Actions

Work Header

and at a certain age the child is grown

Chapter Text

There are people in his grandpa’s house.

Angus hasn’t seen new people in a long time. There’s the housekeeper, Hudson, but he’s a quiet man and he doesn’t like it when Angus talks to him. There’s a militia officer who comes around sometimes. She seems nice enough, but Angus spends most of his time upstairs staying out of the way so they haven’t actually met.

Now, though, he’s peeking through the railings of the central staircase, sitting in the shadows between the wall and a huge cabinet that used to hold his grandpa’s good silver. He knows they won’t see him here; he’s stayed here for hours through a dozen different parties and no one ever noticed then.

There are a lot of them. They crowd around each other, taking up space, some of them running the way his mother told him never to do in this house. A big burly human man is balancing four cardboard boxes in his arms and readjusting like he’s about to drop them all. Another, more average looking human man wearing jeans beside him is carrying a more reasonable two boxes. There’s an older dwarf lugging a potted rosebush into the main hall, and Angus winces thinking of that much dirt coming inside. There’s a gnomish man and a young but strangely white-haired human woman walking around with their arms full of bags. The woman has a little book open in one hand, maybe a planner, she seems to be taking notes on what the gnome is saying. Even while she writes, she looks up to scan the room. Angus resists the urge to shrink back as her eyes pass over his hiding place. Moving will give him away, but she won’t see him. Not here, he’s hidden, he’s fine, it’ll be fine -

Her gazes passes him over without a problem as they both move into the sitting room next to the entry hall. Angus is distracted from whatever they do next by the arrival of two of the strangest people he’s ever seen in his life.

They’re elves, and so similar they must be siblings. The first has long loose hair, white blonde fading into an unnatural shade of neon pink. She’s wearing denim overalls, ripped from knee to ankles, swinging an overpacked trunk in one hand. Her brother, following behind her, is wearing a wide brimmed hat and a long gauzy cloak. Both are the same vibrant shade of violet.  

As soon as he gets inside, she pushes the trunk into his arms. “C’mon, Koko, carry your weight for once.”
He groans audibly, letting it fall to the ground. There’s a loud thud as it hits the hardwood flooring and Angus scowls where no one can see.

“I don’t do labor, sis,” he drawls, with the same weird accent. “And it’s half your shit.”

She’s ignores him completely, leaving him to huff and pick their luggage back up. The largest man is still shifting his boxes, now attempting to keep them out of her reach.

“Lup, I got it !” he says, elbowing her away.

She’s not deterred, jumping at him and reaching as far over his defending arm as she can. “You don’t, and I swear to whoever you want if you drop those pans there will be hell to pay, Burnsides, I will rain down-”

She’s yelling, and he yells trying to get away from her and then the top box falls to the ground and tears open and there’s kitchenware spilling all over the floor, clanging and ringing, and they all crowd in together still talking so much .

Angus runs back to his room. It’s too loud.

He sits beside the window until the sun sets, and then he sits there some more because it’s calm in his corner of the house and he’s very comfortable.

He hopes these people leave quickly. They must be working on the house for his grandpa, before he returns. His grandpa hasn’t been home in a long time. Angus can’t quite remember where he’s gone, or when he left, but it’s been a long time.

He’ll be back soon.

 


 

Lucretia’s just glad the place came furnished.

The sofas are old and, despite the sheets draped over them, kind of dusty, but it’s not that big of a deal. Between their various pieces of luggage there are more than enough blankets to be comfortable.

She knows she’s the last one awake. They’re all asleep in the same sitting room on the first floor; by the time they’d had the mess in the entrance cleaned up and all their food put away, nobody felt up to exploring the upper floors. They haven’t even gotten through the entirety of the ground level.

She rolls onto her side, suppressing a snort when she sees her friends.

Davenport and Merle ended up sharing one couch without much problem. They’re both short enough it’s no problem to split space between them.

Barry and the twins aren’t having the same amount of ease. They’re all asleep, sure, but the three of them are crammed onto a sofa likely not meant for sleeping at all. Taako’s pressed up against the left armrest, legs curled up towards his body and one arm under his head. His other hand is clasped with Lup’s, the only one of them who ended up laying horizontally. Her legs are splayed out on top of her brother’s while her head rests against her boyfriend’s side. Barry’s fallen asleep sitting mostly upright, listing to the side. His glasses are still on his face. She’s sure they’ll all be regretting these positions tomorrow (Barry especially, judging by the way his spine is twisted), but they’re definitely not going to say so after how many times they insisted it’d be fine.

Magnus, by contrast, looks comfortable as hell. He’d grabbed three blankets and an armful of pillows and immediately volunteered to take the floor, insisting his “strong young body” could take it. Merle had called him a dumbass but Lucretia thanked him. He’s definitely a dumbass, but all that means at the moment is that she gets the loveseat to herself without argument.

She turns over again, resting on her back. The ceiling is a blank, light grey color, but the moon is bright enough to shine faint patterns through the curtains. She traces them with her eyes until she falls asleep, barely noting when they shift as if blown aside.

She certainly doesn’t remember it when she wakes up in the morning and goes to open a window, the room far too musty with all of them closed.

There is a moment that does stick with her, though. Taako and Lup were both adamant that today was about making the kitchen theirs, though what that means no one else can really say. It’s still good warning for everyone else to stay out of the way.  

Davenport takes the opportunity to drive into town to get copies of the key made. The old estate keeper had given them his when he’d retired, but there’s still only two to split between seven of them. It’s also an opportunity to for him to drive without at least three people yelling at him, because for all the Captain likes to pretend he’s the dignified leader of their little bands of misfits, the man’s a fucking speed demon.

Merle’s gone outside to “get friendly with the garden” and they’re all suitably horrified. Barry said he was checking out the library, and she has no idea where Magnus went. He’s probably waiting somewhere to try and jump out and scare them. Again.

After Lucretia folds up her blankets, she goes to help Barry in the library. It’s supposed to be enormous, though the estate keeper had said no one had used it in a long time, so she doesn’t actually know how many books are left in there. She’s excited to find out.

To get there, though, she has to pass through the front room again, under the wide sweeping staircase that casts a deep enough shadow over the door to the hallway that she almost misses it. When she passes under the landing, she shivers. It makes sense that it’s colder here, she tells herself, the placement of the windows don’t let the sun into this corner and the wooden floors are too old to be well insulated. If they’re insulated at all. That’s all it is, thermal conduction, simple physics.

She straightens her back, and spins on her heel.

Her eyes fall on the upper landing, trying to find form in the darkness of the second floor. There’s a big empty china cabinet, and next to it a small table with a book sitting on it. There are lighter areas along the walls, places where pictures were hung and left to sit.

There is nothing moving, and so far as she can see, nothing alive. Lucretia’s got decent perception, so she moves on.

Magnus’s “training” might just be conditioning them all into complete paranoia.

Chapter Text

It’s been three days and all those people are still around. Angus has figured out most of their names now. The human woman is Lucretia. One human man is Barry Bluejeans, which must be some kind of friendly joke. The gnome is Davenport but also sometimes Captain, so he might have a military background? He learned Lup’s name the first day, and she called her brother Koko. Angus isn’t sure that it fits him very well, but that’s his own business.

The other two he isn’t sure about. The dwarf spends most of his time outdoors, and Angus doesn’t like to go onto the grounds. They’re very open, exposed in a way that makes him uncomfortable. He isn’t supposed to leave the house anyway, so it’s a moot point. That first day, Lup - and he feels a more than a little rude calling these adults by just their first names, even in his thoughts - called the third human “Burnsides”, so Angus has at least a surname for him. He hasn’t gotten any more from listening in.

And, yeah, maybe he isn’t supposed to eavesdrop. Especially on adults. They’ve been in the house for three days though, and he still doesn’t know why. The first red flag was that none of them have any obvious connection to his grandpa.

The second red flag is that they act like he isn’t there.

It’s not that they politely nod and then don’t speak, the way Angus did with Hudson and everybody else who used to live here, back before his grandpa left. They all fell asleep in the front sitting room that first night without even coming upstairs. He’d gotten restless, and it’d helped in the past to walk the house. Sometimes he could just do a lap of the third floor where his room is and feel more settled, but if that didn’t work he’d head down the back stairs. Walk through the library for a bit, then through the dark, narrow hallway that led to the foyer, running his hands along the grain of the wood paneling. He’d done that last night, but as he went to climb back up the main stairs he saw the door to the parlor left open.

It seemed irresponsible to leave it like that. Angus had been surprised these workers, whoever they were, had done so. But when he reached in to close it, he saw them all asleep there. Piled on the sofas. There was a rustling sound as one of them shifted in their blankets, and he dropped the door handle like it had burned him.

Angus turned around and, as quietly as possible, ran back to his room.

He’s been watching them since then. They continue much in the same pattern of that first day; roaming freely through the house, unpacking boxes and calling to each other through the rooms without the slightest bit of caution.

They aren’t hiding, so they’re supposed to be here. Or they just feel like they are. Angus had seen the captain with Hudson’s key. The housekeeper himself hasn’t been there since before they all showed up. There was a chance he’d retired, and these were the new staff.

But then why so many? And why had no one told him?

And it’s not unusual for adults not to enjoy interacting with children, even children as smart as him, but shouldn’t they at least have introduced themselves?

For all he avoids them, Angus tries not to let their presence ruin his own routine. He spends most of his days in the library. It’s not unusual for Lucretia or Barry to be there, or even occasionally one of the others, but it’s a big enough room that if he hides away at a table in the back they won’t even notice him.

It’s also his very favorite thing about his Grandpa’s house.

The building is beautiful, and there always easy hiding places to be found for a miniature detective, but the towering shelves of books are where he’s always gone to feel safe. He can remember the first day he saw it, terrified of touching anything in a room that looked so old and impressive. His grandpa taken one look at him and dropped the biggest book he could reach right into Angus’s arms and said “They aren’t doing anybody any good sitting there.”

That’s why Angus is down there again now, sitting in one of the big cushioned chairs in the back corner. He’s reading one of his favorite mystery novels again, though he can’t remember if this is the fourth or fifth time he’s done so.  

He gets caught up on that thought. The last time he’d read it had been before his grandpa left….but no, because he’d fallen asleep in this same chair reading it before without being interrupted, which means the house would’ve been empty. So it must be the fifth time. That doesn’t sit right with him though. There’s a feeling in the back of his head, like he’s forgotten something important and it’s been placed just past the tips of his fingers. It’s close enough to see but he can’t reach.

It’s frustrating enough that he gets up to find another book. He loves this one, but he needs a break. He marks his page with a scrap of paper and sets it down on his chair. He tiptoes over to the edge of one long row to peer around the corner. Barry Bluejeans is still sitting at one of the middle tables, his back to Angus, bent over an open volume of his own.

He’s absorbed enough with whatever he’s reading that Angus feels fairly comfortable navigating the stacks. He’s just reaching to pull down what looks like a magical history book he’s pretty sure he hasn’t read yet when he hears the door open and close. He freezes in place, and sees “Burnsides” rush by the other end of the row. The man doesn’t pause in his stride at all as he passes him.

Angus takes a breath, but doesn’t move from his place. Listening carefully, he can track the man’s motion through the library. He makes his way to the back first, past where Angus had been sitting and around to the middle. There’s the sound of muffled speech, and Angus peeks through the spaces of the shelves to see him in conversation with the other man. Burnsides is standing with his hands planted on the desk. He’s obviously animated, wide smile as he talks, although they’re too far away for him to understand their words.

It must be something impressive though, because even though he visibly sighs, Barry stands and picks up his things. Angus watches as the two men leave. He waits a minute or two after the door closes to start moving back to his own chair, keeping an eye on the doors to make sure they stay closed.

When he does get back, he frowns. Crouches down to look under the chair but finds nothing. Checks the surrounding tables. Still nothing.

Well okay. He’d thought they were all agreed to stay out of each other’s way, but apparently this is what they’re doing now.

Burnsides stole his favorite book.

 


 

They’ve got all their rooms picked out, and everybody is on the second floor.

There’s a ton of reasons to pick those bedrooms. They’re close to each other, for one thing. Most of them face south towards the gardens, so the views pretty nice. No climbing extra stairs.

But Magnus had one main reason for choosing to sleep where he did, and he’s willing to bet his friends do to, even if no one will say it.

The third floor is creepy as fuck.

For one thing, it’s always cold up there. Is it a large empty space, high in the wind, probably lacking insulation? Yeah, but still.

The sounds don’t help. Creaking is normal in an old house, but when Magnus is laying in his bed at night he can hear the source of the noise moving, approaching and receding like someone’s walking straight over his ceiling. It happens almost every night, in the same places, at the same time. He’s not looking forward to getting used to it.

There’s one room that doesn’t need an explanation. He isn’t sure if he’d call it spooky or just plain sad, but it definitely makes him uncomfortable. Taako had found it, the first full day they’d spent exploring their new home. Opened the door, frowned, and walked away. Magnus had been curious, naturally, so he’d peeked in after Taako left.

It’s a nice little room. There’s a big window looking out over the grounds, a cushioned seat in front of it that looks like a wonderful place to spend an afternoon. A big bookcase, plenty of stories but also a few knicknacks stacked on the shelves. There’s a desk with vine patterns carefully carved into legs that he can really appreciate.

But there’s a lot of things that can’t be ignored. How small the bed is. The colored pencils still sitting in a cup on the desk, waiting to be drawn with. The tiny, round glasses sitting on the bedside table. The way everything is covered with a thick coat of dust.

They’d had some vague knowledge about why the house was so cheap, but it’s another thing to see such clear memories of the family that had been here. It might be respect more than fear keeping them out of the third floor. They don’t really need the space, and nobody is volunteering to throw out the dead kid’s things.

Besides, they’re all getting plenty settled in the rest of the house. Merle’s turned over half the beds in the garden, and Barry’s comfortable enough to leave his shit laying around the library. He might think Lucretia was doing it too, if she wasn’t crazy about the proper treatment of old books; Magnus has picked up at least four books just abandoned on different tables. He’s tried to call Barry out on it but he’d just looked confused. Barry has the best poker face.

He’s leaving the library now, after helping Lucretia move the big armchairs closer to the windows. There’s still a ton of time left in the day, the display on his phone reading a bit past one in the afternoon. Magnus heads up the back stairwell towards his room. He can change his clothes and go running in the park near them. He’s gone once already this week and he met a really cool dog.

He’s only three steps up when he hears shuffling on the landing above him.

“Cap?” he calls out, because the steps are quiet. Davenport is the only one who ever moves that lightly. It could maybe be Taako, if he was being careful, but when the hell has Taako ever cared about making noise?

There’s no answer. There are also no steps, for a moment. In the total silence Magnus hears his own breath and nothing else, so he holds it.

There’s a single creak above him, a pause, and then the steps resume. Quieter and faster than before. Magnus makes a choice.

He’s racing up the stairs two at a time. Looking up the whole way, rushing around the banister on the landing. His heart is racing and he can hear running that isn’t him, can’t be him because it’s out of pace with his footfalls, and he can’t see anything moving.

It almost shocks him when the stairs end. He pulls up short, looking at the open door of the third floor.

He pauses there, breathing hard. When he does step through, the air is as stale as it ever was.

The doors are all closed.

No sound echoes through the carpeted halls.

For once, the entire floor is calm and empty and normal.

But it still sends Magnus running. He loops around to the front stairs, heading to his room and changing as quickly as he can. His heart doesn’t stop pounding until he’s outside the gates, and if he spends a few more hours out running than he normally would then it’s his business.

Chapter Text

There are a few plans he’s worked out for approaching them.

Angus is pretty sure his best bet is Lucretia. She’s the quietest of the seven, but she seems very kind. The fact that she spends so much time in the library with him - or, not really with him, but they’re there at the same time - is helpful. It seems rude to be asking the questions he’ll be asking; he should already know. Lucretia seems reasonable though, and also like she knows how to keep a secret. If any of them will help him understand without making a big deal out of it, it’ll be her. She’s also nearly found him eavesdropping twice now, in hiding places that had worked so well in the past. It’s probably wiser to be honest with someone that perceptive. At least if he approaches her, he’s in control.

Barry is his second choice, for mostly similar reasons. There’s just something off putting about the idea of asking him for help. Admittedly, Angus feels the same way about asking Lucretia, or anyone else. It’s just...slightly more. It doesn’t make sense, he knows there’s no logic to it. But sometimes intuition is helpful, even if it’s just in categorizing his options.

Because this can’t go on anymore. There are seven people who have been living with him for weeks, who he’s never met. He doesn’t even know two of their names. It’s one thing to spend a few days gathering information and making plans. It’s another to become a spy in your own home. Angus knows it’s time to reach out to Lucretia.

A week of careful planning doesn’t stop him from goofing it up when he gets surprised.

He’s going to introduce himself tomorrow in the library. It’s quiet, and they don’t usually all crowd in there. It’s where he feels comfortable, and he’ll take any opportunity to make this even a little less difficult.

Angus is reviewing this plan on his nightly circuit. He can’t sleep; he’s too nervous thinking about what he has to do. All of them have moved off of the ground floor for the night, so he’s free to roam the way he's used to.

Down the back stairs, around the library, through the hall. Passing the music room, across the foyer and into the parlor. From there he makes his way into the dining room, letting his hand trail behind him, catching on the tops of the chairs pushed flush with the table. He stops at the big arched windows in the center of the room. It’s raining steadily, not quite a storm yet but enough to guarantee the lower roads will be flooded by tomorrow.

He watches the droplets of water collect until they grow too heavy to remain suspended on the glass. As they streak toward the ground, he finds his feet growing restless again.

Angus pushes open the door to the kitchens. He knows he’s not really meant to be in here, but that rule isn’t specifically for him. It’s just to keep people out of the cook’s way. It doesn’t matter so late at night.

At least, it shouldn’t, but the room isn’t as empty as he’s expecting.

One of the elf twins is sitting on the island. They don’t move when the door opens, perhaps don’t even notice. They just sit, head bowed, passing something between their hands.

When they don’t react to his presence, Angus unfreezes. His heart is still in his throat, but he has a chance at closing the door and leaving unnoticed. A better chance if he just walked away, but the open door would definitely be questioned later.

As he debates, he looks closer. It’s definitely the male twin. His hair is straight where it hangs around his face, and although he isn’t wearing any of his ostentatious hats he does have a big chunk of quartz hanging from a chain around his neck. His back is hunched over his perch on the edge of the counter. He looks tired.

He heaves out a large sigh, and settles again. Angus’s eyes are drawn to his hands, the only part of him moving. He’s got a rock in his hands. Just a plain grey stone, probably taken from the walkways in the garden. He’s passing it back and forth to himself, typical fidgeting behavior.

Just as he looks away, though, it catches the light in a way it shouldn’t. When he focuses again he can see the jagged edges of pink crystal. In the moments between passes, the object keeps losing its form; it is stone again, then wood, then what looks like a lump of charcoal.

Angus gasps. He can’t help it.

It’s magic.

However, it is also silent, and he wasn’t. The elf’s eyes snap up to meet his, growing wide in surprise. He’s clutching the stone so hard his knuckles have gone white.

“S-sorry, sir,” he stammers, cursing himself for not sneaking away when he could have. “I didn’t know anyone would be down here this late.”

He keeps staring at Angus. For a little too long. Yeah, ok, Angus startled him, but it’s getting uncomfortable. He’s debating running away when the elf starts laughing.

It’s not a happy sound. More nervous than anything. He drops the stone, and it clatters on the tile. “Hi there.”

“...Hello.”

“So, uh, you’re - what’re you doin’ here, kiddo?” he asks, shaking his head.

“Just...walking. I walk at night. Sometimes. When I can’t sleep.” He doesn’t get a response. “You can call me Angus.”

The elf keeps looking between him and his own hands. “Shit. Okay. I’m Taako.”

Well, it’s good to have his name at least. This one fits him better than the nickname his sister had given him. It’s still not much information, and he doesn’t seem to be saying much else.

Angus rocks on his heels, wondering how much he should push. “Shouldn’t you be asleep, sir? It’s very late.”
He laughs again, muttering “Oh, I am,” which. Doesn’t make much sense to Angus. He moves on too quickly to question though, asking “What about you, boychik? What’s got you wandering about in the dead of night?”

“I just. I get restless, sometimes, when my grandpa’s gone,” he explains, looking down at his shoes. He’s really too old for that, he knows. He’s ten . “It’s been awhile. He’ll be back soon.”

Taako sighs and slides off the counter. “Yeah, yeah I’m sure. Whatever. Look, how’s about we part ways here and get back to our rooms? Not really sure how to deal with this, so we're gonna go with some classic denial.”

Angus quirks his head to the side. “You’re a little strange, sir.”

“Alright, brat, you’re clearly confused. Bedtime.”

Taako walks with him to the main stairs, and up to the second floor. Angus passes him by, continuing up to his own room. When he reaches the top, he peaks over the railing to see Taako still looking up after him, shaking his head. As Angus watches, he rubs a hand over his face and opens the door, slipping inside.

It was definitely impolite to say it, so Angus knows he shouldn’t have, but Taako is very strange. He’s got an in now, though, or at least a place to start. He’ll just talk to Lucretia next. Preferably not at two in the morning, but tonight could’ve gone much worse.

 


 

 

“We are going out tonight. I don’t care where, I don’t care what we do, but we are all loading in that fucking van and leaving this house. Preferably ending someplace I can get drunk.”

Lup lifts the notepad she’s been writing in to look at her brother. She’s hanging backwards off the top of the sofa, feet set against the wall. “What’s got your ears all twisted?”

He sighs, flopping down next to her. “I don’t even know, Lulu. I just - just want to get out of this house for a night, okay?”

This isn’t that strange a request for Taako. Everybody coming with, maybe, but hey, he can’t always pretend he’s heartless. Right now, though, Lup can see the tension in him. He’s restless, ears twitching, fingers and toes tapping intermittently. He’s wearing makeup already, which means he’s got dark circles he’s trying to hide.

She swings her feet down, righting herself and leaning into his side a bit. “Are you not sleeping again?”

He laughs bitterly, and waves a hand to brush off the comment. He moves into the touch though. “I tried. Not the important part.”

“Then what is?”

“That we’re going out.”

“Taako.” She takes his hand in hers, and then starts squeezing. Hard. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

“Lulu, jeez, just-Lup!” he screeches, wrenching his hand out of her tightening grip. “You’re a monster.”

“Tell me.”

“I will, fuck’s sake, you don’t need to break my fingers. Not now though. I don’t wanna talk about it here.”

She gives him an extremely unimpressed look. “That’s dumb as hell. I’ll tell Cap’nport to get the van ready.

That’s how they all end up crowded around one table in the back of a local restaurant. Taako’s got a glass of shitty wine in one hand, and he holds up the other asking them to wait. He drains half the glass, sets it down, and says into the silence, “So our new digs are fuckin’ haunted.”

There are three sets of reactions that happen simultaneously.

Her, Davenport, and Merle give different but similar responses, all basically averaging out to “What the fuck are you talking about?”

Magnus slaps a hand on the table and yells “I knew it!” while Barry, next to him, says “ Thank you! ” in a very exasperated tone.

Lucretia’s eyes grow wide. She doesn’t say anything, just lifts her own glass of cheap shiraz and takes a deep gulp.

Taako sighs, his shoulders loose. He’s been getting less tense the further they’ve gotten from the house, stopped fidgeting as much. “I don’t know, my dudes. I just know I was in the kitchen last night, minding my own business, when some fucking kid strolled in like he owned the place.”

There’s a long beat of silence, and Magnus asks, “Wait, like...a little kid?”

“I dunno, kind of?” Taako shrugs. “Seemed little to me. I didn’t actually get around to asking him, on account of the whole dead thing.”

“Did you ask him anything?” Barry asks, leaning forward. “Was he-”

“I’m sorry,” Davenport interrupts, “I’m going to need some more information here. What, exactly, did you see.”

“Ghost kid. Thought I was pretty clear about that, Cap.”

“Taako, are you sure you weren’t just dreaming?” Taako rolls his eyes, and Davenport holds a hand up. “Hold on now, I just think that’s worth asking. Yesterday everything was fine.”

“Yesterday I didn’t know our house was infested with Casper the friendly middle schooler,” he mutters, taking another drink.

“I think he’s right,” Barry says.  “There’s been a lot of weird shit happening in the library. Books taken out, and chairs being moved. I thought it was just you guys, but I swear on Tuesday I saw a curtain getting drawn open by no one.”

“C’mon, Bluejeans, thought you were supposed to be a genius,” Merle teases. “The wind can do that.”

“No it can’t.” Everyone turns to Lucretia when she speaks up, and she drops her gaze for a minute before starting again. “The curtains in the library are far too heavy for that, and we never open the windows anyway. And. I’ve felt like, especially when we were first moving in, like someone was watching me.”

“You’re all serious,” Lup says, looking around the table. “There’s actually a little ghost boy running around our house.”

“He doesn’t think it’s our house.”

Barry looks to Taako, brow furrowed. “What do you mean? Does he want us to leave?”

“I mean, if he does he didn’t say so,” he replies, tracing the condensation on his water glass. “I don’t think he knows. Thinks it’s his grandpa’s house. Hell, it might’ve been. We knew some bad shit went down with the last owners.”
“And we found his room,” Magnus adds. Taako frowns at him, and he shrugs. “I hear somebody moving on the third floor every night. Or do you think that was some other dead kid’s bedroom?”

“Point.’

“Okay,” Merle says, still looking like he thinks they’re all joking. Lup doesn’t think so anymore. “So there’s some idiot ghost running around. What do you want us to do about it?”

“I’m….not sure there’s anything to be done about it. Taako, you said he wasn’t upset with us being here?” Her brother nods at Lucretia’s question. “Then there’s no reason to think there’ll be a problem in the future.”

“He doesn’t exactly pose a threat,” Barry agrees. “Craziest thing he’s done so far is say hello to Taako.”

“His name’s Angus.”

Lup turns to see her brother resting his head in one hand, still using the other to draw patterns in the fog on his glass. She can’t see his eyes where they’re hidden under the brim of his hat. “Yeah?”

He nods.

Davenport sighs. “So I guess we have a kid now?”

Merle snorts. “We’ve had Magnus for years.”

Excuse you.

They laugh at Magnus, who reaches for the impossible and tries to defend his own maturity. They move on, kind of. They never truly drop the topic of ‘oh my god there’s a fucking ghost in our house’, but the way they talk about it is less pressing. Davenport looks way too calm the entire time, and when questioned assures them all he’s just repressing everything until he can get home and drink. The captain takes his designated driver status real seriously.

They’re all in a better mood by the time they leave, especially Taako. It’s not until they’re piling back into the van that he says “Oh, hey, there’s just like. One more thing.”

Lup freezes with her hand on the roof. She’s standing there in the doorway, poised to climb over Lucretia to get to the back middle spot. Her, Merle, and Magnus turn completely in their seats. Lup can see Davenport’s eyes sharp in the rearview mirror.

“Pretty sure little dude doesn’t know he’s dead. So, uh. Let’s maybe be careful with that.”

Chapter Text

It’s a lot better living with other people, now that they’ve all decided to acknowledge each other’s existence. When Angus passes one of them in the hall, they usually give him a nod. He knows everyone’s names now, even if Merle didn’t tell him himself. Merle doesn’t seem to like him.

That’s not really a problem though. The dwarf is almost always outside, and Angus isn’t supposed to leave the house. And the rest of them are more accepting than even the old housekeeper was.

He can read at the larger, better lit tables of the library now instead of hiding in the back. It’s rare that anyone speaks- it is a library, after all - but there’s a easygoing feeling to it, sitting across from Barry and hearing each other turn pages at their own pace or even listening to the scratch of Lucretia’s pen as she writes for hours at a time.

Magnus talks to him the most. Or possibly just talks the most. Angus isn’t sure it’s always directed at him, because a good deal of it is narrating whatever he’s doing at the moment. Fixing the loose leg of a chair, or carving small animals out of scrap wood, or practicing lockpicking. The last skill is a bit sketchy, but it really does seem to be in genuine interest of the mechanisms, and the man is so nice it’s difficult to believe he’d actually steal from someone. Throughout all of these, he talks. Angus rarely has anything to contribute, and Magnus doesn’t act like he expects him too. He just rambles quietly, and Angus listens, and watches him work. He’s also walked into the middle of Magnus’s projects a few times to find him already speaking softly to an empty room, which makes him think it’s more habit than conversation. He doesn’t ignore him though. Angus had seen him finishing up one of his carvings, a wooden stag small enough to fit in the palm of his hand with wide, branching antlers sanded to fine points.

“That’s amazing, sir!” he’d said, too impressed to realize he’s sneaked up on the man.

Magnus had started, but he smiled when he looked up. “Thanks, Ango.”

And that had been the whole exchange, but it was nice. To have people talk to him again, and smile at him, and give him nicknames.

Also, he’d gotten up the next morning to find the carving sitting on the carpet outside his bedroom door. It feels strange to take it, but it has to be for him. He keeps it on his desk, beside his pencils and the journal where he keeps his observations. He goes to it now, running a finger over the ridge of it’s spine before turning his attention to the book and flipping it open to the marked page. He frowns. The most recent entry has something to do with Hudson, the last housekeeper. He’s been forgetting to keep track of the new group, hasn’t written anything down in… all the time they’ve been here.

That’s not so strange though. He’s been focused on them the entire time, so there’s been no real danger of forgetting any details. He’ll just remember tomorrow.

He’ll write it tomorrow. Angus likes to write in the mornings, when the light hits his room at the perfect angle to turn the whole place golden. It might be silly, but it’s his schedule. Right now it’s too late, definitely past the time he should be asleep. He’s restless again.

When he takes his normal path this time he’s more careful. Several times since first speaking to Taako he’s gone into the dining room to see yellow light shining under the closed doors of the kitchen. He knows it isn’t his business. Without saying so, he and Taako have worked out some ground rules for what the elf sarcastically called their Insomnia Club. When Angus finds the doors closed, he leaves well enough alone.

Most nights they are closed, and he respects that. On the rare occasion they are open, they’ll sit together in the kitchen. Taako will make weird tea, and Angus will politely decline it. He’s never thirsty. On better nights, Taako will show him magic.

“Everything has magic in it,” is how he starts, the first time. “People and plants and like, rocks and shit. They’ve all got bonds , or something, and sometimes people can tap into that and do dope magic tricks. You gotta ask Dav or Barry if you want a better explanation, Taako’s not really big on the whole theory deal.”

He reaches one arm out, almost lazily. And there’s a motion in the air, a static electricity kind of feeling that barely grazes the back of his neck, before a spectral hand coalesces from nothing across the room.

It’s incredible to watch. To think that all of them can do these things, can change wood to stone or summon flames or cast light into every one of his carefully mapped out hiding places with nothing more than a thought and a flick of the wrist.

Angus watches that power in motion, and sees Taako use it for matters as small as picking up a mug he’s left out of easy reach.

He never stops being impressed by it, and even when Taako teases he seems to appreciate the the audience. For all he claims to be above the nerdiness of the rest of his family, he’ll talk for hours about the possible applications of this power, his own guesses as to why only some people can feel it, occasionally tangents about why certain flours shouldn’t be substituted for each other in recipes Angus has never heard of.

Sometimes Angus can feign tiredness and get him to follow suit. Let his posture gradually drop, time a subtle yawn in the middle of a leading question, rub at his eyes under his glasses. Taako gives him weird looks, so he might know Angus is doing it on purpose, but if it keeps working that’s alright. A little less than half the time, Taako will walk him back upstairs and head into his own room. He may or may not be sleeping, but it’s start.

Angus goes back to his room. It’s always quiet there, and he can watch the grounds of the entire estate from his window seat.

 


 

In the past few months, Barry’s gotten used to a lot of new things. Sharing a house with six other people. Sharing a room with Lup. The way the cold seeps into the building faster than central heating can chase it away. Driving stick shift, when Davenport’s too busy to care about someone else taking the van, because neither of the twins have a license and they only have the one vehicle.

Also ghosts being real. That’s a big one.

Not the biggest though, which is shocking, frankly. It’s easy to accept though. He’d seen unexplainable things himself, had them corroborated by the others, and then finally proven when he met the boy for real a few days after Taako had called a family meeting. It should be a world changing revelation. A new kind of existence. Proof of some afterlife.

Barry’s always believed in that some way though. The fact the he gets to wake up next to Lup every day is so much crazier.

It helps that Angus is very easy to live with.

Maybe it’s part of the ghost thing that he isn’t actually around very often or that he’s near silent when he is, but Barry gets the feeling he’d be like this if he was alive, too. Some kids are just shy. Angus seems like one of them, quietly sharing space when he’s approached and staying out of the way when there’s any doubt about his welcome. Now that he knows what he’s looking for, it’s not difficult to feel the difference between an empty room and an occupied one, even if his presence isn’t strong enough to keep him entirely corporeal. It’s enough to make Barry feel guilty sometimes; this was his house first.

Or, his grandfather’s house, which is something he’s been meaning to look into. He’d tried to ask the boy where his grandfather had gone, wondering if they might also be being haunted by the old rich dude who’s property they’ve taken over. All Angus had been able to say was “He went away for a little while.”

“And you don’t know when he’ll be back?” had been Barry’s next question. They hadn’t asked for details when the realtor had mentioned a ‘family tragedy, years back’. Figured it wasn’t their business. He doesn’t know for sure that the man is even dead, though it seems likely given what his age must be now. Angus looks about ten. Add that to however long he’s been here, alone, making floorboards creak and windows rattle, and he would have to be ancient.

“No,” Angus had said, and he’d frowned behind the big circular glasses he’s always wearing. “He’ll be back soon. He said he would.”

Barry had just agreed and left him alone after that. He could see the confusion building, and he didn’t need to push him. Angus repeats himself when he gets confused, caught in what he does seem to know for sure, and it’s not going to help Barry figure out what happened to hear the boy talk in circles. Even if it would, it’s wouldn’t be worth it for how much it upsets him.

This is what sends Barry into town. He goes alone, because he’s doing serious research and everyone knows him more than well enough to avoid him then. The van is almost too big to fit into a single parking space at the local library, but he manages to avoid side sweeping the minivan parked up front. Once inside he makes a beeline for the information desks and requests every available book about the history of this little town they live in now.

He is given three, one of which is entirely about the ecology of the local rivers.

He’s worked with less.

Walking out of the building with a shiny new library card and a stack of his own findings, he finds another option.

More literally, he turns a corner and walks straight into a cop.

The books tumble from his hands and he bends halfway, caught between reaching for his things and stuttering out apologies. He’s just the greatest at first impressions.

The halfling woman grins and helps him pick up his things. “In a rush there, buddy?

“I’m sorry! Sorry, yeah, I-” and his ramblings are cut off when the other woman, a half elf with dark hair, laughs.

“It’s fine,” says the woman in the uniform. “No big deal, not like anybody’s hurt. I’m Hurley, nice to meet you.”
The other woman reaches out to give him a firm handshake. “Sloane,” she introduces, and then continues, “I haven’t seen you in town before.”

“I’m, uh, sort of new. Barry Bluejeans, bunch of my friends and I moved into that big old house outside of town.” He holds up his recently acquired research, showing off the subject. “Just trying to learn a little more about the place.”

Hurley opens her mouth to speak but gets interrupted when Sloane asks, loudly, “ You’re the ones in the McDonald house?”

He nods.

“Ignore my girlfriend, she’s a little too into scary stories,” Hurley says. “I’m glad you folks are settling in, I used to check in with Hudson from time to time. Said it was a pretty big group of you.”

“Yeah, there’s seven of us. But, I gotta ask, scary stories?” The officer rolls her eyes, but Sloane leans forward a little.

“The McDonald house is supposed to be, like, extremely haunted. You haven’t noticed anything off? Cold spots? Weird noises? Stuff getting moved around?”

Barry listens to her list off all the things that have become regular occurrences in his new home and says, “Uh, nope!”

“Well, listen,” Hurley adds, “if you want some actual history, you should drop by the city hall. They’ve got records on all kinds of stuff. And if you guys have any problems out there, I’m usually at the station. I’ll probably be the one responding.”

“Good to know,” Barry says, and thanks her. The two woman walk off together, getting into a Jeep that is definitely Sloane’s. It’s shiny and black, lifted up on oversized wheels, the windows tinted dark. When they peel out of the parking lot it’s way too fast for anyone to be driving in a small town, let alone with a cop in the vehicle.

Barry shakes his head and makes his way to city hall. It doesn’t take long before the gnome working the desk there gets through introductions and lets him see the documents they have, at least those open to the public.

He comes away with a few very relevant pieces of information.

One, Angus has been dead for decades. Just one more victim in an epidemic, a short obituary that had notified the town of the loss of the youngest member of the McDonald family.

Two, his grandfather, whose name has unfortunately been blotted out by smudged ink on the old paper, passed away before him. From what Barry can piece together, he’d been killed in accident miles away, just as the disease was setting in. It’s reassuring, in a way. Barry isn’t exactly an expert on ghost rules, but if the man died somewhere else he probably isn’t haunting his house. Their house.

Three, there aren’t any other McDonalds. No mention of what happened to Angus’s parents, only that he was placed in his grandfather’s care. No mention of the man having other children. All that's left of the family is a house now full of strangers and the echo of a little boy that doesn't remember dying.

These things feel important to know, but he has no idea what to do with them now.

Barry packs up his things and heads back to the house. It’s time to look into the weirder side of the research, and that’s not something he can do alone.

Chapter Text

Some days Angus doesn’t see the others at all, and everyone is fine with that.

They’re all becoming more comfortable with each other, but he’s smart enough not to make a nuisance of himself. It’s been a long time since he’s lived with so many adults - not that he’s ever lived anyone his own age - but he knows to stay out of everyone’s way when they’re working, or having their own conversations, or focusing on their own tasks.

It’s not even that restrictive, really. Hardly anyone comes up to the top floor, so he’s not confined to his room. He does stay there often enough though, sitting in the window seat reading or watching rain lash against the windows. It’s a good place to sit and think, something Angus happens to do a lot of.

He replays things in his head. Recent events, sometimes, reviewing conversations he’s had with the others. It’s not always that he means to do this; sometimes it’s just impossible to stop himself. He’ll hear his own words, again and again, note where he misspoke and how he could have, will do, better, the next time he talks to someone. That’s an easy thing to waste an afternoon on, doubting himself. Every time it happens, there’s a sick sort of weight in his stomach he’d really rather avoid.

Not everything is so dark though. Some of it’s just foggy. Older things, the time he spent with his grandpa. Coming to his home alone for the first time, so intimidated by the expanse of the grounds and the rising specter of the building, only to be more warmly received than he could have hoped for. Picking out his own room. Being given the run of the library, of the whole building even. Later, when he’s a bit older, running the grounds and learning to read music on the huge old piano in the ground floor music room.

Still less distinct are the years before that, with his parents. Blurred, and colder. Angus can’t remember what his father’s voice sounds like, only the lessons he’d imparted. Be quiet. Be polite. His parents taught him how to behave, and he’s glad of it, but he doesn’t miss them the way he misses his grandpa.

The way these things repeat in his head is different. It doesn’t make him sick, but he doesn’t always feel well. Sometimes it’s like the dimness of his early memories spreads to his current self, leaves his whole mind clouded, and those days he ends up sitting on the ground in his room with his head between his knees until long past the time he should be asleep. He’ll rise shakily to his feet only to find himself in pitch darkness. He ends up doing his regular circuit more than once, those nights.

Then there are days when the entire house is his to roam. He’ll sit in his window in the morning and watch them all piling into a huge vehicle, the captain always driving. They’d done that today, all rushing around each other in the rain, and so he wanders freely. He’s seen the whole house, of course. It can’t be called exploring anymore, not since that first week after he moved in with his grandpa. He’d been cautious at first; he could remember visiting with his parents, when they were alive, and every time his mother had told him not to wander where he wasn’t invited. But then they’d died, and he’d moved in, and by the third day his grandpa was mentioning a passage he’d heard about, hidden in the walls by some forgotten McDonald ancestor.

He’d been lying. Angus knows, because he searched the whole house, twice. He’d slipped thin fingers behind wardrobes and heavy shelves, poked the walls inside fireplaces and unused closets, reviewed every inch of both staircases. When he reported back on this, his grandpa had smiled and shrugged. “I must have been mistaken,” he’d said, and then continued, “but what did you find?”

Angus misses his grandpa very much.

He makes his way to the music room. It’s been a long time since he’s been in there. The piano lessons had never been consistently scheduled, only when the music teacher for the public school in town had been free in the afternoons, but he had enjoyed them. They’d ended just after his grandpa left, a few...a few months ago, maybe? It hasn’t been that long, except that he had lived just with Hudson for a good while, and these new people aren’t all that new any more. They’ve been here for weeks, at least. Maybe months. Angus loses track of himself, sinking into his thoughts, only to startle out of them when he presses a key too hard and the piano sounds out a high G.

The sound feels louder than usual, at odds with the gentle, constant tapping of rain against the windows. It’s also horribly sharp, and he frowns. The keys are dusty, and he wipes them down carefully. It’s been a long time since anyone has used this room, let alone serviced the piano. He cleans the lid, and opens it to peer inside. He’s no expert on the inner workings of string instruments, but when he takes his seat at the bench and runs through an arpeggio he can hear the distortion.

Angus winces at a particularly flat note. He plays through it anyway, because no one is around to hear him and it’s been such a long time. Moves slowly through the warm ups he can remember, which are few, trying to connect his notes the way Johann had always told him to.

After awhile, the way the notes fall off pitch stop bothering him so much. He can still hear it, but it fades to the background. He leaves the bench to dig through the desk in the corner. The first drawer is full of pens and paper scrap, but in the second he finds one of his old folders. When he takes the sheets out they’re soft at the edges and stained yellow, but he can read the music. At least, as well as he ever could.

Flipping through to a random song, he sets it up in front of his bench and begins again. He trips over the runs, fingers clumsy, and restarts when he loses his rhythm too much to save it. It’s slow going, and most of the notes are out of tune and some are just incorrect, because he places his fingers wrong. It’s frustrating, but he’s enjoying it.

Enough that he loses track of time, and also his surroundings. He doesn’t know how long he’s sat there playing, and he doesn’t know how long Lucretia has been watching him. Doesn’t know she’s there at all, until she coughs and he startles hard enough to jolt the whole bench back from the piano. He hits a handful of keys when he flinches, all bunched together, and winces as they ring out harsh and discordant.

He turns to see her in the doorway, cataloguing all the details. The poor posture and drooping shoulders. The dullness in her eyes. The ways she’s dressed, cotton pajama pants and an old grey t-shirt that’s gone loose around the neck, the blazer she normally wears swapped out for a big quilt she’s wrapped around herself like a robe.

“I’m sorry, ma’am.” His voice shakes just slightly. He knows he should meet her eyes when he speaks to her but at the moment it feels impossible to lift his gaze from the floor. She’s barefoot, shiny blue nail polish on her toes already in the process of chipping away. “I didn’t mean to disturb you while you’re ill.”

There’s a moment where he’s waiting for her to be angry, to scold or yell or command him to return to his room or anything other than what she does, which is chuckle under her breath.

“You’re alright, Angus,” she says, voice thick. She coughs again, clearing her throat. “I’ve been bored all morning, really. I wouldn’t mind hearing some music, if you don’t mind me listening.”

She moves to sit in a small couch to on the side of the room. Some part of Angus whispers that this is his chance to leave; the door is still open, Lucretia no longer bodily blocking his only obvious exit route. He could just get up and run out of the music room and not come back ever again.

But that’s a very small part of him. It’d be such an irrational reaction, and not even deserved now, when she’s being more accommodating of him than he would’ve expected, especially for as sick as she is. Angus prides himself on being a well behaved boy, but even he has some memories of being far less polite than he should be when he’s ill.

He doesn’t remember it too clearly. It’s been a long time since he was sick, and trying to remember what he’d had (what he’d felt. There are vague impressions. A cold hand on his face and his body is so heavy -) isn’t nearly as important as what’s happening now.

Angus nods at Lucretia. “If you would like to, ma’am.”

She gives him a wide smile and nods in return. He starts up the song again, wincing when the problems in pitch are immediately noticeable. He tries to keep his tempo regardless, playing through the dissonance, but he’s aware of his audience now and every mistake feels ten times as loud as it should. He reaches the end of the piece, eventually, and brings his hand down to rest tightly clenched at his sides.

He knows it wasn’t good, but Lucretia doesn’t tell him that. She also doesn’t lie and say it was. “Thank you for letting me hear you play, Angus,” is what she says, in a soft voice, before standing and gathering her blanket around herself. “I’m going to make some tea.”

“Ma’am,” he speaks up, and she stop in the doorway to look at him. “Could...would it be possible to have the piano tuned?”

She smiles at him. “I think we can do that.”


 

It is exceedingly tiring to be the closest thing to a leading expert in a field that’s barely out of infancy.

There’s nothing Davenport would rather be doing, of course. When he has to present his findings, he does it as professionally as possible, favors phrases like manipulation of latent energy and molecular reconstruction and extraplanar interactions over the simple truth of it, which is that they’re doing magic. Magic with logic of its own, a set of laws as binding as those in physics, but still. Magic.

There’s also no one he’d rather be doing it with. It’s an...atypical relationship the seven of them have, some kind of proxy family of researchers. It works, though, and he’s glad for that right now.

Something has to be done about the spirit.

He hasn’t been so blunt about it to the others, because they’ll get upset. He loves them, but they’re an emotional bunch. When they talk about Angus it’s too personal. They say that he seems like a nice kid, a smart kid, or that they feel bad about his grandfather, or that they wonder about his past. Not what they should be concerned about, like the fact that he shouldn’t be here at all.

Davenport has nothing against Angus McDonald. He just doesn’t believe that this spirit really counts as a child anymore. The others talk about the boy living with them, and every time the captain makes a mental correction that he isn’t living at all.

As they watch, the patterns in his behavior become clear. They learn to expect him, because he’s nearly always in the same places at the same times of day. He walks the same route every night. He reads the same books every day. When he interacts with anyone for too long, he starts to spiral. A few minutes of shallow questioning has him confused for hours, anything even tangentially related to his current state shakes him badly enough that he often just leaves mid-conversation. Literally fades away, and Davenport can’t even tell if that’s voluntary.

They’ve been watching for long enough. There’s an obvious conclusion to be made; Angus is stuck on the material plane, and he’s suffering for it.

This is how he presents it to the others, eventually, with mixed results.

Magnus is the most vocally resistant. He admits that this probably shouldn’t have happened, but, in his words, “It’s not like he’s hurting anybody.”

So he focuses on other projects, and Davenport can’t fault him for that.

Taako’s reaction is almost worse, because he refuses to give one. He helps them do it, spends hours each day alternating between reading over what little information there is on the astral plane and pushing his magic against the boundaries of their own, flexing to find some limit. He’s responsible for a good amount of the progress they make, not to discount everyone else, but he won’t talk about it.

Lucretia will wonder aloud if they shouldn’t leave him be, or Lup will question what they really know about where they’re trying to send him, or Barry will speculate about increasingly unlikely alternatives. The closer they come to an answer, the more questions are raised - when, and what if,  and why - and all Taako contributes are shrugs.

Until months have passed and the day comes that they finally figure it out.

It’s a difficult ritual, and untested of course. The theory is sound, though, checked over by all of them multiple times, and it should only take one of them to do it. It’s immediately put aside in favor of a more intense round of questions, like it’s only just become real.

Taako crosses his arms, fingers clenched so tightly in the sleeves they turn pale, and leaves them to it. Davenport follows him out. He can’t keep doing this, pushing everything down with a false smirk and spending his nights pacing downstairs. One ghost is enough, even in a house this big. Taako, at least, can be reasoned with.

“You know we aren’t going to do this right away?” he asks, although he knows Taako is aware of that. He’s sitting on the edge of the porch that wraps around the house, eyes unfocused as he stares forward. “We’re not doing this at all unless everyone agrees.”

Taako turns to him, and it’s a shock to see his face grim. Taako doesn’t do serious.. He does sarcasm, and redirection, and laughter, sometimes, even if it’s mean. Now, though, he meets the captain’s eyes like a challenge and says, “He can’t.”

“No,” Davenport sighs, and agrees. “He’s trapped like this, and he can’t understand that. It’s our responsibility to help him.”

“Says who? We aren’t his parents, we aren’t his, I don’t know, fucking emergency contacts. Who put us in charge?”

“No one else is going to. I’m doubtful many other people would even be able to.”

“Oh, yeah, well that makes it better. I forgot, we can do whatever we want because magic,” he scoffs, and when Davenport tries to speak again Taako continues. When the anger leaves his voice he just sounds tired. “Look, Cap, you do what you think is best. Ch’boy’s not gonna stop you. Kid got dealt a bad hand, tough shit, he doesn't get a choice. I got it.”

There’s a distant crash, startling both of them. Taako shakes his head and stands, and the honest atmosphere closes off.

He meets Davenport’s eyes again and gestures inside, where the sound had come from. “Fuckin’ Magnus, right?”

Davenport sighs again. “Right.”

Chapter Text

Angus is staring at a collection of houseplants and trying desperately not to get ahead of himself.

It had started with a rosebush. Just the one. Then, over time, they kept appearing. Tall white lilies ornamenting the halls, clusters of ivy spilling over high shelves, small succulents sitting on end tables.

This morning he had looked up from his book to see Lucretia walking in with a potted fern, Merle following behind her with another. This caught his attention, because he never sees Merle in the library, and as he listened he heard the dwarf say “-inside, yeah, it’ll be getting too cold soon.”

Angus had frowned, and quietly stood up from his table. He pushed his chair in, returned his book to the proper shelf, and left the library without so much as a sound.

Now he’s here, in the front parlor, staring at that first rosebush. He remembers Merle carrying it inside. It had hadn’t even been flowering. Should barely be flowering, because it hasn’t been that long. It can’t have been that long.

They’ve only been there a few weeks, at most. Angus doesn’t know exactly how many.

But when he tries to think about things he does know it hurts his head. It happens so often now, the confusion rolling in like fog does in the spring.

They’d come in the spring. He knows that. It had been damp, rain coming every other day to wash the dust from the windows. He hadn’t recorded everything like he should have, doesn’t know the exact date, but it was early spring.

According to Merle the frost is coming in and that doesn’t work.

Angus sits down with his back against the wall, hoping that will stop the way the world feels like it’s spinning. He wants to do what he always does. He wants to close his eyes and let this pass and leave it here, wants to go back to his room and wait until night falls so he can pace in circles, wants to do what he knows will make it stop hurting.

But another one of those many things he should know and doesn’t is how often he’s made that choice. He can’t keep doing it. He’s a detective; it’s his job to solve mysteries.

It really shouldn’t be as difficult as it is. Usually the problem is finding clues. In this case he counts as one. Ignoring the nausea that crawls up his throat when he does so, he starts counting.

Sat in the shadows of the parlor furniture, ticking off his fingers in a way he hasn’t needed to since he was a much littler boy, he tallies every conversation he can remember. Each introduction, the discomfort of it lessening each time. Each passing greeting in a hallway after that, still staying out of the way. And later still, when it became more than polite, when Lucretia would ask him about the history of the house or Lup and Barry would tell stories about their research or Magnus would just ramble about whatever caught his attention. The rare interactions that let him see how genuinely nice Merle could be, when he tried, or the effortless silences that Captain Davenport somehow never let fall into awkwardness. So many nights he spent sitting beside a sleepless Taako who called him the wrong name and then showed him magic.

Angus realizes he loves these people. He lets every moment play back through his mind and his heart aches nearly as much as his head. It feels like the cloudiness that hovers constantly over his memories has solidified, and there’s so much pressure from it he’s sure his skull will split. He keeps staring down at his hands despite being far beyond what he can count on all his joints.

It’s a foregone conclusion that the number he comes up with is incorrect. It must be; if he has this much trouble with what he does remember there must be other days escaping him. That’s terrifying enough on it’s own, but he can’t focus on it at the moment. He’s more concerned with the months that have somehow skipped over him.

The rose blooms are fading, a frost is sitting in. It’s autumn when it shouldn’t be and Angus, through all of this, is only himself.

Six months of time, of change, since these people he has somehow come to see as a family arrived and he is the same as he was when they got here. He plants his hands on the ground to stop them from shaking. It doesn’t work; the tremors are running through his entire form.

He needs to know this but he wants to forget. Gods, there are so many things Angus wants right now.

He wants to cry, and he is. He wants to find his grandpa. He wants the pain to end, the tension that’s building inside him now, not just his head but all of him and it comes to a point that he doesn’t care how as long as it stops hurting .

Taako had always described his magic as purposeful. He’s a master wizard , so of course he’s always in control. Angus is gasping, clutching his skull against the ache, and when he cries out there’s no direction for the blast.

The furniture scrapes on the wooden floors as it’s thrown back from him. Crashing sounds overlay one another, the clink of ceramic as the rose pot splits and scatters dry soil across the ground, the creak of wood as shelves come loose from their mounts. Angus can barely hear any of it over the rush of himself hyperventilating. When he scrambles to his knees he sees the scar running up the wall behind him, floral patterned paper hanging loose and torn and the plaster beneath it crumbling to pieces like he’d put a sledgehammer through it.

He hasn’t been this afraid since he got sick.

The door to the parlor opens after that, but Angus doesn’t look to see who walks in. He doesn’t hear Taako’s voice, raised in panic, or the Captain entering behind him. He’s kneeling on the ground, hands pressed to his own face, and he’s not crying anymore.

He got sick.

There are tears left on his cheeks. He’s stopped gasping though, stopped breathing at all. Just shaking on the floor until a hand reaches for him and and he flinches and suddenly, what Angus wants more than anything is to not be here.

And so he isn’t.

Angus knows more about McDonald Manor than anyone in the world. He could lead a tour blindfolded, every room and hall and disused space. Usually he’d run to his bedroom, but that’s not where he finds himself. He looks up to see a low ceiling crossed by rafters. There are cobwebs trailing from almost every one of the wooden beams, some of which are cracked with age. There is a single small window on the west wall. The dusty glass lets in the barest amount of gray tinted sunlight.

He huddles there in the attic, hands still resting on his forehead. He doesn’t feel heat - doesn’t feel anything at all - where he touches his skin. He doesn’t need to.

Remembering the fever is just as awful as the burning.  

 


 

Merle’s been thinking about getting a greenhouse built on the grounds. They sure have the room for one, and he’s pretty bummed about the cold finally rolling in. They’ll all be stuck inside together now.

It’s not that he doesn’t like spending time with the others, but Merle thinks differently than the rest of them. He’s a man of faith, even if it’s been shaken more than once, and the sprawl of the garden is a good place to think about that. He hasn’t been to a church service in years. Pan’s a nature god though, and Merle talks out loud while he waters the tomatoes, so he figures that’s close enough to prayer.

This is the last time he’ll be able to do anything like it this year. It’s far enough into fall that, with some help, he’s turned the garden over again. It’s a flat patch of open dirt now, though hopefully the cover crop he’s seeding tonight will grow in before a real frost hits. White clover is good for that; his soil should be safe in the next week or two.

Picking himself up off of the ground, Merle catches sight of someone in his periphery.

Taako’s sitting on the edge of the wooden garden bench, next to a trowel and a hand rake Merle had left there half an hour ago. He hadn’t noticed him walk up.

Hadn’t expected it, either. Not like he’d have a reason to. Davenport joins him on the grounds fairly often, the old men sticking together. Drinking or playing cards or just wondering how the hell the seven of them ended up in this situation. Magnus or Lup, less often, will help him with the heavy lifting just for something to do. Taako isn’t exactly an outdoorsman.

Merle stands all the way up, brushing off his sleeves. “You look like shit.”

“Says the dude covered in dirt,” Taako scoffs, but doesn’t dispute. He couldn’t, not with red eyes and the way his hair is tangled in knots.

“You will be too, you keep hanging around out here.” He doesn’t get a response. “What’s eating you?”

“Had a fight with Lup, doofus keeps trying to tell me what I’m baking. Whatever, right? Master chef here, I know what a macaron is.”

Even if his voice hadn’t cracked in the middle of that excuse, Merle still would’ve called it bullshit. As is, he shoves his tools off the bench and takes a seat next to Taako. He’s out here for a reason. Pushing won’t help him admit that.

It helps that Merle’s a lot more comfortable with long silences than he is. Taako’s got a lot of nervous tics; tonight he’s bouncing one leg, speeding up the longer he goes without a reply. Merle just lets him go, until he’s worked himself up enough to stand up with a huff and start pacing.

“He’s a kid!”

“He is,” Merle agrees, because it’s the truth.

“This fucking sucks,” he says, and then more quietly, “I don’t wanna do this.”

“Me neither,” Merle admits. “I may not like the kid, doesn’t mean I don’t feel bad for him. But that’s selfish.”

“Oh, pardon me ,” Taako sneers with a blistering glare. “Didn’t realize I was the asshole here for not wanting to banish a toddler to ghost jail.”

“You know that’s not what’s going on here.” Taako starts to speak again, but Merle cuts him off. “Look, I can’t guarantee you there’s some kind of paradise waiting for anybody in the afterlife. I’m not that kind of cleric. And I’ll admit there’s plenty of shit I don’t know, but one thing I’m sure of is that time is only worth anything if you grow. That’s all life is, just doing your best to adapt to what gets thrown at you and trying to be better than you were. Maybe sometimes you fail, and sometimes you’re worse, but it’s still change. And you can always change again. That kind of growth, it isn’t possible for Angus. He’s stuck here, and he’s gonna stay stuck unless we do something about it.”

Taako gives up on stomping around his garden and drops back onto the bench next to him, hunched over with his elbows on his knees. He sighs, heavy, face drawn into a deep frown. There’s a part of Merle that hates seeing the fight go out of his friend like this. A stronger part of him knows Taako’s trying to make the wrong choice.

He puts a hand on Taako’s shoulder, and for now the elf lets it stay there. “You need to decide if saving your feelings is worth letting him stagnate.”

After a few moments, it's awkward, so Merle claps him on the back and stands back up. "Well, good talk."

"This was a terrible talk. I feel way worse."

"You wanted a pep talk, you shouldn't have come out here," he says, shelving his tools. "Not that kind of cleric, either."

"What can you do?" Taako challenges, but it's less harsh than before. This is an old insult. The bite is gone.  "Can't console me, can't promise any good shit when I'm dead. Pretty garbage holy man."

"Pan seems pretty cool with me just tending a garden. You gonna help?"

"Gross, no."

Merle shrugs and turns on the sprinklers. Taako squawks and runs off, hair dripping. When he makes his way inside later that afternoon, the elf tries to push him down the stairs. 

Chapter Text

It’s stunningly easy to stay in the attic. The ladder pulls down into the center of the hallway, so it’s not exactly hidden, but on the rare occasion he hears someone walking below his new hiding place he just stays completely still and silent, and they don’t even stop. He’s been there for a few days now. The dim lim that makes its way in during the afternoons is the only reason he knows this.

Even a week ago, Angus wouldn’t have been able to do this. Just the thought of remaining here motionless for an hour makes him cringe. To imagine spending his nights like that has him grinding his teeth, hands itching for a distraction, but in practice…

It’s simpler than it should be. Too easy. Angus has always been doing something, so now he isn’t.

He isn’t quite sure how long he spent shaking before he made himself stop. If he dwells on that too much, gets invested in the memory, he’ll start shivering again, breathe coming shallow and phantom pain clouding his mind. Focusing on the facts, that’s easier, that’s almost detached. When he starts to hyperventilate he just pushes down the fear and stops breathing altogether.

Cataloging the things he’s lost should be sadder, maybe. Sleep and breath he’s observed already, but food and water and warmth are all beyond him as well. There should be a draft in the attic, it’s not insulated well enough to keep out the wind so high up, but he doesn’t feel one. Sitting in one position this long should be painful. At the very least, his legs should be numb, but he can stretch them out with ease. The half remembered pins and needles never come. It makes sense. He has no blood flow. Has no blood, period. There’s still a moment each time he moves where he flinches, like he’s waiting for his body to catch up to his memories of life.

Trying to work through the things he’s gained, that’s more unpleasant. Angus has experience with losing things. Life may be the most difficult so far, but it’s the same principal. Whatever he is now, though, there are new senses to make up for lost sensations.

He counts the time passed by the daylight that filters in, but it doesn’t make much of a difference to him. It’s pitch black at night, but the worst that ever happens is his vision tints a dim grey. That’s inhuman, but not too worrying. Plenty of creatures have darkvision. It’s the other parts that scare him, the walls and furniture he’d left destroyed downstairs, the way he ended up hidden here in the rafters when he certainly hadn't climbed the attic ladder, the feeling of fatigue settling so deeply in his chest after he finally stopped crying and yet he still couldn’t rest. How he’d looked down at his feet and they’d flickered , like his body couldn’t decide if it wanted to exist.

That’s happened a few times since. When he gets worked up. So he doesn’t let that happen, chokes back the sobs that threaten to escape and reminds himself he’s a detective with a job to do.

He needs a plan. Inaction has been more tolerable than expected, but there’s only so much he can learn from observation. Angus is pretty good at thinking his way out of his problems, but he’s hit a dead end here, no pun intended. There has to be something he can do now.

For the first time in a very long time, he realizes, he can ask what that is.

Taako is the one his mind jumps to immediately. They must all have similar experience with...odd circumstances such as this, but Taako was the first one to talk to him about magic. Maybe sometimes he acted like Angus’s questions were dumb, but he always answered them. Often in overly specialized terms that flew over Angus’s head, or in long winded monologues that veered off into personal anecdotes, but he still did it. Taako’s smart. He could help.

Now that he’s decided, it’s like all the motion he’s been resisting catches up to him at once. He’s scrambling to his feet before he’s even conscious of it, moving for the attic hatch, when he lurches forward and hits the ground on his hands and knees.

There is, as he knows to expect now, no pain.

(Not from this, not pain from the body. Deeper, older, unseen weight crushing his ribs, a rattle that echoes through him every time he breathes, his hair is plastered down with sweat but his fingers feel like ice-)

No bloodied palms, no pants torn where they caught on the unfinished wood grain of the floors. There couldn’t be in any case, because there’s tile under his hands. When he looks up, he sees cabinets and counter tops where he expects arched ceilings and cobwebs.

He holds his breath before he can panic about doing this again , and meticulously takes stock of the kitchen. His memories of the room are clearer than others, but less detailed. He looks around and notices the spice rack in disarray on one wall, the checkered pattern of the curtains; these things are new to him in the truest sense, not a memory he’s lost over the years and only now rediscovered. He’d snuck in once or twice when his grandpa was still around (of course he did, he’s a curious little boy and he was told to leave the room alone, it was inevitable), but he’d never really spent time there. Not until he started staying up with Taako. He stands up from the floor and, after considering it for a moment, climbs up to the island where Taako usually sits.

He has to stand on a stool to get up there, and once he’s seated his legs swing in the air. There’s this vague feeling like he’s about to be scolded even though he knows no one who lives here now would care. He also feels rather tall, which is different and a good distraction from the part of his mind still screaming that he should hurt, should feel anything, none of this is right his chest is heavy his head is burning-

Taako walking in is another good distraction.

The elf opens the door without knocking, and absently Angus thinks that it isn’t his fault, because the lights are off and he didn’t know Angus was in here. So he hasn’t really broken their deal.

Taako’s drawn up short at the sight of him, and they just look at each other for a few moments. He has heavy bags under his eyes. Angus is almost jealous.

Taako sighs then, turning away to hit the lights and wincing when they flash on.

“Hey Agnes, haven’t seen you lately. Thought you ran away,” he says, crossing the floor to the fill a small kettle and turn the stove on. He takes two mugs down from the highest shelf, one a cheery yellow shade with a chipped rim and the other a heavy, off white thing Angus is sure has been in the house longer than he has.  “Thinkin’ it’s a lavender kind of night, ya feel?”

“Sir, I think we both know you only need one cup.”

Taako stiffens when he says this, but keeps his back to Angus. “Just being polite. Next time I’ll ignore you, how about that?”

“I need your help.” Taako’s shoulders draw in even more and Angus feels really bad about this, he’s clearly uncomfortable, but he’s already losing focus again, falling back, and if he doesn’t force this conversation it might never happen. “Please. I know something’s really wrong with me but I don’t understand, and it hurts, and I don’t know how to...How did this happen to me?”

“I don’t know,” he replies, too quickly.

“Taako, please don’t lie.”

Taako turns to face him. Even with Angus sitting up on the counter, the elf is a good deal taller than him. His mouth is a flat line and there’s a frown etched so deeply Magnus might as well have carved it there. Angus meets his eyes and sets his jaw, and Taako looks away first, interrupted by the sound of his water coming to a boil.

He takes it off to fill his mug, leaving the other empty on the counter, before he hops up to join Angus on the countertop. There’s just enough space that they don’t have to touch, but they need to be careful about keeping that distance.

“It was a long time ago, okay, I didn’t see any of this shit. All I know is a bunch of people around here were...not doing great, vis-à-vis the staying healthy goal. You...got sick.”

“Yes, and I had a fever and then my lungs filled up with fluid and I died, I know that, I remember that, but I don’t understand .”

Taako’s hands are clenched so tightly around his mug Angus thinks he might crush it. “You’re gonna need to be a little clearer with me Ango. What are you asking?”

“I’m dead.” He waits, and Taako nods to confirm. “I’m dead and I’m still here. So where’s everybody else?”

“Well. We’re on the material plane right now. Generally it’s for, y’know, living people. And the astral plane is for not living people.”

“So that’s where they are? My grandpa and everyone?”

“I mean. Probably?” He senses Taako shrugging beside him more than he sees it. “We don’t really know why you got stuck over here, but there’s no sign anybody else did.”

“Oh.” Stuck . He’s not right, broken somehow, and now he’s stuck here. Alone. Maybe not right now, with Taako and Lup and everybody living here but how long before they move on, one way or another? Then it’ll just be him again, walking in circles and talking to no one and trying to ignore the fire in his skull. Someone new might buy the house, but then he’d have to do this all over again, and they might be less kind. Or maybe nobody will, or maybe they’ll tear it down and there won’t be any people or places that remember him at all. Maybe the world will just let it fall apart. Wood rots. Stone crumbles. A building can die a natural death, apparently better than Angus can. “Can we go outside?”

He isn’t sure he actually can, physically, leave. He should try though. He wants to try.

“Yeah,” Taako says, setting aside his still full cup. “Sure, c’mon.”

 




Outside. The kid wants to go outside. It’s the middle of the night in late October, Taako’s wearing flannel pants and a t-shirt he stole from Barry four months ago, and now he’s gonna take his ghost boy on a nature walk. At least he can count on lazy roommates. Magnus leaving his clothes laying all over the house means Taako can grab a sweater off the floor without leaving Angus alone, because that’s seeming like a pretty terrible idea at the moment.

He’s not okay. Taako’s well versed in being not okay, so he knows what it looks like. When they’d started to talk, Angus had been rushed, almost frantic and only half successful at holding that back. He spoke too quickly, stared Taako down and interrupted his excuses and generally showed more nerve than the he had in the rest of the time Taako’s known him combined. The look in his eyes though, it’s not some newfound confidence. The kid’s freaking out.

It’s hard to blame him, but that doesn’t mean Taako knows how to deal with it.

He doesn’t know how to deal with the shift, either, the way he’d just gone ‘Oh’ and gone completely rigid. Stopped speaking, stopped breathing, and he obviously doesn’t need to but it’s still freaky to see, so if going outside will make it better then Taako will go outside.

Fuck , if it isn’t cold though. The moment they’re outside, Taako’s breath is clouding white in the air, and it’s hard to believe the kid spent so long ignoring things like that.

Angus is leading. It’s hard to tell if he has a real destination in mind; he seems set on his path, but it’s not toward the gardens or the road or some other visible landmark. No, they’re moving around the back of the house and setting off down that hill towards the partially wooded part of the property.

And yeah, Taako’s aware that heading off into the dark woods with a ghost without telling anyone makes him every shitty horror movie victim ever, thanks.

The silence is awkward but he doesn’t know how to break it. Angus seems focused on his own problems. Taako is also focused on Angus’s problems, and as the adult in this situation he should probably try to help him, but if he knew how to do that they wouldn’t be out here.

Most of the trees have shed their leaves by now. The pretty parts of fall are long behind them, and the dried out foliage crunching underfoot is dull brown and broken. Still, a few pines hang on, sturdy as ever, and it’s turning past a large group of these that Taako is stopped cold.

Angus doesn’t stop, but then, he was probably already aware of the cemetery on his family’s land.

It’s ill kept in a way that makes Taako feel like he should feel guilty. He doesn’t, because no one told them it was here when they bought the place, but still. It’s depressing. Most of the headstones are dirty or cracked, a few missing larger pieces. There are weeds even Merle couldn’t call wildflowers overrunning the walking path.

There aren’t many plots here. It’s been kept entirely in the family. When the kid sits near one stone in the back, Taako kneels down next to him, ignoring the way the cold ground leeches the warmth from his legs.  “It’s not a very good epitaph, is it?” Angus says, voice thick. “It’s not even really about me.”

Chiseled into grey limestone, in smooth even letters, are the words Angus R. McDonald, Beloved Child and Grandchild . It’s almost worse that this headstone doesn’t look any newer than the rest.

“I miss him a lot,” Angus continues. Wind hits Taako suddenly, not strong to move him but cold enough that it bites at his skin. It blows his hair back and flattens the overgrown grasses at their feet. The trees are still, too far to be affected. Angus rests his head against his own gravestone, casually, like any kid nodding off in an armchair after staying up too late. “My grandpa. I wish I didn’t get stuck here without him.”

“Yeah?” No. No, this is exactly the conversation Taako doesn’t want to have.

“Yes. I think he would’ve liked you all very much. Except I guess I wouldn’t want him to be stuck here either…”

“Would you rather go where he is?” It could be an innocent question. It’d be pretty insensitive, if it was, but Taako’s not known for his tact, he could absolutely play that off as rude curiosity.

Or, he could if he was talking to someone who wasn’t Angus. This boy, always so perceptive, perks up immediately. The breeze dies away. His face isn’t hopeful, not yet, but confusion is an improvement on misery. “Could I?”

“I’m...not sure. We, all of us, we’ve been looking into it, the planar interactions, and.” And it scares the shit out of him. “Maybe. Is sort of the best answer we have.”

“But you think so. If you didn’t you wouldn’t have said so.”

When Taako doesn’t answer fast enough for him, he presses, “Can you do it right now?”

“No,“ he snaps, and regrets it when Angus’s face falls so quickly he almost mistakes it for a flinch. “It’s, you know, it’s complicated. We’ll need time to set everything up. I’ll be honest with you kid, we’re mostly making this up as we go.”

“Are you cold?” It seems like a non sequitur until Taako realizes he’s starting to shake. “I didn’t really...notice. We should go back inside.”

“Yeah. Let’s, uh, let’s do that.”

“And we can talk about how to fix me. I can help! I can-”

“You sorta can’t, little man. No offense. It’s a lot of theory. But it’s whatever, we’re not doing it right away. “

“Why not?” Angus demands, startling Taako enough that he trips. He barely manages to catch himself before he ends up face down in the dirt. He straightens up and shrugs, pulling cold hands inside the sleeves of his borrowed sweater.

“It’s pretty serious business, Ango, you gotta think this through. It’s not like we can do a test run. This isn’t safe .” He might scare the kid, but hell, these are the same thoughts that have been keeping Taako awake since they started planning out spells. “You could end up in the wrong plane, you could get stuck somewhere else. It might fuck up your soul or something. There’s a dozen ways this could go wrong, that we know of. Probably a lot more that we don’t.”

He lets Angus sit on that while they walk. The heaviness that plagued them leaving the house is gone, replaced with a less substantial feeling of unease. At least, that’s what Taako feels.

They make it all the way into the entryway. Angus waits until Taako is distracted, half kneeling to unlace his boots, to say “I’m sure it’ll be alright, sir. You’re the best wizard I know.”

“Nice try, but you know seven entire people. You still have to wait.” Taako sighs and moves past him, towards the stairs, hoping he’ll take the hint and they can stop this conversation, at least for tonight. He’s tired and he’s cold and it’s so much to care about at once. “You might change your mind.”

“I won’t.”
Taako doesn’t want to believe him. “You really hate this place huh? Can’t wait to get out?”

“Oh, no, not at all!” Reaching his bedroom door, Taako stops, and Angus pauses with him. “This is my favorite place in the world. It just hurts too much.”

Like every other night they’ve been the last ones awake, Taako watches the boy navigate up the final flight of stairs to a floor only he uses.

He spends a little less than an hour pretending he’ll be able to sleep. Less time than that sitting up in bed, covers pulled around himself, thinking about the kind of pain that lasts for decades.

Around three am he gives up and heads down to the library. He needs to check the math again.

That’s where his sister finds him in the morning, hands shaking around a pen he’s holding far too tightly. That’s where the seven of them spend most of the next two weeks, repeating probabilities and sketching out ritual circles. Two tables have been pushed together to hold the results of that, piles of scrap paper edited over with new runes. At any given point, someone has passed out, most often curled up in an armchair but more than once sprawled out on the floor. Lup and Lucretia have the same argument about energy transfer three times.

After a fortnight, the spell is as well prepared as it’s going to be. This final draft doesn’t end up much different from their first one, but when one variable might make the difference between a successful trip and a total disaster, no one wants to be too confident. Barry goes to Taako after it’s finished, puts a hand on his brother’s shoulder from where he stands behind his chair. “You don’t have to be the one. I can do it.”

“So can I.” They’re the last two in the library, if they don’t count Davenport snoring under a desk in the back. On the rare occasion he does sleep, he might as well be hibernating, so they don’t count him this time. “I can if he needs me to.”

Taako stands and stretches, pops his spine in four places as he does so. Barry pats him on the back, nods, and leaves him be. After a last glance at the spell form in front of him, he pushes back his bangs and picks up his notes. He starts up the stairs towards the third floor.

He can hear the chaos from outside the door, so he doesn’t bother knocking.

Angus is huddled on the floor, crying into his knees again. Taako can feel the energy coming off of him; he might not mean to lash out like this, but the room is still shaking to pieces around him. There are shards of glass in the carpet where trinkets have fallen from their shelves and paper scraps in the air from books that have been shredded.  

“Hey, little man, it’s okay. Everything’s good.” Taako kneels next to him, keeping his own breathing as steady as he can in contrast to the short gasping sobs that seem to be all Angus can manage. He doesn’t know how to comfort someone he can’t touch, so he rambles. “We figured out the spell, it’s all ready to go on our end. You can still change your mind, no big, just letting you know what’s up. It’s all good either way. You’re fine.”

Angus pulls tighter where his hands are twisted in his hair, shaking his head violently. “Not, I’m not it’s not, it hurts-”

“I know, Ango, but you’re gonna be okay-”

Hurts, ” he insists again, and lets out a small scream that doesn’t quite make it past his teeth. The iron frame of his bed lifts of the ground briefly before crashing back down. It’s starting to make sense that they haven’t been seeing him in the library while they worked.

“And that sucks, but we’ll fix it, okay? It’s gonna be fine, you’ll be fine…” he continues for a few minutes, mostly repeating what he’s already said. There’s a buzzing in his pocket that has to be one of the others texting him, noticing the commotion. He hopes they’ll take the lack of response as a sign to leave them alone.

Eventually - five minutes, or ten, or maybe the six hours it feels like - the kid’s breathing starts to slow down. He doesn’t lift his head. Still crying, if the way his shoulders hitch occasionally means anything, but not panicked.

“I’m sorry,” he says, and he sounds so goddamn done.

Taako looks around at the mess, the torn bedding and the cracked legs of his little desk chair. “It’s okay.”

Angus looks around as well, for a moment, wipes his face on his sleeves before refocusing on his fancy leather shoes. “You said...I can go?”

“We can’t build a better spell than this. I’m going to show you how it works.” Taako had a lot of arguments for this. He was going to talk him out of it, make him change his mind. He sits down more comfortably and flips to the back pages of his notes. “Then, yeah. We can try.”

Angus nods, and settles in next to Taako. If he were fully present, they’d be touching. As it is, Taako feels a chill on that side and nothing else. He doesn’t mention it, just shifts his papers to show Angus the diagrams and tries to explain the intricacies of interplanar transport to someone with a fourth grade education dated a few decades before his field was discovered.

He’s partway through a monologue on the process of ritual casting when Angus asks bluntly, “Sir, do you think this will work?”

“Don’t interrupt me,” he says without bite. “Honestly? I think it probably will.’

“Then I want to do it.”

“You have to understand it before you make that kind of decision.”

“I understand enough. I want to go now.” Angus is twisting the edge of his shirt in his fists, a familiar nervous tic. He looks up and meets his eyes for the first time today. “I trust you, Taako.”

He knows Angus well enough by now to say that the boy could notice someone tearing up. He is also a kind enough child not to mention it. “Okay. Then let’s do this.”

It’s a difficult ritual. An unprecedented application of magical skill. It requires careful organization of spell components, a precise sense of timing, a hell of a lot of power and an even stronger will.

Good thing Taako’s the best wizard ever. He makes it look easy.

Chapter Text

Two weeks after Angus leaves, snow falls.

The house looks like a new place then. It’s no more than a few inches of powder, but it softens the edges of the architecture. The sky outside is dark and dim, but a few of the windows shine softly yellow, lit from the inside.

Magnus has finally finished fixing the crumbling plaster of the downstairs wall, but the paper proves itself to be a problem. It’s fragile enough to flake away where he touches the torn edges. As far as the internet can tell him, the company that made this pattern went under twenty years ago, so it doesn’t really matter. If he’s found himself narrating his repairs to what he can finally be sure is an empty room, that doesn’t really matter either. It’s only happened a few times.

With some input from Lucretia, he chooses a new wallpaper. It’s an all-day process, moving the furniture into the hall to make space, tearing down what’s left of the old pattern. It’s certainly strange to see it as a different room when he’s finished, but he can’t deny it looks nice. Although, some of the furniture could do with replacing as well. It might be time for him to take on a larger carving project.

Towards the back of the house, there’s similar work being done. Lucretia makes a trip into town to look for some kind of music shop. The one she finds is small and cramped, but the old man behind the counter knows how to tune a piano. It feels far too late for it to matter, when she hears the notes play clearly, but she did say she would do it. It’s a beautiful place to rest, regardless. When she’s given a record player for Candlenights she sets it up in the corner of the music room.

She doesn’t play herself, but she could learn. Barry knows how. He does, occasionally, usually accompanied. Lucretia enjoys hearing her family play. It might be nice to join in.

Progressing more slowly than either of these projects is the library. Nearly everyone is involved, but Lup and Barry are at the forefront. There are so many books, and so few are organized in a way that makes sense. Some haven’t been touched in decades, hidden behind cobwebs on the highest shelves, and that’s such a shame. The plan is to consolidate them. Repair the oldest ones, add their own stories to fill the negative spaces. Barry gets in touch with the local library to see if they want digital scans of the rarer stuff. Lup doesn’t let the curtains stay closed. She’s decided the windows are too nice to ignore, and the place could use some more sunlight.

They set up a cabinet in the back, thick glass protecting the works inside more than bare shelves would. This is where they keep the original copies of their notes, the rough drafts and messy outlines. Clean copies are given to Davenport, carefully edited to highlight the importance of the research, but the honest pages of rambling theory with games of hangman in the margins stay safe with them.

Davenport himself is calmer. He has a clean solution, and evidence for his superiors. As the winter season sets in, he lets himself relax. He spends more time on his own research, remembers why he loves his job. Magic is fun , when he allows it to be. Matters of life and death put aside for the moment, he can do that again.

There are some less than calm moments. That’s to be expected though, with the company he keeps. Teaching Magnus how to drive in the snow was never going to be anything less than a disaster. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t laugh like a maniac when Magnus sends the van skidding across the parking lot. Davenport stops when he threatens to walk home, because he’s acutely aware that Magnus is stubborn enough to give himself frostbite at the cost of his pride. So Dav drives them home straight-faced and waits until someone asks how it went to laugh again.

Merle, on the other hand, can’t do much. He spends most of his time drawing up plans for his greenhouse, come spring. He tries to take care of the plants he’d brought inside, but they’re plants; they mostly take care of themselves.

He also spends a lot of time praying, but that’s not something he talks about. It’s still not comfortable in the traditional sense. Merle’s not really expecting an answer though, so it’s not like he’s left unhappy. Honestly, he’s just thinking a lot. He feels pretty good about what happened. It ended as well as it could have.

He helps the others with their projects when they ask. He tries to crack jokes when the mood gets a little too melancholy for his taste, because nobody throws a party like Merle Highchurch. He chooses to be happy and he tries to help the others do the same.

Most of them do. It’s bittersweet, but it gets better. The living move on. It’s what they do best.

Everyone gets there eventually.

Taako stays out the way during repairs. He doesn’t try out an instrument or pick up new skills. He hangs around in the library, though the others suspect it’s mostly to avoid being alone. He is well aware that isolating himself will force a confrontation. So he reads and he cooks with Lup and he talks during dinner, but he never ends up saying much.

When he can’t sleep he stays in his room. It’s tempting to go downstairs and make a pot of tea, but he knows if he does he’ll leave the kitchen door cracked and he doesn’t want to sit there waiting for someone to open it the rest of the way. He doesn’t want to end up alone with a second mug no one will even pretend to use.

Sometimes he’ll sit on the porch even though it’s frozen over. He isn’t sure why he’s upset. Angus is gone, but it’s what he wanted. Taako sent him away, but the kid asked him too. Taako wishes he hadn’t even though he knows it was painful for him to stay. Some of his reasons are more valid than others, but that doesn’t make any of the thoughts go away. Neither does letting his ears go numb in the cold, but he’s not really sure what else to do and sometimes the house feels too small.

When the snow starts halfway melting, winter wonderland compressed into an ugly slush, he goes farther. Taako walks the grounds. They aren’t as large as they used to be, because a lot of land became public property after the McDonald family ran out of heirs. If he ever does trespass over those borders no one is around to notice.

When he goes back to the headstone he doesn’t find closure. There’s no sense of peace washing over him, no message from beyond the veil to let him know they did the right thing. He keeps the area clear of weeds and fallen branches mostly because he feels shitty when he sees a graveyard left ignored.

Taako spends too long feeling like this. Weeks stretch into months and it doesn’t change, except that he gets mad about it. He’s angry Angus is gone, he’s angry Angus was ever here, he’s angry that he’s let this get under his skin to the point that he can’t climb the last set of stairs in his own goddamn house.

He’s angry enough that he does it anyway, stomping steps echoing in the dead air. He doesn’t pause his stride, doesn’t hesitate once until he comes to the door of Angus’s room, old dark wood pulled tightly closed. One breath. A second, deeper this time. He wants to go back downstairs, talk to Lup, maybe move out of this unhaunted house for good.

He twists the knob and opens the door.

It’s still a mess. No surprise there, not like anyone’s been coming up here to clean. Broken furniture and torn paper litter the floor. Burnt out wire and powdered charcoal, components left over from his casting that he just left on the ground. This part feels familiar, like the graves outside; it’s rude to leave someone’s space so unkempt.

He shuts the door behind him and starts to tidy what he can. Collects the colored pencils that have rolled off the desk and returns them to their cup. Straightens the quilt on the bed. Puts back the many things that were knocked off the shelves, books and toys and little novelty items. Some are chipped, and he picks broken glass out of the carpeting. The lamp bulb is burned out when he tries to turn it on. He pulls the curtains aside, but it doesn’t change the lighting much. When he puts his finger to the windowpane it comes away dark with grime. There’s a clear track where he’s touched, lighter than the rest, but the glass is still stained.

He sits on the cushioned seat in front of the window, wraps his hands around the bottom edge, and yanks.

It doesn’t want to open. He shifts it enough that a small cloud of grey powder and several paint chips hit him in the face. He shakes them off and tries again, bracing his knees against the bench to force it open.

When it finally moves it goes all at once, and then Taako’s just counting himself lucky he doesn’t fall out the window. He catches himself on the sill, but it’s easy to see that, fully opened, even Magnus could probably fit through it.

The wind that hits him is cool and damp. Not freezing, not the dry stillness that came with the snow. This is a different kind of irritation, pollen and mud and cottonwood seeds. Taako sits there in Angus’s room. He watches the sunshine illuminate the dark corners. Sees it glint off old dust newly stirred by the breeze. The small space is flooded by it, but when he turns his head he can breathe fresh air.

It’s springtime.

 


 

A boy wakes up in the Astral Plane.

It might be more accurate to say that the boy comes to in the Astral Plane, or that he becomes aware of his own presence there. To say he wakes would imply sleep, something he hasn’t done in a very long time.

Regardless, he is there, sitting beneath the cover of the Gate, still touching the the borders of this realm. He feels the ground under him, neither warm nor cool but entirely solid. It’s pleasant to push his feet down and meet resistance. It anchors him. For some time, as much as there is time here, he is content to sit in a steady place, to run his hands against the surface and feel it respond. It’s not smooth enough to be flat stone, too stable to be sand or loosely packed earth. Not soft enough to be grass, though he wouldn’t call it uncomfortable.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has known this boy to hear that his curiosity is what makes him open his eyes.

The world around him is muted in both sound and color. The ground at his feet, the sky over his head, everything he sees is shadowed and soft. There’s no clear light source. No sun, and yet it isn’t night. It isn’t day either, but some kind of dusk or dawn more uniform than any he saw in life. There’s a faint rush in his ears. It intensifies and recedes, predictably enough to be tuned out almost instantly. Just background noise.  

It is all he hears, until a voice behind him says, “Well, hello there. Who might you be?”

The boy turns. He sees a tall man in a suit, dreadlocks pulled back away from his face. The man doesn’t look quite surprised to see the boy there. Curious, maybe.

“Hello, sir.” The boy returns his greeting, because he is polite. “My name is Angus McDonald.”

“That’s a nice name.” The man walks over and crouches down next to him, balanced on the balls of his feet. He looks smaller this way. Less imposing. His pant legs bunch up a bit around his ankles and the boy can see that his socks are red. “My name’s Kravitz. Do you know where you are?”

“The Astral Plane?”

“Guessed it the first try, wonderful. Let’s see if we can get you checked in,” he says, distractedly, flipping through a leatherbound book he’s summoned to his hands. The boy peers over his shoulder to see pages filled with words he can’t read. They’re organized in neat rows, but the characters are unfamiliar. They almost seem to shift when he looks too closely. He doesn’t even notice when the man stops skimming. “Ah, here we are. Angus R. McDonald, human, ten years old?”

The boy nods to confirm. He still doesn’t understand the rest of the page, but his name is there as clearly as if he’d signed it with his own hand.

“Running a bit late there, Angus.” The man grins at him. “You’ve kept us waiting.”

He rises and offers the boy a hand. It’s warm. He follows along when the man leads him away from the border, under the low arch of the Gate. “Am I in trouble?”

“No, of course not. It wasn’t your fault.”

This reassures him. But he’s curious. “Who’s fault was it?”

“I’d like to give you an answer, but to be truthful I’m not sure. Sometimes accidents happen. Edge cases, you understand.” He smiles down at the boy again. “But you’re safely here now, that’s what’s important.”

The sound is growing stronger, rushing in his ears. He sees a shoreline before him, not appearing suddenly so much as emerging from a fog. The water is as dark as the rest of this world. It ebbs and flows, cyclic, and he can’t see where it ends.

“Do you know my grandpa?” he asks. “He should be here, too.”

“Oh, I’ve met a lot of people,” he answers, which is a little too noncommittal for the boy’s taste. “What’s your grandpa’s name?”

He pauses for a few moments. “I don’t remember.”

“O...kay.” The man laughs, quietly, like he isn’t sure he should but can’t help it. “Well, there will be plenty of time to look for him. I’m sure he’ll be very excited to see you.”

They’re at the edge of the water now. His shoes are getting wet every time the tide rolls in, but it feels nice. “I’m excited to see him too. Thank you very much Mr. Kravitz,” he adds, because while he's still curious about this plane and this man, he can tell they’re done now and he’s grateful for the guide.. With the dark water washing over his feet, that urge to know is less pressing than it ever has been. Still present, central to his character, but lacking the frantic edge it had sometimes had. Now he feels like he'll have enough time to figure it all out on his own. 

The man gives him a smile and ruffles his hair gently before turning back to the Gate. “Welcome home, Angus.”