Chapter 7:

the thing Lili did

Aboard the Winnow

"We were in the region—Eighth Quarter—when it happened." Avett stares at the captain's seat. He runs his fingers over the felted material before snatching his hand away. "We were just about to return from a successful artifact retrieval mission when we ran into a C10. A Keeper. Something was off about it. The moment the two other frontliners and I came within proximity of the ship, it came pouncing at us."Bookmark here

"Was it not meant to?" Lili asks. Bookmark here

"We like to call them Keepers 'cause they 'keep to themselves.' If you don't bother them, they don't bother you." He snorts and paces forward slowly, letting the warm glow of the outside world cast a harsh shadow upon the rest of his body. "This one… clearly didn't. We got the first one, and we were fine then. We could've just left and—"Bookmark here

Avett wobbles on his feet and looks away at the navigation panel. He continues, his voice rough like tree bark. "I kept chasing the others. Easily got overwhelmed. Got reckless. And by the time my teammates bailed me out of my fine little mess, it was already too late. I don't even know what happened after that. I do remember feeling incredibly angry, like the world had offended me somehow, and all I needed was an outlet—but when I came back, all I saw was Freu's face… and the nice little exhibit on the wall." Bookmark here

He holds his arms and stops pacing. Takes a shaky breath.Bookmark here

"For a moment, just for a moment, I thought I was a fucking killer. Freu consoled me. Comforted me. He said he finished him off, so I shouldn't worry about it. I saw the pilot lunge at him from behind, so I raised my blaster, but he—he—"Bookmark here

Lili looks at him, her gaze hard, yet yielding. You can stop here, if you'd like. She’s heard enough to fill in the unspoken blanks herself. Freu, the white haired caster, pushed down Avett’s blaster and finished off the pilot himself, but the encounter had been lethal both ways. Her mind wanders back to that particular apparition. The still figure, bleeding out in his own blood. He’d looked like a lone lotus bud in a sea of crimson. Bookmark here

Avett lets out two barks of laughter, though they sound more like sobs to her. His hand grooms through his hair as he turns his attention towards the ground. "I… fuck—I kind of wanted to get through all of this without crying, you know? What a shitty first mission.”Bookmark here

She stuffs a hand into her pocket and brings out a scrunched up napkin that she probably stole from the noodle restaurant. “Who was Freu?”Bookmark here

He takes it—doesn’t use it just yet, just keeps it balled up in his fist. “Classmate and senior,” he finally settles on saying. “I was an accelerated student. I just kept getting As upon As and I guess they thought it was grounds to boost me up two years into the gifted class. Put me on the field earlier than everyone else. That’s how I met him. He was seventeen—I was fifteen. And a smartass.” Bookmark here

A curse wearing the clothes of a blessing. She’s heard of grade skipping, of academic acceleration for students deemed too able in comparison to their peers. It seems hardly right to have such an arrangement in an institution centered around training combatants for field work. It’d worked against him that time. Avett, the inherently gifted, golden child. Thrust onto the field and into the midst of violence far, far too early. Bookmark here

“I’m starting to feel a little bit of pity from you," says Avett.Bookmark here

Or maybe she’s wrong, and she’d been putting feelings in his mouth this entire time. She shakes her head. “Sorry. I’ve probably gotten it all backwards.”Bookmark here

“Whatever you were thinking, you’re probably right. I wasn’t ready for the field—and Freu knew it. He was leagues above me in skill, as a person, even. Fuck.” A stupid grin plasters itself on his face as he toys with the napkin in his fingers. “A Kattish backline caster; those are rarer than Gallian arms specialists. I don’t know why he didn’t choose to go to some off-realm, prestigious, Gallian founded caster’s academy instead of an IRC funded merc school. Stupidly studious, kind of a nerd l guess, but everyone liked him. Respected him. He actually worked for his place in the gifted class, I kind of just floated in there. Freu was… an incredible person. Until the very end."Bookmark here

Lili’s pocket lurches downwards all of a sudden. She pats her side, and sure enough, she feels a round, smooth protrusion. Even if the artifact enjoys what Avett is saying, she finds herself feeling a tinge of envy before she can help it. They are not so similar after all—Avett had been surrounded by warm presences, of respectable, honorable people. Lili can’t remember the last time she’d told someone that she loved them. Can’t remember if she was ever allowed to say such vulnerable things.Bookmark here

Her eyes flit back towards Avett. She recalls the sensations the artifact had taken her through: sickening, nauseating regret—and stomach-gnawing yearning. The very same set of emotions she’d experienced on that harrowing day. "You regret it, don’t you. How that day played out.”Bookmark here

“Everyday. When I first came back from a grueling week of questioning from the IRC dispatch team, I promised to my father that I would never go back onto the field. I worked tirelessly into the early mornings with him at his friend’s motor store, just fixing, fixing. False pretenses and productivity felt better than mulling over it.” He clenches his hand over the napkin. “Everyday I’d work until dinnertime, thinking I’d moved past all of it, then I’d go to bed and cry myself to sleep. Whether it was in my dreams or if I was consciously thinking about it, I kept replaying that day over and over. If I hadn’t chased those Keepers, if we’d just gone back to the ship early and left the area—”Bookmark here

A breath. He stops, his shoulders shaking. His cheeks are wet. “Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if Freu hadn’t stopped me from killing our pilot first.”Bookmark here

And that intense yearning, that desire to do something right, Lili guesses, had brought him back onto the field not even a year later. Bookmark here

Before she can speak again, he continues, “I—I won’t lie. I hated you from the moment we fought together. I think I might still. Everything you did, every choice you made on the battlefield just reeked of my old, stupid, seventeen-year-old self. The fact that you were still alive, still damn functional—I envied you. You were clean. So damn naive.”Bookmark here

Another shaky breath. Bookmark here

“Then I screamed at you. In genuine anger. I’ve faced shallow pity, I’ve been on the receiving end of all of those superficial stock phrases people think to use all the time. It was so easy to. You’re like a wall, and you still are. Never giving, always receiving everything I threw at you.”Bookmark here

“Ah.” Lili shuffles around, her boots tapping against the faux-wood flooring. He’s still looking at her. Those endless pools of eternal sunlight, fixed right onto her plain-jane irises. Bookmark here

“But then you hit back.” The sunlight from the window graces his back as he turns towards her, forming a golden halo around his shadowed figure. ”Screamed back. You’re just as fucked as me—and now I just feel like garbage.”Bookmark here

Her reply comes hastily. "I'm sorry you feel like garbage. I guess I have that effect on people."Bookmark here

Lili doesn’t even get to react before Avett pounces on her, his arms wrapping around her body like she's one of those teddybears you'd win from one of those rigged carnival games. She's never been hugged like this before. What should she be doing with her hands? Her mind is blanking out, like he's melting down her carefully constructed walls of ice just by being there. He smells like a mix of sweat and male-marketed deodorant.Bookmark here

Then her mind finally decides to let it all click into place. Avett is hugging her. Bookmark here

Oh, god.Bookmark here

"Don't say that. Talking to you made me feel way better. You're someone who gets it—someone who gets it and who doesn't also happen to be a stone-faced bastard looking to diagnose me." He breathes in, his head nestled between her head and her good shoulder. "So that's got to count for something, right?"Bookmark here

She stands, limp and at the mercy of his hold. A compliment. Not a backhanded comment, not a scathing response to something she'd done, not even an empty word of praise. A compliment. From Avett. To her.Bookmark here

The ship's interior wobbles in and out of sight, making Lili feel like she's even more dizzy than she already is. They've done it—they've appeased the demands of the artifact, and now they're allowed to leave. A scalding presence at her side reminds her of what she's here for, and so, she takes it out of her pocket.Bookmark here

Confusion flickers across her features.Bookmark here

A small, wood-carved doll. The sunlight streaming in from the collapsed roof of the mall strikes at every knife-nicked groove on the figure in her palm. Bookmark here

She pushes away from Avett. He opens his mouth to scold her for ending the embrace far too early for his liking, but then his eyes fall upon her new acquisition. Bookmark here

"...What is that."Bookmark here

Judging by how it seems to be faintly pulsing against her hand, it must be an artifact. But that… can't be right. Where is the globe? Her hands turn to jelly. Something is very wrong. Her stomach feels like it's going to sink right down to her toes.Bookmark here

"It’s… another artifact." Avett has his GlassLink out, no doubt scanning away at the new object. Bookmark here

“It’s not the same one.” She wobbles on her feet. The globe had called out to her, had made its existence painfully clear to the both of them. This little doll is so small that she could wrap her entire hand over it and still have room to dig her nails into her palm. And it’s not just physically small either; Lili can hardly sense its presence at all. In comparison to the globe—a goliath created from the fulmination of Avett’s emotional distress—this is just a tiny weed in the asphalt. Bookmark here

She watches Avett’s face light up as he swipes at his phone. He's so blissfully unaware. “Wait, comms might be up again—” Bookmark here

No sooner do the words leave his lips does the resounding crack of dread echo in Lili's bones again. She crumples to the floor, her head in her hands, her teeth sinking into the soft flesh of her cheeks. She looks for Avett, but all she can see is a bluish haze all around her, like she's in the midst of a snowstorm. She can't feel anything other than the roar of uncertainty, can't hear anything except for the solid beat of her own heart. Charcoal burns inside her core, responding to the powerful reservoir of energy, screaming against the howl of snow and trepidation.Bookmark here

But she hampers it down again, like she's holding in a retch. Recognition blooms in her like an unopened bud in the early days of spring. Bookmark here

When the ceiling was collapsing, the artifact had only called out for her. And some strange, smouldering part of her had continued to recognise its reply, over and over again. It had never wanted Avett; instead, it had mistaken her for him, taken his regret and yearning and sorrow and translated it into a false projection of what it had deemed to be Lili. Bookmark here

She squints against the raging storm, holds out a splayed hand in front of her face. The worst part is that she'd known—or at the very least, had some inkling of an idea as to what it had been doing to her—and she did nothing in response. She hid herself. Had let Avett take the brunt of the artifact's whimsies. And now it's mad that it didn't get what it wanted.Bookmark here

She takes one, wobbly step forward. She's sorry for being such a coward. For being a terrible person.Bookmark here

Another step forward. The artifact is right there, a distant glow of warmth amidst all of the garbage. She holds out her hands. They feel like they could freeze off at any moment.Bookmark here

Another step forward. The scent of charred wood fills her nostrils. She latches onto the glass dome, its surface hot as fuck to the touch, even through her gloves.Bookmark here

Rage splinters through her. "Fucking shut up, you piece of shit!"Bookmark here

There—a lull in the deepest part of the globe. It recognises her. Bookmark here

It blinks once. Twice. Both times in acceptance. Lili holds her breath.Bookmark here

Then it flickers into a dim hum, satiated in being in the hands of Lilith Wang-Rosales.Bookmark here

The storm halts to a grating pause. Lili teeters forward. Regains her balance in a single step. She takes both artifacts, gives them one last glance over, and shoves them back into her pockets.Bookmark here

Soon she's stumbling over the rocks and trying her damndest not to roll her ankles. "Avett!" she calls out. Bookmark here

She hears a low, delirious grumble from somewhere underneath her. Avett is on the ground, and he's hardly moving at all. It doesn't take long for Lili to hoist him up and throw his arm over her bad shoulder. Her knees buckle, her mouth lets out a sharp hiss as a throbbing pain beats like a wardrum throughout her entire body. Her ether rolls through her body in response.Bookmark here

"Gotta get outta here…" Avett rasps. "Everything stinks of ether. Especially you… stars."Bookmark here

"You can walk, right?"Bookmark here

He lets out an unsure moan before totally slumping against her shoulders.Bookmark here

Cool. He's out. If only she'd been brave enough to introduce herself to the artifact before Avett did. She's wracked with guilt for a brief moment before she's interrupted by a distinct vibration coming from his pocket. She reaches in and pulls out his Glasslink. Hope blooms in her chest as she swipes across the screen. His call had gone through after all.Bookmark here

Ysh'vanna's voice immediately pierces Lili's eardrums. The device is already on some sort of speaker mode, and she'd held it right up to her ear. "Avett? Avett, you're there, you're finally calling us again so that means you're safe, right? When you stopped sending us voice mail, we got so worried. We thought we'd lost you for good. Where are you? Can you even hear us?"Bookmark here

Lili thinks back to his comment about Kattish dicks, oral sex, and pruning. Unfortunate. They'd heard it all—but that's Avett's problem. Her problem is getting out of the mall and onboard the Winnow. "Ysh'vanna, Avett's unconscious and I don’t think I can carry him out. I have the artifact. We're still in the mall, but there's a huge hole in the ceiling that you might be able to use to land." Bookmark here

Lili almost expects Ysh'vanna to squeal in delight and derail the topic, and for a second it seems like she might when she pauses for the briefest of seconds. But then she replies, "Understood, Lili. We'll catch up when you're on the ship. Don't hang up."Bookmark here

She stares at the unrelenting, cloudless sky. She could use a change of clothes.Bookmark here

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