And just like that, it's the end. The judge adjourns, papers are passed, the people file out, and it's...done.
Niska acquitted from her worst crimes, found according to her newly acquired human rights to have been acting in self-defence, and under circumstances mitigated by her prior treatment. Other charges dropped against Synths who'd been subject to Hobb's programming. A few found guilty, but not sentenced to recycling. Human punishment for human beings - Niska and her friends face jail time, but they'll keep what are now judicially recognised as their lives.
Better than they'd dared hope. That happens, sometimes, as it turns out.
There'd been other endings, too, of course. Fred's gone. Hobb, as well, though no-one's weeping over his gravestone, not even family. A monster to the last. Mia's...somewhere out there, healing, forgiving. She'll be back. Max is still here, though he isn't quite Max anymore.
But maybe that's not so bad, Mattie thinks. They're none of them who they were at the beginning.
Her mother waits for her outside the courthouse, her brother and father already in the car, ready to pick up Sophie from the babysitter's on the way home. Mattie just shakes her head, mute. Laura understands.
"Remember," she says as she pulls back from the goodbye hug, the victory hug, whatever it is. "He's not your problem to solve."
If there's one thing Mattie doesn't need to be told, it's that.
She finds him still seated, one of the court ushers beelining to where he's slumped in a chair, on the top tier. Mattie watches as he allows himself to be gently lead away, even though the Leo she'd always known would have flinched to the touch and then bolted, as if leaving was his own idea. He's still in there, though. She won't believe he isn't.
She intercepts him on the way to the double doors, smiles even though the shell of him makes her want to cry instead. He can't have slept for days, and every second of it looks like a decade now; there are men in their nineties glad they don't look so worn, so beaten down. So this is victory, Mattie thinks. It isn't glorious, it's an unravelling.
"I need a drink," he says, to her or to the doors, she can't tell, but he doesn't seem to mind that she follows him to the car.
Mattie sits next to him at a bar where she can't hear herself think, suspects he's chosen it on purpose so she can't talk him out of his wallowing. She wonders if she would have tried to, had they been somewhere quieter. Probably. Oh well, he's saved her the trouble of failing.
He's not drinking to forget though, she decides, not aiming for a drunken stupor where nothing will hurt until morning. He's too careful for that, too slow. He drinks like every drop burns, like it's an effort, like the bottle is a sentence he's just got to see through to the end. Mattie sips until she doesn't feel like it anymore, and then just waits for him. Smoking's her vice of choice, and she's not interested in starting a collection.
Out on the street he pauses by the driver's door, looks down in what might be surprise at his shaking hands. It's not cold enough for shivering. Mattie finds out what a man looks like in the moment where he realises he's losing, losing a grip that was never so strong to start with.
"'S'okay," she tells him. "I'll drive."
"Can you?" He hands her the key, as if the answer to the question doesn't matter.
"Twenty-one now," she reminds him. "All grown up."
And not insured to drive this particular car, she adds silently, but probably neither are you.
"Where to?" she asks, like she's a taxi driver and he's a stranger. It's half true. Five years, but most of that time spent fighting different corners of the same side - her on the home front, him in the line of fire. Paths that only crossed in desperate times.
Mattie's been escaping since she was three years old and didn't want a little brother. She knows 'away'. She drives there.
Roads, motorway, roads, a public footpath, a touch of what some might call trespassing. Then a steep hill that Leo looks for all the world as if he'll refuse to walk down, but Mattie doesn't argue, doesn't wait, just walks. He follows.
It's her favourite bit of coastline, bereft, forgotten. It looks like being fifteen again. She almost expects to see herself wandering along the beach, six years younger, beginning to regret not bringing a cardigan when she'd stalked away from the family picnic. What had she been so angry about? She can't remember now.
Leo's staring out to sea, a blue expanse that would look murkier if it wasn't contrasted with the grey of the clouds. "It looked better in pictures," he remarks.
"Things always do," she says. When they'd first met, this would have been a conversation she'd have relished. You've never been to a beach before? How come? Didn't you ever wonder what it was like? But too much time has passed between them, around them. Too much time has passed them by entirely.
"Why are we here?" he asks, treading forward, the large pebbles shifting to carry his weight.
She shrugs into the wind. "You just said 'away'. This is my favourite place in the world, as it happens."
He looks back at her. "Then we should leave. I'll only turn it sour for you. Or you can stay, I'll go. I'm no company today."
You were never that, she wants to joke, but bites down on it. "Doesn't matter."
He turns back to the sea. Later he bends to pick up a pebble, smooths it with his thumb, and then pulls back his arm as if he's about to launch it into the water. But at the last moment his arm drops, the pebble falls to join the others with a sharp clicking sound.
Mattie walks to join him.
"It all just seems--pointless."
She doesn't answer, can hear from his voice that he isn't finished.
"All of it. It was only ever to keep them safe, to keep us together. And it didn't do that, so what....what point is there."
"You're all human now," she reminds him softly. "By law. Protected. That's something, isn't it?"
"It's not Fred," he says, and she can't argue with that. She remembers the last time she saw Leo's brother, those frightened eyes, knowing what was coming. Not liking it. So scared, but unable even to let someone close enough to hold his hand.
"He would have understood why."
There's more to that than Mattie understands, so she just quietly says, "No."
The next pebble he picks up barely makes it to waist height before his hand drops, trembling again, though this time it's cold enough for excuses, if he wants them.
"Come on," Mattie says, and she makes for the pontoon visible further down the beach. The waves are picking up for the evening tide, and the pontoon rocks unsteadily as she sets foot on it, forcing her to stretch out her arms momentarily in order to balance. Halfway along, she turns around carefully, watches him test one foot on the edge, where it joins the beach.
She's seen him around water before - he treats it with respect but not fear. He knows what it can do, and what it can't. Still, perhaps he hadn't bargained on something as big as the sea.
She heads back towards him. "You don't have to walk on it if you don't want to. It's peaceful, that's all. Once you get used to it. There's a rhythm."
He steps up onto the pontoon, but doesn't come any further. "It's stupid," he says, and she thinks he's talking about his reaction to the water at first, drafts a reassuring response. But then, "I should be...glad. Today was the best it could have been. Your mum worked so hard for us." He turns to study the cliff edge that stretches behind them, rugged and grey-brown, misshapen. Tired. "I don't want you to think I'm not grateful."
"I don't," she says immediately, upset that he doesn't know it already. She touches his arm. "Leo, I don't. Mum understands, we all do. Just because the trial went well doesn't mean... You've still lost so much."
Finally he looks back at her, then past her, as if meeting her eyes is a chore. "I'm not the only one, though. If Mia..."
"She'll come back," Mattie says, as lightly as she can without sounding insincere. With anyone else it would be questionable, but Mia's different. Loyalty pervades everything she is; it's in the blood she's never needed to keep her heart beating for her surrogate son.
"She doesn't have to."
"No, but she will." She must.
A wave creeps up on stealth, throws Mattie forwards a little. She sees the alarm in his eyes as he goes to save her, but she rights herself easily, laughs. "This bit's the worst. It gets wider as it goes out. Coming?"
She takes his hand, and it hangs so limply that she plans to drop it as soon as they're halfway down the pontoon, but by the time they're on the steadier surface he's holding on properly, not a desperate cling, just...there. Comfortable.
The waves roll in and out, rocking them, bobbing them up and down. Mattie's ears ring with memories of childhood laughter, she can see Toby jumping madly, trying to make the rocking more violent but failing to make any difference at all. That's the nice thing about the sea. It doesn't care what you do, it's going where it's going. Mattie's always admired direction.
They carry on walking, out where the pontoon is wide enough to walk side-by-side without fearing the edges. We probably look like lovers, Mattie realises, as their linked hands tighten against the wobble of another wave. Once upon a time she might have been entertained by the thought of people making that assumption. Out here there's no-one around to mistake them for anything but what they are: drifters. Relics of a movement that didn't save everyone. Haunted by their martyrs. Surviving.
The very end of the pontoon is as volatile as its root, and Mattie stands as near as she dares, shivering each time the chilly water laps against her shoes. It's the feeling of being cut off she likes the most, out here where she can pretend that the platform she's standing on isn't anchored to the beach, that it could take her anywhere.
Leo isn't so reckless, and stops walking a touch further backwards, letting go of her hand. Mattie sits down, cross-legged at the edge, noting how much more powerful the waves feel now that she's closer to them. She looks up at him, pats the space next to her. "Don't stand on ceremony."
He surprises her by lowering himself all the way, not sitting but lying flat on his back, totally at the mercy of the sea's pulse. He folds his arms behind his head and looks up at the clouds, and she can't help but smile as she watches him. He has a way of returning to a state of innocence that makes her forget he's got more issues than hairs on his head and a computer for a brain. He could be a child, bobbing out to sea.
"See what I mean? Rhythm."
He smiles and closes his eyes. "Max would love it here."
"We'll bring him, then. As soon as he's up to it."
"He's up to it now. He just won't know what's going on."
"He'll get better."
"You don't know that." It's not argumentative, just resigned. "He'll never be Max again, either way."
Too much damage this time. Not to his consciousness, nothing the magical tree of life can fix. Something deeper, more personal, and infinitely more sad.
"You did the best you could."
He doesn't need to tell her his best wasn't enough; she knows already. He sits up instead, and inches closer to her. He'll never close the gap himself, but Mattie isn't as guarded, she shifts ever so slightly so that she's leaning against him, just barely. Just enough.
"I can't stop thinking about Niska," he says, and his voice breaks. Mattie's filled with a sudden ache, for his sister as much as for him. "I can't..."
Niska isn't here for Mattie to offer feeble comforts to, so she wraps her arms around Leo instead, struck by how warm he is against the cold sea breeze. "I know."
"I trusted him," he chokes out. "I knew he wasn't perfect--"
"But he was your dad," she finishes for him, aware it's too difficult to say. The trial had dragged it out of Niska, dissecting all her answers until only the truth remained to be told. No detail was to be spared, the defence attorney claimed, if she wanted to escape the murder charge. Why that punter, out of all of them? Why was he your score to settle? Because, Niska had said, voice wavering after three straight hours of crisp and cold, he reminded me of my father.
"She kept it a secret," he says, pulling away from Mattie, gentle but determined. "Why would she do that?"
She senses that the question isn't addressed to her. He knows, really. He knows why.
"I hate him. I've never said that before. I used to think whatever he'd done wrong, however sidelined we were, at least he'd made us. Made them, remade me. And he was my blood, even before that."
"You're better than your blood. You're not him."
"I know I'm not. I'm more Mia's than I was ever his, more Maxie's, more Fred's."
"And Niska's too."
"I don't know anymore. She's..."
"She's not a stranger," Mattie says, angrier than she'd realised. "She didn't owe it to you to cope in a certain way."
"I wasn't going to say that. I was going to say she's so much...more, than I ever realised. The things I thought I'd learnt from her are not what she was trying to teach me, all this time."
Mattie breathes, puts her hand over his, an apology by fingertips. "Sorry. I didn't mean to snap at you. I just..."
"Yeah. Me too."
A large wave heads for them, and Mattie shuffles back in readiness, pulling him with her. Still, some cold water reaches up and sends shivers through them. Mattie huddles into her jacket. "Tide's coming in."
"How long have we got?"
"Not sure. A little while."
"Then let's stay here. You were right. It's...it's a good place."
Mattie nods. The waves continue to grow, slowly, slowly. Going where they're going.
"From tomorrow," she says quietly, "it'll be easier. Today was going to be awful however it turned out."
"Where are you going to go?"
"Don't know. Somewhere new, I hope."
Mattie thinks of her life, her dorm and her roommates, the schedule of lectures and parties and working and sleeping that pulls her through the days. She almost says, Take me with you. But now is not the time to ask for a position of baggage. What he needs is space.
"I don't know how to live a normal life, Matilda. I've never done it."
"It's easy. You just...get on with it."
"With what, though? Everybody's got their purpose sorted out already. Mine was always them, to make sure they were safe. And they're as safe as they can be now. As safe as they want to be. Nis can get into whatever trouble she wants, but she knows she'll be recognised for it herself now, not some modder with a laptop. Maybe that's all she wanted, really."
"Don't we all," Mattie says slowly, "just want to be recognised? What's the point, if you're not accountable for anything."
"Well, yeah. That's what I meant."
"She's only human."
"As human as you and me."
"Yeah." She grins. "Though you're not the best example, to be fair."
He laughs, and it becomes her favourite sound on the strength of that single audition. "True."
A small while passes, before they are drenched by a wave that means business. Mattie scrambles to her feet. "Time's up, I think. God, that's cold."
He joins her. "I'll never be warm again," he says, mock-mournfully.
They begin to walk back down the pontoon, and she presses close to him, not falling into single file even on the narrow strip. "Am I making you colder or warmer if I do this?"
"Neither," he says decidedly. "Just wetter."
They pause on the base of the pontoon's neck, where the pebbles are visible through the shallowest water. He looks down at her and smiles. "You do have a good taste in beaches though."
"You wouldn't know a good beach from a rubbish one," she counters. "You've only seen pictures."
"No need to rub it in."
A wave jolts them, a shove to remind them that the tide will not be patient forever. They end up thrown even closer together, steadying each other. Mattie only has to raise her heels to close the gap between their lips.
It's fire. But it's a small flame amongst the water that surrounds them, and it dies just as quickly. He pulls away, looks at her so seriously it's almost stern. "We can't."
"Why not?" she asks, willing her voice not to tremble.
"I'm not what you need. I never have been."
"You don't get to decide that, not today."
"No, let me be accountable. Because I will be, either way." Perhaps it's low of her to quote a conversation that hadn't been about this, but she'll clutch at whatever straws she can reach. This isn't slipping away from her. Not this time.
"Everyone I touch gets hurt," he says, despairing. It sounds like he really believes it.
"That's an old line and it's not true for anybody. It's bullshit, and you know it."
"Not everyone, then. But so many, and if there's anyone I want to be spared..."
"I don't want you to spare me," she says, locking his eyes with hers, daring him to break the contact first. "I had my normal childhood, I had the time to grow. I'm not sixteen anymore."
"And I make my own decisions. So have you got a better excuse against this one? Because I'm not hearing any."
He breathes out. "I'm sorry. Maybe I'm just scared."
"Of getting it wrong."
She laughs in relief, and pulls him close again. "That's what it is. That's that normal life you were asking about. Welcome to normality: nobody's perfect. No human, anyway."
"I thought you said I wasn't the best example of that," he says, but his lip curls in something that's going to be a smile, if she just waits for it.
"I meant it." Tiptoes again. "But you're the best one I've found so far."
This time he's the one to close the distance, and she kisses him back as if the sea's about to engulf them. It will, if they stay any longer. They run up the beach hand in hand, and just like that, it's the beginning.