Mauer drew his gun. He aimed it at Lillian’s head. Just beside me, Lillian went rigid.
“Let’s talk,” the man said.
“Oh man,” I said. “I’ve really been looking forward to having a conversation with you.”
“Focus,” Mauer and Gordon said, at the same time. Lillian’s whisper-quiet “Please” sounded a moment later.
“He’s posturing,” I said.
Mauer fired. The bullet struck hard against the wall just above Lillian’s head. She yelped.
“Posturing with good aim,” I said.
“Don’t tempt me,” Mauer said, his voice controlled, sounding for all the world like we were talking over tea. “Let’s focus on the matter at hand. We may need to compromise.”
“Typically,” Gordon said, his voice dry, “A compromise involves both sides getting something, just enough that both walk away unhappy. It’s not one side threatening to take something away. You’re looking for a different word.”
“Negotiate, then,” Mauer said.
Gordon spread his hands. “I assume you’re threatening to pick off the Lambs one by one until the survivors agree to lead you to safety.”
“Seems reasonable to me,” Mauer said. “Counteroffer?”
“It won’t work,” Gordon said. “You heard us talking to Percy. If you shoot one of us, every last one of us will stare you down while you empty that gun in the rest, one by one.”
Gordon reached up to fix his hair. He didn’t signal until his hand was at his side again. Scatter.
We weren’t going to stand still if it came down to it. If they killed one of us, the rest of us would make a break for it, and we’d make their lives hell until the attacking forces wiped us all out.
“Lillian won’t stand there and take it,” I pointed out. “The one you’re aiming at. She’ll freak, if she isn’t already dead.”
Lillian shot me a horrified look.
“Except Lillian,” Gordon agreed. “But she doesn’t have the know-how to get you out of this. She’s a supporting role. Trust me, Mauer, the only power you have in holding a gun to her head is the power to end us and end the lives of everyone else in the room by proxy.”
Mauer didn’t waver.
Something hit the side of the building, exploding. Not close to the windows we were near, but enough that it made everyone in the room flinch. Mauer retained his composure and balance enough that his aim didn’t falter.
The smoke that billowed from the explosion obscured the rays of light that had been filtering out over the tops of the tables at the windows. The room dimmed.
“He’s right,” Fray said. “We gain nothing and lose time by trying this. We have to act, now.”
Mauer didn’t lower the gun. “Give them the books and have them lead us to safety, then. You’ve had your shot, you made promises, and those promises have been broken. If you want to contact me about moving forward with some specific elements of the plan you’ve been proposing, I’ll be open to it. For now…”
He moved the gun away from Lillian, gesturing toward the window with the barrel. For now, the war.
“I think it’s very possible that my plan stands and will still work,” Fray said. “Nothing guarantees the Lambs’ way is any better. I’m sorry, Sylvester, but I’m not convinced, and I’m certainly not convinced enough to give up any degree of insurance I might have.”
“Agreed,” Mauer said.
I spoke, “We lead you out of the battlefield by channels we specifically arranged ahead of time, to guarantee that we had a way out, Catcher might have mentioned those in his note…”
“He did,” Fray confirmed. “I assume the timing changed in much the way the timing of your arrival was. Without your cooperation, we won’t know which shots are paving the way and which are a prelude to a barrage.”
“Yes,” I said. “That gets you to the perimeter. Your choice whether you want to move on from there or stay put and hope there’s a window to go further.”
Which there wasn’t. There was a small army beyond the most immediate perimeter.
“You’ll guide us to North Road Main.”
“I don’t know what that is,” I said. “But no, we won’t. The deal is to take you to the perimeter. From there, you’re on your own.”
“North Road Main is one of three roads that leads out of the city. With the majority of forces coming from the train station to the southwest or the Academy to the northwest, it gives us an easy route out,” Fray said.
“The perimeter, no further, in exchange for the books,” I said.
“And the other requirements I mentioned,” Mary said. “The changes to the books.”
And Percy, Mary had left it unsaid.
Bullets struck one of the tables that had been propped up against the window. They didn’t penetrate the thick wood.
“Not good enough,” Fray said, eyeing the table as it shifted slightly. “The North Road. I’ll also settle for you contacting Catcher. He can provide some assistance. I’ll write a note. If you lead us to the perimeter, there’s no guarantee we won’t find ourselves in the most dangerous, difficult to penetrate area, with you signaling your allied forces to descend on us.”
I didn’t flinch or let my expression drop, even though I wanted to. I could see her assessing me. I’d considered the notion of luring her into a difficult spot. Halfway because I thought it would work and hand her to the enemy in a tidy little bow, halfway because I wanted to see how she worked to get out of it.
Gordon spoke, “When we disarmed the bomb, we disrupted your ability to get to the perimeter. We’re offering to fix that, in exchange for concessions. Letting you get that far is a pretty big one. If you’re not that confident in your own plan, for getting to wherever you’re going, that’s your own fault.”
Good old Gordon, landing the heavy blows. He was such a bother to argue with.
“You’re moving us to a different location in the walls,” Fray said. “How do you expect us to get from one point on the perimeter to the place we want to be? What about time-sensitive elements? No, if you’re going to make that argument, then we need more.”
“Deal with it,” Gordon said. “That’s our offer.”
“Deliver the note to Catcher and-”
“No,” Gordon said.
Fray stood straighter, glancing at Mauer.
“I don’t think we should trust them, but I do agree with his point,” Mauer said. “If you can’t convince them and convince me they’re worth listening to, then figure out a way to get us where we need to be to make our way out. If you can’t do either, then perhaps you can print your books yourself, and worry every step of the way that my forces may inadvertently interfere.”
Fray didn’t respond to that. Avis, Warren, and the doctor with the cat warbeast returned. It gave Fray a moment to pay attention to them and pay attention to the current situation.
Having Gordon on point made sense. When I spoke people immediately started thinking about where the traps and deception were. Gordon portrayed a more trustworthy, straightforward image.
Which wasn’t to say he couldn’t lie or be clever.
That said, I was cringing inwardly. I wanted to give him pointers, to tell him that Fray was in charge and her ego demanded a need for a sense of power. That he could make a small concession and win her over.
But Fray, Avis, Warren, Mauer, and Percy were all talking among themselves, in a hushed, hurried way, while watching us very closely. Gestures wouldn’t go unnoticed.
“Sy was right, there’s a chance we might side with you someday, if we can reconcile what you’re doing with what we all want,” Gordon spoke, breaking the silence. “Taking our offer leaves that door open for the offer to happen.”
“And pushing my point closes it?” Fray asked. “A very subtle way of framing an ultimatum.”
Also a very subtle way of preying on Fray’s desire to win people over and have everyone on her side.
“I don’t need to tell you you’re running out of time,” Gordon said. “What you did, stirring things into a frenzy, people are going to calm down.”
Not soon, I thought.
“There’s still time,” Fray said, echoing my thought. “But you’re right, there isn’t a lot of it. If everyone agrees, we should move.”
“You actually trust them,” Mauer said. “I don’t.”
“I don’t either,” Percy said. “Even if one of them is mine. I’m sorry, Mary.”
His eyes met Mary’s.
Not quite so harsh as Mary’s request that Percy be put down, but it did suggest he was stepping away, cutting ties to a similar extent. I had little doubt the apology was genuine, but he’d made a decision that if it came down to it, he’d sacrifice Mary to save his own hide.
A gulf stood between them.
“If I may,” Fray said. She approached Mauer.
He tensed as she drew near, then in the moment she took another step, he pointed his pistol against her side.
She raised her hands back and out of the way. “Dolores is on the table back there.”
I turned my head. The air-breathing octopus-thing was on the table a bit beside me. Helen was poking at it, letting its tentacles coil around her finger in response.
Mauer watched Helen and Dolores for a moment. He didn’t speak or move a muscle.
Hands still held back out of the way, Fray leaned close.
She said something.
Seven or eight words.
Then she stepped back, slowly lowering her hands, until they were clasped in front of her.
What’s she saying?
I want to know what she’s saying.
“What did she say?” Percy asked.
“It’s sufficient,” Mauer said. “I’ll tell you later.”
Percy frowned, but he nodded.
“Helen,” I murmured. “What did she say?”
“I didn’t hear.”
“Were you listening?” Gordon asked.
“Yes, and I didn’t hear,” Helen said. She put on an annoyed expression.
Fray approached us.
What did she say?
“Coordinating an attack on us?” Gordon asked.
“No,” Fray said. “We accept your terms.”
Gordon glanced at me, and I nodded. He glanced at Mary, and Mary nodded.
Gordon indicated the door. Fray stepped away from the group, heading toward the octopus. Helen was faster, snatching it up.
“Got it,” Helen said. “I’ll bring Dolores.”
Fray didn’t say anything, apparently content to leave that situation be.
As one, we headed out into the hallway. Soldiers were standing at attention on either side of the hall, no longer waiting tensely for things to get underway. Less disciplined than Academy soldiers and cadets might be, they let concern show on their faces.
They weren’t convinced this situation was entirely in control, and they hadn’t seen any of Fray’s doubts or the arguing over options.
Lillian had taken out her pocket watch. She showed Gordon, who checked, then gestured.
The second message we’d written had acknowledged the tight time limit and we’d left a request to drop additional shots after the fighting started. Things were a touch more chaotic than I had anticipated, however. I was really hoping that things weren’t so bad that we didn’t have an escape route, or that the soldiers we were counting on to drop the bombs and provide cover of smoke and dust weren’t on Fray’s side, disobeying because they had switched sides.
It sounded worse than it was. For them to disobey and effectively sabotage us, they had to be on Fray’s side and simultaneously aware we weren’t. The commander who we’d talked to had sent us to go talk to Dog and Catcher and the other experiments. He’d heard the horn, and would have drawn the connection to the experiments.
To be on Fray’s side, know we weren’t, yet be unaware of the fact the horn had helped us?
That a bomb had obliterated them or the infighting was distracting them too much?
I couldn’t let my nervousness show. Eyes forward, walk with confidence, pretend everything was going according to plan.
There were gaps in this plan, but Fray’s plan was still intact. She had believed she would have a course she could walk to freedom, with the forces on the perimeter sufficiently occupied.
A variant on that plan, how much more dangerous could it be?
It was so annoying, being a child. We had soldiers behind us, Warren to the left of us, and to the right and a little in front of us, we had Percy and Mauer. Visibility was limited by the fact that people were taller, and I couldn’t help but feel surrounded. It didn’t help my growing feeling of anxiety.
This would either be marvelous or it would fail marvelously.
“The men from the other room?” Fray asked. “If they aren’t ready now, then-
“They’ll be ready. Get them,” Mauer said.
One of his lieutenants broke away, opening a door.
More soldiers filed into the hallway alongside the soldiers at our back. These ones wore uniforms, but they weren’t the uniforms of the rebellion.
Cadet uniforms, military ones.
To add an element of confusion? Or to achieve a certain goal?
It didn’t matter.
We reached the doorway. The final group of soldiers was there, one man crouched by the door. It was cracked open, and he peered outside.
“The situation?” Mauer asked.
“Cynthia’s group took drugs,” the man said. “They started grinning, mad smiles, wide-eyed, veins sticking out on their faces. No combat drug like I’ve ever seen before.”
“I know the one,” Fray said. “Rictus grins, a full body rush. Enhanced strength, reflexes, adrenaline. It also demolishes the mind’s ability to manage inhibitions. The Academy discontinued it, and it saw use in the black market for a time. People liked how confident and invincible it made them feel.”
“It shaves off years of your life with every use,” Lillian said. “It isn’t very sustainable to sell on the streets when four or five uses can ruin a thirty year old’s organs so badly he looks ninety inside. Even the Academy can’t fix the kind of damage it causes.”
I gave her a curious look.
“I know stuff!”
“The cost in lifespan isn’t something Cynthia cares about,” Fray said, looking at our group’s medic. “Nor was it the reason the Academy stopped using it. They didn’t like the fact that less disciplined soldiers fired at friendlies, and how bad the crime rate became. Cynthia is liable to shoot at us if we cross paths.”
“Hmm,” Mauer said. When he spoke, it was to the assembled army of sixty-some soldiers, forty in rebellion uniforms and twenty who weren’t. “From here on out, we shoot at her or her men on sight.”
There were one or two cheers, which drew quiet the moment Mauer shot a sharp look back.
Not much lost love.
We waited by the door.
Gordon met my eye. He wasn’t gesturing, but I got the impression he was trying to communicate something.
Something hit, close by, the force of it making Fray and the soldier on watch work to keep the door from flying open. Gordon had taken Lillian’s pocket watch, and the moment he was done covering his head and ear, he checked it. He shook his head.
He met my eyes with purpose.
What are you doing? I thought.
Mary was looking between Gordon and me. Lillian looked terrified, very small while surrounded by opposing forces, shrinking down. Helen stroked the octopus she was carrying as if it were a dog.
Gordon didn’t break eye contact.
I looked at the open watch in his hand, checking the time while it was upside down, and then looked back up at him.
Not a flicker in his expression.
“Through the door, two by two,” Mauer was addressing his men. “Don’t press, keep one pace behind the pair in front of you. If you rush, you’ll get stuck in the doorway or you’ll start pushing the people in front of you, and you won’t be following them, you’ll be directing their movements.”
I saw Warren place a hand on the shoulder of the stitched girl. He pointed at Avis.
He’s too big to pass through with someone else, I realized.
“I’ll lead the way,” Gordon said. He finally broke eye contact with me. “Listen to my instructions.”
An explosion sounded, a mortar shell, very close by. The door was only open a crack, but the smell and taste of smoke and gunpowder in my mouth was enough to gag me. I imagined my spit was a brownish-black.
Gordon watched the pocketwatch. Then he closed it. His lips moved slightly.
He made eye contact with me again.
I can’t read your mind, however you’d like me to.
“Sy,” Mary said. She reached back and touched my hand. She smiled.
“No codes, no gestures, if you please,” Fray said, sternly.
Code? Gesture? She’d caught something I hadn’t.
Not a gesture. In fact, Gordon had been avoiding gestures since the beginning, except when Fray was very clearly occupied.
Before I could reach the end of the train of thought, more shells came down. A trio, blasting into road and sending rock and mud cascading into the air, an earthen geyser.
“Now!” Gordon shouted.
The door was heaved open. Two by two, we passed through. Fray in the lead with the man who’d been watching the front door, Gordon and Mary, me and Lillian, Helen with Hubris and the octopus-thing, then Fray’s group, with Percy and Mauer.
The smoke had darkened the sky, the smoke was thick, and I couldn’t see ten feet in front of me.
In a way, it was like the gestures. Our signs were abstract. We’d started with the basic directions and six very general signs that encompassed a very wide variety of things. The closed fist for aggression, violence, force, attack, impulse, anger. Then we’d expanded that, adding new signs, modifying old ones. There’d been too much need to communicate silently.
This was very similar.
Sy. He’d been focused on me. Not trying to read my mind or make me read his.
My mind. My strategy, my way of thinking.
A ploy, one he couldn’t easily share in the midst of things.
I exhaled as slowly as I could, as I ran forward, blind. I could extend that trust to him. He’d done it often enough for me.
“Reverse direction!” Gordon called out.
I stopped before Lillian did, but I’d been expecting something. My shoe slipped on the cobblestone road, but I caught myself. I tugged Lillian, reached out, and prodded Helen’s side. Giving her a nudge.
The order was called out, passed down the line.
We stood in smoke and in the line of fire, while the order for the forward charge was called out, passed down.
It took twenty seconds before we were back inside. I was surprised it was even possible. Humans were so naturally disorganized, and even with Mauer’s warning, I’d expected a jam.
They listened to him like nothing else, it seemed.
The door slammed closed as Fray returned inside. The man on watch cracked it open a moment later, peering through. The rest of us knelt or crouched on the floor. More explosions sounded outside. There was a warbeast on the loose on the rooftops, by the sound of it, smaller than the Brechwell Beast, larger than the cat.
“What the hell was that?” Mauer asked. “A test?”
“Yes,” Gordon said.
“This isn’t a joking matter. Every second we spend out there is a second we could get shot.”
“If you happened to kill us the moment you thought you had a way out, then you would have been stranded,” Gordon said. “Now that we’ve done that, you know you’re reliant on us. At least until we get to the perimeter.”
“Games,” the doctor with the cat warbeast said.
“Strategy,” I said. “I assume you’ve given thought to what happens when we actually reach the perimeter? I was working on the assumption that they wouldn’t have time to waste, or that they wouldn’t be willing to risk attacking us if we could call for an alert.”
“Lillian,” Gordon said. “Your bag?”
Lillian shrugged off the strap for her satchel, then slid it across the floor to Gordon.
He opened it, reaching inside, and grabbed a canister.
Mauer reached for his gun. Several others did too.
Fray reached out, extending a hand, a signal to wait, holding back.
It was a grenade, like the ones we’d used to set fires, back when I’d set Cynthia on fire, as a matter of fact. A long lever ran down the side, and a pin was jammed in the top.
Gordon handed it to Helen, who had to disengage from the octopus. “Hold it tight.”
He pulled the pin. Nine out of ten people flinched.
“There,” he said. “Don’t drop it, unless all is lost, okay? That’s our insurance. If you loosen your grip on the lever, then we all go up in flame a second or two later.”
“I have a good grip,” Helen said.
I could tell at a glance that a large number of the more important people here, Mauer, Percy, and Avis included, did not like us having insurance to this degree.
Gordon opened the pocket watch.
“Is the next one going to be a ruse too?” Percy asked.
“We’ll see,” Gordon said.
I nodded slowly.
The smoke outside was a problem in that it limited visibility and increased the chances of us making a mistake, but it was a problem that had small benefits. Fray couldn’t look outside to clearly see the damage from her bombs or the troop movements on the roof, and the people up there couldn’t see us clearly. Fray having people wearing Crown uniforms helped muddy the waters.
Fray liked having nine of ten degrees of control, with that tenth part being something she was free to manipulate and control.
This didn’t feel like a nine of ten. A solid two out of ten factors in play were outside factors, the chaos of battle, the fighting atop the rooftops, and an environment I did not feel comfortable navigating. But Gordon’s trick here had bumped us from a solid five or six to a seven.
Seven was fairly comfortable territory.
So was our seven running headlong into a wall and dipping into the twos and threes.
Gordon looked up. He met Mary’s eyes, one hand going to his ear, protecting it.
An explosion. Close, but not as close as the last had been.
We were out. Running.
This was the one.
If I was the indicator he looked to to signal trickery the index and middle finger extended, together, Mary was the straightforward one. The extended thumb with the hand left more open or closed. The thumb didn’t necessarily indicate the target, but the opposite direction to the target. One of the earlier signs, the execution, the job, the focus. It meant to watch, prioritize.
I found myself unconsciously making the sign with my right hand, as I ran blindly through smoke, my other hand on Lillian’s upper arm.
“Stop!” Gordon called. His voice was almost drowned out in the sound of rain, the irregular staccato of gunfire, and the distant roar of the Brechwell Beast.
My eyes were wide open, and I couldn’t see much of anything past Fray and the soldier at the front of the line. There was too much smoke and rain, and the vague shapes I did register were impossible to make out at first glance.
I realized why Gordon had called the stop and I shut my eyes, turning my head away, my hand losing the gesture to cover my ear. My forehead touched Lillian’s as I bade her to turn.
I really hoped the shock of the hit wouldn’t cause Helen to drop the incendiary canister.
I also really hoped there was a second hit.
A bullet struck cobblestone not far from where we stood. I saw the flash of light or a spark as it bounced off.
A moment later, as if the bullet had been prophetic, the shell hit ground.
We ran through the debris, and I saw Gordon and Mary stumble on the irregular ground, where cobblestone street had been thoroughly shattered. I was more balanced, expecting it, and helped steady Lillian. The ground was particularly hot in one spot I stepped, and I wondered if I’d burned or melted my shoe.
Going from being unable to see through the smoke ten feet ahead of me to having the building there was a shock, as if it was lunging forward at us, rather than the other way around.
We passed through the window, Gordon perching in it to help me and Lillian up. I let Lillian go first, looking up at the fighting on the roof. Discrete groups, shouts, ongoing fighting, and a ape-like Warbeast standing between two groups, threatening both.
We really weren’t on their radar.
I took Gordon’s hand, and he hauled me inside.
Fray’s group, Mauer, and Percy made their way inside. The soldiers gathered with their backs to the wall. There wasn’t enough room immediately inside.
“I’ll take that,” Fray said, to Helen.
Fray took the octopus. It crawled up to her shoulder and wrapped itself loosely around her neck like a scarf.
“The books,” I said.
Fray looked at the stitched girl. “I suppose it’s time. Give the books back, Wendy.”
Wendy approached. She handed me the backpack.
“As to the other part of our deal,” Fray said.
“What’s this?” Mauer asked.
Fray set her eyes on Percy.
Boots tramped on the floor above us. Everyone looked, worrying we were about to face soldiers. A gun fired, a body fell.
More boots stomped on floorboards. Nobody came downstairs.
Mary was staring at Percy, her jaw set.
The other part of the deal.
It would be an advantage, a win for the Academy, for us, a hit to the enemy, a benefit to Mary in a way, even.
All I had to do was let the lie to Mary continue.
Less than an hour ago, Lillian had suggested I was like an abusive husband. Manipulating, coddling, baiting people closer and then pushing them away.
I wasn’t sure if this was bait or a push.
My finger touched the ring at my thumb. There was a faint ‘x’ on the knuckle. I’d written it to remind myself of something. Damn it.
“It’s awkward to admit, and I know this will cause friction,” Fray said, “But-”
Right, had to focus on the matter at hand.
“Wait,” I said.
Fray stopped short.
The Lambs looked at me.
My breath was frozen in my throat. I couldn’t bring myself to breathe, let alone speak.
When I swallowed, it was a difficult swallow.
“I lied to you, Mary,” I said, my voice soft. I stared down Percy. “About Percy. There was no command phrase, he didn’t abandon you, he did intend you to lead. When he confessed his sins to you earlier, he was lying too.”
Mary stared at me, then looked at Percy.
“He cares, Mary. I know we might lose you by me admitting it, but- he cares enough to let you hate him, if it means you’re happier in the end, with us. Assuming I understood that right.”
Percy straightened a little, as if he’d withered in the time since he’d been rejected by ‘his girl’. He lowered his head in a short nod. “You did.”
“Okay,” Mary said.
I glanced at her.
Her expression was flat.
“You were going to sell out my acquaintance?” Mauer asked Fray.
“We never formally agreed on that. It came up, and I planned to discuss it here, before we parted ways. Keeping in mind they don’t have much leverage anymore, beyond Helen’s promise of mutually assured destruction.”
Helen held up the canister.
The Brechwell Beast roared outside. It was closer than it had been.
The two were talking, but all of my focus was on Mary.
I’d confessed a grave lie that I’d kept for a year and a half, and she wasn’t giving me anything at all.
No anger, no tears, no outrage.
Was she stepping away? Figuring out how to leave? Or, worse, was she staying, while attacking me in the worst way possible, by shutting me out and denying any and all connection between us?
“Gordon’s right, Sy,” Mary said. “You’re really terrible at being honest.”
I don’t know what that means! I screamed, internally.
Externally, I didn’t move an inch or make a sound.
Mauer drew his gun. Percy reached for one as well.
“This doesn’t need to go this far,” Fray said. “Sylvester confessed the lie, there’s no reason to hold to that part of the deal, am I right?”
“Kill him,” Mary said. “Percy.”
“What?” Percy asked. “You heard what he said, he-”
“I heard,” Mary said, voice cold. “What he just said makes more sense than what you both were saying, back in the meeting room back there, the story I heard in the past.”
“Then- this is about the children? The work I do? It bothers you so much?”
Mary shook her head. “No. You shaped me, honed me into a tool, a weapon. You could kill a thousand children a year and it wouldn’t bother me.”
“Then why?” he asked. There was a note of anguish in his voice. “You want me to die?”
“It bothers her,” Mary said, pointing at Lillian. “And she’s important to me.”
“I’m assuming you can’t be convinced otherwise?” Mauer asked.
“No,” Mary said.
Mauer nodded. His sonorous voice carried, even as he spoke to himself, “That’s problematic.”
“Mary,” Percy said. “You’re important to me.”
Mauer turned, and with the crack of a pistol shot, he put a bullet through an anguished Percy’s head.
Percy’s body crumpled to the floor.
“We could have found another option,” Fray said, looking down.
“I’d like to go,” Mauer said. “It’s a loss, but one I’m willing to live with if it means leaving the city before a small army closes in on us. You’ll owe me something in compensation for expediting matters.”
“As you wish,” Fray said. She turned to the rest of us. “Another day.”
“Another day,” I said.
She turned her back to us, taking Warren’s hand as help to make it through the broken window.
Letting them go…
Helen held the grenade, making motions as if she was gauging her ability to accurately throw it through the window at the small army massed outside.
Gordon reached out, putting a hand on her wrist.
“No?” she asked, sounding mournful.
“Cats and cockroaches,” he said. “Some would survive, and it would be the most exceptional ones. Not worth it. Besides, they could have done the same to us.”
He held her wrist firm while he took the pin from his pocket and put it through the slot. He took the weapon from Helen.
“Doesn’t stop us from sending everything we can after them,” I said. “For all the good it’ll do.”
“We can try,” Gordon said, nodding. He drew in a deep breath, then exhaled. “We’ll have to see how-”
Mary, standing beside Gordon, tilted her head to one side, until it rested against Gordon’s shoulder. Her arm reached around his waist. Her eyes were fixed on Percy.
“…How bad it is up there. Are you wanting to stay?”
“No,” Mary said. “I like being like this, but the mission comes first.”
“Mary,” Lillian said. “You doing that for me, you didn’t-”
“You’re my friend,” Mary said. She smiled a little. “It’s okay. I feel better than I have in a long time.”
“If you’re sure-”
“Mm-hmm,” Mary said, nodding, her head rubbing against Gordon’s shoulder. Just being like this, she was closer than she’d been getting to him for a while. Gordon seemed to be taking it in stride. She spoke, “Thank you, everyone. Sy especially. I appreciate this.”
“If you’re absolutely sure you’re okay-” Gordon said.
“I will stab the next person to ask if I’m okay,” Mary said.
“Are you okay?” I asked, without missing a beat.
She moved her head off of Gordon’s shoulder, turning my way.
“Wait,” I said, “hold on.”
She approached me, drawing a knife.
She was a few feet away when she stopped.
Looking up at the stairs.
My first thought was that the enemy had circled back or come down and found us.
Two young individuals stood on the staircase, twelve and thirteen, going by appearance alone. I knew better.
One had red hair, parted to one side, wearing a white collared shirt only, despite the cold weather, with dark brown slacks. He had a folded umbrella in one hand. He had freckles on his face, and his eyes- the eyes were intense, amber colored, more like that of a wolf than a person.
Those eyes were the most alive part of him. Helen, even in the earliest days, was better at looking like a proper human than he was.
Beside Ashton was a familiar face, dressed wrong. The hair was still long, but it was combed straight back. The glasses had changed, and were oval, slender, more like reading glasses than anything else. His shirt had a high collar, not folded, with a ribbon around it, and he wore a coat with a hood, but carried no bag and held no book. He held himself differently.
His eyes, as he looked at us, showed no glimmer of familiarity. Recognition, yes, but not in the way it counted.
“You let them go?” he asked.