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After everything, Taako buys a house. Taako fills his house with things. Mostly cooking things, but also books and art and bedding and cute little knick knacks that have absolutely no conceivable practical use. He has more than one walk in closet. No room is empty, and there are many many rooms. He has rugs and curtains and armchairs and eight pairs of sandals. He has a collection of nail polish that takes up a whole cabinet by itself. He owns lots of things that are heavy, unwieldy, loud. He plants himself right in the middle of Neverwinter and declares, silently and to himself, that he won't be budged. Never ever.

That's not the only thing Taako swears to never ever do. And Taako may have changed a lot over the past hundred and ten years - sometimes by choice, sometimes organically, sometimes against his will - but stubbornness? Nothing ever managed to take that away from him. So he swears he'll never be on the run again, and he'll never forgive Lucretia.

He's not an asshole about it or anything, not that he couldn't or that the urge to doesn't ever hit him, stab him right between the ribs and stir up his guts until he gets ill. But given everything she took from him, Taako can't bear to deprive himself even further by causing rifts or whatever. He did threaten to kill her while furiously weeping though, so he thinks his stance on hanging out is pretty clear. Sure, sometimes he can't sleep because of cyclical inexpressible rage. And sometimes when he does sleep he's woken by the same gut-wrenching night terrors that he had during those ten years, the ones where he's searching and searching for something undefined and he knows somehow that if he doesn't find it he'll disappear too, but now when he wakes up instead of aimlessly trying to fill that void with food or attention or hats or other bullshit Taako knows to think of Lup. And of Barry, and Merle, and Magnus, and Davenport - and Lucretia. He was looking for her and she was right there , watching him search and fail and decompose. But whatever. She gets it, everyone gets it, no need to drag it out again. Taako can deal with his icky feelings all by himself like a big boy.

So life goes on and everything is a little weird and mostly good. Angus goes to school. Kravitz sleeps over at Taako's a lot even though he doesn't, strictly speaking, need to sleep, being dead and all, which is very sweet and nice and gives Taako feelings that are gooey but very much not icky at all. Carey and Killian go on a honeymoon that's supposed to last for one week but actually lasts for three because no one has the heart and/or guts to tell them they have to come back. Davenport goes to sea and sends them all postcards. Merle lives on the beach and spends all his time with kids, and Magnus lives in the boonies and spends all his time with dogs. Lup and Barry renew their vows, again, and everyone they know is there, and Taako and Lucretia sit on opposite sides of the aisle, and it's fine. Everything is fine.

One Candlenights passes, and then Midsummer, and the four birds left in between them go to Lucretia's on one day and to Taako's on another day for the celebrations, and it's all perfectly fine. Taako feels mostly okay most of the time, and for the times when he's doing shitty he has a Cleric who is not Merle that he visits sometimes and she kind of helps usually even though Taako doesn't actually take her advice very often. Sooner than it seems it should, Candlenights is coming again.

Merle, Magnus, and Lup, in that order, all beg Taako to invite - or to let them invite - Lucretia to Candlenights at his place this year. Davenport is still at sea and won't be attending, just as it was last year and for Midsummer. Barry says it's Taako's choice and refuses to express any opinion beyond that. Merle posits that Taako should let go of his anger for his own good (which would be fine and Taako figures he could wrestle his stubbornness into compliance to get it done, if only this gods-awful feeling was as simple as 'anger'), Magnus invokes the spirit of familial togetherness, and Lup just says please. So, reluctantly and not very charitably, Taako agrees.

Taako had already had the menu prepared for Candlenights dinner before that, the necessary ingredients all waiting in the secondary fantasy refrigerator (yes, he has a secondary fridge ; he's never ever moving ever again ever ). He just needs to get one more portion for Lucretia, but he stalls on doing it. Maybe she'll turn down the invitation. The idea of that sucks and Taako hates that his dumb feelings would be hurt if she did, while he'd also be relieved, and probably other dumb feelings too. He hates feelings, in general, except the gooey ones Kravitz gives him and the other, different gooey ones that Lup and Barry and Magnus give him (and the other, also different gooey ones that Merle and Cap'nport give him; and the other, also different gooey ones that Angus gives him; and-). Really there's no rational, thought-out reason for it. Taako just keeps not going to the grocer. He passes half a dozen different grocers in the street as he goes about shopping for other things and just never manages to make his feet take him the fuck inside one. Such as it is that the afternoon before Candlenights dinner comes and Taako still doesn't have the ingredients to make the menu item for Lucretia. His options are to just make all the portions smaller and not as pretty, to make an extra helping of the vegetarian option from the leftover ingredients from that which may or may not end up being a whole portion's worth, or to make Lucretia something else entirely out of the non-Candlenights designated food that Taako has in the kitchen. Despite the way it makes the back of his neck itch and his stomach get all twisty, Taako just starts cooking without making a decision, leaving the issue for Future Taako to solve.

Taako makes six helpings of roasted salmon topped with oysters and one helping of sliced tofu wrapped in wakame for that good seafood taste topped with oyster mushrooms, all draped over a bed of sweet-and-tangy lemon sticky rice and with sides of fried brussels sprouts, spiced squash soup, and cranberry fruit salad, and dessert options of pumpkin pie with chestnut crust or candied cranberries in sweet cream.

Once that is all done and has been set aside in the secondary fridge or in the secondary fantasy oven (yes, secondary oven; never ever ever ) to keep cool or warm as needed, Taako still hasn't made a decision re: what to make for Lucretia. He paces around his kitchen like a bored animal in a zoo enclosure, opening and closing cabinets and pantries and the first fridge over and over again, getting more and more frustrated and itchy and tummy-rumbly. At a certain point, when an early guest arrives and Kravitz lets them in, Taako plays a furious game of eanie-meanie-minie-mo and ends up with chicken.

He doesn't really mean to make the thirty garlic clove recipe. He's just going through the motions of making chicken at first, and he has his own special chicken routine as a chef, just because he's always liked to do things in a specific Taako way. So he adds one clove, and then he adds another, and then another, and another. And he's not counting as he goes, because it's less about the amount of garlic and more about this wound, and that wound, and that one. It's like the first time, when each clove was a little piece of the brightness that Lup helped Taako bake into himself. It's for the first-and-a-half time, when each clove was just garlic, meaningless, and no matter how much garnish he added later or how many five star ratings he got, at the center of it all Taako was still flavorless and slightly overdone. By the time the garlic cloves have reached the double digits, Taako has made the choice to cook the dish consciously and starts counting.

It's as Taako is drizzling the elderberry sauce he made from the few remaining dried berries he had left from the last fall berry harvest of the season over the otherwise finished dish that Kravitz comes in and brushes the escapee strands of hair off of the back of Taako's neck with a comfortingly cool hand. Taako sets his sauce pan aside and tilts his head up to accept a kiss, and Kravitz smoothes some flyaways off of Taako's forehead too.

"Your siblings and your kid are here," he says, and will continue to say no matter how many times Taako explains that he and Barry don't call each other brothers and that Angus has an actual guardian who is not Taako. He says it because Taako secretly (obviously) loves it, and sometimes Taako wistfully imagines that with each time it gets said it becomes just a little bit truer. "You look tense. Feeling okay?"

"Babe, you should know by now there's no telling how I'm feeling, not even for me," Taako quips. "If you still wanna know next week you can try asking my Cleric."

"Well, I could certainly make her tell me," Kravitz says, tapping a finger on his chin and pretending to think about it. "It does pose a slight ethical dilemma."

"Perish the thought," Taako teases and wraps his arms around Kravitz's waist to pull him closer.

"Oh, yes," Kravitz says, his mouth going crooked and showing off one side of his teeth. "That would put the whole thing definitively within my jurisdiction." Taako snorts. Kravitz is at least as much of a nerd as Barry. He'll make sure to compete with Lup about it over the dinner table later. For now, he has to go get ready for when everyone else arrives and it's time to party. He tugs the elastic out of his hair and shakes it out, grinning smittenly when Kravitz ducks down to get his mouth under Taako's chin before Taako tilts his head back down. When he stands straight again, Taako snaps his elastic around Kravitz's wrist.

"Can you handle them on your lonesome for a little longer while I go rinse off and get dressed?" he asks, and bats his eyelashes for good measure.

"A couple of liches and one precocious child?" Kravitz scoffs lightly. "Piece of cake." Taako laughs out loud at that one.

"We'll see what tune you're singing when I get back," he says, jokingly ominous, as he heads away toward his (their) bedroom. Taako rinses off quickly in the shower, magically dries his hair and does it up in a bun with a ribbon, dresses in a fancy Candlenights suit, and smears a quick line of dark glitter over his eyelids with his finger. He neglects to wear shoes with his fancy suit, because this is his house and he doesn't want to.

He makes it back downstairs just in time to see Lucretia come inside. If there was ever a hint of regret or doubt about serving her that chicken tonight, it's gone now. It blackens and chars inside him, crumbles up like his compassion and his intelligence did when she carved him into one bite-sized piece.

Merle and Magnus are the last to arrive, together and technically late, dressed nicely but smelling like train station. The second they notice Taako's bare feet their slightly haggard travel faces brighten.

"This is a shoeless party?" Magnus demands gleefully, and doesn't wait for a response before all but ripping his dress shoes off of his feet. Merle removed his shoes so quickly Taako can't even actually remember seeing them.

"You're both savages," Taako declares loftily, deftly ignoring the fact that he is the one who went shoeless first. His sister laughs at him and takes her shoes off too. Kravitz and Angus neatly tuck the toes of their shoes underneath the couch. It takes some prodding from Lup but eventually Barry reveals his extremely nerdy socks patterned with arcane equations. Lucretia is the last to relieve herself of her footwear, her movements seeming oddly shy. Lup gives her an encouraging smile.

"It's dinner time," Taako says. It's a little snappish, he will admit. But he did warn Lup ahead of time that he might not be the most gracious host this year. She can't say he didn't.

Taako doesn't allow anyone except Lup, Angus, and Kravitz in his kitchen, and even then Kravitz isn't allowed to touch anything unless Taako is feeding it to him. Besides which, all three of them are currently in the Guest category and since it's Taako's house and he makes the laws it's illegal for Guests to help the host with hosting stuff (until after dinner when Taako will change their designations from Guest to Person Who Ate My Food, and they will then be expected to do all of his dishes). Taako takes the food out two plates at a time. He serves from one end of the rectangular table to the other. Kravitz and Angus, and then Lup and Merle, and Barry and Magnus. He brings out his own food and Lucretia's together, even though they're at opposite ends. 

The smell of the garlic, to Taako's nose, overpowers all the other food, but no one else seems to notice until Taako puts the dish down in front of Lucretia. He stands straight-backed, chin up, and takes his salmon up to his own seat between Kravitz and Angus, and doesn't give anyone any looks or say anything scathing. The food says it all, and for once everyone else can hear it too. The levity in the room - the levity that Taako himself hadn't been able to take part in regardless - is gone instantly. Lucretia's lip wobbles for a second, and she opens her mouth to speak, but then changes her mind and cuts off a bite of chicken instead.

Taako didn't want to ruin Candlenights, he didn't set out to do it, but sometimes Candlenights is just ruined and that's how it is. Sometimes your heart feels like thirty cloves of raw garlic and the only thing you can do is cook it up and serve it.

Sometimes the food is the only thing that says anything for the whole meal.