Taako had saved Lucretia’s life a lot. All of the IPRE had saved each other’s lives a lot, of course, but there was a particular asymmetry there—Taako rarely needed help. He saw everything coming, he always knew who was about to betray them and had an exit all lined up. Lup was better at making exits than finding them; they had complementary talents. But all of them owed Taako a life debt at least four times over—he was a genius, where it counted.
Taako was very modest about it. It took Lucretia too long—at least fifty years—to realize that modesty could be a survival trait, too. Taako was self-aggrandizing for many reasons, but partially because it made his modesty more believable. That allowed him to hide some of his strengths until it was too late for an enemy to take them fully into account. Just another way to get the upper hand.
Merle’s life debts had run the other way. He had to be saved a lot. Not out of stupidity, but out of sheer and unparalleled bravery. He seemed to understand on a deeper level than the rest of them that they were immortal. But Lucretia learned, too, over the course of her long adulthood, that Merle had been brave like that before his body was trapped in the ship, to be reborn again and again. A person’s will to live isn’t like that, she had realized. You can’t think yourself out of fear of death. The only thing that can make you less afraid of death is love or misery. Both of them were at play, with Merle.
But then she’d taken their memories away.
Lucretia had been devastated at their test of initiation for the Bureau. She had thought in desperate, miserable circles for hours afterwards, staring at the portrait of the seven of them. How had she broken them so badly, that they identified Taako as the bravest and Merle the most intelligent? Davenport’s dismantling was a constant horror, but Taako’s feigned idiocy was brand new and shocking, and Merle’s callous detachment was unbearable.
But the test of initiation had always been a trap. You needed courage behind the panel in the glass tower, to hold fast to a complicated decision you had made in seconds. And in the arena, courage got you killed.
That’s what Lucretia’s thinking about now, stirring her coffee in a shop in Neverwinter, a year after the Day of Story and Song. But that’s circling the point, because what she’s really wondering is why Magnus held so steady. She’s wondering how he knew himself so well, with his memories gone. She thinks it’s about the simplicity of him, and maybe about the lack of a real ego. Merle and Taako are delicate people, complicated, formed into intricate clockwork by the incredible annuls of their experience. Talking to Magnus is sometimes like talking to a golden retriever. But it made him resilient.
But what’s the point in thinking about it, anyway? Lucretia can’t be Magnus. She’s been shaped too, built like a bridge made out of balsa wood for a school project. An incredible number of toothpicks, set up just so. Very easy to dismantle. And there’s a kind of resiliency to someone like Taako, too. He might have pretended to be an idiot, but it was a thin façade. He always knew just how to cut the Gordian knot.
Lucretia thinks that these are things that she should have rightfully known decades ago, about these people. She should not have been dumbly banging her head against a brick wall just next to the truth of it, when she was staring at the painting those years ago. But guilt makes you dumb.
Lucretia keeps drinking her coffee. She empties her brain for a second, but thought creeps back in. She’s found the quietness of these mornings to be absolutely necessary. During the Balance time, as she’s started to think of it, when her friends were amnesiacs and she was totally alone, she had given herself absolutely nothing. She had made a rule of it—no indulgences. She had worked constantly. Most of that work, she found, had been useless. Relocating the relics wasn’t painting a house; it wasn’t even finishing a crossword. It was too complicated to plug away at. You had to be meticulous, and you had to take notes, and make maps, that was true. But you had to dream, too, and sleep in on a Sunday; you had to take long baths and drink alcohol late at night. You had to seek out states of mind that were not grey drudgery and cultivate your senses. That’s why Lucretia walked dumbly into Wonderland and lost twenty years off her life. Taako had given his beauty (and Merle his eyesight, and Magnus years of his life) out of self-sacrifice and bravery, yes. But he had also given it because he had his friends behind him, a man waiting for him who he knew would love him anyway. All Lucretia had was guilt, and the burden of lonely memory, and her own will. Her will was towering, and it had allowed her to do everything she had done. But it was not enough.
What she needed had always been a puzzle, and it was one only she could solve. It had taken her a long time to realize that she had to solve it. That one of your obligations, as a human being, is to go on the great long journey of discovering what you need, so that you can become yourself more and more fully, and so that you can, ultimately, give yourself to the world. Lucretia’s life had obliged her to reverse the proper order, and instead give of herself half-formed, not just to the world, but to all worlds. She doesn’t blame herself for this: that’s not what’s needed, either.
But she needs the quiet moment at the beginning of the day. The things she’s done and who she’s done them to don’t relieve her of her obligations to herself. Guilt doesn’t have that power.
Lucretia has a lot of talents. First among them is and has always been her memory, for which she was spun out from her home and into a hundred universes. A good memory can pass for myriad other virtues, like true interest in the lives of others, or sheer intelligence. But Lucretia is also a good writer, an intensely moral person, and great at logistics. Therefore, she looks at the invoice crossing her desk and knows that the furniture shipment will not make it to New Fandolin in time—she sticks her head out of her office and says, “Bex?”
“Yes?” Her secretary asks, from behind her in the hallway, a bag over her shoulder and a harried expression on her face. “I thought you said I could come in at eight today?”
“Yes, I did. Why, what time—Oh.” It’s 7:30. “Then why are you here?”
Bex rubs her temple. “What did you need?”
“Oh, Jesus. You should leave early.”
“What did you need?”
“The number…” Lucretia says, weakly. “For the director of Goldman Shipping in Rockport.”
Lucretia gets the number and negotiates his pick-up of the shipment later by two hours, which should be plenty of time. The problem with building houses is that then you have to fill them. Then she goes to a meeting with a farm collective—food has been a problem in some areas of the world where the Hunger destroyed farmland. She doesn’t win that one, but she has two more set up that afternoon.
Then, she goes to lunch with Lup.
She doesn’t know why Lup set this up, originally, just that she asked Lucretia enough times that Lucretia felt honor-bound to return the invitation, and it has become an infrequent habit over the past two months. In a way it feels very normal, except for literally everything about it.
For one, Lup doesn’t live down the hall anymore, and Lucretia will never see her as anything but a ghost ever again. Lucretia misses things about Lup’s body that she never thought she would—the way she would talk with her mouth full, the way she would touch people’s shoulders when they had just made her laugh. For another, Lup spends the entire time, every time, looking at Lucretia alternately like she has something she needs to say but can’t bear to, and like she needs to know what Lucretia’s thinking but can’t tell. This is a profound reversal from their previous relationship, where Lup had mostly projected innocent friendliness (and occasionally innocent blind ignorance) towards Lucretia while Lucretia had pined endlessly and torturously for Lup.
Lup is a beautiful woman with a fiery personality: precisely Lucretia’s type. As soon as Lup had made that terrible, vindictive speech about Greg Grimaldis in front of God and everyone, Lucretia had stars in her eyes. Isn’t that the way it is? People who are good at putting out fires want fires to put out. But Lup didn’t want her fires put out, she wanted gasoline. And despite her brother, she was the kind of person who never even considered the possibility of two women together. Beautiful women make Lucretia very dumb, but Lup had put every bumbling, horrible faux pas and misstep and idiotic comment Lucretia had made down to Lucretia’s admittedly crushing social awkwardness.
The crush had faded, eventually, because Lucretia had realized one day that it was childish to pine for someone who would be terrible for you, like a dog chasing a car. Now she looks for women who are a little chaotic, yes, but in a way that dovetails with Lucretia’s quiet morning requirement.
Not that Lucretia has been dating lately.
Lup doesn’t order, obviously, but she can appear as a regular person when she needs to. Instead, she shows up as a flock of ravens just as Lucretia is negotiating with the waitress about whether she can get the dish with less salt this time—Lucretia doesn’t have a taste for it. This, Lucretia thinks, sipping her water, is exactly why they wouldn’t work, watching the waitress try to recover.
Lup finally explains herself and sits down, and the waitress flees without confirming the low-sodium order. Lucretia sighs. Lup smiles at her, wolf-like. “Why are you so calm? Fifty years ago that would have given you a conniption.”
Lucretia smiles. “I think you answered your own question.”
Lup laughs. “How’s tricks?”
“Okay. I haven’t secured any food donations for Goldcliff yet, I’m still working on it.”
Lup’s ordinary expression of predatory glee fades back down to quiet concern. Lucretia thinks that Lup still carries a lot of guilt for the Relic Wars, and she’s transferred some of that onto the damage left by the Hunger. “Oh. Are you going to… Work something out?”
“I think so.”
Lup fiddles with a spoon on the table. “What about that town near Wave Echo?”
“That’s going well. It’s mostly rebuilt now.”
“Oh, that’s good.”
Lucretia studies all her body language for a moment, while Lup stays quiet. Then, she tries something she’s never tried with Lup before. “Do you feel guilty?”
All that body language disappears. Lucretia doesn’t know if it’s a genuine mood swing or an attempt to cover up what she had been feeling. “Do you?”
Lucretia desperately wants to fiddle with something. She doesn’t feel guilty, or shouldn’t. She’s been working on freeing herself from the tyranny of that emotion. But the IPRE had blamed her for a lot; Taako still won’t speak to her. Lucretia desperately doesn’t want to know what Lup thinks. Everything is still so fragile that she’s not sure she could stand it, no matter what it was. “I’m sorry I asked—never mind.”
Lup looks at her for a long time. “Does that mean yes?”
“Please let it go.”
Uncharacteristically, Lup looks away.
“How are things on your end?” Lucretia says, a little desperately.
Lup shrugs one shoulder. “I’m fighting with Taako.”
“You are?” Lucretia asks, confused. The twins didn’t fight, not really. They always fought, but this also meant that they never fought, since a fight requires making up, and consequences. You can’t fight with someone you can’t surprise, especially not when you both know you are bound to love each other for eternity, will never truly be apart.
“I have a different perspective on it.” Lup says, quietly.
Lucretia knows what she’s talking about, and this is absolutely too much. This is too much pushing. If all of them have decided to blame Lucretia for saving them from their own horrible mistake, then Lucretia will suffer it. She will go to their weddings and come to holiday parties and be kind to them for the rest of her life, but Lucretia can’t do that and talk about it. She doesn’t owe them an honest discourse as well, not if that’s how they see things. “Lup.” She says, very sharply. “If that’s what this has all been about, then I’m going to go. I don’t want to do this. I won’t.”
Lup puts a hand on her wrist, very briefly, still looking strangely serious. “Don’t leave. What do you mean, all this? Do you mean having lunch? No, of course not.”
“We don’t have to do it. Talk about it, I mean. Now I’m sorry that I brought it up.”
Lucretia’s stuck. She doesn’t want Lup to see her run, but she does want to, now. She wants to give up on this—she has friends now, has spent months cultivating acquaintances until some of them turned into something more. She doesn’t need to do this, she reminds herself, she doesn’t need to keep opening the wound of her unrequited love on top of all of this other shit. There’s facing your problems, and then there’s exacerbating them because you’re bored, or self-punishing.
Before she can fully decide, though, Lup says, “Barry had to take down some zombies on the plane of thought.”
“There aren’t undead on the plane of thought.” Lucretia snaps without thinking.
Lup smiles a smile that used to melt Lucretia’s guts. “There are now.” And okay. Lucretia does want to hear this.
When Taako, Merle and Magnus had brought the Phoenix Fire Gauntlet to her, Lucretia had felt like they were bringing her a corpse or a long-lost friend. Later that night, she had put it on her hand, just so she could hear Lup’s cadences in its voice, while it argued and cajoled and seduced her. Lup was like a trickster God, difficult to reconcile as just a human being, and being her ally made you feel almost godlike, too. It was beguiling. But all trickster Gods are human. The lesson of those fables is: everyone you meet has Loki in them somewhere, so pay attention.
Lucretia had tried to ask the gauntlet, is she dead? Where is she? She thought maybe it had some psychic connection to her. But all it would do was beg and beg. Surely, if Taako had taken the umbrastaff off of a skeleton, then Lup was
gone. But what would have happened to her lich form? Lucretia couldn’t work it out.
She channeled just a pilot light through the gauntlet. Lup’s fire in her hands. It was comforting. Lucretia closed her eyes, and thought—Lup had a thrall, too.
She had met Alanna at the farmer’s market. They were both morning people, and they would get there around the same time as the people setting up the stalls, just when dawn was breaking. Lucretia has a no-nonsense morning routine: put her long grey hair up in a bun, change her clothes, and out the door. She doesn’t eat until later, when she’s on her way to work—eating makes the morning slow, even in the chill of autumn, takes the sharpness out of it.
Lucretia is the kind of person to befriend the frail, ancient women who held court over their ancestral stalls from a chair in the corner, while their grandson or granddaughter took the money and weighed the produce under her direction. Sometimes they would be trawling the aisles, instead, or in the store on the corner, a descendent holding overfull shopping bags. She would ask them how to tell what was ripe and what was overripe, and listen to their cryptic answers, try to take them in, close her eyes when they told her to. It was a bit of a game, of course, because they wanted you to believe always that their produce was superior, and so would sometimes lie. Lucretia would look deep into their eyes (some of them ringed with the pale blue of old age) when they spoke, made sure they saw and pitied her lack of wedding ring. It was good practice for the rest of the day, and there was no other way to really know, was the thing. Lucretia hadn’t grown up with these fruits, and young people were always wrong.
So that’s how she met Alanna. Lucretia had been buying her last fruit of the morning for her highly anticipated breakfast, and she had her eyes closed, because multiple very old women had told her that it was important it feel dense, that that meant it was sweeter. And someone behind her had said, in a sweet, smooth voice, “Excuse me—“
Lucretia had spun around, startled, and a small woman about Lucretia’s age had said, “Oh! I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you—but would you teach me how to tell if that’s ripe?” Lucretia hadn’t immediately known what to say, and Alanna had quickly confessed, “You really look like you know what you’re doing.”
Lucretia had laughed, and taught her. They had seen each other a few more times at the farmer’s market, and finally Lucretia had asked her to lunch. She’s beautiful, delicate, well-spoken, just a little chaotic, and she has a brutal sense of humor. Lucretia still hasn’t made any moves, is taking it slowly, though she can tell Alanna’s getting impatient. But Alanna hasn’t made a move, either.
But she has gotten to the level of comfort where she’ll show up at Lucretia’s work sometimes—she’s figured out that Lucretia is the boss’s boss and can’t be fired—usually with something precious, in this case spiced meat dumplings from a place across town. It’s the end of the day and Lucretia is starving.
“Oh my God.” Lucretia says, eating them, and Alanna looks smug, offers a dark dipping sauce with seeds floating in it. Now it’s even better.
“I had to review this place last week, for this fucking like—magazine for rich people who think they’re cool. It’s disgusting but they pay so fucking well. I don’t think a single person who reads it can handle any spice, but I gave it a rave review. I feel a little guilty about it.”
This is out of character. “What, you feel bad for the rich people burning their mouths?”
“Naw. The woman who runs it, she’s such a sweetheart, she’s gonna have to deal with all of them sending their meals back when they can’t handle it.”
Lucretia laughs. Alanna is a freelance writer and professional doer of interesting things, the kind of person who can bluff her way through an interaction with royalty while wearing jean shorts. She has long dark hair and Lucretia’s a sucker for it. Right at that second, she pulls it over her shoulder in a gorgeous cascade, and Lucretia can’t stop watching, finally looks back up to Alanna’s face to see her eyebrows up. Caught—but Alanna is smiling.
Lucretia breathes in deeply, says, “Alanna, look, I really like you. Would you like to go out some time?”
Alanna feigns shock. “On a date?”
Alanna smiles like a cat. “Date number six is going to be the official one, huh?”
Lucretia says, “You could’ve said something too.”
“I didn’t want you to run. I couldn’t read off you how much time you needed to warm up.”
Lucretia scoffs. “I liked you immediately, I’m not that skittish.”
“Mhm. You’re worse than the stray cats in my neighborhood.”
“Well, you feed them.”
Alanna wiggles the paper bag with the dumplings in. “They taught me a lot.”
Lucretia rolls her eyes. “I know coffee is a bit casual for date number six—“ Alanna smiles impossibly wider— “But someone recommended a place to me, said they have good espresso. What do you think?”
Alanna touches the curve of Lucretia’s cheek, and she freezes. Something flashes across Alanna’s face, and she says slowly, “That sounds great. When were you thinking?”
Lucretia tips her head. She’s being managed. “Tomorrow?”
Alanna laughs. “How about now?”
“It’s too late for espresso.”
“The espresso we can do in the morning.”
“Alanna.” Lucretia says, warningly. Her lunch with Lup was a week ago, but Lucretia can feel it fucking with her, pushing her back from this. But she can’t help it—she’s terrified.
Alanna takes a step forward, into her personal space. “You know, I changed my mind. I’m not gonna have coffee with you, Lucretia. I’ll drink with you, though, if you promise to have more than two. I’ll take you home, if you promise to tell me one real thing about your life before you got here. Let me in one inch. One inch.”
Lucretia isn’t having fun anymore. But Alanna is right, and she has no real reason not to trust her. They’ve never even talked about the fact that Lucretia’s world-famous and was part of the IPRE, even though she obviously knows; that’s how patient Alanna has been. “Okay. I pick the drinking option.”
Alanna brings her hands up to Lucretia’s shoulders, then strokes one up to her neck, but doesn’t move any further. “Jesus, you’re difficult.”
“Is that what you like?”
Alanna’s lips part a little, then she sighs. “I know a place around the corner.”
The place reminds Lucretia of the bar they’d gone to right before they left home, more than a century ago. Dive bars are dive bars. Now she can’t imagine having difficulty getting herself out of a situation like that, can’t imagine needing protection. Alanna says, “Let me order, save us that booth.”
“What are you gonna get me?”
“Trust me.” Alanna says, and fuck. Lucretia can’t drink something someone else has ordered for her.
“No.” She says.
Alanna sighs again. “Come on.”
Lucretia watches her order something very alcoholic for the both of them, and sips it carefully back in the booth. Alanna says, “You’re so fucking traumatized.”
“I am not.” Lucretia scoffs again. “I’m fine, stop it.”
“At what point can I order a drink for you without you looking over my shoulder? Year ten?”
“Look, I had lunch with an old friend and it put me in a not-great headspace.”
“Like, an IPRE friend?”
Alanna hasn’t talked about this before. “Yes.”
“Who was it?”
Lucretia shakes her head. “It feels—it feels like breaking their privacy just to talk about them.”
“Why? You lived with them for a century, you’re not even going to talk about them?”
“Just—I revealed their lives to the whole world, I mean—“
“The whole. Jesus, when the story transmitted to all of you, that was me. I know it wasn’t—it wasn’t in there, but what happened was, I… God.”
Lucretia gapes at her. She hasn’t talked to anyone about this. She knew, of course, that what she fed to the Voidfish didn’t include her feeding the journals. It had contained the Voidfish itself, and what it was, but none of them had known about her plan in the first place, so she hadn’t needed to feed the fish that. But it hadn’t occurred to her how fucking complicated it was, how hard to explain, and on top of that, how painful and knotted up. Lucretia thinks about Magnus’s face, as all the understanding and recognition went out of him. Outrage and hurt to blank confusion. Lucretia likes Alanna and doesn’t want to watch her horrified face, watch her walk out of the bar.
Alanna says, “Sorry to belabor this, and I know it’s hard for you, but if you can’t open up to me even a little after all this time, we’re gonna have problems. You’re having problems right now, actually.”
“Jesus, I fucked up. I should have gone back when I had the chance, living in a whole world where everyone knows everything that’s ever happened to you is messed up.”
“See!” Alanna says. “You think I know everything, but I don’t even understand what you just said. Go back? When could you have done that?”
“It was after I broke all the bonds in the Hunger and killed it.”
“Oh right, it was your spell that worked, right?”
“So, wait, you transmitted their story? Why?”
“No, no, not on purpose.”
“Look, I don’t—I’m not proud of it and I don’t want to… Well, I guess it… I don’t want to say I did anything wrong.” She forces herself to say. She can’t admit guilt anymore. “Look, I can’t—anything else, okay? Let’s talk about anything else.” Lucretia begs. She feels like she’s got to get out of here, she feels panicked, she feels like maybe she would rather not have dumplings and mangoes and cinnamon lattes with intricate lattice shapes in the foam brought to her by a beautiful woman if it means she has to—
Alanna snaps, “Fine.”
“I had a crush on her.” Lucretia admits, suddenly.
“So it was Lup?”
Alanna smiles, slowly, approaching gleeful all of a sudden, “You had a crush on Lup?”
Lucretia sighs in relief. “Yes. God, she’s so beautiful, but very straight, and also kind of a car crash? But that used to be my thing when I was young and dumb.”
Alanna bursts out laughing. “What, straight girls, or car crashes?”
“Both. But not everyone wants an EMT at their car crash, metaphorically speaking, and if we’re talking about straight girls… Well, eventually I just got more interested in people who sort of had more shared experiences with me, you know?”
“Oh, I don’t know. People with unrelatable experiences can be, well, they can be fascinating. If you can get them to talk about it.”
Lucretia opts to roll her eyes to forestall blushing. “Well, I got over it, but sometimes it’s hard to hang out with her, and she keeps inviting me to lunch. It’s a new development.”
“Do you want to stop seeing her?”
“I don’t know.” She swirls the liquid in her glass around. It’s a good drink, spicy and earthy, grounding. “She’s fun to talk to, and obviously she’s a dear friend, and I... Well, I think she wants to talk about stuff I don’t really want to talk about.”
“Which you don’t want to talk to me about, either? You just want to keep all that shit in until the day you die?”
Lucretia wants to explain herself. She wants to say that she shouldn’t be required to be honest if the response was going to be vicious, unjustified anger. She wants to say, too, that she shouldn’t be required to lie, to say she felt terribly guilty and spend the rest of her life atoning, just to placate someone. She wants to be allowed to keep the peace, as she has always done. She’s not used to people objecting. She’s been taught for so long to keep the peace, that it seems absurd now that she’s being told to stop doing it. She feels like the victim of a monstrous bait and switch. Finally she says, weakly, “Not that long.”
Alanna sighs. “Look, tell me something else. The story that got transmitted… it wasn’t your whole life. Tell me a story, and don’t cloak it like you usually do. Don’t tiptoe around the hundred years you spent out there, the fact that you were born in a different universe. Just talk to me.”
This is absolute kryptonite to Lucretia, who can’t think of a single thing for a long moment, absolutely panicked. Just talk to me. “There was a whole year I was alone.” Lucretia says, finally. This is a painful memory, but it was the only one that came to mind. She’s waiting for Alanna to say, I know, to make it clear that she doesn’t need or want the kind of contextual opening sentence that makes it easier to tell this kind of story. But she doesn’t, just waits, patiently, her very black eyes trained on Lucretia. Lucretia gives herself permission to look down, to drag her fingertip through the rings of condensation on the grimy table. She used to be the kind of person who would worry about something like that. “They told me later that they got turned to stone. But I didn’t know about that part at the time. I had no idea where they were, but it didn’t really matter. I knew I needed to preserve the ship, and luckily we had provisions from the last planet. But I didn’t know anything about the terrain and I really needed to know what kind of munitions they had. I tried to trade food for information, in the really fucked up badlands outside the city. Someone tried to… Well, a couple people tried to just take the food. Of course. How dumb am I? I took a kid hostage—well, he was seventeen, but Jesus, was he scrawny.” She looks up, to see Alanna’s eyes still on her, a grimmer, more complicated look on her face.
“You have to understand, it was the only thing to do. They outnumbered me, and there’s only so much you can do with superior firepower unless you’re willing to kill someone. I was prepared for that but I didn’t want to—taking the kid was the better choice. I took him back to the ship, and fed him. I kept him a few weeks to question him—of course he expected a lot worse. It’s funny, but kidnapping someone gives you a weird bond with them… He really wanted to tell me the truth, I think. And he did. At first he didn’t believe a word I told him, but kids are gullible even if they’ve been taught not to be. It’s hardwired, or something, and I showed him the Voidfish. He really loved it... But then, I think it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen in his life.”
“Did you let him go?”
“Oh, of course.” Lucretia says, absently, lost in thought now. “But the desert out there was beautiful. It’s just hard to see from inside it, you know. It was so different from the deserts here, the sand had… It had a kind of life all its own. It was so fine, and grey-black, and the wind was so bad… It could get into your lungs, too. They were all so paranoid that the sand would let the Judges control their bodies. Which at the time I thought was superstition—take it from me. If you get set down on a random alien world you know nothing about, never assume anything is superstition. But it was never relevant, anyway.”
“How did he even know about the munitions and things so he could be helpful?”
“Oh, they asserted a lot of militarized control of those regions. They extracted a lot of resources out. You can’t run a shining city without a lot of hard work on a lot of land. Anyway, I used the information he’d given me and some really good painkillers, which we never really replaced, to ingratiate myself with a local warlord. God she was off her fucking rocker. She hid my ship for me, but it was literally like talking to an actual rabid dog. All those years out there had made her so fucking paranoid. She was a funny woman—she was really out for herself, out for power, and she would do some fucked up shit, but she had so much anger, too, for the region and what had been done to it. I don’t think she thought there was a right answer, you know? She didn’t think of herself as righteous, all she thought was that anyone who thought they were righteous was probably torturing children. It was like… she didn’t think of herself as a person making moral or immoral choices at all… She thought of herself like a chess piece, or a cog in a really complicated machine. Eventually she threw me out again, but by then things were easier, because I had fixed the ship and the trail had gone really cold from their perspective. They weren’t watching that region, I’d gotten them really turned around by figuring out how their radio transmissions worked. That was really all Barry, though, he taught me a ton about that.”
“Jesus.” Alanna is forward in her seat.
“I hid out at the pole for the rest of the year. Turned the heat down as much as Fisher and I could stand. Turned everything off, to hide. I didn’t know too much about what they could and couldn’t detect. The storms got worse and worse.” Lucretia’s tongue-tied here, again, doesn’t want to tell Alanna about how much time she spent with Fisher, how they learned how to talk to each other in the bitter cold. How he had sung to her, to keep her awake, while she worked to keep the ship running, just enough. How she had lost a finger to frostbite, and they had almost not made it out, through the gale of a winter storm so bad that everything past the windshield had been bright, featureless white. How Lucretia had piloted blind. Even the triumph at the end feels too painful to talk about: emerging from the driving snow and thick clouds to see the mountains, how unbelievably beautiful and humbling they had been, towering and foreboding and totally outside of her ability to describe, here, in this bar, with the grime encrusting the table. She spreads her fingers on the tabletop, trying to stay in this moment, trying not to be surprised that she has all ten.
“Let me get you another drink.” Alanna says, and leaves Lucretia alone to ground herself and swallow the lump out of her throat. God, she feels tipsy already. When Alanna gets back, she prompts, “So, how did you…”
“Just flew out. Through the storm. It was a close thing, but. We made it.”
“How did it feel? When the others were back with you?” Lucretia takes a deep breath and can hear how shaky it is. She really is going to cry here, in this bar, and then she’s never going to face Alanna again. Alanna seems to sense this thought process, and says, “Lucretia, it’s okay. You don’t have to—that was amazing. I can’t believe you’re… I could have never. That’s an incredible story. How did you do that?”
“I just had to.” Lucretia says, and thinks she sounds like a ghost. Or a mouse. Part of her thinks that on the basis of that year alone, she should be allowed to rest for a thousand years, that no one should ever ask anything of her again. No questions she can’t answer, no logistical problems, no drinks with friends or dates. Another part of her thinks that the hardest part of the year had been the part at the pole, with Fisher, who had loved Lucretia, whom Lucretia had loved. The rest of the planet had at the time seemed like it was populated with dolls, because Lucretia had felt huge in comparison to them. She was an immortal crusader for the survival of the universe, and they were heartbreakingly, certainly doomed to die in the next year. She had no choices, there was nothing to weigh her own survival against. Her life—and by extension, the chance to save all universes from the Hunger—was supremely important, and their lives didn’t matter at all. She thinks that if she was in a position like that again, she would be relieved. She could turn off her whole brain and go like a wind-up toy until the day she finally died, just picking the one thing over and over that was most likely to let her live, until finally she was wrong.
Now the world is a grand open map, worse than a choose-your-own-adventure book, which she had always hated as a child. Wasn’t there one story that was the right one? The most meaningful or likely or fun? Why not just tell that one? Lucretia feels paralyzed by all her choices. She’s shrunk down to a doll herself, and the people she thought were doomed are there again, far away and untouchable. Somewhere that seventeen-year-old is growing up in a world so fucking cruel that Lucretia can’t stand it. Somewhere he’s growing up with the scars of what she did, and she can’t explain or apologize or atone. She feels like she’s stuck at the pole forever, freezing to death and bored out of her skull. There’s nothing to do now, not one thing that’s important in comparison to saving the entirety of existence. And her friends all abandoned her for it. They all decided that what she did to them to do it was out of bounds. When she was at the pole, she thought they were coming back, but she doesn’t think that anymore.
She realizes that she’s been staring at the table, unseeing, for a long time when Alanna finally says, “Are you alright?”
Lucretia thinks, what a stupid, pointless fucking question, and also no, and says, “Sure.”
Alanna says, “Drink this.”
It’s a different drink, fruity and fizzy and light. “What is this?”
“A cheer-up drink. I’m sorry I bummed you out.”
Lucretia keeps drinking. “It’s okay.”
“I’m guessing you haven’t thought about it in a while?”
“Yeah.” Lucretia lies. In reality, the sex with the warlord had been amazing. Totally beyond incredible, and also necessary for the survival of the entire universe, if Lucretia really thinks about it. She definitely wouldn’t have let Lucretia keep her ship there without the sex. But embarrassingly, it was so hot that Lucretia actually thinks about it all the time. Not the rest, though. Definitely not the kid or the view over the mountains.
“Do you want to change the subject, or do you—“
“Yes. You change the subject.” Lucretia says, feeling bone-deep tired of speaking, tired of being in her own head.
“Alright, alright. So I got a call from an old boss the other day.”
“A journalism boss, or a something else boss?” Alanna has had a lot of jobs.
“A something else boss. Maybe, well. Okay. You’re cool, right? We’re trusting each other?”
“We’re trusting each other.”
“Okay, well. I have a bit of a checkered past.”
Lucretia knows that Alanna used to be some kind of criminal. She’d thought either forger or thief, mostly because of how Alanna had moved around her house the one time Lucretia had been there. Like she was pretending this was the place she really lived, except it wasn’t, clearly. She didn’t have the right level of comfort, how she fit the key in the lock and how she moved around the kitchen, making Lucretia tea, had been all wrong. It wasn’t explained just by being out of town a lot: Alanna had a different place where she really slept. And Alanna had an attitude of casual hypervigilance that’s reserved for people who develop it because they want to, not because they have to. The final straw had been her pointing out a pickpocket who Lucretia hadn’t seen, and acting like turning him in wasn’t even an option that had crossed her mind. “Mhm.”
“You knew this already.”
“Various. What’s the story?”
Alanna rolls her eyes. “I used to track people down for a bookie. He paid commission on whatever debt they paid him, and I got to pick my jobs, so it was pretty cush. This is when I was in my twenties, though.”
“You were a private investigator.”
“Not really. Well, not at that point, but later, yes, I was. I guess I’ve never mentioned it, but that was after I went legit. It wasn’t for very long, I got into journalism really quick.”
“Okay, but, as you were saying.”
“Oh, right. So this bookie calls me, as he sometimes does, usually to beg me to take job with him. But he doesn’t pay enough for me to do that shit anymore, which I always tell him, but then he always tells me he doesn’t believe in going straight. He keeps getting my number—anyway. This is the problem with the people from the beginning of your career. He’s from before I was careful so he knows some old friends of mine and he tracks me down that way. Anyway, so, he calls me and I’m about to hang up but he says it’s not a job, just a tip.”
“Why don’t you screen his calls?”
“Oh, he never has the same number for long. I’m like, this had better be good, you know I went straight, and he gives me the same shit and then he says that he heard there’s an underground MMA league being run out of Chaos stadium. You know they have those new regulations. He says someone asked him if he was running bets on it, but when he asked around about it someone told him that they’re forcing people to fight there.”
Lucretia makes a disbelieving noise.
“Right, exactly. So, I ask him who the fuck told him that and he hems and haws and hems and haws and I tell this guy I’m going to hang up and not think any more about it and he caves. Little coward. He tells me it’s an old friend’s son, who it happened to, and he’s scared out of his mind.”
Lucretia didn’t expect this. “Really?”
“That’s what he says. So I say I’ll look into it, and does he have any more information, and he says he doesn’t. I track the kid down, by which I mean I call his mom. His mom says she hasn’t seen him in a while but gives me his address, and I question the kid. Well, he’s an adult now. Kind of, he’s twenty-one. He confirms the bookie’s story including some details, and he looks really fucked up about it. Genuinely fucked up.”
“Oh my God.”
“Yeah. Apparently he’s into drugs and he owes some debt to the guy who’s running this.” Lucretia makes a pained noise. “Yeah, it’s bad. He won’t tell me the guy’s name or any identifying information, and he’s real paranoid and kind of in withdrawal. But, long story short, I track this guy down. I follow him around for a while, confirm most of this stuff. Then I write up the story.”
“And, most of that was last week, now I’m in a back and forth with this newspaper.”
“Is the kid gonna be okay?” Lucretia asks. She’s finished her drink. Alanna’s story had been absorbing, but now it’s gone and Lucretia realizes she’s drunk. Part of the problem with living with the same people for one hundred years is that everyone else, afterwards, even people you’ve known and trusted for months or years, seem basically like strangers. So here she is: in a bar, drunk, with a stranger who she’s just told a story to—a real story. Parts of it, she had never told to anyone before, like showing the kid Fisher, the awe in his face. She looks down at her hands—how many people can say they lost a finger and grew it back and never told anyone about it? Just hid it away like it was an STD they had once?
Alanna weighs the question. “Honestly? Probably not. He’s a drug addict who owes who knows how much money to who knows how many dangerous people. Probably he’s not going to be fine. But this is a start.”
“Man, I haven’t drunk anything in a while.” Lucretia says, and she knows her voice sounds a little panicked. Is she sure she’s safe here?
Alanna gets up, tipping to the side a little as she does. “Whoop.” She sits down on the same side of the booth as Lucretia. “Honey. Are you getting nervous?”
“Look. I know this bar. I’ve been coming to this bar for decades, okay. This is a safe place. I know the owners.” Lucretia thinks, but doesn’t say, but I don’t know you. Alanna strokes one fingertip down her jawline, delicately, and then turns Lucretia’s head. “Can I kiss you?” She asks. Alanna is so beautiful, is the problem—it’s disarming. Her lips are flush and darkly red in the half-light of the bar, like they’re reflecting the dark of her eyes, which look huge and hungry. Lucretia leans in.
They kiss for a long time in the back booth without being interrupted. It’s like falling asleep, the same cessation of rational thought and difficulty of escape; their bodies moving instinctively. Alanna straddles Lucretia’s lap and they get closer and closer together, until they’re fused, moving precisely together. But then, there’s a throat clearing. Alanna breaks away and looks up while Lucretia is still dumbly trying to get her eyes to focus.
“Alanna, take your date home.” A middle aged woman says, kindly.
“Oh, jesus. Alright.” Alanna says, and helps Lucretia up.
Lucretia feels dizzy. She hasn’t kissed anyone in many years, which is a new thing for her—during the latter part of the lost century, she had slept around a lot. She really hasn’t drunk much, though, ever. It wasn’t responsible to do that during the stolen century, and on their homeworld Lucretia had been achingly uncool, the kind of person who has literally two friends and is still a virgin when she’s thirty. In fact, if you count the lost century years as real years, it was a lot later than thirty. But now Lucretia is so, so old, and her body is screaming for her to get laid. Absolutely screaming. So even though the last time she had sex she had the body of a twenty-two year old and she’s never had sex drunk in her very long life, Lucretia is thankful for the older woman who’s shepherding them out the door.
Alanna says, “My place?”
“Real or fake?” Lucretia asks. Shit, she didn’t mean to play that card this early.
“Fuck you.” Alanna says, with real venom. “Jesus I hate how fucking smart you are.”
Lucretia tips her head. “Do you?”
“No. Jesus. Was that a fucking yes?”
Lucretia kisses her again, hungry. “Yes.”
Lup calls her that next morning. They’re both still in Alanna’s bed, and Lucretia was planning on sleeping in. She doesn’t feel super generous towards Lup, in the half-light of the very early morning, with Alanna asleep (like a rock) beside her.
“Hey, Lucretia, how’s tricks?” Very dimly, Lucretia thinks there’s something up with Lup’s tone.
Lucretia braves the cold floor to get out of the room to the (somewhat sparsely appointed) living room, where she says quietly, “Fine, Lup, what’s up?” She sounds very irritated, and winces, but fortunately Lup is oblivious as ever and continues on blithely.
“Oh, you know. I wanted to, well, I just. Well. How’s work?”
“It’s fine. I got those food donations.”
“Oh! Oh, great.” Lup sounds really relieved, but doesn’t say anything else. Lucretia lets the silence drag, cultivating patience. Providing no distractions will force Lup to the point much faster than anything else. Finally, Lup asks, “Do you need any… help?”
Unfortunately, Lucretia has no idea what she’s talking about. “Help? With what?”
“You know, with the work you’re doing. Could I help?”
Lup sounds both very anxious and very earnest, so Lucretia doesn’t say, the grim reaper wants to build houses for the homeless? But she comes close. She tries to dial it back and fumbles instead. “Well, uhm, sure, I mean, how?”
Lup laughs, but nervously. “Well. I guess a better question is, do you think I could help? Do you need to, uh, intimidate anyone? That’s one of my big talents. Oh! Demolition. I could do that.”
“I, uh, don’t know about either of those. Most of the regions destroyed by the Hunger were already demolished. And I, uh, don’t really usually run things via intimidation. But maybe I can find something that you could help with. Let me get back to you, okay?”
“Thanks, Lucretia. Look, I. I wanted to say—and you don’t have to say anything back—“
“No, Lucretia. I do feel guilty. We took the souls of some people who had died in the attack and turned to necromancy this week and I felt terrible about it. I mean, I’ve literally wiped whole cities off the map, of course I feel guilty. I’m glad you asked me, because I think we should talk about it. I understand you’re not ready to but I think we should eventually.”
“I don’t think this is the same thing. I don’t think these are comparable. Look, you woke me up and I want to go back to bed. I’ll talk to you later.”
“What isn’t comparable? Wait, I woke you up?”
“Yes. Goodbye.” Lucretia says, and hangs up on her.
Lucretia keeps dreaming of Fisher. She dreams of her time in the cold with him—it’s washed out, devoid of the real detail that she can recall while awake. She can barely remember it when she wakes up.
Fisher screamed when Lucretia took his baby from him; he screamed endlessly, for hours, alternately screeching and guttural. Lucretia feels worse about doing that than maybe about anything else she’s ever done. It was necessary, to do what she did, to save everything, and logically she knows she reunited a lot of children with their parents when she killed the Hunger. But the bond that they shared, Fisher and the little one, was beyond that kind of logic. It was outside of the normal flow of time and the tick of calculation. There are some things you don’t do, no matter their effects, and one of them is separating a child from its parent, just after birth, when they still are cleaved to each other, both brand-new.
She thinks a lot about that moment. About why she had done it. But she hadn’t thought about the time in the cold in a long time.
She had put her hand in the water, and he had reached out and told her story after story, sung her songs and let her peruse paintings, for hours, all made by people who had died long before Fisher was born. He could never understand her questions about whether the stories were true or not. She had tried to share, but in comparison her memory had seemed like a puddle, it was so shallow. But Fisher had loved her stories, had told them back to her, even—she thinks because of the emotion in them—his own stories were colorful and intricate, like a Rube Goldberg machine or a gothic cathedral, but he was totally divorced from them. She didn’t even think he understood his family was dead—he had felt very few things, besides joy, in his short life. But Lucretia had changed that, had taught him misery, panic, and longing.
The beauty of his stories and songs was undeniable. Overwhelming. That beauty had made the mountains even more heartbreaking, had underlined them. They had made Lucretia terrified of the possibility of losing the world. Of dying, just as she watched that world die under her, fled from it and to it like a coward.
Lucretia hasn’t talked to Magnus in a while. But they have spoken in the last year—well, Magnus sent her a few letters, which were short, had very large type, and multiple hand-drawn dogs. Lucretia had answered, smaller handwriting, more words, less substance. But she hadn’t answered the last letter. She told herself she was busy.
That morning, sitting up in bed, after another dream about Fisher, Lucretia pulls it out. All the dog drawings are both very different and precisely the same. They’re so terrible that she can’t make out anything distinctive between them, even though they vary extensively in every dimension. He says he’s doing well. He tells her the farmer’s market sounds nice.
After work that day, Lucretia is still thinking about it. Sitting in her office, everyone else gone, the slanting light through the windows dim and blue, she calls Magnus on impulse.
“Lucretia!” Magnus booms, and immediately Lucretia thinks, this was a mistake. Magnus is often like a slap in the face even when he’s whispering, and now, at the end of a long day where she didn’t secure any donations, it’s like nails on a chalkboard.
“Hey, Magnus.” She says, quietly, trying to lead by example.
“Is something wrong?” Magnus asks, confused.
“No. Just wanted to talk. How are you?”
“Oh, I’m good. Daisy just had her pups and it was a bit of a difficult delivery.”
“Oh! Was it alright?”
“Daisy’s fine, but some of the pups were stillborn.”
“Oh. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay. It’s pretty common—but I think Daisy could tell there were some missing.”
“Oh.” Lucretia tries to ignore the pit in her stomach at the thought of the dog, frantic, looking for—it’s ridiculous. But she can’t think of anything to say.
“Well… How are you?”
“Oh. I’m doing well. Uhm, well. The recovery effort is… Well, we’re still working on that, but we’re also transitioning to regular charity work now. We’re building houses for the homeless in Neverwinter right now. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t really a great day.” Lucretia forces herself to admit.
“No, I, uh, I failed to get some… To convince some people to donate and I’m a bit worried. I’m sure it’ll work out okay, though.”
“You mean some people decided not to donate.” Magnus says, a little fatherly in his concern.
“Well, yes, of course.”
“I’m dating someone.”
“Oh, really?” Magnus sounds thrilled. “What’s she like?”
Lucretia considers this. “Well, she’s a journalist. Strong personality. Extremely smart. She’s done a lot of travelling and things, she has a lot of stories.”
“Wow, she sounds great! You should bring her around sometime. You know we have game nights every once and a while. You could come to one of them.”
Lucretia winces. Davenport hosts these and Lucretia has never been invited by anyone but Magnus. She hopes he doesn’t feel rejected, but then again—it’s Lucretia who truly isn’t welcome. “Maybe sometime.”
“Yeah, you should. Last time—“
Lucretia can’t hear whatever funny story he’s going to tell, and instead blurts, “Do you ever think about Fisher?”
Magnus pauses for a while. “Yes.” He says finally, sounding like he’s trying not to spook a rabid dog. “Of course. Do you?”
“Yeah. Sometimes. Do you think they’re okay?”
“Of course. If they didn’t know where they were going, they wouldn’t have left.”
Lucretia wants to say, that’s not what I meant, or worse, is that what you would say if Daisy ran away? But instead she says, “Where do you think they were going?”
“I don’t know. It’s not like Fisher could have told me.”
“Sure he could.”
“Well, there wasn’t really time.”
“Do you miss him?”
Magnus sighs. “It sounds like you miss him, Lucretia.”
Lucretia lets the silence drag out as she tries to decide what to do. “It was great talking to you.” She says, eventually, unwilling to hear him tell her about how little right she has, to miss Fisher after what she did to him.
“Oh, come on, don’t—“
“I’m not doing anything. I just got to the store. I’ve got to pick a few things up. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Fine.” Magnus says, sounding hurt still.
“Look, Magnus. I’m—I’m sorry.”
“For what? Hanging up on me?”
“I’m not hanging up on you.” There’s a pause before she chokes out, “I just can’t talk about this right now. Can you understand that? I just can’t do it.”
Magnus is silent a while before he says, sounding tired, but no longer hurt, “It’s okay. I understand. But it’s okay, you know, that you miss him. Anyway, I’ll talk to you later.”
“Bye.” Lucretia says, hangs up, closes her eyes tight to forestall tears, and stays in her office a long time before finally getting up the energy to go home.
In the morning, Lucretia lures one of the stray cats that hang around her neighborhood into her house. It hides under the bed for a full week, but eventually, slowly, it creeps out. It’s got weird huge ears and suspicious little eyes. It bumps her hand with its head when she feeds it. Maybe it’s okay. Maybe it’s okay.
Lucretia admits to herself two weeks after her last lunch with Lup that she’s avoiding her. But it takes four, after Lucretia has ignored several attempts to reach out, and had several more dates with Alanna, before Lup shows up in a shower of ravens at eleven AM one day.
“What is your fucking problem?” She screeches, with no warning.
Bex, behind her, jumps two feet in the air and drops a coffee mug, scalds her hand and shatters it. She makes a horrible involuntary pained mewling, and Lucretia gets up and walks around Lup to say, “Oh, honey, are you alright?” in the precise way she’s learned she can get away with as a middle-aged woman.
Bex says, “Oh, yes, ma—Lu—Lucretia, I, uhm, is this, I guess you know this, uhm, woman?”
Lucretia says, “Yes, I do. I’m so sorry about this. Let me take care of the mug, run some cold water over that.”
Bex picks up some other odds and ends from the floor, gives Lup one last wide-eyed and terrified glance, and rushes out. Lup looks like a kicked dog.
“Did you need something?” Lucretia asks, pleasantly.
“Okay, I’m sorry about that, but I still don’t think I did anything to deserve being ignored for three weeks.”
“It’s eleven AM and I’m in the middle of the work day, and I’m very busy. Why don’t you come back some other time.” Lucretia says, calm as granite. This is an old tactic with the twins, one that isn’t supremely effective ultimately but works reliably if all you need is to stall. For some reason, two people who can ape pretty much any human emotion and con pretty much anybody out of anything find it impossible to hide their anger, and will let their increasing rage get the better of them if Lucretia can just keep her (infuriating, apparently) cool.
True to form, Lup is seething. “You’re the fucking boss and you can do whatever you want! Stop making fucking excuses and tell me why you won’t talk to me!”
“I’m the boss, but our work here is important, in case you’ve forgotten, and I want to get it done.” Lucretia says innocently.
“When do you give a shit about us, then? When do we ever get to steal a minute from your precious work? You’ve made it perfectly clear you would sacrifice us, but—“
Lucretia takes it all back. She’s not calm anymore. “Get out.” She says, still with her default pleasant tone. She’s like a computer program, she thinks, devoid of normal human reactions, but then she hears her voice as she keeps talking, twisted up and deeply hurt—“Get out this instant, and if you ever come back I promise to you I will do some serious fucking spellwork to keep you out.”
Lup’s face is blank. “You don’t mean that.”
Lucretia absolutely cannot keep it together another instant. She’s been forcibly keeping herself from thinking about Alanna’s question almost every moment since she asked it—how did it feel when the others were back with you?—and she’s going to lose her mind. And she does; she screams, “I loved you all so fucking much and you abandoned me and you have the fucking gall to come here and say that because I won’t answer your calls for three weeks?” Lucretia feels ill, through and through, so full of emotion that she’s physically sick with it. Her eyesight is blurring and she gropes her staff out from under her desk by feel.
Lup steps back a half-step, scared suddenly.
Lucretia opens her mouth to banish this specter, and instead what comes out is, “Congratulations. You kept your hands fucking clean, how nice for you! You pretended none of it was your fault, when all of it was your fault, and you did it so you could feel like a good person at the end. Great! Well, in the process you absolutely failed to save anything! To do anything! So I had to clean up, and I got dirty in the process. And you all threw me out like trash for it. Fuck you all! Fuck you! I thought I could take it but I can’t!”
“Listen to me!” Lup roars. “I don’t think that! Maybe Taako does but we’re not the same person! I’m trying to get through to you to thank you!”
Lucretia drops the staff. It makes a strangely musical clunk on the hardwood.
“I know you’ve been hurt.” Lup says, and fuck, is she crying a little? “But why do you make it so hard? Why can’t I talk to you? Why won’t you talk to me? Jesus, I miss you—don’t you miss us? Aren’t you dying? Aren’t you lonely?”
Lucretia doesn’t have a single thing to say. After her time at the pole, when they had reappeared on the deck… It was the best thing that ever happened to her. It was the happiest she has ever been. She didn’t even feel her finger grow back—she didn’t even notice. She sits heavily on the floor. She knows it’s dramatic, but she can’t think. Her whole brain is empty. Out of the black comes the thought: losing love is much, much worse than not having it. Her hurt is so much bigger than her loneliness. Is that right? Should it be like this? Or is that just her pride, getting in the way?
Lup sits on the floor with her, because really she’s much better at these things than Lucretia gives her credit for. Barry had taught her a lot about love—they had taught each other—and it hadn’t just made her a better lover, but also a better friend. Lup collects Lucretia’s hand in hers and says, “I wish you would let me talk to you. All I wanted to tell you was that I am so, so sorry for what happened to you. It was unbelievable, what you did. It always is. And I wanted to thank you. That day, in Wave Echo, I felt trapped. I felt like we couldn’t give up on the plan, but I also knew we would have to. I knew we were killing this world. And I think I would have stayed stuck for a long time. I think if it had been up to me I would have let it go on way too long. The world would have been a burned out husk by the time I decided this wasn’t working, and then there wouldn’t have been anyone left but us to fight the Hunger. And then we really would have lost. I hated that feeling. That feeling of being paralyzed by guilt and by… just by not wanting to be wrong. Not wanting all that work and hope and… all that to go to waste. That feeling wasn’t worth all those people being hurt. I’m glad you did it, even if I did get stuck in the staff. But the thing is… I think I would have been stuck maybe longer if you hadn’t done it. Barry thinks he would have found me, but how? So thank you. For freeing me in a lot of different ways. Thank you.”
Lucretia gapes, doesn’t know what to say. But she feels like she needs to explain herself. “I can’t feel guilty anymore. I let it ruin me. I almost let it ruin the whole thing. I almost—we almost lost because of it.”
Lup says, “You don’t have to feel guilty anymore. I’m—I’m sorry that we… I wish we’d given your plan more of a chance.”
“What, all those years ago? It was a stupid fucking plan back then.”
“We were so close we were like fucking family, but we made these plans alone. What was that? Why didn’t we sit there with them, why didn’t we talk them through? We had so much time. We could have gotten there.”
“Hindsight is twenty-twenty.” Lucretia reaches out to Lup’s shoulder with her other hand. “You shouldn’t feel guilty, either.”
There’s a tear trembling on Lup’s eyelash. “Oh, God.” She says, sounding cracked up. “Oh, God, we’ve given up so much. We gave up our entire world and we put ourselves through—and God, it was beautiful, it was amazing, but that was a hard fucking century. We put ourselves through so much, and we won! And we’re the only ones of our kind in the world, and we’re blaming ourselves for it, quibbling about who did more wrong… I can’t stand it anymore. Come to lunch with me and Taako and we’ll—“
“No.” Lucretia says. “I can’t talk to him right now… I can’t talk to him.”
“Just me and Barry then. Or do you want Magnus there?”
Lucretia thinks about Fisher, and Daisy. “No. No. I can’t… Just you and Barry. It would be good to see Barry again.”
“Okay. Lucretia I’m… I’m gonna make this right.” Lup says. “I’m gonna fix this.”
Lucretia looks at her tear-stained, well-loved face. She thinks about the Lup she met all those years ago, so young and so brutal. Uncompromising, with so much power in her that it seemed like it was radiating off her skin. “We’re gonna fix it.” Lucretia says, quietly. “I’ve been really… hurt, and angry, but I love you all too much. Too much to lose you.”
Lup pitches forward, hugging Lucretia. “Oh, thank God. Thank God.”
The cat loves small spaces. Lucretia watches it one night, wedging itself determinedly in between her bed and the wall, where it sits, apparently contented even though it looks like it can barely breathe. Lucretia used to think that instinct was all the forces inside you that you had to deny, if you wanted to be good.
But all the cat wants is a box to sit in. And Lucretia’s starting to realize that if you denied the cat any small spaces—trapped it in a perfect cube of a room with no nooks and crannies—all that would do is make it miserable and anxious for its entire fuzzy life. There’s no way to train it out of the little thing; it’s a cat because it likes small spaces and it likes small spaces because it’s a cat. An unchangeable tautology.
Lucretia starts opening her windows wider in the morning. She starts laying her head on Alanna’s chest more as they sleep. She starts a garden, plants tiny trees around her house. She thinks about looking someone in the eye, being honest when you meant to lie, falling in love, being hurt. She’s human because she wants to connect with others; she wants to connect because she’s human. There’s only so long you can deny yourself these things.
So she resolves not to blame herself, for being honest with Lup. Not to fret about it or try to stop this reconciliation. She thinks that she will be hurt, and be honest about it. And so will they. And what comes will come.
There’s nothing divine or alien about her, or any of the IPRE. She’s just another animal, even after all she’s done. Even saving the universe was an animal thing to do. She did it because she can’t help but love other people, because she likes toddlers and grandmothers and clear skies, and the green-blue ocean, and the red of a mango, its reassuring density.