"So, let me get this straight," the reaper says, scythe held flush against Kravitz's neck. A trickle of blood drips down toward his collar. Kravitz swallows shallowly. "You picked up a suit, and the suit happened to be a lich, and the lich wouldn’t let you go , so you just rolled with it?"
"His name is Keats," Kravitz says. "And. Er. Sort of?"
Keats remains silent. This is, as they say, the nightmare scenario.
The reaper sighs. He was having a perfectly nice day. He’d broken up a necromantic cult on the verge of their first revival. He’d filled out some paperwork back at base. And then he ran into this guy.
"Sorry?" Kravitz says. "Um. Technically I didn't do anything wrong?"
Jin pinches the space between his eyebrows. He hates it when he gets the weird cases.
"We're taking this to the boss."
"So," the Raven Queen says, imbuing the single syllable with the unimpressed poignancy only a goddess can give. " So."
"This isn't my fault," Jin says. "This is, I need to point out, not my fault. Not like the flood incident."
"It's not my fault either," Kravitz is quick to add. "I've never practiced necromancy, not in my entire life."
Despite the handcuffs clamped around his wrists and the scythe pressing at his back, he's poised and his hands do not tremble, as if kept still by some invisible force. His suit is impeccably cut and cleaner than it should be after the battle with the reaper. The cloth is black as midnight — no cliche, it seems to physically absorb the dim light illuminating the astral plane.
"You're wearing a phylactery right now," Jin says. "You're guilty of something. "
"He's not a necromancer," Keats says, briefly overshadowing Kravitz's body to shape the words in his mouth. The accent changes, his stance changes. A different man in the same body. "And I never meant to be stuck in a suit."
"Doesn't keep you from staying here," Kravitz snaps, snatching back his mouth. "I borrowed the suit, didn't know he was in there."
" Stole ," Keats says, taking over again. "He stole me. Also, this isn't my fault either."
"Well," Jin says, drawing out the word. "Whose fault is it then? If it isn't you , and it isn't him, then someone must have stuffed your soul into that fancy straitjacket."
Kravitz's body slumps as Keats sighs. He shrugs, the shrug of a man who has been subject to the whims of fate one too many time. Fate, in this case, meaning his family.
"My siblings are assholes," Keats says darkly. "I love them, but they’ve got terrible ideas . "
"You've explained absolutely nothing, lich ," Jin says, jerking the scythe just a little too close to comfort.
Keats flinches — can't slice the suit. His immortal soul is stitched into the fabric.
Jin looks back up at the Raven Queen. "My Lady?" he asks plaintively. This is too far above his pay grade. Her shoulders are shaking. Jin frowns, wondering whether she's having some sort of fit, if goddesses can even have fits — and then his eyebrows shoot up. She's laughing.
The Raven Queen leans forward on her shadowglass throne.
Keats lets Kravitz take this one. Keats likes to think he was a brave man while he was alive. He's earned some cowardice in his undeath.
Without Keats' influence, Kravitz is unable to keep himself from shaking. "Um. M-my Lady?" he says, and there's no trace of an accent tripping over his lips.
The Raven Queen smiles. It is terrible. All goddess's smiles are terrible. Divine amusement is as damning as divine retribution. Kravitz would like someone to take over his body just about now, but Keats is, as ever, unobliging.
"Community service," the Raven Queen says, and her voice has the weight of chains, a decree — a sentencing.
All reapers are bounty hunters. All reapers are paying off debts. All reapers have contracts and are counting down the days until they’re completed, champing at the bit, salivating at the idea of salvation. Some of them have committed heinous crimes. Others are victims of circumstance.
Kravitz and Keats have a joint contract. Six thousand, six hundred, sixty six years of service, bound together as man-and-cloth. No construct body for Keats, not ‘til his time is up. No freedom from formal wear for Kravitz. A small eternity of reaping with a built-in partner.
The Raven Queen’s idea of a joke. “Teamwork is important,” she said, and no one dared ask if it was in jest.
Kravitz is very tired. Kravitz has been very tired for the past three months, ever since he met Keats and Keats decided that Kravitz would do, for a host, as Kravitz pulled on his pants and buttoned his shirt. It was very cold and Kravitz was in a hurry. As he slipped on the jacket, Kravitz found that his hands were not following his instructions and there was another voice in his head. Keats had turned his head, looked in the mirror, and said, using Kravitz’s tongue, “Well, at least you’re handsome.”
Then Keats had frowned at the tie he was holding and said “ Hey, could you get this ?” and Kravitz had his hands again, but when he tried to rip his jacket off, control was snatched back — and Keats thought-spoke don’t think you’re getting away that easily , malevolence undercut by desperation.
Their hands trembled, the two of them vying for control.
“What do you want from me?” Kravitz said.
“A body,” Keats said, in Kravitz’s voice, twisting the words strange in his foreign accent. “We can do this the easy way or the hard way.”
It was a threat with no teeth, though Kravitz had no way of knowing.
Do it yourself , Kravitz thought-said snidely, and Keats was abruptly shoved control of his hands. He could dredge up only the vaguest memory of how to tie a tie. He scowled, and tried anyway. A few minutes of attempting led to a sloppy knot, but Keats still preened in front of the mirror.
Enjoying yourself? Kravitz thought-said.
“Immensely,” Keats said. “Pity about the black.”
It looks classy, you classless wonder .
“It’s boring ,” Keats said. “Why were you after something boring ?”
I have an audition tomorrow morning , Kravitz said , and I’ll be having my body back before then .
For an orchestra. It’s why I needed the suit, Kravitz said, projecting an image of a large, beautifully decorated concert halls, a row of judges.
Keats had hummed and proceeded to shove Kravitz so far down into his psyche that it was like he was no longer there. Kravitz should have been scared. He wasn’t. There was no “him” to be scared.
Kravitz rose to awareness sitting at a piano bench. He blinked. He looked down. He was still wearing that gods-damned suit, but he was in control of his hands again.
I’ve never been to an audition, Keats said, and Kravitz could read the curiosity in his tone. Don’t fuck this up .
And Kravitz played, and he didn’t fuck it up, and he could feel Keats’ interest as his fingers flew across the keys. Keats refused to let Kravitz take him off, though. Has refused, all these past three months, and now Kravitz is standing in a bathroom arguing with his suit about taking Keats off.
“We’re stuck here,” Kravitz says. “Don’t you get it? Even if I take you off, I have to put you back on .”
“How’m I supposed to trust you?” Keats says, a little hysterical.
Kravitz laughs, wrenching back his mouth. “You got us captured by the Raven Queen ,” Kravitz says, tugging at the suit. “She’s punishing both of us. Just let—”
And Kravitz flings off his jacket. He’s mad. He’s scared. His muscles ache. He’s crumpling Keats into a little ball in the back of his mind — he’s stripping off his shirt, sending his tie flying, kicking off his pants. He’s angrier than he’s been in months. He breathes heavily. Stares at his naked form in the bathroom mirror. There he is. Just him.
It is blessedly quiet in his head.
He returns to the bedroom, leaving Keats strewn across the bathroom floor. And for the first night in three months, Kravitz sleeps without the tender embrace of his jacket and tie, no noose around his neck.
Keats has known death like a lover’s embrace — intimately pressed up against him, its soft breath in his ear. He’s been afflicted by the same sickness that killed his parents since his youth, a lingering plague that left him with just Ed and Lyds. They were both prone to flightiness. He never doubted they loved him — the twins always came back from their adventures with toys and trinkets for their younger brother, exaggerated stories about cities far from his bedroom.
Keats has always wanted an adventure. When they were around, his siblings taught him little tricks of combat magic, a stand-in for what he really wants, which is: strong limbs, lungs that breathe deeply, to be completely rid of his hacking cough.
They were looking for a cure. He would hear them in the kitchen late at night, whispering to each other. They started out looking for a cure. After a while, they were looking for other things — they wouldn’t tell him what, but there were an awful lot of old maps spread across the counters, strange vials of liquid that they’d sternly tell him not to touch.
At least they were there when he died, Keats thinks, but perhaps it would have been better if they hadn’t been. At least the suit is beautiful.
This is Keats’s secret: Kravitz could peel him off his psyche with enough strength, expend enough mental-emotional energy and Keats could be shoved off for good. Kravitz has the sort of determination that you only often see in the most dedicated of bards. Keats is a half-bit war-wizard trapped in brocade.
But until that first night in the Astral Plane, Kravitz hadn’t managed to grasp his limbs back for long enough to disrobe — Keats doesn’t know if this speaks to his own desperation. It’s so dark when no one is wearing him. It’s like being dead.
Or perhaps Kravitz doesn’t know his own strength. Keats doesn’t think he’s going to tell him. Kravitz could leave him off.
But they’re stuck together now, here in death, in this suite with an adjoining bathroom with a tile floor that Kravitz scoops Keats off of with a deep sigh. He buttons his shirt and straightens his tie, and they go to orientation.
The dead man cowers before them. The dead man is wearing an ostentatious robe, all black velvet and embroidery, little seed pearls stitched into the hemline. The group tracked him to his hideout, which is emanating incredible waves of necromantic energy. Not to mention the corpse in front of the necromancer, the strangely bruised and bleeding body surrounded by candles in a meticulous pentagram — Riverun’s pentacle of banishing, modified for transformation — that’s all a dead giveaway.
“Someone’s got a flair for the dramatic,” Keats says, straightening his cuffs. The scythe is strapped across his back. He’s not used to its weight.
Jin snorts. “Necromancers. They’re all like this.”
“Please don’t kill me,” the necromancer whimpers. His robes puddle on the floor. “Please.”
“Oh, we’re definitely going to kill you,” Jin turns to the man and assures him. “You’re toast, buddy. You broke like, so many rules. Seriously. Is that human fat?”
“Kill him?” Kravitz says, grabbing hold of the body with a surge of alarm. There’s a ripple as he shoves Keats out of his nervous system. “We’re going to murder him? Real murder?”
Did you think the scythe was ceremonial? Keats say-thinks.
“Death is sort of a requirement here, yes,” Jin says, annoyed that he’s stuck babysitting the reapers’ newest recruits. “Look, this is our job . He’s guilty. We can’t gank him until he’s dead. I didn’t take you two for the conscientious type.”
“I didn’t take you for someone who knew the word conscientious, ” Kravitz says. “I’ve never done this before. I’m a bard.”
“You’re a bard?” Jin says. “No, okay, gimme the other you.”
Keats takes the opportunity to shove Kravitz out of the body, and Kravitz goes without much protest. He waves at Jin, who nods.
“You know how to use a weapon, right?”
“Only what they taught us at orientation,” Keats admits, holding the shaft of the scythe awkwardly. He’s never had the physical health to cut loose, though he’s always dearly wished to. It’s still marvelous, to have lungs that breathe correctly. Kravitz doesn’t appreciate it, Keats thinks. He gives the scythe a couple of exploratory swings.
“You’re both useless,” Jin groans. “Look, it’s easy. Just a clean sweep, and back out.”
Keats nods and steps forward, and against his will, grimaces as he attacks. He reflexively tries to close their eyes. Kravitz keeps them open out of sheer contrariness, and they watch the scythe hook the necromancer’s soul out of his body, the diaphanous spirit reeled out, still screaming. Their hands perfectly steady — no different than drawing a bow across the strings of a violin.
It gets easier after that.
First one’s the hardest , Keats says.
Second one’s the hardest , Kravitz thinks.
Third one’s the hardest , Keats jokes.
Fourth one’s the hardest, Kravitz quips, and Keats pulls down their limbs to slice with the sharp blade of their scythe.
It’s a good thing their suit is black. They hadn’t expected this to be fun.
Kravitz should mind Keats more. This is an interloper in his being. This is a stranger examining his psyche with wandering hands, picking up pieces of his self and scrutinizing them like specimens. Here he is, all his faults exposed — here is his gambling, his recklessness, his half-hearted ambition. Keats wanders around Kravitz’s brain like a personal playground, uses his limbs like they’re the ones that Keats was born with, makes Kravitz tie his ties for him.
Kravitz shouldn’t let him do any of this, but every time he tries to stop Keats from taking control, it slips out of his grasp.
The three months before the reapers found them were difficult. Not for the reasons his coworkers suspect — beyond the first day, Keats has never choked Kravitz out of consciousness.
Still, Keats is contrary, is almost dictatorial. Keats stops Kravitz from betting away his savings. Keats refuses to let Kravitz have control most of the time, puppets him around as he explores Neverwinter, goes hiking in the surrounding mountains. He doesn’t contact his siblings. Now Keats swings their scythe gleefully, runs around like a maniac with a knife. But Keats also listens with what is almost a sense of awe whenever Kravitz plays piano, never touches his limbs while Kravitz is making music. Kravitz suspects that Keats has had a sheltered childhood.
Every time they come close to getting hurt, Keats takes over. He has a remarkable sense of self-preservation — if it can be called self-preservation in another’s physical form.
There’s no point thinking about it now — they’re stuck together by the Raven Queen’s decree. They are part of death, now, and cannot argue with her. Better a reaper than a prisoner, better dead than dead.
That isn’t to say Kravitz dislikes being a reaper. It’s nothing he ever dreamed of doing, but his coworkers are pleasant, the Queen is fair, and he has a certainty that his previous profession never gave him.
It’s less punishment now, more penance — and Kravitz suspects in the future it will not be penance, but purpose.
“Hey Kay,” Lizbet calls from across the locker room. They call it the locker room, but it’s a locker room the same way the throne room is technically considered an antechamber — more a weapons vault than anything else. A lounge for downtime between missions, a place to store supplies. “Gotta weird one for you.”
“What's up?” Kravitz perks his head up. Bet’s waving one of the ubiquitous red file folders idly, beckoning him over to the table she’s sitting it. He puts down the knife he’s polishing and walks over.
“Oh, hi Kravitz,” she says. “Thought you’d be Keats.”
“Not happy to see me?” Kravitz pulls a long face as he slides into the seat next to her. In the back of his head, Keats laughs softly. Kravitz is better at taking care of blades than Keats is. Keats doesn’t have the patience.
“Only surprised,” Bet says. “Keats is the enthusiastic one, usually. Sorry, Kay.”
Their coworkers call Keats-and-Kravitz Kay . It’s harder to tell the differences between the two of them, these days. The intervening millenia have worn away differences like a rock sanded in a stream. They’ve picked up each other’s mannerisms — Kravitz has adopted Keats’ roguish grin; Keats has assimilated Kravitz’s good posture. Both are daring.
Kravitz waves the apology off. “What’s the job?”
Bet passes him the file-folder, but keeps her hand closed over it. “Let me paint you a word picture, Kay. You know the disappearances? Amol and Kitty traced them to the material plane couple weeks ago, and get this — some guy built a floating science base! Mortals are nuts . He’s been stuffing souls in constructs, or something. Earlier today, Jin sent a super-panicked message about — uh, pink tourmaline? He was real specific about that. Apparently the whole base is covered in it. So we gotta missing persons case, a guy who needs some reapin’, and a flying castle made of gemstones. You want it?”
Keats grins. “Yeah, that's right up our alley.”
Keats sees the elf and the first thing he thinks is, damn, that’s an ugly spacesuit.
The second thing he thinks is wow, he’s exactly your type, huh? to which Kravitz thinks back a vague sense of resignation and indignation. None of which falls on their face, mind you, because Keats is in control right now and they’re haunting a pink tourmaline agglomerate. But the way the guy smiles as Keats leans down over him and cheerfully says that he looks like salt? Yeah, that pings something in both of their hindbrains.
We’re on a job , Kravitz reprimands, snatching back control over the golem. Don’t get distracted.
Who’s distracted? Looks like it’s you, Keats quips back, but Kravitz is right, as he is occasionally wont to be — this place is crawling with bounties.
This job is something of a jaunt, though, more than it is anything super pressing . This one’s a weird waltz through a lab where Keats and Kravitz know that everything’s contained, which is the nice thing about labs — everything’s neat . Scientists all have the same sense of structure.
Keats has time to chase after the three weirdos with absurdly high bounties. He’s got time to stretch his legs, to amuse himself — Keats bets Kravitz fifteen gold that he can’t fool the dwarf into thinking he’s a god and Kravitz, for once, wins. Then the big guy cuts off the dwarf’s arm and Keats shouldn’t be charmed by the way the elf laughs at that, but he is.
You’re terrible people, Kravitz thinks.
You’re just now noticing? Keats thinks, and then it’s a great time watching the idiots flail around. Then they find the other idiot they’re probably supposed to nab, the one that they’d been briefed on, and then all the mortals are being boring and yammering at each other, and then there’s just a huge knockout wave of necromantic energy surging somewhere in the building.
They can’t pinpoint the source, so they zoom off to investigate cause if there’s a fucking lich in the building, Keats thinks, swear to the gods. Kravitz agrees. This is already something of a crazy carnival — they’ve got a reputation for handling the weird cases, but this is starting to get ridiculous.
The power spike fades as soon as it arrives.
Might be a fluke, Kravitz suggests.
Keats shrugs noncommittally.
Kravitz nudges for control over their form, and Keats acquiesces. Searching the pink caverns is starting to get tedious. Kravitz doesn’t mind the drudgework as much — and they find a truly spectacular amount of evidence.
Still, he gets bored.
Let’s go gank the wonder trio, Keats suggests, projecting an image of the cute guy in the ugly outfit into Kravitz’s mind. There are worse things to do than spend an afternoon toying with an attractive criminal and his friends. This is Keats’ favorite part of the job.
Kravitz opens a rift in space in response and Keats takes over, stepping through. He coalesces their crystal disguise into a decent approximation of a skeleton, and — oh, well, the idiots are laid out on the ground, pretty as a picture.
“Well, this is hardly fair,” Keats says. Which of course, means that he misses his first attack, which means that Kravitz laughs and takes over and rambles about performance anxiety in a facsimile of Keats’ voice.
Joke’s on Kravitz, though, because the elf — Taako, Kravitz reminds Keats — starts yelling something about tent porn with a shit-eating grin upon his face, and Keats perks up in interest even as Kravitz stumbles, writhing black tentacles ensnaring the crystal the two of them are inhabiting.
“Hey, hey hey! I’m gonna get you into some tent porn! Let me get that name real quick so I know how to credit you in my tentacle porn I’m about to make with your body — hey, you heard me. I didn’t stutter. You froze me, bocephus. I hated it.”
You’re totally into this , Keats thinks gleefully.
“My name’s Kravitz?” Kravitz says, without thinking, internally chanting shut up shut up shut up at Keats, who sends a drippingly pornographic thought-image of their body, the elf, and a creative use of Evard’s.
Oh, I like this guy, Keats thinks. Who looks at a golem and starts yammering about hentai?
Please stop thinking about hentai, we’re literally in the middle of fighting these guys. I thought you said this would be easy, Kravitz thinks with increasingly hysterical affect.
Keats takes pity on him and takes over, and from there it’s just the same old same old, another day, another beatdown, until, well —
Keats might not be doing so hot, he will be the first to admit — and that’s not a problem, this isn’t anything but a construct. They could manifest their suit-clad form if they wanted to. It’s the psychological toll that does him in — the elf’s blithe crunch of the crystal arm that shocks Keats into ranting, enabling Kravitz to slip into control and decide that discretion is the better part of valor.
The image of the elf biting down on a limb. The illustrations in some of the books Keats’ siblings used to bring home. Consumption begets power, begets life. Keats has seen a lot of shit, but some things still freak him out.
The night doesn’t get more normal from there. A near breakout of the Eternal Stockade! That’s so many degrees above his pay grade he should be getting triple overtime.
I know we’ve got a rep for the weird shit, Keats thinks, but this is — this is a lot .
Kravitz agrees. The only reason that Legion didn’t come crawling completely out of the rift, the only reason Keats and Kravitz aren’t in some major hot water back at HQ, is because of these three criminals. Neither Keats nor Kravitz is in an arresting mood, not anymore. Kravitz wants a hot shower. Keats wants half an hour lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, contemplating his choices.
Fuck this, Kravitz thinks, and makes an executive decision. No calling it in. Neither of them want to deal with explaining this back at base, or a trial, and technically none of these guys have been to the astral plane, Keats points out. It’s a technicality, but it holds. If they’ve never escaped the stockade, and they’ve never done necromancy, then they’re technically not criminals.
“Okay,” Kravitz says, using one of the robot shells as a mouthpiece. “Okay, listen—”
“What’s with that voice ?” Taako says.
Kravitz mentally curses and Keats grabs the mouthpiece back. “Okay, so we dealt with things, over on our end — it’s me by the way. Kravitz.”
Stop stealing my identity, Kravitz thinks. Keats is not apologetic — he doesn’t mean to commit identity theft, but Kravitz is the one who introduced himself to them earlier and their situation is more complicated than would be fun to explain. He hands the robot back to Kravitz and lets him stumble through an explanation, banter a little. Keats grabs the body back to make up a bunch of different voices when Kravitz mangles his accent again, trying to excuse the slip. The mortals buy it.
The problems begin when Kravitz explains that he can’t let everyone go free, and the mortals aren’t having it. They both notice the tensing of hands, change of stances, even when everyone stays genial. Kravitz’s voice grows tighter.
Keats can see that this is going to be a problem. Kravitz is almost always willingly bound by the letter of the law, if not the spirit, blinded by love for his goddess. They’ll be stuck here for ages, they’re gonna get in a fight, all because Kravitz is a goody-two-shoes. Keats doesn’t get it, but it does make him predictable — and there are other things that make the man predictable as well.
For instance: he can never refuse a bet. Anyway, gambling with death for souls is traditional.
Keats shoves Kravitz out of the way, and says, “I’d be willing to — I love games and gambling, and uh, you know, risks and wits and wagers. I, I love all that—” and Kravitz’s focus shifts, perks up, and Keats does the mental equivalent of a smirk. Got him.
Bet’s on duty when they go to clock in. She gives them a wide grin when they stomp back to base.
“How’d it go, Kay?”
“We don’t wanna talk about it,” Kravitz says.
They think about the elf while lying in bed. Kravitz has had his shower and Keats has been prestidigitated clean. Keats wanted to lie around and stare at the ceiling, which he claims is more satisfying when you have a body to lie around with. Kravitz obliges. He’s used to the company, after millenia together.
“He was flirting with you,” Keats says. “I know flirting, and that was definitely flirting.”
“So what if it was?” Kravitz says. Theirs is not a life that has room for romance. He doesn’t feel incomplete without a partner. He has his work, and their friends, and sometimes he still plays music. He plays card games when Keats lets him.
“It’s just interesting, that’s all,” Keats says. Keats likes people, although he doesn’t understand them. The elf had reminded him of his siblings, sort of, in the best way possible. Keats still doesn’t know where his siblings are — family isn’t allowed to work on family cases. Another reaper team is after them. He doesn’t pretend to think that they’re not doing something highly illegal, probably against the laws of nature and sentient decency. They loved him. They were dabbling in some strange magic — case in point, the suit, the necromancy. It’s been a long time. It still troubles him. A part of him hopes that they never get caught. “You liked him.”
“He has a name,” Kravitz says. “Taako.”
“So?” Keats says. “We’re not going to see him again. Too bad. I’d try and get him for you.”
“Him and his friends… We’ll see them again,” Kravitz says, thoughtful. He’s occasionally perceptive. They’ve been working this job for millenia. He’s got a sense for these things now.
He pauses. “Hey, what do you mean, get him for me?! ”
They do see them again.
The first date, in the end, is Taako’s fault.
There’s no good way to explain to your… boyfriend, your date-person, your partner? Can someone be your partner when you’ve gone on three dates and you’re technically one of death’s myriad aspects and they don’t know that you’re two people stuffed into a suit?
Kravitz shakes his head to dislodge the thought. It doesn’t budge.
There’s no good way to tell Taako about the Keats situation. Keats himself is being spectacularly unhelpful, despite his original gleeful support of the relationship. Kravitz uses the term “support” loosely. Keats insists on coming on the dates and refuses to let Kravitz take the suit off.
“You’re useless without me,” he explains, while washing their face. Keats enjoys personal grooming. “I had to ask if it was a date for you .”
No you didn’t, Kravitz thinks indignantly. I had it handled.
“You didn’t,” Keats says airily. “You were stuttering about ‘why are we here?’ You didn’t even manage to keep my accent up.”
He splashes water on their face and wipes it off with a towel.
“You were nervous, you big baby,” Keats says. “Knew he was your type.”
So what if he is? Kravitz says. You got any smart ideas on how to explain this to him? He’s spent half as much time with you as with me.
“Yeah, well, so what? I like him too,” Keats says, rubbing lotion on his cheeks and across his forehead, massaging it into their skin. He doesn’t have any ideas. He’s been actively avoiding thinking about the situation for a month and a half.
We could, well, we could just tell him , Kravitz suggests. Rip off the bandage.
“Absolutely not,” Keats says, and unties their hair and shakes it out.
“Taako, I need to tell you something,” Kravitz says, climbing through a rift in Taako’s bedroom in his pajamas, “and you’re not going to believe me, but I promise you, it’s all true.”
Taako sits quietly — or what passes for sitting quietly, for Taako — while Kravitz explains things. He tells Taako about Keats, the shameful way he found him, the three months before he was taken to be sentenced. He tells him about becoming the Raven Queen’s emissary, about the work that he does, about his partner.
It’s strange having to tell this story without Keats’ semi-helpful commentary, strange having to explain it at all. His coworkers know about their situation and Kravitz doesn’t get out much. Taako’s face is blank as Kravitz explains that Keats has been here since the beginning, that there have always been three people in this budding relationship.
“Wow, that’s... well, that sure is a story you’ve told me, my man,” Taako says, voice exceedingly neutral even as he puts an arm around Kravitz’s shoulder. “And it’s not that I don’t trust you, but cha’boy would love to see some proof.”
“I can – I can go get Keats,” Kravitz says. And more ruefully, “He’s going to be so mad at me.”
He stands, and opens a dark portal into his bedroom with an ungainly slice. Keats’ suit is laid out on an armchair next to the wardrobe. Kravitz walks in, motioning for Taako to follow him.
Taako hesitates. “Not to be pedantic , but I’m not gonna be in trouble if I’m here, yeah?” he says awkwardly.
Kravitz shakes his head and Taako follows him in. He sits on the bed. Kravitz pauses, standing by the suit. He could still write this whole thing off as a joke. An extremely odd joke, but a joke. A dare. This might be the last straw for Taako.
Taako gestures impatiently. “Go on, Skeletor.”
Kravitz picks up his suit and Keats immediately knows what Kravitz has done. For a moment, Kravitz’s body goes rigid as they grapple for control, then Keats starts putting on his clothing with a savagery that makes Taako’s ears perk up.
“You told him?” Keats says angrily, stripping off his pajama shirt, pulling down his pants so he can struggle into the suit slacks. “You told him?”
“He was going to find out eventually,” Kravitz says, and Keats throws the pajama shirt across the room.
“He didn’t have to! You didn’t need to bring it up, gods and gold, do you have any common sense? Do I have to do all the thinking around here? I can’t believe you told him, you idiot!”
“Hi, no, that’s me,” Taako says, and Keats freezes, turns his head to stare at the wizard. Taako is watching this all with rapt interest — cataloguing the changes in body language, the accent swapped cockney. “Oh, no, keep going, I’m enjoying the show. D’you switch accents every time you swap?”
“Uh, no,” Keats says, weakly, attempting to get his arm through the armhole of his shirt and failing miserably. “Not all the time. Um. Hi, Taako.” Why’d you bring him back? he mentally yells at Kravitz, who laughs and snatches back the mouth and manages to put the shirt on properly.
“Do you believe us now?” he asks Taako, who nods.
“Yeah, I’d say that was, uh, pretty fuckin’ convincing. No offense, babe, but I don’t think you’re a good enough actor to pantomime an argument with your suit.” Taako pauses. “Wait, so how many of my dates have been with him?”
“Er, technically all of them. He wouldn’t let me go on dates without him,” Kravitz says with outright amusement.
Keats grabs the body back, and finishes shoving on his jacket. “He liked you and he was being terrible about it,” Keats says, irritably. “It was just really frustrating, watching him.”
“Keats likes you too,” Kravitz says hastily, shoving Keats aside. “He’s the one that kept asking you out.”
Their face grows red with Keats’ embarrassment. “I was doing that for you! Cause you’re so useless! ”
Taako laughs, not unkindly. “The two of you are better than TV.”
“You’re, uh, you’re taking this pretty well,” Keats says, mentally telling Kravitz to shove off, you’re making me make a terrible first impression.
Taako shrugs. “You see some pretty weird shit, in my line of work.” He grins cheekily. “Far as I know, all this means is that I’ve got two boyfriends for the price o’ one.”
Keats blushes harder. Kravitz smiles.
“Hey, so how long do you two got?”
“Two hundred years. Two hundred and seventeen, to be precise.”
“Jeez. Gettin close, then, huh?”
“It has been six thousand years, yes.”
“Think you’ll miss each other?”
Neither Keats or Kravitz really has an answer.
Time passes.The apocalypse creeps closer and snuffs out the bonds between the planes, one after another. There are immeasurable tragedies occurring — there are heroes fighting, there are continents being ravaged, and in the space between spaces, Kravitz and Keats are trapped.
“He was here,” Kravitz says. There’s no point saying it out loud. Keats is the voice in the back of his brain, the electric brain signals down his limbs, Keats is the voice using his mouth. Keats knows who Kravitz refers to.
“Hope he’s alright,” Keats says, softer than he usually speaks. The black void around them is unsettling. He feels like he cannot breathe. He thinks about Taako instead. The first really interesting thing in a few thousand years. The way he looked reaching for his friend, his spirit ghostly. Is he dead?
That’s no hardship, Keats thinks. They can get around that.
“Hope everyone’s alright,” Kravitz says. He spreads the feathers in front of them neatly. Five black feathers in a circle. He presses his hands to the center. He closes their eyes, and Kravitz and prays.
He had been right, when he suspected penance would turn to purpose, his role as a reaper now something of an act of providence. Kravitz finds belief easy — he is in the Raven Queen’s debt. She is his liege, his divine patron, his kind sentencer. She is the arbiter of the natural order and Kravitz finds joy in his work. Keats is more skeptical — to believe a goddess exists is not to believe in them. This is why Kravitz is the one who prays.
Kravitz is pouring all his desire, his faith, his worship , into his call.
He gets the divine equivalent of a dial tone. There is no one else on the line.
Why isn’t She answering? Keats thinks and does not say — but between the two of them, Kravitz hears it anyway.
Keats and Kravitz, for all that their teamwork runs like a well-oiled machine when they care to cooperate, are very distinctly of two minds. They don’t think the same. They don’t act the same. The superficial edges of their personalities have been sanded off — six thousand years does that to people, but they argue more often than not, passing their body between them in their squabbling.
But when Taako pulls them from the astral plane, they’re of one mind. Incredulity, love, and joy at the warmth of Taako’s arms around their neck.
Then Kravitz ruins it by wanting to warm up their mouth, and Keats lowers their hands and they’re kissing him back.
The world fails to end. Kravitz and Keats’ boyfriend is apparently the savior of a hundred realities and his sister and her husband are liches . Another reaper might be more offended by their general existence, but Kravitz and Keats aren’t exactly normal themselves.
They find themself in the same situation Jin had been six millenia ago, escorting Barry and Lup to meet the Raven Queen. “This is nostalgic,” Keats says as he slumps down on one of the benches outside of the antechamber to the throne room. “Everything’s backed up. Gonna be forever waiting.”
“Nostalgic?” Barry asks.
Keats pulls out a pack of cards, handing them to Lup. Might as well pass the time. “We were in your position when we started. We got busted pretty soon after Kravitz put me on.”
“How’d you end up working together, anyway?” Lup asks. She takes the cards from them and starts to shuffle.
Kravitz shrugs awkwardly, as he always does when telling this story. Keats smiles. It’s not pretty.
“He stole me,” Keats says. “The day before my funeral.”
The apartments above the funeral home are cheap for exactly the reason one would expect. Kravitz has been renting a room here all winter. It’s chillier than usual and it’s as if the temperature has turned everyone’s hearts cold. He’s been having trouble picking up work. Fewer tips, too. This is the only reason he’s standing out here, outside the first floor window of the funeral home. That, and the audition.
Kravitz jimmies open the window — a trick he learned from a rogue friend — and it opens with a high squeak. It’s late, though, and the sound goes unnoticed, although the hairs on the back of Kravitz’s neck rise.
He creeps through the parlor, to the back room where they prepare the cadavers. There’s a wardrobe by the door and he opens that first. He’d planned to steal a suit, perhaps the undertaker’s spare outfit, but there’s nothing in the closet. He turns.
There’s a corpse in the center of the room — embalmed, lying in a casket. The dead man is already dressed. Expertly clothed with his hands crossed across his chest.
The corpse’s suit is all rich fabric, darkly wrapped around the dead body. It swathes the form. He’s young, with dark hollows around the corpse’s eyes that even the makeup can’t disguise, a gaunt look to the face, a sallow tone to the skin even in the moonlight. Sickness, Kravitz thinks, and that nearly makes him hesitate. He doesn’t like the implications of what he’s considering. He would be desecrating a corpse. The dead man doesn’t deserve that.
But the audition. They’ll throw out a man who comes in street clothing. Kravitz is two-hundred gold in debt — poor choices, bad investments, a string of gigs that paid a pittance. The audition if for the Grand Symphonic Orchestra . Kravitz needs the money. He wants the fame.
Kravitz closes his eyes. He prays to any gods that are listening for the unknown boy’s soul. He takes a deep breathe and, grimacing, begins to disrobe the cadaver.
The image of Keats’ body in Kravitz’s mind, something he thought about often in the months after the theft. Who stole who? The penniless bard, the dead man trapped in silks puppetting him around like a toy. It’s no recipe for kindness. The guilt that flashes through Kravitz’s mind, preventing him from removing Keats like a glove from a hand, until he fit like a second skin.
No sense thinking about it now, Kravitz would think, in the years to come, as he carried out the Raven Queen’s bidding, as he and Keats learned to step in tandem.
No sense thinking about it now , Kravitz thinks, as the end of his and Keats’ sentence approaches, freedom like an open window before a hundred-story drop. The future scares him, he’s not afraid to admit.
“You’ll still love us when we’re in two bodies, right?”
“Go to sleep. How is that even a question, dunkasses? Of course I will.”
Their second trial is something of a sideshow. Their colleagues are in the benches surrounding the court, their boyfriend and family nearer. Everyone wants to see what happens. It’s almost joyous, the chatter before the Raven Queen begins speaking.
Scared? Keats asks as the two of them walk before the high throne of the Raven Queen. Their stride long, their shoulders unshaking. No escort, their scythe slung proudly across their back. So different from the first time they walked in, hauled by their collar.
“You wish,” Kravitz says quietly, and raises his head to stare up at his liege, before sweeping into a deep bow. “My Queen,” he says, projecting his voice louder.
She bends down, closer to them, her great and terrible face looming, splitting into a smile.
“Well done,” she says. “It was not so bad, was it?”
Keats shakes their head. “Got used to it pretty quick,” he says, impertinent.
She laughs. “And if given the choice, would the two of you stay as one?” she asks, no malice in her voice, just bland curiosity.
They hesitate, a long moment. The hall is so quiet now., no chatter. They swear they can feel their boyfriend’s gaze on the back of their neck.
They have been together far longer than they have been apart. They are constant companions, a comforting stream of dialogue in the back of each other’s mind. Kravitz knows all of Keats’ secrets – his conflicted sorrow at his siblings deaths, learned about long after the fact. His uncertainty with others, his deep joy in battle. Keats knows about Kravitz’s impulsiveness, his hidden dreams of music still buried in his soul, the weight of his devotion. They’ve lost the private pretenses of strife — though their partnership is divinely mandated, time has turned it true.
Still. They are different men. They are always taking turns. They look back up at the goddess, firm cast to their face.
“No,” Kravitz says.
“No,” Keats says. “But we’re still a team, if that would please you, my lady.”
The Raven Queen nods once. “I see no reason to object.” She stands. They tense — not fear, btu apprehension. She draws her divine scythe and says with a hint of amusement, “This won’t hurt a bit.”
She slices down. In the audience, someone physically holds Taako down as he tries to lunge forward. Keats and Kravitz involuntarily close their eyes, stiffening before the blade strikes. But it feels like cool water running over them, and when they open their eyes, they’re looking into an identical pair. Kravitz’s body carbon-copied for Keats.
“How come you look like me?” Kravitz says indignantly.
Keats grins, turning his hands over, wiggling his fingers, filled with the joy of being able to spread . He shrugs and claps Kravitz on the shoulder.
“You’re handsomer than I was. This is an upgrade,” Keats says, and does not protest when the shoulder-clap turns into an embrace.