Pine [pahyne], verb. 1: to yearn deeply; suffer with longing; long painfully. 2: to be discontented; fret. 3: to feel painful longing or yearning.

"Father. Father!"

The parent in question poked his fiery head tentatively up over the back of the sofa, looking equal parts disheveled and guilty. "Yes, my little ray of sunshine?"

"Don't you sunshine me," Maka snapped, folding her arms. "Your company last night woke me up this morning. She doesn't know how to shut a door without slamming it, apparently."

He cringed down below the sofa's gold velvet backrest until only his mournful blue eyes were visible. "I bought you a new book," he volunteered finally, when his daughter showed no signs of relenting.


"Yes! Yes, I did. It's in my overcoat pocket. Go get it. You'll like it. I'll tell... uh... I'll tell my friend to be a little quieter from now on."

She sent him one final, burning look of reproach before giving in and leaping for his coat. He smiled and settled back down to complete his nap. He hadn't lied; the book was one she'd been dying to find a copy of for months now, by one of her favorite authors, a treatise on Eastern culture and the evolution of their weapons. She ended up on the floor, legs stretched straight out, gnawing on a strand of her hair as she read, and didn't move until hours later, when sunlight creeping across his eyes woke Spirit up. He almost tripped over her.

"Maka? Honey, why are you on the floor?" She didn't move an inch. He stared at her intensely. A full minute passed with no visible motion, and then she turned a page, a quick flip like a hummingbird's wingbeat. "At least she's still alive," he said to the dust motes floating in the sunbeam that had so rudely woken him up. He leaned down to pull gently on a strand of her disheveled blonde hair.

She twitched and blinked several times at him before coming back to earth. "I'm learning about meteor hammers and Genghis Khan. And mounted warfare tactics. It's interesting. What do you want?"

"I was going to see if you wanted lunch," he said patiently, well accustomed to his daughter's obsession with books.

She squinted and put her head to the side, looking from him to her book and back again, and then stood up with a grunt as her stomach rumbled. "I shouldn't have sat on that floor for so long. Ow. God, I'm tired of vegetating in this house."

"Go do something. Take Morvich and ride into town."

She kicked out her legs one at a time, stretching out the kinks in her joints. "I don't want to. I worked him this morning and he was an absolute beast. I'll walk."

He snorted and disappeared around a corner into the kitchen. Pans rattled and something crashed. "Suit yourself. My little tomboy."

"You raised me this way!" she shouted irritably over her shoulder, conveniently disregarding the fact that it was actually mostly her mother's influence responsible for her unbridled temper and somewhat violent tendencies. She snatched her leather satchel and swung out the front door into the crisp, early afternoon brightness. Maybe her footsteps as she turned toward town were more like stomping than anything approaching graceful, but too bad.

She was bored, deathly bored, and her idiot womanizing father may have given her an olive branch in the form of a really interesting book, but she was still bored. It was a thin tenuous thread of ennui that twisted under everything she did lately, a fast undertow lurking under placid waters. She hated it. She hated everything. "I hate you," she told a rock on the road, kicking it. "And you! Featherbrain," she added, pointing venomously at a twittering bird. It stopped twittering for a moment, so palpable was her unhappiness.

Her foul mood continued all the way into town, despite the splendid spring weather and the birdsong that accompanied her the entire way, once the singers got over her initial scolding. When she got there, she didn't know what to do, so she wandered through the outskirts and followed the cobbled main street grumpily to a familiar house. As she went the birdsong gave way to bustling masses of humanity and the clatter and hiss of automobiles and wagons bumping along. It presented a very pretty picture, active and almost festive. She hated it, and she hated herself a little for being so far into the doldrums with no good reason. Her life was going well right now; her father was home, should be home for at least a few weeks, she had free time from her studies for once, and it was spring. It was time to relax, and read, and catch up with her friends, but instead her ornery brain wanted to be depressed over the monotony of it.

Kim opened the door to her knock so fast that it was almost as if she'd known she was coming. "Hi!" she said.

"Hi," Maka said dourly, in clear contrast to her cheerful friend.

"What's wrong with you?"

"What's wrong with your hair?" Maka shot back as her friend tripped down the stairs and linked elbows with her. Kim's hair was pink today, like cotton candy, or the sunset. Maka surveyed it skeptically as she was hauled through town, narrowly dodging a collision with a carriage wheel. It was fashonably bobbed to her chin, tucked under a snappy blue velvet cloche completed with a gold pin shaped like a carousel horse. It should have been pretty. It wasn't. It clashed, and the pink was ridiculous. The diamond in the horse's eye glittered in an all-too-familiar, devious way, reminiscent of the contrary Morvich when he decided that spring was the perfect time to show off his athleticism, regardless of whether or not she was on his back. She wrinkled her nose at it. It just sparkled back gaily.

"Well?" Kim said at last, twirling a strand of her hair.

"You look like a fairy tale princess," Maka settled on. It was the truth, in a way, and it was nicer than some things she could have said.

"Thank you!" They stopped at a small corner booth in the central market, which was even busier than the streets, packed to the gills with housewives and darting children and shouting salesmen who really hated taking no for an answer. If you believed them, they had the finest wares in the world to sell, from exotic spices to the finest clothing. Maka paused at a stall full of wonderful clicking watches, and if Kim hadn't dragged her away she probably would have taken one apart. She loved machinery, and she cherished a secret wish to own an automobile, but Spirit hated them. It had taken months of alternate begging and fits of rage for him to even let her on a train.

She liked things like those watches, though, things full of tiny, intricate parts. It was so exciting to see how they worked, how all the miniscule pieces worked together in precise harmony to create something greater than themselves. She stumbled over someone else's foot and thought sourly that the people in this blasted town could probably do with taking a page about harmony out of the clockwork's book.

Then a wave of heat blasted her face, sudden and intense, and she wheeled around, yanking Kim with her. "Oh, wow," she breathed. The broadly built blue-haired boy standing across from them in a circle of bystanders looked right at her and winked.

"Like that, huh? More where that came from!" he crowed, executing a rather impressive backflip and sticking the landing perfectly, holding out his hands as he straightened up as if to say, 'Ta da!'

She raised an eyebrow at his enthusiasm. "I didn't see anything to like, I just felt my eyebrows nearly getting singed off," she told him, fighting back a grin. He looked absolutely baffled.

"You didn't see me? I was showing off! How could you miss me? Watch again! Look this time!" He proceeded to bounce around wildly. He was in the oddest clothing she'd ever seen; tight black trousers and a slim cut, long-sleeved black shirt, embroidered with grayish stars around the collar. He was barefoot, too, and looking at his soot-covered feet, she became pretty sure that the black was to hide the ashes, and that the stars had originally been white.

"Okay. I'm looking," she said eventually, deciding to humor him, and he grinned from ear to ear.

"All right! Better prepare yourself, I'm good!" He grabbed a jug from the ground and took a swig, and then, cheeks puffed up like a chipmunk, he lit a match in front of his lips and flames bloomed from his mouth, roaring and writhing like a dragon up into the sky.

"Maka, let go, ow," Kim hissed, and Maka released her friend's arm, only dimly aware that she'd latched on far too tightly. It was incredible. He was breathing fire, like a hero out of a myth, or a god, or a machine.

Then he coughed and the flames died. He started leaping around, flapping his hands, spitting and yowling like a wet cat, and the effect was entirely ruined. He managed some really inventive curses between yelps, though, and she was impressed in spite of herself. Finally he ended up on the ground, whimpering, hands plastered over his mouth. The crowd drifted away, only a few coins landing in the ragged old hat on the ground.

She went over to him and squatted down. "Are you all right?"

He rolled his eyes dramatically and drummed his heels on the ground, shaking his head. "Mmpf," he declared, wincing.

"It burned your mouth, didn't it." Nod. "What fuel is that?" Her hand inched towards the jug. "Can I look-"

"Nope!" he said, sitting up very fast and swiping the jug out of her reach. "Circus secret. Ouch. Ouch. I should never have tried this fire thing. It's not what I'm good at. I mean, I'm good at everything, just not this. I just thought- I mean, everyone like fire, right?"

"Oh, that makes perfect sense," she said in amusement. The circus comment explained his vibrant hair, at least. She'd never been to one, but she'd read about them, and honestly couldn't say she approved. The way her books presented them, they were havens for criminals, misfits, and swindlers with no ethics, and generally didn't treat their animals well at all. This boy seemed all right, though, if a bit egotistical.

He rubbed his eyes and came away with black rings of soot around them that gave him the impression of a startled raccoon. He opened and closed his reddened mouth a few times, squinting as if it hurt, then shrugged and stood up, lips thinning as he noticed he'd lost his audience. "Damn."

She smiled sympathetically. It had to be hard, living on the road, crossing your fingers that you'd make enough money to eat that day. "Sorry. Go to the marketplace on the north side of town, it's really busy on Saturdays, usually. You should do well there. Just don't tell anyone I sent you if you burn it down."

"Hey, thanks!" he said, far too loudly. She wondered if perhaps he was partially deaf. He snatched up his precious jug of fuel and started to trot off, but then stopped, wheeling around to gape at her. "Do I know you from somewhere?"

She frowned and said diplomatically, "I, uh, I think I would remember meeting you."

"Oh." He eyed her calculatingly, as if he knew something she didn't, and she held onto the strap of her satchel a little more tightly, just in case he tried something funny. Instead, he dug around in one pocket for a moment and then thrust a wrinkled yellow piece of paper at her. "Here. Come see us. Tell them you know Black Star and they'll let you in half off."

Before she could even unfold the paper, he was gone, merging seamlessly with the crowds. Kim was across the street, apparently angling to get a cute boy to pay for her drink, so Maka pressed the wadded paper to a wall and scraped the side of her hand across it to smooth it out.

It was an advertisement. Ornately inked letters across the top proclaimed that the Dire Circus was in town, for a limited time only, three miles west from the main city. She looked closer and realized, with an odd drop in her stomach, that the letters were shaped from bones. Below them was an illustration of a man, far too tall and slim, with an angular face painted entrely in vertical stripes that matched his clothing. He was leaning forward, a knife in one hand and four more in the air above him, spinning artfully. Behind him were the eyes of a beast she didn't know, drawn to look as if they were staring directly at her out of the cover of shadows, no matter which way she moved. It was unsettling. What kind of circus would give these flyers out? They certainly didn't encourage attendance. They were downright creepy. She folded it neatly and stuck it in her bag to show her father later, then followed the trail of boys sadly shaking out empty wallets that was sure to lead to Kim.

When she found her, she was idly examining a storefront window full of glittering dresses. "Hey, sorry, that boy nearly lit the town up," Maka told her.

"Yeah, after you ripped my arm off," Kim teased. "I can't believe they're allowed to do that kind of thing, right in the middle of town. It's not safe."

"Right?" Maka agreed. It really hadn't been. She took a gander at the dresses. They were gorgeous, delicate, glimmering creations that reminded her of dewdrops on spiderwebs, and they were quite skimpy, really, showing shoulders and dipping low in the front and the back, swinging gently right above knee length. They were dancing dresses, meant to be worn out on the town. Maka felt herself inching to the display before she stopped herself. Those dresses weren't for flat-chested bookworms like her. She wouldn't look right in them. A dress that pretty was for a pretty girl, one who painted her lips and wore feathers in her hair, who flashed the garters holding up her silk stockings and knew all the steps to every dance- not her.

"Pretty, right?" Kim said tragically, plastering her palms against the glass, quite uncaring of the smudges she would leave. "I want one."

"Where would you wear it?"


"You're joking. That is the least appropriate thing I've ever seen. If you wore it into a church you'd get struck by lightning."

Kim snorted irreverently. "Yeah." She kept eyeing them, though.

Something occurred to Maka. "You're Catholic?"

Kim blinked at her in a sideways fashion, suddenly looking very mysterious. "Sure. Come on, let's eat. I'm hungry. I don't want you to keep me prisoner in a dusty old bookstore like you did last week."

"It was interesting!" Maka protested, but she followed.

They ate, and when Kim left to go home, to do whatever it was she always had to do in the evenings, Maka found herself wandering around the town aimlessly. She really should have been heading back, not in the least because it wasn't a fantastic idea to walk home in the dark, but she knew the way, and she could take care of herself. Her mother had taught her to box almost as soon as she could walk, after all, regardless of how much her father moaned and cried and worried for her.

Thinking of her mother slowed her steps to a listless drag. She missed her mother ferociously, with a deep-down pain that hadn't faded at all since she'd left. The edge of it had dulled, to the point where she could go about her day without having to hide her tears, but it was still there and she was fairly certain it always would be.

Her father felt it too, but he'd chosen to soothe it with women and travel, rather than with studies and independence, like she had. He had a great job, and he got to go all over the country on the trains that he hated so much, consulting with various army generals on training exercises and weaponry and whatever else soldiers needed. He loved it, and made good money, but he was gone often, and sometimes he even got injured on the job. Just last month he'd come home with a broken arm for her to fuss over and yell at him about. It was why he was home for so long this time, waiting for the bone to knit. She both loved and hated when he was home for more than a week or so. On one hand, it broke the loneliness, and she was always glad to see him doing all right, but after a while she started to run into more and more of his nighttime guests, which made her think of just why exactly her mother had been driven to leave them, and she found herself brimming with anger. Once she'd even dumped a pitcher of lemonade on one of his women. It hadn't ended well.

She only discovered where her feet had led her when she heard a familiar raucous voice proclaiming god-like skill and caught a glimpse of hair shining almost purple in the light of the streetlamps. Had it really gotten so late without her noticing?

He saw her immediately and gave her a look she couldn't read, not even a little, but it didn't stop his act. It seemed he'd given up on the firebreathing, though not without some mayhem, judging by the ragged holes burned into his shirt. He was holding a sword that looked entirely real, gleaming innocently, and the crowd around him was oddly quiet.

Her curiousity got the better of her and she wriggled her way to the front of the pack, thankful for once that she was small. The boy tilted his head back and raised the sword over his head with a grand flourish- and then he proceeded to stick it down his throat, slowly, carefully, with painstaking slowness. No one around her moved, possibly no one breathed; they were spellbound by his voluntary impalement, by his nonchalant smiling at death. Maka almost shrieked, but put a hand over her mouth at the last moment. This was incredible. It just kept going, down, down, an impossible amount, and he seemed perfectly fine with it, eyes trained on the faint beginnings of stars unveiling themselves above him.

The hilt touched his lips, and the process reversed, though the tension didn't. A man next to Maka breathed profanity in a quiet, awed tone, and a woman on the other side of her looked pale to the point of fainting. They didn't leave, though. Was this the magic of the circus? She put a hand in her pocket and touched the flyer gingerly, as if it would bite her.

Then it was done, and he twirled the sword at the dumbstruck circle of people with an engaging grin, showing more teeth than she would have thought possible.

"It's fake," someone said blasphemously.

His smile remained, though one eyebrow inched upward. "The great Black Star doesn't need to rely on trickery! I'm just that good!" He held out a finger and ran it across the edge of the blade, then held it up, spinning slowly to show everyone the scarlet trickle running down his palm and waggling his eyebrows. Silence held them all tight for a moment, then coins started raining down on him, a metallic shower, most of them missing the hat, but he didn't seem to care. Maka turned around and made her way swiftly through the cheering mass, heading home as fast as she could walk and thanking god she'd worn her boots that day instead of sandals. She was disturbed. He was so full of life, so young and buoyant, and yet he chose to make a living by risking his life. She didn't understand it, and she didn't like the chills it put in her spine. She thought of the bestial eyes on the flyer and shuddered.

Her father was sorting the mail when she came in, and his eyes narrowed immediately. "What's up, buttercup?" was how he chose to ask why she was bright red and panting. She'd run the last mile, which wasn't much fun in a skirt.

"There's this awful circus in town," she said plaintively. "I met a boy who swallowed a sword. A big sword. A sword! Right down his throat! How can people be so stupid?" She flopped down on the armchair opposite him and glared thunderously at the floor. "I wish I was back at school. I just- augh!"

Spirit goggled at her, one hand frozen halfway through ripping an envelope. "The circus," he said carefully.

"Yes. Here, look." She handed him the flyer, just as wrinkled by now as when Black Star had initially handed it to her. Her father glanced at it casually, then tossed it on the pile of opened, discarded mail building up next to him.

"Strange. So how did the rest of your day go, pumpkin?"

"Don't call me that. Fine. I don't know. Kim's hair is pink now. She's Catholic, did you know that? I would have never guessed, she's so money hungry and mean all the time to people."

He hummed absently, apparently fully engaged in whatever letter he was reading, and she threw up her hands and stalked off to bed, muttering angrily under the whole way.

Behind her, Spirit closed his eyes, rubbing absently at his healing arm, just yesterday released from the cast; the woman who'd so rudely woken Maka that morning had been a celebration of getting the blasted thing cut off. When he heard his daughter's door slam upstairs, he pounced on the yellow paper.

"Dire Circus," he read out loud, looking grim and tracing the skeletal letters with one finger. "Been too long, Lord." He sat there until very late, brooding in the moonlight.

Maka woke up early the next morning. She was wide awake almost immediately, with none of the usual in-between grogginess between sleep and alertness. It felt like she hadn't slept at all. She stared at her ceiling for a while, covers pulled to her chin against the morning chill, and then stretched an arm over the side of her bed to fish inside her satchel.

She rolled over onto her stomach as she opened the small, dark green book she'd pulled out. It was more of a scrapbook than anything else, full of pictures and scrawled notes rather than neat, dated entries, but she still thought of it as her journal. Her mother had given it to her on her ninth birthday, just before she left.

It was a photograph of her mother that Maka flipped to, pasted to the inside of the front cover. Even in black-and-white Kami looked beautiful, like a film star on vacation, smiling crookedly with her hair blown charmingly askew around her face.

The twinge came back the longer Maka looked at it, wondering where her mother was and who she was smiling at now, so she crawled reluctantly out of her warm bed and pulled on the jodhpurs that had so scandalized the town the first time she'd worn them in public, a loose shirt and her knee-high riding boots. She'd never ridden sidesaddle and she never intended to. Her mother hadn't, and it had been even more inappropriate in her day, so all the gossipy harridans who clucked and fretted when she rode past them could just deal with it. Why sacrifice balance, comfort and control for something as arbitrary as 'proper behavior'? No reason she could see.

Tying her hair up, she was halfway through the barn to Morvich's paddock and savoring the smells of horse and hay when she stopped in her tracks. Something was wrong. Her skin was tingling, and not from the brisk air. She growled and jogged the rest of the way.

No bright brown eyes greeted her, no alert red ears perked up at her approach. Morvich was gone. She ran into the pasture and around the perimeter, but the fence wasn't breached, so she dashed back into the barn and flung open the door to the tack room. His saddle and bridle were gone too. Her stomach twisted. They didn't lock the gates to their property because they were so far out of town, and really, they'd never seen a reason to. He wasn't a valuable horse. He was unregistered, a grade gelding out of no one, by no one, purchased by her father on a whim from some farmer.

But he was hers, her best friend, whose mahogany mane had patiently absorbed many tears over the past few years, so she ran faster than she ever had before into the house. "Father!" she bellowed, pounding up the stairs. She kicked his door furiously. "Wake up! Now, you lazy beast! I swear to god, if you're with a woman I'll flay you!"

He didn't answer, though, so finally she crossed her fingers that he wasn't occupied with anyone and opened his door. He wasn't there.

She stood there blankly for a second, then began working her way through each room in their small house, hands pressed to her stomach to quell the bad feelings lurking there. They were all empty.

She went back outside and sat down on the front step, head in her hands. Her father wouldn't have taken Morvich on a ride, and not in the least because he was a terrible horseman; his arm was still sore, she knew it by the way he'd been favoring it. But facts were facts, her horse was missing before he even got his breakfast, and so was her father, who absolutely always left her a note when he went out, usually scrawled with smiley faces and hearts between the words. Yet there was no note.

She wasn't entirely sure how long she sat there, stewing and worrying. By the time she heard hoofbeats, the sun was almost directly overhead. As soon as her father came into sight, gripping Morvich's reins one-handed in a way that told her just how much his arm must be aching, all the fear turned into anger.

"You! You! You!" was all she could get out.

"Horsefeathers," Spirit muttered, wincing as she stalked up to them. He swung down from the saddle on the off side, deftly placing Morvich between her and him.

"You!" she said again, clenching her fists. "I thought he got stolen! You never ride him! You didn't leave a note! God, I- you- did you even feed him before you took him out?"

He nodded dumbly, taken aback by her shrieks. She pressed her fists to her temples, where an ache was developing. He held the reins out to her and she took them with a sigh, because she knew that he knew she would force herself to be calm around her horse, and was using that fact to cool her down.

"Baby, I'm sorry," he said, stuffing his hands in his pockets. She slid a hand under Morvich's mane and rubbed softly, giving her father a more thorough once-over. He looked absolutely exhausted, dark blurs under his eyes, and if she wasn't mistaken he was still wearing the suit he'd had on last night, which was not exactly fit for a morning's ride.

"What's going on?" she said finally, loosening Morvich's girth a few holes. He stretched his neck out and shook throroughly, rattling the saddle, then nudged her with his nose. She obliged him and scratched his sweaty bits under the bridle straps, pinning her father with her very best glare, making it clear that she knew something was afoot and she wouldn't let him go until he explained.

He squirmed. "Honey, I was just tired of sitting at home, I-"

"Don't lie to me," she said ominously. "You've lied plenty before."

He made a face at her insinuation. They didn't talk about what he'd done to her mother, the other women, the falsehoods and betrayals. It was a line that they both knew could mean the end if it were crossed, but she'd come close. "Ah, darling, look. It was a business emergency, and that's the truth. I'm sorry I didn't leave a note, and I'm sorry I took Morvich, but it was urgent and I didn't want to walk. And yes, I fed him. All right, sweetums? I'm sorry. Papa loves you, you know that, right?" By the end of it, he was positively wheedling and giving her his best puppy-dog eyes.

"Right. Sure. Fine." She wasn't sure she believed him, or rather, she had a funny feeling he was leaving some important bits of the story out, but it would do for now. "I'll put him up. Go rest your arm." She took Morvich into the barn and began to untack him, hoping the familiar routine would quell the unpleasant prickles in the back of her mind. Her father had never lied to her about anything bigger than Santa Claus, never in her whole life that she could remember, but now he was dancing right around one, and she wanted to know why.

Once her horse was safely back in his paddock, she went back into the house fully prepared to get the full story from Spirit, but she couldn't find him, not until she knocked on his bedroom door.

"Come on in, honey," he called distractedly. She opened the door and her mouth fell open. He still hadn't changed his clothes, but he was busily stuffing things inside his luggage.

"You're leaving already? Your arm's still sore. I saw it."

He didn't stop packing. "I know, sweetheart, but this is a big job and there's no one else who can do it. I need to- to make it to the train station on time, I can't miss this."

She caught the stutter in his words and pounced. "Train station, huh? What aren't you telling me? Where are you really going?"

"Maka, I cannot and will not tell you anything else. Let it go. I'll be back in a day or two, tops," he said with finality. Beyond his tone, it was his usage of her given name, rather than an overly sweet endearment, that underlined his seriousness.


He paused, then groaned, apparently struggling with himself. "I'm not taking a train. I'm taking Morvich again. But he'll be fine, I'll take good care of him. Okay?"

"Oh," was all she said, twisting her hands together convulsively, before leaving and holing herself up in her room. It wasn't until late that evening that the silence of the house told her he'd left without saying goodbye.

Three dreary days went by, peppered with gloomy clouds and tepid, fitful rain that perfectly matched her mood. He wasn't back yet. Another two days passed before she began to get really worried. By the sixth day of her father's absence, she was bouncing off the walls and gnawing her nails to ragged stumps.

It was while pacing the living room and hunting vainly for a book she hadn't yet read that she came upon the Dire Circus flyer. The eyes of the creature lurking behind the striped man met hers and beckoned. She was tired, she was scared, and she was desperately worried about her father and her horse. She pictured them locked up in some army base, scared and confused, and wanted to cry. So instead, driven by things she didn't understand, she went to the circus. Maybe she wanted to absorb some of that insouciant confidence the sword-swallower had displayed.

It wasn't a long walk to it, following the setting sun westward alongside chattering families and rumbling motorcars. It was dusk, so she saw the glow of it long before the tents came into sight. When she actually saw it, she froze.

It was lit up magnificently, every corner ablaze with tiny dancing lights strung up, and the tents billowed up like poisonous mushrooms, every pattern imaginable, but the largest, standing proud in the center, was striped with scarlet and deep black. A massive silver skull topped it, looking almost merry as it overlooked the incoming crowds. The noise was unbelievable. Underneath the excited talking, music drifted, tinny and piped from somewhere she couldn't see, and under that was the sound of animals. Something trumpeted, something roared, and she found herself wondering just how strong the cages were. There were scents, too, food, the hot wild musk of animals, and something smoky she couldn't place. It was overwhelming, it was chaos.

It was also eerily beautiful, in a vital messy way, like an overgrown jungle. She stood in line outside the ticket booth, once she finally found it, and even the booth was beautiful. It was painted as slickly scarlet as the stripes on the main tent, slashed with streaks of glittering blue, and a band of carved animals cavorted around the base of it, lions and giraffes and unicorns, all of which had very long fangs.

When she stepped up to buy admission, she had to force her mouth to work, and when she spoke it came out in a squeak. "Hi. I, uh, I was told to- I know Black Star. He said I'd get a discount?"

The tall, dark-skinned woman inside the booth pursed her lips. She was wrapped up in icy white bandages, looking like a malevolent zebra, but even under the wrappings it was easy to tell she was gorgeous. "Black Star, huh?"

"Yes." Maka swallowed hard and white-knuckled the strap of her bag.

The woman looked at her with dark eyes. Maka felt like she was under a very wise microscope.. "Hmm. All right, then, doll. Fifty cents for you." She held out her hand, which was bandaged to the last joint of her fingers, leaving only gilded nails visible. Maka pressed the coins into her palm carefully, not sure if she was injured under the wrappings, and not wanting to hurt her if she was. "My name's Mira. Nice to meet you. Enjoy." When she smiled, it was genuine, crinkling the corners of her eyes, and Maka smiled back instantly. She felt more comfortable already. Obviously this woman worked her for a reason; despite her appearance, she had a way of a person at ease.

"Thank you," Maka answered. She took the ticket Mira handed her. It was ivory, like bone, with a black stamped number on it; she was the hundred and seventh person to enter the circus tonight, apparently. Maybe she shouldn't have felt so sorry for Black Star. At a dollar a head, they were doing well here.

"Main show starts in twenty, in the big tent," Mira called after her. Maka lifted a hand in thanks and headed towards it. If it started in twenty minutes, and the place was this crowded already, she probably would have to hurry to get a seat. She passed two tiny people of indeterminate gender, dressed identically, with overlarge eyes peeking out from under caps, sitting quietly on display in front of gawping people. That wasn't nice, for them to get stared at like creatures in a zoo. She pressed on, following the music and the winking silver skull rising above everything else, but stopped to blink at a bosomy blonde woman with an eyepatch lifting a bench with four laughing men on it over her head, as if they were light as air. Now that was a show. She looked for Black Star, but didn't see him.

The tent was crowded, and she had to use her small size to her advantage to get inside. Once she did, it was another world. The inside of it was pure black, punctured here and there with small holes that let in the flickering lights from outside; she recognized the Little Dipper and realized they were constellations. Someone near the front stood up and she darted in and took their seat. If they were dumb enough to leave this close to showtime, well, they deserved to have their prime real estate stolen.

The music was bothering her. It was soft, but she couldn't escape it, and she couldn't figure out where it was coming from. There was something off about it; it was a variation on a popular piece, but darkened, feral, turned on its head. It was obviously not a recording, like the tunes near the entrance had been, but she couldn't see a piano anywhere.

The seats were essentially long stairs, rows of benches really, circled around a large, central open space bordered with a short black fence tipped with tiny lights that was probably more to keep the crowd out than anything else. It was the flickering of those lights that cued in the masses to the beginning of the show, and silence fell almost immediately. She felt her breathe catch, entirely instinctively. The aura here was incredible. Adrenaline was fizzling in her veins and nothing had even happened yet.

The lights all went out, leaving everyone in heart-stopping darkness, and then a single circle of illumination from somewhere up above fell onto the middle of the stage area. A man was there, even though he hadn't been just a second ago, tall and wreathed in a ragged black cloak. His face was covered in a mask, vaguely skull-like in the round empty eye sockets and bare lipless teeth, but she didn't think it was supposed to look fully human, not with that distorted shape. She squinted and felt the hair on her neck stand up, because it was so perfectly crafted that it looked real. It was textured like bone, articulated at the mandible like a real skull, and the teeth were irregular and slightly stained exactly like a real person's. The fragile frills in the nose hole even looked authentically varied. His eyes were invisible behind it, and it didn't move when he began to speak.

His words boomed out, loud enough for every person to hear, but his tone was cheerful. He sounded as if welcoming them here was the high point of his day. "Greetings! I am pleased to welcome you, one and all, to the final performance the Dire Circus will put on here. Your city has been gracious, and we thank you for your patronage. The first act will begin in just a moment." He turned as if to go, the cloak wisping lightly up around him as if it were alive, but then paused dramatically. "Please prepare yourselves to see death-defying acts of courage, ready yourselves to be more entertained than you ever have. If anyone has a weak constitution, we advise, for your own health, that you leave now." With that rather foreboding warning, he left, ducking out under a sheeted-off corner of the tent she hadn't noticed before. What a dismal sort of thing to say, she thought. He surely had a flair for showmanship.

The first few acts were more cutesy than anything, and she found herself a little disappointed, even if the crowd liked it. There were dogs in costumes and clowns falling over and drenching each other with water. Yes, the dogs were unbelievably well trained, but this wasn't exactly death-defying. The unseen piano player kept up the whole time, matching his or her unearthly melody perfectly to the silliness going on in the ring, punctuating each joke with a trill of notes not unlike a chuckle.

It wasn't until the dogs and clowns were clearing out for the next act that she saw the piano. It was tucked far into a corner of the tent, and it was pitch black with no shine to it whatsoever, which explained why she hadn't seen it before. It blended perfectly with the walls. Whoever was playing it was dressed all in black, too, and all she could see from this distance was pale hands flying across the keys like spiders, and hair equally as pale. They turned their head for a moment- even though the hair was short, she couldn't tell the gender for sure- and she caught a glimpse of a dark red mask, featureless and plain. Why would someone with such magic in their fingers want to play anonymously?

Then a split opened in the opposite side of the tent and three horses entered, two palominos and one dappled gray, halfway through the change to solid white. They were loose, entirely at liberty, and she thought for a moment they'd escaped until a woman crawled up the side of the gray. She'd been clinging to his off side as he circled, invisible to the crowd. Her hair was long and deeply black, streaming out proudly like a flag as she waved happily to the crowd, sitting backwards and bareback on the leading horse with an ease and balance Maka immediately envied. As she and her horses came around the ring again, perfectly in harmony with each other, it became evident that what had seemed like a spotted bodysuit was actually tattoos, covering her arms and legs. The crowd roared appreciatively, and not just at her revealing outfit. Those tattoos were incredible. They looked almost alive. She saw a tiger on once shoulder, and a mermaid on one calf, but the rest were dark blurs.

The flapping of the place they'd entered from caught Maka's eye for just a moment, and she gasped. It was only a split second look, just a moment, but she knew in her marrow that she'd seen Morvich on the other side of that tent. She hadn't seen who was holding him, whether or not her father was with him, but that sea-horse shaped blaze on his chestnut face, the white sock on his right front- she couldn't mistake those markings, not in a million years. That was her horse, here in this crazy madhouse. Had they stolen him? Had her father been abducted on his way out of town, or murdered?

She was on her feet before she had even made a conscious decision, slithering past the other seated people in her row without making time for apologies and darting outside. She ran like her feet had wings, around the massive curve of the tent, ducking around a few startled looking people meandering about. The damn tent was huge. She was almost all the way around, almost all the way to her horse, when someone stepped in front of her.

"Whoa! You're not allowed back here! Sorry, but-" She crashed into them, unable to stop in time, and they both hit the ground hard.

"Ouch," she wheezed, rolling off them and shaking her head, feeling stunned. Something blue blurred in front of her and she blinked hard to clear her vision. "Black Star?"

He sat up. "You! Girl. Girl from the city. Blondie. Hi. What the hell are you zooming about for? Did the act scare you?"

"As if," she scoffed. "Look, I don't know what the heck is going on, but I saw my horse. My horse! Outside the tent, I mean, and I don't know what exactly is going on, but he's mine and he's my property, my father had no right to sell him to you, if that's even what happened- if you people stole him, I swear to god I'll-"

"Calm down," he snapped, standing up and raking a hand through that ridiculous hair. "You- crap. Crap. Look, you're obviously mistaken. First of all, we don't steal. Never."

"Oh, yeah, sure," she retorted, standing up as well and going toe to toe with him, pale with rage. He wasn't much taller than her, so she could snarl at him very effectively. "He's mine! My horse! And what have you done with my fathe? They were together! They've been missing! You take me back there right now, mister, or-"

"Or what?" he barked, eyes narrowing. He didn't back down an inch. "What are you gonna do, little girl?"

She growled wordlessly, stomped on his instep as hard as she could, and then dashed away. His long howl rose and fell behind her and she felt grim satisfaction. Thought she was a weak little girl, did he? Ha! She showed him people couldn't just steal her horse and get away with it. Whatever the hell was going on, whatever these people had done to her father, she'd find out. She'd rescue them.

She passed colorful wagons and knew she was close. This was obviously where the performers lived. Luckily no one else tried to stop her. They must all be busy setting up for their acts in the big top. Finally she caught the familiar scent of horses and then there he was, her shiny red horse, regarding her calmly from inside a makeshift stall. She almost cried. He looked well, he'd obviously been taken care of, thank god. "Come on," she whispered. "Let's get you out of here." The big scarlet and black tent was right beside them, maybe twelve feet away, but no one was going in and out at the moment. She had to move fast. A halter and lead were hanging up beside him, and she was inside the stall in a heartbeat, buckling them on him as fast as she could, although her fingers were shaking. Why hadn't Black Star caught up with her yet? She felt like eyes were on her and looked around wildly as she led Morvich out, only to find her gaze drawn to the silver skull gleaming atop the tent. "Don't look at me, he's mine," she told it, gulping. Morvich had caught her tension and was prancing, throwing his head. She snapped the lead rope firmly. "No."

They only made it halfway out of the maze of tents and wagons before someone materialized in front of her. She yelped in spite of herself, spinning and yanking Morvich harder than she should have, but a firm hand gripped her bicep like a rock. "Let me go," she sobbed, peering into the shadows around them as if help would somehow come. "He's mine! Where's my father? Where's Spirit Albarn? What's going on here?"

The blank red mask regarded her emotionlessly, and she realized with tight clenching terror that the eyes beneath it were just as red. Her struggles were useless; the piano player was strong. Why wasn't he in the tent, playing? She was going to get murdered, dumped in a ditch just like her father probably was, and no one would ever know.

One hand rose to push the mask up onto the ragged white hair, revealing a lean, angular face. Under her panic she noticed that he was handsome despite his strange coloring- it was a boy, after all, around her age, and it was almost impossible for her to believe that someone with red eyes could have played the piano in that tent, so angelically, so perfectly. He looked her up and down scornfully. "It's intermission. Bad time to try and steal from us, hmm? Plenty of people for Black Star to send after you."

"I'm not stealing," she said hysterically, unable to fight him like she wanted while keeping hold of Morvich, who was wide-eyed, circling around them nervously. She did kick him, though. He didn't seem to care. "He's mine! He's my horse! He was with my dad!"

"Spirit Albarn," he said suddenly. "That's your father, you said?"

"Yes!" She took one hand off the lead rope and aimed a blow at his stomach, but he twisted aside, though he seemed surprised. She couldn't do much, thanks to her stupid high strung horse wriggling around.

He caught her fist, then, and forced her to let go of the lead rope. Morvich shot away immediately into the darkness and she screamed. "Tsubaki will catch him, don't worry, little thief," he said sadistically, twisting her wrists around expertly and putting her on her knees from the pain. She hissed between her teeth at him like a hunting cat, and he just scowled.

"Let me go. He can't run around here. He'll get hurt, or someone else will," she said finally, trying to appeal to his sensible side, desperate for her horse to be safe again.

He smiled, then, sideways and wry, and she sucked in a startled lungful of air at the sight of his teeth. They were jagged, pointed, like a shark. He closed his mouth immediately, lips twisting. "I told you, Tsubaki will grab him. She probably already has. You are going to come with me, and if you try anything I will be forced to hurt you. Understand?"

She nodded, though it burned. This had all gone wrong. She should have just bided her time, gone to the police, but instead she'd dived in like a moron and now god only knew what these people would do to her. He hauled her to her feet roughly and started off, pulling her forcefully after him.

"Where are you taking me?" she said as he shoved her around a vibrantly blue wagon decorated with spinning crystals.

He sneered at her. "To see Lord Death. We don't take kindly to thieves here. Better start praying."


1: Morvich is the name of the horse who won the 1922 Kentucky Derby, an underdog, described as an 'ugly cripple who no one thought could win' until he did. I thought the name would be appropriate for Maka's gelding, since the story of this setting is based on the roaring '20s.

2: When Maka says Morvich is by no one, out of no one, she is referring to his lack of a pedigree or registration. A horse is 'by' their sire/father and 'out of' their dam/mother. It's basically horse talk for their parents. She's saying that he has no valuable bloodlines.

3: Jodhpurs are a kind of riding pants, popularized for women in this decade, though it took a while.

4: 'Horsefeathers' is a mild curse.

5: One of the circus horses is described as 'gray, halfway to white' because very few horses are born white. I could get into the genetics of it, but it's boring and academic. Just know that most of the adult horses you see that are pure white were actually born a different color and grayed out to being 'white' over several years. :) Cool, right? You get all kinds of different colors in one horse!

Author says: Hi everyone! I'm working on the ending to 'The Cost of Lamentations' right now too, don't worry, but I felt like putting this up now. It's set in an alternate universe that is based on the 1920's, but it won't be exact.

Expect Maka and Soul and everyone to be a bit OOC, since, after all, this is an alternate universe. They will still be themselves, just used to a different worl, and Soul in particular will be different, but the reasons as to why (basically some things he's been through) will be explained later on.

The definition at the beginning of the chapter will be explained in a while. ;) Maybe they'll give you a hint as to something that happens in the chapter, maybe it won't.

This is something new for me, so I would really really really love reviews, good or bad! I want to know what you guys think. I've never done an AU story before. Thank you so much for reading and I hope you all were entertained!