Chapter 1: The Fuck's an Emissary, anyway?
Taako likes to think that meeting a goddess in the Girl’s Toy section of a Fantasy Wal-Mart was where his life got… well, got really fuckin weird. Sure, it was relatively weird before, between the way Merle looks at plants, Davenport’s tolerance of said looks, Magnus being… the way that he is (honestly? Thank Istus for Julia, Taako wouldn’t have been able to handle another year of his bullshit), and the actual, genuine liches Taako’s roomed up with.
“Okay, so, step one’s done,” Lup announces over her shoulder without sparing any of the other six people marching behind her a glance as they pass through the sliding door. “Which means that—“
Magnus raises his hand from next to Barry. “Uh, What was step one again?”
Taako scoffs, gesturing wildly to the people milling about Fantasy Wal-mart from inside the shopping cart. “Fucking getting here, Magnus .”
A pause that stretches just a little too long.
“... what was step two?”
Lup, for the most part, successfully elects to ignore the fact that anyone could forget in the first place. “Okay, so, Barr, you’re with us, natch,” Taako snaps a finger gun at his brother-in-law from the cart, “Cap’nport, Merle, form team gross old men, and Lucretia, babe, sorry, but it’s your turn to babysit Mags.”
Magnus perks up immediately and makes a comment about how together they make one competent adult, and drags Lucretia off into a different aisle despite her protests.
“He’s going to get a fish,” Merle says with absolute certainty, scratching his cheek and looking around the store for anything that catches his eyes. After a moment, he leans over to Davenport and stage-whispers something about Hawaiian shirts. With that, seven turns to three.
“Alright, losers,” Taako says, sticking his leg out and over the edge of the cart, “we need some more soda, cereal, a bag of those mini colored marshmallows, and uh… fuck, what else was it?”
“Hot Cheetos?” Suggests Lup.
“For what, Barold .”
Barry shifts nervously, hand reaching for the back of his neck. “Well, uh, celebrating you moving on in life?” He tries.
Of course, that’s an extremely sound excuse to eat an entire cake with three people. No one decides to mention that Taako didn’t necessarily voluntarily leave his job at LAH, but gods damn did that bit of info not bother him a bit. Shrugging nonchalantly, “eh, alright.”
Soon enough Taako’s holding bottles of soda in his lap, cereal tucked in on all sides of him, and the marshmallows somewhere at his feet. They’d delicately given the frosting instructions to the poor baker, who at least tried not to look shocked when they asked for a Candlenights-themed cake (“sirs, ma’am… it… it’s June?” “And what about it, boychik?”, at the same time as, “It’ll be a Candlenights gift at some point...?”) that had nothing but, ‘Smoke grass eat ass!’ written across it in gaudy neon yellow frosting.
Which meant they had like… an hour and a half to fuck around before it was ready, which, shit. Barry and Lup leave Taako (still in the cart, alas, because the will of Gods alone would have to move him) in the middle of a hot pink aisle, right smack dab in the middle of the barbies. From the loud laughter coming from a few aisles over, they were probably having the time of their lives on the play-test video games.
Taako was busy swiping through Fantasy Grindr, still on a search for at least one interesting guy because, c’ mon, He’s Taako when a crash sounds from the bicycle aisle. No one else outside of the abandoned aisle makes a move to investigate it, so neither does he.
Not a second later, squeaky pedaling sounds, and from around the corner comes an outrageously tall woman on a ridiculously small, ridiculously pink kiddy bike. She comes to a stop a few feet from Taako, eyes amused under her veil. Long, multicolored scarf trails across the floor and back around the corner. Her long hair pools into her lap, bangs concealed by a kid helmet equipped with unicorn ears and horn. “Sup,” she says in a voice that makes the hair on Taako’s arms stand on edge, tilting her head back to get a proper look at him.
“Yo. That crash you?”
“I fucked up my portal here, yeah. I was supposed to pop up behind you, but Pan is absolute shit at distracting Rav,” she says casually, cracking her knuckles. “I suppose it was my working, some time ago, but who’s to say?”
Alright, so. That’s absolutely fucking Istus, and Taako should’ve known from the knitted scarf and cardigan, especially considering most of those colors don’t exist and certain threads are glowing silver. “Oh no, it was deffo your work, for sure. Gonna tell me why you’re here to visit me other than seeing the most amazing product of your work?”
“Nah, I was just dropping by to steal mortal objects I don’t have a use for—“
“No need to get sarcastic, lady.”
Istus laughs, a noise that rings out like bells. “Of course. My apologies, Taako. I’m here to give you a pitch.”
Taako leans back in his cart, arms limp over each side. “Alright. Let’s hear it.”
“I need you to steal some items from the planes of reality for me, or, rather, for me to give to my girlfriend.”
She brightens immensely, her all-knowing smile only widening. “For the three of you… don’t look at me like that, you know just as well as I do that you have sticky fingers when no one’s around to babysit you. For the three of you to be able to cross between planes, I have to make you my emissaries. Unofficial, right now, but when the three of you do die? You’ll be working for me. Well, except maybe Merle, Pan and I are still working out the kinks.”
Taako takes pause, but not for his own sake. He’d take the deal regardless— an opportunity to be able to stay with Lup? He’d be stupid to pass that up. “Merle and Magnus…”
Istus doesn’t respond or even acknowledge that he’s being paired up with those chuckle fucks. It’s only natural though, isn’t it? Out of the seven of them, they’re the only three that have morals so fucked up they’d immediately agree to help a goddess steal from, presumably, other deities.
“Wait. Can’t you just ask nicely for this shit? I mean, you’re Istus .”
She smiles benevolently at him. “Where’s the fun in that?”
“Shit, alright, can’t argue with that. Dumb and dumber should be fine with this if you’re even asking in the first place.” Wordlessly, Istus unbuckles the kiddy helmet, turns it over, and throws a bag directly at Taako’s face.
By the time it falls into his lap, Istus is gone.
Weirdy enough, so is that fucking bike.
Taako decides it’s not the weirdest thing to happen in the past five minutes and, with a shrug, opens up the bag. He can’t see inside, exactly, but when he reaches in he grabs onto something cold and round, then a slip of paper folded neatly. Pulling his hand out reveals a fantastically gaudy Opalite ring that goes on his left thumb without another word (the rest were already covered with mismatched and equally terrible rings), and what looks like a grocery list scribbled hastily on a piece of parchment in pink glitter pen.
Lup comes barreling down the Aisle with a video game held tight in her arms, Barry hot on her heels. They don’t waste time shoving Taako’s cart back into action, Barry hopping onto the side of the cart while Lup shoves with the fury of a bat out of hell. “Find anything interesting?” Taako asks, Note already securely tucked into his pocket by the time they came running.
“Wii Sports Resort,” is all Barry manages out as he struggles to catch his breath. He curses, and fishes around in Taako’s purse for his inhaler because of course everyone shoved their shit into his bag when he wasn’t looking. Lup continues her race, absolutely determined on getting that cake and getting the hell out. On the way, Taako reaches past Barry on several occasions to grab whatever jewelry catches his eye.
He decides to wait until all seven of them are waiting to check out to break the news, sipping from a Fantasy McDonald’s soda Lucretia had thrown in his general direction. “So,” he says, admiring his new ring, “Merle, Magnus,” the bag changes hands to Magnus first, who pulls out a set of lock picks absolutely radiating celestial energy, “I sold our souls to Istus in the Girl’s Toy Aisle. Hope that’s alright.”
Lup stops in the middle of scanning a box of Fruity Pebbles, and Davenport nearly drops the terrible romance books he’d found on sale. “I’m sorry, you did what? ”
For the most part, Taako does a good job of looking casual, already pulling out a nail file and setting to work on his digits. “Yeah, uh… something about her girlfriend? I didn’t ask many questions and she was short on time.”
Merle pulls out a pair of glasses from the bag and spends a good minute scrutinizing them before he speaks up. “Well, she probably meant for us to do this shit anyway, so there’s no point in delaying the inevitable.” Switching out his glasses, he hums appreciatively. Colors dance across the lens when he turns his head. “Besides, Pan’s a generous dude. He’ll be willing to share when I beef it.”
Taako snorts. “Man, on the bright side, you’ll finally know how your kids feel.” Lup stomps on his toes, which one, he’s wearing sandals you absolute monster, what the fuck, and two, fair. Good ol’ reliable Taako might’ve goofed that shit up a bit.
“Uh… she tell you what we’re doing?” Magnus asks, hands shaking a little as he pockets his gift. Taako nods sagely, gesturing to zip up his lips. “No, no, that’s bullshit and you know it. What prying ears are in fucking Fantasy Wal-Mart?”
A shiver passes through the group. “Okay, that’s fair.”
Merle grumbles to himself as he scans his last Hawaiian shirt. “I hate that fucking dude.”
“Oh, dip, the tortilla chips weren’t on sale.” Heads turn to Magnus, eyes comically wide.
They can hear footsteps in the distance. Lucretia has a thousand-yard stare trained at nothing unless the Beauty Aisle sign was spilling the universe’s secrets. “Run,” she says, with wisdom beyond her twenty-something odd years.
And so they do that.
It’s kind of amazing, the timing all seven of them make to get back to the apartment complex. Taako kicks open the door to their apartment with maybe a little too much force, cake in hand. “Okay, so ,” he says over his shoulder, plopping the cake unceremoniously on their coffee table, “Thoughts on my current sitch?”
“Yeah uh, what the fuck, dude?” Lup calls from the kitchen, various rustles and slams giving away her position. “You got a plan to keep us from getting arrested for death crimes?”
“I’m pretty sure she already knows about our death crimes, babe,” Barry (Gods bless him) pipes up, adjusting his glasses. He’s the first to leave the kitchen with a box of shitty wine. “I mean, she controls almost everything we do?”
“Okay, sure, but fuck .”
“What, you thinking about how I beat you in getting the best afterlife gig?” Taako’s smile is easy, practiced. It’s not enough to hide his problems forever, but Lup still scoffs dramatically and moves him over with a knee as she sits down.
“Nah,” she says, slinging an arm around his shoulders and throwing a leg over Barry’s lap. “It’s just… weird? I knew you’d find a way not to leave us when shit hit the fan, but doing an errand in return for basically immortality? Kinda wack.”
Taako shrugs, twisting his ring. It’s got the same energy as his stone of Farspeech, he thinks? Well, if his stone of Farspeech had a super-powerful stone baby with the Philosopher's stone. “I got off easy. Mags and Merle, maybe a little less.” He doesn’t elaborate. Lup takes a bite of cake. “Need a little excitement, anyway. Gotta spice up my resume so I can get that teaching position and LAM will wish they never fucking fired me.”
He side-eyes his brother in law from the corner of his eye, still fidgeting in his seat. Spit it out, Barold, he says, nudging Lup’s leg into his while he resumes their weekly ritual of watching Fantasy Bachelor in Paradise. “So, theoretically,” he says, scratching at his absolute monstrosity of jeatpants (Jean sweatpants), “you could ask Istus to get the Raven Queen to let us off with like, a slap on the wrist?”
From the way Lup scowls at both of them, they might have considered it for a little too long. Nonetheless—
“Hey, Istus?” Taako says, holding his left thumb up to his ear. There’s a crackle on the other end followed by a long, tired sigh.
“You don’t even know what I was going to ask!”
“I’m not going to help your family get out of getting themselves out of their death crimes, intentional or not, and no I can’t give you more jewelry. That would be overkill, even though we both know you’d look absolutely killer.” There’s a small curse, the sound of knitting needles brushing together, and another sigh. A smile remains in her voice when she speaks again. “If you want to figure out how to help them, I’d suggest going on a walk. Goodnight, Taako. Lup, Barry.”
He turns back to Barry. Barry hasn't blinked in two minutes, which, impressive, but Taako is going to win this staring contest no one remembers starting. Lup hits both of them upside the head. No one laughs, but Taako does announce that he needs some shitty store-bought cake pronto , which ends up leading to the three of them tipsy and giggling as they shove the couch and coffee table away, entirely too excited with the prospect of playing Wii Sports Resort. Bachelor in Paradise could wait, Lup said with absolute authority; this was an opportunity they couldn’t afford to miss.
They end up throwing one of the remotes into the vase of flowers on the table. A gift from Lucretia, only a day old. She’d handed it to him after her shift a little sheepishly and apologized for not being able to help him this time and C’mon it's so fucking hard to hate her for more than like, an hour when she pulls shit like this. Like the fucking adults they are, they don’t speak a word of it, even as Taako vanishes to retrieve the broom from whatever hellscape they’d last shoved it. He finds it delicately balanced atop the shitty China cabinet filled with preserved… things, undoubtedly a power move past Lup or Taako made the last time they got wasted.
He ignores the person standing in the doorway and talking angrily to Lup at first, sweeping glass into the dustpan and moving the controller onto the table. “Okay, first of all, Bane , you don’t even own the building? Second of all—“
“—is someone else in there? I swear you’re having another party. Let me in.” Barry is standing shock-still between their house plant and the TV, eyes blown wide as he meets Taako’s gaze. He fixes his glasses with slow movements and gestures to where Taako’s wand had been shoved into his hair hours ago.
‘Help’, he mouths, and that’s all Taako needs to hear. In an instant his hair comes tumbling over his shoulders, wand previously keeping the ‘do intact in hand, and Barry’s vanishing to the thin air at the same time Taako’s Blinking himself into the fire escape. Unbeknownst to Captain Captain Bane (Lup had to bite her lip when she heard Taako crash back into existence outside, shoulders shaking in silent laughter), one (1) Barry Bluejeans lands on his and Lup’s bed, hair a little out of place from how abruptly Taako had moved him. The caster of the spell, meanwhile, decided to take Istus up on that aforementioned walk. Sure, he’s kind of tipsy, but there’s no way he’s going to be able to face Bane after the last time. Magnus, Merle, and he didn’t exactly… uh… end off on a good note with him? If Barry wasn’t there, it would’ve gone to shit, but this time around finds him lacking the same confidence. So. A walk it is.
Taako doesn’t bother to tie his hair back into a bun, unceremoniously shoving his wand into his back pocket like the dignified wizard he is. The streets are mostly empty, at this time of night. He sees no familiar faces for the first few blocks. Even the barista fifteen minutes away from closing isn’t familiar, but the sigh she lets out is just as desolate as Leon’s. He doesn’t thank her for taking time to make his coffee and the nerds’ Chamomile, because why would he (again, he’s Taako ), but no one would know if he left a silver piece or two behind as a tip.
He passes by a garage— the first activity he’s seen so far— and hears Hurley call out to him. She’s leaning out of a battlewagon, waving enthusiastically. Sloane looks over her shoulder from the arcane core she’s inspecting. Instead of bursting into a wide smile, she gives a ghost of one and nods in his direction. He returns the favor, calls out, “Hope you bought that!” With no bite to match his bark.
“You were with us, stupid!” Hurley shouts back, cupping her hands around her mouth. Taako’s already begun to walk away, still facing the garage. Sloane’s head shakes slowly and despite her features becoming less clear the further he got, he swears she was smiling.
“What? I can’t hear you! You’re too far away! Tell me later—!”
Taako spins on his heels while he shouts back at Hurley and Sloane, about to go on to convince them to show up around his parts to catch up, when he finds himself diving face-first into some poor fool’s face. He has a thought, in the two seconds that it takes for the tray in his hands to right themselves in a levitation spell that's absolutely flawless, thank you very much, and all of the other dude’s powers to go flying. And that thought, as eloquent as Taako at nine-thirty can be, is—
Either I’m the most oblivious fucking flip wizard in Neverwinter, or this dude came out of nowhere.
Nat twenty on his perception roll in the fucking bag (not that he knew it at the time because, again, not the smartest wizard), Taako watches the stranger drop to the floor and gather his papers. “Yo, my man. What kind of job’s got you staying out this late?” He asks, open hand holding whatever stray, dramatic papers decided to fly high above their heads.
“Er—“ golden eyes glance up from the papers he’s painstakingly reorganizing, free hand reaching up to adjust the nerdiest glasses Taako’s ever seen. Looking like he’s seen a ghost, he tucks hair behind his ear. “Investigation?” He says, uneasy, and wait a fucking minute that’s a different accent than before.
“You’d be a shit investigator if you sounded like that all the time,” he says, offering the papers in his outstretched hand like the shittiest olive branch the world had to offer. “No offense.”
“None taken.” The stranger that Taako has now taken to calling TDH (Tall, Dark, and Handsome) in the past thirty seconds smooths his suit with both hands, adjusts the feathered cloak over his shoulders. There’s pink crystal (?) crumbling and falling off of him with every movement. “I get nervous. Not many people have… the gall to call me out for it.”
“You can say balls, homie. We’re a very vulgar friendly homebody, casa de Taako.”
“Oh, no, I just didn’t think of anything clever. Shit, that was your name you just said, right? Taako?” He considers a quick one-liner, maybe a pick-up line, before deciding against it and giving a noncommittal shrug. Which. Still bad, but who cares. “I’m Kravitz. Sorry about the whole uh, running into you deal, wish I could make it up to you, but I really have to be somewhere right now.”
Taako waves his hand in the air vaguely. “Yeah, no, get it, but dude. Handsome. You look dead on your fucking feet. Like— hang on, fuck, I’m almost out of spell slots you better like this—” glancing to his cup of coffee, he shifts the position of the hand previously full of loose parchment, and hands over the duplicate that appears the next time he blinks. “Take this bad boy and live a little, Krav. Capitalism might hold your future but lattes are now.”
Kravitz, on the bright side, doesn’t turn the coffee down outright. He seems sort of confused by the concept at first, but we’ve all been there. Then he’s smiling, small and genuine. Which, Okay. This hot stranger has absolutely no right to smile so sweetly. What the fuck? “Thank you, Taako. I… I really appreciate it.”
Bracelets fill the silent night air in return as Taako takes the drink tray back in hand, shoulders rising and falling. “Yeah, yeah, don’t mention it. Literally. Don’t mention it. I’ve got a record to keep, capiche? Can’t have someone fucking that up no matter how hot they are.”
He schools his smile into a very serious look, nodding earnestly even while he bites his lip to hold back a laugh. “Of course. We can’t have that. Terrible press, I reckon.”
“Finally someone gets it!”
“I—uh— wasn’t kidding about the rush, though. I have to go.”
“Don’t let me stop you.” Taako waves over his shoulder, already headed in the opposite direction. He’d have to start heading home before the charms on the cups wore off and he ended up with the shittiest cold latte in the world. Also, Lup would have his ass if she had to microwave tea again. “Hope you come around this side of town again, Kravitz! It’d be nice to see another pretty face here.”
He doesn’t stick around to hear his reply, and even if he did, Taako doubts he could hear it.
Because, dangling precariously from the brim of his shitty wizard’s hat, is a raven’s feather. He’ll pocket it without really knowing why until he’s getting ready for bed later that night, and checks the numbered list for no other reason than something inside him urging him to.
The first item on the shopping list Istus gave them glows brightly with a thousand colors. He nearly guffaws at the sticker next to it-- the sort of ‘great work!’ sticker you’d get on elementary school quizzes staring into his soul.
Taako never got one of those fucking stickers as a kid.
1. A Feather from a brush with a stranger, who knew you whilst lost to time.
Kravitz first died when he was twenty. He doesn’t remember much in-between the before and after, but he got some of the gaps filled in after he’d come back to his body. Before, he’d been headed out of his apprenticeship with a manilla envelope of paperwork to go over.
After, he’d been sitting in the center of a ritual circle, covered in blood that was and wasn’t his, shivering from the cold that steeped deep into his bones. A raven stared at him impassively from the head of one of the mangled hooded figures scattered across the cave, golden eyes blinking slowly. A black cloak was wrapped tightly around his form. Whether it was there before, he could no longer remember.
He only knew he died when a kid detective followed the stench of death and published a report in the community Gazette.
He left after the raven when it finally took flight, shaking hands gripping tightly onto both ends of the black-feathered cloak and pulling it closer to his body. He doesn’t look down at the necromancers to see if he recognized them. No, he puzzled after the raven, brows furrowed as he tries to figure out the details to the bizarre dream he’d just come back from. He can’t remember most of the words spoken, as all dreams tend to go, but he distinctly remembers a woman, sitting on a throne and towering over him, her golden eyes sparkling and black braided hair ruffling like feathers. Her form was… tentative at best, but he recalled her being elvish, and rather resembling his mother. Or how he thought his mother would look like.
The raven led him to a small town nearby. It only stopped once at the outskirts to land briefly on his shoulder, lean it’s beak to his ear, and speak.
“ Be ever vigilant, my child. I will come to you when I need your assistance .”
And then it vanished in a puff of smoke, at the same moment an exhausted old woman stumbled from a tavern and immediately froze at the sight of Kravitz.
Kravitz, of course, immediately decided that he’d hallucinated the raven come next morning, and continued with his life without any additions to his gym routine, thank you very much.
He never stopped to consider the possibility that he did, in fact, meet the goddess of death, or any goddess, for that matter (despite the fact that his eyes were now golden, when they were previously a muddy brown, and he now had permanent True Sight. He was still working those two out), until he stumbles into a public restroom after a particularly hectic performance, only to find that instead of dull whites and greys of government regulations, the entire room is a pitch-black, bathroom goers frozen in time. Some poor fool's stuck in the middle of zipping his fly on his right, another washing their hands to his left.
The handicapped stall is the only one open, a hazy light surrounding the doorframe. When Kravitz brings a hand to nervously fidget with his collar, he finds that the black-feathered cloak he’d hung up in his closet for good fifteen years ago is back around his shoulders. Briefly, Kravitz considers that someone’s cast an illusion on the whole place but, no, he’d be able to see through that , if anything. He also toys with the possibility of being high out of his mind. Furthering his argument for the ‘being high despite having gone nowhere near drugs’ scenario, a raven appears on the top of the door to the nearest bathroom stall.
“ I need to call in my favor, now, Kravitz. I’m sorry for interrupting your post-performance high, but it simply cannot wait ,” says the raven, beak still sealed shut and golden eyes staring unblinkingly at him. “ Step through the handicapped stall and into my realm, my child. ”
Which was, of course, also the same thing Ronald the Destroyer had been told by a Warlock before he’d been murdered, so how much could Kravitz trust the sentient raven, really ?
He decides that it was more than he could ever have trusted Ron to make a smart decision in his short, miserable life, and steps through the portal with the grace of a poised dancer.
The elven woman is still sitting on the throne, just as he remembered her. Her feathered cloak falls further than his, and her form-fitted pantsuit has golden embroidery climbing legs to match her absurd amount of jewelry. She stares down at him for a minute, head tilted to the side in the same way the Raven cocked its head, before abruptly rising from her throne and rushing down the steps to him. “You’ve grown,” she says, with the same booming, ominous voice as the crow, but softer now. Maternal. “My, my, and your hair . It suits you.”
“Uh… Thank you, My Queen?” He says, because what the fuck do you say to that? To any of this? Like, If it was someone else he’d be politely asking her to stop lifting his arms to check his wingspan and closely inspecting his leather shoes but she just seems so earnest about seeing how he’s changed that he can’t bring himself to say anything else. “I. Shit, really did die back then?”
She pauses, mid-inspection of the engravings on the bits of gold he’s wrung through his dreadlocks. Black scleras with piercing gold irises, come back into view, clawed hands gentle on his cheeks. “Oh, my child,” she says with a breathy sigh. The Raven Queen says nothing else on the matter, taking a few strides back to get a full look at him. “I knew you’d dress nicely. Nothing like Pan’s emissaries, I’d be put to death by their hideous sandals alone if I wasn’t… well, me, to put it bluntly.”
Emissary? What does that have to do with--
Wait a minute.
Wait a fucking minute.
“I’m your Emissary?” He blurts out, rather than the original question of whether or not they wore socks with them. “Why don’t I remember agreeing to that?”
“You asked not to,” She says, gesturing for him to follow her out a door that wasn’t there a second ago, made out of the same dark granite-like the rest of the room, save for the white marble they stand upon. “Part of your terms, and to make the process at the end of your life easier. You didn’t want to remember what we agreed upon until it was time for me to call you to help on… earthly matters and you didn’t want to remember dying. Or how we killed the Necromancers.”
He opens his mouth to ask about the ‘we’ part, but the Raven Queen waves her hand dismissively. “Can’t tell you much more than that. When your time does run out and you join my retinue, though, You’ll remember enough to be able to decide for yourself if you want the full picture.”
Fair enough. She gave him his life back. He’s not about to go and argue his way into remembering an event that past him specifically asked to forget, though knowing the full terms to their Agreement would be beneficial. “Of course, My Queen. What will you have me do?”
She stops in front of a door thrown open with a flourish to reveal a barren room, spinning around with a bright grin spread across her frankly terrifying face. “I want you to help me propose to my girlfriend.”
Kravitz only stops walking when he nearly trips on his cloak. “I’m sorry, you want me to what ?”
“Now, you need to be secretive about it, which I don’t doubt you can do, I’ve heard from my sources you’re rather amazing at persuasion checks,” The Raven Queen continues, pretending she never heard him, seating herself at the empty vanity and gesturing for him to sit as well. “I’ve got no doubt that the moment she catches wind that I’ve enlisted you, she’ll be sending her Emissaries to do the same, and we’ll both pretend nothing’s happening.”
Kravitz sits down robotically at the (rather comfortable) bed. “How do I… Help you with this?”
The Raven Queen pulls a hefty stack of papers from the dark abyss of her cloak, dropping it into his arms when prompted as if the whole thing doesn’t weigh ten pounds. “These are the terms and agreements to your employment with me, read them over when you have time, but the last page is a list of items that I… would rather not get myself.” She clasps her hands together, glancing nervously around the room. “Or, I should say, most of them I’m not welcome in, and those who banned me know what a goddess of death’s aura feels like. By the by, do you like this room? It’s intended to be yours while you get adjusted after… well, after.”
“Yes, it’s lovely, thank you,” He says, glancing nervously at the stack of papers. “Have you highlighted where I need to sign?”
“Oh, you don’t need to sign. Just read that when you have the time. Or leave it here, if you’d rather, but I’d like to keep your head above water.” She chuckles darkly at some unseen joke of her’s, before coughing awkwardly into the crook of her arm. “Go ahead and flip to the last page.”
Instead of flipping, Kravitz simply pulls it from the bottom and sets the stack next to him. There’s nothing magical about the text, written in bold, elegant cursive. No title, either, but he already knows what it’s for so there’s no real point to giving it one. He chews on flaking skin on his lower lip, absently thinking about finding where he stuck his chapstick when he gets back home. Only a few locations sound remotely familiar to him, but the instructions on how to get to the unfamiliar are pretty direct, so he shrugs it off. “What does this one mean?” He finally asks, pointing to the first item. “How can it be lost to time?”
She turns her face upwards, cocked to the side in thought. “Istus and I… We had quite a spat, some time ago. The laws of life and death there got wonky after that, but she told me after we’d gotten together that the lab that was built upon it was now under the control of Lucas Miller. His experiments are unethical at this point, but one of them went wrong. A warlock made an emergency pact with Father Time to save those present, but it.” She pauses, licking her lips. “It warped the whims of life and death between the realms. Luckily, I was able to keep the damage from the Astral Plane, but the Ethereal and Prime Material plane weren’t given the same privilege. The Tourmaline was Istus’s effect on the planes.”
The Raven Queen’s gaze is intense, bearing into Kravitz’s soul with an intensity she had kept mute up to that point. “No mortal can touch the crystal without they becoming one with it.” Her grin is wicked, now, sly in a way that only someone who thought to outsmart themselves and fate could muster. “But you’re not quite a mortal anymore, are you, Kravitz?”
His hand reaches up to the scar across his chest, mended skin where a gaping hole had been long ago. His heart still beats, but it’s always out of tune with what the designs of the world intended for him. When the day comes that it will beat no more, he’ll hardly notice the difference.
Kravitz doesn’t know how long he’s been serving the Raven Queen. Fifteen years as a definite, whether he knew it or not, but there has never been a point in his life where he can’t recall seeing a Raven watching at the distance and he barely takes pause while his friends all say ‘What kind of fucking bird has golden eyes?’ in perfect unison, before the bird takes flight and Kravitz finds himself trailing after it. He’s followed that Raven for as long as he can remember.
He breathes in deep and faces his Queen. In the time it takes him to gather his papers she’s already opened a portal through the closet door, standing by it with clasped hands and a motherly smile. She stalls him before he can walk through with a gentle hand to his shoulder, fingers cold in the way he hadn't felt for a long time. The Raven Queen doesn’t speak, only lifts her second hand to weave a feather through his cloak. “Be safe,” she says, ears lowering in a well-hidden worry. “I’ll be waiting.”
Miller Labs was… well, abandoned would be putting it nicely, ‘a fucking disaster’ is the blunt, correct truth. Testing machines strewn about the room, a lab coat abandoned on the floor, tubes of all shapes and sizes cracked and broken on tables, charts abandoned and papers still drifting through the room. Pink tourmaline falls around him and on his hair like snow, and he coughs once or twice from the uncomfortable pain welling up in his throat.
Other than the piles forming on the floor and covering lab equipment, Kravitz finds that the lab itself becomes infested the further he walks. Tourmaline attaches to the hand scanners and grows up the walls, extends through broken skylights and to the moon overhead. Mice stand, frozen in time by the tourmaline that replaces any fur, bones, or organs they had before. A dwarven man stands under a broken window in what used to be a wildlife conservatory, crystalline cigarette still poised to his lips.
It’s gruesome. Though the memory of necromancers looking more like they went through a blender are present in the back of his mind at all times, he finds this calm, serene sight of crystalline snow falling around corpses turned fragile and transparent more harrowing. He hopes that they died quickly if anything else.
Kravitz can’t tell you why he kept walking around the lab, instead of breaking off a particularly pretty rock and getting the hell out of there. If he was feeling a little romantic, he would say it was fate pulling him by a string. If he was anything else, he’d say he was fascinated by an anomaly so few could witness.
He makes it as far as what used to be Lucas Miller’s old personal quarters before he notices anything off. He’s looking at the collection of crystals he has set up on a long desk when he knocks one to the floor on accident. “Shit,” He says, immediately dropping down to put it back in its place. Before the emerald chunk is within an arm’s reach, he tenses and holds his breath.
There are three sets of footprints outlined in powdered tourmaline, untouched by his cloak dragging across the floor behind him. Recent, if he had to guess.
Which means he isn’t alone.
“That makes this a bit more interesting,” he says to the empty room. He pockets a compact mirror on the way out and after the footprints. One is easier to follow, probably from someone who wouldn’t know how to tread lightly if his life depended on it. The second is just a small, simple outline, barely detectable if he wasn’t actively looking for them. The third shuffles like a horse through the snow.
He finds them in Maureen Miller’s old lab, a conjoined building to the personal quarters he’d just left. It’s not like they were hard to follow, all in all, and once he was in hearing range--
“Holy shit I didn’t know Lucas’s mom beefed it like this!” Cries the largest of the three, the only one Kravitz can see clearly as he strides through the hall. He’s staring at Maureen’s crystallized form in the center of the room, her hands wrapped around a figure that didn’t crystallize with her, hunched in on herself. Unlike him, none of them can walk freely-- all wearing Null suits and seeming equally bitter about the whole situation they’ve caught themselves up in. Still, they were dumb enough to come here in the first place, so he’s intrigued enough to know why that he crosses through the doorway.
Only to immediately be met by a magic missile that misses his head completely from an elven wizard in the middle, a throwing knife from the large burly man that lands in his feathered cloak and doesn’t even pierce the material, and a Zone of Truth that’s seemingly too easy to pass the check on from the dwarven cleric. Almost immediately, before he can get a chance to explain himself or fight back, the elven man is stepping forward with long strides, eyes wide.
“What the fuck, Kravitz ?” He asks as he nears, the other two from his party looking just a little put out to not kill someone today. Kravitz pulls out the throwing knife without much resistance, only to immediately freeze upon hearing his name. “What-- You-- Why are you here ?”
“How do you know my name?” He asks, slowly, still holding the throwing knife. Taako looks thrown for a loop, confused, then outraged, and then back to confused.
“We met like, last week? You had all these papers and kept talking about being in a rush.”
“No, we definitely didn’t, I’d remember meeting someone like you, and besides,” He pulls the papers out from the bag of holding attached to his belt, gesturing to them plainly, “I just got these today.”
Taako purses his lips cocks his hip to one side and pulls a list from thin air. Looks at the list, then Kravitz, then back to the list. “Oh, shit !” He says after the silence grows uncomfortable, “Time’s fucky here, yeah?”
The list vanishes and, with it, any of Kravitz’s breath in his lungs. Theoretically, someone could figure it out, but the fact of the matter was that no one he knew, well, knew , except for him an hour ago. The elf smiles at him, proud and knowing, the gap in his teeth on full display. “Which means that-- bear with me here-- theoretically, we could be existing at the same time right now, but in two separate points in time. Like, you’re still in last week, but we’re in the present, but the lab itself is struggling to keep itself in time at all, let alone us.”
It. Well, fuck, it makes sense. “Of course! Time doesn’t exist in a linear sense here, Naturally, there would be a point where two separate points in time would merge and put us into the same space.” He’s smiling, now, drawn in by this stranger’s charm. Adjusting his glasses, he holds a hand out to Taako. “I know we’ve already met in my future, but I’m Kravitz.”
“Name’s Taako, don’t live it down,” he says, chipper, shaking his hand briefly. Due to the null suit gloves, he doesn’t get much of a feel for his hand under the fabric, but beggars can't be choosers. “Oh, shit, wait, since you’re from last week, have you seen a compact mirror laying around? Lucas said it had a connection to the Prime Material plane but we weren’t listening too hard.”
There’s an awkward minute that consists of Kravitz forgetting he has a bag of holding and balancing his absurd stack of papers in one hand and digging in his suit pocket for the compact until he fishes it out and presents it to Taako. “I was going to keep it for myself but I wouldn’t handle stealing from someone alive too well.”
Taako laughs nervously as he stuffs the compact into his bag. “No, no, Lucas would deserve it, man. Dude’s a piece of work.”
The burly man is the first to walk over to the two. “Hey, I’m Magnus, uhh…. I just thought I should ask… How the fuck are you alive?”
“Oh, shit, yeah, my man, shouldn’t you be crystal right now?”
“I built up an immunity to killer tourmaline?”
“Yeah, sounds about right,” Says Taako and the dwarf (who would later introduce himself as Merle), in perfect unison.
Magnus, meanwhile, squints suspiciously at Kravitz, who tries his best to smile non-threateningly, which either works or Magnus doesn’t care enough to call him out on it, because he trails after Merle to continue looking for… whatever it was that drew three genuine mortals into the one place that would kick their asses.
“So, Krav,” Taako says as he seats himself into a spinning chair, with the clear intent on not helping his friends, “What brings you here?”
“Would you believe me if I said tourism?” Which, okay, Kravitz knows this is a shitty lie, he’s been lying his way out of tense situations is entire life but something about Taako just tells him he won’t be getting into a fight if he keeps something secret.
“Definitely not,” he says immediately, green eyes alight with amusement. “You don’t have to tell me why you’re here, stud. Just tell me what you’re looking for. You never know, there could be something here a week in the future that’s just what you need.”
Kravitz laughs through his nose, looking away from Taako. “No, I doubt it but thank you. I’m just looking for a good cut of the Tourmaline.”
Taako spins around once or twice in the chair, before stopping with his foot, the other still crossed on the seat. His tongue sticks out between his teeth before he’s perking up in posture. “Throw the knife Magnus tried to kill you with at the wall,” he says, spinning to face the wall immediately in front of the desk. “Bet you it’ll work.”
He returns Taako’s smile with one of his own as he positions himself some ways away, holding the knife high in the air. “I’m far better at a lyre than darts, you know,” He says, adjusting his glasses in the moment it takes for him to aim. Taako makes some comment about him being a musician, which Kravitz responds to easily enough that he doesn’t quite remember what he said exactly in the first place, because the knife digs into the tourmaline like butter and sends pieces crashing onto the ground, faster than he can swoop in and grab them but his lips are faster, letting out a high whistle that encases the pieces in a golden light, inches above the ground.
Taako leans back into his seat, pocketing the wand he’d had at the ready. “If you’re better at the lyre, I’d hate to know how any other musician feels listening to you perform.” He’s not smiling, but the smirk is close enough and his words fill Kravitz with the closest thing he’s ever gotten to exhilaration while off the stage that makes it impossible for him not to smile a little too wide than what’s usually considered normal.
“Oh, shit! Taako, we gotta go!” Magnus calls, in time with a rumbling that shakes the lab. Kravitz feels a surge of otherworldly magic slam into him, and Taako must feel the same because he’s shaking all over as he struggles to his feet. Merle has a book out and yells something to whatever begins banging at the closed doors opposite of the ones Kravitz entered through.
“Kravitz, come with us,” He says, legs still trembling. He shakes his head, pulling Taako’s arm around his shoulders and placing a firm hand on his waist. “Oh, good.”
“I’m not coming with you,” he says, hurrying after Merle and nodding at Magnus, still standing at the ready with a wicked-looking ax. Taako looks just about crestfallen, but it’s concealed by a blank nothingness before he can console him. Still, he figures they were owed an explanation. “I can get out a different way. Magnus, help Taako out of the lab, please. If Merle starts to feel something, anything, that’s just a little bit off about himself, keep an eye on him. I don’t know what’s keeping these things chasing you alive, but they’re pure narcotic energy.
“I have no idea what that means but alright,” Magnus says, sheathing his ax and unceremoniously hoisting Taako over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. Taako grumbles in protest but otherwise seems unphased by the occurrence.
After a moment’s deliberation, Taako gives a tiny wave. “See you on the flipside, bones.”
Kravitz watches them vanish down the hall for a long while before he hears a door burst open and he slowly, deliberately, turns himself around to the crystal monster. “My Queen,” he says, rather pleasantly, in the general direction of the rock monster, “A portal would be lovely right about now.”
A portal opens at the broken door behind the towering monstrosity. A raven lands on top of a stack of papers on the desk and says nothing, only staring straight at him.
Pink Tourmaline comes crashing down on Kravitz in the form of a boulder thrown across the room, but he’s lunging to the desk, missing it by a braid’s width on his head. He grabs the papers, holds them tight, and watches as the raven sails through the room, down between the legs of the crystal monster, and through the portal. Kravitz manages to jump over another swinging attack that smashes the chair Taako had just been in moments ago, and has only a split second to cast his spell, the high note torn from his throat the moment the mica brushes against his tongue. The Tourmaline creature hunkers over as the room shakes, rocky fists slamming into the sides of its head. By the time it’s done smashing in itself, Kravitz is gone, sliding under its rocky legs and through the portal after the raven.
He emerges on the other side on a sidewalk, and it’s still night out, which, good. He’d hate to have lost time. He has only a second to consider the time before he hears someone speaking, just inches from him, but his ears are still ringing from the Shatter he’d just barely saved himself from succumbing to, and then he’s falling forward, his papers flying and-
Oh. It’s Taako.
But he looks different. His pale blue skin is glistening in the moonlight, as it was before, but the bags under his eyes are deep and his hair cascades down his back instead of being tied into an intricately braided bun and there’s an absurd amount of rings on his long, delicate fingers. Most importantly, though, is the lack of recognition in his eyes. He cracks a slow, nervous smile, cheeks flushed, and asks, “Yo, my man, what kind of job’s got you staying out this late?” while he swoops down to gather papers with him. There’s a steaming cup tray levitating above his head.
Kravitz takes a minute to find his words, still struck by how breathtaking Taako is, how easily he can crack a conversation. Not that he didn’t notice before, no, but he was… preoccupied, then. “Er,” he says, after a minute, in his normal voice thanking his Queen that she numbered the papers and adjusting his glasses, then hair. But then he looks back at Taako and immediately feels heat rush to his face and he says “Investigation?” and, shit. He went Cockney again. Why does this always happen to him?
“You’d be a shit investigator if you sounded like that all the time,” Taako says, handing more papers to him. His smile is gone, but his lips still rise in one corner in a pathetic apologetic look that broadcasts that he didn’t, in fact, feel sorry. “No offense.”
Kravitz adjusts his collar, flipped up during the travel over, and adjusts his feathered cloak, shaking more tourmaline off of him. Oh, Queen, he’s going to find tourmaline on him for weeks. “None taken,” he says.
And then Taako quickly insists that he take a duplicate of one of his coffees (how he did that so quickly and perfectly Kravitz would never know) because he seemingly looked like a dead man walking, and, after a while of insisting he was in a rush (He wasn’t, not really, but he did want to get his equipment back from the venue soon), he extracts himself from Taako and rushes down the sidewalk.
“Hope you come around this side of town again, Kravitz! It’d be nice to see another pretty face here,” he hears him call after him, probably assuming he wouldn’t be able to hear. But he does, and Kravitz just quickened his pace and downed half the sickeningly sweet latte, fixing the gold-eyed raven that’s waiting for him at the awning of his flat with a look.
“ Did you get it? ” The raven asks, instead of teasing him. “ I mean, of course, you did, but is it shiny? ”
“Of course it’s shiny,” Kravitz says, tossing his bag of holding up to the Raven. “Bring that back to me sometime tomorrow, please? I keep my sapphires in there.”
“You’ll receive the bag tomorrow. You’ve done well, my child. Rest now and rest easy. ”
Kravitz, of course, doesn’t rest now or rest easy. Instead, he scrolls through his stone contacts while he juggles between hanging his cloak and changing into his pajamas that are, rather appropriately, covered in little skulls.
The line only rings twice before the three-way call picks up. “I hate you,” is the first thing Ren says, “I truly, genuinely hate you.”
“Hate me all you want, but I’ve got to tell someone about this and I’m still certain neither of you has anything important to do right now.”
“ Hey ,” Says Johann, sounding thoroughly exhausted, “I’m doing important things.”
“Daydreaming about Avi doesn’t count,” Says Ren, deadpan but too quick on the jump for Kravitz to beat her to it. “Anyway, what’s got your knickers in a twist? Someone give you flack after your performance or what?”
“No, no, nothing like that,” He insists, successfully recovering from nearly eating shit from trying to put on pants with one hand. “Johann knew me around this time and Noelle’s probably mentioned it once or twice, but did I ever tell you two what I thought happened the time I went missing?”
There’s a pause, a few rustles on Johann’s end, and a stove sparking to life on Ren’s. “Naw, not that I knew of. You just’ told us you went missing, came back in a tavern with a wicked scar and that was that.”
Kravitz sucks in sharply through his teeth. “Yeahhhh… About that…”
“You lied to her about that? Dude, we’ve talked about that. Not telling people about your weird hallucinations isn’t a healthy way of coping,” drawls Johann.
“Your weird what ?”
“Yeah, Kravitz got this wicked wild hallucination where--”
“It wasn’t a hallucination.”
Both lines go dead silent, save for the boiling of what must be water. “It wasn’t a hallucination,” he repeats, “The raven was real, and I’ve been following it my entire life. That’s not what matters. What does matter is that I died when I went missing.”
An explosion of commotion. A lot of ‘what the fuck’s, and ‘Kravitz, there’s no way’s, and, finally--
“How do you know?”
“I used to remember meeting this…woman. She was elven, towering above me a few heads. Wears this long raven-feathered cape.” (“sick,” says Johann, but no one acknowledges him) “I could never remember what we talked about, but her eyes were this rich gold, and I can only show you what color they were because when I woke up in that tavern they were the same color but I just never thought of that and today, you know how I go to the bathroom after I perform, but I went in there and I came out in this throne room, and that woman was on the throne.”
He lets out a shuddering breath. No one cuts in to interrupt him, and for that, he’s grateful. “She didn’t need to introduce herself to me. I think I’ve known, for the past fifteen years, but I figured if I didn’t look at what’s right in front of me it wouldn’t catch up.” He presses a key on his piano out of sheer boredom, shoved into some corner with boxes piled high. “I died, fifteen years ago, in what the paper told me was a necromantic ritual. I can’t piece together much more than that and I never really thought about why. The Raven Queen won’t let me remember the in-between of when I went missing and when I came back because I told her not to. In return to not remember and… well, I guess to live, she took the Arrangement too, I have to work for her.”
There's a long, tense silence. Kravitz figures Johann would be the first to speak, he always is, but Ren shuts off the burner on her stove, takes in a deep sigh, and says, “But that ain’t all there is, is there? There’s something else botherin you, else you’dve kept this secret beyond the grave.”
“My Queen sent me to Miller laboratories,” He says and plows through Johanns questions of how he got there, exactly, “And in the laboratory I met three others, searching for a compact mirror because Lucas asked them to while they were there. Only, they’d gone through the room before me and yet I found the compact mirror before them despite arriving after because to them I’d been through a week ago.”
“Time broke again?” Asks Ren, after she seems to briefly choke on the drink she made.
“Not in the same way it broke for you, don’t worry. But since they were ahead of me, I technically got the compact before them. We only managed to figure out that we weren’t all existing at the same time because of this one elf who introduced himself as Taako--”
“--You met Taako ?” She squeals, sounding beside herself. Kravitz flinches away from his stone. “Oh my gosh! What was he like? Did he do any magic?”
“Well, yes, he shot a magic missile at me that missed, but after he shot it and his friends tried to get their hits in he… well, he called me by my name. I didn’t know what to do about the situation after that other than tell him I don’t remember him, and then we figured out that he was a week ahead of me. And Taako is, well, uh. He’s nice? A little blunt, was kind of an asshole to his friends and a little bit to me but he was friendlier in the lab which makes sense I guess. I just “met” him a few minutes ago.”
“Yeah, Taako’s just like that,” says Johann, with more affection in his voice than he usually does at 1 AM, which meant that he was a friend of his which--
“You know him?” He asks, just a few seconds before Ren does.
“Uhhhh, yeah, I dogsit for Magnus sometimes. I thought you knew that?”
Kravitz did know that. And yet, he never once put the fucking dots together, because he was sort of reeling from time bullshit and then hey, a pretty elf that doesn’t know who you are any more right in front of you. He relays this to them in a much more eloquent way. “Taako went renegade in some cooking class I was in. Took his sister and they both just taught everyone how to cook. Set the building on fire during their last lesson before they ran from the fantasy police. I’ve been trying to find him ever since,” explains Ren, before anyone can ask her. She was, presumably, waiting with bated breath to bring up Taako in conversation. “Their cooking was fantastic, but I want to know about his magic. I’ve never met someone who casts the way he does.”
Kravitz flops onto his bed, feet hanging awkwardly over the edge. “Yeah, he’s amazing.”
“That’s kinda gay of you, dude.”
“Oh, we’re playing this game, Johann? Hey, how many love songs have you written? How many sonnets do you have in your bottom right-hand desk drawer? How many requiems are you in the middle of writing? And, hey, did you ever get around to asking Avi out?”
A long-suffered sigh. “You didn’t have to go for my fucking throat.”
“I don’t know, Johann, Folks ‘round here always say ten P.M to Midnight is Opress Johann hours.”
“It’s on our google calendar, Johann, you really should check it,” Kravitz says serenely. “Besides, what are friends for if not to give you a reality check on your devastating, devastating crush.”
Theirs a few minutes of small talk that follows, until Johann busts in with, “Hey, actually, why was Taako at Miller labs?”
Kravitz stares at the night sky out his window, only to find that he can’t remember anyone ever actually saying they were there for the compact... They were still looking around the lab even after Kravitz gave it back to them. “You know what?”
There’s a raven, outside his window, but it doesn't stare at him with piercing golden eyes. It has the same dark, glistening eyes that he used to have. He looks back at the raven expecting to find answers but is only left with emptiness.
“He never told me.”
1. Pink Tourmaline from the Prime Material plane on the old Miller Labs, where time, fate, and death can no longer exist in perfect harmony.
Chapter 2: If Magic is a Science, and Music is Magic, Does that Make Bards Like, Really Weird Scientists?
“Angus just didn’t know how to dish what he was serving, so I was giving him some criticism."
“You don’t give an eleven-year-old criticism, Taako."
“He’s the world’s greatest detective! He’s solved murder cases! He can handle it!”
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Taako’s in the middle of transmuting a dead bird to a tree sapling for his Ph.D. when Istus calls, simultaneous with Lup barging in without knocking. “Shit!” He cries, lunging sideways to grab the rack of test tubes nearly sent to their death from the force of her entrance. “Lup, answer the ring.” He gestures in the general direction of his ring with his latex gloves once the tubes are settled, the other still firmly holding the bird to his designated lab space in the third guest bedroom. Lup does her best to step over the numerous notebooks strewn around his chair, sitting through his bag immediately to his right until the ring’s held aloft, resting on her palm in the space between them.
“You’re on speaker, Lady Istus,” Lup says, shifting his loose paper to seat herself at the edge of his desk.
“Thank you, Lup. Taako, you have to get your second item sometime soon. As in tomorrow. I need it by tomorrow night.”
“Uh, yeah, that’s not very helpful, my dude. I’m not with the list right now, read back to me what you sent us to fetch?”
“‘The last living plant at the crossings of fate, death, and time.’” She sounds amused, like Taako not being able to understand the world’s vaguest fucking Riddle is a little inside joke of hers. “Just go to Lucas Miller, Taako. He can help you from there.”
Taako makes a face of disgust, mirrored by Lup. “Why Lucas? The dude’s an ass and I don’t trust him as far as I can throw him,” he says, “which is like, a foot, if you were wondering.”
Istus hums thoughtfully. “Okay, sure, but also I told you to do it and you’re my Emissary so I’m not giving you much of a choice.”
Lup steadies Taako’s wand hand in the brief silence that follows, checking over his work with her lip caught between her teeth. “Do it,” says Lup after a moment. Then, to the ring, “Hey, Istus, you think there’s room for one more on this trip? I’ve been, get this one, dying to know what happens.”
Istus laughs, sending a shudder through the two of them. God, her laugh is so majestic but it feels like a fucking fork on a chalkboard. “No, I don’t think your time to shine arrives so early on.”
“It’s not even fun,” Taako insists, watching with smug satisfaction as tree bark covers the length of the bird, cherry wood replacing feathers and beaks. Branches sprout from the length of its back, bright and lovely. He high fives Lup, and pulls his typewriter out from the floor. “All I did was meet a hot mess of a man and bam, number one’s off the list.”
“Oh, Kravitz has his reasons, dear. Now, repeat after me. First thing tomorrow, you will meet Lucas Miller at his new lab.”
He sighs and stops typing long enough to fix his sister with a tired, tired look, and repeats, “first thing tomorrow, I will meet Lucas Miller at his new lab. I’m just not going to enjoy it is all.”
A violent snort, still as terrifying as any other sound Istus makes. “I’ll make you eat your words, Taako. Fucking watch me.”
The light dims in the crystal of the ring. Lup looks away from the ring to Taako, brows furrowed. “Did she just say fuck?”
Humming, he holds out a hand. “I need the knife, homie.” Initial incision marked and painstakingly being carved, he glances at his sister. “And yeah, Istus says fuck. She’s a cool goddess, unlike pan. Shit, don’t tell Merle I said that.”
Lup’s smile is sickeningly sweet, doing nothing to soothe the dread cooling in his gut. “Why, Taako, I would never !”
And then she runs out the room. Taako scrambles after her, hands covered in plant juices and bird-tree left unchecked. Though he doesn’t know who he’s trying to kid, that bad bitch was thoroughly transmuted, natch.
“Merle whatever Lup’s saying is a lie!” He cries, slipping on the hardwood of the hallway as he slips and slides after his sister, always just fast enough to get out of reach. Merle’s head is poked out of his apartment door, a potted plant held lovingly in his arms. Other neighbors have their gazes locked on them from their doors, too. Noelle has a gallon of apple cider in one hand and a red solo cup in the other, Killian is in the middle of doing push-ups in the center of her apartment, Carey still sweating from the pull-ups she’d paused to cheer Lup on— the traitor— and Captain Captain Bane watched on in silent disappointment. “Don’t listen to her!”
Merle, however, doesn’t seem too keen on taking sides at the moment. The instant Lup slides to a stop in front of his door, mouth open to expose Taako like the bastard she is, his door slams in her face. “I don’t want to hear it!” He shouts, “it’s too fucking early! Come back to me when it’s an actual emergency!”
He could, theoretically, point out that it’s currently six-thirty at night, but where’s the pizzaz in that? The thrill? The exhilaration of watching your sister have a midlife crisis at the ripe age of a hundred and fourteen?
Instead, Taako stops wheezing long enough to point a long, slender finger at Lup and say with the most shit-eating grin he could muster, “Eat it, dude."
She kicks his knees in and watches him writhe dramatically on the floor without an ounce of sympathy. “Davenpooooort,” He whines, clutching one of his shins in his hands, “Lup hit me!”
“I didn’t even hit you, you dramatic ass. You just have bony legs.”
Davenport’s face appears in the crack formed in Merle’s door, just under the chain lock. “Are you bleeding?” He asks, mustache twitching with every syllable. Taako rolls up his satin pants and presents it in his general direction.
“Yes! I think she broke something!” He wails, mostly for the drama of it all. He did have to pass on the memo of getting up at the ass crack of dawn to talk to fucking Lucas Miller. Shit, just thinking of the son of a bitch makes him queasy.
Davenport, for the most part, doesn’t sigh in exasperation. Instead, there’s a dull thud when he hits his forehead against the side of the door. “Taako, that’s rugburn.”
Taako looks at Lup. She stares back at him. She turns to Davenport. “Oh, no, I definitely think he broke a bone, Davenport. We might have to take him to the FER.”
“We’re not taking him to the fucking Fantasy Emergency Room for a scrape.” He glances over his shoulder. “Did you need anything important ?”
“Oh, yeah,” he says, taking Lup's offered hand. “Tell Merle to have the Starblaster ready to go at… five fifteen?” Lup mumbles an agreement. “Right. Five fifteen tomorrow morning, because we need to leave at six twenty-five and there’s no way in hell that he’s going to be ready before then. Like, there’s fashionably late and then there’s just being rude, you know?”
Davenport did know. “Alright, sure. Anything else?”
“Yeah, a gun to shoot Lucas Miller?”
Noelle all but bursts from her doorway. “Y’all talkin’ bout shooting Lucas?”
“Fuck yeah we are, dude’s got it coming!”
“I am literally a cop,” says Captain Captain Bane, in his gruff, manly voice. “Are you sure this is the best place to plan a murder?”
Lup and Taako scoff in well-practiced unison. “Slow your roll, kemosabe, we’re not actually going to shoot him. Well, with a bullet.” They mime out a perfectly casted magic missile, complete with a loud ‘kaboom!’ at the end. And then, just as thoroughly practiced, everyone on their floor simultaneously turns away from Bane. “Anyway, nah, that’s it. Plan your day of peace wisely, because I don’t have the slightest fucking clue when Istus is gonna call us away next.”
The twins both take turns fist-bumping Davenport as a farewell. On their walk-of-victory (never shame, these motherfuckers know the Taaco twins are here to fucking perform and the hallway is but their stage), they assure Noelle that they do not need a gun and yes, they’ll steal exactly five random pages of his research just to drive him crazy.
“You know,” Barry says, emerging from the third bedroom turned lab, Taako’s bird-tree in hand, “I think you could do some pretty fucked up shit if you worked with like… actual magical items, you know? Not shit you make yourself, but celestial items, relics made by dead wizards and shit. Like, imagine turning one of those death gauntlets into a Fantasy Bop-It. How fucked up would that be?”
“Hello, Barold, good afternoon to you too,” Taako says, swooping in to take his perfect school project, a thank you very much, away from his nefarious sweaty mitts. “Make any undead abominations today?”
“I think I merged a dead ferret to a pig and then brought it to life?” He says, and the look of confusion does nothing to give him some insight to the going-ons of a science-driven necromancer. “I think started crying for me to end it’s misery in like, animal speak? Fuck, I need a drink.”
“We’ve got oat milk and that’s fucking it, babe!” Calls Lup from the couch, not even moving to check herself. Taako knows for certain she’s telling the truth though because if there’s one thing that he remembers at the store, it’s that Barry is lactose intolerant. And it’s just sorta funny to see the look of despair on his face when they pass by the milk aisle.
Clapping a hand on his shoulder, Taako makes no move to find him the last place they all decided was a very obvious spot to hide their alcohol stash, and then collectively forgot where they’d put the stuff. “Well, at least you can eat cereal with it.”
The sigh that leaves Barry’s lips is kind of pathetic, but he goes and gets his cereal and oat milk regardless. Taako returns his abomination to the lab, slapping a sticky note on the pot Barry had been oh so kind as to house it in, labeling it with the due date, class, and what grade he expects. It doesn’t go into a neat line, no, Taako has a limit for how organized he can be while trying to break the already fundamentally broken educational system, and it goes about as far as having his notes in a general area. Instead, the pot sits, right behind a thirty-page essay on why Necromancy, if done right, is just as against the laws of death and order as him creating the Philosopher's Stone out of chicken wings.
He spends the rest of the night starting a casting circle in the center of the lab, quarantined off by a barrier that’s tangible enough for him to slap a ‘DO NOT ENTER- MAGIC AS HELL’ sticky-note on it.
By the time he’s done, the dinner Lup made had long since gone cold on his desk behind him, the alarm clock duck-taped to the lab doorframe blasting Fantasy ABBA as a very lovely reminder that he’d stayed up until 3 AM. Again.
Taako sighs, and puts the plate in the fridge for tomorrow morning.
Lucas Miller has used his mother’s life insurance money to buy himself the most useless, pompous ass lab it could buy. The whole thing’s made out of glass that is just jarring to look at, not like Taako’s some sort of architect but fucking c’mon , at least have some personality up in this bitch.
Taako, naturally, keeps this opinion to himself. Instead, he sharply pops his gum and follows Magnus into the building, dragging a moping Merle with him. “Hey, Sharon!” He calls, putting on the good old rustic charm which, good. Means less work for Taako. “How are the kids? Well? That’s amazing. Hey, could you let us down to see Lucas? I forgot to give him something from last time.”
Last time ended in Magnus threatening to throw Lucas out a window to a gruesome death, but no one mentions that. Least of all Magnus himself.
“Don’t worry about calling down to check with him, doll,” Taako says with his most charming smile because as friendly as Magnus is the dude could be dumb as bricks if he couldn’t figure out that a receptionist was going to call the man himself to make sure they weren’t here to kill him. “We called him beforehand, told us he was going to be too busy to get to the phone around the time we came over.”
Which isn’t a lie. Not really. Lucretia had visited using her press pass to squirrel out what his plans were for the following day, only to find it was, as she put it, ‘Nerd shit.’ This also meant he wouldn’t be leaving his testing room for the entire day. Sharon smiles mutedly at him but says nothing to disprove him, so Lucas has probably pulled this shit on her before too. Poor girl.
“Hey Fellas!” Comes the sickening cry from the elevator, it’s presence only signaled by the distant ding.
“Aw, shit,” says Merle, as Upsy ‘s horrible, living, breathing face slides open.
“Climb inside my body!”
Taako looks between Merle, Magnus, and Upsy. Then to a flight of stairs just past Sharon’s desk.
So, they took the stairs three flights underground. You would too if you were them.
Merle falls down the steps almost immediately, but no one makes a move to catch him, so he just… continues rolling down three flights of stairs, while Taako and Magnus follow behind him, almost looking a little bored with it all.
“Hey, Nerdlord!” Taako shouts into the dark abyss of Lucas’s underground lab when they breach the last flight of stairs, Merle landing into the shadows with a loud crash. “Got some questions for you!”
Magnus is the only person who can’t see Lucas, in the furthest depths of the shadows, looming over some electronic beast with a welder’s mask perched at the top of his head and a clipboard in hand. He looks faint at the sight of the three of them. “Oh, Fantasy Jesus. I swear I haven’t been fucking around with spirits again can you guys just leave me alone for once?”
Merle dusts off his Hawaiian shirt, puts a little flower back in his beard. “Nope!”
“We’re not going to kill you, dude, stop backing away,” Taako says, fishing the list from his pocket and unfurling it as slow as he can, or, at least, until Lucas stops shaking long enough to be useful. “We got hired by Istus to get some shit for her. If you can tell us where and how to get this, we might just leave you alone for a little bit.”
“What-- What the hell would the goddess of fate want from you? No offense.”
Taako raises a brow at him, lip forming the beginnings of a snarl. Fuck he hated this dude and his slimy... everything. He prays that he gets something out of this, or he’d be pulling up to the celestial plane real quick to fight his goddess.”Well, not that you should get yourself all concerned, but we need something from your old lab and no we don’t know why, just that she needs a plant that’s still alive in that shithole.”
Lucas glances down at whatever the hell he’s working on to a tightly-sealed case next to where, presumably, Upsy would have taken them. With a resigned sigh, he sends his sliding stool over to the case and quickly types in a code. “Do any of you know where the lab is ?” All three of them shake their heads because, as Taako has said before and will say until hell freezes over, Istus does not give clear instructions. “Figures. Suit up, I’ll have to fucking call Carey I guess--”
Much to Nerdlord supreme’s grumbled mutterings about how there’s no way he has a direct line of communication with a goddess, Istus’s knitting needles click-clacking instead of a greeting on the other line. Magnus leans over Taako’s shoulder, and remains there, even though Taako quickly takes up to slapping his face to shove him away. “Do you think you can portal us to the old Miller lab?”
“I don’t know, Magnus, can I?”
“Holy shit.” Lucas puts his head in his hands, effectively smearing oil all over his face, “They can just ask for portals. And she lets them.” Merle pats his knee in what is meant to be comforting but only comes off as patronizing.
“I’m a hopeful guy so I’m gonna say yes on that portal, lady Istus ma’am.”
“You’re damn right I can portal y’all over. Hit the elevator button-- stop groaning, Taako, I just need somewhere to put it. Get your null suits on before you do--”
“--I already have mine on,” Merle announces proudly, placing the red gloves of his suit on his hips. “Don’t have to tell me twice on that.”
It takes a good minute or two of arguing and tripping for Magnus and Taako to get their suits on, and, by then, Lucas had already returned to his… welding? Taako doesn’t want to know, so he doesn’t ask. But he's just distracted enough that Taako can tear out five random pages from the nearest journal and pocket them. “Okay, send us over, homie,” Taako says, watching as Upsy’s horrifying, horrifying face appears. It freezes, mid-sentence, as a blinding white light forms in the space that would normally put Upsy’s fleshy insides on full display. “Any requests, Shithead?”
“Don’t call me that and no-- wait, actually, yes! In my quarters, there’s this compact? The mirror’s made out of emerald. Can you get that for me?”
“Isn’t that a little vain of you, Lucas? Don’t you want any personal mementos instead of a fancy mirror?” Magnus flexes in his Null suit, watching the padded fabric shift only slightly. He’s enthralled.
“It is a memento. My mom gave it to me, Magnus .”
He runs through the portal to avoid responding to Lucas, which, in Taako’s opinion, was probably the smartest choice. He follows after him without saying anything to the nerd fuck behind him or hearing the beginnings of one of Merle’s bits of wisdom. “Good luck, boys,” Istus says in the white space of the portal, her voice everywhere and nowhere at the same time, wrapping around Taako like a warm, heavy blanket and reminding him at the same time of a fate he doesn’t know, a person on the other end of the portal existing with and without him because of course Kravitz is there, why wouldn’t he be?
It’s only when the old Miller lab forms around them, brilliant and so very pink that Taako freezes in place and says, out loud, “What the fuck?” Because he had thought of Kravitz since they met, naturally, duh, he’s hot and nice, who wouldn’t, but he hadn’t thought of him with the certainty of seeing him again. Still, breaking from Magnus to run his hands over dusty pink tourmaline that falls around them from the ceiling, he can’t shake the thought away-- the thought that Kravitz being here just feels right. He doesn’t know how to explain why apart from vague memories of and pink falling in flakes from dreadlocks and black feathers adorned in gold.
“Yeah, that made my tummy upset.” Magnus turns to Merle, who’s more invested in the crystallized technology than checking the physical well-being of his friends. You know, like a cleric should? “Is that supposed to happen?”
No one responds to Magnus. Because, of course, to Taako the answer is simple-- Magnus isn't built or trained to be accustomed to the natural flow of magic that makes teleporting a walk in the park for other spell-users. Just because he can’t see that doesn’t mean Taako has to explain it to him.
So, as he said. The natural flow of magic continues throughout the world. Unless something… wrong disrupts it. Something that wasn’t intended to exist in the world, intended to simply be with magic intended for use by living beings.
When the floor starts to shake and crystals shift from the floor, stacking slowly to form a pink crystalline monster, Taako thinks that the flow of magic got pumped with steroids, to an extent. Which, for him, is like a gut punch and that deep-rooted sensation of hearing someone recount how they got their skin ripped out after a piercing snagged and pulled with all it had. He can feel his limbs cemented into place by the part of him that just screams wrong, this is wrong, this shouldn’t exist, this shouldn’t be, something went wrong, and all he can do to get away from it is run.
But he can’t. He knows that he should, but that doesn't do much of anything. Merle yells something at him. Magnus cups a hand around his mouth and shouts. Cold sweat rolls down Taako’s neck. His hands are trembling, but they don’t move past his sides, and his legs are shifting without him knowing and his head is swimming and--
And a knife hits the monster right between the eyes. It doesn’t do anything, because it exists beyond this form, because it isn’t a form its a concept, a residue, an example, an accident. But it’s enough to shake Taako into action. “Hot shit !” He yells, following Merle out through one of the doors, Magnus following behind and throwing an endless amount of knives at the rock monster. “What’s that thing made of? Nightmares?”
Merle looks over his shoulder, frantically flipping through his X-treme Teen Bible™, his footing still sure in comparison to Taako’s stumbling, a calm radiating from him in a protective shield. “It’s celestial in origins, but it's probably narcotic energy keeping it together,” he says, nonplussed, “Something happened here, brought it into the world. Magnus! Stop stabbing the damn thing, it won’t do anything!”
“Stabbing’s the only thing I’m good at, fuck you old man!” A knife bounces off the monster and misses Taako’s helmet by an inch. This is the only thing that keeps Magnus from throwing all the rest of his knives at the damned creature, face immediately contorting into regret when Taako whirls around to glare at him, backpedaling and slowing with Merle, who raises his covered wooden arm to the sky. Time stills, as the calm wraps around Taako, releasing the tension and easing the sick feeling in his gut.
The flowers in his beard perk up as he brings his finger down and, unblinking in the face of the charging crystal monster, announces-- “I cast banishment.”
Time warps around the crystalline monster, folding it into itself and leaving nothing but a cloud of sparkling pink dust in its place.
And Taako can breathe again. He takes in gulping breaths, fogging up the glass of his helmet. “Good job, old man,” Magnus says, clapping Merle on the shoulder while Taako bends over and places his hands on his knees to stop the room from spinning. “Taako? You good?”
“Just-- fuck -- gimme a second-- shit I’m gonna barf in this stupid fucking helmet Lucas is so shitty at designing these things--” Two hands feebly pat on his back, one significantly higher than the other and carrying more intent to burp him than comfort him. When the room stops spinning, he finds that a layer of sweat had formed on his face, rolling down his jaw. “Okay, alright, we’re good. Can we please go get Miller’s stupid fucking mirror and this dumb fucking plant before another one of these things comes and kills us?”
That, at least, all three of them agree on. They find Lucas’s quarters without much difficulty-- the signs were still intact, even if slowly turning to pink crystal-- “Tourmaline,” Magnus said, rather unhelpfully because who the hell needed to know what type of rock it was? And, although the pink tourmaline covered nearly every broken inch of the lab, the airlock to Lucas’s quarters clicked and slid open without much difficulty. They track powdered crystal in after them, so they figured it would eat away at what was left untouched soon enough, but Taako doesn't really care much about that. Instead, he walks over to a desk covered in crystals, all perfect circles, and blinks down at the space where something once was. He thinks if he looks at it right, he can see the outline of it, but when he goes to touch it nothing’s there but layers of dust.
“This is… this is weird, right?” He says, to no one in particular. Magnus is staring into a full-length sapphire mirror, brows furrowed. There’s movement on the other side of the mirror, flashes of multi-colored light and a brief flicker of a skeleton with golden eyes and a black feathered cloak, pressing a bony hand to the surface. Merle tries to grab at a book on the floor, but it passes right through him. “Like I’m not the only one half expecting someone to come through and tell us that we’re dead and have been for weeks?”
“I was thinking more of a ‘nothing is real’ crisis, but yours works too,” Magnus says, tapping on the mirror with a knuckle. The lights flare on the other end. “We should probably get out of here like right now though.”
Taako, of course, was already halfway out the door by the time Magnus made any such suggestion, headed towards a building marked as ‘test lab 3-- personnel only’, which, there's a lot more crystal there so he probably shouldn’t be headed there to look for a fucking plant but the night’s still young and Taako isn’t really in control of his feet so he’s just cruising on autopilot, homies.
The lab is trashed, but he was expecting that. There’s tourmaline sprouted from the inside of a computer, glass is broken across the floor and desks, a robot is seemingly crushed under what used to be a desk. There’s a woman, in the center of the room, poised like she’s protecting someone from an explosion, head ducked and shoulders hunched. But there are green tubes, with tourmaline flakes stuck in a cycle of enveloping the specimen inside and receding to the point of entrance. Like the compact, if he looks at them just so, he would be able to tell that they’re already covered in the tourmaline, transmuted into the rock itself by the powers that be.
He’s almost considering cracking open a specimen tube while Magnus mentions Maureen beefing it to the three of them but no one's listening, halfway convinced he should go get a look at them when the doors they’d just come through swinging open and a chill settles over the room. There’s a flurry of magic because Taako doesn’t feel wrong like he did with the tourmaline monster, but he feels like whatever’s just entered the room with them isn’t fully mortal, or… one of them, in this place. It’s tricky, discerning feelings in this lab. Once the debris from his missed magic missiles clears, though, Taako finds himself taking pause, even though some part of him thought that the sight greeting him was natural.
Standing in front of them without a null suit, still wearing the same three-piece suit with a floral tie and raven-feathered cloak from earlier and looking rather like a deer in the headlights, is--
“What the fuck, Kravitz?” Taako can’t wrap his head around him being here, and why seeing him without a helmet or the same suit is off-putting for him in a way he can’t place because he doesn’t know what would happen if you didn’t wear one here. Well, he does, but he’s trying not to look at Maureen’s crystallized corpse right now. “What-- you-- Why are you even here ?”
Kravitz, currently in the middle of wiping smoke off of his glasses now that there’s no danger and holding the throwing knife that Taako’s pretty sure hit him in the shoulder but he doesn’t seem to be bleeding-- what the fuck-- tenses. “How do you know my name?” He asks, brows so tightly knit Taako’s certain it would leave an impression in his forehead.
Which, subsequently, is how Taako figures out what Istus’s first item meant. He’d dismissed it at the time, figured it meant that Kravitz had lost track of time while working, but nope! The son of a bitch was literally lost to time, and so were they, a whole fucking week later! What the fuck! Who makes these rules!
Well, the bright side is Taako gets to look into Kravitz’s dreamy golden eyes and admire those sharp cheekbones a little while longer, and get Lucas’s compact back, which, score. Got to help him get a bit of tourmaline which wasn’t a bad idea, actually, because he wanted a crack at the composition of this bad boy too. Or he just wanted some weird jewelry, Taako isn’t one to judge.
He took a misshapen shard from the pile left behind after Kravitz picked the most aesthetically pleasing of the bunch.
The day would’ve been perfect if he was able to spend just a little more time with Kravitz. You know, learn his whole life story and whatnot, the usual. But Taako knows he met him, hurried, disoriented, and out of breath so really, he should’ve expected the fucking crystal monster to come back.
He’d still spend hours near that fucking abomination if it meant he’d be able to find an excuse to have Kravitz half-carry him around. So he's touch starved and Kravitz is pretty and doesn't seem to have much of an evil bone in his body, sue him.
So Kravitz bought them some time, and they lingered long enough to hear a wretched yell, enchanting and horrifying all at once, and making Taako’s ears ring from just barely missing his Shatter’s range. They rush past corpses turned to crystal, adventurers who didn’t know what they were doing just like them but they are better, they will be better, they have to be better--
Merle stops dead in his tracks in a room meant to be a plant nursery. There’s a crystallized dwarf, and they know it’s Boyland, but no one says anything about it because they shouldn’t know what happened to him, in all honesty-- it was a secret meant to be kept tight to Carey and Killian’s chests after the night they came back trembling and gripping one another like lifelines.
They stop only because, in the center of the nursery, amongst plants of dying species and those of scientific uses alike, is a crystalline corpse. They don’t know her name, and can’t read the name tag attached to her breast pocket, but she’s hunched, just like Maureen, over a clump of succulents. Merle helpfully informs them that it’s a zwartkop, but Taako can’t see past how dark they are, hunched down and kept safe under this unnamed scientist’s protection. They’re shaped like flowers, sure, that’s cute, but they’re a pitch-black against a bright pink. Surviving in the one place where survivors shouldn’t exist. It would be poetic if he wasn't staring blankly at the succulent trying to figure out why the scene feels so familiar to him.
He holds it tight against his chest in the only pot they could find that wasn’t smashed as they find their way out of the entrance to the lab and past the point where tourmaline poisons the land, headed straight for the battlewagon Lup’s waving out of the window from, and he guesses Hurley and Sloane let her borrow it because Istus above he can't even see Neverwinter in the distance. Barry’s standing as close to the tourmaline as he can without touching it, Davenport’s keeping a close eye on him, and Lucretia’s reading a book on the roof. Lucas is, thankfully, nowhere to be seen.
“Met Kravitz,” Taako says by way of greeting, buckling himself into the seat behind Lup’s. Lucretia sits behind him with Davenport to her right. His helmet is in the trunk with Dumb and Dumber’s, his null suit is unzipped and the sleeves tied around his hips.
“What the hell do you mean ‘met Kravitz’? I thought you already knew him?”
“Time isn’t real in that lab. He’s like, a week in the past? So he’s meeting me right now, technically? I don’t think too long and hard about time magic.” Resting his head on what space is left to the side of the driver’s seat, he pokes the back of Lup’s ear until it twitches hard enough to slap him away. “He also wasn’t wearing a null suit so, that was weird since anyone we saw not wearing one was all crystal-y. What’d you losers do today?” The sun’s already halfway through setting on the horizon. He doesn’t want to think about how long they’d been gone, especially considering he hasn’t eaten all day, technically. Fuck, technicalities suck major balls.
“Cleaned my part of the lab,” Lup says, glaring at him in the rearview mirror. “Unlike someone .”
“I’ll get to it eventually, get off my dick. Barry?”
“I slept until two.”
“I got called into the library,” she says, with a long-suffering sigh. “I have an article due tomorrow I haven’t started on.”
Taako twists his head to get a good look at her and the bags under her eyes. He wanted to just go home and crash out, maybe see how Angus was doing in school, but... “Come back to our place, I’ll help you with it.” She immediately brightens, shoulders rising and something like a smile forming across her lips. “ Don’t thank me, I’m only doing it because you being all dejected is ruining my groove.”
“And what did you do, Cap’nport?” Magnus says, nudging Davenport with a finger.
“Don’t call me that,” he says immediately. Then, “Went to the gym, tried to get Hurley and Sloane to trust me enough to drive their battlewagon here, but no dice. Made a cake. And no, there isn’t any left, Noelle, Carey, and Killian invited themselves over and ate it all.” The sigh that runs through the car is nearly painful-- if there was anything they knew in their years of being a weird miss-match of people that could vaguely be called a family, it was that Davenport made some mean cakes.
“ Fuck,” Taako says with feeling after ten minutes of comfortable silence, the overwhelming urge to have a mental breakdown overcoming him, “I have a seven A.M class tomorrow! Lup--”
“--Go to my nine A.M class for bond theory and you’ve got yourself a deal, babe.”
“Oh hell yeah I can do that-- sorry, Davenport,” Taako says without turning around, in the way that puts on full display how not sorry he is. He doesn’t respond, simply letting out a huff of a sigh and muttering about cheating.
The drive back is quiet, but not silent. Merle whispers with Lucretia about the book she’s reading-- something he recommended her. Magnus pulls up his stone and texts Julia, and Taako knows it’s Julia because he’s smiling from ear to ear and occasionally chuckles, everything about him gooey and in love which is just disgusting, ew, whatever. Lup tells Taako about what she’d figured out about bond theory and how she thinks she can make tethers for when she and Barry die, and Barry leans over to give his own opinions. Taako tells them that since Lucretia’s coming over they should make that Alaskan salmon that’s been in the freezer for fuck knows how long.
When the conversation shifts elsewhere, and there’s only the quiet rumble of the arcane core and passing villages and cities in the distance, Taako leans back in his chair and looks to the setting sun. He doesn’t think about Kravitz again, not then, but he thinks about the wrongness that came with him, and how he didn’t feel it outside of the lab, and what the note on Istus’s list tells him.
Fate, death, and time in one place, existing in disharmony. Well, he figures the crystals were Istus’s doing, if anything, she’s got an aesthetic going, and the three of them were there. Time was pretty obvious, and death was immortalized in tourmaline.
Taako thinks about what it means for a living being to stay so untouched by the tourmaline that it could shake off your shoulders without ever harming your skin.
But he doesn’t like where it leads him.
Often, he never did.
2. The last living plant at the crossing of fate, death, and time.
(there's a doodle of a raven perched in the rubble Test Lab three, looking straight ahead at the reader underneath it.)
The Davy Lamp was busy more often than not. Kravitz can understand the appeal, in all honesty-- the food was excellent, their coffee was never burnt, and June would rather die than let someone get a hot chocolate that wasn’t rich, creamy, and topped with a tower of whipped cream. The atmosphere could never be beat, either. Oil lamps hung from the ceiling and remained perched on Burnside original tables, and even the bar and the stools bolted to the floor had been ripped apart to be given wooden counterparts, rich and intricately carved. Kravitz likes the atmosphere the most, he thinks. It always made him feel like he was a rest stop for an old western protagonist to come walking in one day, and sometimes when Ren took his tables from him and shoved him in the direction to the piano he couldn’t help but feel like he was a witness to the mundane in his day-to-day life, bringing music and joy to the world in what way he could.
Playing on the piano for all these years, he felt like he was waiting, going through the mundane, until the next fight could start (there always was one, but Ren dealt with them soon enough anyway), or until the day a rag-tag group of outlaws would come striding in, hands-on their gun holsters and hats brought low over their faces.
And yet, when the day came, Kravitz wasn’t playing the piano. “Reckon today’s gonna be a good day for hot drinks,” June says from behind him, slamming a fist on their espresso machine until it spurts to life. He hums in response, staring blankly out the window ahead of him, to the pouring rain that blocks the sun in the horizon. He only snaps out of his reverie when she slams the cup of coffee onto his tray, perfectly stacked for a family of three at table seven. The child is scribbling on the paper kid’s menu, kicking their legs back and forth with idle energy. June’s hand comes to rest on his arm, a wisdom beyond her years behind the worried look she gives him. “You doin’ alright, Kravitz?”
“Yeah,” he says, mind still idling, still waiting for something, though he can’t fathom what. “Yeah. I just… realized I left my umbrella at home, is all. Not looking forward to that walk.”
“If you say so. Now go on, get the family their food, they must be starving like a pig in winter.”
“No one says that!” He calls over his shoulder, rounding out from the bar and making his way to table seven. Distantly a bell rings and there’s an uproar of giggling, the shifting of several umbrellas, quiet and whispered conversation. Roswell’s voice chirps out above them all, their form perched by the menus and wearing both a comically tiny apron and a comically large name tag. He wishes table seven a good meal, stops to hear table eight ask for another spoon and could they maybe have some butter? To which he says of course, and is back in under a minute because no matter how busy the Davy Lamp might get, people stay more for the atmosphere and company than the food.
Roswell flutters over June’s head and past Kravitz’s ear “Table eleven’s yours,” they say, rounding the heads of the diners and back to their perch. Kravitz lets out a huff, dusting his hands off on his apron. He figured he’d play a song or two after table seven but he supposes that wasn’t in Lady Istus’s plans for him today. So, pulling his notepad from his pocket, he approaches table eleven with what he hopes is a good mimicry of a genuine smile.
Except, as he approaches the table, his smile turns genuine. “No, no, that’s dumb, Barry. Look, you have to change the runes in the circle like this--” head hunched, fingers covered in rings of crystals and gemstones all stacked on top of one another, scribbling with a crayon. He pushes it back to the man sitting across from him and the woman that almost looks like a photocopy of him. “--And then you change the incantation to be like--”
Taako gets halfway through explaining the spoken incantation of what Kravitz thinks is a transmutation spell before he stalls, looking up from the napkin diagram he created and staring blankly at him. He doesn’t say anything, and the woman that he can assume is his sister audibly kicks him under the table. “Welcome to the Davy Lamp,” Kravitz says, biting his cheek to keep a laugh at bay, “My name is Kravitz and I’ll be your server tonight. Can I get y’all started with any drinks?”
“Okay, no, this is bullshit,” Taako says, pointing his crayon at Kravitz accusingly, “You used up your fake accent cards in literally one fucking day on your end, don’t you dare pull that yeehaw shit on us.”
“What do you reckon, sir? I’ve always sounded like this. Ain’t like I can change accents at will and besides, I can’t seem to recall ever meeting you aside from now.” He turns his attention to Taako’s sister and the human man next to her, and takes their order (A Shirley temple and a hot chocolate respectively), before turning back to Taako to see his reaction, who’s taken to glaring at the table with squinted eyes. His sister kicks his shin again.
“You’re fucking with me, aren’t you?” He asks with tone and posture holding the striking image of a drenched cat because he was, after all, still thoroughly wet from the rain. Kravitz breaks down into giggles, barely missing the crayon thrown at him when he goes to adjust his glasses. “You fucking suck, man! Shit! Get me an iced tea, fantasy Jesus christ I can’t believe you’re such a doofus.”
Kravitz’s laughter dies down long enough for him to take down Taako’s order, and he flashes the table a smile. “I’ll be right back with your drinks, please don’t do anything illegal or I’ll have to kick you out,” he says, spinning around and picking up the pace to the kitchen. He hands the drink order to June wordlessly, pushing the swinging doors open. To the form hidden behind their designated cutting board station, “Ren, holy shit .”
“What?” She asks, head poking out around a corner and watching him speedwalk over like a bat out of hell. “Some human lady ask to see the manager? I don’t know what to tell them other than we ain’t got one but they can’t take no for an answer--”
“Taako’s here.” She drops her knife without another word, charging past him and to the door. Together they peer around the corner at table eleven, watching Taako as he continues his explanation from earlier, with the same crayon. The human man says something in response that causes both of the elves to shake their head, Taako’s sister placing a hand on the arms he folded on the table and saying something else. “I didn’t think they’d come here, you know? And now that he’s here I don’t rightly know what to do because he’s just right there to talk to but I’m on the clock and you’re in the kitchen so you can’t talk to him or his sister.”
Ren groans, hitting her head on the doorframe. “Fuck, you’re right. I just have to impress him with my cookin’ I reckon.” Leaning against the nearest metal appliance, she breaks out into a knowing smile. “You pull out that awful accent on them?”
He fixes her with a look that sends her into a peal of disruptive laughter because it's only natural that he used the accent on them, he’s not just going to look at Taako and what's presumably his family and not make a fool of himself and Taako In the process. “Alright, alright, so here’s the plan. You just keep being their server and we’ll make sure they get the best experience, hands down guarantee. You get to talk to them, maybe mention my name and if he’s interested enough he might call me out, and we don’t stop till the cows come home, got it?”
Which, in hindsight, wasn’t their best plan, but Ren started a whole cooking career because of this dude and Kravitz is gay and weak so he agreed with the plan, leaving the kitchen to bring out their drink. June was across the diner by the time he did get out, though, talking to a problem table Cassidy had gotten stuck with, so no dice on thanking her.
He drops off the check for table eight on his way to Taako’s table but doesn’t stick around long enough to chat.
He’s a man on a mission, after all.
Taako’s sister is surprisingly the first of the three to speak, leaning across the table once the drinks were handed out. “Hi, I’m Lup,” she says, reaching a hand out to shake his and flashing a bright, wicked grin. She gestures to the human man next to her, “this is Barry. We’ve heard a lot about you, Kravitz.”
Kravitz wished he’d been smoother at the moment, maybe a little bit suave to impress them, but instead his cheeks grow impossibly hot and he manages to say, “Well, I hope they weren’t all bad,” without stuttering through the whole damn thing. Taako, similarly flustered and his cheeks tinted a dark blue, slaps his sister’s arm.
“I think you’re the first person Taako hasn’t trash-talked immediately after meeting them,” says Barry, adjusting his glasses at nearly the same time as Kravitz. “Which is saying something because I think he dunked on a kid we know?”
“I didn’t trash talk him,” Taako interjects, “Angus just didn’t know how to dish what he was serving, so I was giving him some criticism.”
“You don’t give an eleven-year-old criticism, Taako.”
“He’s the world’s greatest detective! He’s solved murder cases! He can handle it!”
Ignoring the fact that they A, “know a kid” and B, he’s supposedly a detective that has the qualifications to solve murder mysteries or whatever the hell, Kravitz decides to redirect the conversation by saying, “Did you find whatever you were at Miller Labs for?”
“Oh, yeah, you got us enough time to put enough distance between us, so we got it. Made Lucas pay me five gold to get his dumb mirror back, too. Sit, wait, how’d you even get out of the lab?”
Kravitz doesn’t really know how to rephrase ‘my goddess opened a portal and I did a sick slide under the crystal monster that wanted to kill every living thing through it’, so he thinks back to two weeks ago, and smiles placidly. “There were two doors, Taako. Also, you run quickly when you’re all out of sick days to take to recover from a rock monster punch to the gut. I think Ren would’ve killed me if I had to miss another day of work.”
“Oh, yeah, days like that are the pits,” Taako says like it’s just another Tuesday. Lup, on the other hand, perks up by the end of his bullshit explanation of how a normal bard would’ve gotten out of that deadly encounter.
“Wait, hold up, Kravitz, did you say Ren?” She asks, leaning across Barry to get closer to him. Table eight holds their check out to him, which he takes without a second thought. Taako shows no signs of recognition, slurping obnoxiously from his iced tea and raising a tediously plucked brow at her. “Taaks, she was that kid that was in our cooking class!”
A spark ignites in Taako, and he’s leaning across the table to Lup whether he notices it or not, crayon still in hand. It's the closest thing to a tell Kravitz has ever seen from him. “Holy shit! Wasn’t she the one that threw a ham sandwich and yelled out ‘fuck yeah, revolution' then set her chair on fire?” She nods vigorously, and both twins turn to Kravitz. “You know her? What’s she up to?”
“Well, right now I think she’s in the middle of making a pot pie in the kitchen--”
“--No fucking way. Man, small world, isn't it?” Taako reclines and throws his arm over the back of his chair. Kravitz already has his notepad out, in anticipation for whatever order he’s going to make now that he knows Ren’s behind it. “You think the Jambalaya is good, stud?”
He snorts, glancing up from the notepad. It's a ridiculous notion to him, that Ren's food can be considered anything under 'superb'. “We wouldn’t have put it on the menu if Ren couldn’t blow it out of the park, Taako.”
And that was that. Kravitz didn’t stay past delivering their food and watching them take their first bites, Lup and Taako immediately yelling for Ren. He’d slapped the last few checks from his tables at the cash register in front of June, and told her that he was playing that damn piano tonight if it killed him. At some point, Barry had left Ren and the twins to chat and Paloma had wandered into the kitchen to take over the food, despite her technically not being allowed back there, and had sat in an armchair next to the piano. He’d pulled a notebook from his bookbag, full of anatomy and organ labelings next to uses Kravitz couldn’t read. “Necromancy?” He asks, as casually as he could, Johann’s sheet music shifting without him having to reach up to flip it.
“Uh… yeah,” Barry says, glancing up briefly from his work. “It’s fascinating and there are so many ways to use it, so.” He shrugs lamely.
“The theory is really something,” he says, leaning over to get an upside-down glance at the mess of notes he has next to a diagram of elf anatomy. “I would’ve gone into it myself if I hadn’t fallen in love with music, and, well, my Queen doesn’t like the grittier bits of necromancy. Doesn’t sit right with her.”
Something shifts in Barry, at the mentioning of the Raven Queen. His relaxed posture becomes tense, shoulders raised and hand tightening around his charcoal pencil. Kravitz figures it would’ve snapped if he’d been any stronger. “That so?” He asks, doing a good job to cover any tells he would’ve had given away in his voice.
Kravitz has a thought that mostly consists of 'I should tell my Queen about him', which is definitely not a normal thought for him to have because he's one, not a snitch and two, never had inclinations to tell the Raven Queen more than she asked for up until this point.
But he won’t, and he doesn’t, because he seems nice and, well... he's Taako's family. Little as they've met, he considers him a weird sort of friend. Instead, he smiles warmly, tries to show no hard feelings, and focuses back on the keys.
After all, it isn’t his job right now to judge who can do what with the laws of death.
The three of them leave after fifteen minutes of idle talk. Taako hands over the check without blinking and flirts a bit probably says something about his hands and Lup forks over a small number of coins to Ren as a tip. Barry apologizes for it not being more, mumbles to himself about rent, and the three of them take off in a whirlwind of activity.
“Wow,” Ren says, falling next to Kravitz on the bench, “uh, that happened.”
“It did,” he says, in the calmest voice he can manage. “I think Barry’s done death crimes though so. That’s going to suck.”
Ren looks over the check he’d set down and waves it in front of his face with a small smile, deciding that they weren't going to talk about Barry's death crimes on the clock, which he figured was valid enough. “You got his frequency,” she says, stilling her hand long enough for him to squint at the note at the very bottom of the check, written in messy, sprawling writing.
Don’t be a stranger, Bones.
Heart pounding and blood rising to his face, an emotion without a name seizing his very being, a mix of joy, shame, and purpose all wrapped in one messy package, this is, of course, when a raven appears above the piano. Taako’s frequency and Ren are frozen in his face, the Davy Lamp frozen in muted colors, and his Queen staring down at him with her judgmental golden gaze.
“ My child, ” she says, “ Consider yourself on break. ”
And then the Davy Lamp vanishes into a black abyss that envelops him, tangible like fog. “Goodie,” he says to the nothingness, and his Queen laughs all around him, sounding like thousands of ravens cawing at once. They echo all around him, even as her voice turns solemn.
“ And we’re going to… have to have a chat soon, but I suppose you figured such.”
He doesn’t reply to her, instead of letting his environment fade back in, entirely too bright. She knows what he would have said regardless. He doesn’t know how, exactly, he figures this, other than deep-rooted confidence that runs further than what he can comprehend while alive.
Thankfully, the Raven Queen deposits him smack-dab in the middle of a bright white room, with hand-knitted articles of clothing piled to the ceiling around him, the darkness of the abyss drifting until it forms solid around his shoulders and draping against the floor, feathers brushing against his jaw and the list back in his left hand.
He really should ask her how she keeps doing that.
Finding Istus’s spare knitting needles and is… entirely uneventful. He spends it half-expecting Taako, Magnus, and Merle to come bursting through the door ready to kick his ass, half-expecting Istus herself to find him. Instead, he digs through piles upon piles of sweaters and scarfs listening to the muffled conversation from the distinctly terrifying voice of his Queen and a soft-spoken Istus that brings comfort to him that he hasn’t felt in years.
No raven forms to take him home through another portal. Instead, two quiet knocks sound at the elegant ivory door leading out of the room, and he pushes it open far enough to squeeze through. He doesn't check to see if it was her or not, a feeling deep in his chest giving him the permanent reassurance that she would always come for him, without any solid evidence to support it. He hands the needles over to the Raven Queen as they walk down the halls of a combination of fancy palaces, cottage homes, dirt roads, and industrial warehouses.
It’s only when he hears Istus sigh from a room that he cannot see but can hear as if it was only a wall separating him from seeing her, and say, “No, Taako, there’s no fine print that I just didn't tell you about. I’m not hiding anything from you in that regard, at least. Magnus, that’s not even close to what I was trying to tell you all to find-- oh lord me .”
And Kravitz suddenly has his blinders removed, his head whipping to his Queen who doesn’t even react to hearing her lover speaking of notes and mortal emissaries. He doesn’t know how this understanding comes to him, exactly, just that it’s something he’s always known for reasons kept from him that he simply didn’t know enough to parse.
Because of course they’re Emissaries of Istus. It just feels natural for him to think about it like it's something he's known his entire life, even though he just learned this like, three seconds ago tops.
“Wha--?” he says, the simplicity of his acceptance of them being Emissaries more confusing than the revelation itself. His queen fixes him with a golden-eyed stare.
“They came into her service around the same time I called you under my wing. I just don’t rather like hiding information from you nearly as much as my Istus loves throwing that poor lot in for a loop, so you would've known by the night's end regardless. ” She pats his shoulder with a clawed hand.
Kravitz could grill her for more information on what they were doing for her, whether or not Taako knew what Kravitz was (he guessed not but he never shows his emotions on his sleeve as Kravitz does), and why they kept running into one another even outside of their Emissary jobs, but, well. He doesn’t find it in him to care about superficial stuff like that. Instead, he turns away from his Queen, hands folded behind his back and eyes set on the exit from Istus’s realm, a deep blue now, and asks,
“When will I be called to you next?”
Her smile is kind, proud, and terrifying all at once. “I'll be coming for you next Saturday. You’re doing excellent at your job, Kravitz. I did well in choosing you.” She stops in front of the portal, the feathers dangling from intricate braids sucked towards the energy of her realm whether she likes it or not. “ We’ll be having our talk in a month from now, on the dot. so mark your calendar, my dear boy.”
Kravitz ignores the feeling of dread in his stomach, nods, and steps through the portal with her.
Only to be back in the Davy Lamp, with Ren still holding the check in front of his face and his hands pressing keys with disharmony that has her startling. “You alright, Kravitz?” She asks, placing a hand on his hunched shoulders, only pulling away when he hurriedly pulls his Stone from his pocket and punches in Taako’s frequency.
“Sorry,” he says, giving her what he hopes is an apologetic look because he does feel bad, but also that was a lot to happen in like thirty minutes that took less than a second in the real world and he doesn’t feel like things are real right now so forgive him for being a little out of tune. “My Queen just sent me on another mission. I got it, learned some stuff, stuff I didn’t want to learn, but I did anyway so I’m going to drink a whole bottle of wine tonight.”
“...Alright,” she says, still looking just a little bit confused but it seems like she got real cool with a lot of shit pretty quickly the moment he came out with ‘my Queen’, so that’s nice. He has nice friends. “You want me to call Johann and we can just have a night in? You can tell us a little bit more about what the fuck’s going up with you so we can help unpack it, I guess?”
He smiles, briefly, but it doesn’t last once he turns back to his stone. “Yeah, that’d be great. Thank you, Ren.”
In all honesty, Kravitz doesn’t know what to send to Taako. ‘Hey, just found out we’re both working for goddesses that are dating and that makes things a little bit weird but I’d like to get to know you better?’ is too blunt, ‘So I’m an Emissary of The Raven Queen and I think your brother-in-law did death crimes so that blows a bit’ is just plain assuming.
So he takes a page out of his Queen’s book and decides that unless any of the three of Istus’s Emissaries mention that they're in the same career field, he’ll never bring it up.
This is Kravitz.
This is eagle two, copy
That was awful.
Thank you, I'm trying my hardest to make this the worst experience of your life.
So like, I figured we're probably going to keep meeting again--
Kravitz snorts. 'Probably' is a severe understatement, but he won't give any hints to him.
--And it kinda makes sense that we might as well know like, something about each other if that's gonna be the case.
First off where the FUCK did you learn how to play the piano I would've cried if Lup wasn't five seconds from making fun of me
Ren's cheek rests on Kravitz's shoulder, eyes skimming their texts with vague interest. "Man, he's flirting with you hardcore, huh?"
Kravitz fiddles with his sleeve, glancing up at her and coughing awkwardly. "Uh. A bit." Ren leans her head forward, eyes narrowing.
"'That uniform does wonders for your figure, stud'? Okay, he should just say he thinks your ass looks great in our work pants and the whole quarter-unbuttoned flannel and suspenders deal lets the world know you've got collarbones chiseled by the gods, but whatever," she says, laughing when Kravitz shoves her with his shoulder. "You gonna flirt back or what?"
He doesn't respond to her and doesn't give her a look. If he wants to flirt, he will, but the point is that he never saw himself as someone being able to flirt-- from him it always felt impersonal. So he deals in the truths of soft-spoken words, and confessions at odd hours of the night. Well, he used to deal in all that, once long ago. And he would if someone ever gave him a chance to make something beyond two months of a relationship he thinks is going somewhere, only to be dropped at the tip of a hat. So, instead, he continues to tell Taako about his side-gig as a conductor for a small-time orchestra. He tells him about Johann and how the two of them have been working to get their names out into the world because Johann doesn't want to die forgotten, but Kravitz wants to die knowing that he did something, that he made an impact on at least one person. Taako passingly mentions maybe getting Lup and Barry to join their orchestra if they were taking applications, and a half-promise of attending one of his performances, if he got in for free. Taako tells him that he wants to teach transmutation, not cooking despite whatever rumors Ren's spread about him, because transmutation can change lives, and he doesn't specify, but Kravitz figures he meant that he wasn't really talking about the general public.
Kravitz deals in truths, so he tells Taako that he'd love to have him in the audience, even if he didn't often like orchestras because the thought that he'd even come at all was enough to inspire symphonies. Ren smiles warmly and tells him that that's what she meant by flirting before getting up and returning to the kitchen.
Taako deals in half-truths and tells Kravitz that he'd only be going because it's free and not to support him, because if he wanted to support someone he would've supported Johann, duh. In Davenport's empty classroom, Lup peers over his shoulder at his texts as they pour over how bonds can be interwoven into magic, chalk scraping against the board as he writes and writes without looking up from his stone. She doesn't say anything to him, but she lets out a low breath and returns her focus to the diagram of magic circles, spell components, and the bonds connecting all of them inexplicably.
Kravitz deals in truths like his goddess deals in patience, her hands busy with threads made of bonds pulled from her chest that weave together like they were meant to be one, and where his truths start and her patience ends none can tell, until her hands become his hands and Istus's needles are a quill with ink smudged against dark skin and the tapestry is a symphony that isn't meant for the world to hear, but a few who will carry it with them their whole lives, and tell their children about when years pass.
And so, Kravitz first starts his symphony with the beginnings of a muse.
2. The needles of fate, so I may fashion our winding tapestry.
Why do the Kravitz scenes always end up being so long lmao it would've gone on forever if I didn't want to finish the chapter before I went to sleep,,,, Ig that's just the effects of chugging Loving Kravitz juice,,, Also?? There's more symbolism in this fic than I was planning but when you center an entire fic around two goddesses finding items that are personal to their relationship to propose to each other you really just go batshit crazy, huh?
Follow me on Tumblr @Hekaerge-Athenias and IG @Athenias._ !
Chapter 3: Magic Mirrors Suck But You're Okay, I guess
"You’ll have to head to the dumpster behind the fantasy Dollar Tree to get to where I need you.”
“Everyone knows that there’s a portal behind the Dollar Tree,” says Lup, Taako, and Merle in deadpan unison before Magnus can finish his question. “Duh.”
Possible TWs; Just to be safe, this chapter goes pretty deep on aspects of my interpretation of Taako as well as the situation revolving around Kravitz, and even if they might not be triggering at all, I'd rather be safe than sorry.
Minor self-harm which begins at "Taako sits at the edge of his window..." ends at "You ever consider I might be sleeping?", but there are brief mentionings of what he did and how he feels throughout the chapter. They're all pretty vague.
Minor gore that begins at "his bloodied..." and ends at "I don't know if I have my heart, in these dreams."
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Taako sits at the edge of his window, pants shifting as biting cold pierces through the fabric and his bare torso. He holds a candle in one hand while the other trembles, magic cupping the flame from the wind like a third hand. His skin burns as he stares blankly at it, taken, as he typically is, with the thought of brushing his palm onto the fire until he burns. There's no way for him to properly put into words, into writing, the reason why he does this. It was just something he'd done as a child on impulse and in the dead of night as an adult, cheeks stained with tears long dried up in the wind and a void in his chest, suffocating his throat. His shaking hand hovers dangerously close to the fire already, palm itching.
His stone of farspeech buzzes on the desk behind him right as the candlewick touches his skin. Hand throbbing and covered in dripping wax, he leans back far enough to grab his stone without having to leave his window. The candle blows out the moment he reaches for it, the second his mind wanders anywhere but the flickering flame and the spell shielding it. The candle replaces his stone in a swift few seconds. The skin on his hand feels too warm against the night cold, now.
“You ever consider that I might be sleeping?” He asks the stone, balancing it on his thigh. There’s a laugh on the other end, rich like honey and soothing in a way that Istus’s never could be. If he didn’t know that gods had laughs that settled dread into your stomach, he would have said that a god of music had called him. Yet, the laugh does little more than bring a flicker of heat to his cheeks.
“Well, I did, but a little bird told me that the whole block can see your bright yellow pants, dark as the night be,” Kravitz says, voice sickeningly fond. This tone of his voice often went unmentioned, ever since the last time Taako brought it up he was met with five minutes of awkward stuttering. He hums, squinting at the streets below to see if he could spot Kravitz, only to find the roads empty.
“You’d think someone out and about at two in the fucking morning could mind their own business,” He says, wincing at how harsh his words come out. Kravitz chuckles anyway. He’s good for that-- not drawing attention to his bad moods. “Who was it?”
There’s a sound that’s distinct of paper flipping. “June, if you’d believe it. I don’t know why she decided to go to me about it instead of keeping it to herself, but you know how teenagers get.” A pause in the rustles of his papers. “How are you?”
Taako considers himself semi-fluent in seeing through Kravitz’s hesitant questions. ‘How are you’, in this case, roughly translates to ‘Why can’t you sleep tonight?’ He scratches at his stomach.“Been better. You?”
“Nightmares,” says Kravitz, too blunt and a breath of fresh air compared to him dancing around Taako’s wellbeing. “Which is stupid because I don’t even remember what happened, so it’s just… yeah.” His brief burst of righteous anger fizzles out in a split second, the sigh escaping him more exhausted than Taako had ever heard-- scratch that-- ever seen him.
He coughs awkwardly, hugs his middle with his unburnt hand. “Do you-- shit. Krav, do you want to talk about it or something?” Taako’s not good at the whole ‘emotional support’ deal. Hell, he can’t even emotionally support himself, but still. He can’t just hear Kravitz sound like that and not do something. There’s a laugh on the other end, hollow and missing the same sugar-sweet lilt to it as before.
“I shouldn’t. It’s… It’d sound crazy to you.”
“Try me. I got sent to another dimension last month on pure accident, got lost to time and nearly passed out twice because some fucking batshit wild tourmaline monster wanted to rock my shit just two weeks ago! I think I could handle whatever you throw at me, Krav.”
Kravitz sighs, and neither of them speak, not for a long while. Taako gives up on him saying anything by that point, leaning his head on the side of the window and pulling his stone to his ear, and away from falling to its doom six stories below. “There’s this… gap in my memories,” he says, so quiet that Taako nearly misses it. “I haven’t told any of my friends much else other than I think it was necromancers, and that my eyes weren’t always this color.”
“Oh? I thought all humans just popped out with stunning golden eyes.”
Another laugh. Gods, Taako enjoyed his laugh, even if it couldn’t drag the chill from its heart. “I’m trying to be serious here.”
He snorts, bringing a leg to his chest. “Don’t mind me, keep going.”
And so Kravitz tells him. Slowly, quietly, he describes not what he thinks happened to him in that gap, but what his dreams give him. His bloodied hands gripping an intricately carved knife coated in his blood, his chest torn open and empty but his shoulders rising and falling with deep rumbling breaths. He tries to scream, but all that leaves him is a garbled noise, throat full of blood. “I don’t know if I have my heart, in these dreams. And I don’t-- Taako, I don’t feel warm. Does that make sense?”
More than anything else. “Yes.” His voice cracks. He looks at his hand, the burn glistening a dark blue and white where he’d scratched a layer of skin off until blood smeared across it. At the time, he thought it was just extra wax stuck to him, and he'd tried to pry it off only to be met with more skin in his fingernails. He still feels empty. Taako reclines back and glares at the stacks of drafts for his thesis. “Hey, what did you do with that cursed fucking Tourmaline from Bitchface Jr.’s lab?”
Kravitz makes a noise caught between a snort and a cough “Bitchface Jr.? Is that what you’re calling him?” He asks. When Taako doesn’t respond, he says, “I was paid to get it for a friend of mine. She has a… vested interest in artifacts like that. Why?”
“Well, let’s just say theoretically someone took a piece home with them and isolated it to figure out how it works? And they wanted to make sure no one else was trying to beat them to the punch?”
“I-- Taako, do you know how dangerous that tourmaline is?” Kravitz’s typical amusement melts way to very obvious worry in a flash. Taako ignores the feeling that bubbles in his stomach and begin to climb up his torso.
“Yeah, well, you weren’t being hurt by it so how bad can it be? Besides, I’ve got magical powers.” He wiggles his fingers in front of him as if Kravitz were sitting in front of him instead of across Neverwinter.
There’s a thud distinct of someone’s head hitting a desk. “That’s different. I’m different. Just-- don’t do anything stupid, yeah?”
“You know I can’t promise you that, even if you’ve got such a handsome face. I’m like, the best person to go to if you want someone to do dumb shit in the name of magic.” He pauses, waiting for laughter that doesn’t come. “Wait, what do you mean you’re different?”
“I-- I’ve built up an immunity, you know that. I told you.” Hearing it for the second time doesn’t hold up as well as before though, and he can hear the way Kravitz thinks before he says anything at all, which isn’t unusual but in this case, it’s enough for Taako to notice. And besides, now that he’s known Kravitz long enough, he knows with certainty that he’s a godawful liar. “Hey, what rhymes with ‘desire’?”
Taako takes one last look to the ground far, far below, sighs, and turns himself so that his feet touch his desk. Climbing down, he hisses at the shock of pain that goes up to his arm when his palm touches the corner of the table. “Have you tried ‘perspire’?”
Kravitz snorts violently enough to surprise himself if the frantic coughs are anything to go by. “Holy shit, that’s perfect!” He all but wheezes. Taako finds a smile creeping across his lips as he flips the bathroom light on, shutting the door with the back of his foot. The stone gets put on the porcelain sink while he rummages in the cabinet for the bandages.
“What are you even writing ?” Taako slams the bandages down on the opposite counter, tucking hair behind his ear. When Kravitz dissolves into childish giggles, his barely-there smile blossoms into something more. The cold emptiness is gone from his chest, put at bay if only for this moment.
“Okay-- fuck, okay-- I’m writing this, this sonnet. Don’t laugh, sonnets are good, it’s just that I’m making one to bully Johann. Listen,” Clearing his throat, Kravitz continues with his best Johann impression (which is to say, the worst Johann impression Taako’s heard in his life), “‘Your husky voice and onyx hair fills me with desire; should you speak to me come ‘morrow I will surely perspire’. Gods, it’s so awful.”
After ensuring no wax remained on his palm, Taako lathers the burn with soap he’d haphazardly turned to aloe vera gel no less than two seconds ago. “If your idea of bullying Johann is writing a song making fun of his dumb crush on Avi, I’d hate to see what you’d write about me.”
Kravitz's laughter stills and the sound of something snapping fills his silence. “Is he that obvious about it?”
“No,” Taako says, voice muffled by the bandages in his teeth. He pulls until the threads snap. “My sister’s just really good at reading people and Barry can’t keep a secret to save his life. Well. it is obvious if you know, but honestly, I just thought he got nervous in big groups.”
The sigh that he lets out is nearly loud enough that it would’ve put Taako at ease if he wasn’t so focused on getting his burn covered. “You should probably get some sleep,” Kravitz says, quiet as if he were the one sneaking around sleeping roommates. But, as far as Taako knew, he lived alone. “Wouldn’t want to keep you up all night.”
He makes a noise as he leaves the bathroom, pausing in the hall long enough to peer into Lup and Barry’s room to see their shoulders rise and fall. Just enough until he knows they’re alive. He sighs, shoulders dropping back to a neutral state. “I mean, maybe. Don’t think I’m gonna be sleeping at all if I’m going to be real with you, my guy. You, however, are a fleshy boy that kinda sorta needs sleep. I mean, how else are you going to stay as hot as you are?”
“Why, I’m flattered, Taako!” A chair scraping against the floor, wooden floorboards creaking every other step, the sound of blankets shifting. “I just… I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep if I hang up. Having someone to talk to, to be around, even if through a stone, makes it better.”
Flopping to his bed dramatically, limbs splayed, Taako pulls his heavy blankets set to the side of him up and over his body. “Ugh, fine.” He groans, shifting until he’s on his side, staring into the light of his stone. “I’ll stay on the line until you fall asleep or whatever.”
A long yawn. “Thank you, Taako.” His bed creaks. “Tell me about your bond theory?”
“Okay, shit, so you know the basics right? So basically I’m trying to take the bonds and change them…”
“...Taako?” Lup’s soft hands tap at his temples, just hard enough to bring him back to himself. When he blinks at her blearily, finally acknowledging her presence, she shoves a glass into his grasp before turning around and vanishing into the house without another word. Lucretia gives him a worried glance before turning back to her book, a swift master at minding her own business. “Drink.”
“I’m fine,” he protests, turning his attention back to Julia, still staring at him expectantly with a warm smile. “Anyway. All you have to do is sprinkle some cinnamon on top, add some chocolate chips, and voila, you’ve got one kickass bread pudding. Seriously. It needs more sugar.”
Julia laughs with the same boisterous and carefree manner as her husband. “Yeah, I sort of figured that much but all either of us could think of was ‘add more vanilla’, which doesn’t do much good for all parties involved. Thank you, Taako. Really.”
“Hey, babe!” Magnus calls from underneath the towering tree in their backyard, where Merle is inspecting their garden. Davenport sits in the tire swing, watching idly. “Merle says you can’t lift me!”
She’s already rolling up her sleeves before he can finish suggesting she prove him wrong, sending Taako an apologetic shrug. “Sorry to cut our conversation, Taako, but you know how it is.”
“Yeah, showbiz, I get the deal.” When she’s halfway to Magnus, “I’m placing two gold on Julia!”
Merle pauses his inspection to cup his hands around his mouth and shout, “Three gold on Magnus!”
Taako doesn’t stick around to see the outcome, instead deciding to turn to Lucretia, her gaze fixed on his bandaged hand. She glances up at him, and time seems to slow. Her brows furrow at the look he gives her a glare that got caught somewhere between deer-in-the-headlights and someone five seconds from a mental breakdown. She takes his hand in hers and runs her fingertips along the palm, too light to make it hurt. Istus, he prays, don't let me have this conversation now. “What did you think of the book I gave you?” She asks, in the same voice she would have used if she wanted to ask him if it still hurt, or why.
The breath that he lets out is shaky at best. “It was pretty rad, even if I don’t read all that much. You know I love a good romance.” She huffs out a laugh, hands still grazing over his. “I’m almost done, anyhow. I’ll get it back to you next week.”
Letting go of him, Lucretia waves vaguely and picks up her book from her lap. “Don’t worry about it. Get it back to me whenever you can.” She looks at him in her peripheral. “I know you’re busy. Don’t want to make you feel like you have to finish it any time soon.”
Taako’s stone buzzes in his pocket. It’s not Kravitz, though an unread text from him at the bottom of the screen glares up at him, thanking him for staying up with him. Instead, it’s Lup, asking if he can help her wrangle dinner. With a sigh, he pushes himself up from the comforts of Julia’s oh so comfortable bench and pats Lucretia’s shoulder half-heartedly on his way inside.
Cooking with Lup is always an art, or, as Merle calls it ‘a godsdamned fantasy Olympic sport’. They rush about the kitchen, always able to move out of each other's way just before they collide, dancing around from counter to counter, tossing utensils and seasonings without either having to ask. Barry sits in a stool on the other side of a connecting window, watching them idly like a white suburban dad watches golf. Which is to say he was absolutely enthralled with it for no good reason. “When do you think you’re gonna get called back to go treasure hunting?” She asks while Taako pulls marinated pork out from the dish. She chops at vegetables without looking at them directly, confident that her knife will never steer her wrong. Fondly, Taako remembers the time she accidentally cut her finger and then yelled at the knife like it was the problem and not her faulty chopping.
“I’m not sure, honestly. Merle thinks it could be at any minute, and Magnus is convinced she won't interrupt any of our plans, But I,” the pork slaps onto the already sizzling pan and pops with intent. Barry flinches. “Think she doesn’t care about what we’re doing, because she controls most of what happens to us anyway.”
They have a bet going on about it. Mostly because Taako knows he’s mostly right about stupid shit like how the goddess they pledged themselves to operates and just how strong Julia is.
So when Taako’s ring lights up in the middle of dinner, his fork raised to his mouth, he sends a look in Magnus and Merle’s direction. “Pay up,” he says, stretching out one hand while the other holds the ring to his mouth. “Sorry, dude, gimme a hot second.”
Coins are pressed into his waiting palm. “Okay, go.”
“I need the three of you and Lup to fetch me the third item.”
“Right now, or…?” Asks Magnus, watching with a nice blend of horror and fascination as Lup shovels her plate of food into her mouth.
Needles shifting together. “Right now. You’ll have to head to the dumpster behind the fantasy Dollar Tree to get to where I need you.”
“Everyone knows that there’s a portal behind the Dollar Tree,” says Lup, Taako, and Merle in deadpan unison before Magnus can finish his question. “Duh.”
Istus sounds like she’s smiling when she speaks next. “You’ll have to get through in the next ten minutes. I’ll talk to you later.” The ring dims. The eight of them look at each other. Then at their food. Then back to each other.
Five of them choke scarfing down a hefty meal in under two minutes. Two of them might have been Taako and Julia. They won’t admit it if you ask them, though. There’s a rush with everyone trying to piece together enough equipment for the four of them to survive the apocalypse, with Lucretia putting more bandages and alcohol wipes into Barry’s book bag they'd repurposed for their needs (they'd pulled out a mouse in a jar and Barry wouldn't meet their eyes to explain why it was there with his journals in the first place). Magnus nearly kicks open his bedroom door to get his ax and then ends up falling halfway out the hallway window when Barry runs into him. Merle goes to the garden and comes back with a new Hawaiian shirt on that he hadn't arrived with. No one asks how he got it. Taako tears a hair tie from Lup’s wrist, the two of them frantically working to tie his hair into a braid able to stand up to nuclear warfare. Julia trips down the stairs looking for a bandana to tie Lup’s hair back.
Davenport sits with his head on the dining room table, groaning through the entire ordeal. He only gets up when everyone's ready to leave, panting and out of breath at the front door.
Kravitz texts Taako five times in the four minutes it takes for everyone to be running out the door and down the block to the Fantasy Dollar Tree.
You know, I went to sleep after my shift and woke up five hours later. I think that’s my body telling me it hates me?
I just want a break for a day is that so much to ask for??
Alas, my soul is subjected to an eternal
torment from which the only
escape is faking my death, how poor it must be to be me!
Do you think Ravens like shiny stuff because they’re capitalists
They’re definitely capitalists.
Lucretia, Davenport, Julia, and Barry break off when the Dollar Tree looms in the distance, all bright lights and tired looking employees. Julia sweeps Magnus into her arms to kiss him silly, Barry gets dragged by the collar to give a ‘proper goodbye kiss, godsdammit,’ to Lup, and Merle makes Davenport do some oddly complicated handshake. Lucretia leaves them all to go in through the glass doors at the same time Taako rounds the back and Mage Hands the dumpster out of the way to reveal a black hole in the wall, absolutely radiating arcane energy.
The force is enough to whip Taako’s braid behind him and slightly skew his sunglasses. A flower flies from Merle’s beard when he walks up. “Well,” says Lup, squinting into the portal, “I’m not going first. Magnus--”
Lup turns to Magnus, only to see him already barrelling through the portal, shouting and whooping the whole way. She meets Taako’s gaze, then nudges him in the arm, smiling wickedly. She glances at Merle.
They push him through the portal. Laughing and bracing themselves on their knees, their high five can be heard from miles away. “Okay, okay. Shit, I really don’t want to go through this,” Taako says, wiping tears from his eyes and adjusting his sunglasses. Lup has a finger pressed to her lips in contemplation.
“We jump together?” She suggests, offering her hand. He doesn’t hesitate to take it. He never has. “On three.”
Taako pulls the two of them through the portal before she can even get to two, laughing at her surprised scream as they stumble through a thick layer of… well, Taako didn’t know what it was, but it was… gelatinous, if he needed to put a word to it. In the blink of an eye, he feels leaves and branches poking into his skin, and Lup spits out a leaf at his side. “Oh, they’re in here!” Magnus yells, and from what he can see through the leaves, Merle holds a thumbs up from where he’s lying on his back in the center of what can only be described as a forest clearing. This was, as he so often called it, his ‘prayer stance’. Mavis tells them that he only prays on the floor when he's trying to get Pan to kill someone. Strong arms grab onto Taako’s outstretched hand, hauling the twins out from what was, as he quickly found out, a nice shrubbery wall. “Man, you guys got a shitty place to pop out!”
“Yeah no shit,” he says, pulling leaves from his hair. Lup pulls an entire branch out of her jacket, looking at it with the intent of someone trying to figure out the meaning of life before she shrugs and tosses it over her shoulder. Vines are forming a canopy overhead, a Merle-shaped break already forming back together. Midday sunlight filters through it. Last he checked, it was night outside back at the Dollar Tree. “Huh.” He turns to Lup, who looks positively ecstatic.
“Earth elemental plane,” she says, simply. She turns her head in one direction while he turns the other, both glaring at the armored statues standing at attention at the very edges of the clearing. “Does anyone else feel magic?”
Immediately on cue, the statues shift in unison, brandishing their weapons, swords and bows and axes alike, and stepping down from their pedestals. The moss on their skin flakes but doesn’t fall, and their stone eyes glow a bright white. Merle grunts as Magnus hauls him to his feet. “Shit,” he says with feeling not a second later. Lup lets go of Taako’s hand, glancing once in his direction to make sure he had his wand out.
A longsword crashes into the ground in the space where Taako was standing not a second ago, lodging itself into the moss and dirt. In the Ethereal plane, he lets out a hiss, watching as blood rolls down his arm. A scratch, but Fantasy Christ on a bicycle was he cutting this shit close. Blinking back into the Earth plane, he readies his wand and yells, “Stay out of my area for a hot sec, my dudes!”
Ice crawls across the moss upon his feet, shooting from his wand in a spiraling light that slams into the center of two Gensai guardians. One of them stumbles out relatively unscathed, the other frozen in place and frantically shifting. The magic missiles he sends after it leaves nothing but crumbled rock in its wake. There’s a wave of heat against his back, and Lup lets out cackling laughter somewhere across the clearing. Her back bumps into his, feet sliding across the frozen moss underneath him. “Wanna Rock ‘em Sock ‘em?” she asks, throwing up a shield against a barrage of arrows headed straight for the two of them. Merle announces to any witnesses and God himself that he'd like to cast Banishment, and three of the Gensai fall into a portal that forms beneath their feet.
“Oh fuck yeah. Get one of the ones with the war hammers,” He says, pushing off of her feet to go thrusting back into the Ethereal Plane, just long enough to bring himself behind a Gensai wielding just an ungodly looking hammer. The poor dude bombs a check against his Dominate Person, which, honestly, shouldn’t have worked but what’re you going to do, God? Kill him?
Lup’s Guardian stands at attention across the clearing from his, with Magnus giving her what cover he can while she concentrates. Wordlessly, Taako urges his guardian to destroy. Well, destroy anything but the nice, flesh humans trying to kill everything else in the room.
Taako likes to think about the look of absolute confusion on the archer guardian’s face when their companion swings around, hammer raised and crashing down into their stone skull when he’s feeling especially sad. Or the laughter that Lup lets out across the clearing as hers swings a hammer between two of them, effectively taking out their torsos.
Jumping out of the way of another sword, Taako gets a rock fist to the face in turn. He goes down hard, rolling onto his back as his throat lets out a wheezing breath. The clearing spins, and he can recognize his bandaged hand lifting his wand into the air, slowly, arm trembling. He sees a spark at the tip of his wand, then darkness, then nothing but bright, blinding light barely obscured by his sunglasses, then Merle, slapping his bible across his face. Hard. “Holy Istus!” He yells, backhanding Merle’s glasses off of his face almost entirely on reflex. Almost. “What the hell, dude?” He asks, flailing blindly until Magnus grabs his arms and hauls him to his feet.
“You weren’t getting up,” he says by way of explanation, stalking off down a hallway without another word. “What the hell are we even here for?”
Lup fishes in Taako’s bag of holding for him, patting the back of his head idly as he shifts his weight onto her until the room stops spinning. The list appears not a second too soon, unfolded and in her hand. “Says we’re here for some chalice? There’s a little drawing of two hands pressing against a mirror. Dunno what that means.” The note vanishes without further problems, and Taako rights himself.
“She uh,” he says, stumbling after Merle, “She draws things like that. They never have much to do with what we’re looking for, but it’s almost always in the same place.”
She hums, glaring back at the decimated statues behind them. “Weird, but all of this is so who am I to judge? Hey, Magnus, babe, you got any healing potions on you? I think I pulled a muscle trying to backflip off of one of those stone dudes.”
“Shit, sorry, Lup, I just had the last one. Barry only had two in his bag.”
“Figures.” Draping herself over Taako, she sighs. “Guess we’ll just die. Alone and unloved.”
Taako places the back of his hand against his forehead. “And to think, I’ll have died without a boy to kiss!” The two dissolve into snickers, elbowing each other up until Merle stops dead in a doorway formed with vines and roots, both twins crashing into his back and nearly tripping in the process.
“Did the mirrors look anything like this?” He asks, gesturing vaguely ahead of him. Magnus shoves his way through while Lup stares, dumbfounded.
Mirrors line a small circular room, spaced out evenly and doing a pretty piss poor job of reflecting much of anything. Taako can see vague colors behind them, shifting as Magnus walks by them and right up to the chalice. The colors aren't reflections like he originally thought. Magnus puts the chalice into Barry's bag.
Taako feels the magic under the mirrors before he even approaches them. Lup has her right hand outstretched, fingertips skimming the surface on one side of the room, while he takes two tentative steps into the room. “They're enchanted,” he says, glancing over his shoulder to where Magnus is tapping on the surface of one dead ahead from where the chalice was. “But I can’t figure out what they’re meant to do .”
Ripples of color chase after the four of them the moment Taako finishes speaking, Magnus’s surprised yell drowned out by the roar of lava flowing and fire popping in his ears. “Yo, does anyone else hear… ravens?” Lup calls out, all but shouting to be heard. Merle mumbles a response that falls upon deaf ears. Taako shouts about lava.
Magnus yells “I hear the ocean!” Just as the mirrors turn reflective. Taako half expects to see himself, blinking at his reflection.
Instead, he sees a room with the same composition as the one they’re in, except instead of moss and stone on the floor it’s extrusive igneous rock and instead of plants lining the mirrors its lava, falling through the floor and fire spouting from cracks in the ground. The mirrors to his left show the skeleton, hood down and back facing the mirror with a bloodied scythe in hand, then a raven swooping low and following after a retreating figure, then a classroom watching as light erupts from a magic circle in the center of the room, strings unwinding and full of so much color, then--
Someone crashes in through the lava. It’s another cloaked figure. They land on their side. Hard. Taako can no longer hear, but the figure’s shoulders shake when they roll onto their stomach and try and push themselves up, and it doesn’t take sound to know they’re cursing and groaning in pain. They stand with shaking legs, viol gripped tight in in one hand and the other open, reaching for something unseen. A towering giant made of magma rushes in after them dripping with lava that left the cloaked figure seemingly untouched, and the figure yells to the sky, throwing the viol to the ground just as their shadow shifts and bubbles rising around them and into their hands forming a magnificent, gleaming scythe. They lunge, and Taako watches as the giant halts with its club held high above and silver flashes. Taako watches as the giant crumbles into a pile of lava on the ground
Taako watches as golden eyes turn from the giant to the pedestal. He takes a half step back, hands trembling as he sees Kravitz let go of the scythe and barely glances to it as the shadows return behind him, his attention trained on the pedestal in front of him. He walks with a limp and clutches his arm as he lifts a key into the light, turning it over before dropping his head and pocketing it. His shoulders fall with a long sigh.
When he looks up, he’s staring directly at Taako. His jaw falls open, lips forming his name as he stumbles down the steps leading to the pedestal and stops directly in front of his mirror. He tries to speak again, to ask him something, but Taako can’t read his lips. So he wets his own, ignores the dread in his stomach, and asks, “What are you?”
Kravitz tenses, his eyes looking anywhere but him. After a while, he raises bloodied and bruised hands to his chest, and mimes opening it and pull a hand away from his heart fingers curled around an invisible shape. Taako must look confused (because shit, he is, what does his night terrors have to do with anything?), because Kravitz shakes his head, a smile on his face. Then he places a hand on the mirror, the other gripping at a wound across his hip.
In the split second it takes for Taako to look him over, he doesn’t remember Istus’s drawing. Instead, he thinks about whether or not Kravitz is going to make it out. He’s bleeding, trembling, and every time he breathes he winces. But instead of trying to voice this to him, Taako brings to completion the world's cheesiest self-fulfilling prophecy and presses his bandaged hand against the mirror, right over Kravitz’s. He glances at the bandages briefly, a question in the way his lips part and how his brows furrow. It was a problem for later.
A shadow casts over the mirror, dragging Kravitz’s attention upwards. His smile doesn't grow and it doesn’t quite reach his eyes, but he says something to the shadow, too fast and too quick for Taako to catch on. When he looks back at him, the smile becomes something genuine.
And then it’s gone.
Taako’s hand lingers, mind blank and reeling as he stares at clouded glass, not even a flicker of black and red to tell him that Kravitz is still on the other side. Magnus is crying, a smile upon his face as he turns from his mirror. Merle kicks his mirror, muttering curses at it.
Lup and Taako stare at each other from across the room, and for once in their lives, Taako is the one with a level head. Lup looks terrified, and he only knows because for their entire lives it's been him that's scared, him that fears the unknown, and Lup that comforts him. He doesn't know what she saw that would shake her up enough to have her trembling.
As they watch a portal unwind in the center of a stone gateway that wasn’t in the clearing they entered before, Taako reaches out. Lup squeezes his hand back, not in reassurance, but a guarantee that she’s here. She’s alive and whole, and they will be safe, no matter what.
He squeezes back.
And they step through the portal.
They stumble into the Dollar Tree at exactly seven fifty-eight P.M.
Barry rushes up to Lup and Taako, abandoning his basket in the middle of an aisle. He checks over Lup’s wounds first, massages a knot out of her pulled shoulder, and checks Taako over for a concussion or any broken bones. He doesn’t have any, but he stands still until he’s done, sunglasses resting on his head and eyes staring blankly at the ceiling. Lucretia gives him a roll of Fantasy Hi-Chews. He doesn’t thank her, but he doesn’t need to. She’s learned years ago that the weariness easing off his features was thanks enough.
Julia finishes her purchase at the cash register before sliding across the floor to Magnus, pulling grass from his hair and kissing his bloodied lips. Magnus laughs, like he’d never been happy before, and brings her close. He whispers something to her, and she looks at him funny, before slapping him on the shoulder and pressing their foreheads together.
Davenport was already sitting on a stack of boxes when they came in, so Merle just wandered over his way and sat down next to him, planting his head on his shoulder. He holds his bible until his knuckles turn white, and he doesn’t take his eyes off of Taako and Lup. He tells Davenport that he was worried, for the first time in his life, that his healing might not be enough to fix what they saw.
The eight of them leave the Dollar Tree at Eight P.M when the last cashier shoos them out. Lucretia talks in hushed voices with Lup while Barry and Magnus help Taako walk after his leg gave out a few feet into the trek home. After a while, Lup shoves Magnus away from her brother and tells him to spend time with his wife. They slow down until the rest of the group is some ways ahead, and Lup’s worry puts creases in her face as she turns to Taako and Barry. She tells them about how she saw a woman that looked like Auntie, except she had feathers for hair and a black satin robe drawn about her. The woman who looked like Auntie had ravens sat upon every surface around her, but she barely paid them any attention. She spoke with someone just out of view, and the ravens all opened their beaks to speak in time with her.
Lup tells them that Barry was there, in another mirror, holding a scythe and reading aloud from a hefty book. She turns to Taako, tries to tell him something, then looks down at her feet.
Later that night, when Lup crawls onto the pull-out couch Taako had insisted Magnus and Julia buy and hugs him as if he’d vanish into thin air, he tells her about Kravitz. Not about their late-night talks, no, that would always be between the two of them. He tells her about how lava didn’t burn him, but he was covered in bruises and wounds and his ankle was bent in the wrong way, about how they saw each other.
And that's when Lup tells him why he saw Kravitz in the first place.
“It was in Primadorial, just these… scattered words on each of the mirrors. They said ‘Here you find growth. Here you find the catalyst leading to a self you’ve yet to meet.’”
Taako doesn't look in a mirror for the next three days.
He doesn't know what would look back at him.
3. The Chalice of Many Horrors, kept in a room guarded by guardians and what has yet to come to pass.
Flaming spit hits Kravitz’s face, burning at his skin but never wearing down the layers of his skin as it rolls down his chin and splashes to the ground. He desperately tries to play another song, bow dissonant against the strings as a glowing sword forms at his side, wreathed in unstable celestial energy. He sends it crashing into the giant’s stone leg, which does little other than anger it, and he can only try and run as it brings its club at him from the side. There's a moment where he tries to duck, only he doesn't move fast enough and he's trying to keep his viol out of the way. So as he goes down, he takes a deep breath and holds it.
He feels bones crack as the black rock slams into his gut, sending him soaring through the air and into the lava, which burns at his skin even with the protection his cloak gives him. According to his Queen, he'd only get a wicked sunburn in the aftermath, and somehow he dreads that more than the pain of the fire. His leg screams in pain as he passes through the lava the same way you pass through a waterfall and falling, down, crashing into hard ground.
So he’s having a great day.
Kravitz feels his head swimming and pulsing as he cries out, arms aching and legs barely supporting him as he tries to right himself, failing once before he bites his lip and pushes through. He looks down at his Viol, broken at the neck, and then he’s suddenly brought to attention to a deafening roar nearing him. He reaches out, trying desperately to tap into the well of power that the Raven Queen insisted they shared, as the giant comes barreling through the lava after him.
His brain feels like someone stabbed tiny knives into them as he prays and prays, and keeps pushing them further in, until he can no longer bear the pain, his vision going dark. He distantly hears him screaming his prayers to the sky. All at once, it clears. There’s a solid weight, in his hands. It feels familiar like it was waiting for him just out of sight the whole time. When he opens his eyes he sees a scythe, nearly identical to the one his Queen always had beside her throne, hefted into the air in his free hand. Without another thought he throws his broken viol behind him, trying not to wince at the crash it makes and tightens his grip on the scythe.
When Kravitz breathes, there’s a sharp pain that stabs through his chest. He establishes within himself that he was not looking forward to however many broken ribs he has right now. “ Fight, ” Says the voice of his Queen, and he doesn’t bother trying to see if there’s a raven nearby. “ The rest will come naturally. You were reborn again for this very purpose.”
The pain and sores forming throughout his body ease up as he leans forward, spacing out his feet and adjusting his arms. The pain in his chest is dulled. He can put his weight back on his right leg. So, right as the giant positions itself to put him out of his misery, Kravitz lunges. He feels his feet land on the ground once, twice, then not at all, his arms bringing his scythe back and up then forward. The magma sprays all around him as the blade slides through its body like butter, and he pushes himself off of its face, frozen in horror up into the air and back onto the floor, scythe held outstretched. Well, Kravitz thinks it looked horrified in its last minutes, but he lost his glasses somewhere on the floor.
Cracking his neck, Kravitz turns to the pedestal in the center of the room, sitting on a raised platform. He goes up the stairs just as his adrenaline wears off, scythe dematerializing and falling through his fingers like water, and he catches himself on the edges of the pedestal before he falls right over the edge and fucks himself up. There, on a piece of velvet, is… just a key. Shit, he didn’t know what he was expecting, but it could’ve looked a little fancier.
He puts it in his pocket, and mourns the state of his pants, ripped and covered in ash and bloodstains.
When he looks up, he sees Taako, his braid messy, sunglasses broken in one lens, and what looks like a wicked black eye in the making. Then Taako’s eyes widen like he wasn’t expecting to see him. Kravitz looks around desperately for any sort of excuse for what he was doing that could fit into a nice, normal, non-emissary tale of adventure. But then he sees the magma giant that he just killed with a scythe he fucking summoned from thin air and abandons any such notion.
Now, with his fear gone, all he can think is Taako Taako Taako. His entire body screams to stop, to rest, but he pushes through, stumbling to the mirror ahead of him. He can see Lup and Magnus behind him, and too many images flashing across the surfaces and-- was that the Raven Queen on the one in front of Lup? Forget it. He’ll figure it out later. “Taako,” he says, applying pressure to a spot in his stomach that’s dully burning-- he must have stabbed himself on something because warm blood soaks through his shirt. “Where are you?”
He squints at the general direction of his lips, his own pulled taught. If you were to ask Kravitz to find the definition of ‘confused’ in the dictionary, it would show you Taako of two seconds ago. He licks his lips before opening his mouth, but no sound comes out. Kravitz never needed sound to read lips, though, and Taako’s question has him taking pause.
‘What are you? ’
How to begin? Kravitz looks around the circular room, trying dearly not to look at the look of barely concealed worry on his face. He thinks about his dreams, or, rather, what he told Taako about dreams. Trembling, he brings his arms up to his chest and tries to tell him without having to speak. But how do you convey to someone that you died and got better? When his hands fall back to his side, Taako only seems more lost. Kravitz huffs, and shakes his head, smiling despite himself because of course, he wouldn’t understand if he didn’t convey it properly. He'd never be able to understand until Kravitz told him. He places his palm on the mirror to steady himself when the room sways, and comes back to Taako, pale as a ghost and searching his face, looking for something.
Whatever he finds seems to ease some of the tension from his shoulders, and against all expectations, he lifts a bandaged hand to press against his. Kravitz spends longer than he should be staring at the cloth wrapped around him, covering an injury he hadn’t mentioned before. There are grass stains on the palm, so that tells him he didn’t get it on his way into the room nearly identical to the one he’s in, presuming that’s why he looks beat to shit and has moss sticking to his collarbone. When he looks back up to Taako, he’s all but perfected the deer in the headlights look. It’s now that he can appreciate Taako’s eyes, blend so perfectly into the greenery around him. There are gold flecks that reflect at him if he tilts his head just so.
Taako tells him without saying anything that both of them have something to explain, so Kravitz is just content to stand here and be with him before that could ever come, until a Raven appears on top of the mirror, golden eyes staring down at him. “ You look, pardon my language, like shit, Kravitz, ” she says, blinking at him minutely. When he glances back to catch a look at Taako, he finds that the mirror had turned milky, reflecting nothing but distant reds and oranges back at him-- his reflection, namely, is absent. “ But you did excellently. ”
Kravitz bows deeply, before he lets out a little yell and braces himself on his knees, stabbing pain coursing through his body. “I-- Thank you-- My Queen-- It was-- shit -- No problem.”
“Are you alright, my child? ”
“Just--give me a second,” he wheezes, waving vaguely in her general direction. His vision blurs around the edges. “I’ve got this.”
And then Kravitz wakes up in the hospital.
He blinks rapidly, trying to shake off the weariness that weighs down his bones and pathetically tries to dim the glare of the lights. “...Bright,” he mumbles. There’s a shout of surprise, and the lights immediately shut off, save for the lamp on a bedside table. Well, if he was demanding stuff, might as well just-- “Water.” He makes a grabbing motion with his hand.
“Sorry, dude, Nurses said that’s illegal or whatever.” A tanned face pops into view, covered in moles and tired eyes barely hidden under curly brown hair. Johann immediately gets shoved out of the way for Ren, her white hair tied back in the same scrunchie she always used when she worked the Sunday shifts.
“How are you feeling? Johann, go get someone,” she says, gently easing him into a sitting position. “We had to pull some serious strings to get the doctors to not ask questions about why you’ve got like, five broken bones. On the topic of that though I know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy that’s a master cleric so she can fix your bones if the Raven Queen can’t.”
“Oh, that would be lovely,” Kravitz says, leaning his head back into the pillows. He lifts a cast-covered arm into the light. “How long did they want to keep me?”
“Just for another day, they said? Wanted to make sure they didn’t miss any fractures and check for brain damage.” Ren leans back in her chair, fiddling with her blouse. “Listen, you got a--”
“--Got a nurse to come over in a hot second,” Announces Johann, fixing his hat as he backs into the room and tumbles into the chair opposite of Ren. “Dude, what the fuck happened to you?”
“Lava giant to the gut. Threw me around a bit. Not important, got what I went there for. What I want to know is, one, how I got back because last time I checked I was in the Elemental Plane of fire, and two, what I ‘got’ according to Ren.” He slurs his words every once in a while, and takes his time speaking, which, talking always came easy to him. So either he hit his head too hard, or they put him on some top-notch killer painkillers.
“You uh… You just popped onto my floor at like, seven fifty-eight? And this raven-- thanks for telling us about that being real, by the way, still scared the shit out of me-- this raven, like, looked at me and told me that it thinks you might need medical attention which, listen, man, if a raven talks and sits on your best friend’s crumpled body and tells you to take him to the hospital, you take him to the hospital.” Johann tilts back in his chair, puffing out air. “So I called up Sloane and was like, listen, I know we don’t talk much but like, my friend needs a hospital, can you come by real quick? And she was all--”
“--That’s good right there,” Ren cuts in, holding a hand out in his general direction. She pulls his stone of far speech from her bag and holds it out to him, looking a little sheepish. “You got a call from Taako while you were still out and I might’ve accepted it? And I might’ve told him you were here so now he’s on his way?”
Kravitz looks away from Ren, back to the glaring ceiling light. He can't feel any sort of panic through the painkillers. “Oh, good,” he says faintly. He closes his eyes, just for a moment, and wakes up with afternoon light drifting in through the window, and a figure curled up on the small couch pushed against it, chewing on a fingernail and inspecting rows upon rows of rings. His black eye is still there, covered by the hair he’d left loose from a bun that has his wand shoved unceremoniously through the center. Other than that, his bruises and scrapes are gone. Kravitz clears his throat and instead of saying anything at all to be smooth or well-spoken or explain himself, he says, “You look better.”
Taako whips his head around to stare at him for what feels like hours until finally, he breaks down into wheezing laughter. He calms after a few seconds, throwing his legs to the floor and scooting himself to the very edge of the cushion. “Yeah, I tried, uh. I tried this wonderful thing, you’ve just been familiarly acquainted with it, called, uh, sleeping for a whole day?” He coughs awkwardly, cheeks flushing. He wrings his hands together, and Kravitz notices with abrupt clarity that both of his hands are freed from any type of bandages, and there’s a distinct, fading burn on the palm. “Listen, I know you’ve probably been asked how you’re doing and all that fun shit, so let’s just skip that.”
The wall in front of him looks rather interesting as of right now. He tries to find any impurities in the dull beige paint job. “Yeah, we probably should,” he says, and his voice falls flat. He feels his chest rise and fall, the sharp pains of his broken ribs dulled to an itch. Kravitz turns his head halfway towards the window, trying to ignore the worry, the dread in his stomach. He looks up to see his IV drip empty, and curses his luck. “Taako, I--”
“--Do you want food?” Taako doesn’t look up from where he’s stretching across the back of one of the arms, waving his arm until a tote bag’s handles come into view. With the bag in his lap, he looks anywhere but at Kravitz as he digs into it. “I mean, real food. Not the shit they’re gonna try and feed you in like, an hour tops.”
“It depends on what you brought, doesn’t it?” He asks, lips twitching at the corners as two metal containers slide out onto the empty seat next to Taako, a monster of a thermos triumphantly in his right hand. “Because, listen, Taako, I could kill for some real spicy noodles right now.”
He snorts, nose scrunching up as he smiles at Kravitz, a real, genuine smile. “Really? After what you just went through?” He doesn’t mention specifics. For that, Kravitz is grateful. He nearly expected an interrogation from the moment he woke up, but this… whole out of sight out of mind deal is like a breath of fresh air. Taako gets up from the couch and gestures Kravitz to move over, pulling the food tray out from behind the curtain and over his lap. One of the metal containers lands with an unceremonious thunk, hot to the touch. The thermos gets set right next to it. “Nah, I didn’t get you spicy noodles, but if you hit me up some time I’m deffo down for some, I can make you some spicy ramen that slaps hard .”
Taako slides into the chair Johann had long since abandoned, propping his legs up onto the hospital bed. Kravitz’s hand slips off the side of the lid. He sighs and presses his head against the food tray. A pop brings him back up, and steam wafts up from the opened container. Taako lowers his hand and stubbornly says nothing about it. The food smells like heaven, or, in a literal sense, like a spice field set on fire. “Cheesy potatoes and spicy rigatoni,” he says, right as Kravitz pulls the still burning container over to him. He taps a well-manicured nail against the thermos. “And this doesn’t really go with anything because you’re a fucking animal and I sacrifice so much shit for you, but I’m benevolent and a god with hot chocolate, so I’ll be taking payments by compliments effective immediately.”
Mouth full of potatoes that all but melt onto his tongue and tears in his eyes, “Holy shit .”
Taako ducks his head and twirls his fork around the pasta. “I know.”
“Holy shit, Taako. I thought Ren’s cooking was good but what the fuck! I just-- shit.” Kravitz shoves forkfuls of pasta into his mouth to shut himself up. Saying that he ate a diet half subsiding off of Ren’s cooking and instant ramen would be an understatement. He also ate protein bars sometimes, thank you very much. He can see now why a single person could drive Ren to pursue a dream she never knew she had-- flavors dance across his taste buds and envelop him with the familiarity of a home that Kravitz spent his whole life trying to find.
“Left you speechless, I see.”
He swallows hard and feels a smile blossoming across his face looking at Taako, currently pretending like he wasn’t looking at him not two seconds ago. “You tend to do that to me.”
Kravitz feels particularly smug when Taako chokes on his pasta, flushed to the tips of his ears. Even if it was the truth (he’s rather incompetent from the moment he hears Taako’s voice to the moment he leaves), it’s not as if he doesn’t gain something from flustering him, hard as it may be. After the shitty night he had, he deserved that in the very least. “I don’t even have anything prepared to come back at that with! Fuck! Shit! Drink your goddamn hot chocolate you hot bastard!” He says in-between coughs, half-collapsed onto the plastic arm of the chair.
Partly because he wanted to drink it in the first place and mostly because he’s gay and weak, Kravitz obediently pulls the thermos as close to him as he can. Eventually, Taako recovers and starts rambling about how he woke up to fifteen texts from Angus telling him about the cases he’d been solving in Rockport and Goldcliff, which leads to a thirty-minute tangent about Hurley and Sloane and Krav, you’ve got to see one of their races.
Taako cuts himself off a half-second before there’s a knock at the door, and a woman’s quiet voice calling his name. He quickly shoves the metal containers into his tote, slings it over his shoulder, and reclines across the couch as if he belonged there. A long, slender arm stretches above his head and snaps. When Kravitz blinks, he’s gone. The nurse pushes the door open with her shoulder, pulling a cart along with her. They exchange pleasantries and he learns that her name was Lilith, and when pressed, she tells him that visiting hours ended an hour ago.
He sends a look in Taako’s general direction, fixing for a disapproving glare but only succeeding in amusement. Lilith takes his vitals, makes some comment about his heart rate that would’ve been a nice way of declining his advancements if he wasn’t interested in her in the slightest. His nervous giggling still manages to give her the impression that he, of all people, is straight, so he’s already planning how to fake his death in his head by the time she leaves, the door cracked ajar.
Taako appears back on the couch when he looks back, giggling like a schoolgirl with a secret. “Oh man that spell never gets old,” he says, speaking in the closest thing he could ever get to a whisper. “I’ll just take that to mean it’s my cue to leave. Keep the thermos, Barry bought too many a few months back, and uh, give me a call when you’re out? It’d be super cool of you if I didn’t have to call Ren again to talk to her about you. People talk, you know.” He winks. Heat crawls up Kravitz's cheeks, an involuntary reaction to Taako being Taako by this point.
“Like that’d ever stop you.” Kravitz smiles up at Taako, who rather looks like he’s staring directly at the sun.
He shifts his bag and begins climbing back up the couch, forcing the nearest window open. “Fuck yeah, Taako’s a bullet train and everything’s just a cardboard box on the tracks, you know how we do.” With a leg out the window, he hesitates. “Don’t have any weird dreams tonight.” But the way he says it, the meek lilt to his voice, is all Kravitz needs to hear to know that wasn’t what he meant to say. Taako vanishes out through the window with one last awkward wave, and his laughter fills the night air.
That night, Kravitz dreams of His Queen’s throne room. He’s seated in-between her legs while her clawed hands braid charms back into his hair. He knows he’s not there physically, to some degree, but his soul often drifts when he sleeps, and more often than not, he finds himself in the Astral Plane. His casts are gone, in here. And he knows that when he wakes the next morning, the golden charms will still be there, secured into his hair.
The Raven Queen sings while she works. Kravitz chews on the inside of his cheek until skin flakes off. He opens his mouth, closes it, opens it again. Smothers a frustrated groan. Patiently, his Queen waits until he's ready. “Why did you bring me back?” He asks, voice echoing throughout the room. Her singing pauses, but the ravens envelop them with gentle humming in voices that were and weren't her own.
“You’re special, Kravitz. You know that.”
“That’s not an answer, my Queen.”
She sighs, seventeen different voices sighing with her. She runs her hands down his shoulders, easing tension from him bit by bit. “You shouldn’t be alive right now,” she says, finally, voice soothing but managing to do nothing except send chills down his spine. “But I broke my code for you to come back. Idyllic as it is, I like to think that when you die, abrupt as the first time, people would miss you.No one would have if I’d kept you dead fifteen years ago.”
Which was not what Kravitz was expecting. She says it with the bluntness that doesn’t care whether he’ll find comfort in knowing he’s still alive because a goddess took pity on him, or unease at the fact that he wouldn’t have been missed-- just another missing person found dead in a ditch. Soft hands press against his jaw, and a kiss is pressed into the top of his head. Neither of which are warm, her body as cold as ice. “It’s not something I expect you to understand; the whys and the hows, my child. Your death was brutal, merciless. One day you’ll be strong enough to know. But for now, you will live and you will suffer. But no matter what, know that I will be proud of you and that the love you receive in your time left alive has been earned more than twice fold.”
He leans into her touch as she cups his cheek, chest rising and falling. He presses a hand to the scar across his heart. “I will try not to waste it.”
“Oh, Kravitz.” The hand on his cheek leaves, and pries his own hands away from his chest. She tucks some of his hair behind his ear. “You could never waste it even if you decide to end it all tomorrow.”
He doesn’t say anything to that. He doesn’t have to. She knows what he would have said regardless. If not words, she would know the feeling that he would try and convey, and she would take it in just the same as a thesis on how he feels.
So the Raven Queen sings until the morning comes, and Kravitz listens.
His bones are healed by the time he wakes up to birdsong.
3. The key to all doors, found in the room where mirrors show you what will destroy you and stay beside you as you are reborn.
Me blasting Labrinth's "All For Us" on repeat while I proofread: Wow this chapter was kinda depressing lmao
Me: Wonder when I'm gonna kill Kravitz again
Chapter 4: I Don't Like Sand. It's Coarse and Rough and Irritating.
“I just like it! Ain’t nothing wrong with that! ‘Sides, you’re a professional! You got this!”
“Oh, do I? Thank you, June, I was just beginning to doubt myself.”
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Five books slam onto the counter in front of Lucretia, startling her out of the book cart she’d been painstakingly reorganizing for the past three hours. Taako leans heavily on the surface next to it, watching her with disinterest. He stifles a yawn against the back of his hand. She notices, but says nothing, in regards to the ink stains replacing his staple gemstone rings. “Man, I forgot that I was the one that kept you from doing this shit your whole shift,” he says, plucking a pen off from her side of the counter, chart levitating towards him with a quick flick of his hand. “I’m returning three of these, checking out two more, and keeping the other two. Good?”
She waves vaguely in his direction. “I don’t care, Taako, take five more if you want. Did you find what you were looking for?” She indicates the returning books. Taako glares at them, hoping against hope that they’d vanish when he turned away.
“No,” he says, lying through his teeth, which, of course, is on par with his usual bullshit, so Lucretia doesn’t bat an eye at him. Nor does she mention the fact that three of his five books from two days ago were all about the pantheon of Gods. Not like he’d be able to explain it to her— other than some bullshit about Istus and bonds, which wasn’t far from the truth, but she also didn’t need to know that. “There’s two horndogs on the second level, by the way. They’re covering a book I need.”
Lucretia sighs heavily and pulls herself to her feet, pausing to crack her back. “You’d think the amped-up security would scare them off,” she grumbles, popping both of her wrists. She squints at the list of books he’s checking out, then back at him. “You wanted the Enchantments and Allures for the Experienced Wizard? I’ll leave it at your usual spot.”
“Toodles,” Taako calls after her as she stalks off to the stairs. He spins on his heel and wanders through rows and rows of tables, the occasional student crying into a book. Fuck, he didn’t miss that . His Transmutation masters was a walk in the park compared to the shit-ton of classes Merle and Davenport had decided he was fit for taking his Freshman year in college-- yes, he’s talking about Topology Drew .
The Components section is about as dead and empty as Taako usually expects it to be. At a glance, around maybe two books are missing, so he figures it’s safe to say that no one in Neverwinter decided to pick up “Transmutation Components Throughout the Ages” by Augusta Maker for some light research. It’s a book that scares away anyone that gets as far as the foreword and, shit, he doesn’t want to sound like Lucretia, but Augusta is such a great author. He remembers making it past the lengthy chapters introducing her textbook on the theory of Transmutation in use with a living person to alter them permanently, only to see jokes at every turn, and a carefree manner to the way she introduces world-shattering concepts. He vividly remembers a chapter almost entirely dedicated to an absolutely filthy rant (really, you’d think a sailor wrote it) about someone telling her that she wouldn’t be able to bring her theory to reality.
Kravitz would love Augusta’s works.
Taako’s hand freezes a millimeter above the spine, hard breaths that would normally wrack his body pushed roughly through his nose until he’s unable to find air to breathe. He closes his eyes, grounds himself by grabbing onto the shelf until his knuckles turn white.
It had been two days since Taako last spoke with Kravitz. It’s not him probably not being human that impacts him like so, no, it’s the fact that he knows without a doubt that Kravitz is itching to tell him the full picture. Which, sure, would be nice to know, even if he’s started to put the pieces together in the dead of night, his hands clasped tightly across his stomach. But it didn’t take a fool to know that Kravitz himself was dreading it, deflating the moment Taako deflected because, again, not his business.
So He’d wait until Kravitz was ready to come to him.
Taako lets out a long sigh through his mouth, pulling the book from the shelf and taking the rest of the stack Lucretia had so helpfully organized for him based on the unspoken order they’d agreed on; the books Taako had rented the most at the bottom, least at the top. She makes him promise to come out for tea with her one day, which he does so easily. He adores those little cakes to pieces.
Two days shouldn’t feel as long as it did.
Despite this he finds himself waiting for a message, a call, anything , even as he’s hauling his heavy stack of books up the stairs and undoing the wards on the front door with practiced ease. It’s idyllic of him, and something he’d tease Lup for doing (and he did before she got over herself and got with Barry), but would never touch with a ten-foot pole himself. Until fucking now , apparently.
He lets out a wistful sigh at the memory of Kravitz like a lovesick idiot, leaning across the counter at the Davey Lamp just a week ago while he tells Taako about a particularly rude customer from earlier that day. Kravitz had smiled wide enough, then, that all he had to do was reach out and press either of his thumbs into the dimples on his cheeks. Just to know the feel of them, the shape of him.
“Why didn’t you tell me about your adventures, sir?” comes the high voice of Satan himself sitting criss-cross applesauce on the center of the couch. Taako yells and nearly drops all of his books, stumbling to keep the top of the stack where it was. Angus makes no move to apologize for scaring him half to death, flipping to the next page of his dumb divination book. More blue text appears on the blank page. “It’s very rude of you.”
“First of all, fuck you for not telling me you got back early,” Taako says, dumping his books unceremoniously onto the coffee table and reaching out with both hands to muss his hair. “Second of all, have you maybe considered not poking your head into everyone’s business, boychik?”
Angus glances up from his book, shrugs. “From time to time. You should call Kravitz, by the way. He misses you.” Taako groans, ignoring the disgusting mix of indignation and longing that bubbles up his stomach.
He drapes himself dramatically across the couch, half-leaning against Angus. “When Lup gets home, we’re going to have a talk with you about your spying habits, little man.” He pulls out his stone, thumb hovering just over Kravitz’s frequency. And he waits. And waits. His pulse racing, heart pounding against his chest, breath caught in his throat because he’s never been the one to do… this, you know? Lay around waiting for a text, giggling and dancing around like a schoolgirl who just got asked to dance by her crush of years. He’s never found himself really, truly caring.
He shouldn’t do this.
He’ll put his phone away, move on with his life, and forget Kravitz. It’s settled. Done and buried.
A small hand reaches into Taako’s view and connects the stone to Kravitz’s frequency. “Angus what the fuck !” He shouts, reeling back and almost throwing his stone, but the nervous cough on the other end of the frequency stops him with his arm thrown behind his head. His arm falls limp at his side, head tilting to the ceiling. He very stubbornly avoids looking at Angus, instead reaching out to feel the wards on the apartment, aching and longing for some security to ground him. “Hey, Krav.” His voice doesn’t sound like his own, stuck in a whisper too fond and too vulnerable.
“Hi,” he says, and his voice is hoarse, like he’d grated his vocal cords on a cheese grater some point in the past two days “Hang on-- Ren, tell June I’ll be a minute--” there’s a distinct clang of someone slamming a pan against a metal counter, and the creak of a swinging door.
“Hold on, you’re at work ? Don’t you only have like, two functioning limbs right now?” Kravitz laughs, a high and strained sound that only settles nausea in Taako. Fake laughs from Kravitz were bearable, but this one wasn’t like that, didn’t reflect the same emotion. He’s guarded, tense and hiding his cards to his chest with metaphorical hands.
“It’s uh… It’s complicated. Most things about me are, these days.” Angus goes back to his book, cross-referencing the predictions with the notes on whatever case he’s already started work on. Taako catches his name written here and there on the other page. Kravitz sighs. “Which is what I’m guessing you called to talk about.”
“We can do that later. On your terms. I’m more interested in why you just like, accepted that it’s normal to see me in the same weird fucking places you go, but it’s your business, stud, not mine.” Taako pulls dried ink out from under his nails, his upper lip twitching with disgust. “And I know it kills you to not tell the truth for five fucking seconds, but for real, Krav. I don’t care, and it doesn’t change my opinion of you. But you’ve got to tell me how you got those casts off.”
When Kravitz starts speaking, Taako can hear the smile in his voice. He sinks slowly into the couch, limbs falling limp. Kravitz details about how Ren knows a guy who knows a guy who knows a cleric that only speaks in Dwarven (she was an elf, which he insisted Taako had to know just for the mental image) who owned a buzzsaw and had contacts that could get his medical record changed accordingly. Angus mutters something about that not being safe at all, to which he gets a laugh, and reassurances that Ren knows her stuff and hello, Angus, it’s lovely to meet you, which is good and all but Taako needs to know if this shit was legal.
“Well…. I don’t think so?” Kravitz says, sounding rather unsure. A small creak and, “Hey, Ren? Was Asena’s deal legal? Oh, shit, really? Yeah, it was super illegal.”
“Oh fuck yeah! Stick it to the man!” Taako cackles, abandoning Angus on the couch in favor for wandering into the kitchen in search of an almond butter and jelly sandwich because someone told Barry that he and Lup have been eating peanut butter, stabbing themselves with an EpiPen, and going to Merle for healing for years now. Fucking snitches, man.
Kravitz lets out an unsteady breath. “Hey, Taako?” He makes an affirmative noise as he slathers jelly onto the bread. “You said on my terms. I don’t-- I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do it if it’s on my terms, but you knowing… it’s-- it would make things easier, I think. On me, I mean. I don’t want to lie to you about this any more than I have to.”
Taako methodically cuts the crusts off of Angus’s sandwich. He doesn’t like the taste of them, he’d said once, and Taako could pretend he doesn’t care about what the kid tells him, but it’s been years since they met. And if Angus calls him soft for doing this for him now, he can go eat shit. “Okay.” He looks up from the cutting board. “Meet me at Shots and Pots tomorrow night at six-thirty.”
“Can I ask why there specifically?” There’s a lilt to his voice, laughter in the way syllables fall from his perfect lips. It’s a stark contrast from the solemn truth that fell from him the same way vomit leaves Taako’s throat after long hours spent curled up in his bed, clutching at his stomach. Slow, painful, and then all at once.
Taako walks down the halls outside his apartment with a bat swinging loose in his hand, satin pants and robe shifting in the moonlight drifting through the windows at the end of the halls. He stops abruptly at Carey and Killian’s apartment, stifling a yawn against his free hand while he hits the bat roughly against the door frame. After a brief shuffle on the other side, Carey swings the door open, clawed hand rubbing at her tired eyes. Giving him a once over and quirking a brow at the bat, she steps back and lets him in. An empty pizza box is turned over onto the carpet with a towel covering a suspicious stain. On their couch is a hulking mass, rumbling snores shaking the floor and drool trailing down into a hairy beard.
It’s one in the morning. He has a date with Kravitz in seventeen hours.
With this in mind, he hits Magnus in the gut as hard as he can with his baseball bat. Magnus flails, throwing the blankets up in an attempt to get him to his feet in enough time to punch his attacker in the face which was good and all, but Taako’s been around the block, so he just takes a few steps back and watches him fall flat on his back. Dark eyes blink blearily up at him, slow and unfocused. “Why ?” He asks, squinting. The layers of confusion in his voice would make Taako break into laughter if he was in a better mood. Or if it was like, five hours later.
Taako doesn’t wait to see if Magnus is following him when he leaves, fishing the spare key to Davenport and Merle’s apartment from the depths of his pocket. He doesn’t try to muffle the door when it slams open and feels no guilt when he spies Mookie sleeping on the pull-out couch, if only because the twerp could sleep through the end of the world. Besides, the son of a bitch ate his last pair of slippers. Davenport, meanwhile, comes bursting out of his bedroom at the end of the hall, halfway through a spell incantation when he sees Taako backlit in the doorway. He lowers his wand with a sigh that moves through his whole body.
“I… I think we need Merle?” Magnus says, looking down at Taako for confirmation. Taako lifts his shoulders a fraction. Davenport grumbles, hits his head on the doorframe, and vanishes out of sight. Mavis appears in her doorway across the hall from Davenport and Merle’s room, adjusting her glasses and yawning wide. She takes one look at the lethal look in Taako’s eyes and the bat in his hand and goes back to bed. Merle comes out not a second after, wearing a ratty T-Shirt over nothing but his underwear, and calf-high weed socks with unicorn slippers on. You know, the sort that opens their mouths when you walk.
Taako’s lips curl in disgust at the sight of what Merle calls appropriate sleepwear, pulling a porcelain statue of a small human child hugging a llama from his bag of holding. He sets it on Merle’s floor as he approaches, glances once at Mookie’s sleeping form, and smashes the statue to smithereens with the bat with the anger of a thousand wronged souls. Glitter shoots wildly out from the remains, blinding them from the rest of their surroundings.
When it clears, they’re standing on a beach with charcoal sands, dark ocean water reaching as far as the eye can see, with bright lights dancing underneath the surface. Constellations of long-dead stars are in the sky, twinkling the same as the souls in the Astral sea. When Taako releases the tension from his shoulders, a cloud comes out of his nose as if he were in a tundra, instead of a warm beach with the souls of the dead, thick atmosphere wrapped around him and coddling him.
“I fucking hate you, dude,” he says, voice raw and groggy. His face mask shifts as he talks, the shift in temperature as he does so sending shivers down his spine.
Istus laughs, her voice echoing across the plane. “I know. Just hurry up and you’ll get your beauty sleep in no time. She keeps it in her treasury.”
Taako cracks his neck and sets off in the direction opposite from the Astral Sea, Merle already five steps ahead of him and his feet already wet and sloshing about in his slippers. He adjusts the glasses on his nose, stopping abruptly. “Just checking, but you guys can’t see the super big fucking doors here, right?” He asks, reaching his wooden arm out until the palm rests flat against empty air.
“What, you can’t?” Magnus asks. Merle shoots him a look at the same time the sound of a heavy door groaning open bounces off of the thick air all around them. Merle’s arm vanishes past his elbow, then his shoulder, then the rest of him. “Oh what the fuck?”
Stepping into the threshold of the Raven Queen’s palace feels different compared to emerging from the Astral Sea. Dread settles into the pit of Taako’s stomach, a deep-seated wrong enveloping him. Whispers float past his ears, a woman’s soft voice detailing all of his sins against the dead while more cry out that he feels wrong, that he has treaded upon waters that no mortal should wander. He presses the part of his face mask that peeled up off of his jaw down and follows the rows of torches.
The Raven Queen’s Palace doesn’t work the way it should. This is the first fact that any person looking into the afterlife learns.
The second is that if you were to make it there alive, you wouldn’t experience it with all of your senses. This is something that Howard Franz found out when he legally died for half an hour after he got high out of his mind and decided to try astral projection.
So Taako feels Kravitz before he hears him, the same way that Merle can smell the sulfur hanging in the air, and Magnus sees a dark figure with eyes, eyes, and wings sprouted from their head before he can taste charcoal.
If you asked Taako, and, given you were Lup or Angus (who would figure it out regardless of what he said), he’d tell you that Kravitz feels like warmth and belonging, despite the ice that hangs off of him.
He’d tell you that hearing him felt like his sins were on a scale, set up beside all of the good that only weighs as much as a dove’s feather. Kravitz's voice echoes in the same way that Istus’s does, piercing through the thick air and sending flickers of a wind that none of them can feel through the torches lining the walls. A woman responds, soft, low, and joined by fourteen different voices that are also her own. Magnus lets out a noise of shock thirty seconds before Taako sees the gaping awning of the entrance to the Raven Queen’s throne room. Taako, however, views the entire scene upside down and catches the top of his own head in the second it takes him to look ahead.
Kravitz sits on the arm of the throne, holding a jar of golden and glittering nail polish in one hand, the other diligently painting an elven woman’s nails. The feathers that make up her hair are twisted over her shoulder into a flowing braid, golden eyes looking down at Kravitz with a kind smile and unblinking eyes.
The third thing you learn about the Astral Plane is that each person’s perspective on death warps how you see her. Kravitz, for example, sees a woman that he knows for certain he’s never met before. This woman is the same one that Taako and Lup see. Only, they know that they’ve met her because they see their Auntie, warped and shifted into a kind goddess with raven feathers for hair and kind eyes that see past the masks you wear. To them, death is familiar, warmth, home, but more importantly, death is temporary. “You’ll be fine ,” says the goddess that wears his auntie’s face.
Kravitz purses his lips. A white raven nips at his hair. He opens his mouth to respond at the same time Magnus drags Taako from the doorway by his arm. “Do you want us to get caught?” He hisses into his ear, rushing to catch up with Merle at the end of the hall. “That’s a literal goddess! And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not get chased down or questioned by that cloud of nightmares!”
So. Fourth thing about the Astral plane?
Not everyone can see the drifters.
It’s not a term that Taako knows readily, or something that even existed until he brought it into reality years later, but Kravitz wasn’t the only drifter he met after that, so it’s also not like it wasn’t an unwarranted thing to coin and research. Get off his dick, Jared.
Anyway. The drifters don’t exist in the same way that they do, being the literal living beings traipsing through the Astral Plane like it was just another Tuesday. Their souls are attuned, drawn naturally to the planes of gods that have touched them. There’s no logical way for their souls to go searching for the gods and their planes during their waking moments, bodies unable to pass through the barriers in the same way emissaries can, so their souls wait until the host falls asleep to go to the gods.
There’s a theory that Taako develops, these years later when he decides to research drifters. Why he could always see Kravitz even when other emissaries can. Lup would make some joke about how they’re soulmates, which Taako now would hate how sickeningly soft that sounds, but Taako later would tell Lup that’s not far off.
Because, see, bonds connect everything.
And every one.
“Can you guys hear the whispers too?” Magnus asks when they catch up to Merle, “It’s like, really unsettling, right?”
Taako shrugs. “She’s just telling me that I’m tainted because I’ve been touched by dark magic,” he says, turning sharply to a gilded door. He glances down to Istus’s list, ignores the little doodle of a lich dabbing, and double-checks the little arrows that they think are directions. She wouldn't tell them if it was that or the steps to a Fantasy DDR game one of them would play sometime in the future. “which, like, no biggie, we all knew that shit.”
The door creaks open before any of them can touch it. Merle laughs nervously at the same time Taako takes a good five steps back. Magnus takes two forward. “Guys, it's fine,” he says, smiling over his shoulder. “No traps.”
“How the fuck do you know that?” Taako calls from where he’s safely tucked behind a black pillar. WIggling his fingers, Magnus backs slowly into the room. Taako rolls his eyes and huffs because of course he has a fucking proficiency for finding traps. The door doesn’t shut behind him as Taako expects. Instead, he leans out and sees the glittering gold of The Raven Queen’s treasury.
Okay, so dying in that room might not be so bad, Taako decides. He makes it inside the treasury before Merle could even pass the threshold. “We’re looking for a necklace and some sapphires!” He calls out, already up to his elbows in jewelry and gold. He misses Lup, for a moment, as the glittering precious metals and jewels reflect light into his eyes. She would have loved this, would have loved seeing how much she could sneak off with. But, well, Lup isn't here, and Taako is, so. Gotta make due, you know?
Merle slaps a particularly gorgeous choker out of Taako’s hand at the same moment he pockets a pair of earrings. He makes a sound of indignation, makes a point to flail a bit. “Stop stealing from goddesses.” Magnus keeps an eye on Taako’s back as he moves on to the pile of gemstones, grumbling and pouting to himself.
As he fishes out a diamond-shaped sapphire, he realizes with a jolt that Istus could have stopped him from taking the earrings, if she wanted to. Like, logically speaking here, she’s aware of every decision Taako makes and how that spirals into his future, so the only way he can be sure is to--
“Don’t even think about it, Taako.”
He throws his hands up into the air. “This is bullshit!”
“So it’s bullshit if I want to keep my girlfriend from hating you? Huh, Taako? You think that’s bullshit?” Istus says, with the inflection of a dad that’s ‘not mad, just disappointed’. Taako, who has never had a dad, is rightly perplexed by how that tone alone can make him feel guilty.
Needless to say, Taako didn’t try to steal anything after that.
Merle finds the necklace, which Magnus declares was cheating if and only if in part because the glasses Istus gave him had true sight. Taako reassures Magnus that that’s not how magic fucking works at all.
Taako’s sight leaves him for the amount of time it takes for them to get out of the Raven Queen’s palace. He feels Magnus holding onto him tight and Merle holding onto the end of Taako’s robe, leading them out, but can’t hear their voices. He feels hands that hold no substance trying to grab onto his limbs, desperate, pleading for him to save them. Cold caress his lips, gentle and tender in a way that feels like home, but it only serves to unsettle Taako because he doesn't like the cold. The whispers grow and their voices raising until they’re yelling, no longer about his sins, but how they have to subject to her divine punishment, how they must atone but never be forgiven, this sin cannot be forgiven, you are complicit with their crimes, you are wrong, only he whom I care for above all other mortals keeps you from damnation, the magic you cast has been tainted, stained black by those around you--
Taako blinks, and he sees the Astral sea sprawling out in front of him. A clock chimes, somewhere behind him. Magnus lets go of Taako’s arm, and Merle wheezes from somewhere behind him. “What the fuck?” He asks, and his voice sounds distant as if he’s just a bystander watching himself move and talk. Again, “what the fuck?”
“I hate this place,” Magnus says, breathless. Taako nods his agreement, face numb. He drops to his knees and digs in the sand until phantom blood pours from his fingernails and the porcelain statue that brought them here surfaces, translucent and held together by threads. He pulls the bat out of one of the loops in his robe.
A raven’s shrill caw echoes through the Astral Plane when Taako shatters the stature of the child hugging a llama. Something about it terrifies Taako, puts a primal fear for someone in his stomach, but he doesn't know why. The charcoal sands kick up dust all around them, the ground slowly morphing until his feet are under solid ground again, and the distant sounds of city nightlife fill the uncomfortable silence.
Mavis is sitting next to Mookie’s sleeping form, reading under the mage light that Davenport keeps alight with an outstretched hand. Merle plops himself down next to them while Taako stalks out of the apartment and back to his own. Magnus whispers to Carey and Killian before they can even wake up fully to greet him, their door clicking shut silently.
Taako’s apartment, meanwhile, is silent and dead. He knows Angus is still asleep in Taako’s room, where he’d dozed off reading one of his dumb detective books. He doesn’t think he’d want to deal with his energetic poking and prodding so early in the morning.
So instead he toes open Lup’s door, robe left abandoned on the doorknob. Barry’s glasses are left askew, a book resting on his chest. Tucked against his side and talking in her sleep is Lup, wearing the shirt from the satin pajama set that Taako’s currently wearing the pants to. A mage hand marks Barry’s page and puts both the book and glasses onto the nightstand. Taako pokes Lup’s shoulder until she moves onto her back, fixing him with a tired, disoriented glare. She doesn’t complain or protest after her vision clears, holding the edge of the duvet up with an arm. They’re both asleep before his head can hit the pillow.
Taako dreams about a white raven singing sweetly to a blue moon.
A necklace to adorn my neck, left barren from the centuries in which I did not love her so, and gems so I may let the rest of the planar system know her beauty as I have always said it to be so.
Kravitz won a game of cards on the morning of his meeting with Taako.
Normally, he would have bet cash, and anyone else playing would have followed his lead. Instead, he leans back in his chair and takes a long sip of coffee while those gathered at table eleven collectively groan and throw their cards down in exasperation, frustration, or acceptance. This time, Kravitz entered with only two terms and a smile on his face.
If he won, Ren would close for him, and Johann would delay that night’s rehearsal in the event that he didn’t make it back by seven P.M. If he lost to anyone at the table, regardless of whether or not they worked at the Davy Lamp or with his symphony, they’d have to give him new terms. June later complained that this was just a courtesy, supported by one vital, important truth of the game.
Kravitz didn’t have a plan for if he lost.
“You’ve got to be cheating,” Ren says, pointing a finger accusingly at him. Avi shakes his head, downing the mojito he arrived with.
“No, listen, I’ve known this dude for years, and I’ve never seen him lose a bet. Not once.” He nudges Johann with an elbow. “Right?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah.” Johann stopped trying to beat Kravitz four years ago. He never knew why, just that he'd somehow figured out the inner workings of his mind. whatever that meant. Kravitz couldn't care less, though they have gotten around to finally dusting off the old chess set Kravitz's grandparents left to him and playing it, he misses the drunken bets between the two of them. “Dude’s a powerhouse.”
An hour later Johann and Avi are gone, and June is back behind the counter cleaning glasses and singing along to the music playing from the overhead stereo. Kravitz makes idle chat with Mrs. Callahan, the only consistent regular that he’s seen ever since he started working as a server at the Davy Lamp. A lovely woman, all things considered, always asking after him and insisting that he serve her. She has two daughters, three grandchildren, and insists that her grandson is an artistic prodigy. The only roadblock that he’s encountered with her is--
“Any ladies in your life yet, dearie?”
It’s like clockwork. Once a week, every three weeks, Mrs. Callahan will come in and ask about whether or not Kravitz has a girlfriend. He considers it a nice change from her trying to set him up with one of her daughters. He never got around to figuring out how to tell her that he’d never in his life want a girlfriend in a polite and kind manner, so that was his life. Eventually, Kravitz realized that he could respond with, “Only My Queen, Mrs. Callahan,” and she’d leave it alone, and he'd thank the Raven Queen for her aid.
Except for today.
“Why there’s got to be someone ,” she insists, primly adjusting the napkin across her lap. The perfect face of innocence, if innocence was planning something. “You’ve been positively radiant lately.”
Eyes sparkling under tourmaline, smile blinding and toothy, a hand pressed against the surface of a mirror, hot chocolate in his hands, soft touches and soft words when he thinks no one is listening, kind to those who matter and scalding to everyone else to keep himself safe, charming, twirling, laughing and snorting-- “No, Mrs. Callahan. There’s no one.”
The lie weighs heavy on him for the next three hours until Ren rushes out of the kitchen to shove a spoon into his mouth and talk at fifty miles a minute about what she made and whether or not he thinks they should add it to the menu. Kravitz taps his chin thoughtfully and suggests adding it as the next special of the month despite the part of him that wants to pull her leg and tell her it tastes like shit. He’s never been able to insult her cooking in the way Taako did once, good-naturedly and smiling when she punches him and calls him an ass. She makes a high noise in the back of her throat, pats his shoulder roughly, and races off to work the logistics out with June.
When the breakfast rush slows, Kravitz plays the piano while June pulls Paloma, Luca, and some resting patrons to the space behind him to dance. Her laughter is bright and airy, skirt twirling as Luca spins her and she spins Paloma. The customers can't help to smile with her, the happiness infectious enough to get Mr. Anders, the most sour man Kravitz had ever met, to laugh. Eventually, they filter out, one by one, but June stays the longest, breathless and grinning from ear to ear.
The workers at the Davy Lamp say that it’s been years since June last smiled, ever since Refuge got torn from their time loop. She was at the center of it all, the only one to remember everything when they reset, kept frozen in place by the magic that made the town sick, helpless and unable to close her eyes while the town gets destroyed and she gets crushed under a rock. Paloma once spoke the names of the saviors of Refuge, a footnote on the tragedy at the time. Kravitz hadn’t thought of them, not really, until it really mattered to think of them.
He wonders if Magnus and Julia Burnsides know that a handful of Refuge’s old citizens ended up in the same town as them.
Kravitz finds himself thanking Istus that she sent them June’s way so that she could be here now, smiling and happy and without a care in the world. She rests heavily against the side of the piano, arms folded onto the top of it and chin resting on them, smiling down at him. “I’ll make you some hot chocolate before you leave if you play La Campanella for me,” she says, holding a hand out to him. Sighing, he reaches out and shakes on it with her, cursing June for knowing just how weak he is for some good chocolate.
“I feel like you only make me play this song because you hate me,” he calls after her, leaning back far enough to see her stick her tongue out at him.
“I just like it! Ain’t nothing wrong with that! ‘Sides, you’re a professional! You got this!”
“Oh, do I? Thank you, June, I was just beginning to doubt myself.” He laughs when she throws her towel at him, immediately putting on her Customer Face when a woman sits down at the bar in front of her. When he returns to his tables, he’s back to smiling, chatting idly with the patrons and giving suggestions for what they should order when prompted. Paloma vanishes into the kitchen and makes Luca take over her tables, emerging forty minutes later with a basket full of warm scones. She mechanically passes them out to every single person in the Davy Lamp with a wink and the occasional vague warning.
For Kravitz, she curls his fingers around the scone, leans in, and whispers, “do not use the red paint,” before scampering off. Which, admittedly, was kind of a weird thing to say to your coworker, but hey. Kravitz takes Paloma’s prophecies at face value, and the fact of the matter was, she was the only thing keeping him from making himself look a fool in front of Taako.
“Who put Johanns mixtape on!” Ren shouts, head poking out through the serving hatch.
“Wasn't me!” Kravitz calls back at her with a grin across his face. “But you gotta admit, he makes some good tunes!”
“He plays it all the time though! Someone turn it off or y’all are just fixing to get slapped!”
Roswell flutters off down the hall and a minute later emerges on June’s shoulder. The stereos go quiet. Chatter picks up around the diner, and Kravitz pulls plates from the serving hatch. Ren sticks her tongue out at him, which does little but earn her a huff and an eye roll. “I’ll be out of here in half an hour,” he says to June as he passes her, “I don’t care if Redmond doesn’t show up to take over.”
She waves him off, still talking animatedly to Roswell. Redmond does, in fact, show up, but gets an earful from Luca when he does, exactly three minutes late. They argue for a good five minutes while Kravitz stashes away his apron and fetches his stone. When he comes back, June is dragging them both by the ear, and the thermos Taako gave him is sitting on the counter, filled to the brim with hot chocolate.
Kravitz had spent his break arguing with Ren about the logistics of going home to change. At some point, they realized that they were going to a pottery painting shop and Kravitz has a... record, of sorts, and they agreed that maybe going in his work clothes would be best. This would later lead to Kravitz now tying up his hair and admiring his pristine crimson eyeliner, courtesy of a white raven that, for once in the past fifteen years, didn’t watch him with unblinking eyes or speak from a tightly sealed beak.
It’s only when he’s halfway across town that he begins to panic.
Kravitz entirely expected to be waiting for Taako for about half an hour. Instead, he stops dead on the cobblestone sidewalk in front of Shots and Pots, blinking away the briefest flicker of an illusion clouding Taako’s eyes. Without the mirage shifting and shimmering over him, Kravitz can clearly see the dark circles under his eyes, and the foundation that failed to cover them. His hair sticks up high, braided and kept together by the wand shoved straight through the top of the bun. He’s filing his nails absently, though he falters when Kravitz enters his peripheral. “Took your time,” he quips, giving him a once-over before nodding in approval, smiling minutely at him. A ghost of the thing, but still there nonetheless. “Work hold you up?”
Kravitz reminds himself to breathe. Bites the inside of his cheek as if that would will away the warmth in his cheeks and the pounding in his chest. But then, if he forces the good that Taako elicits from him, he would never be able to savor his sparkling eyes and radiant smile. So he scratches at the nape of his neck instead, glancing to the sidewalk. “Something like that.”
Taako lingers, his nail file gone but palms still upturned, as he surveys the patrons inside. “It’s vase night,” he says idly, squinting when he meets the gaze of a blue Dragonborn and orc couple, who grin with knowing in their eyes and wave at them with reckless abandon. He rolls his eyes at them. Taako seems to know more people in Neverwinter than he doesn’t. His nose scrunches, upper lip pulled into a distasteful grimace as he glares disdainfully at the instructor. “Last time I went here with Lucretia on Vodka night; they were doing bowls. Never felt like painting a bowl. A vase is better, more versatile.”
He, of course, does not elaborate on the numerous uses for vases, swinging the glass door wide open and gesturing for Kravitz to go in. He does, and without a word, still trying to piece together what one would put in a vase if not flowers. So far, he’s only come up with paintbrushes. But no sensible person would—
“I’m going to put my brushes in this,” says the dragon born with the brightest, most proud smile Kravitz has ever seen. The orc woman nods solemnly and suggests pasta instead, and he decides he’s had enough of eavesdropping for the night.
Taako brandishes the tequila with the relish of a man seeking immortality and finding it, gesturing to the empty seats and elegant vases before them. The instructor begins to laze about the room, and almost simultaneously, every patron takes a shot. “You asked me why I picked here,” he says, smoothing out his apron and picking up a brush. When Kravitz nods, “tonight’s date night, but consequently, it’s also tequila night. And listen, Krav, you only go to Shots and Pots on tequila night to get blackout drunk. Anyone listening won’t have the mind to remember by the morning, or they can’t exactly hear us over—“
“—Someone put on Fantasy Shakira!” Shouts a man in the corner, his date swatting at him as raucous laughter racks their shoulders. Shouts erupt across the room, drowning out whatever the Instructor’s response is.
That’s clever .
Just one more thing for Kravitz to adore about him.
Biting his lip to keep back a smile, he holds out a hand for a shot. Taako supplies graciously, before downing a quarter of the bottle himself. “Also, you know,” he says, leaning in close enough to be heard, which just means his breath is hot on his ears and Queen take him this man is going to be the death of him, “figured you’d rather be drunk for this.”
The tequila burns, makes him long for the wines back at home, and Kravitz chokes, but he manages a weak little smile for him. “Thank you.”
Kravitz quickly finds out that painting while tipsy is the most frustrating experience of his life, mostly because he can’t keep his hand still. But focusing on his handiwork means he gets a distraction, which means that he can talk without worrying about what he means. “I— Okay. So, it’s better to go…back. You remember my dreams?” Taako nods. “They’re not dreams. Not really, I mean. It’s complicated, I guess? I’ve been told they’re not dreams, just a reconstruction of memories blocked from me, but since I can’t reach them, I’m only left with vague sensations and gaps filled in during my waking hours.”
“Care to elaborate, bones?” He asks, voice airy and hands trembling. And so Kravitz does. He begins with the context, because to him, Taako must know. Nights spent lying awake and hanging upon every aspect of his life that could have caught the Raven Queen's favor tends to do that, see.
The rest will follow when his tongue loosens with liquor.
“My parents died when I was young; too young to remember them. My uncle took me in for a few years, taught me the basics of music and gave me my first violin, but then he was taken too. It was irony or some joke of Istus’ doing, I’ve come to believe, that the plague that took them would skip me, and instead turn me to the temples of the Raven Queen.” He shrugs his shoulder, ignores the look that Taako gives him. Normally, he would relish it, because for once in his life he wasn’t met with pity, but understanding. It was a conversation to be had much later, why they shared this similar and yet vastly different experience. But for now, Taako remains passive, and Kravitz worries his vase with hands that shake in tune with his rapid pulse. “My grandparents found me in the temple of the Raven Queen, just outside Phandalin. They died fourteen years ago.”
Kravitz breathes in deep, holds the breath, and releases it.
It’s a gift, he thinks, that his heart stops beating before the anxious pulsing becomes too much for him to bear.
“And I died fifteen years ago, pursuing my dreams at my grandfather’s dying wish. A group of up and coming necromancers took me, and the rest is history.”
Taako’s hands freeze, and he gives him a dazzling smile. “I’m sorry, don’t think I heard you right.”
Kravitz sighs, rubs at his temples. “I went missing, fifteen years ago. You said Angus keeps tabs on you when he’s away? He would know that much. You might, too, now that I think about it. Not important. I went missing, woke up in the middle of a lovely circle of dead necromancers, and got myself to the nearest tavern.”
“But you seem pretty fucking alive to me?”
“Oh, didn’t you hear? I got better.”
Kravitz’s vase looks gaudy, a shitty combination of blues and whites and yellows that don’t seem to match in retrospect, but he can't find it in him to care. Distantly, he thinks of how much uglier it would have been with red in the mix Taako’s, meanwhile, is painted to perfection. He’s in the middle of transmuting paint into gold leaf when the instructor scolds him, shoves brushes into his hand, and saunters off. Taako scoffs, and with the blink of an eye hot pink acrylic turns into a neat stack of shimmering gold. “Okay, sure, you got better. Doesn’t explain why you can get thrown through lava no problem but a broken bone or two wrecks your shit.”
“The Raven Queen is quite fond of deals,” he says instead of outright explaining himself out of the gate. “Supposedly, I made a bet and won. ‘Course, I only figured that out a few weeks ago. Now I work as an emissary for my Queen, my life forfeit to hers and my will her own from now until the end of time.”
Taako leans over and grabs onto Kravitz’s hand, guiding it to the vase to help him correct shaky line work. If he wasn’t so focused on getting his words right, he would have had the mind to blush and stutter. “So the eyes...?” He asks with practiced ease. The flicker of his ears tells Kravitz otherwise, but like most of Taako’s other tells, he leaves it be. But there was something wrong in the way Taako reacted, something that takes Kravitz a second to piece together. He rubs his chin when the pieces fall together, glancing in his direction.
Taako didn't seem the least bit surprised to know that he was an emissary.
“...Are a gift from her, yes. As is the cloak. Eyes to see, feathers to shield me from the mystical, that sort of stuff.” Taako shifts, looking rather smug with the paint now smeared on Kravitz’s hands. He sobers when he returns to his work, tucking flyaway hairs behind his pointed ear.
“I’m an emissary, too. Figured we should just lay this out there.” He doesn’t meet his gaze as he says this, squinting at the dragon born as she sets her vase on fire, much to the dismay of the instructor and enthused cheers of essentially every other patron.
Kravitz inclines his head. The reader in him, the one that’s seen scenes such as this play out too many times to count, decides that secrecy has no room in the shots and pots. Also, he’s currently the sort of drunk where he’s smiling openly and bright without any reason why. “I knew that already. Don’t-- don’t look at me like that, it doesn’t suit you-- I was in Istus’s realm and caught the tail end of a conversation. Nothing big, but enough for me to connect the dots that my Queen wouldn’t. You talk to her using this ring,” he says, tapping on the pink gem on Taako’s thumb. Lights shift under his brief touch, a flicker of blues turning it a lovely lavender before fading back to pink. “Right?”
Taako looks flabbergasted, and rightfully so, in Kravitz’s opinion, considering it blends in perfectly with the rest of his usual rings. While he sputters and curses and slaps Kravitz’s shoulder, an overwhelming fondness takes hold of his heart, now beating again. “What the fuck! No, no,” he corrects himself, pressing a fingernail against Kravitz’s chest accusingly, “ how the fuck do you know? And don’t you try and lie to me I’ll fucking see through your bullshit even if you give me one of your dumb little smiles.”
Kravitz gives him a small smile anyway because an angry Taako very much reminds him of a cat in water. Disgruntled, hating the world, but with no actual intent to harm. “I can read minds now. All dead people can, you see, except they’re dead so the point’s a bit muddled.” No swipes at his shoulders and vulgar protests follow. Instead, he finds Taako worrying his bottom lip, eyes darting back and forth across empty air as if trying to read the text of his memories.
“It’s the eyes,” he says when the silence nears unbearable, eyes wide and wild. There’s no question in the way he phrases it, only confidence and certainty. This is, of course, supported by the loud and anxious snapping that accompanies his next words, “You see what the Raven Queen sees! All Emissaries encompass their deity in some way, something to keep the flow of the arcane energy stable. Istus doesn’t need to give us a bond because we’re still alive and we don’t really use any magic she’d find useful, but Merle has an arm from Pan, and you have your whole bucket of little oddities!”
If they were anywhere but a pottery shop, Taako would have started pacing by now. Instead, his leg bobs up and down against the floor as he works with one hand, gesturing vaguely with the other. He’s speaking too fast for Kravitz to keep up, now, but he catches ‘dreams’ and ‘heart’ thrown somewhere in the mix. His ramblings end when Kravitz wraps a hand around his arm, gently lowering it until their palms meet. “Taako, calm down,” he says, still smiling. “You can analyze everything that my Queen gave me and what it means another day. That’s part of why I wanted you to know; a feeling tells me we’ll keep meeting when our goddesses delegate us our work.”
A stark contrast to the couples laughing loud and shouting across the room to what friends they recognize, Kravitz and Taako keep their heads ducked together as they work, with smiles only meant for the other, even if the conversation swiftly shifts from emissary work. Taako goes on in length about how nosy Angus has been as of late (“I bet you he already knew your whole deal, too!” “I mean, anyone could if they knew what to look for. It’s somewhere in the Phandalin Gazette’s archives.”), and in turn Kravitz tells him of June’s aspirations for magic. They agree that they’d get on line a house on fire and that June should go into abjuration, all things considered. This is, of course, how Kravitz discovers that Taako and his family spent ten years going around Faerun working as adventurers, helping anyone that needed it.
“We called ourselves the Red Robes because none of us could figure out how to work Starblaster into the name,” Taako explains. Downs a shot of tequila and grimaces. “Wore these spiffy uniforms and all that, running around like we’d just lost our heads. Most of us had just finished our degrees, and Magnus was on some weird fitness kick that no one could really shake him out of and Davenport was going crazy after he retired so we just... went to town. The work was exhausting, too, but I just kept doing it.”
Kravitz abandons his vase, deeming it a failure and a disgrace all in one. He nearly laughs at his joke about connecting the vase to himself but remembers himself in the last seconds and coughs instead. “Why?”
“Because I didn’t have anyone else. No one else would want the me that existed then, or the one I am now.” Taako shrugs off the blunt and edged truth of his words like it was just another Tuesday, and Kravitz finds himself reeling from the force in which it stabs into his chest. Both from the admission of something Taako would normally dance around, and the fact that he could ever contemplate someone not wanting him around. “It gave me purpose. Not the doing good part-- fucking hilarious image, me going out of my way to save lives-- but the journeying. Seeing new places with the time to stop and actually enjoy it, you know?”
Kravitz did know. But he doesn’t say this, only hums a low note until the paint flakes off of his skin and onto the floor. “Lup likes to say it made me a better person but I call bullshit on that.” Taako scoffs. “A better person, she says. All I got out of those ten years were five journals worth of research into lost languages, a warrant for my arrest in Goldcliff, and Angus. By the way, never bring up knowing me in Goldcliff, Phandalin, and Glamour Springs. Like, don’t even think about me unless you want to pay off the price of my head there.”
“So long as you never utter my family name in Rockport,” he says good-naturedly, tension pulling his brows close as he worries over the acidity in Taako’s voice as he mentioned Glamour Springs. But he doesn’t press. Not now. "Rumor has it that we’re notorious for starting pub brawls.”
“You've started brawls?” Taako all but shouts, reeling back in his seat only to yelp and throw himself forward when his stool nearly flips over. Kravitz only winks at him, which turns him into a lovely shade of violet. “I’ve got to take you to a party someday, bones.”
“That,” Kravitz says, spinning in his stool until his knees brush against Taako’s. “Why do you call me that?”
This naturally causes the blush on his cheeks to spread like wildfire to the tips of his ears. “Uh,” he says, clearing his throat and gesturing vaguely. Then, so quiet that even Kravitz could barely hear it, and he was inches from pressing his lips against Taako’s cheek with how he was currently sitting. “Cheekbones.”
He blinks. Taako glances up at him, then to the floor, leg bouncing up and down in tune to Kravitz’s heartbeat, loud enough that it rushes to his ears. “Cheekbones?” He asks, amused.
“You have nice cheekbones and I think they’re hot, alright? I’m not going to say it again.”
Their legs bump into each other, and instead of shying away, Kravitz loops his ankle around Taako’s. “And here I thought you knew my secret the whole time,” he says, thanking the gods that the heat boiling under his skin would never be put on display in the same way Taako’s does. “But no, just after my good looks and devilish wit.”
He snorts, covering his nose with a paint-covered hand, and bites his lip. The light in his eyes shift, pupils dilating and any bite and playfulness softening to something serious, fond enough that even Kravitz can see the difference in how his features soften out. “You know it’s not just that, right?”
Kravitz thinks of the Elemental Plane of Fire, and the mirrors that stretched around him and the infernal carved into their frames. His heartstrings pull taught, lips dry and stomach stirring, as he feels a flutter of hope, a flutter of possibility. Even if fate herself may will it, this was of their own making, done in ways that shift the threads in her ever-winding tapestry. “Of course I know.”
And Taako smiles, it’s not dazzling, not trying to impress, and with the bags under his eyes still visible through the flickers of hazy illusions it looks tired, but in that moment Kravitz finds that he would do anything to see it again.
He finds himself wanting to sing, wanting to dance like June, free and full and surrounded by security. He wants to write ballads and symphonies of this feeling, of hearing truths from a half-liar, however quiet and tentative of an admission. He would stay in this moment for eons, even after his death, if it meant that he could experience this, and the moments that follow, until the stars burn out.
The instructor glazes the vases with speed and accuracy that, quite frankly, terrifies Kravitz. The Dragonborn and orc couple start flexing for the gathered crowd, which means that they get their vases back first, even if the instructor eyes Taako with the exasperation of a man who’s watched him break the rules too many times to be surprised by this point.
Taako looks up at the moon hanging proudly in the sky before anything else, his eyes sparkling with an energy that only seems to shine when the sun goes down. He’s still tired, but his posture straightens and he starts walking backward, gesturing for Kravitz to follow him around the corner and under the awning of a flower shop. They can both smell the rain hanging thick upon the air. “Here,” he says, holding the vase out to Kravitz. “You take mine, I’ll take yours.”
“But it’s hideous.”
“It has character,” Taako declares, cradling Kravitz’s vase with the tenderness you'd use to handle the holiest of relics. He looks up at him with the same reverence, the sort only reserved for gods. “I love it,” he says, taking a step until he’s in Kravitz’s personal space, a question in the way he tilts his head.
Kravitz has a theory, one that he’s never mentioned aloud, that he often makes decisions run by his emotions, and so, because of this, he will never truly be able to do his job once it comes time for his life to end. His Queen often sways his theory with gentle reassurances to his soul, but it always returns.
So he closes the space between them, the hand not holding Taako’s vase raising to rest on his waist, a touch returned against his forearm while the ugliest vase ever made floats secure in the air. His heart stops, in the second it takes for their lips to meet, but pounds against his chest not a moment later. Taako tastes like tequila and sugar, rosemary strong in Kravitz’s nose though he’s never known him to smell like anything but flowery perfumes. His lips are chapped, and there’s paint against his upper lip that he’s yet to wipe away with prestidigitation, but he kisses Kravitz like he’s never known anything else, no trace of the passion and spitfire present in the rest of his being. It’s the sort of kiss Kravitz has only read about, the kind he’s only been able to dream of, to weave into songs of longing and waiting.
His knees feel weak when Taako finally pulls away. It was seconds, for him, for anyone else left awake, but to him, it felt like years. He isn’t breathless, but the wind was knocked from his lungs, he isn’t lusting but he’s never felt like this before, he’s dead but he’s alive, and he is a fractured soul now whole. That smile, the one that Kravitz longed for the second it left Taako’s lips, is back, a private thing only meant for him that leaves his anomaly of a heart soaring.
It’s laughable, Kravitz thinks, that he went into this believing that Taako would want nothing to do with him once he knew the truth, send him running for the hills like every other past lover always did.
He’s about to voice this when Taako’s Stone of Farspeech starts to buzz. He throws his head back, groaning, loose hair tumbling over his shoulder. “It’s Lup,” he says, making to grab the stone from his pocket, and, with a little smile, he meets Kravitz’s gaze until the buzzing stops. “But a minute wouldn’t kill her, would it?”
Under the awning of a closed flower shop, Taako pulls Kravitz back down to him as rain falls upon the ground. Hidden across the street, perched on a street light with the calm a bird should never hold in the cold rain, sits two ravens. One stares unblinkingly, her beak sealed shut and golden eyes trained upon the bagged vase on Kravitz’s arm. The other, white and curious, watches Taako. They take off into the night and vanish before either of the emissaries can pull away and search for the source of the gnawing sensation that they’re being watched.
No prying eyes are around when they stare at each other, fond and unguarded. Even Fate herself remains silent as their bonds shift and intertwine, looking away from her tapestry to smile warmly at the nothing.
Taako and Kravitz only look back at each other once when they part to leave. Kravitz only stops to admire Taako as he gets into an argument with his sister about respecting his privacy, umbrella held high and vase close to his chest. Taako turns while Lup goes on about how he just had to hear about the bullshit Angus just pulled to make sure Kravitz has an umbrella. He bursts into laughter when he sees him running across the street with his vase held over his head, shouting curses to the night sky. Then he turns, walks down the street in the opposite direction from Kravitz, and waves off Lup's questions about what's so funny to him.
Neither of them knowing they were truly alone together for the first time since they were called to action, in those few moments.
Neither of them caring.
A vase. You will come upon this naturally, or so says what little I could pry from Istus’s tapestry. She does so like to keep the important parts from me, and I could not love her more for it.
This update was a little bit hard for me to write since I usually focus on the adventure side of my works instead of the romance, but I'm really proud of how it turned out! Sorry for it taking so long, though; school recently started up and it's a little more difficult to get the chapters punched out when all my schoolwork keeps aggravating my tennis elbow.