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Love Like Salt

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She had never thought much about the closing of Fox's department store. An overpriced dinosaur, with dated fixtures, even more dated customers, and wares that were generally a few strides out of season, the place had been well past its heyday when they shut the doors last year. Maka is convinced it had only lasted so long because of fierce customer loyalty and an excellent in store restaurant that she herself had frequented a time or twelve. Sure, she has some fond memories of going to the place with her mama as a young child, but as long as she still has her shop, her mama will always be with her.

No, Fox's had been a blip on her radar, just one more change in the ever-changing landscape of a massive metropolis like Death City, up until this morning when she had walked past the ghost of the place on her way to open shop only to find instead of boarded windows there is a large, colorful building fence around the long dormant remains that declare boldly the imminent coming of Evans Books and Music.

Evans, Inc. The bargain basement of the online world that recently encroached on big cityscapes to become the upscale Wal-Mart of retail entertainment. Where Evans comes, small shops die.

Maka is rarely fazed by much, but as she sees the slick, bright siding, she stops in the middle of the sidewalk and does a double take. This is-probably bad, right? But it doesn't have to be bad. Maybe. Her shop is highly specialized, after all, and people come to her for expertise and service, neither of which Evans Books can offer.

They'll be fine, she tells herself, because the alternative is simply unacceptable.

Resuming her walk, she comes to the next corner and turns down 42nd, moving to the second building over where a welcoming wooden door painted a cheery green greets her. She doesn't have to look up at the large wooden sign above to know where she is. Most people call it Pocket Full of Posies. Maka just calls it home.

Turning the key in the lock, she opens the door and takes in the sight of her little store, shadows broken by the morning light streaming in through the main window, dust motes dancing merrily. She has seen the sight hundreds of times since her mother's passing, thousands in her lifetime, but it remains as bittersweet as ever. She smiles fondly, ignoring the twinge of pain, the wash of nostalgia, and flips on the lights, the magic of shadow and sunbeams vanishing in the sudden flood of fluorescent.

A loud bellow of, "Heads up, Maks!" is all the warning she's allotted as she spins on her heel, just managing to catch the paper bag hurtling towards her.

The bag has heft in her hands and as she realizes the treasure she holds, she can't find it in herself to be annoyed with her oldest friend. In response, she offers a halfhearted, "Damn it, Blake, a little warning!"

Blake Barrett waves a hand her way, expression an infuriating mix of dismissive and placating. "I said 'heads up,' hello! And anyway, you don't get to whine when your god brings you a bounty of coffee and danish." He grins at her, gesturing with one hand between her bag and the drink holder with two large, steaming cups he clutches in the other. "Oh, and Marie says 'Hi.'"

Putting down the bag on the main counter, Maka rifles through and finds the danish meant for her, wrinkling her nose at what is surely a bagel with lox next to it.

"She comp you again?"

"Always."

Scoffing as she pulls a coffee from the carrier marked with her name and a heart, Maka shoves the half empty bag into his chest. Just because Blake is her oldest friend, a personal trainer who works part time at her little shop, and just because she feels bad his parents have recently sold their dojo and absconded off to San Diego doesn't mean he gets a pass.

"You aren't supposed to let her."

His shrug is only a little sheepish. "Shyeah, as if I can make her take my money. Anyway, you've wiped out half the store giving her books for the baby, so I figure it's even."

A sigh and a mild eye roll is as much reprimand as she can manage because he's not wrong, she just hates feeling like she's taking advantage. Maka takes a sip of coffee-French roast, cream, and a shot of caramel, just like she likes it-and sighs, an odd mix of frustration and contentment. Marie is Marie, and Blake is Blake, and really, she's damn lucky to be surrounded by people who care. Catching sight of the fact his hair is now an eye searing blue he hasn't sported in years, a shift from the bleached blonde he's had for months, she can't help the affectionate laugh that escapes her. "Nice hair, by the way."

"Right?" He looks pleased as a peacock, fluffing it up further after taking a bite of his bagel and gross. Maka tries to ignore the nauseating smell of fish. "Figured it was past time I returned to my roots."

The pun is bad enough to snort through her laugh, though why he has returned to the blue of their high school days remains a mystery.

"Frank back yet?" she asks after swallowing a large, gooey bite of danish that makes her instantly nostalgic for her ex-roommate's baked goods.

"Nah, Marie said he found something interesting and extended the trip another week." His voice is somewhat muffled by a mouth crammed full of bagel. "Has her all freaked that the nursery won't get painted in time, so I offered to come help this weekend." He swallows and gestures her way with his half eaten bounty. "And I nominated my oldest minion to ride shotgun on this one."

She could be mad-she could be pissed-but she isn't. Shrugging, she stifles a smile as she mutters, "Yeah, whatever." Sometimes Maka forgets how fundamentally decent Blake is beneath all the ex-fratboy bravado.

"Any-way," he draws out the first y obnoxiously. "Did you catch sight of our new neighbor?"

Not meaning to furrow her brow so deeply, she tilts her head. "What now?" With Eastwick on one side and the bank on the corner, the question doesn't make sense. Neither Kim nor Jackie have mentioned relocating and the bank is a hundred year old fixture.

"Someone bought the old Fox building. Any guesses who?"

The scoff is completely warranted. "I have to walk right by on my way here, which you know by the way, so I'd be an idiot to miss it. They don't do anything small, do they?"

"It's how they muscle out the little guys-which in this case is us. We are so boned."

Waving a dismissive hand, she takes a last bite of danish and shrugs, allowing herself to chew and swallow at a leisurely pace she knows makes him impatient.

"People go to Evans for a cheap media fix. People come to us for service. We'll be fine."

His returning look is pure skepticism, unusual for the man who never says die, but he shrugs after a moment. "Just figure we should have a plan."

Blake is probably right, but she doesn't want to think about that just now, doesn't want to consider there could be a protracted fight ahead, so she doesn't. Instead, finishing her pastry, she takes her coffee with her to the small back office, leaving Blake to get the till set. They'll be opening soon and she's itching to check in on her favorite person. He's not an early riser, normally, but he'd mentioned something about a big project starting and needing to actually head to work early-wherever and whatever work actually is for him. Maka doesn't have the first clue and the mystery still holds some charm, though sometimes she deeply regrets insisting they not share personal details so stridently. The curiosity digs at her.

Her favorite person--she couldn't pick him out in a lineup, doesn't even know his real name!

Pianoman564.

Mostly, she just calls him PMan, and their talks have been the highlight of her day for months.

Hey, you awake yet? she shoots off a Skype message as she closes the office door behind her. You better be awake, lazyass. You said you have an early day.

The response doesn't take long.

awake yes alive debatable need 50 ccs of coffee stat

She stifles a snort because she does not need Blake hovering. Or more accurately, she doesn't want to take shit from Blake over an innocent conversation with a friend.

At least it's a lovely fall morning. Leaves are starting to change and everything. I know we don't have as many deciduous trees here as some places, but maybe that's why it's so striking-there really is something magical about Death City in the Fall, between the sparsely scattered changing trees and hustle and bustle of a new school year.

There's a longer pause which means he's going to level more than a sentence. Maka braces herself for incoming snark. PMan does not disappoint.

u mean thousands of frazzled parents panicking over a new school year like they don't expect it like its not the same time every fuckin year? or maybe all that overhyped pumpkin shit thats literally everywhere like were in the heart of old new england instead of the middle of the damn desert? but since u enjoy, i will send u a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils to celebrate the season

This time she does snort, but thankfully Blake either doesn't notice or doesn't care. A bouquet of newly sharpened pencils? Really? The image makes her smile.

And I'll buy you all the pumpkin coffee you can drink since you clearly love it so much. What time is your big meeting anyway?

This time, his response is fast.

2 soon need 2 shower l8r bookworm

She's a little disappointed at the abrupt cut off if she's honest-normally he talks longer and gives more warning-but she refuses to acknowledge it. After all, they are just anonymous acquaintances. He doesn't owe her his time and he's certainly allowed to be busy.

Okay-don't fall asleep again-I wouldn't want you to drown. Good luck!

But PMan is already offline, so she tucks away her phone and busies herself with ordering to bulk up inventory for the coming season-the holidays are always their boom time and she looks forward to the upswing in sales that will cushion her bank account for the fluctuations of the coming year -refusing to think about what the looming specter of Evans Books might mean for the future.


Soul Evans is running late-five minutes late to be as precise as his brother's personal assistant Ox surely will be. Why Wes had felt the need to torment him with the extra help Soul couldn't say other than the ongoing, tacit acknowledgement that his brother is a bit of a sadist. "You'll need the help with the store set to open next month. And anyway, Liz has been helping out, I don't need him right now," he'd said with his trademark dismissive hand wave when Soul had objected. He'd had his own suspicion as to exactly how Liz was "helping" and why his brother would rather see Ox Ford out of sight and out of mind, but he hadn't been about to say it-he really preferred not to reinforce the image by speaking it aloud, and online sales wasn't his division or his problem. If Wes was willing to lose his right hand, well, fine, he'd deal. So, Soul had bitten his tongue with a somewhat sullen shrug and a flat voiced, "Whatever," and wondered if he'd ever be able to outgrow the feeling that he was just the lesser Evans son, Wes Evan's failure of a baby brother.

Over two years into this new, wildly successful venture, this latest branch of Evans, Inc., his very own brain child that is Evans Books and Music, and he's still being coddled by his big brother, still doesn't feel good enough by half. Maybe he never will.

He's chosen to walk to work today since what will be the flagship store of his division is so damn close to his building, and anyway, he really needs caffeine and some not nearly brisk enough Fall desert air to wake him the fuck up. As he dips into Marie's, he's greeted by the heavenly smell of pastries and coffee and nearly drools. If nothing else, at least Soul has great coffee and bagel to look forward to. He orders a double espresso instead of his usual cafe americano and a bagel with cream cheese and extra lox. Marie Mjolnir herself is manning the register, oversized belly limiting free access to the cash drawer. She looks surprised or maybe concerned but just says, "That'll be 8 dollars and 60 cents, please."

As he surrenders his platinum card to run through the machine, she says, "You're up early this morning. Normally you don't come in for a few hours." Soul shrugs. He can tell she wants to say more, maybe wants to ask if something's wrong, but she doesn't. He doesn't know her well-they aren't aquatinted beyond his near daily coffee runs into her shop-but he's always appreciated her discretion. She isn't nosy or in his face, ever, just polite and observant; she generally rings in his order before he even makes it. Now, he can add perceptive and maybe even kind to the list, and after he thanks her for the bagel and coffee she hands over, she tells him, "Take care" as he approaches the door and he feels like she genuinely means it.

Pausing just outside, Soul takes a sip of his coffee and sighs gratefully. Sweet, sweet caffeine, gift of his lord and savior, mother coffee, his love and lifeblood. He drinks so much in any given day he wouldn't be surprised if a cut bled black, more espresso than blood running through his veins.

The moment he steals to take in the sight just down and across the street is well earned. Slick construction walls greet him, wrapped in colorful, inviting imagery of the coming store, his store, his newest baby. He must admit, the design team outdid themselves on this one, with tasteful images set in the Los Angeles store of attractive- yet not so overly attractive as to take away the from the feel of Everyman-people, hipsters on comfy chairs enjoying a book and a steaming latte, or a bright faced family in one of the listening pods sampling the latest music. If he weren't the one directing the whole thing, he would probably be enticed by the images to check it out. Though his former self would more likely have been repulsed by how very corporate it all looks, turning his nose up and marching straight off to whatever elusive, dying independent record store he could manage to find.

Well, he's as corporate as he never wanted to be now, and hell, bringing high quality, low cost books and music to the masses in comfort and style really isn't such a terrible thing, is it?

Some part of him whispers sell out, but he's pretty sure it's impossible to sell out when you were born sucking on a silver spoon.

Anyway, it's too early in the morning and too late in his life to regret his role in the family business, so he makes his way down and across the street and through the door of the construction site, home of his biggest brain child to date. He realizes he's forgotten his hard hat yet again, but Ox's constant nagging about safety does not actually outweigh his own personal need for well styled hair. Seeing the hustle and bustle as the old is torn apart to make way for the new hits him oddly. Another past will be reborn, not by his hands but by his will. When he thinks too hard, it still amazes him that all these people work for him.

Even a second best disappointment is somebody with the Evans name attached, and he wonders, not for the first time, if he'd won or lost the genetic lottery. Phenomenal wealth and influence are his, sure, but at the cost of never feeling right in his own skin, of never feeling like he can be himself.

He's not convinced it's worth it, and Soul suddenly wishes he had time to message Bookworm. BlondeBookworm, his strange, amazing friend he's never actually met, the one person he looks forward to interacting with on any given day. She might not have the answer, but she seems to have her head on pretty straight, and at worst, she'd probably make him smile for a few minutes. She's pretty good at making him smile. Still, it's not like he can change any of it, so as he spots the ever punctual Mr. Ford heading his way, Soul makes his way to his new makeshift office to prepare for the planning meeting. After all, he's got a special projects team to wow.


Staring at a new message as she lays on her bed, feet kicking languidly in the air, Maka doesn't know quite how to answer.

do u ever wish u did something different with ur life? like maybe u took the wrong path but now ur stuck and u cant fix it so u just keep moving because what choice do u have?

Does she ever...? Sometimes. When it's dark, and she's alone, sometimes she wonders-if her mama had lived, if she had felt free to choose, might she have walked a different path?

Maka has always loved to write, had also sometimes thought she wanted to see the world and do something bigger than herself, but then her mama died and she could only think to continue her legacy. She couldn't abandon the store her mother had loved, the store that has always been her home. But when it's late and still, sometimes she thinks what if and gets a little sad. Probably, she just misses her mama, but maybe there's something else there, too. She usually tries not to think too hard on it, but PMan is so rarely serious that she feels like she should be honest. With him, it's safe to be honest.

Sure, sometimes. Not often, but it happens. But I love my life so I figure, in the end, I'm where I'm meant to be.

It doesn't take him long to answer.

and if u wernt happy?

But she is, isn't she? Maka has friends and a thriving shop with loyal customers. She gets to foster a love of reading in children for a living, what's not to be happy about?

But still, she should try to give an honest answer.

If I weren't happy, I guess I might have to rethink things. But it might also be about how I'm looking at it. Maybe I'd try to embrace the path I'm on and make it my own, I'm not sure. Or maybe I'd decide to take the path I should have been on to begin with. It's hard to say unless I was there, I guess.

There is a long pause, pregnant. PMan has always been full of snark and cynicism, he's definitely complained in vague ways about his controlling family, but he's never quite said he's unhappy before. It makes her heart ache inexplicably, and she has to remind herself again that for all she knows him, she doesn't really know him at all.

i guess that makes sense, he finally replies, quickly followed up with i just wish it was as easy as u make it sound

Her response is effortless, a mantra she's repeated to herself a thousand, thousand times,

Few things worth doing are easy.

He answers back quickly, and she suspect it's just as thoughtless.

so they tell me. anyway, i know u have an early day so ill let u go to bed. later, bookworm

Yeah, goodnight PMan.

As she closes her laptop and sets it carefully on the nightstand, Maka can't help but to wonder when her heart had become so heavy. Or maybe she just wonders when his did.


When he's asked, Soul will generally tell people he hates kids. He has an image to maintain, after all, and kids don't mesh well with jaded, aloof family slacker. In truth, though, he's always had a soft spot for children. Maybe it's because his own childhood had been so messy, maybe he enjoys living vicariously. Maybe he secretly wishes he'd had a grown up who listened and understood and cared. Then again, maybe he just needs a break from it all, so when his ex college roommate Killik Rung comes in to see Harvar D'eclair, his personal assistant, little brother and sister in tow-he apparently picked up a last minute gig and lacks childcare-Soul is quick to offer his services.

"I'll take them," he interrupts Harvar, who is currently telling his boyfriend that he's working, damn it, and now is not the time.

Both men blink at him, clearly unaware that he'd been listening at all, but Aiden and Indra rush to hug his legs.

"Uncle Soul! Uncle Soul! Can we really go with you?" Aiden squeals.

"Mmmmm." He taps his chin in mock thought.

"Pleeeeeease?" Indra looks up at him with wide blue eyes. She's definitely got the puppy dog look down.

"I guess," he says, sounding entirely put out.

"You really don't have to," Kilik says. He looks mildly embarrassed.

"You know you'll be getting a call from Mrs. Evans if you don't get those estimates over to corporate," Harv helpfully reminds him.

The scowl he offers his assistant, brimming with his oddly sharp teeth, might have scared other children, but the twins are long since used to him. Soul punctuates the look with a shrug as an idea hits him.

"You do it. Or hell, have Ox do it, he'll be over the moon. Been meaning to spend some time with my two favorite brats anyway."

There are protests coming from the vicinity of his waist to the tune of, "I'm not a brat!" but he ignores them.

"Soul, you really don't-" Kilik says at the same time as Harvar deadpans, "And if your mother calls?"

"Tell her I'm hard at work," he says as he adjusts their oversized hardhats before grabbing a hand from each kid. He starts to walk because really, his small, makeshift office in the midst of a construction zone is no place for kids, but pauses as another thought strikes him.

"Actually, I'll take them for the night if you want. You guys could probably use the break, and I could use the excuse not to attend the weekly family nightmare."

It's true, and he likes the kids, he always has, so he doesn't mind giving his best friend and his assistant some alone time. Soul still isn't sure how they'd ended up an item, but somewhere along the line, Kilik coming in to see him had turned into Kilik coming in to see Harv. He can't say he gets their relationship either, his dry, precise assistant with his laid back, go with the flow ex-roommate, but he figures it takes all kinds. Anyway, it's not like he's ever understood the whole love thing.

"Don't blame me when you get an earful for this next week," Harvar interrupts his train of thought.

"It's your job to take the blame, isn't it?" Soul says breezily as he resumes walking.

"I definitely don't get paid enough for this shit," Harv mutters, but they both know he doesn't mean it. "And Ox is going to be completely up my ass. You owe me, Evans."

"Yeah, yeah." It's dismissive, and Soul walks away, content with his good deed in placing the rest of his day's responsibilities firmly on the shoulders of his assistant.

"I'll pick them up at 11 tomorrow," Kilik says. "You mind dropping by their stuff when you get off?" He looks to Harv, who shrugs, a gesture as close to affirmation as the assistant is likely to give. Killik then walks over to give the kids a kiss and hug goodbye. "Be good for Uncle Soul, you two."

"We will!" They sing song, and maybe they even mean it, but Soul is well used to their shenanigans. They'll be fine. Probably. They always are.


Maka doesn't notice much about them as they enter the store on a crowded Friday afternoon. To her, they are just another man and his kids looking for books. The Art Festival is going on down the street and the store is absolutely packed with well dressed children and their hipster parents all looking for books on Picasso or Pollock or Van Gogh. She's a little busy, anyway, currently reading The Paper Bag Princess to an enraptured crowd, tiny faces turned towards her, eyes full of wonder and laughter alternatively.

This is her favorite part of what she does, seeing the spell books cast on impressionable young minds, seeing their magic in action, and her own sense of wonder is real every time.

As she finishes the book and two children swarm her with questions, other listeners more effectively drawn away by conscientious parents and an announcement from Kid that copies of The Paper Bag Princess are available up front, Maka has no choice but to turn her attention towards them. She thinks she's seen the man before on the streets-hard to miss that mop of white on his head-though the kids don't look familiar. She idly wonders if he's their father, though they don't look alike. Still, it doesn't mean much-they could look like their mother or just be adopted.

"So is the princess going to become King now since she ditched the prince?" Both children are eager in their questions. They are dressed alike in jeans and fleece hoodies, both with short, tight curls. Only the color of the hoodies set them apart, one in red and one in yellow, and Maka can't be sure of their genders, not that she cares. Not that it matters.

"Well, Queen probably." Maka smiles. "Though she could be King if that's what she decides. She can make her own choices, like she chose to rescue the prince and then chose to ditch him." Part of her wants to add that the world might fight those choices, that pushback is inevitable, but that's for another book and an older child. For now, it's enough for this child to believe that a princess can do anything she sets her mind to. There will be time enough for disappointment in the future.

"Yeah, I'm sure the Princess's' dad won't just shove her off onto the next eligible prince with land to spare, or hell, make her marry loser number one." The low voice surprises her, and she looks up to meet red eyes, startling and skeptical all at once.

"I'm sure the story mentioned nothing about betrothal or her father, so you're right, that won't be an issue for our hero. Though there are books meant for older children in which those are real issues." Her smile remains pleasant and his bored expression falters.

"Yeah, guess not every princess get the short end. Just most of them." He shoves his hands in his pockets. "And knights like Indra have their own problems, eh Ind?" The child who had asked the question nods solemnly.

"Joan of Arc died." Her voice is matter of fact, her blue eyes the same. "Girls have it harder, but we can still be Knights. I want to rescue Princes in distress and fight the patriarchy like the Princess, and Serena Williams, and Susan B. Anthony!" Her frown gives way to a brilliant smile.

"I'm glad you're getting good use out of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls." The man reaches down to ruffle her hair, though it is unruffleable.

The other child, more quiet, pipes up. "I wanna be like Princess Di. Only a boy. I mean, she got to wear great dresses and help people. Though." The child looks thoughtful for a moment." I'd also rather not die."

"Not dying seems like a solid plan, Aiden. And I can guarantee you have at least one auntie and uncle who would love to take you shopping."

"Those all sound like good ideas." Maka smiles again, impressed on too many levels to count. The man is strange, with that white hair and those red eyes and, she notes, oddly sharp teeth. She's definitely seen him around the neighborhood in glimpses, and had pegged him for having a vampire fetish, but odd looks aside, he's clearly a great parent. Also, he's handsome beneath all the strange modifications, and contacts or not, there is an intensity to those red eyes beneath the devil may care attitude that gives her pause. Refusing to stare, she adds, "I'm sure you'll make your daddy here proud."

The trio exchange a look. The boy, Aiden, snorts. Indra smiles knowingly. The man looks almost confused, less amused than his children appear to be.

"Oh, no, they aren't-" he sputters and waves his hands, half flailing.

"Our daddy died," Indra cuts him off matter of factly.

It's Maka's turn to sputter. "I'm so sorry, I just assumed-I mean-"

She feels like the world must be gaping at her over such a faux pas, but her busy little bookstore continues to bustle around them as usual, the crowd busy with their own concerns.

"It's okay!" Aiden pipes up helpfully. "We don't even remember mommy and daddy, and we have big brother-and Uncle Soul, and-"

"-and Uncle Harv!" Indra adds eagerly.

"Yeah, yeah, you stinks are spoiled, we get it." The man smiles apologetically for a moment, then his face is back to the neutral zone as he adds quietly, as if he actually owes her any sort of explanation, "Their big brother used to be my college roommate. He takes care of them. Now." He looks down at the brother and sister who are suddenly giggling and whispering to each other. "You two gonna pick books or not?"

"Paper Bag Princess!" Indra proclaims.

"Um." Aiden looks less sure.

"I can help with that!" Maka puts in cheerfully. "It's my store, after all. If there's one thing I know, it's books."

The man makes an odd noise at that and she meets his gaze to note the shadow of-something she doesn't quite get.

"Yeah, that'd be-uh-cool." His face has gone completely bored, eyes looking anywhere but at her, so she turns her attention to the little boy in front of her.

"So, Aiden, right?" She lowers herself into a slight crouch to meet his gaze. "Tell me about your favorite books."

Twenty minutes later, both children have an armload of books to buy. Aiden has also chosen a realistic baby doll, and Indra tops her stack with a stuffed dragon. The man with them seems completely unphased by the mounting expense, leading them to the counter blithely behind Maka. There are still plenty of customers, but the Story Time crowd has dissipated and Kid must be in the back, so she takes up the second register next to Blake to ring in their purchases.

About to give out the grand total, Indra cuts in, "And a Lolli!"

Her finger points firmly to the colorful stash of large, round lollipops adorning the checkout counter.

"And two lollipops," the man agrees with a put upon sigh. "That you are totally not eating until Killik picks you up tomorrow," he mutters as Maka adds the lollipops to both bags and total.

The kids pout, but then Aiden brightens. "Will the new store have lollipops, too?" he asks, eyes wide with anticipation.

The speed with which the man swoops down to speak with the two is startling, but Maka pays it little mind. She supposes by new store he could mean Evans-pretty hard to miss the signs so close to here-but the man really shouldn't be embarrassed. Kids will be kids.

They come up from their huddle and the kids smile sheepishly. "Thanks for your help, Storybook Lady!"

Smiling down at them, she corrects, "Actually, it's Maka," then turning her eyes to their guardian for the day adds, voice cheerful, "That'll be $183.35!"

Blinking at her for a moment, he asks, "Dollars?"

"Well, we also let people pay in gourmet pastry and coffee."

The guffaw is genuine, bringing a light to those odd red eyes she finds intriguing as he fishes his wallet out of a pocket and puts down two hundred dollar bills. "Sorry, fresh out."

"Well, that's too bad, but I suppose this will do, mister…?" She has yet to catch his name.

"Soul," he says, the same odd look as earlier passing his features. "Just call me Soul."

"Soul." She smiles, reaching across to hand back his change and then the bags. "Interesting name."

"So's Maka." His expression is half smirk, half eyebrow raise.

"My mom was half Japanese." Maka can't help her wistful little smile."

"That her?" He gestures towards the picture behind her to one side. Her mother is reading to her as she sits in her lap. Maka nods.

"It was."

The man must have caught her tone, because he frowns. "I'm sorry." He shakes his head. "I didn't realize-"

"Don't be," Maka cuts him off. "My mama was the strongest person I've ever known, and the last thing she'd ever want is for anyone to feel sorry for her. Anyway, Mama still lives in the heart and soul of this place. It's her legacy. As long as I have the shop, I'll always have her near. And as long as I have great customers, I'll always have the shop." She catches herself, checks the unwarranted spill of emotion. "I do hope we'll be seeing you and the kids again soon?"

"Sure." He sounds awkward at best. "Thanks for helping."

"Anytime!"

She means it in the oddest way. Why she finds an overgrown emo kid in designer slacks so interesting is hard to say. That he clearly cares for the two kids with him, who aren't his own? That beneath his snark she had caught hints of something far more genuine? Maybe it's just the puzzle of it all. People pass in and out of her life often enough that she pays most little mind, but every now and again, one strikes her and she just knows that person will somehow become a fixture. The last such person she met was Crona, though Maka still hasn't figured out how to help them.

With this man-with Soul? She has no idea what role he'll play in her life, but she can't shake the odd warmth of his red eyes or the feeling he's just entered her orbit for the foreseeable future. Hopefully, that won't be a bad thing.

The smile he offers the kids as he hands them each a bag says maybe not, but she also can't help but notice the off look in his eyes as he leaves the store that suggests something there is just wrong, and she thinks that maybe this time, the instinct he's just arrived on her stage is wrong, too, and that she won't see them again.

"See!" Blake elbows her. He's been busy ringing up customers, but the retreating trio leave behind a slight lull. "Gaining more loyal minions, that's the way to do it! You were totally right-Evans Books can't hope to compete with a star outfit like this one, not when you have the greatest trainer in all of Death City with you!"

He smacks her on the back for emphasis before ringing up a newly approaching customer.

"I guess time will tell," she says softly, knowing it's only for herself.

And it will. Maka only hopes that for once, time is on her side, that for once, time tells her something she actually wants to hear.