It only takes a single word to change everything.
— Kyōti proverb
Just as the run reached its apex, they came to a halt. Searing heat bore down on Rutejìmo while he walked the last few rods to an outcropping of rock that Mapábyo had pointed out.
She walked next to him and gestured to the near side. “There's a great spot for a break.”
He trudged into the shadow and looked for scorpions or snakes. Seeing none, he sat down heavily and pulled his water skin around to take a swig. The new fabric of his shirt scratched and he rubbed his shoulder. It felt wrong to be wearing white. His mind kept wanting to see orange and red against his brown skin, instead of plain cloth and no embroidery. He kept his tazágu, though, and the dark hilt of his weapon was the only splash of color to his plainness.
Mapábyo joined him, hauling her pack and mail bag from her shoulders before setting them down. She dropped to her knees in front of him and gave him a smile before dragging her bag closer.
Rutejìmo watched as she dug into the pack.
When she pulled her hand out, she had a pair of travel rations in her palm. With a wink, she tossed them over to him.
He caught them. “Do you want—?”
Mapábyo shook her head. “You looked hungry.”
His stomach answered and she smirked. With a blush, Rutejìmo ducked his head and worked the oiled paper off the dried fruit of indeterminate origin and a twisted hunk of salted meat.
Still smiling, she dug her fingers into the sand and began to scoop out a hole. After a few seconds, he heard her fingernails scrape against something buried in the ground.
Realizing that she had a supply cache hidden in the sands, Rutejìmo bit down on the jerky and crawled toward her to help. He stopped when she twisted around and started to dig another hole. His eyes took in the sight of her kneeling away from him and the tight lines of her muscular legs that led to her buttocks. He trailed his gaze along the line of her spine up to her shoulders and his heart beat faster.
Suddenly, she wasn't just an eighteen-year-old girl that he grew up with. She was something else: a woman. A woman that he had recently learned how to please, thanks to Mikáryo's instructions. When he imagined doing the same to Mapábyo, his manhood responded with his thoughts.
“Damn you, Mikáryo,” he whispered to himself.
“Oh, nothing,” Rutejìmo said. He glanced back. Thankfully, Mapábyo sat down, and he could turn back to her without embarrassing himself.
She grinned and pulled a small box into her lap. “I had to use some first aid last time.”
He watched her move supplies from her pack to the box. He dug into his own pack to add some of his own, but she waved him away. “Don't worry about it. I bought these in town before…” Her face paled, “um, before things got frantic.”
Rutejìmo gave a bitter laugh. “You don't have to protect me, Great Shimusogo—”
“Pábyo,” interrupted Mapábyo. “Just call me Pábyo out here.” She waggled her finger at him while grinning. Then she pulled out some rations and her own water skin.
He froze. Mikáryo had insisted on using the familiar tone herself, and the similarities between the two was too much. “I-I can't.”
“Why not?” Mapábyo gave him a curious look while she set out her rations and dug out a few spices.
He tried to come up with some reason. “I-I, um, it isn't appropriate.”
Mapábyo took a bite of her dried meat. “Why not?”
He tried to find something, but then decided to be honest. “Mikáryo insisted on me calling her Káryo. She did that for everyone.”
Poking him with her finger, she shook her head. “I'm not that horse bitch.”
“I know,” he sighed, “but it feels wrong. I'm only here because you…. you, um….”
“Convinced you not to run out into the desert and die? But you weren't really interested in that final run, were you?”
Rutejìmo stared at her for a moment.
She raised an eyebrow. “Well?”
He wanted to deny it, but they both knew the truth. With a sigh, he shook his head. “Sands,” he muttered.
She giggled. “Eat.”
Sullenly, he tore off a hunk of meat and chewed. He thought about how Mikáryo rejected him the second time, tearing out his heart with her curt words. The meat turned to ash in his mouth but he forced himself to swallow.
“Jìmo?” Mapábyo interrupted his thoughts. “What was so good about her anyways?”
Shocked by her question, the food stuck in the back of his throat. He choked.
Mapábyo swore violently and reached for him, but Rutejìmo managed to cough hard enough to clear his air passage. He bowed forward, hacking as he tried not to think about humiliating himself in front of her and failing.
She offered him her water skin and he took it gratefully.
Gulping the water, he managed to swallow the remains of his lunch before handing it back. “Thank you.”
She pointed to his cheek. “You have a bit of, um, drool.”
Cheeks burning, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
Mapábyo leaned back against the rocks. “So, what was so good about her?”
Rutejìmo looked down at his lap. He didn't want to answer, but he didn't know why. “Nothing.”
“Two days is a really long time for nothing.”
He peered up at her and, when he saw her hard look, he cringed. “I thought there was something, but….”
“She ripped my heart out.” Rutejìmo let out a gasping breath before he continued. “She said she would never love me, and there was nothing that would ever change it.”
“But,” Mapábyo said in a soft voice, “you've held a shikāfu for years. Didn't that mean anything to her?”
Rutejìmo snorted. “She knew about it. I guess it was obvious, actually.” He sighed. “Everyone in the clan seems to know I held one for her. Then she went and tore out my heart to make sure I knew there would never be a sands-damned chance of ever being with her.”
She rested her hand on his knee. “I'm sorry.”
Rutejìmo realized he was crying. With an angry swipe, he shook his head. “I should have known better.” His fingers gripped the tooth necklace around his neck. He yanked down, snapping the leather. “Damn that bitch!”
Before his eyes could blur with tears, he crawled out from the shadows and stood up. With an inarticulate yell, he threw the tooth away as far as he could.
It sailed in a long arc before landing in the sand with a puff.
Mapábyo's feet scuffed the sand and she inched closer. She rested her hand on his shoulder, but said nothing.
“Damn her,” he gasped. “Damn her to the sands. And after I went back to her, begging to just give me a second chance.” He sank to his knees. “I should have never tried to give her that comb.”
Even as he spoke, he knew that it was the wrong thing to say.
Mapábyo's hand slipped from his shoulder. “Second… chance?” She said. “You went back?”
Rutejìmo closed his eyes and nodded. “After she kicked me out of her tent.”
“After Desòchu s-sent,” her voice cracked, “you away? You went back to her and begged for her to take you again?”
He prayed silently that Tachìra would strike him dead right then and there. “Sands,” he muttered.
Mapábyo stepped away from him. He listened to her feet on the sands. She headed back to the rocks, but then she came back a few seconds later.
He heard a whistling sound and turned toward her.
Her pack slammed into his face. The impact sent stars across his vision and he staggered back.
“What is wrong with you!?” she screamed.
Rutejìmo groaned and held his face, trying to blink through his blurry vision.
“She kicked you out, and you went back!? Are you really that stupid!?” Mapábyo swung her bag around again. “Maybe if someone hits you hard enough, you'll stop being a skull-rotted moron!”
Rutejìmo flinched in anticipation, but she didn't step forward to hit him again. Instead, she spun around again. The strap on the bag stretched out and whistled loudly in the air. He caught a glimpse of her mask of rage each time she turned around. The rotations grew faster until the bag began to glow and became a streak of golden flames.
He stared in shock for a moment before he realized what Mapábyo was doing. She was going to throw it at him.
“Shit!” Stumbling, he turned on his heels and sprinted away. Three steps later, Shimusògo raced past him, and he threw everything he could into putting as much distance between the two of them. His breath came raggedly with his effort to run faster. His injuries slowed him down, and he knew he wouldn't make it.
He had sprinted a quarter mile when the burning pack slammed into him. It impacted between his shoulders, picking him off the ground and throwing him across a scree of gravel and against a short rock that caught his hip. The canvas exploded behind him, peppering him with underwear, eating utensils, and travel supplies.
His landing drove the air out of his lungs, and he slumped to the ground. Gasping for breath, he felt a rumble shake the ground. Smoke and flames blew away from him, but he could do nothing but helplessly open his mouth and try to draw air into his lungs.
A second boom rumbled through the air.
He flung up his hands, trying to protect himself from a second hit.
After long seconds, nothing came.
Flailing, he flipped over to see Mapábyo racing away in a cloud of feathers and dust.
Rutejìmo dropped his head to the ground. His lungs jerked back to life, and he inhaled sharply, choking on sand that tickled the back of his throat. “Sands. Damn the sands and damn the sun and,” he lifted his head to scream, “damn every single person in my sand-damned life!”
Pushing himself up on his knees, he continued to scream. He bellowed until his aching lungs emptied and he had to draw in a long, gasping breath. He let out another yell, but it died in his throat after a few seconds.
He considered remaining on the sands until the sun baked away his skin, and his bones were scattered by the wind. A sob ripped from his throat, and he slumped forward, his hands slapping to the ground. He struck something hard underneath. Curious, he dug his fingers into the hot grains until he felt a sharp edge of bone digging into his palm.
Pain pushed away his sorrow. He sat back up and opened his palm. It was the chipped tooth that Mapábyo had around her neck. One end had been snapped off with a rock and she had used an awl to bore a hole in it. A droplet of blood oozed along his palm and he watched it fill the hole she had made in the tooth.
Years ago, Mikáryo had chipped a tooth off a giant snake and given it to him. He had done the same as Mapábyo and had bored a hole in the middle to wear it. He had worn it ever since. Even after ten years, he was still lost.
Rutejìmo stared at Mapábyo's tooth, trying to focus through his discomfort. Mapábyo wasn't searching for meaning like him. As far as he could remember, there was no question of her remaining in the clan or even becoming an adult. Everyone loved her.
He shook his head, that couldn't be it. Sniffing, he rolled the tooth in his hand and smeared the blood across his palm. She was the only other one to consider wearing a tooth around her neck. He still remembered the pain and sorrow on her face when Tejíko and Desòchu asked her to remove it. But there was no reason for her to wear it in the first place.
He groaned with frustration. He didn't always understand things, and this was one situation where he was truly lost. He wished he had someone to talk to: Chimípu or Pidòhu would be best, but even Gemènyo would help him figure out why Mapábyo was so nice to him or why she responded so poorly to his attempt to return to Mikáryo. But they were alone in the desert, and he had no friends to ask.
Not that they would. When the clan had taken Rutejìmo and the others into the middle of the desert, they abandoned them without explaining their reasons. He had seen it other times when they led a fighting couple and let them resolve it in the open.
He lifted his head and focused on his thoughts.
It was the Shimusogo Way to let the desert solve problems. Both of their coming of age rituals involved taking them far from home and then leaving them alone. Gemènyo even said they chained Hyonèku and Kiríshi together when they were struggling with their marriage.
Other memories bubbled up: of Kiríshi insisting he buy something for Mapábyo, the strange way he was evicted from his table and forced to sit next to her, even the little smiles from Gemènyo after Rutejìmo talked to her.
He stared down at the tooth. The rest of the world fell away until he saw nothing but it in his palm. He realized he knew the answer, but his mind refused to let him focus on it. Staring at the tooth, he saw how she had made it just like his. It was because of him she did it. To be like him, to be with him.
Mapábyo had come back when he fell behind. And then encouraged him to keep running even when he wanted to give up. He didn't expect her to show up in the public house. She risked everything, including her own clan, to talk to him. Only a fool would do that, or someone in love.
“Sands,” he muttered hoarsely. “Sands damn me to the furthest limits of the desert.”
She had a shikāfu for him, and he never noticed it. Everyone else did, even Gichyòbi. That was why the warrior sent them away together without punishment. Like everywhere else in the desert, they were abandoned to figure out their feelings for each other. No, Mapábyo already knew what she wanted. They were out on the sands because Rutejìmo needed to figure it out.
“I'm an idiot. A sand-drowned, blinded idiot who couldn't even—”
With a gasp, he looked up and around. He could no longer see the plume of her passing. If she got too far or was too angry, he would never catch up and apologize. It didn't matter if she never wanted to see him again, he had to tell her he finally figured it out.
Moving desperately, he crawled around and used his fingers to comb the possessions that had burst from her bag. He stripped off his shirt and turned it into a makeshift bag and then stuffed it full. A few straps from her ripped bag sealed it shut. He staggered to his feet, fighting through the agony of his injuries, and ran back to the rocks.
He found his bag out in the shadows. Gathering it up, he looped both packs over his shoulder and took a deep breath. He had to apologize, or at least beg for forgiveness.
He started forward, but came to a stumbling halt. Turning around, he raced to where he had thrown his necklace and frantically searched the sands. It hadn't taken long for the wind to almost cover the tooth. He yanked the leather out of the hole and held both teeth in one palm. They were almost identical, except for the ten years that separated them.
He turned and looked in the direction Mapábyo ran. Biting his lip against the pain, he sprinted after her.