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The Time We Have

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ONE

Juliana wandered aimlessly through the lush green park on the northside of Mexico City, trying to linger there as long as possible before heading to her families too small home on the other side of the city. She had hoped the move to the city from San Antonio would calm her father down a bit, or at least keep him out of the house more, but she was wrong. Chino’s the same man he’s been for the last fifteen years of her life, a scumbag hitman for a drug cartel who has no trouble taking his problems out on his family. Juliana learned long ago to steer clear of him whenever possible and avoid the house even more, lest she have another encounter with the disgusting men her father worked for. Meeting them once was quite enough for Juliana, she didn’t think she’d ever forget the way they looked at her, like she was there for their pleasure only.

Juliana shook her head to clear her thoughts, suppressing the shiver that wanted to run down her spine at the memory. She pulled her phone out of her pocket to check the time, sighing in relief when she realized she wouldn’t be expected home for another couple of hours. She had enough time to walk home if she wanted too. As she pondered her options, Juliana looked around the park, her gaze falling on a lone figure on a bench. She’s hunched over, long light brown hair obscuring her face from view so all Juliana can see is long legs clad in tight, light blue jeans. Well, that, and her shaking shoulders. Juliana isn’t sure if the girl is crying or not until she sees one hand move to wipe at her eyes. Before she can stop herself, Juliana is walking over to the bench.

“Is everything okay?”

The girl looks up and Juliana feels her breath catch in her throat as she looks into startling blue eyes for the first time. They’re rimmed in red and watery, but the beauty in them takes Juliana’s breath away. She wipes at her cheeks again before answering.

“Fine, everything’s fine.” Her tone betrays her, her voice cracking as she says the last word. Juliana looks at her for a moment, considering, and then takes a seat beside her when she finally breaks eye contact.

“Your clothes are very beautiful,” Juliana says into the silence, truly meaning it now that she’s close enough to see her complete outfit. She almost reaches out to touch the fringe of the strange girl’s jacket but restrains herself. The girl offers a soft thank you in return, turning her head to look more closely at Juliana. She runs her eyes over the girls form, obviously looking for something to compliment in return. “It’s okay, I know I’m not wearing anything like you are.”

“No,” she replies, gesturing with one hand at Juliana’s red t-shirt and jeans, “I like your style. Proves that money isn’t everything.”

“You think so?” Juliana asks and the girl nods in response. “Well, then give me everything you have.” Juliana intentionally lowers her voice, but she can’t help the grin that spreads across her face as the other girl looks at her. Her expression is so shocked Juliana has to giggle. “It’s a joke, I’m kidding.” The other girl covers her face, falling into Juliana slightly as she laughs.

“Valentina.” She offers her hand after lifting her head from Juliana’s shoulder once she stops giggling.

“Juliana.” They shake hands, wide smiles on their lips.

Juliana spends the rest of the day in the park with Valentina, cheering her up since she had apparently had a fight with her older sister earlier which is why she was alone, crying in the park. Valentina is so open and warm, sunshine personified and Juliana feels lucky to breath the same air as Val. They grab dinner together from a burger vendor on the far side of the park and share a double order of fries as they sit across from one another at a small table. They talk endlessly, moving from topic to topic and then circling back as if they had been doing it all their lives. Before Juliana knows it, the sun is setting in the west and she has three missed calls from her mother.

She accepts Valentina’s offer to give her a ride home but makes the driver stop two blocks before her house. She doesn’t want her father to see her with someone new, doesn’t want him to ruin the blossoming friendship she has with Valentina. Before she gets out of the car, Valentina asks if they can hang out again and Juliana almost says no.

A part of her wants to send Val running, scare her off with horror stories of her life with her dad. She almost pretends that she doesn’t want to see Valentina again, but Juliana finds she can’t deny it, to herself or to Val. They’ve only spent half a day together and Juliana already can’t say no to her. So she promises to see her again and makes sure Valentina has her phone number before getting out of the car and walking the rest of the way home.

When Juliana wakes up the next morning, it’s to a text from Valentina inviting her over to hang out. Again, Juliana can’t say no.

~

Valentina really isn’t sure how they ended up in the pool. She invited Juliana over to watch movies, maybe play a game or something. She honestly didn’t care what they did, as long as she got to see Juliana again. The girl was all she could think about since dropping her off the day before. Juliana had helped Valentina feel better after yet another fight with her sister. Eva always thought she knew what was best for the family, ever since their mother died when Val was seven, Eva had tried to take on that maternal role but she just couldn’t do it. The more she tried to control Valentina, the more Val rebelled. It got even worse when their father, León, started dating again. Eva tried to run off every woman he brought home to meet them, until he met Lúcia.

Valentina liked Lúcia. She’s intelligent, beautiful and she really loves their father. Eva thinks she’s nothing more than a gold digger after their family fortune. That’s what she and Val had been arguing about on the way home when Valentina made her stop at the park so she could be alone. She was so tired of arguing with Eva. She felt like she had been doing it all her life and it had only gotten worse when León announced he had asked Lúcia to marry him. Valentina planned to have a good cry in the park, get her emotions back in check before heading home to talk with Eva again. Juliana had turned her tears into laughter and by the time Valentina got home, fighting with Eva couldn’t have been further from her mind.

Valentina had sent a driver to pick up Juliana and then spent an embarrassingly long amount of time trying to decide what to wear. She’s glad she went with simple jeans and a light blouse when Juls arrives wearing her own jeans and t-shirt, paired with her beat up converse. Valentina hopes her heart isn’t beating hard enough in her chest for Juliana to be able to tell when they hug, because she can hear the beat ringing in her ears and it only grows faster as she pulls the slightly shorter girl close. They move into the TV room after they part, Juliana staring in wonder at the grand Carvajal mansion. It’s the biggest house she’s ever been inside and she feels sort of out of place. Her scuffed sneakers and ratty jeans clearly don’t belong in the immaculate Carvajal family home. She can’t help but feel a little unworthy.

Valentina must be able to tell that Juliana feels out of place because instead of settling in to watch a movie, they go upstairs to Val’s bedroom. Although the room is still bigger than Juliana is used too, it feels more lived in. She can see pieces of Val scattered around the room and that calms her down a bit. Something about Valentina sets her at ease, draws her in, like in the park the day before. Juliana has no idea why Valentina has this affect on her but she can’t bring herself to fight it. Valentina came into her life like a breath of fresh air and Juliana finally feels like she can breathe. So, they sit on Valentina’s bed and talk, about anything that comes to mind. The topic turns to summer vacations at one point and Juliana admits she doesn’t do much over breaks because she can’t swim.

They’re downstairs in the pool twenty minutes later. Juliana wears a bikini she borrowed from Val and slides into the thankfully warm water where Valentina is waiting for her, dressed in her own black one piece swimsuit. They stand together in the shallow end of the pool, water only coming up to their hips.

“Are you okay?” Valentina asks when a long stretch of silence covers them. Juliana nods slowly, taking a deep breath through her nose. The floral scent of Val’s perfume mixes with the chlorine from the pool as she breathes in. Valentina slides her hands along Juliana’s arms until their hands meet. “We’ll start with something simple, okay?”

Valentina moves so she’s standing beside Juliana, putting one arm around her back to steady her. Her fingers twist in the ends of Juliana’s hair and she can see the girl relax. “Take a deep breath and lean back. Don’t worry, I’m going to hold you up.”

Juliana follows Valentina’s instructions. As she leans back, Val crouches down and accepts her weight, moving her free arm to hold Juliana’s legs so she ends up being held bridal style. Juliana’s arms lift to circle Valentina’s shoulders.

“Relax, Juls,” Val says and waits until the muscles beneath her palm unclench. “Relax and breathe, I’ve got you.”  

They’re pressed close together, Juliana can feel the heat of Valentina’s body against hers, warmer than the water around them. She closes her eyes and leans back, feeling the water move along her skin She feels Valentina’s grip loosening, her hand shifting so she’s not holding onto Juliana completely, letting her hold herself up.

“Wait, don’t let go,” her voice comes out as a shaky whisper and she loses her focus on floating as she clings to Valentina. Her head almost goes underwater but Val reacts fast enough to pick her back up.

“I’m not letting go,” Valentina assures her and for the first time Juliana notices how soft Val’s lips look. They rest chest to chest in the water, Valentina holding Juls close to her body. It feels different than when they hugged the day before, or earlier when Juliana arrived. This time, they’re close enough that Juliana can see the way Valentina’s eyes slightly change shades, the smallest flicks of gold around her pupils. Valentina tilts her head so their foreheads press together. Juliana feels her breath catch in her throat as she looks at Valentina’s lips again.

“Do you want to try again?” Valentina asks without moving from her position. Juliana nods, her heart stuttering in her chest when the motion pushes her lips fractionally closer to Vals. They do the same thing again, Valentina gently holding Juliana up until she feels confident enough for Val to let go.

When Juliana leaves for home hours later, wrapped up in one of Valentina’s hoodie because she got cold when they finally got around to watching a movie, all she can think about is the gold flecks in Valenitna’s eyes and the shape of her lips. It thrills her and scares her in the same breathe. She’s never felt like this before, this fluttering in her stomach is unfamiliar, but she can’t deny the warmth she feels around Val. She wonders if Valentina feels the same way.

~

They develop a habit after those first couple of days, of going to the park together after school and then spending the weekend at Valentina’s house. Valentina goes to a private school and Juliana goes to public school so they don’t see each other until school gets out but neither of them mind. They meet in the park, Juliana teases Val about her private school uniform, and just hang out together until the sun goes down. They do homework when they have it, Valentina swears Juliana is so intelligent she could get the best scholarship to her school and they could have class together but Juliana just shrugs it off. Mostly they walk around the park, holding hands and talking about anything and everything under the sun.

It was during one of these walks that Juliana discovered Valentina didn’t know how to dance. The admission came softly from Val, her cheeks coloring as she and Juliana watched a dance class in progress on the pavillion down the hill from them.

“You don’t know how to dance?” Juliana asked, a wide smile splitting her face in half. “I can teach you, if you want.”

“Really? You don’t have too.”

“You didn’t have to teach me how to swim either.” Juliana points out. “Come with me.”

She takes Valentina’s hand and leads her to an unoccupied pavillion. The music from the dance class changes, Juliana smiles as she recognizes the song. Valentina has a nervous smile on when Juliana turns back to her, pulling her lower lip between her teeth as she follows Juliana’s directions. Juliana rests her hand on Val’s waist, clearing her throat slightly as she lines up their hands correctly. She counts off the steps, gently guiding Valentina to move with her.

“You know, when you dance like this, you’re supposed to look each other in the eye.” Juliana says when she notices Valentina watching their feet. Valentina’s eyes shoot up to look at Juliana and she stutters out a response about not wanting to step on Juliana’s feet. Juliana giggles but doesn’t comment on it again. They keep dancing, Valentina’s hand moving from Juliana’s shoulder to her hip as she gains confidence. They don’t notice when the song changes, their bodies moving together under Juliana’s direction. Valentina gains enough confidence to look into Juliana’s eyes as they dance instead of at their feet.

Neither of them notice when they stop dancing and simply stand there, gazing at one another. The sun is setting over the park by then, they know they’ll soon have to separate until the next day. Their embrace slowly changes into a tight hug, Valentina tucks her head against Juliana’s neck. When Juliana suggests they should get home, Valentina pulls back. The fading sunlight hits Juliana, a glow like that of an angel surrounding her. Valentina licks her lips and watches as Juliana’s eyes follow the motion.

It’s the first time Juliana realizes she wants to kiss Valentina.

It’s the first time Valentina realizes she wants to be kissed by Juliana.

Instead they pull apart and walk to Valentina’s driver. Juliana pauses before getting out of the car when they arrive a block away from her home. Valentina looks at her curiously and Juliana leans over. She kisses Valentina’s cheek and whispers a goodbye before climbing out. Valentina’s smile is bright, Juliana swears she can see it when she turns to wave at the car driving off.

After that, Juliana found herself opening up to Valentina in a way she never had before. She tried not to, she didn’t like talking about her father or her life at home and never wanted to drag Valentina down with her family’s bullshit. Juliana would try to move the conversation to lighter topics, and for a while Val would let her, but that didn’t last long. Valentina would never pressure her to talk about it, she just made sure to remind Juliana that she was there to listen whenever Juliana wanted to talk. Juliana started giving her little details, mostly about her not getting along with her father and his excessive drinking. She promises Valentina it doesn’t get worse than her father yelling a lot when he’s had too much to drink.

She wishes that was the truth

~

Juliana isn’t expecting the hit when it comes. She knows Chino is angry, but that isn’t out of the ordinary. She’s learned to tune him out she she doesn’t hear the way his voice changes, lowers. She doesn’t see the image on his phone until after the blow hits, when she’s sprawled across the floor. She holds one hand to her face, blood seeping out between her fingers, as her father shoves his phone into her face.

She recognizes the figures in the photo instantly. It’s impossible not too. It’s her and Valentina, standing close together in an empty pavilion at sunset. Standing too close to be just friends. Juliana hadn’t even noticed anyone taking their picture, she doesn’t remember seeing anyone around them the last time she had given Val a dance lesson at the park. She doesn’t bother trying to explain that she and Valentina are only friends, too busy avoid her father’s second swing and ducking out the door. Chino chases her out, yelling the whole way, and Juliana takes off down the street. She has only the clothes on her back, jeans and t-shirt that used to be white and is now stained with blood. She didn’t have the chance to grab a jacket and the cool evening air makes her shiver.

If Juliana had been thinking clearly, she would pull her phone out and call for help. She knows Valentina would gladly send someone to pick her up but she can’t stand the idea of waiting for a driver on the sidewalk. She’s too close to her father, too scared he’ll suddenly appear behind her. She’s been to Valentina’s house enough times to make her way there on her own. She can’t think of anywhere else to go. She’s scared, bleeding and alone. She just wants to feel okay, and she knows Val can help.

Guille answers the door when she arrives, calling out for Valentina before Juliana is completely in view. He ushers her in quickly, asking if she’s okay and where the blood is coming from.

“Juliana?” Valentina’s voice is thick with worry as she approaches with quick steps. There’s someone else with her, Juliana can hear the other set of footsteps but she can’t tell who it is. “Guille, get the first aid kit and bring it to my room.” Valentina orders her brother as she wraps her arms around Juliana. Juliana hides her face against Valentina’s shoulder. “C’mon, chiquita , let’s get you cleaned up.”

Juliana keeps her face hidden as Valentina leads her down the familiar path to Valentina’s bedroom. Voices float in out that Juliana recognizes as Eva and Lúcia, and then another voice that she can’t place. Valentina doesn’t offer any explanation to her sister or Lúcia, just pulls Juliana closer and keeps moving. Juliana exhales in relief when they finally enter Val’s bedroom and the door closes behind them. Valentina pulls Juliana to the bed and guides her to sit down.

“Juli, amor , can you look at me? Por favor? ” Valentina crouches in front of Juliana, resting her palms of Juliana’s thighs to help her balance. Juliana has her head down, still covering half of her face with one hand. Her blood is partially dry and sticky when she pulls her hand away. Juliana looks up slowly, tracing her eyes over Valentina’s shirt, lingering on the dark patch on her shoulder where Juliana had hid her face earlier, up her neck until she reaches her eyes. “Oh, Juls,”

“It’s not as bad as it looks.” Juliana tries to reassure her, but she doesn't know if it’s true. She hasn’t actually seen the damage, she just knows her face hasn’t stopped throbbing since she walked out of her house. She also knows that she can’t stand to see Valentina cry, and the way her eye lighten and turn watery breaks Juliana’s heart.

“Don’t. Don’t down play this Juliana.” Valentina’s voice is soft but firm, her fingers squeeze Juliana’s thighs. “Did he do this?” She doesn’t have to clarify who he is, Juliana knows. Val closes her eyes when Juliana nods. Juliana wants to say something, anything, to comfort Val but no words come.

There’s a knock at the door and Val rises to answer it. Guille looks over at Juliana as he hands his sister the first aid kit she requested. He offers her a reassuring smile, his gaze soft and concerned. He whispers something to Valentina before leaving. Val pushes the door closed again and turns back to Juliana. She pulls her desk chair to the bed so she can sit, opening the first aid kit and pulling out the disinfectant and a bandage.

“This is going to sting.” She says and waits for Juliana’s acknowledging nod before pressing a cotton swab with disinfectant to the cut on Juliana’s cheek. Juliana hisses slightly at the sting and Val apologizes softly. She works silently, Juliana watching the muscles in Valentina’s jaw clench as she works. She’s seen Valentina upset far too often over the course of the three months they’ve known each other, there’s nothing she hates more than being the reason for Valentina’s tears.

“I’m sorry,” Juliana says after Valentina has covered the cut with a bandage. Valentina has one hand holding Juliana’s neck to keep her head steady and her thumb brushes across Juliana’s clean cheek gently.

“Why are you apologizing?” Valentina asks, continuing when Juliana only offers a shrug in response. “ Amor, you don’t have anything to apologize for. I’m not upset with you.”

“But you are upset.” Juliana covers Val’s hand against her neck with her own, leaning into her touch.

“I hate seeing you hurt like this,” Valentina takes a deep breathe. “I knew you weren’t telling me everything about your father and that’s fine. You don’t have to tell me anything. But I hate knowing that you were suffering like this, and I hate that your father put his hands on you.”

“I should have told you.” Juliana sighed and started to pull away from Valentina.

“No, Juliana,” Valentina wouldn’t let her get very far, standing up when she did and holding her face with both hands, careful not to touch Juliana’s bandage. “I get why you didn’t tell me. It’s okay.” Juliana’s hands fell to Valentina’s hips, gripping lightly. “Just, promise me that if he gets like this again, you’ll get away, preferably before he touches you again. I don’t care what time it is or what else is going on, just, come here and let me help you.”

“I promise, Val.” Juliana whispers, resting her forehead against Valentina’s. It’s not a difficult promise to make. There’s no where else she’d rather be, whether her father is made at her or not.

“I, I really care about you, Juliana. More than I’ve ever cared about anyone.” Valentina takes a deep breath, pulling away slightly to look Juliana in the eyes. “ Te quiero.

“Val,” Juliana pulls her even closer, their entire bodies pressed together “ te quiero tambien.

She feels Valentina exhale, a slight giggle escaping her. Valentina feels Juliana’s breath on her lips, their noses rubbing together. She feels lighter, somehow, knowing that it wasn’t just her building things up in her head. Juliana feels the same way. It’s real. The connection between them is real.

Juliana wants to kiss her, desperately. Every part of her aches to press closer to Val, hold her tighter, and not let her go. But, when Juliana licks her lips she tastes blood and she doesn’t want the memory of her first kiss with Val tainted with blood. It takes all her willpower to pull away but Val seems to understand. She leans in and kisses Juliana’s cheek softly.

“I’ll get you some clean clothes. Do you want to shower?” Juliana nods in response to Val’s question. She almost regrets it when Valentina steps away, taking her warmth and comforting presence with her. Juliana tries to steady herself by sitting back down on Val’s bed while the other girl digs through her clothes for something to lend to Juliana. She finally turns back to the bed a few minutes later, holding a pair of black sweatpants and blue t-shirt from her school’s athletic department. Juliana stands, taking the offered clothes with a small smile. “Don’t worry about keeping the bandage dry, we can put on a clean one when you get out.”

Gracias, Valentina.” Juliana says and Valentina kisses her cheek again, whispering a soft ‘go’ in her ear.

When Juliana looks into the mirror, she can’t help the little gasp that escapes her. The left side of her face is covered in blood, the few patches of skin around her eye that she can see are already darkening with a bruise. She almost can’t believe that it was her father who did this to her. He’s raised his hand to her before, but this is the first time Chino has actually hit her. She fears what will happen when she returns home.

Shaking her head, Julina strips off her bloody clothes and steps into the shower. The water feels cleansing and Juliana is able to forget what happened with her father for a moment. She can’t forget, and she doesn’t want too, the feeling of Valentina’s breath against her lips, Valentina’s hips beneath her finger tips. She feels dizzy just thinking about the almost kiss they shared, but she can’t ignore the inevitability of it. She doesn’t know how or why, but she knows the connection between her and Val was always meant to grow into something more.

When Juliana steps back into Valentina’s bedroom, Val herself has also changed into sleep clothes. She traded her jeans for running shorts and a white top that read ‘more than friends’ in blocky red lettering. Juliana smiles at her as she approaches.

“Let’s change the bandage, then we can go to bed.” Valentina brushes her thumb across Juliana’s cheek.

“Wait, Val,” Juliana takes Valentina’s hands to keep her from moving back to the first aid kit she had moved to her desk. “I-” Juliana doesn’t know what to say, any words that want to come out die on her tongue.

“Juls?” Val questions softly, but no verbal answer comes. Juliana shuffles forward until they are pressed together just like they were a few moments ago, before Juliana left to shower. Valentina maneuvers their joined hands until Juliana’s arms are wrapped around her waist, eliminating any space between them.

Juliana looks at Valentina through her eyelashes, searching for any sign that this isn’t what Valentina wants. Valentina gazes back, sure and steady. She looks at Juliana like a blind man seeing color for the first time, amazed and breathless. Valentina lets go of Juliana’s hands and they press against her back instead. Valentina lifts her hands to cup Juliana’s cheek.

“Are you sure?” Valentina asks softly, beginning to lean in.

“I’m sure.” Juliana’s never been more sure of anything in her life.

When their lips finally meet, it’s nothing like Juliana expected. She expected fireworks, something loud and jarring but exciting at the same time. Instead, she gets so much more. It’s not fireworks exploding above her, it’s the quiet crackle of a warm fire. It’s not loud and exciting, it’s soft and quiet. The press of their lips warms her body and soul, a deep, consuming sense of belonging settling over her. It feels like the excitement of a first love combined with the comfort of a forever love.

~

Valentina insists on accompanying Juliana home sunday night. She refuses to let her enter that house alone and wants to make sure she’s there in case anything happens. Juliana tries to convince her that everything will be okay.

“Val, Chino might not even be there.” Juliana has one of Val’s hands in her own as they sit together in the backseat of one of the Carvajal’s cars. Their driver, Arilio, stops the car in the same place he always does. It’s her last ditch effort to keep Valentina away from Chino. “I never know when he’s going to be home or not.”

“I’m going with you, Juliana.” Valentina pushes the car door open, pulling Juliana out by their joined hands. “He hurt you, Juls,” Valentina raises her free hand, gently tracing the outline of the bruise on Juliana’s cheek. Her fingers ghost over the sore skin there, watching as Juliana’s eyes flutter closed at the touch. “I’m not letting you face him alone again.”

“Okay.” Juliana whispers, almost leaning in for a kiss but stopping herself. They’ve yet to talk about the kiss they shared in Val’s bedroom Friday night, lingering in this limbo between being friends and being something more. “Let’s go,”

Chino isn’t home but Lupita is.

“Juliana!” Lupe rushes to hug her daughter when she and Val step into the house. “Juli, I was so worried about you. Are you okay? Where have you been?”

“I’m fine, Ma,” Juliana hugs her mother back with one arm, not yet willing to let go of Val’s hand. “I was with Valentina.”

“Hello, Mrs. Valdés.” Valentina greets her warmly but Lupe merely glances in her direction. It’s not the first time she’s been around Juliana’s mom, but Lupe always seems uncomfortable around her. Valentina doesn’t mind, Lupe’s always been kind to her if a little aloof.

“Juliana, your face,” Lupe holds Juliana by the chin, tilting her head towards the light to see the mark coloring her skin better. “What happened?”

Juliana hesitates, looking at Valentina instead of at her mother. Lupita wasn’t home when Juliana left Friday, she’d had the late shift at the restaurant where she works. Juliana had texted her Saturday morning to let her know she wouldn’t be home until Sunday. She doesn’t know how to tell her mother that it was her father who hit her hard enough to break skin. Valentina squeezes her hand softly, silently telling Juls that she’ll agree to whatever story she comes up with. Juliana considers telling Lupe it had happened at school, a game of dodgeball getting out of hand during gym but she knows Lupe won’t believe her. She’s never been good at lying to her mother.

“It was Chino.” Lupe says slowly, watching Juliana’s eyes widen in response. Her daughter steps closer to Valentina automatically, eyes darting around the room like she’s afraid Chino is waiting just behind the corner. It’s all the confirmation Lupe needs. She remembers the photo she found on Chino’s phone when she got home from work, the excess number of beer cans littering the floor of their living room. Looking at Juliana and Valentina now, hands clasped together and arms stretched so the connection won’t break even as Juliana takes a step towards her mother, Lupe knows exactly what set her husband off.

“Mom…” Juliana trails off as her mother turns away for a moment. She doesn’t know what to say, there’s nothing she could stay to make this any better.

“Juliana,” Lupe turns back to her daughter and hugs her again. This time, Juliana returns the embrace fully. “I’m so sorry mija .”

“It’s not your fault Mom.” Juliana insists as she pulls away. She can see the tears forming in her mother’s eyes.

“No, it is. I should have left him years ago. I should have known he would do this, eventually.”

“You can’t know something like this, Mom.” Juliana tries to reassure her but Lupita shakes her head.

“Juliana, listen to me, we can’t go on like this. You shouldn’t be scared to be in your own home.” Lupita cups her daughters face for a moment. “This has gone on long enough.”

“Mom, what are you doing?” Juliana asks. Lupita doesn’t offer an answer, instead turing to Valentina.

“Valentina, I need you to take Juliana away. Can she stay with you for a little while?”

“Of course,” Valentina glances over at Juliana quickly, “she can stay as long as she needs to.”

“Mom, I’m not leaving you alone with him.” Juliana steps forward slightly so her mother will look at her.

“Yes, you are.” Lupe moves further into the small house, Juliana and Valentina following her. She leads them to Juliana’s bedroom where she pulls a bag from the closet and starts filling it with Juliana’s clean clothes from the basket she had folded that morning.

“Ma, no,”

“Yes, Juli,” Lupita insists as she continues backing. Out of the corner of her eye she sees Valentina reach for Juliana, placing a hand on the small of her back. Juliana glances up at her, a look that says a million words, before facing her mother again. “He’s already hurt you once, Juliana. I won’t let him do that again. You are going to go to your girlfriend’s house and stay there until I tell you to come home.”

“Mom,” Juliana tries again but she knows she won’t win this argument. Her mother’s tone leaves no room for argument. “Please be careful.” She says instead.

“I’ll be fine, mija. ” Lupita zips up the bag and hands it to Juliana. “Just promise me you’ll wait for my call.”

“I promise, Mom.” Juliana says in a shaky voice. Valentina takes the bag out of her hands so Juliana can hug her mother again. Lupita gestures towards Juliana’s school bag and Val picks it up too, swinging it over her shoulder. “I love you, Mom.”

“I love you, too, honey.” Lupita releases her daughter and begins ushering her and Valentina back down the hall. She checks the time and realizes they don’t have time to linger in the hallway. Chino could be home any minute now.

“Valentina,” Lupita catches her arm as Valentina starts to follow Juliana out the door, “take care of her.”

“I promise.” Valentina says and offers Lupita what she hopes is a reassuring smile. Lupita nods and holds the door open for them. She waits until they are out of view before closing the door and taking a deep breath. She had already let her daughter down once. She’d be damned if she did it again.

 

Juliana remains quiet during the whole ride back to the Carvajal family home, tapping her fingers anxiously against her knee until Val grabs her hand to stop. Juliana doesn’t know how to feel about what’s going to be happening at her house while she’s away. She’s too anxious to process anything. Val shifts closer to her and Juliana drops her hand onto Val’s shoulder. Her eyes fall closed as she feels the ghost of a kiss brush against her forehead. It’s enough for now, just to have Valentina with her.

Juliana takes her bags up to Valentina’s room while Val explains what’s going on to her family. Juliana doesn’t feel up to hearing Eva’s protests at her presence in the house and chooses to wait for Val in her bedroom, staring at the collection of polaroid pictures hanging on Valentina’s wall. There’s several more there than there had been the first time Juliana came over, and most of the new ones are of Juliana and Val or Juliana alone. Juliana feels a small smile form on her lips as she looks at the newest addition, one that she had watched Valentina hang up that morning.

It was one of just the two of them, curled together on the large couch in the Carvajal TV room. They’re both asleep, Juliana cuddle into Val’s side with her head tucked into the crook of her neck. Valentina’s head is angled so it rests atop Juls’s. The blanket they had been sharing had shifted down a bit so Juliana had a clear view of their joined hands resting against Valentina’s stomach. Guille had taken the picture after coming downstairs when he heard the sounds of the movie playing in the middle of the night, only to find the two of them curled together. He teased them in the morning when he presented the picture to Val, but Juliana knew he was glad she was getting some rest. Guille had grown fond of her during her many weekend stays at the mansion.

A knock on the door drew Juliana’s attention and she called for them to come in. She was expecting Valentina to be the one on the other side but is surprised to see that both Guille and Lúcia are standing there. Guille and Lúcia had been the most welcoming of the Carvajals, excluding Val, and always seemed genuinely happy to see Juliana. They’d both been keeping a careful eye on Juliana while she was there over the past weekend and running interference whenever it seemed like Eva was getting ready to stir things up. Juliana couldn’t vocalize how much she appreciated it.

“Juliana,” Lúcia looked at Juliana with a strange understanding, like she also knew what it was like to be screwed over as a parent. “I just wanted to tell you that you are welcome to stay here as long as you need, and León asked me to tell you that whatever you need, simply ask and it’s yours.”

“Thank you, Lúcia,” Juliana smiled slightly at her.

“We take care of our own, Juliana, that includes you.” Juliana’s smile grows wider. She can see why Valentina and Lúcia get along so well. They both care so easily, so openly, even for someone like Juliana who most people would say comes from the wrong side of the tracks. She doesn’t belong in the flashy, extravagant world of the Carvajal family but only Eva treated her like that.

“Val will be up here in a minute,” Guille says and steps further into the room, plopping down on Valentina’s bed. “She’s talking with Eva.” Juliana raised her eyebrows slightly, looking back and forth between Lúcia and Guilla.

“‘Talking?’” She asks, making Lúcia and Guille smile slightly. They are all aware that ‘talking’ is code for ‘arguing,’ at least when it comes to Eva and Valentina. “She doesn’t like that I’m staying here, does she?”

“Welcome to the club,” Lúcia jokes, lightly bumping Juliana’s shoulder with her own as she moves to sit in Valentina’s desk chair.

“Half the time she doesn’t like that I’m staying here, and I’m her brother,” Guille says with a small shrug.

“Maybe we should make t-shirts.” Lúcia jokes and smiles when it pulls a laugh from Juliana.

“Why is she here, all the time I mean. Doesn’t she have a dorm room?” Juliana knows Eva is going to college in the city, but she can’t imagine the girl wanting to live at home with her soon-to-be-stepmom, especially since they don’t get along well.

“I think she’s avoiding someone,” Guille shrugs slightly, “or she just likes making the rest of us miserable.”

Juliana is still laughing when Valentina enters the room two minutes later. Valentina looks annoyed when she walks in but she relaxes once she notices Juliana seems to be in good spirits. Her smile turns back to a frown as she looks at her brother’s dirty shoes that currently resting on her favorite blanket, folded at the end of her bed.

“Guille, get your nasty feet off my bed,” she says, adding a swat to Guille’s leg for good measure as she walks past him to get to Juliana.

“How’s Eva?” Lúcia asks, a soft smile on her lips as she watches Juliana wrap her arm around Valentina’s waist when she gets close enough.

“On the phone with dad.” Valentina wraps her own arm around Juliana’s shoulders. “I’m sure he’s warning her to behave. She won’t want to be the reason he comes home early.” Val’s dad was currently in the States on a business trip and wouldn’t be home until the end of the week. Juliana didn’t want to know what Eva would act like if León came home early.

“Well, we’ll leave the two of you alone. Chivis will call when dinner is ready.” Lúcia gave them both a comforting smile before leaving the room, looking pointedly at Guille until he followed as well. Once they are alone, Valentina seems to realize how close they are standing. She swallows sharply before letting go of Juliana and taking a seat on the bed.

“Want to go swimming? Take your mind off things?” She asks. Juliana doesn’t really need swimming lessons anymore, not with all the time she and Val have spent in the pool over the past few months. She doesn’t feel like swimming anyway so she shakes her head no and turns back to the pictures she had been looking at before.

Juliana’s gently tracing her finger over Valentina’s silhouette when the girl herself speaks again, “Did you hear what your mom called me?”

Juliana half turns so she can look directly at Val. Valentina is fiddling with her fingers but looking at Juliana. Her eyes are so blue, Juliana doesn’t think she’s ever seen them that bright.

“I did.” She answers slowly, leaving the pictures to sit beside Valentina. “She called you my girlfriend.”

“You didn’t correct her.” Valentina says it like she’s surprised. “I mean, I know there were a lot of other things going on but…”

“Should I have corrected her?” Juliana asks. She can see Val’s breath catch, her shoulders rise and fall as she takes a deep breath. “Val, did you want me to correct her?”

“No,” Val’s voice drops to a whisper, a blush coloring her cheeks. She’s still playing with her fingers until Juliana covers her hands with her own. “But I didn’t know if you feel the same.”

“I do, Valentina.” Juliana promised softly, leaning forward slightly. Valentina followed and they met in the middle, resting their foreheads together. “I didn’t correct her because I didn’t think she was wrong.”

“No?”

“No, Val,” Their noses brush together as Valentina starts to close the distance between their lips. “Was she?”

“No, Juls,” Valentina’s eyes fall closed, “she was right.”

Their second kiss is just as soft as the first, at first. They pull apart slowly, separating just enough to look one another in the eye for a moment before the come back together. Their third kiss harder, Valentina’s hands move across Juliana’s shoulders, pulling her closer. Juliana grips Valentina’s hip, thumbs rubbing gently at her skin after pushing her shirt up slightly. Before either of the realize what’s happening, Juliana is laying on the bed with Valentina half on top of her.

“We should stop,” Valentina whispers softly against Juliana’s lips, “before we get carried away.”

Juliana aches to say no, to let them get carried away. She longs to feel Valentina’s skin against her own, to know her in the most intimate way. Longing for her doesn’t erase the fact that Juliana knows she’s not ready for that yet, and Valentina would never let things get out of hand knowing Juliana is uncomfortable.

“I know,” Juliana reluctantly pulls her lips away from Valentina’s, dropping her head against the mattress and closes her eyes. She feels Valentina shift against her, laying beside her instead of half on top of her. When she opens her eyes again, Val is already looking at her with her head propped up in her hand. She lifts her free hand, gentle fingers tracing over the bruise on the side of Juliana’s face until Juliana takes her hand.

“What do you want to do?” Valentina asks softly, carding her fingers through Juliana’s hair. Juliana shifts, rolling onto her side and cuddling close to Valentina. Valentina shifts so Juliana’s head is resting on her shoulder, wrapping one arm around Juliana’s shoulders and draping the other over her waist. Valentina smiles slightly when she feels Juliana’s lips press against her neck for a moment.

“Just this.” Juliana whispers, allowing herself to forget all her worries and focus on Valentina’s fingers in her hair, their hearts beating in tandem. They stay like that until Chivis knocks on the door to tell them dinner is ready.

~

Juliana grows increasingly anxious the longer she stays at the Carvajal house. It’s not the she minds staying with Valentina, not at all, she loves all the time she gets to spend with her girlfriend, but she can’t help worrying about her mother. So many things could have happened to her in the time between when Juliana left Sunday afternoon and when Lupita finally calls her Friday night.

“Mom! Are you okay?” Juliana answers her phone quickly. She’s alone in Valentina’s bedroom, Val herself being down stairs to welcome her father home since he should be arriving within the next fifteen minutes. She was sitting at Val’s desk, trying to keep herself occupied by drawing in the sketchbook Valentina had gotten for her Monday after realizing how anxious Juliana was feeling, when her phone rang.

“I’m fine, Juli, I promise,” Lupe heard her daughter breath a sigh of relief.

“What happened?” Juliana asked. “What did you do?”

“I turned Chino in for domestic abuse.” Lupe answers after a moment of hesitation. She hears Juliana’s surprised exclamation. “He’s been taken into custody, the police are sure he’ll be charged, if not for that than because of his ties to the cartels.”

“Mom,” Juliana jumps slightly when she’s feels a hand on her shoulder, looking up to see Valentina standing behind her. “He’s really gone?”

“He’s gone, Juli. He won’t hurt you again.” Lupita promises and Juliana lets out a breathless laugh. Lupita can hear a second voice, one that she vaguely recognizes as Valentina asking what happened. “Tell Valentina I said thank you, and you can come home whenever you want.”

Juliana repeats her mother’s words after briefly explaining what happened. “She said you don’t have to thank her, she’s happy she could help.” There’s a bit of shuffling on the line, Lupita can hear muffled voices. “Valentina said she can have a driver bring me home now or we can wait until morning.”

“It’s up to you, mija. I don’t mind if you want to stay with your girlfriend for another night.” Lupita says, hoping she sounds more sincere than she feels. She really doesn’t mind Juliana staying with Valentina, but she would like to have a talk with her daughter about her relationship and make sure they had some ground rules in place.

“I’ll be home in the morning,” Juliana says and Lupe can hear her smile. “I love you, Mom.”

“I love you too, Juli.”

“He’s really gone?” Valentina asks when Juliana sets her phone down on the desk. Juliana nods, already moving to stand and throwing her arms around Valentina. Valentina hugs her back, both arms wrapping around Juliana’s waist as she holds her tight. She can feel Juliana’s smile against her neck and starts peppering her hair with little cases. Juliana pulls back far enough to lean up and connect their lips.

She feels free, for the first time in her life Juliana feels free. She has Valentina, her mother is safe and her father is in a place where he can’t hurt her or anyone else. She’s happy and she’s falling in love for the first time.

She thinks she might be dreaming but she doesn’t care. If this is what Juliana’s dreams hold, she doesn’t ever want to wake up.

~

The end of the school year is upon them in a second and they spend their summer days in the hazy glow of first love. They stroll through the park, hand in hand,  stealing kisses when they stop to admire the scenery. They spend more time at Juliana’s house, now that Chino is gone Juliana doesn’t mind bringing Valentina around, even if she does get embarrassed every single time Lupe reminds her to leave the bedroom door open (a reaction that never fails to make Valentina laugh). Juliana spends more time drawing in the sketchbooks Val insists on buying for her. She’s gotten quite good, at least that’s what Valentina and Lupe tell her. Juliana doesn’t think it’s her art that’s beautiful but the subject, because nine times out of ten Juliana’s drawing is of Valentina.

She draws Valentina’s silhouette in the sunset, she works tirelessly to find the right shade of blue to match Valentina’s eyes. She recreates the growing collection of polaroid pictures Valentina has taken of them in charcoal. Juliana likes to sit somewhere, content to watch Valentina swim or joke with Guille while she tries to capture the moment in the pages of her sketchbook. She doesn’t think she’ll ever get tired of drawing Valentina, but as the summer progresses Juliana discovers a new muse for her drawing.

It happens when she and Valentina are strolling down the streets of the shopping district in Mexico City, pointing out the ridiculous things they see in the windows and laughing together. They pass by a new store that had just opened, the sign outside boasting the work of an up and coming fashion designer. Juliana pauses for a moment outside the shop, looking at the clothing on display. She shakes her head no when Valentina asks if she wants to go inside but the images of the clothes linger in her mind as she and Val walk away. That night is the first time she tries her hand at creating concept art for clothing.

It doesn’t take Valentina long to discover Juliana’s new drawings and her praises make Juliana smile and run a hand through her hair shyly.

“You really like it?” She asks the first time Val sees a drawing of a dress Juliana had created the night before.

“It’s beautiful, mi amor .” Valentina assures her, setting the sketchbook down so she can wrap her arms around Juliana. “Are you going to make it?”

Juliana just shrugs, she’s thought about trying to make it but she doesn’t have the fabric to work with and she barely knows how to sew anyway. Valentina doesn’t pressure her for more of an answer (she also pretends not to know anything when the exact fabric Juliana needed arrived at her house one day, along with a sewing machine).

“Weird, huh?” She says when Juliana shows her the fabric and the machine, now set up in a small corner of the living room. Juliana just rolls her eyes and kisses Valentina, maybe holding on a little too long in the eyes of her mother who has to loudly clear her throat three times before Juliana will stop chasing Valentina’s lips when she tries to pull away.

They also spend several evenings behind the wheel of a car, with a cleary nervous Guille who offered to teach them both to drive before he left for college at the end of the summer. He insists on taking them out one at a time, he knows they’ll just distract each other if they’re both in the car. He’s not surprised when Juliana turns out to be the most sensible driver, always driving right at the speed limit of just below and making sure she comes to a complete stop at all the stop signs. Valentina, on the other hand, seems to have a right foot made of lead and Guille always emerges from the car looking frazzled and half-scared after driving with Valentina. Valentina swears she isn’t that bad of a driver, but does admit she likes to drive fast. Juliana doesn’t really mind, at least, not until Valentina convinces her father to let her learn how to ride a motorcycle as well.

Guille acts surprised when Valentina passes her driving test at the end of July, the day after her sixteenth birthday, but Valentina knows he’s proud of her. Valentina gets both her driver’s license and her motorist license that day and the Carvajal family has a large dinner to celebrate, thankfully much smaller than Valentina’s sixteenth birthday party the week before. It seemed her family had more confidence in Valentina than they mentioned because after dinner they presented Valentina with a leather jacket and black helmet to wear when she rode her motorcycle. León presents her with a new bike, giving Juliana all the credit for picking it out. Valentina seems surprised by that admission and turns to Juliana with a curious glint her eye.

“You talked about the one you wanted a lot,” Juliana explained lightly, “I listened.”

Valentina hugs her then, kissing her quickly in gratitude before asking if she wants to go for a spin on the bike. Juliana is about to say no when Guille present her with a leather jacket and helmet of her own (she’s surprised when she later finds out that it was Eva who suggested getting a jacket and helmet for Juliana as well) so she shrugs on the new jacket and climbs on behind Valentina. They circle the Carvajal property a few times before coming to a stop again in the garage. Valentina swears it’s the best gift she’s ever gotten, only beaten by Juliana herself deciding to date her in the first place. Juliana rolls her eyes but accepts the kiss Val leans in to give her.

It isn’t until right before school starts up again that Juliana tells Valentina she has a surprise for her and then hands Valentina a folded letter. Valentina quirks her eyebrow but takes the letter and unfolds it. Her eyes grow wide as she see that it’s an acceptance letter to the school she attends. Juliana sheepishly admits that she took the admission tests while Valentina was spending time with her brother since he was about to move into his dorm but she didn’t want to say anything until she was sure she could go. After more questioning from Val, questions that she punctuated with short kisses, Juliana explains that she was able to get a couple of scholarships because of her test scores and her art skills. Valentina squeals and starts talking about all the fun they could have at school together, the secret places she likes to go to escape the other stuck up rich kids and the teachers that she loves and knows Juliana will like too. Juliana has to bite her tongue to keep the words that having been lingering on her lips from spilling out.

~

Juliana settles into her new school quickly enough. It helps that she arrives on the first day with Valentina at her side, leading her to their thankfully shared homeroom. She’s already met most of Valentina’s friends over the course of the five months she and Val have been dating and they welcome her to the new school warmly. She only has two classes with Valentina, homeroom in the morning and then art in the afternoon, she pretends not to know Valentina only signed up for art so they’d have the class together, but they eat lunch together everyday. Sometimes they’ll eat with the group Valentina grew up with, Lucho, Sergio and Nayeli and a few others. Other times they’ll sneak off to Valentina’s secret spot in the auditorium. Juliana has a few more classes with Sergio and ends up becoming good friends with him. It helps that he’s always around when Lucho starts coming onto Val, which happens far too often for Juliana’s liking. Sergio always pulls Lucho away right after Valentina rejects him, again, to avoid making a scene in the hallway or the parking lot. It annoys Juliana to know end, it’s not like she and Val hide the fact that they are together, but any jealousy she feels fades away when Valentina wraps an arm around her shoulders and leads her away, mumbling about stupid boys needing to get a clue.  

The school year drifts by in that odd way of feeling like it’s going to fast and not fast enough at the same time. Juliana and Valentina fall into the normalcy of completing assignments, taking tests, and counting down the days until the Christmas holidays. By the time the holidays arrive, Juliana can’t wait to spend a few days with just Valentina, enjoying the colder winter weather together. They spend Christmas morning with their own families but meet up later in the day to exchange gifts. Juliana’s nervous Valentina won’t like her inexpensive homemade gift until she unwraps her own gift after Valentina insists she goes first. Juliana opens the box Val gives her and finds a black binder with gold lettering that reads ‘Our Story’ on the front. She opens it slowly, her smile growing as she traces her fingers over the pictures within. She flips through the scrapbook quickly, wanting to see all the pictures but also wanting to see Val open her present. She looks up at her girlfriend when she turns a page only to find the next one blank.

“Our story isn’t over yet,” Valentina gestures to the empty space, “we’re just getting started so I left room for more.” Juliana can’t help but lean over to kiss her.

Valentina opens her own gift when they separate, giggling as she recognizes the fabric. It’s the first top Juliana ever made herself, modified to be worn in the winter rather than the summer. Valentina crushes Juliana in a hug and Juliana knows she made the right choice. Valentina kisses her again and she tastes like coffee and peppermint. Juliana moans softly against her mouth, wrapping her arms around Valentina and pulling her closer. She’s glad they decided to meet up at her house instead of at a cafe to exchange gifts. She wouldn’t be able to kiss Valentina like this in public.

“Juls, baby,” Valentina whispers when Juliana’s hands slide under her top, following the increasingly familiar path to her breasts. “Baby, the doors open and your mother is in the living room.”

Juliana pouts as Valentina pulls away from her, fixing her top as she goes, making Val laugh. They haven’t gone further than hands and lips exploring bare chests yet, but she knows they’re quickly moving further than that. She’s glad they decided to wait to have sex, not just because she never wants to pressure Juliana into doing anything but because she wants sex with Juliana to mean something, something more than two bodies pressing together. They’ve been together for just shy of ten months but Valentina is certain Juliana is the only one for her.

Juliana’s still pouting when Valentina fixes putting her top back in place so she leans closer, cupping Juliana’s face. Her thumb brushes over the barely there scar on Juliana’s cheek as Juliana leans into her touch.

“Hey,” Valentina keeps her voice low, “ Te amo, mi amor.

Juliana looks up at Valentina, a brilliant smile splitting her lips. She leans their foreheads together, hands lifting to hold Valentina’s waist. “ Te amo, tambien, Valentina. Te amo mucho.

There’s a certainty in the air, a warmth that lingers over them now that they’ve voice how the truly feel for one another. Juliana almost has to pinch herself to make sure she’s not dreaming. How could someone as amazing as Valentina ever love her? It feels too good to be true, but then Valentina kisses her again, softly, like she’s afraid pushing too hard will ruin the moment and Juliana knows they love they share is the realest part of her life.

~

Juliana passes her driving test in the middle of January so she and Valentina start taking turns picking one another up for school in the morning. Their friends ask if that’s really a good idea once the track season starts since Valentina is on the Varsity track team and has to stay late after school everyday. Juliana doesn’t mind because it gives her the chance to work on other projects in the art room with a few of the friends she’s made in the classes she doesn’t share with Valentina. It works for them so they don’t change it.

Lucho finally stops trying to get Valentina to go out with him after witnessing a sweaty and red faced Valentina embrace Juliana after she runs the last leg of the mile relay at the first track meet of the season. It was a hard race, Valentina had started her lap in fourth place, two runners behind her and three in front, and ended in first after an impressive sprint over the last two hundred meters. Valentina had rushed over to Juliana who had been standing at the finish line with the rest of the relay team, Sergio and Lucho. Valentina’s legs gave out as she embraced Juliana, who held her up gently and started walking with her to keep the muscles in her legs from locking up. It was the first time Lucho realized how serious they were about each other so he stops himself from offering to help Valentina walk a lap along the turf and simply congratulates her on a job well done.

Juliana’s not surprised when Valentina’s relay team qualifies for the national championship and she cheers them on the whole way, surprising Valentina when she shows up at the national meet with Guille, Lúcia, León and Eva in tow. Eva even brought her new boyfriend Mateo. She’s not allowed on the turf this time, but she stands just outside the gate next to the finish line while Valentina runs her leg. Juliana’s there to watch Valentina’s face fall when she comes in third, no more than half a second behind the first and second place runners. Juliana can’t help the pride she feels when Valentina puts on a smile and congratulates the runners who beat her on a race well run.  Juliana hugs Valentina tightly when the girl makes her way over to her, barely waiting until Valentina has opened the gate and walked through.

“I’m proud of you,” Juliana whispers in her ear, rubbing Valentina’s back softly.

“I didn’t win.” Valentina says, resting her head on Juliana’s shoulder.

“No, but you tried your best and you still congratulated the winners, despite being upset. You did a great job, baby,” Juliana cups the back of Valentina’s neck, ignoring the sweat lingering there. “Besides, you’ll get ‘em next year.”

“You think?” Valentina is smiling again as Juliana hums a soft affirmative and kisses her gently.

Later, when Vale steps onto the podium to accept her bronze medal with the rest of her team, she blows a kiss to Juliana. Guille teases her as Juliana blushes but her smile doesn’t fade as she winks back at her girlfriend.

 

The next weekend, Juliana and Valentina celebrate their first anniversary together. They spend the day at the suspiciously empty Carvajal mansion, adding pictures to the scrapbook Valentina gifted Juliana at Christmas, before going for a swim together after a romantic candlelit dinner by the pool. They had agreed not to get one another gifts for their anniversary, since they had end of the year assignments to works on and Valentina had spent the last few weeks preparing for the national track meet. Valentina had looked disappointed but agreed, happy to do whatever made Juliana happy.

“I can’t believe a year ago today, we got together because your mom called me your girlfriend and you didn’t correct her,” Valentina teases, sitting with Juliana on the outcropping submerged in the deep end of the pool. The water comes up to just below their shoulders which Juliana bumps together.

“Yeah, that’s why we got together,” Juliana rolls her eyes, “not because we liked each other or anything.”

“Oh no, never that,” Valentina laughs as Juliana moves through the water, abandoning her seat in favor of floating just in front of Val. “Look at you floating all on your own,”

“You could join me,” Juliana teases back, laughing as Valentina reaches for and pulls her close.

“I’d rather do this,” once Juliana is close enough, Val presses their lips together. Juliana shifts in the water, deepening the kiss as her knees land on the outcropping, falling on both sides of Valentina’s legs so Juliana ends up sitting on her lap. “ Te amo .”

Te amo. ” Juliana whispers back, kissing Val again. Her hands slide up to tangel in Valentina’s hair as Val caresses her back with long fingers, pressing their bodies close together. Juliana feels the increasingly familiar warmth in her core grow and ducks down to kiss against Valentina’s pulse point. Valentina moans softly, moving her head to the side as Juliana traces kisses up to the shell of her ear. “Let’s go upstairs.”

Valentina pulls back after Juliana whispers the words into her ear, checking to make sure that’s really what Juliana wants to do. Juliana nods and kisses Valentina again before climbing off of her and out of the pool. Valentina follows, taking Juliana’s hand once they’re both out of the water and letting herself be led to her bedroom. They leave a trail of wet footprints up the stairs and down the hall. Juliana pushes Valentina’s bedroom door open, and pulls her inside. Valentina kicks the door closed behind her.

They pause at the end of Valentina’s bed, hands clasped together as they face each other.

“Are you sure?” Valentina asks softly because she knows that she’s ready to take things to the next level but she wants to be certain Juliana is too. That she’s not just doing this because it’s their anniversary and she feels like she has too.

“I’m sure,” Juliana takes a step closer, leaving an inch of space between their bodies. She takes a deep breath, her eyes drifting over Valentina’s face and lingering on her lips before looking into her eyes again. “I’m nervous.”

“Me too.” Valentina angles her head so their foreheads together. “ Te amo, Juls. If you want to stop at any time just,”

Te amo, Val,” Juliana interrupts, “I love you, and I trust you.”

She looks into Valentina’s eyes again and suddenly the meager space between them feels to small. Juliana closes the distance and kisses Valentina, her hands lifting and fingers fiddling with the bow that sits at the nape of Valentina’s neck, one of two that holds her bikini top in place. She feels Valentina nod without breaking their kiss and slowly unties the first knot. The wet fabric clings to Valentina’s skin, not falling away until Juliana has untied the second bow and released the two strings. Valentina catches the top as it falls, throwing it to the side. Juliana can’t repress the shiver that climbs down her spine as Valentina’s fingers reach the bow holding her own top on and Valentina pauses.

“Please, Val,” Juliana says softly knowing that Valentina would want verbal confirmation Juliana wants to continue, “don’t stop.”

Nimble fingers untie the knots holding Juliana’s bikini top in place and then throw the flimsy fabric to the side to join Val’s. They both gasp as their bare chest press together, not for the first time, but for the first time knowing that it’s leading to more. Juliana starts to move backwards until her knees hit Valentina’s bed and she pulls away slightly. Valentina watches with wide eyes as Juliana hooks her fingers through the straps holding the bottom half of her bikini in place and pushes them down. Her blue eyes darken slightly as Juliana sits down on the bed, slowly sliding backwards and completely bare before Valentina for the first time. She can see Juliana’s chest rising and falling as she takes deep, steadying breaths, and Valentina rids herself of the last bits of clothing she wears.

She crawls on top of Juliana, eyes raking over every available inch of skin as she hover over her. She hesitates before settling her body directly over Juliana’s, enough so that Juliana reaches up and wraps her arms around Valentina to pull her down. Their bodies touch fully skin to skin and Valentina feels like she’s been set on fire. Warmth dances across her skin, a blazing trail left by Juliana’s fingers as she explores the expanse of Valentina’s torso. Juliana pulls Valentina’s chin up so they can share a kiss, feeling her anticipation grow as Valentina’s hands begin exploring her body in kind.

They stumble through their first time together, always checking that the other is okay with what’s happening, It’s not perfect, neither of them has any clue what they are doing but it doesn’t matter. Not when Juliana shudders and exhales Valentina’s name on a moan as she clenches around her fingers for the first time. Not when Valentina buries her fingers in Juliana’s hair and gasps out her name when Juliana tastes her for the first time. It’s not perfect but it doesn’t matter because it’s so much better than either of them expected, because it’s something they share, something that is solely theirs.

TWO

Juliana wakes up sore in places she didn’t even know existed but content in Valentina’s arms. She can feel Valentina’s soft breaths against the back of her neck, their bodies tangled so intricately she can’t tell where she begins and Valentina ends. She shifts slightly, suppressing a groan as her body protests but continuing anyway. She wants to see Valentina, just feeling her isn’t enough in that moment, not after the night they shared. Valentina stirs slightly as Juliana moves, her embrace loosening and then tightening again once Juliana has settled again. Juliana smiles as she gaze as Valentina, lifting one hand to gently trace her finger along the edge of Valentina’s nose and over her cheekbones. She laughs softly as Valentina’s nose scrunches in response, blue eyes fluttering open.

“Good morning, baby,” Juliana says as Valentina blinks sleepily at her.

“It’s to early, chiquita, ” Val mumbles, moving closer to Juliana and tucking her face into her favorite place, the crook of Juliana’s neck.

“It’s almost ten o’clock, Val,” Juliana laughs as Valentina groans and cuddles closer. “I’m sure your family is back and waiting for us to make an appearance at breakfast.”

Valentina mumbles something that sounds suspiciously like ‘I highly doubt that,’ pulls herself away from Juliana with a small groan. She sits up and stretches, feeling Juliana’s hand moving along the muscles in her back. She holds the blanket to her chest as she looks over at her girlfriend. “You okay?”

“I’m perfect,” Juliana says but she can’t help the grimace that appears as she sits up, “and sore.” Valentina laughs, leaning over to steal a kiss before climbing out of bed. Juliana watches, unabashedly, as Valentina moves over to the dresser.

“Do you want to shower first?” Valentina asks as she turns back, two sets of casual clothes in her hands.

“Why don’t we shower together?” Juliana suggests as she climbs out of bed. She doesn’t want this bubble they’re in to burst just yet and she’s not quite ready to face the knowing looks she knows are awaiting them from Valentina’s family.

“Not tired of me yet, huh?” Valentina teases as she follows her girl into the en suite. Juliana turns the shower on as Valentina set the clothes on the counter.

“Never,” Juliana answers, checking the temperature of the water before pulling Valentina under the spray with her. Valentina laughs as they press close together, looking over Juliana lovingly. Her eyes linger on a spot on Juliana’s neck, her smile turning sheepish as Juliana raises her hand to touch the spot, covering a very obvious love bite with her hand.

“Um, I’m sorry?” Valentina laughs slightly looking back at Juliana’s eyes. Juliana smirks slightly as she shrugs her shoulders.

“At least we match.”

“Juliana!”

Juliana laughs until Valentina pushes her directly under the showerhead and even then she can’t keep the smile off her face.

 

Valentina’s family is doing a poor job of looking like they aren’t waiting for the girls to make an appearance when they finally come downstairs. The whole family is home, Guille and Eva sitting on one side of the table with León and Lúcia at each end. They left the seats across from Guille and Eva open for the young couple who quickly sit down after they walk into the room. They both look flushed, knowing that everyone in the room can see the matching marks on their necks from the night before. Guille tries very hard not laugh while Eva does an impersonation of a fish.

“So,” Lúcia says after a long stretch of silence where Val and Juli refused to look anyone in the face, “did you two have a good night?”

Valentia’s face flushes even more and Juliana ducks her head down to Valentina’s shoulders to hide her embarrassed smile. Guille can’t hold back any longer and starts laughing, Lúcia and León joining him.

“It was perfect,” Valentina answers, kissing the top of Juliana’s head before she pulls away and starts filling her plate with the spread of breakfast foods laid out on the table. Juliana kisses Valentina’s shoulder before lifting her head to get some food from herself. Guille teases the relentlessly throughout the meal, but Juliana and Valentina don’t care. They had each other and a lifetime of memories to make ahead of them. Valentina was right when she presented Juliana with the scrapbook at Christmas, their story is just beginning and Juliana can’t wait to see where it takes them.

~

Summer begins as quickly as it had the year before, bringing with it hours of free time that Juliana and Valentina could spend together. They made more of an effort that summer to hang out with their other friends as well, grabbing lunch with Sergio and Nayeli, or Juliana’s art friends Alexis and Xena. Sometimes they all met up as a group, joined by the other girls on Valentina’s relay team Kenzie, Barbara and Kamryn, to catch a movie or visit a theme park for the day. Juliana doesn’t mind sharing Valentina so much, not with all the times Valentina will cancel her plans for the day just because she’d rather spend time with Juliana instead. She likes the friend group she and Valentina have. They’ve always been welcoming to Juliana, even though she’s clearly the misfit of their group. They’ve never looked down on her for her lack of money or had a problem with her relationship with Val, with the obvious exception of Lucho. But then, even he has stopped putting the moves on Valentina because he knows he won’t get anywhere with her.

What Juliana does mind is the copious amounts of alcohol that their friends seem to always have available, or know where to get. It’s not that Juliana doesn’t want them to drink, that’s their choice and she doesn’t even mind them drinking around her. It’s when the keep pushing drinks into Valentina’s hands even if she doesn’t want them or has clearly already had too many that Juliana starts to get upset. Juliana hates that sometimes their friends won’t take no for an answer so she has to step in and drag Valentina away.

They call her a buzzkill, tell her to loosen up a little and have some fun. Juliana ignores all the comments. She doesn’t need to get drunk to have fun and she has no desire to drink. She’s never liked the smell of alcohol and doesn’t want to know what it tastes like. She just wants to make sure her girlfriend is safe. She’s keeping the promise she made to Valentina when they started going to parties together with their friends. Valentina knew that Juliana didn’t drink and had wanted to make sure she was okay with Valentina doing so.

“Val, you can do whatever you want,” Juliana had said, briefly looking up from the drawing she was working on. She was working on recreating the picture she had of Valentina from the night before, the fading sun casting the most beautiful of shadows across her features.

“I know,” Valentina sits beside Juliana on her bed, careful to disturb her as she traces over a line to darken it. She knows that Juliana would never keep her from doing something she wanted to, unless she was putting herself or others in danger. “I know, I just-”

“Val?” Juliana questions after Valentina cuts herself off and remains silent for a moment. Juliana stops working on the drawing, giving her full attention to Valentina. “Val, what is it amor?

“Just, promise me,” Valentina begins, “promise me you won’t let me go to crazy. I don’t want too…” She doesn’t finish the thought but she doesn’t need too. Juliana knows what she’s saying. She doesn’t want to end up like Juliana’s father, she doesn’t want to hurt anyone in the name of having a good time.

“You could never do something like that, Val,” Juliana says, setting her sketchbook aside so she can cup Val’s face with both hands. “You’re not that kind of person, mi amor .” Valentina nods her head but Juliana knows she’s still waiting for a different response. “I promise I’ll always look out for you, baby.”

“Thank you, Juliana,” Valentina relaxes, covering Juliana’s hand on her cheek with her own. “I love you.”

“I love you,” Juliana kisses her softly, taking a moment to make sure Valentina is really okay before she goes back to her drawing. Valentina lays down beside her on the bed and Juliana moves her sketchbook slightly so Val can use her thigh as a pillow. Juliana leans over and kisses Valentina’s forehead, silently reaffirming her promise.

Everytime they go to a party together, Juliana keeps track of how many drinks Valentina has had and steps in when she starts to reach her limit. Valentina whines drunkenly sometimes until she gets distracted by Juliana’s eyes or lips or anything related to her girlfriend at all. Valentina is a very affectionate person naturally and it’s even worse when she’s drunk. Luckily, she never loses enough of her inhibitions to ever what to be affectionate with anyone other than Juliana. Even though Juliana doesn’t drink, she has fun at the parties she goes to with Valentina. She has fun when she does anything with Valentina. It’s one of the best parts of being in love, Juliana thinks, being able to enjoy something just because you can do it with the person you love.

~

The worst part about being in love, Juliana knows, is fighting with the one you love. Her fights with Valentina are few and far in between but they still happen. They’re both far too stubborn to avoid arguing over things sometimes. They usually resolve things quickly, both of them calling to apologize at the same time because they can’t stand upsetting one another. Juliana hates seeing Valentina upset at all, even when a movie makes her cry because Valentina is an emotional person. She hates it even more when she’s the reason Valentina cries.

She doesn’t even know why she lashed out at Valentina like that. Valentina hadn’t done anything wrong, not in the slightest. She had walked into Juliana’s room and kissed her in greeting after setting her helmet on the floor by the door. Juliana had smiled at her, stealing another kiss when Valentina sat beside her on the bed. Valentina had asked if Juliana wanted to go see a movie with her that night. Juliana had quirked an eyebrow at the question, remembering that Sergio was having a party that night because his parents were out of town but before she could say anything her phone started to ring.

Her entire demeanor changed as she looked at the caller id, enough so that Valentina could see her shoulders tense. The same number had been calling for a few weeks by then, Juliana had only answered once. She had no desire to speak to her father, the name of the prison he was in lingering on her screen as she let the call go to voicemail. He would leave a message and Juliana would delete it without listening to it, just like she did every other time he called. Valentina had tried to ask what was wrong, but Juliana brushed her off. She doesn’t remember exactly what she said, only that she said it in a harsh tone she had never used before when speaking to Valentina. She knows her words implied she was tired of spending all her time with Valentina, that she had other things to do to.

Valentina had looked like she had just been slapped when she stood from Juliana’s bed, mumbling something about leaving Juliana alone as she picked up her helmet and left. Juliana heard her make some excuse about Guille needing her help with something as she left, heard the front door close behind her and felt the cold feeling of regret settle in her stomach. She didn’t mean to kick Valentina out like that. She didn’t mean what she said, not at all. There’s no one else she’d rather spend her time with. Even when they are both doing their own thing, Juliana doodling and Valentina looking through photographs or typing something up on her laptop, Juliana would rather them do their own thing together than apart. Her throat burns as she swallows, reaching for her phone and pulling up Valentina’s contact information.

Her fingers hover over the call button, knowing that if she calls now Valentina probably won’t answer. Not just because she had driven her motorcycle there but because she wouldn’t want to speak with Juliana just yet, not after what Juliana said to her. She locks her phone and collapses onto her bed, ignoring the questions her mother asks when she appears in her doorway. She feels like crying, hot, angry tears spilling from her eyes. The feeling only increases as hours pass without Valentina calling and Juliana lets them fall. She’s too upset with herself to stop them, too angry at herself for letting her frustration get the best of her and taking it out on the wrong person. She cries herself to sleep, hoping tomorrow will be better.

She’s woken up by her phone ringing at two am, Guille’s name scrolling across the screen and Juliana answers immediately.

“Guille?” Juliana questions as she rubs the sleep from her eyes.

“Juliana,” there’s something about his voice that seems off, something Juliana can’t place. “Juliana I need you to come here.”

“What? Why? What’s going on?” Juliana sits up fully and turns on her lamp.

“It’s Valentina,” Guille says and Juliana can hear the worry in his voice, the fear. “She’s in the hospital, Juliana.”

Juliana’s heart drops to her stomach as a strangled ‘no’ escapes her throat. “She’s not, she can’t be,” Juliana can’t think straight. “What happened?”

“She was in a car accident,” Guille explains. Juliana can picture him running a hand through his hair anxiously. It’s a mannerism he shares with Valentina. “She was on her bike when someone ran into her.”

“Where is she?” Juliana asks, already halfway through the process of pulling a pair of jeans up her legs. She doesn’t recall getting out of bed, but it doesn’t matter. She needs to be with Valentina, she needs to see that she’s okay because all Juliana can see when she closes her eyes is the love her life broken and pleading on the pavement somewhere. She can’t lose Valentina, not now, not ever, not when the last thing she said to her was that she didn’t want to see her.

Guille tells her the hospital and offers to send a car for her but Juliana declines. She promises to meet him at the hospital and hangs up the phone. She finishes getting dressed quickly, grabbing a hoodie she had taken from Valentina in March when they had an unexpected cold front blow through the city. The hoodie smells like Valentina’s perfume and her last name is emblazoned on the arm. Juliana doesn’t notice that she’s crying until she’s in the living, trying to tie her shoes but unable to do so because she can’t see through the wetness in her eyes.

“Juliana?” She hears her mother’s voice and looks up at her. “Juliana, what’s wrong?”

“It’s Val,” Juliana sniffles, “she’s in the hospital. I have to get there, Mom.” Juliana stands, ignoring her untied shoes and reaching for her keys.

“Wait, Juli, wait, you can’t drive like this,” Lupita takes the keys from her daughter’s hand.

“Mom, I have to get to her.” Juliana tries to grab the keys but Lupita moves them out of her reach.

“I know, sweetie, but if you drive like this you’ll end up in the hospital too. I’ll drive you.” Lupe hurries back to her room and dresses in record time. Juliana is still standing in the same spot when she reenters the living room. “Let’s go.”

 

Juliana has calmed down slightly by the time they reach the hospital. She’s stopped crying but her mind is still racing, playing the worst case scenarios over and over again. She’s so scared she’s going to lose Valentina and she can’t help but blame herself. If she hadn’t had snapped at her earlier, Valentina would have been safe and sound, probably curled up with Juliana instead of in the hospital. Guille is waiting for her at the entrance and pulls Juliana into a hug as she approaches.

“How is she? Is she okay?” Juliana asks quickly as she pulls away from the hug. Lupita takes one of Juliana’s hands, hoping she can offer some comfort.

“She’s in surgery, her leg is broken and she cracked a couple of ribs. That’s all we know, right now.” Guille explains. Juliana covers her mouth with her hand and closes her eyes as another tear falls. “Everyone else is waiting inside.”

“What happened to the other driver?” Lupita asks as they walk to join the rest of Valentina’s family.

“I’m not sure,” Guille answers, “I don’t think he had any injuries but he was drunk so I think they took him into custody.”

“And Val? Was she…” Guille shakes his head no before Juliana can finish her question.

“They did a blood test before they took her back to surgery, she was clean.”

Juliana nods but the ache in her chest still remains. She knows the only reason Valentina would have been on the road so late was if she ended up going to Sergio’s party, since Juliana had rejected her earlier in the day. The guilt settled low in Juliana’s stomach and only increased when she entered the waiting room and saw the worried faces of the Carvajal family.

Lúcia stood up when Juliana arrived and pulled her in for a hug. Juliana barely had the strength to hug her back.

“I’m sorry,” Juliana said as she pulled away from Lúcia, “it’s all my fault. I’m sorry.”

“This isn’t your fault, Juliana,” Lúcia said, guiding Juliana into a chair. Lúcia sat on one side of her while Lupita took the seat on the other side.

“It is, we had a fight earlier.” Juliana rubs at her tears. “She wouldn’t have been on the road so late if it wasn’t for me.”

“You can’t blame yourself, Juliana.” Lupita says, stroking her daughter’s hair softly. Juliana doesn’t reply, covering her mouth with her hand as more tears fall.

“Juliana,” Juliana looks up when Eva crouches in front of her, “she wouldn’t want you to blame yourself for this, and she’ll tell you that herself as soon as she wakes up.” Eva takes Juliana’s hand in her own and squeezes softly. “Don’t blame yourself just because you two had a fight. Just be there for her now, when she needs you the most.”  

Juliana nods. She knows Eva’s right, and the surprise that comes with Eva speaking so openly with Juliana helps dry her tears. She’s always been well aware that Eva doesn’t think she’s good enough for Valentina, that Valentina deserves more. Eva being the one to offer the most comforting words to Juliana is an unexpected but welcome surprise. Eva squeezes her hand again before she stands up and moves back to her own seat where Mateo is waiting. He rubs her back softly as she sits back down. Juliana thinks they must be getting pretty serious and she wishes them the best. Then, all she can do is wait.

It feels like years have passed by the time the doctor emerges from the OR and calls Valentina’s name. It’s been a couple hours since Juliana arrived at the hospital and she know she and the rest of the group who stands up look like an exhausted mess.

“We’re her family,” León says to the doctor as they all crowd around him. Lúcia pulls Juliana to front so she’s standing next to her and León. “How is she?”

“She’s being taken to recovery now, the surgery went well. We had to set a couple of her ribs and her leg needed a couple of pins but she should heal up just fine.” The doctor explained. Juliana exhaled a breath she didn’t know she had been holding. “She’ll be pretty sore for a while and she has some superficial cuts and bruises, but she pulled through.”

“Thank you, Doctor,” León shakes the man’s hand, looking as if a great weight has been lifted off his shoulders. “Can we see her?”

“I’ll have a nurse take you to her room. I know you are all very worried but try not to crowd her. She’ll be disoriented when she wakes up and she’ll need to drink plenty of fluids for the next couple hours as the anesthesia wears off.” The doctor promises to come check in on Valentina in a few hours before leaving to assist another patient.

“Valentina Carvajal?” A nurse calls and the assembled group turns to her. “If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you to her room.”

Juliana pauses outside Valentina’s room, letting the Carvajals enter before her. Lupita and Lúcia remain in the hall with her.

“Juliana?” Lupita asks softly. Juliana looks at her. “I know you feel guilty, mija, but Valentina needs you now. You love her, don’t you?”

“More than anything.” Juliana’s answer comes without a hint of hesitation or doubt. Lúcia and Lupita smile at her.

“Then, get in there and hold her hand. Be there for her now, and you can deal with everything else later.” Lúcia moves so Juliana can enter the room Valentina is resting in. Juliana takes a deep breath before walking into the room.

León, Guille and Eva stand on the left side of the bed, León gently touching Valentina’s fingers, so Juliana approaches from the right. Valentina’s left leg is propped up on a couple of pillows, Juliana can see the hard material of the cast she wears peeking out from beneath the blanket. There’s a few scratches on her face, Juliana guesses the visor of her helmet must have broken and caused those, and her arms are dotted with purple bruises. Juliana’s almost scared to see the damage hidden beneath the hospital gown Valentina wears. Mateo and Lupita hang back a bit, letting the family have their moment.

Juliana takes Valentina’s hand as she approaches, absently noticing that the Carvajal family had taken the side where Valentina’s IV line was so Juliana didn’t have anything obstructing her from fully holding Valentina’s hand. She swallows the emotions that come with that gesture and leans over to kiss Valentina’s forehead, carefully avoid the scrapes that dot her skin. Juliana knows it could be a while before the anesthesia wears off enough for Valentina to start waking up but she doesn’t plan on being anywhere but right beside her when it happens.

Half an hour passes and Guille, Mateo and Leno decide to go on a coffee run. Everyone in the room is running on fumes and they could use the boost. Lupita and Lúcia also step out of the room, Eva following a moment later. Juliana knows they all left to give her a chance to be alone with Valentina, giving her time to process everything that happened in the last twenty four hours. Juliana sighs heavily and leans over to kiss Valentina’s forehead again.

Te amo, Val. Lo siento, mi amor, lo siento mucho. ” Juliana pulls back before her tears can land on Valentina’s skin, not wanting to disturb her before she’s ready to wake up. It’s only a few moments later that Valentina’s eyes being to open slowly.

“Juls…” Valentina’s voice is rough and dry. She licks her lips and swallows thickly. “Juls,”

“Val, I’m here, amor, I’m right here.” Juliana squeezes Valentina’s hand gently, reaching with her free hand for the glass of water the nurse had left next to the bed. “I’m here, drink this.”

She holds the straw to Valentina’s mouth, waiting for Valentina to take a few long gulps before setting the cup back down. Valentina blinks sleepily at her, turning her head to look around the room. It seems to take her a second to realize exactly where she is and how she got there. When her eyes focus on Juliana again, they’re brimming with unshed tears.

“Juls, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to-”

“Shh, Val, you have nothing to apologize for,” Juliana cards her fingers through Valentina’s hair gently and then strokes her cheek. “I’m the one who’s sorry. I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that. I wasn’t upset with you, not at all, I was just frustrated and took it out on you. I’m so sorry, mi amor . You wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for me.”

“No, Juls,” Valentina moves like she wants to sit up but winces and stops. Juliana’s hand falls to her shoulder to keep her in place. “This isn’t your fault, baby. I should have been more careful, especially driving so late.”

“You wouldn’t have been on the road at all if I hadn’t snapped at you.”

“I’m not going to play the blame game with you, Juls. We fought, it’s okay. It happens. We’ll talk about it and figure things out.” Valentina blinks slowly and pulls her hand out of Juliana’s so she can caress her face. “I don’t blame you for this Juliana. I blame the idiot who was driving drunk.”

Te amo, Val. I love you more than anything.” Juliana leans down to rest her forehead against Valentina’s.

Te amo tambien, ” Val whispers back, her thumb stroking Juliana’s cheek. “I love you so much, Juls.”

Juliana can’t hold back any more and closes the distance between their lips. She kisses Valentina gently, almost afraid she’ll crumble if Juliana pushes to hard. Juliana lingers there for a moment after they pull apart, relieved and overwhelmed that she’s breathing the same air as Valentina again. “You’re families waiting in the hall. Do you want me to get them?”

“Yeah,” Valentina mumbles softly, “before I fall back asleep.” Juliana kisses her cheek.

“I’ll be right back.”

Eva, Guille, León and Lúcia rush in after Juliana tells them that Valentina is awake. Juliana lingers in the hallway with her mother and Mateo, wanting to give the Carvajal family the same courtesy the extended to her. She hugs her mother, breathing a little easier now that Val has woken up. They still need to talk but Juliana knows everything will be okay. She returns to Valentina’s beside a few minutes later, after Eva steps into the hall again.

“She’s starting to fall asleep again, but she wants to see you first.”

Juliana follows Eva back into Valentina’s room and reclaims her spot on the right side of the bed. Her hand finds Val, squeezing her perpetually cold fingers, as Val turns to look at her. She’s fighting to keep her eyes open, Juliana can tell, so Juliana leans over to kiss her softly, not caring that their families are watching. It’s not like it’s the first time they’ve seen them kiss.

“Sleep, mi amor, don’t fight it. I’ll be here when you wake up.” Juliana promises softly, pressing a kiss to Valentina’s hair. “I love you.”

“Love you,” Valentina mumbles as her eyes fall closed. She’s asleep seconds later. Someone moves a chair to the right side of the bed so Juliana can sit down and she does, never letting go of Valentina’s hand.

~

Juliana keeps her promise, remaining by Valentina’s bedside until she wakes up again. Valentina is much more coherent when she opens her eyes but the smiles that spreads across her lips when she opens her eyes and sees Juliana, slumped against the side of her bed, sleeping with hand in Valentina’s and her forehead pressing against Val’s arm, quickly turns to a grimace as she tries to move and her ribs protest the movement. She must have made some sort of sound because Juliana sits up quickly.

“Val,”

“I’m fine, Juls,” Valentina says before Juliana can voice the concern growing in her eyes.

“Valentina,” Juliana looks like she wants to say more, smoothing her hand over Valentina’s arm but Val speaks up before she can.

“I’m okay, Juliana,” her gaze is soft as she threads her fingers through Juliana’s. “I just moved the wrong way.”

“Does it hurt?” Juliana stands so she can lean over her girl, brushing the fingers of her free hand along the scrapes that dot Val’s face.

“A little,” Juliana gives her a look that says she knows Val is downplaying her pain. “I have a high pain tolerance.”

“Baby, you cry when you stub your toe.”

“Everyone does that.” Valentina chuckles and then winces when the motion pulls on her sore ribs. Her free hand presses against her side where she can feel the lump of a bandage beneath her gown. “Don’t make me laugh, it hurts.”

“Do you want me to call the nurse? They can give you something for the pain.”

“No, it’s fine. I can wait until I get home.” Valentina closes her eyes for a moment, feeling Juliana’s fingers in her hair and releasing a soft sigh. Juliana kisses her forehead softly before pulling back and sitting back down. “Where’s everyone else?”

“Your dad’s filling out some paperwork, Guille and Mateo went to get more coffee, Eva, Lúcia and my mom are in the hall, at least that’s what they were doing before I fell asleep.” Her smile turns sheepish, she hadn’t meant to fall asleep but the adrenaline had faded from her body after Valentina had fallen back asleep hours ago and Juliana found herself soon following suit. “The doctor should be back soon to check you over.”

“I’m glad you’re here, I missed you. I hate it when we fight.”

“I missed you, too, Val. I’m sorry. It’s my fault.” Juliana looked down at her lap as she felt the guilt still sitting in pit of her stomach grow.

“No, Juliana, I already told you not to blame yourself. Couples fight, it’s normal.” Valentina squeezed her hand but Juliana refused to look up. “ Amor, mirame, ” Juliana looked up slowly, the unconditional love she finds in Valentina’s eyes taking her breath away. “This isn’t your fault, it isn’t anyone’s fault. It happened. We have to deal with it and move on, and we will, the same way we always do.”

“Together?”

“Together.” Valentina tugs on Juliana’s hand. “Now get over here so I can kiss you.”

Juliana laughs and does as she’s told.

 

Valentina is released that night with strict instructions to stay in bed and not aggravate her ribs to much for the next week or so. She’s clearly annoyed, doing that thing with her mouth where she pulls her lips together and pokes her tongue against her cheek, as she’s wheeled out of the hospital after being forced to sit in the wheelchair. Guille is pushing her, probably a little too fast, while the rest of the group walks behind them. Only León is missing, having left a few minutes before to pull the car around to the front of the building. They’re all running on fumes and way to much caffeine but it doesn’t matter, Valentina is safe and will heal just fine. That’s all that any of them care about. Even Lupita, because she knows her daughter would be absolutely crushed if she ever lost Valentina, but also because she’s grown to see the girl as a second daughter. It was impossible for her not to, with all the time she’s spent with the girl over the past year and a half. She saw how happy Valentina made her daughter, she could never not like someone who put a smile like that on her daughters face.

“Juliana, will you be coming home with us?” Lúcia asks as they near the exit. Juliana starts to nod before looking back at her mother.

“If that’s okay with you?” The question is aimed at both Lúcia and Lupita. Lúcia smiles and Lupita nods.

“Of course, mija, ” Lupita rubs Juliana’s shoulder gently. It took Lupita a long time to be okay with Valentina and Juliana continuing to have sleepovers after they started dating, even with her open door rule. They were so clearly drawn to each other, Lupita doubted they could ever keep their hands to themselves when they were alone but she never protested when Valentina stayed over or Juliana spent the weekend at the Carvajal mansion. She didn’t feel like it was her place, not after letting Juliana suffer at the hands of Chino for fifteen years. She hadn’t protested before and she certainly wasn’t going to start when Juliana so clearly needed to be close to Valentina so she could see that everything was okay with her own two eyes. “Just let me know if you need anything, either of you.”

They stopped outside the hospital where León was waiting with one of the Carvajal cars. Guille helped his sister into the vehicle and then made sure she could slide back enough to rest her back against a pillow propped up on the door. Once Valentina was settled Guille stepped back, holding the door open for Juliana. Juliana kissed her mother’s cheek before climbing into the car with her girlfriend.

“Okay?” Juliana asked as the door was pushed closed behind her, pulling Valentina’s casted leg into her lap. Valentina had a small grimace on her face, breathing deeply through her nose. “Val?” Juliana asked again when her girlfriend remained silent. Guille had climbed into the front seat and turned to look back at his sister.

“I’m fine,” Valentina reached out, arm stretching as she searched for Juliana’s hand without opening her eyes. Juliana took her hand, feeling Val squeeze gently. “The pain meds are wearing off.”

“Let’s get you home then.” León speaks up from the driver's seat. Juliana holds Val’s hand through the whole drive, soothing her thumb across Valentina’s knuckles as the ride jostles her. Valentina keeps her eyes closed but squeezes Juliana’s hand periodically.

When they arrive at the mansion, Valentina doesn’t have the energy to travel much further so they settle her on the couch in the TV room. Juliana helps her get comfortable while Guille runs upstairs to grab Valentina’s favorite blanket from her room. León brings her the medication for the pain which Valentina takes gratefully.

“Juls, lay with me,” Valentina whispers once she’s covered up, her casted leg stretched out and propped up some pillows. Juliana’s kneeling beside the couch and stroking Valentina’s hair.

“I don’t want to hurt you, baby.”

“You won’t,” Valentina’s eyes are fluttering closed, her over taxed body still recuperating and the journey from the hospital leaving her drained. “Please.”

Juliana’s never been good at denying Valentina anything so she carefully maneuvers their bodies so Valentina can curl against her chest without hurting herself. Val settles into Juliana with a content sigh, falling asleep almost as soon as Juliana has her in her arms. It doesn’t take long for Juliana to follow suit and when Lúcia, Eva and Mateo arrive at the mansion, they find the young couple warmly cuddle up together, both sound asleep and looking more at ease than they’ve ever seen.

No one comments when Guille takes a photo of them and sends it to both girls. They also don’t comment when they catch sight of Valentina’s background a few weeks laters and see that picture on proud display.

~

Valentina’s ribs thankfully heal quickly enough so she’s only confined to her bed and the couch for a few weeks. Her legs take much longer to heal, keeping her in a cast and then brace long after school picks up again. She hates having a broken leg, hates having her mobility limited like this. She can’t driver herself anywhere, she loses her balance too easily and she always leaves the school feeling far to exhausted from lugging both her bag and her brace around all day. She snaps at Juliana few times in her annoyance, usually when Juliana is offering to get her something when she goes to the kitchen. Valentina always apologizes immediately and Juliana kisses her softly, assuring her that doesn’t take it personally. When Valentina is finally free of her brace just before Halloween, she decides they should celebrate by going to a costume party together. Juliana agrees, happy to see her girlfriend in such high spirits again, and enters Valentina’s room the day of the party, costume in hand.

Valentina is standing in front of her full length mirror, half dressed in her own costume. They were going as a gender bent Sandy and Danny from Grease, after Valentina decided she had developed a taste for movie musicals after spending so much time watching them. Valentina was going as Sandy, copying her final outfit from the movie. She was already wearing the black leather pants but only a black strapless bra covered her chest. She hasn’t noticed that Juliana’s in the room, too busy staring at a spot on her side.

Juliana walks up behind her, sliding her hands over Valentina’s hips as she hugs her from behind. She presses her lips against Valentina’s shoulder softly.  

“What’s wrong, my love?” Juliana asked, kissing Valentina’s shoulder again, She feels Val’s shoulder move as she sighs.

“Nothing,” her fingers tap against her sides, “I just didn’t realize how big the scar was.”

It’s only then that Juliana realizes what Valentina had been looking at. There’s a thin stripe of discolored skin that runs along Valentina’s side. Juliana’s fingers trace it gently, almost reverently. She knows what Valentina is thinking, that the scar is big and ugly, something that would make her less beautiful. She’s proven right when Valentina stops her fingers from moving along her skin and steps out of their embrace.

“Valentina,” Juliana follows as Val moves away from, stopping her from reaching for the top to her costume, “Val, hey, mirame ,” Valentina looks at Juliana through her eyelashes, and there’s something buried in the blue hues that makes Juliana frown. “Talk to me, baby. What’s really bothering you?”

“It’s ugly,” Valentina says, unable to keep eye contact with Juliana as she continues, “it makes me ugly.”

“Valentina, there is nothing about you that is ugly. Nothing.” Val shakes her head, not believing Juliana so she reaches out, holding Valentina’s face between her palms. “Val, listen to me. You are beautiful, inside and out. You always have been.”

“But this…” Valentina gestures at the mark on her side.

“Is beautiful, Val. Do you know why?” Valentina shakes her head no. “Because it means you survived. I could have lost you that day, I thought I was going to lose you. The whole ride to the hospital that’s all I could think about. Never seeing your smile or hearing you laugh or getting to tell you how much I love you, ever again.” Juliana’s voice gets thicker as she speaks and she swallows against the lump in her throat. “I think this scar is beautiful because it means you’re still here.”

“I love you.” Valentina says, not knowing what else to say.

“I love you,” Juliana ducks down slightly, pressing her lips to the center of Val’s scar, “all of you.”

When she stands back up, Valentina kisses her, hard, an overflow of emotion spilling into the kiss as they tumble onto the bed. They never make it to the party but neither of them care. They have each other, that’s all they need.

~

“Val, I already told you we don’t need to do anything special for my birthday,” Juliana says for the dozenth time. She’s sitting in the passenger seat as Valentina drives, feeling entirely underdressed for the dinner date Val swears she’s taking her too. Juliana doesn’t believe her, not because Val would ever lie to her but because she does this tapping thing with her fingers when she’s excited. Her index finger taps the inside of Juliana’s thigh quickly, two soft touches in quick succession. She’s been doing that periodically throughout their driver, holding Juliana’s leg with one hand and driving with the other.

“And I already told you, we aren’t.” Valentina looks over at her quickly before turning back to the road. “We’re just getting dinner, Juls. Let me celebrate you.” She squeezes her thigh softly.

“Right,” Juliana looks out at the landscape around them. There’s not any buildings for miles around. “And where exactly are we getting dinner?”

“You’ll see,” Valentina squeezes her thigh again. “Trust me, my love. You’ll love it.”

Juliana sighed softly and laced her fingers with Valentina’s. She trusted Valentina completely, but her curiosity was burning. She knew Valentina had something planned and she was excited to find out what it was, if a little nervous. Valentina had a knack for spectacular acts to show her love for Juliana, ones that never fail to make Juliana fall even more in love.

They drive for another fifteen minutes before pulling up in front of a well lit house that Juliana vaguely recognizes. She doesn’t remember ever visiting it before, but she knows she’s seen the exterior before.

“Where are we?”

“We call it the Valle house,” Valentina cuts the engine, an expression that would be unreadable to anyone who isn’t her girlfriend on her face. Juliana can see the veiled sorrow in her eyes. “It’s kind of like our little private get away, or it used to be.”

“Are you okay?” Juliana asks as Valentina drops her hands into her lap. Valentina nods shakily, gladly threading her fingers through Juliana’s when she reaches for her.

“Yeah, I just haven’t been in here in a long time.” Valentina reads the silent question in Juliana’s eyes and continues. “We stopped coming after my mom died.”

“Oh, baby,” Juliana squeezes her hand.

“It’s okay, really,” Valentina quickly reaches up to brush a stray tear off her cheek. “I know she would have loved you, almost as much as I do.” Valentina smiled while Juliana leaned over to kiss her cheek. “And I know she would want us to be happy here, and nothing makes me happier than spending time with you.”

“Are you sure?” Juliana asks, stopping Valentina as she starts to get out of the car.

“I’m sure,” Valentina leans over and steals a kiss. “C’mon, I’ll show you around.”

 

The inside of the Valle house is just as extraordinary as the outside, not that Juliana expected any different after dating Val for almost two years. The decor is as simple and elegant as at the Carvajal mansion, Juliana notes and Valentina takes both of their coats to hand them up, but the house an obvious emptiness to it, an absence of life. At least, that’s how it seems, until Valentina leads Juliana into the back den. Where the rest of the house was cold and empty, the den is warm and bursting with warmth.

A warm, crackling fire casts soft shadow across a beautifully set picnic spread on the floor in front of the fireplace. Red rose petals lead the way, the soft glow of candles along the outside of the room providing a warm and inviting atmosphere. Juliana feels familiar, lithe arms slip around her waist and leans back into her girlfriend.

“Do you like it?” Valentina whispers in her ear, giggling when Juliana gasps as her cold fingers caress the skin of her abdomen. It’s something that Juliana had started commenting on recently, complaining every time Val slipped her fingers beneath Juliana’s top to feel her skin, because Valentina had perpetually cold hands and it made Juliana jump every time.

“Val,” Juliana turns she can look Valentina in the eye, “this is amazing.”

“You deserve it,” Valentina kisses her nose. “I know you didn’t want to go anything too big so I figured a private picnic would work. I wanted to have it outside on the grounds but it’s too cold for that.” Juliana is just about to comment on how she wouldn’t mind the cold so much as long as Valentina was with when her girl continues speaking. “Guille helped get the fire going and lit the candles for me while Eva and Lúcia brought the food over. They all left a few minutes before we got here.”

“I’ll have to say thank you the next time I see them. For now,” Juliana steps out of Valentina’s embrace and takes her hand instead, pulling her to the blanket, “let’s eat.”

 

“Happy birthday chiquita ,” Val mumbles into Juliana’s bare shoulder some time later. They’ve finished the dinner set out for them and moved upstairs after blowing out the candles as making sure the fire was out, a trail of clothes leading to the bedroom. Now they’re laying together, bodies spent and content to be together, Valentina holding Juliana against her chest.

“You’re amazing, you know that?” Juliana hums softly as Valentina presses a soft kiss against her neck. “I love you, Valentina.”

“I love you, too, baby.” Valentina kisses her neck again, loosening her hold on Juliana as she shifts so she can face Valentina. She reaches up, slowly tracing her finger across Valentina’s cheekbones.

“Thank you for sharing this place with me.” Juliana spoke softly. “I know what it means to you.”

“I want to share everything with you, Juls,” Valentina turns her head slightly to kiss Juliana’s palm. “You know that, right?”

Juliana knows Valentina’s asking about more than the Valle house, more than the kisses they’ve shared and the dates they’ve been on. More than all the times she’s stolen Valentina’s hoodies only to return them when they stop smelling like her. She’s asking about the times they will share, the fights they’ll have and the promises they’ll make. Valentina’s acknowledging the truth they’ve both felt from the beginning: that this, the connection they share, isn’t something that’s going to fade with time. It’s real and deep and more pure than anything else in their lives.

“I know,” Juliana whispers, shuffling closer to Valentina to kiss her gently. “I want to share everything with you, too.”

~

“Juliana, how are you today, dear?” Lúcia smiled as Juliana walked into the kitchen of the Carvajal mansion, looking quickly around the room before answering Lúcia.  

“I’m great,” Juliana smiled back, “How was Paris?”

“Wonderful. You’ll have to go some day, I know you’d enjoy it. The art, the food, the fashion.” Lúcia’s smile grew fond, her eyes holding a far away glint as she remembered her trip with León. “I’m sure Valentina will whisk you away sooner or later.”

“She’ll try, at least,” Juliana laughed. “Speaking of, have you seen Val? I can’t find her anywhere.” Juliana had spent the better part of the last half hour looking for her girlfriend around the mansion and not finding her anywhere. It was odd, especially since Val had asked Juliana to come over after she spent the morning with her mother.

“She was heading to the garage the last time I saw her, have you checked there?” Lúcia suggested, setting her drink down and climbing off the stool she sat on. Juliana shook her head no, turning and falling into step with Lúcia as she began to walk out of the kitchen. “I’ll walk you out.”

Juliana chatted amicably as she walked outside with Lúcia. She surprised herself when she discovered that she clicked with Lúcia right away, but differently than she had with Valentina. It wasn’t a sense of belonging that Juliana felt around Lúcia, more of an understanding. They’d never spoken about it but they didn’t need too. Not yet. Lúcia told her more about Paris as they walked before asking about Juliana’s latest art project was going. Juliana lit up and started uncharacteristically rambling about the project she had been working on, one that her teachers said could be entered into a competition for a massive scholarship. She was so engrossed in her conversation with Lúcia that she hadn’t even noticed they were walking in the opposite direction of the garage.

“I can’t wait to see it,” Lúcia said, putting a hand on Juliana’s arm to stop her from walking. Juliana looked at her curiously. “But right now, I think there’s something you should see.”

“What do - Oh, Valentina.” Juliana turned her head to the right, immediately spotting her girlfriend standing ten feet from her, a large bouquet in her hands and wearing the brightest smile. She was standing next to a blanket set up with pillows and another blanket folded and sitting off to the side. Behind Val, a large white screen had the menu for the first movie they ever watched together proudly displayed. Valentina’s name escaped Juliana’s lips followed by a stunned laugh.

“I’ll leave you two alone,” Lúcia’s words went unheard as Valentina approached her girlfriend, thanking her step-mother silently with her smile.

“Valentina, what is all this?” Juliana asked as she and Val closed the distance between them.

“This is me apologizing.”

“I didn’t think you had anything to apologize for?” Juliana’s eyebrows scrunched up adorably and she lifted a hand to brush down Valentina’s arm, for no other reason than Juliana really wanted to touch Val in that moment.

“It’s a preemptive apology.”

“So you’re planning to piss me off?”

“Of course not,” Valentina rolled her eyes, gripping the bouquet she held with one hand and reaching for Juliana’s waist with the other. “But I have kind of bad news.”

“What is it?” Juliana allowed herself to be pulled to the blanket, sitting down beside Valentina taking the flowers from her.

“I qualified for nationals again,”

“That’s amazing, baby! How is that bad news?” Juliana took Valentina’s hands in her own.

“Because the committee pushed the date for nationals back, so I’ll be running on our anniversary.”

“Oh,” Juliana smiled slightly as Valentina looked away, clearly upset that they wouldn’t get to spend the day together. “Val, it’s okay. It’s just a day.”

“It’s our day.” Valentina protested. Juliana squeezed her hands softly.

“Everyday is our day, my love. Anniversary or not.” Juliana moved closer to Valentina, climbing into her lap and straddling her hips. “It’s one day, mi amor, one day out of a lifetime. And we’ll still be together. There’s no way I won’t be at the meet to cheer you on.”

“I know,” Valentina wrapped her arms around Juliana’s waist and held her close, nuzzling her nose into the crook of her neck. “I just want that day to be special, just for us.”

“It will be,” Juliana promised, kissing Valentina’s forehead. “Every day that we are together is special.”

“I love you.” Valentina whispered against Juliana’s neck before pulling back just enough to look up at her.

“I love you too, cariño. ” Juliana leaned down and kissed Valentina, slowly at first and then threading her fingers through Valentina’s hair and pressing harder against her. She heard Valentina release a low moan when Juliana ducked down to kiss her pulse point and couldn’t help the smile that spread on her lips.  

Amor, as much as I like where this is going, we’re outside and my entire family is home.”

“So let’s go inside,” Juliana suggested, pouting as Val pulled further away from her.

“We will,” Val reached to her side and picked up a remote, pointing it at the projector. “After the movie.” Juliana grumbled playfully but settled against Valentina’s chest to watch the movie as the sun faded in the distance.

 

THREE

It seemed like summer had passed in the blink of an eye for Juliana and Valentina, the normal carefree haze replaced by increasing questions about college applications and what comes next. Valentina hadn’t felt up to partying much that summer which suited Juliana just fine after the events of the last party Valentina went to. Even though Valentina hadn’t taken anything when she was the party without Juls, she would never forget it. Just like Juliana would never forget the phone call from Guille telling her that Valentina was in the hospital.

Instead, they spent their days moving back and forth between their houses, sometimes joined by friends and all going out to the movies or getting ice cream together. Valentina spent a few days at Grupo Carvajal’s media office, El Centro, to learn a few things about journalism from her dad. She had started to express an interest in studying journalism after high school and León was delighted to share his passion with his youngest daughter. While Valentina spent the day at the office, Juliana set off into the city, looking for the perfect birthday gift for Valentina.

Juliana had taken it upon herself to set up Valentina’s dream date for her birthday, with the help of Guille, Lúcia, and León. Eva wasn’t there to help, she had been offered a summer internship at an art museum in New York, but she did send her support which Juliana was grateful for. It wasn’t difficult to plan the surprise, Juliana knew exactly what Val would want to do, and Guille helped her find the perfect location. Juliana already had a gift for Valentina, a companion to the gift Juliana had received from Val their first Christmas together, but she wanted to get something else. Something that Valentina would be able to take everywhere, so she’d always have a piece of Juliana with her. Juliana was worried that she wouldn’t find something in time, but she felt like she struck gold the day before Valentina’s birthday. Juliana had spotted the perfect gift and bought it on sight, knowing her girl would love it.

The day of Valentina’s birthday, it was León and Lúcia’s job to keep Valentina occupied until the afternoon. Valentina started her day with a good morning text from Juliana, and then a quick phone call where Juliana wished her love a happy birthday and apologized for not getting to spend the day with her. Valentina shrugged the apology off, whispering her love back to Juliana and telling her to call if her mother needed an extra hand moving things around.

When Valentina came downstairs, she was greeted by a stack of pancakes far to big for her to eat alone and the smiling faces of her family. They wished her a happy birthday but said she would have to wait until later to receive her gifts. Valentina pretended to pout but gladly ate her breakfast. There was something going on, she could tell. Her family’s smiles were a little too wide, eyes a little too bright to just be celebrating a birthday. And, now that she thought about it, Juliana had sounded odd on the phone, almost giddy. Valentina shrugged it off, content to let the day play out as it may.

After breakfast, she and Lúcia went shopping together and then Valentina was treated to lunch at her favorite bistro downtown. Valentina pretended not to notice Lúcia checking her phone periodically as they ate and sent a text to Juliana instead, asking if everything was going alright with her mother. Lupita had asked for Juliana’s help cleaning out some of the things in their home that they no longer used, promising that it wouldn’t take all day and she would get to see Valentina. Juliana sent a message back promising Val that she’d been done on time and she couldn’t wait to see her.

When Valentina arrived home, Lúcia sent her upstairs to change into one of the many outfits she bought, telling her to keep it casual but nice. Valentina chose a pair of jean shorts with stylishly frayed edges and a loose, flowing blouse. She decided not to wear heels and instead slipped on a pair of white converse that thought may actually belong to Juliana, but they fit her so she didn’t mind. She came back downstairs to find her whole family waiting at the foot of the stairs with a small collection of gifts in their hands.

“Happy birthday, mi niña ,” León said, handing Valentina the box he held. Valentina kissed her father on the cheek and opened the box, perplexed but still joyous when she discovered a blanket inside, a light grey color and made of the softest material she had ever felt.

Gracias, Papí ,” Valentina said as she hugged her father tightly. “I love it.”

Valentina then turned to Lúcia who held out a small, black bag that Valentina recognized from their shopping trip earlier in the day but she couldn’t recall which store it had come from. Inside the bag was a framed photograph, one that made Valentina smile and filled her heart with love. It was of her, Juliana, Guille and Eva in the pool together. Valentina was watching from the sidelines as Guille and Juliana hit an inflated beach ball back and forth at one another. The picture captured the moment Guille had hit the ball wrong and sent it flying directly into Eva’s, who was sitting on a chair beside the pool, face. Guille’s expression in the photograph was one of mild panic while Eva looked outraged. Juliana was almost doubled over in laughter, Valentina staring at her with a look of complete devotion, biting her lower lip slightly.

“I didn’t even see you take this,” Valentina said with a laugh and then hugged her step-mother as well.

Guille stepped up next, holding bag that Valentina recognized as her overnight bag, over one shoulder and dangling a set of keys in his other hand.

“My surprise is waiting, but we have to go or a little drive,” Valentina rolled her eyes at her brother but dutifully followed him to his car, coming back to grab the blanket her father had gifted her after being instructed to do so by Guille.

“Not that I don’t appreciate a little mystery but are you guys going to let me see my girlfriend at any point today?” Valentina asked as Guille drove them out of the city. She’s surprised that they are driving the car because she knows Guille is far more fond of the pickup truck he learned to drive in when he was sixteen, but she has other things on her mind, namely her girlfriend, a bed, and very little clothing between the two of them. “She should be done helping her mother by now.”

“Don’t worry, this won’t take long.” Guille said with a smile, turning the radio on and drowning out his sister’s complaints as he started singing along, loudly and vry off-key.

 

It did, as it turned out, take long because the sun was already fading over the horizon when Guille suddenly turned to follow a well worn dirt road. Valentina felt like she should know where they are, something on the edge of her memory bristles in recognition but not enough so that Valentina can realize where they are. She’s about to voice this to Guille when the car comes to a stop and the headlights land on a very familiar truck and an even more familiar person.

“What?” Valentina turns to her brother without explaining her question any further. He smiles at her.

“Don’t look at me, this was all her idea.” He opened the door without cutting the engine. “I’ll get your bag, go see your girl.”

Valentina didn’t need to be told twice.

Juliana beamed at her as she approached, holding out her hand for Valentina to take as soon as she got close enough.

“Happy birthday, mi amor ,” Juliana said, pulling Valentina in for the kiss she had been waiting all day for. Valentina’s arms encircled Juliana’s shoulders and pulled her closer, angling her head to deepen the kiss as Juliana’s fingers slipped beneath the hem of her top and stroked the skin along the small of her back.

“Juls,” Valentina whispered against her lips, “this is amazing. You know you didn’t have to do all this.”

“I wanted too.” Juliana looked deeply into Valentina’s eyes. “I love you more than anything and you deserve to be celebrated. Besides, you’re always doing these big gestures for me, I figured it was time I returned the favor.”

“I love you,” Valentina pulled Juliana in for another kiss, neither of them noticing Guille slip back into the car and drive away after putting Valentina’s bag and blanket in the truck.

“So, we’ve got a basket full of food and a bed full of pillows for a night of stargazing,” Valentina’s smile grew wider. “But first, this.” Juliana reached into her back pocket and pulled out a thin, black box. In the dim light of the fading sun, Juliana opened the box and showed it’s contents to Valentina, holding her breath as she waited for a reaction.

The necklace was a simple silver chain, long enough that Valentina wouldn’t need to undo the clasp to put it on, with a single charm hanging from it. The charm was fashioned into the shape of the letter ‘j’ and hanging at a slight angle. Valentina lifted the necklace from the box to admire it, Juliana closing the box and stashing it in her pocket. As the necklace rotated slightly, Valentina caught sight of something written on the back. Looking closer, she found the words ‘ mi amor ’ written in elegant cursive.

“Juls,” Valentina was speechless, her gaze flickering back and forth between the necklace and her girl.

“I wanted to give you something you could always have with you, something to remind you of me.”

“I love it, I love you. Help me put it on?” Juliana took the necklace from Valentina’s hands, positioning it correctly and then slipping it over her head. Her fingers brushed Valentina’s cheek as she guided the chain to her neck. “Why a reminder? You’re talking as if we’re never going to see each other again.”

“Val, we both know there’s no guarantee we’ll get into the same college. I know you want to study in America or Canada, but I don’t know if I can do the same. I love you, I will spend the rest of my life loving you.”

“We’re not going to be apart, Juliana, not ever.” Valentina holds Juliana around the waist.

“I know,” Juliana giggles slightly, “you’re stuck with me for life, Valentina. But just because our hearts will always be together doesn’t mean our bodies will be too.” They rest their foreheads together, Valentina’s eyes falling closed. She knows that Juliana is right, that they may have to be together but apart after high school and every part of her hates it. She doesn’t want to be apart from Juliana, doesn’t want to think about having to go weeks or months without seeing her girlfriends smile in person, without feeling her skin, but she knows it’s something that could become a reality. Silently, Valentina vows to always carry Juliana with her, in her heart and now with the gorgeous chain around her neck.

“I love you,” Valentina presses a kiss to Juliana’s lips.

“I love you, too.”

They separate just enough to wrap one arm around each other and walk to the bed of the truck together. Juliana hauls herself into the nest of blankets and pillows she’s created for them, holding out a hand to help Valentina up as well. They settle in right as the last legs of the sun’s light fades and the sky full of stars becomes clear above them. Juliana pulls Valentina to lean back against her chest, the older girl settling between Juliana’s legs and pulling her new blanket over both of them. It’s the best birthday Valentina’s ever had and, as she turns in Juliana’s embrace and kisses her, fingers trailing lightly down her body until she can slip them beneath the shirt Juliana wears, she knows it’s one she’ll never forget.

~

“It’s freezing up here, Juls. There’s more snow than I’ve ever seen.” Valentina’s voice filters through Juliana’s laptop speakers, the girl herself sitting on her bed with the computer open on her knees. She’s smiling at the image of her girlfriend, wearing a shirt she stole from Juliana before she left and her hair piled into a messy bun on top of her head. Juliana can see the silver of the necklace she wears along her neck.

“But you enjoyed the tour?” Juliana asks. Valentina had left a little over a week ago, almost as soon as school ended for the winter holidays, to travel up to Canada for a couple of college tours. It was only Valentina and Eva who travelled, the oldest Carvajal sister wanting to be a part of the youngests’ college discovery trip. Juliana knew her girlfriend was enjoying the trip and she was happy for her, even if she did miss her a lot.

“Yeah, the campus is beautiful, but I’m not sure if I want to come here.” Valentina’s fingers play with the chain around her neck.

“Val, you can’t dismiss every college you visit just because I won’t be there with you.” Juliana reminds her. It’s something she’s had to to tell Valentina often over the course of the first semester of their last year of high school. “Together forever, remember, even when we’re apart.”

“I know,” Valentina sighs, biting at her lower lip slightly. Not for the first time over the course of this call, Juliana has wished Val was with her so she could act on the overwhelming need to kiss her. “It’s not that, they just don’t have as a good of a journalism program as some of the other schools I’ve visited.”

“Well, you still have plenty of time to chose.” Juliana reminds her lightly, twisting her fingers in the strings on the hoodie she wore. Valentina smiled at her, knowing that Juliana had stolen that jacket from her the same day she took the shirt from Juliana.

“I miss you.”

“I miss you too, amor , but you’ll be home soon.” Juliana didn’t mean for her statement to sound like a question but it did anyway.

“Tomorrow night.” Valentina assures her. She looks up suddenly, yelling for whoever is at her door to come in. A few moments later Eva come into view.

“Gosh, you two are like an old married couple, can’t go a few hours without talking to each other.” Eva teases and Juliana smiles as Val rolls her eyes.

“You’re just jealous because you don’t have a love like ours.” Valentina sent a wink in Juliana’s direction.

“Sure, hermanita , whatever you say,” Eva turned to the screen. “Don’t worry, Juliana, I’ll have her home right on time and probably leaving a string of broken hearts behind her.”

“Really, now?” Juliana quirked an eyebrow at her girlfriend who released an annoyed groan. “Exploring your options a bit, babe?”

“Oh you should have seen the looks she got during the tour,” Eva said, “I’m pretty sure one guy actually ran into a pole because he was so busy watching her.” Juliana laughed but she couldn’t help the rising jealousy in her stomach. She knows Valentina only has eyes for her, but she doesn’t like thinking about how many times her girlfriend was probably hit on while she was away.

“Shut up it, Eva, it was not that bad,” Valentina protests. “It was super annoying, all these people staring at me like that.”

“Can’t say I blame them,” Juliana teased, the knots in her stomach loosening under the weight of Valentina’s verbal assurances.

“Please, no. The only person I want looking at me like that is you.” Valentina ignored the sounds of Eva pretending to be sick behind her.

“I love you.”

“I love you.”

“Yes, yes, you both love each other,” Eva rolled her eyes. “Do you always have to be adorable? Whatever, doesn’t matter. Say your goodbyes, Vale, we need to get up early in the morning if we want to make it to the airport on time.” Eva started walking away, throwing a goodbye of her own to Juliana over her shoulder.

“She really needs to get laid.” Valentina said once her sister was gone, making Juliana crack up on the other side of the call.

“Val!”

“What? It’s true. She probably hasn’t gotten any since she broke up with Mateo.” Valentina chuckled softly. “She’s right though, I should probably head to bed.”

“I know.” Juliana offered her girlfriend a smile. “Sweet dreams, mi amor . I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“I love you, Juls. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, baby.”

That night, Juliana dreamt of a snow covered Valentina kissing her beneath a mistletoe.

~

Juliana woke up Christmas morning to the feeling of soft fingertips trailing across her abdomen and a familiar warmth pressed against her side. She smiled without opening her eyes, reaching blindly for Valentina’s hand and moving it up to her mouth to kiss it after she finally caught it. Soft lips claimed hers soon after, a slow lingering kiss that stirred the fire in her core that Juliana thought had been put out the night before. Valentina’s hands teased the sides of Juliana’s breasts, touch softer than a feather, and she moaned lowly.

“Merry Christmas, chiquita .” Valentina whispers against her lips, continuing to tease Juliana with light touches and a gentle caresses. Juliana hums slightly in response, chasing after Valentina’s lips when she pulls away. She hears Valentina’s chuckle and finally opens her eyes. Valentina is leaning over her slightly, blue eyes shining with love and mirth.

“Merry Christmas, mi amor ,” Juliana stretches, noticing how Valentina’s eyes darken slightly as the movement pushes their bare chests together. Juliana smiles at the reaction, wrapping her arm around Valentina’s neck and pulling her in for another kiss. This one is longer and deep, Juliana’s hand moving down so her fingers can just barely graze the inside of Valentina’s thigh.

“Don’t you want to open your presents?” Valentina asks, breathless, as Juliana starts kissing her neck.

“You’re not wearing anything for me to take off.” She’s smirking against Valentina’s neck.

“Did you forget we’re doing Christmas with both of our families this morning? Your mother is probably already downstairs.”

“Don’t care,” Juliana nips at Valentina’s neck.

“They’re all gonna know why we’re late.” Valentina’s voice is breathier and she bites back a moan as Juliana nibbles on that spot behind her ear.

“Wouldn’t be the first time they’ve teased us for it, won’t be the last.” Juliana pushes on Valentina’s shoulders, feeling the complete absence of resistance as Valentina lays back. Juliana straddles her hips, looking down at Valentina’s bare form with clear love and desire. “We can stop if you want.”

“No,” Valentina rests her hands on Juliana’s thighs, “I don’t want to stop. Just know that when they tease us later, I’m blaming you.”

“I’m fine with that,” Juliana leaned down and connected her lips to Valentina’s and no more words were said for a while, other than breathy moans and gasps of one another’s names.

 

They were teased relentlessly as soon as they entered the family room where Lupe, León, Lúcia, Eva and Guille were waiting.

“Nice of you too join us, ladies.” León said as the two girls sat down on the empty loveseat waiting for them.

“Sorry, we overslept.” Valentina said, Juliana laughing as the whole group rolled their eyes in unison.

“I would believe that,” Eva said with a teasing smirk, “if I didn’t have to walk by your room to get downstairs.”

“I told you, you were being to loud.” Juliana whispered in Valentina’s ear.

“Shut up, Juls,” Valentina mumbled back, leaning back into her girlfriend with a small smile. Eva winked at her when she looked up, shooting her a thumbs up as well. Valentina didn’t blush, she had long ago gotten over blushing when her siblings teased her about her sex life, but she did hide her face in Juliana’s neck anyway. “Can we just open presents now?”

“Please,” Lupita spoke up, “it’s bad enough hearing it, we don’t need to talk about it, too.”

“Ma!”

They had to wait five minutes to start opening presents as none of them could stop laughing long enough to do anything before then.

~

It was Juliana’s idea to do something special for their spring break that year. She hadn’t left Mexico City since she moved there when she was fifteen and she wanted to get out of the city for a bit. It was Valentina’s idea to travel to San Antonio, where Juliana grew up, so she could really experience it. She knew Juliana had never done any of the stereotypical San Antonio tourist things since her father wouldn’t let her when they lived there. Juliana seemed hesitant to go back there, she had nothing but bad memories of San Antonio and her life had been poisoned enough by her father, she didn’t want his memory to ruin her trip with Valentina.

It was Lupita who convinced Juliana to go to San Antonio and experience everything she never got to do before. She hated that the memory of Chino still affected her daughter so much. Lupita had gone to the prison to speak to him about her before, when he kept calling Juliana despite her never answering. He swore he was calling to apologize for his reaction that night but Lupita didn’t want to hear it. He wasn’t sorry, he could see it in his eyes. Chino had no regrets for what he did to his daughter, and Lupita hated him for that.

Eva and Guille decided to join the couple in San Antonio for their own spring breaks, Eva since she already had plans to be there with her friends and Guille because he didn’t have anything better to do. So, the first Saturday of spring break saw three Carvajals and a Valdés sitting comfortably in first class seats on a flight to Texas. Juliana’s tapping her finger nervously against the arm rest, having never been on a plane before. When she moved to Mexico, her father had driven them there in a car stuffed full off their meager possession.

“Relax, mi amor ,” Valentina took Juliana’s hand in her own, moving over in her seat so her arm bumped against Juliana’s. “We’re perfectly safe, I promise.” Juliana dropped her head to Valentina’s shoulder, her free hand rising to grip the silver chain she wore around her neck. It was a match to the one she had given Valentina for her birthday, the letter ‘v’ dangling from the chain with the words ‘ mi chiquita ’ written on the back. Valentina had given it to her for Valentine’s day. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

“I know,” Juliana shifted so she could make herself comfortable against Valentina. She closed her eyes as the place began to taxi across the runway, squeezing Valentina’s hand as they started to pick up speed. Valentina held her hand just as tightly and whispered soothing words to her as the plane climbed, occasionally dropping a kiss to Juliana’s hair. They only moved when the plane reached cruising altitude, Valentina having Juliana lift her head just long enough for her to put the armrest that separated them up. Once that was done, Juliana resumed her position, snuggling fully into Valentina now that they had nothing separating them.

 

In the end, Juliana was glad she decided to travel with Valentina to San Antonio. It was easy to avoid her old home and the memories of Chino that were held there. Instead she and Valentina toured the Alamo, bought matching t-shirts that changed color in the sun, strolled down the Riverwalk together, ducking in and out of stores and occasionally mingling with the college spring breakers in town. They spent a full day at Six Flags, where Guille joined them along with Eva and a few of her friends.

They collapsed into bed together each night, glad that they had insisted on each Carvajal sibling getting their own room. Not that it was much of a fight for that to happen, neither of Val’s siblings wanting to share a room with a couple who could barely keep their hands to themselves in public and having no desire to see what they were like in private. Valentina was happy to see her love so happy and carefree in a place that had once been hell for her. She was proud of Juliana for how far she had come since leaving San Antonio and couldn’t wait to see where she would go next. Life would always be beautiful, Valentina thought, as long as she had Juliana by her side.

~

Senior year ended in the blink of an eye, the last month of school filled with graduation dinners and parties, rehearsals and award ceremonies and very little school work. Valentina and her mile relay team finally took home the national championship, and Juliana won a prestigious scholarship thanks to her victory in a national art competition. They left high school feeling proud and accomplished, ready to face the next steps together.

After several discussion, and a few minor arguments, Valentina decided to stay in Mexico City to study journalism. Mexico City was home to her, the place where she found herself and found her love. She saw herself chasing her dream in Mexico City, cheering on Juliana as she did the same. The fact that she ad Juls wouldn’t have to separate was icing on the cake, for both of them.

The night after graduation, Juliana and Valentina were laying in the hammock in the Carvajal backyard, stargazing. Juliana turned to snuggle against Valentina, watching her more than she was the sky. Juliana stretched her neck to kiss Valentina’s jaw and then her lips when Val turned to look at her.

“What is it?” Valentina asked as she pulled back, seeing the glint in Juliana’s eyes.

“I’m just really happy I met you, that day in the park.” Juliana said softly. “I almost can’t believe that was three years ago.”

“It’s been a good three years,” Valentina kissed her forehead softly.

“The best.” Juliana agreed. “I think I’ve loved you since day one, you know?”

“Really?” Valentina’s smile was breathtaking.

“Really,” Juliana kissed her again. “You’ve been it for me from day one, the only one I want to share this life with. It’s always you and always will be you.”

“This has been a great start to forever, hasn’t it? I can’t imagine doing this with anyone else.” Valentina leaned down to kiss Juliana’s nose and then her lips. “I love you, chiquita.

“I love you, mi amor .”

~

“Do you really have to go?” Juliana pouted slightly, sitting on her girlfriend’s bed while said girlfriend packed for a two-week long trip to Spain with her father. Valentina would be leaving for the airport as soon as she finished packing.

“I promised Dad, I would.” Valentina tucked her last outfit into the suitcase and pulled it closed. “He’s really excited for this, something about showing me what journalism is really all about.” Valentina zipped her bag and set it on the floor before taking a seat next to her girlfriend. “It’s only two weeks, I’ll be back before you know it.”

“And then you’re all mine for the rest of the summer.” Juliana smiled and ran her fingers through Valentina’s hair.

“I’m already all yours,” Valentina tapped the silver ‘j’ that hung from her neck. “Always together, remember.” Juliana nodde, accepting the kiss Valentina leaned in to give her.

“I’m gonna miss you.” Juliana mumbled against her lips.

“I’ll miss you too, chiquita .” Valentina rose from the beg again, reaching for her purse and slingling it over her shoulder before extending her hand to Juliana. Juliana took the offered hand as she stood as well, using it to pull Valentina closer. “I’ll skype you as soon as we get to the hotel, promise,”

“Okay,” Juliana pulled Valentina close and kissed her nose. “I’m sure your dad’s waiting for you.” Juliana grabbed Valentina’s suitcase with her free hand to carry it downstairs for her, where León was saying his own goodbye to his wife.

“Ready to go, mija ?” He said to his daughter as Juliana set her bag down.

“Ready, Papí ,” Valentina answered, moving to hug Lúcia goodbye. Lúcia wished her a good trip before stepping back. Valentina turned back to her girlfriend and opened her arms for her. Juliana threw her arms around Valentina's neck, kissing her gently. “I’ll be home soon, mi amor .”

“I’ll be waiting.” Juliana stole one last kiss before releasing Valentina. “I love you,”

“I love you.” Valentina leaned down and kiss Juliana again, unable to help herself, and then stepped back. León picked up her suitcase for her and they walked out to the car waiting in the driveway, Valentina stopping at the door to send Juliana a parting wink.

“She has no idea what you’re planning, does she?” Lúcia asked as the door fell closed.

“Not a clue,” Juliana smiled.

“She’s going to love it.” Lúcia assured her.

“I hope so,”

“She will,” Lúcia lead Juliana back to the kitchen where she prepared a glass of tea for both of them. “She’s been the one dropping hints about it all summer.”

“That’s true.” Juliana laughed. “She still think I would rather live a dorm than with her.” Lúcia hummed in acknowledgement. “She pretends not to think about it but I can tell she is. The more time we spend together, the more she tries not to bring it up.” Juliana accepted the tea Lúcia set in front of her with a grateful smile. “I can’t think you and León enough for doing this for us.”

“You don’t have to thank us at all.” Lúcia told her as she claimed a seat to her left. “You make Valentina happy, that’s all we want for her. Besides, we’ve grown pretty fond of you, too.” Juliana smiled bashfully. “You’re family, Juliana, and we take care of family around here. Lóon and I couldn’t be prouder of the two of you.”

“Still, buying us an apartment has to be the most expensive way of telling us that.” Juliana chuckled slightly.

“You deserve it, both of you.” Lúcia sipped her tea and ignored any protests Juliana might have voiced but she didn’t think that any would come. When Juliana approached León and asked if he would be okay with she and Valentina living together in the city while the attended college, he had been happy to grant her request. There was nothing León cared about more in the world than his children, even if his way of showing it was to give them everything they ever asked for. Juliana had become like a third daughter to him over the course of her three year relationship with Valentina. When Juliana said she had an apartment for them in mind, León purchased it without a second thought.

While Valentina was away with her father, Juliana would work on getting the apartment set up, moving her own belongings in and painting the walls to a color scheme she and Val had already agreed on, without Valentina knowing that’s what she was agreeing too. Guille was coming to town to help her with moving furniture around and lugging boxes up to the top floor.

Juliana couldn’t wait for Val to return home so they could finally start their future together, chasing their dreams side by side just like they both wanted. It was a fairytale, a happy ending not reserved for people like her, people who grew up on the wrong side of town and had nothing to offer the world but a tragic past and a hopeful heart.

She should have known it was too good to be true.

~

She can feel that something is wrong, a deep certainty that crawls it’s way up from her stomach and freezes her heart in a vice grip. She can’t breath, her chest rising and falling far too quickly for her to get anything out of the motion. She can feel herself slipping, falling into a deep hole that she doesn’t know if she can climb out of. Her phone remains in her hand, ringing and ringing but no answer comes. Valentina’s name lights up the screen. Valentina should have answered by now. They should have landed in Madrid hours ago.

She can see the same worry on Lúcia’s face as the older woman paces behind the couch, her own phone pressed to her ear as she begs León to pick up. Juliana’s call goes to voicemail and she asks Valentina to call her back, tells her she loves her and she’s starting to get worried. Chivis enters the room carrying a tray with two glasses of juice. Her eyes flicker to the television and she pauses, the tray falling from her hands. Juliana looks up at the sound of shattering glass. She follows Silvina’s gaze to the television.

“Lúcia,” her voice is no louder than a whisper but Lúcia somehow hear’s her and turns. She hears a loud thunk as Lúcia’s phone hits the floor.

Juliana reaches for the remote and unmutes the newscaster.

“Coast guard officials have discovered the remains of a plane crash in the Atlantic ocean. According to reports, the plane was said to transporting media mogul Léon Carvajal and his daughter, Valentina, to Madrid for a business conference. Officials have reported all plane personal and both passengers as missing…”

Juliana doesn’t hear the rest of what the newscaster says, her eyes focused on the picture of Valentina they display on the screen. She feels the tears falling down her face but she’s powerless to stop them.

Valentina. Her Valentina. The love of her life is gone. Missing. Maybe dead.

Juliana can’t breath, she can’t move, can’t think. She grips the ‘v’ hanging from her neck, the metal warm from resting against her skin and prays that it isn’t true. That she’s dreaming. That she’ll wake up with Val right beside her.

She doesn’t wake up. It isn’t a dream.

Valentina is gone.

Juliana’s world turns dark.