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Magnus was having an unbelievably bad day.

It had started as most unbelievably bad days do--as an unbelievably bad night. He tossed and turned in his bed for what seemed like hours, caught in the limbo between nightmare-filled sleep and agonizing, vivid consciousness. His skin felt itchy and tight on his body, as if it was forced to stretch just a few inches too far to cover his bones, and he tossed and turned in a futile attempt to escape the feeling. He would kick the covers off, and then decide he missed the grounding weight of the blankets and pull them back around his shoulders, only to change his mind when he’d start to sweat. Wash, rinse, repeat, ad infinitum--until finally the first rays of light breached through his dusty window, giving him an excuse to leave his bed without being questioned about the early hour.

But bad nights were just bad nights, he’d try to tell himself. Magnus wasn't a stranger to them. They come and they go, and all he could do was get up the next morning and do his best to move on and function like a normal human being.

Which is why it was so frustrating when he finally stumbled out of bed and he couldn't shake the feeling of the horrendous pit in his stomach, like someone had somehow shoved a bowling ball down his throat in the middle of the night.

What did normal people do in the morning again? He was having a hard time remembering, his lack of sleep apparently not strong enough to stave off the fuzzy grogginess that was universally agreed to be associated with mornings. Brushing his teeth was probably a good first step. Magnus raised his arms above his head as he stretched out his aching muscles, and a stray whiff of body odor told him a shower was probably in order as well.

The ten foot walk to the bathroom was long and perilous. He had barely made it halfway to his goal before he stubbed his toe against some miscellaneous stray object on the ground, a string of curses caught on the hitch of his breath. “Shit, fuck, gods damn it,” he managed, the throb of his heartbeat sending pulses throughout his entire foot. God, of course that would happen to him this morning. Spectacular.

The time spent in the bathroom was no better. Magnus spent an embarrassing amount of time on a losing battle with an almost-empty bottle of toothpaste, eventually giving up and throwing it into the wastebin and retreating into the shower--only to discover that someone had used up the rest of the hot water (Taako, probably, his brain helpfully supplied, and Magnus had to forcefully clench and unclench his fists to swallow the bitter taste that was suddenly in his mouth).

So instead of the nice, steamy, relaxing shower that Magnus had envisioned melting the ache from his shoulders like hot wax, he got five minutes of rushed scrubbing, chattering teeth, and goosebumps popping up on every square inch of his body.

Whatever. This was fine. Just absolutely peachy. Magnus inhaled sharply from between his clenched teeth, and his lungs felt stale.

After a quick pat-down with a towel to dry himself off and lazily deciding to just keep wearing the same sweats and t-shirt he had wore to bed (he just didn’t have the spoons at the moment to do much of anything else), Magnus gave in and allowed himself to look in the mirror.

It wasn't really something he indulged in often, besides making sure he didn't have the sideburn-equivalent of bedhead each morning--mostly, he couldn't care less. But circumstances were different since the last mission the Tres Horny Boys had been sent on, and ever since their return just a few days ago Magnus had been pointedly avoiding the reflection in the mirror.

Wonderland had left its mark on him, thats for sure; of course, it hadn’t let any of them go unscathed. Taako and Merle were as worse for wear as he was (especially Taako, he thought, vividly remembering a piece of machinery landing on him so hard it had squished him into another plane of existence).

And the look on The Director’s face when the three of them hobbled back to the moon base, Animus Bell in tow, would absolutely haunt him to his grave. It was as if someone had forced her to chug an entire gallon of soured milk that had been sitting in the hot sun all day. She knew first-hand of the dangers of such a place, but Magnus knew that there was something stomach-churning about seeing the aftermath of a disaster. The guilt on her face was simple and unmasked, but none of them had the energy to think twice about it. What was done was done.

(“Once you sacrifice something in Wonderland, you don't get it back,” the voice in Magnus’ head had taunted.)

In the end, the relic was properly destroyed, and that's all the mattered. The Director had quickly ordered the three of them to get patched up and to get some rest, as much as they could--there was still work to do.

She had caught Magnus’ eye before they departed, sad eyes hardening to something more disciplined. He knew what it meant, and the anxiety of that particular conversation happening almost made him wish he hadn't rushed in and taken down those two guards all that time ago. He didn't even get any information that he didn't already know, anyways, besides the fact that Pringles was innocent--but he was glad that The Director had the grace to give him a few days to recoup before slamming another curve ball at him. Considering the situation, he had almost expected to be thrown off the moon the second he stepped foot on the base, relics be damned. He'll take what he can get.

Magnus ran his fingers along his face, inspecting the dark bags under his eyes like deep bruises, the old familiar scar that ran like a trench across his nose, the grey hairs that peppered along the edges of his facial hair. God, he looked so different. Or did he? He never really paid attention to mirrors, before. But he felt different.

Old, he realized with a start. I feel old.

He hadn't lied to the elves (liches, he reminded himself, something of a knot settling in his gut). Not really, anyways; 32, 42, whatever. In the grand scheme of things, he's real lucky he's manage to live this long anyways. But there was a brittle feeling in his bones that he could have sworn wasn't there before, and the beginning of wrinkles where the laughter lines were supposed to reach his eyes.

He didn't feel like the person who set out on his own all that time ago. Would Julia even recognize him like this?

Magnus quickly splashed a punishing amount of water onto his face, as if he could wipe away the onslaught of thoughts that were bound to follow that one. Don't think about it, he reprimanded, but the seed was already planted, and the knot in his gut grew tighter.

Looking in the mirror, he felt his arm twitch, and a rush of emotions he couldn't identify shivered throughout his body. He wanted to… God, he didn't know, crack it, or something. He wanted to break the glass surface and make it stop doing... Doing whatever it was that was making him feel so antsy. Wanted that pathetic face in the mirror to stop looking at him like that, all sullen eyes and greying hairs.

It was all he could do to stop himself from decking an inanimate object and dooming himself to a bloody fist and seven years of bad luck, or whatever bullshit number broken glass gave him.

Maybe… Maybe he should hold off on looking into mirrors for a little while longer.

It took him a few minutes at the faucet, hands clutched desperately at the edge of the sink to balance himself--looking anywhere except his own reflection, steadily counting down from 1,000 to attempt to be calm--and when he finally managed to ward off a looming mental breakdown, he headed for the kitchen.

… And then Magnus somehow preceded to burn scramble eggs so bad that Taako would have started crying at the mere sight of them.

The smell of charred food stuck to his nose while he began to clean up, and any hunger that he did feel was washed away by a wave of nausea. “God,” he muttered, furiously scraping seared eggs off of the pan and into the garbage. “So pathetic, can’t even cook the most basic breakfast, fuckin’... Ugh.” A thick layer of what was now a sad excuse of an egg stuck to the pan, seemingly welded in it's spot as Magnus pressed harder, the metal spatula he was using creating sharp echoes that hurt his ears as he viciously tried to scrape at the base of the frying pan.

It was becoming increasingly obvious that the whole ordeal was a lost cause, and after a few minutes of little success and an excessively creative string of curse words muttered under his breath, Magnus threw the entire thing, burnt breakfast and frying pan and all, directly into the garbage--perhaps with more force than necessary, he realized, as the objects made a deafening ‘clang’ with the trash already at the bottom of the bin.

To hell with it. Who gives a rip? Not Magnus, nope. And just to clarify how much of a rip he did not give, he gave the trash bin a swift kick, indenting the side just a bit, and he only winced a little when he realized he had done it with the same foot that he had stubbed earlier.

God. This wasn't… This wasn't fair. He hadn't even been out of bed for more than an hour yet, and Magnus was on the verge of holding back a second mental breakdown--one more, and he’d win some sort of B.O.B. Bingo. What the hell was his whole deal? He felt almost jittery, as if someone had hooked a battery directly to his spine and sent him into maximum overdrive. And it wasn't even the good, productive type of energy that he was so familiar with; he felt anxious and impulsive, unable to stop himself from throwing the burnt pan, unable to stop himself from kicking apart the trash, and currently unable to stop himself from pulling at his hair, doubling over and shouting out in a quick and anguished yelp.

Most of all, Magnus felt violent, which wasn't something he was used to feeling--and it almost scared him. This wasn't like him, not even when he's wielding Railsplitter in the heat of battle; every attack is considered before action is taken, even if it's a spur of the moment thing. But now? Magnus can't even guarantee he won't deck the next person who comes through his door.

He knows he's a big dude--taller than most at the Bureau, chest built like a sturdy brick wall, muscles and callouses that spoke for themselves--but at heart, he was a lover, not a fighter. He tried hard to not be an imposing figure over his peers, always doing his best to work that Rustic Hospitality of his to be the gentle giant they all know and love.

Which is why he couldn't… He couldn't do this, whatever this emotion was. An unsuspected punch coming from an irrational and destructive Magnus could be a real bruiser, and he’d feel bad for weeks--not to mention the very real possibility of his actions further opening a rift between himself and the Bureau. (The Director already didn't trust him, and boy, at the moment he couldn’t even bring himself to feel offended because Magnus was having a hard time trusting himself.)

He swallowed hard. He figured that he just needed to do something he was good at, something easy to take his mind off things--and when he was done, he could try the whole breakfast thing one last time.

Except when Magnus found himself at the couch, a block of wood in one hand and an old knife in the other, the only thing he was able to do successfully was angrily chip off large chunks of nonsense. He had set out to make another wooden duck, but something--his fingers, they weren't working. He felt clumsy and unbalanced and the nub where his pinky finger used to be taunted him, something of a phantom limb playing tricks on his mind as he tried to work the knife around to carve down the grain of the wood.

If he was in his right mind he probably would have wondered if this was how Merle felt all the time, but as it was Magnus was having a hard time trying to keep his jaw unclenched, reminding himself to stop grinding his teeth every few minutes.

So screw the duck. He had a billion of them, anyways. At the moment, Magnus was content (he wasn’t) to just shave the thing into oblivion, as if every nick with his knife helped curb the edge off of his bad mood (it didn’t).

“Wow,” a familiar voice said from the doorway. “You're really showing that thing who's boss, huh?”

A twitch down his spine, a sickening tug in his gut, both of which Magnus did his best to ignore. “Yeah,” he grunted, acknowledging Taako’s presence with the same breath he used to communicate that he wasn't in the mood for whatever dicking around Taako was gonna try to rope him into. Magnus flicked his wrist, and a wooden shaving flung across the room.

Of course, either Taako didn't pick up the vibe Magnus was putting out, or he just didn't care. Magnus still hadn't lifted his eyes away from his work, but he could see Taako in his peripheral, lounging around in the kitchen and stealing some grapes from the fridge before hopping up onto the counter to sit. “Smells like shit in here, dude.”

“Does it,” Magnus retorted, tone flat.

“Sure does,” Taako said, undeterred. “Like someone doused you in gasoline and then set fire to your sideburns.” He popped a grape into his mouth, chewing thoughtfully before his eyes landed on the mess of the trash bin. “Hooooo,” he breathed out, turning his entire body to face Magnus. “Now there's a story. What happened there?”

None of your business, he almost retorted, catching himself at the last second. He swallowed the words in his mouth before they could escape, and it burned the back of his throat like a bad shot of whiskey.

“Nothing,” Magnus finally choked out, the word cutting the air like his knife. Another sliver of wood flung across the room where a small pile was starting to form. “Nothing,” he tried again, trying to hide the bile coating his tongue. “An accident. Doesn't matter.”

Magnus heard the ‘pop’ as Taako sucked another grape into his mouth. “Forgot to put butter in the pan, huh?”

Magnus stopped hacking away at the wood block to drop his hands into his lap in exasperation. He sighed heavily, his shoulders caving in on himself, finally turning his gaze to meet Taako’s--and for a second, he was genuinely surprised to see The Real Taako. That is to say, he had tons of his usual makeup on, but there was no use of magic to hide his now-average features. The sight sobered Magnus up a little--Taako felt safe enough around him to not feel the need to hide something Magnus knew he was self-conscious about, and it made Magnus feel immediately bad for giving him the cold shoulder.

He tried for a smile. He's honestly not sure how well he managed it, but he knew Taako would appreciate the gesture.

“Can I help you with something, or did you just come to ridicule my cooking skills?” The words fell out with a little more bite than Magnus meant to release, but when he opened his mouth to try again with something a little more teasing, Taako just waved him off.

“What, I’m not allowed to just come by and see what fun stuff my friends are up to?” He slinked off the counter and sauntered over to the couch where Magnus was sitting, plopping down with a ‘hmph’ and loosely tossing an arm around Magnus’ shoulder. “Your cooking is atrocious, though.”

“No shit,” Magnus said, refocusing on the block of wood that had, at this point, been whittled down to almost nothing. He could feel Taako staring.

“Hey, Mags,” he started, poking a finger at Magnus’ unshaven face. “Have you slept, like, at all? You're lookin’ a little rough around the edges, which you know is totally a good look on you, but the eyebags are killin’ it.”

“I, uh. Maybe?” He honestly didn't know how to answer that. The last few nights had been rough, sure, but he felt pretty confident that he had gotten at least a few hours of much-needed rest--the kind of rest that was evasive and exhausting to chase and left him more tired than he had when he’d gone to bed, but rest was rest. “Doesn't matter, it’s fine. I’m fine.” Flick, and another wood shaving flew.

Magnus could hear Taako hum slightly from his chest, continuing to poke at Magnus’ skin wherever he could reach. He recognized it as an attempt to comfort him somehow, small pats and prods of simple touch that Magnus usually craved more than anything else. But currently it was just rubbing him the wrong way, making Magnus feel even more anxious and jittery, and Gods was that frustrating because attention from Taako of all people was as rare as he was aloof. He knew Taako didn’t do the whole ‘affection’ thing with people, knew that what he was giving Magnus now was a rare gift, and here Magnus was, overstimulated and fidgeting uncontrollably and desperately wishing he could just stop existing. Angry at the world for putting him in this situation. Angry at Taako for being so nice when he couldn’t appreciate it, didn’t deserve it. Angry at himself for being angry in the first place. Angry, frustrated, all clenched fists and curled toes and pulling at his hair, all at once.

Magnus clenched his teeth and inhaled deeply through his nose. Flick, flick, flick. Maybe he sacrificed more in Wonderland than he had thought. Maybe he had gotten rid of his ability to be a good person, to be a good friend, and all he had left was all that buzzing negative energy that he couldn't quite shake. It felt like he had been doing nothing but breathing in that dark smoke--and at that thought, his lungs instinctively spasmed shut to push all the air out of him, and suddenly Magnus felt light-headed and dizzy and pathetic all over.

Another shaky breath. Clenching his eyes shut until all he could see was stars. Flick, flick, flick with his wrist, using much more forced than necessary. Taako’s hand was still on his shoulder, more tense than it had been earlier, and Magnus still had the presence of mind to feel agitated by the weight of it. He felt like a firecracker and Taako was one small quip away from setting him off.

Flick, and then red. Magnus almost dropped his knife from the surprise of it, with the stream of blood coming from his left index finger pulling him back to reality. A clean slice with his knife where his fingerprint was, deep enough to allow a steady drip to fall to the floor, staining the carpet.

And the sting of it felt good, almost. Magnus knew pain--he was familiar with it, often choosing to take on it’s blows and carry the weight of it rather than let others suffer. And in this moment it felt grounding, even, taking the edge off the restless anxiety he was experiencing. It was a good reminder, that he was all flesh and blood, and wasn't just a manifestation of that dark, suffering energy he had come to hate so much in Wonderland. That he was in his own body, not floating away in the ethereal plane and not inhabiting an unfeeling mannequin. He was real. He was real, and living, and making a goddamn mess on the floor.

Taako let out a low whistle through the gap in his front teeth. “Hoooo, easy there, big boy.” He slowly reached for Magnus’ hand, his small manicured hands contrasted to Magnus’ big calloused ones. With his thumb, Taako tentatively pressed against the skin below the slice, watching as he caused a small fountain of blood to pump out. “Oh, yuckers. You done got yourself good.” And then he wrapped his hand around the base of Magnus’ bleeding finger, squeezing hard in an attempt to slow the blood flow. “I thought you were supposed to be good at carpentry, yeah?”

“Whoops,” Magnus managed, but there was no feeling behind it. The pain was already ebbing, being replaced by the dull feeling of his pulse in his finger, and any relief that came with the sting went along with it. He was floating again, behind his own body, completely numb to everything as he fell backwards into a rift, swallowed up by oil and never to be seen again.

“Well, you oughta be more careful, broski. Can’t afford to lose another finger, am I right?”

And for some reason, that's what did it. Suddenly Magnus was spinning, his whole worldview denting dramatically as he tried to fumble with the extreme amount of pure, raw emotion he was suddenly experiencing. The arm that Taako was not holding clenched in on itself, gravity slamming it down in a movement that would have made the perfect amount of clatter had he been sitting at the kitchen table; as it was, all he succeeded to do was jam the hilt of his knife into the top of his thigh, causing the beginning of what he knew to become a dark bruise.

Taako flinched at the sudden movement, and Magnus hated himself. The last thing he ever wanted to do was scare the elf, but at the moment he could barely control his own movements, and he felt wild and dangerous and just on the brink of unhinging himself--like a cloud of static.

Magnus tugged himself away from Taako’s grasp, and without the pressure that Taako was providing to his cut finger, he began to bleed at full force again. Standing up, he set the knife and whittled wood aside, retreating toward the hallway that led to his bedroom. “Sorry,” he muttered, reaching his non-bleeding hand up to tug at his hairline. “I can’t… I can’t. Everything is too much right now. I’m not…” The words felt lost on his tongue, and Magnus let them get away from him. It took too much brainpower to form a cohesive thought, let alone a single sentence. He finally settled on, “I need to be alone,” turning away from Taako to go sulk in his room.

“Wait, Mags,” Taako said from behind him, and Magnus stifled a groan. He didn't have the energy for this, why couldn’t Taako just leave him alone?

“What,” he deadpanned, turning to look at Taako once more. He looked… Worried? Hesitant, maybe. He was standing now, eyebrows scrunched up, arms held loosely around himself, biting his lower lip. Insecure. It wasn't a look Magnus was used to seeing on him, and the whole wrongness of it made Magnus’ stomach churn, knowing that he was the one who is making him look like that. (Bad person, bad friend, bad, bad, bad.)

“I changed my mind,” Taako rushed in one breath, seeming as if he was talking before he could decide against it. “I do need something.”

“Wait, what?” Magnus spurted out, feeling legitimately lost, as if he had just skipped a few lines of important dialogue.

“Yeah. You asked earlier if you could help me with anything, and I just remembered that I do. Need help, that is.”

Despite himself, Magnus found himself thinking ‘I’ll say you need help’, but refrained from saying it aloud. Taako rarely outright asked for anything, usually opting to just take for himself and ask questions later. That, paired with the completely serious tone in his voice, was enough for Magnus to swallow his agitation long enough to treat the situation as patiently as he possibly could at the moment.

“Listen, Taako, you know I’m usually all about helping a brother out, but can this, like… Wait? Now isn't a good time.”

“No-pe,” Taako responded, heavily popping his lips on the ‘p’. “Unfortunately not. And I’m ordering, not asking. Let’s go.” He reached forward and caught Magnus’s wrist with his slender hands, tugging him towards the door with surprising force.

Magnus let out a groan. “Taako,” he warned, trying to pull himself free. “Seriously, this isn--”

“Don’t make me cast levitate on you, my man,” Taako interrupted, pointing a finger at him accusingly. “You know I’ll do it.”

And he would, is the thing. Magnus didn't doubt that for a second. And he’d rather not get pulled around like a helpless human balloon, so he really didn't have a choice in the matter. Defeated, he let his muscles slack, allowing himself to be pulled to the whims of whatever Taako had planned.

Apparently, what Taako had planned was… Training? Magnus couldn't even pretend to understand what was going on in that head of his most of the time, but now he felt exceptionally confused as Taako pulled Magnus towards the other end of the moon base where the training dome was. Gods, if this is what was so important to Taako that it had to be dealt with immediately, Magnus was gonna lose his shit.

Sure enough, the entered the training dome, and Magnus blinked as he accommodated to his new surroundings. The dome didn't look any different than it usually did, with different kinds of weapons hanging on racks on the walls and landing mats on the floor to cushion some intense falls. There was the new addition of obstacles to work around, such as false walls, which Magnus vaguely remembers Carey mentioning to help improve his Rogue training.

But the thing that really caught his attention were the mannequins in the room, targets painted bright red on all their chests.

It sent an involuntary shiver through Magnus, and he tensed enough that even Taako stopped dragging him across the floor to give him a glance. Magnus knew they weren’t mannequins, but test dummies, magically enhanced to take several blows of a training recruit. They've always been there, since before the THB had even joined the B.O.B., but their presence now was almost hollowing. The disconcerting feeling of numbness started to creep across Magnus’ skin, and suddenly he couldn't breathe.

He pulled his arm away from Taako, who lessened his grip and willingly let him go. Magnus curled his arms in on himself, wringing his arms together, and--and the cut on his finger had already scabbed over, and Magnus hastily started picking at the skin, searching for that small prick that would chase the numbness away, make him feel solid again. “Taako,” he started, rolling his fingers over themselves, desperate for the feeling. “I don’t understand, why are w--”

Taako immediately interrupted, stepping in the empty space between them. “Hit me.”

“I--excuse me?” Magnus stammered.

“Did I fucking stutter?” Taako asked, prodding an aggressive finger at Magnus’ chest. “I said hit me.”

Magnus tried to step backwards, away from Taako, away from this situation, but Taako stayed on his toes. “Taako, have you gone crazy? I’m not going to hit you, I ca--”

“Your sideburns are stupid,” Taako said suddenly, digging his fingernail into Magnus’ shirt. His face was all contorted, an angry snarl unlike any expression Magnus had ever seen on him before. Taako wasn't a large person, but he must have rolled a high number because never before had he seemed so intimidating. Magnus felt completely out of his element, like the floor had fallen out from beneath him, and Taako was quickly backing him up towards a wall.

“Your woodcarvings are atrocious, and you always smell like wet dog,” Taako continued to spit, finger still pressing deeper and deeper into him. “Your voice is loud and obnoxious and you break everything you touch. You can't even cook eggs correctly.”

Tears threatened to surface in his eyes, and Magnus could feel the heat rushing into his face and across his chest where Taako pressed accusingly against him. His nerves were practically buzzing with energy, but Magnus was too blindsided by this unpredictable turn of events to even comprehend exactly what he was feeling--shock, he recognized first, but anger quickly took its place, and it was taking every ounce of self-determination he had to control himself.

“Taako, stop it,” he choked out, his throat suffocating the words.

A firm blast to his chest surprised him, pushing him back a few feet as he tried to catch himself from stumbling over. His hands shot up to clutch to his shirt, and he could feel his heart beating frantically through the fabric. He knew the spell, but wasn't aware that Taako could cast Magic Missile without the Umbrastaff. The bolts had come from his fingers, greatly weakening the spell’s typically lethal strength, but the message behind it was still clear.

Taako didn’t even blink. “You're worthless,” he pushed, stepping back into Magnus’ personal bubble to continue prodding at him. “Always in the way. You’re selfish and impossible to work with and the only reason anyone puts up with you is because that bracelet physically forces us to interact with you, an--”

“Taako,” Magnus warned, voice low and rough and one crack away from completely breaking. He forced his arms out to press firmly against Taako’s shoulders, pushing him backwards and gaining a few more inches to breathe in.

“Coward,” Taako spat, fighting against Magnus’ reach.

“Stop it,” Magnus croaked.

Magnus could see another Magic Missile start to fizzle on his fingertips. “Hit me.”

No.”

Surprisingly enough, the magic Taako was summoning started to falter, and for a hopeful moment Magnus thought he had gotten the upper hand--but then Taako’s eyes glazed over, and his upper lip twitched, and he looked so incredibly dark.

“How are you supposed to protect those who matter to you,” he spoke, his voice void of emotion, “when you couldn't even protect your wife.”

The next thing Magnus felt was the familiar feeling of skin on skin as his fist connected to Taako’s face with a sickening crunch.

Everything felt blurry and disconnected, and for the second time that day Magnus’ entire world felt shifted and wrong. All he could feel was the absolute rage running through his veins like adrenaline, blinding himself from his actions and his surroundings--he could hear Taako, but it was like he was at the other end of a tunnel, distant and almost incomprehensible.

He swung again; he wasn’t really sure at what, but he had to do something, had to move, had to kick and fight and rip something’s arms off. His fist made contact again, but it wasn’t as satisfying as the first, no cracks under his knuckles--and perhaps even more frustratingly, he could hear Taako at the end of that tunnel, practically laughing. It was pained and twisted and sounded all kinds of wrong, like a cat with a broken leg, but the sentiment was still there. He thinks this is all a joke.

“You weren’t there,” Magnus cried, willing the blurriness out of his vision. He tried his best to focus on Taako, but rage made his vision red--or… Was that just Taako? Magnus clenched and unclenched his fists a few time, noticing the warm liquid that was there, and Taako--sure enough, Taako was there, nose bleeding profusely as he wiped it off with his sleeve, shit-eating grin plastered to his stupid face.

Magnus swung again.

Taako casted Blink just a split second before his fist could wipe that grin off his face. “You weren’t there!” Magnus yelled, filling the empty space in front of him with his words. He spun around desperately, waiting for Taako to reappear so he could rip him a new one. “You didn’t see it, the city--Ravenroost, it was--it was…!”

Gone. Something… Something had happened. What was it? Why couldn’t he--there was.... Static, buzzing in his ears, clouding his thoughts, pounding in his head, running through his body like electricity. Prickling, prickling, prickling through him, stabbing at his thoughts before they could fully form. He couldn’t remember, why couldn’t he remember? It was so important, how could he forget, Julia… Julia had died. Magnus inhaled sharply, choking on the air, voice wavering and weak. He bent over and tugged at his hair, pulled at it, needing the release of pressure it provided his scalp. Julia had died. Julia had died.

How?

Gone.

Three consecutive spells hit him again, this time from his back--Magic Missile again, but much, much stronger. The pain immediately erupted from from his spine, distracting him from the buzz of the static, and Magnus whipped around to face Taako, who was standing about 15 feet away and had somehow retrieved his Umbrastaff.

The grin wasn’t there now, but it didn’t matter. Magnus rushed in, throwing his arm back to gain momentum. He knew there was no possible way he was going to close the distance between them before Taako blinked away again, but he had to try, had to do something--

Taako, once again, blinked away at the last moment, and Magnus’ fist connected with a dummy, sending it flying through the air. The feeling was hollow and disappointing, with no weight to the contact at all. His hands flew up to his face, scratching at the skin in frustration, a deep “uuuurrrghgh” coming from his throat.

He could hear Taako unblink from somewhere behind him, and if he was going to say anything, Magnus wasn’t going to give him a chance. He swiveled around, miming a hard strike with his fist in the air, and with a brilliant blue light his Phantom Fist bashed Taako directly in the gut. The hit had sent him flying, and Magnus didn’t waste any time closing the distance between them. Before Taako could even fully recuperate from the blow, Magnus was on him, grabbing him by the lapels and hoisting him up into the air.

And now that Magnus had him cornered… He wasn’t exactly sure what to do.

Taako’s breath was labored, and blood was still dripping from his nose in spurts--but it wasn’t broken, and some part deep inside Magnus felt relieved. Taako’s hair was messy and wild from all the action, and his Umbrastaff was discarded somewhere across the floor when Magnus had sent him flying. His hands with his painted fingernails held onto Magnus’ wrists as he held him up, gripping tightly, almost…. Comfortingly, as he rubbed small circles with his thumbs into the veins.

The grin was still there, but softer than it had been. It wasn’t wicked or conniving, not like it was before, but relieved.

Magnus’ hands shook, his fingernails digging into the clothe of Taako’s bloodied shirt. He didn’t know what he wanted to do, what he should say in this situation, and the silence was starting to lean into uncomfortable territory.

“You asshole,” he finally managed, tightening his grip and squeezing his eyes shut.

He could feel Taako’s breath escape his mouth, a pained laugh, and it was warm on his nose. “I know,” he replied, voice low.

Magnus swallowed hard, mouth dry. “I care about you guys, and I--I can’t…” The words fell out of existence as he tried to think them, mind swirling too fast for him to keep up.

A gentle hand rose from Magnus’ wrist, moving towards his cheek. A thumb swiped at the tears there, and suddenly all the energy that Magnus had been so full of was gone, wiped away by a wave of exhaustion.

“I know,” Taako said again, barely a whisper.

The strength in Magnus’ arms gave out, and Taako fell the few inches he had been held up and landed shakily on his feet. Defeated, Magnus crumpled in on himself, falling slowly to the floor to wrap his arms around his knees, trying to center himself. Standing took too much energy, he decided, and he belonged on the floor with the rest of the dirt.

He felt a hand on his head, tentative at first. Magnus leaned into the touch, welcoming the small comfort it gave that he had so selfishly denied that morning. Soon, Taako knelt down to his level, fingers still threaded in his auburn hair, leaning up against his frame.

Magnus couldn’t look him in the eyes.

They sat there on the floor for a while, leaning against each other, Magnus’ head resting on Taako’s shoulder, until their labored lungs began to rest and they could once again breathe normally.

“I didn't mean any of those things that I said,” Taako finally whispered, breaking the heavy silence. His tone was calm to the untrained ear, but Magnus could hear the anxiety that bubbled beneath the usually aloof facade. It was as close to an apology Taako could ever hope to offer, given the circumstances.

“I know,” Magnus breathed, surprising himself--he knew that he probably should still be beating Taako down to a pulp with white fury for the shit he just pulled, but Magnus found that he just didn't have it in him. He was too exhausted, bone-deep where it ate him alive and hollowed him out. It was easier to just forgive and let it go.

Another several minutes of empty silence. Tears rolled from Magnus’ cheeks, dripping off of his nose and onto Taako’s shoulder, but it was a passive thing, something that Magnus couldn't control and Taako didn't mention. Every once in awhile they'd shift, easing closer and closer into each other's company, until Magnus had his face completely hidden in Taako’s neck and Taako had his arms fully wrapped around him; one hand still softly playing with his hair, the other rubbing circles into whatever skin it could reach.

Magnus could feel Taako open and close his mouth, obviously searching for something that kept evading him. “You know,” he began, voice hoarse and unsure, and Magnus could hear him swallow something down. It took him a few more moments to find the words, but when he finally spoke, his voice was even.

“Julia would be proud of you.”

Oh.

Magnus tensed, breath lodged in the back of his throat, as he fell into a torrent of emotions. He could feel it start at his chest and bloom outwards, reaching out into every corner of his body. It was like his chest was filled with a giant air bubble, a cavity that made him feel so incredibly full and yet so painstakingly empty all at once, and it left him feeling winded.

He pulled away from Taako, finally gaining the courage to meet his eyes. Sitting face-to-face, he could see all the damage he’d caused, and it made his stomach churn sickeningly. A dark purple bruise began to swell up under his eye, but the nosebleed had thankfully stopped. The dried blood was caked to his face, crusty and dark even compared to his dark complexion. But most prominent of Taako’s features was that look on his face, eyebrows scrunched up in worry and buck teeth nervously biting his bottom lip.

Magnus sighed, hard and heavy. “Taako, why did you… Why did you do all this?”

And maybe that was it, maybe the moment had been too tender, too raw, because suddenly Taako was back to his usual demeanor; aloof and uncaring. Magnus was amazed at how fast he could pull up that wall as Taako nonchalantly waved a hand in what was typically interpreted as ‘pshhh’ in body language.

“Please,” he began, but his eyes looked to the ceiling, avoiding Magnus’ critical gaze at all costs. “I know self-destructive behavior when I see it, my dude.” There was something there, unsaid by either of them, hidden under layers and layers of self-preservation that Taako practically depended on. He physically faltered for a moment, feign smile twitching uselessly, before he finally turned to look back at Magnus. “Look, there’s only room for one self-loathing asshole on this team, and the spots already got my name written on it in big flashing letters. T-double-a-k-o, bro.”

And suddenly, Magnus understood. Everything that had been tied up in knots in Magnus’ chest, it was like a broken bone that had healed wrong, all bent out of shape but still working in the most painful way. Taako saw it, because Taako knew it--that familiar pain of an old wound that was mended wrong, hastily bandaged over to survive the immediacy of the damage.

And in order to fix that old broken bone, he had to rebreak it--shout insults, dig at that hole in Magnus and make it even deeper, poke at every insecurity directly on the nerve until he physically couldn't take anymore and--snap.

Taako had risked a lot for him; he was willing to take the brunt of Magnus’ load so that Magnus didn't destroy himself in the process. Even if it meant losing their relationship along the way.

Magnus reached for Taako’s hand, squeezing it gently in his own. His throat hurt from all the yelling and all the crying, and his body ached from the blows he had sustained, but strangely enough he did feel better. He might even go the distance and say he felt okay; and, boy, that was a strange feeling for him, the okayness of it all. It settled in his gut, filling up just a little bit of that air bubble inside him. For now, it was enough.

Taako must have seen the change in demeanor, because the crease in his forehead softened out, relief plain in his eyes. “C’mon, big guy,” he said, pulling himself up off the floor, still hand in hand with Magnus. “Let’s clean that nasty snot off of you and try making those eggs again.”

A smile broke out against his face. “Yeah,” he agreed, letting himself be pulled up alongside Taako. “But only if we get to take a nap afterwards. You kicked my ass real good.”

Taako shifted, letting go of his hand in favor of hooking their arms together. “Hell yeah, my man. Don’t you forget it.”

----

Magnus had fallen asleep before Taako could even finish cooking the eggs. He looked... Different, when he wasn't awake. The lines under his eyes weren't as prominent, and his breath was more even and quiet. He seemed happier this way. Taako ran a few fingers through his thick hair, slowing as he admired the few silver strands that stood out against the usual rich color there.

Elves don't usually sleep, he reminded himself, but Taako was a selfish man. He could afford to use a few hours like this, wrapped up in the blankets, wrapped around Magnus’ body, wrapped up and lost in the warmth. It’d be good for Magnus. Good for himself.

They had earned this.

He closed his eyes, and allowed himself to rest.