“I appreciate the offer,” Bobbie said. “But it may be a while before I know if I want to take it.”

“What will you do, then? Next, I mean.”

“I’m going home,” she said. “I want to see my family. My dad. I think I’ll stay there for a while. Figure out who I am. How to start over. Like that.”

“The door’s open, Bobbie. Whenever you want it, the door is open.”

The flight back to Luna was a pain in the ass. Avasarala spent seven hours a day in her crash couch, sending messages back and forth against different levels of lag. On Earth, Sadavir Errinwright was quietly celebrated, his career with the UN honored with a small and private ceremony, and then he went off to spend more time with his family or farm chickens or whatever he was going to do with the remaining decades until death. Whatever it was, it wouldn’t involve wielding political power.

The investigation into the Io base was ongoing, and heads were quietly rolling on Earth. But not on Mars. Whoever in the Martian government had been bidding against Errinwright, they were going to get away with it. By losing the most powerful biological weapon in human history, they’d saved their own careers. Politics was full of little ironies like that.

Avasarala put together her own new office in absentia. By the time she stepped into it, it would already have been running for a month. It felt like driving a car while sitting in the backseat. She hated it.

In addition, Mei Meng had decided she was funny, and spent part of each day monopolizing her attention. She didn’t have time to play with a little girl, except that of course she did. So she did. And she had to exercise so that they wouldn’t have to put her in a nursing home when she got back to a full g. The steroid cocktail gave her hot flashes and made it hard to sleep. Both her granddaughters had birthdays she could attend only on a screen. One had twenty minutes’ lag; one had four.

When they passed the cloud of protomolecule monsters speeding in toward the sun, she had nightmares for two nights running, but they gradually stopped. Every one of them was being tracked by two governments, and Errinwright’s little packets of death were all quiescent and speeding quietly and happily toward their own destruction.

She couldn’t wait to be home.

When they docked on Luna, it was like a starving woman with a slice of apple touched to her lips, but not allowed to bite. The soft blue and white of the daylight planet, the black and gold of night. It was a beautiful world. Unmatched in the solar system. Her garden was down there. Her office. Her own bed.

But Arjun was not.

He was waiting for her on the landing pad in his best suit with a spray of fresh lilacs in his hand. The low gravity made him look younger too, if a little bloodshot about the eyes. She could feel the curiosity of Holden and his crew as she walked toward him. Who was this man that he could stand to be married to someone as abrasive and hard as Chrisjen Avasarala? Was this her master or her victim? How would that even work?

“Welcome home,” Arjun said softly as she leaned into his arms.

He smelled like himself. She put her head against his shoulder, and she didn’t need Earth so badly any longer.

This was home enough.

Chapter Fifty-Three: Holden

Hi, Mom. We’re on Luna!”

The light delay from Luna was less than six seconds for a round trip, but it was enough to add an awkward pause before each response. Mother Elise stared out at him from his hotel room’s video screen for five long heartbeats; then her face lit up. “Jimmy! Are you coming down?”

She meant down the well. Coming home. Holden felt an ache to do exactly that. It had been years since he’d been to the farm in Montana that his parents owned. But this time he had Naomi with him, and Belters didn’t go to Earth. “No, Mom, not this time. But I want all of you to come meet me up here. The shuttle ride is my treat. And UN Undersecretary Avasarala is hosting, so the accommodations are pretty posh.”

When there was comm lag, it was difficult not to ramble on. The other person never sent the subtle physical cues that signaled it was their turn to talk. Holden forced himself to stop babbling and wait for a reply. Elise stared at the screen, waiting out the lag. Holden could see how much she’d aged in the years since his last trip home. Her dark brown, almost black, hair was streaked with gray, and the laugh lines around her eyes and mouth had deepened. After five seconds, she waved a hand at the screen in a dismissive gesture. “Oh, Tom will never ride a shuttle to Luna. You know that. He hates microgravity. Just come down and see us here. We’ll throw a party. You can bring your friends here.”

Holden smiled at her. “Mom, I need you guys to come up here because I have someone I want you to meet. Remember the woman? Naomi Nagata, the one I told you about? I told you I’ve been seeing her. I think it might be more than that. In fact, I’m kind of sure about it now. And now we’ll be on Luna while a whole lot of political bullshit gets straightened out. I really want you guys to come up. See me, meet Naomi.”

It was almost too subtle to catch, the way his mother flinched five seconds later. She covered it with a big smile. “More than that? What does that mean? Like, getting married? I always thought you’d want kids of your own someday …” She trailed off, maintaining an uncomfortably stiff smile.

“Mom,” Holden said. “Earthers and Belters can have kids just fine. We’re not a different species.”

“Sure,” she said a few seconds later, nodding too quickly. “But if you have children out there —” She stopped, her smile fading a bit.

“Then they’ll be Belters,” Holden said. “Yeah, you guys are just going to have to be okay with that.”

After five seconds, she nodded. Again, too quickly. “Then I guess we better come up and meet this woman you’re willing to leave Earth behind for. She must be very special.”

“Yeah,” Holden said. “She is.”

Elise shifted uncomfortably for a second; then her smile came back, far less forced. “I’ll get Tom on that shuttle if I have to drag him by the hair.”

“I love you, Mom,” Holden said. His parents had spent their whole lives on Earth. The only outer planets types they knew were the caricature villains that showed up on bad entertainment feeds. He didn’t hold their ingrained prejudices against them, because he knew that meeting Naomi would be the cure for it. A few days spent in her company and they wouldn’t be able to help falling in love with her. “Oh, one last thing. That data I sent you a while back? Hang on to that for me. Keep it quiet, but keep it. Depending on how things fall out over the next couple of months, I may need it.”

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