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Our Capacity For Love

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At the end of the world, all that remains are stories. No matter what else is destroyed, the survivors sharing their narratives live on, even if the truth is eventually warped or lost to time. The story as it is told becomes the truth, regardless of what actually transpired, and that makes the duty of chronicling it borderline sacred.

Lucretia knew that her job as the journey's chronicler was vital to the integrity of the mission, to ensure that their story would be told properly, but as she watched the Hunger destroy their homeworld, suddenly it meant more than she ever could have dreamed. It stopped being about returning home with a grand tale of scientific discovery, of magical intrigue, of untold knowledge. It couldn't be about that anymore, with no home left to return to.

It was all gone. Swallowed up in an instant by an unknown force. Everything - consumed, destroyed, lost.

Suddenly the only thing left of the place they were all born was the stories that they could tell each other. There were no other people, no places, not even any memories beyond what the seven of them possessed. Outside of their personal stories, everything else about their home was lost forever. The entire history of their planet, every monument ever built and song ever sung, it was all gone.

Those precious few moments stretched out into an eternity in her mind, time slowing to an absolute stop. The enormity of what was happening was impossible to comprehend at the time. How do you watch existence itself get devoured and get out of bed the next day, knowing you alone escaped? The shock of it rendered them all speechless for hours, staring at one another with wide, frightened eyes. No words could capture their fear and loneliness. No tears would ever be enough.

The weight of that responsibility was crushing in those first few cycles. Lucretia could hardly breathe, hands shaking as she authored the only narrative that would survive these doomed planes. She spent most of her waking hours in a frenzy, writing down everything she possibly could, tagging along on any expedition that was important enough to bear recording. They were all coping with the loss in their own way; hers just happened to be by throwing herself into the work with tireless abandon.

If she stopped writing, she would have to start thinking. And if she started thinking, she'd start feeling, and that led to places she'd rather not dwell. It was easier to stay distracted, yes, but she also felt it was more important to as well. There was no time for feelings, so impossibly small in the face of the apocalypse. So what if she was grumpy about being woken early by a storm? Who cares if she had horrible insomnia now, her meager sleep interrupted by nightmares she couldn't recall? What did her feelings about breakfast matter anymore, as if they ever had?

The mission took precedence. Surviving was the only thing that mattered anymore. She had to believe that. She had to.

One morning late during cycle five, she was writing at the kitchen table with tears in her eyes. Magnus was currently laid up in the ship's infirmary, having recklessly protected them all from an attack the previous day; Merle still couldn't say for sure if he would pull through. And to make matters worse, their retreat meant they failed to recover the Light. They were all growing accustomed to their strange circumstances, but it still hurt to watch a friend suffering in a hospital bed. What stung more, Lucretia thought, was the feeling of growing used to it.

Barry walked into the kitchen, coffee in hand, and placed a hand on her shoulder. "You hanging in there okay?"

Nodding, Lucretia didn't look up from her journals, writing an account of what had happened the previous night when they got Magnus back to the ship. She was making sure to carefully note the spells that Merle used to try to fix him, the current medical status as of this morning, every detail she could think of. Even if it didn't matter in the grand scheme of things, it mattered to her.

"Take a break, Lucretia, you're exhausted," he said, placing the coffee mug in front of her. It was made exactly how she liked it: a little milk, no sugar. "Is it okay if I sit with you?" Barry asked - purely a formality, as he moved the chair to sit anyway.

She paused, putting down her pens and taking a sip of the coffee. It was nice how well they were all getting to know one another's preferences about small things, she thought, grateful for Barry's thoughtfulness. He was always so kind; she wished they could be friends under better circumstances. "Thank you," she murmured into the cup, drinking in the warmth that eased the ache in her overworked hands.

"No prob, we gotta take care of each other. We're all we've got left." He sighed. "I know we're all pretty torn up about Magnus, but look, even if he dies, it'll be okay."

"I know," she conceded, anxious. "But he's still suffering now, you know? How much more are we going to have to go through before this is over? Gods, Barry, it's been five years and we know nothing. None of us asked for this." Lucretia took another sip of coffee, trying to calm the trembling in her hands before continuing. "Some days it's just all too much."

"I know what you mean," he agreed, looking away. "But hey, we can't do anything other than our best, right? We found the Light and did what we could to get to it, and that's that. I'm starting to think this kinda thing is going to be pretty common."

She let out a single hollow laugh. "The failing or the dying?"

A brief pause. "Probably both, honestly."

"Yeah. Probably." They sat in silence while she sipped the coffee, enjoying the companionship of one who understands. After a few minutes, Lucretia put the mug down. "How about you? Are you doing okay?"

Barry shrugged, eyes distant. "As good as I can be. We only have about two months left and it's not looking like we'll be able to get the Light, now. So that stings. On the other hand, this place has been pretty hostile, and frankly it's been a shitty year, so I'm looking forward to somewhere new."

It was evident that he was trying to cheer her up with light humor, but Lucretia couldn't bring herself to laugh. Shitty or not, this entire reality was going to be devoured. She'd written so much down, but it was impossible to chronicle the entirety of a reality inside a single year. Outside of the scraps she would salvage, everything was going to be gone. All of the history, the culture, the art, life itself - all consumed, unrecoverable, destroyed.

"Yeah, me too," she said, not wanting to delve into her own insecurities with Barry. They were all becoming close companions, but she didn't want to burden him with her hang-ups. The way she saw it he was here for science, and thought about it all with a precise logic that she envied. He could look past the tragedy occurring on the individual level of every inhabitant of these doomed worlds and see the greater objective. Lucretia wished she could do that, but she was too focused on the stories to see the macrocosm.

He put a hand on hers and tried to flash a reassuring smile. "I'm gonna go check on Magnus, and then Lup and I are gonna head out to see what we can do about getting past the locals to get the Light. Just because we'll probably fail doesn't mean we shouldn't try, right?"

The tenderness in his tone set Lucretia's heart at ease, pleasantly surprised that he apparently wasn't as hyper-logical as she'd thought. She knew he had a good heart; it was nice to see it hadn't been dampened by the cruelty of their reality. "Want me to come with?" she offered. It felt like the least she could do.

Barry shook his head. "The fewer of us at risk the better. We're gonna try to be back by sundown. She's already letting Davenport and Taako know our plans in case something happens and you guys need to come looking for us." He stood from the table and tried not to look nervous. "See you around," he said, and Lucretia hoped it wouldn't be the last words she heard him speak this year.

Unfortunately, it was, and the last two months of the cycle were a quiet and lonely affair with only four of them remaining. They did not try again to recover the Light. Lucretia spent the rest of the year writing even more than before. The first thing she did when they reset was tearfully hug her resurrected crewmates, the anxiety that had settled deep in her chest finally easing slightly, but never enough.

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Cycle thirteen was one of the better years of their journey. The plane was prosperous, populated, and for the most part friendly to them. The technology was advanced enough that nobody was afraid of the strangers arriving on a mysterious silver sky boat, which was a nice plus. There was a variety of magic used by the common people, most of whom seemed capable of at least basic casting, and to make matters better, they were told they'd arrived during a time of peace. And that was just what they learned on day one!

Lucretia was eager to experience this world in the wake of the previous cycle where she'd gotten an incurable illness and died early on. She was told that they all took turns trying to chronicle events in her absence, and when shown her journals containing their efforts, she'd cried. They knew how important it was not just to her but in general, and had all taken it upon themselves to share that burden.

That first night she stayed awake reading everything they'd written, delighting in how unique their accounts were. Everyone had taken to writing their name above their entries so she knew who was responsible, but after more than a decade she could easily tell them apart by handwriting alone.

Davenport's entries were precise navigational logs detailing their routes, the weather, the landscape; no surprise there. Barry mostly wrote about his experiments with the Light once they'd acquired it, and other miscellaneous experiments conducted throughout the year; also to be expected.

Merle was the only one of them who tried to leave detailed sketches along with his entries like the ones Lucretia herself did, which she found incredibly sweet. He wrote about the flora and fauna they encountered, drawing crude renderings of the various species with ample notes in the margins from their friends poking fun at the quality. She couldn't help but smile at one in particular of a carnivorous plant that appeared to have a wide toothy grin, some kind of sap oozing from its mouth. It would have looked threatening if someone (probably Lup) hadn't drawn a silly exaggerated angry face on it.

Magnus' entries were all short; she suspected he didn't enjoy the task, but did it out of respect for her. He wrote about training in various local fighting styles with townsfolk, interesting places he visited that he thought she would like, animals he'd gotten to pet. Simple and entertaining, focusing on the good times he had.

As for the twins, Lucretia was grinning the entire time. They'd clearly been reading each other's entries all year, leaving joking insults in the margins and various tiny doodles that had nothing to do with what they'd written. Their interactions with what they'd written made it feel so alive. They documented local culture in a similar way to how she would have if she'd survived; it was comforting to have evidence that her friends cared about their journey in the same way that she did.

A knock on her door stirred her from her sleep; she must have dozed off while reading, she reasoned as she heard her journal thump to the floor. She sat up with a start in time to see Lup poking her head through, smiling. "Hey, sleepy-head! You're not allowed to miss your first breakfast back, I absolutely forbid it!" She stepped into Lucretia's room and clapped her hands. "We made all your favorites, c'mon!"

Yawning and stretching, Lucretia tried to nod to indicate that she was coming, but she wasn't quick enough. Lup strode over and grabbed her wrist, tugging at her. "I'm coming, I'm coming," she said with a chuckle, letting Lup pull her to her feet and out the door.

In the hallway, Lup paused, looking up at Lucretia with loving eyes. "For real, though, it's good to have you back. We were so busy yesterday that I didn't get to say it, but I missed you a lot. We all did."

"Even Taako?" she joked, heart swelling with gratitude for her crewmates.

Lup grinned. "He'll never admit it, but yeah. This big breakfast of all the things you like was actually his idea."

Lucretia was touched. She knew that it was how Taako showed affection, but hearing confirmation of that from his sister made her emotional. As she entered the kitchen to the rest of the family giving a loud cheer of greeting, Lucretia wondered if it was okay to include moments like that into her journals. It didn't have anything to do with their mission, and it wasn't something that anybody else might consider important, but to her that was what made it so special.

Would it be selfish to preserve this moment of happiness? Was it selfish to be happy at all? How selfish was she allowed to be?

Perhaps a private journal that was just for her, not the mission, would be wise. Her heart was overflowing with so much emotion that she knew it needed to go somewhere, and the only two ways she had of expressing herself were with writing or painting.

"And when we're done here, you and I are going to hit the city for a day of fun," Lup said, leading her to her seat at the table. "We're gonna spend today just exploring and having a good goddamn time because you missed out on too much last year!"

Lucretia was going to protest, but was distracted by Taako setting down a plate in front of her while Merle passed her a glass of juice. She was powerless to do anything other than enjoy the food while they regaled her with tales about the previous cycle that didn't make it into the journals. By the time she was done eating, she realized that this was the happiest she'd felt in ages, surrounded by more love than she'd ever dreamt of knowing. Her fears that it was selfish had completely melted to the back of her mind.

She showered and dressed, a lightness in her steps that she'd long thought lost. Spending a day sightseeing in the city with Lup sounded too wonderful to be permitted, but she knew that she needed it. As she stepped out of her room into the hall, she saw Lup leaning on the wall chatting with Taako. "Ready, sorry if I took too long," she said to announce her presence.

It struck her not for the first time how beautiful Lup was.

Lup's ears perked up as she spun around to face her. Her hair sat in a bun high on her head, bouncing as she moved. Her summery outfit of shorts and a tank top made Lucretia feel over-dressed in her knee-length dress. "Excellent! Later, babe," she said, giving Taako a kiss on the cheek and sticking her tongue out at him when he pretended to be grossed out.

As they crossed the field that the ship was parked in, Lucretia couldn't help her curiosity. "Uhh, Lup, not to be a bummer, but we have absolutely no money in this plane yet and unless you wanna be back by lunch, that could be a problem. Unless…?"

"Oh, yeah, last night while we were scouting the area Taako made sure to ask someone what money looked like here so he could transmute the leftover coins from last cycle into the currency here. Easy. It's all made of similar stuff, y'know?" She looked so proud to have provided that answer.

At that, Lucretia smiled while shaking her head. "That can't be what we do all year, we'll ruin their economy!"

"Eh, a minor problem compared to the rest of it, wouldn't you say?"

That sentence cut though like a knife in her chest. "Yeah," she conceded, sad. Of course Lup was right, but for a moment she'd been caught up in how ridiculously simple of a solution it was.

"No, no, no, don't you go getting dark on me like that, not today! We're celebrating your triumphant return with a trip to the local arts district so we can enjoy museums and galleries and shit, so you better be ready for vacationing like a tourist!" Lup put an arm around her shoulder, a familiar gesture that never failed to make Lucretia seize up, face growing warm.

Lucretia adjusted her backpack straps and tried to relax, letting herself be held against Lup's side while she rambled about all the things she wanted them to do. She'd spent the previous day with Taako talking to locals to get a feel for the city while the rest of them sought out audience with the local governor to learn what they could about the political climate.

"Only weird thing about this plane so far is, like, okay, I know it sounds weird, but elves are extinct I guess? People kept stopping us all shocked and asking us where we came from, so that'll probs happen today, too."

"Wow, and what did you tell them?"

With a dramatic sigh, Lup brought a hand to her forehead to exaggerate the gesture. "We told them elves are extinct where we're from too, and we're the only ones left, and isn't that so very tragic?" A giggle broke the façade. "Yeah, Taako really played it up hoping folks would give us cash. We're used to the pitiful orphan game from when we lived on the streets, but it didn't really work this time."

Even after over a decade there were still things she didn't know about her new family. "You two used to live on the streets?" Lucretia asked, uncertain if the topic was taboo.

"Oh, you didn't know?" Lup looked apologetic. "I don't wanna bring down the mood or anything but yeah. We never knew our parents, and our family got sick of us pretty quick. I think we were, like, twelve? Just packed up and left, took to the roads, never looked back." She rubbed awkwardly at her elbow; Lucretia wanted to reach out to reassure her, but resisted the urge. "It's cool, though, we turned out okay."

Thinking back on the large family she'd left behind, Lucretia wasn't sure how to respond. She was the oldest of five children, her parents still happily married and perpetually encouraging her to follow her dreams, be her best self, et cetera. The thought of going through life without ever knowing that was painful; then again, she reasoned, she had to go through life having lost it, and she wondered which was worse.

"Enough of that, though," Lup said, breaking her train of thought. She pointed to the street they were fast approaching. "We're almost to the shopping district! Wanna hit that first or are you in the mood for art this morning?"

Lucretia appreciated being given the option, but was ultimately comfortable letting Lup lead the way. "Either is fine. It'll be nice to just spend time with you," she said, immediately realizing how flirtatious her statement sounded when Lup raised an eyebrow suggestively. Shit. "I-I mean, y'know, it's been a long time since we hung out, and--"

"It's cool, I get you," Lup interrupted jovially, waving off her concerns with ease.

Though she was slightly embarrassed that she may have implied something inappropriate to her best friend, Lucretia was comforted that Lup hadn't been offended. The rest of the day she thought about that moment, how easily the words slipped from her lips, how the sincerity of it gripped her heart when she tried to recant. Because she meant it: it really was nice to spend time with Lup, and she wanted her to know that. More than that, she wanted them to spend more time together, just the two of them.

"Shit, I think I have a crush on her," Lucretia thought, embarrassed. She nervously hoped it would pass. It wasn't the first time the idea floated across her mind, but she wasn't ready to deal with it yet. There was too much else going on to have time for something so trivial as a schoolgirl crush. The mission took precedence over everything, no matter what. Even her own life was secondary, let alone love.

The museums were wonderful. Lucretia spent a lot of time making notes about what she learned, sketching out her favorite pieces, only for them to spend most of the money they'd brought on books at the gift shop. "This ought to save you some time this year," Lup had joked. Lucretia had agreed, delighted at the prospect of being able to preserve that much more of this world. It was small, perhaps, but it meant everything that Lup was thinking of her.

They hopped around between various food trucks that afternoon, sampling the street food the city had to offer. Lucretia and Lup smiled and laughed, sharing their various treats as they swapped stories of their Academy days. It felt normal in a way that Lucretia had all but forgotten. She was reminded of having lunch on the quad with her classmates in between lectures, talking about everything and nothing, just killing time and trying to decompress from the stresses of student life.

Only instead of talking wistfully about their plans for holiday break, she and Lup could only reminisce about a time when vacations were possible. These too-brief hours were the closest they could get to those times, now. Even still, she felt selfish knowing that she wouldn't trade these precious moments away for anything.

As the sun was starting to set, Lup suggested they seek out a nightclub. "A couple of beautiful ladies like us are sure to get some attention. Maybe even free drinks." She winked when Lucretia shyly looked away. "Come on, Luca, let's see what nightlife is like here! We deserve to party a little!"

"Luca?" Lucretia asked, heart skipping a beat. The nickname sounded so cute coming from Lup. Unexpected and unfamiliar, but somehow so right. It made her feel special.

"Sorry, do you not like it?"

"N-no, actually, I love it. I never had any nicknames back home, so it's nice," she admitted. "It'll just take some getting used to."

Lup smirked. "I can keep it between just us until you're used to it, then, if you want." When Lucretia nodded, Lup grabbed her by the wrist and took off down the street, dragging her behind. "Great, then let's go, Luca! We should hurry if we wanna drop our stuff off at the ship first!"

Laughing and smiling all the way, Lucretia let herself be led back down the streets, across the large field, and into the ship. They were sweaty and panting by the time they got back, and Lucretia was grabbing at a stitch in her side. "That was quite a workout," she huffed, wiping at her forehead as she swallowed down another breath.

"Oof, yeah, I'm gonna hop in the shower real quick before we head back out, okay?" Lup was already halfway to the hallway, unpinning the bun on her head and letting her hair cascade down her back. Lucretia was stunned into silence; she was gorgeous.

"Wow," she said, so softly she didn't think it had been aloud until she heard another voice from a few feet away.

"Right?" It was Barry, who she hadn't noticed was sitting in the common area, book in hand. He wasn't looking at the book, though; he was staring after Lup, just like Lucretia was. She jumped at the realization, which made him chuckle. "Sorry, did I startle you?"

"A bit. Please don't tell her I said that." She moved to sit next to him, letting her now-full backpack hit the table with a loud thump.

Barry's eyes glinted mischievously. "No worries, I won't. I'm sure she'll get enough of that from the locals this cycle. She's downright exotic to them."

"Ha! Yeah, all day we had to hear whispers, mostly from humans, about how so-and-so's grandma was the last person in their family to see an elf alive and 'oh look how beautiful she is' and all that crap." Lucretia couldn't keep the smile from her face. "She ate it all up, of course."

"It sounds like you two had fun," Barry commented, closing the book and setting it on the table. "I heard her say you're going back out. Where to?"

Now Lucretia paused. He wouldn't want to come with them to a nightclub, surely. Lucretia barely wanted to go, only agreed because it was Lup and how could she say no? Still, she figured it was only polite to extend the invitation. "She wants to find a nightclub and go dancing, if you're interested."

"Oh boy, no way, thanks though." Barry put a hand on her shoulder, a gesture she was coming to expect as his way of showing support. "Good luck out there. I went clubbing once when I was your age with some buddies at the Academy, and I would not wish that on anyone."

"Now that sounds like a story worth telling," she teased, making a mental note to ask him another time when she saw how red his face got as he stammered through excuses for not sharing tonight. He didn't want to ruin her expectations, didn't want to scare her, didn't want to embarrass himself, et cetera.

Much to her surprise, she caught herself thinking it was both charming and adorable. Did she have a crush on him too? She supposed it was only natural to become more attracted to her crewmates after so long. Of course she would find new things to love about them all as they grew closer. She already thought of them as family.

That didn't stop her from feeling like she was making excuses for something deeper.

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Giggling and very drunk, Lucretia and Lup stumbled back through the doors of the Starblaster in the dead of night, shushing one another all the way. As Lup had predicted, they'd been bought quite a few drinks by various nightclub patrons hoping for a dance with them. Lucretia couldn't remember the last time she'd had as much fun as she did spinning around the dance floor with Lup, the rest of the world falling away as they delighted in the music and each other.

Nothing and nobody else mattered as they danced, hands clasped tight. The room could have been empty, for all Lucretia noticed or cared. The dull thud in her chest could have been from the booming bass of the music or her own heart, racing in both joy and exertion in equal measure.

Eventually, however, they took their leave when Lucretia expressed concern at her growing nausea. Too much liquor and spinning around, she reasoned. Too many people and too much noise. No wonder she didn't typically go out like that.

"I'm passin' out here," Lup slurred, letting herself flop unceremoniously onto the couch in the common area upon their return. She kicked her shoes off, cringing when she heard them hit something across the room. "Nighty night," she yawned, curling up on her side and letting her hair fall over onto her face.

Lucretia was hardly more sober, but managed to make her way to her room without causing a ruckus. When she woke up to the morning light streaming through her window, incredibly hungover, she waited for regret to set in. Instead, as she blinked away the clinging sleep and pressed her hands to her temples to ease the throbbing headache, she was still content. It had been fun, and didn't they deserve at least a little of that?

Despite that, Lucretia suspected Lup could tell it wasn't exactly her ideal way to pass an evening, as they didn't go again. Even still, it was a special memory that Lucretia kept just for herself. She wrote about the rest of their day's outing in her journal, feeling it important to write about the artistic culture she'd experienced, but nobody else needed to know about the nightclub.

That way she could pretend that her heart hadn't skipped a beat when Lup beamed at her over a cocktail. She could deny that her breath caught in her chest at how beautiful Lup was, twirling around the dance floor with ease like she belonged there. It would be her little secret, and didn't she deserve some of those, too?

Chapter Text

Later during that same cycle, Barry came to Lucretia's room one night, knocking gently. When he came in and moved to sit on the floor beside her bed, Lucretia didn't ask what was wrong. All of them had bad nights where they sought one another out for assurance, and Barry had it written all over his face that this was what he needed.

"Anything I can help you with?" Lucretia asked, setting her journals aside and turning her attention to Barry.

"I just need to stay distracted for now. I spent all day in the lab and I don't think my brain could form another coherent thought if I tried." He removed his glasses and rubbed at his eyes. "I think we've got a lead on the Light, though. At least there's that."

After thinking it over a moment, Lucretia opened the drawer on her desk and fished out a deck of cards. "Would this be an adequate distraction for you?"

He put his glasses back on. "Sure, but I'm warning you, I'm bad at card games on a good day."

A few hands passed in relative silence. Lucretia enjoyed spending time with Barry like this. The quiet companionship was so different than what everyone else seemed to default to, which often left her feeling awkward and unwelcome. She knew that those thoughts were irrational, but that didn't stop her from feeling that way. But with Barry, the two of them could sit together and barely exchange any words and it still felt comfortable.

She'd come to think of him as her best friend as much as Lup.

"You look a little lost in thought, there, Luca," Barry said, pulling her out of her head and back to the card game at the sound of her nickname.

She would never admit it, but Lucretia could feel herself blushing. "I thought Lup wasn't going to tell anyone else that name," she muttered.

Barry laughed. "Oh, shit, she calls you that too? I was just trying out a nickname for you. I'm sorry, is that weird?"

A coincidence. Lucretia laughed, too. "It's okay, I guess we're all accumulating some pretty silly nicknames, Barold."

"I didn't think Luca was a silly one," he said, flustered. "Do you not like it?"

"It's growing on me," admitted Lucretia, drawing another card to continue the game. And besides, he had a point. After over a decade together they'd all grown close enough to gleefully butcher each other's names in casual conversation. Sometimes a particularly good one even stuck!

The rest of the evening they talked about their friends, keeping the topics light. She tried not to feel guilty about the loss of productivity. So much of their time was spent working ceaselessly that it was hard remembering how to be herself. She knew this was especially true for Barry, who was almost too devoted to the Light at times. Some years when they found it they could hardly pull him away from his studies, and this year was proving to be no exception.

She could see the weariness in his eyes from what was likely a days-long binge without rest, the anxious twitch of his hands that betrayed his want to return to work. If keeping him distracted from all that reminded him to take enough time for himself, Lucretia would gladly give up a few hours of productivity.

When they finally wrapped up for the night, a thought occurred to Lucretia. "Y'know, we should see if anyone else wants to do something like this next time. Maybe even regularly, like a family game night," she suggested, thinking back to the family she left behind. "I had a lot of siblings and I remember us having a night every week to just stay in and play different games."

Barry set his cards on the table and stretched his arms over his head. "That could be fun," he agreed with a yawn. "I was an only child, so I didn't really have anything like that. It was always just me and my mother."

Lucretia paused. Would it be inappropriate to ask about his family? For the most part none of them spoke about the people they left behind. It wasn't that they had all agreed to avoid the topic, but there was an unspoken understanding that it was sensitive. She settled on saying, "That sounds lonely."

He shrugged. "It was all I knew. I guess it doesn't matter now; you're all my new family, and honestly? I'm kinda glad I didn't have more to lose."

Though he was dancing around saying what he meant, Lucretia understood. A particular weight returned to her chest whenever she thought about her family's last moments before the Hunger consumed them. How they must have been terrified, powerless, clinging to one another while she fled in their ship. Did they think about her? Were they able to hold one another, or were they all going about their days away from home, caught unaware by the sudden apocalypse?

"Yeah," she said, rubbing at her arm in the hopes that the pressure and friction would ground her. It didn't.

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have brought it up," Barry said guiltily. "Are you gonna be okay?"

She nodded. "I'm fine. You know how it is. Are you feeling any better, at least?"

"Other than feeling like a dick for upsetting you just now, yeah." When they both stood, Barry ran his fingers through his hair. "But really, thanks for the company. I get pretty lost in my head sometimes, so I… Y'know, I appreciate it."

"Anytime, Barold," she said, deliberately punctuating his nickname to get him to crack a smile. After he left, Lucretia sat on her bed and cried. She knew if she'd asked him to stay and comfort her he would have, but she couldn't in good conscience put that on him. Even though it was a weight too heavy for her to bear alone, she couldn't bring herself to share its burden when they all had similar baggage.

It wasn't fair. None of it was fair. She didn't ask for this. None of them did. She just wanted to be a writer!

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It took Lucretia until their year on the beach to admit to herself that she was developing serious romantic feelings for not just one but two of her crewmates. Unfortunately, by then she thought it was pretty obvious that said crewmates were developing feelings for each other, which meant she was the odd one out.

As she watched Barry and Lup sit side by side next to the bonfire, laughing and smiling with one another, Lucretia's heart beat harder. They looked so good together, she thought, so happy and free. It was nice to watch them falling in love, even if it felt lonely to know she would never be included in their relationship the way she desired.

Who falls in love with two people at the same time, anyway? Surely they would think her greedy, selfish, desperate. And if confronted with that, she wouldn't be able to deny it. Instead, she resolved to keep her feelings to herself until they subsided because they had to at some point, right? Once she convinced herself that it was impossible, logic would win out and she would move on. To do otherwise would be ludicrous. It didn't matter that she'd been nursing this fruitless crush for almost a decade, telling herself that any day now she'd realize it was ridiculous and let go.

And so she started painting a large portrait as a gift for the entire crew, a project she could lose herself in that would let her feelings dissipate amongst her family instead of being so narrowly focused on Barry and Lup. It was a labor of love that brought her immense joy to work on, and she'd be lying if she tried to say it wasn't fun to have a secret art project.

The cycle was going so well. They were all finally relaxing, spending time taking care of one another in earnest, focusing on their health. It had been decades since they were able to do that. Lucretia almost convinced herself she was ready to give up being in love with Barry and Lup until one day when Lup, whose timing was always blessed, struck up a conversation that brought it all back.

The two women were laying on blankets in the sand, watching the waves. Out in the water, Taako and Barry were taking a break from their swimming lesson to have a water fight; Magnus was quickly swimming over to join in, shouting joyously.

"He's such a cute nerd, isn't he?" Lup said dreamily.

"Yeah, he is," Lucretia agreed before realizing that Lup had caught her in a trap: she hadn't said who she was talking about. She froze. Damn it.

Lup turned to her with a wicked grin. "Sounds like someone has a type," she teased.

"You said it first!" Lucretia felt her face warming. There were a lot of things she wanted to say but couldn't bring herself to. Like how Lup's crush on Barry had to be obvious to everyone by now. Or how Lup was so beautiful she could have anyone she wanted regardless of "type."

Lup giggled. "Yeah, I did." She turned back to watch the water fight, not seeking to continue the conversation, for which Lucretia was grateful.

Another few weeks passed, during which Lucretia spent as many hours as possible working on her painting. It was coming along wonderfully, though the humidity of the beach environment meant that the oil-based paints took much longer to dry than she was used to. A lot of her time was spent watching the paint seize up agonizingly slowly while she planned which part to work on next.

One evening while working on painting Lup's face, there was a knock on her door. Before she could conceal the painting, Barry poked his head in to say something and was stopped by the frantic way that Lucretia tried to shield the canvas from view. "Uh, is everything okay?"

She nodded. "Sorry, I don't want anyone to see it until it's done. Did you need something?"

"Oh, uh, Taako wanted me to let you know dinner's ready. Hey, is that Lup?" He stepped into the room and pointed at a part of the canvas that was visible around her thin arms.

"Barry J. Bluejeans, I am not revealing this painting until I'm good and ready to and that's final." She shifted to cover the part that he'd seen. "If you can tell Taako I'll be there in a few minutes, and your girlfriend about none of this, I'd appreciate it."

Shit. She was slipping up a lot this cycle. She grew too comfortable with her own feelings and her assumptions about theirs. The look of surprise and embarrassment on his face said it all: she'd gone too far.

"W-what? Girlfriend? N-no, you've got the wrong idea, Luca," he stammered, forcing an uncomfortable chuckle to distract from the rising red in his cheeks. He was so obvious that Lucretia honestly wondered how the two of them were still single. Of course she knew they weren't dating yet, but she also knew that they both wanted to be. Either way, he backed out of the room while making excuses, giving her time to clean up before dinner.

Great, just great! She'd driven another nail in the coffin of their friendship by letting her guard down too much. She needed to be more vigilant, control herself more stringently, and force herself to move on. If she wanted to confess to either of them a decade ago maybe she would've stood a chance, she reasoned, but not now. Not with how infatuated the two of them clearly were with each other.

Each other, and not her. That was the crux.

Thoroughly frustrated with herself, Lucretia made her way to dinner. She kept to herself, not joining in the conversation and feeling relieved that she was given space. Perhaps in her previous life she would've felt left out, like she was being ignored, but instead she felt only gratitude. The seven of them were getting really good at boundaries, and the often necessary "let me eat my food in peace" one had been established early on.

Thinking back to the family she left behind, Lucretia wanted to laugh. They never would've let her get away with this. She'd be up to her eyeballs in concerned questions about if something happened, was she sleeping enough, did she think she was getting sick. Now, she was surrounded by no less love, but felt more independent. Less like a child.

"But I was a child," she had to remind herself, frowning at the thought. She would look nineteen until their journey was done, something that more vain women might envy, but instead she found it exhausting. Her crewmates didn't view her that way, of course, knowing better after over two decades of companionship, but most of the people they met in new planes did.

Suddenly feeling nauseous, Lucretia excused herself to wander the shore, no less frustrated than she'd been before dinner. It was going to be a long night.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

"Gather 'round, everyone," Davenport announced, calling them all to the bonfire. "Lucretia has something to show us!"

Nervous and excited, Lucretia couldn't keep from smiling. It had taken most of the cycle, but she finished the portrait of the seven of them. She had painted throughout many of the cycles, usually small watercolors or acrylics of landscapes. Often those paintings were gifts for her friends, their cabins all containing at least one of her works. This would be the first time she made something so large; fitting, since it was for all of them.

She stood next to where the painting was leaning, covered by a sheet, fidgeting and unsure where to direct her eyes. She thanked Davenport and cleared her throat. "I'm so glad we had this year here, so I-- I wanted to make something to remember it by. Something more than just writing it all down. We deserve to remember this feeling." She looked away, out to the ocean, the swelling sounds of the tide calming her. "It's not much, but I hope it helps us think back to this time when we were, well, happy."

As the sheet fell away, she heard the delighted gasps of her friends, who all immediately stood and approached.

"Holy shit, that's dope!"

"It's beautiful!"

"How long did this take you?"

They were all eagerly praising the painting, smiling brighter than any expression she could have hoped to convey. Seeing them so pleased put her soul at ease. She'd known that they would love it, but some small part of her had still been worried that it wasn't enough to show how much she cared. She knew she was more introverted than the rest of them, reluctant to come out of her shell and fully share herself with the world.

Her work as chronicler was too important to jeopardize like that, she had always told herself. Too much was at risk. But while basking in the radiant joy of her friends' praises, she felt that sometimes the risk was well worth the reward.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

As they fled to the ship at the end of cycle thirty-four, Lucretia tripped, twisting her ankle beneath a knobby root. She cried out as she went down, feeling the side of her head scrape on a sharp rock. Columns of Hunger were dripping from the sky all around them; it was too late.

"Luca!" Lup screamed, running back to her as Lucretia shouted for Lup to abandon her.

She looked to the ship, rising from the ground, and saw the rest of their family (save for Davenport) looking over the edge of the deck with a difficult expression she had come to recognize. Regret at leaving any of their own behind. Understanding that it was the only option. Resignation. Relief at their escape. Anticipation, knowing they would be back.

"Why?" Lucretia cried as Lup knelt beside her, helping her to her feet. "Now we'll just both die! Lup, why didn't you stay?" Lucretia pulled out her wand and started blasting nearby columns of Hunger with every ounce of strength left in her. She could hardly see through her tears.

"I didn't want you to be alone," Lup said, also blasting off spells with the last of her energy. "We're in this together." They both looked to the sky in time to see the Starblaster disappear and breathed sighs of relief. Lup turned to her and tried to smile. "Come here," she said, pulling Lucretia into an embrace as shadow beings rose from the ground around them. "I've got you."

Lucretia let out a sob as she clung to Lup, the two of them shaking with exertion, muscles tense as they waited to be pulled apart into light.

It didn't hurt, when it happened. But as she felt herself go from holding Lup to her chest, breathing, alive, to the now-familiar sensation of shifting to their recorded state, Lucretia felt oddly empty. They had felt one another's last breath, heard their final cry, and then were ripped apart from one another as they opened their eyes back on the ship. It was a moment so intimate that Lucretia wondered if Lup had felt it too.

When they were pulled apart into light like at the end of every cycle, their close proximity made it feel like for just a moment, their essences were combined. As they went from embracing on the ground of cycle thirty-four, steeling themselves for death, to shifting to their recorded state, they ceased to be two individuals. There was a space of mere seconds where their light was one shared being, more beautiful than Lucretia could have prepared herself for.

As she opened her eyes on the deck of the ship, she immediately looked over to Lup only to find her already staring back. They exchanged a shy smile; Lucretia suspected she had indeed felt it as well.

The rest of that year she thought about that moment as she watched Barry and Lup continue to dance around one another. They were her best friends, and she loved them so dearly, but Lucretia also sorely wished they would just admit they were in love so she could move on already. Against all reason she still had feelings for the both of them, watching from afar as they fell more in love with each other.

When she thought about how complete she felt in that shared moment with Lup, she knew that her feelings wouldn't simply go away. The too-brief unity of their souls was an intimacy that surpassed anything Lucretia had words for. In some ways it had been like particularly emotional sex, in that she felt immersed in love and longing, a desire for the moment to last. Joyful. Whole. But it had also been so much more than that in ways she struggled to articulate.

What words could do justice to the perfect union of two souls at the moment of their unmaking, in the breath before their reformation? It felt like a piece of her was still stuck inside of Lup, separated from herself when their Light combined. The only thing that eased the pain of that distance was to be by Lup's side.

Lucretia would've denied that she knew Lup felt it too if that hadn't been the first cycle they slept together beyond just sharing a bed. They all shared a bed every now and again, relying on each other for comfort through the toughest times. And it was wonderful, having that level of trust and love. But it was obvious, now, that it was different with Lup.

"Is it okay if I crash here?" Lup asked, eyes dark with the familiar weight they'd all come to recognize. Nightmares, again.

"Of course," Lucretia said, getting up from where she was seated at her desk. "You okay?"

"No," Lup answered, avoiding meeting her gaze as she closed the door. Before she could stop herself, she embraced Lucretia with a sob. "I'm so tired," she cried, letting herself be guided to the bed. "We never wanted this! Taako and I didn't join the Institute to spend the rest of our lives on the run!" Lup buried her face into Lucretia's chest, letting it all out.

Her heart ached for how brokenly Lup sobbed against her. Lucretia pet her hair, knowing it was one of the few things that calmed Lup down. "I've got you," she whispered, when Lup had finally quieted. "I'm not letting you go, Lup. We're gonna get through this. Somehow. Someday. I promise."

"Pretty big words," Lup sniffled, nuzzling her face against the side of Lucretia's neck and making her blush furiously. Lup took a deep breath and sat up, pulling away to wipe her face dry. "But I want to believe you. I have to. The alternative is accepting that this is our eternity. And I can't do that." She smiled, shakily. "Thanks."

"For what?"

"For always reminding me why we're doing this." Lup took Lucretia's hands in her own. "Whenever I feel like I'm losing my way, I look to you." She kissed the back of Lucretia's hand, eyes once more avoidant.

"Lup, I--"

Before she could finish the sentence, Lup was kissing her, and she was kissing Lup back. Nothing could have prepared her for how perfect it felt in all its imperfection. Lup's face was still damp with tears, her lips swollen from where she'd been biting them. She kept sniffling.

"Unless the next words out of your mouth are gonna be 'Please stop kissing me,' I've got a lot of kissing you to do."

Without even responding, Lucretia pulled Lup in for another kiss, spellbound. Her thoughts about how ill-advised this may have been fled, swallowed up by the blissful press of Lup's lips against her own. Her world was reduced to the delightful way Lup was tugging on her hair, her scent surrounding Lucretia more fully than ever before. She couldn't think beyond how badly she wanted Lup, all of her, her hands, her lips, her love.

Before she knew it, they were laid on the bed, Lup straddling her hips and sliding her hands up Lucretia's shirt with a huff as she panted. Lucretia moaned appreciatively as Lup's fingers passed over her nipples, hips canting upward in search of friction.

"Lup, please," she begged softly, tilting her head back to give Lup room to kiss her neck and whining when she felt her teeth. "Yes, Lup, yes, harder," she panted.

"Does little Luca like it rough?" Lup trailed wet kisses all across Lucretia's throat, up her jaw, over her cheek, until she was breathing against her lips. "You say the word and this stops, okay, babe? I don't want to assume anything."

Lucretia had trouble forming coherent thoughts that weren’t desperate pleas for more. "I want this so bad," she managed to say, cupping Lup's face in her hands. "There's nothing you could do right now that I wouldn't want."

"Is that so?" Lup teased, keeping one hand on Lucretia's breast and moving the other to slip past the waistband of her shorts. "Even this?"

Letting out an impatient whine, Lucretia nodded emphatically. "Gods, yes, especially that," she admitted, eyes hungrily searching Lup's face for any hints that this might be some cruel prank. Instead she saw only the warm glow of love and lust that she knew must be on her own face, and her heart swelled with joy and arousal. After all these years, here she was in bed with Lup, the most beautiful woman she'd ever seen! Her! Lucretia!

Lup silenced her with a kiss as she slid her finger between her labia, a jolt of pure want surging through Lucretia as she wriggled her hips. "She sleeps commando! I knew it!" Lup commented, grinning. She could feel Lup's finger teasing her and became acutely aware of how wet she already was, how obvious her desire must be. Moaning into Lup's mouth, Lucretia let her hands fall to Lup's shoulders and pulled her more fully against herself.

"Hey, Luca?" Lup started, nipping at Lucretia's neck before continuing. "I wanna eat you out so bad, baby, can I please? I wanna taste you and make you come. Would you like that?"

"Please," Lucretia begged, unable to hold back. She was afraid that if they paused for even a moment this would somehow stop being real. It was too good to be true, to not be a dream, surely something would happen to ruin it or at least dispel the illusion. "I've thought about this so much, Lup," she said, stroking Lup's cheeks with her thumbs.

To her surprise, Lup blushed at that. "Really? Well, it'd be rude of me to keep such a lovely girl waiting, then, wouldn't it?"

Before Lucretia had time to marvel at being called lovely by Lup, her thoughts were scattered by the way Lup kissed across her stomach, tugging her shorts down. The next few minutes were a blur of pleasure and desire, every inch of her on fire with wanting. She was dimly aware that her fingers were tangled in Lup's hair, holding her close as she licked and sucked at Lucretia's clit.

Lup moaned against her, and that was it for Lucretia. At the moment of her orgasm, she was reminded of that brief moment of unity they shared between cycles less than a year ago. How she would do anything to recreate that feeling of being so complete. How this was so close that she wanted to do it again, and again, and again.

When Lup slid up her body to kiss her, Lucretia let out a breathy whine at tasting herself on Lup's lips. "Fuck, baby, you have no idea how hot that was," Lup whispered against her. "I'm so fucking hard," she said, taking Lucretia's hand and bringing it downward to rest on her length.

"Want me to return the favor?" Lucretia asked, not wanting to overstep her bounds, even though she knew that at this point the notion was somewhat ridiculous. She'd been shamelessly moaning Lup's name not even a minute ago! While Lup's head was between her thighs, no less! But she would also have been lying if she'd said she wasn't nervous. She'd never given head before, and the idea of her very first time being on the woman she'd been in love with for so long? Terrifying.

 

It seemed that Lup was hesitant, too; she stiffened and pulled back. "You don't have to," she immediately replied. "I mean, I deffo want you to, totally, yes please, but like, you don't have to, okay? I don't want you to feel like you owe me or whatever."

"Maybe I want to, too," Lucretia offered, letting her hand rest on Lup's cheek. "Lup, I… Should we talk?" It took all her focus to say that instead of shove Lup back down on the bed and kiss her silly. "Because I feel like we should."

Nodding, Lup moved off of her and sat up, avoiding her gaze. "I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to pressure you into this, I swear," Lup insisted.

"No, I know, it's okay," Lucretia said, resting a hand on her knee. "You asked if I wanted it and I said yes. And I did! Believe me, I did, and I do, and I will. Gods, Lup, I want you so bad!" She chuckled, also avoiding Lup's gaze. "But what do you want? Is it just sex? Because I can give you just sex."

"I mean, if you want to, this gal won't say no," Lup said, tentatively glancing at Lucretia with a shy smile.

And more than sex? What if I want more than sex? Lucretia thought, wondering if she should dare ask. "But is that what you want?" she said instead.

Lup appeared to be deep in thought, face flushed. "I don't know what I want," she finally admitted. "I don't want to put you in an awkward position while I try to figure that out, either."

"That's okay! I promise, it's okay if you don't know. Feelings are hard. And in the meantime, we can go as slow as you want. Does that sound good?"

When Lup nodded and threw her arms around Lucretia, she knew that no matter how Lup wound up feeling later, she was going to be in love with her forever. They nestled down into the blankets, exchanging a few tender kisses before falling silent, and slept.

In the morning, Lucretia woke up to Lup trying to extricate herself from her arms.

"Shit, sorry, I didn't mean to wake you," Lup mumbled, clearly still half-asleep. "Thanks for letting me stay the night, baby, but I really should get back to my room."

"Why?" Lucretia asked, too tired to inhibit herself. "Want you here."

Lup smiled and stopped trying to pull away. "Well, if you insist," she said, voice all honey-smooth as she settled down in Lucretia's arms again.

They could define whatever this was later, Lucretia decided. Right now, with Lup comfortably pressed against her, everything was perfect. Pristine. Undisturbed. She was afraid that too much overthinking would ruin whatever this wound up being, and so she resigned to enjoy it for what it was. It didn't need a label to be real.

Chapter Text

Over the next few cycles, Lup and Lucretia continued their sexual relationship. It was clear that it was more than that to both of them, but neither dared to say it. Nobody asked them about it, either; by that point, it wasn't uncommon for their crewmates to hook up with one another. Lucretia knew for a fact that Lup had slept with Magnus at least once, because he'd mentioned it to Lucretia when she hooked up with him herself. Barry and Taako had hooked up a few times, at least she suspected, and it seemed like Merle and Davenport had an on-again-off-again sort of thing going on.

She wasn't sure if Lup and Barry had finally bridged that final gap yet, though. It was clear to everyone that the two were desperately in love, surely; Lucretia only hoped that her own pining was still unnoticed, or at least enough that she could successfully deny it. She and Lup were spending more time together than ever before, but that didn't stop Lucretia from worrying that once she finally got with Barry, it would all be over between them.

Some selfish part of her wanted Lup to never confess to him. If only she could keep Lup all to herself, maybe that would be enough to soothe the ache in her heart. If only Lup would say those three words that meant so much, that Lucretia longed to hear from her. Yet no matter how many times they had sex, it seemed to be a casual thing and nothing more. It was agonizing. Especially because the more Lucretia had to resist the urge to become clingy, the guiltier she felt.

What gave her the right to monopolize Lup like that? So what if Lup wanted to sleep with other people on the ship? So what if she loved Barry and not her? She was her own independent person, just like Lucretia, who certainly wasn't restraining herself from sleeping with others when the situation was right. They were adults who could choose to have whatever relations they wanted with one another.

She still longed to have Lup look at her after one of their encounters and say something about loving Lucretia and wanting to be with her. Lucretia wanted Lup to yearn for her the way she did for Lup, wanted Lup to say something romantic, something deeper than their casual sex implied.

And then cycle forty happened. With Taako, Barry, and Lucretia on lockdown for the year, the others set out to explore. It was fine at first, of course; nothing could really go wrong on their end, so long as the ship's shields were still functional. All they had to do was keep studying the materials they had, watch for any potential threats, and wait.

Lucretia was almost enjoying how peaceful it was. She missed the ship being full, missed Lup, but it was nice being able to spend the day working quietly before spending the evening playing chess with Barry or baking with Taako. The three of them had a chance to bond in a way they hadn't in other cycles. Lucretia had a newfound appreciation for the depth of Taako and Lup's relationship, how different the two of them were while still being perfect complements of one another.

She also found her crush on Barry hadn't waned in the slightest and if anything was stronger than ever. One night when neither could sleep, she was tempted to confess that she'd been in love with both him and Lup for years. They were sitting on the deck of the ship, admiring the stars in the clear night sky, a deep unnatural magenta.

"We're so lucky," Barry said, eyes still gazing upward. "Isn't this just incredible?"

"It really is," Lucretia agreed, letting her gaze wander to his face. He was handsome in a way she didn't think she was into until him. Soft, slightly scruffy, extremely nerdy. The glasses were a cute look, and his stubble was charming. She even liked his stupid mullet.

He noticed her staring and blushed, a nervous grin breaking across his face. "C'mon, the real view's up there," he urged, pointing upward.

Her whole face felt hot with embarrassment. "Right." She looked back up. It was the sort of beauty she wanted to capture on a canvas with paint, whereas his was the kind she wanted to immortalize with words. Lucretia wanted to write all the small ways that she fell in love with Barry, to illustrate her feelings with words to make them more concrete. It was something she couldn't do with the night sky, so unreachable and endless that the only way to do it justice was to recreate it.

There was no way to recreate the love she felt other than to enumerate the countless times its spark shone within her. How Barry was so still and quiet in the mornings until after he'd had his coffee, and how grateful he looked when it was prepared for him already. How focused he was on his work, face set in determination even as his hands shook from fatigue, so determined to save them all with his brilliance.

How he looked at Lup like she held all the beauty of the stars; Lucretia knew she looked at her the same way.

After the first month, they had something of a routine. By day, the three of them kept their own work schedules. They made sure that their free time lined up so that they wouldn't go completely crazy with isolation. By night, they relaxed. It was comfortable, almost pleasant. Sure, there were times where they worried about the rest of the crew as time wore on, but they tried to set that worry aside. The three of them accepted that either way, they'd be back sooner or later.

The others had been missing for five months before Davenport showed back up to the ship in the dead of night, pale and malnourished, bloody and bruised. A fragile shell of a man. His return tripped the alarm, waking the remaining crew members and sending them into a brief panic before it was revealed to just be their captain.

He had only bad news, and a horror story to share.

Lucretia was so conflicted. On the one hand, she was grateful she didn't have to be there to witness it; apparently it was gruesome beyond description, absolutely traumatizing. She'd seen Lup die before, but the haunted look in Davenport's eyes when he told them what had happened made Lucretia glad she was spared that pain. On the other hand, however…

It hadn't been quick, he'd said. It was agonizing and terrifying and he'd only barely gotten away. They lost Magnus and Merle to it, too. Half the crew, gone. All because they'd been a little too reckless when scouting and wound up captured, tortured to within an inch of their lives for information they didn't have about political enemies they couldn't hope to even lie about. Davenport spared them the details of their deaths, saying only that they didn't want to know what had to be done to survive in that dungeon.

Lucretia hated that she hadn't been there to comfort Lup. It was easier to handle the idea of their temporary loss when she, Barry, and Taako had assumed that they'd all simply gotten lost or swiftly killed. None of them wanted to assume something so terrible as prolonged torture. Apparently, their deaths had only happened in the last few days, meaning they'd been suffering for months, ceaselessly.

Davenport announced that he was going to shower and sleep, that he wanted to be left alone, and that he wanted the ship moved to somewhere over the ocean within the hour. He assured them that he hadn't been followed, but that he wanted to be safe, and then departed.

"Oh my god," Barry breathed as soon as he was out of sight, falling to his knees. "We should've gone after them when they didn't come back, we should've done something, anything," he said, tugging at his hair.

"Nah, homie, we all know the rule: when you're on ship duty, you stay on ship duty. They wouldn't want us torn up about it." Taako patted him on the shoulder as he walked past. "I'll take us somewhere Capn'port approved if you aren't up for driving." Though his tone was even, Lucretia couldn't help but notice his unsteady steps, the distant anger in his eyes.

If she was hurting over not being there for Lup, she could only imagine how Taako was feeling about it.

"Barry, look, it's gonna be okay, okay? We've got a few months left here, and then they'll be back, good as new." Lucretia was kneeling next to him. "Do you wanna talk about it? Or be distracted from it?"

There was a long moment where neither said anything. The ship had started to vibrate and whir the way it did during takeoff, catching Lucretia off guard enough that she fell to her knees next to Barry. She released a surprised squeak on the way down, her head bumping into his shoulder and jostling him enough to send his glasses askew.

That broke the tension enough for them to both chuckle.

"I don't know," he finally admitted. "I think I'm just gonna go back to bed. I can't think about this anymore right now." He sighed and stood, offering a hand to help Lucretia up. "I just… I feel terrible. I know we're on ship duty this year. But fuck, Luca, they were tortured for months! While we sat around doing nothing!"

"Hey, now, come on, we weren't doing nothing." The words sounded empty even to her own ears, but comforting Barry was more important to her at that moment. "We all know how important ship duty is. So we've had something of an easy time with it this year. That's nobody's fault." She realized she hadn't let go of his hand yet and gave it an affectionate squeeze. "Let me walk you to your room?"

A wobbly, tearful smile. "You don’t have to do that."

"I know I don't have to, but I want to. I want to make sure you're okay, Barry. Because I care about you." Lucretia pulled on his hand while avoiding looking directly at him. If she didn't see his reaction she could pretend what she'd just said didn't cross any boundaries.

He didn't budge. Lucretia was about to ask if he was okay when he spoke. "I don't want to be alone right now."

She nodded. "All right. I'll sit up with you, if you want. Would that help?"

"Please."

And it wasn't that Lucretia was nervous. They'd shared a bed before, of course they had, everyone on the ship had slept in the same bed together many times. And it wasn't that she was unwilling, either, because of course she wanted to sleep next to the man she'd been in love with for years. It was more that she worried she was using her grief as an excuse, or even worse: taking advantage of his own.

She sat on the edge of his bed while he climbed under the covers and wondered if she should join him. She'd said she would sit up with him, so she didn't want to cross any lines. If he wanted her to lay down, surely he would invite her to, right?

"So. At least Davenport made it out," she started, hoping to keep the conversation on the positive side of things. "We may even still get the Light this cycle."

"Yeah. Hopefully." He shifted around under the covers, looking up at Lucretia pleadingly, tears in his eyes. "I can't be the strong one like you can, and I'm sorry. But knowing that Lup suffered, that they all suffered when we could've done something…" Barry let out a sob and threw his arms around Lucretia's waist, letting his head fall into her lap as he cried.

It was hard to believe in that moment that she'd ever thought Barry was a hyper-logical scientist. It would have been comical how badly she'd misinterpreted his initial awkwardness if it weren't so soul-crushingly sad instead. He didn't want to be seen vulnerable like this because he was afraid of being judged, ridiculed, rejected, and she knew that by now. Seeing him come out of his shell slowly encouraged her to peek out of her own, and was one of the many reasons she'd fallen so in love with him.

That realization was the last straw for Lucretia, as she let herself break down. Before long, she and Barry were embracing, crying against one another as they tried to offer the comfort they both sought. When they were finally running out of tears, Barry cleared his throat.

"Sorry about that," he insisted, sniffling. "It never gets any easier, the losing and dying and stuff. It still hurts. I know we have some good times that we're truly privileged to experience, but damn it, I never asked for this life!"

"I know, Bear, none of us did," Lucretia soothed, wiping more tears from his cheeks. "At least we have each other, right? We probably wouldn't if not for the mission. And I love you so much. All of you." Nice save, she thought, terrified that she almost slipped up. "And y'know what? We all get it. Lup knows how you feel. She isn't gonna come back next cycle angry that we didn't come to her rescue. She understands."

Barry pulled away slightly, reaching for the tissue box on the nightstand. "Yeah, I know. It still sucks."

They didn't talk much after that. When Lucretia fell asleep in his arms, she felt a twinge of guilt that it was her and not Lup. Like he really wanted, she thought. It was ridiculous, she knew, especially since she was in love with the both of them, but if only two of the three of them could be happy, she knew who she'd choose every time. It was just so obvious that she wasn't included in what they wanted! How could she be so selfish to insert herself and potentially prevent something beautiful from blossoming?

In the morning, she was surprised to find Barry still asleep, still holding her. He was usually such an early bird, she'd thought, but perhaps the disturbance in the night took more out of him than he'd let on. It was a pleasant surprise, though. He was so warm, all the tension of last night's bad news melted away to leave him the very picture of peace.

Lucretia wished this moment could last forever. It was something she would write about in her private journal as soon as she got back to her room, she decided. Unfortunately, in order to write about it, the moment had to end first. How horrible to deliberately end something so wonderful, but how else would she preserve it? It was going to end at some point either way. May as well ruin it herself.

He stirred as soon as she shifted.

"Good morning," Lucretia whispered. She gently brushed hair away from his eyes. "I didn't mean to wake you. I was just leaving." She moved to separate herself from him, only to find him holding on tighter. "Barry?"

"Stay?" he asked, voice so small she almost missed it.

"Of course." It wasn't awkward. It felt like it should've been, but it wasn't. In fact, Lucretia felt more certain of her love in that moment than she ever had before. Something about the way his chest thumped lightly against her shoulder, his heartbeat a constant reassurance. Or maybe it was the way every puff of breath tickled the back of her neck. Or how secure she felt with his hands on her, broad and warm and safe.

They dozed for a while before she eventually excused herself to use the restroom, insisting that they get their day started.

And that had been it. They shared a bed frequently for the rest of that cycle. Barry had even admitted once that on nights when Lucretia wasn't there, he often sought out Taako or Davenport. He was increasingly anxious about the emptiness of the ship, and who could blame him? At Davenport's insistence they moved their location daily now, since it wasn't like their friends were coming home. They were all reasonably certain that they were safe but nobody wanted to take any risks.

It didn't even matter that they were unable to find the Light. When they shifted from cycle forty to cycle forty-one, the reunion was their most emotional yet.

Lucretia tried to hang back so as not to overstep any boundaries. Lup was immediately swept up into Taako's arms and spun around, his cool façade finally giving way to tears. Barry also embraced her, weepy. She'd never seen Davenport so tender with anyone as he was when he ran up to Merle, pressing their foreheads together gently.

Perhaps to not be the odd ones out, Magnus rushed over to Lucretia and lifted her high in the air, whooping joyfully. "We're back!" he announced. "Did ya miss me?"

"Not at all," Lucretia teased, sticking her tongue out at him and laughing at the mock-hurt on his face. "Oh, sorry, I mean yes, terribly. My mistake," she corrected.

He set her down and ruffled her hair. Before she could excuse herself, Lup grabbed her wrist and pulled her in for a hug.

"There's my girl!" she proclaimed. "I dunno what Capn'port has told you but holy shit, dude, last year fucking sucked!"

Lucretia couldn't help but smile at least a little. "Sure sounds like it did," she conceded. "I don't want to take away from your time with Taako or Barry, so I really ought to--"

"No, no, no, Luca, dear, you're absolutely included. Okay? It's family time. Once Capn'port lands us in the new plane we can figure out where the rest of the day is headed but for now?" She reached over to Barry to grab his hand as well, tugging him closer. "Family time."

"Frankly, I'm insulted that I would be left out," Taako sniveled from behind her.

"I only have two hands, doofus!"

"That sounds like a you-problem."

It was so good to have everyone back together. If only they could live in those moments of joyful unity, celebrating their continued triumph, laughter ringing in the air, eyes alight with love. If only words were enough to capture the ephemeral beauty of it.

Chapter Text

It was pretty obvious at the start of cycle forty-seven that it was going to finally be the year. Lucretia knew as soon as Barry and Lup declared that they were going to work together on their submission to the mountain. How could this not be their year after that? Instead of preemptively mourn the loss of what was never hers, Lucretia decided to return to her most tried-and-true method of distraction: throwing herself into her work.

It had been a while since she'd painted anything, hadn't it? Probably half a dozen years or so, if she had to guess. There was just so much less time than there used to be, lately. Some cycles were peaceful, sure, but recently it had been growing astronomically more difficult. As if things weren’t hard enough already.

No, better to just lock herself away in an art studio on the campus and paint until the colors blurred to mud. Better to sketch images on canvas until the lines no longer made sense, paint over them in a desperate search for clarity always beyond her grasp. Better to let her mentor critique each piece more sternly than the last in her quest for perfection.

Some days she was glad she'd never had a formal teacher in the past. It was aggravating being told what to paint, what to practice on, even when she was sure her mentor know what she was doing. But as the months passed and she saw herself improve, she was grateful to have taken the time, increasingly proud of herself and her progress.

And then she was given her latest practice assignment: portraiture. She was told to do a series of portraits, each in a different style. The last portrait she'd painted had been during the beach year, over twenty years ago.

She sat at the kitchen table on the Starblaster one morning, head in her hands and sketchbooks scattered around her as she tried in vain to plan for the project. So far the only one she had any idea for was the self-portrait, hoping to emulate the popular style of artists painting themselves in the midst of their work. It would be easy enough to set up lighting in her room and acquire a large mirror. And the chosen setting of her cabin was perfect for the kind of "personality" her teacher wanted the pieces to have!

Beyond that, though, she was at a total loss. Would it be weird to paint her crewmates individually in their own cabins? Would her teacher think that there wasn't enough variety, or like she was taking the easy way out? She worried it might be weirder to ask students she wasn't close with to sit still for hours just so she could get the approval of her teacher.

"What's on your mind, missy?" came Lup's familiar voice.

"Not enough, apparently." She groaned out loud without looking up. "How's it going with you and Barry?"

Lup froze. "Uhh, good? If you mean the music thing, anyway."

"No, Lup, I meant your painfully obvious crush," Lucretia said, deadpan enough that Lup almost believed her. "Don't worry, I haven't told him yet and I won't tell him now. My lips are sealed."

Though she was blushing furiously, Lup playfully punched her arm and sat down next to her at the table. She leaned in close and whispered, "Well, I don't know about that, they seemed pretty open for me last night."

Silently, Lucretia slowly turned her eyes to Lup to stare at her in open-mouthed shock at her boldness. This made Lup break into a fit of raucous laughter.

"Oh, shit, I broke you!" she commented, catching her breath and wiping a tear from her eyes. "For real though, thanks for being cool about things. I… Can we talk somewhere? Or are you busy?"

"For you? I can make time." Lucretia gathered her scatted sketchbooks into her arms and stood too fast, getting dizzy. "I have to put these away. You can come if you're okay talking in my room?"

Lup's shoulders fell in relief as she sighed. "That sounds perfect."

Five minutes ago Lucretia would've assumed this was going to be a break-up talk, where Lup would finally tell her that their sexual relations had to stop so she could pursue Barry in earnest. She was certain that their arrangement would end that way one of these years, and was hopelessly clinging to whatever dregs of affection she could get. Surely Lup was finally ready to declare how she felt and stop any casual relationships she had in favor of a serious one.

But the way Lup had blushed, so easily making a flirtatious comment at her? The relief on her face when Lucretia showed she was eager to talk? People don't tend to make that face before breaking hearts.

Right?

As soon as they were in Lucretia's room, Lup shut the door and took the books from Lucretia's hands. She set them on the desk while Lucretia protested before walking over to her and grabbing her face. Before Lucretia could say anything more, Lup was kissing her.

Well, it wasn't exactly talking, but Lucretia wasn't going to say no. She let her hands rest on Lup's hips, pulling her closer to deepen the kiss. Lup still tasted like her morning coffee, bittersweet and slightly acrid.

"Is that all you have to say for yourself?" she panted, staring at the enticing way Lup's lips were parted slightly, still glistening.

"C'mon, babe, you know me better than that."

"I do. So what's up, Lup?" Lucretia tried to steady her breathing. If they were going to have a serious conversation she needed to get herself under control and stop thinking about how badly she wanted them to be having sex instead. "I won't pressure you, but you said you wanted to talk. Is it about this? Us?"

Lup groaned and let her head fall against Lucretia's shoulder. "Yeah, but I don't, like, actually want to talk about it? I just know we need to."

So this was finally going to be it, Lucretia thought. She steeled her nerves and decided to rip the metaphorical bandage off herself. "It's okay, really. I understand. You've been in love with Barry for so long, and he's finally willing to admit he loves you back. Right? I'm happy for you, Lup, I really am." She let herself continue to hold Lup through the hardest words she'd ever had to say. "I knew you didn't feel that way about me. I knew it was just sex. And I'm fine with it. I'm not hurt, I promise."

When Lup went stiff in her arms, Lucretia worried she'd somehow fucked up.

When Lup pulled away and stared at her, eyes gleaming with hurt and something Lucretia couldn't identify, she knew she'd somehow fucked up.

And when Lup shook her head, mouth opening and closing a few times as she scrambled for something to say, Lucretia had a feeling she'd ruined more than just the moment. She felt like she ruined their entire relationship.

"Luca, no, that's not… I wasn't gonna… You…" Lup balled up her fists and rubbed roughly at her face, tear-streaked now. "Ugh, you're so--! Sometimes! You know?!"

"No? What did I say? I'm sorry, I didn't mean--"

Lup held up a hand to cut her off, obviously frustrated. "No, you did mean it, that's the worst part. I can't do this right now. I'm sorry. I need some air. We'll talk later, okay? I'll be back in, like, an hour."

Lup stormed out before Lucretia could stop her, not closing the door behind her. Lucretia let out a loud shout of frustration as she threw herself onto her bed, face buried into her pillow to muffle her stream of angry vocalizations. Great! She felt like such an idiot!

"Hey, you okay?" a soft voice called from the doorway. She shook her head, not paying enough attention to process who it was. "Uh, can I come in? D'you wanna talk about it?"

Just as Lucretia rolled enough to throw a glare at whoever it was, her brain registered that it was Barry and her whole heart sank. "I-- not really?"

He shuffled back and forth on his feet awkwardly. "Okay. Do you want me to… just go?" He was so hesitant, so concerned, wringing his hands nervously. How could she be angry at him? Part of her felt like he was taking Lup away, but she knew that wasn't true. If she had her way she would have both of them. But every year the gap in their experiences together widened, with her and Lup having an intensely physical relationship while she hadn't so much as kissed Barry yet! But the both of them spent so much time together in the lab and out on expeditions that she couldn't help her resentment at the disparity sometimes. It wasn't their fault that she had those feelings, and she was determined not to make it their problem, either.

Even still, Lucretia was hurt.

And she had no idea what the two of them had done; she never wanted to ask, in case it prompted the talk she was so desperately afraid of. The one she'd tried to nip in the bud minutes earlier and, apparently, ruined.

"Stay, please," she choked, hating how pathetic she felt. When he was seated on the edge of her bed, Lucretia pulled herself to a sitting position and sniffled. Gods, when had she started crying? "I fucked up, Barry." May as well lay it all out, she figured. At this point what was the worst that could happen? "Lup said she wanted to talk, and I thought, y'know, since you and her are finally together, I thought she was breaking up with me. Not that we were ever really together!" She laughed hollowly. "It was just physical to her, y'know? I'm pretty sure she's only ever loved you. But you know how it is."

Barry's jaw dropped. "I-- what?"

Oh. Oh no. Had she really managed to make it worse? "What do you mean 'what?'"

Though his face was beet-red, Barry kept an even tone when he said, "Lup and I aren't dating, Lucretia."

"Well, why the fuck not?!" Every logical part of her was screaming that if she didn't shut up she was going to say something she regretted, but it was already too late to stop her emotions, too long repressed, from overflowing. "You two have only been in love for, oh, I dunno, forty years! And it's not like I've been trying to, y'know, not get in the way of that or anything! And it's not like every time I sleep with Lup I feel like I'm a horrible fucking person for keeping her from you for that much longer!"

Barry put a hand on her knee and shook his head. He was silent for a long, agonizing moment. "I don't know what to say. I mean, you're right that I've loved her a long time, but it's more complicated than that. I… I think you're right about her loving me, too, is the thing, but it's not that simple." He cast his gaze downward at a random spot on the floor, anywhere but Lucretia's face. "We can't just… be that, you know what I mean? We can sleep together, but we can't, like, be together. There's too much at risk."

"Oh, Barry, I'm sorry, I didn't know you two already--"

"No, stop. It's okay. We've talked about it a lot, actually."

Somehow that stung more than anything, knowing they'd discussed the labels of their relationship before when this was set to be the first such conversation between her and Lup. And she'd gone and ruined it by assuming she understood Lup's feelings already. Maybe she didn't know as much as she thought. "Can I ask you something?" she said, so quiet Barry almost missed it. When he prompted her to continue, she felt her heart jump to her throat. She needed to know. "Did she mention me in those conversations at all?"

"She did."

Her chest felt tight with anxiety. "Can I ask what she said?"

"I think we both know that's not my place to say."

She sighed. "Right. Look, just forget I said anything, okay? I wish you two the best. Always have. I love you both so, so much, and you deserve to be happy together. I want you to know how much I mean that, Barry, because something I said before? It hurt Lup. And I don't want to hurt either of you." She took a deep, shaky breath. "If you see her just tell her I'm sorry."

But Barry didn't move. Lucretia thought she'd made it clear with both her words and her body language that the conversation was over, but he was still seated beside her. He reached out to grab her hand. Before she could ask what he was doing, he started to speak.

"I can't speak for Lup. I can't tell you how she feels, because that's her business. But I can tell you how I feel. And like I said, yeah, you're right, I've loved her for a long time. It hasn’t always been easy knowing you two have what you do. I used to get jealous." He chuckled. "Isn't that silly? I don't care about any of her casual flings, but it's always seemed like it was more with you. I know you said it's not like that, but are you sure, Luca?"

She paused. At the end of the day, no, she wasn't sure. But she couldn't bear to assume she was worth more to Lup than she actually was. The thought of getting her hopes up only to have them crushed was devastating. Better instead to assume what they had meant little to nothing to her, and that way if it went wrong the loss would be less painful.

That had been the theory, at least. It certainly seemed ruined now after Lup stormed out earlier, and the pain was unbearable. Would it really have been worse if there was a label on their relationship? She was starting to think she'd been wrong, and that the uncertainty would plague her worse than any regret.

"I'm not," she admitted, letting her tears fall freely. "But I can't get between you two. What you have is so special, Barry. You two deserve to be happy together. I get it, though. The not wanting to jeopardize the mission." She sniffled and wiped at her eyes with one hand, her other still squeezed tight between Barry's. "I know it's something we all say a lot, but we're all we've got left. We can't afford to fuck this up."

He reached out to place his other hand on her cheek. "I don't know how much longer that excuse is gonna keep. For any of us."

Her heart hammered in her chest. "Barry?"

Before she could say anything more, he leaned in and kissed her. She was too shocked to kiss him back at first, her eyes wide as she stared in disbelief. When he pulled back, it was clear that he'd interpreted her lack of reciprocity as rejection.

"Shit, I'm so sorry, I didn't--"

She cut him off with a kiss of her own. Before she knew it, they'd wrapped their arms around one another in between more kisses and were breathing heavily against each other's lips.

"Barry, I--" She pressed her forehead to his. "I've wanted this so long," she admitted. "But Lup…"

Instead of responding with words right away, Barry buried his face in her neck to trail soft kisses up higher and higher, placing a final one just behind her ear. "I think the three of us need to talk," he eventually breathed.

Lucretia felt her blood run cold. Talking about serious emotions in earnest was hard. It was so much easier to pretend she wasn't desperately in love with them. But somewhere in her heart a tiny glimmer of hope was glowing brighter with each passing moment. "I agree," she said, running her fingers through his hair. "She said she was gonna come back to talk in a bit, if you want to wait around?" It was a bold offer, given the suggestive nature of their current position.

She wasn't surprised when Barry shook his head. "You two talk first. I think I see where this is going, but I don't want to get in the way of you two having your discussion. I'll be in the lab if you need me, okay?" He pulled back and almost stood to leave, but hesitated. "Unless… Do you wanna be left alone? Or would you rather I stay until she gets back?"

Well, that was certainly the question, wasn't it? What did Lucretia want? She wanted so much, too much, in her opinion. If Barry stayed, would they keep kissing? As ill-advised as it seemed, it was probably what she wanted most of all at the moment. But she also knew if they did, she wouldn't have a clear head when Lup finally arrived.

But if he left, she would be alone with her thoughts. Somehow that seemed worse.

"Can you stay?" she hoped she didn't sound as desperate as she felt. "I don't want to be alone right now."

"Of course, it's the least I can do. You've done the same for me," he pointed out, face flushed. "I dunno what I'd do without you. Honestly. You mean so much to me, Lucretia."

"But what about Lup?" This was not how she envisioned her day going. She'd planned on spending the whole day in a frenzy of sketches and logistics. Not upsetting her not-girlfriend and kissing her other not-partner for the first time, all while gearing up to discuss how not-together they all were!

"Can't she mean just as much?" he asked. He sat back, releasing her and moving to give her space. "Look, I know we have to talk, too. But not yet, okay? You and Lup have had a thing for a while, so I can wait."

Lucretia was getting frustrated. Barry was making a lot of assumptions about how she felt, but wasn't that exactly what she'd done that had upset Lup? The way he spoke really made it seem like the two of them were already together, but they both insisted that that wasn't the case. She almost wished she had the courage to ask how far they'd gone, even though she knew it was none of her business.

"Do you want to play cards?" she suggested instead. Barry nodded and fetched the deck of cards from her desk drawer. At least it would take her mind off of whatever harrowing conversation was to come. She had to admit, it worked better than she thought it would. They passed through hands in near-silence, and the momentary awkwardness gave way to the familiar hum of love between family.

It felt so natural sitting across from Barry on her bed, both still in their pajamas. There was a comfort in not being expected to talk, in the simple pleasure of just Being. She didn't know how much time passed. When there was a knock on her door, Lucretia's nerves all returned in an instant, and it must've shown on her face. Barry placed a hand on her knee.

"It'll be okay," he assured, standing and stretching his arms over his head; he groaned when his back made several loud pops. "I'll be in the lab." And with that, he left, stepping aside so Lup could walk past him into the room.

In an attempt to avoid making eye contact, Lucretia collected the scattered cards from the bed to place the deck back in its box. "Hey," she said, aiming for a casual tone and failing. Her voice cracked. Hell, her hands were shaking, too. Everything about her screamed that she was freaking out, and she was doing a terrible job of hiding it. She wanted to kick herself. She usually had better control over herself than this, but Lup always had a way of dismantling her defenses, for better or worse.

With a dramatic sigh, Lup flopped onto the bed, throwing an arm over her face. "Hey."

"So. Did you get that air you needed?"

"I did."

Lucretia hesitated. "And?"

A long pause. They were both holding their breath with the cognizance that they were at the edge of something monumental. After a few tense heartbeats, Lup finally spoke with her unwavering voice.

"Lucretia, I can't believe you sometimes. You're brilliant and beautiful and such an adorable dork. You're dedicated and passionate. But damn, girl, you can be fucking dense, too, you know?" Lup peeked out from under her arm to look at Lucretia, a sly smile playing on her face. "Like, really. You thought all this time that I didn't care about you? That this was just sex? You really thought that?" She sat up, a low chuckle rumbling from her throat.

"Well, yeah, I mean…" Lucretia was going between meeting her gaze and avoiding it, her hands wringing nervously in her lap. Don't dare hope, she insisted to herself. That path led only to pain. "I can't say I'm not flattered, since you can have pretty much anybody you want. I-I mean, because you're, y'know…" She gestured to all of Lup. "You've been in love with Barry for decades. You've said so yourself, so don't you dare try to backpedal now!"

Lup only continued to smile. "You're right about that. Barry and me, we've talked a lot about how we feel in the last few years. Right after cycle forty. But it's not that easy. Or at least, it never seemed that easy before."

"That's what he said, too," Lucretia said, so quiet she thought she hadn't said it aloud. But the way Lup's ears perked up indicated otherwise.

"Oh? Is that what you two were talking about when I showed up?"

"No," she answered, feeling guilty despite it being completely true. "Well, okay, we did talk about it a little bit, but we were just playing cards when you got here. He said he wanted me to talk to you first before anything else." She sighed. In the interest of transparency, she knew what she had to say next. "We kissed. It was impulsive and stupid and a terrible idea, but yeah, it happened."

Instead of anger, like Lucretia expected, Lup responded with glee. "Finally! He's been wanting to do that for ages!"

"Are you fucking kidding me?" Lucretia put her face in her hands, embarrassed and starting to get genuinely angry at how she felt like an accessory. Something pretty to be used when convenient, then left out when she didn't match the outfit. "How much did you two talk about me? So I'm good enough to fuck but not good enough to include in conversations like that?"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, slow your roll there, little Luca," Lup said, grabbing both of her hands to stop her from digging her nails into her palms. She blushed. "We're talking now, aren't we? You of all people know how hard this is. You could've said something sooner too, and you didn't. Don't be unfair."

She knew Lup was right. Her shoulders slumped. "I'm sorry. We're all trying our best. I know that." Time for the moment of truth. "I've loved you for a very long time. Him, too. And I know that probably sounds weird or whatever, but that's how it is. You're both my best friends, and I want to give you the space to love each other the way you deserve without getting in the way. But I'm not going to stop loving you."

Lup moved one hand to cup Lucretia's cheek, still blushing. "See, this is what I meant when I said you could be dense. You still don't get it, do you?" She kissed her, a quick and chaste affair that still left their hearts racing. "I love you, too. I didn't think that was ever in question." Another kiss, this one longer, more tender. It made Lucretia's head spin. "I want to be with both of you, too. It's not weird, I promise. Uncommon, sure, but not weird."

And when their lips met again, Lucretia believed her. How could something so pure and wonderful ever be weird? They would absolutely need to talk with Barry. But for now, with just the two of them making out in the bed, Lucretia was the happiest she'd ever been. For the first time, she felt like she was allowed to love with her entire soul and not fear rejection. She could seek that unity with Lup and not worry that she was asking for too much.

All of her fears about seeming selfish and desperate melted away with each moan of desire that she dragged from Lup's perfect mouth. They were in love, and they were together, and wasn't that something special? They could worry about labels and logistics later. For now, she only wanted to cherish this moment.

Chapter Text

"So. Barry's in the lab. If we, y'know, wanna go talk to him about, uhh, all this." Lucretia cleared her throat, feeling awkward. There had already been so much talking, but the time had finally come to sort out what they wanted and what they didn't. She was still nervous. Granted, things seemed to be going better than she could ever have dreamed, but she was trying not to get her hopes up too high. Best to continue underestimating the situation to prevent disappointment.

"In a few minutes. I think we all know how this is gonna go. Can I hold you a little longer?" Lup nuzzled her face against the top of Lucretia's head, hugging her close. When Lucretia nodded, Lup peppered kisses across her hair. "Good. Because it took us a long time to get to this point and I want to savor it."

Lucretia let herself be cuddled while she considered the complications that could potentially arise if they fucked this up. She could still hardly believe that it seemed to finally be happening in the first place, but what if it went wrong? The whole reason none of them had made a hard move before was to prevent catastrophe in the event of them breaking up. The mission was more important than their emotions, so small in the face of preserving existence itself.

"What's on your mind there, missy?" Lup was petting her back so comfortingly, so gentle. Why had she ever denied herself this?

"I'm just scared, I guess," Lucretia admitted. "Can we really do this? Is it okay? What if it goes bad? The mission--"

"Takes priority, yes, I know." Punctuating her words with soft kisses, Lup sighed. "But we won't know if we never try. And I dunno about you, but I'm sick of being scared! I'm so fucking tired of us denying ourselves the opportunity to love the way we want to. We deserve to try, Luca, and I think if it's not gonna work, that's something we can tackle together." More kisses. "But until then, let's not worry about that. Okay?"

She trusted Lup and Barry to not hurt her, or each other, for that matter. Maybe it was okay to let this happen after all. If they all wanted it, which seemed to be the case, how bad of an idea could it be? "I'll try, but you know me. I'm actually surprised you and Barry already talked about this, to be honest. I've always read him as more anxious than me!"

At that, Lup snorted a laugh. "Oh, he is," she agreed. "Because I have a type, and it's cute, awkward, anxious nerds. I guess." She finally sat up, releasing Lucretia so that she could stretch her arms high above her head. "For real, though, talking isn't easy. Do you have any idea how many times I had to corner him in the lab and insist he take a break so we could give the conversation another try?"

Feeling bold, Lucretia decided to tease her. "Let me guess: every time you tried, you two just wound up making out on his desk and didn't get any talking done at all?"

Lup pretended to gasp in surprise. "I can't believe you would suggest such a thing!" She let a giggle escape her lips as she blushed. "But yeah, that's totally what happened. Sometimes, uhh, sometimes more, but yeah. That's beside the point."

"So you HAVE slept with Barry!" Lucretia said, realizing immediately that she may have sounded judgmental. "Shit, sorry, I didn't mean it like--"

But Lup was laughing, now. "You sound so shocked as if we haven't all been sleeping around with each other for years!" Her grin turned devilish. "With how cutely you said you kissed him before, I'm assuming you haven't had sex with him yet. Has it really just been me and Magnus? If you don't mind me asking."

Already accepting that the conversation couldn't get any more awkward than it already had, Lucretia nodded. "I mean, yes? I know we've all taken a pretty casual outlook on sex, which is probably part of why it's taken us so long to even, y'know, talk about this being anything more. But I never felt comfortable asking Barry about it before."

"Aww, why's that? He's fucking great in bed! You've been missing out!" When Lucretia didn't answer, Lup grimaced, fearing she'd gone too far. "Shit, sorry, I didn't mean to sound so crass. Are you really sure about all this? Or did something happen?"

"No, no, nothing like that," Lucretia quickly defended, flashing a wobbly smile. "I just feel like…" She sighed, getting up from the bed to begin pacing. "Maybe it's not that big of a deal to you since you're an elf, but the age difference is a bit much for us. I'm going to look nineteen until this is all done. So probably forever. And he's, what, forty-five? That's my dad's age! I just--!" Lucretia rubbed at her eyes with the heels of her hands. "I don't want to make things weird. I don't know if he even sees me like an adult and like, how do you ask someone that? So yeah, I'm scared. Is that really so hard to understand?"

There was a few moments of silence as Lup thought it over before giving a half-hearted shrug. "I can't pretend that I fully get it, but, like, you realize I'm at least a hundred years older than him, right? If you had to guess how old I am in human-terms, what would you say?"

Huh. That was an interesting question. The twins were youthful, for sure, but carried the maturity that their longer lifespan afforded them. Her skin was smooth, her hair lustrous, her body lean. Her eyes alone betrayed her years. Everything about her indicated that she was well past the point of being considered a child. "Fuck, I don't know? I feel like I'm out of practice with perspective, all things considered. Maybe, like, thirty? Early thirties?" Even as she said it, Lucretia didn't know if it was an accurate estimation.

"Okay, fair, and that's fine for you? I'm a hundred and seventy-three, Lucretia. Elves can live to be, like, seven hundred years old. If the age difference with Barry is a problem, why isn't it a problem for you and me?"

"I don't know!" It was something she actively avoided thinking about because of how frustratingly paradoxical it was, and now Lup was expecting her to discuss it! Lucretia was feeling more uncomfortable by the minute. "I guess it's just a stupid mental block. Like, when you think about it, him and I aren't that far apart anymore, like, proportionally? If we count these cycles, anyway. I'm technically, what, uhh, sixty-something?" She quickly calculated it. "Sixty-six. Yikes. What does that make him?"

"Ninety-two," Lup pointed out. "And yet you'd both still be children by elf-standards. But I don't think we can really think like that anymore, if that makes sense. Nobody else in all reality has ever been in our position. I dunno if it's fair to hold ourselves to the same standards as when we were regular mortals, so like, fuck it? I guess that's what I'm getting at. Fuck it." She shrugged. "At least that's how I see it."

Even though Lup was acting nonchalant, Lucretia recoiled at the reminder that she was still on some level a child. "Am I child to you, then? Is that all I'll ever be?"

"Shit, no, not at all, fuck, that isn't what I meant!" Lup hurried to Lucretia's side and grabbed both of her hands. "No, baby, you're an adult, and he's an adult, and all three of us are mature, consenting adults. I promise you he feels the same. Why don't we go ask him so you can hear for yourself?"

"Can I at least change out of my pajamas first? Maybe take a shower?" Lucretia asked, fighting back tears. She was feeling overwhelmed by everything that had happened in the last few hours and was hoping that restoring some semblance of routine could help calm her down. "You should, too."

"You saying I stink?"

The way that Lup had so casually thrown out the phrase made Lucretia laugh. She could always trust Lup to find some way to lighten the mood. "Oh my gods, no, Lup! I'm saying I need a few minutes! It's been a bit of a stressful morning, don't you think?"

Grinning, Lup rolled her eyes. "Yeah, I knew that's what you meant. But it's good to see you laugh. I'll just get dressed and head down to the lab. Barry and I can get some work done until you're ready to stop by."

Lucretia decided to ignore how flirtatious that sounded. She knew that by "work" Lup probably meant that they were going to get side-tracked and wind up making out or something. "Work? I thought today was your day off. Shouldn't you be practicing your duet, if anything?"

"Nah, day off just means we're resting our hands from music stuff. Science never takes a day off." And with that, she winked and excused herself, leaving Lucretia alone in her room for the first time since the very strange morning began.
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"So it sounds to me like it's settled, then!" Lup exclaimed, leaning to press a kiss to each of their cheeks. "It took us almost half a century of awkward flirting and a ton of casual sex, but hey, better late than never, right?"

They'd spent close to two hours talking in the lab, piled on top of each other on the floor in the far corner. It wasn't what Lucretia would have called comfortable or ideal, but they were content to drink in the joy of physical closeness after the stress of their earlier misunderstandings. She hummed in agreement to acknowledge she'd heard, burying her face into Barry's neck and breathing deep.

Barry's face was beet-red as he nodded, squeezing Lucretia's hand in his own. "I'm sorry, I feel like this all could've happened sooner if I wasn't--"

"No, hush, no apologies!" Lup tapped his lips with a perfectly manicured nail. "If anyone here can be called a cradle-robber it's me, and we all agreed that that's fucking stupid. We can worry about all that when we're mortal again. For now, let's just, y'know, live it up."

Though she still had her reservations, Lucretia let herself smile. She let herself feel safe and happy and loved. There was only one matter that they still needed to settle. "So, do we tell the others?" They all froze. "I vote no, for what it's worth. At least for now. Let's see how this goes first. No sense in telling everyone our business if it's just going to fall apart."

"Ouch. I get what you're saying, though," admitted Barry. "It's hard to know if you'll be good with someone until you try. But I'm glad we're finally trying."

"Me too! I know we're all worried about what happens next, but we can't enjoy what we have now if all we do is stress about it going bad." Lup extricated herself from their arms and stood up, smiling down at them. "And I don't want us to be so caught up in the 'what-ifs' that we forget all the fun stuff that a relationship should be!"

At that, Lucretia let out an awkward chuckle. "About that… I've never actually… Well…" She followed Lup's lead and stood up, turning her eyes to the ceiling to avoid seeing their reactions. "I've never been in a serious relationship before. A couple of short-lived casual things in school, but, yeah, nothing quite so… involved? As this?"

Barry buried his face in his hands. "I always forget that this mission has been most of your life, fuck…" When he got to his feet, he grabbed her hands. "I'm so sorry that you've had the chance at a normal youth taken from you. I can't imagine what that's like. You should've been able to just write this shit on your resume and, like, go to graduate school or something."

"Pfft, grad school's the pits, Barold, don't pretend that the poor girl would've been better off being some underpaid research assistant." Lup pulled them both in for a group hug. "Now, we've spent a long time talking about our boundaries and stuff, but, like, how's about we move this chat somewhere more private?"

"You know, I would love to, but I do actually have things I need to get done today," Lucretia pointed out, reluctant. "As much as I want to spend the rest of the day in bed with you two, I really have to at least finish planning this art project my mentor assigned." She sighed; if they truly had all the time in the world to be together, then she couldn't justify wasting what little time this plane had left on it. "Can we talk about it after dinner, maybe?"

They agreed, leaving Lucretia to rush back to her room while they presumably went to spend the rest of the day in each other's arms. As soon as she closed her bedroom door, she slid to the floor and let herself cry. How many years had she denied herself even the hope that this could one day be possible? How much time was she never going to get back, spent hating herself for selfishly longing?

But at the same time, now that it was real, she had to deal with the very real possibility that it wouldn’t last. Maybe it would end in a year, maybe in ten, but regardless: now that it had begun, it was finite. Before, when it was an idea she held in her heart, it held all the potential of infinity. The act of defining it planted the seeds of its eventual end. And maybe it was silly to mourn that so soon, but Lucretia was nothing if not an expert at overthinking.
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They decided to keep it quiet for the rest of the cycle while they tested the waters of their new relationship. Still busy with preparing their works to submit to the mountain, they didn't find much time for intimacy anyway, and that was just fine with Lucretia. Easing into it suited her. Not having to conceal the fullness of her love anymore was going to take some getting used to, but there was time.

And on the day that they submitted their works, she watched with tearful eyes from the audience as Barry and Lup played. If anybody had doubted their love for one another, they could no longer. The grace and beauty in every note shone brighter than the sun, each sound wave vibrating with the love they'd so quietly nurtured over the last forty-seven years. Lucretia felt herself fall more in love with them the more she watched the performance. How perfectly they fit together, how seamlessly they played off of one another.

When they raised their clasped hands high above at the end, she caught Lup's eye for a moment, and her heart skipped a beat when Lup winked playfully.

It was a real shame they weren't able to save that world. They tried so hard not to get too attached to any of the planes nowadays, but even still…

It was hard. If they got this invested everywhere they went, the collective loss would break them. But Legato was extra special. As they watched it get consumed, Lucretia felt the stirrings of an old grief in her heart. Though dimmer now, it reminded her of watching their homeworld being destroyed a literal lifetime ago. The main difference was that now, instead of feeling more alone than she thought a person ever could, she had the love of her new family all around her.

Until they were able to break free of their cyclic existence, that love would have to be enough.
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It took a lot of getting used to this new relationship of theirs. Once the rest of their family knew it was at least a little easier in that they didn't have to worry about hiding it anymore, but the main obstacles were more about their own comfort zones. Committing to each other meant seeing sides of one another that were previously obscured, private. The balance of how much to share and how much to conceal was tricky for Lucretia, whose general anxiety about the matter had her questioning her judgement frequently.

Lucretia could justify keeping her anxieties to herself when she was convinced that they weren't worth bothering others about, but knowing how strongly Lup and Barry cared for her wellbeing made that impossible now. Talking about her feelings was always hard, but they somehow made it easier with their constant calm patience. More than that: they made it rewarding. To her great surprise, Lucretia felt better than ever about herself and the mission in general during those first few years with them. She hadn't thought that the change in their relationship could do that.

She voiced as much to them one night, cuddled up in bed. Lup chuckled and flicked the tip of her nose. "Well, of course, babe," she teased. "You're getting the emotional support you need to finally develop some confidence. That's kinda the whole point of having a romantic partner! We're here to help you grow into the best possible version of yourself. Isn't that what you want for us, too?"

Of course it was! Wasn't that obvious? They'd been together for five years already, and still she found new things to be surprised about with her lovers. She said as much and smiled at how their eyes softened to look at her. "I guess I didn't know what to expect from all this," she admitted, rolling over so that she could be held more completely. The warmth and safety of their arms. Their hearts, beating for each other, for her. The way their scents mingled together in a way that was becoming more familiar by the day. "Thanks for being patient with me."

"Luca, please, of course we're patient. You're affording us that same courtesy, right? So it's only fair." Barry kissed her cheek. "Now why don't we try to get some sleep? Big day tomorrow."

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How could she have ever thought she knew what loneliness was before? It wasn't having trouble making friends, or not getting credit for her work, or having a crush from a distance. For decades she thought that loneliness was watching her homeworld be destroyed while surrounded by near-strangers, people she'd resigned not to get too close to lest it fill their two-month journey with needless distractions. Surely that was the worst anyone would ever experience, she had thought. The agony of knowing that they alone survived untold devastation.

 

She knew now that she'd never been more wrong. That pain paled in comparison to the sobs that wracked her chest the first night of cycle sixty-five. When the ship went down, she rushed to hide, locking herself in a utility closet before armed soldiers stormed the ship and removed her family's unconscious forms from the wreckage. She held her breath and didn't move a muscle, waiting until the silence stretched out long enough that she could safely run to the helm and steer the ship elsewhere.

Loneliness was knowing she alone was responsible for the ensuring the survival of the entirety of existence itself. It was sleeping sitting up in the captain's chair, ready to flee at a moment's notice. It was constantly looking over her shoulder for the enemy, because at that point it was a bigger problem if she Wasn't alone. It was crying every day, not knowing what became of her family and knowing that if she for some reason failed to survive this year, she would never know.

She often sat beside Fisher's tank and talked to them about anything and everything. Just to remember what her own voice sounded like. It kept her sane to draw them little pictures for sustenance, sometimes writing short stories and poems to feed it. They couldn't respond. Not really, anyway. But it was better than talking to thin air, wasn't it?

One night about three months in, when she finally felt like she had a routine going, everything was almost brought to a screeching halt. She was dozing fitfully in the captain's chair when suddenly there was a loud thud of the door to the ship being kicked in. In half a breath, she was on her feet with her wand in her hands.

Marauders. Only three of them, poorly armed and even more poorly organized. They rushed at her with a shout, and she coldly shot them down with little effort. In the past, she may have cried over murdering desperate civilians who were just trying to loot the ship for supplies to survive the season. They probably had families who would miss them, as she missed hers. But unlike her, they wouldn't be getting theirs back.

"This whole world is going to die in a few months anyway," she reasoned. "I can't find the Light alone." She stood over their bodies and poked them lightly with her foot to see if they had survived her attack and were merely unconscious. Two of them were definitely dead, but one seemed to be holding on. It surprised Lucretia that she felt relief at that. Then again, at least it meant she still retained her humanity.

What next, then? She couldn't leave dead bodies festering on her ship, but she also didn't want to simply dump them outside. Sure, this whole plane was going to be destroyed relatively soon, but their deaths still deserved to be treated with an appropriate gravity. Should she bury them? Burn them? What was the custom of this place? Eventually, she decided she couldn't worry excessively about it when she had bigger problems, choosing instead to toss the two corpses off the side of the ship as she dragged the other to the ground safely. By then, the person was stirring.

"Well, shit," she said aloud, forgetting for a moment that speaking meant being heard. It had been months since she'd spoken and received a response.

"Put me down," the person muttered weakly, barely strong enough to struggle. Even still, they shoved her hands away, barely able to support themselves.

In shock, Lucretia dropped them into the mud. "Okay. You should know that I killed your friends. Go home and tell everyone you know that if they ever see my silver ship? Leave it -and me- the fuck alone. The apocalypse is coming. I can't stop it anymore. Just… Get the fuck out of my sight and spend the next few months with your family."

The person blinked up at her from where they were sprawled on the ground. "Uhh…. Okay?" they said, coughing. "You're just gonna, uhh, let me live?"

She rolled her eyes. "Obviously, or you wouldn't be here. I'm going to leave now, and so are you. Good fucking riddance." With that, she turned on her heel and rushed back towards the ship, preparing to fly it to a new location where she hoped to get a few more hours of sleep.

"Wait!" the person called out. "I-I don't have anybody left without them. It doesn't really matter, we weren't close or nothing, but still! If you're not going to kill me, can you at least, I dunno, drop me off at the nearest town?"

Lucretia turned to raise an eyebrow at them. "Look, I'd love to help you out, really, but I'm kind of a wanted criminal. So I can't exactly get anywhere close to any settlements, no." She raised her wand defensively. "And I sure as hell don't trust you enough to let you stay on the ship. No offense, but I can't afford to take that risk."

They sighed, wobbling to their feet. "Fair enough. Guess we'll both just have to be alone, won't we?" With that, they stumbled away into the wilderness; Lucretia didn't lower her wand until they were entirely out of sight, and only then did she turn her back and sprint onto the ship.

The whole time she was relocating the Starblaster, her shoulders shook. That had been the first conversation she'd had with another person since losing her family. Something about having her presence acknowledged was so very heavy in her soul, the monumental weight of corporeal existence reaffirmed at last.

It was proof that she was alive. If only that fact didn't highlight the bitter contrast that while she lived, her family was still gone. And beyond that: she had just killed civilians to survive. She could argue that they gave her no choice by rushing onto her ship with weapons, clearly with a violent intent, but the part of her that longed for peace knew it didn't have to be that way. She could have done something to restrain them, question them, maybe even just knock them out and relocate them.

Instead she had chosen violence. It was reactionary and impulsive, and without it she might not still be alive. Her anger mixed with her fear and sadness, a complicated mélange tied up in how desensitized she was becoming to death. Was it stupid of her to feel so small in the face of her own actions?

She grieved the loss of her family, the marauders, the small game she had to hunt for food. More than anything, she grieved what felt like a loss of her own self, swallowed up by the drudgery of survival. There were too many months to go, and she had no choice but to continue. How much more of herself would have to die so that the rest of her could live?

The hardest night of the year was about nine months in, near the end of the plane's winter season. She had been enjoying what must have been the last of the pristine snows, glittering in the low-hanging sun. By that point, she had a few specific safe locations that she rotated between, never stopping for too long at any one of them lest she be discovered. This one in particular was a clearing at the bottom of a deep canyon, its craggy overhangs perfect for obscuring the ship from above. It was an absolute nightmare navigating down to it, but she felt safe enough to spend a full week at a time there.

It was breathtakingly beautiful. The river cutting through it was frozen solid, sparkling as bright as the surrounding snows. She was sitting on the deck of the ship drawing the scene in one of her journals - the fourth drawing she'd done all cycle. There were only a few months left, now. She was still crushingly lonely, but knowing that the majority of her loneliness was behind her helped to keep her spirits up.

"Lup's gonna love this one," she thought, trying to capture the way the sun clung to the curves of the rocks above. She never stopped missing them even for a moment. Reminding herself of how joyous their reunion would be was the only thing keeping her sane anymore. Talking to Fisher had long since stopped satisfying her urge for companionship, as their maddening silence only served to make her feel like she was losing her mind.

It was the first time all year that she felt something approaching peace. And then, in an instant, that semi-peace was shattered by the approaching sounds of ships flying overhead. She froze. Nothing should be able to see her from her position beneath the overhangs, but what if they had some kind of magical sensor? Or a scanner of some sort?

Steeling her nerves, she marched back inside and took to the helm. She didn't power up the engine just yet; maybe they would pass by, leaving her undetected, in which case she would simply relocate once the sun had set.

The jarring sound of a nearby blast rocked the ship. Evidently, there would be no such luck.

With a sharp inhale, she quickly threw the ship's engines on and started the harrowing task of navigating out of the canyon. If she'd ever thought her position would be discovered, she never would have selected it as a respite. More than once, the side of the ship dragged against an outcropping, a sickening groan reverberating all around her as the entire vessel lurched from the force.

When finally she was free of the canyon, she noted that at the very least it didn't seem to be military ships attacking her. They appeared too low-tech for that, to her great relief. Regardless, as a shot tore through the side of the ship, ripping away metal and exposing the inside of the ship to the biting cold, they could still clearly do some damage.

It took her hours to lose them. She surmised that they'd only given up because they'd run out of fuel, and that they would likely continue the pursuit after a brief stop to recharge. Probably mercenaries hired to hunt her down, if she had to guess. Ordinary scrappers would've given up ages ago, but military ships would've been outfitted much better. Keeping that in mind, she flew late into the night, the bone-chilling cold bracing her throughout. Without it, she would have succumbed to exhaustion.

Finally, well past midnight, she felt safe enough to land in a desolate wasteland, so far removed from civilization that the cloudless skies were dotted with more stars than she'd seen all year. She stood on the deck of the ship and stared into the depths. Her heart broke for how beautiful it was, how she had nobody to share in it with.

Though her steps were faltering, her body begging her to give in and sleep at last, she had to survey the damage done to the Starblaster and repair it. That couldn't wait.

It was mostly superficial. A sizeable tear in the hull. A variety of scrapes and dents, shallow enough to not have actually pierced anything. She was worried she would freeze to death doing the repairs, too scared to light a fire in case it gave away her position. By the time the repairs were done, the sun was beginning to peak over the horizon, painting the sky in colors so soft and gorgeous that she began to cry.

How unfair that such quiet beauty could exist in such a cruel world that had taken so much from her, and doomed itself in the process. How unfair that it would all have to end.

On the day when the columns of Hunger began dripping from the sky, she was ready. Her nerves were at an all-time high, unwilling to flood with relief until she saw the smiling faces of her family again. The anticipation hurt. She'd survived so much that she wondered if they would even recognize who she'd become. The scared young woman whose confidence was shaky at best was no longer her. Would they hate who she had to be to survive? Could she be that person they knew and loved again?

"Not now," she said aloud out of habit. "Just a few more minutes. Almost there." A battle-calm came over her as she dodged the enemy, guiding the ship up into the stars and beyond. As she felt herself shift at long last to her recorded state, a cry escaped her throat as she began to weep.

And there they were, bright-eyed and whole, warm, alive. Lup and Barry were at her side in an instant, wrapping her in an embrace as she babbled semi-coherently about her ordeal, the tide of relief finally crashing over her.

In their arms, she was finally home.

Chapter Text

Falling into bed with her lovers for the first time in a year was the easiest, most welcome thing in the world. Lup pressed kisses to her hair, murmuring assurances that she was finally safe, no longer alone, would never be alone again; Barry nuzzled his face against the side of her neck, his warm breath the necessary reminder that it was true. Between the two of them, Lucretia never felt so alive. How had she survived an entire year without this?

Then her heart began to race, painfully thumping in her chest. At first it felt almost like panic, the primal parts of her that had grown too used to fear this past year activating and telling her she was in danger. That she was cornered, that the world was closing in around her and she needed to escape, that she couldn't let it all end like this. It would be too easy to let it sweep her away, let herself flail and throw them off of her, cower in a corner and catch her breath.

Luckily for her, they picked up on her apprehension and pulled back slightly, whispering comforting words until her breathing returned to normal.

"It's okay, you're safe," Barry murmured. "We're here. Home, on the ship, together."

"I love you so much," she sobbed, still overwhelmed by their emotional reunion. "I never thought I'd get to say it to you again. I knew I had to survive or we were all fucked, but gods, Lup, Barry, I-- some days, I didn't think I was going to make it." She sniffled, resisting the urge to recoil when Lup brushed tears off of her cheeks. "All I could think about was how I wished we had more time. Isn't that silly? We've had nothing but time, but there I was, selfishly wanting more and more of it."

Barry frowned and leaned forward to touch their foreheads together. "It's not selfish. We're human, Lucretia. We've had it beaten into our brains since childhood that we only have so many years, and sure, we've had a lot more years than that, but that's more by accident than by design. You're not selfish."

Lup shifted to wrap an arm around her shoulder. "Yeah, like, we get it, y'know? Well, Barry definitely gets it more than me, but I think I understand, too. As much as I can. Being human, being so mortal, it's hard."

Nodding, Lucretia let them soothe her as they gently removed her uniform. She let them redress her in soft pajamas, laid out like a present on top of the sheets. Before she knew it, they were lying on either side of her in their own pajamas, still being careful not to make sudden movements that might startle her. "You don't have to be so good about this," she offered, hating how small and scared she sounded. Where was all of the courage she'd built up over the last year? "You can just tell me to get over it. I won't, not for a long time, but you could say that and I'd understand. You had it so much worse, all dying like that."

"Luca, dear, no, not in a million years. Dying is easy, and we've gotten a lot of practice at it. Besides, it was over in a flash, we didn't even feel it, I promise. But you had a whole year to stew in all by yourself." Lup shuddered. "That sounds like torture."

She wriggled in their arms, the heat and weight of their bodies more stimulus than she'd grown used to lately. How many nights did she keep herself sane remembering how sweet this felt? How often did she comfort herself with memories of the love she was fighting for? How cruel that her body was now protesting against having it all back, a gift she had long since accepted was gone for good. She wanted it more than she'd ever wanted anything, and having to fight off her own panic response to keep it made her feel guilty.

It wasn't fair.

"I want to kiss you," she said, ignoring the anxiety sitting in her chest. Her stomach was tight, her eyes burning, but still, she wanted them. "I thought about it so much, all the time. It was all that kept me going some days," she admitted with a hollow laugh, wiping at her eyes. "I missed you all so bad it hurt. Please?"

Cupping her cheek, Barry let his lips ghost over hers, a barely-there press with just enough warmth to leave her wanting more. "Promise you'll let us know if it's too much?"

She nodded. "Please," she begged, choking down her desperation. "I-- I need to feel you both, I need to know it's real, that you're alive, and you're back, and we're safe now."

"We ARE safe now," Lup said, draping a leg over Lucretia's thigh. "You'll get as much affection from us as you want, baby." Lup's hand trailed down Lucretia's torso, fingers slipping just past the waistband of her shorts. "You deserve to feel good, okay? Let us take care of you tonight."

Barry was kissing her neck before she could string together the words to express her gratitude, all thoughts of protest fading to the back of her mind. She angled her head so he could kiss her more easily, her heart already beginning to beat harder in anticipation. With a happy sigh, she shifted her legs to give Lup better access. She could tell that she was already wet with desire for them. She'd barely touched herself all year without them, her nerves never quieting enough for her to truly relax, so she worried that this was going to get overwhelming.

"Tell us what you want," Barry murmured against her skin, breathing warmth and love and life back into her, making her shiver. She could feel Barry's erection against her thigh.

"I know what I want," Lup added, her fingertips already dipping low enough to tease Lucretia. "And it feels like our Lucretia wants it too, hmm?"

Nodding, Lucretia panted, "Please, fuck, I need it!" She spread her legs wider, hips canting upward slightly to guide Lup's hand lower. "Fuck me, Lup, please, fuck me!"

"Mmm, love to hear that," Barry breathed. He gently bit at the soft flesh of her neck, his hand coming to rest on her breast to tease at her nipple through her shirt. "Did you miss this?"

She couldn't form the words, and so just nodded again, eyes pleading for more. When Lup finally slipped two fingers fully inside her, Lucretia let out a high whine, her hips bucking forward. Barry gave an appreciative chuckle at her reaction and pinched her nipple, making her cry out a little louder. It was so much, but it was exactly what she wanted.

"I don't wanna hurt you, dear, are you doing okay?" Lup asked, pausing the thrust of her fingers. "I don't want this to be too intense, I know it's been a while and that could make it--"

"No, don't stop," Lucretia begged, reaching out for Lup to pull her in for a crushing kiss. She threaded her fingers through Lup's hair and moaned at how perfectly soft her lips felt; she breathed in Lup's scent and teared up, every inch of her crying out for her lovers. "Fuck me, please, I missed you, I was so scared I'd never see you again," she cried, consciously loosening her grip on Lup's hair so as not to hurt her. "I don't care if it's too much or even if it hurts. If it hurts I still know it's real."

At that, Barry and Lup pulled away from her entirely to share a worried glance.

"We don't wanna hurt you," Barry started, a firm frown settled on his lips. "This is about making you happy, y'know? Especially since it's been so long. It wouldn't be right to--"

"Even if I ask for it?" she challenged. She wasn't sure why she was suddenly being so stubborn about it, but it would be a lie to claim she hadn't wanted it for a while. So far they hadn't been particularly adventurous in their sexual activities, which wasn't inherently bad, of course. She enjoyed the intimacy that they shared so freely. How could she not?

So sue her if she wanted to give something kinky a try. Maybe now wasn't the time, but she may as well voice her desire for it while she had the courage.

Lup sighed. "No, that's not-- Look, Lucretia, if you wanna play around with pain during sex, that's great! We absolutely can! But later. Because right now, you need to be reminded of how good it's possible to feel." She wrapped her arms around Lucretia and pulled her tight against her chest. "You've spent the whole last year hurting. Let tonight be about something sweeter, and we can talk about the other stuff later. Does that sound okay?"

Squirming uncomfortably, Lucretia looked away. She wanted to insist to them that she knew what she wanted, that she could handle it. But she also knew that her lovers had every right to be concerned. They weren't there to see how she'd changed. Hell, she probably didn't even know all the ways she'd changed, and wouldn't until something happened that triggered an acute awareness of it. It scared her to think that she might no longer be somebody they could love. If it weren't for how open their expressions were, she'd probably even start to wonder if that was the case.

She took a deep breath to steady herself. Everything about how careful they were being with her was proof enough that they loved her. She could worry about that changing later, but for tonight, didn't she deserve this? To be so passionately loved?

"Okay," she whispered with a shaky smile, accepting that it was a conversation for later. "I'm sorry. I must seem so desperate to you…"

"Luca, baby, it's okay," Lup assured, kissing her forehead. Her soft curls framed her face like a picture, tickling Lucretia's cheeks. "Now, let's get those clothes off so we can show you a good time, yeah?"

Being naked before them felt so much more exposed than it ever had before - even more than the first time, somehow. But under their appreciative eyes, Lucretia's heart skipped a beat. A year without being truly seen as anything other than a target, and it felt like now her soul was being laid bare. There was nothing she could hide from them in this moment even if she wanted to. Her chest hurt with the weight of it, as she helped them shed their clothing with trembling hands.

They were both every bit as beautiful as she remembered.

The intimate trust of skin to skin. There had been so many things she was afraid of forgetting, of losing to the blur of desperate survival. Too many things gone from her life for too long, too many missing pieces of her heart that she'd had to learn to live without. How Lup sighed so beautifully as Barry fucked into her, how sweetly Barry smiled as he watched Lucretia come apart under her clever hands. The way the light caught Lup's eyes, gleaming like soft moonlight; the bristling of Barry's stubble scratching lightly wherever he trailed kisses.

She thought she might start crying after all, with how all-consuming it was to have so many sensations happening all at once.

"You're so fucking beautiful like this," Lup whined in her ear, speeding up the motion of her fingers. Somehow Lup had wound up in the middle, with Barry bracing her hips as he thrust into her from behind. Lucretia couldn't bring herself to mind; it seemed like being in between the two of them might get to be too much too quickly, with how long it had been. Besides, having Lup on top of her, fingering her, kissing her, moaning against her? That was plenty satisfying for Lucretia. "I wish you could see your face, baby," continued Lup, biting her lip with a loud moan as Barry hit a particular spot in her. "Fuck, yes, Bear, right there!"

Lucretia smiled. Gods, how long since she'd smiled so much? "Yeah, well, you're a damn good sight yourself, taking his cock like that." She dug her nails into Lup's shoulders as she moaned, "Fucking hell, Lup, I love you so much!"

"Love you too, Luca," Lup said, reaching for Lucretia's hand and moving it to her own length. "Ungh, please, I'm so close, help a girl out?"

"I love you both so much, gods," Barry breathed, pausing to press kisses to the back of Lup's neck. "Please, Luca, I wanna feel Lup come."

As Lucretia helped Lup finish, she remembered how much she hated the sticky feeling spilling onto her, but couldn't be bothered to care much this time. Even an unpleasant sensation like that was welcome, given what it meant to have been without it so long. It was proof that Lup was here, alive! That she and Barry made her feel good! That they were in love!

As Lup's moans pitched higher, oversensitive in her afterglow, Barry was whispering terms of endearment for them both as he, too, came to a finish. When he pulled out of Lup, he flopped onto the bed beside them and immediately started kissing Lucretia as he moved a hand to work at her clit. Lup added a third finger, and Lucretia keened. It was perfect, being caught between them and devoured like a treasure.

By the time she was coming, panting their names between kisses, Lucretia had almost forgotten her fears. She felt her orgasm wash over her body like a tidal wave, driving away her nameless anxieties. Lup offered to get a washcloth for Lucretia, leaving her alone with Barry in the bed.

"Was that good for you?" he asked, face flushed.

"Absolutely perfect. I hope I wasn't… I've worried, you know, that I…" She sighed, summoning the courage to be honest. "I spent so much time being terrified. If I wasn't scared of failing, I was scared of being someone you couldn't love anymore. I'm… Barry, I'm different, now."

This was the moment she was dreading: laying her fears out there, making them real by giving them voice and audience, giving someone a chance to lend validity to her anxieties. The part of her that knew Lup and Barry better insisted that they would only be supportive and compassionate. Of course they would be, that was their nature! But the irrational part of her, the tiny, quiet voice that got louder at night, that screamed into the seemingly endless void of her lonely year, it was never entirely silent.

And bless him, Barry just shrugged. "So what? We're all different. Every day you're someone new. We're carrying a lot, and it's heavy, but we're carrying it together. You spent a year doing it alone, and had to get strong enough to handle it by yourself. None of us has ever had to do something like that before! But we're all back now, and we can help you carry that weight again." He smoothed her hair away from her sweat-dampened forehead, gaze softening. "I know me saying 'don't worry' sounds kinda ridiculous, but really, Luca. I love you - every beautiful version of you. And Lup does, too."

"What's that about loving Lucretia? You know I'm in!" Lup declared, grinning as she handed them both washcloths.

Lucretia couldn’t do anything but laugh, her joy and relief bursting out of her as tears streamed down her face.

She was different, but that wasn't necessarily bad. This journey had taught her that, with how wildly varied each world had been, but to be able to apply that concept to herself was revolutionary. Every year, they returned to their recorded state. Stagnant, if only visually. So hearing from Barry that she was allowed to change, to grow, and still be loved?

It meant everything.

And later as she was falling asleep, wrapped in their love-drunk warmth, she was finally at peace.
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"Do you ever think about what we're going to do once this is all done?" Lucretia asked one day late in cycle seventy-seven. Things had been rough that year. They found the Light after months of searching, but Taako died in the process, leaving Lup a mess of grief. They brought the Starblaster down near a city in a highly-advanced civilization, a society brimming with technological advances that rendered magic all but obsolete. In a way, that had made getting the Light more difficult, as it was the first magic this society was interested in obtaining in so long.

But they'd done it, and now they could spend the last few months of the year making the most of it. For everyone else, that meant they could finally relax, but for Barry and Lup, it meant dedicating every hour that they could spare to researching the Light. One of these years they'd crack its mysteries, surely. They had to. Right?

Right now, Lup and Barry were doing tests in the lab while Lucretia sat at one of the less-messy tables with her journal, making notes of what it looked like they were doing, even when she wasn't sure she was correct. She could add to her entries later after she had the chance to ask them for more details. "What if we still don't age right because of so much exposure to the Light? Is that something you can even test for when we only have it for a year at a time, at best?"

Barry stopped prodding at the Light with the end of his pen and sighed, brow furrowed. Lucretia knew they appreciated her asking probing questions like that, since she was never directly involved in the research itself and therefore offered a different perspective, but she worried maybe this time the question hit a little too close to home. The topic of aging came up with more frequency than they perhaps liked, but she couldn't ignore it.

She started the mission at nineteen. Half a century later, and she was still nineteen. It was such a constant for her that it made it difficult to conceptualize living any other way. Thinking about aging terrified her, but not just on her own behalf. Barry was in his forties already. Not that that was old, but when they started aging again, he would seem to be gone in a blink compared to the time they'd already had. How could she not be afraid of the inevitable?

"It's possible," Lup commented, craning her neck to look around where the Light was sitting on top of a magic rune to keep it contained. "You and Mags will be the best test of that, I think, since you're still growing. Right? Humans grow until their twenties or something?" She looked over at Barry, nervous. "And then you stay that way for a while until your, uhhhhhh…… forties?"

There was a brief pause before Barry and Lucretia both began laughing. "Sweetheart, no, we age consistently. Technically, yes, we stop growing in our twenties. That's when our brains are as fully developed as they're gonna be. Then it's all downhill from there, as they say," Barry said, barely concealing a grin. "But it's okay. We've really only got one way to find that out, anyway. About the Light's effect, I mean."

"And what if it does make us live longer? What do we do?" Lucretia asked. "I've been thinking about it so much lately. We've made a lot of progress figuring out what this thing is capable of, and it's only a matter of time before we use that to our advantage. Do we just settle down? Get jobs? Get married, have a few kids, live like a regular family?" She shook her head, eyes wide. "I can't imagine a life like that for any of us, not anymore."

Sharing a concerned glance, Barry and Lup both got up from their work station and walked over to Lucretia, sitting on either side of her. "Whatever happens, we'll face it together." Lup grabbed one of her hands. "We're family. I know it's wild to think of that coming out of whatever this job was meant to be, but there it is. We love you so much, Lucretia, mortal or not. We can worry about what life has in store for us once we make sure the apocalypse isn't about to happen again."

"Yeah, it's kind of hard to make plans when you're used to the world ending every year," Barry pointed out, grabbing Lucretia's other hand. "But we'll get there someday. Now, I dunno about you two, but I think it's probably time for a lunch break. I'm starving!"

Lucretia smiled. "Mind if I take you two out to a little place downtown? I did some scouting the other day while you were both busy, and there's a café that looks like it has a killer brunch menu. I may have even spotted a mimosa or two on the patio."

"Oh, damn, little Luca trying to wine and dine her way into our marriage bed, is she?" Lup teased with a wink.

Barry immediately blushed. "We aren't married," he choked. "I-- We could be, if you want, but, like, legally speaking does it really matter? I mean yes, of course it matters, but--"

"Oh my gods, you dork, I'm making a joke!" Lup ruffled his hair, her cheeks reddening, too. "Let's talk seriously about getting hitched some other time. Maybe that's what we'll do when this is all over! Get the three of us a good ol' fashioned marriage license. If you're both into that, anyway."

"I'd like that," Lucretia agreed, standing and smoothing the creases out of her skirt. She considered what it would feel like to wake up to them in the morning and call them her husband and wife. To introduce themselves as a family. To share a name, a symbol of their love. The possibility of it made her light-headed even now, despite it being an untold number of years away. "It's nothing we have to decide on now, obviously, but it sounds really lovely. Marrying you two."

"Sweet, then it's decided!" Lup declared, pulling Barry up with her. "Unless Barold objects, it sounds like we're officially engaged! Or, okay, pre-engaged, since I don't think this counts as a proposal."

Barry rolled his eyes, his smirk giving away his delight at the idea. "We've agreed to talk about considering it," he relented. "I don't think I've got the nerve in me to do a traditional proposal anyway. Sorry." He shrugged. "If either of you wants to do the big proposal feel free!"

They teased him more as they cleaned up their stations before heading off of the ship and into town, the topic having moved to less serious conversation. Even still, as Lucretia smiled and laughed with them, she couldn't shake the idea that one day she might call them her spouses. A husband and a wife, twice as much love as she ever thought she would have. It wasn't something she'd ever considered before, marriage. Before their journey began she'd always thought herself too young to be concerned with something so permanent, and after, well…

No time to worry about something so mundane as a marriage license when the world kept ending around them. Maybe one day it could be something they were allowed to have. She watched Lup dance ahead of them, her long legs setting a pace they struggled to keep up with as she raced down the street, waving them along. She watched how Barry lovingly rolled his eyes and shot her a smile, a familiar combination that she'd long since learned to interpret without words, which said, "She's something else."

Lucretia couldn't shake the preemptive grief stewing in her gut at the thought of them aging again, at how that would mean losing Barry so relatively soon, at her own mortality leaving Lup all alone in the end. While the idea of marriage in the future was wonderful, she knew it would only come when their endless voyage was over. When they were no longer functionally immortal. When they could - and eventually would - finally lose one another permanently.

She didn't dare mention to them how that was actually what scared her most of all. If only there was some way to stay with them forever without the apocalypse forever at their backs. At the very least, she had an indeterminate number of years to come to terms with her eventual mortality. It was always a fear she pushed aside as being "future-Lucretia's problem," but how soon until that was present-Lucretia? Year to year they couldn't possibly know when this would end.

And she felt like a terrible person for it. How horrible to be content with their endless voyage purely for the way it allowed her to keep her lovers safe for longer. As long as they were on the run, they couldn't die for good. It scared her how willing she was to accept that as the state of their reality even when it meant an unfathomable number of casualties, both in the worlds that fought the Hunger and survived and in those that were consumed.

Keep running and fighting as semi-immortals, or win and go back to having tiny lives void of any grander purpose. Why did there have to be only the two options? Why couldn't there be a third option?

If only she could love them with enough force to sustain their very lives, then maybe they could still be saved.
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"You have got to be fucking kidding me!" Lucretia practically shouted, standing up from the bed in a hurry to begin pacing. "I can't believe you would think that's okay! Or safe, or sane, or reasonable, or--! Ugh!" She threw her hands up in the air as she wheeled around to stare at Barry and Lup, still seated on the edge of the bed. "I won't do it, no, I refuse. Absolutely not. If you two want to blow up your immortal souls, I want no part in it."

Barry sighed, head in his hands. Lup continued to defiantly meet Lucretia's gaze. "Yeah? And what if it works and we gain an unfathomable amount of power? What if we become truly unkillable? What if that's what it takes to beat the Hunger?"

"You don't know that!"

"Neither do you!"

"Ladies, please--" Barry tried, immediately cut off by Lucretia.

"No! I'm not participating. That's final. This is insane! And I don't think you two should do this, for whatever that opinion is fucking worth." She crossed her arms and held her ground, livid. The anger was hot in her throat, cold in her stomach. "I love you two so much, and I refuse to risk everything we've worked for on a hunch. Let's say it works against all odds. Great, then you're liches! Forever! What if you can't control it? Or you can, but you lose that control later? Or what if it's not enough, and you did all that for nothing? Lup, think about what that would do to Taako!" Her voice quieted as tears welled up in her eyes, the tension leaving her body, replaced by preemptive grief. "Think about what it would do to me."

Several tense moments of silence passed, with Lucretia's fists clenched as she stared them down. It felt like a vast chasm had opened between them, one that she was unwilling or unable to cross. Was this how it ended for them? In tears and angry disagreements, as her pleas for them to see reason fell upon deaf ears?

"I don't think it's our place to try to sell you on this for yourself, but can you at least understand why WE want it?" Barry offered, pinching his brow in frustration. He was tapping one of his feet anxiously. "We've done a lot of research, and we aren't even going to touch the ritual until we do a lot more. It's a complex thing, and we can't guarantee that the texts we're working from are even accurate, so we plan to make sure as much as possible. Listen: we're stuck. It's getting harder and harder to outrun this thing. The Hunger is only getting stronger, and we're not! It's going to take something drastic, and I--"

"You think you can justify it with that?" Lucretia's voice caught in her throat. She could hardly believe what she was hearing. She needed to get out before she said something she regretted. "I don't want to talk about this anymore. I'm going out for some air, and I don't want you to come with me. You two can keep making your insanely suicidal plans without me."

Though she wondered if she was overreacting, she couldn't bring herself to care. They'd just dropped a proverbial bombshell on her, and she wasn't even remotely prepared to deal with the fallout. The concept of becoming liches wasn't something she was against ethically, as she'd long since skewed her moral compass beyond repair. So what if it was frowned upon on their homeworld? That didn't mean that every plane in the multiverse cared.

But practically?

It was a death sentence, in a very literal sense. Not to mention that there was no guarantee it would work! They didn't know anything about whatever was rebuilding their bodies into their recorded state at the start of each cycle. Was that something the Light was responsible for? If so, why did it still work in cycles when they failed to retrieve it? When they were ripped apart into ribbons of light, was it simply a physical process of being reconstructed? Were their souls intact throughout the process, and were just being moved from one flesh vessel to the other? Or did the process have to re-stitch even their spiritual essence?

As far as Lucretia was concerned, the best case scenario was that whatever they did to become liches didn't stick. Either because it killed them to try in the first place and they just came back same as normal the next year, or if it did work, that it was undone at the end of the cycle. They had no reason to believe it would be permanent, after all.

But what if becoming liches disrupted the resurrection process? What if it changed the nature of their souls too drastically to be rebuilt? What if their bodies were rebuilt as empty husks, their souls destroyed and lost to the void? Or swallowed by the Hunger when it devoured the plane the rest of them escaped?

There were too many variables, too much at risk.

It made Lucretia angrier than she'd ever been about anything before in her life. It was so selfish of them! And they were acting like it was some big heroic endeavor! How could they even entertain the notion when any of those tragedies could strike with consequences more permanent than any they'd had to face in over seventy years?

Leaning against the rail of the Starblaster's deck, Lucretia let out a sigh. She let the breeze wash over her, crisp and cold. The unfamiliar stars twinkled above, none the wiser to her plight, sparkling in the distance without a care. Staring into the infinite void of space had become a comfort for her. How many habitable planets existed in this plane? In any plane? How many worlds were they really saving when they found the Light? How big were the planes? How numerous? Instead of being made to feel small and meaningless, she felt more important than her mortal life had ever afforded her.

What a privilege to fight for the existence of reality. A privilege, yes, but also a burden.

She was so deep in thought that she didn't hear the footsteps approaching until she heard a voice.

"How's it hanging?"

She jumped and wheeled around to see Taako, bathrobe pulled tight against his chest. "Not great," she said. Had Lup already talked about this idea of theirs with Taako? Did he plan on joining them? Was it her place to even ask? "But no, I'm not in the mood to discuss it," she added preemptively, hoping he would honor that.

He turned to lean his elbows behind him against the rail and fixed a concerned stare on her. "So long as everything's okay with you and the other lovebirds, you won't catch me complaining."

"Of course. We're fine. I'm just…" If she lied to him, he would almost certainly be able to tell. But knowing Taako, he also wasn't likely to call her on it. She liked that about him; he could appreciate why someone might lie to avoid a difficult conversation, and was usually willing to respect that. "It's been a hard year," she finished, casting her gaze downward.

There was a pause that made her think that he was going to pry after all, but then he looked up at the sky and smiled. "Yeah, I hear ya," he said. "Sometimes I hate this shit, y'know? Like, life on the road is sorta my Thing, but this is getting to be a bit much. Before it all went to shit I used to think maybe I'd give settling down a try once this job was done, if you can believe it." He laughed. "Yeah, right. Settle down. Who the hell did I think I was?"

Lucretia couldn't help but smile. "I think the traveling suits you. You're really in your element out here, if you ask me."

"Hmm, I didn't, but thanks, I happen to agree with you." He teased her amicably, the starlight shining in his bright eyes, as beautiful as Lup's yet so different. Something about the shine in them was entirely unique to him; Lucretia would be able to tell them apart immediately by that alone. "I don't love the running and the fighting and the dying and stuff, but hey, you take the ups with the downs."

"I wish we could have another year like the beach. We could use the break."

"Oh for sure! I miss surfing, that was tight as hell."

"You were quite good at it," she commented, nudging him with her elbow. "When this is all over, we better wind up somewhere with a decent coast so we can all go on a nice, long beach vacation. Maybe make an annual tradition of it."

He nudged her back. "As if we'll be out of each other's hair enough to make it a year without chilling. After all this time? Lup has you and Barry, so the four of us are stuck together for good. I don't think we could ditch Magnus if we tried. Merle's gonna retire and declare himself too old to travel anymore and demand we all live close to him. Hard to say for our dear captain. What do you think?"

A good question, one she hadn't considered previously. "Oh, he'll probably just stay on the ship forever and travel the world. The Starblaster is practically part of him."

Taako thought about it for a moment before nodding, satisfied. "That's kinda what I was thinking, too. Buncha nerds. But that's family, right? You gotta let them do what they think is best for themselves and trust that they'll let you, too. I didn't used to think that, with how monumentally shitty ours always was, but you're all okay." He smiled. "Anyway, I was just checking on you since you ignored me when I tried to talk to you on your way out. But you're good out here so I'm gonna go before my hair freezes over." A hand on her shoulder in brotherly support. "Hit me up if you need to chat or anything. I don't make that offer lightly, but it’s the least I can do. Lup loves you so much I could throw up."

"Thanks, I think?" she responded, watching him saunter back inside. Somehow Taako always knew what to say, if he was feeling kind enough to say it. She felt awkward having lied to him about her reason for being upset, but she couldn't stop thinking about how painful it would be for him if Lup went through with this. How it might be best if he didn't know, and that way if they came back normal the following year, he'd never have to find out.

As long as it didn't become a worst-case scenario. Which it shouldn't, right?

But all those risks…

If it went wrong and he didn't know why, it would ruin him. Hell, it would ruin Lucretia, even if she did know why. It still didn't feel like her place to share that information, but she decided to talk to Lup and Barry more about it before stepping back from the situation. If nothing else, she wanted to know if Taako had been informed of their plans yet. Maybe it wouldn't make a difference to Lup if he approved or not, but if she knew him as well as she thought she did, he was going to hate it just as much as she did. He was too cautious to see appeal in something like that.

Was it selfish of her to wish he could change her mind?

Feeling no calmer than when she initially stormed out, she headed back inside to their room, reluctant, but knowing that at this point it was all she Could do. Regardless of her personal feelings on the matter, they would need to discuss it like adults. The only way out of this situation was to get through it.
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Lucretia's heart was breaking. Every day she could feel the gap between herself and her lovers widening in the wake of their plans unfolding. The more certain they became, the worse she felt. It was evident that there would be no changing their minds. She knew that, had even come to accept it; she'd long since given up trying to reason with them.

It still hurt. They were going to become something unnatural, something there would be no returning from. Perhaps the most painful consequence was knowing that the best case scenario, as far as Lup and Barry were concerned, would see them stagnating permanently. Even if they defeated the Hunger and survived, Lup and Barry would leave her behind. She would age, and she would die, and in their agelessness they would eventually forget all about her and the time they shared.

Lucretia's head spun trying to comprehend the scope of the eternity they were resigning to. She couldn't decide which was worse: the thought of them being alive so long that they forgot about their family, or the thought of them losing control of themselves and dying, the last shred of the mortality tethering them to reality severed. Was it worse to die, like she would? Or was it worse to forget?

And to make matters even worse (if that were possible), she was going to be partially responsible for the outcome either way.

The best day ever. How was she going to give the two people she loved most in all of existence a day so densely packed with love and joy that it became a grounding force for the wild magic within their souls? How could it ever be enough to convey the depths of her feelings for them? She remembered wishing more than once, naively, that her love could be sufficient for keeping them safe and sound. It almost seemed cruel that she was being tasked with precisely that now. Impossible, surely. Her self-confidence had grown, that much was true, but it didn't make what she was about to do seem like anything more than a desperate attempt at salvation.

When she sat down with Taako to discuss what they were going to do, she wasn't surprised to find that he agreed with her. He hated the plan, was terrified for them both (but mostly for Lup); unlike Lucretia, though, he hadn't bothered to try talking them out of it. He didn't want to talk further about his feelings on the matter, which she understood, but together they coordinated what they were going to do for Lup to ensure that they weren't both going to try and present her with a similar itinerary.

"I want to spend the morning baking all her favorite things with her. Can you make sure we have the ingredients, even if they're just conjured?" she'd requested. He nodded, shoving a notepad at her and dictating the recipes she would need to know. Her hands rarely shook so much to write. It seemed silly, being so nervous about something as mundane as recipes, but gods, they had to be perfect. Everything had to be perfect.

On the morning of what was to be her day with Lup, Lucretia was pleased to find that Taako had done precisely what he'd promised. She and Lup spent hours dancing and singing in the kitchen as dough rested, cookies baked, and glazes set. They left floury handprints on each other's clothes, laughing at the dustings in their hair. The whole ship was full of the various conflicting scents, enveloping them in warmth. By the time everything was out of the oven and off of the stove, it was time to eat lunch, which consisted mostly of them tasting everything in delight.

After lunch, they wandered, hand in hand, talking about anything and everything. They were deliberately avoiding serious topics, like what was going to happen to Lup and Barry when they did the lich ritual or the implications that would have after the mission. Mostly they talked about memories. Their favorite cycles, their lives before, their hopes and dreams.

Lucretia drew a portrait of Lup posing beneath a tree and hoped it wouldn't be the last image she had of her. She was lounging against the thick roots, her hair cascading beautifully over her shoulder while the unnatural sunlight made her glow. If only she could capture how lovely her freckles were, how soft her skin felt. Lup always held an ethereal beauty, but Lucretia had never felt so enthralled by her as when she tried to capture her radiance in art. The upward curve of her lips in a sly smile, her lithe frame relaxed and welcoming, inviting Lucretia to come over and drape herself into her lap - a difficult temptation to resist.

She stared at the finished drawing with tears in her eyes. Lup asked what was wrong, but she couldn't bring herself to answer. Instead, she just embraced her, squeezing her whole body tight. This couldn't be the end.

"You know I love you, right? You know that nothing is ever going to change that, no matter what, right? No amount of disagreeing could ever change that, not in a thousand years." She hated that no words could ever convey just how profoundly she meant it.

Lup hugged her back, her fingers playing with the soft hair at the back of Lucretia's neck; she kissed her cheek. "Of course I know that, babe. I love you, too. And I don’t plan on stopping." She pulled back and smiled. "But no more tears; today's meant to be happy! Let's go home and have the most baller evening!"

Once they returned to the Starblaster, they made dinner together before enjoying a dessert of their various baked goods. Lucretia worried the entire time that it wasn't special enough, but it was the best she could do given the circumstances.

They ended the day by lying together in bed, kissing and caressing and whispering words of love until they drifted off to sleep in each other's arms.

Barry's special day was a bit harder. She knew that she wanted to draw a portrait of him too at some point, but beyond that she wasn't sure. It had to be fun and engaging, but it also had to get him out of that lab of his. He spent so much time cooped up doing research, working so hard, and she appreciated it, really! But she was going to drag him off of the ship if her life depended on it, because his very well may.

After much consideration, she settled on spending the day with him digging through one of the libraries they'd found for the worst poetry they could find to dramatically serenade one another with. It wound up being more fun than she'd thought it would be when they found the complete works of a particularly raunchy poet whose phrasing seemed almost intentionally horrible.

"Oh gods I hope this isn't what used to pass as sexy when this place had people," Barry commented, wiping away laughter-tears as he tried to catch his breath. "This stuff is just so bad!"

"I know! Who says these things?!" She also had tears streaming down her cheeks, her face sore from the force of her smiling and laughter.

"This guy did, apparently!" Barry closed the book he'd been holding and set it down beside himself, breath finally evening out. "This has been fantastic. I can't thank you enough."

"Of course," she said, taking his hand in her own. "I'm not going to lie to you, Barry, I'm terrified for you two. And I'm still angry. But I love you too much to control you."

He squeezed her hand tight. "I love you, too. I hope that you can forgive us. Whatever happens."

"That depends entirely on how this goes. Because, Barry, I've warned you. If this goes horribly wrong and I lose you both, I don't think I could ever forgive you. Or myself, for failing to stop you." She paused, hoping she hadn't just ruined the mood. What if this was the moment he remembered most vividly? What it she'd just spoiled what were meant to be the memories that sustained him? Had she just fucked everything up? She knew she should change the subject, but she couldn't stop herself asking one more thing: "Are you scared?"

"I'd be stupid not to be at least a little," he said, leaning his head forward to rest against her chest. "But I have complete faith that it'll be okay. The bond engine is incredible. We've got enough love between us that if those bonds aren't enough to sustain us, nothing was ever going to be." He kissed her collarbone affectionately, leaving behind a warmth Lucretia wanted to wrap her entire body in. She wondered if he would still be warm as a lich. "It will be, though. You gotta trust us."

"I do," Lucretia insisted, letting her arms fall around his shoulders. After they pulled apart, she drew the portrait of him among the books, looking perfectly at home in the beams of light streaming through the high windows. When she finished, she presented the food she'd brought for their lunch, the two of them enjoying a simple meal among the ruins of the library. It was perfect in its peacefulness.

They meandered their way back to the ship to be back in time for dinner, taking their time to enjoy the sights. It used to be unsettling walking through the remains of a long-dead civilization, but now that they were used to it, they could appreciate the ruins for what they were: a monument to the persistence of life. How long since this plane had seen life before them? Were there still small pockets of civilization out there, waiting to be discovered, trying to rebuild?

It might be depressing to have those conversations with anyone else, but with Barry it was a comfort. He understood her in a way few ever could, shared her fascination with life.

They ended their night much the same as she had with Lup: in bed, skin to skin, with gentle touches and whispers of assurance.

The following week as the three of them laid in bed the night before the ritual, Lucretia was completely sleepless. All she could think was that if this were to truly be the end, it would have to be enough. How could she ever accept that? She didn't want to lose them, couldn't fathom the pain of their permanent loss. She wanted more time, always wanted more, desperate, never enough. She wanted so much that she was dizzy with it.

And then she spent that day in a daze of dissociation, unable to bring her mind back to her body as her fears took her far away from herself. Her thoughts were a cacophony of terror, regret, and self-hatred. Why hadn't she been enough to convince them of their foolishness? What was she lacking that she wasn't able to stop them? Why were they okay with leaving her behind for this foolish plan? Why did it feel like she was being abandoned? She stood beside Taako while Barry and Lup prepared the ritual, their hands clasped so tight that her fingers were going numb. Neither spoke.

What could they say? Nothing could possibly make it better. There was a significant chance that they were about to witness their dearest family members die in a more permanent sense than any of them had had to confront in decades. And if that happened, it would be another month before they could find out if they were able to come back from it.

The moment of truth was upon them. She wanted to scream that it wasn't worth it, that they could find some other daring maneuver to save them all without potentially damning their souls to the void. Had she told them enough times that she loved them? Had she showed it as strongly as she felt it? Logically of course they knew, but did they KNOW? There were so many things she wished she could say that in the end she said nothing.

The fear she felt watching their new forms rise above their corpses was unparalleled, as was the relief when they stood back up, visually identical to how they'd been moments before. When they embraced, there was almost no indication that anything was amiss.

Almost.

They still radiated the warmth of living beings, but their energy was purely arcane, now. They felt less like people and more like artifacts, mere vessels for enchantment. She couldn't help but remember the time her soul seemed to brush directly against Lup's, uniting them more completely than she'd thought possible while they were rebuilt into their recorded state. The way it felt like part of her was stuck inside of Lup, and Lup inside her. How the only thing that eased the pain of that separation was proximity.

She still felt it. Did that mean that it didn't work?

Whatever the consequences, it was over now, and only time would tell how it would end.

She wept.
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The days were blurring together in a frenzy of desperation, anxiety, and exhaustion. Their continued survival was less certain every year, let alone the prospect of something resembling victory. Lup and Barry couldn't die anymore, which took a lot of pressure off, admittedly, but that didn't mean that couldn't change. What if something happened one of these years that circumvented that? What if the Hunger got strong enough that it could devour them forever?

As if that wasn't bad enough, Lucretia's suggestion for using shielding magic to save them from the Hunger was overruled in favor of another recklessly dangerous plan that she had protested. Why did nobody seem to value her opinion enough to trust her judgement? No matter how much time passed she couldn’t shake the fear that it was because she looked so young. It was a ridiculous notion, she knew that, but that didn't stop it from being a very real fear.

She had her head buried in her hands at her desk, slumped over a journal she meant to be writing in but couldn't find the focus. A hand gently touching her shoulder and startled her out of her thoughts.

"You okay?" It was Barry. Of course it was Barry. She was in their room, after all. Why was she so jumpy?

"I'm fine," she lied.

"Doesn't seem like it," he pointed out with a frown. "C'mon, sweetheart, don't close yourself off like this. Let me help you, please, I'm begging you. Do you wanna talk about it?" He started to rub her shoulders the way he knew she liked.

"No." She wasn't in the mood to make herself vulnerable anymore. If nobody was going to listen to her, what was the point? Clearly she had to take matters into her own hands. "I'll let you know if that changes." She waved him away under the pretense of wanting to get more writing done, but once she was alone, all she could do was cry.

How could they all so easily dismiss her after everything they'd been through? It almost felt like a betrayal, though she knew that was ridiculous. Her prolonged exhaustion was making her irrational. It felt like she was coming apart at the seams with how weary her spirit had become.

All of her free time was spent on practicing her shielding magic lately. Why wasn't it ever enough for anybody? What more could she do? What about her was insufficient? The only solution seemed to be to work longer, try harder, and pray that she could force them to see reason before it was too late.

Even though in some ways it felt like it already was.

She hated how distant they'd all become lately. Barry and Lup worked tirelessly on studying the Light, scarcely seen outside the lab anymore. Everyone else had their head in various books and experiments of their own, all of them growing more and more frantic by the day.

"You haven't been yourself lately, Luca," Lup commented one day. They were sitting out on the deck of the ship enjoying the sunset on what was to be yet another doomed plane, the Light irretrievable. "We're just worried about you because we love you," she reminded.

The irony stung. "I'm fine," she replied. She wanted to shake Lup's shoulders and shout at her. How dare she be concerned about Lucretia and expect that concern to be honored when she hadn't wanted to heed Lucretia's own words of concern all those years ago?

"That's what you always say!" Lup grabbed her face and turned it towards her, tears in her eyes. "Baby, you can't lie to save your life, you fucking suck at it, okay? We both know something's wrong, and it's not just the mission getting you down. What happened? Was it something one of us said? What can we do to make this right? We can't fix anything if you won't talk to us!"

Lucretia couldn't meet her eyes. She wished she had the gall to tell Lup that she should damn well know this all went back to them becoming liches, but she couldn't put that kind of guilt onto her lover. "I don't want to talk about it."

"Well, how the fuck are you ever going to feel better then?"

"I guess I won't."

Lup kissed her hard, no room for argument. It was an angry kiss that felt like a competition. She kissed back, hoping to channel all of her frustration into the rough press of lips and breathy sighs. She hoped her hands were gentle enough in contrast to show how she only meant it out of love. How she missed the tenderness they once had. How she wished they could go back to the earlier years of this mission, when they could spend entire days wrapped in each other's love, and they could still trust that everything would be okay.

When had they stopped believing that? When had it all changed?

"Look at us, Lup," she murmured, stroking Lup's cheek with the back of a hand. "Ninety-something years and I'll never get tired of this face. You're so beautiful it hurts." She choked on her words, fighting back tears. "I don't ever want this to end. I want to love you forever. Is that selfish?"

"Not at all," Lup answered. Her eyes closed as she leaned her head into the touch. "Me and Barry totally get that, babe, trust me. All we can do is try to be present in the moments we have together, and hope that those moments string together to make a life worth living."

Lucretia kissed her, softer this time. "Of course you're right. When aren't you?" She hoped it didn't sound as passive-aggressive as it felt. Judging by Lup's smile in return, she figured she'd softened the blow enough to avoid offense.

"Let's go back inside. I think I've got an idea of what I wanna do tonight." Lup was clearly flirting with how she waggled her eyebrows and pinched Lucretia's ass with a wink.

It was a comfort that no matter how much things changed, there were some things that would always be the same.

Wouldn't they?
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"Well, that's it, then. It's done." Lucretia stared down at the staff in her hands, trembling. The waves of energy coming off of it were nauseating, but she could feel them pulling her in, almost like a thrall. Almost like the object was alive.

This was more dangerous than they'd ever imagined.

Lup held up a silver gauntlet. "Not too bad," she said, voice trembling. "Guess the only thing left is to, y'know, send 'em off and hope for the best."

Lucretia nodded. It was too late to have doubts anymore; it was done. The next few days were a blur of them all coming and going, putting their objects out in the world they were resigned to saving for the very last time. This was going to be the end of it, one way or another. Either this insane plan worked - a risk she'd grown tired of protesting - or they finally failed badly enough to never bounce back. Sure, optimistically, they could escape and try again next year, but she had a terrible feeling that that wasn't going to happen anymore.

And even if it did, would the Light still be whole? Or did they break it in a way that it couldn't recover from? Could the Light of Creation be repaired?

"So, this is home now," Barry commented one day a week later. "We did the damn thing, and now we just live here, right? So long as things don't go south this time next year."

"Right," agreed Lucretia. "Let's not get our hopes up too high just yet. This still might now have worked. We'll just have to wait and see."

The first time one of the relics had a massive death count, Lucretia knew it had been a mistake to think it could ever go any other way. The more times it happened, the more strongly she was certain. She found Lup sobbing in bed one day, tearing at her hair.

"Thousands, Luca," she cried, curling in on herself further. "In a fucking instant! All dead! It's all my fault!"

Lucretia gathered Lup in her arms and let her cry, unable to offer any words. Nothing could make it better.

Another day she heard Barry weeping, inconsolable, while Lup tried her best to calm him. She stood in the hall and listened, not wanting to overwhelm him. "Did we do the right thing?" he asked. "They didn't ask for this! It's not their fault we wound up here!"

"Too late to worry about that, Bear," Lup choked. "All we can do now is wait it out, see if the Hunger shows up, and do what we can from there." She sniffled; from the hall, Lucretia could feel her blood run cold as Lup continued. "Besides, what other choice did we have?"

She couldn't stand there and listen anymore, turning and marching down the hall to the room that had been solely her own and slammed the door. She didn't care if they heard. Lup's words replayed in her mind the rest of the night. What other choice? Did they really disregard Lucretia's suggestion so thoroughly that it wasn't even a consideration at all? Did they think so little of her?

Over that year her resentment grew. She watched as her family crumpled under the weight of what they'd done, ached to fix it for them, anything to make it all right again. They were all growing cold and distant from one another, tempers flaring at the smallest things, all the love that had sustained them for so many years seemingly vanished.

She was beginning to suspect that even without the Hunger, her family might finally be done for. There didn't seem to be any recovering from the repercussions of what they'd done.

More and more often she found herself staying in her room, avoiding everyone, even her lovers. They were all isolating themselves, unable to cope with the consequences of their actions. When the day of the Hunger's arrival passed, there was almost a break in the silence. At last, the horrible devastation they'd caused had meaning. Finally, there was a point to all of the death and destruction.

"What happens now?" Barry had asked her one evening, the three of them sitting on the bedroom floor in a nest of blankets with glasses of wine. "Is this just where we spend the rest of our lives? Doing… whatever it is we're doing?"

"I guess so," Lup said, the most distant of them all. Out of the seven of them, Lup was taking it the hardest. Her relic was causing the most death, after all. They all had their own way of dealing with the weight of it, but Lup… She just wasn't the same. No longer was she bright-eyed and smiling, no longer fiery and passionate. She was quiet and dim and hollow. Lifeless. "Now that the rest of you are mortal again, what do you want to do?" she asked Lucretia.

Lucretia covered her pause with a sip of wine. She'd thought about it so much once, but not in years. "I don't really know anymore," she admitted. "I used to think maybe we'd find a way to go home. Then I thought it'd be enough to call anywhere home as long as it was with all of you. But now that we've found it…" She shook her head, taking another sip. "We just have to make the most of it, I guess, don't we?"

They mumbled agreements before trying to change the subject. In the end, they couldn't distract themselves enough to have any fun, miserably passing the bottles of wine back and forth as they drank to forget about what they'd done.
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The bed shifted as Lup climbed in, stirring Lucretia and Barry to wakefulness. She muttered apologies, still sitting up, not yet in her pajamas. Lucretia rubbed at her eyes, pulling free from Barry's arms to sit as well; he followed, groggy. "You okay?" she asked.

Lup wouldn't look them in the eyes. "Yeah. I just wanted to thank you two for everything. We've been through some pretty rough shit. Like, the roughest there could be, for sure, but you've stuck by me. You've loved me even when I was being a real jerk who probably didn't deserve it. So, y'know, thank you." She finally looked at them, resolve in her eyes. "We're going to find a way to make things right. We'll make this a world we're proud to live in. Somewhere safe, where we can be happy together. Forever. We'll find a way. We have to."

Barry and Lucretia shared a glance. "That sounds wonderful," Barry started, "But what prompted this? Are you okay?"

"Of course," she retorted, too quickly, suspicious. "Just been thinking. Lucretia said it best before. We're here for good, now, so we have to make the most of it. That's all." She kissed them both. "Sorry for waking you. Let's sleep. I love you so much."

The remainder of the night passed with restless sleep for Lucretia. At one point she felt the bed shift again as Lup got up; she reached out for her, not wanting her to go. "Stay," she mumbled, still mostly asleep. She felt Lup hesitate before leaning down to press a kiss to her forehead.

"I'll be back soon, baby, I promise. I love you so, so much. Never stop choosing to do good."

It felt like an odd thing to have said, but Lucretia was too asleep to protest. Instead, she let her hand fall back to the bed, part of her mind desperately trying to claw its way to alertness so she could ask Lup what she'd meant, and why it felt like a goodbye. But before she could, Lup was gone, and she'd said nothing in response.

Later when they woke up and found her note on the kitchen table, a promise sealed with a kiss, she couldn't help but feel like it was another personal failure of hers. Again, she'd failed to stop someone she loved from taking a risk. Again, she'd tried and come up short. Again, she hadn't been enough. Never enough.

What was it going to take to be enough? Too late now for that, she feared. Now all that remained was a note, mirroring the promise Lup made the night before.

"Back soon."

Chapter Text

At first, they discussed sending someone after her. Taako mentioned that she'd been dodgy that night, too, that he wished he'd asked her if something more was going on. They knew that they all took off sometimes, though, when the weight of their mistakes was too heavy to bear. Sometimes it helped to clear their heads to have some alone time. They understood.

That didn't stop this time from feeling different in a way that turned Lucretia's stomach sour.

Since she'd left no clues, all they could do was wait for Lup's return. After three days, they were growing concerned. After a week, panicked. There wasn't a single moment spared as she, Barry, and Taako searched. They hardly slept, barely ate, couldn't bring themselves to pause their desperate search for the piece missing from their hearts. Why hadn't she told someone where she was going?

Lucretia felt guilty that she'd been spending less time with them lately. How many nights wasted laying in her own bed, alone? As if that ever would have fixed what was wrong in the first place. Time gone that would never come back, precious and scarce and finally finite.

Where had she gone? Why couldn't she come back? Heaven forbid, but even if she'd died, she was a lich! She shouldn't be able to just go missing like this! Right? She should be able to come back no matter what, or what was the fucking point?

That thought tortured Lucretia. What WAS the point? What were they even doing? Why bother? It wasn't like saving Lup would save the world that they'd doomed. Was it selfish to prioritize her over the world itself?

One night when they were permitting themselves rest, Lucretia and Barry held onto one another with more force than ever before, as if a moment's lapse would cause them to disappear forever. They were too tired to cry, but too anxious to sleep. Instead, they simply drank in each other's warmth and presence, eyes unseeing as they both mildly dissociated.

"I should have stopped her," Lucretia croaked at one point, voice raspy from disuse. Barry made a noise to show he was listening before she continued. "I woke up when she was leaving. She said…" Her breath shook as she struggled to repeat the words that played on loop in her mind, ceaseless and taunting. "She promised she'd be back soon. Told me she loved me. Then she said 'never stop choosing to do good,' and I thought, y'know, that that was kind of weird? But she was gone before I was awake enough to answer her." A sob caught in her throat. "Maybe I could've said something to keep her here long enough for you to wake up, and all this could've been avoided. I shouldn't have been so distant lately. I should've been there for her. For you, too."

After a shaky breath, Barry answered. "Luca, no, this isn't your fault, you know she wouldn't want you to think that," Barry said. "C'mon, this is Lup. She got it into her head that she had to go wherever alone, and there was never gonna be anything we could've done to stop her." He was stroking Lucretia's back to comfort her.

She buried her face in Barry's chest; of course he was right. "Do you ever wish we didn't do this?"

"Which 'this?' Because I've definitely got a lot of regrets about this mission. I think we all do."

"This, dividing the Light and putting it out there for everyone to use. It was your idea. And I know I voted against it but it really was brilliant, in theory."

Barry chuckled. "Yeah, well, sometimes theory doesn't work out so well in practice. I don't regret that part, though, no. I can't imagine the shield idea would've worked any better. But I don't want to fight about that again, okay? Please, let's just…" He hugged her. "Let's just have this. I'm so tired, Luca."

The way his voice caught on her name was the last straw for Lucretia, whose tears began anew, her heart shattering. Lup being gone was such a physical loss in a way she hadn't ever expected. Her chest hurt, like her heart was forgetting how to beat. She couldn't focus, her limbs were heavy, her head ached. If they weren't searching so frantically she wondered if she would waste away in grief.

At some point the two of them slept, and when they woke, for a few blissful moments before she remembered, she thought perhaps Lup was up before them making breakfast. She kissed Barry sweetly, snuggling against him and petting his hair. As she opened her mouth to speak, the realization slammed into her, and she flinched.

Barry got up without speaking and started to get dressed, leaving Lucretia laying on the bed in a daze. "I'm gonna go see if Taako is ready to get started," he eventually said, startling her out of her thoughts. "If you need more sleep that's okay."

She shook her head and dragged herself up. "No, Bear, it's okay, I'm up. I just, I guess, forgot for a minute. I thought she might be here."

As she watched him walk out of the room, she felt her anger rising. How could she forget? Even worse: part of her almost wished she hadn't remembered, had stayed in those few beautiful moments of wholeness where she had everything her heart desired. She knew that Barry felt her absence just as acutely, as painfully, and couldn't fathom how much worse the agony of it was for Taako.

It was one thing to see their friends' concern, but another thing to see Barry so broken over it all, and yet another entirely to see how empty it left Taako. She could understand how Barry felt to a fault, but watching Taako so void of joy was crushing. Sure, Lup had died during the mission before, leaving Taako a mess of grief. But this was different in its permanence, deeper and harsher and altogether unforgiving. It was worse than any tragedy they'd endured or caused, and she wanted to take it away to make everything okay again.

And couldn't she?

A dangerous thought occurred to her. She really could take it all away if she wanted to. It would require a lot of careful planning, and they would never forgive her at the end of it, but that was a small price to pay, all things considered. Besides, if she did this one thing, this terribly selfishly cruel thing, they could all be happy again. She could take being hated in the aftermath if it meant her family was whole again.

Well, not exactly, she reasoned.

They would have to be separated in order for it to work. They wouldn't be whole in the sense of all being together, unless she managed to find Lup on her own. But they wouldn't know who or what they were missing or what they'd done, and wouldn't that be kinder? To return them to the states they were in before the mission? She had an entire log of everywhere they'd gone, everything they'd done. Logically, if she removed the mission from their memories, they would be back to their old selves with minimal editing to let them accept their current world as their home.

She could find new homes for them all and let them live in peace, none the wiser to their mistakes. They could live as they would have without the IPRE, free to be whoever their hearts desired, unburdened by the miseries their fates had delivered unto them. It would mean that Lucretia was left to bear that burden all alone, but hadn't she gotten used to that once already anyway?

It would be a lot like her solitary year, except it would last much longer by necessity unless she was exceptionally lucky in her plans. Besides, she was stronger now than the woman who went into that year, having endured it and so much more in the time since. She could handle a little bit of solitude while she cleaned up the mess they all made. And really, wasn't it the least any of them could do to atone for the devastation they'd caused? Someone had to, and she knew she could handle it, wanted to take on the weight of it alone if only to spare them the pain. At least she wouldn't be a wanted criminal in this plane, meaning she would be free to search for Lup as she gathered and destroyed their relics.

"If you want things done right, sometimes you have to do them yourself," she thought, resolving to plan something horrible.

In her conviction she found momentum. Having a direction to work towards fueled her spirit as she withdrew entirely, set in her way.

Over the next month she hardly assisted in the search for Lup. Instead, she stayed locked in her cabin, working her journals into a version that would make this all possible. It was an insane idea, if she thought about it for too long, but at this point there truly weren't any other options. What else could she do? At the very least, if she failed and perished along the way, the others wouldn't be able to miss her. She would be truly forgotten.

Would it be better that way? She wasn't sure. It hurt, but she had to consider that perhaps it would be.

She couldn't bring herself to look at any of them, knowing what she was planning. Barry was too consumed with the search for Lup to ask her what was wrong. Nobody else seemed to notice, either, wrapped up in their own grieving. The day she finally finished her redaction, she wept. So many tears already shed and yet she still had more. If this didn't fix it, nothing would.

That night she climbed into bed with Barry and let him hold her until sunrise, restless. When they were getting up to begin what she knew to be their final day, she grabbed his face in her hands and held his gaze. "Barry, I have some things to say and I want you to listen, okay? Please."

"Yeah, sure, what's up?" The dark circles under his eyes were so deep, his face unshaven. He'd fallen asleep in his rumpled work clothes, not even bothering to change out of his jeans. Everything about him was worn thin, the empty shell of a man whose heart had been broken.

She took a deep breath. It was now or never. "I love you. I fell in love with you and Lup together, and I never thought in a million years that either of you would give me the time of day. But you did, and you both have given me so, so, so much joy. You've loved me at my worst, and I've only ever tried to do the same." She leaned in for a quick kiss, barely ghosting their lips together. For a final kiss, it would have to do. Much more than that and she might break. "I don't want our journey to end here. I want to find her, Bear, and I want everything to be okay again. I want to marry you, both of you. I want that happy ending we always used to talk about."

"Me too, Luca, to all of it," he whispered, closing his eyes and leaning his cheek into her caress. "Let's go. Maybe today will be the day we have some luck. Gotta be one of these days, now, right?"

She watched him walk out of the room and wished that he was right. But she knew better than that by now. "I have to do this," she told herself, over and over again. "I can fix this. I have to, for them. For her. And I will."

Now all she had to do was finish it. She knew deep down that this was the only way.

Even still, hours later as she picked up the journals to feed to Fisher one by one, she'd never felt so much self-hatred.
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They were sitting in a busy café, their usual agreed-upon meeting place. Lucretia wished they'd met under better circumstances. It had been pure luck to come across a scientist as brilliant as Maureen Miller in the first place. In another life they could've been much closer.

"So, I think we've got the funding covered, and now all we gotta do is do the damn thing!" Maureen declared, lively in all the ways Lucretia had missed. She reminded her of both Lup and Barry: vibrant, passionate, and a touch awkward. Lucretia absolutely had a crush on her, but she shoved it aside, worried that it was born out of loneliness.

How unfair it would be to want a woman like Maureen to care for her when she knew damn well she was in love with two ghosts.

"Excellent. I really can't thank you enough for all your help. I've found a few volunteers willing to help out with the endeavor, and as soon as we've got a base of operations, they'll be able to join us more permanently." She sipped at her tea, nerves once again flaring. This couldn't be allowed to go wrong, not after everything she'd done.

Maureen nodded enthusiastically before turning to the young man sitting next to her. "Are you excited to help me and your auntie build some sick-ass robots?"

The boy adjusted his glasses as he looked from Maureen to Lucretia; he eyed her warily. "I guess," he said. He was a teen, not much younger than Lucretia herself had been when she left her homeworld.

She smiled and took another sip. Though they'd only known each other for a few months, she'd grown extremely fond of Maureen and her boy. It was definitely because of how much she missed her own family, longing for something to fill the void she was responsible for creating.

Of course she had Davenport with her at all times, too afraid that it might not be safe yet for him to be by himself. Once they had their base of operations complete then perhaps, as there would be enough other people around to keep an eye on him, but as things stood now, she didn't feel comfortable abandoning him. It didn't feel right when it was her fault, anyway.

Before they went through with finalizing their plans, though, there was one more thing she wanted to know that she'd never gotten a straight answer to. "If you don't mind me asking, why are you so willing to do this?"

After a moment's pause, Maureen sighed. "C'mon, Lucy, you inoculated us and expected that we wouldn't be interested in helping you save the world? Knowing what we know? Some evil artifacts made by some power-hungry assholes are out there causing untold destruction, and nobody else knows enough about them to stop it!" She put a hand on Lucas' shoulder. "I want what any mother wants: to make the world a safer place for my son to grow up in. That's reason enough, if you ask me."

Lucretia had to stop herself from spilling her whole story then and there. Something about Maureen made Lucretia want to tell her everything, but she knew better. It was enough that Maureen wanted to help, and beyond that, had the means to. It would have to be enough. She couldn't burden this woman with the weight of what she'd done. It would ruin their friendship, and jeopardize their partnership.

She settled on commenting, "That's very noble of you."

"What about you, though? Do you have any family?"

She froze. She didn't want to talk about it, yet she felt on the verge of oversharing. Too long spent with poor conversational company. "Not anymore," she said, looking away, out the window of the café toward the busy street outside. Exactly the type of city she'd delighted in exploring with her friends in an ever-more-distant past. "I'm alone now. Well, besides Davenport."

Maureen took another sip of her drink, seemingly unbothered by the waver in Lucretia's voice. "Oh, you two are related?"

The casual tone Maureen used made Lucretia chuckle. "No, but we've been close for pretty much our entire lives." That much wasn't a lie, at least. It was the first time she'd said something like that out loud, but it struck her how true it was. She'd only spent roughly nineteen years of her hundred and twenty years without Davenport. It occurred to her then that she wasn't sure of his exact age. Was that something she could even ask him now? Would he know?

Maureen accepted it easily enough. They spent the rest of their meeting talking about when and where they would meet next, what materials were needed to get started on their base's foundation, how much help they would need in terms of labor and funds. After, when they were saying their goodbyes, she grabbed Davenport by the hand and led him back through the city streets towards where the ship was parked.

Though she knew it was pointless, she decided to strike up conversation. In a lot of ways it felt like when she would talk to Fisher during her solitary year. Speaking for the sake of vocalizing her thoughts, unable to expect a meaningful response beyond the confirmation that she was in fact alive. "They seem like good people, don't they, captain?"

"Davenport!"

"Yes, I know." She never knew what to say to that. At least he was smiling again.

She prayed that the others were, too, wherever they were now. It had been too long since she'd last checked in on them, but she suspected they were in the same locations she'd dropped them off at. With any luck, it wouldn't be much longer now before she could finally bring them all home. They might not recognize her in her newly-advanced age, but that was fine by her.

There was still no sign of Lup. She continued to look in whatever time she had nowadays, but she seemed to have truly vanished. Barry, too, much to her agony. Finding blood on the deck of the ship with Taako collapsed in a sobbing heap beside it told her all she needed to know: either lich-Barry was wandering the world, too angry or too deep in a grief-induced madness to come back to her, or he was alive without any memories.

She wasn't sure which she wished more was the case. It kept her up many nights, tortured by the possibilities. On the one hand, it was unlikely that he survived a fall from the Starblaster in flight, but he'd had his wand on him. He could've cast something to break his fall. He might still be alive, it was possible, it had to be! She couldn't accept that both of her lovers were gone forever, no matter how much more likely that seemed to be the case with each failed attempt at locating them.

But dead or alive, as a lich, if he lost control…

She shuddered to think about it. He could be out there ravaging the countryside in his rage, no longer in control of his power. Liches were pretty universally hated by anybody who knew what they were. If he was mindful enough to lay low he could avoid detection, but if he'd lost himself to madness, she feared that wouldn't be the case. What if he was being hunted? Or was he out there, alone and on the run, like she had been once? Only potentially worse: without even knowing who he was or what he'd done?

"Davenport?" He tugged at her sleeve.

"It's okay, I'm just… You know how it is. I miss them."

He nodded, looking sullen. "Davenport…" He held her hand and looked at her with concern. Like somewhere underneath it all, he somehow knew.

She nodded back. "I know. We'll be together again soon, I promise. You're going to hate me when you remember what I've done, but that's okay." They were boarding the ship, its rooms left almost completely untouched in the handful of years since its occupants were scattered. She sat down with Davenport in the common room and put her head in her hands. "I'm going to fix this," she repeated, her guiding mantra.

It didn't matter to her how long it would take to become true. Granted, she had fewer years than she would have liked thanks to her little mishap in Wonderland, but still, there should be plenty of time. She didn't dare think about the alternative.
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When was the last time she was this excited? This nervous? She hadn't checked on the three of them in years, having lost track of them without the time to keep up to date on their whereabouts. When Killian called to say she was on her way with them, Lucretia began to pace the length of the audience chamber. They were finally here, and they were safe and alive and--!

She hoped they'd been happy.

When the three of them walked in, her heart sang. It was easy enough to keep her cool knowing that they wouldn't recognize her. As soon as she sent them on their way after the test of initiation, though, the weight of it all came crashing down on her shoulders again, heavier than it had been in a long while. She knew they would be able to help her fix this mess, trusted that they would succeed where others had failed. The weight of those failures was on her shoulders, too; how many Reclaimers had she hired in the hopes that they would be right for the job, only to lose them to the thrall of the relics?

It had been so wonderful to see them, brief as it was. Now the only missing pieces were her lovers, whose absence she felt most acutely.

She left the audience chamber and strode down the hall with purpose, eager to move things along. Knocking on an office door, she waited for an invitation before opening it and hoping that her face appeared neutral enough to discourage excessive questioning. It would seem odd of her to be so excited about these particular new recruits.

"Brad, have you got a moment?" she asked.

The orc man looked up from the papers he'd been reading, adjusting his glasses, and gestured to welcome her in. "Of course, Madame Director! What can I do for you?"

She smiled. "We have three new Reclaimers joining us. They've only just arrived. They won't have anything on file, no letters of recommendation or what have you, but believe me when I say that I think they're going to be amazing."

As soon as she'd mentioned new hires, Brad opened a drawer on his desk to pull out several folders. "Wonderful! Where d'you want me to start with them? Payroll? Benefits? Personnel files?"

"Wherever you'd like," she answered, sitting down across from him. "I can give you some information to make it easier, though. I suspect they're going to be difficult about actually completing any official paperwork, so the less you have to ask them to do, the better."

He laughed in response as he opened the first folder, removing the paperwork inside. "Sounds like you know these guys?"

"Not very well," she said, hoping it didn't sound defensive. "But I've heard a bit about them. Two of them, anyway. You might recognize the names."

"Oh, so we've got a couple of celebrities joining us, then?" Brad grinned, clicking his pen rapidly. "That should be fun."

Lucretia couldn't help but smile back. Celebrities. An interesting word for it, but she supposed it fit, given their accomplishments. It felt strange to bring the two halves of her life together like this, but it had to be done. For too long now she'd separated herself into two distinctly uneven halves: before cycle 99, and after. Before, she had a family, a dangerous mission, a certain place with a definite role. She was important, someone whose life had value for what she was able to do.

After, she was floating free without direction, no purpose, purely driven forward without any known trajectory until forming new bonds with the Bureau members. Bonds which, while newer, allowed her to author her own story. She had agency to become whoever she pleased, and she chose to become this: a leader. Without the Bureau, she'd been beholden to none but her own guilty conscience begging that she hurry and fix this mess so that she could have her family back. With it, she had the means to do so.

She wished that they could be proud of her.
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With a groan, she followed the security guard down the hall. They'd said something about an employee trying to get into her private quarters, and how they'd grown hostile and even physically aggressive when apprehended. She was assured that they were safely contained in the brig for questioning. Of course. Just what she needed, another headache.

She was hardly paying attention to them when they rounded the corner, but stopped in her tracks when she heard an unfamiliar voice say, "Holy shit, Luca, what happened to you?" Before she could demand that they admit how they knew that name, they continued, "Babe, it's me! Ugh. Never mind that, what the hell have you done?! What were you thinking?!" It was Robbie's body, but Robbie wasn't the one speaking from it.

"B…Barry?" she asked cautiously, waving the guards away. "Let me question him alone," she said. "I don't want any of you to become compromised. If he can possess the bodies of others we can't risk him jumping into any of you." She held up a hand to cut off any questions. "That is final. If I'm not out in ten minutes, you may come get me." They obeyed, leaving her to turn back to the prisoner with tearful eyes. "And just what the fuck do you think you're doing here?"

"Oh, no, I asked you questions first. How could you, Lucretia?"

"How could I what, Barry? How could I take matters into my own hands and try to fix this shit? How could I take away the hurt you felt at losing Lup? How could I try to give you all the lives you deserved? Because the answer is the same for all of those: it's because I love you! I love you all so damn much, and it was killing me to see the damage we'd done. How it was destroying you." She knew she was getting carried away, but a decade of frustration was finally finding its avenue. She'd become practiced in appearing calm and collected in front of her employees, but keeping her emotions under wraps in front of her lover? Especially after so many years apart?

Nearly impossible. She gripped her staff hard, knuckles white. These were words she never expected to have the opportunity to say aloud; it was more difficult than she'd ever imagined. "I knew the moment I decided to act that you would hate me when you remembered, but I don't care! Hate me! That's fine! Maybe I even deserve it, but I'm doing my goddamn best to make things right! I have to do this!"

Robbie's fists slammed against the bars as Barry spoke through him. "Is that what you call this? Doing what you 'have to' do? Lucretia, you're a brilliant woman, but for fuck's sake, you're a fool! What's this going to accomplish? The Hunger is going to feel the Light as soon as you start dismantling the relics. You're going to bring the apocalypse right to your own doorstep, and then what? You leave this world to ruin? It'll be too late--"

She cut him off. "We've already ruined it. We've ruined everything, and we can't un-ruin it. But I can still fix this, I promise, just give me time, I--"

"Enough, Lucretia. Let me out of here, and take down those anti-lich wards so I can come here myself. We need to have a long talk. I'm not afraid to reason with you, even if--"

"No, that's it, I'm done. I'm sorry, but I'm sick and tired of all of my plans being shot down in favor of more reckless, more dangerous, more destructive ones! I'm done with it, Barry! I know I can do this and it doesn't matter if nobody else thinks I can anymore because I don't need your approval. I believe in this and by god, I will make things right." She paused, tears in her eyes as she lowered her voice. "I really am sorry, Barry. I love you so much but I can't let you get in the way of me seeing this through."

"Lucretia--"

"Enough!" she shouted, stepping closer to the bars. "I'm going to go get an anti-lich amulet and drive you out of here, and I will make sure you can't come back. And when this is all done, you can come kill me in revenge or whatever it is you think will make things even between us. But for now, Barry? I'm going to save us. I'm going to save everything."

As she turned on her heel to march out, heart in her throat, she ignored his cries for her to come back and talk it out. She couldn't. If she stayed and they talked, she knew her resolve would be weakened. And she couldn't have that.

It was many nights before she was able to sleep again.
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"Wait, where did you find that umbrella?!"

"This? I found it like two adventures ago on some skeleton in a cave! See? Answering someone's questions isn't hard at all, is it?" A wicked grin, steely gaze, stiff yet haughty posture. As if she were a stranger inconveniencing him.

She knew that icy tone, and the glare that accompanied it, all too well. She should've known that Taako would have his walls up, keeping everyone at a distance by dismissing them entirely. Even still, it stung to hear her family speak so cruelly to her.

It hurt even worse to process the words he'd said. On a skeleton. The umbra staff, on a skeleton. That meant…

As soon as she was alone, Lucretia swept her arms over her desk to shove all of its items aside, sending everything clattering to the floor. The energy building up inside her body needed a release before she exploded. She pushed the rest of the items away from her before slumping into her chair, immediately feeling spent as the grief washed over her in waves, her heart shattering with fresh agony.

She knew. Of course she knew. Lup had to be dead, seeing as she hadn't turned up in a decade. But to have someone confirm that so flippantly, as if her life had meant nothing. And for that confirmation to come from her brother, who had meant everything…

Did Barry know? Was that why he'd chosen now of all times to find her? Or was it merely a coincidence? It had to be; there was no way Barry would still be sane. She would have to be more cautious, set up more anti-lich security just to be safe. If he knew that Lup was truly lost, he would certainly lose himself. In a way it had been a relief to see that he hadn't already, but at the same time that just meant she had more to lose if he did.

As she sobbed, she reminisced, the pain in her chest flaring with every memory of tenderness and love. Lup smiling at her, bright and beautiful as the sun. The way her hair looked in the moonlight. The precious chuckle-snort she did when something amused her and she tried in vain to hide it. The contrast of her rough, calloused hands and her soft body. Passion, joy, brilliance, love.

And Barry, soft in a different way, always radiating warmth. How he would nervously adjust his glasses with trembling hands. The way he ran his fingers through his hair when he was deep in concentration. The way his eyes shone when he looked at Lup with all the love of the universe, like gazing upon Creation Herself. How he came to look at her that way, too. Focus, cleverness, kindness, desire.

More than just the happiness they shared, she couldn't help but dwell on the sorrow as well. The first time Lup died in front of her, so quick she didn't realize what had happened until she looked down at the broken body, twisted and bloody, at her feet. The pain of failing to protect Barry from a curse, and watching him waste away slowly over the course of weeks, regret eating her insides as badly as disease. How empty their eyes had become by end of the mission. How weary, how tired, how hurt.

The way Lup would start crying at the drop of a hat, her temper raging at the smallest of inconveniences. How Barry was withdrawn into himself, almost completely shut down as if merely a walking corpse.

And then Lup was gone, and with her, their hearts.

Lucretia had no choice, she reminded herself. She couldn't bear to watch them like that anymore. And in time she'd learned to live without them, something she'd doubted was even possible anymore.

She could still do this. She had to.
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Sending them to Wonderland was a mistake, but it was one a long time in the making. It was unavoidable, no matter how much she wished it could be. There was always the chance that they died before she had to send them there, or that someone would find a way to defeat the liches in charge, or any other number of circumstances that might make it less dangerous to retrieve the Animus Bell. Could she really be blamed for putting it off, when Wonderland had taken so much from her?

When the boys said that Magnus didn't make it out, she almost broke down and told them everything. It took all of her willpower not to declare a change of plans and admit it all.

That's why when she heard Davenport's voice, small and afraid, her heart stopped.

"Lucretia, what have you done?"

Wasn't it her responsibility to guide them through the remembering? It was time to return what she had taken away. It wouldn't be fair to leave them to suffer the remembering on their own. Since it was a fate she'd been spared she couldn't say for certain, but she thought that it probably hurt them - and physically, not just emotionally. The weight of those years returning must be crushing after having their burden lifted for so long.

It wasn't like she didn't think about their journey frequently; some days it was the only thing she Could think about. But having to put her own voice behind the story, giving shape to a narrative that previously existed only in writing, hurt her. There was so much pain to dwell on that sometimes it seemed to outweigh the good, which was why she tried so hard to focus on the best years. The seven of them had grown so close, had loved so deeply, and she wanted them to remember it as vividly as she felt it every waking moment.

The rest of the day passed in a blur of battle. By far the greatest relief she'd ever felt in her entire existence, more even than after surviving her solitary year, was watching Lup's phantasmal form floating before them all, pure radiance and arcane energy. They had only moments to bask in the reunion before battle set upon them, but in those moments, her spirits were restored. She could hold Barry's hand in her own and gaze into the burning eyes of their long-missing love, complete for the first time in so many years.

When the fighting was finally done many hours later and they were all able to have time to unpack their situation, she went to them, to Barry and Lup, and was prepared to be sent away. She steeled herself to accept rejection. There was no way they would see her, knowing all she'd done, and accept her. Not now that they'd had time to think about it.

It was impossible. Wasn't it?

Even still, seeing them resting beneath a tree set her heart pounding. They were beautiful together, and against all odds, they were within her reach if only they would have her. She approached. "Barry," she started, cautious. "Barry, I'm so sorry, can you ever forgive me? I understand if you can't but please, I want you to understand, I--"

"Lucretia, don't," he said, his eyes dark with exhaustion as he shook his head. "I understand enough. I'm going to be angry for a long time, I think, but I don't think you have to worry about being forgiven." He sighed, smiling over at Lup, floating effortlessly by his side. "We don't have to talk about it just yet. I'd rather we didn't, actually, because I'm frankly too tired to deal with it. It's gonna take some time but…"

"He's saying he loves you," Lup interrupted, gliding towards Lucretia. "Baby, I want you to know that I'm mad as hell, too, but I'm not gonna hold a grudge. I just can't believe you did that to yourself. The burden of what we did, it was just-- Lucretia, I'm so sorry you carried it all alone." She draped her spectral arms around Lucretia's shoulders. "I'm proud of you, sweetheart. You did so well! And look at us: all safe and sound, just like you wanted!"

The relief that was washing over Lucretia was like a drug lulling her to sleep. Her shoulders slumped and if she closed her eyes, she could swear she felt Lup's warmth clinging to her, the humming energy of her lich form pulsing almost like a heartbeat. Close enough to almost resonate within her, as if they were one. She lifted a hand to where Lup's cheek would be. "I found you."

"Told you I'd be back," Lup answered.

Barry moved closer to throw his arms around Lucretia as well. "Don't leave me out," he teased. "Lup, why don't you go find Taako? I'm sure you two have a lot to talk about. Us old humans need to rest our weary bones."

"Sure wish I had bones."

"Soon."

"Soon?" Lucretia raised an eyebrow.

"Well, yeah, how do you think I got a new body if I was in my lich form before?" Barry shrugged, feigning nonchalance. "It's, y'know, no guarantee at this point or anything, but I've still got some stuff back at my cave. If there's enough genetic material left from Lup on any of the stuff I've been holding onto, well… Give it a few months and she'll be good as new!"

Lup leaned in as if to kiss his cheek, then moved to do the same to Lucretia. "Worth a shot! Now, I'm going to go have some Twin Time, but I will find you two in a bit so we can keep talking about how excited we are for my hot new bod!"

Of course Lup would try to make them laugh. And of course she would succeed. As soon as she'd floated off to go find her brother, the tension between Lucretia and Barry returned. It stung to think that maybe the only thing keeping them together might be Lup, when previously the love between the two of them had been no less intense, no less real.

"So," she started, looking down. "I hope you know I mean it when I say I'm sorry. I truly only wanted to help. Losing her was… And you… We…"

Barry wrapped his arms around her, pressing her head against his chest. "It's okay, Luca, I know." He kissed the top of her head. "I understand, and that's part of why I'm so angry. I should've known you'd try to do something drastic as soon as you started withdrawing like that. I should've tried to be there for you more, so you didn't feel like it was the only option. Maybe I could've talked you out of it, I dunno."

His words echoed her own when she lamented her inaction the night Lup disappeared. In it there was a grace she wasn't sure she deserved anymore, but longed for with a fierce intensity.

"I doubt it," she said, letting her arms drape around his waist. "Don't take this the wrong way, but I don't regret what I did. I'm sorry for the hurt that it caused, because clearly my intent was to take away pain and not cause more of it, but I'm not sorry that I meant well. I should've talked to you more, you're right, but I did the best I could've done." She hugged him tight. "None of us could've known what would happen. It… Well, it certainly wasn't meant to be quite like this."

"Like how?" Barry leaned back and forced a smile at her. "Babe, if you're worried about the age thing, I promise, that isn't an issue, in fact--"

"No, no, nothing like that," Lucretia interrupted. "I don't care about that very much. I mean, a little, because it felt like shit to go through that much aging instantaneously, but other than that it's fine." She chuckled. "It was actually kind of a relief to look different, finally. Is that weird?"

"You look like the same little Luca to me." Barry's expression softened as he brought a hand to rest on her cheek. "Still the same beautiful woman I fell in love with. Who else would be smart enough - or capable enough - to pull this off?"

"Now, dear Barold, if I didn't know better I'd think you were flirting with me. An odd thing for an angry man to be doing, wouldn't you say?"

"Hmm perhaps, but you're forgetting one very simple fact."

"And what's that?"

"I still love you. No amount of anger can undo that. I'll have plenty of time to be mad at you later once I've had time to process this more, but for now? Fucking hell, I'm just so happy that we're all going to be okay."

"Speaking of, you mentioned a little something about Lup getting a new body. Care to elaborate?"

"Oh, sure, of course." Barry's eyes glowed with appreciation as he rambled off the technical aspects of the regeneration pod to Lucretia, who patiently listened. His enthusiasm only began to wane when his body finally started to realize how tired he should be.

Hoping it wouldn't sound excessively forward of her, Lucretia took his arm into her own and led them to her private quarters. She pointed out what various buildings (or their ruins) had been used for on the base, explaining to him more of what she'd been up to for the last ten years.

"You're going to love everyone, I promise," she said, waving at various employees as they passed. "They're good people. I've tried to stay distant because, well, you understand." She couldn't bring herself to admit aloud that her reluctance to create new bonds was rooted in her fear that she would begin unfairly comparing those relationships to her lost family. She was afraid of getting so attached to others again, lest she have to make any further terrible sacrifices to protect them.

"Director!" came the familiar voice of Killian, running over with Carey. "We're doing some clean-up around the grounds and preparing to celebrate! Brad thought we should ask your permission first, something about all formal events technically needing your approval."

"Yeah, so do we have your permission to party?" Carey asked.

How could she have ever denied herself the opportunity to get close to any of them? "Of course. Please, party hard. I'm too tired to join you, I'm afraid. We'll have a bureau-wide meeting in the next few days to figure out what we're doing from here, but until then, I think you've all earned a few days off."

Killian laughed, hoisting Carey's small frame up onto her shoulder. "Hell yeah we have! You have too, you know." She extended her free hand to Barry. "By the way, let me introduce myself. I'm Killian, and I was one of the Regulators here at the Bureau of Balance." After she released Barry's hand, she thumped him on the shoulder. "That means I hunted down the fools unfortunate enough to be enthralled by those relics y'all made." She shook her head. "I still can't believe it."

"Yeah, I had no idea, Director!" Carey commented. "I mean, I get why you didn't, but I wish you'd told us sooner!" Then she stuck her hand in Barry's direction to shake his. "I'm Carey Fangbattle! Me and Killian were on the same team!"

"Barry Bluejeans," he said in response. "But you probably knew that."

"Yeah, we heard the whole thing," Killian said with a smile. "I think we've taken enough of your time for one night. Thanks for saving all of reality, by the way!" And with that, she ran off with Carey still seated atop her shoulder.

Barry looked at Lucretia with a raised eyebrow. "I'm impressed. Honestly, it's not like I didn't know you had it in you, but damn, Luca. You did all this by yourself? I can't believe you ever had trouble with self-confidence!"

"Oh, come on, you know I only ever got better at that because I had to. And because of you. And Lup." She blushed, amused that his kind words still had such an effect on her. They were silent the rest of the way back to her private quarters, but once inside, they both broke.

It could've been minutes or hours that they spent embracing on her bed, tears streaming down their faces as they ran hands over each other's bodies. They would've continued, too, if it hadn't been for Lup floating into the room much later, loudly declaring her presence by calling out, "Found you!" She stopped in her tracks when she saw the state they were in, the glow she was emitting softening as her pace slowed.

Lup nestled down beside them on the bed. "Hey," she said.

"Hey," they both answered weakly.

"Did you have your talk?"

"Not really. Not as much as we needed, anyway," Lucretia said, sniffling. "I'm so tired of fighting. Can we just let tonight be this? Just us, together again?"

"Of course," Lup and Barry assured.

The comfort of finally having them back by her side when she was so certain that that part of her life was over was unparalleled. There was peace in knowing that no matter what struggles they faced moving forward, the worst was finally behind them. From now on, there would be no more sacrifices. The time for loss was over, making way for a time of growth and love.

This was the ending they'd earned.
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"Yes! Barry! Harder!" Lucretia moaned, holding him tight as he fucked her, moaning into her ear. Lup was floating next to them, watching and occasionally offering commentary or direction, still unable to participate.

"Really give it to her, Bear," Lup said, sounding breathy and eager. "You missed her tight pussy, didn't you?"

Barry groaned after a particularly hard thrust, pausing to run his lips up Lucretia's neck. "Fuck yes," he panted. "Luca, fuck, I love you so much, I missed this, missed you…" He had tears in his eyes as he kissed her on the forehead. "Even when I was at my angriest, I missed you." Another thrust made them both moan.

"Show him how much you missed him," Lup teased, hovering closer. "Did you ever think you'd have him back, fucking you until you screamed his name?"

Lucretia shook her head. "No, never, thought this was gone, thought we were done," she breathed, running her hands across his back and shoulders. "I don't deserve this…"

"Shhh, you don't get to decide that." Barry sped up his thrusts, sinking his teeth into her neck. "I want to forgive you. I want to tell you every day how much I love you. You don't get to decide that you shouldn't have that." His voice was thick with arousal as he fucked into her, pinching one of her nipples and smiling with every moan he dragged from her lips. "Fuck, I'm so close!"

"Please, Bear, come in me, let me feel it!"

"Yeah, give it to her," Lup encouraged. "She's been so good, hasn't she?"

"Y-yeah, fuck!" Barry cried, not slowing down as he finished inside Lucretia. When he pulled out with a sigh, he stroked her face. "You close too?"

Lucretia nodded. "So close," she weakly whispered. "Gods, Barry, let me finish, please?"

He smirked and shifted downward, licking away the come dribbling down her labia while she dug her nails lightly into his scalp, holding him there. He licked into her, moving his tongue enthusiastically against her entrance while he rubbed her clit.

"Oh, that's hot," Lup commented. "Look at him go, Luca! So courteous, cleaning up the mess he made of you." Lucretia was too far gone to respond, eyes clenched shut as she nodded; Lup continued. "Oh, baby, you should see how fucking sexy he looks down there. Why don't you come, sweetheart?"

That was enough to push Lucretia over the edge. With a cry, she felt her orgasm crash over her, pulsing with intense heat. Sated, her limbs fell to the bed with a thump. Barry moved to kiss her sweetly, neither of them caring about the wet streaks on his chin.

"Mmm, can't wait until I can get in on that." Lup sighed happily, making a fanning motion towards her face with her hand. "Thanks for the show!"

Barry was still blushing. "Lup…"

"Aww don't be embarrassed, it was really hot!"

Now Lucretia was blushing too, the reality of what they'd just done setting in. Was this sex their way of making up? Were they okay now? Could she really have this relationship back, just as beautifully intense as it once was?

"Don't think too much," Barry advised, hugging her. "Just… tell me it's gonna be okay."

Her heart skipped a beat. "I promise it's going to be okay," she said, the words sounding convincing enough that she began to believe them herself. "I never stopped loving you even for a moment. I'll spend the rest of my life making it up to you if I have to, but Barry? You're worth it."

Using mage hand, Lup brought them each a wet washcloth and announced that she would also go bring them water. Just like old times. Though they were silent while they cleaned themselves up and got back into their pajamas, Lucretia wasn't afraid. Surely they'd made it through the worst of things, and it would be all up from here.

Right?
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The night before Lup's new body was ready, the three of them sat down to have a serious conversation that they'd been avoiding. Lucretia would've avoided it forever if she could've, but she knew that forever wasn't an option anymore. Sadly, that was precisely the problem on the table. They decided to talk in the comfort of the bedroom, tucked under the covers to drink in each other's presence as much as possible.

"So," she began, hesitant. "I hear that you two are going to be allowed to remain immortal liches, so long as you enter the service of the Raven Queen."

"Correct. And I hear that you've got the interest of the Lady Istus, who wants to bring you into her service."

"Also correct." She cleared her throat. "I haven't decided if I'm going to accept yet. Our pseudo-immortality wasn't a choice before, and so even though I was used to it, I don't want to accept true immortality just because something like it was habit." She sighed. "And it sounds like you two didn't really have a choice this time, either. I don't want to just go along with something that I might regret later."

"Don't you think that if you were going to regret it, the Lady of Fate wouldn't have asked you to join her? Or, if she knew you'd regret it eventually, wouldn't that mean she's cool with that? Like, I highly doubt she's going to force you to stick around." Lup shrugged. "I dunno, I think working with Kravitz sounds pretty cool? Plus, y'know, the whole being pardoned for our death crimes bit, that's kind of a good incentive."

"We've still got some details to work out with her, but that part's certain," Barry assured, laying a hand on Lucretia's thigh. "Now all we need to decide is where to go from there."

Her heart skipped a beat. Though she was afraid to ask, her years of experience had afforded her the necessary courage. "To be honest, I was hoping you two would still be willing to marry me. I want to take vows with you. Get all dressed up and have a party about how in love we are. Declare to all our friends and family that we've fucking made it, and we aren't going anywhere. I want to know that even after all this, you're still willing to love me forever." She paused, her voice catching on that final word. "I understand if that's too much. But that's what I want."

The silence stretched out impossibly long as Lup and Barry both contemplated her words. Lup was the first to answer.

"How could I ever say no to you?" Even spectral, she sounded breathless. "I'm going to give you the biggest kiss tomorrow to seal the deal!"

Barry still didn't look like he was going to respond.

"Bear?" Lup prompted.

He relaxed, rolling onto his back. "I mean, it's tough, y'know? Now that it's been a few months I've had some time to think. And I'm still furious. I think back to those nights lying awake in that freezing cave, feeling completely hollow. Missing you was eating me alive, Lup, and I couldn't remember your face, your name, anything. And then remembering it all over again as a lich, fuck, it hurt so bad I thought I might kill me. Again. Somehow."

"Barry--"

He didn't let Lucretia continue. "But it didn't just hurt because of remembering Lup. It hurt because I understood, Lucretia. Remembering meant feeling that wound open up again, and knowing why you spared me from it. And it made me so angry that what you did allowed me to feel that pain like it was new." He covered his face with his arm. "Maybe some other time I'll tell you what the forgetting felt like. Because I want you to understand. I don't think I'll be able to forgive you until you do. But in the meantime?"

Another long silence. Lucretia was more certain with each passing moment that he was about to break up with her for having the audacity to propose after everything.

"Go on," Lup urged, her tone excited. "Tell her, babe."

Still keeping his face covered, Barry took a deep breath. "I wanted this to happen tomorrow but I guess this is fine. Lucretia, to answer your proposal: it would be my honor. I had a whole thing planned where I was going to give you both rings tomorrow, and Lup found out about it but I still wanted to surprise you." He rolled back to face Lucretia. "I know we've fought a lot these last few months. We've screamed, cried, ran off, but I know that underneath it all, we're still ourselves. I don't think it's possible for you to change so much that you stop being the woman I love."

"So we're thinking a summer wedding," Lup gleefully began.

Before Lup could continue, Lucretia let out a sob and pressed her hands to her eyes. That wasn't the response she expected. Something about hearing it made it so much more real that it was almost overwhelming. For years they'd talked about wanting this one day; how could it finally be allowed to happen? How was it possible that what was once a far-off dream was now so tantalizingly possible? It seemed too good to be true.

"I think the big question we have to figure out next is whose last name we're gonna go with," Lup pointed out to lighten the mood. "Because I dunno about you two nerds but I'm worried that if we went with Taaco, my brother would have a fit about his brand image or whatever."

"We could go with my actual last name if you all want. Y'know, Hallwinter?" Barry offered, laughing when the both of them stared at him blankly. "C'mon, you HAD to know Bluejeans wasn't legally my surname. Davenport definitely knows from my hiring paperwork, but I could swear it's come up before."

"You mean to fucking tell me that you just let us all call you by some dumb nickname for a hundred goddamn years without batting an eye?" The surprise stopped Lucretia's tears, replaced now with the familiar smile that her lovers always managed to bring to her face.

Barry moved closer to her, throwing an arm over her waist and letting his head rest on her shoulder. "Yep. But I mean it, I've thought about it a lot, and maybe I'm biased, but I think it sounds really nice. Lucretia Hallwinter. Lup Hallwinter."

"Yeah," Lup sighed. "It sounds cozy. Like coming home. Like family." She used a mage hand to adjust the blanket to better cover her lovers. "Why don't you two sleep on it? I'll be here. Most of the night, anyway. I'll probably get bored and go find Taako at some point, but yeah. We can kiss about it in the morning."

Nestling into the soft cocoon of blankets and love, Lucretia felt another weight lift from her shoulders, another doubt finally silenced.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxx
The moment of truth. Standing in Barry's cave in front of the regeneration pod, where Lup's new body had spent the intervening months growing since the apocalypse. At the beginning, Barry admitted he wasn't sure how much genetic material was needed in order to be viable, but what did they have left to lose for trying? He'd tossed in her note, sealed with a kiss, and they'd all hoped for the best.

To his credit, he checked on the pod weekly and only ever reported hopeful news, meaning that unless something went horribly wrong in the last few days, it just might work.

At the moment, Barry and Lup were in the corner of the room, huddled close and whispering. Taako stood with Lucretia, the first time since the day of Story and Song that he'd willingly been in her presence. He hadn't been as forgiving as Barry, but Lucretia understood. She'd done something terrible to him, the effects of which couldn't be undone, not really. It all worked out in the end, but she didn't expect that to outweigh the pain he endured. Putting it in perspective like that helped her to accept it. He was like a brother to her, a completely different dynamic than her relationship with Barry, who had a much stronger bias in the matter.

"Nervous?" she asked, taking note of how Taako was tapping his foot impatiently.

"Duh. I want her back." He crossed his arms and stared straight ahead at the pod. "I'm not gonna let my anger at you ruin today, so consider this a temporary truce. We can ruin some other day by talking about it, if you feel like it."

Lucretia smiled nervously, lips twitching. "That's awfully mature of you, Taako. I appreciate that."

He scoffed. "Don't think that you're some fuckin' beacon of wisdom now just because you look older than me. I'm still like a century older than you, at least."

"Yes, I know, your sister has said many times something about being a 'cradle-robber' with regards to Barry and me."

That made Taako laugh, his rough expression faltering, replaced with the soft glow of love and anticipation. "She may have expressed those same concerns to me."

"Okay, my dears, are we ready?" Lup announced, floating towards them and the pod. "Because I'm ready to give up the ghost in favor of a nice, corporeal group hug!" Hovering in front of the pod, her stance was one of determination. "Back soon," she said, knowing they would understand.

And they did. Lucretia knew her promise was her way of apologizing. She watched, holding her breath the entire time, as Lup's lich form sank into the pod before it split open. The three of them stepped back to avoid the brackish green fluid surging across the cave floor, eagerly looking for her body to flow out of the pod with it.

"I'm stuck," came Lup's muffled voice followed by loud, wet coughing. "There's some kinda wire wrapped around my ankle? Little help here?"

With simultaneous sighs of relief, they rushed forward to extricate her, helping her stay on her feet when her legs began to tremble. She was naked and coated in an unpleasant film from whatever liquid supported the pod's magic; she kept coughing up bits of it.

Barry stepped away long enough to grab the towel he'd set aside for her. The first thing he did after throwing it around her shoulders was pull her in for a kiss. As soon as she pulled away from him, she grabbed Lucretia, tears streaming down her face as she kissed her as well. Once that was out of the way, she finally, finally collapsed against Taako, both of their chests heaving with sobs.

They spent the rest of the day in a pile on the living room floor of the house Taako had bought. The four of them were quiet for the most part, content to lay in the messy nest of pillows and blankets. In a lot of ways it felt exactly like old times, of years on the ship when a plane had a particularly harsh winter that drove them all to huddle close. The main difference, of course, was knowing how much they had to go through to get to this point.

No longer was the end of the world at their backs, a constantly ticking time bomb counting down to their next failure. They didn't need to keep fighting and dying and reviving anymore. In a way it felt to Lucretia like waking from a nightmare and finally basking in the safe predictability of reality, though she knew that was far from the case.

What mattered was that in their arms she felt young again, the infinite potential of her life stretching before her in an enticing tapestry, ready to be woven.

Hours later, Kravitz stopped by after work, hoping to steal Lup and Barry away to discuss the terms of their employment and leaving Lucretia alone with Taako.

"So. He seems nice," she commented. "I never took you to be the settling down type, but he seems good for you."

Taako nodded, smug. "Well of course, I know how to pick 'em. That kinda good taste runs in the family."

She grinned. Was he saying what she thought he was? "Should I be thanking you for the compliment?" she asked.

"Oh, you're deffo welcome. Don't think this means I'm not pissed. But she loves you, so I can be civil."

"Taako, thank you."

"Yeah, I already said you're welcome, geez."

"No, not for that, I mean yes also that, but I mean… You and Davenport are the two who I expect are least likely to forgive what I've done, and I genuinely appreciate it. The accountability, I mean. It scares me sometimes how easily Lup and Barry have just accepted it. He says he's angry too, and I know he is, but it's not fair." She cast her eyes downward. "I shouldn't be forgiven just like that. Like it's so easy. I hurt you all so, so much. I didn't mean to, gods no, but I still did, and you all deserve to hate me for that."

Taako let out a dramatic sigh. "Ugh, see, it's that kinda attitude that makes it easier to forgive you. Because anybody can spout that shit and not mean it, but you? You're too genuine for that game. You really do feel that way and so it's like, ugh, how can I stay at my peak anger forever?" He gave her shoulder a playful shove. "Don't think I'm gonna go ahead with fully giving you a pass anytime soon, but yeah. One of these days."

A few minutes later, Barry and Lup rejoined their cuddle pile, dragging Kravitz with them. "You're part of the family now, bud," Lup teased as she shoved him at Taako. "Don't be shy! We get real comfortable around here!"

Though he'd blushed and protested at first, he settled down at the end of their blanket nest, keeping a polite distance and insisting that he'd properly join the next time.

Some time later, Barry pulled out the rings he'd gotten to formally propose to Lup and Lucretia with. "I know we talked about it already, but I still wanted to give you this. Listen, ladies, I know things haven't always been so great, and I know it's not exactly a fairytale ending. I've always thought I was the luckiest man in any plane to have both of you loving me as much as I love you. Nothing could ever change that." He grabbed Lup's hand in his right, Lucretia's in his left. "I only hope I can be a good husband."

The next few minutes consisted of Taako teasing Lup for not telling him sooner and Kravitz congratulating them. Lucretia couldn't stop staring at the ring on her finger: a simple gold band. Though she'd never been one for jewelry, it felt perfect. She knew she would get used to its presence but for the time being, she was hyper-aware of its small weight. Tangible, irrefutable proof that she was loved.

Did she really deserve something so beautiful? Was she worthy of the compassion she was being shown? Could they really have what they'd wanted for so long, with no strings attached? What if they regretted it? And should those concerns affect whether or not she decided to become an emissary for Lady Istus? She still wasn't sure what she wanted on that front in the first place.

If she chose to live a mortal life, she would inflict the pain of watching her final death upon her partners. She would be trapped in a decaying body that slowed and sickened with age until finally it was unable to sustain her, and then she would be gone. And on the one hand, that would only be fair. Her life had been extended unnaturally, her soul somehow still intact thanks to whatever magic was responsible for reconstituting them yearly, and shouldn't she have to pay for that somehow? Shouldn't she be forced to live out the rest of her mortal life to make up for all the extra years she hadn't asked for?

But on the other hand, dying of old age terrified her. Death itself didn't, not anymore. She'd done it enough times to get over that. It was more the idea of her body slowing to a halt, her mind deteriorating bit by bit, unable to stop it or reverse it or recover from it or--

And then of course there were the considerations for if she chose to let herself become immortal in the eternal service of a goddess - not an offer to be taken lightly. She thought about the man who became the Hunger, and how infinity had broken his mortal mind. Would she lose herself in a thousand years? Would she remember who she'd been and how she got there? As time went on, how much would she change? Could the three of them really say that they would be in love forever, in all of its infinite expanse?

At the same time, should her fear of something so far down the line dictate what she chose to do now? Should she let it get in the way of a potentially infinite happily ever after? Was it fair to make such a permanent decision so hastily?

"Lucretia? You in there?" Lup was waving her hand in front of Lucretia's face. "Madame Space Case, would you care to join us?"

She blinked slow, struggling to put her rising anxiety aside. She knew that she was starting to dissociate, and was frustrated with herself. Now, of all times? Really?

"Are you okay?" Barry asked, looking nervous.

"Just thinking," she said simply. "I think it's going to be one of those long emotional conversations that I just don't have the energy for right now. That's all."

"Do we need to go back to your place, babe?" Lup was smoothing her hair away from her eyes. "This should be a happy time! But if you're not feeling well that's totally understandable. It's a lot of emotions, it's okay to be overwhelmed."

Lucretia leaned into the touch. She'd missed this so much. The ache in her chest finally subsided with the contact from Lup, as it always did. She often wondered if there really was a part of her soul lodged inside Lup's in a very literal sense, after that one cycle. More than that, though, she wondered if the process of Lup becoming a lich had done anything to break it irreparably, since Lucretia had only felt worse by the moment ever since that day.

The surge of warmth and love she was currently feeling dispelled those fears. She could feel it. Lup still carried that piece of Lucretia inside her, just as Lucretia felt she herself did. It was an unspoken bond that neither needed to confirm with words; it simply was, and in its being it was enough. Loving Barry was different, but no less intense, even without a potentially literal soul bond.

They took their leave shortly after, heading back to her quarters on the moon base that still served as their home for the time being. It was agreed that they would find a house together after Lup was back in her body, since the thought of her sitting out for the house hunting process was as unacceptable as her spectral form terrifying away realtors.

Once they were back in Lucretia's room, the familiar comfort of it helped Lucretia to feel more present, she noted with a sigh of relief. She put pajamas on and slid into the bed, not caring that it was nowhere near late enough for bed. Her partners joined her shortly after.

"Better?" Barry asked gently. "You can be such an open book sometimes," he teased. "I could tell as soon as we walked in that that was the problem."

"What was?"

"You're an introvert, babe," commented Lup. "This is your recharge."

Years of forcing herself to be distant and unreadable had made Lucretia forget how easily her lovers could still understand her. She smiled. "I can't argue with that."

 

Lup stretched out, luxuriant. "Seeing as I haven't been in a proper bed in the last decade, I'm pretty ready to knock out for a few hours. You two nerds can stay up and chat but I miss sleep, especially after watching you dorks snore all night!" She pulled the blankets up to her chin with a contented sound. "I could really use some cuddles," she suggested.

Without hesitation, Lucretia rolled to face her, feeling at peace. The softness of Lup's hair, the beat of her heart, how every small freckle could be felt so subtly on her warm sun-kissed skin. "Welcome home," she whispered, kissing Lup's collarbone.

"Good to be back," she answered, angling her head so that Lucretia could continue to kiss her. "You want in on this, Bear?"

"Oh, absolutely," he said, nuzzling her cheek. "You let us know if this is too much, okay? Sensations are weird for the first few days when you're a lich for one year, let alone ten."

She giggled. "Yeah, but it's just so good to be able to feel anything, you know?" Lup squirmed. "Like that!" More giggles. "You're both tickling me! And I can feel it! And that's wonderful!"

"Gods, I never thought I'd hear that beautiful sound again." Barry's voice was thick with sorrow. "I still can't believe you're here."

"I am, baby. We're all here. We made it, together. We're home."

It was the most welcome thing Lucretia had ever heard.

The consequences could wait. For now, they were home. Together.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
"You ready, baby?" Lucretia purred, unzipping Lup's dress. "Promise you'll tell us if you need to stop?"

Nodding enthusiastically, eyes already wide with lust, Lup licked her lips. "Please, I want this so bad!"

Barry hummed in approval as he helped slip the fabric off her shoulders. "Don't you worry, beautiful, we're gonna take care of you tonight." She was already unclipping and tossing aside her bra. As soon as her chest was exposed, Barry leaned in to flick his tongue over a nipple, making her moan. "Like that?"

Lup whined as he licked her again. "More?"

"Anything for you," Lucretia whispered. "Lift your hips?" She helped Lup wiggle out of the dress, leaving her in nothing but her underwear. The curve of her hips was intoxicating. Lucretia stroked Lup's length through her underwear, face flushing hot when it earned her another bitten-off moan. She kept at it, feeling Lup harden beneath her hand, until Lup grabbed her face and pulled her in for a searing kiss.

As they kissed, Lucretia was aware of Barry moving behind them, presumably getting undressed. "You two look incredible," he breathed, settling down beside them. "Lup, is it okay if I use my mouth?"

Lup only stopped kissing Lucretia long enough to consent; Barry smirked as he pulled away her last piece of clothing. Being between the two of them for the first time in so long, Lucretia wanted to cry. She could hear the wet sound of Barry's mouth swallowing down Lup's length, could see how Lup's eyes sparkled with love and lust, feel the shudder of her shoulders.

"Is that good?" Lucretia breathed against her ear, biting down gently on the lobe. "Missed these beautiful sounds you make."

"Yeah," Lup panted, clinging to Lucretia and moaning loud. "Barry, fuck!" She pulled back with a frustrated sound. "I don't wanna finish too quick, babe, get your face up here!" she demanded, moving from kissing Lucretia to kissing Barry. Between them both, she looked divine, so caught up in the mix of sensations.

Lucretia watched her two lovers kiss and was struck with an idea. "Mind if I ride you?" she asked. "What do you want, sweetheart?"

"Ooh yeah, please," Lup begged, her fingers tangled in Barry's hair. "Fuck, ride me, Luca, I wanna feel you!" She kissed Barry again. "And you, handsome, can I make a request?" Another kiss while he moaned in assent. "Can you fuck my face while sweet Lucretia's riding me? I wanna feel your cock so bad, missed how good you feel," she panted.

At that, Barry playfully laid a trail of kisses across her face until he reached her lips. "Of course, we said tonight was all about you." He turned to Lucretia. "Do you want me to get you ready for her?"

Lucretia didn't think it was possible for her to get more turned on than she already was, but the sultry way he was offering foreplay somehow made her hornier. She laid down, angling her legs to give him access, and rested her hands above her head on the pillow. The first stroke of Barry's fingers against her slick folds sent a jolt of arousal through her. As he thrust one, then two fingers inside of her, agonizingly slowly filling her, she keened, moving against him to beg for more.

Getting into position over Lup was so familiar she felt like it had been maybe a week, not a decade. Straddling her hips and sinking down to take her fully, Lucretia was acutely aware of every point of contact between them. Her hands on Lup's strong thighs, as soft as she remembered. The way Lup filled her so completely, like they were made to go together. How right it felt to move her hips, fucking herself as hard and fast as she wanted while Lup panted her name out beneath her.

She leaned forward, squeezing Lup's breasts, so perfect, and kissed her to swallow down her moans. Kissing her while they fucked was always one of Lucretia's favorite things. She only pulled her mouth away when Barry tapped her on the shoulder and said, "You heard the lady's request."

Lucretia grinned. "I did." They shifted so that Barry had his legs on either side of Lup's face, tugging lightly on her hair while he slid his cock into her mouth.

It was exactly the sort of thing that Lucretia dreamed of many times in her decade without them, but would never be able to bring herself to admit out loud. But the sound of her lovers taking their pleasure with one another while she had hers was the most beautiful and enticing thing she'd ever heard.

And with how Lup was slamming her hips up to fuck Lucretia hard, it wasn't long before she came, feeling herself leaking down Lup's length as her muscles contracted. That was all it took to finish Lup as well, whose moans were still muffled by the way Barry was fucking her face. Now satisfied, Lucretia pulled herself off of Lup and flopped onto the bed to watch.

"Doesn't her throat feel so good, Bear?" she said, hoping she could help him finish with words. "I bet you missed coming all over that pretty face. Isn't she so hot when she's got your come on her lips?"

"Fuck!" Barry whined, pulling out just enough to come all over Lup's still-open mouth. Seeing how eagerly she licked at her lips, red and shining, was almost enough for him to get hard all over again. He kissed her, hands tangled in her long hair, only separating for them to both pant each other's name.

"Well. I don't know about you two, but I need a shower after that." Lucretia stood, legs still wobbly, and offered a hand to pull them both up. As she did, the three of them stood in an embrace, silent. "Thank you," she whispered. "I told myself every day for ten years that I'd find a way to make things right, and you two make me feel like that's actually possible."

"Of course it's possible," Lup said, tone breezy. "Give it time. We've got plenty of that now, don't we?"

And they did. Somehow, impossibly, they really did.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Their wedding was a month after Carey and Killian's. There was still tension at times, particularly between Lucretia and Taako, but it wasn't unnavigable as it once had seemed. For Lup's sake, if nothing else, he was willing to set his anger aside - or at least pretend to. They were all recovering; Lucretia couldn't rush him, especially knowing how much of it was her fault.

The ceremony was everything she'd ever dreamt. Barry was stunning in his crisp tuxedo. Lup was radiant in her gown, a long flowing garment of sparkling white that stood in stark contrast to her dark skin. Their vows were read to one another with teary eyes and shaky voices, hands trembling so hard they could barely hold onto the pages. The cheers erupting from the crowd of their loved ones when they exchanged kisses was such a tangible force of joy that Lucretia felt giddy.

Only one thing left: the party.

"I'm happy for you," Davenport said during the reception. He pulled Lucretia aside and spoke in gentle tones, the first time they were seeing one another at all since the day of story and song. His long days out at sea were treating him well, a liveliness returned to his eyes that she'd long missed. "You deserve this. I mean it."

She smiled, hugging him. Any other day and she might let herself be swallowed by the guilt of it all, but she couldn't find it within herself to protest. "Thank you, captain."

He chuckled. "C'mon, I'm not your captain anymore. But you're welcome to come sailing with me some time, if you'd like."

"Oh, I don't know if the sea is for me."

"We'll see, Mrs. Hallwinter," he said, clapping her on the shoulder before hurrying off into the crowd.

The next to approach her was Taako, hand extended to offer her a glass of wine. "Congrats on snagging the finest woman in the planar system," he said. He put an arm around her shoulder, the kind of familiar gesture she'd long missed from him; he pointed over to where Lup was talking with Carey and Killian. "See how happy she looks? You did that. Okay, like half of it, but still, she deserves it. So, like, thanks."

It was such a Taako thing to say, to refuse to say outright that he forgave her no matter how much his words implied it. He always was a master at dancing around the truth of things. Lucretia couldn't stop herself from grinning as she threw her arm around him in return. "You're welcome. I do my best."

"You'd better!" he added, spying Kravitz and waving. "But I gotta go keep my guy company now. Catch you later!"

As he walked away, Lucretia wondered how long it would take for the two of them to tie the knot.

Throughout the evening she reflected on how they got here. How they survived the fighting and the dying, the loss and anger and fear. How much they'd run, how far they'd come. In hindsight it seemed an impossible tale, too grand to be true, and yet she knew all too well that it was real. Recovering from it was a slow and arduous process, but the more distance she put between herself and those years the more she appreciated her endless capacity for love.

There was a new love to be found in every wedding guest. Each of them brought something new to her life, precious and valuable and unique. With each person she had the privilege to encounter while leading the Bureau, she found within herself a deeper appreciation for this world that was now her home.

When she and her spouses went to take to their leave some time later, Merle called everyone to attention to announce their departure. "Three cheers for the happy couple!" he called.

And as they left, hand in hand, the sounds of joy at their backs, Lucretia was happy.