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And They Suffer Still

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The camp was quiet that night.

Merle hunched over in his chair, staring at the fire for quite some time before retrieving a bottle from his bag and taking a long pull from it. It was around this time that Taako almost silently rose and vanished on quiet elf feet into the darkened woods.

Something screamed in the black, and the fire popped, but no one spoke.

Magnus couldn’t stop staring at his hands.

His new hands.

He rolled the fingers into a fist, feeling the scrape of the wood and the soft clatter that resulted. On a better day he might respect the fact that it was a good grain of wood and finely sanded, but all he could focus on was that there was almost no feeling, and no warmth at all.

All his life his hands had marked him as a craftsman, a fighter, and a protector. They were rough and broad and sported a few scars on the tan skin that stretched between the poorly-kept nails and muscular arms. He was not a vain man, but those hands had been part of the identity he had built as Magnus the Hammer.

How much of that was real?

Not only was the body he knew gone, but the memories re-surfacing made him question what he could trust.

Which memories had been a part of this strange world he had forgotten? He wasn’t one to question his feelings but the notion of his own mind being an unreliable source was becoming a larger possibility by the second.

He dared a glance at the Red Robe.

The hooded figure was at the edge of the fire’s light, looking up at the moon. They hadn’t spoken much since leaving Wonderland, and Magnus hadn’t had the opportunity to ask any of the questions rising in his throat. That, and how was he supposed to without raising inquiries from Taako and Merle?

Merle suddenly sniffed off to Magnus’ right, and he caught the dwarf rubbing the heel of his palm over his eyes. His cheeks were slick and his remaining eye bloodshot.

Despite Magnus having no real face to speak of, Merle noticed his gaze.

“I gotta say, buddy…” His voice was rougher than usual. “I’m real sorry about what I did to ya’.”

“No… What?”

“The wheel.” He took a gulp from the bottle. “I coulda sacrificed what I had back there, but I didn’t. And now you’re stuck like THIS.” He gestured with the bottle-clutching hand.

“Aw, Merle… It’s fine…”

He’d never seen the cleric cry before. Somber once or twice, yes, and drunk plenty more times than that, but this is the first time he’s seen his friend shed a tear.

“Listen, we all did what we had to back there. Every man has his own battles and his own limits, and it’d be wrong for a father to not remember his kids.”

“Ah…” Merle sighed and leaned forward, hands grasping around the bottle’s neck as elbows leaned rested on knees. “I’m not much of a father, anyway. Those two deserve better’n me. Wouldn’t make much of a difference if I disappeared one last time.”

There was a pause, and Magnus noted that in the flickering glow how deep the shadows of Merle’s wrinkles were. He was definitely getting on in years as far as dwarves went, and in this light the rest of his face was catching up to the silver of his hair.

“Can I ask about them?” Magnus finally says. “I didn’t even know you HAD kids until…”

“Yeah, and I was trying to keep it that way.” Merle takes off his glasses and rubs a hand over his face. “I don’t take any pride in it, you know. Being a deadbeat father is about the most shameful thing a man can do in his life… No, I have two of ‘em. One of them’s the ex’s, she’s the oldest by a few years. Mavis. Smart girl. Smarter than me, for sure. The younger one’s my little boy, Mookie - ”

Mookie?

“It’s a family name, alright? He’s still pretty small. Lot of energy, that one.” There was a tender smile on the dwarf’s face that Magnus hadn’t seen before.

“So, why’d you leave?”

Merle gave him a sidelong glance. “Promise not to judge me for this?”

“Tell me what it was first.”

Merle grumbled.

“Look, I’ve known you for what, a year and a half now? Two years? This whole time you’ve lied to us, Merle.”

“I didn’t LIE, I was just… POSTPONING the truth.”

“You’re full of shit.”

“... Yeah. Little bit.”

Magnus shifted forward in his seat, trying to emote without a face. “What I mean is, I can’t judge you on what you did if I don’t even know what it was. I can’t tell you whether or not you were a good dad because I didn’t know you WERE a dad until a few hours ago.”

Merle let out a puff of air, running a hand over his hair. “Fair enough… I left because… The wife and I weren’t a good pair. It wasn’t for love that we were married, it was mostly my father’s idea. Y’know, there comes a time in a man’s life where he realizes that he can’t keep doing things just for everyone else. I was MISERABLE, Magnus. If I didn’t have Pan back then, I might not be here right now. ‘Course, can’t say the same going forward, but bear with me here; leaving was the first thing I did for myself in my whole life. It was stupid, yes, and hurtful, too, but it was MY mistake to make, and I did it for me. It wasn’t ‘til later that I realized what that meant for my kids, and the damage was already done. Mookie’s still a little guy, so he don’t realize what a damn fool his old man is, yet. Mavis is a sharp girl - I know she’s not too fond of me leaving her and her mother in the dust, and I don’t blame her, but since I’ve been making a little bit of gold in adventuring the past few years, I thought… Maybe I could make some of it up to them. It’s too late for me to be a GOOD father, but the least I can do is leave some cash for the two of them.”

A log broke in the fire and a small plume of sparks drifted up to melt into the stars. There was quiet once again as Magnus considered this.

“You know Merle, you’re a jackass.”

“HEY!”

“... But I think your heart’s in the right place.”

Merle looked at him, a bit dumbfounded for a moment before sighing and rubbing the back of his neck. “Yeah… I guess I got that goin’ for me.” The dwarf stood, bottle still at his side as he turned his back on the fighter. “I’m gonna go take a leak.”

“Wait, Merle, you can’t see in the dark anymore -- ”

The cleric called over his shoulder, “I’ll live.” and wandered into the trees.

With that, Magnus was alone by the fire with the Red Robe at the edge of the clearing. He looked at the figure, who was still fixated on the sky, but turned their darkened face to look back. The tension of every question Magnus had was stifling, and the silent answer was only a slow shake of their head.

No words were exchanged, but the meaning was clear; Not yet .

Then, WHEN? Magnus wanted to call back, but the Red Robe only silently turned back to the stars and Magnus’ gaze dropped back to the fire.

He was restless. Restless and sleepless and trapped in a body that wasn’t living but couldn’t die.

Fuck.

The implications of that were already crushing him, and he couldn’t take it anymore. He stood and turned into the woods, needing to move. Maybe a walk would be enough distraction for the time being.

While they had left the untamed terrain of the Felicity Wilds, he wasn’t near any path to speak of and had to push branches to the side and step over the underbrush.

Distraction, yes. Annoying, also yes.

It was only a few minutes’ walk before he broke through a thicket and stumbled upon a stream that shone silver in the moonlight. It was bordered by a bed of stones and pebbles, which made much easier walking than the local flora.

Magnus wasn’t trying to be stealthy as he crunched his way upstream, but Taako must have been in one hell of a reverie to not have heard him coming.

The elf was crouched over the water, staring into the depths. Magnus didn’t recognize him at first, as he was inhumanly still, his small, hunched shadow not registering as a living form at first glance.

“Taako?”

The elf looked up, eyes reflecting like that of a cat’s in the darkness.

“Oh… Hey, Mags.” He moved to pull his shirt collar closed, which Magnus now saw had been pulled open to expose his collarbone.

It was then that he saw the wizard’s cloak, hat, and shoes laid out on the stones behind him as Taako crouched at the water’s edge.

“... What’re you doin’, buddy?”

Taako made a Taako-like noise as he tried to articulate an answer.

“Just chillin’.”

Magnus crunched up to his friend’s side and moved to sit down. As he did, the elf turned his face away, pulling the collar of his shirt tighter around his throat.

“You okay?”

Taako didn’t look at him. “Mmm-hm.”

A long pause where there was only the sound of running water. Something rustled in the bushes on the other side of the stream and moved deeper into the woods.

“Hey, uh…” Magnus shifts, trying to fill the void in conversation. “Thanks for pulling me out of the ethereal plane and stuff. Kind of sucks to not have my body, but I guess beggars can’t be choosers, can they?”

“No problem.” He still doesn’t look at Magnus.

“... Can I say something weird?”

Taako turns ever so slightly, not quite looking but moving the corner of his eye far enough to his left that he can see Magnus speak.

“Shoot.”

“... I had this moment where the rift was pulling me in… And I was okay with it.”

Taako finally looks at him, expression unreadable.

“I mean like… I’m glad you pulled me out and everything - you guys needed me here, but for a second I thought that… It might be nice to let go.”

The elf offered a long, slow blink at Magnus.

“That’s FUCKED up, my dude.”

“I know right?”

“... But yeah, I do get what you’re saying.”

“You do?”

“Mmmm…” Taako rests his chin on the back of his hand, which rested on of his knee. “We see fucked up shit all the TIME, man. You get tired of doing it day in and day out. It’s not like I’m gonna fuckin’ pull a sweet flip off the side of the moon, but you want a fuckin’ break, you know?”

“Yeah.” The fighter is relieved that his friend understands.

The elf drummed his fingers against the curve of his knee before sitting back, stretching his legs out and sighing, leaning back on his palms. “Magnus…”

“Yeah?”

I fucked up.”

“What do you mean?”

Taako’s voice was soft and unusually sincere. As he spoke, his face started to drift away again, away from Magnus’ gaze. “When we were looking through the rift, I thought I saw…”

“You saw him too, right?”

“Yeah…” Slender elf fingers dug into the pebbles below them, fidgeting with a fantasy ping-pong-sized stone. “The thing is is I thought about… Just letting you go and trying to grab Kravitz out of the water. Just for a second, isn’t that whack crap? I would’ve never reached him in time, anyway.”

Silence.

“... I’m just fuckin’ with ya!” Taako threw his hands up jokingly. “Psych! I wouldn’t do that! Taako don’t play that shit!”

“Taako, if you were serious, it’s okay. You didn’t actually - ”

“Hell no I didn’t! That’d be fucked up!” He shoved a hand through his hair, pushing his bangs out of the way.

It looked a little more frantic than Magnus thinks he intended.

“Gods, I go on one fucking date with some GUY and I’m ready to throw away the best friendship I’ve ever had? What the fuck would be WRONG with me if I did THAT?”

“You went on a - ”

“Um. Mmmm. Yup. That happened.” He looked pointedly away again, and yanked his shirt collar tight once more.

Magnus waited for him to speak.

“... Listen. I probably wouldn’t have been able to reach him in time, anyway, huh?”

“I don’t THINK so, no.”

“Right, so better said than done, yeah?”

“Probably.”

Another Taako-noise as he turned to look back at the stream, and Magnus took the opportunity to examine the elf’s new face.

The usual curl of his hair was lessened, the shine less luxurious. His skin lacked its usual glow, and his lashes lay shorter on now more-prominent eye bags. It was still Taako, against all odds, but a version of Taako that made Magnus’ heart (or where his heart usually would have been) ache. He had seen his friend primp and fuss over his appearance hundreds of times in the past, and many others throw on whatever he had laying about to stroll through the bureau looking like a hundred gold pieces. Seeing the proud, beautiful creature that had been curl up and hide his face away like this sent pangs of empathetic agony through the fighter.

“Taako, you know I think you’re a great friend, right?”

Taako didn’t respond for a long time.

“Thanks, Magnus.”

“No prob’, buddy. No hard feelings?”

“None.”

“Cool.”

“Well ain’t this a romantic spot!” Called a voice behind them, followed by a rustling as Merle stumbled onto the stream bed.

Taako turned and jammed his hat onto his head. “You smell like a tavern after happy hour, darling.”

“‘M fine. Just needed t’ get all my ya-yas out before the big showdown.”

“Yeah, speaking of which…” Taako and Magnus clambered to their feet. “When IS that? Where the fuck are we even going following this Red Robe guy? Isn’t he supposed to be the BAD guy?”

Merle snorted. “You were rarin’ to go back at Wonderland.”

“I was DYING! I was probably high on blood loss and adrenaline and now I’m startin’ to think that the Taako thing to do might be to get out of here before we blow up anything else or have to spin a fuckin’ wheel or some shit again.”

“Well, why don’t we ask the guy who seems to know what’s up?” Merle looked up at Magnus’ blank face.

Taako turned as well, and Magnus hesitated.

It’s not that he didn’t want to tell them, it was just that…

“Guys, I know this fucking sucks right now, but you HAVE to trust me. Right now the thing we have to do is do what the Red Robe says, and I PROMISE I’ll explain later.”

Merle and Taako shoot a glance at each other, and a tense moment passed where Magnus would have held his breath if he had any.

“... We’ve pulled stupider crap in the past.” Merle pointed out.

Taako sighed, resting a hand on his hip. “Look. It’s not that you’re WRONG, it’s just that this is the first time we’re really on our own, kemosabes.” He tapped the cuff of his bracer pointedly. “On the other hand…” He looked at Magnus. “... I trust you, my fella. You wouldn’t lead us into certain doom without a back-up plan, right?”

Magnus laughed, mostly out of surprise. “On my own, absolutely. With you guys? I’m not gonna let anything happen to you.”

“Yeah, that’s fair.” Taako shrugged. “I’m in.”

Merle looked from the wizard to the fighter, then shrugged and offered; “Hell, we’ve come THIS far… Sorry I doubted you.”

“I swear I’ll make it up to you.”

“Listen, you can make your big, noble, declarations AFTER we’re out of this mess.” Smirked Taako. “You already owe me one epic fanart-inducing soul-grab out of another plane of existence.”

“Ahhhh, yeah… About that…” Merle rubbed the back of his neck. “I promise we’ll find you a Blue Fairy or something to make you a real boy again, Pinocchio. I’ll make it up to ya.”

“Hey, it’s not SO bad for now.” Magnus chuckled. “Maybe it’ll help me kick some ass in the next arc, whatever that is.”

“Hell yeah.” Piped up Taako.

“Hell yeah.” Magnus agreed.

As they made their way back to the campsite, Taako pressed a hand to Magnus’ back. The wizard wasn’t one for physical affection, so he knew it was for his benefit. Once back to the fireside, Merle announced that “this is for Magnus’ lost sweet bod” and poured out a generous portion of what he was guessing was cheerwine into the dirt. His two companions finally settled down for the night, the fireside feeling just a bit less gloomy as they began to drift into sleep and meditation respectively.

The grim knowledge that whatever lay ahead was sure to take its toll, and the lingering effects of Wonderland clung to all of them to be carried on into the future.

Magnus sat in silence as the fire died out, the Red Robe at the edge of his vision.

Whatever was coming was dark and damaging, for sure, but in this moment, looking at his resting friends, it brought him some relief knowing that they were still with him.

And for now, that could get him through the night.

For now, it was enough.

For now.