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But all these pieces and parts of me could be something larger than me

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            After the hugs (all of them, living and in her arms) and the tears (Lucretia dries hers quickly, she needs clear vision to see them, that they’re real, they’re back) and the Starblaster being piloted (not by Lucretia, by Davenport, Captain Davenport, back to lead the again whole crew) to the ground below (bright, lively, and so very green), Lucretia lets out a long, long breath that it feels like she’s been holding since that fateful moment, just under a cycle ago, when she’d realized that she was the only one left. She’s done it. She’s safe. They all are, even with the Hunger looming inevitable and implacable, all of them safe and looking ahead to the far more forgiving Cycle 66.

            She’s fine.

            Lucretia isn’t fine.

            There are little things. A moment of frantic confusion with the ship flying and Lucretia not at the helm. Moving into a defensive position, ready to fight, at the first unexpected noise, which is any noise at all from her family. Always needing to have her back to a wall, always roving across the ship, always checking the various systems and the repairs she’d made.

            Several days into the start of Cycle 66, Lucretia crosses in front of a mirror, not looking, no time to look, more important things to worry about. But then she stops, moving backward to look into the mirror.

            The Starblaster shows its wear, 65 cycles worth of flying and fighting and repair.

            Lucretia does not. She looks exactly the same as the day she started, young, wide-eyed, unscarred. The contrast has always been startling, when at this point Lucretia should be approaching her later years, when she’s lived a hard life, a life that has killed her several times already. But it’s never been more jarring than it is right now, after a cycle that had broken Lucretia down to her very foundations and she had been forced to build everything back up, firmer, harder, stronger than she had ever been.

            Her hair. Back, all of it, soft and shining white and long. She’d hacked it all off and scarcely attended to it otherwise.

            Her skin. Healthy, near glowing in comparison to the dull look it had taken on. Smooth and unmarked. The small electrical burns from learning the Starblaster’s inner workings from trial and error. Scabbed over scratches from suddenly dropping to the rocky ground to avoid being spotted. An enormous scar like fireworks patterning nearly the entirety of Lucretia’s back, a necromantic blast courtesy of some particularly hospitable locals. All gone.

            Her body. Her face is full again, her ribs nowhere near as visible. There is strength to it not coming from adrenaline and simple need, but from rest and food and the space to breathe.

            It seems odd to Lucretia, wrong, that the cycle that had drafted her anew leaves no trace, that not even her family can know what she became, what she had to become to make it through. 

            Maybe that’s why she struggles with telling them. They don’t know, can’t truly know. They weren’t there. And Lucretia had barely written anything down save what could be useful, what information could be another tool in her quest just to survive this plane. With her body restored, there really is no record but what Lucretia can tell them. But can she tell them? Will her family judge her as they had been judged?

            So Lucretia does what she had done for so much of the cycle, takes one of the few leaves from the book she’d written: bury her emotions. Think logically. Solve the problem. Keep moving. She’ll be fine.

            Lucretia isn’t fine.

            Not really, she isn’t. And her family knows it.

            So Lucretia withdraws into herself. After all, she’d only had herself to depend on for a near interminable cycle, and she cannot put this immeasurable weight on her family.

 


 

            There are times when it is all too much, the ship with its seven occupants becomes too confining, the lively nature of this world too loud and too close, when she can’t sleep without the hum of the ship’s engines reassuring her of its readiness to escape, when the serenity on the surface of it all can only be masking monsters within its depths. There are times when Lucretia wakes with a sharp gasp, her anxious mind having confused memory with reality, times only made worse when it is not sleep she is woken from. There are times when Lucretia has to leave, go out into the open air simply to breathe and scream.

            Lucretia really, really isn’t fine.

            Lup is standing outside Lucretia’s door after one such instance.

            “Can we talk?”

            Lucretia stops short. She’d thought she’d gone far enough into the woods that no one would hear. “What about?” Lucretia tries and fails to achieve nonchalance.

            “Creesh. Babe.” Lup leans back against Lucretia’s door with a sigh. Lucretia crosses her arms, her shoulders rising as if to shield her from an onslaught. But this is Lup. She should be safe.

            Lucretia doesn’t uncross her arms.

            “I’m fine.”

            “You’re not.” The two stare at each other. “Please. Just... listen, it’s not gonna get better on its own.”

            “I’m working on it,” Lucretia says immediately, cutting off whatever Lup was going to say next, as if this will end the conversation sooner. As if Lup would ever give up that easily.

            Lup nods. “I know. I can see that, Creesh. Even though you’re trying to hide it. Now. I know that what you went through... probably the worst of what any of us has gone through. But you’re also on a ship with literally the only six people who could understand that shit. We’ve all been alone, we’ve all carried that, that tremendous weight, but Creesh, you don’t have to do that anymore. We want to help. We love you.”

            “Too much.” The words nearly come out as a croak. Lucretia blinks. When had she started crying? She reaches up to mercilessly strike at the tears, no time for that, not anymore, when Lup catches her hand. With her other, far more gentle with Lucretia than she herself would have been, Lup wipes at the tears sparkling on Lucretia’s cheeks.

            “I know.” And then Lucretia is in Lup’s arms, and Lucretia returns the hug, because Lup is solid and warm and real and here.

            “What if... I changed. What if you see that, and... I can’t lose you all for real.”

            “Creesh.” Lup’s nearly laughing, a watery sort of laugh. “You have changed. We can all see that.” Lucretia stiffens, and Lup hastens to correct. “Not in a bad way! Not in a bad way at all.” Lup says, rubbing Lucretia’s back soothingly.

            “But I look the same. We always do. How could you tell?”

            “Mmm,” Lup hums for a moment, almost a purr, and it reverberates through Lucretia. “It’s... some of it’s posture. How you’re standing, how you’re holding yourself. It’s that, it’s the look in your eye, it’s how you talk and what you say. And what all that says is that you, Lucretia, are strong. You are intelligent and decisive and perceptive and persevering and so very strong. And we are all so very proud of you.”

            “Kind of a mess, too.” Lucretia says with a watery giggle of her own.

            “Creesh, sweetie. We all are. Like, uh, listen, time for fuckin’ therapy aboard the Starblaster for everyone. And it’s okay. You don’t need to try to fix that on your own. You’ve got us. You’re gonna get through this. I’d say you’re gonna be amazing, but honestly? You already are.” Lucretia just breathes, and Lup doesn’t let go until Lucretia leans away. “Now. I understand, understand that was a lot of emotion. Whole lotta baggage there. So if you wanna wait on this next thing, that’s totally cool with everyone. But if you wanna talk... we, all of us, wanna listen so we can help. And make sure you finally fuckin’ sleep. Fuck, Creesh, you’re not an elf! You cannot meditate your way through a long rest!”

            Lucretia laughs. “Talking might be easier than sleeping,” she admits, looking away from Lup to bat her hair out of her face.

            “Come on,” Lup takes Lucretia’s hand. She leads Lucretia to the ship’s living room, with its overview of the bridge and the Starblaster’s systems, somehow knowing that Lucretia will be most at ease where she can hear the ship working. Lup steers Lucretia to the couch before perching on the couch back behind her. “So, uh, I noticed that you seem to want your hair out of the way right now. I could probably cut it now, but let’s be honest, Taako’s probably better. I can braid it out of the way for now though.”

            “Braiding… braiding is good.” Lucretia relaxes slowly, bit by marginal bit, as Lup works with careful fingers and careful words.

            Lucretia isn’t fine. But it’s a start.

 


 

            It’s the middle of the night. It’s quiet, but not silent, the sort of quiet still humming with the life of the surrounding world. And more than that, it’s… peaceful.

            Lucretia isn’t used to that. Not after the previous cycle. Just as she is no longer accustomed to sleeping through the night in her own bed, just stolen short naps at the ship’s bridge that she wakes from with a gasp and a racing heart, regardless of if danger is actually present. The habit had been easily formed with the constant threat to not just her survival, but to her family’s return and the possibility of one day stopping the Hunger. It’s not so easily dismissed now.

            So Lucretia is not surprised when she wakes, having kicked free of the blankets and to a room lit only by the dim glow of Fisher’s tank. Well. Nothing for it then. Lucretia swings her legs over the side of her bed, momentarily marveling as the light hits her once more smooth, unmarked legs, before standing. A quick run through of the Starblaster’s vital systems will reassure her, she concludes, nodding decisively. And if her route happens to take her past her family’s bedrooms, where they rest, alive and well?

            All the better.

            Taako is outside her room. Lucretia blinks, taking a step back through her doorway as she takes him in, leaning casually against the wall opposite, looking for all the world as though he just happened to be here with nothing better to do.

            If not for, you know, the hour.

            “Taako?”

            “’Cretia,” Taako greets her, voice even and level.

            “What are you doing up?”

            “Might ask you the same question.” Taako’s gaze is as level as his voice. Lucretia hesitates, but doesn’t look away. “I know Lup talked to you. I know she reminded you that you need to sleep.”

            “I did.”

            “But you couldn’t.” It’s not a question.

            Lucretia answers regardless. “I did. But I can’t… I can’t stay asleep, Taako. There’s too much risk, too much that could go wrong. What if... there’s always what if.” She doesn’t need to explain what “what if” is, either. They both know full well what the worst scenario is. And how Lucretia had been facing that down for nearly a cycle on her own. But still, Lucretia is bracing herself for reminders that she should still take care of herself, still try to sleep, try to push past the instinctive need to check on everyone and everything…

            “Fair enough.” Taako’s voice takes a turn for the casual and breezy. “But, uh, listen. What with the whole, you know, being dead for an entire cycle thing, cha’boy might be a little out of practice, so, uh, you down for a little… sparring match?”

            Lucretia blinks. As always, even after more than 60 years of knowing him, Taako manages to surprise her. He lets the silence hang, leaving the fate of the conversation, her own fate, squarely in Lucretia’s hands, where she is both most and least comfortable with it. A cycle earlier, she might have struggled longer to decide.

            “You’re on.”

            They find a clearing, near the ship, but not too near. Lucretia’s wand is in her hand, her grip on it looser than it has been but still comfortable around the well-worn handle. Her posture is tense, though neither of them would expect otherwise. Taako is more laidback, seemingly waiting for Lucretia’s first move.

            So she makes it.

            They trade spells almost in a dance, the two evenly matched and, Lucretia at least, too anxious to be anything less than at her best. Lightning and flame, ice and illusion, score the terrain around them.

            Lucretia is breathing hard by the time she’s burned through her last spell slot, bent over and panting. Though she’d been tested each and every day by Cycle 65, it has been quite a while since she’d burned through each and every spell slot.

            Each and every spell slot. Lucretia freezes mid-gasp. A hand enters her field of view. She takes it, and Taako pulls her up to standing.

            “You good?”

            “Did you do that on purpose?” Lucretia asks, accusatory but breathless.

            “Well. Listen. I wasn’t keeping track. I figured you would stop when, you know, you were ready. Gotta, gotta be honest, Lucy-lu, took a little bit longer than I thought you might. Kinda figured you wouldn’t go after me with any level 7 shit, but nice move on the reversing gravity; gonna have to remember that one.”

            “You too. Good counter with the Arcane Gate.”

            “You learned some shit, huh?” Taako’s gaze is probing. “Had to use that shit, too?”

            Lucretia breathes out slowly. “Yeah. I… the one time I went for the Light? Power Word Kill.”

            Taako lets out a low whistle.

            “I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t even think about it.”

            “You expecting judgment? Not gonna do that. You got through. That’s what matters. Now you gotta keep getting through.”

            No spell slots. None. Lucretia breathes out slowly, finally starting to catch her breath. “Guess I have to take a long rest now, huh?”

            “Baller idea, Cretia.”

            Lucretia isn’t fine.

            But she rests.

 


 

            It’s not that she’s constantly monitoring the ship, constantly checking the Starblaster for any sign of any failure. Or, maybe she is. But that doesn’t matter because this is the third time this week that there has been a weird sound from the environmental system, and Lucretia intends to find out just what is going on before it can blow up in their faces.

            Lucretia walks down the system, a hand carefully tracing over the machinery as she listens for that almost hiccup-like sound. It’s faint, less than it had been earlier, but she’s able to pinpoint approximately where it’s coming from. Right under a panel covering part of the ventilation system, easily removed with a screwdriver. Less easy is the complex machinery behind it, parts and components Lucretia doesn’t know the names of, illuminated with her Light cantrip. Lucretia sets her jaw and sets to work.

            She’s crawled halfway into the ventilation system when she hears, “Lucretia?”

            Lucretia wiggles back out and looks up to see a bemused Davenport holding a “Planes’ Best Captain” mug. “Um. Hello?”

            Davenport studies her, face quizzical but somehow knowing. “The blip on the airflow monitoring?”

            “…Yes.” It’s half a question. “If that’s the weird sound.”

            Davenport sets down his mug and crouches, angling his head to see what she is looking at. It looks like it makes much more sense to him. “Yes, it definitely is. So, airflow system, I was guessing… yep. With the increase in particulates in the air from the local flora thanks to this bloom courtesy of the Light, the system’s been working overtime to keep Barry’s sinuses passable. HEPA filters are probably caked in the stuff. It’s sporadic because the recirc system only kicks in during extended periods of travel, so the bond engine then has to deal with the added strain, which is what the system’s been picking up. The strain to the airflow system itself and the filters being near impassable would also explain the sound you’ve noticed. We’ll need to keep an eye on them for the rest of the cycle, but we should be good to go if we replace the filters.” Davenport pulls back to look at Lucretia. Lucretia looks at him, face blank. “Lucretia?”

            “I don’t understand what you said just now.” Lucretia answers bluntly, slowly shaking her head.

            “But… okay, what would you call this?” Davenport points to a piece of the mess that Lucretia had been attempting to diagnose.

            “Circular… canvas… thing?” Lucretia shrugs.

            Davenport blinks, rolling back from his crouch to standing. “But… you’ve… you’ve repaired the ship. You’ve repaired the ship probably countless times at this point.”

            “That doesn’t mean I know what it’s called!” Lucretia exclaims, looking away, shoulders creeping up to her ears. “There are almost as many manuals as I’ve written journals, and even if I’d had the, the time to read all of it, the ship’s practically a living organism on its own, with all of the pieces having of their own, their own interactions and mechanisms, and-”

            “Lucretia!” Davenport interrupts. “My apologies. Both for interrupting, and, er… assuming, I suppose. I could have and should have worded that differently. I didn’t mean to disparage what you did and what you learned. On the contrary. Lucretia, when we first landed in this world, I looked over every square centimeter of this ship. Not because I don’t trust you, but because, it’s what I do when I come back after I’ve… been gone. Because I need to know every piece of my ship down to the last nut and bolt.

            “Lucretia, you performed at a level commensurate with an experienced engineer. And for a moment, I forgot that you didn’t gain that experience in quite, ah, quite the usual way.” Davenport pauses. “Lucretia, you became a damn good engineer. I’m proud of you.”

            Lucretia pauses herself, the words turning over in her mind like the bond engine purring to life, her raised defenses and shoulders gradually lowering. “Thank you.” She looks up at Davenport as he takes another sip of coffee. “What’s a HEPA filter?”

            Davenport laughs. “High Efficiency Particulate Air. They can filter out exceptionally small particulates. The recirc system is the air recirculation system. And Lucretia, would you… the ship could always use another engineer, you know.”

            Lucretia grins, and, with a joking salute, says, “Reporting for duty, Captain. So. Where exactly are the spare HEPA filters?”

            Lucretia isn’t fine.

            But she keeps learning more about the ship, with a teacher this time.

 


 

            There comes a day, the first day, when Lucretia again picks up her paint brush. It’s not that she particularly wants to, but she feels like she should. If she’s trying to get better (and she is), shouldn’t she enjoy what she used to? Shouldn’t she use her considerable talent to chronicle their journey? After all, there is a whole new world out there.

            But instead Lucretia sits, in the shade, her back to a trunk, staring blankly at her dry brush with her paints untouched before her.

            She hasn’t painted since Cycle 64 at this point. She hadn’t had the time or the motivation or the energy to do so in the previous cycle, instead pouring all of her resources into surviving. Her humanity had been rather left unattended.

            What to paint? There’s so much... there’s so much more to this world than gray rock and grayer skies and enemies at every turn. In this wood alone, there are trees that ring like chimes in the wind, electric blue hummingbirds flitting between flowers that glow in the soft pink light of the three moons, rabbits that expertly blend in with the purple-tinged moss growing everywhere.

            And Lucretia can’t paint any of it. Doesn’t want to paint any of it.

            Someone’s walking through the woods. Crunching through the woods really, seeming to walk into every shrug and twig and loose stone in their path.

            “Hey there, Lucretia,” Merle announces his presence cheerfully before dropping to the ground near her, careful not to upset her pristine paints.

            “Hello, Merle.”

            “So. Ya painting again?” Merle asks. It’s a formality, an invitation and a knock.

            “Not... not really,” Lucretia answers, hesitant about opening the door.

            “Seems to me it’d be hard to just, you know, get right back into it. Can be, can be for me.”

            “There’s so much again.”

            “Yeah! It’s great. It’s alive and vibrant and that’s good. And sometimes, y’know, it’s too much.”

            At that Lucretia starts, putting a halt to another check around the area to look at Merle head on. He looks serene, quietly marveling at what’s around them.

            “What do you mean?”

            Merle closes his eyes and lets out a long sigh. He looks to Lucretia as well, hazel eyes knowing. “None of us... none of us have gone through exactly what you went through. But, uh, we’ve all got our shit, all had our faith tested, as it were. And dying, dying like that... worth it, but not exactly pleasant.” Merle scowls, and, not for the first time, Lucretia is tremendously glad that they put a stop to Merle’s quick returns to that conference room somewhere deep within the Hunger. “And it makes... sometimes it makes something like all this-” and Merle waves a hand at the wide world around them “-well, a lot. Because it’s out there and it’s good and we’ve seen a lotta shit, and then we could see this world just, gone, like all the rest.”

            Lucretia nods. “It’s so... colorful. If, if I had had the time to paint the last cycle, if I had even wanted to paint the last cycle... it would have been mostly shades of gray.”

            “Sounds boring. Uh, I mean, aside from the constant threat on your life and the weight of the whole world. But, like, the world itself. Boring.”

            “Oh yes, absolutely dreary, would have been bored stiff if I hadn’t been running for my life most of the time.”

            “And you know what they say about boredom. Intolerable!”

            The pair laugh, the sound rising and joining the chiming of the trees. And Lucretia looks at Merle, sitting comfortably at ease next to her.

            Quick as a flash, the paint brush drops into that bright blue of the hummingbirds, and Lucretia flits out like one of those selfsame hummingbirds to rapidly dab a drop of paint on Merle’s nose.

            Merle blinks, astonished, and a giggle breaks its way through Lucretia’s lips. At that, Merle shakes his head, before reaching down to the green, prodding it and poking Lucretia’s own nose.

            Lucretia looks at Merle, and Merle looks at Lucretia. Their laughter rings out even more loudly, scattering the birds and rabbits and nearly shaking the trees themselves.

            “Hey. Hey, Lucretia,” Merle says when their laughter has died down some. He raises his hand. “Green thumb,” he says, proudly brandishing his paint-covered thumb.

            Lucretia nearly shrieks, almost splatters Merle with her whole palette, but she laughs again.

            Lucretia isn’t fine.

            Lucretia won’t paint for a while yet, but she does start to sketch.

 


 

            Lucretia became better, stronger over the course of the last cycle. She’d had to. She wouldn’t have been able to get through otherwise; it’s as simple as that.

            But she needs to be even better, even stronger. There had been moments, so many moments during her time on the judges’ planet, where she’d feared all was lost, because she hadn’t been good enough. Times where her aim had been just slightly off, and spells crackling with energy she couldn’t afford to waste had gone wide, leaving her enemies unscathed. Times where she’d fallen asleep despite taking every measure imaginable to stay awake (taking advantage of both her and Barry’s extensive knowledge of the art), and she’d nearly been caught. Times where her rough and roughshod improvised repairs to the Starblaster had failed days, hours, seconds later, and the loss of resources was for naught. And times where her shields had been insufficient, where both she and ship had taken damage that she’d been sure would ground the Starblaster and their endless journey would end with her.

            Lucretia never wants this, any of this to happen again. So she’s working, sparring matches with Taako and Lup and learning every square centimeter of the Starblaster from Davenport.

            But there is one thing still to be resolved. Over the course of her life, Lucretia has come to realize that abjuration is her strength. Her protective instinct amplifies her shields, but they could be, they need to be stronger yet.

            And it’d be helpful if they didn’t spark or fail at the most inopportune moments.

            Lucretia breathes out a frustrated breath as the shield she’d been projecting around her small campfire fails. With a hand shaky from the effort she’s been exerting, she wipes the beads of sweat from her brow.

            Lucretia has been working on two fundamental components to her shield spells: duration and the ability to take a hit. The fire, when compressed in far enough from her shield, allows her to address both, acting as a constant onslaught of pure energy. It’s also incredibly sapping. And Lucretia isn’t sure how much she has left, either energy or spell slots.

            This isn’t working. And it is so incredibly frustrating that it isn’t working. It should be working. She’s studied the theory of the spell, knows the shape to form and patterns to weave just so to create that perfect dome of perfectly distributed abjuration energy. By all her reasoning, she should be able to sustain this much longer and at minimum not have these sparks of scattered energy breaking free of the shield.

            Lucretia takes a figurative and literal step back, toward the notebooks and texts spread across her worktable. Perhaps she’s missing something.

            “Luce?” Lucretia’s head snaps up from where her gaze is fixed on her notes below. Barry looks at her, head tilted to the side. “You okay there?”

            “I’m fine, Barry.”

            Barry, being Barry, approaches anyway. “You don’t seem fine. You seem tired. And frustrated,” he says good-naturedly, but there’s an undercurrent of worry.

            Lucretia lets out a long breath again, this one less frustrated. “I’m working on my shield spells. They aren’t… they should be better. And I can’t figure out how to make them better.”

            “Uh-huh.” Barry nods, eyes flicking down to her notes and back up to Lucretia. She can almost see the curiosity bloom in his eyes as he takes in bits and pieces of her work, the projection of the spell and her working theory of what is required of the caster to sustain it. “Huh.” She doesn’t just have her family’s attention now, but the scientist’s.

            A smile, the first since she’d started her work today, brings the corners of Lucretia’s mouth upwards. Then she tilts her head to the side. She’s been so intently focused on solving this issue on her own, just as she’s been focused on solving all of her issues alone as of late. And obviously, that hadn’t worked. Taako and Lup are incredibly helpful for practice and sparring, and no doubt she could ask them as well, but Barry’s academic understanding of the mechanisms of spells…

            “Barry. Do you think you could help?”

            Barry looks up immediately, his family being one of the few things capable of drawing his attention away from magic and science. He’s practically beaming. “A- absolutely!” He sounds excited already, and it’s infectious, creeping into Lucretia’s body and bones and chasing out the pervasive exhaustion that had set in with Lucretia’s hours of work. “Okay. Now, uh, let’s see what you’ve got here to start with. Is that okay? I can, I can, uh, the best way for me to help is to know where you’re at and what you’ve built already, because you know this better than me. I’m just a second pair of eyes trying to help you see things a little differently.”

            “You don’t have to worry about annoying me, Barry,” Lucretia reminds him with a laugh.

            “I know! I know. But, but this really… you’ve gotten so much stronger, Luce. It’s really, genuinely impressive. And I would love… I would love to help you with this in any way I can. Now, uh, let’s see. Where do I start?” Barry claps his hands together, looking askance at the scattered pages of notes.

            Lucretia laughs and quickly picks up three or four pages. “Right, so I started theorizing about energy distributions here and connection between caster and spell here. So-”

            Lucretia isn’t fine.

            But she can ask for help.

 


 

            It’s morning, afternoon, evening, night. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is, not because moments of rest are rare, hidden from searching eyes under a rocky overhang or stolen from times where repairs to the ship can wait a little bit longer. It doesn’t matter because the peaceful moments are many and uninterrupted, lazily stretching into hours like a cat sprawled in the sun.

            It doesn’t matter because even in these hours, Lucretia still finds it difficult to pause, to allow herself her own peace. There is always more to do, and her hands, though steady, cannot tolerate idleness.

            So she goes to Magnus. Like her, Magnus is incapable of sitting still, moving from training himself to training them to teaching children to learning from the animals. He’s also kept up a habit for almost 20 cycles now.

            “Magnus,” Lucretia greets him as she sits on the sofa in the living room, soft and comfortable from use, looking at the sunbeams pouring in from the windows and painting the room with soft golden light. The room itself is warm and soft, and Lucretia hasn’t allowed herself to enjoy anything like it in over a cycle.

            “Hey, Lucy!” Magnus looks up with a wide grin that nearly splits his face. He scoots forward in his chair to show her what he’s working on, a small block of wood, too early in the process to definitively identify.

            Lucretia knows that it’s a duck.

            “So. You wanna learn how to carve?” Magnus poses theatrically, no doubt drawing on his cycle coaching and pep talks from his own choices for fantasy movie nights.

            “Yes, Magnus. That’s what I told you, isn’t it?”

            “C’mon, Lucy-lu, you gotta let me do it right!” Magnus whines. “Everybody else gets to teach cool stuff!”

            A smile spreads across Lucretia’s face. “Yes, oh wise Magnus, please, teach me your wondrous ways of carving ducks.”

            The clouds of Magnus’s stormy pout instantly part to a grin as bright as the sun. Two of them, in fact. “Right. So, uh, first things first. Wood.” He pulls out another block of wood from his pocket, this one not yet started. He hands it to Lucretia, who runs her fingertips over the white wood. “What we’ve got here is aspen, because it’s a good starter wood for carving. It’s stronger than basswood, which is another, uh, good wood for starting out, but still pretty soft. We keep going though, and I can have you carving white oak in no time.”

            “So, did you start out with this one?” Lucretia asks, holding up the wood. “And what are you carving right now?”

            “Nah, I started out with basswood. I figured, tough wood for tough Lucretia.” Magnus shrugs and winks. “And this is black walnut. Nice color, nice grain, nice duck!” Magnus hands her a knife to go with the wood. “Now, uh, this probably goes without saying, but, you know, knives are sharp.” He waves a hand. “Can’t keep a scar, but I should have a lot of them. So be careful, Luce.”

            “I will.” Besides, if anything scars, it’ll be just as temporary as the ones from the previous cycle.

            “Promise?” Magnus’s face snaps to concern, perhaps reading the change in expression in her own.

            “I promise.” The promise is genuine, and Magnus nods. With a further explanation of how to move the knife and how to visualize the duck within the wood, they set to work.

            “Fisher missed your ducks,” Lucretia says after a while, into the quiet and comparative stillness. The latter is still unsettling, but less so with a task to focus on. “I tried to keep them happy, but... they missed your ducks, and they missed you.”

            “I’m glad you at least had them.” Magnus flips a curlicue of a wood shaving through the air and onto the couch beside Lucretia.

            “Taako will yell if you leave that there.” For some reason, the errant shavings will stick to Taako like balloons to a cat.

            “Eh. Let him.” Magnus shrugs, hiding a smirk somewhere within his sideburns.

            “Okay, so I’ll Prestidigitation the couch clean later.”

            “Yep!”

            The two laugh and continue their work, talking every so often. It takes longer than Lucretia would have thought Magnus had the patience for, had she not seen him do this countless times before.

            And, eventually, with both time and patience, Lucretia is holding a lumpy, slightly lopsided duck. She hands it over to Magnus for inspection. “Don’t go easy on me,” she warns, a teasing note in her voice.

            Magnus looks it over. “Well. It’s not perfect.” And Lucretia recalls a moment nearly 20 cycles ago, when Magnus had said the same thing of his own duck. “But it’s a damn good duck. Bet Fisher will like it, too.”

            “And I can get better,” Lucretia says.

            “And you can get better,” Magnus says, nodding in agreement and eyes alight with understanding.

            Lucretia isn’t fine.

            But she can get better.

            But Lucretia is getting better.