AN: MERRY CHRISTMAS, MY READERS! Or whatever holiday you happen to celebrate! This wraps up my holiday fics until Valentines Day, and I hope you get pleasure from reading. Soma Bytes will be updated soon, and this winter I start the first of my RPG/adventure themed AU. Plus random one shots along the way. Thanks to all the people who bother to follow and review! I hope you'll continue to enjoy my work in the following year.

Soul glared at the pile of warm winter clothing in his luggage with a venom not usually found directed at sweaters. It was the morning of their 7:30 AM flight, and he had put off packing till the last-minute in the vain hope that the trip would be miraculously called off. Of course it wasn't, and of course he was now sulking like a toddler that had been told it couldn't have a pony, and was in fact having spinach wrapped broccoli instead. All he had wanted to do was spend a nice, normal Christmas season like they usually did, no deviations, no surprises, no family. And he would have gotten away with it, if it hadn't been for his meddling meister and her talking cat...


He should have known it was coming. Bad things always seemed to happen to him in threes, so there was no reason to think that today would be any different. His favorite headband had snapped in two this morning, and he had gone to devour the last of his Halloween candy to lift his mood, only to discover someone had gotten to it first, insultingly leaving a lone wrapper behind to taunt him from the bottom of the gaudy, bat covered orange bag.

Grumbling about cheap Chinese products and sneaky housemates, he had gone out to bring in the mail while Maka put lunch together, quickly jogging down to their box and then back up the stairs, flicking through the mail as he entered the kitchen.

Pizza coupons. Steal those for his night to fix dinner.
Victoria's Secret Catalog for him and Maka to fight over.
Ju- no, a postcard.

Thinking that it was from Maka's mother, he opened his mouth to tell her she had mail, when he noticed the handwriting and froze. He did a double take. A triple take, just to be sure his eyes weren't playing tricks. Sadly, they weren't; it was his brother Wes' flawless-like-fucking-everything-else-he-does-perfectly caligraphy. A nervous glance confirmed that Maka wasn't paying any attention to him, so he quickly scanned the words on the back of the snow scene.

Dear Soul,

It's been a long time since the two of us have really spent any time together. I was hoping that you and your meister would join me in Aspen for the Christmas holidays. Mother and Father will be staying in New York, So you don't have to worry about dealing with them. If the two of you can make it, please let me know. I'm staying in the family cabin, and the number is still the same.

Your Favorite Older Brother,

Ha. Ha. Hahahahahaha! No. That was absolutely out of the question. He glided silently to the trashcan, erasing his breath and all that ninja shit, getting ready to get rid of the incriminating paper.

"Watcha got there, Soul? You're being aaaaawefully sneaky!" came the bubbly voice of doom.

He looked over his shoulder and froze. That blasted purple cat was sitting right behind him, teasing eyes glinting out from under that ridiculous hat of hers. Worse, she had drawn Maka's attention, and now both females were staring at him curiously, driving home the fact that his moment of privacy had been a fluke.

"Nothin'! Can't a guy get rid of some junk mail without gettin' the third degree?" he asked defensively, voice going unnaturally high.

"You throw it away one piece at a time?" Blair purred, delighted to cause the boy some discomfort.

"I...uh, that is..." he fumbled for a convincing lie, even though he knew it wouldn't work. Maka knew him far too well; she could always tell when he was bullshitting before his words ever left his mouth.

Said partner had darted forward and snatched the postcard from him, her brows furrowing as she read. Green eyes bore into him when she had finished, silently accusing him of hiding things from her. He should know better by now. That woman must have some sort of government issue radar that let her know when he was being secretive. Sometimes, he suspected she could tell what boxers he was wearing just by looking at him. The thought both frightened and strangely aroused him.

"I don't suppose you were planning on telling me about this any time soon." she stated rather than asked, one eyebrow twitching dangerously as she tapped her bare foot on the pale blue linoleum, in the way that said he had better talk fast or he would be violently introduced to her latest literary interest.

"What's to tell? He sent an invitation, I'm not going. That's all there is to it." he measured the distance to the door, trying to decide if he could escape before she tackled him to the ground and forced him to talk about this. Glumly, he had to admit she was faster than him. He should really start jogging more seriously.

"Don't give me that, Soul! You've hardly seen your brother at all these past few years! Now he's asking you to come see him, and after that stunt you pulled with graduation last spring, I think you should."

"Stunt? There was no stunt! I told you, I got the dates for the ceremony mixed up and told him the wrong day! It's not like I did it on purpose!" he said with affronted dignity. And that was mostly true. He would just keep the fact that he didn't call Wes back with the right date once he found out to himself.

Maka just continued to stare at him, not buying a word of it, green eyes set high on 'guilt trip.'

"Okay, fine, maybe a little on purpose. But that doesn't mean I have to go now, and nothin' you say is gonna convince me otherwise."

She saw the strained look in his eyes, the way his jaw clenched tightly, the muscles in his throat flexing as he crossed his arms in defiance. With a deep sigh, the irritation left her, and she came closer to rest her hand on his arm.

"Soul, if you really don't want to go, I won't push you. But I do want you to at least think about it. I know you don't have a good relationship with your parents, but I always got the impression that you got along alright with your brother."

He sighed, memories he would much rather not think of being dredged to the surface. "Yeah, we get along fine. Wes is great, it's just that...never mind. You wouldn't understand." he left it at that, not wanting to get in-depth about his lame insecurity issues.

"Maybe not. I just don't want you to have any regrets later. Life is unpredictable, Soul. You never know how long you have with someone before it's too late. But like I said, it's your decision, and I'm not going to nag you about it."

Looking at her earnest expression, he could tell she was serious. He could throw the postcard away and forget he had ever received it, and she would never say a word. But he knew she would be disappointed in him, and there was truth in the things she had said. His resolve crumbled; later, he would probably regret this, but just this once he would do as his brother asked. With one stipulation.

"Fine. But I'm not goin' alone. If I go, so do you." he may not be spending Christmas the way he wanted, but he would be damned if he spent it without her.

Grinning, she threw her arms around him in a rib crushing hug, his hands enjoying the brief, inadvertant contact with her breasts before he loosely returned the embrace.

"Stupid. Of course I wouldn't make you go by yourself! Besides, the invitation included me too. I know you're not looking forward to this, but we'll have a good time, I promise! Now, call your brother and figure out what dates work the best. I'll clear our schedule with Shinigami-sama once you're done."

The reality of the situation began to sink in, and he had the ominous feeling he had made a huge mistake. Time to stall while he thought of a plausible excuse not to go. Somehow, he didn't think, 'because my brother is Perfect McPerfectpants and makes me feel like I'm drowning in his shadow,' would work. Not without making him look supremely petty.

"Yeah, sure. I'll get around to that." he muttered, savoring the chance to hold on to her, her hair tickling his nose as he rested his cheek on her head. It didn't last nearly long enough. It never did, really, these moments of touching her in a non battle/injury related manner.

Pulling away, she shrugged. "Alright. If you don't do it, I will."

The last thing he wanted was to have her communicating with Wes any more than was absolutely necessary. He went to hunt for his cellphone, eager to get the call out of the way.

It wasn't till later, after he had hung up, that he realized that Maka had no way of getting in contact with his brother, and he might have been able to put it off until she had forgotten about it. Now he was stuck, forced to spend two weeks alone with his brother, which meant fourteen days of being shown up in every way possible in front of Maka. Jingle fucking Bells.


"Soul, hurry up! Papa will be here any minute to take us to the airport!" Maka shouted from the living room.

"Hold on, I'm almost done!" he gave the zipper on his duffel bag an energetic yank, closing in the smell of new clothes. He had had to go shopping; it was going to be cold in Aspen, and he didn't have many non-Spartoi issue winter clothes. Maka had done her shopping without him, and he could only hope she took his advice to pack warm, since he could still remember how cold it could get in the mountains, and this year was even colder than normal. Making sure his iPod was in his backpack, which he carried on the plane with him with all of the stuff he didn't want the airport to lose, he hefted the pack to his shoulder, taking the duffel in the other hand and joining his pacing meister.

She had forgone her usual skirt, instead wearing a pair of closely fitting flared black jeans, a red sweater with a black broken heart on the front, and short black ankle boots on her feet. her hair was down, and it whipped behind her as she paced back and forth, glancing from the window to the clock. He dumped his bags next to hers by the door, deciding against sitting down since he knew he would fall asleep as soon as his butt hit the seat. Why the hell couldn't they have taken a flight later in the day? Oh, that's right. Maka wanted to spend as much quality time in Aspen as possible. Fine. To compensate, they could just spend the night before their return flight in the airport, because he wanted to spend as much quality time getting the hell home as possible.

He was surprised she had restrained the urge to ask him if he had packed everything; no matter how many missions he had gone on over the years, she still seemed to treat him like a child that couldn't remember its own underwear.

"Soul, did you remember to pack the charger for your phone? And some extra headbands?"

Ah, there it was. The ritualistic nagging was almost comforting in its predictability.

"Yeah, got all of that. and an extra set of shoes, and the watch you insisted we get him for Christmas. What about you? Did you pack somethin' warm to sleep in? I'm tellin' you, it gets freakin' cold there at night, and the little shorts and T-shirts you wear ain't gonna cut it." he threw back at her, for once turning the tables.

"My pajamas are plenty warm. And if it does turn out that they're not enough, I can always sneak in bed with you to get warm." she grinned as he blushed and sputtered, his red eyes popping out to make him look like some kind of demonic Chihuahua.

"What the-you wouldn't!" he protested, secretly hoping her choice of nightwear failed to keep her toasty, promising himself to be extra diligent about brushing his teeth each night, just in case.

"Well, I can't exactly get in bed with your brother. I barely know him. Besides, it's not like we haven't shared the same bed before." she pulled the curtain back so she could see farther down the street.

Soul growled at the thought of her with Wes. No, she didn't know him that well, and he planned to keep it that way. He focused on more pleasant things, like the times they had had to share a bed like she mentioned. Every glorious time was burned into his memory, the melody of her sleeping breathe a song that soothed his nerves. A goofy grin threatened to steal over his face, but he managed to get it under control and look like his regular bored self when Maka cried out.

"Finally! Papa's here, let's take the bags down and meet him. We'll waste less time if we don't let him into the apartment."

He snickered as he hefted the luggage, waiting for her to shut and lock the door before making his way down the stairs.

"It doesn't matter. He's still gonna have to go through his Sparkly Derp Face Maka Greeting before we can leave."

Maka scowled, tightening her grip on the handle of her suitcase and hanging bag. "Shuddup."

That only made him laugh harder. "Maaaaakaaaa, my darling daaaaaughter!" he mock wailed, giving her his best imitation of her father's creepy eyes when he got all worked up.

"Gross! Don't do that! It's bad enough when Papa makes that face, but on you, it just...ugh! No."

He paused at the top of the last fight of stairs, making sure the wheels of her suitcase didn't catch on the crack in the first riser.

"You never know. Someday I may have a daughter, so I should start practicin' for her."

"I promise you now, I am never letting you do that, so just get it out of your head." she snorted as she passed him, crossing the lobby and using her hip to bump open the door, missing the way he tripped. Every so often she would say things that could imply that their future might hold more than just a weapon/meister relationship, and he both loved and hated it when that happened. Loved it for the brief, warm fuzzy feeling he got in his chest at the thought, hated it because his cynical nature would kick in and remind him he had about as much chance of Pluto being invited to the planetary family reunion.

There was a whirlwind of tailored black suit and flowing red hair as Spirit launched himself at his daughter, eyes as wide and shimmery as a shoujo character in love.

"MAAAAAAKAAAAA! Papa's missed his precious giiiiiiiiirl!" he bellowed, coiling himself around her.

She let him be for a few moments, pulling out her trusty book when she could bear the looks of the passers by no longer.

With a practiced flick of her wrist, her father hit the ground with a dull thump, his once immaculate suit rumpled and dusty.

Soul craned his neck to see the title of her book. "A Christmas Carol. Nice choice. Seasonal and all that." he chortled, always finding amusement when it was someone other than him having the words of Dickens engraved in their skull.

Tossing the bags into the trunk and slamming it shut, Soul hid a smirk as Spirit pouted when Maka slid into the back, instead of sitting in the passenger seat. Joining her in the back, he barely had time to shut the door before the car began to move, the low sound of the purring motor making Soul wonder if it wasn't about time for them to get their own car. He would keep the bike, of course; no way anyone could pry his fingers from the handle bars of his baby! But a car would be nice for longer distances, where they had to pack more than the small storage compartment would hold. It would also mean fewer instances of relying on Spirit for a ride, a point he was sure would warm Maka to the idea.

"Papa, what took you so long? You were supposed to be here ten minutes ago!" Maka scolded, tucking her teal down-filled coat in the seat between them, laying it over Soul's matching navy blue one.

"Relax, baby girl! we have plenty of time!" Spirit replied with an airy wave. "Papa just stopped to get you one of these, since you love them so much." he handed back a tall Starbuck's cup containing a Pumpkin Spice latte.

Maka snatched the cup greedily, mouth latching around the straw as she gave him a muffled thanks. after a few sips, she looked at her father in confusion.

"Didn't you get anything for Soul?"

"Oh dear! I seem to have forgotten all about him~" Spirit sing-songed, shooting Soul a malicious grin in the rearview mirror.

Soul rolled his eyes. Honestly, someone creeping up on forty should have an emotional maturity level greater than a six year old. He himself was manfully resisting the urge to stick out his tongue at the older man.

Maka nudged his arm, offering the drink with a smile. "It's okay, we can share it."

He leaned his head next to hers, his lips coming to rest on the straw where hers had been only moments before. He caught Spirit's eye, grinning victoriously at having gotten an indirect kiss from Maka right under his nose.

There was no time to savor his advantage, because the car turned sharply to the right, then jerked forward as the breaks were applied. The hot contents of the cup sloshed out, miraculously landing on Soul's gray sweater instead of his pants. He caught the flash of disappointment on the wily Deathscythe's face as Maka chewed him out for his reckless driving. That bastard! He had just tried to boil his balls!

The rest of the drive was uneventful, with Soul focusing on wringing what liquid he could from his shirt, the large, tan stain rapidly cooling and clinging to his stomach. It was just his luck that the first impression his brother would have of him was that he was too feeble minded to take a drink from a straw without ending up wearing it.

Spirit quickly found a parking space at the airport, and he and Soul carried the luggage to the counter, where they let Maka handle checking it in. Security was breezed through, and Soul made his way to a black chair in the corner of the waiting room, dropping his backpack between his feet. He shifted around, trying unsuccessfully to escape the wet, sticky feel of his shirt against his skin.

"Soul, you can't go on the plane like that." Maka said, taking pity on him. "Hold on, I'll go get you a sweatshirt from the gift shop."

She jogged off, Soul watching her go gratefully. Until he realized that this left him alone with Spirit, who was sitting across from him, watching him with a keen expression. Soul returned his look warily. They were in a public place, so surely Spirit wouldn't try to take him out here, would he?

"So. Mind telling me when you're ever going to tell my daughter that you're in love with her?" Spirit asked casually, as if he hadn't just dropped a bomb into an already charged silence.

Soul jerked back in his seat, denial bubbling from his lips like a spring. "Dunno where you got that crazy idea, unless those aren't regular cigarettes you've been smokin'."

Spirit leaned forward, his eyes narrowed and his mouth set in a serious line. "Cut the bullshit, kid. I've watched you watch her for years. Any idiot can see how you feel about her, and despite the impression that I sometimes give, I'm no idiot. But I'm beginning to think that you might be. You can't go on like this forever. Eventually, it'll start to eat you alive."

"So? Why do you care? I thought you'd sooner donate my body to Stein's research before lettin' me be with Maka." Soul answered, dropping all pretenses.

The older man adjusted the knot on his tie, as if it had suddenly become too tight. He looked Soul in the eye, more straightforward than he had ever been with his daughter's weapon.

"I want what any father wants for their daughter. I want her to be safe and happy. You've proven yourself able to do the first on more than one occasion, and I haven't really worried about that in a long time. As for happy...Maka is always happiest when she's around you. You can try to pass it off as just a meister's natural affection for their weapon, and that may have been true, at first. But I know my daughter, and as much as she tries to hide it, I can see that her love for you is anything but platonic. So I'll ask you again; when are you going to tell her?"

Soul wished he had just gone to the gift shop with Maka. This was the last conversation he wanted to be having, and the last person he wanted to be having it with. And honestly, he didn't know what to answer. He knew he would eventually have to break down and tell Maka. He wasn't stupid enough to think he could hold it in forever without it affecting their partnership. There just never seemed to be a good time. A good time of course being when he thought she would actually give him a chance and not shoot him down. Spirit could say all he wanted, but it wasn't his heart on the line. He was saved from having to answer by Maka's return. She waved a black plastic shopping bag cheerfully at him from across the room, signalling that he was minutes away from being able to shed his soggy shirt and slip into something dry.

Spirit saw that he had lost the young scythe's attention, and was about to ask his question again, when a bag sailed over his shoulder and landed in Soul's outstretched hands. Inwardly, he shrugged. He had done his best. Maybe Soul would take his words to heart. Or maybe not. He could be a stubborn little bastard.

"Here you go! Sorry if you don't like the color. They only had red or pink in your size." Maka explained as she took the seat next to Soul.

He froze. "Please tell me you got red. Tell me you're not making me meet Wes in a pink shirt."

Maka rolled her eyes. "As entertaining as that would be, no. Besides, pink doesn't go well with your eyes. It kind of makes you look like a bunny."

Soul glared at the snickering redhead as he stood, peeling off his sweater, letting it fall to the floor. He took the red sweatshirt with the words Death City printed in black with the soul logo on the front, shaking it out and removing the tag. He missed the way Maka watched him from under her lashes, enjoying the sight of lean muscles rippling under tan skin. Soul may have been oblivious, but Spirit certainly wasn't. His little pep talk may not have been needed after all. She might just take things into her own hands if Soul didn't pick up the pace. Maka was a strong girl, and when she knew what she wanted, she went after it. Spirit hoped the boy was into femdom.

Sighing at the feel of dry fleece on his skin, Soul shot Maka a grin as he plopped back into his seat.

"Thanks. That feels a lot better."

She returned his smile. "Don't thank me, thank Papa. I used his card since it was his fault that your shirt got ruined in the first place."

Spirit patted his pocket frantically, pulling out his wallet and opening it, only to discover his credit card was indeed missing.

"Maaaaakaaaa! Why are you always so cruel to Papa?" he wailed, almost dropping the card that spun through the air at his face. He shot a nasty look at Soul, who was chuckling at him as he combed his fingers through his hair, which had been ruffled when he changed shirts.

"I blame you for this! You've been a bad influence on my daughter, you little punk!"

Soul raised his hands defensively. "Hey, don't look at me! I had nothin' to do with it! She picked that up all on her own. It's not my fault your daughter has a naturally larcenous soul!"

"And I struggle everyday whether to use my power for good or evil." Maka broke in dryly, before a fight could erupt. Soul smirked, and her father opened his mouth to say something, but the loudspeaker came on to announce that their flight was ready to board, cutting him off.

Lifting his backpack to his shoulder, Soul watched with interest as Spirit readied to launch himself at Maka for a teary farewell, and wondered if she shouldn't have gotten herself a shirt as well. But as Spirit was in mid-air, another announcement came over the loudspeaker, requesting Spirit Albarn to come to the front desk for an urgent phone call. Looking torn between smothering his daughter and finding out what could be so important, he settled for a quick hug.

"Sorry, I should go see what that's about. Be careful, and call me when you land, okay? I'll be here to pick you up when you get back."

"I'll call you later tonight. Bye, Papa. You better hurry, that call sounds important." Maka gave him a one armed hug, then pulled away to join Soul, who was headed for the gate. He glanced at her suspiciously as they handed in their tickets to the flight attendant.

"Was it just me, or was that call awfully well timed?"

The smile she gave him was one he knew too well; she had been up to something.

"It should be. I paid them to do it when I checked the bags in. You know how Papa gets. He would have tried to crawl on the plane with me!"

Admittedly, she was right. Soul couldn't really blame her.

Laughing, he nudged her arm. "I have such a devious meister. It's amazing I haven't been corrupted by now!"

She playfully bumped him back, their bodies jarring against each other as they passed through the tight space connecting the building to the plane.

"Don't give me that! You came corrupted!"

He took a risk, slinging his arm around her shoulders and pulling her close. "Admit it, you wouldn't change me. You like bad boys."

She blushed, but made no move to pull away. "Not totally bad...but...a little bad is okay, I guess."

"Don't worry, I'll only be as bad as my meister wants me to be." he joked, wondering where the hell this cheesy flirting was coming from.

A strangled sound came from her throat, and she shot him a panicked look, eyes darting around to the people who were boarding with them.

"Soul! Don't say things like that!" she hissed, but he only smiled wider.

"Like what? Maka, were you thinking somethin' dirty? You were, weren't you!"

"I-I was not! Hurry up, we need to find our seats!" she squeaked, scurrying off ahead of him.

He shook his head. Sometimes she was just too cute.


"I don't wanna do this! I wanna go home! I'm bored...can we get a drink yet? How long until we land?"

All of the passengers looked at the four year old, who shrugged, and with a roll of her eyes went back to silently coloring in her book, disgusted with how immature boys could be.

"Soul, be quiet! You're bothering people! And you promised your brother that we would come, so there's no getting out of it."

The sun slanted in through the tiny window directly into Soul's eyes, and he pulled down the shade, earning a frown from Maka, who liked to look out.

"It's not too late. We could catch a flight back once we land, or just fly back ourselves. it's not that far." he wheedled, even though he knew it was useless.

"No. Come on, it's not going to be that bad! Besides, don't you think it's nice to do something different for the holidays?"

He slumped further in his seat, arms crossed and lips pushed out in a childish pout. Maka was surprized he didn't go so far as to kick the seat in front of him.

"I don't want to do somethin' different! I want to put up the tree and drink hot chocolate, laugh at Kid while he tries to untangle the lights. I want to watch holiday movies and listen to my Christmas records, and bet on how many bowls of eggnog Black*Star can chug back before he pukes."

"Yeah, see, that last one is a pretty disgusting tradition, and not really one to sell me on the idea of going home. Look, it's just one year...and I brought some of our DVDs, and I know you have music with you. I know it won't be the same, but we can still have fun! Didn't you have a good time at Christmas with your brother when you were kids? Aren't you looking forward to seeing him, at least a little bit?"

Soul wished he hadn't closed the window; it would give him somewhere else to look. Of course he wanted to see Wes. He loved his brother, and all that emotional crap. The problem was that Wes, through absolutely no fault of his own, made Soul feel like utter shit. As a small child he had idolized his older brother, who seemed to excel at everything he put his hand to. Music, sports, school...his talents were limitless, and to top it off, he had a genuinely nice personality that drew people in, and was never stuck on himself.

The problem was, people, (starting with his parents) were always comparing Soul to Wes, and he always came up short. Deep down, he knew it shouldn't matter, that life wasn't a competition, but years and years of being second best at everything could get to anyone, especially when it was something you loved. Since coming to Shibusen and becoming Maka's weapon, he hadn't had to deal with that. It had been nice, not living under a shadow, being judged on his own accomplishments instead of standards set by someone else. On this trip, he was going to try to put all that behind him. He was a Deathscythe, ranked three stars along with his meister, and a member of Spartoi. It had taken a lot of hard work to get where he was, and few bothered to make it that far. He just hoped he could remember that when he threatened to revert back to twelve years old in the presence of his brother.

"Sure, I wanna see him. It's just...two weeks is kinda long. I would've been fine with just a weekend." he hedged, eager to drop the subject.

"Well, you guys have a lot to catch up on, so it's not that surprising that he would want to spend as much time with you as he can. Really, I probably should have just stayed home. It's a good thing I brought a lot of books to keep me busy, although I could probably explore the area while you two talk-"

"No! I don't want to be left alone with him. You said yourself, he invited you too. There's nothin' I have to say to him that can't be said in front of you." Soul spoke adamantly, knowing he was using his meister as a security blanket and not really caring.

Maka studied him carefully. She could tell there were things he wasn't saying, but Soul had always been very close-mouthed when it came to his family, so she wouldn't push.

"Fine. Just promise you'll talk to him alone at least once." she saw him begin to protest and hurried on, "It doesn't have to be for long, but he might have something to say that he doesn't feel comfortable with me knowing. Other than that, I'll stay around as much as you want me to."

Nodding reluctantly, he tilted his head back as she took a book from her bag and began to read. He would just have to do his best to make sure that he kept busy. For some reason, he was nervous about the interaction between Wes and Maka. He wasn't sure why, but something niggled at the back of his head. It must have been stressing him out more than he thought, because his fingers had started to tap a frantic tattoo on his denim covered thigh, a fact he only became aware of when Maka took his hand in hers, stilling the motion.

He glanced over to find her absorbed in her book, and he wouldn't have thought she was even paying attention except for the brief squeeze she gave. He squeezed back, giving a small contented sigh when she left her hand where it was. While holding hands wasn't exactly new, holding hands in such a casual setting was. It was something he could definitely see himself getting used to. Maybe once this trip was over, he would start feeling out how she would welcome a romantic aspect to their relationship. If only that voice in the back of his head would quit telling him he was forgetting something...


A voice telling passengers they would be landing soon jolted Soul awake, where he found he had slumped sideways onto Maka's shoulder. Her head was on top of his, her book tucked into the back of the seat in front of her, their hands still clasped together on his leg. Reluctantly, he let go, poking her arm until she woke up. He sat up, rubbing the soreness from his neck as they both yawned, jaws cracking and ears popping.

The plane landed smoothly, and since it was a slow day they were able to get off the plane right away.

"Don't forget your book." he warned Maka, who still hadn't fully woken up. The thought of losing her precious novel seemed to snap her out of it, and she carefully put it in her bag, giving him a grateful smile. The crowd of people behind them nearly swept them off their feet as they exited the plane into the airport, and Soul yanked her to the side to let them pass while they got their bearings. They fought their way to the baggage carousel, wedging themselves between the jostling bodies until their bags circled around to them.

"It's too bad your brother couldn't meet us, but it was nice of him to rent a car for us, and let us use it during our stay." Maka said enthusiastically, excited to be able to poke around the area, which was one of her favorite parts of travelling.

"Hn. The cabin's too far out from anything, so we wouldn't be able to walk, even if it wasn't colder than a reindeer's ballsack." Soul explained as they made their way to the car rental kiosk.

"You always come up with the most charming analogies. Oh, there it is! She pointed to the right, and as they came closer, they saw that there was only one customer, and he was turning away to leave.

Maka checked her phone for messages while Soul picked up the keys and signed the papers, sending her father and Tsubaki a quick text to tell them she had landed. Soul called to her, and she followed him out to the parking area where the rental cars were parked. Icy air slammed into her lungs as they exited the building, and she zipped up her coat, glad she hadn't chosen to bring the lighter one. Sunlight reflected off of the snowy ground, making her squint, tears forming in her eyes. They stopped at a silver Ford Explorer, and Soul used the key he had been given to unlock the doors. Tossing their bags in the backseat, they got in and buckled up.

"You got the directions I gave you?" Soul asked as he started the engine, quickly turning on the seat warmers. He hated the cold.

Rummaging through the side pocket of her bag, Maka found the paper she was looking for. Wes had sent hand written directions, since the family cabin was in the mountains and off the main roads. In fact, it would take them about an hour to get there.

"Here it is! Before we leave town, we should pick up something to eat. Your brother mentioned he would be cooking tonight, but I have no idea what time that might be."

As if in agreement, Soul's stomach growled in response.
"Yeah, breakfast wore off a while ago, and unless he's changed, he likes to eat late. Drive-thru okay with you?"

The seat began to warm her up, and she unzipped her coat to get comfortable for the ride. "Sure. We might as well fill up; we don't even know if he can cook very well." she joked, thinking of times they had been invited to people's houses for a meal, only to find that their host couldn't even make cup ramen without ruining it.

Soul eased out onto the highway, adjusting himself to driving on ice and snow. He was thankful he had taken that intensive driver's course that the school had offered, which taught them how to drive in all sorts of intense conditions, from rain to ice to bombs.

"Don't worry. He can." he answered dispiritedly, knowing that if Wes were to put his efforts into cooking, the results would be a younger, sexier Bobby Flay.

Concentrating on driving, he missed Maka's sharp look. She could feel the barriers he was putting up to come across as calm, but she could still catch the strain that ran through him. Suddenly, she worried that this trip might be more stressful on him than she had originally thought. Having no siblings herself, it was hard to relate, but it seemed as if Soul had some sort of problem with his brother that he wasn't sharing. What was the most troubling were the strands of fear and self doubt that she felt flickering through his soul, so subtle and faint she wasn't even sure if he was aware of them himself.

"Whatcha in the mood for, Taco Bell, or Burger King?"

His question cut through her thoughts, and she put them aside to deal with later.

"Hmmm, Burger King. I want a coke icee."

He snorted in disbelief, turning into the correct entrance, getting in line. "It's so cold, icicles could hang off your tits, and you want an icee? I swear, I'll never understand how your mind works."

Huffing, she crossed her arms, said tits shifting under her sweater in a distracting manner, making Soul's grip tighten on the wheel.

"Leave my tits out of this, thank you very much! Besides, I can't help it. When I have a craving, I have a craving."

They edged forward in line, and Soul rolled down his window to give their order. He eyed Maka questioningly.

"I want a ten piece order of chicken fries, and a large coke icee." she said, and he repeated it into the speaker, ordering a whopper and a large drink for himself.

He rolled up the window as soon as he was done. "Ten pieces? Hungry much?" he teased.

"No, I just know you'll end up eating half of them. like you do. Every. Single. Time."

He laughed guiltily, unable to refute her accusation.

Digging out his wallet, he counted out the bills, silently taking the correct change that Maka handed him. He fiddled with the radio till their order was ready, leaving it on a classic rock station, keeping the volume low. Passing the bag of food and the icee to Maka, he took a swig from his drink, then placed it in the cupholder. Maka took out his burger, half way unwrapping it so he could eat with one hand. She noticed that he headed for the edge of town, seeming to know where he was headed.

"Did you memorize the map?" she asked around a chicken fry.

Soul swallowed a bite of his whopper before answering. "Nah, I just remember part of the way to get there. it's pretty easy until we get higher in the mountains and the roads start to branch off. Some of them aren't marked very well."

"Did you used to come here often?" she asked, choosing to make no comment when he finished his food and blatantly started in on hers.

"Every year. We spent the entire month of December here for as long as I can remember. My great grandparents built the place, and it became sort of a tradition. The only reason my parents aren't here is because my dad got roped into filling in in a concert for a friend in Sweden who broke his wrist."

Maka was quiet. She knew that his parents didn't approve of his career choice, and that there was a lot of tension between them. If they had been here, she knew nothing would have induced Soul to come. The thought saddened her. Her relationship with her father wasn't perfect, but at least it wasn't cold, and she knew that in spite of his faults, he cared for her. She made a mental note to do something special for him when she got home.

Time for a subject change. "Wes said that he has season passes at one of the ski resorts. Can we go sometime? I think he mentioned it's the same one you used to go to when you were a kid." Maka was enthusiastic, since she rarely got a chance to do winter sports.

"Sounds good. Been a while since I got a chance to snowboard."

"Snowboard? Aaaw, I was hoping to see you on a pair of skis! Wes told me you used to be pretty good."

Soul grunted, wishing he had never given his brother the phone number of their apartment. "I was okay. Got a few trophies. May still have 'em, if my parents haven't tossed all my stuff out."

Maka turned her attention from the snow covered trees.
"Why on earth would they do that? You should bring them home with you, if you can fit them in your bag. If not, we could have them shipped."

The coat he was wearing bunched up as his shoulders gave a tight shrug. "It's no big deal. They were all just for second place, anyway."

"So? Second place is still pretty good. You should be proud."

He gave a disbelieving laugh. "This comin' from the girl who nearly gave herself an ulcer studying to place first in the written exam?"

Her face scrunched at the memory. "That was different! I couldn't have stood it if Ox had beat me!" she defended herself.

"Yeah, that's my point." he said softly, then seemed to shake himself from his melancholy thoughts. "Could you check the directions? I think I should turn right up here, but I'm not sure."

Scanning the sheet of paper, Maka figured out where they were. "You were right. We turn right, go straight for about five miles, then turn right again onto this little trail thing." she confirmed.

Maka chose to remain quiet, letting Soul concentrate on driving. She contented herself with enjoying the scenery; the sky up here was so blue, the snow stretching out around them unbroken by anything but what she took to be animal tracks. They passed small streams, the water iced over, giving it the appearance of frosted glass. Beside her, Soul hummed along quietly to the radio, his fingers tapping out the beat on the steering wheel. The area had changed surprisingly little, and he wondered if it would be the same when he saw the cabin. It had been one of the few times he could remember enjoying with his whole family; for a short time, they took a break from pushing him about music and just let him relax.


Several more miles and a couple of twists and turns later, they were on the small, private road that lead to the cabin. Maka gasped as the building came into sight, its size not at all what she had been expecting.

"Soul! I thought this was supposed to be a cabin! That place has to be at least three stories!"

"Two. It just looks like three because of the attic. Geez, you dropped your jaw so hard, I think you may have dislocated it!"

Maka snapped her mouth shut, embarrassed. Soul was so low key, she always forgot how rich his family was. As they pulled into the drive, Maka got a better view of the place. Dark logs formed the building, with a sloping roof that had two chimneys. The front porch was screened in, and there were three small outbuildings close by, which Soul explained were for the wood, the wellhouse, and the generator, in case the power went out. He parked the car off to the side, next to a maroon pickup.

"Looks like he's already here. Guess the meeting with his manager didn't run as long as he thought it would." Soul said, hiding his disappointment. He had hoped to get settled in before facing his brother.

They got out and began to unload their things, dropping their bags at the sound of the screen door hitting the side of the house as it was thrown open, and a large, dark shape hurtled towards them.

"A horse!" Maka screamed, reflexively sliding into a fighting stance, momentarily lost when Soul didn't shift into weapon form.

Instead, his eyes bugged out, as if he had seen a ghost.
"Limmy? Is that you?" he asked in a puzzled voice, as the shape resolved into a very large and affectionate great Dane that seemed intent on hugging him, his paws churning up snow.

"Soul? You know that dog?"

He looked at her over the dog's shoulder, still trying to make sense of it. "He looks exactly like a dog we used to have, but he can't be. If Limmy was still alive, he'd be at least ten, and this dog is barely older than a puppy. Aren't you boy?" he crooned to the dog, fondling its ears. The large animal whimpered in pleasure, snuffling its snout into Soul's ear.

Maka smiled softly as Soul gave a boyish laugh, the tension erased from his face, making him appear younger.

"Spartacus! Get back here!" came a deep voice from behind him. It was much like Soul's, but it lacked that husky, rumbly quality that made her heart beat faster. Turning, she saw a tall man walking across the yard. She could tell he must be Wes; he had the same bone structure and slightly shaggy hair as Soul, but his was a bit tamer and a pale blond instead of white. As he came closer, she could make out his eye color, which was a dark blue, bordering on black. He was wearing a black suit with a navy blue shirt, the lighter blue tie hanging around his neck as if he had been interrupted from changing.

The dog bounced between the two brothers, unable to decide which one was more likely to scratch his ears.

"I see you've met Spartacus; sorry about that, I'd meant to keep him shut in the den until you got here." Wes apologized, patting the dog on the neck, uncaring of the brown hair that drifted onto his pants.

"Yo, Wes. Is it my imagination, or does he look just like Limmy?" Soul asked, never being one to get all huggy and emotional, at least not with his family.

Wes smiled at him, showing blunt, normal teeth. "He does, doesn't he? Limmy died a little over a year ago, but he managed one last litter before he went, and Spartacus here was the only male." his attention turned to Maka, who had been silent, watching the way Soul stood perfectly straight, so different from his normally comfortable slouch. She knew he carried himself like that when he was defensive or uneasy, and she wondered if she should excuse herself or stay close.

"But I'm being rude. You must be Maka! It's a pleasure to meet you." he took her hand, startling her when, instead of shaking it, he brought it to his lips to place a small, quick kiss on the fingers as he bowed. There was nothing romantic about it, it was just a common greeting in the circles he moved in. Even knowing this, Soul's blood began to simmer. He remembered what had been bugging him; for as long as he could remember, when there had been anything he really, truly wanted, Wes had ended up getting it instead. He never meant to take anything from Soul, but just the same, he always got the prize, while Soul looked on in defeat. As he followed them inside, the two of them laughing and chatting like old friends, he felt his red eyes bleed green, and vowed that this would be one time that his brother did not get the best of him.