Lucretia remembers a cycle — one of very few — when Taako died and Lup lived. A village burned to the ground, not quite black glass, but close. An angry cloud over the ship, slammed doors, dares taken too far, chances taken that shouldn’t have been. Davenport had taken the rare step of confining her to quarters for a week. Lucretia had winced every time she’d heard boots in the hall, because encountering Lup that cycle meant you’d be likely to get your head bitten off over approximately nothing.
She saw him go. She couldn't do anything, he was begging her to run! now! And there wasn't even time to say anything. He was out of spell slots and she was out of spell slots and the villagers almost got them both.
Luckily she was too exhausted to feel by the time she got back. She told Cap'n’port and then more or less passed out and when she woke up, Merle was sitting on one side of the bed. Magnus was sitting on the other. His eyes were red and puffy.
“I'm sorry,” was the first thing she said. “Where’s Lup?” was the second. Merle and Magnus exchanged a look. Magnus squeezed her hand, hard, then swallowed. Tears welled up in his eyes again.
She sat up in a panic, but Merle took her other hand in his.
“She’s okay, Lucy, don’t worry. It’s…. She got a little….” He scratched at his beard. “She ain’t taking it too good. We had to pick up stakes and put the ol’ Starblaster in the air for a bit, before we got overrun by folks.”
It’s been added to the catalog of nightmares: she’s there to rescue them, but she’s too late, too late, too late — Lucretia collapsed, Taako in a crumpled heap— only this time they’re both dead, not just Taako, she failed both of them. And already the villagers are picking over the bodies when she arrives like an avenging angel. Who here killed my brother? She screams, and they just stare at her, they don’t speak, looking at each other in baffled confusion.
Then: fire. The world is fire and grief, and it’s not like he’s not coming back, death is just a little pause, right? A vacation from the horror of fleeing the nothingness that’s been chasing them for forty years. But they took her brother, and that’s what her instincts do.
So she wakes up screaming, sweating from fire that isn’t real. This is the shit part of sleep, the possibility of being dealt out of the hand of bad dreams. And if Taako were there, it’d be easy to shake it off, get a little comfort and get back to bed. Even if she had to roust him out of Maggie’s bed, just knowing he was there helped.
She throws on an old t-shirt and pajama pants; nothing’s clean, and frankly she can’t be bothered. Since Taako’s not here, she'll get a drink of water, maybe meditate out in the common room while everyone else is asleep.
Except she finds Lucretia, dark circles under her eyes, cradling a cup of tea as she sits at the counter. Tea’s gone cold, she can tell even from the doorway, which means who knows how long she’s been up like that.
Against her own better judgement, a furious despair washes over Lup. How dare it be Lucretia sitting here and Taako dead, Taako gone? Taako saved her, they could tell that much when they rescued her, and she sees the scavengers with his bag, and she’s just— she’s angry, and they’re all dead, and Lucretia is here.
“What the fuck are you doing up?” she says, taking a glass out of the cupboard and slamming the door hard enough for all the dishes to rattle in response.
Lucretia just looks at her wordlessly with an infinitesimal shake of her head. There’s tears in the corners of her eyes; a smudge of ink from her hands is streaked across her teacup. Somehow that just makes Lup even angrier.
“What’d you even go off the ship for? You’re just a writer. We coulda told you everything after—” And her voice cracks as she looks away from Lucretia, only seeing Taako, Taako with the light gone out of his eyes, Taako gone.
She pours herself a glass of water, drinks it in stony silence, punctuated only by the sound of Lucretia sniffling, crying and trying to hide it. Already Lup regrets snapping at her, but she’s not ready to say so. She walks away without saying anything, her footsteps sounding heavy in her ears.
Lucretia’s standing at the railing when the Starblaster passes over the region again. She wasn’t looking for it, exactly, just happened to be there at that moment. Although they’ve done enough laps around this world that she knows, of course she knows.
Somewhere down there, Taako’s body. Maybe in that scorched region, where once a village had stood? Maybe.
She hears Lup’s footsteps behind her, the solid sound of boots slowing to a stop, then coming up by her side.
“Fuck those guys,” Lup says with a voice like iron.
“Oh, we’ll keep trying to get the Light. Don’t want ol’ Johnny Vore getting any fatter. But, yeah. Fuck them.” A pause, and her voice is a little softer when she speaks again. “Sorry about the other night. Wasn’t your fault.”
Lucretia takes a long slow breath, looks down at the fire-scarred forest. Somewhere in there, a building where she and Taako had sat side by side, supposedly negotiating for access to someone who knew something about the Light. And they’d both realized, she thinks, that everything was about to go sideways. He’d tapped his elbow and she’d drummed her fingers on the arm of her chair. Follow my lead/I’ve got your back. She’d followed his lead, trusted him, and only as he began shouting had she realized he was giving her that little space to get away.
Wasn’t her fault? She counts and recounts her spell slots, watches herself run, watches him fall.
The building’s gone; at this rate, perhaps this whole universe is gone as well. Taako will be back, if their luck holds. She hopes Lup will forgive her by then.
Lup doesn’t cook in order to deal with her emotions, not like— she grits her teeth— not like Taako does. (She’s adamant about referring to him in the present tense. He’s coming back.) But she needs to cook, needs to make something, to create instead of destroying or running away.
This world they’re in is a curse and a tragedy, but at least it has food they recognize, and before— before, Taako had picked up so many things that the cupboards are overflowing. She’s not much for mise en place , but she does make the effort to take out everything: flour and sugar and eggs and butter and milk and cream…. But she has to decide what flavors, she has to decide what to make. Something with as many parts as possible to keep her hands busy. Something beautiful, she needs something lovely now, when she feels like a shriveled cinder.
Auntie, trying to keep them busy, trying to keep them out of the way, and it’s a sweltering summer afternoon. The butter’s all churned, and yet still plenty of milk. A custard then, but not baked: poured into a can, set in a second can, and in the empty space ice and salt. “If you kick this long enough and hard enough,” she says, “you’ll be able to have ice cream.” And when Taako tries just firing Ray of Frost, it turns into a weird brick of sweet ice, and Auntie laughs— kindly— before melting it with gentle hands and reassuring them both that, yes, this strange idea of hers will work, if they’re patient, if they work together.
She digs through the cupboards; they hadn’t left home with an ice cream machine, but after a few cycles, in a slow year, she and Barry and Taako had rigged up a little something, using some of those parts Magnus had helped salvage from that world with the robits…. Count the shells, she’s yelling, and he’s laughing. Better to think of that than finding the empty shell of his body….
What’s something that goes with ice cream? Cake, but she needs something fancier than just ice cream and cake, something to distract her a little longer. They have so many eggs; Taako said the eggs here were too good not to stock up, maybe he’d make a…. Her hands curl into fists, and the thought of just whisking the eggs, using all this energy…. Yeah, baked Alaska, that’s about right: a sponge cake, and a meringue, and then just a little bit of fire in the finish.
And for a while, it’s a good distraction. Digging around in the cupboards she finds black sesame seeds and honey to flavor the ice cream, and that takes some good elbow grease to get to the paste consistency she wants, then to mix smoothly with the eggs and the cream, and into the machine. Then cake: beating the batter light and smooth, it takes her full attention to get all the air whipped in, and a good workout for her arm besides.
Baking the cake, and then checking the ice cream, prepping the caramel: another ingredient requiring patient attention and precision, warming the pan and leaving it at a precise temperature. It’s calming; she can almost feel him there with her. The ice cream is stiff enough to put onto the cake and into the freezer. She rubs her face, and cocoa streaks her cheek.
“Whatcha working on?” Barry looks into the galley, with that nervous face; he’s always nervous, but this is more of a nervous at her in particular face.
She sort of wants him to leave, and she sort of wants him to stay, and she can’t make up her mind, so instead she focuses on separating eggs and heating sugar and beating eggs, and eventually she just loses track of where he’s gone. Meringue usually isn’t her thing, except for browning it at the end. Taako’s the one who spends all that time turning eggs into foam into cookies or the tops of pies or just little clouds all on their own. But she’s getting the hang of it, and quickly enough— maybe too quickly— she’s got a bowl full of white sugary fluff ready to spoon into a piping bag.
But when she turns to the freezer…. The pan with the cake and the ice cream, held together with a band to make sure the caramel didn’t flow out. It’s not in the freezer, it’s on the counter, and the last person in here—
She shouts Barry’s name at the top of her lungs, a roar of pain and frustration entirely out of proportion. It’s cake. It’s a fancy dessert that she made because she was bored and restless and frustrated and lonely. And yet.
She flings the pan across the kitchen, where it dents against a corner of countertop then falls to the floor, ice cream side down. A tiny flame bursts from her fingertips, and she watches almost outside herself as the meringue still in the bowl browns at the edges, then catches fire, then goes to black ash. The smell of burnt sugar fills the room, and the smoke billows outward as the door opens.
“Oh god, Lup, I’m, I’m, Lup—”
She grabs the bowl from the counter without looking at him; it’s still almost too hot to touch but she doesn’t care. She walks past him, heads up to the deck, tosses it over the side, and with a humorless laugh hopes that it hits some poor fool in the head.
She’ll make dinner, later, to try to make up for it without saying anything. It’ll be overcooked, but no one will complain, at least not to her face.
Lup throws a jab at the punch guard on Magnus’s raised forearm, then another, then a quick third. She grits her teeth and leans away for a moment, catching her breath. Another wave of anger crashes and topples her as she breathes. The high emotion makes her blood buzz and she moves forward to fire off punch after punch in rapid succession.
Magnus falters backwards, expression contorted with uncertainty. He straightens his posture and fixes his arms to take the force of the impact.
She steps back, shoulders heaving, to breathe. She sets her jaw, her brow furrowed, a glimmer of tears in her eyes.
She’s furious with him. Furious with Lucretia. Furious with Taako— that dumbass, she thinks, throwing a jab so hard it sends Magnus reeling again. She doesn’t like how satisfied it leaves her. How could he just—
But the thought is gone as her eyes well with tears. A guttural noise rises from the well of her lungs, claws up her throat and turns into a ragged cry. She punches twice, then leaps up into the air and kicks the punch guard full-force.
“Hey—“ Magnus tries to say, perhaps to calm her, or to stop her all together. But she doesn’t stop, only leans back again, body still moving to and fro to keep her momentum. Her eyes meet his for a moment before she continues her assault with tears streaming down her face, her nose running.
She just keeps hitting, each punch landing faster and harder than the last. Then she kicks again and he pushes back, and she’s reminded that he could have done something, Lucretia could have done something, but they didn’t, and they let him fucking die.
She screams as she lands a few more hits. “Woah—“ Magnus says, trying to move his arms away but she doesn’t stop. “Lup, stop, c’mon—“
She can only think of Taako, everything else in the world completely gone. She’s only half aware of her surroundings, gone numb to the deck below her feet, Magnus’s voice in front of her, the world that had killed her brother far below. She hates, and she doesn’t know what she hates, but it’s burning like wildfire through her.
When she opens her mouth, it’s like choking on smoke. Her head spins, rage dominates, magic goes completely haywire inside her.
Taako, she thinks, because it’s the only thing she can think. Taako, her heart, never far away. Taako, a corpse, a shell, his soul long gone in a blink. Taako, Taako, Taako, and the spark of her violent grief ignites in her in an instant.
Lup lets out another shrill strangled sound, tears pouring from her as her fists flare with flame. Magnus barely has time to dodge. She persists, though, her second punch landing on the guard and setting it aflame. Magnus throws it off of his forearm and swiftly dodges and catches her wrist to stop her.
“What the fuck?” he nearly yells, letting her go as she stumbles back a few steps, an angry sob tearing out of her. He swiftly stomps out the fire on the mitt. “Are you serious? What the—“
“Fuck you!” Lup yells back. Embers linger in her nerve endings, ready to catch again at any moment. “Fuck—“
She drags her nails over her scalp and rushes furiously past him and into the ship, tears blurring so quickly that she has to navigate back into the main cabin by memory. She charges to her bunk with her boots’ heavy footfalls echoing through the ship.
Magnus hears one last cry before she slams the door with such force that he’d be surprised she didn’t break it. Maybe Taako could transmute—
And Magnus stops, his own eyes pricking with tears, his sadness all halting and piling up in an unpreventable crash. He picks up the punch guard and carries it back into the cabin.
When he gets to the common room, Lucretia is tiptoeing up from below deck. She looks from the burned up mitt to his face, failing to completely mask her horror. He shakes his head and tosses it onto the table.
He can tell from the look stuck on her face that she wants him to say something, but he can’t. He just walks past her to the kitchen to try to find something to eat.
The remains of the ruined baked Alaska is heaped in the sink, the counter is piled with dishes. Nobody helped her clean up, he realizes with a pang of guilt. And she's been dealing with— and that sucks, no wonder she's so pissed.
He turns on the tap, scoops the soggy cake out of the pan, scrapes the remains of last night's scorched dinner into the bin. He can hear in his mind: Taako fretting about the waste, Lup telling her brother to chill, Lucretia and Cap'n'port agreeing with Taako.
“Waste of perfectly good cake,” says Merle, stepping up on a stool to dry dishes as quickly as Magnus washes them. Magnus just grunts. If he says anything else, if anybody says anything else, he's going to cry. Usually that's fine, but today it feels bad. Selfish.
After finishing the dishes in silence, Merle hops down, looks thoughtfully at Magnus, who stands in front of the empty sink with the water still running.
“Think it's about time I looked in on ol’ Johnny,” Merle murmurs. “Not like I'm much use around here.”
“Hey,” says Magnus, drawn abruptly out of his reverie.
Merle shakes his head. “Naw, I see how it is. Catch you on the flip side, kid. Just let Dav know, okay?”
Magnus nods for lack of a better response. Guilt soaks through his pores, transmutes to a simmering anger, and just as quickly fades to grief. He hears footsteps: light and slow. Lucretia, then. He can't turn to look at her; he finally turns off the tap, but he doesn't move. He takes a long slow breath, trying to get himself together, but by the time he turns she's gone.
“Fuck this,” he mutters to the empty kitchen. He grabs a couple of cold ciders out of the cooler and the bottle of whiskey out of the cabinet, sets them down gracelessly on the countertop, slams down some shot glasses, and yells down the hall. “Lup get your ass back in here! These ciders aren’t gonna drink themselves!”
The reply is somewhere between an ugly laugh and an ugly cry, and when she comes out her eyes are red, but she’s got a fierce grin on her face.
“Fuck you, Burnsides, you’re gonna drink those ciders.”
He throws an arm around her; for a half a second, she flinches like she’s going to punch him for touching her.
“Not by myself, I’m not,” he says.
They’re not fighting, at least. And Lucretia supposes that’s an improvement. It’s got to be. The smell of burnt sugar had finally faded when it was replaced by the smell of scorched leather and padding. (The smell of scorched armor; the smell of….)
But they’ve been drinking and shouting and singing for hours now, and she’s been too nervous to leave her room. Because they’re loud and rowdy; because yelling at each other about who could have protected Taako (she should have protected him) has switched over into proving who’s bolder, stronger, faster. Lup set a shot on fire, threw the shot glass, and then Magnus...punched it? Out of the air? At least that’s what it sounded like.
Lup’s laughing, which ought to be good, but it doesn’t feel good. It feels dangerous on the edge of deadly. And she can’t tell if Magnus can even tell the difference. His voice is even louder than usual, slurred almost to incoherence, and yet he’s still not so far gone as to be passed out.
She opens her cabin door; the hallway is dark and empty. The last she saw Merle, he was muttering something about Parley; Dav and Barry left yesterday on a mission to check on some caves that might have a clue about the Light’s location. Which means it’s just them, and gods does she miss Taako, his easy way with Lup and Magnus both. She can see him just stroll down the hall into the common room, take it down a notch Lulu, chillax my dude. She doesn’t have that poise.
As Magnus shouts something about shooting some bottles and the two of them stomp up onto the deck, she slips along the edge of the hall, no specific destination in mind, just uneasy hiding in her room. Lonely, maybe.
Taako’s door isn’t entirely closed. She pushes it open and it smells...like home, like part of her heart. There’s things piled everywhere, clothes and spellbooks and little pots of components and hats, the four other outfits he tried on before they left are still flung across the empty bed. His robe; they’d decided jackets only this time, and some part of her, superstitious to her bones, wonders if robes would have made the difference. If something they’d done before they left would have made the difference.
But it didn’t. The yelling from upstairs is fainter now, but she can hear the manic edge in Magnus’s laugh. She holds Taako’s robe in her lap, feeling vaguely certain he’d kick her ass if she actually put it on. But she needs it right now, and she lets out a long slow breath, letting herself miss him without blaming herself for his death.
The tenor of yelling abruptly changes above her as a third voice joins in, indignant and distinctly unamused. “Captain’s back,” she murmurs to the robe.
A soft nervous throat-clearing from the doorway: “So, uh, guess they’re not doing a whole lot better?”
She shrugs. “They were fighting but I guess, they’re not?”
“Looks like they took it out on the ship instead,” Barry says. He frowns a little, looking at her curled up on Taako’s bed. “Are you…? You doin’ okay?”
She doesn’t look up, just feels the mattress shift as he sits beside her.
“It’s okay if you’re not,” he offers, giving her a little bit of space. “We all…. We do what we gotta do. Y’know.”
She doesn’t quite know what to say. Above them, three voices in disharmony. Barry looks around the room. “Really does feel like he’s just gonna walk right on in, don’t it?”
She hums assent.
“You, uh, would you, you wanna hug, Luce?”
She just barely nods her head and he puts an arm around her. She leans against him, still clutching the robe. The shouting dies down, eventually. Lup will argue with anybody, everybody, but if Cap’n’port really puts his foot down.... Her footsteps thud down the hall again, and her door slams shut.
Lucretia startles and sits up straight, but Barry squeezes her hand. Neither of them speaks.
After a few minutes, more tentative footfalls, and Magnus pokes his head in the half-open doorway. He’s about to speak, but Barry shakes his head, and Magnus’s shoulders slump a little. Lucretia stands, letting go of Barry’s hand, and she traces a cut over Magnus’s eyebrow. Sorry, she mouths silently. He frowns at her.
“You didn’t... I’m the one who should be sorry,” Magnus says. “I should have—”
She pulls away.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
He looks from her to Barry, then to Taako’s desk piled with its usual mess, untouched for days now. Weeks?
“Somebody should talk to Lup,” Magnus says. Barry looks even more nervous than usual, and Lucretia just looks down at her hands.
“Maybe tomorrow,” she says, which means probably not ever.
The deck still has a long ugly scorch mark across it when the silver threads of their souls reform there. But they do reform, and they themselves look exactly as they always do. The twins are hand-in-hand, and the first thing Lup wants to do is let go of his hand and punch Taako in the mouth for leaving her alone.
“Hey dingus,” she says.
“Ya miss me?”
“I missed you,” shouts Magnus, barrelling across the deck to envelop him in a hug. Taako makes a variety of exaggerated coughing and wheezing noises.
“I know, I’m fantastic, you were all a wreck without me,” Taako says with a laugh. “It’s just cause Lup’s not as good at pancakes,” he adds as he strolls easily towards the kitchen. Davenport raises an eyebrow, and Merle clears his throat. “It’s true!” His voice rises, a little bit indignant, and Barry offers a nervous chuckle.
“I missed you,” Lucretia says into the awkward silence. “Thanks for—”
Taako makes a sharp sound, almost a hiss. “Zip it, bubeleh. You’d’ve done the same for me.” He looks around, frowning. “Now where the fuck is my favorite bowl?”
Magnus rubs the back of his neck as he and Barry trade nervous glances, then both look at Lup. “There was...an incident?”
“What the fuck.” He leans against the counter. “Lulu, you let these chucklefucks near my good cookware?”
Her smile is tight; she doesn’t quite meet Taako’s gaze, seeing instead the scorched metal plummeting to the surface of a doomed world. The discomfort crawls under her skin, an itch she's not sure he'll understand. “We had kind of a rough time. We’ll replace it, promise.”
He rolls his eyes. “Sure, whatevs. That just makes it your turn to make first-day breakfast, then.”
The tension dissolves without a word as everyone falls into their habits, as if Taako had broken a spell that none of them can quite remember. Magnus digs out the second-best bowl, as Lup gets the flour, sugar, vanilla. Barry and Davenport are already at the big table, beginning to grill Merle about the latest parley as he sets out plates and syrup.
As Lucretia carries the tray of eggs to Taako, she touches Lup’s shoulder, a question in her eyes. Lup doesn’t know how to answer, so she just squeezes Lucretia’s hand.
“Hup hup with the eggs, my dudes,” says Taako, “breakfast now, staring contest later.”
Lucretia’s lips twitch in something that’s almost a smile as she sets the tray on the counter. Lup drapes herself over Taako’s shoulder, letting out a sigh at the familiarity of him, hoping he won’t realize it’s a sigh of relief.
“Nice to see your dumb face,” is all she can manage to say; she hopes it’s all she needs to say.