Even the most forbidden of people will find their place once they stop and listen.
— Roger Mistork, The Hidden Society of Prisons
A day later, Rutejìmo followed Mapábyo into the Tijikóse camp. He remained running up until the last minute, but stopped sharply a few chains shy of the camp. They both agreed that she had to approach the camp by herself.
Mapábyo continued to the edge and stopped in a cloud of dust. She didn't look back at him, but he knew he was on her thoughts. Instead, she stood up straighter and walked the last rod into the camp, her bare feet leaving a ragged trail across the sand.
Tijikose Kamanìo walked out of the shadows for her. Like Mapábyo, neither he nor the rest of his clan even looked at Rutejìmo. He stopped in front of Mapábyo, and they spoke for a few short minutes.
Rutejìmo wondered what they were saying, but then realized it didn't matter. It was no longer his place to greet strangers. He would remain silent, as was now his place. He glanced at the camp and saw that they had planted poles in the holes he had dug, creating a new frame to store more firewood. He stepped to the side to get a better look.
Movement near the front drew his attention back. Mapábyo bowed deeply and walked to the side, moving around the camp in a wide circle instead of passing between the campsites. He watched her profile, her nearly black skin contrasted against the pale sands.
He followed a chain behind her, circling the camp in a much larger circuit until he saw where she stopped. The plot was the furthest one from the fires and, he noticed, the closest to the dune hiding the garbage that he had tended before. Knowing his place, he continued around the ridge of sand until he came up to the familiar place to hide until dark.
He didn't have to wait long. A few minutes later, one of the dogs dragged the shovel around the dune and set it down. The hound panted for a moment and ran off, leaving it behind.
Rutejìmo picked it up and began cleaning. To his surprise, he felt content with what the Tijikóse expected of him. The shovel settled into his palm, against healing blisters. Without hesitating, he got to work.
Hours later, when the sun had long dipped below the horizon, he staggered around the dune and looked across the camp. Most of the campsites were occupied by various clans, just like before. Most had a number of tents, but a few had wagons. One even had a snail-like vehicle that smoked from its tentacles. Small fires had been set among the tents and wagons with a larger bonfire in the common area of the oasis. The crowds gathered around the larger fire, sharing dinner, laughter, and conversation while they forgot the world for a moment.
Mapábyo, on the other hand, sat next to an empty fire pit. She had her tent set up, and there was a spot for a second one.
He came up along the sands, his bare feet scrunching with every step.
She jumped at his sound and scrambled to her feet. “Jìmo—”
Rutejìmo held up his hand to silence her. Coming up, he came close enough to feel her breath against his skin. He grinned and leaned toward her, enjoying the sight of her tilting her head up to meet his kiss. He kissed her.
A Tijikóse guard walked near.
He pulled away from her to step toward the shadows, watching the guard warily.
Mapábyo whimpered softly and sat down. “I don't like this.”
Without a word, he unrolled his tent between hers and the dune. It would remain hidden from the central area of the camp, something he thought would be appropriate. He worked quickly to pitch the tent, and started making food to donate to the central fire.
She shifted to watch him. In the light of the flames, her eyes glistened with tears.
Rutejìmo tried to smile encouragingly when he could, but he remained silent.
When she left to take the food to the others, he slipped into his tent and sat down heavily. He wanted to cry or scream. The urge to bolt out of the tent and bellow for everyone to pay attention to him rose up, but he fought it. He yanked the small book of poetry from his pack and distracted himself by reading.
Twenty minutes later, Mapábyo pushed aside the flap of his tent. “You forgot to eat,” she whispered.
He looked up, unsure if he could find any words. The lessons before held, and he nodded silently.
She knelt and carried in two heaping plates of food of all varieties, each clan contributing their specialties. He recognized the small yellow peppers from a horse clan who shared bodies with their mounts and the spiced pepper that many clans bought from the south. With a smile, she held up her finger and left. He saw that the gathering had started to break apart, but then the tent flap blocked his sight of the others.
He listened to her footsteps fade before he took a deep breath. His heart felt heavy and his throat tight. He waited for her to return, knowing that she would but still fearing that she had abandoned him.
The long minutes stretched out with only his imagination keeping him company.
When he heard her walking back, he almost sobbed with relief.
Mapábyo crawled back into his tent with a carafe of fermented milk and a large mug. “I could only get one. You don't mind sharing, do you?”
He shook his head and smiled.
They ate in silence and passed the mug back and forth. They said nothing, but Rutejìmo felt a pressure between them, a tension that felt like a thread about to snap. He felt clumsy and nervous, lost and excited at the same time. In the moments between bites, he couldn't help but watch her.
Eight years younger than him, Mapábyo wasn't anything like Mikáryo. She was almost as nervous as he was. She fumbled with her plate and glanced at him through her hair. Her slender body somehow looked vulnerable in the tent, but it was the closeness to her that quickened his heart. She was beautiful, and he wondered how he missed her growing up.
She was nothing like Mikáryo, who moved like a feral mare brimming with confidence. He couldn't help comparing the two women, he saw both when he looked at Mapábyo. He didn't know if it because Mikáryo was his first or if it was his ten year shikāfu, but he struggled with both the differences and similarities of the two, starkly different, women.
He couldn't forget Mapábyo's kiss when they first reunited. He tried to bring it back, the tenderness and intensity quickly fading with his memories.
Rutejìmo looked up.
“Tomorrow, could we camp out there? Where you can talk?”
He nodded, a smile stretching his lips.
Rutejìmo shivered at the sound of her voice. It reminded him of the sound Mikáryo made when she drew him back to the tent.
Mapábyo set the mug aside and crawled over to him. Her breath washed across his face, and he drank in the sweetness tinged with soured milk. She smelled like the sweetest amyochíso fruit in that moment. She inhaled sharply and leaned into him until they were an inch apart. “I still see you.”
And then she kissed him again.