Natalie drifted through the Tower, so lost in thought she barely noticed the other people in the corridors. After almost stumbling into an older Seneschal, she paused and looked around. She was near the dining hall. After a moment’s hesitation, she went through one of the big doors into the kitchen.
The huge kitchen had been modernized repeatedly over the centuries. Stainless steel replaced many of the old surfaces, but the marble cutting boards and ancient wooden tables and cupboards remained from past generations. Several adults prepped components for the afternoon meal, and several children, including Kaylee and Logan, sat at a low table doing schoolwork. Natalie remembered when she and Seth had sat at that table, exploring Prydain and wizarding school and fractions amidst the scents of fresh bread and cinnamon, sizzling onions and roasting meat, and the spicy green scent of herbs drifting in from the sliding screen open to the kitchen garden just outside.
Her mother Valeria, who handled some of the baking and some of the accounts for the kitchen, smiled at her. “Natalie. What brings you here?”
“I… don’t really know. I was walking around and I saw the kitchen and I thought I’d say hi.” Natalie hugged her elbows.
“Hmm,” said Valeria, in that way she had. “Come knead some bread.” She turned a bowl of dough out onto a floured work surface and slapped it.
Obediently, Natalie washed her hands and started folding and pushing the dough. Valeria stood beside her, working on another lump of dough. After a few moments of work, her mother said, “It’s been a hard few days.”
“I know,” burst out Natalie. “It’s been horrible. So why, in the midst of all this awfulness, of all the things to worry about, am I worrying about a boy?”
“Why are we making bread?”
“Eating is important,” pointed out Natalie.
Valeria smiled at her dough. “So are relationships. Life goes on, sweetheart. We wait for the community to make a decision and we take care of our own lives.”
Natalie scowled at the dough and stretched a long bit out. “I feel like I should be doing more. But everything I do seems likely to cause more trouble. I don’t like being a troublemaker.”
“I love your brother dearly, but I’m grateful that you feel that way,” said Valeria dryly. When Natalie glanced at her sharply, she added, “You’ve always taken care of Seth, but we know.”
Natalie mumbled, “For most of his life he was shorter than me. You have to look after people shorter than you.” She thought of Ajax, who’d probably never been shorter than her, and blushed.
Her mother noticed. “The new boy is taller than you, but you’re trying to take care of him, too.”
Slowly, Natalie said, “I don’t know. I’m starting to think he can take care of himself.”
“He certainly seems like an intense young man.” Valeria concentrated on her work.
“Yes.” Natalie stopped kneading, staring at the smooth, pale expanse of dough. She thought about her father. Jake and Valeria were both Tower-born; they’d grown up together, alongside Kiley. Then she found herself thinking about the benefits of being born in the Tower, of growing up protected from monsters, with power and safety and a community.
Her mother reached over and pulled the dough out from under her still hands and gave her a new round of dough. “Rolls, please.”
Natalie’s hands began to move on automatic, breaking off pieces of dough and folding them into dinner rolls. “Dad isn’t very intense.”
“Nope. He can be, of course, but he’s inclined to let other people do the heavy lifting when it comes to worrying.” Valeria blew a strand of hair that had escaped her bun out of her face. “He was a good Nightlight, but he retired younger than most.”
“How about you?”
“I only retired to have you,” said Valeria, with a dangerous little smile.
Natalie hesitated. She felt like she was edging around a deep pit, but she had to know. “Why did you end up with Dad?”
Valeria’s smile faded. “Oh, sweetheart.” She met Natalie’s eyes for a long moment, then said, “Because I liked him more than anybody else I could find. Because he was stable, and I trusted him. That mattered quite a bit to me, when I was making a choice.”
Natalie shifted awkwardly, then concentrated ferociously on the dough. Her mother kissed her father everyday when he left for work. “But you’re happy with him, right?”
“Oh yes,” Valeria assured her. “I got exactly what I th— wanted.” She smiled. “How could I not be happy with him? With him, I had you kids.” Natalie automatically discarded that part. It was mom talk. Natalie was pretty sure her mom would cherish her if she was half three-headed monster.
She didn’t know why the rest of the conversation made her so uncomfortable, or why she’d started it. It wasn’t like she wanted her parents to be passionately in love. She was happy to think that Kaylee and Logan had been presents of the stork, and a kiss at the door was about all she could handle. But she kept thinking of Ajax, and how he was the exact opposite of what her mother had chosen.
“Of course, I had another advantage in choosing your father. I knew him about as well as it’s possible to know a person. Because we had such a stable life together, his character was pretty fixed. I had a good idea of who he was and who he was going to be by the time he was seventeen. There were no… adventures of discovery. I didn’t have to do any work to find out if he was who I wanted to be with.” Valeria shook her head ruefully.
Natalie remembered how her heart had raced when Ajax had touched her cheek, and her shock when he’d told her he’d never leave the Tower while she was there. Then she plunged her hands to her wrists in the remaining dough. She had to sort this out. Ajax was getting in the way of everything.