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Story Time: Potluck

We are solidly in holiday season, with us Americans just having celebrated Thanksgiving and with wintery get-togethers on the horizon. There’s nothing I like better than hanging out with my family in the kitchen. I thought I’d give the Crew that feeling too.

Just so y’all know, we’ll be taking December off of story time, but that’s because we’re hard at work preparing season five! We’re so close!

Until then, enjoy!

*

“What do you want to do for your birthday next week?”

Zara turned to Rosie with her eyes practically bugging out. “How did you know?”

The crew had been staying in the home of some friends of Killiker, a retired pair of adventurers living in a moldering little castle who’d been happy to have housesitters while they took a trip. There were no servants, and the place was a real fixer-upper, but it was nice to have some privacy for a few days before the crew headed off on their next adventure.

Rosie and Zara were fetching water from the well at the moment, and Rosie had taken the opportunity to speak to Zara alone. She waggled her fingers mysteriously. “I divined it!”

“You what?”

“I’m kidding!” Rosie laughed. “I just put some things together. You said you were born at the ass-end of autumn. And you mentioned a harvest festival once.”

“You can’t have figured it out just from that,” Zara said witheringly, stepping over a fallen log.

“I just know it’s next week sometime,” Rosie said. “And you just confirmed it.”

“Ugh.”

“So? What do you want to do?”

Zara focused a little too intently on where she was stepping. Rosie didn’t need to—she was always sure-footed—so she watched her friend.

“I don’t celebrate my birthday,” Zara said. She said it quietly and without her usual venom.

“Well I know that, we have been friends for more than a year now,” Rosie said blithely.

Friends is a pretty strong term,” Zara muttered.

“Is it a twin thing?”

Zara kicked at a rock. “Kind of.”

When she did not elaborate, Rosie cautiously said, “My birthday felt pretty weird without Stella, those first few years after I left.”

“He was always more excited about it than I was,” Zara said, almost under her breath.

Rosie let the idea settle for a second before adding, “I would like to make it fun for you. If you’ll let me.”

The two of them reached the well, and Zara didn’t say another word as they filled up their buckets and started the careful trek back to the castle.

Rosie had almost forgotten what they were talking about when Zara said, “I don’t want the others to know.”

“Easy,” Rosie said cheerfully. “I haven’t told them yet.”

“Good.” Zara chewed on the idea for a few more long seconds. “Maybe just…everyone getting together for a big meal. Sounds nice.”

“Anything special about the meal?” Rosie asked, brain already whirring with ideas.

“Have you…do you know what a potluck is?”

*

The theme, Rosie had declared, was something that reminded you of home. They had left the food in the kitchen to be served informally, chatting as they finished up preparing food or took sneaky bites before everything was ready.

Zara sat slightly outside the orbit of everyone else on a stool, at the kitchen table. She wasn’t sure how she was feeling. Strange.

“I brought my family’s potato recipe,” Cybilene said, serving herself a generous portion from the crock that nearly overflowed with gold. “Tode helped me make it!”

“About time I learned some of the family recipes,” Tode said, accepting the proffered spoon from Cybilene.

“You can’t both bring the same dish, that’s cheating,” Rosie teased.

Tode brightened. “Oh, I made the tea! And Cybilene helped me make that.”

“What kind of tea?” asked Knowles, pouring themself a cup from the kettle.

“You don’t want to know,” Cybilene said hastily. “Trust me. It’s good, but…you don’t want to know.”

Carefully, Knowles replaced the kettle on the stove and examined their cup with scrutiny.

“What did you bring, Knowles?” Killiker asked, draped over a chair with a glass of chilled wine.

“Uh…sorry.” They looked up from their teacup. “Yeah, so…I don’t cook. I don’t know how. I’ve never known how.”

“You can’t bring nothing,” Rosie chided them, shooing them out of the way so she could open the oven.

“I brought something, I just didn’t make it,” Knowles said, scooting aside. “I went into town for inspiration and found a bakery. And I got some pie, and it tasted like…I don’t know, something I barely remember. It’s huckleberry.”

“I love huckleberry,” Castor said, from his spot fishing for a ladle in a drawer.

“I didn’t think I’d ever had it before,” Knowles said, looking perplexed. “But…I don’t know. I guess I have.”

“Mysterious,” Killiker commented.

Knowles shrugged and took a drink of tea. “Mm. Tode, this is good.”

“Thank you!” Tode said brightly.

“Rosie, can you take the soup off the stove?” Castor said, handing her a ladle.

“Sure, um…” Rosie put the ladle in the soup pot and paused. “Um. Where did the—”

Zara stood up suddenly. “Let me.” She took hold of the pot handles with her bare hands and moved it to the table with the rest of the food. It wasn’t hot enough to harm her. “Smells good.”

“Thanks,” Castor said, pleased. “Like the mushrooms aren’t exactly the right varietals? But the spices are right. I think Pollux wouldn’t disown me, at least.”

“Is it his recipe?” Rosie asked.

“It’s our grandad’s, actually,” Castor said, opening a cupboard. “Pollux made some improvements, though. He does that. Have you all seen the bowls?”

“Over by the firewood, the higher cupboard,” Killiker said, pointing.

“What about you, Killiker, what did you bring?” Knowles asked, sipping tea.

Killiker had been at his ease until Knowles asked. He took a rather large swig of his wine before speaking. “It was an interesting concept, something that reminds you of home. Not one I’ve thought about in a while.”

“How long?” Rosie asked.

“Well, more than a handful of decades,” Killiker said, some of his showmanship leaking back into his tone. “I am very nearly the oldest one here.”

“Nearly,” Tode emphasized.

“Now, watch yourself,” Cybilene laughed.

Killiker chuckled too, but there was something a bit sad about it. “Magic comes easily to me, it always has. But to make something tangible is a rare and beautiful thing.”

“It’s like food is magic,” Rosie said, taking a pan out of the oven.

“It’s better than magic,” Killiker said firmly. “It’s real.”

“You’re stalling,” Knowles said.

Again, Killiker’s facade faltered. He started to say something else and stopped himself, and then reached for the cloth covering one of the dishes on the table.

With a less-dramatic-than-usual sweep, he revealed a crusty brown loaf of bread, sitting humbly on a plate.

“I thought I might make something more interesting,” Killiker said, almost apologetically. “But I couldn’t remember a single recipe I’d learned. Except this one.”

“Oh, but it’s just what we need!” Rosie exclaimed.

“It’ll go great with the soup,” Castor added, returning with a stack of bowls.

“It’s simple,” Killiker said, almost in protest. “You should see the sort of thing my mother made.”

The bread would need a knife, Zara thought, because that was a more coherent thought than trying to imagine Killiker as a child with a mother. She turned to the drawer where the knives were. “Bread isn’t simple.”

“Well,” Killiker said, and uncharacteristically, nothing more.

Castor took a peek at the pan Rosie had pulled from the oven with some trepidation. “Do I want to know what you made?”

“Depends on how squeamish you are,” Rosie said lightly.

Knowles pinched the bridge of their nose. “Maybe it’s best if I don’t know.”

Rosie giggled. “I’m kidding! It’s just fish. Tode caught them for me, actually.”

“Happy to help,” Tode said, polishing off that first serving of potatoes. “Fish are surprisingly talkative.”

Rosie moved the serving tray she’d been transferring fish to from the stovetop to the table. “I wanted to make frog legs or something, but it turns out, it’s too late in the season for that.”

“That’s awfully fancy,” Cybilene said.

“Really?” Rosie asked, looking up from her tray. “It’s street food back home.”

“Do we have everything?” Killiker asked.

“What about Zara?” Tode said.

Zara froze, and then tried not to look like she froze. Her friends—her friends, gods, when had it become so easy to think of them as her friends?—her friends knew not to push her into revealing more than she wanted to, with Castor being the best advocate for her privacy. But everyone had revealed something today. Rosie made sure of that.

So what should she say?

While she was deciding, Zara swept away from the group to the pantry, and came back with the covered serving tray on which her offering sat. Carefully, she removed the lid from her apple cake.

“Ohhh, that looks amazing,” Rosie exclaimed.

“I can’t wait to try that,” Cybilene added.

“Thanks,” Zara said, and hesitated.

There was, really, no reason to be secretive except for habit. The pain of her birthday was all but rotted away, to a little husk that twinged occasionally but did her no harm. Maybe Rosie was right, maybe it was time for it to be fun again.

“It’s the apple cake we always used to make for our birthday,” Zara said finally.

“Why, Zara, it’s not your birthday, is it?” Cybilene gasped.

Zara sighed. “Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow!” Castor nearly squealed.

“You know, I wondered what the occasion was,” Knowles remarked.

“Don’t make a big deal out of it,” Zara sighed.

For…..she’s a jolly good fellow,” Killiker began to sing, and the others joined in, “For she’s a jolly good fellow…

“Oh my gods,” Zara groaned, covering her face.

For she’s a jolly good fellow, which nobody can deny.

“Sing another verse and I’ll burn this place to the ground,” Zara said, unsure whether she meant it or not.

Rosie laughed. “Then let’s eat! I’m starved.”

Their friends did not need another prompting, everyone filling plates and bowls, scrambling for missing serving utensils, refilling glasses with wine or tea, each of them taking a moment to pat Zara on the back or tell her happy birthday. Zara hung back from the food, accepting the accolades with some unease. Rosie took up a spot beside her for a moment, shooting her a pleased look.

“Shut up,” Zara scoffed.

“Happy Birthday,” Rosie said back, all sing-song, and picked up a plate for herself.

Zara watched them all circle the table and chatter, allowing herself a smile.

Published inStory Time