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Caves and Cypress

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[ID: a digital painting of lich!barry, a red cloak that’s billowing. It’s sketchy, and the colors are somewhat muted. The cloak is fastened with a bronze heart pin. The background is gray, getting lighter towards the hood of the cloak. The words “Caves and Cypress” are to the right of the hood. They’re the same color as the pin. End ID.]

 

“How’s it going?”

 

At the sound of Taako’s voice, Barry jumped. “Sorry, um, anyway, theres a dungeon out beyond the Felicity Wilds. It’s a subterranian - demonic keep - thing. There’s a bunch of arcane energy coming off of it. I was gonna check it out tonight, if you wanna come with.”

 

The breeze tousled Taako’s long hair. He leaned over the map that Barry hunched over, pinning it down with a hand. “Yeah, where were - remind me, how far is that in relation to the last glassing?”

 

He shook his head, trying to clear it. He pointed at a spot on the map. “Um, I’ve triangulated it here.”

 

Taako examined it. Dark circles hung under his eyes. Elves could trance, but Taako rarely took the time to even do that these days. Barry wasn’t any better rested. He’d gotten only a handful of hours of sleep over the last few days. His head felt fuzzy. The marks on the map blurred together.

 

Taako stood up straight again, hand still rested on the map. “Yeah, it seems like as good a place as any. Do you want to do the usual? I’ll go down and start casting around, see if I can pick up anything, and then you start talking to folks?”

 

He ran a hand through his hair. Gods, how many times had they done this? How many times had they found a lead, only for it to fall through their fingers like water? He couldn’t remember anymore.

 

Voice soft, he said, “Yep. I mean, it hasn’t worked so far, but it’s gotta work one of these times.”

 

The words felt hollow. It had been months since Lup disappeared. Tears stung his eyes. The sound of static, cold and distant, rose in his ears. Resting his face in his hands, he said, “Taako, what if she’s just gone?”

 

“Who?”

 

Barry blinked. The static in his ears crescendoed. He was joking. He had to be joking. But why would he joke about this? Why would he joke about forgetting—

 

He looked up. He’d known Taako for— how long? How long had it been? What mattered was that he knew Taako, and he knew that he was genuinely confused. “Taako? Taako, I’m -”

Taako’s head tilted. “What if who’s gone?”

 

He couldn’t think. He could barely hear around the static infesting his skull like a beehive. “What are we…? Oh, god, Lup— Taako, I can’t remember her face. Taako, where—”

 

“Whose face?”

 

Whose face whose face whose face it was someone so important and yet he couldn’t remember her face —-

 

“Is this Fisher?” he asked. He remembered feeling something close to this before. But it couldn’t have been this bad— if it was, he would’ve surely remembered it.

 

Taako stared blankly at him.

 

Barry scrambled to hold onto what he knew. He had lost someone so important to him, and he had to find her. And Taako— was that his name?— he was important to Barry too. And Barry was a scientist and a necromancer, and he’d become a lich with—

 

An idea struck him.

 

“Taako, kill me! Right now! I’ll— I’ll remember if I’m a lich. I can— please, Taako, just kill me! I’ll be okay! I can’t forget— I’m begging you, please, Taako! Please!”

 

And the stranger in front of him cast magic missile. Barry stumbled backwards. Before he even knew what was happening, he fell over the railing. The blob of static above him made his head hurt. And he was careening towards the earth, and oh gods, he was going to die

 

He hit the ground with a crack.

 

And then he was Barry Bluejeans again. He remembered his family. He remembered Lup . Fear and confusion coursed through him. He was little more than a sentient cloud of magical energy, distorting in the silent air.

 

He had to keep calm. He had to pull himself together. He had to figure out what was happening. He had to fix it .

 

But he was alone. He had no answers. He could feel his grasp on reality slipping. He could lose himself in this tangle of emotions. He could let go, become little more than raging magic.

 

A memory hit him.

 

Lup, just after he’d suggested they become liches. “Is this your idea of a proposal?” she’d asked. “Tear our souls from our bodies together? Become undead? Maybe go insane while we’re at it?” She’d rested her head on her hand. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m down! But I want rings.”

 

The roiling cloud of magic condensed into a slightly-more-solid blob. He remembered when they’d actually gone through with it, cycles later. The relief he’d felt realizing they’d both survived. The painfully awkward conversation with their family after, the love and care behind their anger.

 

He was in the vague shape of a human now, a red cloak draped loosely over his shoulders. It would be okay, he told himself. The voice the words were spoken in, though, was his mother’s. He wondered what she’d think if she saw him now.

 

She’d be proud, he realized. She’d be proud that he had friends, that he was still alive in spite of everything. She’d be concerned about the necromancy and the eldritch horror trying to eat the multiverse, obviously, but she’d be glad to see how he’d grown.

 

And finally, he was stable. Stable enough, at least, that he was able to cast mage hand. He took the ring Lup had insisted on from his corpse.

 

A thought struck him.

 

In the months after Lup’s disappearance, he’d planned what he’d do if she were dead. He’d learned of an old spell that let you regrow a whole body from a vial of blood. He didn’t know if he’d be able to find someone to cast it or whether he’d have to figure it out himself.

 

Barry wasn’t sure he’d even be able to use a body anymore, considering what had just happened. But he’d always thought it was better to be safe than sorry, so he took some of his own blood with him too.

 

Casting one last look at his corpse, he drifted away, out into the world.

 

He had to figure out what had happened.

 

He had no idea where to start.

 

 

Barry figured out a handful of things quickly.

 

This had to be the work of Fisher. He’d traveled for a century, and he’d never encountered anything else that could completely erase information like that. And it had to have been the work of someone who knew them. He considered the possibility that Fisher had somehow gotten a hold of Lucretia’s journals, but he didn’t think that seemed likely.

 

He’d realized a possible answer, but he didn’t like it. He didn’t want to believe it, because believing it would mean believing that—

 

He didn’t want to believe it.

 

By the time Barry had composed himself, the Starblaster was gone. He doubted he’d be able to find it again— over the years, they’d created a patchwork of wards and protective spells that hid it from any sort of tracking.

 

But then, after a day of aimless wandering, he visited a city. He kept an invisibility spell up and lurked in the shadows, hoping to glean any sort of information. Word of a ship, an idea of what might have been erased.

 

No one said anything useful. What they didn’t say was worse.

 

Normally, there would be gossip about one of the relics. People would talk about the latest awful development in the wars. He’d almost grown accustomed to it.

 

Now, its sudden lack was glaring.

 

Finally, he decided to just ask someone about it. But he knew that he couldn’t just corner the first person he found on the streets as a lich. Muttering an apology, he possessed the nearest person, a dwarven man.

 

Taking a moment to get adjusted to the body, he flexed his fingers. Then, turning to the nearest person, he asked, “Any news on the relics?”

 

They glared at him. “Hey, sorry, who the fuck are you? And why are you speaking in static?”

 

The response hit him like a punch. Offering another silent apology to the person he’d just possessed — whose soul currently screamed curses at him — he left the body.

 

Barry was fairly sure he knew what had happened now; he just didn’t want to put words to it. It would cause him to break down, he was sure, and he couldn’t do that out in the open.

 

Protection. He needed protection. The Raven Queen here was strict about liches. He had to find somewhere he could set up wards.

 

He settled on a cave nestled into the side of a cliff. It was a few days’ walk from the city he’d been in, but as a ghost, he was able to travel there in a few hours. Most of the difficulty was in the rocky terrain. There was a small path nearby, but it was mostly hidden from view. He couldn’t imagine it would be noticed by anyone other than an especially adventurous hiker.

 

Barry cast some basic protective wards. He could add more later. He laid his few belongings on a large stone. He cast a mage light in hopes of making the space feel less like an animal’s den he’d just wandered into.

 

And then Barry let himself acknowledge what he’d figured out.

 

He’d watched Lucretia grow more and more reserved. She’d retreated back into herself as the relics destroyed settlement after settlement. He’d seen her confidence in her own plan, one he was certain would just end in the deaths of everyone in the planar system. She’d kept journals rigorously. She’d have all the information needed to erase everything.

 

Most importantly, though, Barry knew her. He knew that this was something she could do. He knew it was something she would do if she believed it was right. She’d erased his memory, and Taako’s, and probably the others. She’d done it because she’d thought she could fix everything. And he knew she probably had some great plan laid out, even if he couldn’t see it.

 

Barry knew he should have been angry. He knew he probably would be later, once the initial shock died out. But alone in a cave, red sparks coming off of him in plumes, he just felt alone.

 

Before he spiralled further, he cut himself off. He’d do no one any good if he lost control of himself. And since he was a lich, he had to keep control of his emotions.

 

In the back of his mind, a half-plan formed. He needed to find Lup. He couldn’t solve this alone— he’d been used to not solving things alone for the better part of a century— but he and Lup could come up with a solution.

 

Yes. He’d find Lup, and they’d fix this together.

 

 

There it was— a declaration of love, as clear as if it had been spoken. The last ringing notes of the song echoed through the amphitheater. Barry’s hands hovered over the piano. He breathed raggedly. For a heartbeat, that was the only sound.

 

And then the audience applauded. They cheered. They stood and shouted and wept.

 

He barely registered the noise.

 

He turned to Lup. She stared back at him, eyes wide, mouth slightly parted, hand still on the bow.

 

Barry stood. Lup set the violin down. They reached for each other’s hand. Together, they bowed.

 

She took his other hand. He pressed his forehead to hers. Quietly, Lup said, “Barry, do you wanna go somewhere to talk for a while?”

 

Smiling so wide it hurt, he replied, “Yeah.”

 

-

 

The hills by the conservatory sprawled, fading into gray-blue mountains. Fireflies danced in the balmy summer air. The scent of grass and wildflowers rose towards the sky. High above, the stars shone.

 

Barry still held Lup’s hand. Gods, Lup still held his hand. They hadn’t stopped for a moment, not when they’d dodged admirers, not when their music had been projected back into the world. Certainly not now, sitting on the hillside

 

This felt like a dream.

 

No, that wasn’t right. Dreams seemed otherworldly. This felt like the most natural thing in the world.

 

Lup broke the silence first. “So.”

 

Quietly, Barry laughed. “Yeah.”

 

Following that stunning display of eloquence, he just— gods, he looked at her, and the giddy smile on her face mesmerized him.

 

“I love that look, you know.”

 

He blinked. “What?”

 

“That one. Thought it was just— y’know, friendly affection or something for a while, but nope.” She shifted closer to him, resting her head on his shoulder. “You’re in love.”

 

Heat rose to his cheeks. “Like you’re any better.”

 

“Never said I was, babe.” He could imagine her face as she said that— a wink, a grin, eyes glinting in the starlight.

 

Gods, Barry wanted to kiss her.

 

But he was— well, not a practical man, but he at least wanted to work through some things. Hand squeezing hers, he said, “Talk. Um. We came out here to talk. Sort shit out, I guess.”

 

The tip of her ear flicked against the back of his neck. “Mhm.”

 

“I know it’s pretty fucking obvious by now, but I love you.” His smile grew wider still. “Gods, I can’t believe I’m able to say that to you.”

 

Lup laughed. Her head rested on his shoulder. “Yeah. Ditto to that.” After a moment’s pause, she said, “Wait, no, I want to say it too.” Taking a deep breath, she said, “Barry Bluejeans, I love you.”

 

He inhaled softly. “Fuck, Lup, I’ve— I’ve loved you for decades now.”

 

She shook her head, still grinning. “ Decades ? Because, uh, same. I’ve been pining over you since— what, cycle seventeen?”

 

“Cycle ten for me, but I think I’ve been a little bit in love with you ever since I first met you.”

 

For a moment, they both just looked at each other, awestruck. They’d been dancing around this for the better part of their journey.

 

Then Lup laughed. “Y’know, I was hoping for the gold in the fantasy pining Olympics, but I’ll accept silver,” she teased.

 

And then she kissed him.

 

Barry had imagined this moment a thousand different times, but nothing matched the feeling of it really happening. It was messy, and their noses bumped together, and his glasses got in the way, and it was perfect.

 

And even after they stopped, they rested their foreheads against each other’s. Their breath mingled. Their hands latched together. He thought he was high on this, the feeling of being in love.

 

“Damn. We’ve really been putting that off for fifty years, huh, babe?”

 

He grinned. “Guess so.”

 

“What was it you said about procrastinating in college?”

 

Barry didn’t remember ever mentioning that to her, but he wasn’t at all surprised that she knew. “It’s not just my fault!” he protested.

 

Lup shook her head. “Well, at least I wouldn’t’ve had to spend decades pining if you weren’t handsome.”

 

“Well, you’re to blame too! You’re— you’re Lup . How could I have not fallen in love?”

 

And that was the truth of it— she was Lup, bright and beautiful, and he’d fallen a little bit more in love with her every day.

 

She sighed dramatically. “How about,” she said, punctuating it with a kiss on his forehead, “we call it a draw?”

 

“Do you do those?”

 

“If you keep questioning my generosity, I won’t! But yes, just this once, I’ll let it happen.”

 

He laughed and kissed her again.

 

 

Barry woke up on cold gray stone, drenched in some sort of liquid. He lay there for a moment, just trying to get his bearings, before he tried to stand.

 

His shaky legs gave way beneath him. He faceplanted flat on the floor.

 

Well. Not ideal.

 

He tried again, this time with more success. He got to his knees, then his feet. Careful not to slip on whatever the fuck he’d woken up in, he looked around.

 

He was in a cave. Granted, he could only really tell that from the faint glow of the ominous pod behind him. It revealed craggy walls, stalagmites and stalactites. All stark gray, all cast in a green glow. At the corner of the ring of spilling light, he saw a desk cluttered with papers.

 

Still having no fucking clue what was going on, he crept towards the desk. He hoped he wouldn’t have to search any further to find answers. The darkness of the cave made his skin crawl.

 

Looking down, half of the papers were entirely unreadable. Not that they were written in a language he couldn’t understand— they just blurred out in his mind. If he tried to focus on the words, a headache pulsed behind his temples. His entire vision was fuzzy— he realized he wasn’t wearing glasses— but this felt like something more than that.

 

Barry let himself properly question now what he’d gotten himself into. His brain leapt to the possibility that he'd been kidnapped. He couldn’t imagine what someone would gain from that, but the prospect still set him on edge.

 

He turned away from the papers. His eyes caught on a pile of clothes stacked on a towel. It was only then that he realized he was stark naked.

 

There— something he could do. He scrambled to dry himself off and put the clothes on— a white shirt, jeans, and a checkered tan coat. Searching around the table a little more, he found a pair of glasses. Not the ones he remembered owning, but when he put them on, the world came into focus.

 

The papers didn’t become any easier to read, but he could better make out the shapes on the desk. His eye caught on two objects at the front of the desk— a coin and a ring.

 

Instinctively, he reached for the ring, but his fingers brushed the cold metal of the coin as he did so.

 

His own voice rang through the room.

 

He leapt back, turning his head. Loud as if it were spoken right next to him, his voice said, “Hey, uh– me. Shit, this is awkward.” The voice laughed. “Let me put it this way— I’m you.”

 

Barry stilled.

 

The coin (he?) continued, “Your name is Barry Ť̴͖a̸͖̚a̴͗͜c̸̱͋o̷̜͆-Bluejeans.” He jumped back at the harsh sound, pounding like a migraine, but the coin talked on. “You’re a scientist— biology and ṕ̸͍l̴̰̋a̶̘͑n̷͈̆ä̵͈r̶͔̉ ̴͐͜s̴̼̀t̶̥̄u̶͍̅d̴̫̔į̷̈́ẹ̸̓s̸̟̔ — and you’re also a n̴͖͆ē̵̤c̸͚̒r̶̰̄ȯ̸͕m̴̺͘a̷̩̅n̴͈͠c̷̦̊e̸̼̔ȓ̵̞. You’re doing everything you can for y̵̫̾ö̴͙ů̷͇r̶̦̄ ̷͓̍f̶̹̾ä̴̰́m̸̤͆i̸̮̓l̶̦̅ŷ̴͜. Right now, you’re searching for y̴̎ͅǫ̷̅u̶͚͂r̴̻̈́ ̸̼̆w̴͎͗i̵̻͗f̷͚̏e̶̥͊,̵͚̀ ̸̪̽L̷̞̈́u̷͇̐p̴̰̋.”

 

Barry clutched at the sleeve of his shirt. He breathed raggedly now, black and white lights flashing behind his eyes.

 

“Sorry if you didn’t catch all of that,” the coin said. “Testing some things out. You should— hopefully, at least— understand what I’m about to say— gods, if you’ve forgotten even this, we’re fucked. Your mother Marleana raised you alone; your dad died when you were a little kid. She was one of the kindest people you’ve ever met. You spent most of your life in libraries and labs, and— ah, shit. Shit, you must be real lonely now, huh?”

 

It would be fucking stupid to respond to his own question , so he just stood in awkward silence as the coin rambled on. “You're afraid of the dark, but there’s only six people alive who would know that. Seven, if you’re counting yourself. And you–”

 

He broke off. Barry could only assume he was trying to figure out how to phrase something. Then, slowly the coin said, “You’re looking for someone you love so much that it hurts. This is a love that— it’s a love that defined you and redeemed you. And you don’t even remember who it is that you love so much, but you need to find her. You’ve forgotten a lot, and this must sound fucking wild to you right now, but I need you to trust me, alright?”

 

Barry shivered. Logically, everything he’d just been told was absolute nonsense. People didn’t just forget like this, let alone have the foresight to record a message to themself before that kind of thing happened. He had a fantasy PhD in biology. He knew this.

 

But it felt right. It seemed obvious that it was true. It was that simple.

 

“Well, hope you’ve decided to keep listening to me,” the coin continued. “I mean, like, if you haven’t, the entire multiverse is probably fucked. No pressure or anything, but— kinda got a lot depending on you not ignoring this. Basically, I need you to search a barrow up to the north. If you find what you’re looking for, you’ll know. I’ll enchant this thing to give you directions there, instructions on what to do if you find it, and— well, I guess directions on where to go if you don’t as well. There’s money and supplies in the chest by the desk. Good luck. Try not to get killed by bandits. Oh, and uh— put some blood in that pod behind you. Just trust me on this one.”

 

He blinked. Quite frankly, he didn’t know how to process any of this. But he felt like he had to do what he was told. He would’ve been willing to after the whole speech on searching for someone he loved, but the footnote about the fate of the entire multiverse depending on his actions, somehow, tied his hands.

 

He pocketed the coin and picked the ring up. Even in the cool cave air, it was pleasantly warm. It was gold, inlaid with cat’s eye and topaz, and it fit perfectly onto his ring finger. It didn’t even cross his mind that it might be a bad idea to put on a random ring he found in the ominous cave he’d woken up in. Without any more thought about it, he crouched down, looked through the contents of the chest, and prepared for his journey.

 

 

Barry hadn’t meant to spend this leg of the journey traveling with a tabaxi he’d met on the road. It had just kind of happened. She had light gray fur, and she stood a head taller than him. She was going to visit relatives in a city a bit up the road. They’d left at about the same time, and they were taking the same path. It was kind of inevitable that they’d end up walking together.

 

Her name was Rain, and her speech lived up to that. She talked rapid-fire, at first about her own life, then about the rest of the world. Occasionally, she’d turn to pepper him with questions. He struggled to come up with answers in those moments; he got flustered. It didn’t help that his memory of his past was spotty at best. It was easier to listen to her speak.

 

Her footsteps kicking up dust, Rain said, “I think travelling’s only fun when you’ve got something to look forward to back home. Otherwise, it’s kinda depressing. Coming back home to somewhere less happy than where you just were. Makes you feel like you’ve missed out on something.” She glanced around the woods the trail passed through. Yew trees opened their branches to the midday sun. “I’ve got my friends back home. Whole group of ‘em. I really struggled when I moved away from my parents, y’know, but they helped me through it. Now I think Goldcliff’s more home to me than where I grew up.”

 

Barry nodded along, not really sure what to say about that. Just the idea of having to find a way to respond that wasn’t weird or rude was enough to make his heart pound, but he found her story uncomfortably relatable. He didn’t remember having experienced anything similar, though, so he dismissed it as just more of his brain’s bullshit. Gods, he hoped Rain wasn’t looking for him to have some insightful comment.

 

But Rain didn’t seem to be looking for any sort of reply. Instead, she turned to properly face him again. “What about you? What’re you looking forward to back home?”

 

He flushed now, hot panic rising in his throat. “Well. Um– it’s–” It’s a simple fucking question; he should have a response.

 

But he didn’t. He didn’t even remember where his home was. So he just said, “Nothing, I guess.”

 

Rain’s eyes widened. He realized he’d just killed the mood, come off as a complete fucking loser, but she pressed on. “No family? Friends? Not a fun job? A favorite place?”

 

Not wanting to make a fool of himself by stammering more, Barry shook his head. The best answer he had to her questions was that he had people a coin had told him he cared about and the world’s strangest case of amnesia.

 

Rain nudged him. “Come on, you really don’t have anything you’re coming back to? A wife? Or a husband— you know, I don’t judge— or really, any kind of partner? Kids?”

 

“Ah, yeah, I’ve got a wife.”

 

It took a moment for Barry to realize what he’d said. He didn’t have a wife, actually, unless you counted the classmate he’d married for tax purposes in fantasy grad school. Before he could backtrack, Rain said, “Oh, thank the gods you won’t be totally alone when you get back. Believe me, been there before – not fun. What’s her name?”

 

Barry’s mind froze. He’d somehow just trapped himself between admitting that he’d accidentally said he was married (who did that?) and making up some ridiculous lie. The last one seemed high-effort, shitty, and prone to crashing and burning, so he stammered out, “Uh – actually, I don’t have a wife.”

 

And great, now he sounded like he was lying about that too. “Sorry, uh - didn’t mean to lie to you or anything. It’s just that I kinda - I guess I just said yes without really thinking about it. No, I’m not married. I’m not – I mean, it’s not like I’ve got anything to go back to but more of the same routine.”

 

Rain looked at him. Her stare was a physical weight. Barry felt it branding him as sad and lonely and kinda fucked up . He dug his fingernails into his palms.

 

But instead of running ahead on the path or insulting him, she just said, “Damn, that sucks, man. But believe me when I say it gets better. Doesn’t always feel like it, but things work out, y’know? It’s about looking for things that make you happy and working to make them a part of your daily life.”

 

Some of the tension in his chest eased, but he couldn’t get rid of the pricking sensation that she was judging him. Paranoia, a part of his brain chided him. Another insisted that it was perfectly rational. The divide nagged at him right until they parted ways.

 

 

Barry hiked up the trail, scanning for the barrow he was meant to search. It was hidden away in cliff-peppered hills overlooking the sea. The scent of brine hung in the air. It would have been beautiful if he wasn’t walking along a too-narrow path overlooking a rocky beach. He couldn’t help but think this was a task better-suited to mountain goats than him, some pudgy, middle-aged man.

 

The wind lashed here, battering against the high stone cliffs. It tousled his hair and sent his coat billowing. Barry had always hated windy weather like this, the sort that cuffed your ears and chilled the tips of your fingers. He just hoped that it would be warmer in whatever old tomb his coin-self had ordered him to search through.

 

The trail grew narrower the farther up he went. It was still walkable, but the space between him and the stones below grew thinner and thinner. Barry had never been scared of heights, but this close to such a high drop, he found himself sweating. He kept close to the cliff wall beside him. It wasn’t as if that protected him, considering it barely afforded him any extra space at all, but he took a bit of comfort in it regardless.

 

A small stone poked out of the trail ahead, not large enough to notice.

 

That was, until he fell face-first over it.

 

The fall cast him half-over the side of the cliff. He tried to hold on, digging his hands into the rough earth, but there was only so much he could do.

 

Barry went tumbling over the cliff, hitting the ground below.

 

He faintly remembered hearing a crack. Before the pain of the fall even registered, he was dead.

 

Sort of.

 

Barry was still alive, and all at once, he remembered why that was. Right.

 

This time, death was less of a shock. He at least knew what was happening this time, why he’d just died without memories. He collected himself quickly enough, gathering himself into the shape of a robed figure. He looked down at his corpse, and he realized for the first time how much he’d changed.

 

Not in the time he’d been alive. No, the Barry who woke up in a cave was about the same as the one who had just fallen off a cliff. But in terms of who he’d been before everything…

 

Barry took the ring and the coin from his corpse. By the gods, he really had changed a lot in the last century. He’d become more confident, less lonely, generally less sad .

 

Now, without memories, it was like all of that had been reversed.

 

He sighed, trying not to let himself dwell on what that meant for the others— gods, the others without memories— because that was a line of thought that would cause some very intense emotions. He remembered Lup telling him that the whole lich thing would end “real fucking bad” if they lost themselves in negative emotions. So he couldn’t think about that, not until–

 

Not until everything was over.

 

He began his journey back to his cave, trying not to think of who he was when he didn’t remember who he’d become.

 

 

He didn’t even make it a half-mile from where he’d died before a rift opened in front of him. Before he could process that a rift had just opened in front of him , a man stepped from the abyssal crack in reality. He was dark-haired, and he wore a formal black suit. He carried a silver scythe; just from the way the light hit the blade, Barry could tell it wasn’t a prop.

 

And then he spoke, and any intimidation factor he might have had vanished.

 

In a gods-awful attempt at a fantasy Cockney accent, he said, “Barry Bluejeans, for your crimes against the laws of life and death, you will be sentenced to the eternal stockade.”

 

Oh. Oh gods, this was one of the Raven Queen’s reapers.

 

Barry had heard about the stricter laws surrounding necromancy on this plane, but he and Lup had figured out pretty quickly that they were hidden in their bodies. He’d set up protective wards in his cave, but out here, especially after just dying, it made sense that he’d get detected.

 

He sighed. “Look, can we talk this over? There’s a lot of shit you don’t know about. You don’t gotta send me to ghost jail or whatever. You probably shouldn’t , if you don’t want this entire planar system to get destroyed.”

 

The man narrowed his eyes. “Do you really expect me to trust a lich?”

 

“I mean, I’m clearly not the unstable kind. Believe me, I’ve met plenty of evil ones in my time, and none of them would’ve asked to have a polite chat with you.”

 

The man looked genuinely off put by this. Barry supposed that was fair— he’d probably been told he was out to catch a proper lich , not him. But still, he continued, “I don’t believe there are liches that aren’t unstable. Even if you’re holding it together now— even if you believe you can continue on like this— you’re still— you’ve broken the laws of life and death.”

 

Barry realized he was being a bit terse at this point; he’d had a shitty day, considering the whole just dying thing. But that didn’t stop him from saying, “Look. I’m sure you’ve got greater necromantic threats than some middle-aged human-turned-lich just trying to go about their day. My name is Barry Bluejeans, for gods’ sake. Do you really think I’m some great threat to the order of this world?”

 

“You’re –”

 

“And you can drop the accent. Please drop the accent.”

 

The reaper ignored that. In the same ungodly accent, he said, “Don’t know what you’re talking about. And yes, I do have greater threats to deal with, but you’re still a wanted criminal that I’ve been assigned to catch. It’d make it easier for the both of us if you’d just comply.” As if for emphasis, he took his scythe in both hands, pointing it at Barry.

 

Barry sighed again. Fucking hell, he didn’t want to get into a fight today. He couldn’t just go with this reaper, end up in the “eternal stockade,” or whatever he’d called it. But he also didn’t want to beat the shit out of the first person he’d talked to with his memories back.

 

“Look, I really don’t want to fight you,” he said. “Or get chased by you! I think the best solution for both of us would just be to go our separate ways.”Barry was not a skilled diplomat, but it didn’t seem like the man in front of him was either.

 

The reaper shook his head. “Look, if you’d really like, you can file an appeal with the Raven Queen. But I’m afraid I do still have to take you in.”

 

At this point, Barry started to properly consider his options. He couldn't go through whatever weird death bureaucracy they had going on in this plane; he was kind of on a time crunch. He doubted he could outrun the Grim Reaper, considering he’d been able to open some sort of dimensional portal.

 

So that left the option of fighting him. Not an appealing choice, but probably the best. Also, Barry was pretty sure reapers couldn’t die.

 

Barry shrugged. “Sorry, really can’t do that. I’ve got things I’ve gotta do.”

 

The reaper swung his scythe, and Barry cast cone of cold. It wouldn’t be enough to stop him, but it startled the reaper enough that Barry was able to run. He was faster as a ghost, and he didn’t have trouble navigating the rocky terrain. He cast invisibility and hoped it would shield him some as he fled.

 

He did, in fact, make it to his cave without getting reaped. Back in the familiar darkness of it once more (not as scary to him like this, with night vision), he let himself consider what this meant— there was definitely a bounty on his head, and he’d just escaped a reaper once. It was likely he’d be tracked more intensely after that. And that meant more time confined in a cave, more time waiting for a body to grow. Staring at the walls, nothing to do but think.

 

It wasn’t much different from his college years, but Barry hated it all the same.

 

 

The halfling tapped a beat with her foot, singing a fast-paced ballad about an elf who killed a king. Barry had always loved music (or at least he thought he had?). He remembered begging his mother to let him take piano lessons as a kid. He’d never gotten really good, but he’d enjoyed it. Right now, though, he wished he’d learned to sing too.

 

One of the members of the traveling party, a handsome young orc, took out a lyre. He added simple accompaniment to the halfling’s song. A dwarf brought a drum from his pack and played along with the beat. In fact, at this point, it seemed like every other member of the group he’d joined up with was adding to the song. Save for him, sitting a bit back from the circle they’d made around the campfire.

 

The halfling’s voice dropped off. A human sitting near the center of the circle took over the melody. They played a violin, the rough texture of the sound almost like a human voice. Something about the sound left him feeling choked up. Had he ever actually heard a violin in person before? He rested his head in his hands, reasoning that that must be why he was feeling overwhelmed by it.

 

The song ended, but quickly, the lyre player and the violinist and the drummer pivoted into another tune. The halfling woman hummed along, dark skin cast gold in the light of the fire. It suddenly struck Barry that they’d be travelling tomorrow, through the winter chill.

 

That was something for future him to worry about, he decided. Right now, he was more focused on lurking at the edges of this gathering.of musicians, wishing he was a part of something like that. But the idea of even trying made him feel restless.

 

He shook his head. Idly, he began to hum. It was too quiet to be a part of the group’s music— that was swelling now, drowning out the night wind— but it was a lovely tune. He was pretty sure he’d made it up on the spot, but it seemed too cohesive for that to be true. His singing voice was rough and untrained, but he wasn’t expecting anyone but himself to hear it. And besides, it worked well enough in the moment— it could hold a basic melody.

 

And the song— there was something about it that made his chest tighten. It was soft, a little bit melancholy, and deeply affectionate. He’d never heard it before, but it filled him with such a sense of homesickness that he nearly choked on it. He couldn’t explain what it was about it that caused that, but as he kept humming the tune, he felt more and more like he was being gutted. Vague memories drifted through his head, thickly obscured by what felt like fog.

 

He didn’t even notice someone had sat down next to him until they touched his shoulder. He looked up to see a half-elf, another member of the traveling party. They’d been singing along, Barry remembered, sitting a little bit in front of him. “Are you alright?” they asked him, sizing him up.

 

It was only then that Barry noticed he was crying. Eyes widening, he wiped the tears away. Nodding, he did his best to act like nothing had happened, that he was fine, that he wasn’t longing for some vague sense of home (because that was useless; he was a grown man without any hope of having that). “I’m– I’m alright,” he said.

 

The half-elf raised an eyebrow, but they didn’t say anything more. They did, however, stay seated next to him for the rest of the night. Though he felt somewhat foolish for it, he appreciated the almost-stranger’s companionship more than he could say.

 

 

Barry had gotten killed fighting with a band of kobolds.

 

He’d needed to take a trip to gather supplies anyways, but after that death, he wanted to make sure he got a proper weapon for himself. He still resented how useless he was in that fight — he would’ve been able to handle that situation if he hadn’t forgotten he had options other than stabbing blindly with the shoddy dagger he’d bought on the road. Maybe a real sword would help some.

 

Of course, it was difficult for him to buy that sort of thing as a ghost. Mostly, he’d just resorted to stealing from wealthy people where he could. He currently lingered on the streets of a city at night, hoping some drunk merchant would pass by.

 

It wasn’t going well.

 

He knew he had to leave soon— he’d been out for too long. If the Raven Queen sent another reaper after him, he might not be able to escape again. He’d just decided to start heading back to the cave when he saw a pair of women walking along the road.

 

They leaned their heads together, talking in low voices. He didn’t recognize the first, tall and broad-shouldered, but the second—

 

Even with her face obscured by shadows, he’d know her anywhere. “Lucretia?”

 

She turned to face him, eyes widening. It took a moment for Barry to realize that something was off— it had only been years since he’d last seen her, but she looked like she’d aged decades. Long wrinkles etched her dark skin, and her hair had gone gray. But she still carried herself like he remembered— shoulders back, with an air of quiet dignity. Nostalgia clenched tight in his chest.

 

Lucretia stepped in front of the other woman. It was a small gesture, but Barry didn’t miss it. “Show yourself,” she said.

 

So he did. He dropped the invisibility spell he’d put up, hoping he wouldn’t scare both of them off. Emotions running high, he crackled and sparked like a flame.

 

“Maureen, get back,” Lucretia said to the other woman, looking over her shoulder to cast the words. Turning back to Barry, she waved a hand. A shimmering wall of light appeared between them and him— he recognized it as a shield spell.

 

And then Barry realized what she must be thinking.

 

Lucretia knew how he and Lup held themselves together. They were sustained by their bonds. And now he was alone, without anything to anchor him. That combined with the stress of the situation— fuck, she must think he’d become one of the raging, evil liches they’d seen on so many other worlds.

 

He backed up slightly, holding up his hands. He couldn’t think of anything else to do in the moment. “Lucretia, I’m – I’m still here. I’m still me.”

 

He couldn’t handle the thought of her thinking he’d lost himself. She was the only person in the world who remembered who he was— other than Lup, maybe. He needed her to understand. It felt as vital as eating or breathing.

 

She gave him a sharp nod.

 

She didn’t drop the shield spell.

 

Barry should put up his own shielding spell, he realized. He wasn’t good at abjuration magic, but something would be better than nothing. He and Lucretia were— the word enemies felt wrong, but they were opposed.

 

But he couldn’t bring himself to.

 

“Are you planning on attacking?” she asked slowly. “Because if you’re looking for a fight, please don’t insist on one that’d put innocent people in danger.” She glanced back at Maureen. The woman had drawn a dagger from a sheath on her belt.

 

If Barry had a body, he imagined he would’ve blanched at that. As it was, he just crackled more. Despite everything, he couldn’t imagine actually trying to hurt her. “No, I’m– I’m not going to fight you, Lucretia.”

 

He didn’t notice the tension in her shoulders until it relaxed. “Ah– I– good.”

 

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m still fucking pissed ,” he said, though that didn’t fully describe whatever it was that he felt towards Lucretia for what she’d done. “You’ve– gods, you’ve really fucked up.”

 

In that same level tone, she said, “I know what I’m doing. I’m not a damned child.”

 

“Gods, I know that,” he snapped. “You’re fucking brilliant, but you’re wrong .”

 

“I couldn’t stand by and watch you all destroy this entire world. I- I had to do this, Barry.”

 

“You’re about to do the same thing! Please, Lucretia, you - you can fix everything. You don’t have to go through with this.”

 

“And what would you all do after? If– if I returned everyone’s memories— all the memories I can return, you’d either let these wars keep going or just leave .”

 

“At least if we did that, everyone in this plane wouldn’t die!” He could sense the remains of his composure crumbling more by the minute.

 

“Everyone in this plane would die if the relics were let out into the world again too. Do you really think they’d survive like that for centuries? At least my plan has a chance of saving them.” She brushed her hair back, and he could better make out her age-withered face. “Your relic did this to me.”

 

His blood ran cold. “What – how ? What happened?”

 

She spoke calmly, voice neutral. “In the Felicity Wilds. A pair of liches have it. They’ve set up a torture chamber using it. Took twenty years of my life.”

 

Fuck.

 

Barry had known he was creating a powerful magic object, but he hadn’t thought it would be used like that , to create some sort of–

 

“They thrive off of tormenting travelers,” she continued. “They say no one gets out of there alive. So many people-” Her voice cracked. “So many people suffered worse fates than me.”

 

And she’d likely seen some firsthand.

 

“These relics are ruining this world,” Lucretia hissed. “I couldn’t stand by and let this keep happening.”

 

He felt choked. Barry was certain he was right, that Lucretia’s plan would end the world, but— gods, it wasn’t like what he’d done was ethical either. He’d thought the destruction the relics caused was worth it, that they’d cause less destruction than the Hunger would if it continued consuming every world in its path, but he just didn’t know . He was just one person. He and his family had positioned themselves as judge, jury, and executioner, but they were still just people . Every single option they had would ruin countless lives, and they didn’t have the foresight to know for certain which one would cause the least damage.

 

In that moment, he couldn’t think of any better solution to this — this giant, world-ending disaster they were faced with— than to keep fleeing it, try again. They could figure out something better in the next cycle. And maybe that was a habit bred from doing that for a century, but it was the best option he could think of. They’d be able to talk it out, and they’d have their family back. He wanted that so badly it hurt.

 

But there was no way he could manage that now. Lucretia had the Starblaster. Besides, they couldn’t risk leaving without finding Lup. She should regenerate if they left the planar system, but he was terrified to risk that. So it stayed there, a half-formed, hazy reality in his head where they all made up and continued their life as they’d lived it before. It stood in stark contrast to the hard gray streets, the woman whose harshly-lined face was tinted red in the light of his undead body.

 

Two people who wouldn’t budge, facing off against each other as if they would.

 

Barry shook his head. He couldn’t let things continue like this — not when Lucretia erased the memories of so many people, not when she planned to cut the planar system off from all of its bonds. And she wouldn’t let things continue as they had been either. She was set on what she believed was right.

 

He couldn’t continue this discussion either. He had to keep his emotions under control. He couldn’t lose himself. If he kept this up— if he sayed with Lucretia any longer— he’d be risking that. It’d been dangerous to even talk to her in the first place.

 

“Goodbye, Lucretia,” he said. He dipped his head in acknowledgement of Maureen too, standing rigid behind Lucretia’s shield.

 

He cast invisibility and fled.

 

 

The man next to Barry towered over him when standing— he must've been over six feet. He was broad-shouldered, well-muscled, and strong-jawed. And now he crouched down on the grass, coaxing a small dog out of where it hid in a bush.

 

Barry had always liked animals, but he'd never had a way with them like his companion did. So he watched from the sidelines as the other man spoke softly to the gray dog. He held out his hand, palm flat and open-facing. The dog crept closer with each passing minute. Eventually, it was close enough to sniff his hand.

 

And then it licked his palm, and his eyes lit up. Gently, he lifted the dog by the belly. Its collar jangled as he hefted it up into his arms. "Yes, you're lost," he cooed. "We'll get you back to your owner."

 

They'd found something important— he couldn't remember what— weeks ago, and they'd been staying in a small village ever since. The two of them had caught word of this lost dog and resolved to go find it. Poor thing looked terrified— it had been missing for nearly two days now. But now, together, they brought it back home.

 

He reached out to pet the dog's head. Its fur was soft and curly. He wished he could spend the rest of his life like this, cozy in a village, only taking the occasional break to chase lost dogs.

 

-

 

Barry sat down to a card game with the man across from him. His opponent was winning, and he was winning by a lot, but Barry didn't care. He’d never prided himself on his ability to win card games, and the mild-mannered man across from him played viciously. They didn't talk— they didn't need to. There was a mutual understanding there, between two men who’d known each other for years and years. It was a difficult year, and they were alone now.

 

Wherever they were was quiet. He remembered the sound of voices echoing down halls. Normally, the lack of noise would make him feel ill. But this silence, comfortable and steady, anchored him.

 

He drew a card from the stack. The man across from him his hand and smiled.

 

The man wrapped a bandage around the wound on Barry’s arm. Pain shot through him at the touch, but he stayed still as the other man finished.

 

He sat next to Barry, leaning back. The grass, faintly bloodstained, rustled in the breeze. "How'd you do that?"

 

Barry turned to face him. "What?"

 

The other man raised an eyebrow. "Get so bruised up."

 

He laughed uncomfortably. "It's kind of a stupid story,"

 

"Come on. You've known me for h̸̜͝a̵̩͛l̴͚̅f̶̭̋ ̸͈͘a̴̗̾ ̴͖̒ć̸̦ĕ̷̻n̵͕̚t̵̺͑u̶̡͆ŕ̵͜ỹ̸͎ Shoot."

 

He sighed. "I was out exploring, and well — I wasn't paying attention. Fell down a rocky slope." Gesturing vaguely to the cuts across his body, the blue-black bruises running down his arms, he said, "Sharp rocks."

 

"Looks like it."

 

And that was that.

 

-

 

Barry’s feet dangled off the edge of the thatched roof. The elf sitting beside him swung his legs, staring at the cobbled streets below.

 

"Hate this planet," his companion grumbled. "They don't even have running water."

 

"Lots of them don't."

 

He shot Barry a withering glare. "Yeah, but the others didn't kill L̴̗̈́u̴͚̎p̴̨̈́."

 

"She'll be back soon. Four more days." But his voice cracked when he said it, and he didn't understand why.

 

Clearly trying to keep his tone casual, the elf said, "She's gonna be so fucking mad when she hears she missed t̵̜̉h̵͕̒e̴̙͋ ̸̺̉f̵̺͋i̴̤͂g̶̭̀h̸̜̾t̶̖͂ ̸̧̍w̸̫͊i̴͒ͅt̴͈̎h̶͕͒ ̸̯̎ṯ̷͒h̴̐͜e̷̢͋ ̷̟̒d̶͎͌r̶̫̈a̸̯͝g̴̭̔ò̴͉n̸̜̈́."

 

Barry shifted closer to him. "We'll have to do something to match it next year."

 

He tore his eyes from the silent streets. A half-smile crossed his face. “Yeah. You’re right.”

 

Barry could already see the plans forming in his head.

 

When he spoke next, he said, “Governments. If the next one has governments, we’ve gotta overthrow one.”

 

-

 

A woman sat beside Barry in the long grass, sketching the wildflowers. It was a bright spring day, warmer than he was used to. Birdsong came from the trees above the clearing.

 

Something caught his eye. By the trunk of a large tree, a mushroom grew. It was small, a light brown, but it was veined with silver. The light hit it now in just such a way that it glinted like metal.

 

“One moment,” he told his companion. She hummed an affirmative, and he went over to it.

 

Barry took a knife from his pack and cut the mushroom from the ground. He cupped it in his hands and brought it back to the woman. “Hey,” he said. “I think you’ll like this.”

 

The woman looked up from her work. Barry held the mushroom up so it caught the light.

 

A smile crossed her face. “It’s like a crystal,” she said. “Can I…”

 

Barry nodded and passed the mushroom to her. She held it up to the light too now, turning it. Eventually, she set it down on top of her paper, right beside the sketched wildflowers. “I’ll paint this when we get home. Thank you.”

 

He nodded and smiled at her. She returned to her sketching, and the companionable silence returned once more.

 

-

 

The woman in front of Barry was dead.

 

That wasn’t entirely true, he knew. She was still here, after all. She was a ghost now, but she wasn’t gone. She looked over a railing, down at the desert below, and Barry knew instinctively that she was frustrated. She’d died early (early compared to what?), and she’d been-

 

Well, sulking, but she’d deny that to the ends of the earth.

 

“Hey,” he said. She turned around, and he grinned at the sight of her. He couldn’t make out her face, but he knew she was beautiful.

 

“Hey, babe. What’re you doing out here? It’s like…what, two in the morning?” After a moment’s pause, she said, “Not that I’m complaining, but you humans need to sleep.”

 

He shrugged. “Started making something too late, and I couldn’t sleep until I finished it.” He took what he’d made out of his pocket, holding it out to her. “I know you like adding patches to your robe, so…”

 

She looked down at the gift — a fabric heart, hand-embroidered with the word “widowed.” It’d taken him an embarrassingly long time, but the laugh she gave was worth it.

 

“Oh my gods, I love it,” she said, amusement clear in her voice. “Wait, did you - okay, I’m gonna need to make one of these for you too. We’ve gotta match.”

 

Barry shook his head, smiling. “I can just make one for myself. You kinda don’t have a body right now.”

 

“No, fuck you, I’ll figure out how to sew with nothing but mage hand and determination.”

 

He recognized that tone of voice. She’d made up her mind, and he wouldn’t be able to change it. So he just stepped closer and looked up at her blurry face. “I love you so much.”

 

“Love you too, babe.” And even without a body, her voice made it sound like she was smiling.

 

-

 

Barry sat in a room with six other people. They draped over each other, overlapping. He could see all of their faces save for one, blotted out in the warm light. She rested her head on the legs of an elf, and she'd sprawled her legs over him. The seven of them spoke warmly. Home, he realized from the warmth in his chest. The word came as easily as breathing. This is home.

 

-

 

Barry never remembered his dreams. He woke up with faces dancing on the edge of his consciousness. He grasped at the threads of memory, but they were already long gone.

 

 

The bitter cold sunk into Barry’s skin, nestling against his bones. He didn’t know what he’d been thinking, telling himself to travel to a mountain town in the middle of winter. It had once been a place where dangerous artifacts were stored, he’d heard. But it wasn’t like he knew what dangerous artifact he was looking for , or why he’d want to travel to a town that stored things like it a millennia ago.

 

But of course even the trip there hadn’t worked out. Because Barry Bluejeans was destined for misfortune. Istus had a plan for him, and it involved nothing but suffering.

 

His breath spilled out like smoke in front of him. The snow came in sheets, clouding his vision. Beneath his winter jacket, he shivered.

 

It piled on his hood, white and thick, as he trudged up the mountain road. The snow crunched beneath his boots. He couldn’t help but wonder if he’d been meant to figure out that he shouldn’t try this trip in the middle of winter himself. If she were still alive, his mom would’ve scolded him endlessly for this.

 

Ah. There was a thought. If he had the damned energy , he was sure it would have made him melancholy. But all his strength was tied up in shuddering like a leaf. His teeth chattered, making soft clicking noises that got lost in the winter cold.

 

Up further, the air tasting of ice. Barry couldn’t have been moving very fast. Looking back, though, he couldn’t tell how far he’d come. His footprints got lost in the heaps of falling snow.

 

He felt the chill less by the minute, though. He might have thought it was a good sign, had he not murkily remembered learning that hypothermia did that to people too.

 

His thoughts grew muffled, as if heard from a distance. Knowing full well that it wouldn’t do much, Barry took out the coin. He hoped it would provide him with some sort of useful insight, but of course it fucking wouldn’t. In the palm of his hand, it stood stark and bright against the snow. But it did nothing to save him, because since when had anyone ?

 

Barry didn’t like being frustrated. He didn’t like the feeling of lashing out, hurting other people. He wasn’t a violent person. He’d been described as gruff, but anger always felt like a step too far. But now, alone in the snow, he let it wash over him.

 

His legs hurt.

 

He didn’t want to be in the open anymore.

 

He pressed himself to the nearest stone wall, collapsing onto the ground. He hissed out a breath as the cold of the snow seeped through his gloves. Idly, he sat down and took them off. He twisted the ring on his finger.At least that was still warm. Even now, halfway to death, it still made him feel a bit safer.

 

Barry kept his hand cradled to his chest as he lay down in the snow. He heard it crunch as he repositioned himself, but after that, it remained silent. Only the wind ran above.

 

He knew then that he was going to die.

 

And of course he was, because he’d never stood a chance of getting to some town in the middle of nowhere in this weather. For once in his entire fucking life, he’d overestimated himself.

 

The tips of his fingers had gone blue.

 

And of course he was going to die alone.

 

How long did he lay there? Minutes? Hours? Days? He grew more delirious with each passing moment. Frostbite blackened his skin. He thought he hallucinated things— people being there with him, faces that floated through his mind on the brink of life and death. But he couldn’t escape the truth of the situation— when he turned, reached for a hand that wasn’t there, he’d always remember that he was wholly, painfully alone.

 

His breath faded with the wind.

 

Barry rose from his body, spectral. He remembered little about his death, and from the state of his corpse, it was clear why— hypothermia. His corpse was already half-buried by snow.

 

The lazy calm that came before that sort of death still coursed through him. He remembered, though, anger and sadness and fear and—

 

And emotions he couldn’t afford to work through. He leaned down, took his ring, and returned to the cave.

 

 

Barry had stayed out a bit too long already, he knew, but he was preparing for his next trip. He’d been struggling to rake together enough money to give himself— he’d been running low for a while, but by the end of the last trip, he was almost out. It really was a struggle to try and find people he could bring himself to steal from, considering most of the people who had extra money also had houses warded against robbers. He’d resorted to poking around the ruins of an old mansion when the wall in front of him cracked open. He had barely enough time to catch a glimpse of something purple and swirling on the other side when someone stepped out of it– the same reaper he’d met last time.

 

“Oh, uh, hey.” Barry tried for civility here, hoping it might go better than last time. “Sorry, I can just…go, if you’ll let me. Won’t cause trouble here, I swear. I won’t tell your boss you didn’t capture me either.”

 

The man sighed. “Barry Bluejeans, for your crimes against the laws of life and death–”

 

“Yes, I know, I’ve– I’ve fucked up, did some necromancy crimes, but I’m not causing issues for anyone.” Barry was very aware that he was talking himself further into his own grave. “Hey, can I get your name? It feels rude to keep referring to you as ‘the reaper who I fought once’— sorry about that, by the way.”

 

He blinked. “Ah – it’s. It’s Kravitz. And I’m sorry, but I do still have to capture you, and no amount of rambling is going to change that.”

 

Barry hissed in a breath. This reaper— Kravitz— honestly seemed like the sort of person he’d get along with if it weren’t for the whole death crimes thing. And if he was being honest with himself, he really was kind of desperate for conversation. But it looked like this’d end up as another “fight enough so that he could get away” sort of situation.

 

“Look— Mr. Bluejeans— you must understand that you are still a lich, no matter how composed you might seem. The issue isn’t necessarily whether or not you’re hurting people; it’s that you made yourself immortal with dark magic . While admittedly you’re one of the least violent liches I’ve met— though that’s not a high bar— you’re still violating the fundamental laws of this planar system. I’m going to insist once more that you come with me and file an appeal with my Queen, and if you fail to comply, I’ll have to take you by force.”

 

“Yeah, sorry, I kind of figured that would be the case. Just had to try. I really don’t want to fight you.”

 

“Then don’t .” Kravitz’s awful accent was slipping more by the minute. “Just— just come peacefully, make this easier for both of us.”

 

Barry shook his head. “I can’t. I’m sorry.”

 

And before Kravitz had time to swing his scythe, Barry cast fireball. It wasn’t a safe choice, considering the mansion was mostly made of wood, but he figured it would work. Lup would have liked to watch the old building go up in flames.

 

He didn’t let himself dwell on that thought until he was safely away, back in the warded cave.

 

 

Barry couldn’t really sleep as a lich, but Lup had figured out that they could do something like an elf’s trance. She’d taught him how to slip into it, and he’d never been so grateful for that than in those long months in between bodies. He thought he might just go full-on evil lich from boredom alone if he had to stay conscious through all of it, sitting in a dark cavern with no one but himself to talk to. He couldn’t stay in the trance state for too long— he found it just stopped working somewhere around the six hour mark— but he spent most of his nights floating still by the wall, half-translucent as his mind went blank.

 

But he’d also learned that even the smallest disturbance could wake him from this. He wasn’t particularly startled when some small sound jolted him from his half-rest, but he certainly wasn’t coherent enough to consider keeping his lich-body subtle.

 

He flickered to life, red energy lighting the cave floor. Now that he let magic fully run through him again, there was a moment where it spilled off of him in waves. With it, his spectral robe rippled. Ringing flooded his ears.

 

It was only once that died down that Barry spotted the person in the cave with him.

 

They were a dragonborn, much taller than he’d been while alive. They had blue scales, curved horns, and a magic light cupped in their hands. It had been some time since Barry had talked with a dragonborn, but he vaguely remembered that the way their tail was swishing right now indicated fear.

 

Ah, shit.

 

Barry tried to tone down the whole spooky ghost thing. This was probably just a lost traveler. The paranoid part of his brain, the one he’d cultivated over the last seven years, said they might be a spy for Lucretia, a reaper trying to disguise themselves. But he knew that would be shitty to act on now. This place was warded to all hell against detection and magical attacks, but he didn’t have anything protecting it against people just wandering in.

 

He tilted his head in what he hoped to the gods was a nonthreatening gesture. “Why are you here?”

 

His voice echoed through the cave, amplified by the natural reverb of his lich form. It hit Barry that this was definitely very threatening . Before he could attempt to apologize for that, though, the dragonborn had dropped the light spell and drawn a sword from their belt. The point of it shook, though, and Barry wondered what sort of fucked-up stories they’d heard about liches. If they even recognized him as one– they might think he was just some spirit haunting a cave.

 

barryfic

Art by @g00sefeather (g00sefeather.tumblr.com)!

[ID: A horizontal full-color rough digital painting of Barry Bluejeans from The Adventure Zone and a blue-scaled dragonborn meeting in a cave. The piece is overall fairly saturated and dark with high contrast and a predominately teal and red color palette. Down and to the left, visible from the thighs up, the dragonborn stands tense and fearful, body turned to the left but head twisted to the right to stare at Barry, their mouth open a little in horror. Their one visible arm is raised to cradle a ball of light that casts both them and most of the cave in a teal glow, and their tail is curved to loosely frame the bottom of the piece. The dragonborn has dark, curved horns and small spines along the back of their neck and tail, and their eyes are yellow with slit pupils. They are wearing a loose gray shirt and brown pants, along with a brown leather backpack with a beige bedroll tied atop it and a sheathed sword attached to their belt. Located in the upper middle right of the piece, Barry is in his lich form, appearing as a red-robed figure with his hood up and his face completely obscured by shadow. He has a gold, heart-shaped pin attached to his robe under the opening of his hood. He is floating with a subtly slumped posture. He is surrounded by a red-orange glow and crackling lightning, which illuminates the dragonborn as well as the walls and floor of the cave near him. /End ID.]

 

He made an effort to dim the light of this body, trying to ground himself in thoughts of his family. He thought of happy memories. When he spoke again, his voice was a bit less ominously loud. “Sorry, I- I didn’t mean for that to sound so threatening.” He gestured vaguely around himself, trying to give the impression that he was a human man and not just an immortal, evil ghost. “I just meant- look, no one’s ever ended up here before. Why are you here, and I promise I won’t kill you for your answer.”

 

The dragonborn didn’t lower the sword. Their long tail still swished back and forth over the ground. “I was looking for - I wanted a place to spend the night. I’ve been traveling, and it’s raining out. My tent’d get soaked through if I tried to set it up, but I noticed a cave, and I thought it would be better to spend the night in here than out in the rain, and-”

 

They spoke faster with each sentence. Barry decided it was probably best to cut them off. He wanted to make sure they knew he wasn’t about to explode on them or something for looking for a place to stay. He’d learned to identify liars pretty well in the century he’d spent traveling, and this person didn’t seem like one. “You’re welcome to stay here,” he said.

 

The dragonborn went still. “What?”

 

“I - I mean, you’re welcome to spend the night here if you want. It’s not like I own this cave. I just kind of took it over.” He neglected to mention the fact that he sort of resented the thing, that the idea of someone else getting use out of it made him feel a little bit better about it.

 

“I - are you sure? I mean, you’re-”

 

They gestured vaguely at Barry. He took a guess that they were worried this was some sort of trap. “No, uh- I’m not about to eat you or something. Here, you can cast zone of truth on me! If you know that.”

 

The dragonborn nodded, though their body language was still clearly wary. They cast the spell. Barry was viciously reminded of how Merle would do this whenever he wanted members of the crew to talk shit out. Before he could get choked up over that, though, the dragonborn asked, “Are you planning to hurt me?”

 

“No. I don’t have any reason to.”

 

It occurred to him that he probably should have thought this through when the dragonborn asked, “Why?”

 

“Because I hate this place, and I’m lonely as fuck. No reason you shouldn’t be allowed to spend the night here.”

 

The dragonborn’s eyes narrowed in confusion. “Um. Alright.”

 

And oh gods, Barry suddenly felt entirely fucking stupid. As the dragonborn waved the spell off, he tried to think of a way to pretend that he hadn’t just confessed that he was sad and lonely to a stranger who’d just been looking for a place to stay.

 

He figured asking them their name was a good start.

 

“Cornflower,” they told him, and Barry realized Lucreita would have liked the name. That was her favorite flower, he remembered, and it had been since the very first cycle.

 

He shook his head, trying to dispel his thoughts, and considered whether he should try to actually make conversation. But Cornflower had already started to set up their bedroll on the opposite wall to him, close to the exit. The cave had a small, curved tunnel leading to the mouth proper, and Cornflower set up half in it.

 

He did his best to keep to the other side of the cave, knowing he’d be uncomfortable sleeping in the same room as a literal lich if he were alive. He resisted the urge to go talk with them, absorb every possible drop of human connection he could before they left. He pushed down all of the emotions bubbling up in him as best as he could and tried to trance.

 

When Barry woke up in the morning, Cornflower was gone.

 

And of course they were gone, because what else had he been expecting? To befriend a traveler, go on adventures? Because he really wasn’t cut out for that. He’d formed his closest bonds because he’d been trapped on a ship with six people for a hundred years. And even though he’d become a lot better at the whole friendship thing during that time, he was still seven years out of practice.

 

And fucking hell , it struck him then how desperately lonely he was.

 

His form crackled. He sank low to the ground, shoulders heaving. Gods, he just–

 

Barry just wanted his family back.

 

He missed Davenport, how he’d at some point stopped being a captain and started being more like a father. He missed Merle and his relentless optimism— Barry would readily endure his fucked-up eccentricities to talk with him again. He missed going on walks with Magnus, exploring each new civilization they came across. And Taako— of course he missed Taako. They’d become practically brothers. He’d never have expected them to get along as well as they did when everything began, but— well, something had clicked, and then they’d spend hours talking and practicing magic and exploring. He missed Lucretia, in spite of everything she’d done. Her dry wit, her endless care for everything alive. Gods, he wished things hadn’t gone like this between them.

 

And he missed Lup so desperately it hurt. It’d been so long since he’d seen her. She’d left earlier than he’d lost the rest of them. It was the longest time they’d been apart since before they’d started their mission (because after a certain point, the time before had also started to just feel like time apart).

 

Barry didn’t know how much longer he could survive like this.

 

The magic energy radiated off of him now, lighting up the cave like fireworks. He had to keep himself in control, he thought, or he’d end up losing himself. And if he lost himself, he’d be no good to anybody.

 

He did what he’d learned to do for the last decade— bury everything down. Let himself go numb. Disguise the pain with positive memories, pointedly ignore that those times were gone. Promise himself that later, once everything was over, he’d be able to properly break down.

 

Whatever over meant, he apologized to the future Barry who’d have to deal with the mess he’d made.

 

 

Barry had woken up alone in a cave.

 

What exactly had happened in the hours— hell, the days — following was a blur. He remembered feeling like he had the worst hangover of his life, but by the gods, how drunk did he have to be to have woken up in a pod? A coin speaking in his own voice, directions to a forest by Neverwinter, and an insistence that he find an adventuring party to tag along with. In the coin’s (his own?) words, “If you try to fight shit alone, you’ll die.”

 

The issue with joining an adventuring party was that he wasn’t exactly charismatic. So when they all gathered around the campfire to talk and eat dinner each night, he lingered at the edges. He listened, though, took mental notes. He could have sworn he learned that from someone, but he couldn’t remember who.

 

That night, they talked about the people they loved. Who they were fighting for, who they sent money back home to. Back and forth— a gnoll looking to impress their siblings, a dwarf sending money to his children, a half-elf here with her wife.

 

He tried to squash down the envy he was feeling. He got the sense that something bad would happen if he gave into those emotions, but he had no idea what. But sometimes, he couldn’t help but indulge it.

 

Barry only had one family member he’d been able to get to know. His dad had died when he was too young to remember him. His mom, Marleana, had raised him alone. She’d had to work two jobs to keep them sustained. She’d come home from work every day exhausted, but she’d always managed a smile for him. He remembered she’d had dark brown hair when he was younger, but it had dulled into a soft, powdery gray by the time he was twelve.

 

She’d always been supportive of him— he remembered when he’d come back from his first day of school and proudly declared that he wanted to be a doctor (despite being deathly afraid of needles). She’d let him talk to her about that. She’d let him talk to her about a lot , really— whatever interesting facts he’d learned, she’d always be happy to let him share it. And his mother was a woman who was similarly curious. She taught him little tidbits about nature and science and literature. She’d always been happy to share the small things she’d learned too.

 

He remembered when he’d told her that he wasn’t a girl, that he wanted to be called Barry. She’d just nodded along and told him that she’d love him no matter what. He’d smiled, and then they’d gotten into a conversation about how sea glass was formed.

 

Barry had gone off to college— on a scholarship, which his mom had held a little party to celebrate him getting— and kept in contact with his mother all the while. She was his closest friend, as childlike as that sounded. He’d always been a lonely child, but she was there with him through all of it.

 

And then she’d fallen ill. Barry had come back home, abandoned work on his doctorate to take care of her. She’d only lived a few months after the diagnosis. She’d died one late spring evening, and he’d been there with her. He’d been twenty-five then, and he’d still not gotten past the deep, empty loneliness her passing had left in its wake.

 

He wished she were here.

 

But Barry was older now, and he didn’t have anyone to take care of him. That was, unless you counted a coin that spoke in his voice, which he very much didn’t. So he lingered at the edges of the traveling group, watched the connections between them, and missed talks about medicine and sea glass.

 

 

Barry had been traveling for months now, no closer to finding what the coin had sent him looking for. Barry had searched three locations already. Each time he failed to find something there, the coin simply instructed him to go somewhere else. This time, it was to speak to a scholar living in Phandalin, ask her something about ancient ruins. He’d come to the city late at night. He scoured it now trying to find an inn.

 

The moon had barely begun to wax. The city had no streetlights. Darkness laced the streets. Barry hated how much he shrunk from it, how strongly he clung to shop windows and the spots where the moonlight shone brightest. He kept his gaze firmly trained in front of him, knowing full well that if he turned to look down the shadowy alleys, he’d be paralyzed with fear.

 

He heard the footsteps too late.

 

Barry looked up just before they got close enough to strike, turning to face three people, each wielding knives. He didn’t have time to consider what was about to happen. He just swerved, delving into the nearest alley.

 

He regretted it immediately— now he was trapped and half-blind— but the people going after him had already blocked the entrance. They fanned out, forcing him farther back, into the wall of a building. He pressed himself up against the stonework. His breath came ragged. He didn’t want to die here.

 

A human stepped forward from the crowd. He wore a plain white tunic, and his blonde hair was tied up in a ponytail. He palmed a knife.

 

The man grinned at him. “You got any money?”

 

Before Barry could respond, a dark elf to the right of the man raised a hand and cast a spell. He recognized it as zone of truth. “Wouldn’t suggest trying to lie, by the way,” she droned.

 

Eyes wide, hands shaking, Barry nodded. “Yes.”

 

“I’ll make you a trade, then,” the man said. “I’ll take your money, and in return, I’ll let you keep your life.”

 

That wasn’t much of a question to Barry— he could earn money back, but he couldn’t undo death. He opened his pack and took out a satchel that jangled with gold. He cast it to the thieves. The third, a kenku, scrambled to pick it up.

 

The man glanced over him. His gaze caught on Barry’s hand. A wave of dread passed over him as he realized what the thief was looking at.

 

“The ring too.”

 

It was a small golden band, inlaid with cat’s eye and topaz. Barry had found it by the coin when he’d woken up. It was just a piece of jewelry, the rational part of his mind said. It was replaceable.

 

But he felt determined to protect it with his life.

 

Bracing himself, he said, “No.”

 

With someone else, the thieves might have hesitated. But Barry Bluejeans was not a threatening man.

 

The human lunged at him. For a moment, the world stood still.

 

Then, Barry, who had never cast more than a basic cantrip, felt power well in his throat.

 

Half instinct, half directionless certainty, he let it run down to his fingers. It spilled from his hands, encompassing the entire alleyway. The thieves might have made noise. He couldn’t hear it over the ringing in his ears.

 

Circle of death , a part of his mind informed him blandly. Eighth level .

taz-barry-blur

Art by @vanroesburg (vanroesburg.tumblr.com)!

[ID: A vertical full-color digital drawing of Barry Bluejeans from The Adventure Zone blowing away three thieves in an alleyway with a spell. In the center is Barry, a white human man wearing glasses, a red cloak and traveling clothes, one arm stretched upwards to cast a purple spell. His backpack and a magic circle lie below him, the magic circle producing lines of magic that circle around and up into his palm. His legs are placed apart, and his head is turned upwards to his hand with a ring on it, where purple circles and strands of power are flying from it. It is hard to see his expression, but his eyes are abnormally colored and he looks stern. The purple spell that emanates from Barry’s hand is Circle of Death, pushing out in rings across the whole alleyway, with small particles floating about. Three thieves are being blown away from this spell, one pushed off their feet against the wall to the left, and two towards the viewer, one on the left running away and the other on the right blown upwards, flying towards the viewer. The thief on the left blown into the wall is a human man in a simple white shirt and rolled up pants, with blonde hair pulled into a ponytail. He looks shocked, his legs bent, one hand that used to hold a dagger pinned against the wall next to his head, and the other against his chest. A small open bag of coins lays near his feet, abandoned. The left thief running away is a raven Kenku dressed in orange and yellow clothes, a hood pulled over their head. They are looking out of the corner of their eye at Barry as they run, mouth open and hand splayed in front of their face. The right thief is a dark elf, dressed in armor with wrist gauntlets and several daggers strapped to his leg. He is fully airborne, his legs and arms splayed with feet facing Barry, and his face hidden by his white hair. The alleyway behind them all is brick, washed with tones of brown and green. In circles coming from the center, the brick is a bright light blue. End ID.]

 

Eyes wide, Barry stepped back. He could easily recognize whatever just happened as magic, but none of it made sense. He still couldn't hear— the ringing had taken on a faint buzz, the quality of static. Looking at the thieves, though, the three laid on the ground, bodies half-obscured by shadow. Barry refused to look closer. Gods, what had he done ?

 

Dashing out of the alley, back into the safety of unshadowed moonlight, he collapsed on the side of the street. He looked down at his shaking hands.

 

Without much thought, he took the coin from his pocket. He stared at it, hoping it would tell him anything about what had just happened. Of course, it did nothing— it was a fucking coin , not sentient.

 

He had to leave. He didn’t know how much damage he’d done — for all he knew, he might have just committed three murders. Or if they were still alive, he didn’t doubt they’d be tracking him down. He could figure out how that had just happened after he was safe.

 

So Barry pressed himself to his feet and kept going along the street. He moved at a half-sprint. It took him a few moments to notice that he felt less tired than he had been, magical energy still coursing through his body. Bile rose in his throat at the memory of that sort of spell just spriging unbidden into his hands. He didn’t have any money, so his plan to stay at an inn had gone out the window. But he eventually stumbled across a tavern. He figured he’d be able to stay at one of the tables for the night, hiding among the crowd. He doubted he’d be able to get to sleep anyways.

 

Barry took a table near the door, the air starkly warm compared with the chilly night outside. He rested his head in his hands. He breathed heavily, shoulders heaving. He was alone in a city, entirely broke, and maybe a wanted man. Alright. Fine. This was fine.

 

He was less concerned about the future than he was about what had just happened. Whenever he tried to wrap his head around it, though, he lost his train of thought. A few tries rewarded him with a headache. He had no doubt it’d become a migraine if he kept this up.

 

Barry sighed, raising his head. He twisted the ring around his finger. He wasn’t sure why it’d been so important to him; again, when he tried to remember where he’d gotten it, he felt that insistent pain in his head. He shrunk away from that line of thought too, resolving to just listen to the coin and hope he’d find answers eventually.

 

Whatever had just happened— it must have been a dream. That was the only way to explain it. Never mind the fact that that made even less sense than him figuring out how to cast magic. It was an explanation that didn’t make his head hurt.

 

He had to focus on what he’d been sent here to do. Trying to push the thoughts of robbers and magic and mysterious rings out of his mind, he laid his head on the table and tried to sleep a little before morning.

 

 

Barry had died again, managing to get a nasty infected wound. It was getting kind of ridiculous at this point. Gods, how had he survived forty-some years before the Hunger? It wasn’t like death was foreign to him, but he was getting tired of it. It had become less of an ending and more of an inconvenience; it meant he’d have to spend months waiting, hoping the world didn’t end before he could get a body back. He didn’t think he’d ever hated anything as much as the time he’d spent sitting in a cave, watching his own bodygrow in a tank.

 

About halfway through the growth of his next body, Barry had gone out to try and gather information. He was only able to risk trips that lasted an hour or so at this point; ones that took longer left him feeling paranoid. But he’d found a flyer pinned to a notice board— someone named Gundren Rockseeker looking to open an old family vault full of relics. Keyed to members of his bloodline, it was protected against almost any invasion.

 

And it struck him that Lup would have hidden her relic there.

 

It was safe, tucked away from the rest of the world, and unreachable by almost everyone. Hidden away enough that the relic’s thrall wouldn’t catch anyone but the passing traveler and secure enough that even they couldn’t get in. And besides that, it just felt right. Barry had known Lup for long enough to get the sense she’d have hidden it there. It felt like a very Lup choice— a little bit dramatic, a nod to an old piece of the plane’s history.

 

When no one was looking, he cast mage hand and took the flyer.

 

 

The adventuring party Gundren had gathered didn’t seem like much. An elf, a dwarf, a human, and him. Barry wasn’t even sure what he was here to do. The adventuring party was looking to get into some ancient dwarven vault, but it didn’t make sense why the coin had sent him there. He’d just been told that he was looking for whoever had left the weight in his chest — someone he loved.

 

As they traveled, Barry found himself sticking close to the others. Normally, he’d have stayed a little bit behind, but for whatever reason, he felt comfortable around the three. They teased and joked relentlessly, but he didn’t find himself feeling bad about it. For a reason he couldn’t place, they felt like home.

 

That night, they pitched tents by the side of the road. Barry chopped wood. Taako, the elf, lit a campfire with a cantrip. The other human, Magnus, insisted on making dinner for the group. The dwarf, Merle, just sat at the mouth of his tent, saying something about his old bones.

 

Magnus finished cooking his meal— soup, made from the rations they’d brought and some herbs they’d managed to scrounge up. He dished them all out a bowl. Barry cupped his in his hands. The steam curled into the air, brushing his face. He appreciated the warmth.

 

Taako took a spoonful of soup before glowering at Magnus. “Gods, this is awful.”

 

“It’s not that bad!” Magnus protested.

 

Barry ate a spoonful from his own bowl. It wasn’t great soup, but it was edible. Better than what he could make.

 

Taako glared at Merle. “Come on, back me up here. Look, he can’t cook for shit.”

 

Merle raised his hands. “I’m not getting into this.”

 

Taako shook his head before looking around. After a moment, his gaze settled on Barry.

 

“You. Barold. It’s bad soup, right?”

 

He raised an eyebrow. “I mean, it’s – it’s not bad .”

 

“But it’s not good , right? It’s not good soup!”

 

Barry shrugged. “It’s fine.”

 

Taako turned from him with a huff. “I swear to the gods, I’m traveling with animals. I’m right, you know!”

 

Barry snorted and went back to eating. The three of them bickered like wolves. He felt safe around them, though, comfortable enough to join their banter. It went on long into the night, and it picked right back up again in the morning.

 

It was only later that he’d realize that there, sitting around campfires, traveling and fighting in a group, was the happiest he’d felt in a very long while.

 

 

The flames spilled from Gundren’s body. Barry didn’t even have a chance to realize what was happening before they washed over him. Orange-gold, they leapt across his body. They blistered his flesh. He couldn’t move. He could barely think. His fingertips sloughed off into ash.

 

He should have been afraid. But the best he could muster in the moment was a deep, defeated sadness.

 

Body crumbling to the ground, the world went black.

 

And then he was back. Like a cloud, his entire being veined the space around him, shifting above black glass.

 

He’d found it. He’d found Lup’s relic, and she wasn’t there with it. And he’d seen his friends— three of them, at least. They were alive, but they were different . Magnus seemed sadder, Taako cold, Merle like he had less care. And they were going up to Lucreita’s fucking moon to do gods-knew-what. He’d lost his best lead at finding Lup. He couldn't keep his friends safe.

 

The world closed in around him.

 

He could just give up. He should just give up at this point, because there was nothing he could do. Because he’d just failed spectacularly, and now he had nothing left. Just give up, become an evil lich haunting the ruins of Phandalin, or whatever dead people did. Because he was already dead to the entire damned world— everyone had forgotten him, save for Lucreita, whose plan would kill everyone.

 

Sparks streamed off of him now, their light reflecting on the black glass. Bitterly, he considered going back ten years to tell his past self how this would all end. He’d been so fucking stupid to think he could do any of this alone.

 

But he couldn’t just leave his friends.

 

He remembered a moment from the 61st cycle, where he and Lup and Taako had been fighting against a group of mercenaries hired to protect the light. Lup had smiled at them and said they’d at least go down together. He smiled and nodded as she shot a fireball at the attackers. Reinforcements had come, and they'd died, but they hadn’t given up. They hadn’t abandoned each other, not once over the course of that long, lonely century. Going down fighting with tooth and claw.

 

Lup was—

 

Lup was gone. For the first time in a decade, he let himself admit that. She was either dead or somewhere he couldn’t find her. He’d tear the entire damned multiverse apart to find out what had happened to her, if he could get her back somehow, but right now, he had to focus on stopping the world from ending.

 

Barry had condensed into something more resembling a human now. He steeled himself, burying his grief and fear beneath memories of his family. He bent down, picked up the golden ring from the ground. It’d been enchanted against fire, and apparently that even included the Gauntlet.

 

He looked up to Lucreita’s moon.

 

Shaking his head, he drifted over the silent glass of Phandalin. He knew what he needed to do next.

 

 

It was over.

 

After over a century, they’d finally done it. The Hunger was gone. They could all live a normal life. Lup was back, and everyone’s memories were restored, and in the wake of all of it, Barry was able to just exist .

 

In a body with memories for the first time in a decade, Barry barely knew what to do with himself. It felt strange to have people look at him and recognize him. It was good, of course, but strange.

 

It felt like everything should be the same again, but— gods, it had all changed.

 

He should have been with the others, talking and celebrating, but he felt distant from it all. The others had lost memories, and Lup had been trapped in a fucking umbrella (and he hadn’t even noticed— gods, he was so stupid ). Lucretia had gone off to gods-knew-where, and that was probably for the best. He’d seen the way Taako looked at her after everything— like he’d never met anyone he hated more.

 

And Barry had spent most of the last decade sitting alone in a cave. He didn’t really know how to exist like this, especially not now, waiting for the Raven Queen’s hammer to drop. He sat at a table near the edge of the gathering. They’d all set up an impromptu party in a grassy field. People who Taako and Merle and Magnus had befriended gathered and met everyone. Strangers introduced themselves. The Starblaster crew laughed and sat together and told stories to everyone else. And Barry knew he’d be welcome to go over and join them, because he was their family. And he wanted to be there with them all.

 

The thing was, he didn’t really remember how .

 

He’d been alone for most of the decade. This— this large crowd of people who knew each other, who were getting to know each other— felt entirely foreign. He thought he might be able to handle a gathering if it was just the members of his family, but he didn’t know how to carry himself here.

 

He wished he could be like Lup. She seemed fully ready to dive into a party, even after being trapped in an umbrella for a decade. But he had to come to terms with the fact that he was Barry Bluejeans , and he wasn’t exactly good at this kind of thing. It didn’t come naturally to him.

 

“Hey, babe.”

 

Barry turned around. There was Lup, floating behind him, and gods , every time he saw her, he fell more in love. She was a ghost, sure, but she was here , and she was speaking to him , and–

 

Fuck, it barely felt real. He’d been trying not to be too clingy— she clearly had better things to do now that she was free than sit around with him— but it’d been an effort not to just spend the day right by her side.

 

Lup made a gesture like she was patting him on the shoulder, but she was still a ghost. Her hand just kind of passed through him. He choked out a laugh.

 

“Lup, this is the third time today you’ve tried to do that.” Barry looked past Lup to see Taako walking towards them, a fond smile on his face. “You’re shit at this whole ghost thing.”

 

“Well, excuse me for being ten years out of practice,” she shot back. Barry struggled to read Lup like this, without an actual face, but he thought he heard a note of strain in the words. Knowing that she was Lup , she was deflecting again, using humor to hide lingering fear and pain.

 

Taako rolled his eyes. Barry could read him easier— he was definitely deflecting. In true twin fashion, they’d both already taken to joking about this. He went up and grabbed Barry’s arm, pulling him to his feet. “Barold, my dude. Stop sulking by yourself. Killian brought snacks. Dav’s setting up a game of Fantasy Uno. Also, you’ve totally got to meet my boyfriend.”

 

“They’ve already adopted a kid,” Lup stage-whispered to him.

 

“We have not –”

 

“I’ve already met him, actually,” Barry said, cutting Taako’s protests off.

 

Taako raised an eyebrow. “You met the fucking grim reaper? Okay, actually, considering your whole deal, that makes sense, but–”

 

Lup laughed. “Gods, this is gonna be great.” She moved a bit closer to Barry. She did her best to take his hand, but that just ended up looking like her hand phasing through his. “He’s gonna be worried about us being a bad influence on your kid or something. And we’ll be the cool aunt and uncle— teaching Angus how to break and enter and, like, do death crimes and shit.”

 

“Oh, totally.”

 

And at the same time, Taako interjected, “He’s not our fucking kid , Lup! You’re not a cool aunt because you’re not an aunt at all!”

 

“Mm.” It was very clear that Lup was not convinced.

 

Taako huffed. Then, rolling his eyes, he made a show of turning around and walking towards the main gathering. Turning to look over his shoulder at them one last time, he said, “You’re only allowed to join me if you stop slandering my good name!”

 

“Just stating the facts, babe!” she called back. Then, turning to Barry, she asked, “Wanna go?”

 

He hesitated, hands wringing. Lup must’ve noticed, because quieter, she said, “We don’t have to.”

 

He shook his head. “It just- it feels strange .”

 

She nodded. “Yeah. I get that.”

 

But Barry could see his family over there, laughing and smiling. He heard the bubbling chatter rising from the crowd. He looked at Lup beside him— Lup, real — and the sun-stained grass.

 

“I want to try,” he said. That felt safe— he could try.

 

He could imagine the smile Lup would cast him. “Hell yeah, babe. Let’s go.”