To the End
A few potatoes tumbled down the pile as another was retrieved. Guided by a careful hand, the edge of the knife dug just under the skin, oozing out a little liquid at the edges. The other fingers massaged it around and around, gradually revealing the white flesh beneath, farther and farther down. At the very end, with another, slower twist and flick, the skin was entirely off and another peeled potato came to a rest in the bucket.
Galen had said Hector was gone. Just gone. And Rube had come home trying to hold his insides inside. And that hadn’t been the extent of his injuries, either. No details had come up beyond that, except for the fact that he’d been successful, but… well… that’s what the dinner meeting was gonna be for.
But those weren’t good signs. It meant Papá had gotten worse. A lot worse.
“Sofie, how d’you do that?” Lili asked. “I’m doing what you said, but I can’t get it to come off all in one piece.”
Lili was pointing her knife at the cloth between her feet. There were several pieces of potato skin resting there, and a half-peeled potato in her other hand.
Summer tilted her head back, hands still in the sink, rolling her eyes to the corners to look at Lili. She said, in well-pronounced Nahuatl, ~ Practice practice practice practice practice…
Then she slowed to a stop, realization dragging on her words.
Lili’s gaze dropped to her hands. Summer rolled her chin back down, her mouth set, arms jerking back and forth more emphatically as she set to scrubbing the remaining fresh-rooted potatoes with a vengeance.
The silence weighed heavily on the room. That could only be about one thing.
“Are you two hugged out yet?”
“Yeah,” Lili murmured. “I am, anyway.”
Summer was silent.
Yeah. Moe was always pretty on top of that. “And talking about it?”
“Yeah.” Summer’s word snapped shut. Then she huffed out a breath. “It’s not even a big deal, anyway. Just something he’d say when we couldn’t do govno right.”
“Well, maybe that is a big deal. And it’s okay if it is.” Oh. Wait. Maybe they didn’t want counsel. “You wanna be left alone about it?”
“Tá,” they both said, together, firmly.
“Alright!” That was that, then. “Well, Lili, the fine art of potato peeling took me a couple months to master. And you’re doing pretty good for having just learned it! But lemme see.”
Lili slid the potato around in her hand a little, trying to get it comfortable. Then she gripped the knife in her fingers, planted the pad of her thumb on the other side, and pulled them together. The knife hopped a bit, halted, and then sliced right through, sending another piece of peel plopping to the floor.
“Well, you have most everything right.” Sofia gave her a smile. “You just gotta be a little slower about it.”
Lili looked up from under her bangs. “But you do it really fast.”
Sofia grabbed another potato. “That’s because I’ve been doing this for a lot longer than you’ve been alive.”
“You’re so old, Tííííía Sofiiiia!” said Summer, singsong, dropping the last of the washed potatoes on the pile and drying her hands. “Older than the world itself!”
Well, she wasn’t wrong! “That’s not saying much. A lot of people are. You two are.”
“Well yeah.” Summer picked up a potato and knife of her own. “We’re old too.” She moved to a stool, dropped a cloth, and plopped down. “Everyone’s old.” Then she craned her neck to the side, eyeing Lili’s hands, then adjusting to try and match. “Means we all get to sit and watch everyone and smoke and say, ‘Oh, well, when I was young we didn’t have that back in the Old World. Instead we used seagull shit for hair gel!’”
Lili busted up into snorting giggles.
Sofia pinned Summer with a look. “Don’t forget: fancy people in LA had hair gel.”
A grin spread over Summer.
Sofia watched her carefully, to see if she needed any instruction. “But… if everyone’s old, who are we gonna say that to?”
Summer hesitated, thinking.
“Duuuh.” Lili rolled head along with her eyes. “Your baby.”
“Yeah!” Summer brightened and clicked her tongue, idly pointing her knife Sofia’s way. “Vamos, missy, ¡vamos!”
“I’m working on it, I promise!” How much longer was there, anyway? She kinda had a bump, maybe? If she slouched just right she did, sorta. But probably that was just wishful thinking. It hadn’t been that long. Probably.
There was a knock on the kitchen doorway.
It was Rube.
Lili set down her things and jumped up. “Rubey’s awake!”
He was okay. Bones and muscles and guts intact and in the right place. But he looked… on the lean side. All hard shadows and hollow planes. Probably a lot of that was due to the healing. But a beard had grown in, finally! Rube’d been trying to do that for ages, ever since he’d finished his training!
… Yoptel-mopsel, he looked so much like Victor with that beard.
He spread his feet, parted his hands, opened them wide. Lili ran straight into them, wrapping her arms around his neck and her legs around his middle and squeezing tight. He squeezed back. She rubbed her cheek against his. “So scratchy!”
Sofia stood, ready to give him a welcome-back-glad-you’re-okay hug whenever Lili was done.
Summer eyed him a little warily. “You look so weird!”
Rube raised an eyebrow. “You gonna come here and say that to my face, muchacha?”
“No, you can come here if you want to hear it again so bad,” Summer retorted. “I’m doing very important work.” She looked up. “Also I’m all hugged out. But I’ll blow you a kiss.”
“Ooh, pass it here!” Sofia held a hand out.
Summer grinned, kissed her hand, and made as if to throw it. Sofia made as if to catch it, turned, and made as if to throw it from behind, over her shoulder.
Lili reached out, as if snatching it mid-air. Then she swung her hand hard toward his face.
He didn’t flinch.
She stopped mid-swing, said, “Just kidding,” then pressed her palm gently to one cheek and kissed him on the other.
That was super stupid adorable. Sofia buried her face in her potato-juice-y hands. Summer just snickered.
“Thanks, ladies.” Rube sounded so resigned.
Eventually, the cute let up and Lili yielded Rube with a slow slide to the ground.
Sofia took that opportunity to wrap him up in a big hug. He’d gotten taller, too! Or maybe that was just because time was weird now and the last time she’d hugged him was six months ago or something.
Oh no. She hoped that wasn’t it. That would be so sad! Time was still normal for Rube, probably, and he still needed hugs more often than just twice a year.
“How you doin’?”
“Much better than I was, that’s for sure.” He took a breath. “I was gonna ask you something like that.”
Papá. With a tone like that, he was referring to Papá.
Everything in her went still.
“I don’t know yet.” Sofia pulled away. “You found him.” It wasn’t a question, not really. But she had to make sure.
“How bad was it?”
Rube’s gaze dropped. The muscles in his jaw flexed a little. “I don’t know what to say. That won’t be said again over dinner anyway.” He looked back to her. “I was only able to reach him a little. It wasn’t enough.”
She should’ve gone with Rube. She shouldn’t have let him talk her into staying. Now… now whatever Papá was facing would only have more time to get worse. And there was no saying if she’d get another chance to talk to him.
Unless she left now…
But… at least she’d been around to help Carmen and Summer and Lili get out of their home in Acopa. That’d been really important too.
“Thanks so much for trying, Rube.” He didn’t have to, and it’d cost him so much. “I’m so sorry he… you…”
What could she say? She didn’t really know what happened. All she knew was that Hector was nowhere to be seen and that Rube had nearly died.
“Hey.” Rube caught her gaze. It was gentle, but intent. “You better just be offering condolences.” His mouth twisted out into something that was a smile, but also serious.
That… that was definitely a Mom kind of look. It even felt like one.
Man alive, Rube was so cool.
She gave him another hug. A tighter one.
“I am.” Well… Sofia let him go, and added, “Mostly.”
“Then thanks. Mostly.” The weight of his look lifted off her. Then he craned his neck over her, eyes searching. “I’m really hungry. Got anything to munch on here?” Then his expression brightened. “Ooh! Potato skins!”
Alvaro set his plate down. It hit the table with a quiet but solid thunk.
He’d apparently brought a good quarter of the buffet with him.
As he sat down, Sofia scooted closer. Murmured Nahuatl fell from her mouth. ~ Wow, Varotontli. Hungry?
That wouldn’t be unreasonable, though. The last time she’d eaten was at the last family dinner, which was who knew how long ago. And he’d had to skip that one because of his duties. And possibly the one before. Although there was that one party in Acopa… It was all starting to blur together. Time was weird.
He glanced at his plate. ~ Well, yes, a little. ~ Then smiled at her. ~ But, actually this is all preparation for my highly secret master plan to sneak you some more food. ~ He picked up an eggroll, then took a bite. ~ Mmmm! This is really good. Here, have some!
Oh man! He was just the superest sweetest in the whole cosmos!
Sofia took it from him. ~ You’re my favorite husband ever. ~ She kissed him, then popped the eggroll in her mouth.
“Oh, over here, sweetie.” It was Sanura. She moved next to them, motioning to Sen. “Hello, you two! Is this seat taken?”
Sen wasn’t far behind her, a carefully neutral look on his face and his arms full of Wessy. Wessy plucked at Sen’s lower lip, stretching it towards him, eyes wide and mouth round with curiosity.
He was so stinkin’ cute.
Sofia looked to Varotontli, who nodded. Then she looked to Sanura. “Sure, you can sit here!”
“I can take him,” Varotontli offered, shifting to standing.
Sanura hastily set down the two plates she’d been holding and held her palms out before he could get all the way up. “Oh, that’s so sweet of you, Al.” When he stopped, she clasped them together. “But Sen was kind enough to volunteer to be my helper for the evening already.”
Sen nodded, then pulled himself away from Wessy’s searching fingers, his lip popping back into place. “Yeah. I’ve got this. Babies are easy.” Then he crossed his eyes and blew a raspberry at Wessy.
Wessy drew back, startled. For a moment his eyes went wider and his mouth smaller. Then he bust up into giggles.
There was too much cute. Death was imminent.
Sen looked back to Varotontli. “See?”
Sanura lifted her brows and smiled a lofty smile at Sen. “We’ll see if you’re still saying that when you have one of your own.”
Varotontli eased back down, his smile spreading really, really wide. He gave a quiet little look Sofia’s way, one that said he was so ready.
It was too much. She gave him another kiss.
After that, Sanura settled in, pushing the other plate Sen’s way, then pulled out a compact, unfolded it, and again, and again, until it was a full-sized baby chair surrounded by a ring of what Sanura called “enrichment toys”, and set it down between them. Sen lowered Wessy in the chair, then sat down, curling his feet underneath him. Sanura adjusted Wessy, smoothing out his clothes, brushing his hair swiftly with her fingers, and flicked the mobile of stars above his head. He watched it, then smiled, open-mouthed, and beat his little hands against the safety ring in pleasure. A smile pressed at Sanura’s really dark red lips, and she stroked a hand over his head.
“Speaking of which…” Sanura began, tearing her gaze away to turn to face them. “How much longer?” She eyed Sofia up and down and lifted her brows in question.
That… was a good question. Time was… really weird now. And there was no saying everything would go normal, anyway, though it seemed to be last they checked. Still, there wasn’t a whole lot of exciting things going on, not that she noticed, anyway. Mostly discomfort and feeling gross and sick, when she paid attention. And too much had been happening recently to pay attention, so it was hard to keep track.
Sofia sent a questioning look Alvaro’s way.
“Four and a half more months,” he said, his smile becoming a grin.
Really!? “No way!” They were halfway through!? That wasn’t much longer to wait at all!
Alvaro nodded. “You’re starting to show a little, Sofie.” He tilted his head, eyes sliding to the side. “Well, when you aren’t wearing loose clothes.”
It wasn’t just wishful thinking!
Sanura’s smile grew. She tucked her lips a bit, as if there was too much smile for her to keep it around. Then her eyes flicked to the plates, and she started pushing food off hers to Sofia’s.
“Oh, Sanura, you don’t—”
“Please, Sofie.” Sanura gave her a wink and a little nudge with her shoulder. “If I’m still hungry I’ll just steal some food from Sen.” Her eyes flicked to him, waiting for a reaction to her teasing. Sen simply shrugged and pushed his plate a little closer to her.
Well… that was a really nice thought… but Varotontli was going to do it first and it was going to be really sweet. And now there was just more food than she could possibly want.
“Please, steal some from me,” Varotontli said, pushing his own plate a little closer to her. “I seem to have come way too prepared.” He looked Sofia’s way, even though he was still talking to Sanura. “But please allow me the privilege of sharing my dessert with my wife.”
Aww! He was the bestest!
Sofia kissed him again.
Varotontli gave her a smile and rubbed her hand with a thumb. But his eyes flicked over her shoulder to Sanura and concern twisted his brows and his lips.
Sanura’s gaze had dropped and wandered a thousand yards away.
Varotontli let go and reached over to take her hand. “I miss Derrick too.”
Oh man. Derrick hadn’t been able to be around at all for when Sanura had been pregnant. Or for when Wessy’d been born. Sanura didn’t get to have any of the lovey stuff that she was seeing now.
Mierda. Some thoughtfulness was overdue.
Sanura swallowed, fighting to keep her expression composed. But it twisted, and her gaze dropped to the table. Some tears dropped into her lap. She took in a shaky breath and dabbed her eyes with her napkin. “It’s quite alright, Al. Really, I don’t know what came over me.” She looked up, but not enough to meet his gaze, wrestling a smile on her face. “Everything’s been going very smoothly for this past…” Her gaze slid to Wessy. “… year and a half. He’s doing as well as can be expected.”
She was… trying to avoid being sad? It sure seemed like it. Did that mean she wouldn’t want a hug? Did she want to be left alone about it? Would she like some outreach or would it make her feel worse?
“It’s okay to feel like it’s not alright,” Varotontli’s voice was soft, gentle.
Aww. He was on top of it, as usual.
“Yeah,” Sofia added. “We’ve got hugs to spare.”
Sanura’s smile wavered. “Thank you.” She swallowed again. “I can hardly say no to a good hug.” Then she took in a deep breath, strengthened it, and looked at them directly, her eyes still shining. “But please, this is a lovely evening, what with the family all safe and sound at last. Let’s enjoy it.”
Varotontli’s eyes searched her for a moment, still concerned. Then he eased, a smile spreading over him, and said, “Okay.” He gave her a final squeeze and then pulled his hand away. When he did, Sofia wrapped her up for a good, long while, releasing her after a few, slow breaths.
“¡Wow, Ru!” Eloisa’s Spanish cut suddenly through the room. She was still standing, her plate in her hands, staring down at Rube who was hunched over his food. “¿You wanna maybe chew some of that?”
Rube grunted a negative, took a hard swallow, then started gulping down his drink.
“It’s quite alright, Eloisa.” Moe’s Moe-voice was at its full grandeur. “In this house,” she swept an arm smoothly, encompassing the whole room, “we believe in all forms of gastronomical expression.”
Right on cue, a long, loud, deep belch rose up from somewhere around the table, shutting everyone else to silence. Then Ginger rose primly, swept her gaze over everyone in the room, and bowed with a flourish. When she sat back down, she crooked her palm behind her back, towards Leanne, in invitation. Leanne low-fived her.
“Gross, Ginge,” said Eloisa, her straight face cracking.
At that, Summer and Lili busted up into giggles.
Ginger turned the other way, offering Lili her other palm.
Lili low-fived Ginger and then toppled over onto the floor to giggle harder.
The silence broken, more laughter joined theirs. Sofia laughed behind her hand, and Varotontli tucked his lips to hold his humor back.
Moe’s pained smile spread and twitched. “You know, now I’m torn between deep regret at my phrasing and deep appreciation at your keen sense of opportunity, timing, and bravado, not to mention incredible control.”
Sofia curled on herself, laughing too hard to see for a little bit.
“I would, however, appreciate it if you would more carefully consider the cultures of your fellow guests and think twice about any course of action which would potentially spark discomfort,” Moe went on, her gaze glossing diplomatically over everyone at the table.
What? All around there were smiles—
Well, except Ruben, who was still eating like he was making up for lost time…
Oh. And Sanura, who was focused on her food, pretending like she didn’t notice.
“It’s just a—” Ginger sighed and tilted her chin up to the sky in exasperation. “Right.” Then she brought it back down again, a little chastened. “I’m sorry if I’ve made anyone uncomfortable.”
“Okay, guys.” Rube washed his latest mouthful down with another drink. “I hate to kill the mood, and I know it’s usually eat first, business later, but I’m gonna be leaving as soon as possible after dinner. There’s not a whole lot of time to waste.”
A rock dropped in the pit of Sofia’s stomach, sending funny and nice somewhere far away, and fast.
That somehow sounded even worse than it did before. Oh Papá…
“Long story short, Alejo ran off because he was looking for Huitzilopochtli’s daughter. He found her, and her army. They’re headed for Acopa.”
“Geez,” breathed Eloisa.
It was a lot worse.
“I tried calling him on it. He just got pissed at me. Smote me a new asshole.” Rube’s gaze dropped to his gigantic flagon of a mug. “Hector tried to eat me while I was dragging myself back, so I put him down.” He idly ran the fingers of his free hand over his stomach. “I’m gonna try reaching Alejo again, because that’s the only chance I have of stopping him.” He slowly gave one shake of his head. “I won’t be trying again after this.” Then his attention snapped to everyone. He rolled his shoulders and his neck. “That’s all I have to say.”
Sofia stared at her plate.
Rube’d already spent so much. Was forced to kill Hector. Nearly died. And he’d said, earlier, he’d hardly reached Papá. Yet he was gonna be doing it all over again.
There’d be a much bigger cost this time. There was no question about that. And the details beyond that didn’t really matter.
And this would be Papá’s last chance.
“I’m going with you,” Sofia said.
No excuses. No being talked out of it.
Rube looked at her, eyes sharp and searching. Then he nodded, took up his fork, and began shoveling more food into his mouth.
Varotontli’s hand eased over hers. Sofia opened her own hand up and let him squeeze her fingers. He wasn’t quite looking at her, gathering his words up with his eyes.
She didn’t even think about how he’d feel about this. Not that anything would make her change her mind but… she should’ve talked with him about it first.
“Will you be staying with him too?” asked Sanura, quietly. Her brows were wrinkled with concern.
Well… It wasn’t very likely that Papá’d be okay all at once.
Sofia’s gaze dropped back to her and Varotontli’s hands. “If I need to.” That’d probably be the best solution, in the end. “He needs help, you know?” She was the only one who could find him and hold him steady now.
Sanura hesitated. “Did…” She swallowed. “Did you want me to come with you?”
Sofia looked at her. Just to check if she had some kind of secret or something.
No. No secret. She just wanted to help. Maybe she thought he was brain controlled and that she could fix it somehow?
It was nice of her to offer. It kinda came outta nowhere, and it super wouldn’t work out, but it was nice. Still, she didn’t know Papá well enough to be much help. Plus she could be kinda insensitive sometimes… which was unhelpful at best and might be actively harmful in this case. And then she’d have to be managed, which would split attention from Papá.
“No. You should stay here.”
Sanura took a breath in to protest.
“Uhba buh?” Wessy’s brow was wrinkled too, his eyes wide and his mouth round with concern.
She glanced over to him. Clenched her jaw. Then turned back. “Then let me make some weapons for you.”
Yoptel-mopsel. There. There was that whole insensitivity thing. Papá didn’t need to be hurt or killed like some kind of rabid animal, he needed help.
“I’m not gonna fight him.”
Please let Sanura not keep trying to be helpful. The last thing Sofia wanted was to have to deal with her not getting it.
“I’m not saying you should, dear, but you should have something to defend yourself with,” Sanura said.
Sofia’s gaze dropped to the table. What could she even say without being mean about it? Sanura was just trying to help, just wanted her to stay safe—and besides, Papá had attacked Rube. It made sense. But, mierda, how the fuck was she supposed to explain to Sanura that having weapons didn’t actually make sense? Was there a way to do that?
Why couldn’t Sanura just have backed off on the first no? Why did her caring have to mean more than her trust?
Maybe she should just let Sanura make whatever she wanted to make and then just ask Dovilė to hang onto it with her shadows. But that would be mean too. Even meaner than just saying something now, because it’d be behind Sanura’s back which was super disrespectful. And Dovilė wasn’t some kind of storage closet, either.
Varotontli took Sofia’s hand again. Squeezed.
“Sanura,” he began, “Sofie’s been around Alejo at his worst before. And she’s been around him at his best. She knows him better than any of us. So can you have faith in her to already at least know the tools she needs, and to ask for help from you when she needs it?”
Yoptel-mopsel. He was the best husband. She wanted to hug him forever. Well, that and make out with him from time to time. And have and raise and hug their baby—that’d be good too. So… the forever between all that, then. The rest of the family could just deal with her being attached to him.
Well, okay, she could give them hugs too…
Sanura eyed him. “Then I’ll make them for Ruben.”
Rube looked up from his meal, sharp. “Really can’t afford to wait,” he said around his mouthful.
Sanura looked back to him. “It’ll take me no more than a handful of minutes.”
“Just long enough for some goodbyes,” suggested Eloisa, looking at Rube.
Well… that was a good point.
Sofia looked to Varotontli. He offered her a small smile.
She ought to apologize to him, before she left. He was being so supportive, and she didn’t even think about consulting him.
Rube swallowed down his food. “I was gonna…” He drew a loop-de-loop in the air with a slice of bread. “… roll mine over.”
Eloisa tilted her head, pressing her mouth out and crossing her arms. “Not if I’ve got something to say about it.” Then she looked up. “Besides, Sofie’s leaving now too, and she ought to get goodbyes.”
“Yeah.” Carmen pointed her kebab Rube’s way. “Nice try.”
Rube let out a breath, thought about it, then said, “Okay.” He sent Sanura a look. “A half-hour after dinner sound reasonable?”
Sanura lifted her chin, eyeing him up and down. “Yes.” Her face and voice had gone flat.
He either didn’t notice or didn’t care. “Great.” Probably he didn’t care. He was really good at noticing these things. Which meant that he was mad. He swept his gaze over everyone at the table. “That’s all I have, everyone. If you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go back to stuffing my face.”
Yeah. That was probably a good thing to do.
Reluctantly, Sofia slipped her hand from Varotontli’s to work on the whole cleaning her plate thing. After all, who knew how long she’d be gone?