Actions

Work Header

Blood is Thicker

Chapter Text

It started out as a relaxing morning. Taako was dreaming of Auntie’s infamous shakshuka, smacking his lips in his sleep. The room was shrouded from the rising light outside by thick black curtains. The bedroom was silent, save for the soft whistling of Taako’s breath.

Then Lup threw open the curtains.

The sudden explosion of light drew a sharp hissing groan from Taako. He scrambled to hide his face into the crook of his elbow. “Lup,” Taako grouched, his words nearly indecipherable in his slurring, half-asleep state, “What the hell?”

Lup glanced around the disaster zone that was her twin brother’s room. There was a mound of crumbled up notepad paper formed around the overflowing trash can, half a dozen piles of wrinkled laundry, and stacks of old textbooks collecting dust in the corners of the room. She could only find herself being thankful he didn’t have any dirty dishes lying around. “You’re living in a pigsty,” she told Taako, not for the first time.

Taako grunted half-heartedly.

Lup scooped up a pillow Taako had probably kicked off onto the floor in his sleep and began smacking her brother’s head with it. “Don’t fall back asleep,” Lup scolded him, “Class starts in twenty minutes! Did you even set an alarm?”

Taako tried in vain to fend off her vicious pillow attack with his other arm. “No,” he said, “Why would I? It’s the first day. We’re just going to go over the syllabus and shit.”

“Maybe, maybe not.” Lup stopped her assault and tossed the pillow aside. It was time to employ a different tactic: logic. “Besides, we only get a certain number of absences before it starts affecting our GPA’s. Do you really want to waste one of those days on what will certainly be the easiest class of the semester?”

Taako grunted again.

Turning to Taako’s closet, Lup began rummaging through various articles of clothing. “Now get up and get dressed. I already made you coffee and toast. You just need to make yourself look presentable.”

Taako peered up from behind his arm. He had to squint to see his sister, his eyes still adjusting to the rapid change of light. “Are you going to pick out my outfit, too? Fuck, when did you become such a mom?”

Lup selected Taako’s favorite shirt, a flirty button-up with ruffled sleeves and an asymmetrical embroidered pattern. She held it out so he could clearly see what she chose. And then she pulled out her lighter from her back pocket. “Oh, no,” she answered, “I’m not picking out your outfit. I’m giving you an incentive to get your ass out of bed.” She flicked the lighter top off and held it up underneath the shirt sleeve.

Taako flew up from bed like a bat out of hell. He snatched the shirt away from his sister, snarling curses at her. “Fuck! Don’t you fucking dare!”

Lup burst into tearful laughter. She kept laughing, even as Taako shoved her to the door.

“I hate you,” Taako spat at her, slamming the door shut behind her. “I hate you so fucking much.”

Lup fell back against the door, giggling.

“I’m disowning you!” Taako informed her from the other room, “You’re now and forevermore dead to me. From now on, I’m going to be an only child!”

“Okay, okay,” Lup said, “Just don’t take too long doing your hair.”

She waited for Taako’s affirmative grunt and smiled. Then Lup stepped forward into their shared kitchen, and poured Taako a mug full of that good hot bean juice.

Within a few minutes, Taako emerged. He was wearing the shirt Lup had threatened to set on fire only moments before, with some tight high-waisted pants and his hair braided and twisted up into a bun. Lup had done her hair in a similar fashion, through her bun was off to one side, like a one-sided Princess Leia.

They often found ways to complement each other without dressing identically. Lup dyed the ends of her hair red, Taako had streaks of purple and blue in his. Taako liked to keep his hair medium-length, just a few inches past his shoulders, while Lup liked her hair super long on one side, but close-cut on the other. They both enjoyed fancy dress shirts, though Taako preferred his with deep V-cuts, while Lup liked high-collared ones. Lup liked warmer colors, Taako preferred cooler ones. They both wore a lot of purple. They alternated between skin-tight pants and skirts over leggings. Lup collected accessories with a more punk aesthetic. Taako leaned towards a So-Cal surfer dude vibe. They both had a multitude of piercings, though Taako’s were confined to his ears, while Lup had also done her nose and navel.

Individually, both of them were visually stunning. Together, they were unreproducible.

Once, when they were in the foster system, people had tried to separate them. That had been a mistake. Now, Lup looked at her brother, with his sleep eyes and pre-caffeine scowl, and she couldn’t help but feel like the luckiest girl in the world.

Taako sat down in front of his plate of toast and jam, and Lup handed over the mug. He drank deeply for a minute, and immediately looked more alive.

“Okay, but seriously,” Taako began, as he slathered his toast with jam, “Why the hell are you so chipper this morning?”

“I told you,” Lup said, “You were going to be late. And skipping class once might not be a huge deal, but it’s really important that we stay on top of things this semester. If we start getting lazy now, we might not make it to graduation.”

Taako nibbled at his breakfast while his sister lectured him. Then, when she was done, he gave her a grave look. “Bullshit. What’s the real reason?”

“That is the real reason,” Lup scoffed, “Excuse me for actually caring about your education.”

Taako wasn’t fooled, though. Lup could see it in his eyes; the wheels in his brain were cranking into high gear. After a moment of thought, he straightened his shoulders pointedly and gave her an accusatory smirk. “Wait,” he said, “Our first class is... Quantitative Analysis, right? Isn’t that the class we share with one Mr. Barold J Bluejeans?”

Predictably, Lup’s face went scarlet at the mere mention of the name. She glanced to the side and coughed into her fist. “Yes, but that’s not...”

Taako chuckled. “Sure it isn’t,” he teased, “Tell me this, Lup. You are planning on finally asking him out this year, right?”

Lup stubbornly stayed silent.

“C’mon,” Taako pushed, “this is going to be your last chance before he graduates.” He reached over to put his pinky over hers. On reflex, she wound their fingers together. “Ask him out,” Taako said, “I promise you that he will say yes.”

The blush on Lup’s cheeks intensified. “But...” she began, her voice soft enough that Taako, even with his elven hearing, had to strain his ears.

“But what?”

“What if he’s the kind of guy who wants to be the one who asks the girl out?” Lup worried her front teeth into her lip.

Taako paused. “Lup,” he said, “I love you, but that is the stupidest shit you have ever let come out of your mouth. This is Barry we’re talking about. When has he ever cared about social norms, even the ones that he should, frankly, adhere to?”

“Yeah, I guess so. I—“

Their heart to heart was suddenly and rudely cut off by the phone ringing. It was a trill ring from a long-forgotten era. That was because it was coming from the apartment’s landline, which they had meant to disconnect when they first moved in two years ago and then promptly forgot about. No one ever called it before, anyway.

In unison, the twins looked over at it.

“That’s... weird,” Taako said.

“Spooky,” Lup agreed. And then she moved over to grab it. “Hello!” Lup answered the phone with an overly cheerful greeting. Then her smile dropped into a frown. “Yes, this is Lup. What can I do for you?”

Taako went back to eating his toast, though he kept his ears trained on his sister’s conversation.

For a minute or two, Lup just listened. And then, once the speaker on the other end was finished, Lup cleared her throat awkwardly. “Right, um. Hang on a second. My brother is here with me. I’m going to put you on speaker.”

Taako gave Lup an inquisitive raised eyebrow.

Lup shook her head at him and pressed the speaker button. “Okay, you’re on speaker,” she informed the person on the other line, “Can you please repeat what you told me?

“Uh, sure.” The voice was partially obscured by static, but Taako could tell that it was masculine. In fact, it was almost unbelievably deep. The voice spoke as though someone had poured a bucket of ice water over his head, and he was just barely containing his discomfort. “Again, I’m sorry to call you so early in the morning. My name is Mr. Jenkins, I’m from the DCF, and I regret to inform you that Penneh has passed away—”

“I’m sorry,” Taako interrupted, “Who?”

“Penneh Zaanya,” came the monotone answer, “She’s your second cousin? I was told you spent part of your childhood with her grandmother, Nella Zaanya. Nella would have been your... great aunt, I believe.”

Lup reached over and took Taako’s hand to steady him. He hadn’t realized he had begun shaking. Hearing Auntie’s name was like a physical blow.

“Penneh… You mean the chucklefuck who nabbed Auntie’s engagement ring so she could elope with that sleazy pick-up artist?”

“Um,” the voice said.

“You’re thinking of cousin Zinni,” Lup corrected her brother, “Y’know, ol’ gal with the guitar tramp stamp that looked like a dick with four balls. Penneh was the one who got suspended for selling gym candy to the local varsity kids.”

“Um,” the voice said again.

“Right, right.” Taako rubbed the back of his neck. “Man, I almost forgot how fucked up our family was. Either way, I won’t lose any sleep over this. Thanks for the update though, dude.”

“Wait,” Lup said, and tightened her hold on Taako’s fingers, “There’s more.”

“Right,” the guy on the phone agreed. “Penneh was a single mother. She left behind an eleven-year-old son named Angus McDonald. No one seems to know who the father is. Your Great Aunt Nella was listed as Angus’s godmother, should anything happen to Penneh, but as I’m sure you’re aware—“

“Auntie can’t even remember her own name nowadays,” Taako finished, “Yeah, we know. What does that have to do with us?”

“Well... I have to be quite honest with you.” The voice coughed self-consciously. “I’ve contacted about two dozen of Angus’s relatives over the past few days. So far, no one has agreed to meet with the poor kid, let alone give him a new home. In fact, were I not bound by professional integrity, I would describe their attitudes about the whole ordeal with some positively... unsavory adjectives.”

Taako snorted. “Yeah, I can save you the trouble, my man. They’re assholes, the whole lot of them. The entire family tree is rotten. Auntie was the only good one, God rest her charitable soul. She was always taking care of the family’s unwanted spawn, even though she was the poorest of the lot. Now she’s rotting away in an unstaffed nursing home because her ungrateful kids didn’t care to send her anywhere nicer. No good deed goes unpunished, and all that.”

“That’s very unfortunate,” the man sighed, “At this rate, I’ll be forced to place Angus in the foster system.”

An icy chill ran down Taako’s spine. He knew that tone of passive aggression intimately. And Taako didn’t like being manipulated. “Wait... you’re trying to pawn this kid off on us, aren’t you? Well, you’re sore out of luck, pal.”

“Don’t misunderstand,” Lup jumped in, “It’s not that we’re assholes, but we’re college students. We’re here on scholarship. We don’t have the time or money to look after a kid.”

“I see. Well, that’s... unfortunate. But I understand.” There was a heavy pause. “It’s such a shame, though. You two are the last relatives I could find. This kid has two dozen living relatives, and not even one of them will so much as meet with the little fellow. He’s such a bright, well-behaved young man, too.”

Taako was bristling by the end of the stranger’s spiel. “I don’t appreciate the third degree guilt trip, my man. And we need to get going to class. So...”

“Right, my apologies. Well, I’ll let you get going, then.”

“Wait.” That was Lup.

She was digging her nails into Taako’s palm, and he knew she was about to say something they would both regret.

“Can we... at least meet him?”

Yeah, he called it. Taako shot his sister a dark look, but she had her face turned away.

“Oh!” The man on the phone sounded just a little less miserable than before, which meant he was probably brimming with glee. “Yes, of course. I would highly encourage that. Angus has been very lonely, and I think that would go a long way in lifting his dampened spirits.” Then his voice dipped somber again. “Though,” he added, “before you mark anything in your calendar, there’s one last detail you should know.”

“Oh great. Don’t tell me he’s a serial arsonist or something,” Taako grouched.

“Oh no, nothing so sinister! But... it was the main deal breaker for the rest of your family.” The pause here was nearly unbearable, though it hardly lasted more than ten seconds. “Angus McDonald is a half-elf. His father was human.”

Lup released Taako, her hand coming up to cover her mouth. She cursed into her palm softly. Her brows knitted with rage.

Taako wasn’t particularly surprised, though. “Geez, that’s rough,” he said, “If there’s one thing our family hates more than non-elves, it’s half-elves.” He looked at Lup and sighed. “But yeah,” he told the guy on the phone, “That sort of thing doesn’t make any difference to us. We’ll still meet with him.”

“Of course we will!” Lup agreed angrily, “Tell Angus we’re excited to meet him.”

“Wonderful, wonderful! I will pass on the good news to young Angus. When is the earliest you can come? I should mention, he’s staying with a social worker named Mr. Bradson in Greenville until we can find him a more permanent placement. It’ll be a little bit of a drive for the two of you, and I know you must be busy with schoolwork...”

Taako stood up, nodding at Lup. He let her iron out the details while he cleaned up his dishes and put on his eyeliner. He meant to keep listening to the conversation, but there was too much going through his head.

Try as he might, old memories had been stirred up from his subconscious, and Taako was struggling to rebury them.

Taako and Lup were full-blood elves, which meant they had been granted a certain prestige in their relative’s eyes — at least, in comparison to Angus. But Taako and Lup were not fully high elf, and that had also put them on the shit list. Their father had been part wood elf — also called wild or common elves by their aunts and uncles. No one would have been able to tell by the way Taako and Lup looked at first glance. They had the platinum blonde hair and bronzed, gold freckled skin characteristic of the sun elf race. But there were flecks of green in their otherwise dark brown eyes, which gave their mixed ancestry away.

The distinction between sun, moon, wood, and drow didn’t matter a lick to non-elves. Hell, it didn’t even matter to most modern elves. But Taako and Lup’s mother came from an intolerably haughty class of high elf aristocrats, who took the “high” part of their racial classification a little too literally. To them, elves with a splash of “wild blood” were an embarrassment.

Taako couldn’t even begin to imagine how they would have treated a half-elf.

He was so distracted, he didn’t notice the call had ended until Lup placed a hand on his shoulder. “We should get to class,” she told him softly.

“Yeah, we should.” Taako held out his pinky finger. Lup smiled and intertwined hers with his.

Together, they left for class.

Chapter Text

Lup was still fuming as the two made their way to their first class of the day. Even the anticipation of seeing Barry for the first time in months could only vaguely lighten her mood.

Quantitative Analysis was held in a particularly cramped classroom. Given that there were only about a dozen students in the class, it was easy to spot their bespectacled, heavyset human friend in the crowd. He was sitting at a desk by himself, meticulously arranging his textbook, notebook, and writing utensils.

Taako perched up on the desk, swatting about half of Barry’s school supplies off onto the floor to make room for his butt. “Hey, nerd,” Taako greeted him, not unkindly.

Barry heaved a sigh at Taako’s usual antics, but his annoyance was quickly replaced with a smile. “Hello to you, too,” he said. And then he turned to Lup, his face lighting up at the sight of her. “Good morning, Lup.”

Now, Lup wasn’t an idiot. She could clearly see that Barry was into her. But there was a difference between knowing something with your head, and knowing something with your heart. And Lup’s heart refused to get with the program. Also, the damned thing was always threatening to expose her, as it was doing right then and there, pounding away hard enough to alert the entire campus to her silly little crush.

“Morning, Bear,” Lup said, trying her best not to sound like a lovesick loon, and probably failing. “How was your summer?”

“Pretty boring, honestly,” Barry answered as he bent down to retrieve his stuff off the floor. “I decided to get a head-start on my thesis research, but other than that, I just wasted time on Netflix and video games.” He returned triumphantly with his supplies, and stacked them in a pile beside Taako’s thigh. “What about you two?”

Taako tipped his head back and simply groaned in response.

“That bad?” Barry asked.

“Yeah, it kind of was,” Lup said, “We both worked our asses off, saving up money we can use for rent this year. You haven’t known hell until you’ve worked four consecutive twelve hour shifts at WacDonald’s.”

“The food industry is a fucking nightmare,” Taako agreed, “I had to juggle three different manager positions at one point, putting in up to sixty hours a week. I ate nothing but fast food for months because I didn’t have the energy to go buy groceries. Once I genuinely thought I lost the ability to taste anything but fry grease. Not even brushing my teeth helped get the rank taste out of my mouth. Maybe it was mostly a psychological thing, but still. It was the worst.”

“Yikes,” Barry said, wincing. “I’m sorry.”

Lup shrugged. She was itching to move away from that subject and onto their more pressing predicament. “It’s cool, we survived. What was even crazier was the phone call we got this morning.” Nice! Smooth transition, Lup, she thought.

“Oh?” Barry prompted.

“Apparently we have a half-elf relative that was recently orphaned but no one in our family wants to take responsibility for him,” Taako explained quickly in one breath.

Lup shot her twin brother a sharp look. Leave it to him to suck all the joy out of dishing the goss. But she couldn’t stay angry for too long; it was clear to her that the entire situation made Taako uncomfortable.

“Wait, what?” Barry asked, at the same time as the professor called out, “Hello, everyone!

“Please take a seat, if you haven’t already,” the professor continued, pointedly directing that particular comment at the twins, “Who wants to help me pass out the syllabus?”

Taako, surprising everyone in the room, raised his hand. Maybe he was just thankful that the conversation had ended. Lup supposed she couldn’t blame him for that. She could only hope that he wasn’t mad at her for offering to meet Angus. She didn’t regret it, and she definitely didn’t want to fight about it.

Lup took a seat to Barry’s left and pulled out her own (ratty, used) textbook. It looked especially pathetic next to Barry’s copy, with its glossy cover and crisp white pages.

As the professor began his first day spiel, Lup fought to pay attention. No matter how hard she tried, however, the same thought kept creeping back to her: He’s only eleven years old.

--

Eleven was a good age for the twins. Auntie had convinced them that they had found their forever home.

It wasn’t perfect; no life ever is. Auntie Nella had retired from work long ago. She had to rely on the charity of her neighbors and of government assistance. Taako and Lup were wildly unpopular at school. Taako refused to play nice with the other kids, and Lup got into numerous fist-fights on the playground. They had to wear hand-me-down clothes from Auntie’s children, and had to use the computers at the library to complete their homework.

In a way, the lack of money was refreshingly familiar. Taako and Lup spent the first seven years of their life on their paternal grandfather’s dairy farm. It was a laborious childhood, for sure. They were expected to help with the chores from an early age. But G-Pa never gave them any reason to doubt his love for them. Auntie was the same way.

And Auntie was the one who taught them how to cook. She defended Taako whenever he got sent to the principal’s office. She instantly accepted Lup’s new pronouns. She offered to read them a story every night, even when they insisted they were too old for that sort of thing.

Even when Auntie began to mix up their names, and forget what year it was, she never stopped assuring them that she loved them.

As children, they hadn’t appreciated all of that as much as they should have. Lup hardly appreciated Auntie at all until the day everything changed. That was the day Auntie’s Alzheimer’s got so bad that she got lost returning home from the grocery store. That was the day the twins were told that Auntie was going to be put in a home for old people, and that they would have to go live with cousin Panna again.

Taako and Lup had just turned twelve. It was the day they had tried to run away. Of all the relatives they had to live with, cousin Panna was quite possibly the worst of the lot. She was highly immature, throwing hysterical tantrums at the slightest inconvenience. Her half dozen children were entitled and expected the twins to wait on them as though they were servants. They’d gang up on Taako and Lup, and find ways to get them in trouble. It was a chaotic household. It was the household Auntie had saved them from two years before.

Their escape plan was quickly thwarted, though it didn’t end up mattering. Cousin Panna refused to take them back. No one would take them back, actually. The Zaanya family had officially given up on them. They were only twelve.

And Angus was nearly the same age.

--

Taako also found himself passing the day in a haze, moving from class to class without absorbing anything that happened. He’d catch himself wistfully staring out the window from time to time. Though it was a bright, sunny day, Taako couldn’t muster up any emotion aside from a dull melancholy.

By lunch, Taako realized he needed a good distraction, and fast. He refused to waste an entire day acting like a braindead zombie. He poured himself a heaping bowl of hearty French onion soup from the cafeteria, brought it out into the courtyard, and planted his butt underneath his favorite gnarled willow tree. It was a beautiful day, and he’d enjoy it, if it was the last thing he did.

Taako was feeling so desperate, in fact, that he rejoiced a little inside when tweedle-dee and tweedle-dumb (also known as Merle and Magnus) came over to join him.

“Hey!” Magnus greeted Taako first, diving to take a seat to Taako’s left, as though afraid Merle would try to beat him to it. Merle didn’t, of course, waddling over leisurely and sitting himself down on Taako’s other side.

The three made for a strange sight, no doubt. Visually, they had nothing in common. Taako was a beautiful young elf man, Magnus was a burly human teenager, and Merle was an old crusty beach dwarf. Magnus didn’t even go to the college. Instead, he attended the carpentry trade school down the street. That didn’t stop him from visiting Taako and Merle on the university campus for lunch each and every day, though.

They only knew each other because they lived in the same apartment complex. Like most sane people, Taako wasn’t normally in the business of making friends with his neighbors. But Merle threw wild weed parties every Friday night, and Magnus was a jack-of-all-trades who would help with home repairs at half the price of hired professionals. After a few months of learning to tolerate their company, Taako decided to recruit the two as his personal taste-testers, whenever he experimented with a new recipe. And thus their strange friendship was forged.

“Cafeteria food again?” Merle side-eyed Taako’s bowl of soup. “I thought you wanted to be a famous chef. Shouldn’t you be making your own school lunch?”

“Taako doesn’t have time for that,” Taako said huffily.

Magnus pulled a crumpled brown paper bag from his satchel and unrolled the top noisily. “At least your cafeteria has good food,” he put in, “I’d buy lunch there myself, if it wasn’t so pricey.” He retrieved his various items of food from the bag. Most of them were prepackaged snacks, the kind found in a kid’s lunch box: miniature bags of chips and pretzels, string cheese, a squeezable yogurt tube, an assortment of vegetables with a container of ranch to dip them in, and other such stuff. There was also a squished tuna salad sandwich wrapped in aluminum foil, which Magnus tore into first.

Taako’s nose wrinkled at the fishy stench. “I’ll buy you food from the cafeteria if it means you’ll stop bringing things that smell like my cat’s food to lunch with us,” he retorted.

“Try buying your cat dry food,” Magnus suggested, “Then you can stop associating your cat’s food with my lunch.” He took another large bite out of the sandwich, getting a bit of mayonnaise in the scruffy beard he had recently begun growing out. The guy was one hairy behemoth, even for a human, but until recently that had been restricted to his head, sideburns, and limbs. Now that Magnus was almost twenty, he was determined to take on a more mature look. And according to him, that meant he had to grow a beard.

Soon Taako would be the lone guy out, as elves couldn’t grow facial hair. He didn’t mind, though, since he knew would always be the most attractive out of the three of them. “I can’t,” Taako replied, once he finished musing, “Garyl is my cat, remember? He has standards. He won’t eat food unless it’s fresh out of a can.”

“I’m sure he’d eat anything if he gets hungry enough,” Merle said, “The dry stuff is cheaper, too, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, but only because it’s mostly made out of garbage,” Taako snipped, “A bunch of corn meal and meat byproducts. Hey, since when did we decide it was ‘lecture Taako on feline pet care’ hour? Last I checked, neither of you have any experience with cats, so how about you both shut your traps and let me feed Garyl any fucking which way I decide is best. How about that?”

They both snorted in response to Taako’s quips.

“Okay, fair enough,” Merle chuckled, “So, what’s the four-one-one, as you kids say? Anything new or interesting going on?”

Taako paused. He thought about the phone call they got that morning. And then he said, “Naw.”

“Oh, I actually had something,” Magnus scooched forward, beckoning them into a huddle. He wiped the mayo from his chin and smiled sheepishly. “I wanted to ask you guys for advice. I was planning on— well, maybe I should just show you.”

With that said, Magnus ruffled around in his satchel’s side pocket and fished out a small box. He cracked it open, revealing a simple silver band with a diamond on it.

“Whoa—!” Merle pressed his hands to his chest. “Magnus, I don’t know what to say.”

“It’s not for you,” Magnus said with a roll of his eyes, “Obviously.” He gingerly swiped his thumb over the gemstone. “I want to ask Julia to marry me. But I can’t figure out how. It needs to be something memorable.”

“And you’re asking us?” Taako pointed to himself, and used his other arm to gesture to Merle. “Surely you’ve noticed by now that both Merle and I are chronically single. He’s had one brief, critically unsuccessful marriage, and I’ve never held onto any guy longer than a week. We’re basically the last people on earth who should be giving you relationship advice, my dude.”

“Also,” Merle added, “are you sure you want to pop the big question so soon? You’re only nineteen, it’s not like you have to rush.”

Magnus let out a slow breath. He put on a serene smile, one meant to assure them that he was resolute in his decision. “It doesn’t feel like I’m rushing,” he told them, “And here’s why: We’ve known each other since we were kids. And we’ve been dating since we were fourteen. It’s not like I expect us to get married right away, either. It just feels weird to keep referring to her as my girlfriend, because it seems like we’ve moved past that now. We already know we want to get married someday, so this will just be a little physical reminder of that.”

“Yeah,” Taako said, “That checks out. But again, we can’t help you. Go ask literally anyone else and I promise that they will be able to give you better advice than we could.” Taako then glanced around the campus green, searching for a hapless schmuck he could use to prove his point. His gaze immediately settled on a familiar face: Brian the drow elf.

“Hey, Brian!” Taako waved the guy over.

Brian’s face split into an enormous grin and he bounded over. He had been fruitlessly trying to befriend Taako for years, and had almost succeeded, up until the point when he tried to introduce Taako to his collection of pet tarantulas. Taako had immediately noped out of that situation.

“Taako, hallo, hallo,” Brian said with his obnoxious accented voice, “How haffe you been enjoying your first day back?”

“It’s been fine, business as usual,” Taako answered, “And what about you? I bet you’re excited to finally be assigned homework again.”

“Yes, yes!” Brian nodded enthusiastically. His characteristic manic energy was wafting off of him in waves. “I haffe mizzed it all terribly. Ze clazzes, ze teachers, ze friends I’fe made... It is truly vonterful to be back, vouldn’t you agree?”

“It’s better than being back at work, for sure,” Taako said. He knew he had to change the subject soon, or else Brian would fill up the entire free period with more useless twaddle. “The reason I called you over here is because my friend Magnus had a question for you. Wait— before I ask: you’re engaged, aren’t you?”

Brian’s eyes lit up like fireworks. “I am engaged, yes! Oh, but I haffen’t introduced you to mine fiance yet, haffe I? It keeps slipping mine mind—“

“That’s fine,” Taako cut him off, “We all get busy. Anyway, Magnus is planning on proposing to his girlfriend—“

“Oh, vonderful! Isn’t it zuch a fantastic feeling, being in loffe? Oh, it makes mine heart zing veneffer I remember zat zoon I vill be pledging mine eternal loffe to mine sveet, sveet honey pie.” Brian twirled a loose strand of long white hair around his fingers, looking so disgustingly in love that Taako momentarily forgot to interrupt the drow’s incessant rambling. “Vait, haffe I inffited you to ze vedding, Taako? For ze life of me, I cannot remember. Forgiffe me, but I haffe been giffing out zo many inffides lately zat I’fe lost track of who I’fe asked.”

I have made a dire mistake, Taako realized with growing horror. “You have asked,” he said, “but I’m afraid I had to decline. I’m busy that day, but I thank you nonetheless. Now, about that question—“

“I want to know how to propose,” Magnus blurted out.

Brian clapped his hands together and gave a short bounce. “A propozal! How exhilarating. It’s a fery important moment to get right, you know. I remember how mine scrumptious gummy bear propozed — ze zird time, anyvay. I had him redo it until he gaffe me a propozal vorth bragging about at dinner parties. I had fery particular specificazions. Zo I zuppose you could zay zat I am a bit of an expert on ze zubject. Tell me all about your lucky zignificant other, friend Magnus, and I vill do mine best to azzist you.”

Taako immediately regretted everything. He glanced at Magnus, intending to mouth I’m sorry. But Magnus was intensely listening focused on Brian. If he had a pad of paper and pen, Magnus probably would have lifted them up in anticipation of taking notes.

Well, Taako thought, At least Magnus won’t be asking us anymore.

Lup’s final class of the day ended at three, and once finished, she immediately took off towards the campus library. She had no intentions of actually studying, though. Instead, she was in search of Lucretia, her best friend, and resident library hermit. If Lucretia wasn’t asleep or at class, it was almost guaranteed that she could be found at the library.

As expected, Lup was able to spot her voluminous snow white curls immediately upon arrival. Lucretia was hunkered down at a small table in the corner, furiously jotting down notes in the margins of a textbook.

Lup nabbed the seat across from Lucretia. “Hey! What’s up, girlfriend?”

“You know I hate when straight girls use that word platonically,” Lucretia quipped without glancing up or pausing. It was only after she finished recording her thoughts that she bothered to actually look up at Lup.

“I know,” Lup said, “I just like teasing you. So what’s up, platonic friend of mine?”

Lucretia smiled wryly. “I’m taking Developmental Psychology this semester, which normally I’d be psyched about — no pun intended — but apparently my one-hundred-year-old professor is a Freud-enthusiast. And that’s all you need to know to guess how my day is going.”

“Ouch.” Lup winced. “I don’t suppose you can transfer into a different section?”

“I already checked. All the other sections are full. Unless I can convince someone to switch places with me, or someone drops, I’m screwed.” Lucretia sighed heavily, leaning her chin onto a propped up palm. “I’ve already resigned myself to a half-year of arguing pointlessly with the professor every damn class.”

Lup smirked at that. She wished she had more classes with Lucretia. Unfortunately, their majors rarely overlapped in their required courses. “Honestly, that sounds dope as hell.”

“I suppose it could be.” Lucretia paused to consider it. “Perhaps I just need to alter my perception. I can view this as an opportunity to educate the masses, rather than a cruel punishment I’ve been unfairly subjected to.” She smiled at the thought. “In any case, I haven’t asked you about your day yet. How was it?”

“It happened,” Lup said. “Actually, I wanted to ask you for a big favor.” She put her hands together in a pleading gesture and pouted her lip to inspire her friend’s sympathy.

Lucretia snorted. “Well, tell me what it is, first.”

“If I have to.” Lup leaned back. Where should she even begin? “It’s kind of a long story. You know how, aside from my Great Aunt, my mother’s side of the family is basically a festering pile of raw sewage?”

“How could I forget?”

Lup nodded. “Yeah, well we got a call this morning. Apparently a… I think he’d be our distant cousin?” Her face scrunched up as she tried to map out the connections in her head. “He’s our mom’s... cousin’s... grandson.”

“He’d be your second cousin once removed,” Lucretia supplied helpfully.

“Right. That’s a mouthful,” Lup said, “In any case, we got a call this morning about some relative dying, leaving her son orphaned. And no one else in the family wants to take him, because he’s got a human father. Except no one knows who his father is, so our family can’t pawn the poor kid off on him, either. Taako and I were asked if we’d adopt him — his name is Angus, by the way — but obviously we can’t take him. We have a hard enough time taking proper care of that stray cat Taako brought home last year.”

Lucretia listened dutifully, her brows creasing with concern. By the end of Lup’s explanation, her textbook had been pushed aside and she was stroking the back of Lup’s hand with her thumb. “I’m sorry,” Lucretia said, “How old is Angus?”

“Eleven,” Lup answered. Again she recalled her own experience at that age. She remembered losing Auntie. Her heartstrings were still sore from all the tugging the morning’s call had subjected them to. “Here’s where my favor comes in,” Lup continued, fluttering her saddest puppy eyes at Lucretia, “I told the guy on the phone we’d visit Angus this weekend, when we’ll have time to take the bus to Greenville, where he’s staying. But I don’t know if I can wait that long. Can I please, please borrow your car? Taako and I both get out early on Wednesday, so if we use your car we could drive over in the afternoon, spend a couple of hours with Angus, and be back before bedtime.”

Lucretia smiled and squeezed Lup’s hand. “Yeah, that should be fine,” she answered, “Just promise me you won’t let Taako drive.”

Lup giggled. “I promise.”

Chapter Text

The sun was near to setting by the time Taako’s last class finished, so he was dog-tired while he made his slow trudge back home. The apartment the twins rented wasn’t a long distance from central campus, but it was an uphill climb. It made rushing to class in the morning easy, which was nice, but still. He wished they had chosen to settle in a city with more even terrain. But it had the college Barry chose to attend, so of course Lup jumped at a second chance of making Bluejeans her boytoy. As always, Lup was dragging Taako along on her every little whim.

If the two knuckleheads didn’t end up getting together by the end of the year, Taako was going to be furious. A ten minute walk uphill five days a week, and for what?

Taako placated himself with these thoughts to make the trip less boring. He was even smiling a little to himself by the time he got to the front door. The apartment complex had a main hall with mailboxes and the staircase. Thankfully, their apartment was on the first floor, so at least Taako didn’t have to deal with stairs on top of the steep climb home. He checked the mailbox on a whim, but as usual, it was empty.

He fitted his key into the slot and swung the door open with a sing-songy, “I’m ho-me!”

The response was immediate. Garyl, the twenty pound Maine Coon they recently adopted, jumped down from his perch on the kitchen counter with a heavy thud, and rushed over to affectionately bulldoze his forehead against Taako’s leg.

It was well worth the price of food and litter they paid for Garyl’s care, just to have a creature around to worship Taako’s very existence.

“How’s my big buddy doing?” Taako squat beside Garyl and scratched at his chin. The cat’s responding purr was raspy and deep. It always reminded Taako of a heavy smoker’s voice, but there was something charming about that, too.

“Hey Taako!” Lup’s voice called out from her bedroom, “Can you grab me a bepsi?”

“Hello to you, too,” Taako shouted back. He rolled his eyes and heaved Garyl over one shoulder. The cat was well used to being hauled around like a sack of potatoes, and continued to rev like a monster truck engine. “Did Garyl get dinner yet?”

The door to Lup’s room opened. “He sure did,” Lup said, “and don’t let him convince you otherwise. He already tried begging Barry for food.”

“Barry’s here?” Taako retrieved two cans of soda from the fridge and placed them precariously against Garyl’s bulging belly. Again, the cat rarely reacted. Aside from eating them out of house and home, Garyl was an incredibly low-maintenance pet. It was a good thing, too, or else Davenport may not have as easily given them an exception to the no-pets policy.

(Magnus, who had been wanting a dog for years, was still a little sore about it.)

“Hello Taako,” Barry said, poking his head out from behind Lup. “We were just doing some homework,” he added quickly before Taako could make a snide comment.

Taako turned away so they wouldn’t see the disappointment on his face. Why the fuck won’t they just bone already? But when he spoke, he kept his tone jovial. “Hey BJ,” Taako replied, “nice to see you twice in one day. Since I’m in the kitchen, do you want something to drink, too?”

“I thought we were done with that nickname. And no, thank you, I’m good.”

Taako hummed and closed the fridge door. He tossed one of the bepsis to Lup without a word and she caught it effortlessly. “I’m thinking about bringing BJ back,” Taako said to Barry, “It was heavily underappreciated. Unless you’d prefer Barry Jerry?”

Barry’s lips twisted in disgust. “BJ it is, then,” he decided, and leaned against the doorframe.

“It’s not our fault your name is hilarious, Bear,” Lup added, prodding him in the side with a finger. “There’s just so many great nickname possibilities. BJ, Barry Jerry, Barold Jerold, Bear-Bear, Barry Jorts...”

“It is your fault,” Barry retorted, but without any actual bite in his voice, “You’re the ones who started calling me Mr. Bluejeans all the time.”

“True, true. But you must have liked it, since it’s your legal surname now and all,” Lup shot right back, “Plus, we’re not the ones who gave you the middle name. That one was on your parents. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’ll believe that your parents didn’t know what the letters BJ stood for when they named you Barry Jerry, but they must have realized at some point how shitty it was to give you a rhyming first and middle name.”

Technically it was Barry Jeremiah, but Barry knew better than to try arguing that point again. “Look, they had book smarts, not common sense,” he said instead.

“That has been well established,” Taako put in.

Nobody said anything in response to that. Lup glanced over at Barry, whose eyes had gone glassy. Barry cleared his throat. Lup looked to Taako.

“Sooo,” Taako said, breaking the silence. “Have you two eaten yet?”

Lup perked up. “We were actually talking about ordering Chinese once you got home,” she answered, “Do you want your usual?”

“Please and thank you.” Taako shifted Garyl to his other shoulder, as the weight of the cat was making his arm numb. The bepsi almost fell to the floor, but Taako managed to catch it in his elbow just as it began to teeter. “Barry, you’re staying for dinner, right?”

Barry smiled gratefully. “Yeah,” he said, “Plus, we still have to decide what to pack.”

“What to pack?” Taako repeated dumbly. He glanced quizzically over at Lup, but she had already dipped off into the kitchen to make the call to their favorite takeout place. “Did I forget something? What are we packing for?”

Barry paused for a second, and then said, “Y’know, for our road trip Wednesday.”

“First time I’m hearing about it, my fella.” Taako lowered Garyl to the floor, and gave the cat’s head a final affectionate pat. “Where are we going?”

Barry hesitated again. His gaze flickered over to Lup. “Um, to Greenville? Lup didn’t tell you about it?”

“Oh, to see what’s-his-name?” Taako gave a noncommittal half-shrug. “We’re doing that this weekend, since we’ll be taking the bus. Are you coming with us?”

Barry didn’t answer, an expression of bewilderment crossing his face.

Behind the two guys, Lup finished up her phone conversation and tucked her cell away into her pocket. Then she bounded over to her twin brother, latching onto his arm. “Yeah, Barry is coming with,” she said, speaking quickly, “And Lucretia is letting us borrow her car, so we can go visit Angus Wednesday afternoon instead of waiting until Saturday!”

Taako stiffened. “Since when?” He shot his sister a look. “Don’t you think you should have consulted me about this beforehand?”

Lup’s ears drooped for a split-second, before springing back up. ”Sorry, sorry,” she said, “I meant to tell you the second you got home.” Her grip on Taako tightened. “But you’re free Wednesday afternoon, right? Both of our classes end around noon.”

“And what if I wasn’t free?” Taako refused to submit to the cutesy look Lup was giving him, standing his ground. “You never know. I could have joined a club or something.”

Lup shook her head. “Are we talking about the same Taako? My lone wolf brother who says that extracurricular activities are just for people who don’t know how to take ownership of their own free time? And what club would you join, even if you did change your stance on them?”

“It was just a hypothetical example,” Taako huffed, “And I could have changed my stance on clubs. That’s the thing about Taako. He’s always growing and evolving.” He tried to shake Lup off his arm, but she refused to let him go. “Or maybe I had a hot date scheduled for that night. That’s all I’m saying. You can’t change our plans like this on such short notice, Lup.”

It was clear from Lup’s raised eyebrow that she wasn’t quite convinced, though.

“And, what about Garyl?” Taako continued arguing, as fruitless as it likely was to do so. “Now I have to find someone to cat-sit in the next two days. That’s not a lot of time.”

All the while, while this back and forth was taking place, Barry was standing under the door frame to Lup’s room. He dared not to make a peep.

“Taako, now you’re just being needlessly difficult,” Lup said with a pout. “We’re just going to be gone a few hours. We can put out some dry food for Garyl to snack on, and give him a late dinner when we get back. Why are you so opposed to going? Don’t you want to meet Angus?”

“I don’t— I don’t not want to meet him,” Taako stammered. He felt heat rising to his cheeks. He suddenly wanted to tell Barry to scram, but he resisted the urge. If Barry was going to be his brother-in-law someday, he’d have to get used to seeing Taako’s uglier side. Taako’s mind raced, trying to figure out how to voice his thoughts without sounding like a complete douchebag. “I just think it’s kind of cruel... for us to go and visit the kid, even though we can’t help him at all. We can’t pretend that meeting him will fix anything. For him or for...” Taako glanced sideways at Barry and braced himself for the worst. “Or for us.”

Lup’s ears dropped again, and this time they stayed down. Her entire face fell with them. “Taako...” she mumbled his name, and then shut her mouth.

Barry shuffled awkwardly. “Maybe I should go?” He suggested.

“Yeah.” Lup clenched her jaw and slowly released her ironclad grip on Taako’s arm. “Yeah, that’s probably for the best. I’ll text you later, Bear.”

Taako backed up, letting Barry nervously pass between them. For a second Barry hesitated, hand on the doorknob.

“Goodnight,” he said, and then slipped off without another word.

Nothing happened for a good long moment. Taako didn’t look at Lup, and Lup didn’t look at him. Their apartment suddenly felt too cold and too small.

When Lup finally spoke, her voice was softer than Taako had anticipated. “I didn’t offer to visit him because I thought it would fix anything,” she murmured, “I offered because it’s the right thing to do. I mean, if it was us in his place...”

“Don’t,” Taako grumbled, “Don’t pretend to know what we would have wanted at that age. I sure as fuck don’t know what I would have wanted. I likely would have just seen a visit from a distant relative as a bother. And besides, Angus isn’t us. Maybe he doesn’t even want to meet us. Maybe it will just make everything that much harder for him.”

Lup took in a shaky breath.

Surprised, Taako looked up. He saw the wetness glistening on her cheeks and felt an unbearable tightness seize his chest. He clenched his fist against his rib cage, willing the hot pain to ice over.

“I can’t believe that,” Lup said after a pause, “No one else will even acknowledge his existence, Taako. He has to go into the foster system, and we both know how rough that can be. Knowing he has at least one person in his corner must help him in some way. Even if he doesn’t see it at first, I have to believe he’ll come to appreciate it eventually.”

Taako wasn’t so much of a monster that he’d try to argue with his sister when she was crying. There was only one option left. Taako swallowed back his own feelings.

“Yeah,” he said, “You’re probably right. I’m sorry.”

Lup looked up. Her piercing eyes scanned his face, searching for any hint of dishonesty. Taako stood firm under the heat of her stare. If she found any, she didn’t comment on it.

“So we’re visiting him on Wednesday?” Lup asked.

“Yeah, that’s the plan, isn’t it?” Taako rolled his stiff shoulders, and slapped a too large smile on his face. “I guess I better go start packing.”

Lup wiped her tears away. “Yeah, we’ll need some snacks and games. Maybe an audiobook or something.”

“Some blankets, too, definitely,” Taako added, “If I remember correctly, Barry likes to blast the AC.” He reached out his hand, extending his pinky.

Lup mirrored his action and twisted their littlest fingers together. “He sure does,” Lup agreed, “Barry the human furnace.” That managed to finally put a smile back on her face. “He’s hot in all senses of the word,” she added playfully.

“Yeah, yeah.” Taako pulled his hand back. “You’re hot for Bluejeans, I get it. So when are you finally telling him?”

Lup blew a raspberry at Taako. “Shut up. I’ll tell him when I tell him.”

“Sure, sure.” Taako turned to retreat to his room. Garyl was already inside, surely, waiting for Taako to come and cuddle him on the bed. Suddenly Taako wanted nothing more than to go bury his face in the overweight feline’s soft belly. “Let me know when the food gets here,” he called over his shoulder, but without really looking.

And thus peace was restored, for the night.

Taako’s first class the next morning was Sociology of Death. Ren had suggested that they sign up for it together, so they shared at least one class. Like Barry, she was a senior and graduating next summer. Taako hadn’t yet figured out how to level up their friendship to a point where it wouldn’t be weird to ask to stay in touch after she moved away.

For all Ren knew, Taako was an aloof loner who only talked with her out of a sense of courtesy. After all, they were coworkers before they found out they went to the same school. Or maybe she didn’t think that. Taako wasn’t good at guessing what others thought of him.

He walked into the lecture hall about ten minutes early, holding a cup of coffee and little else. He’d start bring the textbook to class once the add/drop period was over, and the professors started taking attendance and participation seriously. Ren was sitting in the front row (because of course she was), yawning into her palm. As she was known to work part-time on top of classes, Ren was almost always in a zombified state.

The drow perked up, however, at the sight of Taako. “Good morning,” she chirped, waving him over, “I saved you a seat.”

“You look like crap,” Taako replied, and immediately regretted his frankness. That’s not how you make friends, Taako, he heard Lup’s voice scolding him in his head. Taako tried a different tactic. “Did you have a late shift at the bar?”

Ren nodded. “Yessir, I sure did,” she answered, thankfully not looking offended in the least. “I had to break up two different drunken fights, too.”

“I thought that was the bouncer’s job,” Taako said as he took the open seat beside Ren.

Ren laughed at that. “It’s sure as hell supposed to be,” she agreed, “but that son-of-a-bitch never showed up, and of course the boss was too lazy to call up a replacement. I swear, if the tips weren’t so good, I’d quit that place right quick. Wouldn’t even put in a two week notice.”

“No?” Taako snorted. “Wow, Ren, you’re such a rebel.”

Ren flicked back her silvery ponytail dramatically. It was grown long, and nearly as beautiful as Taako’s own hair. “I normally would never,” she admitted, “but it’s not like the boss has ever shown me any courtesy. He doesn’t even bother to keep my school schedule in mind when he’s deciding which shifts I should work. Like I said, only the tips make the whole thing worth the trouble.”

“Those must be some damn good tips,” Taako said. He couldn’t imagine tolerating that amount of thoughtlessness from an employer, no matter how good the wages were.

Ren grinned a little sheepishly and leaned close to his ear. “Well, I am the only girl working there most nights,” she murmured, “And most of our patrons are not the most charismatic fellows. I think they’re just happy to have a girl listen to their drunk ramblings. I don’t actually pay them any attention, of course, but I’m good at pretending that I am.”

Taako laughed loudly at that. “Exploiting heartbroken men for that sweet, sweet coin? I have to say, Ren, I’m very impressed.”

Ren tried to shush him, giggling all the while. “That’s a crass way to put it,” she said, “But yes, I suppose I am.”

Taako opened his mouth to tease his friend some more, but then he noticed that Lucretia had entered the room. The human was standing nervously in the corner, presumably searching the rows of bleach-white desks for a friendly face.

Taako waved her over. “Lucy,” he called, “You’re taking this class, too?”

Lucretia’s entire demeanor changed when she heard her nickname. Her nervous aura dissipated, and a relieved smile crossed her lips. “If I’m not, I’m in the wrong place,” she answered, sitting down on Taako’s other side, “This is Sociology of Death, right?”

“If not, we’re all in the wrong place,” Taako joked. He turned to Ren and gestured to Lucretia. “Ren, this is Lucretia. Lucretia, this is Ren.”

“Oh, we already know each other,” Ren said, waving at Lucretia, “We took Ethical Philosophy together last semester.”

“Oh,” Taako said. Somehow, it felt weird that his best friend and Lup’s best friend were previously acquainted. But it would probably be even weirder to mention it, so Taako kept the thought to himself.

“We never really talked much before, though,” Lucretia admitted shyly, “I didn’t know you knew Taako, Ren.”

“We worked in the kitchen together at Itchin’ for Chicken between freshman and sophomore year,” Ren said, “That was back before the health department shut it down, obviously.”

“Who knew the owners were going to take the restaurant’s name so literally,” Taako put in. It was one of his favorite gags.

Lucretia was looking a little pale. “I’m suddenly very thankful I never ate there.”

“Yeah, it was basically the nightmare scenario,” Ren agreed humorously, “I think Taako and I were the only cooks there who regularly washed their hands.”

“Please stop talking,” Lucretia said, now turning a little green.

Ren and Taako shared a laugh. It was not the first time they had purposefully drawn that sort of reaction from someone. And it certainly wouldn’t be the last time, either, if Taako had any say in it.

“And how do you and Taako know each other?” Ren asked, taking pity on Lucretia.

“I’m friends with his twin sister,” Lucretia replied, “We were roommates when we were freshmen. And Taako minors in sociology, which is my major, so we’ll occasionally have classes together.”

“Ugh, I hated living on campus,” Taako complained for about the hundredth time. He didn’t care if he sounded like a broken record. Robbie had been a garbage person long before he was expelled for supplying the frat boys with every party drug under the sun, and people needed to be reminded of that sometimes.

“It certainly had its up and downs,” Lucretia noted, apparently ungrateful that she had gotten the best possible roommate and was not forced to share a space, as was the case with Taako, with a sloppy horndog.

Taako grumbled some rude words under his breath, but otherwise let the discussion die.

“Attention, everyone,” the professor’s voice rang out, “And turn you phones on silent. It’s time to begin class.” She was a tall, intimidating looking woman with thick black spectacles.

But more noteworthy was the young man who stood beside her.

He stood about a head shorter than the woman, which was still an impressive height, with long black dreads pulled back into a loose bun, and a gaunt but stunningly attractive face covered in gold piercings. The dark, handsome fellow couldn’t have been much older than Taako, but he was decked out in formalwear, all in shades of gray and black, with the occasional golden accent accessory. In short, he was a feast for the eyes.

“My name is Dr. Regina Raven,” the professor continued, “And this is Kravitz Corbin. He took this class last semester and, might I say, he absolutely aced it. So he’s going to be my TA this semester. His schedule is much more open than mine, so please take full advantage of his expertise.”

Kravitz bowed at the waist. It was a gaudy move, but he managed to pull it off. His smile was as beautiful and as blinding as a solar eclipse.

Taako decided he was going to like this class.

At lunch, Lup tracked down Barry in the cafeteria. “Hey, Barry,” she greeted him, and reached into her bag to retrieve a pair of chopsticks and a tupperware container of chicken lo mein. She slid them across the table towards Barry and took the seat opposite him. “Here’s that takeout I ordered for you last night. Y’know, right before I kicked you out.”

Barry took the food gratefully. “Thank you,” he said, “And you didn’t kick me out. I left, because you needed some twin time. I understand.” He unclasped the lid and immediately began digging in.

Lup watched him with a slight grimace. “You’re not going to heat it up first?”

“I don’t mind cold leftovers,” Barry assured her after he swallowed his first bite. He then smiled at Lup’s concerned frown. “You know I’m not a picky man, Lup.”

“I’m aware,” Lup agreed. She pulled out her own tub of leftovers and glanced off to where the microwave sat. Maybe she was just lazy, but she didn’t really want to go over there and wait for her food to cook. Plus, she just brought veggie rolls. Those were probably safe to eat cold. She timidly took a bite of one, and was surprised when she didn’t hate it. “Actually,” she said, “you might be onto something.”

Barry beamed at her. Lup melted.

They ate in silence for a few minutes. The buzz of conversation steadily grew as more students filed into the cafeteria. Lucretia swung by the table briefly to drop off her backpack before heading into the adjoining room to buy some food for herself. If she was judging them for eating cold leftover Chinese food, she didn’t mention anything.

Once they were alone again, Lup glanced up at Barry through the veil of hair she styled to cover part of her face.

“Are you… still planning on coming with us to Greenville tomorrow?” Lup bit her lip, realizing how weak her voice sounded, and hating herself for it. “It’s okay if you don’t,” she quickly added, forcing a nonchalant tone, “I know our twin drama can be tough to deal with sometimes.”

Barry blinked a few times, slowly. It seemed as though the option hadn’t even occurred to him. “I was planning on it,” he said, and then stopped himself. He dropped his gaze to his food before he spoke again. “Feel free to tell me to shut up if this sounds too corny, but… The other day, I got the impression that getting to meet Angus would mean a lot to you. And simultaneously, you’re kind of nervous about it, too. I wouldn’t blame you if you were. It’s completely understandable given the circumstances.”

Barry paused again. Lup found herself smiling without intending to. Which was good, because it appeared to give Barry the strength he needed to continue.

“I thought you could use some emotional support,” Barry said, speaking so soft that Lup leaned forward to hear him better, “And not to smack-talk Taako, but I don’t think he’s in the best headspace right now. Again, completely understandable. But Taako’s not the warmest person even when he is in a good mood. So in case he’s not able to give you the emotional support you need, I want to be there as… a sort of Plan B, I guess.”

A deep well of a half-decade of suppressed affection bubbled up Lup’s throat, momentarily choking her. In lieu of speaking, lest her voice crack, Lup reached out and squeezed Barry’s hand. She squeezed hard, trying to convey everything she could not say.

Chapter Text

That Wednesday, 4 o’clock couldn’t come fast enough. Angus generally didn’t have a hard time entertaining himself — he had a great many interests, and was accustomed to being on his own. But no matter how hard Angus tried, he couldn’t seem to focus on anything at hand.

Mr. Bradson, the kind orc man who was fostering Angus while he waited to be adopted, kept reminding him to be patient. “Time won’t magically move faster just because you keep looking at the clock,” he reminded Angus for the third time.

Angus looked away, his face reddening. He hadn’t even meant to check the time again; it had been an unconscious reflex. “I know,” he replied for the third time.

They were seated at the long marble island in Mr. Bradson’s kitchen. It was a clean, warm house, if a bit cluttered. Mr. Bradson appeared to have a penchant for collectables, especially stamps and coins. Many of them were framed and hung up on the wall. Hoards of ceramic knick knacks overcrowded any available surface area, many of them souvenirs from other cities.

Angus sat a few chairs down from Mr. Bradson, who was still working on that morning’s crossword puzzle. Angus, on the other hand, was attempting to complete a stack of math problems.

Though most middle schools had already begun classes, Angus was given an extra week of summer vacation to get adjusted to all the recent changes in his life. Angus was at first thankful for that decision, but after a day and a half with nothing to do, Angus desperately missed the distraction of busywork. Thus, Mr. Bradson had started printing out practice algebra problems he’d found online.

The kitchen fell into comfortable silence once more. Angus focused on finishing the page he was on. It had a lot of long division, which made for a great distraction. Though primarily unchallenging, the sheer amount of time it took to complete each individual problem managed to hold Angus’s attention.

Angus liked math. In fact, he liked almost everything about school. He was, in his mom’s words, a “very smart boy”. Sometimes she even called him a “prodigy” or “child genius”. Various teachers over the years had called Angus “precocious”. Angus tried not to call himself any of those things, primarily because his grandpa told him it was rude to brag, but also because he thought those terms were a bit reductive. He didn’t like it when people underestimated him because of his age.

Growing up with an ailing, weak-limbed grandfather and sporadically absent mother, Angus was at least partially responsible for raising himself. It made Angus mature faster than most. And what Angus learned was that adults were not always more intelligent or capable than children. Therefore, Angus thought, it was unfair to focus on his age when commenting on his intelligence.

His mom had laughed the first time Angus tried to explain that to her. But then her smile turned soft and fond, and she had ruffled Angus’s hair, and said, “Well, it’s true that you’re already smarter than me.”

Angus sniffled. Then he froze. He hadn’t realized he’d gotten teary-eyed thinking about his mom. He glanced at Mr. Bradson to ensure the orc hadn’t noticed, and then wiped his sleeve across his eyes. It wasn’t that he was embarrassed of crying. It was just that today he was going to meet some cousins he had never met before, and he wanted to be in a good mood when they showed up.

And with that thought, Angus reflexively looked back up at the clock.

A few chairs down, Mr. Bradson sighed and put down the newspaper. He raised an eyebrow at Angus, though with a small smile. “Should I tape some paper over the clock’s face?” Mr. Bradson teased.

Angus shrugged sheepishly. “I can’t seem to focus on math anymore,” he admitted, and then, “I keep thinking about my mom.”

“Ah.” Mr. Bradson slid a seat closer to Angus and placed his large hand on his shoulder. “Maybe it’s time for you to give yourself permission to grieve. I know it’s painful to let those feelings out, but you can’t allow them to fester inside you forever. And it doesn’t have to happen all at once. I can help you reign your emotions back in with some breathing exercises if they become too overwhelming.”

Mr. Bradson’s voice was incredibly soothing, and for a moment Angus considered it. But then he shook his head. “Not yet,” he decided, “I don’t want to give my cousins a bad first impression.”

“I’m sure they’ll understand if you’re a bit weepy when they arrive,” Mr. Bradson said, his face creasing with empathy, “Grief isn’t a weakness, Angus.”

Angus shrugged again. “I know, but I still want to greet them with a smile on my face.”

Mr. Bradson bit his lip.

“I know it’s selfish, sir,” Angus continued quickly so that Mr. Bradson had no opportunity to argue, “but I want this to be a good day for all of us. My mom never let me meet any of my relatives, aside from her and my grandpa, and Mr. Jenkins said that no one else wanted to even talk to me. I know they can’t adopt me, and I’m not getting my hopes up for that, but I’d like to stay in touch with them. Maybe they can tell me things I never got to learn about my mom. She kept a lot of secrets, you see, and I have a lot of questions I never got to ask her.”

As Angus’s little monologue came to an end, Mr. Bradson was getting rapidly more teary-eyed. He sniffed and rubbed the tears away with his thumb. And then Mr. Bradson smiled.

“Angus,” he said, “You’re a wonderfully thoughtful young man. I’ve noticed that you like to keep your mind sharp, and that’s a great habit to maintain. But while you’re certainly very smart, I don’t want you to neglect your heart. Just like your brain needs to be exercised, you need to exercise your heart through mindfully acknowledging your emotions. Nevertheless, I will respect your decision to put off mourning a little bit longer. Just promise me you won’t avoid it forever.”

“I promise, sir.”

“Good. And call me Brad, please.” Mr. Bradson paused, and then reached to the side to grab his newspaper again. “Since math is no longer holding your attention, would you like to help me complete the daily crossword?” He unfolded the pages with a brisk snap, and turned it so that Angus could see the puzzle.

Angus’s eyes scoured the answers Mr. Bradson had already filled in. About half of it was finished, leaving a majority of the white squares still blank. Angus then turned to the list of clues.

“Nine letter word meaning to broker peace,” Angus read out loud, “Um... intercede?”

“Intercede!” Mr. Bradson let out a loud breathy laugh. “That’s the word that was on the tip of my tongue. Thank you, Angus.” He grabbed his pencil and began inscribing the letters down into their proper squares. “Here’s another one that just absolutely stumped me... I need a six letter word for excessive pride. Ends with an S.”

Angus bounced excitedly. “I know that one, too! It’s hubris.” Mr. Bradson looked confused, so Angus spelled it out for him. “H-U-B-R-I-S. I learned that one from a Caleb Cleveland novel!”

Mr. Bradson smiled warmly and wrote that down, too.

Lucretia’s car smelled like artificial lemon. Clearly she had cleaned it out thoroughly before letting them borrow it. Lup didn’t waste much thought on the issue, but it was the only thing Taako had wanted to talk about for the last twenty minutes.

“She’s given us rides before,” Taako pointed out from the back seat. “Hell, she’s been in our apartment. None of us would give a shit whether or not her car smells like worn leather and takeout.” When nobody responded, Taako doubled down. “Honestly, that would smell better than whatever cheap citrus air freshener she used.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Lup saw Barry reach forward to turn up the volume. She hid her smile, in case Taako caught sight of it in the rearview mirror. If he bothered to pay attention to either of them, that is.

Taako quieted for a few minutes.

The Eagles were belting out lyrics about taking it easy, and Lup could only hope that Taako took their advice to heart. In truth, all of them were feeling a bit ruffled. They were almost at the end of their journey, Greenville a mere ten minutes away. With their destination so closely within their grasp, it was getting harder to swallow down their impatience.

Three consecutive hours on the highway could make anyone a little stir-crazy. But when coupled with an irritable Taako in the backseat… that was a true test of endurance.

The relief Lup felt upon seeing their exit was palpable.

“Fucking finally,” Taako said, tugging at Lup’s shoulder to pull himself forward.

The thing about Greenville was that it wasn’t much different from any of the other many small suburban towns in the state Taako and Lup had lived in over the years. So although the twins had never been in Greenville before, it felt like coming home. Greenville had the same falling apart houses, the same pothole stricken streets, the same long stretches of road with abandoned farmland on the one side and high-end apartment complexes in seemingly perpetual construction on the other. It seemed like half of the stores they passed were either out of business or in the process of going out of business. The ones that were still holding strong were all large chains like WacDonalds and Pizza Hub.

The neighborhoods were cutesy. Each house was painted a different quaint pastel color, and framed by half-dead gardens and fences made out of wood. The lawns were speckled with colorful autumn leaves, the drier ones rustling down along the sidewalks. Some eager beavers already had their Thanksgiving and/or Halloween decorations up.

Lup rolled her window down, letting the aroma of dying leaves waft into the car. And with it, each one of them separately and quietly began to remember.

--

In their sophomore year of high school, Lup had decided to join the track team. It was less of a choice than an insistent recommendation on the behalf of their social worker. Lup had an anger management problem, or so she was told. They had tried to get her to choose a team sport, but Lup, being Lup, settled on a compromise.

Within the week of joining, Lup had become addicted to the adrenaline rush. Each morning, she’d run literal circles around Taako and Barry as they walked to school together.

The crunch of stepping on leaves invigorated Lup further. She made sure to stomp on each one she saw, no matter how ridiculous it made her look.

“Lup, you look ridiculous,” Taako reminded his sister for the thousandth time.

Lup ignored him, chasing one big brown leaf that was caught up in a little autumn squall. She leaped onto it with both feet, and ground it to dust under her heels. Then she turned to grin at the boys triumphantly. “Did you see the size of that one?”

“Yeah, it, uh, was pretty big,” Barry replied, through wheezy puffs of breath. Unlike the twins, who walked fast and were naturally long-limbed, Barry was a stumpy-legged lumberer who often struggled to keep pace. One day he’d go through a massive growth spurt, but until then he had to settle with just tagging along on whatever adventure the twins were on. “Must have blown in from somewhere far off. I haven’t seen any trees with leaves that big around here before.”

Taako paused to level an unamused look at Barry. “Only you would notice something like that, BJ.”

“Maybe you’re the one who needs to be more observant, Koko,” Lup said, and she kicked at a short pile of leaves to make them explode into a multi-colored cloud. “What’s that word Mrs. Reed used about you at the parent-teacher conference?”

“She called me dissociated,” Taako answered proudly.

Barry huffed loudly. “Teachers think they can say whatever they want to behind your back as long as they use a bunch of flowery language,” he said, “I am not ‘resistant to criticism’. I am always open to criticism, as long as it’s actually well-intentioned! And I’d work better in groups if I wasn’t always assigned to work with utter nimrods!”

Lup hummed her agreement. “They just can’t handle the fact that we get the best grades. They probably think we’re cheating or something.”

They turned the final corner on their long morning journey. The sidewalk was particularly uneven there, especially at the part where an old tree’s roots ran under it, lifting segments several inches higher than the rest of the pavement. The sounds of students filing into the school filled the air. They all paused for a moment, surveying the stampede of teenagers.

Barry huffed again. “I wonder how overblown the story’s gotten now.”

Taako folded his arms. “I mean, it’s been three days. Surely they’ve found some other salacious gossip to focus on by now.” He paused, and then, “That said, I’m all in favor of playing hooky if you guys are down.”

There were still far enough way not to be noticed. If they turned around and left, it was unlikely anyone would know that their suspension was officially over.

Lup shook her head. “I’ve already missed enough track and field,” she decided, “Let’s just get this over with.”

Lup pulled into the driveway. The house was one of the smaller ones, just a single-story. Still, it was in fairly good shape. The paint wasn’t chipping, the roof looked new, and the front yard was well-trimmed. Lup let the car idle for a couple of seconds, and then cut the ignition. All at once, it became eerily silent. No one moved to unbuckle.

They were on the edge of something, again. A pivotal in-between space, where everything hung in the air, like a cartoon coyote run off the side of a cliff, frozen in place until the moment he realized where he was and gravity comedically kicked back in.

“Well,” Lup said, “Let’s go.”

They made their way up the stairs and knocked, after seeing the note saying the doorbell no longer worked. Hardly a second passed before the door sprung open, revealing a short but well-dressed lad.

The family resemblance was not immediately visible. Angus was dark skinned, with a curly Afro-textured hair trimmed short on the sides. His ears were tucked into a green plaid cap, which matched his cute little bowtie. His button nose was too small, his eyes too round. His thousand-watt smile was also certainly inherited from his father’s side. Had they not known better, all of them would have mistaken Angus for a human boy.

“Welcome, sir and madam!” Angus paused, catching sight of Barry. “Sorry, sirs and madam! I’m Angus. It’s so nice to meet you.”

Taako glanced from the young half-elf to his sister. Her eyes were lit up like he’d rarely seen them before, and he immediately recognized that they had made a horrible mistake.

Before they could reply, a looming orc man walked up behind Angus. He was smiling, too, but it didn’t reach his eyes.

“You must be Lup and Taako,” the orc said, though his gaze was fixed on Barry, “And who is this? I wasn’t informed that we’d have another person joining us today.” His smile got wider and faker. “It’s really important that you let us know about bringing a guest along beforehand, because this is generally a situation reserved for family members.”

“Oh, him?” Taako thought fast, gesturing his thumb at Barry. “That’s Lup’s husband, Barry Taaco.”

He could feel the heat of both Lup and Barry’s sudden blushes burning beside him like the scorching rays of the sun. Thankfully, neither of them denied it.

Instead, Barry felt forced by social conventions to say, “Yup. Yup, that’s me.”

The orc immediately softened. “Oh! Oh, my mistake!” He put his hand to his chest, laughing softly. “You must think me so rude. It didn’t even occur to me — but that’s what I get for assuming. Let’s start over. I’m Brad Bradson. Please, come inside. I’ll start heating up some water so we can all have a little tea party. Doesn’t that sound like fun?”

Angus was gaping at Lup now. “You have a human husband?”

Lup was still bright red, but she recovered quickly. “Yeah, get used to it, kid,” she replied smoothly, walking into the house and ruffling her hair as she passed by. “I mean, your dad was human, right? So it’s not a big deal.”

“I mean, I’ve met lots of folks who thought it was a big deal,” Angus countered, skipping alongside her, “But point taken.”

They filtered into the kitchen. Angus ushered the twins to sit down across from him on the other side of the island. He immediately began peppering them with seemingly endless inquiries.

“How was the trip? You guys came from class, right? Oh! What classes are you taking? Is Barry a college student, too?”

From over by the stove, readying an antique-looking kettle, Brad burst into belly-deep laughter. “Angus, let them catch their breath, buddy,” he said, “And besides, they can only answer one question at a time.”

Angus fiddled with his tie sheepishly. “Right, ah, sorry about that. I’m just so excited. This is my first time meeting a cousin. Did... did you know my mom?”

The twins reflexively glanced at one another. “Ahh,” Lup began, “I mean... we only met her a few times.”

“We lived with her grandmother for a while,” Taako added, “but Penneh didn’t come around all that often.” Mostly because Penneh had been too self-absorbed to give anyone else the time of day, but Taako knew better than to say that in front of her orphaned child.

Angus smiled gently. “It’s okay, you don’t have to dance around the truth in front of me. I’m well aware of my mom’s not-so-nice past.”

The twins didn’t know how to respond to that, so they stayed quiet.

“She changed, you know,” Angus continued, “Not in time to reconcile things with Great-Grandma Nella, unfortunately, but she did pull herself together.” Angus rifled through his shirt pocket, and took out a folded up photo. He unwrapped it gingerly, and handed it to Lup.

Taako leaned close to see it, too. It was Penneh, all right, though she looked more filled out and healthy. She held a toddler version of Angus on her knees. Both of them were beaming brightly.

“She always said that I changed her life.” Angus reached over to take the picture back. He looked it over himself, just for a second, before folding it back up. “Because of me, the rest of the family cut her off. She told me it was the best thing that could have happened to her. She got to reconnect with her father, my Grandfather, who taught her how to live independently. The three of us lived together, and my mom worked a lot to support us. She wasn’t perfect, but no one is. The important thing is that she tried super hard to make things right. I just think you should know that about her.”

When Angus finished, there were tears welling up in his eyes. He wiped them dry with his sleeve and laughed wetly. “I’m sorry,” he said,” I didn’t want to cry today.”

And then he broke down sobbing.

Chapter Text


Barry was sobbing. It had been less than four hours since their first day back at school following their three day suspension, and Barry was already crying.

They sat in a row, Lup, Barry, and Taako, on the waiting bench outside the principal’s office. There was muffled yelling inside, loud enough that they could have easily picked up what was being said, if it weren’t for Barry’s loud and snotty sobs.

Barry’s father, Gregor Winters, was inside, along with the twins’ most recent foster mom, Geraldine Wagner. It was hard to tell which parent was angrier.

After a few minutes of this, Lup lowered the ice pack from her cheek. The split in her lip wasn’t looking or feeling any better than before, but she just couldn’t not try to comfort Barry. So she wrapped her arm around his shoulders and began to shush him gently. “It’s okay,” she told him, “I’m okay.”

“Oh no, you’re definitely not okay,” Taako argued, leaning forward so he could glare at his twin sister. “I’m going to murder every last one of those good for nothing—”

“Taako!” Lup pinched his shoulder sharply to shut him up. “Why the fuck would you say something like that out loud! I thought we were trying NOT to get expelled for real this time.” She pressed her face into Barry’s shoulder to muffle a short scream. When she emerged, she forced her next words to come out softer. “Please, don’t lose your temper. I don’t want to have to pack up and move to another city again.”

Barry’s sobs became more panicked at Lup’s words. “N-no,” he stammered painfully, “They can’t do that. That’s not fair. None of this is fair.”

“Agreed,” Taako said. He examined Lup’s face again. “Your eye’s starting to swell.”

Lup moved the ice pack back under her eye. “Damn it,” she hissed, “Hey, at least we finally have proof that I’m not the only one swinging punches.”

“I think I preferred it when you didn’t get your ass handed to you.”

Barry gripped Lup’s hand tightly, shaking his head. “This isn’t fair,” he said again, “They can’t expel you for protecting yourself. This is bullshit.”

Lup sighed. “Sorry for always dragging you into our messes, Barry. See, this is why we never made friends before.”

Barry’s nails dug into Lup’s palm. “You didn’t drag me into shit,” he growled, sounding angrier than the two had ever heard him before, “I helped you make this mess. I bought us the tape recorder, remember? And we didn’t do anything wrong. We were just protecting ourselves.”

“Marvey sure didn’t see it that way,” Taako quipped.

“Marvey is an asshole.” Barry scrubbed his face with his palms, anger burning his tears away. “If he gets off scotch free again, I— I don’t know what I’ll do!”

“We could slip a dead fish in his locker and see how long it takes him to figure out where the terrible smell is coming from,” Taako offered. He thought about it a moment and then amended, “Then again, he probably won’t even notice a difference. Seriously, does that guy EVER wash his gym clothes?”

Nobody laughed at Taako’s jab, but he didn’t get much time to feel offended. The principal’s door popped open, and the big man himself summoned them into the room.

“It’s time we hear your side of the story,” he said.

Taako opened his mouth to make a smart-ass comment, but Lup anticipated her brother’s intent and boxed his ear before he could make a sound.

“Ow!” Taako clutched his ear. It would be unfair to retaliate against anyone with a black eye, even if that person was his twin sister, and especially if said person got a black eye standing up for her friends. So Taako accepted the punishment without further complaint.

Gregor and Ms. Wagner were standing off to the side, watching in silence. Barry and Lup took the two open seats in front of the principal’s desk, while Taako leaned on his elbows on the back of Lup’s chair.

Principal Captain Bain was a severe man with an unfortunately accurate name. He was built like a brick shit-house, according to every student who had the misfortune of meeting him. His voice sounded like marbles going through the ‘crush ice’ setting of a blender. When he spoke, students cowered. Not even the twins were immune to his obnoxiously intimidating aura.

“So,” Mr. Bain began, “Who wants to tell me what they think happened?”

Taako bristled, but Lup spoke up first.

“They were spreading rumors again,” Lup said, “Marvey told everyone we set up cameras in the boys’ locker room!”

“It’s basically slander at this point,” Barry put in, “They’re constructing this narrative where we’re sexual predators, but that isn’t even remotely true!”

“You did put recording devices in the locker room,” Mr. Bain reminded them.

“Only to prove that they’re always the ones who start the fights,” Barry explained quickly, “because you never believed us about that. And we did get proof of them saying some really awful things about us, before they destroyed the tape. But again, you won’t take us at our word—”

“Barry Jeremiah Winters!” Gregor stepped forward, his voice low and icy. “I taught you manners so that you could use them!”

“It’s not fair!” Barry stood up, whirling from his father to Mr. Bain, addressing both of them. “We’ve just been trying to protect ourselves!”

“By getting into fistfights on school property?” Mr. Bain’s expression turned dark. “I’m aware rumors can get out of hand and hurt people’s feelings, but violence is not the solution to that. It only puts you on the bully’s level.”

Barry’s eyes began to tear up again. “These rumors aren’t just petty things about who has a crush on who! The only reason they’re even picking on us is—”

“Because of me,” Taako cut Barry off. “I checked out a guy in the locker room one time, and now they all think I’m some kind of freak of nature! It wasn’t even Marvey or one of his hoard, because ew. But they saw me give another guy’s naked back a little harmless look-see last year, and they still haven’t stopped bullying me about it. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but your school has a homophobia problem, Principal Bain.”

The room fell silent. Principal Captain Bain let out an enormous huff with his elephant-sized lungs.

“Violence still isn’t the answer,” he repeated himself, “but I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with that, Taako. We put a lot of work into making this school inclusive for all its students—”

“Bullshit!” The word flew out of Taako’s mouth before his mind could censor him. The temperature of the room immediately dropped.

“Excuse me?” Mr. Bain leaned over his desk, glowering darkly over at Taako. “You will not use that kind of language in my office, young man. I understand that you have had an emotional week, but that is no excuse for cussing. If you wish to be taken seriously, you have to stop acting like a petulant delinquent. Do I make myself clear?”

Taako sunk further down, so that only his neck and face were visible above the chair. “Sir, yes, sir,” he grumbled.

“Taako isn’t wrong, though,” Lup said, “I have to change for gym in the janitor’s closet! And there’s only one gender-neutral bathroom, so I have to walk for like five minutes some days just to pee!”

Mr. Bain raised an eyebrow at her.

“But Lup,” Ms. Wagner spoke up, “you said you were fine with those accommodations.”

“Well, I’m not!” Lup crossed her arms and focused her gaze on the floor between her feet. “Maybe that worked out fine in elementary school, but now kids notice those kinds of things! The other girls don’t take my track scores seriously because I apparently have a ‘biological advantage’, which is honestly just as sexist as it is transphobic, and I can’t ask to use the bathroom without someone snickering behind my back!”

“You...” Gregor started, then stopped, and then started again. “Wait, what are we talking about here? Why does Lup have to change in a janitor’s closet?”

“Dad, not now.”

“No, I want to know,” Gregor insisted. He was looking at Lup now, really studying her. “Are you telling me... wait, aren’t they identical twins? So… they’re both boys?”

“Dad!”

Things got… nasty after that.

--

The three lifelong friends didn’t know how to comfort Angus. They didn’t know if they should even attempt it. And so they sat there, dumbstruck, like the world’s biggest douchebags, as the dapper little boy they just met grieved his dead mother.

Brad Bradson frowned and turned off the stove. “Oh, Angus,” he said, walking over to put a comforting hand on the boy’s shoulder, “It’s okay. Let it all out. I’ll make you some hot chocolate, okay? And you can tell us more about your mom, or we can play a game. Whatever you think would help you the most right now.”

“A game,” Angus decided immediately, “I, uh, I wanted to have a fun time today. And I want to get to know my cousins.” He sniffled, rubbing at his eyes furiously. “I’m sorry, I’ll pull myself together.”

“It’s… uh, it’s fine, little man,” Taako said.

“Yeah, don’t force yourself,” Lup added, putting on a fussy mother voice she didn’t know she possessed. She slipped from the chair and walked around the island to Angus’s side. “You’ve had a really rough few days. We know what that’s like. Even if you just want to eat ice cream and cry all night, we’d understand.”

Angus smiled softly, his face streaked with tears and snot. Somehow, it was not as disgusting as it should have been. Lup offered him a hug, and Angus threw his arms around her gratefully.

Into Lup’s shoulder, Angus asked a muffled question.

“What was that?” Lup asked.

Angus pulled back just enough that his words wouldn’t be obstructed. “Do you guys like the game Sleuth?”

--

“Okay,” Taako said, “Explain the rules one more time. And this time, try to use simple English words that a simple idiot elf can understand.”

They were seated in a circle on the floor around the living room coffee table, all of the rest of the furniture pushed aside. The board game and all of its pieces were set up, and Brad Bradson had a tablet propped up in front of him.

Angus sighed, but he complied with a smile. “Right, sorry. The game is actually pretty easy. It’s a role-playing game. Mr. Bradson is going to narrate everything for us, once he finishes downloading a new Sleuth mystery on the app. He’ll tell us who was murdered, and other relevant details. Then it’s our job to move from room to room, question the suspects, look for clues, and take notes.” He picked up the deck of cards and began shuffling them. “The questions we’re allowed to ask are written on these red cards. We each get five cards to start off with. In order to ask the question, we have to hand it in to Mr. Bradson. That means you only get to ask each question once, so be methodical about it! If you find a clue, which is represented by these blue cards, then you get to pick up another red card. Our job is to solve the mystery before we all run out of cards.”

Barry flipped through the thick player’s manual as Angus explained, brows wrinkling in deep concentration. “So…” He began, glancing up, “We’re working together?”

“Yeah!” Angus began passing out the cards to everyone aside from Mr. Bradson. “It’s going to be us against Mr. Bradson. He’ll have all the correct answers on the tablet, and he’s not allowed to lie to us, but he can mix in some misleading information if he wants to try to trip us up.” He glanced over at said orc. “But I’m very good at telling when someone is lying, so I don’t think that will be a problem!”

“Okay, I think I get it,” Taako said. He took his five cards and looked them over. “Do we get to pick detective personas or something?”

“If you want to, I guess.” Angus thought that over, putting a finger to his chin.

It was adorable, and Lup was dying inside from the cuteness. “We could at least have code names or something,” she suggested, “I want to be called… Agent 420.”

Taako snorted so hard he fell onto his back, chortling with glee. “Oh my god, Lulu! There’s a literal fetus present!” Angus began to protest, but Taako shushed him loudly. “Don’t get offended; I exaggerate for emphasis. Whatever, if Lup gets to be Agent 420, I’m Agent 69.”

“Nice,” Barry and Lup said simultaneously.

“But you didn’t leave any funny numbers for me,” Barry added as an afterthought, “666 is too overrated, and it doesn’t really fit my aesthetic anyway.”

“What about... 5318008,” Lup suggested.

Taako and Barry looked at her, confused for a moment. Then they remembered high school Lup’s favorite calculator joke, and everything clicked.

“How am I surprised you memorized that number?” Taako asked, chuckling madly.

“We can call you Agent 8008 for short,” Lup said, giving Barry a salacious wink.

“I…” Brad spoke up, looking between the three college students with growing exasperation, “I don’t think we need to use code names. It might just make everything more confusing. And I’m already bad enough at this game as-is.”

Angus raised his hand politely before voicing his own opinion. “I actually think that sounds rather fun,” he said, “I want to be Agent 314. You know, like the number pi.”

Taako rolled his eyes. “Of course you do.”

“What? I like both math and dessert,” Angus defended his decision, though he didn’t sound too offended. He looked from Taako to Lup to Barry, addressing each of them in succession. “Agents 69, 420, and 8008, we’ve been called to this residence to help solve a murder. I’m going to be relying on your expertise this evening so that we can crack this case before dinner.” Then Angus turned to Brad. “Police officer, can you summarize what you’ve found out thus far?”

“Uh.” Brad floundered for a moment, nearly letting the tablet slip out of his hands. Apparently, despite having played this with Angus before, he was still caught off guard once it was time to start role-playing. “Right, Agent… 314, was it? Um, well, let me check my notes…” Brad adjusted his glasses higher on his face and fiddled with the tablet until he found what he was looking for. “Ah! So our victim is a dwarven woman in her late 50’s named Misryn Mason, she owns this house, and hosted the party last night. Her only son, Malmir, found her this morning at approximately 6am in a pool of her own blood…”

It was clear Brad Bradson was not one for acting. His voice kept trembling, and his lousy attempt at a character voice kept slipping between different accents. Still, his efforts were commendable. Taako had to grant him that.

Maybe, Taako thought, Maybe the foster system has changed for the better.

For Angus’s sake, he hoped that he was right.

“Agent 69, you should go first,” Angus offered, breaking Taako out of his sudden melancholy, “We’ll go from lowest to highest number. Pick a room to investigate or a suspect to interrogate.”

“Right,” Taako said, “Let’s start with the butler, shall we? It’s always the butler.”

“The butler,” Brad repeated, flipping through the options on the tablet, “Let me find the profile of the butler.” Once he found the right tab, he coughed into his fist and attempted a different character voice that sounded nearly identical to the first. “Right, I am the butler, a half-orc man named… Toil N Trouble.” Under his breath, he muttered, “Very clever, yes.” And then, back in character: “What can I do for you?”

Taako looked over his options. Some of them didn’t even apply to the situation. The others seemed like strange inquiries to open up a conversation with. Though, he had only half-heartedly paid attention to the background narration. There was no reason to start taking the game too seriously now.

Picking a card randomly, Taako presented it to Brad. “Mr. Trouble,” he asked, “Do you consent to supplying us with a DNA sample?”

“Uh,” Brad answered, speaking as Mr. Trouble, “Have you found a sample of the killer’s DNA already?” Then Brad, realizing he’d gone off script, looked through the possible questions and corresponding answers on the butler’s profile. “I mean, no. I do not consent. Come back when you have a warrant.”

“Sounds suspicious,” Taako said. He picked up his little notepad and spoke aloud as he made note. “Butler is acting whack as all hell. Possibly hiding something.”

“Actually, that’s how most NPC’s respond when you don’t have any evidence to place them at the scene of the crime,” Angus pointed out, trying to be helpful with his gentle, joyful tone, “His story might change once we’ve collected a few clues, but until then, they’re all going to respond like that.”

Taako groaned, flopping forward onto the edge of the coffee table. “Why didn’t you tell me that before I wasted my card?”

“Don’t worry,” Angus said, “You’re smart. You’ll pick up the game quickly.”

“Nah, didn’t you hear me earlier? I’m just a simple idiot elf.”

“But… you’re a chemistry major at a prestigious university on full scholarship,” Angus argued, and then blushed. “I, uh, may have googled you guys earlier today when I got bored waiting for you to visit. But! How can you be an idiot with all that? Plus, you two have both been on the Dean’s List several times each, so you must have impressive GPAs, too. How can you have all that and not consider yourself smart?”

The twins immediately looked to one another. They could very nearly have full-on conversations with their facial expressions by now. Lup’s face said, He googled us? That’s sweet! Conversely, Taako’s face said, He googled us? Kind of creepy, don’t you think?

They turned back to face Angus, who was fidgeting nervously.

“I’m sorry if that was an invasion of privacy,” Angus began, “I was just… really curious. I didn’t even know you guys existed until earlier this week. And when I heard you two were in college, I got so excited. I personally can’t wait to go to college.”

It was just the way he said it, with such sincerity. Lup had to laugh, though she felt bad about it immediately. “Aren’t you in middle school? Honestly, yeah, I know the feeling. Middle school sucks. High school is only marginally better. I couldn’t wait to leave the public school system, either.” Her eyes were soft and somewhat wet as she continued. “But you’re right, we are fairly smart. Taako just doesn’t like to admit it, because then people start having expectations for him, and Taako’s just about as lazy as they come.”

“The best work is no work,” Taako agreed, resting his face into his palms, “And you can’t disappoint anybody if nobody expects shit from you.”

Brad Bradson piped up, “Mind your language, please!”

Angus started laughing. “It’s okay, sir,” he said, “I’ve heard far worse language at school. Kids are very crass these days. I also know about the numbers 420 and 69, in case you’re wondering. Though… I haven’t heard about 8008 before.”

“It spells ‘boob’ on the calculator,” Lup informed him cheerfully.

“O-oh.” Angus scratched at his neck and averted his gaze. “Anyway, I’m not an innocent child. I read the book Shōgun at age nine. There’s very little my cousins could say or do that would come as a shock to me.”

“Still,” Brad said, “It’s just not polite. I want the adults in your life to be positive role models, Angus. Is that clear, Lup and Taako?”

Taako laughed into his fist, but he said, “I can try, m’man, but I can’t promise anything.”

“Oh, I see!” Angus perked up, smiling at Lup. “I see what you mean now, Miss Lup, about how Taako doesn’t like people having expectations of him. I’ll have to keep an eye on that.”

The chips Taako had eaten on the ride over churned around in his stomach in nauseating circles. With feigned casualty, he swallowed down the burning sensation creeping up his throat. “Hey,” he said, through an abnormally wide smile, “Let’s get back to the game, shall we? This murder isn’t going to solve itself.”

--

The trip back home was eerily silent. Even the music was turned down low, mostly drowned out by the white noise of the freeway. It wasn’t entirely clear what the general mood was, if there even was one. Maybe all of them felt differently, creating a cacophony of conflicting energies that wore everybody down.

It certainly had worn Barry down. He was snoring away in the back, laying across all three seats, while Taako sat up in the front of the car with Lup. Neither of them had spoken for miles. Lup’s eyes were glued on the road before them.

Taako was a bit thankful for that, actually. It was too dark to watch the world pass by through the window, so instead Taako scrolled mindlessly through social media feeds on his phone. He had the light turned down low, as not to disturb Lup or Barry. He didn’t care to read any of the words that appeared on the screen, anyway. It was just a way to keep his hands busy while his mind drifted.

There didn’t seem to be any connecting theme to his thoughts. Memories from childhood came up intermittently between wondering how Angus had solved the Misryn Mason murder. It wasn’t as though Taako had been putting in his best effort, but he hadn’t expected Angus to crack the case so quickly, and with so little information. Because Angus had been right; the twins were very smart, and so was Barry. So how did an eleven year old boy figure it out before they did?

After the game had ended, Angus told them his dream of becoming a detective for real someday, which was real cute. Lup oohed and awwed at him, as she had been doing all night. Barry, who had an unhealthy obsession with forensic science, was also super impressed with Angus’s life goals. And Taako? He had teased Angus’s ambitions, of course, in a playful sort of manner.

Secretly, though, Taako didn’t have any doubt that Angus would become a detective someday. The boy was just… too perceptive.

I don’t understand, Taako thought to himself, Am I upset because Angus turned out to be a pretentious twat? Or am I upset because I actually… feel guilty?

“We can’t adopt him,” Taako reminded himself under his breath.

Lup’s ears flickered at the sudden sound. “What was that?” She asked, still not taking her eyes off of the road. “Did you say something, Taako?”

Taako sighed and looked at his sister’s profile. She was stiff, much stiffer than usual. He couldn’t tell if it had anything to do with Angus, or if she just didn’t like driving at night. He knew she used to be afraid of the dark, as a kid. Maybe it was a combination of things that was making her so tense.

“I said… we can’t adopt him,” Taako repeated, watching Lup’s face intently.

Lup’s shoulders and ears dropped. She shook her head, just marginally, just enough for Taako to notice the shine in the corner of her eye. “I know, Taako,” she said, “I know.”

Chapter Text

Thursday morning came too quickly. The 6:30 alarm pulled Lup from a heavy sleep like a wet rag from water. She blinked her eyes open, momentarily confused, caught between dream and reality. Her memories came back to her slowly. She remembered Angus, the game, the long drive back home. And then she remembered she had class at 8.

Fuck, Lup cursed her past decisions, Why did I sign up for an 8 o’clock class?

It had been the only section of Genetics that meshed with her schedule, unfortunately. At the time, Lup had told herself she would deal with it. Having one early morning a week wouldn’t kill her, certainly. Oh, how she longed to go back in time and slap herself…

Then, there was a gentle knock on her bedroom door.

Lup rolled onto her stomach, eyeing the door suspiciously. Taako would never be up and about so early in the morning. The knock came again, and oh, right! Barry had crashed on their couch last night. Since Lup and Barry had the same early morning class, and there was no need to bring textbooks on the first day, they figured that it just made sense.

Barry knocked a third time, and Lup snapped back awake. She hadn’t even been aware of dozing off once more. “Y-yeah?” She rasped, rubbing the sleep from her eyes, “I’m up. I’ll, uh, I’ll be out in a moment.”

“I was going to make us breakfast,” Barry whispered through the door, “How would you like your eggs cooked?”

How domestic, Lup thought. Warm fuzzies bubbled up in her chest. “Scrambled, please.”

“You got it.”

Lup smiled and stretched her arms out high above her head. Suddenly, waking up didn’t seem so terrible. If only she could have Barry come cook for her every morning…

--

While living with Ms. Wagner, Taako regularly snuck into Lup’s room at night.

It had started soon after they were first placed into separate rooms. Taako shared a room with three other foster boys, while Lup got a whole room to herself. Ms. Wagner didn’t trust the boys around Lup, nor did she trust Lup around the other girls. It was a decision made using faulty logic, and it was highly insulting besides, but Lup got the most privacy out of all the foster kids, so she never complained. Plus, it was the room that used to belong to Ms. Wagner’s daughter, so it came pre-decorated. It honestly made Taako incredibly jealous.

Unfortunately, one of the rules foster parents had to follow required them to keep different rooms for girls and boys. Though, none had enforced it as heavily as Ms. Wagner.

She wasn’t a bad woman, exactly. Unlike the foster parents before her, she didn’t immediately return the twins the first time they landed in trouble at school. She was determined to keep every troubled child that fell into her care. Her virtue was also her downfall: the more troublesome the kid, the more attention they received. Taako and Lup, who didn’t actively incite problems, were often overlooked. The most attention she could afford to give them was to enforce rules as strictly but as fairly as she could.

Still, as soon as Lup could hear Ms. Wagner start to snore, she’d text Taako, and he’d sneak down the hall to see her. They’d often stay up late, chatting for hours. More often than not, Taako would wind up sleeping on Lup’s floor.

That particular night was no exception. It was the same day as the disastrous meeting with Principal Captain Bain, where Gregor humiliated Lup, misgendering her in front of everyone. They were huddled together on Lup’s bed, watching cooking videos on Taako’s phone in the faint glow of the fairy lights hanging over the bed, when suddenly their twin time was interrupted by a peculiar PING noise.

They both froze, afraid for a split-second that they had been caught. Then another PING sounded against the glass window. “What the...?” Taako said, standing up slowly.

The twins cautiously moved to look out. It was difficult to see in the dark, but there was a definitive shape standing down in the front yard. The shape waved an arm, and moonlight glinted across wide square lenses. It took just a second or two for their elven eyes to adjust to night vision. Lup gasped as soon as she recognized their friend.

“It’s Barry!” Lup told Taako gleefully. She unlatched the window, pulling up the lower pane so she could stick her head out. “Barry,” she whisper-yelled down to him, “What are you doing here?”

“Running away,” came the answer.

Lup was silent for a moment. She perked her ears forward, and realized with horror that Barry’s breathing was labored and wet. He was crying. “Barry, what’s wrong? Why didn’t you text us?”

“I’m gr-grounded,” Barry explained shakily, “No phone, no computer.”

“Wait, hold on.” Lup pulled her head back into the house. “I don’t think Barry can climb up here,” she said to Taako, “He looks really upset. What should we do?”

“I’ll unlock the front door for him,” Taako answered, “Tell him I’ll be right down.”

“Be careful,” Lup said.

Within minutes they had successfully smuggled Barry into Lup’s room. He entered, his hair wet from the light rain outside. On his back, he carried a bag that looked close to bursting, the seams stretched tight. He was sniffling and shivering. It wasn’t clear whether it was due to the chilly air or his crying, or more likely a combination of both.

Lup walked over and helped him peel the bag from his damp back. “Barry,” she murmured, “What’s happened?”

“I told you, I’m running away.” Barry spoke to his shoes, wringing his hands together.

On a hunch, Lup touched Barry’s skin. It was exceptionally clammy, sticky with sweat and rainwater, just as she had feared. “How long have you been outside?” Lup asked, rubbing his forearm to warm it, “Why didn’t you bring a jacket?”

“I, uh, escaped through my window,” Barry explained, “I think I packed a sweater, though.” He reached to take his bag from Lup with shaky hands, but Taako gently pressed Barry towards the bed instead.

“Let’s get you under some blankets first,” Taako suggested, “That is a bone-deep chill you won’t be able to cure with any old sweater, my dude.”

“No kidding,” Lup said. She watched the boys walk to her bed, frozen for a moment. Her brain was concocting a thousand, equally horrendous explanations for why Barry fled his home. The resulting fear that seized her squeezed all the air from her lungs. Her chest burned from the painful mixture of anxiety and oxygen deprivation.

“Lup?” Taako’s voice startled Lup out of her stone statue state.

“Yeah, I’m coming,” Lup said. She forced herself to suck in air, trying to restart her body. The tightness in her lungs lessened, and she walked forward.

Barry was bundled up in the pink and yellow comforter left behind by Ms. Wagner’s daughter. It was an amusing and adorable sight. He smiled weakly, peeking out through the makeshift hood. “Sorry for the trouble, guys,” he said, “I wasn’t really thinking. I was just so upset.”

“What happened?” Lup asked again.

Barry grimaced, pulling the comforter tighter around his face until he was almost entirely enclosed in plush fabric. “My parents are sending me away,” he explained, his words muffled but not undecipherable, “They’re going to transfer me to a private boarding school. They want me to start over, which according to them means cutting off all contact with—” His voice cracked, unable to finish.

“With us?” Taako hedged a guess.

Barry’s head bobbled up and down in affirmation, and he began to cry again.

It was just as bad as Lup had expected, and still she was shocked speechless. She tried to string together words into a question, but ended up just babbling nonsense. “Is— how—? Us?”

Thankfully, Taako had a lot of experience translating Lup’s gibberish. “Is this because of us?” He asked, putting arm around Barry, “Because of what your father found out about us today? About... me being gay, and Lup being...?”

Barry pressed into Taako’s embrace and shook his head. “I don’t know, maybe? My dad said that’s not the reason. He says you two have been bad influences. But I don’t know. It might be part of it.”

The twins glanced at each other. It was not the first time they had been accused of being ‘bad influences’. Before, they had always accepted the label with pride, on that night, the very sound of it left them feeling sour. Perhaps it was because, for the first time in a long while, they had been trying to do the exact opposite.

“What, did he expect us to just stand aside and LET you get bullied?” Taako gritted his teeth and kept his voice low.

“He doesn’t know,” Barry said.

“He doesn’t know what?”

“He didn’t know I’m the reason we’re all being bullied in the first place,” Barry repeated, “He thinks it only started once I became friends with you two. I tried to explain to him that it’s been going on longer than that, that the whole reason we became friends is because you stood up to Marvey for me, but he doesn’t believe me, or doesn’t care. He’s just placing all the blame on you two, and it’s completely unfair.” He pulled back the blanket a little, and they could see his puffy-eyed, lip-wobbling face more clearly. “I tired to tell him, you know,” he continued, “That... the story about the locker room... how it was actually me. That I’m the one that got caught looking at a guy, and ever since Marvey’s never let me live it down. That you guys are getting bullied because of me, not the other way around. But I chickened out.”

“Hey!” Lup grabbed Barry by the shoulders and shook him. “I get that you’re sad right now, and that’s completely justified, but don’t you dare talk about my best friend like that!”

He immediately shut up, staring at her with large glassy eyes.

“I don’t know where you got that idea from, but you’re not the sole reason Marvey hates us,” Lup continued with her angry tirade, shifting to her knees so that she could tower menacingly over Barry. “Lest you forget, people were going to figure out I’m trans sooner or later. And Taako has never been subtle about being gay, either. Dude cannot resist the opportunity to make gay jokes.”

“Damn straight,” Taako said, “Or, to be more accurate, damn gay. Honestly, half the time I’m not even trying. They just come out accidently. Just like I come out accidently whenever I make these stupid jokes.”

“Exactly. We’re disasters when it comes to pretending to be straight and cis.” Lup shook Barry again, harder this time. It successfully drew a small smile to his face. “So Marvey was going to come after us eventually whether or not we were friends with you. That’s WHY we’ve always stuck up for you. Because no one else was brave enough, and we know what it feels like when everybody else abandons you. And don’t forget, you’ve stuck up for us before, too! Like earlier today, with your dad. I didn’t get the chance to thank you, but... I really appreciate it.” Lup paused, her anger dissipating as she recalled Barry jumping to her aid that morning. It made her tingle with warmth from head to toe. “We all look out for one another,” Lup finished her speech on a sweet note, “That’s just how friendship works.”

It was one of the most genuine moments the twins had experienced with a third party present. Even Taako, who shunned sincerity, didn’t attempt to break the mood with his characteristic dismissive humor. In fact, none of them talked much after that. Lup had said it all.

It would also be the last heartfelt conversation they would have with Barry for four long years. Gregor came to pick up Barry just after sunrise. After he had explained the situation to Ms. Wagner, the two parents went up to Lup’s room together. They found the three teenagers huddled together, fast asleep, still wearing their clothes from the previous day. Barry was still cocooned in the comforter. Lup and Taako were latched onto his arms. They had Barry sandwiched between them, their linked pinkies resting on Barry’s stomach.

Lup remembered that part clearly. She had woken up hours before Gregor had even noticed his son was missing.

Barry had been snoring oh so softly. He hadn’t even bothered to take his glasses off, and they were sitting askew on his forehead. Lup had peeked over him to look at Taako, who was whistling through his front teeth. They both looked so peaceful that Lup didn’t dare move an inch. She listened to both boys breathing, somehow almost perfectly in sync, and let the white noise lull her back to sleep.

Feeling nostalgic, Lup brought it up on the way to school. They still had Lucretia’s car, so they stopped through the WacDonald’s drive thru for coffee and hash browns. “Do you remember the first sleepover we ever had?” Lup asked Barry, after handing the man in the window her card.

Barry hummed into his styrofoam cup, making for a rather amusing muffled noise. “The one before or after I went to boarding school?”

“Before, obviously,” Lup answered, “That would make it the first one, duh.”

Barry shrugged. “I didn’t know if you were counting that one,” he said, “It wasn’t much of a sleepover. I mean, aside from in the literal sense.” He attempted to take a sip, and immediately flinched the second the liquid grazed the tip of his tongue. Barry turned to Lup, his tongue out like a cat, a betrayed expression painted across his face. “S’hot,” he slurred.

“Oh, really?” Lup laughed, shaking her head.

The window reopened, and the service worker emerged with Lup’s card and a receipt. “Have a nice day,” he recited in monotone.

“Will do,” Lup replied, “Keep your chin up, pal.” She pulled out of the drive thru line and back into traffic. Metaphorically, at least. The college town, Phandalin, had nearly five times the population of Greenville. Unfortunately, that was a low bar that said more about Greenville than it did about Phandalin. In actuality, Phandalin was also quite sparse, especially in the summer, when the college students mass-migrated out of state. Heavy traffic was not much of an issue.

“So,” Barry spoke up after a minute of silence, “Why did you bring the sleepover thing up?”

“Oh, right!” Lup snorted. “I haven’t had my coffee yet, and it’s showing. But yeah, I brought it up because I was thinking about it. Because you slept over last night. And because I’ve just been really nostalgic lately.”

“I try not to think about that night too much,” Barry admitted, “In hindsight, I… may have overreacted. Plus, the next day was--”

“Objectively horrible, yeah,” Lup finished for him. “I’m not talking about what happened in the morning, though. I was more thinking about the night in question. I mean, there was no way to know whether or not we’d find each other again. So I wouldn’t say you overreacted. But what I remember most is… waking up. I woke up in the middle of the night. Did I ever tell you that?”

Barry lowered his voice. “No,” he murmured, “You never told me that. What… happened?”

“Nothing really happened,” Lup said, “I just… okay, I guess there’s no way to say this without sounding creepy, so I’ll just say it. I just… laid there. And I listened.”

“Listened?” There was an audible smile in his tone. “To what, my snoring?”

Lup laughed self-consciously. “Yeah, yeah, I said it would sound creepy, didn’t I? But… you and Taako were breathing in sync.”

Barry didn’t respond to that.

Generally, any silence between Lup and Barry was comfortable. This time, Lup couldn’t help feeling awkward. She rustled around in the paper WacDonalds’ bag for a hash brown she could shove in her mouth.

In order to go to WacDonalds for their breakfast treat, they had to take the long way to school. They were passing down a one-way residential neighborhood side street that primarily housed college students. Further down, at the end of the narrow road, was the upperclassman dormitory building. The imposing structure stood at the corner of the one-way and the street that led to Taako and Lup’s building. Built like an old world cathedral, with a brown brick exterior and a surprisingly spacious interior, it was the envy of all the freshmen.

Lup had only been in it a few times, to visit Barry or Lucretia. Only residents had access to the building. Guests had to be invited, even if they just wished to eat at the cafeteria. It was where all the rich kids hung out, essentially. Accordingly, it was nicknamed Old Money Hall, which was a twist of its actual name, O’Malley Hall.

As with most unnecessarily expensive things, Lup had an intense love-hate thing going on with Old Money.

“Hey,” Barry said, breaking the silence, “Um, there’s... look, there’s something I’ve been wanting to say, but haven’t said, because I’m kind of a goobus, which you’re... well aware of by now, I’m sure...” Barry’s voice began to shake as he continued rambling on. “That’s all on me, I’d admit to being a big old nerd most of the time... Anyway, I’m just going to say it. We’ve been friends for a while now, Lup, and like, I totally value you as a friend, I can— I can be vulnerable around you, in a way I can’t with anyone else. Maybe— maybe Taako, he’s like a brother to me now. Not like the way I feel about you... which is different. Wildly different. But, um, about my feelings... how I feel about you... Do you get what I’m getting at? I look up to you a lot, Lup, and...”

Anxious energy was wafting off Barry’s body like cartoon stink lines. Though Lup didn’t check, she could clearly tell that Barry’s cheeks were splotched with vibrant pinks and reds. She knew him so well. She knew exactly what he was going to say.

She couldn’t let him say it.

Everything felt too fragile. The steering wheel seemed seconds from snapping free from the dashboard. Lup clamped down tighter, trying to hold the car, and herself, together.

She felt a thousand miles away. Her body was alive with trembling nerves, shallow breaths, and a racing heartbeat. But Lup was detached from it.

There was something familiar about the numbness.

Oh right, Lup realized, This is an anxiety attack. The discovery calmed her, just enough to feel the leather of the steering wheel against her palms once more. I need to snap out of this, Lup thought.

“Hey!” Lup startled herself with the volume of her sudden exclamation. It seemed to startle Barry, too. She could feel him jump in the brush of his shoulder against hers.

A long, painful second ticked by. Then Old Money Hall itself came into view.

“Um,” Lup said, “Sorry to cut you off, but— I was thinking, we could stop and get your textbook and notebook, since we still have a little time before class. I know we agreed you probably won’t need them, since it’s the first day, but... you actually want them, don’t you?”

“Oh!” Barry gave a forced chuckle. “Yeah, you know what? I was worried about that, yeah. Just in case we do need them.”

“Better safe than sorry, right?”

“That’s my life motto, yeah.” Barry said. He then stayed quiet until Lup pulled up into the O’Malley circular driveway. “Thanks, Lup,” he muttered, “How did you know I was secretly stressing about it?”

Lup avoided eye contact when she answered. “Just know you too well, I suppose. Now hurry up! Class starts in fifteen.”

Once the car door shut, Lup allowed herself to finally turn her head. She watched Barry’s backside as he did his adorable signature half-jog towards the entrance. As he disappeared from sight, Lup felt her eyes prickle. Her bottom lids swelled up with moisture.

Lup hastily scrubbed her eyes dry with some scratchy WacDonalds napkins. “What the fuck,” she cursed herself, “What the actual fuck?”

Things were still tense between them as they strolled into the classroom. Lup clutched her half-empty coffee cup to her chest, too stressed to finish it. She tossed it in the trash as they entered through the double doors into the lecture hall.

Most everybody else was already seated. They managed to find two empty seats next to one another, but they were in the far back. As they sat down, Barry groaned.

“No way,” he grumbled, glowering towards the front of the classroom, “What’s he doing here?”

Surprised by Barry’s resentful tone, Lup followed his gaze. There, standing off to the side of the teacher’s desk, was an unfamiliar face. He had thick circular lenses, a patchy beard, and messy brown hair that was badly in need of a trim. In short, he looked like most others science department majors.

“Who’s that?” Lup asked, glancing from the man to Barry. “And why do we hate him?”

Barry’s mouth curled downwards in disgust. “That’s Lucas Miller.” He pronounced the name in a way that made it sound sinister. “Maureen Miller’s only son. He lives down the hall from me at Old Money. He’s a huge dweeb.”

“Oh, that’s Lucas Miller.” Lup looked back over at the guy.

Of course she had heard of him before; everybody in town knew the Miller’s. They were basically local celebrities. Lup and Barry had only signed up for the Genetics class precisely because it was being taught by Maureen Miller that semester. Mrs. Miller was a brilliant scientist, having received numerous awards over the years for her work in gene editing.

Her son had his own little fan club. Having earned his four year degree at age 19, Lucas was now in the honors college studying computer science and robotics. His passion project was artificial intelligence.

“I’m surprised you don’t like Lucas,” Lup admitted, after sizing Lucas up. He didn’t look half as impressive as she would have hoped. “You’re... both kind of similar.”

“How are we similar?” Barry objected, offended.

“Well, you’re both only children with big-shot parents,” Lup pointed out, “You both come from old money, by which I mean both the dorm building and the original meaning of the term. Basically, you’re both pasty white science boys who come from wealth. And, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you’re also a dweeb, dweeb.”

Barry ran a hand through his hair, still angry but not denying the charges. “I guess, on the surface, we’re a lot alike,” he said with a resigned sigh, “But we’re very different personality-wise. He’s a presumptuous, self-absorbed jerk who cares more about getting results than following ethical code. I’ve heard him prophesying about the necessity of cutting corners every once in a while, to a bunch of freshmen. And then there’s his voice. Maybe he can’t control it, and I’m sorry if he can’t, but he sounds just like every stereotypical cartoon nerd on television. It’s just... really grating to listen to. Especially since he talks, just, all the time.”

Lup listened as Barry vented, growing more and more amused. She had never heard Barry talk smack about anyone before. It was hilarious.

“Well, that sucks,” Lup said, milking Barry’s negativity for all it was worth, “Because it looks like Lucas is going to be our student teacher this semester.” She pointed back to the front of the classroom, where Lucas was greeting his mother, who had just walked in. “You better get used to his voice,” Lup added with a wink.

“God damn it all,” Barry cursed.

Maureen stepped in front of her desk, turning her attention to the class. Though she didn’t speak, conversations began cutting of abruptly all around the hall. She was a beautiful woman, with a wise, handsome face, and rich brown curls. It was hard to imagine she gave birth to Lucas. The quieter it grew, the wider she smiled.

Once all talking ceased, she introduced herself. “I am Maureen Miller. You may call me Professor Miller. Do not call me Maureen or Mrs. Miller. I’ve noticed there has been an unfortunate recent trend of students using ‘Professor’ for their male teachers, but ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs.’ for their female teachers. This double standard must not persist. I earned my doctorate the same way every other instructor here did.” She kept a warm smile on her face through her entire speech. Still, there was weight in her words.

Professor Miller motioned Lucas forward. “This is my son, Lucas. He is working on his master’s degree. You can address him as Mr. Miller. He will be assisting me this semester. If you have questions about work you’ve missed, seek out his help first.”

Lucas fiddled with his glasses. There was an unmistakably smug twist in his lips. “I’ve put my school email address on the syllabus,” he said, in the exact voice Barry had described, “We won’t be handing out physical copies, to spare some trees, but you can find a digital copy on the class webpage. I check my email multiple times a day, so don’t worry about me not getting back to you in time. That said, please don’t wait until the last minute. Late work will not be accepted. There are no exceptions to this rule.”

“Yes, you heard my son right,” Professor Miller jumped back in. It was as if they had the whole skit choreographed. “I do not accept late work for any reason. This is an upper level class, so I have high standards and expectations.”

“We have an expression in the Miller family,” Lucas said, “and we hope you’ll take it to heart.”

Professor Miller walked back behind her desk. She pressed a button, raising the projector screen back into the ceiling. On the blackboard that had been hidden behind it, a message was written. In surprisingly neat cursive, it read:

Science does not wait for life. Science is life.

They definitely choreographed this, Lup thought. She didn’t know whether she found it adorable or insufferable.

“In this class, everything is about life,” Professor Miller spoke, after a pointed pause, “I’m talking about our four friends: cytosine, guanine, adenine, and thymine. These are the nucleotides that make up our DNA, which make up our genes, which determine who and what we are. It’s similar to the way computers use ones and zeroes to encode data. By unlocking the secrets of genetics, we are unlocking the secrets of life itself. What causes dwarves to grow so much facial hair? Why can an orc and an elf both produce an offspring with a human, but not with one another?”

“Why is an orc’s lifespan so short while an elf’s is so long?” Lucas added.

“And can we change that?” Professor Miller waited for her question to sink in. “I know gene editing is still heavily controversial, but it’s a part of the field, so we need to talk about that, too. That involves asking difficult questions. What are the ethical implications? How can we reduce or account for unintended consequences? Should we set boundaries on what can or can’t be attempted?” She stepped around her desk again, and sat down on the edge. “If you’ve read any of my books, you probably already know my stance. But I don’t know yours, and hey, I’ve been known to change my mind, too. The important thing is that we can have adult, informed discussions, and come to reasonable and humane conclusions.”

This time, the pause was longer. Some students fidgeted, their movements extremely audible in the complete silence. The mood had soured. Clearly, it was not a discussion many students wanted to have.

Lup, however, was buzzing with excitement.

Professor Miller assessed the crowd, her persistent smile never faltering. Then she stood back up. “With that out of the way, let’s jump straight into the material. Turn your textbooks to chapter one, and take out a writing utensil. I know this book is jargon heavy, but we’ll comb through it together. We have three hours, so don’t be afraid to ask questions. Lucas?”

Lucas rushed to press the button to let the projection screen back down. Then he ran to the other side of the room to dim down the lights.

“Good thing we grabbed your textbook, huh?” Lup whispered to Barry.

Barry turned to Lup. His eyes were blown wide. “Yeah, you can say that again,” he said, “Sounds like this class is going to be... intense.”

“Just the way I like it.” Lup flashed a toothy grin Barry’s way.

He returned the smile, though his was just a tad crooked. “I know you do, Lup. And you know what?”

“What?”

The projector blinked to life. The reflected light illuminated Barry’s face. Lup noticed that there was a devilishly charming twinkle in his eye.

“So do I,” Barry whispered.

He said it in such an unfairly handsome tone. Bright warmth blossomed in Lup’s breast. Then Lup remembered her guilt, and it was like a bucket of ice water splashing down on her head.