The wind outside of Amnesty Lodge cut through the late evening, blowing the snow into the windows glowing with amber light. The residents of the lodge were winding down for the night, reading by firelight, playing games, or simply contemplating the cozy fire in the fireplace. Agent Stern was nowhere to be seen, and the mood of the living room was more relaxed than usual.
Aubrey Little, as antsy as stillness made her, appreciated the calmness. The abomination was dealt with, and for a while everyone would be safe. Knowing the alternative made her boredom bearable. She glanced over her book at Dani, who was so focused on her sketchbook that Aubrey was able to appreciate the way the firelight caught the strands of hair that had escaped her messy braid.
The door to the lodge burst open with a thud that made Dani drop her sketchbook and had Aubrey on her feet in less than a second. Her palms felt red hot and she was ready to take down any threat that came at her-
But instead of an unknown intruder, she saw the very worried face of Duck Newton.
“What’s goin’ on, where’s Ned?” he said, his low voice tinged with urgency. His posture was poised to spring at the slightest hint of danger.
“Huh?” Aubrey said, as her racing heart slowed and she forced herself to loosen up. Dani bent over to pick up her sketchbook with a bemused expression.
“Ah, friend Duck! Welcome, welcome!” Ned Chicane bellowed from the kitchen. “And Aubrey, I hate to pull you from your reverie, but I need you both in here post-haste!”
“How long has he been in there?” said Barclay, who was seated nearby. He looked around with a furrowed brow. “When has Ned ever been in the kitchen when there wasn’t already food prepared?”
“Alright,” Duck started as he stood more casually, “I was under the impression there was an emergency.” There was clear annoyance in his drawl.
“Kitchen abomination?” Aubrey offered, before her curiosity drove her forward.
The only abomination in the kitchen was Ned’s apron, a bright red thing with “kiss the cook!” embroidered in neon orange letters over bright yellow flames. Looking at it very nearly gave Aubrey a headache. Ned was grinning widely, his hands on the counter beside a surplus of ingredients.
“You said there was an emergency,” Duck said, eyes narrowed.
“And there is!” Ned said, before handing over several stapled sheets of paper, the ink streaked by the bad printing quality, and the print almost illegibly small thanks to the old computer.
“This is a… soup recipe?” Aubrey said, and Duck groaned.
“Goddammit Ned, I ain’t helping you recreate the soup from the Wolf Ember-”
“No, no, of course not!” Ned said with the air of a man whose plan had just been foiled. “I would never ask you to betray the trust of your dear friend… what’s-his-name, no! What do you take me for, a plagiarizer?”
Aubrey raised an eyebrow. “That’s a fancy word for thief, so…”
Duck snorted, and Ned waived a hand flippantly. “Well, I have no plans to steal that recipe, because I plan to make a better French onion soup.”
He paused to let his words sink in, a pause that Aubrey spent confused and Duck spent incredulous.
“Nah… you can’t,” Duck said. “Like, you just can’t. It ain’t possible.”
“You’ll see. By the end of the night you will be forced to strike that word from your lexicon, my friend,” Ned said.
“Which one, possible?” Duck said dryly.
“No, ain’t. Technically, it isn’t even a-”
“Now doesn’t seem like a good time to judge Duck’s grammar,” Aubrey said. “Ned, why do you want to make French onion soup?”
“It’s cold outside,” he started innocently, “A grown man should be able to make his own dinners and all, and plus maybe… Maybe the Cryptonomica could cash in on this soup business; after all, for a good French onion soup you have to go all the way to the resort-”
“It isn’t that far!” Duck interrupted, only to be talked over by Ned.
“-and we need a soup place that’s closer to town.”
“You’re further from town!”
“Not to mention a place with more of a draw. Something to pull people in and keep them coming back!”
Aubrey looked back and forth between Duck and Ned. Duck was rubbing his temples; Ned was grinning from ear to ear in a way that he probably thought was reassuring.
“Alright, y’know what? Fine,” Duck said, shocking both Aubrey and Ned. “If you can make a soup that’s better than the French onion soup at the Wolf Ember, I’ll never eat anywhere else,” he said.
“Well, here’s the thing, I’m going to need your help. Both of you, actually,” he said. Duck huffed.
“Ned, I was havin’ a good evening,” Duck said with his fingers laced on top of his head in a gesture that Aubrey could only assume was to keep his head from exploding in sheer exasperation. “I was at home, I just made myself some tea…”
“It’ll be a group effort! A team-building exercise!”
“This might actually be fun,” Aubrey said. “Dumb and pointless, but fun.”
“See! Two against one, you gotta stay.”
“I don’t gotta,” Duck said, but his tone was defeated. “Just gimme the damn recipe.”
“Aha, I knew you’d come around!”
Aubrey passed Duck the recipe, which he studied with narrowed eyes. Ned busied himself with the ingredients, but it was obvious by the fact he merely moved cans from one side of the counter to another or grabbed bowls from cabinets that he had no idea what he was doing or where to start.
“This ain’t gonna work,” Duck said after a minute. “First of all, you took this off some recipe website so I’m pretty sure you can’t sell it.”
“I would add some things!” Ned said indignantly. “Make it my own.”
“Second of all, it’s shit. Just the worst,” Duck went on. “It’s bland.”
“I’ll add spices!”
Duck leveled a cool gaze at Ned. “What spices?”
“Oh, naturally… salt, pepper… cumin? That’s a spice, isn’t it?”
“Oh my god,” Aubrey said under her breath.
“We should quit while we’re ahead,” said Duck.
“Absolutely not,” Ned said. “Quitting is not in my nature.”
“Sure it’s not, whatever. Let’s just… Aubrey, you start cutting onions. You wanna keep them in rings and get ‘em real thin.”
“Got it!” Aubrey said enthusiastically, hoping that cutting onions would be easy if she just went at it with enough gusto.
“Ned, tell me you got some broth in here,” Duck said, gesturing at the eclectic selection of foods, most of which had nothing to do with French onion soup.
“…Yyyes! Yes I did, I know what I’m doing,” he said with a forced laugh, knocking packages to the floor in his frantic search through his pile of ingredients. “It’s in one of these boxes…”
“Then you already fucked up,” Duck said bluntly. “You should make your broth from scratch, that’s what they do at the Wolf Ember.”
“Alright Gordon Ramsey, we’ll call this batch a test run then because we don’t have the time to make broth from scratch. The next time we make it will be even better!”
“Hey, am I doing this right?” Aubrey asked, gesturing with a knife at the half-chopped onion in front of her. Some of them were a little wobbly, and none of them were even, but for a first try she couldn’t help but be a little proud of herself.
“That looks fine to me,” Ned said with a shrug. “Your opinion, Master Chef Duck?”
“Looks good,” he agreed.
“Hell yeah,” Aubrey said with a bounce.
After there was a sufficient amount of chopped onions in the saucepan with some butter, Duck had Aubrey grating cheese. That, she knew how to do. It was obvious she wasn’t much of a cook, but neither was Ned, and he started the whole thing.
Aubrey was surprised to find that Duck new his way around the kitchen better than either of them. He knew just how much of everything to add without even consulting Ned’s plagiarized recipe. Duck was such an enigma, so private and reserved, that she had no idea that he could cook at all. Judging from Ned’s vaguely overwhelmed and dumbfounded expression, he was just as in the dark as she was.
Half an hour of activity passed; Duck sprinkled cheese over the bread and put it in the oven while Ned tended to the soup simmering on the stovetop. It was warm and the air was aromatic. Aubrey leaned against the counter and took in the scene. They left a mess they would have to clean at some point, and there were a daunting number of dishes that would need to be washed, but Aubrey hardly minded.
The smell had brought curious eyes through the kitchen window, and Aubrey smiled as Dani stuck her head in.
“That smells really good so far,” she said. “Hope there’s enough to share.”
“Certainly!” Ned said. “There should be plenty to go around! Three bucks a cup-”
“It’s- no. You’re not charging them,” Duck said, but his stern expression was undermined by the slight upturn of his lips.
“Gah, fine. But you’ll have to tell me which is better: ours, or the Wolf Ember’s.”
“Wolf Ember,” Barclay said without hesitation.
“You haven’t tried Ned and Friends’ famous, delectable French onion soup yet, my good man!” Ned said, just as the timer went off.
Everyone watched with anticipation as Ned ladled the soup into bowls with the grandiose gestures of a showman and topped it off with the cheesy bread. There was polite applause as he presented the soup with a dramatic flourish.
“The soup is free, but I will be accepting tips,” he said, but Aubrey was almost sure he was kidding.
The atmosphere turned tense as Ned watched Aubrey, Duck, Dani, and Barclay take their bowls. Aubrey was impressed by the first bite, and she didn’t seem to be alone. It was creamy and warm, perfect for a cold winter night. The kitchen was pleasantly crowded and still smelled fantastic, and Aubrey felt totally at peace.
“I’ve seen enough cooking reality shows to say that it has a good mouthfeel,” Aubrey joked. “Really though, it tastes super super good, if I do say so myself.”
“You’re biased, but I’ll take that as a vote on my behalf,” Ned said.
“It’s good, but just on principal, and also because it’s true, I’m saying Wolf Ember’s is better,” Duck said.
“Boo!” Aubrey jeered.
“Your vote doesn’t count, you’re more biased than Aubrey,” Ned grumbled.
Barclay cleared his throat. “As an unbiased bystander… My vote is with the Wolf Ember. Y’all did great, and it’s good soup, but there’s just something missing.”
Ned nodded. “I accept that, thank you Barclay. Dani, you will break the tie.”
Dani’s eyes widened. “Um, well… I don’t really know what’s at stake here-” she glanced at Aubrey, who felt her face grow inexplicably warm- “but I think my vote is for this soup.”
“Hell yes!” Aubrey said with a fist pump. Ned gave Duck a shit-eating grin that Duck resolutely ignored. After a minute of polite applause and congratulations, everyone continued eating and chatting.
“So Ned, you’re prepared to do this yourself every day at the Cryptonomica?” Duck asked with a pointed stare. Ned froze, and then cleared his throat.
“After careful consideration, I have decided to leave the soup making to the experts. I have enough going on at the museum that I couldn’t possibly add another attraction, as necessary and well-received as it may be. My sincerest apologies,” he said mournfully. Duck snorted.
“You know,” Aubrey said to Dani after a minute, “I chopped the onions myself. Not to brag but without me it would just be French soup.”
“The onions are the most important part,” Dani said with a smile. Then she leaned closer, lowered her voice, and said sheepishly, “Though… I’m gonna be honest, I’ve never had French onion soup before now. I don’t know if this is the best or not. But it is delicious.”
Aubrey laughed. “That’s okay! Do you maybe wanna… Like, for lunch at some point, I dunno, wanna go to the Wolf Ember and get some? For comparison? For science?”
“I would love to,” she said brightly. “For science.”
Aubrey bounced and felt a contended lightness. She knew if she wasn’t careful she could actually float away, but in that moment she hardly cared. Sheltered from the snow, encompassed by warmth, and standing by a pretty girl and friends, Aubrey thought to herself that she may have just had one of the best meals of her life.