Chapter 1: the invitation
Ever since the Day of Story and Song, Magnus has been drifting.
In the immediate aftermath, there had been so much to do: the clean-up and rebuilding alone would take years, and Magnus has been happy to do his part. For the first time in years, his carpentry skills are in higher demand than his adventuring abilities, and if he’s honest with himself, it’s a bit of a relief. He’s busy, and when he’s busy, he doesn’t think about how lonely he’s become.
It’s ironic, and he knows it: the IPRE crew is back together at last and he couldn’t be happier, but even when they come together for their big, Starblaster family dinners or meet up for drinks once a week, Magnus knows that he’s the odd man out. Lup and Barry have so much time to make up for; Merle is embracing his role as doting father and brings Mavis and Mookie almost everywhere with him now; and Taako and Kravitz, still awkward in their affections, are nearly always at each other’s side. He’s enjoyed reconnecting with Davenport, but after the first few weeks of enthusiastic camaraderie, his former captain has begun to withdraw from his crew ever so slightly. He’s confided that he has plans to buy a small ship and go adventuring on the high seas, and his excitement is palpable, but Magnus is fairly certain that the allure is less in the opportunity to travel again and more about the ability to run away from the reality of the last decade.
And then there’s Lucretia. Magnus was the first to forgive her after they got their memories back, and he hasn’t regretted the decision since. Nevertheless, she’s busier than ever reconstructing the Bureau of Balance into the Bureau of Benevolence, and Magnus harbors a private resentment that she isn’t spending more time rebuilding the bonds that she’s responsible for breaking up. He knows why she did it; he even believes that she may have done the right thing; but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch her carry on in her role as Madame Director, guiding the denizens of this brave new world into a better future that she almost destroyed with her pride and her fear.
It’s been said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions; if that’s true, Magnus has walked that road back and forth half a dozen times in the last year. His friends mean well, but they’re building their own lives now, charting new paths that don’t always include him because why should they? He tries not to let how much that hurts him show: he’s still the same boisterous, affectionate man who crushes old acquaintances and new into bear hugs that leave them breathless, and when they all go their separate ways at the end of the night, he waves them off with well wishes and a grin that shows off all his teeth. But when everyone’s gone, the rooms he rents are too quiet, and instead of sleeping, more and more often he finds himself walking the streets of Neverwinter in the off-chance that he’ll encounter a familiar face.
It’s early one spring morning when Magnus finds himself in a park after a night of wandering. He often comes here to watch the families with their picnic baskets and blankets, and he’s taken to bringing his carving knives and wood remnants so that he can carve little animals to pass out to the children who know him now by name. He’s working on a miniature bear, the tip of his blade detailing the curve of a claw when a long shadow blocks his work and he looks up to see Taako standing over him with a bemused look on his face.
“Mago! My man!” he exclaims, one hand on his hip. “You come here often?”
Magnus feels unjustifiably embarrassed, like he’s been called out in some awkward social faux pas, and he shrugs off the question by asking what Taako’s doing on this side of town so early in the morning.
“I’m on my way to pick up coffee for Kravitz,” he replies, his eyes brightening as he mentions his reaper boyfriend. “He had to work through the night, and there’s this little café around the corner that makes a baller macchiato that he just loves to death. Hah! Get it? Anyway, want to come with?”
Magnus considers turning him down for all of half a second, but his legs have other plans and he’s suddenly on his feet, tucking his carving knife into his vest pocket and nodding along to a story about Angus’ latest accomplishments in magic school. When they reach the café, Magnus starts to tell the gnome behind the counter his order when Taako cuts him off with a jab of his finger and asks for a large mocha with a dash of chili pepper. Magnus is agape: it’s his favorite, guilty pleasure drink-of-choice, and he can’t believe that Taako remembers. He holds the cup gently in his hands, letting the steam cover up the beginning of tears prickling in his eyes, as Taako puts in his other two orders and then insists on paying despite Magnus’ half-hearted protestations.
They walk back towards the park together, sipping their respective drinks, and when Taako leaves him back at the park bench, it’s with an invitation to dinner the following night. He proposes it with convincing nonchalance, but Magnus doesn’t fail to notice the note of insistence in his voice and the little frown of concern on Taako’s face when he turns to go. It’s not pity: Magnus can’t stomach pity, and Taako’s never been one to offer it freely. For a moment, he allows himself to think that maybe Taako’s been feeling as disconnected as he has, and when he accepts the invitation, it’s with a genuine smile.
Magnus arrives at Taako and Kravitz’s house ten minutes early, but he’s afraid to look too eager, so he waits another five before knocking on the door. It opens a moment later, and Kravitz ushers him in with a smile, looking incredibly dashing in an honest-to-goodness cravat, a blood red vest peeking out from beneath a black dinner jacket, and a raven-shaped lapel pin sparkling in the lamplight. Magnus feels self-conscious in his modest outfit, but Kravitz doesn’t bat an eyelash when he offers to hang up Magnus’ sun-faded coat in the entrance hall closet.
“We’re so glad you could join us,” Kravitz says as they walk down the hallway towards the kitchen where Magnus can hear the sound of bubbling, clanking pots. “Taako has wanted to have you by for some time, but I’m afraid I’ve been busy with work and had to ask him to put it off.”
Magnus mutters something about understanding completely, taken aback by the realization that Taako’s invitation was more than a spur-of-the-moment idea. He supposes he shouldn’t be surprised: for all of his practiced indifference, Taako has a good heart, and Magnus knows that he and the rest of the IPRE crew (Lup excluded) don’t give him enough credit. It’s still a surprise to have that sneaky solicitude leveled at himself, and Magnus feels a rush of gratitude that fills his chest with a warm flood of happiness.
“Make yourself at home,” Kravitz says, ushering him into a cozy living room off the main hall where a fire is blazing merrily in the hearth. “I’m just going to check on Taako. It’s never a good sign when he’s this quiet…”
Magnus privately agrees and settles himself on the couch, glancing around the room to take in the small changes that have been made since he was last here. There’s a new cat curled up on the rug at his feet, and there is a picture he hasn’t seen before hanging on the wall. He stands to go look at it and finds himself smiling unconsciously at a snapshot of Lup and Barry at their wedding, fingers entwined and their backs to the camera as they recite their vows. In the bottom edge of the photograph, he can just make out the side of his own head and the tips of Cary’s fingers as she offers him her handkerchief. It really had been such a beautiful day.
“Dinner is served,” Taako calls from the doorway, drawing Magnus from his reverie. He’s wearing an apron with the words “I cook as good as I look” stitched on the front in colorful, loopy letters, and Magnus smirks as he follows him into the dining room where what looks like an entire feast has been laid out on the table.
Taako chuckles from the doorway.
“I may have gotten just a smidge over-excited,” he admits.
“All this for me?” Magnus asks, the very slightest of hitches in his voice.
“Ch’yeah, whatever,” Taako waves his hand dismissively. “Kravitz barely eats, so it’s nice to have someone to cook for who can actually appreciate my frankly amazing cooking.”
And it is, in Magnus’ opinion, frankly amazing. By the time they are through, he is fairly certain he’s eaten twice his weight in roast chicken, smashed Brussels sprouts, scalloped potatoes, and homemade sour dough bread. All the while, Taako keeps them entertained with stories of his new pupils, bright young magic users who, in Taako’s opinion, “are gonna change the world if they don’t blow it up first.” He seems so pleased at the prospect that Magnus thinks he has never seen Taako so happy. Kravitz is a more reserved dinner companion, but he asks thoughtful questions and seems to appreciate if not fully understand the intricacy of Magnus’ latest carpentry projects.
When they finish eating, Magnus finds himself once again ushered into the living room despite his protestations that he has already stayed too long and doesn’t want to be an imposition. Taako audibly scoffs at this and saunters off to the kitchen to fetch a dessert that none of them has room for but will inevitably eat anyway. Kravitz pours wine as Magnus settles back onto the sofa where one of the cats – a scruffy calico with a chunk out of its left ear – pads onto his lap and starts kneading little dents into the tops of Magnus’ legs.
“Oooh,” Taako exclaims as he returns with a pie in one hand and plates in the other, “Mephistopheles likes you! Last time Merle tried to pet her, she nearly took off his hand.”
“That’s rather an exaggeration, love,” Kravitz says fondly. “I believe Merle almost sat on her, and honestly, I don’t blame her the indignation. But yes,” he nods, “it’s definitely a good sign. She doesn’t take to just anyone.”
Magnus grins awkwardly and strokes the cat’s head as it butts its skull against his palm. He’s so charmed by the rumbling purr that seems to vibrate all the way up to his face that he doesn’t notice Taako settle onto the couch next to him until the end of the elf’s long braid brushes his leg and he nearly jumps out of his skin.
“Calm down, my dude,” Taako says, holding up his hands like he’s ready to ward off a punch. “It’s just y’boy. Is it OK if I sit here?”
Magnus feels his face flushing.
“Yeah, of course,” he says. “You just startled me, is all.”
The thing is, Magnus hasn’t been touched by someone in so long that the mere fact of Taako’s presence an arm’s length away almost makes him shudder with desire. It isn’t a sexual or even a romantic yearning: Magnus has never been particularly interested in expressing his affections through intimacy. Still, Magnus has always been drawn to closeness, and over the last few months, opportunities to do so have been limited at best.
Taako and Kravitz exchange a glance, and although they don’t say anything out loud, Magnus is certain a whole conversation passes between them in the span of three seconds. It’s almost too much to bear until Kravitz rises from his arm chair, and Magnus isn’t certain what he expects, but whatever it is, but it’s not what happens next.
Kravitz crosses the room to a large piano that Magnus has admired on several occasions in the past. It’s a beautiful piece of work, carved from polished rosewood, and Magnus notices with appreciation that Kravitz gives it an affectionate little pat before lifting the lid and sitting gracefully on the bench, long legs stretched down to the pedals. His fingers drift across the keys, dark flitting over light as though to tease out a melody, and when he starts to play, Magnus is enraptured. It’s no song he’s ever heard before – not that he’s ever claimed to be musically inclined – but it’s stunning all the same, dipping down into the instrument’s lower register and then suddenly leaping up into a higher octave for a soaring, airy refrain.
Taako hums quietly from his side of the couch, and gradually, as the song progresses, he scoots closer to Magnus until their shoulders are touching and Magnus can smell the familiar aroma of the floral shampoo that Taako has used as long as he’s known him. It’s a small area of contact, but it’s more than Magnus has had in weeks, and he has to consciously keep himself from leaning into it completely.
As Kravitz moves seamlessly from one song into another, Magnus risks a glance at the elf beside him who has suddenly gone quiet: Taako’s eyes, bright in the fire light, are locked on Kravitz who, although he doesn’t look up from the keys, has a knowing smile turning up one corner of his mouth. Magnus isn’t sure what the significance is, but if the way that Taako’s fingers are tapping against the couch cushions is any indication, he is certain that this is a song that has been played before, many times, probably in this very room. There are layers of meaning to the notes that pour from the depths of the piano, and Taako seems able to read them as easily as he reads a spell book, and for a moment, Magnus considers excusing himself to use the bathroom to allow the two of them a private moment. Before he can shift Mephistopheles from his lap, however, he feels the warm weight of Taako’s other hand on his, and when he looks up, Taako is beaming at him. He takes back his hand a moment later, but he doesn’t move away, and Magnus lets his eyes close as he savors every aspect of the scene and commits each one to memory.
He opens his eyes what feels like moments later, but he can tell from the height of the flames in the fireplace and the fact that Kravitz is now perched on an ottoman a few feet away that some time has passed. Taako is still at his side; he and Kravitz are talking quietly, and in the seconds before they realize he’s woken up, he watches the reaper press a series of light kisses on the top of the elf’s hand.
Magnus hates to interrupt the moment, but he feels like a bit of a voyeur, and he doesn’t want to be caught staring.
“Sorry about that,” he yawns, stretching conspicuously with what he hopes is the air of someone newly awake. “I didn’t mean to be such a boring dinner guest.”
“Nonsense,” Kravitz says. “I consider it a compliment to my playing. But it’s late, and…”
“I really should get going,” Magnus interrupts, lifting Mephistopheles from his lap and setting her gently on the couch. “You both have work in the morning, and I shouldn’t have stayed past dinner. Thank you for everything. Taako, dinner was delicious, and—”
It is Taako’s turn to interrupt.
“What my incredibly hot boyfriend was trying to say is that you should stay here tonight. It’s not a big deal: there’s a guest room downstairs, and frankly, my man, it looks like you could use a good night’s sleep.”
Kravitz aims a subtle kick to Taako’s shin.
“You’re welcome to go home if you’d prefer,” Kravitz says, “but it really is late. It would make us both feel better to know that you’re not walking the streets at this time of night.”
“Not that we would worry or anything,” Taako interjects, looking scandalized.
“That would…” Magnus pauses, clearing his throat. “That would be great, actually. If it’s no bother.”
“None at all,” Kravitz assures him, and Taako offers a gap-toothed smile and a wink that Magnus can’t help but return.
A few minutes later, Taako has settled him into a cozy guest bedroom that smells like fresh linen and wildflowers. There’s already a towel and a washcloth set out on the chair by the bed, and if he knew about such things, he would think that the sheets had just been washed. Taako lingers in the doorway for a moment, warning Magnus that he should keep the door shut unless he wants a host of hungry cats waking him up in the middle of the night. Magnus assures him he doesn’t mind, and Taako shrugs.
“Your funeral,” he says. After a moment, he adds, “Hey Magnus?”
“Yeah, Taako?” Magnus replies, the edge of the mattress sinking under his weight as he lowers himself onto it with a sigh of pleasure.
“Sleep well, amigo.”
Taako sets off down the hall, and as he leans his head back on the pillows, Magnus thinks he will do just that.
Chapter 2: a cry in the dark
"Magnus wakes one night in the early hours of the morning to the sound of a high-pitched keening that he automatically assumes is one of the cats."
Magnus wakes one night in the early hours of the morning to the sound of a high-pitched keening that he automatically assumes is one of the cats. As he blinks the sleep from his eyes, his mind takes a moment to adjust to his location. The bed he’s in is soft, the blanket under his fingers pricked through with embroidered stars, and there’s a window overhead that spills moonlight across a thick rug on the floor. His body relaxes as he remembers that he’s at Taako and Kravitz’s house, and he’s surprised at how natural it feels to wake up in a bed that isn’t, technically, his.
It has been just over a month since that first dinner invitation, and Magnus realizes that he’s spending more time here than he is in his own apartment. At first, he had worried that he was imposing, but he’s never invited himself over: always, his visits coincide with an invitation from Taako or, occasionally, Kravitz. Maybe he should be suspicious – Taako rarely does anything that doesn’t directly result in personal gain, and although he likes Kravitz, he still doesn’t know the reaper that well. He knows that Taako loves him, though, and he supposes that should be enough.
Sometimes, the invitations come in the form of a request to join them for a meal. Taako usually prefaces these with an offhand remark about how he’s been experimenting in the kitchen and there’s too much food for him and Kravitz to eat alone. On other occasions, Magnus gets a call on his stone of farspeech from an exasperated Taako asking him to come by to help with a bit of housework – a broken chair or a malfunctioning oven – and although he knows that Taako probably has a spell of mending he could be using, he flatters himself that it’s the company his friend is really after, so he comes as often as he can. On one occasion, Kravitz popped through a portal into his workshop in the middle of Magnus’ lunch hour to politely request that Magnus check in on his boyfriend who had, in Kravitz’s words, “come down with a ghastly cold that he absolutely refuses to accept is anything other than allergies.” Magnus had been flattered – that is, after he got over the initial shock of seeing the reaper’s dark-suited form materialize out of the astral plane without warning.
Merle suggested over coffee recently that it sounds like Magnus should start charging for his babysitting services, but if he’s honest with himself, Magnus is just grateful to feel wanted. He never feels like an imposition when he’s visiting Taako and Kravitz, and as those visits last longer and longer into the night, he’s started to feel more at home in their cozy guest bedroom than he is in his own apartment.
As Magnus closes his eyes and begins to settle back against the pillows that are just a bit too plush for his taste, he hears the noise again, louder this time and more unsettling. He’s never heard anything quite like it – something between the yowling of a beast and the raw sound of gears grinding against each other in a rusty machine – and he’s on his feet in an instant, grabbing his axe from under the bed as he goes just in case.
As he tiptoes down the hallway, he follows the sound to a part of the house that he’s never been in before. Taako and Kravitz’s bedroom is there and the door is shut, but it’s clear now that the noise is coming from inside. His heart pounds in his chest as he sprints the rest of the way and throws the door open, images of Taako bleeding out from gaping, incurable wounds flashing across his mind’s eye, turning his vision red.
As he squints into the gloom, Magnus curses his lack of dark vision. There’s a discernible lump in the bed, but it’s not until he’s next to the mess of blankets and sheets that he is able to assure himself that there’s no blood, no broken limbs, just Taako curled up into a tight ball, his hands tangled in his loose hair. Before he can breathe a sigh of relief, Magnus hears the keening sound again and watches in horror as Taako thrashes on top of the mattress, his flailing limbs coming dangerously close to clipping Magnus in the gut.
“Taako,” Magnus gasps, reaching out to restrain him. “Taako, it’s – it’s okay! It’s just Magnus, and you’re having a--- AARGH!”
His hand finds a hold on Taako’s shoulder, and the elf actually screams. Without thinking, Magnus gathers him up in his arms and sinks back against the headboard, holding Taako firmly against his chest as he thrashes like a wild animal caught in a trap. Magnus braces himself against the blows that bounce off of his shoulders and murmurs soft words of comfort until Taako slumps in his grip, spent, his breath ragged.
“M-Magnus?” Taako slurs, his voice heavy with sleep and rough from screaming. “What are you… why are you in my bedroom?”
Magnus laughs, relieved.
“You scared the shit out of me, Taako,” he says. “I woke up and you were screaming. It sounded like you were being ripped apart by a mind-flayer!”
Taako squirms in his arms, and Magnus loosens his grip. The elf shifts across the bed, putting half of the mattress between them and wrapping his arms around his chest. Only then does Magnus realize that he’s still trembling, and when he looks up at Magnus, his eyes are huge and filled with tears that he scrubs away with shaking hands.
“Nah, Taako’s good,” he says. “Y’boy had, like, a nightmare or whatever. It’s cool now. You can – you can go back to bed.”
Magnus knows nightmares. He has them at least once a week. What Taako just had is something else entirely, and he’ll be damned if he’s going to leave his friend alone after… whatever just happened.
“If it’s all the same to you,” he says carefully, “I’ll stay just a little bit longer.”
He tries to keep his voice light, but Taako isn’t fooled.
“Just leave me alone,” Taako spits, his voice cracking. “I’m fine. Go away, Magnus!”
Magnus takes a deep breath and steels himself before extending his hands, palms out in a gesture of conciliation.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he says, and a moment later, Taako’s face crumples and he throws himself across the bed and into Magnus’ waiting embrace.
Long minutes pass with only the sound of Taako’s sobs muffled against the fabric of Magnus’ nightshirt. As Magnus strokes Taako’s hair, he is reminded of the only other time he’s witnessed Taako cry, and the déjà vu hits him with all the force of a boulder dropping down deep in his abdomen.
It had been during an early cycle of their Starblaster mission and Lup had been killed when an experiment went awry. They were no closer to finding the Light of Creation than they had been when they landed seven months prior, and the weeks of searching before they could escape the world and reset once more seemed an eternity away. Magnus had found Taako curled up on the couch of the Starblaster’s common room in the middle of the night, hot tears streaming down his face, and Magnus had sat with him in silence, one arm draped over the elf’s shoulder, for over an hour until Taako’s cheeks were dry and he could breathe normally. They had never spoken of that night afterwards, but Magnus had felt their relationship change: Taako was less querulous, quicker to offer a helping hand, and every once in a while, Magnus would catch the elf looking at him with something like tenderness in his gaze.
A quiet, rustling sound in the doorway makes Magnus start, but it’s only Kravitz, leaning against the threshold with a thoughtful expression on his normally-stoic face. When Taako looks up and sees the reaper standing there, he whimpers and reaches out for his boyfriend who materializes at his side in a dizzying swirl of his feathered cloak.
“He had a nightmare,” Magnus explains unnecessarily as Kravitz settles onto the bed on Taako’s other side. Kravitz nods, pressing a cool hand to Taako’s cheek and stroking the damp skin as Taako releases a shuddering breath.
“It seems he’s been well cared for,” he says, and the look he gives Magnus is so full of naked gratitude that Magnus actually blushes.
Sandwiched between the two men, Taako seems to relax at last. His breathing slows, and a few minutes later, his face has relaxed into the peace of real, dreamless sleep. Magnus feels a weight that he didn’t know was pressing on his shoulders disappear, and out of the corner of his eye, he thinks he sees a similar relief mirrored in Kravitz’s posture.
With Taako asleep and the fear of another night terror at an end, Magnus is hit with the sudden, uncomfortable awareness that he is in Taako and Kravitz’s bed. He doesn’t belong here, and the feeling of being an interloper in a private place is agonizing, but when he moves to go, a tug on his sleeve makes him pause. Taako’s hand tethers him to the bed, his fingers balled up in the fabric of Magnus’ shirt, and when Magnus looks up at Kravitz, he realizes that the other man is smiling.
“I don’t think either of us is going anywhere tonight,” Kravitz says, glancing pointedly down at his own hand where Taako has it in a vice grip, clutched against his chest with white-knuckled fingers.
Magnus takes this as an invitation and settles back onto the bed, resting his head on the backboard and closing his eyes. He’s suddenly incredibly tired, and between the sound of Taako’s steady breathing and the warmth of the elf’s body where it presses against his, Magnus feels himself drifting off. The last thing he’s aware of as he falls asleep is the sound of Kravitz humming softly and the feeling of Taako’s face burrowing slightly into his side.
Chapter 3: double trouble
The twins arrive at Magnus' shop with an invitation.
Lup and Taako arrive unannounced one day, traipsing into Magnus’ workshop with their arms covered in shopping bags. Magnus is in the middle of teaching his newest apprentice how to fashion dovetail joints, and when the two of them bustle in, the young orc boy yelps and drops his chisel on Magnus’ toe. He barely feels it through his sturdy boots, but the apprentice is mortified, and Magnus finally has to push the lad through the door on strict orders to take a ten-minute break before the apologies finally stop. Lup and Taako look on with identical looks of bemused concern as the boy stumbles out into the yard, casting anxious looks back at the three of them, his cheeks a violent shade of crimson and his eyes the size of dinner plates.
“Double trouble!” Magnus exclaims as the door shuts with a definitive thud and he can finally turn back to his guests without the threat of any more curious assistants nosing in. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“It is a pleasure, isn’t it?” Taako preens. Lup snickers and almost loses her grip on an over-sized pink shopping bag in her attempt to swat him.
He ushers them towards his workbench, sweeping his arm out in an invitation to sit on one of the half dozen stools where his apprentices usually perch to watch him work on more intricate projects. He eases into his own, larger chair and beams as his visitors begin the complicated task of unburdening themselves of their shopping. Magnus can only guess at the contents of the various boxes and bags, but he’s positive that whatever’s in them would put his meager closet to shame, and he makes a mental note never to let Lup and Taako anywhere near his wardrobe.
When at last they flop back onto their stools, Lup fixes Magnus with a look that he has come to associate with mischief, a determined glint in her eye that sends a little frisson of expectation down his spine.
“Important question,” she says, leaning forward and steepling her fingers beneath her chin. “Do you have plans tonight?” She doesn’t wait for his answer before continuing. “Cancel them. We’re having a pamper party at Taako’s place, and it is of the utmost importance that you’re there.”
“6 o’clock sharp,” Taako adds. “And don’t even think about forgetting—”
“The wine,” Magnus grins. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”
Their task completed, Taako and Lup jump to their feet and gather up their shopping with the sort of speed and dexterity that Magnus, with his fighter’s training, envies. He walks them to the door and waves as they set off down the busy street, arms heavy with their purchases, already engrossed in a loud conversation that makes the other denizens of the sidewalk hop out of their way in alarm for fear of being bowled over.
As Magnus watches the pair disappear around a corner and out of sight, his grin only grows. A pamper party, he chuckles to himself. He had almost forgotten about those…
Back in their Starblaster days, when the cycles began to feel longer and increasingly futile, Lup and Taako used to disappear in the evenings and emerge from their room hours later accompanied by the smell of flowery soaps and nail polish, their skin preternaturally glowing and their matching smiles masking, at least for the night, the tension that had lined their faces as a result of the day’s failed attempt to find the Light of Creation. They were secretive about their ritual, and the few times Magnus wandered by their quarters, he always found the door locked. The other crew members seemed unbothered by yet another of the twins’ quirks, but Magnus’ curiosity got the better of him, and he finally asked them over breakfast one morning what they had gotten up to the night before. He remembers like it was only yesterday the look the two had exchanged with each other, raised eyebrows speaking volumes, followed by a calculating assessment of Magnus across the dining table and, at last, a synchronized nod.
“Why don’t you join us tonight and find out?” Taako had said, his eyes narrowed in challenge.
“Bring wine,” Lup added. “And none of that swill that Merle drinks. Some of that fancy shit from Davenport’s private stash. Don’t bother showing up empty-handed.”
In the end, it hadn’t been necessary for Magnus to steal from their captain. Davenport was glad to offer a bottle from his surprisingly-ample store with the understanding that Magnus would tell him all about the cabal the next day. He seemed pleased with the idea that the twins were letting Magnus into their shared confidence, and he sent Magnus on his way with a wink and a hearty pat on the back.
Magnus wasn’t sure what he had expected, but when he arrived outside Lup and Taako’s room later that evening, he was promptly grabbed by the arm and dragged into an almost unrecognizable chamber where the beds had been pushed against the wall and the floor was covered in an impossible number of blankets and pillows to make a sort of nest-fort in the center of the room. As the twins cooed appreciatively over the bottle of wine, Magnus had taken in the sight of a plate of decadent treats, an array of wine glasses ready to receive their libations, a small pot of pale blue potion bubbling thickly in the corner next to a stack of washcloths, and an impressive collection of nail polish lined up on the headboard of one of the room’s twin beds. When he looked back, Taako and Lup were watching him expectantly.
“Where do we start?” Magnus had said, and the looks of delight on the two elves’ faces assured him that he had said the right thing.
That had been the first of many pamper parties, impromptu evenings of leisure and indulgence that countered the days of endless experiments, exhausting search parties, and occasional full-speed escape maneuvers that gradually wore each of them down over the many months of a particular cycle. Each party was different: sometimes they gave each other facials with whatever new concoction Taako had brewed up in his cauldron; other times, they attempted to outdo each other with elaborate manicures; one evening, they went through five bottles of wine while Magnus regaled them with his favorite folk stories from back home, the telling of each becoming increasingly more hilarious as the wine disappeared and the night wore on.
At first, it was just the three of them: the twins were, for some unspoken reason, hesitant to include the rest of the crew, but Magnus eventually convinced them to extend the invitation to the remaining four team members. To his surprise, Barry was the first to take them up on the offer, arriving unannounced one night with a bottle of sweet rum from his home village that earned him a kiss on the cheek from Lup that left him-red faced for the remainder of the evening. He held his head high at breakfast the next morning as the rest of the crew gaped at the elaborate fishtail braid that Taako had fashioned out of his mullet, and a week later, Lucretia arrived with an offering of brightly-colored hair ribbons and a book of her favorite poetry. Merle came less often, but he always kept them roaring with his obscene, plant-based humor. Davenport seemed to think that the presence of their captain would ruin the mood of the gatherings, but even he couldn’t keep away from the smells of freshly-baked cakes and the peals of laughter that rang throughout the long nights and kept them smiling well into the next day’s challenges.
Magnus stands in the doorway of his workshop for a while longer, lost in his reminiscences. If he notices the curious stares he’s eliciting from passing shoppers, he doesn’t acknowledge them, and it isn’t until his apprentice literally runs into him in an attempt to return from his break on time that Magnus blinks away the memories and returns to his workshop to finish the demonstration that Lup and Taako had interrupted. He sends the boy home early, making a point of praising his progress when he senses that the boy is about to apologize, yet again, for earlier.
As Magnus locks up, he feels an extra spring in his step that has been noticeably lacking these last few weeks. He loves the work he’s doing, but he’s starting to suspect that nostalgia is getting the better of him. It’s been ages since he went adventuring, and if he’s honest with himself, he misses the camaraderie of a relic hunt (even if he does NOT miss the reality of the relics themselves). This impromptu pamper party couldn’t have come at a better time, and as he hurries down the street to the open-air market for the promised wine, he skips for a full yard when he’s certain that no one’s watching.
Magnus arrives at Taako’s place, wine bottles clutched in each hand, a few seconds before the clock tower in the town square chimes six. He’s about to knock on the front door when it swings open as if of its own volition; when he steps inside, there’s no one there, but the faint shimmer on the threshold is clearly the work of a cantrip, so he follows the trail of ethereal light down the hallway to the sitting room where Taako is hard at work constructing what looks to be the beginning of an incredible blanket fort. When Magnus sets the wine down on the coffee table so that he can help, the elf sniffs loudly and glares in his direction.
“Pushing it a little close there, Magnus,” Taako says, glancing pointedly at the clock over the mantle. “Thought maybe you were bailing on us.”
“Aww, come on, Taako,” Magnus replies, grabbing the end of a large quilt that Taako is attempting to drape over a set of strategically-placed kitchen chairs, “I wouldn’t do that to you and Lup. Give me a little credit!”
Taako grumbles under his breath, but he accepts the help, and together they put the finishing touches on the roof of the fort as the sound of a door being thrown open overhead followed immediately by heavy footfalls on the stairs signals the arrival of Lup.
“Lulu,” Taako yells, his face so close to Magnus’ that Magnus winces. “You’re late!”
Lup appears in the doorway, her hands filled with various little boxes of goodness-knows-what. She tosses a thick strand of crimson-dyed hair over her shoulder, surveying the scene with evident approval.
“I would have been here sooner, but I forgot my mixing bowls. Also, your upstairs closet is a mess, lil’ bro. Have you ever heard of feng shui, you absolute savage?”
Magnus hides a smirk as Taako fumes. When Taako and Kravitz bought their own place and moved out of the house that they had shared with Lup and Barry, the first order of business had been setting up a permanent magical portal between the two homes so that the siblings – only a few streets away from each other to begin with – would never be more than a doorway apart. Thus, Lup’s griping about Taako’s linen closet. Sometimes, Magnus thinks that they forget whose home is whose: he will never forget the time he walked in on Lup cooking breakfast in Taako’s kitchen wearing an apron over lacy pajamas that left nothing to the imagination, and he has it on good authority that Taako, on more than one occasion, has fallen groggily into bed with Barry in the middle of the night much to both men’s chagrin.
“My mixing bowls aren’t good enough for you?” Taako says, grabbing a pillow off the couch and hurling it across the room at Lup with a strength belied by his slight form.
“Mine are better,” Lup insists, catching the pillow mid-air with Mage Hand and sending it flying back at Taako’s head. She winks at Magnus, and he blushes a deep scarlet. He carved those bowls as a wedding present, and it makes his chest ache with happiness to know how much she likes them.
“Pretty baller fort you’ve got here, boys,” Lup says, bending down to peer at the cozy interior and then throwing herself on top of the pillows inside with a whump. “Let’s just see what y’girl can do to make it better.”
Taako is about to protest, but Lup cuts him off with a sweep of her hand and, moments later, the interior of the blanket fort is glowing with the soft light of what looks like a dozen fat fireflies drifting lazily in midair. The effect is beautiful, and despite himself, even Taako looks impressed.
“Now,” she says, propping her head up on her arms, “if there is not a full glass of wine – and I mean full – in my hand in less than 30 seconds, these fairy lights are going kamikaze on both of your asses.”
As if to emphasize the threat, one of the lights floats towards Magnus’ cheek and he hops backwards, hands up in supplication.
“Yes, ma’am,” he says, and he manages to fill all three of their wine glasses before Lup can stop cackling.
They spend the next hour in blissful, cozy chaos. The blanket fort is really too small for the three of them, but that doesn’t stop the trio from cramming themselves inside with the extra wine bottle and a charcuterie plate that Taako produces from the kitchen with a flourish. Magnus imagines that they must look ridiculous as they trade stories from their respective jobs, lobbing tiny pieces of cheese into each other’s mouths with varying levels of success and making bets on who can do the best Magic Brian impression (Taako wins, naturally), but he absolutely could not care less. It feels amazing to spend time with his friends, to be included in a way that tells him his presence is valued. Gods, he has missed this. When Lup offers to paint his fingernails (“Those are some gnarly cuticles, Mags. I mean, damn.”), he actually tears up.
Taako entertains them with stories of his students’ magical escapades while Lup treats Magnus to a full manicure. When she’s done, his nails are a rich, deep shade of violet that fades into a gleaming silver as they disappear into his (frankly luxurious) cuticles. Taako bends down to admire them and barely manages to dodge out of the way as Lup threatens to smack him if he so much as thinks about smudging her “masterpiece.”
“I’m next,” Taako insists, already scrutinizing the collection of colorful polishes that Lup has laid out on the coffee table at their feet.
“Natch,” Lup grins, “but first – to the kitchen!”
The twins leap to their feet, extricating themselves from the nest of pillows and blankets with an ease that makes Magnus jealous as he struggles to do the same. He trails them to the kitchen where they’re already assembling an array of ingredients on the counter, darting around each other to find the necessary bowls and measuring cups.
“Can I help?” Magnus offers, hovering in the doorway as he watches the familiar spectacle.
Taako pauses with his hand halfway inside a cupboard.
“Oh, Magnus,” he says, voice dripping with false sympathy, “I think we all know that would be a terrible idea, my man. Need I remind you of what happened the last time you offered to ‘help’ in the kitchen?”
Images of a ruined skillet and black smoke that wouldn’t dissipate for hours flash across Magnus’ mind and turn his cheeks a vibrant shade of pink.
“Besides,” Lup interjects as she lines a baking tray with parchment paper, “you already have a job.”
“Yeah?” Magnus replies, settling onto one of the kitchen island’s stools and resting his head gently on his palms so as not so smudge his nails.
Magnus grins. He had always been their favorite guinea pig onboard the Starblaster: his reputation for being willing to try anything once and his very vocal appreciation of their culinary feats meant that he was constantly being dragged into the spaceship’s tiny kitchen and plied with strange and wonderful delicacies. He never complained then, and he was certainly not going to start now.
As he watches them work, Magnus realizes that he has always been a little jealous of the relationship that Taako and Lup have. Growing up without siblings hadn’t seemed so bad when he was young; his parents had been loving and he had always had plenty of friends, but when he watches the way that the twins gravitate to each other, their easy humor and the ability they seem to possess that allows them to act in perfect synchronicity without saying a word, he feels an ache in his heart that makes him wonder how his life might have been different if he hadn’t been born an only child.
When he joined IPRE, Magnus remembers being in awe of the quirky elf twins whose quick wit and clever resourcefulness saw them rise to the top of their class, and his admiration for them only grew after they were appointed to the Starblaster crew. He was one of the first to see through the air of aloofness that they maintained, recognizing it for the coping mechanism it really was, and his eagerness to serve as a test subject for their increasingly-bizarre cooking experiments saw its way to worming himself into their reluctant good graces. It didn’t take many cycles for Magnus to become an expert at predicting Lup’s tempestuous temper tantrums when her research didn’t turn out the results she expected or to develop the skills to turn adept at deciphering when Taako’s biting sarcasm was really just a cover for exhaustion. Magnus had always been willing to put in the extra effort when it came to interpreting the twins’ moods, and as he whittled away at their often-prickly exterior, so too did the rest of the IPRE crew. It might be nonsensical to miss a period of their lives when they were living day-to-day with the constant threat of death on their heels, but if he admits it to himself, Magnus can’t help but feel nostalgic for the family that they had become.
Magnus is drawn out of his reverie as the oven door slams and a rush of hot air infused with the scent of dark chocolate wafts across the kitchen.
“No way,” Magnus says, his mouth already watering. “You didn’t!”
“Make the most bitchin’ cookies this side of the planar system?” Lup smirks, waving the plate just out of reach. “I don’t know. Taako, did we do that?”
Taako leans against the kitchen counter, arms crossed over the elaborately-embroidered “Hot Stuff” stitched across the chest of his apron, a knowing grin spread across his face.
“Come on, Lup, don’t torture him,” he says, uncharacteristically magnanimous.
Magnus can barely restrain himself from snatching one of the steaming cookies off the plate before it even hits the table. He hasn’t had one of the twins’ dark chocolate espresso cookies since… well, since before Lup went searching for the Phoenix Fire Gauntlet. They were a crew favorite, but Taako refused to make them after Lup disappeared, and having them in front of him now is perhaps the most comforting sign that those awful days really are behind them.
He reaches for a cookie, and as it quite literally melts in his mouth, he notices out of the corner of his eye as Lup reaches behind her back to squeeze Taako’s hand. It’s everything he remembers and more, the crunchy exterior giving way to a soft, decadent interior studded with tiny flecks of dark chocolate, the subtle undertones of espresso setting his taste buds to dancing. The twins look on expectantly, and although Magnus knows that words can’t encapsulate everything he’s feeling, they’re waiting for his response, and so he says the only thing that comes to mind:
“Hot. Diggidy. SHIT!”
Lup whoops and fist-pumps the air.
“See? That is the appropriate reaction to our dope-ass cooking,” she says, throwing her arm around Magnus’ shoulder and swooping down to kiss his cheek. “Now, come on: let’s get comfortable while Taako makes us his famous hot chocolate.”
Magnus glances over his shoulder to offer an apologetic smile to Taako as Lup drags him by the arm back towards the living room, the plate of cookies balanced precariously in her other hand. She guides him first towards the blanket fort, but after a cursory glance, leads them both to the couch instead and deposits the cookies on the coffee table, collapsing into the cushions with a sigh and patting the space at her side in invitation.
“I’ve missed you, Magnus,” she says, leaning into his side as he takes his seat and using his bicep as a pillow. “I know I’m not always great at keeping in touch, but I’m so glad that Taako had the idea to get the three of us together tonight. It’s been way too long, and…”
“It was Taako’s idea?” Magnus interrupts, brows furrowing.
Lup sits up slightly, tilting her head as she considers his quizzical expression.
“Well, yeah,” she says. “I’m sorry I didn’t think of it first, but… are you really surprised, Mags?”
Magnus isn’t sure why he’s been caught so off guard by this revelation. He knows that Taako enjoys his company more than he would readily admit, but his time with Lup is sacred, more so since the Day of Story and Song than ever before, and there’s a tiny part of Magnus that can’t believe Taako would purposefully give up some of his precious sibling time to accommodate a third wheel. Barry, maybe. Kravitz, definitely. But Magnus?
Lup reaches up to tug lightly on one of Magnus’ sideburns until he meets her eye, and when he does, she smiles.
“We love you, Magnus,” she says, her voice quiet and sincere. “And Taako? Well, he really cares about you. I know we can be a real pair of assholes sometimes, but don’t you ever forget that.”
“Yeah,” Magnus replies gruffly, and he coughs to cover up the slight quaver in his voice.
“Make room, nerds,” Taako declares as he bustles into the room with three large, steaming mugs of cocoa. Magnus accepts his with a smile that he hopes speaks volumes, and although Taako shrugs off his thanks, the elf’s ears twitch in a way that Magnus has come to learn means he’s secretly pleased.
Taako settles in on Magnus’ other side, draping his legs over the arm of the couch as Magnus lifts his arm to accommodate the curve of his spine. Lup mutters a spell over the rim of her mug and flames crackle into existence in the hearth, filling the room with a golden glow that fills Magnus’ chest with an answering warmth. Lup begins to tell them a hilarious story about a pair of necromancers who mistook a moldy cheese for a human brain, but before long, her voice begins to slur, and light snores take the place of her punchline. Magnus considers reaching for one last cookie, but the effort required to shift the two elves on either side of him isn’t worth it and he’s just so comfortable. The last thing he registers before his eyes drift shut is the slight tickle of Lup’s breath on his arm and the weight of Taako’s head against his ribcage, and he falls asleep with the certainty that there is absolutely no place in all of the worlds he’s seen that he would rather be.
It's a long one this time! Thank you to everyone who has left such sweet comments and encouragement. If anyone wants to try recreating Taako and Lup's baller cookies, they're inspired by a Giada de Laurentiis recipe that you can find at https://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/giada-de-laurentiis/double-chocolate-and-espresso-cookies-recipe-1952565. Also, I may or may not have based Magnus' manicure on one of Travis McElroy's Instagram posts. Sorry-not-sorry!
Chapter 4: the call
Magnus receives a call on his stone of farspeech that leads to some frightening revelations.
Winter came early this year. An unseasonable snowfall coats the roads with a heavy blanket of white rimed with ice where the shade of barren trees hides the sun. It's beautiful, in its way, but the unnatural quiet that attends such weather doesn't sit well with Magnus who, despite there being no customers roaming the main street and his having sent word to his apprentices to stay home for the rest of the week, is holed up in his workshop. The chair leg currently positioned on his lathe is taking shape into a beautiful piece of elegantly-turned mahogany, and he's sure that if he works for just a half hour more, he'll have the shape perfect.
He's so engrossed in his work that, at first, he doesn't hear the sound of his stone of farspeech alerting him to an incoming message. He's always been this way: when he worked in Ravensroost, Julia used to love ribbing him about how a dragon could come crashing into his workshop and lay an egg on his lap without his noticing if the project was intricate enough. It turned into a game where she would come up with increasingly ridiculous ways to get his attention. Sometimes, she and Steven would take bets on how long it would take him to be distracted. Once, she managed to stack every chair in the workshop on top of each other until the stack was as high as the ceiling before he looked up from the sprawling relief design unfolding on the cedar bed frame beneath his hands.
It's only when his hand slips and the chisel that he's wielding cuts into the soft flesh of his palm that he notices the chirping. Frowning, he tosses the chisel over his shoulder and sucks at the tiny gash as he roots around in his desk for the stone. The moment he activates it, he knows that something is very wrong.
His brow furrows when there's no answer. If he strains, he can hear someone breathing on the other end, their breath coming in quick, almost-staccato bursts, but there's no other noise to indicate who has called them or where they might be.
"Mookie? Did you take your dad's stone of farspeech again? You know I love to hear from you, buddy, but stealing isn't okay."
Still, no answer.
"This isn't funny, guys. Who is this? Carey?"
On the other end of the connection, Magnus can just make out a crunching sound like shoes breaking through a crust of ice, and there's a tiny gasp that he recognizes immediately.
A whimper, barely loud enough to hear through the stone, sends veins of ice colder than the frost coating his workshop windows through Magnus' bloodstream.
"What's wrong? Taako, where are you? I'll come get you. Talk to me!"
Finally, Magnus hears a voice. It's strained, and it has none of the elf's usual bluster, but it's definitely the wizard.
"Magnus," he says, his tone distressingly flat. It isn't a question, but Magnus grasps onto it like a lifeline.
"Yeah, man, it's me. Where are you?"
"Mmm... 's cold."
"Yeah, buddy, it sure is. Can you tell me what you see around you?"
There's a pause, and Magnus is terrified that their connection has been lost, but after a few seconds, Taako's voice -- sluggish and breathy -- finally replies.
"Trees. Lots of trees. And maybe... water? Yeah. I think the ducks are hungry."
Magnus is already on his feet, his coat halfway buttoned and his boots tugged snugly around his calves.
"I'm on my way, Taako. Stay right where you are."
As he carves a path through the untouched snow of the high street, Magnus runs through possible disaster scenarios in his head, anything to make sense of what could have caused the voice that came out of his stone of farspeech. Because whoever that was, it can’t possibly be Taako, his Taako, Taako from TV, self-assured, smart-ass Taako who never acknowledges weakness and certainly doesn’t lose himself in the town he’s called home for the past year. Magnus growls in frustration as he finds his path blocked by a snowbank as tall as his hips where the sidewalk should be, and instead of finding a way around it, he kicks at the mound with all his might and sends an explosion of snow and ice skyward. His right leg comes away coated in a frigid, white cast, and while his pants are still dry, he knows that it’s only a matter of time before his body heat melts the icy layer and leaves him soaked.
His stride is long, and his bulk is enough to break through any other wintery obstacles he comes across. It takes less than five minutes to get to the gates of the park where he’s praying to Istus and Pan and the Raven Queen and any other deity he can think of that he’ll find Taako before anything can happen to him. He had said he was near water and he had mentioned ducks, and Magnus knows of only one location that fits the bill: the pond at the center of the park where Taako and Lup once took Angus to practice incantations, floating paper boats out into the center of the pond using Gust of Wind and then fetching them back with Mage Hand. If he wasn’t so worried about his friend, Magnus would laugh at the memory of the disgruntled duck that Angus had unwittingly summoned into his outstretched hands and the look on Taako’s face when a whole flock of its brethren had emerged en masse from the water and chased the boy detective up a tree as Kravitz attempted to fend them off with his scythe.
The park looks different under its mantle of ice, and Magnus gets temporarily turned around before locating the right path that leads him towards the pond. As he rounds the corner, he spots a figure sitting on a snow-covered bench overlooking the water.
“Oh, thank Istus,” he mutters under his breath. “Taako!”
The figure doesn’t move. Magnus sprints the rest of the way and skids to a halt in front of the bench, bent over and clutching a stitch in his side. When he looks up, what he sees frightens him, and Magnus – well, Magnus isn’t easily frightened.
Taako is sitting on a cushion of snow, his back ram-rod straight, staring out across the water with eyes that look more grey than blue. His hair has been put up in a messy bun, but half of it spills across his shoulders which are, Magnus realizes, practically bare, covered only by a light house coat. When Magnus grabs his arm, its freezing cold beneath the colorful fabric, and Taako is shivering so hard that Magnus can hear his teeth clacking.
“What are you doing out here, Taako?” Magnus gasps, but he doesn’t wait for a response before shrugging out of his own coat and wrapping the elf in the heavy wool that practically swallows his slight frame. He finally looks up at Magnus, a slow turning of his head that looks as though its costing him every ounce of energy he has left.
“I’m going to get you home,” Magnus promises, and when Taako merely shrugs, he scoops the elf up and sets off across the frozen field towards the high street.
Taako still hasn’t said anything by the time Magnus makes it back to the house, and the silence is even worse than the fact that he is now soaking wet and shaking hard enough that it’s become difficult for Magnus to hold onto him. When he sets Taako down on his bed, the elf automatically curls up into a ball, and it takes a great deal of coaxing to get him to sit back up so that Magnus can help him out of his wet clothes and into the first set of pajamas he can find in the overstuffed dresser. Taako doesn’t resist, but he doesn’t make the task easier, either. As he works, Magnus tries to get him to talk, anything to find out what’s made him go basically catatonic. Once, Taako opens his mouth as if he wants to respond, but nothing comes out; he looks alarmed, and his hands fly to his throat as if to claw the words out, but Magnus quickly grabs them and gives them a gentle pat before assuring Taako that it’s okay, they’ll figure this out together.
As he’s tucking the corners of a thick, furry blanket around Taako’s shoulders, Magnus has an idea. He turns back to the dresser and the ornate jewelry box positioned in a place of honor on its polished top. He can feel Taako watching him as he throws open the lid and starts rifling through the contents, nudging aside sparkly bangles and long, draping necklaces until he finds what he’s looking for.
“Taako,” he says, kneeling beside the bed and staring into the elf’s unnaturally-bright eyes. “I know you don’t feel like talking right now, so I’m going to put the Band of Projected Thought on you and I want you to – if you can – think about what’s wrong so I can help you. Okay?”
Taako’s eyes go even wider, but he nods, and Magnus slips the ring onto Taako’s outstretched hand.
And just like that, Taako’s voice is in Magnus’ head and he isn’t screaming, not quite, but his words are running together as though all the thoughts he can’t express out loud are crowding his brain. In the background, there’s a high-pitched, throbbing whine that sets Magnus’ teeth on edge.
GONE, THEY’RE GONE, I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN IT’SALLMYFAULT, ALWAYS, ALWAYS THIS HAPPENS I WAS SO STUPID, SO STUPID STUPID STUPID TO THINK I COULD BE HAPPY OHMYGODSWHY NOT AGAIN PLEASE NOT AGAIN…
Magnus staggers backwards before catching himself on the edge of the bed and forcing himself to focus on Taako’s face.
“Taako,” he says, keeping his voice slow and even. “I need you to slow down. Who’s gone?”
Lup. Kravitz. Barry, too. They went to take in a bounty, and they should have been back last night, but they’re not answering their stones of farspeech.
As his thoughts play themselves out in Magnus’ mind, Taako’s hands fly towards his head and bury themselves in his hair as he rocks back and forth.
“I’m sure they’re fine, Taako. They know what they’re doing. They’ve gone up against worst than a couple of necromancers, right? I’m sure—”
No. Taako’s voice is thunderous in his head. Lup is gone again and this time I’ll never find her. And Kravitz – he probably realized how worthless I really am and jumped the first train back to the astral plane to apologize to the Raven Queen for ever wasting his time with me. I can’t believe he stayed this long, what did I think was going to happen? I’m so fucking stupid and I’m all alone and that’s never going to change, never!
Taako’s hands are balled into fists and he’s pounding them over and over against his temples. Magnus leaps up and pulls him into a tight embrace, scooping the full-grown elf onto his lap and pressing him against his chest in a bear hug so tight that he can’t possibly hurt himself any more. There are no more thoughts being projected into Magnus’ mind, but the high-pitched whining continues, quieter now, but painfully persistent.
“Taako,” Magnus says, careful to enunciate every word as he bends his head to whisper them into Taako’s ear. “You are not alone. I’m right here, and as long as I’m alive, you’ll always have me. Kravitz and Lup are fine and they’re going to be back any minute, but you have to calm down. I can’t stand to watch you hurt yourself. Please, Taako.”
The trembling bundle in his arms stills, and when Magnus is sure that Taako won’t start hitting himself again, he loosens his grip and lets him slide off his lap onto the bed at his side. Taako’s eyes are damp and his hands are clenched in his lap, but he appears calmer, and Magnus breathes a sigh of relief. Five, ten minutes pass with Taako sitting still as a statue, but at least he isn’t rocking anymore, and his breathing has finally evened out to something akin to normalcy.
“I could really use a cup of that fancy tea you’re always drinking,” Magnus says at last. “What do you say? Do you think you can make it to the kitchen?”
Taako scoffs as though he hasn’t been basically curled up in the fetal position for the past ten minutes, and when he rises to his feet, there’s only the slightest tremor in the hand he uses to push himself up from the mattress.
They sit in the kitchen for hours, drinking pot after pot of spicy tea. Taako doesn’t say much, but Magnus fills the silence with stories of his latest projects and how he saw the cutest dog at the market the other day. Taako occasionally nods along, and Magnus is encouraged when he takes a bite out of one of the cookies he found in a jar beside the oven. Two of the cats wander in, curious at the disturbance, and one settles down by Taako’s feet while the other hops onto his lap and curls up as though it’s the most comfortable bed in the world, its face pressed against Taako’s thigh as it starts up a deep, rumbling purr.
Magnus is starting to think that he may need to prepare some sort of dinner for the two of them when he’s frozen in place by a ripping sound that he recognizes immediately as the opening of a portal down the hall. Taako is already on his feet, the cat unceremoniously displaced from his lap hissing at the indignity of being shoved to the floor without warning, and they both run towards the living room and the source of the sound. Taako freezes in the doorway, and Magnus runs into the back of him; as he reaches down to steady himself, he sees what brought Taako up short, and he gasps despite himself.
Kravitz, Barry, and Lup are standing in the center of the room, scythes already sheathed, but they look terrible. Their reaper robes are covered in gashes, one of the lenses of Barry’s glasses is shattered, and even Kravitz looks as though he’s walked through a hurricane and come out the other side. They look up at the same time to see Taako and Magnus in the doorway and Lup smiles, but her face is smeared with blood and before she can speak, a wave of crackling, crimson energy explodes off Taako and sends Magnus flying backwards.
Magnus blinks as he struggles to his feet. The air in front of him seems hazy, tinged red, and at the center of his field of vision is Taako, hunched over on the threshold between the hallway and the living room, waves of power rippling off him. Taako’s mouth is open as if he’s screaming, but no sound is coming out, and when Magnus tries to go to him, the force-field he’s emitting pushes Magnus backwards with a snap. On Taako’s other side, Lup is running forwards; Magnus tries to shout to her to be careful, but she collides with the force field in her rush to get to her brother. Instead of being shoved back like Magnus was, though, Lup hits the wall of power and braces her hands against it. She doesn’t move forward, but she isn’t repelled, either, and as she pushes, threads of white light fly from her fingers and spiderweb out across the red sphere like cracks on a glass ball. Magnus can see her mouth moving, but he isn’t sure whether she’s murmuring incantations or words of assurance. When the crimson force field shatters, Lup is already on her knees reaching for her brother.
“It’s OK, Koko,” she says, pressing her forehead against his. “It’s OK, it’s OK, shhhhh.”
“Oh gods, Lup, you’re dead and it’s all my fault,” Taako gasps, clinging to her shoulders as tears pour down his pale cheeks. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I said I’d never lose you again. Please don’t be dead, Lup. Please.”
Lup’s eyes shine with tears of her own as she wipes her face on the ragged sleeve of her black robe. The blood splattered across her cheek rubs away, leaving a faint pink stain, but it’s clear now that the blood is not her own.
“I’m alive, Taako,” she says, stroking his cheek with the back of her hand. “I’m here. It’s really me. I’m right here.” As she speaks, she grabs his left hand and presses it to her chest right above her heart. “See? Still beating. Our bounty ended up being a bit… more challenging than we expected, and the necromancers cast some sort of spell that fucked with our stones of farspeech, but it’s all good. We’re fine, Taako, I promise.”
Taako sobs, and as he falls into her arms, the last shimmering remnants of his red sphere drift to the ground and dissolve at their feet.
Magnus watches as Lup guides Taako to the couch where Kravitz joins them. The reaper kneels down on the rug in front of the elves where Taako presses his hands to his face, his ears, his hair, his neck, as though to assure himself that he’s real, and when Taako pauses, Kravitz lifts the sleeve of his robe and cleans his partner’s face with slow, gentle swipes.
“Damn Lucretia,” Barry says, and Magnus is surprised to find that the smaller man is leaning against the wall at his side, watching the same scene with a pained expression shadowing his normally cheerful face. When Magnus gives him a quizzical look, Barry sighs.
“I’ve forgiven her, Magnus, I really have. But when I see what that decade has done to them – hell, to all of us – I just want to wrap my hands around her neck. Is that awful?”
Magnus shakes his head.
“We’re all a little fucked up, I guess. Saving the world’s not for the faint hearted, but I didn’t realize… Barry,” he waves a hand towards the trio on the couch, “does this happen often?”
Barry sighs, and he beckons to Magnus to follow him into the kitchen. They perch on stools around the island, and Magnus does his best to wait patiently while Barry struggles to find the right words. While he waits, Magnus can’t help but notice the dark bruises under Barry’s eyes and the way his right eyebrow twitches slightly as he gathers his thoughts.
“Most days are fine,” he says, his eyes trained on his hands folded in front of him on the tabletop. “Our lives are so good right now, and it helps that everyone’s busy with their new jobs. Too busy, maybe, but… sometimes, Lup thinks she’s back in the umbrastaff. It’s usually just when she’s feeling too claustrophobic, and she’s learned to avoid close spaces, but I couldn’t find her one day, and when I searched the house, I found her with a stack of sheets, one foot in the downstairs closet, and she was just… frozen. When I touched her, she turned on me. She felt so bad afterwards, and she wouldn’t listen to me when I told her it wasn’t her fault.”
Barry’s voice breaks. Magnus reaches across the table and covers the other man’s hands with his own, and although Barry doesn’t look up, he manages a weak smile and continues.
“I finally talked to Kravitz about it when we were on a job together, just the two of us. I guess Taako… well, it’s not the same, but he gets these flashbacks and he forgets where he is for a while. Maybe the void fish affected his memories differently than the rest of us, or maybe it’s a combination of too much trauma. He and Lup – well, they had a rough childhood to begin with, and then Glamorsprings happened. I know he cooks all the time now, but Kravitz walked in on him baking scones in the middle of the night, and when he tried to taste one, Taako flipped out and destroyed the whole batch.”
“Why didn’t he tell me?” Magnus says, unable to hold back any longer. “Why didn’t anyone tell me? I could have helped, I could have… shit.”
“Mags,” Barry says, “Taako loves you, but it’s embarrassing for him. If he could have kept it from Kravitz, he would have. Lup’s the same way.”
“No one should have to go through that alone,” Magnus insists, his voice gruff.
“Yeah, but that’s the thing,” Barry says. “They’re not alone. They have us, and we have them. None of us has to be alone again, and that’s… that’s fucking wonderful, Magnus. Right?”
Magnus leans back in his chair and looks down the hallway. Through the doorway into the living room, he can see Kravitz, Taako, and Lup tangled up together on the couch, Kravitz’s cheek pressed against Taako’s hair and the twins’ hands joined in his lap, and despite everything that happened that night, they’re smiling.
“Damn straight,” Magnus says, and if there are tears in his eyes, Barry is discreet enough not to say anything.
They all stay at Taako and Kravitz’s house that night, Magnus because he’s snowed in and Kravitz refuses to let him even consider fighting his way through the storm back to his apartment, Barry and Lup because the twins refuse to be separated. They camp out in the living room until the early hours of the morning when Barry and Magnus finally succumb to exhaustion. Barry falls asleep on the floor with his head in Lup’s lap, and Magnus passes out in an arm-chair. As he’s drifting off, he realizes that the leg of his pants is still just the slightest bit damp after his run-in with the snow drift, but he’s way too tired to worry about it, so he tucks his blanket a bit tighter and gives in to what he hopes will be a deep and dreamless sleep.
The Ring of Projected Thought was a Fantasy Gachapon prize from episode 50. Next chapter will be a continuation of this one: you didn't think Magnus falling asleep in cold, wet clothes would really lead to nothing, did you? Hah!
Chapter 5: panacea
In which the household rises to the challenge of taking care of a sick Magnus.
Magnus wakes up the next morning with a splitting headache and a throat that feels as though it has been rubbed down from the inside with sandpaper. He groans, and as he attempts to draw in a deep breath, a weight he hadn’t noticed before seems to settle on his chest and constricts his lungs.
It had been stupid to fall asleep in his damp clothes last night, but he had been so tired, and he hadn’t wanted to bother Lup, Barry, or Kravitz by asking them to open a portal back to his apartment so that he could change. Now, as he shifts in the armchair where he had passed out in the early hours of the morning, he curses himself for being such an idiot.
The living room is empty except for a skeletal cat curled up in front of the fireplace, but the sound of chatter from the kitchen tells him he isn’t alone in the house. Forcing himself to his feet, Magnus clutches a blanket around his shoulders as a full-body shiver makes its way down to his bare feet and he shuffles blearily down the hallway.
“About time you got up,” Taako calls from the kitchen as Magnus approaches. “I’ve never known you to sleep through breakfast, especially not when Lup and I are cooking. I wasn’t going to save you any bacon, but Lulu’s got a soft spot for—”
Taako pauses and stares at Magnus as he leans against the doorframe in his blanket-shroud, coughing weakly into his arm and attempting a half-hearted smile.
“Shit, Mags, you look like hell,” Barry blurts from his perch atop a bar stool, blushing immediately and offering a quick “sorry” under his breath.
Lup whirls around from her place at the stove, takes one look at Magnus, and points a greasy spatula in his direction as though it was a rapier that she would gladly use to spear him if he takes one step closer.
“Uh-uh. Nope. Not in this kitchen. Get out of here with those germs. I swear to all the gods, if you sneeze on my omelets, I will personally drag you to the Eternal Stockade and make sure you never get released.”
Magnus holds up his hands in supplication and backs out of the doorway to the sound of Lup muttering about “the very idea of him walking in here looking like death eating a soda cracker.” Standing in the hallway, blinking against a sudden wave of vertigo, he tries to remember if he brought anything with him yesterday – ugh, where are his keys? – and it takes his muddled brain a full minute to realize that his coat is hanging on the rack two feet away.
Taako steps out of the hallway a few minutes later to find Magnus struggling into his boots, one hand braced against the wall as he attempts to tie his shoelaces with middling success.
“What are you doing?” he asks, his eyebrows contracted in an expression of consternation that would have been comical if Magnus had the energy to laugh.
“Going home,” Magnus replies, straightening up and trying for a reassuring smile. “You guys don’t need to catch whatever – whatever this is.”
“Like hell you are,” Taako barks, and before Magnus knows what is happening, the elf is at his side, pulling his coat gently but definitively from his shoulders and guiding him towards the living room.
After helping him onto the couch, Taako kneels on the floor in front of Magnus and takes in the full effect of his flushed cheeks and red-rimmed eyes.
“This is because of yesterday,” he says slowly, realization causing his ears to tilt back and his shoulders to slump minutely. “You went out in the storm to find me and now you’re a fucking plague victim.”
“It’s not that bad,” Magnus replies, his words only slightly belied by a wet cough that makes Taako cringe. “It’s just a cold, nothing to worry about.”
Taako frowns, clearly unconvinced, as Magnus sniffles loudly into his sleeve.
“You’re impossible,” Taako says at last, rubbing his temples to accentuate his irritation. “You know that, right? Always taking care of everybody else and never sparing a moment to think about yourself. Don’t know why I’m surprised – you’ve always been like this. But shit, Magnus, your health is important! Agh!”
Taako’s scream of frustration brings Lup and Barry from the kitchen. Kravitz follows soon after, his cloak still draped over his shoulders as though he has only just returned from an errand, and Magnus finds himself irrationally angry at the thought of the Raven Queen ordering him out on another job so soon after the last one went to shit.
“What’s wrong?” Kravitz asks, stepping around the couch and pressing a hand to Taako’s back. Taako’s shoulders relax slightly, but he’s still glaring daggers at Magnus.
“This chuckle-fuck thinks he can just walk home in a blizzard when he’s clearly on death’s door,” Taako waves a hand at Magnus as though to encompass his whole, miserable being. “I mean, look at him, Krav!”
Magnus feels a hand snake around his head and rest, palm up, on his forehead.
“You’re burning up,” Lup says from behind him, and at his feet, Taako’s cheeks pale noticeably.
“That’s it,” Taako says, pulling himself to his feet and pressing his fists against his hips resolutely. “You’re staying here, and we’re taking care of you.”
“I don’t want to be a b—”
“Don’t you dare say you don’t want to be a bother, Magnus Burnsides,” Lup hisses, coming around the couch to stand next to her brother, her stance mirroring his as she looks him up and down and shakes her head as though he really is the most ridiculous person she has ever met. “You sit right there and close your eyes while Taako and I cook up a nice bone broth, and if you even think about getting up, I will have Barry fetch the handcuffs from our bedroom and make sure you don’t move.”
“Babe,” Barry splutters from behind the couch while Kravitz ducks his head to hide a furious blush.
Lup merely grins, showing off more teeth than is strictly necessary, before grabbing Taako by the hand and pulling him off towards the kitchen.
Barry, Magnus, and Kravitz spend an awkward moment staring at one another before Magnus decides he’s too tired to worry about being self-conscious.
“Barry,” he says, biting back a yawn, “do you think you could pop in at my place and grab a change of clothes? If the Terror Twins are set on me staying here, I might as well look the part. I mean, if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” Barry replies, and he looks relieved to have something to do. He hurries from the room, his departure followed a few seconds later by the ripping sound of a portal being opened in the hallway.
Magnus winces as a disturbing thought occurs to him.
“Probably should have warned him about the mess,” he says, his nose wrinkling at the thought of the untouched laundry piled up on his bed and the dishes left unwashed in the sink.
It probably won’t come as much of a surprise to Barry; Magnus has never placed much stock in organization, rather trusting his memory to tell him where this or that thing can be found. He remembers more than one occasion on the Starblaster when he was ordered out of the lab by a certain bespectacled scientist whose good humor only extended so far when the state of his equipment and his precious specimens seemed in peril.
Kravitz merely smiles, bending down to pet the head of a tawny tomcat weaving circles around his feet.
“Do you ever get sick?” Magnus blurts out before he can stop himself. He has no idea where the thought came from, and the only excuse he can come up with for having said anything in the first place is the fever that seems to have spread to his brain.
Kravitz looks surprised but unoffended. He straightens, tilting his head slightly as though considering the question before answering.
“No,” he says at last. “I haven’t been ill in centuries. One of the benefits of being in the Raven Queen’s employ, I suppose, although the price is rather… well.”
Kravitz gestures to his face where the faint splotches of vitiligo that form the shape of a skull over his cheeks, forehead, and chin are an uncanny reminder of his skeletal reaper form.
“Sorry,” he mutters. “Shouldn’t have asked.”
“I don’t mind,” Kravitz says, and he means it. He has such a warm smile for someone whose life – or rather, death? – is spent reaping the souls of criminals, and Magnus finds himself unconsciously smiling back despite the growing pressure building just behind his temples.
“However,” Kravitz continues, “I do seem to remember tea being rather soothing in times of poor health. I could make you a cup if you think it would help?”
“Um… yeah,” Magnus replies, “that would be great, actually. Thank you, Kravitz.”
Kravitz sweeps off to the kitchen, and Magnus settles further into the armchair, tucking the blanket up around his ears.
He closes his eyes for what he had intended to be just a few minutes and opens them again to find the light coming through the living room windows shining in at a completely different angle. A glance at the clock on the mantle shows him he’s been asleep for nearly two hours, and he groans as he stretches his legs and drags his protesting body from the chair. A small pile of clothes is folded neatly on the chair: he recognizes a pair of his favorite lounge pants and a warm shirt as well as a pair of slippers he’s certain didn’t come from his apartment. He scoops them up and shuffles down the hallway towards the bathroom to change, the sound of lowered voices talking quietly in the kitchen following him as he goes.
When he returns to the living room a few minutes later, he finds a steaming mug of tea and a small vial of light blue liquid waiting on the coffee table. There’s a cat in his chair, so he plops down on the couch instead and eyes the vial with uncertainty.
“I didn’t want to wake you up,” Barry says, startling Magnus from his position in the doorway, “but you really ought to take that healing potion right away. It doesn’t taste great, but it should have you feeling better in a couple of hours.”
“Thanks, Bar,” Magnus says. “For the clothes, too. You guys are the best.”
“No duh,” a voice from behind Barry replies, and a moment later, Lup saunters in with a big bowl of something fragrant and steaming. Taako trails in her wake, his ears tipped downward and his eyes flicking between Magnus and the soup in Lup’s hands, and the fact that he is so far from his boisterous, flamboyant self makes Magnus’ stomach do a little flip.
He really is worried, Magnus realizes, and the thought makes him sit up a little bit straighter even though the dull pounding in his head revolts at the movement.
“You’re not going to make me eat alone, are you?” he asks when Lup sets the bowl in his hands.
The way they’re all standing around and looking at him is making Magnus incredibly self-conscious, and he’s grateful when Taako goes back to the kitchen and returns a few minutes later with three additional bowls and a loaf of dark, grainy bread on a tray for the rest of them.
He can’t taste much thanks to the congestion, but the soup is warm and rich, and it fills his belly without being too heavy. It takes him longer to finish his portion than it does the others because he has to stop between sips to blow his nose. By the time he’s done, the other dishes have been cleared away, Kravitz is seated at the piano, and Barry and Lup have started up a card game that appears to involve slapping each other’s hands as fast and as hard as possible between turns. Taako has settled on the couch at Magnus’ side, his feet up on a little footstool as he flips idly through a spell book that doesn’t seem to contain anything fascinating enough to hold his attention for long.
Magnus doesn’t realize he’s staring until Taako looks up and snaps the book shut with a flick of his wrist.
“You look beat,” Taako says, not unkindly. “The guest room’s all made up if you want to crash. Can’t have been too comfy kipping in the armchair last night, am I right?”
Magnus stifles a yawn. He does feel like he could sleep for a week, but when he considers Taako’s offer, the prospect of a lonely bedroom – albeit one with a soft mattress and sheets that smell like lavender and rosemary – doesn’t appeal to him in the slightest. He glances around the room, pausing to watch Barry gather up Lup’s hand in his as she moves in to steal a pair of cards; she growls playfully, and he presses a kiss to her knuckles before swooping in with his other hand to grab the cards that she was about to take. Kravitz has begun to play something light and airy, his fingers dancing across the piano keys with practiced ease, and the song that takes shape is as beautiful as it is tantalizing familiar.
“I’d rather stay here if… you know, if you don’t mind,” Magnus replies.
Taako considers him for a moment before grabbing a pillow and placing it on his lap. He fluffs it up and then looks at Magnus expectantly, laughing when the only response he receives is a slightly gape-mouthed look of bemusement.
“Go on,” he says, and when Magnus doesn’t move, he reaches out and pulls gently on the blanket around Magnus’ shoulders to indicate that he should lie down.
It’s so tempting, and he’s so tired, and maybe this should feel strange, but all Magnus cares about in that moment is how good it would feel to close his eyes and put his head down somewhere soft. Before he quite realizes what he’s doing, he’s stretched out on the couch with his head on Taako’s lap and there are fingers working light circles into his shoulders.
His head still aches and there’s a faint wheezing sound when he breathes too deeply, but all things considered, Magnus can’t remember the last time he felt so good.
Chapter 6: somnambulism
It's been years since Magnus last sleep-walked.
It’s just after 2 o’clock in the morning when Taako, his head deep in a recipe book, hears the sound of footsteps coming down the hallway towards the kitchen. His finger slips on the quill pen he’s using to make extensive and increasingly-snarky notes in the margins of an idiotic recipe for rum baba, and a blob of ink seeps into the parchment. He curses as he squints into the gloom beyond the doorway, but even with his dark vision, he can't make out anything in the shadows.
“Magnus?” he calls out to the dark hallway, but there’s no answer.
Taako frowns as he slips his pen into its ink pot and hops down from the kitchen stool. Kravitz has been away for nearly a week now on a job, and when Taako asked Magnus to come stay for a few nights to keep him company, he had conveniently forgotten how much sleep humans needed. Magnus should be in bed now, but there’s definitely sounds coming from the living room, and Taako has no idea why, if he’s awake at this hour, Magnus wouldn’t just join him in the kitchen.
Taako’s ears tilt back slightly as he tiptoes down the hallway and pokes his head into the living room. One of the cats -- a skinny thing with pale grey fur and a crooked tail -- brushes past his leg and mrawps quietly. Taako presses a finger to his lips, and the cat pads along with silent understanding at his side as he steps into the living room.
Magnus is standing in front of the empty fireplace, his back to Taako. He’s muttering under his breath, but Taako can’t make out what he’s saying. Magnus turns suddenly, a swift, jerky movement that triggers Taako’s defense mechanisms, and he has to fight the instinct to brace himself for an attack, his shoulders already squared and the beginnings of a spell tickling in his fingertips. Clenching his fists and willing the magic away, Taako curses. It’s Magnus, he tells himself. He’s not going to hurt you, idiot. Meanwhile, Magnus stares at a spot just over Taako’s head, and it’s then that Taako realizes what’s happening.
The first time Taako remembers this happening was a week after the ill-fated start to their Starblaster voyage. The whole crew was still processing what had happened after take-off, the memory of those black columns descending on their home-world shadowing even the most mundane of conversations. In the days preceding their landing in the Animal Kingdom, each member of the crew seemed determined to keep as busy as possible, studiously avoiding any talk that might have resulted in their having to acknowledge that the world they knew was probably gone forever along with the family, friends, and colleagues they had left behind.
For the first time in his life, Taako had considered himself lucky, all things considered: he and Lup had no connections back on their home-world, no one to miss if it really was gone for good. They had each other, and although the thought of what might have happened had only one of them been accepted on the mission haunted them and kept them practically glued to each other’s sides even more than usual, they were used to shitty luck. Misfortune was nothing new to them, so they stayed out of everyone’s way and quietly kept the crew fed, retreating to their room at the end of each day to fall asleep crushed together on a single bed as the ship propelled them on to yet another place where they wouldn’t belong.
Thus it was that, about a week after they witnessed the Hunger devouring their home, Taako was jolted out of his meditation in the middle of the night by the sound of someone walking past their room. “Stomping” may have been the better word, actually, and when Taako leapt from the bed and threw open the door to give the inconsiderate asshole a piece of his mind, he came face-to-face with a shirtless, barefoot Magnus Burnsides who appeared to be making his way to the common area.
“Magnus,” Taako hissed, clutching his dressing gown around his shoulders. “What the actual hell, man? Some of us are trying to sleep!”
When there was no answer, Taako gritted his teeth and shut the door behind him as quietly as possible so as not to disturb Lup before setting off down the hall, muttering under his breath about stupid, friggin’ inconsiderate humans.
In the common area, Magnus was standing with his hands pressed against the wall-to-ceiling window that took up half of the room. As Taako stalked to his side, rolling the sleeves of his dressing gown up to his elbows as he prepared a particularly vitriolic speech about interrupting an elf’s beauty sleep, the glow of starlight pouring through the glass illuminated Magnus’ face and drew him up short. Magnus’ eyes stared into the abyss of unfamiliar space, gazing out into a sea of constellations that they hadn’t begun to map yet, and to Taako’s horror, there were tears clinging to his eyelashes.
Immediately, Taako began to back away. Emotions were not his thing, and he didn’t even know where to start with a disconsolate Magnus Burnsides. Until that moment, Taako was certain he had never seen the human crack a frown; even when the Hunger was smashing its inky black columns into their home-world, Magnus had been nothing short of determined, offering little smiles of encouragement to his crew mates as they each scrambled to their stations to make sure that their ship didn’t get pulled into the ebony carnage below.
Not watching where he was going, Taako’s legs ran up against a low card table with a loud smack. Cursing, he bent down and clutched his ankle as his eyes prickled with tears of pain.
“Are you kidding me right now,” he growled, and he glared up at Magnus with renewed ire. “Naw, it's fine, my dude, Taako's good down here. Don't strain yourself or anything. I'll just fucking bleed to death over here, thank you very much.”
Magnus didn’t move, and it was only then that Taako realized that something was seriously off. Magnus hadn’t even flinched when Taako hit the table, and even now, he was still staring out of the window as if he was the only person in the room.
Taako pulled himself to his feet and limped gingerly to the silent man’s side, peering up into eyes that he only then realized were oddly unfocused as they reflected the starlight beyond the glass.
“Awww dip,” Taako breathed with dawning realization, “are you, like… asleep right now?”
Magnus didn’t answer, of course.
Taako was familiar with sleep-walking. When their aunt took them in for those few short, glorious years, he and Lup had often strayed from their beds in the middle of the night and woken the next morning to find themselves curled up on the floor of the kitchen in front of the big wood stove. It had taken weeks of getting used to having their own beds before their sleeping brains became used to the idea of sheets and a mattress. They had grown out of it soon enough, but Taako remembered well the disorienting feeling of waking somewhere that wasn’t where you’d put your head down the night before, and he suddenly felt an unbidden pang of pity for Magnus.
“We’re gonna be OK.”
Magnus’ voice was so loud in the empty silence of the common room that Taako flinched. He thought for a moment that Magnus must have woken up at last, but the taller man didn’t move, and when Taako joined him at the window, there was no indication that he felt the elf’s presence. The dissonance was eerie, and Taako was finally ready to go back to bed and leave Magnus to his nighttime musings when he spoke again.
“We’re gonna be OK… right?”
The uncertainty in Magnus’ voice paired with the hesitant question sent a spike of ice straight down into Taako’s gut.
“Yeah, my man,” Taako said without thinking. “Everything’s going to be fine.”
Taako wasn’t one for false optimism, and there were absolutely no guarantees to give credence to his words, but the little worry lines on Magnus’ forehead and the way he leaned against the glass as though he could barely hold himself up beneath the weight of his doubt made it suddenly, painfully obvious just how young the human was. If he had been an elf, he would be little more than an adolescent, and although Taako knew that it was a false equivalency, it was difficult to maintain his usual mask of jaded cynicism in the face of Magnus’ innocent need for assurance.
Magnus sighed and turned from the window, and for a moment, Taako thought he actually saw him standing there. When he moved again, though, it was to head back across the room and down the hallway without another word, and Taako was surprised to find himself disappointed.
They had never spoken about that night. Taako was fairly certain Magnus didn’t remember his nighttime stroll, and in the end, Taako dismissed it as an awkward conversation he was not prepared to have. In the cycles that followed, Magnus remained a force of positivity among their little crew of reluctant travelers, but every few years, Taako would be woken by the sound of footsteps in the hall while the rest of the Starblaster slept -- usually after a particularly rough day of searching for the Light of Creation -- and sure enough, he would find Magnus pressed against the common room window with damp eyes and desperation mirrored in the curve of his spine.
As Taako bites back the dull ache of memories that still feel so fresh that it actually hurts, Magnus begins to pace. His hands are moving, grasping in the air for something that isn’t there, and when he can’t find it, he plops down onto the couch in frustration. His back is ramrod straight and his shoulders twitch minutely as he stares at his fingers where they hover just above his lap as though in expectation. Taako isn’t sure where the inspiration comes from, but before he can stop himself, he settles on the floor at Magnus’s feet and tilts his head back to press his forehead against Magnus’ twitching fingers.
There’s a moment of stillness as Taako waits, unsure what Magnus will do. Can sleep walkers even interact with the waking world? He squeezes his eyes shut, feeling incredibly foolish, until the sensation of calloused fingertips on his scalp makes his shoulders jump and Magnus begins to comb his hands through the long cascade of silky hair that Taako loosed from his braid earlier in the evening.
Great idea, dumb ass, Taako thinks to himself. He can already feel his hair turning into a mess of knots and tangles, but the idea of spending an hour with a comb picking it apart suddenly seems less important than the pleasant warmth currently spreading from the top of his head down into his chest with each stroke of Magnus’ hands. Despite himself, Taako leans into the pressure and out of the corner of his eye, he spots the gray cat eyeing him with what he swears is condescension.
“Shut up,” he mutters, and the cat flicks its crooked tail in dismissal.
Taako’s head is a mess of half-finished braids and frizzy strands that jut off at weird angles when, half an hour later, Magnus’ hands fall away and the rumbling sound of snores makes Taako chuckle. When he turns around, Magnus is slumped over against the couch pillows, mouth agape, deep in the throws of what Taako hopes is a pleasant dream. There’s a blanket draped over the back of the couch, and Taako gently tugs it free and drapes it over Magnus’ sleeping form.
“That’s a good look on you,” a voice at Taako’s back purrs, and the elf’s mouth is already tilting up into a smile before he’s turned around to see Kravitz leaning against the doorway, his reaper’s cloak blending seamlessly into the shadows of the hallway beyond.
Taako juts out his hip and fluffs his hair with both hands.
“I make everything look good, baby,” he says, and Kravitz laughs, the sound so deep and resonant that Taako thinks he can feel it in his own belly.
Grinning, he walks across the room and takes Kravitz’s hand in his, tilting his head to indicate that they should go into the kitchen and leave Magnus to sleep.
Taako tells Kravitz all about Magnus’s sleep-walking over cups of dark coffee and slices of fresh chocolate babka. Kravitz observes that stress can bring on somnambulism, and Taako tries not to think too hard about what would cause strain intense enough to drag Magnus from his bed in the middle of the night.
“He’s lucky to have you,” Kravitz states over the rim of his coffee mug, his eyes glowing crimson as he watches Taako through the steam.
“I mean, ch’yeah,” Taako splutters, blushing despite himself.
“I mean it,” Kravitz smiles, reaching across the kitchen table to rest his hand lightly on Taako’s. His palm is still warm from the mug, and the glow of that heat travels up Taako’s arm straight to his cheeks. “You’re good for each other. It makes me glad to know that he’s here when I’m not. You shouldn’t have to be alone.”
Taako’s eyes narrow.
“I’m a big boy, Krav,” he says, his voice deceptively light. “I don’t need a babysitter.”
“No, you don’t,” Kravitz replies, setting his mug down on the table and taking Taako’s other hand in his. “But a friend? Someone you care about and who cares for you in return? I have seen quite a bit of life, Taako, and I am certain there are few things to rival real companionship. You deserve that, my love. And so does Magnus, I think.”
“You’re such a sap,” he mutters, but he doesn’t argue, and when he looks up, Kravitz is looking at him with such unbridled affection that he can’t help but lean across the table to press a kiss to the reaper’s forehead.
They stay in the kitchen the rest of the morning, polishing off a whole pot of coffee between them. Magnus stumbles in, bleary-eyed and rumpled, as the rosy light of sunrise filters in through the windows and when he gets a good look at Taako, his eyebrows fly up to his hairline.
“Taako,” he says, a look of utter bemusement stamped across his face, “what happened to your hair?”
I think the next chapter or two are going to be more Taako-centric in their narration. I hope it's clear where the flashback starts and ends!
Chapter 7: surprise
It's Magnus' birthday, and he is... pretty miserable, actually.
The sun has already set before Magnus closes up shop. His apprentices eye him warily: it’s been a long day, and Magnus has been less than his usual, jovial self. He hasn’t been rude, exactly, but he hasn’t been as quick to dispense praise as he typically is, and every time he sits down to work on his latest project (an over-sized dining table for the new Neverwinter banquet hall), he can’t seem to work for more than five minutes without sighing and announcing that he needs a break.
They would never ask him what’s wrong: he’s Magnus Burnsides, one of the Seven Birds! But as they pack up their things and head out for the evening, each one makes a point of smiling and wishing him a good night. To his credit, Magnus returns each farewell with a sincere (if lackluster) one of his own, and it isn’t until he’s closed the door of the workshop behind the last one that his shoulders droop and he slumps heavily against the wall to rake a hand through his hair with more force than is strictly necessary.
It is Magnus’ birthday. He’s not even sure what age he’s supposed to be celebrating this year: should he count the years of the Stolen Century, or is he supposed to carry on like he did before they got their memories back? Whether he’s 38 or 138, it’s not the age that bothers him, not really; it’s the prospect of going home to an empty apartment to reflect on the years ahead that seem, despite all he and his friends have accomplished, to be shrouded in uncertainty.
He loves his small carpentry business; he treasures the time he spends teaching his young apprentices their craft and watching them become more confident as their proficiency grows; and most days, it’s enough to look around him and see the world in one piece and know that that’s partially thanks to him. But on days like today, when the reality of growing older is foremost in his mind, it’s difficult to look to the future with the kind of optimism that everyone expects from him.
Ashamed at his maudlin thoughts, Magnus hurries through the ritual of closing, doing a cursory sweep of his workshop to make sure no tools were left out before locking up and setting off down the darkening street with his satchel slung over his shoulder and a heaviness to his steps. In a half-hearted attempt to cheer himself up, he takes a detour by the dog park and settles on a bench to watch a pack of pit bulls chasing a tennis ball thrown dutifully by their owners who take it in turns to make sure the dogs have a continuous stream of balls to pursue. The two tiefling women wave to Magnus; he’s a regular here despite not having a dog of his own, and they join him on his bench with the ease of familiarity born of having been covered in the drool of the same dozy canines on more than one occasion.
“Evenin’, Magnus!” Maura beams, dark green eyes sparkling with laughter as one of the dogs noses her in the knee impatiently.
“Ladies,” Magnus grins. “I can’t believe how big the boys are! It seems like only yesterday you two were setting a pack of puppies loose in the play pool for the first time.”
Elara sighs, a fond smile broadening to reveal her fangs.
“They are the rowdiest, messiest, loudest bunch of misfits – and gods, how we love them!”
“When are you going to join us in the joys of puppy parenthood, Magnus?” Maura asks. “A friend of ours has a beautiful brindle pointer that’s about to have a litter. We have the hook-up!”
“Awww, you know my apartment’s too small,” Magnus says, the words rolling off his tongue automatically.
It’s not entirely a lie. He’s been living in a one-bedroom set-up since they all moved off the moon base, and he wouldn’t feel right bringing a dog home to an apartment that doesn’t have access to a big yard with plenty of room to run. It’s not the first time he’s thought about getting a pet. He loves Stephen, but fish don’t play fetch, and it’s incredibly difficult to cuddle with a glass ball, but every time he thinks about contacting the Neverwinter Rescue Society, he can’t bring himself to do it because bringing a dog home would mean having a home to bring it back to, and Magnus… doesn’t feel like he has that right now.
They’re interrupted by the chirp of Magnus’ stone of farspeech. He reaches into his bag, embarrassed, and makes hurried apologies which Maura and Elara shrug off. They retreat to give him privacy, and as Magnus activates the device, the two tiefling women are quickly surrounded by their pack of panting mutts.
“Magnus!” Taako’s voice on the other end of the connection rings in Magnus’ ear. “It’s cha’boy! What’s good?”
“H-hey, Taako,” Magnus replies. “Not much. Just closed up shop and I’m – yeah, I’m heading home, I guess.”
“Cool, cool,” Taako says, his voice oddly distant as though he’s stepped away from his stone of farspeech.
For a few awkward moments, neither of them says anything. Magnus is bemused: it isn’t like Taako to call out of the blue, and he’s sure they didn’t have plans. It doesn’t make any sense, unless…
“So, you’re not home yet, huh?” Taako asks, but he doesn’t wait for Magnus to reply before continuing. “Listen, would you mind stopping here first? One of the cats knocked over the piano bench this afternoon and broke one of the legs. I was hoping you could, you know, use that baller carpentry proficiency you’re always bragging about to take a look at it before Kravitz gets home.”
Magnus’ shoulders slump and he bites back a sigh. Of course, Taako didn’t remember his birthday. Everyone’s so busy these days, and it’s not like it’s an important year. Still, it had been nice when he thought that one of his friends might be thinking of him today.
“No problem,” he says, careful to keep his voice bright. “I’ll be right there.”
He breaks the connection before Taako has a chance to detect the disappointment creeping into his tone.
“Duty calls,” he shouts across the small park to Maura and Elara who are in the midst of the complicated process of sorting leashes and rounding up their brood. They wave their farewells as Magnus shifts the strap of his satchel higher up on his shoulder and sets off up the high street with a huff.
He reaches Taako’s house in less than ten minutes, but he lingers on the door mat for a few extra seconds to compose himself. He doesn’t want to alarm his best friend with his dark mood, but as he’s training his mouth into an unnaturally-rigid smile, the door swings open to reveal the elf himself on the threshold, eyebrows quirked in question.
“D’you forget how to knock?” he quips, ushering Magnus inside with a wave of his hand. The entrance hall is dim, and Magnus (no dark vision to aid him as he stumbles over a pair of shoes just inside the doorway) is about to ask why when Taako practically drags him towards the living room without giving him a chance to take off his coat.
“It’s really good of you come, Magnus,” he says, voice slightly higher than usual, his words almost blurring together at the rate he’s talking. “It couldn’t wait ‘cause, y’know, I wasn’t about to pass up on the chance to wish you a—”
A dozen voices call out the salutation in unison, and when the lights flicker on at the snap of Taako’s fingers, Magnus clutches the door frame as the sight of all the people he loves best on this world materialize out of the gloom in front of him.
There’s Merle, dressed in a purple, velvet smoking jacket and khaki shorts, smoking a pipe by the fireplace and shooting Magnus a thumbs-up with his soul-wood arm. Next to him, Kravitz sits on the piano bench – which is, notably, not broken – with Angus at his side, the boy detective swinging his legs gleefully and holding up two colorful sparklers in both hands as Kravitz watches with wary, crimson eyes. Standing a few feet away is Barry, one arm draped around Lup where she perches on the arm of the couch, the other clutching a large, wrapped box tied with a green ribbon. Carey and Killian are there, the former’s smile showing off every one of her pointed teeth; Davenport is comfortably ensconced in one of the room’s large arm-chairs; and even Lucretia, who rarely leaves the Bureau these days, is standing in the corner smiling self-consciously as Magnus gapes.
“This is—are you guys really—is all this seriously for me?” Magnus stammers.
“Like we would forget your birthday, doofus,” Lup scoffs from her place on the couch. “Can you believe this guy?”
The others second the sentiment in their own way, some with laughter and others with dramatic eye-rolls, and as Magnus fights to hold back the tears that want desperately to spill from his damp eyes, Taako tugs on his sleeve and gently guides him into the crowd.
If there’s one thing Taako is good at (and let’s be honest, there are many), it’s throwing a party, and this is no exception. There is a massive cake made of rich chocolate, slathered in creamy cocoa buttercream and sprinkled with shavings of dark chocolate that dust the top and sides of the confection like delicate wood carvings. Everyone sings the traditional birthday song popular in Faerun accompanied by Kravitz on the piano, and then the six other original members of the IPRE team deliver their own rendition of their home planet’s celebratory tune to the amusement of the four native partygoers.
After the cake and the singing, Taako insists that it’s time for presents. Magnus has always been more comfortable with giving than receiving, and by the time Angus (the last in the line) watches him unwrap a coffee-table book on dog breeds of Faerun, Magnus is more than a little overwhelmed. Kravitz seems to notice this before any else does; he suggests that Taako open a fresh bottle of wine, and as glasses are being replenished, he opens the piano and begins to play a jaunty melody that, for the moment, takes everyone’s attention away from the guest of honor for a few blessed minutes.
Magnus is breathing a sigh of relief when he feels the pressure of a hand on his shoulder, and when he turns, Taako is behind him gesturing with a tilt of his head that Magnus should follow him out of the room. In the hallway, Taako leans against the wall with his arms crossed tightly at his chest, a gesture that Magnus has come to learn means that he’s feeling self-conscious. About what, Magnus can’t imagine, but he finds himself unconsciously smiling in reassurance as Taako casts about for the right words.
“You may have noticed Krav and I didn’t get you a gift,” Taako begins, looking up at Magnus through mascaraed lashes with eyes that seem almost to glow in the dim light of the hallway.
“Oh my goodness, Taako, that’s – this party is gift enough, are you kidding?” Magnus says, heat rising unbidden to his cheeks.
“Well yeah, it’s a dope ass party!” Taako agrees. “But seriously, Magnus, Krav and I… ugh, shit, just— yeah, just come with me.”
Taako spins on his heels and sets off down the hall with Magnus following curiously behind. He stops in front of the door of the main guest bedroom, his hand hovering over the doorknob, and before he turns the handle, he looks at Magnus with a glance that, if Magnus didn’t know any better, is heavy with an anxiety of his own.
“You basically live here anyway, Magnus, and Krav and I thought it was only right that you have a place of your own in this house. You can—you can live here, if you want. I—we would like that. Whatever. But if you want to stay in your apartment, that’s cool. We just thought you should have something of your own here, so…”
Taako turns the knob at last and pushes the door open, stepping aside so Magnus can look in. What he sees nearly knocks the wind out of him:
The guest bedroom has been transformed. It’s still the same room – the dimensions, at least, are the same – but when Magnus steps across the threshold, it feels as though he’s walking into another house entirely. The walls have been paneled with long lengths of golden logs to mimic the interior of a cabin, and a small stove has been set up in the corner, the ruddy glow of flames through the grate casting playful shadows over a plush rug that covers most of the floor in soft, egg-shell-colored decadence. A wooden dresser takes up the majority of one wall, and on its surface are a dozen framed pictures featuring all of the faces currently in the living room smiling out at him from behind polished glass panes, and tucked to the side beneath the window is a rocking chair that he recognizes immediately as one of his own creations, a favorite piece he made and sold reluctantly after one of his customer offered too good a price to refuse. The bed is slightly bigger than he remembers, wide and long enough to hold his large frame comfortably with room to spare, and the red and white checked quilt that covers it looks warm and soft and inviting.
“Well?” Taako says at last, a note of impatience and something else that Magnus doesn’t recognize tinging his voice. “What do you think?”
For a few moments, Magnus doesn’t speak, and the longer the silence stretches, the more Taako’s ears droop.
“Hey, it’s cool; if you don’t like it, we can… maybe, I don’t know, remodel it? I kind of went all Fantasy Extreme Home Makeover on the place, but if you think it looks stupid, I—”
Magnus doesn’t let him finish, stifling any further doubts he might have with a bear hug that lifts Taako off his feet. For a moment, Taako is stiff in his arms, but he slowly relaxes, leaning into the embrace, and his arms drift up Magnus’ back to pat him gently on the shoulder blades. When Magnus sets him down and steps back, there’s a fleeting look of disappointment that flashes across Taako’s face that Magnus barely catches before it’s replaced with a wry grin.
“Sooooo… you like it?”
“Taako,” Magnus says, breathless, “this is the nicest thing that anyone’s ever done for me. I can’t believe—are you sure? This is insane—Kravitz is cool with this? Seriously?”
“Honestly,” Taako says, waving his hand carelessly in the air between them, “I don’t know who’s more excited about the prospect of having you as a roomie: Krav or the cats. You know those furry shits like you better than me, and I think Kravitz is just pleased with the idea of having someone around who doesn’t automatically show him up with their fabulous sense of style, rockin’ hair, and impeccable taste in hats.”
Magnus laughs, and as he doubles over to slap his knee, he uses the movement to swipe a tear from his eye before Taako notices that he’s started crying again.
“All right, all right,” Taako says, grabbing Magnus by the arm and shepherding him back towards the party. “I didn’t throw together this amazing shindig for us to stand in the hall all night. You can tell me all about how wonderful I am later – seriously, my dude, rain check on that – but for now, let’s get back in there! I made a bet with Merle that I would get Davenport to play Twister before the night is out, and cha’boy is not about to lose that moolah!”
When they return to the party, everyone is so wrapped up in their individual conversations that they hardly seem to have noticed that they were gone. Kravitz is still at the piano, picking out a slow, serene melody that quietly complements the muted chatter of the guests; when Taako and Magnus reenter the room, he looks up without stopping and smiles, his eyes seeking out Taako for affirmation. When Taako nods, Kravitz beams back at both of them, and Magnus feels a rush of gratitude that fills his chest with a sudden, almost-overwhelming heat.
The guests head home gradually over the next two hours. Lup and Barry are the last to leave, retreating upstairs hand-in-hand to make use of the portal that connects their home to this one, and as they offer their goodbyes, Lup catches Taako’s eye and shoots him what can only be described as a smug, self-satisfied smile. Taako blushes a deep shade of red, but Magnus is too busy helping Kravitz pick up the leftover dishes and wine glasses to notice.
When they’ve put the house back into some semblance of order, Taako feigns a fainting spell and collapses against Kravitz’s chest, insisting he be carried to bed before he withers away of exhaustion.
“Do you need anything before we turn in?” Kravitz asks, scooping Taako’s limp form up into his arms with practiced ease and starting off down the hall.
“Not a thing,” Magnus says.
He pauses at the guest bedroom door – his bedroom door – and watches the two of them head off down the hall, Kravitz stopping for the briefest moment before disappearing into their bedroom to press a kiss to Taako’s forehead and murmur something into his ear.
The door is almost shut behind them when Magnus hears Taako call out, “I’m making brown sugar pancakes in the morning. Last one to the kitchen does the dishes…”
As he sits on the edge of his bed, surrounded by the fruits of Taako’s labor, soaking in the reassurance he’s so desperately craved that he is still wanted, still has a place among his chosen family, Magnus is overcome by the surety that he has finally found a place to call home.
Despite my original intentions for a short fic, I am definitely not done with this! I have at least 3 more chapters planned, so I hope you're enjoying this little exercise in warm fuzzies as much as I am.
Chapter 8: overture
Magnus helps out a ghost cat and discovers a room in the house that he's never been in before.
Magnus arrives home one evening before either Taako or Kravitz. It’s nice to have the house to himself: as much as he loves the way Taako’s presence fills any room he’s in, it’s peaceful to have an hour or two of quiet, particularly after the day he’s had. Three separate commissions had come due at the same time, and after weeks of complaining (silently, of course, and completely to himself) about having too many apprentices to keep track of, he had been down to only one assistant thanks to a virus that’s been working its way through the merchant district.
As he changes into more comfortable clothes, he notices a stack of freshly-laundered shirts on the end of his bed and he groans inwardly. He had tossed those shirts in the laundry pile days ago, but he never got around to doing them. It never occurred to him that someone else would take it upon themself to do the chores that his overactive brain ignored.
But then again, perhaps he shouldn’t be surprised. There is an easy division of labor in his new home that he supposes he has unconsciously fallen into since he moved in a few weeks ago: Taako, naturally, does most of the cooking -- and gods help anyone who attempts to disturb the order he’s enforced on his kitchen -- and is the final word on matters of decoration; Magnus has been happy to take on the heavy lifting and various fix-it jobs; and Kravitz-- well, Magnus knows from personal experience that Kravitz enjoys doing laundry more than he probably wants anyone to realize.
A few days ago, Magnus was making his way back to his bedroom after helping Taako with the breakfast dishes when he passed by the laundry room. The door was ajar, and there were clear strains of music from inside that made him pause. When he peered through the opening, he had done a double-take: Kravitz was standing in the middle of the room, his arms sweeping through the air as though he was conducting a symphony, humming to himself as he used his magic to levitate a pile of damp robes onto the drying line.
Magnus had backed away quietly and never mentioned what he had seen to either Taako or Kravitz. He had a feeling that he had accidentally wandered upon a private moment, but he was glad he had: it was humanizing to see Kravitz do something as mundane as laundry, and although he would never say it out loud, Magnus thinks it’s adorable that the same reaper who not so long ago had threatened to drag him, kicking and screaming, to the Eternal Stockade finds pleasure in reenacting Fantasy Fantasia when he thinks no one is looking.
As he tugs on a pair of lounge pants, Magnus hears an odd sound coming from somewhere overhead that makes him pause. It’s a high-pitched trill somewhere between a meow and a siren, and although it makes him roll his eyes (of course Taako’s cats are little drama queens), he throws on his favorite, oversized sweater and heads for the stairs.
Magnus hasn’t had much occasion to go to the second story since he’s moved in. There’s a bedroom up here that’s basically Angus’ home-away-from-home whenever he isn’t at school, and there’s the linen closet that doubles as a magical portal connecting this house to Lup and Barry’s. The two other doors on the hall have always been closed every other time Magnus has been up here, and it never occurred to him to poke around even though this is his home now, too.
There’s a translucent ball of light flitting back and forth in front of the door at the end of the hall. It stills as Magnus approaches and takes on more definition, the tips of two ears materializing from the top of the orb and a long, sinewy tail growing from the back. It looks up at Magnus, opens it mouth, and issues a loud MRAAAOOOWWW before settling back on its ghostly haunches and fixing him with a look of mild indignation.
“You sure are loud for a ghost cat,” Magnus laughs, kneeling down in front of the vaporous feline. “Shadow, isn’t it?”
The cat blinks. Magnus hasn’t met this fellow yet, but he seems to remember being told that Kravitz came home with Shadow in tow after apprehending a group of necromancers who had been using the bodies of stray animals in their experiments. He remembers Taako recalling with pride how Kravitz had put each necromancer in chains himself and made sure that their lab was destroyed so that no more animals would suffer the fates already met by the half dozen unfortunate creatures whose remains he had seen buried respectfully.
Shadow chirps loudly up at Magnus, more bird than cat, and Magnus laughs.
“What’s the matter, little guy? Want to go in that room? Listen -- I’m no expert, but can’t ghosts like… walk through walls?”
Shadow’s eyes narrow as though this is the most ridiculous thing he’s ever heard.
“Ooookay, guess not,” Magnus says, standing up and considering the door for a moment. “I guess it’s fine. It’s not like you’re going to knock anything over.”
The door is unlocked, and as Magnus pushes it open, he catches a whiff of the familiar scent of sandalwood and sulfur that he’s come to associate with Kravitz. It’s dim inside, but there’s an open window on one side of the room and the sunlight filtering through the curtains is bright enough to reveal the contents. Magnus gasps.
This is clearly Kravitz’s music room. Stringed instruments line the walls, the polished wood of their bodies gleaming even in the muted light. Larger specimens are propped up in individual stands and, in a place of prominence beside the window, a cello made of shining, dark mahogany seems to be holding court. There’s a silver music stand set up in front of it, a few sheets of yellowed parchment standing at attention, and before Magnus quite realizes what he’s doing, he’s crossed the room to trace the outlines of the black notes sprawled out in free-hand across the pages. He’s never seen Kravitz’s handwriting before, but he knows with a bone-deep certainty that this is his work; even if he hadn’t known Kravitz was a conductor in his previous life, there’s something very distinct in the way that the treble clefs have been inked on each line, miniature pieces of art at the head of a parade of carefully charted melody, that could only have been made by the careful hand of the half-elf reaper.
Magnus knows he shouldn't be in here. This is obviously Kravitz’s private room, and he would never dream of violating someone’s personal space, but the door was open and Shadow was so insistent in and surely Kravitz won’t mind that he just came in for a quick peek?
There’s a lyre on the wall that pulls Magnus into its orbit with the siren call of its silvery strings. The sound holes bear the shape of a miniature constellation, and the crossbar has been carved in a slightly darker wood than the rest of the instrument, gleaming ebony against the golden chestnut of the body. It’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen, and before he can talk himself out of it, Magnus lifts the instrument out of its stand with careful hands. His eyes dart around the room as though he expects to be caught out, but there’s no one there except for Shadow who has curled up in a patch of sunlight on the carpet, his form nearly invisible in the glare of the pinking rays.
There’s a chair in the center of the room, and Magnus settles into it, perching the lyre lightly on his lap in a way that feels both foreign and achingly familiar. As he strokes the smooth surface of the arms, fleeting memories of being a small boy with his face pressed against the window of the village music shop dart across his mind’s eye. He remembers begging his parents for lessons, the overwhelming joy of their assent, the excitement of his first rehearsals… and the pain of the other boys’ scorn when they caught him walking home from practice one day with his sheaf of music under his arm. He wasn’t as strong then as he is now, physically or emotionally, and their snickers had needled him until, a few weeks later, he had abandoned his lessons altogether, playing only when he was sure no one would see him. He had started training as a fighter soon after, and the combination of his newfound skills and a belated growth spurt were enough to keep the bullies at bay.
Standing in Kravitz’s music room, cradling the lyre against his chest, Magnus is overwhelmed by the need to play something, anything. Now as then, he’s alone: nobody needs to know, and he yearns to feel the peculiar magic of coaxing sound from silent strings.
It’s rough going at first. It’s been years since Magnus has held an instrument, let alone played one, and it takes a while for the notes to come back to him. He picks out scales first, testing the resonance of the strings until he feels confident in his memories of the proper chords, and then he carefully plucks out a traditional folk tune from his home world. It’s a simple piece with a few cheerful flourishes thrown in, and as he plays, he recalls dancing to the tune at a midwinter festival as a teenager. The memory blossoms in his belly, warm and light, and spreads through his body until it seems to radiate from his fingertips. He picks up speed, attempting to mimic the jaunty pace of the reel, and he’s surprised when it comes out – not bad at all, actually!
As the final notes of the song resolve, Shadow chirps a happy mraaap at his feet, and Magnus chuckles.
“You like that, huh?” he says, a silly grin stretching across his face. He shouldn’t be so pleased, but it’s been ages since he’s played for anyone – or any cat, for that matter – and Shadow’s little mew of approval makes a flush of pride rise in his chest.
“It’s quite lovely,” an unexpected voice says from the doorway. It’s deep and familiar, and Magnus freezes for a full five seconds as the color drains from his face.
When he turns around, carefully cradling the lyre to his chest as though he can conceal it in the bulk of his muscles, he sees Kravitz leaning in the doorway, watching him with an odd look that Magnus doesn’t immediately recognize. His feathered cloak is slung over one shoulder and his tie is loose about his neck, the collar of his starched black shirt opened just enough to reveal the edge of a sharp shoulder blade. It is, Magnus realizes, probably the greatest state of undress he’s ever seen the reaper in. It shouldn’t make him blush, but it does.
“I’m so sorry,” he stammers. “I know I shouldn’t be in here. It’s, like, a total invasion of privacy, but Shadow wanted in and the door was basically open already and—”
“Magnus, please,” Kravitz says, holding up a placating hand. “It’s fine. Truly.”
As he speaks, Kravitz bends down to pick up Shadow who is currently weaving blurry circles around the reaper’s feet. Magnus blinks in surprise when Kravitz’s hands actually seem to find purchase on the ghostly cat’s belly and he is able to hoist it up into his arms. Shadow’s purr echoes eerily across the room as he nuzzles his transparent snout against Kravitz’s neck adoringly, clearly smitten.
“I didn’t know you played,” Kravitz says, his eyes flickering like tiny flames in their sockets as he peers over Shadow’s head.
“I don’t,” Magnus replies instinctively. “Err, that is, not for a very long time. I learned when I was a kid, but there haven’t been a lot of opportunities to practice since then.”
“Did you ever consider becoming a bard,” Kravitz asks, setting Shadow down and walking across the room to rearrange the music on his stand. He’s not looking at Magnus and his voice is unnaturally quiet and even. If Magnus didn’t know any better, he would think that Kravitz was trying his best not to spook him. Magnus has used the same technique on feral dogs more times than he can count.
“Nah,” Magnus replies, tapping his fingers against the smooth wood of the lyre. “Music wasn’t considered sufficiently ‘manly’ back in the village. That’s a load of bull,” he amends quickly when he sees Kravitz’s shoulders stiffen oh-so-slightly, “but, you know… misogyny.”
Kravitz turns in time to see Magnus’ eye roll of condemnation.
“It’s a pity,” Kravitz says, folding his arms across his chest. “You clearly have a talent for it.”
“Really?” Magnus can feels his cheeks fill with color. “Jeez, thanks! That… that means a lot coming from you, Kravitz.”
There’s an awkward moment where neither of them seems to know what to say next. Shadow keeps up an unbroken purr that fills the silence like the rumbling of a small motor until Magnus shifts in his seat and the lyre under his arm twangs slightly.
“Oh!” he starts, patting the wood apologetically. “I should go, actually.”
As he moves to put the lyre back on its stand, Kravitz tilts his head slightly and considers Magnus with unblinking intensity. Magnus pretends he doesn’t notice.
“You are very welcome to use this room whenever you like,” Kravitz says at last. “You needn’t ask. And if you’d like some… I hate to say ‘lessons,’ it sounds so juvenile, but I would be more than happy to instruct you if you’d like to perfect your technique.”
Magnus freezes, one finger still lingering on the strings of the lyre.
“Absolutely,” Kravitz says. “No one should be kept from something that brings them joy. It would be my pleasure.”
Magnus works very hard to keep his tone even, but the broad smile stretched across his face betrays him regardless.
“Yeah!” he says, striding across the room and grabbing Kravitz’s hand in his. The reaper’s eyebrows shoot towards his hairline as Magnus pumps their joined hands with enough enthusiasm that Kravitz has to brace himself against the music stand with his other arm to keep from being bowled over. “That would be amazing!”
“Excellent,” Kravitz says. “Taako won’t be home for another hour at least if you’d like to…”
“Hells, yes!” Magnus crows, and he can’t stop himself from wrapping Kravitz in a hug that would crush an ordinary person but which seems merely to rumple the stunned reaper’s vest.
It is the first of many lessons that they share over the next few months. Magnus comes to cherish their time together; he can’t believe how lucky he is to have a master musician willing to offer him music from his personal collection, correct his posture when necessary, and teach him new fingering techniques that he’s certain they didn’t have on his home world. Kravitz doesn’t question him when Magnus requests that their lessons remain a secret: he isn’t ashamed, exactly, and he doesn’t think that Taako would tease him, but he wants to be ready when he plays for someone besides his tutor, and he’s not sure exactly when that will be.
In the meantime, Magnus continues to settle into his new home and feels now, more than ever, that he is exactly where he was always meant to be.
Chapter 9: the watch
Magnus is halfway home from the market when the first symptom hits him.
Magnus is halfway home from the market when the first symptom hits him. It’s a warm spring day, and at first, he attributes the way the air seems to be swimming in front of him to the heat. He’s walking past a cart piled high with hats, the vendor exchanging coins with a young orc woman wearing a brown pea coat and a vibrant yellow scarf, when the whole street seems to lurch before his eyes. He flings out an arm to steady himself, blinking against the late afternoon light.
“Are you quite all right,” the young woman asks.
When Magnus opens his eyes, she’s peering at him with mild concern, one hand clutched to her chest. He opens his mouth to assure her that he’s fine, but at just that moment, a ray of sunlight hits her saffron scarf and the reflection from dozens of tiny glass beads woven into the threads blinds him. He squeezes his eyes shut, breathes deeply, and forces himself to smile.
“Just fine, ma’am,” he says, his voice only slightly gruffer than usual. Before she or the vendor can ask him any more questions, he pushes himself upright and heads down the road towards home as quickly as his unsteady legs will take him.
He knows these symptoms, and he also knows that if he doesn’t make it home soon, he’s going to be in a world of trouble. He hasn’t had a migraine in weeks, but this one promises to be severe: he keeps his eyes on the ground and walks in the shadows along the side of the road, but bright splotches of light flash across his vision intermittently and he can already feel the tiny, pulsing drumbeat that promises to become a full-blown headache tapping out a rhythm along the right side of his skull.
He makes it home before the nausea hits. Slamming the door behind him, he pauses in the entrance hall and relishes the rush of cool air and the comfort of the dim lights.
“Mags? Is that you?”
Taako’s voice roars in Magnus’ ears, unnaturally loud and uncomfortably reverberant, and his hands fly to his temples.
“Yep,” he manages to reply between gritted teeth.
“Oh, good. Come on in here: I’ve tried on five different outfits and I think I’ve finally settled on one, but I could use a second opinion. I know you’re basically blind where fashion is concerned, but you’ll just have to do.”
Magnus breathes through his nose as he makes his way down the hall, relying on his fingers as they brush against the wall to compensate for his eyes which are, for the moment, half-closed. He pauses outside Taako’s bedroom door, the scent of cologne and hairspray turning his stomach to knots. Taako is standing in front of the vanity, swaying side to side as he considers his reflection in the huge, gilded mirror, and when he hears Magnus approaching, he turns towards the door and strikes a pose that, under any other circumstances, would have elicited a full-toothed grin from his friend.
“I couldn’t decide between the off-the-shoulder or the ruched sleeves, but—hachi machi,” he yelps. “You look terrible! What the hell, my dude?”
“I’m fine,” Magnus says unconvincingly. “Just… a headache. No big deal.”
“No big deal?” Taako’s eyes widen incredulously. “You look worse than Davenport the morning after we dared him to drink that entire keg of Valraxian ale.”
Magnus groans as a fresh wave of nausea washes over him. When he opens his eyes again, Taako is standing directly in front of him with a hand pressed to his shoulder as though he’s worried that Magnus will tip over at any second which is, Magnus thinks bitterly, a distinct possibility.
Taako helps him down the hall to his own bedroom, extinguishing the lights as they go with a wave of his hand and helping Magnus find the edge of the bed without tripping over the rug. Magnus collapses against the covers and buries his face in the pillows as Taako mutters something about checking the pantry for one of Merle’s potions.
As he lies alone in the dark, a dull, throbbing pain echoing like a twin pulse in his temples, Magnus tries to remember the last time he’s had a migraine this bad. He used to get them regularly as a younger man, but they had been fairly easy to control. Back at the Institute, Merle used to brew him a potion that, if taken when the first symptoms manifest, eliminated the worst of the effects. The headaches had become more frequent after they lost their memories, ranging in severity from a niggling, persistent pain to a pounding that had him bent over the toilet for hours at a time. He had thought that, with their memories back and their lives in some semblance of order, he might have seen the last of them, but that was obviously nothing more than a vain hope.
Taako returns with a bottle of light green potion which he pours into a small glass for Magnus to drink. The bitter concoction has barely slid down his throat before he feels his gorge rise, and to his horror, he bends over the side of the bed and gags drily.
“Woah there,” Taako says, summoning the waste basket and positioning it in Magnus’ lap. “Aim right there, big fella. Taako spent too much time of his nails tonight to ruin them wiping your upchuck off the carpet.”
Magnus retches a few more times, but in the end, nothing comes up, and he sinks back against the pillows with an undignified moan.
“It’s all right,” Taako murmurs, and Magnus feels the cool pressure of a wet cloth on his forehead. It doesn’t do much to soothe the pain that’s lodged itself like the dull end of a blunt blade just below his temporal bone, but he doesn’t feel nauseous any more, and for that, Magnus is grateful.
When he opens his eyes again, it takes a moment for them to adjust to the darkness. The heavy curtains have been shut against the light of early evening, and the only illumination seeps in around the doorjamb from the hall beyond. Taako is perched on the edge of the bed, the tails of his favorite patchwork dress coat spread out around him, watching Magnus with wary eyes that seem almost luminous in the dark.
“Any better,” he asks, his fingers tugging anxiously on the fringed edges of the vermillion scarf knotted at his throat.
“Not really,” Magnus says, “but thanks. I would’ve passed out in the hall if it weren’t for you.”
“And I would have left you there,” Taako chuckles. “No way this dainty little elf was about to drag your muscular ass all the way in here.”
Magnus snorts, ignoring the shooting pain that accompanies the sound. Taako is many things, but “dainty” is hardly one of them. No one who watched him stand against the Hunger would ever make the mistake of underestimating Taako’s strength no matter how much he tries to hide it.
There’s a quiet knock at the door, a light tap that nevertheless has Magnus rolling over into the pillows once more. Taako jumps to his feet and cracks open the door to let in as little light as possible, and Magnus can hear Kravitz’s voice on the other side.
“Are you almost ready to go?”
“Shit,” Taako hisses. “What time are our reservations?”
It’s then that Magnus remembers that tonight is supposed to be Taako and Kravitz’s date night. They’ve been planning it for over a week: dinner at their favorite restaurant in town, a concert in the park, and affogato at the café on the green. No wonder Taako’s so dressed up – not that he’s ever needed an excuse to look his best.
“Go,” Magnus says, waving his arm blindly in the direction of the door. “I’m fine here. You guys have a great time!”
There’s silence for a moment, and then the sound of footsteps and the quiet click of the door. Magnus lies as still as possible, willing the pain in his head away, waiting for the soporific effect of the potion to take hold. He doesn’t have to wait long: the pounding in his head dulls slightly as a thick, cottony haze takes its place and Magnus feels himself tip towards unconsciousness.
Magnus is walking along a long, empty corridor. The walls are made of rough-hewn stone and the ground is hard-packed dirt beneath his feet. He’s alone, but the sound of a dozen whispering voices echoes in his ears as he walks. He picks up speed as the voices get louder, his boots kicking up clumps of earth as he runs faster and faster. They aren’t speaking any language he recognizes, but their message is clear: Hurry. He reaches the end of the hall and skids to a stop in front of a chamber lined with doors, each one identical. The voices are screaming now, but he doesn’t know which door to choose. He falls to his knees in the middle of the chamber and presses his hands to his ears as the room fades around him…
He is sitting on a hill high above the Legato Conservatory. The sun is setting over the horizon, the light casting a perfect golden halo over the shell of the concert hall below. “It’s beautiful,” a voice says beside him, and when he looks, Taako is curled up in the grass at his side, half of his body pressed against Magnus’ as he looks out over the valley with a contented smile on his face. Magnus is about to answer when an ear-splitting sound like a cannon blast echoes across the hill; he looks in the direction of the noise and sees the Starblaster careening through the sky. There’s a crack as the ship breaks through the atmosphere, and when Magnus looks back at Taako, he finds a corpse in a red robe sprawled in the grass at his side. Inky black columns crash into the surface of the planet as Magnus’ vision goes dark…
There’s ash in the air, on his skin, in his hair, clogging his throat. He can hardly move for the amount of debris on the ground, but he has to keep going. He pushes aside half-fallen walls, crumbling columns, and all the while he calls out her name. Hands rise up out of the rubble, skeletal and still, and when he rounds the corner where their house should be, he finds a massive crater instead. At the center of the depression is a rocking chair that creaks back and forth in a cinder-thick breeze while the sweet sound of a woman’s voice humming is swept up on the sooty wind and carried away where he cannot follow. He screams her name over and over again until hundreds of the dead hands rise up out of the wreckage and drag him down beneath the weight of the fallen city.
Magnus gasps into consciousness with the ghost of those hands clinging to his back. He thrashes on the bed, trying to throw them off, only to hear a sharp “OW!” as his elbow connects with something solid and very much alive.
“It’s just me,” Taako gasps, and when Magnus squints into the darkness, he sees the shape of his friend on the bed beside him, hunched over and massaging his chest with a grimace.
“I’m so sorry,” Magnus apologizes, but Taako shakes his head.
“It’s all good. I should’ve known better than to shake you when you were having a nightmare, but you were shouting in your sleep and it was kind of freaking your boy out. Are you OK?”
Magnus pauses, taking stock of his body. His head is still pounding slightly, but the ache is edgeless and he can sit up without any of the dizziness that usually accompanies these spells.
“Better,” he says at last, relief in his voice.
“Good,” Taako says, tucking the edges of his dressing gown around himself. “That’s good. Seems like you were having a pretty bad dream, though. You want to… talk about it?”
“How much did you hear?” he asks, afraid of what the answer will be.
“A lot of nonsense and yelling,” Taako replies. “But you—you kept calling for Julia.”
Magnus leans back to rest against the headboard, unwilling to see the pity that he knows is in Taako’s eyes.
“It’s OK to miss her,” Taako says. “Like, I get it, y’know? You don’t have to be embarrassed or whatever, not on my account.”
“Thanks, Taako,” Magnus replies.
They sit in silence for a few minutes, Taako folding and unfolding his hands in his lap as Magnus fights down the tears that want so desperately to fall. As he lifts a hand to scrub at his eyes, his elbow grazes Taako’s arm and Magnus realizes just how close the elf is sitting. There’s barely a foot of space between them, and when Magnus puts his hand back down on the quilt top, his fingers graze the curve of Taako’s hip briefly before he pulls his hand back and tucks it safely beneath the covers.
“You were happy together, weren’t you?” Taako asks so suddenly that it takes a moment for Magnus to realize what he means.
“Yeah, we were,” he replies, pushing the echoes of the dream away and letting his chest fill with the warmth of real memories instead.
Taako laughs, a quiet sound that almost sounds like a “huh.”
“What?” Magnus asks, shifting on the bed so that he can see Taako’s face. He’s staring down at the end of the bed, an odd half-smile on his face. He swallows before answering.
“Naw, it’s just… I never thought you would have gone in for that romantic stuff. Back on the ‘Blaster, you never seemed like you were interested in – love, or whatever.”
“I wasn’t,” Magnus said, “at least… not really.”
He sighs. He’s too tired to fight the words that come out of his mouth, and once they start, Magnus realizes how much he needs to say them out loud.
“I’ve always known I was different. I never mooned after the girls in my village like the other boys did. My dad always said it would change when I found the right person. He meant it to be reassuring, but it just made me feel I didn’t belong. My friends were starting to get married, and I just couldn’t see the point of it. So I joined the Institute, and you guys accepted me, just as I was. I knew I wouldn’t ever be normal, but life was good – even after the Hunger started following us. We had each other, and I loved you all so much. Maybe it wasn’t the right kind of love, but it was enough. When I met Julia, I found that same acceptance in her. I knew it was important, but I couldn’t remember why, and I guess I had… forgotten, maybe… that I was supposed to be ashamed. She loved me and I loved her back. I didn’t know I could feel that way, and it was wonderful, Taako.”
It’s not until he tastes the salt on his lips that Magnus realizes he’s crying. Taako hands him a handkerchief and he mops at his face, cursing his stupid sentimentality even as he marvels at the fact that Taako’s still here. Taako, who hates emotions, who spent so long pretending that he didn’t have any, remains unflinchingly at Magnus’ side, waiting patiently as he composes himself with big gulping gasps of air.
“Speaking of love,” Magnus says at last, managing a smile as he tries desperately to change the subject, “how was date night?”
“We didn’t go,” Taako shrugs. When Magnus starts to exclaim, he waves a hand in the air and says, “It’s no big deal. I wanted a quiet night in anyway. We got take-out and I promised Kravitz we’d play a couple rounds of strip poker later. He’s so excited, it’s shameful.”
Magnus doesn’t know how to respond. He knows this is at least partially untrue: Taako has never preferred a “quiet night in” when he could be out on the town, dressed to the nines, enjoying a gourmet meal somewhere public where he can be the center of attention. Kravitz isn’t much better, and Magnus has it on good authority that the reaper has been looking forward to this concert for weeks.
Kravitz appears in the doorway just as Magnus is coming up with a suitable apology. He’s still dressed in his evening clothes – deep crimson jacquard jacket and matching ascot – as he slips through the door and stands at the foot of the bed with a smile.
“Are you feeling better, Magnus?”
“Lots,” Magnus replies. “Seriously, thank you guys. I’m sorry I ruined your date night.”
“Nonsense,” Kravitz says, shaking his head indulgently. “We both felt better knowing you weren’t here alone.”
Magnus is speechless.
“You should rest,” Taako says, pulling himself up from the bed and joining Kravitz in the doorway. “There are leftovers in the kitchen, but you might not want to come out for a while. Kravitz is very competitive when it comes to card games, and I intend to lose spectacularly if you know what I mean.”
Taako winks, and Magnus rolls his eyes so hard it actually hurts.
When Magnus emerges from his room an hour later, bleary-eyed but steady on his feet, he finds a plate of his favorite pork dumplings warming in the oven and a tall glass of icy water sweating on the kitchen counter. Kravitz and Taako are curled up on the couch in the living room, half-buried beneath a nest of blankets, and when he pokes his head in to thank them again, he sees a mess of cards on the floor and two half-empty glasses of wine on the coffee table. There’s a twinge of something like longing in Magnus’ chest as he watches them doze, but he can’t bring himself to ruin their evening even further, so he tiptoes back down the hall to his bedroom and tucks himself into bed, slipping into a deep and dreamless sleep.