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Birthmarked, p.31
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       Birthmarked, p.31

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

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  Leon had left yet. He stood by the doorway, his eyes scanning her body with unguarded interest, and she wondered for a moment if he were judging whether the clothes would fit.

  "What?" she said.

  His gaze flew to hers, and then he turned sharply away.

  "I'll be right back," he said.

  That was ... odd, she thought. To say the least. Gaia stripped off her wet clothes and pulled on the dress. There were but' tons along the back, and her cold fingers trembled as she snagged her hands behind her to reach them. In the dark, with only the light from the closet to guide her, she worked quickly, and then tiptoed in the little boots over to a full-length mirror that gleamed beside the bed. She looked over her shoulder to make sure she'd gotten all the buttons, and was surprised by the graceful way the white material clung to her form. She looked like someone else. Someone privileged. Especially with only the right side of her face to the mirror.

  "You're perfect," Leon said.

  She turned to see him in the doorway and smiled. Aside from his black boots, he was dressed in impeccable white, with a tailored jacket and trousers. He had hitched his blazer open to rest a fist on his hip, and she saw a short dagger that hung in a sheath from his belt: a fitting military accent. He gave his sleeve a twitch. "The coat's a little short," he said.

  She laughed. "You look incredible. Certainly good enough to fool any guards. Now what about the baby?"

  He produced a gilded bag made of paper. "I found this," he said. "She might fit inside for a present."

  Gaia was doubtful.

  "See if you can do something with your hair," he said. "Like put it up or something? I don't know. I'll see what I can do with Maya."

  "Here. Let me do this much." Maya's blankets had come

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  loose, and Gaia refolded them securely around her sister so that, from a compact little cocoon, only the baby's face showed.

  "Thanks," Leon said.

  Gaia stepped over to a dresser where she found a brush and a couple of clips. Hastily, she brushed the worst knots from her wet hair and swept the short strands up in back, securing them on top of her head as best she could. It felt strange to leave her face so exposed, but when she pulled on the sweater and then the white cape, she saw it looked passable. Her scar would only be noticeable to someone who looked directly into her hood, to her face.

  "We're good," Leon said.

  He was standing with a gift bag casually tucked in one arm.

  "Can she breathe in there?" Gaia asked.

  He tilted the bag to show her the baby's sleeping face was upward, and the ledgers were tucked in with her, too. She looked cozy, warm, and content. Gaia couldn't believe how tiny she was.

  "It's a little bulky, and there's no room for formula," he admitted. "But if she stays asleep and doesn't move, we'll be okay."

  We just have to make, it outside the wall, she thought. Nothing else mattered.

  When he turned out the closet light, she naturally reached for his hand in the darkness. Together they crept back down the staircase and rounded the corner to the front door. Leon unlocked the door, and when he opened it part way, they looked out at a drizzle. A sconce light mounted on one of the entry way pillars lighted the path toward the road.

  "It's almost stopped," she said.

  "We should wait another minute," he said.

  She nodded, postponing the next plunge into risk by standing in the temporary shelter of the quiet, dark home. He

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  released her fingers to reach for a white hat on a peg behind the door, but then he took her hand again and brought her close to his right side, tucking her fingers into his elbow. The baby parcel looked secure in his other arm.

  "This is how we 11 walk," he said.

  "So you actually have a plan?"

  She glanced up to meet his eyes under the white brim. He was regarding her with his usual concentration, but his mouth curved in the slightest smile.

  "I have to say. I'm tempted to take you back to the Bastion and walk right into my sisters party. You belong there."

  She let out a laugh. "Now I know you've lost your mind."

  He tilted his face slightly. "I should have met you long ago."

  "Outside the wall?"

  "There shouldn't even be a wall in the first place," he said.

  "But there is," she said, looking back out to the drizzle in the lamplight.

  "Listen," he said. "If something goes wrong, if we get separated, I want you to go ahead with your plan to go into the wasteland. Head north."

  "We're not splitting up."

  "I know, but if we do-- "

  "Leon," she said, gripping his arm. "It's not happening. We're staying together."

  She expected him to nod, but instead his gaze was directed again toward the open door. She wondered if it really made any difference whether they waited a few more minutes or not. They were almost certain to get caught once they reached the wall, if not before. Still, she'd rather be caught this way than bedraggled and desperate.

  "You should know something about me," he said quietly.

  She gazed up at him, waiting.

  "I'm not sure if I'm doing the right thing for you," he added.

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  She touched back a strand of her dark hair, uncertain how to reply. "What do you mean?"

  "I just want to be sure you're making your own choices. I'm not the best judge of what's right for someone else."

  She loosened her grip on his arm. "What are you saying?" she asked.

  Just beyond the pillars the rain was falling softly on the sidewalk and grass, washing everything with a gray, sodden hue. Leon seemed to be looking through the dimness to another time, and though in one way she felt like he was leaving her, she also felt she was on the brink of being closer to him than she ever had. He turned slowly to the narrow table that stood in the hallway, gently set down the gift bag with Maya inside, and crossed his arms.

  "Two years ago," he said, "when my sister Fiona was only twelve, she and I were playing chess one night in the solarium. There was an enormous storm, like this one."

  A cool mist came through the open doorway, but she felt an even deeper coolness within her as she sensed he was confiding something he'd never told anyone else. She tried to imagine what it had been like under that glass ceiling with all the rain pounding down. "Why didn't you play somewhere else?"

  "She liked the storm," he said. "It felt like electricity charged the air, and she liked that. But then the power went out. There was nothing but black, as dark as the tunnel without a candle. Then these wild, random, crashing flares of lightning shot through the room. It felt like the glass of the ceiling was crashing down on top of us."

  "It must have been terrifying."

  He nodded. "Fiona completely freaked out. She was terrified, way beyond anything I'd ever seen. She couldn't even breathe. She climbed onto my lap and begged me to hold her. She was almost hysterical, and I was-- well, I was kind of

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  laughing at her. I wasn't very nice at all, but I didn't know what to do with her. She'd become this crazy cat of a kid. And then she gripped me in a kind of panic, and then-- " He stopped.

  Gaia bit her lips inward, waiting. His posture had grown stiff, and his face was aimed toward the rain again so that she couldn't read his eyes.

  "She was my sister," he said, his voice low. "She kissed me. Not the way a kid does."

  Gaia watched the strange, cold detachment that settled in his features, like a death mask. She could see he'd replayed this memory a million times. "What did you do?" she asked.

  "I was in shock. I didn't want to hurt her feelings. I couldn't just push her away. She had me by the collar and I-- I was trying to back away when Rafael found us."

  "Oh, no," Gaia said. Her instinct told her to reach out to him, but he stood aloof

  "It gets worse," he said, his voice leaden. "She had a diary. She'd kept a list of every nice thing I'd ever don
e for her, no matter how small. She had developed a whole logic about how we weren't biologically related, so the laws against siblings marrying didn't apply to us. She'd imagined an entire life for the two of us, in a cottage, outside the wall." His eyes closed. "When Fiona saw what trouble I was in, she tried to deny it, but it was too late."

  Outside the door, a gust of wind brought a shower of bigger drops from the nearby trees, spattering them into the puddles on the sidewalk.

  "I think they would have believed us, eventually," he said. "But Fiona died."

  Gaia shivered, drawing her cloak more securely around herself He finally turned to her, his eyes dark and troubled, his voice a low murmur.

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  "Gaia," he said. "When my little sister came to me to apologize, when she wanted to try to make it right with me, I was furious with her. I told her she was sick. A sick little girl. And that's when she did it." His voice dropped to antagonized hush. "My sister killed herself because of me."

  Gaia shook her head, disbelieving. It was too terrible to imagine. Fiona had been only twelve years old! And how could Leon blame himself for her death? Such a tragedy couldn't be blamed on one cruel comment.

  "But it was an accident," she said.

  "No," he said. "Evelyn saw it. She couldn't stop her. It wasn't an accident."

  "I am so, so sorry," Gaia whispered. She could understand now how wild rumors had spread. Leon s family, shattered by the suicide of one twin, must have been completely devastated. In that tangle of disbelief and confusion, how easy it would have been to focus their rage and pain on Leon, to blame him. He'd absorbed it all in, every bit of it. How many people knew the real truth?

  "The worst thing of all is, I think she really was sick," Leon said. "I've thought about it, and I think she needed help. I think she was terrified, and not just the night of the storm. Her moods were swinging crazier all the time. Some days she couldn't even get out of bed, and other days she had all this wild energy and she didn't know why. She was trying to ask me to help her, but I couldn't see. I just made it worse." He turned his face away again, peering toward a distance that Gaia couldn't see.

  "What happened wasn't your fault," she said. "I don't know what was wrong with Fiona, but she should have been getting help from someone far more knowledgeable than you were. Did Genevieve know what was going on? Did the Protectorat?"

  "You're missing the point," he said. "My sister is dead. If I

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  hadn't mistreated her when she needed me most, she would be alive today." Leon's voice was low, with a hollowness that came from deep within him. "You once wondered why I became a member of the guard. Honestly? There was no point doing any thing else. There was no point doing anything, period. I took a job. I didn't question any rules or orders. I didn't care."

  She twisted her hands together, and looked up at him, un-flinching. "That was your only mistake," she said. "Giving up yourself like that. You shouldn't have done that."

  He let out a brief, bitter laugh and stepped away from her. "You're judging me?"

  Gaia didn't know what to tell him, but she knew in her heart that his sister's suicide was deep enough of a loss, without adding his own guilt to drive it even deeper. Then again, she felt uncertain. How could she ever truly know what he'd felt? His whole family had been ripped apart by losing Fiona, and he'd been disowned when he must have needed them most. He'd had to grieve alone. She didn't know how she would ever handle such loneliness, such sadness. "I'm sorry," she said slowly. "You've lost so much, Leon. Not just Fiona." She thought sadly of her own parents and how she'd never see them again. Not even once, for a moment. It was more than she could bear. "I'm sorry," she whispered again. It was that simple.

  From the present on the table beside her came a hiccup. Gaia glanced inside at the little infant, and then heard it again. Gingerly, Gaia extracted the baby from the gift bag and lifted her to her shoulder to burp her. The little, endearing hiccups vibrated through her hands, and she had to laugh, even though she felt broken inside. She glanced up to find Leon watching her, his gaze a mix of puzzled tenderness.

  "You're good with her," he said.

  Her lips curved. "She's my sister," she explained.

  He shook his head, as if she'd said something remarkable.

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  "See that? You know," he said. "I was fine, really. I was doing just fine until one night, when I was sent outside the wall to interrogate a difficult young midwife."

  She caught her breath as a thudding started in her chest. "I wasn't so bad."

  He laughed. "You were utterly fearless. And impossible. Look at all you've done," he said. "You got into the Bastion tower to save your mother. Who else could ever do that? I couldn't. Face it, Gaia. When you decide somethings right, there's nothing that can stop you from doing it."

  "I killed my mother in the process," she said, her voice low. "Don't forget that."

  "That I don't believe. And I doubt you really believe it, either. Would your mother blame you for anything that happened?"

  She looked down at her hand, turning it slowly, as if it should have bloodstains on it still, but it was clean. "No," she said softly.

  "See?" he said. "That's how we're different. You have nothing to blame yourself for. You never will."

  She shook her head. "Don't turn me into some paragon, Leon. That's not who I am."

  "No. You're more real than that." He lifted a hand against his forehead, tipping the hat back. Then he readjusted it again slowly and frowned. "I hated knowing you didn't respect me. Even when I could save your life, back when you were first arrested, it didn't matter to you."

  She searched his face and the strange, uncertain loneliness behind his eyes.

  "That's not why I respect you now," she said.

  "Is that all you do? Respect me?"

  In the dim light, his cheeks had turned a chalky, blue hue, but there was nothing cold about his expression. A fine tension

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  emanated from him, like a soundless buzz, and he took a step nearer again. She was holding her baby sister awkwardly before her, strangely nervous, like she might drop her.

  "Leon," she said. "I don't know what you want from me."

  In answer, he took one more step, until the rim of his hat came just above her forehead. She knew that if she looked up, his eyes would be near.

  "Who said I want something?" he asked, and took off his hat.

  She could feel heat rising in her cheeks, and still she kept her gaze down. He closed the distance between them and slid his arms around her and the baby. When his warm lips touched the sensitive skin of the scar on her temple, she felt something give away inside her. She angled her face, bringing her mouth nearer to his, and then his lips touched hers in the lightest, most tender kiss. She inhaled a quick breath, and he kissed her again. An ache rose in her throat, and she lifted her chin, meeting his lips more directly. Outside, another loud spattering of huge drops fell on the bushes and sidewalk. Once she had wondered if anyone would ever kiss her, and if she would know what to do. Now she could hardly think at all. She felt Leohs hand shift to the back of her hair, and then his kiss deepened. She felt the world tip, and then her sister gave another hiccup.

  Gaia pulled back. Leon was watching her under heavy eye' lids. "You are so, so sweet," he said tenderly.

  "You re not supposed to kiss me," she said. She was surprised at how low her voice had become.

  "I beg to disagree." His lips touched hers again.

  She struggled to focus. "We have to get out of the Enclave."

  His eyebrows lifted. "Right now?"

  She pulled back more decisively, and he loosened his arms to let her go. "It's stopped raining," she said. "This is our chance."

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  He glanced regretfully out the door. "You don't like me after all."

  "Leon!" She socked him in the arm.

  He smiled crookedly. "Okay. Just checking." Then he reached to help her settle baby Maya back in the gift bag.
The paper was a thick, durable type, but it was definitely getting crinkled from handling. Gaia watched carefully as he repositioned the bag in his left arm. She wished it would look right for her to carry it herself, but it was logical for a gentleman to offer to carry it for her.

  She fetched his hat from where it had dropped to the floor. "Here," she said. "There's a basic problem with our plan, you know. When we head toward the gate, we'll be going the wrong way, away from the party."

  "You re getting picky." He put on his hat.

  Gaia slid her fingers into his right elbow and before she knew it, he dipped near for another soft kiss on her cheek. "I wish we had more time, Gaia," he said.

  She nodded, and passed with him through the doorway.

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  Chapter 27 Trust

  WITH HER HAND IN HIS ELBOW, Gaia and Leon walked down the wet streets, winding their way ever closer to the wall. When they came upon a group of soldiers, Gaia instinctively hesitated, but Leon drew her smoothly along, barely looking at them, and though she kept expecting every instant to be stopped, the guards gave them only a cursory glance.

  Gaia exhaled in relief when they turned the next corner.

  "See?" Leon said.

  The sky had grown dark with nightfall, but an eerie luminosity glowed ahead of them as if a surfeit of white light was bouncing up to reflect off the low hung clouds.

  "They must have the wall lit up," Leon said. "So the surveillance cameras won't miss anything."

  "Are there cameras tracking us here?"

  "There are cameras trained at most streetlamps," he said. "We've probably been picked up a half a dozen times already."

  "So are we tricking them?" she asked.

  "I don't know. They might just be waiting to pick us up by the wall."

  They walked down another wet street and crossed to a

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