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He felt languid and well-fucked and their exertions had warmed Kravitz to something approaching a normal mortal body temperature. Taako lay in his arms, loose and comfortable, as Kravitz rubbed light circles into his back with still-cool fingertips. Sunlight streamed through the open window. He could hear the distant sounds of the nearby city going about its midday business.

“I can make breakfast,” Kravitz offered after a long, comfortable silence, and Taako cracked open an eye to squint at him.

“Nuh-uh, you know you’re not allowed near my pans,” he mumbled reproachfully.

Kravitz’ laugh rattled around inside his chest. “I’ve been getting better. I can make eggs and toast. Well, as long as the eggs are scrambled.”

Taako grunted and tightened his arms around him. “Scrambled. Ugh. I’ll show you scrambled,” he muttered, and Kravitz chuckled.

***

He was delicately seasoning their omelettes when he started thinking about it again. A pinch of pepper, a dash of thyme and sage, and a trickle of thoughts he didn’t hate but wasn’t exactly comfortable with.

“Babe, I think I’m gonna go see a shrink,” he said, apropos of nothing.

He heard Kravitz pause in the middle of setting the table. For a long moment, the only sounds he heard were the sizzling of the pan and the breeze in the trees outside.

“Yeah?” Kravitz said finally. Taako jumped when arms slipped around him from behind. “I think that’s great, Taako. That’s really great. What brought this on?”

Taako shrugged and kept cooking. “Brad thinks I’m depressed or something,” he answered.

Kravitz kissed the top of his head. “I think that’s definitely something worth looking into it.” His fingers were cold against the bare skin of Taako’s side. He squirmed and Kravitz curled them into his palm, murmuring an apology. “Did you have someone in mind?”

Brad had, true to his word, forwarded him a slew of resources, as well as a copy of the Bureau’s employment health standards packet, presumably to remind him that he potentially still qualified for medical coverage as a former employee.

“Naw,” Taako admitted. It seemed almost comical when he thought about it. There were six people in Faerûn who knew what he’d been through and none of them were qualified to do anything about it.

“I can see who we have available through my work,” Kravitz offered.

Taako snorted. “Sure,” he said, “I died a few times, right? Taako’ll fit right in.”

***

The therapist Kravitz was referring to was not dead, despite what Taako had assumed.

He was one of a handful of professionals retained by the Raven Queen to work with the reapers rather than the untold legion of dead who occupied the astral plane, who apparently received counseling under some other system.

Taako wondered if he was doing it for the whole eternal life thing or if the Raven Queen just had an especially competitive benefits package.

His name was Doctor Loddywren Barranock and he was the most gnomish gnome Taako had ever seen.

“What can cha boy do for you, homie?” Taako asked him breezily.

Doctor Barranock’s bright eyes glittered behind his tiny round glasses. “Well, Taako,” he said, voice as characteristically cheery and nasal as any gnome’s could ever hope to be, “why don’t you tell me why you decided to come see me today?”

Taako slouched down in his chair, kicking up his feet on the side table next to him. He saw the doctor’s eyes flick over to his boots, but nothing was said about his behaviour.

“One of my boyfriends thinks I’m depressed,” he said, flapping his hand like he was trying to clear the room of smoke, that universal gesture of but of course that’s ridiculous.

Doctor Barranock hummed thoughtfully. “And are you?”

Taako squinted at him. “Uh, aren’t you supposed to tell me that?”

Doctor Barranock chuckled and wrote something down in his book. “No,” he said, “I’m afraid that’s not how this works. It says here you’ve never sought psychiatric help before. Is that right?”

Taako gestured vaguely and shrugged. Somehow, that seemed to be enough.

His doctor hummed again. “I’ll give you a primer, Taako: for this to work, and for me to be able to help you, I need you to tell me what you’re feeling, what you think those feelings mean, and where you think they come from. Mental health is a puzzle,” he explained, looking increasingly excited in that way peculiar to a gnome speaking about a subject that held their deepest interest. “I might be able to put that puzzle together for you, but only you can give me the pieces. Do you understand?”

“Yuh-huh,” Taako agreed, only sort of listening. It was starting to sound like this whole therapy thing was going to require a lot more work from him than he’d initially anticipated. He felt cheated.

“Perfect. Let’s start with why you decided to seek help, Taako. What happened that made you decide now was the time?” His little glasses were pinching into the sides of his thick nose. Taako could see red marks forming as he adjusted them.

He opened his mouth to repeat what he’d said before, realized that defeated the point, and huffed. “New boyfriend. Taako’s a fuck-up. What else do you want me to say?” he said instead, already resenting this little bright-eyed gnome for requiring him to talk about things he usually preferred to ignore altogether.

“Oh? How so?” came the prompt.

Taako shot him a look. “What, you want it from the beginning or just the greatest hits?”

Doctor Barranock gave him a big smile. “Whatever you’re comfortable with, Taako. I’m here to listen.”

He meant to make light of it, he really did. He meant to downplay the shame and sense of alienation from himself he’d felt when he’d broken into Brad’s quarters, meant to gloss over his breakdowns and smudge the lines of his failures, but somehow every time he tried, Doctor Barranock would look at him with those too-bright, almost birdlike eyes and ask,

“Did that make you uncomfortable?”

or

“Were you worried about the impact that would have on your relationship?”

or

“Why do you think you responded that way?”

or, worst of all,

“When that happened, were you afraid you were sabotaging your chances with this person?”

“Uh, no shit, Holmes,” he snapped, irritated, “and I get that maybe you think that if I know I’m doing it, I should just fucking stop, but that’s not how it works. That’s not how it works.” He trailed off, expecting to be interrupted and surprised when he wasn’t.

Doctor Barranock just kept looking at him with that pleasant smile.

“You’re right,” he agreed. “That isn’t how it works. That’s what a lot of mental illness is, Taako: it’s knowing that what you’re feeling or thinking doesn’t make sense, and it’s knowing that knowing it doesn’t make sense won’t fix it. You’re absolutely right.”

Taako just sort of stared at him, dumbfounded.

“When we have these kinds of feelings, it’s a natural reaction to want to dwell on them, to want to look for the source,” Doctor Barranock told him, “but the problem is that dwelling on them only intensifies and prolongs them. It’s a behaviour we call rumination: like a cow chewing cud, the mind goes over and over the same details long after anything of importance has been stripped out of them. It’s important to recognize when it’s happening- it may be difficult at first, because the mind wants to return to the source of stress, but the most important thing is redirecting those thoughts somewhere healthier. Towards a project, maybe, or a book. Something that can hold the attention long enough to interrupt the cycle of rumination.”

“Huh.” Taako wasn’t even really sure where the noise came from, or why.

“There’s no shame in needing help,” his doctor told him, nasal voice gentle. “If we were designed to be able to do everything alone, we wouldn’t live so close together, in cities and in towns. You’re very strong to have made it this far on your own. You’ve been working hard, haven’t you?”

Taako jerked as though he’d been burned. “Well, yeah, natch,” he said dismissively, “but, like, cha boy kinda had to, I mean, he would’ve gone off the deep end if he hadn’t, you feel me?”

“You didn’t have to,” Doctor Barranock said firmly. “No one has to do anything. Survival is a choice only you can make, Taako, and it’s a hard choice. It’s a painful choice. There’s no one in this world or any other who can stop someone else from giving up if that’s what they’ve decided to do. The mind is not the body- you can’t force people to heal unless they choose to,” he said. “You’re here because you put in the work. It doesn’t matter who told you what or who gave you my name: you’re the only person who was able to make the choice to come here, and you did. Most people don’t make it this far. Most people accept their pain as inevitable and just live with it. Don’t rob yourself of credit you deserve,” he said, jovial face serious. “You’ve worked hard, and you should be proud of that.”

Taako wanted to say something flippant or brush past onto a new subject. He wanted to roll his eyes. He wanted to do a lot of things.

What he did was nothing, because as Doctor Barranock spoke, he was filled with a terrible certainty: the only thing he was going to be able to do if he tried to do anything at all was cry, and keep crying, without having any idea why.

So he did nothing. He sat there in that office and did and said nothing until Doctor Barranock quietly suggested a follow-up appointment and ended their session early.

***

He was cooking dinner when Kravitz came home from work.

“Hey babe,” Kravitz greeted, kissing his cheek affectionately as he peered past him to see what he was cooking. “How was your appointment?”

“The fucking worst,” Taako answered immediately, without any hesitation.

He could hear the frown in Kravitz’ voice. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he murmured, hugging him with the sort of carefulness reserved for someone much too accustomed to working around his single-minded focus while he was cooking. “Did you want me to see if I can get you referred to someone else?”

“Naw,” Taako said, just as quickly. “I’m going back in two weeks.” He felt hollow and raw, but not necessarily bad, like his soul had been lanced and drained of some festering infection.

Kravitz hugged him again. “I’m proud of you, Taako,” he said softly, “you know that, right?”

Taako didn’t answer. He said nothing until he was absolutely sure the flood of tears that had laid siege to the back of his eyes wasn’t going to overrun him like it’d been threatening to since earlier that afternoon.

***

“I’m very glad to see you again, Taako,” Doctor Barranock told him. By all appearances, he was being completely sincere. “I can’t always be sure who’ll come back.”

“Yeah, well,” Taako muttered. “Cha boy couldn’t just dip after one, could he?”

Doctor Barranock smiled at him in that strange, secretive way he seemed inclined towards. “Of course you could have,” he disagreed, “but I am glad you didn’t. I know therapy isn’t fun. It’s not something we do because it’s enjoyable- we do it because it’s healing. People understand the necessity of the pain involved in rebreaking a bone so it can set properly, but when it comes to the mind, a lot of people feel like therapy is just additional discomfort without any guarantee of reward,” he mused. “People want enchanted items or spells or for me to recommend an herb or a medicine- and that does have its place in therapy, of course, but things like that treat the symptom, not the source. Calm Emotion might alleviate a panic attack, but it won’t prevent the next one, or the one after that. Getting better is a lot of work. It makes me happy to see you seem willing to commit to it.”

Taako shrugged. “Saved the universe, homie. Just seems kinda sad if I can’t even save myself from myself, you feel?”

The smile didn’t waver. “Yes, of course,” he agreed. “After all, you deserve a happy ending just as much as anybody else does, right?”

Taako had no idea how to respond to that.

***

“You seem like you’re still very angry with Lucretia, despite clearly wanting to move on from that,” Doctor Barranock commented. “Why do you think that is?”

“She betrayed me,” Taako answered without hesitation. “She betrayed all of us, and none of us saw it coming. I mean, fuck, you know what she did to Davenport! It’s just like… she was better than that. She was supposed to be better then that,” he grumbled. “Now it’s like I don’t even know her.”

Doctor Barranock made an expression he wasn’t familiar with, a sort of eureka! face where his eyebrows popped up and his mouth formed a little ‘o’. “She surprised you,” he offered.

Taako gave him a look. “No shit. I’d say that’s putting it, uh, pretty mildly, my man.”

“Please, hear me out,” Doctor Barranock requested. “After spending a hundred years together on the Starblaster, you thought you knew her,” he explained. “You’ve mentioned before that the isolation you experienced during that period changed the way you interact with people. After all that time, you thought you knew what to expect from her.” His eyes were bright and curious. “I may be wrong, Taako, and if I am, please, feel free to correct me: it seems to me that it’s not really that you’re still angry- I think you’re scared. She surprised you and now you feel like you can’t trust her because you’re not sure what she’s capable of. Does that sound right to you?”

It was so simple.

“Yeah,” he said, after a second. “Yeah. When I started remembering, I was fucking terrified,” he admitted. “Suddenly there was this whole part of my life that just ‘poof’!” He made an explosive gesture. “Popped right into my head. I remembered all of it like it had just happened. I mean, as soon as I started remembering Lup, I just-”

It was so simple. It was such a straight line between the points. He felt stupid for not having seen it before.

“She took my sister from me,” he said, and that weird mixture of frantic fury he felt whenever he thought about it flared up in his chest. “This whole fucking world could burn down tomorrow and I’d be okay as long I still had Lup. She’s my heart,” he said, lost for any other way to say it but the way she had said it to him. “Every time I think about it, about how she was gone, and how Lucretia made me forget and just live like that, just made me fucking go on living with this huge hole inside me I couldn’t explain for eleven fucking years-” He clammed up, feeling hot tears of rage and hurt well up behind his eyes.

“Of course you were scared,” his doctor said gently. “And of course you were angry. You have every right to feel the way you do. I…” For the first time, he looked genuinely overwhelmed by sympathy. “Taako, I can’t begin to imagine what that must have been like for you.”

Hell,” he wanted to say, and didn’t. He was too busy fighting against the prickling in his eyes.

“You’re not obligated to forgive her,” Doctor Barranock told him. Taako looked at him, so surprised that he barely noticed the floodgates bursting as thin tears started to run down his cheeks. “There’s no rule that you have to forgive someone just because they were doing what they thought was right for you. And from everything you’ve told me, and everything we all learned on the Day, I don’t think she was trying to hurt you. I think she really thought she was doing the best thing she could under the circumstances. But that doesn’t matter,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what her intentions were. Literally the best intentions in the world can still have casualties.”

Taako stared through him, oddly entranced. He found himself bizarrely aware of minor, pointless details, like the creases in the skin around Doctor Barranock’s bright little eyes and the pinprick polka dots on his tie.

“Taako,” Doctor Barranock said, adjusting his glasses, “If I had to guess, I’d say I think what happened to you happened because she felt exactly the same way you did,” he explained. “I think she thought she knew you so well she felt like she could make that choice for you- for everyone in your crew. Maybe she thought it would be easier for you if you never knew you had anyone to miss. Some people have this idea that loss can be insurmountable, that there really is such a thing as truly unending grief. But it doesn’t matter. She made a choice that wasn’t hers to make, and given the nature of that choice, if you were to tell me you believe it has contributed to your trauma, I would tell you I have no doubt that’s the case. She took control of your life and your history, and she did so in a way you were powerless to change or prevent. Feelings of helplessness and powerlessness lie at the heart of a lot of traumatic experiences.” His eyes were steady. “You are allowed to be angry, you are allowed to be scared, and you are allowed to never forgive her if that isn’t something you feel like you can do. You do not have an obligation to be calm and reasonable. What she did hurt you profoundly, and you are entitled to experience and express all the emotions it creates in you, no matter how unpleasant other people might find them.”

There was something soothing about it, an unexpected balm on the raw surface of his soul. Tears were dripping off his chin. He only realized it when one hit the back of his hands where they sat, limp and forgotten, in his lap.

“Thank you,” he said after a moment. It was all he could think to say. His voice sounded hoarse to his own ears. “Thank you.”

Doctor Barranock paused in the middle of making a note in his book to look up at him.

“I think,” Taako said, swallowing against a lump in his throat, “I think maybe I’ve been waiting for somebody to tell me that? Everybody acts like it’s just over,” he babbled, “like I‘m just supposed to be over it? Even Davenport seems like he’s over it and, I mean, Lucretia fucked him up in a way that made it hard for me meditate for like… months after I remembered.” He had a sudden sick memory of it, of trying to sink into a dream and having Davenport’s face pop into his mind’s eye, vacant-smiled and stripped of everything that had made him who he was. His stomach churned. He scrubbed at the tears running down his face, frustrated. “Fuck!”

“Crying is a natural reaction to trauma,” Doctor Barranock assured him. “It’s healthy. If you need to cry, then cry. You’re not obligated to be okay, and you’re not obligated to act like you are. After all, if you were, would you be here in the first place?” he joked, smiling.

Whatever it was Taako said next meant nothing. It was not what Istus knit into the unending fabric of time.

Deep inside him, one of many long-forgotten fractures began, at last, to close.

***

He never really took the time to consider what effect Doctor Barranock was having on him, if any, until they were curled up the couch together and Brad said,

“Did something happen?”

When Taako looked up at him, puzzled, he pushed his hair out of his face with a big hand.

“It’s just that you seem-” he started to say, and then balked. “I don’t know. You seem more relaxed, but it isn’t just that.”

Taako hadn’t told him he’d started going to therapy. It was a pride issue. If he gave up halfway through, he didn’t want Brad to know he’d ever tried at all.

He’d already decided he would tell him about it when it was over and he’d sorted everything out, so he just responded to Brad’s observation with a little shrug.

Brad kept looking at him, searching his face like he was looking for something.

“What’s up, homie?” Taako asked eventually, bemused.

“Nothing,” Brad said, and finally looked away.

***

“-just kinda went for it to have something to do, you know? I mean, he’s an orc and I was like ‘well that’s new, Taako’ll try that one’ so it wasn’t exactly-”

Doctor Barranock’s expression did something funny. “You said his name was Brad? I seem to remember you mentioning that, but I might be misremembering.”

Taako looked at him curiously. “Uh, yeah, nice catch. Brad Bradson. He works in HR,” he elaborated, and then suddenly thought better of it. “Wait, am I supposed to tell you shit like that or is that a privacy thing?”

There was absolutely no mistaking the amusement that had flooded Doctor Barranock’s face and set his bright eyes twinkling merrily. “The only person who has a legal obligation to respect anyone’s privacy is me, Taako,” he reassured. “So Brad told you to seek psychological counseling, is that right?” There was something incredibly suspicious about how he was acting. He was smiling like they were were both in on some inside joke, only Taako had no idea what it was.

Taako squinted at him. “…Yeah?”

Doctor Barranock continued smiling secretively and made a little note in his book.

Taako took a shot in the dark. “Have you met Brad?”

The look that earned him was sly. “After the Day of Story and Song,” he said pleasantly, “it came to my attention that there were considerably more people in Faerûn in need of my services than there were reapers in the whole of the Astral plane, so the Raven Queen granted me a year of sabbatical to assist the living.” He adjusted his glasses. “It’s no coincidence that I became familiar with many of the employees of the Bureau of Benevolence: when I asked my employer for her guidance, she directed me to the Bureau herself,” he said, gesturing towards Taako, “likely because she was aware of its outreach efforts thanks to Kravitz’ connection to you.”

 Taako continued to squint at him. “So you have met Brad?”

Doctor Barranock continued to smile secretively at him. “We don’t schedule these meetings to talk about me, Taako,” he pointed out, “but I don’t believe it constitutes a breach of ethics to say yes, I did meet an orc named Brad Bradson during my time assisting the Bureau of Benevolence.” His eyes twinkled. “Many times, but never professionally, no matter how many times I made sure to remind him that referring patients to me didn’t put him in a position where couldn’t come to me himself.”

***

He fully intended to chew Brad out for being a colossal hypocrite. He’d never questioned how he was going to respond to knowing about it. He wasn’t exactly famous for letting golden opportunities pass him by.

But when Brad came to meet him at the hangar, all smiles, Taako had a strange realization: he didn’t really feel the need to do or say anything. He looked up at Brad’s smiling face and whatever bit of him it was that revelled in debasing people just sort of shrugged indifferently. There was no sense of urgency, no deep-seated need to prove that someone else was just as fucked up as he was.

Oh, he thought, so that was it. It should have been an upsetting revelation. He didn’t really have any strong feelings about it.

“Where to, Stamps?” he asked instead. “Taako’s already done lunch, so--”

***

It was another month and another two appointments gone by before he even mentioned it to Brad.

What happened was, one day, seemingly out of nowhere, he had a realization: therapy wasn’t necessarily something that ever ended.

He’d been thinking of it like a project or a quest, like something that he could eventually finish and shove into a corner and pretend had never happened but, without even thinking about it, he’d gradually come to accept that wasn’t the case. It wasn’t a depressing revelation, just a sort of annoying one. He liked having free time, and here Doctor Barranock was, eating it up until one of them died.

“Ugh.” It was automatic. He was so used to expressing his displeasure that the sound just came out of him, unbidden.

Brad stopped and looked over at him, surprised. He’d been halfway through explaining something about the history of Faerûnian postal routes when Taako had interrupted him. “What’s wrong?”

Taako waved a hand in the universal gesture of oh, don’t mind me. “Nothing. It’s nothing, my man, please do go on.” He knew as soon as he said it that he’d tripped an alarm. He’d amped up the camp too high and Brad’s eyebrows were furrowing.

“Taako, if you were bored, you just needed to say so,” he pointed out, looking exasperated. “I thought you were interested-”

“It’s not that,” Taako interrupted, fidgeting with his hair and snuggling up into the arm around his shoulders. “Well, I mean, I deffo wasn’t interested, but it wasn’t that. I wasn’t gonna stop you when you seemed like you were having such a good time talking about it, y’know?” he said. “Really, go for it.”

Brad gave him an odd look and sighed. “I’d just be talking to myself. So what’s up?”

Taako shrugged.

Brad was searching his eyes, brows still furrowed.

Taako snorted and belly flopped on his lap, stretching out. “Nah,” he said first, and then, “hey, is therapy usually a forever thing?”

Brad seemed surprised by his question. “It- it depends on the person. Some people just need to work through a few things and then they might never really need to see a therapist again unless something extreme happens,” he explained, “but there are also people that never get to that point. It depends what you need a therapist for. An isolated event like the loss of a friend can have a very different long-term impact than something like… abuse or neglect. Chronic depression. Anxiety. Ongoing conditions usually mean ongoing treatment, from what I understand, though it’s not that simple.”

Taako hummed resentfully. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

Brad stroked his hair. “It makes me happy that you’re taking this seriously, Taako,” he said. “I think it’ll be good for you. Did you look through the material I gave you? I can refer you-”

Taako shot him a look and then realized. It suddenly didn’t seem to matter now that the timeline had been removed from the equation. “Oh no, Bradson, I like… already see a guy. Have been for a while.”

He genuinely did not expect Brad to be as startled by that revelation as he was. It moved through him like shockwave, like it was the last thing he’d expected. His hands stilled.

He opened his mouth. Closed it.

“Not someone from the Bureau,” he said finally, “or I’d know about it. Who are you seeing?”

As much as therapy had unexpectedly improved his temperament, old habits died hard and Taako had had a hundred years extra to get his down in writing. He looked sidelong up at Brad as he spoke. “I dunno, Lonny-something? Loddy-something...?” he teased, but Brad’s expression remained politely inquisitive. “Some gnome. Dcotor Barranock. Says he worked with Bureau for a bit. Maybe you know him?” he asked slyly.

Brad knew him.

Brad most certainly knew him.

He wasn’t fast enough to disguise the way chagrin blossomed over his broad, expressive face. “Oh,” he said, and then, with more composure, “oh, that’s right. He worked for the Raven Queen, didn’t he? I’d completely forgot about that,” he commented. It was amazing, Taako thought. Bards were amazing. If he hadn’t seen Brad’s initial reaction, he never would’ve been able to tell he wasn’t just pleasantly surprised by an unlikely turn of events bringing him back into proximity with someone he used to work with. “You’re very lucky. He’s an absolutely incredible therapist,” Brad said approvingly. “He showed up out of nowhere about a week after the Day and offered us his services. I don’t think the Bureau would’ve handled the aftermath nearly as well if we hadn’t had him to rely on.”

Taako kept smiling slyly. He got the impression Brad was pretending not to notice. “I’ll make sure to pass that on to him,” he said, feigning innocence. “I’m sure he’d be happy to hear it, hmm?”

Brad’s nostrils flared. He was quiet for a second. “I’m not naïve enough to assume that my name didn’t come up in one of your conversations, Taako,” he said carefully. “The Bureau isn’t a big place. But whatever he said to you-”

“Oh,” Taako interrupted, pressing his fingers to his lips to hide his smile, “do you know each other?”

He wasn’t really trying to be convincing, but by all appearances, he succeeded far better than he’d intended to. Brad’s face took on the faintly panicky rictus of someone who had made a tactical decision to prevent a problem only to discover he’d accidentally divulged the exact information that could create it.

That immutably petty part of Taako found this hilarious.

“Oh. Yes,” Brad said, quickly regaining control over his expression. “I referred his patients to him. We had, uh, a lot of contact. Whenever someone wasn’t responding well to the counsellors we had on site, I would refer them to him.”

“Oh, cool,” Taako said pleasantly, eager to maintain the ruse. “So did you ever go see him, homie?”

He expected that to be the tip-off, game over, but whatever was going on with Brad, it wasn’t doing much for his normally sharp instincts. “…No,” he admitted. “Uh. No, I didn’t. I had a lot of work to do, and besides, I… he’s… we’re from very different cultures. I…” He sighed. “I just don’t really see what a gnome could offer me-”

It took Taako a second to identify the sound he was hearing as a sound he was making, but it almost seemed to propel him back into an upright position. He tried to say something and just produced another high-pitched, disbelieving squawk, so he pointed accusingly at Brad instead.

Brad sighed again. “Look, Taako, I know it’s not considered appropriate to say this, but it’s just… it’s hard for me to imagine how someone like that could-”

Taako shrieked, clapping his hands to his head and burying them in his hair. “That’s pretty fucking gnomist,” he accused. “I can’t believe this-”

“I have no problem with gnomes!” Brad said hastily. “I have no problem with gnomes. We’re just different, Taako, we come from… from different backgrounds. And I think that can be a barrier. I’d feel the same way about a dragonborn therapist or a halfling therapist or… or whatever.”

Taako just stared at him, his hands still in his hair. He suddenly realized he was still making that sound low in his throat. “Holy shit, Brad.”

 “Taako, I don’t think you-”

“Hi!” Taako shrieked, jabbing his hand forward like he was inviting Brad to shake it. “Hi, I’m Taako? Maybe you’ve heard of me? I’m an elf,” he snapped, cutting off Brad when he tried to interrupt, “and also! Also an alien! And you know what, I thought we were doing pretty good for a bit there but I guess I fucked that up because I’m not an orc and I guess that means we’re basically fucking strangers-”

It’s not like that,” Brad interrupted hastily, and then swallowed. “I made a mess of this. That’s- that’s not what I meant.”

Isn’t it?” Taako demanded. He wasn’t sure how he felt. He was a little hurt, a little furious, and a lot numb.

Brad ran his hand over his face. “That’s not what I meant,” he muttered. “I just… didn’t want to go,” he admitted. “It’s not that he’s a gnome. I just didn’t want to go.”

“Then why did you-?”

“Because it’s easier to make excuses, Taako, I think you know that,” Brad snapped, and then looked regretful. “It’s easier to make excuses about why you don’t do something than to just fucking do it,” he muttered, looked at Taako, and furrowed his eyebrows. “Don’t look at me like I’m a hypocrite.”

“Uhh,” Taako mused, “you are a hypocrite, though?” he pointed. “Like… you are. And I haven’t let you off on that racist shit yet, Bradson, don’t even trip.”

Brad scrubbed his hands over his face. “I made a mess of this,” he said again.

“Yee-up,” Taako agreed.

***

He was still thinking about the next time he went to therapy.

Doctor Barranock’s response surprised him. He’d been quiet and contemplative as Taako had vented his feelings about the matter, nodding patiently along, and when Taako had finished, he’d just sat for a moment, lips pursed, looking pensive.

“In Mister Bradson’s defense,” he started to say, “he’s not entirely wrong. I don’t think the response you had to what he said was unreasonable, but I’d like to explore the subject, if you’ll allow me to.”

Taako gestured vaguely at him, feeling itchy. He’d expected a confirmation of his feelings. This wasn’t what he’d expected. “Go for it,” he said.

Doctor Barranock looked at him carefully for a moment. “There are larger barriers between certain cultures than others,” he said, closing his book and laying down his pen. “You and I- an elf and a gnome- we often live in close proximity to each other, in towns, and in cities, and even when we don’t, our people have been trading for thousands of years. The same is true of dwarves, and humans, and halflings, amongst others.” He looked uncharacteristically sombre.  “Despite their reputation for promiscuity, orcs have always been… cloistered, culturally. Perhaps by design. The patriarch of their pantheon isn’t known for his tolerant nature.”

He suddenly remembered her: Brad’s goddess. He thought about mentioning her, mentioning what she’d said to him, and then thought better of it. It’d been long enough that he’d almost managed to forget about it.

He hadn’t told anyone. Not even Kravitz. He just wasn’t sure how.

“He isn’t wrong,” Doctor Barranock said again. “When you first came to see me, I told you that you had to provide me the pieces to your puzzle if you wanted my assistance in solving it. Brad Bradson, being that he is a full-blooded orc, born and raised in a stronghold, has a puzzle with more pieces than most, some of which he might not even recognize.” There it was: that excitement again, like the very idea of the challenge he was discussing was invigorating to him, but it was tempered now with something deeper, some grave understanding he had not divulged.

“When a person’s trauma is born of a singular event, it is often fairly uncomplicated,” he continued, “while trauma born of a relationship is not. The more sustained the relationship with the cause of the trauma, the deeper the trauma pervades,” he said, gesturing with his fingers as if to indicate a widening chasm in the air. “An abusive partner or friend can leave terrible scars on a person’s psyche, but they are, in my experience, rarely as deep as the scars left by an equally abusive parent or sibling- though, of course, every person’s experience is unique,” he allowed. “The worst of all of these, however, is not limited to an event or person: it is cultural trauma. When a person is born into traumatic conditions, they are taught to believe these conditions are normal,” he explained, “and to many of their peers, they very well might be. But to the person afflicted by the culture, there is some essential gap between them and those peers: it could be something as minute as a proclivity for haste in a culture which champions patience and forethought, or a questioning nature in a culture that expects unquestioning obedience. No matter the cause of that gap, something must rise to fill it, and trauma occurs when that thing is censure and not acceptance.”

A weird, sickish feeling had filled him. He wasn’t sure when. He just kept thinking about the look in Brad’s eyes when he’d approached him at Lucretia’s event in Goldcliff, about that split-second before Brad had recognized him.

He kept thinking about how he’d barely seen him at all at Mh’arakta’s party. It was like he’d spent nearly the whole thing hiding from him.

Not from him, he thought suddenly. From everyone else. Except for his aunt and Codera, he hadn’t seen a single person there speak to Brad.

No. Not even Codera. She hadn’t spoken to him at Lucretia’s party, either, he realized.

When Brad had carried his drunk ass out of the party, the room had been crowded. They must’ve passed fifty people on the way to the door alone, and yet, Taako couldn’t remember a single one speaking to Brad.

It was like he was a ghost in his own home, and Taako hadn’t even noticed.

He wasn’t sure how long he’d been sitting there, staring at his hands, but when he looked up, Doctor Barranock was watching him closely.

“I made a mistake,” he wanted to say, “I fucked up again.”

He didn’t. It didn’t feel like he had to.

***

Brad didn’t bring up their conversation, and he didn’t know how to without admitting that he’d talked about it in therapy, which felt too much like admitting it was a big deal.

He couldn’t tell if it was weighing on Brad as much as it was weighing on him. He seemed normal.

But then, he specialized in seeming normal. He was so good at it that he’d barely registered in Taako’s mind before they’d slept together.

“-the passage of the Oversized Package Act of- Taako? If I’m boring you, just tell me,” Brad said, cutting himself off. His eyebrow furrowed.

He’d been spacing out again, thinking about it. “Hmm? No, homie,” Taako said, waving a hand. “Just thinking about that ‘oversized package’ of yours-”

He should’ve mentioned it then.

Like most things, he put it off until it was far too late.

***