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Birthright

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Margot liked Will’s house. Most of her lingering questions about him had been answered the moment she saw him and the house together. It was small and practical, every inch crammed and lived in. She was sure there were stories behind the mismatched chairs, the old upright piano, and the aged wall hangings that depicted forest scenes and animals. She wondered what his family had been like. His mother, father, and siblings, if he’d had any. He was all alone in his little house now. Stranded like a castaway at the edge of the tree line, one foot in the world and one in the woods. He probably wanted to disappear altogether. She’d seen the flatness of his eyes — something had died behind them. His connection to everything around him was ephemeral at best. Yes, she was sure he’d love to walk into the woods and disappear altogether.

And oh, Margot could relate.

His bed wasn’t very comfortable, but the sheets were clean and warm. She didn't leave immediately, although that had been her plan: just get what she needed and go. Some modicum of the savage Verger practicality was the only family birthright she’d ever received, she supposed. But it was snowing outside and the air was as sharp as knives. Being naked came with an inherent vulnerability to cold and to shame, but she felt no need to flee from either in the pleasant darkness. So she lay awake in the warmth of Will’s bed in the dark of his house, silent but for the snuffling of his dogs as they slept. The snow fell, ghostly and untouchable beyond the windows. Will was quiet and still behind her.

He had kissed her, afterward. She hadn't been expecting that. He'd seemed so very far away. He’d been considerate, of course. More than she'd expected, actually, with her experience of his curt manners and sharp sarcasm. He'd made sure she felt good. Caressed her scars gently, as though apologizing for their existence. As though he was attempting to replace the memory of pain with something soft and warm. It had been nice.

Not that either of them held any illusions about their relationship. She’d been upfront with him about her proclivities and he had the look of someone to whom real connection didn’t come easily or often. He hadn't looked through her, but whatever was happening behind his eyes wasn't connection. He was running from something and she was giving him the means to do it. And she was glad; she didn't want to be the only one using someone in this house. But he’d kissed her after and trailed his fingers through her hair when she rolled away from him. It was unexpectedly sweet.

She studied his house in the silence. It was so small compared to the palatial Verger estate, but it felt infinitely more liberating. There was freedom in the isolation, in the nearly claustrophobic press of the ceilings and the walls. History and memory lined every wall and window like armor. It felt safe. She was coaxed almost to sleep in the cocoon of warmth and quiet, curling one arm over her stomach.

She was close enough to sleep that her mind conjured an image behind her eyes as she wondered. She could see a little boy or girl with brown curls and blue eyes and a beautiful smile. The sort of artless, innocent smile she imagined must be the product of constant affection and security. A child loved from the moment they were born, lavished with attention and gifts, protected from every sort of pain and manipulation. A child who only knew people who loved them and no one who didn’t. She could ensure that. She would.

Will shifted behind her. His breathing deepened until she was almost sure he was asleep. Or at least as close to it as she was.

She tried adding Will to the vision of the child, but the image never resolved. She wasn’t sure whether he’d want to be involved. Whether she’d want him to be involved. She didn't know him very well, late night heart-to-hearts over whiskey notwithstanding. She’d put on a show to get what she’d wanted; he’d almost certainly kept her at arm’s length as well.

Of course, she’d seen him with his dogs. He liked to take care of things. She couldn't blame him for choosing animals over humans. There'd been a time when she preferred the company of the pigs to her own family. Until Mason had taken to hurting the piglets he saw her playing with and she’d stopped entertaining thoughts of taking care of anything more vulnerable than herself. Survival meant sacrifice. It meant cutting out weaknesses yourself so no one else could do it to you. She clutched the hand resting over her abdomen into a fist and tried to believe she was on the road to a life where that sort of thinking would no longer be necessary.

Maybe Will would want to be involved. He was a locked door of a man, completely barred from everyone around him. But the glimpses she caught of him made her think that he was capable of warmth. And she could do worse when it came to genes. He was smart, at least. Sharp as a tack, her mother would have said. She'd looked him up, ignoring the salacious news stories about his imprisonment and trial. He taught at the FBI Academy. Wrote a well-respected forensics monograph. He had a house full of books. Between the two of them, the kid would have a decent chance of having a good brain. In fact, it was almost the only thing she could contribute. Brains weren't lacking on her side of the family. They were only deficient when it came to hearts.

She glanced again at Will's dogs, relaxed and asleep on a ridiculous number of doggie beds. One of the small ones had a freshly changed bandage over a wound on his neck and a bowl of water carefully placed beside his bed so he could reach it. Margot studied the tiny dog, sound asleep and unafraid.

Maybe the kid would have a decent heart, too.

The moon slid across the clear sky. The contented silence and warmth around Margot slowly edged into something oppressive. What did she know about families or caring for them? She’d never wanted a child until it became a necessary factor for her own survival. Some mother she was turning out to be. She’d always disregarded her father’s shrill shrieks about her inadequacy as a woman, but her mind was still too close to sleep to be anything but open to memories and doubts. For a moment, she was almost afraid he was right.

Forcing her eyes wide, Margot slid free of the comforter and sheets and buttoned herself back into the clothes and coat she’d worn as both costume and armor. Will was sleeping or doing an excellent imitation of it. She didn’t look at him as she walked away. The dogs lifted their heads when she opened the front door, but they stayed with Will.

Margot clutched her coat collar against the wall of icy wind and stepped out into the frozen silence. The moon shone white as bone on the crisp blanket of snow. She cranked the engine of her car and turned the heat on full blast. There was no ice to scrape; a few swipes of the windshield wipers cleared the thin layer of snow away. She shivered as she waited for the car to warm up, her gloved hands clenched around the steering wheel. Her headlights threw a pale circle of light over Will’s house when she turned them on. She pulled away and took the light with her.

Maybe she should feel guiltier about creating a child to save herself. But she was determined to make it up to the kid. She'd give them everything. Love the child the best she could, make sure each need and every possible want was tended to. They wouldn’t end up like her and Mason. They’d only ever received the wrong kind of attention. It had turned her hard and Mason cruel. But when Mason wasn’t trying to make her cry, he was always chattering about his pigs. Breeding programs and genetic modifications. New generations, always better than the ones that came before. The next generation of Vergers would be an improvement, Margot swore to herself.

She was already thinking of names. She’d decide on a name even before the time came to find out the sex, she thought. Something androgynous like Casey or Morgan, so she could give them something she'd only ever dreamed about: the freedom from an identity determined by gender. Freedom was the only birthright worth having. And she’d make sure they were free from ever having to make the choices their mother had made to save herself.