Chapter 18:

the sickness

Aboard the Winnow

Lili doesn't like this place. Bookmark here

She'd woken up in the middle of the night, her back and bed drenched in sweat, and when she'd reaffirmed that the moisture at her back hadn't been piss but sweat instead, she'd gone right back to sleep. Come early morning, and she'd never felt better. Bookmark here

Until she walked out of her room, in her weird white sheet-robe thing and nothing else, and found herself eye to eye with William Dresfort, Ava's boyfriend before the fall… and point guard for his all-boys school's basketball team. Bookmark here

There's no way they're on equal footing. Lili had clung to the excuse of being from an all-girls school as to why she never socialised with the opposite gender, but now she's thinking about it, she never really was one for socialisation in the first place. People who interacted and knew people from other schools—at the time—were scary to Lili. The reverse rang true: as a result, she never really got to talk to Will often.Bookmark here

Lili doesn't like to think about him. She didn't have any friends outside of Ava's friend group back then, and Ava knew it; she'd ended up with the highly-valued role of the third wheel at every outing. Lili had eaten it all up by taking them up on every invitation, either out of fear of disappointing Ava or losing her only—Lili hovers on the word 'friend.' She doesn't know.Bookmark here

Will is making breakfast for himself. The smell of fried eggs and sauteed potatoes wafts through the air. He doesn't see Lili yet. Or maybe he doesn't want to have to acknowledge her existence before he's had his first cup of coffee. Bookmark here

She wonders if it's in poor taste to immediately change back into her caster's uniform. Bookmark here

Then he says, "I left a change of clothes for you in your room. Did you miss them?"Bookmark here

Lili knows they hadn't been there. She plays along anyway by walking back down the corridor. Sure enough, there's a pile of old clothing on the stool in Avett's room, which has been left wide open. They're meant for Avett, obviously, but she puts it on anyway. She finds that they're nothing out of the ordinary—just a pair of washed-out jeans and a hoodie. Bookmark here

When she comes back, he's already sitting down at the hickory dining table and neatly cutting into his gooey-yolked eggs with his knife and fork. There's a plate opposite his. Lili sits down there.Bookmark here

There's a knife and fork on her plate as well.Bookmark here

Ignoring the knife, she takes the fork in her right hand and spears right through the yolk. Will is using the slices of sauteed potato as a scoop to wipe up its molten centre. Some of it smears—and stays smeared like he's just tried to wipe away a bloodstain—on the plate. Bookmark here

"You day drink?" he asks after he's done with his meal. Lili is still trying to figure out how she's going to slice off parts of this egg with the edge of her fork only. She's made a mess of the yolk, and she's caught it dribbling off the sides of the plate at least five times now.Bookmark here

She doesn't answer. He coughs and corrects himself. "Do you drink at all?"Bookmark here

"I don't mind drinking in the day," she says. Bookmark here

"Then," he says, as he pushes away from the chair and leaves the table, "I'll see you at the bar. Building opposite this one. Take your time."Bookmark here

It feels like there's been a weight lifted off her shoulders when he leaves the house. Lili takes pleasure in the absence of him and takes this opportunity to dig through the pantry for chopsticks, or a spoon, or anything she can actually use. All she gets is a spoon. Which is still pretty useless. Bookmark here

She grips the handle tightly. Tight enough, she thinks, to break her bones and cut through her skin if she clenches any harder. Then she puts it back with all the other spoons and closes the drawers.Bookmark here

Lili finishes her meal five minutes later. She's painfully white, considering the fact that she can't speak a lick of Mandarin nor Tagalog, but she'd sell a disproportionate amount of her vital organs just to be able to eat with a knife and fork. It seems like these days, she's always lost in a liminal nowhere, where not even the most fringest of fringe groups can relate to her experience. Stuck in a profound sense of estrangement is how she's going to refer to it. Who's ever heard of a Human caster? A Human caster who's scared of her own ether and can't cast for shit? A Chinese-Filipino who's so whitewashed she can't speak what should've been her own mother tongue, and yet can't even eat with a knife and fork to save her dignity in front of the people who care?Bookmark here

Suddenly, the prospect of day drinking seems a whole lot better. She wishes that it didn't take just a knife and fork and Will's demeaning nature to make her spiral like this. When she leaves the pseudo-mansion, she notices that there is no building in front of the mansion. The bar, in fact, is closer to the left side of the village than anything else. Bookmark here

It's actually a nice place. Lili's not sure why, but she'd expected a garage or some derelict warehouse. The counter is a deep, red shade, so deep that Lili is sure she'll blend right into the surface if she leans her forehead onto it and lets her hair dribble onto the table. The stools are made of the same material. Both are varnished.Bookmark here

"You're here," Will says. He pats the seat next to him. "Fuck, it's been ages. Come. Sit."Bookmark here

It's a command, and Lili knows it.Bookmark here

She makes her way over, her face perfectly still. She's still a mess underneath. She sits one stool away from him; she doesn't like how close each of the stools are to each other.Bookmark here

He leaps over the counter and runs his hands over the necks of the bottles. There are so many. She doesn't really give a fuck what's on the shelf as long as it'll give her the energy to talk to this man. "For the lady, some cha—" Bookmark here

"Whiskey," she says. Bookmark here

Will stops on a glassy, piss-yellow bottle that has a faded sticker on it. "You want water with that?"Bookmark here

"No." Bookmark here

"No?"Bookmark here

Lili doesn't say anything. Will sighs loudly, rattles around in the cupboard that's underneath the counter, and slams down a shot glass. The whiskey sloshes over the side and onto the table. It smells really terrible. Bookmark here

She downs it in one swallow. Taps it against the counter. He pours, and she downs another.Bookmark here

"You're supposed to be sipping, slowly, by the way, on a carefully crafted drink while we catch up on the last six years." He leaves the bottle uncapped and on the counter. Lili just pours herself another shot. It takes a volumetric fuckton for her to get anywhere anyway, so she's doing him a favour by getting buzzed early.Bookmark here

He sits on his stool. Shakes his head. "Back then, when you, I, and Ava used to drink, half a shot was all you needed.Bookmark here

"I've changed," she says quickly.Bookmark here

"Damn straight, you have." He brings the glass of whatever the fuck to his lips and laps at it. She's very sure that it's not his first drink, nor will it be his last. As if he's read her mind, he adds, "Already went down a glass before you got here—comes with the stress of keeping elders like Johannes alive."Bookmark here

Lili doesn't know who Johannes is, but what she does know is that if they'd set up their village a little closer to the Hive, he'd probably be a whole lot healthier. Bookmark here

Will leans forward in his seat, his eyes darkening over with a varnish of powdered bones and dirt. "Tell me, young lady. What are you doing so far away from home?"Bookmark here

She's already in the middle of her fourth shot, and it's taking all of her energy not to spit it right back into the glass. 'Home' doesn't exist anymore. She thinks that he might say something like, 'home is where the heart is,' or 'home is where you left Ava,' but he keeps his mouth shut instead. The shot glass clacks down onto the counter. She's missing both of those things; how is she supposed to know where her home is?Bookmark here

With her teeth gritted together, she says, "Ava is dead."Bookmark here

Will stills. "Oh."Bookmark here

He moves with a sleazy fluidity towards the bottle of whiskey. Lili grips the neck tightly. No, she hasn't had enough. Yes, she's going to keep drinking. Her eyes don't leave Will's for a second as he slinks back into his seat, defeated.Bookmark here

"Jesus," he says instead. "Must've been quite the shock. And quite the threat. God rest her soul."Bookmark here

She tenses her jaw. For a moment, her eyes squint as if she's preparing herself to cry. Then she tips down her fifth shot. At least that's something she can still rely on.Bookmark here

"Still, it's more of a surprise than anything. I would've expected Ava to survive." It's his turn to grit his teeth. "She's a walking nightmare. You're… nothing much. How'd you get out of it alive?"Bookmark here

"I killed Ava."Bookmark here

Her tone surprises both her and Will. It's cold, sharp, and freakishly tight. She could've cut cold butter with it in a single swing if she tried. She sees Will's fingers close, then open, then close around the glass he's poured for himself. Bookmark here

"...Out of mercy," she finishes, the words sticking in her throat like a bad cough. "We didn't… both make it."Bookmark here

Will sucks in a breath through his teeth and eyes the whiskey bottle again. "Oh. Well." He takes a healthy swig of his drink. "How was it?"Bookmark here

Lili is looking at her own reflection in her shot glass when he says this. For the second time that afternoon, she's been caught off guard. And she doesn't want to be off guard because that means being open to Will. She wants to be an impenetrable wall, a house of iron, if she so chooses, instead of bricks and weatherboards. She doesn't want to be a family house, a sanctuary constructed for living—she wants to be an execution chamber. Where inmates enter to die. Where everything enters, and nothing comes out.Bookmark here

"Not very good," she answers.Bookmark here

"How about I tell you about the first time I ever killed something, hm? One of those aliens. An 'off-lander,' if you will. It thought it could get away with maiming two of our elders and—" He chokes. "—Mari. Let me tell you, when you finally get your hands on the thing you despise the most, and you know there's nothing stopping you, it's like popping a zit."Bookmark here

Lili shivers. Disgust snakes through her veins. It's down the hatch for her sixth shot glass. Then another. Then another, until she's sure she's shaking from the alcohol content in her blood and not from the shit he's just thrown at her. Bookmark here

He continues like he doesn't give a damn, "I know what you are, Lili. You're angry. You're violently in love with the idea of being angry, and you're done with only being angry in here." He slaps his chest—holds his hand there, splayed and open. "You yelled at me earlier, spouted all this garbage about how you were going to raid this village and kill us all, because you want your anger to mean something. You want to be bad on your own terms, because you've spent your whole life being good on someone else's. You want to be unexpected."Bookmark here

Lili closes her fingers around the shot glass and throws her ninth shot down. Bookmark here

"You want someone to take notice," he continues, taking a sip of his drink. "And you think, that being tough, being feared and fighting back is going to give you that. It's not. It's all dry satisfaction, Lili. They're bandaids over open wounds that'll scar. It means nothing when you get right down to it. Look at me, Lili. Where'd I end up?"Bookmark here

He's pointing a lazy finger at her now. He's just rambling. He's just rambling. Tenth shot it is, then.Bookmark here

"And you wanna know the reason why you never had the balls to fight back in high school? Why you let us, all of us—shove you into that corner over and over? Because you weren't powerful. You were scared of the consequences of confrontation, and in our circle, that happened to be physical pain and exclusion. But you've got some of that power now. It makes you brave. You have the muscle to back your words, you've got even less to lose, and you're just discovering how great it feels to be unapologetically you."Bookmark here

Lili stops at the eleventh. Will leans in, his breath heavy with the stench of alcohol. She's not sure if that's actually just her own breath. "Something's changed inside of you, Lili. You can take more alcohol, you're a capable magic user, if not far more capable than the rest of us. It's not about whether or not you'll survive the confrontation anymore, it's just a matter of whether or not you're bothered enough to deal with the consequences of being a big, bad, angry bitch."Bookmark here

Lili just swirls the shot glass between her fingers. The word 'bitch’ is an insult, it's meant to be demeaning, but from the way he'd said it, it might as well be the nicest thing he's ever thrown at her. It probably is—Will deals his insults in double entendres and context-reliant statements. Insults, to him, are tacky and unrefined. The amateur's first lamb shank roast to the sous chef's specialty foie gras. Bookmark here

Then she looks down at her glass. Why do people drink alcohol anyway? It kind of tastes like garbage. Whatever. It makes her feel good, unknots the tangles of her worries from her head like a fine-fingered hairstylist. Even if it's only for a brief moment. Even if she has to keep chugging for the rest of the night.Bookmark here

"The gods drifted down and bestowed upon the cornered animal fangs." He snaps his fingers in front of her face before he grasps the neck of her whiskey bottle and puts it under the counter. She tries not to show her disappointment. "Just know that you're not brave. You're just lucky."Bookmark here

Lili stares at Will. He's leaning against the counter with an absolutely despicable grin on his face. "Are you done?" she asks.Bookmark here

He motions to the door. "By all means, if there's anything I've said tonight that offends you, then feel free to leave."Bookmark here

She looks at the shot glass in her hand. Blinks. Realises she's hardly even buzzed, let alone drunk. That was twelve shots. What the fuck is wrong with her? Bookmark here

"Hey. Hey. Look at me when I talk to you." He's snapping his fingers again. She could not give less of a fuck. "You either leave, or you stay, Lili. Very simple. You heard me, right?"Bookmark here

Her hand shakes a little. She hears Will loud and clear—that's the problem. Normally she'd be giddy right now, and his words would be flying over her head like a targeted joke she's not meant to get, but she's… sober. Bookmark here

Something hot and electric snaps at her forehead. It spreads quickly from the site of impact as waves of feverish heat. She flinches back, steadies herself against the counter, and wobbles on her seat. Bookmark here

Will has his finger extended in front of him. Ether wafts off the tip like a recently used cigarette. It's an extraordinary power—she's never seen anything like it, but then again, she's not all that well acquainted with the methods of other casters. Maybe he's just different.Bookmark here

Lili pushes herself from the counter. "I'm leaving," she says. "Thanks."Bookmark here

He lowers his finger and clicks his tongue. "Remember. Just lucky."Bookmark here

Lili is inclined to agree.Bookmark here

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