Actions

Work Header

when i was older

Work Text:

When Carla was born she’s sure the first thing her mother did was unravel the hospital blanket she was swaddled in to scour her body for her mark. 

If she were any other child her mother would have simply cradled her in her arms, held her close to her chest. She would have smiled down at her unbelievably small face. She would have kissed her on the cheek, the forehead, and her father would have been right there beside her, the biggest grin curling his lips as they looked upon her together. If she were any other child, he would have done that and more. He would not have spent the entirety of her birth out in the corridor on a business call that just couldn’t wait, but—well.

They are who they are, and Carla is who she is. She’s the daughter of a marchioness, the daughter of old money. Prestige runs in her blood and destiny, by default of that, is stamped onto her skin.

And learning to laugh in the face of destiny? Well, that’s her very first memory. Her first lesson, if you will. 

(The first in a line of far too many, but never let it be said that Teodoro Rosón ever passed up an opportunity to teach a lesson whether the recipient asked or deserved it.)

“Destiny is a game of chess and we are to serve as nothing more than its pawns,” her father tells her, face stern and cold, voice entitled and embittered. At four years old, Carla is impressionable. She’s daddy’s little girl, and so she hangs onto his every word. “What an insult. Who are we to let it dictate us? We’re not the ants, the grubs, the ones groveling at another’s feet. We are kings. We bow to no one. Nothing. Understand, darling?”

She has no choice but to understand—it’s a mantra that’s been instilled in her since day one, just like her grandparents bestowed it onto her mother and father and just like she knows Lu’s parents have grilled it into her. Guzmán and Marina don’t have marks of their own: they have their parents’ money, love, and affection, but they don’t have their blood and they don’t have this generational thing every other one of Carla’s people seem to have. Still, Guzmán also understands. Just like the rest of them, he spits in the face of destiny.

Marina, because she does so in all things, is the one who questions.

“What does it feel like?”

They’re lounging outside near the pool, enjoying the last moments of summer before the upcoming school year comes to suck it dry, and it’s nice—that is, up until Marina opens her mouth. Carla freezes where she’s tying up her hair, resisting the urge to immediately drop her hand and hide her wrist out of sight. Instead she does it naturally, gracefully; two qualities so integral to her that everyone tends to forget most children should be the exact opposite. 

(She is not most children. If she was—)

“Does it hurt?” Marina continues when she doesn’t get an immediate response. 

“No.” An inadequate answer to a loaded question, but Carla supposes it’s true enough in the way Marina meant it. It’s still not short enough to get her best friend to drop the topic, but then again almost nothing and no one can make Marina release a bone once she’s got it locked between her teeth. 

“I saw my mom’s once.” She’s got that wide-eyed and curious look on her face, the one she always has right before she gets Carla into trouble. “Just above her hip. It was a name, but not my dad’s name.”

Carla doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t think about how she’s still too young and how her mark is still just that, a birthmark, and hasn’t formed its own unique curves and edges yet. She doesn’t think about how she saw her own mother’s mark once either, how it said Patricio and not Teodoro where it was printed neatly over the top of her foot

What she does think about are her father’s words, forever burned into her brain.

“I don’t know, I just think it would be nice,” says Marina, unaware of Carla’s ice cold silence beside her, resilient even with the attention of the sun hanging overhead. “I wish I had one. I wish the people who didn’t want theirs could give them away.”

Carla ignores the itch that suddenly manifests in her mark, flexing the fingers on her right hand— 

“It seems like such a waste,” Marina sighs. 

—and closes it back into a fist, nails digging into the meat of her palm. 

“You don’t need some stupid mark to tell you who to fall in love with,” she snaps, voice knife-sharp, her sudden anger uncontrolled and making her words cut deep. Marina narrows her eyes—her skin may lack what the rest of them have branded into theirs, but it’s just as thick. Carla can sense the argument in the air, can see it formulating on Marina’s tongue, and she gets up before her friend can speak it, forcing a casual smile on her face. “Come on, let’s go inside. I’m hungry.”

They have pancakes for lunch, drowned in so much syrup that it distracts the both of them well into the night. They read magazines in Carla’s bedroom and sing at the top of their lungs and jump on her bed, competing to see whose fingers can come the closest to grazing the ceiling. Carla laughs so hard her stomach hurts, and still that day she makes the decision to hang out with Marina less and less from then on out, until she is no longer a fixture in Carla’s home, until they pass each other in the halls at school with little more than small smiles and awkward waves, until they’re no longer friends at all.

After, Lu is there in her stead.

Lu prefers Cosmopolitan and Vogue over the trashy teenage heartthrob issues Marina used to bring to her house in bunches, the kind filled with posters and quizzes. Lu hasn’t had a pancake since she was still learning her second language and she certainly doesn’t jump on any sort of furniture, let alone beds.

But she also doesn’t ask silly questions that she couldn’t possibly begin to understand the answers to, and for now that’s all that matters.

*

(She tells him Lu is fun, less intense, and if her heartbeat could utter a single word it would be liar, liar, liar, chanting in rhythm with the way her mark pulses every time they’re in the same room.

She lets herself believe that the muffled noise of the club’s music is enough to drown it out.)

*

Carla doesn’t care about the arrival of the new students.

It’s not in the same way that Guzmán doesn’t care about them (in that he does), and not in the way that Polo doesn’t care about them just because Guzmán doesn’t care about them. She isn’t like Lu either, who views any new and unfamiliar presence in their lives as an automatic personal threat that must be immediately ground into dust beneath the red sole of her Louboutin. 

No, if anything Carla’s most like Ander, who seems to have no opinion either way. She simply does not care.

And because she doesn’t care, she wakes up that Monday morning as if nothing is different. She does her makeup and hair, she gets dressed, she goes downstairs for breakfast. Her father drives her to school like always, except the usually quiet ride is interrupted with a brief attempt by him at sounding sympathetic for the three kids whose school collapsed around them without warning.

Carla isn’t stupid—her father, somewhere beneath all his speeches and lessons, is aware of that. He raised her to be like him, after all, and so she knows perfectly well why Ventura was so quick to fund those scholarships. But the Rosóns have never been the sort of family to say things that are just as easily known unsaid; actions above words and all that.

So she hums, noncommittal but acknowledging, and doesn’t say any more. When they pull up to Las Encinas he tells her to have a good day and she kisses him on the cheek. It’s just another Monday morning.

Lu falls into step with her on the bridge, routinely complaining about her weekend and, by extension, Guzmán, and Carla listens up until they find him standing at his locker, face pinched into hard lines. He and his anger are Lu’s problem and not Carla’s, however, so she ditches the pair for Polo, smiling into the kiss she leans up on her toes to give him. 

They catch up about what they did over the weekend as if they didn’t spend at least half of it together and the other half texting when they weren’t. She tells Polo that the new students are no big deal, pointedly rolling her eyes at where she can see Guzmán’s tense jaw and Lu’s hand on his cheek a few feet away. 

“Have you thought about what I suggested?”

She plays with the lapel of his blazer, looking up at him from under her eyelashes. “I have.”

“And?”

“And what?” She tries for coy, knows she succeeds.

“Guzmán said two of the new students are guys,” Polo mutters, as if worried his friend is going to hear and whirl around on him. It still doesn’t take away from the poorly concealed excitement in his voice. “We could pick one of them, maybe.”

“Hm,” she says, actually thinking about it for his sake, for their sake, “let’s wait and see.”

He smiles, bright and wide, before abruptly leaning down to kiss her again. The first bell rings and they set off for class, Carla leading him by the hand.  

It’s just another Monday morning.

*

Martín has them introduce themselves, one by one. The boy whose eyes haven’t stopped following her since he first waltzed into the classroom is funny—a little loud, but a little cute. Flashy. Even as Polo joins Guzmán in laughing at him, he shoots her an interested glance, his eyes gleaming meaningfully. The girl has aspirations and it’s clear she’ll stop at almost nothing to achieve them, reminding her of Lu in that regard if Lu was naïve and ninety-nine percent less of a bitch. She has a sneaking suspicion Lu might have trouble steamrolling her like she does everyone else, but that has never been Carla’s thing.

The other boy is more subdued. She can see it even before he speaks: it’s in his eyes, perhaps, the way he blinks at his picture sliding onto the screen at the front of the room like he’s only now realizing what the rest of them already know. He doesn’t stand for his introduction, doesn’t even sit up straight, but he does lift his head to look them all in the eye and do what hardly anybody else in this school is brave enough to do, which is speak the truth. 

All in all an interesting start to her otherwise normal Monday morning. It’s still not enough to get Carla to care

Then the mouthy one calls him Samu half an hour into their lesson and Carla, with the four little letters so tidily concealed beneath the strap of her watch burning like a hot brand, nearly cracks her pencil in half. 

*

Carla had been twelve when her mark finally shifted. 

She didn’t see it happen. She wasn’t even completely sure it hadn’t been like that for a while because oftentimes she forgot it was even there by sheer lack of interest, but at the same time she knew that wasn’t true. It was like a heaviness in her shoulders even as her ribs felt instantaneously light. She had just known, and something compelled her to set down the book she had been reading and turn her wrist beneath the soft light emanating from her bedside lamp.

She remembers how odd it had been to suddenly discover that a small part of her still expected her mark to just stay a dark, misshapen stain forever; a blip on her body and mind that she could eventually just forget about if she tried hard enough. What was worse was that when she looked upon what was now lying there, all the contempt she had regarded her mark with up until that point was suddenly nowhere to be found. All she had felt was nothing at all. Astoundingly empty. 

What was worse, perhaps, was the sudden urge she had gotten to call Marina.

It had come from the small, childish part of her that felt as if she should tell someone, surely, like when something monumental happens and you tell your mother or best friend. Like when you go through puberty, or when you have your first kiss, but her mother was busy with the wineries, like always, and Lu… Lu wouldn’t have understood, because Lu wasn’t the girl who sat with her at the poolside and yearned for something she had no idea what she was asking for. 

Carla had instantly reminded herself that that was the point, and so she stared at her mark for no longer than a second more before turning off her lamp and going to bed. 

The very next day she had told Polo she wanted to make their relationship official. It had nothing to do with stupid soulmates or that wistful look Marina used to get on her face whenever she saw Carla’s mark, because the four letters that were now sitting on the inside of her wrist were not the same four that spelled out Polo’s name.

Fuck destiny, Carla had thought back then, I am nobody’s pawn.

*

She refuses to call Samuel by his nickname, the one that Christian shouts through the halls, the one Nadia whispers in class. She refuses to turn the spark on her wrist into a flame—in fact, it’s just easier to avoid speaking to him altogether, so she doesn’t. This thing she has with Christian and Polo is a great distraction. It’s new, it’s working, it’s fun, and Carla finds herself hardly thinking about anything else at all these days.  

And then Polo fucks it up, and her father’s watch goes missing. 

In the end, it shouldn’t surprise her that Marina has something to do with it. There were warning signs—why would she want to reconnect after all these years?—but most of all, it’s simply always been in Marina’s nature to rebel against her own people and everything they know. If her own family weren’t the victims in this, maybe part of Carla could have found comfort in knowing that, despite it all, Marina hasn’t really changed. 

As it is she recoils from Marina’s touch when she walks over to help zip up her dress in the locker room, glaring at the sullen, pale face of her childhood best friend. No, Marina hasn’t changed at all, and still in this moment Carla can’t help but think that they are total strangers, exchanging hushed threats and biting insults in a room full of girls who are none the wiser. 

Marina reaches for her again, tight like a vice, and pulls her closer just so she can get that final word in. Carla doesn’t hear it—she’s already planning to get that fucking watch back; knows that it has to be here, and knows just who to ask for help. She won’t let Marina and her thieving boyfriend control them. Control her.

(We are not the ants, the grubs, the ones groveling at another’s feet.)

It happens fast—Marina loosens her grip just enough to turn Carla’s wrist over in her hand, glancing down at what she has known is there since they were both little girls. 

(We are kings.)

Carla yanks her arm back, but not before Marina sees the four letters and everything that they mean. Marina’s lips part, shocked for the briefest of moments, before she rolls her tongue behind her bottom lip in a bitter movement and narrows her eyes. The laugh she lets out is dry and humorless. It’s spiteful. 

(We bow to no one.)

“Nobody in this fucking place deserves him, not even me,” Marina hisses, “but especially not you.”

(Nothing.)

Carla echoes her laugh, but the smile she wears as she leans in is sharper, colder, deadlier, and in no way blunted by a nostalgic soft spot for the love they once shared between them. 

(Understand, darling?)

“It’s cute of you to think I even want him,” she says, right before she walks away. 

*

Croatia passes by in a blur. Her phone receives a never ending string of texts from both Polo and Lu, but she avoids them almost as much as sleep avoids her. Still, the insomnia is probably for the best. She doesn’t need to dream about summers by the pool or laughter in her bedroom or the blood on her hands because she’s reminded of every bit of it whenever Christian looks at her, eyes unfocused and soulless like he isn’t really seeing her at all.

Sometimes, though—sometimes she swears he does, swears they flash with what she can only think to describe as contempt in its purest form.

Sometimes she doesn’t blame him.

*

Hating destiny and its grasp on them is always something Carla has done blindly, without question. She’s starting to think that maybe she’s right to if all of this is the price to pay. 

Because destiny is a tricky thing. Evil, maybe, if it’s what caused Christian’s accident; cruel, definitely, since it puts her in this cramped elevator with Samuel, every drop of blood in her body feeling like it’s being pulled in the direction of the black hole hidden beneath the sleeve of her blazer. It smells like decade-old hospital paneling and his cologne in here, both musky and earthy scents in their own right, and both equally overwhelming. Most of all, it’s just too warm. She doesn’t know if that’s circumstantial or just a side effect that she’ll never be able to escape so long as they’re near one another, but she does know that it could drive her insane if she let it.  

Then again, anything could nowadays. Something she’s reminded of when they’re finally allowed in to see Christian and he all but spits in her face.

She knows it’s pointless, that there are no amount of apologies that could make up for what she’s gotten him into, but she wants to tell him that she’s sorry anyway. She wants to tell him that she never wanted this to happen to him; that she does care about him. 

She wishes that he’d believe her.

Later, after they’ve all eventually crumbled underneath her father’s advice to just go home, she stands under the shower spray in her bathroom until she no longer feels vile, scrubbing her skin of everything—of her last conversation with Marina, of Polo and what he did, of what she knows in the pit of her stomach her father is up to with this Switzerland thing and why—until she’s completely red and raw. She washes away the tears and the smell of hospital disinfectant, the smell of department store cologne. The look she felt Samuel boring into the back of her skull as Christian glared at her from his hospital bed, finger in the air.

She stays there until it’s just her and this fucking mark, destiny’s curse rooted in her skin, and she wants to laugh, or cry some more, or claw at her wrist until the name bleeds off of her in inky black droplets and washes down the drain along with everything else. It’s a notion as hopeless as ever, she knows, and just as weak. But as she suddenly realizes she’s sitting on the shower floor and no longer standing, she finds herself not caring. At least for a little bit.

It’s a reprieve she cuts off prematurely, even if the idea of staying here until she drowns is the only thing she’s looked forward to in months. She picks herself up, towels herself dry, and pulls on her sleepwear before her mother finally wanders into her bedroom a few minutes later, dark eyes clouded with worry—though perhaps worry isn’t even the right word; her mother perches on the edge of Carla’s bed stiffly, and only after a few seconds of hovering where she was probably debating whether to sit at all. No, perhaps the word isn’t worry, but uncertainty: uncertain of what to make of this whole thing and uncertain of what to say.

They’ve never been a family full of words, it’s true. Carla wonders if that’s because it’s simply easier for them to not say anything at all.

She’s tired of it.

“Dad seems to have a solution for everything,” she finds herself saying into the hollow shell of her bedroom, not quite managing to keep the bitterness in her voice from following it. Her mother looks at her for a long moment, then seems to decide it’s just grief, nothing more.

“It was simply a fortunate coincidence that your father has connections there.” Fortunate. Coincidence. Her mother is missing the mark far and wide. “No one deserves what happened to Christian, least of all someone so young. At least he’s alive, but… his poor family.”

Family. The word sets something off in her. 

She thinks of Marina. Of Guzmán; of their parents. Of Nano, rotting away in prison.

God, that baby—

Her stomach twists, her lungs feel like they’re being locked in a vice, and before she knows it she’s hunched over, fingers pressed tight to her lips. She thinks she might throw up, but she’s hardly eaten anything over the past day. There’s nothing to throw up but acid, and even that wouldn’t get rid of how she can feel it pulsing through her veins, thicker than blood and hotter still.

Family. Her own—Polo—what she did for them, what she carries on her shoulders for them, what she lets follow her around like a dark fucking cloud for them. Family. The way Christian’s parents looked in the hospital; eyes wide, cheeks streaked with tears, hands shaking as they reached for one another. Family. Samuel and his mother mourning a brother and son who isn’t even dead; how she could see the telling signs of exhaustion pressed beneath his eyes like bruises, and how his head kept bobbing in the waiting room. Family.

It hits her like a punch to the stomach, that word, and she feels like she’s suffocating. Drowning. Getting at least one of her wishes fulfilled, it seems.

Suddenly there are hands cupping her face and brushing her hair from her forehead, and she only belatedly realizes it’s her mother. While she doesn’t jerk away from the touch—and it’s a near thing—she doesn’t find any comfort in it either. She does, however, follow her instructions to breathe; shakily, slowly, deeply. In and out, over and over again until her head is no longer spinning. 

It lasts mere seconds. It lasts forever. And she could hate Polo for what he did; maybe even a part of her already does, the way he blithely walks the halls at school, the way he grins in Guzmán’s face and claps him on the shoulder. The way he acts like nothing fucking happened. She might hate him for it, just like Christian hates her, but if this is what he felt like every time he had one of his attacks then her heart hurts for him, just a bit.

Mostly, she’s just exhausted. Her mother lets her go easily as Carla extracts herself from her embrace and leans back on the pillows pushed against her headboard, and it’s crazy how she almost feels numb again. Empty, like everything just left her in a flash flood or a bolt of lightning. She can feel her mother watching her, but she lacks the energy to do anything more than stare half-lidded at the wall opposite her bed.

Fingers trace her face again. She only knows because she sees the movement out of the corner of her eye; she doesn’t feel it at all.

“Darling,” her mother murmurs, “You really did care for him, didn’t you?”

Carla can’t help but ask herself if the ignorance is innocent or purposeful.

(But she should know it’s always done with intent, strategy, calculation. Ignorance, to them, is just as innate as money and destiny, three threads wound around and around until limbs are purple and numb.

Numb.)

She doesn’t miss the way her mother’s eyes flit over her wrist. She knows what’s there, of course, though she doesn’t know what it reads—she’d never bothered to ask, and Carla, besides the brief moment in this very room when her mark first shifted, has never thought to tell her. Right now her mother does a very poor job at hiding both her suspicions and the resulting judgement; Carla supposes the only way she can wrap her head around the concept of her own flesh and blood caring for a loud-mouthed, poor boy from the hood is if his name is written upon her skin.

A shift of movement over her mother’s shoulder catches her attention. She looks at where her father is now standing in the doorway, expression pensive but mostly unreadable, and manages to finally feel her face setting into stone.

She decides then that neither of them deserve to hear her answer. And they certainly don’t deserve the relief in knowing that the name on her wrist is just a syllable shy of matching Christian’s, though she wouldn’t know if it rolls just as easily off the tongue because she never speaks it.

It’s something she’s good at, after all.

“I just want to go to sleep.” She shifts away, turning on her side and pulling her comforter up. 

“Of course, darling,” her mother replies, sounding a bit surprised at the abrupt change in demeanor. Still, she leans down and Carla registers her placing a kiss on the top of her head a second later. “You’ve had a long day. Get some rest.”

She knows she won’t, that tonight isn’t going to be any different than all the others, but she nods anyway. The bed shifts as her mother gets up to leave, the room going dark shortly thereafter. Her father lingers for a moment longer before following, and the entire time Carla feels his eyes on her back like two points of a prong.

She imagines she can see them staring out at her from his silhouette, the hallway light stretching it across her wall. In them she finds nothing but cold obscurity; closed off, indecipherable, and like looking into the world’s blackest mirror. She wants to reach out and shatter the damn thing, but she’ll settle for watching it get swallowed whole as her father finally turns around, shutting the door behind him. 

*

Her phone chimes by her elbow, nearly startling her into screwing up the sharpened edge of eyeliner she’s applying. She curses, then glances down at her phone. Curses again. 

Instagram: samuel_garcia started following you.

She stares at it until well after the screen goes dark again, fingers clenched tight around her eyeliner pen. She doesn’t know how many minutes pass really, but when she ultimately unlocks her phone and goes to look at the notification it’s no longer there. He must have unfollowed her. Maybe following her in the first place was an accident; her feed is full of people she goes to school with but doesn’t really know, true, but she and Samuel have never been those types of acquaintances. She made sure of that.

She makes herself forget about it before she’s out the door and sliding into the backseat of her father’s car. It’s not terribly hard considering she has a million other things on her mind, though maybe if she wasn’t so on edge about going to Marina’s mass she’d realize how that simple notification could mark the beginning of the end. 

*

If she accepts Samuel’s offer for a drink, it’s because she’s seeking a relief from the loneliness that’s gripping her today and nothing more. If she finds herself admiring the thick line of his eyelashes as they sit at the bar, it’s just a harmless observation that’s easy to make under the fluorescent lights and nothing more. If he’s got his hand wrapped loosely around her throat, if he’s asking her questions whose answers she can taste on her tongue and yet all she can think is kiss me, it’s the half a bottle of shared tequila affecting her and nothing more. 

And if she ignores how her mark burns brighter and hotter than it has before in her entire life as she takes him in that tiny room, it’s simply a matter of common sense.

Nothing more.

She skips over every move that’s in this game they’ve begun in favor of getting right to the final one: the checkmate. She’s winning. He’s not going to bring her down. 

(And she’s wrong, of course, but that’s a discovery she won’t make until it’s far too late for her to turn back.)  

*

Over the next few weeks, Carla learns things. 

Things about Samuel, yes—how he can cook (if not poorly); how he likes to watch cheesy American movies; how he always has to keep his hands busy and so he doodles, constantly—but also things about herself. She learns that she enjoys his shitty food; that she laughs while he recites those movies word for word when he makes her watch them after school; that she doesn’t mind when he foregoes paper in favor of drawing flowers and constellations and whatever else he fancies on her arm, as long as it’s not the one that has something else entirely inked upon it.

Samuel’s apartment is small, cluttered, and smells faintly of cigarettes, and Carla learns that despite that—or maybe because of it—she secretly adores it.

It’s dangerous knowledge, and she hasn’t forgotten how they started, what they’re doing, or where they’ll probably end up. But the apartment feels like sacred ground; when she’s there there’s no pressure, no cloud hanging over her head, no acid rising up her throat. No fathers watching her with hard eyes and no ex-boyfriends roaming around to constantly remind her of her fucked up life. 

There’s no… game.

She finds herself there a lot these days.

The place never fails to make her stop in her tracks every time she walks through the front door, just a fraction of a second where everything simultaneously hits and leaves her at once like some sort of decontamination process. A mausoleum. That’s what she described her own house as to Marina that day, the first time in nearly seven years she stepped foot there and, fatefully, the last, but Samuel’s home is so clearly well-lived in it’s staggering. There are years of stories in each chip, gouge, and stain, and Carla thinks that’s worth way more than the most expensive, carefully picked piece of furniture sitting in her living room.

She tells him this one night as they lie side-by-side on his bed, pressed together from shoulder to knee because of how tiny the thing is. His ankle brushes against hers every now and then, and Carla likes the warmth; the peace that comes with spending hours talking about everything and nothing. Here in this apartment—this bubble, this other plane of existence—vulnerability comes easily, naturally. Her words slip out almost without her meaning for them to.

Samuel turns his head to look at her, and she blinks up at the ceiling for a second more before mirroring him. He’s got that look on his face once she does, the one he wore on his very first day at Las Encinas, watching his picture pop up on the monitor like an animal on display at the zoo; the one he had when she sat across from him eating macaroni and told him that she was lonely. A look of quiet realization. 

She likes when he looks at her like this, how it makes her feel seen in a way she never has before. It… it makes the vulnerability worth it.

“I’ve lived in the same house my entire life,” she continues, “and I can’t think of a single remarkable thing that’s happened there that isn’t tainted in some way.”

He doesn’t say anything, just like he doesn’t mention how more often than not she sleeps here instead of in her own bed, and how she always leaves before his mom gets home in the morning. He doesn’t need to. 

(Though even if he did ask she could never tell him that she can’t sleep anywhere else; that when he initially brought her here the night of the red party it was the first time she actually got sleep—sound, dreamless sleep—in months.

Carla is learning things.)

“Samuel?” 

His eyes flick back up to her own. “Yeah?”

“Tell me one of those stories. About this place. About… I don’t know, that fucking tarot deck sitting on your kitchen table.” She grins as a laugh suddenly escapes him. It crinkles the edges of his eyes and Carla finds herself staring for a moment, voice growing softer once again. “About anything. Please.” 

He turns his head forward, rubbing his finger along his bottom lip in thought. She purses her own in amusement when he takes a tad too long.

“Don’t hurt yourself on my account, though.”

“Hey, rude,” he retorts, fake wounded. She bites her thumb and smiles around the flesh. “Okay, okay, I got one.”

She watches as he props himself on an elbow and uses his other hand to point at something on the wall across from them. “There’s a spot there, a little to the right of the poster. Do you see it?”

Sure enough there’s a half-inch sized knick in the plaster. She raises her eyebrows, curious. “I do.”

“Well, one summer when we were around thirteen, Omar and I spent the entire break watching ninja movies.” And she’s already giggling, she can’t help it, though she at least attempts to stifle it with her fingers for his sake. She must do poorly because Samuel notices, and the sounds of their conjoined laughter reverberates around the room. “I’m serious! We were obsessed.” 

“Did you two go around jumping off of walls and doing flips?”

“I’ll have you know I mastered the art of parkour well before then,” he jokes, dodging the weak slap she aims at his arm afterwards. “But no, we were so obsessed that we got our hands on some throwing stars and, because we couldn’t do it at the store, we got the bright idea to throw them in here. Omar went first and threw it so fucking hard that it got stuck there in the wall—god, it took forever to get out.”

“You kept it as a keepsake, I hope,” she says, humor curling around her voice.

“Are you kidding? My mom made us throw them in the dumpster as soon as she found out. She was so pissed. I had to beg her not to tell Omar’s dad.” He huffs and lies back down beside her, smiling to himself. “She forgot about it three days later when Nano tried to sneak a bottle of wine out of the apartment and ended up dropping it on the floor. That’s why we have that weirdly placed rug by the kitchen.”

“I’ve done that before,” Carla replies, remembering the incident. It had been just two short years ago, but now it feels like a lifetime away: her and Lu waltzing into her house in the middle of the night after some random party, already fairly drunk off their asses and thinking it was a good idea to sneak down to the cellar and lift a bottle of wine from the private collection. The heel of her stiletto broke on the final step coming back up and the bottle shattered right there on the pristine white marble, splashing into the living room. As always, her parents had resorted to empty actions over words. “Part of me now wishes my mother yelled at me for it. Did something besides just having the furniture replaced by the time I came downstairs the next morning.”

“She didn’t care?”

“Nobody ever cares.” She thinks about how she and Lu had frozen for the briefest of seconds as they watched the dark liquid bleed into the upholstery right before breaking out into laughter, gut-toughening and hysterical and tasting like top shelf alcohol. Standing there in a crumpled dress with one broken heel… that’s what Carla used to think happiness was. What a joke. “I can’t believe it took me so long to realize how much I hate it.”

It falls quiet for a moment, though it’s not uncomfortable, and she’s not facing Samuel but she knows he’s got that look again. She can feel it; roaming on her profile, brushing against her skin, pulsing in the brand on her wrist. It gets a little more intense just then, but she’s grown so used to the thrum, thrum, thrum in her mark whenever they’re together that it completely escapes her notice. And maybe it happens because destiny—or fate, or whatever you want to fucking call it—knows what Samuel’s going to say next.

“Can I ask you something now?”

She pretends to think it over not because she’s aware of what’s coming, but just to tease. “I suppose that’s only fair.”

“Is it true that...” She slides her eyes over to him as he hesitates, patiently waiting for him to continue. His face is so serious. “Is it true you all have soulmarks?”

In an instant Carla’s stomach drops, but she’s careful not to twitch or flinch away. She tampers that initial response down and feels purposeful nonchalance slide over her like a glove in its stead, tight and quickly growing too hot but a defensive layer all the same. 

Her first instinct is to lie. She already has one half-formed on her tongue, leaving a bitter and caustic taste in its wake. Her second instinct is to deflect, and she can’t help but consider how easy it would be to put on a flirty smile, settle herself over Samuel’s hips, and lean down to smother any other dangerous questions he might have with her kiss. 

Then the reality of that hits her almost as hard as his question—it feels too dirty for the sanctity they’ve built here. She refuses to shatter it.

When she’s here, she reminds herself, it’s almost like nothing else is real. And what isn’t real can’t possibly hurt her, doesn’t mean a thing. 

Carla stares at the ceiling again. She lets out a long, slow sigh through her nose. 

“Not all of us,” she says eventually, “but yes. It’s true.”

She hasn’t talked about her mark with anybody else but Marina, and even that had been a conversation she had put a stop to. She’s never talked about it with Lu, with her parents, and never with Polo in all the years they spent wrapped up around each other. Christian had never asked. She isn’t sure he even wondered or bothered to care; whatever divided the two of them, they were alike like that. 

But of course, it’s her s—it’s Samuel who asks. 

Is it coincidence, irony? Fate or destiny? She doesn’t know which one of those she believes in the least.

“How would you feel if everything you do is dictated by someone or something else? Like whatever choices you make, you’re always going to end up at the same place. With the same person, no matter what. No matter what you do or don’t feel about them.” She scoffs, shaking her head. Doesn’t say, no matter how fucked up it might be. “Like mice in a science experiment.”

She can feel his gaze tracing all over her body, as if he can pinpoint the exact location of her mark. She’s thankful, then, that he’s lying on the opposite side of where his name is burning on her like an open wound, but she tucks it against her thigh all the same. He answers only when he gives up on his fruitless search. 

“I think some things are just beyond our control,” he tells her. “That not everything we choose always makes sense. Sometimes we need a helping hand.”

A helping hand, he says. 

A closed, crushing fist, she thinks.

“And sometimes a choice isn’t always ours even as we make it. There’s a certain sort of freedom in just letting things happen.” He releases a breath of his own, brisk enough that it ruffles the hair falling over his forehead. “What do I know, though. I don’t have a mark, and there probably isn’t someone out there who does with me on the other side of it.”

Carla doesn’t—can’t look at him. 

It’s tasteless given everything, but she asks herself if this is what bleeding out feels like. The answer is fitting: it comes in the form of Marina’s voice telling her you don’t deserve him in the girls’ locker room the night everything went to shit. 

“If you did… if you knew who it was, would you fight for it?”

Again, Samuel doesn’t answer for a moment. She lies there with her eyes focused out the window, feeling the silence stretch taut between them like the chord of a guitar, and for the first time in seventeen years Carla wonders what could happen if things were different. 

“I like to think I would,” he says. He sounds brave, resolute, like someone who doesn’t know any better. Someone who has been given the chance to be optimistic.

Carla finally rolls her head back to the side, facing him. He’s still looking ahead. His eyelashes are as thick as ever, just barely visible in the growing dimness of his bedroom as the sky outside begins to fall into deeper and deeper hues of purple and blue, and she’s struck, then, with the sudden urge to commit his profile to memory before it’s lost to her. So she traces all the contours, all the soft and sharp lines; stares until he purses a small smile and quirks an eyebrow under the attention, turning to give her a curious look. 

She leans forward and kisses him. It’s not like any of their other kisses; not heated, not meant to distract, not filled with the promise of something more to come. It’s gentle, long and drawn out. In fact, Carla’s sure she’s never kissed anyone like this before in her life. 

Her veins are set aflame, her mark aches. She allows herself to bring up the hand it’s sitting on and cradle his chin between two fingers, brushing his bottom lip with her thumb. She watches the movement and feels him watching her. 

Their foreheads are almost touching—she hadn’t realized they’d diminished what little space there was left between them on this tiny, tiny bed.

“You want me to make you something to eat?” He asks her quietly.

She exhales, soft. “It’s getting late,” she responds, but it’s said like a matter of fact, not an excuse. They’re both aware that she’s just keeping up the pretenses, that there’s nobody at home waiting for her. Tonight will end just like all of the others, with her falling asleep here and leaving before the sun rises back up again. 

“I know,” he says. “One day I’ll cook you breakfast instead.”

The smile that curls her lips is genuine. She hopes, though, that he can’t also see how it’s sad.

Samuel makes them chicken and rice, standing at the stove in a tank top and frayed jeans. Carla observes from the kitchen table with her chin resting in the palm of her hand, mapping the way the muscles in his back shift with each movement, still committing him to memory where he’s too distracted to catch her this time. The apartment smells like sizzling garlic and cigarettes and spicy, fresh-earth cologne. The mysterious tarot deck lies right beside her other hand on the tabletop. Carla doesn’t let herself wonder again what might be if things were different, because one slip-up like that is enough for a lifetime, let alone for a night. 

But later, when she’s full and content and lying back in his bed in little more than an old t-shirt of his, she waits for his breath to finally even out with sleep and rests her head on his chest. She listens to the thump, thump, thump of his pulse and finally lets herself notice how it’s the same exact cadence in her mark, even skipping together when he sniffs and mumbles, already dreaming. Then she takes her wrist and places it right over his heart. 

They beat in tandem like two competing drums that can’t stop playing the same loud, resounding note despite how hard they try.

“Fights over me end in disaster, Samuel,” she hears herself whispering. Thinks about blood on the collar of a rumpled pink shirt; blood on the pavement of some random back road; blood on the blackened walls of her conscience. “I’m not worth it, or of having your name here.”

He’d been right earlier. It does feel freeing as she says it, as she lies there bearing her mark to him—

“I wish I could be.”

—but this place isn’t real, and what’s spoken into something that isn’t real can’t mean a single damned thing. 

*

The beginning of the end lies not in an Instagram notification, not in his fists as they connect with his brother’s cheek, and not in the way he sits in the backseat of her car and says I know you don’t want to hurt anyone. It does not lie in the form of three new kids arriving at Las Encinas, their old school falling to ruin, or a letter from Ventura Nunier regarding a fully-funded scholarship. It doesn’t even lie in her mark. 

No, the beginning of the end lies in one lone truth: somewhere along this cursed, volatile road, despite everything she’s known her entire life, Carla has fallen in love with Samuel García.

She doesn’t know what’s scarier—that, or how she finds herself considering telling him the truth more and more each day. The whole truth, not just the one surrounding feelings and falling; the truth that she has guarded so closely to her chest since her father sat her in his study when she was four and told her about destiny and games and pawns. The same truth that she had lain on Samuel’s own chest that night in his bed, her hair over his shoulder, her foot brushing his leg.

When she goes over to his apartment about that fucking recording on his phone she almost lets it slip free. It’s this place—she takes one step in here and honesty peels her back layer by layer until she’s nothing more than a seeping hole of words and hopeless wishes. This place makes her want. It makes her want like she never has before. It makes her realize that when she isn’t here, when she isn’t with Samuel, she doesn’t really like the person she’s turned into.

So she lays her heart out. Tells him she wants to be with him, wants to stop hiding. She touches their noses together and tastes the name on her tongue just as boldly as it sits on her flesh, about to tell him this too. 

Samu.

He leans away before she can, and along with the final truth on her lips, the façade of this place shatters around her. Stupid. Everything about this was stupid. She was foolish to believe that they could have been anything else but doomed.

She leaves without another word or a backwards glance. She does not cry over him.

Then he goes missing for three and a half days.

*

(She spends those eighty-four hours wondering if she’d be able to tell if Samuel has died. If her mark would sear into her skin and turn into an ugly raised scar, or if it would simply disappear. 

Once upon a time there was nothing she wanted more in the world than for it to be gone. Now she wants this gaping emptiness in her chest to go away, this fear that’s been crushing her windpipe to stop once and for all. She wants the stupid boy whose soul is tied to hers and who rejected her anyway. 

She’s always wanting what she can’t have. Then she walks into a police station and loses what little she does have left.

Destiny is a cruel, evil thing.)

*

There had been a time in her life where Carla thought she had a firm grasp on what loyalty meant.

Fall in love with whoever you want, she had told Marina that day in the cafeteria. Play at being the rebel, the misfit, I don’t care. But don’t risk everything you have and endanger your family.

Because loyalty had meant just that: protecting your family, your friends, your own. It was sticking with them no matter what. Through all the bad shit. Through thick and thin. To Carla, risking everything you had for a boy who meant nothing to you up until a few months beforehand just didn’t make sense. And it certainly hadn’t made sense that Marina did it with no hesitation whatsoever, but that’s just who she was. Impulsive. Reckless. Selfish.

The thing is, Carla understands now. It had never been that black and white for Marina, just like it isn’t for her, and nothing feels selfish about picking sides. She just feels fucking miserable. 

Two days after Polo’s trial, she finds herself standing outside of Samuel’s apartment.

It feels like a lifetime ago since she was here last—just here like she used to be, following Samuel through this very door in front of her after school so they could study or make out for hours or talk for even more. She misses it. But if there was still a chance for them to go back to that, even after everything, she had just soiled it once and for all. 

For all she knew, he hated her. So why was she here then? That was the big question, and she couldn’t stop asking it over and over in her head. 

The easiest answer was that she had come to explain herself; that she was doing what had to be done for her mother and that her father was as ruthless a bastard as ever, as if that wouldn’t just be pouring salt in the wound. Samuel didn’t want to hear her reasons and she didn’t want to give them. It wouldn’t have made either of them feel any better, and it wouldn’t take back what’s already said and done. 

Perhaps, then, she’s just angry. Itching to fight. He should hate her—just like she should hate him for the way he looked at her on that bridge and said he loved her. 

She hadn’t even hated him even when her palm was stinging and his cheek was turning red, however. She couldn’t.

She can’t.

The anger leaves her in a gust of air, and she leans against the wall.

She just… she misses it. This apartment, those nights, him. Everything was always fucked up, but at least back then she could find an escape here, if only for a while. Now she doesn’t even have that. All she has is a cold, hollow glass house with one parent she resents and another who might feel the same towards her, and that’s not going to change any time soon. 

Things weren’t going to go back to normal; they couldn’t. Polo and her father could try to reach for that all they wanted, but her version of before was vastly different than theirs. It came in the form of a boy with warm eyes and an artist’s hands and it wouldn’t let her go back to how everything was no matter how much she might have wanted or tried. She was reminded of that every time she saw him walking around the halls at school, and while that’s only part of the reason why she hasn’t returned, she now realizes it has everything to do with what she’s doing here right now. 

This is her saying goodbye. 

She steps up to the door, knowing even as she reaches out that she won’t knock—if she wants to leave this behind her once and for all, she can’t knock—and so she runs her fingers across the painted wood instead, splays them out until it’s cool and flat against her palm. She stands there for a moment just like that. She stands there until the moment has passed into minutes and her cheeks are wet with tears, and then she curls her fingers against the door. Takes a deep breath.

Star-crossed soulmates. The mere thought of it makes Carla feel like the universe is playing it’s sickest, most elaborate joke on her.

It’s something she’s convinced of on the spot when she turns around and bumps right into the one person she wants to see even less than Samuel himself. 

“Oh, excuse me, hon—” 

Pilar Domínguez’s sentence dies on her lips as she straightens from picking up her dropped keys, and Carla watches as the weary but polite smile falls from her face at the same time as recognition fills her eyes. As many times as she’s been here… sat in this woman’s kitchen, her living room, the only time Carla has ever seen her was that day in the police station. A fleeting, passing glance. She hadn’t been able to discern much from it, and that worked out well for her. It was easier to put out of her mind that way.

But now she’s standing here, barely a full foot of space between them, and Carla wants nothing more than to flee even as she finds herself rooted to the spot.

“Well. What are you doing here, then?” Pilar asks after a beat of silence passes. She crosses her arms over her chest, guarded, and Carla has the sudden unbidden thought that she and Samuel look alike when they’re mad. 

Carla can only blink, unable to form words.

“Right,” Pilar says. She glances over at the apartment door and stares for a moment, working her jaw in thought; slides her eyes back to Carla and stares some more, suddenly making her hyper aware of the fact that she’d just been crying. Her eyelashes are still tacky and wet. 

Pilar looks at her.

Then she brushes past, and the sound of the door opening and slamming shut echoes in the hallway.

The silence that follows afterwards is almost deafening. Carla closes her eyes, letting out a deep breath through her nose. Coming here was a mistake; she knew that even as she lay on her bed and stared at the ceiling like they used to, and she knew that even as she was sneaking out of her house to come anyway. She supposes if she had to find a silver lining then she’s just relieved it hadn’t been Nano, but still—that look Pilar had given her made her feel like she was being lanced straight through the chest. It had reminded her so much of the one Samuel used to regard her with. The one she used to like, the one she used to coax out of him in spades.

It was like that except ten times worse, because Pilar wasn’t the boy who reheated macaroni for her and listened to her talk about things she’d never told anyone before. She was a mother whose family might never be whole again because Carla had chosen to save hers instead. 

Maybe, then, it was possible to feel both selfish and miserable at once. 

She runs her hands through her hair, exhaling once more. Opens her eyes. Prepares to descend these stairs for one final time.

“I need a smoke.”

Even though she hadn’t heard the door open again, Carla doesn’t jump as Pilar suddenly reappears at her side.

“Come on. I’ll walk you out,” she continues, and the look she gives out the corner of her eye is less piercing than it is meaningful. 

Carla doesn’t mention how the apartment smells like her preferred brand, or how she knows that there’s an ashtray in almost every room. She just follows her without a word, and outside, instead of walking down the street and going home like she knows she ought to, she trails Pilar to a nearby bench and sits on the opposite end. She shakes her head at the cigarette offered to her. Pilar lights her own up, smokes it down to the filter, and then lights another.

Several minutes pass where all Carla can hear is the rasp of one breath in, followed by the puff of one breath out. She’s grateful for the way Pilar isn’t fixing her with that stare anymore; instead she gazes off in the distance and idly observes a group of children playing on the other side of the courtyard. The urge to leave still tingles throughout Carla’s entire body. Even now, it would be so easy to slip away.

But she makes herself stay, sensing oncoming words in each cloud of smoke the breeze disperses around them. 

“You know, when I saw you standing there, I was mad. Furious, even, but…” Pilar trails off, shaking her head where it’s still turned away. The seconds stretch between them until Carla can’t handle it anymore, or that damned cigarette. 

He hates when you smoke, she thinks. 

“But then?”

The older woman purses her lips, and her expression says, oh, so she can speak after all. She flicks her eyes down to the pavement before shifting her head to look at Carla straight-on.

“Then I saw red eyes and damp cheeks,” Pilar continues, “and I remembered that you’re just a kid.” 

She drops the half-finished cigarette on the ground and crushes it beneath the heel of her boot, heaving a sigh. “You’re the girl he kept bringing over, no?”

Something flips in Carla’s stomach. “What?”

“Ay, girl, please. Even poor people know what designer perfume smells like,” she replies. “It was all over the apartment up until a few weeks ago and now here it is again, back with you.”

A small smile tugs at Carla’s lips before she can stop it, and she feels herself ducking her head. It’s staggering—she can’t remember the last time she has felt well and truly shy, if there ever was a time—and she doesn’t know why hearing Pilar’s words pleases her anyway. They shouldn’t. They really shouldn’t. The thought of traces of her on the couch, on Samuel’s clothes… she’s doing a terrible job at this whole “saying goodbye” thing, she knows. 

Pilar looks again.

“Carla, right?” She nods at the older woman. There’s a thrum in her mark, barely perceptible. “Do you love my son?”

For some reason the question doesn’t come as a surprise; it’s as if part of Carla had been expecting it since she first sat down, but it makes her insides twist anyway. They always do every time she asks herself the very same thing and knows the answer, despite everything, is still going to be the same.

She curls her hands in her lap and stares at the building in front of her. And where it had once been her immediate reaction to deflect and deny in situations like this, it doesn’t even occur to Carla to lie in that moment because she counts the floors up until she’s found the window that looks into Samuel’s bedroom, feels Pilar’s eyes on her as she does it, and knows right then that there would be no point.

“Yes,” she answers, quiet. “I do.”

She is doing a very, very terrible job at saying goodbye.

Pilar drums her fingers on the bench seat, makes an aborted move towards the pocket Carla saw her tuck away her cigarette pack in, then starts jogging her leg. 

“I’m not—” She cuts herself off, releasing a ragged breath. Murmurs shit like she suddenly can’t believe what she’s about to say. “I’m not the most present of mothers. I know that, so I’m not aware of the whole story besides what Samuel tells me, and he doesn’t tell me a lot. He thinks he’s protecting me, doesn’t want to burden me, I don’t know. Since he was a kid he’s always kept everything in… but I do know my son. He doesn’t love those who don’t deserve it.”

“And he’s smart. Sensible,” Pilar goes on. “If you love him, really love him, then you had a good reason to do what you did. He’ll see that someday.”

Carla stares at the pavement beneath her feet. The urge to cry settles heavy in her throat; a giant knot that she can’t swallow down. 

“Why are you telling me this?” She can barely get her voice higher than a whisper. “You don’t owe me anything.”

“I don’t know. Fuck, I don’t know.” Pilar presses the heels of her hands against her forehead, leaning forward on her knees. “I should still be angry. I shouldn’t even be able to look at you. But I’m exhausted, and this city…maybe it’s just easier to forgive what’s happened here when you’re leaving it all behind.”

Carla whips her head to the side, looking at the other woman in disbelief. It shouldn’t matter to her if Pilar and Samuel are going away because she had planned on never seeing him again, and yet her stomach falls with the thought of him leaving Madrid.

“He’s not coming with me,” Pilar says once she notices Carla’s expression. Relief floods her at the same time as she realizes she’d been gripping the bench on either side of her thighs. “Samuel refuses to give up this place. He’s a fighter, that one.”

She thinks of what he told her that night in his bed. I like to think I would. “I know.”

“I’m not sure where he gets it from.”

A long stretch of silence passes between them, beset only by the slight ruffling of the trees. Cars pass every now and then, the kids that had been playing begin to head home as the streetlights flick on, and Pilar eventually stands up to leave.

“Please don’t tell him I was here,” Carla says before she can walk away. 

Pilar gazes at her over her shoulder, skewering her with that look one last time. Then she nods. 

“Thank you.” 

Her voice is heavy with its layered meanings.

“Get home safe,” the other woman replies, understanding every one of them.

*

Samuel does forgive her—looks at her with those soft, understanding eyes and calls her brave like it’s the single tenet in a religion he follows and she doesn’t believe in—but it doesn’t matter anyway, in the end. 

They’re star-crossed, plain and simple, so Carla wields her words like poison-tipped knives and aims straight for his chest. She can’t sever this thing that binds them, this beat in his heart and her wrist and this blood red thread wrapped around them, but she can try her hardest to make him hate her. Resent her. Anything to keep him safe from her father, and as the days turn to weeks and the weeks turn to months, she thinks she might’ve succeeded.

Pilar had said it herself, though: Samuel is a fighter, and Carla knows better than anyone else how persistent he can be. 

It’s late when he calls her, but she’s awake, because of course she is; she’s accepted insomnia back into her life like an old friend, her only friend, and it’s not because she’s currently out of drugs and coming down strong. A high or lack thereof won’t change what lies set in the coldest of stone: she doesn’t sleep, not anymore—old habits die hard and older ones come back to haunt you like a ghost afterwards, it seems, but it’s better than the alternative of jolting up every night gasping for air, head spinning, pulse hammering in your neck. And even if she could handle that, she wouldn’t be able to explain to Yeray what she dreams of when it inevitably wakes him up too. 

(Dreams again of Samuel dying over, and over, and over; dreams anew of her mother breaking the rest of what Carla hadn’t even been aware was still left inside of her to damage, of sitting at that fucking dining table and don’t make the same mistake I made and think about your future, honey—)

So. She’s already awake, and she picks up her phone where it’s vibrating on the nightstand with a frown. The contact picture staring back at her makes her go white-knuckled, and her insides crack into the pattern of a spider web even as the glass screen doesn’t.

He’s persistent. So damned stubborn. And observant, because he had stood stout on the other side of her desk the other day and called her out for wandering the halls like a zombie, and even after she’d brushed him off and he caught her coming out of the bathroom he’d just looked at her, all persistent and stubborn and resolute. It should be irritating—it is irritating, nearly as much as it is stressful. He makes it just as hard to protect him as it is to despise him for it, for not staying the fuck away from her for good.

And yet, and yet.

The phone rings once, twice. Three times. On the fourth, Carla chances taking her eyes off it for a moment and looks around as if some unknown force will help her, as if that force would even be on her side, and is only struck with the sudden realization that she’s slipped from beneath Yeray’s arm sometime in the past fifteen seconds and is now standing out in the hallway. She presses her hand to her eyes, willing herself the strength to turn around, climb back in bed. There’s no way she’ll find sleep, but she can still put her phone on silent. She can stow it away beneath her pillow and act like this never happened. 

That would require courage, however, and despite whatever Samuel saw beneath the club’s darkened lights, she doesn’t have that. She’s not brave.

It rings again. And again.

Carla takes a deep breath, the backs of her eyes already prickling with regret, and presses answer. 

Silence is the only thing that she’s met with for several seconds. It’s suffocating, choking her until her chest is burning with the effort to do something—speak, keep quiet, hang up. She should end the call now while she still has the chance, nip this mistake in the bud before it can even bloom. It’s not too late. 

Then, sounding a bit like he’s just snapped out of a catatonic state and is shocked about where he’s found himself, “Uh. Hey.” 

His voice is tinny, hardly above a rumble. Low with the hour and textured with the same exhaustion she feels pulling at her skin, in her bones. It sounds like a deck of cards being shuffled, or a knife on toast, and it lights up Carla’s entire being so much that she yanks the phone away like it’s burned her all of a sudden and hovers her thumb over the end button, blurry as it is through her tears.

Her brand pulses, flutters, skips. He’s nervous. Hang up.

“Carla? Are you there?”

And she’s foolish. Her eyes fall shut at the sound of her name and she swallows, thick, before bringing the phone back to her ear. “Hi.”

“Hi,” he echoes, punched out of him in a single breath. “Hi, um. Hey.”

Her staying on the call this long is just as surprising to him as it is to her, apparently, and the curse he mutters next sounds farther away, as if he’s moved back to try and keep her from hearing it. She’s only finding his fumbling endearing, however, and that’s why she digs within her for the exasperation hidden under everything else and forces it up to the surface like a secret weapon. 

But it fails. Misfires. She just sounds tired, and not because of the hour. “Why are you calling me, Samuel?” 

“I’m… I don’t know. Thought it wouldn’t hurt to try, I guess.”

“At two in the morning,” Carla flatly points out. Regardless, she finds herself having to fight the smile that comes with the words, shoving it aside and away—everything is just so natural with him, even when it shouldn’t be. Especially when it shouldn’t be. The oldest of habits come back to haunt you like a ghost, she reminds herself, and by that logic Samuel is nothing if not her own personal fucking poltergeist. She sighs with finality. “We still have class tomorrow. You should go to bed.”

“You should too then,” he counters. Something in his tone makes her stiffen. “But then again, school hasn’t really been at the top of your list of priorities these days, right?”

It would have made her angry if it didn’t just remind her how she’s felt sluggish and gray for days, or how Valerio isn’t answering her texts anymore. If it didn’t feel like a swift blow to the stomach. “Samuel—”

“Sorry,” he immediately cuts her off; Carla aches with how desperate he sounds to keep her from hanging up, because he should realize that answering in the first place wasn’t doing either of them any favors. “I’m sorry. It’s just—I’m worried about you.”

“Yeah, well, you shouldn’t be,” she snaps, and there’s the anger, now that she’s gotten over the initial sting. Or maybe not anger, but her own desperation disguised as such while it claws up her throat. Venom. That’s what she’s good at, isn’t it? Letting it poison those around her, sometimes on purpose, sometimes not. “Don’t you have a girlfriend? Worry about her instead.”

The way he abruptly goes quiet, though, washes it away before it can do any real damage. She wishes it would do the same to the relief that flares inside of her, because his silence speaks volumes. 

So he and Rebe broke up. That doesn’t mean anything, though. It can’t mean anything, not now, not ever. 

(It might’ve, maybe, if fate wasn’t paying her back dearly for all the years she spent spitting at its feet.)

“Samuel,” she begins softer, gentler, but it’s still a plea all the same, for he’s only calling because her words hadn’t done the job that day in the club. He willingly bares his neck to her fangs again and again and he doesn’t realize it, or that one day it’s going to kill or corrupt him too. And the former, she thinks, would be a kinder fate. The irony isn’t lost on her. “You need to forget about me.”

He laughs, short and rough and hollow. It’s not the same laugh that she remembers hearing so frequently in his bedroom, and she hates how it sounds.

“You think I haven’t tried? It’s not that easy. Tonight’s not the first night I’ve spent staring at the wall thinking about you, it’s just the first I actually decided to do something about it. All I do is think about you, Carla.” 

He sounds so defeated, small. Tired, tired, tired. “I’ve tried almost everything to get you out of my fucking head,” he continues. “And the thing is, I think you’re trying everything too, and I don’t just mean the drugs. I mean the lying, the pushing me away. I don’t get it.”

“I can’t make it any clearer,” she says, because she can’t, and her resolve to keep hiding the truth from him is rapidly withering away with each ounce of pain she hears in his voice. She has to remind herself that it’ll just make more problems. That it’ll make Samuel even more tenacious and her father more dangerous.

“We used to talk. We’d spend hours lying here, just talking. Do you remember?”

How could she forget?

“I do,” she whispers.

“So talk to me,” he begs her. She deliberately ignores the way his voice cracks near the end; she has to. “Tell me what’s going on with you. Or don’t. Just talk to me, tell me something, anything.”

And, really, the venom poisons her most of all; festers within her, turning her insides black, and right now it’s scalding the skin on her cheeks. But then she realizes that’s just the tears falling freely down her face, and the sound they make as they roll off her jaw and hit the floor seems so impossibly loud. Still, she doesn’t bother trying to wipe them away or hide how they thicken her voice. Like with Pilar on that bench, there would be no point. 

“I miss you,” Samuel murmurs then, broken and raw.

“I know.”

“And I meant it, when I said that I loved you. I meant it.”

“I know,” she repeats again, not trusting herself to say anything else. 

Because it’s right there on her tongue, in her veins—it’s in her skin for crying out loud, and that means it’s scrawled all over her soul in big, bold strokes. Three words and their entire heavy, crushing meaning in just four simple letters, and Carla wants to scream it aloud and whisper it against his mouth just as much as she wants to bury it forever. 

He waits for her to say it. To tell him that something, that anything. But it never comes, and it’s fucked up that it’s because she loves him too much to let it.

“Yeah.” He mutters it almost to himself, it’s so quiet. Disappointed. “Just tell me this then, and if it’s the truth, the honest truth, I swear I’ll leave you alone for good.” She nods as if he can even see her, but it’s a stiff, barely perceptible thing anyway. This is what she wants, for him to leave her alone, and still she feels eroded; rusted in place. “Does he make you happy?”

Happy. Happiness is like water, she thinks. Always changing, never what it seems at any given time; once, happiness was sitting with her father in his study and listening to what she used to think was a man and all his wisdom, his cunning. It was late nights with Marina until it was even later ones with Lu because it was easier that way, and it was Polo and their half-furnished loft. It used to be ignorance, blissful and purposeful and uncomplicated and convenient—and then she was hit with a reality check, her entire world view knocked askew, and realized that in actuality it was everything the exact opposite. But happiness is like water in that it’s also forever slipping through her fingers, lapping at her ankles and then receding with the tide until all she’s left with is a boy who buys cars to match her clothes and gifts her a house she doesn’t want and never asked for. She’s stranded on the fucking shore and it’s made of quicksand.

But, regardless. 

Carla looks around. This isn’t Samuel’s apartment. It couldn’t be any farther from it, but that also means there’s no sanctity to shatter here; nothing to keep her from lying. In this house she’s just a billion of them bundled together, and with the direction she’s going in she’s just going to be collecting them for the rest of her life. What’s one more, no matter how heavy she knows it’ll settle at the bottom of her stomach?

“Yes, he does.” In an instant her mark feels like it’s searing before going back to it’s normal beat as if nothing happened. The seconds tick by. She can hear Samuel breathing, but he doesn’t speak a word and frustration flares inside her. “There. You have your answer. Isn’t this the part where you’re supposed to hang up?”

“If you’d told the truth, then yeah, it would be,” he says. “But you’ve never been able to fool me.” 

She doesn’t have to wonder why. “And you’ve never been able to take a hint.” 

He scoffs; a single, unamused huff of air. “I wonder which one of us will finally manage to succeed first.”

It’s glaringly obvious, in her opinion: neither of them will. They’ll keep this up until one or both of them crashes and burns for good because that’s just how they are, and Carla knows—above everything else she knows and doesn’t know and might not ever know—that she will always want it to be her who falls, her alone, and that he remains unscathed. It’s a fact that will never be changed, and with that, she takes a deep breath.

“Good night, Samuel.”

She doesn’t wait for him to reply before ending the call. 

And she feels the pieces of her that had thawed while speaking to him freezing back over immediately, just like they always do. It used to be that Carla wanted nothing more than for the chill to go away; now she embraces it, and when that doesn’t work she can put something in her system that does. She has to. If she wants to get through these next five years, through the rest of her damned life, she has to.

After a while she returns to the bedroom and crawls back into bed, and the next day she gets so high that she doesn’t feel how much agony she’s in anymore, let alone notice how she half-drowns in a saltwater pool.

*

Another pool, another time, and Carla is seventeen looking through a ten year-old’s lens at a young girl with untamable hair that burns just as bright as the curiosity in her eyes, as the sun hanging overhead. She lies on her stomach, feet kicking back and forth in the air, painting the nails on one hand as she speaks—or, rather, as her mouth moves inaudibly, because Carla can’t hear anything but ringing in her ears, her own heartbeat, and an old song playing distantly on the radio. Still. She doesn’t need to hear, because she already knows what the girl is saying.

Carla slowly lifts her own hands before her face. They blur and shift from familiarly long, slender fingers tipped red and dangerous like rose thorns to the short, stubby ones of a child with a manicure freshly done by someone who laughed too much to care about keeping things tidy. She slides her gaze down a few inches. Her mark is flickering too: it goes from its premature ink spill state to Samu and back again. Samu. Samu. Samu.

And she’s dreaming, she knows she’s dreaming, but at the same time she knows she wouldn’t be able to wake up if she tried. So she makes herself look around again, taking in the minor details she’s forgotten over the years.

Two half-drunk lemonades on the table, a stack of magazines sitting behind them like a backdrop, the smell of chlorine in the air. Warmth on her skin and in her chest and there’s a ladybug crawling on her knee, right there, before it takes off in flight and disappears with the breeze, featherlight but present. Carla feels it all, blissful and purposeful and uncomplicated and convenient, but this was never ignorance. This is its uncorrupted form. This is innocence.

A laugh bubbles up her throat, unbidden and somewhat hysterical, at the same time as tears spring to her eyes. Innocent. It’s hard to believe, but that’s something she had once been. Here, now, this dream-memory—this is where it all began to go downhill, isn’t it? The first fork in the road full of many more forks to come. If only she’d gone left, gone right; turned back around and returned the way she came. Maybe, maybe, if. But Carla—the Carla that she is now—knows there’s no going back. Only forward, and hers is as bleak as the cold, gray walls of a prison cell.

She turns to look at the girl beside her, lying there in her sparkly bathing suit with the nail polish on her thumb and pointer finger already smudged, and she can read her words perfectly as they fall whole and silent from her lips. It seems like such a waste, she’s saying, that wistful expression on her small face, and the multifaceted truth of that hits Carla so hard that she feels her insides go midnight hued.

She still has a forward. That’s the thing. She still has one.

“I’m so sorry,” she gasps out then, and she can barely recognize her own voice; young and old, ten going on seventeen going on too-quickly grown for every age she’s ever been. It’s dense with emotion and light with this one confession sprouting from her rib cage, and she’s crying so much she feels like a broken dam, doesn’t think she’ll ever stop. “Marina—for everything—I’m so sorry.”

And Marina, vibrant and young and full of life; Marina, the only one out of all of them who ever understood, who knew more than Carla ever did, takes her hand and smiles.

*

Then this is what followed: Carla had woken up in a too-bright, artificially lit hospital room without a clue as to why or how she’d gotten there, lungs feeling as if they’d been set aflame and doused in rapid succession before being lain out to thoroughly dry in the sun, and the first thing her parents said to her had been, “Yeray isn’t answering our calls. Did something happen between the two of you?”

Not are you okay or how are you feeling. Not even a lecture on the drugs, which would have been something a normal parent would have done. Something that, at one time, would have tugged on the strings of her heart; the strings of a daughter almost desperate for her parents to just care for once in their lives. And the bottom line of it was that it didn’t even surprise Carla, not even in the slightest. As she sat there, head pounding, an IV stuck in her arm, she had realized that there genuinely wasn’t anything in her for them to disappoint anymore. It had almost been a relief, like one of the locks on her cage had just crumbled to dust, and she had remembered then how not too long ago her mother had told her to think about her future. So she decided to heed her advice. To move forward.

Then this is what followed: Carla, thinking wholeheartedly about her future and what she wanted that to entail, walked into Barceló and saw firsthand just how deep her poisonous hooks had already sunk into Samuel despite how hard she tried to protect him from them. Then, because this is just how things go, Polo died.

Now she sits in the airport alone, waiting for her flight out of Madrid. She watches others come and go and tries very desperately not to think about what she’s leaving behind. 

It’s better this way, she tells herself. Because if what’s happened this past week has proven anything, it’s that all of this shit will never stop. A never ending cyclone of death and hurt of which she has always been the eye of the storm or something very close to it. She had heard what Rebe said. She had seen Samuel with her own eyes, and the last time a boy was that devoted to her he had committed murder for her. And now that boy was six feet in the ground. 

So yes, it’s better this way. Still, she raises her wrist and traces the familiar lines of Samuel’s name with the edge of her thumb, and she can’t regret any of it. Maybe that’s selfish given everything that transpired between and because of them, but she can’t. Even if he never realizes she’s only doing what’s best for him, she hopes he doesn’t regret it either. 

The airport bustles around her, even though her gate has only a few people dotted about. She’s always liked airports, always found the way they condensed so many different worlds into one single building fascinating. As a kid she used to make up stories for each random person she saw, taking advantage of their anonymity for her own fantastical entertainment; the older she got, the more they just mutated into cynical stories to cure her own boredom, but right now she lets herself lean back into that childhood romanticism. The distraction is more than welcome.

She imagines the man sitting in the row across from her is a government spy like out of some action movie, the briefcase at his feet rife with silly gadgets and a different passport for a dozen countries; a girl who doesn’t seem more than a few years older than she is sits in the far corner, though it’s hard to really tell with the pair of oversized sunglasses obscuring whatever distinguishing features the large brim of her sun hat might’ve miraculously managed to miss, and Carla pictures her as some A-list celebrity trying to hide from paparazzi. Another woman walks past wearing an expensive-looking business suit, the CEO of her own company possibly, headed to Tokyo or London or New York for a meeting. Carla, with a weird sort of flip in her stomach, idly entertains the thought of that being her someday. A brown-haired guy sprints by, probably late for a flight, but maybe he’s chasing after his love before it’s too late, before she gets away—

And that’s just dangerous, and precisely where Carla decides to stop playing this little game.

“You know, you might have said something about you leaving today too. We could have carpooled.”

She glances up at the sound of the voice. Flowing brown hair, sharp eyeliner, an all-too familiar pair of Louboutin pumps; Carla doesn’t have to make up a story for the girl standing there and raising an eyebrow at her.

“That’s what I do now. Carpooling,” Lu continues, pretending to shiver with the thought. “At least your car would have been better than what I rode here in. The air condition was broken, I thought I was going to sweat my hair curly. May I?” She gestures at the empty seat next to Carla, already sitting down before she has the chance to nod her head. She settles in with a short sigh, lips pressed into a semblance of a smile as she briefly looks around the rest of the gate, before quirking an expectant glance in Carla’s direction. “Well, a ‘hello’ would be nice.”

Carla blinks out of her momentary shock. “Hi, sorry, I just… I wasn’t expecting to see you here.”

Lu scoffs. “Me neither. Like I said, you could have mentioned you were leaving. But,” and this is where her smile suddenly falters as she looks down and smooths nonexistent wrinkles out of the skirt of her dress, “I suppose we haven’t really had much time to talk lately, no?”

“Yeah,” Carla agrees with a soft sigh. Unthinkingly, she reaches over and takes the other girl’s hand, squeezing gently. “How are you doing?”

Lu tries for another smile, but it’s not anywhere near as convincing as the first—and it’s a stupid question to ask, really, because Carla already knows the answer. Lu has never looked anything short of glamorous, and now is no exception, but Carla doesn’t doubt that beneath the eye shadow and foundation lies solid proof of several sleepless nights. She squeezes her hand again as Lu simply lets the silence speak for her.

“It’ll get better,” Carla tells her. “Especially because you’re not alone.”

“I know. I can’t—I stay even just a few seconds with my own thoughts, and I—well. Having Nadia, Omar, their family… having other people around helps, it really does. But that’s exactly what I meant.” She looks at Carla then, eyes misty. “We didn’t talk. You had nobody that entire time, and frankly that’s almost what’s been making me feel like shit the most, knowing how it feels.”

Not nobody, at least for a brief moment. It’s an unbidden thought. Carla smothers it like she would an ember and tries for reassurance. “Hey, don’t worry about it anymore. You couldn’t have known. And I could have said something at any time, I guess.”

“I noticed things weren’t okay with you, though. I should have pushed harder. That’s supposed to be something I’m good at, you know? Being pushy.” And she says it so matter-of-factly that Carla can’t help but huff out a laugh, smiling when it draws a quiet one out of Lu. “Even after the pool party. I should’ve texted, called. Something.”

“We weren’t good friends to one another over the past year,” Carla nods, “but we’re young, and we have all the time in the world to make up for it. Turning a new leaf. That’s what you’re going to New York for, right?”

Lu lets out a long breath, like she hopes all of the too-intense emotion will evaporate with it. The change of subject makes her brighten a bit, at least. “Right. Who would have thought: me and Nadia of all people leaving together, about to become roommates for the unforeseeable future.” An odd expression passes over her face for the most fleeting of moments before she looks meaningfully at the passport in Carla’s hand, the one she hasn’t stopped clutching like a vice since before she even got in the car ride headed here. “But what about you?” 

She shrugs, forcefully casual. “I’ve always liked California. Warm weather, beaches, you know.”

“Obviously. The question is, ‘why?’”

“Did you not hear what I just said about starting over?” Carla asks, raising her eyebrows.

“Honey, did you not hear what you just said about being alone?” Lu indicates vaguely around her. “You’re leaving, yes, but by yourself. And who besides me would have known if I hadn’t accidentally caught you sitting here.”

Carla lowers her eyes, immediately thinking of a stubbled cheek beneath her lips and the smell of rum and coke; strong, yet still nowhere near as overwhelming as the crisp, earthy cologne on the collar of its wearer’s shirt. “I told one person,” she answers quietly.

Lu, though. She’s always been proficient at reading people. 

“Samuel?” Carla inhales slowly, tilting her head in confirmation, and the other girl bites her lip for a few seconds, thinking. Pensive. “I was looking for the bar. That’s why I ran into you, because I was bored and needed a drink, and then there you were. How coincidental.”

“That makes two of us,” Carla says, and yet she feels it around them; feels what Lu is trying to get at. The unspoken thing. The taboo they’ve been taught since birth to push back against. “You and I are too, well, you and I to believe in coincidence, Lu.”

“Do I really have to be the one to say what it is, then?” She looks down at Carla’s lap, and it’s only then that she realizes she’s begun touching her thumb to her mark again. It’s barely visible beneath the cuff of her coat, but like she said: Lu reads people. Her eyebrows slowly ascend before coming back down abruptly, her gaze narrowing. “So, that’s it. You’re running.”

This is how they’ve always been. Friends again one moment, back to snapping at each another’s heels the next. Carla scowls. “I’m not running.”

“It looks a lot to me like you’re running.”

“Then what is it that you’re doing? Seriously, tell me how it’s any different.”

Lu goes quiet for a moment, straightening in her chair and facing the rest of the room proper. She glances around. Gazes at some far off point, probably the way she had come from, and for a bit Carla fears that she’s lost her. And then she smiles again, and it’s real. Genuine, if not hesitant; Carla doesn’t know why she can’t help but find it familiar, because she’s used to only seeing Lu smile like a slice from a lipstick-kissed blade. Just as mean and deep as it is pretty.

“We all received the same lecture growing up, Carla. You, me, Guzmán—” She breaks off, staring down at where she’s twisting the large ring on her index finger. “Even Polo and Marina. All of us: fight destiny. You’re your own ruler.”

It’s said in an imitation of her dad, and yet Carla only pictures her own father in her head, sitting her down in his study that day when she was just a girl. “And we worked with it,” Lu continues. “We ran with it well and good for a while, right? You and Polo. Guzmán and I. But there was always that thing, that thing that just lacked in the end. It didn’t click no matter how hard we tried to force it.”

Carla watches as Lu’s eyes shift a bit to the side, right where the hem of her dress falls just over her knee. And Carla knows. Even if she doesn’t know the exact name, she knows what’s there.

“Then there’s that one person. That one person who shouldn’t click whatsoever, but despite it all, despite the fighting and the bullshit, they just do. And all because destiny saw fit to write their name in your skin.” It’s here where Lu turns back to face her. “Samuel. He’s that person, isn’t he? Your soulmate.”

And just like Lu had earlier, Carla lets her silence speak for her.

She’s reminded, then, how much they’ve both changed over the past year. The Lu she used to know would have avoided this conversation like the plague; the Carla she used to be would have shut it down before it even started. In all of the years they’ve known each other, they’ve never once mentioned anything about destiny or soulmates, and here they are now, laying everything out in the open. 

“You’re scared,” Lu states, sounding so sure of herself that Carla’s immediate response is to let out a bitter scoff.

“I’m not scared. I’m protecting him,” she retorts. “He’s—I’m not good for him. You didn’t see him before Polo died, Lu. He was so angry, vengeful, and the only other time I’ve seen him like that is when he beat up Nano. For me. It could have been him that—”

“But it wasn’t,” Lu cuts her off, razor sharp. Her hands are shaking slightly, though she tries to hide it by clenching them into fists. “It wasn’t Samuel. It was me, and what you guys did for me—that’s what protecting someone is. What you’re doing now is called running, because you’re scared.”

Carla tries to grasp on to her anger, but it falls like fine sand between her fingers. Her shoulders sag, and she leans heavily against the back of her chair. Scared. Fine. So what if she is? She had never been more frightened in her life than those few days Samuel was missing, thinking it was because of her father, her connection to him; thinking that he was dead. And all of it was just to manipulate her. It doesn’t matter that he loves her or she loves him. They were bad from the start, and not in the way Lu meant. They were the type of bad that would end worse, because that was the devastation Carla always left in her wake.

“It’s possible to want to protect someone and still be completely terrified of how much they mean to you, darling,” Lu murmurs, gentler this time.

“I just feel like if I stay, then this is all going to keep happening, Lu. The hurting each other. The dying. The fighting—god, I’m so tired of the fighting, fighting destiny, fighting my family.” She presses fingers to her forehead. “I mean, didn’t you get tired too? You’re right here with me, about to leave it all behind. No, you’re not going alone, but where’s your person?”

Once more that smile appears, and Carla finally knows where she’d recognized it from. It’s the one she herself wore whenever she was in Samuel’s apartment, whenever she thought about him. 

And Lu shifts, just slightly. Just enough for her dress to slide up half an inch. Just enough for Carla to see the beginnings of an N inked on the skin of her knee.

She doesn’t have to take a guess at what other letters follow it. 

Carla blinks. Once, twice. “Oh.” Then she releases a long breath. “Well, shit.”

That makes Lu laugh, loud and instantaneous enough that it causes a few people around them to turn their heads. “Believe me, I was just as surprised as you,” she replies. “To answer your question though: yes, I did get tired. But maybe I just got tired of fighting against things and not for them.”

“That’s all Samuel does. He fights for something until he’s lying there, bleeding out.” She shakes her head, glancing down at her lap. “I‘m not worth that battle. He deserves better.”

“Bullshit,” Lu says with so much vitriol that it catches Carla off-guard. “Bullshit, Carla. Listen, you all told me what happened with Polo was an accident. Do I still struggle with accepting that? Of course. Every fucking day since that night. But it was an accident—I didn’t go in there with it planned. Anything could have happened. Just like anything could have happened with Marina, with Christian. You weren’t responsible for that.”

“I texted my dad the night Christian was hit by the car. If I hadn’t, who knows—”

“You did what any frightened teenager would do. You turned to a parent for help, and unfortunately ours just happened to be… let downs,” Lu says. “Predicting, and maybe even preventing, everything from the past year and a half is impossible. Fate is a fucking bitch like that.”

“That’s the thing.” Carla sits there, finally about to face the question she’s been avoiding since the very beginning, and it invades her like smoke and shadows. “Was this just destiny’s way of forcing me and Samuel together? It feels like a damned omen.”

“Okay, listen closely to what I’m about to say, because I’m about to get Socrates-level philosophical.” 

Carla laughs dryly, rolling her eyes. “I think it’s a little too late for that.”

“Just listen, damn it.” Lu grabs her hand, looking at her straight-on. “I mean this, from the bottom of my heart, I mean this: us, our world, all of it; we were meant to unravel at some point, eventually. I think we were already fraying at the edges, even as high up on our horses as we were, and who’s to say if three scholarships or Marina or our parents or us period were the ones to pull the thread. It was meant to happen. Maybe not the way it did, but we don’t know if it could have gone better or worse. We can’t know all the different outcomes. We can’t know if this was the only possible one all along. It’s fucked up, but it’s coming from me, so it has to be true.

“And, honestly, you think that doesn’t scare me? You know I hate uncertainty. I like schedules, plans; meticulous, organized outlines. This thing with Nadia, I have no idea how it’s going to go, and that scares the ever-loving shit out of me, Carla. She has no idea that her name is written here, and right now, in this moment, I can’t tell you whether or not she ever will. For once in my life, I’m not thinking that far ahead. I’m only thinking about my happiness—which, you know, isn’t new, but in this annoyingly philosophical new-world Lu it is. But, fuck. I deserve it. I deserve this chance at happiness, and you know what? You do too.”

Carla doesn’t know exactly when she started crying, but her cheeks are slick. When she speaks her voice is so quiet even she can barely hear it. “What makes you so sure?” 

The other girl tuts softly, reaching up to brush some of the tears away. “Because you were the first one out of all of us who wanted to change. To do the right thing. You’re a good person, Carla, and Samuel...” She chuckles a bit to herself, like it’s ridiculous. “Samuel is intuitive to almost an infuriating degree. Do you really think he’d love you so much if you weren’t deserving of it?”

It’s the same as what Pilar had said to her the last time she was at his apartment. And it hits her just as hard—like a sledgehammer, like a wrecking ball—but the difference between now and then is that Carla is all the more closer to believing it. She wants to believe it.

But if she leaves right now, she’s depriving herself of the chance to.

“Sometimes I forget you’re the smartest person I know, Lucrecia,” Carla says then, feeling the edges of her lips curl up. 

Lu mirrors it, even if her words sound fake-annoyed. “You should know that all the time. I’ll pretend like I didn’t hear that, or the fact that you called me Lucrecia.”

They laugh quietly together for a moment until it evolves into something full-bellied and unrestrained, until more people are giving them odd looks, and it isn’t even that funny but they don’t care because they’re leaning into each other for support and clutching their hands tight and they’re Carla and Lu, friends and then not friends and then friends once again. The best of friends. Family. And maybe now they can stay that way for good, because they are not the same two girls they were before, and they’re tired of fighting.

“I should really get back before Nadia starts panicking,” Lu gasps a few moments later, slumped down in her seat and still giggling periodically. “Also, I left her with Malick and I imagine things might still be a bit stilted between them.”

“Isn’t Omar supposed to be with you guys?”

“He decided to go after the boy he loves ten minutes after we got here, like any sensible person would do.” She pointedly arches an eyebrow, waiting. “So...?”

Carla takes a deep breath. Flexes out the hand that had been gripping her passport, the one her mark sits just below. “No one’s ever accused me of being insensible before,” she responds, meeting Lu’s eyes once more. “I’d hate to have it happen now.”

“That’s my bitch.” Lu grins and leans in to peck her on the cheek. “I’ll call you when I land, okay? And you can tell me how things with Samu went, juicy details and all, because make up sex is the best and everybody knows it’s the quiet ones who can really give it to you. Honestly, I’ve been curious about it since I found out about you both.”

Lu,” she admonishes.

“What?” Her friend asks innocently. “It has to be true. You’re blushing.”

“Please. I don’t blush.”

“Might want to pull out your compact and look right now then, because that is exactly what you’re doing.” Lu finally gets up, the wink she gives before turning doing absolutely nothing to hide the twinkle in her eye. “Good luck, darling!” 

The words are accompanied by a wave thrown over her shoulder, and Carla smiles and watches her retreat until she can no longer pick her out within the crowd. She stays there for a few more minutes afterward, her nerves suddenly settling in now that she’s by herself again. It feels like she’s standing at a cliff edge looking down at the thousand-foot plummet.

With the nerves, however, also comes her resolve, and that she feels filling up her lungs, crisp and refreshing. It turns her spine to steel. This is something she hasn’t felt in a very long time, but it feels good. It feels right.

Carla stands, and anybody watching her could make up any story they wanted to, but nothing could ever come close to the truth. Even if they were to paint her as a girl going after her love, it would just be scratching the surface, because what she feels for Samuel transcends that. He’s her soulmate.

*

Regardless, she can’t bring herself to step foot in his apartment building once she gets there.

What she hadn’t expected was how her nerves and resolve would spend the entire trip here raging a ferocious battle, wreaking havoc on her insides and feeding the fear in her head, making it impossible to try and think about what she was even going to say when she saw him. It should be easy. Lu had made it sound so easy, and yet Carla has been standing outside for the past fifteen minutes, staring up at this structure like it was going to topple over and crush her beneath its rubble any minute now. The thought still seems less daunting than walking up those stairs and knocking on Samuel’s door.

She really wishes she’d at least gotten a drink with Lu before leaving. Or possibly five of them.

Instead she settles on walking over to the bench and taking a seat. She doesn’t regret coming, not like before, not like the last time she sat here, and she holds on to that. She can do this. She wants to do this. She just needs to be what Samuel thinks she is, brave, and that is much harder now that she’s actually here.

She looks at the seat, dragging her fingers across its grooves. She hadn’t paid much attention to it before; it’s covered in graffiti—names and vulgar words and pairs of initials circled in hearts—but, naturally, her eyes gravitate to the drawing a few inches away from her thigh. Hastily but still well-sketched, like the person who put it there was good at it but not putting in much effort in the moment. It’s an angel, wings and all, ascending towards a crude drawing of a dick that must have come from someone else afterward, done as it is in fresher, different colored ink and nowhere near as talented. Carla can’t help but giggle; if Lu was here, she’d roll her eyes.

The angel is far from the only drawing though, and not the only one by this artist. A mermaid sits on her other side; she spots a skeleton wearing headphones near the far end of the bench. A hand partially buried beneath months’ or even years’ worth of graffiti so that they almost look like tattoos, and more. The drawings are scattered about, old and new, with no particular theme to them. Just random doodles. And Carla recognizes the style anyway, because she turns around and is greeted with a miniature mural of flowers and constellations behind her back that was once done on her arm with washable pen in that very building across from her. Samuel is all over this bench. He’s all over that apartment. He’s all over her fucking heart and soul, and he is the bravest person she’s ever known. Perhaps he’s left traces of it in her that she can grasp onto; bundle together in the palm of her hand or the letters of her mark and use them to go face him. 

It turns out that she doesn’t have much of a choice, because movement catches in the corner of her eye and she looks up to find Samuel walking up the concrete steps a few yards away, hands tucked into the pockets of his hoodie. He spots her, slowing to a complete stop. Staring like he’s not completely sure she’s actually there.

It makes her smile. Small, hesitant, real. Like Lu’s. Like she hasn’t smiled in a very long time, and Carla lifts her hand to wave at him, the pulse—his pulse—in her brand beating like he’s just been struck with a defibrillator before immediately delving headfirst into a triathlon. He starts to wave back, a little like he’s shell shocked, and it’s only when she begins to rise that he jolts out of it and approaches her.

“Hey,” she says, tucking her hair behind her ear. With him so close now her anxiety threatens to overwhelm her, though for a moment it manifests into a small pang of unwanted jealousy as she realizes he’d been out. She tries not to think about him being with Rebeka, or what that would imply. She didn’t come this far to back down now. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”

“What?” He asks, confused. She gestures and he looks down at himself, as if he needs the reminder. “Ah, no. No, I only went for a walk.”

“Oh.” The relief flooding through her is swift, and she speaks before she can stop herself. “Good.” 

A vague expression of amusement settles over his features. “‘Good’?”

“I meant… it’s good. That you’re here.” 

Her face feels hot. Shit, maybe Lu had been right about the blushing.

And Samuel is smarter than he looks, but he’s also kind enough to not point out how she’s clearly fumbling right now. “I just needed to clear my head.”

She frowns. “Why?”

He stares at her for a long moment, eyes swallowing her whole, and she wants to drown for the second time in the past two weeks. She wants to eliminate the last few feet separating them, but it’s like there’s some invisible force there, stopping either of them from moving. His hands are still in his pockets; hers itch to brush his hair back again like she did in front of the club. 

“Aren’t you going to miss your flight?” Samuel asks instead of answering her question. It’s not said unkindly, but genuinely curious.

“There’ll be other flights.”

“Carla.” And there is so much emotion behind just that word, just her name, that she feels like she might burst. It sounds like the beginning of a plea, she realizes, and it tremors along the thick line of his eyelashes. “What are you doing here?”

He knows what she’s doing here. He has to know what she’s doing here, because he’s got that look on his face, because he’s smart, but she looks at him and is reminded that he is also the other half of this. Of them. He knows, but he’s wary. He has every right to be. He doesn’t want to get his hopes up.

So she has to say it. It should be easy. After all, she’s done it before. But he’d been fast asleep then and right now, with him staring back at her, Carla can’t speak. She only parts her lips and shivers with the sudden breeze.

Samuel notices.

“Come on,” he says. “Let’s go inside.”

Carla relishes in the warmth of their palms sliding together as she takes the hand he offers her, and it’s such a relief to feel him touching her again that she wants to sob. In that moment, she’s thankful that he can’t see her as she lets him lead her away.

Walking up to the building, climbing up the stairs—it’s less frightening with him there with her. Bravery… it’s not that he’s left it inside of her like fingerprints. He makes her brave, period. He makes her feel safe. They take each flight wordlessly, unhurriedly, but his thumb is resting against the backs of her knuckles and that makes it easier for Carla to stay out of her head. She focuses on it as they reach his floor, and she focuses on it as he uses his free hand to unlock the door and push it open. 

Just like it always had, though, the apartment causes her to pause as soon as she crosses the threshold. She lets it happen, accepting how it washes over her head to toe and sweeps everything away with its tide, and takes a deep breath: still the same scent. She opens her eyes, not even noticing that they’d shut in the first place: still the same dining table, the same couch, the same out-of-place rug covering a wine stain. Everything is the same. It’s only been a few months since she last stepped foot in here, but for some reason that surprises her. Wasn’t Valerio living with him briefly? Rebeka? As much as it makes her insides stir, shouldn’t there be echoes of her here?

Even poor people know what designer perfume smells like. It was all over the apartment up until a few weeks ago and now here it is again, back with you, she remembers being told. And it’s then that she sees the familiar Tupperware sitting on his coffee table, a lone fork resting on the lid, and she decides that she doesn’t care.

“Are you hungry?” Samuel asks when he catches her looking. “Thirsty?”

She shakes her head. She might not feel like a nervous wreck anymore, but she doesn’t think she can handle eating just yet. And she doesn’t want to put this off any longer. “I’m okay, thanks.” He watches her expectantly and she swallows, taking off her coat and hanging it over the back of one of the dining chairs. It’s an over-familiar habit done before she can stop it, and picking it back up would just be awkward, so she doesn’t. “I… can we sit?”

He nods wordlessly, beginning to guide her to the couch like she can’t see it from where she’s standing, like she hasn’t made the walk herself a number of times, like they haven’t had—

That thought gets whisked away as Samuel changes course and pulls her in the direction of his room instead. She wonders if it’s an excuse to sit closer to her, because they perch on the foot of his small bed, a few inches of space between them but their knees close to touching. Still, he lets go of her hand and patiently waits for her to say something, so she does eventually. It comes out with a short, dry laugh. 

“Well. I honestly don’t even know where to start.”

“How about with why you’re not on a plane headed to the other side of the world?” He gently reminds her.

“Right. I was. I mean, I almost was, and then I ran into Lu and she more or less told me I was being an idiot.” Samuel’s eyebrows are furrowed like he’s trying to figure out where she’s going with this. She inhales, long and deep, bracing herself. “Meaning I was leaving probably the one person I truly have left behind for who knows how long, possibly forever, and all because I felt like I wasn’t deserving of them.” 

She meets his eyes. Bravery. “Of… of you.” 

“Why?”

“I don’t know, Samuel. Everything. And I’m—” Her voice wavers, her gaze drops again, but she trudges on. She needs to. “I’m scared of you. For you. What you mean to me and how much it would fucking hurt if you were taken away.”

It’s abrupt, then: a sob swallows the tail end of her sentence, escaping her throat so unbiddenly that it shocks her into crumpling, shoulders shaking. Samuel immediately draws her into his arms, tucking her head beneath his chin. She presses her face into his shirt and doesn’t care that her makeup is probably going to get smudged or that she’s drenching it with her tears. His heart’s beating—rapidly, yes, but it’s beating and the assurance of that is what she needs right now. She takes a ragged breath. “So I decided it would be easier if I removed myself before that could happen, but that’s not fair. It’s not fair to either of us.”

“Carla,” he murmurs, soothing a hand over her hair, “I’m not going anywhere. Nothing is going to happen to me. When I went… missing, you know that wasn’t—”

“You don’t understand. Samuel, I thought my father had you hurt like he did Christian. Worse. I thought you were dead.”

He holds her even closer, his own voice sounding tight and brittle; full of regret. “I should have never done that to you.”

“No, you aren’t getting it,” she snaps, sitting up. “In the club, when I told you that you meant nothing to me, did you really believe that? My dad—he was watching us. And he said that if he ever saw you near me again, he’d…” 

Realization dawns on his face and she runs her hands over her own, fingers burying themselves in her hair as she leans forward on her knees. She exhales all the emotion that’s trapped in her sternum; a few seconds later she feels Samuel’s hand curling around her arm, tugging gently. 

“Come here,” he says, repeating it when she looks at him questioningly. She acquiesces, letting him wrap his arms around her once more, and next thing she knows they’re lying on their backs on the mattress. She instinctively curls into him, drawing her knees up and resting her head on his chest. They lie there for a minute, Samuel dragging his fingers back and forth along her arm, and he eventually breaks the silence again. “You’re the strongest person I’ve ever known.”

It’s spoken with such conviction. Her body rejects it. “Don’t say that.”

“You are. It’s true.”

And what she says next is easier to admit when she can’t see his face. “A strong person wouldn’t let their parents force them to date someone they didn’t want to be with.”

Samuel stiffens beneath her, his hand halting in its movement. She squeezes her eyes shut, waiting for his reaction, and is surprised when his fingers tuck under her chin and lift her head up so that she has no choice but to look at him. “Then your parents are the weak ones, not you.” She presses her lips together, about to argue, but he cuts her off before she can. “Why would they make you be with Yeray?”

“Why else?” She scoffs, though it only sounds like a tired gust of air. “Money. Status. We were going bankrupt; Yeray could prevent that. And I guess I was afraid of losing it too,” she admits quietly.

“It’s okay to be scared of losing everything,” he says. “But I know you. You were protecting your family.”

“How do you know?”

“Because… that’s what you do. You’re always protecting something. Or someone. I should have realized that sooner.” She relaxes; it feels good to finally admit it out loud to him, to finally watch the secrets she’s been keeping dissolve into nothing. And she also watches him fight a smile suddenly, biting his lip. “I imagine I didn’t make it any easier, huh?”

“No, and it was fucking annoying,” she retorts, scowling, but his laugh bursts out of him anyway. It’s the same one she used to hear from him all the time here, boyish and bright, and it fills her with so much warmth that the swat she aims at him has almost no force behind it, her fingers glancing off of his chest before he traps them there beneath his own hand, still chuckling. She’s smiling too, soft and fond, even as she continues. “You’re so thick-headed. It was driving me crazy.”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he gasps, and he lifts her fingers to his mouth and kisses the tips of them with the apology. It makes her breath immediately catch in her lungs. “Fuck. I’m so stupid.”

“Hm,” she sighs. “No. Oblivious, maybe, but no. Not stupid.”

“Both, then. Because I was gonna text you earlier, but didn’t. I’m the dumbass who was going to let you go.”

They hold each other’s gaze for a moment before Samuel looks down at where he’s idly playing with her fingers. His eyelashes fall like dark shades over his cheekbones, and she fights the urge to reach out and touch them if only because she doesn’t want him to stop.

“But it’s over now?” He asks apropos of nothing. She raises an eyebrow. “You and Yeray. It’s over.”

“Yeah,” she exhales softly, relieved that it’s the truth. “It’s all over. Everything is.”

“Good.”

She huffs a laugh and echoes what he said to her earlier. “‘Good’?”

“Yeah, good, because that means I can do this,” Samuel replies, and leans up to press their lips together.

Not too long ago Carla had thought she would never get the chance to kiss him again. Every single one she shared with Yeray she had spent wishing it was Samuel, thinking about how it felt to have his lips against hers, but now she knows her memory hadn’t done it justice. She lets go of his hand to cup his face, fingers framing his ears, and it’s slow, deep; filled with so much resolved longing that she never wants to come up for air. And she’s a fire personified, the spark starting in her brand and lighting up her entire body so that she presses into him even more, like that would douse her flames. It doesn’t though, and she doesn’t want it to anyway. If anything it just makes her more desperate. She thrives in it. 

Samuel slides his hands down her back and to her waist, touches his tongue to her lips, and she thrives in it.

Eventually they do have to part for air, however, and they break away, gasping lightly. Carla rests her forehead against his, closing her eyes and basking in it, this familiarity; the untouchable sensation that comes with being in this apartment, this pocket dimension, this bubble. But now she knows nothing can pop it, not anymore, and this place is real, real, real. Whatever is said or done here means everything.

And she just has one truth left to reveal.

But as soon as she parts her lips, Samuel smiles and speaks before courage completely finds her. “You were jealous earlier,” he says, sounding entirely too pleased with himself and distracting her from her train of thought. “Outside. You were jealous.”

She rolls her eyes. “I’ve been jealous for the past few months,” she points out.

“Well, you don’t have to be anymore.” He pauses, cocking his head thoughtfully as he reconsiders, and then brings up two fingers like he’s pinching the space between them. “Actually, maybe sometimes. Small doses.”

“Is that so?” She’s grinning.

“I like it,” he replies, serious now. Samuel lifts his eyes to hers; the sincerity there is evident. Intense. “It makes me feel like I’m yours.”

Her grin widens, and he brings his hand up to brush her hair back, tucking it behind her ear. He looks from her eyes to her mouth and back again, and she begins to sober as the contentedness stretches between them. Now, she says to herself, tell him now, before you get derailed again.

“Samuel.” She lifts her own hand, mark searing, and touches his bottom lip; swallows down the anxiety that forms in her throat. Samuel, seeming to sense the seriousness, looks up at her and not without a hint of trepidation, like he’s afraid she’s about to crush whatever tentative thing they’ve just managed to repair. But she smiles in reassurance, and it forms around a lone whispered word. “Samu.”

“You’ve never called me that before.”

Carla slowly sits up, swinging her leg over and settling herself in his lap. Her dress rides up her thighs and his hands naturally come to rest on them, warm and slightly clammy. She lifts her wrist, undoes the strap of her watch, and places it on the bed beside them. Gazes at that name staring back at her. 

Samuel is looking at her too, patiently if not curiously, eyes flicking between her hand and her face. She takes a deep breath, brushing her thumb over her mark. The seconds feel heavy as they tick by, and, for the first time in her life, Carla gives herself that needed nudge before destiny has the chance to. “You are mine, though,” she confesses, lowering her arm for him to see just what she means.

He blinks slowly; his pulse picks up as he stares, and stares, and stares. She feels it, though her own threatens to overwhelm all of her senses while she waits for him to just say something, thunderous as it is. And he doesn’t say anything, not yet, but he does slowly wrap two fingers around her wrist, drawing her hand closer to him. His face is inscrutable, so she keeps talking to fill the silence; to distract herself from the way her insides feel like they’re being rotated. 

“Lu was right, I was being an idiot. Because I never once thought about how this didn’t just go one way, even though I’m the only one whose skin is marked.” She laughs softly, more nervous than anything. “Leaving Madrid wasn’t going to make it disappear for you any more than it would for me. I was… I was running away.”

Samuel finally looks up at her. He hasn’t touched her brand yet, but his fingers are bordering it just so. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

She thinks back to that night when he asked her about soulmarks. That time had been during the turning point; the space between whatever this was between them being just a game and something that she seriously entertained the thought of—dinners and dating and all. Love. It had been when Carla was starting to realize she was in love.  

And she isn’t sure it would have made much of a difference then anyway. Again, Lu was right—they needed their world to be pulled apart. They needed it to, so they could put it back together how they wanted.

“My entire life I’ve been taught I was above everything else, including destiny. I was taught to hate it, and I did. Vehemently. For so, so long. But now I know that it wasn’t destiny controlling me. It was my father, my parents; these people and their ignorant ideals. My own arrogance.” She turns her wrist in Samuel’s hand. He lets her go easily, still peering up at her, and she places her mark over his heart like she did that night. His eyes widen once he feels how the beats sync up. “I want to live my life how I want now.”

He seems frozen in place beneath her. “Yeah?” 

She nods. “I don’t know what the future holds, but I know that I want to be with you. And I… I know that… I lov—”

Samuel surges up then, capturing her lips in another kiss and wrapping his arms around her waist to keep her from toppling over. She kisses him back for a few seconds before huffing against him. “You couldn’t have waited until after I said it?”

“Part of me has always known,” he murmurs distractedly. “And you were taking forever.”

Carla tugs on his hair, equal parts playful and chastising. “Samuel.

He coyly butts his nose against the underside of her jaw. “Okay, tell me. I wanna hear you say it after all.”

She uses one hand to grab him by the face as he begins to kiss her neck, holding him back. The innocent smile he’s giving her is squished between her thumb and fingers, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it makes her heart skip. She narrows her eyes anyway. “You boys are all the same,” she teases.

That smile gets a bit wider. He looks absolutely ridiculous, and her chest is full to bursting. “Except not me, because I’m your soulmate.” 

He says it with such care, such affection—and such haughty smugness because he knows that as much as he’s hers, she is his.

Carla tilts his head to the side, leaning in close so that her words are uttered directly into his ear. 

“I love you, Samuel García.”

It’s funny—he inhales sharply like he hadn’t been expecting it, hands squeezing where they’re resting on her hips, and when she pulls his face back he looks half-caught between dazed and still overpleased. She kisses it off of him, and he falls back with her weight until they’re lying down again. It’s lazy, deep and unhurried. She doesn’t know how long they stay like that, but she’s content to do nothing but lie here all night, trading kisses and smiles and warmth. When they part again, she presses her face into his neck and breathes him in as he traces random shapes on her back. Relaxation and contentment crawl up her spine like vines of ivy, and as the minutes pass Carla feels her eyelids begin to grow heavy, the emotion of the day finally catching up to her. 

“We’ll figure it out,” Samuel mutters then, elaborating when she shuffles sleepily against him. “Whatever the future holds. We can figure it out together.”

Carla makes a quiet noise of agreement, and the last thing she registers before falling asleep is Samuel caressing his own name on her skin. 

*

In California there sits an apartment that basks in warm weather and overlooks one of the many beaches, a small, modern thing decorated intimately, homely; and in its master bedroom creeps a molten slice of sunlight that cuts through the sheer curtains and right across Carla’s face, slowly stirring her awake. She tries to hold on to the remnants of slumber still, eyelashes fluttering rebelliously against the gleam, but she’s never been one to sleep in anyway, so she ultimately gives in. Stretching, her arm searches the space beside her on its own accord and finds nothing but cool, rumpled sheets; she turns away from the window to blink blearily at the other side of her bed. Empty. She exhales a tiny sigh, rolls on to her back, and drags a hand over her eyes.

She needs to get up. She has a video call with Valerio regarding the wineries at ten and a business lecture on campus a couple hours afterward, and a brief glance at her phone tells her it’s already a few minutes past eight. She needs to get up, so she does, extending her arms above her head and padding over to the en suite. When she comes back out some short while later, cinching her robe around her waist, she casts one look around the room. There are clothes scattered everywhere, never mind the fact that she hasn’t made the bed. She should definitely pick up a few things, at the very least. 

At some point later today, she decides as she walks out into the hall, because there’s a boy standing at her stove in nothing but a pair of pajama pants cooking breakfast, and both of those things are infinitely more enticing to her at the moment.

Samuel’s hair has grown out a bit over the past year, curling around the nape of his neck and ears, and right now it sticks up in all manner of directions. He’s never even heard of a comb unless he’s just coming out of the shower, but he’s at least had the foresight to make coffee: a steaming mug he must still be drinking out of sits on the counter behind him, and she swipes it up on her way over, pressing an espresso-flavored kiss to his shoulder blade as she leans into him.

He glances back at her in surprise, his hand coming to cup hers where it rests over his abdomen. “Hey, good morning. Sleep well?”

“Mm, yeah,” she hums. “It would still be nice to wake up with you next to me, though.”

“We both know then that we would never get out of bed and would probably die of starvation,” Samuel points out with the spatula in his hand. “Besides, pancakes are your favorite.”

She settles against the counter next to him, watching him flip a slightly over-brown one and hiding her subsequent smile behind the rim of her mug. She doesn’t do a very good job because he glances at her anyway, doing a double-take. “Is that my coffee?”

“Well,” she responds, taking a sip and tilting her head thoughtfully. “Not anymore.”

He narrows his eyes. She widens hers innocently and is fully prepared for when he lunges for the mug a second later, spinning out of his reach and gracefully managing not to spill a single drop. She laughs as he chases her around the kitchen island, loud and bright. “Samu, you’re going to burn breakfast!”

“It’s already burnt,” he says dismissively, trapping her between his body and the cupboards. He trails his lips along her jaw, but jerks back with a slight hiss when she playfully presses the hot ceramic against his bare stomach. “You’re being a brat.”

Carla arches her eyebrows, letting him pluck the cup out of her hands so he can place it on the countertop next to her. “Oh, I’m being a brat?”

“Yes, you’re being a brat.” The words are muffled between kisses against the slope of her neck. “And you’re making me burn the food.”

“I thought it was already burnt.”

He leans away again, sighing impatiently. “Do you want me to kiss you or would you really rather I save that poor pancake turning black over there?”

“I’d prefer you didn’t burn our apartment down above anything else, honestly,” she chides lightly, and Samuel lets out a long-suffering groan as he goes to turn off the stove. She still catches the way the tips of his ears go pink, though, and the pleased expression he always gets whenever he’s reminded this place is theirs like it hasn’t been since he finished his repeat year at Las Encinas almost two months ago and even before then, because Carla had bought it with him in mind. This place had been perfect for the two of them. Them. Together.

She has to admit, even she still has trouble believing it sometimes. There are nights where her old nightmares come back to haunt her and she wakes up with her mind racing, but those nights are getting farther and fewer in between and Samuel is always there to hold her until she can go back to sleep. She doesn’t have to worry anymore. When summer classes are over he will start his first year of university with her in the fall, and they can stay up late at night studying in the living room over wine and macaroni until he’s drooling in his textbook and she has to drag him to their bed. They can fly to New York to meet up with Lu and Nadia before they all head back to Madrid for the holidays to spend it with their friends and Nadia’s family, their family, and they can video call Pilar and Nano too—tentatively, a bit awkwardly, but also openly. Full of hope. 

And Carla doesn’t have to see or talk to her own parents if she doesn’t want to. She doesn’t have to worry about anything anymore, because she just takes it one day at a time.  

“What are you thinking about?” She blinks back into awareness to find Samuel standing in front of her again. He looks like he’s trying not to be concerned but can’t help it anyway, and Carla smiles soothingly, reaching up to brush her fingers through his hair. 

“Nothing. Just you.” 

“Oh, thanks,” he says dryly.

She rolls her eyes at him. “You know what I meant.” 

He leans his head into her touch with a grin, apparently content to use his girlfriend’s fingers as a comb over the real thing. She really shouldn’t encourage him, and yet. 

“Seriously, though. You’re okay?” He asks a few seconds later.

And she tilts her head up, pecking him on the lips. “Seriously. I’m okay.” 

She has never been more sure of anything else in her entire life, because Carla is who she is. She is in love, she is happy, and she is free.