You know exactly what you mean when you offer Nacie’s barrette to Zia, but you pretend not to when she hesitates to take it.
“Wasn’t she…” The singer searches your face as if the right word might be hidden in your eyes. “…a friend of yours?”
She was almost that, although it was Falen, Nacie’s older brother, that you’d really known. You only saw Nacie when she came to visit him. She was pretty, and gentle, and kind. You never found her body after the Calamity. Or Falen’s either.
“She was always happy,” you explain to Zia. “She used to bring my friend gifts from home. I don’t think she’d want me to hold onto this just for the sake of being sad. It’ll suit you.”
You want her to have it. More than that, you want to give it to her, and it’s hard to give presents now when almost everything on the Bastion is shared between the four of you. Besides, you do think this’ll look pretty against Zia’s jet-black hair.
But she tucks the barrette back into your hand with a quiet smile on her face. “I think you should keep it,” she says. “It means something to you, right?”
“It does, but…” You open your hand to look at the purple crystals. “I don’t have any use for it. I can’t wear it.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” Zia teases impishly.
You peer at her, her suggestion not adding up. It’s a girl’s barrette. For girls to wear. But she answers your confusion by taking the barrette from your open palm and touching your chin lightly to turn your head to the side. With a deft twist, she curls a lock of your short hair around her finger and pulls it back from the temple. She opens the barrette with her free hand and leans in to slide it into place against your head. Up close like this, she smells like the soap you all use.
“There,” she says, snapping the barrette shut with a muffled click. She looks you over and nods approvingly. “See? I think it looks nice.”
You shoot her a dubious look, so she pulls a handheld mirror out of her pocket and shows you.
Looking down at it, you find your own image strangely unrecognizable for the briefest of moments. It should look like you: there’s your clay-brown skin and the scar on your cheek, your brown eyes, your shock of white hair that always got you in trouble back in school. But the way Zia has pulled your hair back with the barrette transforms the way your face is framed. It makes your cheekbones and even your jaw look softer, makes your eyes look wider and more anxious. Your heart thumps in your chest, like something’s got you worked up.
Then Zia says “See?” again, and you blink, and you realize that you’re just a guy with your hair pulled back by a girly barrette. Zia’s got funny sensibilities is all. Just think of that anklegator.
“It looks weird on a guy,” you tell her, and you pull it free without opening the clasp. A few strands of your hair go with it, yanking out of your scalp with pinpricks of trivial pain.
“I don’t think it looks weird,” she protests as you pick the strands out of the barrette’s teeth impatiently.
“Well, I do.” You offer it to Zia again. “It’s for a girl. You should have it.”
But she shakes her head and closes your hand around the trinket one last time. Her hands are warm when she clasps them around yours.
“We all have so little left from before,” she tells you. “Don’t be so quick to give your mementos away if they’ve got good memories attached to them.”
“…All right,” you mutter, and give in at last. You get tongue-tied when Zia talks to you sometimes. You know why, but you pretend not to.
Everyone’s always told you that you grew up too fast.
But you had to, didn’t you? They didn’t usually take volunteers on the Rippling Walls younger than thirteen, but you were twelve and you needed to start making your mom some money rather than costing it, and you were good with your hands. So your mom agreed to lie, with a little convincing, and the overseers paid more attention to what you could do than the exact details in your records. A grouchy man in clothes finer than you’ll ever wear helped you set up your salary to go straight home. You started working.
The other Masons—volunteers and convicts alike—thought you were pretty funny. Called you “Squirt,” “Pipsqueak,” “Brat.” “Kid,” like Rucks does now. None of it was mean, though, just amused, and you liked most of it better than your real name anyway. Still, you knew what kind of cruelty could be hidden under teasing, just waiting to be uncovered. You were earning as much money as any of them and couldn’t afford for them to think you weren’t pulling your own weight. So you worked hard, and you learned how to be a man by watching them. You laughed along at their crude jokes, even the ones that went over your head or made you flush with shame; you took shots of smuggled-in alcohol with the rest of them, even though they burned going down and made your stomach roil. You learned to boast, inflating your production rate with a sneer and then pushing yourself until you could match your own claims. They challenged you to wrestling matches as a joke, and you kept fighting until you could win. You got brash. You got strong. You thought all that was growing up.
You realized, when you went home and found your mom dead and buried, your childhood home looted and empty, that it was all just playground games on a different playground.
That’s when you grew up.
You went back to the Walls because it was what you knew how to do. But this time, you made sure your money was going somewhere where you could keep an eye on it, and this time, you did less joking and boasting and more working. You didn’t make as many friends—Falen was about it—but you got stronger than ever. Your hard work was rewarded with attention from the Marshals, and they sent you out beyond the Walls to scout, and that’s where you were when the world ended.
Maybe you did grow up too fast. But if you hadn’t, you wouldn’t be growing up at all, and even if you’d survived the Calamity you would never have been able to find the cores and shards to fix the Bastion. So that’s how things worked out, in the end.
Even so, Rucks thinks you grew up too fast, too.
“I don’t need any help, kid,” he says when you follow him down to the Bastion’s heart. “It’s just a little tune-up to keep things runnin’ all right. You oughta relax.”
“I’m plenty relaxed,” you answer, a little indignant. “Will you teach me what you’re doing? I’d like to learn.”
He looks at you with one eyebrow raised, then turns back to whatever he’s adjusting with his wrench.
“Haven’t given any thought to how to teach this yet. Maybe next time.”
“Can I watch, at least? I’m pretty good at learning from example.”
“Bet you are, though it won’t help with this much.” Rucks rests his palm against the Bastion’s whirring chassis, listening for something. Then he adjusts something with his wrench again. Listens again, adjusts again. When he’s satisfied, he walks around the platform and does the same thing on the other side. Around the chassis, he says, “Watchin’ is all well and good, kid, but don’t you go tryin’ to fix anything without my instruction, got it? The Bastion takes precision. And who knows how long we’ll all be living on it.”
He mutters the last sentence, irritation in his voice. You pretend not to hear it. Apparently the Bastion has its own ideas about what counts as a safe place to land, and it hasn’t found anything yet. As the architect behind the floating structure, Rucks seems to consider this a personal failure on his part. You don’t. You’re pretty sure Zia and Zulf don’t, either. This isn’t a bad life, up here in the clouds. You’re patient enough. You just wish there were more you could do.
You tell Rucks that last part as he finishes whatever he’s doing and takes a seat on the edge of the platform, legs draped over the side. The expression that crosses his face in answer is one you can only describe as “old.”
“Kid,” he says heavily. “You’ve already done more than enough.”
“Not when there’s still stuff that needs doing,” you protest. “That’s why I want to help look after the Bastion. You shouldn’t have to do it alone.”
“Oh, is that why? And here I thought you might be afraid I was gonna keel over any day now.”
Leaning back on his hands, his joints creaking as much as the old wood he’s sitting on, he almost looks like he might. Almost. You know better. Still, it seems like as good a time as any to bring out a little liquid rejuvenation. You sit down next to him and offer him your flask, and he snorts before taking it.
“What’s in here?” He sniffs it. “This the bourbon? Well, sure, why not.”
He takes a swig and then offers it back to you. You take a sip as well, and you trade back and forth until the flask is dry.
Before he hands the empty flask back, Rucks eyes the Mason crest engraved on it. “Kid,” he says, “is there anything I can say to convince you that you deserve to rest?”
“I do rest.” You get plenty of sleep, you chat with everyone, you look after Zulf. “But I can’t just… do nothing all day.”
“If you gave it a try, you might find that you could,” Rucks retorts. Then he sighs. “Ah, who am I kidding? I was the same way at your age. All the energy in the world and determined to do something with it. There certainly wasn’t no stoppin’ me.” He hands the flask back.
You tuck it into your pocket. “That was during the war, right?”
You half-expect him to stop there; he doesn’t often reminisce except in bits and pieces. But he must be in a funny mood, or maybe he thinks his stories will prove a point to you, because he keeps talking.
“I left home at fifteen to enlist. Truth is, they were lookin’ for sixteen-year-olds and up. But there were… certain aspects of my upbringing, you might say, that I was eager to escape. So I slapped on a fake mustache and showed up.” He snorts. “They didn’t question it too hard.”
The similarity to your own story leaves you grinning. “Caelondia never turns down a hard worker.”
“No it doesn’t. And the City gets you thinking that’s all that matters, your hard work for its benefit. That’s how it got to be as great as it was.” He fixes you with a sharp stare. “But Caelondia ain’t that anymore, so there’s no more need for any of us to go workin’ ourselves to death.”
You bristle at the way he turns it back around into the same lecture. “I’m fine,” you insist. “I just want to be helpful.”
“Yeah, I know. But listen—”
Rucks opens his mouth to say more of the same, but you’re tired of hearing it and he has no right to go on about this anyway, not with the way he bossed you around after the Calamity and not with the way he’s lived his whole life. You change the subject, bluntly.
“Rucks, I need your advice on something.”
He shoots you a look. “I’m givin’ you advice,” he points out, but then he obliges you. “What?”
“I don’t know what to do with Nacie’s barrette.”
Another look, this one incredulous. “That shiny thing? Now where did that come from all of a sudden?”
To be honest, you don’t even know. It’s been on your mind since the other day—since you tried to give it to Zia and she wouldn’t take it—so it’s what comes out when you need a random change of subject. But now that you’re on the topic, you mean it. You tell him what happened, leaving out the part where Zia tried putting it in your hair. “I don’t want it to go to waste,” you explain. And then, discouraged: “I thought she’d like it.”
He eyes you for a long second before sighing. “It ain’t going to waste if you’ve got memories attached to it, kid.”
“That’s what Zia said,” you complain, and you don’t tell him that your memories of Nacie have gotten strange lately: that you keep dreaming about her except half the time you are her and the rest of the time you’re sitting next to her in a warm, safe room and she’s playing with your hair for some reason. You wish Zia hadn’t put that barrette on you, even if she was just joking around. Now it’s all you can think about when you look at it, and you find yourself looking at it an awful lot.
“I just think Nacie would want me to do something useful with it,” is all you say to Rucks.
It’s the story you’ve been telling yourself, but hearing it out loud now, suddenly you aren’t so sure you believe it. Rucks doesn’t seem to either, but he just shrugs. “You may be outta luck, kid,” he says practically. “Ain’t no one alive who can force Zia to do something she don’t want to do. And I can’t take it off your hands because I don’t figure it would go with this nice mustache I’ve worked so hard to grow. Now, it might suit Zulf, in certain moods, but I imagine he’d have the same objections that Zia did. You might just have to accept that that barrette is yours now—to look at, if you ain’t gonna wear it. And there’s nothing wrong with that.”
You scowl halfheartedly at the unwanted advice and ask, “Since when do you know Zulf well enough to start speaking for him?”
On one level, it’s a way to dodge the lecture that you sense baked into Rucks’ answer: that the barrette doesn’t have to be useful and you don’t have to be useful either. But it’s a genuine question, too. The tension between Rucks and Zulf hadn’t just evaporated when the Bastion took off. They’d spent a few weeks furiously ignoring each other (and making mealtimes pretty awkward in the process). But they seem to have patched things up at some point, somewhere out of your sight. And you can’t help but be curious how it happened.
Rucks is in no hurry to relieve your curiosity. “Since recently,” he says, a uselessly literal answer to your question, and for a moment you think that’s all you’re going to get out of him. But then he tips his head back and looks at the gears and machinery that make up the Bastion’s heart. “He and I… sorted things out, while you and Zia were busy flirtin’ with each other.”
Color rushes to your face and you try to stammer out a defense. “We haven’t been…” But he raises a knowing eyebrow in your direction, and you figure there’s not much point in finishing your sentence if he can see right through you. You still wish he hadn’t said it out loud, though.
“I wish you two all the best,” Rucks assures you, almost too sarcastic to sound sincere. “But you have to admit, leavin’ me and Zulf alone to circle each other like dogs in a fight coulda been a disaster. I thought it was gonna be. Spent more time than I should’ve convincin’ myself he probably still wanted me dead.” He’s looking up at the Bastion’s heart again. “But they’re funny, ain’t they? Zulf and Zia both, and maybe all the Ura. They get into their heads that things should be a certain way and then they just keep on insistin’ on it. And Zulf, he thinks I should be forgiven.” He pauses for long enough to swallow. “So I’ve been tryin’ to be.”
You look at Rucks, and then down at the clouds below you.
You don’t really know what to say to that.
There’s something about him right now that’s just… beyond you. A heavy weight on his shoulders that comes of living four times longer than you have, worries and memories and self-reflection all worn into the crevices in his forehead and around his eyes. He’s still looking up at the whirring machinery above you, but you get the feeling that he’s seeing something much farther away.
Finally, he gives a sigh and looks back at you. “You did a good thing, savin’ his life,” he says seriously.
The sudden praise and the weight of his gratitude leave you feeling awkward. You lift one shoulder in a shrug. “Anyone would have.”
He laughs, low and gravelly. “Kid, I sure am glad you think so.”
Rucks thinks you’re naïve, you realize when you replay the conversation in your mind later. Which is funny when he also insists that you’ve grown up too fast. Well, whatever. You think you grew up at the right rate, or at least at exactly the rate you had to.
But sometimes you do wonder if everyone’s right, or at least on the right track. You’ve always felt, somewhere deep inside of you, that something went wrong in the growing. On the Walls you could work hard enough to keep the feeling from coming to the forefront—most of the time, at least. But it was always in the back of your mind, and sometimes it came out when all the men sat down around a fire to brag and trade dirty stories. On nights like those, something that was usually connected inside of you came loose; it seemed like everyone you knew was just scrabbling to win a petty game at the expense of others, and you couldn’t remember why you were even playing. You didn’t ever want to be a man like them. But if you tried to step away from the group on nights like that and headed to bed early, your dreams got weird. Soon you learned to keep your head down and keep drinking until the group dispersed.
Then the Calamity happened, and you didn’t have time to sit around and wonder about things like that. And that was fine with you. You’ve always found it easier to breathe when you’ve got a goal in front of you and a tool in your hand. Rucks and Zia, they appreciated the work you did for the Bastion, and you knew how you fit into the world.
But there’s nothing left to work at now, and the feeling’s coming back and making itself known. You feel unsettled, like your own body doesn’t make sense to you anymore; frustrated, like you aren’t being heard. Your dreams have gotten weird again—so weird you can hardly define them to yourself, let alone tell someone else. The ones in which Nacie’s playing with your hair, or Zia is, are the tamest of the bunch. They just get stranger from there.
Maybe it’s survivor’s guilt, you think.
That sounds like it could be it.
That’s the story you decide to tell yourself.
You ask Zia, in her tent one afternoon, who she misses most from before the Calamity.
With a heavy sigh, she pulls her knees up to her chest. “Am I allowed to say my father?” she asks ruefully.
Your eyes slide over to the journal on the ground next to her bedroll—Zulf gave it back to her when she went with the other Ura. She still can’t read all of it, as much as Zulf’s tutoring helps, but now you all know just what kind of secrets are contained within. You can’t imagine what it’s like to be her—daughter to the man who designed the Calamity by hand because he wasn’t given any other choice.
“You’re allowed,” you reassure her, but at the same time she opens her mouth again and says, “Maybe—”
You both hesitate, and you gesture for her to finish her sentence. “Sorry.”
“No, I was just going to say… maybe I didn’t even know him well enough to say that I miss him.” She picks up the journal and rifles through it, and you can see that she’s added her own little notes in a different color of ink. “He used to say he loved me, and Zulf says he wrote about it, too, but he never… shared anything with me. He was never around to. And I never would have thought he was the kind of person to…” She nods down at the technical diagrams scribbled into the journal, pain in her eyes. Then she closes it without saying anything more. You sit down next to her, offering her your arm, and she exhales slowly as she nestles into your embrace. You can feel her heart beating in her chest.
“What did you know about him?” you ask.
She closes her eyes and remembers. “He was stern,” she tells you, “and serious. I don’t know if he was just born a sad person, or if the City made him that way, but he was sad most of the time. I hardly ever saw him smile. When he did smile, though, it was mostly at me. I know he loved me. I know he wanted what was best for me, and he was afraid he’d never be able to provide it, with the way things were.”
For a moment, your own mother’s face flashes in front of your eyes. She’d wanted that, too—wanted you to have the best life possible, despite her illness, despite her lack of money and your trouble at school. She’d begged you not to go to the Walls. But you wanted her to have the best, too.
Zia sighs and sets the journal aside, but she doesn’t pull away from your arm in the process. “He did everything he could, I think,” she says quietly. “Or at least he tried to. When I told him I couldn’t stand to be a boy anymore, he didn’t argue with me. He just moved us across town so I could start fresh with new people who didn’t know me. But I guess that looked pretty suspicious to the Marshals, too.”
Your brow furrows and you feel suddenly off-kilter. “What do you mean?”
“Well, they thought me being a girl was part of the treason plot—”
“No, not that part.” You know what happened with the Marshals, and how much it hurt Zia. You wouldn’t make her spell it out again. “Your dad was raising you as a boy to begin with?”
Now confusion and worry flash across Zia’s face. She searches your eyes before speaking, and when she does, she sounds more hesitant than you’ve ever heard her before. “Well, that—that’s the way I… You didn’t know?”
Pink creeps up her cheeks. She takes a deep breath, and then meets your eyes and says evenly, “I was born a boy.”
Silence, for a long moment. You can feel your blood pulsing in your veins and you don’t know why; you let go of Zia so that she won’t be able to feel it too. “What?” you ask again, starting to feel like a broken record.
With your embrace gone, Zia wraps her arms around herself. She can’t seem to decide whether to meet your gaze or let her eyes wander the room. “I was born a boy,” she repeats, her voice quivering a little, “but I couldn’t do it, it just felt wrong. Every time someone called me a boy it felt like I was suffocating. I-I thought you knew, couldn’t you… tell?”
Tell how? She looks like a girl to you, with her long hair and pretty eyes, and all the Ura have softer faces than the Cael to begin with. And she’s only ever called herself a girl, so why would you doubt her? You’ve never met anyone who said they were something different from what their body was. You’d heard about people like that from the other Masons, a little, but they described deviants, objects of disgust. The things they said about those people made your heart lurch. Zia isn’t anything like that. You’re sure of it.
“How did you change?” you ask her. “From a boy to a girl, I mean.”
“Well, like I said, my father moved us across the city… I grew my hair out and introduced myself to everyone as a girl from then on.” She sees the doubt in your eyes, and adds in a mumble, “That’s all the changing I’ve done, I haven’t done anything… physical.”
Your heart is still pounding, and you get up to pace the tent. You’re upsetting Zia, you can tell, and you want to stop; but the questions keep pouring out of you. “So you get to just… say you’re a girl? Just because you want to be? That doesn’t seem fair.”
“I mean…” You feel the words tight in your chest. “If people could just say they’re girls, wouldn’t everyone? No one would be a guy if they had a choice!”
“But Rucks did, didn’t he?” Zia stands as well, all at once, and she raises her voice a little. Her face is splotched with pink, but her eyes are bright and determined. “Rucks chose to be a man!”
“What’s Rucks got to do with—wait.” You stop pacing for a second. “Is he the same way? Or I guess—the opposite?”
The wince on her face is all the answer you need. That, and remembering what he’d said a few days ago, about certain aspects of his upbringing that he was eager to escape. About the fake mustache he wore to get into the army.
You swallow, but it’s hard to. You feel trapped. You feel stupid, like Zia’s expecting you to know something that no one’s ever bothered to tell you before. “So you get to just… decide to be something you aren’t?”
Zia’s face pinches up. “I am a girl,” she says, louder than she has to, and you realize again that you’re hurting her and you don’t want to. You growl in frustration.
“OK, fine, you are a girl! I’m not doubting that!” You ball your hands into fists, stubby nails digging into callused skin. “I just don’t get why you get to—how come you can just—”
Why can’t you get the words out? Why is your chest so tight? Your vision stings, but it’s still clear enough that you can see Zia’s eyes bright with the threat of tears. You’re the one making her cry, and you hate yourself for it.
“Never mind,” you say, and it comes out like a snarl. “Forget I asked anything, forget all of this.”
And before she can object, you push back the tent flap and storm out of her tent. You cast a dark glance around the surface of the Bastion, but fortunately Rucks and Zulf are both somewhere else right now. If they see you, if they find out about the argument you just had with Zia, they’re going to be angry and they’ll be right to be. You’re angry at yourself. Your heart is pounding, pumping adrenaline through your body, and it makes you feel like you’re going to be sick.
Instead you stalk over to the far end of the Bastion—behind the arsenal, out of sight of Zia’s tent—and you plop down on the edge, feet dangling over nothingness. You’re sulking. You know you are. You’re sulking because there’s still a lump in your throat, because you don’t know what kind of answer you were expecting from Zia and you don’t know why you kept asking her those questions in the first place. Something feels unfair. Something feels painful. You dig into your pocket and pull out Nacie’s barrette and for a second you’re tempted to throw it off the Bastion as hard as you can. You don’t know why. You don’t. You don’t.
(But now you know why it was so easy for Zia to put it in your hair, why she thought nothing of it at all.)
You don’t throw the barrette.
Instead you lie backwards with it clutched between your fingers, and you hold it to your chest, and you look up at the sky while the Bastion putters along underneath you.
Your dreams get worse. If you’re not Nacie in your dreams, you’re Zia, singing and combing your own fingers through long black hair; if you’re neither of them, they’re together and calling out to you, asking you to join them in something vague and undefined. Something always stops you from joining them. You wake up and you feel wrong in your body, like it belongs to someone else, like it’s never been the right body for you, and you’ve felt this way all your life but until now you’ve always had some way to distract yourself.
Waking life isn’t much better, either. You don’t know what to say to Zia and every time you think of trying, you have to bite back the same questions as before. So instead you don’t say much to her at all. Meals get awkward again, more awkward still because she must’ve told Rucks what happened. You can feel him eyeing you as you keep your head bowed over your stew.
Only Zulf stays out of it, quiet and subdued like he’s been ever since you brought him back. Like he thinks he doesn’t have the right to comment on anything. You don’t want him to feel that way, and anyway at this point he’s the only one you can go to for advice.
So you find him in the kitchen one afternoon, chopping up some vineapple while the squirt watches. Even from behind, he looks tired, his once-stately posture stooped and the movement of the knife slow. “Want some help?” you offer, and he starts like he didn’t hear you come in. He straightens his posture when he turns to look at you, his eyes conflicted. But there’s nothing he has to feel conflicted about. Before he can answer, you say, “C’mon, give me that.” You walk forward and take the knife from him and start chopping.
“…Thank you,” he mutters, and retreats. Out of the corner of your eye, you watch him sit down on the bench against the wall, even stiffer than Rucks is. He was standing too long, probably; you wish you’d come a little sooner so he hadn’t had to push himself. But you’re here now, at least, and faster with a knife than he is. You finish with the vineapples in a few minutes.
“What’re these for?” you ask Zulf.
“What’s the next step?”
He makes like he’s going to stand. “I can—”
“Nope.” You position yourself between him and the chopped vineapples like you’re guarding them. “What’s next?”
With resignation in his eyes, he sinks back down onto the bench and instructs you: spices, apple cider, a dash of citrus juice, and sugar, all set in a pot to simmer. “You’ll want to mash them occasionally,” he says, apology in his voice.
“I’m pretty good at mashing things,” is your cheerful answer, and so instead of joining him on the bench you hover by the pot. But first you pluck out three slices of vineapple: one for you, one for Zulf, one for the squirt. Once you’ve swallowed yours, you sigh. “Hey, Zulf, can I ask you something?”
The Ura’s face is aiming for serious as he eyes you, you think, but it settles on gloomy. “Certainly. What is it?”
“Did you know about Zia?”
“…What about her?”
That she wanted to be a girl so people just let her, you think, but what you say is, “That she was born a guy.”
“Oh.” The caution softens out of his gaze. “Yes.”
“And Rucks? That he was a girl to start with?”
“Rucks, I wasn’t sure about right away. Because I didn’t grow up looking at Cael faces, I suppose. But he does joke about it sometimes…”
This mustache I’ve worked so hard to grow, you remember Rucks saying to you through a crooked grin, and you wonder if other quips like that have just flown right over your head. With a grunt, you pick up the masher and have a go at the vineapples. They’re still pretty solid. Makes them more satisfying to mash.
But you can feel Zulf watching you, his dark, analytical eyes on your back, and you feel like he knows you have more to say. So, a minute later, it bursts out of you: “Am I just stupid or something? I had no idea, I didn’t even know that was allowed!”
You hear a sigh from behind you, and a creak from the wooden bench as Zulf stands. He puts one hand on your shoulder and relieves you of the masher with the other; picks a spoon off the hanger on the wall and stirs the vineapples slowly.
“You’re not stupid,” he assures you, his voice placid against the way you seethe. “It isn’t a common thing, among the Ura or the Cael. And I think it’s often… received poorly.”
“…Yeah, I guess,” you admit, remembering with another painful turn of your stomach the way your fellow Masons used to leer at the mere idea.
Zulf taps the spoon on the edge of the pot and puts it down. “Sit with me?” he suggests, and you do, crossing your arms and legs and feeling more like a petulant child than you want to. Sure, you came to Zulf for advice, but now that he’s so calm and methodical about it, you feel stupid for getting worked up. You don’t even know why you’re so worked up. But you sit, your shoulders hunched and your chin tucked into your chest. Several times, you take a deep breath like you’re about to start speaking, only to sigh it out again through your nostrils, aggressively.
You get to your feet again and go back to the vineapples, and Zulf doesn’t stop you. “It’s not like I wanted to be a guy,” you sulk, but on its own the statement is too—too something, so you hurry to add, “Guys are awful. Most of the Masons I worked with were guys and they were all assholes.”
Zulf makes a sympathetic hum behind you. “I’ve known a few decent men,” he proposes as a counterargument.
You grunt. “I don’t mean you, you’re fine.”
“Am I?” he asks.
Your heart sinks and you whirl towards the Ura, ready to reassure him. But he’s… smiling. Almost. There’s something sad about it as he sits with his hands in his lap, eyes averted. It cuts your protest off before you can even begin, and he speaks instead.
“I spoke of harmony and tolerance, and I thought I believed in them—but when I found my patience tested, I turned to revenge. Easily. Without questioning myself.”
You look away, too. “I mean,” you say awkwardly. “You had a good reason to be angry.”
“I did. But I’m not sure that translates into a good reason to seek revenge.” He looks at you sidelong and then sighs. “Perhaps that doesn’t have anything to do with the question of being male, though. I apologize for pulling the conversation off-course.”
“If you wanted to be a better man than the ones you hate, I’m sure you have it in you,” he says.
You shift awkwardly under his certainty. “I dunno,” you mumble, thinking of everything you did to fix the Bastion. You can’t pretend that you’re above violence. You learned how to be a man from the Masons, and then you went right ahead and used those lessons, didn’t you? You aren’t any different from them.
You turn back to the vineapples and get to work mashing them. There’s a long silence, during which you can’t tell whether Zulf is waiting for you to say something or just thinking his own thoughts. Finally, Zulf speaks. “Maybe I’ve said the wrong thing,” he says hesitantly. “Do you not want to be a man at all? Like Zia?”
“No. I mean—no,” you answer immediately, trying to ignore the flush creeping up the back of your neck. “That can’t be it. I mean, Zia is so sure about it. She said she couldn’t stand to be a boy anymore, and I mean… I’ve lived my whole life this way. I can stand it.” Here you are, standing it. You’ve hardly even thought about it until recently.
“What if it isn’t something you have to withstand, though?” Zulf suggests. Your mind balks at the idea of answering, so you just… don’t. Another brief silence filters through the kitchen. Then, in a quiet voice, Zulf asks, “May I share something with you?”
You turn your head just enough to look at him. His face is serious and deliberate, his hands folded tight. For a moment, there’s a part of you that wants to say no. There’s been so much weighing on you lately. But you don’t ever want Zulf to think he’s not forgiven for bringing the Ura to the Bastion, and if listening helps reassure him, then of course you’re going to listen.
“What’s up?” you ask, turning away from the applesauce once more.
Zulf inhales and exhales quietly and looks down at his hands. “For as long as I can remember,” he says, “I’ve had the occasional days when I wake up and I feel like I’m a woman.”
Your heart starts pounding and you feel like your face is hot, but Zulf doesn’t need you to respond yet. He keeps talking.
“It’s difficult to describe. It’s partially a bodily sensation, partially a mental one. But it’s very clear, as long as I let it be.” He raises his eyes to look at you. “I’ve spent a long time not letting it be clear, though.”
You swallow to try to wet your dry throat. “What do you mean?” you ask.
“The Cael missionary didn’t understand. He thought I was making it up, I suppose, so he wouldn’t let me dress in girls’ clothing or introduce myself as a girl on those days. And I trusted him, and trusted in his love for me, so after a while I convinced myself that he was right—that I wasn’t feeling what I was feeling. I managed to convince myself that it was nothing more than a vague, temporary discomfort that I couldn’t do anything about.”
You don’t say anything, but you couldn’t have looked away from Zulf if you tried. His eyes, locked on yours, are peaceful and certain.
“It’s thanks to Zia and Rucks that I’ve started to remember what that feeling is. And thanks to you that I have a chance to, of course.” He inclines his head in an expression of gratitude that’s never obligatory. “I still don’t know if there’s a moral judgment one can or should make about the phenomenon, but… if the three of you are willing to forgive me for what I did after the Calamity, this seems like a much smaller thing to forgive, in comparison. Which I suppose may be selfish,” he finishes with a self-deprecating smile. “I’m sorry.”
“…It’s OK,” you say, because you can’t imagine treating this as something that needs to be forgiven.
Another nod of gentle, sincere gratitude, and Zulf is silent. You turn back to the applesauce to stir it, thinking about everything Zulf said. It all feels far away, as if it will ensnare you if you get any closer. Your mind wanders back to Nacie’s barrette instead, and belatedly, you make a sudden connection. You look at Zulf over your shoulder.
“Rucks knows?” you ask.
Wariness passes over Zulf’s face. “He does,” he says slowly, and stops just shy of asking for an explanation.
You provide one anyway, digging the barrette out of your pocket. “I’ve been trying to—to figure out what to do with this,” you say, “because Zia won’t take it, and Rucks said it wouldn’t go with his mustache. But he said you might like it ‘in certain moods.’ I didn’t really think about what he meant at the time, but I guess he was talking about you being a woman sometimes?”
Tension draws tight across Zulf’s face for a long moment, but a deep breath smooths it out again. “I guess he was,” he says, tired irritation in his voice. “Rucks talks too much.”
“Yeah, he does,” you agree, though that’s not what’s on your mind right now, and you offer him the barrette in your open palm. “D’you want it, then?”
For the first time in days you feel a bit of hope that you’re comfortable calling hope. Maybe Zulf will take the barrette from you and you’ll stop having to think about any of this. Maybe you can put all of this behind you and get back to work.
But he looks down at the barrette sadly, then back at your face. “It belonged to someone you cared about, didn’t it?”
“Yeah, but—” It hasn’t made you think about Nacie in weeks now.
Zulf can’t know that. “Keep it,” he encourages you. “You’ll be glad you did.”
You don’t have anything you can actually say, though—not without voicing it all—and just then the squirt leans over the simmering applesauce with an eager chirp. You scoop it into your arms quickly, before it can fall in, and the conversation between you and Zulf turns to the subject of cooking, leaving the matter of the crystal barrette—and everything before that—behind. You don’t make any effort to turn it back, and eventually your pulse stops racing in your wrists and you breathe easily again.
In your dream,
you’re back on the Rippling Walls.
It’s all so familiar, but you feel a sinking in your chest, heavier than the hammer in your hands. Your lifelong friend. It’s been with you, this whole time.
“I thought I was done with this,” you mutter, and a faceless overseer looks your way as if that has nothing to do with him.
“Get to work,” he orders.
You know this. That makes it easy. Hammer, meet brick. Repeat. The other Masons work around you and you let the sound become your heartbeat as your body moves in its old rhythm. Work hard enough on the Walls and you start to be too tired to think. You know this. You remember.
You see Zia waiting up ahead, sitting on one of the foundation stones, playing an old Caelondian work song on her harp-guitar. Nacie’s with her, both of them smiling at each other like they’re sharing a private story. Your hammer starts to fall in time with Zia’s melody as you work your way closer and closer to her.
When you’re finally close enough, she looks at you instead. Her playful smile is gone. Instead, she’s serious.
“Let’s go,” she says. “Let’s get out of here. We have to know who we are.”
You remember when she left with the Ura of her own free will. You remember finding her, abandoned by them, too.
“There’s no point,” you say. You’ve paused in your work and that’s given the pain a chance to catch up to you; suddenly you’re weary, your arms aching. You hoist the hammer over your shoulder. It doesn’t help much. “I have to keep working,” you tell her.
“Why?” Nacie asks, like she always did when Falen told her he couldn’t goof off. You always thought it was sweet: you hoped she’d never have to learn what it was like to have someone else control whether she got to work or rest. You’d shoulder all the labor yourself if she got to stay innocent.
Your answer is the same as it always was: “I have to build the Walls.”
“You don’t have to,” Zia protests. “You can do whatever you want.”
You can’t. That’s never been an option for you.
“Come with us,” she says, urgently.
“I can’t.” You chose this, and you must have had a reason to; you’ve got no one to blame but yourself. “I have to build the Walls.”
“We have to go,” she says to you,
“They’ll come undone—”
And they do:
The ground rears up like a living thing and throws your whole world into the sky.
You have nothing when you come to: no hammer, no Walls. No overseer. No city crest to lead you and no stranger’s voice to follow. It’s just you on a rock in the sky. All alone with nothing but your own body, but it’s softer than it’s ever been, rounder—
For a moment, all you can do is look down at the gentle curve of your chest, wondering why it doesn’t feel surprising or strange in the way your normal body sometimes does. It just feels natural. Like it’s supposed to be exactly like this.
When you’re finally able to tear your eyes away, you look up. In the distance you can see the Bastion; waiting on it, you can see Zia and Zulf and Rucks. They’ve all made it there already and they don’t need you to save them anymore. They’re all waiting for you. You feel yourself smile. A skyway opens at your feet, and you give yourself to the wind.
You wake up in your bedroll on the Bastion in the middle of the night, and this time it’s all too clear to forget. Too clear to deny. You lie there, staring up at the stars in the sky above you, your jaw clenched with the effort of keeping your lip from trembling. But your blanket can’t keep you from shivering, because the problem isn’t the cold.
You get up.
You take one more look at the stars as if they might guide you, you check your pocket, and then you go to the lost-and-found.
There’s nothing left in here; the Bastion is far away from anything that it might sweep up to be fixed. Zulf has suggested that you turn it into a storehouse, and you probably will once the Bastion’s gardens are producing more than the bare minimum. For now, though, it’s empty and quiet. When you light a lantern, the firelight bounces off the back windows and you can see your own reflection. It’s not something you go out of your way to look at; you’ve never been too fond of your face. But right now, it’s what you’re aiming for. You fish Nacie’s barrette out of your pocket and for a long moment you stare into the crystals, remembering her, remembering what your life used to be like.
Then you rake a section of your hair back with shaking fingers and snap the barrette into place around it. You screw your eyes shut for a long, bracing moment, and then, when you feel brave enough, you look towards the reflection in the window and you see—
Just you, the same as ever.
Just you, wearing a barrette that’s too dainty for your face, let alone the shoulders of a Mason and a murderer. Anger rises like bile in your throat. You don’t look like a girl. The anxiety that’s plagued you for weeks, seeping into your dreams, eating away at you—did you think this stupid thing had some kind of magical power, that it was going to transform you? Did you come in here thinking you were going to find answers?
Your reflection’s face crumples and then you can’t look at it anymore; you bring clenched fists up to your eyes and you start to bawl like you haven’t in years. You cry so hard you can barely breathe. You’ve been afraid, you realize, you’ve been terrified of this stupid thing because you’ve thought that it was going to tell you something you couldn’t bear to know. But it’s just a trinket. Just a memento of someone you lost. It doesn’t have any power, and now that you’re seeing that you’re just the same as always, you feel like your heart is breaking.
You wanted it to make you into a girl. You wanted it to, and it didn’t work, but what does it mean that you wanted it to? The answer makes you sob, curling in on yourself as your shoulders shudder. Something pulls at your scalp as you do: the barrette, almost falling off because you don’t even know how to put it on right. You pull it out of your hair roughly, angrily, and it takes everything you have not to let out a wail. This thing can’t make you a girl. Nothing’s going to just make you a girl, nothing, nothing—
But what’s going to stop you?
You catch your breath at the dizzying thought.
If nothing stops you—if Zia and Zulf and Rucks all say it’s OK—what if you get to just have this? What if after all your work looking after your mom, all your work on the Walls, all your work for the Bastion—all those years spent living under other people’s definitions of you—you get to decide what to be on your own?
Dawn is only a pale gray line on the horizon when you creep out of the lost-and-found and towards Zia’s tent. “Zia?” you call, not loud enough to wake her if she’s sleeping, but you hope she’s not.
You get lucky: there’s a rustle from inside the tent, and then she pulls back the tent flap. “What is it?” she asks, as quiet as you are.
Her face is wary, but truthfully you hardly look her in the eye right now. In her light nightclothes—without the many layers of traditional Ura clothing—you can see clearly that her chest is as flat as yours, her hips without curve. She catches you looking and wraps her free arm around her torso to hide its shape. Her mouth pinches into a hard line. “What?” she says again.
You meant to just tell her, to see what happens when the words leave your mouth and someone else hears them, but now that you look at her you can’t get the words out. You can feel your heart pounding in your throat, reminding you that you’ve been an asshole to her for days and you don’t deserve anything from her. With effort, you manage to squeeze out, “I’m so sorry—”
And then more tears are spilling down your face and the way you sniffle doesn’t keep snot from dripping out of your nose, and Zia’s pulling you into her arms and into her tent. You wrap your arms around her in return, helplessly, holding onto her tight even though you’re embarrassed to be crying this hard, again.
“Zia—” you croak, and it’s easier to get the words out with your face buried in her shoulder than it was when you were looking her in the eyes. “Zia, I th-think I’m a girl.”
You’re terrified of the moment it’ll take for her to understand you, the horrible wait between you confessing it and her telling you that you’re wrong, or even that you’re right, or that she doesn’t care at all—
But her arms tighten around you before you even finish speaking, and she answers right away with a gentle, firm, “OK.” She kisses your temple softly. “OK, kid.”
You start sobbing all over again, overwhelmed. Exhausted. You’ve spent years not knowing this, hiding the desire from yourself so that you didn’t have to feel the ache of its impossibility, and now Zia’s accepting it like it’s the easiest thing in the world. Like it can be true just because you want it to be. Just like that.
She rubs your back as you soak her pajamas with your tears. “You want to sit down?” she asks, and you nod with a long sniff, and the two of you sit down together on her bed. “Do you have that barrette with you? Is it okay if I put it in your hair?”
You dig it out of your pocket, and with the same unassuming gentleness as the first time she twists a lock of your hair back and fastens the barrette into place. She pulls out her mirror and lets you see yourself, her head leaned affectionately on your shoulder.
“There you are,” she says with a smile that lights her whole face.
You hold your breath and look down at the mirror—and this time, your reflection looks a little better, the barrette tucked halfway behind your ear. Maybe you just didn’t put it in right before; maybe that was all. Your shoulders shake with something between a laugh and a sob. But your reflection looks like it’s smiling.
All of a sudden, Zia wraps her arms around you again and squeezes your shoulders. “I have so many questions,” she confesses, and you think you hear excitement in her voice. “I’ve never met someone like me before. Rucks is fine, but he’s been living like he wants to for so long, and his life has been so different. Did I make you realize it?”
You don’t have the energy to be as eager as she is, and the smile you answer with is a bit more like a wince. “Yeah, kind of,” you admit. “Ever since you put this thing on me…”
The delight fades from her face as she hears your answer. “I’m sorry. Has it been painful?”
You shrug. It’s been what it’s been, and you’ve gotten through plenty of hard stuff before. Only this time you didn’t have any defenses to put up, and it wasn’t exactly an issue you could solve by pulverizing it with your hammer. …It certainly hasn’t been fun.
Zia doesn’t make you explain. “Want me to save my questions for later?” she asks. “It’s a lot, isn’t it?”
You swallow. “Yeah.”
“OK.” She looks you in the face and traces her fingers over the barrette, her other hand cupping your chin. “Are you happy now, though?”
For a minute, you’re not even sure. You’ve been running for so long: throwing yourself into duty after duty, working yourself into exhaustion, giving yourself up to others’ orders so that you’d never have any time alone with this knowledge. And now there’s no chance of running anymore. But that also means there are no duties to fill, hardly any work to do at all; there’s no one here on the Bastion who’s going to stop you from being what you want.
Now you’re just a kid with your own life to live. And it’s terrifying, but you think you’re going to be able to face it.
“I think…” you say, “I think I’m gonna be happy.”
“Good.” Another one of those stunning smiles. “I think you are too.”
She lies back on the bed and then, with a tug on your hand, invites you to lie next to her. The two of you wind up on your sides, facing each other, and your heart pounds as you dare to hope for one last impossibility.
“Zia,” you say—you mean to murmur it but you’re hoarse from crying so it comes out unevenly. “Can I kiss you? Even if I’m not a…”
You trail off when you see a smile spread up her face, her cheeks tinted pink. She leans in, hesitates—then leans in just that last little bit and brings her lips to yours. It’s gentle, and kind. Everything you ever hoped a kiss would be. Everything you hoped you might have a chance to be, someday.
You feel like you’re blushing when you pull back. “So… it’s OK?” you ask. “Even if I’m not a man? I don’t want to force you…”
Zia gives her head a little shake. “That doesn’t matter to me,” she says. “And… I’m not really surprised, actually.”
Alarm crosses your face as you wonder how you could have given yourself away without realizing the truth yourself, and Zia gives a little chuckle.
“After our fight,” she explains, “Rucks… thought this might be the case. Because you said that everyone would be a girl if they could. Apparently most people don’t feel that way, so he thought that just maybe…”
Now you’re definitely blushing. “Rucks talks too much,” you grumble, and it’s embarrassing, but it’s a bit of a relief, too.
“Yes, he does.” She wraps her arm around you and pulls you closer. “He’ll be happy for you, you know. Zulf, too.”
Yeah, you know they will.
That’s how things are here on the Bastion.
The four of you have quite a conversation over a breakfast of vineapplesauce that morning.
It just so happens that Zulf is having a female day, so when Zia helps you explain yourself, Zulf tells Zia about herself as well. Rucks gives a sarcastic groan: “Are you tellin’ me I’m outnumbered today?”
“You’ll have to get used to it,” laughs Zia, who isn’t alone anymore, and you think you even see Zulf smile.
You stack everyone’s dishes as they finish eating, and Rucks casts an assessing gaze your way. “So that’s why you never minded me callin’ you ‘kid,’” he muses. “You lookin’ for a new name?”
It hadn’t occurred to you that that might be an option. “I don’t know where to begin,” you say.
“I might be able to dig something up, if you’re interested. There are some fine lady heroes in the legends of the motherland.” He cocks an eyebrow at you. “Unless you’d like to take a look through some of my books yourself.”
“Nope, no thank you.” Any name you have to study to find would not be a good fit for you to begin with.
Rucks’ mustache twitches with a smirk. “Well, suit yourself.”
You try to stand, to take care of the dishes. But Zia catches your hand before you can and pulls you back down next to her. Once you’re seated again, she still doesn’t let go of your hand.
So you lean against her, and you relax.