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i have loved the stars too fondly

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The day Captain Davenport was promoted was an auspicious one, all things considered; there hadn’t been a gnome captain in the IPRE before, nor such a gifted pilot, and it helped that he was one of the youngest to achieve the rank, as well. Davenport was full to bursting with pride, shaking the hands of superiors who either seemed very pleased with themselves or were putting up a very good front in commending him, peers who congratulated him and promised him drinks later, and a few subordinates hoping to make a good impression. Davenport was feeling a little stifled from all the attention, the flashes from the fantasy cameras not quite faded from his eyes, when he was approached by a dwarf, possibly from the Biology department, judging by his lab coat. The dwarf had a genial smile and dirt under his fingernails, flowers wound in his beard that bloomed before Davenport’s very eyes.

“Congrats, Skipper,” the dwarf said, going for a firm handshake. His lab coat was stained with dirt and grass, the sleeves rolled up and exposing colorful tattoos, and despite how everything about him screamed defiance of regulation, Davenport smiled and shook his hand. Up-close, he had eyes straight from a fantasy contacts commercial, wow. “I’m Merle Highchurch, just started working here a little while ago. Big victory for the little guys, huh?”

“I’d say so,” Davenport replied, straightening his crisp red uniform. “Thanks. It’s a great honor.”

“If you ever need a favor from the Biology department, look me up. Or if you just wanna party, I’m good for that, too,” Merle winked. Davenport was too old to blush just because a (very handsome) dwarf paid him a nonverbal compliment, but his neck and ears felt overwarm nonetheless.

“Thanks, Doctor Highchurch, I’ll remember that.”

“Not Doctor, just Merle is fine,” Merle shrugged. “Or Father Highchurch, if titles are important to ya.”

“You’re a cleric?” Davenport’s eyes widened. Merle didn’t fit the mold of a holy man at all, and clerics usually didn’t get hired on except as chaplains or tutors when a class was in need of the basics of healing magic.

“In a strictly technical sense,” Merle replied. He glanced over Davenport’s shoulder, then put his hand on it and grinned. “Anyway, big fan. I won’t keep you.”

Merle walked away as one of Davenport’s colleagues called his name, and Davenport had a mad desire to invite Merle out for a drink. He fought it down. He’d just met the man; better not seem overeager or desperate. Not that Davenport was looking for anything! It was just…better to not appear like a frivolous gnome right now. Too much was at stake, too much had been sacrificed already. Davenport put Merle Highchurch from his mind entirely. Professionalism, he reminded himself. Strict professionalism, and follow regulations.

Six months later, the Light of Creation fell from the heavens.

“It’s extraordinary,” Doctor Watson gushed when Davenport and the rest of the senior personnel met to hear the report the head of the Department of Arcane Sciences had developed regarding the Light, including the Director of the Institute herself. “This Light, it’s—it’s the most powerful object ever recorded, the potential for furthering our understanding of reality itself is limitless. We could unravel the mysteries of the universe, discover untapped properties of countless magical spells, even—even view the Planar System in its entirety!”

“What are you suggesting, Doctor?” Director Shaakti asked sternly, bringing Doctor Watson back down to terra firma.

“I’m saying—I’m saying we could potentially construct a craft powerful enough to reach the Planes themselves,” Doctor Watson said breathlessly. “A manned craft capable of exploring the Planes and—beyond, possibly.”

Director Shaakti sat back in her chair, her fingertips tapping together, letting her pensive silence fill the conference room. Davenport glanced around the table at his fellow senior staff. There was every expression from excitement to disbelief.

“It would be an incredible risk,” Captain Lancet, a gnarled human with a missing ear, rumbled, “sending a crew out to investigate the unknown.”

“We don’t know what’s beyond the Planes,” Doctor Delver, head of Engineering, added, tucking a stray lock of silvered hair behind their pointed ear. “We don’t even know what this Light of Creation is, what the side-effects could be. It could all be greater than our feeble minds can comprehend, something dangerous.”

“I think it’s worth it,” Davenport was startled to hear himself say. The entire senior staff, including the Director and a hopeful Doctor Watson, turned to look at him. Davenport very keenly felt his size and age for a moment before determination steeled his spine. “We’re the Institute of Planar Research and Exploration. If we don’t take this chance, we’d better change our acronym, because Exploration should be a part of who we are. We’ve never had an asset like the Light of Creation at our disposal, if what Doctor Watson predicts about its capabilities is even half true. We should at least try, and if we fail, at least we gave it our best shot, rather than cowering from the unknown.”

A wave of protest broke over Davenport’s head, which was silenced by the Director raising her hand.

“Thank you for your report, Doctor,” she said. “And thank you, gentlemen, for your opinions. I’ll be thinking this over thoroughly.” Director Shaakti stood, her lilac eyes fixed on Davenport. “Captain Davenport, I’d like a word in my office.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Davenport said, like his world hadn’t just been thrown into a panic. Did he overstep? Was he getting fired? Or worse, demoted? Davenport wove through the legs of his colleagues to follow Director Shaakti’s deliberate stride, his arms locked behind his back to stop himself from shaking, left wrist clutched in right hand.

Director Shaakti’s office was large, almost as big as the conference room, located near the top floor of the main building of the Institute. Every time Captain Davenport had been here, he’d stood on the chair across from the Director’s desk as opposed to sitting, where his head would just barely peek over the edge of the desk. Today, Director Shaakti led him to another part of her office, separated from the rest by an ornate privacy screen. She folded it back to reveal a low table surrounded by cushions, a beautiful brass tea set steaming on its lacquered surface. The Director sank to the floor behind the tea set.

“Have a seat,” Director Shaakti said. Davenport cautiously sat on a cushion across from her, folding his legs in emulation. The Director set out two cups from the set and poured a spicy, milky tea from the teapot into them. She offered him one of the cups. “My apologies if the tea isn’t to your liking. I prefer stronger tea, myself.”

“It’s fine,” Davenport said automatically, taking a whiff of the tea. The spices tickled his nose, and a sip revealed that not only was the tea at the perfect temperature, but it was delicious, as well. He’d never had anything like it, though he thought maybe the Fantasy Starbucks served something similar.

“My father served countless cups of chai at this table when we lived in the Underdark,” Director Shaakti said. “He was a tough man. Hard. But his associates knew that while he was seated at this table, he was going to adhere to the laws of hospitality. Even people who feared him most and those whom he had the most reason to harm would never be in fear of poison while he served tea here.”

Davenport sipped his tea and studied the pattern of the table, bright blues and reds and yellows arranged in an intricate mandala, dimmed slightly by the wear of decades—maybe centuries—of use. It wasn’t polite to assume, of course, but most drow were native to the Underdark, so knowing Director Shaakti had in fact come from there wasn’t so much surprising as it was illuminating. The Director took a long sip of her tea, closing her eyes and sighing in satisfaction.

“He sold the table and tea set when I was looking for a place to further my studies,” Director Shaakti continued. “It took a few dozen years, but I managed to track them down, once the Institute kept me on full-time. My father died before he got to see that, but he knew on his deathbed every last penny he’d put towards my education paid off.”

“I’m sorry,” Davenport said.

“He used to call me his little explorer,” Director Shaakti said, a fond note of wistfulness in her voice. She smoothed her hand over the table’s surface, then set her teacup down, lacing her fingers together and resting them against her lips. “What’s your background, Captain Davenport? Be as vague or as detailed as you wish.”

Davenport blinked. “I’m…I’m an only child. My parents were military—navy, honorable discharge when the War ended. They became fishermen afterwards. I grew up learning to sail and navigate the sea. Was almost a sailor myself, but the stars called a little louder.”

“When did you first show interest in skycraft?” Director Shaakti asked.

“The Red Gryffins did a demonstration in my hometown,” Davenport replied. “As soon as I was of age, I signed up to join the Institute. My parents were furious, but they came around.”

“Where are they now?”

Davenport ducked his head and took a quick sip of tea to stall. “Fishing trawler got caught in a hurricane,” he mumbled. “My second year here.”

“I’m so sorry,” Director Shaakti said quietly.

“Ma’am, forgive me, but why am I here?” Davenport asked, dashing his hand across his eyes. “If I was out of line in the conference—”

“Far from it,” the Director said, the hint of a smile playing in the corners of her mouth. “Doctor Watson has been good friend to me for years, and I’ve never seen him like he was today. So I have a proposition for you.”

“Ma’am?”

“Over the next few weeks, I’m going to authorize Doctor Watson to begin testing the Light’s capacity for interplanar travel.” Director Shaakti picked her tea back up. “The ultimate idea, as he said, is to send a small crew to gather research and intelligence on what lies beyond our planar system. Maybe, one day, to communicate and even travel between realities.” The Director looked at him, pinning him in place with her gaze. “I want you to lead the mission.”

Davenport’s eyes felt like they were about to fall out of his head. His ears were ringing.

“Me?” he stammered eventually. “Ma’am, I’m honored, but I’m by far the youngest and most inexperienced captain to be put in charge of such an important mission.”

“Your scores have always been highly impressive, Davenport,” Director Shaakti said. “You’re not just the first gnome to hold your position, you’re also the most talented in many areas we’ve seen in years. You’re able to inspire your crew members and colleagues to greater heights than they or your instructors ever thought possible. Your flying style is poetry in motion. You stood up for what the Institute stands for against a room full of people older and more qualified than you.” Director Shaakti smiled into her teacup as she took another sip. “You remind me of a young dark elf who held the very same position, decades ago.”

Davenport looked at her, and she winked.

“If you don’t want the responsibility, that’s understandable,” the Director said. “It’s a difficult assignment. Your life will revolve around the mission—the ship construction, the crew roster, the trajectory, the PR, the recruitment, if necessary—all of it will be in your hands.” The Director’s tone and expression turned grave. “Which means if this fails, it could also take your career down with it, depending on the scale of the failure.”

Davenport let out a long breath, his mind racing. The opportunity to head a mission of this magnitude was beyond his wildest dreams. He wasn’t even sure if planar travel would be achieved in his lifetime, let alone going beyond them, and now that the chance was in front of him…

“Take a few days to think about it,” Director Shaakti said. “I’ll expect your answer soon, however. With this, I don’t want to dally.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Davenport nodded, numb. “Thank you, ma’am.”

“Have a good night, Captain Davenport,” Director Shaakti said, and Davenport barely registered his body getting up and leaving her office. His head was in a daze—until he turned a corner and ran slap-bang into someone, getting tossed down on his rear.

“Hey!” the person said, and when Davenport opened his mouth to retort, coming back down to reality, he saw it was the dwarf—Merle, his brain supplied. Merle recognized him at the same moment, his grumpiness fading into an easy smile. “Oh, hey, Cap. Davenport, right?”

“Yeah,” Davenport said as Merle got to his feet and offered him a hand up. “Sorry, I’m a little distracted.”

“I can see that,” Merle grinned, and, really, it should be illegal for one dwarf to be so handsome, like some sort of fantasy film star. “The Light, right?”

“Yeah,” Davenport said again. For pete’s sake, he wasn’t too far off from middle age, get it together, Davenport. “It’s a big deal.” Nailed it, he groaned inwardly, real intelligent conversation.

“You’re telling me,” Merle snorted. “It’s on the opposite end of the Arcane Sciences building, but my greenhouse is outgrowing itself real quick. I’d love to see what they’re doing with it.”

“Well, as of right now, that’s classified,” Davenport said, taking on a sterner tone. Merle held up his hands in non-aggression, and Davenport tried to relax. “But who knows?”

“Doc Watson’s got his jollies going something fierce, that’s for sure,” Merle shrugged. “The man actually laughed at one of my jokes this morning.”

“He’s not that uptight, is he?” Davenport frowned. His memories of Doctor Watson aside from this evening were of a dour man with his nose in a book or report or clipboard, but he thinks he’d probably seen Doctor Watson smile at some point. Maybe?

“Maybe not, but it was a pun about salad, so do with that what you will,” Merle grinned. “Anyway, I’ll see you around, Skipper.”

“Okay,” Davenport said. “Bye.”

Merle waved and walked towards the front doors of the Institute as Davenport shriveled up and died inside at his own lack of social grace. Davenport watched him go, and watched as he waved at people and greeted others with finger-guns and a loud laugh, and watched as he joined a small group of fellow biologists and started up a chant of “Shots! Shots! Shots! Shots!” Davenport felt a pang in his chest, which made no sense to him. He had friends, he went out with colleagues, he took plenty of shots. Maybe not as much now, but he had a rank and reputation to maintain. It wasn’t just about him; he was a representative of the Institute. His conduct reflected his employers. He couldn’t risk, for instance, getting plastered and TP-ing the quad after exams. He wasn’t a cadet anymore.

Davenport shook his head. Listen to him, fretting about something as small as his reputation when the Director was giving him the choice to lead the exploration of a lifetime. She was right; if he decided to accept, he’d have to throw everything he had, everything he was, into the mission. He hesitated, then changed his path from the officers’ dormitories to the roof of the Arcane Sciences building.

Of all the buildings on the IPRE campus, the Arcane Sciences building was the tallest and the oldest, it being the original organization’s headquarters, before it rededicated itself to planar exploration. Back then it was just a collective of arcanists studying the world, gathering in a building shaped like a church. The roof sloped downwards, then tapered off into flatness over the additions that had been built onto the back of the building over the centuries. Davenport discovered early on he was most likely to find a quiet spot to stargaze if he climbed to the roof and laid down on the spot where the old roof hung over the extension. It was a four-foot drop between the two, plenty small enough for Davenport to scale. He’d been doing it for years, but tonight Davenport found that the Arcane Sciences roof had been transformed into a garden.

Flowers bloomed everywhere, potted in rich soil held in clay pots stacked on every available surface. Davenport blinked. There were rare plants up here, even—his heart leapt into his throat—starvine, a breed of moonflower native to his hometown. His mother had cultivated it religiously, often retreating to the bed of softly-glowing flowers when memories of the War kept her up. Davenport reached out and touched one of the blooms, tracing the bioluminescent petals with reverence. He hadn’t seen one since his last holiday leave, before his parents died.

“Nice night, huh?”

Davenport about jumped out of his skin, snatching his hand back like a guilty child. Merle Highchurch laughed, closing the door to the roof behind him. “Sorry. Couldn’t resist.”

“I thought you—I thought everyone was gone for the day,” Davenport stuttered, internally cursing himself.

“Forgot my housekeys,” Merle explained. “Then I saw the door was unlocked.” Merle walked towards him, hands in his pockets, work shirt open a few buttons and sleeves rolled up and oh, gods, Davenport hoped it was dark enough to hide his burning cheeks, what even was happening to him. “Whatcha doin’?”

“I come up here sometimes,” Davenport said. “When did all this get here?”

“Couple months ago,” Merle replied. “Finally bullied Doc Stronson into letting me bring a little color up here. Well,” Merle laughed, “I did it, and he just gave up.”

Davenport laughed too. “It looks amazing.”

“Thanks.” Merle scratched his beard. “Need some company?”

“Oh,” Davenport bit his lip, then chided himself and stopped. “I don’t…that is, I was under the impression you had plans.”

“They’ll be fine without me for a bit,” Merle said. “This is a nice spot for stargazing.”

“Yeah,” Davenport said. Maybe he’d just get lucky and roll off the roof, that would be less embarrassing than his monosyllabic stammering right now. Dating within the Institute wasn’t exactly forbidden, but there was a professional code of conduct to observe between officers and subordinates. It would be highly inappropriate to be caught stargazing with a Bio mage, and a relatively new hire, at that.

Not that dating was at all on his mind either, no, not at all, no, sir.

“I mean, if you don’t want me here, I can leave,” Merle shrugged. “No big deal, just thought you could use the company.”

“No,” Davenport said immediately. “I—that sounds great, it’s what I came up here to do, actually.”

“Cool,” Merle grinned, and pulled out a stepladder from behind a begonia. Davenport climbed up onto the roof first, taking off his Captain’s jacket and laying it next to him before reclining back, resting his head against his interlocked fingers. Merle followed with some swearing about his joints, and settled in next to him, a respectable distance but not too far away, either.

“Look at that,” Merle sighed, relaxing into the roof. “Surprised you can still see ‘em so bright out here.”

“The Institute developed a spell to block light pollution about three hundred years ago,” Davenport replied.

“Y’know, I get up here all the time, but I have no idea what constellations I’m looking at,” Merle snorted. “They had some workshops on it at Pan Camp when I was a sprout, but I fell asleep every time.”

“That’s a shame,” Davenport said, looking up at the stars he knew so well. His mind wandered back to his conversation with Director Shaakti, and he reeled again when confronted with the opportunity. All that responsibility, all those details, the time that would be spent in development alone, not to mention execution…

“It’d be cool to get up there and see ‘em,” Merle said, and Davenport blinked. “Doubt they’re gonna need a biologist in space, but it’d be cool.”

“Well, if we ever see other planes, we might need one,” Davenport said, and bit his lip again, this time hard and as punishment. He couldn’t do this if he was going to be a mission leader, he couldn’t just throw sensitive information out willy-nilly—

“With the Light’s energy output, and Doctor Watson practically making love to the thing, I can see it,” Merle laughed. Davenport laughed too, out of surprise more than anything. Merle made it disarmingly easy to do that. Davenport forced himself to relax. He hadn’t said anything wrong, or confirmed anything. Just a passing remark between two coworkers about a hypothetical situation.

“Shooting star,” Merle pointed, and Davenport followed the path of the celestial body in question. “Make a wish, Skipper.”

“What are you, five?” Davenport smiled, then cringed.

“Never too young for faith, Davenport,” Merle replied, but there was no reproach in his voice. “I’ll make one for both of us, how ‘bout that?”

“If you must,” Davenport sighed. He heard Merle mumble something under his breath. “What?”

“No, can’t tell a wish, Dav, or it won’t come true,” Merle grinned, and Davenport smiled back, and really it was truly unfair how utterly attractive Merle Highchurch was in this moment (Dav, that was a nickname he hadn’t heard in years). “If we’re ever back up here again, maybe I’ll bring some drinks or something. But I’ve gotta go, got people waiting on me.”

“Okay,” Davenport said as Merle rose, brushing off the grit from the roof tiles. “I’ll…be here, I guess.”

“If that’s what you want,” Merle said, and smiled. “Gotta get in some time to think up those great captainly plans, huh?”

“Something like that,” Davenport smiled back. “Have a good night, Merle.”

“Back at ya, Skip,” Merle said, and descended the stepladder. Davenport held his breath until he heard the roof door open and shut, and then he sat up, burying his face in his hands. What in all the seven hells was wrong with him? He scrubbed his fingers through his hair, then released a deep breath, looking down at the garden growing on the roof under the stars. In particular he watched the pastel glow of the starvine, thinking about his parents and about the Director’s offer. Maybe a little about Merle and his devastating smile.

He’d have to pull Merle’s file, but there had to be something impressive about a Pan cleric who was hired into the Biology department. Plus, with his easygoing attitude, he’d have no trouble making friends with whatever crew Davenport could cobble together. No—not cobble together. He worked for the Institute. They only employed the best of the best, and the Director thought enough of him, Davenport, to personally extend the invitation to head a groundbreaking scientific voyage. He would need an engineer, a biologist, a few other arcanists, maybe a security officer to round out the skill set. Davenport laid back down on the roof, his mind racing again, but now with plans, drawing up lists of who he’d have to talk to, questions to ask Doctor Watson, ideas for crew training and, if none of the Institute’s current employees or recruits measured up, ways to attract talented people to the Institute to participate.

Davenport stayed on the roof for a long time. When the night’s chill seeped into his bones and his toes and fingers were a little numb, he finally grabbed his jacket and climbed down. He wouldn’t sleep all night—Director Shaakti would find him outside her office the next morning, moustache and hair in disarray and bags under his eyes but his face alight with anticipation.

He was going to do this.

-

The mission prep took a year.

Early on Doctor Watson presented someone he called the unsung hero of the Engineering department, a soft-faced, shy man named Barry Bluejeans. Davenport waited for a solid minute for a punchline that turned out to be the poor man’s actual name, and shook his hand earnestly. Mr. Bluejeans was working on his Ph.D, which Davenport found a little less than ideal at first, but Doctor Watson then unfurled Mr. Bluejeans’ initial design for an interplanar craft. Davenport was in love with it the moment he saw it—the design elements were more nautical than skycraft, the lines sleek, the interior layout sensible. Davenport could see it carving through water just as easily as the vacuum of space and whatever lay beyond.

“It’s not just this craft,” Mr. Bluejeans said, and offered another blueprint. Davenport took it and unfurled it. It was a huge ring, encasing minute machinery infused with arcana, the likes of which Davenport had never seen before. “I’m calling it a bond engine.”

“Bond engine?” Davenport asked.

“An engine powered by bonds,” Mr. Bluejeans said, and at Davenport’s quizzical stare elaborated. “Bonds are like threads of power connecting every living and non-living thing. We discovered them pretty early on with the Light.”

“It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard of,” Doctor Watson said, almost crying with rapture. “Barry here thinks he can harness the power of bonds themselves to power the ship—the Light has already shown us multiple uses of bonds, we’re nailing down the formulas as we speak.”

“How would it work, in layman’s terms?” Davenport asked.

“Well, basically, the bonds between the crew would power the engine and keep the craft afloat,” Mr. Bluejeans said, pushing his glasses up his nose. “So, maybe this wasn’t something you were already thinking, but it would be best to compile a crew that really works together well and can forge these bonds while the engine is being constructed. Y’know, just so we can preemptively fix any bugs that might pop up in the development.”

“I see,” Davenport said, studying the blueprints. “How soon can you have a working model?”

“Probably a month, maybe less, depending on what the Light reveals,” Mr. Bluejeans said. Davenport put down the blueprints and extended his hand again.

“Your work is impeccable,” Davenport said. “I’d love to have you on board as our chief science officer, if you’re willing.”

Mr. Bluejeans sputtered, but took Davenport’s hand, shaking perhaps harder than necessary. “Thank you, sir, it’s—this is incredible, thank you so much!”

“It’s my pleasure, Mr. Bluejeans,” Davenport smiled. “I’m looking for the best of the best for this mission. You’ve proved yourself, at least to me.”

“Call me Barry,” Mr. Bluejeans said, and colored. “I mean, sir, um, you don’t have to, it’s—”

“It’s alright,” Davenport said. “I look forward to working with you…Barry.”

Finding the biologist and medic for the mission was easy. Davenport just had to wander over to the Biology department at the right moment to catch Merle casting a healing spell on a white-faced recruit who seemed to have given herself a deep cut across her arm with a scalpel. Merle talked to her in gentle, easy tones, fussing like a mother hen, and Davenport fell hard. For the idea of having Merle on board the mission, he clarified to himself. Strictly professional.

“Oh, hey, Skip,” Merle said when Davenport approached him a little later. “What’s up?”

“Are you still interested in traveling to the stars?” Davenport asked, and Merle glanced at him, amused.

“You offering?”

“I am,” Davenport said, and Merle finished washing his hands and turned, his brow furrowed.

“You’re serious.”

“Yup.” Davenport presented Merle with a packet explaining the particulars of the mission, insofar as he was able to divulge, and Merle took it, reading over the title.

“Interplanar travel,” Merle said. “Huh.”

“It would be a good idea if we had a medical officer on board the ship,” Davenport said. “And a biologist, to study the environments of whatever planes we might discover.”

“Sounds like an adventure,” Merle said, and held out his hand. “I’m in.”

Davenport shook his hand and steadfastly told himself he was not feeling butterflies in his stomach. That was just hunger. Yeah.

A thorough interviewing process and combing of the rest of the Arcane Sciences department didn’t produce any mages Davenport felt could really contribute to the mission, and the ones that could he felt were a little too ambitious to form genuine enough bonds with other people to keep the ship running. A long talk with Director Shaakti at her lacquered chai table and a week with the Institute’s public relations department produced a commercial that would play on every major fantasy TV channel in the realm, advertising for a new wave of recruits to sign up with the IPRE for a chance at being a part of the mission. It felt a little gimmicky to Davenport, like a sweepstakes or a sporting event, but the sheer volume of new recruits was overwhelming. Davenport trusted Barry to oversee the craft’s construction. He needed Merle to help with picking out the rest of the crew. Merle just had an easy way about him that people liked, and he was a keen judge of character.

The Taaco twins and Magnus Burnsides enrolled at the same time, and by the end of the first wave of instruction were all on top of their respective fields. Davenport was only skimming the cream from the top of all the departments, but even so, it left him with dozens of personnel files to read over. It was nice to talk them over with Merle, to have his insight. The final interviews, however, he wanted to do alone. Not that he didn’t trust Merle—after five months of working cheek-to-jowl on this, it was ridiculous to deny that he and Merle were friends—but Davenport wanted this time to himself to see how he, the captain, could bond with potential crew members.

The twins interviewed together, even though it was definitely not allowed, and gave Davenport sharp smiles and brazen comebacks.

“I see here that Lup is an Evocation specialist and Taako, you’re Transmutation, is that correct?” Davenport asked, flipping through their files. He was a little flustered at having to face both at once, but if Barry’s calculations were correct—and they nearly always were—it was a good sign if they were this close.

“Got it in one, kemosabe,” the brother—Taako—yawned, draping his elbow on his sister’s shoulder.

“There are a lot of talented and qualified arcanists looking to fill a limited number of positions this year,” Davenport said, folding his hands on the desk. “What makes the two of you so special? Why do you feel you stand out?”

“Just look at us,” Taako snorted.

“Yeah, Cap, like, no offense, but we know what our test scores are,” Lup said, leaning back in her chair and propping her boot up on her knee. “We took the last exam hungover like a dwarf after Candlenights and still came out on top.”

“True,” Davenport said, “but anybody can ace a test. You haven’t actually answered the question. What makes you think you’re a good fit for the IPRE?”

Taako and Lup exchanged a look that Davenport could tell, even from knowing the twins only a few minutes, was saying volumes. Taako’s brow was drawn, Lup’s mouth twisted.

“We’ve had…a difficult upbringing,” Lup finally said, turning back to him. “We’re self-taught, maybe a little rough around the edges, but if you let us be a part of this, you’re getting not just one powerful and talented wizard, but two. Plus, we have skills outside of arcana that make us valuable.”

“Put us in a kitchen and you’ll see what we mean,” Taako said, which brought up a point Davenport had not thought of before: would they need cooks on the mission? He’d just assumed they would have enough IPRE rations to last the mission, but if something went wrong, if they had to find other means of feeding themselves…

“We’ve lived on the road most of our lives, Captain,” Lup grinned. “We know how to cook a great meal with few resources, we know how to survive off scraps if we have to, and we know how to take care of ourselves.”

“We’re like the Bear Grylls of cooking wizards,” Taako smirked. Then he paused. “No piss-drinking, though, we’re not savages.”

Davenport burst out laughing before he could control himself. He fought down the mirth, tried to kill his smile, and shuffled their papers as he regained his composure. The twins were both looking at him like they’d discovered a wonderful new toy, which put Davenport on edge, socially if nothing else.

“I’ll make a note,” he said. “I have one last question, which may sound odd.”

“Shoot,” Lup shrugged.

“Have you made friends with anyone at the Institute?”

“No,” Taako snorted.

“Well,” Lup said, and Taako looked at her.

“Well?”

“There’s that one guy—”

“Oh, him,” Taako chuckled. “Yeah, he’s a riot.”

“Who?” Davenport asked.

“Magnus Burnsides,” Lup said. “He’s kind of our buddy now. Did a keg stand and walked away like it was nothing, it was the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Do you know what department he’s in?” Davenport asked.

“Idk, like security or something stupid like that,” Taako rolled his eyes. “He’s a big beefy kind of dude. Biceps like whoa.”

“Great taste in eyewear,” Lup said, and the twins sniggered. Davenport glanced at the sunglasses perched on Lup’s head and made another mental note.

“Thank you,” Davenport said. “You’re dismissed.”

“Coolio,” Taako said. “Catch you later, D-port.”

“Ew, that nickname sucks, never say it again,” Lup grimaced, and the twins bickered their way out of the interview. Davenport leaned his head against his hands, thinking. His initial impression was that they were conceited little twerps, but there were small signs that told of their bond—the way Taako never spoke without glancing at Lup first, or the way Lup kept physical contact with Taako at all times. That could be their greatest asset of all, even with the cooking taken into account.

Davenport’s interview with Magnus Burnsides was fairly standard (with the exception of Burnsides capping it by coining the term Cap’nport, which was honestly the most ridiculous and yet most tender nickname anyone had ever given him), but Davenport reserved judgement on both him and the twins until he watched them interact on the quad. They joked and laughed together like they’d known each other for years, parting the crowd around them with the kind of effortless grace Davenport had only ever seen around “popular kids” in his school days. In his maturity, he now recognized it for what it was—confidence and the ease of pure comfort in who they were, not some nebulous “cool” factor based on fashion and pop culture.

“They look like a bunch of punks,” Merle rumbled, and Davenport jumped. He hadn’t heard Merle approaching. “But they’re the best set of friends I’ve seen all year in the greenhorn sector.”

“They’re the ones,” Davenport said simply.

“How do you figure, Cap?” Merle asked.

“I like them,” Davenport said, and smiled at Merle’s huff. “I’m extending the invitations tomorrow. Did you want to be there?”

“Might as well,” Merle shrugged. “Better bring Barry along, too, get the whole crew together and see if something explodes.”

Davenport thought a bomb went off when he sat the twins and Burnsides down and told them they’d been chosen for the mission. There was abruptly so much screaming he thought someone had been murdered right in front of him, but it was mostly Magnus jumping around the room like a puppy and Lup and Taako holding onto each other and hollering with joy. Merle laughed so hard he almost fell over, and Barry mustered a nervous smile, straightening his glasses.

“Thank you, Cap’nport, you won’t regret this, Cap’nport,” Magnus said, pumping Davenport’s arm and jostling the rest of him into dizziness.

“I regret this already,” Davenport mumbled.

“Don’t be like that, Cap’nport, this’ll be fun,” Merle said, and smiled innocently when Davenport glared at him.

“Cap’nport, I do have a major question, and that is: is your name actually Barry J. Bluejeans?” Taako asked, craning over Davenport and Merle’s heads to look at Barry. Barry flushed crimson.

“Yeah,” Barry said quietly.

“Well heck,” Lup said, grinning. “Own it, son. Work that denim.”

Barry turned a blotchy sort of purple but looked pleased nonetheless. “Okay.”

Lucretia came like a bolt out of the blue. Davenport was filing paperwork, his fingers alphabetizing while his mind was far away with the latest prototype bond engine and how it had kicked to life unprompted the second the twins walked into the same room, when there was a knock on his office door.

“Come in,” he called, expecting Merle or Barry. What he got was a tall young woman with dark skin and white hair, who opened the door and gave him a polite smile. “Can I help you, miss?”

“I hope so,” she said, and strode towards his desk with her hand held out. “My name’s Lucretia, and I want to join your crew.”

“Excuse me?” Davenport said blankly, freezing mid-handshake. Lucretia quickly sat in the chair across from his desk and started digging in the satchel on her shoulder, producing three books.

“These are all novels I’ve ghostwritten,” Lucretia said, placing them on his desk. Davenport looked them over. They were three biographies of high-profile public figures, one of whom was an IPRE official, way back before Davenport even enlisted. He’d seen these biographies on bestseller lists for years. “I think this mission is an exciting breakthrough in our plane’s history, and I would like to volunteer as a chronicler for the voyage.”

“A chronicler,” Davenport repeated, sitting back in his chair and stroking his moustache. That had some potential, he thought, but the mission wasn’t a commercial enterprise so much as it was a scientific breakthrough. “What makes you think crew logs won’t be sufficient documentation for the mission?”

“Crew logs can’t tell the story like I can,” Lucretia said. “I’ve also mastered a style of writing where I use both my hands and create a redundancy in case of disaster to one of the copies. Aside from my writing prowess, I’m a registered arcanist with years of training and experience in many schools of magic, and I can pick up scientific jargon fairly quickly. My mother was a scientist here, many years ago.”

“I see,” Davenport said. “Can you demonstrate your writing style, please?”

“Of course,” Lucretia said. “I need use of your desk for a moment, please, sir.”

“Sure,” Davenport said, and Lucretia set two journals and two inkwells on his desk, followed by two quills. Without prompting, Lucretia began writing with both hands, as she said, and from what Davenport could see, both were written in not only legible script, they were nearly identical.

“I can be of use in transcribing mission logs, day-to-day life, and scientific and arcane reports,” Lucretia said as she wrote. “This is an incredible undertaking, and it deserves to be told well.” She put her quills down, and pushed the journals towards Davenport. He spun them around and read them. Both contained an accurate description of Davenport himself, lounging in his chair and watching her with a pensive expression. Davenport returned the journals.

“This isn’t some moneymaking scheme, Lucretia,” he said gently. “It’s a dangerous mission. We’re doing all we can to minimize the risk, but we’re still going to be setting out into the unknown.”

“I’m not volunteering for money,” Lucretia said, gathering her possessions. “I want to be of use. I think my skills would be a benefit to the mission, in the long run.” She stood. “Thank you for your time, Captain. Please consider my offer.”

Davenport watched her leave, then watched as a business card wafted through the door, sliding to a stop on his desk. It was Lucretia’s, still warm from the spell she’d used to send it to him. Davenport tapped his fingers on his desk, then picked up the card and stood. He needed to talk this over with his team.

“Ooh, yeah, media coverage,” was the first thing out of Taako’s mouth when Davenport was done explaining the situation.

“She writes with both hands?” Magnus asked for the fourth time.

“Technically the ship can support one more crew member, but I’m not sure how a biographer is gonna help the mission,” Barry said, frowning.

“Hey, it’s one more set of hands to help with chores,” Merle shrugged.

“There’s gonna be chores?” Lup wrinkled her nose.

“Listen, Skip, you’re always stressing about how you’re gonna present your findings to the public,” Merle said, ignoring Lup entirely. “Seems to me like we’ve got a ready-made PR agent willing to take on the load.”

“That’s true,” Davenport mused. “And a chronicler would really take the pressure off of me making ungodly-long captain’s logs.”

“What the hay,” Lup shrugged, “let’s get one more girl up in this sausage-fest.” She paused. “Wait, I demand it, in fact. I can’t live on a tin can with this much testosterone in my pheromone receptors.”

“Do elves have pheromone receptors?” Magnus asked.

“Anyway,” Davenport said loudly, reining in the conversation, “that’s two in favor. Taako?”

“Oh, yeah, for sure,” Taako said, examining his nails. “I’m always down with the paparazzi.”

“She’s not paparazzi, but okay,” Davenport shook his head. “Magnus?”

“She can write with both hands,” Magnus said, as if that answered the question for him. “Uh, yeah, she can come on our magic space journey.”

“Okay,” Davenport sighed. “Barry?”

Barry bit his lip. “If the rest of you think it’s okay,” he said.

“Barry,” Davenport deadpanned. Barry flushed.

“I…look, I still don’t really see the utility of a writer on a scientific mission, but if she’s impressed Cap’nport—Captain Davenport, sorry—and the rest of you are okay with it, then I am too,” Barry said, fumbling his words.

“Okay,” Davenport said. “We’ll invite her on a trial run. If she gets along with the crew and proves she’s worth her salt, we’ll keep her. Deal?”

“Deal,” Barry said, and the rest voiced their approval.

Lucretia’s tour of the still-unnamed spacecraft was marked by Lucretia scribbling single-handed in a journal, her eyes wide as Davenport and his crew showed her around. Davenport listened to the others ribbing each other and feeding Lucretia completely false information, like what the main component of the bond engine was called (“We’re not calling it a love boat, Merle, shut up.”) and the kinds of planes they hoped to find (“Puppy plane. I’m just saying.”). Lucretia seemed to be even more nervous than she was in Davenport’s office, just as shy and awkward as Barry when he first started out, and Davenport found it endearing, despite himself. Lucretia handed him her journal at the conclusion of the tour, waiting as he read through it. It was…remarkably detailed, her shorthand easy to follow and the scientific terms Barry had desperately tried to make heard over Lup’s insistence to the contrary spelled correctly. She captured the demeanor of each crew member in striking accuracy, from Taako’s lilting voice (though lilt was generous, in Davenport’s very private opinion) to Magnus’ freckle-faced enthusiasm, Lup’s smile and Barry’s earnest gesticulating when he started talking about the ship’s inner workings. She even got Merle’s slightly accented Common.

“I still have to clear it with the Director,” Davenport said, handing back her journal, “but I’m on board with having a chronicler, Lucretia.”

She flashed him a small smile that was warm and genuine, if tempered by caution. “Thank you, sir.”

Director Shaakti approved Lucretia immediately upon learning who she was. “She’s a gifted young woman,” she said to a frankly dumbstruck Davenport. “We could use all the gifted hands we can get here, and she has two of them.”

Davenport signed off on Lucretia’s employment in the seventh month of the mission’s preparation. That left five months of training, building, hoping, and praying left to get through. Davenport kept his professional persona up as much as he could, graciously accepting nicknames as proof of bonding with his crewmates, but he did have others to answer to, other senior staff and Institute personnel to whom he needed to present a strong front. Insolence from the younger members of his crew were met with swift retribution. Taako was the hardest to get broken into shape, much to Davenport’s surprise. He would’ve bet on Magnus or Lup, but aside from the nicknames and the occasional jabs at his dignity, they listened to commands and executed them well. Taako…took some work.

“I know, okay,” Taako snapped, dragging himself upright when Davenport sharply berated his speed during an Institute-sanctioned outdoor endurance run (which, it should be noted, was as booby-trapped as an adventurer’s dungeon and purposely so). “Physical best, blah blah blah blah blah. If I hear one more comment about my conduct—”

“Taako, duck,” Davenport said, and Taako, still mid-rant, didn’t move out of the way of the enchanted rocks rolling down the hillside towards him. Davenport swore and tackled Taako, yelling, “Taako, duck!”

Taako squawked as he was taken down, then shrieked when the rocks launched off of the side of the hill and barreled into where Taako had been standing a moment before. He looked down at Davenport, wide-eyed. Davenport got to his feet, moustache bristling.

“When I give you an order,” he said, in a calm, quiet voice, “it’s to save your life. I don’t gain any pleasure from criticizing your performance. If you don’t do exactly what I say, when I say it, you could die. Simple as that. Do you understand?”

There was a beat, and Taako didn’t blink, transfixed. Then he slowly stood at perfect attention and saluted.

“Sir, yes, sir,” he said.

“Good,” Davenport said, and there was a monstrous roar in the distance followed by manic laughter. “Now, let’s catch up, I think Magnus found the hologram owlbear.”

Five months whittled down to three. The hull of the ship was being polished to a shiny silver finish, and Davenport was itching to get his hands on the wheel. The bond engine was running at a constant hum any time two or more members of the crew entered its field of influence, which Barry and Doctor Watson were both overjoyed about. Once, when all seven of them were together and Lup made a joke they all laughed at, the craft launched several feet into the air, and that had Barry grinning and talking a mile a minute about its performance.

Barry had designed the ship with Davenport in mind for the controls, though he had also included a feature where the control panel expanded in case a person of a taller race needed to take the helm. Davenport understood this, though it didn’t annoy him any less when Doctor Delver, head of the Engineering department, took it upon theirself to tour the helm and leave the controls in expanded position every time Davenport came in to acquaint himself further with them. He gritted his teeth and bore it most of the time. The one time he lost his cool over it, Merle happened to be standing behind him, unbeknownst to a swearing Davenport.

“Chill out there, Dav,” Merle chuckled, and Davenport really should see a doctor about dwarf-related scares, because Merle was uncanny at sneaking up on him. Prolonged time together had tamed Davenport’s unruly crush back some, though it didn’t stop him from thinking Merle was still handsome. Lup had referred to Merle as a DILF at some point during the past few months, which led to a highly grossed-out Taako and Magnus leaving the room, Barry red-faced, Lucretia puzzled, and Merle with a smug grin on his face that lasted a week. Davenport merely advised Lup to be more discerning with her compliments and left his blushing agreement in the past where it belonged.

“If someone doesn’t put the controls back where they belong one more time, I’m going to break something,” Davenport muttered, slotting them back into place. A local newspaper had run an editorial on the fitness of a gnome in charge of a serious scientific exploratory mission, and it had gotten wedged firmly under Davenport’s skin that morning.

“Nah, you wouldn’t do that to your baby,” Merle snorted. “Anyway, kids are here. Figured it’s about time to christen this thing.”

“Oh,” Davenport said, and looked down at the control panel. For so long it had just been “the ship” in his mind, it would be weird for it to actually have a name. But it was almost complete, ready for a test run with the full crew, and naming things was important, he supposed. At the very least it would be good team-building.

He regretted everything when they settled on Starblaster.

-

Three months dwindled into one month, then three weeks, then two. The Starblaster was operating beautifully, Davenport’s team equally so. The bond engine had to be manually shut off every now and then to stop it from blasting off early, and every moment Davenport spent with his crew or the Starblaster was another moment strengthening his resolve that he’d made the right decisions.

The day before they left was the press conference, immediately followed by what Merle was calling “the party of the century.”

“Join us, Cap’nport, come on,” Magnus protested when Davenport refused the invitation. “Live a little!”

“I have a highly advanced experimental spaceship to fly tomorrow,” Davenport said dryly. “I’m turning in early. Don’t forget you’re all to be here at oh-six-hundred hours for the final debriefing.”

“If you insist,” Taako shrugged. “Cha’boy is gonna live it up tonight.”

“Please be careful,” Davenport pleaded, looking to Merle and Lucretia. “Please? Just stay out of trouble?”

“Don’t worry about it, Cap, we’ll be fine,” Merle chuckled, shooting off a casual salute. “Later!”

Davenport watched them go, then turned to check on the Starblaster one last time. She was docked in a hangar now, which was devoid of people when Davenport slipped in. He ran his hand along the smooth metal hull of the Starblaster, admiring the workmanship. She really was the most beautiful ship he’d ever seen on sea or sky.

“Nervous?” the voice of the Director echoed.

“A little,” Davenport said, proud of himself for not flinching at the sudden noise. He’d been trained well, he thought ruefully. Director Shaakti walked across the hangar floor, her severe white bun in place but the cool professional front she wore as easily as her robes lowered. “This is it.”

“You’ve done exceptionally well, Davenport,” Director Shaakti said. “Your crew isn’t who I would have chosen, but their chemistry is superb. Doctor Watson’s confidence in their ability to power the bond engine is rock-steady.”

“Mine, too,” Davenport smiled. “Thank you, ma’am.”

“I notice you didn’t join them for drinks,” the Director mused. Davenport blinked, startled. She gave him one of her little almost-smiles, reflected in the polished metal of the Starblaster. “It’s not against regulation for a captain to celebrate with his crew, you know.”

“I needed the time to myself,” Davenport replied. Director Shaakti placed her ebony hand on his shoulder.

“Remember that it’s alright to show your crew you’re a person as well as their leader sometimes, Davenport,” she said quietly. “If they can’t see that, they won’t trust you. If they don’t trust you, they won’t respect you, and the mission fails before it begins.”

Davenport looked up at the Director, whose expression was now impenetrable. He gave an uncertain nod. She cracked another smile, the largest he’d ever seen from her.

“Get some rest,” Director Shaakti said, putting her hands behind her back. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Goodnight, Director,” Davenport said, and when her footsteps faded entirely he touched the Starblaster one final time.

“We’ll be out there soon, buddy,” he murmured.

Davenport’s feet carried him back to the Institute quad, then diverted him to the Arcane Sciences building for one last look at the stars from the ground for a couple months. Merle’s garden was flourishing, and Davenport knelt in front of the starvine for a few minutes. He was never a religious gnome, but he said a little prayer of thanks anyway, like his father would do every night before bed. The starvine blooms winked at him in their soft pastel glow.

Davenport laid out on the roof and immediately frowned. There was something wrong with the sky. Stars were missing. Maybe the light pollution spell was breaking? He studied the constellations closely, then saw it—a star winked out, leaving void behind. He watched four stars disappear before he sat up, unnerved.

Just a problem with the spell, he told himself as he made his way to his personal quarters, shaken. Not an ill omen, not anything to worry about. No matter what he told himself, Davenport slid into an uneasy sleep.

-

It was not just a problem with the spell.

-

Davenport had a wild thought wondering if this was what his parents felt before they died as he wove between pillars of crushing darkness and fought the Starblaster through whatever this living storm was made of. He wondered if they felt their knees turning to water, if they gritted their teeth to keep from screaming, if the shouts of their crew hit them like physical blows as fierce winds rocked their ship. He wondered if they faced oblivion and thought of him, thought of all the people they were leaving behind—

Thousands of strands of light blinded Davenport at the helm, stretching his perception of reality, flinging his matter across time and space—there were a hundred different Davenports, and on the deck, the cries of his crewmates augmented, hundreds of voices, of screams—

-

It wasn’t home.

Davenport knew it the second he realized he couldn’t read the sky, his personal map branded on his heart and mind since early childhood. The planet they arrived on was lush and green, wild in the way only a forest that had never known the touch of civilization could be. There were no people. There were no cities. There were only animals, and animal hutches, and miles and miles of wilderness.

For once, Davenport was at a loss for what to do. There was no regulation for this, no rulebook, no training scenario. He heard the crew—now the only survivors from their world—murmuring to each other down on the deck, before Barry’s sharp intake of breath cut through it all. “The Light’s gone.”

Davenport whipped his head down to stare hard at Barry. “What do you mean, the Light’s gone?”

“It’s gone, Captain.” Barry pointed to the perch on the back of the deck where the Light of Creation was supposed to rest, cut into the solar mast. “It…it’s not here.”

“Well, that’s just delightful,” Taako muttered, leaning against the rail on the side of the deck. “Home is—home just got eaten, the Light is gone, we have no idea where we are, and did I mention our home planet has been destroyed?”

“We know, Taako,” Magnus snapped from the other side of the deck. “We were all watching. We saw.”

“Cap?” Merle said, and the argument brewing stalled out. “What do we do?”

Davenport felt the weight of six scared and angry gazes on him. He flipped the Starblaster into autopilot, then turned and walked down the bridge to face his crew. Lucretia looked like she was about to vomit. Barry’s hands were in his hair as he searched Davenport like he held the answers. Magnus and Taako were both standing with clenched jaws and fists, Magnus with visible tear tracks on his cheeks. Lup had her hand on Taako’s shoulder, her fingers clutching his jacket like a lifeline. Merle’s brow was knitted in a frown, his normal easygoing smile gone and his face pale and sweating. Davenport closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Then two.

“We’re going to try and fly back,” Davenport said, his voice much stronger than he felt. “The loss of the Light is regrettable, but given what we’ve just seen, I think it’s safe to say that our home plane being alright is a greater victory.”

“Yeah,” Magnus said. “Yeah, let’s do that.”

Davenport returned to the wheel, guiding the Starblaster back out of the Prime Material Plane and into the nothingness that surrounded the planar system. Then it was like he hit an invisible wall. Frowning, Davenport flew the Starblaster harder, ramming against space, but no matter what he did, the planar system below never got farther away and whatever quality the void had before—that jiggly, malleable quality, when they were torn apart and put back together again—was gone. Davenport stood motionless at the wheel for several minutes.

“What’s the holdup?” Taako asked.

“I can’t get through,” Davenport said through gritted teeth.

“What do you mean, you can’t get through?”

“I mean I can’t pass through space here, Taako,” Davenport snapped, then closed his eyes, pulling a breath in through his nose. “However we got here, we can’t go back through. We’re stuck.”

The silence was worse than the screams, Davenport decided as he turned the ship around and descended back into the Prime Material Plane. There was utter hopelessness in the silence, the kind that had Davenport’s skin itching with nerves. He was the captain. He had to think of something. When they were back in orbit around the animal planet, Davenport put the Starblaster back on autopilot. Then he steeled himself, and looked down to face his crew from the bridge.

“Our mission parameters are to explore and record signs of life outside our own planar system,” Davenport said, and raised his hand for silence when Taako opened his mouth. Mercifully, Taako stayed silent. “We don’t know where we are. Contact with the Institute has been cut off. We have to assume…” Davenport swallowed hard. “We have to assume that our home planar system has been…compromised.”

“Destroyed,” Lup said, and she met Davenport’s eyes. “Let’s not sugar-coat, Captain. That…that thing straight-up gobbled our plane up like Magnus does hard candy. We owe ourselves at least that much honesty.”

“I just don’t understand,” Barry said, more talking to himself than the rest of the crew. “Why our plane? What’s it after? Why are we here, what were those lights—none of it makes any sense.”

“At any rate,” Davenport said, raising his voice, “in an emergency situation, when contacting mission control is not an option, the captain is charged with acting in the manner that best ensures his crew’s safety.” Davenport looked down at this strange new planet over the side of the Starblaster’s deck. “I’m calling a meeting. We’re in this together, so we’ll decide what to do together. You all have an hour to do something for yourselves until then.” Davenport returned to the wheel, making sure the Starblaster was in perfect orbiting position. He was probably being overly cautious with the Starblaster, but after what they’d just been through, he didn’t want to take any chances of them running into a meteor or something. How would that look? Outrun a plane-eating horrorterror, only to be defeated by a rock. Not on his watch. A part of him realized he was probably just a little bit hysteric. He didn’t particularly care, so long as he didn’t appear that way to the crew.

When he finished and looked down at the deck, everyone was still on there, looking at him like they’d forgotten how to walk and he could teach them how. His chest ached with some emotion he’d parse through later, but affection was part of it. He descended the ramp from the bridge to the deck and tried to smile.

“Dining room,” Davenport said. “We’ll grab some snacks.”

“No,” Taako said sharply.

“We’ll make something,” Lup said.

“Cool,” Magnus said, and walked over to Lucretia, who was still shaking like a leaf. “Easy, Lu. Slow, deep breaths.”

Davenport followed his crew into the living quarters of the ship. Lucretia started crying along the way, Magnus making quiet soothing sounds and keeping his arm around her. Taako and Lup went straight for the kitchen, bigger than regulation strictly allowed on spacecraft, but the twins had insisted and Barry made it work by having the dining room and the kitchen be one big open area. They’d be able to listen and participate this way, which was good.

“Any suggestions?” Davenport asked when Barry, Magnus, Merle, and Lucretia were seated. “I’m open to any ideas on what to do at this point.”

“If we’re stuck here, let’s explore,” Magnus said. “Maybe we can find something to help us fight that thing, if it comes back.”

“I’m in favor of that,” Merle nodded.

“We’re going to run out of food, unless one of you can summon some,” Taako called from the kitchen. “Or if Mags knows how to forage.”

“I totally know how to survive in the wild,” Magnus grinned.

“No, you don’t,” Merle rolled his eyes. “You almost ate nightshade berries four separate times during our team camping trips, bub.”

“Taako said they were blueberries.”

“Regardless,” Barry cut in, “I think we need to find the Light. Maybe if we find it, we can use it to help find a way back home.”

“You really think there’s a home to go back to, Bluejeans?” Lup asked, her knife paused mid-chop.

“I have to,” Barry said simply. Lup studied him for a while, then went back to chopping garlic. “I can rig something up to lock onto its magical signature, if you’ll give me a few days, Captain.”

“Of course,” Davenport nodded. “I’m not averse to gathering intel about this plane, but everyone stick close once we get down there. It looks like it’s just animals out there, but maybe there’s something worse.”

“After what we just saw, it’s gonna take a whole lot for something to scare me ever again,” Magnus shook his head.

Their second day observing the plane from above, the Light of Creation fell from the sky and landed miles away.

“I’ve got it,” Lup said, smacking Barry’s hands away from the holo-map they’d drawn up of what they’d observed about the planet. They were all on the deck, which wasn’t uncommon; Davenport noticed no member of the crew seemed to want to be alone, and if he was being honest, he didn’t, either. Barry and Lup had dragged a bunch of equipment from the lab up to the deck, for “fresh air,” Lup had said. Now, with the Light streaking across the sky, she was holding up the map and following it with her finger, drawing a bright line with a spell that was also calculating some mathematical formula in the margins.

“What do you mean, you’ve got it?” Davenport asked.

“I mean, I’ve got a lock on its heading,” Lup said as the Light vanished from sight (planet curvature and all, Davenport sighed). She looked up and shot Barry a challenging smirk, then nodded at her captain at the helm. “If and when we wanna track it, I can get the general location up and triangulated, Cap’nport.”

“That’s…that’s really accurate, Lup,” Barry said, reading her math. She smirked at him again, and Barry’s cheeks reddened. “Not that I had any doubts, I mean, you were chosen for this mission too, but I—”

“Didn’t want any other hands in the kitchen, I get it,” Lup said, giving him back the device that was projecting the map. “Might oughta learn to share, Bluejeans.” She booped Barry on the nose, then retreated to Taako’s company (who was giggling so hard he snorted), the two of them walking belowdecks. Barry stared after them with a scarlet face, then looked up at Davenport. Davenport shrugged.

“It’s not a bad principle.”

Magnus laughed, then choked when one of his hard candies slid to the back of his throat, and then everyone was laughing once Magnus coughed it up and pouted. Merle caught Davenport’s eye and Davenport took a moment to appreciate the sparkle in Merle’s eyes. Then he mentally slapped himself and went to fiddle with something on the control panel.

Forty-eight hours later, the sky grew pitch-black, and hundreds of white eyes opened in the darkness. Davenport swallowed down his fear, staring directly at the eyes. The rest of the crew had their reactions—Magnus roared like the thing could hear him, Lucretia screamed, Merle swore. Lup’s hands erupted in flame behind Davenport, the heat licking against his body (which had gone very cold, but Davenport felt it in a disconnected sort of way, which was probably a bad sign). Barry and Taako said nothing, but Davenport could feel their tension. He was halfway to the helm when the sky cleared again. He forced himself not to sag against the wall of the suspended bridge, not to vomit, and most of all, not to burst into tears. They couldn’t see him like that.

Instead, he stood up straight and kept his gaze on the sky for several minutes, hardly daring to blink. Were dark tendrils about to come tearing out of the blue towards them again? The motionless storm was gone, but Davenport didn’t move.

“The Light,” Lucretia said suddenly.

“What?” Davenport turned his attention to her. Lucretia, clutching her journal to her chest, had her eyes still on the sky.

“It’s just a hunch,” Lucretia said, “but I think that…that thing is looking for the Light of Creation.”

“Maybe,” Davenport said, looking down to the forest. It was a thought. They’d certainly never faced anything like that before the Light fell into their hands.

The days passed. Barry finished his device and gave it to Davenport over breakfast.

“Should point us in the right direction, at least,” Barry said, shoving his hands in his jeans pockets. Davenport examined it. It looked almost like a radiation sensor, but there was a rotating sphere at the top of it and something like a compass for a screen. It was certainly bigger in his hands than it was in Barry’s, but not unwieldy.

“I might’ve tweaked it a little,” Lup said over Barry’s shoulder. “Just making sure it’s super-accurate.”

“And I appreciate the help,” Barry said with a small smile. Lup’s contentious grin faded a little into a confused frown, which she then banished with a shrug and a renewed smile, turning back to the pot of oatmeal she was stirring.

“You’re welcome, nerd.”

“I’m going after the Light,” Davenport announced, hefting the device in his hand. “I passed all my wilderness survival courses, so I’ll be fine. The rest of you, stay with the ship.”

“I’m going, too,” Merle said, and Davenport, despite everything, still felt his heart skip a beat. That wouldn’t do, he said sternly to himself. There was no time for anything as ridiculous as his feelings right now.

“Cool, boat dads field trip,” Lup grinned. Davenport pinched the bridge of his nose, sighing.

“Well, it makes sense, if the captain’s going on a safari, to bring along the nature cleric,” Merle said, grinning that stupid movie star grin of his and winking at Lup. “Get some hot DILF action in the woods, isn’t that right, Skip?”

Davenport lived in hell now, it seemed.

-

Merle was easy to talk to.

It was something Davenport had noticed during their year of prep, once his awed shyness induced by Merle’s…Merleness…wore off and he was able to talk in complete, coherent sentences without being distracted by Merle’s eyes or his smile or the lines of his arms. Merle was that way for everybody, friendly as can be and non-confrontational to a fault. He was also annoyingly perceptive, though politeness or maybe awkwardness kept him from mentioning how often he seemed to see through some of Davenport’s deflections. Davenport was…he was a private guy, really. He had to be. Gnomes weren’t capable of leadership positions unless they were leading a line dance, someone had told him once. Gnomes weren’t serious, gnomes weren’t dedicated, gnomes didn’t have the attention span or skill set for anything but jovial camaraderie and tinker work. Davenport was fiercely proud of his accomplishments, just as he’d been proud of the decorations his parents had received in naval service back home. Even when it was just him and Merle, sitting around a campfire and swapping innocuous childhood stories, Davenport clutched his professionalism around him like a security blanket.

They’d been trekking towards the Light for three days when Merle apparently got tired of it.

“Listen, Skip, I respect that you’ve got a lot of dedication towards your job, but it’s just the two of us out here,” Merle said that night as he passed the can opener to Davenport. “You can relax just a little bit.”

“What do you mean?” Davenport busied himself with cranking open his can of beans, steadfastly not looking Merle in the eye.

“Dav. Look at me.”

Davenport glanced at him, and then the can opener clicked. He looked down to catch his beans before they fell, then passed the can opener back over to Merle. Merle grabbed his hand around the can opener, and that certainly got Davenport’s undivided attention.

“There, was that so hard?” Merle huffed, an exasperated smile on his face. “You could hurt a guy’s feelings that way, Cap.”

“I’m sorry,” Davenport said, and winced at his own brisk tone. “Look, Merle, it’s not that I’m trying to be cold or anything, I’ve just…got a lot on my mind.”

“Yeah, no kidding,” Merle snorted, stirring his beans with his spoon and stuffing in a mouthful. “Don’t we all,” he said around his beans. Davenport wrinkled his nose. Lack of manners wasn’t exactly a surprise, but it was still unpleasant to watch Merle suck bean bits off of his teeth. Gross. “I’m just saying,” Merle said after he’d swallowed them all, “it’s just you and me out here. You’re Captain, of course you’re captain, but I think rank doesn’t mean quite so much when you’re both working towards survival, am I right?”

“I guess,” Davenport said. “How many more cans of these do we have?”

“’bout six,” Merle said, checking his pack. “Should be good for a treat every now and then.”

“A treat of beans,” Davenport deadpanned. “Just what I always wanted.”

Merle laughed. “Well, if I find a candy tree, Dav, you’ll be the first to know about it.”

Even with bits of beans in his teeth, Davenport’s heart still thumped whenever Merle smiled.

-

On the five-week mark, Davenport and Merle stumbled on a small waterfall.

“Shower time,” Merle said, and Davenport grinned, nodding. They’d been living off the land quite comfortably, in Davenport’s opinion, but there were only so many sponge baths and stream dips a creature could take before he began longing for a more complete cleaning experience. Scrubbing off with a handful of sand or a bit of cloth from a ruined pair of pants was all well and good, but Davenport knew his funk, and he didn’t like it. Merle wore a crunchy layer of dirt on his good days, so the biggest change in his stench was the power of it. That, and the brambles in his beard from where he’d pulled Davenport out of the thicket that had shredded Davenport’s best pair of canvas trousers.

“Feels like a bean day,” Davenport said, and Merle laughed. “I’ll wash off first. You set up camp.”

“We could set up and go together,” Merle said. Davenport had long since given up praying to any gods listening that his face wasn’t noticeably reddening.

“No,” he shook his head. “We need one person keeping an eye on the supplies.” Marauding squirrels had been a frequent issue, the greedy little beasts ransacking their food and carting off anything good they found with a chittering laugh echoing through the trees. Thank Pan they hadn’t stolen the small spice caddy the twins had lent them, or Davenport was convinced he would have died of culinary boredom long ago.

“I guess,” Merle shrugged. “Go on, then.”

Davenport hefted his pack and set off for the waterfall, already anticipating feeling (relatively) clean and fresh. It was midsummer, but even so the waterfall was cool as Davenport stripped down and waded towards it. He ducked his head under a portion of the spray and scrubbed back his hair, sighing in bliss. It had been a while since he’d had a minute to himself away from Merle to take stock of things. The scratches on his legs had healed fine, but there was still a long scar up his side from falling wrong out of a tree, and odd bruises and scratches from the wear and tear of forest living.

He was thinner than usual, he noticed with some chagrin; gnomes were small and slight by nature, but it was just embarrassing to see some of his ribs poking out. His hipbones were getting more prominent, as well, he noticed with another sigh. Knobbly Captain Davenport was not a good look, but hopefully soon they’d return to the Starblaster with the Light and he’d go back to regular, more filling meals.

This would be a good spot to do laundry, Davenport thought as he magicked himself dry and dressed. He followed the sound of Merle’s singing to where Merle had made camp, complete with a firepit ready to go and two cans of beans beside it. Merle was unpacking his bedroll, singing something by fantasy Kenny Chesney, probably. It had that twangy feel.

“Looking good, Dav,” Merle winked. Davenport rolled his eyes and set down his pack.

“Go wash up. I’ll get the fire going,” Davenport said. Merle waved him off, gathering his clothes and trudging off. Davenport thought about using magic to start the fire, but decided against it. It wouldn’t kill him to do it by hand.

Dusk fell while Merle was gone, fireflies rising from the forest floor in droves.  Davenport withdrew two steaming cans of beans from the fire just as Merle whistled his way back, stripped to the waist, his hair hanging loose in a curly wave down his back and his beard slightly more groomed and free of plant matter. Davenport stuck the spoons down in the cans and took his, stirring the beans around and blowing on them.

“Don’t suppose Barry’s doodad lets us know how far we are, does it?” Merle asked, settling down on the other side of the fire and grabbing his beans. Davenport put his dinner aside and dug down in his pack for the Lightfinder, as he’d been calling it. The orb on top was spinning much faster than it had five weeks ago, but it wasn’t emitting the hum and glow Barry had said it would once they were within a mile of it. The compass was pointed in a steady northwest position.

“No,” Davenport said, “but we’re getting there.” He put the Lightfinder down and returned to his beans. They ate in silence for a while, Davenport studiously so, avoiding staring at Merle’s inked, burly arms and sturdy chest because it had been weeks, Davenport, weeks, and he wasn’t a teenager, get a grip.

“Nice night,” Merle said. Davenport nodded, the twinkle of fireflies flashing in his periphery. “Lightning bugs are out.”

“I’m sorry, what?” Davenport blinked. Merle shrugged and swallowed his mouthful of beans.

“I said the lightning bugs are out.”

“Lightning bugs?” Davenport snorted. Merle chuckled. “I think you mean fireflies.”

“I think I know a lightning bug when I see a lightning bug,” Merle retorted.

“I think you’re crazy,” Davenport grinned.

“Family Lampyridae,” Merle recited, “a beetle which phosphoresces from its rump. Lightning bugs.”

“You’re making that up.”

“Am not, I’m a holy man. I know stuff.”

“Say firefly,” Davenport challenged, beans momentarily forgotten.

“Lightning bug,” Merle replied, and equally competitive smile on his face.

“Firefly.”

“Lightning bug.”

Firefly.”

“That’s what I said, lightning bug!”

“Merle!”

“Dav!”

By this point Davenport was laughing too hard to continue, Merle hardly better off. Their jollity petered off into companionable silence as they returned to their beans, punctuated by amused glances across the fire. Maybe it was the phosphorescent beetle glow, maybe it was the whole crazy situation, but Davenport felt something important swell up in his chest.

“Y’know,” he said, toying with his beans, “I’m…having a lot of fun out here with you, Merle—”

A loud, juicy, glorious fart interrupted him, followed by Merle’s raucous laughter. Davenport just stared, stunned into silence. Merle laughed until he wheezed, wiping his eyes.

“Sorry ‘bout that,” he gasped, “when nature calls, you know…”

Davenport nodded, returning to his beans and letting the silence build, significantly less comfortable now. Merle fidgeted, and after a few minutes cleared his throat.

“Cap, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you—”

The second longest, juiciest, most glorious fart of the night cut through Merle’s words entirely. Davenport straightened from where he’d leaned to the side to really let it rip, primly placing another spoonful of beans in his mouth. Merle laughed so hard he fell to his knees, tears streaming down his face. Davenport held it together for all of ten seconds before his own giggles burst out of him.

“You’re alright, Davenport,” Merle sniffed, wiping his face and still giggling.

“You’re not the only gross old man in the IPRE,” Davenport grinned.

“That’s DILF.”

“No, Merle. No it isn’t.”

Their amicable argument (and flatulence) drifted through the night like a breeze, and if this had been a game, Davenport thought later as he settled in to sleep, then he and Merle had probably just earned a bond for that.

-

They found the Light eventually, and returned eventually empty-handed. The year progressed. Magnus trained with a Power Bear, the twins and Barry talked to animals, Davenport worried. It was fair weather all year long, it seemed, but the closer they got to the one-year anniversary of their flight from the black mass, the colder Davenport felt. He was afraid he was giving everyone around him a cold shoulder—even Merle had stopped seeking him out, at least when Davenport was at the helm, his hands resting on the wheel spokes and mind far, far away.

The Royal Beasts were still in deliberation when the colors faded from the world and the sky grew dark. Davenport’s gut swooped. He was nearly sick right there.

“Back to the ship,” he said, almost to himself. A thick column of darkness slammed into the dais of the Royal Beasts, and Davenport stumbled. “Back to the ship! Now!”

It was chaos both like and unlike last time. Last time, the Starblaster had cleared the Prime Material Plane before this seething black mass appeared. Now, they were on the ground, dodging trees and frightened animals and—Davenport felt another sharp lance of panic—shadowy figures pouring from the columns. The twins, with their long legs, overtook Davenport quickly, Taako leading as Lup threw spells over her shoulder. Barry wasn’t far behind, though it was clear he was struggling to keep up. Merle’s mouth was moving, almost in prayer, and Davenport felt his tiring body gain another burst of speed. Lucretia was already at the Starblaster, and had the gangplank lowered, casting handfuls of light at the dark figures.

“Where’s Magnus?” Lucretia shouted as Davenport sprinted aboard, last in line. A second later he felt a blast of heat behind him that knocked him forward, and Lup crowed.

“Got ‘im!” she shrieked, and whooped when the figure that had been about to impale Davenport with a spear crumbled to ash.

“Where’s Magnus?” Lucretia repeated, her voice panicked.

“I thought—he was right—behind us,” Barry wheezed, clutching his chest.

Davenport scrambled to the helm, and the Starblaster hummed to life the second he touched the wheel.

“That idiot,” Taako hissed, his hands white-knuckle gripping the rail. The seconds slipped by like hours. Davenport watched as if in slow motion as Lup and Lucretia continued firing at the shadow-people, watched as several tendrils of the thing in the sky slammed down to the ground—he searched the way they’d come for Magnus, hoping he’d see a tall, burly human crashing through the underbrush—

A tendril crashed too close to the Starblaster for comfort, and Captain Davenport made the call.

“What are you doing?” Lup yelled as Davenport retracted the gangplank and launched the ship into the sky, weaving through strands of darkness.

“Saving our lives,” he replied.

“Magnus—”

“I can’t sacrifice all our lives for one person!” Davenport snapped. “We’re getting out of here. Now.”

He tuned out the shout of rage from one of the twins and scream from Lucretia, tuned out everything but the hum of the Starblaster as they raced to the edge of the plane. There was a sliver of space between the devouring plane’s tendrils and this one, it would be tight but he’d threaded tougher needles before—

The Starblaster burst into the void surrounding the planar system and directly into the edge of its boundaries, which was starting to buckle like it had before.

“Oh my gods,” Barry said, and despite himself Davenport looked over his shoulder.

There were thousands of columns that looked like threads from this distance connecting the bigger plane to the Prime Material Plane they’d just escaped from. In a flash of light, like an eel swallowing a fish, the dark plane pulled the Prime Material Plane out of orbit and into itself. At that moment, the Starblaster lurched, then pushed through whatever jiggly threshold had let them come here in the first place.

The strings of light emanating from the bond engine encircled them again, and before Davenport’s eyes, his position on the helm changed without him moving his limbs. A thousand different Davenports scattered around him, stretched to infinity, and Davenport was too distracted to notice it this time, but at the cries of his crew he looked down, once he was a single entity again and they were staring down at a new planar system. Magnus was back on the deck, standing exactly where he’d been a year ago. Davenport sagged against the wheel, his knees weak for a moment in relief.

Then Magnus turned around. His eye was blackened. Davenport frowned, then looked to Merle. His beard and hair were trimmed, and there was a small cut on his forehead. Barry’s glasses were fixed from where he’d snapped them on an excursion. Taako’s jacket wasn’t singed, and Lup’s jaw didn’t have that half-healed burn she’d been sporting for a week or so, Lucretia had her original robe back on from where she’d sacrificed it (unwittingly) months ago as bedding for baby mongooses. And…Davenport couldn’t tell for sure through his jacket, but he was pretty sure it fit like it had before he went on his forest field trip with Merle. It felt like his bones were back under the layer of fat and muscle he’d had when he was still at the IPRE. That more than anything spooked him; there was almost no evidence of the past year, nothing but memories.

“You guys left the party early.” Magnus was laughing, but his eyes were on Davenport and looked both hurt and furious. Davenport found his spine and straightened, throwing the Starblaster into autopilot and walking down the bridge to the deck with his arms behind his back, left wrist clutched in right hand.

“What kept you?” Davenport asked quietly, hitting a register that had all six of his subordinates snapping to attention. Magnus blinked down at him. Davenport kept his expression calm, neutral.

“Uh…they needed help. So I stopped to help,” Magnus said. Davenport raised an eyebrow. “Sir,” he attached hurriedly.

“We needed your help, too,” Davenport said, still quiet, still calm. “We waited as long as we could for you, but you didn’t show.”

“I was a little busy,” Magnus snorted. “I figured you guys had yourselves handled, sir.”

“What if we didn’t?” Davenport asked. “What if, say, Merle had been injured and couldn’t walk on his own?”

“Sir, if you’re asking me to choose between abandoning people in need and leaving my perfectly capable crewmates for a few minutes—”

“The mission comes first,” Davenport said, with more bark than he intended. Magnus opened his mouth, but Davenport kept going. “Your crew should always be first priority. It seems like you survived this time, but what about the next time? If you die and leave us for good, who’s going to help protect the ship? Who’s going to help protect us?” Davenport shifted his gaze from a clearly steaming Magnus to the rest of his squirming crew. “A lesson for all of us: if you don’t get to the ship, you get left behind. Not because I want to, but because this—this mission is bigger than us. If we die, we die, but survival of this crew and continuing our work is my—is our responsibility.”

“And what exactly is our mission?” Magnus growled. “Sir, I don’t mean to quibble, but we don’t exactly have an Institute to report to anymore. We don’t even have the Light. What mission could possibly be more important than helping people who can’t help themselves?”

Davenport sighed, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. When he opened them, he fixed his gaze on Magnus. “Burnsides, you’re a great fighter and you have a good heart. You’re asking what our mission is now, and I guess that’s fair. Normal parameters don’t exactly apply to us right now.” Davenport stepped around Magnus to stand at the rail, looking down at the new planar system he could already tell wasn’t home. The rest of the crew watched him as he turned back to face them. “Our mission is still to observe and record what we find out about other planar systems outside of our own. But I’m adding an objective.” He squared his shoulders. “We’re running like hell from whatever that black plane is. It’s showed up twice now, and I see no reason to not expect it’s going to keep showing up wherever we go. To know our enemy, we need to know more about it. So we’ll study it while we run.”

“And the Light?” Barry asked.

“If it’s down in that plane—or if it falls after we get there again—then we recover it, we hold onto it. If Lucretia’s hunch that that thing is after the Light is correct, we keep the Light from it.” Davenport looked at Magnus again. “We help people if we can. But survival is our main goal now. Does everyone understand?”

“Yes, sir,” the crew chorused, and Davenport didn’t break eye contact with Magnus.

“Yes, sir,” Magnus ground out through gritted teeth.

“Okay.” Davenport walked back up the bridge to the helm. “Let’s see where we are now.”

-

“No!”

Magnus’ agonized cry was the first thing Davenport heard after the ringing in his ears from whatever regeneration they overwent when they came to a new system subsided. He looked down at the deck, and saw what was wrong immediately—the people his crew had insisted on bringing with them weren’t there. The crew members were all back in their original positions, back exactly how they were when they’d left, but the dozen people on the deck were gone. Magnus’ continued shouts of despair echoed from belowdecks, and he knew the others Magnus had stowed down there were also gone. Davenport closed his eyes. It’s not that he’d relished taking people with them in the first place, but to have them disappear was…it wasn’t a good feeling.

“Point in favor of the recorded states theory,” Lup said, looking across the deck at Barry, whose shoulders were drooping as Magnus’ aching sobs drifted up from the kitchen, probably. This was the end of their fourth cycle now, their third where they hadn’t been able to find the Light in time, and Davenport was already tired of the whole thing.

“I think we can accept it as a fact at this point,” Barry replied, scrubbing his hand down his face. “Four times in a row is pretty sound to me.”

“I’m taking us down,” Davenport announced, and steered them down to the new Prime Material Plane. Lucretia had already disappeared below, probably to try and comfort Magnus, and Merle trudged up the bridge to the helm as the twins and Barry stood together at the rail, Lup talking about further testing she wanted to perform regarding their various theories.

“Thanks for letting us try,” Merle said gruffly as Davenport adjusted their heading.

“It’s not that I don’t feel for all the people we leave behind,” Davenport murmured, quietly enough for just Merle to hear, “but anything that interferes with the mission and our survival…I can’t allow it, Merle. I can’t.”

“You’re doing your best, Dav,” Merle shrugged, placing a hand on Davenport’s opposite shoulder. “We all are.”

“I wish my best was better,” Davenport muttered. They hadn’t lost anyone this past cycle, but it had happened in cycles previous, and as they drew closer to a planet with enormous towers reaching high enough into its atmosphere to be visible from space, his stomach clenched. “I wish we’d win something, for once, instead of trying not to lose what we’ve got.”

Merle squeezed his shoulder, his arm warm against Davenport’s back. “I’m gonna go talk to the kid,” he said. “Try and calm him down.”

“He’s going to need some space for a while,” Davenport sighed. “Leave him be if he shrugs you off.”

“Of course,” Merle snorted. “What kind of overbearing father figure do you take me for?”

Davenport mustered a small half-smile as Merle walked back down the bridge.

“Captain?” Lucretia said as she passed Merle, walking towards the helm.

“Yeah?”

“I have a name for the plane,” she said, and Davenport glanced at her. Her eyes were wet, but her expression was steady, almost determined. It was easy to forget sometimes that she and Magnus were about the same age, but with that look on her face, she looked just like him in that moment. “I’m calling it the Hunger.”

“The Hunger,” Davenport repeated, rolling it around his tongue as the put the Starblaster in orbit for the time being. He turned around. “Sounds like a perfect name to me.”

“I still like Voremaster 5000,” Lup yelled. Davenport snorted a surprised laugh, and Lucretia smiled as Taako’s giggles echoed up the deck.

“We’re not calling it that,” Davenport replied around Lucretia, giving Lup a captainly stink-eye. “Now all of you get to the dining room, it’s team meeting time.”

-

Davenport collected himself enough to yell obscenities at a retreating Magnus’ back before he grumpily plopped back down on the sand and decided to drink his wine directly out of the bottle. Magnus was lucky Davenport still had the bottle, he thought darkly, or he would be learning exactly how little training Davenport required.

“Woah, Capn’port, filthy mouth,” Taako said as he tossed his board down on the sand and sat on it. “There are children around, y’know.”

“None of you are children,” Davenport deadpanned, taking another swig of wine. “What you all are is a set of enormous pains in my behind.”

Taako hummed, and the two of them sat, watching the waves. A lovely sunset was painting itself across the horizon, and Davenport slowly relaxed. He heard Magnus jump out at someone—Lucretia, probably—across the island and sighed.

“Soooo,” Taako said, drawing out his vowels as long as possible, “what’s up?”

Davenport snorted. “I’m fine, Taako.”

“Sure, sure,” Taako said. They sat in silence for a while longer.

“Was there something you needed?” Davenport asked. “Not that I don’t appreciate the company, but it’s rare for you to just sit quietly around people.”

“I’m just living my truth, my man,” Taako said, his elbows resting on his knees. Davenport glanced at him around his wine bottle, and saw Taako side-eyeing him back. “Been getting all up in everybody’s emotional biz this cycle. Not by choice, I never asked Barry to spill his entire guts, but still. If, uh. If you. Need somebody. I’m here.”

“That’s very sweet, Taako,” Davenport smiled, and Taako rolled his eyes, waving him off like a fly. “I’m…” he sighed.

“There we go,” Taako said, sitting back and leaning on his arms. “Tell Uncle Taako what’s up.”

“That is such a perversion of our actual working relationship, I’m not even going to dignify that with a response,” Davenport chuckled despite himself. His crew had that effect on him. “I’m okay, really. Just…enjoying the moment while it lasts.”

“Yeah,” Taako mused, “I get that. Rare we ever get a year like this, huh?”

“It’s been twenty-one years,” Davenport said, and the weight hit him in the chest. Twenty-one years wasn’t too much for gnomes and certainly not for elves, but twenty-one years of running, of exploring new worlds only to have them vanish, reliving the apocalypse over, and over, and over…he wasn’t gonna lie that it really wore on him, even if their bodies were routinely returned to their original recorded state, as Lup and Barry called it. In those years, Davenport had yet to die, but several of his crew members—mainly Magnus and Merle—had taken on a couple of deaths apiece now. It never got any easier to bear. Davenport could feel those deaths hanging around his neck like a millstone, eating at him in the dark, challenging him to think of ways he could’ve fixed the situations that led to those deaths. Perhaps more than necessary, he took on the responsibility of caring for his crew’s safety to heart.

Taako nodded along. “Yeah,” he said quietly. “But Lup’s been there, so.”

“Must be nice to have someone you’re that close to,” Davenport said without thinking.

“Of course,” Taako shrugged, “but there’s been times…there’s been planes I’ve been happy to watch burn. Some of these places are too miserable to exist.” Davenport knew he was thinking specifically of a plane three cycles back, where Lup had been killed a week before their departure. It was only a week, but Taako had been inconsolable and unresponsive the entire time. Davenport shuddered to think what he’d be like in a longer time frame without his twin.

“Magnus would certainly disagree,” Davenport said. Taako sighed.

“They all would,” Taako muttered. “Every last person on this boat, such a bleeding heart. Want to save every world we find.”

“Don’t you?” Davenport asked. Taako was quiet for a long time.

“Kinda irrelevant,” he said finally. “So long as I have Lup…so long as I have all of you guys, really, I’m fine. Don’t care about the Hunger, don’t care about the Light. I care about my family.”

Davenport felt his chest go gooey and warm, not just because Taako—Taako—was calling him family, but because… “I know that feeling.”

“Do you?” Taako said.

“Yes,” Davenport replied, and looked at Taako. His eyes were normally alight with humor, sometimes rage or wicked glee, but Davenport had rarely seen Taako so somber as he was in this moment. Something clicked between them then, and Davenport nodded. “Yes, I do.”

Davenport looked back out to the ocean, and after a while, so did Taako. “I guess you do, huh,” Taako murmured. “Mission first and all.”

“You are my mission now,” Davenport said. “All of you. My crew. My team. Every failure, every death, every injury—those are black marks against my honor, Taako.” He looked back at Taako, watching the sunset again. “I’ve been glad to leave some planes to their fates. I’m not proud of it, but I’m glad some places that took my family away from me are gone.”

“You do get it,” Taako said, almost to himself. Then he tossed his hair over his shoulder and smirked at Davenport. “It sucks being a pragmatist with these chumps, doesn’t it?” Davenport rolled his eyes and drank his wine, and after a minute offered the bottle to Taako. Taako took it and drank a few gulps, then passed it back with a burp. “Ooh, that’s good stuff, Cap’nport.”

“I know,” Davenport said, and when the bottle was empty he threw it into the waves. He walked past Taako towards their camp, the beach already starting to illuminate with the magical fires Lup and Lucretia had placed to light the place up at night. “Goodnight, Taako.”

“Yeah,” Taako said, still sitting on the beach, watching the waves. Davenport opened his mouth, then closed it and turned back around. He’d said everything he needed to say for the night; he would let the explicit expressions of affection be for now.

-

Davenport didn’t like being separated from one of his crewmates for a year. He knew Merle was probably fine, he was in a monastery, but still. Tesseralia was an amazing place, rich in culture, and he enjoyed himself, eating food the twins brought back and cheering on Magnus’ thoroughly unconventional sports coaching. He spent days in libraries with Lucretia skimming through science texts and arcane tomes, and afternoons with Barry over a game of cards. Barry was good, but he liked chatting a little too much for Davenport to take sometimes. He missed Merle. Merle knew how to play in silence and make the silence feel like they were still communicating.

Davenport was at the forefront of the crew when Merle entered Abbess Oriana’s quarters for the final test. Merle was looking exceptionally well, better than he had in several cycles, and smiled broadly when he saw them. “Hey, guys. Glad you could make it.”

“Yeah, we’re super jazzed,” Taako yawned. “Let’s get this over with and get the Light.”

“This is his graduation, so to speak,” Abbess Oriana said pointedly, and Davenport did his level best to pay attention to her and not have his eyes wander. His best, at this point, was very good. “In order to show us that Merle has mastered our ways, he will enter a state of Parley with an enemy, and make peace with them. Only then will the Light be relinquished into your hands.”

“That’s it?” Merle said, and shrugged. “Heck. Piece of cake.”

“What’s Parley, exactly?” Davenport asked.

“It’s kinda like a pocket dimension,” Merle shrugged. “Safe space, I guess. Only, the person I summon into the spot can kill me, but I can’t touch them. Something, something, humility, something.”

“In a nutshell, yes,” Abbess Oriana said, with an exasperated look at Merle Davenport knew well from most people who interacted with him. “Whenever you’re ready, Merle.”

“Who do you guys think I oughta talk to?” Merle asked, and there was a flurry of responses from the crew around him, but Davenport said nothing. He knew exactly who—or what, maybe—he wanted Merle to talk to, but it was best to let the others get their thoughts off their chests first before he attempted to speak. Finally, Barry mentioned the Hunger, and Davenport breathed a small sigh of relief. Merle shrugged and agreed, then started taking off his shoes, socks, and shirt. Davenport had seen Merle fully nude at some point in their journey by now, it had been over thirty years, but there was still something about the dark, freckled expanse of Merle’s shoulders as he folded his shirt and put his shoes aside and then walked to a cushion to sit on that dried up Davenport’s mouth. He swallowed hard, trying to think of something to say to Merle before he did whatever it was he was doing.

As it turned out, he didn’t have to. Merle looked at Davenport for a moment as he sat on his cushion, his eyebrows raised. Davenport nodded and mustered a tiny smile. Merle grinned and nodded back, and then closed his eyes. Moments later, Merle disappeared, transformed into a shadow of dwarf-shaped smoke.

“He’s in the Parley space now,” Abbess Oriana said in almost a whisper. “This could take a while. Time passes differently in the Parley space, but there’s no telling—”

The shape of smoke shuddered, and in a puff of air disappeared as if wafted by a breeze. Davenport felt his throat close up. Abbess Oriana cried out, clutching one hand to her chest.

“What happened?” Taako asked, poking his head back in from where he’d apparently exited a while ago.

“He’s—it’s—he’s dead,” Abbess Oriana said shakily. “He’s…oh, gods, I’m so sorry, I had no idea—”

“It happens,” Magnus shrugged.

“He’ll be fine,” Lup added. “Now, about the Light…”

“This is a risk when you enter Parley, but I hadn’t expected…” Abbess Oriana put her head in her hands, breathing deeply. Davenport cleared his throat.

“I’m sorry to push, Abbess Oriana, but we need the Light,” he said. “Merle proved himself, I think. He tried. He failed, but he tried. If we don’t get the Light, the force that killed him will do the same to this plane.” Davenport fixed a startled Oriana with his most confident, penetrating gaze. “Trust us when we say Merle is going to be alright. We’ve had a long, strange journey. The Light of Creation, if you please.”

“I…” Abbess Oriana wiped her eyes, then stood, nodding. “Yes. Of course. The Light is yours. Merle did his duty to the best of his ability, I’m sure.”

“I’m sure,” Taako repeated in low tones to Magnus and Lup, who sniggered quietly. Davenport didn’t smile, and wouldn’t until they were back on the Starblaster, with a regenerated Merle on the deck. He looked surprised, then was crowded by the rest of the crew as soon as they realized he was back.

“Enough of that,” Davenport said loudly. “You all know the drill. I’m putting the Starblaster down into the Prime Material Plane, and then we’re meeting in the dining room. You can all head there now, please. Merle, it’s good to have you back.”

“Good to be back, Skipper,” Merle said cheerfully, and followed the rest down into the ship. Davenport couldn’t close his eyes, he was flying a ship, but he could take slow, measured breaths as he flew. That was another plane the Hunger didn’t get its claws into. There were too few of those, in his opinion.

When the Starblaster was in orbit and Davenport felt calm, he walked down the bridge to the deck and then went below to join his crew. Merle was telling some joke he’d heard in the monastery, to general groans, all of which quieted down when Davenport hopped up onto his customary chair and remained standing.

“Tell us about the Hunger, Merle,” he said. Lucretia, with her quills at the ready, nodded in agreement.

Merle’s assessment—a fancy guy in a great suit and good shoes who could kill him with dark opal fire—surprised Davenport. He wasn’t sure what he expected, but John wasn’t it. Perhaps he was more picturing an amorphous beast, or a dark sorcerer with a robe of evil and a menacing orb. Merle himself didn’t seem scared of him in the least, which did not calm Davenport as much as it should have. Merle showed fear at the oddest things sometimes, and didn’t when he should other times.

“Merle,” Barry said once Merle was done with his report, “I'm sorry, but can you try again? I know that sounds horrible, but it seems like we got a direct line to this guy, whoever he is, and I think—I think maybe there’s another tack you can take here and get some information. Can you please try again?”

“Yeah,” Merle shrugged, “let me change my pants, and then I’m off.”

“Well, hang on,” Magnus said, “you don’t have to go right now.”

“Why wait?” Merle asked, already stripping off his jacket. “Maybe he won’t kill me this time.”

“Merle, we’re talking about the Hunger, here,” Davenport said sharply. “I know it’s easier to jump into these situations when you live a life like ours right now, but I don’t like the idea of you throwing your life away willy-nilly. We might need you this cycle, it’d be better to wait until the end.”

“You guys’ll be fine,” Merle grinned, working at the laces on his shirt. “Besides, Barry’s right, this is the best shot we’ve got for understanding what we’re up against. I don’t mind.”

“I do,” Davenport said, and Merle paused. So did everyone else, frankly, even Lucretia’s dual-wielded pens. Davenport felt the color high in his cheeks and grimaced. Lup was staring at Davenport like he’d given her a gift, and Taako’s eyebrows were going crazy, waggling up and down. Magnus was looking between him and Merle like he was watching a tennis match. Barry’s expression was more serious, but the surprise on his face was still evident. Lucretia looked like she was waiting for something big to drop.

And Merle…charming, handsome Merle, with his raunchy humor and his tattoos and his smile…shook his head and finished pulling his shirt over his head.

“I’m sorry, Davenport,” he said. “I’m going now. Hitting it while the iron’s still hot.”

“I could forbid it,” Davenport said, and his voice sounded shrill in his ears. That wasn’t his voice. He coughed. “I’m serious, Merle, we don’t know what’s on this plane, it could be—”

“Barry’s stitched up enough of you people by now, he knows how to work the stuff in the med bay,” Merle said. “Lucretia’s got a more complete knowledge of plants than I do, and the wonder twins over there have magic covered. Magnus has his arms. And they’ve got you, Cap. Seems to me like there’s a complete set already.” Merle crossed his arms. “This is something I can do for you. And I’m gonna do it, because somebody has to.”

Davenport, behind his back, clenched his hands so hard his nails bit into his flesh (left wrist clutched in right hand). He had a million excuses, but Merle was already walking away, whistling. Davenport watched him go, then tightened his mouth in a scowl he released with a deep breath. He happened to glance at Taako, whose eyes were darting between him and the way Merle had gone almost insistently. Davenport gave a firm shake of his head.

“Alright, gang,” he said, “this is what we’re doing this year, I guess.”

He wouldn’t have the strength to go into Merle’s room to double-check if that smoke shape was still there. He knew already when Merle never came back out.

-

Davenport waited for Magnus to storm off, clearly still incensed by Merle’s apparent lack of discretion with the Hunger, before he called attention to himself. “Merle, I’d like a word, please.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Merle grumbled, and Davenport bit his tongue to stave off the sharp retort he had brewing. The past cycle had been…bad. He’d leave it at that. “Coming, Cap, coming. Your office, I assume?”

“Yes,” Davenport nodded. His office was a generous name for just his bedroom, but there wasn’t a lot of room on board the ship. He ignored Taako’s wolf whistling as he and Merle retreated belowdecks together, though Merle chuckled. Davenport opened the door to his room and stood aside for Merle to enter first, then came in behind him and closed the door, flicking on the lights. Merle made his way to the arrangement of cushions and a low table in the corner, on which was a deck of cards.

“Didn’t Director What’s-Her-Name have a setup like this?” Merle asked as Davenport lowered himself to the ground.

“Director Shaakti,” Davenport said, and the name felt foreign on his tongue after so many years. “She had something similar, but to be honest, this table was the smallest bit of furniture I could get in here that was also big enough to be of any use, outside of a chair.”

“Right, right,” Merle said. “Well, it’s a nice table.”

It was a nice table, Davenport agreed silently as he shuffled the deck of cards. Solid maple with a nice grain and a smooth finish. He thought about painting it, but decided he’d emulated a piece of his former life enough without outright stealing an idea from a culture that wasn’t his. He didn’t even know how to make chai anyway, not the way Director Shaakti had. But he’d admired how she’d brought him into her world back then, commanding the conversation by sharing an important part of herself. Maybe he copied the table because there was no way he could find starvine anywhere ever again and he needed something familiar. Maybe he was trying to hold onto the image of what he believed a leader and captain should be.

He dealt out the cards, half the deck to Merle, half to himself. Merle snorted. “War? Really?”

“I need a simple game right now,” Davenport said, and dealt his first card. Two of spades. Merle shrugged, shook his head, and flipped over his. Queen of diamonds. Round to Merle. “Magnus has a point.”

“If you think like a tactician, I guess,” Merle said.

“Taako Blinked over to the ethereal plane this past cycle,” Davenport replied. “He reported a greater gathering of the Hunger’s scouts, watching us.”

“Huh.” Merle dealt his card. Seven of hearts.

“It seems like an unequal exchange going on,” Davenport said. Nine of clubs. Round to Davenport. “Giving away information about our ship and our crew is bad enough, but none of the information you’re getting out of him will help us elude him in the future, or kill him, if need be.”

“Not about that,” Merle said. Ace of clubs.

“Yes, it is,” Davenport retorted. Ace of diamonds. They each dealt three face-down cards on top of their aces. “Merle, the entire point of sending you to talk to the Hunger is to help us learn something to destroy it.”

“That isn’t how Parley works,” Merle shrugged. “I’m at a disadvantage there, Dav. He can kill me, but I can’t kill him. I can’t even touch him. I’m more interested in learning the why of him, learning the what. Gets a lot more interesting that way.” He laid down a king of spades. Davenport laid down a king of clubs. They each laid down three more cards face-down.

“Everything you tell him about the Starblaster makes it more difficult for us to escape, Merle,” Davenport said, a little heated. “We almost didn’t make it out this cycle, because we were almost swallowed up by the Hunger before we could even leave the planet.”

“But you did make it,” Merle said. “We’re both here. We’re playing this game. Are you gonna flip your next card, or what?”

“I just want you to be more discerning in what you tell him, and more aggressive about what you get,” Davenport said, his hand still on his deck. “That’s all.”

“Listen, I’m doing my best out there,” Merle replied, and Davenport noticed for the first time how tired he looked. “Soon as we finish this game, I’m gonna grab a nap, and then head back in.”

Davenport looked at him, then looked down. He flipped over his card. Six of hearts.

“You could wait,” Davenport said, much more quietly than before. “You could at least wait a couple weeks. We’ve missed you.”

“Yeah,” Merle snorted. Davenport lifted his head and held Merle’s eyes.

“I’ve missed you,” he said, and Merle’s smile faded a little. He flipped over his card. Four of diamonds.

“Alright,” he said. “I can wait a little while.” His eyes flicked down. “You gonna collect those cards, or what?”

“Yeah,” Davenport said, and with his shaking hands it was harder for him to pick up the cards. “Yeah. I’ve got ‘em.”

It was still hard, when Davenport went two weeks later to wake Merle up for an excursion into the wild of the new plane and he wasn’t there. It was hard when the locals fought them for the Light and they sustained injuries that would take weeks to heal instead of moments under Merle’s gruff but ultimately careful ministrations. It was hard when Lucretia gave him a pat on the shoulder as he hesitated outside of Merle’s bedroom door in the hall one morning, and when Taako and Lup made pancakes on Merle’s birthday. Davenport often sat at the prow of the Starblaster, his feet hanging over the side, his back against the deck as he stared up at the unfamiliar stars and nursed an ache in his chest he was getting tired of denying.

When the Hunger came, he almost laughed.

-

Davenport wept when he heard the duet Barry and Lup had put together. He was a little emotional anyway, fraught with nerves after his own performance and struck by the details in Lucretia’s painting of home, but watching them finally put forward what the rest of them had figured out years ago—it was satisfying. Taako was smirking through the whole thing, but his eyes were soft. Merle, in his spandex onesie most people were avoiding looking at directly, chuckled and crossed his arms in satisfaction.

“Glad I didn’t go last,” Magnus whispered, and Davenport bit his lips to keep from bursting out laughing.

The standing ovation was great, but better was watching Lup and Barry slip through the crowd and run back to the Conservatory hand-in-hand.

“Yeah! Get it, Lup!” Magnus roared, and though it was highly improbable that Lup heard him between the crowd and the distance, she pumped her fist in the air anyway as Merle doubled over laughing and Taako grimaced.

“That is my sister, Magnus, don’t be gross.”

“She’s definitely gonna get it, though,” Davenport said, and after a split-second of shock Merle collapsed from laughter, Lucretia not far behind him. “I’m sleeping on the ship tonight.”

“Grossarooni!” Taako shrieks. “Please, for the love, please don’t imply—”

“They’re gonna bone, Taako,” Merle said, “they’re gonna bone down hard.”

“I’m—no, I’m out, screw this, screw you, I’m out,” Taako squawked, turning on his heel and stalking away as Merle and Magnus howled with laughter. Davenport grinned.

“Chancellor Marlow wants us at the mountain in the morning tomorrow,” Davenport said, “and I’m not going to be kicking you guys awake. You’re all grown adults. We’re going to show up on time. Right?”

“Yeah, sure,” Merle said, scratching at his onesie. “I’m with you, Cap, boat time for Merle.”

“Don’t, he just wants an excuse to walk around naked,” Magnus groaned.

“It’s nothing Cap’nport hasn’t seen before, right, Cap?” Merle winked, and Davenport closed his eyes and prayed for patience.

“Maybe I’ll just sleep in a tree somewhere,” he said, and Lucretia giggled.

In the end, Davenport did decide to sleep on the Starblaster, and if Merle wanted to walk around naked, then he walked around naked, it wasn’t any of Davenport’s business. He brought a few blankets and pillows up to the deck, taking advantage of the time he had to sprawl out and really get some quality stargazing in, when he didn’t have quite a crushing weight like his friends’ deaths on his heart. The Starblaster bobbed gently in the water it was docked in, and Davenport was overwhelmed by a crashing wave of nostalgia and gratitude to Barry for designing the ship like this. He hadn’t been on a proper boat since before he enlisted, but the feeling of being on the water was a comforting one. He loved the sky and he loved space, but sometimes there was something about sailing on the waves that woke up something in his blood.

Merle, blessedly clothed in pajama pants, stomped up the steps to the deck and flopped down in Davenport’s pile, crowding into Davenport’s side. Davenport rolled his eyes and scooted over some, but not much. Merle huffed and grunted as he got comfortable, then quiet breathing took over the space between them.

“Sure beats a gritty rooftop,” Merle said, and Davenport smiled. “Any of that look familiar up there, Skip?”

“No,” Davenport said. “We’re never in a place long enough for me to memorize the star charts completely, but there’s almost never a similar constellation anywhere we go.”

“Don’t see how, it just looks like a bunch of bright dots to me,” Merle said.

“There’s differences in the sizes and colors of the dots,” Davenport replied, “and they change positions throughout the year. I…” Davenport trailed off, and sighed.

“What?” Merle asked.

“I think about painting my room sometimes,” Davenport said. “To look like the stars back home. Just to have something.”

“You should,” Merle said. “Lord knows I keep collecting plants that remind me of home. New stuff too, it’s always cool to have new plants to study, but there’s something nice about an old familiar face.”

Davenport hummed his agreement. Then, after several moments, he asked, “Ever find any starvine?”

“The glowy flower things?” Merle asked. Davenport nodded. “Nah. ‘Course, I haven’t been around long enough the last few cycles to find much of anything.”

“Yeah,” Davenport said, his stomach clenching. “Well, if you ever find any, uh. It would mean a lot if you’d grab a clipping.”

“No problem,” Merle said. They looked up at the stars in silence again. As they watched, a swatch of stars disappeared and left behind void. Davenport sighed heavily.

“There’s that, too. The Hunger keeps stealing the stars.”

“John’s a real jerk that way,” Merle agreed. It was unnerving to Davenport that Merle refused to call the Hunger what it was—or rather, that he called it by name. Merle talked about the Hunger like it was an old friend with whom he had an amicable, if combative, relationship. And it wasn’t like Merle didn’t fight off the Hunger’s soldiers on those rare cycles he made it to the end, or that he didn’t seem to realize the importance of getting back the Light, but Merle seemed…excited…to talk to the Hunger. From what Davenport could tell, they’d stopped swapping tactical secrets, but it was the categorization of the Hunger as a friend that Davenport feared most. He was afraid of losing Merle to the Hunger for good.

None of this was in the least easy to verbalize, so Davenport didn’t. He just stared at the dwindling stars and soaked up Merle’s body heat and smiled a little when Merle started to snore.

-

Davenport sat alone in his room after that horrible cycle with the judges, staring at his clasped hands, willing them to stop shaking, unable to make them do so. Lucretia’s story of her year alone was quite possibly the worst thing he’d ever heard one of his crew go through. He knew it had been hard, he knew it wasn’t his fault he couldn’t be there to support her through it, but…but he’d died. He’d died and he hadn’t been there and if Lucretia wasn’t so determined and so smart, they would all have been dead for good.

This was his first time dying.

It seemed impossible, looking back, to have been on this journey for sixty-five years and died only once so far. Magnus had racked up an impressive count, though it was thoroughly dwarfed (ha) by Merle’s now. Lup had certainly run into her fair share of scrapes, and Taako as well. Barry and Lucretia had died about as infrequently as possible, but…the three of them were nearly always with the ship, hanging back, occasionally striking out for the Light when additional firepower was needed. Davenport had certainly come close, and he’d been incapacitated a few times for takeoff, but every time he closed his eyes he felt the creep of limestone up his throat, heard the voices of the Judges and the accusation of wrath playing over and over again. He clenched his hands hard, fighting back tears, baring his teeth. Hadn’t they earned wrath by now? Hadn’t they? Hadn’t he?

The current plane was an endless sea of grass that looked thoroughly unoccupied. It puzzled Barry how often they came to worlds with no people and no trace of people ever having been there, but Davenport’s frame of mind right now was bitterly glad to not have to worry about people. Environments, beasts, bizarre arcane interactions—those were all well and good, he could take them in stride. It was…it was people that Davenport was beginning to fear and hate most about the planes. People who wouldn’t listen, people who stabbed first and asked questions never, people who saw the Light and decided it was theirs, people who took whatever they wanted and expected no resistance—people were responsible for the majority of their troubles, especially nowadays. The Hunger itself was the doing of a person, of people. Davenport balled his fists up against his eyes and tried to breathe deeply, but his lungs weren’t having it, it seemed; they shuddered with every intake and every breath out was a struggle.

If he was a better captain, he wouldn’t have to lose his family to people, he thought viciously. If he was somehow better—if he was taller, if he was stronger, if he was more powerful, if he was cleverer—if he was the best version of Davenport, he knew he could figure out how to stop his friends from dying, from suffering. Maybe if he wasn’t Davenport at all, he could do better. Davenport hadn’t done much. Davenport just flew the ship, which Lucretia had now demonstrated could be learned on the fly. He ground his knuckles against his eyelids, feeling the wetness seeping from behind them, hating it and hating himself and hating this entire journey—

“Coming in,” Merle said, and slid Davenport’s door aside. Davenport didn’t bother to try and move and hide. He was too tired for that now. He heard Merle swear quietly and slide the door shut behind him, heard him walk across the room, and felt him sit down next to Davenport on the bed and put his arm around him. Davenport didn’t take his hands away from his face but he leaned into the touch as best he could, like the desperate fool he was. Merle rubbed his broad hand across Davenport’s back, so narrow Merle’s fingers very nearly spanned the entire width, working in slow circles. He worked his fingers against Davenport’s shoulders and up the back of his neck, massaging the tense bundles of muscles and nerves. Davenport made a soft sound despite his best efforts, and Merle continued his ministrations, sliding his hand down to the small of Davenport’s back and then traveling back up to the scruff of his neck, back and forth, back and forth. Davenport’s breathing untangled eventually, and his fists uncurled, removing themselves from his face and simply resting on his knees.

“You’re my best friend, you know that?” Davenport said hoarsely, and gods he was such an idiot, what was he thinking—

“You’re mine, too,” Merle said, and his fingers worked all the way up into Davenport’s hair. He shuddered, his breath catching in his throat, and let Merle coax him down, his head in Merle’s lap, Merle’s fingers now stroking through his hair. Davenport had never done this with another living being before. Maybe his mother had played with his hair when he was a child, but memories of his childhood were getting frighteningly far away, even with Lucretia’s mural of the constellations on his walls and her little starvine design looping around the baseboards. Merle started humming as he worked, his voice vibrating against Davenport’s ears, and maybe it was another country tune but to Davenport it was soft and sweet as a lullaby, forcing his shoulders to relax, leaching the tension from his neck and limbs. Every now and then Merle’s fingernails would scrape against his scalp and Davenport would bite his lip.

“Keep your chin up,” Merle murmured. “You’re never too old for faith, Dav.”

Davenport recalled an old conversation from what felt like hundreds of lifetimes ago, and his mouth twitched upwards. “Ever gonna tell me what that wish was?”

“Well, since it already came true, I guess I can spill,” Merle chuckled, his thumb brushing against the rim of Davenport’s ear (Davenport tried not to shiver but it was hard). “I was just wishing we could become better friends, is all.”

“Oh,” Davenport said. “Well. Mission accomplished, Highchurch.”

“Yeah,” Merle grinned. They lapsed back into silence, Merle’s fingers continually carding through Davenport’s hair. Davenport felt his eyes starting to slide shut a little longer every time he blinked.

“Twins are making dinner,” Merle said after a while. Davenport, close to drowsing, made an affirmative grunt, then pulled himself upright, dislodging comfortable sleepiness from his body as best he could. When he was sitting again, he hesitantly looked up at Merle, who was looking back at him with that lopsided smile Davenport loved so much, his hazel eyes catching the dim light. They looked at each other for a long time, just breathing. Davenport felt burgeoning heat in his chest the longer he held eye contact with Merle. Was it a trick of the light, or was he leaning in?

“Captain, there’s something we need you to—oh,” Barry stumbled through the door, and Davenport and Merle both turned their heads to look at him. Davenport felt too many emotions to categorize neatly—embarrassment, irritation, relief, affection—and simply released a slow breath, letting calm suffuse his body instead. “Am I—?”

“No,” Davenport said, and hopped to his feet. He hoped his face wasn’t tear-streaked or blotchy, but it was a faint hope, at best; Taako said long ago Davenport’s emotions colored his cheeks at the worst moments anyway. “What’s wrong?”

“One of Lucretia’s engine repairs,” Barry said, still looking between Davenport and Merle as Merle grunted and stood as well. “And it’s not wrong, it’s actually—will you come look?”

“Of course,” Davenport said, “I’ll be right there.”

“Okay.” Barry left the door open when he left, and Davenport felt the warm spell of whatever-it-was crystallize into awkwardness the longer he and Merle were alone in the room now. He looked over at Merle, who looked back at him, and smiled.

“Thank you,” Davenport said.

“Any time, Dav,” Merle replied, and put his hand on Davenport’s shoulder—closer to his neck than usual, fingers giving a casual caress he’d never done before. “Any time.”

Davenport went further into the bowels of the ship to the engine room, his mind refreshingly clear and purpose focused. Enough wallowing. Time to move forward.

-

Merle crashed to his knees the second he regenerated, at the start of the seventy-ninth cycle, then on all fours.

“Merle!” Lucretia rushed to his side, putting her hand on his shoulder. Davenport craned around the wheel, trying to see, trying also not to crash the ship into anything that might be floating in the void.

“I’m done,” Merle’s ragged voice rang out, and he sat unsteadily on the deck, sprawling out his legs and leaning on his arms. “I’m…” He looked up at Davenport, and Davenport saw that even with his newly-returned better grooming, he looked like a man who had been awake for a very long time but would never be allowed to sleep again. “I’m done with him.”

“That’s probably for the best,” Magnus said, squatting down by Merle and patting his back. “It’s been rough without you here all the time, especially in the past couple decades.”

“You weren’t getting anything useful out of each other anyway,” Taako sniffed. Merle looked up at Davenport again.

“I’m not going back to Parley,” Merle said. “I’m sorry, Skip, I know you wanted me to go and learn stuff, but I—I can’t. Not anymore. I’m done.”

“It’s okay, Merle,” Davenport called from the helm, hating that he couldn’t get the Starblaster down to the Prime Material Plane’s main planet faster so he could get down to Merle and check on him. “It’s fine. You don’t have to. You can tell us what happened at the team meeting, if you want. It’s okay.”

“Yeah,” Merle said thickly, and put his hand on Magnus’ knee, using it as leverage to get himself on his feet. “Lup, I need the good cocoa. The real good stuff.”

“Little early in the cycle for the real good stuff, bud, but I’ll see what we’ve got,” Lup replied, and like clockwork now the crew filed down into the dining room to wait for Davenport. The planet came into view soon enough for Davenport. It looked like a fairly standard life-sustaining hunk of rock in space, with oceans and green patches of land, but few visible cities. Davenport put the Starblaster in orbit and trudged down the bridge to the deck and then down to the kitchen.

He stopped in the stairwell, hearing the bout of laughter from something Taako said, hearing the laughter and the happiness. Davenport closed his eyes and soaked it in, his forehead against the cool metal wall. It was such a blessing, these quiet moments with the whole family together and enjoying each other’s company. He missed their home plane like crazy, but these little moments…these were nice, too.

He walked into the dining room and hopped onto his chair, choosing to sit this time and be inundated in the conversations happening around him. Merle was looking better, grinning at a joke Magnus was telling and folding his hands on the table. Davenport made eye contact with Taako for a second, also sitting at the table and letting Lup make the cocoa. Taako tipped an enormous wink at him and raised his eyebrows a few times, and Davenport rolled his eyes, shaking his head and smiling.

“This is what I needed,” Merle sighed when Lup put the mug in his hands and started passing the “good stuff” (cocoa with booze, the best stuff there was) to everyone else.

“You’re only getting one mug, there, champ, I’m not dealing with drunk Merle at this time of morning,” Lup warned.

“Yeah, yeah, there’s that, but I meant this,” Merle said, gesturing around the table. “You guys.” He took a long sip of his cocoa. “That John…such a pessimist, seriously. All like ‘eternity and existence is horrible’ and ‘joy and emotions are too small to care about’ and crap like that.”

“You’ve been hanging out with him for, like, forty-five years,” Magnus pointed out. Davenport nodded despite himself.

“Yeah, because he can be a nice guy, when he isn’t bogged down in his emo schtick,” Merle replied. “I’m tired of trying to convince him otherwise. Not like he was ever gonna say ‘also, Merle, while we’re playing this game of chess, this is how you kill the Hunger.’ Just better off cutting that kind of negativity out, know what I mean?”

Davenport hid his smile in his mug.

“Besides, I missed my plants.”

The yells of protest and disgust made Davenport laugh.

-

Davenport found Lucretia sitting at the bow of the Starblaster late one night, a white oak staff over her knees.

“Is that it?” Davenport asked quietly, sitting next to her. Lucretia looked at him with big, solemn eyes and nodded. “Beautiful craftsmanship.”

“For something devastating,” Lucretia replied, stroking her hand along the staff’s length and looking up at the two moons in the sky. Davenport looked up, too. It was a feeling deeper and more profound than Davenport knew how to express that he found he could almost read the sky again. It was still different, but the similarities were striking in this world. The rest of the crew couldn’t seem to stop talking about it in excited tones. “Did you finish yours?”

Davenport produced a silver monocle from his pocket. Lucretia smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes.

“It’s been over a week,” Davenport said. “I think this plan is going to work.”

“We still have to distribute the relics,” Lucretia said, her voice brittle. Davenport sighed, tucking the Oculus back into his pocket.

“I know you have misgivings about this plan. I do, too. But if this’ll keep the Hunger from finding us without severing the world’s bonds, I want to try it.” Lucretia flinched.

“It’s a theory they have,” Lucretia muttered, almost petulant. “They don’t know for sure that’s what my shield would do. And even if it did, the planes would realign once the Hunger starves and I can put the shield back down.”

“You don’t know that for sure, either,” Davenport said gently. Lucretia sighed. “Desperate times and desperate measures, Lucretia. This choice shouldn’t be in our hands, but it is. We have to do the best we can with it.”

“I’m not sure if this is our best,” Lucretia said, and her hands tightened on her staff. “I’m not sure of any of it, Captain.”

“We’re not gods,” Davenport replied. “We’re not omnipotent. All we can do is what we have done. And…like Magnus said, if the relics fail, we have you to fall back on. It’ll be alright.”

Lucretia looked down at Davenport, and her eyes were full of tears. She wordlessly reached for his hand, and he let her hold it, wrapping his smaller fingers around her larger ones and stroking the back of her hand with his thumb as a sob hitched her shoulders, then another.

Davenport looked up at the sky, at the stars he almost knew, and breathed.

-

It was not alright.

-

Davenport awoke in a strange room with a pounding head. Over him hovered a young woman with dark skin and white hair, her eyes anxious.

“Are you feeling alright?” she asked, and Davenport heard it like he was under water. He struggled to hear her better, blinking and rubbing at his eyes, his ears, his face. He sat up and felt woozy.

“D-Davenport,” Davenport said.

The woman smiled, but there were tears in her eyes. Davenport’s vision swam, but the longer he sat, the better it got. “Yes, that’s who you are. How are you feeling?”

“Davenport,” Davenport said, and it felt wrong. It felt…it felt wrong, he should—he should be able to say more than this, shouldn’t he? That static overwhelmed him every time he tried for other words, for…but that’s who he was, and that’s…that’s all he knew. He was Davenport.

“Davenport, please, I need to know how you’re feeling right now. Does anything hurt? Do you feel sick?” The woman seemed frantic now, and Davenport wanted to calm her down, because other than the headache he was fine…

“Davenport Davenport Davenport,” Davenport said, and gritted his teeth. He could…he could do this, he just needed…he needed… “Davenport Davenport.”

“Oh,” the woman said, and the tears were sliding down her face now, her hands covering her mouth. She looked horrified, but Davenport didn’t know why. He tried to stand up, but couldn’t seem to remember how legs worked and fell, banging his chin against the ground.

“Davenport,” he swore, and struggled to lift himself on shaking hands. “D-Davenport…Davenport. Davenport.”

“I’m going to fix this,” the woman said, and Davenport didn’t understand what she meant. “I promise, Davenport, I…I’m going to take care of you.”

“Davenport,” Davenport grunted, and once he was on his feet he swayed. He fell back against the bed he’d been laying on, probably, and then, with what felt like colossal effort, he stood upright, crossing his hands behind his back, left wrist clutched in right hand. Something about the position made him feel better, more sturdy. He heaved a few quick breaths through his nose, then pried his mouth open. “I…I’m—Davenport.”

“I’m Lucretia,” the woman said, and she held out her hand. “We’re going to look out for each other, aren’t we, Davenport?”

“Davenport,” Davenport said, and put his hand shakily in hers.

-

Davenport got used to the static in his mind as the years passed. Some days he could say whole sentences. Other days, he forgot every word he’d struggled to rip from his subconscious. He had strange dreams about boats and glowing flowers and a rooftop, about the vague faces of gnomes like him he could almost see but couldn’t quite, about a display case of medals and the surface of a bright, geometrically-painted table.

He doted on Lucretia, as much as she would let him. Once he got the hang of fine motor functions again he made her tea, and brought her supplies she asked for, and though Lucretia smiled at him, she never lost the sad look in her eyes. Once she was gone for an entire week, and came back noticeably aged, fine wrinkles covering her face and creating folds on her joints. Davenport worried whenever she left, but it was nothing compared to how he worried when she went for days without sleep or food. Once he found her with a razor, just turning it over in her fingers, but the look on her face scared him.

The Bureau of Balance was the most exciting thing Davenport had ever heard of, and felt familiar, even though he knew the moon base was new and the organization was small. There were days when he wore the blue and white proudly, and other days he could barely move for the feeling that it was wrong, something was terribly wrong about those colors. Lucretia threw herself into the work with a zeal Davenport had never seen from her before. It didn’t stop her dark nights—if anything, they increased—but she kept busy enough Davenport felt alright worrying about her a little less.

And then the three adventurers came. The static in Davenport’s head was overwhelming sometimes when they were in the room, but he liked them well enough. The human Magnus and the elf Taako were sort of nice, but there was something about the dwarf Merle that caught Davenport’s attention some days. He couldn’t explain it if he tried (and…well, it’s not like he had the words anyway. Since they came, his vocabulary strained down to a single word almost every day). But Merle was handsome, and Merle had a nice smile, and once Davenport winked at him when they delivered a relic and felt horribly embarrassed about it later.

He knew Lucretia’s worries were piling up the closer to the one-year mark since the Midsummer Festival where everyone had passed out, but Davenport unerringly felt safe in her company—right up to the moment he was tossed a canteen and felt the command shuddering in his bones: Drink.

The static blasting away from his mind was the most earth-shattering thing he’d ever felt. He staggered, almost fell. Words, so many words and memories—a second voidfish, there had to be, it—what was—

“Lucretia,” Davenport said, his voice rusty, “w-what have you done?”

-

There would be time later for Davenport to work out exactly how he felt about life and Lucretia.

Right now, he had one hand on the wheel of his baby, his Starblaster, and one hand on the throttle, with Lucretia’s nervous voice an afterthought as he watched the oncoming tendrils and counted down. His breathing was steady. He cracked a smile, feeling vicious, baring his teeth at the Hunger that was going to stop taking things from him today, right now.

“Alright, buddy,” he whispered, “dance for me.”

-

He found Taako sitting on one of the balconies of the Bureau headquarters alone, his feet dangling over the side, looking at the bloody streaks of sunset still burned into the horizon. Down in the Fantasy Costco, the Bureau’s celebration of the end of the Hunger was loud and going strong, but Davenport knew that Taako, like himself, was a little less than up for it right now.

He sat down next to Taako, who flinched so hard he almost fell over, and Davenport grinned to himself. Now the scare-ee has become the scare-er, he thought smugly. “Oh. Hey, Davenport.”

“Taako,” Davenport said, wrapping an arm around the rail. It was comfortable to just breathe and say nothing. He’d been so starved of the right words for so long, now that he had them, he didn’t know what to do with himself now. It felt good to be back in red, but at the same time, Davenport felt that his captain’s jacket was…ill-fitting, now. He wasn’t captain of anything, anymore.

“So,” Taako said. “We won.”

“Seems like it,” Davenport nodded. “You saved the world.”

“Sure did,” Taako smirked. “Coulda done it alone, y’know, because I’m awesome, but thought I’d let the Boner Squad tag along to witness my greatness.”

Davenport chuckled. There was something brewing now, something gargantuan and elephantine, and Davenport didn’t want to talk about it, but he knew if he didn’t, he would…he didn’t know. The venom welling in his heart needed an outlet.

“She took everything from us,” Taako said, and Davenport’s hand curled around the rail more tightly. “She…I’m not an idiot, I know why she did it, but I just don’t understand how she could justify it to herself.”

“Bleeding heart,” Davenport said, surprising himself. Taako glanced at him, frowning. “You said it yourself, back on the beach, Taako. For Luc…for her, it’s about sacrificing everything to save the world. Burning herself to keep it safe.”

“Burning all of us along with her,” Taako muttered. Davenport grimaced, warring with himself. Lucretia was his crewmate, like a little sister, someone he would die to protect and loved to watch smile. Lucretia was his protector, his benefactor, watching over him on his worst days and he returned the favor when he could. Lucretia was the woman who filled his brain with static and ripped any sense of personhood he had away from him, reduced him to a child, a pet, someone he wanted to lash out at and make it hurt.

“Understanding her motives doesn’t mean I agree with her,” Taako continued when Davenport was silent for too long. “She—she took Lup away, not physically, but she took away my sister’s memory, she took away half of who I am. I could’ve spent ten years looking for my sister, and Lucretia stole that from me like it was her right, like she knew so much better than the rest of us.”

“Even with ten years, I’m not sure any of us would’ve thought to look in an umbrella in a crypt,” Davenport said wryly.

“That’s the thing, Cap’nport, if I’d known, if I’d remembered—if I had seen that red-robed skeleton with my full memories and seen the Umbra Staff for what it was, I would have known,” Taako snapped, his hands clenched into fists. “Maybe it still would’ve taken ten years to find the spot, but it would’ve been one less year with Lup trapped in her own stupid creation.” He sniffed, and Davenport glanced at him. Taako rarely cried, Davenport could count on his fingers the number of times in a hundred years he had ever seen it happen. He wasn’t sure what to do, but knew if he handled it wrong, Taako would bolt, and they both needed this conversation right now.

“I could’ve been so much more helpful here,” Davenport said. “I could have helped you on your missions.” He snorted. “There wouldn’t have been missions, none of this would have happened if she hadn’t erased our memories and turned me into a…what was it you said? Beloved simpleton?”

Taako laughed, wiping his eyes and his nose with his sleeve. “Something like that, but you’ve gotta admit, you were adorable.”

“I was a shell,” Davenport said, and when his hand hurt he realized how tightly he was gripping the rail. “I was a running joke throughout the entire Bureau. I worked my entire life to overcome those stupid gnomish stereotypes, and she turned me into one anyway.” Davenport felt his breathing starting to become shorter. “Gnomes can’t be captains. Gnomes can’t run important missions. Gnomes are made to bring the beer, and fix the speaker system. Gnomes are partiers, they’re shallow, they’re clever but not wise and unfit for leadership positions. That’s what I heard, every day of my life at the Institute, it’s what my parents heard when they served in the navy, and every day I clawed my way past those discriminations and impressed my superiors because I had to be better, I had to be the best. Director—Director Shaakti chose me specifically, she put me in charge because she believed in me, and for a hundred years, I kept us together. I tried to keep us safe, I tried to minimize the damage.” Davenport felt tears welling up in his own eyes now, and his knuckles were screaming with the strain he was putting on them by holding onto the railing. “I failed, Taako. I didn’t see the signs, I didn’t see how desperate she was. I could have talked her out of it, but I didn’t, because I was too slow.”

“Hey,” Taako said weakly, “Cap…Davenport, listen, sir, don’t blame yourself for what she did to you. You did the best you could. You were the real MVP, you know? Best Boat Dad For Life. We’re gonna…we’re gonna spend the rest of our lives, however long or short, dealing with everything we’ve been through already. Don’t take on the responsibility for something that wasn’t your fault.” When Davenport looked at Taako, both of them teary-eyed and awkward, they laughed, wiping eyes and looking away. “She made her decision. She’s gonna live with it, and if I have anything to say about it, she’s going to pay.”

There was a hard edge to Taako’s voice now, a hard edge Davenport understood and half of him agreed with. He scrubbed a hand down his face.

“I just want my family back,” Davenport said in a quiet voice.

“Little late for that,” Taako muttered.

“Taako,” Davenport said, “whatever you do, don’t…don’t hurt her, okay? Physically. You…I’m not saying we shouldn’t be angry, because gods know I am still so angry. I don’t think I’m ever not going to be angry with what she did.” He looked over at Taako, who had his jaw set in the way Davenport knew meant he was listening but he didn’t like what he was hearing. “I’ve been with her for ten years. She trusted me when she trusted no one else, because she had to. I was all she had left, and she was all I knew anymore. She’s never been the best at taking care of herself, but I’m convinced that if…if I wasn’t around, she would have fallen apart completely.”

Taako huffed, a vindictive little sound. Davenport winced. Then he sighed. “I was still me, deep down,” Davenport said, and loosened his grip on the rail. “I would’ve burned the world to the ground for her. I believed in her cause, because what we did wasn’t right, it wasn’t right at all, but there were moments I wanted to take her away just so she would smile again.”

“I would have, too,” Taako said, so quietly Davenport could barely hear him. “Once upon a Starblaster, I would have let everything be destroyed if it meant I had all of you.” Taako curled his arms around himself. “Are we broken?”

“Irrevocably,” Davenport said, and Taako snorted, his fingers digging into his own sides. “But…we’re not burned up. And the world isn’t burned up. Maybe it’s time we expand our horizons.” Davenport held out his hand, and after a moment, Taako extricated one of his to hold it, squeezing Davenport’s fingers as hard as Davenport was squeezing Taako’s. “Forgiveness for her might be out of the picture right now, but tomorrow’s a new day.”

“Right,” Taako said flatly. He let go of Davenport’s hand, and Davenport returned his hand to resting on the rail. “So when are you and Merle finally gonna man up and have those sloppy old man makeouts we were rooting for all century?”

Davenport, if he had been drinking anything in that moment, would have sprayed it in the most cinematic spit-take anyone had ever seen in the history of reality.

“Taako, what—I don’t—that’s—”

“Everybody knows, Cap’nport,” Taako grinned, his eyebrows going crazy like they used to, and Davenport knew his entire head and possibly neck were scarlet. “Everybody knew the whole time. Not sure Merle ever did, he was too busy nursing his giant crush on you to notice you were also mondo-crushing on him, but come on, carpe diem and all that crap you just said.”

“Merle never had a crush on me,” Davenport said, but it was with a hopeful uptick in his words he hadn’t meant to put in there. Taako’s eyes were glittering, his mouth stretched in the most gleeful smile he had ever seen.

“Only one way to find out, my man,” Taako said, and stood up. “I’m gonna see if my skele-boyfriend has showed up yet. Maybe Magnus hasn’t drunk everything in sight.”

Taako walked off, and Davenport looked at the darkened world below and the stars above.  Now that he could focus, he should really finish learning the rest of this world’s constellations, he thought. So much of this world was unfamiliar to him. He hadn’t gotten to explore it at all.

An idea formed in the back of his mind.

-

Davenport had a feeling he surprised Lucretia when he went to seek her out. She was in her office, as usual, reading through stacks and stacks of documents Davenport was very privately glad he never had to go through himself. One of the few perks of being an imbecile, he thought, with more humor than he expected from himself.

“Davenport,” Lucretia said, standing, and in the process knocking over one of the document stacks on her desk. It slipped to the floor in a mountain of paper, but Lucretia didn’t seem to notice as Davenport took measured steps towards her, holding her eyes and folding his arms behind his back, left wrist clutched in right hand.

“Lucretia,” he said quietly, and he knew Lucretia knew the tone he was using. She didn’t sit back down, but instead stood up straighter (or as straight as she could, with that stoop forming in her spine now; he hoped someone would pull her away from the paperwork now and then). “I’m not going to waste either of our time with a laundry list of grievances. I believe you’ve already gotten the third degree from Taako.”

Lucretia nodded, the guilt etched into her face plainly now. Davenport didn’t realize until now how much of it she had to be hiding for years in his presence.

“I’ve bought a boat,” he said, and Lucretia blinked. There was only one kind of boat in this world (so far; Lucas Miller was doing his level best to launch the world into a more technologic age), and Davenport had spent a couple of days relearning how to sail it, his hands performing motions his mind forgot somewhere in the midst of his adventures. He had several sky charts for reference points, he had the means to feed and protect himself, he had the gold. “I’m leaving soon. I wanted to tell you something before I go.”

Lucretia nodded again, and though she didn’t visibly move, Davenport could sense her bracing herself.

“I don’t know if I can forgive you just yet,” he said, and she closed her eyes for a moment. He didn’t speak until she opened them back up. It was important she hear all of this. “I’m going to go…find myself, I suppose. The world doesn’t need Captain Davenport of the Institute of Planar Research and Exploration. And none of you do, either. I’m not sure what I need to be, or even want to be, but I’m going to go find out.” He fixed her with the sharpest, sternest look he was capable of. “I expect you to be here when I get back.”

Lucretia’s brow furrowed, and her eyes darted to her desk. Davenport smiled.

“You afforded me a uniquely unguarded experience as your ward, Lucretia,” he said. “I know what haunted you in your darkest moments.” He hesitated, then extended his hand. “Promise me.”

Lucretia looked at his hand for a long time. Davenport didn’t put it down until she slowly reached out her own hand and shook his. “I’ll be here,” she said, her voice faint, but steady. “I’ll…I’m going to make it up to you.”

“You can’t,” Davenport said, and Lucretia flinched. He smiled, and it felt sad, but genuine. “You already did. You made a home for me when you could’ve placed me in a town and left. You cared for me when you would have been better off alone. I’m never going to forget how you hurt me, Lucretia, but I’m also never going to forget how you saved me.” He let go of her hand and put his behind his back. “I need…time, and space, to work through this, and I can’t promise it’ll be any time soon that I can look you in the eye and not still be angry on some level. But I can promise that if you will give me the opportunity to heal, I will give you the opportunity to apologize.”

Lucretia nodded, her eyes shimmering with tears. Davenport saluted her, and Lucretia returned the salute. It felt oddly foreign to do so now, but as Davenport turned to make his way back planetside and to his boat, it felt appropriate to leave that behind, as well.

One more important stop to make.

-

“Hey there, sailor,” Merle grinned as Davenport walked up the beach to see him. He’d sailed here from Waterdeep to Bottlenose Cove’s only remaining dock, and Merle was probably taking a break from his Earl duties. Davenport smiled back and opened his arms, letting himself get swept up in the best embrace he’d felt in years. Merle squeezed him so hard his back cracked, and let Davenport go with a guffaw as Davenport made a theatric wheeze.

“I’m setting off,” Davenport said, and Merle nodded. “I just…wanted to say goodbye, before I left.”

“Well, I appreciate it,” Merle said. He was so different now, with his wooden arm and missing eye, and the single remaining eye a deep grey rather than the beautiful hazel they’d been, but the smile was the same, and the feel of Merle’s flesh hand on his shoulder was the same. “Not a lot of people come by to visit these days.”

“Is your Stone of Farspeech ringer turned on?” Davenport asked, and Merle laughed so hard he doubled over. “Seriously, though, I need a favor.”

“Sure, buddy,” Merle said, “whatever you need.”

“Keep an eye on everybody for me?” Davenport asked. “I know you have a lot going on, but…one boat dad to another, it would make me feel better if you would.”

“Hey, did you know I’m a literal DILF now?” Merle grinned, his hands on his hips. “Between my actual kids and those chuckleheads, I’m gonna have my hands full, but you got it, Skipper.”

“Especially Lucretia,” Davenport said, and Merle’s smile took on a sadder cast. “She’s going to need as much support as she can get from people who can give it to her.”

“I gotcha,” Merle said, and looked out to the ocean. “Mavis and Mookie are gonna arrive sometime tomorrow, if you wanna stick around.”

“I wish I could,” Davenport said. “I’ve…I’ve gotta go. There’s just something I need to do. Something I need to find.”

“Well, way I see it, this’ll be the first sky in a hundred years you can watch without any of the stars disappearing,” Merle grinned. “Oh! That reminds me.” He dug around in his pockets, then produced a packet of seeds. “You’re gonna need to come by sometime after I get these things planted,” Merle said, and Davenport took the packet and studied the seeds carefully. They were tiny, but if Davenport covered them from the sun, they had a faint glow about them. No. No, it couldn’t be.

“Are these…” Davenport swallowed, then swallowed again, working to keep his voice even. “Is this starvine?”

“Found some in the Felicity Wilds a little while ago,” Merle said. Davenport gave back the seed packet, his eyes definitely wet. “Might take a bit to get them started, but should be full-grown in a few months.”

“I…I’d like to see them,” Davenport said thickly. The ocean waves crashed, and Davenport watched them as he tried to compose himself. Merle seemed to be watching, as well, until he cleared his throat.

“Y’know, uh, Dav,” Merle said, “you…you’ve always got a home port to come back to here, if you want.”

Davenport faced him, and Merle had a soft smile on his face Davenport had never seen before. It was…wistful, almost.

“I’d like that a lot,” Davenport said. His heart was thumping in his chest. Even with ten years of age and adventuring wear on his body, Merle Highchurch was unfairly attractive. At least to Davenport.

“Hey, Dav?”

“Yeah, Merle?”

Merle didn’t actually say anything, but when the wind changed direction and Davenport’s hair started blowing in the opposite direction, Merle reached out with the wood hand and smoothed it back behind his ear. Davenport leaned into the touch without thinking, and Merle’s hand stayed there on his cheek.

The hell with it, Davenport thought, and closed the distance for a kiss one hundred and fourteen years in the making.

Merle did not disappoint.

-

Captain Davenport, formerly of the IPRE and master of the Starblaster, now just master of a little sailboat he’d named The Explorer, visited as many ports as he’d visited planes. He soaked up culture, he ate foods, he made friends. He wrote home constantly, and slept under the stars, when weather permitted. He’d do this for years, stopping back in Bottlenose Cove every few months, just to say hi to his family, and to be with Merle for a little while. They were all doing so well, with their schools and reaper jobs and towns and institutions. Davenport’s heart swelled with pride, and while he didn’t stay long, he made his time count.

His third visit home, he walked up to Lucretia and hugged her for a long, long time. He never spoke about what she’d done to him again, not to her, and not to hurt her or vilify her. What was done was done.

“You really oughta stay for good one of these days, Dav,” Merle said, holding Davenport’s hands on the dock and grinning as Davenport was preparing to leave again.

“I will,” Davenport said, and leaned in for a kiss. “I promise. But there’s more for me to discover out there, and I’m gonna discover it.”

“Alright,” Merle said, and kissed him again. “Go get ‘em, Cap’nport.”

Davenport kissed Merle one last time and hopped aboard his boat.  Merle was still there waving when the dock was a dot on the horizon, and Davenport knew Merle would be there when he came home.

For now, he put his hand on the wheel of his new life and smiled.