Marsh: Soul and Maka continuing their game of 'shit, that's not what I meant'. Also some more Blake Strickland, because he is the best.

I do not own Soul Eater, Google, Chevrolet, Nabsico, Keystone Light (thank god), uhhh and any other trademarks/brands/whatever I may have mentioned.

Her father liked a spoon of sugar and two glugs of cream in his coffee.

"Sweets." He was seated in his usual booth at the diner. "I already know what happened," he said, knowing Maka had a tendency to fix his coffee for him when she felt guilty. Liz wasn't on shift, so another waitress brought them their food. Maka scooted his mug towards him and glumly regarded her salad.

"What'd she say to you," Spirit asked, concerned.

Maka wryly smiled as she unwrapped her napkin from her provided silverware. "Nothing I didn't already know," she replied. In fact, as she'd gone through yesterday's incident a hundred times last night, unable to sleep, she'd realized she had admitted much the same things Tina Thompson had said.

Not all that long ago, either, to a cowboy next to a campfire under the stars.

Her father sipped his coffee. After a moment, he said, "I'm in contact with her parole officer."

She looked up at her father, curious.

"We'll keep an eye out, should they get mixed up in anythin' they shouldn't."

A heavy pressure gently eased from her chest. "I'm sorry," she blurted as relief filled her heart.

"I know you are."

"I'll take care of it."

"I know you will."

Maka mixed dressing into her salad, solemn and grateful.

"How was your Easter," her father asked, and the heavy moment was over.

At the mention of the holiday, her memory flitted to the ghost-like sensation of a hand between her shoulder blades, and she shifted uncomfortably under Spirit's stare. "Ah... it was alright," she hedged. She recalled all too easily the glare Spirit had when Soul had been standing in her bedroom doorway, and it was clear he knew exactly where she'd gone on Sunday. Maka attempted to avoid the ranch hand as a direct subject.

She made a show of counting all of Soul's family members on her fingers. "Wes, Tanya, Bill, and Ruth all say 'hello'. Oh, it seems like Ruth doesn't like Tina much, either," she said, a tiny, amused smile creeping on her face.

Spirit shook ketchup over his fries. "She doesn't like any of the Thompsons," he remarked.

Her smile was wiped clean. "Really?" she asked. Though she remembered getting a strange feeling about it during Easter, she'd given Ruth Evans the benefit of doubt. "Even though Wes and Liz have been together for awhile?"

He nodded and took a hurried bite out of his patty melt. "Thinks 'Lizbeth is one of them buckle bunnies."

Maka stared at her father, having never heard him use the term 'buckle bunny' in her life. "A bu- what? No she is not!"

"Of course she's not, 'hon," he said, trying to placate her. He waved a hand, gesturing to lower her voice. "I'm sayin' what Ruth Evans thinks, is all."

"So she thinks Liz is after him for money?" she hissed, offended. "I know she's wanted a nice set-up for a long time, but she's not that kind of person!"

"I know it, Maka."

"I know you know, I'm just mad," she spat. She had really liked Ruth, but now she didn't know what to think!

Spirit motioned for more coffee to be brought over. "Ruth is tryin' to protect her grandson. Miss Tina has a reputation that's runnin' off to her daughters. That's all what's happenin'," he calmly said.

"That doesn't make it right- they shouldn't be judged over what their mother has done-"

Maka blinked. Her father said nothing, merely nodding once more in agreement as he tipped cream into his refilled cup. She wondered if she had any right at all to be speaking the words she'd just blurted.

"Your mother and Ruth used t'know each other. Maybe you'll talk some sense into her." Part of her reflexively tensed at the mention of Suzanne, but the majority of her attention was focused elsewhere as Maka watched, rather worriedly, as Spirit drained his coffee like it was water. He set the empty mug down. Food half-eaten, he tossed the napkin from his lap on the table.

"Maybe," she said, distracted. "Papa," she started to ask, but she felt, distantly, that she was opening a lid to a box of which contents she didn't want to examine. After analyzing the dark smudges under his eyes, she changed her question to, "How's work been?"

He stood from the booth, pulling his wallet out of his back pocket with the familiar motions she had seen countless times before. He sighed, and gave her a cryptic answer that didn't make her feel reassured like she'd hoped.

"Keep your wits on, sweets. Mama's not gonna call us out when we're goin' too far, anymore," he said as he paid for lunch.

One worry replaced another while she watched her father leave the diner. Looking up at a yellowed wall clock, she realized she needed to head back to the vet, her lunch break nearly over. She asked a server for a take-out box, deciding to save Papa's food for him.

Maka gathered her belongings and walked toward the diner door. She was thrown slightly off-balance as it was pulled open from the outside by an incoming customer. As she stepped out of the building, she turned her head up to a tall man and habitually thanked him.

She was startled to recognize his face. It was Maddy Georgian's burly chauffeur.

Her feet faltered when, in turn, recognition flashed across his scruffy features as he looked down at her from his towering height. She watched as he paused a moment, then deliberately looked away, greeting someone out of her line of sight.

She dared not turn her head when he said, "Afternoon Miss Georgian." The man shifted slightly, not invading Maka's space but still subtly suggesting that she should move out of the way.

Her blood was already boiling, remembering the owner of Lazy S and her voice forever in the back of her head, repeating 'cherish it'. She moved out of the way, resolutely walking to her truck and telling herself that she couldn't make another scene; every time she lost her temper nothing good ever came from it. She shouldn't look. She shouldn't look. She needed to keep her wits on.

She looked.

It wasn't who she'd expected. The unfamiliar woman's features were similar to Maddy Georgian's in that the two women were beautiful in some refined way, but that was as far as the similarities went. Perhaps they only shared a last name. Perhaps she had nothing to do with Maddy Georgian and everything was coincidence.

Even her manner of speaking was different, vowels drawn long and quietly southern. "Boone. Ah know we're here on business, but ah must insist: call me Renee."

Maka forced herself to unlock her truck's door as she heard 'Boone' laugh good-naturedly, though it sounded a little hollow. "Force of habit, Miss Renee. Your sister ain't the most personable employer," he said, voice fading, the diner door chiming as it closed.

She knew she was being nosy. She couldn't justify booting up her laptop and Googling 'Renee Georgian', but she was watching the painfully deserted front desk at the vet, her paperwork was done, and there was high-speed internet for the taking.

Maka hadn't expected to find anything, much less see a professional photograph of the woman she'd seen at the diner, complete with Wikipedia article.

Renee Georgian, CEO of Hourglass Diagnostics, brunette, and an appallingly youthful fifty-three.

Hunching closer to her laptop, Maka found Renee to have her fingers in an impressive array of pies, various businesses with her influence scattered across the country. On top of the diagnostic labs, she was involved with textiles, oil refineries, cosmetics, wineries, and even a brief mention of a law firm. Known philanthropist and a rising figure in the stock market circuit, she sounded amazing and entirely too rich to be seen eating at the local greasy-spoon diner in a town with a population of less than two thousand.

But the photo was a dead ringer for the woman she'd seen, without a doubt: Dark eyes, darker hair, and a shock of blood red lipstick on a pale, porcelain face.

"That has to be a typo," she muttered after double-checking the woman's date of birth.

Maka closed her laptop and drummed her short, blunt nails on the surface. To be honest, there hadn't been anything suspicious about that woman, so she didn't understand why she felt so apprehensive.

The more she thought about it, the less justification she had for her uneasiness. The only strange thing she could pinpoint was 'Boone's' deliberate lack of reaction after having recognized her at the door, but then again, she didn't know anything about the man or his habits, so she was back at square one in her unexplainable musings.

Abruptly jolted out of her distraction, Maka jumped in her seat, the front desk's phone loudly ringing. The plastic handset felt chilled against her ear as she tried to relax on her barstool. "Nygus Veterinary- how can I help you?" she answered reflexively.

"That you, Maka?"

She blinked, numbly waving to a local mail carrier walking past the front windows as she parsed the voice on the other line. "Wes?"

David Wesley Evans was the type of person who gave directions though landmarks and approximates, because street names were too beyond him to remember accurately. It was a common practice for those who'd grown out on dirt roads with road signs bearing naught but buckshot scars, but impractical for a town that had actual lights instead of faded stop signs. It took Maka fifteen minutes longer than necessary to navigate to his one-story brick house in a quiet, back pocket of a town.

"Honestly, if you'd just given me the address I could've looked it up on my laptop before I left work," she pouted at him after she parked her truck near his mailbox. He laughed, giving her that bear hug that she still wasn't accustomed to, but she saw the tightness at the corners of his eyes.

"Yeah, prolly. Glad you made it though." He gestured toward the front door. "Lizzy's inside."

Wes's living room contained a small arrangement of cardboard moving boxes and Elizabeth Thompson sitting on the floor, head resting on a plush couch behind her. Upon seeing Maka enter with a case of Keystone Light, the older woman didn't say hello, though she half-way smiled. Worrisome awkwardness bounced between all three of them until Wes left to take care of errands he wished he could put off, trusting his girlfriend into Maka's care.

"You know," Liz said with the opening hiss of her beer when it was just the two of them, "this is about all I ever wanted." She swept her arm wide, indicating the bright windows facing the backyard, sliding glass door revealing a glittering swimming pool. "Central A/C, a house with a concrete slab under it, loungin' around with cheap beer-"


"Thanks fer bringin' it, by the way. I'll pay ya back."

"It's on me."

"You're prob'ly busy."

"I have time."

"You don't wanna hear my drama."

"Yeah I do."

Liz slumped a little further into the blue-gray carpet, her hair sticking to the plush cushions of a microfiber couch. After tilting the can back for a sip, she helplessly said, "He's such a good guy, Maka. He didn't even ask it like a question when he found out. 'Jus said 'you'll live with me and we'll git through it', and showed up like a knight on a big... Chevrolet horse." She smiled, but at a dim wattage. She reminded Maka fiercely of Patti. As if reading her mind, she lifted up her wrist and glanced at an old, scratched watch. "Pat's gettin' home 'bout now, figurin' it out."

Everything in Maka's chest tightened with an ice that burned. She tried to keep her voice neutral, but her hatred for Tina Thompson bled between her teeth. "Why'd she kick you out?"

Liz shrugged. "We fought about gas money. Pretty dumb, huh? Then some creep came knockin' on the door lookin' for her and wouldn't tell me what for, and I was scared she was gettin' in drugs again so we fought about that too. Then I heard Pat lost her job- I'm really sorry for whatever Tina musta said to ya'll," she said earnestly, veering off the subject. "Don't take it to heart, she's 'jus gotta stir up trouble everywhere."

Maka groaned, face heating with guilt. "Don't apologize, it was my fault she took Pat away. And besides, Tina's not your responsibility-"

"Yeah she is," Liz scoffed. She tiredly looked at the living room ceiling. "She's got this need, like everyone's out to get her, so she's... harsh, and she's dramatic, and... so damn tiring. All it do is git her more up shit creek." She sighed, the dry sound trapped between squat pillars of Liz's scant belongings boxed in tan cardboard.

"She's your mother though, and a grown woman," Maka insisted, not comfortable with how heavily weighed down her friend's shoulders seemed to appear.

"Naw, she ain't," Liz replied. "Well, she's my momma, but she never growed up." The glowing, sun-kissed makeup she always expertly wore couldn't hide the age in her face. She idly searched the ceiling for something that Maka knew couldn't be found in daylight. "I abandoned her, Maks. I left her alone with Momma."

With a pang, Maka swallowed, having personal experience knowing when that particular word was being thrown around incorrectly. "No you didn't," she said, vehement.

Patricia Thompson would be eighteen in two months. Until then, a friend of the Evans family whom Wes would speak with would try to help Liz fight for custody, though Liz had seemed unwilling to accept any more of her boyfriend's help.

Still troubled with the thought of the Thompsons and also extremely late for supper, Maka finally pulled onto Angel's End. She went to the stables first, and found what she'd unhappily suspected: Soul had taken care of the horses in her absence. She wasn't ungrateful, and they had agreed to split the duties because of Maka's veterinary work, but she still hadn't wanted the ranch hand to take over her responsibility the very first day- she had enough guilt to deal with as it stood.

Patti, Liz, Tina, and Soul all jumbled her thoughts as she walked into the kitchen, and she was unprepared to see Blake Strickland still sitting at the kitchen table, peering intently at the screen of an old flip phone too small for his hands. At her entrance, Blake gave her a contemplative stare.

"Where've you been," he asked, no question mark.

Maka glanced at the phone in his hands, then back at his guarded eyes. She moved to the cabinet that held the drinking glasses. "Wes called me. I helped Liz unpack." And got the older woman inebriated, but she kept that to herself. Though she no longer faced him, she could feel the absence of Blake's eyes like a relieving weight as she poured milk into the glass. Behind her, she heard quiet button tapping.

He finished his text and snapped the phone shut just as she heavily set the glass of milk on the table directly in front of him.

"You want milk," she said, no question mark. Blake looked at the glass and then at her. Maka frowned at his expression. "What, did I sprout horns or something?"

"That's what I'm still decidin' on," he said warily.

She rolled her eyes and dug through the kitchen pantry, moving to her secret space behind the canned artichokes that no one named Blake Strickland would ever touch. She pulled out a brown paper sack, sat in the chair next to him, and placed the bag between them.

Elbow on the table, chin propped in a hand, she feigned indifference as he opened the bag and set out the new package of Oreos. Without a word, Blake peeled open the plastic, took a cookie, and dunked it in the milk. The only sound in the kitchen was muffled crunching for awhile, until his phone buzzed on the tabletop.

He ignored it. He ignored the next two buzzes, but the air still hung heavily between them with unspoken words. It wasn't until he's through the first row of cookies, the glass of milk speckled with chocolate crumbs, that she finally said something.

"You're hers, too," she said. She thought for a moment that she should correct herself from present tense to past, but she decided against it.

Blake didn't say anything, but he handed her the next Oreo.

Nothing else was said as they ate, and it slowly became a challenge to finish the entire package; it had become a gluttonous symbol of reparations, and the session couldn't be complete until it was empty.

Maka rested her face on the table and groaned. "I think I'm gonna be sick."

Blake grimaced, twisting the last sandwich cookie apart for them to split. "Quit whinin'. I ate the first row by myself."

She chewed on the cookie half like an unwanted vitamin and swallowed. She stuck out her tongue in disgust.

Chugging the last of the milk, Blake let out an uncomfortable belch that rang throughout the kitchen like signalling the end of a rodeo ride. "Oh yeah, 'fore I forget," he said before slapping a crookedly folded sheet of paper next to the carcass of Oreo packaging.

His chocolate-marred grin put her on edge. Her hand cautiously closed over the paper. "...What is it."

"Bought and paid for is what. So you'n the spitfire better not waste my cash, right?"

As she opened the sheet and vaguely registered the creaking of the stairs as Blake Strickland's hasty retreat from her growing ire, Maka gazed at her name snuggling up next to 'Soul Evans', both listed in a sixteen step competition for an upcoming rodeo.

Nobody said anything about a competition! "Black Starrrr," she hissed, wishing to roar but not willing to wake anyone who might be asleep at this hour, and that damned skunk-heart's evil chuckle cartwheeled down the stairs to her burning ears.

Tsubaki made a sigh of relief as she sat down. "I'm worn out. Will you call in the stragglers for me?" she asked, propping her feet up on an empty chair.

Maka took a quick headcount of who was already tucking into lunch (which was easy, because it was only Blake), and made her way outside. Three missing. No, she corrected, two missing, the third in guilt-tripping absence (but it didn't sting so much because she was usually still in school during lunch time). Then Mifune bumped into her on the porch.



"Dinner's ready."

For a moment, they stood in silence as she took in the worn laundry basket filled with what would normally have been considered a random assortment of clothing, but she knew better. Maka didn't mention it or the tell-tale rattle of a sewing kit in his shirt pocket. They parted ways without incident.

One down, one to go. She knew the ranch hand had been spending his free time working on his truck. She hadn't yet had a chance to talk to him alone since their joint trip to town the day before last, and she thought she might, maybe, if she felt like it, if he didn't call her some variant of 'short', thank him for a few various reasons that she would not catalogue right this moment.

Also, that dance registration paper had been burning a hole in her back pocket with the fury of a hundred summer suns. Maka wondered if Soul already knew about it, or what his reaction had been when he found out. She walked down the gravel driveway to the guest house where Soul's truck sat parked. Various auto guts were scattered across a tarp on the ground, including a recently scrubbed fuel tank.

She neither saw nor heard any sign of him. She hesitantly bowed to look under the truck, but found the space unoccupied. A knock and a peek behind the unlocked door of the guest house proved the same result.

Maka frowned, shutting the door. Had he gone in the house from the other direction, and they missed each other in the process? Slightly irritated, she walked back to the main house and entered the kitchen.

Tsubaki noted her befuddled expression. The woman asked a question with her eyebrows.

Maka answered with her own. "Did Evans get around me?"

Blake spoke up. "Wasn't at his truck?"

"Or in his place, either," Maka supplied.

The kitchen went very still.

"...He couldn't have gone far," Tsubaki tried to be reassuring as Maka stomped over to the counter where all the handheld radios were charged, and painfully, obviously, all present. She angrily yanked one from its cradle; one that was the oldest and yet the least scratched and battered from ranch use, because it had become the least used.

She didn't wait to see which directions Blake and Mifune chose. She just walked straight to that old red truck and let her guts do the rest. Fuming, Maka studied the horizon for idiot-sized shapes, wondering if she should've taken Skully, wondering if she should've taken a gun to shoot that idiot in the foot so he couldn't wander off...

Then Crona came around a tree, pushing his way through fresh spring grass already taller than himself to come greet her. She scowled, but tried to keep her voice light for the dog, seeing as he wasn't the one she wanted to strangle. "Hey buddie," she grumbled, and hurried in the direction the chihuahua had come.

Ankles crossed and hat over his face, Soul Ethan Evans was having himself a doze under a budding cottonwood tree. His chest rose and fell, and Maka, irate, started cussing so colorfully she was positive her mother would be proud, though her intensity scared the poor dog away.

Soul bolted upright, hat falling off his face to tumble out of his lap. He shouted in surprise, swearing his own slew of words. The moment he realized what was going on around him, he roared, "What in the hell's wrong with you!?"

That was what she should be saying! "I'm gonna knock you so hard you'll see tomorrow today!"

"Well mornin' to you too, sunshine," he sneered, dusting off his hat.

Incensed, she wedged her boot under his knee and shoved, wanting nothing more than to kick him in his grumpy face but settling for this instead because she didn't want his stupid brains dirtying her boots. "You jackass fool! If you aren't at home you take a goddamn radio!"

"Would you quit kickin'-" he shouted, struggling to get on his feet and away from her. His breath came out in a rush once he stood, because she immediately jabbed the radio into his gut. "It weren't like I was far, dammit," he wheezed. "You can see my truck from here."

Maka grabbed a fistfull of his shirt and yanked, hearing a couple snaps pop open. She hissed, "I don't know what it was like on your ranch, but on mine, if you're by yourself where no one knows, you take a radio."

"Alright, fine! My mistake!" Soul shrugged out of her grasp, looking irritated. "Calm the hell down, why're you so red-assed about-"

"Dinner's ready so you best get in and say sorry to Sue for making your meal and then apologize to everyone else for wasting their time looking for your dumb ass!"

Maka spun away, headed back to the house to try to cool her head and maybe reassure Crona that none of her anger was with the dog.

"Albarn. Maka, 'jus wait a minute," he called behind her, frustrated. A hand wrapped around her upper arm and held fast until he could twist her to face him. His mouth opened and started to form around something, but his anger and confusion were wiped clean, replaced by bewilderment the moment he took in her face.

She didn't want to know what was on it. Whatever it was, she tried to mask it with a glare, shoulders inching up in defense.

"...Maka, what," he started to ask, and his voice was too soft, too hesitant for her to keep a firm grip on her fury she kept sealed around something else she hadn't wanted to feel- something she hadn't wanted him to see her feel.

Baring her teeth in a snarl, she could only say, "Ask Sue," in a kind of desperation before she slid out of his grip and retreated.

Nothing else could have been squeezed out of her closing throat but that, anyhow.

Once she was back in the kitchen, she tried to absorb the normalcy the surroundings offered, but other things pressed in on her that she couldn't confidently hold at bay. She tried her best not to stomp up the stairs, attempted to appear serene, apathetic, uncaring, as Tsubaki radioed the other cowboys that Soul was accounted for, as Soul haltingly both apologized and tried to figure out with confused questions what was going on, as Maka quietly holed herself up in the bathroom.

She leaned heavily on her palms against the smooth countertop. A glance to the mirror clued her in to what Soul Evans had seen, and she averted her eyes. Her hands, flat and trying to suck the stability out of the very bathroom tile because she needed to get a grip, seemed to belong to someone else- as if this particular splay of fingers or this collection of blunt, uneven nails or this combination of vanity lights and midday sunshine streaming in from the small window above the bathtub/shower combo temporarily disguised them as her mother's- and she's caught between wanting to stare with a guilty, craven sense of homesickness, and wanting to look at anything besides another mirror.

Through the door, even though Tsubaki's words were muffled and incomprehensible, Maka could feel the cadence, the amount of syllables, the unforgiving, still-waters-running-deep kind of ring to them. It was the easiest game of fill in the blanks.

"Mrs. Albarn forgot her radio, once."

And it was his, now. Older, but just a little more pristine than the others.

Somehow, in the moment she'd believed she was safe from those not subtle glances at the kitchen table from a certain nosy ranch hand (whom she was still slightly cross with for having made her heart momentarily collapse at the sight of him at the foot of a tree, motionless), he appeared.

He seemed to be very good at that.

Around her, horses were munching loudly on feed as she cleaned out and refilled water buckets, and there he was, pulling his shadow/shade materialization trick, adrenaline shooting to her toes from being startled.

"Keep that up and I'll cancel your birth certificate," she tried not to wheeze at him.

"Keep what up?" he slowly asked, confused.

Maka growled to herself and kinked the hose as she walked to the next stall. He hadn't shown those typical Evans signs of playing innocent, so she didn't pursue it. Instead, voice neutral, she said, "I can take care of it all today, so don't worry about it."

He replied, "Then take care of it," which made her grind her teeth. If he wasn't here to help, then he was here to confront her about earlier, and past events had taught her that she wouldn't find a way out of it.

Very tiredly, she said, "Just ask it."

There was a long silence, punctuated by the splash of water in the bottom of a bucket. Eventually, Soul said, "I won't."

Her hands tightened around the hose, unsure.

"You still look pretty sore about it, so."

She wished she could decide if she was grateful for his observation or frightened that he had observed anything to begin with. If she glanced at him now, would his hat brim be up or down? She didn't look.

"Ain't why I came here, anyhow." He paused while she moved on to the next stall, which was, unfortunately, closer to where he was leaning on his preferred post. "'Pologized to everyone else, but didn't get a chance to say it at you."

Was every confrontation with him going to involve some kind of reverse, sneak-attack guilt trip?! She shook her head, concentrating on her work. She'd tried this tactic before, and it hadn't worked so well then, but it was her only fallback: focus on anything but Soul Evans. "Forget about it," she said, "I... overreacted. I was-"

Seeing ghosts. Seeing ghosts that lived in the shadows knit by familiar trees, who left caricatures of her mother in her face and on the backs of her hands when she wasn't looking.

Determined, Soul moved himself closer, sneaking in from the side to stand in front of her. He stooped a little, to catch her eyes. On a better day, she'd spray him with the hose to get him out of her face, but as it was, she could only scramble to keep her face blank, unable to keep up with his myriad of little polite surprises.

"Sorry. If you got worried 'cause of me." The hat brim was pushed out of the way.

It was programmed in her, it seemed, her response to his apology something deeply ingrained from hearing it so many times in her youth, and refreshed in her memory from receiving it the day before yesterday.

"I know you are."

That ruddy color was saturated with a reddish cinnamon, even in the darkening evening.

"I'll not do it again."

She was back at the diner, but it felt as if she hadn't switched booths, though the words in her mouth belonged to the other side.

"I know you won't."

Satisfied with this, he took a step back, straightening and saying nothing as she moved on to the next stall with the hose. Maka heard his boots across the floor, headed towards the door. But they stopped, and, damn her, she looked back.

He turned on a bootheel, and she was reminded of that icy night in the mudroom, when he'd told her his name.

"But... don't tell me to ask Sue again," he called from the door. Maka's eyebrows furrowed, wary and two steps from being defensively angry, but he added, "'Jus... whenever you feel like answerin'. I'll ask you."

Why this distinction was a deal for him, she couldn't fathom, and why this distinction made her face warm, she equally couldn't fathom. She said, "Okay," but so quietly she wasn't sure anyone in the world had heard her, and Soul turned and disappeared around the corner.

Bluebonnets were beginning to bloom on the unkempt shoulders of the back roads, though it was hard to pick them out in the slate grey gloom of a spring storm. Water sluiced up the windshield of her father's old diesel pickup, occasional gusts of wind tugging on the empty gooseneck trailer she was hauling.

She'd asked for the day away from the vet so she could help haul the yearling cattle born last spring, and though she knew the full shipment wouldn't have been able to be taken without her, she regretted having taken the day off, considering the outcome.

The morning had started sub-par: riding out in the rain to gather the herd and trailer them had taken longer than it should have, the herd being uncooperative and breaking away multiple times.

The worst of it though, had been their buyer. She didn't know the figures off the top of her head like Tsubaki did, but she had a feeling the deal they'd been cut didn't even cover the upkeep of the yearlings they'd just sold. Going into the deal, they had expected a loss, but not one quite this large.

The storm dropped a handful of pea-sized hail for a moment before mellowing to a warm drizzle, thunder rumbling far away. By the time their caravan of empty stock trailers pulled onto Angel's End, the rain had stopped completely, which at least made unhitching a little more bearable, and gave Maka enough time to take care of the horses before supper.

If there was one thing she was grateful for today, she decided as she mucked stalls, it was a lack of strange men appearing from the ether.

The evening meal was a chatterless, subdued event, with an air of defeat made more apparent by Mifune's silence. The foreman was naturally a quiet sort of man, but this brand of quiet was loud, speaking of his disappointment with the day's events. He was always pensive when he found he'd miscalculated something, and with an error this large, Mifune wouldn't even touch his string beans or cornbread, and excused himself from the table early.

Tsubaki, who looked ready to fall asleep in her chair from stress and work and growing a human being in her belly, still had her reading glasses forgetfully perched on her head. She must have already gone through the finances and reported the results to Spirit. Also noticing her exhaustion, Blake and Soul offered to clean up the kitchen after supper, so Tsubaki hobbled her way up to bed.

Maka, still seated with most of her food on her plate (she'd found she hadn't much of an appetite, either), gazed at both her father's empty chair and nothing at all, wondering what his reaction was to Tsubaki's news. She wondered if that offer letter he kept in his shirt pocket felt a little heavier. Wondered how heavy it must become before he couldn't stand under the weight of all those zeroes anymore.

She ate a few more bites and then replaced them from the spread still on the table, adding them to her uneaten food and saving the plate for when her father came home, whenever that would be.

She made a stop at the laundry room, grabbing her designated basket of clothes and carrying it to her bedroom. Numbly, she began to fold her things, mind focused inward. She'd already decided she would find a way for Angel's End to break even, but with all the drama and work going on, she hadn't come up with a decent idea on how to do it. The situation weighed heavily on her mind, especially after the loss they'd taken today; she had to do something soon.

Shaking out a pair of jeans, something was flung to the floor and skittered under her bed. Maka groaned as she bent to hands and knees, pulling out a small, unidentified wad. She recognized it for what it was after an eyebrow-scrunching beat.

Washed and dried into a stiff, almost velvety block, the sixteen-step registration paper had faded to near illegibility. She sighed. She still needed to talk to Soul about that.

Maka tossed the folded paper to her bedside table like skipping a rock on a pond, but then, as if the idea of the rodeo had been dragged from the depths by destructive ripples, she suddenly knew what to do. She flew out of her bedroom, hurrying down the stairs to shove her feet into her boots.

She'd sworn off segregated rodeo games, and it wouldn't be enough to break even, but it would be a start, at least, even if she had to sacrifice a bit of her pride. That stuff was getting too much in the way lately, anyhow, right?

Maka half-ran all the way there.

She thought he must have been comfortable up until she knocked, because he was preemptively glowering when he answered his door, but she was too breathless and excited to care. In any case, his glower was replaced by surprise when he looked down to her height.

"Did Black Star tell you about it? The competition. At the rodeo."

Soul got over her sudden appearance at his doorstep quickly with her straightforward dive into conversation. His face grew weary as he replied, "He did," with a sour twist of his mouth.

Maka waved off his attitude; she had more important things to tackle, adrenaline and excitement pushing her ever forward. "Look, I'm- I know I said I wanted nothing to do with it, but things keep getting crazy, and now our buyers have gotten spoiled rotten 'cause of that Lazy S ranch, so something needs to be done- and so I'm thinking about entering," she blurted out, rapid-fire. "For the purse. I decided if I have to lose a little face to keep Mama's land, then I'll do it."

After her spiel, Soul blinked, though it would be more accurate to say the cowboy closed his eyes for a long moment while a small crease slowly formed between his eyebrows, and rubbed his bandana covered head with a hand. "...Okay?" he said dubiously. "I'll... help you? Is that what you're askin'?"

Slightly embarrassed, Maka flashed a shy smile. She realized she hadn't asked him a question in the first place. No wonder he looked so confused. "Y-yes, that's why I'm... if you don't mind, that is." As much as she hated to admit it, the ranch hand was district calf-roping champion, and there were probably things she could learn from him. If she entered for the competition, she'd be stupid to not seize any opportunity to help her win the prize money- she had to keep her wits on, and had the ranch to think of.

Soul slowly shrugged. "Not particularly," he said, looking awkward. "What is it you're needin' help with?"

She had to coach herself to say it, to shove her pride away for just five seconds to allow the words to escape her mouth. "It's been, um, a long time for me, so... I was hoping you could help me practice?" she asked, face burning. "Whenever you got some time."

His weight shifted over to one foot, his eyes darting away. "Yeah, sure," he said, rubbing under his nose. "Got time now, I 'spose."

It was her turn to do that long blink as she frowned. Maka glanced over her shoulder at the darkening spring sky, murky with the leftovers of the day's storm. "Now? It's getting kinda dark, isn't it?"

Soul gave her a quizzical look. "It's light enough inside," he replied, leaving her at the open doorway.

Critically eyeing the small guest house and not seeing any way for there to be nearly enough room inside to swing a rope, Maka balked. But Soul didn't appear to be speculative about the practice space- he only looked expectant and slightly bemused at her hesitance.

Well, she thought as she stepped forward, she had to admit that he was mister Six-Point-Eleven, so maybe the man had some tricks he could teach her that didn't require swinging a practice rope?

Even in her head, the idea was a bit of a stretch, but the ranch hand stood in the middle of the room at one edge of Mama's floor rug, openly waiting on her with his thumbs hooked in his pockets. She closed the door behind her, leather and shaving cream filling her lungs. Fidgety, she pushed her ponytail off her shoulder. "Sooo..."

Exasperated, Soul quietly grumbled, "Well come here, then."

Feeling lost but not wanting to appear as such, Maka took a big step forward, lingering on the outskirts of the rug.

"Would you 'jus stand in front of me?" he griped.

She snapped back at his tone. "Well say so in the first place!"

His eyes narrowed at her. "I'd think at least that much shouldn't need sayin'."

Maka bristled. Just because he was a stupid champion didn't mean he had to be so condescending about it! She glared needles at him, but stepped forward again until she was directly in front of him. He stared at her a moment, and then scoffed.

"It really has been awhile, hasn't it," he said, eyes crinkling around the edges. "You said 'practice', but I didn't think you meant 'teach'," he teased, and, heaven as witness, Soul Evans smirked in such a way that, if she weren't in full control of her faculties and she were mercilessly tortured by relentless horse wranglers and general managers, she would almost say was quite becoming on him. While Maka battled her (hypothetical, of course) dismay at this observation, Soul put his hands on her shoulders and spun her to face the opposite direction, with him standing (closely, actually- close enough to dance along that boundary line between 'necessary' and 'Now Wait A Minute') behind her.

Perhaps shaving cream contained similar properties to chemical crowd control? The faint scents of the guest house and its main occupant appeared to keep her from thinking properly. Why was this position necessary? Wouldn't it be easier to teach her if they faced each other? He was left-handed, after all.

Which is what she asked him, though it came out like a squeak. "But aren't you left-handed?"

Adjusting to listening to his voice emanating from behind her at her height was an experience she did not desire to explain to anyone, because a person simply did not give up potential blackmail material about oneself. He asked, voice sounding sincerely curious, "That don't matter much for this, do it?"

Warning bells were going off in the distance (the distant-distance, beyond the crickets and frogs and wild dogs and owls, and perhaps beyond even the stars), and her knees gave the tiniest of precarious wobbles. She felt more than heard Soul take one step to the side, and a familiar warmth seeped through her shirt, but instead of at the small of her back, it bloomed on her shoulder, running down her arm, molding to the shape of it in a dizzying balance of gentle firmness. She had seen him do this to calm his horse before lifting its leg, but instead of fitting her for a shoe he simply took her hand.

Slowly he raised their connected fingers so they were near her shoulder, her palm facing upward, while her other hand was smoothly seized by his opposite, held out to the side and in such a manner that she was reminded of words like 'gentleman' and 'chivalrous' and all order of things that had absolutely no bearing on calf roping no matter how hard she tried to fit them together.

It took her an entire four seconds of frozen silence before she realized what was happening.

She bolted, entire body blazing like one giant blush from head to toe. "N-not! Not a- NOT!" she stammered incoherently, while Soul backed away, hands held up as if she had him at gunpoint.

"What, what, what'd I do-"

Her scrambled brain finally made the appropriate connections required for human speech. She sucked in an anxious breath. "I was talking about roping, not dancing!"

And in that instant, she had rolled back two months (and twenty years) in time, to that top-of-the-stairs, You'll Get Cooties state of being, in which she was a little girl staring at a boy, who'd both realized they had touched, which for some reason was a big deal.

Unceremoniously, Soul's arms fell to his sides, Long-Blink already initiated. "Well then say that in the first place!"

"I thought I did!"

"Obviously you neglected that bit," he said as he sat down on the edge of his bed, rubbing his face with his hand. "Left handed," he muttered, in either disbelief or embarrassment. "Shoulda figured."

Nervous giggling bubbled up her throat. "S-sorry, I was just... I got ahead of myself-" The idea of how cooperative he'd been about it just made her laugh. "Thanks anyway, for going along with it? Kinda question your mentality though," she teased.

Soul glared at her. "Preacher to the choir, shortstack," he said wryly. "Found that goin' with it's the safest thing to do on account of not knowin' what to expect from you."

She wanted to take offense at that, but the tips of his ears were flushed. "So anyway," she diverted, fiddling with her bangs, "about the roping. Could I get some advice or anything from you?"

He sighed. "Already said 'yes', didn't I?"

"For something you misunderstood..."

"Well it's not like I woulda said 'no'."

What little composure she retained was shaken by a thick thump of her heart at that statement, and she couldn't find it in herself to reply.

Soul also seemed to realize what his words had sounded like, so he added, "'Jus wanna help how I can, to break even n'all." He rubbed the back of his neck. "Thought about ropin', myself, but with Harley still healin'..."

"Why?" she asked, all lightheartedness bleeding away to be replaced with apprehension. "That doesn't concern you- it's got nothing to do with you."

"Of course it does," he said. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, and levelled a flat stare. "Or were you 'jus talkin' when you said 'you're ours too'?"

She tried to catch flies with her open mouth before stammering, "I-I wouldn't say something like that if I didn't mean it!"

He seemed to gauge her for a moment, then freed her from that stare, face and eyes turning away. Maka wondered if, with a hat on, that kind of expression would normally be hidden.

He said, "Lost my home once, already. So if I can stop it from happenin' again, I will."

With a long silence, Maka thought of what she wanted to prevent, and how she was protecting her home from an end that Soul had been living. She thought of the hay bale hauler, and how it had no purpose until it was brought here, given new meaning.

She thought of the floor rug between them, the guest house feeling lived-in.

Finally, she said, "Do you think you'll have some free time tomorrow?"



red-assed: like you've been riding in the saddle all day and it was a bumpy ride.

As for the way Soul is holding Maka's hands: this is the beginning position of a sixteen-step line dance.



Marsh: Hey guys. Sorry this took so long. Lots of stuff happened which also included me being violently booted out of the Lodestar universe. But I'm trying to force my way back in, one way or another. Thanks everyone for your continued support, both here and on tumblr. Most days it is the only thing that keeps me going. Extra shout out to Bones/AdulterClavis (who probably won't see this), because I know you've been having a hard time lately, and watching you has sorta inversely spurred me to finish writing this chapter, because I kinda look up to you and I hope that somehow, by getting through my blocks, I can somehow pretend that it might move yours just a little bit.

As always, reviews are welcomed and endlessly appreciated.