Leon looked up, noting the cook’s kindly expression.
“You know each other,” Genevieve said, as if she were just figuring that out.
“More or less,” Mabrother Cho said, smiling. “He used to sneak down here nights when he was little, now and again. Your boy here’s made lots of friends I suspect you’ve never known about.”
Leon reached for an apple slice and bit into the sweetness. “Not so many,” Leon said.
“Enough that you’ll be missed,” Mabrother Cho said. “Don’t be gone forever, Mabrother.”
Leon didn’t know what to say. He had no idea what he might find in the wasteland or if anything lay beyond it. It seemed unlikely he’d ever come back. He watched while his mother and Mabrother Cho packed food and supplies in the pack: mycoprotien, dried fruit, cheese, a little tea, flatbread, and a canister of baby formula. They added matches, a candle, flint and steel, a small pot, and a knife. Mabrother Cho filled four lightweight, metal canteens, capped them, and looped them to a sturdy belt.
How many supplies had Gaia taken? Leon wondered. How long could she last on what she could carry? And she had the baby, too. The thought made him impatient to leave.
“You want a blanket?” Genevieve asked. “It’ll get cold at night when the sun goes down. I can pack it small.”
“All right,” he said.
“A hat,” Myrna said.
“I have one here,” Genevieve said, offering a beige one with a wide brim.
Myrna showed him where she was putting medical supplies in the outer pouch of his pack. “Your back will start to itch when it’s healing,” she said. “You won’t win any prizes for enduring the pain. Use the mor**ine, and keep up with the antibiotics.” She shook a small container. “Two pills a day until they’re all gone. Promise me.”
He lifted the bottle to eye the contents. “If I outlast them.”
“Don’t say that,” Genevieve said.
He glanced across the table to her. His mother stood with her shoulders proudly straight, but he could see the fear and stress in her troubled gaze. He accepted her help with putting on the shirt, which billowed slightly behind him. Then he dipped his head into the strap of his pack, straightening to lift its weight and shift it to the most comfortable place along his chest.
Genevieve reached for the water belt and slung it over her shoulder. “I can take this as far as the wall for you.”
He didn’t argue with her. Donning his hat, he took a last glance down at the table with its bowl of reddish water, the dirty towel, and Myrna’s tools. Myrna was regarding him gravely, but she held out a hand to shake his.
“Good luck,” she said simply.
Mabrother Cho lifted a hand in silent farewell.
Strangely moved, Leon reached past the cook to snag a last slice of apple from the bowl.
“Thanks,” he said.
The cook gave a twisted smile. “Get going, then.”
Leon followed Genevieve out the back door of the kitchen, past the rubbish barrels and the empty crates left from deliveries. The night was edging toward dawn, and Genevieve’s white sweater was visible as muted gray over her slender form, sliced by the black of the belt and canteens over her shoulder. As they headed uphill, side by side through the dim, cobblestone streets, he watched warily for guards, still not trusting that he was safe with his mother. The open space of Summit Park was quiet except for a lone cricket, and from that elevation, the high point of the Enclave, he had a view out toward the wasteland, where the horizon was visible as a line of gray meeting with faint pink above. Vast seemed the wasteland, and trackless. Finding Gaia was going to be nearly impossible.
The alternative was staying in the Enclave and waiting for the moment his adoptive father decided to put an end to him once and for all.
They left the park and headed down the last curving streets. The occasional streetlights flickered on as they approached, triggered by sensors. At one corner, a mute camera was aimed at the intersection.
“He’s watching us go, isn’t he?” Leon asked.
“Yes,” Genevieve said. “He’ll paint you as a coward and a traitor, but you’ll be safe. You’ll be gone.”
He glanced at her profile. “He can’t be very happy with you,” he said.
“I’m not very pleased with him, either,” she said, and smiled. “Don’t worry about me.”
He considered that. “I will, though.”
She laughed briefly. “Just so you know, Emily turned in the ledgers tonight. I just heard, when I was gathering your things.”
“Did they give back her baby?”
“No. Miles advanced the baby. He thinks she had a copy of the birth records made. She had enough time.”
Leon stared ahead to where the wall that surrounded the Enclave was coming into view. Gaia’s friend Emily must be frantic about her advanced son, and she’d be helpless against the injustice of the Enclave. He was glad Gaia didn’t know, for he was certain she would blame herself if she did.
“See what you can do about that,” Leon said.
“I will. I’ll try. But we also need to be sure our children are secure.”
“It proves Gaia didn’t take the ledgers with her,” Leon said. “I know.”
“So will he call off the search for her?”
“That I don’t know. She’s still a criminal for stealing them in the first place,” Genevieve said.
“Advancing the babies in the first place, though,” he said dryly. “That doesn’t count as theft?”
“You know it doesn’t,” Genevieve said. “That’s completely different.”
“Tell that to Emily.”
“No, you think it over yourself,” she said, “and imagine what your life would have been like if we hadn’t raised you.”
He laughed bitterly. “You can still say that, when my father has just had me tortured for four days?”
She paused, and he was compelled to turn beside her. “I’m not going to try to excuse him,” she said. “But can we not argue about him? Just for now?”
He could make out her eyes enough to see how troubled she was. His feelings for her were confused by the bitterness he felt towards the Protectorat and her own complicity in his cruelty. On the other hand, she was likely the only one in the Enclave who had the power to save him from his father, at what personal cost to her own well-being, he couldn’t guess. He couldn’t stay hardened against his mother, not when they only had a few more minutes together.
“All right,” he said.
The North Gate, seldom used, was smaller than South Gate but it, too, was patrolled by the requisite guards. They nodded at Genevieve as if expecting her, and when they opened the tall wooden gate, Leon passed under the arch to the outside. He glanced behind him for the last time, at the quiet, tree-lined street and the lightless towers of the Bastion, just visible over the rise of the hill.
Before him, the hill sloped down toward an arid, windswept, shadowed landscape of boulders and stunted brush. His future. The cold uncertainty of it chilled him, and yet he did not look back again. The likelihood of finding Gaia’s tracks was essentially nil. He could scan for movement by day, and at night it was possible a campfire would show to guide him to her, but probably his best chance was to head north, looking for civilization, and hope Gaia found the same place.
He briefly considered circling back to ask Emily what she knew of Gaia’s departure, but it would be risky, and set him back several hours, and he already knew Gaia intended to head north for the Dead Forest. If it existed. Gaia believed it did.
I’ve done smarter things than this, he thought.
Wordlessly, he took the belt from Genevieve, settling it around his waist so that the canteens rode to the sides where they wouldn’t impede his stride.
“Here. One last thing,” she said, and passed him an extra roll of socks. “For your feet,” she added, as if he didn’t know. “It’s important to take care of your feet when you’re going so far.”
The ball was soft in his hand. “Mom,” Leon said, strangely moved.
“I’m just so sorry about this. If there were any other way—”
He shook his head, and pulled her near to hug his arms around her. She couldn’t hug him back properly because of his wounded back, but she held tight to his collar and kissed his cheek.
“Please be safe,” Genevieve said.
“I will. Give my love to Evelyn and Rafael,” Leon said.
“Come back to us,” she whispered.
There was no answer to that. For a last, long moment he held her, filling with sad tenderness, a kind of forgiveness and loss that normally would have made him feel weak. Instead, he felt human, honest.
“I’ll miss you,” he said, and knew it was true, despite everything.
When he left his mother and started down the hill, he trod carefully in the shadowed space between boulders. He hitched once at the belt around his hips, tucked the socks in his pocket, and began his vigilant search for motion along the horizon. Somewhere ahead of him, Gaia was traveling with her baby sister. Whether what he was doing was stupidly reckless or nobly brave didn’t much matter, because the only thing left to do was try to find her.