Far from mortal worries, Istus weaves her endless tapestry. The elf and the reaper are only a small part of its grand whole, but still she returns to them - adding a thread here, tugging a knot there. Over and over their threads weave together, criss-crossing and tangling.
SO YOU ARE MEDDLING IN THE AFFAIRS OF MY EMISSARIES, NOW, the Raven Queen says to her one day, but Istus has known her long enough to catch the amusement in her voice.
“It’s not meddling, darling,” she says cheerfully. People often have the misconception that she who decides the outcome of everything, but in truth, Fate is less clear than that. She’s an observer in her own way, her weavings changing in miniscule ways with every decision made, every path traveled or left unexplored. “It’s fate.”
A thousand ruffling feathers, a thousand wings taking flight. IF YOU SAY SO, the Raven Queen says.
The black robes are heavy and itchy, and Taako feels naked without his hat. Every time he squirms and tries to scratch his neck, Lup nudges him in the ribs as subtly as she can while keeping her head bowed, like Barry and the fifteen other robed figures kneeling in a circle - the only illumination coming from the Light of Creation, sitting on an onyx pedestal in the center of the chamber.
It’s always a pain in the ass when someone else gets their hands on the Light first. Way more difficult to deal with than when it lands in some wilderness where it can’t easily be picked up by passersby. Those times, if they have a good idea of where it fell, they can usually just send a few people out to retrieve it, a week or two of camping (Taako rarely volunteers) and the job is done, they’re off scott free for the rest of the cycle. But this - this requires infiltration, diplomacy, time and careful planning. Because the Light calls to people, draws them in, and people don’t want to give it up once they have it. Over the years they’ve learned it has some power over people, what Lucretia and Barry have taken to calling the “thrall” but what Magnus calls “craveability” (the latter caught on far more quickly, to Barry’s chagrin). They’ve seen people who have laid down and died before the Light rather than leave it’s presence, sorcerers whose power grew so great when they channeled the Light that it tore them apart. It calls on people, makes them want to use it or worship it, they crave the knowledge it promises, power beyond the divine or the arcane.
And sometimes that means they have to join a necromantic cult to get it back.
“Still don’t see why I had to come,” Taako mumbles to Lup out of the side of his mouth, head bowed, face obscured by the hood. Barry had leapt at the chance, of course, and Lup is just as much of a fucking weirdo nerd as Barry so she’d volunteered as well, but Taako doesn’t do necromancy. Whole thing gives him the heebie jeebies. Ironic, considering he’s died twice now, the latest after he jumped in front of a curse aimed at Lup. When he woke up the next cycle - haunted, again, by the feeling that he’d seen something, gone somewhere, but forgotten it all - she’d slapped him across the face and stormed away.
They don’t take it well when the other dies. Last time Lup died, he didn’t cook for nearly a week.
“Because we’re outnumbered,” Lup mutters back. Luckily the cultists are too entranced in their chanting to notice; the three of them have pretended to mouth the words so they don’t accidentally lend their own power to the ritual. Already in enough trouble for being pseudo-necromancers, no way do they want to have “raised an undead abomination” on their resumes - that is, if the cult actually succeeds for once. “And if shit goes south you’re better at magic missile than me.”
“Will you two be quiet?” Barry whispers, eyes locked on the Light, studying the set-up of the ritual they’ve stumbled into. There’s a bloody heart in the middle of a circle of runes - which Taako prays is from a cow or something instead of a person - and the Light sits on its pedestal, surrounded by complex runes and symbols, all carefully calculated - or at least Taako sure hopes it is, or the energy building up from the chanting could kill them all. Only thing worse than a successful evil ritual is a botched one. “Something’s happening.”
Sure enough, the energy in the chamber, relatively stagnant until now, is rising, the chanting growing louder, faster, as the circles drawn in fresh blood on the floor - blood they watched spill from the hand of one lucky cultist before the ritual began - begin to crackle with energy and the Light flares brighter. Taako imagines he can feel it’s joy at finally being used; it doesn’t care for what purpose. More runes in a language he doesn’t read - probably Infernal - appear along the edges, and the hair on Taako’s arms stands on end. Beside him Barry clutches Lup’s arm, and they all hold their breath.
The ritual comes to it’s peak as something pulls itself from the circle, something decaying and half-skeletal, humanoid but enormous, with horns extending from it’s skull. In unison, the cultists cease their chanting and bow before it, foreheads touching the stone floor; Taako, Lup, and Barry hurry to do the same. They monster seems to be trapped in the summoning circle, and it screams as it realizes this, the sound making Taako’s teeth rattle. The cultists praise it, but it doesn’t even look at them.
The chamber dims as the Light, no longer energized from the chanting of the cultists, dims to it’s normal radiance, though even that is nearly too bright to look upon directly. Taako turns his head to look at Lup and Barry, and finds them looking back, wide-eyed.
This is way, way bigger than they thought.
“Five wizards, one cleric, one fighter,” Taako mutters - as quiet as he can manage, given how his footsteps echo as he prowls the lair of the Order of Afflux. “Great idea, IPRE! How did that board meeting go? Hey, could we maybe have one rogue? Maybe another fighter? Nah, who needs one, not us, just throw another fucking wizard on the team! Gee, wonder why we keep dying! Fuck!”
This part of the mission, he knows, is the main reason he was dragged along. Lup is too damn loud, and Barry’s constantly stumbling over his own feet, but Taako is sneaky as hell. So here he is, stuck creeping through a dusty, creepy dungeon to retrieve the Light of Creation before they have the chance to raise another undead hellbeast like the one currently chained up in the ritual chamber, screaming bloody murder. Meanwhile Lup and Barry are waiting for him at a predetermined location not far from this dungeon - if he doesn’t show up with the Light within a few hours, they’re supposed to return with backup rather than take on the cult and aforementioned hellbeast alone. He and Lup and Barry aren't high enough in the ranks yet to have any insider info on what, exactly, the cult leaders are going to do with the monster; Taako’s betting that they just summoned it to prove they could. Whatever it is, it can’t be good, and the first step of stopping them is to retrieve the Light.
Finding it isn’t hard. They have it on display, sort of, in a chamber where they keep all kinds of supposedly ancient relics that they claim are incredibly powerful, though Taako could tell with a quick sweep of detect magic that most of them are junk. It’s guarded, but Taako knows about a secret way in - a trap door in the floor, accessible through a maze of dusty tunnels. He doesn’t know what this place was used for before the cult set up shop, but he’s not sticking around to learn more.
He reaches the trap door, and along with a quick wave of his wand mutters the incantation for Dispel Magic. Sure enough, he feels something shift in the air, a small wave of magical energy dissipating, a lock on the door now rendered useless. Satisfied, he pushes up on the door, quietly closing it behind him after he pulls himself up and into the chamber.
His darkvision would allow him to see in the dark chamber, but even that isn’t necessary with the glow from the Light of Creation, sitting in a place of honor atop it’s pedestal. Clearly the leader is more concerned with showing off his treasure than making sure no one else can get to it. The Light pulses and seems to flare a little brighter as he approaches it, like it recognizes him. Well, it should, after all these years.
“Long time no see,” he murmurs to it, shrugging off the hood of the heavy black necromancer’s robe, and then he throws out another spell to cloak the room in silence - no point in sneaking through that trap door if he’s just going to alert the guards outside. He takes a glance around the chamber. The Light, obviously, is the most important thing in here, but there are other treasures scattered about too, and well, Taako’s fingers are getting mighty itchy.
No point in dungeoneering if you don’t get a little looting in, as he always says. He gathers up what he can carry, the couple of magic items worth his time, a golden goblet inlaid with precious stones, jewelry from the small chest sitting in the corner. His pockets full and heavy, he figures he still has to leave room in his bag for the Light, and regrettably sets one particularly large amber figurine back where he found it.
Being in plain view as it is, there’s no way the Light of Creation isn’t surrounded by traps. That’s treasure hunting 101, this is the cult leader’s most prized possession and it’s a given that half the people who have joined this little operation are here because they’re drawn to the Light and the power it promises, of course it’s trapped, but the question is how, and if he can disarm it without setting it off himself. He keeps a careful distance from the pedestal, trying to figure out if there are any spells protecting it, those he could deal with easy. If he weren’t already keeping one ear to the ground, making sure the guard outside doesn’t realize he’s in here, he might not have heard the footsteps coming up behind him.
“Trying to snatch that power up for yourself, are you, acolyte? What would your leader have to say?”
His first thought is that it’s one of the necromancers, that someone finally noticed him missing from the sleeping quarters, and he spins around, wand raised. But the voice gives him pause, despite the unfamiliar accent. The intruder is, indeed, in black robes, face shadowed by his hood, but not the same as what Taako wears now. No, this robe is all black feathers, and if that wasn’t familiar enough, the scythe that the intruder spins almost lazily in his hands certainly is.
“Kravitz? ” In his surprise, he drops part of his loot, a golden cup clattering loudly to the ground. He cringes, but luckily his silencing spell hasn’t dropped, the guards stationed outside should still be oblivious.
Kravitz lifts his head, letting the hood fall back slightly, as he steps out of the shadowed corner of the room, and Taako’s heart leaps in wild joy at the sight of him, joy he doesn’t expect from himself, a smile spreading across his face. It falls away when he realizes the lack of recognition in Kravitz’s eyes. No softness there, only grim determination. Maybe even disgust, and Taako is very aware of his own disguise, the black robes identical to those worn by every member of the cult.
“So this… looks bad, huh?” Taako says, mouth dry. “This looks real bad, that’s on me, should’ve left the robes at home, I’ll own up to that one.”
He’d expected trouble, of course, fully expected to have to fight his way out of here once he actually got his hands on the Light, but not this. So far Kravitz hadn’t made an appearance this cycle, but even then Taako had sort of forgotten that it might be a problem. It’s not like Kravitz shows up every cycle, it’s just been half-glimpses and vaguely ominous flocks of ravens overhead, encounters he could almost pass off as his imagination if he didn’t know better, since… well. The last time. Encounters he didn’t even bother telling Lup about, just steering her and the rest of the crew subtly away if he suspected that Kravitz was prowling around. Mostly because he doesn’t want to have to explain the last time.
Meaning that the possibility of encountering the Grim Reaper hasn’t been factored into any of their plans; meaning that once again, Taako is facing him alone. Because what were the chances of ever seeing him again, even if there is some alternate universe version of him on every fucking plane, what are the odds that they would find each other, again and again?
Still. Even the first time, he had never looked at Taako like this. Like they're enemies.
“Necromancer of the Order of Afflux,” he intones, in an accent so utterly atrocious that Taako would laugh at him if he weren’t so utterly caught off guard. “You, and all your company, are in violation of the laws of the Raven Queen.”
“What the fuck is that accent, you keep slipping into Cockney? Like, what? ”
“What’s wrong with my accent?” He seems momentarily thrown off by this, and maybe even offended, and the accent slips from Cockney to distinguished and posh, which is somehow worse, actually. Taako snickers.
“Krav, no. It’s so bad."
“I don’t know how you learned my name, but - nevermind, that’s not important. How did you raise the abomination?” Kravitz demands. The Light keeps drawing his attention, and oh god they can not let Kravitz have that, no more than they can let the necromancers keep it. He can’t imagine what a goddess’s servant could do with power like that, even with the best of intentions. “Did you use the power of the artifact?”
“Whoa, hey, I didn’t do shit. But if you wanna help me get this thing out of here, maybe pop one of those portals of yours, I’ll make it worth your while,” Taako says, wiggling his eyebrows.
Kravitz ignores him, takes a slow step forward, while Taako stands his ground. “Don’t bother lying to me. I can smell the death on you. You’ve been on my radar a long time, Taako Taaco. I didn’t expect to find such a valuable bounty among a half-baked cult like this. You’ve already used this power to bring yourself back from the dead.”
“I mean - kind of, but not how you think. Ah shit, I shouldn’t have said that. Look, it’s, it’s complicated, I can explain. Again, I guess, Jesus this sucks.”
“It’s far too late for that. The abomination will be destroyed, and you will all be taken to the Eternal Stockade for the crime of the raising of an undead abomination, a threat to the people of the Material Plane. And you, my friend, will be tried for your repeated disregard for the laws of Death.”
“Killing me won’t do you any good, my man,” Taako says, his heart beginning to pound, he just needs Kravitz to listen. “I’ll just come back.”
Kravitz smirks. “Not if I have anything to say about it.”
“I’m serious, I’m trying to help you out here, look, do what you want with the rest of these fools but -”
Kravitz cuts him off, barely even looks at him. No sympathy from this version of Kravitz. He’s colder, harder. “I will also be taking this artifact back to the Astral Plane with me, it is too powerful for mortal hands.”
Taako shakes his head, and steps to the right, coming to stand between Kravitz and the Light. “Can’t let that happen. Fate of world kiiiinda depends on it, you know how it is.”
“Stand aside.” Kravitz begins to walk forward, and his hands tighten around the scythe as his skin begins to melt away into nothing, revealing the bone beneath. Taako takes a deep breath, and stands his ground. “You may come quietly, or I can use force. I would really rather not use force.”
“Uh, third option, neither,” Taako says. “Just, just put the fucking scythe down, Jesus Christ, I’m trying to save the world here.”
Kravitz sighs. For a moment he seems sad, regretful that Taako is among his bounties. Just like the last time, when he had ultimately settled their bounties with the Raven Queen herself. There is still some shadow of the man Taako knows, it’s always him, and if he just had time to talk he could...
“Suit yourself,” Kravitz says, and lunges.
He’s fast. It’s all Taako can do to dodge his scythe, ducking and rolling away from each swipe, but Kravitz simply continues to stalk toward him. He throws up a magical shield just in time to block one hit, but the impact against his barrier makes him stumble back. He doesn't even have time to think of what to do, forced on the defensive with no opportunity to get an advantage.
“Kravitz, it’s me!” He catches himself before he falls, drawing himself back up to his full height. “You don't have to do this! Just listen, this isn't what you think!”
Stupid, of course, he knows Kravitz doesn’t know him, not really, he never has before. Still, that’s the strategy he turns to, though there’s no logic to it, only emotion and pleading. Another slash, narrowly dodged, the scythe ringing out at it's tip collides with the stone floor, right in the spot where Taako had just been standing. And it hits Taako with the weight of a stone at the bottom of a river that Kravitz - who kissed him, and held him, who argued Taako’s case against his own goddess - is really trying to kill him.
Stepping backwards, Taako’s foot hits wood instead of stone and his heart leaps; as fast as he can manage, he grabs the handle of the trap door that he had come through.
It doesn’t budge, despite there being no obvious mechanism to lock it - the spell automatically reactivated. “Fuck!”
He starts to give it another yank, Dispel Magic on the tip of his tongue but Kravitz is on him before he has the chance, forcing him back, away from the trap door. The only other exit all the way across the room.
“Krav -” he starts, but it’s no use, he's still attacking, and Taako knows he can't keep dodging and throwing out shielding spells forever. He’s no match for the Reaper, not alone. He has to fight back somehow, he has to get back to Lup and Barry, he has to… Yet, though he can think of half a dozen offensive spells that could at least buy him a little time, he can't bring the incantations to his lips. Can’t hurt him, not his Kravitz, he can’t.
“I’m not going to fight you,” Taako says, and on his next step back he finds himself pressed against damp stone. Nowhere else to run.
Attack attack attack ! He screams at himself, but when he raises his hand all that comes out is another Shield - clumsy, weak, it buckles under the next blow. Kravitz doesn’t hesitate the way he did.
Heat, wet, blood, too quick to register pain. His knees hitting stone as he crumples to the floor, his last sight Kravitz’s shiny black shoes and his own blood on stone before his vision goes dark, as he dies for the third time.
Dying is easy.
Living is clawing your way up, dirt under broken nails, living is holding on desperately to whatever you can, but dying is so easy . Floating down a gentle river, buffeted by the current.
Still fucking hurts, though.
Taako drifts. It might be hours, but it's probably only moments; it hardly matters. Hours for him to be half-aware of the drifting, and the nothingness. It doesn't hurt, now, there's nothing of him left to hurt, there’s nothing, he’s nothing - a flare of panic that he soothes quickly back to ambivalence. This is not forever. He will come back. His awareness stretches out from him like roots reaching for water, for anything tangible to cling to, but when they brush some other presence he pulls himself back, pulls himself into the smallest shape he can. Hiding from whatever is out there.
He’s been here before, he knows that now. This place that is not a place feels familiar, the way Kravitz has always felt familiar. He supposes that with every death they must arrive here, in this limbo, this nothing-place, but with nothing but himself - his scattered and constantly expanding self - to hold onto he hadn't remembered it before, or hadn't been aware of it at all. He isn't alone this time, and that’s scary as hell but all he can do is try to be invisible, floating free in the nothingness, blindly trying to keep himself together, all the scattered pieces of his consciousness, of his soul. It helps, he finds, to think of it like a spacewalk, like zero-gravity, but if it’s a spacewalk he’s untethered from his ship, lost.
Well, shit, he thinks, as soon as he has enough presence to form a coherent thought. He startles himself when his thoughts make a sound, or a feeling that can be interpreted as speech, if there’s a difference.
Warmth, then, surrounded, safe, something gathering the pieces of him together. Feathers? No, hands - Kravitz’s hands. Not really hands, but he interprets them as such, just as he interprets this presence as Kravitz, this sensation as touch, assigned meaning giving this place form, however vague and temporary. His panic rises again - what if this is it, what if Kravitz can really kill him here?
Unspooling, infinite, automatically trying to flee, no no no, but as those hands come around him he is soothed. I have you. You're safe. It shouldn't be a comfort, his soul cradled in the reaper’s palms, wisps of him flowing through the cracks like water but still he tries to hold him together. It is comforting all the same, an anchor in this vast sea, his only reference point.
You’re safe, but - you shouldn't be here, Kravitz says, voiceless, all around him, within him, whatever there is of Taako here shudders with the sensation of it. This is - wrong, something is wrong. You should be in the Astral Plane. Why are you here?
Belatedly he realizes that the ease he feels now comes from Kravitz, a reassurance transmitted between them; at this point, in this place, it’s Kravitz’s duty to keep his soul safe, whatever becomes of him. He shouldn't be here but he will not be harmed, not by Kravitz’s hand. Kravitz believes this so strongly that Taako must, too. But it fluctuates - Kravitz is unsure. Kravitz doesn’t know what to do other than keep him safe and whole.
Because you fuckin’ put me here, you asshole. I told you! Taako says, or feels, or thinks, he doesn't have a voice, a mouth, breath; it doesn’t seem to matter. Very little actual venom behind it, more resigned than angry or afraid. It’s disappointingly unsatisfying, getting to say I told you so in this particular situation. I told you, I tried to explain and you wouldn't - you can't kill us, we always come back.
Us? The Cult of Afflux?
Those idiots are a fuckin’ sham, never got anything done until they got their hands on the Light of Creation. Hell no.
Is that how you’re making this happen, is it this... Light of Creation?
I don't know.
You have died before, you’re dead now. But I can't get your soul into the Astral Plane, Kravitz says. He sounds so frightened. Regretful. In his hands Taako’s soul grows brighter, warmer, as he tries to send some reassurance back, it's okay, it's not your fault. He shouldn't give two fucks if Kravitz is afraid, but here he is anyway. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. This is all wrong.
I tried to tell you, Taako says. Dying doesn’t stick.
You did, Kravitz agrees. And I didn’t listen. I’m so sorry.
Taako doesn’t respond to that, he’s not sure how. Hard to accept an apology when a guy just murdered you. Yet Kravitz seems truly worried by this, so distressed by the idea of a soul that cannot fully die. Like he was trying to help, in his own twisted way. So this place… this isn’t the Astral Plane?
No. We’re… between. Some call it the Veil, or the Gate. I’m supposed to guide you through but I can’t. You’re dead but you’re no lich, you’re not undead, what have you done to yourself? How are you doing this?
I don’t know, Taako says softly. He can feel Kravitz’s distress so acutely; he really, truly thought he was doing the right thing. Just doing his job. He really has no idea who Taako is, and Taako should have known that, it shouldn’t hurt this much. I’m sorry, I don’t know.
So they are dying, not being saved from the brink of death each time. He’d always wondered, though it had only been a question of semantics before it turned out they were criminals by the laws of a goddess none of them worship. It’s ironic, now that Taako thinks of it. Kravitz needs him dead, really dead, but has only added to his death count. He remembers what Kravitz had said, cycles ago, about death changing the shape of a soul. Will there be anything left of them, when this journey is over?
Why didn't you fight back? Kravitz demands, sudden. “I won't fight you." You said that. Why?
Why indeed? Because they fucked, once? Because he can't separate this person from the one that was kind to him, because for some reason he can't believe that Kravitz is his enemy, even now? A thought strikes him, sudden as lightning: Kravitz - the Light, the artifact - you can't let anyone else take it.
Well, obviously. It's immensely powerful.
No, listen. You need to find Barry Bluejeans. His name is in your spooky book but I swear he's not with these dudes and neither am I. Give him the Light.
Why would I -
My man, this is world-ending levels of important, so if you’d listen to me for like two seconds that would be swell. No one else can have this thing, not even you. Give. Barry. The. Light. Or this whole plane is toast.
Kravitz is quiet. Those hands touch his soul with care, like checking him for wounds. It isn’t physical, but he interprets it as such and so it might as well be, and Taako hums under the prying touch. Taako missed him, all this time. He hadn’t allowed himself to think about it, really, but here all his feelings seem amplified, in a way he is nothing but his feelings, and he’d missed Kravitz with an intensity that he doesn’t know how to keep contained.
Dear gods, Kravitz says, and Taako imagines that if he could see his face it would go pale now. You aren't lying.
What are you doing to me?
Looking into your soul.
Buy me dinner first.
I'm trying to understand… Oh, Kravitz says, soft and reverent. Taako sends questioning, curiosity, what has Kravitz seen in him? I… I know this soul - why do I...?
He’s so gentle turning Taako over in his hands. Taako wishes for a moment that he could stay in this place, stay like this, that he could curl closer, nestle against Kravitz’s chest and listen to his heartbeat and rest. Just for a little while. Time doesn’t seem real here, he doesn’t know if he’s been here for minutes or years. It’s hard to remember that this is the man who just killed him; he knows, he felt the blade that struck him down, but reconciling that with the hands that hold him together now is impossible. Kravitz has kissed him more times than he has killed him.
You do know me, he says, knowing Kravitz won't believe him, needing to try anyway. Their feelings are so open here, no flimsy mortal bodies to separate them, nothing but two souls mingling. Taako can feel every little flicker of Kravitz’s curiosity, his anxiety - worry that he has failed in his duty. He doesn’t entirely like that he doesn’t know the rules here, the parameters of this place, how to keep his emotions in check. He tries not to reveal anything, no affection, nothing, not to this version of Kravitz who could strike Taako down so easily, no matter how much his own instincts say he’s still his. He isn’t sure if he succeeds.
But I don't.
You can feel it too, try to remember, just try.
Gods. Your soul - Kravitz’s hands seem to tighten around him.
What is it?
There is so much of you, Kravitz says quietly. Fractured. Fragmented. You are scattered across a hundred thousand realities - where does it end?
How small is the piece of him that Kravitz holds compared to a complete soul, one that hasn’t been marred by death after death after death? Kravitz digs deeper, looks further, and curious - feeling as though he’s uncovering some secret - Taako opens eyes that are not eyes to see what Kravitz sees when he looks at his soul, and gasps.
He’d nearly forgotten after so long what it looked like, that space between planes where they had been torn apart, the weave of the universe in miniature before him, or within him, maybe, he thinks, theorizing wildly, it is not the universe but the structure of a soul that he sees, maybe there is no difference between the two. It’s beautiful; he hadn’t realized it back then. He is miniscule; he is infinite.
Just like before, he can see echoes of the seven of them stretching into infinity, and now there’s Kravitz - clear as day, a parallel line they keep crossing despite all natural laws. He can see how they are bound together, he and Lup and the rest of the crew, a phenomena he understands, has evidence of in the form of the bond engine and their ship, but it’s never been visible outside of this place , white shimmering cords that stretch between them, between himself and every aspect of Kravitz, between Kravitz and the Raven Queen in every world, existing simultaneously. The Light falling to countless worlds at once, the Hunger descending over it all at once, the same patterns into infinity and nothing to stop it except for a silver ship, a bright beacon in the encroaching dark. He can see all of it.
I see the Raven Queen, Kravitz is saying, I see - myself? What is this?
Yes! Taako says, flaring bright with excitement knowing Kravitz can see it too - the bonds between the the two of them, over and over, white strings connecting every version of them across universes no matter how far apart. The two of them bound together, just as he and Lup are. A thing he’s felt, yes, but hadn't known what it was, here is proof, here is what they really are manifest, a physical thing, he understands, now, understands everything, he has so much to tell Lup - Yes, you! You’re always there, in every world!
But not me. Not the same me. Just… another part of Her.
But Taako is sure, now, sure that Kravitz is the same man every single time they meet, that somewhere down where perhaps he can’t reach, Kravitz remembers him. What he’d said that the last time they met, that he felt like he’s been searching for Taako, is real, as clear as the bond tying them together. You find me every time, you know me; it’s you, it’s always you.
You’re the same. Every time, you are you - what happened to you, Taako? What did this to you?
As suddenly as he came to be here he is wrenched away; he feels Kravitz hold on, every one of his instincts telling him not to let this soul go free again, and Taako tries to reach for him. He wants to stay, there’s still so much to learn, the universe mirrored in the shape of a soul, he can finally make Kravitz understand - but the bond engine proves stronger than whatever power the Raven Queen has given him. Those familiar strings of light knit Taako back together out of nothing, out of all the bits and pieces and fragments of him, and Taako breathes, and he sees, and he feels Lup’s hand holding his.
He barely has time to process that he’s alive, again, before the crew has encircled him, and Lup is in his face, arms crossed, her expression a perfect mix of anger and worry, and he begins to reassure her that he’s alright - he’s always alright - before she cuts him off.
“You have some goddamn explaining to do, little bro.”
They corner him on the bridge as soon as Davenport gets them back on course to the Material Plane, despite his protests. He’s just been remade after being dead for a good part of a year, he’s not in the mood to hash it all out now, he wants a stiff drink and greasy food to knock out this decades-old hangover and then he’ll be right as rain. But everyone has that same awful look on their faces, scared for him, like they haven’t died before. At this point it's only Lucretia who hasn’t - she’s more cautious than the rest, staying out of trouble most of the time.
Taako avoids all of their eyes as they sit him down, finding his throat and mouth dry. He swallows. “So, uh, what’s I miss?” He says with a half hearted grin. “We get the Light? Save the world and all that?”
It feels like a joke to him at this point, saving the world. Doesn't feel like it means a damn thing when they just have to do it all over again in a year.
Lup is the only one who doesn't look scared. Lup looks pissed, minutes away from boiling over. She flops down on to the couch next to Barry, across from Taako. He doesn't miss the way that Barry flushes, shifting in his seat when her leg touches his. “Yeah. We got it,” Lup says, voice clipped. She’s always weird after he dies - he’s always weird too - but she’s never mad at him, none of them are ever mad about it.
“Great! So everything's chill, yeah?”
“Except the part where you died, Taako,” Lucretia says, slowly, like she’s talking to a stupid kid. Taako huffs.
“Yeah, alright, I died, I don't - that happens, what’s the issue here? Cause if that’s all I’d love to just get back to work. Anyone hungry?”
“What the fuck were you thinking?” Lup sits up, aaaaand there’s the explosion. “You didn't think, just maybe, that it would be a good idea to let me know we’re still being hunted by the Grim fuckin’ Reaper?”
Taako’s breath catches in his throat, his ears drooping back. “Did he attack you, too?”
“No,” Davenport finally interjects. He’s the only one not sitting, straight backed and proper as he stands a little higher than eye-level with Taako. “Quite the opposite actually. Soon after Lup went back to the dungeon, against orders, I might add, and found you dead and the Light of Creation missing - ” at this, Lup’s fingers dig into the fabric of her seat - “a reaper known as Kravitz found where the Starblaster was docked. Said he was looking for Barry Bluejeans, and would only talk to him. He gave Barry the Light, and said that he was sorry, and left.”
Magnus nods, as if to confirm the story. “Had to stop Lup from burning him to a crisp.”
“Yeah, and you should've let me!” Lup snaps. “Second time he's fuckin’ come after Taako, if I see that creep again…”
“Taako,” Davenport says. He doesn't know which is worse, Lup’s temper or Davenport’s lack of one. Both make him want to sink down into the couch and disappear. The fact that he’s alive, that he was dead and then not, is catching up to him. He hasn't gotten used to it yet. A certain rush of adrenaline that leaves him sick and shaky. Davenport looks at him with no indication of his emotions as he goes on. “Was this the very same Kravitz that attacked you before?”
“He didn't attack me, he was after Magnus,” Taako corrects, automatically feeling the need to defend Kravitz despite what just happened. Or rather, what happened four months ago, might as well have been seconds for him. He sighs, leaning forward, head in his hands. “It's… very fucking complicated.”
“That doesn't tell us much, kiddo,” Merle says. “How often has he been coming around?”
“I’ve met him three times total. Maybe four or five but I wasn't sure if it was him or if I was imagining things. Three times that mattered. ”
Not much point in keeping things secret now.
“Jesus fuck, Taako,” Lup says.
“I handled it, alright? I kept him from coming after us.”
“Clearly fucking not, left you to bleed out on the fucking floor -”
The slash of a blade across his chest, the memory near enough to feel it; Taako shudders, fingers pressing into his arms, he hadn't realized he had wrapped them around himself. The second time he’d met Kravitz he’d acted like he was unable to attack Taako, “compelled” to let him go, but this Kravitz had no such qualms. Nothing in those cold eyes. Not until they were in that nothing-place together, the in between, and Taako had been so sure, so sure that he was the same man. And now he doesn't know. Everything he’d thought he understood in that place, where his his consciousness and his soul flowed free, muddled now in all the limitations of mortality.
“How is he tracking us across planar systems?” Davenport has started pacing now, worrying his impressive copper mustache between his index and middle fingers. “In all this time we’ve never run across a civilization that figured out intersystem travel the way we have, but I suppose it's not outside the realm of possibility…”
“He’s not,” Taako interrupts. “That’s not how it works.”
“Then enlighten us, Taako,” Lucretia says. She’s been scribbling notes this whole time. “Because we’ve been kept utterly in the dark so far.”
“I - it’s just a theory.” It’s not. He knows it, he saw it, but the idea of proving how he knows, explaining where he was, with the crew all staring at him, feels impossible. “He’s a servant of the Raven Queen, gets his power from her - he’s a part of her , right? Any plane where the Raven Queen exists, so does he. But he doesn't remember us. Or so he claims.”
“Taako, why didn't you think we needed to know about this?” Davenport demands. “You’ve put every one of us in danger. As your captain, at the very least I should have been informed.”
“He’s not always bad! Seriously, this is the only time he’s actually hurt me.” He shivers again, thinking about it. The dissonance between how afraid he’d been when Kravitz attacked and the peace he’d felt in the Veil impossible to reconcile, and his head aches, and everything is too raw. “I had it handled, I mean, he returned the Light, didn't he?”
“Clearly you didn't. And not only did you endanger the crew, but we nearly lost the Light in the process.”
“I know, okay?” Taako snaps, too loud. His voice cracks.
“Hey, Taako.” Barry speaks up for the first time the whole shitty interrogation. “Why don’t you and Lup come to the kitchen with me, we’ll make some tea.”
“We aren’t finished -” Davenport begins, but Barry surprises everyone by interrupting the captain.
“I think Taako could really use a cup of tea,” he says firmly, standing up. Lup looks at Taako and all at once her anger seems to drain away, leaving only worry. Only then does Taako realize how violently his hands are shaking. He clenches them into fists to try to stop it.
Davenport hesitates and then sighs. “Of course. I ought to check the ship’s calibrations anyway, make sure nothing was damaged exiting the atmosphere. Magnus, you’re with me, the rest of you are dismissed.”
“Thank you, Captain.” Barry nods to Taako, who stands up and follows close behind him and Lup.
Barry immediately puts a kettle on, while Taako sits at the table, Lup beside him. Even now that he’s out of there, now that everyone isn’t fucking staring at him and waiting on him to explain, Taako can't seem to stop shaking. He takes a long, deep breath, hiding his face in his hands. He can still see it when he closes his eyes, everything he’d seen in that nowhere-space, and it’s too much right now. It can take time to catch up with the fact that you were dead and then not, the effects delayed, and he feels it in full force now. Can still feel the blade slicing through his chest. Kravitz’s blade.
Kravitz who both killed him and kept his soul safe and whole, and how the fuck is he supposed to reconcile any of that?
The clink of a mug settling on the table brings him back to the present, oolong steam rising to his nose. He wraps his hands around the mug though it’s still too hot to drink and breathes it in. “Thanks,” he says quietly. Barry’s warm smile is… a surprising comfort, actually. He doesn't normally want to be around anyone but Lup when he’s upset, but this is okay.
“Don’t worry about it. Seemed like you were getting overwhelmed in there,” Barry says, fixing a cup for himself and Lup as well before he sits on Taako’s other side. “Sorry we cornered you like that, bud. Seriously, are you okay?”
“No.” Not the answer he expects to tumble from his mouth. He squeezes his eyes shut against the sudden pricking of tears that he refuses to let fall. So stupid.
“Whoa, hey.” Lup reaches for his hand, gripping it tight.
“Don't - don't worry about it, nevermind, I'm fine.” He sucks in another deep breath. “Fuck.”
Barry reaches out and squeezes his shoulder, a little awkwardly maybe, but Taako accepts the gesture. “Death isn't exactly a walk in the park, man. I think we all get it. Normal to be a little shaken up.”
Shaken up. Taako wants to laugh but he can't quite make it come out, god, their lives are absolutely insane.
“Next time you catch a glimpse of that fucker, you just let me know,” Lup says. “I don't know why he’s always hunting you but long as I’m around he won't lay a finger on you. Promise.”
“He’s not - it’s not like that,” Taako says, and Lup is watching him expectantly for an explanation, so he sighs, avoiding her eyes. “The, uh. The last time that he was… he and I…” He trails off, trusting her to fill in the blanks.
“Oh,” she says, and then, “ Oh.”
Taako can’t help but laugh, weak and wavering as it is. Can't be the same Kravitz, there's no way that the Kravitz he’d trusted enough to bring back to his room would look at him the way this Kravitz had, so cold. But there's something there. Some part of their souls that’s the same across planes, bound, even if Kravitz can't remember, that keeps drawing them together against all odds. And what he had felt when their souls mingled in that place - that felt familiar. Felt right.
He can still feel Kravitz’s hands on him if he thinks hard enough, and his cold skin warming beneath Taako’s body, and his shy smile that made Taako wish he could have asked him to stay. Not that it would have mattered; even if Kravitz rears his head each cycle he doesn’t know them. Taako doesn’t know how to explain everything to him in a way that he’ll believe, doesn’t know if there’s even a point in trying.
“Yeah.” He takes a long drink of his tea. “Yeah, that happened.”
“Well,” Barry says, sounding surprisingly unsurprised. “That makes things more complicated.”
“I’m definitely gonna have to murder him now,” Lup says. “Barry, how do you kill a reaper?”
“Shit, I have no idea.”
He really doesn't want Kravitz murdered. It's stupid but there is is. Taako doesn't say this, or anything more about what happened with Kravitz. He’ll tell Lup later, he promises himself, later when they inevitably curl up together in his bunk because not touching after months apart is unbearable, he will tell her where he went and what he saw, and maybe she’ll believe him. He hopes that she was okay, while he was gone, that she wasn't lonely. Something about how close she and Barry have been sitting makes him think they’ve both had plenty of company.
But for now he leans on Lup’s shoulder, and lets her lean on his, and he tries to stop thinking about much of anything. Tries not to wonder - or hope - if Kravitz will appear this cycle too, or the next, if there's a pattern he can predict, if there’s anything that he can do to convince him that they’re not enemies. Lup kisses the top of his head and murmurs, “I missed you.”
“Don't make me find your fucking body again, Jesus Christ.”
He laughs, though it isn't really funny.