Barry is hopeless at swimming, but surprisingly good at fishing, which means Taako spends the majority of the beach year on the water. The sun rises early on this world, and in the mornings he takes his surfboard out, an hour or two of solitude, just him and the waves and the reflection of the rising sun on the water, before returning to shore to cook breakfast with Lup. Then, if he’s not practicing magic, or walking around the island with Lucretia and Merle, finding weird plants or animals for Lucretia to sketch for her journals, he’ll sneak off with Barry to give him his “secret” swimming lessons (which Taako told Lup about immediately, of course, because he’s a good good brother.)
It’s… kind of fun hanging out with Barry one-on-one, outside of late hours of caffeine-fueled research in the lab, studying the Hunger and the Light of Creation, the way they do most cycles. When Barry inevitably fails to swim most days, Taako gives up on him and they get to work on the evening’s dinner, catching fresh fish from the cove just a short walk from where they’re docked or plucking crabs and oysters from the traps he’s set up offshore. Lup joins them sometimes when she’s bored, because there’s very little to actually do on the island, but she doesn’t have the patience for fishing that Taako does, and whenever she’s around, Barry fumbles his pole and drops it in the water. When Barry had confessed his feelings for Lup to Taako he’d acted like it was some big revelation. Please, Taako’s seen this coming for years, even if Lup is blind as a bat.
Barry is patient, and quiet, happy to chat or to sit in silence depending on Taako’s mood, unlike Magnus who is constantly yelling about something, or Lucretia, who it's impossible to get two words out of. It's nice, but Taako would drown himself before admitting it.
“Think we’ll end up on a world like this once, once we stop?” Barry asks one day. He’s holding his fishing rod, but Taako left his own secured between some heavy rocks, so he can lie back on the warm sand and close his eyes against the sun beating down. He cracks an eye open, peering at Barry.
“Once we stop?”
“Yeah.” Barry shrugs. His lure bobs in the water, but whatever was nibbling at it loses interest. “Whatever world we end up on, after we beat the Hunger. I kinda hope it's like this one. With more people.”
Taako snorts. “With any people at all, more like.” They’d spent a week after they picked up the Light flying over the sparse landmasses of this plane, checking for any sign of sentient life, of civilization. They found ancient ruins, but nothing else. It strikes Taako as more than a little ironic, how they’ve failed to recover the light and lost worlds full of people to the Hunger, but the one cycle where they pick it up right away, there's no one.
Taako has to wonder if any gods exist here, with no one to worship them, or if they're still around even without the all the temples and the offerings from mortals. Has to wonder if Kravitz is around the corner waiting for him - for them - or if whatever happened to the people of this world did away with him and his goddess too, and left this world covered in water.
“What do you hope it'll be like?” Barry asks.
In truth, Taako hasn't thought about it in a long time. He doesn't think about making it home anymore, or making it back to any of the places they've visited over these long years. He forgets that maybe one day they’ll get to stop. “Oh, somewhere glamorous, no doubt,” he says. “With electric lights and skyscrapers and TV.”
“So, the exact opposite of this, then,” Barry says wryly.
He hasn't gotten a bite in a while; impatient, he reels in his line and finds the bait nibbled away to nothing. “Damn it.”
Barry passes him their container of bait, and watches as Taako plucks a fat white worm from the dirt and pierces it on the hook. Barry’s the only person Taako has ever met that isn't squeamish about live bait; even Lup always makes him bait the hook for her. He casts his line and lets it drift out. “Yeah, pretty much,” he finally answers. “Gimme a little hustle and bustle, ya feel?”
“Yeah, that’s fair.” Barry glances at him sideways, knowingly. “It makes you ansty, right? It can be lonely. The quiet.”
Lonely. In such close proximity to six other people all the time he wouldn’t think of himself as lonely, but even so, he squirms when Barry says it. “No, just -” Taako shrugs. “I don't know.”
“I just - I keep expecting it to go wrong. Like we’re not actually alone here or…” It comes out quick, mumbled: “Or Kravitz is going to show up.”
Barry raises his eyebrows. “Expecting, or hoping?”
Taako feels his ears turn pink. “He killed me,” he snaps.
“And you slept with him.”
“I don't think we’re gonna get a bite today. Help me check the crab traps.” He pulls his line in and starts putting away the gear, and Barry follows suit. “Stupid to worry about it. No people here, no one to reap, no reason for the Raven Queen to have servants here. If she’s even around.”
Hefting their tackle boxes, they start making their way to where the Starblaster is docked, just offshore, where they can pull the traps up over the back of the ship. “Or he’s got other things to worry about. Dealing with the souls of the civilization that was here before, maybe? From what me and Lup read, reapers spend most of their time in the astral plane. Guarding restless spirits and all that,” Barry says.
“You're not interested?”
He is. He itches to know everything he can about Kravitz, he has so many questions. He’s also terrified to know the answers. “Nope,” he says, popping the 'P’, like he can fool Barry, like Barry doesn't absolutely know that he’s still thinking about Kravitz all the time. They board the ship and make their way to the stern. “Pull the traps up, will you? All this hard labor, I’m exhausted.”
“Sure you are,” Barry says, but he does it. “For what it’s worth,” he grunts. “Even if you're lonely, you aren't alone, y’know?”
“You're the only one saying that, Barrold. I’m not pining for the dude who murdered me, for fucks sake.”
“You said it, not me,” Barry says cheerfully. He heaves the traps over the side of the ship with a grunt, sighs as he looks at their contents. “Guess it’s lobster again tonight.”
They eat it with oil that Taako transmutes into butter, grilled over the bonfire, with leftovers aplenty for lobster rolls the next day. The sun dips low, casting everything in pinks and oranges, and Taako’s hair, grown long this year and bleached even lighter from the sun, is crunchy with salt water from when he swam earlier in the day. They pass around a bottle of some kind of Gnomish liquor that Davenport had stashed away, and Magnus breaks out his guitar and plays songs from home, and Lup pulls Lucretia out of her seat and spins her around, dancing circles around the bonfire with their skirts swirling around bare feet, eyes half closed and laughing. Beside Taako, Barry watches Lup dance with a dopey, serene smile. Lup doesn't notice, and Taako doesn't say a word. They’ll figure it out one day.
It's just been… strange, is all. To have such a long stretch of peace, a “mental health year” as Davenport called it, not something Taako has ever been used to even before the mission. He’d almost rather see Kravitz tear open one of those portals and step out, scythe at the ready; crisis mode is more Taako’s comfort zone.
But maybe it wouldn't be a crisis for once. Maybe Kravitz would be open to hearing their side of things, maybe he wouldn’t even be assigned to hunt them, maybe they could just talk, maybe -
The bottle makes its way back to him; he takes a long drink before passing it along to Barry. God, Taako, stop it, he thinks, almost bored with himself, because he's always catching himself thinking these things and there's just no point to it. Lup just keeps saying he needs to meet another guy, get his mind off Kravitz, and maybe she’s right but it seems pointless. He’d love to be the kind of guy who can just have a quick fling with no hard feelings when they break it off, Lup does it all the time and it seems to work out for her, but it’s not the way Taako is wired. He falls too fast and too hard, which is why he just avoids dating at all, generally. Hard to want to chase anyone else when he knows he'll just have to leave them at the end of the cycle too. When he knows the particular way that Kravitz’s soul hums. He snatches the bottle back from Barry one more time before it can get passed around the circle again. He deserves to be slightly more drunk if this is the way his thoughts are going to spiral.
He watches as Lup and Barry’s eyes meet across the bonfire. Barry’s face goes red and he nearly falls out of his chair, while Lup glances away, the tips of her ears as pink as she turns her attention back to Lucretia. Holy shit. He’s never seen Lup actually get flustered over anyone before, much less Barry J. Bluejeans, the least intimidating man in the multiverse. He hadn't actually put much thought into the idea that Lup might like Barry back.
He’s not going to get to share a look like that with Kravitz. Even if - when - they do find somewhere to finally, finally stop this seemingly endless journey, they’ll still be wanted by the Raven Queen, he’ll still be a criminal in Kravitz's eyes. Even during this long, peaceful time that they have now, that he’s trying to enjoy, he’s all too aware that they're always running, maybe always will be.
Davenport makes them exercise particular caution whenever there's a sign that Kravitz is on the hunt - large flocks of ravens darkening the skies, an unexplained chill in the air that they’ve found correlates to the rifts that Kravitz can open between planes. Taako isn’t the only one that Kravitz is hunting, though it often feels like it, drawn together whether they like it or not. Once, when Magnus, Barry, and Merle had returned to the ship after an unsuccessful venture to retrieve the Light, they reported being hunted by a cloaked figure with a scythe, though they managed to fight back and weaken him enough that he retreated, allowing them to get away. Another time, Kravitz caught Lucretia and Davenport alone - both powerful wizards in their own rights, but Lucretia’s strength is in abjuration, Davenport’s in illusion, neither of them equipped to fight a reaper. Instead of fighting, they managed to gamble for their souls, for the opportunity to explain their situation. A game of poker. A narrow victory, from the way Davenport tells the story, but a victory nonetheless.
None of them ever want to be caught alone with Kravitz - and that, Taako notices, seems to be how he prefers to hunt, isolating them in small groups or alone - but Davenport and Lucretia’s close call proves to the others that he can be reasoned with. Or at the very least that he’s got a thing for gambling. They’ll take what they can get.
Taako volunteers for more expeditions after his own fatal run-in with Kravitz, and especially after the poker game that becomes sort of legendary among the group (get Davenport drunk enough and he’ll go on a long tirade to strangers about the time he gambled with Death and won). It’s nothing to do, he insists, with wanting to see Kravitz again, just that he feels the need to pull more weight, and anyway, he has the most experience dealing with the Kravitz if he does happen to come around. Nothing personal. Lup gives him a look like she doesn’t believe him, but he hadn’t expected her to. She doesn’t believe that Kravitz can be reasoned with, either, and he knows that’s not true.
He also knows that just because he and Kravitz are bound together in some strange way, just because he has reasoned with Kravitz before, doesn’t mean that he can trust him. That Kravitz can, and will, kill him. He should hate Kravitz for that. He tries to hate him.
So he studies stronger offensive spells and memorizes them so he could do them in his sleep, he sparrs with Lup and Magnus in between research, repairing the ship, and continuously hunting for the Light. He won’t freeze up or be caught defenseless, never again; they can’t risk the crew being taken down, not with the Hunger still out there growing stronger each cycle. Still no closer to understanding how to defeat it, even when Merle begins his regular meetings with John. Meetings that add to their collective death count - and Kravitz’s bounty - with every attempt. A delicate balancing act.
They have the fact that they’re the only thing standing in the way of a universe-devouring entity as a bargaining chip, at least. When Taako does have the opportunity to talk to Kravitz, to explain the situation and convince him that their repeated deaths are not only unintentional but the only thing stopping the world from being swallowed whole, he takes that chance rather than fighting him. He realizes that it should be terrifying to face Kravitz again, and in a way it is. But.
But there’s an odd sense of calm that comes over him when he sees Kravitz, against his better judgement. That tugging on Taako’s soul, the bonds he’s felt and seen - that’s real as anything, and he knows that Kravitz feels it too. So he convinces Kravitz to talk, and sometimes he’s willing to listen. Sometimes he gets even a smile out of Kravitz, and those are good cycles - but Taako tries to keep him at a distance. It would be too easy to let himself get too close.
He doesn’t tell Kravitz that they’ve met before. It’s easier that way. Not just for Kravitz, but for himself.
“He doesn't know you,” Lup always reminds Taako, any time that Kravitz rears his head. As if Taako doesn’t know. “I don’t care how good he was in bed, he’s not the same dude.”
I feel like I know you, Kravitz had said, like I’ve found something I’ve been looking for all my life, he’d said, and kissed Taako like he was a glass of water and Kravitz was a man dying of thirst. The worst part is that that Kravitz had really thought that he was doing the right thing, doing his duty, by killing Taako. He should hate Kravitz, but he can’t. Maybe because he still dreams of that time in the Veil, in that space between the worlds of the living and dead, dreaming of feathers and gentle hands and being seen down to the core of his soul.
Maybe Kravitz doesn't really remember him. Not consciously, at least. But there’s a reason they’re continuously drawn into each other’s orbit, and one day Taako will understand it. Every bit of information they manage to gather on Kravitz, Taako files away for later, a pieced together picture that doesn't come close to encompassing the whole of him.
The Legato Conservatory is so stunning it nearly gives Taako a headache. All domed glass buildings and flawless landscaping, saturated with art and music and learning - this conservatory alone has two libraries and a museum, and it's not even the biggest conservatory this plane has to offer. After all the worlds Taako has seen it's tough to shock him anymore; he’s come to accept that he shouldn't come to a new plane with any expectations. But he really hadn't expected cycle forty-seven to be Fantasy Liberal Arts School.
It’s not the sort of thing he’s ever really gotten to be part of, a society so well off that the majority of the population can dedicate their time to art, to self-improvement. Schooling for him and Lup was an off-and-on thing, a year or so scattered here and there when they were with relatives who bothered to care about their education, a huge swath of years with the caravans (and the worst years, when they didn't even have that) where the only schooling they got was from particularly generous adventurers they met on the road, wizards willing to show off a trick or two. Any time they ended up in a city, a library was the safest, warmest place to while away the hours; he and Lup devoured the knowledge in those books, hungry for every scrap of power they could get, never satisfied. They were brilliant, and they knew it, but until they got their IPRE scholarships they never had a chance to prove it. And then it was years of work - sleepless nights and gallons of coffee and science and arcana and magic.
According to Marlow, they have to offer something to the mountain to get access to the Light of Creation, something good enough that it will project it into the minds of everyone on this entire plane, which Taako would think is completely buckwild if he hadn’t experienced exactly that as soon as they entered the atmosphere of this plane. They can participate in the workshops and seminars throughout the conservatory, can live and work here for the year free of charge - after all, they’re going to save the world with what they learn here. Saving the world with art. Just when Taako thought his life couldn't get weirder.
Taako has no idea what he could submit to the mountain. He’s not a musician, not an artist - he’s a wizard and a chef. Lucretia almost immediately starts furiously sketching in her journal; she’s going to study painting even though she’s already amazing at it, and Magnus wants to hit pieces of wood with his sword, which, okay, whatever, who’s Taako to say what counts as art? (He does say it doesn’t count as art, loudly, to anyone who will listen, but Magnus is too busy hitting things with his sword to care.) Almost everyone seems to know what they're going to do right away, signing up with an instructor or group. Taako, on the other hand, signs up for every class that looks vaguely interesting, even if he doesn't plan on going, just to see what keeps his attention.
He’s heading back to their suite in the dormitories after a pottery class - fun, but not exactly what he’s looking for - when he hears it. Legato is legendary for its musicians, according to Marlow, so it's not like Taako isn't surrounded by music here, there's no reason why the faint notes drifting to him from the courtyard should make him stop dead in his tracks, make him freeze and strain to listen. Another student nearly bumps into him as he stops in the middle of the path, but he ignores their irritated grumbling as they shove past him.
He’s supposed to meet Lup for lunch. He’s going to be late. He turns around and follows the music like it’s paving a path for him, the way it tugs at him so familiar by now: a bond, strong and real as the bonds that pull them back to the Starblaster year after year, and it fills him with equal parts elation and fear, but he has to know for sure.
The song grows louder as he makes his way toward it, a lone instrument, string, he thinks, but too low to be a violin, deep and almost mournful. He comes around a corner, crests a small hill and finds himself in a courtyard, dotted with tables where apprentices are eating lunch or chatting or working on various projects. A small crowd - barely even a crowd, just a few students - have turned in their chairs to watch the player, who Taako, as he draws closer, can now see is holding a cello. His long, slender fingers dance across the strings, the bow pulling each low note from the instrument, and it's not mournful, Taako realizes. He doesn't know enough about music to tell how the player can evoke that slight difference in mood, but it's not mourning - it’s loneliness.
Taako’s mouth is dry as he steps closer still. The player’s eyes are half-closed, brow drawn in concentration, head bowed, but Taako would know him anywhere. Different, of course, there are always differences - his hair is shorter than usual, tight curls let loose instead of tamed into braids or locs, swept back in a short ponytail. Taako has never seen him dress so casually, vest loose and unbuttoned, a linen shirt underneath with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. But his face, that never changes.
Of course. Of course Kravitz would be here.
Taako draws closer, blending with the handful of people gathered to watch, though he knows the right thing to do would be to turn around now - to find Lup, no, Davenport first, that’s the plan, if Kravitz is on their tail he tells Davenport and they discuss how to deal with the problem. And he will, but not yet. He can’t pull himself away from this song, and the way that Kravitz draws it from the cello, draws out the aching loneliness, the sense of isolation, such that Taako’s chest goes tight. Kravitz’s lips are pressed thin in what might be frustration or perhaps just concentration. But Taako finds himself smiling like a fool, just seeing him, watching him play with an odd sense of pride. He’s incredible.
God, Kravitz can probably hear the pounding of his heart from here. What is he doing here, is it some kind of ruse? Undercover, tracking the crew down?
A screech, a jarring stop as Kravitz’s fingers fumble and the bow skips over the strings and the song comes to a premature end. Kravitz swears, while the students listening to him murmur some praise, clap quietly, but then turn back to their conversations or their work, like that wasn’t the most amazing thing they’ve ever heard in their lives. They do hear a lot of baller music in a place like this, Taako supposes, but he can’t fathom the Light of Creation not accepting something like that. He’s left standing alone, watching as Kravitz scowls at his instrument like it’s betrayed him.
“What am I still missing?” He mutters to himself, not looking up, running a hand through his curls.
Now that he’s looking up, Taako catches a glimpse of his eyes, hidden below furrowed, thick brows. The vitiligo in that specific skull pattern, his sharp jaw and cheekbones, and that voice - he’s Kravitz, but not in a way that Taako has ever known him. Instead of the crimson eyes that he’s grown so accustomed to over the years of being hunted, he’s faced with dark brown, nearly black.
Taako sits down at the nearest table so he’s not just standing there gawking, hoping that Kravitz doesn’t notice him. The eyes don’t have to mean anything. They probably don’t. It’s just the first time he’s noticed anything about Kravitz changing quite so drastically between encounters, and he doesn’t know why that would be.
“So what did you think?”
His head shoots up. Kravitz is watching him, arms braced on his cello and his chin balanced on his arms, with a teasing smile playing at the edge of his lips. It makes his dark eyes glitter. “Huh?” Taako says, and then cringes.
“Saw you watching,” Kravitz says. There were a lot of people watching, Taako doesn’t know why he would draw special attention, until he remembers the obnoxious height of his hat and has to laugh at himself. Kravitz flashes a grin and asks again, “How did you like it?”
He’s staring and he knows it, but he can’t stop. Kravitz looks so much younger that Taako has ever seen him, he would guess a few years older than Magnus, though human aging is a bit of a mystery to him. No worry lines creasing his dark skin, no flecks of silver and gray coloring his temples, and those eyes are so dark, like pools of water at night. “Y-yeah, fuckin’ incredible, my guy,” he says. He doesn't know you. He’s not the same person, he repeats in his head . “Seriously. That one going to the mountain?”
Kravitz flushes, sitting up straighter. A bit of wild hair has escaped his ponytail, and he brushes it back behind his ear. “Oh, gods no. It’s not… quite right. Not yet.”
“Damn. If that’s a draft I can’t imaging what the finished product will be like.”
“Neither can I, at this point!” Kravitz laughs, and it’s infectious; Taako’s laugh comes out high and almost strangled. Kravitz stands, leaning his cello against his table and coming to sit by Taako instead, perching on the table top instead of in any of the chairs. His smile is warm and his eyes curious as he extends a hand to Taako. “My name’s Kravitz.”
I know, he nearly says, but stops himself. If this is some trap, it’s better to let Kravitz think that Taako doesn’t know anything. “Taako,” he says instead, and takes Kravitz’s hand to shake it.
It’s warm. He lets go regrettably quickly, startled by warmth where he expects an icy undead chill. He’s never seen Kravitz’s eyes anything but blood-red, never felt his skin anything but cold and clammy except when it was warmed by the heat of Taako’s mouth and hands.
He’s not undead.
“Oh, I know,” Kravitz says, distracting Taako from the temperature when his heart and stomach seem to trade places, his first wild thought he remembers he knows me he knows!!! But then Kravitz goes on: “You’re one of the aliens.”
…of course. They hadn’t exactly been able to be secretive when they landed the Starblaster, and word travels fast, of course folk are whispering about the newcomers in their strange silver ship. Of course it has nothing to do with the two of them and their history, this would be a much different conversation if he did. Taako tries his best to ignore his disappointment, to shove it aside with all his other useless, complicated feelings, so that he can focus the fact that Kravitz isn’t undead. “Heh - uh, yeah, people know about that, huh?” He says, distracted.
He’s alive, somehow, for the first time since Taako’s known him he’s just human, but how? Is it a trick? Couldn’t be too hard to fake, if he’s a spellcaster - illusion to change his eye color, Prestidigitation could warm him up temporarily, but he would have had to anticipate Taako meeting him here, cast the spells in advance. What would that accomplish, though, other than throwing Taako off his game? Too much effort for little gain, and anyway, Kravitz wouldn’t have any idea that Taako already knows his whole Reaper deal. Can he be a reaper without being dead? But the Raven Queen’s mark is still splashed across his face, permanent as a brand.
“Rumors get around,” Kravitz says, drawing Taako’s attention back to the present, but it’s hard to focus on anything but the warmth of Kravitz’s hand, the blood pulsing beneath the skin, alive, alive, alive. A laugh tries to bubble it’s way up his throat, a little manic, but he manages to restrain himself. “What’s your craft, if I might ask? You seem to have an appreciation for music.”
He doesn’t want to say nothing, or I haven’t decided, or I’m just not feeling that creative, doesn’t want to sound stupid, sue him, maybe he wants Kravitz to be a little impressed with him. He blurts out, “I’m a chef.”
Kravitz raises his eyebrows, lips quirked in that crooked smile that makes Taako weak in the knees; he’s glad he’s sitting down. “A chef?”
“Oh, yeah. Best in the biz where I’m from.” He waves a hand. “They don’t call it the culinary arts for nothing, ya know?”
“That’s lovely. I can’t even scramble an egg properly, I’m afraid.”
“Ooh, throw a little cream cheese in there, it’s dope.”
“I'll remember that.”
“So cello’s your thing, huh? Do all the Raven Queen’s followers get to pick a spooky instrument or did you just pick that up here? Bet everyone picks the fuckin’ pipe organ, right, shit’s goth as hell.”
The easy smile on Kravitz’s face falls away, his shoulders growing tense. “What… What makes you assume I follow the Raven Queen? Are you from the temple?”
“No, I just -” Taako gestures to his face. “The whole, uh, skull thing, that’s - that’s her thing, right?”
“We don’t all have this,” Kravitz retorts, tone all brittle and hard, a far cry from the ease he’d shown before.
“No, I know that! I just - I read that it’s like, a mark of her favor or something, I don’t know. Forget I said anything.”
“That’s all superstition.”
“I’m... sorry, I shouldn’t have - I didn’t mean to offend you or anything,” Taako says, at a loss. He’d just been rambling, he didn’t mean anything by it. He’s not used to giving a shit when he offends someone. It's weird. Makes him feel all itchy.
Kravitz watches him a moment, wary, eyes darting across Taako’s face. Then he sighs, and the tension he was holding seems to soften, though his smile hasn’t returned. Taako wants terribly to bring it back. “No, don’t be. I overreacted, is all.”
“I think it’s cool, for what that’s worth,” Taako offers, unsure if that will make this mess better or worse. A horrible part of him wants to laugh at Kravitz, all sullen and defensive, he looks so young. “Very striking.”
“You mean ‘creepy’, I’m sure.”
Taako grins up at him. “Nah, dude. Hella cute.”
Kravitz glances away but Taako can see how he’s fighting a smile, now, fighting the blush that rises to his cheeks. He clears his throat and sits up straighter. “If you’re interested, I’m performing here in a few days. Properly performing, I mean, not just practicing. I’m sure you’re busy but if you happen to have time…”
“For sure,” Taako says, too fast, hardly thinking about it. Now he doesn’t know if they’ll even be here in a few days, once he tells Davenport that Kravitz is here he might have them keep their distance, a wrench in the year’s plans. He shouldn’t be agreeing to see Kravitz again, he should keep away, even if he is human this cycle, even if he’s not hunting them.
“It’s not like I’m playing for the mountain, it’s not a big deal, but if you want -”
“I’ll be there,” Taako says, not sure yet if he’s lying. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Kravitz’s grin is wide and bright as the sun, and Taako can’t find it in himself to be afraid this time.
“So he’s… not a reaper this time,” Merle says slowly, after Taako is done reporting to the crew.
“Seems that way,” Taako shrugs. He’s lounging on the couch in their shared suite, taking up all the room, while Lup sits on the floor in front of it, leaning back on him. He’d missed lunch by a long shot, but she hasn't mentioned it yet. “Definitely not undead, far as I can tell.”
“Little holy magic would let us know for sure,” Lup says. They’d found out many cycles ago that radiant damage affects Kravitz more strongly than most anything else.
“Oh, sure, I can do that,” Merle says, too cheerfully.
Lucretia shakes her head. “And if he really isn't undead you’ve just had an old man attack a student,” she says, ignoring Merle’s protests that he’s not that old, as if that’s the point. “I’m sure that’s keep us in Marlow’s good graces.
“He deserves it,” Lup grumbles. Taako flicks her ear, making it twitch back and nearly hit him in the face.
Davenport is pacing in a big circle around the living room area where the seven of them have gathered. The suites are nice, they don't have to share rooms, and there’s has a little kitchen - feels weird to cook anywhere but the galley on the Starblaster, but Taako makes do. Taako’s eyes follow the Captain’s movements, and he bites his tongue, waiting. He doesn't know what he’ll do if Davenport decides they need to leave.
Well, no. He knows what he’d do. He’ll go, because the mission - the crew - is more important than his foolish preoccupation with Kravitz. But he’ll always wonder - what if this time it’s okay? What if this time, he isn’t putting them in danger by chasing this - chasing after Kravitz, whatever little bit of him he can get his hands on? It’s a stupid, selfish thing to want, but stupid and selfish are the best words to describe him.
“I thought that the entire reason he existed throughout the different planes was that he’s tied to his goddess,” Davenport says. “If he's just human, how can he be here?”
“Well, we don't know that for sure,” Barry points out. “That's just our working theory.”
Taako, mostly quiet after relaying his report, pipes up. “He’s younger this time, y’know. Which leads me to a theory.”
“Which is?” Davenport pauses behind the couch, peering down at Taako.
“Caught him too early. He’ll be a reaper someday, but for now he's just a dude. He wasn't born undead, he had to die first before he could get the whole reaper gig.”
“Raven Queen has a soft spot for people who die before their time, according to the book I read,” Barry muses. “Might be where her reapers come from.”
“Nerd,” Lup says, nudging Barry’s leg with her bare foot. Barry's cheeks are pink, as they generally are, but there's something in the grin they share that’s… different. Not even that there's anything unusual about the interaction, Lup and Barry are best friends, they tease each other constantly, but it's just different and Taako doesn't know what to think of it. But no one else seems to even notice, so he shakes his head.
“Sure, yeah, could be. Point being - I’m pretty sure he’s not a threat this time.”
“You always think that,” Lup says. “He could be tricking you.”
“By inviting me to his fuckin’ cello recital?”
“By lulling you into a false sense of security,” Lucretia says. “Making you think he’s nothing but another student, then striking when you don't expect it. It's not like he hasn't fooled you before, if you remember your first encounter.”
“No, Cretia, please refresh my memory, it’s not like I was there,” Taako rolls his eyes and finally sits up. “Listen, I will gladly drop a detect magic on him, check for an illusion or whatever. If he’s lying, we fight or we leave, I don't really give a fuck.”
“Taako, you have to admit that you’re… biased,” Davenport says.
Taako raises his eyebrows. “Biased toward the dude who keeps trying to murder me? Really?”
“I’m just not sure you’re the best person to investigate this, considering.”
“That an order, Captain?” He keeps his tone light but there’s a cold edge to it that he knows Davenport will pick up on.
“I’m not forbidding you from doing anything. I trust you - I just want you to be cautious.”
“Appreciate it. But I’m telling you, for once we are actually good. We have a plan for getting the Light, folks here are cool with us - why leave if we don't have to?”
Davenport still looks conflicted, but at least he’s stopped pacing. Taako knows the rest of the crew doesn’t want to leave either, they’re excited about what they’re studying, grateful for the warm welcome they’ve received here. Finally he replies. “We don’t let our guard down until we know for sure that he isn’t a threat. Otherwise… continue as normal, I suppose, and keep me updated. You’re all dismissed.”
Taako doesn’t have anywhere else to be, so he stays in the common room, while Lup hops up and goes to the kitchenette, raiding the fridge for a snack. He sits up and watches her over the back of the couch, making a face at her choice of food - pickle and peanut butter sandwiches. “That’s fucking nasty, Lu.”
“You’re nasty,” she says making a face at him. “So you’re gonna try to figure out the deal with tall dark and spooky?”
“Sure. Shouldn’t be too hard.”
Lup nods, but her expression has turned oddly serious. “You be careful, okay? I don’t want you getting hurt.”
“Jesus, you’re all paranoid.”
“I mean. Captain’s not wrong, you’re kind of biased. And I don’t want him getting the drop on you again.”
“I’ll be fine. Unlike your breath after that disgusting sandwich.” He pauses, then adds, “Sorry about missing lunch, by the way. I’ll make it up to you.”
All he expects is for her to wave him off, assure him that it’s no big deal, maybe make plans for the next day. Instead she just blinks at him, a blank look on her face for a moment, until understanding dawns on her. “Oh! Oh, shit, I actually completely forgot we were supposed to do lunch.”
“Yeah, I was walking back with Barry after class and we got to talking and I just spaced. My bad.”
“No, no,” Taako says quickly, waving a hand. “Guess we’re even. You, uh, didn’t tell me you and Barry had a class together.”
“Didn’t I?” Her cheeks turn pink. “Yeah, we’re studying music theory, thought it might be fun. Barry’s a big ol’ music nerd.”
He didn’t even know she was taking music theory. No one told him, or asked him to take a class with them. Which is like, fine, music theory sounds fucking boring, it’s not like he cares. But still. Barry is his friend too, and he and Lup always took the same electives at the Institute and it’s just - weird. That’s all. Weird that she would space on their plans when he’s accustomed to being her priority, but he doesn’t care, it doesn't matter. He can't be mad when he forgot their plans too.
“‘Studying music theory,’ just say boning, I get it,” Taako says. The pink gives way to bright red and she splutters out protests that he doesn't believe for a second, but it makes her laugh. That’s enough to take his mind off Kravitz for the moment, of the anxiety (and anticipation) coiling in his chest at the thought of talking to him again - not as an enemy to be bargained with, but just a person.