Chapter 20:

the ears

Aboard the Winnow

When he gets back to the village, the low thrum of civilisation hits him like someone’s just thrown a warm blanket at his face. It’s totally out of left field, but it’s not exactly unwelcome. He places a jar of filched pickles in front of Johanne’s doorstep and is about to head for Susan’s shack on the other side of the square when he catches the flutter of a certain Human’s leathery jacket.Bookmark here

Before he can trace it down, it disappears behind a cabin that’s been mounted on a hill. She must’ve headed upwards.Bookmark here

Avett knows that it's not any of his business, but he finds himself following her anyway. The path behind the house is accented by worn-down stepping stones, and it hugs the sides of the building like a precarious child. When he gets closer, he finds that there are no hand rails to hold onto as he ascends the steps.Bookmark here

By the time he's gotten to the top, he's already huffing in exertion, and his legs are feeling pleasantly numb. In front of him is a gnarled tree, unlike any of the ones back in the forest. This one has long, glossy leaves that catch the sun at certain angles, giving the flora an ethereal glow.Bookmark here

Mari stands in front of two headstones, both fashioned out of grey waves of tin. A thin coating of rust has started to creep over the surfaces. Looped between the two stones is a garland of similarly glossy leaves, with the odd sprig of cilantro and thyme weaved in. A circlet of dead twigs lies on the dirt next to her feet.Bookmark here

Avett immediately starts down the hill again, his curiosity sated, but he supposes that fate has other things in store for him when he steps on a poorly-positioned stepping slab and feels it slide from underneath his feet.Bookmark here

He lands on his ass not a second later. Mari whips around—then laughs.Bookmark here

"Thought you guys were meant to be good at landing on your own two feet," she teases, her hand outstretched; Avett accepts her hand graciously.Bookmark here

He pats himself down. "That's for shit like walking on fences. Contrary to popular belief, my tail does nothing for uneven ground."Bookmark here

"Any other fun facts about your tail you'd like to impart?" A subtle tug at the edges of her lips sends Avett's heart into a giddy gallop. He scratches the back of his head.Bookmark here

"Mine's longer than most," he brags. This isn't really something to flaunt at all, because he's been targeted by his cousins on multiple occasions about it. Tails are kind of like glasses—they're not necessarily a negative trait, not until you're in an argument. But when you do find yourself in one, you'll be enduring insults like 'four-eyes' until your ears pop.Bookmark here

Mari grins. She looks like she might have something else to say, but instead she folds her arms and nods at the space next to Avett. "And a warm hello to you too, Lilith."Bookmark here

Fucking hell, he's so enamoured with this woman that he's totally tuned out of his surroundings. Lilith is panting hard, gulping down fresh bites of cool air. She still manages to glare at Avett even in her current weakened state.Bookmark here

"It's Lili," she says, once she's managed to catch her breath.Bookmark here

Mari waves a hand. “Oh, sorry. Will just kept referring to you as Lili, and Avett here seems adamant on calling you Lilith—and, well, you’re already well acquainted with Will.”Bookmark here

Avett watches Lilith’s chest heave a bit, like she might start talking again. But then she turns her head to the ground, resigning herself to complacency. “It’s ok. Just call me whatever.”Bookmark here

It’s amazing how quickly Lili can shut down conversations. Avett might consider it a skill, if not for the fact that it has probably never worked in her favour. Weaponised awkwardness lies in the palm of her hand, and all she’s doing with it is somehow managing to catch herself in the explosive radius. It reminds him of greenhorn arms specialists during their first practical course.Bookmark here

Lili’s attention moves to the graves. “Your mum and dad,” she says. Her tone is flat.Bookmark here

Avett expects Mari to recoil from the bluntness of it all, but she lets out a single laugh and turns back to the tree. “Mhm. Miss ‘em terribly.”Bookmark here

Lili doesn’t say anything about that. She’s looking at the wreath that’s been draped over both headstones. At the odd blade of thyme.Bookmark here

Something seems to be churning in that weird, elusive mind of hers, but Avett isn’t sure what it is.Bookmark here

Mari continues, her voice dropping low, “You remember that day too, don’t you? That fateful Saturday.” She takes a few steps forward and reaches upwards to pluck a leaf from the tree; its branches shiver in response. “When the dragons descended and destroyed our world, leaving us in shambles—yet totally new, empowered and fight-ready.”Bookmark here

Her other hand lights up, engulfed in a spread of inky flame. She runs her fingertips over the leaf, leaving a trail of gold on its skin around the edges.Bookmark here

“A little.” His frontline partner sounds uncomfortable; not because of the topic at hand, but because she’s testing the waters. For what, Avett still doesn’t know.Bookmark here

“We lived around the northern part of Auckland, near Matakana. There wasn’t a lot of cover—we were wide open.” Mari stills, then takes out a utility knife and flicks it open. “I’m the youngest of five. My parents were too old, so they didn’t make it. They’re not even buried here—probably under some rubble back at home. Least they’re resting now.”Bookmark here

Lilith’s fists are clenching hard enough to turn her knuckles white. Mari is working down a branch from high up with her knife, sawing at it until it drops off. She holds it—leafy side forward—towards Lilith.Bookmark here

“It looks like we’ve both lost something in the apocalypse,” Mari says as she clips her utility knife back into its sheath. “Wanna help make wreaths for my mum and dad? We could talk about it. It helps.”Bookmark here

There’s a brief breath of hesitation before Lilith responds, her eyes looking elsewhere. Her arms remain at her sides. “It was a school day. I went to class and I never saw them again.”Bookmark here

A flicker of emotion ripples through Mari’s features.Bookmark here

Then Lilith turns and pushes gently past Avett. “Excuse me. Sorry. Enjoy yourselves. I’ve got… um, dishes to clean, and grime doesn’t come off easily if you leave it for too long.”Bookmark here

And then she stumbles down the hill.Bookmark here

What an amazing excuse. And an even more impressive exit. Avett’s a little displeased at her insistence of refusing to connect with other people, other Humans—but it’s not like she's not leaving destructively. He doesn’t really have anything to complain about here.Bookmark here

“Is Saturday school normal on Earth?” Avett asks.Bookmark here

Mari shrugs. “In this country? Not really.” She offers the branch to Avett instead. “She might’ve taken supplementary classes on the side. She looks like the type of person to take extracurricular courses.”Bookmark here

“If she did, they didn’t work. She’s kinda dumb. But she’ll be alright.” He presses a glossy-skinned leaf between his fingers. “So how does this work?”Bookmark here

“Sit down. You’ll be here for a while.”Bookmark here

Mari shows him how to thread the stems through the gaps in the wreath. She does it slowly, methodically, as she has for the past six years. Avett messes up a few times—sometimes he’ll snap the twigs right in half as he’s weaving them in; other times he’ll end up accidentally scraping the leaves between the gaps in the wreath, causing them to bleed chlorophyll from their fragile skins. He learns that the tree they’re using is called a magnolia, that the flowers it bears are beautiful, but it’s the wrong season for them right now. There are no magnolias on Therius, let alone on any other known realms. He wonders if there are other unique, unfound endemic species on Earth.Bookmark here

He’s kind of looking at someone like that right now.Bookmark here

With a twist of his fingers, Avett manages to pull the last thread of stubborn thyme through the gaps in the wreath. By the time they've finished, the sun's already sunk its core into the horizon, and the bell above the church has started to chime.Bookmark here

His ears perk up; Mari raises an eyebrow in interest.Bookmark here

"Wasn't aware that you liked the idea of dinner that much," she teases.Bookmark here

"Yeah, well, growing boys need nutrition." He shrugs and blows his hair out of his face as he starts down the hill again, this time with a hand splayed against the sides of the cabin like it's a handrail. "Lilith held me at gunpoint for lunch and forced me to eat nothing but sauteed mushrooms; I've been feeling the bite of hunger ever since."Bookmark here

"Ooh, so it's one of those types of relationships." She offers a hand once Avett is on the final few steps. "You scared of her?"Bookmark here

He folds his arms and pins down Mari's boyish gaze with his own stern stare. It then occurs to him where she's looking; her eyes are fixed downwards of course, courtesy of her height, but they're hovering a touch too low. Somewhere between his Adam's apple and his nose, tracing the gentle outlines of his cupid's bow.Bookmark here

He feels himself soften once the situation dawns on him; it's like he's just had the pleasure of watching the sun rise to the harmonial greetings of the new day, only to realise that he's stayed up the entire night. Mari looks like she might feel the same.Bookmark here

But then she leans back and crosses her arms behind her head, instantly heralding the end of whatever spell she'd put him under. "Dinner or what?" she asks.Bookmark here

"Don't just act like you weren't just thinking about kissing me." Avett could have had a bucket of ice cubes dumped over his head and it still wouldn't compare to the total mood whiplash she'd just subjected him to.Bookmark here

“Thinking?” A smirk. “You think I’m only thinking about it?”Bookmark here

“Clearly.” He folds his arms.Bookmark here

She turns. The back of her head is silhouetted against the sun's farewell rays that stream through the curved awnings of the communal dining hall. “I don’t kiss on an empty stomach, Avett. Get some food in you, maybe I’ll reconsider it.”Bookmark here

“Like beef and mash is something to get hot under the collar over, but alright.”Bookmark here

Mari doesn’t respond.Bookmark here

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The length of the dining hall yawns before him. There’s a long, wooden table in the middle of it all, and it stretches on for figurative eons. Placed strategically along the surface are metallic oil lamps, similar to the ones Avett had followed into the village… what, three or two days ago? Maybe even four.Bookmark here

As he stands in line for food, he finds that he can’t quite recall the exact measure of time since he’d first arrived in the village. Not that it matters too much to him right now.Bookmark here

He watches Susan, the woman he’d helped earlier, ladle a healthy helping of creamy mashed roots into his tray. She offers him a warm smile—a far cry from the glares he’d endured on their first day here. In fact, all of it seems so far away now.Bookmark here

The next villager piles layers upon layers of sliced meat into a separate compartment on his tray. He generously drizzles a greenish sauce over it—Avett assumes it’s mint, but he could be wrong.Bookmark here

Then he catches himself; him, wrong about a scent?Bookmark here

When he goes to take a testing sniff, he’s expecting the sharp tang of certain chilly herb, but instead he gets the soapy aftertaste of cilantro. There’s a note of thyme in there too, but it’s so overpowered by the initial scent that Avett nearly misses it.Bookmark here

“Cilantro and thyme as always,” his server says. “Mint doesn’t grow around here. Not anymore.”Bookmark here

"How come?" Avett asks.Bookmark here

His server eyes the tightly packed line behind Avett and the widening gap in front of him. Instead of answering, he responds with a low shake of his head. Time to move on.Bookmark here

When he's done receiving each and every server's blessings, he finds his seat next to Mari on the elder's table. Will offers him a tight smile—the other elders vary from outright distaste to warm welcomes.Bookmark here

A familiar touch at his shoulder keeps his back straightened, his eyes fixed on his meal and towards the warmer welcomes. Mari sits ever so tightly, her speech crafted like machine carved wood. She's stilted, but not as stilted as Will, whose expression looks as if he's stretched what should've been a gentle smile over his feral scowl.Bookmark here

Avett turns to his meal. The elders' table is incredibly silent, save for the occasional pratter about Susan's scarecrow attracting more crows than scaring them away. It's not until he's scraped off the remains of his mash that Mari taps him on the shoulder again. Twice—both uneasily sympathetic.Bookmark here

"Is that her?" Mari asks. Her head's tilted towards the entrance, the double entry doors still swinging on their brass hinges.Bookmark here

Lilith. Avett blinks hard enough to see stars. She's lining up for food. She's wearing the caster's tunic and pants.Bookmark here

Avett clenches his jaw and stiffens his shoulders. Lilith in caster's gear, wearing the corporate monotony of the IRC. She should be ashamed of herself, he thinks—but for what? The thoughts pass through him like ghosts, and he shakes his head. The taste of their previous disagreement still lingers at his taste buds like a scalding soup. It's hard to see Lilith without seeing red as well. That's all it is.Bookmark here

When she takes her seat next to Avett, there is not a single person that meets her eyes, no one to offer her a passing glance as she smoothes down her skirt and sticks her fork into a slab of meat.Bookmark here

He leans over. "What the fuck and why?" he asks.Bookmark here

She spends a while rubbing the sides of her beef onto the tray, making sure that not a drop of sauce remains on the slab. "Why what?" she retorts.Bookmark here

Avett starts her off with an easy question. "Why wear that uniform?" He’s not sure why it matters so much.Bookmark here

Lilith regards him for a second, her shoulders hunched like a watchful hawk. She bites into the meat later, tearing it from her fork grain by grain, sinew by sinew. Her knife remains flat against the table.Bookmark here

One of the elders darts his eyes elsewhere; another coughs into his sleeve.Bookmark here

"Please tell me you know how to use those." Avett jerks his chin towards the unused knife, his voice lowered.Bookmark here

"I came in my caster's gear because it's comfy," she answers around a mouthful of beef.Bookmark here

He tears his focus from Lilith and onto Mari again. Her cheeks are red, not from embarrassment, but in reaction to Will's temperamental, snarky smile. Avett can almost imagine his features turning dark in an instance of clarity, at the flourish of a curtain—he'd rage and burn at Lilith for her lack of manners while making it reflect on Mari's shortcomings somehow.Bookmark here

His partner stares him down as she takes another bite, chews on it methodically, then helps herself to another slab of meat. A challenge; this is premium bait in its purest form. Will eats it right up and stays silent—a bomb deactivated from lengthening the fuse.Bookmark here

This is stupid, Avett realises, because they are literally having a battle of wits over table manners and a tray of food. He turns back to Lilith, eager to blot out Will's narrowing simper. It doesn’t work.Bookmark here

Behind him, Will returns to his food. "I’m surprised that you’ve decided to eat with us at all."Bookmark here

Lilith doesn’t answer, choosing to prod at the surface of her mashed potatoes instead. She slides a prong underneath a leaflet of thyme and wipes it onto the side of her tray.Bookmark here

She definitely doesn’t need the opinion of two jackasses tonight. Avett bites back a snide insult with another mouthful of hot food. This is certainly not the first awkward dinner she’s had—he can tell in the way she holds herself. Her chin is aimed down at her feet, her head tilted away from Will like she can’t stand to breathe even the same air as him.Bookmark here

Lilith looks like she’s a small animal stuck between fighting and fleeing. She picks out another grain of herb and leaves it half-stuck in a wad of creamy mash beside the other one.Bookmark here

“Think you’re a little too old to be picky about eating your greens, Lili.”Bookmark here

A ball of muscle ticks in Lilith’s cheek. She grips her fork—Bookmark here

—and stabs it into the mound of pulpy mash, herbs and all. It goes into her mouth a second later. Will raises his eyebrows, but says nothing in response.Bookmark here

This is stupid, so fucking stupid. This is what years and years of unresolved tension does to a motherfucker. Avett is glad he’s done and dusted all of his previous less-than-stellar relationships before leaving for Earth, instead of allowing them to fester as dirty wounds do. A testament to this shitshow that they’re treating him to right now.Bookmark here

He’s about to lean over and tell her just how petty she looks when she stiffens, her face reddening as she covers her mouth with the palm of her hand. Her fingers dig so deeply into her cheeks that when she slowly lets go of herself there are white half-moon embedded in her skin.Bookmark here

Then she runs for the doors. They slam shut behind her.Bookmark here

Mari fixes Will with an unsteady glance, but the larger man merely scratches the scruff of his blond hair. “None of our business, Mari,” he says, cutting away at a slice of beef. “Don’t let your food go cold.”Bookmark here

Don’t let your food go cold.Bookmark here

His words are nothing to Avett—a discarded note of garbage in the afternoon wind, but it’s everything to Mari, to Lilith even. He rattles his chair against the flooring and storms after her, not stopping to give a single shit about the mess he’s left behind.Bookmark here

The night air nips at his skin, but all Avett can think about is finding Lilith. He can't see where he's going; it takes a while for his eyes to adjust to the sudden absence of light. There's no rush though: her coughs are loud enough to shake the birds from their trees. Avett follows her heaving splutters, feeling alongside the walls of the dining hall and finally crouching down next to a bush.Bookmark here

His hands grip onto her shoulders. She's turned away from him, her head buried in twigs and leaves. "Lilith." He shakes her, but she doesn't budge. "Lilith, what's wrong with you?"Bookmark here

"I'm fine—" She coughs again and takes in a wheezing breath. "Please don't worry—"Bookmark here

"Don't worry?" Avett feels his cheeks flush with hot anger. "Lilith, you've been sick all week, you launch into coughing fits whenever you eat, and you've been throwing up your food behind the nurse's back."Bookmark here

Lilith opens her mouth to fire back a retort, but Avett strikes first. "Don't deny it. You look like shit. You haven't even given this village a chance—even I have, and I'm—come on, please. You're clearly not fine."Bookmark here

Something flashes in those dim-witted eyes of hers, like they're finally seeing things in crystal-sharp clarity for the first time in days. Then she's back to her old, stiff self. "Where's your GlassLink?" she asks.Bookmark here

He squeezes her shoulders, his knuckles straining against his gloves. "What? Lilith, fuck the GlassLink—"Bookmark here

Lilith grits her molars and turns away briefly before fixing him with another clear-eyed stare. "Hold still, Avett."Bookmark here

It's then that she slips a hand into her pocket and pulls out a round, glassy object. When she fully reveals it to the night sky, he finds that it glows. The snow catches the starlight, and for a moment it looks like it's raining meteors inside the wintery diorama, their shine illuminating the plastic cabin that sits in the midst of the storm. The artifact, he realises, before another surge of apathy takes his head and drags it under.Bookmark here

"Look at yourself in the reflection, Avett." Her voice is slight, yet solid.Bookmark here

He's about to ask where the fuck she got her globe from when he sees himself staring right back in the glassy material, his rounded irises swimming in a pool of tawny brown. His ears—hidden behind his hair. The skin around his eyes is unblemished and clear.Bookmark here

There's a Human staring back at him. And somehow, Avett realises with muted horror, it feels right.Bookmark here

Until Lilith shoves the globe right into his ribcage, winding him and—surprisingly—knocking him to the ground. He catches the tang of ether on the wind when he hits the ground.Bookmark here

Her ether—angry, bright, and furious. When had she gotten it back?Bookmark here

It's like he hasn't been breathing at all for the past four—or five—days, and like he's only just rediscovered proper respiration after a brutal brain injury. He lies on the ground, his chest rising and falling as he wraps his fingers around the smooth finish of the globe for dear life. The image had shaken him to his foundations. His eyes scan the night sky, then the innards of the globe, but the snow has long since lost its star-ridden shine. He savours the touch anyway.Bookmark here

The sure-fire memory loss examination comes to mind immediately. Avett sits up and says, "I'm Avett Ironsturm, and I'm a twenty year-old Kattish male."Bookmark here

…Factually true. Lilith blinks in confusion as he releases a sigh and slumps back to the ground. He’d experienced all stages of the onset of dragon-induced madness in the span of four days. He breathes. Four fucking days. It’d taken a week for the workers to even notice, but—only four days for him. Bookmark here

"The Equaliser," she begins. Her tone is steady, but her heart is pounding loudly enough for Avett to hear, even from here. "I figured it out. I think you might've as well."Bookmark here

"Thank the fucking gods." Avett lets his head roll to the side, eager to let the image of his Human self wash over and away from him. Fuck that noise.Bookmark here

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