Bitter Pill – 15.16

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“Fray actually came,” Jessie said.

I raised my binoculars and peered through them.  I could focus my magnified view on Fray’s hands, then her feet, move the view up to look at the lines of her body and posture, before moving up to her face and expression.

“I thought you were full of it,” she said.

“Never,” I said.

“Never?  Sylvester, I could list the times you’ve been full of it in the past year, in chronological order.”

“Each and every one of those instances had a rationale and explanation, I guarantee you,” I said.

“Yeah.  You wanted to get my goat,” she said.

“When you say it like that, it sounds like a reference to something dirty.”

“That’s less to do with how I’m saying it and more to do with how your twisted brain hears it,” she said.

Steam hissed and metal clanked as the train settled in at the station.  Academy quarantine officers lined up at the doors.

I focused the binoculars briefly on the windows.  I could see the Lambs within, talking to one another.  From their tone, they were talking strategy.  Helen, Mary, Lillian, Duncan, and Ashton.

The doctors boarded the train.  My focus turned back to Fray, my binoculars-augmented view of her provided details that nobody in the crowd was paying sufficient attention to catch.  The way that she shifted her weight from one foot to another.  The fact that she was sticking closer to those ready to board, but was one of the only people in that particular crowd who didn’t have some luggage with her.

She was trying to act like she was calm.  The agitation still shone through in parts.

“See what I meant, about the human side of her?”

“I’m not looking at her.  I’m focused on the quarantine team.  They’re barely stopping as they move through the train car.  This train stops only once between Radham and Laureas.  There have been no reports of outbreaks, I don’t think they’re too fussed.”

“If Fray is right, things are a little trickier than that.  The plague is spreading even now.  It just needs a battle before it finds its roots.  She said it reacts to blood, gunpowder, ash.  Something punitive, vengeful,” I said.

“Speaking of,” Jessie said.  She finally turned in Fray’s direction, looking over her glasses at our adversary and benefactor of the day.  “More agitated.  I haven’t seen Fray at the top of her game yet, so it’s hard to compare.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“You wanted to be here to know her decision and possibly interfere in it.  You weren’t sure if you wanted to go through on what you threatened her about.”

“I’m not sure about her feeling,” I said.  “I’m wondering if even Fray is sure about her feeling.”

Her feet were planted like she might turn and leave at a moment’s notice.  More than once, she had looked at her escape routes, ones that included a break for the exit and a run through the crowd.  There was a dimension to this where she couldn’t be sure the Lambs would step off the train and simply bring her into custody.  There was a risk that Mary would hurl a knife, or that Crown soldiers would recognize her, point a gun at her and pull the trigger.

What happened then?  What did she do?  What did I do?

“Sy,” Jessie said.  “We talked once about allying with Fray.  As peers, not enemies.  We don’t have an abundance of allies, and she’s probably the most capable one that qualifies.  I’m not saying you should save her, but if you’re going to make a decision, it’ll have to be soon.  People are getting up to get their luggage.  The Lambs won’t be the last out, either.”

“When we aren’t talking long-term plans, you defer to me a lot,” I said.  “You say this is my decision.  Don’t you get a say?  We’re peers, you twit.”

Jessie turned her binoculars toward Fray.

I continued, “I covered a lot of the key points.  She’s not responsible for the plague.  She is responsible for primordials.  She’s got something else going on, a grander plan.  She might be a potential ally, but she told me she identifies as an Academy Doctor.  She didn’t say it outright, but I know that she takes substantial pride in the fact that she was nearly a professor and would have qualified if it weren’t for the fact that she knew too much.”

“I don’t think fast in crisis situations,” Jessie said.  “It’s why I usually defer.  I can trust you to make a call I can understand and mostly agree with, outside of the times and occasions when you’ve lost your mind entirely.”

“One time,” I said.

“I help set the broad strokes for the next stage of things.  I coordinate and counsel.”

“Well quit it.  Tell me, what do we do about Fray?  I’m not asking you to make the decision, but you get half of the say.”

“What happens in the event of a tie?” Jessie asked.

The quarantine team stepped off of the train.  They signaled the all-clear, and the first passengers made their way down the steps carefully, lest the weight and awkwardness of their luggage pull them off balance.

“We should get rid of her,” Jessie said.  “She’s inscrutable, and she’s inscrutable to the both of us.  She keeps escalating.  She’s a danger to us and a danger to the Lambs, and she’s a danger we can’t properly solve.”

I listened to Jessie while I watched Fray with my binoculars.  Fray shifted her weight again.

“The problem is,” Jessie told me, “She has answers we don’t.  She opens doors.  There’s going to come a time when we need to know something, and Genevieve Fray might be the only proper resource we have.  More than any other factor, that might be key.  You said she feels a measure of guilt, and that has to count for something.  Room for something better, like you saw in Lillian.”

“Nothing like what I saw in Lillian,” I said.  I turned my attention to the window.  I only caught the briefest glimpse of Lillian before she was too far forward in the car to see.  She would be amid the luggage racks, possibly with the conductor or another employee helping her with her medical bag and luggage.

“A chance that Academy science might be used for sincere good?” Jessie asked.

“I wonder,” I said.  “And I have a hard time visualizing a scene where her greater plan unfolds, and I say yes, those primordials, those sterilized people, that chemical leash, the casualties, the wars, they were all worth it, Fray was undeniably a force for good in the world.”

“Then instead of good, what about a force for change?” Jessie asked.  “If I had to decide, I would say to save her, because we might not succeed, Sy.  We might need someone to carry on, if we can’t make something happen in the next year or so.”

What does Genevieve Fray’s change matter, if she’s willing to ask everyone but herself to make the necessary sacrifices?

That, more than anything, had been at the heart of why I’d been so angry with her.  Why I still was angry, even.  Because it felt like it was no different from Crown or Academy.

I put my binoculars down.  I watched the scene from afar instead of taking in the narrow view.  The Lambs stepped off the train, talking among one another.  Still talking together, the Lambs moved through the initial cluster of families eagerly waiting for departing husbands and daughters.

The amusing thing was, they weren’t looking at the train platform.  Mary’s eyes scanned the buildings along one side of the station.  Helen’s scanned buildings on the other side.  All while they were trying to look casual.

I was preparing for Mary’s searching eye to move more in my direction, having covered the most likely spots for me to be lurking, and I saw Fray shift position again.

The tension flowed out of her.  The footing had gone flat, no longer poised to pivot at a moment’s notice.  Her chin dropped a fraction.  Fray had seen the Lambs, and she was poising herself not to run, but to surrender.

I reached out for Jessie, and I pulled her down and away, tumbling to the ground.

Raising my fingers to my mouth, I whistled.

Lambs all across the rooftop hesitated, and Helen said the word, “Sylvester.”

Mary looked at Lillian, then off in Fray’s direction.  She said the word firmly, making a decision for the group.  “Fray.”

They moved as a unit.  Even the new Lambs who hadn’t been on the train followed – Abbie, Emmett, Nora, and Lara.

Phantom images that vanished as they passed the threshold of the roof.

“What if they come for us?” Jessie asked, quiet.

I shook my head, a tight gesture.  I was tense, listening, my ears straining.

I heard shouts in the street, and I relaxed some.

“They’re gone,” Jessie said.

I nodded.

“They might catch her,” Jessie said.

“So be it,” I said.  Then I thought for a moment.  “She had a bit of a head start.”

“The Lambs have Mary.”

“Yeah,” I said.

I tried to think about what Fray might do, the path she might take, the ways she might fight.  She had said that she focused a lot of her attention on being elusive.  I wondered what that entailed and the realms it touched on.  What solutions would she devise?

So many of my thoughts had been wrapped up in Fray that it didn’t surprise me in the least when I glanced up and saw Evette still on the rooftop, with another figure standing behind her.

It wasn’t a complete image, and it resembled things that Evette had seen in the depths of her breakdown.  Painted with broad, incoherent strokes, it was a perfect image of Fray, but it fell to pieces in the emulation, in the dance, the movements, and the other things.

I had nowhere near the connection to Fray that I had in the Lambs.  Any of the other Lambs, I could have danced with them, in the natural and instinctive understanding of how they moved, how they thought, and what they might do in any instant.

I didn’t have any of that with Fray, and so the image of her that stood before me was a contrary one.  Three complete Frays packed into one image no larger than Fray actually was, each one running contrary to the others.

“No,” I spoke to the image.  “Away with you.”

She didn’t listen.

“Sylvester,” Jessie said.

Her breath was hot on my cheek, and that realization should have been enough to stir me from this nightmare image.  The realization that in pushing her down, we’d landed in a heap, and we’d remained that way while I interpreted the situation.

Go,” I whispered, my voice nonetheless firm.

Evette turned, and she reached for the Amalgam-Fray’s hand.  Simultaneously gripping fingers, hand, and sleeve of the different Frays at once, Evette led Fray away.  Off to the side, or into the background, but not gone.

As this Fray walked away, the different faces turned.  In one instant, all three found alignment.  One Fray, blurry around the edges, a satisfied smile on her face.

Having seen it here, I might as well have seen it in the instant she fled the station.  Satisfaction, as if that moment of surrender had been an act, calculated in timing and detail.

Jessie exhaled, and it was very controlled.  I had the sense she had been holding her breath, and having reached her limit, she chose to still maintain control, so as not to disturb.

“Are you back?” she asked.

I nodded.

“In my role of counsel and long-term strategy, I should remind you that we should get back to the hotel, make sure everything is square, and make sure Warren and his group are prepared to help us make our way here.”

I nodded again.

She continued, “He’ll be willing to help if we say we let Genevieve Fray go, but we have to assume the Lambs will either catch her or lose her trail.  They might come back here.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“This feels like a one-sided conversation,” she said.  “And you’re not moving.”

I raised myself up, checked, and saw that the Lambs were gone.  Duncan was still there, watching the luggage, while looking in the direction Fray and the Lambs had gone.

Jessie, thinking I was getting up, started to raise herself up as well.

I dropped back down, and Jessie’s head bumped against the roof of the train station’s ticket booth.

“Ow.”

“I’m supposed to give you your answer about you and me, aren’t I?” I asked.  “If I wait, then we’ll have the crowd of students to think about, the train, accommodations, we’ll be tired, other things might come up.  It has to be now, doesn’t it?”

“While you’re on top of me, almost pinning me down?”

“I’m stuck, Jessie.”

“Unless something else has gone wrong with that brain of yours, I think you’re capable of moving,” she said.

“I’m stuck because I like you a lot.  You’re the most important person to me.  I look at you and I think hey, Jessie looks nice today, just about every day.”

“Two and a half out of five days, you even say so,” she said.  “Somewhat platonically, but you say so.”

“At your worst, you’re on my case, you’re critical, you’re stubborn and you’re slow.  It probably says a lot that I’d miss all of those things if you got fed up with me and left tomorrow.”

She nodded.

“I think it would be easy, being with you.  I feel like we could be close, I feel like we could be friends at the same time.  I know what makes you tick.  I know your strengths and weaknesses and all of that’s fine.  And it would be really nice to have another Lamb close to me again.  Like, actually close.”

“There’s something tripping you up.”

“I hope you don’t mind if I compare to others.”

“Inevitable.”

“With Mary, if there was anything, it would be that there was the dance.  We worked well together and a lot of the barriers just weren’t there.  I’m a manipulator and she’s a puppet, and she wanted someone to pull her strings.  I could have gotten away with anything.  In another world where neither of us were Lambs and nothing made us special, yet our personalities were the same?  I could have been the boyfriend that hits his girl and she might have been the girl who wouldn’t immediately leave.”

“I don’t think that’s-

I hurried to beat Jessie to the punch.  “Not that I would ever, and not that she would stay forever, but for all her strength and determination, she didn’t have those walls up, and would need to learn to put them up before she told me to fuck off.”

“Okay,” Jessie said.

“Lillian wouldn’t take it.  Didn’t.  She liked it, to an extent, if I was a bastard to her.  But there was a boundary, a line, and with the way things are now and the way things are going to stay, it involves her sacrificing too much to even test it.”

“I heard all that.”

“But I could get away with a lot.  I stalled myself, using Wyvern on my brain to tweak some things, and kept things in stasis, but it all made sense to me on an intrinsic level.  On my personally warped level.  Push, pull, manipulator, manipulated.”

Jessie nodded.  She reached up to fix her glasses, and her hand brushed my chest.  She shied away from the contact a little, as if recognizing that it might make me move away, or break the spell, or whatever it was that was going on.

If she had an idea, I hoped she’d tell me later, because I wasn’t entirely sure, for once.

“I’m sorry if talking about them makes you jealous.”

Jessie shook her head.

“No?”

“No.  Keep talking.  Let’s get this over with.  We have things to do.”

I snorted, smiling.  Jessie smiled, too.

“And,” she added, her voice dropping, “I’m scared you’re going to tell me to take my feelings and shut them away again, because I will, and I’ll replay this conversation in my head over and over, and I’d really rather it wasn’t very long.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Can’t have that.”

She nodded.

I paused, thinking, and in the doing, I seemed to take too long, because she used one hand and lightly punched me in the gut.

I grunted.

“Next time will hurt more,” she said.  “Talk.

“I’m not very good at manipulating you, Jessie.  I mean, yes, there are some ways.  I understand you, I can do stuff to tease you, but in the romantic sense of boundaries and intimacy and getting close?  I’m not sure what the tricks are.  I want to say or do something to you to open the doors and I don’t know how to sweep you up in my spell or dance past the boundaries.  You call me on my bull.  It’s completely unfamiliar territory, and it’s territory I can’t cover using Wyvern because there’s no way to practice it.”

“You hesitate.”

“Yes.”

“You’re nervous.”

“Admittedly.  I don’t want to wreck our dynamic.  I’m not sure how to get closer.  I’m only this close right now by accident, and the reason I haven’t moved away and gotten off you is I’m afraid if I do, I won’t be able to get closer again.”

Jessie nodded.

“Something’s not working,” I said.  “Gordon said I was fluid and you were solid.  I’ve thought that some of the Lambs had natural affinities for one another, and some had natural conflicts.  Gordon was never going to fully understand me, and I was never going to fully get him, Mary and Helen struggle to find that natural dynamic, and you and I-”

“Sy,” Jessie said, interrupting.

“I’m babbling.”

“Sy, what you’re talking about isn’t it.  I’m afraid it’s worse.”

I read her expression and tone, and I poised myself.

“This is going to be a groaner, isn’t it?” I asked.

“It’s almost as if you’re a sixteen year old boy, and I’m a seventeen year old girl, and so long as I’m on the alert for your tricks, you’re feeling and facing most of the same sorts of worries that most boys your age do in the opening stages of a relationship.”

I bowed my head, eyes screwed shut, and I made sure to groan before I said, “Oh lords, no.  That’s worse than everything else I thought put together.”

“If it makes you feel better, I’ve been bottling up a lot of those same anxieties and worries for months now.  That’s on top of an entirely different sort that I’ve been bottling up for years.

“You poor creature,” I said.

“Entirely my fault for falling for the most unpredictable sixteen year old in the Crown States,” she said.

“Numbskull,” I said.

She punched me lightly in the stomach, again.

“A liar, too.  You said the next one would hurt more.”

“Don’t tempt me,” she said.

“See, I’m not sure if I should tempt you or not.  I don’t have a proper roadmap, here.  I’m lost!  I’m still stuck!”

“You said you’re stuck because you’re afraid if you move away you won’t be able to move closer again.  So…”

Jessie raised herself up, and she moved her face closer to mine.

She gave me a peck on the cheek.

“On the cheek?” I asked.

“Shut up,” she said.

“You’re so lame!” I accused her.

“Let me up.  We have work to do,” she said.

“Just like that,” I said.  “Waving the white flag?”

Teasing aside, I did climb off of Jessie.  The two of us stood, glancing back in the direction of the station platform, where Duncan was talking to quarantine officers, still guarding the bags.

“Your move next,” Jessie said, not making eye contact.

“Oh, is that how we’re doing this?  Back and forth?  A game of one-upmanship?”

Jessie sighed.  We made our way down from the roof to the ticket booth proper.

I asked, “One of us makes a move, the other has to work up the courage and top it, or she gets made the subject of merciless teasing?”

She?

“Well I’m not going to lose, Little Miss Ewesmont.  I’m frankly interested to see where this goes.  Unless you cry uncle, I’m imagining this escalating to the extent of a Fray-esque web of goings-on involving a trapeze, an Academy-engineered spider monkey that has actual spider in its makeup, a choir, and an actual uncle to cry out to.  It’s an elegant lose-lose situation you’re walking into here.”

“It really, really is,” Jessie said.  She’d lifted up her glasses to rub at her eyes, as if I was already giving her a headache.  I knew the truth.  She was trying to hide that she was laughing.    She found her composure.  “For a moment, I entertained the fantasy that we might have something resembling an ordinary little romance.”

I shifted position as I walked, giving her shoulder a bump with mine.  “We’ll find a middle ground.”

“That would be nice,” she smiled at me.

“Can that count as my turn?  A heartwarming bit of compromise?”

“No, Sy.”

But she pulled the same maneuver and she bumped my shoulder with hers.  I took the opportunity to throw my arm around her shoulders, giving her a one armed hug.

I could feel the tension fall away from her shoulders with my arm there.

“How about this?” I asked.  “Does this count?”

Oh, look at that.  The tension came back, just like that.

“I’ll take that as a no,” I said.

“It doesn’t count if you were doing it before today.”

“That puts me at a natural disadvantage, my memory being what it is.”

“And here I thought you weren’t going to lose,” she teased.

“Oh, I won’t.  But if I win despite it not being terribly fair, I’m totally going to rub it in.”

“That’s allowed,” Jessie said.

We made our way to the hotel.  The outside was devoid of students, the doors boarded up, the area nondescript.  After checking the coast was clear, we let ourselves in.

The students were there, waiting and ready, virtually all with luggage in arm’s reach.  The gang leaders were there.  Virtually all of the strays were absent.

I looked for and found all of my major players.  Rudy and Possum were off to one side with Second Gordon.  They’d collected Jessie’s and my luggage for us.  My Lambs were present, as was Fray.  Fray, distorted, stood next to Warren.

Something had changed in Frederick’s eyes.  I wondered if it was newfound respect or resentment.

I glanced at the musclebound Warren, who stood off to one side with his collection of Fray’s hirelings, Wendy, and Avis.

“We gave her a signal,” I told him.  “She’s on the run from the Lambs.  She’ll probably want help.  Keep them busy, give us a chance to board our train, you’ll get no further interference from us, and we’ll be on good terms the next time we meet.”

I saw his expression twist, and he momentarily looked as if he’d stomp toward me and smash me into the ground.

Avis touched his arm, and he stopped.

“We should help her,” Avis said.

They hurried to leave.

The door slammed behind them, in a way that only a bruno of a man like Warren could slam doors.

Perhaps we won’t be on good terms the next time we meet, then, I thought.

I looked at the room, and I could see that the nervousness had set in.  This was the hardest step to take, the last chance to turn back.

“Are you ready to go!?” I called out.

I got a cheer in response.

“To make a name for yourselves!?”

Another cheer.  Not louder, but more unified.

“Ready to cut loose for once in your lives!?”

This response was louder.

“Say a very special fuck you to all the students, people, and parents who looked down on you!?”

Even the ones who’d been holding back joined in for this one.  Gang members, even.

“Then let’s go!”

It was the loudest outcry yet.

Out the hotel, around the corner to the stable with waiting carriages, where we stowed the heaviest bags, the strays that had decided to come, and two students who would move slower.

The rest followed behind.

It was momentum now, keeping them moving.  I broke away from Jessie, moved through the group.  I encouraged students, made sure stronger ones carried heavier bags, and touched base with each of the group leaders.

We didn’t go to the train station, but to the outskirts of town.  The train tracks cut north to south, and we found the tracks at the northwest edge of town, as they emerged from the mountain.

Jessie touched the track and sensed the vibration.  She looked at me.

“Right on time,” she said.

“Perfect,” I said.

The train emerged from the tunnel, already braking.

It didn’t stop at the station, but here, waiting for us.  A cargo train, meant to hold timber, grain, and meat.

At a nod from the driver of the train and a signal from me, the students began boarding the train, piling into the enclosed compartments.  I followed up the rear, taking an uncomfortable non-seat on the floor of the compartment, sitting across from Mabel the sheriff’s daughter, Possum, and Rudy.

Jessie plopped herself down next to me.

We left the door of the train car open.  It hardly mattered, and there was something freeing about it that the students in our car seemed to like.

With that as our vantage point, as we crested the hill, I could take in Laureas from a distance.  The city sprawled, not a lot of it attractive.  A port at the north end, ships coming to and fro, with dilapidated slums where we’d found the strays and set up our headquarters.  A ferry crossed back and forth across the bay itself.

I thought about the Lambs.  I wished I could talk to them, even as I knew it was the worst idea.

I said a silent goodbye to city and the Lambs both.

Next time, I thought, for the Lambs.

We won’t sacrifice you before we sacrifice ourselves, I thought for the city, and all the other ones like it.

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