Home sweet home, I thought.
It had taken a little bit of doing to properly quarantine ourselves as we arrived back at Sedge. Measures had been instated by the students awaiting our arrival, and our Treasurer had pushed hard for some last minute changes and some firm rules. As much as I’d wanted to curl up with some blankets and company by the fire, we’d had to stand around while others ran around on our behalf. ‘Barracks Two’ was emptied out, the residents gathering their things, and we had marched inside, each one of us to a room.
The team that had gone into the city with me had mostly worn quarantine suits, but the Treasurer wanted to be careful, and I wasn’t about to complain. Jessie, the Treasurer, Fang, Bea, and Gordon Two all went to their quarantine rooms. Rudy, meanwhile, went to our makeshift operating theater.
The wagon that had picked us up was now on its way back to our retreating troops. They would walk back as far as they could, with people picked up by priority each time the wagons and carriages made a trip. Not ideal, but it would have to do. I worried about the Academy following, but multiple people had assured me that they had planned for that even before they’d worked out the measure to fight the Academy. They had made mention of bear traps and some tricks to mess with the warbeasts, lookouts, a system of warnings, and other things that had sounded pretty good.
Jessie had been more alert and focused than I, and seemed to think it was sound, so I was willing to leave it at that. I was almost too tired to care.
The room had a small wood stove – I didn’t believe that all of them did, only the ones further from the kitchen. The door was open and the screen set in place, the light from within the only source of light in the room for the time being.
I took my time disrobing. Parts of me were sore. I only had my jacket, sweater and shirt off when I heard the knock at the door.
“Hi Mabel,” I said.
“We’re working on finding people who are able and willing to do the examinations for plague. Not a lot are enthusiastic. The chance of catching the plague if the makeshift quarantine suits we’re making don’t hold up is only part of it. They’re more shy about having to carve it out if any red spots show, and I think they’re shy about working on the boss, which is why I haven’t found any volunteers to check on you.”
“Alright,” I said. You’d think a bunch of Academy students would have a few people eager to be hurly burly with the scalpel. Alas.
“I offered to look Jessie over. She said you would handle it later. Is that okay?”
“That’s fine,” I said. “How’s Rudy?”
“Not good,” Mabel said. “He-”
She stopped there.
“His injuries gave the plague some footholds. It’s turning an already difficult surgery into a worse one.”
I hung my head. “Noted.”
“If this goes badly…” she said, and she said it with a lack of confidence that suggested the ‘if’ was more like a ‘when’. “Do you have any orders? Requests?”
“Possum will want to know.”
“Helen is outside the door, fretting.”
“I’m glad she’s there, even if I’m not glad about the reason for it. Can you round up one or two of her friends to keep her company? She worked in the kitchen, so if you can’t think of any names right off, you might want to check there.”
“I can do that.”
“Thanks. She was abandoned during her last crisis, I don’t want it to happen again. And while I’m making requests… Berger.”
“He’s locked in his room. Davis is going to work with him.”
“Davis? Remind me?”
“Student council president.”
I nodded. “Have someone outside the door. If it’s Davis, Valentina might be game. Give her a slate and some chalk. She eavesdrops, makes sure Berger doesn’t get sly, and she makes absolutely sure that every piece of every bit of equipment that goes in the room comes out.”
“I’ll set that up. Do you want to talk to Rudy if he’s conscious when we realize we’re past the point of no return?”
There was the if/when confusion again. Back to Rudy. I stared into the fire.
“Yeah, just let me know. If they get in too deep and start panicking, let me know.”
“Past a certain point, it starts looking like a lot of wet red mess. Veins and vines, spots and blood splatters. The victim squirms because the drugs don’t work as well on plague victims and you don’t want them unconscious anyway, because they can feel the plague moving through their body, you want a heads up if they’ve got pain in one extremity or another. Even if your focus is on point and you’re doing okay discerning the patient from what you’re trying to cut away, they jump or contort once and you lose your place, or the scalpel slips.”
Even through the closed door, I could tell that reality had just hit home for her.
“When you go and check on them, maybe tell them I ordered one person to be on standby, resting while the others work, making sure people are staying sane and focused. Rotate out. They’ll probably say it’s not necessary. Insist. Because things will get hairier and they’ll need to step back and take a subjective look at how things are going.”
“Alright, Sylvester. I might scrub up and get suited to help them.”
“Actually…” I said. “I could really do with some freedom of movement. Get to Jessie, talk to Berger, make sure everything’s going smoothly. You said you were willing to check up on Jessie? Are you willing to check on me?”
“Oh. I was trying to pair boy students with boy patients and girl students with girl patients.”
“If you’re not comfortable with it-”
“It’s fine!” Mabel said. Too loud in contrast to her earlier volume, too fast a response.
“Or if I scared you off by talk of the nightmare the cutting poses-”
“It’s fine!” she said, a little more authoritative and assertive. “It’s good. I’ll be fine. I’m going to go get someone to stay with Helen, check on Rudy, station someone with Davis and Berger, and get scrubbed up.”
I listened as her footsteps retreated down the hall. I stared at the door until I could no longer distinguish the sound from other ambient background noises. The fire crackled, and a log resettled violently, sending sparks flying at the screen.
The kicking feet raised my attention to Evette, who sat directly on the little cast iron stove, which was only large enough for the one log at a time. She wore a charcoal black sweater and dress, and she was smiling.
Fray, still incoherent and abstract, stood in the shadows in the corner, watching, wearing her professor’s coat.
“You’re a bastard, asking little miss Greenhouse Gang to check on you when you know she likes you,” Evette said. “Or is that why you asked her to do it? Are you corrupting the sheriff’s daughter?”
“If you have to ask,” I said, “then I don’t know the answer. But I think it mostly has to do with the fact that I’m impatient.”
“You’re lonely,” Evette said. “You’re doing worse and worse with being alone. Events like sitting in the cold with only the bug for company aren’t helping, either.”
“Won’t disagree,” I said. I stood and I finished disrobing, undoing my belt and the button of my pants and then sitting on the bed. I tried draping myself along the bed, flicking the top sheet to only barely cover myself for modesty, gave the door my best sultry look, and then decided against it. Anyone else, and I might have tried to break the tension of the moment that way. Not with Mabel, when she’d been so good and sweet thus far.
I sat back up, moved the sheet to cover myself more than was necessary, and stuck my feet straight out in front of me so they were closer to the fire.
“You have a professor, who will be a great source of knowledge if he makes it through the night. You have a small army of students and they’re getting to the point where they’re almost on your wavelength. A poor substitute for Lambs, but they’ll do, won’t they?”
Evette held a scalpel now. She bent down by my leg, sticking the scalpel closer to it.
I felt a prick.
“Is that me, or is it one of the red spots?” she asked.
“Or is it phantom sensations coupled with skin constricting from the heat of the fire and the power of suggestion?” I asked.
She scraped the flat of the scalpel against the skin of my calf, pressing hard enough that it broke skin. Focusing on the area, I could feel the pain there, now. I could contort my mind, and I was left eighty percent sure it wasn’t a phantom sensation.
“You’re the Wyvern,” I said. “The delirious, dangerous part of me that wants to fling myself into danger. A part of me that doesn’t mesh well with the Lambs so much as it hopes the Lambs will mesh with it.”
She moved the scalpel down, away from the leg, then slashed at the bit of my ankle joint that jutted out at the side. I felt the stab of pain there too.
“If you can feel the pain of the plague, that means it’s already starting to crawl through you,” Evette said.
She moved the scalpel, my leg jumped, and I moved it. I looked at the site she’d cut, and I saw the damage. It wasn’t plague, but a scrape. I’d fallen hard against the road when the Mercy had jumped on top of me. The skin had been shredded at the side of my calf and at the ankle.
“Why do you hate me?” I asked, continuing my earlier line of statements.
Evette wasn’t beside me anymore. I glanced back over my shoulder at her just in time for the scalpel to come down.
I felt the stab of pain. She repeated the gesture, hauling the scalpel out, pricking, or outright impaling, once every ten seconds or so.
“I don’t hate you, Sy,” Evette said.
“Then can you stop stabbing me?” I asked.
She moved away from me, showing me the scalpel. The pricks and stabs of pain continued.
“Helen represents instinct, Ashton represents sense, sometimes common sense, but given the way your head works, neither really represent reality, do they?” Evette asked. “None of the Lambs do. You understand them, you want them close to you, but me?”
“I dunno,” I said. “I could’ve gotten along with the real Evette. I mean, I managed something with Duncan, and he manages to look like he just sucked a lemon and look smug at the same time, all the time.”
Evette spoke, “But Evette was never going to be someone you got along with, because we can’t exist in the same space. If her project lived, yours died. You only became a Lamb because she aborted. We’re too similar and too different at the same time, so I don’t know that we would have fit together well. All that in mind, it’s only fitting that you use her to wrap your mind around things you don’t want to think about. Less cuddly things like the deadline looming over your head, the poison in your brain, your morbid and self destructive plans of action. The plague that’s crawling across your back right now.”
The skin across my back prickled. The power of suggestion again?
I resisted the urge to twist around and check. “Yeah.”
“You can check. There’s no use acting brave with me and Fray over there. We know.”
“Mabel is going to be here soon,” I said. “If it’s there, she’ll see. Doesn’t change anything if I know in advance or not.”
“Uh huh,” Evette said.
“I know I said I wanted today free and clear of insanity and mutiny. You’re probably edging in closer so you’re first in line if and when that door opens. I suppose it’s inevitable.”
“I don’t care about that,” Evette said. “She might.”
I looked over at Fray, a figure like the one that might appear in a dream, impossible to pin down or look directly at, the features still right, the positioning and attitude ambiguous.
“Who knows what she’s thinking?” Evette said.
“I wonder,” I said, studying Fray.
My wondering was interrupted by a knock on the door.
“Come in,” I said.
I heard the door click and open.
Wearing a rather ad-hoc quarantine outfit, Mabel let herself into the room. her mask and air supply were the only things that weren’t improvised. The rest involved rain clothing and copious amounts of tape. She set a medical bag and a bright lantern on the desk by the door.
“You were talking to yourself?” Mabel asked.
I pointed. “Evette, there. And Fray.”
“I see,” Mabel said, faint changes in tone betraying concern. She closed the door, took stock, and then said, “And you’re naked.”
“You’ve got to examine me, right?”
She didn’t respond to that. I had the feeling that if blushes could radiate past filtration masks and goggles, she would be too bright to look at.
Or maybe I was projecting Lillian onto Mabel. Mabel had a different sort of grounding. A different set of emotional strengths and weaknesses.
She moved the lantern to the bedside table.
“Am I supposed to greet your… friends?” Mabel asked.
“They’re not friends,” I said. “Evette was stabbing me repeatedly, just before you came in.”
“Oh. Oh dear.”
“They’re figments. I think… they started out as something different, but lately, they’re representing something else. I have so many trains of thought chugging along through my brain, they… encapsulate important ideas or lines of thought. It’s easier to bring one out and think along certain lines, sometimes.”
“Thinking in terms of strategy, or investigating, or cooperating with others in a crisis. Sometimes instinct, or acting, or simplifying my thinking. Each one is a… very complex sort of set of ideas, functioning independently. Sometimes in ways that I don’t want them to.”
“I think I sort of get it.”
“And lately, they’ve been shoring up my weaknesses, I think. Or they’re becoming weaknesses, if there’s even a difference between using imaginary people as crutches or just leaving the weak points exposed.”
“I think there’s a difference.”
“Yeah. Probably. Most recently, they’ve been representing my subconscious, when I’m being a little too conscious and tunnel-visioned. They’ll appear and remind me of something, or tell me to think along certain patterns. Except I don’t always know what pattern they’re supposed to represent.”
“Didn’t you create them?”
“I let the garden happen. I didn’t control what grew where. The current, big enigma is miss Genevieve Fray, imaginary version. I don’t know what she represents. She’s one of the biggest question marks, in my head and out of it.”
“I’m reminded of the trick with memory they used to give us, with putting all of our memories in a different room or places in a room. A study trick for students.”
“Jessie was a pretty literal interpretation of that trick, once upon a time. Except the rooms were real, and they weren’t rooms so much as actual compartments in the real world. But perhaps talking about the deeper points isn’t fair to her, if she doesn’t have a say. I want to respect her privacy.”
In a nod to privacy, I adjusted the sheet that was draped across my lap. Mabel glanced down, then glanced up.
“Ready?” I asked, as if I hadn’t noticed.
“Let’s get this done, then,” she said.
She checked my hands first, which wasn’t necessary, then my face, which was. She got out a comb and started working her way through my hair, checking my scalp.
“Shirley has spots,” she told me.
I clenched my fist.
“It looks like it’s in the early stages. It should be doable.”
“She has a good doctor? Someone with a steady hand and a good eye?”
“I think so. The others only had good things to say about him.”
“Otis and two of Otis’ men have them too. Mostly on the hands. The students working on them sounded optimistic.”
“It’s important that Professor Berger live,” I said. “We need someone good working on him, if at all possible.”
“We need good people working on everyone,” Mabel said. “That’s the worst part of it, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“If it means anything, we have pretty good hands working on the Professor. Or at least, I think they’re good. He got pretty irate and insisted he would do the work himself.”
“He’s cutting himself open? Without drugs?”
“He insisted. We have two students on standby. The spots are mostly on his face and hands. He said he wants to work on his face in front of the mirror and do his left hand. He’ll defer to us for his right hand at the end.”
“I really want to hear if he managed it or not. I’m not saying I’d think less of him if he gave up, but if he actually just managed to sit down and carve himself open. I did it countless times, while Tynewear was caught in the plague. It’s an infernal thing, the plague. I know bias colors my view here, but it feels like most of the time, it always demanded too much. It set its roots too deep.”
Mabel didn’t respond. She continued working.
I could read a lot from the feeling of her gloved fingers on my head, the movement of the comb, and the movements of the lantern.
“Rudy isn’t good,” Mabel said. “I think it wouldn’t be good even if he was free of the plague.”
“He was delirious. Raving about needles and plants. I don’t think he was even making sense of what was going on.”
“He’s tough,” I said. “So long as he has a goal in sight, he’s a bit of a juggernaut. He’ll just plow onward.”
“I just worry he can’t see very far, and he’s seeing less and less,” Mabel said.
Ah, so was this it? She wanted reassurance.
I wasn’t sure I had much to give.
Perhaps in my own efforts to egg myself forward and gather the courage for this next part, I’d put too great a weight on her shoulders.
“I know about the spots on my shoulder,” I said. “I know you’re staying quiet about it. If you don’t feel confident, you can go track down someone who is.”
“You knew? You saw?”
“Evette told me,” I said.
“Evette again. I think I can do this. Rather than disturb it, I’m going to finish checking you over first.”
At her direction, I stood up.
“Already checked the front bits, and if there was any plague there, I’d probably just ask you to take the scalpel to my throat instead,” I said. “But you can check my skinny behind.”
She didn’t have a response to that. There was no cue that she was that ruffled, either. Maybe she wasn’t the blushing type. Maybe her feelings had been directed elsewhere.
“It looks like it’s the back of the neck, shoulder, and the one side of your back,” she said.
“Any tips before I get started?”
“No special ones, only the pointers I gave to everyone else. Look for the spots where the tendrils are reaching into or out of veins and arteries or where the bruising surrounds places the plague set in a deeper kind of root. Those are key areas that you want to start at and work away from. If you’re partway through one part and you get interrupted or lose your place, go looking for another starting place, don’t get too fixated on searching.”
She was getting her things out of the medical kit as I talked. I saw her hold a scalpel, her hand shaking a little.
“Use your hands. It’s not a hard rule, but feel for the tendrils, they’re harder than veins and arteries, especially when they run inside veins and arteries. If it bleeds, it might still be a tendril, don’t let that make you second guess yourself, but if it’s easy to cut, it’s probably not one.”
“I feel like all of this is just leading up to me butchering you.”
“It’s going to happen to some degree,” I said.
“Yeah,” Mabel said. “Let’s get started, then. Do you want drugs? I know they aren’t as effective when the plague sets in, but they’ll help some.”
“I’m resistant to drugs,” I said. “It’s not worth you having to keep pumping me with enough for them to work while trying to avoid killing me, when they won’t even last as long.”
“Pain and I are old acquaintances,” I said, glancing up at Evette.
There was a knock at the door.
“Come in, if you don’t mind your boys half-clothed,” I said.
Every bit of focus I could spare was going toward staying still, my fingers gripping my knees. Blood and sweat ran down my back, and despite Mabel’s efforts to keep on top of it, the fluids had found their way into my butt crack, making me profoundly uncomfortable. I fixed the sheets as best as I could without disturbing Mabel’s work.
The doorknob rattled for a little while before opening.
Otis stood in the doorway, head lowered. Bloody bandages covered most of his arms and hands. Blood had soaked through most of the bandages, and his hands trembled visibly, even with the heavy wrapping.
“Going for a walk,” he said. “Pain’s getting to me. Having a bit of a smoke.”
“I’d ask if you have one to spare, but I don’t think Mabel would want me smoking when it’s hard enough to see everything.”
“Please don’t,” Mabel said, lost in what she was doing. The fingertips of one hand were buried cuticle-deep in and around my shoulder muscles, rooting for what needed to be rooted for.
Otis approached, and with his heavily bandaged hands, he fumbled for the carton, fingers barely moving like they were supposed to, as if he had doll hands and he was trying to function. He found a cigarette and placed it between my lips.
“For later,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said. I jerked as Mabel hit a nerve, quite literally.
“Says a lot that they dug some graves in advance, yeah?” Otis asked, in his rough voice.
“Hopefully we won’t need too many of them,” I said.
“Hopefully, Sylvester,” Otis said. He paused, hands tremoring more than before. “Gonna see if I can’t finish the carton. Pain’s pretty bad though. Might have to get down to it before long.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Look after my guys?” he asked.
Mabel’s hands stopped working as she realized what the conversation was about.
“Yeah,” I said. I wished I could say more, but I was a little distracted.
“They’re dumb as sticks and rocks, but they’re strong, and they never complained too much.”
“I’ll look after them, Otis.”
“Yeah,” he said, his voice rougher than usual. “Thanks.”
“You were pretty badass today,” I said. “Fighting the Mercies like that. Was impressive.”
He nodded, winced in pain, and then silently turned and left the room. It took him two tries to close the door with the bandaged hands.
There wasn’t much for me to watch besides the fires, Evette, Fray, and the dark view out the window. I was able to see, after five or so minutes, Otis lurching his way through the snow, disappearing into the treeline, a dot of orange marking his lit cigarette.
It was forty minutes later that I heard the gunshot, from that same direction. Mabel’s hands jumped at the sound.
When I go, I don’t want to go alone like that, I thought.
“I lost my place,” Mabel said.
“It’s fine,” I said. “It’ll come back up for air, so to speak, or you’ll find it by accident while working elsewhere. Just make a mental note of it and move on.”
What felt like hours stretched on, and Otis’ gunshot wasn’t the only one heard that night.
Mabel’s scalpel clattered against the desk.
“I don’t even know for sure,” she said. “I can’t tell anymore.”
“You have good eyes and a good memory,” I said. “One of the first things I noticed about you.”
She looked my way and smiled.
They really were quite different. Lillian and Mabel. Somehow I felt like Lillian, in this same situation, would look a bit like the wild, Wyvern-touched Lillian I’d seen in Lugh. More alive, not worn to the nub.
“Let’s get you cleaned up and see this more clearly,” she said. She washed her gloves in chemical, then collected a bowl from the top of the now-dim wood stove.
She daubed at my back, wiping skin clean.
“You have no shortage of students available to grow you some new skin,” she said.
“That’s good,” I said. “This isn’t my first rodeo. You know that story about the man who has his axe head and handle replaced several times over? I’ve gotten myself injured so many times I’ve lost track of what’s still original. I don’t even think my own mother would recognize me.”
“You have a mother?”
“Might. I don’t think she’d recognize me anyhow,” I said. I blinked hard. Sweat running down my face had pooled in my eyes.
“I miss my mother,” Mabel said.
“Write her a letter, then.”
“Not exactly that simple, Sy.”
Somewhere over the course of the night, she had transitioned from the formal Sylvester to ‘Sy’.
“Write it anyway. You don’t have to send it.”
“Maybe,” she said. “Possibly.”
She began wrapping me with bandages. I rocked back and forth with the regular, easy pace of it. Periodically she placed cool things against my wounded back, which felt marvelous, and then set it in place with the bandage and gauze.
“When I was getting the bowl of water for cleanup, I asked about Rudy and the others. Rudy was in bad shape to begin with.”
“It didn’t go well,” I said. “I guessed.”
She continued applying the bandage for a moment, then ventured, “Your imaginary friends told you?”
“Just regular old me told me,” I said, my heart heavy. “I’ll address it tomorrow.”
She nodded, eyes downcast. “Can you stand?”
I stood, holding the sheet. It turned out there was very little reason to. The sheer amount of blood on the sheet made it stick to my legs and buttocks.
“Not really,” I admitted.
“We’ll get you cleaned up,” Mabel said. “Berger finished carving away the growths on his face and made it most of the way through his left hand before he had to defer to outside help. Last I heard, he’s managing.”
“Shirley is mostly fine. She’ll be better when we get her seamlessly patched up.”
“She’s had a hard day,” I said. “Does she have anyone with her?”
“A few people.”
“I owe her a lot,” I said. “Can’t have anything happening to her.”
Then she reached out and touched my cheek.
I moved, and she jumped as though I’d run a voltaic wire through her and thrown the switch.
“I’m tired,” she said.
“It’s fine,” I said. “It’s a little more odd that you’d do it while I’m bloody like this, but-“
Her eyes were wrenched shut behind the mask. “Please stop talking, please stop talking.”
“It’s fine,” I said, more firmly.
“It’s not. You have Jessie, and I wasn’t thinking, and now I’m embarrassed. Can we just pretend this never happened?”
“We could,” I said. “I owe you for tonight. I want to keep you around.”
“Thank you,” she said. She looked properly mortified, even covered by the suit.
“I’ll clean myself up and get dressed, and I’ll spend the night here, if you deem me clear?”
She nodded very emphatically. “I had a good sense of it by the end, and it didn’t grow in you nearly as quickly as it did in Rudy or any of the others.”
“It never did. I don’t think I was contagious either, or I would’ve spread it to a lot more people while doing the rounds in Tynewear.”
“You’re clear enough to see to Jessie,” Mabel said. The mention of Jessie made the mortification set in once more.
She fled the room, and I used the bowl to clean myself up as well as I was able, scrubbing away where blood had congealed and getting myself as clean as possible. Rather stiffly, wobbling, I put another log on the fire, and I walked over to the window, to look out in the direction of the graves.
I cleaned up, got dressed, and opened the door. Now out of her quarantine suit, Mabel offered me her arm, and we walked to Jessie’s room. I glanced at each room with an open door that we passed, and saw reams of bloody sheets, towels, and tools scattered about.
We reached the room at the end of the hall, above the kitchen. It was the master bedroom, and Jessie was within, sleeping. Someone had kept the fire going.
I brushed fingers through Jessie’s hair. She woke.
“Hi,” she said. “You’re alive.”
“Don’t sound so disappointed.”
Jessie smiled, “Not disappointed.”
“I’ll give you a once-over, but since Mabel and I took a while and you’re not writhing in pain, it looks pretty good.”
Jessie nodded. “Thank you for your work, Mabel.”
The sheriff’s daughter tucked her hair behind the one ear and avoided eye contact.
Jessie’s hand moved in a ‘question’ gesture.
“Mabel got affectionate,” I said, “Now she’s embarrassed.”
If the moment earlier had been like activating a voltaic current, this was like a slick of oil being lit on fire. Slow at first, as it set in and built up steam, with an explosive finale.
“You said you wouldn’t-!”
“I said we could pretend it never happened. But we aren’t going to. That’d just be a festering seed of badness that spoiled things on some front. Better to have it in the open.”
“That’s not your decision to make!” Mabel said, incensed and alarmed. “It’s not the time for it! People died tonight!”
“And all of that is negativity that gets tied up in the badness,” I said. “No. It’s-“
Jessie put her hand on my face, shushing me.
“Don’t run away, Mabel,” Jessie said.
“I just touched his face. I-“
“Stay,” Jessie said. “I don’t mind, whatever it was. I might feel left out if it kept going and Sy ignored me, but I don’t mind for now. Sy’s right, it would be ugly if you left and spent the night agonizing over it. Stay and talk.”
“Keep us company tonight. You have to check on Sy regularly throughout the night, don’t you?”
Mabel, as if looking for a way out, said, “You could-“
“Theoretically,” Jessie said, “But while I’m happy for Sy to work on me, I couldn’t do it for him. That’s not a memory I want in my head.”
“It’s why I asked you,” I told Mabel.
Mabel looked defeated.
“Just look away while he checks on me. That’s all I ask.”
“Sit,” I instructed. “End of the bed there. Tell us about the pheromone project.”
Mabel sat, looking far from comfortable, as if she’d bolt at any second.
Mabel snored. Her face pressed in between my shoulder and the pillow, seeking refuge from the light of morning that had streamed into the room some time ago. She’d pulled off the bits of clothing that were uncomfortable to sleep in and settled in beneath the covers, pressed against me.
Jessie was on the other side of me, fast asleep in that Jessie way. Dead to the world. I’d wondered for some time how she would sleep. Mary had always slept with her back to me, or on her back, one arm against mine. Rigid, but there. Girly to every sense, from the flowery smell of her to the rough lace and just how nice she’d looked with her head on the pillow. Lillian had clung to me like I was the only thing keeping her from drowning, warmer than anything.
Jessie seemed very content to be touching me. One hand outstretched, fingers intertwined with mine. She would wake up now and then, check, and reach out for me if we’d broken away at some point in the night. I was a light enough sleeper that I was aware every time it happened.
Looking at her sleep, I knew there wasn’t anyone or anything I wanted to protect quite so much.
It was a warm, pleasant now that couldn’t last.
I felt a chill and stirred, which made both girls stir on either side of me.
Fray was there, in her abstract glory, wearing her black lab coat. Standing behind her were the Lambs. I might have summoned them by thinking of them like I had. Though I hadn’t been thinking of Duncan and Ashton. They were joined by Mary, Helen, and Lillian.
None of them are wearing black today, I thought, except for Fray. Still trying to figure out that pattern.
Mary stepped forward a little. Lillian wouldn’t look at me. A return to the days after I’d just left.
“I’ve got to ask, what’s with the color of the dresses?” I asked.
“That’s really not what you should be focusing on,” Mary said.
“It means something,” I said. “Like for one thing, you seem a lot more pleasant sometimes.”
Mary reached into her jacket and pulled out a pistol.
“A lot more pleasant,” I said. “I guess this is where I pay for that time I asked for yesterday? Another mutiny? A little more painful than the last?”
“Something like that,” Mary said.
“Thank you for the help earlier,” I said. “I did appreciate it.”
“You noticed?” Duncan asked.
“Huh?” I asked, back.
Mabel stirred beside me.
“Shh,” I said, giving Mabel’s head a pat. “I think Mary and the other Lambs just wants to go for a ride on the Sylvester train.”
Mabel made a curious sound. She opened her eyes just in time to see Mary aiming for my kneecap. I, meanwhile, was wondering why Fray had disappeared from the group.
Mabel realized what she was looking at, startled and cried out in alarm, which startled me, and I moved just in time to avoid having the bullet strike home. Feathers flew everywhere.