Something close to twenty minutes passed, with only a few gestured words passing between us.
I hugged Lillian. My shirt was off, a blanket draped over my shoulders. She was sitting with her knees to her chest, and I sat behind her, my legs encircling her butt, chest against her back, cheek against her shoulder, arms around her. For a few minutes now, she’d been holding one of my hands, intense, like she was afraid she was going to fall off a ledge or something. Her other hand clutched at the blanket, inadvertently or intentionally pulling me closer.
“I think we’re probably okay to talk,” Jamie ventured.
“I’ve been thinking that for about five minutes now,” I said. “But I don’t know what to say. Looks like you’re dying, Gordon? Sorry, bud?”
Lillian drove an elbow back in my direction.
“You look pretty bad too, bud.” Gordon said. There was no strength in his words. He managed a smile.
“I have to say,” Jamie said, “It feels like Sy has some unconscious compulsion that drives him to get as cold and wet as humanly possible.”
“The Richmond twins were out of sync only once, and that’s when the little one was sniffing at the air, the other one sticking its tongue out,” I said. “Why not act in sync? I figured it would be letting their guard down, to stretch their tongues at the same time. Why? Senses.”
“My point is, the natural conclusion for you is, obviously, get cold and wet.”
“Mislead with the scent trail.”
“S’cause Sy’s wet behind the ears,” Gordon said, sounding slightly out of it.
“Huh?” I asked. My heart leaped a little, seeing him maybe acting delirious. ‘Wet behind the ears’ wasn’t anything that explained me. I had experience. I’d been doing this for too long.
“Water, Sy. Liquid brain? He’s like water, y’know? Fluid, adaptable, but doesn’t hold. Conforms to the surroundings, or the container he’s in.”
Lillian jerked like she’d been stung, squeezing my hand. It took me a second to realize it was a sudden sob, soundless. I squeezed her hand back, and hugged her harder around the ribs for extra measure.
“Affinity for water, huh?” I asked. “That’s damn poetic.”
“Sure,” Gordon said. He gave me a wan smile.
“Stone. Eternal, lasting, reliable. Words etched into tablets…”
“Stone isn’t eternal,” Jamie said. He was sitting a little further away, and his voice sounded eerie. “Stone cracks. It wears down.”
“Yeah,” Gordon said. “I started thinking about this stuff a long while back, idle thought. It’s not important or anything.”
“And Mary?” I asked.
“Steel,” Gordon said. “Don’t think I need to explain that one.”
“That’s cheating,” I said, hugging Lillian harder. “I thought you were doing the classical elements. Earth, air, fire, water.”
“She was a late arrival. I think they incorporate metal into the traditional elements, out East?”
“Yeah,” Jamie said.
“Helen, then?” I asked.
“Ah,” he said.
He lifted his hands up, taking care to do it, and pretended to strangle himself.
“Air,” I said.
“Kind of a stretch,” he said, letting his hands fall down and out to the side.
Lillian broke away from my hug a bit to lean forward, and move Gordon’s hands to his side, before moving a blanket over them, so they were covered and warm. She settled back into my grip.
“And fire,” I said.
“I really thought I’d do more before this particular fire burned out,” he said. His eyes were fixed on the ceiling.
“You’re doing well enough,” I said. Present tense.
“Nah,” he said. His voice had taken on a strange quality. “Nah. I feel like I was just finding my stride. I had the aptitude, I was picking up the skills, but was still too young. If I’d been able to make it a few more years, get to seventeen or eighteen, even twenty, I could’ve kicked proper ass.”
“You kicked ass as part of the Lambs,” I told him. I belatedly realized I’d switched to past tense.
“Sure. But doesn’t help that feeling, like I was given wings but never got to fly.”
The regret in his voice was hard to listen to. I couldn’t find a response. Things got quiet, but for the low crackle of the fire.
“The immortal formula that Emily got. A transfusion-”
“No, Sy,” Gordon said.
“If we got a heart from a primordial-”
“No, Sy. Even if it was guaranteed to work, I don’t think that would be a good idea.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But we’ve taken some bad ideas a ridiculously long way, haven’t we?”
“We have,” Gordon said. “I’m going to use that to gracefully change the topic. The situation out there. Mauer, and you mentioned the twins? Nobles?” Gordon asked.
“We don’t have to talk about the mission,” Jamie said.
“We can talk about whatever I goddamn want to talk about,” Gordon said.
“It’s bad,” I said. “Nobles want to finish us off. Maybe to hurt the Duke, maybe because the Duke told them to. Mauer wants to finish us off because we set him on fire. Guns, fire, and experiments are looking to wipe anyone and everyone out, and I don’t feel confident that the primordials are handled.”
“They got Drake’s?”
“No,” I said. “They got four of Old Harding’s, though.”
Lillian squeezed my hand again.
Gordon seemed to take the news in a very easy, casual way, as if it didn’t surprise him. “Sorry.”
“Didn’t get that far, huh?” I asked.
He shook his head slowly.
“Gordon collapsed, and we went to find a hiding place,” Lillian said. I could feel the vibrations of her voice moving through her back and into my chest. “He wanted me to leave him, but that would’ve meant that he’d die alone, and I didn’t know exactly where to go or how to handle anything if I even got that far. I was scared I’d run into Mauer. I was… scared in general.”
“It’s better that you stayed,” I said. “Way things looked, you would’ve been caught between Harding’s group and Mauer’s. I think he brought just about everyone with him to Harding’s. Since his lieutenant whatshisname-”
“Thank you, Jamie, Stanley would’ve known how far along Harding was, and that Harding was the better bet. Like I said, it’s better that you stayed.”
“If you say so,” Lillian said.
“I say so,” I said. “It’s bad out there. If we had every single Lamb here, I’m not so sure we’d be able to crack this thing. As is…”
My voice trailed off.
“You sound different, Sy,” Gordon said. “What happened to your eye?”
“Aren’t we supposed to be focusing on you?”
“I’m not going to drop dead this very minute,” he said. Then he took a deep breath and closed his eyes, and I thought he might really expire in that moment, making himself a liar. His lips moved, “Your eye?”
I glanced at Jamie. “Noble. The Baron Richmond.”
“I didn’t tell Jamie outright, but I’m guessing he’s put the pieces together. We can’t- I mean, there’s no way we’re going to get out of this okay if we don’t deal with the nobles.”
“Those three need to die,” Jamie said. It wasn’t the words alone that surprised me.
“They really do,” I said. “The upside is that I don’t think they’d be missed. The downside is that I don’t have a clue how I’m going to do it.”
“We’re,” Jamie said. “We’re going to do it.”
“I really thought we could show up, do an errand for Mr. and Mrs. Gage, and give my future career a little boost,” Lillian said. “I didn’t expect to get caught up in war, I didn’t expect Sy to lose an eye. I didn’t expect-”
She cut herself off.
“Going home with less Lambs than you started with?” Gordon asked. “It’s okay. You can talk about it. I’ve been expecting it since before we lost the first Jamie.”
“I hate it,” Lillian said.
“Me too,” Gordon said. “So much I just want to scream about it, get angry, but that would probably agitate my poor heart too much and tip me over the brink. You’re not alone in feeling like that, okay, Lillian?”
“What were we talking about?” Gordon asked.
“Nobles,” Jamie said.
“Sy. Did you know?” Gordon asked. “Moment we ran into the Duke in person, my first thought was that you were going to end up at odds with them? With the nobility?”
“I can see that,” I said.
He nodded. “I want in on this mission so badly. I don’t even have the words. I’ve known about my expiration date for a while now, even if I thought it was later. I felt sort of at peace with it, until- until just earlier tonight, when I collapsed.”
None of the Lambs said anything. We let him talk.
“It hit me all at once. Boom. Done. Story unfinished. Never get to really do what I was supposed to. All I can do is hope that they pick my project up again, learn from it, and the next Griffon gets to last longer. I’m so frustrated and angry and when you’re talking about going up against the nobles, even if it’s those three useless, unimportant bastards, I can’t help but want to hurt them for this. I want in so damn bad.”
“Your fault for going and dying on us right in the middle of a mission,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I know.”
“It’s absolutely not your fault,” Lillian said, contradicting me. She twisted around in my arms to shoot me an evil, warning look over her shoulder.
“Sure, Lillian,” Gordon said, like he was pacifying her. I felt her squirm momentarily as she settled back into a more relaxed position. She still had a deathgrip on my hand.
“Anything I can do?” I asked. “A favor?”
“Sylvester, you motherfucker,” Gordon said, huffing out a laugh. “You owe me so many favors at this point, I literally do not think I’m going to live long enough to name all the things you’d have to do for me to balance those scales.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“I, uh, really want my dog,” he said, staring up at the ceiling. I wasn’t sure if his voice had cracked a little there.
“Hubris is coming back,” I said.
“I could go find him.”
“Nope. You’d get lost or shot, he’d find his way back, and nope, doesn’t work. You’re right. He’s coming back. I’m being stupid.”
“Whatever you think or do at this point is allowed, I think,” I said. “Old people get away with slinging around things like ‘god bless’ without getting flack for it, same idea.”
“Okay Sy,” he said, in a way that suggested he was humoring me and not really listening. “Listen, as favors go, do you think I could talk to each of you one on one for a bit?”
“Sure,” Lillian said. Jamie and I nodded. Gordon had to turn his head all the way to the left to catch my nod, then all the way right to catch Jamie’s.
“Then Lillian first, please,” he decided.
I extricated myself from the blanket and from Lillian, kissing the crown of her head as I stood and backed away, looking around the dim little house, finding the kitchen, more a room built against the side of the house than an actual part of it, and retreating there.
I fidgeted. I really wanted to hit something, but I didn’t want to interrupt the conversation. The part of me that wanted to do something was telling me to rummage in drawers and cabinets and find supplies I could turn to useful ends, but even that threatened to make too much noise.
Jamie had crossed from the other side of the little living room, and was a moment later in arriving in the kitchen. He met my eye before leaning against the icebox, arms folded, eyes fixed on the floor.
“About the nobles,” I said. “I’m sorry to put you at odds with them like that.”
He shook his head.
“You didn’t decide that course of action, and I know it’s an ugly one, with possible repercussions.”
“No, Sy,” he said. “Like I said, they need to die.”
“I’m just surprised to hear you say it.”
“So am I,” he said. “It’s… weird. In my own head, I’m only, what, a year and a few months old? I spent more than two thirds of that time with the Academy. They ran the tests, they fed me the propaganda, they had ‘limited schedules’ where the doctors were available and had to cram a lot of stuff into one or two days, sometimes, and didn’t feed me or let me sleep enough, and they gave me more tests and more propaganda, when I was more vulnerable to being pushed or pulled, if you know what I mean.”
“I have an idea what you mean,” I said. I kept my voice quieter, so our babble wouldn’t interrupt Gordon any. “It’s why I’m- why I was wary of you. Because I wasn’t sure if you were theirs or if you were ours, given the amount of time you’d spent with them.”
He nodded. “His writings, they didn’t say anything about it. I think when it was happening to him, he wasn’t even aware, or he didn’t know it was bad. So he didn’t write it down. There were other things to record. Approaching you, I wasn’t sure if you remembered that far back, or what your feelings on it would be.”
I nodded. I could hear Lillian crying in the other room.
She would probably cry through the entire sit-down with Gordon. She was probably crying extra hard because she was upset at the fact that she was crying so much. I smiled a little at the thought. It wasn’t that I was happy she was sad, or that it was funny- it wasn’t. But her feelings were so very real. I was glad that she got to express them.
A few years from now, she would be happier looking back on the fact that she’d been able to feel as honestly as she did than to look back and be happy she kept it all bottled up and had a simple conversation with Gordon.
“What are your feelings, Sy?”
“What?” I asked, startled. I wondered momentarily if Jamie had read my mind.
“About the way the Academy treated us when we were very young. About what’s happening with Gordon. The fact that those two things are linked, and that there’s a lot in between.”
It was so hard to speak with the lump in my throat. “I’m more focused on the here and now than I am on the distant past. The fighting, figuring out what to say to Gordon, if I should act like everything’s normal when it’s not, or highlight how not it is and be super serious or angry or cry or…”
I raised my hands, gesticulating, just barely restraining myself from extending the random gestures into violently hitting the side of the icebox or the wood-paneled wall. “…Or something.”
I let my hands fall down to my sides. I couldn’t will myself to put them into my pockets, so I clenched them at my sides. I had tears in my eyes, and I knew that if I looked at Jamie now I would definitely see a glimmer of old Jamie and start outright weeping.
It was good that Lillian was having a good cry over something that was definitely worth crying about, but I couldn’t let myself do the same and I couldn’t begin to explain why I couldn’t.
“Okay, sorry, I’ll drop the subject,” Jamie said.
It was the second most surprising thing he’d said all night. In every interaction since he’d shown up, he’d been so dogged in how he pushed my boundaries and pushed me. I was so immensely grateful to him for going easy here that I almost couldn’t find words.
“Thanks,” I managed.
Lillian’s conversation with Gordon took another few minutes. I could hear it die down, some brief shuffling, and then Lillian appeared in the kitchen. She buried a very damp face in my shoulder, hugging me, and just as I put my arms around her, pulled away, shaking her head, wiping at her eyes and cheeks.
At my confused expression, she said, “He wants to see you.”
I saw a fresh tear on her cheek, newer than the attempt to wipe her face dry with her palms, put a hand on the back of her neck, and kissed it off. I gave her neck a reassuring squeeze, and headed back to the living room.
I pulled my shirt off the line that we’d rigged above the fire and put it on, buttoning it as I let myself collapse into a sitting position not far from Gordon’s head.
He heaved out a heavy sigh.
“Should I look back on this as you being an old friend, a brother, a fellow soldier?” I asked.
“I definitely see you as an annoying little brother. And as an old friend and fellow soldier,” he said. “Whatever works in the moment, I guess.”
“I know we weren’t as close as you and Jamie were, but are you going to fall apart on us like you did then?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “If you’d asked me thirty minutes before we lost Jamie, I would’ve said that I was expecting to be the strong, prepared one, while the rest of you went to pieces.”
“What we talked about back in Brechwell, how Helen said you were trying to fill the gap Jamie left? Don’t try doing that with any gap I leave, okay?”
“But I’m liquid, don’t you know? I naturally fill a perceived void. Wise young man once told me that.”
“Seriously, Sy,” he said. “You’re really bad in a fight. You’ll get killed.”
“I’ll be careful,” I said.
“That sounds a lot to me like you’re dodging a straight answer. In fact, it sounds a lot like you’re planning on trying it.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I feel like I don’t know much of anything right now. I’m going to miss the heck out of you. Everyone is.”
“Make sure Lillian drinks something. She’s going to cry herself straight into a hangover without touching a drop of alcohol.”
“You take care of that girl, Sy. Do right by her.”
“Of course,” I said, a little offended.
“Seriously. She’s a sweetheart and I’m worried we’ve done enough damage to her already. If you do anything when you’re thinking of me, after I’m gone… think about her.”
I felt a moment of alarm. “You’re not sweet on her, are you?”
He shook his head.
I looked at the fire, lurched to my feet, walked over to the stack of logs off to one side, and placed one in the center.
Again, I collapsed more than simply sat, settling into a sitting position.
“You and Lillian are the ones who need the most looking after,” Gordon said.
“Ashton too, at least.”
“Maybe right now. But I don’t think your long-term recall is good enough to remember how fast Helen adapted. Ashton will surprise you the next time you see him, I think.”
“You and Lillian are the ones who’re most fragile in the end. I’m so glad that you’re both enjoying the relationship for what it is, and I’m so terrified about it too. I want to give you a list of instructions or make you make promises to me, but I don’t think you’d keep them. You’d want to, but you’re you and you-”
He stopped, drew a deep breath, and resumed.
“-You’ll do what you do. It took me a while to understand that. So I’m only asking you, do right by her.”
“And forgive Jamie.”
“Forgive?” I asked. Then I shook my head. “Yeah. I’m trying.”
“Good,” he said.
He stopped there, seemingly focused on deep breathing.
“What about Mary?”
“Favors? Requests? Are you going to run down the Lambs and tell me how to deal with each of them, or…?”
“No, Sy. Like I said, I’m looking after you and Lillian. You forgiving Jamie is for you. I told Lillian to tell Mary some stuff, and I’ll have Jamie pass on a more complete message. He’ll remember it.”
“I asked Lillian to talk to Shipman, too. I think it’s better that it’s her instead of Jamie. She’ll know where to find Shipman and it’ll come across with more emotion. I’m definitely not asking you. God, I swear, the look on your face every time she came up-”
I laughed, one note.
“Probably in the top ten best things about seeing her, finally getting your goat, instead of the other way around.”
“You always were as big a bastard as I was, deep down inside. You just hid it better.”
He smiled. “Reminds me. If you want me to leave you tasks, important things to cover… look after the mice in the Shims? I’ve been paying regular visits. You’ll have to take over. Say hi, make sure they don’t need anything. Let them know I’m gone.”
“We had good times back then, learning the techniques and tricks, me learning to throw a punch, you mostly paying good money to the same guys, only to get your ass beat. Learning cuss words.”
“Survive tonight and tomorrow, Sy? Please? Don’t burn the bridges so badly you can’t go back and let the mice know how it ended?”
“I’m not sure the bridges aren’t completely burned, already Gordon. It’s a tall order as it stands.”
“You can do it,” he said, while lifting a hand out from under the blankets, and he punched me in the knee. It was so feeble as punches went, to the point that I wanted to laugh and start crying at the same time.
He seemed to have the same realization as his eyes fixated on his hand, which now lay across the floor. “I think you’d better get Jamie so I can wrap this up.”
I nodded. I pulled myself to my feet and straightened. I remained there, standing over him as he lay across the floor, covered in blankets, lit by the fire that shone through the grate. I bent down and fixed his hand, putting it back under the blanket.
“Bye Sy. Give ’em hell, alright?”
I turned my back and headed back to the kitchen. I didn’t break stride as I gestured at Jamie, then wrapped my arms around Lillian, burying my face against her hair. I inadvertently did it with the side that had the wounded eye, but after the first moment the pain wasn’t too bad.
We stayed like that for what felt like an hour, hugging, sometimes rocking back and forth. I swore once or twice, and she gave me one syllable responses. She said something almost incoherent about her parents and I gave a one syllable response.
I only broke away from the hug when I realized I couldn’t swallow past the lump in my throat. I stepped away and found two glasses, and filled them from the sink. I had to fill them with brown, brackish water twice before the tap water started running clear.
Lillian and I drank. She gave her glass, I filled it again, and she drank half of it, handing it back to me. I finished it.
“Jamie’s been in there a while,” Lillian whispered.
“Etching last messages and last instructions into the stone tablet,” I said.
“Of course,” she said.
Gordon’s voice had been getting quieter and quieter, and it wasn’t because he was trying to keep the conversation private.
I took a step to the side and peeked into the room. I was glad to see that Hubris was back, lying at Gordon’s side, chin on Gordon’s chest.
At some point Jamie had put Gordon’s hand on the dog’s back. The fingers moved very little, but they did move. Gordon’s lips moved, but I didn’t even hear the murmur. I heard Jamie’s murmurs, but that was all.
Lillian moved closer to me, effectively pinning me into position, her head tilted and pressed against mine as she watched.
Time passed like that before Jamie finished memorizing a last few sets of instructions, twisted around, and gestured at us.
We gathered around, Lillian kneeling where she could hold Gordon’s free hand.
“I remember when we first met,” Lillian said. “And Helen was so scary, and Sy was an absolute bastard, the very first time I saw him, he held the door open for me, and then let it swing closed, and it almost hit me in the nose, except I moved in time and it hit my forehead instead. I had a bruise for a while.”
I did that?
“And I was so terrified that I’d signed on for something nightmarish, and then you talked to me, and you were nice, and you made everything make sense. And for a little while there, you were my hero, Gordon,” she said.
“Then, a month later, I watched you take a heated scalpel and you fought a person twice your size with it, and you won, and then you branded his face while Helen held him. Sy was the one who told me why he deserved it, and I understood. It wasn’t pretty, but that was the moment I first thought I could see this job through to the end. It feels weird thanking you for that, because it’s not that nice a thing, but it was important,” she whispered.
“I remember you playing with the younger kids at Lambsbridge, and they were so fond of you. At Mothmont you made friends so easily, and I was a little jealous, but it mostly grew my respect for you. You’ve always shone, Gordon. You’ve-”
At Gordon’s chest, Hubris sighed.
“Yeah,” Lillian said.
There was a long moment of silence.
I put my hand on Gordon’s forehead, and pushed the hair further back out of his face.
He’d said ‘god’ and ‘goddamn’ and ‘hell’ more times tonight than I’d heard from him ever, which was about four times. I hoped he’d found his way.
I spoke, “I know it’s rude to the people who own the house, but I think we should burn it on our way out.”
Jamie nodded. He had a handkerchief out, under the guise of cleaning his glasses, but I noted it was going to his eyes more than not.
When Lillian looked up at me, I elaborated, “I don’t want anyone getting his body, not to make a stitched or for anything else. And we need to cover our trail.”
“Okay,” Lillian said. She was focusing on packing up her things, putting them away in her medical bag.
I reached out to touch her hand, and she startled.
I gave her hand a squeeze, and she made a face, like she was going to start crying again. She shook her head, instead, and reached up to wipe a lone tear from my cheekbone with her thumb.
“We need to work,” she said. “There’s a job to do, and things out there are going to get worse.”
“Are you trying to convince us, or to convince yourself?” Jamie asked.
“Myself,” Lillian said. “I can’t visualize myself standing up and walking out there, feeling like this.”
“Then let’s start with something easier, that doesn’t involve stepping outside. I need a dose of the Wyvern formula. A partial one, maybe. Enough to give me an edge again. I was fuzzy around the edges before Gordon. Right now? I… I’m more in the same boat with you than you might realize.”
She put stuff away for another few moments before she found a long metal case. She popped it open.
Two syringes and a bottle, nestled in. The fluid caught the firelight and looked green.
She stared down at it, putting a hand on top of it. Hesitation?
I waited for the question.
“If I gave you a partial dose-” she started.
“Yes,” I said, cutting her off. “If you really wanted.”
“I’m- I can?”
“Yes. It sucks more than you would believe, even with the smaller dose you’d be taking. You’ll struggle at first, but I’m not going to say no, Lillian.”
She looked at Jamie, as if to double check.
“I don’t know,” Jamie said. “That’s not me saying no, or expressing doubts. That’s me saying I don’t know enough about wyvern or about what it’s like. You’d have to trust Sylvester.”
“With this heartache I’m feeling, will it make the pain go away?” she asked.
“If anything, it’ll make the pain sharper,” I said. “It’ll leave an impression. But it’ll be easier to set the pain to one side, where it can hurt all it’s going to, while you focus on what you need to focus on.”
She stared down at the tin, then looked at Gordon and Hubris.
“Perfect,” she said.