“Oh, like what?” she laughed softly, yet shyly. I smiled mischievously at her and wrapped my arms around her waist. When I pressed my lips to hers, she smiled and said, “Our dinner!”
I chuckled as I pulled away from her and released her waist from my hands. “I thought I smelled burnt gator.”
Val playfully slapped my chest. “It is not burnt. Just resting”
I kissed her forehead gently. “You say tomato. I say tomatoe.”
She smiled at me and leaned back out of my arms before turning to the stove. “Can you pass me a couple of plates, please?” I scratched my head while I looked around until I spotted a few plates in a drying rack. Grabbing two plates from the rack, I made my way back to Val. “Thank you,” she said with a smile. “I had forgotten that you do not know the way around my galley. Not that it is very big.”
“Yet,” I said with a smile. “I don’t know my way around yet.”
Val quirked an eyebrow at me. “Do you plan on spending a lot of time here?” she said as she finished plating up the food.
I took both plates and carried them to the bed. “Dinner in bed tonight?” Val blushed and nodded as she grabbed the tequila again. “I plan on being here as long as it takes to find this demon,” I said, laying the plates down and crawling into the bed while I hungrily eyed Val. She climbed in beside me and shuffled against me. It took everything I had not to pounce on her out of pure desire and passion.
“And only then?” Val asked with a hint of disappointment leaking out.
“Then,” I said as I wrapped an arm around her. “We’ll see how my sea legs fare.”
Val let out a soft giggle. “Fair.”
“I won’t let him harm you, Valeria,” I said to her. Pulling her in closer, I rested my chin on top of her head and closed my eyes. I wanted to relish this moment and enjoy her presence. Who knew when the crossroads demon would make an appearance?
Val leaned into me. “I know, Sani. I know.”
I sighed heavily, letting the frustration seep out. “I know you wanted to lean into your darkness,” I said to her, pulling away slightly to look at her. “But demons are a scary route to go.”
“I…” she started. “I did not make this decision lightly, you know.”
“I know you didn’t,” I said with another sigh, this one more depressing than the last. “And that’s what pains me the most. I wish I could have been there sooner. I curse the fates for not bringing us together before you felt you had to turn to a crossroads demon.” I gritted my teeth as I thought about the demon once more.
“Do not curse the fates, Sani,” Val warned me. “You have no idea what they have in store.”
I laughed almost too sarcastically. “I haven’t feared the fates in a very long time.”
“Well, I do,” she said with an eye roll.
I kissed her head. “I’ll protect you from them too if I have to,” I promised her.
She leaned in and kissed my lips softly. I loved the way her lips felt against mine, so smooth and tender. “You will not,” she stated. “Please, you need to worry about yourself more.”
I laughed heartily. “Whatever Ahsonnutli has in store for me, I’m sure I deserve it. Until she claims my soul and makes me one with the earth again, I’m going to fight for what I love.”
Val choked a little on her food as my words took her off guard. I hadn’t considered that she would take the word love so literally. In Navajo, it was simply a term of endearment. “What?” she asked.
I caressed her cheek with my index finger and slightly turned my head as I looked into her eyes. “In Navajo, we hold high regard for friends, almost as much as family,” I explained. “K’é is our version of love. It means harmony and lack of conflict within a relationship.”
Val’s large doe eyes lit up, and she looked into my soul. “You feel that way about me?”
I nodded. “Aoo’.”
Val scrunched her nose as she looked at me. “Aoo’?”
“Aoo’,” I chuckled, “means yes in Navajo. You forget, English is my fourth language.”
Her jaw dropped to the floor as her eyes widened. Had I never told her I spoke so many languages before? “I did not know it was the fourth! I only speak English. I have a little bit of Spanish, but not much.”
“I spoke Navajo from birth, Spanish from my time south of the border, then French from my time north of the border, English, and then Ojibwe from Aki.” I explained to her as I counted the languages with my fingers.
“That is amazing,” she said, picking up her jaw.
“I only speak in Navajo with Alo,” I said. “And the people I have K’é with.”
As she nibbled on the cooked gator, Val began, “My father was teaching us Spanish before the accident. I have not had the heart to use it since.”
I bit my lip as I looked at her with pain in my eyes. “You don’t talk about him much.”
“No, I suppose I do not,” she said as she glanced down at the floor and away from my gaze. “Sorry.”
I reached over and gently took her hands in mine. “Don’t be sorry.”
“My family was my world. I was,” a tear dropped down my face as she continued her story, “I was daddy’s little girl, you know? Three older brothers and I was the only girl in the pack. Alaran was the oldest, and he teased me endlessly.”
“I’m sorry, Val,” I said to her, gently rubbing her knuckles with my fingers. “I know it hurts.”
“It has been over a decade already,” she said as her tear-stained face strained to prevent any more tears from escaping.
“If you’re comfortable talking about it, I’m here to listen.”
She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment as she relived the pain and agony she had been suppressing for the last decade. “It is just… my father was my world. He was teaching me, well, all of us, to be the best versions of ourselves, to be a credit to our community. That even though we are Threshers, it does not mean we are less than the Greats. That is—was—a trait Valen shared with my father.”
“Was?” I asked.
“Yes, was,” she pointedly said. “I am sure Valen still holds to it, but my father… well, he cannot have many beliefs in the afterlife, can he?”
I laughed as I glanced over my shoulder to see Alo sitting on a chair across the room, tapping his foot. “Well, Alo sure has quite a bit of beliefs.”
She chuckled softly, unconvincingly even. Then she wiped her tears away and finished the last of her gator steak. “Yes, I am sure he does. Ceci does too. But my parents and two brothers never returned to me in spirit form, so I have no idea.”
I smiled and ran my hand through her hair. “If they didn’t return to you, they aren’t trapped on the mortal plane. That’s a good thing.”
“I know,” she said on a sigh, looking away from me and out the window of the boat, she continued. “I just miss them. And then Alaran had to disappear on me, and I have not seen him in as long, so I do not even know if my brother is dead or alive. So when I caught his scent all those months ago…”
I reached out and squeezed her hand. “You did what you had to to find him.”
She shook her head. “But I did not. I turned my search back to Estran. That was what sent me to the demon, losing both tracks at once.”
Trying to inspire some semblance of hope in her, I said, “Demons do keep their word. I’ll give them that. If he said he’d help you find them, then he will.”
Val’s face was fixed on a frown, with no sign of it ever turning upright into a smile. “I just wish I could remember. All I have is this feeling in my gut that I know I made the deal.”
I clenched my fists as anger overtook the feeling of sadness that had once resided in my body. “We’ll get to the bottom of this, Val.”
She placed her free hand on my cheek and stared into my eyes. I looked back into hers and nearly got lost when she said, “I know, I know.”
I nuzzled my head into hers in an attempt to lighten the somber mood that had crept up on us as we ate dinner.
“Anyway,” Val said as she wiped her face. “This is sad talk. Finish up your gator so I can do the dishes.” She slid out of bed, and I watched her carefully as she sashayed across the boat. I finished the last of my gator steak and followed her.
“I’m sorry for prying.” I sighed as I got to the sink and handed her my plate.
“It is fine,” she lied, almost believably. “I just… I barely talk about my family. The only other person outside of my people who I have talked to about this is Gideon.”
The fact that we were opening up to one another on such deep levels scared me. It made me worried about making mistakes and ruining my friendship with Val before it could ever take off. “I understand that.”
“I know you do,” she said with a smile. “And I appreciate you more than you know.”
I walked up behind her as she cleaned the dishes and wrapped my arms around her waist. I littered the side of her neck with tiny butterfly kisses. “I’m glad to hear it because I appreciate you.”
Val turned around in my arms and smiled. She made her way back to the bed, and I followed. “Shall we sleep, then go for a swim tomorrow morning?”
I nodded as I crawled into the bed and laid down beside her. Val curled up in my arms and nuzzled her face into my chest. I pressed my lips to her forehead and whispered, “Sleep, Val.”
She smiled at me with affection highlighted in her eyes. She pressed her lips against my skin, following the trail of my arm. “Have a good sleep, Sani.” I watched her carefully, waiting for some kind of sign that the demon was here. I stroked her hair gently. She opened her eyes and asked, “What’s on your mind?”
I took a finger and gently ran it across her eyelids, pulling them shut with gentle softness.
“Significas todo el mundo para mí,” she whispered softly and nodded, falling sound asleep in my arms.“Y tu eres mi mundo,” I said back to her, not taking my careful watch off of her.