AN: A huge thanks to Lu, Goat, Lion, Kat, and everyone else who had put up with me and my incessant moaning about this story. I don't own the characters.
It was only the first day of the fair and Maka was already bored with it. It would be the last before the frost set in so all the traders were yelling excitedly and people were bustling about looking for the best prices. Maka had found a quiet perch to watch the excitement from; the parade was set to start soon. The traders and merchants with the best goods would parade down the main street, showing off the expensive silks from the East, brightly colored spices from the South, delicate jewels from the West, and potions from the North that could fix anything. Exotic animals were shown, large cats with eyes like molten gold, strange dogs that could see into your soul, and reptiles that were somewhere between a snake and a dragon.
Maka planned on leaving after the animals, the slaves were paraded afterwards as the finale. Owning another human was an accepted practice but it made her stomach turn. She knew if she stayed to watch their miserable broken faces she'd end up in tears. There was so little she could do for them, even as a Marshall's daughter.
"Yo! Thought I'd find you hiding up here! Surprised you don't have a book! Don't ignore your god!" She sighed but didn't turn.
"Black Star, you're lucky I don't have a book." Her glare just made him chuckle from where he was leaning next to her on the railing. They lapsed into childish bickering until horns sounded the beginning of the parade. Lavishly dressed women and men started the parade to show off the fashions of the other cities to which Black Star a loud whistle at the scantily clad ones. Men carrying baskets of spices that made her nose burn and eyes water were next, she made a comment but Black Star had run off after a particularly busty model leaving her alone to watch the animals.
The parade continued, and a loud cheer went up when one of the traders showed off a giant eagle he'd caught. The beast would fetch a high price at the auction that always followed the parade. The sun would be setting soon and Maka needed to return home to feed the horses since her father was away on business, but she lingered waiting to see if any more great animals would appear. She scanned the crowd to make sure that Black Star wasn't doing anything foolish, but she couldn't find him even with his blue hair.
Maka looked back to the parade and was startled to see a pair of bright red eyes staring down the road. The man's head was held high, his white hair messy as he regarded the town's people. His hands were shackled behind his back and even from her vantage point Maka could see the bruising along his arms and the cuts that just peaked out from under the plain black tunic he'd been forced into. The slaves behind him had their heads bowed and shuffled along. Her heart clenched, she should have left.
The procession began, but the white haired man didn't move. Maka looked at him carefully waiting for her eyes to focus and then unfocus; the man was powerful, but there was a tattered and broken quality to him, a crack of a whip made her flinch and blink. He was holding up the parade, still staring out into space even though the slave traders began to yell and crack their whips threateningly. There was a shout of pain from one of the other slaves and the white haired man dashed back, he was quick to evade the men who were supposed to be handling him and before the whip could be raised again he was between a fallen slave and the trader. The slave he'd protected managed to regain her feet and scurry along forgotten as the other merchants turned their attention to him.
He put up a good fight even with his hands behind his back, but it was one man against four and Maka watched in horror as they finally forced him to his knees. He kept sharp teeth bared the entire time in a silent snarl as they tore his back apart with their cat o' nine tail whip. She could see his chest heaving and the blood beginning to pool at his feet, they'd kill him if they didn't stop.
She hardly noticed how unsteady the staircase was as she flew down it and into the street. The crowd was thick, but moved aside quickly with a few well placed elbows until Maka was standing over the white haired man. The trader hesitated unsure of what to do to the woman in front of him. Maka glared at him before pulling a dagger out of her boot and cutting off the pale blue fabric of her dress to her knees.
"Please don't fight me." She whispered to the white haired man, he was glaring at her over his shoulder and his eyes narrowed when she pushed the fabric against the worst of the mess of his back. "As inhumane as slavery is, this is completely unacceptable." Maka spat at the still shocked merchants. "Damaged goods will not pay as well as unharmed and still living goods!"
The merchant with the cat whip began to sputter but Maka wasn't done. "One gold coin. He's mine. You won't get a better offer with him all beaten up." She hissed absolutely livid that she was buying a slave, even if it was to save his life. "Unless you'd like me to tell the Marshall about how you raised a whip to his daughter?" The merchant visibly stiffened before nodding slightly. She tossed him a coin from the purse at her hip and turned her attention to the man she now owned.
Sweat was dripping down his temples and she could hear his teeth grinding against each other but he didn't make any noise even after she adjusted the blood soaked cloth. "Can you stand?" He blinked but didn't move. While still holding the compress to his back Maka slung his left arm over her shoulder and slowly stood from where she'd been crouching, he followed the movement sluggishly. He was a good deal taller than her but he let her take some of his weight and the crowd parted to let them pass.
Her father's home wasn't far from the main street, but it took time, the man's breathing was harsh and choppy and whenever he stumbled Maka made him take a rest. He didn't say anything, he didn't even groan when they made in into her kitchen and Maka sat him down backwards on a chair. She put water on to boil and bustled about finding clean rags and the herbs she kept that helped to numb pain. He watched her from the chair until the whistle of the kettle startled him. "Eat these. They'll help." He looked at her and then to the herbs in her hand, "You can understand me, right? Nod yes if you can." He blinked and looked out the kitchen window.
"You're oh. Oh! You can't understand me. Well, but that doesn't change anything! Eat these." She offered him the herbs again but he just stared at her. "Look, see? I'll eat one. They're fine." The taste was bitter and slightly minty. He finally took them from her with a large calloused hand. She smiled, even if he couldn't understand her it made her feel better to talk to him. The water had cooled enough that she wouldn't burn her hands so she set to work on his back. The blue fabric was completely red and stuck to sensitive skin where the blood had dried on it, but Maka was gentle and took her time.
The skin over his shoulder blades was in ribbons and she could hear the chair creak under his white knuckle grip as she tended to the still raw areas. "I'm sorry. I know this hurts but if I don't clean it you'll get an infection. Just a bit more." Maka tried to keep the worry out of her voice and her tone even as she kept wiping blood off tan skin.
The water was cold by the time she was done and almost completely red but his back was finally clean. She found the spare linens her mother had left behind and cut them into wide strips with her knife. She and her father never used them anyway. The man kept an uneasy eye on the knife even from across the room. She approached him slowly with the bandages gathered over her arm and the knife in her hand. His back stiffened which made him clench his jaw in pain when she made to cut his ruined tunic off. "I'm not going to hurt you. But that has to come off so I can wrap your back." Her voice was soothing but the words meaningless.
Maka sighed and put the little dagger down on the table. His eyes darted from her to the dagger and back again when she tentatively reached an empty hand forward. He was still tense and his eyes never left the movement of her hand as it neared his shoulder. Her fingertips had barely brushed the fabric when he jerked away. The pain had him hissing through his teeth and Maka took the opportunity to take hold of the cloth before he could move away again. "This, I have to take this off." She tugged the ruined material and it gave with almost no resistance.
When the man had composed himself again she was gently pulling the fabric forward trying to inch it over his head without disturbing his back. He seemed to understand what she was trying to do and lifted his arms from where they had been resting on the back of the chair. Maka let the tunic fall to the floor and busied herself with the bandages. He was very handsome, a lean body that must have been from some sort of military training which would also account for the large scar cutting a diagonal from one shoulder to his hip. Maka could feel herself blush, the poor man was in pain and sitting in a chair with just a pair of small black shorts on.
Schooling her face to not betray her mind's wanderings she began to wrap the linen from his chest, over the wounds on his back and around again. He was helpful enough to sit up straight with his arms hovering awkwardly so she could pass the roll around his rib cage without obstruction. Maka managed to keep a neutral expression despite the proximity but her blush was a lost cause. She finished and fastened them together with a simple clip all the while being careful to not startle or prick him.
"There. Let me get some of my father's clothes. I'll just be a moment." The cool air in her father's room helped Maka clear her head. The shirts her father wore would most likely be a bit tight across the shoulders but they would do for now. She grabbed a pair of loose fitting breeches and a belt as well, his hips were quite narrow. "Here, until I can go to a tailor, these will have to do. I'm sorry if they aren't quite to your tastes." Maka set the clothes on the table; his red eyes studied her face and then the pile almost asking her why until he nodded slowly.
"I'm going to be in the kitchen. It's over there." She gestured and turned as he stood holding up the pants she'd brought. Her retreat to the kitchen was short lived; she had barely begun to chop vegetables for a stew when he walked in still shirtless. "You were supposed to put that on." She was glad the pants had fit though. He made to shrug and grimaced, "Oh! You can't lift your arms! Of course. Here." She berated herself for giving him such an impossible task. Between the bandages and his back he could barely move his arms.
Maka took the shirt and bunched it up around the neck hole, "You're going to have to crouch down, I can't reach." She stood on her tiptoes and mimicked the motion she wished to perform but couldn't because of his height. It took a few tries before he bent his knees and she could slip the shirt over his head. His silvery white hair was softer than she'd expected and despite the smell of dirt and blood something reminded her of pine trees. He blinked at her as the shirt caught on his nose; the buttons at the collar were fastened too high for him to make it all the way through. Maka made a valiant effort to not giggle at his unamused expression while she undid them but it seemed very silly to her. Once the button fiasco was resolved with the shirt still bunched around his neck she helped him put his arms through.
"What am I going to call you? You must have a name. But can you even speak?" She turned back to the vegetables she'd abandoned after sitting him at the little kitchen table. He didn't respond. "Well, you need a nickname. I refuse to call you "Slave." That's just barbaric." She continued to muse to him while she prepared their simple meal; he never once made a sound.
"How about "Friend?"" She asked after serving him a bowl. He drank slowly, ignoring both her and the spoon. "Well since you have such insightful input, yes, I suppose I'm just going to have to call you Friend." He stood stiffly and got more of the stew. When he sat across from her again she put a hand on her chest, "I'm Maka." He nodded once and went back to his dinner.
After dinner while there was still light, Maka read in the parlor. Friend had followed her and was dozing lightly in an armchair with his chin resting on his hand. It had barely been a single candle mark before they were both startled out of the comfortable silence by a knock at the front door. Out of the corner of her eyes she watched how Friend's hand went to his hip as if looking for a sword. Her guess about military training might have been right. She motioned to Friend that he could stay if he wanted but he either didn't understand or ignored her all together, he kept a single pace behind her when she opened the door.
"Mr. Sid? What can I do for you?" Her father's friend and deputy never dropped by unannounced, especially with her father away. He nodded his greeting but his eyes wandered behind her.
"Good evening Miss Maka, I heard you caused a bit of a commotion down at the parade today." She nodded and let him in which made Friend bristle a bit before leading them into the kitchen.
"I paid the merchant more than a fair price if that's what this is about." Maka spat, she didn't want to think about that brute.
"Ah, well normally Miss Maka, we register slaves and their owners," she shuddered at the terms, "since you bought him before the auction we didn't have a chance to do so. I said I would come by and make sure everything was alright though. And to go over the basic rules with you."
Friend swung a seat around so he could sit backwards on it again and watch the two sitting at the table. Sid pulled two scrolls from his bag and handed one to Maka. "This is what is known about your slave."
"I'm calling him "Friend," Mr. Sid, not "slave."" It caught Sid by surprise, Maka had always been a kind heart but that was almost childish of her.
"Of course." She nodded and read over the scroll quickly.
"You're from the North?" She looked at Friend who just blinked lazily at her. "You're very tan for a Northerner." She muttered under her breath. The scroll wasn't particularly detailed; he was from the North, thought to either be mute or dumb, and without magic.
Sid watched the man called "Friend," he was strong and no matter how good Maka thought she was with a sword, Sid had a feeling "Friend" would be better.
"Ms. Maka, what do you know of the Slave Rules?" He asked her when she looked up from the text.
"If they escape they are killed at the master's expense. If they harm anyone, they are killed at the master's expense. They are not to be set free, or they are killed at the master's expense." The last one was barely a whisper when she finished.
"Good, then you understand. I don't like it any more than you do Maka, that's not the kind of man I am."
"I know Mr. Sid. It's a horrible system, but there's no stopping it."
He nodded before pulling a round piece of metal out. "Because he does not have magic, this is not as strong as it could be." It was too large to be a bracelet but too small to fit as a necklace. "If you'll have, Friend," he humored her, "take of his shirt I can put this around his bicep where it will stay."
"Sid, you don't realize how much of a hassle it was just getting him into that shirt." Maka stood and made her way over to Friend. He watched her closely until she was at arm's length and then he glared at Sid. She tugged lightly at the white fabric of his sleeve until she had his arm. "Here, I can roll his sleeve up. Is this high enough?"
It would have to do, Sid tossed Maka the band and explained how to fasten it, he didn't want to be anywhere near the white haired man, there was something inherently dangerous about him. The band clicked shut and then melted when the small runes aligned to fuse it shut permanently. Maka rejoined Sid at the table while Friend examined the band around his arm.
"I need a blood signature Maka; it's what ensures that he cannot harm you. If he ever does, or tries anything—"
"He will be killed, at the owner's expense. Mr. Sid, I know." She took the letter opener she was offered and ran it across the side of her thumb with a scowl. Sid had unfurled the second scroll and pointed to an elaborate line at the bottom of the page. Maka followed the line with her bleeding thumb, the blood smearing the elegant calligraphy. There was a tingle of magic as the spells set in and Friend bared his teeth in a silent growl to the glowing band. Sid nodded, now at least she would be safe.
Polite goodbyes were exchanged but Maka did not walk him to the door. She was tired and now the registered owner of a slave. She set him up in the spare bedroom, the bed was soft but Maka figured anything would be better than a slave wagon he'd traveled on. Friend actually turned and looked at her questioningly when she pointed to the bed. Maka shrugged, she wasn't about to make him sleep on the floor, especially while he was hurt. She had been about to turn away and go to her own room when the rustle of fabric and a soft hiss of discomfort caught her attention.
"Oh, you need help taking the shirt off." He'd kept the buttons at the collar undone and they managed to take it off without too much discomfort for him. Maka handed the shirt back and before she could stop herself her hands were on his bandages checking them. He didn't shy away or even tense up; Friend just looked at her from under messy white bangs. "I, well, good night Friend." She could feel the tips of her ears they were so hot. He nodded once at her, slowly and deliberately making sure her eyes were on him before she left.
It took time but they used small hand gestures and their expressions to communicate. He continued to be quiet but Maka could at least tell when he was amused by something depending on the quirk of his mouth or annoyed with her by the way he furrowed his eyebrows. He learned to read her as well, when she needed help, when she wanted him to do something, but it still baffled him when Maka let him sit and watch her work or read. She was kind and continued to talk to him even though he didn't understand.
His back healed over but there was little that Maka could do for the scars he would have. They had settled on a routine for her to change the bandages and rub a salve onto the tender skin but as he healed he began to do more of it by himself. His style was tighter and not as even but she was still impressed. He'd rolled his eyes before actually pushing her back out the door so he could finish changing. They would engage in small expressive banters sometimes that would leave both of them smiling. Friend had managed to look so affronted once that Maka had laughed until she cried. She had a harder time getting large displays of emotion from him, but she considered it a job well done when he would shake his head forlornly at her unable to stop the quirk of his mouth.
The fall was pleasant, they spent time in the gardens harvesting what they would need for winter. Friend was impressed, Maka did not shy away from any labor, or ask him to do something simply because it was supposed to be a man's job. He often took the axe from her when he saw blisters beginning to form on her hands. He'd noticed that people tended to stay away from the house and that if they did go by it was usually in a hurry. She explained one night that while her father was a Marshall, he was also a womanizer who had driven her mother to leave. "It doesn't help that I'm twenty-one. I should have been married off years ago. My father is over protective and I was never interested. I'd prefer to travel and read than settle down." She shrugged not really caring if he understood or not.
Winter set in slowly over their town. Maka woke up one morning to cold toes and found Friend staring out the parlor window at a light layer of snow. It was a gray morning and the snow was falling lazily. He had one hand pressed up against the cold glass and his eyes were hard. The northern lands would have been covered by snow for weeks and it made her heart clench to think about how much he must miss his home. "I can't let you leave. They'll kill you." Her voice was soft but she had to say it even if he didn't understand. "I don't want you to die."
"I know." His accent was thick and deep but the words were warm enough to make Maka flush despite the chill in the room. Friend turned to her and placed a hand on his chest. "I'm Soul." Just as she had done the first day when she had told him her name. He was framed by the window of snow and cold but all Maka could see were his red eyes, she nodded once.