Rarely do declarations of love come at opportune times.
— Lament of Talsir (Act 2, Scene 7)
By the time the sun touched the horizon, Rutejìmo's excitement had faded into a stubborn determination with a hint of despair. He was about to lose his magic to the night, and he still had too many miles to go. He pushed himself to his limits—the point where his body refused to move any faster—and his lungs burned from his effort.
A thousand nightmares ran across his mind, mostly of Mapábyo turning him away once he caught up with her. He didn't know if she would still be angry at him for wasting her time trying to find him, or simply furious that he spent nights with Mikáryo. Doubt seeped through his thoughts, and he had to fight to avoid slowing down in defeat.
He came up to one of the many oases along the road. They were all heavily guarded, though now he could tell there were only four clans that claimed the string of oases along this road.
Coming into a wide arc, he circled around the camp at a respectful distance, far away from the guards. He searched for the familiar red and orange of his clan. After a second lap, he saw neither Mapábyo or Shimusògo's colors.
With a groan, he sprinted away. He wouldn't make it to the next oasis before sunset. Not that anyone would welcome him to the oasis without Mapábyo. If the last few days were any indication, he couldn't travel anywhere in the desert by himself.
It didn't matter if he was stuck in a city or at the cliff for the rest of the year, he couldn't live with himself if he couldn't apologize to Mapábyo for what he did. He tightened his jaw and raced along the road, his body moving in time with the rapid-fire rhythm of magic and speed.
A mile later, he felt a tickling of power rising up behind him. He looked around, but he couldn't see anything through the dust.
The feeling didn't subside. Instead, it grew in the back of his head, a wave of familiar energy. After a few seconds of trying to identify it, he pulled himself to the side of the road and slowed until he barely held on to Shimusògo. As he ran, he repeatedly glanced over his shoulder at the boiling cloud behind him.
Seconds later, Mapábyo came running up behind him, bursting through the dust in a cloud of translucent feathers and power. Her speed dragged his own plume after it, the curls of dust swirling like a flower.
Rutejìmo slammed his foot down to stop. His sole, hardened by the power of Shimusògo, tore through the ground and he came to a halt only a few chains later. The sand kicked up by his passing rolled over him and bounced off his face before cascading down.
When the dust cleared, Mapábyo stood on the opposite side and a few rods down the road. “Jìmo!”
She jumped out of the gouge her own feet made and sprinted down the road. She moved fast enough for the wind to kick up, but the dépa disappeared when she launched herself into him and tackled him with a hug.
He tripped on the ground and let out an inarticulate yelp. One arm windmilled before he landed back in his trench and then rolled.
The smell of Mapábyo's body swirled around him, a light flowery scent coupled with sweat and smoke. She didn't have her travel packs, and she wore a lighter outfit than they usually wore while running. The thin fabric of her shift clung to her body, rippling from the wind swirling around her. To his surprise, the feel of her body against him brought other lessons Mikáryo taught him welling up into his thoughts.
Embarrassed, Rutejìmo struggled to extricate himself, but her arms caught one of his and she pinned him down with her weight.
“I'm sorry, Jìmo!”
He froze and then shook his head. “No, no. This is my—”
Mapábyo lifted her head and pushed the hair from her face. Tears glistened on her cheeks. “Jìmo—”
Rutejìmo realized how close their faces were and his heart thumped. He gulped for air and then shook his head. With an effort, he pushed her up and off his legs. Quickly, he curled his knees underneath him.
She stared at him, eyes wide and shimmering. He could see her toes curling and uncurling, matching the flex of her hands.
“Mapábyo….” He struggled with the words. Taking a deep breath, he said, “Pábyo, I've made mistakes.”
“I don't mind—!”
He held up his hand, and her mouth closed with a snap. “Great Shimusogo Mapábyo… please, let me say this?”
She nodded twice with tears rolling down her face.
Rutejìmo clenched his own hands into fists. “I'm not the fastest or the smartest.”
She opened her mouth to protest, but then closed it. “Sorry,” she whispered.
His cheeks burned, and his heart pounded in his chest. “I'm never going to be either. And, if my life is any indication, I'm not exactly the most observant person on the sands either.” He let out a short, bitter snort. “Actually, I know I'm not because it took me so long to figure out that you… actually like me.”
Mapábyo sniffed and pressed her hand against her nose. More tears ran down her cheeks, tracing her almost black skin along her throat and collar.
He reached out for her.
She started to inch closer, but he grabbed her hand and held it tight. “Pábyo… Great… Pábyo, I wish I were a better man for you, but I don't think I can be anything more right now. I'm dead to the world, and you are the only….” He didn't know how to finish the sentence. “I don't even know what you are to me.”
Mapábyo sniffed and inched closer. “Jìmo?”
A shiver coursed along his body. He wanted to look away but he forced himself to peer into her green eyes. “Y-Yes?”
“You know I've held a shikāfu for you for years, right?” She inhaled, and he watched her breasts rise with the movement. With a shaking hand of her own, she pressed two fingers against his throat. “I've loved you as long as I can remember.”
“I-I,” he struggled to breathe, “I didn't know.”
The corner of her lip lifted into a smile. “I kind of figured that out.”
He chuckled and wiped the tears from his eyes. “I'm an idiot, Pábyo. Dense, slow, and—”
She silenced him by raising her fingers to his lips. “Jìmo? Shut up.”
Rutejìmo snapped his mouth shut.
She smiled and inched closer. She parted her thighs to straddle him before settling into place. “You are stubborn, brave, and occasionally you need to be beaten over the head—”
“Or with a pack.”
She blushed. “—but the clan never saw you the way I saw you.”
Her body molded against him. He felt tight and hot and choking, all at the same time. He reached around her and brought his hands to the small of her back, it felt right to pull her close.
He wanted to deny it, but the words wouldn't come.
“I see you,” she whispered. She brought her lips to him. “You may think you're dead to the world, but I see you. And I… will never stop seeing you.”
She crossed the infinitely short distance to press her cracked lips against his.
And then he lost himself in the fire of her kiss.