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Chapter Text

Kravitz clears his throat and begins to read from the book that hovers in a cloud of gray smoke before him, awash in dark, divine energy that makes the hair on Taako’s arms stand on end. Taako can’t see the page, but he knows exactly what it says: Taako Taaco, seven deaths. Merle Highchurch, fifty-three deaths. Lup Taaco, ten deaths. And so on.

“Taako Taaco, you are found guilty of -”

“Of breaking the natural laws of life and death as governed by Her Majesty the Raven Queen,” Taako recites from memory, waving a hand. Impatient, bouncing on the balls of his feet, the speech has gotten boring after the thirtieth time hearing it. “Yeah, yeah, I gotcha. You caught me.”

Kravitz blinks, startled by the interruption and that Taako had presumably taken his exact words out of his mouth. “Yes, that’s correct - and between you and me, I’m intrigued as to how you pulled it off. Seven deaths without checking into the Astral Plane, that’s nearly unheard of.”

“Oh, you flirt.”

“Why on Earth are you smiling at me like that?” Kravitz scowls at him, clearly not used to the kind of reaction Taako is giving him.

He’s grinning really, his cheeks hurt from it. It’s been so long. It’s been so long and it’s so fucking good to see him, he wants to throw his arms around Kravitz, to kiss him, but he tries his hardest to stand still, instead. “Just missed you, Bones,” he says, means to sound cute, coy, but it just comes out painfully honest. He has missed him. So much it feels like he hasn't been able to take a full breath this entire time.

Missed me?” Kravitz’s brow furrows, and Taako should be used to this part by now, he’s been through it so many times. But he thinks it will always be the hardest thing, remembering that they’re strangers. The total lack of recognition in Kravitz’s eyes when he looks Taako over, the fear that this will be one of the cycles that Kravitz doesn’t believe their wild tale - Taako can’t blame him for that, but it still feels like a punch to the gut every time. “You seem to be under the impression that we’ve met. I don’t know you.”

“Nope,” Taako agrees. He reaches into his pocket, his hand closing around a small disk. Kravitz doesn’t miss the gesture, his hand curling tighter around his scythe, ready to strike at a moment’s notice. Taako tries not to flinch. “You don’t, but I know you.”

“If you think that you can trick me into letting you go -”

“Wouldn’t dream of it, babe.” He winks, reaching for Kravitz’s hand and pressing a small coin into it. It doesn’t look like anything special; brass, worn by years of being handled and unadorned except for the rune engraved in the middle - the only sign that it’s enchanted.  His hand lingers for a moment too long on Kravitz’s, on the familiar coolness of his skin, until Kravitz draws back, peering suspiciously at the coin like it’s going to bite him.

“That’s a recording device,” Taako explains. “It’s gonna tell you what you need to hear and it’s - uh, it’s gonna sound buckwild, but just listen, mmkay?”

Kravitz shakes his head, as expected, and tries to give the coin back. “Whatever you’re trying to do -”

“Kravitz,” Taako says softly, taking Kravitz’s hand in both of his. and curling it around the coin. This time Kravitz doesn’t pull away. He stares at Taako, eyes piercing red, and Taako imagines that he’s seeing recognition in those eyes, happiness at seeing him again. Maybe, just maybe, love. Too much to hope for, of course, but that has never stopped him. What do the two of them have besides hope? “Just… listen.”

Kravitz doesn’t have a chance to answer before the coin crackles to life and his own voice - tinny, scratchy, but still undeniably his - sounds from within it. Kravitz’s eyes go wide, and despite himself, Taako’s heart leaps at the sound, familiar to him, brand new to Kravitz.

Your name is Kravitz MacAllister…

But this is not the beginning of their story.

Beginnings are a funny thing. Like threads in a knot, you can't quite tease out which one will unravel it all. You could say it began when two runaway elves cast their first spell, desperate for the warmth of fire on a cold, lonely night. Or years later when those same elves joined a mission to the stars and left behind a world that could never hope to contain them, or when a Light fell from the sky and brought with it enlightenment and destruction.

But you've heard that story already. Perhaps further back, on another cold night, when a goddess grasped a wayward soul in the palm of her hands and, for reasons she herself didn't yet understand, decided this one will have a second chance, for even a goddess is not exempt from Fate's spinning.

All threads of a vast tapestry, one small part of a whole. But at one point all of these threads tangle for the first time, so entwined that Fate herself cannot fix them no matter how she tugs. She’s rarely seen anything like it.

“Huh.” She takes a step back and ponders this a moment. That thread, just there, represents the one who will be, and has always been, and has yet to be her emissary (time is less linear, in the Plane of the Gods, especially for Fate). A silvery, rainbow hued thread, all her favorite colors. Wrapped around and around a thread of black - ah, yes, of course. She smiles. “Well! That should be interesting.”

She doesn't tie off that string. Not yet.

Chapter Text

When Taako watches the thirteenth plane descend, pillars of black opal plunging down into the only home he has ever known, he has trouble feeling it for a long, horrid moment, disconnected from the reality of what he’s seeing. Lup takes action immediately, of course. She’s always been the one to react first, to get them out when shit broke bad. He can’t count on his hands how many scrapes she’s gotten them out of, even if half of them she started in the first place. Now, she's shouting in Captain Davenport’s face as his hands grip the wheel so hard his knuckles turn white. He stares straight ahead, focused on flying.

“We have to turn back,” she says, this close to grabbing the gnome’s shoulders and shaking him while the Starblaster ducks and weaves between tendrils of black, trying to buy them precious time. Waiting for a choice: turn back, or move forward. “Captain we have to turn back, we have to help them, we have to go back -

“Lucretia,” the captain says, voice hard with fear. A miserable thing to see your captain so afraid. Taako looks away, but it’s worse to look into the flickering color in the storm, something about it makes him feel dizzy to look into it. “Have you gotten a signal from the Institute?”

Lucretia stutters and stammers. Her journal is in her hands, but her pen is still, ink leaking onto the page the way the storm spreads impossibly fast over the graying surface of the Prime Material Plane. Taako tries to recall the name of a single person he could call family down there, anyone to remember.

“Lucretia!” Davenport snaps again.

“No,” Lucretia says, voice trembling. Gods, she’s just a kid, Burnsides too. Taako can’t look back at the crew, at the tears on Magnus’s face, at the way Barry, like Taako, stays too still, watching the descending storm in morbid fascination. Taako stands on the deck gripping the railing too hard, knuckles aching. Forgetting every spell he’s ever learned in the face of something this massive, all-encompassing black, they are nothing to it, he is nothing. It isn’t waiting for them to make their choice. “No, there’s nothing. We’re cut off.”

“We have to try something!” Lup yells. “Anything, we have to fight, I’m not just going to run away -”

You will follow your orders,” Davenport says, jaw set. “I’m making the call. We’ll regroup. Take your positions.”

“You can’t!”

Taako finally turns away from the storm and reaches for Lup’s hand, like they always had when they were kids. His aunt always told him that for their first decade they were never seen apart, rarely seen not holding each other’s hand even in sleep, and Taako believes it. Lup threads theirs fingers together and squeezes so hard it nearly hurts but he doesn’t let go.

He draws her close to him and the bond engine glows brighter as they fly up, and further, and he thinks the darkness must go on forever as the world shrinks away below them. There is a void between the planes, so much bigger than he could have ever imagined.

It doesn’t look solid, this space. But Taako is aware of a threshold, at some point, a place where space feels wrong. Thick and gelatinous somehow. And before he can look to anyone for an answer, before he can turn to Lup, he stops.

They all stop and they can’t scream as they are torn to pieces. Like a funhouse mirror, this impossible space, like seeing the threads that make up reality, the weft and weave that none of them are ever meant to see and it destroys them in less than an instant but it might as well be hours. He’s torn apart and Taako can see reflections of the seven of them in every direction, hundreds of thousands of versions of himself and Lup frozen there gripping each other’s hands, and he can’t tell how far it goes, how far he has been flung. And he’s studied bonds, but he’d never seen them - silver thread that wraps around them and connects them all, the cords between himself and the rest of the crew tenuous but steady, between himself and Lup unbreakable. And there is another bond, or perhaps the possibility of one, the thread so thin he can hardly begin to trace it to its other end. Someone is on the other side, he knows it, someone important, and he wants to follow, but in this moment he’s sure that he will never get the chance because he has died in this place. He doesn't know, yet, that this is not death but something else, something in between.

When it finally ends, years or hours or seconds later, he and Lup fall to their knees on the deck of the Starblaster. And as he scrambles to his feet, follows Lup to the bow to look at the worlds below, the planar system spinning around them, he realizes three things:

He’s not dead. This seems impossible, but here he is.

The thirteenth plane, he sees with dizzying relief, is gone.

The Material Plane’s atmosphere, instead of the purple it should be, that is has always been, is pale blue.

He and Lup don’t have to share a room, but they moved all their stuff to the same one regardless. They’re small, even the Captain's quarters - Davenport didn't want to be treated differently than his crew - with two bunks each, as well as a simple desk and wardrobe; Taako’s lucky enough to get one with a small porthole window, though no light shines through it now. They curl up together on the bottom bunk though it’s too small, and it feels like being back in one of the caravans. Two symmetrical shapes, faces close and hands clasped between them, knees touching, it’s childish but he figures no one can blame them, not now. Soul-siblings was the word for twins, in Elvish; so rare among elves, twins were considered lucky, two souls whose destinies were entwined. That luck, it was said, was twisted if a set of twins were separated. He wonders if there are any elves on this plane. If there are elves anywhere at all now.

If she had been on the Material Plane when it happened - if he had gotten chosen for the Starblaster mission and not her -

He can’t even think about it. His hand tightens around hers. She’s been the only thing he has for so long that he can’t even fathom something keeping them apart.

“You saw it too, right?” Lup whispers. It feels like the kind of thing that needs to be whispered about, the ship dead silent as they orbit a world that is not their home. He doesn’t need to ask what she means.

“Pretty fucked up,” Taako whispers back, which doesn’t even begin to describe how when he closes his eyes he can still feel his very essence tearing to shreds, scattered across the planar systems. He feels no different than he did before, and that is the worst thing of all, that pain on that scale could tear through him and leave him, at least on the surface, exactly the same. But there are no words for what they saw, no language for it in Elvish or Common or whatever the people in this new world will speak.  

They weren’t prepared for this, couldn’t have been. Not just the storm they fled from but the existence of a different Material Plane, an entirely different planar system than the one they came from. It upsets every hypothesis that the IPRE has developed with regards to the makeup of the universe and it leaves Taako’s head spinning with all of the possibilities, all their research that needs to be reevaluated when - if - they get home. They couldn’t have prepared for it but that doesn’t stop Taako from turning it over in his mind, what they could have done, what would have happened if they hadn’t fled.

There still hasn’t been a trace of a signal from the IPRE’s communicators. Taako can’t stop thinking about his students at the Institute, wondering if anyone survived. Gods only know what happens if they try to go back out there, to that empty space between the planar systems, if they’d ever find their way back. Davenport has ordered them to rest, but they’ve been lying awake together for hours; he doubts that the rest of the crew have fared any better, least of all the captain himself.

“Yeah.” Lup blinks as she looks at him, her eyes flashing yellow in Taako’s darkvision as they reflect the scant light of the room. “What happened to us?”

“I don’t know, Lulu.” He hasn’t used her child name in years, except to annoy her. She doesn’t tell him off for it now.

“ you think we’ll make it back?”

“Course we will, dingus.”

“I can tell when you’re lying, goofus.”

He is. None of them know what will happen now. If there is a home to go back to. That keeps dawning on him gradually; he realized earlier that the apartment he and Lup share is gone, now, and then that New Elfington is gone. A world that never gave the two of them anything they didn’t have to fight tooth and nail for. But Taako’s family, the only person that really mattered from that world? She’s right here with him, and he won’t let anything hurt her, just like she won’t let anything hurt him.

They’ll be okay. They always are.

He lifts a finger and boops her on the nose, making her face scrunch up and her ears twitch. “Hey. It’s still me and you, yeah? Me and you against the world.”

“You and me,” she says, determined. It’s strange to be talking so seriously with her, even with the half-hearted jokes and the nicknames. They aren’t strangers to running away, to dealing with crisis after crisis, that’s the pattern of their lives. They’ve learned to laugh everything off, to make it into a joke until the things they’ve been through have no power over them anymore. “We’re going to fix this. Make sure it never happens again.”

And here in the dark, holding her hand, with the bond engine’s gentle, steady hum keeping them aloft, he can believe that.

It’s a weird comfort that, for the most part, they have all the same animals on this plane as they had back home. Of course, back home they didn't evolve to be communal across species or develop language, but how fucking cool is that?

Taako doesn't entirely know what to do with himself between trying to figure out how the hell they’re going to get home, but he’s been with the IPRE doing this scientist thing for so long at this point that studying the animal language comes naturally. While Magnus runs off to wrestle bears or whatever, Taako spends hours studying the mongeese with Lup and Barry.

Barry J. Bluejeans is middle-aged by human standards (but practically a child, to an elf), is one of the smartest arcanists the Institute has ever had, and has a completely unironic mullet that Taako will manage to cut one way or another. He’s hilariously nervous around the twins and also everyone else, though he and Lucretia get along well. Lup knew him a little at school from all those creepy Theoretical Necromancy electives she took for a laugh, but Taako can't hardly get a word out of the guy. Working together, they can eventually replicate the clicks and chitters that make up the mammals’ language almost accurately.

There's some kind of black bird - crow or raven, he never really learned the difference - that hangs around the trees above the mongoose family’s burrows, too shy to show itself for a while. Taako catches it watching them sometimes, silently. It doesn't seem to give anyone else the creeps, but Taako swears he can feel it watching; it sends shivers down the back of his neck. He doesn't know if the birds and the mongeese have any language in common - or if a bird’s anatomy can even make the same sounds - but one afternoon the raven or whatever it is perches on a lower branch, so Taako can get a good look at it and its beady little black eyes, and he decides it can't hurt to try.

“Hey there,” he chirps, stepping closer slowly. The raven cocks its head and stares at him. It squawks, some word that Taako doesn't understand, to his disappointment, before it jumps down to the next low branch, just in Taako’s reach. Cautiously, so as not to scare it off - or get bitten - he reaches out to brush his fingertips against the inky feathers of its wings, smiling as they ruffle. A few loose ones fall to the ground. “Aren't you a pretty thing,” he murmurs in mongoose. “Creepy, no doubt, but pretty.”

The raven croaks, bobbing its head forward. For a moment Taako thinks it's going to peck him, but instead it nudges at one of the many bangles hanging from Taako’s wrist, cheaply gold-plated and glinting in the sunlight. The raven nips at one with its beak and squawks again.

“You like those, huh,” Taako says, amused. “That why you’re always hanging around? Hey, can you understand me or what?”

The raven doesn't answer. It’s loud when it takes off, wings flapping close to Taako’s face and making him flinch back. It disappears above the treetops, and Taako doesn't see it again.

 The cycles come and they go. The crew of the Starblaster begins to understand the pattern they’re trapped in as the Light falls and the Hunger comes for it, and they run, and they begin again. Every time arriving in a new world and reverting to the state they were in at the beginning of the first cycle: a bruise over Magnus’s eye, Lup’s hair fading pink from a home dye job, hungover from shitty beer they drank years ago. Taako has started counting days, when the plane they land on has days comparable in length to back home. On average, three hundred and sixty-five days from the day the Light falls to the day the Hunger descends. Give or take.

The second time Magnus dies is more terrifying at the first. It comes closer to the middle of the cycle than the end, and they’re still not sure if his coming back the first time was a fluke or not; they have no explanation for how this works and too much time to worry about what happens if he doesn’t come back. Magnus was reckless. He’s always reckless, but the assumption that he’ll just come back if he dies has increased that tenfold. But as they fly past the boundaries of the planar system once again, and they all hold their breath, the bond engine glows and silver threads shift and wind together. Magnus stands before them, alive again, black eye and all, grinning wide like he hasn’t been dead for three months.

A few cycles later, Magnus dies once more, along with Barry. The cycle after that it’s Lup, overtaken by the Hunger as they’re running back to the ship at the end of the cycle, as she hurls fireball after fireball trying to defend Taako and Lucretia while they scramble onboard the Starblaster. By then he knows for certain that she will come back, but the minutes between watching her disappear into the black mass of the Hunger’s forces and watching her reform - her hand clutched tight in his, as always - are the worst minutes of his life.

So it goes.

As they descend onto the new plane,  Taako hangs over the deck of the Starblaster to see what this new world has to offer them. One cycle recently the world wasn't even habitable to humanoids, and they’d had to spend almost all of their time in the ship, only able to step outside with special oxygen masks and awkward airtight suits - meant for space-walks, not for environments with gravity. To his relief, that doesn't seem to be the case this time. The single sun (still such a weird sight, even after all these years) is dipping below the horizon, and cities stretch across the landscape below, all tall spires and winding streets, lit by colorful globes of faerie fire in the dimming evening light.

“Hell yes,” he whoops, “Finally, some fuckin’ civilization, get me down there, let’s fuckin’ go!”

Davenport, standing at the wheel nearby, raises an eyebrow. “Steady, now,” he says, though his stern tone carries a hint of amusement. “We can explore after we have an idea of where the Light will fall. Or did you forget we have a mission?”

The mission; Taako nearly laughs at that - the mission now is so far from what they had originally set out to do. They hadn’t set out to save the world, any world, weren’t equipped to outrun a universe-eating entity. Still aren't, but here they are.

“But Cap’nport,” he pouts, “come on, my dude, it’s been ages. I just wanna eat at a fuckin’ restaurant for once.

“Well, since you’re so eager, you get first shift on Light watch tonight.” Davenport’s eyes sparkle with mischief, though his voice doesn't change at all. “With Merle.”


But though the Light doesn't fall that night, some greater power is apparently looking out for Taako, because Barry and Lup spot it as it falls just two days later. It’s distant, but they got a good view and it’s easy enough to triangulate it’s course, though it will take a lot of effort to actually retrieve it. Before long they’ve landed as near as they can get to it’s estimated location, and Magnus and Merle are sent out to recover it, while the rest of them are stationed with the ship. Assigned to various research and ship-repair projects, as always, with the cycle stretching out ahead of them and hope of retrieving the Light before the cycle’s end.

Taako would call that cause for celebration.

“Alright, sis.” Taako struts into the common area of the Starblaster where Lup is lounging beside Lucretia,  and slings an arm over her shoulders. “Drag yourself away from the nerds for once, time for some much needed twin-time.”

“Rude,” Lucretia mumbles, her nose buried in one of those journals where she’s probably sketching a weird plant or bug she found. Taako sticks out his tongue at her, and she does it right back, barely looking up from her work. He hadn’t been sure about Lucretia when they set out - hadn’t been sure about any of them, if he’s being honest. He’s still not. But they’re all they have, the seven of them the last survivors of their home world, for all they know.

Lup grins at him. “What are you thinking? We gonna check out those hot springs?”

“Uh, abso-fuckin-lutely we have to do that later, but nah. You know how long it’s been since I saw an actual city? No, me either. We’re going out on the town, baby.”

“Oh fuck yes.” Lup swings her legs over the edge of the couch and hops up. “You coming with, Lucy? C’mon, we’ll get all dressed up, hit the clubs, find you a cute boy to dance with. Or girl? Neither? I don't have you figured out yet.”

Lucretia's cheeks turn pink. “Oh, um, no, that’s alright. I’m not much of a dancer.”

Lup gives an exaggerated, long-suffering sigh. “We’ll find your inner party animal one of these days,” she says, and gives Lucretia a kiss on the cheek - her blush darkens - before she grabs Taako’s hand, and they rush away to their bunk.

It really has been forever since they’ve been somewhere with anything like a nightlife and they go hard - Lup in her cutoff shorts and fishnets, Taako showing off in a tight crop top and bug-eye sunglasses, their matching IPRE jackets completing the look. Lup adds a pop of bright red lipstick, same shade as the jacket, and they’re out the door, shouting over their shoulder to Davenport where they’re going before they make their way to the nearby city of Marcaria.

He loves it when they end up on an inhabited world, ones with civilization, technology, culture. It feels so much more like home, even when the people are totally different. Marcaria is a lot like any city back home, if less technologically advanced, tall buildings painted with colorful plaster line the cobblestone streets, and people travel the streets in little open carriages pulled by bicycles. He spots a few elves, and humans - which seem to populate the multiverse like cockroaches - and even a dwarf or two. There are differences, of course, which he and Lup point out to each other, details to relay back to Lucretia for her journals. Elves’ ears are shorter, here, and people’s eyes come in more colors, reds and purples and deep bronzes.

But some things are the same no matter how far from home you get. Specifically: people always need places to eat and get drunk.

They get a table at the nicest-looking restaurant they can find that won’t keep them waiting, look over the menus and have no idea what anything is. Lup orders by pointing at a random spot on the menu and with nothing else to go on, Taako decides to do the same - they keep the menus after the waitress, a tall red-haired elf, takes their order, reading them over trying to guess what all the foreign ingredients could be, finding similarities between foods they knew back home.

“This is the best part, every time,” Taako declares as their food arrives - his comes still sizzling on a hot iron platter, Lup’s is some sort of layered casserole with tons of vegetables. “Like, thank god we’re not the only civilization who figured out good food, I would die - so would the rest of the crew, though, I mean shit, how would the rest of those chucklefucks survive without us anyway, I actually had to teach Magnus how to make ramen the other day.”

“Here, try this one,” Lup says, offering a bite off her plate.

He’s so startled he nearly spits it out. “Oh what the fuck that’s sour!"

“I know, it sucks, right? But kinda sweet too, reminds me of… shit, what was it called? Rhubarb! Let’s figure out what this is called, maybe we can find something like strawberries too. Hit up the farmer’s market and make a pie one of these days.”

Taako can’t help but smile. A million miles from home and she’s still finding things that remind her of it, even in this nasty sour casserole. He wishes, sometimes, that he could be a little more like her. More optimistic, more able to find good and hope wherever she looks. He’s never been able to trust in the good things. “You always see the bright side, huh?”

She shrugs, stabbing an unfamiliar vegetable with her fork and peering at it curiously. “Got to find every little bit of home we can get our hands on, right?”

“I could take or leave like, sixty percent of it, let’s be real.”

“Hey, if we manage to save one plane that has rhubarb pie I’ll count this whole mission a win.” She pops another bite into her mouth, cringing at the taste. He puts half of his own meal on her plate, takes half or hers, and together they eat every bite.

Bellies full (though Taako never quite figured out what his food was exactly, it was spicy and delicious), they make their way to their next destination, a bar a few blocks away that their waitress recommended. It’s small, but comfortable, the lights turned down low, with plush seating up against the walls and a dance floor that’s slowly starting to see some action. A band is playing up on a small stage and their music is strange, instruments unlike anything Taako’s heard before, but it flows like water through the space. They order their drinks and sit on a small couch, where they can watch the band and the dance floor, get a feel for the scene. In a town like this, so very far from home, they can be anonymous. They could be anyone. There’s a luxury they never had back home. After their years at the Institute they’d scammed so many people they weren’t allowed in half the dive bars in town anymore.

Taako shakes his head, tries to rid himself of all the memories of those places. Not like they matter. They’re all gone and he's here now. He tries to pay attention to the band instead, and his drink - sweet and strong, just how he likes it. Let the singer’s voice sweep over him, low and throaty, as he watches the group play. Some of their instruments look vaguely familiar, but he’s sure he’s never seen any of them back home, at least not like this.

“I wonder what one is,” Taako says to Lup, pointing at a tall stringed instrument, kind of like a cello without the large body, and with only two strings, but it produces an impressive amount of sound regardless. Lup knows more about music than he does, he never had the patience for it. “Ever seen something like it?”

“Nah, never,” Lup says with a shrug, sipping at her drink.

“It’s called an erhu,” says a voice beside them, startling Taako slightly, though he avoids spilling his drink - and then nearly spills it again anyway, when he looks up at the source of the voice, because holy shit. The stranger offers an apologetic smile. “Sorry - didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but I’ve played one a time or two.”

Taako can’t answer for a second, just blinking up at him, because holy shit the man before him is probably the most gorgeous creature he’s ever met, cheekbones and jaw like they were sculpted by a god, his hair twisted into long dreadlocks that are threaded with various gold beads that glint in the light. Most striking, though, are the markings that splash across his skin, the rich, dark brown broken up by patches of pale white, and even a few twists of his hair lack pigment. The way they’re spread across his face - around his eyes and nose, just above his mouth - looks almost like a skull. He's seen vitiligo but never in such a nearly deliberate pattern.

“Oh, are you a musician?” Lup says, sitting up to look at the stranger with a grin. She nudges Taako hard in the ribs, jolting him out of his daze.

“I am, actually - well, I used to be, anyway.” The stranger takes a seat on the arm of the couch and sips his drink. “Are either of you?”

Taako shakes his head, finally finding his voice, though to his own ears it sounds strangled. “Not me, but Lup here plays the violin.”

“Oh, god, not for years,” Lup laughs. She’d picked up music when they were kids, travelling with the caravans, when a bard gave her a hand-me-down instrument that would barely hold it’s strings - another way to make money, mostly, people were likely to toss a coin to a cute, talented kid busking on the side of the road, and circuses were more likely to take you in if you had some kind of talent like that. Taako never had the knack for it, or the desire to learn. He’d learned to juggle and tumble from a gymnast in a circus they’d traveled with for a while, but mostly he made himself useful with his cooking, and later on his magic.

“Oh, well, this should be a little familiar to you then, you could call the erhu a sort of two-stringed fiddle,” the stranger says, gesturing back at the instrument in question. He goes on about the band for a little while, and Taako has no idea what he’s talking about but it doesn’t even matter with the way his eyes light up, talking about music - obvious that he has a passion for it, and that’s enough to catch Taako’s interest. After a moment he gathers himself, clearing his throat and seeming to school his expression into something a little more neutral. “Oh gods, I apologize, I’ve been so rude - I haven’t even asked your names. Lup, was it?”

“You got it. And this is my sweet baby bro, Taako,” Lup says, ruffling Taako’s hair as he unsuccessfully tries to bat her hand away.

Taako rolls his eyes. “She’s literally one minute older. Uh, yeah, that’s me, T to the double-A-K-O, don’t forget it,” he babbles, and luckily the stranger doesn’t seem to think he’s a complete idiot, because he grins with a flash of white teeth and takes Taako’s hand, lifting it to his lips. His skin is surprisingly cold to the touch. Taako’s stomach does somersaults.

“Oh, I don’t think I’m in danger of forgetting any time soon,” the stranger says. Now Taako can see his eyes, a deep, warm red. They would seem strange, if he hadn’t met like three people with purple eyes just tonight; that’s apparently normal for this world. “You can call me Kravitz.”

“Kravitz,” Taako echoes, finding himself breathless, which, what the hell, sure it’s been a while but he’s normally so much cooler than this. He realizes that he hasn’t released Kravitz’s hand yet and snatches it back, then worries that maybe he moved too quickly and Kravitz will think he doesn’t want to be touched when he super does. Taako, you useless twink, he scolds himself, you’re not swooning over the first nice boy you meet, fucking stop it. “Great to, uh - yeah, great to meet you.”

“Charmed.” Kravitz smiles, eyes lingering on Taako; it sends a pleasant shiver down his spine. “I’ve never seen elves with such long ears. I hope that’s not rude to say.”

Taako snorts. “Nah, you’re good, we’re - uh, not from around here, you could say.”

“Ah, new in town?”

“You could say that.”

Kravitz raises his eyebrows. “Likewise; I’ve just arrived,” he says, and he doesn’t question further, to Taako’s relief. He drains the last sips of his drink and then stands up, flashing another gorgeous smile. “Would it be too forward of me to buy the two of you a drink?”

Lup glances sidelong at Taako and grins, mischief in her eyes. “Hey, I won’t say no.”

He gives them a little bow - what the hell, who does that - and a smile before he leaves for the bar, and as soon as he’s out of earshot Taako and Lup lean in, heads close. “Oh my god,” he hisses.

“I knowwww!”

“Like holy shit, thank you whatever god is responsible for that.” He leans back against the couch, fanning himself with his hand. Gods above, he’s honestly flustered, which he has to blame on the long dry spell that the last few years has been. But it’s beyond that, beyond just attraction. He finds himself touching the spot on the back of his hand where Kravitz had kissed it, imagines that it’s tingling somehow, a little electric shock when they had touched for the first time. Something about that touch has his heart pounding and he can’t explain why.

Lup cackles, slouching back against the couch. “We are so getting you laid tonight.”

“Gross, shut up,” he groans, taking another long drink. His eyes dart toward the other end of the room, toward the bar, where Kravitz is ordering their drinks - always cautious, though he doesn’t notice anything sketchy going on. Just a nice guy who wants to get to know them - how fucked up that he’s automatically suspicious of that. “He’s probably not even gay.”

“You shut up, look at him, that’s a gay if I ever saw one.”


“Dude, go for this, I’m serious, how long has it been since you met someone?”

“This is our night out, though.”

She waves a hand. “I can entertain myself.  Finish your drink. You look like you’re gonna pass out, pretend to be cool. ”

“Fuck you.” But he sits up, crosses his legs all flirty, offers Kravitz the sweetest of smiles as he sits down on Taako’s other side and hands the two of them their new drinks. The couch is small enough that their knees touch, the soft wool of his fine suit tickling Taako’s bare leg.

And so the three of them drink, and talk quietly together as the band plays on - discussing music, still, but flowing from topic to topic easily, they learn about the city, this world, and tell Kravitz what they can about their home without telling him just how far from home they are. And Kravitz is nice, is the thing, in a way that makes it so easy to sit here and talk together. He’s just as attentive to Lup but he leans in close when he talks to Taako, makes a point to to let their legs touch, to rest his fingers on Taako’s knee for a moment when he’s excited about a new turn the conversation has taken. Taako feels giddy with it, with this beautiful boy who keeps buying them drinks. Lup’s right, it’s been so long, stuck on that ship, and Kravitz is gorgeous, and interesting, and Taako wants to know him. Really wants to, not just in a hookup way, though he knows that’s probably the furthest this can lead.

When Lup announces that she has to pee and stands up, leaving them alone for a moment - swaying slightly in her platform boots, IPRE jacket tied around her waist - a silence falls over them. Not uncomfortable, though, far from it, the air between them thick with anticipation. Kravitz is watching him, eyes dark, lips quirked up in a smile, and Taako has to hide his own grin behind his glass.

“What?” He asks, raising one eyebrow.

“You’re…” Kravitz hums, pondering a moment. “Different.”


“Than I thought you’d be.”

Taako turns his body to face him, arm propped on the back of the sofa. They have plenty of room, now, he could put some space between them. He doesn’t. Lets their knees knock together as he says,  “I’ve heard that before.”


“Oh yeah. I’m an enigma, baby.”

“I don’t doubt it.” His voice low and and heat is curling deep in Taako’s belly; he could attribute this to how damn pretty Kravitz is but it’s more than that, there’s a rightness that Taako can’t seem to shake, a feeling of knowing him already, needing to know more. It feels right to be here with him, Kravitz feels right. It doesn’t make sense, Taako never jumps into anything this fast, but he can’t seem to stop this trajectory now that he’s on it.

Kravitz leans in closer. “Would you dance with me, Taako?”

Like they’re gonna fucking waltz. And why not? Why not just go with this, look for something good wherever he can grasp it, even when it can’t last. Especially when it can’t last. He finishes the last drops of his drink and lets Kravitz take his hand, guide him to the middle of the dance floor. The song the band is playing now is slow, but with a heavy beat that has Taako swaying his hips, knowing Kravitz's eyes are locked on him. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Lup return and spot them across the room. She mouths, “Hit that!” and shoots him a thumbs up, which Taako only responds to with a middle finger over Kravitz’s shoulder as he draws Taako in closer.

“So what did you think?” He murmurs, one hand curling just so around the back of Kravitz’s neck.

“Of what?”

“I’m different than you thought I’d be, you said. Like you were expecting something.”

“Ah.” Kravitz is quiet, his hand settling at the curve of Taako’s back. His skin is still so cold it makes Taako shiver, a detail that keeps striking Taako as odd. “I think you’re lovely,” Kravitz says, sounding almost... sad.

“What, that’s a surprise?” Taako teases. He wants to wipe away that sadness, whatever's causing it.

“Oh, I don’t know.” Kravitz laughs softly, forehead bumping Taako’s temple. Taako lets his eyes drift closed, just for a moment. Already they're less dancing and more swaying together but they’re so close it hardly matters. “I’m not sure what I thought. Just that you’re very strange.”

“Strange and lovely.”

“Just to my taste.”

Taako laughs, though he’s sure he’s blushing. “Am I, now?”

“Very much so.”

“You ain’t so bad yourself. That whole goth vibe works for you.” He glances over Kravitz's shoulder again, seeking out Lup. She’s at the bar now, chatting up the bartender, but her ears are poised and alert, half her attention on the environment around her - on the dance floor, and Taako - just as half of Taako’s attention is always, instinctively, on her. This is how they stay safe and he does feel safe here, with her, with Kravitz, though he hardly knows him. It allows him to relax further into Kravitz's arms, barely aware of the other people dancing around them.

“That’s lucky, I’m sort of committed to it, aren't I?” Kravitz gestures to the markings on his face, the striking half-skull that almost looks like a mask.

“So that's natural, huh?"

“It's not a tattoo, if that's what you mean. Have you ever heard of the Raven Queen, Taako?” Taako shakes his head. Kravitz looks at him for an oddly long moment, like he’s not sure he believes him, before he goes on. “That’s understandable, her following is small, but devoted. She’s the goddess of death - the natural passage of it, specifically. Folk always said that this -” he gestures to his face once again - “was a mark of her favor. Or a curse, depending who you ask.”

“Yeah? So are you a cleric, or… ugh, paladin?”

“Oh, heavens no.” Kravitz grins, like there’s a joke that Taako isn’t in on. He laughs at it anyway.

“That’s a relief, I’d hate to hear you’d taken a vow of celibacy or something.”

“Would that disappoint you?”

Taako looks up at him through his eyelashes and smirks. “Well. A guy can hope.”

Kravitz’s thumb rubs slow, absent circles on the exposed skin of Taako’s back, fingers just barely dipping below his waistband. He leans in closer, and his breath puffing over Taako’s ear makes it twitch. “I have a room at an inn just down the street from here,” he murmurs, and leaves it at that, for Taako to answer how he will.

Taako exhales, and looks over Kravitz’s shoulder one last time, seeking out Lup. She’s dancing too, now, alone across the room, and catches his eye after a moment. This is happening, shit, he's really going to leap headfirst into this. He cocks his head to the side, toward the door, eyebrows raised questioningly - is it actually okay for him to take off? She flashes him a thumbs up, mouths I’ll be here.

He’s going to have to cook her that strawberry-rhubarb pie soon, for sure.

He reaches down, tangles his fingers with Kravitz’s and leads him wordlessly toward the exit, and they tumble out into the night air, the streetlights alight with multicolored faerie fire that casts the city in flickering purples and blues, that make Kravitz even more otherworldly-beautiful. Taako’s heart pounding with nerves and anticipation, Kravitz’s eyes on him. They don’t make it far before Taako tugs him into an alley, before they’re necking up against a whitewashed wall, and he’s giggling against Kravitz’s mouth.

“You’re unreal,” he says, breathless, peppering kisses up Kravitz’s neck, Kravitz’s hand grasping the back of his shirt, holding their bodies tighter together. None of this will last but what better reason to snatch whatever scrap of joy he can, while they're here. “Seriously, you’re so fucking gorgeous, I can’t even.”

He’s acting more drunk than he really is, Kravitz is too, Taako can tell; he assumes it’s for the same reason, because he’s just so happy right now, everything is so good and he wants it so much . He wants Kravitz so much, to put his hands all over him, all that gorgeous icy-cold skin. A part of him - a smarter part, probably - chides himself for it. He should not be leaping into this with such recklessness, without considering where it could - or can’t - lead, where he wants it to lead. He isn’t like this, usually. He holds people at arm's reach, wary of the kindness of strangers. He’s had to, it’s how he and Lup have survived. But Kravitz is magnetic. Kravitz feels more familiar than he has any right to, and Taako can’t explain it but right now he doesn’t care. It’s been a long time since anything felt this right.

“I rather think this counts as public indecency,” Kravitz murmurs, and Taako laughs, pulling back, though Kravitz continues to hold him close. His eyes are dark and hungry, grin white, a look that makes Taako shiver. “Or is rapidly veering toward it.”

“Well then,” Taako says, and kisses him before taking his hand again and stepping backwards. “Let’s be indecent.”

He keeps half his attention, as they walk hand in hand down the streets of Marcaria, on the turns they've taken, how far they've gone and how he'll get back to the bar - back to Lup - if he needs to. But once they’re on their way up the stairs to Kravitz’s room at the inn he lets his focus fall back to Kravitz, to their wandering hands, lets anything that isn't his mouth become a blur as he stumbles backwards through a doorway. He manages, reluctantly, to drag himself away for a moment, taking a deep breath. “You got a bathroom, handsome? I’ll just be a sec.”

“Through there.” Kravitz gestures behind him. Taako kisses him again before retreating - tries to make it quick but god he’s intoxicating, it's so hard to pull himself away, walking away from Kravitz even for a second feels wrong.

The bathroom in question feels incredibly un-lived in, a fact that nags at Taako as he freshens up. The complimentary soaps unopened, the hand-towels still folded. It nags at him the same way that Kravitz’s cold hands and red eyes nag at him, weird details that don’t quite make sense, but don’t quite mean anything either. Taako shakes his head, checking himself in the mirror briefly, patting down frizzy hair and checking for food in his teeth. Probably Kravitz just hasn’t been in town or in this particular room long enough to use it, to unpack. Probably he’s cold because he has bad circulation, and probably red eyes are common here. Who’s he to judge Kravitz for being weird when Taako himself is an actual alien. He’s still telling himself to stop being so paranoid, to just be happy  with something for once, when he steps out of the bathroom and nearly walks right into the blade pointed at his neck.

“Please don’t scream,” says the skeleton wearing Kravitz’s suit, in Kravitz’s voice, standing where Taako left him. Skeletal hand curled around a long, wicked scythe.

He doesn’t scream, but it’s mostly because whatever he was going to say comes out in a strangled squeak. He stands very still, hands at his sides, brain addled with lust and alcohol taking a minute to catch up with whatever the hell this is, which, he supposes, was probably Kravitz’s goal.

“Okay, what I said about your whole goth vibe? There are limits, y’know,” he says with a nervous grin. No expression on Kravitz's face, of course, but that skeletal grimace, a red glow where his eyes once were. It’s objectively a pretty sick look; Taako would appreciate it more if the scythe weren’t still at his neck. “What gives, bones? I really thought we were hitting it off.”

“I know,” Kravitz sighs, looking about as bummed as a skeleton can. A dark cloak has appeared over his shoulders, the oil-slick black of raven feathers. “I’ve had a lovely evening, I do hate to have to do this. Work always gets in the way, doesn’t it?”

“Look, clearly there’s been a misun - jeez,” he laughs, shaky, and keeps himself from flinching back as the tip of the scythe hooks precisely underneath his chin. “You know, if you wanted to drag me to the underworld or whatever you do you really should have stayed handsome, my guy.”

Internally he’s cursing himself, cursing his own instincts for failing him so spectacularly, though he couldn't have seen this coming of all things. He wasn't careful enough, wasn't prepared, Lup doesn't even know where he is. And damn it, he’d really liked Kravitz, really thought Kravitz liked him too, even now he’s having trouble reconciling the man he’d kissed and danced with and been 100% ready to bang, with the Grim Reaper currently threatening him.

“That shouldn’t be necessary,” Kravitz says. “I’m not here for you. As long as you tell me the whereabouts of one Magnus Burnsides, you can leave here unharmed; you have my word.”

Taako blinks. He really has had far too much to drink to deal with this kind of emotional whiplash, all this and Kravitz isn't even after him? What would anyone want to do with Magnus ? Information gathering, maybe, but why make a move now? Shit, what if Kravitz is after the Light too? His eyes dart side to side, searching for an exit, an escape route. He has to get back to Lup. Back to the ship, somehow, without leading this creep right to them. “Sorry, sweetheart, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Magnus who?”

“Playing stupid doesn’t suit you, Taako.” Out of thin air, in a curl of black smoke, a massive leather bound tome appears in front of Kravitz. He thumbs through a couple of pages, the book hovering in midair before him. Divine energy radiates from it, strong enough to feel even without a spell to detect it; Taako shudders involuntarily. “Ah, yes - Magnus Burnsides, security officer with the Institute of Planar Research and Exploration, whatever that is.”

“Never heard of it. Sounds lame.”

“The logo is on your jacket.”


Kravitz tilts his head, considering him a moment. Almost concerned when he asks, “Taako, are you aware of the fact that your friend is a necromancer?”

Taako laughs aloud, sharp and sudden enough that it seems to surprise Kravitz. The tip of the scythe pokes at him, lifting his chin. He freezes, raising his hands in surrender, looking Kravitz in the eye when he says, “I literally have no idea what you’re talking about. Mags isn’t even a wizard.

“And yet he has died on, let’s see…” He runs a finger across the page. “Three distinct occasions, without his soul ever entering the Astral Plane. It’s my job as a reaper to fix that.”

Taako doesn't answer him, mind racing;  his Adam's apple bobs against the tip of the scythe. Okay, at least Kravitz doesn’t seem to care about the Light. But it hadn't occurred to him that there could be consequences  for their repeated deaths, that it counted for anything, much less that it counted as necromancy. But apparently it does count, even on a completely different plane, recorded in that spooky book. Barry’s fascinated with the science of how and why they come back - he’s going to want to hear about all of this when Taako gets back to the ship.

He just has to actually make it, first.

Kravitz goes on. “No one should ever die without entering the Astral Plane even once, much less three times. It’s unheard of. And that’s not even mentioning the crimes of other members of your crew. You’ve gotten caught up in something quite out of your league, haven’t you, dear?”

“Crimes?” He says blankly before the thought catches up to him that Lup and Barry have both died, too. Taako swallows, tries to keep his breathing level against the surge of anger and panic; Kravitz had talked to Lup, he’d been this close to her, does he know? Was he going after her, next, using Taako to get to her?

“Defying the laws of life and death as governed by Her Majesty, the Raven Queen. But Burnsides has the highest bounty on his head, so he’s my priority.”

“That’s what you do?” Taako sneers. “You’re a bounty hunter?”

“Necromancers like your friend are a threat to the natural order of life and death, which I am sworn to uphold… for a small profit. Taako, I can see you’re no necromancer; you’re being manipulated by them. I can help you out of this situation. All you have to do is tell me where Burnsides is.”

Taako ignores the misguided offers, trying to think of what to do, what his play is. He’s not equipped to fight, not one on one, not against this. He doesn’t know where Magnus is - he’s on the expedition to retrieve the Light, and hasn’t been in contact for a couple of days - but he doubts Kravitz is going to let him go without getting his hands on Magnus some way or another. So.

Does he turn Magnus in, and secure his own safety? He might get out of this one unscathed, but that only means that Kravitz will take Magnus down and come after Lup, next, and that’s not an option. Not to mention he still has to travel with this band of weirdos for gods know how long, and selling them out isn’t a super great look. Hell, he has no way of knowing if this guy can kill them permanently or not.

So. Can’t turn Magnus in. Can’t lead Kravitz back to the crew. Can’t hope to fight him, not like this. Explain why Magnus isn’t a necromancer, maybe? It’s not like they plan on dying and coming back, not like it’s under their control at all. Somehow he doubts Kravitz’s goddess will care about the distinction.

“You really are a piece of work,” he says instead of answering the question, hands balling into fists. Silently, slowly, tracing a sigil in his palm. Casting wandless feels like working with a limb that's fallen asleep, but this will have to do. “You lied to me, made me think you liked me -”

“Oh, that much wasn’t a lie, darling.”

“And you expect me to trust you? Hey, is Kravitz even your real name, cause I gotta know who to credit in this tentacle porn I’m about to make with your body.”

“You what -” Beneath Kravitz’s feet a circle of inky black tentacles writhes up, wrapping around Kravitz’s wrists and legs and restraining him, no time for him to dodge their grip. He shouts, the blank spaces where his eyes should have been flaring red, as he tries to wrench his scythe free.

Taako doesn’t wait to see if he manages to fight back or not. The instant the spell hits he’s already spinning on his heel and rushing out the door, the incantation for Expeditious Retreat falling from his lips, bounding down the stairs and into the cool night air. The streets are still bustling, people walking and laughing together, paying him no mind. He runs in the direction of the bar, losing himself in the crowds.

In his one stroke of luck tonight, Lup isn’t hard to find, standing in line at a food cart just outside the bar where they left her. Before she can even greet him he grabs her hand, and they run, although Taako’s legs and lungs burn from the exertion. It’s a testament to the kind of life they’ve led that she doesn’t even question it when they have to make a quick exit. She simply clasps his hand and keeps pace, doesn't let him out of her sight.

He doesn’t look back until they’re safe in the Starblaster and hovering high above the city.

Chapter Text

Davenport is the only one still awake when Taako and Lup stumble back to the Starblaster, out of breath, hearts racing. He lifts his gaze from the maps spread over the table, raises his bushy eyebrows as they burst through the door, equally amused and irritated - which is pretty much his general state of being when dealing with the twins. He opens his mouth to speak, but Taako cuts him off.

“Are we in touch with Magnus yet?” He says, and then adds, too late, “Sir.”

“Yes, he was able to get a signal earlier this evening,” Davenport says. “Why?”

“Need to call him.”

Davenport’s eyebrows manage to crawl even higher toward his hairline. “...Comms are all yours.”

“Taako,” Lup’s short of breath, tugging off her platform shoes. “Would you please tell me what the hell happened? Did he hurt you?”

Taako waves a hand, already grabbing Davenport's communication device and setting it to Magnus’s frequency. A few moments of crackling static before a voice comes through. “Sup, Cap’nport?”

“Maggie, it's ch’boy.”

“Oh, hey Taako! What’s up?”

“So listen.” Taako sinks into an armchair, ignoring the stares from Lup and Davenport. They’ll get their explanation, this is more urgent. “You’ll probs be fine but just, be on the lookout for a guy - red eyes, dreads, super hot - like, just insanely hot, hoo boy - face looks like a skull, sometimes is a skull actually - because he kind of might be the Grim Reaper?”

Lup splutters, but Taako ignores her, listening to Magnus’s nervous laugh across the line. “Uh, okay?”

“Homie thinks you're a necromancer and I guess that’s a crime, so he’s hunting you.”

“What? I’m not even a wizard!”

“Yeah, told him that, guess he’s a bit dense, uh - look, I didn't tell him anything, alright, but it’s because of all the times you’ve died, so maybe stop doing that and… just be careful, I guess. Keep an eye out.”

“You got it. Thanks, Taako.”

When he disconnects he’s faced with Lup and Davenport staring at him impatiently. “I think,” Davenport says dryly, “some sort of report will be necessary.”

“No fuckin’ kidding,” Lup says, pulling out a chair and kicking her feet up on the table, right on top of Davenport's maps, ignoring his stern look. “Missed the part where tall, dark, and spooky back there turned out to be the Grim Reaper.”

“It’s been a long fucking night,” Taako sighs. His hands are trembling a little, adrenaline catching up to him now that he’s safe. He takes a seat and launches into the story - leaving out a few juicier details.

Davenport’s expression settles into a concerned frown, and he fiddles with the end of his moustache. “So this reaper knows about our crew, but not about the mission? He’s not after the Light of Creation?”

“Far as I know.” Taako shrugs. “It didn’t come up.”

“Lup, can you take on researching this Raven Queen on top of your other duties?”

“You got it. I’ll see if Barry knows anything.” Barry had packed a truly obscene amount of books into his room, especially considering this was meant to be a four month expedition, and he actually knows a thing or two about necromancy.

“We’ll have to be cautious the rest of this cycle. Possibly keep the ship airborne rather than docked.”

Taako sighs at that, but he doesn't argue - it makes sense, but the idea of being stuck on the ship for a whole cycle again is miserable. Still. Better that than dragged to hell, he supposes.

Davenport goes on. “However, as long as we’re discreet, we shouldn't have any trouble after we leave this plane. It's not as if he can follow us out of the planar system.”

Right. They just have to wait the reaper out, once they're off this plane they’ll be safe. Taako keeps telling himself this after the Starblaster is safely hovering above the planet’s surface, as he lays awake, too jittery to meditate, too distracted to focus on studying his spells.

“Sorry your date tried to murder you, bro,” Lup says, sitting at their desk across the room, braiding her long, pink hair. “You sure know how to pick 'em.”

Taako snorts; she’s not wrong, it’s certainly not the worst date he’s been on, but it’s up there, romance has never worked out for either of them. The amount of times the two of them have sworn off men for good has gotten comical, at this point. “Kind of on a whole new level than that dude who stole my shoes, yeah.”

“Too thirsty for your own good.”

Okay, you’re one to talk, who in this room dated Greg Grimaldis for a month?”

“I’ll be the first one to admit we’re garbage at dating. Also no one can handle how baller we are.”

“True that.”

“...I am sorry, though. I mean, I’m the one who told you to go after him.”

Taako sits up, shaking his head. “Nah. Not your fault, bubbela. Anyway, he mostly wanted to murder Magnus, not me. Said he'd let me go if I gave him the info.”

“...and you didn't do it?” Lup pauses, and then her face splits into a grin. “Aww, Koko!”

What ?”

“I knew you secretly cared about these chucklefucks.”

Taako groans. “I do not, I just don't want our only muscle beefing it again. Who’s fuckin’ idea was it to put five wizards on one team anyway?”

“Taako has friends,” she sings, breaking into laughter when he launches a pillow across the room at her face.

“Taako has coworkers,” he corrects; she throws the pillow back and he catches it in one hand. “Whom Taako has to continue to live with.”

“Really is a shame though, huh? He acted so nice. Seemed to really like you.”

“Yeah.” Taako goes quiet, staring out the porthole at the night sky. Not one moment of it had felt fake, is the thing that gets him. Not the dancing or the conversation or the needy grasp of Kravitz’s hands on him, the softness in Kravitz’s eyes when he’d called him strange and lovely. The icy chill of Kravitz's lips, the warmth of his crimson eyes, won't leave his memory. He shivers, though it's warm in the room. “He really did.”

 Once they pass into the next planar system he allows himself to stop worrying that Kravitz will be around every corner. Pointless to think about things that can never happen, just like he's stopped wondering what home will be like when they return - with each cycle bringing an unfamiliar world, they’ve all, without saying it aloud, come to understand that they’re not going home. Kravitz and his cold hands and the glint of white teeth in his smile are a bad dream and now Taako can finally focus, he’s got shit to do, spells to master, new recipes to perfect. He’s thinking about starting a cookbook to go with Lucretia’s journals, recipes from every plane, with a Taako™ twist. He pretends he isn’t still thinking of Kravitz.

He dies, the next cycle, for the first time. His own damn fault, a stupid mistake; his search for obscure spell components takes him to a craggy mountain ledge, the specific herb he needs just there, and surely he can reach it he just… but he loses his footing on a loose stone. Tumbles down the mountainside, neck snapping on impact.

He’d always sort of hoped that you didn’t feel death, when it happened, that it would be too quick to feel the pain, but that doesn’t prove to be the case. He opens his eyes, and like no time has passed at all and he’s back on the Starblaster, hand in hand with Lup, and it feels like coming home after a long trip; strange for everything to be just as he left it, unchanged. Before they’re even fully formed again Lup;’s arms are around his neck, her embrace too tight.

“Easy there,” his laugh strained, “don’t suffocate me, can’t have me dying again already.”

“Don’t even say that,” she says, muffled in the collar of his jacket. He squeezes her hard.

Later on that evening, Barry washes dishes while Taako cooks dinner for the crew. He asks, because Barry is probably one of the few people who won’t be freaked out by a question like this, “When you died, that time. Did you… see anything, after? Did it feel like your soul or whatever went anywhere, that you remember?”

Barry looks at him oddly, but seriously, not answering while he puts a stack of plates away. “No,” he says. “Sorry, bud. I just woke up back on the ship. Why? Did you see something?” His eyes light up. Fucking weirdo.

“Nah.” It’s not actually a lie but Taako squirms anyway because it doesn’t feel like he’s telling the truth. He can feel the time that passed while he was dead, but there’s no memory of that time, just a blank space where he should have been. “Just felt like I should’ve, I guess.”

“Yeah. Dying is actually pretty boring, turns out.” He looks genuinely disappointed; Taako snickers.

“Total rip-off.”

He keeps touching his neck, surprised to feel it whole instead of snapped like a twig underfoot.

 Taako is exploring a marketplace, tasting spices and fruits he’d never imagined in his wildest dreams, when he spots him.

At first Taako’s sure he imagined it; the swirl of a black cloak around a corner, the familiar aura of divine energy; it carries a scent like crackling electricity, almost chemical. A chill crawls up his spine but it’s stupid, he’s being paranoid. He’s imagining things that aren’t, can’t be there. High above a raven caws and takes flight.

He finishes haggling over a jar of turmeric and moves on to an area of the market selling fresh fish, turns a corner, hackles raised unnecessarily. Somehow, even through the massive crowd, Taako’s eyes are drawn right to him, to the dark feathered cloak. Taako pulls the brim of his hat low as he starts browsing the nearest stall, eyes darting to the side, and yes, he can’t quite see the face of the figure with the feathered cloak but it’s the same inky black that the skeleton wore, and he has long dreadlocks woven through with golden thread and beads, dreadlocks he’s wrapped around his fingers as he kissed their owner up against an alley wall. He’s sure that if the man turns around, he’ll see dark skin splashed with pale white.

The thrill that runs through him at the sight - the very possibility that it’s him - is nearly sickening, and he tells himself it’s only fear, nothing more. He’s always fancied himself a good liar.

He spins around before the man who can't be Kravitz has a chance to see him, pushes his way through the shoppers and out of the market. Pretending he doesn’t see the ravens lurking in the trees that line the streets.

Lup bitches at him for not picking up the fish they needed but he gives her a look that she immediately understands, one that tells her just go with it, I’ll explain. He does, but only when they’re alone, back in their room on the Starblaster. It tumbles out of him in a rush: “I think I saw him.”

Lup stares at him, face blank. “Saw who?”

Him. ” Taako swallows, he can’t believe he’s about to say this, like speaking it makes it real. “I saw Kravitz.”

“The Reaper!?”

“Jesus, say it louder, I think a few people on the next plane over didn’t quite hear you!”

“Ko, that - that’s not possible.

He shrugs. “I saw what I saw.”

“That was cycles ago, that was an entirely different planar system - there’s no way he could get here.”

“I know, alright? I know it can’t be but I - I got this feeling, like - like when you see someone you haven’t seen since you were a kid and you don’t even really recognize them but you just know, you know?”

Lup swears; she’s up now and pacing around the room, all nervous energy. “I mean, I’m not saying you’re wrong. I don’t know. I guess it’s possible other people could travel the planes, if we could figure it out…”

“What if he was following me?”

“Did it look like he was?”

“No. Yes? I don’t know.”

Lup huffs, running her hands through her hair; still pink, but cut short this year to combat the heat on this particular plane. “I mean, maybe it wasn’t him?”

“Maybe,” Taako says, but he just knows. He feels it, deep down somewhere he can’t reach, just like the feeling of knowing that had been so strong the night he met Kravitz. “If he’s still trying to collect that bounty - it’s only gonna get worse if we keep dying.”

“S’not like we do it for fun. Are you gonna tell Cap’nport?”

Taako shakes his head, before he really has the chance to think it over as an option. “Keep it between us. Just for now. It might be nothing, no need to freak the crew out, am I right? If we spot him again, if it seems like he’s following us… then we bring it up. Let’s just be extra cautious, okay?”

The cycle goes on, and he looks for the feathered cloak around every corner, but he doesn’t spot Kravitz again. A false alarm, he decides, a coincidence. The plane Kravitz had come from hadn’t even figured out space travel, after all. He can’t be hopping planes the way they do. He convinces himself of this, and doesn’t bring the incident up with the crew.

Until another cycle, not long after, when’s walking down a busy street and a hand touches his shoulder, and a familiar voice - a voice that makes Taako’s ears stand on end, an accent he still dreams of sometimes - says softly, “Excuse me. Might I have a word?”

 There are other pedestrians going about their business, shuffling past and barely paying Taako any heed. He doesn’t know this town, really, he’d had some free time and wanted to spend it exploring, a moment ago he’d been debating whether to turn right and browse the marketplace or go wander through the park a while. This, though - this has thrown him off-balance, earlier plans forgotten. He’s apart from the rest of the crowd, standing very still, looking at Kravitz.

And this close there’s no mistaking him, not the cloak or the hair; his eyes still that blood-red as they lock onto Taako’s, the skull motif still painted across his face. He isn’t carrying his scythe, now, and Taako can’t see where he would keep such a weapon; he distantly registers that it must be soulbound, but that’s the last thing on his mind.

“Taako Taaco, isn’t it?” Kravitz says. Taako nods, jerkily; his flight or fight responses so mixed up that all he can do here is freeze, like a deer in the forest trying to hide from a wolf. He can’t be here. This can’t be possible. “My name is Kravitz; I would like to speak with you, if you have a moment to spare.”

He vaguely registers it as odd that Kravitz would introduce himself - didn’t he make enough of an impression, last time? - but it’s only a passing thought, the least important thing in this whole situation. Kravitz isn’t being threatening, that’s the first thing he notes, he isn’t intimidating Taako into coming with him, not pulling out the spooky scary skeleton look. Acting for all intents and purposes like he just wants to have a conversation; waiting, patiently, for Taako to say anything. It’s somehow more intimidating than if he’d just attacked Taako on sight.

“Fifteen minutes. Twenty tops,” he says. “Somewhere public, no funny business.”

Kravitz frowns - more in confusion, Taako thinks, than anger - but he nods. Good. Like hell Taako is going to go anywhere alone with him. Minutes later Taako finds himself seated at a table across from Kravitz at a little cafe, running through his prepared spells in the back of his mind. He’s got magic missiles to spare, natch, got the components for that on lock; expeditious retreat if he needs it, some illusions, thunderwave if he doesn't mind wrecking the place but he’d feel awful bad about it.

Kravitz orders them coffee; Taako adds, “Slip a little something extra in mine, would you, sweetheart?” and winks at the cute young barista, who looks a little flustered but comes back with a latte that definitely includes a shot of some kind of liquor, bless him. He sips at it and stares at Kravitz over the rim of his mug, why, why are they drinking coffee right now?

Taako props his chin up on his hand, watching Kravitz across the table. It’s weird, for some reason, to see Kravitz in the daylight. Somehow less alien, even with the red eyes; if Taako didn’t know better he’d think he was just having a coffee date with a spectacularly handsome man, not the man who’s apparently hunting him across planes. “So, pretty boy,” he breaks the silence once the barista is out of earshot, “how’d you manage to find me?”

“It wasn’t difficult.”

Taako finds that hard to believe; he knows intimately how difficult extra-planar travel is and that’s with a ship that’s built for it. “Got my name in that spooky book of yours now, am I right? Should’ve known that would come back to bite me in the ass. I’d love to say I’m happy to see you, but considering...”

Kravitz blinked, startled, like it’s a surprise that Taako knows about the book, like he hadn’t seen it himself, conjured from smoke. “You already have some idea of what I do, and for whom, then. Interesting.”

Taako squirms; it feels like they’re having two different conversations here, out of sync in a way that they weren’t that first night. And the way Kravitz looks at him is… off. Almost like Taako is a stranger to him, like they hadn’t talked for hours. Like he never had a scythe at Taako’s throat. “Yeah, you got your whole ghost cop thing going on, gonna drag me to hell for death crimes, I get how this works. Kind of.”

“‘Ghost cop’ is reductive at best, if not utterly inaccurate.”

“Still waiting on an explanation, my man. What are you doing here?”

He expects a whole spiel about the Raven Queen again, about sacred laws and all that shit Taako had zoned out for the last time they played this little game. Instead Kravitz laughs shortly, under this breath, glancing away. “That’s an excellent question,” he mutters to himself, shaking his head. His long fingers - dotted with old callouses, a musician’s hands - tap anxiously at the metal tabletop and he regards Taako with a look that could bore a hole through him, and Taako wants to look away. He doesn’t. He levels his gave and looks back at Kravitz’s dark eyes. “You, Taako, you are… an anomaly.”

“Ch’yeah.” He laughs, too loud, too sharp. It seems to annoy Kravitz, his mouth twisting. “You think?”

“I’m serious. I have never seen anything like you lot, and I’ve been doing this a long time. You, your crew - you shouldn’t be.

“And I’ve never seen anyone show up in multiple cycles, so, uh, looks like maybe you’ve got some explaining to do too,” Taako snaps, and shit, that’s probably revealing too much. He goes on before Kravitz can ask about the cycles, it’s just so much to explain. “You’re rapidly approaching that fifteen minute mark, babe, so if you want to maybe tell me something I don’t know, that would be rad.”

“I’ve been looking for you and the crew with which you are associated on account of your repeated disregard for the laws of life and death -”

Taako raises a hand. This is getting absurd. “Listen, thug, we can skip that part. We’ve definitely had this whole convo before.”

“We certainly have not.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Taako bursts out, standing up. “Did I not leave enough of an impression, was that time you has a scythe to my fuckin’ neck not memorable for you, cause it sure was for me! Guess that’s just a Tuesday night for you, though!”

Gods, but there’s not even a hint of recognition in Kravitz’s expression when he looks at Taako, only bewilderment. He wants to take Kravitz by his shoulders and shake him, but instead his fingers dig into the table when he realizes that his hands are trembling. This is absolutely the same man, right down to the exact pattern of white marks on his face, the way he wears his hair - tied in the back, and woven through with gold beads that glint in the sunlight. Sure, it’s been a few cycles but surely this is a trick, surely he remembers that night; Taako can’t seem to forget it.

Damn it. What is he even doing here, why didn’t he just hurl a magic missile at Kravitz on sight? But even now, he doesn’t want to.

“Wow, look at the time,” Taako says, standing up straight. He’s said too much. There’s no advantage to be found, here. “Thanks for the coffee, good talk -” He turns, but Kravitz’s hand shoots out as he stands, to catch Taako’s wrist.

“We’re not done.”

“Don’t touch me.”

If anything, Kravitz’s grip tightens. “What are you?” He demands, standing up.

He lays his other hand on top of Kravitz’s and casts shocking grasp, a sharp, bright jolt coursing through his hand and into Kravitz, who snatches his arm back, clutching at the spot where Taako shocked him. The cafe around them has gone quiet, and his spell draws more than a few whispers from other patrons.

“See you next cycle, babe. Or not, I could take or leave it. Wouldn’t recommend following me.”

With Kravitz staring at him angrily - stupid, fucking stupid that he actually feels guilty - Taako shrugs his bag over his shoulder, stepping back from the table. He turns on his heel, leaving Kravitz with the bill and the curious onlookers.

 He wants to see him again.

It’s the coalescence of many hours of lying awake, staring up at the bottom of Lup’s bunk, the events of the day replaying on loop in his mind. Trying to deny it and failing. Impossible to deny even to himself: despite it all, despite the danger, he wants to see Kravitz again.

“Fucking damn it,” Taako groans, pressing his face into the pillow. “Fuck fuck fuck.”

It’s curiosity. That’s it. Something weird is going on here, either Kravitz is a liar and he really did follow them across planes or there are a lot more coincidences going on here than he's comfortable with. Or somehow, he exists on this plane too. The same man, yet different, but can that even be possible?

It's just curiosity, certainly not the strange tugging in his chest, the urge he can’t deny, like a sweet smell wafting from the kitchen or the faint notes of a beautiful song, compelling him to follow it to its source. “This is so fucking stupid,” he grumbles.

From the bunk above him Lup hurls a pillow directly at his face. “Shut the fuck up and go to sleep, dingus.”

 “You came back.”

Taako knows the voice without looking, at this point, but he lifts his gaze anyway. Same street corner, different day, but here they both are, you’d think they planned it. Kravitz keeps a respectful distance - out of reach of another shocking grasp - but his eyes locked on Taako no less intense than before.

He leans back against the tree behind him, hands shoved in his pockets. “How’d you know I’d be here?”

“I didn’t,” Kravitz admits. “I was… compelled to come. I didn’t know why until now.”

“Until now?” Taako asks, softly.

Kravitz nods, doesn’t elaborate, so Taako lets it go. Kravitz is anxious, too anxious considering he holds all the cards here, shifting on his feet, fiddling with his cufflinks. They’re in the shape of little golden bird skulls; the guy knows how to pull together an aesthetic. It makes Taako hyper-aware of himself, of the loud, clashing patterns of his leggings and tunic, the patches on the hat he’s had as long as he can remember - not embarrassed, just aware. Taako bites his lip, hesitating. Takes in the sight of the tailored cut of Kravitz’s suit - no cloak, this time - the strong slope of his wide nose, the striking crimson eyes, all exactly the same as he remembers. It’s him, and yet it can’t be, and yet here he is. Seeing him again despite the impossibility and the danger of it all feels right, familiarly so, he’d felt it that night too, as they’d talked and danced. He feels right, and Taako doesn't know what that means.

But he wants to know. He wants to know everything. Needs to know, so that he can keep Lup - and sure, everyone else too - safe, but he's not fooling himself into thinking it's entirely altruistic.

“Yeah. Me too.” Taako glances away. “The rest of the crew doesn’t know I’m here.”

Kravitz raises his eyebrows. “Not even your sister?”

“Leave her out of this.” It comes out more harshly than he intends; he takes a breath and continues. “No, I didn’t tell them you’ve been creeping around.”

“Why not?”

Lup and the rest of them would absolutely take Kravitz down, if they knew; what he doesn’t know is why he cares. He stands up straight, and ignores the memory of holding Kravitz’s cold hands as they’d walked down a lamplit city street, the odd urge to hold a hand out to Kravitz now. He keeps his hand close to his wand instead. “Let’s take a walk. You got questions, so do I. Try and convince me this isn’t the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.”

He half expects Kravitz to refuse as he turns, walking away from the busier street and to the wooded park nearby, secluded, quiet. But after a moment Kravitz’s long-legged stride brings him next to Taako as they step into the shadow of the trees.

Worst case scenario, Taako figures, he dies - which, okay, that’s not ideal, and Lup will give him no end of shit for it next cycle. It’s also a little hard to care, knowing he'll come back. But Kravitz isn't going to kill him. He can't explain how he knows that, but he does.

“I’m sorry,” Kravitz says, out of nowhere.


“For, um... touching you. When you said not to. At the cafe.” Kravitz rubs the back of his hand, where Taako had shocked him. “I shouldn’t have done that.”

“Oh.” He hadn’t expected an apology, hadn’t even thought of it, and he’s thrown more than a little off-balance by it. “Yeah, uh - I probs shouldn’t’ve shocked you, so, call it even.”

Kravitz doesn’t reply, and Taako can feel him watching, the tension between them thick. It’s quiet here, away from the noise of the town, the only sounds their own footsteps and birdsong, and he finds he can’t stand the silence. “Sooo,” he drawls. “How’s the pay for being the Grim Reaper, you get benefits?”

Kravitz lets out a startled laugh, really more of a snort, it shouldn’t be as adorable as it is. “Looking for a career change?”

“Maybe so. How do you get a gig like that?”

“Dying, in fact.”

“...ah.” Taako glances at Kravitz, looks him up and down - he looks flesh and blood, but Taako knows it’s all cold. “I didn’t know if you were like, a demigod or something?”

“No, nothing so dramatic. I was mortal once, same as you.”

Taako has to wonder if he even counts as mortal, at this point. Pseudo-immortal? “Sure, but people die all the time,  they don’t all become Death.”

“Most spirits aren’t so restless. But you’re avoiding the subject at hand, and I believe it’s my turn to ask a question.”

That’s absolutely not a satisfying answer, raises more questions really, but Kravitz apparently doesn’t want to assuage his curiosity, so Taako waves a hand. “Ask away, my man.”

“Yesterday you refused to be alone with me,” Kravitz says, glancing sidelong at him. “What changed?”

“Lemme ask you this, how many chances have you had to kill me?” Kravitz doesn't answer, but Taako looks at him, sees the clench in his jaw. “Way I see it, if you actually wanted me dead you’d have done it already. And you haven’t. Why is that?”

“So many questions, so few answers for me.” Kravitz clasps his hands behind his back. “Your entire existence has me rather flummoxed, I’m afraid. I’m... curious.”

Curious. Taako smirks. That’s the excuse he’s been using, too. “That so?”

“Your sudden appearance on this plane, your crew’s history of death, your continued insistence that somehow we’ve met, your utter disregard for your own safety in this situation… yes, Taako Taaco, I am infinitely curious about you.”

“Not to mention my striking good looks.”

Kravitz shakes his head, but is that the hint of a blush Taako sees? He doesn’t bother hiding his grin. The warm afternoon sun filters through the leaves, dusting Kravitz’s face in motes of light and shadow. He’s beautiful; Taako hates how beautiful he is, how he can’t stop staring. “You’re not intimidated by me at all, are you?”

“Even if you wanted me dead it wouldn’t do you any good, uh, doesn’t exactly stick, y’know?”

“Indeed. How have you managed to die without entering the astral plane, Taako?”

“No idea. My turn -”

“Now, hold on,” Kravitz stops, laughing, and something about the way his eyes squeeze shut makes Taako’s chest ache. “That’s not one you get to just skim over.”

Taako shrugs, continuing down the path, and Kravitz watches him a moment before following close behind. “It’s true, though. Throw a Zone of Truth at me if you want. I don’t know how it works. Don’t have any control over it! So how do you do the whole turning into a skeleton thing? It’s pretty hot, not gonna lie.”

“How do you know about -” Kravitz shuts his eyes, rubbing the bride of his nose. “Right, because somehow, you think we’ve met before. Which I rather think I would remember.”

“I’ve met you,” Taako says, carefully. “But I’m not sure if you’ve met me.”

“I’m not going to get a straight answer out of you, am I?”

“Not one you’ll believe.”

“Taako.” The quiet, sudden gentleness in Kravitz’s tone gives Taako pause; he stops walking again, turns to face Kravitz, who stops too. “Do you... remember dying?”

Falling falling falling, buffeted by sharp stones, a sickening crack and then nothing, infinite nothing - He swallows and answers, “Every second of it.”

“And what did you do to reverse it? What spell? Was there a cleric, or was this your own doing?”

“Nothing. Totally out of my control.”


“I swear. It just happens.”

Kravitz shakes his head. “And this is what I mean by anomaly. Never, in all my time as a reaper - the soul, Taako, it’s a… changeable thing. Fragile. Death, passage through the veil and into the astral plane, that is the most dramatic change it can go through. It’s why souls that are eventually reincarnated are entirely different people, why liches inevitably go mad - you can’t die without being changed. And yet, here you are. No record of entering the astral plane. No damage to your soul. I will ask you again: What did you do to reverse it?”

“Nothing, ” Taako snaps, stopping in the middle of the path, he’s so sick of this, of not being believed. “You want to know the fucking truth? I’ve forgotten how old I am because I’m not sure if I’m supposed to count my birthdays! I start every single year with a hangover because I drank a bunch of shitty beer the night before I boarded a magic spaceship and that resets too! I died in an entirely different planar system, but it doesn’t matter because every single year we leave and if one of us died, we come back and we start over. We don’t know why, or how, so if you have any ideas I’m sure it would be a huge help.”

“And every member of your crew is under this… condition?”

“Yes. Fuck, man, we’re just trying to make the best of it, okay? Trying to do what tiny bit of good we can. I swear we wouldn’t have chosen this.”

“Something did this to you, it can’t just happen. You defy every natural law, you shouldn’t exist.

“Then why do I?” Taako asks, stepping forward, defiant, “If I’m such an affront to nature or what the fuck ever, then why haven’t you killed me?”

“I have been Death for a long, long time, Taako Taaco,” Kravitz says. He circles Taako slowly, always watching him. “I know intimately the machinations of life and death, and how people attempt - and fail - to manipulate them. I know what the sort of people who would defy these laws are like. But then there’s you. Young and clever, very clever - but not even a necromancer, no, you’re not the type - perhaps your companions dragged you into something beyond your understanding, perhaps I could still guide your restless soul. Save you. Silly, I know, a fantasy. I intended to take you all to the Eternal Stockade where you belong, when you were nothing but one in a series of names in my ledger, but when I saw you…”

He pauses, just there in front of Taako, standing close. Too close for Taako to miss how his eyes dart down to Taako’s lips, and linger there. Taako’s mouth goes dry as Kravitz reaches out, almost absently, it seems, and twirls a loose lock of hair around his fingers. “I wasn't exaggerating when I said I was compelled to come here.  I wanted to know you; no, Taako, I had to know, anything less would have… haunted me. Why, after centuries, are you the first soul to give me pause? Why can I not bring myself to do my goddamn job?

“My winning smile?” Taako answers weakly. Kravitz’s fingers brush the edge of his jawline, and he shivers. They’re so close. Taako can feel the cold of his body, radiating the same as heat from someone living. Death. He remembers, acutely, what the Grim Reaper’s mouth tastes like. He could lean in and kiss him, if he wanted.

If he wanted.

“Why,” Kravitz’s voice breaks, he nearly sounds afraid, and more like he’s talking to himself than to Taako. “Why do you act like you know me, why do I feel like I know you? It feels like I’ve found something I’ve been looking for all my life and it doesn’t make sense.

And that, that resonates with Taako somehow, it feels true in a way he doesn’t expect. Holy hell that’s a lot, so much more than Taako bargained for and he should want to run away. He doesn’t. He lays a hand on Kravitz’s arm and looks him in the eye.

“You... really don’t remember?”

“I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be remembering.”

“But it was you.


“We danced together,” Taako says, with a short, quiet laugh. “And we talked, for hours, and you were… so nice to me, or I thought you were. I don’t know how but I know it was you , and now you’re here. On a whole other world. And I don’t know how that can be.”


His grip on Kravitz’s arm tightens, just slightly. “Guess you’re an anomaly, too.”

He doesn't expect Kravitz to kiss him, so the cold of his lips is startling; he gasps, fingers digging into the smooth fabric of Kravitz's suit.

Kravitz pulls back immediately, babbling apologies that dissolve into a muffled moan as Taako grabs his tie and pulls him back in and kisses him hard, all teeth and tongue. Both of Kravitz's hands cradle his face, so much more gently than Taako would ever expect, and he tastes like cool spring water on a hot day. He knew he wanted Kravitz but didn't know until now just how badly; his own desperation surprising him. He has to stop to catch his breath but they stay close, Kravitz's breathing ragged as he peppers kisses along Taako’s jaw.

“I don't know what I’m doing,” Kravitz whispers against Taako’s skin, and Taako turns his face captures his lips again, nips at his bottom lip, soothes the bite with his tongue. He’s so cold, which Taako knew but it’s still strange, stranger still to feel his body warming from contact with Taako.

“Does it matter?” He breathes between kisses, feverish, grasping at him. It’s been so, so long since he’s been kissed like this, since he’s been kissed at all, hungry for Kravitz ever since that night.

“I’m supposed to take you in.”

“I think we’re long past that, aren’t we, Bones?” Taako says, letting go of his tie, pulling back just enough to look at him, their faces still close.

Gods, the way Kravitz looks at him, burning eyes, kiss-reddened lips. He really hadn’t been lying about liking Taako, last time, he looked at him just like this, and knowing that is strange; he’d always thought Kravitz was just playing him for a fool.  Kravitz’s hands still cup his cheeks, thumbs skimming over his skin. He leans in again, and kisses him soft and slow, plenty of room for Kravitz to stop him, to step back. He doesn’t. His hands fall from Taako’s face to his hips, pulling him closer as Taako slips a hand up the back of Kravitz’s jacket, the other still resting on his arm.

“What do you want?” Taako aks, resting back on his heels to whisper against Kravitz’s mouth.


Time has not blunted his desire, if anything it’s stronger than ever, he needs it all released, needs this so he can stop thinking about it all the time. He kisses Kravitz at the place where his neck meets his shoulder, and then up and up, pinching dark skin gently between his teeth just for the way it makes Kravitz jump. He smells strange, like rain, like the sharp, lightning-strike scent that a spell might leave hanging in the air; this form some kind of illusion, for all Taako understands it, but here under his hands and mouth, solid and real. “We could go back to mine but it’s, uh, a bit of a walk -”

Kravitz steps back, and his scythe materializes from smoke in his hand. Taako tenses, but Kravitz doesn’t attack him - he swings it through empty air, and with a sound like tearing paper a sort of rift opens before them, into glittering blackness.

“Just think of where you want to go,” Kravitz says, “and step through. This will take us on a quick jump through the ethereal plane, and open up where you want it to.”

“That,” Taako says, and he presses his palms together in front of his mouth, grin splitting across his face. “Is the coolest fucking trick I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying a lot ‘cause I can do that cool spinny thing with pizza dough. That can go anywhere ?”

Kravitz ducks his head and laughs, his cheeks turning pink. “Anywhere, as long as you have a destination in mind. There are some benefits to this job.”

“Only one place I want to take you right now, my man.” He reaches for Kravitz’s hand as he walks toward the portal, peering inside. It’s a void, as far as he can see, and the edges of the portal crackle with the same energy as the scythe and the book, a divine power. “This isn’t some trick to lock me up in ghost jail?”

“No. You have my word.” Kravitz pauses, frowning, brow drawn. “Though I suppose my word would mean little to you, you have no reason to trust me.”

“I do trust you,” Taako says, it tumbles from his lips easy as breathing.

“Why?” Kravitz asks softly, a strange expression on his face as he looks at Taako. Still holding Taako’s hand.

“I don’t know,” Taako says, honestly, and he turns back to the portal and steps through. It’s freezing, colder than jumping in a lake in the dead of winter, but only for an instant; he lets Kravitz lead him and he pictures his room on the Starblaster, all its clutter, his and Lup’s clothes tumbling out of the wardrobe - praying, at the last second, that Lup won’t be there.

She isn’t, thank all the gods, and as the portal closes behind him Taako shakes off the disorientation, fires off two spells that he always has ready to go, one to silence the room and one to lock the door from the inside, they’re necessary for his sanity when he’s stuck on a ship with seven other people for god knows how long. He turns back to Kravitz, and finds him looking curiously around the room, out the porthole window.

“You live on a… boat? In the sky?”

“Like I said,” Taako says, stepping into Kravitz’s space, an arm wrapped around his neck, a sly grin on his face. “I’m an alien from another planar system and I live on a magic spaceship powered by friendship. It’s whatever.”

Kravitz stares at him blankly. The scythe turns to smoke in his hands. “You’re serious. I thought you were having a laugh but you’re serious.”

“Truth is stranger than fiction,” Taako says, rather wisely if he does say so himself, who needs to know it’s a quote from Fantasy Mark Twain.

“You met me in another world.”

“I guess so. A version of you. Still trying to work that one out.”

Kravitz shakes his head, laughing softly. “Who the hell are you?”

“An anomaly, darling.”

He’s distracting Kravitz with a long, deep kiss before he can question it further, and before long Kravitz’s hands are fumbling to tug his shirt up over his head, Taako’s long, thin fingers plucking at the buttons of Kravitz’s waistcoat and pushing jacket over his head. All of their clothes end up in a pile on the floor in front of his bunk, and Taako lets his hands roam the broad expanse of Kravitz’s back, touch every inch of him that he’s wanted his hands on for so long. He wants to leave marks all along the column of his neck, to lay claim to what isn’t even his to take. He kind of can’t believe he’s doing this but the worried voice at the back of his mind is shoved away, where it can’t talk sense into him.

“Gods, you’re so warm,” Kravitz says quietly, breaking the kiss and holding Taako’s body tight to his. Palms spread wide over his back, stretching out to touch all he can, and Taako shivers. “I’d forgotten.”


“What life feels like.”

Taako looks at him a long moment, sad for reasons he doesn’t want to examine right now, not with Kravitz, who doesn’t seem to realize how depressing that is, ducking his head to kiss down Taako’s chest - pausing to suck one small nipple into his mouth, drawing out a gasp, before he continues, lower, until he’s on his knees, pushing Taako’s underwear to the floor. And Taako was already mostly hard, but the sight of Kravitz down there, his hands coming to rest on Taako’s hips, the way he looks at Taako with such open hunger - just, wow.

“This okay?” Kravitz asks, looking up at him through long, dark lashes, pressing a kiss to the side of Taako’s cock.

Taako’s eyes close, for a moment, head tipping back. “Yes, shit, what kind of question is that.”

“Just checking.” And all other thoughts fly from Taako’s mind as Kravitz takes the head of his cock into his mouth. There's something about seeing Death on his knees in front of him that makes Taako giddy, intoxicatingly powerful, he tangles his fingers through Kravitz’s thick locs and watches, lips parted, as Kravitz’s mouth stretches so prettily around him, taking him deep, eyes meeting his a moment before fluttering closed.  

“Look at you,” he breathes, petting at Kravitz’s hair. He would have thought Kravitz’s mouth would be cold but it’s warmed up, just like the rest of him, body heat stolen from Taako. One of Kravitz’s hands snakes around to cup his ass, kneading gently.  “You gorgeous thing, you want me so bad, don’t you?”

Kravitz doesn’t answer, obviously, but he presses his tongue to the underside of Taako’s cock as he pulls back, slow, pausing to suck at the head before lowering his head again. And Taako is struck with the need to make Kravitz feel as good as he’s making Taako feel right now, he wants Kravitz laid out in his bed and crying out his name, wants his hands all over him. He wants to watch the Grim Reaper fall to pieces, to overwhelm him. “Let me fuck you,” he says, hand moving from Kravitz’s hair to his face, cupping his jaw. “Can I?”

Kravitz pulls off with a lewd pop, and Taako groans, almost regretting asking him to stop. “Yes, I - yes,” Kravitz says, scrambling to his feet, following Taako to the bed. Pausing to kiss him, and they get lost in that for a long moment, in Kravitz’s tongue sliding against his, the slight taste of Taako in Kravitz’s mouth. He would do this forever, but he doesn’t have forever. It’s too easy to forget that.

“How do you want it, beautiful,” Taako breathes against his lips. “On your knees? On top?”

“Like this,” Kravitz lays back, pulling Taako over him, letting his weight settle on top of him as he pulls him back into the kiss. “I want to see you.”

Moving away to search for a long-forgotten bottle of lube is an absolute travesty, but coming back is heaven, the way Kravitz reaches for him, pulls him back in. One hand between his legs, slipping a slick finger inside - Kravitz moans softly, eyes falling shut - while the other pushes his legs open wide so that Taako can lean over him, scatter kisses across his chest, nuzzle his cheek against the hair there. He smells amazing, magical; Taako presses his face to his neck just to breathe it in. Another finger, and another, slow and careful, until Kravitz kisses him again and says, “Now, do it.”

Taako thinks about teasing him a while, making Death beg for him, but it’s been a long time and Taako just wants him, he wants to know how he’ll sound when he pushes into him. He watches the way Kravitz’s mouth falls open, gasping quietly, brow furrowed, until he’s all the way inside and a long, low moan pours from his lips. He’s going to sound fucking amazing when he comes.

God, ” Taako groans, knowing he’s not going to last. He gives Kravitz a moment to settle but he has to move, Kravitz feels so good, feels amazing, his legs coming up to wrap around Taako and making him sink even deeper. He leans over Kravitz, taking his face between his hands and holding him like that, making him meet his eyes. “Thought you wanted to look at me.” He doesn’t let Kravitz answer before he he’s fucking into him, rocking Kravitz’s body with each motion, and one of Kravitz’s hands makes a fist against the sheets, the other curling over Taako’s shoulder, blunt nails digging just so into his warm skin.

Kravitz’s eyes lock onto his and Taako can’t look away from him, from his beautiful face - cradled between Taako’s hands, lips parted just slightly, eyes blown wide and dark - and the emotion that lingers there, but gods he can’t stand it either, the feeling that wells up in his chest and his throat and his heart. He thrusts through it, harder, harder, and Kravitz’s head tips back, he moans as his eyes fall closed. He turns his head into Taako’s palm, and when Taako’s middle and index fingers graze his lips he takes them in his mouth and sucks around them, tongue soft and warm and wet. “Fuck, Kravitz,” Taako gasps, and lets his head fall forward, resting on the center of Kravitz’s chest, as he crowds around Kravitz and speeds up. Kravitz’s cock rubs against his belly on every thrust and Kravitz angles his hips up, seeking the friction he needs, until Taako pulls his hand from Kravitz’s mouth and reaches down to wrap spit-slick fingers around him.

He comes, fast and hard, hands flying up to grip Taako’s shoulders as he curls around him, shaking through it, the sounds falling from his mouth music to Taako’s ears. “Harder,” Kravitz gasps in his ear, “hard as you want, let me feel you -” he cuts himself off, a broken moan as Taako crests that wave. Even after he comes he doesn’t stop right away, slick and wet pushing back in to feel Kravitz tense around him, shuddering through the aftershocks, until he’s finally too soft to continue. Kissing Kravitz slowly, and gently, eyes meeting for the briefest moment before they both let their gazes slide away.

He narrowly avoids collapsing right on top of Kravitz, though it’s tempting, rolling off to the side to lay just next to him, their breathing hard but slowly evening out. Already he can feel Kravitz’s temperature dropping back to it’s natural chill; Taako curls closer to him (hard not to on such a small bed) and closes his eyes as Kravitz’s fingers brush through his hair. A mumbled prestidigitation removes the mess between them, but it leaves Taako feeling cold.

They lay there, quiet for a while, as Taako tries to ignore the feelings growing in him, things he doesn’t want to try to identify. He’d rather not feel anything about this. With the need in them now tamped down, he doesn’t want to think about what a terrible idea this was. He’d known. Just allowed himself to ignore it, until he couldn’t.

It doesn’t feel terrible, of course. It feels nothing but right, or it would never have happened, he likes to think he has a modicum of self-control. But there’s this disconnect between what he knows and what he feels; knowing this is it, all of Kravitz he gets to have, the tension of the past years finally released; and wanting to wrap himself around Kravitz and hold him tight. He’d forgotten just how bad he is at one-night stands. How fast he can fall if he isn’t careful, and how badly that always goes for him.

Kravitz exhales, staring up at the ceiling above them. Taako lets his eyes open, watching Kravitz’s face. “That was… unprofessional of me. At the very least.”

Taako traces absent patterns with his finger across the bare skin of Kravitz’s shoulder, the outline of the paler patches, like beautiful strokes of paint across a dark canvas. A quiet dread - though not quite regret - settling in the pit of his stomach, reflected in the anxious furrow of Kravitz’s brow. He wants to make Kravitz leave. He wants to hold him close, ask him to stay.

“Sorry, not sorry,” he mumbles, tucking his face into that space where Kravitz’s shoulder meets his chest, where he smells of sweat and magic. Everything about him so good it’s more than Taako can stand, oh gods , he should not have done this to himself.

“No, that’s not -” Kravitz trails off, and chuckles softly. He holds Taako a little tighter. “I just don’t make a habit of this.”

“Fucking your bounties?”

“Blunt, but yes.”

“Guess I must be something special.” It doesn’t come out cute or coy like he intends, just quietly bitter.

“You are,” Kravitz murmurs, turns his head to nuzzle at the top of Taako’s head. And fucking hell, Kravitz has no idea, does he, how much that means, how it means the world to Taako to hear it. He doesn't know whether to push Kravitz away or draw him closer. He’s just wanted Kravitz so badly, hadn't stopped to think what that would do to him, to either of them.

Kravitz must sense the way he tenses. He finally looks down at Taako, a complicated look that Taako can’t parse or doesn't entirely want to. “You’re really from a different planar system?”

“Yeah.” Taako avoids looking into his eyes. “It’s - gone, now. I guess. Gobbled right up.”

“I’m… sorry.”

“Whatever. It happened. Don’t think we could make it back anyway.”

“Is this plane in danger, too?”

Taako shakes his head. “Not anymore. That’s what we do, I guess. We end up on a new world, we do our best to save it. Sometimes we don’t. This time we did.”

Kravitz watches him, like he’s trying to decide if he believes him or not. “You’ll have to leave, then. To save the next world.”

“Mhm.” Taako thinks that’s giving them maybe too much credit - how many worlds have they had to leave behind, to ruin? More than they’ve saved, he’s sure - but he doesn’t correct him. Doesn’t know how he’s supposed to talk about this stuff with anyone who isn’t Lup or Magnus or the rest of the crew, he’s never tried, until today.

“I see.” Kravitz is quiet a moment, then murmurs, “Gods. I really have no idea what I’m doing here.”

Taako bites his lip, he feels like he’s suffocating, a little, like his heart is trying to crawl up his throat. “Listen - I don’t -” He sits up out of Kravitz’s embrace. He really shouldn’t have set himself up for such heartache. Shouldn’t have made himself so vulnerable to this man, still a danger to his crew even now, what would they think if they knew… Well, they can’t know, Taako decides right then, they don’t need to know Kravitz was ever aboard the ship, so close to the bounties he’s hunting. They wouldn’t trust him, if they knew that, and they’d be right not to. “Well, anyway. That’s out of our system, huh?”

“Right,” Kravitz says quietly, watching as Taako stands up, and starts gathering his clothes. He does the same, buttoning up his shirt with his eyes still following Taako.

“And I’m not too keen on my crew knowing about this whole… so yeah, let’s just…”

“I understand.”

A weight on his chest like a block of cement, an emptiness in his gut. He rubs at his face and sighs. “Look, I…”

“Taako, you don’t have to.” He isn’t looking Taako in the eye anymore, and it’s horrid. “It’s alright. I know.”

“Okay,” Taako whispers. He thinks he should apologize, but he’s not sure what for. But he’s in the right - isn’t he? Even if they went down this road, it only ends badly, it only ends with Taako leaving soon, so why put it off? And he doesn’t know this man. He doesn’t owe him anything.

Kravitz stands, pulling on his trousers, jacket slung over his shoulder. “I plan on explaining your case to the Raven Queen, getting your bounties cleared. Clearly this whole mess with your resurrection is far beyond Her jurisdiction, so...”

And that’s good, that should be good, that should be what Taako wants, they’re off the hook for the year. Great. So why does he feel fucking miserable? “You know this wasn’t some… bribe for not killing me. It wasn't that.”

“Then what?”

Taako looks back at him. He can't read the expression on Kravitz’s face, not really. And there’s a sort of tug in his sternum, like someone’s attached a hook and pulled, pulling now toward Kravitz. It is too physical to be ignored and too familiar to wave off as sentimentality, so similar to being pulled back together at the beginning of a cycle, the bonds tethering the seven of them together. Something deep and beyond knowing, and he is horribly afraid of it. He’s already bound inextricably to six other people, stuck with them for who knows how long, maybe forever - closer than he’s ever been with anyone besides Lup. He’s not sure he can handle a seventh, especially one who he has to leave behind.

On impulse he kisses Kravitz one more time, for a moment afraid that he won’t be able to drag himself away. When they step apart Kravitz's eyes are unfocused and sad. Oh, there’s the regret, now, an ache just below his heart, and he doesn’t know how to handle it except to run. The way he handles most everything.

“See you around, Bones,” he says softly, wondering whether he hopes it will be true.

Chapter Text

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.

What’s happening?

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.”

“I know.”

“Don't make me find your fucking body again, Jesus Christ.”

He laughs, though it isn't really funny.

Chapter Text

Barry is hopeless at swimming, but surprisingly good at fishing, which means Taako spends the majority of the beach year on the water. The sun rises early on this world, and in the mornings he takes his surfboard out, an hour or two of solitude, just him and the waves and the reflection of the rising sun on the water, before returning to shore to cook breakfast with Lup. Then, if he’s not practicing magic, or walking around the island with Lucretia and Merle, finding weird plants or animals for Lucretia to sketch for her journals, he’ll sneak off with Barry to give him his “secret” swimming lessons (which Taako told Lup about immediately, of course, because he’s a good good brother.)

It’s… kind of fun hanging out with Barry one-on-one, outside of late hours of caffeine-fueled research in the lab, studying the Hunger and the Light of Creation, the way they do most cycles. When Barry inevitably fails to swim most days, Taako gives up on him and they get to work on the evening’s dinner, catching fresh fish from the cove just a short walk from where they’re docked or plucking crabs and oysters from the traps he’s set up offshore. Lup joins them sometimes when she’s bored, because there’s very little to actually do on the island, but she doesn’t have the patience for fishing that Taako does, and whenever she’s around, Barry fumbles his pole and drops it in the water. When Barry had confessed his feelings for Lup to Taako he’d acted like it was some big revelation. Please, Taako’s seen this coming for years, even if Lup is blind as a bat.

Barry is patient, and quiet, happy to chat or to sit in silence depending on Taako’s mood, unlike Magnus who is constantly yelling about something, or Lucretia, who it's impossible to get two words out of. It's nice, but Taako would drown himself before admitting it.

“Think we’ll end up on a world like this once, once we stop?” Barry asks one day. He’s holding his fishing rod, but Taako left his own secured between some heavy rocks, so he can lie back on the warm sand and close his eyes against the sun beating down. He cracks an eye open, peering at Barry.

“Once we stop?”

“Yeah.” Barry shrugs. His lure bobs in the water, but whatever was nibbling at it loses interest. “Whatever world we end up on, after we beat the Hunger. I kinda hope it's like this one. With more people.”

Taako snorts. “With any people at all, more like.” They’d spent a week after they picked up the Light flying over the sparse landmasses of this plane, checking for any sign of sentient life, of civilization. They found ancient ruins, but nothing else. It strikes Taako as more than a little ironic, how they’ve failed to recover the light and lost worlds full of people to the Hunger, but the one cycle where they pick it up right away, there's no one.

Taako has to wonder if any gods exist here, with no one to worship them, or if they're still around even without the all the temples and the offerings from mortals. Has to wonder if Kravitz is around the corner waiting for him - for them - or if whatever happened to the people of this world did away with him and his goddess too, and left this world covered in water.

“What do you hope it'll be like?” Barry asks.

In truth, Taako hasn't thought about it in a long time. He doesn't think about making it home anymore, or making it back to any of the places they've visited over these long years. He forgets that maybe one day they’ll get to stop. “Oh, somewhere glamorous, no doubt,” he says. “With electric lights and skyscrapers and TV.”

“So, the exact opposite of this, then,” Barry says wryly.

He hasn't gotten a bite in a while; impatient, he reels in his line and finds the bait nibbled away to nothing. “Damn it.”


Barry passes him their container of bait, and watches as Taako plucks a fat white worm from the dirt and pierces it on the hook. Barry’s the only person Taako has ever met that isn't squeamish about live bait; even Lup always makes him bait the hook for her. He casts his line and lets it drift out. “Yeah, pretty much,” he finally answers. “Gimme a little hustle and bustle, ya feel?”

“Yeah, that’s fair.” Barry glances at him sideways, knowingly. “It makes you ansty, right? It can be lonely. The quiet.”

Lonely. In such close proximity to six other people all the time he wouldn’t think of himself as lonely, but even so, he squirms when Barry says it. “No, just -” Taako shrugs. “I don't know.”


“I just - I keep expecting it to go wrong. Like we’re not actually alone here or…” It comes out quick, mumbled: “Or Kravitz is going to show up.”

Barry raises his eyebrows. “Expecting, or hoping?”

Taako feels his ears turn pink. “He killed me,” he snaps.

“And you slept with him.”

“I don't think we’re gonna get a bite today. Help me check the crab traps.” He pulls his line in and starts putting away the gear, and Barry follows suit. “Stupid to worry about it. No people here, no one to reap, no reason for the Raven Queen to have servants here. If she’s even around.”

Hefting their tackle boxes, they start making their way to where the Starblaster is docked, just offshore, where they can pull the traps up over the back of the ship. “Or he’s got other things to worry about. Dealing with the souls of the civilization that was here before, maybe? From what me and Lup read, reapers spend most of their time in the astral plane. Guarding restless spirits and all that,” Barry says.


“You're not interested?”

He is. He itches to know everything he can about Kravitz, he has so many questions. He’s also terrified to know the answers. “Nope,” he says, popping the 'P’, like he can fool Barry, like Barry doesn't absolutely know that he’s still thinking about Kravitz all the time. They board the ship and make their way to the stern. “Pull the traps up, will you? All this hard labor, I’m exhausted.”

“Sure you are,” Barry says, but he does it. “For what it’s worth,” he grunts. “Even if you're lonely, you aren't alone, y’know?”

“You're the only one saying that, Barrold. I’m not pining for the dude who murdered me, for fucks sake.”

“You said it, not me,” Barry says cheerfully. He heaves the traps over the side of the ship with a grunt, sighs as he looks at their contents. “Guess it’s lobster again tonight.”

“Poor us.”

They eat it with oil that Taako transmutes into butter, grilled over the bonfire, with leftovers aplenty for lobster rolls the next day. The sun dips low, casting everything in pinks and oranges, and Taako’s hair, grown long this year and bleached even lighter from the sun, is crunchy with salt water from when he swam earlier in the day. They pass around a bottle of some kind of Gnomish liquor that Davenport had stashed away, and Magnus breaks out his guitar and plays songs from home, and Lup pulls Lucretia out of her seat and spins her around, dancing circles around the bonfire with their skirts swirling around bare feet, eyes half closed and laughing. Beside Taako, Barry watches Lup dance with a dopey, serene smile. Lup doesn't notice, and Taako doesn't say a word. They’ll figure it out one day.

It's just been… strange, is all. To have such a long stretch of peace, a “mental health year” as Davenport called it, not something Taako has ever been used to even before the mission. He’d almost rather see Kravitz tear open one of those portals and step out, scythe at the ready; crisis mode is more Taako’s comfort zone.

But maybe it wouldn't be a crisis for once. Maybe Kravitz would be open to hearing their side of things, maybe he wouldn’t even be assigned to hunt them, maybe they could just talk, maybe -

The bottle makes its way back to him; he takes a long drink before passing it along to Barry. God, Taako, stop it, he thinks, almost bored with himself, because he's always catching himself thinking these things and there's just no point to it.  Lup just keeps saying he needs to meet another guy, get his mind off Kravitz, and maybe she’s right but it seems pointless. He’d love to be the kind of guy who can just have a quick fling with no hard feelings when they break it off, Lup does it all the time and it seems to work out for her, but it’s not the way Taako is wired. He falls too fast and too hard, which is why he just avoids dating at all, generally. Hard to want to chase anyone else when he knows he'll just have to leave them at the end of the cycle too. When he knows the particular way that Kravitz’s soul hums. He snatches the bottle back from Barry one more time before it can get passed around the circle again. He deserves to be slightly more drunk if this is the way his thoughts are going to spiral.

He watches as Lup and Barry’s eyes meet across the bonfire. Barry’s face goes red and he nearly falls out of his chair, while Lup glances away, the tips of her ears as pink as she turns her attention back to Lucretia. Holy shit. He’s never seen Lup actually get flustered over anyone before, much less Barry J. Bluejeans, the least intimidating man in the multiverse. He hadn't actually put much thought into the idea that Lup might like Barry back.

He’s not going to get to share a look like that with Kravitz. Even if - when - they do find somewhere to finally, finally stop this seemingly endless journey, they’ll still be wanted by the Raven Queen, he’ll still be a criminal in Kravitz's eyes. Even during this long, peaceful time that they have now, that he’s trying to enjoy, he’s all too aware that they're always running, maybe always will be.

Davenport makes them exercise particular caution whenever there's a sign that Kravitz is on the hunt - large flocks of ravens darkening the skies, an unexplained chill in the air that they’ve found correlates to the rifts that Kravitz can open between planes. Taako isn’t the only one that Kravitz is hunting, though it often feels like it, drawn together whether they like it or not. Once, when Magnus, Barry, and Merle had returned to the ship after an unsuccessful venture to retrieve the Light, they reported being hunted by a cloaked figure with a scythe, though they managed to fight back and weaken him enough that he retreated, allowing them to get away. Another time, Kravitz caught Lucretia and Davenport alone - both powerful wizards in their own rights, but Lucretia’s strength is in abjuration, Davenport’s in illusion, neither of them equipped to fight a reaper. Instead of fighting, they managed to gamble for their souls, for the opportunity to explain their situation. A game of poker. A narrow victory, from the way Davenport tells the story, but a victory nonetheless.

None of them ever want to be caught alone with Kravitz - and that, Taako notices, seems to be how he prefers to hunt, isolating them in small groups or alone - but Davenport and Lucretia’s close call proves to the others that he can be reasoned with. Or at the very least that he’s got a thing for gambling. They’ll take what they can get.

Taako volunteers for more expeditions after his own fatal run-in with Kravitz, and especially after the poker game that becomes sort of legendary among the group (get Davenport drunk enough and he’ll go on a long tirade to strangers about the time he gambled with Death and won). It’s nothing to do, he insists, with wanting to see Kravitz again, just that he feels the need to pull more weight, and anyway, he has the most experience dealing with the Kravitz if he does happen to come around. Nothing personal. Lup gives him a look like she doesn’t believe him, but he hadn’t expected her to. She doesn’t believe that Kravitz can be reasoned with, either, and he knows that’s not true.

He also knows that just because he and Kravitz are bound together in some strange way, just because he has reasoned with Kravitz before, doesn’t mean that he can trust him. That Kravitz can, and will, kill him. He should hate Kravitz for that. He tries to hate him.

So he studies stronger offensive spells and memorizes them so he could do them in his sleep, he sparrs with Lup and Magnus in between research, repairing the ship, and continuously hunting for the Light. He won’t freeze up or be caught defenseless, never again; they can’t risk the crew being taken down, not with the Hunger still out there growing stronger each cycle. Still no closer to understanding how to defeat it, even when Merle begins his regular meetings with John. Meetings that add to their collective death count - and Kravitz’s bounty - with every attempt. A delicate balancing act.

They have the fact that they’re the only thing standing in the way of a universe-devouring entity as a bargaining chip, at least. When Taako does have the opportunity to talk to Kravitz, to explain the situation and convince him that their repeated deaths are not only unintentional but the only thing stopping the world from being swallowed whole, he takes that chance rather than fighting him. He realizes that it should be terrifying to face Kravitz again, and in a way it is. But.

But there’s an odd sense of calm that comes over him when he sees Kravitz, against his better judgement. That tugging on Taako’s soul, the bonds he’s felt and seen - that’s real as anything, and he knows that Kravitz feels it too. So he convinces Kravitz to talk, and sometimes he’s willing to listen. Sometimes he gets even a smile out of Kravitz, and those are good cycles - but Taako tries to keep him at a distance. It would be too easy to let himself get too close.

He doesn’t tell Kravitz that they’ve met before. It’s easier that way. Not just for Kravitz, but for himself.

“He doesn't know you,” Lup always reminds Taako, any time that Kravitz rears his head. As if Taako doesn’t know. “I don’t care how good he was in bed, he’s not the same dude.”

I feel like I know you, Kravitz had said, like I’ve found something I’ve been looking for all my life, he’d said, and kissed Taako like he was a glass of water and Kravitz was a man dying of thirst. The worst part is that that Kravitz had really thought that he was doing the right thing, doing his duty, by killing Taako. He should hate Kravitz, but he can’t. Maybe because he still dreams of that time in the Veil, in that space between the worlds of the living and dead, dreaming of feathers and gentle hands and being seen down to the core of his soul.

Maybe Kravitz doesn't really remember him. Not consciously, at least. But there’s a reason they’re continuously drawn into each other’s orbit, and one day Taako will understand it. Every bit of information they manage to gather on Kravitz, Taako files away for later, a pieced together picture that doesn't come close to encompassing the whole of him.

The Legato Conservatory is so stunning it nearly gives Taako a headache. All domed glass buildings and flawless landscaping, saturated with art and music and learning - this conservatory alone has two libraries and a museum, and it's not even the biggest conservatory this plane has to offer. After all the worlds Taako has seen it's tough to shock him anymore; he’s come to accept that he shouldn't come to a new plane with any expectations. But he really hadn't expected cycle forty-seven to be Fantasy Liberal Arts School.

It’s not the sort of thing he’s ever really gotten to be part of, a society so well off that the majority of the population can dedicate their time to art, to self-improvement. Schooling for him and Lup was an off-and-on thing, a year or so scattered here and there when they were with relatives who bothered to care about their education, a huge swath of years with the caravans (and the worst years, when they didn't even have that) where the only schooling they got was from particularly generous adventurers they met on the road, wizards willing to show off a trick or two. Any time they ended up in a city, a library was the safest, warmest place to while away the hours; he and Lup devoured the knowledge in those books, hungry for every scrap of power they could get, never satisfied. They were brilliant, and they knew it, but until they got their IPRE scholarships they never had a chance to prove it. And then it was years of work - sleepless nights and gallons of coffee and science and arcana and magic.

According to Marlow, they have to offer something to the mountain to get access to the Light of Creation, something good enough that it will project it into the minds of everyone on this entire plane, which Taako would think is completely buckwild if he hadn’t experienced exactly that as soon as they entered the atmosphere of this plane. They can participate in the workshops and seminars throughout the conservatory, can live and work here for the year free of charge - after all, they’re going to save the world with what they learn here. Saving the world with art. Just when Taako thought his life couldn't get weirder.

Taako has no idea what he could submit to the mountain. He’s not a musician, not an artist - he’s a wizard and a chef. Lucretia almost immediately starts furiously sketching in her journal; she’s going to study painting even though she’s already amazing at it, and Magnus wants to hit pieces of wood with his sword, which, okay, whatever, who’s Taako to say what counts as art? (He does say it doesn’t count as art, loudly, to anyone who will listen, but Magnus is too busy hitting things with his sword to care.) Almost everyone seems to know what they're going to do right away, signing up with an instructor or group. Taako, on the other hand, signs up for every class that looks vaguely interesting, even if he doesn't plan on going, just to see what keeps his attention.

He’s heading back to their suite in the dormitories after a pottery class - fun, but not exactly what he’s looking for - when he hears it. Legato is legendary for its musicians, according to Marlow, so it's not like Taako isn't surrounded by music here, there's no reason why the faint notes drifting to him from the courtyard should make him stop dead in his tracks, make him freeze and strain to listen. Another student nearly bumps into him as he stops in the middle of the path, but he ignores their irritated grumbling as they shove past him.

He’s supposed to meet Lup for lunch. He’s going to be late. He turns around and follows the music like it’s paving a path for him, the way it tugs at him so familiar by now: a bond, strong and real as the bonds that pull them back to the Starblaster year after year, and it fills him with equal parts elation and fear, but he has to know for sure.

The song grows louder as he makes his way toward it, a lone instrument, string, he thinks, but too low to be a violin, deep and almost mournful. He comes around a corner, crests a small hill and finds himself in a courtyard, dotted with tables where apprentices are eating lunch or chatting or working on various projects. A small crowd - barely even a crowd, just a few students - have turned in their chairs to watch the player, who Taako, as he draws closer, can now see is holding a cello. His long, slender fingers dance across the strings, the bow pulling each low note from the instrument, and it's not mournful, Taako realizes. He doesn't know enough about music to tell how the player can evoke that slight difference in mood, but it's not mourning - it’s loneliness.

Taako’s mouth is dry as he steps closer still. The player’s eyes are half-closed, brow drawn in concentration, head bowed, but Taako would know him anywhere. Different, of course, there are always differences - his hair is shorter than usual, tight curls let loose instead of tamed into braids or locs, swept back in a short ponytail. Taako has never seen him dress so casually, vest loose and unbuttoned, a linen shirt underneath with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. But his face, that never changes.

Of course. Of course Kravitz would be here.

Taako draws closer, blending with the handful of people gathered to watch, though he knows the right thing to do would be to turn around now - to find Lup, no, Davenport first, that’s the plan, if Kravitz is on their tail he tells Davenport and they discuss how to deal with the problem. And he will, but not yet. He can’t pull himself away from this song, and the way that Kravitz draws it from the cello, draws out the aching loneliness, the sense of isolation, such that Taako’s chest goes tight. Kravitz’s lips are pressed thin in what might be frustration or perhaps just concentration. But Taako finds himself smiling like a fool, just seeing him, watching him play with an odd sense of pride. He’s incredible.

God, Kravitz can probably hear the pounding of his heart from here. What is he doing here, is it some kind of ruse? Undercover, tracking the crew down?

A screech, a jarring stop as Kravitz’s fingers fumble and the bow skips over the strings and the song comes to a premature end. Kravitz swears, while the students listening to him murmur some praise, clap quietly, but then turn back to their conversations or their work, like that wasn’t the most amazing thing they’ve ever heard in their lives. They do hear a lot of baller music in a place like this, Taako supposes, but he can’t fathom the Light of Creation not accepting something like that. He’s left standing alone, watching as Kravitz scowls at his instrument like it’s betrayed him.

“What am I still missing?” He mutters to himself, not looking up, running a hand through his curls.

Now that he’s looking up, Taako catches a glimpse of his eyes, hidden below furrowed, thick brows. The vitiligo in that specific skull pattern, his sharp jaw and cheekbones, and that voice - he’s Kravitz, but not in a way that Taako has ever known him. Instead of the crimson eyes that he’s grown so accustomed to over the years of being hunted, he’s faced with dark brown, nearly black.

Taako sits down at the nearest table so he’s not just standing there gawking, hoping that Kravitz doesn’t notice him. The eyes don’t have to mean anything. They probably don’t. It’s just the first time he’s noticed anything about Kravitz changing quite so drastically between encounters, and he doesn’t know why that would be.

“So what did you think?”

His head shoots up. Kravitz is watching him, arms braced on his cello and his chin balanced on his arms, with a teasing smile playing at the edge of his lips. It makes his dark eyes glitter. “Huh?” Taako says, and then cringes.

“Saw you watching,” Kravitz says. There were a lot of people watching, Taako doesn’t know why he would draw special attention, until he remembers the obnoxious height of his hat and has to laugh at himself. Kravitz flashes a grin and asks again, “How did you like it?”

He’s staring and he knows it, but he can’t stop. Kravitz looks so much younger that Taako has ever seen him, he would guess a few years older than Magnus, though human aging is a bit of a mystery to him. No worry lines creasing his dark skin, no flecks of silver and gray coloring his temples, and those eyes are so dark, like pools of water at night. “Y-yeah, fuckin’ incredible, my guy,” he says. He doesn't know you. He’s not the same person, he repeats in his head . “Seriously. That one going to the mountain?”

Kravitz flushes, sitting up straighter. A bit of wild hair has escaped his ponytail, and he brushes it back behind his ear.  “Oh, gods no. It’s not… quite right. Not yet.”

“Damn. If that’s a draft I can’t imaging what the finished product will be like.”

“Neither can I, at this point!” Kravitz laughs, and it’s infectious; Taako’s laugh comes out high and almost strangled. Kravitz stands, leaning his cello against his table and coming to sit by Taako instead, perching on the table top instead of in any of the chairs. His smile is warm and his eyes curious as he extends a hand to Taako. “My name’s Kravitz.”

I know, he nearly says, but stops himself. If this is some trap, it’s better to let Kravitz think that Taako doesn’t know anything. “Taako,” he says instead, and takes Kravitz’s hand to shake it.

It’s warm. He lets go regrettably quickly, startled by warmth where he expects an icy undead chill. He’s never seen Kravitz’s eyes anything but blood-red, never felt his skin anything but cold and clammy except when it was warmed by the heat of Taako’s mouth and hands.

He’s not undead.

“Oh, I know,” Kravitz says, distracting Taako from the temperature when his heart and stomach seem to trade places, his first wild thought he remembers he knows me he knows!!! But then Kravitz goes on: “You’re one of the aliens.”

…of course. They hadn’t exactly been able to be secretive when they landed the Starblaster, and word travels fast, of course folk are whispering about the newcomers in their strange silver ship. Of course it has nothing to do with the two of them and their history, this would be a much different conversation if he did. Taako tries his best to ignore his disappointment, to shove it aside with all his other useless, complicated feelings, so that he can focus the fact that Kravitz isn’t undead. “Heh - uh, yeah, people know about that, huh?” He says, distracted.

He’s alive, somehow, for the first time since Taako’s known him he’s just human, but how? Is it a trick? Couldn’t be too hard to fake, if he’s a spellcaster - illusion to change his eye color, Prestidigitation could warm him up temporarily, but he would have had to anticipate Taako meeting him here, cast the spells in advance. What would that accomplish, though, other than throwing Taako off his game? Too much effort for little gain, and anyway, Kravitz wouldn’t have any idea that Taako already knows his whole Reaper deal. Can he be a reaper without being dead? But the Raven Queen’s mark is still splashed across his face, permanent as a brand.

“Rumors get around,” Kravitz says, drawing Taako’s attention back to the present, but it’s hard to focus on anything but the warmth of Kravitz’s hand, the blood pulsing beneath the skin, alive, alive, alive. A laugh tries to bubble it’s way up his throat, a little manic, but he manages to restrain himself. “What’s your craft, if I might ask? You seem to have an appreciation for music.”

He doesn’t want to say nothing, or I haven’t decided, or I’m just not feeling that creative, doesn’t want to sound stupid, sue him, maybe he wants Kravitz to be a little impressed with him. He blurts out, “I’m a chef.”

Kravitz raises his eyebrows, lips quirked in that crooked smile that makes Taako weak in the knees; he’s glad he’s sitting down. “A chef?”

“Oh, yeah. Best in the biz where I’m from.” He waves a hand. “They don’t call it the culinary arts for nothing, ya know?”

“That’s lovely. I can’t even scramble an egg properly, I’m afraid.”

“Ooh, throw a little cream cheese in there, it’s dope.”

“I'll remember that.”

“So cello’s your thing, huh? Do all the Raven Queen’s followers get to pick a spooky instrument or did you just pick that up here? Bet everyone picks the fuckin’ pipe organ, right, shit’s goth as hell.”

The easy smile on Kravitz’s face falls away, his shoulders growing tense. “What… What makes you assume I follow the Raven Queen? Are you from the temple?”

“No, I just -” Taako gestures to his face. “The whole, uh, skull thing, that’s - that’s her thing, right?”

“We don’t all have this,” Kravitz retorts, tone all brittle and hard, a far cry from the ease he’d shown before.

“No, I know that! I just - I read that it’s like, a mark of her favor or something, I don’t know. Forget I said anything.”

“That’s all superstition.”

“I’m... sorry, I shouldn’t have - I didn’t mean to offend you or anything,” Taako says, at a loss. He’d just been rambling, he didn’t mean anything by it. He’s not used to giving a shit when he offends someone. It's weird. Makes him feel all itchy.

Kravitz watches him a moment, wary, eyes darting across Taako’s face. Then he sighs, and the tension he was holding seems to soften, though his smile hasn’t returned. Taako wants terribly to bring it back. “No, don’t be. I overreacted, is all.”

“I think it’s cool, for what that’s worth,” Taako offers, unsure if that will make this mess better or worse. A horrible part of him wants to laugh at Kravitz, all sullen and defensive, he looks so young. “Very striking.”

“You mean ‘creepy’, I’m sure.”

Taako grins up at him. “Nah, dude. Hella cute.”

Kravitz glances away but Taako can see how he’s fighting a smile, now, fighting the blush that rises to his cheeks. He clears his throat and sits up straighter. “If you’re interested, I’m performing here in a few days. Properly performing, I mean, not just practicing. I’m sure you’re busy but if you happen to have time…”

“For sure,” Taako says, too fast, hardly thinking about it. Now he doesn’t know if they’ll even be here in a few days, once he tells Davenport that Kravitz is here he might have them keep their distance, a wrench in the year’s plans. He shouldn’t be agreeing to see Kravitz again, he should keep away, even if he is human this cycle, even if he’s not hunting them.

“It’s not like I’m playing for the mountain, it’s not a big deal, but if you want -”

“I’ll be there,” Taako says, not sure yet if he’s lying. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Kravitz’s grin is wide and bright as the sun, and Taako can’t find it in himself to be afraid this time.

“So he’s… not a reaper this time,” Merle says slowly, after Taako is done reporting to the crew.

“Seems that way,” Taako shrugs. He’s lounging on the couch in their shared suite, taking up all the room, while Lup sits on the floor in front of it, leaning back on him. He’d missed lunch by a long shot, but she hasn't mentioned it yet. “Definitely not undead, far as I can tell.”

“Little holy magic would let us know for sure,” Lup says. They’d found out many cycles ago that radiant damage affects Kravitz more strongly than most anything else.

“Oh, sure, I can do that,” Merle says, too cheerfully.

Lucretia shakes her head. “And if he really isn't undead you’ve just had an old man attack a student,” she says, ignoring Merle’s protests that he’s not that old, as if that’s the point. “I’m sure that’s keep us in Marlow’s good graces.

“He deserves it,” Lup grumbles. Taako flicks her ear, making it twitch back and nearly hit him in the face.

Davenport is pacing in a big circle around the living room area where the seven of them have gathered. The suites are nice, they don't have to share rooms, and there’s has a little kitchen - feels weird to cook anywhere but the galley on the Starblaster, but Taako makes do. Taako’s eyes follow the Captain’s movements, and he bites his tongue, waiting. He doesn't know what he’ll do if Davenport decides they need to leave.

Well, no. He knows what he’d do. He’ll go, because the mission - the crew - is more important than his foolish preoccupation with Kravitz. But he’ll always wonder - what if this time it’s okay? What if this time, he isn’t putting them in danger by chasing this - chasing after Kravitz, whatever little bit of him he can get his hands on? It’s a stupid, selfish thing to want, but stupid and selfish are the best words to describe him.

“I thought that the entire reason he existed throughout the different planes was that he’s tied to his goddess,” Davenport says. “If he's just human, how can he be here?”

“Well, we don't know that for sure,” Barry points out. “That's just our working theory.”

Taako, mostly quiet after relaying his report, pipes up. “He’s younger this time, y’know. Which leads me to a theory.”

“Which is?” Davenport pauses behind the couch, peering down at Taako.

“Caught him too early. He’ll be a reaper someday, but for now he's just a dude. He wasn't born undead, he had to die first before he could get the whole reaper gig.”

“Raven Queen has a soft spot for people who die before their time, according to the book I read,” Barry muses. “Might be where her reapers come from.”

“Nerd,” Lup says, nudging Barry’s leg with her bare foot. Barry's cheeks are pink, as they generally are, but there's something in the grin they share that’s… different. Not even that there's anything unusual about the interaction, Lup and Barry are best friends, they tease each other constantly, but it's just different and Taako doesn't know what to think of it. But no one else seems to even notice, so he shakes his head.

“Sure, yeah, could be. Point being - I’m pretty sure he’s not a threat this time.”

“You always think that,” Lup says. “He could be tricking you.”

“By inviting me to his fuckin’ cello recital?”

“By lulling you into a false sense of security,” Lucretia says. “Making you think he’s nothing but another student, then striking when you don't expect it. It's not like he hasn't fooled you before, if you remember your first encounter.”

“No, Cretia, please refresh my memory, it’s not like I was there,” Taako rolls his eyes and finally sits up. “Listen, I will gladly drop a detect magic on him, check for an illusion or whatever. If he’s lying, we fight or we leave, I don't really give a fuck.”

“Taako, you have to admit that you’re… biased,” Davenport says.

Taako raises his eyebrows. “Biased toward the dude who keeps trying to murder me? Really?”

“I’m just not sure you’re the best person to investigate this, considering.”

“That an order, Captain?” He keeps his tone light but there’s a cold edge to it that he knows Davenport will pick up on.

“I’m not forbidding you from doing anything. I trust you - I just want you to be cautious.”

“Appreciate it. But I’m telling you, for once we are actually good. We have a plan for getting the Light, folks here are cool with us - why leave if we don't have to?”

Davenport still looks conflicted, but at least he’s stopped pacing. Taako knows the rest of the crew doesn’t want to leave either, they’re excited about what they’re studying, grateful for the warm welcome they’ve received here. Finally he replies. “We don’t let our guard down until we know for sure that he isn’t a threat. Otherwise… continue as normal, I suppose, and keep me updated. You’re all dismissed.”

Taako doesn’t have anywhere else to be, so he stays in the common room, while Lup hops up and goes to the kitchenette, raiding the fridge for a snack. He sits up and watches her over the back of the couch, making a face at her choice of food - pickle and peanut butter sandwiches. “That’s fucking nasty, Lu.”

You’re nasty,” she says making a face at him. “So you’re gonna try to figure out the deal with tall dark and spooky?”

“Sure. Shouldn’t be too hard.”

Lup nods, but her expression has turned oddly serious. “You be careful, okay? I don’t want you getting hurt.”

“Jesus, you’re all paranoid.”

“I mean. Captain’s not wrong, you’re kind of biased. And I don’t want him getting the drop on you again.”

“I’ll be fine. Unlike your breath after that disgusting sandwich.” He pauses, then adds, “Sorry about missing lunch, by the way. I’ll make it up to you.”

All he expects is for her to wave him off, assure him that it’s no big deal, maybe make plans for the next day. Instead she just blinks at him, a blank look on her face for a moment, until understanding dawns on her. “Oh! Oh, shit, I actually completely forgot we were supposed to do lunch.”


“Yeah, I was walking back with Barry after class and we got to talking and I just spaced. My bad.”

“No, no,” Taako says quickly, waving a hand. “Guess we’re even. You, uh, didn’t tell me you and Barry had a class together.”

“Didn’t I?” Her cheeks turn pink. “Yeah, we’re studying music theory, thought it might be fun. Barry’s a big ol’ music nerd.”


He didn’t even know she was taking music theory. No one told him, or asked him to take a class with them. Which is like, fine, music theory sounds fucking boring, it’s not like he cares. But still. Barry is his friend too, and he and Lup always took the same electives at the Institute and it’s just - weird. That’s all. Weird that she would space on their plans when he’s accustomed to being her priority, but he doesn’t care, it doesn't matter. He can't be mad when he forgot their plans too.

“‘Studying music theory,’ just say boning, I get it,” Taako says. The pink gives way to bright red and she splutters out protests that he doesn't believe for a second, but it makes her laugh. That’s enough to take his mind off Kravitz for the moment, of the anxiety (and anticipation) coiling in his chest at the thought of talking to him again - not as an enemy to be bargained with, but just a person.

Chapter Text

The same courtyard where he watched Kravitz practice is transformed into a performance space, tables set aside and chairs aligned in neat rows, forming a quarter-circle to watch the players. Taako takes a seat apart from the rest of the crowd that gathers to watch Kravitz’s performance, on a low wall at the edge of the courtyard where Kravitz and the group he's playing with - an elf at the piano, a halfling girl on percussion - won't necessarily see him, not right away. Brim of his hat pulled down, but likely still standing out in his red robes. He sets down the basket he’s carrying beside him and watches, gnawing at his bottom lip.

Kravitz is dressed up for the show, in a simple but elegantly fitted black suit and dark red shirt,  and he's smiling softly, eyes half-closed, clearly in his element here, leading the group - and it's clear he is the leader, the cello the clearest through-line of the composition, the rest enriching it. It's the same song he had played before, but already there are differences between that composition and this updated version. Not just in that he’s playing with a group - though that adds a depth, a richness that wasn't there before - but other things that are beyond Taako’s realm of knowledge but that he can feel in the notes that reverberate through his chest. The core of it is the same and it tugs at something deep in him.

He shouldn't have come, but Lup and Barry have been out all day so how else is he going to occupy his time. He’s just bored, or that’s what he tells himself. No one told him not to come, though he probably wouldn't have listened if they had, probably would have gone to Kravitz out of spite at that point. So. This was inevitable, he tells himself. And he has to know for sure.

He casts Detect Magic almost silently, a whispered incantation and a complex gesture of his fingers, and searches for the glow that marks someone or something as magical. Ignoring the various magical instruments that many of the students carry - the Legato Conservatory, with it’s prestigious music programs, naturally draws a lot of bards - and the spell that amplifies the instruments to let the sound travel throughout the quad, he focuses in on Kravitz alone. Seeking out illusions, enchantments, anything that could disguise him, change his eye color and his temperature, but he finds no glow emanating anywhere from Kravitz. Utterly mundane.

Taako lets out a slow breath and allows the enhanced sight of the spell to fade away. He could get Merle to cast Turn Undead if he wanted, just to make sure, but he doesn’t think he’ll need to. Knowing his suspicions were correct only brings about new kind of anxiety. He would know what to do if Kravitz was a threat. But he’s just a guy. What does that mean for Taako? Nothing except he’s one less thing to potentially murder him this cycle. That’s what he keeps telling himself, over and over until it becomes true: he doesn't care about Kravitz, he just cares that the crew is safe.

The song builds to it's crescendo, and with that the show ends, Kravitz and his group standing and taking a quick bow. The crowd applauds them, and Kravitz, smiling, shakes the hands of people who come up to greet them, but even as he chats with the members of the audience who stuck around to talk, he glances around, as if searching for someone, expecting them to be there.  Eventually the crowd disperses and the pianist and drummer have their gear packed, patting Kravitz on the back and laughing together as they prepare to leave. But Kravitz stays, pausing to look around one last time, and doesn’t notice Taako. He sighs and begins to pack up his cello.

Taako sucks in a breath and stands, picking up his basket and approaching the stage before he can talk sense into himself. “Kravitz!”

Kravitz lifts his head. The way his eyes light up, the unguarded smile that spreads across his face, makes Taako feel a little like he’s being stabbed in the ribs, but like, in a good way. “You made it! I didn't see you in the audience!”

“Hell yeah, homie,” Taako says. “Said I’d be here, didn't I?”

“You did,” Kravitz says. He quickly finishes putting his cello in its case and then takes a seat on the edge of the stage, while Taako stays standing. He swings his legs a little as he speaks. “Thank you for coming. I didn’t want you to think that that rehearsal the other day was all I was capable of.”

“Trying to impress me?”

“...maybe a little. Did it work?”

“Maybe a little. Nah, seriously dude, everyone loved you.”

“It's still not perfect though, it's not where I want it to be. There's something missing. What I’d really like to do is conduct it as an orchestral piece, but - I don’t know if anyone would be interested, and there might not be enough material there, and… I’m just not finding it.”

“‘The best is the enemy of the good,’” Taako quotes.

Kravitz quirks an eyebrow. “Who said that?”

It was Fantasy Voltaire, but Kravitz doesn't need to know that. “Taako original, babe,” he says with a wink.

“Is it, now?”

“You’ll find I’m just full of wisdom.”

“I’m sure,” he teases, grinning still. The wrinkles that always form around his eyes when he smiles aren't there, his skin smoother, youthful, but his laugh is just the same, his eyes squeezing shut.

He hesitates, glancing down at the basket in his hand. “Um - I dunno if you want to -” he fumbles to open the lid. There's a loaf of bread, some cheese and dried dates, cookies that Taako had baked too many of last night while stressing about whether or not he was going to come here today, like he hadn’t had several days to think about it. It simultaneously feels like not enough and too much and he should not care so much about this. Kravitz waits for Taako to stop stammering, while Taako wonders if the butterflies in his stomach are actually a heart attack. “I’m new in town, obviously, so, uh, I thought maybe you could show me somewhere cool to chill? I mean, if you're not busy?”

Kravitz stands in one swift motion, rocking a little on his heels. His smile is soft and knowing. “I know just the place.”

The Kingdom of Legato is all rolling foothills ascending into the mountain range, an ocean of jewel-green grass that waves in the wind like a tide. The mid-afternoon sun is high and just warm enough to have Kravitz shedding layers - slipping out  of his suit jacket, tucking it under his arm as they walk side by side, down the meandering road out of the Conservatory campus. His hair is pulled away from his face, accentuating his already strong cheekbones, and Taako can't stop staring at this one spot on his neck, just there, that he has the distinct memory of sucking a hickey into.

Which he’s trying to ignore, but trying not to think about something is very much like thinking about it. Lup’s gonna kill him when she finds out that he’s doing this, but whatever, honestly, she’s probably off having a great time with Barry anyway so why shouldn’t Taako have a little fun too? Kravitz’s fingers brush his elbow as he leads them off the road, up a gentle slope that rises to tree-topped hill. The sound from the conservatory doesn't travel out here, only the gentle buzz of insects, the whisper of grass in the wind and against their ankles.

“Do you come out here often?” Taako asks. He’s doing a damn find job, if he does say so himself, of resisting the urge to take Kravitz’s hand,  just walking close enough for their fingers to brush, ever so slightly, and every time he’s startled by the warmth of Kravitz’s skin.

Kravitz nods. “I like the quiet. No one else ever comes out here and it's just… Peaceful.”

They come to the top of the hill, and Taako takes a moment to look around, take in the view. What he sees on the other side of the hill makes him laugh aloud. “Did you bring me to a fuckin’ graveyard ?”

More of a handful of gravestones really, resting at the base of the hill, old and worn but well maintained, a wrought-iron fence around them. Taako can see flowers and other little offerings atop some of the stones. Any other day he might find it spooky, but not in this bright afternoon sun.

“Oh, goddess, I didn't even think about that.” Kravitz groans, covering his face in his hand. “I’m not doing a very good job of convincing you I’m not creepy, am I?”

“You’re fine, my dude.” Taako pats his arm. “Weird spot for a date, but I like weird.”

“Is this a date, then?”

Taako freezes, just for a second. He hadn’t meant for that last bit to slip out. Forcing a smile, he lifts the basket and says, “Let’s dig in, yeah? Don’t know about you, but that walk got my appetite up.”

Kravitz only smiles, something soft and secret, and leads then over to the base of a tall tree that casts a cool shadow over the hill. The grass just beneath it is dark green and soft, and Taako sets his basket down and takes a seat, eyes following Kravitz as he sits too.

“I sort of forgot that a cemetery might be unnerving to some,” he admits. Taako nods for him to continue as he opens his basket. Should have brought a blanket maybe, make this a proper picnic, but the grass feels nice on his feet as he slips off his shoes. He lays out the spread of food, gestures for Kravitz to help himself. “I grew up in the temple of the Raven Queen. The cemetery was practically my backyard, it's where I would play as a child. I’d read the names on the headstones and make up little stories and poems about them.”

“Goth for life, right on, I respect the commitment.”

Kravitz picks up a piece of fruit and pops it into his mouth. Taako feels like maybe he should have brought a bottle of wine, but that sets a certain tone, one he’s not sure he can commit to. And he was too drunk that first night they met. Not alert to the danger he had stumbled headfirst into. “Not much else to do when you're the only child in the temple,” Kravitz says.

He takes a cookie for himself - stalling. Doesn’t even know why he’s bothering, this isn’t his style, normally he wouldn’t care but this has been eating at him. “I, uh... wanted to apologize, actually.”

Kravitz frowns. “Whatever for?”

“The other day, what I said. I didn't mean to offend you or anything.”

“Oh, that.” Kravitz looks down at his feet and shrugs. “Like I said, I overreacted. The Raven Queen isn't widely worshipped and… no one’s even mentioned this, ” he gestures to his face, the white skull-mark, “since I came here. No one thinks of me as that strange, cursed boy from the temple, no one knows what it means.”

“Cursed?” Taako asks, frowning. “I thought it was s’posed to be a blessing. Symbol of her favor or whatever.”

Kravitz’s smile doesn’t fall, but it turns harder, some old phantom pain creeping in. “Yes, you said that before. It's odd. Back home I only ever heard it called a curse by the townsfolk.”

“Heavy shit to put on a kid.”

“I was worried that you had come from the temple. I… haven't gone back in a long time. Since my mother died.”

“Oh.” He doesn't know what to say to that. He doesn't remember his own mother much; his aunt was more of a mother figure than she ever was, for the short time they were with her. Mostly he remembers hating the funeral, the memorial, all the platitudes he and Lup had to sit through, the sorry for your loss and she’s watching over you. He didn't give a shit if she was watching him or not, he just wanted her to be there.   "I, uh… I get that. Shit’s real rough.”

“It was her time. But I’m not sure how I would face them after so long.” He laughs, suddenly, without any humor behind it, avoiding Taako’s eyes and squirming. “Sorry. I don't know why I’m telling you all this. We’re practically strangers.”

“I don't mind,” Taako says softly, and he doesn't, though he would with pretty much anyone else.

It occurs to him, suddenly, how little he actually knows about Kravitz, how much he’s learned just on the walk here - hadn’t known that he’s always worshipped the Raven Queen, or how many instruments he plays, or even how old he is, even though technically he’s known him for decades now. Years of being hunted, trying to learn what he can so that he can keep himself and Lup safe, but he knows what Kravitz is like in a fight and in bed and little else, nothing that matters. He wants to know the things that matter; how did he come to live in a temple, and where did he learn to play music, and what’s his favorite food? But Kravitz just looks embarrassed, now, avoiding eye contact.

“I’m a twin,” Taako blurts out. “That’s supposed to be a blessing, I guess. That’s what my aunt always said, that we were lucky. Lup’s all the family I have, we grew up on the road, working for circuses and mercenaries and shit because it was better than being with the shitty family we did have left. Never felt all that lucky.”

Kravitz looks at him, blinking, a little confused. Taako clears his throat. He never talks about this shit. Doesn’t have to, they’re strangers, like Kravitz said, he could be anyone, anything. But there's something about Kravitz that makes him want to be honest; he wants Kravitz to know the things he always keeps locked away. “So, uh. Now you know about my weird childhood too, we’re not strangers anymore.” He grabs the bag of cookies from his basket and tosses them to Kravitz before he settles back against the tree. “Here, baked fresh.”

The smile returns to Kravitz's face, eyes softening looking at Taako. “You're spoiling me.”

“Good excuse to bake.” He avoids looking Kravitz in the eye, staring out at the horizon for a minute, at the mountains that rise up past the cotton ball clouds, piercing the pale blue sky. Uncomfortable, now, with how much he’d said. “Haven't told anyone that 'cept my crew, since I left home.”

“No one?”

“Nope.” It’s not that he’s ashamed of what he’s been through. It just isn’t anyone’s business, and he doesn’t want their pity.

“Thank you,” Kravitz says, and then goes quiet as - something wells up in Taako, this prickling at the edge of his mind that gives way to bright light, unexpected but recognizable because he experienced the same phenomenon the day they arrived here, as the Light of Creation broadcasts a new submission into his mind. He can tell that Kravitz feels it too, his eyes drifting closed as they sit in silence.

It’s - a dance, Taako realizes, he’s both seeing it and almost remembering it, even though it’s brand new to him. Ballet, or something like it, the dancer’s movements bold but infinitely graceful, the lines of their body telling a story of struggle and triumph. Taako realizes as the images fade that he’s been holding his breath.

“Does that ever stop being disorienting as hell?” Taako chuckles, shaking his head to clear it.

Kravitz blinks his eyes open. “I can see why it would be, though I’m used to it.”

“So it really goes out to the whole world? Isn’t that kind of terrifying?”

“Nerve-wracking, certainly, but what an honor. The forgetting is worse. Like there’s this space left behind, and you know something filled it but you can’t place it.”

“I don’t like that,” Taako admits. “Even if it’s just a song or whatever, I don’t… like that there’s something that could just make me forget things.”

From the top of this hill he can see the domed buildings of the conservatory in the distance, and the mountain that holds the Light of Creation rising above it. It's a beautiful landscape; he'll have to tell Lucretia about this place so she can paint it. He wonders if any of the seven of them even have a chance of making something that will please the mountain. Maybe Lucretia with her painting, but Merle’s interpretive dance will more likely get them kicked out.

“I think I met your sister in my music theory class.” Kravitz breaks the silence. “And her… boyfriend?”


“No? I just assumed. They seem close.”

Taako shrugs. The subject pisses him off and he doesn’t really know why, when he’s been wishing for ages that they would just get together already so he could stop listening to them both complain about how  he only sees me as a friend (false) and she’s so far out of my league (absolutely true) and I don’t want to ruin what we have (fucking stupid). “Wish they’d get on with it, then. It's been years, Kravitz, they need to get laid.

Kravitz throws his head back, laughing. He lays back in the grass, head pillowed on his arm and watching Taako. He takes a bite of the cookie, waits until he’s finished chewing and swallowing to speak. “So. You’re a chef.”

Taako gives a little bow. “Head chef and Junior Science Officer of the Starblaster Mission.” The distinctions between their roles have become far less concrete the further removed from their original mission they’ve become, and technically, he probably could have been promoted a few times by this point if they’d ever been able to report back. “Lup - that's my sister - would say she’s the head chef, but just because you can have the skill to make a homemade croissant doesn't mean you get fine dining, you feel?”

“I bet you could find a cooking class or two at the conservatory.”

“Krav, babe. You just tasted that cookie, right? Have some of the bread, I made that too. I should be teaching the cooking class.”

“It is very good. So are you going to try to cook something for the mountain?”

“Is that a thing?” What would that even look like, he wonders, would everyone just get an image in their heads or would they be able to taste it too? Does the Light of Creation eat?

“Why not? It's the culinary arts, after all.”

Taako shrugs, wishing again that he was drinking because every time he thinks about actually submitting something to the mountain he gets a little panicky. Not at the idea of showing off in general - when he’s good at something he wants everyone to know - but he wasn’t exaggerating when he said that the idea of projecting something into the mind of everyone in the world terrifies him. If it’s accepted everyone on this plane will be able to see every tiny mistake in whatever he makes, everyone will judge it. And it's all so fucking subjective, like, Taako thinks opera sounds more like two alley cats boning down than art, but it's a big deal for some reason. How does the Light of Creation even judge any of this? How can he cheat if he doesn't know the rules? Would a mountain even appreciate a dope coq au vin?

“Yeah, I mean, I don't know. I've got other stuff going on besides the cooking, I’m fuckin’ - multifaceted or whatever. Anyway, I don’t know what I’d make.”

“Hm.” Kravitz lays back, pondering. The sun is hot on Taako’s shoulders and it's hard to resist laying in the grass beside Kravitz, but he settles for just looking at him instead - long limbs stretched out in the shade, lazy and sun-warmed. “What if you made a performance out of it, a sort of stage act? Show people how to cook a dish or two? Could be educational, or it could veer more toward slapstick…”

“Heh - that’s funny, me and Lup used to entertain adventurers by like, juggling potatoes and onions and whatever else was around. Thought we were hot shit, we totally had plans to join the circus, make a whole thing of it. Clown chefs or whatever.”

“Yes!” Kravitz claps his hands together, delighted. “Oh, that's precious.”

“Yeah, you know, made them want to keep us around a little longer. Except when it just pissed them off, this asshole human one time just like, picked me by the ear and shook me around, like -” he grips his own ear, pitches his voice lower and growls, “'Quit fucking around, brat! I’m hungry!’”

Taako falls abruptly silent; it had seemed funny until he actually said it. Sure, the crew knows everything, but they've been together nearly half a century and he knows everything about them too. That’s fine. He and Lup never talk about those years with the caravans with anyone else because it makes people look at him the way Kravitz is looking at him right now, a fading smile that’s mildly baffled and a little pitying. He flashes a crooked grin - ha ha, what a fun joke - and lays down in the grass on his side facing Kravitz, grabbing a cookie from the basket and talking through it as he chews. “So, uh, got the juggling down, could workshop that.”

The concerned crease between Kravitz's eyes smooths over, to Taako’s relief, the subject of his childhood dropped for now. “Like I said, slapstick. Real crowd-pleaser.”

“You know what I could do? Work a little magic in there.” He wiggles his fingers in the air for emphasis. “Little transmutation, yeah? Toss an apple in the air, poof, it’s an onion; they think I’m out of parsley? Psych, transmute some fuckin’ leaves off the ground.”

“Bring Lup into it like you wanted as kids, make it a sister act. Folks will eat it up, they want something unique.”

“Think the mountain would like it?”

“Who cares? Either way it would be quite adorable.”

Adorable isn’t a word that Taako would use to describe himself, ever, but he flushes to the tips of his ears hearing Kravitz say it. Their eyes meet for a moment. Taako still isn't used to seeing dark brown looking back at him instead of red. Crumbs cling to the edges of his lips and Taako wants, with an intensity that makes him dizzy for a second, to kiss them away. He laughs under his breath, shaking away the impulse. Stupid. “Always knew I was destined for the stage.”

“You need a catchy name for the act,” Kravitz points out. He props himself up on his elbow, mirroring Taako’s position.

“Yeah, we got bored with the whole idea when we couldn’t agree on one.”

“'In the Kitchen With Taako and Lup,’” Kravitz proclaims.

“'Kiss the Cooks.’”

“Sizzle It Up’?”

“Ooh, there you go!” Taako laughs, shoving playfully at Kravitz's shoulder. “Now that’s a name. Sizzle it Up With Taako and Lup.”

“You're gonna be a star, doll,” Kravitz says, in a god awful Fantasy New Yorker accent that makes Taako nearly choke from laughing so hard.

“What the fuck was that?”

“An accent!”

“That was not an accent, that’s heinous,” Taako cackles, and Kravitz is giggling along with him, face pink. It's never been like this with him before. Oh, there’s been tension behind every negotiation, even every fight, which Taako has ignored except for the one time he gave in to it - and even now he’s not sure if he regrets that meeting or not. But they've never had the chance to just spend time together, laugh together. To flirt shamelessly, just for the fun of it, to be people. All this affection he’s managed to ignore over the years, that never quite went away but simmered under the surface of his skin. There's a light in Kravitz that Taako hasn't seen before, dimmed, in other cycles, by time and death; his smile comes so easily.

He likes this Kravitz so much. It frightens him how much.

“You’re not at all how I expected an alien to be,” Kravitz says. His smile is crooked, teasing.

“Not that alien, darling. An elf is an elf is an elf, in my experience.” He lays his head in the grass, looking up at the tree above them, the light shimmering through the leaves.

“Can I tell you something?”

“Hit me.”

“I just... feel like I’ve known you for a long time,” Kravitz says, quiet, shy. “Like I could tell you anything. Is that weird?”

Taako closes his eyes, a shiver running down his spine. Deja vu. “Nah. Not weird at all,” he says. His fingers twitch with the need to breach the inches between them, to take Kravitz’s hand and feel its warmth, the proof that he’s alive.

He doesn’t bother knocking on Lup’s door before he enters, half expecting her to not even be there. She barely glances up from whatever she’s lounging in bed reading - no, writing, scribbling something in pen - until he flops face-first onto the bed next to her. Unlike their bunks on the Starblaster the Conservatory’s rooms are actually pretty damn nice, full-sized beds and desks and everything. Taako could get used to this.

“Shoes off the bed, you animal,” she says, shoving at him. He ignores her, remains as heavy and immovable as a rolled-up rug. “You’re squishing me.”  

“Luuuup,” he whines.


“I’m too gay.”

“Tell me something I don’t know.”

“Fuck you.” He finally lifts his head to scowl at her.

She grins and snatches his hat from his head, placing it atop her’s instead. “Fuck you too. I assume you want to talk about it?”

“Absolutely not. What are you working on?”

Lup tosses the pages to her bedside table too quickly for him to look. “It’s a surprise. No it’s not. Just some sheet music. Boring stuff. What are you avoiding talking about?”

He’s aware that she’s being weird, but he’s too wrapped up in his own crisis to care much. “You’ll be mad.”

Lup tugs on him, forcing him to sit back up. He kicks off his shoes and sits in the center of the bed with her, legs crossed, arms wrapped around himself. “Oookay. Now you really have to tell me.”

He doesn’t want to talk about it, not even a little, except he also feels a little like he’s going to explode if he doesn’t. The sun had begun to dip low by the time he and Kravitz had returned to the conservatory, reluctant to leave their spot at the top of the hill, reluctant to part when the time came, and though they’d talked non-stop for hours Taako hadn’t even known what to say to him then. He’d just run away.

He stares down at his lap and awaits Lup’s wrath as he tells her about Kravitz’s performance, his Detect Magic spell and the conclusion he’d drawn that Kravitz wasn’t a threat, just… human. Mortal. And the kicker: that they spent the afternoon together, after his little reconnaissance was finished.

He expects an explosion but it doesn’t come; her mouth just presses into a thin line. “You check in with Cap’nport yet?”

“Yeah. We’re good, we don’t have to leave.”

“Still hot?” She asks, sympathetic.

Taako covers his face with his hands. “He’s so hot is the thing.”

She plops the hat back on his head, crooked and backwards; he grumbles and straightens it, fiddling with the brim. “Sooo, then what? Am I gonna have to drag all the details out of you?”

“Nothing to tell.” He glances away.

“Liar,” she says, sing-song, propping her chin in her hands. She doesn’t say anything else, just lets him stew, knowing he’ll break.

“I mean - there isn’t, though! We didn’t do anything.” He laughs softly. “Had a little picnic, I guess. He, uh, took me to a graveyard?”

“Oh, whoa, so he really likes you.”

He makes a face. “Ugh. Barry’s rubbing off on you. I don’t know, we just talked, it was… nice. He’s nice.

“Suuure he is.”

“Come on, Lup.” Taako sighs. “On a scale of one to that time I wanted to destroy a crystal filled with thousands of robot souls, how pissed are you?”

Lup scoffs. “I’m not pissed.

“You look pissed.”

“I worry about you still hanging around the dude who killed you. Who keeps trying to kill you like, every year. I don't think that's super unreasonable.”

“Years ago. I’m over it.”

“No, you’re not. Don’t try to bullshit me.”

She’s right, he’s not, not really, but that has never stopped him from being drawn to Kravitz anyway, and he hates being told how he’s supposed to feel - it rarely matches up with his actual feelings. He’s told Lup - as best as he can, because every time he tries he can't seem to find the right words - about what he’d seen, what he’d felt and known when he was trapped in that space between the Material and Astral Planes; he's tried to explain the bonds, and how they connected him to Kravitz a hundred thousand times over and pulled him into Kravitz's orbit even here. But she’s never understood how he can feel any affection toward someone who has tried to kill him over and over.

Taako doesn’t have a good answer for her.

“I can take care of myself,” he huffs. “You don’t have to pull this overprotective sibling act every time, okay, you don’t even know him. You’ve never tried to!”

“Oh, I’m so sorry, I was busy running from him, sorry I didn’t take a minute to ask about his backstory.” Lup rolls her eyes. “And don’t try to pull that card, you don’t know him either.”

Yes I do, he’s seen my soul, he thinks, but she won’t understand that - no one does. “Well, maybe I want to, I don’t know.”

Why? So you can make it harder on yourself next time around when he’s not so nice?”

“We don’t all have the luxury of waiting fifty fuckin’ years to ask a guy out,” he snaps, and immediately regrets it. Lup’s face runs through the full spectrum of emotion in seconds; hurt, and then scared, and angry before finally settling into controlled indifference.

It was a shitty thing to bring up and he knows it - it’s rare that she talks about her feelings for Barry, even to him. It generally requires late nights and copious amounts of alcohol. He and Lucretia once bonded over having to take care of Lup when she passed out on the floor during ladies’ night in Lucretia’s room - which Taako was invited to on the condition that he paint their nails - after bursting into margarita-induced tears, wailing that she was unlovable.

He gets it. They both have intimacy and trust issues - how could they not, with the life they’ve lived? Lup is bright and bold and people adore her, but she holds people at arms length in a way you don’t notice unless you really know Lup, whereas Taako has learned to not let anyone in, period - it’s not hard, he knows he’s far less likeable; he’s grating, often mean, doesn’t make friends as easily as Lup always has. The crew is different, you have to be comfortable with the people you’ve lived with for fifty years, but Taako can’t remember the last time Lup seriously dated anyone, much less really fell for anyone. Barry’s her best friend and even being that close terrifies her sometimes.

“That has nothing to do with - with anything,” she says, her cheeks bright red, and Taako wonders what new developments in the whole Barry situation she hasn’t told him about yet. At least Barry remembers Lup cycle to cycle. At least Lup has a reason to be optimistic, even if she’s scared to go after what’s right in front of her.

“Sorry,” he mutters - still mad that she thinks she can tell him what to do, but knowing he crossed a line.

“Look, I know you like him, okay? I know. And I’m not telling you what to do, I just - I don’t want you getting hurt.”

He doesn’t even know what he wants to do, other than escape this conversation. “So here’s my pitch for our project for the mountain, get ready,” he says, sitting back up. “I’m thinking a full on cooking show. Like when we were kids, but like, some gourmet shit, show these nerds that food is art. I transmute the ingredients, you do the pyrotechnics, natch, they won’t know what hit ‘em.”

A clear, obvious end to the previous topic of conversation, to any continued argument. His feelings about Kravitz are a big, tangled up knot in his stomach that he’d much rather ignore and he’s very good at ignoring such inconvenient things as feelings. His mind has been swirling with ideas for various acts ever since his talk with Kravitz earlier, he even has a logo in mind for Sizzle it Up with Taako and Lup. He grins, awaiting her excited response, eager to hear her ideas, but to his surprise her ears are pinned back and she's avoiding looking at him.

“Um… I don’t know.”

“What do you mean you don’t know? It’ll be fun!”

“It sounds rad, it’s just that me and Barry were already kinda planning something together?”

Taako’s ears immediately droop. “Oh.”

“Yeah, we were going to do a duet? Write our own composition? We’ve both always thought it would be cool to write music and the instructors here are amazing, so...”

“You didn’t tell me.” God, he sounds pathetic. Of course she didn’t tell him, she didn’t involve him.

“I’ve been really busy,” she says, too defensive, and he knows that the disappointment must show on his face, much as he’s trying to act like he doesn’t care.

Which he doesn’t. Of course he doesn’t and it was stupid, anyway, stupid to assume Lup would actually want to work with him instead being on top of Barry 24-fucking-7 like she always is lately, and stupid to think that the dumb cooking show would be worth doing anyway. He didn’t know either of them gave a fuck about writing music until now.

“Hey,” Lup puts on a smile but it’s so pitying, she’s only saying it because she feels guilty and that’s even worse. “We don’t have to follow through with it, we haven’t even really gotten started yet, so I could...”

“It’s fine.”

“No, lets do your thing! It sounds fun!”

“It’s fine, Lulu,” he snaps, harsher than he intends, turning away to climb off the bed.

“Taako, don’t be mad.”

“I gotta bounce. Early philosophy class in the morning. Keeping that brain sharp.” He’d had absolutely no intention of going to the philosophy lecture, just signed up because it sounded potentially hilarious, and Lup knows he never gets out of bed before eleven unless it’s an emergency, but whatever. He doesn’t look at her as he pulls on his boots. “Have fun with all that.”

She reaches for him, grabs his arm. “Koko, come on -”

He shakes her off, out the door before she has a chance to call him back. But then he’s just standing there. Unsure what to do with himself, any inspiration he’d had for the cooking show gone now that Lup won’t be part of it, the whole thing was only fun because of her anyway.

He could go bug Magnus, he supposes, or Lucretia. Mostly wants to go find Kravitz again, but that’s... oof, that’s not a good idea. He’s not that clingy, thanks very much, he's not going to just forget how complicated this actually is just because Kravitz is cute and sweet and not trying to kill him at the moment. He goes to the kitchen and starts making a mess, throwing around pots and pans, no plan in mind for what he’s going to cook, he just needs something to do.

He’s mad at himself for being mad, which is a miserable fucking cycle to be in. He should be encouraging this, he would be if it weren’t interfering with his plan, there’s no way they’re not working on some symbol of their eternal goddamn love. He’s the one who told Barry to go after her, all those years ago on the beach world, he’s the one who has tried to push Lup in Barry’s direction time and time again over the years. He should be happy.

But he just feels bad , and restless, and alone.

He drags himself out of bed for the philosophy class at seven-thirty, which might as well be ass-crack of dawn the way Taako generally sleeps in, solely because if he doesn’t, Lup will rightfully be able to call him out for storming out on her, and there’s nothing that puts him in a better mood than being right. Shows up five minutes late with a venti iced coffee like he owns the place, with a half-wave to the lecturer (whose name he didn’t bother to check) and not even a glance at the other students. Flopping down into an open seat at the front of the room, sucking down his drink at an alarming rate because he’ll actually stab someone without some caffeine in his veins right now.

Not like he’s still mad or anything, though.

He’s busy spacing out on the lecture - the teacher’s voice is high and airy, and she talks with her hands in a way that’s exhausting to watch at this hour - when a light flick to the tip of his ear gets his attention; automatically, his ear flicks back, batting away the intruding hand as he twists in the seat to give the guy a piece of his mind, but whatever scathing remark Taako was going to make instantly vanishes from his mind.

“We’ve got to stop meeting like this,” Kravitz murmurs, with a mischievous grin and sparkling eyes, far too awake for eight in the morning. It’s more than a little pathetic, how easily he distracts Taako, but really, who cares . Of course Kravitz would be into philosophy. Taako always knew he was a nerd.

“You stalking me, Skeletor?” Taako slurps his drink, obnoxiously loud; he can feel the lecturer’s disapproving glare. This is not a great time for him to see Kravitz. His hair is frizzy and unbraided, barely tamed by his hat; he hadn't taken the time to put any thought into his outfit, the leggings and loose tunic thrown on under his IPRE robes. Kravitz doesn’t even seem to notice; Taako can’t tell if that’s a good sign or not.

“Excuse me, you’re the one who keeps showing up where I happen to be.” Taako can't help but laugh at that. You have no idea. Kravitz rests an elbow on the desk, chin propped up in his hand. “Wouldn’t have pegged you for an interest in philosophy.”

“I’m a complex creature,” Taako retorts. “Big ol’ thoughts rattling around in this noggin.”

The lecturer clears her throat loudly, and Taako swivels his chair back around. Behind him Kravitz snickers, along with a few other of their classmates, leaning back in his seat. The lecturer shoots him a stern look but turns her attention back to the rest of the class with a tight lipped smile.

“So, now that everyone is listening. This is an introductory course, and before we get too deep into our studies, I’m curious about your viewpoints. Why are we here?” She pauses and chuckles. “Well, that’s a bigger question than any of us can answer, isn’t it? Let’s narrow it down - why are we here, in this space, today? Why do we turn to philosophy, and what do these great thinkers have to teach us, even hundreds of years later?”

Taako raises his hand.

“Someone else.”

Taako raises his hand even higher.

The lecturer sighs. “Taako, isn’t it? Go on.”

He takes a sip of his coffee before answering. “Bunch of old dead dudes telling you what to think.” Another muffled laugh from Kravitz, as well as a handful of other students, which pleases Taako more than he wants to admit.

“That’s… one way of looking at it,” the lecturer says, already looking like she needs to have a stiff drink and lie down. “But maybe a little oversimplified. Yes, Kravitz?”

“Worded somewhat more charitably,” Kravitz says, lowering his hand, “Philosophy can provide us with a framework to understand our own perception of the world. It offers perspectives and contexts we may never have considered before, lets us dive deeper into the mysteries that plague us.”

He glances toward Taako, a little smug. “Basically what I said,” Taako says, sticking out his tongue, though he’s not actually annoyed. He likes hearing Kravitz talk - smart, eloquent and smooth, except of course when he’s caught off guard and starts slipping in and out of accents, stumbling over half thought out excuses and explanations. Once when he’d been hunting them, Taako had called him out on switching accents halfway through a monologue on the importance of the Raven Queen’s laws and he’d instantly slipped into a third, impossibly worse accent, like Dracula with a mouthful of marshmallows, and claimed that it was a strategy to “distract his prey.” “Fella,” Taako had said then, “you’re plenty distracting all on your own,” and even though he was in the form of a limestone golem at the time Taako could have sworn he blushed.

“Very well put, Kravitz!” The instructor says. “Of course, we still study the works of many great minds during our time together. Some of their works will resonate with you, some less so, but whether or not you ultimately agree with them, there is still value in understanding the thought behind these beliefs. Taking in different and unique ways of thinking. In this way we begin to develop our own, personal philosophies, our own way of looking at the world.”

“Already got that figured out on my own, homie,” Taako says, propping his boots up on the desk and leaning back in his chair. He clears his throat loudly and proclaims, “‘The most courageous act is to think for yourself.’ Don’t need anyone else to teach me that."

Except for Fantasy Coco Chanel, of course, but for all they know Taako came up with that on the fly. One or two students on the other side of the room nod appreciatively. Damn, this class is easy. He continues to antagonize the teacher with barely-meaningful aphorisms until the hour is finally up, and she looks relieved as they file out of the classroom. Taako lingers in the doorway, pretending he’s not waiting for Kravitz to catch up.

“You’re a menace,” Kravitz says, falling into step beside him, bumping Taako playfully with his shoulder.

“Don’t know what you mean, homie, just sharing my ‘personal philosophy.’ ” Taako rolls his eyes. “Told ya I’m full of wisdom.”

“Full of shit, more like,” Kravitz teases. They jostle the other students exiting the classroom, but he’s too focused on Kravitz’s smile to care much. “Off to antagonize other teachers?”

“Hm, no plans, but the day’s still young. Maybe I’ll just pick on you.”

“What do you think of brunch?”

“As a concept?”

“If you like.”

“Conceptually, I could demolish some waffles right now.”

Kravitz frowns, head cocked to the side. “What is a… ‘waffle’?”

Taako freezes in place, staring at Kravitz in horror. “Oh my God, does this plane not have waffles? What the fuck kind of brunch are you serving around here?”

But Kravitz breaks into peals of laughter, and Taako realizes he’s been had. “Oh, your face.

“You’re an ass.” Taako shoves him, but not hard, and he can't help but join in the laughter; Kravitz's face has turned all pink and it’s possibly the cutest thing Taako has ever seen, oh holy shit, he really is screwed.

He can almost see Lup scowling at Kravitz and she's not even here, somehow managing to sour his mood anyway - continuing this thing with Kravitz undoubtedly means being subject to her disapproval. She’s the last thing he wants to think about right now, with Kravitz slipping a hand into the crook of his arm, casual as anything, presumably to lead him to the nearest restaurant where Taako can find a waffle bigger than his own head. It’s strange, a little overwhelming, to be the object of such simple interest - no threat behind it, no real knowledge of who he really is to Taako. It feels like lying, to know so much when Kravitz doesn’t.

He’s fine with lying but he can’t quite get comfortable with how one-sided it is to have this glimpse into Kravitz’s future when Kravitz knows nothing. But what would he tell Kravitz anyway, what good would it do? The reaper who has hunted them - that’s not who this Kravitz is. It’s who he will be, one day, but not yet. Despite insisting to Lup that her concern is unwarranted, he has no idea what he’s doing here, not really. No idea how far he can push this, or how far he wants to.

“If there is a type of food we don't have on this plane, I imagine that would quite impress the Light of Creation,” Kravitz muses.

Jesus, it's like no one thinks about anything else around here besides their projects for the mountain, it’s kind of ridiculous. Taako wonders if it's to do with the “craveability” that the Light holds over people - he wouldn’t know, after chasing the Light for this long he doesn’t feel the pull as strongly anymore. He doesn’t want to talk about his project, whatever it’ll be; he’d gotten himself too excited about the cooking show and now he doesn’t even want to think about it, doesn’t want to get his hopes up.

“Yeah, maybe, but I’ve been thinking - I mean, if it did get accepted, whatever I made, kinda ruins any chance of putting it in a cookbook later, huh? Everyone will already know it! Or worse! I don't get accepted and then no one can remember how to make creme brulee ever again!”

“I’m not sure if that’s how it works…”

“Trust me, bubbelah, I’m doing everyone a service here.”

“If you say so.” They enter one of the smaller of the domed buildings scattered around the campus and find themselves in a little diner, quiet save for a handful of students in a booth, notebooks and drawing paper spread out on the table between mugs of coffee and plates of half-eaten food, and two people that Taako recognizes as professors waiting for drinks and pastries to go. They seat themselves, at a table for two near a window, already laid out with menus and two mugs waiting to be filled. “Back at square one, I suppose. What are you going to do instead?”

“Listen -” Taako avoids looking him in the eye, picking the menu off the table and absently scanning it. It’s enormous, which in Taako’s opinion doesn’t bode well for the quality of the food - better to do a few things perfectly than everything badly. “My project ain’t your problem, alright, long as someone gets in the mountain, that’s good enough for me.” It sounds better, or at least less pathetic, than the truth of my sister doesn't want to hang out with me and I feel like shit and no, I don’t want to talk about it. “So if you’re feeling obligated to hang around and - I don’t know, mentor me or whatever, consider yourself off the hook, not looking for a collaborator.”

Silence, for a long moment.   A waitress appears seemingly from out of nowhere to fill the coffee cups before vanishing again, and Taako murmurs his thanks before dumping disgusting amounts of sugar into his, mostly for something to do. He chances a look up at Kravitz, who is frowning down at his mug, tracing a finger around it’s rim.

“I’m… ‘hanging around’ because I like you. I think you’re fun to be around,” Kravitz says, subdued. That tangled up knot of feelings in Taako’s stomach tightens. “I didn’t realize I was making a nuisance of myself.”

“Seriously? You don’t have some kind of, I dunno, ulterior motive here? None at all?”

“Other than finding you very pleasant to look at, no.”  Taako’s laugh comes out ugly and high-pitched, but it just makes Kravitz smile. It’s stupid, but - he wants to keep making Kravitz smile. “Forgive me for any indication I’ve made to the contrary.”

“Who talks like that and why am I so into it?” Taako murmurs. The waitress returns, and Taako orders the first edible thing he sees on the menu, a stack of chocolate chip waffles, and waits until she’s gone to speak again. It would be easy to keep pushing, to distance himself, end this right here; that’s what he’s doing already, his automatic reaction when people start to get too close. It would be better that way, easier, certainly, in the long run, and he’s good at distancing himself from people. He’s had plenty of practice.

“Fuck, I rolled a one on this whole interaction, huh?” Taako says, picking at the remnants of the sugar packets he’s left scattered across the table.

“It’s okay.”

“I’m just. Not really used to this.”

“To a lack of ulterior motives?”

Especially from you. He shrugs, and sips at his coffee. Too sweet. He starts dumping in creamer. “Yeah, I mean, any of it? I don’t know, I meet a lot of people but generally… there’s the crew, but like. They’re family, they’re the exception to pretty much everything.” He hesitates, unsure why he’s saying any of this, and then reaches across the table, fingertips touching the top of Kravitz’s hand to stop him anxiously fiddling with his mug. “I don’t think you’re a nuisance.

“Glad to hear it.” Kravitz turns his hand over, fingers brushing the inside of Taako’s palm. The touch sings up Taako’s nerves and he shivers, lingers there a moment before drawing his hand back; Kravitz lays his own flat on the table, like an invitation, one Taako doesn’t know if he ought to risk taking. “I understand if you find it hard to believe, but - truly, the only thing I want from you is your company.”

Taako swallows. I feel like I could tell you anything, Kravitz had said. He has to wonder what Kravitz knows, even unconsciously, if he can feel the bonds stretched taut between them. Taako can’t stop feeling them, now that he’s seen them, it always feels like if he could tilt his head just right they would be there, shimmering in the light.

He wonders what Kravitz would think of how thoroughly they've defied his goddess’s laws.

The waitress returns bearing their food, and some of the tension seems to fizzle away. Taako drizzles syrup over his pile of waffles and digs in, while Kravitz loads his eggs with a truly impressive amount of hot sauce. “So,” Taako says, mouth full. “Philosophy? Really?”

The easy half-smirk returns to Kravitz’s face, to Taako’s relief, as they settle back into friendly conversation. Putting off difficult conversations a while longer. “Think you’ll join the class? You certainly add a little color to the discussion, though I fear you'll drive poor Dr. Langley to a breakdown.”

He hadn’t considered it, but that was before he knew Kravitz would be there. He wonders he can handle getting up at seven in the morning for the next few months to study philosophy, of all things, just to see a pretty boy.

He keeps going to the class.

To be fair, the boy is very pretty.

He doesn’t bother keeping the fact that he’s hanging out with Kravitz a secret from the crew. They would find out soon enough anyway, and besides, he’s not actually doing anything wrong.

It just feels like he is.

But that’s fine. That’s kind of fun, even if the most illicit thing they do is go to breakfast after philosophy class, where Kravitz catches him up on all the reading he doesn’t bother to do for class. Lup doesn’t say anything to him about Kravitz, but he can tell that she doesn’t approve. That’s fine, too. It’s not her business, and they’re still not talking much. It’s not that they’re fighting, but somehow just not talking to her is worse. He almost never sees her and Barry apart, so he guesses she’s fine with that. It’s weird and he hates it but he’s too proud to apologize first. Everyone else just sort of tiptoes around them (excluding Magnus, who is physically incapable of tiptoeing around anything). This lasts until she invites the whole crew to a party that the music students are putting on later that week.

“Kravitz will be there,” she adds, glancing at Taako. He knew this - Kravitz sent him a card inviting him because he’s a nerd - but the fact that she wants him at an event where he will specifically see Kravitz, will undoubtedly spend time with Kravitz, is something of an olive branch. He’s not sure, yet how to react to that.

They all agree to at least make an appearance, and the days until the weekend seem to fly by until suddenly Taako is in the kitchen frantically throwing together hummus, guacamole, and homemade pita chips, because he’s not some kind of animal that’s just going to show up at a party empty-handed when he doesn’t even know the hosts. He’s so focused on mashing the avocado that he nearly throws a magic missile at Barry when he sneaks up behind him.

“Jesus, Barrold,” he groans. “Warn a guy, huh? Putting that level you took in Rogue to good use?”

“Two levels,” Barry says cheerfully. Taako has lost track of how many times Barry has multiclassed at this point. “Anything I can help with?”

“Chop up that onion, I don’t want to do it.”

He sets to chopping the onion - slowly, his knife skills have improved since Taako started showing him a thing or two but he’s nothing compared to Lup, who can dice an onion perfectly in less than a minute. They haven’t cooked together in a while.

As if reading Taako’s mind, Barry clears his throat and says. “You should know, Lup really misses you.”

Taako mashes the avocado harder. “Yeah, well, she’s welcome to talk to me any-fucking-time.”

“She’s worried that you’re mad at her.” Barry hesitates. “For spending so much time with me lately.”

Occasionally, Barry’s social awkwardness manifests as uncomfortable straight-forwardness. Taako bites his tongue because - well, Lup’s not wrong, but he knows how shitty that is, so it’s not like he can say it. Can’t say that he misses her, too.

“I really care about her,” Barry goes on. “You know that, but - I know you come first for her. You always will. So… if you’re not cool with this…”

“So it is a thing?”

Barry turns redder than usual and shrugs. “I think it could be.”

Taako rolls his eyes. “Forty-seven fuckin’ years and it might be a thing, you two are ridiculous.”

“Yeah. Maybe a little.”

“Hey.” Taako picks up the nearest utensil - it happens to be a spoon, which is disappointingly nonthreatening - and stabs it in Barry’s direction. “If I hear you’re not treating her right -”

“You’ll turn me into a toad, I know. You’ve given me this talk half a dozen times.”

“And always remember -”

“She’s too good for me,” Barry recites obediently.

Taako nods, satisfied that Barry gets it and he’s performed his older-brother duties sufficiently (which of them is actually older is subject to ongoing debate). “Then go forth with my blessing.”

“I think it would mean a lot from her to hear that from you.”

An hour or two into the party - which was already spilling out of the house and into the yard by the time Taako arrived - Taako has only seen Kravitz for ten minutes at a time; he keeps getting whisked away into one jam session after another until Taako gives up on getting to hang out with him. Turns out, parties with the music department kids are hella loud. He lingers in the kitchen, mostly, nibbling at the snacks on the laid out on the counter (he’s pleased to see his guacamole scraped to the bottom of the bowl) and avoiding all the strangers.

It’s not that he doesn’t like parties, he can schmooze with the best of them, but there’s only so much music talk he can pretend to understand. It’s easier when he can stick with a central person, someone to touch base with. Typically it’s Lup - he’d thought it would be Kravitz tonight, but apparently no one has time for him these days, which is cool and fine because it’s not like he needs anyone to keep him company and - oh, fuck this, who is he trying to fool anyway?

So he does his best to join in on the fun. He catches up with Lucretia when she stops by for a little while, and does shots with Magnus and some friends he’s managed to collect before they vanish again. Taako can hold his liquor but he’s a little hazy after the shot, and he doesn’t know where Kravitz is, and he really wants to be sitting down now. He can hear Lup’s voice even over the music, spilling from the living room, though he can’t tell what she’s yelling about. He hesitates, his earlier conversation with Barry still fresh in his mind. It’s tempting to keep avoiding her - she can call him out on his own bullshit better than anyone else - but he’s also just tired of it, it all seems stupid now. “God, Taako, get over yourself,” he mutters before he grabs two beers from the counter and pushes his way into the living room.

Lup isn’t hard to find, her pink hair a beacon across the room where she lounges on an overstuffed couch against the wall, nodding to her head to the music. Her eyes light up immediately when she spots him approaching and he sheepishly asks, “Want a beer?”

Lup grins and scoots over, giving him room to sit as she takes the beer from his hand. And suddenly it’s like this whole shitty time of not talking to her never happened as they clink the bottles together and take a drink. That’s one of the best things about siblings, Taako thinks. They don’t need to apologize for their spats, or even really acknowledge them, they just become unimportant after a while.

She wipes a little foam from her upper lip and asks, “Having fun?” She’s definitely more drunk than he is already, he needs to catch up.

“Attempting to,” Taako says. “Where’s Barry?”

She looks, uncomfortable all of the sudden, and glances away. “Around. Were you looking for him?”

“Nah, I just figured he’d be with you.” He scans the room and manages to spot Barry eventually, stuck in conversation with some other students and appearing very out of his depth, poor thing. “How’s, uh…. how’s your song coming along?” He asks, a little awkward.

Lup’s face turns bright red, which definitely means something happened between them, but it’ll be like pulling teeth trying to get her to tell him what. “I dunno. I... kind of blew him off.” She slumps back into the couch, watching Barry longingly across the room. “Taako, I don’t know what I’m doing. Barry’s just - so great and I’m just…” Her bottom lip trembles. 

He may not agree with her on the whole Kravitz thing, might still be kind of mad at how overprotective she can get, but he’s sure not going to let her spiral into drunken tears. He takes his sibling responsibilities very seriously. He sets his beer on the table beside them and puts a hand on her shoulder, making her look at him. “Hey. That boy thinks you hung the moon, y’know,” Taako says.

“I know.” Lup laughs, a little high and manic, running her hands through her thick hair. “How do you even - deal with that?”

“Luckily for you,” Taako says, and tries not to sound bitter, “you have all the time in the world to figure it out.”

“I can’t help feeling like I’m going to break his heart someday. And I don’t want to.”

“You will,” he agrees, and she looks even more miserable. “And he’ll break yours, and it’ll suck sometimes and be fuckin’ baller the rest of the time. Pretty sure that’s what being in love is, homie.”

She looks at him a moment, head tilted to the side like she’s trying to figure out some kind of riddle. “Are you in love with Kravitz?” She asks, quiet enough that he has to strain to hear her over the music. He glances away, which probably answers the question better than he would like. “I knew you were into him, but. It's more than that. Has been for a long time, hasn’t it?”

A sour sort of anxiety bubbles in his chest. Love isn't really something he's let himself think about. Taako can count the number of times he’s thought he was in love on one hand and he can't think of a shittier scenario to be in it, honestly, but there’s a thrill in it too. A need he’s ignored for years - because he’s had to, because that’s the life he’s had to lead - that chips away at the hard block of loneliness in him. He doesn’t know what this is between him and Kravitz, he doesn’t know what he wants, but he can’t ignore that it’s simmering under the surface, ready to spill over.

He wants to say something snarky to indicate how little he wants to talk about this with her, but all that comes out is, “It’s complicated.” He grabs his beer and takes a long drink. “I don't know what I’m doing, either.”

“But you do care about him. More than I thought.”

“Hey, I thought we were talking about your mess of a love life.”

She ignores his attempts to deflect. “You gonna do anything about it?”

He snorts. “How can I? I mean, we still leave at the end of this, he still forgets me, so what’s the fucking point. Least you and Barry don’t have to deal with that.”

“But like, we live a lonely fuckin’ existence, okay? We’re all lonely and everything sucks. So maybe we should get to be happy sometimes. Deal with the consequences later. Whatever little scrap of good the universe gives us… we should take it.” He doesn’t answer, doesn’t know what he would say, he could come up with some retort, but instead he shrugs, and glances away. “Just... be careful, okay?” Lup says.

“Aren’t I always?”

She wraps her arms around him, squeezing tight, laying her head on his shoulder. “Hey. Um. I love you, you know.”

It’s not like her at all. They don’t get this sappy, not so openly, they say I love you with teasing and pranks and arguments that blow over within hours. Either she’s very drunk, or very worried about him, or just feeling emotional about the whole Barry thing. But then again - it’s not like them to fall in love either, but here they are, Lup tiptoeing into what has been building between her and Barry for years, Taako wanting what he knows he can’t have.

He kisses her forehead - the way they did when they were little and had to be their own parents because there was no one else; the way their aunt used to kiss them when she was alive; the way he swears he can remember his mother kissing them but it’s a memory just out of reach - and says, “You too, goofus.”

“...I think I’m going to go talk to Barry now.”


“Don't ditch me, I wanna dance.”

“Use protection,” he calls out as she clambers off the couch and flips him off over her shoulder. Taako watches her cross the room, watches her get Barry’s attention with a hand on his arm, watches the way he simultaneously lights up and looks a hundred times more nervous when he sees her. And Taako honestly can’t think of anyone besides Barry that he would trust with Lup’s heart. They’ll be okay, no matter how long it takes to get there.

He smiles and shakes his head, standing up - if he’s going to sit alone, he’d rather be outside. The sound from the party is muffled as he closes the door behind him, sitting down on the edge of the empty porch because there aren’t any chairs to be found. It’s just cool enough to make him shiver a little, and there are fireflies lighting up summertime air, a light show that he watches in silence, sipping his beer. Barry had loved the beach world, and Taako had too, but it wouldn’t have ever been home even if they could stay. Here, though. He could almost imagine staying here. Having a life here.

It’s not the first time he’s thought that, but it’s the first time in a while; it’s easier, usually, not to entertain the notion. He indulges himself tonight, tries to envision what a life here would look like, immersed in music and art. Kravitz in there in the fantasy, because why not, because Taako is self-aware enough to know that Kravitz is his main reason for becoming attached to this place at all, against his better judgement. And that’s all it is, a fantasy, a childish indulgence. It’s all vague, just out of reach; what would he do anyway, if he wasn’t on the run? How could he settle into a routine, live like a real person again? He sighs and lets the thought drift by like dust caught on a breeze. It’s been almost half a century since he left home and he’s seen so many impossible things. He’s not sure he remembers what permanence feels like.

“Hey, you.”

Speak of the devil. Taako turns his head at the sound of the voice, sees Kravitz leaning in the doorframe, watching him, a half-smile on his face. He’s framed by the light from the house, and Taako feels his breath catch in his chest, just looking at him. Stupid, but he can’t help it.

“There you are,” Taako says, and hates how breathless he sounds. He wonders if Kravitz has been standing there long watching him, or if he just stepped out.

“You alright?”

“Yeah, yeah. Just getting some air,” he says as Kravitz comes to sit next to him. There’s plenty of room, but he sits close anyway. He slips off his jacket, laying it over Taako’s bare shoulders. It’s still warm from his body, too big but comfortable hanging off of him.

“Don’t get comfy, I’m sure you’ll get dragged away again in a minute,” Taako says, nudging him. “You’re a hot commodity, Bones.”

“I didn’t mean to abandon you,” Kravitz laughs. “Glad you’re still here, I was about to try to make my escape before anyone tries to talk to me again.”

“Why, Kravitz, surely you’re not shy.

“I... may or may not get nervous around people I don’t know well. And people I do know well. And, just, people in general.”

Taako can’t help but laugh. “Shut up, you’re a performer! Being charming and social is like, your job.”

“That’s different! I’m good at performing.” Kravitz shrugs, rubbing the back of his neck. “It’s not like I had a lot of practice making friends growing up, did I? I’m always tripping over my own tongue and making a fool of myself and… I’m weird, Taako, you should know that by now.”

Boy howdy, doesn’t he. But he hadn’t known Kravitz was shy. It’s adorable. “You managed to charm me.”

Kravitz looks both pleased and somehow even more nervous than before. “Well, you’re different.”

“How’s that?”

“You’re weird, too.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.” Taako glances at him with a little half-smile. “Hey, just remember - ‘those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don't mind.’”

“Another ‘Taako original’? You ought to write a book.”  

“Maybe so.”

They fall silent a while, watching the fireflies, and Taako pulls the jacket tighter around himself as a cool breeze drifts by, carrying with it the music that sounds from inside. They’re mostly alone out here - he can hear a handful of people chatting around the other side of the house, but they’re out of sight - and he wants to do something stupid, like hold Kravitz’s hand, or lean into him, or kiss him. He can’t quite bring himself to move. Like there’s some barrier between them, thin and waiting to be breached, but he knows that once he takes that step he can’t take it back.

We deserve to be happy sometimes.

Does he, he wonders, if happiness now will only make him miserable later?

It’s Kravitz who breaks the silence between them, still looking out at the fireflies as Taako turns his head to watch him. “Can I ask you something? It might be a bit dour.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.”

“Do you ever just feel… completely alone? Even around people, you’re… separate from them somehow?”

Taako has met so many people over the course of this long journey. Wonderful people, terrible people, kings and peasants and heroes and monsters. After a while faces begin to blur together. So many devoured worlds, so many planes ravaged even when they manage to draw the Hunger away; he’ll walk through a crowd, meet someone, and all he can think is, you’ll be gone in a year. He’ll save them, or he’ll do his best, but he has to look at the big picture, the fate of a world versus the need of a few. The individuals are easy to look past, like grains of sand on a beach. And he’ll just keep going, unchanging, fighting this pointless losing battle against the Hunger, never alone, but yes, as much as he hates to admit that Lup is right, lonely. Lonely because there’s no point in getting attached to anyone when he’ll just leave them behind.

But then there’s Kravitz. Their enemy, yes - but one of the few constants that Taako has, even if he doesn’t know it. And he feels both lonely and not, sitting here with him.  

“Yeah,” Taako answers. “All the time.”

“That’s what I mean. When I say weird.” Kravitz reaches across the scant space between them, breaches that barrier - so easy to cross once he’s done it - to take his hand. Taako should pull away, but he doesn’t want to. It’s so warm, and he squeezes it just to feel that warmth, the blood flowing in his veins, the life. Not an enemy to be bargained with but a person, with all the anxieties and weirdness that come with being a person. It’s easy to pretend, on a night like tonight, that this isn’t as complicated as it really is, that he could just have Kravitz, none of their history hanging over their heads.

Kravitz chuckles softly to himself, his thumb skimming over Taako’s knuckles. “I’ve felt that way for as long as I remember. It just… seems to fade away whenever I’m with you.”

Taako doesn’t know how to respond to that, and doesn’t try. When Kravitz turns to him, when his eyes fall to Taako’s lips and linger there for a moment too long, Taako closes his eyes. Gives in and allows the bonds between them to pull them together like gravity. It doesn’t really matter who moves first.

The kiss has none of the drunken giddiness or frantic desperation of the times he’s kissed Kravitz before. They both pause, uncertain, but Kravitz's mouth is soft and warm and good, and Taako dives back into it as Kravitz’s hand comes up to touch his face, to rest along the sharp angle of his jaw. He tastes the liquor on Kravitz’s breath, the beer on his own. Sweet and unhurried and inevitable, like they have all the time in the world to get it right. Like they could do this forever. Taako sighs as they part, staying close for a long moment, his eyes still closed, Kravitz’s forehead touching his, Kravitz’s hand still on his cheek and then moving to tuck back a lock of hair that escaped his braid. When he does finally blink his eyes open - reluctant, like surfacing from a dream he wanted to continue living in for a while - Kravitz is standing up, still holding his hand, looking down at Taako with the softest smile, and Taako wants to steal him away like some treasure, to keep him all to himself.

“Do you… want to take a walk with me?” He asks, so shy. “No pressure.”

Taako’s mouth is dry, thrilled and scared all at once. He licks his lips and glances back at the house, at the party still going strong, and he thinks of the worry on Lup’s face when she’d asked how he felt about Kravitz. How he didn’t have any idea what to tell her, and still wouldn’t know if she asked him right now. “I… think I should stick close to Lup,” he says apologetically. Not quite lying; he fully anticipates stumbling back to the dorms dragging her behind him. “She’s pretty drunk, so…”

“Okay.” Kravitz smiles down at him, and kisses his hand before stepping back, still holding on until the last second. “Goodnight, Taako.”

“Night,” Taako says, breathless and smiling a big, dopey, lovesick smile that he can’t help even as Kravitz disappears into the dark night. Only when he’s gone does Taako realize that he didn't take his jacket back. He threads his arms through the sleeves - rolls them up so they don't cover his wrists - and wraps it tighter around himself. It still smells like Kravitz, like rain and sage and something sweet.

Whatever scrap of good the universe gives us -

The universe, in Taako’s experience, has a pretty shit track record. It can’t be anything, not really, not with so much hanging over them that Kravitz isn’t even aware of; if he knew anything about Taako he wouldn’t want this. He’s let this go too far already.

But tonight. Tonight he indulges himself. He’ll go back inside in a minute, find his sister and they’ll dance together and drink their worries away, but for now he closes his eyes and wraps himself in Kravitz's coat, in the warm sweet smell of him, and imagines a world where he gets to keep this.

Chapter Text

He fully expects to have to deal with - all of it, whenever he sees Kravitz again. It’s all he can dwell on after he and Lup stumble back from the party together and pass out in his room; as he meditates, keeping him from the real rest of emptying his mind of all worldly concerns. On loop in his mind - what Kravitz might say, how Taako will respond, how much Taako wants to kiss him again. Anxious, yes, dreading the conversation, but -

Happy, too. Deliriously, overwhelmingly happy.

It’s a blessing that he has the rest of the weekend before he’ll see Kravitz again, it’s enough time to almost convince himself that he doesn’t care - he kissed a cute boy at a party and that’s all, when it comes down to it; he’s kissed lots of people at lots of parties and never felt the need to call them again. Maybe it would be easier to just ghost on Kravitz - stop turning up to class, to their breakfast dates. Or if he wants to be a little braver, tell Kravitz that this was a mistake. That it can’t last, so better to break it off now.

Or hook up with him, says a gleeful, awful voice in Taako’s head that he tries to shake away; he’s been down that road, he still regrets it, or at least regrets that it couldn’t be more. Does it count as a hookup if you keep hooking up with the same dude across realities, or is that something nearly like a relationship? What does it count as when he doesn’t know that he killed you? What does it count as when you fell even harder for the guy after he killed you?

Taako is periodically slapped across the face with the reminder of just how screwed up he is.

As it is, his sleepless nights, his periodic recounting of that kiss at the worst moments (how right it had felt and always feels, warm breath on his cheek and the sweet taste of him) seem to be for nothing; he walks into philosophy class and takes his usual seat by Kravitz, who launches into an excited rant about some bit of progress he’s made on his song while Taako nods and tries (fails, but at least he tries) to understand what he’s saying. He likes listening to Kravitz talk. The way he talks with his hands, all this enthusiasm, how his eyes light up. It reminds Taako of that very first time they met, so long ago. Everything is so different now, but it's still Kravitz. The same man and yet not.

Kravitz doesn’t act like anything has changed. It’s somehow even more maddening that way. Is it because he didn’t take Kravitz up on that walk? Did Kravitz take that as a no to all of it? Or maybe Taako’s breath smelled bad. Maybe Kravitz just… decided he wasn’t interested after all. Which would be fine. It’s ideal, actually - he gets to avoid an awkward conversation and… spend the rest of the cycle, and the next and the next and the next, wondering what could have been. While watching his sister finally get together with the love of her life.


He wonders, as he doodles nonsense in the margins of his notebook and doesn’t absorb a single bit of the lecture, if Kravitz is struggling as much as he is at pretending the air between them isn’t thick with tension. He itches to bump Kravitz’s foot with his under the desk, or brush it against the back of his calf, or lean over and kiss him on the cheek. And other things. He slouches back in his seat with a sigh.

He doesn’t need this, he can get over it. He doesn’t need Kravitz, or anyone, never has. He’s good out here.

He’s probably going to have to quit this class if he wants to stay sane. He’s surprised how disappointed he is; it’s a total waste of time and he hasn’t taken a single note, but it’s been his excuse to see Kravitz, and his main source of entertainment lately. Watching Dr. Langley splutter and scowl when he goes into every debate with some meaningless, but smart-sounding quote from someone famous from back home (he brought a lot of books with him on this stupid trip, Lucretia brought even more, so they might as well do him some good) never gets old, because she can’t prove he’s plagiarizing when she can’t name a single person he’s ripping off. Even better is when other students start to buy it, murmuring to each other like he’s said something revolutionary, which in Taako’s opinion says more about Dr. Langley’s lackluster teaching style than anything.

When Kravitz disappears immediately after the lecture, apologetic about missing breakfast but apparently needing to work on his composition while he’s inspired - and leaving Taako embarrassingly baffled as to what else he’s supposed to do with his morning; how did this routine become so important to him so quickly? - another student catches up to him in the hall. Taako has no idea what the boy’s name is, but he’s sheepish and shy, and he says, “I just wanted to say, that was some really inspiring stuff you said today!”

Taako has already forgotten whatever he said, but he smiles benignly. “Oh, for sure, bubbela. Always happy to meet a fan.”

“It just really gets me thinking,” the kid goes on, falling into step next to Taako for some reason, “you know, about life and stuff.”


“Like, maybe I don’t want to do my art the way everyone else does, you know? I need to use art to explore who I really am! The art only I can make!”

“Hell yeah, dude. ‘Don’t look to society to give you permission to be yourself,’ is what I always say.”

The kid beams at him. “Yeah! Exactly! Hey, listen…. me and some of the other guys were talking, and we thought it would be really cool to start a study group? To dig into things a little deeper than we get to in class? And we thought, maybe you could help us organize it?”

He has no idea why he agrees, but he finds himself in an unused classroom the next day, surrounded by all the kids who hang of his every plagiarized word. Not the whole class, but a good amount of people. Taako had assumed that helping to “organize” meant scheduling the meeting and finding an empty space, which was easy enough. Except then they’re all looking at him expectantly, like he’s supposed to have something prepared, more like a mini-class than a study group.

He wings it for an hour, hands out a bunch of books he stole from Lucretia, mostly just to give them something to do - he’s only read them when he’s very bored and they end up on a plane without TV, but they seemed like the kind of lame thing the other students might be into. He offers vague questions that can keep them occupied for a while, and then shoos them out of the room. Before he can make his escape, someone stops him and asks, “How much of the book should we read before the next study group, Taako?”

“Uhhh,” Taako says, “You know - let’s just see what y’all manage to get through and, uh, go from there?”

“Thanks! See you next week!”

Kravitz absolutely loses it when Taako tells him about how he accidentally started an alternate philosophy class, thinks it’s the funniest goddamn thing in the world. They’re sitting on the floor of his room in the dorms; Kravitz came by after his classes and practice sessions were over for the day, making up for their missed breakfast. Taako would almost prefer it if things were awkward between them, just to justify how deeply unbalanced he is by all of it, but it’s not somehow. Instead he’s just aware of how easy it would be to slip into this - he’s never fallen for someone he would also consider a friend. It’s comfortable in a way that’s terrifying because when has getting comfortable with someone ever worked out for Taako? That’s usually the first sign that he should run. He does not have good instincts when it comes to this stuff.

But they could fit so well together, if it were possible, if they were just people. If Taako weren’t so aware of every day passing, unconsciously counting down to the Hunger’s arrival.

“And you thought I was gonna drive Langley to a breakdown,” Taako says, mouth half-full of popcorn; he’d accidentally skipped dinner, so they’ve hoarded all the snacks they could find. “I guarantee I ain’t got nothing on these kids.”

“What sort of devilish ideas are you putting in their heads?”

“Hey, I’m not doing shit, I ask some bullshit question about the meaning of life and they talk about it for an hour. Easy peasy.”

“They’re looking to you for guidance, Taako. They’ll listen to everything you say.”

“You act like I’m gonna stick with this.”

Except - it’s a great excuse he’s accidentally stumbled into. How could he quit the class when these kids need his guidance? And, Taako reasons, he can still let Kravitz down easy, it’s as if not he has to tell him everything - he doesn’t need to know about the bounties on their heads, the years they’ve spent running from him; that would probably blow the poor guy’s mind. While ghosting on him might have been easier, it wouldn’t be fair to Kravitz, who has been so open with him, so honest. And not what Taako wants.

He’s used to wanting things that aren’t his. He and Lup grew up with nothing but each other, of course he wants, and everything he’s ever wanted he’s had to steal and cheat and fight for. He’s never felt guilty for that, the world fucking owes him.

But he can’t just take what he wants, here. He’s not used to that.

“Why wouldn’t you?” Kravitz reaches for the pack of fantasy Oreos sitting between them, twisting the cookie open to eat the cream first. Taako wants to tell him that you have to eat the whole cookie at once, that it’s a whole experience, but Kravitz is still talking . “I thought you liked being the center of attention.”


Kravitz, finished with the middle of the cookie, nibbles at the edge of one half. “No judgement. I myself love being the center of attention.”

“Would never have guessed,” Taako says. Kravitz responds by throwing a piece of popcorn at his head; he catches it in his mouth.

“The thing is,” Kravitz says, propping his chin in one hand. He’s laying on his stomach, feet crossed at the ankles. Taako leans against the bedframe, deliberately out of reach, the ocean of snacks and Kravitz’s textbooks - from which Taako has thoroughly distracted him - a flimsy barrier between them. Taako isn’t sure if it’s because he thinks Kravitz will try something or if he doesn’t trust himself; either way - no. Not happening. “All those quotes you spout aren’t bullshit. Stolen, yes -”

“You can’t prove that,” Taako says, sticking out his tongue.

“But if they resonate with people, they’re not really bullshit, are they? Maybe not incredibly deep philosophical theory, either -”

“Oh, gods no -”

“But if it gets them think, well.” Kravitz shrugs.

“I’m leading a study group, Krav, it’s not like I’m their teacher .”

“No, considering you haven’t read a single text for the class.”

“That’s why I keep you around.”

Kravitz smirks. It’s the kind of smirk that makes Taako’s mouth go dry with wanting to kiss it away. “Is that all I’m good for?”

“Mm. I’m sure you have other uses.”

Their eyes meet for a moment too long. Taako can’t tell if the hard knot in his stomach is anxiety or anticipation or too much cheesy popcorn. The tension dissipates as Kravitz breaks eye contact, and Taako lets out a slow breath.

He still has Kravitz’s jacket, afraid of giving it back because it means acknowledging that that night happened. And everything it might mean. If he can’t have Kravitz then he wants to be able to keep this - an unspoken temptation simmering between them but nothing changing. Unsatisfying, but at least Kravitz is still in his life. Talking about it means losing losing philosophy class and breakfast dates and distracting Kravitz from finishing his application to submit his work to the mountain, things he’s accidentally come to care about a lot. Surely they can both keep pretending that nothing has changed, that they’re not one move away from making out right here on the floor. He curses himself for even thinking that, because once the image is in his head - Kravitz’s weight on him, and the taste of his mouth, all of which he remembers vividly - he can’t shake it away.

Doesn’t matter. Kravitz hasn’t made a move and it’s better that way.

“I do think you could be a good teacher, though,” Kravitz says, teasing smirk turning to something softer, more genuine. He props himself up, reaches across the space between them; his fingertips rest on Taako’s knee; a gesture of reassurance, maybe, but it makes Taako tense up. “If you actually gave a damn about the subject.”

“Easy-peasy,” Taako repeats, trying not to look down at Kravitz’s hand on him, pretending he’s used to such casual touch. “Just gotta tell them to be themselves or follow their bliss or whatever, they eat it up.”

“Sometimes people need to hear that.”

Taako is intensely aware of the points of contact between them, like they’re burning him. “Always forget how warm you are,” he says, absently.

Kravitz’s brow furrows, and he draws his hand away as if only just now aware that he had reached out. Taako tries not to be disappointed. “Is that abnormal?”

“No, it’s -” Taako bites his lip. Hard to tread that line between what he knows about Kravitz and what isn’t true yet, what he can reveal. He’s warm now because he’s alive, but Taako is used to him feeling icy to the touch. “Nevermind. You gonna join my infinitely cooler class or what?”

Kravitz, to his credit, doesn’t push. “Wish I could, but I’ve got so much to do. I… wasn’t going to tell anyone yet, but what the hell.” A grin spreads across his face, excited and nervous all at once. “I have a date. For my submission.”

It takes Taako a moment to figure out what Kravitz means, and when he does he sits up straight. “Holy shit, Krav! When did you put in the application?”

“Sunday morning. I didn’t expect it to go through so quickly.”

The morning after the party, Taako realizes; he must have stayed up all night writing the proposal he had been struggling with, filling out the forms he’d left perpetually half-finished. The applications, Marlow had explained when they arrived, are generally approved without trouble, but with so many students planning to submit, they often have to set the date months in advance. (The IPRE’s presentations have been scheduled since they put the whole plan to recover the Light into place. Taako still has no idea what to offer.)

“But I thought your piece wasn’t ready!”

“Haaah, well, it’s not. Nowhere close. But I’ve made a breakthrough, I know which direction to take it. I just felt like - if I don’t do this now, I’ll keep picking away at it forever. I need a deadline.”

“This calls for a high-five, my man.” Kravitz laughs, but indulges him in the high five. “Seriously, congrats.”

“Well, don’t congratulate me yet, who knows if I’ll be accepted.”

“You will,” Taako says, and he’s not just saying that. Maybe he’s biased, but from the bits and pieces of the composition he’s gotten to hear he can’t imagine the mountain won’t take it. “You’re amazing, they’re gonna love you, don’t even worry about it.”

Is he imagining the flush darkening Kravitz’s cheeks? His smile is shy, but pleased. “That... means a lot to me. Honestly. Sorry if I’m preoccupied for a while, though.”

“I’ll make sure you actually remember to eat.”

“You’re a treasure.”

It’s Taako’s turn to blush now, which feels more than a little pathetic, but he recovers quickly. “Uh, obviously, have you met me?”

He’s barraged with another handful of popcorn, but the crumbs on his carpet are worth it for the way that Kravitz’s eyes squeeze shut when he laughs.

He can get through this. If it means keeping Kravitz in his life, he can keep it together.

Everyone delves deeper and deeper into their projects. Kravitz stays up too late writing and playing and scrapping his work because it’s not right. He still won’t let Taako hear any of it. Lup and Barry, too, are always working, though now Lup makes more of an effort to spend time with Taako when she can. Magnus finds a new teacher, someone who encourages him to slow down and turn his woodcarving into sort of a meditative task, rather than hitting blocks of wood with a sword. Taako doesn’t want to know what Merle is doing.

The project that Taako settles on starts out as a joke, an offhand comment from Kravitz on the night of the party and then a quip from Taako during his study group turned rogue philosophy class; he’d said something particularly brilliant, of course, and snapped his fingers at the nearest student. “You, the redhead. Toby.”

“I-it’s Tony, actually.”

“That’s what I said. Write that down for me, that’s good shit.” Tony scrambled to do just that, and then started transcribing all of Taako’s (stolen) genius into a little hardbound notebook. And it’s all horseshit, obviously, but written all in once place like that it kinda looks almost legit, so what the hell, Taako decides. Books are art, probably. He’ll throw his fortune cookie wisdom at the Light of Creation and it’ll be it’s problem at that point. Problem solved. He still wishes he could follow through with the cooking show, but it's obvious how much work Lup is putting into her and Barry's project; he's not going to get in the way of that.

Well, one problem solved, anyway. Taako rouses himself from meditation - saving himself from slipping into yet another dream about Kravitz. Not interested, thank you very much, he isn’t going to let his subconscious make this any harder. Kravitz hasn’t made a move, so he must not be that interested; this is the best case scenario, he doesn’t have to worry about it. Just get through this year. Just get over him and his stupid handsome face.

Easier said than done. He shakes his head to clear away the thought of dream-Kravitz’s hands on him. The hope that maybe Kravitz wouldn’t freak out if Taako told him everything - or if not everything then at least the important bits. Maybe it would all be fine. Maybe he could have this. Be happy, for a while.

Be miserable later.

He should talk to Lup about it, get his head on straight. She would know what to say. He can’t quite bring himself to do it, too used to keeping this kind of stuff locked away. Tucked secret in his chest where hopefully he can forget it’s even there.

Though he’ll never admit to anyone that he cares, Taako starts worrying when Kravitz doesn’t turn up to two Philosophy lectures in a row. He drops by Kravitz’s apartment with a pot of chilli but doesn’t find him there either, so he leaves it by the door with a note.

Even a skeleton can’t survive on fantasy ramen alone. EAT!! -Taako

The pot is returned to Taako’s doorstep two days later, along with a note of his own - just a heart, not even a signature, but it’s obviously from Kravitz. That’s - hoo boy, that’s a lot. Taako blushes furiously and shoves the note into his pocket before anyone can see it, but he doubts he’s fooling anyone.

When he very subtly asks Lup what Kravitz’s deal is, if he’s shown up to the class they share, she doesn’t stop making fun of him for the rest of the day. She does, however, report that he only came to one Music Theory lecture that week and was distracted for most of it, scribbling notes and scratching them out, humming a tune under his breath.

“Maybe he’s writing a love song,” Lup teases.


“I bet he’s trying to find the perfect rhyme for ‘Taako…’ or the words to describe your eyes…”

Taako groans and pulls his hat down over his ears. “No he’s not shut up.

“Hey Taako you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind -”

“He’s a classical musician, you monster!” He hurls the nearest pillow at her head, fighting against the blush warming his cheeks.

Kravitz remains missing in action, and Taako tries his best not to dwell on it - it’s not his problem - until he comes back to the dorms one evening and finds a piece of paper folded and tucked under his door. Another note. That shouldn’t make his heart skip, but he’s accepted at this point how far gone he is. He bends down to pick it up, unfolding it carefully. The note is in Kravitz’s loopy scrawl that always takes a second for Taako to puzzle through.

Come to the West auditorium tonight. I have something to show you. -Kravitz

Along with galleries and museums and libraries, studio spaces and elaborate gardens, the conservatory is home to two auditoriums. The East auditorium, the biggest, is by the mouth of the mountain, where artists submit their work, but not every single performance given is meant for the mountain. Hence the second, smaller theater, which Taako finds himself cautiously walking into, pushing open the grand double doors of the domed building.

It’s dark inside, but his darkvision doesn’t need long to adjust - a single light brightens the stage below, and Taako can see a single, small figure among the unused instruments and hand-painted stage props scattered about, a dark spot in the light. It’s a long walk down through the maze of seats.

“Kravitz?” Taako calls out, cautiously - nervous, and feeling stupid for feeling nervous. Kravitz hadn’t given him a specific time but he still gets the feeling that he’s late. He’d spent every minute, until he decided he couldn’t put off leaving any more, trying on and rejecting outfit after outfit - going for casual, but like he put some effort into it, but not an obvious amount of effort - before settling on his first choice anyway, braiding and unbraiding his hair until it was a frizzy mess and then going back to a simple long braid down the middle of his back, no hat.

He’d slipped on Kravitz’s jacket, too, an impulse he didn’t bother to question.

Kravitz turns away from the instrument he had been fiddling with, and his smile is big but there’s a nervousness to him as well, which honestly makes Taako feel better about being so cagey over the whole thing. He’s obviously excited, too, his hands won’t stop moving, though he shoves them in his pockets to keep them still. And he looks good - collar buttoned up, wearing a tie and a crisp black vest, a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Kravitz always puts effort into his looks - he’s nearly as self-absorbed as Taako - but this is something else, and there even anyone here but Taako to see it. He has a pocket watch, for crying out loud.

“You got my note,” Kravitz says, offering a hand to Taako, pulling him up onto the stage. Their voices echo through the empty dome, bouncing off the ceiling and walls. He feels very small, in a space like this, and though it’ll be happening to him in a few months Taako can’t imagine the feeling of standing up on stage and presenting his work, much less to an entity that will either broadcast it to the whole world or erase it forever. It must be terrifying.

“Sure did, very dramatic, I love it. Don’t get that effect with a stone of farspeech, amiright?”

“A what?” He hasn’t let go of Taako’s hand, Taako realizes with a jolt.

“Stone of farspeech, it’s a sort of - you know, not important.” Kravitz is staring at him with a soft smile, and Taako feels his cheeks warm. “What?”

“You’re wearing my jacket.”

Taako’s face turns beet red. “It’s comfy,” Taako says, overly defensive, shoving his hands down in the pockets. “Take it back if you want it.”

Kravitz shakes his head. “No, I like it. You look great.”

Taako bites his lip, avoiding looking Kravitz in the eye, ignoring how his heart skips a beat. Kravitz’s cello is set up nearby, along with a grand piano and some kind of brass instrument Taako doesn’t know the name of. There are others, too, but they’re off to the side, not in use. “What’s, uhh, what’s going on, my man?” He asks, uncertain, because - he just isn’t sure what to expect from Kravitz, doesn’t know what Kravitz wants from him. He’d thought things were going in, well, a particular direction, and then they hadn’t, but this...

“Right. Yes.” Kravitz takes him by the shoulders, guiding him across the stage to the piano bench and sitting him down. “Yes, that should be fine…”

“The suspense is killing me, Bones.” Taako crosses his legs, propping his elbow on his knee, his chin in the palm of his hand, eyebrows raised.

“Sorry. I’m terribly nervous.”

“I got that impression.”

“I wanted to show you -” Kravitz takes a deep breath. “It’s not exactly what I’m going to submit, it’ll be - more, better; it’s going to be an orchestra and I’ll conduct it. But I wanted you to hear this. So that if the mountain rejects it -”

“It won’t -”

“But if it does - this version won’t be erased. This is for you, Taako.”

Taako has a lot of questions. But he doesn’t voice them as Kravitz goes to his cello, seeming to relax once he’s touching it - this is something he knows how to do, settling into the chair and bracing the instrument between his legs. He draws the bow across the strings, drawing out that first low note that makes Taako shiver down to the base of his spine. His eyes drift closed as he plays - a familiar melody, but different somehow, a new energy that wasn’t there in previous iterations of the song.

And then Kravitz’s lips move, a murmur Taako can’t hear but that sets the hair at the back of his neck on end with the feeling of magic in the air, a sort that’s unfamiliar to Taako, not divine but not what he channels into his spells, either. He jumps, and then laughs with delight as the piano beside him begins to play of its own accord, the keys pressing on their own, joining in the melody. And the brass, too, joins in, raising from it’s stand as if held by an invisible person, and something shifts and settles in the song with the three instruments playing in harmony, something entirely new that makes Taako’s breath catch in his chest. It still bears that aching loneliness that’s familiar to Taako from the other iterations of the song that he’s heard but there’s something new, a subtle turn, a different key, and the mourning and loneliness seems to shift into something like... joy. Hope. Love. So much more to the song than there had ever been before, and Kravitz’s eyes are closed and there’s a soft smile on his face as his long fingers dance over the strings, as he loses himself in the tune to which he’s devoted so much of his time, knowing that he’s finally found what he was searching for in it. Taako can imagine him in the bigger auditorium with all of his peers watching, before his orchestra, deft hands guiding them all through each and every note, the strings and the brass, the crescendo that he would build, that he builds to now. And this is for Taako, for some reason this is all his, all the fear and hope and joy within it, and Taako doesn’t even realize he’s been choking back tears as the crescendo builds and the song finally comes to a close.

Kravitz is breathing hard when it’s done, when the enchantments on the other instruments gently fade, the brass settling gently back onto its stand. He blinks his eyes open just as Taako blurts out the first stupid thing he can think of, which is, “I should have known you were a fuckin’ bard.

“Family tradition, much to Mother’s dismay,” Kravitz laughs, shakily, setting the cello down and moving quickly to Taako, sitting by him on the piano bench and taking both of Taako’s hands in his, face flushed and eyes bright. “Did you -”

Yes, what the fuck, obviously that was amazing, you’re amazing.” Taako laughs, wanting to wipe the pinpricks of tears from his eyes but not wanting to let go of Kravitz’s hands. “Baby, you’re amazing.”

“It’s for you,” Kravitz says again, thumb skimming over Taako’s knuckles, and he draws Taako’s hands to his lips, pressing a kiss there. “All of it, Taako, I couldn’t have done this without you - god, I know it must sound stupid but - Taako, you’re my muse.”

“Bullshit,” Taako blurts out, quickly adding, “I mean yeah I’m great, natch, but - you did this, that was all you.” His voice wavers, heart pounding.

“But you inspired me! I have worked and worked on this for years but I never knew what I was doing it for, I wanted to submit to the mountain but I was never ready - but when you came here, when I met you - you’re what I’ve been missing, all my life, and it wasn’t until I stopped writing for the Light of Creation and started writing for you that I believed in what I was doing!”

His eyes are so bright and his hands are so warm, and he looks so young, this is a man Taako has seen a shadow of in cycles past, but not dimmed by death, by centuries of existence. Here, sitting before Taako, sweat clinging to his brow and still breathing heavily from the rush of performing, he is so alive. He lets go of one of Taako’s hands, bringing it up to cup his cheek and Taako can’t look away from his eyes even as his heart thuds, still expecting to see red in place of brown, a skull in place of smooth skin. “You’re my inspiration,” he says again, stroking Taako’s cheek. “I love you, Taako, and when the mountain accepts my song I think the whole world is going to love you.”

Taako doesn’t know what to do but kiss him, nerves alight with Kravitz’s hands on him and the soft pressure of his mouth; different than that night under the stars, something more needy in the way Taako pulls him close. Kravitz’s eyelashes flutter like soft wings against his cheek, mouth opening under Taako’s in a soft gasp as he presses Taako back against the piano, pushing down on the keys with a discordant melody, the sound jarring him closer. Eager , as if they’ve never been so close - because to him they haven’t, to him this is all brand new. Taako’s hands delve into the soft cloud of his hair as Kravitz’s hand presses into the small of his back, fingers dancing over his skin the way they dance over the cello’s strings.

They way they’ve held a scythe, held it to Taako’s throat, they way they’ll hold one again one day.

And Taako knows what those hands have done, and will do, and have done to him, and he doesn’t hate him for it, he never has, but he’s horribly aware of it now - of time slipping away and the Hunger’s inevitable approach and how short-lived this is. He knew but he’d wanted to pretend. Pretend it didn’t matter that, if the Hunger consumes this world, Kravitz’s death will be because of him and he’ll never hold that scythe - and even if it doesn’t Taako will still leave him at the end of this, and Kravitz doesn’t even know, he doesn’t know a damn thing about Taako. The futility of it all is suddenly so apparent with this living, breathing, beautiful boy wound up in his arms, warm breath stuttering over his mouth as a soft tongue slips past his teeth, hot under his hands as they snake up the back of his shirt. Unbearably good, and so limited. So finite.

Taako wrenches himself out of Kravitz’s arms. Leaves Kravitz reaching, a small hungry sound escaping him but stopping short of touching Taako, mouth red and wet. Still so gorgeous Taako aches to look at him. Kravitz watches, stricken, as Taako stands up too quick, wavering on his feet as he smooths out his skirt with trembling hands. Taako wants him more than he’s ever wanted anything. He can’t look him in the eye.

“I can’t,” Taako whispers, voice breathless and raw. “I - I’m sorry.”

“Taako, wait,” Kravitz pleads, but Taako steps back, shaking his head. He should have done this so long ago. He should have run away when he first saw Kravitz, should never have put himself through this. Shouldn’t be putting Kravitz through this. He’d thought they could -

It doesn’t matter what he’d thought. He doesn’t look back as he runs out of the empty auditorium.

Taako doesn’t fully register where he’s walking until he's left the conservatory campus behind him, kicking up dust on the long road that leads to where they docked the Starblaster. Close enough to return to it when they needed to, far enough that curious students at the conservatory wouldn’t snoop. He pauses, and then thinks fuck it, continuing on his way, because he sure as hell doesn’t want to be in the dorms right now, doesn’t want to see anyone.

He can still hear the song playing in his head as he makes his way to the Starblaster. The haunting chords and the swell of joy that brought it to it’s crescendo. All for him. He doesn’t think it’ll ever leave his head now.

The Starblaster is dark as he approaches, the bond engine dormant; it’s been sitting empty most of the time since the conservatory welcomed them for the year. The door creaks as he opens it, goes through the rote motions of opening the airlock, all muscle memory after so long. It’s weird to think that a spaceship is the most permanent home he’s ever had, but it’s true. This ship and her crew will still be there long after he’s left everything else behind. Not by choice, none of them would have chosen this life, but they’ll be there all the same. At least there’s that.

It’s not a big ship, was never meant for a long-term expedition. The kitchen is cramped, though he’s learned to work around that, the ceilings low and the hallways narrow. It’s hard to fit more than two people at a time in the cockpit. Yet it feels enormous as he stands there alone, going through and turning on every lamp to chase away the dark, everything right where they left it when they docked. Once the lights are on he flops down on the overstuffed sofa in the common area - worn and discolored from heavy use, affectionately dubbed Franken-couch because one of the cushions was torn and repaired by Merle with stitches that look uncomfortably like medical sutures, even though most of their family are wizards and Taako learned Mending when he was like, ten. They may not change cycle to cycle, but the Starblaster carries all the signs of half a century of living in the same tiny space, the stains and mismatched furniture and ramshackle repairs, relics from dozens of lost worlds. He wonders if it's even recognizable from the ship that departed from their home world, but it doesn't matter because there's no one left who would remember that.

He sits alone in the quiet for a long moment before he realizes he’s still wearing Kravitz’s fucking jacket.

“Fuck,” he says, too loud, his voice bouncing off the metal walls, and buries his head in his hands. It’s warm and it smells like Kravitz and he doesn’t want to take it off so he doesn't, not just yet.

He’s not sure why he auto-piloted here. Maybe just to be alone in his misery for a while, without having to explain himself. Maybe to remind himself that this is his real life. Not a fancy dorm at a fantasy art school. Not stolen gum-wrapper wisdom and pretty boys who write him beautiful songs. He’s been playing pretend. Real life is a cramped spaceship and being on the run, always on the run. Bound heart and soul to six other people, no room for anyone else, not in this life. Nearly fifty years of this and he has no reason to think it’ll be over soon. Or ever.

He feels, all at once, immeasurably tired. Like all his limbs are made of lead. So stupid. Stupid to think he could be friends with Kravitz, stupid to lead him into thinking there could be more. Stupid of him to think he could just ignore it, that he would be okay when it all inevitably fell apart.

Someone knocks on the door.

Taako doesn’t lift his head right away. He already knows who it is because anyone else who would have a reason to be here would never bother to knock - they rarely even knock on the doors to each others bedrooms anymore; he’s seen Magnus naked enough times he doesn’t even react to it anymore.

“Go away,” he says, though he’s sure he doesn’t sound very convincing. A few moments of silence and then another knock, harder this time. He closes his eyes. “Please.” Too quiet for anyone to hear. Taako rubs his face, and slips off the jacket, and answers the door.

Kravitz looks surprised and then relieved when he finally opens the door, something in his gaze going soft and sweet. Taako thinks for a moment about closing it in his face. Being just cruel enough that Kravitz won't come back, will believe he’s just an asshole stringing him along. He can play that role. He’s good at it and it would be better for them both. He doesn't say anything, but he waits, door open.

“So I’m just now realizing that following you home makes me look incredibly creepy and I didnt mean for that at all,” Kravitz blurts out. Taako barks an unexpected laugh, too loud. “So, if I haven’t ruined my chances with you already I suppose that would do it. Sorry.”

“Krav,” Taako says softly, sounding as tired as he feels.

“Was I wrong about this? Did I misinterpret everything?”

Taako sighs, leaning in the doorframe and avoiding Kravitz's gaze. It would easy to deflect, twist his words, but - Kravitz has always had a knack for drawing honesty out of him. “No, you… you didn't.”

“Then what did I do wrong?” He really seems desperate to know. He keeps wringing his hands, as if to keep them occupied so they won't try to reach for Taako. Staying at a careful, respectful difference. Taako kind of hates it. Kind of wishes Kravitz would touch him so that he would at least have the option to shove him away, so he could be mad at someone besides himself. “I’m trying to figure it out, but I don’t understand.”

“God, no. You haven't done a damn thing, you - you're perfect.” Taako swallows, and shakes his head. “Doesn't mean this can ever work.”

Kravitz's mouth twists. “Let me guess. It's complicated.”

“You have no idea.”

“I love you. What's complicated about that?”

“You hardly know me,” Taako says. He can't fathom how he just says this shit, how he can be so sure of what he wants.

“I feel like I do!”

“You don’t! You haven't thought this through,” Taako says. Trying his best to keep his voice level, trying not to reach out for Kravitz when he feels like there's some force of nature pulling them together. His throat feels tight. “We don't fit, our lives don't fit. I wish I could.”

Kravitz takes a deep breath. “If you tell me that you don't feel this too - if you really want me to go - then I'll go. I won't ever bother you again.” He meets Taako's gaze, and once he's caught it Taako can't look away. “But I don't believe for an instant that that's what you really want.”

Taako can’t help but bristle at that, his instinct to be contrary, to go against any assumptions of who he is, what he’s supposed to feel; no one gets to tell him how to feel. “You don’t know anything about me,” he repeats.

You don’t even remember me.

“I know what you like to eat for breakfast when you're happy and when you're sad. I know you actually like tea better than coffee, and that you don't have any idea what I'm talking about when it comes to music but you listen anyway, and I know that sometimes you watch me when you think I don't notice and you look so sad I can hardly bear it. I know you push people away when you're scared.” Kravitz laughs softly, rubbing the back of his neck. “You think I'm not scared, too? I've never felt as scared or as happy as when I'm with you, Taako, but you - understand me. Better than anyone.”

Taako's fingers curl around the doorframe, wanting to pull Kravitz into his arms so badly it aches right in the middle of his chest. Apologies and goodbyes on the tip of his tongue but he can’t force them past his lips.

“Tell me to go, then,” Kravitz says, and Taako admires him for keeping his voice so even. He sighs, long and slow. Leans in and kisses Kravitz on the mouth, soft and brief, it's selfish but he can't help himself. He means it to be a goodbye.

A low hum, familiar as white noise to Taako, sounds from behind him, and from the rear deck of the Starblaster comes a bright glow that startles Kravitz back.

He twists around to look, he can see the top of the engine's ring aglow with the very bonds that fuel it, beginning to spin, the empty ship awaiting his commands as if eager to fly after so long docked. And when he looks back at Kravitz he doesn’t know if he’s imagining it or not but he swears he can see the bonds between them, pulling them closer - always there, always inevitable. He blinks and they’re gone quick enough that he’s sure it was just a trick of the light, or more wishful thinking, but he can still feel them. It’s familiar by now - he’s been drawn back to life, back to this ship and his crew, knitted together from light again and again so many times; it feels like coming home.

Bonds are undeniably powerful but the engine is exponentially strengthened by their tight knit group, their months of training together before the mission began and the many, many years after. The bond between just one person and another isn't enough for this kind of reaction. But it isn't just one, Taako realizes. It's him and Kravitz, here and now, but also himself and every version of Kravitz he's known, each one he has yet to meet, for better or for worse. All the history between them and whatever the future holds. The bond engine glows bright, waiting for them to fly.

Taako laughs, weak and maybe a little hysterical. Kravitz's fingers entwine with his, and he squeezes back and doesn't let go. “What was that? What happened?” Kravitz asks, breathless, and Taako knows, somehow, that he can feel what Taako feels, even if he doesn’t know what it means.

“There's… a lot of things I haven't told you. Things you won't want to hear, I think.”

Things that will show Kravitz that this - Taako, and all the mess he brings with him - isn't what he wants.

“I’ll decide that for myself,” Kravitz says.

That’s what Taako figured he would say. He tugs gently on Kravitz’s hand, stepping back through the open door - welcoming him into this place that is as much a part of Taako as his magic, familiar as his twin’s face. “I might as well give you the tour if you’re gonna hang around. Do you know anything about bond theory?”

Kravitz is entranced as Taako walks him through the narrow halls of the Starblaster, the kitchen and living spaces and the bridge, reaching out to brush his fingers against the metal walls. It's strange to see him in this place. Typically the sight of Kravitz on the ship would be cause for alarm, it would mean he's successfully tracked them down. Strange in a good way, in a painful way; he wishes it could last. Kravitz glances at the couch as they pass it, where Taako had tossed aside the stolen jacket, but doesn't say a word. Finally they climb up to the deck, where the bond engine awaits, silent now, but still glowing. It casts strange shadows across Kravitz’s face, exaggerating his cheekbones, the strong line of his jaw, the light reflecting in those dark eyes.

Kravitz is quiet, processing everything he’s learned, staring up at the impossible engine in disbelief. “I knew you were from far away, but I never imagined this. I never knew there were other planar systems.”

“We didn't either until we set out.” Taako sighs and leans on the railing that surrounds the deck, avoiding Kravitz’s gaze by staring up at the sky. In a few months the stars will start to dim as the Hunger begins its descent. For now they’re bright, especially out here away from the light of any towns, mind-boggling amounts of stars wheeling over their heads. “The constellations are always different. Like, back home this time of year, you’d see… yeah, I think you’d see the Manticore right about there.” He points up, at a tight cluster of stars. They were always hard to find; nights weren’t very dark on a plane with two suns. Seeing this many stars still blows his mind and he's been up there. “And over there was the Maiden.”

“We call that one the Flying Fish. See the tail?” Kravitz comes to stand next to him, pointing toward the east.

“Huh. Yeah, kinda.”

“...what’s it like? Your home? You don't ever talk about it.”

Taako bites his lip for a moment, thinking. Elves have a long memory, fifty years is both a long time and absolutely nothing, he can still remember everything about home. Even the things he’d rather not.

“It had two suns. A purple sky. These massive forests, they just… stretched on for miles, couldn’t see the treetops if you were down in them. Some elves lived up there. Not me, but some of them, the wood elves, they hardly ever came down from the canopies. We had cities, too - all these glass and metal spires. Called 'em skyscrapers.” Those are the easy things. He talks about the Institute, too, arguably one of the more important periods in Taako’s life, where he’d studied and taught and built so much, after the Light of Creation fell. Before everything fell apart.

Kravitz listens until Taako falls silent. The moonlight is bright tonight, shining down on his face. “It sounds beautiful. Can’t help but note the use of the past tense.”

“Nailed it.” His grip on the railing is tight, the metal cool in the night air. It’s hard to know how much to reveal, and when. What will drive Kravitz away, and whether or not that should be his goal. He’d explained the basics of the bond engine as he showed Kravitz around the Starblaster but not the bonds between the two of them. Because if he does, it means explaining everything. All the cycles where they’ve met, and who Kravitz really is.

He would run screaming if someone dropped that shit on him. And he’s selfish and he doesn't want Kravitz to go.

“So, the Starblaster mission. That was supposed to be a quick trip - explore the planes, do some research, see what’s out there. Lucretia would write a book about it. It was shit no one had ever accomplished, and we would be the first people to go up there. Our mission was supposed to take a few months, tops, and maybe they’d send a long term one if we made it back alive.” He takes a deep breath, fidgeting nervously with the end of his braid. “We’ve been running for forty-seven years.”

Kravitz frowns. “How can that be? Lucretia can’t be older than eighteen, Magnus maybe twenty -”

“Yeah, that’s the thing, ain’t it.” Taako laughs softly. “So it’s not - years, exactly. Cycles is more accurate. Every time we enter a new planar system, we just… reset. Exactly the same as the day we left. We don’t age. We can die but we don’t stay dead. Far as we know we’re the only people from our homeworld still alive.”

All at once the vastness of the sky above him seems oppressive rather than beautiful; he can only see the spaces between the stars, the darkness that will soon blot all the rest out, the inky pillars that plummeted to his world. He turns around, sits cross-legged on the deck with his back against the railing, and after a quiet moment Kravitz joins him. Watching Taako with careful, quiet concern. It’s easier for Taako not to look at him, to look down at his own lap as he goes on.

“We call it the Hunger. It’s… a thirteenth plane, sort of, and all it wants is to grow. To get stronger. And it eats entire worlds, just to get to the Light of Creation - that’s what keeps it growing, maintaining this… form. The day we left our homeworld we watched the Hunger take it, and there was nothing we could do. We still don’t know how to stop it, but we’re trying. That’s the mission now, keeping the Light of Creation out of its hands.”

“How?” Kravitz asks softly.

“We leave. Let it chase us instead of devouring the world. Generally die in the process. Start the whole thing over again.”

“You’ve... died. And come back.” This seems to be a lot for him to process.

“About five times now, I think. S’fine, you should see Merle, he’s way up in the double digits now.” He turns, gives Kravitz a wry grin. “Your Raven Queen is preeetty pissed at us.”

“Is that what you think the problem is? I’m no priest, I’m not going to condemn you for something out of your control.”

Taako shakes his head. “Gods are the least of our problem, trust me. The Hunger is already on its way. It usually attacks a year after we arrive on a plane.”

Kravitz goes pale, but he manages to keep his voice steady. “So you’ll stop it. You’ll get in the mountain and find the Light -”

“And what if we don’t? What if we’re not good enough for the mountain to let us in, what if I get you killed?”

“Then I’ll be good enough, I can help you -”

“It doesn’t matter. We can’t stay here, Kravitz.” Kravitz doesn’t respond. Taako shuts his eyes, lets his head thunk back against the railing behind him. “I wish we could but whatever happens at the end of the year, I’ll be gone and I won’t be able to come back. I know it’s not fair, it fucking sucks, but that’s how it is. How it’s always going to be.”

He rubs at his own eyes - he isn’t crying, not yet, but his eyes are burning and his throat is tight. He doesn’t mean to keep talking but now the words are spilling out, stilted and sharp. “And I’ve been playing this - this fucking game of - pretending all this could be real, that I could have you. But I’ll still just have to say goodbye to you.”

Again and again and again. And he’d let it happen, keeps letting this happen because he likes to be adored, craves the kind of attention that Kravitz can give him. Because he cares too much and he can’t bear to hurt Kravitz, even though it only makes things harder.

Silence, and then the warmth of a hand on his back. He turns as Kravitz pulls him into a hug, tight and bracing and utterly unexpected; he stiffens and then relaxes all at once.

“I’m so sorry,” Kravitz murmurs, and Taako’s breath hitches. This is it, he knows, this is goodbye, and he can’t stand it but it’s good to be held, and understood, and even though he knows that he should let Kravitz go he tucks his face in the crook of his neck, breathing uneven. “I’m sorry that this happened to you. I can’t imagine how tired you must be.”

“Yeah, well.” Taako forces himself out of the circle of Kravitz’s arms, pulling his knees up to his chest. He hadn’t expected sympathy. He’d expected Kravitz to be pissed. He almost wants Kravitz to be pissed. “My bad for leading you on, I guess. Wasting your time. And like - I fucking knew, right, I knew it would go down like this and I still…”


“It was… real nice. Getting to know you,” he chokes, and wipes his eyes. Gods, no, he’s not going to start crying, not until Kravitz is gone. He will handle this with grace, like a goddamn adult. He’ll stop wallowing alone here, go wake up Lup, and he’ll cry about it with the only person allowed to see him break down. They’ll bake a decadent cake to drown his sorrows in and then he’ll get back to work, back to reality. No more handsome distractions. Except Kravitz doesn’t leave. He keeps rubbing Taako’s back in slow circles, which kind of just makes him want to cry even more, and he’s sure Kravitz can tell.

“Did I ever tell you about how I was sick as a child?” Kravitz asks.

Taako shakes his head, lifting his eyes to look at Kravitz’s face.

“I was young. Ten or twelve, maybe. It was this horrid pox, it took so many people in our village. Children and old folk, mostly. I was bedridden, practically quarantined except for the doctors treating me. I wasn’t allowed to see my mother. I don’t know if Father tried to see me or not. Or if he knew ever I was sick.”

He pauses, nervous, fidgeting, and on impulse Taako reaches over to squeeze his hand. It seems to help, and Kravitz takes a breath and goes on. “I was sick for a long time. Weeks, or longer, it was hard to say, the fever left me delirious. There were these ravens that landed on my windowsill every day. Most days they were all the life I saw. I thought they were the Raven Queen’s messengers come to take me away. Everyone assumed I would die.

“All I wanted in the world was to leave that room, to walk in the sunlight and play music again. To make friends. Have the chance to grow up. I spoke to the ravens - I begged and pleaded and promised things I don’t even remember now. When my fever was at its worst I was seeing ghosts at my bedside, and I could swear I heard the ravens speak back. They told me that I didn’t have to be afraid anymore. I slept so deeply I thought I must be dead, but when I woke my fever was gone and I had this on my face.” His fingers trace the edges of the skull marking on his face. “And I finally began to heal. No one could explain how.”

Taako swallows back the lump in his throat that rises when he imagines Kravitz, sick and alone and terrified. He’s been sick before, that horrible kind of sick, sweating out a fever so hot it made you see things; he remembers Lup caring for him and being terrified that she would catch it too, and who would be left to help them? He wonders what Kravitz promised in that sick bed, if that was when he sold his afterlife or if that choice is yet to come. It seems cruel, to accept such an offering from a child, but then again, death is cruel.

“So the Raven Queen healed you?” Taako asks quietly. He finds himself touching the pale patches of skin on Kravitz’s hands, his fingers and wrists, tracing out the vague shapes of bones.

“It’s naive, I know. But it’s what I believe.”

“I’ve seen crazier things.”

Kravitz turns his face up, toward the moon and the stars. “You know, my mother was very protective of me; she kept me safe in that temple. Safe, but sheltered. And I’m grateful to her, but… I think she was afraid of the world. I’m more afraid of not being part of it, of wasting the little time I have. When I got better, I swore I wouldn’t take my time for granted. I would chase happiness and take risks and live without regrets, because I didn’t know when it might end.”

He takes both of Taako’s hands in his, looking at him now, and Taako couldn’t turn away from the black pools of his eyes even if he wanted to. “I do love you. And I know you're trying to drive me away, but - I think you're wonderful, and brave, and the strangest man I've ever met. If this year is all we have together, if this is a waste of our time in the end - well, then fine. I’d like to waste it with you.”

Taako reaches out to touch him, fingertips brushing the edge of his jaw. He doesn’t know what to do. He knows what he’s supposed to do, at odds with what he wants - to kiss him again, and more than that. To hold him and whisper to him in the dark and pretend that they’re just two people in love. To ask him to stay this time.

Kravitz goes on, tilting his head into Taako’s touch. “I understand if that’s not something you can do, but - you make me so happy. And the only thing I could ever regret about this is not being with you while I have the chance.”

The worst part is that Taako knows that Kravitz would leave if he asked. He would keep his word and stay away, if that was what Taako asked. But he can’t make the words come out, even though there’s so much he should say, so much that Kravitz needs to know. He thinks of Lup and Barry, and how many years of happiness they could have already had if they weren’t so hesitant, and of how little happiness the universe has afforded him. How it will all slip through his fingers if he doesn’t take it, like so many things have.

“You make me happy, too,” Taako whispers. Kravitz turns his head, kisses the tips of his fingers and it feels like there’s a candle flame caught in Taako’s chest, bright and warm. “You’re all I want.”

A little laugh passes Kravitz’s lips, breathless and giddy. Shy when he asks, “Can I kiss you? Please?”

Taako meets him halfway, uncurling his legs to lean in as Kravitz draws him closer, a kiss that Kravitz deepens, opening his mouth in a soft sigh. Taako can’t seem to get close enough to him, until Kravitz draws him down into his lap, one hand settled on Taako’s hip, the other spread over Taako’s back. Taako drapes one arm around Kravitz’s neck, the other hand cradling the back of his head.

The consequences of this choice seem far away now. Kravitz is warm and he smells like rainwater and he loves Taako, wants him even knowing he’ll be gone by the year’s end. Taako kisses him like this is the last kiss they’ll ever share, like he'll change his mind at any moment; open-mouthed and wet and warm as he works at the knot of Kravitz's tie, until Kravitz's hands settle firm on his sides and he guides Taako to slow down, soft, short kisses until they're just breathing together, foreheads touching.

“No need to rush,” Kravitz murmurs. “I'm not going anywhere.”

He's right. There’s so much Taako wants to do to him, but he doesn't want to rush a single moment of this.

“You’ll stay?” Taako asks quietly, his nose nudging Kravitz’s cheek. The energy of the bond engine is hot against his back, and he wants to stay like this forever. He wants to lead Kravitz back inside the ship, back to his bunk, which hasn’t been used since they came to the conservatory but where he’s held Kravitz before, even if he’s the only one who knows it. He wants to wake up with him still there this time, and pretend that they’re not running on borrowed time. There is something good about having Kravitz here, in the closest thing he’s ever had to home.

Kravitz smiles, looking up at Taako, eyes heavy-lidded and dark. Taako has made a mess of his hair and his tie, and Taako decides that polished, put-together Kravitz is great but half-wrecked Kravitz is perfect. There’s something behind his eyes that looks a little lost, disbelieving even in his joy, and Taako wonders what he’s thinking. If he’s wondering why he feels like they’ve been here before. He wishes that he wasn’t too much of a coward to tell Kravitz the truth.

Soon, he promises himself. When he figures out how best to do it. But not tonight, not when this still feels so fragile, like walking over a frozen pond, breakable with just one wrong step.

“If you’d have me,” Kravitz says, and kisses him again.

Chapter Text

Kravitz traces nonsense patterns across Taako’s bare back, his fingers raising goosebumps as he goes. Sprawled like cats in a patch of sunlight, the blankets kicked out of the way to the floor; Taako has the vague idea that they should get up eventually, but it’s late morning or maybe afternoon and his bed smells like Kravitz, and they don’t have anywhere to be for once. They could just sleep the day away, wake up for food or sex and then crawl back into bed; they’ve wasted plenty of days doing just that. It's easy to lose himself in Kravitz, easy to let the rest of the world fall away.

He can't remember ever being so happy with another person. The happier Taako gets - the longer he allows this to go on - the harder it becomes to tell Kravitz the truth.

Taako's ears twitch as they pick up a soft vibration of sound, and he realizes Kravitz is humming something under his breath. He smiles, eyes still closed. “What's that? Something you're writing?” He asks, half-muffled by the pillow his face is pressed into.

“Mm? Oh, no.” Kravitz's hand curls around the sharp point of Taako's shoulder blade, kneading gently into the muscles above. Taako sighs, melting yet further into the bed, if that’s possible. “Its old. A hymn of sorts.”

“Right, right. Church boy. S'pretty.”

“We had a little choir, at the temple. I’m not particularly good, but that was always my favorite part, getting to sing.”

“You would be a choir boy.” Taako doesn't believe for a second that Kravitz isn't a good singer. He shifts, turning onto his side to get a better look at Kravitz, his sleepy eyes and mussed hair. He’s beautiful like this. Sometimes Taako still looks at him and expects to see a skull instead of smooth warm skin. “Did you always want to be a musician?”

Kravitz shrugs. “I suppose. My father passed through town a few times a year if I was lucky, and he always brought some strange instrument to show me, new stories and songs. Taught me what little magic he could while he was around. I wanted to be just like him. Mother hated that - not the music, but the idea of being a wandering bard.”

“...Is he gone, too? Is that a shitty question to ask?”

“It’s not. I honestly don’t know where he is. He was always on some wild adventure, according to his stories; it’s certainly possible he died. Or he started another family. Or he just got tired of being tied to us.” Taako opens his mouth to apologize for asking but Kravitz doesn’t give him the chance, shifts the focus away from himself. “I’m sure you always planned on being a chef-wizard-astronaut.”

Taako’s a pro at not talking about the past. He takes the hint. “Oh, yeah. Very linear career path, that.”

“Why magic? It couldn’t have been easy to study in your situation.”

Taako laughs. “Less study and more learn by experience. But I mean, it’s just like the cooking, isn’t it? It’s what we could do to survive, so that’s what we did, just ended up being awesome at it. And then it was what we could do to make something of ourselves.”

“And so you did.”

“And so we did.” Taako agrees. Their self-taught style had led to a bit of a culture shock, both when they started getting jobs in real restaurants and when they finally made it to the Institute, and realized they went about things completely differently than everyone else they met. But they’d always had to be fast learners. It blows his mind, still, that it doesn’t scare him to talk about this shit with Kravitz, why he trusts him not to use against him. How often has he trusted anyone like that, felt this safe? The way Kravitz looks at Taako, that soft warm smile, makes his chest hurt, like he can't breathe. “What?” Taako asks, grinning back at him.

“Your hair in the light, it looks like  a sunburst. It's beautiful.”

Taako snorts, and he's sure it's not the least bit attractive but Kravitz is still looking at him like that, so . “I know for a fact that my hair is an absolute wreck, you menace.”

Kravitz's smile turns mischievous, and he reaches over to thread his fingers through the rat's nest of Taako's hair just like he had hours before, pulling on it just hard enough to make Taako suck in a breath, his eyes fluttering closed again. “Are you complaining?”

“Yes, you're the worst,” Taako purrs. “Do it again.”

He does, and then releases his grip, brushing Taako's hair aside so he can kiss the side of his neck, and if that puts Kravitz in the perfect position for Taako to snake an arm around his waist and squeeze his ass, if that prompts Kravitz to nip at the sensitive edge of Taako's ear, well, how can he resist the temptation. “You’re insatiable,” Kravitz mumbles between the kisses that he trails down Taako’s shoulders before he settles back into his pillow.

“You’re just devastatingly hot, is all,” which isn’t what he really means, but he can’t just say I want as much of you as I can get while I still can, or I already miss you even though you’re right here.  

“Love you.” Kravitz smiles, eyes closed.

Sometimes Taako thinks he’s so in love that his heart could break from it. It’s foreign to Taako, knowing that he would do anything, anything to keep that smile on Kravitz’s face; Kravitz who is so good to him, so kind and giving, who asks for so little but Taako’s company. And Taako will take it, take everything that’s offered, but he knows he doesn’t deserve it. Not when he’s still keeping the truth of what they are tucked away, until the right time, except he doesn’t know how he’ll spot the right time when it comes along.

“Hey,” Taako murmurs after a moment of shamelessly staring at Kravitz, who opens one eye and makes a small noise of acknowledgment. Maybe he has to make it the right time. “Wanna tell you something.”

“Sounds serious.” Kravitz opens both eyes now, a teasing glint in them. His hair is loose, curls spilling over the pillow like black water.

If Taako were a good person - a person who actually deserves what he has, here - he would tell the truth. But he wants to keep Kravitz smiling, and the words he needs to say falter on the tip of his tongue, and he feels like he’s lost his chance. Instead, he reaches out to twist some of those curls around his index finger and tugs a little - call it revenge. “Ever thought about doing dreads? Would look super hot.”

Kravitz raises his eyebrows, skeptical. “You think?” He inspects a lock of his own hair.

“Oh, I know for a fact. I mean, with that bone structure of yours?”

“Hm. Maybe so.”

It’s obvious he knows that this isn’t what Taako planned to say. Before Kravitz, he had never met anyone who could see through his bullshit as clearly as Lup. Kravitz does - but unlike Lup, he doesn’t push. He waits. Lets Taako circle back around when he’s ready, and come to the truth in his own roundabout way.

Taako is grateful for that.

Taako figures there isn’t exactly a good way to tell the crew that he’s dating the Grim Reaper. He wants to be selfish for a little while, keep Kravitz all to himself, but at the same time he but he doesn’t want to hide it - hiding Kravitz nearly broke their trust in him before. So he steps out of his room hand in hand with Kravitz one morning, calls out “Morning, nerds,” and ignores the way everyone’s heads swivel to look at them, as he rummages through the kitchenette for something vaguely resembling breakfast that he can throw together. Kravitz waves at them awkwardly.

Lucretia ultimately breaks the silence. “So, this is a thing now?” She asks, vaguely amused.

Kravitz looks to Taako for rescue, but his head is currently in the refrigerator looking for the bacon that he specifically told Magnus not to touch, but it’s nowhere to be seen. “Seems to be?” Kravitz says.

“Hm.” Lucretia returns to her book. “There’s tea in the kettle.”

Magnus stands up to his full height, arms crossed and trying to look menacing. Maybe he does look menacing, to anyone who doesn’t know him, but it just makes Taako snicker. He doesn’t do anything, just stares Kravitz down for a few moments too long. This whole endeavor is going to either go very well or very, very bad. “I’m sure you know what’ll happen if you don’t treat Taako right,” he warns.

Kravitz tries for a smile. “You’ll have to kick my ass, I assume?”

“Nah, because Taako will first.” Magnus grins and the threatening aura falls away as he claps Kravitz on the shoulder. Kravitz looks like he’s seen his life flash before his eyes.

“Alright, leave the guy alone.” Taako says, standing back up and closing the fridge. “I’ll have you know I’m like a hundred and fifty, you’re like, what, ten? You’re not the one who has to give the shovel talk.”

Kravitz sends Taako a desperate look. “Is this what they’re always like when you bring home a suitor?”

Suitor,” Taako laughs as he makes his way to the counter. “Who the fuck talks like that.”

“Wouldn’t know,” Lucretia answers Kravitz’s question, without looking up. Taako tries to ignore them all, focusing instead on breakfast, the tips of his ears burning pink. “He’s never brought anyone home.”

“Oh fuck you, Lucy, like you’ve had a girlfriend in the last like like fifteen cycles -”

“That you know of,” Lucretia says smugly, and momentarily Taako’s relationship isn’t the biggest controversy in the room as every head in the room swivels to look at her, except for Lup, who just offers a fistbump.

“Don’t mind them, man,” Barry says, patting Kravitz on the shoulder as he walks by. “We’re all happy for you guys.”

Lup’s been oddly quiet, normally she wouldn’t pass up the chance to voice her opinion as loudly as possible, or at least tease the hell out of Taako. Taako glances over at her and she’s just... watching the two of them now, a soft smile on her face. But there’s concern there too. Taako’s not sure she’ll ever fully trust Kravitz, but she does trust him. Okay? She mouths.

Taako looks back at Kravitz, who’s been locked into a conversation with Magnus as he pours himself a cup of tea, and for a second he wants to give up on the whole breakfast endeavor. He wants to drag Kravitz back to bed, hide him away like a precious treasure, and waste the rest of this year doing nothing except being disgustingly in love. He still can’t really believe that that this is what’s happened, all so unlikely and yet inevitable too. He watches Kravitz’s face, the way it screws up as he laughs when Magnus makes a particularly bad pun, and for a moment he could imagine this being his life, Kravitz wrapped up in this bizarre group of people he’s come to think of as something like a family.

He nods, and Lup’s smile grows wider. He sticks his tongue out at her and she does it back and that’s all that needs to be said, in his opinion. They make breakfast and eat it together at the table with the crew, who all, to Taako’s relief, manage to avoid the topic of their past encounters with Kravitz - they had agreed on that when they first realized that Kravitz wasn’t a reaper on this plane, but still, Taako had been a little worried that they wouldn’t be able to keep their mouths shut. It’s a little tense, sure - in the past Kravitz has managed to kill both Merle and Magnus, and has nearly taken the rest of them down too. He’s surprised at how willing they are to be cool just for his sake.

Later on, after Kravitz kisses Taako’s cheek and leaves for rehearsal, Davenport, who has been silent for most of the morning, pulls Taako aside. He goes on the defense immediately. “I’m not gonna stop seeing Kravitz,” he says as Davenport sits him down. “If that’s what you were going to say.”

“It wasn’t,” Davenport says, expression soft, throwing Taako off his game.

“Well - good, ‘cause it’s none of your business -”

“Taako.” His moustache twitches, just slightly, and Taako knows there’s a smile hiding under there. “You always assume the worst, don’t you? I just want to know how much he knows.”

Taako bites his lip. “Told him about the mission. The Hunger, the Light and all that.”

“But nothing about his role in all of this?”


“Are you going to?”

He squirms in his seat. “I’m… working on it.”

Davenport nods, settling back in his seat. “I’ll leave that up to you, then. I just wanted to know what to expect, if you’re going to be close to him the rest of the cycle.”

“...Thanks,” Taako mumbles.

“I also need to make sure you’re alright.”

Taako roll his eyes, arms crossed over his chest. “I’m always alright.”

“You’re right that personal relationships are none of my business, but I know your history with Kravitz is messy at best. The wellbeing of my crew is crucial, and you’re part of my crew.” He folds his hands together and goes on, “So. You’re alright?”

Taako lets his arms fall back to his side and ducks his head, embarrassed but also, weirdly, pleased that he would bother to ask. He thinks of Kravitz, laughing with Lup and the rest of the crew this morning, sitting at their table eating the breakfast that Taako cooked - and it was awkward, sure, it made Taako nervous as hell to bring them together but they were all trying for his benefit, and he hadn’t been able help the warm feeling that welled up in him, how much he wants it to last.

“Yeah,” Taako says softly, smiling. “Yeah, I’m… good. I’m really good.”

“Glad to hear it.” But it seems that Taako isn’t off the hook yet; Davenport watches him for a minute, brow furrowed. “Times like these, though… I’m sorry that we’re not able to bring anyone with us when we leave.”

The warm, content feeling in Taako’s belly goes sour. Exactly what he wants to avoid thinking about, and it’s tempting to snap at Davenport for bringing it up now, but - Davenport had taken it just as hard as the rest of them, when they figured that out. One of the early planes, when they hadn’t been able to recover the Light in time, when they barely understood how they were able to come back to life at the cycle’s end. They’d loaded the ship with people, and it wasn’t enough, it would never be enough until they could save every single one of them but it was something, at least, until they passed through to the next planar system and found themselves right back where they started. Only the seven of them, hungover and bruised, the same as the day they left.

Taako hadn’t felt that alone in the world since he was a kid. Since his aunt died. He focused a lot more on the crew and a lot less on civilians, after that.

“Well. It is what it is,” Taako says, shrugging one shoulder and looking away. “I mean, I knew, right? I know we’ve got a time limit. And he knows, too. That we’ll leave. So it’s fine.”

“...I’m sorry, Taako. I know it’s not an easy situation.”

Taako can’t tell if it makes it better or worse to hear that acknowledged aloud.

He can hear Lucretia’s voice coming from Lup’s room next door - muffled by the walls but still clear enough, to Taako’s heightened elven hearing. His ears twitch toward the sound, attention drawn away from the book he was reading (if anyone asks he’ll tell them it’s a romance novel, but in truth, it’s in preparation for the study group tomorrow). It’s late and Kravitz snores softly beside him. He’s not trying to eavesdrop, but he hears his name.

“You know,” Lucretia goes on, and she sounds worried. Sad. “He’s never going to be able to think of Kravitz as an enemy, after all this.”

Kravitz mumbles some nonsense in his sleep, rolls over and tosses an arm over Taako’s lap. He nuzzles his face into Taako’s leg and settles with a sigh. Taako sets his book aside, pages down, which he knows Lucretia would scream at him for if she saw it (she won’t ever let him dog-ear pages, either.) He runs his fingers along the shell of Kravitz’s ear, small and rounded and delicate, closes his eyes to listen to him breathe.

“I don’t think he ever did,” Lup answers.

“Tell me about the first cycle after you left home.”

They’re on the hill by the graveyard, the site of their first date-that-wasn’t-a-date and so many after; they come out here every chance they get. It’s pleasantly cool, and bright orange leaves fall from the tree all around them. Now that he knows Taako won’t make fun of him (much) Kravitz often takes a moment to leave little offerings - feathers or flowers - at the gravestones or clear them of leaves and other debris. It’s tradition, Kravitz explained, for traveling clerics of the Raven Queen to leave offerings when they pass a graveyard, and he’s not a cleric but he’d always helped maintain the graveyard at the temple back home; he likes the ritual of it.

Taako smiles and says, “That was the animal planet. Not like the TV channel, it was like, all animals all the time. Learned how to speak mongoose, that was neat.”

“You’re having a laugh.”

His skills are rusty, the only people he can practice with are Lup and Barry. He supposes it’s a dead language, now. He clears his throat and chirps out a particularly dirty mongoose joke.

Kravitz laughs loudly, listening to Taako ramble on in mongoose. Taako never gets tired of his laugh, laying his head on Kravitz’s chest to hear the way it echoes in his ribs. It’s nice, to have some time together like this, with none of the constant hustle and bustle of being in the dorms or Kravitz’s packed schedule, busy with rehearsals, preparing for his upcoming submission. Taako doesn’t want to miss a single moment with him. “Alright. What about cycle… forty?”

“Ugh, I was dead for most of that one, gimme another.”


Taako goes still in his arms for a moment, tense. He’d spent most of that cycle dead, too, by Kravitz’s hand. And there were so many other cycles where he came close to killing Taako, when he killed one of the other members of the crew or came too close to getting Lup or -

“Uneventful,” he says, voice flat. “Let’s talk about something else.”

“Wait, one more.”

“Ugh. Fine.”

“Which world was your favorite?”

“Uhhh, this one? Like, obviously this one?”

Kravitz assembles his orchestra as the date of his submission draws closer and closer. They practice late into the nights, perfecting every note, every measure, until even Kravitz is almost satisfied. Almost. Two nights before the deadline and Taako has to force Kravitz to stop working, even then muttering to himself that he needs more time, that it could all be perfect if he could just tweak one little thing.

Taako isn’t worried. He’s heard his own private version of the song - he already knows that Kravitz will be amazing.

He and Lup and Barry get to the auditorium early, finding seats in the very front row before anyone else can claim them. Other students and instructors file in, a lot of Kravitz’s friends and colleagues from the music department, some of whom wave to Lup and Barry on their way to their own seats. Kravitz had stayed over last night, by Taako’s suggestion; he’d wanted to make sure that he actually slept and ate a decent dinner the night before the submission. He’d slipped out of bed early, when Taako was barely conscious, but he’d left a note for Taako to find when he woke up. I’ll be thinking of you when I’m up on stage, signed with a little heart.

He’s a nerd, yeah, but damn he’s just so sweet about it.

“Hard to believe we’ll be up there in a few weeks,” Barry says, looking slightly ill as he says it. Lup reaches across Taako to sock him lightly on the arm.

“Hell yeah, and we are going to cruuush it,” she says. “Taako, tell Barold we’re gonna crush it.”

“Wouldn’t know, haven’t heard what you’re working on,” Taako says with an exaggerated yawn. It’s true - Lup and Barry have been extra-reclusive this cycle, always working. As far as he knows, though, they haven’t actually gotten together yet. Taako can’t fathom what’s taking them so long - surely they’ve at least talked. And they’re always staring at each other longingly, even more obvious about it than they have been for the past thirty years. “Now, my book, on the other hand, that’s sure to be a bestseller.”

“Why would you buy something that already got projected into your mind?”

“Because I’m just that awesome.”

The audience is starting to fill up, now - Taako knows that the rest of the crew are somewhere up there because he threatened to turn them all into weasels if they didn’t come - all murmuring in conversation while they wait for the show to begin. He wonders if it would’ve been okay to sneak in snacks.

“When does Kravitz go on, Taako?” Barry asks, craning his neck to look up at the stage.

“Should be first, I think, unless they changed the schedule. Did I mention he wrote this thing for me? ” He grins, knowing full well he’s mentioned it in almost every conversation he could.

“That’s gay,” Lup says.

You’re gay.”

“You’re gayer!” They quickly devolve into a slap fight, until Barry puts a hand on Taako’s shoulder and says “Hey, they’re starting!”

Sure enough, the curtain rises as Taako settles back into his seat and the audience goes silent. There’s the orchestra, all in matching black suits, poised to begin. Kravitz stands on a slightly raised podium with his back to the stand that holds his sheet music, facing the audience, his hair tied back neatly with a red ribbon that matches his bowtie, his suit crisp and well fitted, and he takes Taako’s breath away. His eyes go wide as he scans the crowd, and Taako hopes that his nerves don’t get the better of him - what he’s composed is a masterpiece and Kravitz knows it, even if he still thinks that he can improve it, but even the most confident person can’t help but shrink under the eyes of a full audience. His eyes land on Taako in the front row, and he relaxes immediately, a small smile on his face that grows wider as Taako blows him a kiss.

He takes a deep breath and gives a short bow before he turns to face the orchestra and takes up his baton. With a quick gesture, he signals for the orchestra to begin.

Taako had heard Kravitz play plenty of times - cello, piano, it seems like he can pick up any instrument and know what to do with it - and even caught bits and pieces of Kravitz’s rehearsals with the orchestra as he prepared for this performance, but he hadn’t realized until this moment how in his element Kravitz is as a conductor. It’s almost like a dance, the way he moves, the way the music follows just one step behind, some gestures slow and fluid, some staccato and sharp, and he’s smiling the entire time. And Kravitz was absolutely right when he told Taako that this final, complete version of his song would be so much more - Taako will always hold the version that Kravitz played just for him close to his heart, but with a full orchestra Kravitz is a force of nature. It washes over Taako and leaves him stunned.

The song builds to an almost devastating crescendo and a hush falls over the audience as Kravitz’s arms fall to his sides. The silence shatters with thunderous applause as Kravitz and his orchestra bow, and Taako stands, whistling and shouting “THAT’S MY MAN! THAT’S MY MAN!”

But they’re still waiting, it isn’t really over. Breath held as Kravitz gathers his sheet music from the stand and approaches the mouth of the cave, humbly presenting it. A small flash of light and Taako tries to hold onto the melody for as long as he can, but soon it’s as if it was never there. Kravitz waits, gripping the baton tight in his hand. “Come on,” Taako whispers, still standing up. Lup reaches up, her hand a vice grip on his arm; he steadies himself with a hand on her shoulder. “Come on, it was perfect -”

The second light is nearly blinding and the song washes over them again, and now comes the true standing ovation,  and before he can think it through Taako is bounding toward the mouth of the cave, throwing his arms around Kravitz, his momentum sending them spinning. They stumble and then settle, Kravitz’s hold on him tight. He can’t tell if Kravitz is laughing or crying or both, can hardly hear him over the roar of applause but it doesn’t matter, in that moment nothing needs to be said.

He loses track of Kravitz during the after party - Kravitz has people to schmooze with, professors and friends who want to congratulate him, other musicians with ambitions of collaborating eventually. Taako busies himself with eating as many fancy free appetizers as possible, sipping at a flute of champagne, but he keeps one eye on Kravitz across the room. He’s infinitely charming, smiling with all his teeth, congratulating all of the other performers who presented their work that day whether it was accepted by the mountain or not. But Kravitz has his limits, and it’s obvious when he’s reached that limit on socializing, all that charm and confidence turning to flustered fidgeting, and at that moment Taako smoothly takes him by the arm, leading him to the buffet table that holds the snacks and more importantly, the booze.

“You good?” Taako murmurs.

Kravitz laughs quietly, kissing Taako’s cheek. “Long day, lots of people. I’m thrilled, this is wonderful but -”

“Little overwhelming, huh?” Kravitz nods. A wicked smirk crosses Taako’s face and he sneaks around the table, quick fingers snatching a large, unopened bottle of champagne that he slips behind his back. Only Kravitz notices, and raises his eyebrows. “You wanna ditch?”

The relief is instant. “Gods, please.

He reaches for Taako’s hand, and they slip out of the party unnoticed, escaping into the cool evening air as dusk settles over the Legato Conservatory. They wander down the road out of campus, past the graveyard and further still. They pop the cork and drink straight from the bottle, quickly tipsy and then all at once drunk on their stolen champagne, laughing at nothing, hands clasped and swinging between them.

“I can’t believe I did it,” Kravitz laughs, shaking his head.

“I can.”

“Isn’t it so strange, to work and work and work for something that in the end only lasts a handful of minutes?”

Taako passes him the champagne, watches him take a swig. “Except it’s not really, like - sure, it’s one song, it’s a few minutes. But you put it out there and everyone gets to hear it, like - that’s not a thing anywhere else, dude!”

“I know -”

“Where I’m from, if you’re an artist or - or you’re writing a thesis or whatever, you bust your ass and hope that like, anyone will be interested and throw money at you for it, and half the time no one pays attention, but it’s not like that here. You guys just do art for the sake of doing art! It’s - it’s fucking awesome, is what it is.”

“I’m so glad you were there,” Kravitz says, and the way he looks at Taako is just - overwhelming. 

“Natch,” Taako says, but his voice wavers, just a little.

“You’ll always be my muse. I saw you in the audience and I thought - even if it all goes wrong, I’ll be alright.”

Taako bumps him with his shoulder, the two of them stumbling, holding onto each other. “Champagne turns you into a fuckin’ sap, m’dude.” He snatches back the bottle, takes a drink and lets it dangle between his fingers. It's cool out but Taako feels warm down to his toes, and Kravitz’s song echoes through his memory, through the chirping of the frogs and crickets and in the earth beneath their feet, until Taako isn’t sure how far they’ve walked or for how long. Kravitz starts singing some folk song Taako doesn’t know the words to (not a good singer my ass, Taako thinks). And most of the time he’s horribly aware of the time counting down, the year passing by, the limits placed upon them by fate or bad luck or whatever you want to call it - but not tonight. Tonight is limitless, tonight the Hunger is just a bad dream, tonight he believes that one day that will be true.

An offhand joke that Taako forgets the moment it stumbles from his mouth makes Kravitz laugh bright and loud, head thrown back, the moonlight catching the soft edges of his curls, let loose from their ribbon. “Like a cloud,” he laughs, apropos of nothing.

“What?” Kravitz glances at him. He has such a beautiful smile, all white teeth and sparkling dark eyes, and Taako doesn’t know how something as good as Kravitz could ever have happened to him. He doesn’t deserve this, but who cares, it’s his.

“I love you,” he says, and he’s always had trouble saying shit like that - never trusted anyone enough, no one but Lup - but it’s easy with Kravitz, his head buzzing and his heart light, it’s easy with Kravitz because it’s true, why did he ever try to run from this? Why was he so reluctant to admit where this was always headed, when from the very beginning Kravitz has just felt so right ? And now he wants to keep saying it over and over and over because it makes Kravitz kiss him like this, stealing all the breath from his lungs, tugging on Taako’s hand to draw him in close, the two of them stumbling to a stop on the deserted road. Taako stands up on his toes, arms looped around Kravitz’s neck, kissing back until his head spins from lack of air.

“You’re just - so good,” Kravitz mumbles against his lips, and laughter bubbles up out of Taako, light and breathless.


“You’re the best thing,” Kravitz insists between kisses, until Taako gets the message and peppers kisses across his cheek and jaw and down his neck instead.

“Mmmm no I’m not -”

“All the best things, Taako, you’re - everything.

It doesn’t make sense and it’s not true - he’s a liar and he’s selfish and a lot of other awful things, he knows that - but that doesn’t matter now, because Kravitz believes it. He wavers on his feet as Kravitz pulls away too soon, the world spinning and Taako decides that being horizontal would be really nice right about now. He flops down into the grass, tugging Kravitz gracelessly with him. The long-empty champagne bottle rolls away, unnoticed. He lets Kravitz kiss him down into the dewy grass, mindless of his skirt hitched up around his waist, giggling into the kiss. Lips warm on his lips, hands warm on his thighs, and the stars spinning above them; the cycle’s end might as well be an eternity away.

A fist bangs on the door to Taako’s room.

“Taako!” Magnus’s voice bellows, like Taako is on the other side of a canyon instead of thin wooden walls. “Get your butt up! Team meeting!”

Taako groans, but he lifts his head from the pillow. He’d figured they would have to have a meeting today, but that hadn’t stopped him from dreading it. “Just a sec!” He calls back, only arms to wrap around him from behind and pull him back down, trapping him in the bed. He laughs and squirms half-heartedly, but Kravitz holds him tight.

“No,” Kravitz mumbles, kissing the back of Taako’s neck in just the place that always makes Taako shiver. Taako hums at the sensation, pressing back against Kravitz’s naked body even as he tries to roll out of his grasp. “Not done with you yet.”

“Gotta, babe, lemme up.”

Leaving this bed is the last thing he wants to do, all warm and soft and smelling like Kravitz. He doesn’t want to face the real world, yet.

All of their submissions were accepted by the mountain yesterday - Lup and Barry’s duet, which brought Taako to tears, Magnus’s duck and Lucretia’s painting, which they’d worked on tirelessly. Even Merle’s interpretive dance, which will be burned into Taako’s retinas no matter how many times they reset, even Taako’s farce of a self-help book - all of them were accepted, rebroadcast to the entire world.

And still the mountain didn’t let them in.

It’s not the end. Marlow is still convinced that there’s a way in and they aren’t giving up on the idea, this isn’t the end. They still have time. Knowing all of that still didn’t stop Taako tossing and turning all night, wondering what to do.

“I should have tried to get in when my submission was accepted,” Kravitz said last night, like this whole thing was his responsibility and not Taako’s. “Then at least you would’ve had more time to figure out an alternative.”

“Can we not?” Taako had snapped, without meaning to, and the hurt expression on Kravitz’s face made his stomach ache. “Can we just. Talk about anything else? Please?”

But even he can’t avoid it forever. All that work and what if it was a waste of time, what if that was their only chance? Still he shies away from thinking about that - thinks instead of Kravitz’s arms tight and warm around him. Easy things.

“Hmmm… No.” Kravitz says again, and Taako can practically hear Kravitz's wicked grin as he trails more kisses up Taako’s neck, nibbles gently at the edge of Taako’s ear where he’s discovered a particularly sensitive spot. Taako gasps softly and closes his eyes, going loose in Kravitz’s arms. He can’t can’t resist pushing his hips back, satisfied when Kravitz rocks forward to meet him. “You’ll have to make me.”

Taako twists in his arms and rolls them in one swift motion, so that he has Kravitz on his back and can easily straddle his hips, pinning him by his shoulders. Kravitz is still grinning, looking quite satisfied with himself, the dark skin of his neck lightly dotted with marks Taako left the night before while they were very pointedly not talking about the end of the cycle drawing ever closer, about the Light still not in their hands, the things he still hasn’t told Kravitz. He wants to press his fingers into those marks, just to hear the sound Kravitz will make. He wants to make them even darker, something possessive and wild welling up in him, this need to devour every inch of Kravitz while he still can.

“You win,” Kravitz pouts, looking up at Taako through unfairly long lashes. “What will you do to me.”

“I win,” Taako agrees, but can't resist leaning over Kravitz to kiss him on the mouth - quick, and then longer as Kravitz parts his lips, lifts his head off the pillow to get closer. And them he can't help but roll his hips, just to tease and to hear the telltale hitch of Kravitz's breath, and then Kravitz's hands are on his ass as they lazily grind against each other, kisses growing sloppy.

“TAAKO!” Another loud knock has Taako sitting up straight, groaning as he swings his legs over Kravitz to stand up.

“I said just a sec!” Taako yells back, ignoring Kravitz pouting behind him as he searches the messy floor for his long-discarded clothes. “C’mon, bones, let's get moving,” he says. The first shirt he picks up is Kravitz's, but he throws it on anyway. It’s black and too big for him, the loose sleeves falling over his hands, the deep V of the unbuttoned neck falling low on his chest; he knows exactly how crazy it will drive Kravitz. “Shit, it’s late, huh? Meant to go get food ages ago.”

“We could cook something after your meeting,” Kravitz suggests, in the middle of tugging on his trousers. Taako’s shirt is delightfully small on him.

“You mean I’ll cook and show you how to not burn the place down?”

“Yes, that’s the one.” He sneaks up to give Taako another quick kiss. “Don't think I’m done with you yet,” he murmurs.

“Oh, never,” Taako says, patting him on the cheek. He can already imagine the annoyed look on Davenport’s face when he saunters out with Kravitz on his arm, but Kravitz is well worth keeping the crew waiting. He threads their fingers together and leads the way into the common room.

The tension in the air is palpable the moment he steps out, making Taako pause at the threshold. The crew sits in a circle around the coffee table, a seat left open for Taako. Magnus's brow is drawn, mouth a firm line, and Barry looks even more fidgety and nervous than usual, holding Lup’s hand tight. The rest of the crew seem - concerned, unsure what's going on but tense. Too quiet.

Taako flops onto the empty armchair, tugging Kravitz down with him. “Ok, Taako’s here, party can start.”

Davenport’s eyes flick to Kravitz, seeming conflicted. “Is it… advisable for Kravitz to be at our crew meeting?”

Taako shrugs. He doesn't like the way Magnus won't look at anyone, how his shoulders are bowed, the entire mood of the room setting him on edge. “I dunno. Is the info classified?”

Davenport glances at Magnus, for some reason, who shrugs and avoids looking Taako in the eye. He’s glancing at Kravitz warily, and that's - odd, it's not like anyone is unaccustomed to his presence at this point. He’s always around and they all pretty much like him. Even Lup, which a year ago he would never have imagined.

“Then I’d probably end up telling him anyway, so whatever.” Taako kicks his feet, fidgety; Kravitz, perched on the arm of the chair beside him, reaches for his hand. “Don't leave a dude hangin’. What's up?”

People always tell you to sit down before they tell you bad news, like they expect you to faint or something. Taako never understood that, and he’s received a lot of bad news in his life.

“The Light of Creation isn't here,” Magnus says, and Taako is glad he’s sitting down.

“What do you mean?” Davenport demands immediately.

“I mean it’s not here. I went back to the mountain last night, and this time it let me in. Something lives in there, it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen, but… it’s not the Light.”

“Horse shit,” Lup says, letting go of Barry’s hand, standing up. Unable to sit still. “Marlow said -”

“Marlow told us about something that the people of this plane call the Light of Creation,” Barry explains quietly, his voice surprisingly level. “But it’s not the same Light of Creation that the Hunger is after.”

“Well, shit,” Merle says, shaking his head.

Taako feels like he’s floating; like he’s separate from his own body and the world. The only thing that brings him back is Kravitz's hand squeezing his, Kravitz's voice. He can’t breathe right.

“But - you’ll find it,” Kravitz says. Taako is amazed at how level his voice remains, but he can still hear how it tremors. “You still have time, you’ll keep looking for it.”

“Of course we’ll keep looking,” Barry says. “We’ll do our best, but…”

“We will find it,” Taako insists. There's no other option. He can't conceive another option. Barry doesn't look him in the eye. He must be crushing Kravitz’s hand with how tight he’s holding it. “We’ve got a few weeks still, right?”

“We need to move fast. We need a game plan,” Lup says, already pacing. “Um… me and Barry can take the ship, do a flyover. Investigate some of the areas we didn’t check before.”

“I’m coming, too,” Taako says.

Lup nods. “We’ll cover as much ground as we can.”

“Be back here within the week that the Hunger is expected,” Davenport orders. “But in case that isn’t possible, be prepared to take the ship out of the Material Plane. Can you do it?”

Flying the ship within the atmosphere and taking it out of the planar system are two totally different things. Barry and Lup glance at each other and nod. “We can do it,” Barry says. “I can pilot, and Taako’s the best navigator we’ve got second to you, sir.”

“Then Merle and I will see what we can turn up here,” Davenport goes on, and beside him Merle nods solemnly. “Maybe Marlow and her people have information they haven't shared, maybe she can give us an idea of where to start. We’ll be in touch over the communicators.”

“Unless you need me on the ship, I’m going back in the mountain,” Magnus says. “And I want you with me, Lucretia - the creatures there, what they call the Light of Creation, they’re like nothing I’ve ever seen. We have to try to preserve this somehow. Along with whatever history of this world we can get down. Just in case.”

Just in case. Just in case this world and everyone on it gets devoured. But Magnus is right - that’s always been part of the mission, from day one. Research. Recording whatever discoveries they make. Lucretia’s journals hold the only remaining written history of dozens of worlds.

“I’d like to go on the expedition with Taako.” Kravitz speaks up. His thumb rubs circles on the back of Taako’s hand. “If that would be alright with you, Captain. I know I’m not part of your crew, I don’t know how to man your ship, but I can learn, I have a little magic - this world is my home , I need to at least try to help.”

Lup glances at Davenport for approval and receives a nod. “Can you be ready today?” She asks.

“Give me a few hours.”

“Then you’re in.”

“Thank you, Kravitz,” Davenport says quietly. “That’s very noble of you.”

Kravitz looks down at the floor. He’s still gripping Taako’s hand, and now Taako can feel it trembling, just slightly. “Like I said. This is my home.”

Davenport dismisses them, giving them four hours to be ready to fly - Taako doesn’t need that long, he’s used to having to bolt at a moment’s notice, but Kravitz isn’t. They wander back to Taako’s room for now, shell-shocked, still processing the bomb that Magnus just dropped on them. He can’t stop thinking, for some stupid reason, about his students from the philosophy class, if he should tell them that he’s leaving, if it even matters. Either they succeed or they don't and if he doesn't they'll all -

He doesn't even make it all the way to the bed; he sits heavily on the floor as soon as the door is closed behind them, staring into space. Kravitz joins him after a moment, leaning back against the door, eyes closed. Breathing carefully controlled. Taako forces himself to look at him, even though all he really wants to do right now is hide.

Kravitz looks so young right now. Young and scared, eyes wide looking to Taako for an answer to all this. He wants to have an answer, wants to give him something but what can he say, what do you say ? Kravitz never signed up for this, for the horror that they brought with them to this world.

He wonders if Kravitz blames him for it.

“Babe, hey,” Taako says softly. Kravitz doesn’t lift his gaze from the floor. He has no idea what Kravitz needs to hear right now. “Listen, we’ve cut it closer than this before.”

Nevermind that at least those times they had some idea of where to look.

“I trust you,” Kravitz says, but his voice wavers. “But it’s just - really hitting me now. That you’re leaving.”

“You knew that.” Taako takes his face between his hands, forcing Kravitz to look him in the eye. He wants, fiercely, to take him by the hand and run far away from all of this, find somewhere that the Hunger can’t touch. But he can’t. All he can do is remind himself that this isn’t over yet, that they still have time. Limited time, but it was always limited.

“Listen to me, okay? We're gonna fix this,” Taako says firmly, with a confidence he’s trying to trick himself into feeling.  “I'm not gonna let this happen, we're going to find the Light, I swear to Pan I won't fucking sleep until we find it.”

Kravitz’s hands are on him then, and he kisses him hard and sudden enough that Taako accidentally bites his lip and their teeth knock together. Taako moans, startled by the sudden violence - but welcoming it too, the way Kravitz immediately demands all of his attention, hands coming around to tangle in his hair. Kravitz presses closer, close as he can with the way they’re kneeling together on the carpet, but never close enough.

“Krav,” Taako mumbles against his mouth, breathy, heart pounding out a drumbeat. Kravitz is tugging at the hem of Taako’s shirt - his own shirt draped loose over Taako’s thinner shoulders, trying to get it off without breaking the kiss that’s turned bruising. It doesn’t even occur to him to get up off the floor, nothing occurs to him other than needing to be as close to Kravitz as possible.

“Is this -?”

“Yeah, yes, it’s fine, ” it’s perfect, it’s exactly what he needs, Kravitz’s hands on him familiar and safe. He knows what to do with this.

“Taako,” and he’s never heard Kravitz’s voice like that, this low growl, it shudders up his spine as Kravitz finally gets the shirt up over his head, tossing it aside and immediately diving back in. Pressing Taako back and back onto the floor. “Please -”

“I know, baby.” Taako lifts his head, neck straining, to kiss him again, hands occupied with shoving his trousers down, all tangled up with Kravitz’s legs. Messy, all of it, but fuck Taako doesn’t care. Kravitz doesn’t bother taking off his shirt, braces himself over Taako on his elbow, reaching down to take both of them in hand. Taako whines, throws an arm around Kravitz’s neck and writhes under him. And it’s good, it would be fast, but not what he needs, and he gasps between kisses, “Krav - you gotta -”

He missed Kravitz humming the spell but the finger that presses inside him is slick and warm. He isn’t gentle and Taako doesn’t want him to be, right now. He knows what this is and he needs it too - to use him and be used, consume every little bit of each other while they can. Anything to drive away this panic, he's not ready for it to fall apart. Not now, not like this. He angles his hips for more, for deeper, the barely-too-much drag of Kravitz’s fingers maddening.

For a few minutes he doesn’t have to think about how scared he is, how angry at himself. There’s only the smooth expanse of Kravitz’s skin as he runs his hands over it, and the heat of Kravitz’s mouth and the way he still takes the time to make sure Taako is ready despite their impatience before he settles between Taako’s legs. The high, thin noises that Taako makes as Kravitz lifts his hips off the floor to push inside. sound like they’re coming from someone else, but they’re quickly muffled when Kravitz kisses him again, and doesn’t stop kissing him, even as he begins to move. He digs the blunt nails of one hand into Kravitz’s back, breaking away long enough to say “Don’t be gentle, baby,” before Kravitz kisses him again, open-mouthed and messy and for so long that it leaves Taako gasping.

It’s not artful or long-lasting and Taako is far too keyed up to even care , with his body rocking every time Kravitz fucks into him, panting hard and barely even kissing now, just breathing the same air. The floor hard beneath him, the carpet rough on his bare back. Kravitz comes with a shudder and a full-bodied groan that he muffles in the crook of Taako’s neck, and it’s the way his hips jerk forward that sends Taako over that edge only seconds later, crying out “Kravitz, Krav,” slick on his belly and Kravitz’s chest.

Dazed and sweaty and sticky, it takes Taako a moment to come down, a moment where he does nothing but hold Kravitz close and tight like he can shield him from the Hunger all on his own. He realizes that Kravitz is trembling, just enough that Taako wouldn’t notice if they weren’t so close, and he aches, right in the center of his chest.

He’s been through this so many times now. So many worlds. Watching their world be devoured he’d just felt numb at first, helpless, and he thinks that knowing the apocalypse is on it’s way is so much worse. It never gets easier, really, but it hasn’t been this hard in a long time; because he’s let himself get so close to Kravitz, to this person he’ll have to leave behind no matter what happens next. And he can’t regret that, but...

He’s watched his crew get close to people they meet throughout the worlds they traveled to. Friends and even lovers, and he’s watched their hearts break over and over and always promised himself he wouldn’t do that to himself. He’d wondered if that made him some sort of monster.

“I love you,” Kravitz whispers.

No, he can’t regret this.

He gathers Kravitz closer, eyes shut tight. They need to get off the floor. They need to prepare the Starblaster, get ready to leave. But he also needs to hold Kravitz, to stop the shaking of his shoulders, to make this okay. Somehow.

“I’m not letting this world die,” Taako whispers to him with a kiss to the top of Kravitz’s head. It was always going to end, but it won’t be like this.

Not without a fight.

Chapter Text

It’s hard for Kravitz not to feel like an intruder on the Starblaster. Taako, Lup, and Barry settle into a rhythm as practiced as a symphony, preparing the impossible ship for takeoff, instructions left half said but understood: “Taako, can you pass me the -” “You got it, bubbelah.” “Barry, babe, don’t forget -” “On it!”

It makes sense. They’ve been hopping from world to world for an unfathomably long time, long enough that Kravitz hadn’t entirely believed Taako when he told him the tale. Natural that they’d have a system down, so able to work around each other quickly and comfortably. If they’re a well-oiled machine, then Kravitz is rust in their gears.

He wants to be useful to them, that’s why he’s here. He’d be lying if he said that volunteering to search for the Light wasn’t halfway an excuse to spend these next weeks - Taako’s last weeks on this plane before he has to leave - as close to Taako as possible, but he does want to help, this is his home, how could he bear to stand aside if he can do something to help protect it? But when he seeks instruction Taako waves him off, elbows deep in the guts of the ship repairing some kind of wiring and grumbling about it.

“Finish loading up the supplies and then stay in my bunk till we’re in the air, yeah? I’m trying to get this - the shitty fuckin’, uh, force field back up.” He huffs, tugging hard at a wire. “Once I’m done you’ll be fine to go up on deck, it’ll just be, you know. Hard to breathe otherwise.”

“Ah,” Kravitz say, voice unintentionally wavering.

Taako lifts his head at that, and looks up at him with a sweet, crooked smile. There’s a streak of grease across his nose. “You good, baby?” He asks, voice going soft in that way that Kravitz knows is just for him.

Four hours ago, Kravitz found out that the apocalypse he thought Taako would save him from is on it’s way after all. He’s about to fly far from home on an alien spaceship, the mechanics of which he has only a vague understanding. He’s not, particularly, “good” - but Taako isn’t either. He knows this not because Taako has told him, but from how tight Taako had held him, and the marks he’d bitten into Kravitz’s neck, and the wild look in his eyes when he’d whispered, over and over, that he wasn’t going to let anything happen to Kravitz. How he’s determined to believe that everything will still be okay.

He’s never known anyone like Taako. Bright and brilliant and blinding, and he doesn’t make himself easy to love or easy to understand, but Kravitz has been helpless since he spotted him across the courtyard that day. There’s an understanding between them that Kravitz has never felt with another person, that he suspects Taako has rarely felt either. Something he’d been searching for without knowing where to look, like a word on the tip of his tongue, until Taako appeared in his life and something in Kravitz’s heart knew him.

And yet - though he trusts Taako with the entirety of his heart - sometimes Taako is still a stranger to him. He doesn’t know what Taako is keeping hidden from him, and he hasn’t asked. Maybe he’s afraid to know.

“Don’t worry about me,” Kravitz says. He leans down and kisses Taako on the cheek, despite the grease. “Let me know if there's anything else I can do?”

“Will do.”

Loading their supplies - food, primarily - into the ship, making sure everything is secured for takeoff, doesn’t take long. Once he’s done he checks in with Barry and Lup, then retreats to Taako’s room (Lup’s room too, really, though she’s moved most of her things into Barry’s already), sits on the narrow bed, and waits.

He’s only been on the ship - in this room - once before, and most of his attention had been on Taako that night; Taako’s hands, Taako’s mouth and his body, new yet somehow familiar - which is a bit of a recurring theme, he’s noticed, when it comes to Taako. New and familiar, the giddiness of being there with him, the two of them curled up on this tiny bed and whispering in the dark. They’d felt invincible then, and the end of the year was an eternity away, he’d known they were on borrowed time but that seemed like a problem for someone else.

He takes the time to look around, now, at all the things that make this space so very Taako. There’s nothing in the way of organization. Half-melted candles and jars of spell components sit in piles with books and knick knacks from various worlds; garishly patterned clothes spill out of the wardrobe. Pictures pinned to the wall, pencil sketches and watercolor paintings and Kravitz suspects are Lucretia’s work. Empty spaces in between, where perhaps Lup’s belongings used to be. Kravitz picks what looks to be a spellbook off the floor and thumbs through it; Taako has marked up the majority of it in his uneven scrawl, crossing out whole passages and writing his own formulas in the margins, full of profanity and calling the original author all manner of names. His research notes scattered across the narrow desk are much the same, scribbled over and rewritten a dozen times. Kravitz smiles reading them, amused and sad all at once.

It would take a lifetime to really know Taako. They don’t have that kind of time, and that’s alright. Has to be alright, because otherwise he couldn’t bear this.

He startles as the ship begins to vibrate with a low hum, growing stronger, and though he’s only heard the sound once he recognizes it as the bond engine. His stomach swoops as the ship raises from the the ground, rattling with the effort - the Starblaster is a beautifully constructed ship but it’s old, and it shows, repaired with whatever scraps and resources the crew manages to scavenge on their travels. For a moment he’s sure it’s just going to fall apart beneath him.

He climbs further onto the bed to peer out the porthole window and that’s a mistake, immediately worse, the ground growing smaller below them and Kravitz shuts his eyes against the dizziness. There’s a pressure on his ears that he can’t seem to alleviate no matter how much he flexes his jaw. He’s still trying when Taako comes in, wiping his brow and leaving a smear of grime. His clothes are a mess from working on the ship, but it’s a surprisingly good look on him.

“Fuckin’ finally I can get out of these shit clothes,” he huffs, and then grins when he sees Kravitz, but it gives way to worry. “You okay?”

“You keep asking me that,” Kravitz says, not meaning anything by it, but Taako bites his lip as he so often does when he’s anxious. And of course he would be nervous about Kravitz here in this space, in his space. He’s the intruder here. He stands - wavering a little, acutely aware that they aren’t on the ground anymore - and goes to Taako, drawing him in close, feeling the way his body immediately softens.

“You know I don’t do that for anyone else,” Taako says, clearly embarrassed.


He waves a hand, vaguely. “Worry about ‘em. I don’t know. Must mean I like you or something.”

“I like you too,” Kravitz says, amused. Adds, “You’re sweet,” to watch the way his ears turn pink at the tips.

“You’re gross,” Taako grumbles unconvincingly as the ship levels out to a consistent altitude. It’s better, but Kravitz still wavers on his feet a little. “Air-sick?” Taako asks sympathetically.

“A little.”

“You get used to it. Safer than a battlewagon, statistically.”

“Most things are.”

Taako steps back out of the circle of his arms, reaching for his hands instead. “Wanna come up on deck?”

Just the thought of looking over the side of the deck makes Kravitz dizzy, but Taako looks so excited to share this with him. And if he’s going to help search for the Light of Creation, he’ll have to get used to flying. He nods, and melts a little at the way Taako’s face lights up.

Kravitz’s breath catches in his throat as he steps onto the deck of the Starblaster. It doesn’t feel real - almost wrong, like his body knows that humans aren’t meant to ascend to these heights. But it’s so beautiful. There are the domed structures that make up the Legato Conservatory - his home for years, now - miles below them, slowly receding into the distance. Those are mountains below, those are clouds so close he swears he could reach out to touch them. Prairies and foothills, lakes and rivers and forests, lay like a patchwork quilt below them when he leans on the railing, looking down at the world.

A warm hand at the small of his back. Taako leans into his side, and Kravitz wraps an arm around his shoulders to hold him closer. “Pretty crazy, huh?” He murmurs.

“It’s incredible,” Kravitz breathes, watching the horizon. “I never imagined… gods, but this must be mundane to you. After all this time.”

“Nah. This part never gets old.”

“I can’t wait to write a song about this.”

Taako tucks his face into Kravitz’s shoulder, sighing heavily, and Kravitz finally drags his eyes from the marvel before him to look at Taako. He quickly schools his expression into something like neutral, but not before Kravitz sees the heartbreak apparent in his face. He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to say. There’s so much Kravitz feels they need to talk about, and so little time, and he doesn’t even know where to begin. The weight that Taako carries is so much heavier than he can imagine.

“Let’s check in with the nerds,” Taako says, pulling out of Kravitz’s embrace, brushing a stray hair from his eyes. He grins, but it wavers, just there at the corner of his mouth. “Start looking for this needle in a fuckin’ haystack so you have something to write about.”

Despite the dread hanging over them, Kravitz finds joy in his time on the Starblaster. He throws himself into the task of learning how to man the ship, even when that just means helping Taako or Lup in the kitchen, or taking notes on their travels that Lucretia will later transcribe in her journals. He gets to know Lup and Barry, does his best to follow Barry’s rapid, overly-complicated explanations of their alien technology as they look over maps and diagrams and calculations, trying to track where the Light of Creation might have fallen. Sometimes he ventures out with them to follow some lead on the Light, though more often than not Lup and Barry take on that task and leave him and Taako with the ship. The expeditions are short jaunts - with such a limited amount of time they can’t afford to spend weeks following leads that might be false; they land, look around, and move on to the next possible location.

In his free moments Kravitz finds himself taking the time to pray. He always keeps raven feathers and the little shiny baubles that the Raven Queen loves in his pockets, but it’s been years since he actually sat down to do this. Back at the temple, worship was always just a part of daily life, but after he left it just became easier to forget, to skip nightly prayers once in a while in favor of studying, writing, going out with friends. Then to skip for days and then weeks at a time, eventually stopping entirely.

He’s more than a little afraid that she won’t answer. She always had when he was a boy, sending ravens to follow him through the graveyard and bring him little treasures, or what the birds thought of as treasures - bits of string, small rounded pebbles or tiny mouse bones, gifts that he’d kept in a little box in his wardrobe. It had taken him a long time to realize that this was not a universal experience. That it was strange even to those who followed the Raven Queen, even to his mother; that it only made the whispered rumors that he was cursed that much worse. He left the box behind when he left to study at the Conservatory.

But the end of the world is on its way and Kravitz needs all the courage he can muster, so he prays now. He doesn’t have an altar to kneel before, but he’s never found that she minds that. Five raven feathers in a half-circle before him; he goes through the traditional prayers, which feel awkward and stilted on his tongue, and then sits in silence for a while, unsure what to say.

“I knows it’s not really fair for me to only come to you when I’m scared, or when I need something,” he says softly. Feeling foolish, which he hates, because that’s how he always did this when he was more devout - like they were having a conversation. Telling her about his life, his troubles. “I’m sorry. It’s been so long. I didn’t know how to do this anymore. But I am scared. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Just… please keep us safe. Keep Taako safe. I’d give anything.”

He doesn’t know if he receives an answer, not really. But the next day when they’re flying low enough to the ground that they don’t have to keep the force-field up, a raven perches on the railing, cawing for attention. Kravitz smiles, watching it’s feathers ruffle. It has a few white feathers dotted across its face and breast, the tips of its wings. It lingers for a while, but Kravitz doesn’t get too close - he’s been nipped by their sharp beaks plenty of times.

“Making friends?” Lup asks as the raven eventually grows bored with him and flies off.

“Something like that.”

He stays close to Taako. He likes Lup and Barry just fine - though Barry’s interest in necromancy makes him squirm and Lup holds him at arm's length, doesn't seem to trust him - but he wouldn’t have volunteered for this expedition unless Taako had first. Taako doesn’t need to sleep much, and Kravitz has trouble sleeping anyway, so they lay awake late into the night venture onto the deck when Taako’s tiny bedroom becomes oppressively small, taking soft blankets with them and building a nest, watching the stars as they drift by.

“It’s not gonna be a walk in the park, you know,” he says, not looking Kravitz in the eye. “Even if - when - we do find it.”

“But it’ll be something we can fight, at least,” Kravitz says.


Kravitz turns his head, watches Taako watching the sky, memorizing the sharp jut of his nose and chin, the freckles scattered over bronze skin. “What happens when the Hunger comes?” He asks quietly. He has a vague idea, but he’s avoided asking and Taako has avoided talking about it.

He doesn’t seem to want to talk about it now, either. “Wrecks shit, but I assume you mean more specifically.”

“Seems like it would be good to know what I’ll be facing.”

“The sky will turn gray - like a storm, except not, and then it’ll turn black. It’ll shoot down these pillars of darkness. Like, uh... like oil. And then it sends its troops out. Monsters and people it’s eaten. I don’t think they even remember what they are.”

Kravitz shivers imagining it. “And then?”

“We make sure we have the Light on the ship and we leave the planar system. All it really cares about is the Light, it can’t consume the world without it. So it follows us and leaves you alone.”

And if we don’t get the Light -

Neither of them need to say what happens then.

“I’ll make sure you’re safe,” Taako says, finally turning over to face Kravitz, looking as serious as Kravitz has ever seen him. “Find you a place to wait it out.”

“But if I can fight it, if I can help protect anyone - I know songs that can heal -”

“It’s a losing battle, Krav. Trust me. Just find a place to hide.” It sounds like a plea. Kravitz doesn’t argue with him.

The stars look dimmer each day, and each day Taako looks up at them, jaw set, and Kravitz draws him close and kisses him gentle and firm until the taut lines of his body finally soften.

“I know this place,” Kravitz realizes, causing Lup, Barry, and Taako to look up from the map they were poring over, bickering over the best place to land the Starblaster. They’re flying lower to the ground today, the cloud cover too thick to see anything useful from the air.

“Yeah?” Taako glances over to him. “Where we at, my man?”

“That’s the Red River, it feeds into a lake not far from the village where I grew up.” Now that he’s noticed the familiar landscape he can see all kinds of landmarks, though it all looks different from the air - another small village where sometimes they would travel to visit friends or attend festivals,  a deep section of the river beneath a tall, strong tree, where kids looking for a thrill would tie a rope from an overhanging branch to swing out over the water and dive in. He can’t see home from here, but it can’t be more than a few miles away. A few boats travel up and down the river, their passengers pausing to look up at the silver ship flying overhead, jaws dropping in awe. Kravitz grins and waves down at them, leaning over the railing; they wave back, confused.

Lup, hunched over the table where they have their map laid out, straightens and stretches, looking out over the horizon. “Hey, Ghost Rider.” Lup insists on using that nickname for him, though he had no idea what it means. “The next area we were gonna search for the Light isn’t that far from here. Maybe someone in your village would know where to start? You and Koko wanna go down and dig up clues?”

Kravitz almost protests - he can’t really imagine anyone from home having much use for the Light - but he realizes what she’s doing. And he hasn’t gone home since he left for the Legato Conservatory. It’s hard to say whether it’s anxiety or homesickness welling up in him now at the thought of going back, seeing the temple where he’d spent all his childhood.

He glances to Taako, who shrugs one shoulder, faux-casual. No one says it, but everyone is thinking it. If the Hunger comes, if they fail to find the Light (they won’t, they won’t, but they’re running out of time) this is his only chance to see his home again.

“Sure,” Kravitz answers, shooting Taako a smile and receiving one in return. “It can’t hurt to take a look.”

As they walk into town hand-in-hand, it feels like nothing has changed. Here is the small market square with it’s cobblestone streets, people going about their day, children and dogs tumbling underfoot. The Temple of the Raven Queen looms at the edge of the edge of town, dark but not threatening, like a silent guardian. Kravitz could fool himself into thinking that he’s only been away for a day instead of years. Of course, everything has changed, at least for Kravitz. He’s grown up, and so has everyone else he knew; Mother is gone, another priest taking care of the temple now, after Kravitz had adamantly refused to take on that duty. Just because he bore the mark of the Raven Queen, he had argued, did not mean he was going to dedicate his whole life to this temple when there was so much more he wanted to do, he had never asked for this. Not long after that, he had set off for the Legato Conservatory with little but his clothes, his instruments, and a handful of pocket change, and he hadn’t looked back.

People recognize him - he doesn’t have any illusions of grandeur about that, his face has made him the subject of whispers for more than half his life now - but no one he can say he knows well. Shopkeepers who have seemingly been here since the dawn of time brighten and wave as they pass by, and watch Taako curiously but without ill intent, the children pointing at his ears. At the conservatory Kravitz has grown used to all manner of peoples from all over the kingdoms, but this village is mainly populated by humans and halflings, few elves to be found. Taako soaks up the attention, as he always does, but he’s quietly thoughtful as he takes in the sights.

“What are you thinking about?” He asks, squeezing Taako’s hand across the table. They’ve stopped at a little bakery, where he bought a warm buttered roll for himself, a sweet pastry for Taako, and mugs of steaming mint tea. The baker insisted on giving them the tea for free. She knew his mother well, and keeps them at the counter telling Taako a story about how Kravitz would beg to come here whenever they went about town doing their shopping, and how sometimes she would sneak him a piece of chocolate. He’d blushed, but it was sweet, and it made Taako laugh.

“Hmm.” Taako nibbles at his pastry. It leaves a spot of jam on the corner of his mouth, and his tongue darts out to lick it away. “Trying to imagine you as a little kid. Bet you were adorable, I’m imagining a tiny suit...”

“I’m sure I was a nuisance,” Kravitz laughs. No suits, not back then - those he had bought for himself, once he was earning his own money, busking on street corners just like his father. How mother had hated that. “Always running around town unsupervised, getting underfoot.”

Taako reaches across the table, twists a lock of hair around his finger. “You let your hair get this big back then?”

“No, mother always insisted on keeping it short and neat.”

“Bet it’s weird. Being back. I can’t imagine going, like, back to my aunt’s place…” Taako trails off, then looks apologetic.

“It is. I’m glad you came with me,” Kravitz agrees, there’s no point pretending it’s not weird. “I love you.”

He loves the blush that always darkens Taako’s cheeks when he says that, the way his eyes widen just a little like he can’t quite believe it, the way his ears perk up and then relax. He doesn’t say it back often, but that’s okay. He shows it in gestures and it makes the times he does say it so special. So many little things he’s learned about Taako, it feels like he’s known him for so much longer than a year.

“I’ll miss you,” Kravitz murmurs, without thinking, and Taako’s expression falters.

“Babe,” he sighs.

“I’m sorry.” Kravitz looks down at his plate, appetite gone all at once. “I shouldn’t have, we’re on a date...”

“No, no. I mean…” Taako laughs without humor. “We should be able to talk about it, right - I mean, there’s nothing I can do, which fucking sucks -”

“I’m not trying to make you feel guilty,” Kravitz assures him. Taako bites his lip and nods. “I promise. It’s just…” and here he laughs too, ducking his head. “This has been a really good year.”

Taako’s smile is small and wavering but real. “Don’t get all sappy on me now, my man,” he says, voice cracking.

“Even this part.”

Maybe especially this part. He’s seen the world with Taako these past weeks. He’s dipped his toes in the ocean for the first time, searching for the Light on a cold, rocky beach, while Taako complained and told him about a world where they spent the whole cycle on a tropical island, told him that he wished he could take Kravitz to all the amazing places he’s seen, and all Kravitz could think was but why, when there’s so much left to see here! He’s flown high over mountaintops and great canyons, through clouds and storms; he’s shown Taako the depths of his love without shame because what’s the sense in shame, at the end of the world.

“Yeah,” Taako says. “It sure has.”

Taako tries to imagine Kravitz in this place as they walk hand in hand through the cemetery - enormous compared to the one they visit on the hill by the conservatory, and as well-kept as a park, with tall old trees and cobblestone paths and a little bubbling stream running through it. Imagines a little boy playing among the gravestones, having conversations with birds and ghosts. Maybe running home to the temple, into his mother’s arms as she calls him back inside.

That’s where his imagination falters; never had much of a home life, him and Lup, he doesn’t know what would come next after that. Now, as Kravitz leads them toward the looming cathedral, ravens perch on the trees above them, on the stone fence, cawing their greetings.

Not much of a home life, not much of a religious life either; Taako doesn’t know what gods his family followed, if any. There was a year, a long time ago - during the caravan years - when he and Lup couldn’t find anyone to travel with and ended up in a convent of Oghma for a while. Shaved their heads and lived like the monks. They had no connection to the god, but it was a roof over their head, it was three meals a day. Oghma was the god of knowledge, his temple full of libraries - maze-like rows of shelves in windowless halls, packed with spellbooks and histories, old tomes in languages no one spoke anymore, texts preserved with spells because they would crumble to dust otherwise. They had learned a lot in that year, and now if Taako runs across a shrine to Oghma he’ll put a little offering up sometimes. Not out of any particular devotion, just to say thanks - there weren’t many years like that, where they were well-fed and safe.

The Raven Queen’s temple is nothing like that, it’s towering and gothic and unforgiving, but beautiful in a harsh sort of way. A wild place for a kid to grow up, and he can see - in how he’s grown to know Kravitz in this past year, in watching Kravitz in this place that’s home and yet not - how Kravitz has tried to hold onto this life and put it behind him all at once. Kravitz is anxious about how quiet Taako has been, but he’s not trying to ignore him, he’s just… observing. Holding onto every scrap of Kravitz he can get.

The priest of this temple - Father Andreas, as Kravitz introduces him - is a tall, thin man with a shock of white hair and a kind smile, wearing robes of blue and black with the Raven Queen’s symbol on the back, a black raven’s head with red eyes. If anyone might have word of the Light of Creation, it will be him. He shakes their hands and welcomes them, after a quiet evening congregation, which they join - Kravitz murmuring the prayers along with them, Taako quiet and holding his hand.

Andreas sits them down with glasses of wine - they really have a whole aesthetic going on here - and asks Kravitz about his studies, while Kravitz in turn asks about the happenings at the temple. Andreas even quotes Taako’s farce of a self-help book, which is just too delightful, though that time at the conservatory seems like a distant memory now.

“We were all so proud when we heard your song, Kravitz,” he says. “You always did have a gift. I remember hearing you sing here in this very room.”

Kravitz ducks his head and smiles, blushing just a little. Taako leans into him, squeezing his hand. “Thank you. That means a lot to me.”

“And are you and your partner staying long? I’m sure we could make space in your old bedroom if you need a place to stay, it would be no trouble…”

“We can’t stay the night, I’m afraid,” Kravitz apologizes. “Actually, the reason we’re here is that… we think you may be able to help us with something.”

“Oh?” Andreas’s bushy eyebrows raise. “I don’t officiate many weddings these days, but I suppose…”

“No no no,” Taako speaks up quickly, while Kravitz turns beet red and looks like he wants to sink into the floor. “God no, definitely not that! There’s something we’re looking for.”

They explain their mission, as much as Father Andreas will understand it - that they’re looking for something called the Light of Creation, and what signs he may have noted to indicate it’s whereabouts. They warn him about the coming storm, urging him to protect the townsfolk if the Hunger comes. But it quickly becomes apparent that nothing like the Light has made an appearance near here.

It was a stretch, they knew that when they came down here, but Taako can’t help but be frustrated all the same. Another dead end. Every failed attempt, every wasted effort bringing them closer to the Hunger’s arrival. They’re running out of time. Father Andreas thanks them for the warning and leaves them after a time, assuring them that they’re welcome to stay as long as they like.

It’s getting late, and they’ll need to get back to the Starblaster before long. But they stay in the temple a while - mostly quiet, taking in the beauty of the altars and the stained glass windows that line every wall, and Kravitz talks quietly about his mother, stern but kind, loving but dedicated to more than motherhood, and the dutiful way she had led the congregation. How much he misses her, still.

“Hey,” Taako speaks up, drawing Kravitz’s attention back to him. He was perched on one of the wooden pews, but now he stands, fidgeting and avoiding looking Kravitz in the eye. “Like - I get it. You know. If you need to stay.”

Kravitz stares at him, expression blank. His brow furrows. “What are you talking about?”

Taako waves his hands, gesturing around him, at the shadowy vaulted ceilings and stained glass that casts otherworldly colored shadows across the floor, across their faces. In this light, Kravitz’s eyes look red. “I mean, this - this is your home, these are your peeps, like… you don’t have to feel obligated to come with me. This isn’t your job.”

“Of course it’s my job. I volunteered for it.” Kravitz’s shoulders slump. “You want me to leave?”

“No! I just -”

“That’s what you’re asking for.”

“Course I want you with me, I love you, but you… you should be home. You should be with your people.” He turns away, gnawing on his bottom lip. “Gotta start… forgetting about me at some point.”

Taako.” And then Kravitz’s arms are around him, and there’s nothing like Kravitz’s hugs - he’s not much bigger than Taako but he’s stronger, and he holds Taako tight to his chest. He pulls back, hands on Taako’s shoulders, and kisses him hard and fast. It leaves Taako breathless, stunned. “I’m not just going to leave you. That’s not even a question. I’m yours until the very end.”

Taako rests a hand on Kravitz’s chest, the other curling around his neck, kissing him until his shoulders soften and his hands settle low on Taako’s waist. “You always get so sappy,” he says.

“You love it.”

“But you’re gonna regret this. Being with me.”

“Never,” Kravitz says. Another kiss, a warm hand tightening on Taako’s waist. Taako closes his eyes, presses in closer, the two of them tucked against the wall. “I could never.”

“Gonna break your heart,” Taako murmurs, lips brushing Kravitz’s. Kravitz nips at his bottom lip, drawing out a soft inhale, soothes the bitten mark away.

“As if you haven’t already,” Kravitz whispers, his hand slipping under Taako’s shirt to press firm across his back.

Taako laughs under his breath, though it isn’t funny, not even a little. His own hand is trapped between them; he can feel Kravitz’s heart beating, strong and steady. So warm, so alive. “Think you broke mine the moment I saw you.”

The dim evening light glows through the stained glass, drowning them in color, blues and reds and greens that disappear as the light fades. Kravitz looks beautiful like this, and Taako wants to tell him so many things but he can’t find the words, so he settles for pressing him up against the wall, for kissing him just because it’s a way to be close. He can’t help but feel desperate these days to touch Kravitz, as if he can soak up all the warmth that he emanates and carry it in his chest, keep it with him even after this is over. Kiss after kiss after kiss, until the sun has set and they’re standing close in the dark, foreheads touching, their breathing quick and shaking out of their lungs.

A week before the Hunger is due to arrive, Barry calls them all together. It isn’t that Taako is surprised, none of them are. Weeks of frantic searching and sleepless nights and no news from Davenport, no, they all knew this was coming. He always knew, but he didn’t allow himself to think it, or say it out loud.

“We did everything we could,” Barry says once they’re gathered together in the living room of the Starblaster. The coffee table is covered in maps and diagrams, all of which had proven worthless. Lup is pacing, never able to stay still; beside Taako, Kravitz sits with his hands folded in his lap, deliberately still, not making eye contact with anyone. Barry looks as exhausted as Taako feels, it shows in his voice, the dark circles under his eyes. “But at this point… I’m sorry, guys, but we aren’t going to find the Light of Creation this time.”

Taako shakes his head. People always assume Lup is the stubborn one, but only if they don’t know Taako well enough. “We still have time,” he insists, “We have a week.”

“The Hunger comes within this week,” Lup says. Her pacing makes him jittery, nervous, he wants to snap at her to sit down but it won’t do any good. “We didn’t manage to spot the Light falling this time so we don’t have the date pinpointed. For all we know it comes tomorrow. I hate it too, but we have to head back to the Conservatory.”

“No, we can still -”

“What can we do, Taako?” Barry’s voice is so calm, and Taako hates it. “At this point, what can we do? We’re out of ideas and time.”

Taako grits his teeth, clenches his fists. His mind is racing, trying to find a solution, anything, anything. He was ready to let Kravitz go - didn’t want to, of course, but he was ready to leave him behind knowing that he was safe. How can he leave him to this?

“What does all this… mean, exactly?” Kravitz speaks up, head still bowed and voice controlled. “I know that the Hunger consumes the world. I know it uses what it consumes to fight for it. What happens to the planes it takes, are they - assimilated, are they still inside of it somewhere? Could they make it out?”

“Short answer, we don’t know for sure.” Barry sighs, taking off his glasses to rub at his face. “We’ve got theories, but… it’s pretty hard to confirm them.”

“Right. Like, obviously something must get left behind,” Lup continues. “Some impression of who those people were, they’re something like alive but… they could be totally assimilated into the Hunger, too. All we can hope for is that once we defeat it they’ll be saved, if they’re still alive in there.”

“Well, we can save one of them,” Taako says. He stands up, drawing all eyes to him - Kravitz, confused, Barry and Lup’s brows furrowing in concern. He takes a deep breath. “We can try to bring Kravitz with us. When we leave.”

He’s met with silence. Barry looks away, sighing.

“Taako,” Lup finally stops her pacing, stands still behind the couch. She lays a hand on Barry’s shoulder. “If we could we would, obviously, but it won’t work.”

“It could work this time.”

“It’s never worked, the only thing we’ve been able to bring are small animals -”

Taako interrupts her, speaking rapidly. “But we’ve never tried with someone like Kravitz, we have a bond, Lup, you know that, it’s strong - it goes across universes, the bond engine could -”

Barry shakes his head. “We have no idea if that even matters, we don’t know what really happened to make us reset every time. Hell, we don’t even know what happened to the people we tried to bring with us before, they just disappeared. For all we know that killed them!”

“And if we left them to the Hunger they would be dead anyway!”

“We don’t know that!”

“At least this way there’s a chance, I have to try, I’m not just going to leave without -”

“Do I get a say in this?” Kravitz says quietly.

He’s staring up at Taako, eyes wide. Right. Of course he’d be afraid of leaving, he’s already so worried that he’s taking up too much space on the ship, but he’ll get over that. Taako can protect him. This is the only way he can protect him. “I know it’s risky, but what’s the alternative?”

“It’s not just the risk, Taako, I can’t just go.”

“Don’t worry about it, we have room, I’ll talk to Cap’nport, he’ll understand. He’ll appreciate the extra hand.”

“I can’t,” Kravitz repeats, insistent, and Taako finally pauses. Across the table, Lup and Barry are silent and tense, watching them. Kravitz stands up so that he’s no longer looking up at Taako. “I love you so much, and I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but - what makes you think this is a life I could ever lead? That I could just leave my home, my people?”

“It’s not forever! Once we defeat the Hunger we won’t have to travel anymore. Until then - not gonna lie lie, it’s not fun, it’s a rough life, but… you kind of get used to it?”

“Great sales pitch, bro,” Lup says, but he ignores her. Kravitz is still shaking his head, still not hearing him, no one is listening to him.

“Taako, I follow the Raven Queen,” Kravitz says, slow as if speaking to a child, as if Taako isn’t intimately aware of that. “Maybe I’m not as devout as I once was, but I’m still her servant.”

“Okay? Raven Queen exists in other planes, my man, you can still do your spooky bird stuff.”

“You aren’t hearing me. The life you all live - I know it’s not your fault, you didn’t ask for this, but you’ve died! You have all died so many times, and you just come back over and over? And you want me to go with you, knowing that’s what’s waiting for me?”

“I get not wanting to leave but how is being fuckin' immortal the problem? You think that’s the worst part of this?”

“I think it’s horrific.”

Taako blinks, momentarily speechless. “Uh. Wow, cool, glad to know I’m so fucking horrific to you -”

“Don’t twist my words,” Kravitz snaps. “You know I don’t judge any of you for something beyond your control. It’s a sacrifice you have to make, and I understand that, but it’s not something I can do. I’m not like you. And you're not immortal, for the record, you're a necromancer.”

"What the fuck, Krav?"

"It's true!"

Barry finally speaks up. “Taako, bud, I'm sorry but this is Kravitz’s choice. We can’t make it for him.”

“And you can’t make me leave him to die! How am I the unreasonable one here?”

“If I stay, I’m taken by the Hunger and there’s a chance I make it out once it’s defeated,” Kravitz says. Taako doesn’t know how his voice can be so steady right now, when Taako feels like he’s going to crumble to pieces. “If I go, either it doesn’t work and I disappear or die, or it does and I’m stuck in a cycle I find abhorrent for who knows how long, my goddess turned against me, unable to return home - would you have chosen that, knowing what you know now?”

How is that even a question? “If it meant staying with Lup? With you, if that was what it took? Fuck yes I would choose that! Are you fucking kidding me right now?”

“I’m not like you,” Kravitz repeats, and Taako can’t - can’t be here right now, can’t listen to this, can’t bear Barry and Lup standing there watching them shout at each other, not speaking up in Taako’s defense.

“Lup, tell him, you know this could work,” he pleads once more. “The bonds are strong enough. I’ve seen them.”

Lup stares down at the floor. “We don’t know,” she says gently. “We haven’t tested any of your theories. No one has seen these bonds but you. And even if it would work, it’s like Barry said. This isn’t a choice we can make.”

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Or maybe it was always going to be like this and he should have known that. Should never have gotten this close, he knew the risks and he still let himself get so attached that now it’s killing him to lose this.

“Darling, I’m sorry,” Kravitz says, and Taako can’t look at him. Can’t stand to be around any of them when he feels like the world is falling around his ears. He turns away, walking out of the room and out to the deck, until he can’t hear Kravitz calling after him anymore.

 They’ve changed course. Heading north, if he has his directions right, back to Legato where Lucretia and Magnus, Davenport and Merle, are waiting. Taako can tell from the smooth, steady flight path that it’s Barry at the wheel - there always seems to be more turbulence when Lup pilots the ship. He’s both relieved and bitter that neither Lup or Barry have come up to find him, but who can blame them, they probably assume he’d just yell at them. No, it’s probably better for them to leave him alone.

The sun sets to their left, dipping behind streaks of thin clouds and coloring the world in shades of pink and orange. Taako sits on the deck, arms braced on the railing, watching the sun as it sinks below the horizon. It’s dimmer than usual, slightly desaturated, and a countdown begins subconsciously in Taako’s mind, the familiar pattern of the Hunger’s descent. In the next few days the color will be sucked out of the world and silent black storm clouds will form, and then, well, they all know the rest. For now everything is calm.

This world is beautiful, he thought so from the moment they arrived. Once they were being bombarded with every piece of art that had ever been broadcasted. He’d loved it here, the first world in a long time he had let himself love - because of Kravitz. He would have stayed, made a home here, whatever that looked like. And it’ll all be gone soon. Their fault, for leading the Hunger here. His fault.

Footsteps behind him; Taako doesn’t need to turn around to know whose. Kravitz settles beside him, close enough to touch but only if one of them reaches out. Glancing at him, at his wide brown eyes, it strikes Taako once more how young he is. How different from the reaper who has hunted them; death changes a person, he supposes. He wonders how old Kravitz was when they met before, how long he’d been in the Raven Queen’s retinue, how old he was when he joined her. As young as he is now? How much time would he have had left, if Taako hadn’t come here?

After a moment, Kravitz lets out a soft breath and leans in, laying his head on Taako’s shoulder, closing his eyes. He doesn’t hesitate before wrapping an arm around Kravitz, pulling him in close.

“I love you,” Kravitz says softly. His voice is steady. Taako doesn’t know how he does it. How he can be so brave. He’d always thought bravery was like Magnus rushing into every battle without thought for himself, Lup surrounded by flame, but it’s this, too: quietly facing down the darkness.

“Me too,” Taako whispers, and trails his fingers up Kravitz’s forearm, turns to kiss the side of his head. He won’t cry. There’s no point, nothing it will solve. “Baby, I love you too.”

“I’m sorry I can’t...”

“It’s okay.” It’s not. It has to be. “It’s okay. I’m sorry too.”

“For what?”

Taako gestures out at the sunset, at the world below. He’s not in the business of self-flagellation, but still - he doesn’t know how to look down at this world and not feel responsible for it. Like they’re the ones killing it, not the Hunger. It would be easier, he thinks, to stay up in the sky, to never give himself a chance to care about the worlds they come to, to live apart from the people below. Lonelier. But easier.

He’s been such an idiot, letting this place, these people - anyone but Lup and the rest of the crew - mean anything to him.

“We wasted so much time,” Taako says. He can’t tell what’s stronger, the despair or the anger, battling it out in him. “We really thought we had this one. Just a stupid fucking coincidence.”

Kravitz nuzzles his cheek into the bare skin of Taako’s shoulder. “You couldn’t have known.”

“We should have. Shouldn’t have spent all our time on pointless fucking art projects. That’s not our job, this is, up here.”

“Creation is never pointless,” Kravitz says.

“How are you this chill right now? Why aren’t you pissed at me?”

“I’m not chill,” Kravitz says, sitting up so that his long legs are folded, knees to his chest. “I’m terrified, Taako, but it’s - this isn’t your fault, so stop it. That’s what’s pointless, not the books and the songs - this.”

“The Hunger wouldn’t have come here if we hadn’t.”

“And you wouldn’t have come here if not for the Light. It’s not your fault.”

Taako scoffs and looks away, back to the sunset. Kravitz is right. Whatever the science or magic behind the infinite cycles is, it all begins with the Light of Creation. Doesn’t seem to matter to Taako’s guilt complex. They could have done more. But they always feel like they could do more, more and more until they burn out.

“I’ve been praying,” Kravitz says quietly, still watching Taako even if Taako isn’t looking at him. He reaches into the pouch that hangs from his belt, drawing out a handful of inky black feathers. Taako has seen them before. He doesn’t lay them out, just looks at them in his hand. “It’s been some time, I wasn’t sure if I would remember how. But I needed guidance. Or reassurance, perhaps.”

“What do you pray for?” Taako asks. It’s sort of a foreign concept to him, asking any gods for help - he believes in his own magic and that’s more reliable, in his opinion. Rely on your own power and you don’t owe anyone anything. Pan is sort of a constant companion on the Starblaster but even then, Merle doesn’t act like any cleric Taako has ever met, he talks to Pan like he’s family.

“I used to tell her about my life. Lately I ask for protection, mostly,” Kravitz answers. “For myself, but everyone else, too. For you and your family to find the answer to defeating the Hunger one day.”

“Heh, good luck with that, I’m pretty unquestionably on her shit list.”

“She’s forgiving. Everyone comes back to her, in time.”

“We’ll see.”

Kravitz looks at him for a moment, expression difficult to read, and though he doesn’t say a word yet Taako feels the need to listen, that Kravitz is trying to communicate something that, perhaps, even he doesn’t fully understand. It baffles Taako sometimes how well he can read Kravitz, and yet sometimes he’s a complete mystery.

Kravitz’s voice breaks when he says, “I prayed that you’ll be able to find me in the next cycle. Or wherever we’re meant to meet next.”

Taako feels two steps behind, taking a moment to follow what Kravitz is saying, what it means. But there’s a new understanding behind Kravitz’s eyes, sorrow and acceptance. “I don’t...” he whispers, trailing off, he doesn’t know how this can be, how he can know -

“Lup and Barry told me,” Kravitz says, answering the unspoken question. Of course. “Just now. I’m still - processing, I suppose, but - they told me how we’ve met before, on other planes. About what I am, who I really am.”

“Oh god, Krav...”

“The Grim Reaper,” Kravitz says, closing his eyes. His voice cracks on the last syllable, as if terrified of that idea. He touches his face. “That's what the curse is. Why you knew about the markings. Marked for her service indeed.”

He’s pissed at Lup and Barry, he’ll have words for them later, but that doesn’t even matter right now. Right now he’s just numb, and overwhelmed, and he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to say. “I should have told you,” he says, mouth dry. “I'm such an idiot -”

Kravitz shakes his head. “No wonder you looked at me so strangely the day we met, no wonder your crew always held me at arm’s length - I thought I was just being weird again but...” He laughs, small and strangled, curling tighter in on himself, and Taako wants to reach across that space, breach that barrier but is he allowed? Does Kravitz want that, want him, knowing all the lies he’s told? “I’m supposed to be your enemy. No, I’m supposed to be dead.

“Babe, no -”

“When I was sick, as I boy, should that have killed me? Should I have even lived this long - ?”

“Don’t say that.” He dares to reach out, relieved when he isn’t pushed away; he touches Kravitz’s cheek, turning his face gently back to look into those wide, brown eyes. Gods. It’s so hard to imagine him as anything but human. “There’s no supposed to. There’s just what happens and what doesn’t. My thinking is, that’s the deal you made to the Raven Queen when you were sick. We just caught you earlier in your timeline this time.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Would you have believed me?”

“I believe it now.”

“God. Yeah, that’s fair.” Taako sighs. “I don’t know. I was stupid, I guess. I thought…” he shakes his head. “How much did they tell you?”

“Lup said… there were things only you could tell me.”

“So she didn’t tell you… fuck, why is this embarrassing...” Just say it. Just say it. “Did she tell you were together?”

Kravitz is quiet for too long, which tells Taako all he needs to know.

Fuck, Taako,” he says, shocked.

“Not like this, we weren’t - we just hooked up, okay, there was - tension. It was a long time ago.” Taako sighs, rubbing his face. He’s rambling now, unable to stop now that the truth is out, like river behind a burst dam. “I’m so sorry. It wasn’t supposed to go like this. I wasn’t even supposed to come near you, I was such an idiot, I just… I missed you so much. This year, it… it's the closest thing we've ever had to normal. And it was so good. I wanted to keep it. But the longer it went on...”

“The harder it got to tell me,” Kravitz finishes. “I… knew there was something. Something you felt you couldn’t tell me yet. I just didn’t imagine it would be…”

“The fact that you exist in every universe?” Taako finishes. Kravitz laughs at that, and looks surprised to hear himself laughing. “I mean, who would.”


“I swear I meant to tell you. The longer I waited the harder it was.”

"They… they told me other things, too. About how I’ve hunted you, that I… killed you.” Kravitz looks like he’s going to be sick. “Is that true?”

Taako wishes that he could say no. Keep lying. Protect him from all this. Everything he does makes it worse. “Yes. Got me once. Tried a dozen other times. Got a couple of the others at one point too.”

Kravitz closes his eyes. “Gods.”

“Always thought it was kind of ironic,” Taako laughs without any humor to it, looking away from Kravitz, staring down at his own feet. “Like - you had to kill us because of our death counts, right, but you just ended up adding to it. Always wondered what ol’ Raven Queen thought of that.”

“How can you possibly trust me?”

Taako shrugs helplessly. He’s asked himself that plenty of times, and never found a good answer beyond I just do; I know Kravitz is a good person. He answers, “Not saying it’s not fucked up. But you didn’t even know who I was, you thought you were doing the right thing. I was kind of undercover in a death cult at the time, so…”

Kravitz lets out a long, deep breath. Processing everything. He leans against the railing, staring at Taako. It’s getting dark, now, the sunset a bright line against the horizon. “So you remember me between cycles, but I don’t remember you? I can’t imagine ever forgetting you.”

It should be freeing for Kravitz to know, to understand everything. To be able to talk freely. Instead Taako is just overwhelmed. He can barely explain all that’s happened to himself, much less to Kravitz. This isn’t how he would have chosen to talk about it. No, he would have let it go unsaid until the last moment. Until he could run away from it. Isn’t that just like him.

Is this better or worse?

“It’s not forgetting,” Taako explains. “For you, it’s the first time meeting me, as far as you know. Some Groundhog Day, shit, you see that scroll? No? Doesn’t matter. Fuck, this is hard to explain, Barry probably has theories, but… you’re tied to the Raven Queen. You’re part of her, like… an avatar of her, I guess? There’s always that bond between you. She’s part of every plane, some version of her, far as I can tell - I guess there are probably exceptions, worlds where there aren’t gods at all - but, generally speaking. So you show up wherever she is.

“And you and me, we’re bonded too. Like you and the Queen. I’ve told you about bond theory, everything has a bond, but this… this is the kind of thing that powers this ship.” He gestures to the bond engine behind them, it’s gentle whirring a constant white noise in the background. “Some metaphysical bullshit, yeah, but it’s real, Krav . I think those bonds were there before I even left home, connecting us. I’ve seen them. When you killed me - I still don’t really know what happened, but you - we - were able to look into my soul. I could see everything. I could see you, babe, like… like you’re part of me. Those bonds stretch all across the universe. Between every piece of me and every different version of you. Because it’s always you. You know me, you keep finding me.”

He’s rambling, he knows, but now that he’s finally started to talk about this with Kravitz, someone who can understand, he can’t seem to stop, Lup tries but she can’t get it, not really. And Kravitz does understand, Taako can see it in his face, on some level that maybe he wasn’t even aware of he knows that it’s true. They’ve shifted closer, now, Kravitz slowly uncurling from the tight ball he’d made of himself, opening himself up to Taako again. Trusting him.

“I feel it,” Kravitz says softly. “I’ve always felt it, like I was… searching for something. It was you, wasn’t it? My heart knew you even when I didn’t, like… fate drawing us together.”

“Yes! Yeah, something like that.” He laughs, feeling raw with everything finally out in the open. What would this year have been like, if he had trusted Kravitz to understand this from the beginning, if he hadn’t been so desperate to have a normal relationship for once? As if they could ever be anything like normal.

“What am I like?” Kravitz asks, reaching for Taako’s hand. Taako takes it, rubbing his thumb gently over his knuckles, feeling callouses on the tips of his fingers. Warm, living skin. “When I’m a reaper? Am I… still me?”

He thinks of the reaper, and the boy holding his hand now. There are physical differences, of course. The eyes, the cold skin. His hair is rarely as wild as this Kravitz lets it get. He’s older, his eyes wrinkle at the edges when he smiles and there are more white patches to his skin, spreading to his scalp, some strips of hair at his temples growing white. There’s a sadness in him, a loneliness that Taako can’t touch but has felt reflected in himself. Different, yes, and yet not.

“It’s you,” Taako says, as sure of it as he can be. “It’s always you, I… I always love you.”

Kravitz swallows. “Even after I killed you?”

“Especially then.” Taako’s throat is tight as he looks into Kravitz’s eyes. Neither of them look away. “How fucked up is that, right? But how could I not?

He doesn’t know who moves in first but it doesn’t matter, Kravitz’s lips pressed to his, gentle but desperate, Kravitz’s breath warm on his face, his hand curling around the back of Taako’s neck; it feels like goodbye, and Taako kisses him like he’ll never get the chance again. A mad thought overtakes Taako: what if they just don’t leave, what if this is where they finally stop, say fuck it and face the Hunger head on? But they’re not even close to a plan, this world is days from being consumed, and if one of them doesn’t take the Starblaster then that’s the end. No one to save the next world. He wants to beg for Kravitz to come with them, but he doesn’t say it. Already knowing the answer. Knowing he’s powerless.

“Don’t cry,” Kravitz whispers as they part, looking close to tears himself. Taako sits back, rubbing angrily at his eyes, at the tears that had crept up on him, that he hadn’t meant to let fall. “Oh, darling, no. It’s okay.”

“It’s not.” What the fuck is he doing, he’s not supposed to break down like this. He was never supposed to care this much. How is this where they’ve ended up?

“It has to be, love. You have to be.”

Taako shakes his head, and Kravitz is silent awhile. Still hand in hand as Taako works to steady his breathing. Finally Kravitz reaches into his pocket; Taako expects more raven feathers but it’s something smaller than that.

“Barry and I had an idea. Here.” And he’s pressing something into Taako’s other hand, small and round: what looks like an unassuming brass coin, a rune carved into its center. Taako looks at it blankly. “It’s a recording device. They were crafted to relay messages, but bards use them to record songs and stories they hear in their travels, or their own work. When you activate the enchantment, whatever you speak into it, it will store that and replay it whenever you want.”

“Okay? What am I supposed to do with it?”

“I’ll be a reaper the next time we meet, right?”

“That’s how it’s always been until now.”

“And he’ll - I’ll - be tasked with killing you. Obviously we don’t want that. I don’t want to hurt you and I don’t want to do anything that will hinder you fighting the Hunger. But I won’t believe that we aren’t enemies unless you’re able to gain my trust first. Who would I trust more than myself?”

Taako swallows, wiping at his eyes again. “You… you want to send yourself a message.”

“We can tell him our story. About the bonds, about us. Maybe he believes it, maybe not, but I think it’s worth a try.”

“You won’t even know me,” Taako says, feeling like he’s going to burst into tears all over again - sounding petulant even to himself, and hating it.

“But it is me, isn’t it? Like you said. My heart knows you.” Kravitz takes his hands again, holds them tight. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, but - I couldn't bear it if I hurt you again. If there's anything I can do to make this easier the next time, then I want to do it.”

Taako thumbs at the coin in his palm. Hard to imagine a next time after this, hard to look at the boy before him, his bright eyes and a smile full of hope and see the reaper he will be - would be if not for the Hunger. If not for Taako. Going on as they have been, like this year never happened, at once longing for the day that he meets Kravitz again and unable to imagine starting over with someone who doesn’t even know who he is. Thrilled that maybe he could still have this and yet ashamed to face him after leaving this world, this Kravitz, to be consumed.

“I can’t think of how else I can help us,” Kravitz says softly, pleading. “You’ve done this alone for long enough. Let me help.”

Taako swallows. “Okay,” he says. Unsure, but willing to try. “Yeah. We’ll give it a try.”

They take the night to think. Consider what they want to say, the message they'll leave, what reasoning Kravitz would listen to. An older version of himself, one he's not sure he understands or knows.

Kravitz doesn’t bother trying to sleep, though Taako halfheartedly encourages him to. He’ll be miserable in the morning but he knows getting any rest would be futile, even as drained as they both are. They curl up together in Taako’s bed, faces close and whispering together long into the night. It’s like there was still a wall between them until now, built up of all the things Taako left unsaid, and it’s finally broken down; they could tell each other anything now, especially here in the dark, in the early hours when it feels like secrets can stay here instead of being released into the world. Taako tells him about past cycles where they’ve met, both good and bad. About what Kravitz does as a reaper, powers that Kravitz, with his limited training as a bard, could hardly dream of wielding, traveling between planes in the blink of an eye or transforming his body, possessing stone and earth. He can’t fathom why the Raven Queen would choose him, only a scrap of magic to his name, he can toss about minor enchantments but he’s no wizard, he’s not a fighter, he gave up on the chance to be a cleric. Why him?

He goes quiet when Taako recounts the times that Kravitz tried to kill him. The time in the Veil. Something about that tugs at Kravitz - like hearing stories about yourself from your childhood, knowing it’s you, knowing it sounds right, but unable to conjure the memory yourself. Tugs at him the same way seeing Taako for the first time did, like a tether pulled taut between them.

He thinks he ought to be angry at Taako. Maybe part of him is, but it’s distant, an outsider's perception of how he should feel. Perhaps that’s a defense mechanism, looking at all that’s happened with painfully blunt logic. Taako hid something so important from him all this time and it colors the whole year in a new light, complex feelings swirling in him, all shoved aside because they’re of no use right now. Because the facts are these: he loves Taako, and his days with Taako are numbered, and he doesn’t have the luxury of anger, of time to work through his feelings about all he's learned today. All he can really do is prepare for what's coming, and that’s futile too, but at least he can make sure Taako is safe.  

His days with Taako are numbered but Taako's time with him isn't, if they find each other again, if he can make sure this other version of him understands. It's a bittersweet thought. That Taako may find a happy ending with him, one day, but he won't ever know. At least he can do this one thing to help ensure it. Ensure that Taako will be safe, or as safe as he can be. He can do that.

It would be very easy to fall apart. Reason is all he has to cling to; anger is useless.

“I don’t even know why you’re still here,” Taako mumbles, staring up at the ceiling. Kravitz watches the outline of his face in the dark, the way his elven eyes reflect the glints of moonlight shining in through the window, flashing like a cat’s. “Like, why you even want to try this, I fuckin’ lied to you this whole time...”

“You weren’t trying to hurt me,” Kravitz says softly.

“That’s what I do. I lie to everyone. Even Lup. Everyone knows it, guess it’s time you knew it too. Because it’s easier, when people don’t…” he huffs. “You know. Expect anything from you, I guess.”


“I fucked everything up.” Taako’s voice breaks on the last syllable, breaks Kravitz’s heart with it. He shouldn’t be the one comforting Taako now, Kravitz thinks, but the thought only occurs to him once he’s wrapped his arms around him, pulling him in close. It doesn’t matter. The lies don’t matter, in the face of everything else.

“Just be honest with me,” he murmurs, kissing the top of Taako’s head. “Don’t try to hide this next time. Unless you have to. I just can’t help but feel like everything would have been easier if I had known all this sooner.”

“I think you would have thought I was crazy and ran off,” Taako says, but curls close to him.

“Maybe. But I’d have come back.”

“Yeah right.”

“You were far too charming. Never had a chance.”

“If…” Taako pauses, hesitating. He licks his lips and presses on, eyes darting across Kravitz's face in the dark. “If you knew for sure that it would work - would you come with me?”

“No,” Kravitz says - gentle,  but blunt. Doesn't know what Taako wants to hear, but all he can do is tell the truth. It's not even a question. He knows Taako won't understand. He doesn't need him to.

“You’re gonna end up immortal eventually anyway, I don’t get -” Taako cuts himself off, sighing. He reaches out to trace his finger along the edge of Kravitz's jaw. “Sorry. I just feel so fucking useless."

“You aren't.”

“How d'you figure?”

“Because you’re stubborn. You’re fighting back. Every day, you’re fighting back, and you're going to win.”

Taako shifts forward, fingers firmer on Kravitz's cheek now, and presses a soft kiss to the corner of his mouth, to his lower lip, a gentle drag of his teeth that draws out a soft puff of breath. “If I could,” he says, as Kravitz pulls him in close, opens his mouth underneath Taako's, tongue slipping past his lips. “If I could,” he says again, between kisses that grow harder and harder, “I'd tear the Hunger apart from the inside out.”

“You'll win,” Kravitz says again, surprised to find his voice thick with desire. Taako nips at his lower lip, then the other. “You’ll save us. I know it.”

“I'd rip it apart with my bare hands,” Taako growls. “For even looking at you.”

He's barely aware of his own arousal until he finds himself unconsciously shoving at Taako's pants where they ride low on his waist, and then all at once it's all he can think about, touching as much of Taako as he can. They kick their clothes aside, legs tangled together beneath the blankets, skin against hot skin. The air between them is warm and wet with their breath when they break away, when Taako whispers a question and Kravitz answers please before they're kissing again. Kravitz slips a hand between them, finds Taako already hard as he grasps them both, the head of Taako's cock nudging up underneath Kravitz's. It knocks the breath out of him, and his hand tightens around them.

It’s an escape, certainly, a way to stave off overwhelming dread, the unending quiet dark, but who cares. Who cares when he’s wrapped up in Taako like this, let them escape for a little while.

“God,” Taako mumbles, right against Kravitz's lips, not even pulling away from the kiss. “God, this, just - this -” and hooks a long slender leg around Kravitz's hip to bring them closer, to grind up into the tight grip of Kravitz's hand, against his cock. Another whispered word with a drop of magic to it - one that Kravitz has become conditioned to over this year, the syllables sparking heat low in his belly - has them slick and it's even better this way, easier, and Kravitz doesn't have the energy to be embarrassed about the sounds he's making into Taako's mouth, or how he's overwhelmed already, just from this. Dizzy with Taako's lithe body writhing against him and his whispered praise, just like that, baby, yes. Pulling him closer still, like if he can just hold Taako tight enough he can keep him here, keep him safe -

Kravitz shudders as Taako’s slender fingers stroke over the heads of their cocks, smearing slickness and drawing Kravitz right to the edge. Taako's hand covers his and tightens, coaxes him to go faster, kisses him hard. Kravitz comes with a whine at the back of his throat, hot and slick spilling over their fingers and Taako breaks away to gasp, voice rough and wrecked, “Don't stop,” and Kravitz tightens his grip, strokes them faster, twitching and oversensitive. The sound when Taako comes cuts straight through him, high and bright and breaking at the end, coaxing another full body shudder from Kravitz as Taako goes still, head falling to rest on Kravitz's chest, heart pounding.

Quiet, for a long time, not even a mumbled spell to clean up the mess. They sprawl across each other, breathing uneven, looking at each other in the dark. Kravitz runs his hand up Taako's back, tracing the shape of old scars.

Kravitz wonders who Taako really sees when he looks at him like that: him, living and breathing, or the Reaper he's supposed to be.

Taako supposes he must fall asleep eventually, because he wakes up when the barest hint of morning light shines through his window. No better rested for it; the day stretches ahead, looming, threatening. It's whispering that wakes him, Kravitz kneeling on the floor with five Raven’s feathers laid before him, murmuring his prayers. Taako doesn't mean to listen, but he's never heard Kravitz pray.

“I know I’ve asked you for so much,” he says, eyes closed. “But I need you now. I will be your servant, even before my time is done if that’s what it takes, but please - help us.”

Taako closes his eyes, and pretends not to hear Kravitz’s helpless pleas for any defense against the coming storm. He wants to tell Kravitz that gods can't stand up to the Hunger, but he knows it would be cruel. That's why people believe in gods, isn’t it? For some bit of hope when there's nothing else.

Later they sit together on the bed, hands clasped, with Kravitz turning the coin over in his hand, his brow furrowed looking at it. They can't be far from the conservatory if they flew most of the  night. Taako will need to take a shift piloting the ship, soon. He hasn't spoken to Lup or Barry since the meeting yesterday and he's dreading it - even if ultimately he's glad Kravitz knows everything, he hates that Lup told him first. That he was too much of a coward to do it himself.

He's not ashamed of being a coward - cautious, as he would describe himself. It's kept him alive. But he can't quite bring himself to believe that Kravitz doesn't hate him for this. Rightfully so.

“I don’t know why I’m so nervous,” Kravitz says, shaking his head. He rubs a thumb over the coin. “Just a recording.

“Do you want me to…?”

“No, I - I think it needs to be me. Okay. I’ll just.” He takes a deep breath. Presses the coin between his finger and thumb, and somehow this must activate it, because Kravitz begins speaking the words they discussed, voice carefully steady,

“Your name is Kravitz McAllister. You grew up in the temple of the Raven Queen. Your mother was a priestess, and you bore the Queen’s Mark upon your face and everyone believed you were either blessed or cursed, depending who you asked. I still don't know which it is.”

He laughs under his breath. Taako squeezes his hand and stays silent, for now.

“You were a sickly child. You spent so many days alone, no one to talk to but the ravens at your window. You idolized your father growing up, though you hardly got to know him except when he passed through town every few years, till he stopped showing up at all. He was a bard, see, and he would bring you stories and songs from his adventures in faraway lands and new instruments that he would teach you to play. You are an emissary of the Raven Queen now, but music , that was your first love, even if now you wield a scythe instead of a baton.

“You know all of this, of course. The specifics may have changed, but this was your life. Just as it is - or was - mine. I know this because I am you, Kravitz. In another life, another world altogether. An aspect of the Raven Queen, just as we have always been and always will be. And if you’re hearing this recording, then chances are…”

Here he lifts his eyes to meet Taako’s, and a smiles touches the edges of his lips. He goes on: “Chances are, right now you’re standing before the most beautiful man you’ve ever seen in your life. Or undeath, as it were.”

Taako laughs, startled, feeling his cheeks warm, as Kravitz's smile widens. Well. Guess they’re letting that cat out of the bag.

“That would be me,” he says, leaning closer to the coin to make sure it picks up. “Hi, babe. It’s Taako. Jeez, you’re putting me right on the spot, my man.”

“Well, it’s true.” Kravitz turns his attention back to the coin. “Most likely, you consider Taako your enemy, or at the very least a criminal to be punished. And it’s true that he has broken our Queen's laws, but not by his choosing.  Some force beyond the Raven Queen’s power keeps him from the Astral Plane for a greater purpose, and you need to entreat her to pardon him and his friends. I am telling you that you can trust him, because I trust him. And because something terrible is going to happen, Kravitz, and soon.”

“We call it the Hunger,” Taako says softly. “And I can explain what that means if you give me the chance. But it’s big, and it’s on it’s way, and I’m kinda the only chance we have of stopping it. So. Maybe like, don't try to drag me and my buds to ghost jail.”

“Taako is not the enemy. I promise you that. He's fighting an enemy greater than you can imagine. And… he’s probably going to give me no end of shit for saying this - watch him, he’s already rolling his eyes - but… He is your soulmate, Kravitz.”

Some future aspect of Kravitz will listen to this recording and hear the sound of Taako, in another lifetime, socking Kravitz on the arm. “Christ, you're gonna scare the guy off,” he says, and finds his own voice choked.

Kravitz laughs, eyes shining. “No no, trust me. I’m a romantic.”

Taako hadn't known they were doing this, not exactly. A plea for his safety, yes, but not a confession of love, what if that really does scare Kravitz off? But Kravitz seems sure, he’s squeezing Taako’s hand tight, and Taako can’t help smiling at him as he goes on.

“And I do mean that, Kravitz. Taako is… There are bonds connecting you, across planes, across realities. A tether between your souls. I know that you can feel them, because I have felt them, from the very moment I met Taako. And the man before you seems like a stranger, but you know him. Deep down, you always have. It’s like a word on the tip of your tongue. You know it, you know this feeling, but it’s just out of your reach. Please trust in it, because it’s as real as anything. Trust yourself. Trust Taako, love Taako. Trust him and his friends. Because I believe - and you believe, too - that they are going to stop this. They’re fighting so hard. It’s… It’s too late for my world, Kravitz, but not for yours. He is going to save all of us. And you can help him.”

Kravitz pauses, then. Taking in a deep, shuddery breath, and shifting in his seat. Taako rubs his thumb over Kravitz’s knuckles, waiting. “I, um. I’m not sure what else I can say.”

“We have time to add more, yeah? If you think of anything?”

Kravitz nods. He gives the coin another squeeze and then releases it, ending the recording, and rubs at his face, looking like he’s been wrung dry. “Was - was that okay?”

Taako isn't sure. It isn't what he expected, maybe not what Kravitz expected either. But it’s what he believes he would need to hear, so Taako has to trust in that. Even if he can't imagine showing it to some future version of Kravitz who doesn't even know his face. He can't imagine facing Kravitz again after this. After killing him.

Soulmates,” Taako murmurs, shaking his head, and Kravitz ducks his head and laughs. “You’re such an asshole.”

“What else would you call us, then?” Kravitz raises his eyebrows.

“Gods, I don’t know.” Taako can’t help but laugh, too, though it feels wrong. Is there a word for what they are? Has there ever been anyone like them? He leans in and kisses Kravitz softly, a hand on his cheek, their foreheads touching after they part. “Star-crossed, maybe.”

“Maybe,” Kravitz says quietly. He takes Taako’s hand again, and presses the coin into it. It’s still warm. Taako closes his eyes. “I love you,” Kravitz whispers. “And I don’t regret this. Not a single moment.”   

“I love you, too.” Another lingering kiss as the bond engine hums all around them, steady like a song. A moment just for them before returning to reality, to the real life that Taako has been hiding from all year, hiding away with Kravitz. To fighting and running, to the crew he’s bound to, pulling each other back from death again and again. Bound to Kravitz, too, but it would be so much easier if he weren’t. If he didn’t care so much.

He wishes he knew how to stop. Stop caring. Stop loving him. Maybe if he tries hard enough he can sever those bonds. Save them both a little heartache. It would hurt, but would it be worse than this? Than losing him again and again, with no promise that they’ll ever stop this cycle?

“Keep it with you,” Kravitz says, closing Taako’s hand around the coin. “Don’t lose it.”

“I won’t.”

That, at least, isn’t a lie.

Chapter Text

They return to the conservatory as all the color drains from the world.

Taako knows that it would be more responsible to stay with the ship. He should be prepared to leave any second, should make sure there are no last minute repairs that will keep them from flying. Instead he follows Kravitz back to his apartment after they land at the edge of the Legato campus, and no one bothers trying to stop him.

They don’t sleep that night. They sit together in the eerie quiet, watching the black sky grow darker and darker, and every moment that the Hunger doesn’t descend feels like they’re getting away with something.  Taako can’t think of a single thing to say, but Kravitz saves him from having to fill the silence, talking all night long about nothing at all, drifting from thought to thought, rambling through everything he hadn’t gotten a chance to say before. He paces and fidgets, and at one point decides that he can’t bear to be indoors anymore, the walls too oppressive after all the nights they spent in the sky. He takes his cello from its case and they go outside though it’s the dead of night, and sit in the grass as Kravitz plays and plays for hours - Taako’s song, and others too, but Taako likes his the best.

Taako lays on the ground and listens as he waits for the apocalypse. Watches the dance of Kravitz’s fingers across the strings as he plays, soaking it in greedily, Kravitz’s words and his music, committing everything he can to memory. With the coin in his pocket, where it has remained since they made their recording, Taako quietly activates the enchantment and records his song, though he’s not sure he’ll ever be able to bear listening to it.

Laying here like this, Taako can nearly take himself back to the beginning of the cycle, when everything was so much simpler. It seems so much longer ago than a year. Gods, he’s known this boy for only a year, and he’s known him for nearly fifty, and both versions of the truth are mind boggling. There are early fireflies out tonight, just like on the nights they’d spent when they barely knew, yet, what they would be to each other.

“Run away with me,” Taako whispers, looking up at him, not expecting an answer, and not getting one for a while. Kravitz just watches him, gaze soft and sad.

“If it were the other way around,” Kravitz says, “and it was me asking you to… to leave Lup behind. Would you do it?”

“...No,” Taako mumbles reluctantly. Part of him wants to try to break that careful composure, wants Kravitz to get angry instead of just… accepting all of this. But at the same time he couldn’t bear to fight with him, not tonight, so he doesn’t say another word about it. There's no convincing him. He scoots closer to Kravitz and lays his head on his shoulder, closing his eyes as Kravitz relaxes against him.

The night seems to stretch on forever, and yet it startles Taako when the sun finally starts to rise and its light barely manages to shine through the thick inky black. It always, always feels like they should have more time. The morning brings the first pillars of black opal. Taako watches them fall as Kravitz reaches for his hand, grips it tight enough to hurt. A horn sounds from the Starblaster - the signal for everyone to return to the ship. Even then Taako is frozen in place.

“Do you have it?” Kravitz asks urgently, dragging a horrified and fascinated gaze away from the Hunger. Taako slips a hand into his pocket. The coin is there, smooth and oddly heavy, as he knew it would be.

“Yeah,” he says, voice thick, and Kravitz’s shoulders slump in relief. “Yeah. It’s right here.”

“You have to go,” Kravitz says, surprisingly steady. Maybe he still believes, somehow, that they have a chance of getting through this. Maybe he’s just that sure of himself and his choice.

He has to say something but every sound dies in his throat. He could make Kravitz come with them, willing or not. It wouldn’t even be that hard. He’s could knock him out with a sleeping spell and carry him onto the ship, cast Suggestion and convince him he wants to come along after all. Even if Kravitz resented him for it, even if he hated Taako for taking away his choice, wouldn’t it be better than leaving him behind? Wouldn’t anything be better, as long as he’s safe?

As chaos begins to erupt around them, terrified screaming as the Hunger begins it’s assault, Magnus darts through the center of campus - away from the Starblaster, towards the mountain, shouting that he needs someone to buy him time. For what, Taako has no fucking idea and doesn’t much care, but Lup, Barry, and Merle are right behind him, slinging spells at the shadowy creatures that begin to emerge from the pillars, distracting the Hunger’s minions.

“Love, it’s time,” Kravitz pleads. “You have to go.”

Colored streaks spark through the sky, horrible and beautiful. Lup’s spells are a familiar bright flash in the darkness. The horn sounds again, somehow more impatient this time, and Taako knows - from experience - that it’s the last warning they’ll get. But he isn’t going back to the ship. He pulls Kravitz in by the collar of his shirt and and kisses him hard and fast as he draws his wand. Kravitz blinks at him, eyes wide.

He can’t leave Kravitz behind. Can’t make him come along, either. So he makes the only choice he can. It’s the most horrid thing he thinks he’s ever done, but it has to be enough.

“I’m not going fuckin’ anywhere,” Taako says. Kravitz doesn't answer, but his eyes brighten, some small amount of the fear that had dulled them chased away. Taako tries to hold on to that sight, commit it to memory. All he’ll have left of him, that and a song and a coin.

“Your choice, bones,” Taako says, gripping his wand, drawing on his memory for the most vicious spells he can think of. “We hiding or fighting?”

“Fighting,” Kravitz says without hesitation, and Taako’s heart swells with pride. “Like hell I’m going to make this easy.”

“Hell fucking yeah.”

Magnus is rushing back toward the Starblaster now, ducking and dodging attacks from the Hunger and carrying something in his arms that Taako doesn’t bother to take a second look at. Barry and Merle start to retreat just behind him, holding off the Hunger’s attacks as they start to fight their way back to the ship. Taako hears Lup shout his name and turns to her.

“Get to the ship!” He yells back. “I’m staying!”

“Like hell I will!” She shouts. She says something to Barry that Taako can’t hear, kisses his cheek and breaks away from them without hesitation, rushing to where Taako and Kravitz are making their stand. He wants to tell her to run, to leave him behind, but he knows it’s a lost cause - he would do the same for her.

Kravitz can’t wield his cello in a battle. It's left behind unceremoniously in the grass. But he starts to sing, softly under his breath at first, and though Kravitz isn’t confident in his voice, Taako can feel the crackle of magic in every note, standing his hair on end. Lup draws her wand and stands at his other side. Taako never imagined it would be like this, fighting alongside the man who has hunted them down so many times. He never, ever thought the year would end like this. Lup offers Kravitz a nod and braces herself as the three of them turn to face the Hunger’s hordes head-on, the shadows of everything they’ve fought and failed to save.

It’s not often Taako finds himself facing the enemy like this. Magnus has battled the Hunger’s forces so many times, Lup too, even Barry, but Taako’s relatively few deaths have come in other ways - accidents, the elements of an uninhabitable plane, at Kravitz’s hand. Once, a blade in his back as he leapt between it and Lup; she had slapped him for that, when they reformed, but she would do it for him just as quick. He’s no fighter, but right now he doesn’t care. Taako doesn’t bother conserving his energy, doesn’t bother with finesse - this is Lup’s style of spellcasting, this is vicious and unrestrained. He flings his spells blindly into the darkness, and he sees Kravitz and Lup’s eyes blazing with determination as they fight back side by side. Even Kravitz's attacks are brutal - he’s unpracticed in combat magic but full of raw energy, he sings and the Hunger’s troops are blasted back by a wave of force. There is an undercurrent to his magic that Taako hasn’t noticed before, something divine to it. Maybe the Raven Queen has been listening to Kravitz’s prayers after all.

They don’t have their fighter but their spells combined take down shadow after shadow. But this is the Hunger, and standing against the Hunger is always futile, dozens of worlds worth of ammunition in the face of a handful of spellcasters. They don’t have a chance, but Taako isn’t here because he thinks they have a chance - he’s here to tell the Hunger to go fuck itself. To tell it you haven’t won. He wants to cut every single one of the shadows down, he wants to dive headfirst into the heart of the Hunger and destroy it from the inside out with every raw ounce of hatred he has. Taako shuts his eyes tight and thinks as loud as he can, hoping that the Hunger can hear him somehow, One day, I’m going to destroy you. That’s a fucking promise.  

But more than that he wants to run. He wants to take Kravitz’s hand and run far away, to hold him tight and protect him, take him away from all of this.

Taako doesn’t know if he dies before the Starblaster leaves the planar system, but one moment they’re letting out a battle cry as the shadows crash over them and the next he’s flying, he’s nothing but light given form. He reforms in exactly the same spot where he watched his home be devoured forty-eight years ago, hand in hand with Lup. Davenport and Lucretia stand at the helm, expressions grim; Merle and Barry reorient themselves, blinking away confusion. Only one thing has changed - Magnus, kneeling on the deck as if he’d just managed to stumble aboard as it took off, and holding something in his arms. Something that looks like a giant jellyfish, and he looks overjoyed, and Taako is going to need a fucking explanation for all that, but not now.

He never looks back, he realizes, for the first time. Nearly fifty worlds they’ve left behind, but he never looks back at the Hunger as they escape once again. But this time he’s dropping Lup’s hand, he’s ignoring her as he stumbles to the railing to look out, and he doesn’t know what he expects to see but there’s nothing left of the world he had loved but black opal. All gone.

What had he expected? To be able to look back at Kravitz one last time? How many times are they going to do this? How long? Until they’ve forgotten what home even looked like and every world runs together indistinct in his mind, until the worlds they’ve saved are only a drop in the bucket compared to how many they’ve failed? What does it even matter unless they can save every single one?

And gods, he wants to believe so badly that the planes that have been devoured are really still alive in there, that it will even make a difference if they do defeat the Hunger, but he doesn’t believe it. He doesn’t believe it at all. Kravitz is gone. He should be here, holding Taako’s hand, and he’s gone -

“Taako,” Lup’s voice sounds like it’s coming from far away, from underwater. “Taako, babe, I’m so, so sorry…”

She rests a hand on his shoulder and he shakes it off. He turns around and walks away, ignores her and Barry and Davenport all calling after him as he walks off the deck. He doesn’t mean to slam the door behind him but it slams all the same, sharp and final, and he moves on autopilot through the halls of the ship until he reaches his bunk where Kravitz had stayed with him for all these weeks oh god and suddenly Taako can’t draw a breath. He sinks down onto his bed, trembling.

No one follows him, not even Lup. Not even Barry. Well, fine. Good. He doesn’t have anything to say to them. He thinks he would just scream if anyone tried to talk to him now. Still shaking, he lays down. He wants to curl into a ball and disappear, but he realizes with a jolt that his pillow still smells like Kravitz’s hair, that scent that’s so uniquely him, sage and rain on dry earth, after the weeks they’d stayed together, and even though they were terrified of what was coming Taako had been happy, he’d been so happy to have Kravitz here where they could forget the rest of the world. The happiest he’s ever been, and now it’s over, and it’s all his fault, and all at once Taako is so angry - at himself, at Fate, at Kravitz and the gods and the fucking universe - that he feels like he could explode.

He should never have given Kravitz a choice, he should have dragged him onto the ship kicking and screaming, better to have Kravitz here, hating him but safe and alive. No - he should have turned Kravitz away the night he came here, walked away from him that day in the courtyard what feels like a lifetime ago now, and never let himself care whether Kravitz lived or died.

He takes the pillow and flings it across the room, where it knocks a mirror to the floor and shatters it. There’s a ceramic jar on his bedside table and he hurls that to the floor too, it’s pieces scattering across the floor; it does nothing to temper the raw anger that he can’t seem to keep contained in his chest. He hugs his knees in close and hides his face and screams out wordless, useless rage.

He’s only vaguely aware of Lup in the room with him sometime later, stepping carefully over the broken glass littering the floor, every fragile thing within his reach smashed to pieces.

“Oh god, Koko,” she murmurs. Tears prickle his eyes at the sound of her voice, maybe just because she’s one of the few people in the world he’s ever let himself cry in front of, but he doesn’t want her to see it now. He covers his face. There’s a ringing in his ears, and his head hurts, and his mouth is dry from a hangover half a century old. He feels like a dried out husk, he’d burnt through the anger and this is what’s left.

He can tell she’s trying to talk to him, but he can’t manage to focus on the words, can’t process them, her voice far away. He tries to answer, not sure what he’s going to say, but finds his throat raw and his voice shot from screaming and he realizes that she must have heard him, shame mixing in with the numbness he feels. He turns away when she tries to press a glass of water into his hands, but gives in when she holds it to his lips and says firmly, “Babe, don’t fight me, you need to drink something,” cold relief on his dry throat as she sits carefully next to him.

He expects her to say something like you knew this would happen. Expects why did you get your hopes up, and I told you so. That he’s been an idiot, that he should have left Kravitz alone. He almost wants her to say it so he can get angry again, at least the anger led him to do something even if that something was breaking everything within reach. Instead, Lup sets the glass aside and climbs into the bunk behind him, lays down and gathers him together, holds him tight to her chest, the way she used to hold him when they were alone and cold and hungry, when they had nothing but each other. She doesn’t say anything, doesn’t offer meaningless sympathy and platitudes, knowing he won’t be able to accept them. Knowing him , better than anyone does. She just squeezes him tight, and that’s enough.


Taako is the first to volunteer keep watch for the Light of Creation’s fall. He can't manage to sleep anyway, so why not - why keep anyone else awake. He sits on the deck alone, eyes locked on the sky, but he doesn’t see the Light that night, and no one spots it that day. The next night, he volunteers again.

“I can do it, Taako, it’s okay,” Magnus says - brightly, but there’s an undercurrent there, a worry that isn’t at all welcome.

“Nah, I’ve got it,” he says.

“Well, at least let one of us stay up with you -”

“I said I’ve got it.

They argue, but he doesn’t budge. He takes his seat on the deck again and tries not to think too much. Lucretia comes out at one point, with a large mug of tea, which he accepts because well, it’s cold up in the air. She doesn’t leave right away, to Taako’s annoyance, peering over the railing at the dark world below.

“Another populated world,” she notes. “Looks like… island cities, mainly. At least on this hemisphere.”

“Mm.” Taako sips his tea. It’s made exactly the way he likes, because Lucretia has all of their tea and coffee preferences memorized. Right now that pisses him off for some reason - everything pisses him off lately - but he drinks it anyway, for the caffeine and the warmth. His eyes are dry and tired but he can’t imagine sleeping or meditating. Hasn’t been able to since...

Lup’s moved back into their room, though her stuff hasn’t. She forces him to at least try to meditate. To eat, and drink, and have a normal person schedule, which all feels incredibly pointless. The Light is due to fall any time. He watches the sky.

“I can never decide if it’s better or worse,” Lucretia says, half to herself. “When they’re populated. At least when they’re not we don’t… lose much. But it gets so lonely.”

Taako wishes she would stop, that she would go away and let him work alone. What’s he supposed to say to her, to anyone? Does she really think he has any comfort to offer her? God, he’s tired. “Sucks either way, I guess,” he says, voice dull.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t like company?”

“Don’t worry about it.” He doesn’t look at her, and he doesn’t look down at this new world she’s so interested in. Populated just means more room for failure. And he’s not trying to think of Kravitz, he’s never trying to think of him it’s just that he’s always at the back of his mind. Is he alive on this world or already a reaper, how many worlds has he existed on, how many of those worlds did they lose without ever even finding him - he sucks in a shuddering breath, gripping the mug too tight.

“I really wouldn’t mind -” Lucretia begins.

“I said I’m fine, you think I can’t fucking handle keeping watch?”

“I never said you couldn’t handle it,” Lucretia says. “I just thought…” she shakes her head and seems to give up. Good. Better for her, that way, he has nothing to offer her. He doesn’t yell again, doesn’t say anything, doesn’t look up as she leaves.

He watches the sky, night after night, until the Light falls, a bright streak like a comet in the distance, unmistakable. Only then does Taako feel like he can breathe. He reports back to Davenport and sleeps for an entire day.

With the Light spotted, it’s approximate location triangulated, the expeditions to explore the world below and find the light begin. Davenport usually sends them out in small groups, two or three at a time, depending on the situation. Short jaunts, at first, and then longer as they get a lay of the land.

He doesn’t ask Taako to go on any of the expeditions. Which is fine, Taako supposes. Lets him spend more time in the kitchen, which is all he really wants to do, these days, except for sleep. It’s so stupid. He can’t sleep a wink at night, but during the day all he can think about is napping. And then, when he does sleep… well. He’s had bad dreams for ages now. They had just been so much less frequent this past cycle. With Kravitz there beside him.

Every time he thinks about Kravitz it feels like getting punched in the chest. He focuses on cooking. At least he can do that right, if nothing else.

There’s a weird tension in the air when the crew gathers around the big dining table as he’s about to serve dinner. They keep glancing at him, turning away when Taako tries to look them in the eye. And like, sure, he knows that none of them fully know how to deal with him right now. He knows he’s been difficult. But god, it just makes him so angry. He’s always angry lately, when he’s not numb.

“So what happened?” He finally asks, arms crossed as he turns away from the stove, where he’s been stirring a simmering pot of stew. “Or do I not get to be in the loop now?”

Everyone glances at each other. Lup and Barry and Lucretia all squirm in their seats.

Finally, Magnus speaks up. “On the last scouting attempt, me, Cap’nport, and Barry were pretty sure Kravitz was tracking us,” he says. Davenport sighs, but Magnus goes on so Taako doesn’t bother trying to interpret what it means. “He didn’t make contact, so we can’t say for sure. Probably he was just scouting us out.”

Taako doesn’t answer. He turns back to his stove, gives the stew he’s working on a stir, checks the bread in the oven. Lup’s behind him, then, a gentle hand on his shoulder that he resists the urge to shake off.

“Hey. We weren’t gonna keep anything from you,” she says. He believes her, but he hates the tone she’s using, all understanding. He prefers Magnus’s bluntness. “I was gonna tell you later is all. But this is fine too.”

“Where?” he asks, ignoring Lup and looking over his shoulder at Davenport and Magnus. Merle isn’t at the table, already killed by John. It shouldn’t still bother Taako after all this time, but he finds himself wishing the old man would stick around for once. At least he has it on an every-other-cycle schedule now, instead of leaving for years at a time.

“Down in those old ruins on the southern hemisphere,” Davenport says. Taako only has a vague idea of where that is from maps and from flying over as they waited for the light to fall. He’s only been planetside once this cycle, and only to stock up on supplies. So close by. If Taako had been on that mission - he shakes his head, shakes the thought away. “We may still have to scout that area again.”

Taako nods. He turns off the heat, starts ladling stew into bowls. Lup is still hovering, and she says, “You gonna be okay?”

He doesn’t know. He can’t tell what he’s feeling, or if he’s feeling anything at all; he had assumed, if Kravitz did make an appearance this cycle, that Taako would at least have some time to prepare, but what would he do anyway? Right now he just wants to get this bread out of the oven. He wants to take his dinner back to his room and hide from everyone. He wants them to stop treating him like the very  mention of Kravitz will break him.

“I’ll double-check the anti-undead wards after dinner,” he says in lieu of an answer. Everyone glances at each other again. Taako resists the sudden urge to throw the heavy metal ladle across the room. “In case you led him back here.”

“Are you sure?” Lup asks, still so gentle.

“What the fuck else am I supposed to do?” he snaps, too loud, voice echoing off the metal walls.

He doesn’t know what he’d do if Kravitz did come for them. He can feel the weight of the coin in his pocket, somehow so so heavy. He waits for Davenport to scold him, for anyone to snap back, but they don’t, they just look away and that’s somehow so much worse. Taako turns off the oven and retreats to his room without eating, without another word.

They leave him alone for a little while. When someone does come to his room, setting a bowl of stew and a hearty chunk of still warm bread on the desk beside him, Taako looks up and is surprised to see Barry, taking a seat on on the bed across the room. He’d expected Lup, or maybe Magnus. Or Davenport, here to tell him off for being an asshole.

“Not hungry,” Taako mutters, looking away. He’s curled up in his desk chair, arms wrapped around himself; he had thought he’d go over some of his research notes but he can’t focus on them, his own handwriting going blurry in front of his eyes. It’s so hard to focus on anything, lately. He wonders if he’s getting sick.

“Have you eaten at all today, bud?” Barry asks.

He’d skipped breakfast. Lunch, too, unless you count a handful of chocolate chips as lunch. Just didn’t have the energy for it. “You’re not my dad,” Taako says, which answers the question well enough, but just sounds petulant.

Luckily, Barry leaves it alone. Doesn’t leave him alone, though. He sits there, quiet, until Taako can’t think of anything to do but pick at the bread, nibbling tiny bits of it. He wishes Barry would go, and wishes he knew how to stop pushing people away at the same time.

“No one would blame you if you decided to go find him,” Barry finally says. “I’d help you. We’d all help.”

Taako’s stomach is in knots of longing and dread at the very thought. Kravitz out there, and the bonds are pulling them together as they always do. He doesn’t know how to answer - maybe that he doesn’t know if seeing Kravitz would make things better or worse, or if he’s even allowed to want that. He misses Kravitz so much it crowds out everything else, every other feeling, but what the hell would he do if he found him? This man who won’t even know who he is, who would strike him down without hesitation. He has to decide, now, what he wants.

“Got other shit to focus on,” Taako says. His voice doesn’t sound like his own, all dull and quiet. “Gotta get the Light. Gotta kill the vore cloud. Did we all, like, fuckin’ forget that? Anyway, seems like he’s doing a just fine job of finding us.”

“I just thought that was your plan. With the coin and all. Did you end up recording that message?”

“Wasn’t my plan, my dude.” He doesn’t answer the question.

“But he wanted you to find him -”

“Well, what the fuck does he know? He - he actually thought we were some kind of soul mates. And now he’s dead, so.” Taako shuts his eyes for a moment. “I’m just - tired of playing pretend. Time to grow up. Back to real life, right?”

Barry’s quiet, and Taako almost thinks that’s the end of it, thank god, until he says, “He told me he wanted to help you. Us. And you’re not even going to give him the chance?”

“Oh, right ,” his tone shifts to something sharper and now Taako finally turns his eyes to Barry, taking no real satisfaction in how he looks marginally more nervous, but anger is easier to indulge in than everything else tying his stomach up in knots. “You mean when you and Lup told him, uh, fucking everything? Without asking me? Just, just making decisions about our lives without me? That time?”

“Don’t blame Lup. I started it.” Barry sighs, shoulders slumping. “I figured you’d be mad. Surprised it took you this long to yell at me about it, honestly.”

“You had no right.”

“ Taako, he needed to know.”

“I would have told him!”

“I don’t think that’s true. I’m sorry, but I don’t.”

“Fuck right off.” Taako looks away. “It’s pointless anyway. All pointless.”

“You think he’d agree with that?”

“He’s not here.” Taako picks up the spoon, stirs the stew around in the bowl, but his appetite is gone. “Thanks for the food.”

Barry knows him pretty damn well, after all these years. He takes that as the dismissal it is.

“This is bullshit.”

Davenport is the model of professionalism, despite Taako’s best efforts to antagonize him. He opens his mouth to speak again, but Taako cuts him off. “Oh, no. I get it. I understand your reasoning, I’m just telling you it’s bullshit.”

“Taako, you’ve been through a lot,” Davenport says levelly. “You need time for yourself to process everything.”

Process ,” Taako mimics, and scoffs. His bare feet are propped up on Davenport’s desk and the captain has yet to yell at him about it, which is probably the most disconcerting thing about this meeting. “There’s nothing to process, I’ve got the fucking message, nothing matters and everything ends and we’re slaves to the whims of the universe, etcetera.” Davenport sighs, and Taako adds, “Kidding, Cap’n.”

“Lup and Barry will take over some of your duties for a while.”


“This isn’t a discussion, it’s an order. I want you to take at least a month off.”

“I know what this is, it’s not about my wellbeing, ” Taako sneers. “You think I’m gonna go after Kravitz.”

Davenport hesitates, which really tells Taako all he needs to know. “I think… you’re unable to think clearly when it comes to Kravitz. Which is understandable given what you’ve been through.”

Taako scoffs. Sure, he’s not doing great. Sure, knowing that Kravitz is out there now, just out of reach is… kind of maddening. But he’s the one who put the wards back up, effectively keeping Kravitz from finding him, at least while he’s on the ship. He hasn’t even listened to the recordings they made. He’s fine without him. He’s been fine without him for a long time, just back to square one now, nothing’s changed. Cycles and cycles and nothing ever fucking changes, they never get closer to the end -

“I’m not trying to be cruel, I’m trying to help,” Davenport says, jostling Taako from going down that particular rabbit hole. “This isn’t about whether or not I approve of Kravitz, though the fact is that we have to assume he’s hostile toward us. As your captain, your mental wellbeing - your ability to carry out this mission - is my concern , and frankly, Taako, I’m not sure of your ability to be an effective member of this team right now. You’re belligerent, angry, stressed, not sleeping. Which is all to be expected.”

“What are you, my therapist?”

“No, I’m your friend. And as your friend, I’m worried about you, and I want you to have time to care for yourself. Or wallow in your misery, I suppose, if that’s your choice.”

Taako’s fingertips dig into the arm of the chair. “I’m fully committed to this mission, captain.

“I know. Which is why you’ll respect my orders.”

Taako stares him down. But there’s nothing he can actually do, unless he starts sneaking off the ship or into the lab in the middle of the night to work on his own research. Which he could. But it sounds like a lot of effort to get around Davenport, who always seems to know when someone is sneaking around. Davenport, who’s one of the few people whose orders he does respect.

And he’s so tired. Too tired to argue.

“May I be dismissed?” he spits out.

Davenport sighs, but signals for him to go.

“Such bullshit,” he tells Lup later. “What the hell good is it going to do?”

They’re in his room - their room? He isn’t even sure anymore, because Lup’s sleeping there but most of her stuff is still in Barry’s. So either she’s been too lazy to move anything (entirely possible) or she’s only here out of pity and would really prefer to be back with her man (far more likely, and doesn’t that make him feel like shit). She’s braiding his hair - she’s better at it than he is - brushing out the knots first until it’s silky and smooth; later he’ll help dye her’s the garish hot pink she’s been sporting for years now. She’s quiet as he rants about his meeting with Davenport, making thoughtful noises to indicate that she’s still listening.

“Never thought you’d turn down a paid vacay,” she comments when he’s finally done grumbling.

“You know as well as I do we haven’t ever gotten paid.”

“Saving the world shockingly doesn’t pay the bills.”

Saving the world. Taako wants to laugh and cry all at once. They haven’t saved shit. But he shakes that thought away and says, “He’s just trying to keep me away from Kravitz and I already said I’m not doing shit about that.”

“That’s not what it’s about.”

“What, did Cap’n talk to you before springing this on me?”

“Duh. If you are going to look for Kravitz he wants you to have your head on straight first is all.”

“You’re all assholes, this is so fucking pointless! We’re already down Merle this cycle, basically working with a skeleton crew as it is, y’all are gonna be hopeless without me.”

Lup is infuriatingly patient, despite Taako’s ranting. “We’ll be fine. Already got a good lead on the Light.”

He twists around to face her, letting his braid fall apart. “No one told me that!”

She rolls her eyes. “Because A, you snap at literally everyone who tries to talk to you, don’t think I didn’t hear about your chat with Barrold -”

“You’re all treating me like a child -

“Funny, that, since you’re throwing a literal temper tantrum - and B, we’re trying to let you get some rest, idiot. I know you hate it but I think Davenport has the right idea.”

He groans and looks away - he’d wanted her to commiserate with him, not side with the enemy. So much for them against the world. First she ignores him for Barry, now she sides with Davenport over him.

That’s unfair. She’s been glued to him since they landed on this plane, even though she should rightfully be all over Barry. Somehow that makes him angry, too. Can’t win.

“Dude.” She puts a hand on his shoulder, makes him look back at her. “You gotta know you’re not handling this shit well.”

“Uh, who would? I kinda killed my boyfriend?”

“Stop that. You didn’t kill him,” Lup says firmly. Taako shrugs. Semantics. She goes on. “But yeah, you’re right, no one would handle this well. You think I’d be okay if I lost Barry? I’d need so much time before I could even think about anything else.”

He turns back around. Her hands delve back into his hair, working on a french braid this time, something that will keep his hair neat for a little longer. “Knew I’d be leaving him anyway,” he mutters. “I was ready for that.”

“Not like this.”

He can’t argue with that.

“Just give it the month,” she pleads. “Work on yourself, talk to us, or at least me, get some rest. Whatever you need to do. The Hunger will still be there.”

“Or, counterpoint, I focus on work so I have no time to think about it and eventually move on?”

“You won’t move on. You’ll just burn out.”

He huffs. He can’t imagine accomplishing anything with this, nothing’s going to change . It doesn’t feel like he’s being given a break - just like he’s being shoved out of the way. Like he’s an inconvenience instead of part of this crew.

Like he fucked everything up and now he’s being punished for it.

It all kind of makes more sense if he looks at it as a punishment.

“I’m still cooking,” he says, tone leaving no room for argument but feeling like he just lost a fight. “Can’t keep me out of that kitchen.”

“No one would dare,” Lup assures him.

They’re quiet for a bit while she focuses on his braid, but as she twists the hair tie around the end he speaks up again. “You and Barry doing okay?”

She pauses. “Yeah. We’re great. Why?”

“Just wondered why you’re still sleeping in here is all.”

“It’s my room?”

“Dude, you’re in your honeymoon phase with the love of your life and you’re hanging out with your brother , even I feel sorry for you.” He pauses, then adds, “You haven’t even moved your stuff back in.”

“Too lazy,” Lup says flippantly. “I mean, he’s right next door.”

He can’t see her face - hasn’t turned back around - but he can tell from her tone that she doesn’t want to be here, she’s just here because she… pities him, or thinks he needs to be supervised or something, which just makes him frustrated all over again, everyone walking on eggshells around him constantly. Not that he’s made it easy for them. “You can stay with Barrold, it’s fine,” he says. “Can’t risk y’all getting all lovey dovey in here, fuckin’ nasty, don’t need to see that.”

“Babe, it’s fine. Don’t worry about it, I’m good here.”

“Jesus fantasy Christ, don’t you get it?” He snarls, tugging his hair out of her grasp. “You don’t have to fucking monitor me, what do you think I’m gonna do? Throw myself off the side of the ship? Wouldn’t get me anywhere, killing myself is off the table. Ain’t that a pity.”

Lup’s silence is deafening, it settles heavy over him, long enough that Taako nearly opens his mouth to apologize until she says, voice deliberately level, “Alright.” She stands up, making her way toward the door.

“Lu,” he begins, wants to say he didn't mean it but the words shrivel on his tongue as she turns on him.

“Believe it or not, Taako, all anyone wants is for you to be okay. We love you. We all love you. And we’re the ones that’ll still be here when you decide to stop being an ass.” She sighs, a hand on the doorknob. She’s trying to control her face but he can always read her, can see clearly the anger flickering across her expression. “Take the time off. You seriously need it.”

She doesn’t slam the door but the sound of it closing still makes him flinch.

He’d never thought he could drive her away. Everyone else, but not her. Taako realizes his fist is clenched in the bedsheets when his knuckles start to ache. He breathes but it won’t even out no matter how he tries. The room is unbearably quiet without her chatter.

He’s struck all at once with the need to do something, anything not in this room, with no real idea of what - demand that Davenport put him to work, hug Lup, throw himself off the ship; he’ll figure it out when he gets there - and his feet carry him up onto the deck. It’s hard to tell the time of day, the sky a uniformly dull gray, and cold wind whips at the tail if his braid, wrecking Lup’s hard work. He doesn’t look down, still can’t bear to look at this new world.

The anti-undead ward is a spell of Lucretia’s making, her studies in abjuration mixed with an odd knack for the type of spells that normally only clerics can do, the spell tied to the force fields that let them breathe even this high up, even outside of the atmosphere, so that it can encompass the whole ship. So far it’s done a decent job of hiding the Starblaster from Kravitz. Taako can feel the thread of Lucretia’s magic just there, if he reaches out for it with his own. It would be so easy to snap and his fingers twitch as if to do so, like if he brought those wards down Kravitz would come running right to him. And he wants to, wants it with an intensity so sudden it leaves him weak in the knees, even if it would end with a scythe at his throat and red eyes in a grinning skull -

He stands statue-still until the impulse passes, quickly as it came, the burst of energy to act draining away and leaving him nauseous. Taako sits heavily on the deck, shivering against the cold, eyes burning with tears he refuses to let fall. It’s quiet up here, except for the wind. All this energy put into closing himself off and now all he wants is for someone, anyone to come looking for him. Even just to remind him that it’s time to cook dinner, any sign that they haven’t all given up on him, though he wouldn’t blame them if they did. No one comes.

He retreats when the sun starts to dip below the horizon and his teeth start to chatter. He should cook dinner but even that sound impossible, so he avoids the kitchen, skulks back down the halls.

He half expects her to be there, for their fight to be forgotten already. Teasing him for being such a drama queen. He’ll dye her hair like he promised, she’ll complain about him ruining his braid already,  they’ll laugh about something goofy Magnus did, everything will be normal. But the bunk is empty. He can hear her voice, muffled and low, on the other side of the wall in Barry’s room.

Well. He’d wanted to be left alone, hadn’t he, all the fights he’d picked paid off. The worst thing is that he’s fully aware of how dramatic he’s being, how pathetic, how little any of this - anything at all - actually matters in the grand scheme of things. He could just go to Barry’s room and ask Lup to come back. Admit that he doesn’t know what to do. That he wants to feel anything but this, anything but angry or numb, and he doesn’t know how to get there.

He’s always shared this room. If Lup isn’t here Kravitz should fill the space. Both gone, and both his fault.

The days blur together with nothing to structure them; Taako sleeps too much during the day, can’t turn off his mind enough to meditate at night. He spends most of the time in the kitchen; cooking, at least, is something he can do on autopilot, the only way he can still be useful to the crew, earn his keep - some half-forgotten old trauma taking over, this is what you’re good for, why they let you stay , just like on the caravans; he knows it's not true but he doesn’t have the energy to fight it. He rarely has the appetite to eat what he makes. He slips away once meals are served, until Lup notices and makes him sit at the table with them, forces him eat at least a few bites.  

If he’s not in the kitchen he isolates himself in his room. At least, when the crew will let him. They seem to have worked out some kind of schedule for keeping him company and they rarely let him be alone for long - now that he’s moved from anger into apathy apparently he’s a lot less of a pain in the ass to be around, more’s the pity.  Lup drags him outside when he’ll let her, and Barry keeps him up to date on their research and the hunt for the Light. Lucretia and Magnus bring Fisher (as they’ve named the baby jellyfish that Magnus saved) with them, and they sit on the floor and watch it play with the wooden ducks that Magnus carves for it.

Taako has been trying to get the damn thing to eat for weeks but it isn’t interested in food, it wants books and music, information, apparently these things fed off of the works of art that the conservatory students offered up, erasing or projecting them as they saw fit. Taako can think of a hell of a lot of books from home he wishes the little dude would erase - all those books were physically destroyed when the Hunger came, of course, but they’re still in Taako’s head and that’s what really matters. Taako lays on his bed while they play with the fish, silently watching the galaxy patterns that swirl within it. They’ve seen a lot of things over the years, but nothing quite like this.

He thumbs at the coin in his pocket. His song recorded on it, the song that won’t stop haunting him.

“If I wrote down everything I knew about a person and fed it to the little dude,” he muses aloud, speaking for the first time since Magnus and Lucretia barged in. “Would I forget they ever existed? Or would their name be enough? A picture of them?”

He glances over at them, head hanging upside-down off the bed, when they don’t respond, and takes a small amount of amusement in their discomfort - Magnus, brow creased in concern, Lucretia, pondering the implications of the objectively fucked up shit he’d thrown at them. “You think Fisher would do that? Erase a whole person? ” Magnus says, distressed.

“Or would it just be those specific facts about the person?” Lucretia murmurs. “Would they forget themselves, even? I don’t know. Hard to say what this little guy can do.” She reaches out to tickle one of Fisher’s tentacles, smiling when it wraps the appendage around her finger and sings a quiet note.

Some days Taako can’t help but hate Fisher, solely because they saved it but couldn’t save Kravitz. Selfish and stupid of him but he’s never claimed to be anything else. It sings a note to him, too, and Taako hums back. It seems to like that.

“You know you can’t do that, right Taako?” Magnus says, more seriously than Taako is comfortable with. “It wouldn’t make you feel better.”

Taako rolls his eyes. “Hypothetical, my man,” which is only halfway a lie.

“I do think we need to be very careful about what we do and don’t feed it, though,” Lucretia says. “Until we understand how it all works.”

“Maybe we could write him stories!” Magnus says, seriousness vanishing as quickly as it came, his eyes lighting up. The fish responds to his excitement, though Taako isn’t sure how much speech it understands, singing happily. “I mean, original stuff that no one would miss if he erased it. Do you think he’d like haikus?”

“Anyone got the complete works of Nathaniel Hawthorne around? Please let the little dude chow down on that.”  

What if he gave Fisher the coin, Taako wonders, would he forget Kravitz’s song, stop hearing it in his dreams? Would he still miss Kravitz if he forgot about him, or would there still be a missing space in him, one he wouldn’t know how to fill?

He won’t try it.  The coin stays safe by his side. But the temptation sits heavy in his chest.


Taako doesn’t see much point in setting foot on this world, but that doesn’t deter Lup from trying to force him off the ship once in a while, ignoring his grumbling and threats to turn her into a toad. She fills his silence easily as they set out, telling him about the people they’ve met, the places they’ve been, the food they’ve eaten that she wants them to recreate. She tells him about how they’re just this close to getting their hands on the Light, how it’s just a matter of gaining the trust of the folks that have it now. He does try to listen, but it all goes in one ear and out the other as they enter the busier part of the city she wants to show him around. He gives mumbled replies that satisfy her just enough to keep her talking with the false cheer of someone talking to a sick child. He’d rather jump of a cliff than keep listening to the crew talk to him like this - like he’ll break at a moment’s notice - but there’s not much point to that either, he’d be back in less than a year anyway.

The city - Lup told him the name but he didn’t listen - is big and bustling and loud, exactly the kind of place he would normally adore. All tall buildings that look like they’ve just haphazardly added floors on top of existing houses, winding stone streets that don't seem to have been built with any logic; mule-drawn carts race down the streets while pedestrians dive out of their way. It’s chaos. Taako should love it, and he knows that’s exactly why Lup brought him here. But he can’t quite engage with it. Can’t quite stop looking for Kravitz around every corner.

He’s just having a bad day, he tells himself, nothing he can’t power through. Pretend for long enough to make Lup happy and then he can go back to the ship. He’s sure she can tell he’s faking it, because she knows him, but he’s also sure that she appreciates him even leaving the ship at all. He’s been an asshole - he owes her that much.

“There’s a market just down this way, I figure we could stock up on spell components,” Lup says, glancing over her shoulder at him and grinning, her robes swishing around her feet. “They’ve got the weirdest shit, I’m talking gross as hell. Ooh, I should pick something up for Barry,”

“Yeah, yeah. Sounds good,” he says with forced smile.

Except the closer they get to the marketplace the denser the crowd grows. And Lup is dragging him to various booths and stalls she’s been to before, introducing him to strangers she’s made friends with so easily, “This is my brother, I told you about him the other day, Transmutation genius so I figured you could hook him up -” and Taako has to tune them out, everything is so loud, he can hardly process what they’re saying. Can hardly remember anyone’s faces once they’ve moved on, he just has to pretend he’s listening. And why bother anyway, who cares? Who cares about these people he’ll never see again after today, that he’ll forget after this year - so many people, millions and billions over all these years and so few will ever be remembered. Like so many crushed insects, all their voices buzzing in his ears. They might as well already be dead.

One day, no one will even remember if the people of this world lived or died, no one will know the name of this city. Whether or not they get the Light, even if this world crumbles to dust in the end, they’ll walk away from it. They’ll live on and on and on and on, forever as far as they know, survivors of a thousand apocalypses. How horrible they must look to the people left behind.

It won’t matter at all, this place, and he can’t bring himself to care at all. The crowds jostle Taako like he’s invisible, standing stock-still in the middle of the path, making it hard to stay close to Lup, yet none of it feels real. He feels real, far too real, his breathing quick and his head buzzing, but the rest of it - he swears if he reached out and touched anything it would turn to dust in his hand.

Even Kravitz was just dust in his hands.

“Taako?” Lup’s been trying to get his attention, her voice cutting through the buzzing and startling him. He flinches back, and she’s staring at him, and the woman running the shop is staring at him, and he can’t breathe in this crowd. She'd just needed him to keep it together for one day and he can't even manage that. He turns and shoves through the masses, mindless of any protests and of Lup calling for him. He doesn’t stop until he's out of the marketplace, and he finds a low wall just off the side of the road where he can sit, eyes squeezed shut and breathing so much harder than he should be.


He doesn't look up, head in his hands, but he's aware of Lup kneeling in front of him, aware of how worried she must be, he just can't stop disappointing her. “Hey, hon, it's okay. It's okay. Can you look at me?” He finally lifts his head to look at her, kneeling before him at eye level, face carefully calm. “You’re okay.”

He swallows, shakes his head. He can’t even begin to explain to her how not okay it is, the panic overwhelming, this can't be the person he's become, this person  who doesn't even care about the people they're fighting to save. She takes his hand, squeezes it tight to ground him. “Can you do me a favor?” Lup asks him gently. “Can you look around for me and name five things you can see?”

So fucking embarrassing. He hasn't needed this in years . He’s not even sure where it came from, just something she always used to help him calm down, come back to himself. He’d had his own tricks to help her, too. They’ve always taken care of each other, when there was no one else to do it. He can only really focus on the two of them, her face the only thing that isn’t a blur, her, the only thing he cares about. “Your nose,” he mumbles. “Your hair, your jacket, um… my hands. Fingernails.”

“Okay. Four things you can hear.”

“Lulu…” he groans.

“I’m not leaving you alone until you do it.”

He listens, albeit reluctantly. His focus returns with every little exercise, three things he can touch, two he can smell, until his breathing matches Lup’s, steady and even. Still feels like someone’s gone in and ripped out his lungs. He mumbles out apologies and Lup just sits up on her knees and hugs him, squeezing him too tight but he squeezes her back. This, at least, he knows: that she is not dust, none of the seven of them are. The only permanent things he has. She’s always been that.

“Babe, I haven't seen you get like that in years,” she says, pulling back to look into his face, hands on his shoulders. “What happened?”

Taako opens his mouth, but nothing comes out as he realizes that he can't tell her. Not the truth, that he's looking at these people all around him and they're already dead to him and he's terrified of how little he cares. Lup has a capacity for caring that has always astounded him, always so determined to help anyone she can, loving the places they travel to and the people she meets so deeply. And he can't bear the idea of how she'll look at him if he tells her what's really wrong, if she learns what a monster this mission has made him.

He can't lie to her either. She always knows. But he doesn't have to tell her this.

“We have to get the Light, Lup,” he says instead. “We can't let him die again.”

“We will. We're so close.”

He swallows hard. “How many times have we killed Kravitz?”

It’s not lying. Not really . It’s been weighing on him for all these long months. Everything piling on him and finally becoming too heavy to bear.

Lup frowns. “Did you see him?”

“No. But I always think I do. Everywhere I go I see his face. And I hate it, and I want him, and I never want to see him again -” He forces back tears.

“You didn't kill him. It’s the Hunger. It’s not our fault.”

“Yes it is!” He shakes her hands off his shoulders and she sits back, watching him sadly. “You keep saying that, but it is. Every single time we don't get the light, that's our fault. That's us killing him. Killing everyone , and I can't - I can't fucking do it anymore.”

“We’re doing everything we can. I hate it when we fuck up too, it’s the worst feeling in the world, but think of the worlds we have saved. That we’ve made better .”

Taako shakes his head. She finally gets up, coming to sit next to him. “It's not enough,” he says. His voice sounds dull and hollow in his own ears.

“...I know.”

“I'm so fucking tired, Lulu.”

“I know.” She takes his hand and squeezes it.

He leans heavy on her side and closes his eyes. Unwanted tears well up again; he holds his breath, shoving them down, as she wraps an arm around his shoulders. It’s good that she’s here, that out of everyone it’s her, only person in the universe who will undoubtedly stick around when he falls apart. She's so much better than he deserves.

“We’re all tired,” she says gently. “We don’t have a choice, though, you know? We don’t get to stop until this is over. And it will be over, Taako, I promise, someday it will. And maybe you'll be able to find him again then. But right now - we just keep moving, right? Just like we always have. And I know you can do it. That’s what we do, you know? You and me, we keep going, we don’t back down, we fight no matter what.”

“You and me,” he whispers. He focuses on her, solid and real beside him, tries to forget the city full of ghosts.

It’s still so weird to sleep alone. He hadn't known it would be. He’s had the sound of Lup’s steady breathing to lull him into a trance all his life, and now he can't bear the silence. The bunk is tiny but it feels huge and empty in the dark, and he wraps himself tighter in his blanket and stares at the ceiling. He can hear Lup and Barry’s voices, faint and muffled, from the other room. Whatever they’re talking about it doesn’t sound like a fun conversation.

He doesn't have to be alone, he knows, it makes it worse that he knows. He could go to the next room over, to be with Lup and Barry, or ask her to come here. He could go to Magnus or Lucretia. No one would turn him away. Even if he still couldn't sleep they would stay up with him, talk to him. Logically he knows this. He still can't get himself to believe it, to do it, and gods he’s so sick of his own company, his own repetitive spiraling thoughts.

On the other side of the wall he hears Lup sigh, hears the squeak of the bedsprings as she sits on their bunk. “I’m sorry,” she says, close enough now that Taako can hear. Taako rolls over, ear close to the wall, and listen.

“Lup, it’s okay, I… I understand. You’re stressed.” Barry this time, and he sounds… frustrated, but mostly sad.

“It’s not though,” Lup insists. “It’s not okay for me to take this out on you, it’s just - really hard, right now.”

“I know, hon.”

“I just don't know what else to do! I'm supposed to be there for him but it's like he doesn't even want me to be and I thought time off would do him some good but…”

Taako stomach turns, hearing them talk about him, how he's affected them. Couldn't even keep his bullshit to himself, he's always dragging her down.

“All he wants is Kravitz,” she says. “And I know he loves him, but - he’s just going to keep getting hurt.”

“Is there anything I can do?” Barry asks, voice coming closer as he sits by Lup. “Anything at all? I want to help, it just seems like you're the only one he’ll let in.”

“But I can't fix anything! All I can do is talk to him. I feel so fucking useless.”

“Don't say that. Hey. He’ll be okay, it’s Taako. He’s tougher than this. We just need to try harder to get through to him, yeah?”

“What if that’s not enough?”

Taako rolls away from the wall, tunes out the sound of their voices until they’re muffled again. At least Barry is there for Lup, but that’s supposed to be Taako’s job, they argue playfully about who's the older sibling but he's always felt more like the big brother. The one who takes care of her, keeps her safe. And he hasn’t done that.

He manages to meditate a little in the early hours. The next morning, early enough that most of the crew is still asleep, he takes a long, hot shower and brushes his hair until it shines. He cleans and irons his uniform, pulls on his heeled, knee-high boots and the heavy red robes, the weight of it and the IPRE logo on his breast a strange comfort. Like armor. Finally, a simple long braid that keeps his hair neat under his hat.

Wow, amazing, you did the bare minimum, he thinks, but shakes his head. Not today. He gets to ignore that voice today. And frankly, the bare minimum is exhausting enough. He looks at himself in the bathroom mirror for a long moment. There are shadows under his eyes and his cheeks are thin, and it feels so pointless that he nearly says fuck it and crawls back into bed, but no . Taako’s good out here.

He can’t keep doing this. Kravitz wouldn't let him keep doing this, if he were here - wasting away to nothing and tearing himself apart over something he can't control. An angry voice in him says bitterly, But Kravitz is dead. He ignores it. It doesn't matter what Kravitz thinks, he's resolved not to look for him again, but even so. He wants to be the person Kravitz thinks - thought - he is. Wants, at the very least, to try. He's may be a monster but he has to at least pretend he's not. Has to keep moving. Keep surviving.

He turns away from his reflection, making his way down to the lower level of the ship, the dark storage bay and Barry’s windowless laboratory. His heels click on the metal floors; he sounds like himself for the first time in a long time, a real presence instead of the skulking ghost he has been, prowling the ship's halls.

He has to assume that actually feeling like himself will come with time, or if not, he’ll fake it until he believes it.

Barry and Lup are already in the lab, of course, bent over the large work table, and their heads snap up as Taako enters unannounced. He hasn't been down here in - god, weeks? A month? Has time really just been passing without him? The Light of Creation is sitting right there, in the glass box they built for it years ago. He isn't sure how they retrieved it. He's missed so much , it feels just like being dead for most of a cycle. So much you miss in a year.

He pours himself a cup of coffee from the half-full pot, stirs in a hefty amount of powdered creamer, aware of their eyes on him. “So,” he says, peering over their shoulders at their work, Barry’s meticulous, orderly notes at odds with Lup’s messy scrawl. “What are we working on?”

Barry and Lup glance at each other, then her eyes flit back to Taako's, fixing him with a level stare. He meets it, and nods. He can try, he has to, for her if not himself. Finally, Lup grins and pulls out a third chair for Taako to sit with them. It’s hard to even be here, was hard to drag himself through the effort of looking presentable, or getting out of bed. But sitting here in the lab again, he feels more like himself than he has in months. Just barely, but he clings to that desperately.

“Okay, so Barry has this theory…

He doesn't stop missing Kravitz. That's a fruitless endeavor if there ever was one. He is always, always at the back of Taako's mind, like a particularly persistent ghost, but the ache in Taako’s chest dulls over time.  Most nights he comes close to listening to their recordings, to his song, but he always stops himself. One day, maybe he'll be able to, or maybe by then he won't be tempted to anymore. He tells himself he should throw the damn thing away, but it stays in his pocket.

He doesn't stop missing Kravitz, but the longer he goes on the stronger his belief that he can do this without him. He can do his best to save every world and that will be enough, knowing that wherever Kravitz is, he's safe. They leave the planar system with the Light in tow and Taako doesn't look back as they reset.

The new world is populated, though not highly advanced, and heavily forested. Taako forces himself to look down at it, and think of the people there, the people they have to save. He's back to work, this cycle, and it's better. It's good to have projects and research to fill his mind, good to keep moving, he feels more like himself than he has in a long time if not entirely whole. The coin stays in his pocket and he doesn't listen to it and he’s as okay with that as he thinks he’ll ever be.

It’s hard to find where the Light fell with the heavy tree cover, which means more scouting missions. In fact, that ends up being how they spend the majority of the cycle, when they're not trying to cobble together much needed repairs on the Starblaster. There are some bigger towns but most of the civilization on the part of the world where the Light fell is tribal and nomadic, and they're not particularly willing to make contact. With every expedition they come a little closer to figuring out who has the Light - but it's slow going.

Lup and Barry go out on a scouting mission. They’ve had trouble getting a good signal and don't hear from them for a few days, until one day Barry's voice crackles over the comms. Davenport picks up right away, and Taako, at work in the kitchen, perks up his ears to listen to the update. It’s staticky, and Taako only picks up every few words.

What? Why would I do that?” Davenport demands.

hhhssss - trust - hhsssssss - Captain, we'll explain when - hhhsss…” the rest is lost to static, at least to Taako's ears. He tries not to worry about it as Davenport hangs up the communicator, calling for Lucretia.

He's just got his quiche in the oven when he feels the wards come down. An instant later a sound makes his ears stand straight up. Like paper tearing. He darts into the common area to find Davenport, Lucretia, Merle and Magnus standing at attention as Lup and Barry step out of a familiar rift in space. He looks nervous, she looks pissed.

They're followed shortly by black boots and a feathered cloak and a scythe. Taako freezes. His breath lodges in his throat.

“Lup, Barry,” Davenport says, and it gives Taako chills to hear that tone, “What have you done?”

They don't get a chance to reply.

“Captain Davenport, I presume?” Kravitz’s smile is mild, but his crimson eyes are piercing.

Davenport nods, expression carefully neutral.

“My name is Kravitz,” he says, as Taako’s heart pounds loud in his ears, loud enough to drown them all out. “And we need to have a talk.”

Chapter Text

There’s a split second, barely that, where everyone goes tense, judging whether this is a moment to fight or flee. Only once before has Kravitz - as a reaper - managed to invade the ship. They’d gotten lucky that time - most of them were on board to fight back and they’d managed to drive him away. But it had been close, too close. Lucretia had begun developing her anti-undead wards immediately.

Before anyone can act Barry steps forward, half in front of Kravitz. “He’s not here to take us in! Just to talk.”

Davenport doesn’t look convinced, expression stern, standing surprisingly tall for a gnome. He looks to Merle, who has just wandered in looking baffled at the scene before him; Taako nearly laughs, more out of hysteria than because anything here is particularly funny, but bites down on the inside of his cheek to stop it.

“I’m sure you won’t mind our cleric making sure of that,” Davenport says, with a meaningful look ato Merle.


Davenport sighs. “Zone of Truth, Merle.”

“Right, right! My specialty!”

“Your only spell, more like,” Magnus mutters, as Merle retrieves the extreme teen bible, flipping through it’s dog eared pages.

Kravitz considers this for a moment, then gestures for Merle to proceed, still smiling. “Of course. I’ve no reason to lie.”

The spell settles over them, Merle’s magic familiar and tingly and warm at the edges of Taako’s mind. He fails his save, distracted - stunned by the sight of Kravitz standing in his living room - but he doesn’t plan on opening his mouth regardless, doesn’t trust himself not to say some absolute nonsense enchanted or not. As Merle sets his book aside, Davenport instructs Kravitz, “Tell us a lie.”

Kravitz opens his mouth, but nothing comes out, struggling against some unseen force. “I can’t,” he says. Davenport nods, satisfied, and gestures for Kravitz to sit.

Taako still has to resist the bizarre urge to laugh, he thinks if he lets himself he won’t be able to stop, or he’ll burst into tears, it’s anyone’s guess. The Grim Reaper, in his feathered cloak and his pristine suit and his scythe within arms reach, sitting on their lumpy, stitched up couch, is so surreal Taako’s not entirely convinced he hasn’t lost it. And he can’t stop looking at him.

Gradually, the rest of the crew take their seats, save for Davenport, and Taako, who remains frozen in the doorway. No one is sure how to act. They had a year of Kravitz as their ally and friend, and with no sign of him over halfway through this cycle they thought they’d dodged him yet again. But here he is again, in this undefined context, no script to follow. Taako locks eyes with Lup for a moment, looking for any guidance, any explanation for this.

What the fuck? He mouths, nodding toward Kravitz. She cringes, gives a minute shake of her head as if to say we’ll talk later; yeah they sure as shit will talk later. He assumes that whatever this is, it wasn’t her idea, but even so, what the fuck.

“You understand my apprehension,” Davenport says, impressively calm and collected. Standing, he’s at eye level with Kravitz. Taako wonders if he’s under the effects of the Zone of Truth - he’s usually pretty good at avoiding spells like that, but it’s hard to say. “You’re not exactly the first reaper we’ve encountered.”

Kravitz nods. “So I’ve heard. But as your colleague already said, I’m only here to talk. No need for violence.”

His scythe vanishes in a puff of smoke as if to illustrate this, though it’s less than comforting knowing he can summon it at a moment’s notice. It’s replaced by a familiar tome, thick and ancient, which hovers in the air as Kravitz flips through the seemingly endless pages. “This book,” Kravitz explains, “contains records of every person who has ever died. Imagine my shock, Captain, when the seven of you appeared in it without warning - as if you had only just been born into the world - with dozens of deaths already under your belts. You - Merle, was it?”

Merle chuckles, certainly already knowing what Kravitz is going to say. “Yeah, that’d be me.”

“Merle fucking Highchurch,” Kravitz drawls. “The highest bounty I’ve ever hunted. I’m not sure I want to know what you’ve done to rack up such a death count.”

“An unfortunate necessity,” Davenport says.

These are all things they’ve heard before, of course, dozens of times. Kravitz doesn’t know that. The general rule they’ve followed in all their various dealings with the reaper has been to not tell Kravitz about his existence in other planar systems, on the assumption that he wouldn’t believe it. Looks like they’re sticking with that, for now.

Like meeting Kravitz at the Conservatory and getting his permission to tell his future selves about this hadn’t changed everything. And it hadn't, not really. Not for anyone but Taako. And he’s keeping his mouth shut.

Kravitz goes on. “Now, that won’t do. Against the natural order of things and all that. I was prepared to apprehend your colleagues here, but they told me the most curious story.

“Do you even know how unique you and your crew are, Captain?” Kravitz leans forward, eyes bright. “I’ve been doing this for quite a while and I’ve never heard of such a thing. Travel between planar systems, being pulled back from death - and through no action of your own! It’s fascinating.”

“We explained the whole sitch, Davenport,” Lup interjects. She’s seated on the arm of the couch, arms crossed over her chest. Her eyes keep flicking over to Taako, who has no idea what must be showing on his face right now. “The mission, Light of Creation, yadda-yadda.”

“And we managed to work out a deal,” Barry finishes.

Kravitz sits back, watching Davenport carefully. “Your mission is obviously important, as far as I understand it. Your repeated returns from death and unfortunate but apparently necessary evil. Therefore, I’m not here to collect on your bounty, much as that pains me. What I - and the goddess I serve - don’t understand is how this is happening, what exactly is doing this to you. That’s a problem for me.”

“What kind of deal did you discuss?” Davenport asks, with a pointed look at Barry and Lup that leaves no room for interpretation. “I don’t make these decisions without consulting my crew.

“We weren’t going to agree to anything without your approval,” Barry says quickly, shooting a nervous look at Kravitz.

“By order of Her Majesty, the Raven Queen, I am charged to stay close and observe your crew for a while. To try to come to some sort of understanding of how this is happening, in order to keep it from happening to anyone else. Your bounties will no longer be taken into account, none of you will be harmed by my hand nor by any other of Her retinue -” here he flashes a stern look - “unless, of course, it turns out that you have been intentionally performing necromancy. And I’m not to interfere with your mission beyond observing you.”

“Stay here?” Taako blurts out, voice high and strained. “Like on the ship?

For the first time since stepping through the portal Kravitz takes notice of him, red eyes meeting gold. Just for a moment, but to Taako it feels like minutes, thrilling fear and sickening joy welling up in his lungs and sticking in his throat. He thinks after all this time he ought to be able to read the expression on Kravitz’s face but he just sees the flicker of something, some hint of an unnamed emotion, pass across his face before he looks away, and Taako lets out a breath - like he’s been released from some hold.

“I won’t be in your way, I assure you,” Kravitz says. “I’ve no interest in impeding your work, nor do I require food and sleep.”

“I’m against it,” Lup chimes in. “Just for the record.”

“Noted,” Davenport says. Now he, too glances at Taako, just for a moment. “Frankly, Kravitz, I’m not sure how much you’ll be able to learn from us. We’ve been at this a long time and we’re no closer to understanding it ourselves.”

“That may be so, Captain, but you have your mission and I have mine.” Kravitz leans back on the couch, ankle crossed over his knee. Confident, as he always is, but in a wholly different way than the Kravitz they knew at the Conservatory had been. That was the equal parts arrogance and doubt of a gifted youth; this, the self assuredness of a man who has been doing his job for a long time and knows that he’s good at it, who knows that whatever game he’s playing he’ll win. “Tedious work for me, I’m afraid, but all in all a good deal for you. A far cry better than being taken directly to the Astral Plane.”

His tone is light, conversational, but there’s an edge to it, a warning. In Kravitz’s mind the negotiation is already over.

“I don’t know about this,” Magnus speaks up. “Doesn’t seem like the best idea, letting the guy who was trying to kill us onto our base.”

“You won’t come to any harm by my hand,” Kravitz repeats.

“Bud, I’m inclined to agree, but he is under the Zone of Truth,” Merle says. “Far as he knows he’s telling the truth.”

“Until he decides we’ve broken our end of the deal and kills us anyway! You don’t make deals with Death, guys, that’s 101! I’m voting no.”

“All opposed?” Davenport interrupts, undoubtedly sensing the debate they’ll be drawn into if they don’t settle this now.

Lup and Magnus raise their hands, while Merle hems and haws before ultimately leaving his down. Lucretia also hesitates, but responds to Lup’s raised eyebrow with a murmur of, “I’m curious to see what he manages to figure out.” Taako’s fingers curl tight around the doorframe.

“And in favor?”

Taako still doesn’t waise a hand, even as Barry, Merle, and Lucretia do. Davenport looks at Taako, conflicted, Taako has to guess, as to whether or not he should be allowed a vote.

“I gotta get that quiche out of the oven,” he blurts. It takes effort to wrench himself away, to retreat to the safety of his kitchen. The quiche won’t be done for another twenty minutes. Taako leans on the counter and makes himself continue to breathe steadily, eyes squeezed shut.

He’d known he’d have to deal with Kravitz in some capacity again. It’s not like the universe to give him a break. He’s played and replayed every possible scenario, keeping him from peacefully meditating, every what-if he can imagine. What if Kravitz attacked them on sight, and Taako froze up like he hasn’t in years. What if he were mortal again. What if - and these are the most painful thoughts - what if he decided to show Kravitz the recording on the coin. What if Kravitz actually believed him, and this stupid fantasy of theirs worked.

What if one day he could remember Taako, or come close enough.

He’s replayed conversations in his head and imagined ones he’ll never get to have and every possibility hurts, even the good ones, because they’re the furthest out of reach. Somehow the idea of Kravitz being here on the ship, for an extended period of time, never fucking crossed his mind. Go figure.

It’s a small ship. It only has one shitty, tiny bathroom. You can’t avoid anyone for long here. He’s not sure he’d even be able to bring himself to. He shoves his hand into his pocket, squeezing the coin until it hurts.

“That’s settled, then,” Davenport says. Taako missed the final vote but he can take a guess as to the results - the captain doesn’t sound entirely happy. “You’re dismissed, but we’ll meet for a debriefing after dinner.  Magnus, Lucretia, I suppose you ought to acquaint Kravitz with the ship, so get to it. Barry, you’re at the helm, we’re going to land for a few days, same place as usual. Lup, you’re with me.”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Lup mutters; Taako can picture the sarcastic gesture of her salute. Taako takes another breath, holds it in and lets it out slow, eyes still closed.

That’s settled, then.

He stands at attention as Lup and Davenport make their way into the kitchen - a glance through the doorway and he catches the end of Kravitz’s cloak, swirling about his feet as he rounds the corner, following Magnus out. He ignores the urge to chase after them, drags his eyes away from the space that Kravitz occupied moments ago.

“So, what the actual fuck, Lulu,” he says. Means it to sound light and joking, but it doesn’t come out that way.

“I’m so so so so sorry,” Lup says in a rush, like she’s been dying to say it since she got back, doesn’t even give him shit for the nickname for once. She sinks into a chair but stands a moment later, too much nervous energy to stay still. “Everything was happening too fast, I didn’t want to bring him here but he didn’t give us a choice.”

He’s angry but not enough to keep him from worrying, he reaches for her and with that permission she tugs him into a hug. “He didn’t hurt you?” That’s the most important thing, that’s the only thing that really matters - no matter how much he loves Kravitz, if he lays a hand on Lup he’s done.

“God, no, don’t worry about me.” She squeezes him tight before letting go.

“Good, okay, literally what the fuck?” It’s not fair to be mad and he knows that, he knows she wouldn’t have brought Kravitz here if she had any other choice, even with Barry they might not have been able to fight Kravitz alone. That’s how he works, getting them alone or in small groups and picking them off. Logically he knows all this, but he is not feeling particularly logical. “I can’t fucking believe this, I’m supposed to just live with him for the next three months?”

“Enough,” Davenport says, before Lup can respond. “It’s not ideal, but Lup and Barry did the right thing considering the circumstances. No point in arguing.”

Davenport reaches into one of the cabinets, all built low to the ground to accommodate gnomes and dwarves as well as for safety reasons, and retrieves a quarter-full bottle of Gnomish liquor that he breaks out only when he really needs it, as well as a glass for each of them. He pours a small amount in each, and Taako accepts it gratefully, downing it in one go.

“We only have a few months left in this cycle,” Davenport continues. “We can handle it for that long. Perhaps he’ll even have some insight into the resets that we haven’t been able to see."

“Doubt it,” Lup mutters, swirling the drink around in her glass. “After all the hours we’ve spent trying to work it out?”

“Doubtless he has tools at his disposal that we don’t. That’s not really our problem. Taako -” He’s surprised at the softness in Davenport’s tone, and looks away. “I need to know if you’re going to be alright with this going forward.”

God. He doesn’t know, he doesn’t know. He doesn’t want to be here and he doesn’t want Kravitz to leave so where does that leave him. Doesn’t really matter if he’s alright with it anyway, he didn’t get a vote. Even though the liquor isn’t sitting well in his stomach he pours a little more; no one stops him.

He can lie, now, with the zone of truth fizzled out, which is somewhat comforting.  “I’m always alright,” he says quietly, staring at a stain on the countertop. A lie, but not really because they know him too well to believe it.

“Are you going to tell him?” Lup asks.

“No. Fuck, I don’t know.”

The answer has to be no, doesn’t it? He’d decided, last year, that he was done with this. Done letting himself be hurt.

Davenport takes a drink and continues. “We’ll need to send out the next expedition soon, I think. With how long it’s taken to travel anywhere in this region we need as much of a head start as we can get.”

Taako nods, only half-listening. The Light landed in a mountainous, heavily forested region, so when they do have the ship docked it’s been in the lowlands, the only flat area where they can land and not disturb the locals - not much technological advancement in this plane, revealing the ship would be too disruptive. Expeditions to find the Light, therefore, have been long and arduous, making their way up through the mountains and dense woods just to get to the sequestered tribes that populate it - who, turns out, aren’t keen on strangers showing up out of the blue - and then having to track down which tribe currently has the Light by word-of-mouth. They finally know who has it, but now they have to get there. All in all, it’s been an incredibly inconvenient cycle even without their unexpected guest.

“Me ‘n Barry can go back out, Cap,” Lup says. “Considering we ended up coming back early. Should probably take Magnus with us though, the locals turned out to be pretty hostile, I don’t think they’ll give up the Light easily.”

“We’ll discuss it at the debriefing,” Davenport says. His eyes are still on Taako, and it’s making him feel all squirmy. “Taako, if you would prefer to go on the mission rather than stay on the ship this time, you have - what is it Magnus always says? First dibs?”

Taako raises his eyebrows. “You never send me out,” he says suspiciously. Not often, and not on long wilderness expeditions like this. He’s a scientist and a chef and a con man - not an adventurer. Maybe he’ll go out to look for supplies, scavenging for spell components or materials to fix the ship, foraging for food if they have no way to purchase it. He’s good at all that, especially with Lup at his side, that’s how they spent their childhood. But he’s not much of a fighter or a diplomat, unless they need someone to sneak around and steal the Light he’s not exactly ideal for this mission. Which means -

“You want me away from Kravitz.”

“I’m offering the option, if you think it would be better for you to stay away from him. This isn’t an order, Taako, it’s up to you.”

Kravitz on the ship, day in and day out. Impossible to avoid unless Taako leaves. The worst part, Taako thinks, is how fucking happy he’d been in the moments after Kravitz stepped back into his life, a horrible instant of joy until he came to his senses. How much a part of him wants Kravitz to be here.

“I’ll be okay,” Taako insists. “I can handle it.”

“I’m sure you can,” Davenport agrees. “But you don’t have to. I know how hard the last year has been for you.”

He’d rather forget last year. The one before it too. A nightmare he’s at the edge of being dragged back into if he’s not careful, if he stops moving, if he lets his guard down for a second.

But doesn’t he have to do this, doesn’t he have to at least try? Stand his ground and prove it to himself if no one else that he’s stronger than this? He’ll make himself stronger if that’s what it takes, he has to know he can move on.

“Look. I know it’s not him." He says quietly. “I mean, it is. It is Kravitz. But it’s not - he’s not mine, I'm not stupid. And I may be a little shaken - if you tell anyone that I’ll turn you into a ferret - but I can handle this.”

One thing that Taako appreciates about Davenport: the trust he places in his team. Taako doesn’t trust easily that’s no secret, but he’s a survivor. Survival means trusting your people implicitly, whoever they may be. For a long time it was Lup and only Lup. Now it’s his crew and he doesn’t need anything more than that.

Davenport is a survivor, too. So when he regards him for a moment and then nods, Taako knows it’s because he trusts him, knows that it means something.

Taako just hopes he’s right to.

The timer beeps, the quiche ready to take out, and Davenport takes that as the signal to vacate the kitchen. Taako still has a salad to prepare, and only Lup is allowed in the kitchen with Taako unless he’s in a very good mood. And sure enough Lup stays, watching as Taako pulls out a cutting board, a knife, a handful of vegetables. He waits for her to join him but she hesitates.

“Are we good?” She asks quietly.

He doesn’t answer - doesn’t have to, not with words. Yes, he’s angry, but of course they’re okay, she didn’t drag Kravitz on the ship just to torture him. It would kill her to think she hurt him like that. He passes her a tomato to dice, and one of his best paring knives, knowing she’ll understand the gesture for what it is. She smiles in relief as she joins him at the counter, bright as the sun.

If the dumpster fire that was the past year has taught Taako anything, it’s that the best way to avoid tumbling into a bottomless pit of unbearably annoying angst is to stay busy. It would be easier, certainly, to lay in bed late into the morning and ruminate on how hard this will be, how much could go wrong. So he takes pride in hopping out of bed almost as soon as the morning sun streams through his window. Lots of work to do, and he’s not about to start the day on an empty stomach. So. Breakfast.

If there’s one silver lining to his chronic insomnia it’s that he’s gotten used to early mornings, if not by choice. He takes the time to bask in being alone in his kitchen for once without having to shoo everyone out, makes himself a big pot of tea and starts to scrounge up whatever he can for breakfast. Despite trying to use them up in last night’s quiche they still have a shitload of eggs, so he starts there, finds sausages in the icebox and transmutes them into something spicier, salvages tortillas on the verge of going stale. The kitchen fills with the scent of spices, of oil sizzling in cast iron.

Footsteps shatter the peace, heels clicking on a steel floor. “Oh, pardon me.”

Taako’s heart jumps. He looks up as Kravitz pauses in the entryway - flustered, obviously, but trying not to look like it. He doesn’t do anything - doesn’t leave, doesn’t cross through the kitchen into the other room, he just… stares. And Taako can’t help but stare back.

He’s got a bit of a beard this cycle. That’s new. It’s trimmed short and neat, and even though Taako knows he can change his appearance at will it looks like he shaves by hand anyway, a slight imperfection that makes it look better, a hint of stubble starting to grow on his neck. There are small hints of gray at his temples, and one loc is stark white where the hair grows from a pale patch on his scalp.

It’s a very good look, is the thing, and Taako’s mouth is suddenly dry. He reaches for his now lukewarm tea and downs half the mug. “Looking for something?” He asks sharply.

“Ah. No. Just got turned around.”

“No death crimes happening in my kitchen, bones, that’s a guarantee.”

Kravitz doesn’t laugh. That’s probably better, because there’s something about Kravitz’s laugh that always makes Taako’s knees wobble, but he still longs to hear it. “Taako, isn’t it? We weren’t introduced.”

“Breakfast’ll be ready in ten, tea in the kettle is still hot,” Taako says, at a loss for anything else to say. Well, there are a hundred things he wants to say, just nothing he can. He gestures at the sizzling pan, the eggs starting to firm up. “Chilaquiles,” he says awkwardly.

He realizes, too late, that he’s made this for Kravitz before. That morning when he reintroduced him to the rest of the crew after they got together. When the future seemed like something that happened to other people.

“I don’t require food,” Kravitz says, almost apologetically.

You have a sweet tooth, Taako thinks.You love anything with chocolate, you cover everything in hot sauce, you eat Fantasy Oreos the wrong way. Every time I cook you say it’s the best thing you’ve ever eaten.

“Okay? I don’t ‘require’ sleep, it’s still fun,” Taako points out.

This is already a much longer conversation than he ever planned on having with Kravitz. And he doesn’t know what to make of the way Kravitz is looking at him, like he’s seen Taako somewhere before, but can’t quite remember. He doesn’t want to care about what he knows Kravitz is feeling right now. The confusion, the longing that he can’t explain.

Or maybe that’s just projection on Taako’s part.

Doesn’t matter.

When Kravitz remains silent, Taako rolls his eyes and turns back to the stove. “Cool, good talk.”

The hair on the back of his neck prickles as Kravitz watches him for a few long moments, long enough that it occurs to Taako that he could make Kravitz do something useful like set the table, if he’s going to hang around. But when he looks back up, Kravitz is gone.

By design, Taako hardly sees Kravitz in the next few days. He stays busy. Spends time with Lup and Barry while he has the chance, volunteers to go out to collect food to preserve for the upcoming expedition - there’s a lake nearby where he can fish for a few hours. The less he’s on the ship the better. He almost feels like he has a handle on this. There are even times when he doesn’t think about Kravitz at all.

When he is on the ship, Kravitz seems to do his best to avoid Taako, too.

And that should be fine! Ideal, really! He shouldn’t be hurt when Kravitz makes an excuse to leave the room when Taako’s around. When they run into each other in the hall and freeze up and he’ll mutter something and turn around and leave Taako frozen, heart pounding. When he catches Kravitz staring but as soon as he shows he’s noticed Kravitz won’t meet his eye.

But here he is, hurt anyway, and it’s fucking humiliating. And sure, Taako is absolutely avoiding him too, but it’s justifiable for him, Kravitz doesn’t even have an excuse, Taako hasn’t even been that mean to him. But it’s fine, has to be fine, he’s survived so much worse than this, it’s just -

He’s so aware of Kravitz’s presence. Every moment, it feels like his body is tuned to respond to him, ears perked to hear his voice, heart jumping when he sees his face. Laying awake and letting his thoughts get away from him and wondering what if, what if.

On a warm afternoon he and Lup sit out on the deck, soaking up the sun - it’s been rainy so often, this season - and painting each other’s nails. They’d done Magnus’s, too, but he’s already left, busy with ship repairs and caring for the voidfish. Taako doesn’t mean for the conversation to turn to Kravitz, but it’s hard not to. Small ship. Can’t avoid anyone, though to his credit Kravitz takes his promise not to interfere with the mission seriously, unobtrusive as he can be given the circumstances, Taako doesn’t even know what he does when the rest of them are busy.

“What’s he even trying to do, snooping around all the time?” He asks, as Lup shakes a half-empty bottle of nail polish. They picked the most obnoxious colors possible, neon orange and lime green. It’s great.

Lup rolls her eyes. “I don’t know. Asking lots of questions. Treating us all like his fuckin’ test subjects,” she grumbles. Everyone else at least pretends to be accommodating to Kravitz. Barry and Lucretia don’t even mind him being around, now that he’s shown that he’s not trying to trick them. Merle, despite being interrogated most often due to his absurd death count, doesn’t even seem bothered. Lup, however, makes no secret of how much she hates him being here. Taako is pretty sure it’s supposed to be on his behalf, but not sure it’s helping.

“What kind of questions?” Taako prompts, while trying not to sound too interested. She swipes the polish across his nails, alternating, green then orange then green again.

“About our deaths, mainly. And the ship. Sooo many questions about the ship, can’t blame him, guess he’s probably never seen this kind of tech, but still.” She pauses, blows on his hand to dry the polish, her breath magically warmed. She glances at him, eyebrows raised. “Has he not interrogated you at all?”

“That’s such a harsh word,” Taako says. “But, uh. No, actually. Not at all.”

Lup chews at her bottom lip. “Huh.”




“He asks about you sometimes.”

Now that’s interesting. “Does he? About what?”

“About the times you’ve died, mostly. Figured he was just confirming whatever you told him.”

Taako lays back, the picture of casual, closing his eyes against the sun. “Huh.” Then,“Ow!” as Lup, the absolute terror that she is, flicks his nose with her fingernail.

“Don’t pout, dingus. Do mine next so we can match.”

“Who’s pouting?” He grumbles, rubbing at his nose and then dragging himself back up. “This is great! I don’t even have to try to stay out of his way because he obviously can’t fuckin’ stand me anyway, perfect.

“Yeah, it is," Lup insists. “There’s only like, three months left, even if you did decide to try again with him - which I still think is a shitty idea - this isn’t the cycle to do it.”

She tosses him the bottle of nail polish, which he catches in his cupped palms. Lup can never manage to keep polish on her hands for long, so he paints her toenails instead.

“Hear me out though, just a thought experiment,” he says, not making eye contact. “What if… it did work out.”

“Don’t go there, babe.”

“I just want him to talk to me,” he says, and if he’s whining who can blame him. “I mean. I think I do.”

Sometimes he does, other times he never wants to see Kravitz again.

“I know you miss him,” Lup says gently, “but this isn’t him. You know that.”

“Don’t know why you ever bother painting them,” Taako says, finishing one foot and moving on to the other. “You’ve leaving for the wilderness in like two days, who’s gonna notice your feet?”

“Barry will,” she says smugly.


“Ew, not like that, dumbass. Oh yeah, I meant to talk to you about that -”

“About your boyfriend’s foot fetish?” Taako shrieks.

“I’m dead and in hell shut up!” She kicks him, he shoves her, and a bottle of nail polish is sacrificed to the tussle, green spilling out on the deck. Neither can agree on whose fault it is.

“Okay but really,” she says after a minute, waiting for her polish to dry. “About the expedition, I can still back out if you want. Have Lucy or Merle go, if you want me to stick around.”

It’s tempting. They work best as a team, and he’s used to not being attached at the hip anymore but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want her around. “Want a second coat?” He asks.

“Use the sparkly one.”

He grabs a third bottle, clear and glittery, and shakes it up. “You hate staying behind,” he reminds her.

“Sure, but -”

“Don’t do it just because of me. I’m fine, Lu. Really. You don’t need to protect me.”

“I do, though.” She peers at him a moment, as if trying to read his mind, and seems to find whatever she’s looking for. “You’re a badass. You got this.”

“Damn straight.”

Taako would magic missle anyone's ass if they made him admit it, but his favorite times are when they have everyone together for a while, when the ship is loud and overcrowded and he has the excuse to make huge meals. Sue him. He’s been traveling with these assholes for over half a human lifespan, at this point, he’s practically obligated to care about them at this point. Even if he has to fight Merle for the bathroom in the mornings.

Much as he’d like to keep them all here within arm’s reach for the rest of the cycle, though, they can’t put off the search for the Light. It’s settled, after a couple of meetings, that Magnus, Lup, and Barry will set out, while the rest stay behind - too big of a party will only slow them down and they don’t have that much time. Merle volunteers to go as well, but Kravitz requests that he stay - between his absurd amount of deaths and his connection to the Hunger, he’s the most valuable resource Kravitz has at the moment vis a vis reporting back to the Raven Queen. Davenport doesn’t like making decisions based on Kravitz, but on this he relents.

Ones plans are made there isn’t much preparation needed. They’ve been stashing supplies and and mapping out the route since Lup and Barry returned from the last expedition. The last evening all together, possibly for the rest of the cycle, is spent around a big bonfire, sitting in the grass or on logs that Magnus cut down, making a dent in the considerable amount of alcohol they’ve hoarded over the years. They roast their food over the open flame and sing raunchy songs they’ve learned along the way. The summer air is thick, heavy and warm, the stars still bright overhead, or as bright as they can be this close to the end of a cycle.

Even Kravitz joins them, though it’s clear he’s not sure if he’s welcome. He sits across the fire from Taako, nursing a glass of some kind of amber liquor, engaging in conversation when drawn into it or offering up his own repertoire of drinking songs, but otherwise quiet, out of place in their group. For Taako, it’s bizarre to look over and see him, and at the same time, perfectly right, so right that he startles when he remembers that Kravitz shouldn’t be here at all. He has to remind himself how temporary this is. How this isn’t him, not the Kravitz they all came to care for at the Conservatory. How he can’t just go over there and curl up next to him, lay that feathered cloak out on the grass and look up at the stars.

He does his damndest not to think about it, to sink into the energy of this night. He commandeers a bottle of red wine just for himself and drinks straight from the bottle, laughs too loud, joins Magnus in another verse of the rowdy drinking song, one they learned something like twenty years ago but have added increasingly dirty and absurd verses to over the years.

He catches Kravitz’s eye, more than once. Kravitz’s gaze burns so intense it makes Taako’s breath catch painfully in his chest. Or maybe that’s just the fire reflecting in his eyes, accentuating the deep red. Taako wonders if sitting by the fire has warmed his frigid skin.

He takes another long drink, and when he looks back Kravitz is in conversation with Merle. The dwarf seems to be trying, unsuccessfully, to get him to dance.

Taako just wants to be distracted. To think of anything but Kravitz, or to indulge in thinking of nothing but Kravitz. He wants to party with his friends and cook an enormous breakfast to cure their inevitable morning hangovers (he can always tell; Lucretia’s putting away glass after glass of wine, loose enough to lean on Taako’s shoulder and talk without thinking carefully through every single syllable; Davenport is already recounting embellished tales of daredevil piloting.) He wants to feel only good things, untinged by all the bad, but the bad has already crept in.

Fuck this, moping about when Kravitz isn’t even thinking of him at all.  

He pulls himself up, wine bottle dangling between his fingers. Lup, currently sprawled out over both Lucretia and Magnus’s laps somehow, immediately sits up to follow, disrupting Lucretia as she runs her fingers through Lup’s bright hair.

He waves her off. “Just taking a walk,” he assures her.

“You want company, Taako?” Magnus calls after him. Drawing attention to the fact that he’s leaving, but Taako supposes it doesn’t matter.

“I’m good, pumpkin, thanks.”

“Okay! Love you!”

Taako turns to blow Magnus a kiss as he goes. It’s comforting to hear the revelry in the background as he wanders away, to know they’ll still be there - they’ll always be there - when he’s ready to return. He ponders his course - could wander into the woods, but he doesn’t know it well, and there are always so many bugs out after dark. Instead he finds himself back at the ship, looking up at the engine at it’s stern.

He’s always found some measure of security in the bond engine. The way that, even when dormant - as it is now - it’s always on, always humming softly. A constant in a life with so few constants, whatever happens to them it’ll get them to safety, that’s not something Taako was ever able to rely on, back home. It almost seems to have a personality of it’s own at times, reacting differently depending on who’s piloting the ship. It likes Davenport the best, of course. Loves it when Lup takes the wheel and Taako acts as navigator, theirs is a bond that always has it revving. It might be silly to personify a piece of machinery, no matter how advanced, but it’s been with them through so much. Taako lifts a hand to rest it on the bottom edge of the engine’s ring, watches it gently glow in response and then settle.

“Are you alright?”

Taako drops his hand as if burned, jerks his head around to face the voice. Kravitz has emerged from the dark not far away. His hands are tucked into his pockets, no jacket or coat in the summer heat. It’s the closest they’ve come to being alone since he showed up.

“Why do you care?” Taako asks. Doesn’t care if he’s harsh. He has no idea why Kravitz would try to talk to him now.

Kravitz struggles to answer, eventually looks away. “Nevermind. Sorry to intrude.” He starts to turn.

“Hey Skeletor,” Taako calls out, making Kravitz pause and turn back. “Yeah, hey, you. Did I do something to fuckin’ offend you, or what? What’s the deal here, bud?”

Kravitz blinks, looking baffled. “You think you’ve offended me?”

“Ch’yeah? Dunno what, since you can’t stand to be in the same room long enough for me to do anything. And that’s saying something! One time I made a secretary quit her job in less than five minutes!”

“Weird flex, but okay.”

“I’m like, literally the best person to talk to about death shenanigans, I remember the Veil and everything, and you don’t even want a piece of this?” Taako takes a swig from the bottle. He knows he’s being stupid. That this is a stupid, bad idea. But he’s so sick of this. “I’m dying to know, bone daddy, what the fuck did I ever do to you?”

It takes him a moment to realize that Kravitz is laughing at him, shoulders shaking, as he cautiously approaches, like one might approach a stray cat. “Taako, I was just wondering what I did to offend you.

“Me?” Taako snorts.

“Yes? Ever since I arrived here you’ve made every possible excuse not to be around me. You’ve spend nearly every day off the ship.”

“Maybe I just don’t trust strangers,” Taako shoots back.

God, this would be easier if Kravitz were a stranger.

Kravitz offers his hand. Taako just looks at it, eyebrows raised. “Let’s not be strangers, then,” Kravitz says.

Taako looks at the outstretched hand. The patches of white skin that make the vague shape of fingerbones, the neatly trimmed nails, the calluses on his palms where he holds his scythe and on his fingertips from the press of cello strings. Details that could trick Taako into thinking he’s mortal. Or maybe he keeps those little reminders of life, of being a person. “Why now?” Taako asks, crossing his arms.

Kravitz cocks his head to the side. “Sorry?”

“What’s your play here? Lup tells me everything, babe, you spend all week avoiding me and asking around about me and suddenly you wanna be besties?”

“I admit, I have an ulterior motive,” Kravitz flashes a smile. “If I’m to be with your crew for a while, it seems a shame to deny myself the company of one as obviously brilliant and beautiful as yourself.”

Taako likes to think he can flirt with the best of them, but he’s sure that the tips of his ears are burning red right now. “Can’t just say that shit,” he mutters, looking down.

“I expect nothing of you.” Kravitz’s hand remains resolutely outstretched. “But I find myself… drawn to you, Taako. In a way I cannot explain. And perhaps that… unnerved me, for a while. I wasn't sure how to handle it.”

There are times when Taako doubts the bond he has with Kravitz, and then he goes and says shit like that, this too a constant, something he’s heard from Kravitz so many times in one way or another. Taako laughs under his breath. He can’t help it. It feels like a game, pretending not to know him, like soon they’ll laugh about this and give up the act and just be themselves again.

He shakes Kravitz’s hand. And he can’t bring himself to tug it away when Kravitz lifts it to his lips, shivers at the soft, icy touch, and his heart feels like it’s going to crawl up his throat.

The bond engine grows louder behind them, a faint glow shining from the ring almost hesitantly. Oh fuck off, Taako thinks in its general direction, like it gives a shit. It catches Kravitz’s eye, and he looks like he’s about to ask a question, but Taako cuts him off. “So what did Lup threaten you with?” He teases, letting his hand fall back to his side.

Right on the nose, apparently. Kravitz winces. “How did you -”

“It’s Lup. I know.”

“She did heavily imply that should would make me wish I could die again if I, quote, ‘fucked with her brother.’ Thought it best to stay on the safe side.”

Of course she did. Super cool. Taako rolls his eyes, takes a long drink from the bottle. “So you were just, what, not gonna talk to me ever, was that your big plan?”

“She’s quite convincing.”

“Well,” Taako purrs. “She’s not here now.”

“That she isn’t.”

Kravitz’s eyes are hooded and dark, and shit this is so bad,  and Taako can’t bring himself to care anymore. Fuck it. Fuck this. He can’t bring himself to be around Kravitz and just ignore him. Maybe it was a lost cause from the very beginning.

He offers up the mostly-empty bottle. “I know you don’t eat, but do you drink, handsome?”

“I’ve been known to indulge.” Kravitz glances briefly at the label, and wrinkles his nose. “‘Two Buck Chuck?”

“Believe it or not this was considered fine wine back in cycle thirty-seven.”


While Kravitz polishes off the last of the mediocre wine, Taako turns back to the bond engine. It hasn’t settled down; if anything it’s glowing brighter. “Don’t get excited,” he mutters under his breath. Even though it isn’t him, isn’t the right Kravitz, the bond engine is still reacting to that same bond between them, stretched so thin and taut.

“What’s it doing?” Kravitz asks, coming to stand next to Taako, close enough that Taako can feel the coolness of his skin in the sticky summer air. He shivers, but doesn’t step away. “What activated it?”

“Damn thing has a mind of its own, I wouldn’t worry.” Taako pats the engine fondly.

“It didn’t start glowing until I came over,” Kravitz points out.

“How about that.”

Kravitz reaches up, brushing his fingers against the machine. When it’s humming grows stronger he draws them away, startled. “I still don’t understand,” he admits. “Your captain has tried to explain this… mechanism to me, but I can’t quite wrap my head around it.”

“How so?” Taako leans up against the side of the ship, facing Kravitz.

“Like… how it uses bonds as fuel? It’s such an abstract concept, there’s nothing tangible.”

“Ohh, okay, that’s where you’re getting it twisted.” Taako can’t help but let a little excitement creep into his voice - he’s one of the multiverse’s only experts in bond theory, he never gets to talk about this shit.

“Maybe you can enlighten me? Davenport’s explanations were quite technical. Obviously your society was far more advanced than us.”

The metal of the ship is cold against Taako’s back. It keeps him focused, present in the moment - he knows he can’t let his guard down, no matter how trustworthy Kravitz may seem. “Right, so, it’s not just a ‘concept’, forget that. Bonds are just as tangible as… molecules, atoms.”

“How? You can’t feel them, can’t observe them.”

“We can and we have. With the Light of Creation. Which, disclaimer, we never would have been able to build this beauty without the Light.”

Taako thinks for a moment - he forgets how alien this whole concept is to some, it’s such an everyday facet of his life. He reaches out a hand to Kravitz, who hesitates but rests his hand over Taako’s. Not quite holding it. Taako ignores the cold of his skin, so strange now. When Kravitz was alive Taako had touched his hand and thought it was strange to feel it warm. Now the cold is alien to him.

“Okay,” Taako says. Ignoring all of that, how it feels to touch Kravitz, because he’s a scientist, he’s explaining science right now, he can stop being a sad gay mess for two goddamn seconds. “So you're touching me right now. Simple. But there’s a reaction happening here. All the zillions of neutrons and protons that make us pushing and pulling at each other. That’s happening with everything all the time, these reactions between things we can’t perceive.”

“Right,” Kravitz says slowly.

“Or… on a bigger scale, you have gravity. Magnetism, that’s a very specific bond. Things pushing and pulling on other things, reacting to each other. Hell, magic is like that if you think about it, reactions manipulated for specific purposes. This is all way oversimplified, but you get it.”

“So bonds are… everything.”

“They’re what’s in the space between everything, the relationship between things.” He finds himself squeezing Kravitz’s hand, as if to illustrate this point. “Everything has a bond with every other thing, and that’s how the universe holds itself together. And that in itself, that reaction, is a kind of energy. But that’s small scale shit, we sort of knew that already. The big discovery was that emotional bonds - the bonds between people - act on the same principle. Which absolutely sounds like bullshit, but it’s true. And it turns out those out those bonds in particular are a huge energy source.

“Strong enough to be used as fuel?” Kravitz looks up and down the ship - kept aloft by friendship. He remembers describing it that way to Kravitz once, a long, long time ago.

“Absolutely, my dude. And infinite, which is the big deal. Space travel was just theoretical for ages because we couldn’t figure out how to fuel it. Even magic is finite, but bonds don’t run out.”

“Strong enough to bring a man back from the dead, perhaps.”

“Maybe. I don’t know.” All the knowledge the Light of Creation granted them, and there’s still so much they don’t understand. “If so, it’s not because of anything we did. Not intentionally. Shit got extremely fucked when we left our plane, we still don’t know what happened.”

“I think I understand. Sort of. So what’s activating it right now?”

Taako shrugs. “It’s kind of always on, probably picking up on the whole crew. Real team bonding hours out here.”

Kravitz looks at him, and then down at the space between them, a glint in his eye. “So it’s nothing to do with how you haven’t let go of my hand?”

He hadn’t noticed and now it’s all he can notice, Kravitz’s fingers threaded through his again for the first time in so long. He thinks that if Kravitz’s tone had been any different - more teasing, more arrogant - he might have jerked his hand away then. And he is teasing but there’s a softness too. Not a joke at Taako’s expense but an acknowledgment, perhaps, of the absurdity of all this, even when Kravitz doesn’t know Taako he understands him.

Or maybe that’s just Taako’s wishful thinking again.

Either way he doesn’t want to let go. Not yet.

“Coincidence,” Taako says flippantly. Kravitz’s eyes crinkle as he smiles. “Don’t get excited, my man.”

“Of course.” Kravitz squeezes his hand once and lets go. Taako flexes his numb fingers and tries - probably fails - to hide his disappointment. “You know, it’s kind of comforting.”

He’s still looking up at the bond engine like it holds all the secrets. Taako just watches him. “What is?”

“Just… knowing that bonds between people matter that much. That they’re real. Even if someone’s gone that bond isn’t broken, is it? It must be tied to the soul. It’s nice. Knowing you’re connected to people, drawing strength from them even if they’re gone, or far away. It just… resonates with me, is all.”

Taako thinks of the image imprinted in his mind ever since his time in the Veil, the bonds, those dozens of cords of light that connected the two of them through every world. He wonders if he would know, if a bond were broken. If they could pull too tight and just snap. Or maybe it would just leave an empty place in him that he would never know how to fill.

“Maybe it would be easier if you could break them,” Taako says.

“Perhaps,” Kravitz murmurs. He finally remembers he’s holding a bottle of wine in the hand that wasn’t holding Taako’s, but finds it empty when he lifts it. “Ah, damn.”

Taako can still hear the crew around the fire, the revelry still going strong despite the late hour. Lup is probably wondering where they are by now. Probably assuming all kinds of things. Taako’s hand has warmed back up but he finds himself wanting the chill of Kravitz’s skin again.

“Gonna head back to the party or turn in?” He asks.

“Haven’t decided.”

“What do you even do when they rest of us are asleep anyway? I mean, even me and Lup meditate a few hours. Do you just creep around the ship or what?”

Kravitz laughs. “I do have other duties besides keeping an eye on you lot. Oftentimes I return to the Astral Plane to report to the Raven Queen. Or take the opportunity to finish up paperwork.”

“Your goddess gives you paperwork?

“The laws of life and death are a delicate system,” Kravitz says, with a long-suffering sigh.

“No fuckin’ kidding. So did Cap’nport give you somewhere to stay, when you do stick around?” When Kravitz shakes his head, Taako pushes down the more logical voice in his head, the one telling him to shut up, the voice he’s so sick of listening to. “I’ve got an extra bunk now that I don’t share with Lup.”

Kravitz’s lips quirk, equal parts curious and amused. Waiting to see where this is going. “You do remember that I don’t require sleep. Neither do you, in fact.

“Oh,” Taako flicks his eyes down to Kravitz’s lips, up and down his body. Kravitz’s eyes burn straight through him. “I wasn’t planning on sleeping.

It’s stupid. So stupid, and he knows it and he doesn’t care. He can’t pretend anymore that he doesn’t want this, that he hasn’t ached for it every day, ached for Kravitz in any way he can have him. So when Kravitz leans in to kiss him, Taako lets it happen. The empty bottle falls to the ground, and the bond engine flares hot, and neither of them pay it any attention. Taako squeezes his eyes shut until lights flash behind them.

Things blur together after that. Teeth and tongue and hands, it all fades together, all distant from Taako. He can’t think too hard about this, if he does it will be over. He’s aware of breathing heavy when they part, of Kravitz’s hand in his again. At some point he must agree to stumble onto the ship, he must lead them to his room, but he doesn’t remember it happening. Shoving Kravitz up against the door as it locks behind him, kissing him again, hard and merciless and devouring.

It’s not him. Not the Kravitz he left behind. But it’s the same body under Taako’s greedy hands, and it’s his voice making those delicious sounds when Taako bites down on his lip, his jaw, his neck. Not him, but it’s all Taako has, so he’ll take it.

“Are you too cold?” Kravitz murmurs, running his hands up and down Taako’s arms. Taako isn’t sure when they made it to the bed. Kravitz’s tie is already tugged loose, Taako’s own shirt lost to the floor.

He doesn’t feel cold, if anything he burns, feverish everywhere Kravitz puts his mouth and hands. But cold is a good excuse for why Taako’s hands won’t stop shaking, so he nods. He can’t look into Kravitz’s eyes. Kravitz’s shirt disappears in a puff of smoke - all part of his construct, Taako supposes, all a performance - and he takes Taako’s hand to rest it on his chest, just over his heart. “Here. Cast Prestidigitation to make heat, it should warm me up.”

“Neat trick.” He knows the spell by heart. He says the word in a voice that doesn’t sound like his, and for an instant Kravitz’s chest glows inside, before it quickly simmers into a warmth that radiates steadily with each mimicry of a heartbeat. “You good?”

“Very good,” Kravitz says, voice low, lying back and pulling Taako with him. Taako straddles his waist, leans over to capture now warm lips.

It’s not quite like body warmth. More like the heat that clings to the skin after sitting close to a fireplace, but close enough. Close enough that it nearly feels real. Nearly feels like him. Enough for Taako to pretend. The body beneath him, the hands spread across his back, all achingly familiar and needed except…

Except for the ways he isn’t. The way Kravitz kisses like it’s a question, the way he doesn’t know yet where to put his hands, all things he knew so well after a year together - the exact way to make Taako melt into his arms, to kiss deep and dirty, to hold Taako’s face in his hands or run those hands through his hair. For a moment, even with the warmth, it’s not him Taako is grasping for anymore but the version of Kravitz he’d brought back to his room the very first time, all those years ago, ancient and new and so strange. Not a distant memory anymore but real and immediate, a stranger in his bed, and old regret catching up.

Taako had known even then how stupid it was to let Kravitz get close. He’s always known and nothing has changed. Not even after him. He just keeps making the same mistakes, so predictable, so stupid, cycles and cycles and cycles -

There are several moments where he has no idea what he’s been doing, isn’t really there at all. He knows he must go very still because Kravitz stops and lets his hands fall away, as decidedly as if Taako had ordered him to out loud. As soon as he’s released, Taako pushes himself back, away from Kravitz, perched at the very edge of the bed. His breathing is rough and loud in his own ears, reality rushing back to him like a tidal wave and he wraps his arms tight around himself like a shield; it’s not him and it’s not the Kravitz of a quarter century ago, it’s just this stranger, this man Taako knows but doesn’t know, who certainly doesn’t know Taako.

What the fuck is he doing.

“I must say, I’m getting some very mixed signals here,” Kravitz says dryly, still lying on his back. When Taako doesn't - can’t - answer, Kravitz goes quieter, propping himself up on his elbows. “Taako?”

“I can't.” He feels nauseous. Even now aching to touch Kravitz again and yet not wanting to look at him. He tries to focus on calm, on present - goes through Lup’s exercises, naming things he can see and hear, touch taste smell: wrinkled bed sheets, the bond engine’s hum, the smell of Kravitz’s hair, the mingling taste of cheap wine and Kravitz’s mouth, no, goddamnit. He can’t escape this. If he was gone for awhile there, now he is horribly present, too aware.

Hesitant, Kravitz reaches out to touch him, but seems to think better of it. It's probably for the best, but it still hurts. “Did I hurt you? I’m so sorry -”

“You didn't do anything, I just. Can’t.” Taako swallows. Steadies his breath, rubs his face. And Kravitz is patient, and quiet. Just… sitting there, hair mussed, pants unbuttoned, flushed with artificial warmth and desire. Not actively asking anything of Taako, but the questions still hang in the air. Taako forces himself to sit up straighter, to breathe deeply. He doesn’t look at Kravitz, instead staring at a random point on the wall. “God why did I think I could - no, it's not you, it's…”

“You don't owe me an explanation -”

“I do so just shut up and let me. Okay. So I, uh… lost someone. Just a couple cycles back.” Every word feels like it’s being wrenched from him, his instinct to close up. “We can’t bring people with us. So.”

“I see.”

He’s not crying, or he’s determined not to. But he sniffs, blinking rapidly. “Yeah. Um. I fucked up. Like really bad, actually, and it… was my fault, what happened. And -” He laughs, squeezes his eyes shut. “I don’t know. Turns out I’m still pretty fucked up about it!”

“Of course,” Kravitz says gently. So understanding. If only he knew. “It’s too soon.”

“I want to just… fucking, move on, you know, forget about it, but -” He chokes on the lump in his throat and shit he really is crying now, he tries to rub away the tears angrily before Kravitz can see but knows he’s too late. “Shit.”

“I’m so sorry, Taako. I had no idea.”

He even sounds like he means it, not like he’s just disappointed not to get in Taako’s pants. Still a decent fucking guy no matter the universe, always deserves better than a dirtbag like Taako. “Look, I don’t - I don’t want your pity or whatever, alright. Don’t need it.”

The mattress shifts as Kravitz settles next to him, on the edge of  the bed, hands resting on his thighs. Not touching him, not making Taako look at him. Just sitting there. It’s almost nice. “Oh, I don’t pity you.” When Taako glances up, just for a moment, he smiles, soft and sad. “I’ve been around a very long time. You think I haven’t lost anyone, or had to leave them behind?”

Taako nods - thinking of Kravitz’s mother, who he never got to meet but heard so much about. Or Taako assumes that’s what he means. Could be anyone, a friend, a lover. He wonders, absently, if Kravitz’s life generally follows that same trajectory, cycle after cycle - raised in a temple, swearing his afterlife to the Raven Queen.

“You loved them,” Kravitz says, a statement, not a question.

Taako laughs, wet and pathetic. “You sound surprised.”

“I’m trying to imagine you in love. You just seem so… reserved isn't the word. Closed off. Even from your friends. Intentionally so, I thought.”

“Thanks a lot. Jesus.” Taako sighs.

Closed off. He hadn’t really known he was still doing that, distancing himself from them, that was last cycle, which he’d just as soon forget. He’s been trying, he really has, and for what? It had been so easy to just let things go however they were going to go, and not think at all, not about now, and not about the consequences.   

And the worst part is that he still doesn’t want Kravitz gone.

“Think I’ve thoroughly killed the mood here,” Taako sighs, rubbing his eyes again. Drained and sick from crying and still not all here if he's being honest. “Unless you’re real horny for ugly crying.”

“Of course, I'll just -” and he's standing and he’s leaving, and a jolt of panic runs through Taako.He shoots out a hand before he knows what he's doing, gripping Kravitz's wrist, making him stop. “Taako?”

“Sorry,” Taako drops his hand, face burning. He doesn't want to see the look on Kravitz's face, whatever it is, shuts his eyes tight. He’d thought he was okay, but the thought of being alone... “Fuck, sorry, sorry. It’s fine.”

He twitches slightly as Kravitz’s hand settles on his shoulder. He forces himself to blink his eyes open.

“I’m not sure you should be alone,” Kravitz says quietly. Always on the same page, even as strangers.

“It doesn’t matter,” Taako whispers, looking down.

“Okay, let me rephrase that. I’m not leaving you alone. Do you want your sister? One of your friends?”

“No,” Taako says, too quickly. They won’t understand. They’ll want to try, but they won’t get it, not even Lup.

Kravitz’s hand shifts, settles warm at the curve of Taako’s neck, fingers brushing through the fine hair at the back of Taako’s neck. That - that touch is familiar. It’s safe and gentle and it’s Kravitz and Taako leans into it, sighing a now-steady breath. Kravitz kneels, sitting at eye level now, and Taako makes himself look  into those dark eyes.

“What can I do?” Kravitz asks softly.

“Why do you care?”

Kravitz smiles, just a little, more in his eyes than with his mouth. “I have no idea, but I do.”

It’s painfully honest, and startles a small laugh out of Taako. It still baffles him, occasionally, how someone like Kravitz, someone so kind and gentle beneath the arrogance and the theatrics, got tangled up in a job like this. Or maybe it’s because of that compassion that the Raven Queen chose him. Maybe, in such a dark line of work, she needs someone who can remain kind. Taako wishes he knew how to do that.

Taako’s reaches up to cover Kravitz’s hand with his own. “I really hate sleeping alone,” he whispers.

This time Kravitz doesn’t even argue that they don’t need to sleep.

It’s strange and not, to crawl into this bed with him for the dozenth time and the first. Taako knows he ought to have a drink, at least wash his face, that he’ll feel better in the morning if he does, but he’s too tired to do anything but strip down his underwear - tossing an overly large t-shirt that probably belongs to Magnus or Barry and fleece pants that he has no memory of ever acquiring at Kravitz.

Kravitz lays stiff as a corpse besides him once the lights are out and Taako has settled into his lumpy but perfected mess of pillows, keeping well on the other side of the bare inch of space between them.

“You can touch me, weirdo,” Taako huffs. “Tiny ass bed, it's gonna happen, it's fine.”

Kravitz seems to hesitate, but Taako doesn't twist to look at him. An arm comes around Taako's waist as he settles behind him.

“Okay?” Kravitz whispers. He brushes Taako’s hair away, over his shoulder.

“Mm.” Taako burrows in as close as he dares, close enough to feel Kravitz’s heartbeat, the needless rise and fall of his chest pressed against Taako’s back.

Kravitz softens against him, still warm, heavy and safe. Or an illusion of safety. He missed this, more than the sex, so much it nearly hurts to have it now. He's wished he could feed something as abstract as the contentment of being held to the voidfish so he couldn't long for it anymore. He’d almost forgotten about the smell of magic that always clings to Kravitz when he’s immortal, metallic and strange.

“Sleep well, Taako.” Kravitz's breath stirs Taako's hair, stirs goosebumps. He's close enough to kiss the back of Taako's neck, but he doesn't.

Taako threads their fingers together where they lie over his belly.

It’s been over a year since Taako shared his bed like this, and he doesn’t think he’s slept dreamlessly in all that time. Not until now. He wakes slowly, lingering in that space where why doesn’t matter, only that he’s wrapped in strong arms, a cold nose pressed to the back of his neck. It’s so, so good to be held again.

He hadn’t expected Kravitz to stay through the night. Hadn’t dared hope for it. As he emerges from sleep a sharp anxiety settles in his stomach. And at  the same time, his heart feels far too small to contain all this, like it will crack open and spill over. He sucks in a shuddering breath and doesn’t move, like anything he does will break the fragile stillness; he clings for a few moments more. But break it does eventually, as Kravitz wakes up, a telltale hitch of his breath, the sudden tension in his muscles as he realizes where he is. In a stranger’s bed, a stranger he didn’t even get to fuck.

God, Taako had made such a fool of himself. Last night is sinking in, all his shitty choices.

“Issit mornin’?” Kravitz mumbles, muffled by the pillow and the tangle of Taako’s hair.

“Mm.” It’s early yet, the light from the window pale yellow. Sure enough, he’s gross and sweaty and his mouth still tastes like bad wine. Kravitz rolls onto his back, stretching. Taako bites his tongue before he can protest, curling in on himself, further from Kravitz.

“I can’t remember the last time I actually slept,” Kravitz muses. “Hard to believe I used to do that every night.”

Taako wishes that Kravitz would have left. It would have been awful to wake up to, yes, but they would have gotten to skip this. The awkward negotiation, the apologies, the regrets. This bed, this room, feel too small, like the walls are closing in on him, and it’s too fucking early for another anxiety attack. He sits up, pushing tangled hair out of his face. Kravitz reaches out to touch him, absently, gentle fingertips on Taako’s bare thigh. Taako shivers. “Are you -” Kravitz begins.

“Fine,” Taako says shortly. He swallows. “It’s fine. It’s all fine. Look, I - bathroom, I’ll be back.”

He does need the bathroom but mostly he wants to hide. He sits on the toilet lid with his legs pulled up against his chest, still in his underwear. Counting his breaths in and out. Somehow their miniscule bathroom is less confining than his own as long as Kravitz is there.

He hasn’t slept that well in so long.

He doesn’t know what he’s going to do now.

“You’re fine,” Taako whispers, eyes prickling. “You’re fine, you’re fine.

It’s not like last night matters, it changes nothing. He’d stopped them and Kravitz had understood and that’s fine, he gets it, he understands why this can’t be a thing. As much as he can without knowing the whole story. Awkward, sure, but no hard feelings.

It’s just that feels like the end of the fucking world right now, and also kind of like he just cheated on Kravitz with Kravitz, a thought so absurd it startles a laugh out of him. Or maybe he’s betraying Kravitz by not going for this, not telling him everything, but what the fuck did he know anyway -

“You’re fine. It’s all fine.”

He pulls himself up, washes his hands and splashes icy water on his face. Staring at himself in the mirror after he looks like a fucking mess, red rimmed eyes, hair a rat’s nest. He needs a shower but doesn’t want to leave Kravitz hanging, if he even sticks around, so he’ll just have to deal. Not like Kravitz doesn’t know what a fucking wreck of a person he is anyway, after last night.

He doesn’t manage to figure out what to say to him during the two second walk down the hall. “Hey, so,” he begins, hoping the right thing will just sort of come out as he pushes open the door.

And freezes, dread sinking like a rock in his gut.

...Trust Taako, love Taako. Trust him and his friends. Because I believe - and you believe, too - that they are going to stop this…

Kravitz lifts his head and looks at Taako, eyes wide. Holding the coin that hasn’t left Taako’s side for two cycles in the palm of his hand. The voice, his voice, far away and tinged with static, delivering a message Taako wasn’t sure he would ever listen to again.

They’re fighting so hard. It’s… It’s too late for my world, Kravitz, but not for yours. He is going to save all of us. And you can help him.

A click, the sound of Kravitz in the past pressing the center of the coin to stop the recording. The silence when it’s finally over leaves Taako’s ears ringing. And Kravitz just sits there, locking eyes with Taako like there’s an electric current between them, he’s still in borrowed pajamas. Taako’s still in his underwear.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Taako whispers.

“It -” Kravitz wets his lips. “It had fallen out of your pocket, I saw it on the floor - I was just going to pick it up and it -”’

Kravitz startles, interrupting himself, as the coin begins to play its next message. But Taako is across the room before the song can begin, snatching the device easily from Kravitz’s hand, “Stop it, stop," too shrill, strangling it in his palm until it falls blessedly silent.

“What is this?” Kravitz’s voice shakes. “That was me, but - how - ?”

Taako doesn’t answer. He hadn’t known what he was going to do until this moment, but now it feels so obvious. He’s been holding onto that coin all this time, and for what? Just to torture himself? What a fucking waste, he was never going to be able to do this. He was wrong, he isn’t strong enough, he can’t be around Kravitz without it tearing him apart. Who did he think he was fooling?

“Taako, what’s going on?” Kravitz says, insistent.

“Long story short?” Taako snaps, and starts grabbing clothes off the floor at random, he’s already exposed enough as it is. He stretches a shirt over his head as he goes on, speaking rapidly, “It doesn’t fucking matter because I’m done, I was wrong, I can’t, I’m not doing this. Not again.”

“That was my voice,” Kravitz says, standing up, reaching out for Taako, but he flinches away and Kravitz’s hand falls to his side. Heartbreak in his eyes. Good, better to break it all at once, better to do it now. Should have done this sooner. “That was me.

“No it’s not.” Taako goes to the closet now, grabs his pack and starts shoving whatever he can inside - his robes, adventuring gear, spell components. An extra pair of boots. Who knows if he’ll be back on the ship this cycle at all.

“I was the reaper you met in the other cycles, wasn’t I?” Kravitz is relentless, and with every word Taako feels further boxed in. “He said we were -”

“Don’t you dare say it.”

“I loved you, didn’t I? I loved you, and you loved me and you found me again -”

“Stop it! I’m not doing this!” Taako shouts, turning on him. “I can’t! I was a fucking idiot, I thought -” The coin is leaving an indent in his palm. He throws it across the room, where Kravitz catches it and holds it to his chest, like it’s something precious, not a piece of junk they both need to forget. “Keep it if you want, throw it in the ocean, whatever. I don’t want it. I don’t fucking care anymore."

“You have to talk to me,” Kravitz pleads. “You need to help me understand, I don’t know what any of this means.”

“No, I don’t need to do shit. I need to focus on me, I need to save the fucking world, I need -” His voice breaks. He throws his pack over his shoulder, abandons whatever else he might need. Anything to get him out of this room faster. Out of this room, off this ship, as far away from his mistakes as he can get. “I need to learn to let go of you. Of all of it. Thanks for the reminder.”

The door slams with the finality of a lid placed on a tomb.

Taako makes his way to Davenport’s quarters and informs him that he’ll be taking Lup’s place on the expedition.


Chapter Text

Kravitz’s heart is in his throat and his stomach is in knots as he approaches Lup. It’s exceedingly uncomfortable, and cliche, and perhaps the most mortal he’s felt in a very long time.

Lup doesn’t like Kravitz. She made no secret of that, from the moment he stepped onto the Starblaster. This doesn’t particularly bother him, or at least, it doesn’t impede his work. He has been Death for quite some time and, as one might imagine, there are few people who like his presence. In fact, he’s surprised by how accommodating the other members of the I.P.R.E. have been - now that they’ve adjusted to him they mostly treat him like a member of the crew, if one they don’t entirely trust.

Everyone, that is, except the twins.  Cagey and off-putting on Taako’s part, blatantly threatening on Lup’s. He hadn’t understood their problem - Lup’s least of all - but supposed it didn’t make much difference.

(He says that, but - the gold flash of Taako’s eyes has been etched into the forefront of his mind since that first meeting, and he’d longed to know what was making the elf so very sad, and he’d been paralyzed trying to talk to him.)

But, as Kravitz suspects is the lot of most people in Taako’s life, in a single evening Taako changed everything with those wild eyes and the way he’d talked to Kravitz, looked at him like he already knew all his secrets, and it turned out he did. Turned out he had plenty of secrets of his own, which Kravitz now holds in the palm of his hand.

Lup doesn’t look at him as he cautiously approaches her. She’s training, by the looks of it, a safe distance from the ship - hurling fireballs at a target, hitting it every time. Her shoulder muscles flex underneath her tank-top as she lets loose another volley, breathing hard.

“Excuse me, Lup?” He begins, wondering if this is a bad idea but unsure what other option he has. She had specifically threatened him against “fucking with her brother,” a condition he pretty unequivocally broke. But over the past week or so he’s observed how close they are. Taako doesn’t open up to many except his sister, that much is obvious. (For a moment he’d fancied that he might be some kind of exception. Stupid of him.) No, if anyone can help him understand, it will be Lup, so he clears his throat and says, polite as he can manage, “Can we talk, when you have a moment?”

Lup grunts, hurls a blast of fire that whooshes toward the bullseye. “Time for interrogations already, Ghost Rider? I’m - a - little - busy.” Blast after blast, the heat nearly enough to warm Kravitz, each hitting the target square in the middle. Yes, she’s definitely pissed at him. She has been since Taako took her spot on the mission, knew somehow that it was Kravitz’s fault.

“Actually, I suppose I’m looking for advice. On a… personal matter.”

“Yes, the suit makes you look like a total prick. You’re welcome.” She finally turns to him, though she doesn’t bother looking at his face, wiping sweat from her brow and brushing aside the golden hair that sticks to her skin. “Well, spill it, what do you want?”

Kravitz doesn’t respond to the jab - just holds up the coin, and watches her face go through a full spectrum of emotion. Shocked at first, confused, but eventually settling not on angry, to Kravitz’s surprise, but… sad.

“Oh,” Lup says. She sighs. “Shit.”

“You know what this is,” he says quietly.

“I know the gist of it.” She bites her lip - and looks so much like Taako when she does it - debating something internally for a moment. “Okay. We should sit down, I guess? I need a drink.”

They ultimately return to the Starblaster, where Kravitz sits alone and fidgets at the kitchen table while Lup washes her face and changes out of her ratty training clothes. She emerges after a few minutes in clean robes, pours herself a glass of water and offers Kravitz one. He doesn’t need it, but they never seem to know what to do when he won’t eat or drink so he’s stopped protesting their offers. Lup sits across from him, her eyes on the coin, which he’s set in the center of the table.

It’s so plain. Just a brass circle, carved with a simple rune. Yet it contains things that have turned Kravitz’s life upside down, and it would be easier, maybe, to forget he ever heard it, to forget about Taako, but -

He can’t. He’s tried, but where his nights were once filled with work now he can’t focus on it, can’t think of anything but that night with Taako. He’s listened to the message again and again, and he wishes he could tell this past version of himself to be less vague about the whole thing. His own voice coming through the innocuous device, the impossible things he’d said so freely, the pleas to trust Taako, to help him. The weight of knowing that boy is gone, now - Kravitz has to assume taken by the Hunger, only a memory, as much a memory as the boy Kravitz was before he was brought into the Raven Queen’s retinue. And the song that had played after, which Taako had been so desperate to stop before it could begin - it brought Kravitz to tears, and he doesn’t know why.

“I haven’t seen Taako without that thing for two years,” Lup says, finally breaking the silence. “Not sure he ever listened to it. Until the other day, I’m guessing.”

“It was an accident,” Kravitz says, not meeting her eye. He reaches for the coin - it feels strange not to be holding it - and turns it over in his hands. “It fell on the floor so I picked it up and it played the message. My voice, but it wasn’t me. Taako, he… he was upset, and when he realized I listened to it he panicked, told me to throw it away. And then he left.”

“Figured you had something to do with that.” At Kravitz’s scowl she rolls her eyes. “No, I know you didn’t mean to. But shit, man. It’s not like Taako to just run away like this.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Kravitz murmurs. He doesn’t know anything about Taako, but he wishes he had the chance. The version of Kravitz whose voice is in the coin… Kravitz could hear it, feel in the softness and tremor of his voice, how very much he’d loved Taako. “I don’t know how any of this is possible, I’m having trouble wrapping my head around the idea that I… also existed in another world, I suppose?”

“So Taako didn’t explain anything to you.”

“No. I don’t know anything but what’s in the message.”

“Typical,” Lup mutters, slouching back in her seat. “Ugh. Barry’s nicer than me when it comes to talking through this stuff, but… not just one other world, babe. When we said we’ve run into other reapers, that was you. Guess you probably worked that one out on your own.”

He’d known, but it’s another thing entirely to hear it stated plainly. “How many times?”

“I’ve honestly lost count. You’ve been a real pain in our asses.”

Kravitz’s mouth feels dry. Another strangely mortal thing. He doesn’t like it; it’s been years, decades, since he was on the material plane this long. He takes a drink, wets his lips and goes on, “And… Taako and I were… together.” Hesitant, like him speaking the words makes it true.

“Mmhm. I mean, he was way into you before all that, but… yeah. This one cycle, you weren’t a reaper yet, just a guy, so…”

There’s something strangely embarrassing about the idea of a younger version of himself meeting Taako. It’s been a long time since he was alive and he was so naive then, so full of himself. So very inexperienced. But Taako had known him, even cared for him, long before that - how long, he wonders, have they been doing this dance?

Lup goes on, not looking at him, tracing the tip of her fingernail in an abstract pattern across the table. “We didn’t know we would lose that world,” she says quietly. “Thought getting the Light was a done deal, so there wasn’t any risk. You knew it would be temporary, but you were both okay with it. And he was so happy. But it turned out we were wrong. The Hunger took that world, and you with it.”

“He said it was his fault,” Kravitz says, carefully level. No wonder Taako had looked at him like he was seeing a ghost. In a way he is one.

“God, did he really?” Lup looks away, sighing and closing her eyes for a moment. “He probably really believes that. Self-centered ass.”

Lup is almost as good at hiding her emotions as Taako, but Kravitz is very good at reading people. He doesn’t miss the sadness that flickers across her face when she looks at him. He wonders if they knew each other well, she and this other Kravitz. If she liked him then. If she trusted him with her brother’s heart, if she was right to. He hates that he’s the reason Taako is hurting so badly.

“I know it’s a lot to take in,” she says. “Kind of why we didn’t tell you in the first place. Always hard to say whether you’ll believe us or not.” She pauses, seems to struggle a moment with how nice to him she wants to be, and finally says, a little reluctantly, “You gonna be okay?”

“I’ll manage.”

“You, uh… want to talk about it?”

Kravitz can’t help but smile at her. “Is that not what we’re doing?”

She huffs. “Look, man, I’m trying my best here!”

“I know. I…” he frowns, trying to pin down all his swirling thoughts. It’s so much to wrap his head around. Not just Taako and all that entails but the nature of his existence, his self, which has been turned upside down. An aspect of the Raven Queen, the other him had said, his personhood, his destiny, intrinsically tied to his relationship to his god. Is he even a person outside of that, outside of Her?

“Is it still me?” He finally manages to ask. “The other… Kravitzes that you’ve met, is that really me or… gods, I don’t even really know what I’m asking.”

“Yeah, uh, that’s a lot.” Lup looks up at the ceiling, fingers drumming on the table. “I don’t know how much it matters? Unless it matters to you? All I know is that you two always end up finding each other, one way or another.”

“So why didn’t he just tell me?” Kravitz asks, his voice thick. “The message, it… obviously I wanted Taako to find me again, they wanted me to know everything or they wouldn’t have made the recording, so what changed?”

It shouldn’t even matter to him, this man he doesn’t even know, and he wonders why it feels so important - and a moment later realizes it does no good to wonder why, because the fact is that it does matter. For better or worse he cares about Taako, even if it doesn’t make sense. Some echo, perhaps, of how his past self had felt, or those bonds that Taako had spoken of, drawn out across dimensions. Whatever it is he can’t deny it, no more than he can deny his devotion to the Raven Queen, somehow just as much a part of him, a part he’d never known was there until now.

“I don’t know if I should even be saying this, but he really fucking loves you, Kravitz,” Lup says. It startles him, slightly, to hear her say his name rather than some jab of a nickname he barely understands. She sighs, leaning back in her chair to balance on it’s back legs, head turned up to look at the low ceiling. “I’ve never seen him like this with anyone else. But he hasn’t been the same after losing you. And he’s worked hard to pull himself out of that dark place but obviously he’s still grieving, so for you to come back around again…”

“I didn’t know -”

“It’s not your fault. Just how it is.”

Kravitz feels the groove of the rune carved into the coin, worrying at it with his thumb. Taako had told him to throw it away, that he didn’t want it anymore, and Kravitz doesn’t know if that was serious or if it was just his panic talking in the heat of the moment. He knows he won’t bring himself to be able to get rid of it, though, even if Taako refuses to take it back. This may not be his fault, but it feels like his responsibility.

“How can I fix this?” He doesn’t like that Lup’s eyebrows raise when he asks that. Like she’s surprised that he would care about Taako’s wellbeing. “What do I do now, should I go after him, try to talk to him?”

“You want my honest opinion?” When Kravitz nods eagerly, Lup stares him down for a moment. “I would leave him be.”

Kravitz wilts. “But -”

“Listen.” She lets the chair fall forward again, it’s front legs clattering on the floor. The sound echoes through the near-empty kitchen, so void of life without Taako in it. “I’m serious when I say that Taako doesn’t just run away from shit, okay? That’s something I’ve always admired about him. He’s not stupid, he doesn’t pick fights when he knows he’ll lose, but that doesn’t mean he’s not strong. He always makes sure we’re all safe, and he doesn’t back down from anything.”

“But he still left.”

“Which means he felt like he had no other choice. He wants to be alone. I want him here too, okay, I do, but - chasing after him will only make it worse for him right now. He loves you and I… I do think that someday, you two get to be together. Someday. But I don’t think it’s going to be with you.

That isn’t fair, Kravitz wants to say, but even the thought sounds whiny, entitled. Taako doesn’t owe him a damn thing, when it comes down to it. Nothing but an explanation, but he’s not going to get that from him. Kravitz has been around a long time. He knows that life - or death, as it were - is rarely fair.

And it shouldn't matter. It shouldn’t feel like his entire existence has been upended, nothing practical has changed. He doesn’t even know how he feels about Taako; some alternate universe version of him had loved him but that doesn’t mean he’s obligated to. In a couple months everything will go back to normal anyway, this band of miscreants won’t be his problem anymore and he can go back to what he’s been doing for hundreds of years. That was always going to happen.

It shouldn’t matter, but it does, and it isn’t fair.

“I’m not going to tell you what to do,” Lup says, when Kravitz doesn’t reply. “Y’all are adults, theoretically, you should be able to figure out your own shit, so if you go after him I’m not going to stop you. But you asked what I thought, so…”

“You know him better than I ever will,” Kravitz says, resigned.

“Yeah, I know he’s a stubborn asshole,” Lup says fondly.

Kravitz chuckles, despite himself. “There’s just... so much I want to say to him, or ask him. And I have no idea if I’ll ever see him again.”

Lup finishes her water - Kravitz finds himself mirroring her, though he doesn’t need to, it just seems like the right thing to do. After a moment of thought, she says, “I do know one way you can talk to him.”

She nods at the coin cradled in the palm of Kravitz’s hand.

It only takes two days of torrential downpour for Taako to realize he didn’t pack nearly enough socks for this shitty trip. Despite the summer heat, he shivers peeling out of his soaked clothes at their haphazardly assembled camp.

“Sure weren’t kidding about the rain part of rainforest,” he grumbles. All season they’d had gorgeous weather, but of course the rainy season would start up as soon as he’s locked into a two-month camping trip. Because that’s just how his life is going now.

“You just get yourself dried off, Taako,” Magnus calls as he walks by. Barry is busily assembling tarps and tents in the brief respite between storms. “I’ll handle finding firewood tonight.”

“Yeah, gladly.” Taako pulls on one of his last few pairs of pristine socks. Magnus is infuriatingly unfazed by the weather, which just puts Taako in a shittier mood, if that’s possible.

He finds himself digging through the pockets of his skirt automatically, heart skipping when he doesn’t find the familiar weight of the coin, before he remembers.

Nope, he shoves the thought of that night down before it can even register. It’s worked so far. He didn’t come out here to dwell on useless shit and with any luck Kravitz tossed the thing out. Either way Taako is free of it.

He misses its weight, knowing it’s there just in case -

Nope! He’s just in a bad mood, of course that would lead him to dwell on everything else that makes him feel bad, but he’s not going to let it get to him. He shakes the thoughts away and finishes getting dressed, hangs up his wet clothes where they can dry near the campfire, just in time for Magnus to return with an armful of wood. With some simple spellwork they have a fire blazing within a few minutes, and as long as Taako sits close to it he doesn’t shiver too much.

“So,” Taako says through a mouthful of leftover stew, once the three of them are seated by the fire, a tarp stretched over the campsite in case the rain starts up again in the night. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s filling, good enough after a long day of tramping through the forest. “What’s the plan, fellas? Which way we heading tomorrow?”

Barry raises his eyebrows, blowing on a spoonful of his stew. “What happened to your no work talk during dinner rule?”

“I mean, I guess if you don’t want to save the world that’s fine. You know me darling, I just can’t wait to spend yet another day aimlessly hiking instead of actually making progress.”

“Alright, grumpy, remember how you volunteered to be here?” Magnus points out.

Taako shoots him a scowl. They keep making little comments like that, is the thing. Like they’re trying to trick him into talking about why he made Davenport give him Lup’s place on the expedition at the last minute - practically as they were headed out the door. Like they know something is up. Well, Taako isn’t falling for it. He’s here, Kravitz isn’t, there’s nothing to talk about. Nothing at all.

Magnus doesn’t push any further, and Taako remains stubbornly silent the rest of the meal. Eventually, as they clean and pack up the dishes, they go over their plans for the next few days. The closest thing they have to a lead on the Light is a village of wood elves that Barry and Lup were in the process of tracking down when they were out here last. The wood elves probably don’t have the Light themselves, but there’s a chance, and they might at least be able to point them in the right direction. That’s as far as Lup and Barry’s expedition got; from here on out, they’re on their own.

It’s a long few months ahead of them, but at least he’s not on the Starblaster. At least he’s not with Lup, who would definitely have dragged answers out of him by now. Time enough, he hopes, to get over the insanity that had come over him from having Kravitz so close. That’s all it had been, after all, a stupid mistake, a moment of weakness.

Barry and Magnus will make him talk eventually, he’s sure, it’s only a matter of time. Until then he  doesn’t have to think about it. Not about Kravitz, or what a mess he left behind.

As predicted, the wood elves doesn’t have the Light. But they do have word on the goings-on of other tribes. News from allies, rumors of their enemies - which chiefs have risen to power seemingly overnight and which warlords suddenly wield strange new weapons. The problem is dragging the information they need out of the clan’s leader.

See, they don’t like Taako much at all. Magnus had assumed that Taako, being an elf, would be the perfect ambassador, but not so much. They’re the kind of elves Taako has never been able to stand, stuck-up jerks who sit up in their trees and never change after centuries, who don’t give a shit about anyone except themselves. The kind of elves that never spared a glance for him and Lup when they were kids.

Taako can’t keep his mouth shut, and sending him in as their spokesperson backfires hard. Magnus manages to salvage the negotiation (people like him without him even trying, a skill Taako has never really managed to master or cared to practice) but just barely.

“You want to maybe get your shit together, dude?” Magnus demands once they’re back at camp, set up just outside the wooden walls of the small village. They were politely, but forcefully, turned away from taking shelter there for the night. Taako could care less, doesn’t want to spend another minute with those pricks.

“Don’t know what you could possibly mean, darling,” Taako yawns, back turned to Magnus as he tosses his backpack into his tent. “Got what we came here for, didn’t we?”

“Barely! You nearly got us thrown out by being such a dick!”

He can’t see why it matters. As long as they manage to get the Light, he doesn’t need to make friends, he doesn’t need to worry about offending a handful of people he’ll never see again. “Please. A little harmless ribbing isn’t going to turn our whole operation belly-up.”

“Maybe not this time, but you can’t keep pulling this shit when the Light is on the line!” As Magnus’s voice raises, Barry makes himself scarce, face red and muttering something too quiet to hear. He doesn’t do well with conflict. “One of these days you’ll piss off the wrong person and we’ll be screwed.”

“I’m an asshole, but I’m not an idiot,” Taako snaps, finally turning on Magnus. “Don’t treat me like one.”

“I know you’re not and I don’t think you’re an asshole either! Look.” Magnus sighs, hands raised in a sign of peace. Taako crosses his arms, eyebrows raised, waiting. “I know you’re hurting, okay?”

Taako blinks. “I’m -”

“And I get that you came out here to get away from everything, because you don’t want to talk about whatever happened. And that’s fine, I’m here when you do want to. Just don’t take it out on everyone else, okay? ‘Cause if you hadn’t noticed, we’re all you’ve got right now. We’re stuck with each other.”

Taako opens his mouth, but nothing comes out. Because Magnus isn’t wrong, but Taako hadn’t known anyone was paying that much attention to him. That anyone cared, because they hadn’t ever asked what was going on. But they had been, he realizes, Magnus and Barry both, with all their silent glances and the murmured conversations in their tent. They’d known he wouldn’t want to talk, that he came out here with them to escape, and they’d given him space to work out his shit without questioning it.

But he hasn’t done that. Just started slipping back into old habits, ones that he knows from experience will drive people away. Building up those walls without even knowing it.

He still doesn’t want to talk about Kravitz and all the shit he’s dealing with. But he doesn’t want a repeat of last year, either. He never wants to feel that alone again.

“Alright,” Taako says, just as Magnus is about to give up and walk away. He pauses, surprised.


“I said alright. I’ll be chill. Sorry.” The last word mumbled as he turns away. It’s like pulling teeth, but he feels… lighter, once he’s said it. Some of the bubbling, bitter anger trapped in his chest easing.

“Holy shit, I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say sorry before! Barry, did you hear that?”

“Don’t get used to it,” Taako calls over his shoulder.

“I miss Lup,” Barry says one night, wistfully, as Taako settles in to meditate. They only brought the two tents, just to keep their packs as light as possible, and they trade off on who has to share every few days. Tonight it’s Taako and Barry.

“Sorry to disappoint,” Taako says.

Barry shifts, rolling over his side to face Taako. “Aw, I didn’t mean it like that, I’m glad you’re here. It’s just - well, you know how it is.”

“I get it.” Of course he gets it, he misses her too - not the same way Barry does, but just as much.

It’s been a rough month.

He’s been meditating rather than sleeping, partially because it’s easier, less time-consuming, but also because he feels so vulnerable when he tries to sleep, even with someone else there. He’ll lie awake, missing Kravitz in a way that he doesn’t give himself time to during the day - or he’ll dream and there’s no telling what his unconscious will make him suffer through. He doesn’t know what’s worse, bad dreams or good ones. It’s not always clear which is which.

Barry watches him through the dim tent, serious and quiet. “Why didn’t you want her to come with us?” He asks.

“Party composition,” Taako says flippantly, because he’ll never pass up a chance to rage about the fact that they’re a team with five fucking wizards.

“You, me ‘n Lup kick ass together and you know it.”

“Didn’t want to have to watch you two make out all the time.”

Barry shakes his head. “You knew she’d make you deal with whatever happened with Kravitz, huh?”

“No,” Taako snaps. “And nothing happened with Kravitz.”

“So when you two wandered off during the bonfire,” Barry says with a knowing smile, propping himself up on his elbow, “That was nothing?”

“Goodnight, Barold,” Taako says loudly, flopping down onto his bedroll and turning to face the wall of the tent. And if Barry had continued to nag him, he might have been able to keep up the silent treatment, fueled solely by contrariness. But it’s Barry, and Barry knows Taako too well for that. So he doesn’t push. He waits until Taako is squirming in the silence, broken only by the insects chirping outside.

“He listened to the coin,” Taako says, not rolling over to look at him. Quiet enough that he half-hopes Barry won’t hear. “Found it on his own. And… yeah, I just figured, I had to do something, you know? Had to put an end to it now. Keep us both from getting hurt. So that’s what happened.”

“You thought you wouldn’t have to worry about it all the way out here,” Barry says. Taako shrugs one hunched shoulder. “How’s that working out for you?”

“Hm, well, I’m here and he’s not, so make of that what you will, I guess,” Taako says. Barry seems satisfied, seems like he isn’t going to push any further, but Taako still feels… squirmy, restless in the quiet between them. He rolls onto his back and stares at the roof of the tent, listens to the insects singing outside. There’s a moth crawling up the wall; he watches it’s path as he says, not sure why he’s even going there, why he’s continuing this conversation at all - maybe just because it’s easier, in the dark. “Do you always miss Lup when you’re not together?”

He can hear the soft smile in Barry’s voice without looking. “Yeah. Pretty lame, I guess, but man… no matter how much time we spend together or how much time we’re apart, like, I can’t imagine wanting anything except to be around her? Even when it’s just a day, I can’t wait to get back to her.” There’s a particular way Barry’s gruff voice softens when he talks about Lup. Taako wouldn’t trust many people with his sister, but he trusts Barry.

Taako doesn’t have a good excuse for how his voice wavers when he asks, “How long would it take to stop? Missing her?”

“I wouldn’t,” Barry says, without hesitation.

“Not ever?”


It’s the right answer because that’s what Lup deserves in a man, but not the answer Taako wanted. It sits heavy over his shoulders, the idea that he never gets to stop feeling like this no matter how far or how long he runs.

But maybe he’s wrong. He’s not Barry, he’s not Lup either. He doesn’t feel things the way they do, so maybe he doesn’t need other people the way they do. They still care about the worlds they fight to save, somehow, and he’s too much of a monster to manage that.

He wraps his blanket tighter around himself, and stares at the wall of the tent until restless meditation eventually takes him.

The Light of Creation has kept this world’s inhabitants busy, as they discover when their clues lead them to one of the two large, rival tabaxi tribes that inhabit the far side of this mountain range. All signs point to the Light being here, in the hands of the the Serene River Clan. And their leads weren’t wrong, but…

“We know of what you seek,” Chief Jade tells them once they’re granted an audience with her. She offers them tea as they sit at a low table, cross-legged on intricately embroidered floor cushions. Jade is even taller than Magnus, and graceful, with tawny fur in a pattern reminiscent of a cheetah. “Until recently my people were in possession of what you call the Light of Creation, but it was recently stolen.”

“The Great Plains clan?” Barry asks - the other tabaxi tribe, who, from what they’ve heard, have a reputation for violence and for dominating lesser clans, unlike the Serene River, who mainly keep to themselves. Jade nods, expression grim.

“Shit,” Magnus mutters. Taako’s shoulders slump. It’s been a long fucking journey, delayed by shit weather and various detours like this dragging them up and down the mountains. They’re quickly running out of time to retrieve it, not to mention get it back to the ship.

“Okay. Okay, well, d’you know who has it now?” Barry asks, leaning forward.

Jade watches him, feline eyes unblinking. “And why would we tell you? So that you can take it for your own purposes? I think not,” she says matter-of-factly, taking another sip of her tea.

“We’re not going to use it for ourselves,” Magnus says. “We’re just trying to keep it out of the wrong hands.”

“And what gives you the right to decide whose hands it belongs in? We do not know you. My people were struggling to survive before we received the gift of the Light and the prosperity it brought us. Now the Great Plains will use it to wipe us out.” Her voice is calm, tone even, but Taako notes the way that her sleek fur stands on end at the back of her neck.

“Trust us,” Taako says grimly, “The, uh… people we’re trying to keep it away from? They’ll do way worse.”

“I will not risk my people’s lives trying to fight the Great Plains head on. Their numbers are greater, and their hunters stronger. We can only guess what gifts the Light has bestowed upon them.”

“You won’t have to. All we need is information on how to get there, and how to get in once we’re there. We’ll do the rest,” Magnus assures her.

Jade ponders this, setting her cup carefully on the table. They wait, Taako fidgeting on the lumpy pillow, impatient to get moving again.

“This, we can do,” she finally concedes. “But in return, you must promise that the Light will be returned here. We can protect it.”

“Deal,” Taako says before the others have a chance to argue. Barry and Magnus shoot him baffled looks, but he’s reaching out to shake her hand already. “What can you tell us?”

He knows full well that they won’t be filling their end of the bargain, probably won’t be returning here at all. Even if they had time, they have to get the Light to the ship in order to lure the Hunger away.

But the chief doesn’t know that, and she doesn’t need to until it’s too late to do anything about it. If that makes them villains - well, so be it.

“Guys!” Magnus’s call rings out from atop a high ridge where he’d run ahead of Barry and Taako. Now they can see him waving, with something held in his palm. “Get up here - I got a signal!”

As soon as this information sinks in, Barry and Taako rush to meet Magnus at the crest of the ridge. All this time they’ve hardly been able to get a clear communicator signal, due to the distance and the interference of the mountains. The Starblaster’s systems just aren’t equipped for it. But now they can check in with the captain, and more importantly, Taako can finally talk to Lup.

They gather around the little communicator, barely longer than Taako’s palm, to deliver an impromptu report to Davenport over the crackling static. The wind is cold and biting up at the peak. They’re just a few days at most from getting the Light, might manage to make it to the Great Plains clan tomorrow if they’re quick and the clear weather holds, but there isn’t much leeway for retrieving the Light before the Hunger arrives. They could be down to the wire again.

The plan, they all decide, is for the Starblaster to remain in the air, to get as close to Barry, Taako, and Magnus’s coordinates as they can. The instant they have the light in their hands they’ll send up a flare, a signal for the Starblaster to come in and pick them up. It may mean revealing the ship to the local population, but at this point getting the Light on board is too important to worry about that - this is the best chance they have at getting the Light, and ideally the whole crew, off this plane.

“Cool, good talk, glad that’s settled,” Taako says, snatching the communicator out of Magnus’s hand. “Now lemme talk to Lup.”

He doesn’t go far, can’t risk losing their hard-won signal, but Barry and Magnus give him some space, while on the other end of the line Taako hears familiar muffled voices and then finally, far away and tinny but still her, “Koko! You there, babe?”

It’s certainly not the first time they’ve been apart, not even the longest time, but fuck he nearly cries just at the sound of her voice. He hadn’t even been able to properly say goodbye. “That's me,” he says, then has to clear his throat, sounding more like himself when he continues, “The one and only.”

“Shit, dude. I’ve been worried sick about you. Tried to get a connection every day.”

“We’re good, I promise. Ready to sleep in a real fuckin’ bed, though.”

She laughs, loud and musical. “I bet. You’ve gotten so used to a life of luxury.”

It’s hilarious to think of life on the Starblaster as luxurious, but compared to how they grew up… “Alright, so fill me in, what kind of trouble have you gotten up to without me?”

It’s nearly an hour of nonstop chatter, filling each other in on all that’s happened since they’ve been apart; he complains about the weather and sleeping on the hard ground, dealing with Magnus not bathing for days (admittedly, that’s not much different than when they’re on the ship) while she tells him a story of a chess game between Merle and Davenport that lasted for two whole days before they finally declared a stalemate. Lup is still pissed - she had twenty gold riding on Merle miraculously coming through, against Kravitz’s bet on Davenport, and no one can agree who should get the money.

Kravitz was like a specter lurking in the space between each word until that moment, neither of them quite willing to break that silence first. Taako holds his breath as he asks, because once she’s mentioned him he can’t bear not to know - “So, uh…. Kravitz is still hanging around, huh?”

“Yeah,” Lup says after a pause. More tense than before. “Yeah, still here. Turns out he’s pretty chill once you get the stick out of his ass.”

Taako can’t help but smile. “Never thought I’d see the day you two got along.”

Lup snorts. “Yeah, don’t get ahead of yourself.” She goes quiet again, and Taako can imagine her biting her lip, thinking through her next words. “He told me what went down. I filled him in on, you know. Everything, basically.”

“Okay.” That’s pretty much what he’d expected, it’s… fine. He’s not upset about that, just isn’t sure how to feel. Mostly just that he wishes he had been the one to talk to Kravitz about all this for once, but what other option did he have? How could he have stayed there with him?

“...Hon, I’m worried about you.  It’s really not like you to just run off like that.” The without me is only implied, but heard nonetheless.

“Lu, we… we don’t have to talk about this right now. I just couldn’t, okay, I couldn’t be there.”

“When you get home, you’re explaining yourself.”

“I figured.” He sighs. All his nervous tics coming out, gnawing at his bottom lip, twisting his hair around his fingers. His voice is small and he half-hopes she doesn’t hear when he asks, “How is he?”

“He’s okay,” Lup says gently. Taako exhales. “I mean. Hurt, of course. He wishes you hadn’t left, he misses you. But he’s okay.”

“Okay.” Taako swallows, eyes closed. “Yeah. That’s good. I just wanted to check.”

“Taako, why don’t you just talk to him?”

Panic wells in him. “I can’t -”

“He’s like right here, let me just -” There’s shuffling, muffled voices.

“Lup, seriously, don’t,” he pleads, but it’s too late. He hears her say something like “Give it back when you’re done, kay?” and then footsteps.

A heartbeat, then two, a cleared throat. Then his voice, smooth and low. “Taako? A-are you there?”

Taako sucks in a breath, eyes shut tight. Gripping the communicator too tight, torn between hurling it away and holding it to his chest. He’d thought, just maybe, the ache of missing him would have softened by now. Stupid of him. “I’m here,” he says, strained, and hears Kravitz sigh. In relief? Anxiety? Taako can’t imagine what he’s feeling right now. Hasn’t wanted to imagine it.

“Okay. Um. Hi,” he says, with a nervous little chuckle.

Taako brings a hand to his mouth to muffle his own laugh. He’s startled to realize that he’s smiling, despite it all, despite the way his hands shake. It’s so, so fucking good hear his voice again. “Hi,” he whispers, biting his lip.

“Sorry about this, she just sort of shoved this thing into my hand,” Kravitz says. Taako can imagine Lup lurking around the corner now, maybe just inside the doorway to the kitchen, eavesdropping.  “I can go, if you’d rather.”

“It’s fine. She means well, she just… I don’t know, doesn’t get it, I guess.”

“Davenport says you’ve nearly got the Light?”

“Mmhm. Should be home by the time the Hunger gets here. What about you, you figure out our whole death mystery yet? The anticipation is - wait for it - killing me.”

Kravitz laughs, even though it’s probably the shittiest joke Taako has ever told. It cuts straight through to his heart; god, but Taako wishes Kravitz was here, he wants to be able to see his face, to touch him. He wants to hear that beautiful laugh unfiltered by the crackle of the communicator. “Ah, well, not so much. Though not for lack of trying, and I’ve learned a fair bit regardless.”

“Maybe you’ll have an epiphany at the last second. Or one of us will die and you’ll get to see it in person!”

“If you could all avoid any more dying it would be much appreciated.”

“No promises, sweetheart.”

There’s a smile in Kravitz’s voice. “It’s so good to hear from you. I’m glad you’re safe.”

“Heh. And here I figured you hated me.” He doesn’t mean to say, cringes as he hears the words leaving his mouth. Clingy and pathetic and he has absolutely no right to worry about what Kravitz thinks of him, after everything. Why can’t he stop making a fool of himself, why can’t he keep from hurting Kravitz in his fumbling?

“You really think that?” Kravitz says quietly, after a long pause. “I don’t. I couldn’t.”

“It would make this easier if you did.”


“Look. I know I fucked up, alright, I - it’s fine if you’re pissed! I don’t care! Yell at me all you want, whatever!”

“I don’t want to!”

Taako scoffs. “Why not?” Who wouldn’t want that after all the shit Taako pulled?

“I’m not angry - I - I just I don’t understand why it had to be like this! I mean, we could have at least talked, you could have told me the truth. Instead I had to have Lup piece my entire damn existence together for me.”

Kravitz’s voice raises, though he doesn’t shout, just matching Taako’s volume as he speaks faster, higher. Though there’s a part of Taako that wishes Kravitz would just scream at him - it’s what he deserves - he takes a deep breath, pitches his own voice lower, more even. Taako wishes he could see Kravitz’s face, except maybe it’s better this way. Easier to walk away if he can imagine Kravitz being angry, not this - trying to be all understanding and reasonable. Taako can’t just write him off when he’s being reasonable.

“I couldn’t,” he says, flat. “It was stupid to even get that close to you. Should have left you alone.”

“Why? What did I do wrong?”

God. Taako sucks in a shaky breath, rubs his eyes and finds them wet. Somehow, that’s what he can’t stand. The idea of Kravitz thinking this mess is anything but Taako’s fault. He’s the one who kept this from Kravitz, he’s the one who went after him anyway. “You didn’t, sweetheart, it’s not your fault, it’s mine, I - this is as much for you as it is for me, alright? I can’t keep doing this, I can’t just take and take from you anymore. I can’t keep losing you. It hurts too much.”

This hurts,” Kravitz says, voice cracking.

A dozen things pass through Taako’s mind, a dozen things he could say. Sharp jabs or pleas for Kravitz to understand and I love you so much I could die from it and so much else he can’t put into words. “Better off forgetting me,” he says instead, as firm as he can manage.

“So the next time around, what are you going to do? You know this isn’t the end of it, you know I’ll be back. What will you do then?”

He stands up, walking the short distance to where Barry and Magnus sit, looking out over the ravines and valleys far below while they wait for Taako to finish. He should have hung up right away. “Give the communicator back to Lup, okay? I’m sure she’ll want to talk to Barry.”

“Taako -”

“I’m sorry. I really am,” he says, his voice as steady as he can make it with the last of his composure; he wants to say something more than that, say goodbye, something, but it all sticks to the inside of his throat. Instead he shoves the communicator into Barry’s hand. He ignores their looks as he walks past them, as he grabs his own pack and the tents and starts to haul them down the mountain. The sun is starting to dip past the trees; night falls fast under the heavy tree cover, and he doubts they’ll make much more progress tonight. Better to get up at the crack of dawn and get this over with and get far away from this fucking planet.

He probably won’t even see Kravitz again before they leave. There’s no point in trying to fix things, even if he could. Lup shouldn’t have meddled. He tries to muster up some anger toward her but he can’t - can’t be mad at Kravitz either, not really. Only at himself. As much for you as it is for me, god, what a shitty excuse.

“Taako?” Magnus calls after him, standing up. Taako ignores him, hoping Magnus didn’t see how red his eyes must be. “Hey, what’s the matter -”

“Don’t,” he snarls, too harsh and loud, stopping Magnus in his tracks. It’s not Magnus’s fault, he just has the misfortune of being there. “Just - leave me alone.”

He expects Magnus to listen. Usually he manages to be prickly enough, give off enough of an air of don’t fucking touch me that people know to leave him alone. This time, he hears footsteps behind him as he walks away, turns to see Magnus shouldering the rest of the packs except for Barry’s and then following a few paces behind. “Did I fucking stutter?” Taako snaps.

“Thought that looked a little heavy,” Magnus says, cheerful. He plucks both of the tents from Taako’s arms, tossing them over his shoulder effortlessly - admittedly making the load much easier.

Taako huffs, and ignores him, lengthening his steps to put space between himself and Magnus, who can’t seem to get the damn message. But he’s relentless, keeping an even pace with Taako as they make the trek toward a relatively flat clearing where they can set up camp for the night. He doesn’t say anything, doesn’t ask what happened, he’s just there. By the time they get to a suitable campsite Taako is fuming, face red, tips of his ears burning. He tosses the supplies in a pile and then snatches one of the tents from Magnus with more force than necessary. When he begins putting it together, Magnus is there too, despite Taako’s silent scowl. He’s there to help set up the second tent, to dig a pit for their fire, to gather kindling and wood.

Once the camp is fully set up, once Taako runs out of tasks to keep himself busy, keep himself moving and not thinking, he starts throwing together a stew out of the last of their rations except what they’ll need for the next day; he shoves a knife and an armful of potatoes at Magnus, who dutifully sets to the task of peeling and chopping them. Still silent, but a steady, firm presence, and though Taako finds the tension held in his shoulders softening, the hot pit of anger draining away by degrees, it only reveals something raw and hollow underneath, grief and regret and heartbreak leaving his hands trembling as he stirs the stew. Everything he’s been running from. He’d rather have the anger, though he can’t sustain it, can already feel himself beginning to collapse inward; he doesn’t know what will happen when he stops moving, when he allows himself a moment to think.

Barry wanders down the mountain then, finally done talking to Lup. Magnus passes Taako the chopped potatoes, which he dumps into the pot, and then he rests a hand on Taako’s shoulder, squeezing it gently. He stiffens, but doesn’t shake Magnus off. Barry sits down at the now blazing fire, watching them with an expression Taako doesn’t bother trying to read.  

“Thanks for giving me time to talk to her, guys,” Barry says. He’s still holding the communicator, which he turns over in his hands before slipping it into the pocket of his robes. “Taako? You okay?”

“Not so much, my man,” Taako says, and then closes his mouth tight, it’s not what he meant to say at all. His voice sounds so small and weak in his own ears.

Magnus takes a seat, close to Taako, though not quite touching him. “What happened? Did you get in a fight with Lup?” He asks gently.

Taako shakes his head, biting his tongue. Barry speaks for him. “He talked to Kravitz,” he says, and Taako wonders how much Lup heard, how much she told Barry.

“Ohh. Shit,” Magnus says. Taako hunches his shoulders and focuses on stirring the stew. “Well, this definitely calls for bro time.”

Bro time?” Taako snorts.

Magnus grins, and turns to dig through his pack, pulling out a flask. “Yup. It’s mandatory. C’mon, leave the soup alone, it’ll be fine without you poking at it.”

Taako sighs as Magnus takes a swig from the flask, then offers it to Barry. “Yeah, I’m not exactly in the mood to… I don’t know, whatever bro time is, can’t we just go to bed so we can get an early start?”

“Nope, you’re outvoted,” Barry says. Barry may hate conflict but he'll damn well push through it when he has to. “You’re gonna take our friendship and you’re gonna finally deal with this, whether you like it or not. Bud, just listen to me for a sec, don’t give me that look. You’re not okay. You haven’t been this whole expedition, whatever you’re trying to do it’s not working and if you keep trying to hold all this in you’re just going to explode.”

“Well, what am I supposed to do, exactly, what do you want me to say? That I still want him? No shit! Talking circles around this won’t change anything, it doesn’t matter what I want. You don’t get it, none of you - you and Lup, you actually just get to be together. No leaving her behind, no complications, nothing can keep you apart. The rest of us don’t have that fucking luxury!”

It all bursts from him like a flood, and he thinks he knows what Barry means by exploding, everything weighing him down these whole time, this pressure he can’t keep in. All he knows how to do is keep things buried or lash out. He gestures toward the flask, takes a swig when Barry silently passes it to him. It burns going down, feels awful on his empty stomach.

“He loves you,” Barry says. Taako hunches his shoulders, ears turned down. “He told me to tell you.”

“That’s bullshit. Doesn’t even know me.”

“Only because you won’t let him.” Barry leans forward, watching Taako, elbows balanced on his knees. “A friend of mine told me something a while back, something I really needed to hear. He reminded me that the one thing we have in abundance, that people never have enough of, is time.”

It feels like that conversation was a lifetime ago now, like it happened to someone else. They haven’t had such a carefree cycle since, this thankless fucking journey taking and taking from them until Taako doesn’t even recognize the idiot kid who boarded a spaceship for the hell of it. Physically he’s the same, but he feels so much older.

But still, he’d meant what he said, back then.

“Sounds like a smart guy,” Taako says, finally making himself look up at Barry, who smiles. “But uh, doesn’t exactly apply here. I don’t have all the time in the world, I have a cycle at most. It’s not enough!”

“You have as many cycles as you’re willing to put the work into it,” Magnus counters.

“And I’m a stranger to him every time!”

“But you’re not! Not really! The way you keep finding each other, that has to mean something. It’s destiny!”

“Or the giant fucking bounty on my head,” Taako says flatly, though of course that doesn’t explain how they’d been drawn together at the Conservatory, when Kravitz was mortal. Or why it’s never another reaper, only Kravitz. “None of this changes anything. I don’t even have the stupid coin anymore, told him to throw it away.”

“Look at it this way,” Barry speaks up again. “Me and Lup - it’s not that I’m glad all this happened, the Hunger and everything - but if it hadn’t? If both of us hadn’t ended up on the Starblaster, if we weren’t stuck in these cycles? If we weren’t in these specific circumstances, we wouldn’t even know each other. I don’t know if it’s coincidence or destiny or dumb luck but I don’t care, because at least I have her.”

Taako waves a hand, as if to say get to the point.

“Same with you and Kravitz, isn’t it? If he was just a normal guy, if he only existed on that one world, you would never have met him again. But instead you get to have him in your life, even with the Hunger and everything. You have so much time. But Magnus is right, you have to be able to put the work into it. You can’t keep running away. It’s not just hurting you, it’s him, too.”

Taako wraps his arms around himself, looking into the little bonfire, the stew in its pot bubbling away. He focuses on it, tangible things, rather than losing himself in his swirl of cyclical, self-contradictory thoughts. For some reason he goes back to the call with Kravitz. How despite the way Taako hurt him, despite everything - he’d been so happy just to hear Taako’s voice. Knowing full well that Taako will be leaving this planet for good in a matter of days, if that, he’d still just wanted to hear Taako’s voice again. ‘He loves you.'  Taako isn’t sure he believes it. Not after all this.

There’s a hand on his back, rubbing between his shoulder blades. Magnus’s hand. He surprises himself by not pushing him away, by leaning into the touch instead.

“We live in the apocalypse,” Magnus says, as serious as Taako has ever heard him. “That’s our life, that’s how it is whether we like it or not. It could all end tomorrow, for better or worse, or this could be forever. Who knows. Faced with that every year, every single day - what else do we have, what really matters, except loving each other?”

Taako doesn’t answer right away, and Barry is quiet, too. His thoughts drift to the way that he’s rebuilt from light at the beginning of every cycle, always holding his sister’s hand, and how the first thing that all of them do each time they reform, no matter how many times they’ve been through it, is to look around and count heads, make sure that they’re all safe and sound.

He thinks, too, of those final days at the conservatory, the Hunger drawing ever closer. Even through the dread and the fear, and all the pain he’d caused Kravitz at the end - even with all that, he’d never felt closer to Kravitz than he did then. He’s never loved him more than when they’d fought the Hunger hand-in-hand.

“What if it's not worth it?” Taako says. He blinks rapidly, still staring into the fire. “What if it always hurts this much?”

“It might. But you’re hurting now anyway without him,” Barry points out gently. Taako doesn’t bother trying to deny that. “You have been for so long. I just... think he’d be really sad, to see you so miserable. We all are.”

That’s what tips him over the edge, what has Taako squeezing his eyes shut against tears, the idea of Kravitz - his Kravitz, the boy with the cello and stars in his eyes, young and naive and alive - seeing him like this. “I’m tired,” he says, hardly a whisper, and Magnus’s arm comes around his shoulders, holding him tight to his side, and then Barry is there too, on his other side. He laughs under his breath - more of a sniffle, really. “Ugh, do not - fine, alright, guess, uh - guess this is happening -”

“This is mandatory too, this is the most important part of bro time,” Magnus says, squeezing him tighter for a moment. Both of them are soft and warm, and they all smell like dirt from weeks on the road. Taako laughs again, turns his head to rest it on Barry's shoulder. This is stupid, but he supposed he can indulge them. Just for now. “We love you, man.”

“Natch,” Taako mumbles. He knows he doesn’t need to say it back, that letting them drag him into this impromptu cuddle pile him says more than words can, and they know him. They know him way too well, almost as well as Lup.

“We do,” Barry agrees, patting him on the back.

Taako snuggles closer to Barry - a moment of weakness, but fuck it, who cares. He knows he’s been distant from Barry, these last couple of years, has been distant from everyone but Lup, and to have this back… it’s good. It’s really good, in a way he hadn’t known he was missing. “I have no fucking idea what to do,” he admits.

“No one expects you to. We're here for you whenever you’re ready to get your shit together.” Taako flips him off half-heartedly. “And don’t worry about that coin, Kravitz is going to find you again with or without it.”

“Your sincerity is giving me indigestion,” Taako grumbles, exaggerated, wiggling out of their embraces. “No wait, that's just my stomach rumbling, can we please fucking eat? Are we done?

The stew is a mess, a mish-mash of the last of their rations. Not enough salt, an overabundance of the smoked fish that no one really wanted to have to keep eating. But it’s warm and heavy in Taako’s belly, and Barry and Magnus manage to get him to laugh until he can’t breathe with dirty jokes and stupid stories as they polish off the last drops of liquor in the flask. Anything to take his mind off the Kravitz-shaped hole in his heart; genuine laughter, and for the first time in all this long expedition he feels like he’s part of it, like the wall he’d put up between himself and Barry and Magnus, intentionally or not, has finally been torn down.

If nothing else he has them. His family, even if he’ll rarely admit it out loud. Soon he gets to go home, back to his tiny kitchen and tiny bathroom, back to the small jungle of houseplants and herbs that Merle has strewn about the ship, and Lucretia falling asleep at her desk staying up too late writing; everything back to normal. Without Kravitz, and it occurs to Taako that, for how strange it was to have him on the ship, it will be stranger still to have him gone. So many missed chances passing him by, so many regrets; maybe by the time he comes around again, Taako will have a plan for how to deal with it. Maybe not.

For now, the apocalypse is coming. But that night Taako meditates soundly for the first time in a while.

He really needs to stop expecting things to go according to plan.

“C’mon!” Magnus bellows, three strides ahead. There’s already a cramp in Taako’s side, but he pushes through it, has to. “Go go go!”

“We don’t all have legs as long as yours!” Barry shouts back, sweat beading on his forehead as the three of them run as fast as they can, along the edge of where the forest meets the wide open field that the Great Plains clan calls home. If they go too far into the forest, Davenport won’t be able to spot them from the Starblaster. Taako could probably catch up to Magnus, if he tried, but Lup would kill him if he let Barry fall behind. They’ve abandoned some of their heavier equipment - an unfortunate loss but nothing they can’t replace - and Taako has the Light of Creation tucked under his arm.

He can hear the war cries of the Great Plains clan behind them as they give chase, the Light’s hold on them too strong to allow them to give it up. Above them the sky is rapidly turning black.

Everything had gone so very wrong in the span of just a few minutes. Taako had thought they had this in the bag; it quickly became obvious that reasoning with the clan wasn’t going to be an option, they don’t even let outsiders in, especially non-tabaxi. He’d snuck in, and found the Light unguarded, and taken it. Easy peasy.

Only for the guards to appear as if out of nowhere, surrounding him and the Light. He’d managed to escape back to where Magnus and Barry were waiting with a series of Blinks - far too many spell slots wasted - and of course, there in the Ethereal Plane were the Hunger’s thousands of eyes, staring down, without even the decency to disappear when he looked up at them. Which meant it wasn’t bothering to hide - it was already upon them.

“Good news,” he’d said once he appeared beside Magnus, breathing hard, “got the Light, bad news they all want us dead and also guess our calculations were fucky because the Hunger is here so let’s fuckin’ go!

The Great Plains tabaxi are armed with long, wicked spears and massive longbows, and they snarl and yip and hiss as they chase the three of them down. They’re fast. Faster than Taako and Magnus and Barry can outrun, though they toss spells over their shoulders to slow their pursuers down. Ahead of him, Magnus digs into his pack while still trying to run, retrieving two flares. They have a system - the first flare signals if they’re safe or in trouble. The second signals whether or not to come for them. They shoot high, two bright splashes of red sparking against the silent black storm that will start sending down pillars of tar any second now. High enough, Taako hopes, that Davenport will spot them from the Starblaster, if they made it here. If they didn’t leave at the first sign of the Hunger’s arrival.

The tabaxi are catching up. Taako still has spell slots to spare, though not many. He casts Expeditious Retreat on each of them. It takes, they dash far ahead of the oncoming tabaxi, but it’s hard to cast while running. His concentration on the spell, Taako stumbles over a rock hidden by tall grass.

One stumble is all the tabaxi warriors need. The first arrow catches him in the back of the leg, bringing him to the ground in a flare of white-hot pain. The second catches him in the side.

“Taako!” Barry skids to a stop, dashing back to Taako and dragging him out of the open field, ducking behind the treeline. Taako cries out at the rough movement, his side already slick with blood. As Barry manages to get him out of sight, Magnus appears beside them. “Shit, oh shit, ” Barry mutters, hovering over Taako, hands fidgeting like he’s trying to decide whether to leave the arrows or pull them out.

“Do you have healing spells?” Magnus demands.

“No! I’m a fucking wizard!” Barry starts digging through his pack, presumably for a potion, but Taako grabs his wrist to stop him. They don’t have time for this. The sky is getting thick and heavy, like it’s dripping, the Hunger’s forces are almost here.

“Here,” Taako says through gritted teeth, and shoves the Light of Creation into Magnus’s hands. “You gotta run, get to where Davenport can find you.”

“We’re not leaving you -”

“Yes you are, we have minutes, why am I the only fucking pragmatist here -” he cuts himself off, whimpering as the wound in his side throbs. “Just go.

“Lup’s gonna kill me,” Barry mutters, and Magnus looks like he’s going to cry, but neither of them can argue. This world is fucked if they don’t leave now. Still, he takes a second to tug Taako into a quick hug. “I’m sorry.”

“See you next year,” Taako says with a crooked grin.

They take the Light and run, speed still magically enhanced. Taako knows he won’t be able to get far, but he pushes himself through the pain and limps further into the forest, further out of sight of the tabaxi and, hopefully, the Hunger’s forces. He’s dying, sure, but he’s not gonna make this easy on them. The arrow wounds throb with every motion but he forces himself to keep running, stumbling around trees and over fallen logs and through underbrush, until the spell wears off and he finally collapses. Jaw clenched and breathing hard, he drags himself to a secluded little area, leaning against a large tree.

Here, where he can hardly see the sky and the tabaxi have long passed him by in favor of chasing the Light, it’s quiet. It’s almost peaceful. Before he does anything else he pulls his own flares out of his pack, lights them and lets them loose into the sky. It’s the protocol, practically instinct at this point, though it won’t make a difference. Red - not safe; green - don’t come for me.

That’s taken care of. Next, Taako makes a half-hearted attempt to remove the arrow in his leg, it sends another jolt of pain through him with every miniscule twitch of his muscles. Just touching it sends the world spinning. He gags and shuts his eyes, but with his last spell slots he casts two Mage Hands. He can’t stop himself from crying out when they wrench both arrows out, tears rolling down his cheeks. The arrows fall to the ground and Taako slumps against the tree. Dying is easy, but pain...

Mostly he’s annoyed. What a shit end to a shit year, dying alone yet again. All he can do is wait to bleed out or for the world to end, whichever comes first. Better luck next time.

“Taako? Taako!”

He blinks his his eyes open at the sound of the voice, the crashing of booted feet through the forest. He can only stare at the figure rushing toward him, eyes wide with panic. In Taako’s bleary vision, in the thick feathered cloak, Kravitz looks like he could be an angel.

“Oh, no, no no no,” Kravitz whispers as he comes to a stop a few steps away, staring at Taako, at the blood soaking through his shirt. He lifts a hand to his mouth, taking in the sight of Taako, the wounds that brought him down, the scarlet spilling over fallen leaves. “I’m too late.”

“Am I dead already?” Taako mumbles. If he is, he’s not sure why the Veil looks like the forest he bled out in but hey, death does weird things to your head. “That was fast.”

Kravitz laughs, except maybe it’s a sob. “Not yet, dear one. Not yet.”

Taako coughs, and there’s blood in his mouth - yep, okay, not dead yet, which means - it means that somehow Kravitz is actually here. “You idiot,” Taako groans, but he’s sitting up despite his wounds, reaching out for Kravitz even as he kneels down, his cloak pooling around his legs as he anxiously murmurs “Don’t, don’t move too much.” Taako doesn’t listen - needs to touch him, feel him, real and here, Kravitz came for him. Kravitz’s hands are blessedly icy on his skin, sweat-slick from pain and exhertion. “You moron what are you doing here -” he cuts himself off, wincing, it hurts just to talk.

“You’re dying,” Kravitz says shakily, gripping Taako’s hands tight.

Taako laughs, letting his eyes drift closed for a moment. Letting Kravitz hold him up. “No shit, babe.”

“I felt it,” Kravitz says, voice cracking. He presses a kiss to Taako’s knuckles. “I could feel it, I knew something was wrong - I had to find you. I couldn’t leave you alone.”

“Oh,” Taako says, quiet, blinking his eyes open again. The world swims in his vision but he can focus on Kravitz’s face if nothing else. He touches Kravitz’s cheek with the tips of his fingers, forgetting they’re stained with blood but Kravitz just leans into the touch until he draws his hand away. He shakes his head, asks, “Barry and Magnus - ?”

“On the ship with the Light, they’re taking off,” Kravitz says, and Taako sighs, finally relaxes, slumping forward into Kravitz’s arms. They did it. They fucking did it. “They’re safe, we’re all safe.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Taako says. His forehead rests against Kravitz’s collarbone. “Still plenty of time for them to fuck you up.”

“I don’t know how you do this year after year. I think I’d go mad.”

Maybe we have, Taako thinks, though he doesn’t say it. Kravitz’s arms come around him, hands resting just above his wounds, high up on his thigh and deep in his side. It takes Taako a moment to realize that he’s singing, barely humming, and magic wells up between the words. Taako lifts his head, nearly protests - Kravitz will have to fight, he’ll need his spell slots - but a cool wave pulses through his body as Kravitz presses his lips to Taako’s forehead. He shudders.

He’s had enough healing in his lifetime, if Merle’s spells can qualify as healing, to know the spell won’t save his life, but with Kravitz’s touch the pain recedes somewhat. It might get him through the next few minutes, all he really needs to reset. “What happened to not interfering?” Taako grins, head lolling to the side. Fucking hell, he’s exhausted.

“I don’t give a damn about that,” Kravitz says. Finished with the spell, he cups Taako’s cheek in his palm. “I can’t do much more, but...”

“It’s okay.” There’s blood streaked across Kravitz’s face where Taako touched him, the same color as his eyes, and even then he’s so fucking beautiful. Taako never wants to stop looking at him. He wishes, all at once, that he had never run away. He should have been on the ship with him. He should have been there, convincing Kravitz to try some of his cooking, sitting up late into the night with him when he has nothing else to do. He wants to take Kravitz fishing. He wants to listen to him sing. He wants everything, just a few months with him will never be enough but it would have been theirs. He wouldn’t be bleeding out in a random forest. Everything about this cycle seems so stupid, now.

He’d thought he could cut away this piece of himself for good, that tiny part that still gives a damn about the universe he’s fighting to save. Thought it would be better, easier, that way. But maybe that’s not possible in a universe that Kravitz is part of.

But they’re here now. At least they’re here.

“I’m sorry,” because he’s never going to see this Kravitz again, and he could disappear any moment, and he needs him to know. “I’m so…”

“I know,” Kravitz murmurs, soothing, but Taako presses on.

“I tried, you know?” Taako laughs, even though it hurts, even though it’s not funny. Absurd, maybe, the whole fucking mess of it. Kravitz draws him closer, lets Taako curl close to him. “I really did try to just…. stop, stop giving a fuck. Thought, maybe I could save us both a little heartache down the road if I could learn to be without you. Fucked that up too, but - I thought -”

“I know, my love, I know,” Kravitz says, soft and close to Taako’s ear. His hands, big and strong, rubbing circles on Taako’s back. He’s glad he’s not alone. He’s glad Kravitz is here with him, together at the end of the world again.

“I don’t know how,” Taako goes on. His voice breaks. “I can’t, I don’t know how to stop loving you.”

Kravitz presses kiss after kiss to the top of Taako’s head; his hands don’t stop moving, soothing touches. Doesn’t say much, because maybe at this point, there’s not much to say, or too much but not enough time in which to say it. “How long do we have?”

It’s dark as night, though just half an hour ago the sun was at its zenith. Taako knows the Hunger is out there, the shadows wreaking whatever havoc they can manage, one last ditch effort to consume what it can. Here, though, in the little hollow that Taako stumbled into, it’s eerily silent, only the two of them breathing to break it. All the wildlife hiding, it seems like even the air has stood still. “Minutes, maybe less,” Taako says. Depends on how much trouble the Hunger is giving them up there on the ship, and how long it took them to convince Lup not to turn around for him.

“Fuck,” Kravitz mutters, which almost makes Taako laugh as Kravitz releases him. He sits up on his own, though it leaves him dizzy. Kravitz lifts something from his neck, a pendant on a simple black leather cord. Not just any pendant, Taako quickly sees, but the coin, now in a simple leather wrapping, sturdy but easy to take it out if need be. Beautiful, too. Taako wonders if Kravitz made the necklace himself. Maybe on one of those long, sleepless nights.

“You didn’t throw it away,” Taako says, throat dry.  

“Of course I didn’t.” Kravitz lets Taako lean on him again, and Taako sighs in relief; the healing helped but the pain is far from gone. “I know you said you don’t want it but -”

“I was such a dick.”

“Take it with you,” Kravitz says. “Please.” As if Taako could say no. He can only nod as Kravitz lays the necklace over his head, the coin resting right as his breastbone. He touches it softly, forgetting his fingers are still wet with blood, it’s all over Kravitz’s cloak and his suit but Kravitz doesn’t seem to notice or mind. Kravitz looks him in the eyes, as serious and sad and hopeful as Taako has ever seen him. Taako wants to kiss him so badly it makes his teeth hurt. He tastes copper on his tongue.

“Will you listen to it?” Kravitz asks, urgent, knowing their time is running out, but the next cycle will come, and the next, all the time in the world. Taako doesn’t know why Kravitz is so desperate for him to listen to the coin but he doesn’t question it, he just nods. Kravitz’s hand trembles, just slightly, as he pushes Taako’s hair out of his face.

“I will,” Taako says, and - he can feel the reset coming, the bonds that will drag him back home, welling up and filling him until he could explode. He doesn’t want to go. He crushes the feathers of Kravitz’s cloak in his fist as if he can stay if he just clings a little harder, drawing Kravitz close, their foreheads pressed together. “I’ll find you again,” he babbles, “As many times as I have to, I swear -”

And he can’t speak, he can’t do anything, because he’s unraveling, shining silvery threads winding around him and within him, until the light is near blinding. Kravitz sobs and tries to hold tight, even now - “No, not yet!” - and Taako wants to tell him so many things, that it will be okay, that he loves him and he’ll see him soon, but he doesn’t have a voice, and he doesn’t have a body, and he’s nothing and everything and -

he starts over, remade from fragments of himself, the first thing he’s aware of Lup’s hand squeezing his, tight enough to hurt.

It’s some time before he gets the chance to listen to the recordings. There’s celebrating to be done, another world saved from the Hunger’s grasp, and they have to safely navigate the ship to the next plane. Taako and Lup make up for lost time, they hardly let go of each other all evening, catching each other up on everything that’s happened. It’s always like this, when they’ve been apart, when one of them dies, like Taako has been missing a lung all these months and now that they’re together he can finally take a full breath. He spends a lot of the night convincing her that Barry and Magnus aren’t to blame for Taako getting left behind, that it’s no one’s fault - that it’s okay, and he wasn’t alone.

Late in the night, he retires to his room, though the rest of the crew are still celebrating. He may not have died, but nearly dying takes a lot out of you too. The quiet of his room is a blessing, the sound of his family’s voices muffled and distant. It’s all just as he left it; that is to say, a fucking mess. The last time he was here, Kravitz was in this room, and it feels like yesterday and a lifetime ago all at once.

It’s tempting, almost instinctual, to try to drive thoughts of him away. To sink back into the familiar futility of trying to forget him. He doesn’t let it happen; makes himself think about that night, and that morning after, as ashamed of it as he is. Not dwelling on what he should have done differently, but accepting it for what it was. He makes himself a cup of hot tea, and wraps himself in a soft blanket, and sits cross-legged on his bed. Slips off the necklace, and holds the coin in the palm of his hand. It still has a smear of blood on it, but it wipes away.

The original message plays first, and it might be the hardest to hear, but Taako doesn’t interrupt it this time. He lets Kravitz’s voice, both their voices - frightened but brave and so in love - wash over him, and has to rub his eyes when it’s done and he hears the click of the coin deactivating, but it’s good, he realizes, to hear it. A painful kind of good. He’d forgotten the way that Kravitz made him laugh, even then.

Another click, and the familiar notes of his song ring out from the coin. It’s not a good recording; they were outside, the sound of crickets muddying the sound, and it’s not Kravitz’s full orchestra, just him and his cello. It’s still the most beautiful song Taako thinks he’s ever heard. He has to take a moment when it’s done, steady his breath.

He doesn’t deactivate the coin, though it doesn’t make a sound for a few long moments; Taako doesn’t know for sure why Kravitz needed him to listen to badly, but he doesn’t think it was just for these old recordings. He waits, and he waits, and - there. A click, then Kravitz’s voice. Taako holds his breath.

Is… is this on? Is it working? Alright - um.

Kravitz sighs.

...What am I even doing?


Taako -

Gods, I don’t even know if you’ll bother listening to this. Maybe this is pointless. I just.

I can’t stop thinking about you?

Well fuck me, that sounds creepy as hell. How do you erase these things?


Lup explained some things to me. She wants me to stay away from you, and she might be right. It certainly seems that I made things worse for you by coming here, and I’m sorry. I wish we could talk. I wish you were here.

I’ve taken to sleeping some nights. I don’t really know why, it’s such a waste of time. Such a silly mortal thing. Your family even gets me to eat once in a while, you’d be pleased about that.

When I sleep, I keep dreaming about… strings of light. They’re stretching out away from me, as far as I can see, and I’m sure I’m supposed to follow them, that you’re waiting on the other side. But no matter what I do, no matter how far I follow, I never make it to you.

What you and this - this other me said in the recording… it’s insane, but I believe it. I believe you. You - and the other me - were trying to help me understand.

What changed? Why did you have to leave?

How can I make it right?


It isn’t fair. You can’t just show me this, upend everything I thought I knew about myself and just - leave me to pick up the pieces.

I want to be angry! I want to hate you, and I don’t, and I hate that too.

Click. A long pause between messages this time, and for a moment Taako thinks that’s it, that this is all Kravitz left him with. More guilt. But then -

This message is for Kravitz McAllister.

If you’ve gotten this far in the recordings, then this… situation has been explained to you. The Hunger, Taako’s mission. The nature of your existence, which is somehow infinitely more complicated than you ever imagined. And because I am you and you are me, I know that right now you’re trying to decide what to do. Not just about the bounty on Taako’s head, but about all of it.

Because when you look at Taako there’s this ache right at the core of you and you don’t know what it means, and you want him even though you barely know who he is. Because you do know who he is, because those versions of you that left these recordings are you, and yet not. He is a stranger to you, and you’re fairly certain you love him, and he’s going to leave you in less than a year. He’ll find you again and again, and you won’t remember the times that came before, but he will.

It’s hard.

I’m recording from cycle forty-nine. Taako knows what that means. I don’t get the chance to decide what to do, really, because Taako made that decision for us this time. He’s grieving, and me being here is only hurting him, and I don’t know if he’ll ever try to seek us out again. But I hope he does.

Gods, I hardly know him, really - but at the same time I do. My heart does. Lup - Taako’s sister, if you haven’t met her yet; you’ll like her, you’ll love his whole family - she’s told me about the times we’ve met in the past, and I can only take her word for it, but - it all feels true. It feels like remembering.  And I love him. And it’s hard. And I wish we had more time.

I suppose what I’m trying to do here is… just reiterating what has already been said. From a perspective that you - me - whatever version of us is hearing this - may find more familiar. Trust him. Love him. At the very least, hear him out. You may well be the aspect of us that meets Taako on the last cycle, whenever his terrible journey ends. The one who’s by Taako’s side when he wins this war - and we have to trust that he will win.

And if you are, then you’re a lucky man, my friend.

And Taako, if you’re there - I don’t know when you’ll hear this, but wherever you are, I hope you’re okay. No, I know you’ll be okay. Because you’re so strong. You’re going to find a way to defeat the Hunger and you’re going to save us all and… wherever you are, I’m so proud of you.

Just do me a favor. Don’t waste your time with guilt and wondering what could have been, alright? He wanted this. He wanted you to find me, to seek me out. And so do I. So find me, Taako. And keep running, keep fighting. Keep loving. Don’t let this war harden your heart. It’s worth it.

It will always be worth it.


Taako surprises himself when he doesn’t cry. Not forcing the tears down and down until he can bury them, they simply don’t come; instead, as Kravitz’s voice falls silent, a stillness comes over him. A calm that, paradoxically, almost startles him; it’s been a long time since he felt this sure.

He hasn’t looked down upon this new world yet. It and everyone on it and this whole universe may be dust, but never Kravitz. A constant, like Lup, like Magnus and Barry, like Taako himself. Kravitz, who is a part of this universe even while Taako stands apart from it. As good a reason to fight for it as any.

He presses a kiss to the silent coin, and hangs it around his neck, where it will stay until it’s needed; he won’t let it go again. He holds onto it for a moment more. “I’ll find you,” he says to the empty room. Speaking the words aloud like an incantation, like his voice will make it true. “I promise.”

It doesn’t happen right away; not this cycle or the next. This world is uninhabited, an endless ocean; the next, they simply don’t cross paths, though Taako looks for him around every corner, sees his face in every stranger. Long and lonely cycles of waiting and studying and fighting, time enough that, slowly but surely, some of the ache of leaving Kravitz behind can dull. Time enough that when they find each other again, Taako can let himself feel the warmth in his belly and the giddiness filling his chest and the tug of their bond, rather than the dread of a timer counting down.

He’s had Kravitz and he’s been without him, and he knows now that either way he can do this, he can survive it, as long as Kravitz will have him.

He presses the coin into Kravitz’s hand, and Kravitz listens.

Chapter Text

 Time drags on, grows stagnant the years they don’t find Kravitz and moves far too fast the times they do. The people are still dust, though Taako never voices that thought to anyone. Histories and lives, gone in a flash, except the fraction they manage to write down. And the seven of them, standing apart from it all.

It’s difficult, Taako finds, for time to feel important or even real when you don’t age, don’t change, when nothing changes except the place you find yourself. He supposes the humans in the crew must have felt the disconnect long before himself and Lup, Davenport and Merle, all of them of naturally long-lived races. It’s only now, half a century in, that Taako looks at himself in a mirror and startles because there should be some sign of age, even in an elf (a difference probably no one but an elf would notice, but a difference nonetheless) but he doesn’t look a day older than when they left home. Lucretia and Magnus look like kids when they should be middle-aged. Barry should be elderly, if Taako understands human aging right. Are their minds aging without their bodies? It feels that way until Magnus decides it’s a good idea to put the Light of Creation in the microwave (“Just to see what happens!”) and then Taako isn’t so sure.

There’s a reason they call them cycles instead of years; at this point it feels like it’s never, ever going to end. He has a wild theory that time isn’t really passing in the traditional sense for them, that it only feels that way because the can only perceive it linearly. He thinks back to his time in the Veil, so long ago now, and all he’d seen, the understanding that faded once he was reset - the light falling, the Hunger in pursuit, hundreds of times but all happening at once, scattered throughout the universe.

He feels scattered too, a piece of him left in every world they leave behind. It gets to him, now, in a way it didn’t before; time and it’s utter lack of importance. A year is never enough time to settle, and Taako aches to settle in a way he never has before. Nothing constant in this life, nothing stable or lasting, except the progression of the cycles and the ship they call home.

And Kravitz.

There’s a memory he forgot he even had, more the memory of a feeling, really - him and Lup living with his aunt in that brief but formative time. They had been wild children, running off on their own more often than not. But each night they’d been able to come home to the cabin, dirty and worn out from playing, and eat hot fresh food and slip between clean linen sheets to fall asleep, warm and safe for a time, though even then they’d lived through enough tragedy to know it wouldn’t last forever.

That’s how Taako feels, he eventually realizes, whenever he finds Kravitz.

The first time that he shows Kravitz the coin after cycle forty-nine, Taako realizes abruptly that he doesn’t have a plan for what comes after this.

Not that he hadn’t thought about this moment, and all it could be, all the ways that it could go wrong. A hundred possibilities, both good and bad - Kravitz falling into his arms, Kravitz shoving the coin back into his hand and refusing to listen, Kravitz killing him on the spot - but he doesn’t know what’s going to happen now that they’ve made it here. Doesn’t know if it will be the same every time they go through this. That anxiety doesn’t quell the hope blooming in his chest, the sheer joy of seeing Kravitz again after so very long. The rush of finally, after all the bullshit, allowing himself to be honest with Kravitz, to put all this out in the open. He’s done all he can, and now he has to give up whatever measure of control he has, leave it up to Kravitz where they go from here.

Kravitz sucks in a sharp and shuddery breath, as the coin falls silent, all it’s messages conveyed. Seemingly against his will, a tear drips down his cheek, one that he rubs away quickly. It’s all Taako can do not to rush to him, wrap him up in his arms and hold him tight. He keeps his distance, a few steps away.

Kravitz looks beautiful, in the light of the giant, bioluminescent mushroom forest that he tracked Taako into. He always looks beautiful, but maybe Taako’s just more aware of it right now. The caps of the mushrooms are big enough to block out the starlight; if the Starblaster is flying above, looking for Taako, he can’t see it. He’s alone down here. Not helpless, but alone.

But he hasn’t been afraid of Kravitz in a long time.

Kravitz laughs at himself, shaking his head, knowing he failed to hide his tears. “I - I’m sorry, I don’t even know why I’m…”

“It’s a lot to take in,” Taako chuckles. “Don’t blame you if you don’t believe me. I wouldn’t if I hadn’t lived it.”

“But I do,” Kravitz says. Taako almost startles. It can’t possibly be that easy. Kravitz’s thumb rubs absently over the surface of the coin. He’s long since let his scythe and his book dissipate into smoke. “I shouldn’t. You’re right, it’s absolutely insane, but - but it feels true , it’s like -”

“- like you’ve been looking for me,” Taako says at the same time that Kravitz says it, startling out another shaky laugh. He grins, can’t help it. It’s so fucking good to see him. Even if this all goes wrong, it’s just good to see him. “All your life, right?”

Kravitz nods slowly, eyes wide. “You too?”

He hadn’t known what it was, before meeting Kravitz. The sense of dissatisfaction, of searching for something around every corner without knowing what he was looking for. Hindsight and all that. But it’s so obvious now, how they’ve always been two orbiting stars, pulled together and then apart. “As long as I can remember,” he says softly.

Kravitz takes a deep breath, lets it out slow. Looks around him, as if searching for answers to some unspoken question. Taako has been through this enough times now to know, vaguely, what he’s thinking - how he’s unsure of everything he’d thought he’d known about himself, about his place in the world.  “Gods. Everything makes… both more sense and less at the same time.”

“I missed you,” Taako blurts out. “I - I don’t know if you even want to hear that right now, but - I missed you so much -

“What happened?” Kravitz interrupts. Taako falls silent, blinking at him. “This - this last message. Cycle forty-nine, he said - he said you had to leave. I know that’s not the most important thing here but - I want to know. What happened?”

Taako swallows. Honesty. That’s what he’s doing, that’s what he has to do to make this work. “I was stupid,” he admits. “And really messed up. I ran, to protect myself, but all I did was hurt him.”

He’s had plenty of time to dwell on all that.

“I see,” Kravitz says, carefully neutral.

“I’m done running, now.”

Kravitz watches him - searching for something, though Taako doesn’t know what it is or if he finds it.  “We have… a lot to discuss, obviously. I need to know more about this ‘Hunger,’ and why the hell you keep coming back from the dead. I need to speak to my goddess about what we’re going to do about this. But -” and here Kravitz hesitates. He reaches out, returns the coin to Taako’s palm - and Taako is surprised when he lingers there, hands loosely clasped. “Can we just… talk for awhile?”

Taako’s grin could split his face in two. He needs to let the crew know he’s alive, get back to the Starblaster, get back to finding the Light. It’s getting late.

He feels like he’s teetering on the edge of a cliff, knowing he can’t go back once he’s fallen. That this is his last chance to walk away. And his life might be simpler that way.

He squeezes Kravitz’s hand - the coin clasped between their palms - and lets himself fall.

It becomes a familiar scene, though the specifics often differ. Finding each other again and again, despite all odds, building a wary trust that blossoms into devotion. It’s always a question of whether Kravitz is willing to listen, willing to give Taako the chance to explain. Willing to love Taako when he’ll be gone in a year. And it doesn’t always work - there are still times when Kravitz is their enemy - but when it does…

It’s one little spot of brightness in this endless, thankless war, and he holds onto it, onto every scrap of time with Kravitz he can grasp, with a fierceness previously reserved only for his sister. They leave messages on the coin together, fill it up with all the things they want their future selves to know. Advice, and reminders of why it’s worth it to keep at this, and tentative fantasies of what the future might hold if they can make it through. When he’s able, Kravitz helps them battle the Hunger, helps them track down the Light. There are worlds they save that they wouldn’t have been able to without him.

He hears Kravitz say I love you for the first time over and over, and Taako thinks it shouldn’t still thrill him so, shouldn’t still fill his chest with butterflies and lightning bugs and fireworks, but he falls in love with Kravitz all over again every single time.

Every cycle the Hunger seems to get not only stronger but smarter. More and more often, their escapes come down to the wire as it predicts their every move, like it’s been studying them.

It used to be they were confident, most of the time, that even if they didn’t get the Light on a given cycle they would at least be able to escape to fight another day. Now it really sinks in that if they die before escaping the planar system, that’s it. No one else to fight the Hunger. End of the world, for real this time.

In cycle sixty-five, Taako watches all his friends turn to stone before being petrified himself, and they don’t know if Lucretia survived the crash or not, and he thinks this can’t be it, we can’t have come so far just for this; he tries to reach for Lup but barely lifts a hand before it’s turned to stone, and he can’t think of anything at all.

Lucretia comes through, in the end, keeps herself and Fisher alive. But they’d never come so close to losing it all, and they can only be so careful.

Taako doesn’t know how much longer the Hunger will keep letting them get away with it.

They do all they can and then some, and Taako fights and he studies, balances his relationship with the task of saving the world. One day, he knows, they’ll have a plan to stop it.

If the Hunger doesn’t take them first.

Fisher is aging and growing in a way the rest of them haven’t in decades. He’s almost double the size that he was when Magnus rescued him, now, and they have to find a bigger tank to accommodate him. He’s the only real indication that time is still passing.

There’s no way to test the theory, but they all become even more protective of the voidfish than before - certain that if he dies, he won’t come back the way the rest of them do.

And when Taako realizes this, it’s the first time he hasn’t regretted not bringing Kravitz with them when the Hunger devoured Legato. So many close calls, so many opportunities for him to be hurt, and he wouldn’t have come back.

There was never a way to save him after all, and Taako ought to feel guilty about that, but instead he’s just relieved.

“Can I ask you something?” Kravitz asks him one cycle, a careful softness to his voice that tells Taako it’s something serious. Taako, sitting on the edge of his bunk in the middle of braiding his hair, pauses and glances back at Kravitz, who is still lying down. They’re only half-dressed though the morning is quickly veering toward noon, giving in to every excuse to be dragged back into bed. Kravitz’s brow is furrowed, he won’t quite meet Taako’s eye.

“Course you can, bubbelah, what’s up?” Taako says with a smile. There are always questions, lots of them. Of course there are. One strand of Taako’s braid slips through his fingers, the whole thing falling apart. “Damn it.”

“Let me,” Kravitz says, sitting up behind Taako. His fingertips at the back of Taako’s neck make him shiver. He’s more patient than Taako, taking his time separating the silky strands of the braid, weaving them in a careful, straight line down Taako’s back. The question still hasn’t come, and Taako is about to open his mouth to urge him on when Kravitz murmurs,

“How many times have you died, now?”

It’s not what he expected; more than that, he knows the information is in Kravitz’s book. He laughs, fights to keep his hands in his lap instead of fidgeting with the sheets or the stray thread at the hem of his shorts. “Uh. A lot? You tell me, mister reaper.”

“How many of those are because of me?”

Taako goes still, doesn’t answer right away. Kravitz doesn’t push, continues his gentle work. When he gets to the end of the braid Taako hands him a tie he was keeping on his wrist, and as he ties the braid off he adds, “You don’t have to say.”

“Three,” Taako says, light as if talking about the weather.  He feels more than hears Kravitz exhale, head falling forward to rest between Taako’s shoulderblades for a moment. He reaches back, finds Kravitz’s knee first and offers what he hopes is a comforting squeeze, and waits for Kravitz to say something - morbidly curious where this is going.  

“Spices things up a bit, doesn’t it?” Taako teases when Kravitz doesn’t respond, turning halfway so that he can see Kravitz’s face.

To his credit, Kravitz attempts a smile. “Does it?”

“I mean,” Taako says, and isn’t sure what he means, or how to put it into words. There aren’t words for people like them, there aren’t people like them, real people don’t love the way they do. He shrugs one shoulder. “Maybe I kinda like it when you chase me.”

“That’s what does it for you?”

“I make do.” He twists around, presses a kiss to Kravitz’s cheek before bouncing up, making his way over to his wardrobe and the tangled pile of jewelry sitting on a shelf inside. He halfheartedly sorts through it, not looking for anything in particular, just for something to do. He still doesn’t know where this conversation is going, why his death count even matters.

“You’re so strange,” Kravitz murmurs.

“You’re one to talk, darling.” He fishes out a lone, dangly earring, holding it up to his ear before shaking his head and tossing it back in the pile.

“I don’t understand,” Kravitz says, hesitant but pushing through regardless, “how you can possibly trust me. After all that.”

“I -” the rest of his earrings are a hopeless tangle, he gives up and turns around. Kravitz hasn’t moved from his perch on the edge of the bed. “Shit, Krav, I don’t know what you want me to say?”

“That fact that I’m even capable of doing that to you -”

“It’s not like you did it -”

Kravitz scoffs. “So is it really me, or isn’t it? It can’t be both!”

“Can’t it? It’s you in a different context,” Taako insists. He resists the urge to cross his arms over his chest, to close himself off from this talk. It’s not a conversation he wants to have, but it’s obviously important to Kravitz for some reason. And Taako wants to be open with him, has learned - grudgingly - that it’s easier for them both when he is. That doesn’t make it feel any less like pulling teeth. “All those times, you didn’t know me. You thought I was just another bounty. I’m not saying it was fun for me, alright, but I don’t really… care?”

“You don’t care, ” Kravitz says, flat.

“No? Am I supposed to? It doesn’t matter, I’m here now.”

“It matters to me. It has to matter, otherwise...”

“Look, you know how many times I’ve died. How many times I’ve watched everyone in the world I even slightly give a shit about die. And it’s gonna happen again, no doubt. It’s a fuckin’ inconvinience at this point, that’s it.” Taako shrugs, turning back to his wardrobe, glancing at himself in the mirror he hung on the door. It’s more an excuse not to look Kravitz in the eye than anything.

They used to have funerals, in the beginning. Even knowing they’d be back soon, it had seemed important then. That was a long time ago. He wonders how long it’s been since anyone bothered to bury him.

Lup does, probably. He always does something for her, after all.

“I know that doesn’t exactly jive with your whole ‘death is sacred’ deal, but it is what it is,” Taako finishes with a shrug, though he’s not sure flippant is the way to go here. “Is this really where it gets too weird for you?”

“No. I’m a bounty hunter, I'm hardly squeamish about violence. But I hate the idea of hurting you,” Kravitz says softly. Taako turns to look at him - his head bowed, wringing his hands. “And I’m so sorry that I ever did, and if you don’t trust me it’s understandable -”

“I don’t even know why we’re hung up on that!” Taako huffs, and Kravitz’s shoulders hunch. Fuck, he’s really goofing this one up, he’s not even mad, just… frustrated. Uncomfortable. He hesitates and says, softer now, “Look, you… you gotta know that trusting people…it doesn’t exactly come naturally for me, right? I mean…” He laughs under his breath. “I mean, you’ve met literally everyone alive that I do trust, they’re all on this ship.”

Kravitz is listening but he still hasn’t looked up. Taako crosses the room in two steps, kneels down in front of Kravitz, sitting up on his heels to be at eye level and taking both his hands in his own before he goes on.

“So you know that it takes a long time to get there, and we’ve had a hell of a long time,” he rambles on as Kravitz finally looks at him, eyes wide and so full of affection it’s almost too much to stand. Forget trusting Kravitz, he doesn’t deserve the trust Kravitz puts in him. “I mean, do I trust you not kill me? Nah, that ship done sailed, I think, but I don’t care. With everything that matters, yeah, of course I do.”

That draws a short laugh from Kravitz, and Taako smiles and squeezes his hands.

“I told you all about the first time, about the Veil.” He waits for Kravitz to nod, though he knows the answer. They’ve never ended up in that space again, or if they have Taako can’t remember it. “I didn’t know it then, but - that’s when I fell in love with you.”

“When I touched your soul,”  Kravitz says, and doesn’t finish the thought, brow furrowed.

He takes Kravitz’s hand, clasped in his, and holds it to his chest. “I can still feel it, sometimes,” he says remembering the way that Kravitz’s soul had hummed all around him. How it had felt to be seen, known all the way to the core of him.

He’s never told anyone this. Kind of thought he was going crazy, or that everyone would judge him for it.

“Really?” Kravitz’s voice goes soft, affectionate.

“If I’m looking for it,” he says. Kravitz’s hand is ice cold on his chest, spreading through his thin shirt, into his skin. It feels like he could reach through Taako, easy as parting a curtain. “Like you left something behind -”

“ - like a handprint,” Kravitz says, continuing Taako’s thought so easily, and Taako smiles at that. You would never think that it had only been a few months since he found this Kravitz, the way they’ve so quickly managed to wrap around each other's lives for this all too brief time. “Or a brand. Sometimes it… nearly feels like I can remember it. Not quite, but almost. I think you left a mark on me, too. Same soul, different life.”

Taako shivers, and not just because of Kravitz’s hands - his other now coming to rest at the curve of Taako’s neck, a touch that never fails to make Taako melt into him; he shivers and leans in close. A brand. He supposes Kravitz had laid claim to him then, though neither of them knew it yet. He likes it as much as it scares him, he thinks. The idea of leaving such permanent marks on each other.

“No one else is ever going to do that,” he says. “And I think about that, and how I miss it, sometimes, the Veil, and you’re the only person who could ever get that and not think I’m fucking crazy, and - who else could I ever possibly end up with?”

“This is all thoroughly fucked up, you know.” But Kravitz is smiling - teasing, not judging him.

“Story of our lives, baby. Or unlife, in your case.”

“Soulmates,” Kravitz murmurs, with a soft smile that grows teasing when Taako rolls his eyes. He hates that word and Kravitz knows it. Used to hate it because he felt like it removed any choice he had in this, but now that he has chosen Kravitz, over and over and over, he hates it because it can’t possibly encompass how thoroughly he belongs to Kravitz, how Kravitz belongs to him. Taako wants to show him, sudden raw hunger twitching in his fingertips. He surges forward, and Kravitz meets him halfway, a kiss just this side of rough.

He never doubts that he loves Kravitz but there are times, like now, where it hits Taako like a brick how much - how much he's willing to give to this, and how rarely in his life he's had anything he wants to keep this much. How hard he'll hold on to it, though it’s so fragile, so easily broken. It scares him how much, but Kravitz's hands on him soothe the fear away.

Much later, laying in the quiet with Taako’s head pillowed on Kravitz’s bare chest, he feels the vibrations through Kravitz’s rib cage before he hears the murmured words.

“I hope,” Kravitz says, running his fingers steadily through the remains of Taako’s now ruined braid. “I hope you do. End up with me, I mean.”

He pauses, and then - “I’m sorry I won’t be there for it.”

He finds himself dwelling on that conversation even cycles later. He’d brushed it off then, all of Kravitz’s worries, but he can’t exactly blame Kravitz for being wigged out by that. Maybe Kravitz wasn’t the unreasonable one. Maybe Taako’s the one who’s fucked up.

Well, that was never really a question, was it. He fell in love with a man who killed him, they’re not going to get darker than that. And it’s not like he’s dared to talk about his time in the Veil with anyone else, except for trying to explain what he’d seen there - the rest is too personal. All these dark corners of himself, and he doesn’t really want anyone else to bring them to light. No one but Kravitz.

But if he’s that hesitant to talk to anyone, is he actually more fucked up about it than he’s admitted to himself?

It’s this that he’s ruminating on during his watch, cyclical thinking that gets him nowhere. Self-reflection fucking sucks. He drew the short straw tonight, so here he is, stuck on watch unacceptably long after midnight. At least the night is clear, if chilly, the stars still bright, and if he has to be stuck on watch with Merle Fucking Highchurch, at least the old man isn’t stingy about sharing his pipe, even if Taako isn’t sure exactly what they’re smoking. Something that smells very medicinal.

The other nice thing about Merle, if he had to pick something, is that he doesn’t push you to talk just to fill the silence. Bless Lup’s heart, but she’s incapable of just letting a conversation lull. They’ve been silent for half an hour or so, passing the pipe back and forth. If only Taako was in the mood to keep dwelling on his own thoughts instead of being distracted. It’s not a hard cycle, compared to how they usually go these days, but lately it’s been so lonely, the planes sparsely populated. And the last time they stumbled upon Kravitz - well, Kravitz didn’t manage to kill them, but he certainly wasn’t open to negotiation. They never know how it will go.

There have been more good cycles with him than bad, but he’s still as capable of killing Taako as he is capable of loving him.

“Something on your mind, kiddo?” Merle speaks up, picking up on Taako’s dour mood. Taako shrugs, leaning forward to poke at the fire.

He’s… alright without Kravitz. Mostly. Learning to roll with the harder times knowing better ones are coming, learning not to get so attached to a particular aspect of Kravitz that he can’t let him go at the year’s end. He wouldn’t be so moody if they’d had a good cycle more recently. But sometimes it’s not a joyous reunion but the blade of a scythe to his throat, and he’s even come to welcome that because at least it’s better than not finding him at all, which is horrible, and he knows it, and he can’t help but want him anyway...

“Don’t want to talk about it? That’s fine,” Merle says, shifting in his chair. Taako wouldn’t admit it, but it’s nice when Merle actually sticks around for a cycle, it’s never the same when one of them is gone. Actually, he realizes, it’s been a few cycles since he last met with the Hunger, and Taako has to wonder if he’s going to go back into parley or if he’s gotten all he can out of the fucker. “Whenever you’re ready.”

“Why’d you keep trying so long, with John?” Taako asks, before he can think better of it. He doesn’t like calling the Hunger by it’s name, but Merle always insists on it.

Merle raises his eyebrows, a wry smile around his pipe. “Huh. Not what I expected.”

“It’s just, like -” Taako frowns, searching for the right words. “Like, you know how it’s gonna go every time, right? You know he’s going to kill you. Just ‘cause he can. And you keep fucking doing it? Why would you?” he demands.

“Well,” Merle chuckles. “I’m not that smart, for one thing! But, you know… I think it’s always worth it to give people another chance. Whether it’s the second, or third, or thirtieth.”

“Bullshit,” Taako says flatly. “Just gives them another opportunity to screw you over. And they always will.”

“Sometimes. But the whole parley shit - that’s what it’s all about. Trust . You give ‘em the chance to screw you over, and maybe they do or maybe they don’t. I think, most of the time, they don't. I like to think that, anyway. That folks are good, and won’t take the chance to kill you just ‘cause they can. You gotta put your faith in that. Always thought there’d be a time when John didn’t, but… you know.”

Merle sighs and goes quiet, looking deep into the smoldering fire as he silently passes the pipe back to Taako. Taako is sure there are things about his meetings with the Hunger that the rest of them never heard about, that he might never tell them. And Taako gets it, probably better than anyone else on the ship, he realizes; there are some things you just keep to yourself, that no one else will understand.

After all, something about Kravitz, even at the beginning, made Taako keep giving him chance after chance. And he wouldn’t go back and change it, even if he could. Even if he gets screwed over in the end.

The moment they reset, arriving in cycle eighty-two, a shudder runs up Taako’s spine. Something is wrong here, fundamentally wrong, and it becomes apparent immediately what that is: the Plane of Magic has somehow been torn from its place in the planar system, slicing straight through the middle of the Prime Material Plane. It’s thrown the rest of the planes out of orbit, everything out of place from the familiar structure of the planar system they’ve seen and studied for so long.

In all his time at the Institute, Taako has never heard of something like this happening, and judging by the wide-eyed expressions of the rest of the crew neither have they. Even Barry is flabbergasted.

“Is it… safe to go down there?” Lucretia breaks the silence. She sits down in the middle of the deck, journal already open in her lap, frantically scribbling. Occasionally she glances up at the disturbing sight before them, then ducks her head again.

“I mean, what choice do we have? Can’t stay up here forever,” Lup points out. She hasn’t taken her eyes off it, but Taako has to look away, can’t stand to look directly at it for too long. Still, he’s itching with curiosity, his scientist’s mind spinning - how has this affected the planes below? Has it affected how magic works? Most importantly, how did it happen?

“Only one way to find out,” Davenport says grimly, his grip tight on the wheel. “To your stations, everyone.”

The descent into the Prime Material Plane is harrowing, the waves of energy coming off the Plane of Magic buffeting the ship, but with some deft maneuvering from Davenport they’re able to land the ship safely. But as they step onto this new plane the intense feeling of wrongness only grows. It takes Taako a few minutes to realize what has him on edge: it’s the quiet.

It’s not just that there are no people (and there ought to be people; there are buildings and battlewagons, entire cities just… empty) though that’s eerie enough. He can’t hear birdsong, or bugs chirping, or wind in the trees or waves crashing on the shore. The only living things in sight are the plant life, growing wild over abandoned buildings and breaking through crumbling pavement. The Plane of Magic is always visible, this shimmering purple field that fills the horizon. It would almost be beautiful if it weren't so damn eerie.

As they circle the plane from the air, looking out over the perfectly still oceans and waiting for the Light of Creation to fall, it becomes clear that the entire world is empty, only the remains of a clearly advanced and brilliant civilization left behind. A civilization that would remind him of home if things had gone differently. After they recover the Light - always the priority even on uninhabited worlds - Taako spends a few nights in the lab with Lup and Barry, reviewing what they know of the planar system and how the planes are all interconnected, reworking old calculations to fit the strange new data they have now - it’s obvious that the planes are all out of their proper places but what does that mean for the world?

What they discover is chilling: the bonds between the planes have been severed, save for the Material Plane and the Plane of Magic which have been forced unnaturally together. Taako tests the hypothesis by attempting to Blink into the Ethereal Plane. It’s like running into a brick wall.

Which means no connection to the Astral Plane, and no connection to Kravitz. Even if the inhabitants on the other planes survived being cut off, there would be no way for him to travel here. If he was here when the planes were thrown out of orbit, if he survived the collision of the Plane of Magic, he would be cut off from his goddess, and who knows what that would do to him.

It’s certainly not the first cycle where Taako has had no chance of finding him, but even so, the thought of an entire cycle without him - without anyone but the seven of them - weighs on Taako. It’s going to be another long one, but maybe they can make their time here useful. The people of this plane left a lot behind, libraries and universities and museums. They piece together how the planes were thrown out of sync - a sect of mages who managed to pull the Plane of Magic down from the sky, and destroyed themselves in their arrogance. There’s plenty of material for the rest of them to study too, hundreds of years of research in all schools of magic, and plenty to feed Fisher besides. It’s been a while since they had so much time to dedicate to research and exploration without taking time away from the whole saving the world thing, and they all - Taako, Lup, and Barry especially - fall easily back into that comfortable role, into late nights in the lab or the many libraries, full pots of coffee and poring over thick, dusty tomes by lamplight. Lup and Barry often huddle together in a shadowy corner of the library, whispering over books and scrolls that they don’t share with anyone else, but doesn’t pay them any mind - he’s got plenty to work on, and they’re both into some weird shit, he figures if there’s anything in their books that’s actually cool they’ll let him know.

They have time to fiddle with the Light of Creation, too, and Barry finally manages to make some headway - he learns that the light actually gives off a signal, like a beacon, like radio waves. Locking into that wavelength makes it easier to track, but they this force must be what attracts people to the Light. And more importantly, what attracts the Hunger. There doesn’t seem to be a way to block the signal, but at least they’ve learned something.

The cycle goes on, and Taako collects as many books as he can fit on the ship, filling pages of notes, copying this strange alien magic into his spellbooks. There’s so much he even gets bored studying magic, so he picks up another book at random, which happens to be on voice acting, and decides fuck it, he’ll learn a new skill. He finds some books on music, too, and takes them back to the Starblaster to show to Kravitz whenever he shows up next. He settles into a routine, waiting for the year to end so that they can get out of here, back to civilization, back, hopefully, to Kravitz. He thinks it’ll be an easy cycle, or as easy as they get anymore.

Easy, until the day Lup comes to him with a request.

He does it, of course, how could he say no? He gives her the best day ever, complete with arson and tormenting Davenport, two of Lup’s favorite things in the world. It’s still not enough, because Lup deserves the world, but he puts his all into it, and by the time they’ve gorged themselves on their aunt’s turkey she’s got a content smile on her face, leaning back in her chair.

They sit in silence together for a while, and Taako… he tries his best to relax. He tries to be chill, and just relish in the day they’ve had, but he can’t. He’s had a month to plan all this, and all that time, he hasn’t been able to stop thinking about what she’d said - that she was planning something dangerous, something risky, and he doesn’t know how it connects to today and he hasn’t asked, and for a minute he’s afraid she won’t tell him at all. That she’ll leave him in the dark while she goes off and does something stupid and he’ll never ever know and he won’t be able to help - stupid to worry that much, when there’s very little that could hurt them permanently these days, but -

“We’re going to become liches,” Lup says.

He would laugh, but there’s no spark of mischief in her eyes.

He’s dead silent while she explains what that means. What she and Barry are going to do. His heart a pounding drum beat in his ears, his nails digging into his hands where they’re clenched under the table as she says all these terrifying things with a completely straight face. But she can’t be serious - they can’t actually be planning something so stupid.

“Barry already gave me a day,” Lup goes on. “And… I love him, Taako, with all of my heart, but you… I needed a day from you, because you are my heart. You know that, right?”

“Yeah,” he whispers. His throat is dry, his mouth is dry, but his hands are shaking so bad he can’t lift one to reach for his water glass or else she’ll know how terrified he is.

“You’re why I got here, and I’m why you got here, and that’s something that can’t be broken or lost or taken away. It’s always going to be so important.”

Taako lets out a slow breath. “Okay,” he says, voice flat. Deliberately so, because otherwise it would be trembling, just like his legs under the table are beginning to tremble. “Okay, but, you do remember that my boyfriend is Death , yeah? Like you’re aware he fucking hunts liches? For a living? That’s his job ?” Gods, he sounds so shrill in his own ears even though he’s trying so hard to stay calm.

“We thought of that too, but don’t worry,” Lup assures him. “We’ve done a lot of research on reapers over the years and we’re pretty sure that as long as we’re in our regular mortal bodies - plus some of Lucretia’s warding spells for good measure - he won’t be able to tell what we are.”

“Oh, well in that case,” Taako laughs, sharp and harsh, “I mean as long as you’re pretty sure -

“I know it’s scary -”

“What are you thinking? ” He rubs at his face. “ Jesus, Lup. Are we just going to lie to him about it? How about when you’re not in your bodies? What about when all this is over, how long do you think we’ll be able to keep this up?”

Lup shrugs, just fucking shrugs, like Taako’s world isn’t falling apart. “We’ll deal with it when the time comes. We’ve done our research, we know what we’re doing. And we have all of you to anchor us.”


“Look - we know how risky it is, but we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t think it would work. Eighty-two years we’ve been doing this, Taako, and we’re no closer to beating the Hunger than when we started. Something has to change, and I’m willing to take a risk for that.” She reaches across the table, pulls Taako’s trembling hands away from his face and squeezes them tight. “I’m sick of running. I’m sick of dying. And I don’t need you to be happy about this, I don’t need you to like it - but I do need you to be there. I don’t think I can do this without you.” Her voice cracks and she looks down at the table, and with a start Taako realizes that she’s scared, too.

He wants to argue. Wants to tell her how insane this is, and how he could never let her do something so dangerous, especially not without him, but -

This is her day, her best day ever. She asked him to do this because she needs it, needs something to anchor herself. He’ll never convince her not to go through with it, and if she’s going to do this he can’t take away one of the few things that will help ensure her success. He can’t end this day with a fight. And he won’t let her go alone.

He pulls out the bottle of Gray Goose he conjured for her, and he plasters on a smile, and he pretends - for now, for her - that he’s not terrified out of his mind.

When Lup first started staying in Barry’s room, they dismantled the standard-issues bunk beds, scavenged a giant mattress and built themselves a single bed that fills up most of the room. Even with its size it’s still a tight squeeze when Taako slips in between them, sometime in the early hours of the morning.

They don’t do this often anymore, sharing a bed. It’s a habit from when they were kids. But after eighty years of sharing a single bathroom none of them have any boundaries to speak of. Lup, of course, opens the covers for him immediately, and Barry scoots back against the wall so that Taako can squeeze between them, Barry’s soft body on one side, Lup immediately tugging him into a hug. A tight fit, but the twins are used to having to make themselves small.

“Couldn’t sleep?” Lup murmurs. Taako doesn’t answer her - it’s a stupid question and if he opens his mouth he won’t know how to hide that he’s spent hours alone, hyperventilating, weak panicked sobbing muffled in his pillow so no one would hear. Alone in the dark and afraid and, pathetically, wishing for Kravitz - missing him and wanting him, wanting someone he could break down in front of without being ashamed. But he isn’t here, and if he were he couldn’t even go to him for comfort now, not about this.   Because his sister is about to fucking sacrifice herself, she’s leaving him and he doesn’t know how to keep this a secret. The tears well up again, too sudden to choke down, and he curls into a tight ball against her as she holds him closer.

“It’s going to be okay,” she says, steady and serious. He shakes his head. “We know what we’re doing. Nothing bad is going to happen to me.”

“I don’t want you to do this,” he says, voice rough and raw and as honest as he’s ever been. There’s no point in pretending he’s not scared, he wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t. “I’ll do whatever you need me to do, but I hate it. I hate that this is forever and you won’t be able to take it back.”

“Babe, the Hunger -”

“I don’t care! I don’t give a fuck about the Hunger if it means you have to die,” Behind him Lup is tense and silent. “Let it take the Light if it wants. Let it take everything. I don’t fucking care.

“I can’t think about the future,” Lup says. On Taako’s other side, Barry stays still and quiet. He’d learned long ago not to get between them at a time like this. Fuck, a time like this, when has there ever been a time like this? “You get that, don’t you? I have to think about what will stop the Hunger. Even if I get hurt, saving everyone - saving us - is worth it.”

He scoffs. “Yeah. Well. Guess I’m not as noble as you.”

God, he wishes she would just admit that she’s scared too. But she never will, and there’s nothing Taako can do to stop this. Nothing he can do at all. Except be here for her. Be her rock, her anchor, be everything she needs him to be. He’s never felt more alone.

He reaches behind himself for Barry, tugging him in so the three of them are snuggled up tight together. “Tell me about the spell,” he says. “Walk me through it.”

And Barry lays out the details of the ritual, a merging of the traditional rites and the new techniques he’s learned from the libraries of this world, step by step. He pauses for Taako to ask questions or for for Lup to elaborate and clarify, though she’s mostly quiet as he speaks, her arms almost too tight around Taako.

By the time Taako manages brief, fitful sleep, he knows the spell well enough he could replicate it himself. And he almost wants to say why didn’t you ask me to do this? but it doesn’t matter because she didn’t, and he doesn’t know if he’s relieved or hurt. Would he do it, if she asked him to? How could he? How could he not, if Lup were the one asking? A lich, a thing of horror stories, a warning to all wizards who would dare pursue power beyond their grasp. He doesn’t ask because he doesn’t want to hear her say that he wouldn’t be strong enough, stable enough to keep himself in control.

They don’t tell the rest of the crew what they’re doing, rising with the sun before anyone else is awake, the grass still wet with morning dew as they reach the top of the hill. Even after months spent on this world, the silence is eerie. Especially now.

Before Barry explained the intricacies of the ritual Taako had assumed it would be more… dramatic. Expected a human sacrifice and sigils drawn in blood or something. It’s far more sensible than that, Barry’s spellcasting methodical and clean. A simple binding circle, runes drawn in Barry’s meticulous hand. The true complexities of the spell are only between the two of them, as they hold each other for a long time. They kiss, soft and brief, and abruptly Taako realizes - this feels more like a wedding than a sacrifice.

Til death do us part, he thinks. Except they’re parting not from each other - never, ever from each other now - but from him, from everything else .

This is forever, and Taako feels like he’s the only one who’s looking ahead to the consequences of it. To how they’ll keep it a secret from Kravitz or any other reapers they stumble upon, what kind of life they’ll have when all this is done. Will they stay young while Taako gets older? Will they live forever without him? Or will they burn out one day when their power becomes too great to contain, will they lose themselves? It’s hard enough to imagine what comes after the Hunger, if they ever manage to defeat it, and all of Taako’s vague images of what that might look like have been turned upside down.

They whisper something to each other that Taako can’t hear, and he digs his nails into his palms as he watches, heartbeat thundering.

All at once their bodies, empty as ragdolls, fall to the ground, and Taako bites down on a scream, bites so hard he tastes blood. From those empty shells two specters emerge, red-robed and crackling with bolts of magical energy, just like the waves coming from the plane of magic where it intercepts this world - pure and beautiful and dangerous, sparking off them, scorching the grass.

It’s too much to contain, and there’s no contingency plan, Taako realizes, if they can’t maintain control. Nothing he can do to help. They could destroy everything, themselves included, and he doesn’t know if they’ll come back from it if they burn out.

It’s the scariest thing he’s ever seen.

He offers up all he has, all his love for them both, every happy memory they’ve ever shared. Anything, anything he can to keep Lup grounded and safe and here with him. There’s no other option.

The bolds of energy spark and fade away as they slowly gain composure, the burning grass beneath their spectral forms sputtering out, their empty bodies unharmed. All goes quiet and calm. The specter that was Barry looks at him from beneath the hood of that red robe for a drawn-out moment, and nods.

Lup dabs, and Taako barks out a laugh even as tears sting his eyes. It’s still her. Whatever she’s become, it’s still his sister.

And they drop back down into themselves, making phylacteries of their own bodies, and Taako can’t fathom that any mortal form is enough to contain what he’s just seen, all the power of a soul, all their magic. But they stand, as if nothing happened.

Taako runs to her before she can say anything, arms flung around her neck. She laughs, clinging to him, warm as if touched by fire, and alive as they sink back down to the ground.

“Thank you,” she whispers. “I couldn’t have done it without you, babe.”

Everything is different, now, though you wouldn’t know it just by looking at them. Everything has changed and Taako doesn’t know what’s going to happen now, or if it will be worth it. For once, he has nothing to say. He just holds her, and Barry, too, kneeling in the smoldering grass, in a quiet moment kept to themselves for now.

“I love you,” Taako says, his head tucked into the crook of Kravitz’s neck. Kravitz goes still, tense. Hopefully just surprised. It never gets less nerve-wracking to say it, no matter how many times he does. He lifts his head; it’s dark but he can still see Kravitz’s face in the grayscale of darkvision, his eyes wide and bright, his mouth fallen open in surprise.

He doesn’t know what’s going to happen. Not really. Doesn’t know what Kravitz will do if he finds out Lup and Barry’s secret, or if they have any hope of a future with that hanging over them.

But this is his, and he’s fought for it tooth and nail, and he isn’t giving it up. Not ever.

“You don’t have to say it back,” he says, a gentle hand on Kravitz’s cheek. “I know it hasn’t been long for you, it’s just - it’s been so long since I’ve seen you and I never feel like I tell you enough so I’m trying to be better at it. And I do. I love you, Kravitz.”

Kravitz kisses him, so long that Taako gasps a little when they finally part, so long that his lips are warm with Taako’s breath. “I love you too,” he says, and Taako’s chest is full of butterflies and fireworks.

Taako sighs, and holds him close.

Chapter Text

As the cycles pass, the crew focuses more and more on researching the Light of Creation whenever they have it, with Barry and Lup spearheading the effort. There's still so much to learn - what makes it work the way it does, and what causes it’s irresistible thrall, and what it can do. They’ve only barely scratched the surface, but they’re finally making breakthroughs, unlocking its secrets. And everyone agrees that whatever they do to stop the Hunger, the Light is the strongest asset they have.

It feels like they’re on the cusp of something, and Taako just hopes that it’s something good.

It’s Lup’s idea to spend the cycle studying at the Hanging Arcanaeum. None of them have any particular experience with artificing, but A, what’s the point in being functionally immortal if not to learn a bunch of random skills, and B, the resources these people have access to are insane. Materials beyond Taako’s wildest dreams. If there’s truly a way to harness the Light of Creation’s power, maybe artificing is the answer. It's as good a lead as any.

Holdsworth - the sort of headmaster of the Arcanaeum - is happy to admit them, but makes it clear that they won’t get any special privileges. They have to jump through the same hoops as any other apprentices, if at an accelerated rate, given the time constraint of a year. Their first day at the Arcaneum, with barely any time to get settled into the small dormitories, they’re rushed into a series of short workshops, a sort of orientation course that all apprentices have to complete before being assigned to a master, consisting of lectures the basics of artificing and how it relates to various schools of magic. Taako rolls his eyes, but goes along with it; the sooner they pass the lectures the sooner they can get to the real interesting shit.

It’s a full two days of lecture after lecture until Taako feels like his brain is going to leak out of his ears. There are courses on the various methods of artificing, from alchemy to metallurgy to enchantment, instruction on safety and the procedures for using the various facilities that the Arcanaeum provides, a particularly mind-numbing discussion of ethics. At the end of the second day Taako is dead on his feet - he doesn’t remember his first days at the Institute being so rigorous, but then again, those degrees took years to complete and it was so long ago. Shuffling through the halls of the Arcanaeum alongside the rest of the crew, Taako double-checks the itinerary to see what their final class of the day is.

Necromancy and Artificing?” He reads, eyebrows raised. The Institute taught necromancy, but only in the most theoretical sense, though there were always people like Barry whose further experiments flew under the radar.

“Oh, I heard that it’s a relatively recent addition to the curriculum,” Lucretia says as they squeeze their way through the hall. The crowd filing into the lecture hall is significantly bigger than the rest of the courses they’ve taken, and Taako has to elbow a dwarf out of the way to stay within earshot of Lucreria. “A bit controversial.”

“I’ve been with you all day, when the hell did you have time to hear about that?” Taako asks, bewildered, but they’re distracted by trying to claim good seats in the lecture hall. Barry urges them close to the front, because of course he’s creepily excited about a class titled Necromancy and Artificing. Taako isn’t at all interested in doing necromancy, but it’s become an unfortunate part of his life considering Lup and Barry’s whole... thing.

It has been convenient, having them here even if they're dead. He's getting used to it. Still puts him on edge - he doesn't know what happens when Kravitz finds out, and he will one day, that's inevitable. At least they probably won’t end up dead this cycle, unless something goes absurdly wrong. It never gets less eerie, having their spectral forms floating around the ship. It never gets easier to go in for a hug or tap Lup on the shoulder or shove her during a playful argument about how much garlic is to much for a sauce (short answer: no such thing) only to be met not with a solid, warm body but a strange buzz like an electric shock. Some days they can manage to be nearly physical, but most of the time his hand passes right through them. And it always feels wrong, this pure necrotic energy that makes Taako shudder.

So. The less they die, the better.

They get settled into their seats and the teacher, a nondescript middle-aged man (because apparently that’s just the kind of guy necromancy attracts), drones for a while as Taako zones out, thoughts drifting to whether or not the cafeteria here will serve anything edible for dinner or if he’ll have to sneak a hotplate into his room. Barry has a notebook out and is somehow already scribbling notes when the lecture hasn’t even really begun. He shakes his head a little and sits up when Lup nudges him in the ribs, tuning back in halfway through a sentence.

“- he will lead us in a brief discussion on the ethics of necromancy as it relates to artificing. Mr. McAllister, if you would?”

Taako laughs out loud. He can’t help it, and doesn’t give a damn when the professor and the students in the front row turn to glare at him.

There’s no doubt that he’s still a reaper; he’s in his full regalia, albeit with his human face, the dramatic cloak and the suit, the red eyes always a giveaway to his undead status. There’s something absurd about seeing him here, hands clasped behind his back and ready to lecture a bunch of freshmen. A lecture that Taako is suddenly very interested in. He doesn’t know how Kravitz ended up at the Arcanaeum, but he can figure that out later.

“Guess we know what your favorite class is gonna be,” Lup murmurs in his ear.

“Shh, I’m trying to listen.”

"Teacher's pet."


Kravitz clears his throat, waiting for the class to fall silent. Taako settles down, but he still can't stop grinning.

“So. Necromancy. I’m sure that just the word conjures certain images for most of us. Raising armies of corpses. Fueling dark rituals with mortal souls. Lichdom. It is a school of magic that, historically, has been associated with evil.”

The IPRE squirm in their seats.

“But of course, it isn’t so black and white as all that. Consider the fact that many spells used for healing, or revivification, are also categorized as necromancy. Are we to do away with all these magics that could do good in the world, simply because there are many spells that could be used for evil? What about other schools of magic - evocation, illusion, enchantment? Though they do not have the same stigma attached to them as the school of necromancy, all forms of magic can be used for evil.

“In short, magic - and by extension artificing - is a tool. And it is your responsibility to use the tools at your disposal responsibly and ethically. This includes the art of necromancy, if you choose to pursue it. My goal today is to provide you with an ethical framework to guide you through the rest of your studies - it applies to any school of magic, but our focus will be on necromancy, and how it does and doesn’t align with the natural laws of life and death, as governed by Her Majesty, the Raven Queen.”

“Wow,” Barry murmurs out of the corner of his mouth. “That’s… actually super progressive.”

“Your boyfriend is actually almost cool for once,” Lup says. “Never thought I’d see the day.”

The lecture itself is boring as hell, basically a list of what you are and aren’t allowed to do with necromancy, preceded by a brief explanation of what the Raven Queen is all about. Taako just zones out and stares at Kravitz's stupid dreamy face for most of it - working out how he’s going to go about this. It’s really weird to hear a reaper not quite advocating  for necromancy but not denouncing it either; Taako chalks it up as a cultural difference between this world and others they’ve visited. Regardless, it should make gaining his trust easier than usual. They may technically be necromancers but they haven’t hurt anyone, and Lup and Barry are safely in their mortal bodies right now. If there isn’t a bounty on Taako’s head then they don’t have to work past that aspect of things, just the inherent weirdness of approaching him out of nowhere and telling him hey, you don't know me but you're my soulmate, let's grab lunch. They have their rules, though, agreements they’ve built up over years of doing this dance - though Taako's tendency is to be skittish and shifty, they've agreed it’s best to be direct, to tell Kravitz the truth as soon as possible.

Once the lecture ends all of the students start getting ready to leave, filing toward the exits, eager for a break after a packed day. Taako, meanwhile, packs up at a leisurely pace, one eye on Kravitz as he talks with the professor and shakes hands with students on their way out.

“Hot for teacher, much?” Lup teases, slinging her bag over her shoulder. Taako sticks his tongue out at her.

“We were going to get dinner in the cafeteria, but I assume you’ll be taking a rain check,” Davenport says with an amused quirk of his mustache, and as much as they all tease him incessantly about Kravitz - Taako is grateful for it, though he'll never say so. Grateful that they trust Taako not to get them all hurt, grateful that whatever happens, they're prepared to accept Kravitz every time.

“‘Fraid so, Cap.” Taako tosses the crew a salute. Most of the students have left at this point, so Taako stands, ready to make his way to the front of the classroom. “Don’t wait up for me, my dears.”

“Love you, be careful,” Lup calls, but Taako isn’t paying them any attention now. Kravitz is also part way through packing up his class materials, and he looks up as Taako approaches, smiling mildly but with no hint of recognition in his eyes. And even after all his time that still feels wrong but he shakes the feeling away; he’s used to it by now, as used to it as he can be.

“Hey,” Taako saunters up, all confidence and an easy grin. “Uh, Mr. McAllister, was it? Or - professor?”

That’s one thing he’ll never stop hating. Pretending not to know him, going through all the pleasantries; he’s a liar to his core but he hates doing it to Kravitz, after all the hurt that’s caused the both of them. But it’s necessary, and hopefully short-lived.

“Just Kravitz, please, I’m only a guest lecturer at best.” Kravitz’s smile widens, and he reaches out a hand for Taako to shake. “A pleasure. And you?”

“Name’s Taako.” It’s all he can do to keep the handshake brief and professional. All in due time. “Real interesting lecture,” he lies, “pretty cool to get the scoop from a legit reaper.”

“Ah, you’re familiar with the Raven Queen, then.”

“You could say that.”

“Well -” At this point Kravitz has finished packing his bag, hoisting it over his shoulder. “Is there anything I can help you with, Taako?”

Taako grins, leaning on the corner of the desk. “Yeah, actually. You can let me buy you a drink.”

It’s always a delight to make Kravitz laugh, a blush blooming across the paler patches on his face. Before Kravitz can reply Taako adds, “After dinner, natch. I can tell you’re the kind of guy who likes to be wooed.”

It’s bold, yeah, but it’s so fun to fluster him, to take the chance to jump into this when it’s not about bargaining for his life. No baggage hanging over them before they even get started, just a date with a man he adores. Who he knows will adore him if given the chance.

Kravitz hesitates, watching Taako carefully, but there’s still a pleased - if a bit embarrassed - smile twitching at the corners of his mouth, unable to be contained. Kravitz is a shameless flirt, Taako guessed he’d be into this. "I'm sure there's some rule about not going on dates with students," Kravitz points out, though the protest is halfhearted at best.

"Lucky for you I don't give two shits about necromancy, then," Taako says.

"In that case, did you have anywhere in particular in mind?”

“Nah, new in town. Any recommendations?”

Kravitz glances around the now empty room, seems to decide that everything is in order, and then meets Taako’s eyes again. Questioning, evaluating, as Taako just smirks - partially to mask his own anxiety, he doesn’t really know what he’ll do if Kravitz blows him off, but -

“Yes, I think I know just the place.”

The restaurant Kravitz leads him to is exactly what Taako hoped for - casual, but dimly lit and quiet, equally suitable for a date or a chill hang sesh, if that’s how this goes. A little fancy, too, which he also expected; Kravitz is drawn toward the finer things in life. He blends right in with his suit, his shiny black shoes. Taako, on the other hand, usually dresses like a clown threw up on him, has never been capable of blending in anywhere, but hey, it’s all about how you wear it.

On the walk into town they’d mostly made small talk, but now Kravitz seems unsure of how to proceed, so Taako decides to take the reigns as they’re seated, thanking the waiter as he comes by with a pitcher of water. “You should know,” he comments looking around the small restaurant, “as a chef, I’ve got very high standards.”

“Well, now you’ve got me worried.”

Taako dismisses him with a wave of his hand. “You’re a man of good taste.”

Kravitz quirks an eyebrow. “You seem very confident in that, given that we’ve only just met.”

Taako wants to laugh, but he resists the urge. “Please. You showed up to teach in an obviously hand-tailored suit, my guy, I think you know what you’re about.”

“You’re very forward, Mr. Taako.”

“Too much?”

Kravitz’s grin sets him at ease. “Not at all. Do you like wine?”

“Hell yeah.” As if on cue the waiter returns with menus and a wine list, but Taako barely glances at it. He was hungry after such a long day of classes, but now he’s too nervous to really think about food. It’s stupid how much Kravitz still affects him, how after all these years he feels like a kid with their first crush every single time they meet. He always thought you were supposed to grow out of that, get bored of people after a while, but he can’t imagine ever getting bored of Kravitz, not in a million years, even now there's always something new to learn about him.

Gods, when did he turn into such a sap? Being in love is gross.

“So,” Taako says, an elbow on the table, chin balanced on the palm of his hand. “And if you don’t want to talk about work, totes cool, but I’m curious - how’s the Grim Reaper end up teaching a bunch of coeds about necromancy, exactly? Always assumed your boss was, uh, kinda strict on that one?”

Kravitz laughs, taking a sip of his water. He glances briefly at the list of wines that the waiter brought along with their menus, but he seems much more eager to turn his attention back to Taako. “I’m curious as to how you know so much about my line of work. A question for a question, I think.”

“Sure, I’ll play.” Kravitz often wants to play games like that, a gambler at heart. “I’ve been a lot of places, lot of different worlds. Met some weirdos. Almost everywhere I’ve been, including back home, necromancy isn’t something you can really get away with unless you want a reaper on your ass.”

“For someone with no interest in necromancy, you know a lot about my line of work.”

“My brother-in-law is a huge nerd about it, so I’ve picked up a thing or two.” It’s not entirely lying, though not the entire truth. He’s only a necromancer by technicality, and Barry has far more than a casual interest in it, plus he’d only really learned about reapers at all after meeting Kravitz the first time. But he’s not eager to get into all that on the first date. “So is it just like, a cultural thing? Why even have a Grim Reaper if you don’t need to smite nasty death criminals?”

“Well, my job isn’t entirely obsolete. But times change.” Kravitz pauses as the waiter returns with their wine, which they barely glance at before accepting it, already too caught up in the conversation. He pours a little in Taako’s glass first as he goes on. “There are still those who use necromancy for violent ends, use unwilling mortal souls as fuel for spells, and that certainly won’t do. But with education on the dangers and risks - not to mention the ethical ramifications - that’s less common than it used to be. People are interested in how necromancy can be beneficial. Not just to the living but to the dead as well.”

“So you’re just totally cool with like, casual necromancy.”

“It’s not up to me. But less time spent hunting relatively harmless wizards means my job has shifted more toward harm reduction, rather than prosecution. It’s… different, certainly, but ultimately more productive, I think.”

“Hence the teaching gig.”

“I think you owe me a question, Mr. Taako.”

Taako leans in just slightly, and is delighted when Kravitz does the same. “Hit me, Mr. McAllister.”

“You said you traveled here from another world?”

“Now that’s a long story.”

“We have all night.”

The evening goes on, and it’s nice, sitting here just talking with him. The food is delicious and they easily make it through the bottle of wine, and Kravitz laughs at all his stupid jokes. It’s so easy that Taako hardly trusts it. If this night keeps going well, it’s going to be a great cycle. Finding the Light early, finding Kravitz early, the opportunity to actually make progress studying the Light - it’s so rare that all these things coincide in the same cycle. And fuck, he deserves that for once, doesn’t he? One good, uncomplicated year?

He’s telling Kravitz stories of his adventures, some shenanigans he and Lup pulled a couple dozen cycles back, and Kravitz is laughing so hard he’s nearly in tears. Taako just has to watch him for a moment, aware of the dopey smile that must be on his face and not caring one bit. “You’re so ridiculously cute,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s gotta be illegal.”

Kravitz shakes his head, still giggling butgathering himself. He smiles at Taako across the table, his cheeks tinged red. “I’m really glad you asked me to dinner, Taako,” he says. “I’ve had a great time.”

And then Kravitz’s hand is in his, fingers lightly clasped across the table. Cold in a way that Taako has gotten used to over the years, though he can't help but shiver, and he sees the way Kravitz hesitates just before they touch and wonders how long it's been since anyone touched Kravitz like this, just held his hand. Taako swallows, heart pounding, because this is it - he has to tell Kravitz the truth, before this goes any further. They’re practically alone in the restaurant, tucked away in a quiet booth, the only other patrons deep in their own conversations. The waiter already brought the check, he’s just waiting for them to leave. There won’t be a better time.

“Me too,” he says softly. Kravitz’s thumb brushes across his knuckles; his mouth feels dry. “Hey, listen… I haven’t been one hundred percent honest with you.”

“About what?”

“You and me… we’ve actually met before,” Taako says. His other hand automatically goes to the coin on it’s leather band, worrying it between his fingers. Kravitz has never turned him down, once they got to this point, but Taako is always waiting for the day he does. It never stops being terrifying.

But Kravitz only smiles, apologetic and confused. “I’m afraid you’re mistaken,” he says. “I would certainly remember you.”

Taako shakes his head. “We were… really important to each other, but you don’t remember it. You can’t remember.”

“I don’t understand.”

Taako slips the necklace off, setting it on the table in front of him. Kravitz only looks at it, puzzled, but don’t move to take it, sitting very still. “There are things you don’t know about yourself,” Taako says, trying to look Kravitz in the eye. “And there are messages on this device that will explain what I’m talking about. You’re under no obligation to do anything with that information, but I think you’ll want to know. But it’s kind of a no turning back situation. Gonna change everything.”

Kravitz swallows. His eyes are still locked on the coin. Taako has no doubt he’ll take it, but he’s still nervous, his leg bouncing under the table.

“Who are you?” Kravitz asks quietly. “Who am I to you?”

“It’s easier if you just listen. We can talk as much as you want after. Pinky promise.”

“Is it something bad?”

“We don’t have to do this now,” he starts, but Kravitz is shaking his head.

“I can’t exactly walk away when you’ve told me that, can I?” He says with a nervous smile, already reaching across the table for the coin.

Taako smiles, his heart pounding in anticipation. “That’s my man,” he murmurs, as Kravitz turns the innocuous device over in his hand. “Oh, wait, ignore all the stuff at the beginning about the world ending and whatnot, fixed that one, no worries.”


“Just listen!”

Still baffled, Kravitz presses down on the center of it with his thumb, and a moment later, the old message begins to play.

Taako sits back in his booth, listening, waiting. Watching as Kravitz’s expression shifts. He meant what he said - he never wants Kravitz to feel pressured into anything, knows full well that each time they do this, he’s coming in and uprooting Kravitz’s entire existence in one fell swoop. Still, he finds himself praying to something, to whoever happens to be listening, please, let this work, let him listen. Please.

Let me have this.

 Kravitz only realizes that he’s still holding Taako’s hand when the coin falls silent, both of them gripping too tight. Taako is watching him, anxiety clear in his expression. He just feels… numb, a little, knows these revelations are going to hit him in waves.

He’s not questioning whether or not it’s all true, he realizes; he just knows.

He takes in a shaky breath and makes himself look at Taako. The most beautiful man you’ve ever seen, the coin had said; that’s certainly true. True, also, that Taako was holding himself back until this moment; there is so much affection apparent in his eyes and the grip of his hand. He meets Taako’s eyes, and the elf smiles, and he’s radiant - not conventionally attractive yet so stunning Kravitz finds himself smiling too. And Kravitz has no idea what he’s doing, what any of this means, maybe it would be better to wait, to let all this sink in and meet with Taako again later, but -

But looking into Taako’s eyes feels like missing a step going down the stairs, feels like falling into a bottomless pit, and if everything on the coin is true they've been doing this for decades, Taako has known him for decades - and still, after so long, he looks at Kravitz like this -

“Do you want to get out of here?” Kravitz asks. He doesn’t have a destination in mind, just not here. If he's being honest, he was helpless the moment Taako asked him out.

Taako grins with all his teeth. He lifts Kravitz’s hand, and presses a kiss to his knuckles, even that bare brush of lips sparking up Kravitz’s nerves like static electricity, or magic, and gods, he didn’t know he could still feel so enamored with anyone. He’s been alone so long.

“Thought you’d never ask, babe,” Taako says, and before Kravitz knows it they’ve escaped into the night, hands clasped, and Kravitz doesn’t want to let go of that hand, not ever, like he was built to hold it, like everything has led him to this. Like he could follow Taako across the universe.

In a way, he supposes, he already has.

 (They end up making out up against a wall in a shadowy corner of a nearby park before they even make it back to the Starblaster, to Taako’s smug delight. Some things never change.)

 The curriculum at the Hanging Arcaneum is too rigorous to allow Taako much time away from his studies. He keeps in touch with Kravitz over a stone of farspeech, meets with him every weekend he can. It sucks that they can’t just be together all the time, but this much time with the Light, this many resources at hand to build something really powerful, really useful - none of them can afford to pass that up, and Kravitz gets that, At least he found Kravitz early, at least they have some time, and the weekends they do get together? He lives for them.

This cycle has been so easy, at least as far as anything with Kravitz goes, so easy that Taako can hardly believe it. No hunt for the Light hanging over their heads, and they’re on the same page as far as when Taako will have to leave - which isn’t fun but at least they’re prepared for it, at least Kravitz understands. And somehow he wants to be with Taako anyway, which will never stop blowing Taako’s mind. He wants every cycle to be like this.

Maybe one day, it will just be like this. No apocalypse, no Hunger, no Light. Just the two of them. Something stable, something that will last, except he barely knows what that would look like. Taako sighs, shaking his head to clear it of the daydreams he was falling into. He’s meeting Kravitz soon, and this late in the cycle there’s every chance it’s the last weekend they’ll get. He’s trying not to get too upset about that, trying not to focus on it. But first they’re having a strategy meeting aboard the Starblaster. There isn’t normally much to do at these meetings, when so many cycles can go by with no progress, but Barry and Lup in particular are buzzing with excitement - they seem to think they’ve really found something useful this time, so Davenport gladly concedes leadership of the meeting to them. Taako might as well at least pretend he’s listening.

He blinks over to the Ethereal Plane to shoo away the scouts, then pops back to reality, lounging sideways in his chair. Lup gives him a thumbs up as Barry steps forward, wand raised. The room darkens as projections take form on the surface of the dinner table - Barry’s model of the planar system, which they’ve seen so many times before. A little model of the Starblaster flies into the scene, landing on the white disk that represents the Material Plane.

“Each cycle, within a day or two of us landing, the Light of Creation emerges, and follows us to this plane,” Barry begins. “And then about forty-eight hours or so after that, the Hunger’s scouts find us and they relay our location to the Hunger. And then about one year later, that’s when the Hunger arrives. And then, rinse and repeat.”

The scene plays out on repeat before them, and Taako looks down at his hands, inspecting his fingernails when the thirteenth plane, that pitch black circle, descends and covers the rest of the planar system.

Barry continues, “I’ve been trying to figure out why the Light follows us down into these new worlds, and I — I don’t know. There’s so much about the Light that we don’t understand. What I do know, though, is how The Hunger keeps finding us.”

This time, when the projection starts to loop and the Light descends, there are ripples of energy coming off it like radio waves, bouncing off the walls.  “This is that force,” Barry says. “It’s that desire to be desired that the Light gives off.”

Magnus coughs. “Craveability."

Barry sighs heavily. “The craveability,” he says, dejected, but grinning when Lup and Taako both snicker. “We know it’s a signal. A beacon. And it reaches well beyond the edges of our reality. The Hunger’s scouts are attuned to it; they’re able to follow it as easy as a path. Unless!"

At this, Taako looks back up, and the rest of the crew lean forward, alert. “Unless?” They echo.

There’s never been an unless.

The scene changes again, and this time it’s brand new to Taako. The ripples flowing from the Light grow weaker - not expanding beyond the projection of the planar system, but instead contained to the Material Plane.

“If we can reduce the signal’s strength to - according to my calculations, about fifteen percent or so - it won’t be able to escape the boundaries of our reality. The Hunger won’t know where to find us. We can hide, wait it out. Starve it out,” Barry explains.

Lup finally jumps in, bouncing in her excitement. “And we can do that with artificing! We can divide up the Light of Creation into seven parts, and then we hide those parts inside of magic items. And those items, well… they’ll be incredibly powerful, but the signal will be weak!”

Barry nods. “There’s one problem with this plan. That craveability? It needs to be fed. If it doesn’t, this division, it won’t take. That means once we’ve made these items, we can’t just keep ’em for ourselves. We’ll have to circulate ’em out into the world and let them be... quested after and valued and pursued. Only then will this plan work, and it will work.”

“There’s another complication, too,” Lup says. “It’s too late for that plan here. And in fact, we’re only gonna be able to execute this plan in a cycle where we can recover the Light before The Hunger finds it. And that’s a tight window. We’ve only done it a few times.”

The projection continues to play out before them - the Light giving off it’s weakened signal, the Hunger hovering ominously, but never descending on the planar system, as if lost without a guide.

“So, uh… what do you all think?” Barry asks nervously.

Taako exhales, watching the projection loop. He’s not sure what to think; even with all they’ve learned this cycle he hadn’t actually expected them to come up with a plan, much less a plan that sounds so… plausible. Barry and Lup know more about the Light than any of them; if they say it will work, he believes it. But holy shit, an actual plan. He glances around at the rest of them, and they all seem to feel the same way - a little stunned, a little disbelieving, letting the idea sink in. Lucretia, at the end of the table, squirms in her seat, her lips pursed - pen hovering over her paper, but not writing.

After a few moments too long Magnus breaks the silence. “Well, it’s better than what we had before, which was nothing.”

Taako nods. “Right, as an improvement on nothing… How long do you think it’ll take, though? To build the magic items, get the Light in ‘em and do this thing?”

Lup shakes her head. “Next time we find the Light before the scouts, we do this thing. Maybe in the next cycle we find the Light really quick and it happens.”

“Of course, it’s just as likely that it could take decades,” Davenport points out. “We can’t assume this will be an instant fix.”

That seems more likely to Taako, but it’s the only sight of an end to this they’ve glanced. And he doesn’t care how long it might be, as long as he has the promise that this can finally fucking end.

“Yeah, I’m for it,” he says, sitting up straighter in his chair. “Is it gonna be dangerous?”

Lucretia finally speaks up, and not in the quiet, meek way she might have spoken during their meetings at the beginning of this journey. The cycle that she was alone - she’s been different since then. Stronger. Sure of herself. Her voice is firm when she says, “Yeah, I don’t know that I wanna be responsible for putting anything dangerous out into the world. Barry, Lup, I - I know you know your stuff, it’s just… the Light is a sickeningly powerful energy source. Any items powered by that energy are going to be… devastating.”

“We can keep an eye on ‘em,” Merle says with a shrug.

But Barry shakes his head. “Once we put ’em out there, they’re out there. We have to let them be craved or else it’s not gonna work. That’s how the Light of Creation works.”

Magnus sighs. “But a little bit of danger out in the world… isn’t that better? Than the entire world being destroyed?” Even as he says it, Taako can see that Magnus isn’t sure.

Taako’s not one to knowingly rush into danger, but he is a pragmatist. The lives of literally everyone versus the lives of the few who might be hurt? That’s the obvious choice, that’s what you’re supposed to choose, you don’t have to be a goddamn philosopher to know that.

Now Lucretia stands, looking over the projection playing out in front of them. “I’ve come up with a plan also.”

Taako raises his eyebrows, glancing up at Lup and Barry. They look equally surprised.

“I didn’t think it was ready, but I figure now is the time to talk about it. I think I can channel the Light into a spell. A warding spell, to defend against the Hunger’s advances.”

She waves her hand, and Barry’s projection changes again - this time, a globe of light surrounds the Material Plane. “I’ve been practicing this spell for decades now. A final barrier. With the aid of the Light, I can weave it around an entire plane. And it will be strong enough to keep out everything. And that includes The Hunger.”

Lup’s shaking her head almost before Lucretia is finished. The projection shifts and now there are threads of light binding the planes together, not unlike the bonds that Taako has seen between himself and Kravitz, not unlike the light that knits them all back together at the beginning of a cycle. Lucretia’s barrier appears in the projection, and with that -

The strings stretching between the Prime Material Plane and all the rest are snapped. Taako feels a little sick just looking at it. Bonds are normally intangible, background noise, but they’re such a real and physical part of his life since he left on this mission that seeing them broken… he shivers. Back in cycle eighty-two, the bonds of that world had been broken too, when Plane of Magic was torn out of orbit and sent everything hangwire.

“If that barrier cuts off everything from outside, you risk severing the bonds between this world and the rest of existence. A world cut off like that… I’m sorry Lucretia, but it… it won’t survive.”

And Lup does sound sorry, but Lucretia isn’t hearing it. “You don’t know that. We don’t know anything about what the Light is capable of. Even if that’s true, fine, this world has some lean years until we starve The Hunger out, but please, I’m begging you, just – just think about it.”

“Yeah, that ain’t it,” Taako says. “I mean, sure, maybe the Light is capable of protecting a world without starving it, but we don’t know. We do know what a world without bonds is like!”

“You mean cycle eighty-two? This isn’t the same thing at all, we’re not pulling the planes out of orbit.”

“It was still cut off. I mean, sure, maybe your thing doesn’t destroy everything right away. But what happens to our magic without a connection to that plane? What happens to clerics who can’t talk to their gods, what happens to souls that can’t get to the Astral Plane?”

Lucretia’s eyes narrow. “By which you mean, what if Kravitz can’t move from the Astral Plane to the Material Plane.”

Everyone around the table pauses, uncomfortable.

“That’s not what I said,” Taako says quietly.

But of course he was thinking it. How could he not? The idea of losing him, after all this - or of Kravitz being cut off from his goddess; Taako isn’t sure he’d even be able to survive that. The more he thinks about Lucretia’s plan there are too many risks, too many factors they can’t control.

“I should have assumed you wouldn’t listen,” Lucretia says. “You’re too biased.”

“And you’re putting words in my mouth!” Taako snaps, sitting up straight. “Yeah, alright, I’m worried about him, sue me! But I’m worried about the rest of it too!”

“We have the chance to save everyone! And you won’t consider it because of one man?”

Merle stands up, hands raised. Around the table there are other debates going on, the room echoing with overlapping voices, but none as heated as Lucretia and Taako.  “Alright, you two, let’s reel it in.”

Lucretia ignores him, obviously frustrated with them all, lashing out. Taako knows how that feels, he tends to lash out, too. But how dare she drag Kravitz into this, like Taako hasn’t given and given and given to this war, like he hasn’t lost enough.

“We have to be willing to make sacrifices if we want to stop the Hunger once and for all,” she says. “All of us. I would give anything.”

“Like an entire plane’s bonds. How noble of you,” Taako says coldly - he could yell at her, sure, he could get pissed, he could fucking ruin her if he really wanted. But it won’t accomplish anything. He’s done fighting about this - he knows where his vote is going.

Davenport seems to agree that this debate is going nowhere, standing up and clearing his throat with all the authority he can muster, which is to say, a fucking lot. “That’s enough. We’ll put it to a vote.”

“I’m with Lup,” Taako says without hesitation.

Lucretia sighs - and she doesn’t even sound angry anymore, just dejected when she says, “You won’t even consider it?”

Taako thinks of all he’s learned about artificing in this year, what it can do, the power of the artifacts one can create with it - like any kind of magic it can be miraculous or devastating. All he knows about the Light of Creation and the unfathomable power it holds, and he knows he can’t imagine what unleashing that on the world could do. It would be so much better if the shield could work, if it could be so simple. He wants to believe in it. But neither option is good, in the end; either way they’re deciding the fate of an entire plane. But at least the power will be in their hands until it’s put out into the world. At least they can do their best to minimize the damage.

He glances at the projection again, set back to the example of Lup and Barry's plan. The Hunger isn't gone - it still hovers there, watching and waiting, looking for any weakness it can exploit.

“You know, I wish I could,” Taako says softly. Lucretia just looks away.

Ultimately, it comes down to a point that Magnus makes: if they try Lucretia’s plan and it fails, they’re fucked. If the seven artifacts fail, they can still leave that planar system to fight another day. They all wish there was a third option, but the vote goes to Lup and Barry’s plan. They seem satisfied, but not exactly happy. After so long, they know the perfect, easy solution isn’t ever going to fall into their laps.

When Lup speaks, she’s deadly serious. “Lucretia, I promise you, I swear, on my life and my second life – this is gonna work. We’re nearly done, okay?”

Lucretia, downtrodden, just nods. “Okay.”

Nearly done. The words echo in Taako’s mind, but they don’t fully sink in, not yet.

The meeting adjourns and Taako gathers his things, changes into something cute, ready for a weekend with Kravitz, which is exactly what he needs after the stress of that meeting. They always meet in town, a chance to get away from the school for a bit, sometimes staying aboard the Starblaster but more often getting a room somewhere. The meeting ran longer than he’d told Kravitz it would - normally they have nothing new to discuss - and he hopes Kravitz hasn’t been waiting for him long.

He wouldn’t admit it, but he's shaken somewhat by the fight with Lucretia. It's not that they never fight - they're both stubborn and opinionated and convinced they're always right, of course they butt heads sometimes, but it's just that, little spats, no worse than a fight with his sister. They rarely stay angry, they rarely get personal, and bringing Kravitz into it… it doesn’t get more personal than that.

He's still angry even as he exits the Arcaneum, and he doesn't like that, anger directed at one of the few people in the universe he gives a damn about. But it's not enough to quell the excitement that’s slowly sinking in, the knowledge that for the first time ever, they have a plan. They have a plan where for so long they were lost, the end is finally in sight, and he can't even quite process that, it makes his head spin.  But he steps out of the Arcaneum campus, and Kravitz is already there waiting, and - everything in Taako goes calm and still when he sees him, and he’s running to Kravitz before he even knows what he’s doing, throwing his arms around the reaper’s neck and hugging him too tight.

“Getting better at being on time, I see,” Taako says, planting a quick kiss on Kravitz’s cheek.

“Not at all, I’m afraid. You’re just late.”

Taako snorts. “Guess we’ll call it even, then.” He hides his face in Kravitz’s shoulder, sighing. “Missed you, baby,” he mumbles, barely audible, but Kravitz hears and squeezes him tight before stepping back to look into his face.

“What’s on the agenda for the evening?” Kravitz asks, poised to open a rift wherever they like. Taako hadn’t thought that far, the meeting had sort of driven everything else from his mind, but he finds that he doesn't want to linger out in the world right now - call him possessive, but he just wants Kravitz all to himself, to tuck him away in their own little world for a while.

“Quiet night in?” He suggests, and from Kravitz’s smile he can tell he was thinking the same thing.

If this is the last time they’ll get to meet this cycle, he doesn’t want to share Kravitz with the rest of the world.

The suite they often meet in is extravagant even for Taako's taste, just on the right side of gaudy - the bed is enormous, practically swallows him, silk sheets and a pillow-thick duvet. Kravitz has money and precious little to actually spend it on, ancient coin that baffles the waitstaff but real gold nonetheless. He's undoubtedly spent an enormous amount on this room, in the time since Taako found him, which Taako tries valiantly to feel guilty about, but he’s spend enough cycles sleeping in a tent that he’s going to take advantage of luxury when it’s offered. Kravitz blends in quite well with the wealthy elite of the city that surrounds the Hanging Arcaneum; if Taako didn’t know better he’d think he was some rich asshole when he was alive.

He's on Kravitz almost before they've stepped through the rift, all this energy thrumming through his body since he left the meeting, urging him to do something with it - all the excitement, the uncertainty. Kravitz stumbles but catches him, makes a soft, surprised sound, hands already up the back of Taako's shirt as they feel their way backwards and tumble onto the plush mattress that sinks beneath their weight. Kravitz’s mouth is soft and the chill of his hands sending a welcome shiver down his spine; Taako never thought he’d get used to the cold, let alone learn to like it.

“Want you,” Taako breaths, “baby, I want you,” and Kravitz kisses him long and hard until he’s gasping for breath.

Taako has this habit of taking Kravitz fast and hard and intense, the rare occasions they get this time together - this anxious urge to take all he can get while he has the chance, because who knows how long it will be before the next time? Who knows if there will ever be a next time, when every single encounter with the Hunger is such a close call? It’s no different now; the knowledge that the fight is almost over and Kravitz’s eager encouragement only spur him on. A fist in Kravitz’s hair, tugging his head back as Taako fingers him open, deep devouring kisses, Kravitz’s hand teasing over Taako’s cock.  It’s too good to bear, the sharp angles of Kravitz’s body, his skin, the sounds he makes, his hair spread across the pillows and his body rocking against the bed with every hard thrust inside. Too good, too much, and over far too soon, as Taako hides his face in the crook of Kravitz’s neck, bites just this side of too hard at his shoulder while Kravitz’s nails blunt nails dig into his back - leaving a mark, claiming him, like he’s really Taako’s to keep. Kravitz’s sharp, shuddering gasp may as well be music.

Kravitz, who doesn’t even technically need to breathe, is panting when they finally collapse atop each other, his heart a staccato beat and his skin pleasantly warm. He laughs softly, breathless, leaning over Taako to kiss the back of his neck, the muscle of his shoulders. Taako curls into him, sweaty and satisfied (for now), closing his eyes.

It’s a while, or feels like it, until Kravitz speaks, soft and sleepy. “We ought to get dinner at some point. Or you should, at least.”

“Don’t wanna move,” Taako whines, muffled in the pillow.

“Room service, then.”

“God, you’re my favorite.”

Kravitz hums, fingers trailing up Taako’s spine. “You’re my favorite,” he echoes, and makes it sound so damn tender that Taako’s heart feels like it’s being strangled. “I love you,” he says, quieter this time, hardly a breath. Like he’s testing out the taste, the feeling of the words on his tongue.

It’s been so long since they had a cycle like this, so simple and easy and good, almost too good to stand. For once they actually have room to breathe. Knowing this world will be safe after he’s gone, knowing exactly when they’ll be leaving - it’s nearly like any other short-term relationship, this time. Like what the cycle at the conservatory should have been, if everything hadn’t gone so very wrong.

He brushes thoughts of that cycle aside. He won’t ever be over it, he thinks, but he doesn’t have to allow that regret to taint what he has here and now. Kravitz wouldn’t have wanted that. That’s what he tells himself, anyway, even if he can’t always make himself believe it; all he can do now is throw himself fully into the time he has with this Kravitz, this cycle. It’s strange to think there was a time when he resisted this, when he nearly threw it all away; that Taako seems like a different person. He lifts himself up on his elbows and kisses Kravitz again, soft and slow.

“What’s on your mind?” Kravitz says when they part, eyes heavy-lidded, smiling. “You’ve been fidgeting all evening.”

“Have I?” Taako shrugs, watches Kravitz watching him. He hadn’t noticed, but the meeting with the crew, the plan - Lucretia’s plan, too - have been at the back of his mind, it’s not surprising.

“Is something wrong?”

“Nah, it’s… potentially really good.” Kravitz only quirks an eyebrow (how the hell does he make that look so attractive, Taako just wants to be kissing him again) but waits for Taako to elaborate. “Had a meeting with the crew. Making plans and whatnot.”


“For once.” Taako bites his lip - now that Kravitz has pointed out the fidgeting Taako notices it, too. The idea that this might all be over soon, that they have a chance at actually beating the Hunger, keeps sinking in in stages, blowing his mind over and over.

They’ve been doing this for so long, he and Kravitz, that Taako struggles to imagine what after might be like, what their lives could be if they could have each other for longer than a year.

Maybe he wants to imagine it, though. Maybe he wants to make plans. Maybe it’s finally within reach.

“Listen,” he says, looking away. “This is dumb, but bear with me. You know there’s… a limit on this, you know I’ll have to leave. I mean we’re on the same page here, this is a fling, basically.”

“I know,” Kravitz says warily. He tucks a lock of hair behind Taako’s ear. “You made that clear, I know you’ll have to leave soon.”

“But if I didn’t,” Taako says. “If - not this time, obviously, but theoretically. If there was a cycle where we could actually stop it. If we had more than a year. Ugh, nevermind, this is stupid,” Taako groans, flopping back down onto the bed, but Kravitz just shoves at Taako’s shoulder, making him roll onto his side.

“Take your time,” Kravitz says, serious and gentle. “What are you trying to say?”

“Would you want it to be more? If we had more than a year - I’m in this for the long haul, think that’s pretty damn obvious, but it’s never been an option for you so…” Taako huffs. He can’t seem to stop rambling. “You know what I’m saying!”

Kravitz sits up now, and Taako follows, hugging his knees up to his chest. “You’re asking if I would want a long term relationship with you,” he says, voice level.

Taako looks down at the bedspread. “I guess. Yeah. Or, not you you, but. If, if a future you. Would want that.”

“Taako, I’m not a man who does things by halves,” he says - still gentle, still serious. “Of course I would want this to last, if it could. I want all the time we can get. Did you really think I wouldn’t?”

“I don’t know!” Taako hunches his shoulders, cheeks burning. “We’ve never - that’s easy to say when it’s fucking… theoretical, but...”

“I think it’s obvious by now that if there’s one constant in the universe, it’s that I’m crazy about you.” Taako laughs, still looking down, until Kravitz’s fingers under his chin coax him into meeting his eyes again. “I’ve loved you so many times, it’s… part of who I am. If we ever get the chance to be together for good - I can’t really speak for some other version of me, but I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”

Taako lets out a breath, and lets himself be coaxed back into Kravitz’s arms, unwinding himself from the tight ball he’d wrapped himself into. Kravitz has this way of making even the most difficult things seem… manageable. There’s more to think about beyond whether or not they love each other enough to make this last, so much at stake, so many variables. There have been many, many cycles where they never ran into Kravitz at all - there’s always a chance that they miss each other when they make it to the last cycle. Lup and Barry are liches now, the very creatures Kravitz has sworn to hunt down under a goddess’s oath. They’ve kept it a secret, but Taako’s not fooling himself into thinking they’ll always be able to. One day it’ll come out and he has no fucking idea how they’ll deal with that.

Maybe forever with Kravitz is a lost cause. But sitting here with him now, listening to him say all these wonderful things - things Taako has never even allowed himself to hope for -

He won’t give up on it. Not after how far they’ve come.

“I want… a house,” Taako says, flopping down with his head in Kravitz’s lap, stretching out across the bed. Says it on a whim but it’s the first thing he can think of.

“Oh?” Kravitz smiles, tone teasing but eyes soft.

“Mhm. A real house, with a bunch of rooms you don’t actually need, like - like a fuckin’ living room and a den, whatever that is.”

“A dining room and a breakfast nook.”

“Now you’re getting it.” Taako grins up at him. “Never had a real house before.”


“I guess there was with my aunt but that was like… a cottage. And it wasn’t mine. Nah, it was always caravans and shitty apartments and spaceships.”

Kravitz’s fingers card absently through his hair, and Taako nearly lets his eyes drift closed. “Of course you’ll have a house,” he says. “What will it be like?”

“I’ll have a cat. And a huge kitchen. Five bathrooms.”

“A little excessive.”

“You haven’t lived on a spaceship with seven people and one bathroom, Krav. You don’t know what I’ve been through.”

“As many bathrooms as you like, then.” He pauses, adorably hesitant. “Am I invited?”

“Hmm.” Taako feigns pondering, stroking his chin. “Will you do the dishes?”

“You certainly don’t want me doing the cooking.”

“Yeah, you can join me. Wouldn’t be the same without you.” There’s a mark forming on Kravitz’s neck where Taako bit him, and he reaches up to trace his fingers over it, pressing just a little to feel Kravitz shiver. He makes himself look into Kravitz’s eyes, even though it makes him blush again. “I want that with you,” he says quietly. “I’m sick of endings. I want chores and cats and everything , I’m so ready to just - be with you.”

“I want it, too,” Kravitz murmurs, a gentle finger stroking the line of Taako’s jaw. He takes Taako’s hand and lifts it, presses a kiss to the inside of his wrist. Lingering there for a long, quiet moment, eyes closed. “I want… whatever part of your life you’re generous enough to share with me.”

Taako swallows, mouth dry. He sits up, Kravitz’s eyes fluttering open to follow him. “Okay. Alright, good. Cause… I think we have a plan. I think soon we’re going to be able to stop the Hunger for good.”

Kravitz still holds onto his wrist, frozen, brow furrowed. “You’re serious?” he breathes.

Taako nods. “Not this cycle, we don’t know when, but - as soon as we can.” And all at once it fully hits him that this is happening, with a force that leaves him dizzy; he threads their fingers together, squeezing too tight. “It’s almost over, baby,” he says giddily. “We’re almost there, we’re almost done.”

Kravitz laughs, disbelieving as he draws Taako into a tight hug. He sits back, but only far enough to kiss Taako long and deep, to pepper kisses across his cheeks until Taako’s laughing too, and he finally just rests their foreheads together, eyes shut. “I can’t believe it,” he whispers. “Darling, I’m so proud of you.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself, we haven’t done anything yet.”

“You will. And you’ve come so far already.”

“Hey…” Taako draws back, grasping Kravitz’s hands again. “If we could make it work this cycle, you know we would.”

Kravitz shakes his head, to Taako’s relief. “Don’t worry about that. Tell me everything.”

The room service carries up a platter of bread and ricotta and honey, fresh fruit and cheese and a bottle of wine. They slip into clean, plush robes and sit together at the center of the bed, eating and talking until the sun has long since set. He explains the plan, Lup and Barry’s discovery about this new way to harness the Light of Creation, though he leaves out Lucretia’s idea for now. Because he knows that Magnus made her that deal, that they would try her idea if Lup and Barry’s failed, but Taako isn’t having it. He’ll spend this time coming up with another option, will help her if it’s truly the only way, but he won’t support anything that cuts off the planes, anything that keeps him away from Kravitz. Kravitz listens intently, follows along as best he can, interrupting with questions here and there.

“It’s pretty risky, I’m not gonna lie,” Taako finishes, fidgeting with Kravitz’s hand in his. Kravitz nods, brow furrowed in worry. “But… not as risky as the other options.”

“A far cry better than the world being consumed,” Kravitz agrees. “When will you be able to do it?”

“No way of knowing. It’ll be the next cycle where we manage to get the Light before the Hunger and it’s scouts get here.”

“That’s a window of… what, a few days?”

Taako nods. “Doesn’t happen often. So… could be the next cycle, could be a decade from now. We just have to be ready.”

“I know it’s selfish of me, to be thinking of us when the fate of the universe is on the line, but…” Kravitz looks away, embarrassed.

“I mean shit, if that’s selfish then so am I. Hey.” Taako leans in, turns Kravitz’s face toward his and kisses him, soft and slow. He tastes like wine and honey, and when Taako sits back, Kravitz’s eyes stay closed for a long moment. “As soon as we get the whole Hunger thing sorted out, I’ll find you. I won’t rest until I find you, okay?”

Kravitz smiles, but it’s sad too, even if he tries to hide it. “I know you will. It’s just… I can’t help but wish you could stay. Here, with me. It isn’t fair.”


“No. It’s alright.” Kravitz shakes his head, squeezes Taako’s hands. “I promise I’m not upset. I’m happy, but it’s… it’s always bittersweet, isn’t it.”

“I’m sorry,” Taako says. and means it. Sorry that it has to be this way, for dragging Kravitz into something he never asked for. Not for the first time, he wishes they could both run away from all of this, leave it behind. “You’ll be okay, though. Right?”

“I will. I just wonder… do you miss us? When you have to leave?”

Taako thinks of a song that has lingered in his mind for over thirty years, of brown eyes that sparkled with a smile. “Every single one of you,” he says through the lump in his throat. “Every single day. Krav, I’m not… I’m not just going to forget about you, you know? None of you. I’m gonna find that version of you, and I’ll love him and we’ll have that house, and the cat. But I’ll still remember you. Always.”

Kravitz sighs. “Gods, you’re saving the world, and I’m here making it all about me.”

It is all about you, Taako thinks, maybe Lucretia was right, maybe you’re the only thing that matters to me but I don’t care. If the universe is worth saving it’s only because you’re in it.

But Kravitz is a good person, he isn’t like Taako. So Taako doesn’t say it.

“Is there anything I can do, do you think?” Kravitz reaches out, touches the coin where it rests against Taako’s bare chest, where it always stays until they need it. “Any other messages I could leave, any way I can help?”

“You can be patient with me the next couple months I’m here,” Taako says, covering Kravitz’s hand with his. “Gotta take advantage of the Arcaneum while we have access to it, so I might not have much downtime. But I’ll do my best to see you when I can.”

Kravitz smiles, sad, but happy too. He kisses Taako once, soft and sweet, and somehow it already feels like they’re saying goodbye. “Spend this weekend with me, then,” he says. “Forget all that for now. And then get to work.”

Taako never expected the final cycle to come soon. The conditions have to be so exact, after all, he knows it could be years, decades even, before they happen to get the Light before the Hunger’s scouts arrive.

But on cycle ninety-nine, they land on a world that is so like their homeworld that it’s like looking in a mirror, or like hearing an echo. Lucretia cries when she sees the flora and fauna that matches what she’d sketched in her oldest journals, when she’d used up so much paper documenting everything she could remember about the home they’d watched the Hunger devour. There are places with the same names and people Merle swears he knows, though they don't know him yet. And Taako has known for a long time, even accepted that they wouldn’t ever find their way home again, that that part of his life on the world with two suns was long gone, but this - this feels like a sign of some kind.

And the Light of Creation literally falls at their feet, and Taako looks at the world below - its blue sky, its single sun - and tries to think I’m home, I’m home, I’m home, but it’s not a leap his mind will let him make yet. Maybe one day. Maybe.

No one can think of a single thing to say, and so they don’t try. They gather up the Light, and they get to work.

Some of the crew took years to design their artifacts, but Taako knew what he would make before they left the Hanging Arcaneum. His logic is simple, as is the idea behind the item that he creates, though the arcana and calculations that make it work are complex in the way that only the Light of Creation can accomplish. He figures, the point of the artifacts is that they’ll be things that people want to use. There isn’t a transmutation expert alive that wouldn’t pay any price for a Philosopher’s Stone. He would know.

Ironic, then, that he doesn’t ever get to use it himself.

There’s a podunk little town called Phandalin, not far from where they’ve docked the ship. Cute place, full of halflings and dwarves. They look at him oddly as he passes through, with no concrete plan for what to do with the stone. It’s plain, a normal rock to the naked eye but easy to identify as magical if you actually know what you’re looking for; he figures if he were a guy who carried a philosopher’s stone he wouldn’t want to look like he’s waving around a fucking diamond. Ultimately, he looks at it one last time and then drops it down the well at the center of town, where it hits the bottom with a dull thunk.

And that’s that.

“Um, hey, sir?” A nondescript dwarf clears their throat, arms crossed and watching him suspiciously. “Maybe don’t throw shit down our well, please?”

“Sorry, compadre.” Taako grins and tips his hat, brushing by them. He doesn’t leave town right away, stops in a little tavern and orders a pint of something called Redcheek Cider. Despite the small size of the town, it’s busy and bustling, full of various shops and inns. A handful of folks, probably taking a break from working the farmland surrounding the town, sit around the tables laughing boisterously. It’s bizzare to look at them and realize that they aren’t in danger, that the year will come and go and there will still be Redcheek Cider to drink and farm work to do. All these people will still be here. Taako will still be here.

Well, not here here; he doubts he’ll end up in Phandalin again. But he could, is the point.

“Don’t think I’ve seen you out and about before,” the cheery halfling bartender says as they pour Taako a glass full to the brim with the rich amber cider. “New in town?”

“You could say that,” Taako says.

He tips with a gold coin from a world he’s half-forgotten, probably worth more than a whole barrel of cider.

As soon as they all return from distributing their artifacts, they throw the biggest celebration they’ve had in years. The booze flows like water, and Taako cooks up a feast, and Lup sets off fireworks from the deck of the Starblaster. Merle succeeds in dragging everyone out onto the dance floor, and Davenport gives a short, teary-eyed toast. There’s nothing left to do but let the artifacts be sought after; their part in this fight is done.

They’re done.

“What do you guys wanna do next?” Magnus asks, like that isn’t the most difficult question in the fucking universe. It’s late and the party is winding down; Merle and Davenport already went to bed because they’re old and boring, and Lucretia and Barry are talking together inside, their voices just audible through the open door. Taako and Magnus and Lup sprawl out together on the deck, collapsed there after an impromptu dance party, the twins’ heads pillowed on Magnus’s broad chest as they stare up at the brand new constellations.

“Shots!” Lup yells, but she sits up too quickly and gets dizzy - on account of the shots - and quickly flops back down.

“He means like, with life, goofus,” Taako says, poking her in the ribs.

“Gonna get a dog,” Magnus says, without hesitation.

Taako snickers. “Course you are.”

“A big one, like - like a - a wolfhound. A little dog would be good too, though. They’re all so good.”

“I think,” Taako says, because they won, and he's a little drunk, and tonight everything feels possible, “I think I’m gonna get a house?”

Lup attempts to sit up again, slowly this time, propped up on one hand so she can look down at Taako and Magnus. “No shit?”

“Yeah.” Taako laughs, and feels a blush warming his cheeks. He’s never said this out loud except to Kravitz, and it feels… dangerous, somehow, to put it out in the world, like he’ll jinx it. “I mean, gotta find Krav first, can’t go house hunting without him. But uh. Yeah. With a legit kitchen and everything.”

“Can I build your furniture?” Magnus asks excitedly.

“Long as it’s free.”

“Dude,” Lup says. There’s a soft, crooked smile on her face as she looks down at him. “That’s awesome.”

“You must have big plans too, Lu,” Magnus says.

Lup looks away, gnawing on her bottom lip. “I dunno.”

“Aw, come on. Surely you and Barry have talked about it.”

“I mean sure, whatever we do we’re doing together, but… I… I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about anything except beating the Hunger in so long. I don’t know how to make plans like that anymore.”

“No time like the present, then,” Taako says, reaching across the broad expanse of Magnus to poke her in the ribs, deftly rolling away when she tries to poke back. “C’mon, Loop-de-Lup. One thing that you want to do now that we’re fuckin’ unemployed.”

Lup’s quiet for a while, but then she looks at the door leading down from the deck, to the kitchen, and she smiles that particular soft, crooked smile she gets when she’s thinking about Barry. “I guess I’d really like to have a proper wedding,” she says.

“Hell yeah, party of the fuckin’ century!” Taako hoots, sitting up so that he can high-five her. “You know I’m wearing white, though.”

“Like fuck you are!”

“Hey,” and now Magnus sits up too, looking between the two of them. “Whatever happens, wherever we all end up - we’re still sticking together. Right? We’ll be close by.”

Taako wants to make fun of him, but Lup has to go and be all serious. “Of course we will, bud,” she says. “Always. We’re family, right?”

“Like you could get rid of me that easy,” Taako rolls his eyes. “Aw, Mags, don’t get all weepy on us, I told you not to get into the vodka…"

They left their relics scattered across the world, knowing they couldn’t interfere with them. But they keep an ear to the ground - how can they not? - so it isn’t long before they hear the news.

In a village called Greenhold, a warlord uses Davenport’s Oculus to create a black hole.

In the Archipelago of Moonshae, the Gaia Sash manifests an eighteen hundred foot tsunami and drowns two thousand, five hundred and twelve people.

At Armos, a seven year old girl gets her hands on the Philosopher’s Stone and turns the entire settlement into peppermint candy.

That they don’t hear anything about Magnus’s Temporal Chalice or Barry’s Animus Bell is almost more terrifying than the effects they do see.

But Lup’s gauntlet is by far the most destructive. A man on fire reducing an entire city to a perfect circle black glass. Lup doesn’t say a word when she hears, but she doesn’t come out of her room the rest of the day.

In less than a year, the continent is torn apart by war. The gauntlet ruins city after city, and every single day Lup looks more worn down. They don’t leave the Starblaster, don’t head out into the world to make new homes - a unanimous agreement. Because how can they go down there, and be a part of this world, and put faces and names to all the bodies; how could any of them resist trying to take back their relics, after seeing the damage they’ve caused?

The war goes on and they stay aboard the Starblaster, high above and watching it all.

Taako doesn’t see a sign of Kravitz in the year after they arrive, but he doesn’t go looking for him either. And he couldn’t say why, exactly. He’d promised, after all, hadn’t he? He’d said that after the Hunger was taken care of, after they won, he would find him. But he doesn’t even take Lucretia’s wards down.

Maybe he just doesn’t know where to start. It’s a good enough excuse. Or maybe he’s nervous, getting cold feet, because this is the last cycle and there are so many what-ifs still hanging over them.

Maybe, as he looks down at the world and watches the war raging below, it just doesn’t feel like they’ve won yet. Doesn’t feel like he’s earned it.

Maybe Kravitz is busy ferrying all the dead.

After a while he stops looking down. It’s easier to stay on the ship, and not think about the people below, all of them dust in the end. None of them talk about how they feel like they should be running away, how they’re all holding their breath waiting for disaster.

A year ago they were celebrating, and hopeful, and eager for some kind of future. And they celebrate again now, they feel obligated to, but it feels less like a party and more like a wake. Fisher keeps floating around the ship, trying to sing, trying to cheer them up, but eventually even it settles into the somber mood. Merle, too, tries to get their spirits up, until Lup snaps at him and leaves, and Lucretia looks like she’s about to cry, and Taako thinks he should follow Lup but he never knows what to say to her these days though he tries his damnedest. He doesn’t know how to help her, and she doesn’t know how to help him, and nothing they can say will fix any of it.

Barry comes up next to him as Lup goes up on deck alone, watching her sadly. And Barry is the kind of guy you can just sit with and not have to talk, but suddenly Taako can’t stand the silence, there’s too much tangled up in his head and in his chest to keep contained.

“You know what’s kinda fucking me up?” Taako says, taking a sip of his drink.

“Speaking personally, I would assume a lot of stuff,” Barry says wryly.

“Yeah, it’s weird though. We traveled around for a hundred years, and didn’t really have a place to call ours. And now that we’re stuck here… I can’t stop feeling like, we’re technically homeless. Like, think about it for a second. We’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop for so long, over a year now. And we’re just... here. Do you remember about seventy years ago or so, seventy cycles, I just stopped learning math. ‘Cause everybody did math differently, and I just got sick of it. So I just stopped learning math. I’m gonna have to learn the math here now, I have to make some sort of life here, but…”

Barry just looks at him, and Taako can’t keep his damn mouth shut, now that he’s started rambling he just keeps going. He hasn’t even said any of this to Lup, and it’s weird that it’s Barry he’s talking to, but he guesses everything is fucking weird now.

“Shit like that just, just keeps occuring to me, you know? And other shit, like - like we’re still living on a spaceship, and we don’t have to? Except we do, because at what point - at what fucking point do we go down there are decide hey, we live here now? How do we know we’re ready? What if it sucks? What if it’s not what we wanted home to be, y’know, like what if…” Taako knows before he says it how awful it is, how awful he is, but it’s been on his mind for so long, since they got to this fucking world, and for the first time he puts it into words: “Like, what if Kravitz isn’t even here. Wasn’t ever here, or we missed him by a couple hundred years, or whatever. Or he is here and it doesn’t work out? And of all of the places to call home, it’s one I don’t even want?”

Or one we ruined.

Barry sighs. “No, I know what you’re talking about, and, you know, we talked about, it’s - it’s not right for us to really live in that world until… I don't know, we see how things play out. I would feel guilty being a citizen in a world that I poisoned. But like - you’re my family, Taako, can I speak frankly?”


“I can’t believe that’s what you’re worried about right now.”

Taako shrugs, knocking back the last of his drink. So glad he bared his fucking soul for that. “Listen, I’m just trying to get by, man. Thanks for the shade, I guess. This has been great.” He starts to leave - go to bed, go find Lup, it doesn’t really matter - but Barry’s hand on his shoulder stops him.

“I don’t mean - it’s just like -”


“I’m struggling with it too, and I don’t - I don’t know how you shut yourself off from that, how you keep… thinking about the future, your future, with all this going on? Jesus, it’s been so many years since I even had goals beyond whatever we had to do to beat the Hunger, and you always… seem to be able to just, I don’t know. Keep on keepin’ on, I guess.”

Taako has to laugh, a little. “I mean - I’m sorry, but I’ve been living a hundred years with me and one year with millions of people, interchangeable. And Kravitz was the only person that stood out from that, ever. He’s the only one that ever fucking mattered to me. Maybe just because he was always there, I don’t know. I guess I just got to a point where… I was the one that I could focus on, because, everybody else that I ever met, aside from the six of you, aside from Kravitz, were dust. They were just talking dust, okay, so I started worrying a lot more about me, because what was the fucking point?”

It’s this awful thing he’s carried with him for half a century and never spoken aloud, not even to Lup. Saying it doesn’t take any weight off his shoulders, it doesn’t make him feel better. He can’t tell from Barry’s face what he thinks - if he thinks Taako is a monster or if he actually gets it, like maybe Taako’s been holding that inside all these years thinking he was broken when really they all would have understood it - he still doesn’t know, when he thought he could read Barry like an open book. He wishes he’d never opened his mouth.

But Barry’s voice is gentle when he says, “I think you will still find him. You know we’ll help you look when you’re ready.”

Taako scoffs. “Alright. So what if I do? What then? You said it - we poisoned this world. Bet he’ll love finding out who’s responsible for that.”

Barry looks away, and he sighs. He doesn’t seem to have anything to say to that, at first. But then, quietly, “You’re not as detached as you think you are.”

Taako shrugs. Knows, abruptly, that this conversation won’t go anywhere. That no amount of talking can make it better, only action, and there’s nothing they can do. Turns out that most of the time, there’s just nothing you can do. “Let’s go find Lup, yeah?”

Lup doesn’t say a word as they sit on either side of her; her legs dangling off the side of the ship, arms braced on the railing and looking down at the world below - dark save for the twinkling lights of the cities they fly over. Cities that have names that Taako has barely bothered to learn. She just leans on on Taako’s shoulder, and holds Barry close to her side. They sit in silence a long time, and Taako doesn’t look down.

A few months shy of two years since they arrived, and the latest glassing has a death toll in the thousands, a figure that Lup relays with a stoney expression, a flat lifeless voice. She retreats to her room, pulling up her hood to hide her face, and Taako and Barry exchange a glance and a nod - assessing, quickly, that she will let Taako comfort her but probably not Barry - before Taako follows her.

The door isn’t locked. She’s sitting on the center of her bed, knees pulled up to her chest and crying quietly. Comforting Lup is a complex science, one Taako has studied his entire life; god knows she’s done the same for him. He can’t smother her with hugs and soft touches, he can’t soothe her with platitudes and tell her it will all be okay. They’ve all taken it hard but he can’t imagine what it must be like for Lup, when her relic has caused the most destruction out of any of them. He’s almost surprised that she doesn’t tell him to leave, that she lets him sit with her on her and Barry’s giant bed. They’re both so prone to pushing people away when things get bad, even each other. But she reaches out and takes his hand, gripping it too tight, like he’s the only thing she can trust to be stable.

“C’mere,” he whispers, and he lays down on his side, waiting as she hesitates and then curls up beside him, two symmetrical shapes, hands clasped between them on the mattress, their knees touching even with the whole bed to spread out on. She wipes her eyes on her sleeve though the tears keep falling, breathing unsteady. He doesn’t try to get her to stop crying, knows it won’t help. He just has to wait.

They’ve come so far since the night they left their home, since they curled up together in a tiny twin bunk, terrified but together, as they’ve always been. So long ago, but sometimes - sometimes it feels like nothing has changed at all. They’ve collected friends and family along the way, learned a thing or two. But in the end it’s still just them, two scrappy orphans against the world. Two halves of a whole.

“You know you didn’t mean to make something like that,” Taako says quietly, after her tears have dried in streaks across her freckled cheeks. She doesn’t answer, just watches him, eyes glassy, heartbroken. He doesn’t know how to bring her back from this. “I understood the rationale you came up with, I mean - it was just damage. Just… damage. The other ones that we made - it can be twisted and perverted in so many different ways, and I think, at least the way you explained it to me, that by making something that was just damage, you would limit it.”

“And look at it now,” she says, her voice ragged, looking away. “God, Taako. Look what I’ve done.

“You didn't mean for any of this to happen.”

“I know that. And I know it’s good, like - the Hunger’s not here, and the Hunger’s worse than anything we've done. I get all that. I just - I can’t help but ask…” She sniffs, blinking rapidly. “Did we make the right decision?”

“I mean, hindsight’s 20/20.”


Taako rubs his thumb over the knobs of her knuckles, over a burn scar that’s been there since they were kids. He keeps his breathing even, long deep breaths, and listens as she matches it. “Who knows if the shield would have worked. Or maybe it would, maybe it would keep the Hunger out, but it would keep out everything good too. You know, sometimes there are no right decisions. Sometimes there’s just decisions. At the scale that we’re talking about, the devastation the Hunger brought to all those worlds? I can say pretty certainly that - it’s better than that, right?”

“It’s got to be, I know. You’re right.”

He knows he’s right, but it doesn’t feel like it. It’s just the same conversation they’ve hashed out for months, over and over until it loses meaning. Knowing there are no good choices doesn’t make it easier to live with. And Lup is heartbroken, her hair is fraying at the ends and her nails are bitten down to stubs, he can’t remember it ever getting this bad, not in a hundred years. He hasn’t seen her smile in weeks. In this moment he would do anything, give up anything, for her to smile again. Anything to have his sister back.

“Alright,” he sits up and groans exaggeratedly, and her brow furrows as she watches him climb out of the bed. “I’ll do it one time.

There’s a little record player in the corner, and he fiddles with it until a familiar dance beat fills the room. Lup snorts, loud and undignified, a hand clapped over her mouth. His Thong Song lipsync really isn’t complete in this outfit, he should be in a thong and bright pink lipstick, but he hams it up anyway, sings along too loud and twerks (or attempts to) while looking Lup directly in the eye until she’s can’t help but laugh, as she always does, doubled over, shoulders shaking. He bows dramatically as the song ends.

When there’s no way to fix things, all you have left is to distract from it.

“Now who looks like a clown,” Lup teases. She wipes her eyes again, but this time her tears are from laughter.

“Still you, bubbelah.” He throws himself back down onto the bed, warm from dancing, still grinning. Nothing’s fixed. Obviously. But it feels good to smile, to really laugh for once. “Lulu. We’re gonna be okay, y’know?”

Maybe it was the wrong thing to say, maybe not. She looks at him, doesn’t answer, and there’s - something behind her eyes, he doesn’t know what, just out of reach. Maybe if he’d been able to catch it, been able to understand what she was trying to tell him, he’d have been able to stop her. Or maybe not. He’ll never really know, no matter how many times he goes over this day in his head, looking for some sign. Something he missed. Something she was trying to say without words.

She bites her lip and looks down at her lap again. “You should be looking for Kravitz,” she says quietly.

Taako raises his eyebrows and sits back up. “What does he have to do with anything?”

“Nothing, I just - you’ve waited so long, and I want - I don’t want you to be alone.”

“What are you talking about? I’m not alone, I’m with you goofuses. Anyway, we’ve talked about this. It’s just… it’s not a good time.” It’s never a good time. First they had to build the artifacts, and wait to see if they would work. And then the war started. And he’s had to be there for Lup while being equally fucked up about what his philosopher’s stone has done. And he doesn’t know if Kravitz would want someone who did this to his world anyway, and it’s never a good time.

“You deserve it,” Lup insists. “You deserve to be happy.”

“Do I?” And shit, somehow he fucked up because now she just looks like she’s going to cry again, so he reaches for her hand. This isn’t supposed to be a Taako pity party, this is about making sure Lup is okay. “Hey, I’m gonna find him. I know he’s out there. He’s looking for me. Just… not yet.”

He expects her to push it, but for once she doesn’t, for which he’s infinitely grateful. Maybe he needed a distraction, too. Some way to ignore this ache in his chest, building and building, every day he’s apart from Kravitz. Every day that stupid fantasy of the house they would share, the cat, the kitchen - it just gets further out of reach.

“Taako?” Lup squeezes his hand, just barely too hard. “I couldn’t have done any of this without you. I wouldn’t have made it here without you. I know we don’t say this enough, but… thank you.”

“Natch, I’m amazing,” he says, through the strange lump in his throat, flopping dramatically back onto the bed, halfway on top of her, making her laugh again as she tries in vain to shove him onto the floor.

Hindsight is, indeed, 20/20. And looking back he’ll tell himself he should have seen it coming, should have been able to stop her from leaving. In truth, there isn’t a secret sign that he missed, no test that he failed.

All he knows is that the last conversation he has with his sister is unremarkable. Isn’t enough. Lup is there and then she isn’t. It’s two full days before they start to really worry. Five before Barry insists that they start looking for her. A week before they piece together why she left, and that something must have gone wrong, because she would never just leave like this, with nothing but a note. Surely she would never just leave him.

Back soon; that’s all she leaves him with.

Of course they search - all of them, at first; eventually just Taako and Barry, day in and day out. They collect maps of the world and study them endlessly, pore over every scrap of information that Lup collected about the Phoenix Fire Gauntlet’s whereabouts as she tracked it’s path of destruction. None of it leads anywhere, every trail a dead end. Like she vanished into thin air.

It was bad enough to be without Kravitz. Without Lup he’s…

It’s like having a lung missing, an empty crater where his heart should be.

Taako never realized before how much Lup was the glue holding the crew together. Maybe it would be like this if any of them disappeared, but he isn’t sure. Lup is the heart of them, the best of them, and without her they drift like ghosts. The bond engine doesn’t run as strongly anymore. Barry doesn’t sleep, and neither does Taako; if he used to have trouble sleeping when she first moved out of their room, it’s nothing compared to this. Merle and Davenport keep to themselves, Magnus spends all his time training. Lucretia doesn’t even come out of her room most days.

When she does emerge Taako is startled to see her, as he’s looking over a map of the Sword Coast spread over the kitchen table, crossing out places they’ve searched - Waterdeep, Luskan, even up into the Dessarin Valley, all to no avail. He never thought this would be how he’d see so much of the world.

“You look like shit,” Lucretia says as she sits at the table, the words belying her gentle tone.

Taako snorts; it’s not like she’s looking better. There are bags under her eyes, a deep worry line between her brows that has developed over the past two years. He doesn’t know what’s kept her up, kept her so busy. He would ask, but fuck, there’s no energy left in him for anyone else, anything but the search for Lup. He can’t meditate the nights are the worst, when all his greatest fears seem so close, when the running commentary in his head is she left me, she left me, she left me. It all runs together, the constant searching, coming home dejected and neither he or Barry saying out loud what they’re terrified of, than it’s no good, that they won’t...

“Screw you,” he yawns, stretching out his aching neck, rubbing his eyes. He reaches for his mug of tea - begrudgingly drinking something herbal for once, if only to give his stomach a small respite from the constant caffeine - and finds it ice cold; blinks, wondering how long he’s been sitting here. “Ugh.”

“I’ll make some fresh,” Lucretia stands up almost as soon as she’s seated, as if looking for something to do.

They’re quiet as the kettle boils, and Taako tries to return to the map but it’s swimming before his eyes. He shakes his head, leans back in his chair and let's his eyes drift closed. At some point he ought to track Barry down, make sure he’s eating, check if he’s slept recently, though getting any real rest is futile. If Taako is taking this hard, it’s nothing compared to Barry’s single-minded obsession. Taako would find it concerning if he didn’t share the same goal. As it is, they do the bare minimum of keeping each other moving, keeping each other alive.

He listens to Lucretia rummaging through the kitchen, searching for the perfect tea, for cream and sugar; after so long she knows what he likes. They've shared many a pot of tea together in this kitchen, late in the night, but he can't remember the last time. Before this plane, maybe. Time sort of feels fake after the endless cycles, even more so now that it's really passing. He'll age now, as much as that matters for an elf. He'll watch Lucretia and Magnus age and grow. If - when - they die, it’ll actually stick.

It doesn't feel like any of it matters without Lup here. Another 500 years if he lives that long, without her - he can't imagine anything worse. The one person who was never supposed to leave, and she...

He opens his eyes as Lucretia sets two mugs down, taking a seat beside him and peering over the map. "No new leads?" She asks.

"Nah." Taako rubs at his face; he can't bear to look at the map anymore right now. Some days he's so sure they'll find her. Others - "Like she vanished into thin air."

"I'm sorry, Taako. I wish…"

He doesn't want pity, not from anyone, though he has it in abundance. He bites down on the jab at the tip of his tongue and shrugs. "Don't worry about it. You know we'd let you know if there was anything you could do."

"I… I did have a thought," Lucretia says, hesitant, avoiding eye contact. "You've probably already thought of everything, but…"

"No, please."

"If we could find Kravitz…"

Taako's fingers tighten around the handle of his mug, his heart skipping a beat. Of course he’s thought of it. A hundred times. There are so many factors - he could easily be hostile to them, could make it all worse. Or they could have missed him entirely. He might not have been born yet, or he hasn’t become a reaper. Or one of their relics killed him. A dozen reasons why here, on this last world, they might never find each other.

"He could help us find her. She’s undead, even if she’s currently in a body; he'd be able to track her down,” Lucretia continues.

“And then he takes her to the Eternal Stockade because that’s his job. Great plan."

"Fine, but if she's… if she's just -"

"She's not gone," Taako snaps, harsher than he intends.

"Of course we hope that, but -"

"She's not gone." He would know. He doesn't know how but he's sure he'd know, but if she is - he feels sick at the idea of seeing her name in Kravitz's book, of Kravitz proclaiming her dead - "We don't need his help."

"Taako, don't you want him here?” Lucretia persists. “Don't we need anything, any advantage?"

It feels like yesterday and, at the same time, like a hundred years ago that he was telling Kravitz about their amazing plan to save the world, making plans for their future, happy and in love; Taako can’t even remember how it feels to be that hopeful about the future anymore, when he can hardly think beyond the next day. Of course Taako wants him here. But he’d made so many promises. And they just turned out to be yet more lies.

He doesn’t think Kravitz would like this version of him.

“I don’t even know where to start looking, Cretia,” he says, avoiding her gaze. “And that’s time I’m not spending looking for Lup.”

“We could help,” she pleads. “We can at least try! At least then we would know, wouldn't it be better to know?” A desperate edge to her voice; he doesn't know what she's really asking of him, why this is so important to her, but he writes it off as her being stubborn, as usual. Whatever it is - he doesn’t have anything to offer her.

He curls his fingers around the coin, resting at the center of his chest. He hasn't listened to it since they landed here, even on those long nights when he can hardly breathe from missing Kravitz. Hundreds of people turned to peppermint, to stone, to gold - cities of glass and a bell that forces the soul out of the body - how would Kravitz look at him, at any of them, if he knew? How can Taako think about looking for Kravitz when he can't think of anything but Lup, how can he be with him when it feels like there's barely anything of him left to give? The last world they’ll ever come to and they ruined it, and he doesn’t have his sister and he can’t have Kravitz and what’s the fucking point of it, any of it, what has he come all this way for?

“How the hell am I supposed to face him? After all this, after all we've done - how can I?" He doesn't snap. Doesn’t want to fight. His voice sounds dull and alien in his own ears.

She looks at Taako for a long moment, in heartbroken resignation. He’s failed her, somehow, and maybe another time he would have wondered what she was really asking him for. A way out of her own terrible choice. “Of course. You're right. I'm sorry.” Then, still desperate, “Taako, you know that I love you, right? All of you?”

Taako blinks, stares at her for a moment too long. Maybe they haven’t been quite as close since he refused to support her plan, but he hadn't thought that was ever a question between any of them. She looks away, chagrined by his silence, until he reaches out and touches her shoulder.  “Hey, hey. Course I do, Cretia,” he says softly. “Course I do, that’s not - you’re my sister, don’t be stupid, c’mon.”

Lucretia’s never been much of a toucher, so it’s surprising when she tugs him into a hug, brief but tight, clinging to him. “Right. Silly of me. I’m just tired,” she says, sitting back and forcing a smile. She looks at him for a moment too long, then takes a deep breath. “I’ll let you get back to it, Taako. I’m… you’ll find her soon. I’m sure of it.”

The thing about the last conversation you have with a person is that you rarely know, at the time, that it’ll be the last. Later, he’ll think back to it, just like he thinks back to his last day with Lup, and he’ll think he should have known, should have seen through her, seen all the signs. If there were ever signs.

He’ll think back to the next day, too, when he’s able to remember it. When stolen memories fill him so fast and hot his skull could split open, when the static clears and he’s whole again after ten bitter years.  

He’ll remember Barry shouting static, shouting that he can’t forget, begging Taako to kill him. And he does it. He kills his best friend, enough instinct left to him in those last moments to know it’ll be okay but as Barry tumbles off the side of the ship Taako falls to his knees, shaking, until the man’s name and his face turn to static, until Taako doesn’t know who he killed, or where he is or how he got here -

He’ll remember forgetting. His family and his life and his self slipping through his fingers like so much water. And he’ll never be able to decide which is more cruel: that he forgets Lup as quickly as she disappeared, or that once he’s aware of forgetting he clings to the memory of Kravitz’s face until the last possible moment, even when he can’t recall his name or why he’s so important, until even that fades away. Until his whole world fades away.

Chapter Text

I saw all of existence, all at once. I saw a dark storm, a living hunger, eating it from within. But I saw a brilliant light heralded by eight birds flying tirelessly from the storm. I saw eight birds.

The Twins. The Lover. The Protector. The Lonely Journal Keeper. The Peacemaker. The Wordless One. And the eighth, the Reaper, flying beside them.

I saw eight birds.


Kravitz McAllister always died young. He did not know it, but by a cosmic dice roll that some called Fate, his death was one of the few constants across realities.

Sometimes he was taken by illness, other times by the point of a blade. Regardless of how it happened, he would never go to join his ancestors in the sea of souls, would never be drawn back into the natural cycle of life and death and rebirth. 

He died, and for eternity and no time at all he was no one, and nothing, drifting between light and darkness until the Raven Queen caught his soul in her talons. When he knelt before her she took the form of a woman, veiled and austere, and thought that she reminded him of his mother, and he loved and feared her in equal measure. It was this realization that brought him back to himself - he was Kravitz McAllister, he was thirty-one years old, he wanted to make music, and he was dead. 

“Is that all there is?” He’d asked her. “Is that the end?”

IT IS AN END, she said. Kravitz was not a child but he felt like one, kneeling before her. At once small and scared, yet big and important with her attention directed toward him. He wanted to cry. EVERY END IS ALSO A BEGINNING.

“I… I understand. I think.”


Phantom feathers brushed his cheek.

For a long time, their paths don’t cross, though their threads in Fate’s tapestry run parallel, nearly meeting and then diverging again. Fate takes her time, as she does in all things.

Taako finds fame, for a while. He has his stagecoach, the sturdy cast iron pans and knives that never lose their edge and the sign he painted himself. He’s loved, and if he doesn’t have much money, well, there’s a roof over his head and food in his belly which is better than he can say for most of his life. It’s good, if lonely, but he’s always been lonely so that shouldn’t be surprising - but it is.

He finds himself looking over his shoulder constantly for someone who’s never there. He avoids looking in mirrors. He isn’t able to wonder why. 

He’s not really surprised when it all goes south. Things usually do, for him - he doesn’t let himself get used to any particular place. He turns to adventuring when the money from Sizzle It Up runs out, figures he doesn’t have much else left to lose. And anyway, the people he winds up with, the bumbling dwarf and the meathead human - he’s drawn to them, for some reason that it gives him a headache to think about. The same way he’s drawn to a recipe he can’t quite nail down, drawn to the umbrella they find in a cave. 

Drawn to the golem made of crystal in a derelict lab.

Two threads tangle again, and Fate smiles.

Kravitz has been alone a long, long time, but that’s the nature of his work. He remembers life, long ago and short as it was, remembers his death and his family (a loving mother who passed too soon, a father he hardly knew, an older half-sister on the Sword Coast whom he adored and wrote to every month), but time causes these things to go numb. He is aware of his loneliness - goddesses do not always make the best conversationalists - but in a distant way. It’s just the way things are. 

The interjection of Taako into his life, then, is blinding. Incredibly enraging at first, actually - his absurd amount of unaccounted for deaths, the teasing lilt to his voice, bright color and danger and empty laughter, a laugh that should be irritating but instead is charming as all hell, despite the hollowness behind it. The sound of his voice does something to Kravitz that throws him utterly off-kilter. It’s the oddest thing - how for a moment his heart swells like seeing someone he’s missed for so long, and he falters. It’s enough to make him nearly botch the whole damn job; he awkwardly explains it away as performance anxiety before he leaves to regroup.

The feeling lessens in intensity but it lingers in the back of his mind, pointedly ignored, as they work out their deal, as he lets some of the biggest bounties he’s ever hunted walk away. He doesn’t expect to see Taako again after the incident in the lab, and disregards the occasional thoughts of him as curiosity, his name still emblazoned in Kravitz’s book next to his death count. This man and his companions should be gibbering mad, should not even exist , and yet.

Then the number changes. Eleven additional deaths in the span of seconds. And that’s nothing compared to the thousands more that come pouring in, not one of them making it to the astral plane, a nightmare of paperwork. There is no protocol for this; they are at a standstill until he learns more, his other bounties on hold.

Taako, Kravitz reasons, is the best person to talk to about this issue, the safest option. He’s unpredictable, to be sure. Dangerous. But less aggressive and more cautious than Burnsides, less likely to want vengeance than Highchurch. And then the not-so-logical reasons that he doesn’t want to dwell on - not even attraction, but this strange sense that Taako is important to him. He can’t find another way to describe it, can’t explain it to himself. 

It doesn’t hurt that he’d called Kravitz handsome, though how serious he was Kravitz can’t be sure. He is disarmingly easy to talk to, and he defends his case like he’s personally taken every last resident of Refuge under his wing, not to mention his companions.

“You’re not touching them. The folks in Refuge or Magnus and Merle,” Taako says mildly, swirling wine in his cup, tone at odds with his unblinking, golden-brown eyes locked on Kravitz. He had reacted the same way to finding Kravitz in his room as he had to all of their encounters in the Miller lab: by laughing at him, which only served to fluster Kravitz more. Smile sharp as a knife, but it doesn’t make it to his eyes, something dull and dead behind them, some drawn curtain that Kravitz can’t see past.

He’d hung up his hat and poured half a bottle of wine into a comically large mug before offering Kravitz the rest. The mug Kravitz holds now is green, hand-painted with images of cacti, and reads Plant Daddy in a cursive font ; he desperately does not want to know why. Taako is caked in dust from the desert and there are dark circles under his eyes and he keeps gnawing at his bottom lip until it’s raw. Kravitz fights the odd urge to wipe a smear of mud off his arched eyebrow.

“Just want you to know that; it’s not up for debate,” Taako goes on. “They don’t need to know you were here and you don’t need to go anywhere near them.”

Kravitz raises his eyebrows. Taako is not in a position to be making demands, but either he’s unaware or he doesn't care. Kravitz suspects the latter. Taako is cartoonish, absurd, but not a fool. But it is endearing, his cold ferocity, this protective streak. Kravitz is not here to fight, after all, only to understand what the hell happened down in Refuge. In particular, he doesn’t want to fight Taako, and the reasons behind that are becoming more uncomfortably personal by the second, but he’s first and foremost a professional, so - “As long as the information you’ve given me adds up, I won’t have a reason to.” 

Taako takes a long, slow sip of his wine, watching Kravitz from over the rim of his cup, which might have looked either seductive or intimidating if he were drinking from anything other than a mug with rainbow stripes that reads Kiss Me, I’m Gay. Kravitz takes a drink too, mimicry to set Taako at ease. It’s not good wine - far too sweet - but he doesn’t complain.

Taako replies, tone brittle, “Good. Because they’re mine. And I will hurt you very, very badly if you try to take them from me. Capiche?” Gesturing sharply with the hand that holds his cup, sloshing a little wine over the edge and onto his mauve skirt - or it was mauve before the layers of red grime; it falls just above bare, knobbly knees that Kravitz can’t seem to stop looking at.

“I don’t want to take any of you,” Kravitz assures him, dragging his eyes back up; he hopes he’s imagining Taako’s knowing smirk. Taako, on the other hand, isn’t making any effort to hide the way he looks Kravitz up and down like he’s something he wants to steal out of a shop window. “I’m just - I’m not here to collect on any bounty, just looking for information. You have to understand, there’s no precedence for what just happened, there’s no - no protocol for this, the Raven Queen - and Istus too, probably - need to come to a decision. But there are no bounties on your heads as of right now.”

“And if that changes?”

He’s always been something of a gambler. Kravitz can’t help but flash a grin. “Then I’ll give you a head start.”

Taako laughs, and seems to surprise himself with it, his eyes lighting up for the first time this evening. It shouldn’t affect Kravitz as much as it does, shouldn't give him butterflies of all things. Taako appraises him for a long moment that makes Kravitz want to sink into the floor, but then he relaxes back against the couch, legs crossed. “Tight. You wanna get wasted?”

“Pardon?” Kravitz chokes on his drink.

“I got harder stuff stashed somewhere, s’not great but whatever, it’s all key lime gogurt to me -” he goes on before Kravitz can even begin to parse that statement - “and you’re cute, in a creepy kinda way, and this hell brain ain’t gonna let me sleep any time soon what with the extreme trauma I’ve just been through and all, sooo - whaddaya say we see how much liquor we can get through before sunrise? Cause this, uh, this is a long fuckin’ story, my man.”

He honestly has no idea what answer is going to come out of his mouth before he feels a familiar tug right at the center of him - a summons. His queen is calling and he is compelled to go to her, no matter how much he wants to stay. Stay and maybe try to help Taako, if he can, that bit about the trauma of death tugging at his heartstrings - it’s all too familiar. 

“Tempting,” he says, and it is , because aside from his concern, he suspects that it would actually be incredibly fun to spend the evening drinking excessively with Taako. Maybe more so in a different context, when the elf isn’t blatantly trying to numb whatever it is he’s been through that he isn’t talking about. It's not often that a mortal has any interest in spending time with him, and Goddess help him, he likes this terror of an elf. Likes him entirely too much. “But I’ll have to take a rain check. Duty calls and all that.”

“Aww.” Taako slumps back into the couch, ears drooping low. He must be incredibly tired, that’s obvious from the dark shadows under his eyes, but trying valiantly to fight it off. 

Kravitz has died before. He can only imagine the kinds of bad dreams that would come from eleven deaths in the span of what to the rest of the world was about forty-five minutes. Kravitz wants to ask if Taako is okay, wants to ask if he can help somehow, but he doubts it would be appreciated, and anyway, the answer is surely a resounding no. How could he be unchanged, what does that do to a man’s soul? 

The call of the Raven Queen grows more insistent. He fumbles through retrieving his phone of farspeech, passing it to Taako. “But, ah - we do need to continue this conversation. Sooner rather than later, I hope.”

Taako’s crooked grin returns. He fiddles with the stone and tosses it back with a wink. “Then I guess I’ll be seeing you, handsome.”

“Is that a threat or a promise?”

Taako’s grin doesn’t fade but it turns sharp, a little wicked. Dangerous. “I don’t make promises.”

He leaves Taako’s room that night with Taako’s stone of farspeech frequency, a plan to call tomorrow, and this sudden and deep and uncomfortable knowledge of his own isolation. Wishing for more time, just a little more, in a way that is normally far removed from his current existence. 

He spends the night’s work distracted, looking forward to a meeting with not quite an enemy but not quite a friend, more eagerly than he has any right to. 

Business or pleasure, Kravitz asks, and Taako feels like there’s something bubbling up in him, threatening to overflow, something so overpowering he hardly notices the static that builds up between his ears when he looks at Kravitz, when their hands brush as they walk side by side.

It takes him far too long to recognize the feeling as joy. Pretty pathetic that he barely knows what to do with it. 

“Yeah, I mean, a little of both, my man.” Taako nearly giggles, it feels ridiculous. And amazing. He almost hates it except for how he doesn’t at all. And Kravitz trying for restraint, this whole gentleman act, but he’s clearly just as thrilled to be here, just as nervous, fuck. “You know, it’s been a while out here.” 

What the fuck am I doing? he wonders, taking Death on a date had been a joke, he doesn't know when this stopped being a joke. Maybe when Kravitz actually agreed to meet him at the stupid wine and pottery place. Maybe when he laughed at Taako's stupid jokes and smiled at him across the table, when he didn't move away when their knees bumped or when Taako touched his hand. He's gorgeous and funny and the weirdest person Taako has ever met (something like a person, anyway) and he wants... something. Wants to keep making reasons for Kravitz to smile at him. It's so gay he nearly gags.

Maybe it's just been too long, maybe he's just desperate for anything. But everything in him is screaming to chase this. Just like when he took the job with Magnus and Merle, just like when he picked up the umbra staff in that cave - a terrifying impulse, but one he felt he had to follow, one that whispers trust this, trust him. 

His report to the Raven Queen regarding the undead presence that interrupted their evening is brief, and he doesn't have enough information to start hunting it down just yet. So after he departs from the Raven Queen’s audience chambers he finds himself in his quarters (hardly a bedroom, he hasn't slept in a hundred years or so, after a while it seemed like a waste of time) still holding his lopsided vase, unsure of what to do with himself, now, untethered. He sets the vase down on an end table, wonders if flowers could survive in the Astral Plane or if he will have to settle for fake ones to fill it. He wonders if he should buy Taako flowers, next time. He wonders if there will be a next time. He sighs and sits down, tapping bony fingers on the arm of his chair, all nervous energy and uncertainty and wanting things he’s not even sure he’s allowed to think of yet.

Kravitz touches the back of his own hand absently. It's maddening, but he can't for the life of him stop thinking about Taako’s hands on his hands on cool wet clay, standing much closer than was strictly necessary; Taako leaning heavy on his side as they walked together, wine drunk and warm and laughing; the first time in a very long time someone had touched him with any affection. Gods above. It has maybe been two hours since he’d seen Taako and all he wants in this world is to pick up where they had been interrupted, though he has no idea what trajectory they’re hurtling down.

He looks at his stone of farspeech like it has some kind of answer for him. They didn't have this sort of thing when he was alive and in any sort of position to date, dating as a concept didn’t exist, you would write letters and those took time, you really had to think about them, and then wait maybe weeks for a reply.  He doesn't know what sort of nonsense he would spout if he just called Taako now, it would be absurd.

Was this even a date? It had felt like one. He’d stuttered through complimenting Taako’s hair, and Taako had seemed pleased with himself, grinned with all his teeth and flipped the shiny gold waves over his shoulder (Kravitz was captivated by the way it caught the light, like a crow with a stolen bit of jewelry). “Thanks, sweetheart. It takes a lot of work to look this good,” he’d said with a flutter of pale eyelashes. 

Probably a date, then. Or maybe Taako is just like that with everyone?  

What if Taako waiting for him to call? Is this some social faux pas he isn't aware of? What the hell is he doing, pining away like this, for someone he saw only a little while ago? Not that he’d known well what to do with feelings like this, the kind that well up in your lungs and your mouth and leave you breathless, when he was alive. He’d died young, and even before that - too sickly, and then too shy and strange, too focused on his craft, for most people to show him more than a passing interest. Terrified of all the time he had wasted, the end hurtling ever closer, and ever waiting for something or someone unknown, sure that when it came along he would know it, still searching until his last moments. 

He hadn't known that it would feel like this once he found it, so all-consuming. 

He nearly drops his stone when it starts to hum and glow blue, Taako’s frequency - who else would have reason to call him - and he stares at it for a moment in absurd panic before answering. 

“Sup, Bones.” Unmistakably Taako, though his voice is tinny and high over the distance. 

“Hi, Taako,” Kravitz says, smiling despite himself. Gods. He is so far gone it's ridiculous.

“Uh - I just wanted to apologize again for the umbrella thing? It’s going hangwire like constantly lately, I don’t know what’s up.”

Kravitz doesn’t know what to make of the umbrella either. It had seemed to have a mind of it’s own, flinging itself at Kravitz almost like it was trying to get his attention, eventually firing off some spell of its own accord - not aimed at either of them but at the ground, starting to burn a mark into the grass before Taako finally wrestled back control of it. 

“No harm done,” he assures Taako. “You really ought to have it checked for curses, though, before it backfires and hurts you.”

“It’s just protective. Anyway, sorry again. I know it's probably too soon to call, but fuck it, y’know, live like you’re dying. Maybe this is weird. Is it weird? Well, now it is, damn it, sizzled this one right up.” His voice keeps going higher as he rambles, clearly nervous.

Any other time, Kravitz would be deeply interested in exploring what that umbrella actually is, but he’s entirely too distracted. “I was actually having a mild crisis about whether or not it was too soon to call you. I haven’t done this in a while. Not sure what the rules are.” Taako cackles; his laughter is not pretty but it’s charming in its own way, and though Kravitz can feel his cheeks growing warm he’s still smiling, so. “What’s so funny?”

“I don’t know! You’re a lot , you know that?”

Though there’s no one in the room to see him grinning like a fool, he can’t help but set the stone down and cover his face with his hands. “You’re one to talk,” he teases.


“I am generally baffled by your entire existence.”

“Mm. That’s what all the boys say.” 

Kravitz can’t remember ever laughing as much as he has tonight. The night doesn’t feel at all like it’s over yet, feels like they should have had hours stretching ahead of them, the kind of night where you stay up too late just talking. “I want to see you again,” he admits quietly, before nerves can get the better of him.

A brief and devastating moment of silence buzzes over the frequency before the sparkle of Taako’s soft, nervous laughter comes through. “Like - right now?”

Yes, he wants to say immediately, yes yes yes. Yes, I want to see you, I want to know you, I want to know why I feel like I already do. “Well,” he says, and he doesn’t know how to continue. 

“Cause, um. The boys are both out... somewhere, who fuckin’ knows, no one tells me anything - so. If you want.”

If you want. Kravitz swallows. It’s late at night in the material plane, he knows; it was late already when they stumbled away from the Chug ‘n’ Squeeze. And Taako was up, and thinking of him. 

He asks, “Is that what you want?”

A puff of breath, almost a sigh. It feels like there’s something stuck to the inside of Kravitz’s lungs, crawling up his throat; anticipation, dread, desire. “Yeah,” Taako admits, quiet.

“Would your umbrella approve?” He can’t help but tease.

Gods , shut up and get over here before I come to my senses.”

He has a rift open before he even hangs up the stone. Bending space and reality to his convenience just to see a man he barely knows as soon as possible. He steps into the common area of the apartment Taako shares with the others, dimly lit except in the kitchenette, where Taako stands, blinking at him. A little radio sits on the counter, turned down low, playing some quiet song Kravitz doesn't know. He’s wearing oven mitts and an apron, both of which say Sizzle It Up! in a gaudy, carnivalesque typeface on the front, holding a wooden spatula; gone are the gauzy, near-transparent shirt and the too-short shorts he’d worn on their date. Home for the evening, he’s pinned his hair up into a loose, frizzy bun at the back of his head, changed into plain black leggings and a loose shirt, it’s sleeve hanging off one broad, sharp shoulder. 

He’s stunning. Kravitz is absolutely fucked.

“You really meant now, huh,” Taako laughs, slipping off the oven mitts and tossing them on the counter. “Forgetting something?” 

Kravitz fumbles to put away the scythe, letting it drift away into smoke. Catches sight of his own hand and swears under his breath; he hadn’t ever shifted back from his skeletal form - no reason to pay any mind to such negligible things as his body , in the Astral Plane - so now he’s here in full Reaper glory in Taako’s living room. “Shit,” he says. “I’m so sorry, here, I’ll just…” 

He concentrates a moment on his body, muscle then skin then everything that makes that skin his, he could probably look different if he liked but this is the body he had in life, vitiligo and scars and all, and he can't bear the idea of giving it up. He’s still in the suit he wore to the Chug ‘n’ Squeeze and strangely aware of that fact, of the trace of clay on his pants leg and the way the smell of wine and Taako seemed to linger on him even through trips back and forth through the Astral Plane. More aware of his physical form, of himself as a corporeal object, than he has been in a very long time.

“Sorry,” he says again, suddenly sure than this whole thing has been a mistake, that he should have at least stopped to buy flowers or something. “I - you don’t want to see me like that, all… bones. This is foolish of me, I should just go -”

“Do you eat?”


“Do,” Taako gestures at him with the spatula in his hand, “you eat ?”  

“Um,” Kravitz says lamely, startled out of his desire to run away. “I can? I don't have to. Undead and all that. But I can. I like to?”

“Undead,” Taako repeats, and nibbles at his lower lip. “Can’t die again, yeah?”

“Yes?” Wary, because he has no idea what that has to do with anything. Taako turns away from him, picks something up from the counter. He steps around the island counter and up to Kravitz, standing in the center of the room feeling utterly lost, no idea what his state of being has to do with whatever Taako is cooking. 

“I like your bones, Bones,” Taako assures him with a wink that makes Kravitz’s knees turn to jelly, holding something out for him to take. “But I need your tongue for this - heh, that’s what she said - uh, tell me if the almond butter comes through, alright?”

It’s a cookie, still warm from the oven, dotted with chunks of chocolate. Kravitz takes a slow bite, tries to channel this horrid awareness of his physicality into something good, like trying to taste every hint of almond in the cookie. Taako watches, unblinking, holding his breath. Looking like he’s waiting for something terrible to happen. The cookie is gooey and sweet and perfect .

“That's amazing,” he says, mouth full, and the breath Taako was holding is released. He swallows the bite and adds, “I mean, I haven't had a cookie in… a long time, so I don't know if my opinion is worth much, but it’s really good. Almond butter?”

“Mhm. Allergic to peanuts,” he adds as he turns away, back to the oven to pick up a cookie for himself, taking a small, strangely careful bite. He thinks a moment as he chews, then nods, setting it aside. Delayed slightly, Kravitz’s face warms at Taako’s comment - probably unthinking, offhand, but. He likes Kravitz’s bones, even. Taako continues, “Wasn’t sure what that hot bod was made of, for all I know you drink blood or something -”

“I’m sorry, did you think I’m a vampire?” Kravitz snorts.

“You have a particular aesthetic,” Taako says, which, true. “Which I am very into, no doubt - so, uh, how long is a long time?”

Kravitz takes another nibble of the cookie, thinking back. “...Twenty years?”

“Jeezy creezy, you don't get out much, huh?” Taako half-grins at him as he says it, glancing over his shoulder. “What, you and your ghost buddies don’t go out for drinks after work? Basic social bonding activity, my dude, you ever go out for fucking brunch ?” 

“Not a ghost either,” Kravitz mumbles. He thinks he’s blushing and he didn’t realize his blood circulated enough for that. Taako’s not wrong, Kravitz’s social life pretty much consists of a goddess of death and restless souls and not much else until very recently, but he can’t help but feel like he’s done something wrong. 

Taako seems to pick up on his discomfort and pauses, glancing between Kravitz and the bowl of cookie dough, and softens a little. “Um. You wanna help?”

And so he finds himself standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Taako in a kitchenette on the moon, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, making little hatch-marks on the dough with a fork as Taako places them on the baking sheets, just as he has been shown how. It is perhaps the most delightfully mundane activity Kravitz has participated in in as long  as he can remember , watching each tray go into the oven, smelling the cookies as they bake, every light brush against Taako when they move. The radio plays on, surrounding them with acoustic guitar and a lilting Elvish voice. Conversation comes easily as they work together, just as it had earlier in the evening before they’d been interrupted. Softer here, though, alone in the dark apartment, no one but Kravitz around for Taako to put on a performance for. He doesn’t smile as much, but when he does it’s real instead of a shield to keep Kravitz disarmed and at a distance. It isn’t that they don’t joke together, but for Taako, Kravitz realizes, taking their time together seriously is something like a sign of trust.

“Don’t even know why I started making these,” Taako laughs at himself, shaking his head. They have to bake the cookies in batches, he made so much dough. “Just got excited, I guess? Stupid.” 

“I didn't know you cooked,” Kravitz says, and Taako’s hands still for a moment before he goes on rolling the dough in his palms. He moves like he’s accustomed to sharing a kitchen with someone.

“I don't,” he says. 

“No?” Kravitz looks at him sideways. He doesn’t know what Sizzle It Up is - he isn’t exactly up to date on popular culture - but he doubts that anyone who doesn't cook would own an apron with their face on it.

“Nope.” His ears laying flat, their tips twitching ever so slightly, nothing Kravitz would notice if he weren't looking. He rolls every single cookie exactly the same size with practiced ease, places them evenly spaced on the tray, like he’s done this hundreds of times. There’s something under the surface that Kravitz doesn't quite dare to dig for now, some crack in this veneer that Taako has put around himself. Kravitz wants terribly to know every single thing about him, doesn't know where to begin.

“You should,” Kravitz says instead. “You’re very good.”

He catches the hint of a smile before Taako bites his lips to hide it. “Ch’yeah, okay, mister hasn’t-eaten-cookies-in-fifty-years, you’re such an authority.”

“Twenty,” he corrects. “Ah, but you’ve reintroduced me to the world of sweets, now I can never go back. You’ve ruined me.”

“Mm. Flattery will get you absolutely everywhere.”

“Will it get me another cookie?”

“You can dream a little bigger than that, darlin’.”

Darling. Kravitz likes that. He likes it a lot. Before he can even process the impulse Kravitz ducks in, pressing the briefest, lightest of pecks to Taako’s cheek. The tips of Taako’s ears - standing straight up, now, he’s never known an elf with such long, expressive ears - immediately turn bright pink, a giggle bubbling from his lips before he can quash it.  He grabs a cookie from the cooling tray and shoves it into Kravitz’s mouth, shoulders pinned up to his ears but fighting back a smile. Adorable. He would never have described the elf he met in the Miller lab as adorable - grating, frustrating, baffling maybe - but getting to see Taako like this, soft and open, feels like a rare blessing. 

The last tray full, Taako slips the sheet into the oven, double checks the temperature, and closes the door. Silent, for a moment, glancing up at Kravitz through hooded eyes before he turns to the sink and washes his hands. 

“I’m… glad you came back,” he says, carefully, like the shape of the words feel strange in his mouth, like he’s testing them out. Avoiding eye contact, all of the sudden, something in him trying to close itself off.

“I’m glad you asked me,” Kravitz says. He dares to reach breach that fragile wall between them, just a brush of fingers against the top of his hand like Taako’s fingers had brushed his as they worked the clay together. Taako looks to where their skin touches, the contrast of Kravitz's rich dark brown and Taako’s freckle-dusted bronze, and doesn't move away. His fingers curl slightly into the dish towel. “I like being here with you,” Kravitz adds.

He expects Taako to laugh at him, but he looks more serious than Kravitz has ever seen him, even in battle, even when negotiating for his soul. Searching Kravitz's face for any hint of trickery. “Yeah?” He asks warily.

“More than is probably reasonable.”

Taako shakes his head, turns his hand over so that he can clasp Kravitz's palm. Kravitz sees a dusting of flour in his hair, a smudge of it on his cheekbone, and something in his chest feels broken at that, somehow, and he doesn't have a clue why Taako affects him so much.

“I just - really want to kiss you, is the thing,” Taako says with a laugh and a shake of his head. Kravitz nearly moves to do so, he can’t stop looking at Taako’s lips, pink and a little ragged from being bitten so constantly. He wants so much. But Taako is watching him still, at once so carefully guarded and so vulnerable.

“Why haven’t you?” He asks. Taako's cheeks have turned a mesmerizing shade of pink.

“I - shit, I don't - I’m no good at this,” Taako says. His tongue darts out to wet his lips. “Wasn't lying when I said it’s been a while.”

Kravitz squeezes his hand. “Shockingly, the social life for an undead aspect of the goddess of death is practically non-existent. I don't know what I’m doing either. If this is too much I’ll back off, but I… I really do care about you, Taako.”

Taako has shifted closer to him, now. Only a little. He’s shorter than Kravitz but not by terribly much, and slight, long-limbed and bony but never fragile; his hair attempting to break free of its bun, a loose curl tucked behind his ear. His eyes dart down to Kravitz's mouth and linger a moment too long, stealing Kravitz's breath. “You wouldn't, though, if you knew me at all.”

“Hmm, too late.”

Taako does laugh, but it’s - twisted, bitter, and he bites down on it before it fully leaves him. “No, look, this isn’t - I’m not a good person, alright?”

“That isn’t true.”

“I'm - I’m selfish, I’m mean, I’m a liar and I’m fine with all that, I’m not the kind of guy that people - that you should -”

“Someone hurt you,” Kravitz says softly. Taako watches him and doesn't answer, face carefully blank. “Didn’t they? Someone taught you that there's something wrong with you, that somehow you're broken.” He looks down at where their hands are still clasped; Taako hasn't made a move to pull away, in fact his grip tightens. Kravitz continues, murmuring, “I’m sorry for that, truly. But you wouldn’t be trying to scare me off if you were as selfish as you think. You wouldn’t care what I think of you.”

Taako swallows. “You don't know anything about me.” His voice small, quiet, but he doesn’t tell Kravitz he’s wrong. He doesn’t step away, or let go of Kravitz’s hand.

“But I want to. If you’d have me.”

Taako’s mouth falls open, then closes without a sound, his eyes wide. Perhaps, it now occurs to Kravitz, that was all a little on the nose, but he hasn’t been able to stop thinking about what Taako had said, back there - I’m afraid no one else will have me. Kravitz hadn’t said so then but he’d understood exactly what Taako meant, has felt it acutely over his long existence. Knows how horrible a thing it is, to think yourself unwanted. I will, he’d wanted to say then, I will, I will. But the moment had passed and it was too soon anyway. Feeling too much, afraid of what it meant.

It’s only been a few hours. It’s still too soon.

“That was too forward of me,” Kravitz says, casting his eyes down to the floor. “I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s… It’s not,” Taako says quickly, drawing Kravitz’s gaze back to him. “It’s not.” His eyes fall to where their hands are still clasped, and he swallows. “I don't think I know, yet, what this is. What I want from you.”

“Alright,” Kravitz says softly. He thinks he can work with that. He thinks that he could give Taako anything if he asked.

“But.” Taako takes a breath, and meets his eyes again. Pupils wide and dark. “I just know I want something .”

That, Kravitz understands intimately, the uncertainty and the wanting and the tug on his soul. He doesn't know this man, didn't even know he cooked, until tonight, doesn't know what’s hidden behind his dead-eyed smiles or why he feels the need to lie so much or why he’s honest with Kravitz of all people. But Taako has smiled at him and laughed with him tonight and every time, every single time, his eyes have glittered like starlight and Kravitz has felt longing the likes of which he can't remember knowing; longing and recognition of something in Taako, old and deep and long forgotten, something that recognizes Kravitz in turn and reaches out to him. 

He steps closer. Taako watches him, doesn’t move. Even from here Kravitz can feel the warmth of his body.

“Maybe we can figure that out together,” Kravitz says, quietly hopeful.

When Taako kisses him he tastes like butter and almonds and chocolate, and his lips linger still for too long as if fighting between pulling away and pressing closer. Losing the battle, he chooses the latter, head tilted up just so, an elegant curve to his long neck. A hand settles on Kravitz’s chest, fingers curled hesitantly in the collar of his shirt. A soft gasp or maybe the beginning of a laugh when he pulls away, just for a second, before diving back in. 

He smells divine, sugar and vanilla and flour, the hint of something floral in his hair. Kravitz’s hands move up Taako’s arms, over pointy elbows and firm on his shoulders, finally, gently to his face, to cradle his jaw and draw him in closer. Taako moves forward and Kravitz steps back with him until he’s crowded back against the countertop, its edge digging into his back. Taako’s palms against the counter, a cage around his body. He makes a small sound against Taako’s mouth, lips parting, and Taako shivers under his hands. 

“Cold boy,” Taako laughs, their faces still close, Taako’s breath warm on Kravitz’s mouth. His long nose nudges at Kravitz's cheek; instead of jerking away from the cold like so many do, he seems to instinctively move toward it.

“Sorry,” he whispers. Their lips nearly brush. “I know it's weird.”

“I like weird.” Taako tilts his head and kisses him again, his tongue teasing the seam of Kravitz’s lips and Kravitz is hungry for it, for all of this, for Taako’s body and his hands and his warmth, for the sound of his laughter, and grateful for the way Taako just accepts every bizarre thing about him, the bones and the cold. “Warm you up,” Taako mumbles, and a hand slides down to Kravitz's back, lower still to slip into his back pocket to shift him in even closer.

Kravitz cups the back of Taako’s head in his hand and kisses him hard as their hips slot together easy as breathing, easy as anything. Taako’s teeth nipping at his bottom lip and then the upper. A hot, hard length against his thigh. Carefully, testing the waters, he rocks his hips up and is delighted when Taako grinds into him without hesitation; he moans, broken, into Taako’s mouth.

“Oh, babe ,” Taako coos, slowly rolling his hips, the barest movement yet somehow absolutely maddening. He grins, heavy-lidded, pupils dark. “Been a long time, hasn’t it?”

Yes.” Kravitz doesn’t bother with reticence, figures it must be rather obvious. He’s dizzy with Taako’s closeness, the warmth and the smell of him, living and breathing and hot under his hands; he’d forgotten it could feel like this, that he could want someone so much. It’s been so long.

Taako pulls back just enough to look at him a moment, hungry and questioning, a question answered in the needy grasp of Kravitz’s hands. “Hoo boy, okay, think I know what I want from you after all, Bones,” he murmurs, a glint of white teeth in an almost cruel grin, the hand in Kravitz's pocket squeezing playfully. “Figured it all out, solved your sexy puzzle -”


“I don’t know, shut up , you’re too hot it’s making me stupid.” He ducks his head to press wet, messy kisses up Kravitz’s throat, nuzzling under his jaw.

“What do you want?” Kravitz’s voice is unexpectedly rough, and he wonders if Taako can hear the useless pounding of his heart. Taako hums in response, pulling Kravitz closer in a slow, almost lazy rut against each other, but he wants to know, wants to hear it from Taako’s lips; he kisses the spot below Taako’s ear, nips softly at his neck, all this skin, unexplored territory. “Tell me,” he murmurs in Taako’s ear.

Jesus,” Taako gasps, going all shuddery and boneless at Kravitz’s breath so close to his ear and oh Kravitz likes that, nibbles at Taako’s earlobe just to hear him gasp again, and his hand twists at the back of Kravitz’s shirt. He expects coyness, expects to have to tease it out of him, but instead - “Whatever you’ll give me,” Taako says, quiet but sure.

Kravitz can't help but tighten his arms around Taako, crushing their bodies together, it's all objectively too fast, he didn’t expect this tonight, didn’t expect anything from Taako but it feels inevitable, somehow, that they have ended up here, every place they touch burning. Kravitz kisses him again because he can’t bear not to, tongues sliding and teeth clacking together until he nearly loses himself in it, but he gathers just enough presence of mind steady himself. To murmur, breathless, “Maybe not in the kitchen?”

“Shit.” Taako blinks, unfocused, like he’s only just realized where they are, that though they’re alone now that could change at any moment. He hesitates, considers Kravitz for a long moment. Eyes wide and round and dark, mouth red and wet; Kravitz can’t remember ever wanting anything as much as he wants Taako right now. “You gonna get called away again?”

“No.” He’ll beg another reaper to cover for him, if it comes to it. He hasn’t ditched work in a century, he can get away with it.

“So you could stay?”

He nods, too eager, embarrassingly so. Taako already has him, as far as he’s concerned, whatever he wants of him. Taako laughs, a moment of raw delight as his head falls forward to rest on Kravitz’s collarbone. Kravitz’s fingers travel up the length of his spine, eyes drifting closed. “You are... a lot,” he says, fondly this time, rather than baffled. He pulls just far enough out of the circle of Kravitz’s arms to turn the knob on the oven to off - lucky, because Kravitz had absolutely forgotten the cookies - and then comes back. “Think I like it.”

“I like you,” Kravitz says back, far too turned on to be creative. Something in Taako’s eyes turns almost sad; Kravitz wonders if Taako even realizes how much shows in his face. 

But his hand is tugging on Kravitz’s tie, leading him away, and Kravitz happily follows. Follows through a doorway into a now familiar bedroom, the same room he’d met Taako in after his return from Refuge; still a wreck, clothes tossed over the back of his chair and the loveseat where Kravitz had sat and drank his wine, the bed more of a nest of pillows than anything. The lights are dim and Taako takes a breath. A long look between them, and Taako’s hand in his, and something fierce and determined burning behind his eyes.

“You’re so beautiful,” Kravitz breathes - and watches, equally fascinated and amused, as Taako face goes red, to the tips of his ears. 

“I mean - yeah, natch, I knew that, took you long enough to catch up,” Taako rambles, refusing to meet Kravitz’s eye. “And uh, right back at ya, for the record, um -”

“Too much?”

No, shower me in praise, thank you very much. Just. You know. Been a minute since -” Taako fidgets and looks around the room, until Kravitz holds him still, hands rubbing up and down his arms. He laughs at himself and finally looks back up, back at Kravitz. “It’s been a minute,” he finishes, with that quiet honesty Kravitz is coming to treasure, shrugging one shoulder.

“For me, too.” Quite the understatement. It’s different, here in his room, than it was in the kitchen. The air feels thick with potential, with things Kravitz doesn’t know how to say yet. He brushes those stray hairs out of Taako’s face again, watching for any sign at all that Taako has changed his mind. “Can I - ?”

Taako doesn’t wait for Kravitz to move first, coming up on his toes and pulling Kravitz down to meet him, no preamble of chastity, none of the restraint that Kravitz now realizes they had shown before; Taako devours him, stepping back and back until his knees hit the edge of the mattress and they fall together in an undignified heap. Taako kisses him and kisses him and kisses him until there is nothing left but the heat and the ache of Kravitz’s mouth and the tangle of their limbs in the sheets and the heat, the sweet sounds that pour from Taako’s lips and the cries that Kravitz muffles in the crook of Taako’s neck.  Wrapping himself around Taako and holding him tight, craving that living warmth that he had nearly forgotten, but longed for still, deep in some part of him he couldn’t reach.  

Taako’s body trembles, after, and he closes his eyes tight and is quiet. But he tucks himself close, small in the circle of Kravitz’s arms. He lets Kravitz hold him, in his room, in his bed.

 In that space between awake and asleep, for just a second, it all feels so familiar.

Always restless in meditation, as long as he can remember, Taako isn’t surprised when he’s called back to consciousness after a little while - a weight across his middle, a sigh as the man in his bed nuzzles his cheek against Taako’s bare shoulder and drapes himself over him. What does surprise him is how he simply curls closer to Kravitz like it hasn’t been ages since he had someone to warm his bed (well, not warm in this case). Like he always wakes up this way instead of alone.

It was late when they tumbled into bed together, still hours until morning now. Taako breathes in deep, once, twice, turns slowly so as not to disturb Kravitz’s embrace too much, to look at his face in the grayscale of darkvision - smooth in sleep, lips slightly parted, his lashes a fan against his cheek. Without a thought Taako touches his fingertips to the pillow-soft pout of those lips. He wonders how old Kravitz is, really. Wonders, morbidly, how he died. Who is he, under the feathered cloak, behind the scythe? He thinks he’d caught a glimpse of him last night - accidentally let Kravitz catch a glimpse of him too, standing in the quiet of the kitchen, flour caught in their hair, and Taako had quietly, equal parts hopeful and afraid, thought that he could be happy like this, just like this.

He hadn’t known, when he turned their business meeting into a date, that they would end up here. This is not what he does. Not the version of himself that he chooses to put out to the world. Somehow Kravitz had seen right through his bullshit, easily dismantled him, and he doesn’t know why he isn’t more afraid of it. He feels simultaneously more like himself and like a stranger, with Kravitz here.

“Krav,” he says, whispering and then louder, because his thoughts are getting too loud. He needs to do something. Kravitz stirs under the brush of Taako’s fingers over his lips, then his chin and the sharp line of his jaw. “I’m bored. You awake?”

“Am now,” he mumbles. Those lips curve into a smile and he turns his face, eyes still closed, touching feather-light kisses to Taako’s fingertips.

There’s a tightness in Taako’s chest that doesn't fit, sharp and aching longing, like missing someone long lost. He really had wanted to scare Kravitz off, last night, to keep him at that safe, familiar distance. Get the leaving over with before it had a chance to hurt.

Except for how he doesn’t want that at all.

He kisses Kravitz’s jaw and then sits up out of his embrace and slithers down the bed. The sheets and pillows are a tangled wreck that he kicks to the floor as he goes, as he settles on his belly between Kravitz’s long, naked legs. “Tell me if I should stop,” Taako murmurs, nuzzling his cheek against the inside of Kravitz's thigh for no reason other than that it’s another way to touch him. Palms smooth up his legs, tickling the dark hair there - endlessly fascinating to Taako, elves have very little in the way of body hair but it's everywhere on Kravitz, arms and chest and in a trail down to his soft belly. Kravitz’s breath hitches, his legs falling open in a silent invitation to continue. Taako kisses a patch of white skin on the inside of Kravitz’s right knee, then another higher on his thigh, delighting in how he tenses as Taako’s lips and teeth pass over a sensitive spot.

“Taako,” Kravitz sighs, voice low and nearly reverent. He continues his exploration, moving now to the other leg, tongue tracing the crease of his hip and making him shudder. “ Oh, that’s…”

“I’ve got you, handsome,” Taako breathes, nipping at the soft point of Kravitz’s hip bone. “I got you.” And all at once he doesn’t want to tease anymore, doesn’t want to wait. Just wants Kravitz, who had delighted in taking him apart last night with that gorgeous mouth of his, those musician’s hands. He wants to overwhelm him. Still moving slow when he finally takes Kravitz between his lips, the barely-soft length of him hardening quick in his warm mouth, and Kravitz gasps, quiet and broken and something in the sound breaks Taako’s heart. Eyes closed because he’s not sure he can bear it if he looks up, like something fragile will shatter if he sees Kravitz watching him. Like this, he can lose himself in the taste and the smell and the need. He can disappear into the weight on his tongue, all the planes and angles of him, hands stretching up to spread over abdomen and rib cage and pin him down.

Kravitz is quiet but his breath comes heavy, and his legs tremble as they cradle Taako’s body, his hips twitching gently up until he forces himself still. Such a gentleman . A hand reaches down and fingertips come to touch Taako’s cheek, feathery brushes across his brow and jaw as his mouth works around Kravitz’s cock, finally settling at his ears, a fingertip tracing the long delicate edge. Taako can't help but make a small sound, muffled, sensitive ears twitching at the touch, there's a moment when he’s afraid Kravitz will do something cruel like yank on them but of course he’s gentle, keeps running his fingers from the tip down, and Taako relaxes slowly, leaning into it.

“Is that good?” Kravitz whispers, voice rough, gods, just from this, just from what Taako is doing to him. His ears are so sensitive, Kravitz’s fingers on them sending sparks all down his spine. His own cock is trapped between his belly and the bed, and it twitches in interest; he rocks his hips for a little friction but leaves it at that. It’s not going to get him off - he’s not even sure he’s looking for that - but fuck, it’s just nice to be touched so thoughtfully. 

His jaw is beginning to ache but rather than stopping he takes Kravitz deeper, swallowing down that bitter-salt taste at the back of his throat and drawing out a sharp gasp. Kravitz’s hand jerks, twists in the sheets and then settles over Taako’s where it splays out over Kravitz's belly, fingers threading together. He gives Taako’s hand a squeeze, and Taako squeezes back.

Taako knows that Kravitz is close when his abdomen begins to tense, when he holds himself still and his breath catches, but Taako doesn’t let up, holds him at the back of his throat until - yes, there. Sweet and bitter as he spills wet warmth into Taako’s mouth, quietly groaning Taako’s name, and fuck he wants to hear that again already, hear it every day. Taako swallows around him, sucking and licking at the head until Kravitz is twitching, trembling under his hands. He wipes his mouth on the inside of Kravitz’s thigh and rests his head on his belly, eyes shut, listening to Kravitz’s breath as it evens out. Kravitz’s hand, the one that isn’t still holding Taako’s, finds its way to his hair, nails dragging over his scalp. He shivers, lets his fingertips press into Kravitz’s hip bones where his hand came to rest. 

“Do you want…” Kravitz begins, voice uneven and still thick with sleep. Taako shakes his head, presses a kiss to Kravitz’s belly, tickled by the soft dusting of hair curling there, so impossibly good, everything about him is so good .

“I’m okay,” he whispers. It’s pleasant to lie here, draped warm over Kravitz, more skin-to-skin contact than Taako has had in longer than he can remember. He’s… fuck, he’s content, and that’s a lot to take in; Taako can’t remember ever in his life feeling content. Realizing it sends him back into a spiral of uncertainty.

“Are you sure?”

“S’fine.” He stays still and listens to Kravitz’s heart as it beats needlessly, settling back into its rhythm, his balance tipped, world crooked on its axis for Kravitz’s presence in it. Wide awake, now, and afraid of how vulnerable he’s made himself - how fucking gay he is, holding hands while giving a blowjob, what the fuck is his life anymore. “Get some more sleep.”

Kravitz hums, hands still moving through his hair, scratching at his scalp like a bird preening another’s feathers. Silent, for a while, but not sleeping; Taako can tell by the pace of his breath. 

“Do you ever…” Kravitz begins, then pauses, searching himself for the right words. He trails his fingers down the straight line of Taako’s spine, and starts again, carefully. Maybe it’s just the slight tickle of Kravitz’s fingers but a shudder runs through Taako, tingly like static. “Have you ever met someone, a stranger, and… somehow you feel you’ve known them all your life? Like… you’ve been looking for them everywhere, being guided toward them, even when you didn't know it?”

For some reason Taako thinks not of meeting Kravitz, but of the temple in Refuge, of endless tangles of silvery, multi-hued thread and the inexplicable touch of a goddess. He thinks of a meeting in a tavern with two idiots, and the last job he’d ever need and a skeleton holding an umbrella -  

He thinks about how there’s this empty place somewhere inside him he can’t reach, that’s always been there, a quiet ache somewhere between his ribs and his heart, and it’s not that Kravitz fills it, exactly, but when Kravitz is here - it seems like he can set it aside, for a little while. 

“Like fate,” he says. It feels like the words are coming from someone else, far away or long ago, a connection his mind won’t quite let him make. He doesn’t really know why he’s thinking of any of this, or why it fills his head with static.

“Something like that.” The odd waver in Kravitz’s voice matches Taako’s.

“Nah,” Taako lies, and somehow knows that Kravitz knows he’s lying, and that it’s alright. “Fuck fate, I’ve got too many prophecies to keep track of as it is.”

Kravitz chuckles, and Taako lifts himself up on his elbows just to watch the way the corners of Kravitz’s eyes crinkle when he smiles. To watch the curious way Kravitz always watches him, a gentleness in his eyes that feels familiar. Feels safe, even. He should never feel safe. He should not want to wake up in the morning holding Kravitz, he shouldn’t have even wanted to ask him to stay. This is what the world has taught him, that there is a kind of brittle safety in the solitude he’s cultivated, willingly or not, and yet. 

And yet he wants this , whatever this is. And what's stopping him from having it, except his own self-sabotage? Why the hell not chase this, fuck the world and all it’s taught him. 

He kisses Kravitz once, slow and sweet and putting into it all the things he can’t make himself say out loud, and he lays his head back down, right at the center of his chest. There’s a heartbeat, just there; he’d wondered if Kravitz would have one, wants to ask how Kravitz’s heart can beat, what really separates him from the living, he wants to know everything about this fascinating creature . He wants far too much from Kravitz far too quickly, but the only way Taako has ever managed to build some semblance of a life for himself - no matter how many times it has fallen apart - is by taking whatever he can get.

“I make a mean hash brown, if you can stick around for breakfast,” Taako says, knowing that Kravitz doesn’t even understand what that gesture means . It’s a bit ridiculous at this point how many times he’s extended their “date,” he probably ought to be embarrassed, but his heart isn’t in it. He doesn’t feel like he has to pretend, with Kravitz, and he doesn’t want this to end yet. He has no doubt it will, but he can stretch it out as long as possible. Until Kravitz tires of him.

“Lovely,” Kravitz says. Taako can practically hear the satisfied grin spreading over Kravitz’s face right now, the glint of white teeth in the real-moonlight creeping through the window. “Whatever happened to ‘I don’t cook’?”

“Heh. Yeah, that’s… hm. Bit of a story, there.”

“I assumed.”

“Not a fun one.”

Kravitz kisses the top of his head, a simple gesture that’s oddly disarming. “You don’t have to say,” Kravitz murmurs, though there’s obvious curiosity in his voice, Taako doubts he’ll leave the subject alone long. It takes everything in Taako not to blurt the story out, that honesty that Kravitz seems to effortlessly drag out of him, he wants to lay himself bare, to shed light into all the dark corners of himself. Here I am, if you’d have me. If you’d just stay.

Maybe another day. For now he shifts so that he’s snuggled up with Kravitz side by side. Kravitz hesitates for a moment, just long enough for Taako to think he’s done something wrong, but he’s just reaching for the blankets to pull them up around them before settling, knees tucked up together. A gentle hand smoothing down Taako’s bare arm and down to his waist before pulling him close. Taako sighs, closes his eyes and tries not to think of much except now, except here, except the soft body in his bed that will still be here when he wakes up. Startlingly eager for the morning, for waking Kravitz with hot coffee and home-cooked food. He’ll deal with reintroducing him to Merle and Magnus if he has to, he’ll follow this road wherever it’s leading them, hand in hand. 

It feels less like a choice and more of an inevitability, but a choice he would make regardless. 

“Get some more sleep,” he mumbles. Kravitz hums, his breath stirring the hair at the back of Taako’s neck, his body slowly warming.

It’s horrific when a goddess smiles. The Raven Queen has a flair for dramatics; her form, if one can call it such, is incomprehensible, and she does very little to make it easier, even for Kravitz she appears as bird, and woman, and shadow, and neither and all. After so long in her service, he’s finally stopped getting a terrible headache when he looks upon her. Her laughter, however, still sends a chill up his spine. She thinks his situation now is very funny indeed.

“Your Majesty ” he says, “The cases of Merle Highchurch, Magnus Burnsides, and Taako Taaco are closed. For the time being, at least.”


He clears his throat. “If their cases should reopen for any reason, I humbly request that a different reaper be assigned to them.”

She’s very close to him, and though he shudders, her presence is not unpleasant to him. He can feel her fondness for him, in her way. He can feel her amusement at this moment acutely. WHY IS THAT, CHILD?

She knows, of course. Kravitz as he exists in undeath is an aspect of her, separate and yet one small part of a great whole, his mortal soul taken into her at the time of his death and shaped like clay into what he is now. She knows the machinations of his soul. She absolutely knows that Kravitz is fucking his bounty and that he’s not even a little sorry about it, and she’s going to make him say it aloud.

Carefully, Kravitz says, “I have become... emotionally compromised, and it would be inappropriate for me to continue working their case, Your Majesty.”

Her laugh is the clicking of a beak, sending shivers through his skeletal body, but she also softens, her smile benevolent, perhaps motherly. HE IS PRECIOUS TO YOU, THE ELF, she says, a fact, not a question.

Kravitz squirms; if he had flesh and blood he would be blushing. “Well, I don’t - that’s moving rather fast, isn't it?”  

NOT SO. YOU HAVE WAITED A LONG TIME. MY LONELY CHILD, she says vaguely, and Kravitz has the distinct sensation that she knows things that he does not, sees things in his soul that are hidden to him, that he’s not sure he wants to know.

She does, however, grant his request.

“The Raven Queen is nervous,” Kravitz admits to Taako one day, sprawled together on his couch, Taako’s legs draped over his lap as he reads a book. An intimacy Kravitz had never expected to have with anyone after he died, but it feels right, with Taako.

Taako glances up, cocks his head to the side; a certain way he tends to look at Kravitz, like he’s a puzzle he hasn’t solved yet. “You can tell that, huh? Got a psychic link with Bird Mom?”

“Don’t call her my mom,” Kravitz winces, but, “Something like that.” It’s difficult to describe. An anxiety building slowly in his chest, in the part of him that is also Her. It’s not just him, which is both reassuring and troubling - everyone is on edge, the souls in the stockade, the other reapers, the ravens both mundane and divine. “It feels like something’s coming. A storm.” 

Taako tosses his book to the floor and opens his arms, and Kravitz goes to him, wrapped up in soft  warm arms and resting his head on Taako’s chest. They’re leaving soon, Taako and his team. They haven’t been given their mission yet but Taako says he just knows when they’re about to be sent out, that his boss is anxious too, working them to the bone to prepare. After Refuge, Kravitz doesn’t entirely want to let him go, but the work is too important to get in the way. World-saving levels of important. He hopes Taako will call, if he’s in danger.

“Good thing I always carry an umbrella then, am I right?” Taako quips, poking at a spot on Kravitz’s side that he’d forgotten is ticklish; it makes him squirm closer. 

Kravitz doesn’t know for sure, but he has the feeling that there are few people in the world that Taako is comfortable touching like this, that perhaps he hasn’t held anyone at all in a long time. But he’s always touching Kravitz in some way, on the occasions they actually get to see each other rather than talking over the stone late into the night. Light brushes of their knuckles when they walk side by side, or a hand at the small of his back as he passes by, or holding him like this. Casual intimacy that feels natural, though he knows it’s actually strange for both of them; Kravitz has never been very comfortable with touch ever since he died. But it’s different with Taako. 

Everything is different, with Taako.

He hides his worry with a kiss, pressed to Taako’s jutting collarbone where it’s exposed by his wide-necked blouse. Angular and lean, but still a softness to his body. Mortal fragilities. There are things he feels he should say, in case Taako is sent out tomorrow, in case he loses his chance, but they feel too big for this small moment, unwieldy, the shape of him and how he fits around Taako’s life still undefined. 

But Taako so rarely lets himself be confined by any sort of definition anyway. Kravitz doesn’t try. He kisses Taako down into the couch cushions instead, his anxiety melting away.

“Been thinking,” Taako says, later. Still sprawled together on the couch, though he’d managed to convince Taako to let him up long enough to retrieve their trousers where they’d been tossed to the floor, in case someone wanders in. It’s rare to have time together at all, rarer still to have a day like this, when their free time manages to align, and they’re dedicated to the cause of doing absolutely nothing with it.

“That’s dangerous,” Kravitz murmurs.

“Shut up.” Taako grins as he pushes at Kravitz’s shoulder, making him sit up so that Taako can look him in the face. “So I’ve died. Allegedly .”

“Mm.” He tries not to tense up. He doesn’t love talking about work with Taako.

“How can you tell ? I mean, I know it’s all in that book, but. I don’t know, does it leave a mark or something?”

“In a way. There’s… a lot of data in a soul, and death certainly has an impact.”

“And you can see that?”

Kravitz shrugs. “Not just by looking at you. There have been occasions where I’ve had to poke and prod at a criminal’s soul to understand the circumstances of their death. Not often.”

“Huh.” Taako ponders that, a little crease between his brows that means he’s deep in thought, buck-teeth tugging at his bottom lip. “I don’t like that this - happened to me, and I know it happened but I still can’t remember it. Like, I remember Refuge and it fucking sucks but at least - you know? Same with the fucking voidfish. The fact that you can just get rid of memories, that fucks me up!”

Kravitz doesn’t like it either. There are gaps in Taako’s memory that he doesn’t even seem to be aware of, but that Kravitz can pick out, if he looks for it. He’ll start a story and get stuck on a detail that doesn’t seem to match up. He moves and speaks as if unconsciously making space for someone who isn’t there. And when he thinks no one is watching there will be a look on his face, so deeply mournful it makes Kravitz’s heart ache for him, but if Kravitz asks what’s wrong Taako won’t know what he’s talking about. He doesn’t know what to do for him - if there’s anything he can do.

“Just - morbidly curious, I guess,” Taako finishes with a shrug. “What the fuck failed to off ol’ Taako like eight times, y’know?”

“I… don’t usually look at living souls,” Kravitz says cautiously. He’s not even sure how much he’d be able to access.  “It won’t be very… comfortable, but I think it’s possible.”

“We don’t have to,” Taako says quickly, reaching for Kravitz’s hand like it’s the most natural thing in the world. “It’s just - this is some big magic stuff, you know, you’re this fuckin’ - crazy powerful being, I’m curious.”

“It’s very…” Kravitz pauses, thinking back to the occasions he’s done this, truly only a handful. Always in the Astral Plane, with already deceased souls - rehabilitation can require delving into some deep, dark memories, sometimes traumatic enough that the deceased can’t even access them on their own. He doesn’t know if that’s what’s happened to Taako. “Intimate.”

“Oh really? ” Taako waggles his eyebrows.

“Not like that!”

“Mm, not with that attitude.”


He waves a hand. “Just messing with you, babe. Listen, if you’re not cool with it, forget it. No worries.”

Kravitz can’t deny his own curiosity. He’s been baffled, for a long time, by how Taako can remain whole after what he’s apparently been through. Most necromancers, those who take their mortality into their own hands - liches being the most classic example - are driven mad. Even resurrection by divine means has its consequences. Yet Taako and his friends remain, as far as Kravitz can tell, unchanged. What could have killed them without leaving a mark, what does his soul look like?

“It would be easier in the Ethereal Plane, I think,” Kravitz says. “Physical barriers are less important there, and, well, going all the way to the Astral Plane seems like tempting fate -”

Taako’s hand wraps around his wrist and before Kravitz can react he’s cast Blink, pulling them into the Ethereal Plane. Still in the Reclaimers’ suite, but it’s like looking at everything through a thin layer of fog, or a gauzy curtain - out of focus, not quite solid. Even Taako’s hand on his wrist is tingly and strange, though not unpleasant.

“Got about ten minutes in here,” Taako says, grinning. “Well?”

“You’ll tell me if I should stop?”

“I trust you,” Taako says. That shouldn’t make Kravitz’s heart swell the way it does, but - Taako doesn’t trust many people and yet he says it like it’s nothing. “What do I need to do?”

“Stay still, relax. Like you’re meditating.” Taako is corporeal, as much as you can be in the Ethereal Plane, but if Kravitz looks at him just so, a little sideways - there. Nestled safe at Taako’s core, a little yellow light that hums and glows. Beautiful. Most souls are. Kravitz is biased toward this one. It appears whole, but Kravitz knows he can only tell so much by looking.

Kravitz begins to shed some of the trappings of his corporeal form; they’ll only get in the way. There’s no way, really, to warn Taako about how this will feel, it’s beyond the physical, so he doesn’t try. He reaches out with his consciousness, imagines fingertips brushing the edges of Taako’s soul. 

Taako shivers and tenses, shies away, as Kravitz expected. It’s alright, he thinks, sending soothing energy Taako’s way. I’m here. It takes a moment, but Taako softens a little. Opening up. Taako’s soul thrums as his proximity, a sort of - curiosity, reaching out to him too. Every soul is unique but there’s something about the distinct frequency of Taako’s that’s… familiar to him, in a distant way. Like catching a smell on the air and being transported back to your childhood, though the specific memory stays out of reach.

“Krav?” Taako says, an uncertain waver in his voice, but his breathing is slow and steady.

I’m here. Should I stop?

“No, just -” A high, nervous laugh. Kravitz can feel his hesitation, sends soothing back to him once again. “This is weird .”

I know. He delves deeper, carefully so; he doesn’t want to intrude on parts of Taako that he’d rather keep hidden. What’s surprising is how little damage there actually is. Even Refuge didn’t leave a permanent mark, it seems, but he knew that whole mess was an outlier. Are you getting a sort of… deja vu?

“...No,” Taako answers, but Kravitz knows he’s half-lying, and knows that Taako knows that he knows, a feedback loop. He’s afraid, but trying to shove it aside. Kravitz doesn’t push, and he feels Taako’s relief. “Alright, spill the tea, babe. What killed me?”

He looks and looks, at least on the surface, which should be enough, but the soul reveals nothing about Taako’s deaths. It’s completely at odds with the information in his book, which has never been wrong in the centuries he’s been a reaper. As if Taako’s soul has been wiped clean. That’s concerning in and of itself - Kravitz doesn’t know what could do that to him. I don’t know. Let me - He relaxes, opens himself further, guiding Taako to do the same. He knows that Taako can feel Kravitz’s emotions like this, his confusion and concern, just as Kravitz can feel Taako’s, no physical barriers between them - though he won’t delve as far as he did the last time - 

Last time ? What was that thought? He shakes it away, puzzled but not dwelling on it.

The depth of a soul is breathtaking. There is so much to it, more than even someone like Kravitz can comprehend, and Taako’s is warm and bright and humming softly all around him. He still can’t find any evidence of death, but that doesn’t mean Taako is unmarred. It’s not - broken, but suddenly Kravitz feels like he’s looking at a hundred souls at once, and there is a deep wound, here. Taako shies away as he approaches it. It isn’t death, but it’s - Kravitz reaches out, touches the wound just as Taako’s soul flares, violently, repelling him.


betrayal, alone, missing 

“back soon”

static -

no NO NO

Taako pulls them from the Ethereal Plane with a sharp gesture, severing the connection jarringly. Kravitz pulls himself back together, bone and muscle and skin, as quickly as he can, as Taako stands up from the couch. He looks like he’s going to be sick, pale and trembling. He runs his hands through his hair.

“Fuck,” he gasps. “Fuck!”

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I - I should have known it would be too much -”

Taako shakes his head. Slowly steadying his breathing. “What the fuck was that?” 

“I don’t know.” He hadn’t seen enough to understand it, only a barrage of emotion, pain and sorrow and visceral fear that leaves his head pounding. “Darling, did I hurt you?”

“No. No.” He sucks in a deep breath, eyes closed. Kravitz dares to reach out, a hand on Taako’s arm. It’s the right choice; Taako relaxes almost immediately, leaning in to Kravitz’s body, shivering at the cold. “Fucking hell .”

“I’m sorry, love.” The pet name slips out but thankfully Taako either ignores it or doesn’t notice. He just makes a small sound, face tucked out of sight. Kravitz kisses his forehead. Salty sweat has gathered at Taako’s hairline. “What was it? A memory?”

“I don’t know, I can’t - I can’t even think about it…”

“What did you see? Or feel?” Kravitz urges.

“...Fire.” Almost too quiet to hear. He’s stopped trembling now, and he squeezes Kravitz close. Swallows heavily and says, “Fire and static.” 

By some miracle Kravitz isn’t called away that night - perhaps luck; perhaps the Raven Queen can sense how much he needs to be near Taako, with the strange events of this day and with his mission looming ever closer. Taako is shaken, and Kravitz can’t help but fret, but he recovers, cooks them a simple dinner that they eat together quietly, subdued. Quiet until Taako sets his fork down with a clatter and says, oddly frustrated, “This is so weird.

Kravitz blinks at him. “The food?” 

Taako shakes his head, gestures between them like that explains anything. “All of it, everything, you. Me. Like -” he shakes his head, huffing out a quiet laugh. “That we can have a day like this, just sitting together doing nothing, and it’s great? Or talk on the stone for hours and never get sick of each other? Because you just like me and want to be around me? What the fuck!”

“That’s not all we did, I also rooted around in your soul for a while -”

“Shut up, you know what I mean.”

Kravitz smiles. “I’m admittedly out of practice, but I think that’s what kids these days call dating.” 

“It’s fucking weird is what it is,” Taako scoffs.

“It isn’t.”

Taako shakes his head again and now he won’t look Kravitz in the eye as he winces, strangely, and rubs at his temples the way he does when his memory falters, a fogginess behind his eyes. Kravitz is ready to ask what he’s done wrong when Taako says, quiet again, “It is when you’ve never had it.”


“Never! And I’m still waiting for you to turn out to be an asshole. But I have to keep reminding myself of that, I keep forgetting, and as soon as I let my guard down -” 

Kravitz stands, his food forgotten, and travels around the counter to where Taako is perched on his stool. Taako just watches him as he approaches, spreading his legs for Kravitz to stand between them and pull him into an embrace. It takes a moment for the tension to ease from his shoulders, for him to relax against Kravitz’s chest.

“I don’t want you to be afraid of me,” Kravitz says. “I don’t know what to do about that.”

“I’m not,” Taako says quietly. “That’s just it, that’s the problem.”

Kravitz nuzzles at the fine hairs that curl at Taako’s temple, and smooths a hand up and down his slender back. He knows that maybe Taako would not normally be so open, even with him. Not about feelings that are so obviously still tangled and messy and confusing. This day has been long, and strange, and they’re both very tired, both anxious; Kravitz can still feel the storm looming on the horizon, heavy and dreadful. 

“I’ve never -” Taako cuts himself off, laughing softly, a strangled and bitter little sound. He holds Kravitz tighter.  “I’ve never not been scared.” 

Kravitz doesn’t know what to say, but he doesn’t have to. Taako sighs again, shakes his head and sits back to look into Kravitz’s face. That fog has faded from Taako’s eyes as quick as it came, and Kravitz has to wonder what it was that triggered it, and what other corners of his soul are so thoroughly wounded and locked away. 

“Are you staying?”

It breaks Kravitz’s heart the way he asks, quiet and shy - ready to be disappointed, as Kravitz is so often called away in the middle of one of these rare meetings. If he had his choice he’d never leave. When he says yes, Taako’s smile is so wide and bright and real that Kravitz’s cold heart turns over in his chest, and his fingertips feel warm. 

Taako’s room and his bed are familiar by now, and it’s easy to lay together, to find a place in this tangled nest of pillows and sheets. They don’t even have sex, just hold each other, and it’s all so easy and so good. Kravitz can’t believe that they’ve ended up here, like this, with the way it all started. He can’t believe how thoroughly he’s been folded into Taako’s life, even with all it’s difficulties, all of Kravitz’s strangeness.

“I’ve only known you for a few months,” Kravitz says into a lull of easy silence, hushed and hesitant. Taako’s hair stirs under his breath. “But I… I already can’t imagine my life - my existence - without you in it.”

Taako doesn’t reply, and Kravitz hadn’t really expected him to. It’s the kind of thing that could so easily scare Taako away, he could have ruined everything by saying that. But he has to say it, because it’s true, because Taako was honest with him and he needs Taako to know this means something to him. Because Taako is leaving for his mission any day and he might not get another chance. 

Taako turns to him, and tucks his head up under Kravitz’s chin. In the split second Kravitz sees his eyes they’re wide and round, a flash of bright gold in the moonlight.

“I know what you mean,” Taako whispers.

Whatever Kravitz had glimpsed in Taako, this wound he didn’t even know he’s been carrying that’s been hurting him for so, so long - Kravitz doesn’t know how to reach it, how to soothe it, though he wants to, terribly. He wants to give Taako good things. To protect him from the world and everything that’s hurt him, though the thought is absurd, when Taako is one of the most powerful mortal creatures he’s ever met, even in his long existence. Easy to forget that, curled up small and close as they are, clinging to each other tight. Kravitz wants Taako to look at him, but knows he won’t.  “That scares you,” he says.

Taako laughs, short and sharp. His hand rests at the curve of Kravitz’s hip. “Yes. And… no, but mostly yes. You?”

“Yes and no,” Kravitz says, “but mostly no.”

“I, uh. Don’t think I’ve ever trusted anyone this fast?” He laughs again. “Really hoping you won’t make me regret that.”

“I wouldn’t,” Kravitz says, and means it. Taako could absolutely ruin him, if he wanted to, and not just with his magic. He’s never been able to help but put his heart into another’s hands, and Taako could tear it to shreds and Kravitz would let him. Kravitz wonders if he knows that.

“Wild thing is, I actually kinda believe you.” Taako snuggles yet closer, falls silent for a while. Kravitz thinks he’s fallen asleep until he murmurs, “You know I’m coming back, right? I promised no more dying.”

Kravitz smiles. “You don’t make promises, if I recall.”

He doesn’t have to look at Taako’s face to know he’s grinning, hears the shape of it in his voice. “True.”


He’d asked the Raven Queen something else, all those years ago, as she welcomed him into his new existence. “Wait!” He’d blurted out, and then he was ashamed of himself, but she was ever patient. “Why me?”

She had smiled, or at least he thought it was a smile. WHY?

“Why did you mark me? I’m nothing special, so why me?”



Before his eyes, silvery threads had faded into existence, intangible but real, and wrapped all around him. Some stretched from him to the Raven Queen, while others went seemingly into infinity, impossible to know what or who waited on the other side. He longed to follow them, to know, but he stayed still, kneeling before the Raven Queen’s towering form. “Where do they go?” He asked.

SO CURIOUS. The sound of a crow’s croaking, which must have been a laugh. BUT THIS IS FATE’S DOMAIN, NOT DEATH’S. I DO NOT HAVE AN ANSWER FOR YOU. 

And he had understood then, without knowing how he knew, that he was bound to her and she to him, that no matter what happened in his short life, he was always going to come here. Why him? Because somehow, for some reason neither of them knew, it had always been him and always would be.

WE SHALL UNTANGLE THE THREADS OF OUR FATES TOGETHER, YOU AND I, she had said, and wrapped him in shadow and made him into something new.