Luc looked older than he had yesterday, a little of his sweet, carefree nature replaced with something more serious. To my surprise, it fit him.
“I think I should stay with him,” Rocco said, breaking the silence. He turned to Stellan and me. “I’d like your permission to do so.”
I glanced up at Stellan, and he nodded. “We’ll all stay,” I said. “It seems like the best thing we could do at this point is stick together.”
Slowly, everyone agreed.
We all went in various directions, to change out of their funeral attire, or to get food, to assess the situation outside, or, in the case of Stellan and Luc, to check on their little siblings. I was sitting on a couch flipping between news stations reporting rioting all over the world when Stellan came back into the room. He sat beside me.
“How’s Anya?” I said.
“Overwhelmed. Tired. But fine.”
“When I said I don’t think we should leave,” I said, “I didn’t mean you. You’re a different circumstance.”
Stellan had taken off his suit coat, and his tie hung loosely around his neck. He worked it the rest of the way off and tossed it onto the back of the sofa. “Do you want me to leave?”
I watched the footage of protesters in masks, shouting angrily and holding up signs in a language I couldn’t understand. People worried that their government wasn’t doing more, it appeared from the English headline. The virus had only actually killed a few dozen people at this point. I couldn’t imagine what would happen if it got spread more widely. “I want you to do whatever’s best for you and Anya,” I said.
Stellan rolled something small between his palms and waited so long to answer, I didn’t think he was going to. “What do you want for you?”
I wondered, just for a second, whether I should rethink not telling him how I felt.
Obviously I want you to stay here, I’d say. I wanted that even before I realized how I felt about you, and now I can’t stop thinking about how there is something between us, and it’s been growing fast. I wish there was time for more than a few illicit kisses and a lot of hard decisions. I don’t want to do this alone.
I’d decided to fight for the Circle. I wished I could convince myself it would be right to fight for him, too.
“If it was entirely up to me, I’d want you to stay, of course,” I said evenly. “But there’s a lot more to it than that. Whatever you choose, I understand.”
He rested his elbows on his knees. I finally saw what was in his hand: a small red block. It must have been what Anya had been playing with upstairs. “Thank you,” he said. “I don’t think you know how much I appreciate you letting me make that choice.”
“Yeah,” I said as a girl whose choices had been made for her her whole life. “I do.”
The expression on Stellan’s face was one I could only call tortured. From my side, he was leaving me, but from his side, it was more than that. He was leaving nearly everyone he cared about to keep one person safe. I’d been comparing my own decision to stay or go to my mom’s, but really, his was exactly like the one she’d made seventeen years ago. He sat up and shifted, and his knee touched mine.
“There are so many toys here,” he said, holding out the block. “Every time I go upstairs, Anya has a new favorite thing. And I’ve known Dahlia, the nanny, for years. Anya trusts her already. Which is especially fortunate since I have no clue how to take care of a seven-year-old girl.”
That was not something he should worry about. He’d learn fast. I shifted closer so my hip touched his. As we watched Japan declare a state of emergency on TV, and the United States close its borders, “just until things are cleared up,” he settled his hand on my thigh.
Stellan’s forearms, like the rest of him, were slim but hard, powerful and graceful. I put a hand over his and traced the map of veins and scars and scrapes there. His long fingers tightened on my leg.
I was just about to decide that there were worse ways to spend what could be my last evening on this planet when he said, “Why did you come to Russia? You didn’t have to.”
My fingers tightened over his. “I—”
The doors to the library burst open. Stellan smoothly moved his hand, and Luc, Colette, and Elodie burst inside, carrying a pyramid of multicolored macarons, topped off with sparklers.
“Bon anniversaire!” they shouted.
What is this?” I scrambled to my feet.
“I heard there’s a very important birthday today.” Elodie batted a spark away from Colette’s hair. “I guess the birthday girl forgot to tell us.”
“You guys, no,” I protested as they brought the macaron cake to the coffee table in front of me and the sparklers sizzled and flashed. “We can’t have a party with all this going on.”
Elodie pointed a finger in my face. “Avery June West. Korolev. Whatever. If you’re going to be part of the Circle, you have a very important lesson to learn, and that’s that you sometimes have to take your happiness where you can find it. The world is literally falling apart. There is nothing we can do about it tonight besides what we’ve already done and planned.”
“And—sorry, but it’s true—you might die tomorrow,” Luc added. Everyone frowned at him. “We all might! The Circle could turn on us at any moment. An asteroid could hit Paris. There could be a zombie apocalypse! Who knows?”
Elodie nodded. “Exactly. So we could sit around all night and worry, or we could have a party.”
She and Luc high-fived solemnly.
“I—” I didn’t know what to say. Colette and Luc took it as agreement and broke into the happy birthday song in French. I tried in vain to blow out the sparklers.