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Beating Hearts and Hooves

Chapter Text

As far as Taako was concerned, this whole thing was a load of bullshit. Let him be the first to say it and thus grant him the almighty power to say ‘I fucking told you so’ when it all went to hell in a handbasket.

The one good thing here was that they weren’t staying with uncle Vividar anymore, the jackass. Taako sure as fuck wasn’t broken up over that loss. They barely ever interacted with the dude, and that was about the nicest thing they could say about him.

The thing was, Taako had figured that would be it. Sure, he and Lup were still seventeen. Had only turned seventeen last week, truly and finally becoming the dancing queens they’d always been in their hearts. Technically, not legal adults yet with the big one-eight.

It was close e- fuckin- nough though, in Taako’s humble opinion. And Uncle Vividar had been it! The last goddamn distant relative to put up with them for a couple months to a year before getting tired of it and throwing them out on their asses. When they’d seen the all too familiar CPS car in the driveway as they came back from their last day of finals, Taako thought they’d be free of all this. They’d cut through the paperwork a bit early, smudge some shit, and he and Lup would be out on their own.

They already were on their own, might as well and just go and make it official, right?

Except Sheryl had been all smiles as she sat them down at the kitchen table while Uncle Vividar did his best impression of an empty chair in the other room. Turns out they’d been able to get in contact with an aunt. She didn’t have much contact with the rest of the family but she would be oh so happy for them to come stay with her.

It was the same bullshit as always.

So here they fucking were, stuck in the back of a car again for the past three goddamn hours. Taako swore he hadn’t seen a building that didn’t look like it’d be right at home on the set of goddamn little house on the prairie in forty minutes.

A ranch, Sheryl had explained. Wasn’t that exciting? Such a wonderful change of pace, getting to go live out in the countryside. It was sure to do them both some good, and oh, their aunt kept horses! Wasn’t that wonderful?

Taako smacked his phone, trying and failing to get some sort of internet connection. Lup was apparently a doomsday prepper and a nerd and had an actual goddamn ipod and a book to occupy her time. Taako, like every other modern goddamn civilized person, had all his shit on his phone and relied on the internet to keep him entertained.

Which was to say he’d forgotten to grab a book when packing up all his junk. He’d been pretty distracted by the fact that they were actually going through this shit again when he thought they were done with it, so sue him.

Groaning loud enough for Sheryl to definitely hear it Taako threw his head back in defeat. Hopefully there would be some better connection once they actually got to the house, but he doubted it.

“Here,” Lup said, holding out an earbud in his direction.

“Your music taste sucks,” Taako said, taking the earbud without any actual hesitation. Lup didn’t comment on it, just rolling her eyes.

“Oh, we’re almost there now,” Sheryl said, for the third time in the past twenty minutes. Taako knew that because he had nothing else to do but stare at the clock while playing bejeweled and count the amount of times Sheryl insisted they were ‘almost there now.’

It seemed like this time might actually be the truth though, because they turned the corner and Taako felt an immediate difference. They were on a dirt road. A fucking dirt road. Even the goddamn farm they’d lived on with Grandpa Tostada for a while had pavement up to the driveway.

It was a long road, and apparently their aunt’s place wasn’t the only one on it. Normally that wouldn’t be a surprise, but considering everything else so far Taako wasn’t going to take ‘other people existing’ for granted. Still, there were a couple of other houses spread along, most of them seeming to have huge yards. One of the large farmhouses seemed to have been renovated into something else, but it was on Lup’s side of the car and Taako couldn’t see well enough to read what was written in the front window.

The house they pulled up to was technically next to that one. There was still the space for like, another whole ass house with a yard and everything in between them if they had been in a regular neighborhood.

When they stopped Lup pulled on the headphone wire, tugging it out of his ear with ease.

“Rude,” he said, and she just snorted as she wrapped the headphones around her ipod and shoved the whole think in her pocket.

Fucking hell. He didn’t want to get out of the car. Lup and Sheryl were getting out of the car and he was still sitting there. He checked his phone again. A little more connection now that they stopped, but still basically unusable.

“Come on Ko, I’m not carrying all your junk for you,” Lup said. It was a decent enough means of encouragement for him to get out of the car without actually saying that. He could take the bait and not cause a scene, and then complain to Lup about this whole mess later once they were alone.

He could have done that, and he probably should have. Instead he stayed right where he was, glaring down at his phone.

“I just don’t see what the fucking point is! Why are we even here?” he snapped. He knew the sad pitying look Sheryl was giving him just from hearing her sigh.

“Taako dear, you haven’t even given this place a chance yet,” she said, and he scoffed at that. Maybe he hadn’t, but it wasn’t like they hadn’t done this whole song and dance a million fucking times already.

They were so fucking ready to be done with it all. They both knew that uncle Vividar was about to kick them out, and they’d been prepared. Lup had a job lined up for as soon as summer started, and he had interviews for like six different places. Sure they were all retail and fast food hell, but it wasn’t like he gave a shit as long as it paid.

And just like that they had to ditch all their plans to come out here because some aunt they never met got guilted into taking them in. They couldn’t even start from scratch and try to get new jobs, because they were out in the middle of nowhere and neither of them even had their drivers license yet.

So yeah, he was pretty fucking pissed and didn’t want to get out of the car. Lup could put on a smile and play nice during all of this but he was tired of it.

Apparently his silent sulking wasn’t the answer she was hoping for, because Sheryl sighed again.

“I know it’s been rough dear but I promise, this is the last time,” she said. Taako wanted to brush it off as more empty promises from people who didn’t give a shit about them, but he couldn’t entirely. She’d been their case worker since they were nine. Even though they didn’t see her often and her upbeat attitude towards it all wasn’t fooling anybody, Taako couldn’t rightfully say she didn’t care about them at all.

“Give me one good reason to get out of this car,” he said, still wanting to be stubborn despite all that.

“Because I’m sure as fuck not getting back into it,” Lup supplied easily. It was straight to the point, and Taako only lasted a few seconds longer before letting out a sigh of frustration.

“Fucking, damn it,” he grumbled, opening his door and climbing out. “This is gonna suck. You know this is gonna suck, right?” he still complained, going and grabbing his bags out of the trunk despite that. If Lup was set on going along and staying here he didn’t have a choice, because like fuck would he ever leave her. That wasn’t how they worked.

“I know, just embrace it. I’m sure you’ll be able to rock the whole cowboy aesthetic,” Lup said and Taako scoffed at that.

“Of course I can, that was never a debate here,” he said. Sheryl seemed relieved at the two of them returning to their usual banter,   going and gathering up some folders before starting towards the house. Taako reluctantly followed at Lup’s side, and at least Sheryl was telling the truth about this being the last time. Moving out was gonna be difficult from here, but once they turned eighteen they could with no questions asked. Unless shit went real wrong, it’d be too much of a hassle to find them a new place to stay before then.

There was a huge wooden porch out front, a long bench along one side and a rocking chair in the corner of another. They both looked in pretty good condition, almost new. The bench was close enough to the door that he went and sat on it immediately while Sheryl went and knocked. There was a bit of rustling around inside before the door finally opened, and Taako leaned forward just enough to look and see their aunt.

The first thing to come to Taako’s mind was ‘yep, that’s definitely a lady who owns her own ranch.' She was older and had dark curly hair pulled back with a bandanna, wearing denim overalls and looking like she knew how to do some fucking yard work. He actually wasn’t sure if she was really their aunt or some other distant relative and they were calling her that for simplicity’s sake.

“Oh, hello hello, please come in. I thought there was- oh, there’s the second one, I heard there were two of you,” she said, starting to usher them inside. Taako slowly got off the bench and followed along, since there was no point in throwing a fit right off the bat. Well, technically he’d already done that, but not in front of this lady.

“Thank you so much again for having them. It’s Tia, right?” Sheryl asked, and Taako knew he should at least try to give a good first impression. Despite that he ended up snorting.

“Wait, hold on. Let me get this straight, you’re aunt Tia?” he asked, and he guessed he should be thankful that she didn’t seem offended by that.

“A little redundant, I know,” she said, an amused smile on her face. “And no need to thank me, I’m delighted to have them,” she added, turning back to Sheryl. She led them into what Taako figured was the living room, and this place seemed to be a lot of wood paneling and knickknacks. Taako and Lup put their bags down and sat down on a couch while Sheryl went and sat in a chair closest to the coffee table.

“Would you all like something to drink? Eat? I know you just had such a long drive,” Tia said, moving towards what Taako assumed was the kitchen.

“Just some water if you don’t mind. Taako? Lup?” Sheryl said, turning to the two of them. Taako was pretty sure the only reason she always said yes whenever people offered them junk was so that they felt more comfortable asking for shit. It would be nice if either of them actually cared about stuff like that.

“Whatcha got?” Lup asked, and they could hear their aunt rummaging around in the kitchen now.

“Water, fruit juice, grape juice, orange juice, I wasn’t sure if you kids liked soda but I ran down and got some cans of Pepsi if you’d like. I could also put on some tea,” she said.

“Grape juice,” Lup said, and Taako felt her elbow him in the side when he didn’t answer after a moment.

“Pepsi I guess,” he said. A minute later she came back with three glasses, putting their respective drinks down in front of each of them. They were actual glasses too, and Taako guessed he was at least thankful for the caffeine. With that Aunt Tia pulled up a wooden chair that looked more comfortable than wood honestly had any right to be.

“So, we already got most of the work done when I spoke to you over the phone. There’s just a few papers I’ll need you to sign,” Sheryl said, starting to pull papers out of her folder and getting a pen out of her purse.

“Of course, not a problem at all. I am sorry I never got a chance to meet the two of you till now. I’m afraid I haven’t had much contact with the rest of our family for quite some time,” she said. And honestly, that was one thing Taako couldn’t blame her for.

“Can’t image why, they’re all such wonderful people,” Lup muttered into her glass, sarcasm clear in her voice. Taako snorted and their aunt didn’t look up from the paperwork Sheryl had handed her.

“That’s certainly one way of putting it,” she said a bit absently, signing her name here and there on the papers. It wasn’t long before she’d gone through them all and was handing the packet back to Sheryl who smiled brightly as she put the papers away.

“Well, that’s everything. I hate to run so soon but it’s quite a long drive back,” she said. Standing up she turned towards Taako and Lup. “Did you two get everything out of the trunk?” she asked. They did a quick look over their bags before nodding.

“Yeah, we good,” Lup said, also standing up when their aunt did. Taako figured they were going to walk Sheryl to the door and stayed where he was. It was a surprisingly comfy couch, he was good right here.

“Alright then, well thank you once again for taking them in,” she said to their aunt. Then she turned to the two of them, and Taako didn’t miss the way she focused mainly on him as she spoke. “And do please just try and give this place a chance,” she said. Taako grunted a noncommittal noise while Lup gave a shrug.

With that their aunt walked Sheryl back to the door, and Taako was kind of relieved when Lup stayed standing next to him in the living room instead of following along.

“You good?” she asked quietly. They could hear Tia and Sheryl speaking out on the porch, but it was a little too far away to make out specific words.

“Just peachy,” he grumbled. Taako knew she was just as unhappy with all of this as he was, but that didn’t make it any less frustrating.

“She doesn’t seem terrible so far,” Lup said, and Taako shrugged. It was true, there wasn’t anything immediately awful that stuck out so far, but that didn’t mean there wouldn’t be later. They’d had nice starts before, it never lasted.

They didn’t have a chance to talk about it anymore though, because they both heard their aunt coming back.

“So, I’m sure you two aren’t thrilled about being out here in the sticks, and you must be exhausted from the long drive. How about I show you two your rooms and you can get yourself set up while I make lunch, and then once we’re done eating I’ll give you the tour?” she said. Reluctantly Taako nodded and stood up off the couch finally.

“Sounds like a plan,” Lup said, picking her bag back up. With that Tia started leading them up the stairs, and Taako tried to take in as much of their surroundings as possible. There wasn’t anything really jumping out at him though, a lot of wood and pictures of horses. Soon enough they were in an upstairs hallway and their aunt stopped between two doors opposite each other.

“They’re a little small, but I figure it best that you each at least get your own room,” Tia said. There didn’t seem to be much of a difference between the two rooms, so Taako went to the one on the right, since that was closer, and Lup headed into the one on the left. They were small, and more fucking wood paneling. There was a pretty large circular window along one wall though, facing out towards the front yard. Other than that it was pretty bare, a bed pushed up against one wall, a dresser against the other. He dropped his bag down on the bed.

“Feel free to do whatever you like to make it feel more like home. I’m going to go get started on lunch. Do you two like butternut squash?” their aunt asked from the hallway.

“Yeah, that’s fine,” Lup told her. Taako waited until he could hear their aunt was at least halfway down the stairs before leaving his room and going into Lup’s. It was pretty much the same as his, although she has two smaller round windows instead of one large one. She’d also put her bag on the bed, but Taako ignored it and flopped down on as much of it as he could.

“Shouldn’t you be unpacking?” Lup asked, not actually sounding bothered. She’d already started pulling clothes out of her bag and putting them in the dresser.

“It’ll happen,” he assured her. It wasn’t like it would take long, neither of them had a lot.

“Mhmm,” Lup hummed, not sounding very convinced. Which was fair, Taako could live out of a suitcase for a good long while if he wanted to.

“I just don’t get why they wouldn’t let us fucking do our own thing already. Who the fuck cares if we aren’t eighteen yet? It’s not like we haven’t been raising ourselves the whole goddamn time anyway,” he complained.

“It’s bullshit, but it’s bullshit we only have to deal with for another year,” Lup said. He knew that was true but he was still frustrated as fuck.

“But you had a job! And I at least could have landed a place in retail hell. How the hell are we supposed to get out when there’s nothing but horses in a twenty mile radius,” he said, rolling over and pressing his face into the bed. The blankets smelled new, and when Taako looked he could still see creases in them from the packaging. Their aunt must’ve just brought them before they got there.

“I mean, horses are a form of transportation, don’t even need a drivers license for that,” Lup joked.

“God, Lulu people probably actually do that out here though. Fucking ride their horse into work. You think there’s a stable at the local Walmart I can park my fucking horse at,” he said, causing Lup to snort.

“I don’t see why you can’t bring your horse with you into the Walmart. Don’t make him stand outside like a second class citizen,” Lup said. Taako barked out a laugh at that, pushing himself up on his elbows.

“Excuse me sir, this horse is a loyal customer and I am insulted that you would suggest he wait outside. He is going to pay for those apples,” he said, putting on some random voice.

“This horse is rich as fuck!” Lup shouted at the top of her lungs. Taako had been trying to keep up his bitter mood, but he couldn’t help but dissolve into giggles at that.

“Fuck you,” he managed to wheeze out after a moment, wiping tears away from his eyes.

He wasn’t any happier about this whole deal, but at least he still had Lup with him. As terrible and as boring and as full of both figurative and literal bullshit this next year was going to be, Lup would be there. That was all he really needed.

“Kids, lunch is ready!” their aunt’s voice called up after a minute. Taako probably would have insisted on staying up to finish unpacking (and then not actually do shit) if it wasn’t for the fact that he was fucking starving.

Heading downstairs an to the kitchen, Taako was surprised that something actually smelled pretty good. Most of the family they’d stayed with weren’t exactly world class chiefs. It was pretty rare for them to get a good meal without being the ones to cook it themselves.

“There’s bowls on the counter and some bread if you’d like it,” Tia said, heading over to the table with her own bowl. Taako grabbed himself a bowl and ladled up some soup, probably butternut squash, considering what their aunt had asked. He also cut himself some bread, Lup following his lead as he sat down. Now that they were with their aunt it was all awkward and quiet again, and Taako was starkly reminded of how much this was gonna suck.

Then he took a bite of the soup and he paused, quickly trying it with some of the bread next. He could see Lup having a similar reaction as she tried some of the soup as well.

“You uh, you make this yourself?” he asked after a moment, once it became apparent that Lup wasn’t going to say anything. He really wasn’t in the mood to be the one starting a conversation, but it was real fucking good soup.

“Sure did, how do you like it?” she asked.

“Not bad,” Taako said, eating another spoonful.

“Taako’s a cook,” Lup supplied, and Taako tried and failed to kick at her legs from under the table. She didn’t even show that she’d noticed, and now their aunt was looking at him with interest.

“Are you now?” Tia asked, and Taako shot a glare at Lup.

“We both cook,” he said. It felt like they were both expecting him to continue, so he sighed. “But yeah, I’m a pretty stellar cook. This soup is good,” he said.

“Well, feel free to use the kitchen as much as you’d like. I’d love to try your cooking, both of yours,” Tia said and Taako just nodded, continuing to eat. He guessed that was nice, he certainly wasn’t going to complain about free range over a kitchen.

The rest of the meal passed pretty quietly, and Taako was relieved that their aunt wasn’t trying to press for awkward conversation yet. As soon as they finished eating their aunt took their bowls and put them into the sink.

“Now, who’s ready for the tour?” she asked, and Taako shrugged.

“Sure thing,” Lup said. There wasn’t a lot to do, and Taako figured there wasn’t much harm in knowing which places not to walk for risk of the most cow shit in the path or whatever.

First Tia showed them around the house, which they’d already seen a decent chunk of. There was a huge cellar they hadn’t seen yet though, and a rack of wine in the back that gave him major cask of amontillado vibes.

Then they headed out back, and yep, it sure was a ranch. There was a huge field, sectioned off by a few fences, one long one running all around the property. Just past the back fence Taako could see the tree line of some small shitty woods. Taako guessed in the grand scheme it probably wasn’t a super huge ranch. He could see a couple cows in one area, and some goats, and finally some horses. There were also chickens, but those guys didn’t seem to be quarantined to any specific area, those fuckers were just going wherever their hearts led them. Their aunt did walk them past a chicken coop so at least they seemed to have some sort of base of operation.

There were two other buildings on the property, one sort of barn place where the cows went. They walked through that one first, and fucking hell cows were big. Taako did not know how big cows were up close.

“So uh, are these milky boys or should we not get attached?” Lup asked as they looked at some of the cows.

“They’re for milk dear,” Tia answered, sounding amused by the question. Taako wasn’t sure what to do, but he almost wanted to pet one just to be able to say he touched a cow. He didn’t though, they’d be here for a while so he could always do it later.

The other building was a stable for the horses, and as they walked in there Taako saw something he wasn’t expecting to. Another fucking person.

“No fingers, no fingers, no- shit! Okay, just… eat that,” a guy who looked around their age said, having quickly jerked back from a  horse after giving it something. Dude had looked mildly terrified and nowhere near comfortable with the animal in front of him. Despite that he looked like the kind of guy who’d be working on a ranch, flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up, denim pants and fucking honest to god cowboy boots.

“Good afternoon Barry,” their aunt said, leading them into the stable. There weren’t a lot of horses currently in here, and the one this ‘Barry’ had been feeding seemed preoccupied at the moment.

“Oh, hello Ms. Tia. Uh, your um, your niece and nephew are here already?” he asked, having clearly just noticed them.

“They just got here about an hour ago. Taako, Lup, this is Barry. He lives nearby and is helping me on the ranch for the summer,” Aunt Tia explained.

“Yep that’s m- that’s basically my whole deal. That’s Barry. So uh, if you need any help with, um, farm… stuff… feel free to ask,” Barry stumbled out. Dude was almost painfully awkward and flustered.

“We’ll be sure to consult your infinite farm wisdom my dear Barold,” Taako said, rolling his eyes.

“Oh I wouldn’t say- it’s definitely not infinite. I’m actually pretty new at uh, a lot of this,” he said. Considering how terrified the dude seemed of feeding a pretty lax looking horse, Taako wasn’t shocked to find out he was new.

“Well you’re probably better at it than you think, you certainly got looking the part down,” Lup said.

“Thanks? You also look- you don’t look like you work on a farm, I don’t know what I was gonna say that, it doesn’t- shit. You look nice?” Barry managed to stutter out. Taako couldn’t help snickering at Barry’s expense when his face got progressively redder as Lup winked at him.

“Lup, Taako, would you two like to see the rest of the ranch?” their aunt asked, probably feeling bad for Barry at this point.

“Yeah, for sure,” Taako said, still laughing slightly. As they started walking away Lup shot double finger guns back at Barry, and Taako snorted at his fumbled attempt to finger gun back. Their aunt was leading them out towards the fields, and him and Lup were walking a little ways behind her now. Just enough to be out of earshot.

“You know, I think Sheryl might be right about giving this place a chance,” Lup said under her breath. It was quiet enough that Taako almost didn’t hear it. Lup didn’t even look like she was talking to him, a weird smile on her face.

Taako snapped his head back around, and he could still see Barry inside of the stable. Then he went into one of the empty horse stalls and he couldn’t anymore, and Taako turned to look back at his sister.

“Seriously?” he asked, and Lup shrugged, not even seeming to register the disbelief in his voice.

“Yeah, it’s actually kinda nice,” she said. Taako threw his head back, groaning loudly and scaring a chicken and causing their aunt to look back at them in confusion.

This place was going to be fucking hell.

Chapter Text

It had been about a week since they’d came to live with their aunt, and so far Lup refused to admit that her fondness for the place had anything to do with a specific stuttering mess of a farmhand.

And okay, maybe there were some things about this place that weren’t horrible. Taako wasn't stubborn enough not to admit at least some of that. Aunt Tia didn’t seem particularly shitty yet. Taako still wasn’t holding out any sort of expectations, but at the very least it seemed like she’d cut herself off from the rest of the family for a good reason. That good reason being they were a huge bag of dicks. At the very least that was a thing they could all agree on.

The kitchen was pretty nice too, he’d cooked in it a few times so far. Nothing fancy, just throwing together whatever was around while him and Lup were alone in the house. Their aunt was outside a lot of the time, which was surprising considering the whole ranch thing. Taako also wasn’t gonna complain about the fresh ingredients around for fucking free too. That certainly wasn’t half bad.

So yeah, all of those things were alright, a slight upgrade from a few of the places they’d lived recently. Most of the places, honestly. He would give Lup that much.

None of those things required her to to find every excuse imaginable to go out and talk to Barry on several occasions. And he could even ignore that, given how fucking boring the place was with barely functioning internet and nothing but goddamn farms and shit around. Couldn’t blame her for deciding ‘frazzle the nerd’ was her new favorite game.

Except every time she came back with that same goofy smile on her face, and Taako knew his sister. That was not her normal smile.

She definitely had a crush on fucking Barry. The only thing now was how long it would take before she admitted it. Despite the fact that she was the more outgoing of the two, they could be here the whole year without her saying a word.

One would think his sister falling for a denim clad farm boy would make things a little more interesting. And it had, for a couple of days. He’d tease her whenever she came back from messing with him, and once he even caught her staring out her window at the poor bastard desperately trying to catch a baby cow that had gotten loose.

And sure, it was still pretty damn amusing, but not enough to occupy much of his time. In the week they’d been there, he hadn’t done much. He spent most of the time so far in the house, although he’d yet to unpack any of his shit still. He’d just pull out what he needed and shove it back on top of his bag when he was done. He’d gone out into the ranch a couple of times, mostly when Lup was out and just so happened to have run into Barry.

One time he had gone out by himself though, while Lup was taking a nap. He was bored as fuck and managed to pet a cow, so there was one thing off the list.

He was so fucking bored though. There was nothing to do, nowhere to go. It was summer and so school couldn’t be a distraction and he couldn’t get a goddamn job because it was a twenty five minute drive into town. Their aunt mentioned going into town sometime this week, but he didn’t know when.

Heading out of his room he went and peeked into Lup’s room. She was sitting on her bed with her laptop open in front of her, a slight frown on her face. There wasn't a lot of connection out here, but that didn't stop them from trying every so often.

“Lup,” he said, not bothering to come fully into the room.

“Hmm?” Lup answered, still looking down at her computer.

“I'm fucking bored,” Taako complained. Lup didn't seem very sympathetic to his plight, which was probably fair. He'd complained about boredom quite a bit over the last week and hadn't really tried to do anything about it.

“That’s real unfortunate bro bro,” Lup said, not moving from her spot. Taako pouted, staying in the doorway for another moment, but she remained unfazed. Once he was pretty sure she wasn’t going to give he sighed.

“Ugh, fine. I’ll find something to do by myself,” he grumbled, leaving her room. Heading downstairs he still wasn't sure what he was going to do, but he might as well try and explore around some. He hadn't seen much at all yet and as much as he wasn't planning on getting attached to this place they were stuck here for the next year. Might as well get a feel for what they were working with.

Taako considered going over and seeing what the house next to theirs was. He'd never gotten around to checking out what the writing in the window had said after all. All he'd seen was the long fence between the two yards and some things that kinda looked like giant wire cages or something. It was hard to make out what could be inside of them from his window though.

Before he managed to get over there however he got distracted. The horse trailer wasn't in its normal place in the driveway, and looking back at the stables he could see it parked back there. Hoping for at least something mildly interesting Taako headed over to see what was going on.

What he found was his aunt looking vaguely frustrated at a horse standing in the trailer. Taako couldn't say with even the least amount of confidence if this was a horse he'd seen before, but if he had to guess he’d say it wasn't. It was mostly white and that weird long hair on the back of its neck and tail were a mix of black and gray. It was a pretty fucking pretty horse if Taako was gonna make judgments.

“How's it goin?” Taako asked, walking up casually. He hadn't talked that much with his aunt yet, and he wasn't planning to, even if he was a little curious about some of her recipes. So far everything she'd made for them had been real fucking good. Taako could honestly say he was impressed. Still, none of that meant that he was going to start spending time with her more than he had to. He just might steal her cookbook before they leave.

“Oh, hello there Taako. I'm just having a… disagreement, with this buddy here,” she said, glancing back towards him and then over to the horse again. Taako couldn't help but snort at that, looking at the horse that still seemed like it couldn't give less of a shit.

“A disagreement about what?” he asked.

“Well, I'd like for this fella to get off the truck, and it seems like he would prefer to stay on,” aunt Tia said.

“That's certainly a disagreement you'd have with a horse, for sure,” he said. Moving closer, Taako was fairly certain now that he hadn't seen this one before. Which basically meant nothing, since he hadn't been paying any particular attention to the horses. The only one he could pick out from a crowd was old lady carrot fingers. Carrot Fingers was the name him and Lup had given to the old horse they'd seen Barry trying to feed the first day. Apparently she was mostly blind and had mistaken fingers for carrots on several occasions. Taako would say, made Barry’s fear make a lot more sense.

“Have you tried like, offering him some oats?” he asked, fully aware it was probably a dumb question. Tia raised horses, he was sure she knew about oats.

But if she didn’t though, oh man were these horses in for a fucking treat.

“I have, but I appreciate the suggestion,” she said, somehow managing not to sound sarcastic. It was weird.

“So is this a new guy or what? He got a name?” Taako asked, moving a bit closer now, so that he was standing on the end of the ramp that led down from the trailer. He could reach out and touch the horse if he wanted to, but he didn't. He had no way of knowing if this was actually some sort of buckwild crazy ass horse yet.

“He's new, a friend of mine was having trouble with him and doesn't have the time to put into training him, and I owe him a favor,” Tia explained. Taako nodded, sounded about right to him.

“Trouble as in like, intelligent and headstrong or trouble as in fucking crazy trying to attack the other horses cause it thinks its a bear?” he asked.

“More like trouble as in stubborn and lazy,” Tia said, sounding a bit amused. Taako couldn't help but grin at that, finally reaching out and petting the horse on the neck.

“Hell yeah, I feel you on that my dude,” he said, talking to the horse. Taako felt like that probably wasn't a super weird thing to do here. Plus he could appreciate lazy animals, he was a lazy animal.

“Would you like to name him dear?” Tia asked, catching Taako off guard.

“Wait, he doesn't have a name yet, seriously?  But it's like, a whole horse,” he said.

“He does, but he's a racing horse and the dang thing is too long for casual calling,” Tia explained and okay, that made a little more sense. Taako was pretty sure he'd heard a thing about race horses needing individual names and junk.

“Well what is it? Gimme a feel of what I'm working with here,” he said.

“I believe it's Iridescent Path Running Experience,” aunt Tia said, and Taako couldn't keep himself from bursting out laughing at that.

“Oh woof, are you a horse or a fucking mountain trail hiking business,” he said, patting the horse again. Taako couldn't tell if it liked that or not, it didn’t seem to really care. It was a chill as fuck horse. “Yeah no, we're not going with the name you just said that I already forgot,” he added, actually thinking over the question now. “Garyl,” he said after a moment of deliberation.

“Garyl?” Tia asked and Taako nodded.

“Yeah, it's like Gary and Daryl mixed together,” he explained, and Tia laughed at that.

“Alright then, Garyl it is,” she said. Before either of them could say anything else Garyl started walking forward casually. “Well, I suppose he likes it, since he's finally getting off the dang truck,” Tia said, grabbing the reins on Garyl and leading him into an empty stall in the stable.

“Lucky timing,” Taako said with a shrug, following along for nothing better to do. The stable Garyl was put in already looked freshly cleaned out and set up, but he guessed their aunt had been planning for this guy. That or Barry must’ve had a pretty frantic morning.

“Have you ever ridden a horse before Taako?” Tia asked, and oh boy. This was where Taako should make his escape.

“Oh yeah for sure, couldn't you tell that Lulu and I were real country raised?” he joked. Tia didn't seem to mind the sarcasm, which Taako was still getting used to. Usually adults would get irritated and pissed when him and Lup got all 'disrespectful.’

“Of course, well in that case would you like to go for a ride?” she asked, and Taako was frowning now. Time to disengage, cut it and run. Horse riding sounded simultaneously like too much work and too close to being some sort of attempt at a bonding activity. He was not about that life.

“What like, on Garyl?” he still found himself asking despite his better judgment. Besides, he figured it would be a no on that one anyway.

“No, I'm afraid Garyl's probably got a bit to go before he's ready for riding,” Tia said, which was what he expected.

“Old Lady Carrot Fingers?” he asked next, mostly because the idea amused him.

“Who?” Tia asked, sounding genuinely confused by that, which was fair. Taako had no idea what the horse’s real name was, he was sure Barry had told it to them but he hadn’t been paying attention.

“Light brown old one who keeps trying to eat Barold's hands,” he explained and Tia laughed at that.

“Unfortunately not her either, she's too old for riding. I was thinking someone more like Evard or Bigby,” she said. Taako had no idea who either of those horses were. It wasn't an issue though, since he wasn't going to ride any horses today. Or ever, if he could help it.

So Taako really had no fucking clue how he ended up tentatively pulling himself up onto a horse’s back about fifteen minutes later.

“I'm telling you, i just uh, ain't sure if this is a good idea to do without a cowboy hat. Like, my balance is gonna get thrown way out of whack, and it's probably technically illegal. Can't ride a horse without a cowboy hat just like you can't ride a bike without a helmet. It's a safety thing,” he rambled even as he settled on the back of the horse. He'd ended up with Evard, a dark black horse that was probably mildly cursed if Taako had to make a bet.

“You'll be fine without the hat dear, but next time we run into town we can be sure to get you one,” Tia said, hopping up onto her own horse in one smooth motion. It really made Taako's struggled fumbling even more pronounced.

“Yeah okay fine,” Taako said, double checking that his feet were in the little loop things on the saddle. There was a little pokey up bit of the saddle in front of him and he put his hands on that, really not trusting himself to grab the reins yet. “So uh, now what?”

“Well, you’ll want to get a hold of the reins dear,” Tia said, somehow managing to get her horse to walk over to where his was. Taako saw her like, make some sort of movements, but like fuck could he tell what she was doing to get him to do what she wanted. “Like this,” she added, holding her hands up just enough for Taako to see how she was holding the rein.

“Done and done,” Taako said, following her lead. “How do you uh, make it go?” he asked, still feeling pretty clueless and like sitting on top of a giant animal made of muscle and hate was a bad idea.

“Just squeeze your heels gently, and tell him to go,” she said, and Taako guessed she meant to demonstrate because she started moving. Taako tried it, squeezing his thighs somewhat and resisting the urge to flick the reins like he’d seen in the movies and shit.

“Go?” he said as he did, and the horse actually started moving forward at a slow pace, luckily seeming to know the program and was following after his aunt.

“Relax and try and move with the horse. We’re just gonna be going around the pen a few times, squeeze on the side you want him to turn,” she explained. Taako nodded, even though she was in front of him and couldn’t see.

“Going around in a loop on an giant sweaty animal’s back, it’s uh, riveting,” he said. At least it didn’t seem like he was fucking up too much so far, the horse was just casually trotting along beneath him. Sitting like this wasn’t the most comfortable position, but he doubted he’d be doing this enough to warrant getting used to it.

“If you want a bit of a challenge I’ve got some obstacles Evard there is quite fond of, or we can let you loose in the field. I figured you might want a bit of a slow start to ease into it,” Tia said, and Taako was pretty sure she was joking but it was all said so bluntly it was hard to tell.

“Circles good, we can stay in the little circle,” Taako answered quickly, just in case. “And uh, hate to break it to ya but we’re not easing into anything, don’t be expecting this to become a habit. Taako ain’t exactly the outdoorsy type,” he added. Tia just hummed, not seeming too deterred by that. Which she should be, because yeah, he wasn’t sticking with this.

They’d gone around the loop maybe twice now and Taako was starting to feel a little more comfortable. It wasn’t exactly thrilling, but he didn’t have anything else to do anyway. It was probably like, okay exercise too or something, he heard horseback riding counted as exercise. He wasn’t sure how, since you were sitting, but he was sitting up real straight so maybe that did something.

“Taako!” Lup’s voice called suddenly, knocking him out of his thoughts. Looking around, he didn’t see her anywhere. “Bro! Hey, Ko!” she yelled again, and this time Taako looked up and towards the house. He could see her practically hanging out of her window, waving a hand to get his attention. “Hell yeah bro! Get that ranch lifestyle!” she yelled.

Instead of shouting back, because he was pretty sure yelling in a horse’s ear was a bad idea, Taako took one hand off the rains and gave her the finger. In response Lup laughed and pulled her head back inside the window. Taako couldn’t help but snort, shaking his head slightly.

“Don’t worry, we’ll get her out here soon enough,” Tia said, sounding very confident. She’d stopped her horse now, and Taako guessed they had been riding around in a circle for a while and could probably call it quits at this point.

“Surprised you haven’t already,” he said, which was true. He didn’t comment on the fact that he figured that with her out here with Barry so often he thought there’d be more of an opportunity to get shoved onto a horse.

“I figured you two would like some time to adjust first,” Tia said, and the grin that had been on Taako’s face dropped. Adjusting meant getting comfortable in a place and that really wasn’t something he was looking to do. So he just hummed noncommittally at that, not wanting the conversation to go any further. Tia had gotten off of Bigby now, and Taako figured he should get off too.

Except he didn’t know how to.

“Hey uh, how does stopping happen? Like um where’s the off switch on this thing, would like to get off the ride now,” he said, the horse continuing to trot along in a circle. Every so often he’d pass by his aunt and Taako was pretty sure the horse was fucking with him on purpose.

“Just squeeze with your thighs and pull back on the reins some,” Tia explained, definitely some amusement in her voice. Taako ignored that, doing as she said. Thankfully it seemed to work, Evard slowing to a stop on the other side of the pen area from where his aunt was. And then he sat there for a moment, looking down off the side of the horse.

“I don’t know how to get down,” he said bluntly, causing his aunt to laugh.

It didn’t actually take that much effort to get off of the horse. Although his aunt did have to help him some so he didn’t get his foot caught in the little loop thing and fall on his ass. After that Taako headed back into the house pretty quickly, because that was way more interaction than he’d been planning on. It took up a good chunk of time too, and he managed to kick it in his room until they had dinner later.

He expected more teasing from Lup about the horse thing, especially after the shit he’d been giving her about Barry. Surprisingly there wasn’t much besides a comment at dinner about him needing to fully get into the western aesthetic if he was gonna be riding horses.

The next day their aunt said she was heading into town, and Taako and Lup both jumped at the chance to come with. Normally they weren’t so enthusiastic about hanging out with whatever distant relative got unlucky enough to deal with them for a bit, but Taako was dying to be in a place with real roads and people. The drive was still longer than it had any right to be, but soon enough they were at what counted as a town in these parts. There were definitely more recognizable things out here, like a Walmart and a few gas stations and a grocery store. There were also a couple places that looked like local shops.

“I figured we could look around at a few shops before heading to the grocery store if y’all would like,” Tia said.

“Sounds good auntie.” Lup said, and Taako nodded in agreement. If they were gonna do shopping it’d be best to do that before they picked up anything cold at the store, especially with the obnoxiously long drive back to the ranch.

The shop they ended up going into wasn’t quite what Taako had expected. Parts of it were, it still carried the stuff he figured it would, ‘fashionable’ and western clothes mixed in with equal measure, little knickknacks and accessories and shoes. It was one of those little family owned shops that seemed to carry a little bit of everything to try and get as high of a chance as possible of someone at least buying something before they left.

There were things that he hadn’t quite expected either though. One, it was a lot bigger than the front of the shop suggested. A lot longer than he thought, and it even looked like there was a second floor with more junk for sale up there.

The other thing he hadn’t prepared for was that the dude at the front counter was loud.

“Hello there! And who are these two you’ve brought with you Tia?” the man said, practically leaning over the counter to get a look at them.

“Hello Garfield, this is Lup and Taako, my niece and nephew. They’re gonna be staying here for a while and I’m taking them around town,” Tia said to this dude, apparently Garfield. Color Taako surprised that this was a small town where everyone knew each other.

“Well have a look around! Let me know if anything catches your eye and I’m sure we can work out a deal for having some fresh faces around here!” Garfield said. The dude was honestly just unnerving enough for Taako to almost consider not getting anything after all.

Starting to wander around the store though, there were some pretty interesting things. He and Lup kind of ended up wandering away from their aunt as they shopped, cause  there was no reason to stick by her. Looking around, nothing really caught Taako’s eye at first. Every so often Lup would hold up some hideous shirt she’d found and he’d do the same. Pulling one out, Lup burst out laughing.

“I don’t know what the fuck this means but I think I need it,” she said, holding it up. It was a t-shirt definitely a few sizes too large for her. The shirt was plain white other than the words and design on the front, which said ‘To Ride A Horse Is To Borrow Freedom’ and showed the silhouette of horse running.

“That’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen, if you don’t get it I will,” Taako said, grinning in delight. Then his eyes caught on something behind Lup and his smile somehow got even wider and he scrambled to grab it. “Holy shit, Lup it’s fucking perfect,” he said.

It was a rack of cowboy hats, which was honestly something Taako had been on the lookout for since they came into the store. Most of them were the typical brown and black and white ones, but there were a few of more exciting colors. The one he grabbed was a bright purple, with a band around it that had a rhinestone rose design. There were more rhinestones around the brim. Putting it on there was a mirror next to the hat rack.

It was absolutely hideous and he fucking loved it.

Lup snorted at the sight of him, and Taako quickly adjusted the dumb string that hung down under his chin.

“You’re sure getting into this whole thing huh?” Lup asked, and Taako scoffed. It was ruined a little by the way he was still grinning at his ridiculous hat, but he didn’t think anyone could blame him for that.

“Listen, if we’re stuck here for a fucking year I’m at least going to rock the aesthetic. When else will I get the chance for some authentic cowboy glam?” he said, and honestly that was the long and short of it.

A part of him was actually worried. He could tell that Lup was… optimistic. More so than either of them had been about a place in a while. He didn’t know if it was because Aunt Tia hadn’t been a total asshole to either of them yet, or if it was her crush on Barry, or a combination of both. But whatever it was, it made it obvious that Lup felt good about this place.

It was going to blow up on them though. Shit always broke bad in one way or another and he didn’t see why this time would be any different. Hopefully Lup would come to her senses before it happened so that she didn’t get too hurt when it inevitably did.

They ended up shopping for a bit longer, and eventually their aunt found them again. “So, did you two find anything interesting?” she asked, it obvious in her voice that she knew that they had. That was fair, since Taako was still wearing the purple cowboy hat and Lup was holding her shirt.

“Sure did, you good to get going Lulu?” Taako said, Lup nodding. Heading up to the counter again, Taako might’ve quickened his pace a little when he saw a large orange cat sleeping on a cat bed there.

“Cat,” he announced despite the fact that everyone else could see it, because that’s what you do when you see a cat. It let him pet it, and Garfield grinned a grin that Taako swore was just a little too wide.

“Ah! I see you’ve met Garfield!” he said, and Taako raised an eyebrow at that.

“I thought you were Garfield,” Lup said, and the man nodded.

“I sure am!”

“But you also named your cat Garfield?” Taako asked.

“It would seem that way!” he said, and yeah okay, Taako decided he wasn’t going to question it. It seemed like Lup had come to the same conclusion, just starting to put the stuff she’d picked out up on the counter.

“Taako, put your things up as well,” their aunt said, stepping forward to pay. Even though Lup had seemed a little more hopeful than usual, they both shared a surprised glance at that.

“Uh, we can pay,” he said, but Tia shook her head.

“Nonsense, I’m taking you two out, this is my treat,” she said. A bit reluctantly Taako put the few items he’d picked out and the hat onto the counter, and Human Garfield quickly bagged them up and their aunt paid. Taako gave Cat Garfield one last pat before they headed out.

The rest of the day shopping was nice. Taako got some ingredients for some dishes he’d been wanting to try out for a while, and once again their aunt insisted on paying. Taako supposed that one was at least fair, since she could also eat the food.

Taako honestly didn’t know why their aunt seemed insistent on trying to win them over. It was probably still guilt, if he had to make a guess. It didn't matter though, since it would fade soon enough, he was sure.

Whatever it was, but it’d take a lot more than a few gifts for Taako to consider giving this place a chance.

Chapter Text

Taako blamed it on the fact that he got bored way too fucking easily.

That was always a thing for him, Lup could attest to that. He hated being stuck in one place without anything to do. They both hated being stuck. Heading out to town the once hadn’t been anywhere near enough to distract him from the fact that they were just cooped up here. Sure it was a huge ranch with sprawling fields and big forests all around them, not the thing that most people would consider enclosing.

It still felt isolating as fuck though. He needed to do something.

And well, there was a limited amount of options for something to do. He couldn’t do a lot of the shit he did in places that actually have civilization around it. He honestly wasn’t feeling like going out and meeting the neighbors or whatever.

The logical part of his brain that liked to use reason and facts would chime in every now and then saying that being around people would probably help the whole isolated feeling. The rest of him said fuck that, and had figured out that the stable was actually pretty empty for most of the day after Barry finished cleaning it in the morning. Their aunt liked to give the horses plenty of time out on the pasture or whatever so that they didn’t feel all cooped up.

Or well most of the horses. More often than not Garyl was in his stable, but he seemed pretty chill with that. Hell, after a few days of Taako sneaking into the stable someone had left the door open. The damn horse could get up and walk out at any fucking time it pleased, the dude just didn’t want to.

It’d been almost a week since he’d started hanging out in the stable to have somewhere to go that wasn’t his room. When he went in today, the door to Garyl’s stall was left open, which wasn’t a surprise. Heading over, the lazy fucking horse was laying down, eating some hay. He spared a quick glance up at Taako before going right back to eating.

“Yeah, I feel ya bud,” Taako said, and he gave a very good look around the stable to make sure it was clean before stepping inside. He was very thorough of a spot next to Garyl, swiping some hay out of the way before sitting down with his back up against the horse before pulling his phone out. Garyl turned his head around towards him, sniffing at the bright purple cowboy hat he’d taken to wearing before going back to lazily eating.

There wasn’t a lot of internet connection out here, like everywhere else on this damn ranch, so Taako pulled up his notes. He started jotting down ideas for recipes he could try, wanting to take advantage of the fresh ingredients out here if nothing else.

Taako wasn’t sure how long he spent sitting there before he heard someone walking through the stable. He didn’t get up to see who it was or anything. If he was lucky it was Barry and he wouldn’t notice him sitting there at all.

He wasn’t that lucky, and after a minute he saw Lup peek her head into the stall out of the corner of his eye.

“There you are, was wondering where you’ve been sneaking off to,” she said, leaning against the side of the stall. Taako shrugged, not looking up at her. It wasn’t that he was ignoring her, he was just focused on this recipe and if he looked away autocorrect would fuck him over.

Lup sighed, and Taako wasn’t sure why. He wasn’t doing shit.

“You okay bro?” she asked, sounding all genuine and concerned about him for some reason. Well, he knew the reason. It was because they cared about each other and were the only ones they could truly rely on when push came to shove. Still, he didn’t know what had gotten her all worried about him at this particular moment.

“Uh, yeah? Why wouldn’t I be?” he asked, although he didn’t doubt Lup’s ability to come up with an answer to that question.

“You’ve been moping even more than usual,” she said, and Taako finally looked away from his phone. He didn’t get up yet though, still leaning back against Garyl.

“That’s a lie and you know it, I’m moping the exact same amount as I usually do,” he said. Lup was frowning now, seeming somewhat hesitant about that.

“I mean, it just… seems different,” she said, and Taako nodded sharply at that, turning back to his phone. He’d been thoroughly distracted from the recipe he’d been working on at this point, but he didn’t much care. He needed something to look at was all.

“Yeah, it’s almost like you’ve gone all gaga over this place and some nerd in overalls,” he muttered, and he wasn’t trying to be petty. It wasn't that he didn't want her to be happy, because of course he did. This was just all... different. Lup sighed heavily at that.

“That’s not- Barry’s just a friend, if you can even call it that. He’s a dude who’s around, and you can’t deny that this place is nicer than most of the trash heaps we’ve been staying at,” she argued. It was true, it was nice. Which was all the more reason why Taako didn’t trust it.

“Yeah, for now,” he said. Lup was quiet for a moment, because he figured there wasn’t much she could say to that. These kinds of things always fell through, there was no reason to believe it wouldn’t do it again. He wasn’t going to get burned by getting his hopes up again.

“I’m not saying it’ll work out. Just like, no reason not to enjoy something while we have it, ya know? No point in wasting a good thing,” she said finally. Taako sighed and okay, that was good enough for him. Not enough to change how he was acting much, but he could see where Lup was coming from. He was always down for milking things for all they were worth.

Not milking cows though. They’d had to milk cows on their grandpa’s farm as kids and never again.

“Yeah, fine,” he muttered, pushing himself up to his feet. He had no idea what Lup was planning on doing right now, if anything, but he’d spent long enough cooped up in a fucking horse stable he supposed. It was a little early to cook dinner but they could find some way to kill time until then.

What Taako didn’t expect was for Garyl to slowly climb to his feet right after him. The horse still didn’t seem to be in any sort of rush, but it surprised Taako. Every other time he’d gotten up the horse had barely spared him a glance before continuing to laze about.

Both him and Lup sort of stood there for a moment, staring at the horse without any real idea what to do with it. A bit later Garyl walked forward and knocked his head gently into Taako’s shoulder.

When he glanced over at Lup, she had the biggest fucking grin on her face.

“Holy shit, you’ve made a friend!” Lup said, smiling brightly. Taako rolled his eyes, patting Garyl’s snoot for lack of anything better to do.

“The horse just recognizes when it’s found someone as cool as he is,” Taako said. He was pretty sure it was actually finally bored of sitting around and wanted to stretch its legs or something. Giving it one more pet on the snout, he turned towards Lup. “Anyway, let’s go?” he asked, and Lup shrugged and started down the stable. Taako followed after her, and as they walked he heard a few clops slowly moving behind him.

When he looked back, Garyl was standing almost immediately behind him. Lup sounded like he was about to fucking lose it, struggling not to laugh.

“Uh, you want something bud?” Taako asked, patting at his pockets to make sure he wasn’t like, accidentally carrying a bunch of sugar packets or some shit. He wasn’t, so he didn’t know why the horse was just… following him.

“He wants your love bro, why don’t you love him?” Lup asked, and Taako rolled his eyes, giving Garyl a scratch behind the ear.

“Fuck you, I cherish this horse,” he insisted, mostly to spite her teasing of course. “He’s probably tired of being in the stable, he’ll wander off to the other horses once we’re outside,” he said. He didn’t have any way to be sure of that, but it was the only thing that made sense. Lup didn’t question him, so they continued leaving with Garyl slowly walking along behind them.

It only became an issue when it became clear that Garyl was following them, especially as they moved back towards the house.

“It’s- we can’t let him inside, right?” Taako asked hesitantly as they stood in front of the back door, Garyl still sort of chilling with them. Taako was fairly sure that like, physically he could get in through the door, but afterwards that would be bad. That was a bad idea, however chaotically tempting it was.

“No, we can’t let him inside,” Lup quickly agreed. She looked around, and Taako wasn’t sure what for other than like, a sugar cube to distract the horse. “Maybe you could walk him over to the horses pen? He might not know where to go if he hasn't been there much,” she suggested.

“I guess? Better than nothing,” he said, starting to walk off towards the horse area of the ranch. Taako was sure it had a proper name but like fuck could either him or Lup remember. Lup stayed standing on the back steps, and Garyl followed after him at his same chill pace.

“You just like hanging out with a cool dude don’t ya? Can’t blame anyone for that,” Taako said, continuing to make his way over to the horse pen. It wasn’t far, and the latch was an easy one to open and walk inside. Most of the other horses were already out in the field, far enough off that Taako wasn’t worried about them trying to run out of the gate as he waited for Garyl to make his way inside. It took a moment, but soon enough Garyl was in and Taako had walked back over and closed the gate.

“I feel like I should give you a treat for that. It’d be rude not to give a treat, right?” Taako said, realizing that he was speaking to a horse. Garyl had already wandered off the main path and was eating some of the tall grass by the edge of the fence. “Yeah alright, wait here, cha boy will be back in a flash,” he said, turning and running back towards the house. Lup was looking at him with clear amusement as he quickly moved past her and into the kitchen.

“What are you doing?” she asked as he rummaged through the fridge before coming out with a small apple.

“Gotta give Garyl a treat for going into the pen. It’ be fucking rude not to,” he said, like it was obvious. Lup snorted as he headed back outside, but she didn’t argue with him.

Garyl was still standing by the gate when he came out, and didn’t seem all that intent on looking up from where he was eating grass.

“Hey, hey my dude. Got something way better than grass and oats here, it’s gonna blow your mind,” he said, waving it around above the fence some. Garyl finally seemed to take notice at that, and before Taako could say something witty about how he figured he’d be interested, the apple was out of his hand and Garyl was crunching loudly.

“Oh, alright. Can moving fucking fast when you want to,” he said, not trying to hide his surprise any, because it was a fucking horse. He didn’t exactly need to save face in front of a horse. Especially one that was thoroughly distracted by devouring an apple into nothingness.

The other horses had been far enough away that Taako hadn’t noticed their aunt was riding on one until it came galloping up to them. Garyl had finished the apple completely at that point, and Taako was relieved by that. Later he’d have to frantically google if apples were good for horses or if that was a myth like carrots and rabbits.

“How’d you get this lazy boy out here?” his aunt asked, coming up to a stop by the fence. Garyl at least didn’t seem to mind the other horse coming up, still obviously crunching on his treat.

“Uh, he was just kinda following me so I led him here instead of into the house,” Taako said, and aunt Tia chuckled at that.

“Well, I appreciate you making that choice,” she said. By now Garyl had finished the last remains of his apple and stuck his head over the fence to give Taako a cursory sniff over for any more. When he realized there weren’t any he started slowly wandering off.  Tia watched him go for a moment before turning back towards him.

“It seems like he’s really taken a liking to you,” she said, and Taako shrugged. He hadn’t meant to get dragged into another conversation with a person.

“I guess so? It’s a little hard to tell, since he’s, ya know, a horse,” he said. Tia seemed amused by that, nodding some.

“Well, either way I’m glad he’s seemed to of found a bit of a kindred spirit,” she said. Taako shrugged, turning to head back towards the house. He could see Lup waiting in the doorway with an amused expression on her face.

“Yeah sure thing, later auntie,” he said dismissively. After a moment he heard a horse trotting away and only glanced back for a second to be sure that she’d gone off to do whatever weird horse things she was doing out there.

Lup gave him a look when he got back to the house. He certainly wouldn’t say he deserved it, but Taako had given her quite a few looks since they got here as well, so it was at least fair.

When Taako went out to the stable the next day, he assured himself that he wasn’t going out there to mope for a couple hours. He was even telling the truth, even if he was still kind of sneaking out when no one else was around. Nah, this was for science. Anything can happen once on a fluke after all. Even twice wasn’t much to lend credit.

So he might have to test this out a few times. Honestly, he was chalking all of this up to boredom. Useless psuedo-scientific experiments were at least something to take up a few minutes of his day.

Garyl was lazing in his stable when Taako went out there, just like he had been every other day. As he walked up the horse lifted its head up as if to acknowledge Taako’s presence before going back to chewing up some fresh hay Barry must’ve put out for it. Instead of sitting down like he normally did, Taako walked forward, crouching in front of him and reaching out to scratch his ear. From the way he leaned his head into the touch Taako figured he liked it.

“Hey man, you know I like staying in my room all day as much as the next guy, but according to ‘therapists’ and ‘professionals’ that shit ain’t healthy,” he said. Garyl didn’t seem to care much, eating some more hay and shaking his head a little when Taako stopped petting him. “Wait, can horses even get depressed? What do you even have to be depressed about? You get everything hand delivered to you and you’re majestic as fuck,” he said in disbelief.

Pushing himself up to his feet, Taako stared down at the horse for a moment. He wasn’t expecting much here, he was pretty sure yesterday had been lucky timing or it was bored or hungry or something. Maybe Barry hadn’t put out enough hay.

“Well, I’m gonna get going, you can stay there if you want. Or don’t, I don’t care either way,” he said, before turning and starting to walk out of the barn. Taako didn’t hear anything for a moment as he left. He was just about ready to head back to find Lup and tell her that Garyl had been hungry or something yesterday.

And then he slowly heard the sound of hooves clopping against the ground. When he turned to look, Garyl had pushed himself up to his feet and was slowly following him out of the stable. Taako sighed, a look of annoyance falling over his face.

“Okay, this doesn’t prove shit,” he grumbled. Garyl walked until he was standing directly behind Taako before stopping and watching. He couldn’t say if it was expectantly or not, but when Taako didn’t move for a moment he started sniffing at his hat with too much interest for his comfort.

“Yeah alright fine. Come on let’s take you to the fucking pen again,” he said, putting a protective hand on his hat starting to move out of the barn. He wasn’t surprised when Garyl came steadily walking behind him this time, although he told himself he shouldn’t be resigned to it yet either. “You probably just like to start your day at a reasonable hour instead of fuck o’clock in the morning with the rest of the horses, huh? I can respect that,” he said.

It didn’t take very long for them to get to the pen, especially since Taako went straight there this time instead of trying to go to the house and hoping Garyl would wander off where he was supposed to be. Thinking about it now though, that was probably a bad plan on their part. The gate to the horse patch were always closed so the rest of them didn’t get out. Opening it, Taako walked inside and once again Garyl followed.

Closing the gate so the horse was inside, he watched as it just sort of stared at him for a moment. This lasted a few seconds before Taako sighed heavily.

“Yeah alright, don’t give me that look I’ll go get you a damn apple,” he said. He’d looked it up last night, apples should be fine as long as he was only giving him one or two at a time and not a whole fucking barrel of em.

He was lucky, Lup must be off being totally platonically interested in Barry. His aunt was somewhere working on the ranch, milking cows or gathering chicken eggs or something if he had to guess. Either way, no one saw him run into the kitchen, grab two apples out of the fridge and run back before Garyl could wander too far off from the fence.

The horse had moved off a little, but with some coaxing and a lot of standing up on the fence and waving one of the apple around as much as possible, Garyl came back and took it from him.

“Yeah, I’m pretty damn food motivated too,” he said, swinging his legs through the wooden fence he he could sit down on it, his arms hooked over the top bar. Pulling out the second apple he’d grabbed, he started eating it as well. He was pretty sure they didn’t grow apples here, but these were still real damn fresh. If Taako had to guess there was an orchard close by that the local grocery store had them brought in from.

Plus, apples looked fucking good when you watched some huge beast going to town on the things.

Taako was only about halfway done with his apple by the time Garyl finished his, the horse slowly making his way back over with obvious interest.

“Hey no, this one’s mine, you already got yours,” Taako said. It didn’t seem to deter him any, Garyl sniffing and trying to get to his fruit. After a moment of trying and failing to dissuade him, Taako carved off a chunk and threw it off towards the field. It didn’t get very far, Garyl quickly managing to snatch the piece out of the air before it hit the ground.

Still, it was enough time for Taako to finish most of the rest of his apple, before tossing the remains to Garyl as well. He ate it pretty damn fast before coming back over to Taako and giving him a good sniff over until he determined there weren’t anymore apples.

Taako stayed sitting on the fence for a while. It was a nice day and it wasn’t like he had anything better to do. Garyl wandered off every now and then before making his way back like he was checking for more treats or something. He didn’t seem much interested in hanging out with the other horses, but Taako figured that wasn’t too much of an issue. If it was their aunt would work on it with him or something.

Eventually sitting on the fence became too uncomfortable and Taako stood up, stretching his arms way up above his head until he heard a satisfying crack from his back. Looking around, there still wasn’t much to do and he didn’t know where Lup was.

His eyes caught sight of the weird large cages in the neighbor’s yard, and shrugging he figured he didn’t have anything else to do. The horse’s area went right up to the other yard, so he walked along the fence, which was still an annoyingly long distance.

After a bit though he made it to the significantly taller chain link fence that separated the two yards, and Taako could see inside of the large cages a lot clearer now. They were taller than he realized, some of them even having what looked like some small trees inside. The almost looked like enclosures you’d see in a zoo, like for birds or something.

Almost as soon as Taako had thought that he managed to spot something inside of the nearest cage. His eyes had glanced over it until its head moved, and he could see some sort of large bird in there. Huh. Neat.

The other cages were a bit too far away for him to get a good look at what was inside. Every so often though he saw the flit of some bird moving from branch to branch. Some of them seemed smaller but a few were kinda big. The one closest to him was some green thing, probably a parrot or something.

Taako stayed watching the birds for a bit. Maybe he could ask his aunt about this place later, or maybe him and Lup could sneak over when no one was paying attention.

He was halfheartedly looking around to see if the chain link fence went all the way around the yard when he heard the click and creak of a door being opened close by, and then a voice. Taako only glanced at the house in front of this weird bird center long enough to see someone definitely starting to open the back door. As soon as he saw that Taako bolted as fast as he could away from the fence.

Hopefully whoever it was had been too distracted by whoever they were talking to to notice him ducking to hide behind the chicken coop. It was the closet structure to him that he could hide with. He tried to ignore the chickens loud squawks of confusion at his sudden entrance leaning up against their home. After a minute or so he glanced back to see if anyone had noticed him, but all he saw was someone going into one of the farther bird cages.

It didn’t seem like they noticed him any, or if they did they didn’t give a shit. Taako figured he wasn’t going to get in fucking trouble for standing at the fence, but also he still wasn’t exactly down with meeting the neighbors and all that jazz.

“Having fun there?”

Taako had been straining to see if he could get a better look at the neighbor when Lup’s voice caused him to jolt. He quickly turned back around, trying to look casual and flicking a piece of dried corn off his pants.

“Oh yeah for sure, just hanging, you know how it is,” he said, watching as she craned her head around the coop to try and get a look at what he was looking at.

“Are you creeping on the neighbors?” she asked, and Taako scoffed, pushing himself up off the ground and dusting his pants off again.

“No. There’s some sort of weird bird farm over there or something,” he said, and Lup glanced over again, nodding.

“Right, Barry told me about it. He said it’s like a rehabilitation thing, sounded pretty cool I guess. You want to go check it out?” she asked, and Taako shook his head.

“Maybe at some point, this hat is still new and I don’t want some bird shitting on it,” he said. Lup rolled her eyes at that, but it was obvious that she was more amused than anything. “Anyway, I’ve more than fulfilled my quota of outside time for the day, I’m heading in,” he said, starting back towards the house. Lup followed after him, not seeming bothered by this.

Taako took one last glance back over at the neighbors once he was at the door. It was too far away from here to make out anything clearly from there. He could see Garyl wandering around the field though, still seeming content to ignore the other horses.

Heading inside, he figured it was late enough to start on dinner. He kind of felt like he could use the distraction.

Chapter Text

For the record, Taako was still very adamant that he was not getting attached to this place. He just happened to like routine, and something to do with his boring goddamn life until they could get out of this joint. Lup was always getting on him about not getting out in the fresh air and sunlight enough anyway. He might as well use this as an excuse to kill several birds with one stone, or whatever.

So most days Taako would head out, find Garyl in his stable and lead the horse off to the field with the rest of the horses. He still didn’t seem to give much of a shit about the rest of them, but at least to Taako it looked like he was moving around a bit more. That was probably a good thing. Taako had decided that if he was going to give an ounce of a shit about anything on this ranch, it would be this horse. It was clearly the thing with the best taste here, since he liked Taako so much.

Or at the very least, Garyl was always happy to follow along with him now, but that was probably because he’d started to associate Taako with treats. Which was a fair enough association. Now that he’d gotten the horse used to getting treats for this stuff he couldn’t stop. That would only lead to an angry horse, and no one wanted that.

Some days he would hang out with Garyl for a bit, some days he would head back inside almost immediately. It honestly depended, but Taako figured they were having a pretty good string of weather. It was summer but there was enough of a breeze most days that it wasn’t an overwhelming heat. The stupid cowboy hat actually did a decent job of keeping it out of his face too.

He was kind of tempted to see if Garyl would let him ride him, but he hadn’t tried yet. One, because he wasn’t too sure how to set all that up by himself, and two because he didn’t want to actually ask for anyone’s help with that. Maybe he’d look up a tutorial on youtube or something. It didn’t actually matter that much, he just kinda wanted to see how much the horse was willing to put up with for some apples.

He wasn’t gonna push his luck yet though. Instead today he led Garyl out into the fields like usual, and he’d started carrying treats in his pockets when going out for the horse a while ago. That way he didn’t have to keep running into the house to grab him stuff. Garyl quickly ate the couple of baby carrots Taako had grabbed today, immediately wandering off afterwards.

“Ungrateful bastard,” he said, although he wasn't actually annoyed. It was a horse, they were beautiful and majestic and knew no human laws. There wasn’t anything he could rightfully get mad at.

Taako wasn’t planning on spending a lot of time out today. Garyl seemed content to go off and do his own thing, and plus, he could see someone moving around in the bird cages next door. He’d yet to talk to them, or even get much of a good look at who lived there. Weird bird people. Taako wasn’t going to get caught up in some sort of avian based conversation for six hours. He was pretty sure anyone who put that much effort into something could talk forever about said subject.

He’d just been sitting on the fence some, scrolling through what little internet he could get on his phone. Somehow it was impossible to get used to slow internet, it was a constant struggle every single time he tried to use it. He really needed some more consistent distractions.

He only looked up when he heard a kind of unhappy whinny sound and some snorting. Most of the horses were off doing their own thing, far enough away that Taako definitely wouldn’t have been able to hear anything. Garyl was still close enough though, having wandered off by the neighbor’s fence. As inscrutable as the inner workings of such a heavenly creature were, it did not take a genius to realize what was bothering the horse.

It was a large raven flying around him, landing on his back before jumping off and pulling at his tail with its beak. Quickly glancing around, he grabbed a kinda dinky stick that his aunt must have thrown against the fence he was sitting on to be out of the way of the horses and started storming over. He could already see someone on the other side of the fence, frantically calling and cooing at the bird.

“Hey thug get your bird off my horse before I have him trample your dick!” he shouted, and well, Taako never cared much for first impressions. The dude’s eyes went straight at him, and he was younger than Taako expected, probably around his age. Cuter too. He had long dark hair done up in tight braids and styled into a bun and was wearing a red shirt with black overalls.

He also looked completely panicked, very much taking Taako’s threat seriously.

“That’s not necess- it’s- I swear she’s just playin’, no harm meant,” he insisted, and Taako almost paused at that. The accent was unexpected, and also forced and not entirely consistent. It almost got a laugh out of Taako, but he held it in for the illusion of still looking mad. He didn't actually care about not offending the guy. The bird had at least stopped grabbing at Garyl’s tail now, although it was still hopping around the horse and just generally being a bother.

“Yeah well her playin’ is pissing off my horse, so control your damn bird,” he said, imitating the accent this guy had slightly. Which would have been rude if it was his real voice, but Taako was gonna make a pretty safe bet that it wasn’t.

“Right, right, uh, come on now darlin’ come back over here now,” he said, calling to the bird. Taako swore the damn bird looked straight at the dude before turning back and trying to sit on Garyl again before giving up and landing on the ground. She did not seem intent on going back to the other side of the fence in the slightest. Taako could almost laugh at the defeated look that fell over this dude’s face at that.

“Go on birdy, go back home,” Taako said, walking towards the bird and kind of waving his arms out at it.

“Wait don’t-” the bird guy started to say, but before he could finish the actual bird started up into the air again. Instead of going towards Garyl it was making a beeline right fucking for Taako. Yelping, Taako scrambled back and tossed the stick in his hand in a panic. It didn’t hit the bird. Nah, the damn thing fucking dove at the stick, snatching it out of the air before flying right back over the fence.

It at least seemed to do the trick of getting the bird back to where it belonged. Taako watched as it went and dutifully landed on handsome guy’s arm, which had some weird thick glove on it. It held the stick out towards him, and he sighed and took it.

“You cause me no end of trouble,” he grumbled at the bird, before looking still somewhat fearfully back towards Taako. “I’m uh, I’m real sorry about all the trouble there uh, sweetheart,” he said, visibly wincing at that. Taako could feel a grin threatening to spread across his face, and sure he hadn’t wanted to talk to the neighbors any before. This whole thing was way too tempting through.

“Oh don’t you worry your pretty little head none about all that,” he said, still mimicking the accent this guy had on. The more he spoke the more Taako was convinced there was no way that was his real goddamn voice.

“That’s uh- that’s good. Your horse alright?” he asked, gesturing towards Garyl. The bird on his arm fluttered its wings some at the moment, but as soon as it did handsome dude reached into his pocket and pulled out some sort of treat for the bird, which got it pretty placated.

“Uh, I think so?” Taako said, actually trying to look Garyl over some. He seemed a little annoyed, but not hurt any. “Not actually my horse either, it’s my aunt’s. This one just likes me cause he’s got good taste,” he added, walking over and patting Garyl’s neck somewhat. It seemed to calm him down some, although he was still looking a little suspicious at the bird.

“Right, okay that makes sense. Miss Tia’s your aunt? I uh, I’ve never seen you 'round before,” he asked, still stubbornly clinging to this accent. For his credit, he was getting a bit more consistent with the thing. Not much, but somewhat.

“Oh yeah, my sister and I just moved in a little bit ago. Still getting used to everything, we’re real city slickers ourselves,” he said with a grin. Bird boy nodded, slowly seeming a little less nervous as they spoke. Probably because Taako had stopped threatening him and his bird.

“Ah yeah I’m sure it’s very different from what you’re used to,” he said, petting the bird some to keep it occupied. “Oh! I’m Kravitz by the way, my mom owns this bird sanctuary. And this trouble maker is Midnight,” he said, gesturing towards the bird. Taako raised an eyebrow at that.

“Not the most unique name for a huge black bird, but fair enough,” he said. Kravitz frowned a little at that.

“Well, what would you name her?” he asked, and Taako only thought for a few seconds before coming up with his answer

“Flying Knife,” he said, and Kravitz burst out laughing at that.

“I mean, it is unique and not entirely inaccurate, I’ll give you, uh, give ya that,” he said, breaking the accent for a moment. Taako had no idea what the point was to that, other than this guy apparently being really insistent on trying to appear as some big country boy. It was also the greatest thing he’d seen all week though, so the last thing he was going to do was complain.

“Right so Taako’s my handle, and if you see a girl wandering around here who looks just like me but not quite as pretty and probably making goo-goo eyes at Barold, that’s my sister Lup,” he said. Kravitz chuckled and nodded.

“I’ll be sure to keep an eye out I suppose,” he said, his smile a little less nervous now. Taako wasn’t too sure what to say, he wasn’t exactly the best at small talk, which was possibly another reason he’d been avoiding people for the most part. It seemed like Kravitz wasn’t sure what to talk about either, and they were both standing there for a moment in a very awkward quiet.

The bird saved the day, starting to pick at Kravitz’s braids and sort of jolting him.

“Oh, right I should uh, should get this trouble maker back in her cage,” he said, petting the raven and gently managing to get his hair out of its mouth. Taako quickly nodded and well, at least he’d been wrong about the people next door wanting to talk his ear off for hours about birds. Or at least this one didn’t seem intent to.

“Yeah for sure. Catch ya later Krav my man,” he said, giving Garyl one last pat before starting to walk away.

“Right, that’s- see ya around darlin’” Kravitz shouted after him, and Taako just managed to hear a disgruntled “what the fuck was that? Darlin? Midnight please bite off my tongue,” shout whispered under his breath. Taako managed to make it behind the chicken coop before he had to stop and take a moment to double over laughing. He was pretty sure Kravitz had gone and scrambled back to his bird cages by that point, so he probably didn’t hear him.

He was still laughing under his breath when he went back inside. Lup looked over at him from where she was digging through the fridge, a slice of cheese hanging from her mouth.

“What’s got you in such a good mood?” she asked once she'd finished the cheese. She’d grabbed a soda out of the fridge as well, and as she as she’d popped the top Taako snatched it out of her hand and took a drink.

“Met the neighbor, he’s a huge fucking dork. Maybe even a bigger dork than Barold,” he said. Lup snatched her soda back, only looking slightly annoyed with him.

“The bird ones?” she asked, and Taako nodded.

“Yeah, one of em at least. A bird got out I guess and started harassing Garyl and I threatened to trample his dick,” Taako explained, Lup snorting in amusement at that. “He was definitely faking a southern accent and kept calling me darlin’ and sweetheart,” he added which got a bark of laughter out of her.

“Oh god, did you kill him? If you killed him we can hide the body in the woods, or look for a close by farm with some pigs,” Lup said. Taako shook his head, grabbing a bag of chips out of the cabinet.

“Nah, I let him live. Poor dude already looked like he wanted to die, it was cute,” he said. When he glanced back over at Lup she was raising an eyebrow slowly. Taako’s first instinct was to tell her to fuck off and deny anything that look she was giving him insinuated. He managed to push that down though. That’s what Lup would want him to do, especially after all the shit he’d been giving her about Barry.

So instead he just smiled widely at her, stuffing another handful of chips into his mouth.

“He’s so much hotter than Barry,” he said with a shit eating grin. That wasn’t the response Lup was expecting, an offended look on her face as she instinctively went to argue. Before she actually said anything though her mouth clamped shut again and she shrugged, not looking Taako in the eyes.

“Cool! Great for him,” she huffed, and Taako couldn’t help snickering now. “What happened to not getting attached to this place huh?” she asked, and Taako didn’t stop smiling as he moved past her to head up to his room.

“Don’t gotta like a place to enjoy the view Lulu,” he said, letting himself sound every bit as smug as he felt. She didn’t continue to try and argue with him any, and despite everything this was probably the best Taako had felt since they moved here.

He told himself not to get used to it. That something would come along to ruin his good mood soon enough.

But he supposed Lup might have had a point about enjoying these good things while they had them.

Even still, when another week went by and there still wasn’t anything really… wrong, Taako was starting to get worried. Or maybe not worried. Suspicious?

Lup would call it paranoid, which was the only reason he hadn’t brought it up to her yet. Normally she’d be the first person he would go to about these kinds of things, but Lup liked it here. Lup didn’t think there was going to be a downside, but like fuck was he gonna believe that. There was always a downside.

Maybe he was a little paranoid, but it wasn’t like he’d ever been wrong before.

He’d seen Kravitz a few times over the past few days, although they hadn’t talked as much as the first time. Usually not more than a simple ‘howdy’ before he ended up running off after another bird. Lup saw him during one of those times, and refused to debate Taako later about him verses Barry in the looks department. Taako decided to take that to mean he was right.  Or Lup would have a little too many points for Barry, which would still mean he was right.

Other than that though, not much had happened over the past week. Not much had happened since they got here, as far as Taako was concerned, and it was kind of freaking him out. Usually something went wrong by now.

And well, Taako supposed he didn’t have to worry about being in a good mood anymore. Because he wasn’t, instead he was annoyed and waiting for something to go wrong already.

After taking Garyl out to the field today Taako headed inside pretty quick. He’d seen Lup and Barry hanging out by the barn and he wasn’t about to get in the middle of all that, even in a bad mood. Instead he went to the kitchen, scouring around to see what ingredients they had. It was too early for dinner, but he needed to stress bake.

“Looking for something dear?” he heard his aunt ask as he was looking through the pantry. Taako opened his mouth to either brush her off or make up some random thing he was looking for so that she would go away. He paused though, and things were already suspiciously good. Might as well push to see how far it would go.

“Was in the mood to bake something sweet, but not sure what. Got any recipe suggestions?” he asked casually. His aunt seemed to think it over for a moment, before heading over to one of the upper cabinets full of the rarely used cups and miscellaneous junk.

“I have a recipe for elderberry pie I’ve been meaning to make for you and your sister,” she said. She’d pulled out a small box shaped like a little house, the roof a lid that she took off before riffling through a bunch of little cards. He guessed that’s where she kept all her recipes, he’d been kind of wondering about that. He’d have to snoop through those later. “Here it is, tell me if that sounds like something you’d like,” she said, handing the card over. Taako read it over, and it wasn’t the most elaborate things. Most pies weren’t, he still found himself nodding.

“Yeah, sounds good,” he said, not making to hand her the card back. Instead he turned back towards the pantry, looking through for the ingredients he’d need.

“Would you like some help? I could use some good old stress baking myself,” aunt Tia said. Taako wasn’t sure what that was about, other than owning a ranch and taking in a couple of asshole teenagers was probably a little stressful.

“Figured you’d be busy, but you won’t hear me complaining about some extra hands,” he said, figuring he could let her decide if she wanted to stay or not. He’d rather cook either alone or with Lup, but well…

Maybe if he spent some more time with his aunt he could figure out what the fuck was up with all this. She was probably too busy to be openly resentful to them.

“Well, consider me extra hands then,” aunt Tia said, heading over to the fridge and pulling out the cold ingredients. Taako read through the recipe, pretty pleased it called for crust made from scratch. By the time he had everything for it out aunt Tia already grabbed a mixing bowl out as well.

“Cooking something you want to do professionally dear? Or is it a hobby?” she asked as they started mixing the flour and eggs together. Taako still appreciated the chance to have fresh eggs constantly in supply. He wasn’t quite as appreciative of the attempt at small talk, but he couldn’t say he was surprised by it either. That was always what people asked about, what he was going to do with his future.

“Gonna do it professionally, ain’t a want about it,” he said, and Tia smiled at that.

“I don’t doubt it, make sure you keep that confidence,” she said, and Taako nodded, not sure what else to say to that. People weren’t usually so supportive of his 'confidence', calling it an ego or him being cocky. He guessed she had been eating some of his food lately though. Hard to deny that he had skill once you tasted his masterpieces.

Cooking with Tia was easier than Taako expected. Not as effortless as when he and Lup were in the kitchen together, but for once Taako found himself being the one falling behind slightly. Turning to grab something only to find Tia holding it out for him to take, almost forgetting to butter the pan before he saw that she must’ve done it while his back was turned.

Well, he guessed it was her recipe, and he already knew she was pretty good at this. That was why he wanted to take a look at her recipes anyway, so he guessed it wasn’t that weird.

“So, I want you to be honest. How are you and your sister liking it here so far?” Tia asked, having taken a step back while Taako started putting the filling in the pie crust. Taako hummed noncommittally as he pretended to think the question over.

“Lup’s definitely liking it more than I expected. Never took her to be into that country farm life, but here we are,” he said, putting the empty bowl of filling down. He’d already had the dough for the top done, and he carefully began spreading it over the top as his aunt nodded.

“That’s good to hear,” she said, checking to make sure the oven was up to temperature. “And what about you dear? Don’t worry about hurting my feelings none,” she added, and Taako had figured it wouldn’t be as easy as just saying how Lup felt. He could always not answer, or lie. He definitely wasn’t under any obligation to give anyone an answer on anything. He finished the pie crust, and didn’t say anything as he put it into the oven.

“Been waiting for it to get worse. Shit’s been smooth so far but there's still plenty of time for it to fuck up I suppose,” he said as he set the timer. Aunt Tia seemed a little surprised that he’d actually answered the question, which was fair. Taako was kind of surprised himself, but it wasn’t like being upfront about this stuff would actually change anything.

Or maybe it would, but he wasn’t about to start getting his hopes up.

“Well, let’s see if I can’t keep this streak going as long as possible,” aunt Tia said, not sounding offended at all. Taako knew she said to be honest, but he hadn’t actually expected her to be fine with anything he said. People were always telling you to be honest and then getting mad when you were. “Here, you can dry while we wait for the timer,” she said, having started on the dishes.

Taako was a lazy motherfucker, but keeping shit clean in the kitchen was important as a chef so he couldn’t really complain. Plus drying was the easiest task.

They were just about done with the dishes when aunt Tia’s phone dinged, and Taako thought it was the timer for a quick second. Then she pulled it out of her pocket and scowled at it before putting it back. “Damn persistent bastard. He can just wait until dishes are done and we’ve had some pie,” she grumbled.

Taako told himself he wasn’t all that interested, but like, he was a curious person by nature. Can’t blame him for being the slightest bit intrigued.

“What’s that, some unwanted suitor? Ya know Lulu and I are pretty good at scaring away guys if you need the help,” he said, which got a snorting laugh out of his aunt.

“Oh heavens no. Would be quite a deal simpler if it was, most men will buckle damn quick if you come at them full speed on a horse with no intention of stopping,” she said, and Taako couldn’t help but grin at that.

“Gotta say I respect your style auntie,” he said, and with that the actual timer went off. Grabbing the oven mitts he quickly took the pie out, and it smelled fucking amazing. Glancing at the clock, it should be cool enough to eat after dinner. “So, if not a mysterious suitor, what was that about?” he asked, because he was still curious about that. Aunt Tia waved the question away though.

“Oh, ain’t anything you need to worry about. Just some business with the ranch, I should have it all cleared up soon enough,” she said. Taako couldn’t tell if she was telling him that because it was genuinely like, some boring technical part of running a ranch, or just to get him to not ask about it. Either way, he guessed it wasn’t actually any of his business, and he wasn’t that curious.

“Well, that’s all the effort I’m giving today. Lup can handle dinner,” he said, changing the subject. It got a laugh out of his aunt.

“Probably best that someone let her know that,” she said, and Taako shrugged.

“Yeah, guess I could do that,” he said, starting out towards the back door. He couldn’t complain too much about being sent out to get Lup. He’d be worried about finding her macking on Barold if he didn’t know for a fact that she couldn’t make a move to save her life.

“Thank you dear,” his aunt said, and Taako just nodded. “Oh, and Taako?” she added, and he paused at the door, looking back at her. “The pie smells delicious, you have a real talent,” she said, sounding a lot more genuine than Taako expected.

“Natch, but thanks auntie,” he said after a brief moment of standing there. He didn’t waste anymore time, heading out to look for Lup.

Once again, Taako tried to tell himself not to get attached. These things never worked out and he wasn’t going to let himself get hurt like Lup would when this all came crashing down.

Despite that, he found himself wishing that maybe things would work out. Just this once.

Chapter Text

Taako figured the only thing he needed was a good enough distraction. The the ranch either wasn’t going to change, which was the more terrifying option by far, or it would take a turn for the worst, which was what he was prepared for.

And either way, they’d already been here for a while. Getting on a month now. Just eleven more of those before they could be legally kicked to the curb. He could last that long, they’ve lasted longer in worse places for sure.

That was kind of the problem, but that was why he needed a distraction, so he could not focus on that.

The issue still being that there wasn’t much to do out here. There was like, ranch work, he was sure. Aunt Tia was constantly running around doing shit, Barry was here most days helping out. Taako was pretty sure Lup was even tentatively helping out some with the junk Barry did, although he was also sure that was just as an excuse to spend more time with the nerd. Eh, he didn’t get his sister’s taste in dudes, but she could chase her bliss as much as she wanted.

Taako however was not quite that desperate yet. His arms were not made for lifting, and neither was any other part of his body. It was also not made for digging, or transporting, or pouring. It was made for falling onto sofas like an overwhelmed Victorian era woman who’d just had ‘quite a start’ and for creating fantastic five star meals.

Still, he supposed there were other things his body and thus himself could do, even if it wasn’t what he was made to do.

He’d been walking this damn horse and feeding it treats and shit for almost a month now. Might as well fucking try and ride it already. The worst that could happen was him like, falling off and dying or going into a long term coma or something. Either way, with both of those things it wouldn't be his problem anymore.

He’d looked up how to set a saddle on a horse and all that junk online. He could have just asked Tia, but she might not want him riding Garyl. By all accounts, trying to ride Garyl could very well be a supremely stupid idea. He was still gonna try and do it. Sure, Taako knew he was smart as shit, that didn’t mean he wasn’t still a fucking idiot.

Today when he led Garyl out to the horse field, he didn’t immediately give him is treat. Instead Taako ran back to the barn, grabbing a saddle and the reigns and shit, he wasn’t sure the proper names and he didn’t care either. Heading back, he gave Garyl a big apple to chew on as he started setting the horse up. It seemed to help keep him in place, and Taako cursed to himself at how fucking heavy this shit was. Still, after a try or two he managed to get the saddle on his back, checking the source he had on his phone multiple times to make sure he had everything right. The last thing he wanted to do was end up fucking upside down on the horse dangling by his legs in the little loopy things because he’d forgotten a strap.

Garyl didn’t put up much of a fuss during any of it, calming standing and eating his apple as Taako worked around him. That wasn’t a big surprise, the horse was chill with most things.

Taako took a long glance around the yard and surrounding areas. He was alone for now, which was exactly what he wanted for this. No need for anyone to see him probably bust his ass on a horse.

“Okay, I’m going to sit on you now. Just hold still,” he said, and he knew Garyl couldn’t actually understand him, but it felt better to talk to the horse beforehand. Give it some sort of chance to like, buck out if riding so wasn’t his ballgame.

It look a little bit of effort to actually get on his back. Garyl was a tall horse and Taako was not a particularly tall man. He ended up having to hop up on the fence to get a better perch to finally hook his leg over. Garyl for his part stayed pretty still, although at one point he started to wander away to try and eat some grass and Taako nearly fell on his ass.

After quite a bit of trial and error though he was up on the horse, the reign in his hands and his legs in the little loops. Garyl wasn’t going anywhere, instead continuing to munch at a particularly tall bit of grass near the fence. To be fair, that distraction had been the thing to allow Taako to get all the way on him at all.

“Okay, we’re gonna move now. Just ya know, at your own chill pace,” he said. He tried to tug on the reigns the way aunt Tia had showed him the first time he’d been up on a horse, squeezing his thighs into Garyl’s sides as well.

To his surprise it actually worked, Garyl slowly picking his head up from where he was eating and starting to walk forward at a slow, leisurely pace.

“Hell yeah, see? This shit’s easy. Maybe Lup actually had something with the whole riding a horse to walmart thing. What do you think Garyl, you wanna be my car? I can exchange all gas money for oats,” Taako said, fully aware that he was talking to himself. That wasn’t the most unusual thing though. He and Lup talked to each other so often that it was sort of natural to keep on talking even when they weren’t together.

The horse pasture area was pretty big, and Taako wasn’t really directing where Garyl was going, instead letting him cut a line down the middle of it. The most he did was try to stay away from the other horses, he didn’t want to fucking spook them or something like that.

It was pretty chill as they went in a large circle, no real direction in mind. He was sure his aunt had like, riding paths, but Taako wasn’t sure if that was teetering too close to like, actually getting into horse shit, or if it was worse just riding around in a circle in the pasture. A path would probably be more interesting though.

“Ya know, I’m not sure why they said you’re difficult and shit, you’re just chill,” Taako said, running a hand through Garyl’s mane as he did. This whole thing was kinda boring, but like, in a meditative way Taako guessed. Boring in a way where he could kinda zone out and not in the way that made him want to rip his hair out.

While he was zoning out though, he didn’t notice as their pace slowly started to pick up, until Garyl was going at a low trot. Still not anywhere in particular, but definitely starting to get a bit faster than Taako was comfortable with.

“Okay, whoa boy,” Taako said, pulling on the reigns in the way he remembered Tia showing him to slow down.

Instead of slowing down, Garyl started picking up more speed, now nearly at a run. There was still a lot of pasture in front of them, but that was rapidly changing. Nope, no okay this was not what Taako was about.

“I said whoa boy, stop Garyl,” he tried to insist, squeezing with his legs and pulling the reigns back a little harder, because he didn’t know what else he was supposed to do. He’d only been taught those two things.

Once again it only seemed to spur Garyl to go faster, fucking running across the field now. Taako didn’t know what the fuck to do, leaning low against the horse and trying to hold on tight in order to keep from being flung off. He kept pulling on the reigns, and instead of listening at one point Garyl whipped his head around, almost ripping the reigns out of Taako’s hands, clearly annoyed with the pulling.

“Shit shit shit shit shit,” Taako was muttering consistently under his breath now. Looking around as much as he could, he still didn’t see anyone in a convenient place to help him.

What he did see was the low fence at the end of the horse pasture, the one that blocked them off from the woods back behind the house.

“No, no no, turn, turn,” Taako shouted, once again pulling on the reigns to no goddamn effect.

Once they were right on the fence Taako let go of the reigns entirely, instead grabbing the edge of the saddle as he crouched down, his eyes squeezed shut.

He didn’t see them leaving the ground, but he sure as fuck felt it as Garyl look a long leap, coming to a surprisingly smooth landing on the other side of the fence.

He kept trotting for a bit longer, and Taako refused to open his eyes. Slowly the trotting turned into a slow walk, until eventually Taako felt Garyl come to a stop below him. Cracking one eye open, he could see that they were both very much still alive, if now beyond the fence and a little ways into the woods. Garyl was currently standing by a tree, his head down as he ate at some sort of leafy vine that was growing up the side of it.

Taking the opportunity, Taako scrambled with shaky legs off of his back. His bones felt like jello, and he was staring with a mix of emotions at Garyl, most of those emotions fucking terror based.

There was also a rush of adrenaline there. If it hadn’t been so out of the blue it might have actually been something he would enjoy. Kind of like riding a motorcycle. A motorcycle would not be fun if you were riding a normal ass bike that suddenly transformed without your permission and rode up off a goddamn ramp.

“Okay. Okay. So that’s why, I get it now,” he said. Garyl barely glanced over at him before reaching over and eating another leaf off the vine. “No, no I don’t know what the fuck that is or if you should be eating it. Come on, fucking evil horse speed racer,” he grumbled, walking over and grabbing Garyl’s reigns.

To his surprise, the horse seemed totally chill to walk next to him now, Taako leading him by the reigns. Taako couldn’t help but glare at the giant beast of pure muscle and bones. “Seriously?” he asked, huffing and continuing towards the front of the pasture again. It was a long way around to the gate, god he was not happy about having to walk this whole way.

He somehow managed to get even less happy about it when he saw his aunt make her way out from where they kept the cows, quickly catching sight of him out of the corner of her eye. Taako guessed it made sense, she was probably pretty attuned to seeing horses where they weren’t supposed to be.

Taako was expecting anger, or at least annoyance as she headed over to them, but as she got close he could see the amused smirk on her face.

“Looks like you two went on quite the adventure,” she said once they were in speaking distance. Taako huffed, attempting to cross his arms but getting them caught on Garyl’s reigns. He quickly gave up, instead settling for looking as annoyed as possible with his face.

“If that’s what you want to call it, sure. Hey, there’s nothing back there that’s like, poisonous to horses is there? He was eating some vines,” Taako said, hoping for a change of topic. Even if he wasn’t actually that worried about it, there was still some relief when aunt Tia shook her head.

“It should be fine dear, he wasn’t out there for too long was he?” she asked, coming up and patting Garyl on the side. Once she was close enough Taako handed the reigns over to her because he was done with all this .

“Nah, like a minute was enough for Taako, thank you very much,” he said. He kind of wished he could slip away before they could get too deep into this conversation, but it was still a long walk until they were back in the regular yard. He caught sight of Tia glancing back at the saddle on Garyl’s back and then back over at Taako. It was like he could see the connections and ideas buzzing around in her head.

“So, how’d this buddy get out over there anyway? I see you got a saddle on him,” she said, and yep that was exactly the conversation he’d been wanting to avoid. Taako shrugged, walking briskly and trying to give off every vibe that he didn’t give a shit. Usually he didn’t have to try with that.

“Garyl seemed bored, was wondering how he’d do with riding and he’d been pretty chill with me. Apparently the fucking thing thinks a simple, chill ride involved running at full speed and leaping a fence, if case you were wondering,” he said. He was prepared for her to get pissed at him for that, since it wasn’t like she hadn’t said something about not riding Garyl already.

Instead she chuckled, and when Taako glanced over at her it didn’t look like he was telling her anything she hadn't already figured out. Which was fair, it wasn’t some sort of uncrackable mystery.

“You should probably try and be careful of that dear, he does seem to have some issues here and there,” she said, and Taako nodded because like, she wasn’t wrong. “Seems like you held your own pretty damn well though, that’s impressive,” she added.

“If by ‘held my own’ you mean ‘clung on to dear life so I didn’t get my skull smashed in’ then yeah, sure,” Taako said, because he certainly hadn’t felt like he had a handle on all of that while Garyl had been speeding towards a fence and not listening to a thing he tried.

“That’s really all there is to it dear,” aunt Tia said, and well, Taako guessed that was fair. They had just reached the yard and Taako was about to say some excuse to slip away when she continued. “If you’d like to keep riding with someone a little less likely to jump the fence, feel free to take one of the other boys out. You’d be doing me a big favor helping them get some extra exercises.”

Taako’s first instinct was to brush that off with a hearty negative, but he paused. He was still trying to find distractions after all, and if he did end up getting bored enough to ride again it’d look back if he’d already said he didn’t want to.

“Yeah maybe, if I have the time,” he said. It was a noncommittal enough answer, and his aunt didn’t press him anymore on it. Taako gave Garyl one last pat on the side of the neck before heading back to the house without another word. That was probably rude, but it was whatever.

Heading up to his room, he didn’t have much of a plan for the rest of the day. Maybe he should see if there was a library in the town nearby. He was pretty sure Lup would be willing to suggest going to one if he brought it up. With the piss poor internet it wouldn’t hurt to get some actual books around instead. They wouldn’t take forever to load, at the very least.

As it was, he guessed he could always see what kind of books were in this house. Heading out of his room, there was a bookshelf down in the living room that he hadn’t looked over all that much yet. It was half filled with knickknacks and that sort of junk, but there was still a decent number of books as well. A lot of them seemed to be on like, different ranching techniques and stuff, at least from the quick glances Taako could see.

Taako was debating if he was bored enough to start reading about ranching when suddenly he heard the doorbell ring. That was not a super common thing, at least not in the time Taako had been here. Barry never rang, he usually went right around back to start working. He’d only ever seen Kravitz through the fence, dude didn’t seem all that inclined to come over for a visit.

“Auntie!” he called, but he was pretty sure she was still out back somewhere. “Lup!” he tried next, but there was no answer from that one either. He was wondering if he could run back and yell for someone out the back door when the doorbell rang again. And then two more times in quick succession. With a groan, Taako headed to the front door.

“We don’t want any,” he said as soon as he opened it. Standing on the porch was some dude. Muscular, with tan skin that suggested a lot of time outside, and a huge grin on his face. He was holding a large wooden stool in his hands and had his elbow pressed up against the doorbell.

“Oh, you’re new! Hail and well met,” the dude said, still grinning, moving back some so he wasn’t assaulting everyone’s ears with the doorbell.

“Yep, and you are?” Taako asked. He figured this had to be someone his aunt knew, until there were traveling homemade furniture salesmen around these parts. Fucking, he wouldn’t put it past this place if he was being honest.

“Magnus Burnsides, is miss Tia here?” he asked and Taako nodded.

“Yeah, she’s around back,” he said, and he’d been hoping this dude would take that as a cue to go back there and leave him alone. He did not seem to be that lucky, the dude making no move to leave the front porch.

“Oh yeah, that makes sense. Hey, you never introduced yourself,” he said, and Taako had kinda been hoping he could get through his conversation without having to do that. It didn’t seem like that would be the case however.

“Name’s Taako, Tia’s our aunt. My sister and I just moved in recently,” he said, and Taako saw a look of realization pass over this Magnus dude’s face.

Oh yeah, you’re the ones Barry's been talking about!” he said, and Taako couldn’t help but raise a slow eyebrow at that.

“Really now? And what has our dear Barold been saying?” he asked, a grin on his face now. He wasn’t super happy about being forced to meet more fucking people here, but he was willing to put up with it if it meant getting some gossip.

“All good stuff for sure,” Magnus said, and Taako just nodded.

“Like what my man, lay on the compliments,” he pressed, leaning up against the door frame.

“Uh, you said you’re Taako, right?” he asked, and Taako almost laughed at the idea that this guy was actually going to try and remember things Barry had said about him. He hadn’t hung out with the dude all that much, at least not without Lup around.

“Yeah, but he’s been spending a lot more time with my sister, so I’m sure he talks about her a little more,” he said, and Taako wasn’t surprised when Magnus nodded.

“You’re right about that, it’s pretty adorable how much of a cr- crrrushing need to… talk about… how great your sister is, he has? Oh darn, that’s worse that the thing I was going to say,” Magnus said, and Taako burst out laughing at that.

“I won’t tell a soul, no worries,” he said, and Magnus smiled in relief at that.

“Thanks dude,” he said, and then he shifted the stool in his arms a bit, like he’d only just remembered it was there. “Oh right, I’m a wood worker! I’ve been on kinda a stool kick, trying out different kinds of legs, ya know? So I ended up making a bunch and was wondering if miss Tia would want one,” he said. Which okay, that did explain the stool. Still pretty fucking weird, but he'd take it.

“I mean, you can never have enough stools in the kitchen. Bring it in my man,” Taako said. Another thing he couldn’t turn down besides gossip was free shit, even if it wasn’t technically for him. It would be in the kitchen, and it looked like a fucking nice stool too. “Oh yeah, did you make the rest of the furniture and shit out on the porch?” he asked, and Taako wasn’t surprised when Magnus nodded, following him into the kitchen.

“Yeah, miss Tia brought some of it, other was practice pieces I’ve just given away,” he explained, which made sense. Magnus put the stool down in the kitchen, and this was the part where Taako was never sure what to do. Normally the overly happy energy that Magnus gave off would annoy him, and it still kinda was. Not as bad as he expected though.

He was probably still recovering from his horse related trauma from earlier, if he was actually feeling like he liked people.

“Hey, so who’ve you met around here so far? Other than Barry?” Magnus asked, and Taako shrugged.

“Not a lot. Just Barold and bird boy next door really,” he said. It seemed to take Magnus a second to realize what he meant by that.

“Oh yeah, Kravitz! Huh, that’s a surprise, he usually keeps to himself,” he said, and yeah okay, Taako hadn’t expected that. He’d seemed kinda nervous during the few conversations they had so far, but not like a shut in or anything like that.

“Nothing big, just a friendly little howdy partner,” Taako said, which got a snort out of Magnus. He seemed a little confused by the sudden accent though, which made Taako think maybe it wasn’t a thing Kravitz did with everyone. That honestly made it even more hilarious.

“Well, if you guys are planning to stay in town long there’s like, a carnival happening pretty soon. Barry might’ve already told your sister about it, but you two should totally come. Meet everyone, have some fried food, it’ll be fun,” Magnus said. Taako wasn’t sure what to think about that, hesitantly nodding.

“Yeah, I’ll check around and see if it fits our busy schedule,” he said, still not sure if a carnival sounded like something tolerable as a distraction for a day or the worst idea ever. “So who exactly do you mean by ‘everyone?’ You’re telling me there’s folk here besides the chickens and shit?” he asked. From how comfortable Magnus seemed to strike up a conversation with him and invite him and Lup, a person he hadn’t even met yet, to a carnival, he was probably a pretty friendly guy. Taako wouldn’t put it past him to know ‘everyone.’

They started walking back towards the front door as Magnus began to speak, which Taako was grateful for. At least it didn’t seem like it would be too hard to get this guy to leave.

“There’s a lot of those too, but aw man, yeah! You already know Barry and uh, I guess you met Kravitz too, let’s see who else. Lucretia’s real nice, she lives down the way. My girlfriend Julia actually lives right over there,” Magnus paused, they’re reached the front porch now and he pointed down at a house a on the other side of the street and down some. “She’s out of town with her dad right now though,” he added, a sad, wistful tone to his voice. Taako nodded along, hoping he would continue.

“Merle’s house is a bit of a ways, but it’s right on a little lake. We should bring you and your sister down there sometime! Uh, let’s see, let’s see. Lucretia's down on the corner, Dav lives on the other side of the lake. Oh man, I can’t believe you haven’t seen Angus running around yet. That’s probably on purpose, kid’s fucking sneaky,” Magnus continued. It was enough names that Taako had lost track of whoever the fuck he was trying to talk about right at the beginning, if he was being honest.

“Yeah no man for sure,” he said, cutting off whatever or whoever this dude was about to go on about next. He didn’t need or want to know. “We’ll totally try and keep the day open, thanks for the stool, all that good stuff,” he continued, hoping Magnus would get the message and leave. It seemed to take a moment, but Taako could see when it finally clicked in his head.

“Right, well it was real nice meeting you! I live right over there if you or your sister ever want to stop by to chat or buy a chair or anything. Oh! You should meet my dog, he’s real good and-”

“Some other time for sure,” Taako said. There was some obvious disappointment on Magnus’s face, but he nodded, starting to leave the front porch finally.

“Well, see you around sometime Taako! And tell your sister I’m sorry I missed her!” he said, and Taako nodded as he started closing the door.

“Will do, later my guy,” he said, closing the door before Magnus could say anything else. God, that was more conversation that he’d expected to get dragged into. Probably about the price of a really nice free stool’s worth though, if he had to guess.

He’d have to think about if a carnival would be worth it, but he’d put it on the back burner for now.

Might be fun though. If for nothing else, just to shove Lup and Barry onto a ferris wheel together.

Chapter Text

Once Magnus was gone Taako had kind of put the carnival out of his mind, which was to say, he immediately forgot about it after taking a nap. It wasn’t his fault, people should know better than to tell him shit when he was tired. He hadn’t even really been that tired though, just bored.

Still, a few days had gone by and he hadn’t thought much of it. He hadn’t attempted to do another Garyl riding experiment, because he wasn’t looking to die.

He might’ve taken up his aunt’s offer to ride Evard every so often. Only when he was super bored and didn’t have anything else to do and no one else was around. No one could give him shit over something if they didn’t know it was happening, and if no one else knew it was happening, the it basically wasn’t. Trees falling in forests and all that jazz.

He still brought Garyl out to the field every day though, because apparently that was just a thing he had to do now. No one else seemed bothered to take the horse anywhere, so Taako guessed it was like, the one chore he had. He could deal with that, considering this was about the only place they'd stayed where it actually seemed like they were staying for free.

Taako had just gotten done putting Garyl into the field and giving him his daily treat. It was a nice day out, and Taako might have been tempted to take one of the other horses for a ride if their aunt wasn’t out in the field at the moment. She waved at him as he brought Garyl out, but didn’t seem intent on striking up any other kind of conversation, which was fine by him. He could admit he liked their aunt’s ability to mind her own business.

Still, that meant there wasn’t a lot of reasons to spend time outside, so he was heading back towards the house. He’d been passing by the cow bard when he heard laughter. Not creepy laughter or anything like that, it was a very familiar laugh he knew instantly.

Walking much quieter, Taako poked his head around the corner. He couldn’t say he was totally surprised by who he saw.

Lup and Barry were sitting together up against the barn, huddled up with some notebook. Lup had a positively delighted look on her face as Barry quickly wrote down something else.

“See? You can get em pretty damn big, uh, too. They’re not hard to build, and it just kinda, chucks em,” Barry said, and this was probably the least nervous Taako had seen the dude in the entire time they’d been here. Lup grabbed the notebook from him, looking over whatever it is they were working on.

“And you just fucking do this every year? This is a tradition?” she asked, and Barry nodded, looking very pleased.

“Yeah! I mean, not everyone of course, but ya know, it’s fun,” he said. Taako wasn’t sure what they were talking about, but he could admit that he was kind of interested in whatever could make Lup get that kind of glint in her eye. That was the kind of look she got when she had a plan that usually resulted in something being set on fire or electrocuted.

“What’s up my dudes!” Taako said loudly, striding out from behind the corner with no warning. Immediately the two scrambled away from  where they’d been leaning up against each other. Taako had to quickly throw his hands up to catch the notebook thrown in his direction.

“Holy shit Taako!” Lup snapped, and Taako grinned, quickly smoothing out the pages that had gotten rumpled during the throw.

“Hey, don’t let me interrupt y’all,” he said, still smiling oh so innocently. From the glare Lup was giving him she knew it was complete bullshit. Looking over the paper, there were some sort of diagram on it, a couple equations and shit. Taako frowned slightly as he looked it over, raising an eyebrow. “Are you two planning on laying siege to a castle or what?” he asked, tossing the notebook back. Barry fumbled, just barely managed to catch it and looking right back to his nervous self. Taako almost felt a little bad for ruining the moment.

“No, it’s uh, it’s for pumpkins,” he said, which didn’t do much to alleviate Taako’s confusion but did do a lot to get a smile on his face. 

“Pumpkins?” he asked, and Lup nodded, still looking a little annoyed. She had nothing to be annoyed at if she wasn’t actually interested in the dork like she claimed though, so no reason to blame old Taako for wanting to talk to his sister and her new best friend for a moment.

“Yeah, apparently there’s a thing around here each yeah where people just build these giant fuck off catapults and see who can throw a pumpkin the furthest,” she said, and Taako snorted in laughter at that. Okay, he could definitely see why Lup would be interested in that.

“And what the fuck kind of monstrosity are you two planning?” he asked, and Barry actually managed to look a little proud as he answered.

“It’s uh, actually a trebuchet,” he explained.

“That doesn’t sound like it’ll backfire in any way,” he said, and neither of them looked particularly daunted by the idea. It was kind of fucking incredible. Taako had pegged Barry as one of those nerds who was super scared of like, shit getting out of order and accidentally giving himself a splinter. There was something genuinely delightful to see he had a similar chaotic streak as Lup.

It was a pity they were only gonna be here for the year, if that. He was pretty sure he’d never seen Lup this into a guy before.

He suddenly remembered the thought he had about the carnival, as well as its general existence.

“So, what are you up to? Still stalking around moping?” Lup asked, and Taako leaned against the side of the barn, as casual as possible.

“Not moping at all Lup, I actually had something I wanted to talk to y’all about,” he said, which definitely got their attention.

“Uh, both of us?” Barry asked, and Taako nodded.

“Yeah, yeah I mean, nothing big don’t worry. I was just wondering if y’all knew anything about that carnival that was coming up?” he asked. Lup looked vaguely confused and somewhat surprised by the sudden change in topic.

Barry on the other hand suddenly looked significantly more nervous than he had before.

“No? Why, where’d you hear about that?” Lup asked.

“Oh, one of the neighbors. He didn’t say when though, just said we should come. He figured Barry would have already told you all about it,” Taako said, trying not to let his grin look too evil. Barry shrugged, rubbing the back of his head nervously.

“Oh, oh right that carnival. I uh, it totally slipped my mind. Been uh, real busy, with the ranch and all. If- if you two wanna, ya know, go, you should! There’s not a lot to um, do out here, so it uh, it might be fun?” he managed to stumble out.

“Yeah, that sounds alright I guess?” Lup said, still seeming a little confused and looking at Taako with suspicion.

“Right well, I just figured I’d pass that long. You two can work out the details, just let me know when and where and I’ll tag along, not like I ever have anything planned,” he said. With that he turned to leave, and Lup couldn’t say he was trying to set her up on a carnival date with the nerd. He was coming along too after all. He might just get bored and wander off once they got there, but he did that all the time anyway.

Taako was feeling pretty pleased with himself as he went inside and up to his room. Even if they weren’t staying here, he guessed that didn’t mean it was impossible for a relationship to happen if Lup was like, actually serious about this guy. She sure as fuck wouldn’t admit it if she was yet, but there wasn’t any harm in laying the ground work.

So yeah, Taako was feeling pretty good. Or at least he was until he walked into his room and almost immediately face planted, his leg getting caught on the strap of his duffel bag.

Huffing in annoyance, Taako quickly untangled himself. Looking around the room, the frown on his face only deepened.

He hadn’t properly unpacked yet. He’d also gotten to the point where living out of the suitcase had started to spill over as he continued to use his stuff. It didn’t help that their aunt bought them new things on occasion as well. All in all, it was leaving his room a slowly growing mess.

Which wasn’t exactly unusual. It wasn’t like Taako gave enough of a shit about any of his relatives homes to actually bother keeping them clean. Plus, he was usually shoved up in a little room with Lup, and there was never enough space to put out all their things. They’d always have to sneak food to their room and rarely tended to spend time in other parts of the house, so of course a mess built up.

That wasn’t really the case this time though. Taako had a room to his own, and he rarely brought more than the occasional snack up. Since they were allowed to actually use the kitchen, there was no point in trying to hide the food they made.

Lup’s room across the hall was clean. It wasn’t spotless. Their rooms had been spotless while they lived with aunt Seransie. They’d both really fucking hated that. So Lup’s room wasn’t perfect, but the floor was clear and even though it felt lived in it was still organized. It was actually pretty nice. Taako tended to spend as much time in there as he could, especially when Lup was around.

His room was just a mess, and for once there wasn’t really any reason for it to be.

So, grabbing up a few shirts scattered around his feet, Taako started to clean it.

It didn’t take as long as he expected it to, since he didn’t have all that much stuff to his name, even if it was still a lot more than he was used to. He organized all his shit and books while waiting for laundry. He even fucking swept the floor. Not even two hours later he had everything cleaned and put away.

And it actually looked nice.

A touch barren and impersonal. Actually having his books lined up on top of his dresser helped, but he kind of wanted to get a bookcase. He still had a bunch he wasn’t able to fit stuffed in the closet. Maybe he could grab some things to hang on the walls too, to break up the wood paneling some. Other than the small desk lap on the side table and the large window, there wasn’t a lot of light either.

He’d kinda always wanted to get some strings of lights and decorate his room with those. That would actually look really nice in here. Sure it was hipster bullshit but it was pretty hipster bullshit.

Taako was halfway though planning out how to hang them and how many boxes of lights he would need when he stopped in his tracks.

He only meant to clean his room a little bit so that he wouldn’t trip over shit all the time. There was no reason to start decorating it and acting like it was ever going to be some kind of home.

Huffing, he slumped against the wall next to his window. He didn’t go to flop down on his bed because that would make him look too much like an upset teen, and he wasn’t upset. He just couldn’t believe he’d forgotten something so basic.

The only home he and Lup could ever count on was each other. There was no point in trying to put down roots anywhere else because they would inevitably be dug up and damaged.

Taako wasn’t sure how long he stood leaning against the wall. Not sulking, just… standing. Either way, it wasn’t very long. After a few moments he caught sight of someone moving out in the front yard, and curiosity had him shift for a closer look. Pressed up against the glass, he could see Aunt Tia walking at a brisk pace out towards the street. There was a car parked out front that Taako didn’t recognize, slick black with almost an iridescent sheen to it.

There was a dude standing outside of the car, and Taako couldn’t see much from all the way up here, but Tia did not look happy to see him. The last thing Taako wanted to do was get more involved in the bullshit going ons of the ranch. Right now though, he could use the distraction.

So, pushing himself off the wall, Taako heading out of his room and quickly made his way out to the front yard. As soon as he stepped out onto the porch he could hear his aunt.

“I’m not telling you again Mr. Hadar, so you can get right on back in your very nice car and be on your way,” she said, although the dude didn’t look like he had much intention of leaving. He was wearing a suit that looked real out of place out in some backwoods ranch town, and his hair was slicked back, and he had fancy shoes.

God, Taako already hated this guy.

“Now, if you will just be reasonable about this, I’m sure we can work something-” Slimeball dude started to say.

“Hey auntie,” Taako cut in, talking maybe a little louder than needed. “Suit here giving you any trouble? Garyl could use some exercise, I've been trying to teach him how to jump. He ain't that good yet,” he said, not too bothered about lying out his teeth in an attempt to intimidate this guy. It didn't seem to be super effective, which only made Taako which he could follow through on those threats.

“Oh no dear, that’s quite all right,” aunt Tia said, although Taako could swore there was a part of her that looked pretty tempted by the offer. “Mr. Hadar was just leaving,” she added, in a very pointed manner at the dude.

“Please, call me John. And you are?” this dude, apparently John, asked, holding out a hand like he expected Taako to shake it. He didn’t, giving a very unimpressed look at the hand before purposefully putting his own in his pockets as he answered.

“Taako,” he said bluntly. John didn’t look very impressed, putting his hand back down and giving a bit of a forced grin.

“Charming,” he said, before turning back to his aunt. “You have my number for when you decide to reconsider,” he said, and Taako felt his frown deepen at that. He had no idea what this dude’s stitch was, but oh boy he sure as fuck didn’t like that.

“Oh and I will be sure to call you if that blessed day ever comes, Mr. Hadar,” aunt Tia said, and Taako could hear the barely masked sarcasm in her voice. “But until then I got a lot of work and little to entertain a man such as yourself. So if you’ll just be on your way,” she added, and this creep nodded.

“Of course,” he said. He paused as he turned back towards his car, looking at Taako again. “A pleasure meeting you, young man,” he said, and Taako was so not feeling playing along nice with this dude.

“Wish I could say the same, my dude,” he said, getting a frown from John and a surprised snort of laughter from his aunt. Luckily the dude didn’t push it, finally getting back into his car. Taako watched until it was at least halfway down the dirt street before speaking again. “Okay, who the fuck was that douchecanoe?” he asked. Aunt Tia sighed, untying the bandanna around her head and running a hand through her hair in frustration.

“No one you gotta worry yourself over dear,” she insisted. Normally Taako wouldn’t be worried about whatever this was, it was clearly his aunt’s problem and thus had nothing to do with him. He guessed he wasn’t worried now either, he was just curious.

And aunt Tia really wasn’t as bad as most- as any of the other relatives him and Lup had lived with throughout the years. The least they could do for her actually being like, a somewhat decent person was chase off whatever skeevy dickhead was bothering her.

“Well, the offer to run him off is still on the table,” he said, and his aunt laughed, nodding.

“I appreciate that,” she said, and it honestly sounded like that was true. Then she sighed and the smile that had briefly been on her face faded. “I’m sorry dear, I do need to get back to some work I was in the middle of,” she said, and Taako nodded quickly.

“Yeah no for sure, you go do you,” he said. She gave him another quick smile before moving back around through the side of the house towards the barn. Taako was left in the yard alone, not sure what to do about that but not real happy with those answers either. Sure, it wasn’t any of his damn business, but he kinda wanted to know.

He was about to give up and head inside when he saw something move out of the corner of his eye. Okay, he definitely some someone duck behind the house. Or something. Quickly running up to the house, he reached inside the door and grabbed the first thing he could, which happened to be an umbrella.

Not the most threatening weapon, but it would work.

Taking a deep breath, Taako started creeping along the house, trying to be as quiet as possible. Slowly, he told himself it was probably just a goat or something that escaped as he peaked around the corner.

It wasn’t a goat, and it wasn’t anything else Taako had expected either.

It was some kid, sitting up against the side of the house, writing in some notebook. Taako couldn’t remember ever seeing a kid around here before, he was pretty sure his aunt would mention a kid. He seemed pretty focused on whatever it was he was writing.

Sneaking up next to him, Taako used that to thwack the kid on the head with the umbrella.  "What is it with people today and writing in notebooks behind buildings?" he asked.

“Ow! Excuse me sir! That was very rude!” the boy said, grabbing his head and dropping the notebook. Immediately Taako reached down and snatched it up, starting to skim through it. “Sir!” he said, scrambling up and trying to grab the book back, but it was easy to hold the thing out of his reach.

“Spying on people is pretty rude too little man,” Taako replied easily, frowning as he continued to quickly read through the notes inside.

“I- I wasn’t spying!” the kid insisted, and Taako rolled his eyes at that.

“'Day twelve: Subject T took the new horse out again today. I saw him eat an apple after dropping it on the ground, which was kinda gross.' Judgy, aren't we?” he read, and the annoyed look on the kid’s face at getting his shit stolen suddenly got a lot more sheepish.

“That’s not- I mean-”

“'Day sixteen: subject L and subject B seen feeding the chickens. L threw feed onto B and it took fifteen minutes for them to get the chickens off so he could stand up again’ holy shit,” Taako continued to read, grinning now.

“It’s rude to read things that don’t belong to you!” the kid insisted, trying to jump up and swipe the book away, but Taako spun right around out of the way.

“What do you call a library then? ‘Day twenty two: Subject T met Subject K. Subject K is very bad at accents, I don’t know why he did that,’” he read. Taako had started using the kid as an armrest now. For his part the boy seemed to have finally given up, huffing in frustration and crossing his arms. Taako only skimmed a few more pages before closing the book and tossing it back to the kid, who fumbled slightly grabbing it before holding it protectively to his chest.

“That was not a very nice way to introduce yourself to someone sir,” he said, and Taako shrugged, spinning the umbrella around in his hand some.

“Doesn’t really seem like I gotta introduce shit,” he said, and the kid wouldn’t quite meet his eyes at that. “Could certainly use an introduction on your end though little man,” Taako added. The kid seemed to think it over some before finally speaking.

“I’m Angus McDonald, I’m a detective,” he said, and Taako raised an eyebrow at that. He swore that name sounded vaguely familiar. It was probably in the rapid fire list Magnus had given him, although he could have mentioned the fact that he was talking about an actual child.

“So I guess that explains your little creepy spy book,” Taako said, Angus giving him a very offended look at that.

“It’s not creepy sir, it’s research,” he insisted. Taako snorted, ready to send the brat on his way and head back inside when a thought came to him and he paused.

“Hey, you seem pretty plugged into all the going ons around here,” he said, and Angus nodded.

“Very little happens here without me knowing about it sir,” he said proudly, and considering just the small bit Taako had read in that book he didn’t doubt it.

“Cool, cool, in that case I’ve got a deal for you. I’ll let this whole huge invasion of privacy thing be water under the bridge if you tell me who the hell that guy talking to my aunt was, and what his whole deal is,” Taako said. He’d wanted to get some answers on that, and it seemed like this kid was his best bet. Angus was rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet, seeming to think the deal over.

“It kind of feels like you’re getting more out of this arrangement than I am sir,” Angus said, and Taako rolled his eyes.

“I also won’t tell ‘Subject L’ and ‘Subject B’ about all the notes you have on them documenting their adorable budding romance,” he said, and that seemed to get the kid’s attention.

“Alright, but you better keep up your end of the deal,” he said, and Taako nodded. “That was Mr. John Hadar, he runs Des-Satisfactions,” Angus continued, and Taako guessed the look of confusion on his face told the kid he had no idea what he was talking about. “It’s this big company that’s been buying up a lot of the places down here, he’s been trying to buy most of the places on this street for a while.”

“Well that seems a little cliche,” Taako said, and Angus shrugged.

“Yeah, he’s kinda a jackass though, so no one here will sell to him,” he said, and Taako snorted in surprise at that.

“You allowed to talk like that kiddo? You’re like eight,” he said, although Angus didn’t look very fazed.

“Are you going to tattle sir? Also I’m ten,” he said and damn it, Taako found himself kinda liking this kid. He couldn’t help it, smart mouthed brats who were too intelligent for their own good reminded him too much of him and Lup when they were younger.

“Nah, fuck it ain’t no skin off my bones,” he said, and Angus grinned at that.

“But yeah, Mr. Hadar isn’t very nice. We call him the Hunger cause he wants to eat up all the places here,” he said, and Taako snorted at that.

“You come up with that one?” he asked, and Angus shook his head.

“No, that was Ms. Lucretia, you should meet her at the carnival,” he said, and Taako raised an eyebrow at that.

“Who told you I was going to the carnival?” he asked, although he was pretty damn sure he knew how the kid would know that.

“You’re using it as a way to trick Ms. Lup and Mr. Barry into a date,” he said, like it was obvious. Maybe it was, but as long as the participants did not realize that Taako didn’t much care.

“Yeah, caught me there,” he said, and his mind was already turning back to what the kid had said about that John guy. “So uh, the chances of that douche actually buying up the ranch and shit? Pretty slim, right?” he asked, and Angus nodded.

“Oh yes sir! You shouldn’t have to worry, I really don’t think the ranch will be going anywhere anytime soon,” he said, smiling with confidence. Taako immediately made a face at that, crossing his arms and almost smacking himself in the side with the umbrella he forgot he was holding.

“Ain’t no one said anything about being worried Agnes! Couldn’t give less of a shit what happens to this place,” he said, walking off to head back into the house.

“It was really nice meeting you sir!” Angus called after him, not seeming bothered by his outburst in the least. Taako took it back. He no longer liked this kid.

Heading up to his room, this time Taako let himself collapse in a heap on his bed, laying there for a few moments before rolling over and staring up at the ceiling.

He didn’t know why everyone had to be so insistent that he like it here.

The sun started going down as he lay there, his room slowly getting darker around him. He could still imagine how nice a few more lights strung up in there would look.

Taako really wished he was allowed to like it here.