In Sheep’s Clothing – 10.1

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I was still awake as dawn broke.  It would have been quaint to say that the sun streamed in through the window, but Radham was conservative with its sunlight, and the Academy was a small fortress, surrounded by a wall.  Even if the sky was clear, the wall meant that sun wouldn’t shine directly on the Academy grounds until mid-morning.  As it was, it was a faint light, deceptively dim.  I’d made the mistake of trying to gauge the time by the light in past visits, and found myself waiting a little too late to sneak out.

Uncomfortable with tossing and turning all night, lost in thought, I’d propped myself up, sitting with my pillow up between my back and the headboard.  I ran my fingers absently through Lillian’s hair, watching her eyes move beneath the eyelids.  She dreamed.  Sleeping next to her, Mary’s eyes were still: dreamless.

I touched the edge of Lillian’s ear as I ran my fingers through her hair, and she squirmed a little.

“Stop it, Sylvester,” she said.

I shifted position, leaning over her to see better.  Sure enough, she was still asleep and still dreaming.  Even when disturbed in sleep, her mind immediately went to me.

Gently, I tugged the sheets so they weren’t so twisted up near her armpit, then crawled out from under the covers, tucking them in around Lillian in the process.  There was a blanket that was usually draped over the foot of the bed, one her mom had made, if I was remembering right, and between the three of us, we had kicked it down so it clumped at the footboard.  I pulled it free and draped it over their feet.

Lillian kept a pitcher on the desk with a glass.  I grabbed the pitcher and found it empty.  Walking to the bedroom door, I leaned against it, my ear pressed against the wood, listening.  I waited until the only footsteps I heard were receding ones, and then opened the door.

For the sake of Lillian’s future, we’d gone to Lugh.  We’d walked away from tens of thousands dead, the loss of a team member and his dog, the loss of my left eye, and a city in flames.  That was without touching on the fate of the person we’d been sent to find, the enmity of one of the more powerful people in the Crown States, and the near end of human civilization because of some very misguided experiments that both sides had ended up using to force the other side’s hands.

With that in mind, it was hard to put into words the feelings that drove me as I left Lillian’s room and brazenly walked down the hallway of the girl’s dormitory, making my way into the girl’s bathroom.  All that trouble to give her a better shot at becoming a professor, and here I was, running the risk of getting her kicked out of the dormitory.

A part of the feelings were a desire to raise my middle fingers to all of the aforementioned incidents.  Not giving voice to the vague frustration and bitterness I felt, but giving action to those feelings.  Getting caught and dragged in front of people that mattered would give me a chance to attack that nebulous reality, and to attack it in a way I was comfortable with.

I cranked the sink on and set the pitcher down in the basin to fill.  I could hear voices and noises from around the corner in the bathroom.  The earliest risers were showering.  I thought about peeking, gave it serious consideration in a ‘what if’ way, and found myself genuinely surprised at the lack of interest I felt.

Two years ago, I might have done it, to sate my curiosity.  A year ago, I would have wanted to do it and pragmatically decided not to.  Now… I was more interested in sitting on that bed for another few minutes than I was in spending an hour in the showers.

Footsteps approached.  I cranked the tap off, gauged the direction, and then stepped into the nearest bathroom stall, closing the door.  I watched through the crack as someone with a towel wrapped around them made their way to the showers.

A few moments later, I stepped out, finished filling the pitcher, and quickly, silently walked back to Lillian’s room, letting myself in.

I set the pitcher and glass beside Lillian’s bed, then made use of a notepad and pen at her desk.  There was already writing on the top of the notepad.  A date and a time, with a word underlined three times.  Parents.

I’d lost track of my days during Lugh.  That was either today or tomorrow.


Filled the pitcher in the bathroom.  Drink lots.  It will help with the headaches.

Got shoulder put back together last night.  I said you’d look at it so I wouldn’t have to go back for follow-up.  I think we should meet for lunch, you can check my shoulder, yell at me for leaving your room while people were up and walking around, and we’ll talk with everyone?  If you’re going to be busy, let Mary know when you send her back in our direction.

Will be at Lambsbridge.  Might leave to go to the Shims, have to let the mice know about Gordon and Hubris.

I held the pen over the page, contemplating what I had already written.  The impulse to leave my room had been partially some misdirected, nebulous need to strike back against the forces that seemed to be making everything so damn difficult, but if I admitted it to myself, a big part of it was imagining the look of horror on Lillian’s face as she read the first line and the line about people being up and walking around.

I thought for a long few minutes about the sign-off.  When I put pen to paper and wrote, though, it was impulse more than a culmination of those long minutes of thought.

Love you,

I almost crumpled up the paper right there, second-guessing myself.  It was true, I told myself.  I was terrible at being honest, I retorted.  It was worth it, to imagine the look on her face changing from horror to something else as she read it, was the counter-point.  But what if that something else was sheer awkwardness, a different sort of horror?  What if Mary read it instead of Lillian, would that be bad, knowing she’d lost Gordon, and that the loss was, discounting the hours of sleep she’d managed, only a few hours raw?

We had gotten off the train, only to immediately be split apart, sent for care and for debriefing, converged just long enough to share news, and then been split apart again.  Rather than wait for the rest of us, Mary had gone to spend time with her best friend, to talk and to cry in private, and the two of them had turned in early.

Weighing the pros and cons of leaving that line at the end, the four-letter word that seemed to have so much importance, I felt like there were more cons than pros, that it was a dreadful mistake.

That feeling had lingered with all of the important actions in my relationship with Lillian, which was reason enough to keep up the pattern.  I put the letter face-down by the pitcher, the edge of the pitcher on the corner of the page so it wouldn’t blow free when I opened the window.

For Mary, I wrote another note.

We didn’t get a chance to talk last night.  I’ve missed you terribly.  I’ll be at Lambsbridge or the Shims.  Lillian is going to want to bury herself in work to avoid thinking about things and stressing about her parents.  It will probably be her big project for next fall.  I invited her to lunch, don’t push too hard if she says she doesn’t want to come. 

You should come.  Because Jamie has stuff to tell you that Gordon wanted to pass on.  I’m 95% sure it’ll help.  And because I’ve really missed talking to you. 


I bent over to give Lillian a kiss on the head, then stood from the bed, gathering my coat and boots.  I circled the bed and put the paper down on the other bedside table, nearer Mary.

Her hand went out, pinning the paper down against the bed.  Eyes awake.  She was alert, eyes sharp and hawkish.

I tapped the paper.  She took it, sliding it along the bedside table before unfolding it.

She took a short while to read, and then looked up, giving me a small nod.  She smiled just a touch, but she also looked very sad.

Very Mary.  Crisp execution, to the point.  I wondered if she didn’t want to look brittle in front of me.  Were the tears and the human side of Mary reserved for her best friend, now?

I opened the window and climbed out.  I took the time to lock it behind me, then made my way to the ground.  My shoulder ached.

There was a skeleton guard at the front of Radham.  Whatever had happened at Lugh, it hadn’t reignited the war.  Things had faded, there was no checkpoint, and the Academy was no longer a morass of warbeasts and soldiers amid student.  I could see four or five people, already up and most of them already showered, making their way here and there.  It was a far cry from some of my earlier visits.

It was a long and eerily quiet walk from Radham to Lambsbridge.  The only sound the entire way was when I hopped and let my feet crunch against the road, just to make sure I hadn’t gone deaf, and five minutes later, the whistle of the train coming in, a single, hollow hoot, muted because the hour was early and the train driver didn’t want to disturb everyone in the city.  The rain had been replaced with a wet snow, so there wasn’t even any patter, while it remained just as wet as always.

I let myself into Lambsbridge, and very quietly removed my boots and coat, making use of one of the countless boot-cubbies and the countless hooks in the front hallway.

Mrs. Earles was already up, working at the counter.

“It’s going-” I started.

She jumped, went very still, and then put her knife down before turning to look at me.

“-to be a very hard day, I think,” I said.

“I think so, Sylvester,” she said.  “Please don’t spook me like that while I’m holding a knife.”

I nodded.

“Apples,” she said, indicating the cutting board and the knife.  She turned her attention to the stove and scraping the bottom of the pot of porridge.  I slid a stool over to the counter and stood on the lowest rung to better see what I was chopping.  It wasn’t that I couldn’t, before, but a little bit more height made the job far easier.

“Were you out all night?” she asked, while I cut the cores out of the apples.


“How are the girls?”


She stopped stirring.  I wasn’t sure why.  The stirring resumed.

“I left them notes before heading back.  Would a picnic lunch be out of the question?  I can do all the preparation.  I’ll stay mostly out of the way, and do some extra work to make up for being a hassle.”

“A picnic lunch is fine, Sylvester.  I can prepare it in advance.”

“Thank you.”

“I talked to Professor Hayle last night.  I was thinking about a stone, somewhere at the back corner of the property, where the stone fence meets beneath the tree,” she said.

Jamie didn’t get a stone.

“That would be nice,” I said.

“For him, for you… and for the little ones.  I think it would help them.”

“Everyone liked him,” I said.

“We did.”

My voice dropped a little.  “When someone dies, there’s this need to memorialize them, you know?  To leave a marker that this person who was so important to us was there.  A stone.  Memories.”

“Yes.  I think-” she very nearly said ‘you’re’, referring to the Lambs as a group, “-he’s lucky.  There are so many children here who got to know him, who will remember him in different ways for the rest of their lives.”

“But that’s just what I was getting at,” I said.

Chop.  Cut.  The apple parted.

I shook my head a little.  “That’s not him.  Do you have any idea what an absolute bastard he was?  In the best way, but in bad ways too.  He was stubborn, and he packed a mean punch.  He won most fights he picked and he rubbed people’s noses in it.  Sometimes that was with me, just play, and sometimes, it was some poor shmuck who worked for some guy we were after, and he’d break their knee, crack a few teeth, and literally rub their faces in the dirt.”

“I don’t think I should be hearing any particulars about what you’ve been doing.”

“You can put a stone out there with his name on it, and the children will remember, but the righteous bastard will get forgotten.  The injustice of how he had to go will get forgotten.  A few years will pass, and we won’t be people.  We’ll just be some notes on pages in Academy record books, footnotes in newer projects.”

“I don’t think that’s true at all,” she said.  “Lillian will remember.”

“I know,” I said.  “Believe me, I know.”

“Would you rather do something other than the stone?  If you have any ideas, I could raise them with Professor Hayle.”

Gordon had drawn parallels between each of the Lambs and the conventional elements.  He’d been the flame.  Rather than cold stone, set out for the rain to erode, a flame would be so much more appropriate.  So much more of a pain in the ass to look after.  Doubly appropriate, in that, but not so possible.

“No,” I said.  “A stone would be very nice.  But can you let us think, decide for ourselves what gets written on it?”

I felt her hand on my damp hair.  “Okay, Sylvester.”

She wasn’t allowed to be motherly, as far as I could figure it out.  Not allowed to interfere, even, which was probably why she hadn’t commented on my disappearing to Lillian’s, or finding Mary in my bed.  With some of the younger charges, even some of the needier not-so-young charges, she would give some special time and attention, but with us, from the very beginning, she’d been hands-off.  That simple touch, coming from her, was the equivalent of a warm, encompassing hug to someone else.

I had to blink extra hard to keep my vision clear enough to see what I was cutting.

Kenneth was the first one down the stairs.  He was new, and I’d barely spent any time with him, what with me disappearing to Lugh.  Seven or so years old.  Too young to know Gordon, but he’d sensed the atmosphere in the house, and it had affected him.  He had been one of the ones crying last night.  Not necessarily because of the loss, but because others were upset, and he hadn’t yet found any emotional footing.

I quickly cut the remainder of the apples for the porridge, then joined Kenneth, lifting him onto the bench at the long table and plopping myself down beside him.  I reached for his stuffed animal, a rabbit, and lifted it up, moving the head and arms, adopting a fighting stance, and had it start punching the kid.  He was smiling after a few seconds, fighting back.

The others started to make their way down.  Fran and Susan, who were a pair now that Eliza had gone off and gotten herself adopted to a nice family, the twit.

And Rick.

Mrs. Earles seemed to notice Rick’s arrival.  It was hard not to.  He was bigger than Gordon.  Bigger than Gordon had been, rather.  Nearly eighteen, facing the prospect of having to move out and fend for himself, he had become even weirder in recent years.  He was always helping out, always striving to get stuff done before Mrs. Earles could do it, playing a little too much with the little kids, well beyond when others would have lost patience.

They were great, like a dozen little brothers and sisters, but nobody liked spending more than five or ten minutes at a time with their younger siblings, let alone an hour or more.

Rick was nearly two hundred pounds and an inch or two shy of six feet tall, a natural Bruno without any physical modification to him, that he had a baby face without a hair on his chin, and weirdly intense eyes and manner, though it might have only been me that could put a finger to the eye thing.  He hadn’t had any luck finding work, too young looking for the hard physical work, too big and scary for the gentler, customer service work.

This was the place he knew, and all of the work, it was done out of a desperate hope to earn a place here, to be Mrs. Earles’ assistant.  She had already talked to him about it, on at least three occasions I knew of, told him he had to work, he had to find real work.

If he were anyone but Rick, I might have felt sorry for him.  If he’d given me one break, throughout the entirety of the time I’d known him, I might have gone and made it a mission to get a foot in the door for him, a bit of work as a favor.

“Sylvester,” Mrs. Earles said.  “Let Fran look after Kenneth.  Get the plates out.”

Fran can actually reach the shelf, I thought, but I didn’t argue.  I moved the stool and got the plates.  It let me keep my distance from Rick, separated by a table and a counter.

When I turned around, he was watching me, staring at me.  I put the plates down on the table, not breaking eye contact.

“Bowls,” was the next order.

So long as I was prompt, I had an excuse to turn away.

Ashton came down the stairs with the rest of the younger group.  A step younger than the rest of the Lambs in appearance, he was surrounded by a throng of the children, who were expressive, some with puffy red eyes from going to sleep crying, others energetic, eager for their breakfasts.

Ashton seemed like the odd one out, eye-catching with his straight red hair, already combed though he’d just gotten out of bed.  His expression was placid, too flat.

Time with Helen was supposed to fix that.  A slower process with him than it had been with her.

I put the bowls on the table, reached out, and mussed up his neatly parted hair.

The goofy smile he gave me seemed genuine, taken standalone.  But the way he changed from one emotion to the other seemed odd, too abrupt, or not abrupt enough, as if he was putting on a mask.  The goofiness was just slightly out of tune with the situation.

“Sleep well?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he said, reaching up to fix his hair.  “You smell like girls.”

“I was up early, checked up on Lillian and Mary earlier,” I said, grabbing his nose, lightly yanking his head from one side to the other.  When I pulled my hand away, I gestured, careful.  Words.

He nodded.  “How are they?”

“They’re as can be expected.  Mary is tough stuff.”

“Mary really liked Gordon,” Fran said.

“She did,” I agreed.

Fran averted her eyes as I looked at her.

Mary wasn’t the only one who liked GordonLillian, Mary, Frances, Eliza, Susan… There isn’t a girl in this house who didn’t have at least a short phase of falling for him.  But he was seen as too handsome, too nice, too unattainable.

Or maybe Fran was looking away because I was missing an eye, and she didn’t want to ask.

Ashton finished tidying his hair, doing a surprisingly good job of getting every last bit stuck down into place.  I reached out and messed it up again, more thoroughly than before.

Helen made her way down the stairs with Jamie as Mrs. Earles gave me more orders to keep me busy.  Helen lit up as she saw me, making a beeline for me, throwing her arms around me to hug me from behind.

She didn’t let go as I got the silverware or started carrying the first bowls of apple-cinnamon porridge to the table, which forced me to waddle a little.  It might have been more bothersome if she wasn’t so very aware and careful of my sore shoulder.  She’d seen it, or Jamie had mentioned it.

I felt a bit more resistance each time I moved way from the counter, Helen getting heavier and heavier.  I grabbed a slice of apple and extended it back over my head.  I heard the crisp sound of her teeth slicing through it, leaving me with half of a slice.

“Take the entire thing,” I told her.  Teeth yanked the rest of the apple free.  My burden lightened.

I grabbed four bowls and four spoons, tapping a bowl against the top of Ashton’s head in passing, meeting Jamie’s eyes and glancing at the back door.  Both rose from their seats.

Without a word, we made our way into the back yard, slipping on the general purpose rain boots that sat there for anyone to use if they were going out to play.

This wasn’t an extraordinary thing, and it passed without mention.  Helen hung on me like a leech on a cow’s leg, her nose pressed up against the top of my head like a pig’s snout.  Normally, when we did this, we sat on the stairs by the back door.  Today, I crossed the back yard to the far corner, beneath the tree, where the branches provided some cover from the snow.

“You’re going to have to let go of me,” I said.

We sat on the fence, with Ashton sitting with his back to the tree.

“You needed a good long hug,” Helen said.

It was cold, but the porridge was hot enough to warm our hands, and holding it near our faces warmed skin and let steam warm ears.

“I needed a hug?  As in me, specifically?” I asked.

“I think Sy had enough hugs last night, by the smell of him,” Ashton said.

“Nuh-uh,” Helen said, wheeling on Ashton.

“But the smell-”

“Enough about the smell,” I muttered.

“You can’t just trust your nose,” Helen said, with the firmness of a clucking mother hen to her chick.  If she’d have wagged her finger, it would have been perfect.  “Pay attention.  Sylvester looks after the others so much, he never looks after himself.”

“Oh,” Ashton said.

“You have to watch out for that, and give lots of hugs,” Helen said.  Ashton nodded, giving zero indication that he was taking her advice with a grain of salt.

The weird emphasis she was putting on certain things was making me worry about Ashton’s education.  Lessons from a mad, arrogant worm of a man had somehow given us a workable Helen, but I wondered if those lessons or the lessons she had explicitly learned without Ibott’s influence would skew things too much one way or the other.

“Enough of that, please,” I said.

“She’s right, though,” Jamie said, quiet.  He blew on his porridge.  “You have to look after yourself.”

“Looking after you guys is how I look after myself,” I said.  “I dunno.”

“I get the feeling that you wanted to talk about something,” Jamie said.  “Coming out here.  I’m assuming Mrs. Earles told you she’s planning on putting the stone here?”

I looked down at the shady corner, with the tree on one side and the corner of the stone wall on another two sides.  Just enough out of the way that kids wouldn’t fall and crack their heads open on the thing.

“It’s about the Baron,” I said.  “I told Lillian and Emily, I thought I should fill the rest of you in…”

I trailed off.

There were faces in the window by the dining room table.  Fran, Susan, some of the taller youngsters whose faces I couldn’t quite make out.

I was experiencing prey instinct, in a way.  Something about expressions, timing, the fact that Mrs. Earles wasn’t telling them to sit down and eat-

“Rick,” I said.

The back door opened.

The conversation had died.  We were silent as we watched Rick make his approach, tromping across the yard.  He smiled in what he probably thought was a disarming way.

“Alice got upset after all of you left, and Mrs. Earles had to take her upstairs.  The little kids are sensitive, you know, it doesn’t take much to tip them over the edge to tears.  You can’t all just up and leave like that.”

“We had stuff to talk about,” I said.  “In private.”

“Your secret, Academy-sponsored club, huh?  Do you think I’m stupid?  That I can’t put the pieces together?”

“Rick-” Jamie started.

“I don’t think your inability to put pieces together is why you’re stupid,” I said.  “I think your inability to recognize that others have put the pieces together and are not making a big deal of things is one small part of why you’re stupid.”

“Sylvester,” Jamie said.  “Enough.”

“Jamie spends nearly a year out of commission, being taken care of at the Academy.  You go on these long trips, we’re supposed to believe it’s this special Academy sponsorship, that you’re learning things and running small errands, and maybe you’ll go to Mothmont and become proper Academy students?  But you keep coming back hurt, or with new skin.  Or Lillian, and Lillian is really terrible at keeping all this a secret, by the way, she looks like her dog just died.  Now you come back, and Gordon’s dead-”

“Careful,” I said, glaring.

“I’m being careful,” Rick said.  “Fuck, don’t you get it?  That your lives fucking impact ours?  You come back and there’s an imposed silence.  The kids are shushed if they ask certain questions, and it eats Fran and Susan and Merry alive because they try to put the pieces together, and they don’t have the information, so they put it together in the worst possible light?”

“And you,” I said.  “You’re leaving you out.”

“I don’t matter, I’m concerned about them.”

“Bull, feck, and shit,” I said.  “Do you want to know why you can’t get a job, Rick?  Because when someone looks into another person’s eyes, what they expect to see is themselves, reflected back at them.  Hell, I look in Helen’s eyes and I see it, and Helen’s odd.  I look into Ashton’s eyes and I see him studying me, paying attention to me.  But when we all look into your eyes, there’s either nothing there, or there’s just more you.”

Jamie put a hand out, touching my arm.

“I don’t think you’re making any sense,” Rick said.

“Whatever happened to you before Lambsbridge happened.  Fine.  You had to survive, put yourself first, put yourself last.  I know tons who are like that.  But where it rankles and puts people off, Rick, is that you keep trying to act this role badly, pretending that you’re this really nice guy who plays with the kids and cares about others’ welfare.  Some people see it for what it is, when you’re too intense, when you’re smiling without it reaching your eyes.  Some people don’t, but they sense the wrong.  If you’d just be up front about being a callous, self-absorbed asshole, people would at least be able to figure you out.”

I could see the change in his eyes.  Anger, indignation.  Better than nothing.

“If I’m concerned with what I’m doing or feeling right now, if anything at all,” Rick said, “It’s because Gordon was a friend.  Did you ever damn well think that in our age group, besides Eliza, Fran, and Susan, there’s only you guys?  Of you guys, Gordon was the only one who gave me the time of day.”

“Gordon knew full well who and what you were,” I said.  “He gave you the straight talk when you needed it.  I remember one incident, not long after Jamie here went to the hospital, that Gordon gave you a pounding.  Now he’s gone, that one thing that was keeping you from pressing too hard is out of the way, Mrs. Earles steps upstairs, and you waste no time in challenging us.  Don’t try and revise history and act like Gordon was anyone but who he was.  Not today, least of all.”

Rick looked at the others.  “Is anyone else going to chime in on this?  Because I’m really concerned that Sylvester is demented.”

“I would, if Sy let me get two words in edgewise,” Jamie said.  “And if I had any clear idea of what to say.  I think the best thing to do would be to go inside.  We should all give each other a bit of space while we process things.”

“I’m not going to do that,” Rick said.

“You never do,” I said, under my breath.  “Never back down, never stop until you’ve pushed boundaries or breached a line.”

“Because I’ve spent my entire stay at Lambsbridge doing that!” Rick said, raising his voice.  “Just tell me straight, say what really happened to Gordon.”

“We said,” Helen said, her voice quiet.

She was putting on an act, looking upset at the topic and at the commotion.  Most others would have looked at her and held back.  But Rick was pretending just as much as she was.  The empathy was absent.

“Just tell me,” he said.  “And I’ll go, and I won’t bother you again.”

Jamie spoke, “We were visiting contacts for Lillian’s-”

“No,” Rick interrupted.

He fixed his gaze on me.  His eyes met my eye.

He wasn’t going to let up, and he wasn’t going to leave us alone.

“Admit you don’t give a damn about those kids in there, about Fran’s feelings, or Alice crying, or Gordon dying,” I said.  “Say it, and I’ll tell you, straight-up.”

“You want me to lie?” he asked.  “Shit on a candlestick, Sy-”

“Don’t call me Sy.  We’re not friends.”

He clenched his fists.  “I have never known anyone to hate me so damn much, when I’ve done absolutely nothing wrong, beyond maybe a few social slip-ups and wanting to know what the hell is going on around me?”

“I made my offer.  I’m not haggling, I’m not going to suddenly buy the act.  Accept the offer or go back inside.”

“Okay,” he said.  He smiled like this was a game.  “I’ll lie.  I’ll pretend I’m some hollow, messed up person.”

The light in his eyes was gone, now.  The expression he wore was the same one he might’ve worn as he stuck a knife into my belly.

“I don’t care about Fran, or Susan, or Gordon,” he said, his voice cold.  “I don’t care about you, or the family, or the kids.  I play with them and I could just as easily slap them across the face as sing with them.  I’m asking because I want to know for me.  Because I’m sick of looking for jobs, and the rest of the fucking world seems to bend to accommodate you, and I could really do with some of that.”

He couldn’t even pretend at pretending.  The mask barely fit as it was.

“You want some of this?” I asked.  I clenched my fist, because my hand was trembling, and I couldn’t bear the idea of showing weakness in front of Rick right now.  “You want this life?  You want Gordon’s life?”

His arms were folded, his eyes cold.  “I could do with your life.  Sneaking out at night to meet girls, whispered conversations with the adults in the know, every damn fucking person catering to you, from that professor in the academy all the way down to the little kids at the Academy who get told to stay quiet and not to ask certain questions.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but in that same moment, Jamie’s grip on my arm tightened.  I looked at him.

“I know what Sy’s going to say,” Jamie said.  “I have a different idea.”

“I’m owed an answer,” Rick said.

“How about Sylvester takes a break?” Jamie said.  “He can go inside and shower, or go for a walk and come back?  I’ll give you your explanation.  Straight out, details, everything else.”

“And?” Rick asked.

“And, because you asked, because things got even this far,” Jamie said, “You’re going to get moved.  You can’t stay at Lambsbridge.  You’ll go to another city and maybe you’ll even get a job.  You’ll get the answers and you’ll be sent far enough away you won’t be able to do a damn thing with them.”

“We’ll see,” Rick said.

Jamie looked at me.  I heaved out a sigh.

“Okay,” I said.  “I was going to go down to the Shims.  I guess I can do that now.”

“That’s a good idea,” Jamie said.

“We’ll come!” Helen said, perking up.  “Ashton and me.”

I nodded, ignoring Rick’s ‘told you’ smile.

“Picnic at lunch today,” I told Jamie.  “We’ll be back before then.  Mary and maybe Lillian will be showing up.”

“I’ll keep an eye out,” Jamie promised.

I nodded.  I hopped down off the wall, grabbed my cold bowl of porridge, and made my way back to the house, Helen and Ashton following behind.

Jamie had known my answer before I did.  I had to think about it to piece together the words that had been on my lips.

You want my life?  You can have it.

No, not quite, because fuck Rick.

Because I liked being alive, I just… didn’t want this life.

I was done.  I’d told myself I couldn’t see another Lamb die.  Mauer had talked about me needing just one more push.  Now I was on the ledge, there was no stepping back.  I just had to figure out how to move forward.

Or if the other Lambs would even come with me.

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61 thoughts on “In Sheep’s Clothing – 10.1

  1. Rick is asking too many questions and I have this vague feeling Helen is going to come in one night and tell everyone he dislocated every bone in his body in a tragic cart accident.

    • Because of Sy being so good at manipulating people, I’m suddenly imagining him being a highly successful phone sex operator…

  2. Not sure if I interpreted it right, but Sy was thinking about filling Rick in, exposing him to the Academy’s attentions. If Sy was planning on leaving, was he intending for Rick to become the new Project Wyvern so that Rick could “have” his life? Would be a pretty interesting nemesis if he did.

    Rick is an asshat regardless. I kinda hoped Sy would have handled him better, but I guess he’s mentally and emotionally exhausted right now.

  3. Dammit Rick. Someday you’re going to end up on the sharp end of something and you’ll only have yourself to blame.

    • I think tomorrow is that day: if he can’t learn to play ball, he’s a near-majority orphan who can be persuaded to sign on the dotted line. If he’s not careful, the Academy will fine print him into ingredients. 😛

  4. Hurray for Helen! The cuteness is back! :3

    …and I absolutly hate Rick’s guts. He started out as that goofy kid, a bit too nosy, with a touch of social awkwardness and a whole lot of not-knowing-when-to-stop. And by now he has evolved into an annoying psychopath who doesn’t know what the hell he’s dreaming about. And who will probably suffer some sort of “accident” in the not so distant future. Right, Wildbow? …he won’t appear on a regular basis, right? …ri… right? ._.

    Also… “Shit on a candlestick”? Are you SERIOUS, Rick? How do you come up with that shit unless you tried something similar yourself? :/ If you’re still looking for reasons why Sylvester doesn’t like you, that would be a good starting point. D;

    • He thinks adults & professors all bend over backwards to accomodade the Lambs & he wants in on their “privileges”. I say the Lambs give him exactly what he wished for, handing him over to the Academy as experiment fodder to have him live their lives.

    • Pretty much, Rick faced serious hardship at some point in his life and is now desperately looking for a place where he can make a life. When he sees the Lambs he doesn’t see the losses and hurt, he sees people who appear to have a special prestige and is too self-absorbed to interpret this as anything but a special positive boost. Also if Sy’s right about the whole sociopathy thing add to that a narcissistic obsession on Rick’s part which adds a sense of superiority and therefore greater right to what he thinks are the Lambs privileges.

      • It takes a special kind of idiot to look at a complete personality change of one kid, the death of another and the third come back missing an eye, and think, “Yeah, gimme some of that.”

        • Well, even today, lots of people thing war and dying for your country, no matter how painful, is also glorious and elevating. If he was loyal to the Academy, I could understand it being the same principle.

          Problem is, he doesn’t seem to be loyal to anything, so he is indeed a big palooka.

  5. I go the feeling Rick was self centered or a narcissist, but… not really a sociopath. Wolf in sheep’s clothing indeed.

    I suppose he’s going to become the new Wyvern while Sy leaves.

    • I’m not so sure about that. Every other member of the Lambs project has started out much younger. I’m sure there are many many other experiments that could use an exceptionally large 18 year old volunteer.

      • Wyvern stunted Sy’s growth, so maybe they’d prefer a fully grown candidate to counter one of the disadvantages of wyvern. If he got a few other augmentations (or just weapons) and focused a portion of his mental talents on combat he could end up like a combat thinker on steroids.

  6. Whoa. Everyone hates Rick so much. I don’t know… Even if Sy’s read on him is right, I have no doubt he is biased to presenting him in the worst possible light, and he always says the right thing to make everything worse.

    I mean… Rick’s kind of an ass. He doesn’t understand or respect boundaries, he’s selfish. But he’s got a point that pretty much everyone around the Lambs (and the Lambs know this) suffers because of them. However unfair, and however much it isn’t the Lambs fault, all the little orphans here were centimetres from being impaled by the Baron himself. It takes someone very selfish to think like he does, yes, but I think we shouldn’t forget that that’s his way of expressing hurt and confusion and despair and jealousy towards the Lambs because of what he feels is a shitty life he has (which, to be fair, is an intrinsic bias we all have).

    So, yeah. I don’t like Rick, I understand Sy’s hatred for him, but he doesn’t deserve to be this comment’s section punching bag. Almost literally everyone else relevant to this story has done worse things .w. Like, murder, murder, more murder, plotting a war, starting the holocaust, murder, and, however justified, murder.

    • He’s not going the extra step, when every dot is there to join. I bet a few of the other orphans have worked out that not all of the Lambs are what they look like, and that it sucks to be them. At the very least, most realise that it probably is a Bad Idea™ to enquire too much, given the way it’s all twistily official, with the scary Academy involved.

      Rick can’t get it out of his head that he and they are the same, but for luck. He’s assumed it’s all good luck for them, all acquired at his expense… and, hasn’t paused to wonder if he’s got it badly wrong. :/

    • I think my sympathy with Rick depends on how much I buy Sy’s read on him. On the one hand his complaints are actually pretty damn reasonable. The presence of the Lambs in the orphanage obviously has an effect on the dynamics of the place and is probably a major source of worry and sadness for the other orphans. If Rick is expressing genuine concern based on this I can sympathise. Even if it’s more a personal worry and envy that’s still eminently understandable. But if Sy’s right and his attitude stems from sort of borderline narcissism then my sympathy evaporate pretty fast.

      • I’m by this point pretty confident Sy’s read on him is correct. I figured Sy was just assuming the worst of him in his first appearance as Sy does, but since then I’ve decisively soured on him. He both acts smotheringly friendly and pushes on topics that people clearly don’t want to talk about, and that combination actually outright scares me. He is entirely too much like Helen for my comfort and considerably less endearing with his errors. What really got to me was him asking about Jamie; it was understandable that he’d keep pushing, but he kept his cloyingly friendly tone when the conversation decidedly stopped being friendly.

        The sense he radiates to me is basically that he is very much not like Ashton; it’s not that he has trouble reading people or expressing empathy, it’s that there’s nothing to express. The errors he’s making all feel like he could tell when to back off if he cared about other people, not like he cares but can’t tell when he’s upsetting them.

        And it would be one thing if he just didn’t care that much and was a jerk, or just did enough to meet social norms, but he’s putting so much effort into acting like he cares. Like Helen. Like Sy trying to play for sympathy. Like he’s doing it so that when children start going missing no one thinks to suspect him.

        Everything about him is disturbingly very slightly off. It’s a facimile of a nice and likable person assembled by someone who knows all the parts but doesn’t really understand why people like them, and that is very much different from someone who knows the reason but not the parts. He is too good and yet too bad at it. I guess the best way of putting it is that like Helen he wears a mask, but unlike Helen it doesn’t ever show what’s behind his face.

        • Basically, I think the first true thing Rick has said is this:

          “I don’t care about Fran, or Susan, or Gordon,” he said, his voice cold. “I don’t care about you, or the family, or the kids. I play with them and I could just as easily slap them across the face as sing with them.

          And yet he pretends otherwise. He spends so much time pretending otherwise, and he doesn’t have to. Because he wants everyone to think highly of him even though he doesn’t care about their opinions. I don’t trust that, not at all. He doesn’t want to be like Gordon, he wants to be thought of as being like Gordon, and only for what it can get him.

          • I think that although Rick may very well be just as cold as Sy believes, Sy’s still rather biased towards him. I mean, Sy’s faced down actual monsters far out of Rick’s league. But he still detests Rick because Rick’s hitting much closer to home in both sense of the word and is actually inquiring about stuff that practically everyone else there skirts around. Also, it’s in a place where Sy feels he should be safe and about sensitive thoughts, pretty much every single time. In short, Rick may be a big prick, but Sy is still overexaggerating how large of a prick he is from his viewpoint.

    • You know, Zim, I wondered about that myself, while I wrote my comment. Rick hasn’t DONE anything and we all know for a fact that Sy is not a fair judge to people. So why do I despise him that much? Might be that he is a person who lacks some aspects of basic human decency. Old Jamie goes “to the hospital”, Sy is clearly heartbroken because of it and Rick’s main concern is sating his own curiosity. Which might be explainable, maybe he cared about old Jamie as well and who wouldn’t ask if a person dear to them went missing? Except Rick turned the dial to eleven on that. Nagging a heartbroken Sy about info at that point becomes really selfish and borderline cruel. Remember how Gordon kicked his ass for that? And now this. Rick has no way of knowing where the Lambs have been or what they’ve done, but even the little kids noticed that Sy is short of one eye. And Rick looks Sy right into that empty eyehole of his and says “you have the best live ever since you get to sleep in a bed with girls. I want that, too.” And that isn’t even touching on the subject of losing Gordon and Hubris.

      Rick has his priorities twisted in a way that seems… not only strange. I don’t know what happened to him, but it is still his choice how he treats the people around him. And despite everything, he is not treating Sy and the Lambs well. Plus, he said he wants to live like Sy? I can’t help but imagine Rick on Wyvern on a mission. And even if he succeeded, it would be disaster because Rick is not… capable. For a lack of a better word, let’s go with that. Sure, Wyvern is supposed to make you capable in whatever you choose, but here is the twist: he still has to redistribute his “character points” himself. And like I said, he has a problem with those priorities of his. Sure Sy commited murder and warcrimes. But I fear that Rick’s sheer presence in the field in Sy’s stead might be worse than anything Sy could do. (There is some horror in that seemingly harmlos sentence…) Sy has a rationale behind every action, where Rick only has his ego. :/

      …wall of text, sorry. Maybe you’re STILL right, Zim. Maybe Rick does not deserve to be a punching bag. But it’s quite hard NOT to hate him after everything we’ve seen from him. :/ Maybe an Interlude with Rick’s background might fix that, if Rick really becomes part of the “Anti-Lambs”…

      • No warcrimes to commit if the concept of warcrimes is nonexistent, ya know.

        On another note, I maintain Sy wasonly capable of commiting these warcrimes because he used Wyvern to shove his emotions in a box and choose the cold-rational best option. You can see how he acted when wyvern-deficient as evidence.

        Diference is, Sy had to commit murders to survive and maybe create a better world -talk about non violence are useless when a state reacts violently even in non violent persuation- while Rick would do so just to advance his standing, if Sy’s read is right and he isn’t just unable to contain his curiosity to the point of disability.

      • You’re right there, storryeater, but in OUR universe that concept exists and therefore we feel uncomfortable when Sy slashes open the jugular of a doctor who just treated him. ^^ (And I think at least THAT one would be considered a dick move even in twig-verse.) And like I said, Sy HAS a rationale behind all of his actions. Even if it might be an… ambiguous rationale.
        And that’s part of what makes Rick so scary: If he got Wyvern, the only thing reigning supreme in his thoughts would still be himself. Not so good in a delicate situation…

        • Considered “doctor” and “treatment” are ambiiguous in Twig, you might want to use better phrasing to make it seem like a dick move to a Twig citizen. Maybe healed him would be better? saved his life without making it a living hell? meh.

          I agree tho, the exact action would be a dick move by almost all moralities, but it was pretty clear that if he didn’t do it, both he and the other lambs would die. I am pretty sure he’d rather spare him, but it was not really an option.

    • Wow, I am weird as heck, I do not have the intristic bias of believing I have a shitty life. Believing it could be better and trying to make it so yes, but I do feel content. Maybe I should look it up.

      My point is, humans never have “all” , at best, they have “most” , unless you are talking about the percentage of DNA that makes us humans instead of another species. In all other stuff, its “most” at best

  7. > I reached for his stuffed animal, a rabbit, and lifted it up, moving the head and arms, adopting a fighting stance, and had it start punching the kid.

    The hare fights back… I seem to recall a metaphor about Sy being the rabbit, sometime around the Mothmont incident.

  8. I wish Sy’d would show weakness and ask for a hug from Mrs. Earles. I think he’d feel so much better :<

    The thing about misjudging the time of the day happened a lot to me at my previous house. The Sun didn't hit my room ever, and the window was surrounded by trees, and, especially with blinds down, the room would still look a blue gloomy dark even past six.

    I'm sorry, Sy, but you did not avoid the end of human civilization :< I hope… I really hope none of the Lambs caught any of God's red seeds. If a Lamb dies because of those I'll be… well, I don't know. I'll be angry because that's such a ridiculous and shitty way to die.

    I hope Sy makes a stone for Jamie… I don't know how the new Jamie would take it, but I think the previous Jamie deserves it. There's this very eery thing, though, about each iteration of Jamie getting a stone. At some point, everyone that remembers the first Jamies will be dead, and the latest iteration of Jamie will only have a reminder of his fate.

    I really enjoyed the relative peace of this chapter. Thank you, Wildbow. I'm disappointed that the conversation about the Baron got cut short by Rick, but, I think the story deserves a bit of quiet before scaling up again.

    • As strange as it sounds for a person who commited so many acts our society would deem atrocious, Sy seems to have a bad case of Messiah syndrome, much moreso than other Wilbow characters Taylor, who was just competent on a world of incompetence and was forced to resolve more problems by her concience, sometimes badly and usually greyly, and Blake , who just wanted a normal life, but couldn’t commit sins to have that.

      Sy, in contrast to Taylor’s drive to achieve and Blake’s drive to escape with a clean concience constantly has a drive to sacrifice himself, to endure for the sake of others, to appear strong for the sake of others, even when doing so is suboptimal, to be the necessary villain when no one else would or could be. This was shown to be the case multiple times, and is the reason for most of his problems with the lambs and nonlambs.

    • “I wish Sy’d would show weakness and ask for a hug from Mrs. Earles. I think he’d feel so much better”

      As he says afterwards, she can’t do that. He appreciated her headpat as the heartwarming hug it was intended to convey, though, unlike the many times he simply rejected other normies’ attempts to console him.

      • Oh, yush. I read that, too, but I very much doubt Mrs. Earles would have the heart to refuse that. It’s not as though Sy has ever /asked/ her for affection. Or anybody, really.

  9. Maybe typo maybe thread?

    a natural Bruno without any physical modification to him, that he had a baby face without a hair on his chin,
    ->”that he had a baby face” makes no sense to me. The way it’s phrased suggests an implication (Because A then B), but there is nothing being implied.

  10. The early chapters each started with the Lambs being briefed and sent out on an assignment to investigate.
    The later chapters each started with the Lambs being briefed and sent into an warzone, where some terrible disaster was unfolding.
    This one will have no briefing. Shit’s off right from the start. Clouds gathering in the distance. Hell will be broken loose.

  11. When Sy said there was a skeleton guard, my first thought was that there were literal skeletons guarding the front of Radham. I expected a short description of emaciated stitched that were immune to some new weapon the rebels were using.

    Congrats on a setting that makes such a phrase ambiguous, Wildbow!

  12. I still want to know how the Baron allowed them to return to normalcy without doing anything. Yes he made a deal with Mauer, but surely Mauer wouldn’t go back on that deal for small non-debilitating inconveniences…

    • Maybe he has so much bigger fish to fry he doesn’t have time. I mean, look at this: he has to extract the immortality formula, and he has to plot with Mauer under the table, and he has to strategise some long term strategies with his new assets to increase his nobility standing without being suspected as traitor.

      As a troll I know would say “he has too many irons in the fire to waste time. In fact, he has all the irons in the fire. All of them.”

      As its his mssion statement by Mauer to appear cruel, though, he could torture an orphanage, I guess? maybe he doesn’t want to antagonize someone who he is not allowed to kill, who isn’t bound much by Mauer’s rules and who has shown the capability to kill a noble? that’d be logical, I guess.

  13. I feel like Ashton really dropped the ball on the Rick situation. Couldn’t he have just used his pheromones to force Ashton to fuck off? I don’t know, maybe Rick was too determined for that, or maybe being a psycho with no empathy gives him an immunity that kind of emotional tampering.

    • He was probably daydreaming of Rick’s body exploding and repainting the orphanage’s walls.

      Such beautiful crimson butterflies…

    • Ashton has probably had it hammered into his head to not use his powers for situations like this. Sure it would have been nice this time. But I sure as hell don’t trust Ashton to decide what situations justify using his powers.

  14. I kind of worry Rick might hurt one of the Lambs now. I mean if he tries to go after Helen I’ll just laugh but I am distinctly nervous about leaving Jamie with him. That said the sadist in me does want to see the Lambs really cut loose at some point. Maybe an enemy dumb enough to underestimate them but dangerous enough to really hurt one of them who could then serve as a nice example of just how horrifyingly dangerous and vindictive the Lambs can be if you piss them off.

  15. I wonder what’s going to be brought up at the picnic. Just a full recap of what happened in Lugh? If so, even if Sy doesn’t plan on telling the other Lambs his new outlook on life (not that’s its really new, I’m sure a few of them could see it coming a mile away), Jamie will still have seen his conversations with Mauer and all his darkest moments during Lugh, and if Sy tries to gloss over those in his recap, Jamie might not.

    I’d say that I can’t wait to see Rick’s reaction to all that the Lambs went through in Lugh, but he’ll probably either think Jamie is lying or he’ll double down, thinking he wants to be a “secret agent” or something similar. Damnit Rick.

  16. Honestly, I don’t think Rick is entirely wrong. From his perspective, Sy is like “oh woe is me, I’m a superhuman who pretends to be an ordinary boy by day and goes on adventures by night, with everyone close to me supporting me.”

    And while we know the reality is a lot rougher than that… it’s not wrong, either. We know for a fact that Sy has had the opportunity to back out and didn’t; and we know that deep down inside, the real reason he did is because he likes being special. It’s not a stretch for Rick to sense this and make the connection to Sy looking down on mere “ordinary” people like him (which is, well… true.)

    I think people are making a mistake to uncritically accept Sy’s read on him; few people are THAT awful. There’s a grain of truth to it, I’m sure; but people can be more than one thing at once. Rick can be a bully and a jerk who was kept in line by Gordon, but I think it’s reasonable to assume that he also genuinely cared about him. (And I’d point out that one of Sy’s problems is that he tends to push away any sort of genuine connection — he sees only Rick’s worst side because that’s all he wants to see, because he wants Rick to be an irredeemable jerk with no human feelings whatsoever because that confirms Sy’s general view of the world. The fact that Rick can be a bully and a jerk and still be mourning for Gordon’s death is uncomfortable for Sy because it suggests that the other people who have been horrible to him and used him may also have been human and might also have genuinely cared about him despite the horrible way they treated him, which he can’t deal with.

    • You have a point that Sy’s read on Rick might be wrong or influenced by outside factors, but on the other hand, Rick could have handled this situation better as well. It’s not unreasonable to want to know what happened to Gordon, especially if they were friends. It is unreasonable, however, to understand that the Lambs are mixed up in shady business, and then add yet another external pressure to them, using the tragedy of Gordon’s death to force a confrontation.

      There is a time and a place for everything, and although Sy would most likely never open up to Rick, Rick knows other people who might be more receptive to his questions. Like Jamie, for instance. Or Lillian, who he knows is a bad liar and is terrible at hiding things. Or any of the adults whom he sees the Lambs talk to. Secrecy is big with the Lambs, sure, but I bet he could have gotten at least the true information about Gordon’s death from one of those sources, if he had some more tact. Again, if we’re assuming that Rick does care and that Sy’s reading is wrong.

  17. I too thought skeleton guard was initially referring to biotech liches. And now that I think about it, biotech liches seem a whole lot scarier than the kind created through arcane and possibly diabolical rituals.

    Also, I’d have to side with those saying Sy’s not being fair to Rick. Rick seems a bit insensitive about some things and he’s trying way too hard to come accross as likeable, but I’d file him under “annoying person I wouldn’t want to be around for extended periods” more so than “self-adsorbed waste of air” that Sy seems to being painting him to be.

      • It’s a term for an extremely minimal guard force, like skeleton crew. Just enough people to have a couple at each door, not enough to resist even a minor assault, just enough to stop random people from just walking in off the street. Indicates that they don’t think it’s necessary to be ready for a repeat of the Ghost incident.

  18. To all people thinking Sy may be reading Rick wrong…

    When has Sy read anyone other than himself wrong? he might not read everything, but his deductions about one’s personality tend to be as certain as he himself is certain about them.

  19. Finally, for once I am caught on to a Wildbow story. I was always behind – In Pact, Worm, and now I’m here!

    And as the first comment said, it’s about damn time Sy.

    So glad to see all the Lambs together again. I missed Helen :3

  20. I really thought that Rick would turn out to be the next Griffin, who has had the beginning stuff done to him already and just needed some finishing touches to get the best “pieces” to become the true next living stitched as soon as a vacancy opened up. It fit the timeline too because Gordon had surpassed his expiration date long ago, and all of a sudden rick went from a somewhat chubby jerk to a “natural Bruno” who is nice on the outside but a true bastard at heart.

    I’m glad this wasn’t the case because I hate him. Not because of the narrative, but because I hate people who NEED to be put in their place just to stop pushing, and who think everyone is better off than they actually are. It’s annoying as hell.

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