Birthmarked Page 35

"If you need to, you can go into the Bastion. There are interior doors to the tower." He pointed to indicate the direction on the map.

"That's good to know."

"If you don't come back out, I'll go in to find you. If you run out of options, try to work your way upward, toward the roof. They won't expect that. And I'll start looking for you from the top down."

It was there, unspoken between them. Why would he help her now when he hadn't helped her before? Sgt. Bartlett had found a way to help her out of the Bastion. Why couldn't Leon have done the same thing?

"I'm still taking the rope," she said.

"Go ahead. Just don't get your neck broken. I don't suppose you'd let me go in for you instead."

She shook her head. She wouldn't trust him to do it right.

"That's what I thought," he said. "Even if you do think I have strong arms."

Startled, she glanced up to find him watching her. "I didn't exactly say that as a compliment."


A bit of ember shifted in the oven, making a brief flare of light, but otherwise the room was still. She didn't know what to make of him, or how to feel, but it was far more confusing when he was inspecting her with a curious, receptive expression.

"Are you teasing me?" she asked.

He started slowly to smile. "Should I?"

She was momentarily speechless. Then she frowned. "What do you know about Sergeant Bartlett?" she asked.

"Besides that he helped you out? That messed up every thing, you know."

"That depends on your perspective," she said.

"Are you friends with him?"

"Sort of," she said. "What's he like?"

Leon stood and took a knickknack off the mantel: a tiny eggbeater that looked more like a toy than a tool. He spun the little wheel. "Jack's like a lot of guys. Works hard. Not a bad shot. I guess he likes to sing. Why?"

Gaia wished she'd had a chance to know him.

Leon gave the wheel such a spin that one of the beaters broke off. He swore and reached for the little piece. "Forget it, Gaia. He's not your type."

"And how would you know what my type is?" she asked.

"It just isn't Jack."

"Why, because he's nice to me?"

He shoved the little pieces of the broken eggbeater at her. "Can you fix this?" he asked.

"He's my brother, all right? Jack Bartlett is my brother, Odin Stone."

Leon sat again, his expression puzzled. "Jack is? But he doesn't look anything like you."

"Thank you. Brilliant observation. Very useful."

"All right. No need to get touchy."

"Jack Bartlett got me out of the Bastion. Jack Bartlett didn't leave me there with no way to get out and no explanation."

She reached for the little pieces and began to arrange them in a row on the table. Leon lifted his empty cup and turned it in his hands, and as the silence stretched out, she knew she had to know, even if she revealed how vulnerable she was.

"Why did you leave me?" she asked in a tight voice.

She watched him slowly turn the cup once more and loop his thumb in the handle. When he looked at her this time, his eyes were alive with regret. "I'm sorry," he said softly. "It was a mistake."

"But why did you do it?"

His fingers stilled. "I thought I could negotiate for you and your mother. When I saw the girls in the courtyard, I realized Mabrother Iris must already be acting on your information somehow, and I thought he would be grateful. I thought I could persuade my father and Mabrother Iris to let you go."

"But they wouldn't?"

He shook his head. "They refused. They wanted me to persuade you to return to them, like I said before, as their newest hero."

"And you said no."

His eyes flicked away. "Gaia," he began. "It was utterly hopeless. I felt like I'd betrayed you completely, like they completely manipulated me. And then they started explaining about the suppressor gene and how much your mothers records mean to them." He glanced back, his lips parted. His cheeks had taken on color with the warmth of the oven, and his blue eyes were dark and alive. "My fathers an incredibly persuasive man. I'd forgotten."

"And that's when he convinced you their plan is okay?" She could feel her anger percolating up again.

"I don't know," he said. "I don't know what I think. If your father told you something he was completely convinced of, wouldn't you listen to him?"

"My fathers dead."

She shoved her chair back with a jerk. She was trying to understand Leon, but it was hard. It all seemed to come back to his relationship with his father. Much as he tried to deny it, the Protectorat really was his father. He was the one who had raised him, and he was the one who still had strings in him, even though they'd been estranged for years. That much was clear to her. It seemed terribly unfair to her that he still had his father, even as difficult as that relationship was, when her own father was lost to her.

"I'd like to hear about your family now," she said. That would only be fair.

"It's a boring story."

"Just any old thing," she said. "I told you about my child' hood."

"All right," he said slowly. "Maybe you'd like to know a secret about the Protectorat Family Specials."

She guessed from his tone that they weren't all they'd seemed to be. She could still picture the sunny scenes of the family in the Bastion gardens, the boys with their impeccably white shorts and clean knees, the twin sisters in matching yellow dresses. A particular apple picking scene came to mind. It had been her favorite, with the kids swinging from the low' hanging, apple-laden branches.

"We practiced them for weeks," he said. "There was not one unstaged, genuine moment in any single one."

"You're kidding."

"Believe me. We kids hated doing them, and finally, when Rafael was around seven, he flatly refused to do any more. It was the only time I was grateful he could throw a fit."

"What about your sisters? Did you play with them when you were a kid? Hide-and-seek in the Bastion?"

"Hide-and-seek," he said slowly, and she could hear the weight of complex emotions behind the simple words. She would have liked to see his eyes, but he turned toward the oven again.

"We did play hide-and-seek. And chess. And all sorts of games. They liked it when I lost." He touched the door of the oven with his boot. "It's Fiona and Evelyns birthday tomorrow," he said.

Gaia was surprised. "You mean, today?"

"Yes. I guess today. This is the first year they've celebrated since Fiona died," he went on. "Evelyn 's turning fourteen. The family's invited half of the wealthiest families to the Bastion for a party. There's supposed to be fireworks at the end."

"Are you supposed to go, too?" she asked.

He shrugged and gave half a laugh. "Evelyn invited me, but I was told quite clearly not to come."

She waited, hoping he would continue. "Tell me," she said softly. "I want to know more. What were you like when you were little?"

He smiled slightly. "I was the most uncoordinated kid imaginable. When I started playing soccer, I would fall every time I kicked the ball. I mean, actually fall down. But I stuck with it. Then it took me forever to learn how to read. I couldn't keep the letters straight. They thought I was stupid. Even Rafael learned to read before I did."

"I didn't know that."

Leon shrugged. "They didn't put that in the specials. I made up for it later, though, once I finally got the hang of it. I loved school."

She envied him that. One by one, she clicked together the pieces of the little toy eggbeater. "How much younger than you is Rafael?"

"Genevieve had Rafael when I was four, and the twins showed up the year after that." The golden light from the oven reflected along his nose and jaw. His gaze was pensive. "Genevieve is really the only mother I've ever known, and she was very kind to me when I was little. I'll give her that. But my father absolutely doted on his new family, and I was, well-- " He paused. "It was natural, I suppose, for the rest of them to be close."

It was curious to see Leon become more serious as he talked about his family. Gaia tried to remember the boy version of Leon in the Tvaltar specials, the dark-haired, older one, usually positioned in the back. She'd always been captivated by the little sisters with their bright curls and laughing faces, so it had been natural to overlook him. It wasn't hard to believe that Leon had been subtly excluded from his own family.

"So, Fiona?" she asked. "Do you miss her?"

Leon shook his head briefly. "I don't talk about her."

She remembered what the women of Q cell had said, and wondered if she could get to the truth behind the rumors. "And your aunt?" she asked.

He turned, his expression puzzled. "Aunt Maura? What about her?"

She swallowed thickly and wished she could take it back.

"What have you heard about my aunt?" he asked, his voice colder.


"No. You've heard some rumor, haven't you? What have you heard?"

She looked miserably down at her hands and gave the toy a little spin. It worked perfectly. She could feel the heat rising in her cheeks.

He let out a sharp laugh. "I should have known," he said. "I'm telling you about my family, things I've never told anybody, and you just want to know if the rumors of incest are true."

"I didn't say that."

"They're not. Okay? I haven't slept with anyone, related to me or not. I don't much care if you believe me, but there it is."

She wanted to sink down into a pool of black slime and evaporate. "I'm sorry."

Leon stood, took the miniature eggbeater to return it to the mantel, and moved to the sink. She heard him quietly cleaning out his cup, and the faint squeak of the faucet. Something about his controlled, quiet movements made her feel even worse. When he held out a hand for her own cup, she passed it to him wordlessly. He washed it, too, and turned it upside down on the rack.

"You don't have to help me tomorrow," Gaia said.

He turned, folded his arms, and leaned back against the counter. "You know what? You re pretty good at pushing people away from you. Did you know that? Maybe that's why you had only one friend growing up."

She shook her head. "That's mean."

He ran his hand back through his hair, gripping it above his forehead. He looked tired, and exasperated, and hurt. Gaia had no idea what to say or how to take them back to the comfort' able feeling they'd had before. She only knew she didn't want him mad at her. And that made her feel weak and vulnerable, which she didn't like at all.

She stood and backed toward the stairs that led to the room she shared with Yvonne. "It's late," she said lamely.

"Fine. Go to bed, then."

"Are you going to sleep in Oliver's room?"


She glanced back at the table, chairs, and stools, and the totally utilitarian space of the kitchen, knowing there would be nowhere comfortable here for him to sleep. She was about to protest when she heard a soft click from the hallway and then quick footsteps. Pearl entered the kitchen doorway.

"Is Mace here?" she asked in a worried voice. "I thought I heard him coming."

"No," Gaia said. But a moment later, a noise came at the door, a low, distinct pattern of knocking.

"Close the oven," Pearl whispered.

As soon as Leon did and the room was dark, Pearl unlocked and opened the door to the outside. Mace Jackson slipped inside, followed closely by a woman in a long white cloak. A fresh swirl of cool air spiraled through the kitchen as the door closed again, and then the dim room was very still. The fiery flickers around the edge of the oven door were the only light.

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