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15 November 2012 @ 12:25 pm
NaNoWriMo Day 14  

Louis stormed out of Two and straight across the street. He never saw Anna. She had imagined half a dozen different things he might do or say when he saw her waiting on the front steps, and then had considered two dozen different responses, but he never even glanced her way.

Louis, I love your father, and he loves me. Louis, your mother has been dead for almost ten years. Louis, there's no point in keeping separate apartments; it's more practical for me to move in with your father.

Louis, I haven't told anyone yet, not even Peter. I'm pregnant.

Ah, well. They might come in handy; Anna would save them for later.

She finished her porridge, scraped the few crumbs that remained into the compost bucket at her feet, on top of the carrot tops and peel, then rinsed the bowl out in the rain barrel at the corner. They could use some rain; the barrel was only half-full. She thought about going back into the lobby and talking to old Miss Taylor, sitting by herself with a mug of tea in her hand, maybe thinking, maybe dozing, but Anna wasn't all that good at talking to the old-timers. It wasn't just being poetic, saying that they were from another world. There were only six of them now that had actually been born Before, but even those born in the first years After weren't like everyone else. Sometimes, when she talked to an old-timer, she'd say something and for whatever reason, they'd start staring out at nothing; or they'd get angry; or they'd cry. She'd made poor Mr. Braxton cry once, just asking him if he'd been having any trouble sleeping.

Then Anna didn't need to worry about talking to Miss Taylor or not, because Peter came outside. “Oh, you're still here. I would have thought you'd be halfway to the clinic by now.”

“No,” she said. She didn't need to say anything else. That was one of the many things she loved about Peter; he didn't make her talk and talk and talk. He just took her hand and smiled, and they started walking to the east. Past the gardens, everyone on their hands and knees weeding; past the blacksmith, smoke puffing out in happy clouds; past the street cleaners, keeping the city as tidy as always. They couldn't see what was happening inside the buildings they passed since every window within two man-heights of the ground was bricked in, but Anna knew what was going on all the same. Arrow fletching; knife sharpening; sewing; cooking. The engineers would be poring over anything and everything the Hunters brought back, trying to make things work, or keep them working.

Anna didn't know why they kept trying. She was happy with the way things were. They didn't need clocks or bicycles or the steam engine Paul still thought he could build. What they had was enough.

Then they were in front of Eight.

“Are you on the roof today?” she asked. She liked when Peter was on Eight's roof. Not that they really needed to worry about breaches these days – Tilly said she hadn't even seen an Outsider in a year – but Anna still felt better when he wasn't sitting on top of the wall.

“Just till noon,” Peter answered, shading his eyes as he looked up to check the sun's position in the sky. “Then I relieve Richard at the west station. Silas says he's going to add a couple Hunters to our rotation until we get the apprentices fully trained.”

“He's been saying that for six months.” There was always an ebb and flow in the number of skilled workers, but the Guards had been under-strength for far too long.

“Can you pick up my allotment today?” Peter asked, changing the subject with absolutely zero grace, as he usually did. “I doubt Louis is going to do it. He was pretty upset when he left.”

“Does he even remember Naomi that well?” Anna remembered Louis's mother, the way most people still did. She had been so very beautiful, thick black hair and creamy brown skin, tall and strong, a wide mouth that always seemed open in an infectious laugh. Anna didn't like to think of Naomi, because in comparison she always felt so small and weak and pale, some sad little blossom on a tangle of weeds next to a towering, glorious sunflower.

Peter just shrugged. Looked at his feet. Anna wanted to go back in time and slap herself. Why even bring Naomi up?

“I just mean...I don't mean that he shouldn't remember her...I just mean...” Anna stopped herself before she made it worse.

“You mean, why is he so upset about the idea of us being together?” Peter always knew what she usually struggled to say. She wanted to kiss him all over, but they were outside, and she wouldn't give Louis the satisfaction of seeing her switched in the city common. So Anna just nodded. Peter thought for a long moment, scuffing the toe of his boot against the dirt. He finally just shrugged. “Because he's Louis. I suppose I'd miss him if he ever changed.”

Now Anna did kiss him, one nice, soft kiss on the corner of his mouth. She heard someone walking behind her make a comment low under his or her breath, but she ignored the busybody completely.

“I'll come by tonight, while you're still at west. Make Louis dinner. And we'll sit and talk.”

“Anna...” He clearly did not think this was a good idea, it was written all over his face. Anna always beat him at poker.

“It'll be good. Good for me, and good for him, too. He's too old to be stomping his feet and throwing tantrums.”

“He hardly threw a tantrum--”

She interrupted him with another kiss.

“And after dinner, after Louis is sound asleep, you and I will sneak into the empty apartment on the third floor.”

Peter laughed, but not before he glanced up and down the street, making sure no one had heard her. Then he skipped up the stairs and into Eight. Anna waited to see if he would turn and smile at her once more before he entered – he sometimes did – but not today. Then she just felt foolish standing there, looking at the front of the building as though she expected it to start dancing or something, so she ducked her head and marched off, hands in pockets, hoping no one else noticed. She walked a block before she realized she was headed home, to her apartment in Building Seventeen, instead of to the market, and then the clinic.

The streets seemed more busy than usual this morning. Maybe everyone else had been infected with the same idleness, the same aversion to starting the day. Normally Anna looked forward to getting to work, but today she found herself dragging her heels, even though she would almost certainly be late.

The market was just as crowded. Miss Janae said that the open-walled building, split into six different stalls, had once been devoted to washing cars. Anna couldn't understand the need for a building just for the purpose, or why the old-timers would have needed to wash their cars at all. Wouldn't rain have washed them sufficiently? Now each stall was filled with sacks and barrels, manned by the gardeners on duty that day. Two stalls for grain, one for root vegetables, two for other vegetables, one for eggs and meat. There were only a few baskets of eggs, and just two strings of smoked meat. Even though Anna knew neither she nor Peter were due for meat today, she still stopped by to look.

“What is it today?” she asked. The bored teenage apprentice in the stall, whittling a whistle and never looking up, shrugged.

“Squirrel, I think,” the apprentice finally offered.

Anna moved on, dumping her compost bucket out into one of the wheelbarrows beside the market, rinsing it out and pouring that slop into a wheelbarrow, too. She went down the line, picking up potatoes – small and covered with stringy eyes – a yam, five ears of corn, a small sack of peppers and onions, a head of garlic, three eggplant, and what should have been a sack of wheat flour. But when she opened it up, she saw that it was full of whole wheat kernels.

“It hasn't been ground?” she asked, frowning.

Today the grain stalls were being run by Julie and her husband Timothy. It was Julie who answered; she was a short woman who would look better with an extra thirty pounds or so. Some people are just meant to be plump. As it was, she shifted her weight side to side with a groan, scratching at the back of her skinny neck.

“The millstone assembly is broken. The engineers are working on it. Everyone's either going to have to grind at home or cook the kernels whole.” Julie still seemed slightly apologetic, but Anna guessed that it wouldn't be too long before she was sick and tired of answering the same question all day. At least that explained why there wasn't any baked bread, either.

“Can I grab Peter's allotment, too?” she asked, transferring her vegetables into a burlap sack, putting the wheat into her empty compost bucket.

“You can't pick up someone else's allotment,” came a snotty voice from the next stall. Anna knew that voice. She turned to look at Melanie, who was picking over the potatoes as though she were going to find one made of gold.

Melanie was, quite simply, absolutely gorgeous. Creamy caramel skin and big brown eyes, a perfect rosebud mouth. At seventeen she had yet to experience typical teenage acne, which Anna, who had seemed to be one giant pimple at that age, found deeply unfair. Melanie's thick black hair was pulled into a ponytail and tied with a crimson ribbon; the ponytail hung down almost to between her shoulder blades. Anna could understand why the girl wouldn't want to cut her hair, but she couldn't believe no one had made her cut it anyway. Anna touched her own hair, thin and blonde and cut in an unflattering short pixie, self-consciously.

“I'm picking it up for a friend,” Anna said quietly.

“Well, your friend needs to come pick up his own allotment,” Melanie went on. She glanced over at Anna with the hauteur of the self-righteous.

“Oh, shut up, Melanie!” Julie snapped. “You're supposed to be in the gardens spreading compost today, not lolly-gagging in the market.”

“I'm just trying to find a potato that isn't rotten,” Melanie snapped right back.

Anna saw Julie shift her weight again, a definite grimace of pain on her face. “Is everything all right?”

“It's just these shoes,” Julie said, wiping the grimace away so smoothly and quickly that it was hard to tell it had ever been there. “The sole's worn away in both heels.”

From the neighboring stall, Timothy spoke up. Anna couldn't see him, but from his voice she could tell that he was coldly furious. “She was due a new pair of shoes almost a month ago, but the cobblers say they're behind. Not enough leather.”

Julie rolled her eyes at Anna. “If they don't have leather they can't make shoes. I don't know what you want them to do, Tim.”

“I'm sure the Hunters have new shoes. I'm sure the Hunters never have to wait for leather.”

Melanie, who had finally found a suitable potato, and was now hunting through the eggplant, glared over at Anna. “Tell him to be quiet!” she hissed through clenched teeth. “He can't talk that way about the Hunters!”

Timothy evidently heard. “I can talk about the Hunters any way I damn well please!”

Despite herself, Anna glanced around the market, but she didn't see any Hunters. There were quite a few people looking over this way, though; public arguments always drew a crowd. It was as good as putting on a play, maybe even better.

“My feet are fine,” Julie announced. “And if the Hunters need leather, then they should have it before me. That's only right.” But she shifted her feet again, and there was a tightness around her eyes she couldn't hide. Julie stuck an extra bag of wheat in Anna's bucket, making a careful note on her slate. “All right, then!” she said with brittle brightness.

Anna could only nod and attempt a smile. She grabbed her burlap sack and the bucket and pushed her way out of the crowded market.

As she made her way to the clinic, she turned back to see Melanie run over to greet one of her friends, a girl her age named Rachel. Melanie's ponytail bounced as she jogged across the street, and the sunlight seemed to make a halo behind her. Rachel, pretty herself but utterly eclipsed by her friend, squealed and jumped up and down. Anna was struck by a sudden sadness. The wall and closeness of the city usually made her feel safe, made her feel at home. But looking at these two beautiful young women, it suddenly seemed no better than a cage. Melanie would spend her life stuck in the gardens, digging in the dirt, weeding and hoeing and raking and planting and harvesting. Rachel was an apprentice with the Guards. Maybe she would work less, since most of her time would be spent sitting on the wall, watching, but was it any better?

The bucket's handle was digging into her palm. Anna turned away, headed toward the clinic.