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A Bit Alarming

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Taako was really going to have to rethink his choice in teammates.

“Fucking hell,” he muttered to himself as he ducked out of yet another empty bedroom. His heels clacked loudly against the marbled hallway, leaving tiny stiletto imprints in the thin layer of dust that had settled over it. There was dust everywhere, and it was a good thing that he didn’t have any fucking allergies or else he’d be sneezing his nose off.

“Yo, Mags! Merle!” He stopped next to a door hanging just slightly ajar and reached out to push it with his toe. It swung open with a creak that definitely didn’t make him shiver, just enough for him to peek inside. It was another bedroom- he was definitely on some kind of residential floor, then. This one was as dark as the rest of them. Just enough moonlight filtered in through the grimy windows for him to see the sweeping canopied bed, the dramatic curves of the furniture, the expensive knick knacks sentenced to collect this goddamn dust for eternity.

The room was empty. Taako bit back a groan.

“Fucking idiots,” he muttered, turning to continue working his way down the hallway. The pack slung across his back was heavy with jewelry and silver he had nicked from the palace, and was beginning to make his back ache. He rolled his shoulders and glared into the darkness at the end of the hall. “Fucking- MAGNUS!”

They had spent so long trying to figure out a way to get into the old palace. Well, Taako had worked to figure it out, had spent countless hours plotting ways to get through the protective spells that had been stuck firmly in place about the property for centuries. Magnus and Merle had distracted themselves with card games that had gotten so loud at points Taako had actually ripped some of his own hair out. But the point was that their entire working lives had led up to this moment, this heist, this chance for them to establish themselves as the most bomb ass adventurers in the entire fucking world.

Except once they had actually gotten here, it had taken Magnus and Merle all of an hour to get themselves lost, and now Taako was stuck looking for them and not digging through the royal treasury.

This fucking sucked.

“If I were a senile dwarf and a buff dude with an IQ of three, where would I be?” Taako murmured to himself. He cast his gaze into each empty room he passed, hoping to find his companions digging through the wardrobes in there, but there was nothing. It was actually kind of creepy how much of nothing there was in this place. Taako had known that the royal palace had been abandoned for centuries, but he hadn’t been quite prepared for the strange echoes of his voice around the halls, or the unnerving feeling that even though this place was certified deserted, there was something watching him from the shadows.

A flicker of movement out of the corner of Taako’s eye made his heart jump and he whirled around, wand outstretched and spell on his lips, ready to blast whatever motherfucker thought they could sneak up on him. Instead of an attacker, however, Taako found himself face to face with- himself.

He blinked at his reflection and let his wand arm drop. He could hear his pulse. If he peered close enough in the grimy mirror, he would be able to see the panicked tilt to his ears.

Taako swallowed and forced a calm grin at himself. He was being stupid. He was letting this budget horror film set get to him. The castle was empty except for him and his companions, the wards had made sure of that. All he had to do was find their crusty asses, shove a few more expensive necklaces in his bag, and they could be on their merry way to the pawnbroker.

He had just managed to get his heart rate back to normal when a creaking sound down the hallway drew his attention. He curled his fingers more tightly around his wand and squinted into the darkness, watching for any kind of movement.

“Magnus?” he called. He began walking again, slowing his steps to a more cautious prowl. As his heels clicked, he wished for the first time in his life that he had worn something a bit more practical and quiet. “Merle? This- if you fuckers are trying to mess with my head, it’s not working. Let’s just- let’s just get the fuck out of here.”

No one responded. Taako passed the last few empty bedrooms and came to an uncertain stop in front of the final door. This one was plainer than the rest, built of dark, uncarved wood. It was cracked open just a bit.

Taako swallowed. He shifted his shoulders so his pack rested more securely on his back, and then reached out to push the door open.

It was heavy, but swung with the same creak he had heard earlier. Whatever lay beyond wasn’t a room, but it was too dark for Taako to see what it was. Just as he was about to cast light into it, a flicker of flames made his ears perk up. He watched as a line of candles sprang to life on their own and illuminated a rough-hewn staircase leading down into the bowels of the castle.

“Oh, fuck no,” Taako said out loud. His voice echoed down the stairwell and into the gaping nothing beyond it.

Not for the first time, Taako considered just saying “fuck this” and leaving. He could turn around and snatch up some jewels and slip out of the wards through the same spot they had broken in through. He would be back in his own bed within an hour, away from creepy staircases and eerie palaces. He could forget Magnus and Merle had ever existed.

The thought had barely occurred to him before Taako tipped his head back and groaned. Lup would fucking kill him if he left the two dumbasses here.

“Fine,” he said. He squared his shoulders and stepped down onto the first step, and then paused, waiting for some kind of trap to spring up around him. When nothing happened, he took another step down. “Fucking fine. This is so stupid. If you two are fucking down here, I’m going to murder you. Why the hell would you go down the weird magic staircase? Why the hell am I going down the weird magic staircase?”

It was a long, steep climb down. The candles were set into small alcoves, illuminating just enough of the stone for Taako to see. The further down he went the colder he got, until he was shivering in the musty air and trying to rub some heat back into his bare arms.

Finally, after what felt like hours, he reached the final step. He stepped down into the room, steps echoing ominously. He blinked into the darkness. His eyes would adjust quickly, but they had become accustomed to the pale candlelight, and he couldn’t see much of whatever empty room he had stumbled into.

“Taako?”

The whisper made him jump. He spun on his heel and raised his wand, a ball of light springing to the tip of it, just bright enough to illuminate Magnus’s wide eyes.

“Mags,” Taako hissed. He sprang forward, hands immediately going to the cold metal bars of the tiny jail cell Magnus was in. “What the fuck did you do?”

“Nothing!”

“Then why in the everloving fuck are you in the dungeons ?” Taako glared at the bars. He could feel whispers of an enchantment in them, something meant to keep people from breaking in just as much as breaking out.

“We didn’t do it on purpose,” grumbled a voice behind Magnus, and Taako rolled his eyes.

“I turn my back on you two for one fucking minute and you both get stuck in fantasy jail. You’re dumb as shit, do you know that?” His fingers searched for some kind of lock, but the metal bars were seamless- there didn’t even seem to be a door. He grasped one of the bars and whispered a spell to make them melt, and was rewarded with a sharp shock that made him yelp and draw his hands away.

“It’s enchanted,” Magnus said, watching Taako hop around with worried eyes. “Listen- Taako, you need to get out of here. This was a mistake.”

“What, bringing you guys with me? Yeah, it was. Listen, do you guys have a window in there or something?”

“No- Taako.” The pain was fading from Taako’s fingers. He shook them one last time and frowned as Magnus continued. “There’s- something here. Something- it grabbed us and threw us in here. We didn’t even have a chance to fight back. You need to get out of here and get help before it gets you too.”

“Hate to break it to you bozos, but I am your help.”

“Taako.” The desperate note in Magnus’s voice drew Taako’s attention fully to him. He raised his lit wand to see him more clearly, and felt a jolt of panic when he saw red.

“You’re bleeding,” he said, stepping closer and peering at the nasty cut on Magnus’s forehead.

“I- what? Oh, yeah. Taako, you need to leave.”

“Merle, are you hurt?” Taako cast his gaze downwards towards Merle’s scowl, relieved when the dwarf appeared uninjured.

“Taako, fucking listen to me!” Magnus hissed.

“Not if you’re going to tell me to leave you both here, because- news flash!- I’m not fucking doing that.” Taako squirmed uncomfortably under Magnus’s gaze, and went back to trying to look for a weakness in the bars he could get through.

“Taako,” said Merle. Taako just grunted to show he was listening. “You need to go and get help. Lup and Barry can-”

“I’m not fucking leaving,” Taako hissed, and cast a spell to try and blow up the bars. He was rewarded with another shock of pain that rippled through his body and made his knees buckle so that he had to grab at the bars to remain standing.

“Are you alright?” Magnus asked, pressing himself so close to the bars Taako could smell him. He smelled sweaty.

“I’m fine.” Taako pulled himself back to his feet and hit the bars with the palm of his hand, frustration boiling over. “I just need to find a way through this shitty enchantment.”

“Well, isn’t this a surprise?”

Taako spun on his heels and cast magic missile before he could even think. Whatever dark shape had been looming behind him darted to the side just in time, and all three of his missiles struck the stone wall on the opposite side of the room in a burst of light that Taako had to shut his eyes against.

“Goodness.” It was almost a purr. “A bit touchy, aren’t you?”

“Fuck off and let my friends out,” Taako said. His wand was still raised, pointed into the darkness. He could hear Magnus and Merle talking behind him, probably telling him to run, but he ignored them and took a step further into the room.

“I wish I could,” the voice said. Movement flickered on the edge of Taako’s vision and he spun towards it just in time for it to disappear again. “But I’m afraid your friends were trespassing on my property. It was exceedingly impolite.”

“Yeah, and it’s super polite to lock them in the fucking dungeons.”

“Would you have preferred I let them continue taking my belongings?” There was a note of irritation in the voice now. “Speaking of, your backpack seems quite heavy.”

Taako rolled his eyes. “Alright, listen, meathead,” he said. Behind him, Merle groaned loudly. “If you want us out of your fucking palace- it’s not yours , by the way, it belonged to the royal family like hundreds of years ago and they’re all dead, but whatever- then we will leave your fucking palace. Just let these two idiots out and we will be on our merry way. I’ll even give back the stupid candlesticks.”

“A generous offer.” The voice was so close to his ear Taako felt the hair on his arms stand up. He whirled around and glared into the shadows. “But the fact remains that a crime has been committed, and someone must pay the price.”

“And the price is being locked up in your dungeons forever?”

“Yes.”

“Shit,” Magnus whispered behind him.

“Look,” Taako said. He shrugged off his pack and dropped it to the stone floor with a clang. “You can have it all back, I don’t give a shit.”

“I told you already. A crime has been committed, and-”

“What about me? I have fourteen super expensive necklaces in there, and I would sell them in a heartbeat for a good ham sandwich. Why am I not in your stupid dungeon?”

“I do not wish to be a babysitter for the rest of eternity. If you are willing to hand over the stolen items, I will let you walk away from this under oath that you will not attempt to return.”

Taako crossed his arms, scowling into the shadows. He wanted to flip off whatever this thing was, but he couldn’t do that unless he saw what it was he was up against. He couldn’t do much of anything unless he saw what it was. His mind flipped through different escape plans, trying to figure out a way to subdue whatever entity this was and get both him and his friends out of here.

He couldn’t think of anything. His heart quickened.

“See,” he said, trying to keep his voice steady, “that’s kind of a raw deal for me. I don’t get to pawn off any jewels, and I lose a mediocre meat shield and cleric? No thanks. If I’m leaving, I’m taking these two with me.”

A gust of cold wind hit him with a force so hard it knocked him back a step. Taako grit his teeth and glared at nothing.

“Then perhaps you will not be leaving,” the voice said, closer to a growl than before.

“Fine,” Taako spat. “Fine, you know what? If you really fucking want to keep someone trapped down here, then take me. Let my friends go and keep me.”

“Taako,” Magnus said from his cell, aghast, as Merle cursed loudly.

The wind froze. Taako shook his hair out of his face and cautiously straightened up. There was a moment of silence.

“You would offer yourself in exchange for your companions?” The voice was back to a smooth purr.

“If that’s what it takes to get you off our fucking asses. What do you think, fair trade?”

“Taako, don’t you dare!” Magnus shouted.

“Shut up, Mags,” Taako said over his shoulder.

The entity was closer now, prowling. Taako could feel its gaze on him, heavy and suffocating. He straightened his shoulders back and raised his eyebrows, trying to look unimpressed even as his heart raced.

“You are trading your freedom to spend eternity with me,” it said.

Taako raised his wand. The light at the tip pulsed in the darkness. “Let me see you.”

There was a pause. Then something moved closer, almost glided, into the small circle of brightness, and Taako resisted his first impulse to run. The thing was tall and humanoid, with a black robe spilling down and shrouding most of its body from view. But its face- when Taako tilted his wand to see better, all he saw was pale white bone and empty eye sockets.

“Holy fucking shit,” Merle said.

Taako swallowed and lifted his chin. “Me for my companions,” he said. “Take it or leave it.”

The… thing tilted its head, joints clicking as bones grated against one another. It regarded Taako for a long moment, a moment in which the only thing running through Taako’s head was shitshitshitshit .

Then, it extended one arm towards him. The sleeve of the robe slipped back to reveal more bone, a skeletal hand outstretched.

“Don’t you fucking dare, Taako!”

Taako curled his lip, not hiding the disgust on his face as he reached forward and gently grasped its fingers.

The second his skin touched cold bone, a jerk in his stomach pulled him backwards and threw him to the ground. His elbows knocked against rough stone, his hat falling off as his head fell back against the floor. He wheezed once, temporarily winded, and then scrambled up and looked out at the bars in front of him and his friends’ terrified gazes beyond. They had switched places, and looked just as disoriented as he felt.

“What a hero,” the skeleton said, gazing into the cell at Taako on his knees.

“Fucking monster,” Magnus growled, hands going to his back to grasp Railsplitter. He had just unsheathed it when the skeleton flicked his wrist, looking somehow bored despite his lack of facial expression, and then both Magnus and Merle were gone.

“Hey!” Taako threw himself at the bars and grasped them, scowling out at the skeleton. “What the fuck did you do to them?”

“Do not worry,” it said. “I cast them out of the palace beyond the wards, and patched up the hole through which you wormed your way in. If they are smart, they will leave and never return.”

“Fuck you. They’ll get me out. Or- I’ll get me out. I got us in, and I can get me out.”

The skeleton looked unimpressed. Taako tried not to be afraid of its empty gaze, the holes where its eyes should be.

“You made a deal,” it said, simply. Then it turned around, robe rippling behind it, and was gone.

“Hey,” Taako said. When nothing responded, he raised his voice. “Hey! What are you- get the fuck back here!” He slammed his hand against the bars and then cursed at the sharp pain that shot through it. “What, you’re just going to fucking leave me down here?”

Silence echoed back at him. Taako pushed himself away from the bars and turned, casting his gaze about the small cell. His eyes adjusted to the darkness quickly enough to see that it was entirely empty. There wasn’t even a bed or a toilet or anything that a reasonable dungeon should have.

“Fucking shit,” he muttered. He leaned down and snatched up his hat, dusting it off and shoving it back on his head. He cast about for his wand, figuring he’d dropped it somewhere when he’d fallen, but found nothing. The skeleton thing must have taken it, then. “Fucking shit !”

Several minutes passed in which he prowled the small space and tried to find some kind of escape, but he quickly gave up. He sat down with a scowl, pressing his back against the cold stone wall and glaring out at the bars.

“This fucking blows,” he said out loud.

This would be fine, he thought to himself. He would get out. Someone would rescue him. Lup, if anyone, would find a way to get him out.

He shut his eyes against the sinking feeling in his stomach, and tried to ignore the empty silence around him.

X X X X X

The skeleton didn’t come back to visit Taako until several hours later. When it did, it stood across the room and stared until Taako snapped, “Why don’t you take a fantasy picture? It’ll last longer.”

Instead of responding, the skeleton waved a bony hand at him. Taako felt a jolt behind his stomach and then he was sprawled out on the ground outside of his cell.

“What-” He scrambled to his feet, straightening his hat and glaring at the robed figure. “Would you stop fucking doing that? It’s creepy as shit, dude.”

“Follow me,” it said, and then turned to climb up the stairs.

Taako debated not listening, but the alternative was standing around in some seriously gross dungeons, and he’d had enough of that to last a lifetime by now. So he followed, making sure to keep at least ten steps between him and the skeleton at all times.

When they emerged back in the hallway Taako blinked in the brightness. It was still mostly dark in the palace, but he could tell through the dirty windows that night had passed and the sun had come up. He realized with a jolt that Magnus and Merle must have made it home by now, if they had done the smart thing and retreated. They had definitely told Lup what had happened.

God, Lup was going to fucking kill him if he ever got out of this.

“Listen, it’s super cool to be out of your shitty dungeons and all,” he said when the skeleton didn’t move for a few moments. “But if you brought me out to kill me, it was really lame of you to make me walk up stairs first.”

The skeleton didn’t look amused. It wasn’t looking at Taako at all, in fact. It had its back turned to him so that all Taako could see was the dark fabric of its robe. With the hood pulled up over its head, Taako could almost pretend that there was a real person inside of the cloak.

The illusion was broken when it started moving, and Taako heard the joints creaking as it walked. It didn’t say anything, but Taako got the gist of the situation and followed after it, glaring at its back and hoping it could feel his frustration.

“You’ve got a really shitty castle, you know,” he said conversationally as they turned a corner. “Like, the potential is here, but there’s a few too many cobwebs for my taste. You ever clean up around here?”

They climbed a staircase Taako hadn’t seen yet. It was marble like the rest of the floors, and he made sure to click his heels extra hard as they walked. He wish he had his wand so he could blow the perfectly hewn stone up.

Taako had studied ancient blueprints of the palace before he had figured out a way to get in. He had the whole place memorized, but it was disorienting to actually walk the halls he had only ever considered hypothetical for the past few years. He knew that the third and fourth floor were both dedicated to residential suites, and if he remembered correctly, the skeleton was currently leading him to the fourth floor.

Of course, the blueprints hadn’t noted that the entrance to the dungeons was on the third floor, so Taako could be being led to his fucking doom for all he knew. He figured that at this point he was just along for the ride.

They stopped in front of a closed door. The skeleton waved a hand and the lock clicked, letting the door swing open without being touched. Then it stepped back and turned to look expectantly at Taako, eye sockets empty and blank.

“You want me to go in first?” Taako asked, curling his nose. “What, are you going to get me from behind or something?”

“I am not going to hurt you,” it said.

Taako snorted. “Yeah fucking right,” he said, but his curiosity got the best of him.

When he stepped into the room, he thought for a moment that he had been transported somewhere entirely new. It was a bedroom, but it wasn’t at all like the abandoned rooms he had explored earlier. This bedroom was- well, clean. The windows were clear, letting bright sunlight shine in and illuminate the space, which was free of dust and perfectly neat. It was small and a bit bare, but the bed was made, and it looked much more liveable than the rest of the palace.

Taako stared at it. He turned and looked at the skeleton, which was standing just inside the doorway as though it didn’t want to enter. “I don’t get it,” he said flatly.

“Is it suitable to you?”

“Is it- I mean, I guess ? Why the fuck did you bring me here?”

The skeleton slowly cocked its head to the side. “Did you think I would leave you in the dungeons?”

“Uh- yeah? I dunno, I kind of got that vibe !”

“You may stay here,” the skeleton said, ignoring Taako’s glare. “You are welcome to help yourself to the clothing in the wardrobe, as well as any others you may found about the palace.”

Taako crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes. “What’s the catch?”

“There is no catch,” the skeleton said. It took a step backwards, out of the room. “Dinner will be served later.”

It waved its hand again and the door swung shut. A moment later, Taako heard the lock click.

“Fucker,” he spat at the locked door. Then he looked around the room again, turning a critical eye on the sparse furnishings. There was a decently sized bed, the aforementioned wardrobe, and a washstand and mirror shoved into the corner. It was certainly an upgrade from dungeon , but Taako was annoyed enough that he thought the whole thing was shitty as fuck.

He crossed to the window, the first clean one that he had seen. Peering through the glass brought him a view of the overgrown gardens that he had crept through with Magnus and Merle only a few hours ago, and beyond that, the iron fence that had been reinforced with enough wards to keep even the best magic-users out for centuries. A thin purple shield was cast around it, trapping the palace in a bubble made to last forever.

It had worked, until Taako had come along and gotten himself into this mess.

He tried the handle on the window, but was unsurprised to find it locked tight. He probably wouldn’t be able to break the glass, either, or take down any of the spells keeping him in without his wand. Even if he did manage to get the window open, the main problem he would have would be getting back out through the main wards. That had been hard enough the first time, and if the skeleton had indeed patched up the hole he had blown through them, then Taako doubted he would find a way to get back out without his wand.

Despite himself, Taako felt a creeping panic crawling up his arms. He turned away from the mirror and glared at the bed, forcing himself to breathe. This was fine. He would be fine. He wasn’t in a cell anymore, right? That was an improvement. Once he figured out how to get out of his room, he would be able to find a way to get back out through the wards.

And if he couldn’t, then someone else would. Magnus and Merle would tell everyone what had happened, and someone would come for him- Lup or Barry or even Lucretia would be able to find a way in. Hell, if he had been able to do it, they definitely could.

Except-

Taako walked over to the wash basin, which was full of clean looking water. He looked at himself in the mirror and grimaced. His braid was ratted and messy, and he was covered in dungeon grime. With a sigh he reached up to begin untangling his hair, working his fingers through the knots the best he could without a comb.

He had left most of his notes on the dining room table. All of the work he had done over the years to try and figure a way around the wards. No one else had ever been interested enough to read them over, except Barry, once, but he was relatively confident that someone could replicate his work if they really tried. They’d figure it out.

He hoped.

It took ages to finally get his hair brushed through. When it was free of tangles he tied it back and bent over the basin, scooping water up and scrubbing at his face and neck with such vigorous force it left his skin pink. There wasn’t a towel to dry himself off with, so he stood in the center of the room and stared out the window until he was dry, and then sat down on the edge of the bed to carefully braid his hair back.

If he was going to be a prisoner, he was going to be a fucking gorgeous one.

When he was done he stood and crossed the room to the wardrobe. He opened the door and peeked in, momentarily surprised to find that the skeleton hadn’t been lying. It was stuffed with clothing, all of them made of rich-looking fabrics that would have made him weep on a normal day. It was mostly plain shirts and trousers, but they were clearly fine clothes.

Taako shut the door and turned away from it with a sniff. He’d stick to his own ratty skirt for now.

When the knock came later, Taako had a plan ready and was determined to stick to it.

“No thanks,” he said flatly when the voice on the other side requested his presence for dinner.

There was a pause, as though it were taken aback. “Are you not hungry?”

“Nope,” Taako said, popping the ‘p’. “So you can fuck off again!”

“You- need to eat.”

“Nah, homie, I’m good.”

“If you are doing this to be stubborn-” The voice was getting louder, which probably meant it was getting angry, which probably wasn’t great for Taako, so he was quick to cut it off.

“Didn’t I tell you to fuck off, bone brain?”

There was another pause. Then Taako heard footsteps walking away, and he released a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

Taako laid back on the bed. It was surprisingly comfortable, if a bit grander than he was used to. He stared up at the white canopy overhead and tried to ignore his biting hunger.

Maybe it was stupid, refusing to eat, but Taako had decided that if he couldn’t escape, the least he could do was make things difficult for his captor. If that meant holding off on eating for as long as possible, then Taako would do that. He had skirted starvation before, and he would do it again if it made him a pain in the ass.

He had been surprised by the lack of reaction from his skeletal jailer, however. When Taako had decided to refuse dinner, he had been certain that he’d be picking a fight. Maybe even hoping for it, because the longer he was stuck in this stupid castle, the angrier at the whole situation he got.

His stomach growled. Taako turned on his side and curled in on himself, glowering out at the window where the sun was slowly setting. It had been almost a day since they had broken into this fucking place. That was enough time for Magnus and Merle to get home. Would that someone would come find him soon?

He hoped so. He was really fucking hungry.

X X X X X

Taako fell asleep some time after the sun had gone down, and opened his eyes in the morning to light streaming through the window and a quiet knock on the door.

“Wha-” He sat up, immediately reaching for his wand before remembering that he didn’t have it. A jolt of dread shot through him, and he swallowed as he hurriedly smoothed down his braid and looked at the door. “What?” he shouted, hoping he didn’t sound as groggy as he felt.

No one responded. Taako crawled out of bed, stumbling on his skirt and catching himself on the night table. When he had righted himself, he looked suspiciously at the door, half-waiting for it to be thrown open.

Nothing happened. The room was silent.

Certain that this was some kind of trap, Taako crept across the room. He put his hand on the doorknob, and when it didn’t burn him, he slowly turned it.

It was unlocked. The door swung open, and Taako blinked out at the empty hall.

“Hello?” he called, his voice carrying. He looked left and right, searching for movement, before he finally looked down at what had been set at his feet.

It was a tray. A breakfast tray, filled with food that made Taako’s head spin with hunger.

Cautiously, Taako bent down and picked it up. With another frown at the hallway, he stepped back into his room and slammed the door shut.

Taako walked back to his bed and set the tray down on the blankets. He stared at it. It was a simple meal, just a hunk of bread, some cheese, and a cut up fruit that appeared to be an apple. There was also a cup of milk, which Taako sniffed suspiciously before setting down again.

He considered throwing it back into the hall for only a moment before his growling stomach protested. Well, he would have to eat eventually. At least he was able to do it in private.

The bread was dry and the cheese was too potent for his taste, but he scarfed it all down and followed it with the glass of milk. When he finished he paused for a moment, waiting for the telltale signs of poison to set in, but when nothing happened he set the tray to the side and stood up.

Taako glanced out the window as he stretched, raising his arms high and twisting so that his back popped. It was a nice day. The sun was high enough that he knew it had to be pretty late in the morning, but the sky was clear. Even the gardens looked a lot less creepy than they had when he had snuck into the place.

When he figured that he’d been standing there long enough, Taako turned and moved to the door, wanting to test an idea. He reached for the doorknob- pausing once more to make sure it didn’t shock him or some shit- and then twisted it.

It opened. Huh. The motherfucker had actually left it unlocked.

Taako would make sure that was a mistake.

He crept into the hallway cautiously, glancing back and forth to ensure that he was alone. They hadn’t made it up here in their explorations from the night before, but it looked nearly identical to the floor below. The rooms on either side of him were bedrooms as well, albeit much mustier, dirty bedrooms than his. He had almost forgotten how rundown this place actually was.

“Shitty ass castle,” he muttered as he poked around in the bedroom next to him. The drawers were all empty, but when he pulled open the wardrobe he found clothes that looked just as expensive as the ones he had found earlier did. These had clearly belonged to a woman, however. He pulled down a blue skirt and held it up to his own waist thoughtfully before draping it over his arm and continuing his search. The fashions were a bit outdated- centuries outdated, in fact- but Taako wasn’t going to lie and say they weren’t cute.

He picked his way through all of the rooms on the fourth floor, focusing entirely on the wardrobes when he realized there were no other personal items in the rooms. Some of them were empty, but most were stuffed full of clothing that could have been costumes for a period drama about rich people.

He had a sizeable stack going. Everything had enough ruffles that made the pile he was lugging around weigh a literal ton . He had draped most of it around his shoulders, bowing under the weight as he walked back out into the hall and debated heading back to his room to drop it all off before he kept exploring.

“Are you looking for something in particular?”

Taako spun around, fabric flying as he turned to look at the figure that had snuck up behind him.

“You said I could help myself,” he said, scowling at it. “I’m not fucking stealing.”

The skeleton tipped its head. It was still wearing the dark robe. “I did,” it said. “You are welcome to anything you find.”

“That’s a fucking first,” Taako said, and turned to stomp down the hall towards his room. He hoped fervently that the thing would leave him alone, but the voice started speaking again only a few moments later, still close behind him.

“I wanted to check that you had gotten enough to eat.”

“I told you that I wasn’t fucking hungry.” Taako kicked open the door to the bedroom he had been given and shoved through the doorway. Inside, he twisted to let all the clothing fall to a pile on the floor, kicking a few stray scarves back in with the rest of it. When he turned back around, the skeleton was standing in the doorway, eye sockets turned towards the empty tray on his bedside table.

“Right,” it said. “Well, is there- is there anything else I can get for you?”

“What the fuck is your game?” Taako crossed his arms and scowled at the skeleton. “Yesterday you were all, someone has to be punished , and then you fucking banished my friends and locked me in your dungeons, and today you’re trying to be- what, are you trying to be a good fucking host? Because that ship fucking sailed, my dude!”

The skeleton didn’t say anything. It just stared at Taako with those empty eyes, blank skull turned towards him, and yeah that was really fucking creepy.

“If you are going to be staying here, you might as well be comfortable,” it said.

“Oh, cool,” Taako said. Then he did something that he’d wanted to do all day- he flipped the skeleton off. “ Fuck. You.

The skeleton took a step back. Taako turned away, moving his glare to the window and trying to pour every ounce of hostility towards it.

He thought that the skeleton had finally given up and walked away, so when it spoke again, Taako almost jumped.

“Why did you take your friends’ place?” it asked, its voice as quiet and smooth as ever.

Taako bit the inside of his cheek. There was no point yelling at this thing. It didn’t seem to be able to take a hint.

“Because this was all my fucking idea,” he said, bitter. Fuck. He shouldn’t have taken breaking into this palace as a personal challenge. “I got them into this mess, and I wasn’t about to- to fucking leave them here while I got to go free. I mean, I give some kind of a shit, you know.”

The skeleton didn’t respond. When Taako turned around, it was gone, leaving his door open and empty.

“Fucking weirdo,” he said, loud enough that he hoped it would hear him. He stomped across the room and slammed the door shut, then turned to survey the pile of clothes he had grabbed.

He should probably organize that a little bit.

X X X X X

There was another knock on his door that evening. When he opened it and peeked out, there was a tray sitting there, this time laden with bread and an assortment of steamed vegetables.

Instead of eating it, Taako picked it up and marched out into the hall. Uncertain of where to go, he found the staircase and climbed down to the third floor, then to the second floor, where he had spent a majority of his time the night before.

The second floor was devoted to what seemed to be various parlour rooms. There was a grand dining room, which Taako glanced into as he passed, but it was as crusty and dusty as it had been before. On a hunch he turned a corner and peered down the hall towards a room he had disregarded earlier, and was half-satisfied, half-nervous to see light filtering through the doorway.

Taako curled his fingers around the tray as he approached the room, chin lifted. He stopped in the doorway and glared inside, trying to focus and not be stunned by the sight of the room.

It was a library, and an impressive one at that. Barry would pee his pants if he saw it. It was a wide, open room with floor to ceiling windows (completely filthy, of course) and shelves lined with hundreds upon hundreds of books. It was an impressive collection, and most of the volumes looked ancient. Taako might have even been a bit interested at any other time.

Now, though, all of his attention was fixed on the figure sitting in an armchair next to the unlit fireplace. Taako narrowed his eyes as it as he walked forward.

“I said I wasn’t fucking hungry.” He dropped the tray onto the coffee table with a clatter. A piece of broccoli fell off and rolled onto the floor.

The skeleton raised its head from the open book in its lap. It was still wearing the creepy robe, but the hood had fallen back so that Taako could see the bare skull in all of its eery glory.

“You ate breakfast,” it said.

“Yeah, because I was about to fucking starve to death. That was a one time thing, homie. Take back your shitty vegetables.” Taako raised his foot and poked the tray with his toe. It slid further across the coffee table, losing a few more carrots. The skeleton watched it, impassive as always.

“Okay,” it said. Then it turned back to its book, and, yeah, Taako did not come all the way down here to be ignored .

“What’s your fucking deal?”

The skeleton didn’t look up from its book. “Pardon?”

“Why am I fucking here?”

“I told you,” it said slowly, as though Taako were a few apples short of a bunch. “You and your friends were trespassing and attempting to steal from me. I take that as a serious offense.”

“Yeah, yeah, you’re all about justice or whatever, but that’s not what I meant.”

“What did you mean?”

“What do you want from me?” Taako was raising his voice now, which meant that the skeleton had finally looked up at him. “What am I supposed to do ! Do you just expect me to sit around for the rest of my life? Do you want me to- I don’t know, fucking clean shit? You’re a skeleton, but am I some kind of weird sex slave?”

“What? No!” It had the audacity to sound offended.

“Because I won’t,” Taako continued, glaring down at it. “And I’m still going to find a fucking way out of here, just so you know.”

The skeleton closed the book. Taako tried not to look at its weird bone hands for longer than he had to.

“Would you like to sit down?” it asked.

Taako scowled. He remained standing for one stubborn moment before he stomped over to the empty armchair across from the skeleton and dropped into it, flicking his braid back and crossing his legs tightly.

“Your name is Taako,” the skeleton said after a minute. It wasn’t a question, so Taako didn’t bother answering. Instead he turned his gaze to the unlit fireplace. There was a small pile of wood there, but it was too clean to have been lit recently.

“Taako,” it said, and Taako wanted to punch it for how calm it was being, “I do not want to hurt you.”

“Could have had me fooled.”

“I understand that these are not the… most ideal circumstances.”

“Listen, Skeletor- can I call you Skeletor?- I’m super fucking glad that I’m not in the dungeons, and that you’re not trying to actively kill me or whatever, but this?” Taako reached out and kicked the dinner tray again, sending it dangerously close to the edge of the coffee table. “I’m not going to sit around and let you treat me like I’m some kind of fucking pet.”

“I’m not-”

“If I want food, I’ll go fucking find it myself. Capiche?”

“Taako-”

“And your bread is dry as shit.” Taako stood up and walked away before the skeleton could say anything else.

He had hoped that a confrontation would ease his frustration a bit, but when he got back to his room he still felt like punching a wall, which he held himself back from doing only because he was trying to make his manicure last as long as possible.

Fucking Skeletor.

X X X X X

Two more days passed before Taako dared go to the fifth floor.

He had wandered around the lower floors long enough that he had the basic layout memorized. Most of it matched up to what he already knew from the blueprints, but it was reassuring to know that if all of this came down to a fight, Taako would know the lay of the land. He had even poked around at the front door, which was, as he expected, locked up tight (not that it mattered, because they had gotten in through a window, and he was positive he could get out the same way if he really needed to).

Still, he had avoided the top floor because… well, he didn’t really know why. He knew it was the royal residency, though, and even though Skeletor had made itself scarce since Taako had confronted it in the library, that seemed like the kind of place Taako would get in trouble for poking around in. It might be a skeleton, but it was territorial as fuck.

After three days of being a prisoner, though, Taako was bored, and willing to risk whatever punishment the skeleton threw at him if it meant he got to poke around in the royal family’s shit.

Taako waited until the evening, when he knew the skeleton usually went into the library for a few hours, before creeping out of his room. His own clothes had finally gotten gross enough that he had been forced to change out of them, but he was decently pleased with the outfit he had thrown together out of the scraps. He actually felt a bit like royalty as he lifted his skirt and ascended the marble staircase.

Well, royalty that tiptoed and stuck to the shadows, because this fucking prince did not want to get caught by his skeleton captor.

When he reached the top, Taako paused and listened. He was pretty certain at this point that he and the skeleton were the only (living?) things in the palace, but he knew he had to be careful about this. He was definitely in uncharted territory now.

To his mild disappointment, the fifth floor looked pretty much the same as the other ones did. There was a long central hallway lined by doors that were mostly shut tight. It was dark up here, and dusty, perhaps even dustier than the other floors were.

“If I were a crown, where would I be?” he murmured to himself as he walked, because he may not be able to pawn it, but he really, really wanted to wear a crown.

The first room he looked into was some kind of sitting room. Taako nearly walked away from it before he realized that this one, unlike most of the other rooms he had explored, had more than just a few pieces of furniture left in it.

He pushed open the door all the way and stepped inside. The sun was setting outside, so what little light managed to shine in through the dirty windows was a deep orange color. It was a surprisingly simple parlour for a royal residency, but Taako could tell that it had been charming at one point. A dusty piano sat in the corner, and an intricate, expensive-looking rug cushioned his footsteps as he crossed the room to the mantle place.

He had reached out and picked up the tiny sculpture sitting on it before he had a chance to really think about it. It was porcelain, so he held it carefully as he lifted it up to the light to examine it. He ran his fingers along the smooth wings, the pointed beak. A raven, the symbol of the royal household. It must have been really old, but the paint hadn’t faded yet.

Taako set it back down gingerly and cast his gaze over the rest of the items sitting above the empty fireplace. A silver clock that was stuck at one thirty, a wooden box carved with flowers (Taako tried to get into it, but it was locked), a few dusty books. It wasn’t a lot, but it was more than had been in the other rooms. Taako had assumed that the palace had been emptied of most personal objects when whatever had happened happened.

Taako left the room with some reluctance. He wanted to keep poking around, but he wasn’t sure how much time he had left before the skeleton figured out where he was, and there were still a ton of rooms left on this floor.

The next two doors opened into bedrooms, which, like the sitting room, had a surprising number of personal items left in them. Taako skipped over them, still on the lookout for a crown, or at least some jewels that he could complete his outfit with.

He didn’t stop until he reached a room at the far end of the hall. It was another bedroom, but it was bigger than the rest, and relatively clean, too. When he peeked in and found himself staring at a decent view of the garden, he paused before stepping slowly inside.

“What the fuck,” he said out loud. The room wasn’t spotless, but it was clean enough that someone could have used it in the last few days. The bed was made up in expensive-looking black silks, but that wasn’t what Taako’s attention was drawn to.

He crossed the room to the fireplace, blinking up at the portrait hanging over it. It was a large portrait, and had obviously been done by a talented artist, but Taako wasn’t focused on any of that shit. What he was focused on was that the subject of said portrait was super fucking hot .

“Shit, my dude, who were you?” Taako leaned closer, resisting the urge to reach out and touch the picture. It was a grandesque looking guy, probably some prince or whatever, with dark skin and a very chiseled jaw. He was sitting stiffly, eyes fixed on Taako in a way that made it seem like he was almost alive. Taako half expected him to move, and it was probably good that he didn’t because Taako would have fucking swooned if that guy had been alive now.

Why couldn’t he have gotten His Royal Hotness as a jailer instead of a fucking skeleton?

“What are you doing here?”

Taako jumped and whirled around, hand reaching for a wand he didn’t have. “Fucking hell, dude, why are you-”

“What are you doing here?” The skeleton came closer, faster than Taako had ever seen him move, so fast that Taako actually stumbled back a few steps when the skull loomed in on his face.

“Nothing! I was just-”

“You are not allowed to be in here,” the skeleton growled, and shit, it didn’t actually have a face but Taako could tell it was pissed. For the first time in a few days, he felt a small pinch of worry in his gut.

“You didn’t fucking tell me that,” Taako snapped back, edging around to try and get his back facing the door.

“Did you touch anything?”

“No! I was just looking, I-”

“You are not allowed on the fifth floor!”

“Fucking fine! You didn’t fucking tell me that !” Taako swallowed loudly and grabbed at his skirt and wished for the millionth time that it hadn’t taken his fucking wand, hadn’t left him defenseless and captive and holy fucking shit this thing was going to kill him . “I- fuck this shit,” he said, and then he turned and he ran like he should have done days ago, like he should have done the second he had been let out of that cell.

He lifted his skirt and bunched it up in his fists as he sprinted, skidding to the end of the hall and flying down the stairs three at a time. When his heels threatened to break under him he kicked them off, leaving them behind as he ran barefoot down every staircase, braid flying behind him. He had to try and get out, he would- he would fucking throw himself at the wards and yell and hope that Magnus or Merle or Lup goddamnit Lup please were waiting out there and would be able to find some way to get him out.

He ran without looking behind him and just hoped that the skeleton was too slow to keep up with him. When he reached the first floor he aimed himself towards the front door, already panting and wishing he’d worn something better suited to an escape.

When he reached the grand entrance he grabbed at the handle, pulling on it desperately. It didn’t budge, and he cursed loudly, looking around for a window of some kind that he could get out through. And then- and then there were footsteps behind him, and something calling his name, and Taako pressed both hands to the door handle and hissed the spell and hoped that he could pull it off.

His heart soared when he felt a click beneath his hands. He yanked the door open and threw himself out into the fresh air. The sun had fallen low enough that it was chilly out, but Taako was so grateful to be outside he nearly didn’t notice.

He took the final steps at a run, jumping over the last five and landing hard in the grass. He paused for a moment, chest heaving, and tried to calculate the fastest way to get to the gate. It would be- fuck, it was through the overgrown garden. Taako scowled but didn’t dare wait a moment longer before he took off again, toes digging into the damp grass.

He pushed his way through the brambles, wincing as thorns licked at his ankles and snagged his skirt. When he glanced over his shoulder he didn’t see anything pursuing him, but he wasn’t about to risk his luck and slow down. Luckily it wasn’t too far to the metal fence, and as he drew closer he could see the shimmering purple shield interlaced with it, shining in the dying light.

“MAGNUS!” he shouted when he reached it, bringing a hand up to touch it. It shocked him, and he hissed in pain, drawing away again. “Fucking hell, guys, you’d better have fucking come back for me. MERLE! LUP! Fucking- BAROLD, GET YOUR ASS OVER HERE, I’M HERE!”

If they were out there, they wouldn’t be able to see him. The spell had some kind of shielding effect that hid people from view on either side, which is something they had quickly figured out when they had first broken in. His family could be standing right in front of him, and Taako wouldn’t be able to tell.

That was alright, though. He had gotten into this place, and he was going to get himself out.

“Fuck,” he said out loud. Then he reached out and grasped two of the metal bars, gritting his teeth against the heat running through his arms. This was considerably more painful without his wand.

He hissed the spell that had gotten him in, but any hope he had of being able to perform it without something to focus his magic with died when a sharp pain made him shudder. He released the bars and fell to his knees, fingers curling into the dirt beneath him, shoulders trembling with aftershocks of pain.

“Taako!” yelled a voice behind him, angry and too close for comfort. “Stop!”

“Hell no,” Taako muttered to himself, and, with a deep breath, lunged for the bars again. This time, when he grabbed them, he shouted the spell and held on as sharp bursts of pain made his vision blur.

He managed for only a few seconds before he realized that it wasn’t going to work. With a yelp he tried to let go, and- his fingers didn’t budge, they stayed wrapped around the cold metal bars as sparks danced up his wrist and made his arms shake. He shouted again and tried to pull away, sinking into the ground, head bowing under the weight of the heat racing through his muscles and threatening to shred him to pieces and oh god he was going to die this is exactly what Lup said would happen if he tried to break in here .

Then there were hands on his shoulders and a voice yelling something in his ear, and he was being yanked away from the fence and the shield and falling back onto the grass.

Taako gasped, trying to breathe, because he was pretty sure that he’d stopped for a few moments there. The pain was gone but the memory of it remained in his trembling hands and blurred vision. He blinked, panting, and stared up at the night sky overhead. When had it gotten that late?

Taako didn’t realize that there was something moving next to him until he heard a groan. He turned his head with difficulty, pressing his cheek into the cold grass and squinting. There was a shape beside him, a pile of robes shifting and twisting- the skeleton. It was curled up on the ground, mostly hidden beneath all the fabric, and-

It was in pain. Skeletons could feel pain?

Taako swallowed and pushed himself up on shaky arms. He was still breathing heavily, chest heaving, but his heart was beginning to slow down enough for him to think. He shook his head, trying to knock some of the fogginess out of it. What the fuck had happened?

Okay, he knew what had happened. He’d panicked and thrown himself at the wards, which had been stupid because he had researched the shit out of his place and knew that bad things happened when people tried to break in. Whoever had enchanted this place had been nasty as fuck. And Taako had been stupid to think he could get out without his wand.

Several more minutes passed before Taako felt stable enough to turn his attention back to the skeleton. When he did, he quickly tried to run through everything he knew.

First of all, it was obviously in pain, if its still labored groans were anything to go by. Which meant that the wards had hurt it, which meant- yeah, second thing, it probably wasn’t the one who had put them up. Which was a bit of a curve ball, because Taako had assumed that it was the mastermind behind this whole situation.

Third, it had been the one to pull him away from the wards and break whatever spell had been keeping him trapped there. Which meant-

Fuck. It had saved him. And now it was in pain because of that.

Taako licked his dry lips and moved forward, crawling towards the pile of robes. He reached out, hesitating only briefly before going to touch what he thought was the shoulder.

“Hey,” he said, his voice hardly a whisper. He grasped at the robe, shivering when he felt the hard press of bone underneath it. “Hey, are you- fuck, are you-?”

It didn’t respond except to groan again.

Taako bit his lip and glanced back at the palace, fingers still pressed to the skeleton’s shoulder. He should just leave. He definitely wasn’t about to try and get through the wards again, but he could go back to the castle and try to find his wand, try to find some other way to escape. Hell, he could just go to bed and wait for the consequences to come to him. The skeleton would get up eventually, wouldn’t it?

Then Taako groaned, because no, he couldn’t, not when he was in debt to the fucking thing.

“Alright,” he said, shifting so that he was sitting up on his knees. “I’m gonna- I’m gonna try not to hurt you, alright? Which, I don’t actually know how this works, because you definitely don’t have nerve endings or whatever, but- come on, let’s go-” He managed to turn the skeleton over and slip his arm around its shoulders, ignoring the way he could feel the press of every joint. The skeleton’s face was the same, still just empty eye sockets and a gaping mouth, but it looked as out of it as a skeleton could, so Taako figured it wasn’t entirely aware of what was happening.

“Right, up we go,” he said, and lifted. He stumbled once, his own legs still a bit shaky, but managed to push both himself and the skeleton upright.

“Cool,” he said, even as his vision blurred and he swayed on his feet. “Cool. Hard part done. Okay, come on, Skeletor.”

It was slow moving back through the gardens. The skeleton was mostly able to walk, putting one clumsy foot in front of the other, but it still didn’t seem to know what was happening. It leaned all of its weight on Taako, and, yeah, it was just bones and fabric, but bones were still fucking heavy , and Taako’s head was still spinning from whatever the wards had done to him.

It seemed to take hours before they reached the stairs leading up to the entrance of the palace. Taako groaned as he dragged the skeleton up, pulling and heaving it up, and then gripping it tightly as he dragged the front door open again. And then, finally- finally - they were back in the front entrance of the palace.

“Fuck,” Taako said. He eased the skeleton to the floor, propping it up to sit against the wall. Its head lolled, so much so that Taako thought it might have passed out. “Fucking shit, dude, you need to lose some weight. Okay.”

Taako fell to his knees. He was panting again, and his chest felt tight, and the whole ordeal had left him lightheaded. “This is bullshit,” he muttered, letting his head fall forward so his forehead was resting against the cold marble. Fuck, but that felt nice. He closed his eyes and took a moment to just breathe. “Fucking- this is literal bullshit. If you’re fucking dead, or- or deader than you were before, or whatever, and I just hauled your bony ass all the way back here for nothing, then I’m going to-” Taako rolled over onto his back, eyes still closed. His head was spinning, and suddenly his words seemed very far away. “I’m gonna be pissed. Yeah? I’m gonna be pissed.”

For a moment, Taako struggled to remember what he was going to be pissed about. Then he gave up and let himself slip into unconsciousness.

X X X X X

When Taako woke up, he stared at the canopy over his bed and tried to remember how he had gotten there.

Hadn’t he passed out in the entrance hall? And- shit, was the skeleton dead? Like dead dead? That was probably a good thing, but Taako would be pretty annoyed if it was, because that meant he had strained himself for nothing.

Both of his questions were answered only a few minutes later, when his door creaked open and a familiar figure peered in at him.

For a moment, neither of them said anything. Taako stared at the skeleton, eyes narrowed. The skeleton stared back, eye sockets gaping.

“You’re awake,” it said finally.

“No shit.”

It pushed open the door all the way, and Taako saw that it was carrying a tray. As it approached with the food, the skeleton seemed to notice the way Taako was bristling, and said, “Just this once. I thought- I thought you might appreciate staying in bed a touch longer. That was a nasty run in with the wards.”

Taako pursed his lips, but when it handed him the tray, he accepted it.

“You brought me back to the room,” he said, picking up the glass of water. He squinted at a moment before taking a cautious sip, grateful when it hit his dry throat.

“You brought me back to the palace.”

“That I did,” Taako said. He tipped his head back and drained the glass, gulping it down. Fuck, he loved water.

“You did not have to do that.” The skeleton hovered beside its bed, maintaining a few feet of distance between them.

“Uh, yeah I did. You kind of saved my ass with the wards, and cha’boy doesn’t do being in debt.” Taako snatched up a piece of bread and pointed at the skeleton. “We’re even.”

The skeleton dipped its head. “Yes,” it agreed.

“What the hell happened to you, anyways?” Taako took a bite of the bread, and was startled to find it wasn’t nearly as dry as it had been before.

“I… got too close to the wards.” The skeleton spoke slowly, as though it were choosing its words carefully.

“You can’t get close to them?”

“No. It… causes me great pain.”

“So you… what, you weren’t the one who put them up?”

The skeleton shook its head, joints clicking with the movement. “I was not,” it said.

Taako chewed slowly, frowning at it. “Then who did?”

The skeleton stared at him, then turned its head towards the window. It was the middle of the day. Taako wasn’t sure what exact time. “An enchantress,” it said. It tilted its head to gaze back at Taako. “How are you feeling?”

Taako rolled his shoulders, assessing. He was a bit sore, but considering everything, he was better than he should be. “Fine,” he said.

“I am glad,” the skeleton said. It tipped its head at him. “I will leave you to your rest. Please let me know if I can get you anything, Taako.”

Taako watched it turn and walk towards the door. It was almost gone when he called out, almost on impulse, “Hey!”

It paused and turned slowly back towards him, empty gaze expectant.

“Have you got, like- I dunno, a name or something? I feel like I should know your name,” Taako said, uncertainty flaring up when it just kept staring at him.

Finally, the skeleton said, jaw moving at a snail’s pace- “My name?”

“I mean- do you have one?”

“I,” it said. It tilted its head to the left, and then to the right. “Yes,” it said. “My name is Kravitz.”

“Kravitz,” Taako repeated. He dug his fingers into the bread and tore off another piece. “K. Cool. Thanks for the grub.”

“You are welcome,” the skeleton- Kravitz- said. Then it turned and left, shutting the door behind it, leaving Taako to finish his meal in silence.

X X X X X

Later that evening, when Taako finally felt okay with getting out of bed for longer than a few minutes, he walked down to the library. He wasn’t sure that he was doing the smart thing, per say- that is, seeking out the thing that had trapped him here- but he had a lot of questions now, and he figured they were on good enough terms that the skeleton might answer some of them.

He found him in the library, as he had expected. Kravitz was sitting in his usual armchair, book laid out in front of him. He was resting one bony hand against the side of his skull, tilted in an expression that looked frighteningly lifelike. He looked up when Taako approached.

“Taako,” he said, closing the book. Taako glanced at the cover and bit back a snort when he saw it was about gardening. “Are you alright?”

“Fine, my dude,” Taako said. He fell back into the armchair across from him and raised an eyebrow. “Got a fuck ton of questions though.”

“That is… understandable,” Kravitz said. “I can… try to answer them.”

“You really weren’t the one who put the wards up?”

“No.”

Taako narrowed his eyes. “Why are you here, then?”

Kravitz’s jaw moved, but no words came out for a moment. “I cannot leave,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

“The wards keep me from leaving.”

“The wards the enchantress put up?”

“Yes.”

“So you’re… what, fucking trapped here?”

Kravitz’s bony finger scratched against the leather cover of the book. “Yes,” he said, and Taako felt the weight of the word’s truth as it hit him.

Taako shifted in his seat, suddenly uncomfortable. “Why did you save me from the wards?”

“I said that I did not wish you harm.”

“Then why did you fucking trap me here with you?”

“I…” Kravitz turned towards the empty fireplace. “I do not wish to answer that.”

“Right,” Taako said. “Right, that’s- that’s totally fucking fair, sure. You don’t have to tell me why I’m fucking stuck here, that’s totally chill, my man.”

“Taako-”

“You know what, fuck you. I should-” Taako broke off and scowled at the coffee table.

“You should not have attempted to escape.”

“Fuck off. I could have done it if I’d had my wand.”

“The spells guarding this palace are adaptive. It is impressive that you managed to get in the first time, but you will not be able to enter or exit in the same manner.”

“It- what, it fucking learns?”

“In a manner.”

“Great,” Taako said. He swallowed, realizing with a jolt that if that was true- if the spell he had used to get in the first time wouldn’t work again- then his family would have no way to get in and save him. “How’d you get my friends out?”

“The hole you broke in the wards was still up. When I cast them out, it sealed behind them.”

“You could have sent me with them.”

“You made a deal.”

“Fuck you,” Taako said. He wrapped his arms around himself, wishing he had thrown on something heavier than the silk shirt he was wearing. It was cold everywhere in this place, but especially so in the library.

He jumped when Kravitz waved his hand and a flame sprang to life in the fireplace. “My apologies,” he said. “I did not realize it was cold in here.”

Taako looked at him with a frown. “What the fuck are you?”

Light from the fire flickered across Kravitz’s pale face, across the white of his skull. He didn’t respond for such a long time that Taako thought he might not have heard him. Then, he said, in a soft voice- “A monster.”

Before Taako could respond, Kravitz had gathered up his book and robe and left, leaving Taako alone by the fire, staring towards the door.

X X X X X

The palace kitchens were dusty as hell, but they had enough cool shit in them to mostly make up for that.

All of the equipment was centuries old. The first time Taako had stumbled across it- days ago, now, how long had he been trapped here?- he had been absurdly ecstatic to find the collection of handmade silverware, the still sharp knives, the honest to god butter churner. Not that Taako would ever be caught dead churning his own butter, but he appreciated the art of it.

There was always food in the kitchen. Taako figured that it had to be a spell of some sort, because there was always fresh milk and eggs even though he hadn’t seen a single animal on the property. He wasn’t actually sure why the kitchen was stocked, because he didn’t think that skeletons had to eat, but he wasn’t about to question it.

He had been aching to try out some of the equipment, but had been too distracted with his exploration of the palace to find enough time or energy to do so. In the aftermath of his incident with the wards, though, Taako found himself a little bit antsy, and anxious to do something to make this all feel a bit more bearable.

He got up early the morning and went down to the first floor kitchens. He spent a long time just standing there, staring at all the dirty equipment and debating whether it would be worth it to put in the work necessary to clean it all. For the millionth time, he wished he had his wand.

“Fuck this,” he said. Then he grabbed a few pans and set off in search of fresh water to scrub them off.

He only washed what was necessary and returned to the kitchen with an idea of what he wanted to make. A poke around the supplies told him that he had most of the ingredients he would need. Not all of them, and he wouldn’t be able to use his magic to help him out in that department, but he had enough.

As he set to work, he found himself immediately sinking into the motions. God, it felt nice to do something so familiar. As he stirred and chopped and watched oil sizzle in a hot pan, he felt his shoulders lose some of the tension they had held for the past few days. He rolled them back and twirled his spatula, breathing in the heady smell of cooking ham.

He wasn’t even halfway through when he felt eyes on him. His ears perked up, searching suspiciously for any noise to locate who was watching him, and- there. Kravitz was standing just outside the doorway, half-hidden in the shadows.

Taako poked at the ham, checking to see if the edges were browning. Pleased with the progress, he picked up the dusty box of matches he had found and struck one, lighting a flame under the full pot of water next to the cooking ham.

He waited for Kravitz to say something, to snarl that Taako shouldn’t be there and wasn’t allowed to cook. The skeleton said nothing, however, even as Taako stirred the water and cracked the egg in, watching as the whites began to harden.

“Can I get you something, bone breath?” he asked without looking up from his work.

Rattling footsteps approached behind him. Taako tensed, but Kravitz stopped several feet away.

“You’re cooking,” he said.

Taako poked at the ham one more time and then pulled the pan off the burner. “No shit,” he said, picking up a fork he had set aside. He speared a piece of bread and held it over the lit flame, pursing his lips as he turned it. It felt strange, trying to toast bread like a marshmallow over a campfire, but with all this archaic equipment and no magic to help him, Taako thought he was actually adapting pretty well.

“What… I mean, what…”

“You gotta use your words, Kravitz,” Taako said as he flipped the bread over.

The wooden floor creaked as Kravitz moved closer. Taako had to resist the urge to move further away.

“What are you making?”

The fucker actually sounded like he was curious.

“You’ll see,” Taako said, flipping the bread again.

He expected Kravitz to leave after that, but to his surprise, the skeleton stayed where he was. He didn’t try and come closer, but he didn’t leave, either. Taako felt his empty eyes on him as he plated the toasted bread and carefully slid the ham on top, followed by the poached egg. He drizzled the whole thing with the quick hollandaise sauce he had made and set to the side earlier, swirling his wrist to make it look as presentable as possible.

“Voilá,” Taako said, picking up the plate. He appraised it for a moment, grudgingly impressed with what he had done with such limited ingredients. It wasn’t his best work, but it was passable.

“What… is it?”

Taako blinked and looked up. Kravitz was standing several feet away, hood drawn up and over his face. With the skull hidden behind the shadows and the fabric, it almost looked like an actual person was standing there.

“Dude. Have you never had eggs benedict?” Taako asked.

Kravitz shook his head slowly back and forth. Taako whistled in disbelief and set the plate down.

“I didn’t know you were so uncultured, my man,” he said, picking up the fork he had used to roast the bread. He placed it carefully on top of the poached egg and applied pressure, pleased when a satisfyingly runny yolk burst underneath it.

Then Taako looked up with a frown. “Wait. Can you even eat?”

Kravitz seemed to hesitate. “Not anymore,” he said.

Taako’s frown deepened as he gathered up his first bite. “The fuck does that mean?” he asked, and then popped the egg and ham and bread in his mouth, and fuck. He had missed real food.

“At one point, I was able to eat. In my new state I cannot.”

Taako swallowed and pointed the fork at Kravitz. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re real fucking cryptic?” he asked. “Seriously. It’s creepy, man.”

“My apologies. I have not had anyone to speak to in… quite awhile.”

“What, you don’t go locking people up in your crusty ass castle all the time?”

Kravitz made a noise, almost like he was uncomfortable. “In my defense, you broke in.”

Taako lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug and speared a huge bite onto his fork. “In my defense, people have been trying to break into this place for fucking centuries. It’s not my fault I was the only one smart enough to get in.”

Kravitz didn’t respond to that. Taako kept eating, unbothered by the silence as he swirled bread in hollandaise sauce and enjoyed his own cooking. He should have made a second plate for himself.

“How did you do it?”

“Do what?”

“Get past the wards.”

“Oh, that,” Taako said. He scooped up the last bit of ham and ate it, chewing slowly as he thought. “I mean, it def wasn’t easy, I’ll give you that. I’ve been working at it for years. Figured I could get in through the ethereal plane, or at least dip into it long enough to break a hole through the enchantments around this place. It was pretty clever of me, if I do say so myself.”

“The ethereal plane,” Kravitz said. He sounded thoughtful.

“Smart, right?” Taako set down his fork and glanced at the dirty dishes. He did not want to fucking clean them by hand. “Guess it won’t work again, though, if it’s true that the wards can learn and strengthen their defenses. My family’s smart, though. They’ll find a way in.”

“You are so certain that they will come… rescue you.”

“Uh, duh,” Taako said, scowling at the skeleton. “Do I look like someone people just forget about?”

When Kravitz didn’t respond, Taako rolled his eyes. He snatched up his plate and fork and grabbed one of the pans off the stove. “You got any clean water closer than the well outside?”

A second later, the dishes lit up with a faint blue glow. When Taako looked down at them, they were clean.

“I could have fucking done that myself if you hadn’t taken my wand,” he said, scowling at Kravitz’s motionless figure. “Why’d you take it anyways, if you’re so certain I won’t be able to get back out?”

“I thought you would use it to attack me.”

“Yeah? Well, you were right.” Taako shoved the plate and pan back onto the counter, suddenly irritated. It was super cool that Kravitz wasn’t trying to like, actively threaten him, but this whole casual host act was starting to get old. “Listen, do you want something from me, or did you just come to stand there and intrude on my breakfast?”

Kravitz stared at him, expression as blank as always. Then he tipped his head forward, hood sliding lower across his skull. “My apologies,” he said. “I will leave you to your day.”

“Fucking finally,” Taako muttered, watching as Kravitz turned and left the kitchen.

Yeah, it was super chill that the dude wasn’t trying to kill him.

That didn’t mean Taako wanted the fucker anywhere near him.

X X X X X

That evening, Taako found Kravitz in the library as usual. This time, the skeleton was reading a book on edible wild plants. Taako didn’t know what the point of that was, because he couldn’t eat, but whatever.

Kravitz looked up as Taako threw himself into the empty armchair. “Why’d you get trapped here?” Taako asked.

Kravitz closed his book. “Why do you ask?”

“I’m curious. Can’t a guy be fucking curious? Come on, there are only so many fancy princess dresses I can try on in a day, humor me. What’s your story?”

“My story,” Kravitz repeated. He gazed into the unlit fireplace. “What… what do they say about this palace? Outside. Beyond the wards.”

“Uh,” Taako said. “Well, you know. The usual stuff. I dunno, everyone knows it.”

Kravitz turned his skull to gaze at him, expectant and terrifying as shit, and Taako figured he wanted a better answer.

“I mean- okay,” Taako said. He kicked his feet up to rest his heels on the coffee table and thought for a moment. “Okay. So this is the royal palace, right outside of Neverwinter. It used to be a part of it, back when Neverwinter was a monarchy.”

“It’s not a monarchy anymore?” Kravitz sounded startled.

“Uh, no? It’s a democracy, I guess. I mean, the whole royal line just kind of kicked the bucket, or at least, that’s what everyone assumed happened when the bubble went up around the palace. It left kind of a power vacuum, and the townspeople elected someone to represent them while they tried to figure out what happened to the royal family, and the rest is history.”

“What do they say… happened to them? The royal family, I mean.”

Taako shrugged. “That’s the big mystery, isn’t it? One day, out of nowhere, a bunch of enchantments went up around the royal palace and cut it off from the rest of the world. No one could get in anymore, and everyone who was inside never came out. Most historians say something probably went sour with a spell and everyone was either trapped and died off or was killed when the wards went up. I was kind of expecting to come across a bunch of fucking corpses or something when we finally got in. It’s the only reason Merle came, actually. He’s weird.” Taako narrowed his eyes at Kravitz. “You’re the only thing in here, though, aren’t you? You don’t have, like. A bunch of royal bodies locked up somewhere?”

“No.”

“Good,” Taako said. He crossed one ankle over the other. “That’d be creepy as shit.”

Neither of them spoke for a moment. When Taako crossed his arms to ward off the chill creeping in, Kravitz waved his hand and a fire sprang up in the grate. Taako scowled at him.

“Do you know what happened to them?” he asked when he had been quiet long enough. He had come down here for answers, and he figured he’d fucking earned them now.

“To the royal family?” Kravitz asked. He stared into the flickering flames for a few seconds. “They died when the wards went up.”

“Huh,” Taako said. It was a weird feeling, hearing it put that plainly. He had spent so many years studying books and theories about what had happened, but no one had ever had any definitive answers. “Why are you still here, then?”

“I was here the day that they died,” Kravitz said. “Whatever the enchantments did to them… did not affect me in the same way. I survived.”

“But you can’t leave.”

“No.”

Taako looked at the fire, which was slowly growing into a roaring flame. He could already feel the heat creeping up his legs and his arms. The flames were bright. Loud as they burned.

They reminded him of Lup, and he was suddenly struck with a wave of homesickness that made him slouch lower in his seat.

“You mentioned family,” Kravitz said after a long period of silence. Taako blinked and looked away from the flames to find the skeleton watching him. “Were you speaking of the companions you arrived with?”

“Yeah,” Taako said. Dimly, he knew that he probably shouldn’t be giving this guy any weaknesses, but fuck it. He’d had no one else to talk to for like, a week. “Kind of. They’re not- I’m not related to them or anything, technically. We’ve been through enough together that it fucking feels like it, though.” He leaned his head back against the chair, feeling a smile quirking at his lips. Ugh. Since when was he fucking sappy? “I was mostly talking about my twin sister, though.”

“You have a twin?”

“Yeah. Lup. She’s a maniac. And her boy toy isn’t much better. I once caught him trying to resurrect some roadkill in our kitchen.”

“I’m- I’m sorry, what?” Kravitz sounded taken aback, which made Taako laugh.

“Yeah,” he said, and didn’t bother elaborating. “What about you? Got any bony relatives I should be on the lookout for?”

“No,” Kravitz said. “I’m the only skeleton around here.”

“Fucking shame,” Taako said.

Kravitz turned the book over in his lap. Taako watched as the finger bones scraped across the cover, moving with a chilling clicking noise. There was something morbidly fascinating about it.

“I had a family, once,” Kravitz said suddenly. Taako looked at him, but before he could respond Kravitz was continuing. “I had a mother, and a father. And a younger sister. And a dozen or so cousins.”

“Were they…” Taako gestured at Kravitz’s whole situation. Kravitz shook his head.

“They were alive,” he said.

Taako frowned. “Were you?” he asked, because he sort of assumed that Kravitz just was that way. That was probably stupid, though. No one was just. Born a skeleton, right?

Kravitz looked back at the fire. For a moment, Taako thought he wasn’t going to respond, or was just going to be fucking cryptic again or something.

Then, Kravitz said, “I must have been. I think I was.” He stood up, joints clicking as he tucked the book under his arm. “I think I will retire for the night. I… thank you for your company.”

“Yeah, sure, whatever,” Taako said, kind of uncomfortable. Since when was he fucking civil to this creep?

Kravitz inclined his head, then turned to leave. “Goodnight, Taako,” he said as he departed.

“Whatever,” Taako said again.

When Kravitz was gone, Taako stood up. He stretched, pushing his arms up and over his head and twisting so his back cracked. Then he walked over to the nearest shelf, squinting curiously at the books’ peeling spines. Fuck, these things were old.

He reached out and touched one, ran his finger along the title embossed onto the spine. It was a volume on magic, and high level magic at that. He hooked his finger on it and pulled it out, glancing at the cover.

Well. It’s not like he had anything else to fucking do.

He wandered back over to the armchair and sat down, tucking his legs underneath him. When he cracked open the book in his lap, he was hit with the musty smell of aging pages.

He smirked a bit to himself and ran his thumb along the edge of the cover. Barry would have been all over this shit.

Curling up tighter in the chair, Taako started reading. The only sound was the flickering fireplace and the occasional sound of turning pages.

Fuck. If Taako tuned everything else out, it was almost like he was sitting at home.

X X X X X

“You’ve got a shit ton of spell books.”

Kravitz looked up from his book, jaw clicking. He had seemed surprised when Taako had wandered down and picked out a book to read, but Taako hadn’t said anything about it, and neither had he.

“It was the royal collection,” Kravitz said. “They were quite proud of it.”

“No shit,” Taako said. He ran his fingers along the ink etched into the first page of the book he had been working his way through for the past hour or so. It was an older volume, centuries old, and had a lot of spells Taako had never even heard of. He was itching to get his wand back to try some of them.

“You’ve studied magic?”

“Self-taught,” Taako said. “I found out I’m the best teacher I was going to get.”

Kravitz’s jaw clicked again in what Taako thought was a laugh. Now that was fucking weird.

“You must be quite skilled with it, if you were able to get past the enchantments,” Kravitz said.

“Hell yeah I am. Fucking useless without my wand, though.” Taako turned back to his book and flipped a page, letting that hang there. It was unlikely that Kravitz felt even a lick of guilt about taking Taako’s wand, but if he did, Taako was sure as shit going to try and use that against him. If he could just get his wand back, he might be able to figure out a way out of this place.

When he heard a page turn, he looked up. Kravitz had gone back to reading about edible wild life. Taako frowned.

“Do you do anything except skulk around and read about plants?” he asked.

Kravitz turned another page. “Yes,” he said. “I also read about animals.”

Taako blinked. “Fuck off,” he said. “You’re not allowed to make jokes. You’re a skeleton.”

Kravitz raised his face to stare at him. If he’d had them, Taako thought he would have been raising his eyebrows.

“Alright, listen,” Taako said. He closed his book with a snap that made Kravitz’s shoulders come up in a slight wince. Right, yeah, fucking royal collection or whatever, whoops. “Don’t get me wrong. You are still creepy as all hell, my dude, and I’m fucking pissed at you for trapping me here, but I’m bored as shit . There has to be fucking something to do around here. Do you have, like, fantasy Jenga or something?”

“Fantasy what?”

Taako rolled his eyes. “A game, dude,” he said. “Or like. Literally anything that isn’t sitting and reading old ass books.”

“Well,” Kravitz said, his voice as slow and smooth as ever. “I used to… enjoy walking the gardens.”

“Walking,” Taako said. He tossed the book onto the coffee table and hopped to his feet. He had chosen a pair of thin, loose trousers and a silk t-shirt that he had cinched at the waist with a gold belt today. He had even tied his hair up, just for the hell of it. If he was going to go fucking insane from boredom, at least he would look good doing it. “Walking is good. Let’s go.”

“Let’s?”

“Yeah. Let’s.” Taako pointed at him and quirked an eyebrow. “Again, you still fucking suck, but you’re the only person here and I like to chit chat, so come on. Let’s go stomp on some plants.”

Kravitz continued to look uncertain even as he closed his book and rose from his chair. When Taako strode out of the room and headed for the entrance hall, he didn’t look to see if Kravitz was following him. Either he would come, or he wouldn’t and Taako would walk alone. It was no skin off of Taako’s back either way.

When he reached the front doors and grabbed the handles to pull, he heard the telltale sound of rattling bones behind him. He hid a smirk as he yanked open the doors and stepped outside.

It was mid-afternoon and the sun was high outside. Taako jumped over the stairs onto the grass and took a deep breath, taking in as much fresh air as he could. The musty library may remind him of Barold, but Taako much preferred being out of the creepy castle.

(Even if he could see the shimmering purple shield from here, a reminder that he would not be able to go beyond it. He wondered if his family was on the other side, if they were trying to break in.)

(They had to be.)

“The sun’s nice,” he noted, because Kravitz was just trailing silently behind him and it was kind of weird. He turned on his heel and walked backwards, frowning at the skeleton. “Can you feel the sun?”

“Yes, Taako.”

Taako shrugged. “Well, I dunno,” he said, and turned back around. “Haven’t really met a ton of skeletons.”

The gardens were completely overgrown. They had obviously once been perfectly manicured, but the clearly delineated pathways had been overrun with weeds and too-long grass that drooped in the sun.

Taako led the way down what he thought was a winding path through the heart of it all. He stepped carefully, trying not to drag his heels in any mud.

“Taako,” Kravitz said behind him.

“What is it, m’dude?” Taako asked over his shoulder, half-focused on bringing the point of his toe down on a yellow weed.

“...Nothing.”

“Nah, you don’t get to pull that, bro. Spill.”

“Did you… just call me bro?”

“Not into it?” Taako took a sharp left, feet following the winding path. “Noted. No changing the subject.”

Kravitz didn’t say anything. When Taako looked at him, he was staring at the ground, picking his feet carefully through the plants. Taako was glad the guy was wearing shoes. He didn’t know if mud came out of bone.

“Where did you learn to cook?” Kravitz asked.

“Oh, I’ve always known, bubbeleh. It’s in my blood. My sister’s fucking great at it too, but I’m still better than her.”

Kravitz’s joints clicked. “You enjoy it?”

Taako shrugged. “Yeah,” he said. “I guess.”

They passed under a willow tree that had seen better days. Merle had pretty much orgasmed on the spot when he had seen it on their way in, Taako remembered.

The thought made Taako feel a bit funny. He rolled his shoulders back and turned away from it.

“You may use the kitchens at any time.”

Taako glanced back and cocked an eyebrow at Kravitz, who wasn’t looking at him. “Oh?”

“If you would like.”

Taako turned back to the path. He kicked a rock out of the way and sent it skittering into the flowerbeds.

“You’re not gonna come scream at me for going where I’m not supposed to if I do?” he asked.

When he realized that the footsteps behind him had stopped, Taako turned around. Kravitz was standing in the middle of the path, staring at him. His hood was pulled low, but his skull still seemed to gleam in the sunlight.

“What?” Taako asked.

“I… have not apologized for that.”

“What? No. No, don’t do…” Taako waved a hand in his direction, fluttering his fingers vaguely. “Whatever bullshit this is. I thought we were walking?”

“I should not have yelled at you.”

“Ugh,” Taako said, and rolled his eyes. “Lame.”

“Taako,” Kravitz called after him when Taako turned around and started stomping through the shrubbery.

“Nope,” Taako said over his shoulder, “I said we’re walking .”

“Taako!”

When Taako took off running, he heard Kravitz make an exasperated noise behind him. It made Taako laugh, and he tucked his head down and picked up his speed. Luckily he had gotten used to running in heels over the years, so it wasn’t difficult to pick his way through the weeds. He doubted that Kravitz was following him, but he was running, and the sun was shining down on him, and fucking hell it was good to be out of the castle.

Taako’s braid whipped behind him as he turned to leap over some low-lying bushes. His heels dug into the ground for a moment before he yanked them free and started off again, grinning wildly as he aimed in the direction of the palace stairs.

Then there was a dark figure in front of him, arms raised high, and Taako screamed as he barreled into it.

They went down hard. Taako felt sharp bones and fabric and damp grass underneath him as he rolled, tumbling with the figure he had collided with. When he finally landed he was lying on his back, head spinning and eyes staring wide at the sky overhead.

“Holy shit,” he said, chest heaving.

“Are you alright?” Kravitz’s skull was suddenly looming over him, and for someone without a face he certainly looked worried.

Taako blinked up at his lower jaw bone, his eye sockets, all of it backlit with the golden glow of the sun. Fuck. There was a fucking skeleton staring at him.

Taako started to laugh again, half-breathless from running.

“Did you fucking teleport?” He shoved at Kravitz’s shoulder. Kravitz pulled away as Taako sat up.

“I- I’m sorry, I thought-“

“Not fucking fair,” Taako said. He reached up and wiped at his eyes. His cheeks hurt from laughing. How long had it been since he’d laughed at all? “If I could cast Blink, you’d be fucked.”

“Oh,” Kravitz said.

“Seriously.” Taako took a deep breath, and then pushed himself onto his feet. “Did you break something? I feel like you should have broken something there.”

“No,” Kravitz said, rising beside him. There were grass stains on his robe, which made Taako snort. Fucking nerd. “I don’t break easily.”

“Lucky you,” Taako said. He brushed himself off and reached up to straighten his hair. “I think I’m gonna go make food. I have free run of the kitchen, yeah?”

“Yes.”

“Cool beans.” Taako started to walk back towards the palace. “You ever seen dumplings?”

Kravitz shook his head. Taako smirked.

“You are in for a serious treat, m’dude.”

X X X X X

Taako had never been a fan of routines. Thankfully, his life up until this point had been shitty and unpredictable enough that he never really had to worry about being bored. Chances were that no matter how good things were going, something would eventually come along to royally fuck shit up, and he would be too invested in cleaning up the fallout to have any idle time.

Now all he had was idle time. There wasn’t anything to do in the palace. For something that had once seemed so mystical to Taako, he was kind of disappointed that it had turned out to be so mundane.

Well, it did have a sentient skeleton wandering around it, but considering everything else that had happened in Taako’s life, that actually wasn’t too weird.

Being given free reign over the kitchen was a relief. It was a bit of a bummer that Kravitz couldn’t eat, because Taako was running low on compliments to fuel his ego and he knew that his food slapped . Still, Kravitz had taken to hovering in the kitchen every time Taako went down to cook for himself. Taako supposed that the rapt attention that he fixed on Taako’s movements as he cooked were compliment enough even if Kravitz couldn’t taste the final product.

He spent most of his time reading. That wasn’t unusual, because as hard as it was for some people (Merle) to believe, Taako had read a fuck ton of books growing up to figure out the whole magic situation. He actually liked reading, to a reasonable extent, and he had to admit that the spellbooks in the royal library were beyond anything he could have dreamt up.

When the weather was nice he would take a pile of them outside to go camp under a tree. He was alone at first, until he got annoyed at Kravitz’s weird hovering and kicked at his bony leg to get him to sit down. After that the skeleton joined him more often than not, sitting several feet away with whatever book he was reading at the moment. Taako often clung to the shade, complaining loudly about the palace’s lack of sunscreen, while Kravitz almost always found a spot in the sun. Taako figured that the warmth must feel good on his bones.

He wasn’t really sure when this weird… whatever the fuck it was had started. When he had first been trapped here, he had been intent upon making Kravitz’s undead life a living hell for what he had done. That was boring, though, especially when Kravitz never responded the way Taako thought he would. Yeah, the whole skeleton thing was still a bit off putting, but other than that, Kravitz was… fine. He was quiet, and always moved so slowly and calmly Taako sometimes forgot he was even there. Definitely not a super evil presence or anything.

And then one day, Kravitz apologized to him, and Taako hadn’t known what the fuck he was supposed to do with that.

“I should have cast you out with your friends,” he said. They were sitting outside, Kravitz on the sun-warmed grass, Taako on a blanket he had stretched out in the shade.

Taako looked up from the handwritten spellbook he had been squinting at. He’d been picking through it for several days, because whoever had compiled it had god awful handwriting he couldn’t make sense of. It was even worse than Lup’s. “What?”

“I should have sent you away as well.” Kravitz’s voice was slow and smooth, the same as it always was. He was still staring down at the book in his lap. His hood was drawn back so that the smooth surface of his skull shone in the sunlight.

Taako reached up and tugged his braid. “Uh,” he said, because- what the fuck? “You said someone needed to pay for the crime.”

A breeze rustled through the gardens. It was a really nice day out, one of the cool sunny ones that hinted at the end of summer. Taako wasn’t sure how much the weather outside of the bubble affected the palace, but it had rained just a few days ago, so it probably wouldn’t always be this nice.

“I did,” Kravitz said. “I was… being facetious. I never… it was not my intention to…”

Taako closed the spellbook and set it carefully on the blanket beside him. “It was not your intention to what?” he asked calmly.

“I did not intend to keep any of you here.” Kravitz’s voice was quiet. Hesitant. “I just thought to scare you.”

Taako blinked. The leaves rustled in the tree overhead, suddenly loud in his ears. “Then why…?”

“I wasn’t thinking. I intended to… to talk to you, to understand how you had gotten in here, and then… but you…”

“But I what .”

Kravitz raised his head to gaze at Taako. For once, Taako didn’t shy away from his empty eye sockets.

“You offered to take your friends’ place,” Kravitz said. “I didn’t understand it.”

“Hey, Kravitz? That doesn’t make any fucking sense.”

Taako knew his voice was shaking. Kravitz knew it. The breeze died, and the leaves above them were still.

“I have been alone for centuries,” Kravitz said.

“What does that-” Taako swallowed. He took a long, slow breath, and then said, “Alright. Fuck, you were, what- you were lonely?”

“I am sorry.”

“You were- you kept me here because-”

“Taako-”

“Shut up.” Taako was on his feet, curling and uncurling his fists at his side. It was suddenly too warm, even in the shade, and he couldn’t look at Kravitz. “Shut the fuck up. I cannot believe-” He reached up and pressed his fingers over his eyes, and gods, he wanted to-

Lup had always been the one with the temper. Taako was more impatient, but when things went sour, Lup was the one who got loud and angry. Even now, when he wanted nothing more than to scream , he felt his chest curling in on itself.

So he turned and he left. He walked away, skirt flying behind him, stalking towards the castle. He walked away, and he didn’t look back at where Kravitz was probably still sitting, cradling that stupid book on agricultural practices in the northwest of Faerun.

Taako was upset because it all made sense now, this discongruity between the skeleton that had locked him in the dungeons and Kravitz, who had been so impressed with his whisking skills just that morning. Of course he had been alone for centuries. He had said as much, and Taako could read the years in his stillness when Taako wasn’t looking right at him, in the way he would sometimes seem to forget that Taako was even in the palace.

Kravitz had been alone for a long time. That was no fucking excuse for condemning Taako to the same fate.

The next morning Taako had been ready to never speak to Kravitz again when he woke up and found his wand lying on his bedroom table.

He snatched it up, checking immediately for damage. It was fine. It was safe and whole and back in his hands, and the relief that swept over him at having some kind of defense back on his side made his knees weak.

He left his room and went to the stairs, and then paused. On a whim he turned away from the flight down, which would lead him towards the library, and began climbing up to the top floor. He walked slowly, wand in hand, fingers finding their familiar places on the coarse wood. Poised to attack. He kept his footsteps light, moving in that silent manner that Carey had taught him so long ago.

When he reached the sitting room, he paused at the door to listen. There was movement from within, someone walking around, moving things. The clink of porcelain against marble.

Taako curled his fingers more tightly around his wand, lifted his chin, and shoved the door all the way open with his foot.

Kravitz was at the fireplace when Taako stepped inside. The skeleton didn’t look up when Taako entered.

Taako’s chest heaved as he breathed. The room was silent except for a ticking clock. Taako hadn’t known that there was a clock in here. He wasn’t sure where it was.

Finally, after a long, quiet moment, Kravitz looked at him. He had a few fingers still resting gently against the small porcelain raven on the mantel place that Taako had seen before. His skull stared at Taako, meeting his eyes with familiar blank stoicness.

Taako raised his wand and pointed it at Kravitz.

Kravitz watched him. He withdrew his fingers from the raven, letting the bone run along the curve of the wing and then falling to hang at his side.

“Are you going to kill me?” he asked quietly.

Taako took a long, slow breath. His hand was still, his fingers not shaking despite his pounding heart.

“I could,” he said.

“I know.”

Taako’s fingers tightened. He took another deep breath, and then dropped his arm.

“What do you know about the ethereal plane?” he asked.

Kravitz’s head tilted to the side. “I- what?”

“The ethereal plane,” Taako repeated. “That’s how I got in the first time. Now that I have my wand, I can maybe get out the same way.”

“There… may be books in the library that you could consult.”

“Dope,” Taako said. He slipped his wand into his trouser pocket and grinned at Kravitz, all teeth.

“Let’s get through these fucking wards.”

X X X X X

Getting out was easier said than done, despite how confident Taako was when he discussed his plans with Kravitz. It had been hard enough the first time, when Taako had been coming at it with a fresh perspective. Now he had to figure out an entirely new back door to slip out through.

He read through the library’s collection with renewed vigor, accompanied by Kravitz, who switched up his normal reading schedule to add in anything that might be able to help the cause. There actually were a few volumes on the ethereal plane, mostly handwritten journals detailing personal experiences that Taako had already studied before. Taako already knew most of the information in them, but some of the first hand sources the library held were incredible.

When they weren’t reading Taako was cooking, and had even wrangled Kravitz into being his sous chef. The skeleton was incredibly awkward in the kitchen, and seemed worried about touching any of the utensils directly (some bullshit about bones and sanitation or whatever), but Taako had waved his concerns off and shoved a mixing bowl at him.

“My arm’s tired,” he said when Kravitz hesitated. “Stir.”

Taako also learned that Kravitz was pretty decent at the piano, which was a bit of a shock considering Kravitz’s whole “hands” situation. He moved his finger bones with surprising dexterity, chalking it up to centuries of practice when Taako asked him about it. When they weren’t reading outside, they would normally retreat to the royal bedroom that housed the grand piano, and Kravitz would tinker with the keys while Taako continued working his way through the library collection.

It was a pleasant enough routine, all things considered. Still, the research was slow moving and Taako was frustrated with it after only a few days.

“I already did all this fucking work years ago,” he said, snapping the book shut.

The piano stopped. Kravitz raised his head. Taako had finally convinced him to change out of that creepy ass robe and into one of the many other outfits strewn about the palace. Today he was wearing a dark, formal suit that actually hugged his frame quite nicely.

“You’ve said that,” Kravitz said, and, yeah, he was right, Taako complained a lot. Whatever.

“It’s just stupid,” Taako said. He threw himself back against the couch cushions, scowling at the portrait on the other side of the room. It was the one of the handsome dark-haired man Taako had seen before. He had been one of the princes, Kravitz had told him when Taako had asked. “Are you sure we shouldn’t just try what I did before again? I might have fucked it up the first time.”

“The wards are adaptive. I told you.”

“But maybe it’ll fucking- I dunno- work ?”

Kravitz turned on the piano bench to face Taako fully. “I knew the enchantress who cast the spells,” he said, his voice serious. “She was very clear about the nature of them. They are meant to be impossible to get through, and they will learn if penetrated.”

“That’s what she said.”

Kravitz sighed. “Taako.”

“Fine. Listen. You don’t have to get close to them. I know they hurt you, or whatever, but I can just pop over and give it a shot and if it doesn’t work we go back to the drawing board.”

“You could get hurt, Taako.”

Taako shrugged. He pushed himself up and fixed his gaze on the portrait, eyebrows raised. “Let’s put it up to a vote. Alright, royal mega hottie, what do you think? Should ol’ Taako do the obvious thing and try to get out before he puts all this energy into coming up with another plan?” He waited a moment, and then nodded and turned to Kravitz, who had crossed his arms by this point. “Prince Charming said yes. You’re outvoted.”

“I do not think he would say yes.”

“Yeah, well, he’s not here. I’m gonna do it.”

Kravitz’s jaw clicked unhappily. “What if you get hurt?”

Taako shrugged. “I’ll figure it out,” he said, swinging his legs around and standing up.

Kravitz shook his head, still looking displeased with the whole thing. “I will not carry you back to the castle if you get injured.”

“Yeah, you will,” Taako said, stretching his arms over his head. He grinned at Kravitz. “We’ll test it out tomorrow after breakfast, yeah? I’m gonna make pancakes.”

“I’m sure they’ll be delicious,” Kravitz said dryly, and Taako laughed.

The next morning Taako marched out towards the gates with his wand in hand with Kravitz trailing behind him. The skeleton stopped a fair distance from the edge of the wards, lingering in the weeds as Taako continued forward.

He felt more confident than he had the first time, especially as he had more than his bare hands and pulsing adrenaline to help him now. When he got nearer to the gate, close enough to reach out and touch the purple shield, he looked up at it thoughtfully. It didn’t look particularly threatening or even that strong. Still, this shield had kept out the best magical minds of the last few centuries (except for Taako), so he knew better than to discount its power.

Before Taako did anything, he glanced over his shoulder at Kravitz, who was still watching from afar. He could tell from the set of the skeleton’s shoulders that he was worried, so he smirked in what he hoped was a reassuring way. He raised his wand in a quick wave, and before Kravitz could respond, he cast Blink.

Taako opened his eyes to the ethereal plane to find that the sky and grass around him had gone gray. He kept a tight grip on his wand and glanced around. It was always kind of cool to dip into the ethereal plane, no matter how often Taako had practiced this.

He turned back to the gate and took a step closer to it. The first time he had managed to get in easily, breaking a hole through the wards with a complicated reversal spell Taako had developed himself. Now that he was back in the astral plane, it might work again.

Taako cast the spell, and immediately was thrown backwards, away from the wards. He cried out sharply as he flew back, pain gripping his body and making him lose his hold on his wand.

“Taako!” There were hands on his shoulders, pulling at him, tugging him farther away from the gate. Taako opened his eyes again to see the blue sky stretching over him once more. He was on his back, staring up at the clouds and Kravitz’s frantic skull leaning over him.

He had gotten fucking ejected from the ethereal plane.

“Okay,” Taako said. “I guess it’s not going to fall for that one again.”

“Are you alright?” Kravitz asked. His bony fingers were still on Taako’s shoulders, gripping the fabric of his shirt.

Taako nodded, head knocking against the grass underneath him. “I’m fine,” he said. He accepted Kravitz’s help sitting up, grimacing slightly when his chest twinged. He must have gotten knocked around in the fall. “Okay, so I don’t think the problem is with the ethereal plane, because I managed to get there alright. I just have to find some other spell to get through the enchantments. Fuck, I’m going to have to make up a whole new one.”

“You made the first spell that got you through?” Kravitz asked, sounding surprised.

Taako nodded. “Yeah, and it was a pain in the ass. At least this time my sister won’t be around to bother me while I work. It probably won’t take too long.”

“Of course,” Kravitz said. He squeezed Taako’s shoulder, which he still had a light grip on. “I have full confidence in you.”

Taako blinked. The sun was shining brightly overhead, making his cheeks hot. “Of course,” he said. “I mean- fuck yeah, of course you do. I- we should go back to the library. I need to look up a few things.”

“Alright,” Kravitz said, and pulled his hand away from Taako. “Did you say you were going to make dumplings again for dinner?”

“Hell yeah,” Taako said, hopping to his feet and holding a hand out to Kravitz. Kravitz hesitated for only a moment before grabbing Taako’s hand and allowing the elf to tug him to his feet. It was still kind of weird to hold onto a bunch of sentient finger bones, but Taako was used to it by now. “You need to work on your dumpling technique, m’dude.”

Kravitz’s head tilted in the way it did when Taako knew he was smiling.

X X X X X

“Who were you before the enchantments got cast?” Taako asked.

They were in the royal bedroom with the piano and the portrait. It was where Kravitz spent most of his time when he wasn’t in the library- it would probably be his bedroom if he slept, which Taako thought was kind of weird because no matter how hot the portrait guy was, he still kind of just stared at them all the fucking time. Not exactly a perfect sleeping environment.

“Why do you ask?”

“What, surprised I can be interested in someone else’s life story?”

Kravitz rolled his head in a pseudo-eye roll. “You haven’t asked before.”

“Uh, yeah I have, you’ve just either evaded the question or been super cryptic about it.” Taako rolled across the bed to grab one of the silk pillows and shove it behind his head, relaxing back into the soft furnishings. This bed was a lot nicer than his was, and that was saying something. “Come on, kemosabe. I showed you mine.”

Kravitz tilted his chair back with a loud creak, fiddling with the sleeve of his dark suit. “Fine,” he said. “I don’t… what do you want to know?”

“Who the fuck were you?”

“I was a man. I… worked in the palace.”

“Some kind of servant?” Taako asked, and Kravitz just shrugged. Taako bit back a groan. Trying to get information from Kravitz was like pulling rib bones, but if he wasn’t patient Kravitz would clam up and probably run away. The dude did that a lot. “You said you knew the enchantress who put the spells up.”

Kravitz nodded. “She was at the palace often. Close to the royal family. They… trusted her.”

Taako hooked his hands behind his head and crossed his legs. “So why’d she go all apeshit on them with the magic then?”

“Power, I suppose. She disagreed with the way things were run, thought that the royal family should not have the control that they did. And, perhaps… revenge.”

Taako raised his eyebrows at Kravitz’s bitter tone. “Revenge?”

“She… I believe that she was in love with the prince, in some capacity. When he told her that he did not feel the same way for her, she was… upset.”

Taako followed Kravitz’s gaze over to the portrait. The prince stared imperiously back at them.

“Shit,” Taako said. “So she just fucking snapped.”

“Yes.”

Taako ran his fingers over the soft duvet, the dark swirls woven into the design. He stared up at the ceiling overhead and thought of the enchantress, of the prince who had scorned her and how it had led to this hundred year old mystery.

“The prince is dead?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“That sucks,” said Taako. He lifted his head just enough to look at Kravitz sitting beside the bed. “How’d you survive?”

Kravitz tilted his skull down. “I did not survive, Taako.”

Taako rolled his eyes. “Shut up. Okay, yeah, you’re a fucking skeleton now, but you’re still here . How?”

“I do not know.”

“Hm,” Taako said, and let his head fall back against the pillow with a soft thwump . “Weird.”

Kravitz’s chair creaked again. Taako stared up at the ceiling, which was painted in cool shades of cream.

“I’m glad you’re here,” he said without looking at Kravitz. “Would have been kind of a bummer to break in and find an empty palace. This is much more interesting.”

Kravitz made a slight sound of distress. “I kidnapped you, Taako.”

Taako flapped a hand at him. “Technically I volunteered,” he said. “Anyways, I’ve had much worse done to me. You’d be surprised what kind of shit you get into as an adventurer. Plus, I’m gonna get out, so I’ll be able to just write this off as a fun little experience with a kooky skeleton friend. Hey, that sounds like a good sitcom, doesn’t it?” When Kravitz didn’t respond, Taako lifted his head again, neck bent at an uncomfortable angle. “Krav? Do you know what sitcoms are?”

“You forgive so easily.”

Taako snorted. “No I fucking don’t,” he said. “But you didn’t trap me here for any evil purpose, and- hey, it was super shitty, but I’ve done super shitty things too, so it’s not like I’m in any place to judge. Water under the bridge, yeah?”  

Kravitz tilted his head. “I… thank you, Taako.”

Taako shook his head and fell back against the pillows. “Don’t get emotional on me, stud,” he said, shutting his eyes.

Maybe he’d take a nap in this comfy-ass bed and take a break from researching for the afternoon, if only to get away from Kravitz’s apologetic doe-eyed eye sockets.

X X X X X

Taako found the bottles in the back of the kitchen cupboard. He thought for a second that they had been generated by whatever spell kept the kitchens stocked, but they were covered with a thick layer of dust that told him they had been there the whole time and he had somehow missed them. He had never had great perception checks.

Taako wiped them off the best he could, snatched them up by the necks, and marched down to the library with them.

“You,” he said imperiously as he strode in, “have been holding out on me, Kravitz.”

Kravitz looked up from his book. “Have I?”

Taako raised the wine bottles. “Booze,” he said. “You didn’t tell me this place had fucking booze.”

“Ah,” Kravitz said, sounding amused. “My apologies for this great infraction.”

Taako sniffed. “You’re forgiven,” he said. He leaned forward to set the bottles down on the coffee table. “As long as I get to drink these in retribution.”

“They’re all yours, Taako.”

Taako dropped down into his armchair with a grin. “Well, if you’re offering …”

He drank straight from the bottle, too lazy to go and try to find whatever gold plated wine glasses the palace had locked away. He worked his way steadily through the book on planar travel he had started yesterday, curled up in his chair with the book in his lap and the first wine bottle tucked next to him. And holy shitballs was this some good wine. It was thick and dark and richly sweet, and probably really fucking strong, because Taako wasn’t normally a lightweight but he could already feel his thoughts starting to drift after only a few sips.

“Hey,” he said when he was halfway through the bottle and only a few pages further in his book. He stuck his foot out to nudge Kravitz’s knee. “Hey. Can you do your fire thingy?”

Kravitz looked up, and then waved his hand. A flame sprang up in the fireplace.

“Aw, yeah,” Taako said, pleased when the warmth immediately washed over him. He lifted his feet and wiggled his bare toes in the direction of the fire, and then frowned. “Where’d my shoes go?”
“You took them off,” Kravitz said.

Taako blinked. “Oh,” he said. Then he shrugged and let his feet drop back to the floor. “Don’t fight fashion, huh?”

“You are the expert in that department.”

“Don’t say that,” Taako said. He closed his book and curled up on his chair, leaning his head against the side and angling his gaze at Kravitz. “Now that you’re not wearing that creepy robe, you’ve actually got a pretty good style going on. The whole monochrome skeleton thing is really aesthetic. I dig it.”

“Well. Thank you, Taako.”

Taako nodded indulgently and took another long sip of the wine. “Ah,” he said, lowering it again with a pleased smile. He lifted it in Kravitz’s direction. “Sure you don’t want some?”

“I’m sure.”

“Suit yourself,” Taako said. “Hey. This shit is fucking strong.”

“Yes, I can see that.”

“I can take it,” Taako said. He twisted so that he was lying sideways in his chair, legs kicked up and over the armrest. He tipped his head back, hair falling so that it almost brushed the floor. “I’m used to strong drinks. Merle always makes mine, and he’s a fucking alcoholic, I think. We were gonna do an intervention for him, but I don’t want him to cry or something. Or Magnus. Magnus would cry. Magnus cries a lot .”

“Does he?”

“Mhmm,” Taako said. He swung his head back and forth so that his hair moved like a wave. “He’s a big crybaby, but that’s okay, because he’s family. And I think it’s funny, anyways. His face gets all puffy when he cries. He looks like a tomato.”

“I’m sure it’s very funny.”

“Yeah,” Taako agreed. He tilted his head so that he could see Kravitz, who was sitting across from him and watching. Something about his intense gaze made Taako’s chest tighten. “You’ll like them,” he said. “I’ll introduce you to everyone when we get out.”

Kravitz shifted in his seat. It looked weird when Taako was watching upside down. “When we… did you say we?”

“Uh, yeah? I thought you said you had full confidence in me or whatever.”

“No, I- Taako, I am not- I cannot leave with you.”

Taako blinked. “What?”

“I cannot leave the palace.”

Taako swung upright so abruptly he almost spilled his wine. He closed his eyes briefly, trying to still the spinning room around him, and then opened them to glare at Kravitz. “What the fuck are you talking about?”

Kravitz shook his head. “I cannot leave,” he said. “You can, but the wards are… stronger for me.”

“I’ll find a way around that,” Taako said, and scowled harder when Kravitz shook his head again.

“You won’t be able to.”

“Fuck you,” Taako said. “What, you’re just gonna- gonna stay here forever, then?”

“That is my curse.”

“Curse? Kravitz, what the actual fuck are you talking about?”

Kravitz didn’t respond. Taako took another long drink from the wine. He swallowed, licked his lips, and said, “You can’t stay here alone. That’s, like. Super shitty. You can’t even drink the booze in here.”

“This is not my decision, Taako.”

“Fucking bullshit!” Taako leaned too far and spilled a bit of the wine on his gold skirt. He wrinkled his nose and scratched at the stain with his fucked up manicure. “Aw shit.”

“I think I’m going to retire for the night.”

Taako looked up as Kravitz closed his book. “What? You don’t even sleep.”

“Yes, but I- I ought to go and rest.”

Taako pursed his lips. When Kravitz moved to get up, he sprang out of his own seat and threw himself at the skeleton, landing precariously sprawled on his bony lap.

“Drinking’s no fun without company,” Taako said, wriggling so that he was lying across the armchair and Kravitz. He cradled the wine bottle close to his chest and turned narrow eyes up at Kravitz. “You can’t leave.”

Kravitz’s hands were up, held away from Taako. “I- I don’t think-”

“I wish I could get you to drink,” Taako said. “You need to lighten the fuck up, Kravitz.” He leaned the wine bottle against his chest and reached up to seize one of Kravitz’s hands, grabbing the bones carefully and tugging them closer to see. “Hey, lemme see this.”

Kravitz stayed silent as Taako turned his hand over, ran his fingers along the joints seamlessly holding him together. Before, it had freaked Taako out. Now, he just thought it was neat, and pressed his palm to Kravitz’s cold one, curling his fingers to interlock his hand with Kravitz’s.

“Ha,” he said, raising his eyes to grin up at Kravitz. “We’re holding hands. That’s gay .”

Kravitz laughed, sounding startled. Taako beamed, pleased with himself, and pulled Kravitz’s hand close to rest their locked fingers against his chest. He let his eyes slip shut, lulled by the alcohol in his veins. “Hey,” he said. “Were you, like, married or something?”

“What do you mean?”

“When you were a whole person or whatever. Were you married?”

“No,” Kravitz said slowly. “Why?”

Taako shrugged without opening his eyes. “Just curious.”

Kravitz’s hand was cool against Taako’s, unnaturally cold, but it wasn’t unpleasant. “Are you married?”

Taako snorted. “Hell no,” he said. “I’m single as a pringle, my dude. Oh, fuck, I would kill for a pringle right now. Do you guys have pringles in this place?”

“No.”

“Damn,” Taako said. He grabbed the wine bottle with his free hand and took a sip, taking care not to spill. Kravitz’s suit looked too nice for wine stains to come out of.

Kravitz’s legs shifted under Taako’s ass, the bones digging in sharply. Taako opened his eyes and stared up at Kravitz.

“Are you uncomfortable?” he asked.

“No.” Kravitz’s answer was quick, immediate in a way that made Taako grin at him. The skeleton cleared his throat and fixed his eye sockets on the wine bottle’s aged label. Most of the words had rubbed off by now, so Taako didn’t know how expensive the drink was.

“Hey,” Taako said. He reached up and touched Kravitz’s cheekbone. He ran his fingers lightly across the smooth bone, transfixed by how cold it was.

Kravitz’s jaw bone moved, and Taako could feel it when he brushed his thumbs across the joint. “Taako.”

“Kravitz.”

Kravitz’s jaw bone opened and then closed, like it had suddenly come loose. “Your eyes are very green.”

Taako blinked. “Are they?” he said. “What color were yours?”

“Brown.”

“Hm,” Taako said. The alcohol was making his head swim. He let his head tilt so his cheek rested against the soft fabric of the chair, and tapped Kravitz’s cheekbone gently with his fingernail. “I’m gonna get you out of here, Skeletor.”

“Taako, you cannot.”

“That’s what everyone always says about me,” Taako said, and felt Kravitz shake his head.

“I don’t mean- if anyone could figure out a way, it would be you, Taako. But it is impossible. And, even if I were to… to get out…”

“What?”

“I would never be able to have a life beyond the palace.”

“That’s bullshit,” Taako said. “Just because you think a robe is current fashion doesn’t mean you deserve to be locked away.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“I know,” said Taako. “I just think it’s bullshit.”

“I am a… I am not natural, Taako.”

“Bullshit,” Taako said again. “People give me and my sister shit for being elves all the fucking time. I once met a robot that had an actual human soul in it. Nature ain’t got nothing to do with the world anymore, so why should we give a crap about what’s natural or not?”

Kravitz shook his head again, and Taako was struck with the urge to shake him until he knocked himself out of whatever self-indulgent pity he was spiraling through.

“I’ll get you out,” he said, his voice firm. “Fucking watch me, bitch.”

Kravitz laughed lightly, and squeezed Taako’s fingers. Taako had forgotten that they were still holding hands.

“Thank you, Taako,” Kravitz said.

“Fucking welcome.” Taako shut his eyes and tipped his head back. His eyes were drooping, and his whole body suddenly felt like it weighed a million pounds. “I’m gonna fall asleep.”

“Do you want to go to your bed?”

“Nah,” Taako said. “Unless you want to go?”

“...No.”

“Cool,” Taako said, drifting away. “G’night.”

“...Goodnight, Taako.”

X X X X X

Taako figured that he didn’t need to develop an entirely new spell. He would just have to modify his first one enough that the wards wouldn’t be able to recognize it.

He spent his time breaking the spell down to its smallest possible parts and trying to come up with alternative ways to make each one work. It was a slow process, but after a few weeks Taako finally thought he had something that might work. He would at least be able to try it; the worst that would happen was that he was once more forcibly removed from the ethereal plane.

(Kravitz wasn’t too happy about that. It was clear that he would prefer it if no one got thrown from the ethereal plane, but risks had to be taken if they were going to get out.)

When Taako rolled up the scroll with the finished spell on it and announced that he would be trying it out the next day, Kravitz had just looked at him with concern. Taako had laughed and gotten to his feet, moving to Kravitz’s chair to drop his hand down and brush a thumb along Kravitz’s cheekbone.

“Let’s just put it this way,” he said. “If I get knocked around tomorrow, you’re going to be cooking me dinner, so you better be prepared to work on your knife skills.”

Kravitz laughed and reached up to touch the back of Taako’s hand with his own bony fingers. Taako had blinked, and said something about needing to rest, and retreated to his own bedroom, scroll clutched close to his chest.

He was trying not to think about how casually the two of them threw around touches now. Hardly an hour in each other’s company passed without one of them (mostly Taako) reaching out to touch the other. Kravitz especially enjoyed when Taako held his hands, because, he had explained in an endearingly flustered way, Taako was warm.

No, that was something that Taako could think about once they had escaped and he had a bit of breathing room to figure out what the fuck was going on.

Taako woke up with the sun the next morning to the faint smell of something sweet cooking. When he wandered into the kitchen, still rubbing at his eyes, he was surprised to find Kravitz there.

“I already have you signed up for dinner duty,” Taako said.

Kravitz flipped the pancake sizzling on the stove. A full plate sat on the counter next to him. “I wanted to make sure that you were well fed before you try anything.”

Taako grinned, feeling his stomach swoop with that now-familiar feeling he was trying very hard to ignore. “Won’t say no to that,” he said, moving forward to grab an empty plate and serve himself.

Taako took his time getting ready after breakfast. He brushed his hair back and braided it tightly, weaving a piece of gold thread he had found into it. He washed his face twice, half-wondering what it was he was stalling for. He should be eager, sprinting out to test his spell like he had the last time.

Kravitz met him in the entrance hall and they walked through the gardens together. Taako read over his scroll of notes one last time, committing every piece of it to memory. Kravitz was silent beside him, and didn’t talk until they had reached the gate.

“Good luck,” he said, stopping abruptly and staring at the purple shield.

Taako let his scroll snap shut. “Don’t need it,” he said cheerfully, eyeing the shield in what he hoped was a threatening way. He was about to take that motherfucker down.

“Wait- Taako,” Kravitz said when Taako turned to march over to the gate.

“What?”

“Just…” Kravitz trailed off, jaw moving unhelpfully. “Thank you. For… everything.”

“Uh, yeah,” Taako said with a frown. “Krav, you know I’m coming back for you once I get the hole open, right?”

Kravitz didn’t say anything. Taako rolled his eyes. “Dork,” he said. “I’ll see you in a few minutes.”

Taako moved forward, pulling his wand out of the waistband of his skirt. He twirled it as he approached the shield, running through the spell one last time in his head. It wasn’t hard, but he wanted to make sure he got it right the first time to avoid any of that explode-y stuff.

“Alright,” he murmured, stopping a few feet away and raising an eyebrow at it. “I’m fucking done with you.”

He didn’t look back at Kravitz before he cast Blink. Of course he’d be fucking back for him, who did Kravitz think he was.

Taako slipped easily into the ethereal plane. He took a moment to adjust to all the gray, to let his eyes slide across the wards still shimmering, firmly in place even in this plane. Fuck, the enchantress must have been one strong magic-user to pull that off.

Taako raised his wand, thoughts turning briefly towards his family. He hoped they were out there, somehow, waiting for him to pop back out.

Taako said the spell, then cried out when pain ripped through him.

He was thrown backwards like the last time, this time harder and farther. Taako felt it as he slipped back out of the ethereal plane, his chest hitching as he was shoved out and landed hard on his shoulder in the grass.

“Fuck,” he groaned, squeezing his eyes shut and letting the sharp pain pulse through him. It was almost as bad as when he had tried to get out the first time with nothing but his bare hands.

“Taako!” Kravitz was grabbing at Taako’s shoulders, shaking him. Taako opened his eyes with a scowl.

“I’m fine,” he said, and took another deep breath to push away the residual stinging in his arms and legs. “I guess that didn’t fucking work.”

He sat up with Kravitz’s help. The skeleton kept his arms wrapped around Taako, bracing him as he caught his breath, and Taako didn’t have the heart to tell him it wasn’t necessary.

“What happened?” Kravitz asked.

“I think you just saw what happened.”

“Yes, but-”

“I guess there’s something wrong with the fucking spell. I’ll have to keep working on it.” He spotted the scroll lying several feet away and leaned forward to snatch it up, frowning at it.

“Are you alright?”

“Fine. Let’s just- help me up, will you?”

He grabbed Kravitz’s hand and pulled himself to his feet. His head swam briefly, and Taako swayed on his feet, suddenly lightheaded.

“Here,” Kravitz said, and wrapped his arm around Taako again. This time Taako leaned into his touch, resting against him as he walked. He felt surprisingly shaky from the ordeal. It was probably the whole ‘forced ejection from another plane’ thing.

“Told you I’d come back for you,” Taako mumbled as they picked their way through the weeds.

Kravitz laughed. “Lucky me,” he said. He helped Taako over a large fallen branch. “For a second there, I thought you had gone.”

“I almost was.”

“You’ll get it next time.”

They climbed the stairs and slipped back into the entrance hall. After the sun outside, it felt much darker in here.

“Do you need help to your room?” Kravitz asked, and Taako frowned.

“Are you not-?” He shut his mouth before the question could finish. Kravitz had no reason to come with him. “No. Thanks, though.”

“Of course,” Kravitz said, and pulled away from Taako. Taako immediately crossed his arms, missing the steady weight around him. “Would you mind if I took the scroll? I can start trying to ascertain what went wrong.”

“I can help,” Taako said. Kravitz shook his head.

“You should rest,” he said. “I am sure that I will not get far without you, but I can at least organize everything for you.”

“Alright,” Taako said, annoyed at his own body for suddenly feeling so heavy. “You’re making dinner, too.”

“I can probably manage spaghetti.”

“Sounds fucking fantastic, stud,” Taako said, turning to shuffle towards the stairs. “I’ll see you when I don’t feel dead anymore.”

He climbed the stairs slowly, sticking close to the rail. His head was spinning by the time he reached his floor, and he used the wall for support as he headed for his bedroom. Inside, he collapsed gratefully on the bed, not bothering to change.

Taako shut his eyes and curled up on the pillows. He’d just take a quick nap, and then bounce back up to figure out what the fuck had gone wrong.

It felt like hardly any time had passed before something was shaking him awake again. Taako frowned and turned his face into the pillow. “Fuck off, m’sleeping.”

“Taako! Oh, thank god, you’re- Taako-”

The voice was frantic, familiar in a way that Taako wasn’t prepared for. He forced his eyes open, squinting through the dying sunbeams streaming through his open window- shit, he must have slept for the whole day- and turned to see Barry Bluejeans staring down at him.

Taako’s brain took a second to register that. When it finally did, he sat up so quickly he almost collided foreheads with Barry.

“Barry! What the fuck are you doing here!”
“You’re alright,” Barry said, face splitting into a relieved grin, eyebrows wrinkling at the corners the way they always did. “Fuck, when I saw you lying here, I thought-”

“I’m fine,” Taako said. His heart was pounding, and he was beaming as he reached out to grab Barry’s shoulder, squeezing to make sure he was real. “Holy shit, how are you here?”

“We finally got in,” Barry said. “We’ve been trying for weeks, and we finally found a crack in the shield. We’re not sure where it came from.”

“My spell must have weakened it,” Taako said, spirits soaring even higher. So he hadn’t been a total dumbass when he had fucked it up this morning! “Fucking cheers, Barold. It’s fucking good to see you. Where’s everyone else? Where’s Lup?”

“They’re here,” Barry said. “We split up. I was looking for you, and the others are going after that skeleton thing.”

Taako blinked. “They- what?”

“Don’t worry, Magnus and Merle described everything. The three of them can definitely take it. Are you feeling alright, do you need me to-”

“Where the fuck are they,” Taako said, releasing Barry and scrambling out of the bed. He cursed when his foot got stuck in his tangled skirt and shook it off, nearly falling flat on his face and catching himself on the mattress.

“Hey, slow down, Taako. They’re going to meet us back at the gate when they’re finished. Why don’t- Taako!”

Taako was already sprinting away, snatching his wand up off the bedside table. He hiked his skirt up, bare feet slapping against the marbled floors as he ran down the hall. He paused only briefly at the stairs before turning and running up, taking them two at a time.

“Lup!” he shouted as he burst onto the royal floor. He threw himself into the sitting room, looked around- and froze.

It was ruined. The piano was smoking, a large hole blown into it, and the objects on the mantelpiece lay scattered on the ground. The cracked remains of the raven lay front and center on the cold marble floor.

“Fuck,” he said out loud, and then turned and ran back into the hall.

He hurried back to the staircase. On his way down he passed Barry, who spun around to shout after him, “Taako, what the FUCK are you doing?”

Taako didn’t bother to answer. He ran down the stairs and hallways, listening closely for any signs of a fight, but everything was silent, and the library was empty, so Taako turned and sprinted for the entrance hall, heart pounding, and oh god he’d been fucking sleeping and if it was too late he was never going to forgive himself.

The front doors were open. Taako ran outside, leaping down the stairs into the grass, and spun around, looking wildly about him. The sun was setting overhead, and the gardens were as peaceful as they always were. Taako swallowed and turned on his heel, and- there, near the dying willow tree, was a group of familiar looking figures circling a dark shape in the center.

“STOP!” Taako took off again, skirt flying, loose hair flicking his cheeks as it twisted in the wind. “STOP! LUP, MAGNUS, MERLE!”

He saw Magnus turn, saw his friend’s face light up. He was holding Railsplitter high. It gleamed in the evening sunlight. “Taako!” he said, beaming. “Did you find Barry?”

Behind him, a fireball surged towards the figure huddled beside the trunk of the willow tree. Taako saw a bony hand go up just in time for the fire to shatter against an invisible shield, but other than that, Kravitz didn’t move to fight back.

“Lup, stop!” he yelled, throwing himself forward. Magnus’s eyes widened, and Railsplitter dropped to the ground as he reached out to grab Taako’s waist.

Taako heaved, the wind temporarily knocked out of him. He blinked as another burst of flame surged in front of him, and then pulled his lips back in a snarl.

“Let me go,” he shouted, twisting and pushing at Magnus’s arm. Magnus’s grip tightened around him, and Taako felt his friend pull him closer to his chest, saying around him, “Taako, it’s okay, Lup’s got this!”

“No.” Taako jerked his elbow back, catching Magnus’s ribs, and Magnus grunted but didn’t let go. “No, Lup, stop! Kravitz, fucking- fight back!”

“What the fuck, Taako,” he heard Merle say, but as Taako wrenched himself backwards, his eyes caught Kravitz’s gaze. Taako scowled and opened his mouth to shout at him to get up, to do something other than crouch against a tree and hide, and then a fireball- a Lup fireball, a huge fucking sphere of flame that Taako could feel the heat pouring off of- ripped through the air and hit Kravitz squarely in the chest.

“NO!” Taako screamed, throwing himself against the circle of Magnus’s arms. He raised his hand and slapped Magnus’s wrist with the palm of his hand, and finally- finally- Magnus let go, and Taako stumbled forward.

“Taako.” It was his sister striding towards him, wand still at the ready, looking powerful and confident and everything Taako loved about her. “Fuck, are you alright? Are you-”

Taako shoved past her and ran for the willow tree, where Kravitz was nothing but a pile of dark fabric and bones at the base of the roots. Taako’s whole body was alight with adrenaline as he threw himself to his knees beside him, reaching out to grab for his arms, his shoulders, anything, saying, “Kravitz, Krav, come on, dude, get up-”

Taako flipped him over onto his back. Kravitz’s skull lolled loosely atop his spine. Taako grabbed at his robes- god, he had put the fucking robes back on, why - and hissed in pain when his fingers burned. He pulled his hand away to see a smoldering hole eating through the chest of Kravitz’s robe.

“Taako.” There was a hand on his shoulder, trying to pull him away, and Taako shrugged it off, shaking fingers grabbing at the whole in the fabric. He pulled hard and it ripped, and Taako’s breath caught in his throat when he saw that half of Kravitz’s rib cage was charred and crumbling away into ash, and it was still spreading, red-hot magic crawling up his spine towards his shoulders.

“Lup, what the fuck did you do?” Taako reached out and grabbed Kravitz’s skull, cupping his cheekbones with both hands. Kravitz’s skull didn’t move, but Taako couldn’t tell if it was because he was unconscious or whatever the skeleton equivalent was, or if he just wasn’t talking. His bones felt cold to the touch.

“I cast- it was burn undead, Taako, it’ll kill it,” Lup said. She crouched across from Taako, trying to get on his eye level to frown at him. She had tied her hair back in a sharp ponytail, and even now a part of Taako was relieved to have her so close again.

Not a big part. Mostly, he was panicking.

“You weren’t supposed to kill him,” Taako screamed at her, and he saw Lup lean away, slightly taken aback.

“I had to!”

The spell was still eating away at Kravitz’s ribcage. It was almost all gone now, and it showed no signs of stopping as it climbed up to his shoulders. Taako grabbed at them, and growled in frustration when it just burned him.

“Fuck, it’s still going,” he said. He gripped Kravitz’s arm tightly and twisted to look behind him at Magnus and Merle, who were watching with twin expressions of bewilderment. Taako could see Barry running up behind them, face red as he stumbled through the weeds. “Merle, can you do anything to stop the spell from spreading?”

The dwarf just stared at him. Taako curled his fingers harder around Kravitz’s arm and shouted, “WILL SOMEONE FUCKING DO SOMETHING!”

Taako turned back around and leaned over Kravitz, searching for some kind of movement. His bones were still, as though they had never moved in the first place, and Kravitz was probably unconscious, yeah, he was being fucking burned up from the inside out. It had eaten his whole ribcage now and spread to his shoulders. Kravitz’s skull slipped farther to the side as its support began to burn away.

“Krav,” Taako said, fingers scrambling on his robe, at his burning shoulder, at his jawbone. “Kravitz, come on, wake up, you have to- you have to do something, you’re a fucking skeleton, you can do something, come on-”

“Taako, why are you trying to fucking save him?” Lup asked, wand curled at her side, and something in Taako’s chest snapped.

“BECAUSE I FUCKING LOVE HIM, LUP!” he shouted. He gripped Kravitz’s skull tightly and bent over him, trying to ignore the smell of burning bone curling around him. “I- fucking hell, I love him, Kravitz, wake the fuck up, you can’t- I said I’d get you out, I-”

Taako squeezed his eyes shut, unable to look at the spell eating up Kravitz’s skeleton. He didn’t know what to do , he couldn’t think of any spell that would stop it, and his head was swirling with so much emotion he couldn’t even form a coherent thought because he had just fucking figured it out and now Kravitz was going to burn away to dust and they hadn’t even had a chance , and it wasn’t fucking fair , and-

Kravitz’s skull moved under Taako’s hands. Taako opened his eyes, and then gasped, yanking his hands away from Kravitz and falling backwards.

Kravitz’s mostly gone chest was glowing. As Taako watched, bright golden light swirled over the gaping hole, growing brighter with every passing second. As it spread down towards Kravitz’s feet and up towards his skull, Taako brought his hand up to shield his eyes, turning his head away when it got too bright to look.

“What the fuck,” Merle said from somewhere behind Taako.

Taako squeezed his eyes shut until the glow began to dissipate. He curled his fingers into the cold grass and turned back to look at Kravitz, squinting against the dying rays of light. When they finally faded enough for him to see, Taako felt his heart stop.

“Who the fuck is that?” said Barry.

Taako swallowed. He pushed forward and crawled over, leaning in close. Where Kravitz’s bones had been a second ago, there was- a man. A dark-skinned man with dreadlocks spread artfully across the grass, his eyes closed and face lax with unconsciousness.

Taako stopped at his side and stared down for a moment. It was- it was the man from the portrait in Kravitz’s room, the handsome one that Kravitz had told him was the prince. Taako shook his head slowly, trying to think, trying to figure out just what the fuck had happened to Kravitz, and then the man was stirring and his eyelids were fluttering open, and Taako was suddenly gazing into a pair of deep brown eyes.

He watched the man’s lips move. “Taako,” he said, his voice rusty but familiar.

Taako said nothing. He watched as the man sat up, pushing himself gingerly into a sitting position. Kravitz’s robe hung off of his shoulders. The hole burned in the chest had been repaired somehow.

“Taako, I-” the man said. He looked down at himself, and shut his mouth. He lifted one of his hands, turning it to look at it from every angle, and curled his fingers as though to test whether they would work.

Taako leaned forward. He reached out to touch the man’s cheek and felt the man freeze under his touch. His skin was cold and smooth, and when Taako flattened his fingers, he could feel the press of his jawbone underneath, and god, it was impossible, but-

“Kravitz?” Taako asked, half-frightened of the answer.

The man raised his eyes to look at Taako. He breathed for a moment, lips parted slightly. “Yes.”

Taako choked out something that felt like a laugh and reached out to bring his other hand up to Kravitz’s face as well. Kravitz turned into his touch, pressing his cheek to Taako’s palm, still staring at Taako with wide eyes.

“How,” Taako said. “How are-”

“She cursed me,” Kravitz said. He looked dazed, as though he wasn’t quite sure what was going on. Taako could feel his skin warming under his touch, and wasn’t that an entirely new feeling. “She was angry with me, too angry to kill me. She made me a- a monster, and said that I would only turn back if-”

“If someone loved you,” Taako breathed out. He could feel a smile spreading across his face. “It was a fucking- a fucking true love spell, wasn’t it? God, those are fucking archaic.”

“Taako,” Kravitz said, hand coming up to touch Taako’s arm, and Taako laughed out loud and threw himself forward, slamming his lips against Kravitz’s.

Kravitz caught him, wrapping an arm around Taako’s back. Kravitz’s lips were cold under Taako’s but alive, so alive as Kravitz kissed him back. Taako’s fingers were in his hair, on his shoulders, pressing into the soft flesh everywhere he could. Kravitz was moving underneath him, responding to his touch, no longer just bones and fabric and Taako’s chest was filled with so much fucking emotion he thought he was going to explode.

“Uh- Taako?” he heard someone say behind him. Taako pulled away from the kiss and turned to see his family gathered behind him, looking bewildered and concerned.

“Oh,” Taako said, laughing. He slid off of Kravitz’s lap, grabbing for his hand- there was skin there, he was alive - and squeezing. “Sorry, I- shit, introductions, yeah? Okay, hi everyone, whoops. Kravitz, that’s- that’s my sister, Lup, she shot you, but I’m sure she feels really bad about that- and that’s Barry, and Magnus, and Merle is the little one over there.”

“Hey,” Merle said with a scowl.

“And this is- this is Kravitz,” Taako said. “He was a skeleton, but I guess- I guess that was just a curse or something, so he’s not a skeleton anymore, he’s actually- actually- wait a second.” Taako whirled around to narrow his eyes at Kravitz. “You’re a fucking prince!”

Kravitz grinned. Taako wanted to jump him again and kiss every inch of his stupid face. “I was,” he said. “Someone told me that Neverwinter is a democracy now, though.”

“Democracy my ass! Holy fucking shit, I’m dating a prince!”

“Taako,” Lup said. She had her arms crossed, and was staring down at Taako with an extremely disapproving expression on her face. “What do you mean, dating?”

“Well, I haven’t asked him yet,” Taako said, grinning at her despite her frown. “I’m sure he’ll say yes, though. Right, babe?”

“Taako,” Magnus said. He had picked Railsplitter up again. It hung loosely at his side. “Taako, he- that guy kidnapped you. He tried to kill us.”

“I am very sorry about that,” Kravitz said. “For the record, I did not intend to actually kill you.”

“Bullshit,” Merle said, and Taako rolled his eyes.

“I’ll explain it later,” he said, turning to look at the gate. “Right now, we should- oh.”

Kravitz twisted to look behind him. “The shield is gone,” he said, his voice faint.

“Hell yeah,” Taako said. He scrambled to his feet and reached out to grab Kravitz’s hand again, tugging the man to his feet. Kravitz stumbled up, wide stare still turned towards the gate, which sat unassuming and free of enchantment. “Come on, Krav, let’s go!”

He ran, dragging Kravitz behind him. Kravitz’s movements were a bit clumsy, still getting adjusted to the weight of a complete body, but he seemed to gain more and more confidence as Taako pulled him towards the front gate. As they approached it Taako raised his wand and leveled it at the wrought-iron entrance, and the lock snapped under his spell. The gate burst open as they threw themselves through.

They came out in the grass on the other side. The palace was situated on a hill overlooking Neverwinter, which sat like a doll’s town far below them. The sun was setting, painting the sky in shades of blues and pinks that seemed to grow more vibrant as they stepped out of the confines of the palace.

Taako let go of Kravitz’s hand and backed away, grinning as he watched the man. Kravitz stared down at Neverwinter. He tilted his head back to look up at the sky, turning slowly in a complete circle as he took everything in.

Taako knew his family had come out to follow them, but all of Taako’s attention was fixed on Kravitz as the man lowered his gaze to look at Taako.

“I was wrong,” he said quietly. There was a small smile on his lips. He still looked faintly as though he were walking in a dream. “I should not have doubted that you would find some way to get me out.”

“Fuck yeah,” Taako said. “Never sell cha’boy short again, babe.”

“I won’t,” Kravitz said, and this time he was the one who moved forward to close the distance between them.

“Of course he’s dating the fucking skeleton,” Taako heard Lup mutter as he kissed Kravitz, pressing forward so that he could feel Kravitz’s chest against his. “So much for our rescue mission.”

He felt Kravitz smiling against his lips, and Taako couldn’t help but smile back and tighten his arms around Kravitz’s shoulders. They stood there, locked together for far longer than was socially acceptable, as the sun set over Neverwinter and the palace behind them.

They didn’t break away until Merle loudly threatened to throw a tree at them, at which point they were both laughing too hard to keep kissing, anyways.