Black Sheep – 13.11

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The windows were all open, sheer curtains billowing and glowing with the afternoon sunlight.  It was still unbearably hot, but that made the wind that blew in one set of windows and out the other a very pleasant thing.  Stronger than a breeze, and very refreshing.

I closed my eyes and enjoyed the moment.  The greater set of games had been played and won, and things were just about as perfect as they could get.  If I could have captured and held on to the moment to preserve it, I would have.

I opened my eyes and looked at Lillian.  Her ankles and wrists were bound, but the bindings were loose, leaving room to move while still looping behind a post that ran up to the peaked center of the room.  She could have her arms at her sides or behind her, but she wouldn’t be able to reach forward.  Right now, she knelt, slumped forward, but she would be able to stand if she wanted to.

The skin of her arms was still faintly mottled from where the external-muscle sleeves had pressed down on it.  She had had a haircut recently, but the hair was kept out of her face with a white hairband.  I didn’t miss the pearl earrings studding her earlobes.  Her uniform shirt was a light fabric, short sleeved, with a collar, with buttons running down the front.  Her skirt was pleated, leaving only her knees and upper calves bare.  Her shoes were girl’s shoes, but meant for running on streets and fields, with buckles.

For just the moment, she looked very at peace, unconscious.  There were bandages at her knees.

Looking at her was very pleasant.  I perched on my stool, feet on the upper rungs, trying to imagine how the conversation would go.

I heard footsteps, and a part of me immediately snapped to thinking about Mary, about the other Lambs and if I was followed.  I didn’t know enough about what some of the new recruits were capable of.  Abby, the twins, if Emmett had any capabilities, or if Helen had been augmented any further.  My hand reached for the gun I’d put on a tea trolley.

Jamie, not an enemy.

“Still asleep?” he asked.  He was carrying two glasses of water.  His hair was tied back, which was just about the only real accommodation he’d made to the heat.  His shirt was still buttoned all the way up, and he wore brown slacks.  No shoes, though.

Not that I was much better.  I did have the sanity to undo some of the buttons on my shirt and roll up the sleeves.  I’d changed slacks to a tidier black pair and I’d put on sandals.

“Yeah,” I said.  Then, with some fondness, I said, “She was running around so hard, and she picked a fight with me, even.  She must be exhausted.”

“I know you want to be left alone, but I was thinking back to you bustling around and I didn’t remember the tap being turned on.  You wanted water.”

“I did.  I would have gone to get it, but I didn’t want her to wake up alone,” I said.  “Thank you.  I appreciate it.”

“No trouble.”

“I appreciate all of this.  The help, the information, putting the pieces together.”

He extended the glasses my way.  I took them, and they were deliciously cold.  I set one on the trolley, before drinking from the other.

Jamie lingered.  Odd behavior for someone who knew I wanted to be left alone with Lil.  I looked at him and arched an eyebrow.

“I don’t quite know,” he said.

Then he turned and left.

The wind picked up.  I stared at the door that Jamie had passed through, trying to figure out what he’d been about to say, and I eventually gave up and smiled.  I’d get answers later.

I’d finished my glass of water before Lillian stirred awake.  She started with sounds, which didn’t surprise me.  I smiled again, thinking about the countless times she had woken up beside me.

Lillian raised her head, blinked, and then stared at me.  It took her a moment to wrap her head around the situation.  She moved her arms and tugged against her bonds.

“Ahhh,” she said, under her breath.  “Son of a bitch.”

“I’d say this is payback for trying to stick me with the syringes you hid in these sleeves, but that would be a lie.  I had this in mind from the beginning.”

Lillian bowed her head, and let out a low sound that mingled a groan with a growl.

I picked up the glass, stepped down off the stool, and approached her.  I leaned down, and spoke in her ear, “The retribution for that little stunt will have to come later.”

She tested the bonds a few times, with more intensity on each try, before she gave up.

“Come on,” I said.  “Stand up.  I’ve got some water for you.  You’ll want to stay hydrated.”

I let her make her own way to her feet.  She stood straighter, and met my eyes.  A level and very unimpressed glare, to match my smile.

I started to move the glass toward her lips, but she spoke.  “You have to keep me hydrated so I don’t pass out in the midst of our torture session, hm?”

Torture session?” I asked.

“Mm hmm,” she said.  “You’ll stand there or sit there and torment me with words, while I’m helpless to fight back.  Torture.”

“I’m pretty sure there’s a hammer and some nails lying around up here,” I said, indicating the rest of the room.  It wasn’t quite an attic, but it was being used for storage, and there were tools and boxes here and there, among various personal knick-knacks, which were mostly empty picture frames and stopped clocks.  “If you’d like, we can nix the conversation part, and I could nail your toes to the floor.”

“Would you?” Lillian asked.  “That would be preferable, please and thank you.”

She was trying to keep her expression stern, but there was a faint glimmer of amusement there.

“The new Lambs are cute,” I said.

“They’re not Lambs, you know,” Lillian said.

“Oh, I know.  But I think the odds are good that those odd goods will wind up together in some capacity.”

“I hope so,” Lillian said.  “They were all leading such lonely existences.”

“Existence is lonely,” I said.  I put the glass to her lips, and tipped it to allow her to drink.  Hydration was good.  She was beaded with miniscule little droplets of sweat.  When the sheer curtains billowed in and the light slipped through, she seemed to glitter.  I fixated on the glittering along the length of her throat as I said, “That’s what makes it so wonderful and bittersweet when we’re able to find each other and cling to each other in the midst of it all.”

Lillian, watching me looking at her, made a noise.  I moved the glass away so she wouldn’t sputter and choke.

She settled for clearing her throat, taking a moment to respond.

“You’re different, Sylvester,” she said.

“Only natural,” I said.  “I’ve been operating independently for a while now.”

“Semi-independent,” Lillian said, quiet.

“True.  But I don’t think of my relationship with Jamie as a dependency.  It might be, but I’d prefer to think of it as a partnership.”

“He’s okay?  I assume he’s the one who did these bandages,” Lillian said, lifting one leg that had a bandage at the knee.

“That was me,” I said.

“Oh.  You’ve picked up some skills, then.”

“Jamie is as good as can be expected,” I said.  “He caught the plague, whatever they were calling it.  Ravage?”

Lillian nodded.  “That’s one of the names.”

“I had to cut it out.  Caterpillar is… pretty done as a project, I’m afraid.  There’s only Jamie.  Which is still pretty darn amazing, in the grand scheme of things.  He helped me get you up here and tied up.  He’ll be around, if you need him, want him, or if you want to talk when we’re done here, which I imagine you will.”

“When we’re done what, Sylvester?”

“Ah,” I said.  “That requires explanation, and it launches us into a whole dialogue and series of options.  I was hoping to enjoy more small talk first.”

“What’s going on, Sylvester?  What am I doing here?”

“Do you want more water?” I asked, “Not deflecting.  Just asking before I put it down.”

She shook her head.  I walked over to the trolley and put it down, picked up the stool, and moved it closer to Lillian.  I perched on it again.

“Standing gets tiring, especially when you’ve been running around for several days straight.  You’re free to sit, if you want.  Or I suppose you’d have to kneel, really.”

“You’re such a gentleman, Sylvester,” she said.  She remained standing.

“Do you want me to be a gentleman, Lil?  Because I can switch gears and do that.  I can find you something to sit on.”

“I don’t want to sit, and don’t call me Lil.”

“Don’t call me Sylvester,” I retorted.

She set her jaw.  Stubborn.

“Right.  The reason you’re here is that I wanted to talk.  That’s the short answer.  The long answer is that you’re staying here for two days, two nights.  Just long enough that the others will be close to panicking, the Academy will ask questions, and they’ll ask you to come back.  There will be a minor inquisition, not as bad as the last one, I don’t think, and the Lambs will be stalled.  All in all, it gives Jamie and me a chance to get lost while you all bounce back.  I’ve given them a project for the meantime-”

Two days, Sylvester?”

“And two nights.  And then I give you back,” I said.  “About the project, the orphange is only three-quarters done, so I figured-”

“I only have enough of a leash to last me a day,” Lillian said.  “One pill.”

“Ah,” I said.  I paused, considering.  “That might be a problem.  Figures, the Academy would do something like that.”

“Very sorry to disappoint,” Lillian said, with a measure of satisfaction.

“I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it,” I said.  I was not looking forward to cutting my time with Lillian short in order to go rob the Lambs, especially not if they were anticipating me.  Cutting it short to give her back to them early was worse, because it would mean letting the Academy win.

“I’m so very angry at you, Sylvester.”

“That’s allowed, Lil.”

“You’ve put us in such a bad situation, too.  Hayle told us that-”

“Ah!” I said, “Ah, ah, ah!”

She stopped.

“None of that.  In fact, I’ll need to hammer out the ground rules, Lil.”

“Ground rules,” she said, in disbelief.

“Here’s the deal, Lil.  None of that.  No talking about what Hayle said, how he’s twisting your arms, possible punishments… if it comes to that, I’m going to gag you.  There will be no discussion between you and me.  I’ll keep you for however long I end up keeping you, then I’ll let you go, and that will be that.”

“Tempting,” Lillian said, dryly.

“Which brings me to the first key point of our discussion.  I’m going to ask you this, and I’m going to ask you again later.  I’m giving you the choice, Lil.  I can stay, and we can keep talking, or, hell, I can stay and you can be gagged if you so choose.  Or…”

Lillian didn’t take the bait.  She just stared at me.

“Or,” I continued, “I leave, and I send Jamie in.  You can talk with him about whatever.  He can give you the update on how I’m doing, how he’s doing, you can tell him about the Lambs, old and new, and he’ll fill me in after.  You can even count it as a win, Lil, Because I’ll be stewing in frustration about not getting to see you.  You follow?”

“Gee whiz, Sylvester,” Lillian said, her words at odds with the lack of playfulness in her voice, “I can stay stuck here while you talk circles around me, or I can get rid of you.  I wonder.

“For the record, Jamie will probably draw a line in the sand about you talking about Hayle and what he’s doing.”

I let the question hang.  I wasn’t wholly positive I knew what answer she would give.  A lot depended on how raw her feelings were, beneath the facade she was showing me.

I waited, thinking, while Lillian mulled over her decision.

After a minute, I ran out of patience.

“For all that you were talking just a bit ago, you don’t seem to be very quick about answering.”

“Shut up, Sylvester.”

“Harsh words.”

“Stay,” she said.  “It doesn’t really matter, and you’ll have to ungag me at some point to give me food and water.  I can talk then.  You’ll have to hear me out eventually.”

“I can get some wax to put in my ears.  We do have a bag, tubing and a needle to give you water without having to remove the gag, if need be, among other things,” I said.  “We’re not having that particular discussion, Lil.  This is where I’m going to be exceptionally unfair to you.  If you were to catch me fair and square, then I’d be the one who was tied up, and you’d be the one who was free to lecture at me.  But you didn’t.  So you aren’t.  Those are the rules.”

“Somehow I don’t remember agreeing to any terms of engagement,” Lillian said.

I shrugged.  “They’re the rules.  Take them or leave them.”

I could see her considering.

I ventured, “If I end up going back to Radham, I’m going to wither away and die.  I don’t have it in me, Lil.  I’m pretty sure they’ll kill Jamie in an effort to salvage what they can of the Caterpillar.  So please don’t bring it up.  Don’t make me feel even more like shit.  Whatever Hayle might have said, it’s not an option.  I’ve got a few years left.  Jamie’s got less than that, I think.  We have every intention of spending that time free, and I plan to do everything in my power to ensure the Lambs aren’t punished for that in the meantime.”

The consideration on her part stopped.  The wind picked up, and I closed my eyes, enjoying the present moment, while putting those thoughts momentarily out of my head.

But my brain ticked forward into other things I wanted to say, when I was sitting close enough to Lillian to smell her, to reach out and touch her.  All of the countless nights of the past half-a-year of tossing and turning and reaching out to pull her closer and finding that half of the bed empty, I wanted to make up for it right here, right now.

“Sy,” Lillian said, at the same time, I said, “If-”

In the awkward moment that followed, I got up, moved the gun and the sleeves from the trolley to the nearby table, so that only the glasses were on it, and rolled it on its squeaky wheels until it was closer.  I poured some of Lillian’s water into my glass and drank it.

“I don’t even know what I was going to say, Sy.  You go first.”

I offered her her glass again, and she shook her head.

I drew in a deep breath, then said, “If there was a way I could have stayed, Lillian, stayed with you, then I would have.  I hope you know that.”

She didn’t respond to that.  She looked very uncomfortable, more than anything.  As I looked at her, trying to decipher it, she seemed to become even more uneasy.  I looked away, staring out the window.

The silence was hard to manage.  I wasn’t sure how to move forward from this.

Help me out, I thought.

It was a well-practiced exercise at this point, to conceptualize Lillian, her appearance and mannerisms, her way of moving, her personality and patterns of behavior, and to twist them into a very fierce imagining of what Lillian might be like if the circumstances were different, if she wasn’t tied to the pillar.  If she wanted to be here.

The spectre of Lillian came to stand behind Lillian, leaning past the pillar to wrap her arms around the real Lillian’s shoulders, head tilted so it touched Lillian’s head, a gentle embrace.

“I know that you would have stayed if you could,” the spectre said.

“Yeah,” I said, in response to the silence and the imaginings.  “So that’s the rule.  If, at some point, the Lambs decide to catch me and bring me in, then it’s already a conclusion, and you can let me know just how badly inconvenienced you’ve been by my rebelliousness.  But until then, if you say anything on the subject, I’m going to have to gag you.”

More silence from Lillian.

“Don’t be too hard on me,” the spectre suggested.

“…With one of my socks, maybe, which I imagine is still very dirty and sweaty from me running around all day,” I said, smiling.

Lillian looked up.  She and the spectre were nearly in sync, asking, “Seriously, Sy?”

“Or a pair of underwear,” I said, still smiling.

“What?  How would that even work?  Your underwear or mine?” Lillian asked.

My smile became an ever-widening grin, as I watched her expression morph through several different emotions, ranging from disbelief that the question had passed through her lips, to anger at herself, then confusion, then something mingling shame with depression.

“I walked into that,” she said.

“Actually, that was very much you, Lillian, I didn’t plan for you to waltz right into it, I just brought up underwear to embarrass you and lighten the moment.”

She hung her head a little, staring at the floor.

“Wow, though.  That’s where your mind goes, is it?  It’s-”

“Sy.  Please.”

I stopped, still smiling.  I perched on the stool and leaned forward, “Okay.  In all seriousness, Lillian.  This situation, right here, you tied up and completely at my mercy?  Has it ever crossed your mind before?”

“Yes,” the spectre admitted, while Lillian struggled to get her mental footing.

“How many times?  Once?  Ten times?” I stretched it out, enjoying her squirming, the spectre’s expression and body language a representation of what Lillian was keeping hidden.  “Too many times to count?”

“Water,” Lillian said.  “I would like a drink of water.  And a change of subject, please.”

“I can give you the water,” I said, teasing. “I kind of like the current subject.”

“Change of subject,” Lillian said, more firmly.  “And I won’t bring up Hayle or his offer.”

I picked up the glass.  I weighed it in my hand.

Lillian was so beautiful in this moment, cheeks flushed, hair a little bit in disarray.  I wanted to say I knew she had already resolved not to bring up Hayle’s offer again.  I could say no, I could push.  Again, the thought of making up for all of those nights she hadn’t been lying beside me took over.  She probably wouldn’t even be that upset over it.

“Okay,” I said.  “In the interest of being a gentleman.”

I leaned forward on the stool until it might have tipped forward, offering the glass.  I tipped the contents between her lips.

“Thank you,” Lillian said.

“Your end-of-year project is going well?” I asked, looking at the sleeves.

“Yes,” Lillian said, “It is, thank you.  I could hammer home the fact that I’ve had a lot of free time to spend in my lab, studying, but I won’t.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “I’d guessed that much, for the record.  And I’m sorry for your free time.”

“It’s been nice, as a matter of fact.  Lonely, but nice.  Mary was training me in hand to hand in the downtime, and I was getting caught up in a way I haven’t for a while.”

“I thought the training might be the case after dealing with you earlier,” I said.  “You put up a fight.  I thought for a moment I wouldn’t be able to grab you.  I was actually genuinely worried for that moment.”

“And then you confiscated the syringe, which I had taken off of one of your errant orphans.”

“And stuck in your waistband,” I said.  “Yes.  And I stuck you with it.”

“When it counted, earlier, and when facing you, I didn’t quite have the courage to make myself move and to hurt people,” Lillian said.  “I’m still a scaredy cat in the end.”

“You did fine,” I said.  “Just about everyone did.  I’m not sure about Abby, but I don’t even know who or what she is, except that she loves animals of all kinds.”

“She was supposed to serve as someone who could decipher, even better than you can.  Human nature, animal nature, read body language, read tone and expression.  If she’d worked, she would be better at cracking people than you are.  As is, she’s good with animals.”

“Nothing like Evette, then.”

Lillian smiled. “We brought her because of her physical similarities to Evette.  Jamie had a picture of Evette in one of his notebooks, and described how you used to sleep on the floor by her vat.”

“Dirty,” I said, but I smiled.  “I like that she liked the lamb I left for them.  I had no plans for them to keep it.  But when they did, and they went up into the tower where I couldn’t follow or listen in, I scrambled to get everything together so there would be more animals waiting when they left the building.  I’m so pleased I was able to.”

“Duncan was bothered by the chicken.”

“I thought there was a chance they’d pick up more pets and have more dead weight if I included variety.”

“That’s what I said,” Lillian said.  “He thought it was a jab.”

I struck my forehead with the heel of my hand.  “It could have been, too!  I could have said something to him, needled him.  I feel so dumb!”

“You were hard on him as it was.”

I snorted, then looked for a change of topic.  “I still have to get the details about what Emmett knows from him.”

“You do,” Lillian said.  “I’m sure you’ll manage.”

Her disposition had improved considerably.  The flush still hadn’t entirely left her cheeks, which was important.

“Now’s a good time for what you’re thinking about,” Lillian-the-spectre murmured.

“Speaking of,” I said.

“Speaking of?” the real Lillian asked.

“Of managing.  As much as I would very much like to be able to be in this room and watching you for the duration of your stay, I don’t think I’m capable.  That means, well, I need to make sure you don’t have any tools or tricks that could deal with those bonds while I’m looking the other way.”

“What?” Lillian asked, caught off guard by the change in topic.

“I’m going to need to frisk you,” I said.

“What?” she asked, again.  “No.”

“Yes,” I said.

“No!  Sy, you little shit, that’s not-”

“-negotiable,” I said.  “Not negotiable.  But, like I said a few minutes ago, you do very much have the option of kicking me out of the room.  I can go get Jamie, he can take over, and I’m positive he’ll be an absolute gentleman for you.”

“And you won’t?”

“I’ll try,” I said.  “But I’m not very practiced.  So if you give me the signal to go ahead and we leave Jamie where he’s at, then you do so at your peril.”

I met her eyes as I said it, giving her my most serious look in the process.  I saw the flush start to return to her cheekbones.

Before she could back out, I ventured, “I highly recommend you ask for Jamie.”

“Are you that perilous?” Lillian asked.

“I don’t think so, but you’re a scaredy cat and a crybaby, and I think we’re on good terms right now.  I don’t want you getting mad at me again.  You’ll be stuck here with me for at least the whole night and part of tomorrow.”

“Scaredy cat and crybaby,” she said.

I smiled.

“You could have searched me while I was unconscious.”

“I could have,” I said.  “But that would have been rude.”

Her body language and expression told enough of a story that I knew I didn’t need to look at the spectre for clues or validation.  Not that the spectre was anything but a fun way of exercising what I already knew.

“I want to see you try and fail at being a gentleman,” she challenged.

I smiled, and stepped away from the stool, bending into a small bow.

“Good start,” she said.

“About your presumption of failure on my part?  You forget.  I’m on Wyvern.  I can be and do anything, given a chance to adjust,” I said.  “May I have one of your feet, please?”

“My feet?” Lillian asked.

She raised her leg, sticking out one shoe as much as she was able before the rope tugged taut.

I dropped down to my knees, and took hold of her ankle and foot.  I unbuckled the straps to her shoe, then took it off, setting it on the lower shelf of the tea trolley.  That done, I took hold of her sock by the top edge, and peeled it off.

I didn’t look up at Lillian, because her leg being raised like it was, me kneeling at her feet, I was in a position to look up her skirt, and that wouldn’t be gentlemanly.

Her silence in the moment spoke volumes, however.

I let go of her foot, and she offered the other.  I unbuckled and removed the other shoe.  As I peeled off the sock, taking care as I did so, I revealed the scalpel that Lillian had tucked in there.

“Taking lessons from Mary?” I asked, collecting the scalpel in one hand as I took the sock in the other.

“Not at all,” Lillian said.

“I name thee a liar!” I pronounced, picking up the second shoe.  I flicked it, hard.  The blade flicked out of the sole, coming to a stop in a position where it stuck out in front of the toe.

“Oh.  You recognized it?” Lillian asked.

“Recognized?” I asked.

“They’re Mary’s shoes.  She outgrew them and lent them to me for today.”

“No.  I recognized the thickness of the soles.  I never paid that much attention to Mary’s clothes, except to think of how fancy they were.  I paid more attention to what you wore.  I still have a vague recollection of all your different nightgowns, now that I think about it.”

“Careful, gentleman Sy.  You’re slipping.”

I set the shoes together on the trolley, and draped the socks over them.  I held on to the scalpel until I’d straightened, and placed it on the top.  I took a position in front of Lillian, our noses a few centimeters apart.

“I beg your pardon,” I said.

“Wh-” she started.  She stopped as my hand seized the front of her skirt, balling it up in my fist.  I pulled at it, until the waistband was a short span away from her waist.  Had I looked down, I could likely have seen everything clear from the bottom of her button up shirt to her knees, but I didn’t look down.  My eyes were locked to hers.

With my other hand, I ran my fingers along the inside of the waistband.

I could see the dilation of her eyes change, the pupils expanding.  She didn’t break eye contact any more than I did.

“What’s this?” I asked, as I found the first obstacle.  A twist of metal, which held three thin vials.

Lillian was silent.  She did all of her communicating with her eyes and the flush of her cheeks.

“Yeah,” I said.  I put the vials on top of the trolley.   I switched hands, using the tension of my finger against the waistband to hold it away from her body, touching the clothes while not touching her.  “And another.  Look at that.”

I’d discovered a syringe, pre-loaded with a half-dose of fluid.  I set it on the table.

“Excuse me,” I said, as my finger traveled along the circumference of the waistband, reaching further back.

At the last moment, before my hand would have struck the post, she pushed her pelvis out, toward me, giving me room to reach the waistband that would otherwise have been pressed between her rear end and the post she was loosely bound to.

“Just because you’re saying ‘beg your pardon’ and ‘excuse me’, doesn’t mean you’re actually being gentlemanly,” she said.

“Being polite about this is just one of the rules.  I’ll touch your clothes, because that’s necessary when searching someone like I have to search you, but I won’t touch you unless you make the first move, give your consent, or ask.”

“Is that so?” Lillian asked

“It is so,” I said. “And it is also so that you can, at any time, ask for me to go away.  I can go get Jamie, and he can wrap up.”

She didn’t respond to that.

I withdrew the rectangular cloth bag of pills that had been clipped to the underside of the waistband.  I examined the pills.

Rather than break eye contact, I held up the baggy beside her head and shook it, trusting my peripheral vision.  “There are no little yellow pills in here, sadly.  It would be nice to extend the leash some.”

She didn’t flinch or look away as I angled the bag and let the contents clatter on the trolley.

My fingers traced the inside edge of the bottom of her shirt, and again, she pushed her body out toward me to assist as I reached behind her.  Nothing.

This was a different kind of dance, but the maintained eye contact made it an intimate one.  Less two dancers separating and joining back together, as I might dance with Mary on a battlefield, more of a dance where each person held the other in their own ways, and didn’t let go from start to finish.  What we were saying, the interplay, and the things we weren’t saying helped preserve the illusion.  It would be so easy to say the wrong thing and break the spell.

If Lillian talked about Hayle.

If I drew too much attention to the fact that she was playing along.

My fingers grazed the buttons on her shirt, checking them by texture, and slipped into the spaces between to check that nothing had been placed there.

Even with the wind, I could hear her every breath, faint but real.  I was aware of the shift in light and dark as the sheer curtains moved and let more sunlight in.

I reached the top button, and moved up to check the collar of her shirt.

At the front of her collar, where the corners were, I found a pair of blades, each one like a razor, but with a solid edge along one side, no longer than a few centimeters.  I dropped them on the trolley.

At the back of her collar, there was a punching blade with a reservoir.  It was little more than a triangle of steel with a ‘T’ shaped bit of metal on the end.  I imagined it could be loaded with poison or a drug.

“That last one was actually very uncomfortable when leaning back against this post,” Lillian commented.

I was very aware of how close her lips were to mine.  I could feel her breath as she spoke.

But my gentleman’s rules were as much for me as they were for her.  I obeyed the restrictions I’d set for myself.

My fingers traced her shoulders, then her sleeves, stopping at the ends.  I reached inside, between her arm and the sleeve, and checked there.

Left sleeve, secured with a pin, a little cloth baggie, scarcely taller or wider than my thumbnail.

I held it over the trolley, removed the pin, and squeezed out the contents, while holding eye contact with Lillian.

One yellow pill.

“The leash.”

“Mm hmm,” Lillian said.

I broke eye contact, stepping away.

“I’d like your permission to check your hands,” I said.

“My hands?”

“Gut feeling,” I said.

“What if I don’t give it, hm?”

“I’ll figure it out,” I told her.  “But this will go a lot smoother if you just say yes.  I’ll only touch your hands, for now.”

“Go ahead,” she said.

I caught the thumb of her left hand between the index and middle fingers of one of my hands, and used my other hand to trap the four fingers, holding them together, lined up in a row.

I checked the thumb first, running my fingers along the length of it, firmly, until I reached the pad.  I squeezed the pad, applying pressure as if I were milking a cow.

The needle slid out from beneath the thumbnail, beading with a droplet of something.

“Yeah,” I said.  I shifted my grip around, then checked her fingers.

Index, middle, and pinky fingers of her left hand all had weapons within.

“Why not this finger?” I asked, touching the other.

“Sentiment,” Lillian said.

“Fray did this, once upon a time.  I thought about you being inspired by that.  Somehow, when I imagined you preparing to beat me, this was always just something I assumed.”

Which wasn’t entirely true, if I admitted it to myself.  But something had prompted me to check as Jamie and I had been binding her hands.  I’d cheated before conducting this little exercise.

I left her behind, crossing the room to look for one of the canvas pouches that had tools or nails in them.  The inside of the first of the two bags I found was filthy, so I made a point of turning it inside out before sliding it over Lillian’s hand, a kind of protective mitten.  The fine syringe needles likely wouldn’t pierce the canvas, and with the canvas snug and bound in place, her hands would be more or less stuck balled into fists.  Even if she were able to pierce the canvas, she wouldn’t be able to stick me or Jamie with the needles.

I returned to my position, just in front of her, smiling.

“What now?” she asked.

I reached up, and with ginger care, I took hold of the half circle of her hairband, and lifted it off of her head.  I ran my fingers along it.

“Just a hairband, Sy,” Lillian said.  I could feel her breath.  Even without the hairband, it was warm enough that her sweat-damp hair was staying where it was

I set it down on the trolley.

I reached up to her ear, and the exercise of removing the earrings was delicate enough that I had to look away, working to remove the pearl studs without touching her ear.

“Just earrings, Sy,” she said, as I removed the first.

I worked on the second, and had enough of a sense of how to remove it that I didn’t need to look for the full duration of it.

I could see the fine hairs on her neck standing on end.

I held both earrings with one hand, pearls with tiny spears of metal sticking out of them.  With the spears pinched in between finger and thumb, I used the back of my hand to move her glass, and put the pearls into the ring of condensation that the underside had left.  I stirred them in that shallow puddle, leaving white trails.

“Just earrings,” I said, as they gradually dissolved.

“Also serviceable as a mild drug, mixed into water,” Lillian said.

“Mary did more than lend you a pair of shoes and give you some instruction in hand to hand,” I said.

“We spent a lot of time together over the past few months,” Lillian said.

“The earrings were cute,” I said.  “It would be nice if you wore stuff like that more.  But they weren’t very you.”

“I thought you’d be flattered, thinking they were for your benefit, and that you’d overlook them.”

I shook my head.

“Darn,” she said, without any pathos.

“I’d like to check your hair,” I said.  “With your permission.”

“You’ll figure out something if I say no, will you?”


She leaned forward, staring down at my feet, offering me her head.

I ran my fingers through her hair, combing it with my fingernails.  I did two passes to be sure, then a third to comb it into her usual style, parted to one side, tucked behind her ears.  After a moment’s consideration, I replaced the hairband.

I upended a share of her glass of water into my cupped hand, leaving it only a quarter full.  Then I picked out one of the pills.

“Sterilization, if I remember right?” I asked.

“Yes, but… what are you doing?”

I didn’t answer right away.  I dropped the pill into the water, then rubbed my hands together.  The pill dissolved into the water, and I thoroughly washed my hands like that.

I dried them on my clean handkerchief.

“You could be more sterile than that,” Lillian observed.  “What are you doing?”

“Mouth,” I said.

“Mouth?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.

“Don’t look so surprised.  If you’ll allow me, I’m going to check the inside of your mouth.”

She didn’t protest or argue, but opened her mouth.

The spectre gnashed her teeth at me, playful.

I drew my knife, and held it in one hand, so the blade lay against my wrist, the handle extending forward.  Lillian pulled her head back as I extended it toward her mouth.

“To keep you from biting,” I said.  “Like you said, you’re still angry, right?”

Lillian relented.  I placed the handle of the knife between her molars on the one side, and ran my fingers along either side of her top and bottom teeth, then checked the wells between her cheeks and gums.  I switched sides, worked my way all the way back-

And felt something solid.

There was a catch, a fine, tiny lever, of the sort that might be tripped with the tongue.

False tooth.  I undid the catch, removed the tooth, and then removed the catch.

I set it all down on the table, removing the knife from her mouth.

“Son of a bitch,” Lillian said, as she looked down at it.

“Yeah, I know,” I said.  I wiped the saliva from my fingers on my shirt-front, drawing an ‘x’ as I did it.

Spectre Lillian smiled.  The real Lillian pretended not to notice.

I struck the false tooth with the blunt end of the knife.  It disintegrated.  I used the blade to nudge the individual pieces away from the tiny yellow pill that was nestled within.

“Two little yellow pills,” I said.

“Fancy that,” Lillian said.

“Guess you’re staying with me a little while longer,” I said.

She nodded, her expression unreadable.

The spectre, however, gave me a faltering smile.

“Was the plan to pop the tooth free, crack it between your teeth, and spit the yellow pill into my food or something?” I asked.

“Maybe,” Lillian said.

“How did I do?  Did I get all of it?”

“Do you seriously expect me to answer that?” Lillian asked.

“I’ll give you a choice,” I said.

“Another choice,” she said.

“You tell me what you hid, and I’ll remove it, or you do a very good job of sincerely telling me that you don’t have anything more, that I won, and I take you at your word…”

“You trailed off there.  What’s option three?”

“Option three is that you leave me no choice, I can’t take you at your word, and I have to assume you hid something in your undergarments, like Mary typically does.”

I saw her freeze a little with that.

“I did,” she said.

It was my turn to mentally stumble over her words.  A part of me expected her to claim it was a joke.

“In my bra.  A paper packet of poison,” she said, raising her chin a little.

A challenge.  Testing my limits as a gentleman.  Did she think it was her victory in more than one way?  That she’d hidden it successfully, and that she was going to make me balk?

The me she’d known might have, the Sylvester who had slept in her bed and taken her to dinner with her parents.

I stepped closer, one of my hands going to her top button, and I could see her shocked reaction.

“I guess you win,” I murmured in her ear, undoing the one button.

I started on the second.  I was very aware of her breathing, or the lack thereof.  She was very still.

“You can ask for Jamie at any time,” I reminded her, as I undid the second button.

“No need,” she said, in the smallest, tightest of voices.  The flush was full now.

Did she think this was a game of chicken?  That if she held firm, I would back off?

I reached inside her shirt, and I didn’t touch skin.  Wyvern coupled with weeks and months of training my hands with lockpicking and medical care and tool use and whiling away my time with playing with needles and coins and blades had left me with a great deal of confidence in my fingers and my sense of touch.

I didn’t touch skin, but I felt the fine beads of sweat that had collected on it, the fine, nearly-invisible white hairs that stood out from the skin, no doubt bristling from the goosebumps on the skin’s surface itself.  I felt the body heat, and judged my fingers’ distance from Lillian’s breast, as I moved my hand at a snail’s pace.

I had disarmed landmines with less care than I moved my hand over that tantalizing surface.  I operated with touch alone, my eyes fixed on Lillian’s.

My fingernail touched the strap of her bra, and I traced the nail along the strap’s edge, down to the bra itself, then along the edge.  It vibrated slightly and silently as the fingernail’s edge dragged along the stitching, the very edge of my finger touching the beads of sweat and fine hairs.

“Damn,” I murmured, into Lillian’s ear.  “I hoped there would be a little tag of paper sticking out I could grab.”

“Damn,” Lillian said, her voice even softer and tighter than before.  She was staring at my eyes, but in that moment, she was really staring well past me.  Her focus wasn’t on sight.

“I beg your pardon,” I said, reaching behind her with my other hand.  “With utmost sincerity.”

With one hand and a snapping motion of my fingers, I undid the clasp on her bra.  She jumped as if she’d been stabbed, and her focus returned to me, her eyes on mine.

I moved my fingers down, tracing more fine hairs and more waves of warm body heat, then crossed the void to the concave of the now loose bra cup.  With two fingers, I retrieved my prize, and maneuvered my hand out of her shirt.

I held up my prize between our faces, then flicked it through the air, letting it land on the trolley.  In the moment it smacked into place, the spell was broken, and she let out the breath she’d been holding in, shivering visibly as she did it.

Not a bad sort of shiver, either.

“If you cut me free from this post, I would pounce on you in an instant,” the spectre said.  “And get payback for all of the teasing you just put me through.”

Payback in the form of a beating, or in the form of making me follow through on every tease?

The spectre smiled.

“Can you imagine?” I asked Lillian.  “Next time, I’m going to have to assume you’ll be better with the hiding places.  I’ll have to be even more thorough.”

“What?  Next time?”

“I like you, Lillian,” I said.  “This isn’t the last time I’ll say hi.  I’ll nab you again, the next time the Lambs show.  We’ll have another conversation.  I’ll frisk you again, again, if you don’t want Jamie to handle it.”

“I don’t think it works that way, Sylvester,” Lillian said.

I’d let that ‘Sylvester’ slide.

“Naturally, you’ll do your best to work with the Lambs to counteract it, but that’s what makes it so interesting a challenge, do you see?”

“I don’t see at all,” Lillian said.

“I’ll kidnap you again, and then again.  And maybe kidnap Mary once just to say hi and make you a little jealous, even though she would scare me, if she were tied to a post in front of me.”

“Sy, no.”

“The Lambs are important to me,” I said.  “I want them in my life in some capacity or another.  And this week has been fantastic fun.  If this is the only capacity I can have you, then I’ll be damned if I’m not going to kidnap you at every opportunity.”

“It doesn’t work that way, Sy.”

“Then how does it work, Lillian?” I asked.  I stepped back, perching on the stool.  “Because the way I see it, this is utterly guiltless, for you.  You’re at my mercy.  If pressed, you can say you were innocent.  I got the upper hand.  You can even tell yourself that, if that makes it easier.  But I know you’ve enjoyed yourself in some capacity.”

Her eyes were fixed on the floor.  She responded to that last point with a faint nod, as if she wasn’t even aware she was doing it.

“So you-” I started, as she said, “You’ve-”

In the moment that followed, I quietly said, “Your turn.”

She did that faint nod again.

“You’ve ruined me, Sy.”


“You’ve ruined me,” she said.

“Naw,” I replied.

She spoke, still staring at the floor, as if she wasn’t talking to me any more.  “Did you know I got a boyfriend?”

I blinked.

“I had two, as a matter of fact.”

“Not Duncan,” I said.

Lillian raised her head, giving me an incredulous look, “No!”

“Oh, good,” I said.

“He’s a year above me, working on his gray coat.  Tall, smart, well put together, a little bit athletic.  All of the girls in his year go weak in the knees over him when he walks down the hall.  He and I struck up a conversation, and he asked me out.  Me and… actually, I won’t name him.  You might hunt him down.”

I might.  That ‘tall’ comment was a barb.  Even now I was only Lillian’s height.

“We dated.  I was trying to fill a void, and I used him to do it, I admit it.  So many of those girls would kill me if I said it like that.  I, he and I, we messed around.  Kissed.”

If she was trying to make me jealous, it was working.

“It didn’t- it wasn’t the same.  The kisses were… nice enough, for kisses.  But they weren’t like the ones you gave me.  It was the same for spending time with him.  You were always so attentive, you paid attention to every little thing, catalogued everything you could use and you used it and… you made me feel cherished.  You make me feel like that here, while I’m tied to this dang post.”

Her bagged hands pulled at the restraints.  Her frustration seemed to flow out into the gesture.  Her hands shook a little as she stopped pulling, as if she was clenching each fist in the bag.

“You were my first love,” she said.  “I will never… never have someone who pays close attention to me like you did.  Never someone as sharp as you, never someone who kisses like you did.  I’m ruined, don’t you see?  Romance is ruined for me, because everything that waits for me pales, compared to this.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“I wanted to feel something like I felt with you.  He and I went further.  I let him put his hand up my shirt, this boy I didn’t even like, in the end.  Because I wanted to feel like I did when you kiss me.  That’s… that’s how ruined I am, don’t you see?”

“I don’t think you’re ruined at all,” I said.  “Not because of that.”

“And I’m supposed to be happy with this?” she asked.  There was a note of anger in her voice.  “With being kidnapped over and over?  Waiting months for, what, one or two days?”

“You’re not supposed to do anything,” I said.  “Sorry.  It was a good solution when I put it together in my head.  If you want something else, then… let me know what it is.  I’m adaptable.”

“My choice?” Lillian asked.


“Would you kiss me, please?”

I wasted no time in stepping away from the stool, putting one hand on the side of her face, and kissing her like I’d been aching to do since I’d first carried her off.

I gave her light, teasing kisses, drawing her forward, retreating, tormenting her, making her ask.

Her lips still touched mine, moved against mine, as she murmured, “Real kisses.”

Real kisses.

I gave her what she wanted.  No butterfly-light brushes of lip against lip, but full contact, forceful enough to press her head back against the post.  She pushed her body against mine, pulled her arms forward against the restraints, as if she’d forgotten I’d tied them in the moment.

I was aware of the spectre, and allowed one of my eyes to watch her as she snapped her jaw shut.

My hands went to Lillian’s throat, fingers touching the corners of her jaw.  She moaned lightly into my mouth, and then I felt the tension at the corner of her jaw, as she opened it.

I pulled back.  The skin of my teeth wasn’t quite apropos, because it was her teeth, as she moved to bite me, hard.

Her head dropped.  My hands were still on her neck and face, and I could feel her shaking.

“What was that about?” I asked.

She didn’t respond.

“Okay,” I said.  “If you want, we can-”

“Don’t,” she said, without raising her head.

It was a fierce enough utterance that my hands dropped away from her neck and face.

She was crying, now.  I could see the first tear.  The angle of her head and her hair made it hard to see anything else.

“Please don’t,” I said.  “Don’t cry.  This was all pretty nice.”

She nodded, as if in agreement, then said, “I can’t.”

“Please,” I said.  “Whatever I can do, just-”

Don’t!” she said, raising her voice, suddenly tense.

I stopped, helpless.

“Stop… stop giving me choices,” she said.

I opened my mouth to speak, and I had no idea what to say.

“Stop.  Just stop,” she said.  “I can’t do this.”

The words didn’t come to my lips.  I backed away.  It was like night and day, this and before.

I didn’t know what to do.  All of the Wyvern augmented brain, just a day after my appointment with Jamie, and I was as clueless as the dumbest dumbfuck in the Crown States.

I saw the tears, saw Lillian start sobbing, and I turned away.

“Help,” I said.  “Jamie.”

A heartbeat passed.  I raised my voice, “Jamie!”

But he was already in the doorway.

He had to be just outside the door.

How long was he there?

Didn’t matter.  Lillian was hurting and I didn’t know how to make it stop.

“I don’t know what to do,” I confessed.

Jamie didn’t meet my eyes as he crossed the room, going to Lillian’s side.

She pressed her head into his chest.

“Get him out of here,” she said.

“Step outside, Sy,” Jamie said.  “I’ll be there soon.”

“I don’t know what happened,” I said.

“It’s fine,” he said.  “But step outside.”

I moved the trolley away, just to be safe, as I headed toward the door.  I paused, “She has retractable needles under her fingernails like Fray did.  Watch out.”

“I know, Sy.  I’ll be careful.  Just go.”

As I left the room, I heard Lillian’s voice, faint and small.

I don’t like the me that says yes to Sylvester.

Jamie’s reassurance was short, gentle, and I didn’t process it at all, because of how deep Lillian’s words had cut.

What was I supposed to do?

I made my way into the hallway, and ran my fingers through my hair.

I’d been honest.  I’d invited her to meet me halfway, and she’d agreed.  In the moment, she’d even seemed happy with it.  It was a bittersweet happiness, but… surely that had to be better than having nothing.  Loneliness and what Lillian had been talking about, being ruined without each other.

This was a compromise, and most compromises left both parties a little unhappy, but…

…They weren’t supposed to leave people like Lillian was right now.  Unhappy with herself.

What was I supposed to do?

Avoid Lillian?  Say goodbye for good?  Never touch her or kiss her again?

How was that better?  She herself had said it was bad.

Was I supposed to avoid the Lambs altogether?  I couldn’t see a way around things that didn’t rekindle at least a part of this hurt that I’d just seen in Lillian.

I ran my fingers through my hair, stopped halfway, and leaned against the wall.  The only sound I heard was the rustle of the sheer curtains and the indistinct murmurs of Jamie and Lillian’s voices.

“Just give me a moment?  Talk to him.  I know you want to,” Lillian said.  No longer whispering or murmuring.

“Sylvester can hold his own.  I’m worried about you.”

“No.  I need a moment to collect my thoughts.  I’m a mess, and I can’t even articulate why.”

“I think you did, and I’ll hardly judge you for being out of sorts.”

“Please?  Just a bit of quiet?  I won’t try to escape.”

“If you’re sure.”

“Thank you.”

I closed my eyes, listening as the footsteps approached.

Jamie gently closed the door behind him.

“Do you remember our conversation, back when we were dealing with the Devil’s men who had cornered the nanny and the mayor’s children?”

“Not really,” I said.

“I was worried about this sort of thing.  The weight of this sort of thing.”

Weight.  The word rang a faint and broken bell.  “I didn’t think you were talking about this.”

“I was.  I’ve alluded to it at other times.  While I was recuperating from the Ravage, then at the Brothel, twice, and back at Lambsbridge…”

I shook my head a little.

“That damn memory of yours, Sy.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“We’re all a little bit twisted, when it comes to matters of the heart,” he said.

“I remember that.  It was our first real, honest conversation.  I mean you and me, not me and the old Jamie.”

“Yeah,” Jamie said.  He looked in the direction of the door, cracked it open, peeking at Lillian, and then shut it.  He stayed there for a moment, his back to me, before turning around again.

“I don’t know what I did wrong.”

“You miscalculated.  You didn’t account for… how she felt.”

“Every step of the way, she gave the okay.  She wanted the kiss, she challenged me to fish for the packet.  She said I could search for the tooth, touch her hands, examine her shoes.  Her body language, all the while, right up until the end, it reinforced that.  She was happy in the moment.”

“It still wasn’t okay, Sy.”

“What is!?” I asked.  “What was I supposed to do that would make all that alright!?”

“Think beyond the moment, for once.  I know it’s not common practice for you, but think longer-term,” Jamie said.  “Think about Lillian having to go back to the Lambs, with her feelings for you rekindled and all stirred up.”

I set my jaw.

“And she has to live with the fact that she said yes, and that she was weak and romantic in the moment instead-”

“Stop,” I said, my voice firm.

Jamie stopped.  He fixed me with a level, unreadable stare.

“There’s nothing weak about Lillian.  There’s nothing bad about being romantic.”

“I agree,” Jamie said.  “But right now, she feels weak.  She wasn’t thinking straight, and let’s be entirely honest.  You aren’t exactly operating on a level playing field, are you?”

“Are you talking about the ropes?  Because-”

He stabbed his finger into my chest.  “I’m talking about you, Sy.  You.  You’re a manipulator.  Yes, she said yes.  But you led her to that answer.”

I shook my head.

“Are you saying you didn’t?”

“I’m saying- I might have.  But that’s hardly fair.”

“Existence isn’t fair, Sy.  Especially ours,” Jamie said.

“I’m me.  Manipulation is me.  I toy with people.  I toyed with her for years and she called it a lovely romance that she won’t ever be able to live up to.  Because that’s how she operates and that’s how I operate and that’s how we function as a pair.”

“There is no pair anymore, Sy.  You left her.  You can’t cling to the scraps that remain.”

“There’s more than scraps,” I said, more defensively than I might have liked.

“When you left the room, she said Hayle warned her about you, after your first kiss.  That she only just now realized why.  It’s not because you’ll cross the line.  It’s because you’re clever enough to redefine the line.  You have to realize that dragging out a half-relationship with Lillian isn’t going to make her happy in the long run.  Because I think, right there in that room, in that moment that your time with her took a turn, Lillian sure realized it.”

“What am I supposed to do, Jamie?  Because you can say ‘life isn’t fair’, but that’s a whole different ballpark from ‘Sylvester can never ever have a relationship, because that relationship will never be a level playing field’.  And that sounds pretty shitty.”

“I didn’t say that,” Jamie said.

I shook my head.

“There are people who can stand on a level playing field with you,” Jamie said.  “Experiments.”

“Mary?” I asked.  “Started down that road.  Would be even unhealthier than…” I flailed inarticulately in the direction of the door.

“It was good of you to realize that,” Jamie said, voice soft.

“I’m not about to wait for Abby or one of the twins to grow up.  I’ll be a goner before then.”

“Yeah,” Jamie said.

“So, what, you?” I asked, a little bitter.

Jamie was silent.  He didn’t meet my eyes.

“I like girls.  You and I both know very well that I like girls, Jamie.”

“I know.”

“So what, you want me to go find some back alley doctor, see if they can mess with my head, twist things around?  Would that make you happy?”

I realized the words that were coming out of my mouth as I spoke them.  This was a dark echo to a prior conversation.  One that had played through in my head at least once a night for years now.

“No need for something that extreme,” Jamie said.  “Not least because I don’t think your Wyvern-altered brain would do very well with people carving things up in there.”


“Sy,” he said.  “I’ve come to know you.  I’ve made peace with that.  With who you are.  I’m okay, I think.  Your company is good as-is.”

I stopped.  Then I found the words.  Because I couldn’t let the conversation end with that.

I spoke with more bitterness than I would have liked, “So all of this.  Your counsel, telling me how to deal with Lillian.  It’s biased.  Because you like me.”

“I do.  I wouldn’t have come to find you in Tynewear like I did if I didn’t like you at least a little.  And I am biased.  So you do have to take what I say with a grain of salt, here.”

I screwed up my face, scowling, then ran my hands through my hair again.

“Sometimes there are no compromises, Sy.  Sometimes the reality is that things just don’t work out, and you have to make peace with that.”

There would be no working things out with Lillian, if Jamie was right.

“Maybe… go for a walk, Sy?” Jamie suggested.  “I’ll do what I can to smooth things over with Lillian.  We’ll get things mostly normal, then decide where to go from there, once she’s able to have a conversation with us.”

I drew in a deep breath, and then sighed.

“Okay.  Thank you.”

I headed toward the stairs, to make my way out of the building.  Jamie, at the door, stopped.


I turned to look up at him.

“Just so I know, there’s one thing I don’t get, and I want to talk to Lillian while armed with all the information.”

I nodded.

“How in the world is it you’re so damned clueless and innocent about matters, and then, there, with her, you’re different?  She even noticed it, almost right off the bat.  That you were flirting, that you were interested in a way that you usually aren’t.”

“Oh,” I said.  “That.”

“You’ve missed and inadvertently stumbled on rude innuendo a hundred times in the last six months.  I just can’t reconcile that with this.”

I put two fingers to my head, then turned them, as if I were turning a key in the lock.

“What?” Jamie asked.

“Wyvern,” I said.  “You gave me my appointment just yesterday.  I was anticipating this.  This time with Lillian.  So I took those feelings and ideas out of the box.”

“The box,” Jamie said.  There was a kind of horror on his face.

“Yeah.  Compartmentalized it, buried it, locked it away.”

“Sy, you can’t- you can’t do that.”

“Why not?” I asked, offended.

“Because it’s one thing if they warp you, if this messed up existence of ours and life with the Academy twists us around and makes us strange, but it’s something else altogether if you do it to yourself!”

I shook my head.

“That’s not f-” Jamie started.  He shook his head.  “That’s not good, Sy.  Why would you even do that in the first place?”

“Because of the nights I spent with Mary.  The nights I slept with Lillian?  At first, anyhow.  I guess I did it because I didn’t want to spoil that.  Didn’t want it to get weird, didn’t want to push them away.  Those moment, frozen in time, were good enough as they were.  I didn’t want to let those feelings push me to change that and risk breaking it.  So I made myself innocent.  More innocent.”

The horror was still on his face.  I didn’t quite understand it.

“You castrated yourself.”

“I didn’t castrate myself.  I… asserted control.  I left just enough of the less-innocent parts there because they seemed to amuse you and the others.  It’s really, really not that important, Jamie.  Hell, I halfway forgot about doing it until I started thinking about spending time with Lillian again, and making the most of it.”

Jamie, always rock solid, looked anything but in the moment, “You cannot alter yourself and then forget about it, Sy!”

“Obviously I didn’t.  I caught myself in time,” I said.

“You can’t- Sy, no.  That’s not fair.”

“You almost said that a bit ago.  That this wasn’t fair.  What’s not fair about it, Jamie?”

“I was here for you, Sy.  I left everything behind, I came to help you.  And I thought- I thought hey, you had feelings, you’d weighed them, you decided there was no chance with me, and that was fine.  But you didn’t even consider it.  Your feelings were put away, tucked in some dark corner of your mind and locked away.  I never had a chance to earn a place in your heart.”

I was supposed to say something back, but that last line drove it home.  Now I was the one who felt the horror that Jamie seemed to be evidencing, because it was dawning on me just why he felt that way.

It had taken longer to get there, but in the long run, this conversation was playing out just like my last conversation with Jamie.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “But- you know I-”

I couldn’t bring myself to say it again.

“There was never a chance,” I said.  “Please trust me on that.”

“But you can’t know, can you?” Jamie asked.

“I don’t know.  I’m ninety-nine point nine percent sure.”

“I would have appreciated you letting me have that point-one percent chance,” Jamie said.  “I gave a lot to be here for you, maybe even years of my existence.  I don’t regret that, even now, but it sure would have been nice if you gave me that iota of a chance, in exchange.”

I could see the hurt.  I could see the damage I’d inadvertently done.  The wedge.

I didn’t know what to say, and there was no calling out for help, asking for some other person to come in from just around the corner and rescue me from this situation.

“Just tell me,” Jamie said.  “Tell me that, in the end, my feelings or the possibility of me having feelings wasn’t a reason you walled off that part of yourself.  That you didn’t throw up that barrier in between us.”

I opened my mouth, then closed it.

“You did,” he said.

I nodded.

“Just go for your walk, Sy,” he said.  “I’ll talk to Lillian.  I’ll… think things through.  We’ll talk later.”

“I knew this would happen,” I said.  “Or something like it.  That’s why I put that barrier there.  That there was a chance you would get jealous, or upset, or my feelings in another direction would push you away.  I put the barrier there because I valued you.  I thought it was safe take it down for Lillian, because she was a known element, except it wasn’t, and this conversation-”

“Stop talking, Sy,” Jamie said.

I stopped talking.

“Go for your walk.”

I turned, taking the stairs.

I went for my walk.  I spent an hour wandering the city, paying only minimal attention to the possibility that the Lambs were trying to track me or find me.

My thoughts were a mess.  I tried to organize them, but so many individual things seemed impossible to recover, impossible to salvage.

I was hurt and angry and against all logic and rationale, I resented Lillian and Jamie for making this so hard.

No compromise at all?  No flexibility?  Even the compromises I’d taken upon myself years ago were coming around to bite me.

It was dark by the time I finished my walk.  I had the wherewithal to be secretive as I made my way back to the building, making sure I wasn’t followed.

Hardly mattered.

No, it really didn’t matter at all.

I made my way up the stairs to that hallway and that room.  I wasn’t surprised in the slightest as I pushed the door open, and found the room empty.

No Lillian, no Jamie.

Two glasses and two lengths of rope sat on the trolley, but nothing littered it.  All of the pills and blades, large and small, had been picked up and put where they belonged.

On the table, the sleeves had been picked up and taken with.  The gun had been left there.  I picked it up and tucked it into my waistband.

I remained there, taking in the moment, for a very long time, the wind blowing in through the windows.

Would Jamie be back?  I had no earthly idea.

Could I endure the conversation when he did get back?  The hurt looks?  I had no idea.

Just in case, I found a scrap of paper, and scrawled out a short message.

It was shitty, and it was unfair.  He deserved better.

But I couldn’t endure the thought of waiting and him not showing up.  I couldn’t endure having that conversation if he did show up, and having it end in an interminable break.

I’d had that conversation in my head so many times by now that I couldn’t bear to give it more power than it had.  The eerie echo of it we’d just had was too telling, as it was.

Those who dwell in history are doomed to relive it, I thought to myself.

I looked down at my message.

Thanks for the last six months. – Sy.

I’d have to find Emmett before Jamie and Lillian did.  Get some answers, on the promise of getting Lillian back to them.  See if I couldn’t get Pierre in the bargain, while I was at it.  If I couldn’t, then I’d be directionless.

“At least I can’t let you guys down, eh?”

The assorted Lambs and would-be Lambs, apparitions, surrounded me.  Evette, Gordon, both Jamies, Mary, Lillian, Helen, Ashton, Duncan, Emmett, Abby, Nora, and Lara.

“I was stupid,” I said.  “Tried too hard to be a Lamb.  Hold on to the past, you know?”

I could picture the individual expressions, the body language.  I appreciated the sympathy, hollow as it was.

“Let’s get out of this damn city,” I said.  “Get ourselves into some trouble.”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

183 thoughts on “Black Sheep – 13.11

    • I read and reread this chapter five times today and I have one thing to say to you, Wildbow.
      Fuck you. I love you so much but right now fuck you. You are my favourite writer and I hate you more than I have ever hated anyone. I couldn’t stop crying whilst reading this chapter. I hope you never stop writer you son of a bitch. I want to punch you with one hand and hug you with the other. Please don’t leave Sy alone again, if he can’t have Lillian at least give him Jamie back.

  1. Cut off my entire head and throw it in a fucking river oh my god. This chapter was amazing, but it feels like the arc is coming to a close and honestly? This is the best arc of this story so far. This is one of the best arcs you’ve ever written, I think. Even compared to the already spectacular rest of Twig, this arc feels to me like The Girl in the Checkered Scarf felt compared to the rest of Pact. My mind is blown. Thank you so much, Wildbow.

  2. Bring the typo thread onto the feels train too!

    trolley. I switched hands
    ~Triple space

    staying where it was
    ~staying where it was.

    • “the orphange”

      “Is that so?” Lillian asked

      “Those moment, frozen in time,”

      “I thought it was safe take it down for Lillian,”

      “Thanks for the last six months. – Sy.”

  3. I’m going to condence all of my feelings in to one small part:

    Despite having been with you for two and three quarters-ish of different stories, despite fully knowing that things are *not* going to work out, that they are going to get worse in some capacity, it never hits any less hard. And I think that speaks loads about your ability to tell stories, Wildbow. Arcs of anticipation has lead up to this specific chapter, and it was simultaneously everything I could have hoped for, and everything I hoped it wouldn’t be. Thank you for this experience, I genuinely don’t think there is anyone else in the world that could give this to me.

  4. Sy has now THIRTEEN imaginary friends. And is also completely alone. He is really going to fucking lose it, but honestly I like that.

  5. X posting from the r/parahumans reddit, since I think Wildbow reads here more –

    I’ve been really enjoying Twig, but I think I was a bit anchored by Pact and Worm. The whole time I’ve been expecting some sort of grand conflict to come into focus and be the center of the main character’s efforts. I felt a little that most of the chapters were irrelevant in the grand scheme of things – the enemies and allies and events transient, though the character development has been top notch.

    This is the chapter of revelation for me. Now I think I properly understand what Twig is about, and that it’s intentionally unlike Wildbow’s previous works. The grand scale, world changing events are not as clear because that’s not what this story is about – it’s not about the biopunk world, not really. The conflict in this story is all Sylvester, his growth and evolution and relationships.

    I feel like I felt when I first read Extermination or Interlude 26 in worm – frankly, a sense of awe at the revealed scope of the work. Normally I’m one to eye roll at effusive praise, but I’m really just very impressed that I can be made to feel that same way with such a dramatically different trigger. Twig is amazing.

  6. There is so much emotional force behind this chapter that it had me anticipating the next words so much more than any other chapters so far. It left my heart racing and broken and I can’t wait for the upcoming chapters to see how these characters continue their journey. Just wanted to say how much I’ve enjoyed how you’ve dragged me into this world, thank you.

  7. Oh man, how is Sy going to deal with this? The story has already established that Sy will go insane without another Lamb to support him–I wonder if it’s been long enough that it won’t be the case, or if he’s finally going to snap.

    • Also, I just realized that this chapter is not labeled with (Lamb). We already knew that Sy’s not really a Lamb anymore, but the ending just hits harder because of it. =[

  8. I knew things were going way too well to continue that way but I started to let my guard down. Oh how I hoped things would stay happy. Should have known better I guess.

  9. If this arc and this conclusion is the result of you having a bat-problem, Wildbow, then please, PLEASE consider a bat as a pet. ^^

    In all honesty, though. I am at a loss for words. Wow, just… This is amazing and heartbreaking and… There were plenty of amazing chapters in Twig, but I think this is hands down my favorite one. It’s so goddamn relatable. (Should I be scared to relate to a broken person like Sy…? Especially if you take into account how he subjugates his own feelings for an edge in keeping things solveable and manageable… Literally without a second thought, since he forgot about it. And now I sound like Jamie.)
    So much about past Sy MAKES SENSE now. Everything feels so much like Sy, so very much in sync with everything we learned about him so far…
    Welp. Look at me rambling and ranting after I said I was at a loss for words. Should have waited a few hours before writing this comment.
    I better wrap this up or I might bore everyone to death.
    Thank you so much, Wildbow. For this great story in general and this AMAZING chapter in particular. Thank you!

    • Bats are a lot of hard work. A single bat is an unhappy bat and nothing a human does will come close to their being plugged into the bat network. It’s worse than when isolating horses.

      Also, bats and their behaviours aren’t very sanitary for humans, even with careful precautions taken. <_<

      • “A single bat is an unhappy bat”. Sy is now all alone. Sy is unhappy.

        Wildbow’s genius writing is being inspired by his bat problem, confirmed!

  10. This chapter was really hot towards the start, heartwrenching towards the end, and seasoned with occasional moments of horror of various kinds. It was intimate and felt very real, very *honest*. Very well done.

    • And I’m now very curious as to what Sy, alone but for the hallucinations of his friends, is going to create when he finds his “trouble”. As if he hasn’t got himself into trouble already? The mind boggles.

  11. Wow. When Sy captured Lillian in the last chapter, I didn’t expect the next one to go full-blown softcore S&M erotica.

    And Sy suppressed his sex drive with Wyvern, because of course he did.

      • It’s offensive to Jamie because he proceeded on the assumption that Sy wasn’t interested. But there’s the weird possibility that Sy might have been interested by MADE himself not. Which for Jamie must be pretty heartbreaking.

      • I don’t think it was offensive. It was just that Jamie had come to terms with the fact that Sy wasn’t interested in guys, and that wasn’t Sy’s doing. Only now he’s discovered that it *was* Sy’s doing, because he postponed his own puberty with Wyvern, or at least some of the mental aspects of it, and there was a chance Sy would be interested in Jamie after all. I don’t think Jamie is offended, but I can certainly understand him feeling gutted.

      • Partially. After all it’s implied that Jamie was castrated as part of Project Cattrpiller. But also, if he can edit his emotions like that, if he can supprese things like that…
        “There was never a chance,” I said. “Please trust me on that.”

        “But you can’t know, can you?” Jamie asked.

        “I don’t know. I’m ninety-nine point nine percent sure.”

        “I would have appreciated you letting me have that point-one percent chance,” Jamie said.

        It’s that he supressed that point-one percent chance. But I don’t know if he compleatly supressed everything. Something made him chose to suppress it, and in doing so choose Lillian.

  12. Well, I’ll repeat what 20 other people have already said, but this is amazing. Best chapter you’ve ever written, and basically the reason why you would deserve to be constant #1 on the NYT bestseller list. Just perfect.

  13. Somehow, you keep convincing me that things are going to work out and these characters are going to be happy. I should really know better by now.

    I agree with the other sentiments that this is some of your best work yet, and I really hope the Lambs can work together again in the future… But I’m not holding my breath.

  14. Wow, that was probably the best chapter you have written so far Wildbow, it certainly hit the hardest, even considering all of worm and pact.

    I am realy looking forward to where we are going from here.

  15. Greetings from Latvia. First time leaving the comment here, just could not remain silent. Thank you Wildbow, for bringing out emotion with each story from your readers. You are doing a fantastic job.

  16. And all the little threads come together, lacing directly through the heart in a thousand stitches. Then Wildbow tugs the threads like a master puppeteer, making us dance to his tune.

    • He doesn’t need to throw in tittilation and graphic sex scenes if he doesn’t want to. He’s good enough that isn’t a requirement. Quite the contrast to all the old Lust and Dust westerns my dad and older brothers used to read that had several graphic, gratuitous sexual encounters between their rugged manly protagonist and whatever attractive women they encountered.

      Though even if things had gone that way with Sy and Lillian it wouldn’t have felt gratuitous.

  17. Why can’t Sy deal with an emotional confrontation with Jamie, all of a sudden? I mean, on the one hand I’m very much hit by the feels train, yes, but on the other I’m frustrated by Sy’s comically ridiculous fear of having conversations with his best friend.

    I get that being honest is really hard for Sy in some ways, but that conversation isn’t so hard to do, and heartbreak isn’t so insurmountable a task. Heck, considering Sy’s lifestyle I imagine he has seen and processed heartbreak many times in watching the students of the Academy, in watching orphans at the orphanage, and while he was living in the city with the Madam.

    To do something unfair just so that he can get some fresh air is frankly a *stupid* idea.

    Plus, for all that Sy is manipulative, it isn’t like Lillian’s situation isn’t mirrored – Sy too has to endure this terrible, one-sided relationship, and whereas Lillian just has Sy to deal with, Sy has the entirety of the Crown interested in capturing him. They’re both in a bad situation, not just Lillian alone somehow.

    • …I guess it’s just really hard on me when characters do bad things to themselves…so much easier when you have a villain to be upset at.

      • It’s one thing to see it from the outside, another to experience it yourself. It’s like watching someone break their leg. Sure you might wince in sympathy, but your aren’t screaming in pain and, you know feeling your leg be broken.

      • We have a villain. His name is Lambsbridge. He was clearly and unashamedly a villain from chapter one.
        Now if you excuse me, I have some rivers to cry.

    • I’m not jumping ship even if it is doomed. I’ll be going down with it. Like the band on the Titanic. Only I can’t play an insturment.

  18. Well shit. Did he just torpedo Syllian and Symie? Damn, I needed some time to think about this before posting.

    I think Sy’s problem is that he’s both too selfish and too selfless. He wants to make multiple parties happy, in this case Lillian and Jamie. Plus himself. So he comprimises. He tries to comprimise even though he can’t here. And so everyone gets hurt.

    And yet at the same time we can’t be things sometimes. We can’t not feel ways. Though Sy did try. Jamie can’t not fall in love with Sy. Lillian can’t not love him too, and yet she also can’t abandon her dream, or her family for Sy. And Sy… Sy can’t not want to see the Lambs hurt, and perhaps more importantly, he has to try and do something for the children who are being victimized. I can relate. There is the part of me that is upset that Syllian is sunk. And even more upsetting to me there is that dark ugly part that is feeling vindicitive joy that at least Symie is sunk too. The ugly “at least you lost too” emotion that seeps up even though it was never that sort of contest, and it’s petty to feel that way. And yet I can’t help but feel that way.

    Now the big question this has raised for me is… Who is Sy? I know that seems odd, but it’s where my train of thought has led me. Take away the Wyvvern, if he’d never been given it, what parts remain the same? What, if any is his immutable core? And I think a big part of it is that he wants a better world. Somehow he wants to make it so there are no more like him. No kids taken and made something for someone elses goals. But allowed to be what they will be. The other thing that is very much the Wyvvern is the manipulator. That is what the academy made. That is what Sy does in all of his relationships to some degree. And that is what he does to himself. And as such, does Sy even know what to define himself as?

    So bravo to Wildbow for not just making me think, but also, if not ripping my heart out this chapter, giving it a good firm tug.

    On a lighter note…
    “Was the plan to pop the tooth free, crack it between your teeth, and spit the yellow pill into my food or something?” I asked.

    “Maybe,” Lillian said.
    Pretty sure the plan was to slip it to you in a kiss.

  19. Jesus Christ I think this is the single best written chapter Wildbow has ever produced. The language, the way he played with expectations and finally created true pathos completely consistent with his characterisations. Also Jesus damn can Sy never have nice things? This is perhaps even sadder than “Cut all ties”. At least there drama swept you along to help move on from the heartbreak. This just leaves you empty.

  20. Okay, I’ve figured out the only way to solve this happily. We cut Sy in half, then use advanced academy science to make each half grow into a full Sy. Then both Lillian and Jamie can have their own Sy. It’s a perfectly sane and rational solution.

  21. To me, “heartbreaking” and “good” never stand in a single sentense without a word of negation, but judging purely by the comments above, the author’s goal is achieved, so congratulations on that.
    …Also, is there any info on how many more arcs are planned?

  22. He did say there was Twig smut incoming on Reddit. He neglected to mention the incoming sledgehammer. And what a beautiful hammer it is.

  23. Well played wildbow. This chapter made me crack up, and I read the first half during a funeral. So gloriously kinky, then sweet, then sad, then horrifying then funny then finally almost bringing me to tears. I want to slap sy, hug Jamie and lil, and yet sy has never been so compelling. After chapters of sy being always one step ahead, always in control, the emotional punch here was intense. And finally, an explanation of his somewhat hilarious paradoxical innocence. In TV trope terms, chequovs’s … innuendo?

    • Surely, I’m not the only one who tried to rot13 “Dongfang Bubai”?

      (Apparently they are a character in the wuxia novel The Smiling, Proud Wanderer by Jin Yong.)

  24. my heart wtf wildbow you broke Syllian 😥 fix it plz

    The whole time I was reading the first half of this chapter, I felt like something was off. I chalked it up to paranoia about wildbow stories never ending happy. And then I was right. The worst part was Lillian breaking down. And then Sy giving up and saying it’d be unhealthy…

    Wildbow, romantic stories are supposed to have characters irrationally double down on the relationship and have it all magically work out by the end. Just thought I’d let you know.

    • I wouldn’t realy say he broke Syllian, yes the ship is taking water like hell but it is also confirmed as pracitally unsikable on Lillian’s side.

    • No, no they talk about it, find that one thing that’s the problem, easily resolve everything, and make love at the end of the chapter.

      • Or, ignore the major incompatibilities and strains, go full-on romance and barrel on with staying together despite the odds… and you never hear about the fallout that would happen in real life because the story ends before the alcoholism, abuse or imbalances thanks to mental illness really kicks in and torpedoes everything over a decade. 😛

        Sy, Jamie and Lil fast-tracked it — the bonus is… there are very few others in the fallout. 😦

          • Well now I’m picturing the end of the story where Sy is laying dying, and Lillian cradles him in her arms, then Jamie shoves her out of the way, then they get in a shoving match while Sy lays on the ground expiring.

  25. I feel like Helen has plunged her hands inside my chest and squeezed my heart until all the fluids are forced from my eye sockets.

    I know i should be thanking you, Wildbow, but I’m still too broken yet.

    • Guess I should have saved my evil Jamie post for here. Oh well.

      Jamie. The true mastermind behind everything bad in Twig. Or was that supposed to be Rick?

      • Rick may be a mad scientist, but he would never support the Crown , or a government in general, even if it is not as authoritarian as the Crown.

        Oh wait, you meant Rick the orphan, not Rick Sanchez, my bad, sorry.

  26. Who wants to bet Jamie had gone to Fray?
    If he wanted to stay with Sy, he would have left a note.
    He won’t go back to the Academy; that’s a sure death.
    He won’t stay on his own; that’s a sure death, and a lonely and meaningless one.
    Fray had made an offer to the Lambs, to try and prolong their lifespans using her resources, if only they defect to her side. If Jamie decided to desert Sy, his best move is to take that offer.

    • Likely. Also, I don’t think he’s actually abandoned Sy. Sy is, most likely, joining the wrong dots here because he’s in the middle of wearing a hair-shirt and wanting to whip himself with nettles (hence finding trouble to hurt himself with).

      But, there are other ways to help a mate out. Even though you quite thoroughly want to kick them, too. :/ And, Fray could very well help with both those goals. 😛

      If anybody is aware just how messed-up Sy is, it’s Jaime. 😐

      • The problem is that Sy and Jamie is just as Starcrossed as Sy and Lillian, and of course that revelation that yep, Jamie two is in love with him… Well it’d guilt Sy into trying to make himself gay, or just plain be too damn akward, and if Jamie accepts Sy forcing himself to be gay out of a sense of guilt and obligation, that isn’t good either. And Jamie, as much as we like to all thing he’s the great and pure one… He’s the one Lamb I don’t think we’ve ever had an chapter from the POV of, and that makes me wonder if we won’t get some surprises, quite possibly ones we don’t like.

        Crash and burn relationships work better when it isn’t all one parties fault.

        • Yeah, I realised that. Any relationship with Sy is going to go very badly wrong because he’s… well… Sy. Wyvren hasn’t been kind — let alone Hayle and his expectations. :/

          After all, if Sy hadn’t turned himself into what he did… he’d’ve been axed. Along with the Lambs, if the screw-up was bad enough. -_-

  27. I should have known… to write Sy, Wildbow himself had to be a devastatingly intelligent manipulator. All the time he’s been explaining what he’d do to his readers (teasing / raising us up just to let us fall), and it hurts just the same.

    Well, after this, Sy basically is a wildcard… he’ll run, but which walls will he break down in the process?

  28. This chapter was perfect and everything was on point, but, no. Okay? No. You can’t do this to my feelings, Wildbow. I was so happy to see Sy and Lillian have fun after all this time and then you pull this off. That’s not an OK thing to do. *Sprays the bow with water*

    Wonder if the fact that this chapter does not have the Lamb heading has any significance besides meaning this isn’t an interlude. And where are my Quinton and Jamie PoVs :V

    I know that Sy is a bastard, and everyone is hurt, but I am somewhat frustrated that no one will just grow up and talk about their feelings rather than blurt them out or run away from them. Also, Jamie, you shouldn’t take life decisions hoping that you will sway someone to love you when they told you they weren’t interested. Even if Sy suppressed any feelings for you, and there might have been (after all, something moved him to supress his sexuality), it’s his right to do this.

    But all that said, Jamie, noooo ;w; Poor Jamie, poor Lillian, poor Sy. Why must you hurt them :'< This chapter was one of the best, if not the best. It hooked me in right from the start. But ;w;

    • I think that Wildbow must really, truly be a romance writer at heart. After all, look at all those tense romantic subplots that were about to be resolved masterfully!

      But he has an illness that causes him to write tragic endings for his stories. He just can’t help it; nobody would write something so heartbreaking.

    • If you want a series where people actually talk and work out their relationship issues with communication, watch Steven Universe. Jeez Jamie, I know it didn’t work out for Jamie 1 but maybe if you just told Sy you could guilt him into using Wyvvern to edit himself so he loves you.

      • Honestly that probably played a decent part in why Jamie didn’t address it. Because Sy is fluid and changing and lovable, and he’d probably do it if he was caught in the right mood, and if he did do that to himself for Jamie’s sake Jamie would feel horrible.

  29. As so many have already said: masterfully done. I can’t yet agree that this is your best chapter yet — I’m still reeling from the incredibly hot Syllian first half and the mood whiplash from the second half, so I can’t be objective — but it’s unquestionably in your top five.

    (I’m not saying this to distract from this incredible writing achievement, but I remember feeling this way at certain times when reading your other words. There have been many “hit it out of the park” moments in your writing!)

  30. All Hail Wildbow, Master and Lord of the Web-serial and Crusher of the Feels! – Yeah, damn… going to need a minute to process that one. 10/10. Highly recommend.

  31. Well I’m guessing with all Sy’s relationships in ruins, here comes the end game.

    Ah remember the days when it looked like Sy’s life was going to end on the cheerful note of him dying alone because he outlived all the other Lambs? Unlike now where it looks like he’s going to die alone because he alienated all the other lambs, and possibly at their hands. All while trying to do a combination of the right thing, and trying to make them happy. Fuck that’s tragic.

    And another major tragedy is that it’s not all Sy’s fault either, not all born from character flaws in him. The world itself was exerting pressures to keep it from happening.

    Anyways this chapter was a great reminder for me as to why I wait until mornings to read Wildbow’s new chapters. After one chapter in Worm I learned the hard way that staying up late to read them had a chance of keeping me from sleeping that night.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to go cycling through various emotions some more.

  32. Did it ever cross Jamie and Lillian’s mind that they started something potentially as horrible and destructive as primordials project? I’m not even sure that they didn’t kill Sy’s personality here in one of top five brutal ways to do it. Nice job, breaking it, hero. *clap clap clap*

    • Like I said above, you want to do a good story about a relationship falling apart or blowing up, you don’t make one side flawless or blameless, and put all the guilt one only one party. There were things present for Jamie that led to this.

      The thing with Sy is… He’s protean. He changes in reaction to those around him. As much as he’s a manipulator, he himself can be molded by those around him. This has been present since the first time it was noted that around Jamie and Lillian he’s more merciful and compasionate. Around Helen and Mary he becomes more ruthless and callous.

      Who is Sy, without the Lambs, without Wyvvern? Does he have any truly unchanging core that is him and would have been there if they’d never started sticking needles up his nose?

      • It’s been a common theme in Wildbow’s works that he takes his protagonists and cuts off pieces of them – sometimes very literally – their bodies, their minds, their identities, their memories, their relationships… until all that’s left is the part that’s most quintessentially them.

        So much of Sy’s self is bound up in his relationships with the Lambs that it might be reasonable to say the entire story is an examination of who he is without them.

        • I have to say that I really, really like the way you put it. Yes. Twig is a story about many things, but mainly, it has been about Sy, and how he has adapted to his changing environment. But… it’s not at all like Blake, from Pact, even though I can’t put my finger on why not.

          • maybe has something to do with the fact that Blake always wanted out, where as Sy never really did. He wanted out of the academy but not out of the story. He doesn’t want things to go back to normal.

      • (2 negadarkwing: Yes, I read your comment, it’s interesting.)

        I’m not sure that I want to know answer about who Sy is without Lambs or without Wyvern. The thing he did to himself with smithing his own mind – although Wildbow through replies of story characters tries to display it as something horrible and wrong but in my opinion what Sy done is akin to one’s development and adaptation – which is very important in life of any living being in a boiling whirlwind of changes that is life. He crafted himself and what he crafted proved to be effective and competent. His mind, philisophy and skills can be seen as project or masterpiece.

        It’s not that black and white as it was with Dr. Jakylle and Mr. Hide. I’m not sure I want to see real Sy because – was he ever? What he is now is real – what he wanted to be, what he molded himself into. This is as real as you can get.

        You can break those things away but what’s left would be broken, traumatized… and artificial – because it required external process, external tools,

        All above is just my opinion. Although very strong as it feels, heh.

        And yes, they all – Jamie, Lilian and Sy had own reasons to crush together in this royal clusterfk. (And maybe I’m paranoid but Hayle lurking behind the scenes seems to have lended his hand to this too…) Looking back – if Sy would keep himself more distanced and avoided this pole game rearranging it to something else – it could be win for all parties. But those two running away was much worse than trying to stay and salvage that mess. That was their choice though. But consequences are theirs to rip too…

        I want to see what’s coming next.

        • Well we are long past the point where we could see what Sy would have been like without the Wyvvern. Even if he stops taking it, it’d be whatever build Sy settled on at the end, not what he would have been if he’d never taken it. I just have to wonder, how much of Sy is innate, and how much is because of what was done to him? Without the Lambs, the thing that most defines Sy might be the Wyvvern, and when you are defined by something that makes you malliable as a person, thats… Going to get interesting.

        • You are missing the point. Yes being in control of one’s emotions is a sign of discipline and growth. But Sy almost forgot… let that sink in, we know Sy’s memory is awful, so does Jaimie. Sy basically could have cut himself off from those feelings forever. Thus the “Castration” remark.

  33. Every time you find a way to break my heart in new and horrible ways. The only situation I can compare this to is when you’re about to orgasm and then your partner tells you they’re cheating on you and leaves you without an orgasm or a relationship.

    I’m actually crying and experiencing some small part of what Jamie and Lillian combined are feeling right now. If Jamie dies again now…I will have to stop reading. My heart can’t take it. Symie forever….why is everything horrible?

  34. Well you finally hit me in the feels harder than with Mora. I have never been more upset with good writing. Sy just keeps taking more punishment. It’s a freaking miracle that he’s not completely mental with the amount of physical, mental, and emotional abuse he has endured. Hell the one bright spot of Jaime joining Sy is now sullied with his underlying agenda of a relationship with Sy. I know Sy is a bastard but fuck, cut the kid some slack or end his torment already.

    The thing that really hits me is that no matter how much shit Sy has gone through I don’t think Wildbow will let Sy earn a happy ending

    • No, I don’t see Sy getting any kind of happiness for himself. The world was never going to allow that. The best he can hope for is that when he goes down he manages to improve things a bit for those kids that are victims of the system, like he was and the original Mary, and maybe for those like the Lambs.

      The one thing I don’t think Wildbow can write is a traditional happy ending for the protagonists.

          • Things there are debatable, and I don’t feel like going into ROT13 at the moment to debate it.

            Besides we’d also need a way to neatly resolve our love triangle for that to work.

          • I don’t get why it even needs resolving. :/ Sometimes, relationships just don’t go anywhere concrete. Only in Eurasian fiction do things more or less consistently resolve in clear-cut ways and get bows on top. Which is silly: life rarely works like that — it’s usually a case of messy kitchen sinks. <_<

            In African storytelling, bittersweet endings that stutter to a conclusion that fits no shape you'd expect them to at the start are the norm. Heck, sometimes you never find out how things happened for a lot of characters, because the story isn't about them… but how what they did affects the tribe. Once a character goes far enough away, they're beyond the tale of the tribe –and, you get a protagonist shift. 🙂

        • Arguable. Va rirel Jvyqobj jbex gb qngr, gur cebgntbavfg xrrcf ba fnpevsvpvat cvrprf bs gurzfryirf hagvy gurl unir nyzbfg abguvat yrsg, nyy sbe gur terngre tbbq.

          Gnlybe ybfg ure fnavgl, ure unaq, jnf oebxra zragnyyl, naq qvrq be vf va n pbzn.

          Oynxr tnir hc uvf ragver uhznavgl naq zvtug trg gb fcraq uvf rkvfgrapr nf n fcvevg oveq sberire qrcevirq sebz 99% bs jung ur ybirq zbfg, nyfb xabjvat gung ur tbg n tvey ur ybirq xvyyrq naq Terra rlrf vf oneryl noyr gb rawbl uvf pbzcnal.

          Fb ab V jbhyqa’g fnl gur cebgntbavfg tbg n unccl raqvat be rira n ovggrefjrrg raqvat. Gurl tbg n onq raqvat jvgu n fvyire yvavat. Zrnajuvyr gur erfg bs gur jbeyq trgf n unccl raqvat.

          Vs lbh jnag n dhvpx pbzcnevfba jngpu Pbqr Trnff. Yrybhpu xrrcf ba trggvat fperjrq rneaf n unccl raqvat sbe gur jbeyq ng gur pbfg bs uvzfrys. Jvyqobj unf gur fnzr qnza fglyr.

          • Gur irel ynfg puncgre bs jbez fubjf Gnlybe univat n pbairefngvba jvgu ure zbz sebz n cnenyyry havirefr. Ure cbjref jrer erzbirq ol pbagrffn ohg fur tbg n qrprag raqvat. Oynxrf raqvat jnf zhpu zber pehry.

          • Oynxr orvat n oveq vfag gbb onq vs lbh pbafvqre uvz nf orvat yvxr Rina, engure guna na npghny oveq- fragvrag, pncnoyr bs fcrrpu, nf fgebat nf n uhzna rpg. Naq erzrzore uvf “vqrny shgher” gung ur qvfphfrq gbtrgure jnf sylvat bire jngre jvgu terra rlrf naq rina. Nyfb, gnlybe orvat va n pbzn be qrnq vf bayl snaba, naq gur grkg fgngr fur’f yvivat n abezny yvsr va n cnenyyry havirefr.

  35. As someone who’s spent a fair amount of time tied up… wow, this chapter hit me hard. Wildbow, you are tearing me apart and I can’t wait to see where you take the story from here.

  36. This chapter. Too intense. Best that Wildbow’s ever written. I fully expect to be wandering around in a daze until the next update.

    I thought that there was a 10% chance of this chapter containing 50 Shades of Sy, but I completely did not expect that Sy would run away from Jamie. Still crying.

  37. Am I the only one thinking that Jamie is now in need of rescue? Lillian has all her weapons back. Between Jamie and Lillian, Lillian clearly now has the physical power. Is it possible she has kidnapped Jamie, because Hayle’s threat is so severe she would do it? It might even be possible she arranged the emotional scene between Sy and Jamie – just for the purpose of tricking Jamie into helping her. If so, that would speak to her being on Wyvern.

    Also, how long has Lillian needed a chemical leash? She’s a student, not an experiment. Was that just for this mission? Perhaps does she need the leash because she is now on high dose Wyvern like Sy is, and therefore is now an experiment?

    Great chapter, by the way. The last two have been really great.

    • She got the leash put on her cause Sy killed a noble, and then deserted. And no matter what Hayle promises, Sy is not going to be simply brought back and kept in captivity after that.

    • This occurred to me, along with the possibility that Mary caught up and freed Lillian and took Jamie while Sy was out walking.

      I can only *hope* that’s not the case, because if it is… Sy will never forgive himself for not figuring it out, and walking away instead of rescuing Jamie, *especially* given the way things were left between the two of them.

      It will result in Sy becoming a villain for real, because I don’t think he’d be capable of forgiving Lillian and/or Mary for that. I suspect he’d give up his hopes of making the world better and settle for revenge. The Academy hasn’t seen him actually set out to *hurt* them yet, but I think he’d be out for blood at that point.

  38. Dammit. Sy cut out the caterpillar nodes when he was trying to save Jamie. He’ll die if he goes back to the academy.

    Jamie’s probably only got a couple of months left. Gave up years. Sy’s letter could be taken as a horrifyingly worded insult.

    The only bright spot I can see is that this explains a lot of how Fray thinks and why she thought Sylvester would join her later on. He’ll have a place to go where someone gets him.

    Unless he goes to Mauer…

  39. Why do I believe this is the point Sy finally loses it. I mean, he was unstable before, but that’s nothing compared to right now.

    That end blew away all of my expectations of what I thought would happen.

  40. :<

    What the hell, Sy. If a conversation is going the exact same way as another conversation that may have ended with your friend passively committing suicide, then you don't just continue.

    Acknowledging the other conversation would let you admit that you are scared, and let you ask for an assurance that your friend isn't about to passively commit suicide again. An assurance that you will actually get to see him again on the off chance that you can possibly recover. Showing weakness shouldn't matter with Jamie.

    It also shows that you care.

  41. Dear Wildbow,

    Can you please finish editing Worm and get it on bookshelves?

    I ask because this chapter is amazing. It is the best thing ever written.

    The problem is that I can’t tell anyone about it. Or I can, but explaining the concept of webserial to people who don’t already use things like reddit is an uphill climb.

    I want to share this… I want to share this with everyone.

    So here is the step by step plan to do this (based kind of on what happened to the Martian, which went from webserial to Oscar nominated film in a period of 2 and half years)

    1) Finish editing Worm for paper publication…

    2) Publish Worm

    3) Your loyal readers will buy the physical/Kindle copies and give them to everyone they know. (I know I would)

    4) The bestseller status gets the creators of TV and movies interested.

    5) The bestseller status gets publishers interested in Pact and Twig.

    6) Pact, Worm and Twig are all available as books. Worm has a serious animated series (adult oriented and animated because it’s the only way to do powers without breaking the budget)

    7) I can get people hooked on all of these stories by giving them the book or pointing to them in other media

  42. For once in the story, I’m completely lost. Where do we go from here? Once I thought that the civil war would be the endgame, but that seems to have left Sy in the background. Then I though he would maybe recruit the lambs, or just some of them, maybe even have an ending on the slightly happier side of bittersweet, for once. Now? Heartbroken and alone? All I can think of is Sy going out in a blaze of glory; or an orgy of destruction, raging at the world that did this to him, made him like he is. And that’s even more tragic than this chapter.

  43. I can’t even really articulate what’s going on through my head right now, except to say that this might be my favourite chapter in my favourite arc, of one of my favourite stories I’ve ever read. This was just… wow.

  44. After processing my emotions, and patching up their shattered remains and patching up whats left of my heart, I have a few things.
    No matter what Jamie chose to do, I am so very scared for Sy right now. I can easily imagine him hitting his breaking point.

    Also, Just crying at the thought of all the heartbreak that just happened. They don’t deserve it, but life isn’t fair.

  45. Twig surpassed Pact almost from the first chapter, and long ago became superior to even Worm, as great as it is. But this chapter was so utterly heart-wrenching that I can’t think of a book that affected me more.

    The bar hasn’t just been raised, it has been redefined.

    Part of that surprised me – Sylvester’s Wyvern compartments and the writing thereof are similar to the way my autism compartmentalizes contexts. I never realized it until now, because of context – Sylvester described himself as a “bastard” from the first, and so I never identified with him.

    Now I have, so the heartbreak for him, Lillian and Jamie in this chapter is palpable.

  46. Sylvester has answered the age old dilemma of how to keep the top head in control in sexual situations.
    Quick question then if his hormones were in a box why did he flirt with Shirley?

    • The flirting seen there and the flirting seen here are on entirely different levels. Most likely, what happened with Shirley is a product of that “small bit” of libido that Sy kept, since it amused others.

  47. Ah dang, what a chapter… Good job Wildbow, this is riveting as ever to read. Got me to come out of my shell and post for the first time…

    I’ve been doing what Sy did of sticking sexuality in a box since I was thirteen, but I hadn’t had those words to describe it before… Not sure where to go from here, but putting words to ideas is a rewarding experience.

    Who wants to open up a discussion/thought-tree of what Jamie might be thinking?

    Word Of Sy And Jamie says Lillian both wants and does not want Sy, what would she do if left to her own devices with a lost-feeling Jamie?

    Sy isn’t anchered to Fray or Mauer yet, what seems like it would be the most compelling story from here?

    • Jamie has a complete personality map of the people Sy is attracted to, better people manipulation skills then Sy (no blind spots), and access to a large academy-made arm.

      Sy x Younger redhead Mauer confirmed?

  48. (Before I forget, I am very happy about the innocence explanation.)

    First part(, long): That was adorable.
    (I still stand by that.)

    Second point: Sympathy. I’m strongly reminded of an early point (and slightly similar conversation) in a relationship of mine, about puling back from certain escalated (mutual-at-the-time) things after the initial ‘honeymoon period’.

    Third part: Ouch. Yes Wow.
    About Jamie’s emotions towards Sy, I feel sympathy and a lack of surprise. About his hopes, I feel sympathy and pity–that he was able to hope or by influenced by the idea/concept that he had a chance (without the box) when the first Jamie didn’t. Then again, arguably Sy was a lot more clueless about that sort of thing in the relevant period for the first Jamie, and the two of them have been always together since then… hmm.
    Either way, freeing Lillian crosses a line. Tactically (Pierre, the hunt, etc.), not just (or necessarily) personally. It throws a monkey wrench in their immediate plans. I find myself hoping that it’s a misunderstand somehow, and that Lillian took advantage of the walk to get the drop on him (in which sense really risky to leave her alone with only one of them in any case).
    It also makes me sad that romantic feelings were needed to come to Tynewear–that if not for that, he would have left him there, in the cold, waiting with his ghosts while no one ever showed up.

    No idea what Jamie’s going to do from here on, assuming the Academy would kill him for salvage if he returned. No idea what he had in mind, whether he thought he could return, or if he just hasn’t thought about it yet. Also resolved if Lillian got him while there was no third person there. Hm.

    • A little more reflection:

      Indeed, a large part about the appeal of those daydreams–about being captured and helplessly bound by Sy–ist hat he can do whatever he wants to you, and /it’s not your fault/, guilt-free.

      There also would not be a problem with negative emotions if both were fine with their respective positions, both laughing at the Academy while separated by it. Likewise, previously no problem while both were fine with being at the Academy.

      Scenes where an unwillingly person ends up begging for something sexual from an enemy fit a pattern where the captor is trying to use shame/guilt/[other negative emotions] to break down the captive’s identity and sense of self-worth, rebuilding them from the ground up as someone loyal (/only) to the captor. Perhaps a ‘Noo! I’m a horrible/worthless person!’ ‘Yes, you are, but /I and only I love you anyway/.’ sort of exchange. Problematic when one of the things that Sy has loved about and encouraged in Lillian is her self-assurance/confidence/[related aspects that go towards her becoming the amazing doctor he imagines her becoming].

  49. This.

    This is why I mock romance novels, because unlike this they cannot write pain.

    This is why I mock romance novels, because unlike this they cannot write emotions.

    This is why I mock romance novels, because unlike this they cannot write love.

    This is what they want to be.

    • 90% of romance novels are crap.
      90% of everything is crap.
      Maybe someday you’ll find the 10%, but it’ll probably take longer if you go around mocking and stereotyping the entire genre in the meantime.

  50. I am very much enjoying this story. Thank you Wildbow.

    Everyone else:
    I also have some curiosities. Any thoughts?

    I find it fascinating the other noble, the one who was basically running the academy at one point, has not taken a personal interest in capturing sylvester.

    He seems the type to love a challenge and it was already hinted he felt like sylvester challenged him just a bit like other nobles.

    Why is he content to leave the fun to someone else?

    Why has no one stopped to realize where the plague came from? It even came from the same city the abominations were grown in and the nobles at least recognize what that contamination/infection/poison can look like due to them using it on each other. (or at least that is what it seemed like was going on in the interlude scene from the noble’s point of view).

    It seems like the crown states are hated by whatever is left of the rest of the world… are they also so feared no one is taking advantage of their weakness with whole cities falling to plague? No counter agents sneaking in to acquire samples they can drop into strategic crown cities?

    • 1. The duke fell victim to Mauer’s noble-killing rifles, and although the Infante mentions he survived, he “Is left with half of a brain. A vegetable in a pretty package.”

      2. The only person who knows how far the primordial evolved is Mauer, so most people don’t even consider the option. Add human vanity (only we could do that) and the ongoing conflict (where both sides blame the other for everything bad) – why would anyone look further than ‘the enemy’ ?

      3. That could explain why the Ravage spread through the quarantine… but I doubt foreign agents could sneak in to obtain samples.

      • RedRavage also spread through waterborne species (of warbeasts, of all things). Foreign agents might have access to it in the form of entire cities affected by the plague.

  51. Like everyone else, I agree this chapter was amazing. I love feels and this is some of the best (worst?) feels I’ve gotten out of something fictional in a long time.

    One thing I just noticed that interests me a lot, is that Sy makes apparitions of the new lambs, and even Duncan! I wonder if that means he’s finally accepted Duncan as a lamb? Maybe he was secretly impressed by something Duncan did/noticed the same thing Helen did? Or is he just that lonely right now?

  52. Anyone else think Sy kind of crossed a line when he effectively read someone’s mind in real time using the doppelganger?

    “…the spectre’s expression and body language a representation of what Lillian was keeping hidden.” He basically pulled a Tattletale to enforce his will. And he’s started to generate spectres on demand at this point.

    • Nah, that’s just what happens when you put someone with his abilities in contact with the same person for extended periods of time. Lillian was his world for several years, so his mental spectre of her is extremely accurate.

  53. I feel like Sylvester’s self-repression is so devastating for Jamie because it shows that Syl really didn’t love New Jamie as much as Old Jamie, even after Jamie defected for him.

    When Old Jamie confessed to Sylvester, Sylvester’s immediate response was to offer to have the Academy dig around in his mind so he could love Jamie back in the same way. No hesitation, no thought for how it might make things awkward, Sylvester was willing to do anything for Jamie even if that meant changing how he loved.

    Now it’s hard to tell exactly when Sylvester started repressing his sexuality. It could have started before or after Sylvester stopped being resentful of new Jamie, I’m not sure. But that’s not really what’s important. What’s important is that Sylvester continued to repress his sexuality after he and Jamie fled the Academy. At that point Sylvester had no reason to repress himself anymore. His sexuality wouldn’t cause teamwork issues, wouldn’t cause strife. If anything there was the possibility that he’d be attracted to Jamie and his sexual emergence could have actually *solved* some strife.

    But Sylvester didn’t stop repressing. For Old Jamie Sylvester was willing to meddle with his own brain on any level to reciprocate his attraction. With New Jamie … with New Jamie Sylvester actively chose to *not* meddle with his brain to allow for even a remote possibility of reciprocating New Jamie’s attraction.

    In this chapter New Jamie realized that Sylvester doesn’t really care for him the way he cared for Old Jamie. As close as they became in their rebellion, as much as Sylvester might care for him, New Jamie is still second fiddle to Old Jamie in Sylvester’s eyes. And that broke Jamie’s heart.

  54. Holy shit. I took a break from twig partway through last arc because there were some bits where it was dragging (and class was starting etc) but I’ve been following your writing since about 50% of the way through Worm, and I have to say… this is maybe one of my favorite arcs. Ever. That’ll do, pig. Can’t wait to catch up properly.

  55. There was so much emotional weight to this chapter.

    This whole chapter was an absolute tease, there was the heady anticipation and climax of Lillian and Sy’s encounter only for it to be ruined by harsh reality. Sy sees their whole interplay as a game – not it diminished its importance – but that affects his long-term view of things. He’s never had much life expectancy so it’s almost expected that he would never plan that far ahead, but because of how he approaches problems as boxes (to be shaken), he sometimes forgets that there are wider consequences.

    For Lillian, he never properly considers her future beyond some vague dreams of what she’ll be like as a doctor. His effect on her is overwhelmingly clear in this chapter, he has “ruined” her. A Wyvern-enhanced lover who knows exactly what she wants when she wants it is something no mortal man can even compare to, but Sy can never be there for her longer than a day or two in between months. It’s an impossible relationship, but Sy who only ever exists in the moment, doesn’t realize it at all.

    And for Jamie, Sy’s fixation of “problem-solving” leaves him completely unprepared for something that people of today would understand isn’t really a problem. In the world of Twig homosexuality is something meant to be fixed, not simply accepted and enjoyed and he completely fails to recognize the unfairness of this because he’s misidentified what the problem really is. His process of locking his sexuality away and only bringing it out when he thinks its SOCIALLY acceptable belies a fundamental misunderstanding of what attraction is. He admires Lillian, he recognizes she has qualities that are attractive, he likes her as a person, and so he chooses to open his feelings to her. In the same vein, he admires Jamie who has qualities he finds attractive, who he likes as a person, but ultimately who he locks his feelings away from because of what society has told him are acceptable times to be sexually responsive.

    It’s such a great mistake to make from a writing perspective because it’s so fundamentally flawed because its tied to Sy’s own positive traits. His attention-to-detail and his problem-solving skills when taken to the extreme can miss something so vital that it causes irreparable damage to the two relationships he values more than literally anything else.

    And leave it to Wildbow to make it so that a RUNNING JOKE – the fact that Sy misses out on innuendo – is the detail that leads to the heart-breaking conversation between Sy and Jamie.

    So yeah, this chapter was pretty great. It made me feel things and I had to get that all off my chest. Thanks for the read.

  56. Proof that romance, like everything else, gets exponentially more complicated and f*ked-up when Wildbow protagonists get involved.

  57. Wow! I honestly think this arc in particular is my all-time favorite relationship drama. Probably drama in general, actually. I… kind of hope Sy gives up on the whole Academy Loyalties thing and just recruits the Lambs, but that’s going to be complicated.

  58. Lol, i do wonder how Lillian felt if she ever heard the conversation about Jamie being gay and having the hots for sylvester. Quite a devastating chappy, best chapter so far.

  59. Christ I feel empty.Excellent chapter Wildbow, and the number of comments show that everyone thinks that too.Godspeed you devastating bastard, i’m scared about the next (as of writing) six arcs now.

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