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A Candlenights Carol

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When Taako finally gets home from the school late Candlenights Eve, the house is dark save for a solitary light glowing atop the stairwell.

He hadn't meant to stay out so late. The budget meeting was supposed to end at seven P.M, but one mishap rolled into another and the clock read well past ten as he shut and double-bolted the door behind him. It’s an annoying inconvenience, sure, but nothing that’s majorly impacted his plans for tonight. Kravitz has been away for the past few days, his sister and Barry are off on a brief mission, and while it’s their turn to host Angus (all of the Seven, plus some of the Bureau members, see him as their son; he’s stayed at everyone’s house at some point), the kid got home from school hours ago -

Wait, shit. He was supposed to make dinner for Angus.

A surge of panic runs through him. Taako turns to the stairwell with a jolt and makes his way up before knocking softly on the guest room door. “I’m so sorry I’m late, pumpkin. Can I come in?”

From within, he hears a book being leafed through and then shut. “It's okay, sir. And yeah.”

Taako cracks open the door and enters the room. Inside is a desk and a chair, the latter of which creaks as Angus swivels around to face him, with a pen behind his ear and holding in his lap a math textbook bigger than his head. Gods, he doesn't know how the kid does it, he's going to graduate high school years early while Taako stopped giving a shit about math decades ago. “How was work?”

“S’okay. Work is work. Just learned that some of the people managing our annual budget are complete fuckin’ buffoons, and that's why my meeting ran so long.” He clears his throat. “I'm really sorry I wasn't here to make dinner. You have anything to eat tonight?”

“Don't worry about it, there were plenty of leftovers from yesterday.” Taako is suddenly aware of the fact that he routinely makes enough food to feed a family of nine, and that he’s taught Angus everything he knows about cooking. Even so, he feels like a major jerk.

“Still, want me to whip up something for ya? Some hot chocolate, maybe?” Angus’s eyes light up at the mention of hot chocolate, and Taako feels forgiven.

Taako clomps down the stairs and into the kitchen in his five-inch heels, Angus trotting behind. The kid parks himself at the table, math homework in hand, while Taako clatters around the cabinet in search of a saucepan. They make small talk as he works, Angus complaining about an argument with his Principles of Magic teacher (who, from Angus’ explanation, doesn't know shit).

“Are you sure you don't want to come to the party tomorrow, sir?” Angus asks suddenly. Taako freezes mid-stir before turning his attention back to the stovetop. He's referring to the Bureau-slash-IPRE Candlenights get-together at Killian and Carey’s place tomorrow, which he is one hundo percent not going to show his face at, despite Angus’ repeated insistence.

“Once again. No way, compadre.”

“But you can just come with me when Magnus takes me, he said he’d want you to be there! And there’ll be presents, and baked goods, and that sort of thing! And you don't have to stay for very long at all-”

Taako throws up his hands. “I don't have gifts for anyone, what do you want me to do? And besides, it'd be hella awkward - if you think for one fucking second that I’ll be able to get within a five mile radius of miss Madame Director without wanting to punch her in her stupid teeth, you must be outta your mind.” Angus briefly winces at that and opens his mouth to speak, but Taako continues.

“Last time I went to a Candlenights party, it was held by the people that killed my sister, gave me hardcore amnesia, and then nearly killed me later that night. Y’all can celebrate however, but let me celebrate how I damn well please.” He’s finished the cocoa by now; he pours it into two mugs and places them on the countertop.

At that, Angus stands up, sharply pushes in his chair, and faces him with an expression of desperation. “But you're not going to celebrate it, I know you! You're just going to sit here and do paperwork and rewatch all the fantasy Home Alone movies, without anyone to keep you company, and feel sorry for yourself, probably!”

On the one hand, the kid’s fairly correct. On the other hand, he'd rather wallow in self-pity and holiday reruns than go make awkward small talk with people he has known and loved for a century, pretending that everything is okay, that it hasn’t been only a few months since the Story and the Song, that the last twelve years weren't complete shit, that Lucretia hadn't taken everything from them. Taako likes to run from his emotions, and that shit just don't fly.

Angus continues. “If you don’t care, that’s one thing. But there are a lot of people that care about you, and are worried about you, and they’re going to be even more worried about you if you don’t come. Please?”

Taako just stares him down. They’ve been through this tons before, and the answer is still no.

After a few seconds, Angus drops his gaze. He gets up, slowly walks over, and wraps his arms around Taako in a brief, tight hug. Then he collects his books and a polka-dotted mug of hot chocolate and makes his way up the stairs, giving Taako one last pleading look before shutting the door to his room.

Welp, so much for that. Taako cleans off the saucepan and stovetop, puts away his ingredients, and shuts off the kitchen light. He feels bad about upsetting Angus, but not bad enough to agree to go to the party.

He’s walking down the hall to his bedroom when he hears a knock at the door. It’s too dark to see the person on the other side, so Taako grips his wand, then undoes the lock and tentatively opens it.

“Hello, can we interest you in joining the church of-”

He slams the door. Goddamn fantasy Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Taako’s exhausted. He dresses in his finest “ASK ME ABOUT MY GAY AGENDA” shirt and booty shorts, slathers on a purple face mask, and flops into bed with exceptional poise and grace. For some reason, he can’t quite get to sleep, so he tosses and turns for some time until roused by the sound of, strangely enough, a grandfather clock’s chime.

Taako doesn’t own a grandfather clock, and his Stone of Farspeech ringtone is set to fantasy Carly Rae Jepsen. He blindly grasps at the source of the noise until he hears a string of surprised expletives in a woman’s voice emanating from the corner of his room, and looks up to see the one person he really does not fucking want to see right now, or ever, thank you very much.

“Get the fuck out of my house, Lucretia,” he says. “How in the hell did you even get in here? You’re abjuration, there’s no way you could’ve teleported.”

“In life I was your boss, Lucretia,” she says, ignoring everything he just said. Upon closer inspection, she’s in a nightgown, and is clutching an open bottle of what appears to be Riesling. She stops for a second, as if to catch her breath, then recoils. “Wait, why- why’d I just say that? Why’m I in your house? And, like, wasn’t I your coworker for way longer than I was your superior, what- what the hell is up with that-”

Taako cuts her off with an eye-roll and a brief wave of his hand. “No idea why any of this is happening, but say your fuckin’ spiel and get out. Taako needs his beauty sleep.” He realizes that the air around his bed now reeks of the bottle in her hand. “Also, I’m pretty sure you aren’t dead yet?”

“Oh! Shit, yeah, I definitely remember now,” Lucretia says, ignoring him once more. “Something about your metaphorical chains being forged with selfish acts. Along with mine, I guess. Yeah, I’m- I’m really the wrong person to,” she pauses, "be delivering this message. Uh, you’re gonna be haunted by three spirits, I guess? To avoid the path I tread. First spirit’ll be tonight at one?”

She pauses, as if to mull something over. “That’s about it, I think. And f-for the record, I really am sorry about everything. I mean, I pretty much had to do all of it, or else we’d all be dying horrible, excruciating deaths, but I never meant to hurt you so much in do-”

“Yeah, yeah. Bye now,” Taako says, because it is eleven P.M. and he is so not willing to deal with this emotional baggage right now. Lucretia sighs, and with a dramatic puff of smoke, she is gone once more.

Taako, who could honestly care less, quickly drops off into blissful sleep.

--------

He awakens to yet another grandfather-clock chime and an orange light shining rudely into his eyes.

Quite frankly done with random people teleporting into his room in the dead of night, Taako rolls over and tries to go back to sleep until the orange light leans in and slaps him squarely across the face with one tendril. “Wake up, dumbass,” it says.

He blearily focuses on the ceiling above him to see none other than Lup, in all her lich-y, spectral glory.

“‘Sup,” he says, equal parts overjoyed that his sister apparently finished her mission early and pissed about having been woken up at one in the morning. “How’d it go? Where’s Barry?”

“I am the ghost of Candlenights Past,” she says, and seriously, what is up with people ignoring him and spouting cryptic ghost shit. “And, to be honest, I’ve got no idea. The bounty’s still a thing that’s happening right now. I was tryin’ to reap some guy’s ass, and then I blinked, and now I’m here.”

“Cool,” he says, because he’s become resigned to the fact that fate no longer cares what Taako wants. “So what are you supposed to be doing?”

“Showing you your past Candlenights, eejit.” Honestly, what was he expecting? Lup looks down at herself, then back to him. “Take my hand,” she commands, and reaches out to him one flaming silhouette of an arm that casts shadows against the wall.

Taako does so, and the scene around him changes - from a bedroom to a forest at dusk. Looking up, the sky is not blue or black but a muted violet, and he can see twin suns peeking out from above the treetops and descending towards the horizon.

They’ve entered a bustling campsite; people load and unload wagons around them, squabbling and engaging in friendly banter. Taako almost crashes into one halfling man carrying a stack of crates, then yelps ungracefully as he passes clean through him. “Don’t worry, this shit’s already dead and gone, none of these guys can see or hear us,” Lup reassures.

They walk towards the camp’s outskirts, and behind a wagon of rations, Taako sees what they’d obviously come here to find: two scraggly, bone-thin elf kids warming themselves over a tiny fire. “Hey, it’s baby us!”

The boy produces from his satchel a short length of copper wire while the girl watches, transfixed. There is an incantation, and a flash of light, and suddenly the wire in his hands is no longer a wire but instead a beautiful golden necklace. He puts it around the neck of the girl, who shrieks with joy - and then turns to stunned silence as, after a few seconds, it crumbles into grey dust that collects in her lap.

Lup watches her younger self bemusedly. “Aww, that’s freakin’ adorable. Baby’s first transmutation spell.”

“Yeah, this is kind of depressing,” Taako counters. “Can we move on yet?”

Lup gives him a thumbs up, and suddenly they’re on the deck of the Starblaster, standing among the crew as the ship putters through space. Magnus is holding out an oddly shaped wrapped gift to a younger Lup. She unwraps it, and grins like a child as she discovers it to be a double-barrelled flamethrower.

Magnus is elated at her expression. “I mean, I know you normally do this kind of thing with your magic, but I saw this at a marketplace in cycle fourteen and thought it was right up your alley, and-” Lup has ignited her new toy before Magnus can finish his sentence, misaiming and in the process accidentally setting Magnus’ pants on fire. Taako can’t help but laugh.

Time seems to speed up around them as the crew hunts for a fire extinguisher (because
somebody threw out the old one to make more counter space for cooking, really, Taako), then speeds up even further to become a sort of montage of shipboard Candlenights celebration over the years.

And suddenly the ship is gone, and they’re standing in a dingy motel room on the outskirts of Neverwinter. The overhead light flickers, illuminating an older and very hungover Taako sprawled out on the small bed. He is devoid of possessions save for one small bag at the foot of his bed, and the complete absence of cooking paraphernalia within it makes current Taako aware of the fact that this is well past Glamor Springs, well past Sazed. The scene gives him a headache just to look at.

“I take it back,” he says, breaking his and Lup’s tentative silence. “This one is, like, even more mega depressing. I remember a few good bars around here. Wanna go get smashed instead?”
“Yeah, this is probably enough backstory-related angst for one night. I’d love to,” Lup replies, a smile on her face.

--------

When Taako awakens for the second time, he is made aware of two things: one, that he got back to his bedroom somehow after his and Lup’s pub crawl, and two, that he has absolutely no hangover despite having consumed enough alcohol to kill a horse. Unlike the light show he was privy to when Lup woke him up, the room is pitch black.

“Can I use your printer?” someone asks from amidst the gloom.

Taako squints, and finds Barry Bluejeans sitting on the edge of his bed. He’s clad in his usual black denim robe with blue jeans underneath, and is staring at Taako with a tilted head and inquisitive expression.

“What?” asks Taako, pushing himself into a sitting position against his headboard.

“Can I please use your printer,” Barry repeats.

“I mean, sure, but why?”

“I need to print out some Candlenights coupons.”

“Oh. Okay. Wait, are you haunting me like Lup was, or did you just spontaneously appear in my house for a reason other than teaching me the true meaning of Candlenights?”

“Oh! Right. I’m the ghost of Candlenights Present.”

Taako massages his temples. “Figured as much, my guy.”

Barry gets up and walks into the living room, shutting the bedroom door quietly behind him. Taako tries in vain to go back to sleep, but fails as he is assaulted by a cacophony of obnoxious printing noises that seem to go on forever, but in actuality only last a minute or two. At last, Barry returns victoriously, several papers in tow, and offers out one hand to him. Taako reluctantly accepts; this is his life now, he might as well get used to it.

With his other hand, Barry summons his scythe and rips a hole in the fabric of reality, beckoning Taako to step through before doing so himself. Taako follows him, and after his eyes adjust to the newly fluorescent light from overhead, finds himself and Barry in the reception area of a fantasy IHOP.

“Oh, hey, you guys! Barry, you didn’t tell me you were bringing him!” Taako turns towards the source of the voice, and there is Magnus, sitting at the far booth and beckoning them both excitedly over.

He and Barry sit down at the booth across from him. As a waitress comes around to take their order, Taako asks, “So, like, is there any point to us being here? Is there some lesson I’m supposed to be learning from eating pancakes at two in the morning, or was this just a you thing?”

A beat. “...Yeah, this was really just a me thing,” Barry replies. “I found this sweet coupon for 10 gold off any two short stacks of pancakes on Candlenights day, and if I have to haunt your ass anyway, I might as well go beat the crowds on what will definitely be a, a coveted deal.” He fishes an ice cube out of his water and eats it. “And this is technically a present-day Candlenights festivity, so I’m not breaking any of the rules that Ist-”

“That who now?”

“-sorry, that were laid out.”

Considering that it’s two in the morning and they’re the only party in the restaurant save for two teenagers in the back who seem more interested in making out than in ordering their food, their meal is delivered fairly quickly. As they finish eating, Magnus broaches the topic of the party through a mouthful of syrup and red velvet pancake.

“Please? Look, I get it. You’re still salty about everything that happened, but all of us really want you to be there. Besides, it wouldn’t be the same without-” Magnus chokes on a bite of pancake, at which Barry helpfully reaches over the table to administer the Heimlich maneuver. “-without your cooking.”

Taako considers for a moment. “Look, if you wanna see my pretty face that bad, just come over later. Angus n’ Lup n’ Barry will already be around, we could make it a sweet after-party or something. But I’d really rather not go.”

He doesn’t have any gold with him, considering how he was so rudely awakened, so Taako assumes Barry brought enough with him to pay for both of their food. To avoid the current topic of conversation, he scooches out of the booth and steps outside, planning to teleport back to the house - but stops when he sees on the corner outside a man dragging his feet as he walks three bouncing Pomeranians.

Taako kicks open the restaurant door and tactfully yells, “Holy fuck, Magnus, there’s dogs out here!”

Magnus rushes out and is at his side in an instant; Taako can hear a loud clatter behind him as, presumably, a table or two is knocked to the ground. Kneeling on the ground, Magnus fervently pets each dog and asks the owner a thousand questions (this one’s name is Ellie, he works at a kennel and the dogs all woke each other up at the crack of dawn, that big one’s name is Schnitters, she’s five years old, no, Magnus cannot adopt Schnitters right here on this street corner.)

After the ninth question, Taako has to physically pull Magnus back to give the dog-walker some breathing room, though not before petting one of them on the head as it jumps on him. “Happy Candlenights to the both of you,” the man says as he and his dogs walk on down the street.

Barry has paid the bill and come out to stand with them by now, scythe in hand. Taako briefly considers the contextless absurdity of a man dressed in all multicolored denim and holding a giant wrought-iron scythe standing in a fantasy IHOP doorway at two A.M. before turning to face him.

“Yeah, I heard about this thing on short notice, I really don’t have anything else planned. Do you wanna go back home, or?” Barry asks.

Taako is fine with that. Barry opens a rift in a cardboard cutout of a plate of bacon and eggs, and Taako high-fives Magnus (getting dog fur all over his top in the process) before stepping through.

The other side of the rift turns out to be connected to his bedroom ceiling, and he falls onto the bed with a thud, rolling over and going back to sleep nearly instantaneously.

--------

When he awakens again, this time to three grandfather-clock chimes, there’s a figure sitting in the armchair next to his bed. Upon closer inspection, it’s Kravitz in his spooky scary skeleton form, idly reading a book.

If he’s also in on this Candlenights prank, it makes sense that it’s him - of course the three “ghosts of Candlenights” would be his family members who are literally undead. Seeming as he hasn’t seemed to notice that his boyfriend is awake yet, Taako rolls out of bed, sneaks behind Kravitz, and presses his warm hands against his neck.

Kravitz jumps, dropping his book onto the floor, and shifts back into his human face. “Oh, you’re finally up. I’m the ghost of Candlenights yet to Come. There was some paperwork that was taking way too long, about some annoying, uh, interlinked necromantic cults, but I’m finished now, thank the Queen. How’s your week been?”

“Eh, decent. Better now that you’re here, babe,” Taako says, sitting down cross-legged on the edge of the bed. “You gonna be home today?”

“Yes, I believe so,” Kravitz responds, tactfully not mentioning the party.

“Wait, isn’t there some moral you’re supposed to be teaching me? Super glad you’re home, but the clock’s ticking, bone boy. Going back to sleep in ten and taking you with me.”

“I think I’m supposed to show you your Candlenights in the future? And, uh,” he pauses to look at some writing in black marker on his palm, “show you your death? Well, that’s a little morbid for something that’s supposed to inspire holiday cheer-”

“And pretty stupid,” Taako interjects. “Half my family is undead, and I’m chill enough with your boss that she wouldn’t care about letting me hang out with the other half. And on top of that, I’m an elf, I’ve got another five hundred years to be alive and kicking before I become a reaper like you guys.”

“...That’s fair,” Kravitz concedes.

“Who put you guys up to doing all this, anyhow?”

“I’m not supposed to tell you, but it was totally Istus. She and the Raven Queen think you’re, and I quote, ‘a sad sack with no holiday spirit’, and, they wanted to, I don’t know, send you on a journey of personal growth or something?”

“Listen,” Taako says, jabbing one finger up into the air. “You can tell your mom-”

“-she is not my mom, Taako, please, she is the goddess of death-”

“-your bird mom and her girlfriend that Taako don’t do character development, and that I’m fine doing Candlenights the way I want, thank you very much. Still glad you’re here, though.”

“Yeah, you’re right. I’m sorry,” Kravitz says after a few seconds.

“It’s cool,” Taako says, and takes one of his icy hands in his own. “So.” Wanting to continue the conversation now that Kravitz is home for the first time in a week, but not finding any good topics to continue onto, his eyes wander the room and eventually settle on a board game strewn atop a dresser. “Wanna play Scrabble?”

They do in fact end up playing Scrabble, out on the coffee table in the living room. Kravitz is thirty points ahead when there is a creak from atop the stairs and tiny footsteps come down it and towards them.

“Hello, Kravitz, sir. We didn’t know you’d be home so early,” says Angus. He eyes the board. “Am I allowed to play?”

Before Kravitz can open his mouth to speak, presumably to expound upon how children shouldn’t be up at three in the morning, Taako replies, “On one condition, bubbeleh. Go get that dictionary of yours and help me prove to this guy that ‘Fergalicious’ is a valid word, and you’re in.” He gives Angus a wink as the kid rushes back upstairs to go fetch it.

Angus, to nobody’s surprise, kicks both of their asses despite having started midway through the game. Then, suddenly, he drops the question that Taako’s been avoiding this whole night, via an obviously-pantomimed whisper in Kravitz’s direction. “Mister Kravitz? I really, really want Taako to go to the Bureau Candlenights party with me and Magnus, but he keeps telling me no. If you asked him, would he say yes?”

Kravitz sighs and rests his head in one hand, clearly having been put in an uncomfortable position, then turns to Taako. “I really didn’t want to jump on the bandwagon here, but I think Angus is right.” Traitorous bastard. “If Lup and I are there to keep you company, and we only stay for a bit, do you think you’d be alright with going? I know you’re not very into it, but Angus would be upset if you weren’t there. So would everyone else, to be fair. And you don’t have to bring presents, or talk to Lucretia, or do anything you don’t want to do-”

Taako decides that at this point, continuing to be stubborn would take way more effort than giving in. He pulls Kravitz in and kisses him (for just a moment, because there’s an inquisitive eleven-year-old in the room) before he can get another word in, then flops dramatically onto the sofa with a long sigh.

“Fine,” he says, drawing out the ‘i’ and rolling it across his tongue. “I’ll go. But don’t expect me to have fun or anything.”

Angus’s face lights up, and he runs up to Taako and hugs him, pressing him against the backrest, with a string of excited thank you’s. From the looks of it, Angus only came down here to ask him that, so he feels like he’s done a good deed for once.

After the game is finished, Kravitz puts the pieces away while Taako carries a very sleepy Angus and his dictionary back up to his room. “You better sleep in as late as you want tomorrow,” he warns, kissing Angus on the forehead before turning off the light, putting the book on the desk, and closing the door softly.

He falls asleep on the living room couch in Kravitz’s arms, a throw blanket pulled over the both of them. His last thought before passing out: if he’s gonna really go to this party, he has to be as extra about it as physically possible.

--------

As Angus descends the stairs late Candlenights morning, he’s enveloped in the delicious scent of warm baked goods. He walks into the kitchen, still not entirely convinced that he didn’t just dream up Taako’s agreement to go with him, to find every surface covered with cooling cookie trays of countless varieties. More still are in the oven; by his estimate, there’s over two hundred cookies in total. In the center of the chaos stands Taako, wearing a flour-dusted apron over an electric blue slip dress and somehow not tripping in ten-inch heels. He only wears his ten-inch heels when he's really set his mind to something, Angus thinks.

“...Taako, sir? What are you doing?” he asks.

“Making Candlenights presents, of course! Not one person will escape this shindig without a complete Taako TM gift basket.” Taako claps his hands together and strolls over to one counter, where he's mixing batter for what Angus thinks are rainbow cookies in three separate bowls.

“Magnus is coming in a few hours, I think. Are you sure you'll have time to finish all of this?” he asks.

Angus moves from the doorway to let Kravitz into the kitchen, who is carrying armfuls of tissue paper and ribbon with a beleaguered yet amused expression. “Don't even get him started. I asked him the same thing earlier - he'd rather die than show up to that party without a gift he deems appropriate,” Kravitz says as he deposits his loot on the kitchen table.

“You're damn right!” Taako interjects. “Of course it’ll all be done. This is going to be the most stylish event of the year when I’m done with it, let me tell you. C’mon, Django, help me stir this.”

Angus, grinning from ear to ear, takes the stirring spoon from Taako’s hands.