely helpful definitions at the bottom! I do not own Soul Eater, Jeep, or uhhh Nabisco? Whoever makes Oreos, anyway.

In her father's office, her hand ran across the saddle. She was infuriated to find dust on it. Sandy grit coated her palm and she made it her business to clear it all off Mama's pride and joy, swiping it repeatedly, determined to make it clean again. The dust revealed only more dust, which revealed more dust, which gave way to dirt and tree roots. She looked around for something to use, a shovel or pick or any kind of tool to help her get past everything in the way, but instead, she found something else.

On Papa's desk was that old cardboard box. It had once been white but had faded a greyish beige over time, held together with packing tape. It sagged a little to the side with the weight of its contents. The flimsy lid, creased from being bent more than once, beckoned her curiosity.

She wanted to know how such a benign looking object could keep her father from home so many hours a day. It was a Pandora's box of information, but she thought that the chance of hope at the bottom might not be worth releasing all the horrors in between- the things that have etched dark lines under Papa's eyes and kept his gaze focused somewhere else.

She decided not to open it, yet her hand was on the lid, lifting it away. Nothing crazy came flying out of it like she expected, so she leaned over, peering over the edge.

At the shadowy bottom, darkness squirmed and writhed, all hope smothered by snakes.

Maka woke forty minutes before her alarm. She felt with certainty from intangible sources that she would be better off staying awake than risking more dreams. She took her shower early, hoping that the corpse-like feeling that had settled into her skin would ravel away in the steam. The residual sense of foreboding gifted by her dreams only continued to drag at her.

She made her way downstairs to start the coffee. Maka navigated through the dim kitchen, not needing light to know where everything was kept. This was how she startled Soul Evans when he came in the back door and flipped on the overhead lights.

His reaction to seeing her only gave off more of the sense that today was just not going to be an easygoing day. The ranch hand froze in the doorway, hat already shading his eyes. Maka frowned at his less-than-friendly demeanor so early in the morning. Hadn't they been more or less on comfortable speaking terms after yesterday?

Well, if he wasn't going to say 'good morning', neither would she. Maka blearily poured water into the coffee maker, questioning the powers that be how she had let someone who could make her so irritable listen to Mama's cassette tapes. "You're up early," she said.

Soul recovered at this, shutting the door behind him. "...To pick up Pat," he explained. "Cept my truck ain't runnin'."

Maka paused in her scooping of fresh coffee grounds. She looked up at him in realization. "Oh."

"Came lookin' for you, to tell the truth."

She groaned, rolling her neck around in weary resignation. "You've already paid for gas, so you may as well."

He quietly huffed, which might have been a laugh. "What's that? You're not gonna threaten to kill me?" The slight teasing drawl to his voice finally broke the awkward atmosphere since he'd flipped the lights on.

Maka gave him Suzanne Albarn's patented Look. "I think it goes without saying that you know what's coming to you if so much as a paint fleck is missing."

His quirk of a smile was brief but real enough. The brim of his hat dipped down once in a nod. "That's better. Feels like a normal day, now."

Her mouth hurt from trying to be displeased and amused at the same time. She ended up asking if he wanted some coffee, but before he could answer, loud banging erupted outside.

Without looking at each other, Soul took off for the back door to investigate while Maka hurried to the boot tray to slip on her shoes. No sooner had she sunk her heels snugly into her black snakeskin, she heard the ranch hand begin shouting angrily outside.

The clover covering the ground near the stables was slick with dew, and she slid a little in her rush to see what Soul was cussing over.

Harley ran by, out and free, a giant plastic bucket between her teeth. As she trotted along the fence line, she purposefully smacked the bucket against each rail and post, scraping and rattling the entire way.

"You're gonna be glue you brat!" The horse had evidently felt too cooped up the past few days while her hock had been healing, and managed to escape the stables as well as let herself out of the corral. "Get your overpriced ass back here!"

Maka yawned to stifle her smile. "She needs to get back in before she breaks that scab open," she said.

Soul growled. "I know it, I know it. Where's Pat keep them ginger cookies..." He stalked off to the stables, but he got only as far as three paces before he stopped himself. "Ah, hell." Soul looked at Maka. "I still need to get Pat."

They both looked at his horse, who'd nearly manage to shatter the plastic bucket into shards, then looked back at each other.

He thumbed towards Harley. "You think you could..?"

"Like hell," Maka blurted.

Soul rubbed his face, looking apologetic. "Are you busy? Do you, uh, have to go to class or anythin'?"

Something inside her stomach decided to make the tiniest of somersaults, seeing Soul try to grasp after what he'd apparently noticed of her schedule. Maka decided some spicy food for lunch today should stamp that feeling right out.

She turned away with a grimace, heading back to the house, cheeks heating for reasons she sincerely hoped weren't actual reasons and more of some type of... social allergy. "Don't worry about it," she said over her shoulder. "I'll get Pat. Go catch your 'rowdy equine', Spitfire."

She retreated too quickly to catch what he'd sputtered.

It was too early in the morning, clearly. She wasn't firing on all cylinders. If she had been, the idea of Soul Evans actively attempting to get to know her better through careful observation would not have caused any inkling of pleasure whatsoever. She self-prescribed a travel mug of coffee to take with her to Liz's house to help clean out her mental issues.

Soul was still trying to coax his stubborn horse to him as Maka circled the driveway and left, watching in her rear-view mirror as all the house's windows came to life one by one. The cattle guards knocked her radio on as she passed over them, and Mama's tape began to play.

Maka sipped her coffee on the smoother expanses of road between memorized potholes. She believed she might be feeling better. Wakeful distance had dimmed the dread her dreams had given her- dreams which she could hardly recall in the first place. The sun was starting to peek over the far horizon, pebbled by silhouettes of trees. And then Patricia Thompson's signature red Jeep Wrangler flew past Maka going the opposite direction.

Her foot involuntarily let off the gas pedal, the truck coasting while she tried to make sense of what she had just seen. As long as she had known the woman, Maka had never seen Tina Thompson up before ten in the morning, so seeing her driving her daughter anywhere before the sun was even fully up was both strange and disconcerting.

The cassette tape clicked and switched sides as Maka slowly pulled off into the shoulder to make a wider turn for her truck on the narrow road.

Tina parked at the front door. The front door was a place where visitors parked when they 'requested a meetin'', and was not a natural place for Pat's Jeep to be. She noted that in the time spent driving halfway to Liz and Patti's house, her father had already left for work, his cruiser missing.

If Papa was already gone, why would Tina have bothered to come calling? As Maka walked up the back porch steps, she saw a very occupied kitchen through a window. The quiet murmur of the presence of multiple bodies filtered outside, led by Tsubaki's voice in higher, polite key- which wouldn't be an unusual thing to hear, except it was just a quarter after sunrise on a Monday morning.

Maka let herself in through the back door, and Tsubaki's words cleared, taking on a strained, awkward quality.

"I'm sure I've mentioned this already, but, as you know, the owner has already left for work-"

"You're the gee-em though, ain't you, honey? You handle all the money."

"Under his supervision, yes ma'am," Tsubaki answered politely.

Maka quietly shut the door behind her, the silence of no one turning to greet her making apparent the tenuous act everyone was putting on in the kitchen. Seated at the table was Tsubaki, who was dressed though hadn't had time to put her long hair in her usual ponytail, and the dark threads clung haphazardly to her face, accentuating the inconvenience Tina's arrival had caused. Across from her sat the woman in question, who'd made an overcompensated effort at looking professional for this meeting, which made her appear less like an adult and more like a young girl with strange wrinkles and aged skin attempting to dress maturely but hadn't had enough practice.

At Tina's elbow sat Patti, wearing her usual clothing to muck the stalls before having to attend class, but her face was glowing in embarrassment. She pointedly looked away from the table, focusing on Mitch who was starting up another fresh pot of coffee.

Seemingly oblivious to any kind of professional goings-on at the kitchen table, Blake Strickland mopped up egg yolk from his plate with a half-eaten slice of toast. He smiled brightly at Tina when she gave him an unamused look at his unneeded presence.

Despite everyone not acting casually, they were pretending that this was a casual affair, trying to negate Tina's attempts to make whatever it was she wanted a business matter. Maka sighed and toed off her boots to put back in the tray, one hand on the wall to keep her balance. She looked to the side and exchanged glances with Soul. He gave her one silent, implied warning while he dried his dishes with a slight raise and dip of his hat. Beware.

Tina pressed onward. "Surely he trusts you enough to not hafta watch every little thing?"

"That's not for me to say," Tsubaki replied.

Maka pulled a mug from the cupboard and leaned on the counter next to Mitch. She grabbed a slice of buttered toast from the mountain pile of it by the stove and held this out to Patti. "Morning, Pat," she said.

The girl wore the ghost of a smile and took the offered toast. "Mornin' Maks."

They were ignored.

"Everyone in town knows Sue Strickland," Tina said, leaning forward with her elbows on the table conspiratorially as if everyone in the room couldn't hear their conversation. "You're the one who's really runnin' this outfit while Sheriff Albarn's busy patrollin' and whatnot."

Maka watched a shadow pass across Tsubaki's face, a brief shimmer of anything but the calm she was presently displaying threatening to break through.

"So, I know you don't hafta call him up for every little decision. Patricia's not askin' for a million dollars, just a little advance to help her make it to next payday, you know?"

"Yer right, she ain't askin'," Blake said as he loudly scooted up and out of his chair, empty plate in his hands. Patti scrunched her eyes at that comment, as if willing to be anyplace but in the kitchen. Tina's back straightened high, frowning mouth already filled with venom to spit her indignation at his words, but Tsubaki hurriedly interjected to thwart incident.

"I do apologize for not talking with him about it when Pat first brought it up, but I've already told you I feel uncomfortable with making these kinds of decisions without the owner's input. I'll speak with him this evening to see what we can do."

The kitchen subtly shifted, relaxed, as Angel's End knew a dismissal from the General Manager when they heard one. Blake whistled as he rinsed his dish, Mifune poured Maka a cup of coffee, and Soul made his way to the back door to get to work.

Cristina Thompson, however, either did not hear the end of the conversation, or simply could not take 'no' for an answer. A falsely-amiable laugh came from her. "Well, you see, this evenin'? That's a little too late for us."

Patti placed her uneaten toast on the kitchen table, mouth pinched as if nauseated. Tsubaki's eyes flitted between the two Thompsons, trying to gauge Tina's meaning. Soul paused at the door, his hand on the knob. Maka froze with her coffee mug halfway up to her lips while Blake and Mifune exchanged glances.

Tina held her chin high. "As you may know, I am unemployed," she said matter-of-factly, with a shifting of her shoulders that challenged anyone who'd judge her for that statement, "and I am acceptin' my daughter's help to get on my feet."

Maka's hand tightened around her coffee as she watched Patti bitterly roll her eyes.

"But the bills're a little higher than normal this month? And if they don't get paid today, we'll be findin' ourselves in a bit of a situation."

She didn't like the sound of this one bit. "Pat," Maka said, "Is there gonna be some kind of troub-"

"Excuse you," Tina cut in with a glare like barbed wire. Maka bristled at being interrupted, but said nothing as she'd interrupted the conversation in the first place. What grated her most, though, was the way Patti's mother then turned her head back to Tsubaki, as if Maka wasn't even worth fully reprimanding. Incensed, she scowled, but Patti caught her attention.

The girl shook her head and mouthed a 'no', though Maka didn't know if she was answering her question or if that was her own version of beware.

"As I was sayin', that's why we're here askin' you for help. Even half a week's pay'd be fine!"

Conflict was apparent on Tsubaki's face, and the woman knew she had the attention of every pair of eyes in the kitchen, save Patti's. She sought after eye contact with the horse wrangler, but never received it. She sucked in a deep breath and let out a sigh, one hand rubbing the underside of her slowly-growing abdomen.

"I'm sorry, but this really is something that should be discussed with the owner, not just me," she said with sincerity.

All attempts at professionalism were dropped by Tina at this. "Really?" she asked, skeptical.

Patti finally turned her head towards her mother and hissed anxiously, "Would you quit, already?" but Tina paid her no attention.

"And Patricia speaks so highly of you."

Tsubaki's eyebrows shot to the ceiling, her voice coming out offended and bewildered, both. "I'm sorry?"

"Just what're you insinuatin'?" Blake blurted, abandoning the still-running faucet at the kitchen sink.

Cristina Thompson stood from her chair, hand slapping loudly on the table. The sound cracked through the kitchen like gunfire. "This is an emergency, here! Are you just gonna sit there and let-"

Maka knew the exact moment her vision bled to red. After seeing Tsubaki's polite mask fall off like peeling paint, watching Blake stride to the table and align himself at his wife's shoulder, and feeling the slight shift in the air around Mifune as his sights focused on Patti's mother, the very last straw that snapped Maka's control was Soul's wary call of her name, which might have been his attempt to calm her down, but only fanned the flame of her anger instead.

"Now wait a minute," she bellowed, slamming her coffee mug on the counter and ignoring its sloshing contents spilling everywhere. "If you're gonna be making underhanded remarks about our manager, do you mind also telling us exactly just what kind of an emergency you're in?"

With her hand still firmly pressed to the wooden table, Tina turned her head to regard Maka as one would upon finding a pebble in their boot. Her tone was sweet and heavy Southern Belle, reminiscent of her elder daughter but with an air of condescension. "I came here to have words with someone with authority, honey. So you kin butt yourself right on out of this, 'cause it ain't your business."

Needles rolled up her spine at the jab to her rank. Maka's mouth kept flapping despite knowing, faintly, somewhere in the endless depths of her pride, that she should probably shut it. "Regardless of my job here, I'll make it my business. If you got her into some trouble, I wanna know it, because here Pat's family to us."

What the other members of the ranch might be doing or saying around her, she was completely unaware. All her focus was on Tina Thompson and the almost amused shake of her head, a vicious smile tugging up on one side of her mouth. "No," she said. "She ain't." For all Maka knew, the house could have been in uproar or complete silence. The din of her boiling blood rushing through her ears was deafening, and yet this woman's voice cut through it all like a whip.

"What you need to understand," she said, "is that Patricia is not your sister." Her voice took on a quality that seared into Maka's bones, permanently etching themselves into her marrow like acid. "She don't live here. She's never lived here. She lives with me. She's my daughter."

Maka heard her teeth grinding in her jaw, but not loudly enough.

"She's my daughter and she'll do as she's told, 'cause she's a good girl. 'Cause I ain't dead."

Echoes of screeching chairs and scuffling boots vaguely made it through to what was left of her rational consciousness. Her throat burned, hot combs dragging their teeth across her vocal chords. She didn't know what she howled, only vehemently wished that what she wanted to express ("Get out get out go AWAY") would come out in a normal language. It must have worked, because that woman who dared call herself anyone's mother was retreating, tugging Pat by the wrist, baring her teeth at everyone who herded her towards the front door.

But then it occurred to Maka that she didn't want Patti to be taken away, and her blind fury blanched and evaporated. She became aware of her surroundings, of Blake's fuming face in her line of vision, of one of his hands tightly holding her arm to keep her from going any further across the front porch, of actually being on the front porch despite having no recollection of even passing through the door.

"The hell do you think you're doin'?" he hissed at her, while beyond him, in the driveway, Tina Thompson called at the same time, "Don't worry, Patricia will be findin' work elsewhere!"

Wait, no, what was happening!? What had she done? Panicked, Maka tried to move around Blake's roadblock of a body, and called out, "Pat?"

"We're goin'!"

"I don't see why I gotta go anywhere with you, who weren't never around but for a blink!" Patti's voice cracked as she screeched, pitched high and childlike as she tried to twist her wrist out of Tina's hand. "Lemme go! Maka!"

She rushed forward to pry her away from Tina, but Maka was harshly yanked back once more. Blake wrestled with her a moment before she finally looked at him, infuriated with his interference.

"Would you knock it off," he said. "Your fat mouth's made enough mess of everythin'!"

Behind him, Patti continued to call for help, but to Maka's incomprehension, no one went to her. Then Patti began to call out single names. "Sue? C'mon! Black St- Blake!" she pleaded, eyes wide as Tina ordered her to get in the Jeep.

Blake swallowed, grip never letting up on Maka's arm as he responded, "Mind your momma, Pat."

Shock painted Patti's face, her mouth forming around a 'what?' in disbelief, but voice failing her. With minimal nudging from her mother, she melted into the passenger seat. Tina firmly shut the door, ignoring everyone from Angel's End as she marched to the driver's side.

Maka couldn't make any sense of what was playing before her eyes. This wasn't how things worked on Mama's ranch! Behind the windshield, Patti's eyes focused to the left, and Maka followed them to Soul, who stood a few feet away on the porch. Conflicted, his eyebrows were drawn low, jaw clenched tightly.

The engine started, and Patti hurriedly cranked down the manual passenger window, her voice carrying over the lowering glass and through the chill morning, ringing for any one adult to step in. "Soul, please!"

Heart in her throat, Maka realized that, through his brother and her sister, Soul and Patti had a connection outside of the ranch, and she vehemently hoped that this was a good enough reason to get anyone on this damned property to do something useful! At Patti's plea, she watched the ranch hand's entire body jerk forward, but Maka's hopes were swept away as Soul restrained himself with a forced breath rushing out of his nose.

Leaning partially out the window, Patti's face fell and collapsed into betrayal as Soul said, "Go on now. You'll be late for school."

Tina backed up the Jeep and drove down the driveway, Patti numbly sitting in her seat. Maka didn't understand. Why was everyone standing around with their goddamn thumbs up their asses? She tried to escape Blake's grip again, but the man held her fast just the same. This was stupid!

"No!" she shouted at Soul, who looked at her in shock. She wanted to sink her fingers into his surprised face and rip him to pieces. "How can you let her go like that? You're like a brother to her, aren't you? You just abandoned her!" She relished the pained look that flashed across his eyes. "Why didn't you do anything?!"

"Because he's got more sense than a mule, unlike you!" Blake growled, forcing her to turn back and face him squarely. "What in God's name is your problem?"

"Wait," Tsubaki said worriedly from the door frame. "Black Star-"

"Did you NOT hear what she said?" Maka blurted, disbelief flooding her voice. "That-"

Blake Strickland leaned close and snarled, "You think you're the only one still hurtin'?"

Thrown off-balance, rage utterly tranquilized, she could only stutter, "W-what?"

"We all miss her, Maka, but you just can't control yourself, can you?"

She scrambled after her scattered pride and indignation. "I-! I wasn't gonna stand there and let her talk about Mama like-"

"Like she was dead?" Blake huffed uncomfortably, and there were less knives in his tone when he spoke again. "I hate that I gotta make it plain to you, but everythin' that Tina Thompson said was true."

Maka balked at this, refusing to believe it. He was mistaken! There had been a maliciousness to everything Tina had said, an offensiveness that turned even the most factual of truths into lies, but Maka neither knew how to explain it, nor properly convey why she had needed to react so violently at the mention of Suzanne. In the end, all she ended up murmuring was, "You don't understand."

"Of course I don't," he snarled, sardonic, and with a sudden and painful clarity, Maka saw something in his face that she had never once noticed in her entire life. "None of us were hers but you. I get it!"


Whatever kind of expression she had on her face only embittered him further. He shook his head angrily, changing the subject. "We're shorthanded as it is, alright? So what you gotta figure out is that the rest of us? We're still here. And if you keep tryin' to run everyone off 'cause you can't get a hold of your damned pride, then Maka, there ain't no purpose for any of us stayin' here."

Maka shied away from him, burned. He let her go without any resistance, but as she turned to walk away from the house, he said, "I ain't through with you, where d'you think you're goin'?"

"I'm gonna muck the damn stalls!" she hotly shot back, voice warbling and caustically echoing down the covered porch. Maka's shoulder brushed past Soul's as she misjudged the distance through her burning eyes.

She didn't know what she was going to tell her father. Explaining to him that, while he had probably still been driving to work, she'd screamed at a grown woman, ran her out of the house, and simultaneously lost Angel's End's horse wrangler was not something she wanted to do.

Re-incarcerated, Evans's Lipizzaner-wannabe snorted at her from the other side of a jerry-rigged gate lock. Soul's rushed handiwork shone with a length of heavy chain snapped together by a simple carabiner.

Blood still roiling with frustration and misery, Maka's first instinct was to simply shout at the stubborn horse. But having been around animals all her life, studying to become a veterinarian, and sitting through many lectures from Patti (the mere thought of whom made her gut twist) had taught her negative emotions towards a horse only brought trouble. She held her tongue.

If only she could remember that when she was around people. But the facts at hand said she hadn't, which caused Patti to lose her job, and now she had to take responsibility for her actions. Even if she felt such actions had been justified.

Then again, Mama probably wouldn't have condoned her behavior. (But if Mama had been around to not condone anything, this morning's conversation wouldn't have happened in the first place, would it.)

Maka's throat was tired from abuse, aching from yelling and holding back tears. She couldn't be sure which direction she was headed. She longed for the guide that her mother had always been, because everything was falling from her hands, and the emphasis now wasn't the exodus, but rather from whose hands it was all escaping.

She regarded the horse in front of her and grit her teeth. Harley shifted anxiously behind the gate, having heard all the morning's commotion. Beyond, the rest of the horses in the stables were making noises of nervousness, feeding off the cues from their snooty ambassador and accustomed to being let out by now.

"I really don't have time for you," she growled at the stubborn mare, whose ears were focused on Maka like twin laser sights of a gun. "How'm I supposed to clean up after you if you won't get out of the damn way?"

The horse, being a horse, didn't reply. Maka was not eager to open the gate separating them.

Luckily, just as she was coming to terms with knowing she'd have to go ask for help to distract the horse so she could get to mucking (which wasn't a pleasant thought as she didn't know who she could face after this morning), Harley turned away from her, called by silence.

Of all the people Maka had been bracing herself to speak with for assistance, Soul Evans had not been anywhere close to the top of the list, even though it was his own horse that was hindering her work. He stood outside the corral, Harley walking away to greet him.

The sun felt very warm on her cheeks as she stood there, her body a statue made entirely of guilt and and embarrassment. "Go on," he said to her conspicuous silence. "I'll keep her busy, but I got work to do."

The correct thing to do would be to thank him, or, better yet, apologize first and then thank him, but the expression on his face when she'd accused him of abandoning Patti this morning was too easy to picture under that hat brim. Maka fumbled with the carabiner clip and let herself into the corral, hurrying to the stables without a second glance.

She'd never felt more of a ranch princess in her entire life.

The hand stuck around long enough for Maka to clean out Harley's stall, and disappeared into ether the moment he'd locked the horse back up again. He hadn't seemed to want to talk to her any more than she'd wanted to look him in the face.

She let her frustrations do her work for her, quickly and vigorously mucking stalls in effort to keep abreast of the sun mercilessly arcing across the sky, but even so, the job should've been long done by now. She was working on the stall belonging to Mifune's horse (three-year-old gelding, paint, fondly named 'Cow'), when she was startled to find Soul had materialized back into existence.

He quietly regarded her, leaning on a support beam, and she had no idea how long he'd been standing there. Maka huffed, trying to shake off the adrenaline from being surprised. She tried her hand at a snide remark, because that was what she would have done any other day, but it came out timidly petulant at best. "...Thought you had work to do," she softly said. Angry with her sub-par performance, she redoubled her efforts at mucking the stall.

"I do," he replied behind her.

She waited for his boots to scuttle off somewhere but they remained firmly planted. Her gut twisted, not wanting to have any confrontation with this man so soon. She settled for sifting out manure from the bedding and ignoring him as best she could while having the distinct knowledge that she was being stared at.

After a nerve-grating silence, Soul drawled, "Now that Pat's gone, I imagine I'll be helping with her chores, so you may as well face me when I even got my hat turned up and everythin'."

She cringed in the stall, pitching a clump into an almost-full wheelbarrow. Pride warred with reluctance as Maka attempted to not sheepishly look over her shoulder. Soul's face was more or less neutral, bordering on uncomfortable. She wasn't sure what to make of the dark smudge high on his right cheek, but didn't let it distract her from bracing herself for what undoubtedly was coming.

"I need a ride to town."

Maka's eyebrows dragged together. "W-what?"

Soul's eyes shifted off to one side as he idly scratched between his shoulders on the post. He sighed. "There's a part in town I need to fix my truck."

Was she relieved he hadn't brought up this morning, or aggravated that she'd prepared herself for nothing? She couldn't decide. Turning away in her bemusement, she got back to sifting through bedding. "Just go ahead and take mine. You were about to earlier today already, I don't care."

But still he didn't leave, and her patience was wearing thin. He should spit it out already! Maka glanced once more at the hand. "...You know where the keys are," she said.

The words were barely out of her mouth when he shot back, "Come with me," as if he'd been waiting for her eye contact before he could say it.

She tried to say any number of excuses to get out of it. She had work to do, or she didn't need anything from town, or she trusted him with her truck, but all that came out was a handful of stammering. Something in Soul's expression, or posture, or imploring tone of voice only made her recall a conversation from the night prior- of her admission that she didn't hate him and his skepticism of that fact.

It's this and knowing she owed him an apology that made her turn back to her work and say, "Mitch's horse gets a scoop of sweet feed."

And her heart thumped anxiously in her chest when she heard him walk to the feed barrel.

It wasn't until she buckled her seatbelt that she realized his intentions for bringing her along. Up to that point, she'd been too busy trying to figure out why he'd wanted her to go in the first place- she wasn't even driving. But it was something in the finality of her seatbelt clicking together on top of the constrictive feeling of the strap over her chest that clued her in.

This was a trap.

The ranch hand had lured her with a false sense of security by not bringing up the scene she'd caused in the kitchen, and now had her trapped in a moving vehicle so she couldn't escape when he finally did bring it up. She knew some words needed to be exchanged, and she'd planned to get around to it, but on her own terms, and not corralled in a small space.

They've traveled almost to the point on the road where she had turned around after Tina Thompson this morning, when he started with, "So."

Maka thunked her head on the passenger window, hoping she could somehow phase through the glass. "Get it over with," she groaned.

She heard the familiar button clicks of the truck's cruise control being set. "About earlier, I'm pretty turned around on what happened."

She sighed, her breath fogging up the window.

"I'm just wantin' to get my facts straight."

"Well get to straightening."

The seat creaked a little. "First point bein': you're sore 'bout your mother and I should skip right over any mention of her."

Maka tensed, her bones aching with leftover acid.

"Second: the reason you're actin' all sullen is 'cause you know all that with Pat's momma coulda been handled different."

Bitterness seeped into her mouth as she recalled that woman standing in the kitchen, who'd reached out with her words, grasped the knife still embedded in Maka's heart, and given it that casual quarter-turn. Half of her insisted that her reaction had been justified, but the other half- the part of her that understood yelling only made things worse- told her she should have just held her tongue, and kept her accusations for someone who did have authority, like her obvious 'daddy-sheriff'. Instead of keeping her head, she'd lost it. Instead of handling the situation like the grown woman she was, she'd thrown a tantrum.

Instead of going to the police with her fears of what kind of trouble Tina may have put Patti in, she'd made everything worse by shoving the girl even further into Tina's hands, and yelled at other people in the process.

"Thirdly," Soul went on after a silence, " said some ugly things to me, Maka."

She grimaced. "I know it," she said to the window.

"But Tina is Pat's momma, so... there weren't anythin' I coulda done different from anyone else."

The apprehensiveness in his words caught her off-guard, dragging up memories of firelight glinting off silvery harmonicas. Maka looked away from the window, realizing that she'd been wrong once again. Soul watched the road as anyone with trouble on their mind watched without actually seeing.

This hadn't been a trap set up for her at all.

She said, "I know there wasn't anything you could do, no matter what I said."

The scant buildings and faded water tower of the nearest town slowly bloomed into view. Soul took in a big, calming sigh, though it did nothing to lessen his stormy expression. He took off the cruise control and coasted to stop at a train barreling by at a crossing.

"Her face," he said after awhile, and the inflection spoke for itself.

Like counting calves in the spring and fall, her eyes automatically followed each train car that passed. The words came easily when she realized they were both sick with heartache at the memory of Pat's broken expression as her mother drove them both away. "She'll forgive you. Probably not me, though." She felt rather than saw his glance. "If I had just kept my mouth shut, none of this would've happened." Maka watched the end of the train speed out of sight, the signal arms slowly reaching for the sky. "It wasn't your fault at all," she murmured.

Soul didn't reply. He drove to the town's single auto part shop and parked in the pot-hole-ridden lot. He left the truck running. As he opened the driver's side door and slid out, he stopped for a moment to look at her, adjusting his hat over his eyes for either public appearances or for what he was about to say.

"She still shouldn't've said that about your momma, or you. Tina, that is." And he shut the door and walked inside the shop.

Words of gratitude still had a tendency to get caught in her throat like everything else. She waited in the truck, and was grateful for the reprieve. It gave her some time to will away the flush that had overtaken her face.

When he returned, he deposited a heavy bag of various objects- boxes, quarts of motor oil, tools, shop rags- into the empty space between them, which she worriedly transferred into her lap for safekeeping the moment he turned out of the parking lot and it had slid to floorboard.

"Sorry," he said, but he sounded a little too amused to be sorry.

She huffed a little as she tied the handles of the bag into a knot. Then she noticed they were taking the long way home through town. "...Where are we going?"

"Just one more stop. Won't be but a minute."

Soul's last stop was at the local grocery. He came out of it with a small paper bag that had been rolled shut at the top.

"You wanna hold this one too?" he teased as he settled behind the wheel. Maka pursed her lips and took the bag from his hand, giving him a mild glare as she settled it next to her on the seat and kept her hand securely on it.

He turned up the volume on her radio a little and began the trip home. No more attempts at conversation were started by him, and Maka felt strangely at ease during the quiet drive. Mama's tape kept them company, and soon enough Soul was pulling into Maka's usual parking spot.

She was still unbuckling her seatbelt when he slowly reached over and retrieved the bag filled with auto parts. Before she realized what had just occurred, he was already out of her personal space and replacing her keys in the overhead visor. Then she saw he'd left the paper bag at her side.

"Ah, don't you need this one?"

Soul opened the door and exited the truck. Without looking at her, he said, "Naw, that one's yours."

Her seatbelt hissed as it retracted. "...What?" Maka opened the bag, peering into the shadows and finding a glint of blue at the bottom. She scoffed.

Soul leaned down a little to see her, one hand on the outside of his door. "Just keepin' my word good, Albarn." And he straightened and shut the door.

Maka watched Soul amble to the back porch and let himself in through the familiar door of her home. She took in the slant of the roof, the sturdy pillars, the thrown-open windows. Her hands slowly tightened around the paper bag, wishing to close the gaps between her fingers so nothing could fall between them.

At the bottom of the bag was a package of Oreos.


'gee-em' - GM. General Manager

muck - to clean out/freshen up horse stalls. they kinda poop a lot.

'jerry-rigged' - also 'jury-rigged', meaning hastily organized or assembled, or crudely put together in a pinch.

carabiner - also karabiner, it's just a metal hook or loop thing with a section of it spring-loaded so that it only opens in one direction. you probably have one on your keychain or backpack.

sweet feed - a type of feed given to horses with a bit of molasses mixed in. The molasses was originally used to help supplements and vitamins and what have you stick to the feed, but some horses just really like it because it's tasty. it's debateable the benefits of one feed over another, but regardless, Mifune has a soft spot for animals and cute things, and likes to give Cow something sweet now and again.


Marsh: Hey guys. It's been awhile, yeah? This chapter was giving me a lot of hell, for reasons I think should be obvious by now. Not so obvious are some of my IRL issues, which I am trying to get a hang of as well. I want to thank every one for their support in both fandom and real life, and sometimes both at once. If you have any questions, please feel free to drop them in reviews, or PM's, or asks on my tumblr. Thanks very much.