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The Academy

Chapter Text

It wasn’t like Davenport thought that they weren’t going to find anything here. He liked to think that he, of all people, understood that brilliance could spring from the most unlikely of places - or at least, the places deemed to be most unlikely by society. He knew this, intellectually, but it was still difficult not to feel like he was being brushed off on a mission of minimal importance as he and his colleagues unpacked their marquis in the latest village as part of their recruitment drive.

Hogsbottom was, unfortunately enough, deeply akin to what its name suggested: the village was muddy and squat and bristling with a sparse grass that even the most resourceful of farmers would find difficult to use. The IPRE’s shining chrome, white and red gear stuck out less like a sore thumb and more like a glitch in the machine, and Davenport couldn’t quite shake the feeling that he’d wandered through several different realities since leaving their base of operations in Elysia six months ago.

By this point in the tour, Davenport was, to put it bluntly, jaded. He’d met more starry-eyed hopefuls who could barely mumble a magic missile than he cared to count, and he resented his own increasing feelings of superiority and frustration. Davenport was convinced of the fact that every living thing had the potential for greatness, but he sometimes forgot that that did not mean their greatness would look like his own. He sometimes forgot, despite all the hard work that had brought him to this point, that his own particular talents were of a calibre head and shoulders above most of the population, at least as far as magical talent and leadership abilities were concerned.

Straightening his crisply ironed, thick red felt jacket, Davenport ran his eyes over the handful of potential recruits trickling into their outdoor setup. Brad and Greg were on the road, handing out pamphlets and trying to encourage people to come inside: judging by the direction of their hungry eyes, however, Davenport was guessing that most of the audience was there for the free buffet. He tried not to resent that.

Merle had been right, of course, free food never really went amiss, and the fact that someone was there for the snacks didn’t mean they lacked the talent needed for the cause. Merle himself was a prime example of that.

The corner of Davenport’s mouth twitched upwards in a small smile, and he ran his eyes again over the audience: sure, they were mostly muddy, and exhausted, and hungry looking - but Merle Highchurch with a hangover had looked far worse than this on the day they’d met, and he was still the most talented cleric Davenport had ever met. Admittedly, it took about 18 months of hard Academy training for them to finally make peace with each other, but when they did...

Well, this wasn’t the right time to be reminiscing.

With 18 of about 40 seats filled, Greg steps a little further into the road before coming back into the tent and waving a hand at Davenport. It’s not the worst audience they’ve had, and as Davenport makes his way over to their makeshift podium and the alchemical combination of magic and engineering that is his microphone, two elves shuffle in at the back.

Straightening his shoulders, Davenport steps up onto the platform behind his lectern in centre stage and snaps his fingers. Seven brightly coloured symbols for the planes appear in the roof of the marquis, wreathed by stars, as Lucretia’s voice begins to say:

“For centuries, the wisest scholars of our civilisation have understood that our existence is made manifest by ten planes: those of fire, air, water, and earth, of course - the planes of light and shadow, the ethereal plane, the celestial, and the astral.

But what if we told you that there was something more?”

As the presentation goes on, Davenport does not need to divert much of his attention to maintaining the illusion: he only minored in illusion magic during his training, but he’d done this particular series of moving pictures more times than he could count, and he knew he’d timed it perfectly.

So whilst he allowed a carefully measured portion of his energy to be diverted into the light show going on overhead, he allowed his focus to drift into observing the audience.

A human man in the second row showed particular promise, looking utterly enthralled as Lucretia dropped tantalising hint after hint of the discoveries the Institute had made so far. It was, in truth, any self respecting wizard’s dream come true, but most of the people Davenport found in the more rural areas were more concerned with defending their livestock from disease than questioning the nature of existence.

Which was fair enough. Still - this man, young-ish by the look of him - unshaven - looked like he’d just opened every Candlenights present he’d ever been given at once. If his ability held even half a flame to his enthusiasm, he’d pass the entrance exam without any trouble. Of course, that was a big if.

There were a few more who looked vaguely interested: a Tiefling woman, an Orc person, a Dwarf man. Most couldn’t quite keep their gaze away from the buffet, which Davenport tried not to find insulting to his magical abilities (he amped up the colour anyway). All in all, it was a pretty average crowd - with the exception of the two elves who’d shuffled in late at the back of the room.

The two were leaning back on their chairs, keeping two legs off the ground. (They had to be employing some kind of magic because the mud did not lend itself to that kind of high school stunt.) Both were grinning lazily, and not even doing him the courtesy of pretending to pay attention to the presentation. Their ears were tilted upwards, though Davenport had schooled himself long ago in not making assumptions about whether he could tell what other races were thinking based on their physical characteristics.

The two weren’t paying attention to the buffet, either. Instead, one, with a bleached cloud of hair and enough makeup to glitter in the light of the projection, was...blinking? Lazily, at the enraptured human man.

As Davenport watched, details surrounding the man changed: subtly and then more notably, at a speed so fast it was difficult to keep track. The legs of the man’s chair changed to crystal, and then silver and then granite, his shirt was cotton and then silk and then wool, his hair went from brown to blue to some kind of irridescent silver that glittered purple and pink in the dim light. It was a series of transmutations so cleanly and rapidly executed that the man himself hadn’t even noticed, and the elf hadn’t so much as broken a sweat.

Meanwhile, beside him, a woman who by bone structure had to be his sister if not his twin, had one corner of her mouth curled around a sharp tooth and was tapping her fingers against the edge of her chair. With every tap, a tiny, noiseless explosion went off somewhere in the audience: under people’s chairs and on their shoulders and under their asses and inside their armpits. Again, it was a series of evocation spells so carefully executed they did not leave so much as a burn mark but were still noticeable enough for the audience to become restless.

Davenport was so stunned that he barely noticed the presentation had finished until Greg, standing guard by the buffet, loudly cleared his throat. Tearing his eyes away from the elves, Davenport stood and allowed the illusion to fold into nothing. The audience blinked at the return of the murky daylight that managed to filter its way through the clouds here into the dirty village below.

Spreading his hands, Davenport tried not to be thrown off by the giggling elves at the back of the room as he asked, “so, any questions?”

Unsurprisingly, the human man was most interested in every aspect of the presentation: how had they been led to make these discoveries? What were the names of the scientists and wizards involved? Why hadn’t this news broken sooner? What repercussions did they think this would have for the residents of the celestial realm? Did they know what the residents of the celestial realm thought of this discovery? How would this affect the advancement of medicine? How would it affect their understanding of mortality?

And so on. Davenport fielded the questions as best he could, and begrudgingly thanked any minor gods that were listening and Lucretia for the foresight to send him on this tour: he knew the others were dedicated to the cause, but only he was comprehensively up to date on all of their materials.

When he revealed that he himself was one of said scientists, not only to have made the discoveries but to provisionally captain the interplanar research mission they were planning, he got the usual gasp. But he’d never received quite as much awestruck adulation as he did from the human man, Barry, as he did in the seconds that followed his revelation - nor as rapid fire a barrage of questions about his personal history and career.

Despite himself, Davenport flushed: he made it his business to remain composed in whichever situation he happened to be in, but it was rare that he was the focus of any line of questioning, especially one that was sincerely interested in the long trek that he’d made to success despite discrimination at almost every turn. Even the elves at the back had, briefly, arrested their minor magical assault on the rest of the audience to listen to what he had to say.

Well, if ever there was an opening to make a neat conclusion, this was it.

“Actually, thank you - Barry - as it happens I did what I’m hoping some of you here today will choose to do. Six years ago, I took the entrance exam for the IPRE Academy in Elysia. I passed, and after three years of hard training, I was provisionally selected as a crew-member for what was at that point a theoretical interplanar research expedition. Three years after that, my efforts in expanding the field of knowledge surrounding interplanar research and my work with both my colleagues and the students of my academy led to my being selected as the Captain of the mission.

“What we’re doing now - this recruitment drive, and with this years’ batch of recruits, is searching for the final members of our crew. The best and brightest of those who not only pass our, I’ll admit, infamously difficult, entrance exam and graduate top of their class will be selected for interview and, potentially, for future training. You could end up serving on the first interplanar research mission with me, actually.”

At this point he goes for a smile. It’s hard not to: Barry looks like he’s just been told the key to happiness and hit with a shovel at the same time. Davenport has no doubt whatsoever that he’ll be at the entrance exams in Elysia. In fact, it’s something of a surprise to him when it’s not Barry, but the elf woman at the back of the tent who speaks up next. Next to her, her brother is scowling.

“Ok, but there’s a fee, right? I mean. You want the ‘best and brightest’, but you want the rich best and brightest, who could afford to get the education they’d need to even pass your entrance exam.” There’s no small amount of resentment in her voice, and Davenport finds it hard to blame her: the exclusivity and classism of their world’s finest magical academies has long plagued the many races of their civilisation, although it tended to fall in favour of the elves.

Thinking about it, he rarely saw elves as clearly malnourished and maltreated as these two: for all the eccentric glamour with which they were painted, their clothes were dirty and torn, and they were a little too slender to be healthy. The man had a poorly concealed bruise on his cheek and the woman’s ears were scarred. At her question, a few other members of the audience shifted, and Davenport wants to kick himself at his own assumptions. Of course they would think that. Of course he should have addressed it.

He raises his chin. “Actually, no. That’s part of why our exam is so ‘infamous’. Whilst there is a book-learning element, at least half of the marks are dedicated to identifying and selecting natural talent, which, as I’m sure you can imagine, isn’t easy to test for. It’s why I can’t really tell you how or what to revise - it’s not a traditional test in that sense. Instead, we’ll be expecting any and all recruits to innovate. We want you to get creative, trust your gut, and work on instinct.” (And as he says the words, it’s hard to forget his own entrance exam, and the first time he saw what Merle Highchurch was really capable of.)

“Whilst we do work hard to ensure that the test is safe, it will simulate the possibility of real danger. We want to know how you react under pressure, and how quickly. And as for the first part of your question - there is no fee, for the exam or the school itself. We’re fortunate enough to have made the profit we need to fund our own recruitment and training. I mean, I should be clear - if you pass this exam, we will be asking you to work for us. It’s not a lifetime contract, and you can bow out at any point, but essentially, in your rooms and training and supplies, we’ll be paying you to get trained. This is an education, but it’s also a career.”

The woman opens her mouth to say something else, but then catches herself. Davenport can’t help but think she looks thoughtful as she sits back in her chair. Barry, meanwhile, is frowning at the bristling grass, and Davenport’s guessing that he’ll need to work on his improvisation skills if he’s going to pass the test.

It’s the Tiefling woman who raises her hand next. “So when are these exams?” Davenport can’t help but feel he underestimated her a little when he meets her eyes: she doesn’t look excited, she’s determined.

“The exams are on the winter solstice, which this year falls on the 26th of October. They’re in Elysia, at the City Hall. Again, you don’t need any fee. You will need to bring something to write with, a pen, quill or pencil is fine, and you will be asked to leave any magical instruments outside until the end of the test.” The male elf lets out a low whistle. His sister elbows him in the side.

Davenport takes a deep breath. If he was honest, this had gone better than he thought it would.

“Ok, so that’s me done. If you’ve got any questions that you haven’t asked already, feel free to stop me, Greg or Brad by the buffet table.”

With that, the hoard descends. Davenport can’t blame them. It’s a cold day, and the quiche is delicious.

Chapter Text

Six months later, Taako doesn’t know what he and Lup are doing in Elysia, but he knows he doesn’t like it. “Lulu, if you had a crush on that nerd in the marquis, you should have just chatted him up whilst you had the chance. You and I both know that this is overkill.”

 

The fist-sized fireball he dodges in the next breath is, he can admit, well deserved, but he doesn’t regret it. Lup scowls at him over her shoulder. “You know I’m not here because of Barry - “ She catches herself and Taako grins, delighted and feral.

 

“Barry, is it? That’s an awful long time to remember some nerd’s name, Lup.”

 

Lup rolls her eyes. “Oh come on, we both know the only reason I remember it is that neither of us has ever met anybody with a name as stupid as Barry Bl -“

 

“Oh, hey, you two.” Lup cuts herself off mid sentence whilst Taako snorts into her shoulder as the man of the hour approaches them. He’s wearing crisp, blue jeans (Taako can’t stop laughing) and looking nervous.

 

Lup puts a hand on her hip. “Sup loser. Did you need something?”

 

Barry goes pink. “Um, no? This is City Hall, right?”

 

He gestures to the building behind them: standing on a good fifty steps of marble, the building’s pyramid of a roof is supported by sixty foot tall columns which stretch a good twenty feet to either side of them. In letters as tall as they are, etched in gold and glittering in the winter sun, the words ‘CITY HALL’ are surrounded by arcane symbols.

 

Around them, dozens of people are clustered in small groups up and down the steps, clutching books and wands and religious icons, muttering research to themselves or stretching and, in the case of one Dwarven woman, cracking their knuckles.

 

Lup gives Barry a slow blink and says, drily, “what gave it away?”

 

Barry flushes an even deeper red, and Taako stops laughing long enough to rest his elbow on his sister’s shoulder and peer down at him. “What are you doing here, anyway?”

 

Barry frowns. “I’m...here for the exam? Aren’t you?”

 

Lup and Taako open their mouths at the same time.

 

Lup says, “yeah, actually.”

 

Taako says, “it’s not like we had anything better to do.”

 

The twins scowl at each other, and Barry laughs softly before catching himself when both turn their glares on him instead. Straightening his face, he pushes his glasses up his nose and stares at the building above them, as if he can see through the columns to the terrors that lie within.

 

“What do you think they’ll throw at us?”

 

Taako shrugs. “Isn’t not knowing part of the fun, or some shit?” He grins again, and his teeth are too sharp to be human. “Or does the idea of having to improvise make you nervous, big boy?”

 

Lup elbows him in the side and pushes her hair back and off her face. “If I was gonna guess, I’d say the key words in Davenport’s presentation were the parts where he emphasised that they try to avoid making the test hazardous. Operative word being ‘try’.”

 

Barry nods, too solemn to be taken seriously. “So you think they’ll be throwing some combat our way?”

 

“Why, you scared?” Taako bares his teeth again, but this time Barry meets his eyes.

 

“No, actually. I used to be a soldier. How about you?”

 

Both of the twins blink, and their ears pull back and up in sync. Lup says, “wait, shit, how old are you?”

 

Taako says, “you mean in the war?”

 

Barry shrugs and looks away. “I don’t really like to talk about it, if it’s all the same to you.” Taako shrugs and waves it off, but his gaze is a little softer this time around.

 

Lup hums and scratches the back of her neck. “Yeah I mean that’s cool, but really, how old are you?” She blushes, very faintly, a graze of red pushing across the freckles on her dark cheeks. “I find it kind of hard to tell with humans, you know.”

 

Barry looks surprised. “Oh, right, oh no that’s cool, it’s understandable, time is weird.” He blushes, catches himself and shoves his hands into his pockets. “I’m uh, 25.”

 

Lup runs her hands over the dark suede of her pants and nods. “Cool, cool, right.”

 

“How about you?”

 

Taako laughs. “Didn’t you ever hear that it’s rude to ask a woman her age?”

 

Barry’s mouth twists. “I mean, I don’t know, I feel like that comes from an outdated assumption that if a woman reaches a certain age she’s no longer valuable or useful to society and should therefore be ashamed, whereas in actual fact no one can really escape the march of time and there’s no reason for there to be some kind of inescapable ‘age to shame’ ratio specifically reserved for people we assign the gender female at birth.”

 

For a moment, silence stretches between them as a cold morning wind picks up and twists its way between the academy hopefuls and the few citizens of Elysia already awake and wandering down its cobbled streets.

 

Then Lup looks at her brother. “Taako? He’s with us.”

 

Taako smiles, again, more softly than before. “Yeah. Obviously.”

 

Barry blinks, and after a second too long says, “wait, don’t I get a choice in this?”

 

The twins just laugh.

 


 

 When the city’s formidable clock tower strikes at 9am, three people in crisp red felt uniforms with brass buttons and a shimmering logo reading ‘IPRE’ walk out of the forest of columns and onto the top of the steps. In a way that has to be magically amplified but which Taako can’t make out, the man in the middle: Davenport, begins to speak.

 

“Welcome, new hopefuls and recruits. Here at the IPRE we are honoured that you have chosen to spend your winter solstice with us, and we hope that it will be worth your while. I am accompanied today by my two fellow examiners and provisional crew members for the interplanar research expedition - this is Lucretia,” and at this, a tall, slender, dark skinned woman with dark hair steps forwards and offers a subtle smile, “and this is Merle Highchurch”, the dwarf on Davenport’s left, whose beard is woven with seasonal flowers, steps forwards and does a finger gun gesture at the crowd. A few recruits laugh in disbelief, and Merle beams.

 

Davenport clears his throat. “Alright. As has been mentioned repeatedly throughout the recruitment process, you cannot take magical items into this exam. Please leave any and all such objects with my colleagues here,” he gestures to an entrance to the left where an goliath woman waves at the crowd, “and here,” he points to the right, where an orc man offers a toothy smile.

 

Lucretia steps up. “This test will simulate the reality of actual danger, but please understand that throughout you will not experience any real harm. If you ‘die’ in the exam, we will remove you from the building until all other recruits have completed the test. Please do not feel as if there is any shame in ‘dying’, whilst your ability to survive is one way in which we will be measuring your skills, it is far from our only metric.”

 

“This is pretty hardcore.” Lup murmurs to Taako out of the side of her mouth. Taako rolls his eyes.

 

“Don’t sound so excited.”

 

“Plus!” Merle interjects, “if any of you make the unfortunate but far from uncommon mistake of attacking one of your fellow candidates, I’ll be on hand to hand out the healing.” He laughs at his own pun. Very few of the increasingly pale looking recruits laugh with him. Davenport pinches the bridge of his nose.

 

“Quite so. Whilst this test is strenuous, and I ask you all to truly consider and accept what that might mean for you, the plus side is that we will be able to give you our decisions by the end of the day. Of course, we won’t do that publicly - again we’re not interested in shaming anyone, and if you don’t pass, you have nothing to be ashamed of. This exam is constructed to be beyond difficult, because it needs to simulate the realities of our hypothetical working conditions. The fact that you’re here at all is a testament to your ambition and your courage, and I commend you all. I ask you to remember that, no matter what happens.

 

“If you pass, then when you leave the building you will find your hands marked with a small red bird icon. You can take this as a formal invitation to the academy, and we ask that you seriously consider meeting us at the location we will disclose to you in private to begin your training.”

 

“Tattoos, secret locations, life or death training. Are you sure we’re not trying out for the mafia?” Taako mutters, and he’s half serious when he looks at his sister. She smirks and huffs.

 

“It’s nothing we can’t handle.”

 

“Well, I’m glad someone has faith in us.”

 

Both of them laugh, and Barry interjects softly whilst Davenport continues to speak, “if you think about it, it makes sense - this is a pretty highly competitive school. If people are willing to risk the simulation of life threatening injury to get in, it’s not that much of a stretch to guess that people who miss out would consider actually harming successful candidates to - “

 

Lup stops him with a sidelong look. “Barold, you’re cute and all, but nobody asked.”

 

Barry blushes whilst Taako snickers into his sister’s shoulder. She sighs, and all three of them redirect their attention to the three figures above them.

 

“ - which is why, although it may well be the less dynamic component of the test, I do ask that all of you take the written section seriously as well. Without it, you simply will not qualify to enter the academy.”

 

Taako swears softly under his breath. Lup rolls her shoulders.

 

“Ok, so you’re probably bored at this point by these two barrels of laughs.” Merle chuckles, amplified at a preternatural volume across the city square. “Are you ready to come in?”

 

A nervous mumbled chorus of ‘yes’s rolls across the crowd. Merle guffaws, and says again, more loudly, “I can’t hear you! I said, are you ready to come in?”

 

The response is louder this time, and more positive. One particularly loud shout comes from a human man with dark hair and the most ridiculous sideburns Taako has ever seen. He’s wearing sunglasses and an open shirt with nothing underneath. Taako bumps Lup in the side.

 

“Who does this chucklefuck think he is?”

 

The human zeroes in on them before Lup has the chance to reply, straightening up and putting his hands on his hips. “I’m gonna be the first and only guy to pass this exam with flying colours.”

 

Barry frowns, and says, quietly, to Lup, “he gets that that’s already happened, right? That Merle, Lucretia, and Davenport all did that.”

 

Lup grins. “You’d hope so.”

 

The human looks annoyed. “I’m not just gonna pass. I’m gonna get 100%. Not a single point dropped. Then you’ll be laughing.”

 

Taako sniggers. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

 

Huffing, the human flushes. “Whatever. It’s Magnus Burnsides. Remember that name. You’re gonna be looking up at it when I kick your ass.”

 

Taako cocks an eyebrow, putting one hand on his hip. “Oh yeah? Is that a promise, big guy?”

 

Lup’s hand rests lightly on his wrist before he has the chance to draw his wand. “Taako, dear, lets not get kicked out before we have the chance to take this exam. It did take us ten days to get here, after all.”

 

Taako lets out an exaggerated sigh and drops his hand, but he glares at Magnus all the same. “You better watch your back in there, meathead. Wouldn’t want you to have an…accident.

 

Barry makes an unhappy noise. “I’m pretty sure that’s not really - “

 

“Smell you later, loser.” Magnus leaves on that ‘sick burn’, following the crowd that’s begun milling towards the vastly oversized entrance of the Elysian City Hall.

 

“I smell better than you do!” Taako calls after him. A few of the other examinees turn to look at him, and he scowls right back until they turn away. Lup snorts.

 

“Nice one little bro.”

 

“We’re the same age!” Taako growls.

 

Lup tosses her head. “Everyone knows it’s those last thirty seconds that really count. I was the first one exposed to this world’s sweet sweet air, and I’ve been leading the way ever since.”

 

“It is an accident of nature that you just happened to be born first, and we both know it doesn’t mean anything.”

 

The twins continue to argue like this as they climb the steps in the harsh light of the morning sun. Behind them, Barry trails along, smiling.

 


 

 When they walk into the foyer of the main hall, even Taako stops talking. With vaulted ceilings arching high above the heads of even the Goliaths in the room, the place is a wonder of cold stone and intricate marble friezes depicting complex scenes from the history of their collective civilisations - on one wall, the Elven parliaments, on another, the Dwarf matriarchs, on a third, the Tiefling Witch-monarchs. Each is bursting with life despite its stony prison, and none of the examinees would have been surprised to learn that the carvings were woven with hundreds of minor enchantments.

 

All in all, it makes the two folding wooden tables and makeshift cloakrooms behind them look somewhat ridiculous in comparison. With a heavy sigh, Taako slips into the queue to the right besides Lup, not bothering to check and see whether Barry is behind them. About twenty students ahead, a tall orc with thick brown hair is taking an oversized axe from the human they’d met earlier, whose voice carries across the crowd.

 

“Yeah, you think that’s big? You should see my other axe. You know what I mean?” This is followed by an exaggerated wink. The orc offers Magnus a polite but neutral smile and moves on to the next candidate. Beside Lup, Taako huffs and shifts his weight from one foot to another.

 

“Please tell me we’ll get the chance to punch that guy later.”

 

Lup shrugs. “Who cares? He’s not worth your time anyway, Taako. You know that, right?”

 

Taako grumbles something under his breath and Lup grins a little. “What, did he rub you up the wrong way?”

 

“I still don’t know what we’re doing here.” Taako folded his arms, ears pressed flat against his head. Lup opened her mouth to reply, but Barry beat her to the punch.

 

“I mean, if you don’t really want to be here Taako, that’s cool but you should probably drop out sooner rather than later. It sounds like it’s gonna be a pretty tough exam, and I’m not sure if it’s worth doing that to yourself if you don’t really want to pass.”

 

Lup’s ears flick up and forwards, but she presses a hand to her mouth and catches her own laugh. Taako cycles through several different shades of red in quick succession, and jabs one long, slender finger into Barry’s chest.

 

“Just for that Barold, I’m going to do better than you in this forsaken exam. I’ll show you, ‘pretty tough’. Pretty tough my ass. I eat tests like this for breakfast.”

 

Barry, who at first had seemed a little intimidated by an elf bristling with jewellery and sharp teeth glowering several inches above him, slowly settles into mild confusion. “Taako, that doesn’t make any...”

 

But by this point they’ve reached the front of the queue. Taako slaps down his wand and opens his robes. “Search me baby, you’ve got everything I have. Taako’s going rogue.”

 

The orc raises one pierced eyebrow. The name tag on his shirt reads, “Grimaldis, Greg.” Lup pushes her brother away from the table with a shove that’s a little harder than necessary and produces her own wand from a leather holster on the belt slung around her hips.

 

“So, come here often?”

 

Behind her, Taako groans, “seriously?”

 

Lup ignores him, batting her eyelashes at the orc, who flushes a dark green and glances nervously at the queue. “I mean, at least once a year. Um...”

 

He picks up her wand, gently. Lup catches the gesture and rests her hand lightly on his, smirking when he looks up at her. “No need to be so careful, handsome. I like it a little rough.”

 

Both Barry and the orc blush deeply. Someone further back in the queue makes a loud comment about the hold up, and Lup shoots them a glare that could have killed them if she’d wanted it to. But she draws her hand back and winks at the orc before turning on her heel.

 

“You’re busy. I’ll catch you later.”

 

When she gets to Taako - standing in the growing crowd before the 40 foot high oak doors to the main chamber, he’s tapping his foot. The high-heeled boot he’s wearing clicks on the marble stone and Lup’s laughing lightly before she’s even reached him.

 

“Come on, he was cute!”

 

“You have terrible taste in men.”

 

“I’m sorry, did you see those biceps?”

 

Taako examines the chipped polish on his nails and feigns disinterest. “I’ve seen better.”

 

Lup rolls her eyes. “You’re just sore because you haven’t seen anyone you like yet. It’s not my fault you’re choosy.”

 

“He’s a hipster! Come on, seriously, a septum piercing? A monroe??” Taako doesn’t bother to hold in his disgust, or his volume. Barry glances anxiously back towards the orc, who doesn’t seem to have noticed them. He’s busy with the last few remaining people in the queue, and at the front of the room Davenport is making his way towards the doors.

 

Nervously, Barry clears his throat. “Um, guys? I think it’s starting.”

 

Taako opens his mouth, undoubtedly about to say something acerbic, but it’s at that point that Davenport speaks, too.

 

“Alright. The written portion of the test starts when you enter this room. Please make sure you have all the materials you need before entering.”

 

Taako leans back towards Barry. “Hey. Barold. You got a pencil?”

 

Barry stares at him, and Taako stares right back, unflinching. After a moment and a long sigh, Barry offers up one of the spares he’s carrying in the small bag around his hip.

 

Taako takes it with a sharp smile. “Thanks, I owe you one. Nice bum bag.”

 

Barry blushes, and nearly misses Davenport’s next words:

 

“You’ll have 2 hours exactly to complete this first portion. We’ll then go straight into the practical examination. Please remember that there will be no real threat, although the simulation of one will be quite convincing. You are welcome and encouraged touse whatever strategies and arcane arts you have at your disposal. Whilst I cannot tell you much more than this, please try to refrain from attacking your fellow examinees. I can assure you, you will have enough to deal with from the exam itself.”

 

Lup straightens her shoulders and lifts her chin, and Barry finds it hard to believe that the beam of sunlight which catches the bright green of her eyes is coincidental when she gives him a wide smile and, despite the pointed edges of her canines, it takes his breath away in a manner that has nothing to do with fear.

 

“You ready?”

 

Barry clenches his fist and tries to ignore the fact that his palms are sweating. Taako bumps his upper arm with his elbow. “Chill, man. These chumps have got nothing on us.”

 

Lup’s grin turns mischievous. “You going soft, little brother?”

 

Taako scowls. “Twin, and you’re the one who chose to bring him along.”

 

Lup shrugs. “I stand by my decisions.”

 

“That’s just hypocritical.”

 

It’s at this point that the crowd starts to move forward, and the cacophony of conversation that had been filling the space fades and peters out entirely as they enter the first examination room. Just before it does, Barry curls his fingers around the edges of his overlong sleeve and says, quietly. “Yeah. I’m ready.”

Chapter Text

Taako and Lup finish the written portion about an hour and a half before anybody else does, and entertain themselves by throwing tiny bursts of magic at one another from across the room, despite the disapproving glare of the young woman - Lucretia - who was overseeing this portion of the test.

 

Barry tries not to get distracted and finishes an hour later, reading back through what he’d written with increasing anxiety. It was difficult not to second-guess himself at the best of times, but now? When the opportunity to travel to a different dimension was on the other side of this test? He had no idea how the twins were so calm.

 

At the back of the room, the big guy with the sunglasses had already snapped one pencil, but even he seemed to be taking things seriously, frowning hard enough at his test to earn a premature wrinkle or two. Barry brought his attention back to his own paper - he’d known the questions would be difficult, but some of these are simply impossible - hypotheses and scenarios which just couldn’t happen in the world in which they live.

 

Which he guesses is part of the point, but that doesn’t make it easier. Lup throws a particularly bright ball of fire at her brother’s foot and Barry jumps. One of the most bewildering things about the speed with which the twins’ finished was the fact that they had actually completed their papers - Barry could see writing from where he was sitting, and even Taako had looked at least interested when first presented with the ten questions they’d been asked to answer.

 

Honestly, Barry had thought this would have been the part that he could ace. He’d known since Davenport’s visit to their town that he’d need to work on letting go of the safety harness of books and academic learning that he knew, but he’d thought it’d provide at least a skeletal frame of reference. As it is...Lup’s chair leg turns to honeycomb and starts to crumble in the second before Taako turns it back with a snap of his fingers.

 

Barry tries to stifle a laugh at the look on both of the twins’ faces as Lucretia stalks up the aisles towards them. He has no idea how they could possibly be having fun in this situation, but they are and - he looks back down at the paper in front of him. It couldn’t be that simple, could it?

 

On a whim, he starts to write a formula for question 10. It wants him to create the spell necessary to open a portal between dimensions. It’s almost nothing like any of the magic he knows. But everything he’s been taught is never to question the rites and rituals he’s learned by rote memory. He’s rarely, if ever, just written something for the fun of it.

 

When he’s finished, and Taako and Lup are both glowering at Lucretia with their arms folded (although Lup’s ears keep twitching back up towards what Barry thinks might be something like amusement), Barry doesn’t think what he’s done is half bad. It’s a gamble, yes. It’s probably more than a little bit stupid. He’s not sure if it would work. But if they want to know how he thinks?

 

He grins down at the crude drawing of a bell he’s sketched in the corner of his paper to illustrate his theory. It’s not half bad.

 

 


 

 

The practical portion of the exam starts in darkness. Barry nearly trips over his desk and jumps out of his skin when he’s caught, lightly, by Lup, whose eyes flicker like a cat’s. Her arms are strong and warm around him, and Barry diverts his attention from the blood rushing to his face by marvelling at the fact that she is apparently unhindered by the darkness.

 

Which, of course, he knew that - dwarves, tieflings and elves would all find this particular portion of the exam significantly easier than humans and halflings if it was going to happen in the dark. Despite himself, Barry is vaguely touched by the way that Taako and Lup flank him - barely touching him, but nudging him left and right to avoid the obstacles of desks and chairs towards the end of the room. It’s strangely quiet, their fellow examinees clearly pre-occupied with figuring out whatever is going to happen. Barry hears his own breath, too loud in the room, and wonders how many people are holding theirs.

 

He nearly trips, and Taako nudges him to the left, sniggering softly and breaking the silence. “Geez, are humans really this helpless in the dark? We should have taken advantage of that years ago.”

 

“Don’t embarrass the man.” Lup scolds, and Barry feels rather than sees her turn back towards him, though his eyes are slowly adjusting to the twilight of the hall by now. “Ignore him Barold, despite appearances, my brother understands that every race has their strengths and weaknesses. Right, Taako?”

 

Taako waves her off - Barry can make out his vague form, darker against the wider grey of the room. “Yeah yeah, peace and love for all life and all races. I’m in.”

 

He doesn’t sound like he’s trying to be convincing. They’re nearly at the front of the room now - whilst the lights were on, Barry and, he’s assuming, the twins, had noticed the great doors at the end of the hall, adjacent to those they’d entered by. It made sense, City Hall was a huge building, and the space the IPRE had used as an exam hall couldn’t be all there was to it. Barry hesitates as they approach the mob of their fellow examinees.

 

Lup’s ears, a good few inches long, make soft sounds in the air as one flicks back before she turns. “Barold, is there a problem?”

 

Barry hesitates. “No.” He lowers his voice, though he knows there won’t necessarily be much point in a room as diverse as this one. “I’m just not sure getting crushed by the crowd is the best strategy here.”

 

Taako hums, hesitating too, a few yards away from the back of the group. “True, but if this is a first come-first served kind of deal, we’re screwed back here.”

 

“Maybe. But that doesn’t make much sense to me. I mean, if they’re going to the effort of removing magical weapons and making this whole thing as accessible as possible, why would they randomly eliminate more than half the group?”

 

“They’ve got to sort the wheat from the chaff somehow.” Lup offers.

 

“Well, yeah, but they can do that after the test itself. I don’t know. If I was looking at this as an experiment, I’d want to see how things panned out from start to finish without interference, and making it a free-for-all from the start just seems way too chaotic to get decent results. There’s far too many variables to quantify, it’s just bad data collecting. And if there’s one thing we know these people are good at, it’s research.”

 

Lup hums, though Barry can’t see her expression in the dark. “Taako?”

 

Taako’s teeth flash white. “Sure. I’m never gonna be against hanging back and seeing the lay of the land before rushing in.”

 

From the front of the room, they hear a loud banging that makes Barry jump again, followed by the voice of the human - Magnus - they’d met earlier. “Hey!!! IPRE!!! I’m ready for ya. Right at the front of the pack. Lets get this show on the road.”

 

Barry doesn’t need to see Taako to know that he’s rolling his eyes. “And the further away I am from that meathead, the better. Wouldn’t want to break those rules about harming other examinees.”

 

Lup sighs, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. “Alright, both of you make a convincing point. I guess we’ll just...wait.” She doesn’t sound happy about it.

 

“Aw, Lulu, it’ll be over soon.” Taako laughs, and Lup moves so quickly Barry flinches, slapping at Taako’s arm. Taako laughs louder, and Barry feels the attention of a few of the other candidates turn towards them.

 

Taako tosses his head. “What’re you looking at, chumps?” But both he and Lup settle down. Despite himself, again, Barry feels a smile tugging at his mouth. He smothers it carefully, and tries to focus on the obstacle before him. But he’s glad the twins are there. He doesn’t like to think about how frightened he’d be without them.

 

“Alright, fresh meat, you ready to get this party started?” Merle’s voices rings through the room at a blistering volume from what Barry had assumed were magically altered stones of far speech placed at the four corners of the ceiling.

 

A hush falls over the crowd. Merle cackles. “Don’t forget, don’t hurt your fellow candidates. Survive as long as you can. If you ‘die’, don’t worry too much about it, Lucretia, Davenport or myself will come grab you. Think on your feet, think fast, and you’ll do great. Good luck!”

 

The doors at the end of the room swing open, silently.

 

The crowd presses forward into the next room - this is their first mistake. It’s lit now, dimly, by some kind of phosphorescent moss that’s climbing the walls and pillars of the corridor beyond. The light is enough for Barry, too, to see the monkey-like creatures with scythes for hands swing down from above. He has a moment to catch Magnus ducking and rolling far faster than he’d expected he could, and then Lup and Taako are dragging him to the ground.

 

Lup shouts over the rising cacophony. “Good call Barold. Any thoughts on how we get past them?”

 

Taako gets in close and gestures for them to follow him to the corners of the room. “I do!” Barry can’t see much, but he can tell that both Lup and Taako are staring intently upwards - he guesses that means the monkey-things are using more than just darkness to hide in.

 

He also figures that he’ll need to act as their eyes at ground level. Whispering a small incantantion, he feels his vision adjust and hopes he hasn’t wasted a spell slot. It’s chaos in the room beyond as the students grapple with the monkeys - and some few have already begun to fight with each other, as they try to make their way down the hall.

 

Taako laughs, and Barry tears his eyes from the chaos to see him smiling. “It’s a monkey puzzle!”

 

Lup’s voice sounds strained when she calls back from Taako’s other side. “Taako, dear, this isn’t the time for you to lose your wits.”

 

“No, Lup -”

 

A monkey drops down at alarming speed from the roof, swinging its metal hands and stinking of rot and the copper tang of fresh blood.

 

Barry doesn’t think, he just acts, grabbing a nearby chair and hitting it hard, away from where it had been about to slit Taako’s throat. Taako directs his smile at him. “I knew there was a reason we dragged you along.”

 

And then he throws up his hands, sending off a ray of frost that threads itself with phenomenal precision through an intricate series of channels in the roof above them which, in the blue light, Barry sees is shaped like some kind of labyrinth.

 

Glancing up one more time, Taako grabs Barry’s hand, and Barry grabs Lup’s, and they run straight down the hall beneath the channel Taako’s cleared for them. Barry barely has a chance to see what else is going on in the room as they sprint, but he does catch, just before they hit the next chamber, the eerie sight of skeletal fingers melting into curving blades hanging frozen from the roof.

 

They swing through into the next room and the first thing that Barry does is throw up a shield - which is a good thing, because half a second later a barrage of arrows come flying at the three of them.

 

This room is one full of moving platforms, with arrows raining down almost continuously from the far wall and the ceiling. Ahead of them, the human Magnus Burnsides is climbing from one platform to another with a makeshift shield above his head, aiming for the doors a good 25 feet up at the end of the room.

 

There’s a tiefling woman on the other side of them, surrounding herself with a sculpted gust of wind that’s twisting around the chair leg she’s using as a staff. It’s keeping the arrows off her but sending them flying in all directions.

 

Barry grits his teeth - he doesn’t know where Magnus got the shield, though it looks a little like the top of one of the tables from the exam hall. He glances back - but there’s no doing that now, there’s still chaos behind them, and there’s no point risking the first trial twice. He could keep his shield up, but he’s not sure how long he’ll be able to hold a 360 degree bubble, and he doesn’t want to use up all his magical energy quite yet.

 

He turns to Lup, hoping for ideas, and her eyes are shining with delight. Taako barks a laugh, cracks his knuckles and stretches. “Lup, would you do the honours?”

 

Lup bares her teeth and raises her hands, palms forward, and a wall of fire - there’s no better way to describe it - explodes from where they’re standing at the end of the room, incinerating every arrow in the air, masterfully weaving around their few fellow examinees.

 

Barry thinks he manages to squeak something, but by that point Taako has set off running, flipping and leaping with the skill of a gymnast up and over the platforms, reaching the end of the room in a hot minute, if that, and at one point running and jumping off the shield over Magnus’ head to reach the row of enchanted crossbows perched along the tops of the walls.

 

Lup looks at Barry, and her hands are still glowing with heat - or maybe they’re warming up again? She says, “do you trust me?”

 

Barry doesn’t have time to respond before she’s scooping him up into her arms and running with him as the arrows recommence their barrage - with Taako sealing as may of the entrances as he can with a sort of pink crystal.

 

They’re nearly at the end of the room when one of the few arrows Taako hasn’t yet caught zips towards Lup’s ear, and Barry doesn’t need to be told, he sends a wave of force forward from his palm that knocks the arrow off course, and it thuds into the wooden panelling of the far wall.

 

Taako’s grinning and breathless when they reach him, and he and Lup take a moment for a brief high-five before turning to the third chamber.

 

At first, it’s quiet. It seems larger than the last two - three including the exam hall, and the walls are lined with flickering torches that do little to illuminate the belly of the room. For a moment, Barry’s confused. This can’t be the end of the test, can it? Sure, it had been difficult, but if anything that seemed somewhat anticlimactic.

 

Which is when an honest to god dragon makes itself known with a fiery blast of blazing heat. Magnus Burnsides is sent flying backwards, landing on his arse a good twenty feet or so from where he started as the dragon - a thing of black scales and amber eyes and teeth dripping with your standard combination of saliva and highly combustible chemicals - got onto its four massive feet and prowled towards him.

 

Lup cackles with delight, and Barry takes a second to be bemused before Taako gets his attention. He’s looking at his sister, and he seems annoyed. “I cannot believe I have to share your gods-forsaken bleeding-heart genes.”

 

Lup grins. “Aw, Taako, you know it’s good for you.”

 

Taako grumbles something else, but before Barry can make it out, he’s sprinting forwards. Barry shouts and goes to follow him but Lup catches him, firmly, and holds him back. “Don’t worry B-man, we’re gonna have a plan. Taako just wants to be a big damn hero first.”

 

Barry turns back to the scene before him. The dragon’s tail is lashing backwards and forwards, and the wicked looking spikes on the end of it are gouging the wooden panelling of the room like a hot knife through butter. It’s pulling back its head, and opening its mouth, and something bright and hot and deadly is starting to coalesce at the back of its throat.

 

And then Taako throws a freezing spell into its mouth, casts levitate on Magnus Burnsides, and drags him to the back of the room, swearing all the while.

 

He breaks through the doorway, a scorched human man in tow like a child’s balloon, and stops to catch his breath. “I...cannot...believe....you made me....save your life. You....asshole. Are you alright?”

 

Magnus coughs, and a little ash comes out, and for a second Barry is concerned. With some difficulty Magnus gets to his knees, rubbing the back of his head. And then he smiles, wide and toothy, at Taako, Lup and Barry, clapping Taako heavily on the shoulder.

 

“Hey, thanks. I owe you one.”

 

Taako grumbles something else under his breath, but Barry can’t catch it and he’s guessing human hearing doesn’t cut it, because Magnus looks confused as well.

 

Lup punches her brother in the arm and pushes to the front, sticking out her hand. “The name’s Lup, and I’ve got to hand it to you, running headfirst into a room with a fucking dragon in it is the kind of recklessness I can get behind.”

 

Magnus laughs a little, taking her hand. “Yeah, well. I actually am pretty good at animal handling, you know, normally.”

 

“To be fair, I’m not sure that’s even an animal.” All three of them turn to look at him, and Barry tries to pretend he doesn’t feel any pressure under the weight of their gazes. “I mean, it’s a simulation, right? This is just a very, very convincing illusion.”

 

“I don’t know, that heat wave it hit me with seemed pretty real to me. They could have just enchanted an actual dragon.” Magnus sounds unconvinced.

 

“Yeah, but you’re not a human barbecue, and you’ve got all your clothes on - which, unless they’ve got a really high end flame-resistant spell on them - suggests you weren’t hit with actual fire.” Barry replies, speaking as he thinks.

 

“Ok,” Taako interrupts, “so I’m going to stand in the happy middle here - it’s definitely a projection, this whole exam is an elaborate illusion, and how much that’s brought together with physical props is something we can talk shop about later. But it’s also definitely ‘real’ to some extent, to which our experience of physical forces acting upon our bodies can attest.”

 

Lup nods. “Right, obviously. So what do we do about the dragon?”

 

Magnus clears his throat. “I can tell you that talking to it and punching it don’t work.”

 

Taako blinks slowly at him. “At the same time? I can’t imagine why.”

 

Magnus scowls. “Get fucked. The point is - physical force isn’t going to work. Jokes aside.” (Here he glares at Taako), “if it could be defeated through the use of physical force, I’m pretty sure I’m the one in this group who could handle it. And I couldn’t.”

 

Taako folds his arms. “You seem to think an awful lot of yourself, big man. How do you know we can’t handle ourselves in a fight?”

 

Magnus sighs. “I’m sure you can! But judging by the dagger at your waist, you’re probably not used to relying on melee skills. Listen,” he turns to Lup and Barry, “all I’m saying is - do you think you can break the spell?”

 

“I don’t think that’s the point of the exam.” Lup says, frowning. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for rule breaking, but I get the impression this is kind of a one time gig, and I did not just put myself through doing an honest to gods written test just to get disqualified in the practical.”

 

“Yeah, I have to agree with Lup here, sorry Magnus.” Barry rubs his chin. “But there is something about...oh, shit, wait you said animal handling, right?” Magnus looks perplexed, but nods.

 

Barry turns to Taako, excitedly. “Taako, can you...can you make me like....fuck...a flute, or something? Like a whistle?”

 

Taako raises an eyebrow. “I can. Can I ask why? I don’t exactly have spell slots to burn right now, my dude.”

 

“Didn’t you ever hear that song? You know, every damn minstrel this side of the continent plays it. The one about the halfling man who stole treasure from a dragon?”

 

“Gonna be honest,” Lup steeples her fingers, “I’m failing to see how this is relevant to our current situation, Barold.” Barry nearly laughs out loud.

 

“Isn’t it obvious? You can’t fight it, you can’t break the spell, so you come up with a different solution.” It takes them a second, but after a moment, Taako’s ears flicker upwards and Lup raises an eyebrow.

 

As Taako starts to curl his fingers around the empty air, realization dawns on Magnus’ face. “Oh! You’re gonna sing it to sleep?”

 

“With the help of a little magic.” Barry grins. “And the song will give the sleeping spell an extra edge over that thing’s will to stay awake.”

 

“But how do you know it’s going to act like a normal dragon?” Magnus asks.

 

Taako finishes off the flute he’s been making - it’s shaped from a silvery kind of wood, simple but beautiful. He hands it to Barry and turns to Magnus. “Look, a spell that big and that powerful? It isn’t easy. And creating something that looks like one thing but acts like another is a whole new level of complexity. If this thing had that much magical machinery going on behind the scenes, we’d have noticed a glitch by now.”

 

Magnus turns to frown through the doorway, where the dragon is pacing across the cramped confines of the room. “Like the fact it’s staying in the same place?”

 

Lup shakes her head. “No, that’s just part of the construct. You can give it a place and a length of time - again, infinite place or infinite time would be more difficult. They need something that’s going to be the same through, what, 120 candidates? It’s not exactly a controlled environment if you’ve got a dragon on the loose.”

 

“Alright, it’s ready.” The three of them turn to face Barry, who’s woven the flute with magic that shimmers like a pearl over its silvery surface. Taako lets out a low whistle.

 

“Nice spell.”

 

Blushing, Barry ducks his head. Then he turns to face the room. “Alright, the closer I am to this thing the better. Can any of you cover me?”

 

Magnus sticks his hand up, and scoops the scorched table-top he’d been using as a shield from the floor. Taako folds his arms. “Yeah, I think I’ll be more help if I’m closer. Lup, can you do long range?”

 

Lup sticks her tongue out at her brother. “I think you know the answer to that.”

 

“Alright.” Barry clenches his fist around the flute, and pretends his palms aren’t sweating. Taako waves a hand through the air and a shield of purple crystal curves over the three of them. Magnus stares at it, starry eyed.

 

“You’ve got to tell me how you do that.” Taako snorts and elbows him in the side.

 

“Maybe later Mango.” He looks at Barry. “On your word, B-man.”

 

Barry nods, and then he runs, straight towards the open mouth of the dragon.

 

They hit the centre of the room, barely six feet away from the beast itself. Lup is keeping her word and keeping it distracted, throwing blast after blast at its neck and wings - and Barry’s not sure if she’s deliberately holding back or if its hide is just that tough under fire, because so far it hasn’t so much as managed to make a scratch.

 

Taako’s bracing himself to Barry’s left, with Magnus on the right. He shouts down at Barry, whose kneeling on the floor with the flute between his fumbling hands. “It’s now or never Barold.”

 

Barry looks up and sees the great, soft, ashen belly of the beast in front of them. The air stinks of smoke and he tries not to choke on it. He can feel the heat emanating off the dragon in waves, and beside him he feels Magnus and Taako brace themselves against their respective shields. He can taste the ozone of Taako and Lup’s magic, as Lup keeps throwing shots and Taako magically secures himself to the ground. He closes his eyes.

 

Breathing deeply, Barry tries to let the room fall away, despite the sound of splintering wood, and Lup’s shouts as she taunts the dragon between the spells. Barry presses the wood of the flute to his lips and tries not to think about how impressive it was that Taako had made this from nothing. He feels his own magic tingling beneath his fingers, and without giving himself a moment more to think, he begins to play.

 

As fast as thought, Barry finds himself transported back to his childhood, sitting by the fire with his grandmother as she tells him stories, and his grandfather beside her plays on a crudely carved wooden whistle, and his father’s baking in the other room, and his mother’s just got back from work, and they’re safe and they’re warm and it’s good and he’s losing himself in the forests of his grandmothers’ words.

Chapter Text

And then Lup’s hand is on his shoulder and she’s whispering, urgently. “Holy fuck you did it. Barry, come on, we’ve got to go.” And Barry opens his eyes and sees tears on her cheeks and Lup catches his look and presses the heel of her palm to her face. “Yeah, it was a good song. We can talk about it later, lets go!”

 

She half picks him up, and ahead Barry can see Magnus lifting Taako over the leg of the sleeping dragon, so still and so quiet now it could be a misplaced mountain.

 

Taako gets up onto the thing’s back and turns around to give them a thumbs up before snapping his fingers and letting a rope fall from nowhere. Magnus grabs it and starts to scale the dragon, and Barry takes a second to stare at the huge skull of the sleeping beast - at least twice as long and wide as he is - and to process the fact that He Did This, and then he’s letting Lup push him forwards and he’s climbing up the hot black scales of the dragon’s leg and flanks.

 

When they get into the last room, it’s bright. Lup and Taako squint against the light, and their ears flicker back in unison. Magnus shields his face, and Barry waits for his gaze to adjust.

 

On the other end of this room - which is rectangular, about 40 feet long by 20 feet wide, and paved with plain, undecorated flagstones, there’s a magically hovering red sign that reads “FINISH LINE”.

 

Between them and that sign, however, are dozens of hulking, masked figures wearing blue and bristling with weapons. Magnus lets out a low whistle.

 

“Now that’s one hell of a skirmish.”

 

“No shit.” Taako mutters, glancing backwards. “Are we really the first people to make it this far?”

 

“I guess it’s a good and a bad thing.” Lup says. “No one’s made this easier for us.”

 

“But at least we don’t have to worry about our allies stabbing us in the back.” Magnus finishes.

 

Lup grins at him, and, jerking her thumb at his chest, she turns to Taako. “Remind me again why we don’t like this guy?”

 

Magnus looks vaguely wounded. Barry tries to break the tension. “So, um, I’m guessing you’ve experienced actual combat too?”

 

“Too?” Magnus blinks down at him, and for the first time since he joined their party, Barry realises he’s about a foot shorter than all three of them.

 

Whilst he’s processing that, Taako elaborates. “Barry was in the War.”

 

Magnus raises his eyebrows, than glances anxiously back towards the room full of silent soldiers. “Oh, shit. So like, flashbacks could be a problem?”

 

Barry clenches and unclenches his fists. “I hope not.” He spares another glance back down at the room below them. “I mean, I think the IPRE has made an effort to make them not look like the forces of Duin, so, there’s that.”

 

Not looking convinced, Magnus looks at the room again. “Alright. So do you guys see like, the bookshelves and chairs and shit, scattered through the crowd?”

 

Taako and Lup nod, though it takes Barry a second longer to spot them in the horde.

 

“Right, so by my reckoning that’s deliberate - or else really bad interior design.” Magnus grins, and Taako rolls his eyes. “We can think of them as checkpoints, essentially. We move from one milestone to another, zig-zag, and we get across the room. We’re not going to be able to rush this. You see what I’m saying?”

 

Lup nods slowly. “Sure. So who does what?”

 

Magnus shrugs. “I think it makes sense for me to spearhead - and judging by your performance with the dragon just now, I’d like you second. Taako has already shown that he can hold a defensive position - Barry, if you can help him with that, I think we’re set.”

 

“Yeah.” Barry steadies himself. “Yeah, I can do that.” Taako looks at him from the corner of his eye - and it’s at this moment that Barry notices his eyes are nearly, but not quite, the same shade of green as his sister’s.

 

“You good my man?”

 

Barry swallows the lump in his throat and nods, rolling his shoulders back. He can do this.

 

Magnus beams. “Alright.” He stands and draws a heavy looking axe as if it’s weightless, and he does it deftly enough that Barry actually checks to see whether there’s a light-weight charm on the thing. There isn’t, and he figures he realises this at about the same moment that the twins do, because they both give Magnus a look of new respect.

 

Then Lup cracks her knuckles and sparks fly and Barry files away the way that makes him feel to deal with later. “Ready to raise some hell, boys?”

 

Magnus answers. “Fuck yes.” And with that, he’s diving into the fray.

 

The next few minutes are chaos - hit after hit after hit and it’s all Barry can do to brace himself and dodge whatever sounds like it’ll slice through the thin armour he’s wearing. He doesn’t have time to see or check on how the others are doing, and the madness of the melee is enough to have him slipping between his memories and the present moment. But he survives, because he knows how to do that.

 

They reach the first checkpoint, an overturned sofa, and have a second to regroup in which Barry catches the gash on Taako’s cheek and the grazes on Lup’s knuckles and the black eye blooming on Magnus’ face and then they’re off again and he can’t breathe and he feels like he’s in the ocean and he’s getting dragged down, and then he sees a sword falling down over Taako’s head whilst he’s dealing with another fighter and Barry doesn’t think, he throws up his shortsword and parries with a magically reinforced wave of force, sending the knight staggering back.

 

Taako hoots and takes out a smaller fighter coming up on Barry’s exposed midriff with a flick of his dagger and Barry stumbles and nearly falls and then Lup is catching him. “Careful there B-man.”

 

Barry stares up into her face for half a second and then she’s pushing him onto his feet and he doesn’t think he just lets his gut tell him where to go and somehow, they reach the second point. Taako’s ears flicker downwards and Barry follows his gaze without pause and sees that by this point Magnus is bloodied, and he doesn’t know how much of this is a simulation but the pain on Magnus’ face looks real.

 

Lup exchanges a look with Taako and steps in front of Magnus, putting her hand gently to the back of his neck. “Take a breather, big man, we’re nearly there.”

 

And then she presses her hands to the floor and a series of explosions crackle forwards and out in a wide V of fire that opens a channel for them directly to the next barrier, a sturdy set of tables and chairs that look more like a barricade than anything they’ve seen so far. Barry doesn’t need to be told, he grabs one of Magnus’ arms and Taako grabs the other and together they sprint forwards.

 

When they get to the barricade, Barry mumbles a simple healing spell on instinct, passing his hands over the worst of Magnus’ injuries, and he’s gratified when a little more light returns to the man’s deep brown eyes, and colour flushes back into his skin. Taako glances back at them from where he and his sister are taking pot shots at the horde that remains between them and the door.

 

“You good?”

 

Magnus gives him a thumbs up. Taako barks a laugh before his ear flickers backwards, and both he and Barry duck as a goddamn catapult flies overhead, hitting the far wall with a thundering crash. Lup drops down with her back to the barricade, eyes wide and breathless, sweat dripping down her forehead.

 

“They’re really not pulling any punches, are they?”

 

Taako, beside her, takes a second to catch his breath before snapping. “I’m going to kill you if we die in this test Lulu.”

 

Lup laughs. “Come on Taako, you’re having fun.”

 

Taako rolls his eyes, but his ears flicker upwards, and if Barry were going to make an educated guess, he’d say that it looked like Taako really was enjoying himself. Magnus gets onto his knees and crawls forward towards the barricade.

 

“How many?”

 

Lup throws a projection of the view in the front of them in miniature into the space between them. Barry stares.

 

“Neat trick.”

 

He’s pretty sure Lup is just flushing because of the physical exertion of fighting so many shadowy combatants, but he can’t quite help his own blush in return as she replies. “Thanks, it’s a Lup special.”

 

Magnus is concentrating on the flickering image between them. He looks up at Lup. “And this is accurate as of when?”

 

Taako answers for her. “About thirty seconds ago.”

 

Magnus twists his head, cracks his neck and rolls his shoulders. “Alright. Thanks for the magic. I think it’s time for me to show you people what a fighter can really do.”

 

With that, he runs and jumps over the barricade. Barry is glad that the projections don’t actually bleed, because he’s not sure he could handle that - instead, as Magnus swings his axe two handed in an arc of destruction with more force than a sledgehammer, the shadowy soldiers thump to the ground like puppets with their strings cut.

 

Magnus weaves and parries, ducking and dodging and striking as if he’s making a tapestry, and either side of him Barry can hear Lup and Taako swearing as they send phenomenally precise bolts of energy to take out the few remaining soldiers in Magnus’ blind spots as he inches closer to the doors.

 

Barry makes it his business to throw up two shields, one around Magnus and a fainter one over their barricade, because by this point a handful of the horde have noticed the twins’ spells.

 

He feels their surprise but doesn’t have the energy to explain, it’s difficult enough to maintain one barrier, let alone two, and he’s just hoping that no one will notice the fishing line-thin string of force between the two that lets him keep his focus on what is technically one spell.

 

He can feel his muscles starting to shake with the energy, and it’s at around this moment that Barry realises exactly how much magical energy the three of them have used in the past however long its been since the written exam. The corners of his vision are blurred with sweat, and he can taste the copper tang of blood in his mouth as his nose starts to bleed. He doesn’t need to look at the twins to know that they’re faring little better.

 

He wonders whether they were even supposed to get this far.

 

But it’s at that point that Magnus: breathless, bruised and bleeding, slams both palms onto the final doors and shoves them open with a mighty crash as Lup takes out the final, shadowy soldier with a dart of fire.

 

In the room beyond, Lucretia drops the cup of tea she’d been holding, and Davenport stares at them with open astonishment. Magnus doubles over, breathless, and, cautiously, Barry, Taako and Lup stand up from behind their barrier.

 

Merle Highchurch is the first to break the silence. “Holy shit.” And as Lucretia hurries to Magnus’ side and Davenport runs a hand over his carefully combed, copper-bright hair, the dwarf starts to laugh so hard he cries.

 


 

 When Barry wakes up two hours later in an improvised emergency ward crammed with the other candidates, he learns several things very quickly. First, judging by the red bird on the back of his hand, he passed the test. Second, whilst Magnus is lying unconscious beside him, he looks relatively unscathed. Which means he’s alright.

 

Third, the truce he apparently made with the twins did not end with the exam. Taako sits between him and Magnus, and Lup sits on his other side. Both look vaguely bored, and are throwing raisins at the other candidates, who are variously bandaged and working their ways through different states of unconsciousness.

 

When Barry tries to sit up with a groan, Lup’s ears flicker back in his direction just before she turns to him, grinning so widely she exposes her - really rather fearsome - overlong canines. “Barold, you’re alive!”

 

She punches his arm, hard, and Barry groans, bringing a hand up to his head. “Was there, uh, any reason to believe that I wouldn’t be?”

 

Lup shakes her head. “Nah, but that was a shit ton of magic you blew in there.”

 

Taako nods, popping a raisin into his mouth and speaking around it as he adds, “yeah. You’ve gotta show me how you did that sick double barrier trick some time.”

 

Barry nods, distracted. He doesn’t think he needs to ask his next question, but he does anyway, “so you -“

 

Both of the twins hold up their hands and reply in chorus as he focuses on the bright red birds he sees outlined against their dark skin. “Yup.”

 

Lup elbows him, and Barry coughs as she hits a sore spot. “Looks like we’re gonna be study buddies Barold.”

 

Taako sniggers. “You excited?”

 

Barry tries to find a way to respond to this and mostly just finds his mind full of headache. “I’m sorry, my head kills.”

 

“Oh dude, no biggie.” Lup picks up a foul smelling concoction from his bedside. “Merle left this, said it would help with that. Kind of an eccentric, that one.”

 

Barry narrows his eyes at the potion before him. “Are we sure this isn’t another part of the test?”

 

Taako snickers at the same time as Lup, and both of their ears flick up and forwards. Taako looks at Lup with a grin curling around his teeth and says, “are you gonna tell him? Or should I?”

 

Laughing, Lup says, “oh no, I’ve got it.” Then she turns to Barry, and leans in close, and she’s all dark hair and bright eyes and teeth and faint freckles and Barry catches his breath, and then she says, like a child on Candlenights, “we broke the test.”

 

Barry’s brain short circuits. “I’m sorry, what?”

 

Taako cackles, and Lup continues, giggling. “Yeah, so, like, the dragon? We weren’t really supposed to get past that, because you were right, it’s enchanted in such a way that you can’t really fight it, and you can’t break the spell. So then that room beyond was like, some kind of, fuck, like, a back up room? And that’s why it was so damn brutal like you weren’t really supposed to get that far but if you did, whatever, you’d ‘die’ or some shit and they’d just write you off as pretty freaking stellar marks.”

 

“But we had this guy.” Taako jerks his thumb at Magnus’ sleeping form. “And he’s a goddamn tank, and between him and the collected magicks of us and you, we broke the fucking test.”

 

Lup’s straight up cackling by this point, and Barry’s trying not to wince at the noise. To his right, he sees Taako notice Magnus shifting.

 

Lup says, “actually, it’s a shame you passed out not long after that, because honestly the looks on their faces - like don’t get me wrong, they’ve still got all my respect and shit - I mean those enchantments were Next Fucking Level, you know what I mean? But the looks on their faces, oh my gods, I can’t breathe.”

 

She clutches at her stomach and wheezes, noiselessly, and despite himself and the aches running through his body, Barry starts laughing too.

 

When Magnus finally opens his eyes, the first thing he says is, “what’d I miss?” But then Taako’s shoving him and Magnus is side-eyeing him and Taako is speaking a little too quickly to be composed and grinning from ear to ear.

 

“You crazy son of a bitch, you’re a fucking tank, you know that?” Magnus starts to grin and catches himself, wincing, as it jostles the stitches on his face, and Barry would feel sympathy but he’s too busy experiencing crashing wave after wave of relief and excitement all at once.

 

“Yeah, well, obviously.”

 

Taako’s beaming. “Just give me a heads up, next time, alright? You nearly got yourself killed.”

 

Magnus raises one bushy eyebrow. “So we’re friends, then?”

 

Taako snorts. “Dude, we’ve been on the same side since I saved you from being a dragon’s amuse bouche.” He snaps his fingers into finger guns, and sparks fly. “You and me, we’re gonna do great things.”

 

Magnus looks like he’s about to reply, but he catches the bird on Taako’s hand and catches his breath. Taako follows his gaze and rolls his eyes before picking up Magnus’s hand and pushing it up to show him. “Yeah, we passed.”

 

“With flying colours!” Lup crows from the other side of Barry.

 

It’s at this point that a nurse hurries over to shush them, and even Magnus can’t contain his giggles before she has the chance to leave.

 

“Boys,” Lup leans her chair back, lifting the front legs from the floor and stretching her long, wiry arms over her head. “I’ve got a good feeling about this.”

 

Chapter Text

The secret location is, somewhat anticlimactically, a tavern - a tavern where they’re given another location and a shopping list, and a month to get their affairs in order before moving to a sprawling campus masquerading as an industrial farm on the outskirts of Elysia.

 

Taako and Lup do something to end up rooming together - Barry isn’t sure that he wants to know what. He ends up with Greg Grimaldis, the orc they’d met on the day of their exam, who it turns out is in his third and final year at the academy. He’s a nice enough roommate - he’s studious, and he keeps to himself. If he goes out, he stays out until morning, and Barry’s an early enough riser that the daybreak returns aren’t really an issue.

 

Magnus rooms with some guy called Brad who’s determined to defy his family legacy of bloodshed and thinks that a bard would be useful on the interplanar research mission. Barry’s jury is still out, as he thinks is Magnus’, but to be fair on Brad, he wouldn’t wish Magnus Burnsides as a roommate on anybody. It’s not that he’s a bad guy - he isn’t, but he’s restless and he’s messy and Barry’s seen Magnus’ bomb site of a room enough times to know that he’d go insane in all of sixty seconds if they shared close quarters.

 

Which is a shame, because he, Magnus, Lup and Taako take it in turns at being top of their class, and if they do much better than the rest of the academy, in theory they could end up on the same ship.

 

Still, it’s hard to imagine that ever happening. Everybody at the academy - the Tiefling woman who tested with them, whose name they learn is Troth, and the shifty looking guy working the bar who might be a student but who definitely isn’t a wizard, despite his assertions to the contrary - they’re all powerful. More powerful than Barry has ever seen anywhere else. If there was one thing - and there were many - that the IPRE had categorically succeeded in, it was recruiting their world’s best and brightest.

 

So of course he’s staving off panic whilst he chews on the end of his pencil and stares at their latest assignment three months in. It doesn’t matter that he aced the written test on the entrance exam - doing better, barely, than even Taako and Lup, who were head and shoulders above most of the other entrants - that was the entrance exam. This was the real thing.

 

Barry’s brought out of his reverie by Lup - who’s kind of leaning too close for comfort but hey, whatever, he’s a grown man he can deal with this (how does she smell this nice he knows she doesn’t use perfume).

 

“Oh hey, question 12? Yeah, that was a tangle, wasn’t it?”

 

Barry makes a helpless sound of frustration. “It just doesn’t make any sense. Nightshade is the element you’d need in any other situation, but the parameters of this hypothetical eliminate that as a possibility and I don’t think there’s anything else magically compatible.” Even as he’s speaking, he’s flicking through the ‘Cabaret of Plants’ that Merle has set as their class textbook.

 

Taako, to his left, is apparently distracted with Magnus by trying to shoot paper balls at Greg Grimaldis, who’s been unfortunate enough to get their class whilst Merle was on sick (read: hangover) leave. Greg waved a hand and all six of the projectiles flying in his direction fizzle into ash as they’re hit with a carefully aimed fire spell. One of Lup’s ears flickers forwards and Barry tries to ignore how that makes him feel.

 

“I don’t want to cheat, but, can you give me a clue?”

 

“Hm?” Lup diverts her attention back to him, and then offers him a smile. Barry returns it without thinking, and behind him Taako groans.

 

“Are you two being all cutesy with each other again? Can’t you keep that lovey dovey friendship shit to your own time?” Lup sets off an explosion under his chair leg and Taako retaliates by turning her hair blue.

 

Greg clears his throat, and doesn’t actually need to say anything. Smiling, Barry disenchants Lup’s hair. She leans forward on her desk. “Thanks, Barold. Anyway - I though a good substitute would be Heartbreak Grass. You can just ask next time, you know.” She yawns and stretches and Barry tries not to look at the column of her throat or anywhere lower than that. “Pretty sure co-operation isn’t technically cheating, especially considering the whole point of this exercise and shit, you know.”

 

Barry would care more about the way she’s turned to bat her eyelashes at Greg, but he’s too busy being surprised by her solution. Both Taako and Lup are unconventional, to say the least - judging by their knowledge of Evard’s Basic Dimensional Laws, he doesn’t think either of them ever attended formal magical training. But their ability to improvise and innovate is something else. Balanced out by the basic and advanced schooling they’re getting at the academy - well, Barry doesn’t use the term genius lightly, but he wouldn’t...

 

Barry’s train of thought is broken at this point by a loud crunch, followed by Taako swearing as his charred chair leg crumbles and he falls onto his ass. Magnus bursts out laughing, as does Lup, and Barry’s amazed that the twins’ hear Greg, softly, asking them to leave the classroom, but they do, swearing and shoving each other the whole way.

 

He guesses they’re not going to win any prizes for subtlety. But. He looks back down at his textbook, reading through the alchemical properties of knotgrass - he’d never even heard of it. It’s a good call. It’d be even better if he spliced it with - Barry distracts himself, and as he does, he doesn’t give himself time to think that together, he, and the twins and Magnus? They really are something else.

 


 

 Wednesdays are physical days, which means that Barry and Taako wake up complaining, and will probably go to sleep doing just that. It also means that it’s time for Lup and Magnus to see who can prove they’ve got a bigger axe to grind this time, and make everyone in their class feel insufficient in the process. It’s great fun.

 

Davenport oversees these classes, Barry is guessing that’s more because of than despite his slight physique, he’s extraordinarily physically capable. In a world that’s not really made for gnomes, Barry’s assuming that if you make it as high up as Davenport, you end up having to develop some pretty decent athletic abilities just to compensate. It’s not fair, and it’s not right, but it’s how it is, apparently.

 

They’re crawling through mud beneath a field of barbed wire when Barry starts to get really winded, and he’s wondering whether he should up his morning runs or work on his core strength or just give up entirely when Lup and Magnus pause together about three metres ahead of him and then crawl backwards.

 

Lup gets close to his left and Magnus sets in on his right, and Lup smiles at him through the mud and she’s filthy and sweating and she’s got dead leaves plastered over her cloud of dark hair and she’s beautiful. “Come on Barold. You’re not going to let this stop you, right?”

 

And Barry lifts an elbow and heaves himself forwards and grins at her, and Magnus laughs.

 

Taako tends to fly through anything that requires acrobatics, as does Lup, and by this point they’ve shared with him - casually, over late night chilli and beers, that at one point when they were younger they hitched a ride with a travelling circus, and besides that, they’d always been good at getting out of tight situations.

 

Barry doesn’t ask about what that implies about the rest of their lives, he’s learnt by now that much like cats, the twins will share their affection and their confidences on their own terms and on no other’s. But it keeps him up at night sometimes, all the same.

 

The thing that Taako isn’t is strong, and as the group before them picks up their log and sets off on the 10 mile run that rounds off their end of term exam, Barry can feel the anger that he knows by this point is just frustration at his own helplessness starting to build around Taako before he actually says anything.

 

So he walks up to Taako and he doesn’t touch him - because Lup is casually physical but Taako isn’t, really, and he steps over onto the other side of the log, where a crude wooden spike is sticking out for him to hold. “Don’t you trust me or something?”

 

And Taako opens his mouth to reply but Barry is already heaving with the rest of their group, Magnus and Lup are standing at the front, of course, but the log lifts off the ground before Taako’s even taken up position, and Barry feels the gratifying pull of his own muscles and thinks that he can do this.

 

Taako tosses his head, pushing a dirty hand back through his bleached-bright hair and grabs the handle on the other side. “Obviously, Barold.”

 

That’s how they do things, in the end. Whether Magnus is scowling at books of magical history, or Lup is losing her temper at the periodic table, or Taako is looking exhausted and ready to break something halfway through an obstacle course, or Barry is just fighting the overwhelming urge to give up. They carry each other through it.

 

Lup and Taako really are remarkable wizards, and Barry can fill in the schooling they didn’t receive, offering them hand-written remedial textbooks without comment, and shyly suggesting tutoring after school hours that ends up stretching late into the night, with Taako and Lup playing with magic to keep their attention focused as Barry lists the elements for them in a way he hopes is interesting.

 

Magnus sits in on their lessons and they find it hard to imagine how much harder all this is to understand for someone who doesn’t feel it running through his veins, but they figure it out and soon enough Taako and Lup invite Barry’s magic into their little projections and animations and mnemonics, and Barry’s never quite been included like this, because magic is a far rarer gift among humans and no one ever got it before the way the twins do.

 

Magnus gives each of them sparring classes, and they end up finding parks and woods and rooftops on weekends, they start thinking of it as a way to play and not just to work until they’re aching. Lup and Taako fight dirty but Magnus teaches them how to win fighting fair, and Barry shares the sparse physical training he was given before he and the people from the villages around him were shipped off to the front line. Magnus teaches him techniques he’d never considered before, and he learns from Lup how to tell when an enemy’s going to trip him up instead of swing for a punch.

 

Taako lectures them at length over increasingly elaborate group dinners on the various transmutational properties of the elements, and his ideas are too eccentric to fall easily into a text book, but the colour and life with which he describes them is almost impossible to forget, and Barry starts to experiment with increasing freedom based on the new framework of thought Taako’s given him.

 

On Sunday evenings as the sun sets, Lup takes them out for evocation training and Magnus uses the opportunity for target practice. His arrows hitting her fireballs make for fireworks in the early evening light. Barry guesses Lup and Taako have been doing this for a while, judging by the familiarity of their gestures, but he’s not sure they’ve ever shared it with anybody else. At least, he guesses as much based on little clues like the way that sometimes Lup will forget to explain herself as she releases increasingly elaborate pyrotechnics into the air.

 

Barry’s pretty sure he’ll never be able to handle evocation magic in the way that she does, but it’s hypnotising to watch.

Chapter Text

When Lup finally goes on a date with Greg Grimaldis, Barry is gratified to know that he’s not the only one who’s concerned about the third years’ intentions.

 

“Um, are we sure this isn’t like, a massive invasion of privacy?” Magnus says, quietly from over Taako’s head. All three of them are hiding behind a handful of bushes not far from the outdoor area of the academy’s canteen. Lup has set a bottle of wine on the picnic table between she and Greg, and is talking too softly to hear. She’s wearing a ripped crop top and shredded jeans and Barry is ignoring the way his stomach does loops when he looks at her.

 

Taako shushes him. “Of course not. This is sibling 101. Besides, a hipster? There’s no way he’s good for her.”

 

Reluctantly, Barry replies, “isn’t that kind of a stereotype, dude? We don’t actually know a whole lot about this guy. I mean, I don’t and I live with him. I’ve never really had, um, a problem with him? He could be cool.”

 

“Exactly, thank you Barry.” Magnus puts his hand on Taako’s shoulder. Besides Lup, Barry is pretty sure he’s the only person who can do that without getting major stink eye, and Taako still glares at him until he lifts it. “Come on, we should go. I’m sure Lup will tell us everything tomorrow.”

 

“I know my sister better than you do Mango, and Barry that’s exactly the point! She doesn’t know anything about him! What exactly has she been making googly eyes at for, like, eighteen months? His abs? They’re not that impressive. And I don’t trust anyone who works that hard on their body.”

 

“Hey! That’s kind of a low blow.”

 

“You know I didn’t mean you Mango. There’s just something about this guy that I don’t trust.”

 

Barry glances back through the hedges and wishes he hadn’t, because Lup is kissing Greg Grimaldis, and her slender hands are winding through his hair, and he’s standing a little and touching her waist, and the moon is bright and the dim light of the canteen is something like candle light and yeah, he doesn’t need to do this to himself.

 

Barry gets up and starts to walk away, and he tries not to process what it is that he’s feeling exactly. “I’m gonna go get a drink. Magnus is right, this is none of our business.”

 

“Traitor!” Taako hisses, but after Magnus says something to him, too quietly for Barry to catch, he gets up too. They play cards that night and drink beer and when Lup gets back in the morning humming to herself they’re all a little too drunk to process what she says.

 

“You know, Taako, I’m in such a good mood that I’m not even going to blast you for spying on Greg and I last night. But you better not do it again. As for you two,” she turns to Barry and Magnus, “I thought you knew better than to stick your noses into other people’s business.”

 

Magnus just giggles and says, “how was your date Lup?” Lup rolls her eyes and wanders barefoot back down the hall to her room, and Barry wonders when exactly she lost her shoes.

 


 

Lup’s relationship with Greg Grimaldis ticks over to its expiry date at about 2 months in, and when she comes back crying Barry has a feeling that Taako has murder on his mind.

 

There aren’t many tears, by which Barry can’t really say he’s surprised, Lup has never been and probably never will be the kind of person who’s able to cry all that much. But it’s more than he’s ever imagined he’d see and he’s pretty sure it shocks Taako too because his hands are shaking a little as he sits her down and asks her what happened.

 

When Magnus gets back from the bathroom he takes one look at Lup before turning to Barry and asking, in complete seriousness, “should I go beat the shit out of Greg Grimaldis?”

 

Lup laughs from where she’s sat at the table and Taako rubs her back, gently, and Barry feels like he probably shouldn’t be seeing this but he is so he does what anyone whose known the twins for more than a few hours would do. He breaks out the vodka.

 

When Lup sees the alcohol she laughs, and Taako offers Barry a quick smile whilst Magnus pours himself a shot.

 

“What happened, Lulu?”

 

Lup rubs her hands over her face and pushes back her hair and shakes her head. “Oh fuck if I know, T. He wanted stuff I didn’t want, he wanted me to be someone I wasn’t, the usual story.”

 

“Did you fight?” Barry realises that he cares less about his own feelings than he does about Lup’s in this moment, and he’s known it for a while, but it’s this second that confirms her place as his best friend.

 

Lup shrugs. “Kind of? He started talking about the mission, and how he’s having second thoughts, how he wants to have a family and some shit, and I’m just, I’m not really in that place? And he said some stupid shit, and I said some stupid shit and fuck.” She laughs, rubbing the corners of her eyes with the heel of her palm. “That asshat owes me fifteen dollars.”

 

Taako laughs, and by the relief on his face, Barry lets himself relax. He pours all four of them a shot as Magnus starts recounting his latest run in with Troth, and all of them giggle whilst he gleefully recounts the way he got his ass handed to him, again.

 

Time passes, and they move from distractions to musing, turning back to a topic they’ve visited often enough in their time here. It’s hard to believe it’s nearly been two years, by this point.

 

Barry gently chinks his shot glass against Lup’s, and she smiles at him, and he tries not to think about the redness around her eyes and lets himself be distracted by the hot burn of vodka down his throat. “So. What do you think’s out there?”

 

By this point, Magnus has drunk enough to be a little louder than usual when he roars. “Power bears! A world of only bears where the strongest bears grow to like, a hundred - no, two hundred! Feet tall and like, train the other bears in the art of kung fu.”

 

Taako starts to laugh. “What the fuck are you even on, my dude? Also, since when does anyone refer to the collective martial arts as kung fu?”

 

Magnus frowns, childishly, at him. “But Taako! It sounds cool.”

 

“Not really Mango.” Lup chips i, and she glances out of their window at the darkening sky. “I’m betting on citadels. Crazy advanced civilisations with skyscrapers that feel like they’re halfway to the heavens. Flying wagons, the whole shebang. Fountains as big as City Hall.”

 

They give Lup’s vision a moment to sink in before Barry speaks. “Taako?”

 

Taako shrugs, feigning disinterest as he downs his shot. “I don’t know man. Like...fucking...maybe some ghost world? Maybe some places where living things need material hosts. Maybe some place where like, machines are inhabited by people’s souls, or whatever, so nothing’s off limits to them. Like, they could live at the bottom of the ocean or on mountain peaks, as long as they had the right materials.”

 

As he speaks, his ears flicker upwards, and Barry tries not to stare. By this point in their acquaintance he’s learned that Lup can control her ears as much as she can the rest of her facial features, which is as much or as little as she wants to.

 

The same is not true of Taako - even when his expressions give nothing away, his ears tend to do the talking for him. It’s a disadvantage in a fight, but he’s got fast enough reflexes to compensate. Which is a relief, really.

 

“And you, Barry?” Magnus’ voice breaks him out of his reverie, and he sounds a lot more sober than he was before.

 

Barry shrugs, looking down at the way the enchanted light in their kitchen ceiling glimmers off the wet base of his shot glass. The room smells like alcohol and sweat and old smoke. “I don’t know. It’d be good if there was like. A whole world of oceans. Like, just one big long beach, stretching round the equator, and then nothing but waves to the horizon.”

 

Lup laughs, lightly. “Sounds like someone needs a vacation.”

 

Barry ducks his head. “I mean, maybe? I don’t know. I’ve never actually been to the seaside.”

 

“No fucking way.” Taako sounds a little more shocked than he necessarily needs to be, but Barry finds himself a little gratified all the same. Scratching the stubble that he really should have dealt with by now, Magnus makes a thoughtful sound.

 

“Yeah, no, I don’t think I have either.”

 

“Damn.” Taako pours them all another shot. “You boys are missing out. Sun, sea, sand, it’s where it’s at my guys.”

 

Lup groans. “Oh, please tell me you’re not going to tell them the surfing story.”

 

“I am absolutely going to tell them the surfing story.” Taako offers her his biggest shit-eating grin and launches right in to the thrilling tale of That One Time when he and Lup were teenagers and managed to end up by the coast, and some old guy in a surfing shack taught him how to hang ten.

 

Lup stands, stretches, and wanders out of the kitchen door and onto the grassy campus beyond.

 

Barry figures that Magnus is a rapt enough audience, and his hypothesis is proven when Taako doesn’t so much as blink when he stands, scooping up two glasses and the vodka, and walks outside to join Lup. She’s staring up at the stars. The night is cool, but not cold, and Barry thinks he probably wouldn’t have the courage to put his arm around her if it was colder, anyway.

 

Instead he offers her a glass, and she takes it, offering him a soft smile. “Cheers, Barold.”

 

Barry nods, and together they stand, side by side, looking up at the stars, listening to Taako’s voice in the room beyond.

 

After a moment longer, Lup says, “it’s beautiful, right?”

 

Barry hum his agreement, slipping his gaze away from her profile backlit by moonlight just before she catches him, and downs his drink. The silence swells between them, simple and comfortable.

 

“You seemed really upset, Lup,” he says, and at the same time she speaks.

 

“You know I’m not looking for anything long term, right?”

 

Barry blinks, surprised. Lup doesn’t look at him as she continues. “We’re friends, aren’t we?”

 

Barry nods, then remembers that she isn’t looking at him and says, “well yeah, definitely.”

 

“Cool.” Lup stretches, and then leans back against the building. “I need you to understand, I’m not looking for anything long term, from anyone. I’m. Well, I’m a lone wolf. I’ve got all the family I need, and I’m not looking to make any more.”

 

She’d never actually said it, but Barry was pretty sure that he did know this about Lup. So he means it when he says, “yeah, I get it”, and he figures he can deal with the way his stomach clenches on his own time.

 

“What about you?” She asks the question so softly Barry nearly doesn’t catch it over Magnus’ laughter in the other room.

 

Barry thinks about it. “I used to. I don’t know. I think I thought, once, that I wanted to do the usual - you know, take on my mum’s job, get married to some nice person, have kids or adopt them, pass on the family legacy. But.” He sighs, and lets himself get lost in the stars.

 

“I don’t know it’s just. This world is so beautiful, and it’s so amazing, and it’s so full of mystery and there are so many things to know and learn and...” He sighs. “I don’t know. Maybe one day, that life will, or would be, for me. But right now?”

 

He turns to look at Lup, and she’s smiling a little, and he’s not even surprised that she isn’t looking at the stars any more. “Right now, there is so much to discover. That’s all that I’ve got time for, that’s all I want to have time for. If there’s a chance, to take that leap? Into the stars? And beyond? I’m taking it.”

 

Lup grins. “You know what, Barry Bluejeans, my man?”

 

Barry raises an eyebrow at her, and she slings an arm around his shoulders like it’s nothing and raises her shot glass to the stars. “You get it.”

 

Chapter Text

They graduate with flying colours because, well, of course they do, and Barry wants to laugh at the younger version of himself that ever questioned whether they would. Taako and Magnus have a minor scuffle over whether Magnus is really going to wear sunglasses to the ceremony, but other than that, they pull it off, and when Lup punches a fistful of fireworks into the air after Davenport presents her with her graduation certificate, he just laughs.

 

That night they get more drunk than they really should have done, and Taako and Magnus first discover than Merle isn’t really all that much older than they are, and then that he has a sense of humour filthy and stupid enough to match their own. By the morning, a trio has been born, and whilst Barry finds himself vaguely worried for this world and any others they might travel to, he can’t bring himself to resent them for it.

 

In the weeks and months that follow, Barry, Lup and Taako knuckle down on their research, whilst Magnus makes it his business to train the new recruits and deal with any ne’er-do-wells the local law enforcement have trouble handling alone. Taako, Magnus and Merle become something close to inseparable, and whilst from the outside their dynamic seems unconventional, anyone who knows them as well as Lup and Barry do recognise that they find in each other something like the family that they’d never been able to be happy with before.

 

For their part, Barry and Lup co-author ground breaking papers with each new term, and slowly but surely they get to know Davenport a little better. Lup’s had a soft spot for him ever since he saw in her and her brother the potential they were barely willing to admit to themselves, but Barry finds himself enjoying the man’s wry humour.

 

If Taako, Merle and Magnus were unusual - Davenport and Merle’s relationship was downright odd from a distance. But getting to know the man, his subtle humour and subtler tricks, Barry began to understand how the two had found peace with one another’s temperaments years ago.

 

Lucretia was more difficult, she made it her business to keep to herself, and Barry found it hard to tell whether that was a work ethic or if she was just shy. Merle disclosed, one night camping over a bottle of whiskey, that though he liked Lucretia well enough, even he had found it hard to break through her barriers. This, apparently, was like a red rag to a bull for Lup, who took it upon herself to try every day to scale the social battlements Lucretia had built for herself.

 

So time passed, and they grew closer, and when Barry, Taako, Magnus and Lup were offered the last four places on the hypothetical inter-planar research expedition, it was with little surprise and less ceremony. By this point, Barry wasn’t sure there was anyone else on the planet he’d rather explore the universe with.

 

They’re at Davenport’s house, sitting outside in his garden and working their way through more bottles of wine than they’ll want to count in the morning, looking up at the stars when they see it.

 

The Light of Creation is blinding, bigger and brighter than a shooting star or a meteor, and none of them have to say a thing to any of the others before they’re grabbing their things and travelling through the night to the landing site.

 

When they get there, it’s nearly morning. A few curious citizens and early risers, farmers, bakers and the like have arrived at the crater, but no one is willing to go down and interact with the beautiful, burning, glowing thing that’s emanating pure arcane power.

 

Davenport looks at the rest of them, and he can’t hide the excitement on his face (because maybe this is it, maybe this is what they’ve needed). “Magnus, crowd control.”

 

Magnus offers a mock salute. “Already on it, Cap’n’port.”

 

“Good, Merle, you go with him, check to see whether anyone was hurt. Lucretia -“ Davenport breaks off, smiling, because Lucretia already has her notebook out and is sketching the scene of the crash.

 

“Alright, Lup, Taako, Barry, with me.”

 

Slowly, Davenport begins to climb down the crater towards the unnameable thing at its centre. Ears flicking between tension and excitement, Lup and Taako follow, with Barry tripping on their heels. It’s a hot morning, and the sun is rising by now. The dust and gravel beneath their feet is stained with ash, and Barry thinks he can make out glass or something like it around the object.

 

Lup lets out a low whistle. “That’s one hot impact crater. Careful captain.” She twists her fingers, redirecting the heat into a shimmering column that vents up and above the crowd, dispersing into the atmosphere.

 

Davenport nods. “Understood. Taako, I think it’s stuck.” He hasn’t touched it yet, but he’s a foot away and even from where Barry’s standing, several feet back, it’s bright enough to make his eyes water. “Can you think of a way to dislodge it without damaging it?”

 

“Of course,” Taako flicks his wand, and the sand beneath the object turns into snow, which rapidly melts into water and then steam. Davenport takes a deep breath and wipes his forehead with the sleeve of the loose white cotton shirt he’s wearing.

 

“Alright. Barry, I’m going to need your help. Lup, is this cool enough for us to touch?”

 

Lup pauses in her work and Barry recognises the burnt umber of her magic as it flickers across the surface of the object. “Yeah, I think so. But Captain, I’ve never felt anything like this. I have no idea what it’s going to do if you try to pick it up.”

 

Barry can feel the power of this thing like a gravitational pull, this close it’s burned itself onto the backs of his eyelids every time he blinks. He’s sweating, and he’s vaguely aware of the crowd at the top of the impact crater. Davenport looks at him, and smiles.

 

“Well, fortune favours the brave, right Bluejeans?”

 

Barry can’t say anything, because they’re standing over an immensely powerful magical object that fell from the sky and his mind is moving at a mile a minute.

 

Davenport nods, steels himself, and says, “don’t touch it until you see what happens to me.” And then he fishes into his pocket, pulls out his gardening gloves, slips them on and picks it up.

 

For a second, the light is blinding, and then it fades, and as Barry blinks away the tears from his eyes and Taako and Lup lower their arms from where they’d shielded their faces, they see Davenport, unscathed and elated, staring down at the dim, glowing orb in his hands.

 

When he looks up at them, Barry, Taako and Lup in the crater, Lucretia, Magnus and Merle anxiously peering down from above, they know for sure for the first time in their lives that they’re going to travel through the stars.

 

“This is going to change everything.”