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Wing and a Prayer

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“This is a stupid way to choose someone you’re supposed to spend the rest of your life with,” Taako snaps, pushing his chair back and getting to his feet. Captain Davenport looks tired. Taako’s fine with that. Davenport’s not to the one getting roped into a ball to choose his future husband. “Who the hell thinks this is a reasonable way to decide on a partner?”

“Look,” says Davenport, holding his hands up placatingly. “I’m not the biggest fan of it either, but the law is very clear about unmarried crown princes who’ve reached the age of majority and—”

“Maybe I don’t want to be crown prince anymore!” Taako says. “Lup’s the one who should be inheriting anyway and everybody knows it. It’s some sexist bullshit that I’m the one up for the throne just because Merle can’t remember who came out first.”

Taako likes Davenport most of the time. For a commander of the castle guard tasked with being regent until Lup and Taako turn twenty-one and are able to ascend to the throne, he’s got surprising little interest in usurping them and installing himself as king. He made sure they got a good education, fostered their interest in magic, and immediately accepted Lup informing him and the rest of the court that she was a princess and they better start referring to her as such when she and Taako were kids. He doesn’t deserve to be yelled at, but Taako doesn’t deserve to be married off to some stranger, so here they are—both fucked.

“Taako, you knew this was coming,” says Davenport, voice studiously calm. “Merle and I have brought up the possibility multiple times since—”

“I didn’t think you’d do it!” Taako says. “People make threats they don’t mean all the time.”

“They weren’t threats, Taako. They were warnings.”

“If you won’t let Lup be queen, why don’t you stage a coup?” Taako asks. “You be king. That’s what regents do, isn’t it? You’re supposed to lock us in a dungeon of something.”

Davenport gives him a very unimpressed look. “I’m not going to stage a coup.”

“Kind of a shitty regent,” Taako grumbles, crossing his arms over his chest.

Taako needs a drink. Maybe some fresh air. Maybe to abdicate his right to the throne so they can’t make him get married and so Lup can take over ruling Faerun instead. He knows she’d make a better queen than he’d make a king. Lup is bold and courageous and has a depth of compassion and morality steers her in the right direction. Taako veers away from the “morally correct” path often. He’s the pragmatic one. He’s sensible. Kind of. He’s the one who doesn’t want to marry a stranger just because tradition and the royal court says he’s gotta have someone locked down by the time he turns twenty-one.

He likes parties. Balls are usually fun. He’s going to hate this one.

“When are you making this happen?” Taako asks.

Davenport purses his lips. “The court suspected you’d have some reluctance about going through with this,” he says. “With that in mind, we have… a tight timeline. We’ll formally announce the ball tomorrow morning. For the end of the week.”

Taako stares at Davenport, shocked. There’s tight timeline and then there’s having days to figure out some way of escaping from the living nightmare of going to a party where all the guests are hovering around, thinking they might end up married to a future king. He feels like he’s been slapped.

“That’s—the end of this week?” he repeats. “Not even a full week? How am I supposed to—this isn’t fair.”

“It’s not,” Davenport agrees. “But your position comes with responsibilities, Taako. I wish there were something I could do about the law, but as regent my powers—especially my powers around rules of succession—are limited. No one is asking you to marry your betrothed immediately. We can draw the engagement out and give you a chance to get to know each other.”

“Oh thanks,” Taako snaps. “So generous of you. You know what? Taako is out. Done! I tried and this just isn’t working, so I quit.”

“Taako, you can’t—”

“Watch me!”

Taako turns on his heel, storming out of Davenport’s office and down the hallway, heading for his bedroom. It’s not like he was completely in the dark about this, but Taako hates the court’s expectations and traditions. It’s some fairy tale bullshit, choosing a husband at a grand ball when you’ve barely even had a conversation with the guy. It’s bullshit, and Taako’s not going to do it.

When he gets to his room, Lup and Magnus are waiting for him. He gives them both an unimpressed look. “Did Davenport tell you he was telling me?”

“Yeah,” says Lup. “This sucks, babe.”

“Maybe you’ll meet someone nice,” says Magnus, as Taako storms to his wardrobe to pull out his good travelling cloak and his favourite hat—pointed and purple, glittering with enchanted constellations that mimic the seasonal rotation of the stars in the sky.

“I’ll meet some prince who’s trying to climb the social ladder and secure a spot as prince consort,” Taako says. “Some stranger who will murder me in my sleep.”

“I don’t agree with it either, Taako, but I don’t think Davenport would let anyone who’d try to murder you come to the ball,” says Lup. “Are you going somewhere?”

“I’m running away.” Taako pulls on his cloak, turning to face Lup and Magnus, glaring at them. “Don’t tell Merle or Davenport about this. I expect more from the two of you. No narcs allowed in my bedroom.”

“Babe,” says Lup, “don’t you think you’re being a little dramatic?”

“You’ve got Barry. It’s easy for you to accuse me of being dramatic when you’re not going to have to do this.” Taako sticks his hat on his head. “I’m going to run away and start a new life where I’m not a prince.”

“What are you going to do when you get there?” Magnus asks, looking very unconcerned about Taako saying he’s going to run away forever.

Taako hesitates. He hasn’t, admittedly, thought every part of his plan through yet. “Cook,” he says, after a beat. “Or make money using magic—either or. I’ll decide later.”

“Where?” asks Lup. “Taako, you’re the crown prince. People know what you look like.”

“They know approximately what I look like. There are plenty of hot elves with freckles and blond hair out there.” Taako grabs a bag and then looks around the room, trying to think about what else he’s going to need for his new life on the road. Money, obviously. Spell components. He stuffs his coin purse into his bag and tosses some magic bullshit in after it.

“Can I come?” Magnus asks. “I’ll bring an axe. That’s folksy.”

“Pretty sure that’s desertion from the Royal Guard,” says Lup. “I think technically that might be treason.”

Taako rolls his eyes at Magnus and Lup as he tugs his bag onto his shoulder. “You can come if you’re going to take this seriously,” he says. “But you gotta come now because I’m going.”

“Sure,” says Magnus, getting off Taako’s bed and grinning at him. “I’ll be right back. Let me find an axe.”

Lup watches Magnus leave the room, then turns her attention back to Taako. “You know I’d take over for you if they’d let me, right?” she asks. “I’ve got Barry. They couldn’t pull this ball bullshit on me.”

“Yeah, I know,” Taako says, deflating. “This is dumb.”

“We’re twin royal heirs and we don’t know who’s really older because Merle says he can’t remember which of us was born first and our parents are dead so we can’t ask them. Our lives are dumb.” Lup slides off the bed and stands in front of Taako, holding her arms open for a hug. “You still gonna run away?”

“Yeah.” Taako steps forward to hug her. “It’s the principle of the thing.”

“Cool,” says Lup, patting him on the back and pulling away. “Bring Magnus back in one piece. Don’t get lost.”

Taako scowls at Lup. So much for having a supportive sister. “We’re not going to get lost.”

#

Taako and Magnus leave the palace and head into the woods beside the palace. Taako and Magnus very quickly get lost.

The Felicity Wilds are a dark place with strange and powerful magic lurking around every corner. Taako is a magician and Magnus has an axe. In the middle of the woods, after sundown, that doesn’t feel like much protection at all.

“This is not how things were supposed to go,” Taako says, frowning at a tree he’s sure he’s seen before. The bark kind of looks like a snarling face and the branches look like they’re reaching towards them—like if they step too close it’s eat them.

The Felicity Wilds are a fucked up place.

“Should we head back?” Magnus asks, looking around. “And, uh, which way do you think back is?”

Taako does kind of want to go home. They’ve been out for an hour. His feet hurt. His shoulder is sore from the weight of his bag. It’s dark and getting cold and he has no idea where they are. “We don’t need to go back yet,” he says, mostly because he’s not willing to admit that they’re lost. “We’re fine. Let’s go this way.”

Taako forges on, leading them deeper into the woods. Or maybe out of the woods. He’s not sure. He leads Magnus through the woods and hopes they’re not just walking around in circles because Taako has the distinct feeling they’re being watched and he doesn’t know enough about the creatures lurking in the Wilds to be sure there isn’t something stalking them—some monster intent on rending the flesh off their bones and leaving them as a warning to other people who venture into the woods at night.

Taako shouldn’t have let Lup rope him into listening to Merle’s bedtime stories when they were kids. Royalty always got in the most trouble in Merle’s stories. Taako scans the forest floor, keeping his eyes open for any signs of something about to pounce.

Magnus is the one who spots the bird—a raven—flitting through the trees above them.

“Hey, uh, Taako? Does it seem like that raven is following us?” he asks.

Taako glances up at the bird and tries not to think about what a traditional harbinger of death following them around might mean. “It’s a bird, my dude,” he says. “It’s not smart enough.”

The raven swoops down and snatches Taako’s hat from his head, taking off with it through the woods. Taako lets out an indignant yelp and chases after it, cursing, as Magnus crashes through the brush after him, trying to keep up. Taako might be worried about traps and getting eaten, but like fuck is he going to let some bird nest in his favourite hat.

The raven leads them to a tall, crooked tower deep in the woods, far off any beaten path. There are thick briars with long thorns growing around the tower and Taako thinks fuck I’m gonna have to convince Magnus to climb through those when he sees them, but the bird drops his hat before it reaches the twisted hedge.

The raven alights on the ground on other side of the vines. As the moon rises above the treeline and casts light into the dim little clearing at the base of the tower, Taako smells the distinctive scent of big magic—ozone, hanging thick in the air. The bird unfurls its wings, growing larger and shifting before Taako’s eyes until it's no longer a bird at all, but the most handsome man Taako’s ever seen.

He’s dark-skinned, with long dreadlocks that tumble down over his shoulders, dressed in a fine suit that’s years out of date, but perfectly preserved. His cheekbones are high and his gaze is sharp. He studies Taako and Magnus from the other side of the thorn bush, and tilts his head, considering them.

“You’re a long way from home,” the man says. “Did no one warn you about the dangers lurking in the Felicity Wilds after the sun goes down?”

#

Once upon a time, there was an elven queen who was as beautiful as she was powerful—and she was very powerful. She had dark skin and high cheekbones and wore her hair in long braids, tumbling down her back. She wore fine dresses adorned with dark feathers and was much beloved by her people because she was just as wise and as she was powerful and beautiful. They called her the Raven Queen for her cleverness and for the aviary of ravens she kept as familiars.

Possibly it was more for the ravens than the cleverness.

The Raven Queen had a son, a half-elf, as beautiful and as clever as she was, gifted with magic shaped by music. Her son, Kravitz, spent his days with tutors and his mother and with the ravens. The tutors taught him reading and arithmetic. His mother taught him music and magic. The ravens taught him cleverness. Kravitz’s childhood was happy and he grew into a handsome, well-rounded young man with a penchant for fashion and the colour black, like his mother.

But although she was beloved by her people, the Raven Queen still had enemies. Her sense of justice—of right and of wrong and of balance—led her to outlaw the use of necromancy in her kingdom. There were those who objected to the ban, who felt it wasn’t the queen’s place to decide what they did with their magic.

Two necromancers in particular hated the Queen more than most. They watched their younger brother die and—unable to bring him back with their magic—they blamed the Queen’s ban for his death. They wanted to hurt her the way they’d been hurt, to suffer as they suffered.

And so these necromancers—twins, Edward and Lydia—driven mad with power and grief after their brother’s death caused them to rip out their own souls, cursed the Raven Queen’s son as he sat in the aviary, singing to the ravens.

They attempted to transform him into one of the birds he and his mother so loved—a common raven, nothing special or magical about him—but Kravitz was a sorcerer like his mother and fought back. He sang as the curse hit him, shaping its magic—doing what he could to counteract its effects. When the spell settled into place, it had changed into something more complicated—the result of dueling magics.

Kravitz wasn’t trapped as a raven forever. He sang a love song, as he transformed, and wove love into the curse that trapped him. He sang transformation and the light of the moon. He sang and as the moon rises, you’ll know my face, and the darkness will be banished by your warm embrace.

Lydia and Edward, realizing they’d fucked up, now stuck with an irate, entirely too self-aware raven, scooped Kravitz into a bag and fled the kingdom to a land far, far away.

They took the kidnapped prince to a tower deep within the woods and surrounded it with briars and thorns. They clamped a silver band on the raven’s ankle, enchanted to shift with Kravitz’s body and to limit his magic. They couldn’t lift the curse they placed on Kravitz because Kravitz had sealed it in place, wove his stipulations into the spell and pulled it tight around himself, like a second skin.

They couldn’t lift the curse, but they could modify it.

The moon’s light would transform Kravitz back to his human self, but only if he was within the thick circle of thorns they planted around the tower. As the moon set and the sun began to rise, Kravitz would revert back to a raven, but he had to be back within the circle or else his transformation from human to raven would be permanent.

Edward and Lydia couldn’t undo the changes Kravitz made—that he would be himself in the light of the moon, that being embraced by someone who loved him would break the curse—but they could hide Kravitz far from his mother and his people. They could trap him close to the tower, keep it so he’d never meet anyone capable of breaking the curse for him, keep him trapped.

They could, they realized, do something even better than killing him—they could watch him suffer.

And so Kravitz lived, trapped by the tower or as a raven, with only his jailors for company, for many years. He grew tired of hope as the weight of the curse bore down on him. He could sing, but his magic didn’t answer him, and the band around his ankle was too tight to remove without injuring himself. Somewhere far away, his mother searched for him, and Kravitz never knew.

Kravitz stayed in the woods, close to his tower, and one day, when he was flitting through the woods, enjoying the small amount of freedom being a raven afforded him, Kravitz spotted two men who were clearly lost and decided to steal the pretty one’s hat.

#

“How the fuck do you know where we live?” Taako asks, glaring at the handsome stranger as he picks up his hat and puts it back on his head. “Who are you, bird boy?”

“My name’s Kravitz,” Kravitz says. “I don’t know where you live, but it definitely isn’t here.”

“I’m Magnus,” says Magnus. “This is Pr—” Taako elbows Magnus in the side, cutting him off.

“I’m Taako,” Taako says. “Are you, like, some kind of fairy? Sorcerer? That face, that’s gotta be an illusion, right? If you’re secretly an old witch trying to eat us you’ve got to tell me otherwise it’s entrapment.”

“Oh shit, do you grant wishes?” Magnus asks. “I’ve given what I’d wish for a lot of thought. My answer depends on how many we get? Is it three each, or do we have to split them between us?”

“I’m not a genie,” Kravitz says. “I’m not a fairy either, and that’s a bit of a stereotype, don’t you think? Most of the witches I know are perfectly nice people.” He pauses, pursing his lips and looking for all the world like someone who doesn’t want to say whatever it is that’s going to come next, and then gestures to the tower and the thicket surrounding it. “I’m… in need of some assistance.”

Magnus reaches around and removes his axe from his back. “Oh, I can cut through this, no problem,” he says, and before Taako can point out that they should make sure Kravitz isn’t trying to trick them before letting him out, Magnus brings his axe down hard on the vines.

The axe striking the vines makes a sound like metal on stone. Magnus is immediately shoved backwards by a wave of magic that slams into him so hard he looks a little dazed as he stumbles away. Taako winces in sympathy.

“Okay,” Kravitz says, reaching up to pinch the bridge of his nose. “I think I was being overly optimistic leading you here.”

“Hey, handsome? Fuck you.” Taako is a magician and doesn’t need to hit things with an axe to make his point. He twists his hand in the air and then flicks a finger in Kravitz’s direction and a sends a bolt of magic sailing over the thick fence of thorns, beaming him in the center of his forehead. Kravitz jumps when the magic hits him. “You stole my hat and insulted us and you want our help?

Kravitz rubs at his forehead, giving Taako a considering look. “You’re a mage.”

“I prefer wizard,” Taako says. “We’re leaving now, Magnus. Come on.”

He turns his back on Kravitz and the tower, grabbing Magnus’s elbow.

“Wait!” Kravitz calls. “Wait, if you help me I can help you get out of the woods!”

Taako pauses, glancing up at Magnus. They are lost, but trusting a random bird you meet in a dark forest is a recipe for disaster.

He turns back to look at Kravitz. “How do we know you’re telling the truth?” he asks. “Your bush hurt Magnus.”

“I would have warned him,” Kravitz says. “That’s what I need help with. I’m… stuck.”

“You’re a bird,” Magnus says. “Just turn back and fly over it.”

“It’s not that simple.” Kravitz gestures to the sky and the moon hanging heavy above them. “I’m only human when the moonlight touches the ground at the base of the tower. When the sun rises, I’ll turn back into a raven. If I’m outside of this circle when that happens, then I’ll be stuck as a raven forever unless I break the curse keeping me here.”

Taako eyes Kravitz suspiciously. “If you’re stuck in there, how are you going to help us get home?”

“I’m not stuck when I’m a raven,” Kravitz says. “I just have to be here when the moon rises and sets. I can show you the way out of the wilds if you promise you’ll return to help me break the curse and go back home.” He pauses, then adds: “My mother is wealthy. I’ll make sure you’re richly rewarded.”

“Oh, Taako’s a p—” Taako elbows Magnus again. Princes have obligations. A prince who comes across a handsome man under a terrible curse, trapped and alone in the woods, especially has obligations. Taako, who doesn’t want a ball or a husband or the weight of kingship, isn’t about to let Kravitz know who he is.

“Okay, sure,” Taako says. “If you get us out and if your mother will pay up, I’ll do my best to help you break the curse. I’m a wizard. Magic’s kind of my thing. Deal?”

It’s Kravitz’s turn to be suspicious now, but Taako knows he doesn’t have many options. He has to show them the way back home. Kravitz hesitates for a moment, even though he suggested the plan, and then nods. “We have a deal.”

#

Kravitz is stuck with Taako and Magnus until the moon sets and he transforms back into a raven. He doesn’t trust them, but he has no choice but to put his faith in them returning. Kravitz has grown wary, since being cursed, of other magic users.

Taako doesn’t look like a necromancer, but there’s no guarantee and there are people in the world who resent the Raven Queen. Kravitz is protecting himself and his mother by keeping his heritage to himself. He doesn’t need to give up any personal information beyond the promise of future wealth.

Instead, he listens to Magnus talk about the trees in the Felicity Wilds and how he’s pretty sure they’d hit back if he tried to chop them with his axe—probably accurate—and how he really should have brought his sword. He listens to Taako complain about how he’s starving and Kravitz’s mouth waters as Taako describes the meal he’s going to make when he returns home—sandwiches with leftover meat from yesterday’s dinner.

“I miss food,” Kravitz says, without thinking.

Taako and Magnus abruptly stop talking, peering at him through the vines keeping them all apart. “What do you mean, you miss food?” Taako asks. “You don’t get to eat with the curse? I guess you wouldn’t. You’re stuck, huh? No kitchen in that tower?”

The tower has a fireplace and Kravitz has learned how to build a fire in it, but there’s no one to bring him food to cook with. Edward and Lydia trapped him here, but they only visit occasionally, to taunt him. Certainly not to make his life easier. “I eat,” Kravitz says. “I’m a raven. I… hunt.”

“Gross,” says Magnus. “Like bugs and stuff?”

Taako wrinkles his nose. “Aren’t ravens carrion birds?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Kravitz says, because the truth is, yes, they are, and there are all sorts of things he’ll eat as a raven that make him queasy when he’s human. “I miss food for a reason.”

“Remind me not to get stuck as a bird anytime soon,” Taako says, and then changes the subject to speculating about how upset Davenport—whoever that is—is going to be when he realizes that Taako and Magnus are missing.

Kravitz tunes their conversation out, watching the moon. Some nights Kravitz avoids turning into his human form so he can have the freedom that comes with being a bird. Other nights he can’t shed his feathers fast enough. The worst part of being trapped isn’t even the food—it’s the loneliness, and there’s nothing he can do to fix that.

He’s gotten very good at passing time. He sings to himself. Cleans the inside of the tower. Thinks about what his mother is doing at home and if she’s given up on him.

When the moon finally sets, Kravitz feels the rush of magic around him that signals the transformation. He raises his face to the sky and closes his eyes, folding in on himself as the world shifts around him, and when he opens them again he’s a raven.

Kravitz stretches out his wings, one after the other, and looks down at the silver band wrapped around his leg. When he’s human it’s hidden under his clothes. As a bird, it unbalances him, always present. It made learning to fly harder than it needed to be, but he’s had years to practice dealing with its weight and now flying is one of the few times he feels almost free.

Kravitz takes off, soaring over the vines to land beside Taako and Magnus on the other side of the bush.

“Oh fuck yeah! We’re getting out of here,” Taako says, bouncing up to his feet. “Lead the way, bird boy. We’re right behind you.”

Kravitz has explored every inch of the woods. He knows how to navigate them. He flits from branch to branch, leading Taako and Magnus through the forest and out towards civilization. They follow him to the edge of the Wilds and when Kravitz brings them to the road that leads back to town, Magnus lets out a whoop of triumph.

“I can get us home from here!” he says. “I know where we are!”

“Thank God,” says Taako. “I’ve decided the whole running away from home thing isn’t for me. Fuck adventuring. I need a bath.”

Kravitz lands on a low-hanging branch near them and lets out a pointed croak. There were promises made that he hopes they’ll keep.

“I’ve got it,” Taako says, waving a dismissive hand. “I’ll look into the curse thing. You just go back to your tower and relax. You’ve got nothing to worry about. Magnus, I’m thinking, like, big fuck off sandwiches for breakfast. What do you think? Like ridiculous sandwiches. Real big boys.”

“Hell yeah,” Magnus says, turning his back on Kravitz and leading Taako away from the woods. “I’m starving.

Kravitz watches them leave and has the distinct feeling he’ll never see them again.

Chapter Text

Taako makes sandwiches for himself and Magnus when they reach the castle. It’s late enough that everyone else has turned in so he doesn’t even have to worry about avoiding Lup and Davenport, although he’s a little offended they weren’t up and looking for him. Taako ran away. That’s the kind of thing his sister and guardian are supposed to worry about. Then again, Davenport’s not particularly concerned about Taako not wanting to marry some stranger he meets at a dance, so maybe this is just further proof he doesn’t care about Taako at all.

Maybe he didn’t have time to notice Taako was missing.

“So when are we gonna go back?” Magnus asks, leaning against the kitchen counter as he eats his sandwich.

“Go back?” Taako repeats, looking up from his own sandwich. “Why would we go back?”

“Because you said you’d help Kravitz break the spell?” Magnus gives him a disapproving look. “Taako, you promised.”

“He’s being kept locked up in the Felicity Wilds, Magnus,” Taako says. “It’s probably a trap. We don’t owe him anything and I’m real tired of people telling me what to do today.” He sets the remains of his sandwich down and pushes them towards Magnus. “You can finish that. I’m going to bed.”

It’s juvenile to walk away from a conversation he doesn’t want to have because he doesn’t want to feel bad about leaving Kravitz in the woods, but it’s been a long day. Taako doesn’t need responsibility for someone else’s curse weighing on him when he’s got his own shit to deal with right now. Being a prince is hard.

He falls asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow. He dreams about a ball where everyone is dressed as a bird, but there are no ravens to be found. He dreams about flying against the cold winter wind, even though it’s spring. He dreams about long thorns piercing soft skin.

Taako wakes up from fitful sleep to find Lup perched on the edge of his bed, peering down at him.

“You slept all day,” she says. “Tell me about the handsome man you met in the woods. Magnus says you’re going to rescue him?”

Taako groans and pulls a pillow over his face. “Magnus has a big fuckin’ mouth,” he says. It’s his own fault. He should have told Magnus not to blab before they turned in. “I’m not doing anything. Magnus can go rescue him if he wants to. I may have said some things, but that doesn’t mean I meant them.”

“You’re going to leave the hot guy who rescued you and Magnus to rot in the Felicity Wilds?” Lup’s tone is teasing, but Taako can tell her question is at least semi-serious. Lup’s sense of right and wrong are a great quality for a queen, but annoying for a sister.

“I don’t even really know why he’s stuck there,” Taako says, peeking out from under the pillow. “He stole my hat. Did Magnus mention that part? He lured us to his creepy tower surrounded by thorns and then made me say I’d try to break the curse keeping him imprisoned there before he led us out of the woods. For all we know, he’s trapped there for a reason.”

Lup raises an eyebrow. “So the reason you don’t want to go is strictly because you think the guy who saved you with no guarantee that you’d come back and keep on your end of the bargain is secretly evil?”

Taako pulls the pillow back down over his face. “You think I should go back out there. I get it. You know, there are easier ways for you to become queen than encouraging me to disappear into the woods for good.”

Lup pokes Taako’s side. “You were the one who tried to run away last night,” she says. “I’m just saying, babe. Kind of a dick move.”

“Nobody ever said cha’boy was nice. I’m royalty, Lup. We’re all dicks.” Taako gives up on hiding under his pillow and slides out of bed. “I’m gonna take a bath and then I’m going to eat a bunch of cake to show off how rich and greedy I am.”

“Sure,” says Lup, getting up from the bed. “If you want help looking into the curse, come and grab me and Barry. It sounds interesting.”

Taako rolls his eyes. He’s definitely not going to do that. He’s going to take his bath and wash and then eat something because a look at the dimming sky outside tells him he really did sleep all day and he’s starving.

He doesn’t think about his dreams and he doesn’t think about how Kravitz hasn’t had people food since he was cursed. Taako runs his bath and climbs in, taking his time in the hot water. Another luxury Kravitz probably has to do without. And where does he sleep? Does he nest? Kravitz looked so put together in person form—not like the kind of guy who’d enjoy sleeping in a bunch of twigs and leaves.

Taako dunks his head under water to try and wash away thoughts of Kravitz. Not his problem, no matter what Magnus and Lup might think. A promise doesn’t have to mean anything if you don’t want it to, and Taako is very much against keeping this one promise in particular. He doesn’t want to go back out into the woods. He’s got his own things to worry about. A ball and an engagement to wiggle out of—suitors to thwart. He doesn’t have time to worry about some guy he barely talked to. Taako’s not even sure how he’d find Kravitz again if he went back out there. Which is fine because he’s not going to go back out.

Taako surfaces from the bath, pushing his hair out of his face, and glares at the tapestry hanging on the stone wall opposite his tub. Sometimes he hates his sister. Not to mention Magnus, who told on him. Taako’s not going to be able to stop thinking about Kravitz and Lup’s going to keep glaring at him until he gives in.

He’s gonna have to go back out into the woods.

Taako gets out of the bath and dries himself off. He dresses in sturdy clothing and thick-soled boots—he leaves his hat off this time because he doesn’t want it stolen—then raids the kitchen. He doesn’t have time to make anything impressive to bring to Kravitz, but there’s plenty of leftovers to turn into a couple of sandwiches and there are cookies and apples to fill out a basket.

He feels like a kid in a conspicuous cloak heading out to see their grandma as he walks into the Felicity Wilds. Kravitz helped once, but it still feels like he’s about to walk into a trap. Maybe Taako should have brought Magnus with him again, but that would mean admitting that Lup’s guilt trip worked and there’s no fuckin’ way he’s gonna do that willingly. They’ll know because he won’t be around, but there’s a difference between that and Taako admitting it.

Taako doesn’t know where he’s going, but if he’s gonna traipse through the dark depths of an enchanted forest on his own, he’s gonna do it with confidence.

When a raven when a silver band around its leg lands on a branch ahead of him and lets out a loud, croaking caw, Taako does his best not to look as relieved as he feels.

“Finally! I’ve been wandering around forever,” Taako says, although he has no concept of how long it’s actually been and actually he thinks he could find his way back to the castle on his own from here, so it probably hasn’t been that long. “Show me to your tower, Darkwing Duck. I’ve got a gift for you.”

Kravitz ruffles his feathers and lets out a reproachful caw, but takes off, leading Taako through the trees and back—Taako assumes—to his tower. He moves fast and Taako has to rush to keep up with him.

Kravitz lands on the other side of the ring of thorns and Taako thinks, for a moment, that maybe they’d too late—maybe the missed moonrise and Taako’s going to waste his food on a bird—but then a cloud moves and the moonlight hits Kravitz in the clearing and the air around him ripples with the strength of the curse someone laid on him and Kravitz transforms into his very handsome human self.

Taako watches more closely this time. Out of intellectual curiosity. Not because he’s seriously planning on breaking the curse.

“I didn’t think you’d come back,” Kravitz says, wary but pleased. There’s a hint of his smile on his face.

“I said I would, didn’t I?” Taako looks at the thicket separating them, sizing it up. “If I come over there am I gonna be stuck as a bird too? Are you luring me into a trap?”

“Nothing would happen to you, but you can’t destroy the vines that easily,” Kravitz says. “I’ve tried to burn them before. It does nothing. They’re like stone.”

“I mean, I think I could handle them. I’m pretty good at transmutation. But that’s not what I was getting at, my dude.” Taako clicks his heels together, casting a spell on his boots, and steps up, into the air, casually climbing and invisible staircase over the top of the bushes and down onto the other side of the barrier. He gives Kravitz a mocking little bow. “That’s what I meant. You’re not the only one who can fly here.”

“I don’t know that I’d call that flying,” says Kravitz, amused. “More like floating.”

Taako rolls his eyes. “Who brought who a gift here? Do you want dinner or not?”

“Wait, you brought me food?” Kravitz asks, dropping the whole amused-at-Taako thing immediately. “Real food?”

Taako peels back the cloth on top of his basket with a flourish. “I made you a sandwich.”

Kravitz’s eyes are locked on the contents of Taako’s basket, like a starving man seeing food for the first time in weeks—which actually might be a pretty accurate comparison. “How long has it been since you got to eat like a person?” Taako asks, taking a seat on the grass and then picking up one of the waxed-cloth wrapped sandwiches and handing it to Kravitz.

Kravitz practically snatches the sandwich from him, peeling back the wrapper and paying very little attention to the fact that Taako’s right there keeping him company. Kravitz takes a big bite of the sandwich. It’s just leftover chicken and sliced cheese with some fresh tomatoes and crisp lettuce from the castle garden, but Kravitz moans around his mouthful like it’s the best thing he’s ever eaten.

“Years,” he says, after swallowing. “It’s been years since I’ve eaten real food. Did you know birds barely taste anything? It helps.”

Taako’s not a bird expert, but he’s definitely seen crows chowing down on the castle garbage. “Yeah, bet it would,” he said. “I’ve got cookies and an apple for you too, my man. You want to tell me more about your curse while you eat?” He pauses. “Wait, are you secretly really a bird cursed to be a human some of the time, trying to steal a human identity?”

Kravitz stops eating to give Taako a look like he’s not entirely sure if Taako’s joking or not. He looks mildly concerned. Taako probably would be too if someone asked him if he were secretly a bird and not a dude with a curse on him.

Taako grins. “I’m just messing with you. For real though—this isn’t a punishment because you fucked up or anything, is it? You told us how you’re cursed, but not why. I just wanna know what I’m dealing with.”

Kravitz takes another bite of his sandwich, which is definitely a stalling tactic. Taako’s suspicion levels raise instantly—if Kravitz is just some poor sucker who made a bad deal with a witch or picked flowers in the wrong garden, explaining how he ended up here shouldn’t be a big deal. Taako’s good at magic. This kind of overly complicated curse bullshit is the kind of thing that takes a lot of energy to execute. Whoever did this to Kravitz had to have had a real vendetta against him.

“Was it an ex?” Taako asks. “Did you fuck up and jilt an enchantress? I knew you were too handsome.”

“What? No,” Kravitz protests. “Nothing like that. I didn’t do anything wrong and an enchantress wouldn’t be… my type.”

Taako files that particular revelation under interesting and gestured for Kravitz to continue. “So? You said you didn’t do anything wrong, but obviously someone else fucked up. Who?”

“Nobody fucked up,” Kravitz says. He looks miserable, playing with the edge of his sandwich wrapper. “Maybe I fucked up, a little. My mother is a sorceress. She made enemies of a pair of necromancers who wanted to get revenge against her. They thought the best way to do that would be to go through me—get rid of me so she’d suffer. Their plan was to turn me into a raven permanently. My mother would think I was gone—vanished—but I’d be right under her nose, unable to communicate that it was me. I panicked when they attacked, and just—I’m the one who shaped the curse. I did this.” Kravitz waves a hand at the clearing and the thorns and the moon in the sky. “I have magic too. I managed to turn the curse into something… more part-time. They placed more conditions on it and trapped me here. And now… I’m stuck.”

Taako still feels like Kravitz is being purposefully vague, but the whole cursed boy in the woods thing just got a lot more interesting. “You’re a wizard, though. Can’t you just… I don’t know, zap them and free yourself from some of the conditions of the spell?”

Kravitz reaches down and pulls up his left pant leg, exposing a silver band of metal wrapped around his ankle, like the one he had as a bird. “This limits my magic,” he says. “It grows and shrinks with me. I haven’t been able to get it off.”

“Rude,” Taako says, leaning forward to poke at the band. “You’re pretty fucked, huh?”

Kravitz snorts, dropping his pant leg. “A succinct summary of my current situation, yes.”

Taako’s a baller wizard, but this is a little outside his experience. “I’m gonna have to do some research,” he says, pulling one of the cookies—delicate, crumbly shortbread—out of his basket and offering it to Kravitz. “I gotta be honest, I was hoping this would be less complicated than curse-on-curse-on-curse action. Cha’boy’s got resources though. I can look into it.”

“So you are going to help me?” Kravitz looks surprised, even though Taako’s here and feeding him.

Although since Taako didn’t really think he was gonna help-help, he guesses he can’t blame him.

“Yeah,” Taako says. “I mean, I don’t have anything better to do right now. You eat. I’ll go home and do some poking around. Talk to some friends. See what I can dig up. We’ll have you out of here in no time.”

“My mother will reward you handsomely,” Kravitz says, voice painfully sincere. “I promise.”

Taako had kind of forgotten about the riches thing. He shrugs as he gets to his feet, dusting off his pants. “We’ll talk compensation later. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves there, thug.” He pauses, looking down at Kravitz with a half-eaten sandwich in his hand and a grateful expression on his face. Taako wants to help now. Kravitz is handsome and weirdly nice for a guy who’s been on his own in a forest forever.

Lup can never know.

“I’ll be back,” he says. “Tomorrow night. I’ll bring more food. Nothing like seeing a hot boy enjoying my cooking to motivate me to keep you from turning back into a bird, right?”

If nothing else, figuring out how the fuck to break the curse is a good distraction from the upcoming ball.

#

Kravitz mentioned necromancers, so there’s really no question about who Taako needs to talk to. Besides, Lup offered Barry up for consultation and he gets paid to talk to Taako about nerdy magic shit anyway—that’s what royal wizards do.

“Barold,” Taako says, not bothering to knock when he walks into Barry’s workshop. “I’ve got a hypothetical question to ask you.”

“Is it about your bird friend?” Barry asks, looking up from an old book that looks like it’s maybe made of human skin—definitely made to look like it’s made out of skin, which is creepy enough, and Taako’s not even human. “Lup told me you and Magnus found a guy in the woods.”

“Does everyone know about Kravitz now?” Taako asks, frowning. Not that he wasn’t going to tell Barry the details anyway, but it’s still annoying. He’s the only one willing to traipse out into the Felicity Wilds to bring the guy a snack and offer to follow through on his promise. Taako didn’t see Magnus setting out on a rescue mission in the middle of the night. Everyone else should mind their own business.

“Lup said you might want some help figuring out his curse.” Barry marks his page and then closes the creepy book. “I didn’t get any of the details from her, but it sounds interesting—some kind of transformation spell locked to a specific location?”

Taako guesses he can just drop the whole hypothetical question shtick. He grabs a chair, tugging it over to Barry and taking a seat. “Yeah, something like that,” he says. “And also to the moon? He turns back to himself in the moonlight by this tower, but if he’s not there when the moon goes down then stuck as he’s a bird forever. It’s overly complicated because he fucked it up though. He tried to counter the curse and added in the moon bit somehow? I asked him about how it all went down and he says some necromancers did it.” Taako pauses, raising his eyebrows at Barry. “So? You’re the necromancy guy.”

Barry frowns. “That doesn’t sound like necromancy to me,” he says. “They tried to turn him into a bird. He tried to counter their curse. Something went wrong and now it’s… a part-time thing?”

“Yeah,” says Taako. “Also he can’t use his magic because they cut him off. He’s got an enchanted anklet that he can’t take off.”

Barry shrugs. “I mean, if someone got transmuted into a bird don’t you think it would be transmutation? That’s your area of expertise.”

Barry’s technically correct, but Taako was also hoping Barry would have a brilliant idea for breaking the spell so Taako didn’t need to do any work of his own. “Sure,” he says. “But if you’ve got ideas…”

“What about removing the anklet?” asks Lup, from behind Taako. “No anklet, bird-boy has magic, maybe bird-boy can stop the curse himself?”

“Lup, don’t eavesdrop!” Taako says, turning to frown at his sister.

“Don’t come and talk to Barry without me! I want to help too,” Lup says, walking over to perch on the edge of Barry’s desk. “So? What about removing the anklet?”

Taako hadn’t thought of that yet, but he would have gotten there eventually. “I can try,” he says. “I’m sure it’s got all sorts of magical protections on it if it’s what’s keeping his magic in check.”

“Sure, but you’re a transmutation wizard,” Lup says. “Just make it bigger or something. Slip it off his foot without breaking it.”

“That could work,” Barry says, smiling at Lup like the love-sick fool he is. “If he’s a magic user powerful enough to shape the curse as it happened to him, his help would probably make breaking the spell easier.”

It’s a good idea and Taako’s kind of annoyed about it. “Two people cursed him. Maybe two people working together could un-curse him,” he agrees. “I can try.”

“And if that doesn’t work,” says Lup, smirking, “there’s always kissing him.”

Taako scowls. “I am not going to kiss him, Lup.”

“Why not?” Lup asks. “He’s a handsome man trapped in the woods by a curse. That’s got kiss him written all over it!”

Taako knows that and that’s exactly why he’s definitely not going to kiss Kravitz. He’s not going to think about what a nice smile Kravitz has or how pleased he’d looked with Taako’s cooking—the way he’d eaten the sandwich Taako made him like it was the best thing he’d ever tasted. Taako is definitely not going to dwell on the fact that he wants to make Kravitz something more interesting for his next visit and maybe show off a bit.

“Isn’t it bad enough that Davenport’s trying to marry me off at this ball?” Taako asks. “Now you’re trying to set me up with a bird boy you’ve never even met! For all you know, this is an elaborate trap meant to kidnap me and I’ll disappear and never come back and then you’ll be sorry.”

“If you thought it was a trap, you wouldn’t go,” Lup says. “At worst he’s some kind of fairy and by helping him you’ll prove you have a good heart and get a blessing or something. You’re fine.”

“This family is terrible,” Taako says, instead of telling Lup that he asked Kravitz if he was a fairy already and he said no. “I hate all of you.”

“Do you want some help thinking of wants to break the anklet, bud?” Barry asks. “The only project I have on the go right now needs more time to rot anyway.”

“Gross,” says Taako. “No, I’ve got this. I’m the transmutation genius. I’m sure I can figure it out.” He pushes himself up, out of his chair. “I’m gonna go cook and you’re not allowed to have anything I make.”

Lup raises her eyebrows. “Because it’s meant for bird boy?”

“Because you’re rude!” Taako says, sticking his tongue out at her. “Bye, Lup!”

“Bye Taako,” Lup says, laughing. “I’ll cover for you with Davenport.”

“Thank you!” Taako calls back, over his shoulder, because Lup may be rude, but that doesn’t mean he has to be too.

Besides, Davenport’s just going to want to go over the invite list and etiquette and remind Taako more about his responsibilities. Taako doesn’t want anything to do with that. Taako’s going to run into the woods and avoid his problems by focusing on Kravitz’s issues instead.

#

Kravitz wants to savour the food Taako brought him, but realistically he knows he only has until the end of the night to enjoy it. Birds really don’t taste much and he can’t spend the day guarding it. He needs to sleep at some point.

Kravitz takes his time eating, though. He allows himself to enjoy the texture of the bread and the flavour of the roast chicken. The crisp, sweet bite of the apple. The buttery cookies, scented with vanilla and tender on his tongue. Kravitz forgot how good sugar is. He didn’t appreciate food nearly enough when he could have something he didn’t have to hunt or scavenge.

Even if Taako can’t help him break the curse—and Kravitz suspects he won’t be able to, despite his claims to magical mastery—befriending Taako is worth it for the cookies.

The lure of more food in the future gets Kravitz through the day, after he transforms back into a raven. He nests in his tower and sleeps, thinking about Taako bringing him more to eat and calling him handsome—promising to help Kravitz get out of here.

Kravitz refuses to get his hopes up. The curse is complicated—a Gordian knot of three people’s magic, fighting for dominance, with Kravitz’s panicked conditions the only thing keeping him partially human. It’s a stupid cage to be caught in.

But it’s a spell, and a messy one, which means somewhere there are loose threads that can be pulled. Somewhere there’s a weakness that can be exploited to unravel the whole thing—or cut it in half. Kravitz just needs to find it. Kravitz and Taako needs to find it.

Kravitz has nothing but time until they break the spell or Taako gets bored—whichever comes first. As long as Lydia and Edward don’t pop by to call his clothes out of style and throw bread at him while Taako’s visiting, he’ll be fine. Taako makes good cookies and is probably at least a passable wizard, but Edward and Lydia are powerful liches. If they show up while Taako is here, he won’t stand a chance.

Kravitz should warn Taako that when he says necromancer, he means lich. He’s worried if he does, Taako won’t come back.

Kravitz has lost track of how long he’s been out here, alone. On his darker days he’s considered whether it might be better to let the curse win and stay a raven for good. All that stops him is knowing how pleased Edward and Lydia would be if he gave in.

They can go fuck themselves. Kravitz isn’t going to let them have the satisfaction of winning. He’s going to get out. He’s going to get his magic back. He’s going to fight this.

When Taako shows up half an hour after the moon shines into the clearing at the base of the tower and Kravitz gets his body back—once again wearing his hat, carrying an even bigger basket of food this time—Kravitz is filled with newfound determination to win. He’s going to get free, once and for all. This is the best chance he’s ever had. He can’t push Taako away now.

“Okay, so,” Taako says, taking a step into the air and walking up and over the thorn bush. “I talked to a friend of mine who, uh, knows some stuff about necromancy, and he said he didn’t think it was a necromantic spell?” Taako sets the basket he’s carrying down in the grass at Kravitz’s feet. “His exact words were ‘If someone got transmuted into a bird don’t you think it would be transmutation?’ which is a little passive-aggressive, but he’s right. I should’ve thought of that last night, but you mentioned necromancy.”

“I said they were necromancers who were angry at my mother,” Kravitz says. “I never specified the type of spell they used. I’m not sure what it was. That’s not how my magic works. Worked.”

“What do you mean that’s now how your magic works? You don’t cast spells?” Taako asks, pulling a blanket out of the basket and laying it out on the grass. “Sit, my dude. I haven’t eaten yet tonight either so I brought a ton of food.”

“I cast spells, but not the way you do,” Kravitz says, sitting. He watches Taako pulls out little wrapped parcels from his basket. Kravitz can smell the food now and it smells amazing. “My magic manifests through music.”

Taako stops unpacking dinner, turning to give Kravitz a skeptical look. “And you’re sure you’re not a fairy?”

Kravitz rolls his eyes. “I promise I’m not a fairy. I’m not trying to trick you or steal your soul or your first-born child—I just want to break the spell so I can get out of here and go home.”

Taako snorts, pulling a bottle of wine from the basket. “Okay, you just want out. Good to know. I’ve got a list of things we can try, but food first, spells later.”

Taako waves a hand over all the little packages of food between them and they unfurl themselves. It looks delicious and, as promised, much more elaborate than the sandwiches Taako brought before. This time there’s sliced roast beef on a bed of caramelized onions, still warm; braised carrots glossy with some kind of glaze; sliced potatoes that look crispy and golden brown; bright green peas, glistening with butter; and a small loaf of freshly baked bread.

It smells amazing.

Taako uncorks the wine and takes out glasses, pouring for them both. “I figure if I’m going to feed you, I might as well go all out. I made some macarons for dessert.”

Kravitz takes one of the glasses of wine, giving Taako a surprised look. “You made them?”

“I made everything here, my dude.” Taako looks proud as he grabs a plate from the basket and starts filling it with food. Taako sets the plate in front of Kravitz, then offers him a knife and fork. “Cha’boy’s got skills.”

“Is this what you do?” Kravitz asks, taking the cutlery. “You’re a cook?”

Taako waves a hand. “Who wants labels? I do a lot of things. Magic, cooking—I’m pretty good at climbing trees too. Why let yourself be tied down?”

When he cuts into it and takes his first bite, the roast practically melts in Kravitz’s mouth. It sounds like Taako’s saying he’s unemployed in a roundabout way. He really, really shouldn’t be. Kravitz is a prince. He’s had good food before, even if it’s been a while. Taako’s food is something else. “If you’re not doing this professionally, you should be.”

Taako’s lips twitch up into a pleased smile and he ducks his head, his hat shielding his face from Kravitz’s view as he serves himself. “Nah, I’m too expensive. Nobody could afford me.”

“There’s always working at a castle,” Kravitz says. If Taako helps him out of here maybe Kravitz can offer him a job in addition to the money he promised. “Princes have money.”

Taako lets out a bark of laughter, reaching for his wine. “Princes,” he repeats. “Right. Sure. Nah, I think I’ll stay away from royalty, thanks. Not really into the whole bowing and scraping thing, you know? Obedience to the monarchy and rule of order—not my jam.”

Kravitz raises an eyebrow, privately amused. Taako’s going to find out who he is eventually and when he does, Kravitz hopes he remembers this conversation. “Not looking for your prince charming?”

Taako nearly chokes on his wine as he breaks out into another peel of too-loud laughter. “Fuck,” he says. “Shit, bird boy, are you trying to kill me? No, I’m—I mean, is the prince handsome and does he think I’m charming? I don’t need someone trying to sweep me off my feet. Taako’s not gonna sit around all day waiting to be rescued. He’s got things to do. No offense with your, you know, situation.”

Kravitz snorts. It’s hard to be offended when Taako’s being over-the-top vehement about not wanting a prince and doesn’t know who he’s talking to. “None taken.”

Plus, Taako’s got a nice smile. The gap between his teeth and the pleased look on his face as he stabs a piece of potato actually are kind of charming.

And Taako’s out here, in the woods, trying to help Kravitz escape. Kravitz may have offered him money, but Taako didn’t need to bring him food to get that. He didn’t have to sit and talk with Kravitz. He could have just showed up, attempted to break the curse, and left if it didn’t work. Taako is obviously kinder than he lets on—and mysteriously, a wizard who’s highly skilled in the kitchen and hasn’t said what he does do for a living, if it’s not working as a chef somewhere or being unemployed.

It’s nice to have company, and especially nice to have company Kravitz enjoys, and Taako is a little ridiculous, but he’s sharp and his food is good and Kravitz likes him.

Also Taako’s pretty, and the first person to follow through on a promise to help Kravitz escape being attractive is a nice bonus.

“Okay, enough about princes,” Taako says, pulling a battered notebook out of the basket and flipping to the back pages. “I’m gonna test some spell stuff out. Show me your ankle? I figure if we get that off then you can help try and break the spell too. If two people cursed you, two people trying to undo the curse might be enough raw strength to break it.”

Kravitz considers this. Part of him wants to say it won’t work—it sounds too easy and there are conditions on the curse he hasn’t mentioned because Taako seems like he’ll run if Kravitz told him love’s embrace would break it too. Kravitz isn’t looking to make someone fall in love with him anyway. It’s like Taako said—he doesn’t want to wait around to be rescued by someone sweeping him off his feet. He wants to help himself out of this mess. That means going at this sideways—it means breaking the spell.

“It might work,” Kravitz says. “I wouldn’t mind having my magic back even if it doesn’t. The twins don’t visit often, but it would be nice to give them a taste of their own medicine the next time they do.”

“Twins?” Taako repeats, sounding surprised. “The necromancers who stuck you here are twins? They’re giving us a bad name. I’ve got to beat their spellwork now.”

It takes Kravitz a moment to work out what Taako means by that. “You have a twin?”

Taako nods, eyes on his open notebook as he fishes a wand out of his sleeve. “Yeah, a sister,” he says. “Lup. She’s great. Way better suited for the, like, rescuing a hot dude from a tower in the middle of a nightmare forest thing than I am, but you’re stuck with me, I guess.”

Taako waves his wand over Kravitz’s ankle and there’s a shower of purple sparks that drift over the silver band. The band glows faintly and for a moment it seems like something is happening, but the glow fades quickly, leaving Taako scowling at Kravitz’s leg.

“Fuck,” says Taako. “Okay, melting it didn’t work. I’ve got two more spells to try. After that, we’re wearing eating macarons to celebrate my genius or to commiserate over the lack of success.”

Kravitz scoops up a forkful of peas. “I consider having my first hot meal in years a success unto itself.”

Taako glances up at Kravitz and smiles, small and crooked. “Cha’boy’s cooking is always a success.”

Kravitz laughs and reaches for a piece of bread. “I know I haven’t eaten real food in years so I’m biased, but I believe that.”

“You could just say ‘I believe that,’ you know. You don’t need to qualify it.” Taako waves his wand again, sending out a shower of red sparks this time. Again, the band glows in response, but stays firmly in place.

“You seem to have enough of an ego without me stroking it,” Kravitz says, mostly to see how Taako reacts.

Taako doesn’t disappoint—he lets out an indignant squawk and flicks Kravitz’s leg, right above the silver band. “Rude, Krav. Maybe I should just leave you in here.”

Kravitz grins at the offended expression on Taako’s face. “Maybe you should,” he agrees. “A captive audience for your cooking.”

“I don’t need to make people to eat my cooking. My cooking is great.” Taako sticks his tongue out at Kravitz, drawing another laugh out of him. Taako’s hand is on Kravitz’s ankle, warm next to the familiar coolness of the anklet. “You should be more grateful.”

“I’m very grateful,” Kravitz promises, leaning closer to Taako, smiling at him with all the charm he can muster. “Why should my gratitude override my honesty?”

Taako presses his lips together like he’s fighting to keep from smiling back at Kravitz. “Honesty is overrated,” he says, shaking his head. “Who needs it?”

This close, Kravitz can see the constellation of freckles on Taako’s skin and the ring of green at the center of his brown eyes. “Sometimes the truth is important,” Kravitz says. “You have a nice smile, Taako. You should just laugh at my jokes. I already know you think I’m funny, so why not—”

Kravitz is cut off by Taako closing the space between them to press their mouths together—his lips soft against Kravitz’s, scented with the wine they’ve both been drinking. Taako exhales against Kravitz’s mouth and then pulls back, looking surprised—as if he wasn’t the one who kissed Kravitz in the first place.

Kravitz’s eyes flick down to Taako’s lips, his mind blank except for the thought that he’d like to do that again, please. He leans forward to kiss Taako, but Taako pulls back, removing his hand from Kravitz’s leg.

Taako flips through his notebook, going too fast to actually be reading the notes on the page. “So—” His voice starts too high-pitched and Taako stops, clearing his throat. “So. Not that kind of curse, I guess? The, uh, broken by a kiss kind?”

Kravitz blinks. That—oh. He hadn’t thought of… Taako said he had three ideas. Purple sparks. Red sparks. And then… this. Three. “That was your last attempt to break the spell?”

“For tonight,” Taako says. “Not, uh, not forever, but if I’m gonna figure out something else I should… you can keep the plates and stuff and I’ll get them next time, right?” He snaps his book closed and puts it in the basket, pulling out a delicate little box instead and shoving it into Kravitz’s hands. “Macarons. A consolation prize. I’m gonna—gotta do more research, right? Figure some stuff out? Gotta just… break the spell!”

Taako bounds to his feet before Kravitz can suggest that Taako finish dinner, at least, before he runs away.

“I’ll be back,” says Taako, looking down at Kravitz, but not quite meeting his eyes. “Tomorrow, maybe? Tomorrow, definitely. Definitely back tomorrow night to help with—all of this.”

Taako takes a step backwards, into the air, slowly backing up and away, over the hedge of thorns Kravitz can’t get over on his own. “You, uh, enjoy your food!” Taako is spooked—he’s running away and Kravitz is pretty sure he’s never going to see him again. “Night!”

“Taako—”

The moment he touches down on the other side of the thicket, Taako is gone—disappearing into the woods.

Kravitz clutches the box of macarons Taako gave him, acutely aware of the absence of Taako’s hand on his skin.

Chapter Text

Taako spends the night hiding under his duvet, mentally chastising himself for kissing Kravitz and then running away because who does that? The whole situation is ridiculous and Taako is not going to fall for it—the moonlight, the cheekbones, the warmth in Kravitz’s eyes when he smiles at Taako. Totally not Taako’s thing at all. A hot, mysterious boy in a fancy suit who laughs at his jokes and loves his cooking? Not his type.

But Taako kissed Kravitz and he could kick himself for it. He replays telling Kravitz that he guesses it’s not that kind of curse like Kravitz was ever going to buy that as an excuse for Taako just leaning in and kissing him. As if feeling up Kravitz’s leg first didn’t make it real fuckin’ obvious that Taako just… wanted to steal a kiss in the most awkward way possible. 

Taako is falling into every cliche there is—he found a boy who needs to be rescued, decided to help him, kissed him. Taako told Davenport he didn’t want a ball that decided who his future husband would be, and here’s fate, setting up the next best thing, helped along by his sister planting the idea of kissing Kravitz in Taako’s head.

Except even though all signs point to Taako riding in like prince charming and sweeping Kravitz off his feet, the only magic that happened when he and Kravitz kissed was the immediate frisson of chemistry Taako felt—no curse-breaking shower of sparks, no burst of light and magic, no nothing. The shackle stayed on and Kravitz himself kind of just looked… surprised.

That’s fine. It probably means Kravitz isn’t that into him. Taako can just stay in bed forever, no problem. The way he up and ran after springing a kiss on him, Kravitz probably won’t even mind Taako not coming back.

Taako will mind though. Taako likes Kravitz.

It’s the worst.

The worst, except that in the morning—after a night spent lying in bed agonizing over Kravitz and only a few short hours of uneasy sleep—Merle prods Taako awake and drags him out of bed and into Davenport’s study. That beats liking Kravitz for worst thing pretty handily.

“I am your prince.” Taako falls into one of the chairs across from Davenport and crosses his arms over his chest. He feels groggy and short-tempered, definitely not in the mood to a lecture on responsibility. “This is unconstitutional.”

“That’s really not how our government works, Taako,” Davenport says, patient and amused, which just annoys Taako more. “You’re our future king. You should know this.”

“Whoops,” says Taako. “Guess you better make Lup queen instead. She’ll do a better job. She’s got, like, a heart of gold or whatever. People like that in a queen. I’m just gonna spend our GDP on fancy spices.”

“We’re having a royal ball tomorrow night.” Davenport places a large scroll on his desk, unrolling it to reveal a list of names, only a few of which Taako recognizes. “We’ve invited every eligible bachelor we could. You can socialize and get to know them. It’s a party, Taako. Not a death sentence.”

Taako eyes the list. Greg Grimmauldis is on it. Davenport and Merle are really scraping the bottom of the barrel for this one. He still owes Lup money. “I know about the ball. You know how I feel about the ball. Why are we going over this again? You can’t force commitment on me.”

“Kid,” says Merle, sitting in the seat beside Taako’s. “You’re a prince. You’re going to be king. You need to at least seem like you’re thinking about marriage to make everyone in the kingdom feel a little more secure. Just pick someone and invite them to stay here for a bit. Everyone will be happy.”

Taako frowns. “I won’t be.”

“We’re not going to force you to marry someone you barely know,” Davenport says. “We want you to be happy, but we also want you to recognize that you have some responsibilities. Hopefully before we have to end a betrothal and throw another elaborate ball to find you a suitable replacement suitor. We’re trying to work with you, Taako. This way it gives you a chance to get to know someone.”

Taako can think of a million better ways to meet and get to know a guy. Davenport and Merle may have invited everyone they think is suitable for Taako, but there’s still going to be some self-selection happening. The people who accept the invitation, the ones who try to talk to him at the ball, are going to be angling for the position of prince consort—people who want to marry someone with a crown.

Taako’s not a sap. He doesn’t need true love or whatever, but how is he supposed to know the person he’s marrying actually likes him if this is how they meet? Taako’s an acquired taste, like fine wine. Some people love him, but some people—like Leon, the castle artificer—aren’t exactly president of the Taako fan club.

“Did you bring me here just to lecture me?” Taako asks. “I’m gonna go take a nap.”

“Taako, wait.” Davenport exchanges a glance with Merle before continuing to talk. “We’ve noticed you… spending a lot of time in your room this week. I know this responsibility is a lot to place on you, but if you’re feeling upset I’m sure we could find someone—”

“Oh my God.” Taako’s maybe a little pleased to know his absence has been noticed, even if Davenport and Merle are assuming it means something it doesn’t. Also apparently he’s dope at sneaking out at night. Good to know. “It’s not upset. I’m just sleeping,” he says. “I’ve been having late nights. I’ve got this spell I’m trying to work out.”

“You want some help with that?” Merle asks, raising his eyebrows. “I mean, not from me, but maybe Barry—”

“Asked him,” Taako says, shaking his head. “He was useless. Lup isn’t any good either.” He is not going to explain finding a boy in the woods and promising to free him to Davenport and Merle. It’s embarrassing enough having everyone else know. “It’s some kind of fucked up three layer catastrophe of a spell. It’s interesting, but it’s hard to figure out it all fits together.”

“You’re being very vague,” Davenport says, giving Taako an ever-so-suspicious look. It’s the kind of look that promises the guards are going to be thorough checking for pranks and traps before the ball tomorrow night. “If you’re trying to piece together multiple spells, why not ask Lucretia to help you with your research?”

Taako opens his mouth to protest that he doesn’t have time for more research because Merle and Davenport are pushing to kill his free time, then closes it. At this point, maybe research is what he should be doing, instead of sleeping some more or bugging Barry and Lup again. Maybe research is his last resort option.

“Yeah, okay,” he says, pushing himself out of his chair. “I’m gonna go bug Lucretia, but I want my protest of the whole ball thing noted.”

“It’s noted,” Merle promises. “We know.”

“And yet,” says Taako, raising his voice to be sure they hear him, but not bothering to look back at Davenport and Merle as he leaves the room, “you’re still doing it.”

#

The castle library is vast—two floors of bookcases towering above Lucretia, who is seated at a sturdy wooden desk in a tufted chair. There’s nobody who knows the library’s catalogue like she does, despite only officially holding the librarian position for the past year, because Lucretia’s been systematically reading the entire collection since she was a little girl and her parents first started working for the royal family.

“If you’re here to hide from Captain Davenport, know that I won’t tell on you, but I won’t lie if he asks if you’re in here directly.” Lucretia doesn’t bother looking up from the tome she’s reading as her left hand scrawls notes across the page of the parchment next to her.

Taako rolls his eyes. “I’m not here to hide. I just talked to him.”

Lucretia pauses her writing, glancing up at Taako. “What’s up, then? Do you need help finding something?”

Taako likes Lucretia, but she knows too much. He can—and does—play off his magical abilities as an innate knack for the stuff around most people in the castle. Lucretia’s seen how much he studying and practice he sneaks in to improve his skills.

“I’ve got a hypothetical question you might be able to help me with,” Taako says. “Say there’s someone—”

“Stuck in the woods as a bird with an anklet that locks in his magic?” Lucretia raises an eyebrow. “Barry was in here yesterday asking me about just such a hypothetical scenario.”

“God dammit, Barold.” Taako grabs a chair from one of the study tables, dragging it over to Lucretia’s desk and taking a seat in front of her. “And? Did you find anything?”

“Well… no,” Lucretia admits. “You’re talking about a fairly complex sounding curse. It’s hard to know what sort of magical theory to apply without actually analyzing the spell and its effects. Did going after the anklet work?”

“No,” says Taako. “I tried breaking it and then resizing it to make it bigger. Neither spell had any effect. I was going to try turning it into something more fragile—wood or ceramic—but I got, uh, distracted by some other stuff.” Like Kravitz’s laugh and the way his eyes went all soft when he looked at Taako. “Ran out of time.”

“Distracted?” Lucretia repeats, amused. “Magnus did say your new friend was handsome.”

“Magnus is a snitch and not my friend anymore,” says Taako. Magnus would go around telling everyone Kravitz was hot. “Lucretia, come on—I need ideas here. I’ve got one day of freedom left. Davenport and Merle aren’t exactly going to let me skip out on the ball to break a curse in the woods, and then I’ll have to deal with some guy hanging around and how am I supposed to explain bird boy to him? I need—”

“Okay, okay! I’ll help if I can.” Lucretia’s smiling at Taako like she thinks she knows something and Taako’s pretty sure she doesn’t. Taako hasn’t told anyone about kissing Kravitz and it’s daylight so Kravitz will be a bird right now. He can’t tell anyone. Taako’s secret shame is safe for now. “As far as I know, spells like the one you’re talking about usually have some kind of clause attached. Something that will make the whole curse crumble apart. All you have to do is find out what it is and that’s it—curse broken.”

Taako frowns. “How is that supposed to help?” he asks. “If Kravitz knew how to break the curse, don’t you think he’d tell me? Or at least hint that the spell was keeping him from saying something? I was hoping for… I don’t know. A volume of 1001 Curses and How to Break Them. Something actionable.”

“No such book, I’m afraid,” Lucretia says. “Not even Top Ten Curses and How to Avoid Them. Besides, it didn’t sound like this is anything even remotely approaching a simple curse.”

It’s really not, but Lucretia doesn’t have to rub it in. “You’re not being very helpful.”

“It’s hard to be helpful when I can’t examine the spell myself,” Lucretia says. “It would be much easier to suggest solutions if I could see it in person. Maybe after the ball we could all go out to see your friend, since he can’t come to us. If we all work on it together, I’m sure we can crack it.”

Lucretia’s probably right. Taako’s having no luck doing this on his own. Maybe he should have gotten everyone to come out to the woods with him in the first place. Maybe they would have broken the curse by now. He hadn’t wanted to confess that he was a prince before, but he’s got a ball to go to tomorrow night and that means he’s gotta tell Kravitz who he is now anyway—otherwise Kravitz will probably think Taako abandoned him.

Bad enough that Taako sprang a kiss on him out of nowhere.

Taako rubs his hands over his face. He’s surrounded by other magic users at the palace—Barry understands necromancy better than anyone else Taako’s met; Lucretia’s read nearly every book in existence; Lup knows both necromancy and evocation spells. Even Davenport and Merle are both powerful magicians in their own right, although they haven’t made a career out of it. If anyone can help break the curse, it’s them.

Taako doesn’t want to wait until after the ball, though, and it’d be hard to get Davenport and Merle on board with traipsing out into the Felicity Wilds the night before the ball after how vocal Taako’s been about not wanting it to happen. It sounds like a trap to Taako—like a good way to get them lost for twenty-four hours so the ball has to be cancelled. 

Taako’s kind of tied his own hands here. He’s not going to be able to get everyone out to see Kravitz tonight, and after the ball there’s going to be a whole new set of problems in the shape of a potential-fiance. It seems like it’ll be hard to get everyone to the woods in a timely fashion after the ball too.

Kravitz could come to them though.

It’d be risky. Dangerous. But even if Taako can’t break the curse on his own—and he definitely can’t—he can magic up a ladder to get Kravitz over the thorn bushes keeping him captive. He can give Kravitz a way out in his human form. Kravitz could come to the ball—maybe sneak in a dance with Taako, just to sell the bit—and then… it’d just be a matter of stretching the truth a big. Taako being concerned about a curse on his potential-fiance seems like the kind of thing Davenport would approve of. Then they can get straight to the business of making sure Kravitz isn’t stuck as a raven forever.

Bringing everyone to Kravitz would be safer and easier, but the ball is happening and Taako can’t stop it, so he might as well make use of it. Davenport isn’t exactly going to let Taako marry a bird. If Kravitz is Taako’s maybe-fiance, everyone will have to help fix him.

“Taako?” Taako glances up at Lucretia, who looks concerned. “Are you all right? I’m sure we can—”

“Taako’s good,” he says, cutting her off as he gets to his feet. “Taako’s got a plan now. You’re right. I need backup for this.”

“So the day after tomorrow?” Lucretia asks, raising his voice because Taako’s already on his way out of the door. “Taako?”

“Can’t talk now, Lucretia!” he calls back, striding out of the library. “I’ve gotta cook for tonight!”

“Taako, why do you need—?”

Taako closes the door to the library behind himself, cutting her off. It’s a terrible plan. There are a million things that could go wrong. And deep down, Taako’s aware that the appeal, for him, is mostly that he likes Kravitz and doesn’t want to end up betrothed to some stranger the next time he sees him.

Doesn’t matter. He’s made up his mind. Taako is going to ask Kravitz to the ball.

#

Night falls and the moon rises. Kravitz lets the moonlight wash over him, transforming him from raven to person, and lays in the clearing that has become his whole world, staring up at what he can see of the sky—a small patch of black-blue night, dotted with stars that blink down at him. One day, the vines that surround his tower might grow so high he doesn’t see the stars or the moon at all. One day, nature might do what the curse has been attempting to do since it was first cast.

It’s possible he’s feeling moody because Taako kissed him and then took off like a spooked horse. How is Kravitz supposed to interpret that? He doesn’t know if he believes that the kiss was just Taako seeing if a kiss would break the curse and he doesn’t know if he should tell Taako that there is a way around the spell with affection, but it requires an embrace, not a kiss.

The catch-22 of the way to break Kravitz’s curse is that telling someone that love is required to break the spell is almost guaranteed to prevent that from happening. Taako, who ran from a kiss, definitely doesn’t seem like someone who’d take that well.

He’s pretty sure Taako won’t come back. He ran away from Kravitz, and that seems—

The sound of footsteps crunching through the woods interrupts his moping. Kravitz sits up, suddenly alert. He sees Taako’s hat before anything else—the pointed top visible over the hedge. “Taako?”

Taako stops walking, hesitating like maybe he’s going to change his mind and leave, and then he starts walking again, closing the distance between himself and the briars. He peers over them, at Kravitz sitting on the ground. “Hi,” Taako says, sounding the least confident Kravitz has ever heard him. “So, uh, we should… talk about some stuff. I’ve got an idea, but there’s some… context you’re gonna need.” He pauses. “I brought snacks.”

Kravitz isn’t quite sure how to respond. There’s a new awkwardness between them that wasn’t there before last night. “I like snacks,” he says.

“My dude, you were eating bugs before I came around. Of course you like snacks.” Taako’s lips quirk into something like a smile. “Okay, hold up. I’m coming over.”

Kravitz sits up properly while Taako climbs his invisible staircase, running a hand over his hair to make sure he doesn’t have grass in it, adjusting his jacket and waistcoat. “I didn’t just eat bugs. Ravens are omnivores.”

“I’m guessing bugs were a significant part of your diet though.” Taako touches down in Kravitz’s clearing and grins at him. “Today I’ve got chicken. I forgot to ask the first time. You cool with chicken? Is that, like, cannibalism for you?”

“I’m not actually a bird, Taako,” Kravitz says, smiling back at Taako and letting himself relax. The kiss is still lurking in the back of his mind, but it’s background—less important than the fact that Taako is here and Kravitz gets to spend time with him again.

And that Taako might have more ideas of how to break the curse, obviously. That’s also important.

“I don’t know, my dude. Seem pretty bird-like to me.” Taako sets the basket he’s carrying down in front of Kravitz, then sits beside him. “Feathers, wings—I’ve seen your whole deal.”

Kravitz rolls his eyes, reaching for the basket. “As long as I get to eat your food, you can keep teasing me.”

“It’s no fun if I have your permission.” Taako watches as Kravitz pulls food out of the basket—roast chicken, sliced and still warm; chunks of sweet potatoes that smell like warm spices; asparagus dressed with lemon and Parmesan cheese. “Glad you appreciate the cooking though—thought you’d like another warm meal.”

Kravitz picks up a piece of sweet potato, popping it into his mouth. It tastes like cinnamon and nutmeg, but leaves the burn of hot pepper lingering on his tongue after he swallows. “Thank you, Taako. I appreciate it more than you know.” Even if they don’t break the curse at least he’s gotten this, but Taako’s not just here to feed him. Kravitz looks up at him. “You said you wanted to talk?”

“Right. Yeah.” Taako pulls two plates out of the basket, busying himself with serving up food for Kravitz and then himself. “So, uh, I haven’t been… completely honest with you. About everything. I mean, I haven’t lied-lied. It just kind of didn’t come up? But now it’s gonna come up because I’ve got a proposal for you.” Taako pauses, handing Kravitz his plate. “So… I’m a prince.”

Kravitz blinks at Taako, freezing mid-plate acceptance. “What?”

“Yeah, it’s like… a whole thing.” Taako rubs a hand over the back of his neck, not meeting Kravitz’s eyes. “Heir to a kingdom? But basically that’s sexism because nobody really remembers whether me or my sister was born first. We’re identical and I guess Merle didn’t think it was important to write it down at the time, and… anyway, so I’m crown prince and there’s this ball.”

Kravitz… doesn’t really know what to say to Taako. It’s not like he’s brought up his own royal heritage either. “Okay,” he says, after a beat. “So… you’re a prince.”

“Crown prince,” Taako corrects. “Yeah, so this ball is… soon. And I think you should come.”

Kravitz frowns at that. “Taako, I can’t come. I’m—have you missed that the point of the curse is that it traps me here if I want to remain human? Or the part where if I’m not here when the sun rises I’ll be stuck as a raven forever?”

“No, I get it,” Taako says, shaking his head. “It’s—listen, I’ve got a plan. So being a prince means I have, like, people, right? Like some of the best magicians in the world live at the palace. And the point of this ball is supposed to be me choosing the person I’m supposed to marry, or whatever. So if you come to the ball and I choose you… I mean, they’re not gonna make me marry a bird, you know? They’ll help me break your curse.”

It’s… a lot to process. Taako is also a prince. Taako wants Kravitz to come to a royal ball and be his chosen suitor. “You… want me to risk being stuck as a raven forever so that you can tell your kingdom we’re going to get married and ask everyone to help break my curse?”

Taako makes a face. “It sounds like a bad plan when you put it like that. Listen, I have no desire to marry some stuck-up prince I don’t even know. They’re the worst. And you don’t need to marry me after. It’s a ruse—you help me with the ball thing and I help you with the bird thing. We both get what we want.”

Kravitz feels oddly disappointed, which is ridiculous. Of course they shouldn’t be married—they’ve only known each other a couple days. He doesn’t really want to jump into marriage either, but if the curse is broken, maybe they’ll be able to spend more time together. Get to know each other.

He’ll be able to break the news that he’s also a prince to Taako at a better time—one where Taako’s not actively trying to avoid getting involved with a prince.

“How certain are you that your people can break the curse?” Kravitz asks, after a moment.

Taako looks surprised, like he didn’t expect Kravitz to seriously consider his plan. “I, uh, pretty certain,” he says. “Maybe not completely certain, but… yeah, I’m pretty sure. If we can’t do it, no one can. And, I mean, what’s gonna pull in magic users better than the prince’s fiancé being cursed? That’s the kind of publicity you can’t buy. Every magic user in Faerun is gonna want to take a stab at breaking it.”

Logically, Kravitz should say no. He should suggest Taako bring his friends to the tower to try breaking the curse safely. Except Kravitz is familiar with the responsibility that comes with being heir to a kingdom. It’s been a long time since he was home and a long time since anyone addressed him as a prince, but Kravitz remembers what it was like to know that the privileges he enjoyed came with a duty to his country to fulfil a certain role, even if it wasn’t always a role he felt comfortable in.

Not going along with Taako’s plan won’t stop the ball. It won’t stop Taako from becoming betrothed to someone.

Kravitz glances at Taako’s lips, remembering the kiss, the weight of Taako’s hand on his ankle. Agreeing is a risk, but what has waiting gotten Kravitz so far? Nothing has changed.

He can take this chance, or he can stay—can keep doing what he’s always done and wait for rescue instead of actively trying to defy the restrictions Edward and Lydia placed on him.

“Okay,” he says. “If you can figure out a way for me to leave the tower on the night of the ball, I’ll do it.”

“Wait, really?” Taako looks startled by his agreement. “That—fuck, okay. Yes. Great. So when I said the ball was soon I meant tomorrow night, and—”

Tomorrow?” Kravitz repeats incredulously.

“Listen, this is a new plan,” Taako says. “It’s a little last minute, but it’s fine. So the ball is tomorrow night. You’re gonna be late, with the moon and whatever, but you slip inside and find me. We dance, or whatever, and then I tell everyone to go home because I made my choice. I bring you to all the wizards working at the castle and we start on the curse thing. Easy.”

“Not easy,” Kravitz says. “What is your plan for that?” He points towards the thick barrier of briars between him and freedom. “If I can’t fly and I can’t use magic, how am I supposed to get over it?”

“Have you tried a ladder?” Taako asks, leaning forward. “Because cha’boy can magic up a ladder no problem.”

Kravitz blinks. Kravitz has not, in fact, tried a ladder. When Edward and Lydia first trapped him here, he tried climbing and cut up his hands. He tried to start a fire to burn the thicket down and couldn’t. He tried over and over again to use his magic, to somehow break the curse through sheer force of will. 

Ladders hadn’t entered the equation. In part because if he couldn’t get back to the clearing in time while he was human, he’d end up a raven forever, and in part because where would he get one?

But now Taako is giving him a good reason to leave and offering a ladder to help him out.

Kravitz shakes his head. “I haven’t.”

“That’s what I thought,” Taako says, grinning as he clambers to his feet. “If I can levitate over, a ladder should work too. I mean, don’t get me wrong, you’re gonna have to jump from the top of the bush and that’s probably gonna suck, but I can get you to the top.”

Even if Taako’s friends can’t break the curse, Kravitz could send his mother a message once he gets to the castle. He can let her know he’s okay because he’s pretty certain she’s still fine. If anything had happened to her since his capture, Edward and Lydia would have come and rubbed it in. They enjoy watching him suffer.

If anyone can break the spell, it’s his mother. He knows how powerful she is and besides that, she loves him—a hug from her is all it would take.

“All right,” Kravitz says. “I don’t have—well, I have quite a lot to lose, actually, but if it works it’s worth the risk. Sitting here isn’t doing anything to get me out.”

“Really?” Taako gives him a pleased look. “It’s gonna go great. I’m a prince and a wizard—this kind of magical bullshit is what I was made for, right? We’ve got this.”

“You talking yourself into believing in your plan after I’ve already agreed to try it isn’t filling me with confidence,” Kravitz says, amused.

“No, it’s cool. Be confident,” Taako says, waving a hand dismissively. “Can’t let that handsome face turn into a bird for good.”

Taako’s been calling him handsome since Kravitz first lured him and Magnus to the tower. This time, Kravitz has to catch himself to keep from smiling. “I’d appreciate that.”

“It’d be a tragedy,” Taako agrees, getting to his feet. He pushes up the sleeves of his robe, a bit of showmanship which is definitely not necessary for casting a spell. “Hold on and let me make you a ladder, then we can eat and you can tell me how great at cooking I am some more.”

Leaving the clearing in his human form isn’t a good plan. It’s too risky and more than likely it’s going to backfire and be how Edward and Lydia finally win.

Kravitz watches Taako pick up the empty basket he brought the food in. Taako shakes it and it twists and stretches in his hands, growing longer and less basket shaped until Taako is holding one end of a sturdy wicker ladder. He looks very pleased with himself as he props it up against the briars and turns to smile at Kravitz like look what I did.

Kravitz smiles back at Taako, helplessly enamoured. The dim light in the clearing paints Taako in soft blues and purples, moonlight catching in his hair. With Taako’s looking at him like that, it’s easy for Kravitz to be certain—leaving is worth the risk.

#

After Taako leaves, Kravitz stands in the clearing, waiting for the moon to set. Tomorrow night he’s going to leave and either he’ll be on his way to freedom or none of this will matter anymore because he’ll be a raven for good.

Either way, things are going to change. Either way, he won’t be playing Edward and Lydia’s game anymore.

“You know,” says a too-familiar voice behind Kravitz, “breaking the rules really doesn’t seem like princely behaviour. That’s more our thing.” 

Kravitz turns, hackles up, to face Edward and Lydia. They’re dressed in elaborate, garishly coloured court clothes, leaning against the tower. They’re obviously posed, like they took the time to arrange the exact drape of the gold-trimmed ruffles on the cuffs of their sleeves before bringing themselves to his attention.

“There’s no rule against me talking to someone,” he says.

“It’s the spirit of the thing,” Edward says. “A ladder. Really, Kravitz, what’s the point of the bush if you don’t have to cut up your hands climbing to get out?”

“It’s really not fair,” Lydia agrees, pulling a glove off her manicured hand. “So let’s just get rid of that, shall we?” She smiles, falsely sweet, and snaps her fingers.

The ladder Taako made bursts into flame.

Kravitz twitches towards it and Edward flings out a hand, sending a rope of black magic that coils around Kravitz and squeezes. It feels like being wrapped in ice water, necrotic energy crackling around him as he stumbles and falls to his knees.

“Did you think we wouldn’t sense someone trying to break that pretty little anklet of yours?” Lydia asks. “Kravitz, you should know us better by now. The game is only fun as long as you’re here.”

“It’s not a game,” Kravitz spits, gritting his teeth against the sickly feel of Edward’s magic wrapped around him.

“It is.” Edward pushes off the tower, sauntering over to Kravitz so he can smirk down at him. “I have to say though, finding a prince and getting yourself invited to a ball in just two night—I’m impressed.”

“Oh me too,” Lydia agrees. “You can’t go, obviously, but it’s still impressive.”

“It’s very rude though, don’t you think?” Edward asks, looking at Lydia. “He told the prince he’d come. If he doesn’t show, what is the prince going to think?”

Kravitz feels cold dread creep over him—a sudden certainty that he knows exactly where this is going. “Stay away from Taako.”

Lydia ignores him completely. “Someone should take advantage of the invitation. I mean, it was a very kind invitation. It’d be such a shame to waste it.”

“Stay away from him,” Kravitz repeats. “What do you think is going to happen when you show up at a palace full of magic users? They’re not going to—”

Edward snaps his fingers and Kravitz feels the silence spell slap over his mouth, cutting him off. “We should go,” Edward says. “I’ve always thought we should be royalty.” Edward looks down at himself, making a show of plucking at his brocade coat. “I should change into something more suitable though. Don’t you think I should change?”

“Oh, certainly,” Lydia agrees. “You know what my favourite sort of balls are?”

“The same as mine.” Edward smirks as the air around him starts to ripple and warp, his form going blurry around the edges as his clothes grow more somber his hair grows longer, skin darker. When it settles, Kravitz finds himself looking up at his own face, except his eyes are cold and cruel and deeply satisfied. “I love a masquerade.”

Kravitz struggles against the bonds holding him in place, wishing he had his voice, his magic—anything that made him feel less helpless. He doesn’t want Taako dragged into this, doesn’t want Edward and Lydia taking advantage of him. Taako doesn’t deserve their particular kind of cruelty just because he wanted to help Kravitz. Just because Kravitz made Taako help him.

“What do you think?” Edward asks, straightening out the cuffs on his suit and preening in front of Lydia. 

“A bit boring, but the foundation is good,” Lydia says. “You can make improvements later. Kravitz? Thoughts?” She looks down at him, smiling, and Kravitz’s voice comes back to him as she lifts the spell on his lips.

“You’re not going to get away with this,” Kravitz says. “Taako’s a wizard. He knows what a glamour looks like. This won’t last.”

“Oh, we don’t need it to last long,” Edward says, dismissive. “Did you know he has a twin sister? I can’t think of a better arrangement. We’ll swap one set of twins for another. Really, we should be thanking you for trying to cheat.”

“We won’t though,” Lydia says. “You need to learn your lesson. You’re not going anywhere. You keep cheating—changing the curse, having your prince make you a ladder. When are you going to learn that your actions have consequences, Kravitz?”

“You cheated and you need to be punished,” Edward agrees. “We’ve been giving you too much freedom.”

Far too much.” Lydia twists her hand and Kravitz feels the weight of the cuff on his ankle change, growing heavier. When he looks down there’s a silver chain hanging off of it.

Kravitz pushes through the pain of the spell keeping his arms tied, lurching to his feet and lunging at Edward because no—he’s not going to let himself be chained down, not going to—

A familiar sensation washes over him and his body shifts before he can make contact with Edward—everything folding up and inward, getting smaller and tighter as he turns into a raven.

Edward and Lydia laugh—pure, confident triumph as Kravitz, in bird form, hits the ground, wings pinned to his side, chain dragging him down.

“Poor little bird,” Lydia says, scooping him up. “Don’t worry. We’ll take care of—”

Kravitz pecks her hand viciously hard because it’s all he can do now—they’ve taken away everything else. Lydia lets out a hiss of pain and tightens her hold on him. 

“Fine,” she says. “If that’s how you want to play. We don’t like cheaters and we don’t like you. Your prince is going to suffer. It’s all your fault and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Kravitz knows. He knows he’s the one who dragged Taako into this so he can’t let them do this. He can’t let Edward and Lydia hurt Taako too.

He bites her, kicking his legs and digging his talons into the thin skin of Lydia’s wrists, drawing blood. If he can get free of her grasp then maybe

Lydia throws him against the side of the tower, hard, and Kravitz’s whole world erupts into a bright flare of pain, blocking out every other sensation. All he knows is that he hurts and he’s falling and he can’t let this be it, can’t let them get to Taako, can't—and then everything goes black and Kravitz doesn’t know anything at all.

Chapter Text

“I expected to have to drag you kicking and screaming to this party,” Lup says, from the entrance to Taako’s room. She’s wearing an elaborate red and gold gown, her hair loose around her bare shoulders and a delicate tiara perched on her head. “I’ve got Magnus on standby.”

Taako rolls his eyes and finishes braiding his hair, tying the end with a teal ribbon. “Okay, one, you should be more supportive of my efforts to escape the shackles of my privilege. Two, I’ve got a plan.”

“A plan?” Lup grins, walking into the room and sitting on the edge of Taako’s bed. “Does the plan have anything to do with your bird boyfriend? I did kind of expect to come get you and find a note saying you ran away to the woods.”

“He’s not my boyfriend.” Taako can feel the tips of his ears going red which is ridiculous—he’s not even lying. Kravitz isn’t his boyfriend. Sometimes he hates his sister. “Maybe it has something to do with him, but it’s not because we’re boyfriends. We’re just helping each other out. They’re not gonna let me be engaged to a bird. Everyone’s going to have to help me break his curse if we’re betrothed.”

“Wait, really?” Lup asks, giving him a surprised look. “I was just joking.”

“It’s mutually beneficial.” Taako doesn’t want to get too into the plan with Lup or she’ll tear it apart and call him out. “We’re doing each other a favour here.”

“Sure,” says Lup. “Very altruistic of you, Taako. Nothing to do with the fact that, according to Magnus, bird boy is hot.”

Taako is gonna kill Magnus. “I mean it doesn’t hurt.”

Lup laughs and flops back on his bed, despite her coiffed hair and fancy dress, propping herself up on her elbows. “It does sound like a nice bonus, yeah.” She pauses. “But he’s nice? You like him?”

“Again, we’re faking the engagement, Lup,” Taako says. “It’s not like I’m actually gonna marry the dude. It’s a ruse.” He pauses, thinking about kissing Kravitz. Kravitz’s laugh. The crinkles around his eyes when he smiles. How much he likes Taako’s cooking. His old fashioned suit. The trust he’s placing in Taako, voluntarily leaving his tower for this. “He’s cool though. I think you’ll like him.”

Lup is looking at Taako like she very much wants to say something about the fact that yes, okay, maybe Taako does have a crush on Kravitz, and maybe he doesn’t want to end up engaged to someone else when Kravitz exists as… something. Not a boyfriend. A possibility.

If Taako can make good on his promise and break the curse.

Taako shrugs, looking away from Lup. “I mean, I like him, so I hope you do too.”

Lup extends a foot, knocking it gently against his knee and when Taako glances at her, her knowing look has softened into something kinder. “If you do, I’m sure I will. I am going to ask him lots of questions about what it’s like to be a bird though. Magnus says he ate worms. You can’t expect me to let that go.”

Taako considers protesting, but honestly? He’d do the same. “That’s fair,” he says. “You can ask him lots of worm questions. He should know what he’s in for.”

Taako gets to his feet, smoothing down the front of his jacket. His outfit is all rich blues and greens, and flowers made of ribbons and beads dot twisting, embroidered vines that cover every inch of the fabric. He looks spectacular. Like a prince. 

He’s going to shine next to Kravitz’s understated dark suit.

Taako holds his arms open and turns in place, so Lup can take in the suit in its full glory. “Good?”

“You look great.” Lup pushes herself up off the bed and offers Taako her arm. “Let’s go find your future fiancé, your highness.”

Fake fiancé,” Taako says, hooking his arm through Lup’s. “The ruse part of this is important.”

“Uh-huh,” says Lup, as they leave his room and step into the hallway. “Your fake fiancé who you’ve been cooking for and sneaking out to see in the middle of the night.”

Lup.”

“Oh shit, he’s ready?” 

Taako cuts off any further protests, looking at Magnus, waiting for them at the end of the hall. “Yes,” he says. “You don’t need to hover. I’m not going to run away. What kind of friend are you, anyway? Willing to force me to get engaged against my will.”

“I mean, I was just gonna make you come to the party. I sort of figure if you don’t want to get betrothed, you’ll find a way out of it—you’re smart.” Magnus shrugs, affable as ever as he reaches out to pat Taako on the shoulder. “I’m sure you can convince everyone at the party that they don’t want to marry you.”

Taako’s not sure whether Magnus is giving him a compliment or not. Chasing off potential suitors isn’t a bad plan, but Taako and Kravitz have a better one in motion.

Kind of a better one.

It’s still terrible, but Taako’s hoping it works out.

“I know what I’m doing, don’t worry about it,” Taako says, freeing himself from Lup so he can walk ahead of her and Magnus. “Everything is going to work out just fine.”

#

Kravitz wakes up to his whole body aching. It’s dark in the tower and it takes a moment for everything to come back to him, but when it does he’s suddenly very alert—Lydia and Edward could still be around. It’s silent in the tower, though—no voices filtering in from outside, just the ambient sound of the Felicity Wilds. 

He doesn’t know how long it’s been since they locked him up. If he’s lucky it’s only been a few hours and he still has time to get himself free, but there’s no light filtering down the tower stairs from the few windows that dot it, letting in sunlight during the day. There’s no indication that it hasn’t been days since Lydia knocked him unconscious, except Kravitz can’t let himself think like that.

Lydia and Edward are going to hurt Taako. They’re going to make him suffer like they’ve made Kravitz suffer for years and years. Kravitz needs to warn him.

Kravitz tries to get up. He spreads his wings and tries to take off for the stairs where there are windows and escape waiting for him—but a sharp tug on his ankle reminds him of Lydia and Edward’s other new trick: attaching a chain to the shackle keeping Kravitz’s magic at bay.

A chain, which is now attached to the tower wall, anchoring Kravitz in place. 

Chained up, trapped in the tower, in his raven form, with no idea how much time he lost while he was unconscious, Kravitz feels suddenly and overwhelmingly helpless. He’s a bird. He’s got no magic and no way to warn Taako about what’s coming. Kravitz can’t give up trying to free himself before he’s even really started because it’s his fault Taako has a target on his back.

Kravitz spent years assuming Lydia and Edward would play by the rules set by the curse. He should have known better. He’s seeing clearly now, though, and he knows that giving up is exactly what they want him to do. They want him to accept that this is his fate. To accept that there’s nothing he can do to help Taako when the odds are stacked against him like this.

Kravitz refuses to let Lydia and Edward have the satisfaction. He refuses to let them win without at least trying to get in their way. If this is how everything is going to end, if this is how he gets stuck as a bird forever, then so be it—Taako is worth fighting for.

#

Taako catches himself looking for the moon in the large ballroom windows, watching as it creeps higher in the night sky. If Lup caught him staring longingly out the window, she’d roast him, but she’s busy dancing with Barry, enjoying the party. He knows Kravitz is going to need time to get to the palace—and, okay, maybe it should have occurred to him that arriving on foot for a ball wasn’t the best look—but Taako’s anxious. They’re only gonna have so much time to sell the bit before the curse takes hold. Wherever he is, Kravitz needs to book it if they’re gonna make this work.

Maybe Kravitz changed his mind, though. Maybe he decided not to come because Taako asked too much from him. Maybe Kravitz has some sense even though Taako obviously doesn’t. Maybe—

“Taako?”

Taako starts when he hears Kravitz’s rich voice behind him and takes a moment to very firmly tell himself his heart suddenly beating faster in his chest is because Kravitz snuck up on him before he turns around. “Hi,” he says, smiling at Kravitz, who’s smirking like maybe he knows he caught Taako by surprise. “You came.”

“Of course,” says Kravitz. “I wouldn’t leave you waiting, Taako. And this is a spectacular party.” He glances around the ballroom. “Quite a change from the woods.”

“No worms for dinner here,” Taako agrees, like an idiot. “Hey, uh, wine? I’m gonna get us wine. My sister’s going to interrogate you at some point tonight and we’re leaving the party betrothed, so you definitely need wine.”

Kravitz pulls his eyes off the decor and the other guests and turns them back on Taako, winking. “Wine sounds perfect.”

The wink is weird, but so was Taako mentioning worms. Seeing Kravitz outside of the woods feels different, somehow. The tower, the clearing—it’s a cage Kravitz is being kept in, but it’s also private. Here, they’re both on display, especially since Taako has blown off everyone else who tried to chat him up. He knows what they’re after and he knows that Kravitz isn’t like that. He doesn’t care that Taako is a prince—he cares that he’s a wizard.

And maybe it’s more than that too. Maybe Kravitz likes him.

Taako would be okay with that. Taako maybe likes Kravitz too.

He offers Kravitz his hand and quirks an eyebrow at him. “Let’s go then, handsome,” Taako says. “A quick drink, some dancing, and then we’ll find Dav and Merle and seal the deal. Once we’re betrothed it’ll be easy to recruit people to get the curse off you once and for all.”

Kravitz takes Taako’s hand, raising it to his lips and pressing a cool kiss to the back of it. “Thank you, Taako,” he says. “I couldn’t have planned this better myself.”

If Taako feels any unease, it’s easy to push it away and ignore it. They’re about to fake an engagement in front of the entire kingdom—nerves are a reasonable thing to feel. 

Taako steps closer to Kravitz, linking their hands together. “Well, come on then,” he says. “Time to put on a show.”

#

Kravitz is trapped and he is alone. All he can think about is Taako—Taako, who’ll see Edward and think it’s him. Kravitz has first hand knowledge of how cruel Edward and Lydia can be. If they’re really planning on replacing Taako and his sister, first they’re going to have to get rid of them, and Kravitz doesn’t want Taako trapped like he is—or worse, killed.

The chain anchoring him to the wall is heavy. Kravitz still spreads his wings and pushes upwards, trying to pull it from the wall or to find a nonexistent weak point in—trying to get free.

He gets to the end of the chain’s allowance and is pulled to an abrupt, jarring stop, falling out of the air to the hard stone floor. The inside of the tower is dark and he’s got no hope of reaching moonlight—if there’s still time for him to watch the moon rising—unless he gets the chain off. With the distraction of a ball going on around them, Edward might actually pull off tricking Taako, who won’t know it’s not Kravitz until it’s too late.

Or worse, maybe Taako won’t realize it then either. Taako’s the one who kept looking for an angle, only half-joking when he asked Kravitz if this was all an elaborate trap. Maybe Taako will think Kravitz betrayed him—that this was a set up.

Kravitz hops towards the stairs and yanks at the chain again, making an involuntary squawk when he reaches the end of the short length Lydia left him and the band around his leg digs into his skin.

Kravitz looks down at his thin ankle, at his foot, which can curl up small when he needs to grasp small branches and the brims of wizard hats. It’s not just the chain that’s a problem—as long as he has the anklet, he has no magic. As long as he has it, he’s trapped.

If he’s missed moonrise—and the darkness in the tower makes him pretty sure he has—then he’s stuck as a raven, but if he can get his magic back, he can still save Taako.

Kravitz steels himself and pulls, curling his toes in, ignoring the sharp pain that shoots through him when metal digs into flesh again. It hurts. It’s going to hurt. It’s going to make it hard to fly, hard to concentrate on navigating the woods, hard to find the castle. 

It’s going to be worth it because it has to be. 

Kravitz has been trapped in the tower for too long. He told himself he was going to fight, that he was going to tell Edward and Lydia to go fuck themselves, and he is—even if it means he has to break his foot to do it.

He wishes he’d saved some of Taako’s food in the tower—something oily to make the pull of metal on rough skin easier. He has nothing but determination and the knowledge that if he doesn’t do this, Taako will die.

Kravitz is not going to let that happen.

He braces his free foot again the floor and flaps his wings, trying to angle his toes to make it easier to slip the metal ring off. Kravitz is not a victim to be rescued. He’s the son of the Raven Queen. He saved his own life once before by changing the curse, and he’s going to save it again now.

He cries out in pain as the anklet slips down. The echo rings through the tower, bouncing off stone walls and drowning out the sharp snap of bones breaking—the tearing of muscles not meant to bend the way Kravitz is forcing them to bend. The pain nearly makes him black out as he collapses forward against the bottom step, suddenly free from the thing that’s been holding him back for years and years—weighing him down and keeping his magic in check.

He curls his mangled foot up against his body, riding out the wave of pain the movement causes. When it subsides, the triumph and rush of adrenaline he feels overrides everything else for the moment and he laughs—or at least, laughs as much as a raven can laugh, lightheaded with elation. This time, when the sound echoes around him, Kravitz can feel the power in it—can feel his magic flooding back to him. 

Kravitz stands on his one good foot, unsteady, and faces the locked door to the tower. He takes in a deep breath and lets out a vicious shriek—a sharp sound rich with intention.

A crack appears in the center of the wooden door when his magic hits it, spider-webbing out—slowly at first, then faster. Kravitz lets loose another cry and the splintering door crumbles to pieces in front of him, letting in the cool night air and the promise of escape.

He still needs to make it through the Felicity Wilds to the castle, still needs to hope he can get in and that Taako will know it’s him, but Kravitz is free and he has magic searing through his veins again.

He’s going to make Edward and Lydia regret ever thinking they could keep him prisoner.

#

Taako’s almost done with his wine when Lup catches him, dragging Barry behind her, her eyes firmy on Kravitz. “This is bird boy?” she asks, clearly delighted as she looks Kravitz over. “Magnus wasn’t kidding, huh?”

Lup.” Taako doesn’t know why he’s trying to get Lup to behave herself. He knows and loves his sister. It’s not going to work.

“I mean, it’s true though,” she says, gesturing at Kravitz. “Look at him.”

“I’m Barry,” says Barry, holding out a hand to Kravitz. “Lup’s fiancé. It’s nice to meet you, Kravitz. I’ve only heard a little bit about you, but Lup’s been excited to meet you all night.”

Kravitz shakes Barry’s hand very briefly, looking him and his outfit—Barry is tremendously unstylish in roughly made, blue trousers and a white shirt with a brown waistcoat—over with some confusion and maybe a little judgement. Taako can’t exactly blame him. Barry looks very plain, standing next to Lup. Barry’s also one of the greatest wizards in the kingdom and an expert in necromancy.

“Barry’s the Royal Wizard,” Taako says. “Except he gets so excited about being engaged to Lup he forgets sometimes.”

“As he should,” Lup says, her attention still very firmly on Kravitz. “So what’s it like, being a bird? I’ve always wanted to fly. Levitating is close, but not really the same thing, you know? As far as animals to get stuck as, bird isn’t so bad—better than a frog.”

“Oh, you know. You get used to if,” Kravitz says, hiding a smile behind the rim of his wine glass. “If you want to be a bird, I’m sure we could work something out.”

Lup laughs. “Are you offering me your curse? Thanks, but I think I’m good actually.”

Barry cocks his head to the side, peering at Kravitz. “It’s funny… when Taako told me it was necromancers who cursed you, I didn’t think necromancy would have much to do with the curse itself, but you reek of necromantic magic.”

Kravitz looks unnerved by the observation. “Do I?”

Barry reaches up to adjust his glasses. “Yeah,” he says. “You’re steeped in it. Necromancy’s kind of my speciality. I’ve never heard of it being used like this before.”

“Weird,” says Kravitz, setting his wine glass down. “I wouldn’t know about spell classes. I just sing spells and I sure haven’t done that in a hot minute. Taako, should we dance? We’re burning moonlight here if we want to get betrothed by the end of the night.”

“Oh, fuck. Right.” Taako drains the rest of his glass. “We’re gonna go dance. You can poke at Kravitz and his weird bird curse and ask him prying questions later. We gotta cut a rug.”

“Sure, don’t let us interfere with your date, babe,” Lup says, because she’s awful. “Enjoy the party.”

Taako rolls his eyes at her and lets Kravitz drag him out onto the dancefloor. “Sorry about Lup,” he says, setting one hand on Kravitz’s waist and taking his hand in the other. “She thinks being my sister means she’s got a free pass to poke her nose into my business.”

Kravitz snorts. “Yeah, that’s usually how sisters work,” he agrees, resting his free hand on Taako’s shoulder. “Mine’s the same.”

Kravitz waits until the music hits the right beat before taking a step backwards. Taako steps forward in sync with Kravitz and they join everyone else on the dancefloor, falling into an easy dance. Kravitz mentioned his mother having money, so maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that he knows how to dance, but Taako’s still impressed. It doesn’t seem like a skill you’d bother keeping up while trapped in a tower in the woods.

He glances up at Kravitz, once he’s sure they’re not going to trip over each other. “You have a sister? You didn’t mention that before.”

Kravitz pauses for the briefest moment, then nods. “I do,” he says. “We… weren’t close. I don’t speak about her much.”

“I don’t know much about your non-tower life at all, really,” Taako says. “I mean, not that I can talk—secret prince and all that—but we should… get dinner sometime. You can tell me about your family. Dinner I don’t cook, I mean.”

“Are you asking me on a date?” Kravitz asks, leaning in closer to Taako. “We’re doing things a little out of order here.”

“If I can’t ask my fiancé out on a date, who can I go out with?” Taako asks, trying to play it off as he looks away, over Kravitz’s shoulder, at all the people watching them dance. Good. That was the point of dancing, right? Get everyone invested in pretend relationship so they’ll fight to save Kravitz from his curse. “So? Yes or no, my man—you want a free dinner or what?”

Kravitz takes his hand off Taako’s shoulder, grabbing his chin and turning Taako’s face back towards him. Kravitz’s is half-watching their audience too. He seems pleased with all the attention they’ve attracted. “Yes,” he says, leaning in and pressing their lips together—a cool press of Kravitz’s mouth to Taako’s, a kiss that, given the circumstances, feels like a declaration of intent. “When this is all over, I’m going to take you someplace very special. You’ll love it so much you’ll never want to leave.”

#

Kravitz is used to navigating the forest from the sky. Years ago, Edward and Lydia left him in his tower to rot, thinking the Felicity Wilds would keep him in check, but the woods know him now. He’s part of them—the bird who becomes a man who becomes a bird—another creature lurking in the dark. They might be treacherous for other people, but they’ve become his home.

Kravitz darts through branches that miraculously shift out of his way, flying full speed ahead through the Wilds. He ignores the searing pain of his mangled foot and presses forward, as fast as he can, because he needs to get to Taako before Edward and Lydia sink their claws into him.

The palace isn’t hard to find either—it’s a palace, and close enough to the woods for Taako to find his way to and from the tower by night. Once he’s found the palace, the ballroom is easy too. It’s windows are all lit up from within, glowing warmly. It looks inviting and cozy and Kravitz banks towards it, intent on the shapes of people inside, all wearing fine clothing and dancing to music he can’t hear.

Kravitz nearly collides with one of the windows before correcting course. He can’t land easily on his leg and he can’t hover in the air, so he’s forced to fly back and forth in front of the windows, eyes searching the crowded room for Taako—for Edward wearing his face.

He finds them on the dancefloor. Edward’s hand is under Taako’s chin, drawing him up into a kiss as Taako’s guests watch and then pulling back, murmuring something to Taako with a smug look on his face.

Kravitz doesn’t even think about what he’s doing, what spell he’s trying to cast with the limited vocal range he has right now—he lets out a piercing cry aimed at the glass in between him and Taako, concentrating all his power on getting it out of the way.

The spell hits the windows like a battering ram, shattering them into a hail of little glass pebbles—nothing bigger than half an inch—that falls to the floor below as guests scream and rush out of the way.

The music that was playing comes to an abrupt stop.

It’s a more dramatic entrance than Kravitz meant to make, but it’s effective. All eyes are on him as he swoops into the ballroom. He ignores everyone except Edward and Taako, diving down towards them, driven by raven-instinct to claw at Edward with his one good leg.

Edward raises his arms to protect his face and Kravitz’s talons catch on his jacket, tearing the fabric but not getting to skin. He wheels around to take another shot at Edward, but the hall is full of magic users—just like Taako promised it would be. A shield goes up around both Edward and Taako—two semi-opaque domes of protection—cutting Kravitz off.

He can see the expression on Edward’s face through the bubble. He looks gleeful—not afraid, not even vaguely concerned. He’s delighted that Kravitz escaped the tower and made it to the party.

“What the fuck is wrong with this bird?” A woman in a red dress pushes through the crowd—a woman who has to be Lup, Taako’s sister, because she’s got a tiara on her head and she looks just like her brother. She had a spell at the ready, her hand wreathed in flame. 

Kravitz isn’t stupid. He launches himself upwards, circling in irregular patterns to make himself harder to hit.

“Shield down!” Taako says, his own hands glowing purple. “Seriously, where’s Lucretia? Lucretia, let me out of here!”

The shield around Taako stays right where it is as a dark-skinned woman in a blue dress steps forward, followed by a white guy in brown and blue. “It’s not a normal raven if it used magic that strong,” Lucretia says. “It was attacking you, Taako.”

Kravitz needs Taako to notice that Edward isn’t him—he needs Taako to realize what’s happening here and he can’t say anything because he doesn’t have his voice. He calls out to Taako anyway, cawing angrily.

“I don’t think he was attacking me,” Taako says, glancing at Edward in the bubble beside his. “I think he was attacking Kravitz.”

Edward’s expression is sombre now, as he turns to Taako. “It’s them,” he says. “It has to be—a last ditch effort to stop us from breaking the curse.”

“You brought your cursed boyfriend here?” the woman keeping Taako shielded asks.

“He’s not—yes. I did. I figured this way you could take a look at the spell and figure it out yourself.” Taako glances up at Kravitz and Kravitz risks flying lower, willing Taako to realize. Willing him to figure it out. “I didn’t expect this.”

“This has to be them, Taako. Some joke they’re playing to keep me in the tower,” Edward says. “Someone kill it.”

“No anklet,” says Taako. “No silver. Kravitz, can I—”

Edward pulls up the leg of his trousers, exposing a silver anklet, which stands out in stark relief against his dark skin—a fake. Kravitz can’t help himself. He lets out another shriek—anger and hopelessness and despair that Edward and Lydia are really going to win. His spell bounces off the shield surrounding Edward and dissipates harmlessly—nothing to show for itself but an echo.

Taako is staring up at him, uncertain. Attacking Edward isn’t helping Kravitz’s cause. He needs to send Taako a message.

Most of the guests have cleared the hall, with a protective inner circle standing around Taako and Edward. Lydia has to be here somewhere too, but she hasn’t shown her face yet and Kravitz isn’t going to go looking for her until he’s certain Taako is going to be okay.

In the empty room, some things stand out—wine glasses on the floor where guests dropped them as they ran, abandoned canapes and sweets, a buffet full of food Kravitz would love to get his hands on, and, on one end of that buffet, a tower of perfectly formed macarons. 

Macarons, like the ones Taako left him the night they kissed.

Kravitz dives towards the buffet, planting his good foot on the top of the tower and clinging to it, trying to settle without falling as he looks across the room at Taako. He lets out a softer, pleading cry—no magic this time, just hope that Taako can tell he hasn’t been spending the night with the right Kravitz.

Taako stares at him, confused and suspicious, and Kravitz sees the moment that everything clicks into place—the moment he realizes the Kravitz beside him is not what he appears to be.

Taako turns to face Edward. “Lucretia, shield down,” he says, voice firm. “The raven’s not a trick—he is.”

Edward presses a hand to his chest in mock-offense. “Taako, how could you?” he asks. “After I gave you that nice kiss and everything!” He laughs, dropping the glamour he’s wearing. “I’ll give the raven prince this much—didn’t think he had it in him to break his foot to get out of that tower. This really would have been much easier if he’d stayed away.”

Edward snaps his fingers and the shield around him pops like a bubble. “Now you’ll know what’s coming and that’s going to be so much—”

Kravitz doesn’t let Edward finish whatever monologue he’s trying to start. He croaks out a descending scale—a dirge that slams into Edward, knocking him sideways and sending him stumbling towards Taako’s sister.

“People who hurt my brother have a tendency to regret it,” she says, reaching out to grab Edward’s arms. She casts an immolation spell so strong Kravitz has to close his eyes to shield himself from the sudden blast of light. 

Edward goes up in flames like he’s made of straw—he goes up so quickly his physical form disintegrates into ash and instead of a fashionable elf draped in gold, there’s a lich hovering in the middle of the ballroom—still burning as he rises from the ground. 

Edward pats at his spectral form, trying to put out the flames, but it’s too late—they’re too hot and too strong to be extinguished. They’re consuming him as quickly as they ignited, white hot as they fight Edward’s efforts to stop the spell.

Lydia dives out of the shadows, launching herself at Lup and knocking her to the ground. “You bitch!” Lydia snarls. “Let my brother go or see how you—”

A purple mage hand knocks Lydia off of Lup, sending her skidding across the floor, towards the buffet and Kravitz. Taako steps protectively in front of his sister, glaring. “Don’t you dare touch her,” he spits. “You’re done. Both of you.”

Lydia bares her teeth at Taako. “You think you scare me, little prince? I was here before you and I’ll be here long after you’re gone.”

Kravitz is close enough that he can feel the sickening pull of necromantic energy sucking at all the life around Lydia as her magic answers her call. His own magic is weaker than it should be. It’s imprecise. It’s a blunt instrument that Lydia must be expecting him to use because magic is what she always goes for first.

Lydia raises her hand, pointing a finger at Taako, and Kravitz goes off instinct, unthinking—he launches himself at her, crashing into the side of her head and clawing at her face with his good foot. He ignores the pain in his bad leg, flapping his wings to stay in place, to keep her from hurting Taako—hurting anyone—with whatever she’s got planned. He just wants—

Lydia grabs him by the wing and shakes him, hard. She throws him to the ground and Kravitz is too dazed to do anything but lie there, wings spread, as she takes a step towards him, raising a foot like she’s going to stomp on him, going to kill him in the most gruesome way possible. 

Taako will be safe though. Taako is surrounded by too many powerful friends to be in danger from a brute force attack now. Kravitz can’t move—the wing Lydia grabbed is radiating pain—but it’s okay. It’s worth it. He warned Taako.

Before she can kill him, Lydia is hit with a Disintegrate spell so powerful she doesn’t even have time to let out one last cry of rage before she’s just—gone, obliterated off the face of the planet, no lich form, no nothing, not even a speck of dust left in her wake.

Kravitz closes his eyes. Everything hurts. His head is pounding. He feels weak. Thirsty. He just wants to rest, but there are footsteps rushing towards him and there’s Edward. Did Lup’s spell kill him, or did he escape? Kravitz didn’t see. He forces himself to open his eyes, watching as Taako—too big to see all at once this close, but definitely Taako—falls to his knees at Kravitz’s side.

“Krav,” he says. “You’re hurt. You’re—they caught you trying to leave?” Taako’s hands hover over Kravitz like he wants to pick him up, but doesn’t want to move him. “Merle!” he yells. “Someone get Merle! We need a healer.”

“I’ll get him,” someone says, and Kravitz hears footsteps rushing away, but his eyes are on Taako’s face—the hair falling out of his braid and the concern in his expression, plain as day. Kravitz wants to reach up and smooth out the crease in Taako’s forehead, to tell him that it’s okay, that he’s glad Taako’s safe, even if he’s hurt and probably stuck as a bird now, but he can’t.

He flaps his good, left wing pathetically and lets out a soft coo, which makes Taako laugh and reach out to touch him, smoothing out the downy feathers on his chest.

“Sorry,” Taako says. “Sorry, Krav. This is going to hurt.” He scoops Kravitz up, carefully, and it does hurt—Kravitz makes a small, pained noise and Taako stops moving with Kravitz half in his lap. “They’re not going to win. They’re gone and they can’t hurt you anymore. I won’t let them win. We’re going to fix you, Kravitz. I promise.”

Taako bends down, arms wrapping gently around Kravitz’s body, cradling him in his embrace, and Kravitz feels the moment everything clicks—the moment the curse breaks and magic surges through his small, fragile body, pushing him through the transformation one final time, cascading from raven to man in Taako’s arms.

It hurts like hell. A new, fresh pain as the magic helpfully transfers his injuries from one form to the other.

“Ow,” he says, looking up at a very surprised Taako. Kravitz can’t help smiling. “You understood my message.”

“You—the curse,” says Taako, blinking down at him. “What happened?”

“You broke it,” Kravitz says. “The old fashioned way. You… fulfilled the contract.”

Taako looks very confused. Kravitz decides he’ll explain later, when they’re not in the middle of a ballroom with Taako’s friends and family watching. The audience doesn’t stop him from reaching up with his good arm to touch Taako’s face and pull him down for a chaste kiss though. “Thank you, Taako.”

“I don’t even know what I did,” Taako says, putting at Kravitz’s face. He’s smiling though, even if he is confused. “What—”

“I’m not a veterinarian,” someone protests from the other side of the ballroom. “What is—” There’s a pause. “That’s not a bird.”

Kravitz raises his head to look at the people still left in the ballroom—Lucretia by the door with Magnus and an old dwarf, who must be the healer judging by the robes he’s wearing, marking him as a cleric of Pan, and a concerned looking gnome in a military uniform. Lup, being helped to her feet by the poorly dressed human man in brown and blue. “Hello,” he says. “I’m Kravitz.” He pauses. “The real one.”

“Merle, get over here and heal my boy!” Taako says. “Everyone else stop staring. It’s a long story, okay? Just—trust me, he’s cool. This version of him is cool.”

Merle comes waddling over, rolling up the sleeves on his robes. “What happened to your foot?” he asks, stopping beside Kravitz. “I’m gonna need all my spell slots for this one.”

“Had to break it to get out of a shackle,” Kravitz says. Now that he’s actively thinking about it and the adrenaline that fueled him before is wearing off, his foot is starting to really hurt and his right arm is throbbing. “Needed to warn Taako that he was being tricked.”

“Fuck,” says Taako. “Where are the good pain killers? We should give him the good stuff.”

“I knew I sensed necromantic energy from the other Kravitz,” says Lup’s boyfriend. “I should have realized he was a lich.”

“How the fuck did you get two liches that mad at you?” Lup asks, walking over to peer down at Kravitz half propped up in Taako’s lap. “What did you do?

“Oh,” says Kravitz, blinking. “Right. My mother is the Raven Queen.”

Taako makes a surprised noise. “Wait,” he says. “Your mother is the Raven Queen? The powerful sorceress who banned necromancy from her kingdom and has ruled it for hundreds of years, the Raven Queen? Queen of a country, the Raven Queen?” He frowns down at Kravitz. “You’re a prince? I went into the forest and made a deal to free you so you’d help me get out of marrying some weird foreign prince and you were a prince the whole time?

Kravitz winces for reasons that have nothing to do with his injuries. “I was going to tell you, but then you made such a big deal out of not wanting to be betrothed to a prince and I just… put it off. Is that… going to be a problem?”

There’s a pause while Taako considers the. Merle’s magic sets some of the bones in Kravitz’s foot back into place and he has to suppress a wince as his vision briefly whites out from pain.

“No,” Taako says. “It’s a little disappointing that you really are a devastatingly handsome prince charming who I found in the woods, but you’re forgiven.” He leans down and presses a kiss to Kravitz’s forehead, ignoring the retching noise Lup makes beside them. “But you do still owe me money for the rescue, bird boy. I broke the curse, I get rich rewards. A deal’s a deal.”

Kravitz laughs and ignores the pain radiating through his body to tug Taako down into another, proper kiss. “I can do that,” he promises, laying his good hand over Taako’s on his chest. “How does a ring sound?”

“Like some fairytale bullshit.” Taako turns his hand over under Kravitz’s, lacing their fingers together and smiling down at him, soft and sweet—a private kind of smile that Kravitz would very much like to get used to. “I think it sounds good.”

“If you’re finished,” says the dwarf, speaking much louder than necessary, “I was under the impression you wanted this healing done quickly.”

Taako laughs, looking at Merle, his hands stroking Kravitz’s locs. “I do,” he says. “Better do a good job, Merle. He’s a prince.” Taako glances down at Kravitz, a sly smile on his face. “He’s my betrothed.”

“He made his entrance by shattering windows that were several centuries old to crash a royal ball, attacked his double, exposed two liches lurking in the palace, and saved your life—of course he’s your betrothed,” Lup says, bundling up her skirts and sitting next to Taako. “You’re perfect for each other.”

Kraviz, looking up at Taako, with his messy hair and pointed ears going red with embarrassment as he squawks out a protest, can’t help smiling to himself. Taako’s going to hate hearing how he broke Kravitz’s curse—that it was love’s embrace that did it. Fulfilling the terms and conditions set by the spell. Simple. Impossible. Lucky.

Kravitz is hurt—badly hurt. He’s running on endorphins and adrenaline, but they’re fading fast and there’s a lot to figure out still—explaining all this to his mother, for one. Kravitz doesn’t care about any of that right now. His head is in Taako’s lap and Taako is stroking his hair. The moon is still visible through the broken ballroom windows, but when the sun rises Kravitz will still be himself. For the first time in a long time, Kravitz feels safe.

The next time Merle’s magic snaps a bone back into place, It’s easy to give in to the lure of unconsciousness and let himself pass out.

#

Taako’s curled up in an armchair he had Magnus drag into his bedroom, definitely not watching Kravitz sleep when Kravitz finally starts to wake up. After Kravitz passed out, Taako had to answer a lot of questions about who he was and how Taako met a prince being tortured by two liches in the first place while an increasingly incredulous looking Davenport listened and Merle tried to fix Taako’s new fiancé.

Maybe fiancé. Kravitz’s curse is broken—Taako’s still not clear on how that happened, but the sun is rising and Kravitz is lying in his bed, very much still a half-elf—and he probably misses his mother and his kingdom. He might decide to just… go home.

Kravitz shifts in bed, raising his uninjured hand and staring at it like he can’t believe he’s seeing fingers instead of feathers. Taako tamps down a smile and clears his throat. “You’re awake?”

Kravitz turns his head, blinking at him sleepily. He looks soft in the morning light. Just as handsome by daylight as he was in the forest—maybe more handsome because Taako can really see the way his long, dark eyelashes frame his brown eyes with the sun shining in through the window.

“Did you sleep there all night?” Kravitz asks. “It doesn’t look very comfortable.”

“S’fine,” Taako says, shrugging it off and slowly unfolding himself in the chair. It’s really not that comfortable and Taako’s limbs are stiff and aching, but he wasn’t gonna sleep beside Kravitz without asking him first. “Figured you shouldn’t wake up alone. How are you feeling? Merle burned a bunch of spell slots, but you’re not all the way healed yet. He left some pain killers if you need them.”

Kravitz’s leg had been a mess. Taako’s not sure how pain translates from bird to human, but he’s impressed Kravitz managed to stay conscious as long as he did. Kravitz’s arm is in a splint and his leg is completely immobilized so nothing shifts before Merle can do another round of healing.

Kravitz shakes his head. “I’m all right,” he says, which has to be a lie. “I’m sore, but I’m me.” He holds up his hand again, grinning. “I have hands.”

Taako laughs. “You do,” he agrees. “They’re nice hands. Look good to hold.”

Kravitz raises an eyebrow and reaches towards Taako, holding out his hand. “You could find out for yourself,” he says. “You just have to come here because I can’t come to you right now.”

“Gross.” Taako can’t keep himself from smiling this time, getting out of the chair and crawling onto the bed beside Kravitz. He’s still wearing his suit from the ball, sans footwear. It definitely wasn’t meant to be worn as pajamas—it’s stiff and the beads aren’t great for sitting down—but right now Taako doesn’t mind. He props himself up against the headboard and pulls Kravitz’s hand into his lap, lacing their fingers together. It’s awkward—at a weird angle for both of them—but it’s still… nice. It’s nice to hold Kravitz’s hand.

They lapse into silence, just holding hands on Taako’s bed, and then the weird angle and the night spent curled up in the chair catch up to Taako and he gives in, wiggling his way down onto the mattress next to Kravitz without letting go of his hand. “Sorry,” he says. “My neck is killing me. Would have slept next to you instead of in the chair, but that seemed presumptuous.”

“You can presume,” Kravitz says, turning his head to look at Taako. “I wouldn’t have minded waking up next to you.”

Taako can feel himself blushing. Kravitz looks far too pleased with himself for someone half-immobilized by injuries. “You broke your foot and your arm and you’re still just like this, huh bird boy?” Taako asks, squeezing Kravitz’s hand and grinning at him. “Pretty terrible, honestly. You’re welcome, by the way, for breaking the curse.”

“I’m absolutely awful,” Kravitz agrees. He smiles at Taako and returns the hand squeeze. “Thank you, Taako. Really. I wasn’t expecting you to break the curse, but I’m… very glad you did.”

Taako’s still not sure how he broke it, but it’s hard to care about that when Kravitz is smiling at him and they’re this close. “Same,” he says. “Would’ve been a weird wedding.”

Kravitz laughs and leans across the space between them, brushing his lips gently, tentatively against Taako’s. It’s entirely different from the kiss not-Kravitz gave Taako the night before. That had been distant—perfunctory. A display of affection meant to satisfy an outside audience. This kiss is for them, is something Kravitz obviously wants to do, and Taako returns it eagerly, pressing closer and tightening his grip on Kravitz’s hand. They both just woke up and Kravitz’s mouth tastes faintly of blood, but it’s still just so nice.

The kiss is interrupted by the window beside Taako’s bed crashing open with a bang that reverberates through the room—a sound quickly overshadowed by the thunderous cacophony of wings flapping and ravens crying as what seems like hundreds upon hundreds of birds pour into the room.

Taako reaches for the wand tucked into his jacket immediately, letting go of Kravitz’s hand as he readies a spell because if this is the liches, back for revenge, or some secondary aspect of the curse he’s not gonna let it get very far. Taako fixed things and they’re gonna stay fixed. 

The ravens are a blur of opalescent black around them and Taako’s about to lobby a Magic Missile at the foot of the bed, where the birds are flocking, forming a towering mass of claws and feathers that looks like it’s maybe not made of ravens at all, when Kravitz grabs his wrist.

“Wait,” Kravitz says. “It’s okay.”

Taako opens his mouth to ask what Kravitz’s definition of okay is and then shuts it as the mass coalesses into a solid form—a beautiful, terrifying elven woman with dark skin and black clothes, her hair falling down her back in a waterful of long, fine braids. She steps forward, barely giving Taako and his wand a glance, her attention entirely focused on Kravitz beside him. “My son,” she says, and Taako can’t help the incredulous noise he makes at that because—what? “You’re safe.”

Taako looks at Kravitz, who’s smiling at the woman like he’s delighted to see her despite her making the most nightmarish entrance possible. “Taako broke the curse keeping me prisoner,” he says. “Taako, this is my mother, the Raven Queen. Mother, this is Taako—my betrothed.”

Taako suddenly finds himself under a whole lot more scrutiny than he was prepared for as the Raven Queen’s eyes bore into him. “Uh, hi,” says Taako, raising the hand not clutching his wand to give her a small wave. “It’s... kind of a long story.”

The Raven Queen studies him for a moment and then her lips quirk into a small smile that does nothing to reduce how intimidating Taako finds her. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Taako,” she says. “I am entirely willing to listen.”

Kravitz isn’t going anywhere any time soon and the Raven Queen looks like a woman who’s used to getting her way, so Taako guesses he’s kind of stuck explaining everything to her. “Sure,” he agrees. “I can do that. Just, uh, give me a second to think of how to start.”

The Raven Queen takes a seat at the foot of Taako’s bed. The sound of skirt sliding over the floor sounds like feathers ruffling. “Personally,” she says, looking them both over with a critical and maybe slightly amused eye, “I’m partial to once upon a time.”