Aboard the Winnow
Avett feels like he's just been forcibly taken and fed to the dogs. It’s difficult for him to recall exactly what had happened to him in the engine room during that encounter. He remembers fumbling with the engine for a bit, but it’s like he’s trying to reach for his memories through a gauzy curtain.
He opens his eyes and sees the bottom railing of the bed above his.
“I’m Avett Ironsturm,” he tests, “and my worst subject was literature.”
…So he’s able to recall entry-level characteristics about himself, which means that he passes the sure-fire memory loss examination, which means he’s just confused from passing out.
He lies there, spending the minutes organising his thoughts. He remembers seeing a vague blur of a globe when they reached that clearing in the mall, remembers the absolutely overwhelming chill of power that had radiated through his bones the moment Lilith laid her eyes on it. Or at least, that’s what he’s assuming happened. Then he remembers being carried to the infirmary, being subject to Auren’s strange Gallian medical procedures… and being thrown off the bed and onto the floor just a few minutes after.
He shoots right up. The headache he gets from doing so is intense. He remembers seeing an outstretched tendril in the tiny cabin window above him, a Butterfly Matriarch. Judging from how the ship isn’t moving at all anymore, they must’ve gotten out of that sticky situation a long time ago.
Good. He takes a few deep breaths before swinging his legs over the side of the bed and making his way into the navigation room.
It’s empty. He swings the fridge door open, brings the closest thing resembling a volume of water to his lips, and starts chugging. Half and half milk. It’s better than the ship’s tap water, so it’s not all bad. He’s just grateful that it hadn’t been beer.
Where is everyone? is his second thought. When he looks outside, he sees the dull surroundings of a sanctuary’s homebrewed hangars. They’re likely on the upper levels of the Hive. No wonder they left him behind. The third spire is meant to be a haven for off-landers, but the Humans in the two other spires stage enough coups against the third to overthrow a small realm. It’s a wonder how the IRC still considers the Hive a functioning, legitimate sanctuary.
Or maybe he’s just exaggerating their exploits for the sake of demonising Humans again. It can’t be that bad. Then again, the IRC doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to foreign relations—
As he walks down the corridor, he notices that the doors to the armoury are closed. He raises an eyebrow, tucks his bottle of milk under his armpit, and is just about to hit the green button on the side when he stops himself. If he remembers correctly, this is where Lilith sleeps. And considering that the time currently reads 11:38 AM, she shouldn’t be asleep right now. But she is.
Eh, fuck it. They’re not crewmates until she’s had her privacy trounced on like grass in a paddock. No, bad mindset to be in. He knocks anyway.
“You may enter, Avett,” Auren replies from the other side.
… Ok, he’s definitely interrupting something here. Catch-up lessons or something. And he means that in the most literal, least filthy sense because Auren and Lilith have to be two of the biggest buzzkills he’s ever had the displeasure of meeting. When he opens the door, he’s greeted with Auren’s nimble figure, seated right next to Lilith’s unconscious body.
Something sinks in his stomach. He’s missing parts of his memory, and he doesn’t like that one bit. “...What happened here?” he asks. “She’s alright, right?”
“Avett.” Auren folds his hands and crosses them in front of his mouth. He’s letting his hair hang from his head freely, and from the way each strand is just tingling with sunlight, he’s been manipulating ether. “Were you aware that casters could transform their bodies into living, ethereal batteries?”
He drops the bottle of milk. His arms have gone completely slack. He remembers how her wings had unfurled, how she had turned around and told him just how much easier it would be if he still hated her. Whatever that meant.
Then he realises that he’s supposed to say something, so he says, “Oh, fuck. She did that.”
“Yes. She very much did.” Auren turns his head back towards Lilith. “Do you remember what happened after?”
Everything else after is a blank. He must have passed out after answering her question.
He shakes his head. Auren rubs his face.
“That would make two of us,” he answers.
“You don’t know either?”
He shakes his head as well. “However, I can make educated assumptions. When I realised we were moving faster than the Butterfly Matriarch, I assumed you had remedied our fuel problem. My abilities were no longer needed, so I re-entered through the back entrance. I did not expect to see you, Avett, lying unconscious on the floor—and Lili, doing your job, in your stead.”
Avett doesn’t like the way he emphasised those two ‘yours.’ “She did not fix the engine. Far from it.”
“I do believe that you have not checked the engine room since you awoke.”
“I don’t have to be a caster to know that overloading the entire engine with the stench of Human ether is going to completely fuck the—”
He presses his lips together when he catches Auren’s cold-kissed glare. Ugh, what the hell. How does he even have this much power over him? He’s had more experience on the field as a mercenary, fine, but on this ship, he should be far from his superior. That’s Ysh’vanna’s job.
“Anyhow, I requested for repairs earlier. Consider it an extremely retroactive congratulatory gift.” He's still staring at Lilith like she’s some sort of angel. Like she shouldn’t even be alive. Avett is pretty sure she should’ve died.
Then Auren asks, in that saccharine-sweet tone of his, “May I return to my hypothetical now, darling?”
Avett fights off the urge to instantly scrunch up his eyes and turn up his upper lip. “You may, honey.”
The Gallian caster leans forward in his seat, clearly satisfied with his answer. “I would imagine that the load required for Lili to power the ship far exceeded her pool of personal ether. It would have—should have drained her resources instantaneously.” His eyes move to the pair of wings that have been propped against the table. Avett has to do a double-take when he sees them. Each wing is still fully outspread, as if frozen mid-spell, but the crystalline feathers—no, there are no feathers. They’ve all been shattered.
Avett’s glad that he hasn’t bothered to pick up his milk because he probably would have dropped it again.
“A frightful sight, I am aware.” Auren doesn’t bother looking back towards Lili this time. “At first, it puzzled me. How did a Human manage to channel enough ether to power a ship fully? Then I realised why she was continuing to hold onto the box despite being unconscious. The ship was, very likely, forcibly siphoning ether through her body.”
A large amount of foreign ether, introduced into her circulation—not a fun experience. Her wings certainly hadn't been able to take the load, and they had shattered early.
“She should be dead. There is a reason why only trained Gallians are permitted to use ether pens.” Something flickers in Auren’s eyes. A dark, morbid curiosity. “But she is merely resting.”
Merely resting. Avett grinds his teeth together. Lucky bitch. Maybe now’s the best time to bring it up. That he’d been a sitting, waiting duck every time the artifact had graced them with its presence, and that he'd love to have some form of self-defence against such an unseen force.
But then he sees the way Auren truly regards Lilith’s unconscious body. Not like an angel—no, that would imply a certain level of respect. Auren is looking at Lilith like she’s a child who’s just figured out quantum theory for the first time. She's a butterfly that's been trapped inside a glass jar, and he's her gentle, giant overseer.
Avett looks away. He’s definitely interrupted something between them.
"I should leave." Avett turns back towards the doors. Auren doesn't even offer a farewell glance. He only continues to stare, his eyes flickering with the occasional glint of ether and curiosity.
Casters are intense.
When Avett manages to get out of the armoury and into the safety of the navigation room, he slips his GlassLink out of his pocket and checks if he's gotten any new notifications or if his father is finally seeing someone again. He's immediately greeted with a smorgasbord of messages on the lock screen of his phone, so it's probably the former.
"But she is merely resting." Try as he might, Auren's words won't leave his mind for even a second. It's hard to see Lilith as anything more than Human, let alone as a caster capable of straining against her ethereal boundaries like it's child's play. The fact that she can perform feats only a Gallian—a race of biologically powerful outliers that really shouldn’t be categorised under the all-encompassing term of B class mammalian—is capable of… scares him. She doesn’t have the mental fortitude for that sort of power.
And then maybe she does. He remembers the way she’d slammed him against the wall and told him, in no uncertain terms, exactly how she felt about the bitchfit he’d thrown at her in that old shipwreck. The new backbone looks good on her, but she still needs to grow into it, he thinks.
He slots in two slices of bread into the toaster and dusts off his fingers before he checks into the Ironsturm group chat. It’ll do him no good to dwell on someone as incredibly dysfunctional as Lilith. She might start rubbing off on him.
He sniffs and rubs his nose with the back of his hand. Despite his previous statement about who messages the most, it’s Aoife’s whose texts are flooding the top of his screen right now. They’re in response to his father’s incessant nagging about getting the milk from the back instead of from the front, because now the milk that they’ve gotten is going to spoil in a week, and they can’t finish an entire litre of milk in a week because Aoife is the only one who drinks it.
Terrible. Anyway, his toast’s popped out of the toaster, so he grabs that and pretty much shoves it into his mouth. He’s been knocked out often, more than he’d like to admit, and it always leaves him with an insatiable appetite and a craving for carbohydrates.
“Morning, Avett.” Ysh’vanna’s voice twinkles in after the doors slide open. Her hands are full of groceries, all contained in those flimsy paper bags that the Hive supermarkets like to use.
The bread’s absorbed all of the moisture in his mouth, so he just waves back.
“Sleep well?” She doesn’t do much to hide her grin as she drops the bags onto the table.
Avett briefly considers flipping off his captain before he swallows his uncomfortably large wad of bread. “Like a rock.”
“Good to hear. How’s Auren? Lili?”
Suddenly, busying himself with unpacking the groceries seems like a great idea. “They’re fine. Disgusting, Auren’s heavily infatuated with her like he’s a schoolgirl falling in love for the first time—but they’re fine.”
Ysh’vanna coughs. “Eldraks don’t care about that kinda stuff.”
Shame settles at the pit of his stomach before it flares up into something he doesn’t really want to put a name to quite yet. “Sure didn’t look like it.”
She bites her lip. Opens her mouth to say something, then shakes her head. “How are you, by the way? For real, this time.”
“It was artifact recovery. The only thing that could’ve killed me was Lilith.”
She’s putting away jars of pickles in the fridge now. “Lili came back with a stab wound, our comms got cut off, and you’ve been looking shaken ever since you got back.”
Avett doesn’t mean to, but his hands freeze midway through the first paper bag. “Getting knocked out does that to you. Are you an empath now?”
“Can’t I worry about my frontliners, like, at least a little?”
“Go ahead. There’s nothing to worry about.”
His captain straightens herself out again. There’s something in her eyes, and it’s not just the way the light’s hitting them. “Nothing, but you’re angry. What really happened out there, Avett?”
He narrows his eyes and dumps the rest of the bag’s contents into the cupboard underneath the sink. “I’m always angry. Why don’t you pester Lilith about it instead? She might actually like the attention.”
“I’m asking you as your friend, not as your captain—”
Nope. He’s already sauntering out of the navigation room, leaving Ysh’vanna alone with her groceries—and his second slice of toast to cool on the dining table. It’s a miracle how he’s still employed by her. Maybe she doesn’t have a choice. But he’s heavily violating protocol here, and it certainly hasn’t been the first time he’s done something like this. Ysh’vanna must be at one hell of a dead-end to tolerate him at this level of disrespect.
He shouldn’t be pushing her like this. But he’s perfectly content with the fact that only Lilith is aware of his dirty little secret, and he’d like for it to stay that way, weirdly enough.