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Oh have you seen my ghost?

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It was pathetic, how easily their follower allowed themselves to be heard coming. Honestly, just sloppy.

Not to mention, they’d done a terrible job picking targets, something that should be obvious even to the occasional uninformed ruffian who couldn’t recognize two local world-saving celebrities. Taako: clearly full to bursting with magical energy and never one to carry his weapons with any degree of subtlety. Angus: holding only books and chattering loudly enough that, even in the dim of the fading evening, everyone in a two-block radius knew he was there. They were neither easily beaten nor easily missed.

Taako had met much better thieves. Taako had been a better thief. Still, as it was...

“Hey Angus? Run up ahead and check on Magnus, yeah? I wanna make sure he’s not eating all the food in the house.”

Angus tensed beside him, sneaking a glance over his shoulder. Boy Detective must have noticed their shadow too. “Are you sure, sir? We’re not that far.” His hand closed around the fabric of Taako’s cloak, a childish gesture they would both deny.

“I’m sure.” He leaned down a little, planting a hand on Angus’ back to nudge him forward and speaking more softly near his ear. “I got this handled, bubbeleh. Rather not have to worry about you stepping on my feet while I’m doing it, though.”

Angus nodded reluctantly. His eyes darted around the street, taking in the details of the point where they separated, and then he took off running. He’d make the front door in five minutes. Taako heard the footsteps behind him hesitate only briefly, maintaining a steady pace that matched his own. Good.

Seriously, how did this dude not know they were in over their head? The whole broadcast-to-the-entire-universe thing had been pretty damn clear. Well, Taako thought, twirling the krebstar beneath his cloak, it was about to be a hell of a lot clearer.

He turned right onto the next street — a little quieter, a little less well-lit — and was unsurprised to hear the footsteps speed up. Predictable; they weren’t looking any more impressive with time. Just before they caught up behind him, Taako swung around fast, a spell sparking in his hands.

He didn’t plan to falter, but the light of the burgeoning spell cast a glow through the night and lit up the face of the person lifting a warhammer to strike.

“Sazed?”

It was a moment too long. The hammer swung into the side of his head and the light went out, and the ground rushed up to meet him.

 

 

 

 

He woke up in a shitty, dim room with no windows. His head was killing him.

For a minute, his thoughts swirled. Was he drunk? Had he gone home with someone? No, it couldn’t have been that, because he only went home with Kravitz now and this wasn’t their bedroom. He’d been out somewhere. With… Lup? No, wait, who was that? Oh, his sister, but he hadn’t been with her anyway, he’d been out with Angus. And then he’d sent him ahead because—

He shot upright, remembering the footsteps and the familiar face and the blow to the head. The point of impact throbbed sharply to protest his change in position and he swayed dizzily, bringing up a hand to cradle his head. But the other hand came too, because they were bound together at the wrists, and without anything left to prop him up he crumpled back to the floor with a thud. Altogether, it was fairly embarrassing.

“Whoa, take it easy.”

Fuck, no. Taako had been hoping, just a little bit, that his brain was still parsing out the details and he’d remembered wrong. But he knew that voice. He ignored it for the moment, mostly because he thought it best to take a second and actually evaluate the situation before getting up again, and maybe, a little, because sometimes that made things go away. There was something heavy on his ankle and he looked down to see a band of iron, welded to a short chain which wrapped around a wall post. Below that, his feet were bare.

“You took my fucking shoes?” he said, voice a bit more slurred than he would have liked, but steady enough, at least.

Sazed chuckled. “Hello to you, too.”

A hand reached out toward him, and he shoved himself back along the floor to get away. To his surprise, Sazed pulled back, looking vaguely upset as Taako pushed — more slowly this time — off the floor and settled his back against the wall. He swallowed twice to quell the nausea rising in his throat and breathed deeply. He was congratulating himself on that minor achievement when Sazed spoke again. “We need to talk.”

Taako genuinely had no idea how to answer that. Because what kind of person knocked someone out with a hammer, chained them to the wall, took their shoes, and then spoke like an old friend getting casually reacquainted? He didn’t know and he didn’t want to. He focused on what he was missing instead. Besides the shoes: his cloak, hat, the krebstar, the stone of far-speech that normally hung around his neck, his sense of balance, and, he realized as he brought his fingers down from the side of his head, an indeterminate amount of blood.

“Taako, please, I really need you to pay attention.”

Taako’s eyes snapped up, a snarl at his lips. “Well, gee, I wonder why I’m having trouble with that. Maybe because someone hit me in the head with a fucking hammer.”

Sazed sighed. “I’m sorry about that.”

What the fuck.

“I had to talk to you alone. And I need you to not just…” He gestured at the only door in the room. “Run off if you get upset.”

What the fuck.

Taako shook his head, trying to focus. Even without his wand, he had a few tricks up his sleeve, never entirely devoid of magic. Except, when he reached for the well of power within him, he came up dry. Nothing left, not even enough for a cantrip. He examined the band around his ankle more closely, and found several symbols carved deep into the metal. Ah.

Sazed tilted his head to the side. “So?” Like he was waiting for agreement.

There were three Sazeds swirling hazily in front of him, not just because his vision was fucked up. The one he spent a year and a half with, steady and attentive and happy. The one he’d never really seen, who hated enough to murder dozens of people. The one sitting there now, rash and pleading and completely incompatible with everything else Taako had thought he knew about him.

There was a certain dull numbness rising in his chest to replace the nausea. None of this felt entirely real. Okay, he’d sit here and listen to whatever Sazed had to say, because what the hell else was he gonna do? And then he’d... stand up and go home, or whatever, when the show was over. Something. He’d get to that part later.

“Alright.” He leaned back against the wall, trying (and failing) to make himself comfortable. “Let’s talk.”

Sazed smiled. “How have you been?”

“Oh, you know.” Taako circled a finger through the air. “Making new friends, saving the world, having sex with my amazing boyfriend, that kind of thing.”

“Right. I saw.”

Good, Taako thought, but at the same time, fuck, he didn’t want anything of his in this man’s head.

“Aren’t you going to ask me how I am?”

Taako sighed and thumped his head against the wall. Ow. “How are you, Sazed?” He thought it came out decently sarcastic, but Sazed continued like he hadn’t even noticed.

“Doing pretty alright, for a few years. I mean, I had to start over, but I did okay.” He nodded his head at the room around them. “Worked here for a few months, actually.”

‘Here’ was a room with no windows, an uncomfortable-looking bed to Taako’s left, a short dresser against the far wall, and a chair in the corner. “Um.”

“Out front, I mean. In the restaurant.” Like it was obvious, like Taako should have guessed. Y’know, from all the context clues. “This is just one of the back rooms. Owner let me stay here while I worked. I guess he never changed the locks.”

So, one of a hundred mediocre diners somewhere in the huge city, to which neither of them had any recent ties. Where nobody would think to look for either of them. Cool, cool. That was fine.

“But that was just temporary; you know I always wanted my own place. I was getting it started, over in Goldcliff? Had this great property, not too far from the main strip. They loved my cream puffs.” He sighed heavily. “Of course, it didn’t work out.”

He paused long enough to make it clear he was waiting for something. Taako closed his eyes briefly, took a deep breath. “Why?”

Sazed leaned a little closer, propping his chin on his hand. “Because one day, your sister showed up. You never told me you had a sister.”

It would be pointless, he assumed, to remind Sazed that he’d had the memory of his sister carved out of him at the time.

“She looked exactly like you.” (No kidding, Taako thought, and didn’t bother to resist the urge to roll his eyes.) “Sent my server up in flames, some crap about disturbing the natural order of life and death, or something, and it was nearly lunch hour, and then.” He frowned. “She turned into a skeleton and told me to leave town.”

Ohhhh, okay, it was coming back to him now: a conversation with Lup, a few months back. She’d told the story a little differently.

(“Ran into your ex today,” she said lightly, passing behind him to snag an apple from the counter.

He didn’t take his eyes from the batter he was stirring slowly, carefully, and only because Lup was there to watch every moment of the prep work. “Oh? Did you give him a kiss for me?”

Lup hummed an affirmative. “His nose has always been broken in like, three places, right?”)

“And I figured, that’s shitty, but I guess it’s fair turn-around.” Sazed kept talking, flow unbroken as Taako took a moment to admire the new and misshapen angle of his nose. “You lost a show; I lost a restaurant. Even. But they wouldn’t leave me alone.”

“They?”

“Your sister and her boy. And the other one. The creep in the robes.”

Taako bristled. “Fuck off. You don’t get to say anything about—”

“Kept following me everywhere. Every town. They killed my friend’s wife. What the fuck am I supposed to do about that?”

“Stop making friends with necromancers, maybe?” This story was getting weak, fast. His family was a lot of things, but Taako didn’t believe for a second they had taken it upon themselves to stalk his ex and murder people around him with no reason. Much more likely that Sazed had fallen in with the wrong crowd in the last few years. “Y’know, the entire universe doesn’t revolve around you, Sazed. Sometimes there’s other shit going on.”

“I read up on these guys, okay? I know their deal.” His brow furrowed. He shifted on his knees, and was suddenly several inches closer. Taako jerked back without really meaning to, but there wasn’t anything except wall behind him. “Once they pick a target, they can track them down anywhere. And I don’t know how you got mixed up with all this reaper shit, but, apparently they listen to you. If you put in a good word for me…”

Taako stared at him. “Are you serious? You want to negotiate your way into their good graces and you thought this,” he raised his bound hands to emphasize the point, “was a good idea?”

“I told you, I just needed you to stay still for five Gods-damned minutes! Look.” He took a breath. “I got a buddy down south with a farm. Nice town, good market, fresh vegetables. You’ll never see me again.”

The idea that they’d both stand up calmly and go their separate ways after this was ridiculous. It was impossible. There was no way. But, ‘never see me again’... Damn, that sounded good.

“Yeah,” he said finally. “Guess we got a deal.” He shrugged, leaning back into the wall and trying to ignore that frustratingly familiar feeling of letting something awful run right back out into the world. Oh, well. This wasn’t much different than what he’d been doing before, was it? Ignore the problem and wait for the genetic differences in their relative species’ lifespans to take care of it for him?

Sazed let out a long breath, smiling crookedly in relief. “And you’ll tell them to leave me alone?”

“Yeah, yeah.” Tell ‘em to stop being so fucking obvious, more like. Lup had always had a problem with drama. “Look, that whole ‘judgement’ schtick is mostly bullshit, anyway. There are all these great, big, Gods-written rules about what happens when you die. You aren’t gonna end up in the Eternal Stockade just ‘cause someone has a grudge.”

“Oh.” Sazed waved an unconcerned hand through the air. “That won’t be a problem.”

And Taako shouldn’t have gotten stuck on it, because frankly nothing Sazed had said had made much sense so far, and he was leaning back on his heels now, comfortable and content and obviously ready to bring this conversation to a close, but. “Won’t be a problem?”

“I told you I’d keep my distance. Astral plane is their territory. I’ll stay on my side.”

Taako cocked his head to the side. “Okaaaayyy, but you’re gonna kick it eventually, dude. The astral plane isn’t just reaper town; everything cycles through.”

Sazed shook his head, as if he thought he could, what, keep himself alive through sheer force of will? “I took precautions. My soul is bound to my body, now. I’ll stay on my side.”

Oh.

Like a picture-perfect crystal-drop prophecy, Taako saw the way it should’ve gone: he watched himself laugh. Watched himself say, oh, okay, no worries then, see you never. Watched Sazed unlock the chain so that Taako, full to the brim with magic once again, could burn off the rope, grab his hat and walk right out with a friendly wave. He saw himself keep walking until he hit home, where he pulled Kravitz into a hug and hey, babe, you’ll never fucking guess what just happened. This time tomorrow and Sazed would be locked up in ghost jail. Wham, bam, end of story. Happy endings all around.

Instead, because despite a thousand lessons to the contrary Taako had never learned how to keep his mouth shut:

“Holy shit, dude, you’re so fucking screwed.”

It probably wasn’t just this one thing. It was probably a long time coming. It was headaches and nightmares and his friends’ unprompted concern and ten-year-old Angus taking mass murder in stride because he knew the world was that fucked up and the look on Lup’s face when he tried to cook with her the first time back and she caught his hands shaking.

He couldn’t stop laughing.

“You— You’re running from reapers, so you do the one thing that’ll piss ‘em off more than anything else?” He giggled helplessly into his hands, wiping away a stray tear that leaked out from the sheer strength of the feeling. This was possibly the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard, and he’d had Magic Brian invite him to his wedding in the middle of a fight to his second death. “How stupid are you? No, don’t even answer that, don’t strain yourself. You just. Holy shit.”

Through his somewhat compromised vision, he saw Sazed frowning. “I know it’s an unusual solution, but nothing here is exactly normal, Taako.” He shook his head. “Just my luck to have history with the one elf to claw his way into death’s favor.”

“My guy, you are just not getting this. You were fine before. You were fine. I mean, a murderer and a total shitbag, but all that? Not really in a reaper’s jurisdiction.” Taako wiped his cheeks clear again, trying to tone down the laughter long enough to get the words out. “But you just signed your own damn soul away.”

Sazed’s gaze hardened. “We have an agreement.”

“Not gonna happen. I have only ever seen a handful of people actually deal their way out of ghost jail, and you?” He looked Sazed up and down, this incredibly ordinary mortal who had once been the only thing in the world he could count on. Not anymore. “You are just not that special.”

A hand slammed down onto the floorboards directly beside Taako. He glanced up; Sazed was pissed. Like, extremely motherfucking pissed off. Zero to a hundred in two seconds flat. At least that was something familiar. “The only reason I’m in this mess in the first place is because of you. You can tell them to leave me be.”

“No can do, boy-o. You’ve worked yourself into a corner, here.”

“You can.”

“But I won’t.” All traces of laughter were gone, now. He glared at Sazed, looking down at him as much as possible from his position against the wall. “You deserved this long before you broke the letter of the law; you just finally caught yourself up to it. Like fuck am I getting in the way of that kind of justice.”

“I don’t deserve to be hunted down like an animal and—”

“You killed forty fucking people, Sazed!”

“That was an accident.”

“Oh yeah, right.” Taako snorted. “Because it’s so much better that you were only trying to murder your boyfriend.”

Sazed’s entire face softened, anger draining away so suddenly it was almost alarming. “I’m sorry.”

Yes, it was definitely alarming. “You're what.”

“I get… impulsive,” he said sheepishly, like a man admitting to bringing home a dog without his husband’s permission. “It was stupid, and then I didn’t know what to do, after, but I shouldn’t have just bailed on you.”

“Thank fuck you did.” Taako knew, within a reasonable margin of error, what would have happened if Sazed hadn’t left. Someone else would have died. Maybe another crowd of bystanders, or maybe, with a little luck, Sazed himself. More likely, it would’ve been Taako. Hard to mess up that badly twice.

“Look, I get that you’re still mad, but c’mon, babe…” His hand came up to brush against Taako’s cheek, and, no longer blurred by a veil of anger, Taako had a sudden, visceral realization of how close they had gotten. “We were good sometimes, weren’t we?”

“Nope,” Taako said sharply, more in response to their proximity than the question.

Sazed rolled his eyes. “Your memory’s not that bad. Lemme fix this.” He rubbed his thumb in a circle around Taako’s cheekbone.

Fuck.” Taako flinched, digging his head back into the wall so hard it hurt and not gaining an inch of distance. “You know what? Okay, you’re right, let’s work through our shit. Why don’t you just sit down… over there, and we’ll keep talking.”

“Were we ever the kind of people who fixed things by talking?”

Taako raised his hands like a barrier between them. A hilariously ineffective barrier. He pressed against Sazed’s chest, willing his fingers to burn. Or freeze, or melt, or spark, or literally anything magical.

“We should’ve just done it this way from the beginning,” Sazed said, and, by a very loose definition of the term, kissed him.

“Don’t—” Taako ripped himself away, but Sazed followed and pressed their lips together again. It was awkward and hard and sharp when the edge of a tooth caught on Taako’s lip.

The world narrowed down and it was just Sazed, pressing in from every angle until he finally gave way to Taako’s squirming and moved his mouth down the side of his neck instead.

“S— Ah, Sazed, stop,” Taako gasped, suddenly needing deep breaths between every word. “This is— a very bad idea.” Sazed’s hand carded through his hair, which was abruptly missing its tie and falling out of the tight braid that Lup had done for him that morning. “The worst idea.”

Sazed laughed. “You always say that.”

“I mean it,” he warned, then gagged as his center of balance was jerked sharply to the side. One of Sazed’s hands had moved to his ear, pinching and tugging in way that in another context might have been playful (had been playful, several years and half a lifetime ago), but now, paired with his roiling disgust and probable concussion, it just sent his head spinning. He swayed dizzily and lost track of his words, focused only on which way was up.

“See? I know what you like,” Sazed crooned, mistaking the cause of his shocked silence. “We’ll both be in a better mood after we get this out of our systems.”

“I-I—” Taako stuttered, willing Sazed’s fingers to move away from his sensitive ear and somewhere else, anywhere else. “No, ’ll be in... terrible m-mood... you gotta stop righ’ now.”

He dropped consonants and his speech slurred, but Sazed dropped the hand from his ear and pulled back and Taako let out a shaky sigh into the blessed space between them. One breath, then two, then a hand grabbed his arm roughly and pulled, up and over.

His back hit the stiff mattress and Taako grunted as the chain was stretched to the end of its length, tugging at the skin of his ankle. It didn’t reach far enough for him to fit on the bed properly; his head stopped many inches below the top edge of the frame and his foot dangled off the end where the chain pulled taut. He hissed at the stretch when Sazed tried to rearrange them before giving up and running his hands along Taako’s sides.

“G-get off.”

He wanted to push back, shove Sazed’s heavy weight off him and onto the floor, but his body felt disconnected from his brain. His muscles were weak and slow, filled with a soft buzzing. His hands shook, and when he managed to get them near Sazed’s throat, they were grabbed and pressed into the mattress above his head. His legs… Where were his legs? He couldn’t feel them. He couldn’t remember how he got here.

There was a voice coming out of him but he didn’t think it was his. “Get off get off getoffgetoffgetoff…”

“Gods, sweetheart, you still haven’t learned how to shut up, have you? Just—” Sazed leaned over the side of the bed, searching around the floor. When he came back up, he had something in his hand, which he shoved into Taako’s mouth. The thing — something fabric — hit the back of his throat and Taako coughed and gagged. Sazed’s weight returned to cover Taako’s body and it was suffocating.

He knew Sazed’s hands were on him but he was losing track of where. Taako felt panic rising. What was going on? No, no, focus.

He had to focus. He wasn’t the best transmutation wizard in this or any other planar system for nothing. These sigils Sazed had dug up? Might block most magic, but they weren’t made to hold Taako.

He needed to breathe (sharp, shallow through his nose). Sazed was distracted (biting at Taako’s shoulder), his hands no longer on Taako’s (running up under his shirt). All he needed was a single spark of magic, something to break contact for a moment. Then… Sazed’s hammer was across the room, but he must have something on him, maybe a knife, that Taako could grab. Or maybe that first spark would break through the dam and he could just burn his way out. Whatever. Magic first.

Deep breaths, deep breaths. Eyes closed. There was power in his blood. There was energy in the air. Sazed’s hand was on his crotch— Fuck, no, focus. Block it out.

He found the dry well of magic in his chest. Breathe in.

Started digging for scraps. Breathe out.

Sazed’s fingers bruised his hips. Breathe in.

Something like thunder pounded in the distance. Breathe out.

There was a wordless yell. Breathe in.

A hint of warmth in his fingertips. Breathe—

When Sazed’s weight fell away from him, Taako was buried so deep inside himself that it took a few seconds for him to open his eyes. By the time he did, he found Kravitz peering down at him, stroking a gentle hand over his forehead and asking him please. Gods, it was a beautiful sight.

He blinked until it was real.

He brought his arms down and ripped the fabric out of his mouth in one satisfying motion. Ugh, it was a sock. Fucking gross.

“Fine,” he gasped up at Kravitz’s concerned face hovering inches from his own. “I’m fine. Get—”

A loud bang sounded from a few feet away and turned their attention to the fight happening across the room that was really too small to contain all of this. Merle was there, all three-and-a-half feet of righteous fury. He seemed to have been trading blows with Sazed, but once he’d gotten the man up against a wall, he must have decided to say fuck it and just start chucking fire at him. Sazed dodged one shot with a step to the left and a sharp curse, and leaned down to sweep his hammer from the floor.

Kravitz stood immediately, moving toward them, but in the moment before he got there, Sazed swung his hammer down to crash into the floorboards. A wave of energy burst out from the point of impact.

It was enchanted, Taako realized; probably a gift from one of those friends that Lup and company had been after. He felt a little better about going down in one hit, earlier. This time, he lowered his arms to find himself entirely unmoved, though Merle and Kravitz had both been blown back against the opposite wall. He frowned and pushed himself upright. How… Ah, he thought, as the chain gave another tug to protest his movement. Shit, this no-magic anklet had its perks after all.

Sazed lifted the hammer from the floor, took one step forward, and dropped it again. Another burst of energy pinned his opponents to the wall, but Taako felt barely a breeze.

“See?” Sazed said, loud above the crashing as he moved another foot closer and swung again. “I told you they had a grudge.” Another step, another slam of that hammer. How much juice did that thing have? Too much for Merle and Kravitz to recover in between blasts, but Taako didn’t have that problem. His range was limited, though.

If Sazed would just get a little closer…

“Why can’t you just—” Another blow. “Leave me alone.” Sazed took one more step, raised the hammer, and Taako leapt from the bed.

It wasn’t very impressive; he mostly just shoved himself to the floor and reached out as far as he could, but his fingers closed around Sazed’s ankle and he pulled, hard. Sazed stumbled. He didn’t go down, but neither did his hammer.

Sazed snapped his foot back and Taako had to drop his hold when the boot connected with his face. He heard a crunch and cupped his hands around the blood that started gushing from his nose. Sazed turned back to face the others, but it was already too late. Taako felt the tell-tale burst of two simultaneous spells going off, and he ducked his head to the floor as Sazed went flying backwards. There was a dull thud.

Taako twisted awkwardly on the ground, unwilling to let Sazed out of his sight for more than a moment. But when he found the body on the ground, gaze blank and blood seeping into a pool around his head, Taako sighed and let his eyes close.

Okay. Okay.

He pressed his forehead to the floorboards and breathed until careful hands touched his shoulders.

“Taako?”

“Yeah,” he answered, leaning into the hands until they held him more firmly, helped lever him up. “‘M good.” He didn’t bother trying to find the bed or the wall, just tilted right into Kravitz’s side. His nose was bleeding, he remembered. It was probably getting on Kravitz’s shirt. “I’m okay.”

“Okay,” said Kravitz, not believing but soothing nonetheless. His hand brushed Taako’s hair back, searching his head for injury. “How bad is it?”

“Good job tracking me down, by the way. Gold star.”

“Of course. Taako.” He stilled his hand, waiting until Taako met his eyes. “How bad?”

Taako shook his head, which only made room spin a little bit. “Bruises. It’s fine.”

“You’re bleeding.”

“Nice observation.” Taako patted his leg. “Is that the kinda detective work that got you—” He stopped, straightened up sharply. “Fuck. Angus. Where’s Angus?”

Kravitz frowned. “He’s outside with Magnus. Do you want us to call—”

“Gods, no,” Taako scoffed. “In no way does he need to see this.”

“He’ll want to see you’re okay.”

“Well, then he can wait five minutes until I actually look it. Hey, help me out, here?” He raised his hands from his lap, offering them to Kravitz.

Kravitz reached into the air with the arm that wasn’t supporting Taako’s weight and summoned his scythe from a wisp of smoke. As he brought it down, it changed smoothly into a short dagger that cut through the rope like butter.

“Thanks.”

“Merle,” Kravitz called over his shoulder, banishing the blade once more. “Come here.”

Merle looked up and moved away from Sazed’s body to kneel down beside them. “He the only one?”

Taako blinked at him. “What?”

“Was there anyone else?”

“Oh.” No, embarrassingly enough, it hadn’t taken anything more than one human with a hammer. “No.”

“Good.” Merle lay a hand on Taako’s arm and murmured a prayer. Nothing happened.

Kravitz cleared his throat.

Merle looked at him again, confused. “So… hey, I swear I just used a healing spell. I’m not being stingy; got plenty of slots and everything.”

Taako gave a short laugh and shook his head tiredly. “Na, my man, this one’s not on you. I’m kind of a no-magic zone right now.” When Merle only raised an eyebrow at the statement, Taako reached down to tap the sigils on the iron around his ankle.

The hand on Taako’s shoulder tightened. Taako patted his boyfriend’s chest comfortingly.

“Uh, yeah. Gimme a minute.” Merle squinted and bent over the cuff.

“Chin up, babe. You’re lookin’ a little grim.” Taako grinned at his own joke. “I told you, it’s all good now.”

Kravitz cupped his face in one hand and ran a thumb along his cheekbone. It was nice, and Taako nearly protested when he lifted away, but he was only moving to the other side, brushing his fingers just below the eyeline, and… Fuck.

Fuck, he was crying, wasn’t he?

Taako raised a shaking hand to his face as Kravitz pulled him closer, leaned in to speak softly in his ear. “I’ve got you.”

He buried his head in Kravitz’ shoulder until he heard a satisfying clink and the chain fell from his ankle. This time, Merle’s prayer came with a warm glow that chased away his body’s aches.

“Damn, that’s good,” Taako sighed, hoping he looked more composed this time around. “You fixed my nose up straight, right? ‘Cause I don’t think the crooked look works on me.”

Merle rolled his eyes. “You’re welcome.”

“Hey, you want me to say thank you? Find my shit; I know it’s here someplace.”

Grumbling, Merle heaved himself up and started opening drawers and checking under furniture.

Kravitz pulled back, but only an inch. “Do you want to stand up?”

“Sure, why the hell not.” He took Kravitz’s offered hand and didn’t protest the other arm around his shoulders, though really, the healing spell had been more than enough. He was fine, now. His legs only shook the barest amount when he put his weight on them. He was perfectly capable of standing on his own, but he didn’t shove Kravitz away, either.

He did take his hand back when he saw blood drying on the skin. Ugh, it would be on his face, too. And his hair. A wave of his hand and a sprinkling of magic — so easy, now — took care of that. A couple more spells replaced his usual glamor and re-braided his hair. Gods, he felt better already. Merle returned triumphant with his missing pile of clothes, and he was practically back to normal.

“Uh.” Merle cleared his throat, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at Sazed’s body. “That guy’s still twitchin’, by the way.”

“He bound his soul to his body,” Taako said, running a hand down his braid. “Fucking moron.”

Kravitz hummed, and Taako felt the vibration along the line of his body. “I suppose that makes him our problem, now.” Instinctively, Taako’s grip tightened, but Kravitz made no move to pull away.

“Call Barry. He can take care of it.” He forced his fingers to loosen slightly and nodded to the door. “Let’s go home.”

They walked out through a dull, empty restaurant and found the others waiting just outside.

Magnus looked to be standing guard with great determination, but Angus rushed forward as soon as he saw them, burying his face in Taako’s chest. He muttered something as he clung, but it was muffled into the fabric.

Taako flicked the top of his head. “What’s that, Ango?”

Angus lifted his head to look up at Taako. “Are you alright?”

“‘Course I am.” Taako shot him a blinding smile. “Don’t I look alright to you?”

Angus’ eyes darted across Taako’s face, to his hat and hair and hands and anywhere else he could search for signs of damage. He wouldn’t find any. Angus was a smart kid, hard to fool. He’d figure out something about what went down, but he wouldn’t find anything here.

“I shouldn’t have left you,” he said quietly.

Taako shook his head firmly, hands on Angus’ shoulders. “You did exactly what I told you to do. You did great, pumpkin.”

Angus’ face crumpled and he fell forward again, arms working their way even tighter around Taako’s stomach. Taako let out a breath and hugged him back, one hand stroking gently through his hair, because that was what you did when a kid was upset.

Over Angus’ head, Taako caught sight of Magnus, leaning down to mutter something in Merle’s ear. Merle shot a quick glance to the side, shook his head and mouthed ‘later’ before nudging Magnus over. Magnus’ arms came down around them both, big enough to block out the world.

 

 

 

 

Taako didn’t bother changing before falling into bed, curling into the soft pillows and thick blankets he’d chosen himself. He sighed at the familiarity, determined not to move for several hours, but he had to crack open a grudging eye when he didn’t feel the weight of his boyfriend joining him in bed.

“Babe, come on.” He patted the mattress beside him. “Chop chop.”

Kravitz climbed obediently onto the bed, wrapping cool arms around Taako to balance out the heat of the blankets. It was perfect, and Taako felt himself rapidly drifting off—

“Do you want to talk about it?”

He emphatically did not. He wouldn’t get away with that forever, but at least for now.

“In the morning.”

(In the morning, he’d wake up with Lup beside him in bed instead of Kravitz, and she’d hold his hand tight and apologize. He’d tell her it wasn’t her fault and she’d cry a little, but eventually she’d believe it and they’d get up and she’d make him breakfast. Pancakes and eggs and fresh fruit, and he wouldn’t do much more than cut the heads off the strawberries, but it would be something.)

“Alright,” Kravitz agreed, and went back to trailing a gentle hand through his hair.

Peace didn’t come as easily a second time, and Taako found himself staring blankly ahead, searching for something to say that would let them both sleep. He could hear Kravitz worrying.

“I know he’s a shitty ex, but he was fine when we were together.” A few years ago, he would even have said ‘great,’ but being with Kravitz had put a few things in perspective. “It only got bad at the end. And it was never… like that,” he finished weakly, begging Kravitz to understand. Maybe Sazed hadn’t been the kindest lover, maybe they’d blamed each other for too many things, maybe he’d felt better going to bed alone more nights than not, but he didn’t want Kravitz to think… “I was fine.”

Kravitz’s hand stilled and Taako could feel his throat working. He pressed his forehead to Kravitz’s collarbone and waited. After a minute, Kravitz let out a slow breath into the calm air of their bedroom.

“I love you,” he said, and pressed a long, lingering kiss to the top of Taako’s head.

Taako closed his eyes against the sting. “Okay.”