Lillian took her time checking the syringe, cocking it to eject the air in the needle itself. She held it up to the light.
“Me first?” I asked.
She seemed to consider for a long while. In the midst of her thought process, her eye fell on Gordon. I could see the hurt in her expression.
“Or not?” I ventured.
“I want- I was there for your last few doses. Your personality changes.”
“It doesn’t,” I told her.
Her eyebrows went up.
“Not exactly,” I said. “The personality is the same. It’s just expressed… more clearly, I guess.”
“The way they put it was that you became, quote, ‘an absolute little bastard to deal with.’ From what I saw, I’m not sure I disagree, Sy.”
“Like I said, the personality is the same,” I said.
The levity felt forced. I didn’t get a smile from her or Jamie.
I heaved out a heavy sigh.
“I don’t want you to be a bastard to me, Sy. And, if this hurts as much as I’m expecting it to, I kind of want you with me. Not an altered you.”
“It is me, fresh on Wyvern, or now. The change isn’t-”
“Sy,” Jamie said, cutting in with a soft spoken word.
I twisted around to look at him.
“Listen to what she’s really saying, and stop being contrary, okay?”
I looked at Lillian, sighed, and nodded.
“Thank you,” she said. “The solution in the syringe is sterile, and I can’t portion it out without putting it somewhere and then taking it back out. I don’t want to do that, given where we’re injecting.”
The stuff will kill pretty much anything, though, I thought. I didn’t say it out loud, out of concern that it would be ‘contrary’. I nodded.
She was quiet, talking to herself as much as she talked to me. “I need you to depress the syringe when it’s in place. I’m doing the ratios and numbers in my head, going by my body weight, seven point eight stone-”
I made a sound, then immediately realized my mistake. I might have expected the glare of death from Lillian, but no. It was Jamie who gave me the glare of death. Lillian only stared at me like she might stare at a great warbeast that was about to trample her. Terrified more than anything.
Too vulnerable. Her defenses were down, her emotions raw with a friend and near-family member lying dead a matter of feet away. She might have felt like any sort of emotional hit right now could have shattered her to pieces. One from me doubly so.
I shook my head. “No, Lillian. Not like that.”
She didn’t move or respond. Still in a precarious position, feeling too fragile.
“Don’t lie about your weight, okay?” I said. “In trying to keep up the little lie, you could hold the wrong numbers in your head, do the ratios wrong in your head, and you’ll end up hurting yourself.”
I stopped there, leaving room for a response. When I didn’t get one, I went on, “Most girls lie and lower their weight when they talk about it, just like boys add an inch or a half-inch to their height. I don’t know why you’re pretending you’re heavier than you are, but… take a third of a stone or a half-stone off that?”
She gave me a very strange look. “Did you read my medical records, Sy?”
I shook my head. “But I pay attention to you.”
She looked uncomfortable, but she was flushed.
It would be bad to tell her that I was ninety-five percent certain I knew her measurements as well; height, leg, hip, waist, chest, and arm. Around the winter holidays, I’d been looking to get her a present, and the thought of getting her something nice and more current to wear had crossed my mind. I’d realized I hadn’t known enough to buy her clothes and made it a personal challenge to figure it out. Somewhere along the line it stopped being about the present.
I’d brought her to happy tears with what I had bought her, which was good. A wooden box for jewelry and other personal effects, with three very different pieces of jewelry and a tiny notebook, three inches by two inches, with some thoughts in it. Some memories and thoughts about us for the past, the jewelry she could wear and use in the now, and something to fill out over the course of the future.
Gordon had called it the latest and possibly greatest case of Sylvester’s overthinking. I’d said something about how girls deserved overthinking about, except I was pretty sure I’d bungled the explanation. He’d teased me about it.
My eye went to my friend and brother. His dog hadn’t moved away from the body, and his open eyes reflected the light from the fire.
Custom called for the eyes to be closed, fingers drawing the eyelids shut. That didn’t really work. Everyone here had enough experience with bodies to know.
Lillian’s eyes were on the needle.
“Seven point… two?” I asked.
“Seven point three stone,” she said. “Don’t know why I try to hide anything from you. That translates to… three-three-nine, then I think of Damian’s second chart, and…”
I waited patiently.
“Twenty-one,” she said. She showed me the syringe, thumbnail at one of the lines etched into the glass. “Up to this point, for a safe dosage, for me. The rest goes to you.”
“Okay,” I said. Eighty percent of a dose for me, about.
Lillian turned the dial at the side of the syringe. The needle extended.
She aimed the point at her nose.
“Don’t sneeze,” I said.
“I’m not sure if you’re trying to be funny or not,” she told me.
“I’m serious,” I said. “And you’re going to need something to bite on, and I don’t have a belt.”
Jamie stood, and began pulling his belt free. He extended a hand with the folded belt held in our direction, and I took it. I folded it again, then placed it in Lillian’s open mouth.
“What else can I do?” Jamie asked.
“Stand a little closer. Brace her shoulders. Don’t let her tip over backward,” I said.
I scooted closer, then wrapped my legs around her middle, sitting a bit on her feet and ankles, her legs and feet forming something of a diamond around me. I could see how hard she was breathing.
“Let me,” I said, taking the needle. “Hold on to me.”
She reached up to pull the belt free, then said, “The moment there’s any resistance, you stop.”
“I know,” I said. I helped put the belt back, pressing it together so she could get her teeth around it.
The needle went up the left nostril. Up, up, along the cavity, at a thirty degree angle, more back than up.
How strange, to be on the other side of this.
I worked purely by touch, knowing that the needle would be deceptive, it was so sharp. With my hands occupied, I was left to stare into Lillian’s eyes.
I want to take care of that girl.
There. A change in the resistance of what I was pushing the needle through. I stopped.
I could feel her pounding heartbeat vibrating through her body, down the needle, to my fingers.
I undid the safety bar and pressed the lever of the syringe.
Of everything we’d done so far, it was the press of the syringe that caught me off guard. I’d expected more resistance.
I hurried to finish, and then withdrew the needle as fast as I could without lacerating her brain or the inside of her nose. I put the syringe out of reach.
She leaned forward, making a pained sound, and Jamie stopped her. I gestured, and he let her.
She leaned heavily into me, her face against my shoulder, clutching me. I held her as she screamed into the belt, already biting down hard enough that her neck and arms were trembling.
A part of me wished I’d been able to get the first dose. It would have distracted me, and it would have freed me to focus on the mission over anything else. Now I was here, holding Lillian as she endured the worst pain of her life, fighting to keep her from throwing herself back and away and cracking her head on the floor, her fingernails digging into my ribs. Dwelling on her in this much pain was miserable. Looking at Jamie was too painful after any length of time.
What did it say that staring at Hubris and Gordon was the least painful of the three options available to me?
What was it he’d asked me to do? Look after Lillian?
A part of me felt like I’d betrayed that request. Another part of me felt like this was necessary.
So many parts of this sucked, and the only redeeming thing about it was that, at least with Lillian going first, she wasn’t having to endure the suck while I got the dose.
I felt a gurgling move through Lillian’s torso. I gestured at Jamie as best as I could without letting her thrash.
A moment later, I had a bowl in hand. I twisted around to get it in position, while Lillian heaved her stomach’s contents out, spitting out the belt in the process. Jamie took the bowl, so I didn’t have to contort myself to find a position where I could set it down without spilling it.
It had been a while since I’d had that violent a reaction. Pain so severe the body reacted.
She couldn’t quite draw in a breath, and yet she tried to scream, and the sound she produced was closer to a high, strained keening. Hubris’ ears went up, even though he didn’t lift his chin from Gordon’s chest.
It took a long, long time for the keening to stop, and for Lillian to suck in a shuddering breath.
She started to sob, and her breathing normalized. I rubbed her back. Her chin was now hooked over my shoulder.
“Done?” Jamie asked.
I nodded. The pain would last for a while, though.
“Lillian,” I whispered.
“There’s a part of you that’s used to crying and not being able to stop, because your emotions have gotten away from you. That part doesn’t have the same hold it did. All of the patterns and habits you used to have are gone, okay? Take in a deep breath, and as you exhale, let that part of you just… go out with the rhythm. It won’t go away, but let it go.”
I could feel her chest against mine as she drew in a deep breath, hitching as she sobbed, and then exhaled.
It took her three tries. Then the sobbing stopped. She was still breathing hard. I rubbed her back some more. Even if she was in a different place, the same Lillian was there, still hurting just as much, still as upset and scared deep down inside.
“Now the pain in your head. I know it seems insurmountable, but take your time. Instead of trying to separate from it, just do it little by little. If there’s a part of you that thinks its making a difference with the pain, believe it, and work with it.”
She offered more deep breaths. It took a while before she nodded.
“I want you to think of the night we were at the Fishmonger’s. You worked to save that patient. You did good work. Do you remember?”
A nod, her ear rubbing against mine.
“Think of that moment, recall that rush, the tension, all of the good parts, like how glad you were that you studied this or that. Okay?” I murmured. “Think of the best parts of yourself. The days you were on fricking point with your studies. The part that Mary respects, that I respect, that makes you an integral part of the Lambs. That made Hayle sit up and take notice by being an excellent student.”
I looked up at Jamie, then away, down at Gordon.
“Your memories are going to feel a lot more raw, open, and vivid. I tried so hard to dig into the memories for the talents and the tricks, the moments where you executed things, the so-called muscle memory, the manipulations, I let the other things get muddied up. If you were like me and you did that for a long time, you’d let the whole foundation go,” I whispered to her. “Don’t do that. Don’t do any of that. It’s unnecessary.”
She nodded again.
“The Lillian I know has the ability. There’s nothing to dredge up or try to hold onto. She also has doubts, she holds back, and she worries. Part of that is what makes her a good doctor. Don’t hurry to get rid of it all. But let go of the stuff you already know is holding you back, that you’re holding onto only because it’s safe. I want the Lillian who is in the moment. The Lillian who is doing good work, starting at the time between when she lets go of the doubts and plunges elbow-deep into someone’s chest cavity and ending at the time the procedure is done.”
She took in a deep breath, and exhaled.
“You won’t be able to make the changes all at once. But know what you want, and be conscious of what you’re taking and what you’re giving up. Do it in measures, like you’re using a scalpel. Move on to the pain of losing Gordon-”
Her fingernails dug into my ribs again, her chin dug into my shoulderblade.
“-and set is aside. Respect it, don’t squash it, but remove it from the part of yourself that is functioning right now.”
Another deep breath, another slow exhalation.
I let her take her time with that, and let her take her time to work things out on her own, exploring her own head, and see what it was like when she could make her thoughts, feelings, and instincts do what she wanted them to.
She moved her hands from my abused ribs and put them on my shoulders, pulling away.
I could see her face. Her eyes were red around the edges and a little swollen, her nose was pink from sniffling and mashing it against my shoulder, and she was pale, glistening with sweat.
But the look in her eyes was different, as was her expression.
Halfway between the Lillian I’d been sitting across from, needle in hand, and the elemental Lillian I’d seen at the Fishmonger’s, with a dash of exhaustion. Her eyes were half-lidded.
She twisted around and looked up at Jamie. “Water?”
Lillian looked back my way, and put a hand out, against my chest, over my heart. A strange, un-Lillian-like gesture. We remained like that until Jamie returned from the kitchen.
He handed her a glass of water, and she drank deep, paused, swished it around her mouth, and then swallowed. She repeated the process a few times.
This, too, was a little strange.
When the tall glass of water was done with, she leaned forward and gave me a light kiss on the lips.
I leaned back and away. I looked at Gordon. This wasn’t the time or the place.
“Thank you,” she said, “For being so gentle with me.”
“I need to clean the syringe,” she said. She touched the side of my face, then pulled away, extricating herself from me.
She moved differently, as she crossed the room to where she’d left the medical kit. She picked her way through it, lapsing back into more Lillian-like expressions and behavior in the meantime.
Making her way back, she let her hand reach down to run fingers through my hair, before stooping down to pick up the mechanical syringe I’d set aside.
I didn’t break eye contact with Jamie for the duration.
“Lillian,” I said.
“While you’re adjusting the thoughtscape up there, maybe remember we don’t want or need drunk Lillian.”
“I’m not drunk,” she said. Her voice was different too, the words more clearly formed without being over-enunciated. “I feel very balanced, I can actually make my hands stop trembling. I’m focused. I feel like I’ve been drunk for a long time and now I’m sober.”
“It seems as if your inhibitions are gone,” I said.
She shook her head. She shot me a smile, and I saw more of that elemental Lillian lurking in the expression. “Not my inhibitions. But I feel… I feel like I’m a brand new me in Lillian’s body and brain, and I’m seeing everything fresh for the first time. I see the walls I put up, and I’m setting some aside.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Now that we have this shared experience, I feel closer to you,” she said.
Something about the way she was now was exciting, in a way that made my body feel more alive, ready to do things in a way that was very ready and very nonspecific and indiscriminate about what those things were.
But she had said she felt closer to me, and my head was recognizing that I felt oddly distanced from her. I found myself disagreeing with the Sylvester of twenty minutes ago, who had argued with Lillian about the personality after Wyvern. She’d been right. This didn’t quite feel like the Lillian I knew.
The mind and body warred with one another, and in the midst of that war, Gordon was the tiebreaker. I felt repulsed by my reaction to Lillian, and that let the mind take the helm.
“I’m glad,” I said, noncommittally.
Jamie spoke, “Be careful about the changes you make, Lillian. They’ll revert over time, but a small fraction of it will be permanent. It’s through the prolonged use that bigger changes are made.”
You know more than you let on.
“I thought you said you didn’t know enough about the wyvern formula to say anything?” Lillian asked.
“I was being polite. Saying anything would have been getting between you and Sy, and if you both agree we need this to tackle the situation outside, I’m not going to slow things down by arguing.”
“You’re too nice sometimes, Jamie,” Lillian said. She finished cleaning the syringe. She adjusted it, then dropped into position, straddling my lap. My back was to the front of an armchair. She locked her eyes to mine. “Ready?”
“Yeah,” I said.
She was more sure about it than I was, the insertion of the needle sure and straight. I felt the needle balk as it hit the scar, even though I didn’t feel the hit myself. It wasn’t scar tissue, exactly, but more a lesion, an accumulation of minerals and byproducts.
Then the push through.
A moment of fear.
And the flood of wyvern, across the membrane at the exterior of the brain, then seeping into the brain itself, my senses screaming at me, my body rebelling. Vertigo, a paralyzing series of moments where time had no meaning, where my body didn’t listen, where I couldn’t think in words.
All before the pain swept in, not gradually but as sudden as the drop of a guillotine blade, and just as capable of obliterating all function.
Ten out of ten, on the scale. Ten out of ten, for how uncomfortable it was, if I separated all other parts of it from the pain. I wanted to throw up, to wrench muscles from sockets, claw into flesh, shit, piss, scream, anything that separated me from this.
In the incoherent thoughts and observations I sensed, I noted the girl hugging me, Jamie looming over me, my vision unfocusing, seeing Jamie blurred, one figure and one shadow against the wall now two people side by side. Gordon lying dead, and a pattern of firelight against the wall I couldn’t even begin to convince myself wasn’t another, phantasmal Gordon, watching.
I looked away from it all, and I endured, my fingers digging into my knees.
I’d been here before, or somewhere very like it.
My senses came back first, and I felt like I was going to go blind, crawl out of my skin, and throw up in the same moment.
Time and place followed. Reality clarified around me. I pushed away the image of Gordon on the wall, recognizing it for what it was. Jamie was one person.
Slowly, everything else sorted out. I was left with only a crippling headache and a nosebleed of blood diluted with clear fluid. Lillian dutifully plugged the nostril with a bit of cotton.
The pain had a bitterness to it, and it colored my thoughts, mingled with the knowledge that it would come again and again, that pain. A small part of me felt like I was holding onto something ancient, dating back to the very first time I’d received the formula, but I didn’t know how to let go of it, as if I was trying to paint the ground I stood on.
That bitterness redoubled with the memory of where we were, and the recollection of the fact that Gordon was dead. The walls weren’t up, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. The raw surprise of a feeling almost perfectly mirrored a memory of how I’d stumbled onto Jamie, lost to us, and I thought I might break in a permanent way.
I was staring up at the ceiling, and tears started streaming down my face.
I can’t. I can’t feel this.
I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.
A hand touched my face and I flinched. I stood up, pushing Lillian off me in the process, and backed away.
Lillian who wasn’t Lillian and Jamie who wasn’t Jamie and Gordon who was just a body.
My hands went to my hair, my arms vertical bars in my field of vision, walling me off from reality, from empty shells, lies, fakes.
“Stay with us, Sy,” the fake Jamie said.
“Deep breaths, like you said,” the fake Lillian told me. “Put everything in its place. You know how to handle this.”
I know how to handle this, I thought. The thoughts themselves were so crystal clear that the edges of them were sharp and painful to experience. This is the world I live in, with primordials and shells both empty and filled with the wrong things, with war and violence and things I should be more scared of, but I buried those things a long, long time ago, with the worst of the pain.
This isn’t the problem. This is something I can deal with, and I’ve been dealing with it for a long time. I couldn’t leave this world behind if I tried.
But the memories of Gordon came to me, hitting me, and flowed like the tears did. If I so much as looked in the wrong direction or paid attention to the wrong memory in the torrent, then I thought of Jamie, and that was a flood of memories and gut-wrenching impacts that was worse.
I felt like I was going to lose my mind, but I couldn’t fix the problem without risking burying those things and too many important things with them.
No, the problem was that I was looking at my mental and emotional makeup with pure, perfect clarity, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to handle the loss of another Lamb, and I knew it would inevitably happen, and so what was there even to stop me from just accepting that loss and rolling with the consequence?
All I had to do was let go, feel that grief for someone who hadn’t yet died, on top of everything else, and I could lose my mind.
Or I could take the grief, bury it like I’d changed my mind in so many different ways already, and lose something precious in the transaction.
“Stay with us,” Jamie said.
I was a problem solver, and it was a problem without an answer.
But there were problems to answer. My hand went up to touch the eyepatch. I felt anger, contempt, black bile roiling inside me.
I always had to claw my way up from a dark place, post-dosage. This time, well, it wasn’t so deep a fall, with only eighty percent of the formula, sparing me the dip into things I’d cast off and tried to lose when I was half the age I was now. Not so deep a fall, but it felt like an especially steep climb, this time around.
I kept a little of that darkness with me as I surfaced. I let the tears stop.
I looked at Lillian, who was disheveled, her eyes intense and wide, and at Jamie, his face in shadow, the lenses catching a bit of the firelight.
“Sorry,” I said. I embraced the emotions, and was glad that they listened to me. I was filled to the brim with rage and loss, and there were abundant enemies in this city who I wanted to direct them at. “I think I’m ready now.”
“Burn the building on the way out, you said,” Jamie told me.
“Okay,” I said.
It didn’t take long to set up. There were oils in the kitchen, and the stove was already burning. We poured out the chemicals, letting them pool around the base of the stove, before we drew the connection to let the fire stretch along a stripe of oil and touch soaked floorboards.
We backed away, leaving Gordon where he was.
A warrior’s funeral, I thought. I pushed down all the parts of me that wanted to scream and cry.
Lillian whistled, and Hubris finally left the body, hurrying to her side.
The four of us ducked out of the building and into the streets of shadow and fire. Tonight we started with a game of cat and mouse where the mice had no choice but to fight.