“He’s still there,” Kravitz murmured almost absently, staring at the flickering image on the old screen, where a tall elf was wandering around alone in the meeting room. “He didn’t run away.”
“Kravitz, love, go.” His mother placed a hand- the warm weight of it familiar- on his shoulder and gave a gentle push. Kravitz, still mentally reeling, stumbled the first few steps before regaining his balance and striding briskly back to his room. “Do we know his name?” He heard his mother ask Istus, the matchmaker she had hired more than five years ago, but he was already up the stairs and out of earshot by the time she answered.
Quietly, he opened the door to his bedroom. He had turned the light off when he left mere minutes before, but the light from the pseudo-window at the other end of the room was enough for him to see by. He crept up and settled, silent as a bird, on the bench across from the one-way glass that looked out into the meeting room.
The elf was tall, and lean- the kind of skinny that would make Istus threaten to fatten him up with baked goods. His long hair was tied in an elaborate braid that was already falling apart, with pieces of it drooping in his face. He held his head high as he wandered around the room, seemingly unaware of Kravitz watching him, skimming the bookshelves that lined the room.
He was possibly the most beautiful man Kravitz had ever seen.
“Are you a fan of Caleb Cleveland?” Kravitz asked eventually, biting his lip to keep from laughing aloud when the elf jumped comically high in surprise.
“What do you mean, homie?” He responded, peering around the empty room suspiciously.
“The book you’re hiding in your jacket,” Kravitz answered smoothly, smirking despite the elf not being able to see him. From inside the meeting room, the window into Kravitz’s room looked like a large mirror, and the elf seemed unaware that Kravitz could see him.
“Oh,” The elf said, the tips of his ears turning pink, “uh, yeah, I was just picking up some light reading, you know, an old favorite.” He pulled the book, a tiny novel that was almost smaller than his hand, out from inside his jacket and fiddled with it, running his finger down the spine and scanning the front cover.
“Really? I thought that was the only copy of that particular book.”
The elf grit his teeth, scowling briefly before placing the book on the couch behind him. He threw his hands up in a comical approximation of a surrender, a bright and disarming grin already back on his face, as though the grimace had never been there. “You caught me, ghost man, I saw it was a first edition and didn’t know there was some creeper watching me grab it.”
“You were stealing it?”
The elf laughed, leaned close to the microphone on the mantle just below the pane of one-way glass, and said, “Hell yeah, my dude.”
This time Kravitz couldn’t help but laugh a little, though he leaned away from the mic to do it, he didn’t want the elf to hear. Kravitz didn’t think he needed the ego boost, but he had a feeling, given the spreading grin on the elf’s face, that he had heard anyway. “Frankly,” Kravitz said after gathering himself again, “that’s kind of refreshing.” The elf just grinned in recognition. “So, what,” Kravitz continued, “you’re in it for the money?”
He leaned in close to the microphone on the mantle. “Cha’boy is definitely in it for the money.”
Huh. Maybe, despite his brash honesty, the elf wasn’t as different from the others as he had appeared.
“There are over three hundred books in that room, most of which are first editions. Of those, maybe 150 are valued at above 50,000 dollars, another 50 are valued at above 25,000, but I’m afraid there’s only one that’s valued at under 100.”
“Under 100 dollars, huh?”
“Yes. And I’m afraid that means-” Kravitz started to say, already moving towards the door, when the elf spoke over him.
“It’s your favorite, though, right?”
“I’m sorry?” Kravitz asked, turning back towards the window, where the elf was looking almost irritatingly proud of himself.
“I said, that this dinky little book is worth next to nothing, but it’s still your favorite. Isn’t it, home slice?”
Kravitz paused, and watched the elf for a moment. He was still scanning the room, but he looked confident, cocky now that he knew he was being watched. Kravitz wondered which one was more true to who he really was- the careful nonchalance from earlier, or this practiced confidence. “Top of the third shelf, all the way on the left side. Moby Dick. It’s a first edition. But wait until I’m gone or they’ll see you,” he said eventually, and he only caught the edge of a confused expression on the elf’s face before he turned and walked back to the door. He opened it, and closed it again, making sure he slammed it loud enough to be heard by the mic, halfway across the room, but not so loud as to be suspicious. Silently, he walked back over to the mirror to watch the elf again.
He glanced around the room for a moment, like he expected Kravitz to jump out of some secret passage and scare him, but after a few minutes of silence, he walked over to the third bookcase, top shelf, and pulled down the first edition Moby Dick Kravitz had mentioned. He tucked it casually into his jacket, just as he had with the Cleveland novel, and sauntered out of the room.
A moment passed, and then another, and just as Kravitz was starting to wonder if he’d misjudged the peculiar elf, and had let him walk away with a 50,000 dollar book, the elf burst back into the room. His arms were held wide, Moby Dick clutched in one, as he yelled sharply, as though to surprise the empty room. When he saw he was still alone, he deflated a little, and placed the book down on the couch, just beside the other one. The elf looked one last time around the empty room- suspicious and wary and somehow a little hopeful- before scoffing, shaking his head, and turning to leave again.
“Are you going to be back tomorrow?” Kravitz asked, just before he walked out of the room for the second time.
The elf stopped and looked over his shoulder with a wide grin. “Hell yeah, ghost boy,” he said, before flicking his hair over his shoulder dramatically and sauntering- again- out of the meeting room.
Kravitz bit down on another smile.
The elf- Justin Kessler, according to the nondisclosure agreement he signed with Istus- did come back.
Istus and Kravitz’s mother were convinced that it was a sign- that Justin, peculiar and eccentric and enthralling, was the one. Because that was what they had spent the last five years looking for.
Someone to love Kravitz, wholly and truly, willing to proclaim it to the world- that’s what would break his curse.
According to the legend, at least.
His family had never put much stock in the legend- in the curse- before he was born. Before he came into the world screaming, and crying, and looking like he had a second skull, protruding from his face.
Supposedly, some ancestor of his- his mother’s side- had broken the heart of a servant girl he had a fling with, which was more than common for the time. But this servant girl was different. Her mother was the town witch.
She cursed the family, that the next born son would have the face of a devil, unless he found someone of his own kind to profess their love for him. For generations, his family only produced daughters, who had all daughters, until the curse was all but long lost family lore.
And then Kravitz was born, proving once and for all that the curse was very, very real.
And not long after, it became obvious that the only solution was to find someone of noble birth to love and marry Kravitz, ending the curse.
Kravitz’s mother hid him away, far from the judgement of the world and the glaring eyes of paparazzi, and Kravitz grew up in their little manor. Wanting for nothing, craving anything- everything- from the real world.
On his twentieth birthday, his mother Raven hired Istus, a self-professed marriage counselor and matchmaker, and the three of them set about finding someone to break his curse. Istus and Raven wanted the best possible life for Kravitz; and Kravitz just wanted his freedom.
They had spent the last five years collecting every single blue blood of comparable age and introducing them to Kravitz. And no matter the pleasant conversations, no matter the promises that nothing could phase them- everyone, without fail, had run away. Away from him, away from his face, away from his curse and its implicit leaden responsibility.
Every one, that is, until Justin Kessler.
He had been in the room with the horde of other blue bloods- mostly desperate, poor, or foolish ones at this point, they were the only ones left- when Kravitz had, with little introduction or fanfare, shown his face. Quite literally.
Justin had been the only one who hadn’t run.
And, to top it all off, he had come back.
Kravitz had never been one for hope- and after over five years of fruitless searching, he had become callous to it. He had to be, it was self preservation at this point. But now, seeing Justin perched aloofly on the arm of the couch, Kravitz felt something horrifyingly close to hope burning in the back of his throat.
He swallowed it as quickly as he could.
Justin got up from where he had been examining his nails on the couch after a few minutes of silence, wandering around the room. He paused at the glass, a mirror on his side, and stared into it for a long moment, steady and searching, straight at Kravitz. He fought the urge to look away, to cover his face, even though he knew Justin couldn’t really see him.
Justin continued around the room after a moment, glancing over the shelves, ghosting his fingers along the keys of the piano in the corner.
“Do you play?” Kravitz asked, and Justin startled, standing shock still and losing his practiced casual composure for a second. He recovered quickly, turning and smiling lazily at Kravitz behind the glass.
“You gotta stop doing that, ghost boy,” he said.
“You didn’t answer the question.”
Justin paused, considering. “I play something,” he drawled, words full of implications Kravitz’s couldn’t parse, and his eyes full of a challenge Kravitz didn’t miss.
“Are you going to share what it is?”
Justin stepped closer, eyes scanning the mirror like he was trying to see through it. He leaned in, nose almost touching the glass. “Guess.”
It was a challenge, one that Kravitz itched to win.
He had a mountain of instruments brought into the waiting room with Justin; guitars, horns, string instruments, a full drum set- nearly Kravitz’s entire personal collection.
Justin managed to be hysterically terrible at each and everyone of them. Playing screeching chords and banging out incomprehensible rhythms, shouting mangled lyrics to You Are My Sunshine over and over again as Kravitz posited theory after theory; only to be proven wrong time and again.
“You’re terrible at this,” Justin commented after Kravitz put a stop to an unearthly rendition of the song on the saxophone.
“I’ll figure it out eventually,” Kravitz replied dryly, trying to figure out which instrument Justin should try next. It had become, at this point, less about winning the bet, and more about finding increasingly obscure instruments for Justin to be comically terrible at.
“What about you?” Justin asked, leaning against the mantle the one-way glass was situated above. “What do you play?”
“I play all of them, to a greater or lesser extent.” Kravitz said, with more than a little pride.
Justin raised a single eyebrow, which either meant he was impressed, or that he didn’t quite believe Kravitz. “Yeah?”
“I want to be a conductor, so, yes.”
“A conductor…?” Justin asked, trailing off and raising his arm in an exaggerated impression of pulling a train whistle. “Not to stamp on your vibe, but my dude, what do instruments have to do with trains?”
Kravitz tried- and given Justin’s still raised eyebrow and accompanying smirk, failed- to stifle his laughter in his hand. “A musical conductor,” he corrected, as coolly as he could despite his inopportune giggles.
Justin grinned, knowing and smug and pleased all at once. “Good to know, home slice. No train dates, then.”
That time, Justin laughed with him.
It wasn’t until over a week later- over a week of Justin visiting every day, of them spending hours talking about everything and nothing and all the possibilities in between- that Kravitz greeted Justin as soon as he walked through the door. “I’ve figured it out.” Justin raised an unimpressed eyebrow, moving to collapse gracefully across the sofa as he waited to Kravitz to elaborate. “The piano,” Kravitz said smugly, “you play the piano.”
“Didn’t we rule that one out way back on the first day?” Justin said, not moving from his position on the couch. He had thrown his feet up- he was wearing chunky heeled boots in bright mauve today- on the arm rest of the couch, draping the rest of his body along it like some antebellum lady on a fainting couch. It wasn’t an altogether unpleasant image.
Justin had a peculiar style, to say the least. His long hair was always up in some artful, elaborate style. He wore statement shoes that clashed probably intentionally with his pants- or on some occasions, skirt- and the same oversized blazer pulled haphazardly over whatever shirt he was wearing, like someone had leant him their coat on some windy afternoon. Somehow, Justin, with all his nonchalance and pride, made it work.
“We didn’t rule it out entirely,” Kravitz corrected, and Justin smiled- a brief little half smile, up at the ceiling, like he had forgotten Kravitz could see him- before rolling his eyes, sitting up with an affected groan, and meandering over to the piano in the corner. Justin sat on the bench, his posture tall and his back to Kravitz, and Kravitz could see his fingers drift over the keys, hesitating for a split second, before Justin brought them crashing down. The resulting chords were cacophonous and maddening and Justin let them hang in the air as he struggled to sing the first note in conjunction with the instrument. He painstakingly continued, bashing out progressively worse chord combinations and caterwauling as he went, and Kravitz was torn between wincing and laughing.
He didn’t end up doing either.
“No, so your right hand stays here,” Kravitz said, placing his hand lightly on top of Justin’s, “and your left hand plays the chord.” He arranged Justin’s hands over the keys and together, they pressed lightly down, the chord ringing in the quiet room.
Justin leaned away and slowly, painstakingly and carefully, looked up over his shoulder at Kravitz. It was the first time Kravitz had been in the waiting room since the day he and Justin met, and he had never been sure whether Justin had seen him that day or not.
Justin inhaled unsteadily, scanning Kravitz’s face and rotating even further so that they were facing each other head on. Kravitz stood motionless, still leaning slightly forward from where he had guided Justin’s hands on the keys. Justin’s hand rose slowly, as though to trace the edge of Kravitz’s face. Justin flinched away suddenly, his fingers inches away from Kravitz’s face, jumping back and away from Kravitz.
The morsel of hope he had tried- and failed- to choke back burned at the base of Kravitz’s throat as he stumbled backwards in horror. He let out a shuddering gasp at Justin’s reaction and scrambled for the words, any words he could say, but nothing came. He tore his eyes away from Justin, horrified, and fled the room.
Kravitz didn’t want Justin to see him heartbroken so easily.
Kravitz knew Justin didn’t want to look at him at all.
He walked down the stairs from his bedroom in a haze. Absently, he heard his mother shouting something, and another person’s response from near the front entrance to the house.
“Kravitz!” Justin’s voice called from nearby, shaking him out of his stupor. He was in the middle of the foyer, Kravitz at the top of the stairs one floor up. “Kravitz!” Justin said again, moving towards him when Raven caught him by the arm, pulling him away from the bottom of the stairs.
“Kravitz, don’t listen to him.” She commanded, fire in her eyes, “He’s a spy, a plant sent by that bastard journalist Highchurch that wouldn’t leave us alone when you were a baby.”
“No!” Justin argued, trying to pull away. “Well, yes, technically, but-” He started, but got cut off by both Raven and Istus’s indignant rage.
“Justin.” Kravitz spoke over all three and they quieted, looking up at him at the top of the stairs. “I know… I know this face horrifies you. And I wouldn’t ask if there was any other way.” Kravitz paused, steadying himself. Desperation had settled, rock hard and heavy in the pit of his stomach. What if this was his only chance to break the curse? What if this was his only shot at freedom, at life outside of his house? “Marry me,” Kravitz said, like it was a curse itself, like it was his last option. “Marry me, Justin, and you can break the curse; I’ll be just like anyone else.” Kravitz hated how his desperation leaked into his voice like oil. Hated how he couldn’t read the expression on Justin’s face. Hated that even at his closest, he was still miles away from freedom.
“What if… what if the curse doesn’t break?” Justin asked, uncertain for the first time since Kravitz had met him. “What if it can’t be broken?”
“Then I’ll kill myself.” Kravitz said without hesitation. He heard his mother’s shuddering gasp, even from across the room, but she didn’t say anything. Kravitz couldn’t live a lifetime locked inside these walls. He wouldn’t. Kravitz slowly started down the stairs. “Marry me, Justin,” he repeated, “please.”
“I…” for a moment, the hope at the back of Kravitz’s throat burned bright, like an ember seconds from flame, “I can’t.” Justin said.
Kravitz wondered if it was the first true thing Justin had ever said to him.
“Get out.” He whispered, and in the silence of the foyer, it echoed like a shot.
Justin, like all the others before him, left. And Kravitz, like all the times before, was left alone.
Kravitz leaves home for the first time, makes new friends and tries- and fails- to not think about Justin. Featuring someone who looks suspiciously like Justin and news-worthy photography of Kravitz.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Kravitz felt a little debonair and a little foolish in his mask.
It was black, left over from some half-hearted Halloween party Istus had thrown for the three of them a few years back. It covered the top half of his face, and though he caught strangers giving him odd looks out of the corner of his eye, Kravitz was able to walk around in public for the first time in his life. So it was worth it.
Kravitz had a plan for what he would do in the outside world, had a list that he’d been adding to and editing since he was a child. Concerts, restaurants, street fairs, the park.
“The Sizzler,” Justin’s voice echoed in Kravitz’s head, “it’s the best damn place in this city. The best food, the best booze, the best people-“ Justin had paused then, his voice gone uncharacteristically soft and almost nostalgic, “you should go sometime.” He finished abruptly, suddenly back to cocky carelessness, “When you get out of here,” he had said. If you get out of here, Kravitz had heard.
Kravitz bit his tongue, shaking away the memory, it only pained and angered him now.
He wandered the town, his mother’s stolen wallet in his pocket, doing anything and everything he wanted. He rented a suite at a hotel to sleep in, ate at whatever restaurant or cafe suited his fancy, and spent hours sitting in the park people watching. It was odd, he was alone- without his mother or Istus, without the security of a house he’d known his whole life- for the first time ever, but for maybe the first time in his life, Kravitz wasn’t lonely.
He lasted nearly a week before he wound up at The Sizzler, the restaurant and bar Justin had raved about. Kravitz told himself he was just there to see what it looked like. Maybe he’d peek inside, briefly. He would not, Kravitz promised himself, go inside.
He couldn’t risk Justin being there.
“Hey phantom,” a voice said from Kravitz’s right, by the entrance to the restaurant. He had been hovering by the window, peering inside and lost in thought, and jumped a little when the stranger spoke to him.
He turned, and nearly jumped again. The woman who’d spoken to him looked just like Justin. They could have been siblings; they had the same fine blonde hair- though hers was cut short and part of it was dyed pink- the same pointed elven ears, the same lean, lithe build.
“I, uh-“ he stammered, at a loss for words. It was like he had stumbled into an alternate universe.
“You gonna come in, home slice, or are you just gonna hover like some grim reaper of death?” She asked, quirking her head and grinning. Gods, they even sounded the same. “We have the best fucking restaurant in town.”
“I’ve heard,” Kravitz managed.
“Dude, chill!” The elf laughed, not unkindly, and grabbed Kravitz’s arm, pulling him into the restaurant. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost- pun intended! I’ll buy you lunch, you seem like you need the pick me up, babe.” She dragged him over to the bar that lined one side and managed to dump him- despite Kravitz being taller than her- into one of the bar stools. “Maggie!” She yelled, waving at the bartender- a tall, bearded human man wiping off glasses behind the bar- and called him over.
The elf woman looked over at Kravitz, almost as an afterthought, while the bartender walked over to them. “You gotta name, hot stuff?” She asked.
“Uh, Mac.” Technically, it was his middle name, so technically he wasn’t lying.
“Well, hey, Mac, I’m Lup,” she ostentatiously flipped her short hair over her shoulder, “and this-“ she pointed at the bartender, who was watching them amusedly on the other side of the bar, “- is Magnus.”
“How do you do?” Kravitz asked politely.
Lup scoffed, but it seemed more amused than offended, and ignored Kravitz, turning back to Magnus. “Mags, can you get us two of whatever Ren’s fucking around with back there, and a couple of beers for my new buddy and me?”
“Lup, it’s 2 in the afternoon,” Magnus chastised gently, still smiling amusedly at Lup, who just shrugged.
“You legal, homie?” Kravitz nodded. “It’s five o’clock somewhere, Mags!” Lup winked, and Magnus shook his head and headed towards the back.
As much as Kravitz was loath to admit it, Justin had been right. The Sizzler was amazing. Lup was apparently the owner of the entire thing, and worked mostly in the front of the house and at the bar now, but according to Magnus, she could still hold her own in the kitchen. About halfway through the meal, the head chef Ren came out to talk to Lup and Magnus, and to introduce herself to Kravitz. Lup’s husband, Barry, passed through at one point, kissing Lup on the cheek and sparing a moment to shake Kravitz’s hand and get pulled into a bear hug by Magnus before he bustled into the back. “He’s a professor at the university,” Magnus explained, “and he does the books for the store, so he’s constantly super busy. A genius, but really fucking busy.” Lup nodded proudly in agreement, her eyes still following Barry’s back as he walked through the doors to the kitchen.
“Lup, this is a weird question,” Kravitz started. They had long since finished their meal, and a few others had joined them at the bar, sitting and nursing their drinks, and a couple small parties had been seated for an early dinner. Lup hummed in acknowledgement, glancing briefly at Kravitz, waiting for him to continue. “Do you… do you have a brother?”
Magnus froze in the middle of washing a glass, a few feet further down the bar; and Lup frowned, a little sad, and stared into the distance for a minute before responding.
“Yeah, Koko was actually the one who opened this thing with me a while back.”
“He was the head chef before Ren, and he came up with most of the menu,” Magnus interjected, crossing to stand across from them over the bar.
“The little goofus got into some shit last year,” Lup continued, “stopped coming into work, stopped spending time at the house.”
“We think it had something to do with his boyfriend-”
“Fucking asshole.” Lup spat.
“He’ll come around, Lup,” Magnus said, reaching over to place a large hand on Lup’s shoulder.
“You said his name was… Koko?” Kravitz asked tentatively.
Lup grinned, wide and sharp. “Taako, technically. Koko’s an old nickname and he’d hate that I told it to a hot piece of ass like you, Mac.” Kravitz blushed, looking away, and Lup chortled at his reaction, poking him in the shoulder proudly and gleefully as she laughed. “Why d’you ask?”
“Just curious,” Kravitz said quickly, and Lup frowned like she knew he was lying. “You just remind me of somone… of someone I used to know, and I thought you might be related?” He amended.
“Nah; Taako’s the only family I have.” Lup said, and Magnus scoffed indignantly, crossing his arms. “Ok, ok, fine, Maggie. Taako’s the only blood relation I have anymore. I have family coming out of the wazoo.” Magnus, oddly enough, seemed pleased with her addendum, and Lup wrinkled her nose mockingly in his direction. Kravitz just laughed.
Kravitz honestly didn’t think the pictures looked that bad.
If anything, he thought it was ironic that despite spending nearly his whole life hiding from the paparazzi, the first time Kravitz’s photo appeared in the news was of his own volition. The first article had come out a few days prior, a huge headliner claiming that a devil-faced man lived in their city, with a $5,000 reward for any photos of him.
At first, Kravitz was horrified- this must be the work of the reporter his mother had mentioned- Highchurch- the one that Justin had been working with. Kravitz spent the entire day in terror that someone on the street or at The Sizzler would recognize him from the description in the paper.
But no one did.
His disguise, however foolish and peculiar it was to walk around in day after day, worked.
And anyway, Kravitz reasoned, who better to benefit from incriminating photos of him, than himself?
He called the number provided in the article, used a photo booth to take the photos, and left the photos for Highchurch- a stout dwarven man with flowers in his impressive beard- who traded the envelope Kravitz had left them in for one with a wad of cash.
The photos were everywhere by the next morning, and it took Kravitz a while to get used to seeing his own face everywhere he looked. It took him even longer to get used to the interest and attention the public showered on their local celebrity. There were people who were horrified and disgusted, of course, but the majority of the response was wildly positive. People loved Kravitz; his bravery, his confidence.
Theories about who and where he was- and most importantly, why he looked the way he did- abounded in the papers and on the street. And yet, no one- not even Lup and Magnus and the others at The Sizzler, where Kravitz was spending more and more time these days, ignoring the fact that Justin might one day come in- seemed to suspect that he was anyone other than some weirdo with a penchant for masks and a dedication to his aesthetic. It was a big city, after all.
It was funny, Kravitz thought, he’d always been taught he couldn’t have his cake and eat it too, but that’s just what he ended up doing.
At least, until everything fell apart again.
The one downside of the mask was that it covered a good amount of his nose, and so while he could still mostly breathe out of it, when he was wearing the mask he turned into something of a habitual mouth-breather. It wasn’t ideal, but it was tolerable. That is, until he caught a glimpse of his mother and Istus, walking around the city and presumably looking for him, and all but ran away. He lost them in the crowd- he wasn’t sure if they’d even seen him in the first place- and made it back to The Sizzler; where he promptly collapsed, surrounded by Lup, Magnus, and a half dozen other patrons.
“Mac?” Lup asked, leaning over him. Her face was blurry and floating around, and Kravitz barely managed to grunt in response. He felt someone pull his mask off, tugging it over his face and pulling it out from where it caught behind his head. He wanted to say something, wanted to stop them, wanted to explain- but it was getting more and more difficult to focus on Lup’s face, concerned and still swimming against the bright lights of The Sizzler above him. Realization dawned on her face after his mask was fully off. “Shit,” she muttered, and he couldn’t tell whether she was surprised, or disgusted, or impressed by the realization. She didn’t move away. “Kravitz?” She asked, in the same low, gentle tone she had used as soon as he collapsed, and Kravitz couldn’t manage anything but a nod before everything went black.
thanks as always for reading!! all the comments and kudos on the last chap meant the world to me! next chapter should be up next sunday sometime- july 14th!
Finally... the background of Justin Kessler, aka, of course, Taako.... you know? from tv!
BIG DISCLAIMER: this chap deals a little bit with gambling and a gambling addiction; this is NOT something im knowledgable on or have personal experience with, and it doesn't play a large part in the story or the chapter as a whole, but if that's material that's triggering to you PLEASE proceed with caution! also- if i've fucked anything up or if there are places where i can improve PLEASE let me know!!
im so so sorry about the SUPER late update, life caught up with my and i just kept forgetting to post this son of a bitch, but here we go!!
Taako missed the tables. He didn’t want to miss the tables, but he missed a lot of things he shouldn’t. He wanted a lot of things he shouldn’t, for that matter.
It was Sazed’s fault, really. He played to Taako’s weaknesses- his pride, his greed- and used it to his own benefit, bleeding Taako dry and then leaving him in the lurch. Abandoning him with an addiction to the gambling tables, a mountain of debt, and no money. For a while after Sazed left, Taako told himself he could walk away. That he would, he would leave and go back to The Sizzler, go back to his family, and finally move on; after one last game.
But one game turned into two, which turned into a dozen, which turned into a couple thousand dollar’s worth of debt and no way to pay it off.
Which was why, when some irate and weirdly granola old dwarf approached him, calling him by the wrong name and offering him the payday that would finally get the sharks off his back, Taako took it.
“Just raise your arm to take a picture,” Edward Vogue, the snobby rich elf working with the dwarf- an old reporter named Merle Highchurch- reminded Taako for the twentieth time, “the lens is in the lapel, and make sure it’s of his face. It shouldn’t take long,” a look of abject horror flashed across Edward’s face, “he… revealed himself to me not five minutes after I got there.” It took everything Taako had not to roll his eyes.
“Got it.” Taako managed, and turned on his heel, walking away from the creeper van they had parked across the street, and up the walk towards the manor. The manor in which supposedly, a monster lived.
The ‘monster’ was, apparently, some guy who was just looking for a boyfriend. And though maybe he had a weird way of going about it, Taako could sympathize. Not everyone is born with such natural beauty as the Taako Taaco, after all.
Despite Edward’s assurances, Kravitz didn’t show his face the first day. Or, rather, he did, but Taako missed it. He was invited back the next day, however, and the day after that, until Taako had to remind himself of the goal of his visits every time he went in.
Kravitz wasn’t what he had expected- though, honestly, Edward’s descriptions of a horrifying, bloodsucking, mindless monster did leave something to be desired. He was funny, in a smart, unexpected way, and he managed to pick up on tiny things Taako didn’t even know he was doing. Like guessing that he played an instrument, though his guesses were more than a little obscure. He was lonely, Taako could tell, and honestly, after a year of playing the poker tables every night, Taako was a little lonely, too.
It had been over a week of daily visits when Kravitz decided he knew the right answer to the little game they had been playing- piano.
Taako sat down. The piano was old, but not overly ostentatious, at least compared to the rest of the house. He forced himself to ignore the wave of memories that threatened to wash over him- his Aunt Tilla teaching him, he and Lup finally nailing that duet, him playing at the reception of Lup and Barry’s wedding- and let his fingers hover over the keys for a moment before letting them fall.
The clang of chords was almost amusing in his cacophony, and Taako bit down on a grin as he awkwardly sang the first note of the song. He dropped his fingers roughly on a different jumble of keys- nowhere near the correct chord- and attempted to continue singing when suddenly, someone’s hands ghosted gently over his own.
Kravitz’s hands were beautiful. His nails were even and clean, his hands soft from a life without hard labor, but Taako could feel callouses on the tips of Kravitz’s fingers, evidence of a years spent playing instruments.
“No, so your right hand stays here,” Kravitz said, softer than he ever had through the speakers, and arranged Taako’s fingers over the correct keys, “and your left hand plays the chord.” His hands pressed gently down on Taako’s, and together, they played the correct chord, which echoed in the silent room.
Taako’s heart was in his throat. He could feel Kravitz standing behind him, his chest just barely brushing the back of Taako’s shoulder, his hands still nearly cradling Taako’s. Slowly, Taako turned his head and looked up at Kravitz over his shoulder.
Kravitz’s locs were pulled back mostly away from his face, about half of them tied into a knot at the top of his head, and the rest falling down about his shoulders. A couple had fallen out of his bun, though, and hung- unnoticed- in his face. They did nothing to hide it.
There was an outcropping, maybe bone, cartilage, maybe just discolored and textured skin, stark white and covering the top half of his face. From his brow bone, over his nose, and to the edges of his cheek bones, Kravitz looked as though someone had pulled away his skin to reveal the skeleton beneath. His eyes were a dark shade of red, like you’d seen in albinism, and the stark white of the discoloration stood out unmistakably against his smooth, dark skin.
Taako breathed in, an involuntary, unsteady stuttering breath at first glance. Kravitz’s face was shocking at first glance, to say the least, but once you realized what you were seeing, once you understood that Kravitz wasn’t really half skeleton, half man; there was an elegance to it, a kind of dark macabre beauty.
Slowly, Taako raised his hand, he felt the sudden and unmistakable urge to trace the edge of Kravitz’s jaw, but as he did he heard the faint click of the camera in his lapel. Snapping what was almost certainly a perfect shot of Kravitz’s face. Just what Edward and Merle wanted.
Horrified, Taako pulled away without realizing, and Kravitz gasped, a shuddering, broken sound, and stumbled backwards, away from Taako. He looked terrified, and Taako didn’t know whether it was of him, or because of him.
“Kravitz-” He started, reaching his hand after him, but he pulled back quickly as he heard the hidden camera click again. And then Kravitz was gone, disappeared through a hidden doorway in one of the bookcases beside the mirror they had spoken through.
Taako rushed downstairs, through the front doors. He heard Kravitz’s mother and the matchmaker who was running the whole show running after him, shouting and calling his fake name- “Justin! Justin!”
He stormed up to the van where Merle and Edward were huddling, banging his fist against the side of it.
The excitement in Edward’s eyes as Taako pulled off the jacket was nauseating. “You got it?”
“Yeah,” Taako said, his voice dripping with venom, “I got your fucking pictures.”
He threw the jacket and camera to the asphalt, and ground the heel of his boot into it, shattering it and grinding it into the pavement. “There’s your fucking photographs.” He spat, grinning tightly. “You-” he poked Edward in the chest- “are a coward, and blind, to boot. Krav doesn’t deserve to be dragged through shit just for the sake of your pride,” he turned to level a contemptuous glare at Merle, “or your payday. Ta-” He caught himself at the last second, “Justin’s good out here.” He declared.
“What-” Taako turned and saw Istus, watching him talk to Merle and Edward, and saw her realization.
“Wait!” He called, as she started to run back towards the house, “Wait!”
He managed to get past her, and past Kravitz’s mother, into the house, and he caught Kravitz, standing at the top of the stairs.
“Kravitz!” He called, desperately, “Kravitz!” His head turned as Taako reached the middle of the floor, looking up at Kravitz one story up.
Raven caught Taako by the arm, and started to pull him away. “Kravitz, don’t listen to him. He’s a spy, a plant sent by that bastard journalist Highchurch that wouldn’t leave us alone when you were a baby.”
Shit, Taako winced, h as that asshole been hounding Kravitz his whole life? “No!” He yelled, and tried to tug his arm out of Raven’s iron grip. “Well, yes, technically,” he amended quickly, “but-” But what? Taako realized, what explanation did he have? What excuses?
“Justin.” Kravitz interrupted, and Raven and Istus quieted, watching him slowly descend the stairs. “I know… I know this face horrifies you. And I wouldn’t ask if there was any other way.” Is that what Kravitz thought? That Taako couldn’t stand the look of him? Had he been told his whole life he was that unlovably ugly? Taako felt indignant and hurt on Kravitz’s behalf. “Marry me,” he whispered, and Taako’s heart caught. “Marry me, Justin, and you can break the curse; I’ll be just like anyone else.”
Taako wasn’t the marrying type, he never thought he’d settle down with anyone- even after Lup and Barry got hitched and he saw how happy it made them. But for a split second, Taako was tempted. Not because it would break the curse, but because he wanted to. Because he wanted Kravitz, because he could see himself- ‘they need a blue blood, one of their own kind, to break the curse.’ Edward’s voice, greasy and annoying even in memory, crept into Taako’s head. And all of Taako’s thoughts- the hopes he wouldn’t dare name- came crashing down around him.
“What if… what if the curse doesn’t break? What if it can’t be broken?” Taako asked. ‘What if I can’t save you? What if I can’t give you what you want?’
“Then I’ll kill myself.” Kravitz didn’t hesitate, didn’t waver. Taako wondered how old he was when he decided those were his only options. “Marry me, Justin,” he repeated, “please.”
“I… I can’t.” Taako said.
Kravitz’s face closed off, and he turned away from the three of them, still standing in a frozen huddle at the bottom of the stairs.
“Get out.” He whispered.
Taako forced himself to ignore it when Kravitz appeared in the papers. When the city was fawning and fighting over their new golden boy- he was so brave, so proud, they clambered. They didn’t know him.
Neither do you, Taako had to remind himself.
Taako grit his teeth and made himself brush it off when he heard people gossiping about the ‘Grim Reaper’ around the city. No matter what Taako might or might not feel, he wasn’t what Kravitz needed- he couldn’t give him what he wanted. No matter what Merle or Edward- or even Kravitz- thought, he wasn’t Justin Kessler; a down on his luck son from high society. He wasn’t a blue blood- honestly, Taako was as far from that as possible- he and Lup has spent their lives on the run, jumping from house to house, city to city, before eventually winning a double scholarship to Neverwinter University and walking out of school with degrees. He was nothing, came from nothing; everything he had- everything he used to have- came from his and Lup’s hard work.
And now, because of his hubris and his habits, Taako didn’t even have that.
The second news article is what did it.
If the photos of Kravitz in the papers caused an uproar, then the reveal nearly a week later that the famous ‘Grim Reaper’ was in fact long lost Kravitz Queen- son of one of the oldest and richest families in Neverwinter- caused a riot.
You couldn’t walk ten feet or talk to anyone without it coming up; Kravitz was thought to have died as a baby, and people couldn’t stop theorizing why his death was faked, why he looked the way he did, and why he finally came into the light now.
After that, multiple things happened in quick succession.
First, a third wave of Kravitz-centric news hit the stands. Edward Vogue proposed, Kravitz Queen accepted, and the entire city was ready and raring for the wedding of the decade. Taako remembered how Edward would talk about Kravitz with disgust and disdain, noticed how mildly nauseous Edward looked in every photo he was in with Kravitz.
Then, the crotchety old dwarf- Merle, the one who had published the first set of photos- came to visit Taako.
“Taako Taaco,” he commented, wandering into the worn down bar Taako had started working at; he wanted to get his feet back under him before he went back to The Sizzler, back to Lup and the rest of his family.
“The one and only,” Taako replied, spreading his arms grandly, “it took you long enough, old man.”
“You really had me fooled, you know that?”
“No shit, I was born to be a disgraced rich pretty boy- I’ve already got one of the qualifications.” Taako paused, and jumped up to sit on the edge of the bar. “How’d you find me, anyway?”
“The real Justin Kessler got arrested.”
“Shit,” Taako laughed, “he always was a dumbass.”
“You see this?” Merle asked, raising a newspaper- the same edition Taako had avoided looking at that morning. The headline read ‘Vogue Heir to Marry City’s Beloved Grim Reaper in Wedding of the Decade!’
“The title’s a little ostentatious.”
“Yeah, I wouldn’t have picked it- it’s too fairy tale. Kravitz and the beast.” Merle scoffed, crumpling up the paper in his hands. “You going to the wedding?”
Taako raised an unimpressed eyebrow. “Are you?”
“Fair enough,” the old man laughed. After a minute, Merle dragged over a chair, pulled it up beside the bar, and climbed up to sit beside Taako on top of the bar. “You really liked him, didn’t you kid?”
Taako chose not to deign that with a response.
“Why didn’t you do anything? You went storming off into the house that last day, and then ten minutes later I saw you coming back out, lookin’ like someone had stomped on your heart.”
Taako stared fixedly at a poster on the far side of the wall- for some stupid indie girl band, the Raven and the Ram- and didn’t respond for a long time. Merle either had infinite patience, or didn’t expect Taako to answer at all.
“I couldn’t give him what he wanted.” He said softly, “I couldn’t break his curse.”
“You really believe that whole thing about the curse?”
“Doesn’t matter what Taako thinks, Kravitz believes in it.”
Merle mulled this over. “Well, why couldn’t you have broken the curse?”
Taako tried to scoff, but it came out a little sharp, a little broken. “You’re forgetting, man, cha’boy isn’t Justin Kessler. ‘One of their own kind,’ I’m not a blue blood.”
“Hmmm.” Taako felt Merle’s peircing gaze on the side of his face, but kept his eyes firmly locked on the dumb band poster on the other side of the bar. For the first time, Taako understood how such a half blind, imcompetant-seeming, granola old dwarf could manage to be one of the best investigative reporters in the city. “You know, kid, I have a kind of sixth sense when it comes to the truth,” he said eventually, hopping down surprisingly gracefully from the bar. “And in my experience, it always seems to help, even in situations like these.” He patted Taako on the knee- the only part of him he could reach, with Taako still sitting on the bar, and Merle standing on the ground. “Good luck,” He called behind him as he walked out of the bar, and Taako couldn’t help but feel like he meant something else.
For the first time ever, Taako knocked on the door to The Sizzler. It had been over a year since he had quit the restaurant, over a year since the last time he’d seen his sister, or Barry, or the rest of his family.
Taako didn’t scare easily, but he also wasn’t one to put himself out there often- or at all. To say he was terrified would have been an understatement.
“Who the fuck is knocking?” He heard Lup call from inside, and it took all he had not to turn tail and proclaim that ‘Taako is good out here,’ but he stood his ground. “Look, homie,” Lup started as she unlocked the door, “the sign says we’re closed for the day, we had a thing and-” she stopped mid sentence when she finally got the door open. Taako saw a million emotions fly across his twin sister’s face in a split second- shock, anger, confusion, apprehension, joy- before she unfroze, blinking at him. For one horrifying second, Taako was sure she was going to slam the door in his face and turn away; but she didn’t.
“Shit, Koko,” She whispered, and then her arms were around him and she was pulling him to her, through the door of The Sizzler, and he was hugging his sister for the first time in ages.
He heard the others- clustered as always around the bar, even when the store was closed- continue chattering for a minute before Magnus called his name in his familiar, booming voice; and then everyone else was hugging him too.
“I’m sorry,” he said eventually, when everyone was all hugged-out and they were back huddled around the bar. “I abandoned all of you, and-”
“Dingus.” Lup cut him off, and Magnus snickered at the old nickname. “It’s ok. You had to figure out your shit. And though while a call would have been nice-”
“We didn’t even know if you were still in Neverwinter!” Magnus worriedly interjected.
“You’re back now, and that’s what’s important, yeah?”
“I love you, Lulu,” Taako said quietly, and Lup smirked.
“I know,” she punched him in the shoulder. “That’s for ditching us without saying anything.” Then, Lup leaned in and kissed him on the forehead. “That’s for coming back home.”
“So!” Ren said, coming back from where she had disappeared into the kitchen a few minutes prior. “At least now we have something to celebrate with this cake, huh?”
“Not that I’m about to complain about Ren’s cake,” Taako said, “cause, fuck that looks good-” he highfived her enthusiastically as she passed, putting the cake down on the bar in the middle of everyone- “but why do we have a huge cake just… sitting around?”
“A friend of ours was supposed to get married today, but uh-” Barry started to say.
“He dipped on that stuck up asshole!” Magnus interjected, and Julia smacked his arm chidingly, but she was grinning as she did it.
“Jeez,” Taako said, already relaxing into the comfort of being back home. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he knew Kravitz and Edward’s wedding was today- but he ignored it as best he could. “You guys made some weird-ass friends without me.”
“Babe,” Lup said, leaning into his arm, “you have no idea.”