“You’re going to get sick, doing that,” Rick told me. He picked up my hood and pulled it over my wet hair.
A little petulantly, I pulled it back down. I glared at him.
Rick, one of the older boys at Lambsbridge, only smiled. Back when he’d arrived at the orphanage he had taken me for someone much younger. He’d quickly realized how much I hated it when I wasn’t taken seriously and decided to kill me with kindness.
He looked the part, too. Where Gordon was big in the athletic sense, Rick was round-chinned, wide-hipped, with a heavy, dense body. He might have looked like a proper Bruno if his face wasn’t so damned innocent; rosy cheeked, bright eyed and clear-skinned for a fifteen year old.
To the adults, he was cuddly. To me, he was a nuisance.
“Hey, Gordon, can I grab that extra umbrella?” Rick asked.
Gordon and Helen were walking together, each holding large umbrellas, a herd of the younger orphans walking around them.
“I think Sy would prefer it if you left him alone,” Gordon said.
“Thank you,” I said. “Yes.”
“He’s going to get sick if he gets this cold and wet.”
“It’s summer,” I pointed out. “It’s warm rain, and I want to get wet. I’m changing when I get back anyway.”
“Why would you want to get wet?”
“Why is it any of your business? My head gets hot, I like to cool down sometimes.”
“Your head gets hot?” Rick asked. He gave me an indulgent smile. “I think you’re already feverish, Sy.”
I gave him a very unimpressed look, then ducked around a pair of recent arrivals, aiming to put them between me and Rick.
It didn’t work. I felt a hand grip my hood, and spun on the spot, slapping at it, harder than was necessary.
It didn’t have much effect, but it made for a loud slap, and the speed with which I’d turned caught eyes. Other children and a few bystanders on the street were staring, now. The Lambsbridge group slowed, some stopping altogether.
I stared Rick down, glaring.
“You need to take better care of yourself,” Rick said, in the nicest tone imaginable.
“I can. I do. I don’t need you to step in and tell me how,” I said, my voice tight.
“Sy,” Jamie said.
I didn’t move, still staring daggers at Rick.
“I’ve got my hands full with my book and this umbrella, and I need to scratch my nose,” Jamie said. “Can you give me a hand?”
I turned my back on Rick, and advanced to the front of the group, where Jamie was walking alongside Eliza and Fran, the only two girls around our age that weren’t Helen, and all three of them were carrying large umbrellas to shelter themselves and a few small children from the water. I reached up and scratched his nose for him. He scrunched it up suitably, provoking a laugh from some of the smallest children in the herd.
“I meant for you to take my umbrella,” he said, but he was smiling a little. He started walking, and our group started moving again. I took the umbrella from him, holding it with both hands and falling in step between him and Fran, prompting a, “Thank you.”
“Put his hood up, Jamie,” Rick said.
“Rick,” Gordon said, “C’mere.”
Gordon’s help served to put Rick at the tail end of the group, while Jamie had me at the front. The kids in the middle were splashing in puddles. Altogether, we took up most of the sidewalk and some of the street.
It was the middle of the afternoon, and it was about as far from gloomy as Radham got, with sunlight pushing at but not yet breaking through the clouds overhead. The rain was warm to the touch, and about half of the people on the street were doing just what I was doing, keeping hoods down and umbrellas away.
Discount the stitched that were here and there, like the group that was leading one large, almost featureless, hairless mammal in the direction of the Academy, and maybe two thirds of the people were enjoying the rain.
Which Rick didn’t seem able to understand.
“He really gets to you, huh?” Jamie asked.
“He should get to everyone,” I said. “There’s something seriously bent in his head, and the fact that nobody but me understands that is a bigger bother than he is.”
“Rick isn’t a bad guy, he’s just awkward,” Fran said, beside me.
I pulled one hand away from the umbrella to gesture at her, giving Jamie my best ‘see!?‘ look.
“I sort of understand,” Jamie said, gently. “I do see elements of it. I also think you exaggerate it to make it something it isn’t.”
“I understand people,” I said, being very careful with my words. The other orphans did not know who or what we were, and the wrong phrasing could be disastrous. “I know what makes them tick. I know how to use that. I’ve had to know all that, because… of where I came from. I’ve told you this, and more.”
“Yeah, I know,” Jamie said, just as careful. He knew what I really meant. Fran and Eliza were decorous enough not to pry or ask about my past, though I saw them exchange glances between each other.
“Let’s not dwell too much on the bad stuff with the small ones around,” Eliza said.
I shook my head. “I don’t get Rick. I can push, I can prod, I can test him, and he doesn’t budge.”
“He knows you just as well as you know him,” Jamie said. “You’re clever, Sy, but don’t underestimate just how effective the average person is when they’re one hundred percent focused on one thing.”
“He’s one hundred percent focused on me? And you don’t see what’s wrong with that?”
“Do you blame him? You met each other on one of your bad days, one of the days when you’re in particularly foul, spiteful moods-”
After an appointment.
“-and forced him to figure out how to deal with you.”
“Which he did,” I muttered.
“Which means he doesn’t give in, he doesn’t change course. You made your bed, Sy. Now you get to sleep in it. Go after people and don’t be surprised if they fight back the best ways they know how.”
I scowled, “If I had a clue, some inkling of what makes a person that fundamentally messed up…”
“Sylvester!” Fran rebuked me with enough force that the children we were walking with jumped a little. “Don’t be unkind!”
“Sorry,” I mumbled, shrinking down a little. “I’m just saying. I don’t get him. I don’t know what adds up to Rick being Rick.”
“I know,” Jamie said. “I know his story.”
I was immediately a puppy, eyes bright, ears perked up.
“And I’m not going to tell you,” Jamie said. “Ever.”
“Because you’ll use it. I know you. Let it lie and deal with it as best as you can. It’s good for you.”
I fought the urge to smack Jamie with the umbrella I was holding. I only managed to avoid it by telling myself that Jamie had to have written it down in one of his notebooks.
“It’s not in my diaries, Sy,” Jamie said, quiet. “Well, it is, but I blotted the words out after you threw the cup at his head, just a bit before Christmas. I knew you’d look eventually.”
The annoyances of dealing with someone who knew you well enough to predict how you thought.
“I was about to ask if you’d really read his diary,” Fran said, “But then I thought, gosh, silly me, it’s Sylvester.”
I sighed. I considered hitting the both of them with the umbrella, but then I caught sight of Jamie’s expression. Light concern, caring. Gentleness.
Jamie’s so slow he wouldn’t ever get out of the way fast enough. Not sporting, I told myself.
He moved his book to his other arm and put an arm around my shoulders.
“Can you give Sy and me a moment? We’re just going to walk ahead a bit,” Jamie said.
“I’ll watch the ankle biters,” Fran said, taking the umbrella from me, holding one in each hand. I didn’t miss the smile on her face as she said it.
Jamie gave her a curt nod. We picked up our pace to pull ahead, which wasn’t too much of a problem, considering how slow a collection of five year olds sometimes were. He moved his book so it was more out of the rain. I reached over to pull his rain-cloak over it.
It took a minute before we were out of earshot. We had to circle around a slow-moving obstacle. The obstacle took the form of a large glass case the size of a coach, a cloth thrown over the top, already soaked with the water that sloshed within. Live horses were pulling the thing, and the Academy students who weren’t leading the horses were holding formation in a loose circle around the tank, warding off incoming traffic so a coach didn’t crash into the side.
When we were on the other side, I commented, “Rick’s the sort of guy who ends up dressing in his mom’s clothes and smiles as he kills his victims with a knitting needle or something.”
“You’re not going to bait an answer out of me, Sy,” Jamie said.
“Not a knitting needle. But something inventive,” I mused. “Common household item. You’re the one that reads the books. What item fits?”
“You’re more agitated than usual,” Jamie told me. “I think high-strung is the term. I’m guessing it’s Mary?”
“Yeah,” Jamie said.
“You don’t have to act so smug.”
“I’m not being smug,” Jamie said, giving me every indication that he really believed what he was saying. “Look, it’s been a few weeks. You have a tendency to want to steer the ship, even if Gordon is supposed to be the one captaining it. I know you haven’t been that able to steer Mary as much as you’d like, despite your very frequent visits.”
“I told Hayle everything,” I said. “I-”
Jamie was giving me a look.
“Almost everything. I explained, I got him to agree and get Mary’s oversight to cooperate. Yet half the time I couldn’t even talk to her, because they were doing stuff with her or with her parents.”
Jamie nodded, taking it in, storing it, maybe processing something else, or paging through a set of memories in his head. “You weren’t that successful when you did see her. It’s why you’re so insecure now.”
“I’m not insecure.”
“Okay,” Jamie said. He didn’t sound much like he believed me.
“She did try to kill you,” I pointed out. “If this goes an ugly way, then she might try again.”
“She came closer to killing you than she did to killing me,” Jamie pointed out. “Several times, in fact. If you’re trying to make me join you in the hand-wringing, you’ll have to do better.”
“You’re no fun,” I said.
“I know,” he said. He squeezed my shoulders. “I’m a terrible bore.”
“The worst bore. I have no idea why Fran likes you.”
“She likes you. Like-like. The way she acted when we left them behind, I’m sure.”
Now it was Jamie’s turn to look a little bit annoyed and concerned. Good. For all he wanted to mock me about wringing my hands over Mary, I knew he’d worry over this. He’d do the worrying for Fran, I knew, and it wasn’t necessarily a bad sort of worrying, but I felt a little thrill of victory.
“She really likes me?”
“She thinks boring old Jamie is the best. Let me tell you, if any girl liked me as much as she likes you…” I trailed off.
“I dunno! I could make them do anything. Color their hair blue, or spit in Dog’s face, or-”
“Anything,” Jamie said, cutting me off.
“Yeah,” I said, smiling.
“That’s one worry off my mind, at least,” he said.
“I was thinking about you and Mary, and the interplay between the two of you,” Jamie said, stumbling a bit as he tried to explain. “…few years too early for that, I suppose.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You pick things up quickly,” Jamie said. “Obviously. And you picked up human interaction first. Your word choice, how you express yourself, is sometimes very adult, because of how you used it to craft your persona.”
“Uh huh…” I said, inviting him to go on.
“It’s a relief to see past that and get a glimpse at the you beneath all of it.”
“You’re a butt,” I said. “That is the real me.”
“Not maybe. You’re definitely a butt.”
“That you’re a butt? You butt?” I took advantage of how slow he could be to get up to speed, needling him.
He shifted his grip on my shoulders to catch my neck in the crook of his arm, lightly choking me.
I jabbed him in the soft side of his belly, which only made him choke me harder.
Our roughhousing carried on until we caught sight of Mrs. Earles, standing at the corner of the road.
From her reaction, it looked like she’d been looking for us. Jamie let go of my neck and the back of my underwear. I released him, too, and fixed my clothes.
“Where are the others?” she asked.
“Maybe a minute behind,” I said, looking back to check. “We needed to talk a bit.”
“So it seems,” she said, before reaching down to fix Jamie’s collar. “Something’s come up?”
“Mary?” I asked, without missing a beat. “Did something happen?”
“No. Mary just arrived with her bags. But she came with company.”
The puppeteer? No. Too soon.
“Mr. Hayle?” I asked. Without missing a breath, I added, “Did he want something?”
“Yes to both questions,” she said. She was distracted, craning her neck to see if she could spot the others. “Professor Hayle asked you to meet him at the old stable? Do you know where that is?”
“Yes,” Jamie said.
“Good, because I don’t. If you want to go ahead, I can point the others your way.”
“We’ll wait,” I said, at the same time as Jamie’s, “Okay.”
“We’ll wait,” I reaffirmed. Jamie nodded.
It did take less than a minute for the others to catch up. When they came into sight, the smallest children picked up speed, stampeding toward Mrs. Earles. She didn’t bend down to greet them, but reached out to touch a head here and there.
When Gordon and Helen saw us, I pointed down the side street to our right. Gordon nodded.
It took Helen some work to peel away from the children that had clustered around her. Not the youngest, the four to six year olds didn’t take to Helen as much, but the girls who were closer to my age, just a step below hers, they tended to idolize her.
While she said goodbyes and gently cut them short as they tried to question her, I had a thought. “Lillian?”
“Lillian is with Mary,” Mrs. Earles said.
That bothered me. It was hard to put my finger on why.
I glanced back at Rick, who was looking at our contingent with a curious look in his eye. He started to follow, but Mrs. Earles served to run interference, ordering him to help her with the children.
I took too much joy in that.
Helen finally caught up, turning her back to everyone but our little group, her expression going flat.
We walked down the side street together. Toward the old stable, which hadn’t held any proper horses for a long time. It was a minor landmark, and it was too much of one to be knocked down, too ramshackle to see any use.
“I told Rick to back off,” Gordon said.
“He won’t,” I said.
“Yeah,” Gordon said. “I figured. But I thought I’d try. Wish I could do more.”
“Tell me that you agree he’s bent in the head.”
“He’s bent in the head,” Gordon agreed.
“Thank you!” I said, pointing, looking at Jamie. “See?”
Jamie stammered, “That’s not- No. I didn’t say he wasn’t. I said it’s not-”
“You don’t think he’s the smarmy, too-nice, wear Sy’s entrails as a belt sort of bent,” I said.
“I, uh, no.”
“Just you wait. If Mrs. Earles catches him licking the bathroom floor again, then-”
“Again?” Jamie cut in.
“See? Right there. First place your mind goes isn’t ‘he wouldn’t do that’. You’re fixating on the ‘again’ part!”
“No,” Gordon said, very calmly, “I think it’s fine to fixate on the ‘again’ part of it. I think you’re a little over the top on that one.”
“Just you wait,” I warned.
“I’ll wait,” Gordon said. “Don’t kill him in the meantime. It’s probably undeserved and it’ll upset Professor Hayle.”
“And not the kind of upset that he usually lets you get away with,” Jamie pointed out.
“I know, I know!”
The trip to the stables didn’t take too long. The rain gradually increased in intensity, then settled to a light drizzle. I welcomed it, pushing my hair back. Jamie had his hood down too now that it was only drizzling, his long hair damp but not wet. His glasses were speckled with droplets he wasn’t wiping away.
When we arrived, I caught sight of Mary. Lillian was a short distance away. Hayle stood by the door of the stables, with Dog and Catcher nearby. I spotted the Gorger in the stables, sitting on the floor, his forehead as high as the stable door.
Mary looked a little out of her depth, but she was centered enough that she wasn’t letting it show. I had to infer not from expression or body language, but by the distance between her and Lillian. I liked that they weren’t standing close together.
Mary was wearing regular clothes for the first time since I’d met her, no Mothmont uniform or patient’s gown, and she had her hair in ribbons, a different configuration than I’d seen at our first meeting. Her hair was longer, and hadn’t been cut, though it was braided at one side for neatness’ sake.
She acknowledged me with a small smile as I approached, Jamie trailing after me.
Hayle was wearing his black lab coat, a simple shirt and slacks beneath, a folded umbrella at his side. The overhanging roof above the stable door was shielding him from the rain. He was talking to Gorger, but his eyes were on us, looking us over, assessing us, his eyes flickering between Mary and me a few times, measuring, much as I’d measured her distance from everyone else.
As Jamie had speculated, I’d modeled much of what I knew and did after other people around me, and I supposed one of those people was Mr. Hayle.
Dog was lying down in mud, very possibly enjoying the cool muck and grime. His expression was always hard to read, as he didn’t have a proper mouth and the metal fixtures around his face stretched skin and pulled at muscle in ways that made it less intuitive. Metal shutters that were normally down around the jaw had been raised around the nose, I noted, covering the lower half of his face. More guarded?
Catcher was still, unmoving, hands in pockets, his mancatcher standing up so it leaned against his elbow.
And the Gorger… well, the Gorger was the Gorger. Fat and naked, with skin that looked too thick, bugged-out eyes with too-small pupils that moved too slowly drifting lazily over each of us, small, too-puckered lips pursed. Hayle was talking to him, but he wasn’t reacting or giving any hint that he was even listening.
“The Lambs,” Catcher said. “It’s been a little while.”
“Just a little while,” I said. “Doing okay?”
“It’s been worse, Sy,” he replied.
Gordon and Helen had broken away from Jamie and me. Gordon went straight to Dog. Where a handshake would do for someone else, Gordon simply reached out to touch the side of Dog’s head, brushing some hair back and away from Dog’s eye. Something in Dog relaxed the slightest fraction, muscles all down his shoulders and backs easing where they’d been tense.
Helen, for her part, was walking more slowly, swaying a little with her hands clasped behind her back, her skirt swishing left and right with each set of steps. She came to a stop somewhere midway between Gordon and the rest of us, hands still clasped behind her.
The swaying was almost playful, which was very interesting unto itself. Helen didn’t have a very expressive personality, and any expression she did give was usually for someone else’s benefit.
That raised the question of just who Helen was acting for, here. I looked over everyone, human and experiment alike, and I couldn’t pin it down.
That made me think it was for her own benefit. A hint of the personality that Helen was crafting for herself? An experiment, to see how people she saw as important might react and validate?
She caught me studying her and smiled a little, and it was a naughty smile.
Because Jamie wasn’t the only one who knew me well enough to guess what I was thinking. Was it for my benefit?
“She’s scary,” Mary murmured.
“You’re scary,” I said.
“Well…” Mary said, and from the sound of it, she didn’t have a particularly good retort.
“She’s on your side,” I said. “Which makes her a good scary, right?”
“Yeah,” Mary said, not sounding convinced.
This very scene was very much Helen’s medium. It was very much not Mary’s.
It made me feel a great deal more confident in having her join the group. I hadn’t lost her in the time that Hayle and Lil and all the other Academy people had been poking, prodding, and interrogating her.
I reached out with a hand, touching hers.
She clasped my hand, and the surprising tightness of the hold told me my read on her wasn’t wrong in the slightest.
“Whatever this is about,” Gordon commented, “It’s big.”
Hayle had just finished talking to Gorger. He turned to face us. “It’s… potentially problematic. Other special projects are already working on it. I wanted to bring you up to speed and make sure you’re communicating effectively.”
“That’s not a problem,” Gordon said, hand still on Dog’s temple.
“I’ll be brief. This is an all-hands-on-deck situation. Something got loose in the Academy. A student project. Catcher suggested we reach out to you, simply to have more eyes on the scene.”
“If something got loose and they can’t catch it, what makes you think we can?” Gordon asked.
“We lose nothing by putting ourselves out there to help, and refusing would look bad, when the Academy is this concerned,” Hayle said. “It was a lose-lose, where standing down would make us look ineffectual, but they weren’t confident you wouldn’t get in the way. I made our case, and they agreed to let us participate in the hunt, with the proviso that I have you meet some of the other special projects, tell you to communicate, and stress, very carefully, very emphatically, that you are not to get in the way.”
We all nodded, Mary included.
“Don’t nod, Sylvester,” Hayle said. “I’m directing this largely at you.”
I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. “I- what? Why me?”
He didn’t dignify that with an answer. Instead, he pointed at Mary, “I agreed to your request to let her join. I’ve indulged you a great many times in the past several years. I’m asking you to cooperate here. Please.”
The smile slipped from my face. I felt Mary squeeze my hand.
“I will,” I said.
He nodded. “The experiment can’t leave the bounds of the city. Gorger will be in the wooded outskirts, Dog and Catcher in the city. We’re operating under the assumption that it’s still somewhere in the Academy, and much of the focus is there. You’ll be there, and I’ve arranged for you to talk to the culprit.”
“Culprit,” Gordon said. “That’s an interesting word choice.”
“It’s the right one,” Hayle said. “This incident was a deliberate one, and it was carried out by a student, who wasn’t operating alone.”
“Is it… them?” I asked, glancing at Mary. “The group that Percy was working with?”
“We don’t know,” Hayle said. “We’re following up on some things, but probably not. I’ve heard others suggest it’s something else. Whatever the case, word is out about the escaped experiment, and it’s spreading. People are scared. A fast resolution is preferred.”
I bit back a sigh and a smartass comment. He had to jinx it.
“We’re on it,” Gordon said.
“Good,” Hayle said. “Go.”
We moved. Gorger rising, heaving his massive bulk to a standing position. Dog and Catcher turned, moving off down a side street as a pair. The remainder of us, the Lambs and our medic, headed in the direction of the Academy, Hayle following behind.
Mary didn’t let go of my hand the entire way to the Academy.