They can and have done a lot of things to claim the light of creation in the last thirty eight cycles. They’d fought dragons and demons and religious cultists. They’d set up farms and rebuilt towns and searched for an animal thought extinct.
They couldn’t do much when it sank to the bottom of an ocean though.
It wasn’t even a good ocean like the one on the Beach World. This was a cold, merciless ocean. The Starblaster hovered over the spot where they were certain it landed for a few days, trying to think of any way to recover the light from beneath the water.
Finally they have to admit defeat. They will spend the year learning what they can of the world so they can record its stories.
Merle disappears into parley and the other six of them discuss their options. They’ll go in shifts, keeping two close to the ship and trade off with the other two pairs.
Lucretia wants to talk to residents the many port towns they’ve seen here and learn as many stories as she can. Taako wants to find new cooking supplies that will build up their stockpile. They decide their goals overlap well enough they’ll stick together.
Magnus and Davenport decide to focus on the Brigade outpost. The two of them hope to study military strategies and find training opportunities.
Barry and Lup will learn what they can of the science and magic of this world. During their expedition they will focus their time at the largest city they’ve found.
In their first foray into the city they focus their time on the large temple. The clerics there are collectors of knowledge. They are happy to let them study in their massive library in exchange for a donation and attendance at their services. It’s more than a fair price.
The problem is that their visit coincides with the biggest religious ceremony the temple hosts. People from all over make the pilgrimage to the city for the event. Finding a place to stay for their expedition is difficult. They are lucky to overpay enormously in exchange for a single attic room in a small inn.
“We should have just called back to the ship and switched off,” Barry points out. “Dav and Magnus wouldn’t have cared.”
“No, but I’m ready for some not-Starblaster time, aren’t you?” Lup asks as they climb the stairs.
Then she opens the door to the attic room - a door that is in fact more access hatch than door. Lup nearly closes it and agrees to return to the ship. Only extreme stubbornness and the fact that she’s literally just said she didn’t want to go back to the Starblaster makes her enter the room.
The room is a room in name only. In reality it’s a space between beams. There is a narrow path of space where they can stand up before the roof slants down towards the bare wood floor on two sides of the room. A lone bed is at one end of the narrow space and a water pitcher and wash basin on a stand at the other end, with the access hatch door in the center.
She clears the entry so Barry can come in. “See,” she says, “if we’d gone back to the ship you would have missed these glorious accommodations.” She turns and drops her bag on the floor. “What a shithole.”
“Do you want to go back to the Starblaster?” he asks quietly.
Lup shakes her head. “It’s fine. We can head back in the morning.”
“Okay,” Barry answers.
He takes a step towards the end of the room with the wash basin and drops his bag on the floor. He pulls off his red IPRE robe and blankets it out on the floor by his bag.
Lup asks, “What are you doing?”
Barry bends to pull off his heavy boots but not before she catches his face turning scarlet. “I’ll sleep over here,” he answers, carefully lining up his boots next the wall to avoid meeting her eye. “You take the bed.”
“It’s, uh, it’s fine, Lup. I don’t mind.”
Lup comes over and pulls at his sleeve. “Come on, Barry. We can share the bed. You don’t have to sleep in the floor.”
“Lup, really, I don’t…”
“Barry. Come on. I’m not having you sleep on the floor. And I’m not sleeping in the floor either. So, let’s just…” she lets go of his shirt and gestures both hands towards the bed impatiently.
For a long moment he just stands there then he picks up his robe, shakes it out, and walks over to the bed.
“Do you have a side preference?” he asks quietly.
“Barry,” Lup says, sounding exhausted, “I could not possibly give less of a shit.”
He crosses to the far side of the bed, bending over to avoid knocking his head on the slanted roof.
Lup squats by her bag to rummage through it for clothes to sleep in. She pulls out an old tank top and a pair of shorts. When she looks up she sees Barry has flipped the blanket back. It sits on the side of the bed he’s left for her. He’s got his robe thrown over him like a blanket. And he’s wearing his pants.
“Barold Jarold Sildar Hallwinter Bluejeans Starblaster, do you sleep in your bluejeans?” Lup asks, horrified.
“Just for tonight,” he responds.
“What?” Lup asks. “Oh, come on. Are you so embarrassed to change that you’re going to sleep in your jeans?”
“It’s fine,” he insists, turning on his side to face the wall.
Lup rolls her eyes as she pulls her shirt over her head. She knows he won’t turn around but she doesn’t actually care if he does. She almost wishes he would. Maybe then something would happen without them having to talk about it.
They’d have to talk about it, though. She doesn’t want to talk about it. It’s all too complicated. They work together. They live together. They literally can’t get away from each other. It’s too much to risk.
She throws her shirt on top of her bag and pulls the tank top on. Unhooking her bra, she’s shrugging her arms free while keeping the tank top on before she stops to wonder if she should leave it on. Barold is in jeans and she’s taking her bra off?
Fuck it, the answer is not for her to be less comfortable.
“Get your jeans off,” she tells him as she pulls her own pants off. “Knowing you are trying to sleep in jeans is giving me hives or something.” Once her pants have landed on top of her bag with her shirt she grabs the shorts from the bed and slips them on.
Lup climbs onto the bed on her knees and begins poking Barry in the back. “Come on. Seriously. Sleeping in jeans? I’ll give you they’re useful the rest of the time but sleeping, Barry? No.”
“It’s one night, Lup,” he grumbles but he’s getting up. “I don’t see what the big deal is.”
She’s tempted to watch but doesn’t, turning to give him the same privacy he afforded her. She already knows he wears boxers. They’ve all seen each other’s laundry enough to know every article of clothing by heart. He has navy blue ones, two different types of plaids, and red ones with white hearts that she’s wanted to ask about for years now. Something about them screams Valentine’s Gift Set and she wants to know the story. Were they a serious gift? A gag gift? Did he get his heart broken? Was he…
Lup’s heart stutters wildly for a few beats. Was he in a relationship when they left? It’s been decades and any relationship would clearly be in the past what with all the time that has passed and the fact that the Hunger devoured their home world. But it makes her skin feel too tight to think about it. It makes the blanket touching her skin feel hot and made of sandpaper. He’s never said anything about someone he left behind but Barry can be so quiet about things. That’s a great quality if he’s keeping a confidence you don’t want shared but when you’re worried he’s mourning a great lost love the trait is frustrating.
The bed gives as he sits back down and suddenly the boxers are all she can think about. If Barry Bluejeans is settling into bed beside her in boxers given to him by a lover that was eaten by the Hunger she won’t be able to stand it. She’ll have to get up and march her way out of the city back to the Starblaster.
Lup flops over onto her back and peeks. She sees red. And hearts. Fuck. She flicks her hand at the single light overhead and plunges the room into darkness. It doesn’t help. Her darkvision takes over and the stupid boxers are burned into her brain anyway.
He pulls his IPRE robe over himself like a blanket and arranges himself facing the wall.
Lup squeezes her eyes shut. Her fists are tight at her side. She has a few options here.
One, put this horrible thought out of her head and go to sleep. Her fingernails bite into her palms. That one’s not going to happen.
Two, get up and go back to the Starblaster. But then she’d have to come up with an excuse and she’s absolutely blank for even the most transparent explanation.
Three, ask him. No, she’s not going to ask him if he’s wearing the gift from some tragically stolen lover. That is absolutely not a thing she’s going to…
“What’s with the most cliche pair of boxers ever, Barry?”
Barry tenses beside her and she braces for his stuttered explanation. Shit, she’s still going to have to come up with that excuse to head back to the ship, isn’t she?
“They’re…,” Barry begins, “they were…” His voice is a husky whisper beside her in the darkness. He curls in on himself, pulling his shoulders in tight and she feels so much worse now. She could have kept her bad feelings to herself but no, she’s reminded him now too. Brilliant, just brilliant.
“I’m sorry,” she says honestly. “It’s fine. You don’t have to tell me. None of my business.”
“It’s okay,” he says and his voice has that quality she recognizes so well. That something that says he’s pushing himself and it makes her weirdly proud to hear it. He’s changed so much from those first cycles. He’s stronger and more self assured and he forces himself to stand up to challenges in a deliberate way that makes her feel fiercely protective.
“You, uh, you know those, those like, uh, gift sets? For Valentine’s Day?” he asks and she can practically hear the color in his cheeks as he speaks.
She forces out a noise of affirmative understanding.
“Well, uh, the, um, the boxers, uh,” he’s stammering over the words with such difficulty her heart hurts again. “They, uh, they came with… you know those… What do they call them? The, uh, the candy with the cashews and caramel and…” he goes quiet. “I guess it doesn’t matter,” he apologizes.
“Turtles.” she supplies in the middle of his apology.
“Yes!” he answers and the change in his voice is clear even in the single syllable.
“It was, uh, a whole box of turtles. Not the, um, assorted stuff like Valentine’s candy usually has. You know, with all the, uh, all the weird flavors no one likes.”
“Those are good,” she agrees quietly. “The turtles, I mean. The other ones, yeah, usually half of them are disgusting.”
“So I bought ‘em. I, uh, wasn’t going to…” he stops because Lup is laughing. “What?” he asks.
She can’t answer him. The whole bed is shaking from the force of her laughter.
He turns over onto his back so he can look at her though he can’t see much in the dark. “What?” he asks again.
Lup still can’t give him words. She sits up and leans towards her knees, wiping her eyes. She’d completely tied herself in knots about some phantom love and it was just about Barry wanting chocolate.
“They’re,” she manages before her composure slips away again. She wipes tears from her eyes, feeling relieved and ridiculous and boy, that really is a lot of relief, she’s swimming in it.
“Sorry,” she tells him once she can handle speaking. “I don’t know, it just,” she laughs again, “just hit me funny, I guess.”
She lays back down and turns to face him. He turns his head towards her but she can tell that between the dark and his lack of glasses, he’s not seeing much. His face has that soft look he gets when he can’t see what’s going on. She wants to put her hand on his cheek so much it’s nearly a physical pain. She winds her fingers in the blanket to keep the hand in check.
His eyes dart over her face, trying to sort out details in the darkness and the blur but he gives up and turns to look at the ceiling. “I wasn’t going to keep them but then they fit and they were pretty comfortable,” he says, the words flowing out in a rush. “Now I get a new pair every year thanks to the bond engine,” he adds. “If I’d known, uh, I would have picked something more reasonable.”
“Nah,” she says, “they’re great.”
He can hear the smile in her voice and it’s nice. It doesn’t feel like she’s laughing at him. He doesn’t know what she’s amused by but it’s not the bad feeling of missing a joke or worse, being the joke. This feels comfortable and nice. “Thanks,” he says, unsure what else to say to that comment.
“I’m sorry I laughed,” she tells him and that smile he sensed before feels absent now. She’s being sincere.
“It’s okay,” he assures her. “I, uh, I’m glad it was funny, I guess.” He wants to tell her that he likes her laugh. He could probably say it any other time and it wouldn’t be that weird. But now, in the dark, in a shared bed, with the feeling of her eyes on him, he can’t make the words come out. The comment feels too intimate in these circumstances.
He yawns and pulls his robe up to his chin. As soon as he does that his legs are cold. There had been some benefit to sleeping in jeans, after all.
“Here,” she tells him, flipping the blanket out to cover his chest.
“Oh, that’s, uh,” he begins to protest. “You don’t have to…”
“Shhh, Barry,” she interrupts. She kicks her foot against the bottom of the blanket to spread it over his lower half. When she lowers her leg it brushes against his. The accidental touch of bare legs freezes both of them in place.
“Guess, uh, guess we should, um…” Barry says in that quiet, husky whisper that nearly makes her shiver.
“Get some sleep,” she finishes abruptly, needing to distract herself from the rumble of his gravelly voice and her awareness of his body beside her. “Yup, we should, uh, do that,” she agrees. She’d felt bad he was cold with his robe as a blanket but now she’s hyper aware that their mostly bare skin is separated by nothing but a handsbreadth of space.
Lup turns over onto her back and stares at the ceiling above. She can’t believe she’s gotten herself into this situation. She had not just willingly walked into a one bed situation but insisted they stay when he offered they return to the ship. When had she turned into a masochist? Her awareness of Barry Bluejeans is not a surprise. She’s caught herself looking at him or thinking about him or assembling lists of reasons both to grab him and kiss him and reasons to absolutely not do that.
Barry is too nervous to move. That brief touch of their legs has short circuited his system in a way he’s vaguely ashamed of. It was nothing and he’s laying here unable to think of anything else as if he were a school boy who just found his dad’s dirty magazines. Not that Barry ever experienced that situation since his dad died before he was born.
He’s too hot now under the blanket and robe combination so he pulls the robe out and drops it to the floor beside the bed. She hadn’t insisted he take off his shirt and now his fingers toy with a button, needing something to fidget with.
When Barry shifts, Lup glances his way again. She catches a flash of his robe in the darkness after he frees it from the blanket. He drops it to the floor and she remembers his intent to sleep on the floor. Who else would have even done that? Davenport, maybe. Only Barry would immediately assume it, though.
“Hey,” she says, as a wave of affection washes over her. “Thanks.” She slides her hand over and finds his arm, traces up to where it rests on his chest and takes his hand. She curls her fingers into his and leaves her hand lying there on his chest. The impulse had gotten away from her but she’s determined to be nonchalant about it.
“Thanks?” he asks, his fingers twitching briefly before settling with hers.
“Yeah,” she says. “Thanks. I know I’m bossy sometimes. The room, the pants…” she rubs her thumb along the edge of his hand then stops herself. “So thanks for rolling with that, I guess.”
“Oh,” he says. “Sure. Um, I mean, you’re welcome?” He squeezes her fingers then relaxes. “It, uh, doesn’t bother me. You just know what you want,” he tells her. His words are slow and thoughtful. “That’s a good way to be.”
Lup can’t respond to that. Right now ‘what she wants’ is to pull his hand and the rest of him close and snuggle into his warmth, feel his skin pressed against hers, maybe find his mouth with hers and… she cuts off the line of thought before it goes more out of control.
“Do you think that temple has anything that will help us?” he asks.
It takes a moment to pull her mind onto the topic after the track it had taken. “Oh, uh, yeah, hope so.”
She manages to fill her head with the mission that brought them here. Or at least she keeps it focused on that enough to distract herself from thoughts of Barry Bluejeans beside her in red boxers with little hearts on them. Red boxers that he got free with a box of candy and now gets yearly from the bond engine.
They talk quietly about the plan for the next day. They’ll look around the temple’s libraries enough to decide if it’s worth a return trip then head out of the city to meet up with Davenport and Magnus on the ship. They’ll trade turns and come back later if the temple has anything worth coming back for. If not, they can pick a new target for their next attempt.
Barry’s words are getting softer and less frequent. Lup’s fingers are still twined with his and neither of them are discussing this fact nor moving to reclaim their hands. He wishes he could stay awake and appreciate the feeling but sleep is definitely getting its hooks into him.
Lup hears his words falter for the final time and then transform into gentle snores. Her arm is still resting on his chest and she should take it back. She tells herself to pull her hand back and turn over, go to sleep, wake up in the morning, pretend none of this happened. But she feels warm and happy in this moment and sees little reason to push the feeling away.
Now that her worry about the source of his red and white heart underwear has been solved she feels silly for the fear. She knows he’s looked at her the same way she’s looked at him. Taako has hinted again and again that she should go for it and he’d never encourage something if he thought it would end badly for her.
But the worry of what could go wrong remains. And the worry of someone like him - good and kind and ever thoughtful of other people’s feelings - and someone like her - headstrong and impatient and not good at the give and take relationships seem to require - is another thing she can’t quite let go of.
Like Barry’s hand, she realizes.
Lup forces her fingers to untangle from his. He tightens his grip for a moment in his sleep but then lets her slip free. Her hand feels wrong now after the rightness of being caught with his. She crosses her arms over her belly and hugs herself. Her warm and happy feeling has disappeared.
She turns over to face away from him and pulls her legs up, curling in to comfort herself. Something is going to have to change soon. She has to give up fighting this feeling or get much better at the battle. She can’t remain neutral much longer, pretending her feelings don’t exist.
Trying to relax and distract herself for sleep, Lup begins running through recipes in her head. She wonders if she could find the ingredients to make turtles in this city. Just because he’s gotten her thinking of them, though. That’s all.
Barry wakes with a start. It takes him a moment to realize what pulled him out of sleep. The room is still dark and his eyes can’t make out much beyond the pale, blurry square of moonlight at the far end of the room where the uncurtained window shows the sky. Not the Starblaster, he realizes, then instantly it comes back to him where he is, just as Lup cries out again.
“Barry! Please!” her voice is low and she sounds almost anguished.
“Lup,” he says, gently touching her arm. “You’re having a nightmare, it’s okay.”
She opens her eyes and he can see the light caught there. In her eyes, light blazes at him so much stronger than the pale glow at the window. “Barry?” she asks, confused.
“You were having a nightmare,” he repeats.
Her eyes go so wide it’s clear even to his terrible human vision. “What did, uh, what did you hear?”
“Nothing really,” he says. “You just, uh, you seemed… upset?” he turns the word up at the end into a question, suddenly unsure what he had heard.
“Oh, uh, okay,” she says hesitantly and swallows. “Thanks,” she says and turns on her side, pulling the blanket around her.
Her breathing is fast and he’s worried. She clearly doesn’t want to talk about it, though. Had she said his name or did he imagine that part? He tries to turn back to face the wall but the blanket is pulled too far towards her side now.
Barry is still for a while, trying to decide between reaching down for his robe in the floor and disturbing her with the movements of the bed. Finally he realizes her breathing has slowed down enough she might be asleep. Slowly, carefully, he shifts himself closer to the edge of the bed, trying to reach down to fumble his hand on the floor, feeling for his IPRE robe. He’s just felt the edge of it when Lup’s arm finds his midsection, her fingers pulling him towards her.
“Lup?” he asks in a voice that’s barely a whisper.
She doesn’t respond, just moves closer, her arm around him as she presses herself tightly to him.
He’s certain she must be unaware. Maybe in her sleep she thinks she’s pulling closer to Taako. He’s not sure what to do but he’s reluctant to disturb her after her dream. Finally, he gives up on the robe and pulls his arm back up to wrap around hers. It’s not a bad position, he decides. He can probably sleep like this.
Lup has forced her breathing to slow and her body to calm itself. He’d thought she was having a nightmare? She doesn’t know what he’d heard but she’s relieved he came to that conclusion, however incorrect it might be. It had definitely not been a nightmare.
When he shifts towards the edge of the bed, Lup became positive he was trying to slip out. He’s probably trying to get away and sleep in the floor like he’d originally intended. Before she can fight the impulse, she’s reaching for him.
He says her name and she bites her lip to keep from answering. Maybe he’ll think she’s asleep. She lets the instinct take over long enough to snuggle up next to him. After a moment he puts his arm with hers and she really relaxes. She’d like to return to her dream but the feeling of his fingers on her arm is good enough.
They both slide slowly back into sleep, pulling closer to each other unconsciously.
When Barry wakes up they are facing, their arms wrapped around each other. Her head is tucked down towards his chest and his face is in her hair. There’s none of his middle of the night confusion. When he wakes up this time he knows exactly where he is and what is going on. But he doesn’t move. In this moment, there isn’t a force in the multiverse that could make him.
He’s been in love with her for so long now. Remembering anything before this feeling filled his chest is like remembering being an infant. He’s sure it happened, sure it was a part of his life, but it’s impossible to imagine. Barry feels tears sting his eyes because this moment can’t last. She’ll wake up and laugh at the awkwardness and they’ll go about their day and this will never happen again.
He drops a kiss in her hair and forces himself to take his arm back, sit up, move away from her. Only the thought of her laughing at their position can make him do it. If she treated it like a joke he might break, literally shatter into pieces. Maybe that’s melodramatic but it feels absolutely true.
Lup forces herself to let him slide free. She’s been awake for long enough to see the room brighten around her. She’s been awake long enough to know she doesn’t want to move, possibly ever.
She’s been awake long enough to feel him wake up. She’s been awake long enough to feel a cold dread, knowing he will get up and this moment she’s been clinging to will end.
She’s been awake long enough to feel the kiss he presses into her hair.
She’s been awake long enough to know she’s lost this war against herself.
She’s been awake long enough to know this is where she belongs.
She’s not going to fight it anymore. She’s not going to try to keep their orbits apart any longer.
Sometime - sometime soon she thinks - they will crash into one another and this will be how she wakes up every morning. It’s inevitable.
And then they won’t let go.