“I’m glad we’re getting this chance to talk,” I said. I climbed up onto a fence, and sat on top of it, with the bag of sandwiches in hand. “Last few times we crossed paths, things were kind of emotional.”
“And your current circumstances aren’t?” Catcher asked. He remained standing, wearing his wide-brimmed hat, scarf, a calf-length jacket with buttons running down the front, gloves, and metal-tipped boots. He was a very rectangular figure, tall with square shoulders.
I shook my head a little, reached into the bag, and lobbed him a sandwich. The thing was wrapped in paper and about as long as my arm was from elbow to fingertip. He caught it with one hand. Jamie used two to catch his.
Dog lay down on the ground, mouth open and waiting.
“Ignore him,” Catcher said. “He’s a pig. He ate before we left.”
“It’s fine, I bought lots,” I said. I opened up my sandwich and tore it in half, tossing half into Dog’s waiting mouth. It came apart in the air, but the contents still landed within. Dog made a pleased sound, even though the amount of food was miniscule, given his frame.
“I’m glad you two have a consistent source of meals,” Jamie said, to Catcher. “You’re doing well?”
“Well enough,” Catcher said. Something in his tone suggested he was still a little bit guarded.
Dog said something garbled. I glanced at Catcher for a translation, and he offered me, “Dog notes you’ve been in the area for a while.”
“Lingering ‘us’ smell?” Jamie asked. He was doing the talking while I chewed.
“There is,” Catcher said. He sniffed the sandwich, then took a bite. He ate like someone who ate alone a great deal, pulling down his scarf to snap up big bites he was quick to chew and swallow, and very little in the way of manners. He glanced at me once his mouth was clear. “Your scent lingered around the, ah, parlor? Sylvester’s more than Jamie’s?”
“I’m almost starting to regret giving Shirley the lesson, with how often that’s coming up. Almost,” I said. “You didn’t hurt them any?”
“No,” Catcher said. “Our acquaintances didn’t, either. We were careful about who we brought along.”
“Thank you,” I said.
We continued to eat, and I tore my remaining bit of sandwich in half before throwing the un-bitten half to Dog. Not that he would have cared.
The wind picked up, and I felt the cold rain fall down on my head and shoulders with more intensity than before. As the wind calmed, the rain eased up as well.
I shifted position to get more comfortable. Jamie was leaning against the fence, just to the left of my dangling feet, and he offered me a bottle.
“I’m not wholly certain you two aren’t going to bolt,” Catcher said.
I turned around, double checking what was behind me. Between the rows of houses here, there was a fabricated ditch, all angled stones and gray bricks. The runoff from snow and a nearby canal had a pretty good current going there. I was willing to bet the stones were slippery enough to complicate efforts to get out.
“It’s too cold for you to swim, unless you came prepared with a combat drug,” Catcher said. “Even then, I’m not sure it would help you any. Dog doesn’t care, and I don’t really care either.”
I shook my head, gesturing for him to wait while I finished swallowing.
“Not going to bolt,” I said. “I’m fine. It’s a relatively nice day, I’ve got good company-”
I lightly kicked Jamie in the shoulder, and saluted Dog and Catcher.
“-and there’s no reason, really,” I said.
“You seem far different than the last time you ran away,” Catcher said.
I nodded, chewing.
“I’ve read the notes on that day,” Jamie said.
“The reason,” I started. I finished chewing and swallowing, “Is I’m not alone. For now, at least. Jamie is bound to get sick of me and abandon me at some point.”
“Nah,” Jamie said.
“But he came,” I said. I kicked him lightly in the shoulder again. “If he hadn’t, you might have come here to find me a lot like I was then. Except I think I’m resourceful enough to get supplies of my drug.”
“Mmm,” Catcher made a sound.
Dog, meanwhile, said something more elaborate.
“No,” Catcher responded, not translating but instead responding.
Dog said something more.
“Yeah,” Catcher said. His shoulders rose and fell as he drew in a breath and released it. The end of his mancatcher tapped the ground.
“Can I ask?” I asked.
“Talking about our companions,” Catcher said. “We’re not close with most of them, but we have a working relationship.”
“I’m jealous,” I said.
“Don’t be,” Catcher said. “It’s not like what you had.”
Dog mumbled something.
I couldn’t understand a damn word he said, but I knew what he was saying by the tone alone.
“Our condolences regarding Gordon,” Catcher said.
I nodded, sighing.
“Thank you,” Jamie said. “I read that Dog and Gordon were close?”
“Yes,” Catcher said. “Dog was very fond of Gordon. Few make the effort to understand him.”
“He was a good guy,” I said.
“After you lost your friend Jamie to the experiment, we thought you were very close to running away again. The mission in Brechwell was a tense one. Fray and I exchanged words about you. She thought that when the next Lamb died, you would be open to another offer to join. Then Gordon passed. I was hopeful I would see you, but it didn’t happen that way.”
“No,” I agreed. “I’m not open to Fray’s offer.”
“Yes,” Catcher said. “To the best of my knowledge, she didn’t reach out. I don’t know whether that was because there was such a narrow window of time between your return to Radham and your departure or if she sensed you wouldn’t accept.
“So you’re in communication with her. Yet you’re working for the Academy again?” I asked. “It doesn’t make sense.”
“It doesn’t,” Catcher said. His tone was sadder, almost wistful. “I wondered if you were going to use this opportunity to pry for answers you could use.”
“You dangled the bait a few times, talking about your friends. Really truly, Catcher, Dog, we wanted to have a nice lunch.”
Jamie nodded in agreement with me.
“No ulterior motives?” Catcher asked me.
I unwrapped another sandwich, and tossed it to Dog. “Minor ones. Doesn’t really change things.”
“Mm hmm,” he said. “Meeting Fray was interesting, you know. In respect to how similar and how different she was when it came to you.”
I nodded, before glancing at Jamie. “Want half of one?”
I shrugged and tore a sandwich in half again. I let Catcher talk.
“She said you’re a believer, Sylvester.”
“I was,” I said.
“I know it was said that you were loyal to the Lambs, not the Academy. Were you a believer in the Lambs?”
“One of them,” I said, thinking of Lillian. Then I revised, glancing over. “Two of them, maybe. But that’s not what Fray was talking about, I don’t think.”
“She told me that Mauer believes, but he believes in a future where the Academy and Crown are broken. She didn’t go out of her way to elaborate on where your particular beliefs differed, compared to Mauer.”
“Of course not,” I said. “The Lambs are a subject you and her share in common. If she simply told you things, then the topic would be exhausted. She’s dragging it out to maintain your interest.”
“That may be uncharitable,” Catcher said.
“Maybe,” I agreed. “I can’t shake my mental picture of her as a manipulator. It’s arguably just as uncharitable as defecting to her side and then taking a job for the Academy.”
Dog mumbled something.
“Alright,” Catcher replied to his partner. To me, he said, “I’ll give you the answer you want. It was a number of things put together that drove this. We requested Dog’s files and case material, so Genevieve Fray can better keep him in working order, and we offered trades with Fray’s help, which they weren’t interested in. Through the discussion it came out that the bounty on you had been placed. We heard some of the names. Familiar faces and names, among those of us who hunt bounties. You would know a few.”
“I don’t suppose I can ask?” Jamie asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” Catcher said. “The Academy asked us to join the hunt, and we agreed. We knew we could find you first, and take you in alive where so many would happily take you in dead.”
“Jamie’s supposed to be captured alive only,” I said.
“Some of the bounty hunters out there don’t care for what the posters say. We agreed to attach ourselves to an Academy delegation of retrieval experts and offer our skills, if it meant bringing you in alive. The others in our group, they have soft spots for children, or they don’t care for killing. For doing this, we get payment, Dog’s records, and they rescind the ongoing bounty on our heads. After that, we go back to Fray to get Dog the care he needs and tender our resignation from her organization.”
“Going solo?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Catcher said. “But I do know that we do not want to work for Fray any longer. She has agreed to fix and maintain Dog, but we will have no obligations to take up further work.”
The altered voice and the enshrouding scarf helped, but they didn’t wholly mask the shift in tone that went with Catcher’s lie.
Of course, if this went badly, he wanted plausible deniability. He would go back to Fray.
“If you can’t bring us in?” I asked.
“Then we will not get the files. I will, within five years’ time, say goodbye to Dog as you did to Gordon. It will be slower, with mistakes made today causing problems that make his decline and death in the future inevitable ones. In the meanwhile, other bounty hunters will come for you and they will try their best to kill you. It’s a lot of death.”
I looked down as Jamie looked up. Our eyes met.
“If you take us back, it’ll kill me, as sure as anything,” I said. “Jamie will be erased, just like the first one was. It’s not mercy.”
“I’m not clever enough to guess what you say before you say it, but I’m not surprised to hear you say that, Sylvester, especially after talking to you. A part of me hoped you would be that same scared little boy that we retrieved years ago, and that Jamie would be willing if you were.”
“We’re sorry to dash your hopes,” Jamie said, quiet.
“If you had to take our freedom to save one of your Lambs, would you?” Catcher asked.
I smiled, shaking my head.
“Something amusing?” he asked me.
“No, no,” I said. I forced the smile away. “No, I can see what you’re saying.”
“Humor me? As I’ve humored you, with this meal. Answer my question so I can hear it? Would you see Dog and me imprisoned at an Academy for the sake of the people closest to you?”
“Yes,” I said.
“I don’t know,” Jamie said. “Possibly. Probably.”
Catcher nodded. His gloved hand went to his hat, fixing it.
“I don’t want there to be hard feelings,” Catcher said.
“There are only a few people I’m reserving hard feelings for, and you’re not on that list. I understand what you’re doing, I understand why. I like you, Catcher. I like you, Dog. I think we’re good.”
“Thank you,” Catcher said.
“I wish I’d gotten to properly meet you and get to know you,” Jamie said.
I could see Catcher pause and think as he recalled that there really hadn’t been a meeting between himself and Jamie.
“Yes,” was all he said. “Would you like to eat something more? We could sit for a while.”
“Sitting sounds awfully nice after that running around,” Jamie said.
“And it’ll make it easier for your friends to find us,” I said.
Dog nodded. Now that I was looking more closely, he looked saddened. He wasn’t happy that things were going this way.
I threw him another sandwich.
“So Mauer believes the Academy can be defeated,” I thought aloud. “Cynthia… I assume she believes in anarchy.”
“Effectively,” Catcher said. “She might hope for another form of government, but it will never happen.”
She’s alive, then?
“Fray believes in…” I trailed off.
“Humanity,” Catcher said. “That we can find our way. That the world is in danger and that it can be saved.”
“And in the attempt to save it, she gets us awfully close to ending it all,” I said.
“What do you believe in?” Jamie asked them.
Dog huffed out a single garbled word.
Catcher extended a hand toward Dog, as if to say what he said.
“Ha ha,” I said. But Jamie was smiling, and by the looks of what I could see of his eyes, above that scarf and beneath the brim of the hat, Catcher was too.
“I believed in the future,” I said. “I wanted so badly for the Academy to be the way forward, but it isn’t. Not with the way they treated Lillian, the way they disposed of Gordon, or what they let happen to Jamie. The first Jamie.”
The words were heavy. I stared at the ground because I was worried that any sign of empathy might make me emotional.
“They didn’t even try to save any part of him. I can’t keep fooling myself. I can’t keep hoping and trusting that the answer will come if I just keep helping things work out. I can’t trust that the Lambs will be okay. I just… can’t.”
“I understand that,” Catcher said.
“I don’t know anymore. I don’t have the pat answers. I don’t know for sure how things are going to work out. A big part of me worries they won’t. I don’t believe in that future anymore.”
“I’m sorry,” Catcher said.
I shook my head.
I remained quiet, but the thoughts were crystal clear in my mind.
I wasn’t sure there was a future, but there were people on my shit list who were actively working against that future. People who were jeopardizing everything good or outright jeopardizing everything.
Fray and her primordials were on that list. So were the nobles, doing all the way up the steps to the Lord King himself. And it was petty, and it was small, but Professor Hayle was on that list too, because he’d hurt Lillian like he did. Because he was ultimately in charge of what had come to pass with Gordon and with Jamie both.
There was a hole inside of me where my ideal had always been. I was conspicuously aware of it. I was aware that I’d once been able to fill it with the closeness and care of the other Lambs. Jamie now struggled to occupy that space, which had grown wider with every goodbye I’d said. Jamie, who held himself at arm’s length, or who I held at arm’s length. Or both.
Jamie, who I could never ever repay for being at my side here, no matter what I did with our remaining years.
Absently, I drew out a lockpick from my kit, and began using it to pick any residual food out of my teeth. After some consideration, I got one of the strongest picks, to really get in there, my thoughts somewhere else entirely.
Jamie was talking, I realized. “…barely different from Sylvester, I guess. But I’ve read the books, and I think it sums up the difference. A conversation we had once. I think I hope for a kinder future than Sylvester imagines possible.”
“The old Jamie did too,” I said.
“Yeah,” Jamie said, his voice soft. “But I think the difference is… I don’t want to come across the wrong way and alienate you.”
I shook my head.
“He came from a gentler place than I did,” Jamie said. “He’d never, up to a point, been hurt, not until Sub Rosa. Even then, she was… his first thought, on hearing of her death, was how tragic it was. He was like that in a lot of ways, about a lot of things. Gentle, unaware of the world even though he paid such accurate attention to it. When reality slapped him in the face, it slapped him hard.”
I’d been that reality, toward that end.
I clenched my fists, resting them on the fence to either side of my rear end.
“You’re different?” I asked, managing to sound different. “Harder-hearted?”
“I don’t know,” Jamie said. “I read the texts, saw everything from an almost purely objective standpoint. I could see the naivety, even when I was only months into understanding the world. I didn’t want to be that.”
“It’s why I didn’t read the adventure books with the same zeal,” he said. “I avoided fiction. I wanted to focus on living in this world. I focused on being wary, so I wasn’t a tragic farce of repeated mistakes.”
“That’s why you were so hard on me,” I said.
“One reason. We’ve talked about some of the others. But I was hard on everyone, everything, in a way. I’m only now learning to relax,” he said. He smiled a little, “To stop, listen to music and have tea.”
“You wanted,” Catcher cut into the dialogue between Jamie and me, “To avoid heartbreak?”
“I am heartbreak,” Jamie said. “Every time Sylvester looks at me, I see a glimmer of it. Earlier today, he told me that he might never be able to put it behind him.”
There was a hint of emotion in that last sentence that I hadn’t expected. Jamie was usually so good at keeping it under wraps.
Dog gave me a look. It was a good look, if he was trying to make me feel guilty or get me to say something.
“I don’t want to get your hopes up,” I said.
“I know,” Jamie said. “I know. But for someone who was so fixated on the future, maybe you’d have better luck if you could let go of the past?”
Back to the ‘new Jamie’ who had challenged me so bitterly in our first meetings.
I was going to say something more, but Dog’s head rose from the ground.
“They’re here?” I asked.
Dog and Catcher both nodded.
“Alright,” I said. I kicked Jamie lightly on the shoulder. “You and me. We’re going to finish this conversation.”
“If you want to, Sy. I don’t really know what there is to say,” he said.
He gave my foot a tug, and I dropped from the fence, landing with both feet squarely on the ground. I could see the group approaching now.
Soldiers, not all that many, and the mercenaries working with Dog and Catcher.
The blonde woman we’d seen earlier was wearing someone else’s coat, shivering. Something about her seemed eerily familiar. Her augmentations and alterations were crude. Back-alley. Candida’s had been mishmash, once, but these were bottom-of-the-barrel.
I could make out the Bruno, as well as a second Bruno with a heavy gun that looked like it could take down elephants or elephantine warbeasts. There was a man with treated skin that looked permanently charred and a fuel tank at his back, and another woman that looked fairly ordinary.
The soldiers drew their guns as they approached Dog, Catcher, Jamie and me. I felt my heart skip a beat. That ‘dead or alive’ request. I could so easily be a ‘dead’.
“There’s no need for that,” Catcher said. “They’re being cooperative.”
The guns didn’t waver. As the soldiers drew nearer, it became clear who the guns were aimed at.
Dog huffed out a noise of annoyance and confusion. Soldiers tensed and shifted their grips on their guns.
“What’s this?” Catcher asked, now that a full third of the guns present were aimed in his direction.
The Bruno with the gun held up a paper. It was the same big piece that I’d given Jamie. The same paper Jamie had left behind in the bakery.
On that paper, replicated with care, were Dog and Catcher’s faces, a ‘Wanted: Alive’ message in nice bold letters, and a description of the pair. The number for the order, the signature of the man in charge who’d given the order, even the terminology, it was on point.
Catcher turned his head to look at me.
“Your fellows have explained the situation as they understand it,” the head soldier spoke. “This goes easiest if you cooperate.”
Dog huffed out a noise. Catcher swatted Dog on the nose with his mancatcher.
“We’ll cooperate. It doesn’t change the outcome in the end. Hand the Lambs off to the other mercenaries and they’ll handle the remainder.”
A very unimpressed looking Bruno, still the one with the gun, tapped the poster, middle paragraph. Catcher was too far away to read, but the implication was clear.
The police officer simply recited from the paragraph, “A habit of choosing children as quarry, under the guise of-”
“I get it,” Catcher said.
“Good. We’re going to take you in. All of you. The moment we’re able, we’ll reach out to the Capitol and ask about the warrant numbers. We’ll see which of the warrants are real. We’ll devote the resources we can to handling this situation, keeping what their alleged poster is saying in mind.”
Catcher seemed to get just a little bit angrier with every realization. “And I am assuming the phones we would need to use to reach the capitol are busy, given the quarantine? And that the resources you have are limited at best?”
“It will only be a few hours at most,” the captain said. “The rest of your papers seemed to pass muster, this is just a formality.”
“A formality they arranged from start to finish,” Catcher said.
“I won’t deny the strong possibility. If I were more sure, I might shoot the black-haired one.”
“I’d be tempted to encourage you to,” Catcher said.
No hard feelings, you said, I thought to myself.
“We’ll cooperate,” Catcher said, growling the words, while giving me and Jamie a dark look. “But I have a favor to ask, first. It costs you nothing.”
The cell door slammed.
So far, things were going according to plan. They’d even put Jamie and me together in the same cell.
With the quarantine in effect, the number of soldiers was thin. The bulk of the men in uniform were out there, guarding bridges and controlling the flow of traffic around the city. Here in the jailhouse, where only a dozen cells were arranged along a long hallway, there were only a few guards.
Catcher, with his natural strength, could have bent the bars and walked out. But he was working alongside the Academy, and that would be a sensitive deal.
No, even with his strength, there were good chances that there were measures in place, or it would draw undue attention.
The simple fact of the matter, the crux of the plan I’d worked out with Jamie, was that if we got arrested alongside Dog and Catcher, I was fairly certain I could get out of the cell more easily than they could get out of whatever was devised for them. Dog would be in some special holding cell far, far away from us. The fact that they would need and want to reunite would buy us even more time.
The contract with the Academy was just one more barrier keeping them inside their cells.
But Catcher had managed one last laugh. He, given the nature of what he did, carried restraints.
He’d had every single damned set of them placed on Jamie and me. Our arms were bound behind our backs, and restraints of various sizes and shapes. Even the fingers of my right hand were bound, with thimble-like caps over the ends. The weights likely totaled twenty-five pounds in all.
I opened my mouth, and used my tongue to lift the lockpick free of the gap between gums and cheek. Shortly after, I had the second pick out. I spit them out onto the cot, and then sat down on the bed, to pick them up with my one hand.
“This is going to be a chore,” Jamie murmured, as I worked the thinner pick into the lock that wrapped around my right hand. “Looks like a three-pin cylinder. Move closer to me, I’ll try to hold the cylinder so it doesn’t rotate as you pick it.”
“How amusing,” Catcher said, in the least amused tone I’d heard from him today, his voice echoing to us from the far end of the hallway. “I told myself the same thing, when I realized it was you two I was chasing down. This is going to be a chore.”
“You don’t sound very surprised at this,” I said.
“I knew something was up with that lunch,” Catcher said.
“The lunch had nothing to do with it,” I said, my voice raised. “If you hadn’t eaten with us, it still would have turned out pretty much the same. I wouldn’t punish you for-“
“Shut up!” someone screamed, interrupting.
“You shut up!” Catcher bellowed, loud and with a monstrous voice.
There was no retort.
Our old friend was in a bad mood, it seemed.
“I wouldn’t punish you for playing fair with us,” I said. “Sets a bad precedent if we’re-“
I felt the lock click. I freed my hand.
“If we’re going to cross paths a few more times.”
“Ah, so you know,” Catcher said. “They will let me out of here. They will release Dog. We will find you, Sylvester. We don’t let our quarry go.”
Jamie muttered, “I’ll be so happy if a day ever comes where someone doesn’t remind me of something I already know. Do my wrists next? These wire cuffs are digging in something fierce.”
Getting my hands to the right place to work the lock was hard. I had to turn my back to Jamie and bend over. I leaned over with my forehead against the bars for balance.
“That one,” Jamie confirmed.
It had to be five pins. Such a chore. At least I could pry the lock as I worked the pins.
One pin, two pins… three…
The fourth took some doing.
The fifth, too, ended up being difficult. Just when I thought I might get it, I heard footsteps.
I aborted, and changed position. We waited patiently as the lone guard made his rounds, checking on every cell.
He stopped at the end of the hallway, and I could hear Catcher talking.
I was straining to listen, and trying to decide if I needed to put the hand-restraint back on, when Jamie nudged me. It felt weird, the elbow against my arm. Jamie wasn’t normally one for physical contact. When he did allow it, he was always very measured about it.
I looked where he was indicating, and I saw.
In the cell to the left of the one that sat opposite ours, a man lay on his cot. He was breathing very quickly, and he was spasming periodically.
Between his sleeve and the glove he wore, I could see the marks. As though a hand had touched him and burned him, with blotches the size of a fingerprint or a random portion of a handprint. The mark was so red it looked like he was openly bleeding.
Calling for quarantine or attention to the problem was risky. The guard was going to finish his route, passing down the other side of the hall, and he was going to see. Things were going to go downhill from there. It could so very easily see us sealed up inside here for good.
Jamie and I didn’t even need to communicate. He turned his back to me so I had access to his wrists, and I started working on his locks.