Chapter 19:

the meal

Aboard the Winnow

Avett is just about to start helping council Elder Johannes with his garden when he sees Lilith stroll out of the village tavern. Actually, he smells Lilith first before he sees her. She reeks of cheap whiskey. He's on his way to give her a verbal smacking—who drinks at 11 AM anyway, especially right after waking from a one-day coma?—until he sees just how sober she is. Bookmark here

He must be scrunching up his nose subconsciously because she apologises and confesses immediately. "Sorry, Will made me drink."Bookmark here

"You're ok, right?" Without thinking, he strides up to her and presses a hand to her forehead. Her temperature is average. It takes her a moment to realise what he's doing, and when she does, she wraps her hand around his wrist loosely. He could easily shake her off. She hasn't recovered. Not yet. Avett lets his hand fall to his side.Bookmark here

"How many?" he asks. Now that she's closer, it smells like she's been dunked in a barrel of it.Bookmark here

A pause. "I don't know." Then recognition. Then she schools her features into neutrality, looks at him right in the eyes, and says, "I had around five."Bookmark here

He folds his arms. He'll let it slide. "Elder Johannes wants his garden watered and weeded."Bookmark here

"You know them by name?" Lilith looks at Avett like he's just told her something outrageous. Bookmark here

He shrugs. "You say it like it's outrageous. I'd ask you to help, but you reek of liquor, and I'm not sure if he's fond of…" A slow, methodical rotation of his wrist lets her fill in the blanks.Bookmark here

Lilith nods and looks elsewhere. Her cheeks are flushing, and it's not just from the alcohol. Bookmark here

Avett goes on, "I was out collecting supplies earlier too." Fishing around in his backpack, he pulls out two glassy jars of marinated pickles. "Johannes will want these. Susan's in the next house over, she's not an elder, but you'll probably want to leave these on her porch as well."Bookmark here

"You want me to deliver them?" she asks.Bookmark here

This time, it's his turn to look at her like she's said something stupid. He bobs the jars in his hand up and down in front of her. "Yeah. It's called a nice gesture. Mari suggested it. Come on."Bookmark here

Lilith looks down at the jars. Appraises them with squinted eyes. "Did you call the Winnow yet?" Bookmark here

"Uh." He blinks. Bookmark here

"Have you thought about it, at least?" Even though she's confronting him, she's staring off to the side. Like he'll burn right through her if she dares to look at him directly.Bookmark here

He splutters. Embarrassment bubbles over in his stomach like a kettle that's been left to boil for too long. "I—ok. I'll get on that, just—get these to Elder Johannes and Susan."Bookmark here

She has her hands behind her back. He's just shoving them into her stomach over and over. Bookmark here

"You've thought about what I said last night as well, right?" she asks.Bookmark here

Truthfully, no. But he's not here to be truthful with Lilith of all people. He dodges the topic at hand. "I thought you were delirious."Bookmark here

She glares at him, like she's got way more on her mind than she's willing to let up. She actually does open her mouth, maybe to reprimand him, maybe to give him exactly what she's thinking about, but then she stops.Bookmark here

There's a bell in the distance. It's coming from the building next to their cabin—a long warehouse, likely meant for communal feasts. Or, judging from the way everyone's heading inside, regular lunches and dinners.Bookmark here

Lilith catches on immediately. "Come on. We're not eating with them."Bookmark here

Avett is about to complain when she latches onto him and drags him by the hand between two nameless buildings. They reach the edge, and he's surprised to find that there's no fence separating the perils of the forest from the safety of the village back here.Bookmark here

He's so shocked by this that he's still processing it even when they're pushing past overgrown ferns and unruly tree branches. When they arrive in the thick of the forest, he feels like he's just forced past and through an oppressive membrane. Bookmark here

Alone and together. He inhales—feels the sharp intake of forest musk and the smell of blanketed soil underneath rotting pine needles. And all of a sudden, as if someone's dunked him into a vat of ice shavings, his mind is stark-white clear.Bookmark here

Avett stumbles into a tree and slumps down against it. For the first time in a while, his tongue is failing him, as no words are coming to mind.Bookmark here

"Sorry." Lilith crosses her arms over her chest. "I kind of hated that place."Bookmark here

He nods, both to himself and to Lilith, as if he's still shaking away the mental cobwebs from his brain. He's holding his head not a second later. Everything is so painfully lucid, now that he's away from all of the people and white noise. Bookmark here

"Holy shit," he breathes.Bookmark here

Lilith leans over, her hair hanging in strands. "Are you ok?"Bookmark here

"I think I was trying to get into someone's pants earlier." He fishes into his pockets. The neon coloured boxes patter to the grass a second later. Disdain flashes over his partner's face before Avett waves it off. "Trying. I don't know why I'm telling you this. I don't think you'd get it."Bookmark here

Another breath rattles through his chest. He'd never expected himself to be the sort of person to easily tire from social interaction, but here he is—thankful for the cool respite of the forest's shade. Bookmark here

"Something just isn't right with that village; it's not just you. It's draining to be in there." Her voice is distant again—the normalcy of it both comforts and bothers Avett to no end. They're frontliners on the clock again, which, speaking of… Bookmark here

"How's your ether?" he asks. She'd managed to keep the Equaliser at bay before passing out a day ago, but he can tell she's not ready for the field yet at all. Bookmark here

She shrugs. Then she says, "I'm making lunch."Bookmark here

He calls out after her, "What, are we married now?" but she's already separated a cluster of plain mushrooms from their families and collected strands of fuzzy-stemmed grass to stick into her pockets by the time he's thought of something witty to say. Then she's off again. Bookmark here

Of course he's going to follow her.Bookmark here

"This plan isn't going to work," he says. "They said the herbs are good for us, Lilith, it'll keep the dragon's influence at bay—"Bookmark here

"Bullshit." She kneels and palms at the dirt. Bookmark here

"Did you just interrupt me?"Bookmark here

Her fingers are knuckle-deep in the ground when she stops. Then she starts digging again, as if she's regained her motivation. "The cilantro thing. Don't listen to it. It's wrong." Bookmark here

For her, a trained caster, maybe. She's not aware of the extent of her power in comparison to the masses. Even though she's dormant right now, Avett is sure that he can feel the raw insanity of a woman pushed to the edge one too many times; it pulsates against the very air that he breathes.Bookmark here

She says it again. "Please, just have lunch with me."Bookmark here

He just rolls his eyes behind her back. He'll just have his dose at dinner, no problem. "We don't have anything to cook out of either. No plates, no cutlery, certainly no water to boil—" He stops as he sees a bundle of bulbous plants in her hand, their bodies still dripping with soil. "Where and how'd you even manage to get those?"Bookmark here

"They've got pots and pans in the house," she answers simply. A sidestep to his retort.Bookmark here

"They've got food back in the house too." Bookmark here

She stops wading around the grass to look at him.Bookmark here

Avett stops as well, content with keeping his distance. "You've been so opposed to the idea of eating their lunches—they taste terrible and like soap, I know—I just want to know why." Bookmark here

Her features are weighed with dregs of malnourishment. He realises that she hasn't eaten—either that or that she's been physically rejecting the food afterwards, considering that no one's informed him of her curious eating habits yet.Bookmark here

"We're not eating their food." Lilith turns back around.Bookmark here

Avett puts up his hands. What else can he do? Bookmark here

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One trip to the cabin and back and they've got themselves an entire environmentally-based kitchen in the middle of the woods. Lilith has fashioned a hearth out of various bundles of snapped branches. Their stolen culinary cookware hangs at the apex of her contraption, and occasionally it wobbles haphazardly. Avett has one hand on the edge of a sizable bucket of water for this very reason. He'd taken it from the estate, 'just in case.' That case now seems very plausible and very likely to occur.Bookmark here

Thankfully, Lilith seems to know what she's doing because not once does the pot topple over; neither does the makeshift hearth snap underneath its weight, sending a spark of fire careening throughout the entire forest and burning them alive. The idea of Lilith being a decent cook both surprises him and feels obvious, because of course she's decent; she's made her own meals every day for six years. It just strikes him as strange that he has to accept she's actually competent for once.Bookmark here

It's not long before the mushrooms are starting to brown and sizzle at the sides. The meal smells earthy and sweet—courtesy of the wild onions she'd dug up earlier, he realises. With a pinch of stolen salt and a handful of fennel, the meal is ready.Bookmark here

Avett stares at what she's made; it's small, it's bite-sized and looks more like a side dish than a main, but it's better than the soapy aftertaste of mashed root vegetables, so he'll take it.Bookmark here

It's only halfway through Avett's twentieth bite of Lilith's foraged mushrooms when he realises that the comforting protrusion in his left pocket is strangely absent. When he finishes his meal and idly strokes a palm over his pants, he's immediately aware of why; his GlassLink is gone.Bookmark here

With his bowl now nestled between a clump of grass and his shoe, he thrusts a hand into his pockets. When he comes up empty again, he searches his breast pocket, then the two on his ass—not like he'd ever put anything in there because he's not comfortable with sitting on his wallet or GlassLink at all. Those pockets are strictly nonfunctional.Bookmark here

Lilith just watches, her eyes unblinking as he stares at his lint-covered fingers. She scoops up another spoonful and chews thoughtfully.Bookmark here

"Look," he starts, his cheeks beginning to redden. "It was with me before. I-I don't know—they probably took it off me when they were tying me up, I could get it back if I asked."Bookmark here

Lilith isn't saying anything, but the ambient tinkle of her spoon against the sides of her bowl is enough to turn him into an uncomfortable mess. "Fuck, I'll call them, ok? First thing I'll do when I get my shit back is call them. Stars, you're annoying. I didn't forget. Not at all."Bookmark here

"You’re compromising a mission over your dick."Bookmark here

There's the line he's been dreading. Lilith's been a lot more adventurous with her verbal lashings as of recent, that's for sure.Bookmark here

He sends out his own counterattack, his precision sharper than a freshly forged pin. "Excuse me? Don't bring up compromising in front of me," he spits. “You think we’re stuck here because I want to get my dick wet? I’m fucking waiting for you to recover so we can get the fuck out of here, because if you’d told anyone about it—anyone at all—we wouldn’t be in this mess. The least you could do is be thankful that I’m even putting up with your shit, Lilith. You won't even tell me why you're out here, instead of in there." He points vaguely in the direction of the dining hall.Bookmark here

She exhales through her nose, her eyes fixed to the ground. Avett grits his teeth—he hates it, absolutely loathes that self-depreciated look on her face whenever he brings up something valid. It makes her look like a kid who's just endured a proper scolding, except she's like eighteen or in her early twenties or so, and she's not a kid; she's a frontliner who's been through more encounters than most. Bookmark here

Avett waits for her to bring up the GlassLink again. He's not sure why he hasn't called anyone yet, but he sure as hell isn't about to give Lilith any leverages by shrinking back and apologising.Bookmark here

Something deep flickers in her irises. "Thank you," she says.Bookmark here

Hesitation seizes his body in a vice. His fiery rage has dissipated into a gentle surprise, and that's no good.Bookmark here

Lilith continues, "You did a good job, saving me. I'm sorry I kept secrets from you. I promise to do better."Bookmark here

All of this, and she's still looking towards the ground. Lilith is the only person who'll stand there after an insult and thank her enemies for it.Bookmark here

Avett trembles. His fist clenches at his side. The air around Lilith is fundamentally wrong, kind of like an empty doctor's office: beige and liminal. She looks like she could shrink in on herself at any moment. Bookmark here

With an exasperated sigh, he sits back against the tree. Lilith is hopelessly good at making him feel bad for her. If not for her lack of self-defensive capabilities, he'd have punched her out of it already. But right now, she's meeker than an ewe. And Avett doesn't hit animals.Bookmark here

Her lips press together again, like she's trying to keep down a rise of bile in her throat. Then she says, "I still think we should leave soon."Bookmark here

"Did you not hear a word of what I just said? Not with you," he says, picking up the bowl again, "like this. I'm sure some of the villagers could help you regain control over your—"Bookmark here

Lilith shoots up. "They can't."Bookmark here

He damn nearly chokes on his words. "You can't be serious. They've trained, Lilith. They know what they're capable of."Bookmark here

She shakes her head. "It's not ether. Not like mine. I just know."Bookmark here

Another exasperated sigh. They can't do anything, can't go anywhere without bumping heads. How the fuck are they supposed to be working together when Lilith can't even admit that she's useless right now and needs help? She's about as open as a closed casket funeral. Avett's had better luck with their resident Gallian, he swears. Maybe that's because he's hardly around Auren for most of the time.Bookmark here

"Fine." Shrugging off the urge to roll his eyes, he scrapes around his bowl and finishes up. "But you better be trying on your own time."Bookmark here

Lilith only awkwardly adjusts herself in her seat. Man, he misses the woman who gave him shit for everything he’d said back in the old ship. He thinks about bringing up what she’d said earlier about the village last night, but he finds himself tossing the bowl in front of Lilith’s feet and leaving her for herself out of spite. It's not like she’s in any real danger from the dragon anyway.Bookmark here

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