Life post-Hunger pretty much ruled. Sure, Merle was a little bummed about the death of his eldritch murder boyfriend, but the world wasn't ending, no one Lup loved was dead, and she didn't have to third-wheel her brother's spooky dates. The Lup of the past had never put much stock in happy endings—she'd liked fiction best when it ended bloodily, and her own stories when her brother was safe and breathing and within arm's reach—but now that she'd been dumped in one she could admit that it was, generally, dope.
Still: some changes were always gonna take some getting used to. Lup ruminated on this as she tripped through the back entrance of Taako's dorky little cottage and stubbed the fuck out of her toe.
"Shit!" she said, narrowly avoiding an ass-bruising fall.
Taako's voice called from within, "We don't want any!"
Once she found herself capable of doing anything that wasn't hopping around and swearing, Lup went to find him. It didn't actually take long; his cottage had about four-point-five rooms and he was always in the same one. She just had to follow her nose and let the heavenly scents guide her.
"Sup, little bro? Oh shit, is that old Saebler's beef stew?"
Taako side-eyed her from the stove. "It's an homage to her stew," he allowed, emphasizing homage like a total nerd. "But I classed it up."
There was a large wooden spoon lying abandoned on the kitchen island, and honestly: Taako should have known better. Lup pulled up the sleeves of her sweater, grabbed it, and darted in for a taste.
"Lup! Fuck off!" Taako tried halfheartedly to bat her away, but she was, had been, and always would be too quick for him.
"This is totally Saebler's stew," Lup told him happily around her spoon. The rich broth trickled down her throat and warmed her stomach, launching her back in time faster than the Starblaster ever had.
"It's an homage and I made it gourmet." He held out an arm, like that might keep her at bay, and eyed her with suspicion. "Why are you here?"
"To steal your man, obviously," Lup said, weighing various strategies. The kitchen was tiny, but it was open concept; she strolled casually around to the opposite side. "He around?"
"Is your boss around? No, uh, he's got some meeting in the Astral Plane that I guess his undead lackies weren't invited to."
"I'd say I'm more of an undead toady. Gotta play up that witch motif."
"Uh-huh. Did you need to ask him something, because I'm actually not your—mother fuck!"
Taako grabbed a spatula from a hook on the wall and whapped her hand sharply, almost making her spill her new spoonful.
"Out!" he shouted, still brutalizing her with the spatula. "Out of my kitchen!"
Lup retreated to safety at the kitchen's entrance and hovered there. She locked eyes with him and savoured the hell out of her ill-gotten stew. "You know," she said finally, "this could really use a little rosemary."
Still pointing past her in a clear get-the-fuck-out gesture, Taako froze. "Fuck," he muttered, and turned to add some rosemary.
A long fucking time ago on a plane far, far away, Lup slung an arm around her brother's shoulders and said, "Did you hear Merle say that he has like two thousand party points?"
Taako shrugged her arm off. "Which one's Merle again? Also, I call bullshit." He pitched his voice to carry, but Merle, walking a few yards ahead of them, didn't so much as glance back.
"You know which one." Lup ruffled his hair, then dodged his attempt to smack her away. "Maybe all those hippie vibes are a smokescreen and the whole tavern's about to pop the fuck off."
Up ahead their motley crew—led by Davenport, Barry, and Magnus, arranged all in a line like dweeby stacking dolls—was just reaching the tavern in question. Magnus made a big show of holding the door to let everyone through first, which led to a hilarious little dance where Lucretia, quickly realizing that any attempt to fend off his chivalry would be futile, was forced to half-jog to catch up so that he wouldn't get stuck waiting. Lup had run across a similar issue earlier, when she and Taako had arrived at the press conference and Magnus, spotting them from all the fucking way across the crowded room, had insisted on pulling out her chair for her. Luckily, Lup was a badass who had no problem making him wait.
As entertaining as she found her crewmates-to-be, though, Lup had to admit that the tavern itself looked fairly shitty. One window was boarded over, broken glass glittered all across the ground, and in lieu of an actual sign the words THE NAUGHTY GAZELLE were scrawled over the door in fading, chipped paint. Taako shot her a dubious look, and she couldn't really blame him: the whole building gave the impression that even the slightest popping-off might engender its collapse.
Oh well, Lup thought, holding up her long skirt so it couldn't snag on glass as they made their approach. She could always make her own fun.
"Yo Taako," she said later, inside, handing him a mug of the same shitty ale she was drinking. She leaned back lazily against the bar in the way she'd learned that random human dudes read as casual and non-threatening. "You thinking what I'm thinking?"
"Doofus and Ding-Dong over there?" he replied, not looking at the meatheads in question. They were poking around the pool table, thoroughly inept and blissfully unaware of it. One of them kept glancing around the tavern like he thought someone was gonna take notice and be impressed. "Hell yes. Let's do this."
They challenged Doofus and Ding-Dong to some nine-ball, wagered their IPRE robes against the dudes' shoes. Taako rigged the coin-flip and set himself up to break the rack, then paused for a moment, frowning artfully.
"Go easy on us, okay?" he said, looking so guileless Lup almost broke character and laughed. "We're not very good at this."
Ding-Dong smiled and put a hand on Taako's shoulder, and for a moment Taako allowed it to remain there. "Don't worry, ladies," Ding-Dong said, glancing between Taako and Lup. "We'll be gentle."
For a split second Taako met Lup's eyes across the table, and though his expression didn't shift she could feel his fiendish glee. It wasn't just the thrill of hustling two morons so hard they'd have to walk home barefoot. He loved it best when it went down like this, and Lup loved that for him.
That was the thing about Taako: he'd always reveled in strangers' confusion. From the time they'd first figured out that the world was broken into categories—this and that, truths and lies, boys and girls—he'd been delighted whenever some adult saw him with his long hair and his skirts and his costume jewellery, and crouched down to him to say, "Hello, little girl." He'd beamed and shown off like he'd pulled one over on them, even when all he'd done was walk around in public being Taako. Lup had wanted to feel the same. She'd never quite been able to.
Once, after he chewed out some gutter punk for calling her 'mister', she'd asked about it. "Lup," he said, his tone making it plain that what he really wanted to say was, You dummy. "I like it when they get me wrong. You don't."
It was a long while before Taako emerged from his kitchen, but when he did he bore a bowl of stew in each hand.
"Here." He shoved one toward her as he settled on the far side of his couch. Lup reached out for it, not looking up from the book she'd bogarted from his quaint little side table, but Taako pulled it away again. "Put the book down, homie. I have it on good authority that you weren't raised in a barn."
Lup rolled her eyes—but fondly—and tossed the book back onto the table. It had heavy binding and it landed with a satisfying thunk. "I was kinda raised in a circus, though, a little bit."
"Only a little." This time Taako allowed her to take her bowl.
"What's up with that book, by the way? I didn't think you were into that nerd shit."
"I'm not. Kravitz left it here." Taako was facing away from her, looking across the room. He had his legs crossed under him while he ate, presumably because his skirt was long and flowy enough for him to do that without showing the whole world his junk. Very thoughtful. "He's into all that gross fantasy with the unrealistic inventions. Internet and automobiles, blah blah blah."
Lup laughed. "I cannot fucking believe that after you mocked me for literal decades you turned around and—"
"Yeah, I know." Taako waved her off with his free hand. "Nerd fetish runs in the family. Also, when I met Kravitz I had no memory of your highly suspect taste in men. Simpler days, truly."
The jab was old enough and familiar enough to entail no response; any sharp edges had worn off a century ago, at the very least. A silence fell between them as Lup contemplated her food and Taako, apparently, contemplated some bullshit abstract art he'd hung on the opposite wall.
Then Taako said, "Okay, Lup? Actually?"
"Why are you here."
Lup looked sideways at him. "I wanted to see my brother, dingus. Don't worry about it."
"Gross," Taako replied, though he did sound a little pleased. "Except you're doing that thing, where you obviously want to say something but then don't actually say it."
"That's still not a thing I do."
—and without warning or fanfare or any kind of flourish at all, Kravitz teleported into the room.
"Taako," he said in his normal accent, "have you seen my black cravat? Oh, hi Lup."
"Hey dude," Lup said, right as Taako jabbed a thumb toward the hall and replied, "Try the bedroom."
While Kravitz headed for the bedroom, Lup turned on the couch to face Taako. She waited for him to look back, then waggled her eyebrows.
"Stop being weird," Taako told her. "You look like an old lady trying to like—"
"I'm younger than you now, actually—"
"Yeah, and you know, I was gonna say, probably gotta stop calling me little bro, then? Or like, pick one."
Lup grinned. Fuck, she'd missed badgering him. "Nah."
A few weeks after her body burst forth from a regeneration pod, statuesque and fully formed, Lup frowned in consternation at her bedroom mirror. She raised her voice and called, "Hey babe?"
"Yeah?" Barry called back.
"You'd still have the hots for me if I sacrificed my flesh body to Istus and embraced my aesthetic as an undead abomination, right?"
There was a pause. Lup twisted around, trying for yet another angle in the mirror. Then Barry's voice said at normal volume behind her, "I mean, obviously, though some things might be logistically tricky if I didn't go full-time lich too. And I don't know if Istus is that into corpses, actually. Is this rhetorical or literal?"
"Rhetorical." Ugh. Lup sighed and turned around. "Okay, literal version: after you returned to the dad bod, did you ever feel like you, uh, maybe wanted to burn every article of clothing you'd ever owned? Retroactively?"
"Um… maybe a little?" Barry frowned in the thoughtful way he did, where his eyebrows tried to make friends. "I never spent as long without my body as you, though. And I definitely didn't get stuck in an umbrella."
"Yeah, rub it in." Lup tugged her dress back off over her head and briefly but earnestly considered actually lighting it on fire. She tossed it closetward instead, and gazed mournfully after it. "I used to love that thing."
"It's just clothes," Barry said, all concerned and reasonable and acting like he wouldn't have felt weird as hell about being rendered abruptly incapable of wearing jeans. Barry J. Nojeans, she'd have called him. Lup waved a hand in his direction, trying for an unimpressed vibe.
"I know, you goblin."
"Well, if you do decide to go lich again, just let me know. Or don't. I know you love a dramatic reveal."
"Jump scare but make it sexy," Lup agreed. She turned back to the little hill of clothes she'd heaped on their bed. "Go to work, nerd, I'll try not to lose my corporeal form before you get back. Although…"
She looked at him once more over her shoulder. Barry raised his eyebrows, not a hint of alarm or annoyance or anything but curiosity on his ridiculous, adorable face.
"There is another option," she said. "Maybe I'm a nudist now?"
She drained her stew, drinking the broth from the bowl like a cup, and set it down on the table—beside Kravitz's book, not on it, because she was nice sometimes. Kravitz himself re-emerged then, fastening a dorky silk cravat around his neck.
Lup gave him a showy once-over, then wolf-whistled for good measure. "Lookin' good."
"Thanks." Kravitz shot her a brief, distracted smile. "I like that sweater, by the way, is it new?"
"Nope." Lup fiddled with the cuff of one sleeve. The sweater was large enough on her that they fell over her hands if she didn't keep them rolled up. "Stole it from Magnus."
"Thought so," Taako put in mildly. The fucker, she knew he'd noticed. Lup glanced at him, but he was saying to Kravitz, "Bee-tee-dubs, babe, Lup thinks your book is for dweebs too."
"It's escapism. Of course it's for dweebs." Clothes evidently in place, Kravitz leaned in to kiss the top of Taako's head. Taako held up his bowl, wordlessly offering whatever was left in it, but Kravtiz declined with a gesture. "Thanks, but I'm sure there'll be plenty at this thing. I'll probably be picking pomegranate seeds out of my teeth for a week."
"Hot," Lup pronounced. Kravitz smiled once more, brief and genuine, and, in a sweep of his cape, was gone.
Taako unfolded his legs from beneath him, stretched out his knees with a gross pop. He hooked one foot under a nearby chair and dragged it over, then propped both feet up on it in a getting-comfy sort of way. "So? We gonna talk about it?"
Taako rolled his eyes and waved a hand up and down, encompassing all of Lup. "The whole soft butch thing you have happening here, Lulu, come on. And you know I wouldn't ask except that you clearly have something you wanna say."
Lup slumped down into the couch some more. It was cozy. She tugged the sleeves of Magnus's sweater back over her hands. "Think this is a good look for me?"
"Oh yeah, uh, I'm loving the clashing patterns especially? Cargo pants with flames up the side are so in right now." He paused, giving the sarcasm room to breathe. Then he said, "Yeah, Lup, it's fine."
"Aww." Lup put a hand to her chest. "Flatterer." Taako must have been done humouring her, though, because he only arched an eyebrow and let another silence fall. Lup knew that look, and she knew that it meant he was ready to stare her down until she talked.
That was fair. He knew her better than anyone, probably always would, and he knew, intimately, how much she used to hate giving people any chance to think she was a boy.
Dogs were a blessing, that was a universal constant, and a week or two before she gave in and actually talked to her brother, Lup was ambushed by an excellent one: a huge, shaggy, wiggly little monster who bounded up to Lup and knocked her clean off her feet for slobbery kisses.
After a dozen or so such attacks on Lup's person, a laughing voice above her said, "Come on, Bo," and Lup looked up—though not very far—to find that a dwarf had joined her one-woman dog party. "Sorry. She refuses to accept that not everyone she meets wants kisses."
Lup grinned, fending off another wild lick. "Please, she can kiss me as much as her doggy heart desires. I'm Lup, by the way."
"Solo," Bo's owner replied, then laughed again when Bo rolled over to beg for a belly rub.
Solo didn't seem to be in a hurry and Lup had nowhere to be, so she got to hang with Bo for a while, which obviously ruled. She chatted with Solo a little, too, amidst indulging Bo with a belly rub so decadent it nearly put her to sleep in Lup's lap. Solo was pretty androgynous in that cute, casual way that some dwarves could manage, sporting an array of rings on the fingers of both hands and a long, dark, and luxuriously braided beard. They also kept eyeing Lup speculatively, and it sort of made her wonder if she'd been recognized from that time she saved the multiverse.
But finally Solo said, "I have an embarrassing favour to ask you."
Bo's favourite ball, it transpired, was lodged in a tree. Apparently Solo's aim was pretty fucking bad.
"Oh yeah," Lup said, squinting at the spot of red nested between some branches about fifteen feet up. She'd stood so that Solo could point out the problem, and now she untied her overshirt from around her waist for extra freedom of movement. "I can get that. Hold my flannel."
Lup caught the moment, as the shirt passed from her hand to Solo's, in which Solo clocked her wedding ring, and she was abruptly reminded of a lesson she'd recently learned about herself: she missed flirting. Her marriage was mostly closed, and she didn't even want to go around smooching other people, really—but Lup had been trapped for a long time, forgotten and lost and then carried around by her own damn brother, and now that she was her magnificent self again she missed shameless, low-pressure, no-strings flirting.
So she threw Solo her best cocky grin before she jumped up to grab the sturdy-looking branch above her.
"Thank the gods for tall women," Solo said, when she dropped heroically back to the ground after and tossed them the slobbery dog-ball.
Lup winked at them, brushing tree dirt from the jeans she'd appropriated from Barry. She did love to be appreciated. "Which gods, specifically?"
"Oh, any. All of them." It was never easy to tell what was happening under a dwarf's beard, but the corners of Solo's eyes were all crinkly. "You're married, right?"
"Super married," Lup confirmed. "For what it's worth, though—in another world? Abso-fuckin-lutely." Bo, who had been sniffing demurely around Lup's pockets, took this opportunity to jump at her. Lup laughed and added, "I mean, this little heartbreaker alone."
Still with the twinkling eyes, Solo put one hand over their chest. "Like a dagger to the heart," they said with a melodrama that would do Taako proud. They offered Lup her shirt then, and she accepted it.
"Sorry, doll," she said, smiling. "There's an equally hot, much more single tall girl out there for you somewhere, I can feel it." She ushered Bo back over to her proper dog-parent and parted ways with them both, riding a high she'd half-forgotten.
The flannel did fuck-all for her girlish figure and there was a time when Lup would have hated it for that, but she shrugged it over her shoulders as she walked away, leaving it unbuttoned over her tank top in the light summer breeze. Really, she thought, she should've thanked Solo for the ego boost.
In the present, in the home her brother had built, she said, "I honestly don't know why this is so hard to say."
"Yeah, uh, me neither." Taako's expression was all exasperation, but his tone was amused. "Pretty weird that you can improv a pep talk for the whole fucking world, but somehow not walk into your extremely cool twin brother's home and just be like, hey bro, check out this sick new look I'm trying, also I'm definitely not gonna fuck up your culinary masterpiece this time."
"Pretty weird," Lup agreed. "Except the rosemary made it better. I dunno, Taako, it's like ever since I got my body back, stuff's felt different? And not even in the way where I had to get used to needing to pee and stuff again. Though that does suck, by the way."
"Duly noted, thank you."
"And you know, uh, we're not running from the Hunger anymore, so that's different. And I have this whole functioning body I can control again: also different. But then I think maybe my brain is like, oh shit, musical chairs, and it's just rearranging everything up there."
There was a pause. Taako said, "Still not sure what you're trying to tell me here, sis."
Lup laughed, deeply annoyed with herself. She covered her face with her hands. "It just feels ridiculous to ask you, of all people, if it's okay if I'm the kind of girl who dresses like this now. But it also feels ridiculous to ask anyone who's not you."
"There it is."
"And it's really like, I was hanging out with Magnus a couple days ago, and I stole his sweater so I could go to that tavern near his place and wet the ol' whistle. And the second I walked in the hottie behind the bar checked me out. She'd seen me a bunch of times, like already remembered my name and shit, and she'd always been kinda flirty but that was the first time she gave me the eyes. You know?"
"I do know the eyes." When Lup peeked out from behind her hands, Taako's mouth was turned up at the corner. "So you weren't kidding when you said you were going out to wet your whistle, huh?"
Lup kicked him. "Excuse you, I'm a married woman."
"Oh, of course. Forgive me."
"Anyway, later that night I stole a bunch of stuff from Magnus's wardrobe and peaced the fuck out before he noticed. Except I'm honestly still not sure if he ever noticed? Apparently we taught him nothing. Point is, shit like that keeps happening and at this point I'm just going with it."
Taako sighed, so heavily that Lup might have been inclined to take offense if she were someone who didn't know him. He said, "Okay, Lup, so, this whole conversation? I'm gonna tell you a way easier way it coulda gone down."
There was her jerk-ass brother. Lup made a show of sitting at rapt attention. "Oh word? Thanks Taako, that's so generous."
"I know, it's a burden being this selfless. All right, so, you enter my kitchen, all the while maintaining a respectful distance from my workspace. And you say—" He adopted a horrible falsetto, knowing full fucking well that Lup's voice was lower than his own. "—Hey Taako, what's good?"
She suppressed a smile. "Oh, totally. That does sound like me."
"And I say, oh hey, baby sister, not much," Taako continued, ignoring her entirely. "How about you? And you go, Well, I'm trying this new thing where I dress totally differently and don't wear skirts anymore, or maybe I only wear skirts sometimes, I was not totally clear about that. And I'm like, dope, that's fresh as hell! You can wear whatever the fuck you want. Except maybe rethink those pants. And you go, Thank you, Taako, I always appreciate your input. End scene."
He looked at her mildly, not a crack in his pokerface. What an asshole; Lup loved him. She matched her voice to his terrible imitation and echoed, "Thanks Taako. Always appreciate your input."
"Any time." He leaned in to pat her on the cheek, and then leaned further to snatch her empty bowl off the table. "Now help me do these dishes, you goddamn freeloader."
He left for the kitchen and this time, watching him go, Lup did let herself smile. "Yes, mother," she replied, and followed him.