Kandy and Miguel #8: The Park, Part Four.

“Kandajha.”

Kandy eased to the side just far enough to rest her brow bone against his cheekbone. Closing her eyes, she softly touched the opposite side of Miguel’s face holding him there with her. Stronger than any other time that afternoon, he was able to feel a level of trepidation on her side of things that was enough to concern him and not just because she seemed to amplify the sensitivity of his gifts. While he considered classifying what she was feeling as a fear to likely be an overstatement, he also felt that it would be dismissive to label it as just a worry. Whatever it was, she was actively struggling against it in her thoughts.

She could tell by the way he whispered her name that he knew something had invaded her mood and occupied her attention. “Miggy, I — I need this to be healthy and I’m not sure I know what that looks like. Bein’ dependent on you fo—”

With a simple hug, keeping her against his chest, Miguel stopped her from finishing her statement. “Wantin’ a hug or somebody to listen don’t make you dependent, co-dependent, or any other kinda dependent, querida.

Miguel wondered to himself how much the gaslighting was contributing to her waves of reluctance when it came to sharing how she felt. While she couldn’t hide it from him, she still was able to avoid admitting or voicing all the things he saw in her eyes when she looked at him and now, apparently, that he could sense when they were up close and personal. 

“No, I know.”

By her tone alone, as soft and quiet as it was, he knew it wasn’t the case. Perhaps, in the logical section of her brain, she did. But the emotional and instinctual part of her did not. What he said ran contrary to everything she had been taught up until meeting Zoraida in her teen years about the expression of her feelings and showing vulnerability, something he was quite familiar with himself. That toxic mentality was what laid the foundation for the pressure cooker-like internalization of his own issues. While he was able to spot the positive effects of Zo’s contribution to Kandy’s life in terms of helping the girl navigate her own emotional growth, he was also able to see that his little witch still had a ways to go. This definitely applied to undoing whatever repressive and limiting programming had been installed by her own conflicted religious and multi-cultural upbringing

Between the therapy classes he had been ordered into as a part of the intervention program and all the parenting books he had read to prepare himself for being his sister’s sole parental figure, Miguel had amassed a respectable knowledge base regarding coping skills, communication, and healthier habits. He identified the areas of difficulties he needed to work on, researched ways to build a self-care plan to lessen or mitigate their negative effects, and implemented it. Over the years, he had maintained his commitment to it and tweaked his system as his responsibilities and stressors changed. What he had learned through trial and error, he refined and synthesized to pass on to Irma in hopes of arming her with the tools necessary for her to successfully navigate whatever rocky emotional terrain she might stumble upon in her life. 

Papi, or not, I’m here, Kandajha.” He kissed the top of her head whilst gently gathering her hair to the center of her back and letting his fingers stroke down its length.

Mi halcón.” The bridge of her nose found its favorite spot along the underneath of his jaw

Neither Kandy nor Miguel was looking to become the other’s parent or therapist, as that would have guaranteed the manifestation of the unhealthy dynamic both were looking to avoid. But the pair understood that they were able to share guidance from their own experiences to help and uplift each other without crossing those boundaries.

“Wanna hear the rest of Mississippi?” Miguel went back to slowly petting as much of the length of her legs as he could trace with his fingers while Kandy sat straddling his lap. 

“Yes, back to storytime!” Immediately she sat up straight and happily patted her hands together like an excited schoolgirl before shyly brushing her curls back out of her face. “But only what you wanna share, Miggy.”

“It’s alright, querida. It’s important shit you need to know for us to …”

When he looked down, she tenderly ran her hand against his jaw to bring his eyes back up to hers. “For us to make it?”

He smirked and sighed before kissing her palm. “Somethin’ like that.”

Who is this girl? Come on bro, you know who she is. Miguel smirked and shook his head, always quite surprised by her enthusiasm to learn more about his life. After a few seconds, his attention drifted to thoughts of Biloxi, running back through what happened that hot and humid summer night. The familiar faint wave of nausea washed over Kandy again prompting her to look up at him. She knew right away that he was thinking about whatever it was that happened and the sensation was probably triggered by the experience. 

When he had to talk about something unpleasant, she had always known the right time to pull him close. A person could be cornered into being so strong for others that they eventually forgot about their own need to feel some compassion and comfort. Though he wasn’t yet at a place where he was relaxed enough to ask her for those things out loud, Miguel was relieved to feel her arms wrapping down around his torso tightly and her nose nuzzling into his neck again. With her legs securely crossed behind his lower back, she was as close as she could be whilst sitting on the blanket with him.

Kandy had been lucky in life that even at a young age, she was always able to feel the intensity of another person’s emotions. Like a Bourdon gauge, the little girl with all those curls and amber eyes could stand in the middle of a room and read not just the intentions that may be fueling certain emotions, but also measure the likelihood of an explosion or implosion. Whether it was isolated arguments, episodic stress, or a total dysfunctional lifestyle, the skill of assessing risk with relatives, friends, and strangers was one that she continued to cultivate despite at times neglecting her other talents. 

She had learned never to doubt her initial interpretation of whatever she received and always trust what her intuition whispered to her. It had taken time and some unpleasant situations to reach that point, but she was there finally. The free-flowing exchange between her and Miguel that seemed to power up her abilities was undeniable. Never had she been around someone who was so present and interactive with their own energy. He had to be going through something similar also, but he was so protective about what he could do. This was why she made double the effort to encourage him to share and build the trust he needed to be comfortable enough to do so.

It wasn’t difficult for her to see that Miguel had the capacity to be destructive if he ever surrendered again to the pressure caused by internalizing upsets and swallowing down his feelings. But what set him apart from most of the people she had encountered in her life was that he had sufficient forms of motivation to keep him committed to doing the inner work even when it was unpleasant. Undoing toxic behavior patterns inherited from parents, family, and the community he grew up in was going to take time. And while it seemed like it was becoming easier and easier to turn to the positive outlets he had and stay connected to his family’s spiritual traditions, he still wasn’t where he’d like to be. This rewiring of how he processed certain emotions required an ongoing active form of participation and highlighted what was the unfair expectation of his progress underpinned by his impatience. 

Miguel was fully aware of what the consequences could be if he slipped up, got cocky, or abandoned what he had been doing for his self-care and well-being. He had no desire to go back into that life of handling things the wrong way and settling them by dangerous means. If he got arrested again and wound up back in the system the whole list of people who discouraged him would’ve been there with their nodding and I-Told-Ya-So remarks. Damaging his relationship with his younger sister Irma and forever changing the way she would look at him was too painful to even think about. He knew what that hurt and trauma felt like having dealt with his father and older brother’s anger supercharged by alcoholism. 

Even Kandy had made it clear what she wasn’t going to tolerate and be around. Failing to protect her was upsetting enough as a concept. But to wind up being the one who would hurt her and then have to live without her was not something he wanted to ever endure. Before all of that, before anybody else, he simply would not be able to respect himself as a man if he fucked up what he had built and was on the edge of developing if he got lulled into the false belief that he didn’t need the structure and system he put together to keep himself emotionally healthy anymore. He knew relapse was something he would always need to contend with, and to an extent, he had made peace with that, but the loss of perspective often tied to the ego was preventable.

For Kandy’s part, it cost her nothing to be kind and encourage him to keep building on those healthy changes he had made before leaving California. Just like she had said to him in the office: if she had felt anything less than safe around him, even the slightest doubt, she wouldn’t have stuck around. She had made it abundantly clear that if he ever scared her, she would be gone and he both understood and respected that. As long as he continued in a positive direction by moving away from his self-destructive habits, they would be fine. Now, more than any other point in his life, he had so much to lose. She was the key that unlocked a significant portion of the future he had envisioned all those late nights when he would come home after work dead tired and somehow still found the energy to refresh his altar, light the candles, and put forward his petitions. 

Similar to earlier, Kandy gave Miguel as much time as he needed to get in the right mindset to talk about what he classified as one of the more upsetting interactions with his gifts. When he finally squeezed her ass, she giggled into his neck and kissed his skin. He sighed heavily from the reluctance weighing down his mood. In response to this, she softly patted one side of his face and nuzzled his cheek letting him rest his head against hers once more. 

“Am I okay where I am, or you want me to sit over on the side?” 

Though he was surprised at first by her question, Miguel remembered one of the reasons why he loved her so much — and he did love her despite his lack of reaction earlier — she understood. She knew to ask about something like that. He squeezed her tighter and kissed the curve of her neck. The relief Kandy felt in his presence was now what he was beginning to let himself feel with her more and more. This was yet another box of baggage he could set down and not have to carry on hiding from her. Having to conceal this part of himself from virtually everybody was what drove him to ask and wait for a woman with whom he could share this and look to for support during the times it was upsetting — as it had been in Biloxi.

“You good where you are, querida.” 

Kandy opted to stay cuddled against his chest until he let his arms relax from around her. If he needed her close, then she was going to stay close. What she didn’t anticipate was that she might pick up on something he was reliving to describe it to her even more intensely as it came into focus in his thoughts. This was a learning experience for them both on many levels.

“It’s late as fuck and I wanna fill up the Mercedes before we get out in the middle of fuckin’ nowhere. Irma is still asleep. I got out the car, put the nozzle in the tank, went to go pay in the store with cash…”

Something hit the back of Kandy’s throat. Though she didn’t smell or taste anything, her body’s reaction was as if she had sniffed an acrid odor triggering her urge to gag. Miguel felt the sudden jump of her body and let go of her in case she needed to move. The wave of nausea disappeared as soon as his arms were removed from around her like before. To try and stop the watering in her mouth and the chance she might actually vomit, Kandy fished a small pack of cinnamon gum from a pocket and offered him a stick. Having declined the gum, his dark eyes focused on her hands as they shook whilst she tried to unwrap a piece for herself. Miguel gently took it from her, removed the foil, and offered it back to her, which she sheepishly accepted and popped in her mouth. The heat of the spice cleared her mouth and nose of whatever phantom phenomena she had lifted from him. He knew what she was experiencing was because of him and he frowned.

Shifting to the side, Kandy put the pack of gum back in her pocket. “What happened when you went inside?”

Miguel scratched his fingers against the underside of his jaw before looking at her and shrugging. “Didn’t make it inside. I went to open the door and I put my left hand on the side, you know, on the outside wall. The smell hit me and I fuckin’ puked in the trash can. They must’ve thought my ass was drunk as fuck. I made it back to the car and had to get Irma to go in and pay.”

“I’m not smelling what you smelled. I only feel what you felt when you did.”

It clicked for him and he nodded before filling in the gaps. “The water and the rot.” He could see that she understood his description of the smell, but didn’t grasp the cause. “Katrina.”

She blinked looking at him with confusion. “The hurricane?”

Another slow nod. “I had Irma ask the guy behind the counter about the building. She said he told her that the only thing that was left standin’ was the cement. Everything else got blown out or flooded right up to the fuckin’ roof. They had to strip it all out and redo it because of all the saltwater.”

“That’s why when you touched the pump you didn’t feel anything. The pump had been replaced.”

He sighed with great relief and reached up to affectionately caress her jaw. She didn’t require him to break down and explain the basics and for that, he was so thankful. Touching his wrist, Kandy smiled up at him. Miguel knew then that if ever he had a difficulty or an unpleasant incident, he could confide in his little witch and she’d understand. Though it was all fading while he was still touching her, the cinnamon was nonetheless doing its share of the work in stamping out any remaining nausea that had come from taking on the sensations he had felt a few years back about a hurricane, which had made landfall over a decade prior.

Giving them both a moment, Kandy leisurely blew a decent-sized bubble in the fire red gum. “What did you tell Irma?”

“Nothin’. She didn’t see me get sick ‘cause she was asleep. No fuckin’ clue why, but the guy didn’t say a fuckin’ thing to her about it. I just played it like I was curious about the hurricane damage.”

“I know you said she seems to not believe in —“ Kandy raised her hands to gesture about the unseen and Miguel smirked. “I guess that means you keep this from her. But you ever trip up or has she suspected somethin’ was different about you?”

Miguel ran his hands over the top of his hair forcing the longer layers to lay back out of the way. This was something she hadn’t seen him do since they first introduced themselves and he still sported his buttoned-up businessman-with-a-tie image. He was very anxious, which concerned and surprised her in equal measure.

“I don’t tell Irma ‘cause I don’t want my mom knowin’.” 

The way he was looking down at the curl pattern of a section of her brunette hair while petting her waist just above the top of her denim shorts told her there was a lot more that went into it. Though she tried not to, she was picking up on the sway of his emotions which she assumed was happening because he was going through an abbreviated pros and cons list about telling her the rest. She waited silently as he worked up the confidence to tell her as she hoped he would in order to keep to their promise to each other. Kandy wasn’t just going to be a woman he dated, but also a part of his family and she needed to know about the politics in play just like he appreciated her explaining the dynamics occurring within her own.

“When I first took my sister, my mom threatened to call the cops on me, turn Irma against me, and tell her I was sick in the head. She would have fucked our life up so many different ways. I’d go to prison. More charges —“

“The feds don’t play with kidnapping.”

Miguel nodded. “I’ve been evaluated a few times just ‘cause of that whole fuckin’ mess I was in. After the accident, by the court, and again when I had the problems sleepin’. I ain’t crazy or imbalanced like her. I did the anger management shit and therapy because the judge said I had to. I’m glad I did. What I learned got us the fuck outta there. And it’s on fuckin’ record I ain’t never had a problem or caused trouble goin’ through all that. Like, I know I’d win and I’d get Irma in the end, but gettin’ through it would be fuckin’ hell.”

The more he spoke the less it sounded like he was explaining versus trying to convince Kandy that he was okay. It was so upsetting witnessing him be afraid that she was going to think the worst and possibly walk away from what they could have. She was also starting to feel more of the weight of what he had to deal with growing up. Kandy never had to live with her mother and experience the chaos, substance abuse, and unchecked mental illness. Miguel, on the other hand, was fighting a war not with the expectation to win against his father’s violent alcoholism and his mother’s psychiatric issues, but simply with the hope to shield Irma from as much of it as he could. 

Clutching his flank on the opposite side with her hand, she tightened her arm low around his back while caressing the other side of his face. Leaning in to rest her temple against his cheekbone, she held him almost protectively. It took a few seconds, but he did ultimately relax into her embrace. The softest of kisses was placed right before his ear. Keeping it where she had placed it originally, her palm continued to hold his jaw. As he felt the bridge of her nose slip down to his chin and nuzzle beneath it, Miguel found himself being pulled in by the seductiveness of their connection and also the intense yearning to be cared for that she stirred up deep inside of him. 

A short, but loving kiss was left on the most sensitive spot on his throat tucked under his jaw before she sat back to look up at him. “Le creo, Miggy.”

It was evident how sincere she was that he knew right away she wasn’t saying she believed him to placate him. All he wanted to do was wrap her up equally tight and smell the delicate fragrance of orchid and coconut on her skin. Pausing only to kiss her cheek, he soon after sighed into the curve of her neck and kissed out along her shoulder line. The solace she provided was indescribable. Miguel had been carrying so much for so long that sometimes even he forgot how much it all weighed. 

Reaching for her hand, he guided it to his mouth for a quick kiss before sitting back to look at her. “I still got the money for an attorney, and Irma’s almost eighteen now, but I don’t touch it just in case. So like, I’m prepared for it if shit’s gotta go down that way.”

“That’s why you didn’t want her to have your address — so she couldn’t serve you or get an order to pick up Irma.” When his brows raised, she lightly patted his chest. “I worked off and on at Sandy’s firm during school breaks when I wanted the cash. They handle family law too.” 

“I know. She was the attorney I saw.”

“Before or after you started workin’ at the shop?”

“After, after. It was the next summer. My mother was givin’ me shit about enrollin’ Irma for the next school year. I think she thought we’d come back. I would give up, or whatever the fuck she thought of me. That first year I was so fuckin’ paranoid. I dropped her off and picked her up myself as much as I could. If she took the bus or a taxi, she had to text me when she got home.” Distracted by remembering the past, the presence of his voice lightened from how far he was drifting into his memories as he ran one of his hands over the back of his neck awkwardly. “Cassandra was at the shop one time when Irma didn’t text me. Like, no lie, I was buggin’. I think Irma forgot to charge her phone or somethin’ stupid. Cassandra asked what was up and it wasn’t like I could lie to her. That’s when she told me my options, how much I needed to get together, the records I needed to keep to show the abandonment, all that.”

Kandy smiled to herself. There had been occasions since Zo’s passing that she had fretted over whether Cassandra was following in Cicero’s footsteps with the alcohol and decreasing social participation. It was reassuring to hear that she stepped up to help Miguel in what would’ve been less than six months after the funeral. At this point, Miguel smirked and shook his head before looking up at the sky and sighing.

“What is it?”

“I forgot about talkin’ to her, to Cassandra. She gave me her cell phone to call if somethin’ happened in the middle of the night and the card to a bail bonds company if I got arrested. I keep them both in my wallet.”

One part of his situation had Kandy rather stumped. Squinting, she silently blew another bubble in the cinnamon gum while she considered how to go about asking for clarification. There was also the matter of her trying to work out whether it would be impolite to even inquire about it. Miguel, ever watchful, was sitting there observing her as she went through this back and forth with herself before he finally cleared his throat to get her attention. Looking up at him, he popped his brows expectantly signaling for her to go ahead.

“Your mom doesn’t seem like the type that would let you just take control like that. And no way would she cop to the humiliation of admitting her daughter and son ran away because that’s the only choice they had. So, why hasn’t she turned this into some big —”

“Telenovela?” He was rubbing his jaw whilst looking at her and then sighed. “I send her money every month.”

“Miggy —“

“It keeps her off the street and involved with that church bullshit. She knows she gotta act right and take her meds to stay in their circle. My grandmother pulls up now and then to make sure she’s good or whatever.” Seeing the look on her face, Miguel headed Kandy off at the pass. “It is what it is, querida. My moms ain’t stupid. If I’m in jail, the money stops. But when I said to you I know what somebody is like when they ain’t right in the head, I meant it. I ain’t worried about it long as she’s thinkin’ with sense. She takes them little pills and she stays manageable. I make sure the pharmacy and shrink all get their money. House been paid off for a while and her social security and little jobs cover the rest.”

Though she wasn’t going to say anything, she knew he was giving his mother more than just money for medication and a trip to the psychiatrist’s office every three months. Noticing how it was still upsetting her, Miguel frowned again. Kandy was feeling all sorts of emotions that were entirely her own as she looked at the man she loved with a clearer understanding of one of the things that kept him tied to the past. While he might have been freer than he’d ever been, there were still a couple of chains that needed to be broken. With all things she wanted to say, the delay in trying to translate those emotions and fragmented concepts into words was frustrating her and left him feeling more awkward by the second. Not only had he taken on protecting and raising his sister, but he was now paying a tax to keep her safe as well as himself out of prison for it. 

“It’s why I been holdin’ off on doin’ new shit.”

“When Irma turns eighteen, mom doesn’t have the same leverage anymore to ask for a raise.”

What he wasn’t saying was that he had begun to feel the crunch earlier in the year. Between the physical toll work and stress were taking on his body and then the financial stagnation leading up to Irma going to college the following year, Miguel was having to trust that everything was going to fall into place at the right time and quickly. He had achievable goals and a plan to accomplish them that he was waiting to enact. But beyond showing up ready, which he was, everything else was out of his control. This was perhaps the second biggest test he had faced regarding his faith that things would come together the right way next to the final three months leading up to taking Irma and fleeing California. 

“She ain’t never apologized for none of what she did. No way am I fundin’ her fuckin’ golden years.” Out of habit he reached for his left pants pocket to pull out a pack of cigarettes but grumbled when he remembered they weren’t there. 

Kandy sighed and covered her face with her hands for a few seconds before looking up at him. “I’m sorry.”

He chuckled at how dour her expression was. “For what?”

“Ranting the way I did about my own mother. I feel like that was real fuckin’ insensitive.”

“Don’t go comparin’ shit like that, querida. I saw how it hurt you to talk about some of what she did. My pain don’t mean yours hurt less and what my mom did to us don’t change nothin’ about what yours did to you.”

Miguel had not been the least bit offended or put off by how Kandy expressed her feelings regarding her parents. If anything, he took some comfort in knowing that she might have an easier time relating to him and appreciating how complicated the interactions within his family could be. While he still dreaded the idea of having to introduce her to his mother, his negative feelings were tempered slightly by knowing that Kandy wouldn’t be as easily manipulated as others might be. Watching her, Miguel slowly smiled. He couldn’t overhear her thoughts or read emotions as clearly as she could, but he was able to see her empathy and the feelings that underpinned it. 

It was such a weird experience to have a conversation with someone who was not just so incredibly reasonable about things, but also considerate of her feelings. There wasn’t the weird competition that sometimes took hold of two people when they shared their pasts. He hadn’t once tried to diminish any of the things she had been through. Kandy had gotten so tired of people asking her how she was or felt and then turning around and correcting her to what they believed she was really experiencing that she stopped giving real answers to most. While Miguel was fair, he also believed in accountability. The times that he tried to illuminate the other side of a situation for her, it was done in a gentle and nonjudgemental way, which she appreciated. They both were set to learn things from each other and she was grateful that he was a kind and patient teacher. 

He again wanted to reach for the pack of cigarettes he knew weren’t in his pocket but this time not as much to satisfy a craving as it was a way to buy a few extra seconds to reconsider if he wanted to include the last thought he had on her parents. “It sounds like your family tried to keep you locked up, but in a different way.” 

Sitting there, Kandy quietly considered his statement and compared it against some of the decisions that had been made on her behalf throughout her childhood. “For a long time, I thought they were hidin’ me. And maybe they kinda were. My dad never gave a shit to come look for me, so it wasn’t from him. Sandy dealt with my mom to keep her away. I just assumed everybody was tryin’ to give me a nice quiet life away from the press and the parental antics. You saw the headlines those two get written about them. I dunno, though. After Zo died, they all look so different to me. Sometimes, it’s like I got no fuckin’ idea what they were thinkin’.”

“How free are you now, querida?”

“I’ve got my passport now. I guess I can leave whenever I want. Go wherever I want.”

“Where you wanna go?”

She could hear the concern he was trying to muffle and she smiled up at him. “See, there’s this guy. He drives this sexy as fuck Mercedes –”

Miguel started to laugh and gently squeezed one of her hips. “A Mercedes, huh? I got one of those. Where’s this motherfucker live? Sounds like I need to go kick his ass if he’s got my girl lookin’ at him.”

Giving him a flirty wink, Kandy blew another bubble in her cinnamon gum while thinking more about her family’s approach to managing her life. Then the answer finally came to her. The further she stepped into her new life, the more she moved away from caring about what happened in the previous one. With that went her need to hold certain people accountable and have them at least admit their wrongs if they weren’t going to right them. There were still one or two situations she was trying to get past, but it was a work in progress. 

“I think the clock is tickin’ on me givin’ a shit why they did what they did. It’s in my nature to want an explanation, to try and understand their motivation, you know?” Stopping again for another bubble and minute of self-reflection, the brunette gave a casual shrug of her shoulders. “But you were right about Zo bein’ the glue for us. She was what made us a family in a lotta ways. With her around, there was a level of consideration that had to be in play between all of us. I remember her assignin’ us little tasks to go see certain people. It was always like to do an errand for her, but we all knew what was up. She had caught wind of some kinda beef or bullshit or sensed some kinda distance and it was her way of puttin’ people together to get that shit sorted out. With her gone, we’re all kinda driftin’ apart.”

The people who Kandy wanted in her life daily were a select few. Anzhelina’s son, Asher, was someone Kandy truly cared about. Being in his life was one of the things that helped her through losing Zo and had allowed her emotional education to continue. Angie, herself, was a unique situation, but it was overall a seemingly positive one. Or as positive as one could have with somebody referred to as the Mako. Julian, her partner and Asher’s father, was a cool dude. Kandy didn’t mind him. Zo and Cicero’s son, Carmelo, had always been good to her and played the protective big brother role well when he was home.

She knew her relationship with Sandy wasn’t where she wanted it to be, but she was also coming to terms with the possibility that it would never get there due to her aunt’s personal issues. Out of all of them, Cassandra’s issues were the easiest to give grace to. For the most part, she tried her best to give Kandy what she needed and to help in raising her where she could. But Sandy was still stuck in her own private hell, though it was really best described as an emotional purgatory. Perhaps one day she would finally let go of the ghost she loved and give herself a chance to rebuild. Until then, there wasn’t much room for anyone or anything outside of what was taken up by her grief or work.

The man she referred to as her uncle, Cicero, had joined her parents, Lola and Berkhant, on the unequivocal When Hell Freezes Over list. The wicked witch of England, her maternal grandmother, Lahja, was on there also. Her father’s mother, Amina, wasn’t as easy a decision. Their relationship in Spain had been extremely complex as they both tried to navigate conflicting cultures, religious beliefs, and languages. The extended illness and passing of her grandfather, Faysal, only served to alienate them further from each other. Still, there was a part of Kandy that felt like she was missing all the information to make a fair decision. 

As she surveyed the emotional landscape that surrounded her extended family tree, Kandy had to marvel at how distant some of those branches now felt. The anger and hurt were mellowing. She knew why. The family she was set to have was just on the other side and the man sitting next to her was going to help her build it. As much as she might have wanted to talk herself out of the absurdity that was the conclusion she drew after spending less than a day with Miguel, there was no counterargument to what she felt. The sureness in her heart about him, their future, their feelings for each other was so solid it was startling if she thought about it long enough.

“You look like you got another thing to say, mami.” Miguel let his fingers slip down through a thick section of her long curls and bring them around in front of her shoulder to play with idly.

Kandy took a breath and lifted her hand with the tiniest of shrugs pulling at her shoulders. “Your fight is my fight, mi halcón.” 

His rather reserved smile expanded into a full-blown grin, dimples and all, before he quashed it by running his palm over his mouth and chin. “That’s so, huh?”

“Whatever it would take to get you out, we’d get you home to fight it. We aren’t gonna leave you in there or anywhere on your own. And I would do whatever I needed to keep Irma from goin’ with your mom.”

“We, huh?” Both of his hands were now moving back and forth between the tops of her thighs and her rear. It was a very familiar massage that ended with a very familiar grope.

“Family moves together.” Her forearms came to rest upon his shoulders. “I know you wanna keep Irma as far away from things like that as possible, but she’s gonna be eighteen. If shit goes down, she needs to know what’s up so she can see if danger is coming.” 

“Like I said, my mom ain’t gonna pull shit long as I pay. But we –” He had to grin again from using that pronoun while giving her another reassuring squeeze. “we are as prepared as we can be for it. I just hate knowin’ that she’s gonna find out who that woman really fuckin’ is someday.”

“Maybe she already knows, mi halcón. Sometimes, we still talk to people or be around them ‘cause we occasionally get to see the good in them that we have loved.”

Her words hit closer to home than he expected and he shifted against the wall though there was no real place he could go considering how they were still wrapped up in each other. She felt the instant her words pierced his heart and she protectively placed her hand over the center of his chest as if she could magically heal the invisible wound. He sat there thinking about the times he’d go looking for Marisol, at first to try and bring her home and then towards the end simply to bring her food. Without a word, Kandy hugged Miguel and nuzzled the side of his head leading him to immediately squeeze her and bury his face in the curve of her neck. This series of motions was akin to her being in his lap cuddling against his throat while he gently rubbed his hand back and forth over her thigh. Both were comforting choreography between the pair of lovers.

Miguel’s love for Marisol didn’t take away from what he could offer Kandy and she knew that. At this point, she didn’t have any insecurity or concern about where his feelings might take him. But, it was important for her to stay mindful of the fact that he would likely never receive any type of closure until Marisol was either living a healthy life or at rest in her grave. Out of respect, there would always be room for him to process and grieve accordingly. On the flip side, he had so much to propel himself forward in the work he needed to continue to do on himself. There weren’t just responsibilities, but also future success and sources of joy and fulfillment. He was finally at a place in his life where he would be able to breathe and start unpacking the select group of things he just shoved in the back of someplace inside himself like he had loaded up the Mercedes before driving across the country. 

Resting her head against the side of his, Kandy continued to hold him close as he sought refuge where her neck extended out toward her shoulder. “I know this is some shit you gotta do yourself and you’re gonna figure out your own way of doin’ it, but I’m as here for you as you are for me, Miggy. Whether you need some quiet time at home and I take Irma somewhere for a little while, or me to curl up with you and spoil my Papi, or get you high as fuck and suck your dick till you pass the fuck out.” She felt him chuckle, which made her smile.  

“When I get down like that it ain’t good for me to stay to myself, querida. Family, goofin’ around, movie time, all that wholesome shit helps me get back to where I need to be.” Sitting back, Miguel caught a flicker of mischievous flirtatiousness flash across her face. Laughing and shaking his head, he ran a palm down over his jaw and neck. “You look like you be plottin’ some shit already.”

“I could be. Probably all things my Papi would enjoy.”

What brought him back from his thoughts was the rather lovely feeling of the bridge of her nose nuzzling up underneath his jaw. What he’d rather be doing is kissing those plump lips again. As though she had read his mind, Kandy ran a hand up the back of his neck into his black hair whilst reaching up for a kiss. Just as their mouths were to meet, he stopped her and straightened up to glare at her in a not-too-serious manner. She blinked and waited.

El chicle.” He pointed to her mouth after she canted her head to one side not immediately understanding what he wanted. And then she remembered. “Time to get rid of that gum.”

Turning away from him to pluck the gum from her mouth, Kandy could hear Miguel chuckling over her shoulder. Facing him again, she was greeted with his smiling face and the unfolded piece of foil he had removed from the stick of gum back when he had to unwrap it for her. 

“You wanna swallow a mouthful of my cum, but you won’t spit your gum out in front of me, conejita?”

Without thinking, she smirked and served him up a rather smart ass retort. “You aren’t ever gonna see me spit toothpaste in a sink either.”

“There is no more ‘You aren’t ever’, conejita. Not with me.” After she placed it in the center, Miguel folded the wrapper over on itself a few times before disappearing it into a pocket to be disposed of later. “Swallowin’ cum is a reward for you ‘cause I can tell how much you fuckin’ love it. But if I tell you to spit, you spit. Claro?”

Though she tried to just give him a simple nod, it was next to impossible for her to hide how thinking about certain related activities was affecting her. “Claro.” 

“‘Cause if it ain’t, I’ll put you on your knees every mornin’ for a week suckin’ my dick and then makin’ you spit out what I give you to fix this little problem you got.” He was so gentle when he took her face in his hands to look deep into her eyes. But she saw quickly how much he was enjoying both the idea of the punishment itself and how it was teasing her indirectly. “Me entiendes?”

There went that slow inhale of the beach breeze the instant she visualized what he described. Kandy indulged herself a bit by letting it play out in more detail. The first scenario involved being on her knees in the shower with her soaking wet hair wound like a rope around his hand. Then, of course, there was being woken up and guided down under the sheets to suck him off before the morning school run. Doing her best to hide her grin, she tossed a few sections of her curls off to the other side letting them pile up in stacked layers. “Sí, lo entiendo, Papi.”

Miguel was now groping his way through a decidedly surreal moment. He was paired with a partner and had been discussing more and more consent, rules, and punishments. They were building a framework to enjoy their kinks and investigate their interests together. With as conservative as most of the women he superficially considered to be candidates for dating over the recent years seemed to be, he had all but resigned himself to the notion that he would never have a fully satisfying sex life with whoever he married. Sure, there might be the occasional incorporation of certain elements made popular by the media like with the women he casually saw. But he ultimately had started to accept that the way he envisioned his ideal sexual relationship with a spouse would likely never be completely realized until Kandy magically appeared on that bridge next to him.

Seeing how he had become so preoccupied with looking at and tenderly caressing her lips with his thumb, she let slip a sultry laugh chased by a knowing smile.“Papi, I’m gonna suck that dick so good pullin’ outta my throat to make sure I don’t swallow when you cum will be the last thing on your mind.”

His eyes narrowed slightly from the vulgar description she was trying to use as bait whilst he continued petting her mouth. “I should have you write an essay explainin’ why you love suckin’ cock so much, conejita.”

Rather shamelessly, Kandy began kissing and gently sucking the pad of his thumb intermittently until finally he relented and held it still for her. It was the way her hand came up and softly held his wrist in place in combination with how she turned her head to continue with her eyes closed that drew him in as close as he could be. While watching the impromptu demonstration was a turn-on in and of itself, what was really getting to him was just how tenderly her fingers had started caressing the back of his hand. It was similar to how he had often pet her lips throughout the afternoon. 

So subtle and controlled was the short steady stroking of the sides of his hand while he still held her chin that it took him a few seconds to pull his focus from his imagination. Up came those seductive eyes catching him in a moment of weakness when he was enjoying her mouth by drawing his thumb back over her tongue and out. Waiting for the right opening, she timed her taunt perfectly after ending the quick show with a swipe from her tongue. 

“You gonna bend me over the table and fuck me while I read aloud my paper on co—“ 

“How filthy are you gonna get, conejita?” He snarled into her ear as his bony-looking hand dropped suddenly to her throat. “Dime.”

The strength of his tone and warm authoritative weight of his hand was enough to shock her out of her defiant bratty streak and trigger a groan of both pleasure and submission. It took nearly everything in him to not let that lovely sound soften his hold on her. No squeezing or harsh pressure was being applied. No infringement upon her blood flow and certainly not her ability to breathe easily. It was merely a move to reestablish control. He watched her eyes drift closed and her body relax into the rather strict proper posture he was forcing her to adopt with how high the placement of his hand was. The peaceful look on her face coupled with the voluntary lifting of her chin to expose more of her neck to him was still one of the most magnificent things he had seen. It convinced him he wouldn’t ever be unaffected by the sight of her enjoying her own acts of submission to him.

Kandy could sense the progress they were making as she sat there in his lap on the blanket. Miguel wasn’t getting turned around by whether he had been too harsh or rough with her. There wasn’t the sensation of him obsessively analyzing and replaying even the smallest of her movements to confirm if his interpretation of her response was accurate. With the insecurities and second-guessing fading away, more room was being made for the heavier emotional aspects of their dynamic he needed to accept and process. 

A few seconds later, Kandy opened her eyes and looked down to find Miguel watching her, which was wholly unsurprising. “As filthy as I can, Papi.”

Miguel sighed while letting his thumb drift back and forth over her lower lip again. Her plush set lightly kissed it in the middle of one of its passes across, but that was all. Back they settled into Miggy and Kandy, letting Papi and conejita cool off for a while. She could tell there was something he wanted to ask about but was still hung up about whether to proceed. What a familiar feeling that was. It could’ve been trying to figure out how exactly to word the question or maybe even questioning if it was a good idea to bring the subject up. Kandy wasn’t able to define his reluctance. But by then, he had noticed the way she was looking at him and it made him smirk.

She blinked a few times in confusion. “What?”

“You were concentratin’ heavy on somethin’.” Out came one of those sly half grins, which showcased his dimples and strong pointed features.

Kandy could only look at him for a few seconds before having to move her eyes onto the palm trees that followed the shape of the road a stone’s throw from them. It was the very road that he had followed her on with hopes of catching up to chat. As she did her best to casually survey the area behind him, she could feel the warmth of the soft pink blushing across her cheeks. “So were you.”

He wasn’t quite sure what to make of her reaction. “Do you know about what?”

“No, I’m playin’ by the rules. No snooping.”

With a pleased smile, he curved a section of her hair down behind her ear. “I was gonna ask somethin’ about your family.”

“Reluctance explained.” A light little push to his shoulder gave him the perfect opportunity to take her by the wrist and dip her off to the side for a quick kiss causing her to giggle.

Miguel straightened her up and then lounged back against the cement half wall hanging his forearms off the front edge. He sighed again and she could feel the hesitancy. As time ticked by, Kandy began to pick up a bit on the debate within himself over if he should ask. She could feel the back and forth, but couldn’t hear the thoughts, for or against.

“You told me a lot about your family. Like shit that’s still goin’ on. All I’ve shared is historical really. You tell me somethin’ and I tell you somethin’. Let’s keep it fair, Papi. Ask what you wanna ask.”

Rubbing his chin with his skeletal hand, he was quiet for a moment. “It’s about what they say to you.” 

Laughing lightly, she rubbed his chest. “We agreed to be open and honest. I’m not gonna get mad at you over a question. No point in hidin’ this shit anyway ‘cause you’re gonna see it on the holidays or whenever.”

“What fucks you up more, when they call you inexperienced or when they say you’re incapable ‘cause of the anxiety?”

That was a curveball. Rubbing between her collar bones, Kandy turned to sit over one side of his lap and look out toward the beach with him. Immediately, Miguel kissed the side of her head and got a short-lived smile out of her. Though it was a rather heavy question, it didn’t stop her from reaching back to lovingly pet the back of his neck up toward the base of his skull. He placed another kiss though this time it was quite a bit more to the front of her throat as he had pulled her in tighter against him.

Moaning softly, Kandy rested her head over his shoulder and closed her eyes. “If you want an answer, you better stop doin’ that.”

A flicker of a dark grin went unseen by her as he again kissed in the same spot, but then chased it with a playful nip over her jugular and a tender nuzzle to her ear. “Answer me, conejita.”

Her smile, brought on by that special tone he took with her, went unrestrained as she relaxed her head gently against his for yet another quick cuddle. “Miggy, I don’t need anybody to tell me I’m intelligent or if I know how to do something. I know what I know and nothing anybody says can change that fact. What I don’t know, I find out. I get the facts and make a decision. If shit is too gray for me to see clearly, then I go to who I need to go to for clarity. When it comes to that and them bein’ reckless about what they, I don’t pay them much mind.”

He softly sniffed her perfume as he silently wondered whether that included seeking the counsel of those who came before her. “Do you believe what your mother or whoever says about the anxiety?”

“When Zo first died, I was a mess. We started gettin’ close to the holidays and I thought I was maybe okay. Like I had gotten past the adjustment to her bein’ gone cause I stopped feelin’ shit. But, I wasn’t seein’ what everyone else was seein’. My mother saw it and thought she had an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.” Kandy shrugged and Miguel could feel the resentment, which surprised him. It was entirely hers. 

“That’s when Cassandra got involved?”

Staying quiet for a moment, Kandy thought back to that time and some of the antics her mother pulled. On Kandy’s best day, she had little to no tolerance for histrionics. But for the rest of that year, she was simply too tired to put up much of a fight. Eventually, the little brunette nodded and turned to give the side of his jaw a quick kiss, which made him smile briefly.

“Angie found out Lola was here and then Sandy had some fight with her. I have no idea what she said, but my mother was gone. Musta thrown salt and holy water at her bony ass. Whatever. That bitch was gone. My mom is always workin’ an angle. If she points somethin’ out, I know not to take it at face value.” 

He sighed and locked his skeletal-looking hand over his wrist tattooed with the scorpion and rosary effectively securing her in place, which she wasn’t bothered by at all. A few seconds later, Kandy moved back in between his thighs though this time it was to sit with her shoulders resting against his chest. Her palms rubbed slowly up and down his forearms that held her in a protective way similar to how they had when they were sharing photos of their family. 

Though she noticeably hadn’t gone into specifics, she also hadn’t made any move to limit their physical contact. Instead, she had brought herself as close to him as she could and he happily offered her a safe and warm space to relax into. While he wouldn’t actively sift through whatever she was remembering, he did casually take note of whatever fragments she didn’t stop from overflowing onto him. It wasn’t long before she could feel a difference in the way he was holding her. The muscles of his arms were tight with tension as if he was shielding her from something. It was then that she knew he was glancing at the slivers of memories she let slip free.

“Does she know what you can do?”

Kandy shrugged. “I doubt it. I don’t see her sittin’ for tea with my father’s mother. Besides, whatever problem my grandmother has with me, I don’t think she’d tell my mother anything. She has seen what Lola is from the beginning.”

His hold on her loosened slightly after that, but that protective feeling was still present. “Do you think she has any of what you can do?”

“If she had a gift like that, it would be all over the news for the attention she’d get for it. My mother would be like those rich bitches from the twenties holding seances and shit. But what about your mom could any of what you do be from her side, or just your dad’s?”

Miguel chuckled and kissed over her ear while sidestepping the last part of her question about the familial origin of his gifts. “I think I woulda heard by now that God was talkin’ to her or givin’ her visions. ”

“At least she believes in somethin’, your mother. Mine doesn’t even believe in the existence of herself outside of whatever her mother tells her.”

Picking up one of her hands, he let it slide against his palm to straighten and extend her elegant fingers tipped in chipped purple varnish. “I know you don’t like that word promise, ‘cause of her. What else don’t you like hearin’, querida?”

For whatever reason, she was always caught off guard by how closely he paid attention to what she said. In response to the consideration, a kiss and nuzzle to the heavily scarred inside of his left bicep followed before she vined her arm around his and cuddled more into it. When the soft skin of her cheek rubbed against the textured and tattooed surface of his damaged muscles, Miguel froze in anticipation of her revulsion. Like always, there was no hint of hesitancy or aversion when she happened across a part of him that had been injured from the motorcycle accident. 

“Miggy, I’m not lettin’ that woman stop the man I lo–” Catching herself at the last moment, Kandy sighed and kissed his bicep again making him grin. “I’m not gonna let that woman stop the man who loves me from sayin’ what he wants to say.”

Kissing the side of her head, he tightened his arms around her again. “I ain’t never gonna use them words like she did, querida. Fuckin’ never.”

“I can tell by the way someone hugs me or touches me if they want somethin’ from me, Miggy. The way they breathe in between sayin’ how much they miss me and love me will tell me if it’s true or not. How it makes me feel when they ask how I am is how I know if they really give a shit. So you never gotta worry about me gettin’ it confused with what she does.”

“With mine, it’s about Irma and money. But I don’t understand what yours wants from you? Cassandra and all of them, they got money.”

“Sometimes, I just think she’s lonely but I wouldn’t be surprised if she thinks she can cash in in some way on our relationship, or on building one. Their mother Lahja is not a good person either. My mom gets an allowance of some kind, lives in a family apartment in London, works at the magazine their mother runs.” Kandy turned silent for a few minutes now stroking her fingers back and forth over Miguel’s scorpion tattoo as his arms had stayed wrapped around her tummy. “I used to think it was done that way ‘cause my mom is sick, to give her some structure or keep her from havin’ too many resources to get into trouble. The things Angie has told me put a different spin on it. The control I lived under pales in comparison, Miggy. She’s lived her whole life that way. Rememberin’ that helps me to not let it cut so deep.” 

Miguel smirked at how the Mako seemed to always be in everybody’s business. He was also fairly impressed with her knack for showing up at just the right times to prevent a disaster. There wasn’t anything he could come up with that Angie could do to buy her a fresh start with him short of possibly saving Kandy’s life. Of course, Miguel would first wonder if the blonde with the razor-cut bob and red lips orchestrated the situation for her benefit. Being with Kandy and working for Cassandra meant he was twice as likely to be forced into interacting with the peculiar and unsettling woman. But this was just something he’d have to accept, for now.

“Where does Cassandra land with this shit?”

“Misguided and overprotective. You heard her on the phone. I mean, I haven’t exactly been the model of productivity— that’s true, but there are things about livin’ with my grandparents that I never told her. So I give her grace about not thinkin’ I’ve ever had to make a hard choice. It’s the same thing as what happened with Zo. I choose not to talk about the details, but I shouldn’t have to just to get somebody to think and consider that it probably was a  —“ Kandy stopped herself when she felt the hurt and anger begin to rise to the surface. After a slow breath, the little brunette shrugged. “Sandy is a good person, but like you said she’s only ever lived a certain kinda life. She’s never had to worry about food or keeping on the lights, whatever, whatever, whatever.“

This time, Miguel chose to kiss the side of her head and snake one of his arms up the center of her chest to tenderly hold the front of her throat. When his thumb and fingers began to softly stroke the sides of her neck, Kandy relaxed her weight fully into his body again and closed her eyes. Though he had playfully teased her about how much she enjoyed food and she had always laughed with him, he understood now what that focus was rooted in. The universe had a brilliantly ironic sense of humor. The girl who at times had to fish for dinner or sit through a stiff mass full of theological conservatism to get a sack of food was going to marry a man who cooked professionally and had dreams to build places for families to eat and celebrate. While her spirit was starving for things that he seemed to have a surplus of, she knew it was her love and encouragement she kept pouring into his cup that helped restore him from the desert that was his extended emotional desolation.

The parallels between their families were certainly there. Different players, different locales, but very similar lessons. Miguel knew all too well what it was like either to be categorized as someone who didn’t have anything to offer or to be regarded solely as a resource to use and consume. The two extremes of how others viewed him coexisting or even being in play at the same time by different people often were upsetting all on their own. He didn’t have her built-in radar system to detect when a person’s motives might be harmful to him. All he could do was analyze whether their actions matched up with whatever intentions they shared or promises they made. 

Letting her head drift back over his shoulder, Kandy nuzzled the tip of her nose just below his ear forcing a smile out of him. “I never wanna lose this.”

“You never will, mi conejita.”

Papi.” A delicate moan escaped past her lips as she layered one arm over his that was draped around the front of her tummy while her other hand gently held his wrist as he continued to pet her throat.

Smirking to himself, he had to adjust his position behind her on account of the delicious way she purred her honorific for him in his ear. It was hard not to wonder if that was close to the sound she’d make when he finally had her in bed and was pushing inside her for the first time. Kandy felt a little bit of what he was thinking and laughed softly whilst gently petting his right leg through the material of his dark blue suit pants. The urge to continue forging ahead in getting to know each other was strong enough now that he felt more confident when inquiring about rather sensitive subjects.

Miguel released her throat by lowering that arm back down to her waist before nuzzling her ear. “I got more questions, querida.” 

Turning her cheek more against his neck, she cuddled into him and closed her eyes. “Long as I get to stay right here to answer them…”

Miguel kissed the top of her head and let his hands gently hold her wrists down in her lap. Kandy reveled in the safe and secure feeling of being held by him. The massive catalog of things she worried about regarding her future, her health, her relationships with different family members, seemed to no longer command her attention. It wasn’t that she didn’t care about those outstanding matters, which eventually needed to be addressed, instead, they simply no longer felt as heavy. They existed and needed solutions. That’s it. The fear, dread, anxiety, and all the rest of it had shrunk to the point that she had trouble finding those feelings within whilst lazily scrolling through that list in her head. Kandy knew it wasn’t the actual hug by Miguel that was causing this shift, but rather it was the major changes and rebirth that she was now embracing.

“I get keepin’ the Jeep and even drivin’ it, but like, ridin’ around with the top off? Ain’t that a little —“

“Reckless?”

He shrugged his shoulders, “It’s Florida. People drive like fuckin’ idiots all the time. It had to cross your mind about gettin’ stuck at a light or somethin’ and the sirens.”

A smile tugged at one side of her mouth. Her Scorpio continued to impress her with how he mulled over the details he remembered and the way he fit the pieces together to see the full picture of her. While she didn’t expect him to ask about her favorite color or whether she preferred her sheets tucked or untucked, what he was curious about still surprised her.

“I had kind of a bad day yesterday. One of those days where I can’t seem to not take in the shit certain people say.” She absentmindedly let her fingertips drift back and forth over his skeletal tattooed hand before shrugging. “I got up wantin’ to prove I was better.”

“Are you better?”

“It can be easy to forget what life was like before. That you handled shit fine or were at least able to power through it to get to the other side. Who thinks about whether they can handle goin’ to the grocery store or the movies or walk the dog? I took a lot of that shit for granted. With as comfortable as you make me, I haven’t worried about my environment since I’ve been here.”

He considered what she said for a few moments and turned his palm against hers for their fingers to interlace together. “Does that help you or hurt you, how I make you feel?”

She shrugged and closed her hand against his. “I don’t think it hurts me. It shows me I can be out here around things and not be anticipatin’ I’m gonna have a problem. I don’t think ‘cause you’re huggin’ me no fire truck is ever gonna pop up. But my enjoyment of bein’ here, in the park, under the sun, lovin’ on you and shit is far more important to me than sirens. If sirens come, it will hurt my ears and I’ll cry or whatever if I can’t get away from them, but it’s temporary. Like you. How many opportunities to spend time with you am I gonna skip because of fear? One day, Papi, you’re gonna d–.”

That pain was right there in her throat and chest halting her speech quicker than she could finish that three-letter, one-syllable word, which triggered it. As amazing as Miguel was, he still was just a human being as easily susceptible to injury, disease, and death. They could be blessed and spend the next fifty years together, or he might not make it home after work in a few hours to see her again. The latter of which was the thought she constantly had to push away during their time together.

Since they were no longer facing each other, there wasn’t much he could do beyond holding her the way he was already. If only they had been at home and in bed beneath the sheets and entangled with each other. Finally, his little witch turned around and placed her legs over his thigh and an arm low around his hips. With a sigh, she closed her eyes and rested her head against his chest. Without any hesitation, he was right there to wrap an arm behind her back for support and drape the other over her thighs. It was difficult for her to determine what was more comforting in the moment: being held by him or the familiar caress of his fingers back and forth along the outside of her leg.

“The times today you got upset, it’s just the stuff we been talkin’ about?”

“Some of it is hard just ‘cause of what it is. The rest, I get kinda caught up in my head that eventually it’s gonna be too much and you’ll be like, I’m out, which I get. This is where even though our issues aren’t the same, our approach is.”

“Share what we think is the ugliest shit about ourselves?”

“And see who goes runnin’ for the fuckin’ mountains?” Kandy smirked and flashed him a disapproving glare that quickly gave way to a coy smile. 

As he was about to correct her phrasing, she was picking up his dominant hand, which not only had the anatomically correct skeleton tattoo work but also the most scarring across his knuckles. Having captured his attention, Kandy affectionately kissed the distal humps of his ulna and radius bones just shy of his wrist. The oddly erotic gesture made him want to tilt and raise his hand enough to grab onto her throat, but he resisted and simply watched. 

He eased off to the side to get a better look at her face. “Would you have been disappointed if I didn’t ask the questions I wanted answers to even when it was uncomfortable as fuck?”

“I wouldn’t have stuck around this long if we didn’t get down to the bones of things. No pun intended.” 

Squinting at her, Miguel quietly waited for a few seconds to try and gauge how much she meant what she said. “Even though you felt what you felt, huh?”

“I knew you were serious by the conversations you pushed us to have and the questions you started askin’. Feelings are great, but I judge the fuck outta guys who stay at the surface of shit. I wanna know everything about the person I’m in love with. How can you tell me you love me if you got no fuckin’ clue who I am or any context to the shit I’ve gone through in this life?”

“People only ask about things they’re aware of already or willin’ to risk facin’ within themselves, querida.” When he saw her brow lift with curiosity, he continued. “They ain’t gonna dive into tryin’ to understand your grief or whatever when they can’t handle the pain they got inside that they’re ignorin’. They won’t show compassion about certain shit to others ‘cause maybe they went through somethin’ similar and they maybe got the same trauma. Some people are too afraid to look at the vulnerability others reflect back to them ‘cause it shows where they need the healin’ too.”

Taking the hand of the wrist she had been kissing, Kandy held it between both of hers and looked at it. That is to say, her eyes focused on it briefly until her thoughts took over. With her elbows propped up against her partially raised knees, one set of her fingers slid back and forth over his knuckles letting her appreciate the rhythm of the peaks and valleys of the joints. She knew her halcón was watching as she could feel the weight of his gaze on her. 

“I know you were concerned I’d trip out when you talked about your mom threatening to tell people you were…” Kandy fumbled over how she wanted to word the rest of her statement. 

“As fucked up as she is?” He chuckled and kissed the side of her head to try and diffuse some of the uneasiness.

She smiled thinly. “The other reason why I started stayin’ to myself was I got tired of comin’ up against the bullshit some were sayin’ about my ability to be grown or independent, whatever, whatever, whatever. Like I know you and your mom have a lotta history, but that shit hurts when someone close to you misrepresents who you are to other people no matter how much conflict there has been.”

“I know you believe me, mi corazón.” He bent down briefly to lovingly kiss the curve of her neck after brushing her hair out of the way. “But you can’t give up and go hide either, mi conejita. When you do, people who don’t know you don’t get a chance to see anything different from you from what’s bein’ told to them. The deeper you hide, the smaller your world becomes. You gotta reclaim that shit.”

“I’ve been comin’ to realize that lately.”

“Your time in your little burrow comin’ to an end?”

This time she laughed until he reached up for her jaw and turned her face just enough that he could meet her for a slow kiss. “Don’t ever let no motherfucker tell you you ain’t strong, Kandajha. Especially not when you had the fuckin’ courage to face reality every fuckin’ day.”

To hear somebody acknowledge all that had been in play during that time of her life felt so strange. There was a relief that someone could see the truth of how taking care of Zo and witnessing her passing had affected her and that they had some understanding of what it took to make it through. But his words, which touched her deeply, also provided a sharp contrast to how others spoke about or treated her despite knowing slightly more about what happened than he did. Cassandra might have written the check to cover the expenses, but Kandy made all the arrangements and personally notified the very specific list of people Zo left her for who should be invited to her funeral. Over and over, she had to repeat the same script she had cobbled together informing them of her death and how to attend the funeral if they desired.

“I know you know what it’s like. You did what you needed to do for you and Irma even with people bein’ less than supportive.” 

“They learned if they weren’t gonna help then they needed to stay the fuck out my way.” The grin that spread over her full lips as she listened to him made him chuckle. “What’s that about, mami? You gettin’ all turned on over that?”

Feeling more at ease, she turned back around and leaned against his torso giving him the chance to wrap her up once more. “Yes.”

They laughed together before he kissed above her ear. As they sat there on her pink hibiscus blanket looking over the rest of the park and the white sand beach beyond it, Miguel had noticed how her fingertips sought out the scorpion inked into the flesh of his right forearm. With her shoulder blades against his chest, he was afforded an unobstructed view over the top of her head of the path her fingers took. It always started just behind the arachnid’s main pair of eyes, traveled along the center of its segmented body, and swept up the sharp curve of the tail to the point of its stinger.

“A lot of what I feel for you, the respect, all that, is because of how you care about and protect people you love.”

Miguel nuzzled her with his hawk-like nose and whispered to her. “You’re one of them.”

Are you going to let yourself believe him? He is actually telling you the truth, Kandajha. He means every word of it. You can feel his sincerity. Are you going to let him come through for you and show you or are you going to try and take it out of his hands because you think he won’t deliver? Let him, Kandajha. Let him.

As amazing as it was to hear the reasons why she admired and respected him, a sadness came with it. There were people Miguel knew his whole life who he looked up to that never said even half the encouraging things Kandy had this afternoon. It had been such a startling contrast that he wanted to doubt her sincerity, but he knew better and learned better as time went on. His mind kept drifting back to trying to figure out how anyone could face her and be so hurtful to her. 

Based on what she had shared, it was clear that people close to her had tried to weaponize her fight against anxiety. She certainly believed they had been effective in their attempts to gaslight her. As much as he might want to beat the hell out of a few of them, Miguel knew even joking about that kind of response probably wouldn’t go over particularly well. Taking those two things into consideration, he wasn’t entirely sure what he could do to help her beyond being supportive of a return to therapy and encouraging her to maintain healthy boundaries.

Though it had been a relatively warm day, the breeze off the Gulf was beginning to cool down causing her to rub one of her arms when it blew against her sun-warmed skin. “Wow, it’s been such a long time since I’ve felt excited for this time of year. To look forward to it and not dread it is trippy as fuck.”

“What’s makin’ you look forward to it, conejita?” 

Though she wasn’t facing him as she sat between his thighs on the blanket, Kandy could hear the grin as he posed his question, which was enough to make her smile. Watching her, he was surprised by how quickly it faded and was concerned by it. A few seconds later, one of her hands returned to the front of her body and tried to subtly rub the pressure point between her collar bones.

To gently let her know that he was aware of her being upset, Miguel slowly covered her hand with his and held it flush against her chest. “Qué te preocupa, mi corazón?

“How people would say I’m dumb if I asked what I wanted to ask.” She sighed and relaxed as much as she could under the circumstances.

Miguel snuck his fingers up under her palm, bypassing the pressure point and heading straight up to comfortingly hold the front of her throat. “Is that really why you leavin’ out the question?”

“No.” Her amber eyes dropped to one of the large pink hibiscus blossoms between her knees printed on the fabric they were sitting on. “I’m afraid I’m gonna ask and it’s gonna be too much too soon.”

He arched a brow, still out of her sight. “That I’ll tell you ‘no’?”

“Yea. And, I guess maybe that it will make you uncomfortable and cause you to rethink this.”

Quite purposefully, he ran his palms possessively up the front of her hips, over her stomach, and underneath her bustline to cup her breasts. “You think I’m not gonna be fuckin’ you in front of the fire on Christmas Eve after we finish puttin’ all our gifts under the tree? All I’m unsure about is if I should tape your mouth shut with some Rudolph and Frosty patterned shit or just stuff a stocking in there. Mi conejita will be gettin’ stretched on the Feast Day of –”

“Miggy!” Kandy blushed and gingerly swallowed as she did her best not to giggle from both the groping and the scene he described to her.

Miguel chuckled darkly into her ear whilst rubbing his hands back down to her pelvis. “I kinda like the idea of you all roped up with pretty red and green bows. You wanna be all festive for your Papi? You gonna blush like that when I got you folded up, tied up, and takin’ every inch in your tight little ass, conejita?”

“Yes, Papi.” 

Shivering, Kandy managed to comb a section of her curls down behind an ear while trying to empty her head of thoughts about them in his living room. She could almost feel the warmth along the right side of her face and body from the fire and the multi-color LED glow of the tree’s ropes of lights shining halos against the white popcorn ceiling above them. Then there was the softness of what she guessed were lined cuffs secured around her shins to her thighs designed to keep her legs folded up the way he liked. They seemed similar to what was locked around her wrists and were likely part of a matching set of restraints. She saw none of these things but felt the distant and delicate sensation of their presence.

Her halcón had been casually entertaining a scene within his mind’s eye when he noticed how her arms had relaxed down to her sides, but her hands flexed upward at the wrists as if they were locked in place. Seeing that her eyelids had also closed, he wondered what she was seeing or experiencing. 

He nuzzled her with the tip of his nose over her ear. “Stop snoopin’.”

Reluctantly, Kandy opened her eyes and turned her head just enough to look over her shoulder back at him. “It isn’t snoopin’ when you’re thinkin’ about fuckin’ me with the same eight-inch dick that’s so hard I can feel it through these denim shorts.”

She sorta had him there and it made him smile. “Verde?

Sí. What are you doin’ for the holidays?”

“We usually go to Manny’s for Thanksgiving. Christmas at mine. I invite to fly abuelita out, but she never wants to because of havin’ to be on a plane. Me, Irma, Manny, his girl, another cousin, and his wife and kid are it though that fuckin’ kid Irma’s with showed up last year.” When Kandy laughed, he took a moment to squeeze her with a loving hug and kiss her cheek. 

“Is that the cousin that does the upholstery?” When she saw how surprised he looked that she remembered the detail back from the very beginning of their time in the Mercedes, Kandy affectionately patted his thigh. “See, I was interested enough even then to pay attention.”

“Don’t front, you only remember that shit ‘cause we was talkin’ about the Benz.” He chuckled in her ear and kissed her cheek. “Sometimes, there’s a cookout dependin’ on the weather before so we can make sure everybody got a turkey to cook. But I stay my ass at home for New Year’s. What does Cassandra and them do?”

“Cassandra has like a party for friends and important people sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I show up for Christmas for my nephew. If he wasn’t in the picture, I probably wouldn’t drive down to Angie’s.”

“You guys do holidays at the Mako’s?” 

Kandy couldn’t help but laugh at his reaction and gently swatted at one of his hands. “Parkin’ in South Tampa is a bitch and Sandy just hires Angie’s people to cater it anyway. At least at Angie’s, it’s on a nice slice of land with a dock and the river that goes out to the bay.”

“Where’s that?”

“She’s down in Riverview on the Alafia. When Julian’s over with the boat, we sometimes go out for a little sunset cruise if it isn’t too fuckin’ cold.”

“Huh. They don’t live together?”

“It’s a weird situation. When they’re together, it’s cool to watch. It’ll probably freak you out, but I’m hopin’ it will kinda let you see her in a different light.”

Miguel dodged responding to her comment about Anzhelina and leaned to the side to get a better look at Kandy’s face. “You wanna spend Christmas Eve and part of the morning with us and then go see your nephew?”

“Yea, I’d really like that.” Taking a breath, she flopped some of her hair off to the opposite side and looked back out toward the beach. “I love Asher and I know you aren’t a big fan of his mom, but I pretty much watch him when he’s not at camp or an activity and school’s out. Angie doesn’t have a nine to five, but some of the catering jobs are at night or take her away for a weekend or a couple days. There are certain things, rituals he and I have and I don’t wanna lose those either.”

“Kandajha.”

Twisting slightly to look up at him, she wasn’t expecting him to look at her so seriously. “What is it?”

“The kid is always welcome. Me not wantin’ to be around Angie ain’t gonna get in the way of you spendin’ time with your family. If I gotta see her, then I’ll handle it. The only time shit might get sticky is if Irma is involved.” After she nodded, Miguel brought her in closer so that he could kiss her forehead reassuringly. “What do you do for Thanksgiving?”

“The family usually has a dinner either at Sandy’s or Angie’s, but I started boycotting it after Zo died.”

The Scorpio seemed rather amused by this. “Tell me why.”

“Lotta different reasons. I feel gross about celebratin’ any date associated with the entitled assholes who came here and treated the people this land belongs to the way they did. But Zo was big on gettin’ the family together for the holidays, so I went with it out of respect for her.”

The gears behind those dark mysterious eyes of his were spinning as he stared at her from the side. “And the parade?”

Kandy smirked sourly. “What’s more American than cartoon floats in a parade that’s a front for rabid capitalism?”

Doing his best to keep his smile back out of sight, he ran his palm down over his face and waited until he was sure he could ask his question without letting on to how much he was enjoying this side of her. “I thought all girls who wanna be pop stars dream of singin’ in the parade?”

When she turned around to glare up at him, he saw the look on her face and was unable to stop himself from grinning. Kandy steamed a little over how one flash of those dimples and that sly tilt of his mouth had her wanting to kiss rather than chastise him. Placing one of her arms behind his shoulders onto the concrete half-wall, she lifted herself up and over one side of his lap. Quite naturally, his left hand slipped down between her thighs to rest on the top of one of her toned limbs. The slow steady pet of his fingers made her bite her lip and in turn, sparked a flash of mischievousness in his deep brown eyes.

“Who the fuck says I wanna be the next big American pop star? You think I wanna be controlled by some music label and sign my creativity away to seven years worth of watered-down generic manufactured shit music?” She then deployed an eye roll that was big enough and certainly dramatic enough to rival anything Miguel had seen from his teenage sister. “I fuckin’ hate it when people try to tell me what I can or cannot say.”

His hand had worked its way right against the center of her denim shorts and was pressing upward beneath the base of the zipper. As he applied more pressure in his targeted circular rub, Kandy took in a slow controlled breath before looking up at him. Without saying a word or being instructed to do so, she carefully spread her ankles a foot or so apart. With the extra room afforded him, Miguel moved his hand lower and slowly increased how deep he was pushing against the crotch of her shorts.

She was on the edge of moaning when he nuzzled the side of her head and spoke to her, “I tell you what you can and can’t say. Tell me, conejita, do you hate that?”

Her subtly bratty response came in the form of a low groan right below his ear chased with a tender moaning of his honorific while she reached down and pressed his fingers harder against her. “Papi.”

Before he could shiver from the power of her voice, he snatched her wrist and placed her hand gently on her knee. “Answer me, conejita.”

When she giggled, he immediately wanted to swat her rear but wasn’t able in light of how she was currently sitting. Instead, he swept his hand up the outside of her thigh and tried to sneak his fingers inside the hem of her shorts to reach her panty line. Alas, the material was far too tight for him to get access at this angle. Abandoning its mission, his hand returned to slowly stroking back and forth along her thigh.

“I love it even when my Papi doesn’t let me say my two favorite words.”

Miguel smirked and shook his head. “Those are your two favorite words? Most girls fuckin’ hate hearin’ that one. But when my conejita hears it, all she seems to wanna do is —“

“Suck my Papi’s long hard c—“ Up came that skeletal-looking pointer finger giving her a silent warning against breaking the rules. 

She pouted dramatically and flicked her tongue at his fingertip. The reflexes honed in the ring kicked in and he was holding her jaw firmly before she knew what had happened. Once his little brunette was focused on him, his grip softened so that he could lightly caress her lips with his thumb.

“I want a better explanation why you like the word cunt.”

Though she couldn’t identify it specifically, something in his expression or the way he touched her or even in his tone, something told her he loved it when she said it. “To me, there are very specific circumstances where that is probably the only appropriate word for me to use.”

“Appropriate to say cunt? I gotta hear this.” He released her jaw and lounged back against the cement half wall with a smile. “Explícamelo, mami.”

When he backed off of her, she took the opportunity to lift her legs from over his other knee and tuck her feet underneath the upper part of his leg. It caused her knees to rest against the front of his torso, but more importantly, it positioned her shin along the inside of his thigh. Could a case be made that some part of the front of her lower leg was slightly resting against a section of his somewhat hard length? Maybe, but he let it slide for now.

“I probably would never use that word when we’re legit in a scene and I’m bein’ conejita with you, not unless you instructed me to.”

His head tilted with curiosity. “Why not?”

It took her a few seconds to figure out the phrasing she wanted to use. “It’s too hard of a word. As a sub, I would only ever use that word on my own to be defiant in some way, to challenge you, or instigate. Here, sittin’ with you like this, brattiness can serve a purpose even if it’s just a way to flirt with you. But if we’re in a scene and I’m behavin’ that way, then somethin’ is wrong.”

He loved how well she knew and understood the way she operated as a submissive. That she considered the words she used when addressing him including the Formal forms within Spanish also impressed him. Her level of respect and deference she showed him unexpectedly helped to reinforce his confidence that he was adding to and enriching her life through his role as her Dominant. Though this had been a part of his life for a decent amount of years, it only just now felt as if he had a real partner and not one that was play-acting to satisfy his fantasy.

While he had an idea of what she meant, Miguel wanted to encourage her to feel more comfortable in speaking to him about these things. “A little bit of brattiness isn’t gonna hurt nothin’, conejita.”

“But I really don’t like bein’ a brat when you’re tryin’ to teach me or give me an experience. With all the time and effort you put into plannin’ somethin’ for us, it just feels mad disrespectful to me to do that.” Clearing her throat, she rubbed between her collar bones before shrugging. “We’re there as Papi and conejita for somethin’ special. We aren’t just foolin’ around. We have other ways we do that. Papi and conejita, that part of us is very …”

Miguel knew the word she was shying away from using, which puzzled him as it was a term she had used earlier freely in their discussion about sex. “Sagrado?”

Sí. Mi Papi is so protective and considerate of me. He makes me feel…” Kandy hesitated again, but softly touched the side of his neck along the bottom half of the Santa Muerte portrait. “Atesorada.

And he very much did treasure her just as he did any time she gave over a portion of her power to facilitate the Dominant/submissive dynamic in their relationship. Both the physical and emotional aspects of their love were equally sacred to him as well. To show his gratitude for the feedback she was giving him, he leaned in close and kissed her forehead before ducking down to kiss her deeply. Slow and tender, he let them live in the kiss for a minute or so and then finally eased her back to look at her. She was blushing as he gathered her hair to the side and out of her face.

What also made him stop and consider things was the emphasis she put on valuing all that he would put into creating a scene for them both to enjoy. The more intensive things he wanted to do with her would absolutely require careful preparation, scheduling, and focus. To know that she also appreciated the more practical side of his Dominant role was another form of unexpected consideration she had for him that moved him. It never occurred to him that a submissive partner would recognize and respect the more mundane work that went into being their Dominant. She was showing him the areas where a partner should value him, which he didn’t know were just as important as the physical and sexual aspects.

“An example of what you would say instead, conejita.”

Kandy smiled at him as he stroked his palm up and down one of her shins. “On my back with my wrists tied to my ankles or in any submissive position, I’m gonna use a much softer word. I would say: ‘Thank you, Papi, for fucking my pussy.’ Or maybe somethin’ like: ‘You make my pussy feel so good, Papi.’ The other word wouldn’t feel right to me to use there. Unless you told me to.”

Bro, did you hear her? Yea. Thankin’ your ass for fuckin’ her? You know she means it, carnal. This chick with all you told her, your scars and shit. I know. You can teach her Spanish and how to cook. Wife her, fool! One step a— fuck your steps, man. Abuelita will deal with it. Why you so fuckin’ scared? All the stuff she been sayin’ and sharin’ and you still sittin’ over here actin’ like you ain’t sure? Like you don’t fuckin’ know her? Miggs, you ain’t run from nothin’ in your fuckin’ life, not some crazy army guy on angel dust with a knife at the taqu— I ran from Cali. There’s a big ass difference between runnin’ from somethin’ and runnin’ toward somethin’, cabrón.

Rather than interrupting whatever his thought process was, Kandy simply rested her head down against his shoulder and closed her eyes. Though their gifts were different, she was quite sure he’d somehow detect her if she tried to innocently peek over the fence into his thoughts. Rather than risk it, she let her body relax and her thoughts drift. Eventually, it was the warmth and weight of his hand petting her thigh that got her to return to the present.

“When would you say ‘cunt’ to me?”

One of her curved chestnut brown brows lifted slightly. “May I have permission to use the word, myself?”

No. Continúa.

“Mm. I know we kinda blur the lines, but when we’re out like this somewhere as ourselves. Maybe even at home. I might look over at you or maybe been watchin’ you for a little while and all I can think about is how much I want my man. In the kitchen, in somebody’s bathroom, in the car. I just wanna fuck. Straight up, pull my panties to the side and tell you how bad I need you to fuck my —“

“Needy cunt?”

Pulling her legs under her, she was up on her knees between his thighs and facing him. “No, my hot slick and tight —“ 

Before he could finish her sentence, her arms slid over the tops of his shoulders as she tilted his head back a bit to kiss his mouth. This was not just full of lust, but also surprisingly aggressive compared to what he was used to with her. Again, Miguel was turned on and intrigued by how she could walk the line between being more assertive in her engagement without tipping the scales over into where he felt like she was trying to switch the power exchange between them. She was showing him her hunger, her desire for him without the filter of being a submissive in the midst of her service to him. 

When she went to sit back from him, his black and white tattooed hand cupped the base of her skull and held her in place as he restarted the kiss. Deeper on this go, Kandy couldn’t contain the groan while he possessively groped and squeezed her rear. A few seconds into it, the imagery started, which somehow filtered down to Miguel as well. Though it startled them both at different points, only the pace of their kiss was affected, not the duration. They both were clearly interested in seeing what this was about and knew they needed to maintain the physical connection to do so.

For Kandy, it started as she peeked around the corner from the hallway to the living room. Miguel was sitting in a rather comfy-looking and well-worn stuffed leather reading chair. Next to him was a brass floor lamp switched on and levered over his lap to illuminate whatever book he had balanced on his ankle and opposite knee. Though he was in the far corner near the counter that split the room from the open kitchen, she could still see that most of what he was reading was text based on the reflection in his glasses. She was debating about whether to interrupt him as she rested her head against the wood side of the bookshelf that gave her partial cover.

For Miguel, his view was dominated by text and the occasional illustration of a concept. While he could pull out and recognize certain words and phrases, he was still unable to identify or remember the book. It was wholly unfamiliar to him. Whatever it was, it had to do with time, memories, and patterns of behavior — all things that were quite up his alley. Just as he was starting to get pulled into trying to find the book’s title and author, movement caught his attention and suddenly he was looking up to see that he was sitting in his living room. Across the way was Kandy with one of her legs playfully wrapped around the side of the bookcase closest to the hallway, which led back to the bedrooms. 

Pulling his glasses a little further down the bridge of his nose, he took a longer look as she stood there in one of his t-shirts with her curls piled up messily on the top of her head. Her fingers lifted from the side of the bookcase for a subtle little wave at him. When he closed the book and set it on the small circular table at his right side, she left her post and ventured over to him passing by the white-painted brick fireplace flanked by the floor-to-ceiling built-in bookshelves. Seeing that she wasn’t stopping, Miguel took his leg down giving her the space to crawl up into his lap on her knees. With her arms over the back of the chair, she greeted him with a sweet little kiss as his hands slid up her thighs to her hips to discover that she wasn’t wearing a damn thing under his shirt she had borrowed.

Kandy abruptly started laughing and broke the kiss causing the imagery to disappear as quickly as someone pulling the power cord out of the back of a television. When she finally looked up at him, Miguel was a bit annoyed she had done that as he had become quite curious about not just the book and its subject matter, but also trying to figure out when and why this moment was taking place. Playfully, she reached up and rubbed his chest beneath his tank top using that familiar slow firm pressure over the hidden tattoo. His iciness rapidly melted with every pass of her hand causing his chin to lift slightly as his eyes closed. He had no idea what it was about that form of contact, but it was so incredibly pacifying and pleasurable.

“You were about to say somethin’ to me. Wh—“

She was shaking her head before he even got the start of the question out. “Tell me where that was first. Do you know it?”

Miguel sighed and ran his hand down over the lower half of his face. “My living room.”

“Where you live now?”

He nodded. They both sat there silently considering this. Kandy had no idea what the inside of the house looked like as she had never been in it. That ruled out it being a memory or a fantasy of her imagination. That also brought up another very interesting detail. If it wasn’t something that already happened, which she was actively remembering, how was it that Miguel saw it and from his own perspective?

“How accurate was all of it?”

“I didn’t notice anything weird. Even the lampshade was the right fuckin’ color.”

“Green?”

Miguel smirked at her checking to see if what she saw was the same as what he had and also knew of the room independently. “Jade green and brass. T-shirt?”

“Mine was black, but I don’t know what was on the front. You had slippers on.” Her brows lifted slightly with a flirty smile.

“NWA T-shirt. I keep the floors clean as fuck, but I still don’t like walkin’ around on them.” He shrugged nonchalantly expecting her to tease him about it, but instead, she simply nodded. “Did you know what I was readin’?”

Kandy looked down and thought back to the time when he closed the book and moved it. “No, I never got to see the cover. But I feel like it was teachin’ you somethin’? That’s a weird fuckin’ way to say it, like it wasn’t a novel or poetry or whatever. You were readin’ it for a reason, it had specific information you wanted. You couldn’t see the words?”

“Some I could, but I’ve never seen that book before.”

“So, it hasn’t happened yet.”

Rather than addressing her hypothesis, he instead decided to distract her a bit and move her on to something else. “What were you going to say to me when you got up in my lap?”

Groaning slightly, she hid her face in her hands before peeking up over her fingers to look at him. “I wanted you to go down on me.”

“I wanna hear how you were gonna ask me, Kandajha.” His tone softened considerably when he leaned in close to her ear and whispered to her. 

He wasn’t instructing her or commanding her as Papi to do it but was asking as Miguel if she would. Even the way his hand was holding the other side of her face felt different. As she turned to look up at him to comment about the difference, she saw the deep sentimentality in his dark eyes. The imagery of her in his home had affected him to the point that he was sitting in front of her as himself and not with the protective buffer of being her Dominant. He was simply Miguel at that moment, a guy in love with the girl in his lap and still cautiously guarding his heart.

Raising herself onto her folded legs, she inched as close to him as she could get before straddling high over his thighs. He helped her out just like he had in the scene in his living room by taking a hold of her hips and steadying her as she found her preferred place to sit. Again, similarly to how she had done whenever it was in the future that she had, Kandy slipped her arms over his shoulders though this time they rested on the harsh warm concrete and not the smooth cool upholstery of his reading chair. Instead of feeling her flawless skin under his palms, he was stuck with the irritating presence of denim.

Having wrapped her fingers around the sides of his head, Kandy tenderly stroked her thumbs across her halcón’s cheekbones. “I feel like you’re gonna be disappointed.”

Miguel’s angular brows lifted. “Why you thinkin’ that, querida?”

“‘Cause, what I was gonna say wasn’t anything romantic.”

Quiet for a moment, he let his head rest back fully against the edge of the concrete and watched his little brunette before finally nodding up at her. “By whose standards it ain’t romantic?”

Seeing her grin the way she was eventually made him smile. Many aspects of their relationship from the timeline of their decision making to the type of sex the pair enjoyed did not meet whatever standard was accepted by society and certainly didn’t jive with the conventional and conservative thinking that spawned it. This was a very important part of them that they needed to make sure regularly was kept in focus just as both would need to be reminded by the other that they now had a partner who offered them a freedom of expression and identity that neither had ever previously experienced. 

Her arms carefully slid beneath his head and neck to stack together and provide him with much more comfortable support to rest back on. “I was gonna ask you…”

Out came those dimples and his mischievous smile that not only made her blush but caused her to ache for him. “Ask me what, Kandajha?”

Giggling at his playful tone, she glanced nervously behind him at the line of palm trees running the perimeter of the roundabout just beyond where they were sitting on the grass. “I was gonna ask if my Papi would please make my pretty pussy cum with his tongue.”

His hands held her down against his pelvis and she immediately noticed the effect this little slice of conversation was having on him. “What if I was busy with that book, mami? What then, huh? You musta needed me to eat you out pretty fuckin’ bad if you couldn’t wait till I was done.”

Ay, cariño, I can always sit on your face and read to you while you fuck me with that amazing tongue you have.” She had said it before she was even aware she had spoken the first word. Her fingers covered her mouth and he stared at her in surprise. 

“Wow. I should make you read poetry for that.” When she rolled her eyes, he chuckled. “I got somethin’ special for you while I’m makin’ you cum, mami.”

Clearing her throat, Kandy was doing her best to let the cooling Gulf breeze coax the red tint from her cheeks. “I bet those shelves are full aren’t they?”

A slight smirk was followed by a nod from her Scorpio as he went with the quick change in subject. “They are.”

“Quite a lot for such a short amount of time, I doubt you brought all those with you from California.” She canted her head off to the side with a smile.

“No, Irma got real strict about what I could bring. The trunk of the Mercedes ain’t as big as I thought it was.” His scarred and tattooed hands returned to their steady and relaxing stroke back and forth along her thighs. “The most important ones made the trip and I still got a couple abuelita is holdin’ for me.”

“Manny wasn’t jokin’. You probably read more in a year than I do in five.”

The corners of his mouth flickered up slightly for a weak smile that died rather quickly. “I can’t do it as much anymore.”

“Work?”

This was surprisingly difficult for him to talk about, but he cleared his throat and sat up a bit straighter. “Nah, it’s from the accident. Like if I get real tired or stressed, I can get these headaches that are crazy. Can’t read as fast or spend a lotta time doin’ it. Not like my ass got the time, but it’s still somethin’ I haven’t all the way gotten used to yet. I don’t retain shit the same. I can remember things and learn things, but I had to learn a different way of goin’ about it.”

“You’ve always been Mr. Mastermind with his order and organization.” 

When she didn’t begin to ask him invasive questions about whether he had long-term cognitive damage like most people impulsively did, Miguel relaxed and looked up at her with relief flowing through him. Equally unexpected was how it made him want to share more with her about his recovery. “Weirdest shit. I got home from the hospital and had everything organized a certain kinda way, like my books. I looked at all of it and I couldn’t find anything. Like I couldn’t understand why I did it that way. I couldn’t make sense of none of it. So I spent a fuckin’ week takin’ everything off the shelves and redoin’ it a new way. I dunno. I can’t be too pissed. That spreadsheet business is from that. Me and numbers weren’t on the best of terms before. I’m better at all that now than I ever was. It’s made the management side of work more of a real option to me.”

“When you get tired, you aren’t sure you can pull this off.”

He smirked and nodded. “I can’t deal with stress like I used to and I ain’t talkin’ about drugs and sobriety or my fuckin’ temper. Like my body trips the fuck out and it makes me slow down. If I get these deals goin’ or even just the one I was out here tryin’ to do today and I wind up not bein’ able to handle it all, I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I really can’t stay on the kitchen side of it much longer.”

The kiss she started was so loving that he very quickly got lost in it. Melting into her, he wrapped her up tight after encouraging her legs to lock around behind his lower back. Simultaneously he was glad that they were where they were, but also disappointed they weren’t at home in bed. He feared and craved the tender and compassionate love-making that he often imagined started with a kiss like this one. In those circumstances, he believed she would inevitably coax out of him a gentle yet deeply satisfying climax that also included a release of any emotions that were weighing on him. 

It was the last part and the vulnerability it required that a side of him wanted to avoid. But somehow, he also knew and accepted that a process like that was exactly what he needed not just to further his bond with Kandy, but to help himself convalesce. His brujita had been right about how he had neglected to address and to heal a part of his emotional self after starting life over in Florida. He loved how filthy she could be, her playfulness, her intelligence, her gifts, but this right here was what made him want to be tied to her for as long as he was alive — it was the way she loved him and treated him with compassion. 

Letting the kiss wind down on its own, she eventually came to nuzzle up along his jaw. “You just saw me in your house. Did we look worried?”

Lifting up her left hand and eyeing her fingers as they hooked over his, he smirked. “No.”

“Did you look sick and stressed?”

“No.”

“Okay then.” Taking his hands, she slapped them square on her rear and squeezed them so that it forced him to grope her. “Then rub on my ass like you been doin’ and stop doubtin’ where we’re goin’.”

This time Miguel laughed and kissed the side of her throat beneath her ear in that very sensitive spot he liked to target. “Is that what you think that was, us seein’ our future?”

“It’s been known to happen.”

Miguel sat back and looked up at her with a furrowed brow. “Do you ever get any more than that?”

All she could do was lift her hands and shrug. “What you see is about all I get. Usually, it’s just like a GIF worth of images, a snapshot of a conversation.”

“A what?” 

“Oh, my God, viejo. You know the animated mini clip things people cut from videos of ironic sayings or meme-worthy shit.”

“So like the dumb shit people do and say?” His brows lifted and he smirked again. “When Irma is pissed off, she only answers me with those. It’s annoyin’ as fuck.”

As Kandy sat there appreciating her Scorpio’s dreamy good looks, Miguel was pensively rubbing his chin whilst dissecting their recent experience of a shared image. With how they both knew their gifts work, he couldn’t come up with an explanation that would fit within their understanding. It definitely looked and felt like the future. And if she occasionally received small snippets like that then she was likely the source of what he was seeing as opposed to their imaginations just cobbling together some happy daydream. He wanted to understand why with her he seemed to be able to do and experience more. Was it caused by her or was it that she was waking something up inside of him? 

“What do you wanna do about Thanksgiving?”

Her voice eased him back into the present and he offered her an ache-inducing playful smile. “Well, I know we ain’t gonna be watchin’ the fuckin’ parade or goin’ shoppin’ on Friday. But you know I want you over as much as possible.”

“I know that, huh?”

“You should. How am I gonna know if I can get past the fact your ass can’t cook? I know you talk a lotta shit about that mouth, but that’s onl—“

“Stop! Fuck you, I can cook. I can! I just choose not to.”

“Yea, you choose not to kill people. Real admirable shit.” At some point during all that laughing and joking around, he caught her attention and she held his gaze. “Like I been sayin’, mami, I want you at every holiday, every dinner. Anything you wanna be at, I want you with me. And I’m real serious about that shit.”

For whatever reason, hearing that from him made her blush and she had to look away from him for a few seconds. “Do you cook on that day?”

“Fuck no! I buy Irma everything she needs and then I just supervise that shit from the living room.”

“From your chair?” Kandy smiled slightly and he nodded.

“You wanna go see your nephew that day? Is that what you meant by your little ritual, to go see him on holidays?”

“No, no. I take him to go see Zo after Halloween and then we do somethin’ for her on her birthday in November.”

His head tilted to one side as he watched his little witch become slightly unsettled about sharing the details. “Where is she?”

“Uh, we have a family crypt on the property. She’s like on the other side of the tree line down near the lake. It’s a quick walk from the poolhouse.”

“How often do you visit her?”

Kandy smiled for a moment, appreciative of how he described it. “Not as often. I try to keep the flowers decently fresh. I had wanted to do a more permanent garden attached to it. Somethin’ easier to maintain, but also an activity me and Asher could do together that doesn’t involve sittin’ in a fuckin’ mausoleum.”

“You talkin’ like you axed that idea.”

Nervously, her fingers teased the roots of her wavy hair letting the curls stack up on one side. “When my uncle started makin’ moves to sell the house, I stopped makin’ plans like that.” Seeing the look on his face, Kandy sighed and shrugged. “It’s a long story and short of movin’ her body to some fuckin’ cemetery she might just come included in the list price.”

Miguel frowned and rubbed her back. “What are you gonna do about Asher?”

His knack for remembering names got her to smile and kiss his lips. “I don’t know, mi halcón. We do other things that were special to her like go out on Julian’s boat or to the pier here to fish. I guess we can come here and have a picnic with a photo of her. This was the last place we went before she died. I’m sure she would probably be happier we were here talkin’ about her beneath a palm tree than inside a tomb.”

Despite how upsetting it was to discuss these things, Kandy was continuing to make an effort and Miguel noticed. Here and there, she had sprinkled in more references of Zo and other members of her family giving him a better understanding of both her and where she came from. With his fingers diving into her hair, he soothingly pet her scalp and let her rest her jaw on the base of his palm with a tilt of her head. 

“Is your abuelita healthy?”

Miguel chuckled. “She will outlive us all, querida. She should be the last person on your list to worry about.”

“Your mom?”

He shrugged. “Irma hasn’t said anything to me and I doubt that’s somethin’ moms could keep from tellin’ everybody who ain’t deaf.”

“I really am lookin’ forward to all of this. Bein’ with family. And cookin’, actually. So, I’d like to spend Thanksgiving with you.” When he smiled, she smiled. “Manny is a funny fucker by the way.”

“His chick is cool. You two will like each other.” Miguel watched his little witch silently as she stared at the building lines of traffic snaking around past the park, clearly deep in thought. After a minute or two, he reached for her chin and turned her face toward him. “Are you worried about Irma?”

“I think part of me is. But, I know I need to play that real cool and just give her her space.”

Back to stroking her thighs, he had to chuckle a little bit. “The universe prepared you for this shit with all the Scorpios in your fuckin’ life. You’ll be fine.”

“Oh, wait, when’s your birthday?”

Miguel sighed and turned his face up to the sky before eventually letting his eyes roll down to refocus on her. “Friday.”

“Our first date is your birthday? Papi!” Immediately her face lit up and she patted her hands together. And then some thought clicked into place in her brain and he knew what it was going by the look she gave him. “That’s why you wanna get a dress for me. You wanna enjoy unwrappin’ your present.”

He blushed and ran his palm down over his face to the front of his neck. “Maybe so, conejita.”

Papi.” 

Feeling her fingertips tease along the side of his jaw and the closeness of her mouth to his ear nearly made him shudder. “What is it, conejita?”

“I’m gonna spoil you on your birthday, Papi.”

“Yea, how you gonna do that?” He felt her legs flex around his sides prompting him to rub his hands up along her flanks beneath her t-shirt.

The cute little siren with a mane full of wild curls stared her intensely magnetic and intriguing protector down. “Suck and fuck every drop out of you.”

Without considering who might be around, he grabbed her throat and pulled her in until their faces were nearly touching. She uttered not a word but instead nuzzled the side of his nose as he watched the lust flood into her amber eyes. His hold on her melted into a loving caress and a tender pet of his thumb across her lower lip.

“You’re gonna do what?”

“I’m going to suck and fuck every drop out of my Papi.” Watching him closely, she could tell he was having a debate about something related to what she proposed. Clearing her throat, she gave him another nuzzle before reminding him of the power he would always have. “I don’t stop until my Papi commands me to.”

Occasionally, when wrapped up in his own neuroses, Miguel forgot how intuitive Kandy could be. She was playing a hunch about the source of his conflict and it was closer to the mark than he was comfortable admitting at present. Nevertheless, he was still grateful that she was so attentive to him and supportive of him as he explored his relationship to his Dominant identity with her. Though he wasn’t at a place where he wanted to discuss the details, there was a comfort in knowing that not only was she aware of what was going on to a degree, but that she also respected the privacy and space he needed regarding the matter.

He had already seen a little bit of how she framed an activity through her submissive lens, but he was curious if she would share anymore without requiring him to delve into where he was trying to stay out of for now. “And that really does turn you on?”

“What could turn me on more than pleasing my Papi to the point of exhaustion?”

Picking up one of her hands, he kissed over her knuckles. There were a couple of other things she could have mentioned or asked about, but she was unwilling to invade his boundaries to further the conversation. She knew they were temporary and when he was ready, he would circle them back around to it. Most importantly, she had successfully been able to get her point across to him with a simple answer. It might not eliminate all of his concerns, but it seemed to allay the bigger source of fear. One glance at her warm reassuring smile and his shoulders relaxed.

“It’ll be friends and family Friday. The whole block comes out. But Irma is stayin’ over at her boyfriend’s that night. So we got the house to ourselves.”

“That chair you were readin’ in looked really comfy.”

“It is.” 

In a flash, he saw her on top of him with her top off and her hands in her hair. Gripping her hips he felt how deep the rotation was as she bounced herself up and down on his length while he lounged back in his favorite piece of furniture surrounded by the books he cherished. It was when he was trying to imagine the heavenly mix of the vintage paper, leather, and the scent of her sex that she moaned in his ear causing his eyes to open. He must have been concentrating a little too much on what might happen Friday night in his living room as Kandy had begun to grind her pelvis down into his.

Carajo, conejita. I know you wanna ride my cock, mami, but damn.”

“Mm, Papi, when you sound like that it gets me into trouble.” Resting her head against the side of his, she sighed and slowly willed her lower body to stop moving against his.

“What you gonna do when I take your ass with me back to visit the barrio and all the homies and you hear how I really talk?”

Swallowing gingerly, she reached up and covered his mouth with her hand. It was the soft b-sound combined with the very distinct melodic nature of the East Los Angeles intonation that made her whimper into his neck. Taking her wrist firmly in his hand, he removed her fingers from over his lips and carefully folded her arm up behind her back, restraining her with his preferred method. Rather than struggling against the hold, she relaxed her muscles and leaned her body against his torso. 

“I said how you sound, not how you talk.” Though her clarification was with a mild-mannered tone, the cuddling beneath his ear was enough to tell him that she was still battling the ache between her thighs. “That’s not how you really talk anyway.”

Miguel chuckled and pulled her wrist down to bring her back up into a sitting position so that he could see her face. “How do I talk then?”

“We really gonna have the code switchin’ conversation while your dick is rock hard and my c—“

Up went his brows in anticipation that she was going to say one of the restricted words. “The colonizer is really gonna come at me about that? You don’t got a problem with how I sound, just with the way I talk?”

Looking up at him with those amber eyes, Kandy was stuck where she was as her arm was being held behind her in partial restraint. When she didn’t answer, he watched her quietly and then realized she was trying to figure out if he was teasing her or actually offended. She couldn’t read him and it was distressing her. Deciding to let go of her wrist, he brushed back her hair to cradle her jaw. Tenderly his thumb passed over her lower lip, but there was no reaction. Still as stone, the girl with the oddly colored eyes watched and waited. He frowned slightly having not realized how serious this hiccup in their communication was until that very moment. Seeing this register on his face, Kandy relaxed a little and kissed the pad of his thumb.

It was easy to forget they only just met. While a familiarity existed between the two, there weren’t the years of closeness that went with the emotions they had for each other. Sitting there with her hands now folded in her lap, Kandy’s feelings were hurt from her own embarrassment over thinking she had painted herself into a very uncomfortable corner. She didn’t know what to say or do to get out of it and simply sat there silently with her eyes focused over on the grass away from him. At least the decision not to speak meant the odds of her making it worse shrank.

“I was just playin’ with you, querida. Nothin’ serious.”

“I know.”

Her tone spoke volumes. Kandy hadn’t known. Despite giving her chin another little squeeze and pet, she still wouldn’t look at him. Squinting in concentration, Miguel had defaulted back to his habit of observing. She also wasn’t talking and he didn’t like that either. Rather than sitting with her in this sad silence, Miguel followed the guidelines they had discussed off and on about how to handle and resolve any conflict between them.

He gave her another affectionate pet. “Why are you upset, Kandajha?”

Even just the question hurt. The fact he noticed that it affected her and really that he even bothered to look or cared enough to find out why — all hurt. That was the very odd part about love. It could be so much like physical therapy. A limb is injured and, to compensate for it, one uses those muscles less and others more to the point that in place of the pain a type of atrophy takes over. When that same limb finally starts to be used again, it’s a painful process of stretching and rebuilding its ability. Intangible emotions mimicked the very tangible musculoskeletal layer of the body. The only way this was ever going to go away and allow her to fully enjoy these experiences with him was if she let herself feel this hurt, acknowledge it, and work through it. Otherwise, it would be like giving up on rehabilitating part of herself because of the discomfort. She would still be left crippled by it and nothing changed.

Kandy had shut down such a large part of herself in response to the disregard and diminishment of her feelings that had happened over time, perhaps more of herself than she had thought. Miguel had done something similar, but because of an entirely different reasoning. He had been trying to avoid distraction and discouragement that came with romantic endeavors. There had been no room in his life for the emotional upset of a tumultuous or failed relationship to slow him down from getting himself and his sister out of California and set up somewhere else. His reaction to experiencing Kandy’s love and compassion wasn’t like the pain she felt, but rather it was fear instead. 

You wanted a man who gave a damn. Miguel certainly gives a damn. Time for you to start giving a damn too, Kandajha. What the fuck? I give a damn. Do you? If he didn’t ask you about it, would you have voluntarily explained why you are upset? I didn’t think so. You mean “We didn’t think so.” We’re the same person. Are we? Don’t do that. If you wanna be a grown-up in a healthy relationship with an emotionally intelligent partner, talking about your feelings is a requirement. If you don’t, this will absolutely fail and you will absolutely lose him. You have a choice. You can sit here and smile the fake smile — your halcón knows it’s fake, in case you hadn’t noticed — and lie and tell him you’re fine. Or, you can be honest and explain to him what’s going on because seeing you upset upsets him also. You’re startin’ to sound like Cassandra. Why don’t you take the advice Cassandra wouldn’t? 

Kandajha sighed and rubbed the space between her collar bones for a moment as she gathered the courage to bite the bullet. “I got upset because I really wasn’t sure you were jokin’. For you to be serious and say that it would mean you’re thinkin’ some other things about me, about who I am. Not good things. That’s what upset me, that you might be thinking those things despite all that we’ve been talkin’ about.”

Miguel could tell by how detached she seemed when speaking that this was something that went deeper than just a misunderstanding and hurt feelings. He had his suspicions about it. But instead of bringing it up and potentially being wrong, he scooped up one of her hands and kissed the back of it. The eye contact between them still hadn’t returned entirely, but he felt it was another encouraging sign that she was communicating. It wasn’t easy for her and seemed like a change forced by her rather than how she might usually respond.

“What did you think I was thinkin’, mi corazón?”

Her instinct was to start shaking her head and refuse to answer, but he squeezed her hand to keep her there in the conversation. In that moment, it was also painfully obvious to Kandy that to be so gripped by this fear of him having a poor opinion of her was not just unfounded, but ridiculous. Independent of their closeness, she knew Miguel’s character and how he listened closely and processed things he learned from the questions he asked. The expectation of being received and treated a certain way was so strong that it had overridden her ability to stop and consider what she knew that would have disproved this series of assumptions she made. 

She had assumed he was being serious and not joking with her despite how flirty and playful they typically were with each other. She had assumed that despite the love and respect he had shown her today as well as how obvious it was that he was enjoying her company that he instantly believed she had meant what she said from a place of insensitivity, superiority, and disrespect. She had assumed that despite all the lovely things they were talking about, dreaming about, thinking about together that a small part of him resented or was disappointed with who her family was and the cultural identity that came with it.

“I can’t change who my mother is, who her mother is, or how they look at and treat people who are not like them. I can’t change wh–” The sudden squeeze of her heart forced her to stop and take a breath, but not before she rolled her eyes in frustration at being interrupted by her own emotions. “I can’t change where that part of me comes from, Miguel. I could straighten and bleach my hair, use the creams and stay out of the sun, do my make-up a certain kinda way, talk another kinda way, forget languages and parts of me I love so fuckin’ much, but I’ll never pass to them. There is no passin’ with people like them, Miguel.”

Even though she had laughed when he made his sarcastic quips about part of her family ties to Spain, he knew better than to continue making a joke about it having seen up close how it was truly affecting her. The playful teasing had inadvertently picked at the wound of feeling as though she would always be categorized as “other” and never truly belong or be accepted by any particular group. Though she might speak the language, prepare and eat the food, and share in traditions and practices, it never seemed like she was ever “enough” of one culture for her to feel comfortable enough to claim it. This, of course, didn’t include the unpleasant experiences with specific individuals that inevitably kicked off because of how she self-identified.

Kandy was aware of how Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, Afro-Latinos, and other groups were viewed by the people she grew up with in Spain as well as her mother’s Italian and Northern European family. And Miguel had, in fact, been concerned she had inherited a bias against Mexico or Latin America in general as it seemed to be a not uncommon issue with some of her fellow Spaniards. But his pride in and connection to his roots also fueled a desire to help his little witch heal herself from the alienation she felt and help her find her community, whichever one that turned out to be. Her disconnect did renew his appreciation for his own fairly straightforward journey of rediscovering his culture and family traditions that existed outside of the syncretism and Catholicism so loved by his grandmother and mother. That particular form of contrast in their respective spiritual paths only worked to make him even more protective of her. 

“I don’t have a problem with your mom and her family bein’ white. I got a problem with them bein’ the kind that don’t care enough to not hurt you with it. That’s not gonna be somethin’ I can hold my tongue about, querida.”

“No, I know that and I can see the difference the more we talk. I also know that if you really saw me the way I was worried about, you wouldn’t have anything to do with me. You wouldn’t be able to love me or tolerate bein’ with somebody who thought that way. Even if that somebody was me.”

“You’re right, querida. I don’t give passes on shit like that.”

“Sometimes, I gotta remember that this is different.”

He leaned in closer to her and looked deep into those amber eyes. “We, mi corazón, we are different. Not just this, but us.”

While Miguel grew up knowing he had a keen awareness for the feelings of others — to the point that it had made him a target within his own family at times — it wasn’t until he became the full-time parent of his teenage sister that he was forced to dust off that skill and begin using it in earnest. At some point, all the information he had absorbed from the mountains of parenting books he read on how to raise a teenager needed to be synthesized. From that, he, a former gang member in his then early twenties, crafted his strategy to try and not just relate to the girl he was responsible for, but also to teach her the emotional skills and tools she would need to not repeat the destructive behaviors they both witnessed growing up in their Los Angeles neighborhood. Her freshman year of high school and also their first year in Florida was one of the hardest. It was certainly important to be observant of how his tone and posture affected her, but it required additional effort for him to understand the changes he needed to make within himself to be more than just a provider. 

Irma needed love, comfort, and encouragement — three things that Miguel rarely ever experienced. It was hard to look in the mirror and see that despite the love he had for her, he didn’t naturally show it beyond providing shelter, structure, and resources. He had rescued her from living the rest of her years in that dead-end life under the rule of a mother who could barely keep her own mental health in check. But, he had to learn to decorate for the holidays, shower her with praise when she excelled in school, and be there for her with hugs when she had an overwhelming day. It had taken a lot of work to make up for the deficiency, but he felt rewarded whenever Irma reached a goal or showed her appreciation for the effort he put in for her. All the progress she made and wins she enjoyed, Miguel was right there in the audience or on the sidelines cheering for her while also quietly listening as the universe reminded him that she was a living testimony of his growth and healing as well.

This afternoon he had spent with Kandy had been magical so far in so many ways. But like before, he had been forced into seeing where he needed to put in work when interacting with all the emotions they stirred up in each other. Irma had reconnected him to his naturally sensitive nature and got the ball rolling with him learning how to be demonstrative and affectionate. For Kandy, he needed to learn how to let an equal get close enough to love and protect him in the ways he would her. There was also that matter of taking the skills he learned about being soft and receptive as a parent and adapting them to work within the new parameters of his romantic relationship with Kandy. He knew what he wanted to achieve with her and what their future should look like, but he was still figuring out how it all worked to make those things happen.

When he gently placed his hand on the back of her skull to meet him halfway for a kiss to her forehead, Kandy sighed and tenderly touched the side of his jaw with her fingertips. “I love us so much. Every part of us, Papi.”

Closing his eyes, Miguel gave himself the time to appreciate what she said. His little witch was very cautiously inching her way forward and pushing back against her very real fear of that word. Though she was working to find her own methods of communicating those feelings to him, he still felt a small wave of sadness. He replayed in his head what it was like for her to tell him that she loved him while she was floating in that warm and comfy in-between state he put her in to share her memories with him. While he hadn’t panicked when he heard it, he certainly didn’t respond the way he would have liked. Part of him was being pulled to go to the unpleasant place of wondering if he’d never hear it again from her, in any language. He quickly reminded himself of the different phrasing she had used since that instance, which seemed to be closer and closer to specifying him. 

“The colonizer thing? I ain’t gonna joke like that no more. I never wanna say nothin’ that hurts you, Kandajha.” Kissing over her ear, he whispered again. “Never, mi conejita.”

One of her arms crossed over his extensively scarred shoulders while her other wrapped low to embrace his back and the hip on the opposite side that had been destroyed in the same motorcycle accident and subsequently replaced. Finding her preferred spot on the side of his neck, she kissed the center rose that lined the base of the Santa Muerte portrait tattooed into his skin. In kind, he held her against him. It was when she closed her arms further around him and clung to his form that he felt himself teetering on the edge. It was quickly followed by her familiar relaxed sigh and affectionate cuddle. 

Miguel knew a lot of things. He knew he loved Kandy and that she loved him. He knew the milestones they were set to experience together and had a general vision of how things could go for them if they both stepped up to the plate and did the work on themselves they both needed. The logistics of joining their lives, the building of a strong foundation for the family they would create together, the business opportunities, and financial success — all of it he found to be reasonable and attainable. But the depth of love they would need to grow strong roots to support all of this intimidated him still. However, as she was becoming more comfortable with her feelings and communicating her thoughts, he could feel himself getting more than just his toes wet in the pool of emotions she regularly pulled him toward. The more she opened up, the deeper he wanted to go.

“Movie night is what helps keep you centered?” 

He nodded and went with the curious change in subject. “Gettin’ up and makin’ breakfast or sittin’ down on my days off to dinner. All that wholesome stuff helps remind me of what I got and what’s in front of me.”

“I dunno, Papi. I may not be all that wholesome.” 

Miguel slowly ran his palms down her thighs to her hips from her bent knees as they rested against his flanks. “I thought I scooped up this girl I can take home to the family and shit. But now you tellin’ me you ain’t wholesome? Damn. What the fuck am I gonna do now, huh?”

“I try to be.” Letting her mouth shift off to one side with a half-smile, Kandy nodded whilst toying now with the grey fabric of his tank top. “But there are times I just can’t help some of the things I wanna do, Papi.”

Dímelo, conejita. Tell me some of these things you can’t help, but wanna do.” Both the hand that looked like Death’s and his other wrapped in the rosary worked their way into the back pockets of her very short and very tight denim shorts to give her rear a desirous grope.

“What if I wanna warm you during movie time, Papi?” Kandy’s brows lifted as she bit her bottom lip and forced back a groan brought on by the squeezing of her curves.

Miguel flat out stared at her and then gestured with the bony pointer and middle fingers of his skeleton-looking hand for her to elaborate. “Tell me what that means to you, conejita.”

“I know my Papi knows what warming is.” Leaning around to the side just so she could whisper in his ear, her other hand came up to lightly rest against the other half of his jaw. “Can you think of a better way to watch a movie than on the couch with me under a blanket, inside me just ‘cause I wanna feel you there? The two of us wrapped up together, so relaxed and comfy? You deep in this tight and slick pussy of mine as we drift off together? Hm, can you?”

Miguel couldn’t have asked for a more perfect example of an activity he relished but never got to enjoy. In the three years Miguel had lived in Tampa, he had not brought one single woman home, not for an overnight stay and certainly not to meet his sister. Further, he never allowed any extra time during his casual encounters that could have been used to experience it. He simply hadn’t been interested in socializing with his partners, getting to know them, or really fostering any sense of emotional connection. His focus during these hookups was efficiency of satisfaction, not intimacy. 

Running his hand down over his mouth to his chin, he watched her with those mysterious brown eyes before finally chuckling and shaking his head when he realized she was being completely serious. “Eres tan traviesa.”

He wanted naughty from her, she was going to give it to him. Even if she hadn’t any prior idea of what warming was, just the way she spoke about it was arousing. It was the casual, matter-of-fact tone that somehow felt provocative yet innocent at the same time. All she wanted was to have him as close as he could be as often as he would allow. Being filled and possessed by him in the gentlest of manners was the core of her attraction to it. Perhaps the level of pleasure she derived from it elevated her interest in the activity to that of it being a fetish, but all that mattered was the pair had found another thing they both had in common. 

For him, sex was the last thing he’d associate with warming because he viewed the latter mostly as an incredibly intense way of bonding with his partner. It was one of the few activities that could fully satisfy both his possessive and affectionate sides simultaneously. He loved the idea of being inside Kandy just to be inside of her for two different reasons. The physical occupation of her, claiming her, training her body to expect and respond to him was one while the second was about being as close to her, as deeply connected to her, as possible. If Kandy had never brought it up, Miguel would have eventually introduced it into their routine at some point.

Pero muy obediente, Papi.

He smirked at the realization that this was now something he could look forward to regularly. “Kandajha…” 

“I’m happy to stretch for my Papi when he gives me every inch of him to comfort and hold.” After rubbing her palms slowly over his chest and shoulders to behind his neck, she offered him another possibility with a reference back to their conversation in the restaurant office about how he spends his Sundays. “Maybe I could be a good conejita and sit on my Papi and warm him while he pays the bills and clips his coupons.”

Around came those hands to squeeze and lift her rear a little higher into his lap when she mentioned the very particular pair of mundane tasks. Quite a contrast to what he had done in his teen years with baggies, scales, and cash. But it was one line in particular that made him shiver. The way she leaned in close and slowed the pacing of her words. It was hard not to get hung up on the “every inch” part.

Halting his thoughts, Miguel peered at her. “You’re really into it.”

With his inflection so ambiguous it left her unsure as to whether he was asking her about it, Kandy felt a bit apprehensive about sharing her reasons for liking it outright. “It totally is somethin’ I like, Papi. But you seem surprised though.”

“Maybe a little, with how you been describin’ the distance you keep from people.” After a few seconds, he arched an angular brow with faux suspicion. “Just like, huh?”

“Yea, but you’re not ‘people’, Papi.” When she laughed, he smiled and let her continue. “We both share some takes on sex that are different from most. I think a couple of those are based on what we believe exists in these experiences. But yea, it’s more than like. It’s comforting to think about. I know I’ve been sayin’ some wild shit, but keepin’ it all the way real, I just wanna have you inside. That’s why I’ve been pushin’ about goin’ to the car.”

Watching as she looked away from him on account of the shyness caused by her admission, Miguel reached up and gently brushed her hair back so that he could see both her face and neck unobstructed. “Only reason we ain’t in the back of the Benz is ‘cause I don’t think either of us is in the right mindset to have self-control. It’s like back in the office, I didn’t want that to be our first time together.”

“You want us home.”

He nodded slowly. “I want us home.”

Thinking about the emphasis he placed on it and also how protective she was over who she allowed across the threshold, Kandy had to smile a little. “I want us home too.”

Seeing the shift in her demeanor, he wondered what had changed inside just before she spoke. Tilting his head slightly, Miguel squinted and continued with his silent observation as she looked out over the park allowing the breeze to blow her hair back lazily from her eyes. He liked to assume it was one more step she took in admitting and growing comfortable with her feelings for him. After all, they weren’t a romp or a one-nighter or a fling. This was serious and required serious consideration.

He rubbed her flanks and occasionally squeezed her hips, very clearly pleased with how much ground they were covering and the momentum they still had. “You used the word ritual.”

Her brows lifted until she understood his reference to the part of their conversation over lunch that had to do with what she thought his mindset about sex might be like. “I did.” 

“You ever feel somethin’ strong like this when you were messin’ around with somebody? Like in the moment with them?”

Kandy kept her smile contained and shook her head. “Of course not.”

The answer she gave was so quick and definitive, Miguel smirked. “Of course not?”

Her shoulders shrugged nonchalantly. “I’ve been waitin’ for you, Papi.”

“Kandajha.”

“You better not be about to say that we weren’t waitin’ for each other. Just ‘cause part of me wasn’t conscious to it doesn’t mean the rest of me wasn’t seekin’ you out, Papi. You were prayin’ to find me, too.”

“I don’t think either one of us did much waitin’, querida.”

Kandy rolled her eyes and folded her arms behind his neck bringing them closer together, which made him smile a little. “Name one chick you fell for out here, introduced to Irma, lived with, proposed to, married, had kids with. Any of those things? Cooked for her at home? Held her hand when she was scared? Asked her a million questions just to make sure all of this was real and legit and not some hopeful romantic fantasy to end the loneliness.”

When his smile quickly disappeared, the brunette knew she inadvertently hit one of those sensitive spots he also had. “Papi, I don’t care if you took down a hundred chicks before I got in your car on that stupid ass bridge.”

Teasing her a little, he let his angular brows tilt in faux awkwardness. “A hundred?”

“I don’t care if it was a thousand.”

He chuckled at her revised statement taking note of how quickly she pulled him up from those unpleasant feelings connected with the loneliness he had battled before meeting her. “Why not, mi corazón?”

“‘Cause, I will get to see, know, and experience the parts of you you keep away from everybody else and I will love them all. And the reverse is just as true. There are things we will do only with each other, things we will share only with each other through the devotion we will only have for each other.”

Miguel took in a slow breath as he closed his eyes and tilted his head back before squeezing her hips. “Kandajha.”

“My answers aren’t gonna change, Miguel. There aren’t gonna be inconsistencies you’re checkin’ for ‘cause these are my real answers and what I believe. So you can put me into a dozen varieties of the same situation, but you’re gonna get the same response. I’m not some chick tryin’ to read you and tell you what you wanna hear.”

“I know you love me, querida.”

“Good.”

He straightened up and looked at her with his brow furrowed out of frustration. “You and the issue you got sayin’ that word ain’t the nervous shit I feel from you is it? There’s somethin’ else.”

As interested as she was in delving deeper into how and what he was getting from her, his question was too important. “I feel like there’s no real way I can hide what I am from your grandmother.”

Though it upset him that she felt the need to conceal who she was, it was accurate. “We’ll figure somethin’ out, mi brujita.”

“That pet name for me is one you can never say in front of her. I know you know that.” Kandy looked down as the possibility of any type of rejection by the woman began to infect her mood. “Even if it turns out I don’t do any of the horrible things people come to her to reverse and I might even can do some of the things she does to help people. None of those details would matter ‘cause of that word and what’s associated with it.”

Having fallen silent, Miguel pensively rubbed her thighs before bringing his dark eyes back to focus on her from the rolling waves coming in onto the beach on the other side of the park. “Does me callin’ you that bother you?”

Sensing that his question was tied to similar feelings he had when realizing the joke he made about her Andalusian upbringing had upset her, Kandy quickly began shaking her head. “No, no. I know you say it with affection and it’s somethin’ you love about me.”

“Is that what you say you are?”

Her brows popped and her shoulders shrugged as she considered his question. “Like in your culture, a lot of mine don’t respect that word. Or it’s worse than that, the reaction to it. It implies evil or malevolence. On the Italian side, like the Moroccan, that word is for somebody who does harmful workings while there is a particular class set aside for those who do blessings, healings, and curing work. Other than praying for someone to land a job they want or for — for somebody to have a favorable medical result or to recover quickly from being ill, my practice doesn’t include others. I certainly don’t ask or take money for the rare thing I do for someone’s benefit. Most times I don’t even tell them I’m doin’ it.”

When she gave him the same style of non-answer answer that she had when he asked about how she responded to questions about her racial and cultural identity, he frowned slightly. “You avoid the fuckin’ question as much as you can.”

“Basically.” Feeling like that wasn’t enough for him, Kandy shifted her weight and brushed her hair off to one side. “If I’m talkin’ to somebody and I know them well and know they got a similar practice or whatever, whatever, whatever, then yea, I use that word. I don’t heal anybody. I don’t cure anybody. As selfish as it sounds, most of what I do is about workin’ on myself and makin’ myself better.”

He wasn’t going to challenge what she said as it was probably fairly accurate. Figuring out how to present her to his grandmother was going to be crucial. There wasn’t going to be any hiding of Kandy’s gifts as she’d feel them the moment Kandy entered the room, possibly even the house. Despite the kindness present in his little witch, it would ultimately be the way she thought of and identified herself that would be the basis on which his grandmother would measure and judge her. Terminology would be very important going forward.

“You got anybody in your life you share this with?”

“My best friend is —“ Kandy paused for a moment to consider her words. “Catholic-adjacent. She will come with me to botánicas or if I have a problem with somebody somewhere, she’ll get for me what I need. She’s the one who has helped me a lot with reclaimin’ that word and sorta makin’ me more comfortable with how I identify myself.”

Miguel smirked slightly. “I’m not my grandmother, querida. She’s thousands of miles away. So why you still holdin’ back with me?”

“Habit maybe, I dunno. Maybe because I was raised by a very traditional Muslim man who fell in love with a witch. I saw how abusive and controlling my grandfather could be toward my grandmother. Those same gifts he enjoyed privately, he publicly shamed her for if someone drew attention to them.”

“No fuckin’ way am I a traditional man, Kandajha. I may be old school on integrity and honesty, shit like that, but I got no loyalty to that fucker with his jewels and his stupid ass hat and slippers.”

“Wow.” Kandy’s brows raised as she laughed. After a moment, her tone softened as she watched him. “This is more than about your mother’s relationship with the church.”

Again, he found himself on the edge of having a conversation he knew they needed to have but wasn’t sure whether it was the right timing. Kandy could see by his facial expressions alone that he was going back and forth again. The truth of it was that he knew it was the right timing because they had naturally found themselves at the place to have it. What he was truly feeling was his own reluctance to discuss the matter. Reaching up to gently run his fingers across a section of her curls, his brown eyes focused in on one perfectly curled ringlet as it sprung back up into shape after feeling the lightweight of his touch. 

“My beef with them is more than about my mentally ill mother.”

“I feel like you wanna tell me.”

Miguel ran a hand up around the back of his neck before shrugging. “I do. It’s very fuckin’ necessary.”

“Okay, so why are you pumpin’ the brakes?” When she saw his concerned look, Kandy immediately placed her hands on his chest and gave him a little rub. “Miggy, I may be somebody who still hides behind syncretism, but I’m not gonna sit here and defend the Church to you. Or any religious organization for that matter.”

The tension in his muscles began to dissipate and his shoulders slowly lowered back into a more relaxed position. “It’s almost 2020 and most of us are still brainwashed by these fuckin’ jokers. We still here givin’ all our money and time to a corporation hidin’ behind an altar run by assholes who abuse, neglect, and mistreat us. We just sittin’ here acceptin’ some gospel taught by the fuckers who destroyed our culture, our religion, our connection to the land we came from. They banned us from using what we knew. They fuckin’ annihilated us. Yet we still over here bowin’ to them. Fuck them.”

Kandy’s assumptions about what he was going to say weren’t too far off, but still, she took a minute to consider how to acknowledge his views. “I’m never gonna know what that’s like — the generations and generations of trauma rooted in colonization. And I get that I’m probably never gonna know what it’s like to be part of a group of people so fuckin’ vilified, but used on a regular basis as people from Mexico. Sometimes, maybe I’m given a taste of that when somebody sees my name or on the super fuckin’ rare occasion someone picks up on somethin’ about Morocco or the Muslim side of my family — a side that is problematic and complicated for me in different ways. But, I’ve never turned on the news and seen kids from my country, the country where my family has its deepest roots, in cages. Most of my family bloodline probably participated in a lot of that, on both sides. I would also say that some people in my family still mistreat, appropriate, and extort other groups for their financial or social gain even now. But that’s not who I want to be or who I want my children to be.”

Those deep dark eyes of his shot up to meet her amber set. Though she could feel the heat in his gaze, she wasn’t able to get a fix on what those flames were burning from or for. Not feeling the tension rebuilding, Kandy opted to interpret his unreadable state as him simply wanting a bit of privacy to work out whatever was floating in his head. Miguel knew his views on politics often intimidated others especially when the conversation turned specifically to issues relating to the treatment of indigenous people up and down the continent. He was doing his best to firewall his emotions from her so that he could see what she truly thought about those social concerns that served as motivation for a fair amount of the plans he had for the future.

“The spiritual colonization is still goin’ on, querida. It’s evil as fuck for these rich churches to fly over in their planes to another country and bribe the people into converting to their fuckin’ religion just to get clean water and supplies. The culture, the customs, the history, the tradition, all that gets traded just to survive. I ain’t mad at those people ‘cause they don’t want their kids to starve to death or die from disease. But them schools that get built for those kids, what’s it teachin’ them? Sure as fuck ain’t what their elders would pass down. That’s the deal they’re offered and the trade they make. But how fuckin’ fair is that shit when really they got a gun to their head?” 

Staring back at him without any hint of awkwardness about the topics he was bringing up, Kandy shrugged. “It’s about as fair as chargin’ six hundred dollars for a medicine that costs five dollars to make but can prevent the unnecessary death of thousands. Corporations and organizations like that know what the average yearly income for families in those countries are. They sure as shit aren’t pricing it for those markets.”

Miguel’s scarred and tattooed hands moved up her bare thighs, around her denim-wrapped hips, and snuck down into the pockets of her low-rise shorts so that he could cup her rear. Kandy did her best to keep her composure, but the groping felt so good she almost let her eyes close. It was pretty obvious he was liking what he was hearing from her so much so that she found herself wondering if he had started having the same thought about her as she was currently for him.

Querida, how many families you think they could feed for a year if they didn’t have to pay all that settlement money to the kids they knew were gettin’ abused? Like if they actually stepped in and got rid of those fuckin’ pedophiles instead? How much does it cost every fuckin’ year to run the retreats to try and rehabilitate those fuckers before they send them back out there to mess up another group of kids? How many months of rent or power bills could be paid? How many scholarships to a trade school or sessions of therapy and rehab could they pick up the tab for? They can talk all that shit about Godly principles, but look where they put their fuckin’ money.” 

His energy was so present and all around them that she wound up looking away just to try to hide her smile from him. It was so intense and vital like it had been in the car when she was on top of him for the first time and then in the restaurant when they were flirting. In its strongest form, the sensation was like he somehow was able to touch her in all places at the same time, a kind of blanket of contact that could either be soothing or incredibly arousing.

“A lot of the intervention and probation programs here, at least the big ones, are faith-based even if they say they aren’t. Same mechanism as bibles for food and bibles for medicine.”

“Bibles for freedom.” He nodded and removed his hands from the pockets of her shorts just so he could curve his fingers further down and rub her rear as the groping resumed. “We got kids starvin’, dealin’ drugs, deep in the life while they out here rollin’ up in their Bentleys like they’re in some pinche rap video. They the hyenas runnin’ the biggest scam on the fuckin’ poorest of the poor. They get every last fuckin’ penny they can out these people sayin’ how it’s sowin’ prosperity for them to give like they ain’t in poverty.”

It was his passion and outrage over the imbalance of power and corruption that made her love Miguel even more. With him sharing more of the context of his feelings about wealth and influence, she was less and less concerned about the initial conflict they had over her family. While they likely wouldn’t escape his scrutiny, she felt less worried that he was seeing her as a product of their problematic lifestyle. Again, there was this feeling that there was so much more to him and what he had planned than what he was sharing with her. Despite being very excited to learn about all of it, Kandy wasn’t going to press him. She wanted him to ask all the questions he needed to ask and to have all the information he wanted to have in order to be comfortable enough to share everything with her. 

Though she was familiar with it on a significantly smaller scale, Kandy struggled to imagine what it was like to be at odds with and call out an entity that was everywhere. Catholicism was deeply interwoven into his cultural identity as a Mexican-American. It permeated nearly every street in his neighborhood. Most cars rolling down the block had either a cross, rosary, saint’s medallion, or some symbol affixed to the back window or bumper. Added to this was being caught in the middle of two different spiritual extremes, his mother’s near fanaticism of traditional catholic values on one side and his grandmother’s curanderismo practice on the other.

“Miggy, there is part of me that’s mad envious that you got somebody — your grandmother — who fully lives that magical life, who openly practices a very specific tradition, and taught you directly what she could. It’s in your blood. It’s your family history. It’s your culture. All that is so beautiful to me. I respect the kind of purity that experience has to it and I know you do too.” Kandy took a breath and tapped the space in between her collar bones for a moment. “Even with your mom doin’ her interferin’, it still had to have been wonderful to have access to your abuelita’s books and to watch her work.”

His hands left her rear and traveled up beneath her A Tribe Called Quest t-shirt to rub along her back as he learned more of how she communicated things by sharing other thoughts and feelings. “You don’t feel like you got any of that from yours?”

“There were times I thought she wanted to teach me those things, to keep those traditions alive. Our relationship really changed when my grandfather got sick for the last time. We were strugglin’ seriously and I think she was lookin’ to bring me into it to earn some extra cash.”

“Doin’ what, mi brujita?”

With a sigh, she shrugged. “He wound up dyin’ before any of that could happen. But I’ve always been very good at cards. It’s a quick money maker.”

Tilting his head with curiosity, he nodded over toward her bag that had the book on the Rider-Waite tarot in it. “Did you read a different type of deck?”

Kandy shifted uncomfortably in his lap and at first pulled her hands away from his chest, but returned them to their position after a reconsidering. “When I was a kid, the cards were a cover. I didn’t know anything about the images and symbols on any of them. Never bothered to learn about it beyond pretending to listen when my grandmother would go on about symbolism and correspondences. I read the people instead. The messages I got from whoever, I just passed along to them. My grandmother figured it out and I got in trouble.”

“What was your punishment?”

Caught completely off guard by the question, the little brunette scoffed and laughed. When she saw he was serious about knowing, she shook her head in protest. Miguel remained quiet and patiently waited for her to ease into the idea of sharing it with him. While she might have noticed if he had been sifting through her memories, Kandy was coming to accept that Miguel was rather talented at reading her in his own way. She could tell he had a theory about it and wanted to know how close to the mark he was about it. Something else was popping into her thoughts about it though, which made her smirk. It would have been very upsetting if he had, on his own accord and unknowingly, similarly punished her during a scene. 

“She would ignore me. I was dead as she would say for whatever time she needed to get past whatever I did.” Taking in a very slow, but deep breath, Kandy let the salty air fill her lungs forcing out the upset that had been brought to the surface. “No food, no help. I could cry, did cry. No response. Like it didn’t even register I was in the room. As I got older — the card thing happened when I was twelve — she started puttin’ me out of the house overnight.”

Hearing the familiar detached tone as well as the details themselves of what the punishment was like both saddened and angered Miguel. “Where did you go? Did you go to a neighbor’s?”

Kandy laughed a short and artificial laugh that had he not known her as well as he did, Miguel might’ve mistaken it like everyone else for one that was genuine and elegant in the way it caused her head to lift slightly and her curls to shift back off her shoulders. “No way. And let the gossip anger her? There were a couple places I learned to go. There was a church down toward the center of our neighborhood and it was like fifty-fifty on whether I got there before the doors got locked. I’d sleep under a back row of pews or in a booth. Wherever nobody would look. The other half of the time, I just went to the beach. Tourist season, I could do shit work on a busy night at a restaurant for a plate of whatever was leftover. They didn’t have to pay money and they were gonna throw out whatever it was anyway. Most places closed around ten or eleven at night. A couple at midnight. I’d go around and work my ass off till I was exhausted and go sleep on the beach or wherever I could for however long till the sun came up. Eventually, I got smart though and found the spare set of keys to my grandfather’s Mercedes. My grandmother hated drivin’ it ‘cause it was so big compared to the little SEAT hatchback they had. I’d go do my work, collect my food, and then when I was sure she was asleep, I’d unlock and climb into the back of the Mercedes to sleep.”

He stared at her and she sighed again looking out over the park, letting the breeze sweeping in from the gulf wash over her skin. It was something she found to be rather embarrassing now that she was older and understood better the long-lasting ramifications of that kind of treatment. Without having to ask, Kandy leaned forward to snuggle into Miguel’s neck for comfort. He had been quietly waiting for the moment when she would seek out her favorite place to hide her face from the rest of the world. Once he felt her cuddle against the Santa Muerte portrait and sigh with relief, he wrapped his arms around her to keep her securely in place.

“Don’t be mad at her, Papi. She was a woman who always had to lie about who she was or had to change to be something else. French, rather than Arabic. Spanish, rather than Moroccan. Catholic instead of whatever she really was in her heart. And then, after all of that, she converted to marry the Muslim man she loved, who was taken from her way too soon. The one child she had abandoned her.”

Miguel felt her cling to him even tighter and he kissed the top of her head. As much as he wanted to correct her to regard herself as more of a daughter to her grandmother than her father had been a son, he instead sighed and held her. He had never met her father or grandmother and to speak for them by manufacturing a bond that may or may not exist from their side might cause more upset in the long term. There was also that part of him inside that knew while she would appreciate his effort she wouldn’t believe what he’d want her to.

“That’s not gonna be our story either, querida.” 

Episodes

To read other entries in the Kandy and Miguel series, please click here or begin with the Kandy and Miguel: Intro post.

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