“SHE’S PULLING HER HAT off again,” Gaia said.
Gaia itched to fix her sister’s hat and tidy up her soft, mussed hair, but her hands were full with a pot of fragrant herbs.
“I’ve got it,” Leon said. “Here, Maya. Let’s see you.” He crouched down before the toddler and despite his right arm still being in a splint, he adjusted the ties under the girl’s chin. “Your hat stays on. See Gaia’s hat? And mine? Hold my hand.”
When he straightened, the toddler lifted both her hands. “Uppy,” she said.
He swung her up in his left arm, and Gaia watched the maneuver closely.
His recovery had been slow, with the setback of an infection that had lingered, and Gaia knew Maya was heavier than she looked.
Leon smiled at Gaia, his eyes amused.
“Enough with the coddling, Gaia.”
“I didn’t say anything,” she said.
“Come here.” He pivoted Maya out of the way, leaned near, and angled the brim of his hat to give Gaia a kiss. “All right?” he asked softly.
She nodded, smiling back. “Yes. Of course.”
“Good. Maya wants a kiss, too,” he said.
Gaia planted a loud smooch on the girl’s cheek so that she squealed. Leon did the same thing, making Maya squeal again, and then he aimed a grin at Gaia.
What could she say? He pretty much slayed her.
The three of them were heading toward the Wharfton quad, several weeks after the rebellion, and their late afternoon shadows stretched long before them onto the dirt road. As they came around the corner, the quad opened before them, and Gaia saw people meandering before the Tvaltar. Hammering rang from the blacksmith’s shop, and a boy dribbled a red ball around a group of pigeons, sending half a dozen into heavy flight. Up the hill, the dismantling of the wall had stopped for the day. Clear progress was visible in both directions from where the south gate had stood, though the demolition still had a long way to go.
She nodded up at the deserted parapet. “Did you ever patrol up there?”
“When I first joined, I did,” Leon said. “It seems like a long time ago. I’m going to need a new job now.”
She tried to think what he could do.
“You were good with the excrims,” she said.
“I’ve thought about working at the prison,” he said slowly. “To be honest, I don’t want to be near the Protectorat.”
She didn’t blame him.
“We need someone to run the first responders in Wharfton and New Sylum,” she said. “Or there’s teaching. Kids always like you.”
“Could you see me as a teacher?” he asked, his voice doubtful.
She could, actually. Half his students would have terrible crushes on him. “Only if you want. You can think about it.”
“Junie!” Maya squealed.
Outside Peg’s Tavern, Junie and Josephine shared a table with Norris and Dinah. Others from Wharfton and New Sylum had gathered, too, filling more tables under the brown canvas umbrellas. Leon let Maya down again to run toward her friend, and Gaia’s gaze caught on the way he retucked the back of his blue shirt.
“Come join us, Senator,” Norris said, lifting his tankard.
Gaia smiled at her new title. She wasn’t used to it at all. “We will. We came to see Myrna’s new blood bank, but we’ll come right back.”
“When are you two getting married, anyway?” Norris asked. “We could use a wedding around here.”
Leon lifted his gaze, regarding her curiously.
“Norris. Don’t be a pest,” Dinah said, rising to give Gaia a hug. “Pay him no mind. You just missed Sasha and her grandpa. Let me see you. You’re getting your color back. Nice herbs. For Myrna?”
“Yes,” Gaia said.
Leon was still watching her, idly pushing his shirt sleeve up a bit over his splint. She could feel herself blushing.
“What?” she asked.
He smiled. “Nothing. Dinah’s right about your color.”
At another table, with their profiles aimed in concentration over the pieces, Pyrho was teaching Jack to play chess. Angie was curled up in a chair beside Jack, fiddling with the puzzle pieces of an intricate wooden sphere. Derek and Ingrid sat a couple tables over with their daughter, and Derek lifted a hand in greeting. As the piano started up inside the tavern, Gaia glanced toward the open windows, wondering if Will were inside with Gillian. Seeing so many friends, Gaia couldn’t help missing the absent faces, too.
“I swear Maya grows bigger every time I see her,” Josephine said.
“Can you watch her for us? We’ll be right back,” Gaia said.
“Are you kidding? I’d be glad to,” Josephine said.
With unhurried strides, Gaia started across the quad beside Leon. A light breeze drifted up from the unlake, cool along the back of her neck. She shifted the pot to her other hip, checking her skirt briefly to be certain none of the dirt had spilled on her. When they passed under the dappling shade of the mesquite tree, she instinctively took in a breath of the dry, piney air. Leon slowed to a stop.
“You’re not eager to talk to Myrna, are you?” he said.
“I know it matters to you,” she said. She didn’t care to think about her surgery or how she’d been violated. “It won’t change how I feel.”
He gently tugged the pot of herbs out of her hands and set it on a bench under the tree. “But what if we could have one of your blastocysts?”
She shook her head. “They aren’t mine.”
“They’re half yours.”
“That means they’re half not mine,” she said. “Our children are gone, Leon. They never existed. You can’t bring back something that never existed.”
“I’d love any babies you carried just as much, no matter who the father was,” he said.
“I know. You would.”
“And you would, too,” he said. “We could push to get one of your blastocysts if you wanted.”
She felt a fissure opening inside her. “Why are you doing this to me? There are costs to what we did. Why can’t you accept that?”
He ran a hand back through his hair. “I’m just thinking about our future.”
“So am I.”
His eyes searched hers, and she knew there was no hiding the twisted mess inside of her. Any chance of carrying a baby was so impossibly slim. She didn’t think she would ever be ready to open up to the risk and hope of experimenting on herself.
“I’m not trying to make it worse,” he said quietly, and pulled her near. “I only want you to know if you ever want to try to get pregnant, I’ll do everything I can to help you.”
“And you won’t be sad if I can’t ever try?” she asked.
“Of course not,” he said. “You make me unbelievably happy, Gaia. You know that.”
“I feel like I’m stopping you from being a father, just because I’m messed up inside now,” she said.
He lightly smoothed her hair from her cheek. “I’m Maya’s father, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
It was completely true. Her sorrow softened, easing the darkness within her. She smiled a little. I’ve noticed.”
A bee skimmed through the shade with a zip of sound, then veered back into the sunlight.
Leon took off his hat and dropped it casually beside the pot on the bench. “There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you,” he said. “Are you feeling settled yet?”
Her heart did a zigzag. “Pretty much. Yes.”
“I thought maybe so. Then when should we get married?” He shifted nearer and linked his arms around her.
“Soon,” she said.
“I’ve heard that before. How about tomorrow?”
She laughed. Then she thought about it. Why not? “Okay,” she said.
He beamed as he drew her closer still. “That’s more like it.”
It meant all the more to her that their happiness was built on the genuine, intricate mix of heartaches they shared. She liked the way she only had to lift her chin and his mouth was perfectly near. When he laughed, low in his chest, she could almost feel it under her fingertips. She closed her eyes, leaning into him, and met the light pressure of his kiss.
Being married to him was going to be beautiful.
“We should tell our friends,” he said, kissing her again.
She shifted, bumping lightly into his splint as she slid one hand around his warm shirt. He tasted faintly minty, like the warm shade. She tried a new angle and he followed along. When his next kiss trailed to her neck, she ducked her chin and curled her fingers in his shirt. “Um,” she said.
“I know,” he said, setting another kiss on her cheek and slightly loosening his arms. His eyes were darker when she looked up again. “I’ve been wanting to do that. You looked so sweet with that pot of flowers.”
“What do you say we forget about Myrna’s and head back home?”
She laughed. “We can’t. What’s happened to my hat?”
“It’s there,” he said, nodding toward the bench.
She saw her hat on top of his and shook her head. “Smooth.”
“A guy has to try.”
She laughed again. “I’d like Evelyn and Rafael to come to the wedding. We should notify your mother, too, I think.”
His smile gradually dimmed, and he ran his thumb over her red bracelet. “She was ready to stand there and watch me be executed,” he said.
Gaia hadn’t thought of that. They had talked at length about the rebellion, Gaia’s surgery, Leon’s injuries, and the torture, which had included Pyrho and Jack, but new subtleties were still coming up, and it seemed like they would never be at peace with all that had happened. Gaia’s old nightmares of the Matrarc’s death had resurfaced, interspersed now with haunting fragments of the night Gaia had killed Mabrother Stoltz and imagined glimpses of a faceless corpse in the debris of the wall.
Leon was troubled most by memories of Gaia’s torture. The first time he saw Mabrother Iris electrocute Gaia, Leon confessed about the explosives under the obelisk, cooperating to make Mabrother Iris stop shocking her, but the Protectorat had not been satisfied. The torture of them both had escalated through stages of questioning as Mabrother Iris fished for every tiniest detail, even when it became clear that Gaia knew practically nothing. Gaia found that Leon was prone to withdraw into a silent rage when he remembered, and it worked best then to set him caring for Maya, who seemed to pull him back to the present.
The vessel mothers had all cut off their bracelets and were regularly visiting their families in Wharfton. Most still planned to surrender their promised babies, but one other besides Sasha was working out a shared custody agreement. Mabrother Rhodeski remained optimistic that the Vessel Institute would thrive, evolving, and he had already hired a second wave of vessel mothers. Gaia couldn’t understand, privately, why the mothers would sign on. Neither could she adjust to the idea that she might someday meet her own biological children walking around the Enclave, strangers to her. But she conceded that the vessel mothers had the right to make their own choices, and Mabrother Rhodeski had kept his side of the original bargain for Gaia’s eggs by funding a waterworks system for outside the wall. Guilt drove him, she suspected.
The Protectorat remained imprisoned, awaiting trail. He was likely to be sentenced to life in prison. Genevieve was confined to her quarters in the Bastion, under a suicide watch.
“I don’t understand Genevieve,” Gaia admitted finally. “I thought she sincerely cared for you.”
“When it came down to it, she had to choose between the Protectorat and me,” Leon said. “I don’t want her at our wedding.”