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Was, Is, Will Be

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It's been way, way too long, and Merle supposes that, on some level, he's known as much for years. It's not that all this waiting was his fault—not really—he just hasn't exactly been too focused on keeping up with Taako or Magnus because, well, they could always catch up later. They could always talk to each other later. Merle is used to pushing things to later again and again because later never comes if you don't want it to.  

And he had to admit that, for some reason, he didn't want this later to come. But it's probably too late to back out, so he dresses himself nicely (before he remembers that neither of his dinner companions will give a shit, and then wastes a few minutes to make it look less like he cared about his appearance) and makes his way to his bar. 

It's a pretty nice bar, if Merle does say so himself. It's got good food, even if he's not sure he'll be able to stomach any of it. He's not nervous, per se. Maybe just a bit intimidated. 

Well, shit, not intimated; that sounds even lamer. He'll stick with nervous. 

He's nervous because he's not sure why he was invited to hang out, other than what he can only assume is a sense of obligation on Magnus's part.  

And Magnus...didn't sound great, even over Mavis's stone of farspeech. (He tries not to think about the fact that Mavis did a much better job of keeping in touch with others than he did.) And it was more than just the usual distortion—Magnus sounded different. He sounded old

It's hard to think about Magnus being old. Merle remembered when he turned 20, and then he was 30, and then 33, and now he was...what, 48? 

Merle pushes open the door of the bar and scans the room. He spots Taako easily—his hat stands out, and from there Merle recognizes the hair, the ears, the nose. He starts walking towards him and the table he's claimed before he notices the other man at the table. The other man sees him first. 

"Merle!" Magnus calls out. Merle blinks at him. It's obviously Magnus, but he looks so old. His hair, sideburns and beard included, are past the point of brown, or graying, or even gray; they're stark white. He has a hunch as he leans over the table. Yes, it's Magnus, and Merle is able to recognize him, but only after a solid few seconds of staring blankly at the strong, hairy, old human who was sitting across from Taako. But...he couldn't be past 50, right?  

Taako looks in the direction of Magnus's gaze gives Merle a half-hearted greeting by lifting two fingers off the glass he's holding. Taako's drinking some fancy cocktail, while Magnus has a beer and a plate of food in front of him.  

Merle pulls out a chair at their table and hops into it, not bothering to try to push himself forward. "Fellas," he greets. "How've you been?" And maybe it was a bit lackluster for their first time talking in decades, but it felt more appropriate than some saying something oddly sentimental.  

Magnus laughs. Merle notices that it's not a full-body laugh like it used to be. Instead, his shoulders just shake a bit. "I have reading glasses now," he says, and it comes out sounding very tired, and Merle suddenly feels very guilty. 

"Which you'd have known this time fifteen years ago if you could be bothered to pick up your goddamn phone," Taako says, leaning forward on the table and resting his chin in his hand. "Instead of making us call your daughter to talk to you." 

Merle feels very, very guilty.  

So he laughs. "You know how it is! Sometimes you just lose track of time. But it hasn't been that long."  

Magnus gives him a pained smile. "I just turned seventy-nine."  

Ah.  

"Ah," Merle repeats aloud. "Well, I'm gonna go get a drink." He hops out of his chair and walks quickly up to the bar, ordering without thinking about it.  

Magnus is—huh. Magnus is going to die. Probably soon. Though it's a very different "soon" than the one Merle was used to dealing with, the one that came with staring death in the face more often than not. Magnus wouldn't be dying because he did something stupid and Merle couldn't manage to heal him in time. No, Magnus would be dying because that's what humans do. They're born and they live for a little while and they die. Merle has had human friends—hell, has human friends. But this is ridiculous. Magnus was still young the last time they talked! 

And Merle feels guilty again. Because Magnus doesn't have—never could have had—Merle's later. Merle and Taako (mostly Taako) pretty much always have later, but Magnus doesn't. And Merle isn't sure if he forgot, or if he just never cared to think about it. Magnus is a human, and it's easier to remember that that means "no dark vision" than it is to remember that it also means "dies early for no reason." Except seventy-nine isn't early. It's elderly.  

He nods politely to the lady who gives him his drink. A human woman. Merle doesn't even try to guess how old she is. He knows he'll just somehow feel worse.  

By the time he sits back down, Magnus has finished his food.  

Taako scowls at the empty plate. "How can you even eat that? I could smell the salt on those potatoes. Whoever seasoned them should be fired." 

"Maybe," Magnus says, pushing the plate away, "you should get that culinary stick out of your ass." 

"Ooo, Grandpa's talking smack!" Taako says. "Who knew old people could be so hip?" 

Magnus shakes his head good-naturedly and silence falls around them. 

"So...what's up?" Merle asks.  

Taako levels him with an unimpressed look.  

Magnus looks tired. 

"I've been alright," Merle says. 

Taako sips his drink, disinterested. 

Well, alright, this is going about as well as Merle had pictured. He looks around the room. There are a few people around—not many, but enough that the idea Merle is getting would probably be considered a bad one. 

But he decides, with care and thoughtfulness, Fuck it. 

He takes a big gulp of his drink—rum?—and then reaches into his pocket, pulling out his bible and setting it in his lap. He breathes in.  

"I cast Zone of Truth." 

"What the fuck," Taako says immediately. 

Merle sits up straight, sliding his bible back into his pocket, letting himself fail. He feels Magnus choose to as well. And he feels Taako try unsuccessfully to through it off.  

"You create a magical zone that guards against deception in a 15-foot-radius—" he starts reciting.  

"We get it, goddamn," Taako interrupts. "Jesus, maybe, like, don't exposit like that unless it adds to the plot. We fucking know what your Zone does." He holds up one hand. "My macaroons are so amazing they've made people cry." And the other. "Zone of Truth makes people tell the fucking truth." He clasps them together. "We get it."  

Merle is, understandably, quite miffed. "It's just how I like to do things," he defends himself. 

Magnus sighs. "Can I ask why? None of us were lying. And now, like, half the people in this bar are gonna have an unpleasant surprise waiting for them if they try anything dishonest." 

"Honesty's never a bad thing!" Merle says cheerfully. 

"Ugh," Taako says. "Agree to disagree." 

There's a few second of silence, and then Taako opens his mouth again. 

"Sometimes I feel like I don't love Kravitz enough," Taako says. And then, "Fucking Christ. This is the fifth time this shit has happened. I need to tone it down with the non-sequiturs."

Magnus draws his eyebrows together. "I thought you did love Kravitz, unless I was like, completely misreading...like, that whole situation."  

Taako tips back his drink and leans back in his chair. "I do." 

Magnus looks like he might say something else, but Merle subtly holds up a hand at him. 

Taako downs the rest of his drink and then says, "But not enough. He deserves—fuck, I'm not sure how much he deserves because he deserves a whole fucking lot, and how the fuck am I supposed to give him that? How do I keep him thinking that I'm worth his time?" Taako sighs. "This is my fifth drink."  

Magnus, bless his heart, looks stumped by Taako's pseudo-outburst. Merle figures the kid (he might be an old-ass man, but he's still a kid) can't even imagine being in a relationship that isn't build on undying, unwavering devotion and love. But Merle can. 

"You don't," he says in response to Taako, who raises an unimpressed eyebrow at him. "I mean, you don't 'keep him thinking' what the hell ever you're tryin' to get him to think. Doesn't he like you?" 

Merle sees Taako sit up a bit straighter. "Of course he does. He loves me. Obviously. He's lucky to have me as his boyfriend when half the time he's gone and it's a wonder he hasn't died yet with the shit he puts himself through. But he still deserves a lot." 

"Sounds like you give him a lot," Magnus says. "It sounds like you two really care about each other. Why are you so worried?" 

Taako makes a face like he just bit into something disgusting, like rotten fruit or Merle's cooking. "I'm not worried, you dunce. It's just that—that sometimes I feel like I'm not enough." 

And Merle can't help it—he laughs. Not his finest moment, but it was practically pulled out of him. It's just so ridiculous to hear those words coming out of Taako's mouth. "Buddy," he says to the vitriolic look he's receiving, "you're never gonna feel like enough. That's what being in love does to you." He gestures vaguely with his glass. "You love someone, and you wonder, how can I match you? Sometimes that feeling is justified—rarely, but sometimes—but most of the time, it's just dumb. I think Kravitz is a fine dude, don't get me wrong, but he's not, say, an all-encompassing world-ender who's probably smarter than every living person you know combined. Not like I, or anyone, could match that. But listen—you can be and are enough for Mister Grim Reaper. He's totally in your league."  

And then it's quiet, so Merle drinks and drinks until he's finished his glass. He thumps it against the table and burps loudly. He doesn't bother looking around him. 

"I was talking about romantically," Taako says as though he's talking to a five-year-old. 

He does that sometimes, and Merle's grown used to it, but this time he scoffs, a bit put-out that Taako apparently missed something. "Me too, pal."  

Taako is frowning, and then Magnus is too, and neither of them seem to want to say anything else.  

Merle looks at the lines on Magnus's face. He's covered in wrinkles and scars, but the most prominent ones are laugh lines. Merle thinks that's rather admirable. 

As Merle's watching him, Magnus says, "You thought you were out of—of the Hunger's league? Is that what I'm getting here? Am I losing brain power?"  

Taako scowls. "That's obviously not what he meant," he says.  

...At the same time that Merle says, "Obviously, that's what I said." 

Merle orders another drink while Taako appears to be going through the five stages of grief in his peripheral vision.  

"Merle." Taako's voice is even and measured. "What's your biggest regret about saving, y'know, the whole fucking world?" 

"That I didn't." Maybe a little bit too bitter—he tries again. "That I could have done more to save everyone and I didn't." Not much better. Shit. 

"Who didn't you save?" Taako asks, likes he's a fucking detective. 

"John." Merle's voice falls flat on the name. It could have been said with so many emotions, but it wears him out just thinking about trying to dredge all of them up.  

"Idiot," Taako says, which Merle takes an odd sort of comfort in. "You couldn't have saved that nihilistic, emo piece of shit. He was past saving. And what do you mean he was out of your league." For some reason, his last sentence has the most urgency in it. 

Merle frowns. "Look, I know you guys never talked to him, but you—you know what he was like, right? More than amazing! He was an ass, sure, but a brilliant ass. He was practically everything, and, yeah, it pissed me off. I wish he coulda learned to listen to others with the same enthusiasm he has for listening to himself. But still—nothing could've matched him. 'Specially not me." He nods at the waitress who brought him another glass, then tips it in Taako's direction. "But you've got nothing to worry about with Kravitz." 

Merle admits to himself that his whole spiel sorta got away from him there. It was a bit more than he would have felt comfortable sharing normally, but he also couldn't take it back or pretend like it wasn't true. For some reason, talking about real feelings (emotional, weird feelings) instead of superficial feelings (sexual or face-value feelings) was a lot harder to do. (And it's not that those feelings were harder to feel; just a bit harder to find the words for sometimes.) 

"So you—" Magnus begins, but Taako interrupts him. 

"Yeah, and I'm sure it sucks that the harbinger of the fucking apocalypse can't be your BFF, but try to focus on my issue, Merle," he says, crossing his arms and legs in one fluid motion.  

"I'm relating my experiences to your issue," Merle says shortly. "Kill a guy for trying to help, what don't you."  

Taako looks even more confused by that, but covers it with annoyance.  

Magnus, on the other hand, shifts his weight in his chair like he just realized something important. "When was the last time you talked to him?" he asks haltingly. 

Merle wonders if Magnus thinks he has John secretly stashed away somewhere, nursing him back to health until he can start eating worlds again. (The idea isn't wholly unappealing.) "Talked? It's...it was before shit went all to shit. But I saw him—really him, not the Hunger—when...well, when we were finally fighting the Hunger. There was—" Merle falters. He can't find the words, but the other two are silent as he tries to recount what happened. "There was a moment when I saw him. And we sat together. On a beach. And it felt like—like a damn long time, but it couldn't've been that long. Maybe just a few minutes."  

"And—and what did you—do?" Magnus looks hesitant to even ask the question. (He's somehow even easier to read, now that he's old. The wrinkles on his face crease and flatten like they're trying to make his feelings as outwardly visible as possible.) 

"Just sat." Merle shrugs. "What? Not like I could have kissed him then. I'd lost my chance." 

Taako starts sputtering and running both hands through his hair. 

Magnus frowns. "Why would you have kissed him at all?" He sounds like he knows the answer, but also like he couldn't be more confused. 

Merle's face is red because of alcohol, and he will never accept any other explanation for why his cheeks feel hot. "Well, Magnus, when two people like each other very much—" 

He's interrupted by two equally amazed outbursts. 

"You had a thing for the Hunger?!" Magnus looks floored. 

"You're queer?!" Taako, alternatively, looks pissed. "Since fucking when? Why didn't I know that?!"  

Merle holds up his hands. "You never asked!" he says, which is true. "And I was just trying to help by offering, you know, some of my elderly wisdom!" 

"Screw that conversation topic," Taako says. "I need to know why I apparently didn't know that the old dude I've been traveling with is gay." He blinks. "Bi?" 

"Pan." 

"Fuck," Taako huffs, staring at his empty glass with a frown on his face.  

"But...." Magnus, while not as riled as Taako is, is still a bit stunned. "How? When? Why?" 

Merle answers the last question. It's the easiest to tackle because it's the one he thinks about the most. "He was amazing, and I'll spout that till the day I die," he says, not looking at the other two, "but he was also a self-centered asshole and I'll spout that till after I die." He gestures helplessly. "Besides, what could I have done? Gotten kicked off the ship for mackin' on the enemy? What would you have told me to do?" 

Magnus gives him a kind look. "I know it must have been hard, but you did do the right thing, Merle. By sticking with us." 

Taako hits the table. "Fuck loyalty!" he nearly yells. "I'd have told you to get some of that eldritch dick!" 

"Not everyone likes eldritch dick, Taako!" Magnus says, just as loudly, as though this is a conversation they've had before.  

Merle supposes this situation would be a lot more awkward if not for the fact that most of the tables around them had been fairly rambunctious this whole time; a side-effect of accidental truths was long conversations, Merle knew. Like the one he's currently engaged in.  

He watches Taako and Magnus go back and forth, before Magnus waves Taako off, looking tired. He looks like an ageing father who can't keep up with his kids anymore.  

Finally, Magnus shakes his head. "In my seniority—" 

"Piss off," Taako says. 

"Shut up," Merle mutters. 

"—I've learned to look back on life with an open mind," he continues, not letting either interruption through him off. "And with an open heart, I suppose. Merle, sorry you didn't get to kiss the Hunger, I guess. Taako, have fun continuing to kiss the Grim Reaper." 

"I—" I'm over it, is what he tries to say. What comes out is, "I miss him." 

Taako sticks out his tongue. "Surprisingly, your weird crushes somehow manage to be more gross when it's a dude. It's like you're infecting my gayness with your old man hands." 

Merle scoffs. "I'm pretty sure you're older than I am."  

"Yeah, duh, but you're an old man. I'm cute." Taako flips his braid over his shoulder as if to emphasize that fact. 

Merle catches Magnus watching the two of them with a sad smile.  

He changes the subject and asks about Lucretia, Lup, Barry, and Davenport. He feels Zone of Truth wear off at some point while Taako is telling him about a prank he and Lup had pulled on Angus (who is apparently an adult, which is so disorienting that Merle decides not to think about it). It's a relief for him as much as it is for the other two. 

They part ways with Taako physically making sure Merle's stone of farspeech is turned on and inside his pocket. 

The next time Merle gets a call, it's from Lucretia. She sounds so frail he doesn't recognize her until she says her name. 

She tells him that Magnus is going to be passing soon.  


Afterwards, Merle manages to keep in touch with Taako. Their conversations are more stilted, more awkward, but Merle has to admit that it's nice to hear from him, and the others.  

It's nice to talk to people.