Thicker than Water – 14.18

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The soldiers on the rebellion side backed away from the blinded Falconer, giving her a twenty-foot berth.  The very sound of the battlefield had shifted, with the rebellion side watching in a kind of awe, while the Crown forces pushed hard, shouting and urging the front ranks into more of a forward push.

Striving to get to their noble.  Through rain and smoke, someone had seen and passed on the word.  Now, belatedly, they were fighting to give her a place to escape to.

Jamie and I ran, with Jamie taking the lead, my hand holding Shirley’s.  I kept one eye on what was going on in front of me and one eye on the Falconer, as we circled around.

Orders were given, and experiments from the rebel side charged in from all directions.  They included several stitched, a modified hound with spines, an oversized insect, a modified human with weapons built into him, and a crude vat-grown man that was seven feet tall.  The vat-man looked like he was formed entirely of scar tissue, the details washed out.

There was some loose degree of coordination.  The stitched marched forward, more or less mindless, while the animals shied back, looking to dart in while her back was turned, while she turned this way and that reacting to sounds, her sword moving.

She must have heard the tramping footsteps of the stitched, because she lunged toward the nearest two, striking out.  One beheaded, another slashed across the lower face.  She reversed the cut, this time aiming for the throat, and beheaded that one as well.

She’d been able to figure out what she had cut, and adjust accordingly.

But as she turned on the third, the spined hound leaped for her.  Quieter than the stitched, harder to hear, it got its teeth on her.

She whirled, moving the sword, not cutting so much as she brought the blade under, sawing along the creature’s head.

The scar-man clubbed her, making her stagger a few steps, and was killed for the insult.

She fought blind, with clear mental visualizations of where her enemies were.

And, as she held the sword out, holding it so it pointed generally in the direction of a third stitched, who had stopped in its tracks after seeing others die.

Deciding on discretion over valor, she bolted, running in the general direction of the Crown forces – Montgomery’s group.

She cut a swathe, stumbling here and there as bullets were fired in her direction.

She didn’t make it out of the clearing.  The man with weapon arms flung himself at her, caught her legs, and tripped her.

Stabbing toward the man who still held her legs, she pierced him in the chest.

The Falconer -Mary Cobourn- might have been able to escape if she’d managed to start running again, cutting her way through the crowd, but it didn’t get that far.  The man with the weapon arms was still alive as someone threw something incendiary at him and the Falconer.

I saw only a glimpse of the fire that sprang into being around her and the man, and then Jamie and I were too far into the thicker part of the crowd.  I couldn’t see what unfolded from that, but I could guess well enough.

With my focus split as it was, it was Shirley, not me, who spotted another person coming through the crowd, straight for us.  I felt her hand tighten, and I looked.

Mauer.

Jamie and I stopped, and we wheeled around, facing the man, who had no doubt fought through the crowd from the moment the scene first unfolded with the Falconer.

He was tall enough to look past many of the heads in the crowd, tall enough to see the flame where the noble actively burned.  The light of that fire burned in his eyes.

But the rest of him was dark, stained with wet painted gray and black with thick smoke.  His clothes, including the heavy coat he wore over his shoulders, looked very heavy, a kind of burden.  His face was drawn, the faint lines here and there very visible.

Only points of fire still alight in those eyes, the rest of him dark and drenched… and he nonetheless was intense.  Immense in stature, and in how he conveyed himself.

As noble as the real nobles had seemed.  If they even were real.

He channeled all of that into his voice as he spoke.  One question, two words, enunciated very clearly, leaving no room for compromise.

“What happened?”

Eyes were watching us, ears were listening.  Ears had probably heard what I’d shouted to the Falconer.

It was very possible that the words would get back to Mauer, and he would realize what it was.  He knew Mary, after all.  He’d known Percy.

It was very possible those words wouldn’t.  That my voice had been one among many, among gunfire and shouts and the sound of the rain falling, in a moment when people were trying very hard to get away from the noble that had been cutting down the crowd like a scythe cut through wheat.  The voice of one person shouting, it could so easily have been misheard or slip from their minds.  Brains under stress didn’t always recollect things perfectly.

I glanced back at Jamie, and I thought about Mauer’s interaction with Augustus.

“Jamie blinded her,” I said.

Mauer was quiet and still, eyes still reflecting that fire, while the crowd moved around us, heads turning to look and to watch.  I felt Shirley grip my hand tighter.

“He did.  But you gave him the opportunity.  What did you tell her?” Mauer asked me.

“It wasn’t what I told her,” I lied to Mauer.  “It was when.  I cracked a jawbone in my hand, so to speak, and she flinched.”

I could see a muscle stand out at the corner of Mauer’s jaw.

“I mentioned the Block,” I told him.  “Her reaction confirmed her involvement.  We can find out where the Infante has been, he’s been bringing those two with him since he turned up in Warrick for the Baron’s engagement party-”

I raised my voice to be heard over the chaos around us.  So much motion and noise, and Mauer could well have been a lifelike statue.  “-We have a lead!  We’re pursuing it!”

Mauer stared me down for long moments, before he turned away.  He shouted out to a lieutenant.

I had no idea if he’d believed me or not, but he was letting this lie.

I looked at Jamie, and gave Shirley’s hand a tug.  We left the battlefield.

Our part in this was done.

Our destination was the opposite of where we’d been, in many ways, yet I could imagine that statue of Mauer standing in the midst of it, his eyes burning in a very similar way.

Bone dry, dark, and so still that it was stale.

The Block.

We descended the stairs, and I let go of Shirley’s hand as she lifted it to her mouth.

“No,” she said.

Skeletons and mummified bodies.  Ash here and there.  A layer of dust with a tint to it.  A hidden area.

We’d come here not because we hoped to find something new, but because all of it took on a new light, as a consequence of what we’d seen.  Now that we were here, it was like we could talk about it.

“The bodies,” Shirley said.  “So many of them are so small.”

I nodded.

Shirley walked around, but every few steps seemed to move her into a vantage point to see more bodies, more of the death.

Her hair had been covered by a hood, and with the hood down, her hair was the driest part of her.  Droplets of water soaked into an old footprint in the layer of dust on the floor.

Jamie’s hand gripped the elbow of his other arm.  His hair was wet and tucked behind his ears, and his spectacles were beaded with moisture, but he didn’t have anything dry enough to properly clean them.  The white button-up shirt he wore was faintly translucent from the moisture, and I could see the angry marks of scars on his upper body.

I wasn’t sure if it was the chill air of the underground area contrasted by the heat we’d brought down from up above, or if it was dust in the air, but it looked like his breath fogged momentarily as he exhaled.

A part of me was about to speak.  The voice hitched.  Awkwardness, and I’d very nearly done what I’d been doing for the last day, using a spectre to speak.

They were here.  They were prominent.  The spectre of Mary.  The spectres of Gordon and the younger Jamie.  Of Everett.

Not Helen, not Ashton, Lara, Nora, Evette, nor Abigail.

Mary, though, was front and center, taking it all in.

“You lied to Mauer,” Jamie said.

I nodded.

“You don’t trust him?”

“I don’t trust him to use it well,” I said.  “I thought about that moment back there with Augustus.  Mauer lost there, and I feel like he’s fighting, he’s just digging as deep as he can to keep the fight going, but there have been too many setbacks.  The people he was leading, they were angry at first, but then he lost their faith.  He and Fray stirred up a fresh sort of anger, they started a civil war, and when that died, they turned to primordials.  He’s fighting an enemy he can’t ever stop with the tools he has at his disposal.  If we give him this…”

I raised my hands, then let them drop.

“If we give him this?” Jamie asked.  “He fails?”

“I worry he’ll spend it.  He’ll use it to stoke those fires again, he’ll make a valiant effort, and then the nobles will know we know, they’ll be able to react and adjust, and the chance will be lost.  Maybe Mauer will ask people and find out on his own, but I’d rather it comes later.  After this fight.  He can ask around, find the people who witnessed that moment with the Falconer, and maybe the fifth remembers the name.  But if I told him, when he’s on the edge, fighting a battle that’s going to be a draw at best?  When he came here, almost a last bastion where he could find enough people that are wanting to fight?”

“He would use it, rally people.  In the midst of a situation the Academy is actively corralling and suppressing.  I think I see where you’re coming from.”

I nodded.

“You didn’t have to bring up the jawbone thing.  That was a slap in the face.”

“I did.  If he happens to put the pieces together after this, I think he’ll get it.”

“It wasn’t because he failed you on some level?” Jamie asked.

I raised an eyebrow.

“The books said you used to idolize him.”

“Still do.  A little.  I wish I could learn from him.  But the timing felt wrong, I didn’t and I don’t feel he was in the right place to hear that name and use it.  The jawbone… might have been a little personal, too.  I wish he was in the right place.  We could use help.”

Jamie seemed privately satisfied with his intuition on that front.

“We’re the only ones who know,” I said, quiet.  I looked over the bodies.  “About Mary Cobourn.”

Mary’s phantom didn’t react to the name.  Maybe because it wasn’t hers.

“Yeah,” Jamie said.  “Looking at her, my first instinct was, ‘oh, so this is what it feels like when you’re forgetting something’, you know?”

“What do you mean?” Shirley asked, turning around.

“As if it’s on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t quite find the word.  The connection is there, but you can’t quite make it.  A face that’s familiar, that you can’t quite piece together.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Seeing her fight her way through that crowd, I realized, every time I felt myself want to go to her, to act while seeing her in action, I was wanting to dance, coordinate so I was moving in parallel, covering her weaknesses, augmenting her strengths.  Subconsciously, I recognized her.  If I hadn’t spent so much time with the phantoms lately, I might not have.”

“Percy introduced them, taught our Mary the other Mary’s mannerisms and way of speaking.  Something in that, and in the way they moved, underlying structure or habit or something else, they changed stuff on the outside, the color of her hair, the shape of her face, they changed stuff on the inside, and something still lingered.”

“They made your friend into a noble?” Shirley asked.  “A clone of her?”

“Our friend was a clone,” I said.  “And the original was… discarded.  She found her way here, or to a place like this one, or… no.  It makes more sense if she never made it this far.  Or if these people never made it that far.  Children collected from various places, using a quota system, then gathered, tested and examined.  If they met criteria…”

Jamie picked up the thread.  “Reaction times, recall, attractiveness, natural strength, endurance, flexibility, overall health, anything along those lines.”

“Yeah.  They’d be whisked away.  The rest of the children go up on an auction block for the Academies, as test subjects.  To obfuscate, explain why children are being collected and transported?  There is a demand, after all.  And then when someone gets too close, gets one or two steps away, burn it all.  I wonder how much Percy knew.  Mauer said Percy knew enough to point him and Fray in this direction.”

“Percy had her, and he… sold her?  Traded her?” Jamie asked.

“Assuming it’s the Academy proper that’s focused on meeting quotas… he traded to someone in the Academy for some lab equipment, maybe.  Or for knowledge.  Or he traded her to Cynthia, and Cynthia made the trade, looking for something similar,” I said.

“Why?” Jamie asked.  “Why does the Academy do it this way?”

“That’s a mystery we’re going to have to solve,” I said.

Jamie frowned.

“Much like the Twins,” I said.  “The Baron’s low status.  He knew something about this.  He- he laughed, when I asked where the children go.”

“I think we could benefit from studying the narrative,” Jamie said.  “The Falconer, you called her.  She was distant.  The Baron and Baronet Twins, distant, again.  Brought on board at a later age?  Explained away as distant relations?  While more effective projects, worked on from birth, are said to be direct relations.  Or they are direct relations, and the like of the Baron is… supplementary.”

“It might not be how early they were brought on board,” I said.  “It could be that he learned, he was allowed into the loop, and he took it badly.  All that ugliness in him, what if he just stewed in the knowledge that his nobility was a farce.”

“A farce,” Jamie echoed me.

“Yeah,” I said.

“This is big,” he said.  “Bigger than showing a noble can die.  It’s showing that nobles aren’t real.  The way you were talking about Mauer.  We want to be careful how we use this.”

“As careful as possible.  Like Augustus said, they write the history books.  They decide the narrative.  We could do untold damage to the Crown, but we need to make it count.  For that to work, we need more information.  We need proof, if it’s even possible to get any at this stage.”

“Might be worth moving forward with the plan we had,” Jamie said.

“Become a rebel faction?” I asked.

“Except less focused on the assassination of nobles, aristocrats, and professors.  More focused on information.”

“Okay,” I said.  “We have a time limit as it comes to that.  More than we already did.  Assume Mauer finds out.  He won’t sit on it.”

“A year?  Six months?”

“I don’t know.  We’ll figure that out.”

Jamie nodded.

Outside, muffled by the intervening ground and distance both, we could hear explosions.  Cannon fire, it sounded like.  Academy reinforcements would show up, the pressure would increase.  Mauer would possibly unveil another card he had up his sleeve, but it would still be a bitter, ugly battle.  I imagined it would end with Mauer slipping away.  The dead noble and the fact that he’d done it and lived would be cause to call it a win, or as close to a win as anyone got against the Crown.

More explosions rumbled.  It sounded like thunder, and for a moment I wondered if it was.  A summer storm?

Shirley hugged her arms to her body.

“Are you alright?” I asked her.  “We can leave.”

“I feel better down here than I felt up there,” she said.  “My heart is still pounding.”

“I owe you a lot,” I said.  “Your patience, that you followed us.  That you stuck by me.  If you wanted to leave, I’d understand.  I’d find some way to make it up to you, repay you for the help you gave.  I promised you that you wouldn’t have to get your hands dirty or face any danger, and I failed to follow through.  There would be no hard feelings.”

She shook her head.

“Alright,” I said.  I offered her a smile.  “I’ll be sure to give you a cool job title, and teach you all the sorts of things you wanted to learn.”

She smiled.  Then her eye fell on the bodies, and the smile dropped away.

“And when we make them pay for this,” I said.  “For the Block and every other thing like it, you’ll be able to say you played a part.”

“That might be nice,” she said, in a voice that sounded well divorced from those four words.

I put my hands in wet pockets as I leaned against the wall.  I wanted a cigarette, if only for the reason to stay silent, and for the opportunity to draw warmth into my lungs.  But I didn’t want to go upstairs.

We would have to inform the Lambs.  Or set something up to protect them.  Reaching out to them could be more dangerous than anything else.  We had to protect the information.  A dead man’s switch, most likely.

We would have to play this carefully, work together.  I knew we could, but the word ‘we’ felt very unsteady, as I weighed on it.

I glanced at Jamie, who was deep in his own thoughts.

In the moment, pushed together and pressured by outside circumstance, we operated well enough.  I remembered only a few hitches and hesitations here and there.  But in the quiet…

I wasn’t sure how to talk to him anymore.

The jokes I remembered telling, testing for boundaries and trying to feel out the new dynamics, they now felt out of place, jarring.  I regretted them.

I looked away.  I found myself looking at the younger of the Jamies, the ghost.  I saw the other ghostly Lambs, exclusively the ones who had no doubt passed through a place like this.  There was something reassuring in that, which was a far cry from being a good sentiment.  Bad feelings could be reassuring, and the knowledge that we shared a common root was that sort of feeling.

We would make it work, but… I wasn’t sure it would be easy or comfortable.

I’d known this would happen.  It was why I had self-censored.

What would Jamie’s response be if I asked if I could or should self-censor again?

He was looking at me, now, and I avoided meeting his eyes, because I knew that would force a conversation and I doubted either of us had the words ready.

It had been easier when I’d been riding the high that came from being Evette.  Reckless, self-destructive.  Aware of and willing to own the painful realities.

I thought of becoming Evette again and immediately dismissed the idea.

It had been hard enough to come back from the last time.

I’d paid a price, in that the ghosts didn’t come and go at my bidding anymore.

Those costly decisions dwelt in the quiet moments like this.  Being shot didn’t compare to what could follow from one bad conversation.

Jamie looked away, and I released a silent sigh of relief.

“Excuse me,” Shirley said.

Still hugging her arms against her body, she started making her way up the stairs.

“I thought you felt better down here than up there,” Jamie said.

“I’ll sit at the top of the stairs.  It’s a bit chilly down here,” she said, glancing at me.  “You two stay.  Think.  Discuss.

Mind changed, I thought.  Should have left you in that lab and fled the city.

Not really.  But the awkwardness felt all the more poignant in the wake of that last word she’d left us.  She had highlighted the silence.  Every second that stretched on as she walked up the stairs, then stretched even further as the sound of her footsteps ceased, and she settled up there, awkward agony.

I looked at the individual Lambs.

I looked at Jamie the spectre.

“Sorry,” I said.

“No need to be sorry,” the real Jamie said.

“I feel like I’ve always given you a hard time.  From a less than warm welcome to the group, to uneasiness, then I guess a perplexing winter and spring together in Tynewear, where I was self-editing, being a fool, and you were left scratching your head.”

“Don’t get down on yourself,” Jamie said.  “It was a good few months.  We might have driven each other crazy, puzzled each other, but I think it kept us sane.  It was the warmest, happiest few months of my life.  I’m optimistic about the next few.  Which is where I’m stuck.”

“Stuck?”

“Yeah,” Jamie said.  “I did a lot of thinking, after you left, replaying that conversation over and over in my head.”

“I know that feeling,” I said.  I thought about the Jamie that had come before.  The obsessive reading and rereading of the books.

“I thought about where I messed up.  Where I was angry, why.  The puzzle.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Familiar territory, again.”

“On the rooftop, I mentioned a compromise.  And now I’m mulling it over, but I’m afraid talking about it will spoil everything.”

I remembered my very recent thoughts on bringing up the self edit.

“We’re on the same page, believe it or not,” I said.

I was glad my hands were in my pockets.  I was nervous.

“Sy.  I want to get along with you.  I feel like there’s a great big obstacle in the middle of any interaction between us.”

I nodded.

“When my predecessor wrote in his journals, he left a code, remember?”

“I remember,” I said.

“Things for me, that he didn’t want the Academy reading.  That he didn’t want you reading.  Some of it was about his budding feelings for you.”

I shifted, uncomfortable.  If there was a Sylvester phantom in the room, he would have been replaying that conversation with Jamie out loud, taunting me with it.

“It went beyond that.  He knew that I was inevitable.  He wanted to brace me.  So he talked about insecurities.  The trick about being Jamie, wearing this body.  Scars and all.  So that I wouldn’t feel alone, if I found myself staring in the mirror.”

I nodded.

“But I found myself in a different place.  He talked about how the group was divided in two.  Gordon and you.  Then the girls.  Helen and Lillian.”

I frowned.

“I’m dancing around the subject.  He- My predecessor wasn’t that attached to the idea of being a boy.  But I think the decision was made for him, and then, to set a kind of balance when Mary joined, and maybe to be more your friend, he settled into it a bit more.”

“Not that attached?”

“He never wanted to be a girl, mind you, but when you were kids and being kids, boys poked fun at girls and girls joked about boys, he was always uneasy.”

I looked at the spectral Jamie, and I nodded.

I could remember the general shape of that uneasiness.  He’d be quick to question the stereotype, question, or leap to the side of the girls if there was an imbalance.  I couldn’t remember any instances, but I could remember being frustrated with it.  I’d been rather partial to drawing the divide, even relished it.

“I’m… even less attached to the idea of being a boy.  I don’t care either way.  I look at myself in the mirror and there’s no boy there.  There’s no girl.  Scars.  Ambiguity.  Missing pieces.”

I nodded.

I was terrified enough of saying the wrong thing that I kept my mouth shut.

“Does it make it easier if you think of me as being neither?” Jamie asked.

“My problem was never with you, though,” I said.  My voice sounded far away.  “Just… the idea that I was failing my best friend.  Or that the friendship was falling apart, when I really counted on it.”

“Then what if I was a girl?” Jamie asked.

“I couldn’t-” I started.  I stopped myself.

“The entirety of my existence,” Jamie said, voice quiet, “I’ve lived in his shadow.  I’ve failed to be him.  I wore his face and his name and many of his old clothes.  So don’t jump straight to ‘I couldn’t ask you to do that’.  It would be a relief.  But if the idea bothers or disconcerts you-“

I snorted.

He seemed taken aback by that.

“I spent enough time with Evette in my head, no.”

Jamie nodded.

“It might be useful,” I said.  “If rumors about ‘Jamie’ being alive persist, me being in the company of two girls could throw them off.”

“How very practical,” Jamie said, in a ‘how droll’ tone.

I smirked.

“I’m relieved I haven’t upset you,” he said.

“No,” I said.  I felt a massive weight lifting off my chest.  One that had been there for years.  “No.  Just the opposite.  You being out from the other Jamie’s shadow sounds… really nice.”

I looked up, meeting his eyes.

I closed my eyes for a moment.  Trying to alter my conception, use the Wyvern dose a little to help myself make that switch.  The framing of this Jamie, the longer hair.

Easy enough to take in a different sort of stride.

“I can’t guarantee I’ll even like-like you,” I said.  “Just saying.  I only really just said goodbye to Lillian.  That might be a process.  I don’t want to get your hopes up.”

“Ah, yeah,” she said.  She sounded disappointed.  “That’s fair.”

“I’ve really only just met you, in a sense,” I said.  I shrugged.  “But… yeah.  Let’s let it happen naturally as it happens.”

“I’m okay with that.”

“You said something about getting out from under the shadow of the name?”

She smiled.  “I was thinking Jessie.”

“Sticking with the J-name?  You’re aware Jessie can be a boy’s name?”

“I’m aware that Jamie is a unisex name too,” she said.  “Parity.”

“Okay,” I said.  Then I tried it out.  “Jessie.”

On the spot, very clearly unsure of herself, she looked very different from how she had ten minutes ago.  She smiled.

I exhaled, letting out all of the remaining tension.  That feeling of the burden lifting off of me wasn’t letting up.  I felt as light as air.  Buoyant.  A demon that had been stalking me and lurking over my shoulder for years had been put to rest, extinguished.

I spoke, “Good.  Perfect.  It was a massive pain in the ass, distinguishing between you and Jamie in my head.  Can’t even say Jamie the younger because you’re younger in terms of years you’ve been around, but he’s younger chronologically, and that’s only the beginning of the issue.”

I gestured at the stairs, and Jessie gave me a nod.  We started up in Shirley’s direction.

“I’m just glad that this puts your ‘pain in the ass’ innuendo to rest,” Jessie said.

“We’ll see,” I said.  Walking up the stairs next to her, I gave her shoulder a bump with mine.

After a moment, she returned the favor.

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121 thoughts on “Thicker than Water – 14.18

  1. HOLY SHIT JAMIE CAME OUT AS NONBINARY OH MY GOD

    i say nonbinary instead of trans because i think the girl thing is for sy’s benefit? jamie’s words are, they don’t see themselves as a boy or girl, they don’t care, and the concept of gender always made them uncomfortable. but they’re in love with Sy, and also sy has always had a problem distinguishing between old jamie and new jamie, and also sy is sort of distressingly straight, but because sy can fuck with his mind the way he can, seeing jamie as jessie will help him develop that dance that he never had with samie.

    im still so pumped tho thank you for this gift wildbow i never saw this coming. i suppose i should call them jessie now? jessie doesnt really care about pronouns but i guess since theyll be referring to her as a she, i should get with it

    • WHELP… (pun intended) DAMN SHIT… I’m in the same boat as you…

      my head is still reeling from mary couburn 2.days ago and now I’m whacked in the back of my head again😄.

      but then again I’m sort of happy in how jamie/jessie turned out.

      at least both of them won’t suffer (mentally) that much anymore.

  2. I teared up reading this. Thank you Wildbow. Thank you so, so much.

    Over the past year of my life I’ve been transitioning and even with support from others it has been incredibly hard. A few years ago I was closeted and incredibly depressed. Your work helped me keep track of the passing of days and was one of the only things I looked forward to in my life. I’ve always felt incredibly privileged to be reading your work, for as long as I have.

    Seeing a character like me, a trans/gd character in my favourite work by my favourite author makes me so happy. I’d speculated that this might have been the outcome for Jaime’s character arc, especially since Tynewear, but it makes my heart swell to see it actually happen.

    The way Sy immediately switches pronouns, his acceptance of it, and everything makes me so happy. The fact that you’re including a gender diverse character when so few exist, especially in fantasy means so much to me.

    Thank you Wildbow. As ever I can’t wait till the next chapter. You’ve no idea how much I’ve come to rely on your works over the years. Once again, thank you.

    • I consider myself privileged to have you (and others) as readers. I like that it’s a positive dynamic, End. Worm (and my other work) helped me through dark times and helped me forge onward as I worked on finding myself as a person IRL, and I’m very glad if my work was able to help you while you were doing the same.

      Take care of yourself, eh?

      • I second Ada, with all the feels.

        Thank you Endochrom for sharing with Wildbow, and us.

        Thank you Wildbow for writing diverse, realistic characters who reflect the increasing diversity that we see in our world as people are given more space and support to be themselves. As Sengachi mentioned (below), this was a little ray of sunshine.

    • She fought blind, with clear mental visualizations of where her enemies were.
      And, as she held the sword out, holding it so it pointed generally in the direction of a third stitched, who had stopped in its tracks after seeing others die.
      -As what?

      She had highlighted the silence. Every second that stretched on as she walked up the stairs, then stretched even further as the sound of her footsteps ceased, and she settled up there, awkward agony.
      -This sentence is weird.

  3. I am utterly delighted by this turn of events. I’m glad Jessie finally gets to express this aspect of herself and I’m glad that there’s a chance the Symie ship can finally set sail (albeit under the new name Syssie). This is all fantastic in all the best ways and a beautiful spot of light in an otherwise horrifically depressing state of affairs.

    Syllian burned to the ground in a truly apocalyptic fashion, Sylvester is permanently scarred, Mauer is losing hope, mass slaughter and experimentation of children is taking place on a horrific scale, and nobles turn out to be the twisted wrecks of enslaved and altered kids. Everything is a fermenting pile of misery and despair. And then this little ray of sunshine comes along and I find myself smiling. This was a really beautiful note to end this story arc on.

    (Now excuse me while I go repaint all my Symie flags so I can properly cheer for the advent of Syssie).

    • nooo…! we of the SyLian fleet are taking water but we’ll bail out the water in the end. and reclaim our spot in the crown seas lol.

      and if we sink in the end we’ll still come back as a ghost ship (phantom lambs) lol.

      (Ship Wars Commence!!!)😛

      just kidding.

      • Like I said before. If SyMie happens I won’t begrudge you your happiness. Don’t begrudge us Sylian shippers our tears.

  4. The last line, Sy bumping shoulders with Jessie after basically no physical contact with new!jamie after what old!jamie told him is really heartwarming. Especially since the lack of physical contact was something Sy thought about quite a few times

    • well it’s apparent at the end that the burdens have been lifted and thrown out the window, and we’re in for a fresh start😀

      and a fresh lead into finding more about “Noble Manufacturing”

  5. uhm i just want to ask an off topic question (it might still be on topic since it is related to twig anyway) 😶

    [Question #1]
    every chapter of twig i have read everything.
    and i mean EVERYTHING. I have read about 90% of all the comments on twig and i have not found (any?) Fanart of twig in the comments… 😕

    and google on the other hand, i think i have only found less than (10?) on reddit or elswhere…

    does anyone know where someone has links to any twig fanart?

    so far i have only found an early sketch of jamie and the snake charmer’s experiment on reddit.

    the lack of fanart somehow compels me to create my own lol 😂

    but i can’t draw people that well or animesqe drawings that are GOOD😛

    so… i created a few drawings of symbols/crests/heraldry? (i dunno which term is correct lol)
    of what sort of symbolizes (each?) character in twig.
    somewhat like the thing each knight/noble family has on banners and shields to symbolize them.

    i have already made one for Sylvester, Lillian, Gordon, and Mary.

    and i was wondering if anyone would like to see them so i could upload them. 😆

    [Question #2]
    How does one post images in the comments here?
    do i just paste something like:
    http:// www. examplewebsite .com /img .jpg
    in plaintext?😀

    [Question #3]
    how do you post a quote in the comments?
    the one in italics and slightly grey color?

    thats all.😀

  6. Guys, I am truly sorry for the horribly bad joke I’m about to make, but I HAVE to get this out of my system…*AHEM*

    Sy should prepare for trouble. On second thought, make that double. To protect the Lambs by devastation and to unite all the crown’s enemies in one nation… To denounce the evils of innuendo and banter – to torment Sy with ALL the slander! JESSIE! and JAMIE!
    Team Lambsbridge gathers intel at the speed of light! Tell us your secrets or prepare to fight!
    *Hybris enters*
    *Hybris cannot speak, but begs for a walk*
    *It is DEVASTATINGLY effective!*

  7. NOOOOO SYLIAN FOREVER!

    That said interesting take on it. It struck me as less the “Female trapped in a male body” and more “I don’t really feel all that attached to being a boy, let’s try being a girl.” But it’s going to take me forever to switch over with the gender pronouns, I know it.

  8. What! Falconer’s dead?! Nooooo! She was the most interesting one of the bunch! She had this whole interesting backstory we could have seen and parallels to the Lambs going on!

    Ugh, well, at least we got this new dynamic to consider with Jessie and Sylvester. Oh and Shirley too I guess, but she seems to be taking her time handling her new perspective on the world she lives in.

  9. It’s been hours but I still literally can’t stop smiling. It’s not even about a potential ship, I just really like that they’re both in a better place… in a metaphorical sense.

  10. me too. I’m smiling because I’m happy that they aren’t that heavily burdened anymore…

    sort of like the ending episode of the anime angel beats.

    I was happy and I was crying lol

  11. I DID NOT see nonbinary Jamie– excuse me, JESSIE– coming! V cool, and also best of all now my OTP Symie actually has a chance of becoming canon. I’m so happy. Wait, we’re gonna’ have to change the ship name now. What about Syssie? Good enough. This is going to make talking about Jamie and Jessie easier as well– see, easier already! Sy makes the best points.

  12. The spectre of Mary. The spectres of Gordon and the younger Jamie. Of Everett.

    I was really confused about who Everett was, until I realized that it’s probably Emmett. Did… Sy forget Emmett’s name? Oh Sy.

    • oh yeah… I think that “everett” was a typo.

      that or sy really forgot again😄

      makes sense if it is emmet indeed, because his phantoms in that scene are kids turned experiments…

  13. Wow. I didn’t see this coming. And I’m gender fluid/bigendered myself, so I’m impressed that I didn’t see it coming, and that it works and feels natural.

  14. As cool as non binary JessieJamie is, I actually find shipping them with Sy mildly more uncomfortable for some reason? I honestly cant put my finger on why, maybe its the fact that Sy was disgusted with the idea of liking Jamie as a guy despite the fact he could easily alter himself with Wyrven, but is happy to let himself use wyrven to see Jessie as a girl and can contemplate a relationship with her. Hell im slightly surprised sy hasn’t even used Wyrven to make himself less homophobic, considering mental alteration is his thing. Or it might be that I was just invested in Symie as a friendship and Sylillian as a romance and hope JesSy stays a bromance since presumably nothing about Jamie will change except dress and pronouns

    And God will it take me a while to get used to the name Jessie!

    • Or maybe you just liked a deep, meaningful relationship between two people where they were most important and closest to each other that didn’t require being romantic in nature?

    • Also, do remember this is the same person who left at the end of arc 13. And the comments went that Sy didn’t owe Jamie a chance, and Jamie was culpable in the mess of an arc end, but due to the tragedy of that chapter in general, we agreed that life sucks, people have virtues AND flaws, and so on and so forth.

      if you feel it’s strange, you’re out of the warm and fuzzy feeling mode and remembering that no one’s perfect.

      Granted, there are mitigating factors to this too. I suspect WilburBeaver made it deliberately ambiguous so we can interpret it as we wish. In any case, I expect discussion over this as the next arc. Shipping is fun and all but so is character study.

      • Sort of my point I just said it badly. People are acting as if its some big shipping relevation and even the tv tropes page has been changed to reflect that. But I dont see why this would alter any romantic relationship between them. As straight character development for jam/Jessie I like it but some people seem to be saying jessie is just doing it for sy and I guess that feels like it has unfortunate implications? But wildbow has never really been about shipping anyway which is part of why I love his works. So I trust him.

    • Note that it’s not really the gender that allowed Sy a fresh start with Jessie, it’s that the change in how he viewed him allowed him to disentangle his feelings for Jamie 1.0 from the new person, and start from scratch.

      It’s easier for him to think of Jessie the girl as an entirely different person from Jamie 1.0, and not have the baggage of Jamie 1.0’s loss holding things back, I think.

  15. I remember coming up with theories about Jamie being secretly female when I first read the chapter where we discover the extent of his scarring, and wondering why more wasn’t mentioned about the fairly SIGNIFICANT discovery that he was a eunuch. I would imagine that being castrated would have quite a different psychological effect to being a regular gay man. Glad to see that Wildbow was keeping this card in reserve, not just throwing it away.

      • Wildbow’s been as ambiguous as he could be while still letting us know that Jamie was castrated. Back in 4.12 it describes the extent of Jamie’s scars, and the thought crossed my mind more than once that the lack of any visual indication of Jamie’s sex could mean that Jamie was born female but the Doctors had decided to call her male for some reason. Like gender-reassignment surgery, but only done halfway.

        So, I speculated to myself for a while about whether the ambiguously named Jamie was really male or not, before shelving the thought until now. Here’s the quoted text:

        [BLOCKQUOTE] The doctors were already waiting, and they flocked to him as he entered the room. I remained in the doorway, watching, too far away to make out words in the jumble of voices, hugging his book to my chest

        Jamie disrobed. He pulled off his sweater and the shirt beneath, then unbuttoned his belt. It wasn’t that he felt so casual about his nudity here, but more that there was no choice.

        The scars and the ridges carried down his entire body. They were more pronounced along his spine and between his legs, to the point that there was nothing left that was even remotely recognizable.

        He half-turned, seeing me looking, and he didn’t flinch, he didn’t hide. He handed one doctor his glasses, and undid his ponytail.[/BLOCKQUOTE]

  16. I feel old and disconnected from society for not knowing what & why everyone is raving with jamie/jessie being ‘non-binary’, I had never heard of the term before. Though I can glean from the context what it means. Sexuality being a spectrum still feels like an odd notion to me, but whatever makes people happy.

    Anyway, hats off to Shirley for knowing when three is a crowd. It’s nice to see Sly and J on better terms again, I always liked their dynamic, allthough I liked Sly’s dynamic with most partymembers.

    I dread how Wildbow is going to crush this small sapling of joy he so carefully cultivated… things are never sweet with Wildbow. Only bittersweet. I’m sure it won’t be long before we find out.

    Stay awesome as always Wildbow!

      • Tehr, nalobql?

        I am a bit disappointed that we don’t get any time with the Falconer as well. At least a peek into her head. But alas, I’m thinking that the only way she would have survived here is if Mauer wanted a hostage or someone to interrogate; otherwise, there’s no point to keeping her alive.

        I stand by my assessment that Mary Cobourn’s life really sucked.

  17. And this comments section reminds me why I’ve never liked portmanteau ship names.

    Also, now there’s extra symmetry in my OT3 of Lil, Sy, and Jess. Not often you get to trio a boy, a girl, and a non-binary character based on canon-compliant reasoning.

    Also, I suspect Mauer plans to interrogate Noble!Mary since his two previous target nobles are in no shape to be interrogated.

    • It’d be a good way to give the audience exposition on how the Block works without letting out protagonist know just yet. Also cause he knew the original Mary. Would be a way to show that under all this, he’s still human. Or a way to show that this war has made him not so human.

      Now that I think about it… what would Helen be? Where does cake and warm, bloody murder fall into all this? Does non-binary apply to characters like Helen, who was vat-grown as a blank slate? Even though Ibott designed her for… you know what I mean. Damn I forgot that dude is creepy as hell.

  18. I was reading this chapter while taking a cab, and I couldn’t contain my literal squeals of happiness. I felt a little embarrased >w>

    I’ve spent the past couple of years exploring my gender. I have always enjoyed feeling feminine and wearing women’s clothes, but I remember telling my partner at the time that I didn’t see myself never ever ever /ever/ questioning my own gender. Fast-forward to today and I am not quite sure how it is that I want my body to look, and how it is that I want to present myself to the world, and whether I want to transition at some point or not. All that is to say that it feels nice to see a character that I truly care about maybe share some experiences with me. And I truly care about Jessie. I remember making such a big fuss about Oynxr znlor univat orra xvyyrq bss va Cnpg, orpnhfr V unq whfg fcrag fb zhpu gvzr trggvat gb xabj guvf punenpgre, uvf fgehttyrf, uvf rzbgvbaf, gb unir uvz qvr ba zr.

    Something that felt somewhat sour, however, was Jessie offering Sy to let him think of her as a girl, despite Jessie not quite feeling either way about his gender. I had a nasty reversal of this situation with my partner where he asked me if he could refer to me with neutral pronouns instead of female ones. It’s still a very sore spote:/ But, well, my bad experiences don’t need to apply to Jessie or anyone else. Jessie’s life is very different from mine, and I can see how this can be beneficial to her.

    All in all, I think this was handled amazingly. I loved the little punch at the end, even if I’m a little confused as to why it is okay now. Thank you, Wildbow, for the chapter. I’d have cried if I hadn’t been in public when I read it xD

    • I think the punch was okay because they’ve resolved the issue with Sy being afraid of leading Jamie on *again* and also betraying that bond he had by treating the new incarnation like a replacement.

      Jessie doesn’t have that baggage so engaging her as her own entirely unique person rather than another iteration of Sy’s dead best friend, which was holding him back from interacting with her like he naturally feels inclined to?

  19. Holy shit, like holy shit.

    I think I’m crying but it’s… It’s the best kind of crying. Good crying. I’m definitely crying now.

    I mean… I can’t say I called it because I never commited it to text or anything but I’ve had this feeling ever since the begining and oh my god I was right.

    My friend that has been reading Twig alongside with me likes to joke that ‘I pull Sy’s’ with my horrendous memory and devastating awesomeness but, man, Jamie/Jessie… I’ve just had a kind of attachment to them from the start and as somebody who’s not super attached/flexible with their gender identity like holy shit tonight is like the best night ever.

    And here I was going into this update thinking Orig!Mary as The Falconer was going to be the whammy. I am so beyond stoked to be wrong.

  20. The precise relationship of the Falconer to Mary is confusing to me. Here is what I gather on second reading: Falconer was a natural-born child, not vat-grown. Percy acquired the child who would become Falconer, and in some way used that child to produce the vat-grown Mary, somehow giving Mary some of the mannerisms and combat style of the nascent Falconer. Then Percy turned the child Falconer out on the streets, and she was taken and turned into a noble.

    I am confused exactly how Mary acquired the Falconer’s mannerisms. It was never mentioned before that Mary met another girl and was trained from the other girl; Mary’s training was previously described as from Percy alone IIRC. Are we talking about Mary growing a copy of the Falconer’s brain somehow, in the vat?

    And, given that Mary was such a success for Percy in contrast to other clones that weren’t as good, why would he let the Falconer go? Why wouldn’t Percy use the Falconer as a template for additional Marys?

    And, assuming the Falconer’s involvement with Mary ended before Mary was decanted from her vat, would the Falconer actually know Mary’s name or have any personal attachment to Mary? Mary was just an embryo at that point, and wouldn’t necessarily have a name yet. Without the personal attachment, it remains unexplained why Falconer would pause in combat at the mention of Mary’s name.

    It doesn’t quite hang together for me. Tell me there’s something I’ve missed or some other explanation of what’s going on.

    • Yup. Looks like you might have misinterpreted a couple things. I’ll try and line things up as I see them.

      – Percy’s whole thing, was to kidnap kids, clone them, and train the clones as assassins.

      – Percy kidnapped a girl named Mary Cobourn, cloned her, and trained the clone.

      – This training meant acting like the kidnapped kid to blend in until the time was right. So Clone Mary (who later became the Lamb Mary we know) would have been taught to act like Kidnapped Mary.

      – Now the Falconer shows up. She acts eerily like Clone Mary. And because Clone Mary was trained to act like Kidnapped Mary, and we never knew where Kidnapped Mary went, maybe Kidnapped Mary became the Falconer (through the same twised academy science we saw in the Duke’s interlude.)

      – The Falconer responds to Kidnapped Mary’s name, confirming that she is indeed Kidnapped Mary.

      – So before now, we never knew what happened to the kids Percy kidnapped. But we learned that there was a place that missing kids got sold. Some place with a terrible secret. The auctions at Gomorrah. If Percy sold Kidnapped Mary at the auction, and she became a noble, then the terrible secret of the auctions is that the missing kids sold there are sometimes turned into Nobles!

      I suppose it’s odd how Percy knew enough about the girl he kidnapped to train a clone to blend in perfectly, but that may have been explained and I’m just forgetting it.

    • No, the way I understand it, once upon a time there was a girl called Mary Coubourn (spelling?). One day she was kidnapped, and Percy replaced her with a vat-grown clone who was trained to imitate her behavior until she could assassinate Mary’s parents. This clone then decided to join the Lambs instead, because of Sylvester. Meanwhile, the real, kidnapped Mary seems to have met the grade to be turned into a noble, instead of being sold at the Block. It’s unclear whether her memories are intact, or if she was merely told that Mary is her actual name.

      Mary the Noble (aka The Falconer) has similar gestures to Mary the Lamb because Mary the Lamb was originally trained to impersonate Mary the Regular Girl (Who Was Kidnapped And Turned Into The Falconer).

    • I am confused exactly how Mary acquired the Falconer’s mannerisms

      Mary the Original and Mary the Clone both got their education at Mothmont, which I think focused on mannerisms too. Additionally, Mary the Clone was explicitly mentioned to have been learning how to act like Mary the Original, in order to fool her parents, her firends, and the teachers. (Chapter 2.07 mentions it, say.)

      And, given that Mary was such a success for Percy in contrast to other clones that weren’t as good, why would he let the Falconer go? Why wouldn’t Percy use the Falconer as a template for additional Marys?

      Among other things, I think it’s because when Mary the Clone turned out to be a success, he had already disposed of Mary the Original.

      Without the personal attachment, it remains unexplained why Falconer would pause in combat at the mention of Mary’s name

      … Because ‘Mary Cobourn’ is the Falconer’s old name?
      You seem to have forgotten/misremembered Percy’s plot in the first arc. Back then, he cloned the children of a few influential people, disposed of the originals, and had his clones commit murder-suicides in the homes of the originals’ families. Mary the Lamb is Mary the Clone, while the Falconer is Mary the Original, who, through a convoluted series of unethical deals, ended up turned into a noble.

  21. Hm. I think I see a system in that madness. At least – hey – a lovestory. A bit grotesque. And a bit wretched..

    I think that now with Shirley separated from these two and story taking a bit of a lighter mood, and glimpse of hope, and future plans starting to take their form, it’s time for Chris Vrenna masterpiece: Time to…

  22. I missed a few updates and I come back to see that I missed a metaphorical apocalypse.

    That was a lot to process, the last few updates, especially reading them in one go.

    Not sure what to think of the connection between the kidnapped children and the nobles. I saw the theory and thought while interesting, some things don’t add up. Of course the question why they do it, as even with the nobles being sterily clones and vat-grown would be an alternative. And why the nobles keep their memories. Not even sure if that would destabilize the nobility that much, as it’s probably obvious that much of their superiority comes from the augmentations and at least in ancient times it was not unusual for nobles to adopt heirs. I hope there’s more to it, and I think there will be more to it.

    On Jamie being nonbinary, on the one hand I didn’t see that coming, not the least bit. But on the other hand, I’m not really surprised so I guess there have been enough hints about it. Let’s see how that plays out,

  23. I’m gonna comment something a bit different from everyone else and say that I wish to see a noble with a “MADE IN CHINA” sticker.

    Nothing would be greater

  24. Ok wildbow, now I entirely expect a romance-focused novel further in your career.
    You make really great characters to invest ourselves in.

  25. Is Jessie going to start wearing a skirt, now?
    This whole nonbinary thing seems a little weird to me given the setting. Sure, there don’t seem to be any occupational gender roles being enforced… but there’s always been the fact that all guys wear pants and all girls wear skirts. Even when Lillian would get upset of Sy looking up her skirt every ten seconds she never seemed to consider wearing something else, let along wearing leggings or something under the skirt.
    Everyone dresses and acts in such a way in this fic that we’ve never seen a case where a gender wasn’t easily labeled (well, unless you count Sy’s imaginary Evette personality, which was never based off the personality of any actual girl he knew). It’s the world they live in.

    …I can’t help hoping Jessie readjusts her image as soon as possible. Skirt, makeup, etc. No punching or wrestling. Maybe more bashful… like as much as “old” Jamie was.
    Tomboys just don’t really exist in this world so, non-binary or not, Jessie really needs to conform… ’cause wouldn’t she stick out like a sore thumb otherwise?

  26. I may be reading too much into it but the experiments that took down the Falconer sound, shall we say, familiar?

    “a modified hound with spines, an oversized insect

    Not sure about the others but these two sound like Worm references, any guesses for who the others could be?

    I always suspected that Sy could have altered his brain chemistry to make himself attracted to Jamie, and that they were both aware he could do so. At least aware on some level. I also believe that Jamie would have genuinely felt aweful had he done so, because he would have felt like he forced his friend into changing himself at a very deep level for his own benefit (he was horrified to find out Sy had been restricting himself, this would have been worse)

    Again this feels familiar, though almost opposite, compared to how things have played out before.

    I’m a straight male and almost completely ignorant of the various gender catagories that are only recently becoming recognized (though I’m certain they HAVE existed through history) non-binary is a new term for me and an interesting concept.

    Wildbow, you are the only author I know of that recognizes and respects different gender identities and orientations without ever making a huge deal out of it.

    You treat them as if they are, you know, people. I hope to see more people follow your lead.

  27. Thank you for doing this so kindly. I well remember the awkwardness of telling my best friend that I am a girl now. It took him and all my family so very long to come to terms with it. I’m glad that Jessie has a chance to have at least that one bit of peace.

  28. /*smiles*/[smiles] (I don’t remember which symbols are and aren’t displayed for emotes here.)
    I remember wondering/commenting about this (Jamie) in the early chapters, when Jamie was being described in terms of who he did and didn’t mind seeing his body. I also liked Sy drawing the Evette parallel.

    (Earlier, regarding the Block) I didn’t even guess the noble source idea!
    Thought 1: What happened when they /did/ try to run a completely-authentic bloodline-based nobility? What went wrong? (Intractable deficits in ability from inbreeding..?)
    Thought 2: If the ruling are engineered to be superior in every way to others, who cares about their original inherited genes? If anything, it feels as though it might make common people more accepting of the nobility, knowing that they were drawn from the same pool of humanity rather than a separate group of humanity oppressing them.
    |
    I’m reminded of (the fictional) Kururugi Suzaku rising up from within Area 11 aiming to be appointed a knight (of the aristocracy) in charge of his homeland (to help it). (Of course, either way the people actively fighting in resistance are going to potentially hate people with such sentiments and see them as traitors.)

  29. A little late to the party but I vividly remember someone saying that the nobility might be sterile. If this is true a lot of things could fall into place

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