To the End
“C’n put my own ass t’bed,” mumbled Summer. “When ‘m good ‘n’ ready.”
“I know.” Ruben eased himself down next to her pallet with just his legs, hanging on to her mostly limp form. Lili was right there, under a mound of blankets which rose and fell evenly with her sleeping breaths. “I’m just hanging out here, is all.”
The pallet was very much not made of woven reeds. Resembled one of the sleeping mats from way back at the homestead. Except a lot thicker and softer-looking. He took a hand away to press his fingers into it.
The padding reached almost to the second knuckle. “Coño, girl, this is plush.”
She shifted, putting her mouth closer to his ear. “I’m. Not. Ready. Yet.”
Unhappiness everywhere. Appropriate. They were just at a funeral.
“Hey, just sayin’.”
He should say something. Something that’d make her feel better. Make her feel like it was safe to let him go. Alejo was dead, after all.
Nothing. He had nothing. Nothing that felt truthful anyway.
Well. What-the-fuck-ever. Time to just sit there until she got sick of hanging onto him.
“I gotta get me one of these.”
She shifted back. “Then you gotta stay.”
Of course. Straight to the thing he can’t figure out how to comfort her about. Well, truth it was, then.
“I’m sorry, Mertutė. I can’t.” The to-do list pressed at his shoulders. “I’ve got an estate to make.” It was doable. It was. It wasn’t even that hard. He just had to decide where to stake land, actually stake land, get materials, build things, buy things, get animals, hire people. A bunch of steps was all it was. Steps that he had to complete before Alejandra finished making the Sixth World. That was the deadline she’d given. “Then I’ve gotta go wrangle me thirteen ocelots.”
Mierda. He just wanted to sleep for a week. And stare at the wall for two.
Just for that, he’d wrangle him twenty-six ocelots. Fuckers.
A rock jabbed at his throat.
Maybe he’d cry for a few days too. Just to get it all out and over with. If he even had it in him.
Summer pulled away from him a little to give him a half-wearied full-incredulous stinkeye. “What for?”
He swallowed the rock. “The bride price I’m gonna offer for El.”
She wakened further, growing intent. “Did you ask her?” There was a hard edge to her words. Her pulse quickened a little.
He really didn’t need her scrutiny. Even if he knew exactly where it came from. Even though he couldn’t blame her for not thinking it through. “It was all her fuckin’ idea, Summer.”
Beside them, Lili’s heartbeat got a little stronger. More awake.
Well, she could speak up if they were bothering her.
His sharpness didn’t seem to faze Summer. She hardened just a little, her eyes flicking over him. “So you don’t want to, then.”
Govno. All she had to do was give it two seconds of thought—
No. He shouldn’t have snapped at her. All she was doing was being hurt.
He took in a breath. Let it out. Spoke at a quieter murmur, for Lili. “Wouldn’t have agreed to it if I didn’t.”
“Oh.” Her gaze dropped. “Yeah. I guess.”
Like that, all her fire was gone. Bright, but too weak to last. Was she done being angry already? Or just exhausted?
Still, she hung onto the silence, stretching it tight, save for the shifting of cloth as she settled her chin on his shoulder again. Lili moved too, taking in a soft breath and letting it out in a sigh, re-settling her blanket around her.
After a while, Summer spoke up again. “Why’s being married such a big deal, anyway?”
Ah, yebat kopat. That was too fuckin’ big to answer right now.
But… it was important. It’d been building in her for a long time.
“Depends on who you talk to.” Yeah, that was helpful. “Your mom and dad wanted to get married for different reasons than Sofie and Alvaro did, for example.”
She stared at him, silent for another, long moment. Unsatisfied. Mierda. What the hell kind of answer did she want, anyway?
“I can tell you why me and El wanna get married.”
Summer hesitated. Then she said, “Okay.”
Well. That was… a lot more narrowed down. But where to even start?
Eh, she can pick.
“There’s lots of reasons. Political shit, cultural shit, personal shit. I can tell you all of it, but then we’ll be here all night.”
She thought a moment. “What’s the most important shit?”
“That’d be the personal shit. You wanna hear about that?”
Good. That was the interesting shit anyway. “Part of it is is we’re most of the way there already. We worked real hard to get there and learned a lot. And grew a lot. And we wanna keep doing that together.” That was the most important thing, but it wasn’t the whole story. “The other part of it is me and El wanna keep being family, and this is the only way we’ll be allowed to.”
Summer’s brow creased. “Why?”
“’Cause El’s nobility. And whatever she does reflects on the rest of her family. So if she gets married to someone else and decides to talk with me at all ever…” He let her fill in the blanks.
She took the rest of the sentence. “… people will think she’s cheating on her husband.”
“Exactly. Which is immoral, right? And then people will start to think that her family’s immoral because she is. Bigger problem is her mom’s the ruler of the Sixth World now. So if the other gods start thinking she’s immoral, she’ll have to pick between what’s good for the Sixth World and what’s good for her kids. And El doesn’t want to make her do that.” For that matter… “I don’t wanna make El make her do that either.”
It was silent again, for a while.
“Why’d Mamá and Papá wanna get married?”
And why didn’t Mamá want to marry Huitzilopochtli? was the question she wasn’t asking.
Lucky: the obvious answer applied to both. “You’re gonna have to ask your mom that, Mertutė.”
Her shoulders dropped. “Do I have to?” Her voice dropped quieter. “I don’t want to. I think I’m pissed at her.”
Well… Lance was back now. With Bren. “You could ask your dad instead.” That was only for half her questions, though.
“Fine,” she grumbled half-heartedly, throwing the rest of her half-a-heart into tightening around him. “So… you’re gonna live in Acopa with El.”
Summer eased, giving way to hurt, then pulled away again. “Why can’t you two live here?” Her brow furrowed and she swallowed. “With us?”
How to even begin to explain? Nah. Not gonna fuckin’ bother. “Political shit.” Summer could ask for specifics if it was important to her. But… “I’ll work with Moe. We’ll get a door up so you can visit literally anytime you want. It’ll basically be like we’re living with you.”
Summer wasn’t convinced. “Are we gonna be able to hear you? In the house?”
Why the fuck not? Moe already had doors like that. She could have it done again. “Sure. If El doesn’t mind.”
“We’re gonna have family hangout time every night?” She was intent. Almost accusatory.
“I’ll do my best.” Couldn’t really promise anything more than that.
Summer eased. Apparently it was enough. Thank fuck. “And… and you’re not gonna go away again?”
Yoptel-mopsel. Just the thought made him wanna strangle something. Or just curl up and die. “Fuck no.” He was done. He wanted to stay home, in easy reach of Mom and Carmen and Summer and Lili and El and everyone. “The world could fuckin’ burn if that’s what it comes down to.”
Summer’s face eased. Then twisted. She sniffed and pushed it back to normal. But it twitched back, and wouldn’t be wrestled into stillness. So she buried her face in his chest and cried.
He could feel her before he could hear her footsteps down the hall, just as Summer let him go to slip under her covers. The breath of hot mist folded over his skin, closed lightly over his senses.
Carmen eased in, slow, little by little, a mug in one hand and some folded cloth tucked in her other arm. She flicked a quick glance of greeting Ruben’s way before crouching beside Summer’s bed. It was a gentle gaze, one that felt like it left his guts hidden where they were.
It felt incomplete. Like she wasn’t really looking at him.
“Hey, a stór.” She presented Summer a mug—one of the faded, floral decoration mugs from the old homestead. “Here. Drink up.”
“Mamá…” There wasn’t much heart in Summer’s protest. “I’m tired as fuck.”
Carmen gave her a small smile. “Yeah, but you been crying.”
Some heart came back. “So?”
“Trust me.” Carmen’s spoke quietly, firm but gentle. “You’re gonna have to do this either now or after you wake up, and doin’ it now will save you from the hangover.”
The blanket pile just beside her shifted. “Juss’ drink it, Summer.” Lili’s words were thick with fatigue.
Summer sent an exhausted, pleading look Ruben’s way.
“Hey.” She wouldn’t be getting any backup from him. “If you wanna feel sick when you wake up that’s your prerogative.”
With the least convincing of groans, Summer took it and began gulping the mug’s contents, either not noticing or not caring about the streams that spilled down her face at the corners. When she finished, she swiped the back of her hand over her lips and pushed the mug back to Carmen. Carmen took it, set it aside, and, after Summer had settled, wiped the stray drops from Summer’s jaw, brushed the hair back from her brow and gave her a kiss on the forehead.
“Thanks, baby. Sleep tight.” Then she scooted a little and gave Lili a kiss. “You too, Zygotutė.”
There. It was done. He was free to go somewhere else and… do something. Ruben grabbed the mug and stood. Carmen rose too, and joined him out the door, quickly drawing apace.
“Here.” She handed him the cloth bundle, with a wry half-smile. It was fresh clothes. “Trade you.”
That was… that was nice. He’d considered finding his room to grab another shirt but… instead decided to hope that his shirt would dry sooner rather than later.
“Thanks, Mamá.” A semi-joke was about all he could manage right now.
He pulled up short, handed her the mug, and began undoing his buttons.
Carmen’s smile spread, in length and wryness, as she waited for him. Then it faded and her gaze dropped, her thumb rubbing the rim of the mug. “Thank you. She’s needed that ever since we moved here.” She took a hand away and rubbed it over her face. “She won’t cry around me anymore. I mean, that girl was never much one for crying in the first place, but…” She lifted a weary eyebrow. “Well. Thanks.” She brought her gaze back up. It was gentle still. Like she was afraid to actually look at him. “You holdin’ up okay?”
Yeah. No. Everything in between. “Fuckin’ overwhelmed as fuck. But, mierda, I’ll live. Looking forward to after the wedding.”
She pressed her mouth out in sympathy. “Gonna take a long honeymoon?”
Hah. Like honeymoons were a thing. But there had been, after all, a hint of irony in her voice.
“Gonna sleep for a week.”
Dubiousness flashed over her, pushing further at her lips. “Well… more like you’ll sleep for two days, then get restless and spend the next three straight training and the two after that making up chores for yourself.”
“Yeah…” Hopefully. It’d be nice to return to normal so quickly.
Maybe he would. Carmen knew him better than probably everyone except Mom.
Her gaze moved over him, smile fading. She let out a little sigh. “But if you do, you’ll definitely have earned it.”
There it was. That gentleness again.
He didn’t want her to be gentle. He wanted her to be normal. To be honest.
“You kidding? I was fuckin’ useless. I didn’t earn shit. Shit happened to me.” He shook his head. Looked at the wall. “I didn’t even lose anything except an unhealthy relationship with a man-eating beast. And now I get to have the marriage I want with the person I want, if I just put in the work for it. The future is fuckin’ sunshine and roses. All I have to do is suffer flashbacks from time to time.”
Carmen went completely still. Heat began to rise off her. Her gaze sliced across him, all gentleness gone.
“Rube.” She grabbed the back of his head, yanked him closer. “That’s chush’ sobach’ya.” She drilled her words into him with her eyes. “It’s fuckin’ bullshit. You faced Alejo at his most loco twice. Back to fuckin’ back. Gave him way more than his fuckin’ due. And I am so pissed about the scars he’s left you with. It’s not fuckin’ right that he fuckin’ gets to keep hurting you after he’s dead.”
Shock rippled him, like a crack in a great wall of ice. He couldn’t meet her gaze. Why not? He’d wanted this. He’d wanted to be torn open.
Her fingers tightened on his skull. “You’d better fuckin’ take your sunshine and roses and week-long naps and make the fuckin’ most of them because you deserve to be happy too. Do you understand?”
And then there it was, all the hot, ugly mess, leaking out steadily, melting the crack wider. Crawling up his throat. Squeezing at his eyes.
Carmen pulled at his head again, firm but more steadily this time. She wound her other arm around his waist, drawing her to him. Pressed her cheek against his neck as he buried his face in her chest and cried.
Morning mist rose off of Kern River, to a shadowed gray sky. The river itself moved idly, drifting a curved ripple around his calves, letting out gentle rushing noises that was occasionally interrupted by a splash from a fish or a swan. The smell of wet fogged up—wet grass, wet flowers, wet rocks, wet wood. Wet sky, too, because it was gonna rain in an hour or two.
And then a voice dropped, gentle, into the moving stillness.
It was Sofie, standing in the doorway back to the inside. She was wearing different clothes. Fresh ones, which had some color to them. Bakersfield style. Feet bare. She must’ve been planning to stay for a while.
“Can I sit here with you?”
She wanted quiet too. And space. But alongside him.
That… would be nice. “Sure.”
Sofie’s steps padded over the planks of the dock, and sat next to him, cross-legged, tucking her feet underneath her. She smelled fresh and clean. Still, hints of smoke-scent lingered in her hair.
Together, they listened to the idle chatter of the river, and the animals around it.
This was the first time he’d just sat with her since before they got to the warcamp. Even with purpose pushing their travel, their little breaks had been sort of like this. A little more alert, but still calm and familiar-feeling. Sometimes filled with singing. Or talking. Or listening to Sofie be a mom.
It’d be nice to just stay quiet. But something started coming up, slowly, idly, nagging at Ruben with the same languid movements of the river.
“Thanks for getting me home safe.” No, that… that wasn’t it. Well. It wasn’t not it, either. “For letting Malinalxochitl treat me.” That was a weird thing to thank her for. Why was that important? It’d been risky as fuck. And it’d also been… brave? “For carrying me the whole way.”
Pieces. All pieces of what he really needed to say.
Oh fuckin’ well. He’d figure it out someday.
Sofie was quiet a moment. Either it meant something to her or… or she was giving him space to be grateful. Or both, maybe.
Then she took in a breath. Let it out.
“Thanks for telling me to say goodbye.” Everything about her was still. Calm. “To Papá.” Her gaze flicked down. “I dunno if I could’ve done it, otherwise. I—” She faltered. Swallowed. But didn’t tighten. “I almost didn’t anyway.” She tucked her lips briefly. “I still don’t know if it’s ‘cause I blame him for…” She passed unspoken over the rest, quietly, with only the barest hesitation. “Or if I don’t but should blame him. Or what that even means. Or if it matters at all. Still…” She took a moment. Reset herself, quietly. “If it hadn’t been for you… well. I dunno if I could’ve dealt with that kind of regret, on top of everything else.” A sad smile pressed at the edges of her mouth. “I mean, given how I’m not being very nice to myself about having to be told in the first place…”
“Sofie—” Mierda. “No, you—” She’d said it. She’d meant it. “But you did it. I wouldn’t’ve fuckin’ done it. I can’t imagine anyone else who would’ve. You—”
“I know.” She looked up. Hurt. That smile of hers edging into a grimace. “I can’t imagine anyone else telling me to do it, let alone while they were in as much pain as you must’ve been.” Her gaze dropped a little. “’Cept maybe Mom.” She looked up. “So thank you.”
Ah yobannye passatizhi. There it was. So fuckin’ small. So fuckin’ sneaky. But clearly it counted.
Man a-fuckin’-live did it count.
A laugh nearly came up, a sob trailing quickly behind to choke it. He swallowed them both, to give Sofie a space to be grateful.
They sat for a while in the renewed quiet.
“You’re gonna visit?” Sofie asked, after a moment. Tentative. Almost pleading. “The altar, I mean?”
The altar over which Alvaro will be bleeding out for half the year. The altar which Sofie would be maintaining.
“Fuck yeah.” She’d asked for it. Of course he’d give it to her. He’d give her more than just that. “I’ll put my estate right up against it.”
Well, there it was, then. Once less decision to make. If El didn’t like it then… fuck. Then they’d talk about it.
Her smile spread, twitching. “Thanks.” It wavered. Then strengthened. “I love you too, Rube.”
Aside from that, she didn’t move. No hug, no look. So he squeezed her hand, but let her keep the rest of the space.
As ever, the river kept mumbling along, filling their easy silence, making it even easier. More comfortable. Diffusing the aching tightness that strung through them both, individually, and that strung them both together. It was still there but… but it was bearable, spreading out to the edge of everything like this.
The door behind them opened.
“Breakfast will be served soon.” Mom opened the doorway further. Stepped halfway out. “You two gonna join us?” She paused. “No hurry or anything, just checking.”
Well. He was kinda done staring at nothing. For now, anyway. But… but he didn’t want to leave Sofie by herself.
Beside him, she let out a breath, turned back to the river, considered, and began gathering herself to get up and move.
“Yeah, Mom,” Ruben said. “We’ll be there in a minute.”