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Davenport coughs. "Now I'm sure you're all wondering why I've called you here today."
"Not really," Lup says. She picks at a lump of dust under her fingernails and ignores his stare. "You're gonna tell us either way, why bother?"
"I mean, I am a little bit," Magnus says. "But maybe that's just me."
"I'm curious too," Lucretia admits.
"Hey, uh, Cap'n'port?" Barry pipes up, raising his hand. "Not to, uh, undermine your authority or sound impatient or anything, but how long do we think this is gonna take?"
"Oh, does good ol' Barry have someplace better to be?" Taako grins, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively.
Barry very deliberately avoids eye contact. "Not really, but I've got something on in the kitchen and I don't want it burning or exploding because I wasn't looking after it properly-"
"Why were you doing it in the kitchen?" Merle asks. "Isn't there a better place to do these kinds of things? We eat in there!"
"It's not like I could've done it out here, it's windy and there's like, no table space!"
"Alright, that's enough." Davenport claps, and slowly everyone settles back down. " Thank you . Now, the reason I've called you all here today is because of this." He pulls open the door to the bridge-cockpit. The crew, just as he anticipated, fake cringes in unison.
"Oh, my eyes!"
"What is that?"
"It's... It's so bright and clean… I've never seen anything like it."
"Is this even legal?"
"Why would you do this?"
"Because it's come to my attention," Davenport says, "that we've been lucky, going up against that black, universe-eating... whatever, and that luck isn't going to hold out forever."
"So you decided," Magnus says slowly, "that the answer was to flash us? Cap'n'port, why?"
"Not exactly." The gnome paces before them. "This isn't a decision I'm making lightly here, but we need to be prepared for our best and worst case scenarios."
The Starblaster crew blinks long and hard at him. Lucretia though, bless her heart, catches on quickly and graces him with a wide-eyed stare.
"You don't mean...?"
"I do. You don't need to be as good as me, of course, but everyone should learn enough to do it without crashing, at least." Davenport stops, hops into the bridge, and turns back to look at them. "So. Get in, losers -- today you're learning how to fly."
("The first time I'm in here," Taako grumbles, "and it's with the nerd squad . Knew we should've moved up the raid so we could get that street cred, Lulu-"
Lup, slowly and carefully, kicks her brother in the shin. Davenport dutifully pretends he didn't hear a thing.)
Taako stares. Bright red eyes stare back. Several feet away, a stinger-tipped tail flicks lightly against the ground. Two arms -- just one the length and width of one whole Magnus, not to say anything of the claws attached -- are tucked under a spiked head. All Taako has going for him at this point is that his face hasn't been ripped off yet.
"Uh, hello, hi there," he says. When in doubt, bluster and chill. "Good morning, you're... you sure are a looker, aren't you, big thing? Terribly sorry for interrupting your lovely rest with my forest stroll. I didn't mean to trip over you, promise."
The thing blinks rather calmly before replying in a perfectly ordinary tenor; "It's no problem." It works its jaw and yawns, needle teeth flashing briefly. "Sorry. I'd have stayed in town, but none of the rooms were big enough and I haven't got a spell for being smaller while I sleep. Didn't mean to be in the way."
"Nah, you're all good, homie. This one's on Taako, he thought it'd be good to go for a wander - go off the beaten path, if you catch my drift."
"I got you, yeah." Slowly, the thing gets up. He's graced with a lovely look at the glittering silver-brass scales that coat its torso. He's also graced with an up-close look at how the thing looms a head taller than him even while sitting down. It peers down at him, leaning over to get a better view. "Would you like to stay for breakfast? I've got plenty to spare and the money if I'm wrong."
Taako considers it. Five minutes haven't killed him, and it's free food. "Sure, why not?"
The thing turns out to be a wonderful baker, if the homemade pastries pulled from a sealed container and made fresh with a little magic are any indication. It preens under his approving stare, head-spines flicking in and out.
"Holy fuck," Taako mumbles through some kind of fruit bun. "How'd you manage this little slice of heaven?"
"I'm very flexible and have magic," it says, wiggling and bending long finger-claws in all the places he's pretty sure fingers aren't supposed to bend. "Also I have a kitchen that's specifically sized for me so I don't have to worry about knocking my head on the cabinets."
"Nice." He takes another bite. "Any tips on dough consistency?"
"Well I've got this recipe -- it came to me in a dream, see, but it works perfect every time..."
"Have I ever told you," Barry begins, "how happy I am you're on the crew?"
"It's come up once or twice," Magnus jokes. The imps at his feet screech, but a single swing sends them scattering once more.
"We really ought to tell you more often." A well-placed Ice Knife takes half a dozen of the creatures down -- a mere dent in their massive numbers. "You know, make a whole night out of it. Head out, grab dinner, maybe try and avoid bashing any heads for oNCE IN OUR LIVES-" Barry cuts off with a shriek as five imps leap at his legs, arms pinwheeling even as he careens into the ground.
Their little teeth and claws aren’t sharp or long enough to pierce through his skin, let alone the sturdy denim, but he can’t help but fidget and yelp when the makeshift acupuncture starts sending static and pins up and down his back.
“Oh come on, it’s not like they hurt , right?” When the critters jump at Magnus he simply picks them up by the scruff of the neck and throws them like particularly wriggly softballs -- most of them bounce off the ground, shake themselves off, and disappear back into the alleyways they came from.
“It feels like when you point a pencil really really close to the bridge of your nose and it feels super fucking weird and tingly except it’s doing that all the way up my damn body!! ” Barry howls in a breathless rush, frantically slapping at the imps. “I hate that feeling and now it’s EVERYWHERE! ”
One latches onto his wrist as his arm passes within biting distance. Barry makes a face.
“This- this is literally your fault!” Magnus laughs. There’s no sympathy there at all, and Barry reassesses his gratitude towards him. “It’s your entire damn fault! This is why you don’t pick up random artifacts you find on the ground that literally say “I will summon a swarm of tiny bat imp things that will tickle you to death, don’t pick me up” without like, being ready for the consequences when it delivers on exactly what it said it would!”
“Just help get them off of me! ” Barry snaps.
Magnus does, cackling the whole time. Barry finds a carved wooden likeness of the imps sitting on his table a week later, and dutifully pretends to hate it for the next twenty cycles.
“You want to go in there? ” Lup asks, incredulous.
“Yeah!” Merle nods enthusiastically. He’s beaming, and Lup would find his excitement cute if it weren’t entirely directed at that particular store .
“Why,” she says, in the familiar long-suffering tone of someone who knows there’s no good answer to the question they’re about to ask, “is it, out of every single store in this huge-ass mall, do you want to go to that store?”
“Well, I’ve gotta!” he says. “Look--” Merle brandishes a flyer in Lup’s face, and it takes her a moment to swipe it and take a good look at the ad on the front. “It’s the same ingredients and jar as the brand I used to get back home, and my stock is almost out. Who knows how long it’s gonna be until I find more, and for such a good price, too!”
Lup looks pointedly around: at the countless stores surrounding them, stretching out beyond what they can see both above and before them; at the swarms of people yelling and shouting their wares at whatever passersby can hear them; at the five other off-brand cosmetic stores within a stones’ throw from them, each with signs declaring varying ‘blowout’ sales.
“Have you ever considered finding a new, better brand, instead of literally the worst stuff available on the market in literally every universe?” she asks.
“Let me buy the cream and I won’t tell anyone else that you took one look at Fantasy Hot Topic and crumpled like a wet paper towel.”