Love blossoms in quiet words and gentle touches.
— Tateshyuso Shifáni
Two days later, at the end of their run, Rutejìmo and Mapábyo stopped at the same time. Their feet dug through the sand and dunes, tearing two large gouges through the ground and leaving a cloud of sand to scatter across a valley.
Mapábyo, giggling, pushed her hair from her face. “You didn't stop running this time.”
He blushed and gave her a sheepish smile. “I can't when I'm running with you. I start to slow down, then I realize that you wouldn't want me to, and both my heart and feet start going faster.”
Rutejìmo followed her up a short hill. At the top, a rock plateau stretched out in a wide circle almost a rod across. In the center, a clan had erected a waist-high circle of stone to shield against the desert winds. The clan's name was engraved on the rock, but Rutejìmo didn't recognize it.
He stopped at the top of the wall. He looked over his shoulder to where Mapábyo stood a few feet away with her hands held behind her back. She twisted back and forth, with a smile.
His heart beat even faster.
“You set up the tents, I'll make dinner.”
He nodded, unsure of what to say. “I'd like that.”
In the brief silence, Rutejìmo finished crawling over the wall and held his hands out for her.
She took them and pulled herself up.
His muscles and injuries screamed in agony, but he fought to keep his discomfort from his face. When she reached the top, he relaxed and straightened.
Mapábyo stepped closer and reached around him. Catching his wrists, she pulled him into her and placed his palms on her hips.
Rutejìmo tried to pull away, but she held him there. “Jìmo?” She whispered, “You want to continue your story?”
Rutejìmo smiled. He had been telling Mapábyo about his rite of passage. For the first time, he didn't hold anything back, including the most humiliating moment in his life, when he peed his pants as Mikáryo first pressed her tazágu against his throat.
He nodded, and she released him.
Time passed quickly as he told his story. He was relieved that she didn't laugh during his whispered telling of the darkest points when he almost failed at being a decent man. Instead, she just asked a few questions and listened.
He finished in the middle of dinner. The cold food rested on his plate, and he stared at it, drained from his storytelling. In his mind, he kept seeing that last moment when he begged everyone to not kill Mikáryo and Tsubàyo.
Mapábyo padded around the small fire and sat down next to him. “You loved her, didn't you?”
Rutejìmo sighed. He wanted to forget that moment when Mikáryo's life was in his hands. His own life would be better if all he could remember was when she told him to leave. But then he would be lying. He sighed and set down his plate. “I don't want to get hit again.”
“Silly, I'm not going to hit you,” she said with a grin, “unless you answer dishonestly.”
When he looked over, he could see her pleading. Her dark skin accented the ridge of her nose and the green of her eyes. In his mind, he could see Mikáryo sitting next to her, brown skin covered in black tattoos compared to Mapábyo's darker coloration. They were night and day in his world and he didn't know which one he wanted more.
He took a deep breath. “I loved her.” He felt sick to his stomach saying the words. “She was the only woman in my life, even as a fantasy.”
“What about Chimípu?”
Rutejìmo gave her a playful bump with his shoulder. “Of course, there was Chimípu and Faríhyo and Kiríshi and everyone else. They were women,” he sighed, “but Mikáryo was… the first I ever thought of as something other than a parent or sister.”
Mapábyo inched closer. “No one else? I would have thought you and Chimípu would have done it,” she paused for a heartbeat, “at least once. Isn't that her duty? To teach you about fucking?”
“I couldn't.” He sighed. “We tried, but it just…” He closed his eyes tightly. “Every time we get close, all I see is the people Chimípu killed. Not just her fighting for me against Tsubàyo or Mikáryo, but in the years since, she's killed so many people to protect me.”
She leaned against him, saying nothing.
“I despise the violence of the desert. I hate that people try to kill me just to stop some treaty from being registered. When I take a message to deliver, I'm afraid someone is going to kill me. I cringe every time I come up to a corpse along the road. I'm weak, though, and thankful someone is always there to protect me. Chimípu, Desòchu, that guard in the city, a dozen others. I've fumbled through life being… being….”
Mapábyo reached up and kissed him. “You're you.”
Rutejìmo smiled and kissed her back. It still felt strange that she was even kissing him, but he found that the tiny little touches were addictive.
“And there is nothing,” another kiss, “wrong with that.”
“I just feel like I'm doing things wrong, but I can't stop. Desòchu said I got lost on the path and I wasn't worthy of Shimusògo.” He rested his hand where his necklace would be. “Everyone knew that I had a shikāfu for Mikáryo, but it was harmless. Until, that is, we met up again and then….”
Mapábyo rested her head on his shoulder. She hooked one arm around his waist and pulled him close. Her body was warm and smelled sweet.
Rutejìmo let out his breath and shrugged. “I knew I was making a mistake, but I kept doing it. Ten years of being told I wasn't good enough, that no one would love me, that I was different, and I couldn't stop myself. I needed to see her and then,” he realized he was crying and wiped his tears, “I ruined everything by staying.”
“You didn't ruin anything.”
“You hit me with your pack.”
“I was surprised and probably responded harsher than you deserved.”
He grinned. “No, I was stupid.”
She looked up at him. Her frown caused him to cringe. “You should stop doing that.”
“Insulting yourself. I don't like it when you do that.”
Rutejìmo looked away.
She reached up and pulled his chin back. “Stop being pathetic.”
He snorted. “Yes, Great Shimusogo Mapábyo.”
“That's what Mikáryo tells you?”
“No, she just says I'm pathetic. Never to stop. Most of the time, I think she's trying to tell me that I need to be,” he chuckled dryly, “less pathetic, but I can't always figure out what I'm doing wrong. At least with the Tijikóse, they would set down the shovel next to what they wanted me to dig. Or put my dinner near the fire. Guiding me without helping.”
“Or when papa or Gemènyo drop their rolls where they want to help you to set up the tent.”
Rutejìmo jerked. “They do?”
“Yeah, whenever you were gasping as you came in, I saw them moving their rolls or pretending to accidentally unroll it.”
He closed his eyes and groaned. “I'm betting they've been doing that for years, and I never noticed.”
“Yes,” she said and leaned into him. She kissed his lips before pulling back. “Now, eat,” she commanded.
Rutejìmo picked up his cold food and ate. He felt raw and vulnerable, exposing his past to someone he didn't notice a week ago. He expected to feel fear and terror, but instead it felt almost comforting knowing that she wouldn't laugh at him.
“What was she like?”
He had to swallow the food in his throat. “Mikáryo?”
“She's insulting, to say the least, and rough. She never uses formal names out here in the desert, and she thinks everyone is beneath her.”
“Even in the tent?”
For a moment, he almost couldn't answer. But then he saw the seriousness in Mapábyo's eyes and then he nodded. “Yes, but also generous. She encouraged me to learn, all the while telling me I was pathetic. Fortunately, that time I listened and got… better, I guess.”
Mapábyo turned slightly and leaned the crook of her neck against Rutejìmo's arm. “My first was Desòchu.”
Rutejìmo had guessed his brother was the one to teach Mapábyo, but avoided thinking about it. When Mapábyo didn't say anything more, he struggled with the idea of his brother teaching her the ways of adults, but then pushed it aside. He nodded, not trusting his words.
“He was very demanding: do this, do that, never do that. One way, his way.”
Rutejìmo chuckled. “Mikáryo never said never. I asked about…” He blushed at the memory and had to clear his throat, “something and she showed me why it could work.”
His body grew hot at the memories. He leaned forward and whispered it into her ear.
A heartbeat later, Mapábyo's cheeks turned dark. “Doesn't that… I mean… how…”
He had to shift to relieve a sudden hardness between his legs. “It wasn't too bad after the second time. I kind of liked it.”
Mapábyo gulped and looked away, her cheeks dark and the muscles of her legs holding her thighs together. Her breath was low and deep, almost panting.
Rutejìmo, worried that he had gone too far, looked the other way and stared out into the desert. It was black with few stars hanging above him and barely visible over the dim light of the campfire.
He shivered at her whispered voice. “Yes?”
“What….” She cleared her throat and looked down. “What are you going to do? When we get back?”
Rutejìmo tore his thoughts away from lust and darkness and focused on his future. He had spent most of the day thinking about his options. “Maybe stay in Wamifuko City? I'm sure with a city that big, someone will need a courier. I still have Shimusògo and I might be able to pick up odds jobs, just not as one of the clan. I think I know how to listen now, when someone offers without saying anything.”
“I wish you could go home.”
He hated that her voice almost had tears in it. “I can. In a year.”
“No running off into the desert?”
“No,” he chuckled, “I want to keep you happy.”
“You do want that.” She kissed him. “Wamifuko City is at the end of my route.”
“I know the city, at least.”
“Maybe we can get an inn between my routes? You, me, and nothing else?”
“I'd like that.” And, he meant it. “As long as you will have me.”
Mapábyo smiled and stood up. She took the few steps over to Rutejìmo and took his plate before scraping the remains of both into the fire.
He watched, admiring her movements to avoid troubling himself with the fear of his future. Life as a banyosiōu was harder than he would have ever guessed. If he couldn't figure it out, he would be in trouble. Fortunately, if she would still take him, he could move somewhere else with her protection.
She stood next to him, “Next time, you only need to set up one tent.”
Rutejìmo's skin tightened and a flush rose inside him. “Then where will I sleep?”
“The same place you'll be tonight.” She held out her hand.