Penance. It was such a simple, elegant word. And yet, Ange thought, pressing her hand to the half-finished stone wall, it was so difficult to take out of the theoretical and make into a reality. If she closed her eyes, she could imagine penance as a heartbeat pulsing through the veins of the stone as it formed into a wall, but when she opened them again, it was nothing more than stone, unfinished and cold.
"Hey, Sis," a familiar voice said behind her. "That's your church, huh? Doesn't look like much of one to me."
Ange smiled and smoothed a hand down her skirts before turning. The past year had been kind to Hermana; in the time since they'd last seen each other the girl had shot up like a beansprout, and she stood taller than Ange, now. "Hello, Her. I didn't realize you were coming to visit."
"I just kinda decided." Hermana grinned and folded her arms across her chest. "I remembered it was real cold here and it's real hot in Sania this time of year."
"So you… convinced them to let you come?" Ange blinked. "Really, if it had been anyone other than you, I would wonder what Iria was thinking."
Hermana shrugged. "'S me," she said. "Don't I get a hug, Sis?"
"I think you're a little tall for hugs," Ange said with a raised eyebrow, but she reached out to wrap her arms around Hermana anyway. She didn't miss the breath Hermana let out and the accompanying slump against Ange's shoulder. "What's the matter? Did something happen back at Sania?"
Hermana shook her head against the top of Ange's shoulder. "I'm just real tired," she mumbled. "Travelin' here is a lot more difficult on my own."
It could have been the truth. But Ange was used to hearing the hidden things under people's words, listening to what they meant rather than what they said. And she could hear the lie in every weary syllable. She stayed there, silent, and didn't push it when Hermana stayed there as though she'd forgotten how to pull away.
Finally, she did, with a large smile that didn't quite mask the circles under her eyes now that Ange was looking more closely. "Why don't you come inside and have some food?" Ange offered. "We should have some chicken left over from last night…"
"Chicken!" Hermana enthused. "Yeah, okay, I'll eat that." She trotted after Ange like a lanky puppy. "Sania's not real bad or nothin', they got lots of stuff, but they're nothin' like we used to eat everywhere, like restaurants. They don't have a lot, either, 'cept they got more now that they're gettin' fundin'."
"Hmm." Ange stepped inside Albert's house and led Hermana to the kitchen to wash her hands. "How is that school of Iria's turning out?"
"'S nice." Hermana stared at her dripping hands for a moment before reaching deliberately for the towel. "It's real hard, even harder than learnin' to read sometimes. But the teacher's real patient."
She fell silent, after that, and Ange went over to the icebox to examine the contents for the promised chicken. She found it, along with some Alias YumYum, and started the oven warming.
"I don't think I'm a real good mom," Hermana said into the silence, her voice thick.
They weren't her own, but the words came like a punch to the gut anyway. Ange flinched. "Oh."
"I'm not tryin' to be, what's the word, self-pityin'?" Hermana's voice rose to a higher pitch and speeded up, like she was trying to get the words out as fast as possible. "I just… I kinda feel like I screwed up the first time around, and now I got these kids dependin' on me still, but it's real hard." She breathed out and tucked her chin against her chest. "It was lots easier travelin' with you guys."
"Oh, Her," Ange said helplessly. "Come here, I think you need another hug." Hermana shuffled her feet, but she didn't protest, and she leaned into Ange's body just as long as she had before. "Her, you're only fourteen. Most people don't become mothers until they're much older than that."
"But--" Hermana protested, pulling back a little.
Ange held Hermana firmly. Hermana was stronger, had more experience slipping out of another person's grasp, but she settled back into the embrace without much fuss. "No. Listen to me. That lifetime… it's gone, right? You're here, now, and you're still a child."
"I know you've taken care of them as best you can, and they love you very much, but, honestly, if Sania isn't doing something about this, I will come and have a talk with them. You're a child, too, Her." Ange stroked Hermana's hair; it was soft, still cropped close to her skull.
Hermana sighed. "You're still the one who treats me best, Sis," she said, her voice wistful. "I wish bein' a kid was easy like you always make it seem." She pulled back to poke at the chicken with an attitude that was more recognizably Hermana. "Everyone's always treatin' me real young or real old, nothin' in between."
"Well," Ange said, "I do have some experience with that sort of thing."
Hermana grinned at her, full-force this time. "You were always young to me," she said. "All of you were. And now I'm the young one, huh? Everyone should be pamperin' me."
"I'm not so sure about that. You'd get tired of it after a while." Ange reached out to pluck Hermana's hand away from the meal. "You're not lazy enough to let other people do all the work."
The air between them was warm with the scent of food and home, but that wasn't enough to distract Hermana. She looked at Ange with those same eyes that had sat in Vritra's face so long ago. "I don't think you are, either, Sis."
"Not anymore," Ange said softly. "I'd like to, but I've done so much harm."
Hermana sighed again. "Makin' mistakes is hard. I dunno how to be a mom or not be a mom. But I wanna be somethin' else for a little."
"If only the past were so easy to shed." Ange laughed a little, self-deprecatingly. "I suppose if it were, none of us would be ourselves, though, would we?" She took the chicken and set it on the table in front of Hermana. She resisted the urge to take some for herself.
Hermana set on the chicken with a gusto that seemed to be reserved for food and enemies. "Guess not. And you're still makin' your church. Why's it gotta be a new one here instead of an old one there? It's been long enough, I bet you could now."
"Because I destroyed that one," Ange said simply. "They wouldn't want me to come back and make things worse, no matter how long it's been."
"You'd be makin' it better." Ange watched Hermana look up and calculate things in her head, adding up what was undoubtedly the correct formula before shrugging and returning to her meal. "So how do I stop bein' a mom?"
"You could stay here with me, for a bit. I could teach you to be lazier."
Hermana looked up again, this time to beam. "Whoa, you'd really let me stay, just like that?"
"Just for a little bit." Ange folded her hands in her lap. "I wonder if maybe you could teach me to be a little less lazy in exchange."
"I could help you build your church," Hermana offered. "I'm not real smart, but I'm good at liftin' stuff and puttin' it places."
"You're smart enough, Her." Ange smiled at her, feeling warm down to her bones. "But I think we could definitely help each other."
Hermana licked her lips and reached for the Alias YumYum. "That's easier than just takin' help, probably, 'cause that way you're doin' somethin', too," she said, casually as anything. But Ange felt the words all the way through her.
"Yes. It probably is." She sat back and watched Hermana enthusiastically devour the dessert, feeling a calm settle through her that she hadn't felt in years. "It's all right," she said, mostly to herself. "We have time to figure these things out." With that settled, and the YumYum rapidly disappearing, she snagged a spoon for herself and dipped it in alongside Hermana's.