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Chat Noir carefully avoided yet another one of the odd, silvery strands making up the dome he was heading towards. He knew that he would find an akuma inside that dome but he had no idea how he would defeat or purify it, since Ladybug had been absent all day, and it had been hours since the akuma was first spotted.

But he had to try.

As he stepped into the dome, he immediately noticed the huge, human-shaped caccoons suspended in the air, muffled yelling and crying coming from them. And at the very tip of the dome, suspended with strands, stood the akuma. He couldn't see her face, but her black suit stood out against the silver dome— and so did the red hourglass on her back.

Chat was so distracted by watching her that he stopped paying paying attention and walked right into one of the strands.

Shit.

As he desperately tried to rip his foot off of the sticky strand, the entire dome started shuddering with his movements, and the akuma slowly turned around. He eyes darted across her, noting her red and black mask, her smirking red lips, and her black hair carefully pulled into a crisp bun. And the glossy spider legs unfurling behind her.

"Hello chaton."

Everything dropped out under from him, his veins going cold. "L-Ladybug?"

Chapter Text

"Hey Bonnie. Did I do something wrong?"

"What? No! Today was great!"

"No, not today. I mean when we used to date."

"Oh."

"Everything was going fine and then... you just cut me off. You dumped me and erased me from your life and I just... I want to know what I did."

"... You didn't do anything. It wasn't you, it was me."

"Bonnie—"

"That wasn't a joke; it really was all on me. I was scared."

"Of me?"

"No! Yes? Maybe. We were getting really serious."

"You could've just said you wanted to slow things down."

"But I didn't! I loved how things we were going between us!"

"Then why were you scared?"

"Because there was just so much going on. We were getting serious, other kingdoms were popping up, and the Candy Kingdom was suddenly booming and everyone was looking to me for guidance. It was too much to handle."

"I could've helped you. If you'd just asked..."

"I thought you'd leave. Don't look at me like that— you had no reason to stay with me. Helping me with the kingdom would've meant giving up your nomadic life, your partying and traveling and exploring. Why would you give all that up for me?"

"I would've stayed."

"Would you have? Really?"

"..."

"I didn't want you to leave me. I didn't want to give you the chance to hurt me like that. So I left you first."

"That's stupid."

"I know."

"..."

"..."

"I'm sorry, you know."

"Yeah. So am I."

Chapter Text

"Shouldn't you be in Ravenclaw or something?"

Carter jumped at the voice, suddenly noticing the green-eyed boy sitting across from him. Carter knew he was. Everyone knew he was. Percy Jackson. The Slytherin who seemed to wear his heart on his sleeve, who called out the bullies in Slytherin and who spent all his time hanging out with a weird group of people from all different backgrounds and every single house. Why Jackson was talking to him, a nerdy Gryffindor, was a mystery to Carter.

Realizing that he had yet to answer the other boy's question, Carter flushed. "W-what?"

The Slytherin frowned, staring at him intensely. "You're a Gryffindor, but I've never seen you do anything except read and study and read some more. Aren't Gryffindors supposed to run off and get into grand adventures and fight dragons or whatever? Why aren't you doing any of that?"

"Okay, first of all," Carter began, "if we're going by stereotypes, then you wouldn't belong in Slytherin either because you act more like a Gryffindor. Or are we forgetting the time that you jumped into the Great Lake to hang out with the Giant Squid? Not a very Slytherin thing to do."

Carter sort of expected Jackson to get angry, and was shocked when the other boy burst into laughter instead. "I like you, Carter! Wanna go to Hogsmeade with me this weekend?"

"Uh, sure?"

"Awesome!" Percy exclaimed, standing up to leave. "It's a date!"

Carter stared at his retreating back in shock, feeling like he just walked into an alternate universe where cute Slytherins noticed nerdy Gryffindors and where he could actually get a date without his sister setting it up for him.

What just happened?

Chapter Text

"Hey, do you have any concealer or foundation or something? I was kicked out last night and didn't have the chance to grab my stuff."

Tony looked up, finally noticing that his friend was standing right next to the swings he was sitting on. Now that he was actually looking at Natasha, he could see the bruises on her neck and a cut on her forehead. At least she wasn't bleeding. "I have my concealer, but we do not have the same skin tone. It would look ridiculous on you. We can stop at Walgreens or something before school."

"I don't have any cash on me."

"I'll cover it, don't worry. My old man doesn't pay any attention to the cards. I didn't have time to set my makeup this morning, so I need too touch it up anyway."

The two teenagers started walking in the direction of their school, continuing to murmur to each other while keeping an eye out for anyone they knew.

"Do you need somewhere to stay tonight? Howard won't notice as long as you stay in my room."

"Nah, I don't want to make things worse for you if he finds out. I'll just crash with Steve or something."

"Sarah will try filing a report again."

"Doesn't matter if she can't get any proof. And I'll have concealer by then."

"It won't do shit for that cut."

"I'll just say I fell while practicing ballet or something. It'll be fine."

The conversation continued all the way through them choosing makeup and sponges, going through checkout (including Natasha glaring the clerk into silence), and finally heading towards the bathrooms in the back. As Natasha started applying foundation, fighting back winces as she pressed on the bruises, Tony spoke up again. "You know, we could totally take a makeup class or two and learn how to do this shit properly. Youtube isn't as helpful as you'd think."

"Tony?"

"Yeah?"

"Please shut up. I'm trying to concentrate."

"I'm just saying—"

"Tony!"

"Fine, fine! Shutting up."

Chapter Text

"Could you... Could you teach me about Judaism?"

Ethan jerked his head up, staring at Joyce in shock. She was standing in his doorway, practically swimming in her largest, thickest sweater and looking like she'd just walked up to Satan himself to ask for dating advice. When he saw how scared and uncomfortable she looked, Ethan's reflexive defensiveness about his Judaism faded a bit and he turned away from his computer to look at her.

"Will you immediately start talking about Jesus the moment I make any sort of mention of a Messiah?" He was careful to keep his tone light, not wanting her to bolt.

"I'll, uh, try not to?" Joyce shrugged helplessly, still not looking at him. "But I can't make any promises. It's what I've believed my entire life you know?"

"No, no, I totally get it. Why do you want to learn about it anyway? And can we discuss this somewhere else? I have a depressing lack of seating in here." He got up from his desk and started gathering up his laptop and a small pile of books before heading towards the door. Joyce followed him to the lobby quietly.

"I dunno, I just... I love God! I do! He's everything to me, the most important part of my life. But Dorothy suggested that I 'expand my horizons' or something by researching other religions and I know that you're Jewish so I thought that I could try googling it and reading articles and stuff... And I actually really like it? Everything I read makes so much sense and clicks with me so well. I never realized that there was something missing from my faith until now, but I think I found it..." The more she spoke, the more closed off she became until she was basically buried in her sweater, trying so hard to avoid looking at anyone.

Ethan gently led her to one of the chairs, dragging another over to it so that they'd have a little cube of privacy. He started up his laptop while he tried to think of what to say. "I think that deciding to research other faiths was a really good idea on your part, even if it's just to understand your friends and avoid saying something offensive. And I also really understand questioning your faith."

For the first time, she met his eyes, still looking so heartbreakingly scared and unsure. "You... you do? But You've always seemed so sure about being Jewish."

Ethan let out a surprised snort of laughter. "'Sure?' I'm a gay guy who grew up in an unobservant family with parents who are only Jewish when it suits them. And the other Jews in my area were mostly Orthodox, which made me even more unsure about whether I can actually be gay and Jewish. I also eat Chick-fil-A, which is definitely not kosher, and the only Hebrew I know is the Kaddish and what I read for my Bar Mitzvah. I'm like, the worst Jew possible. I barely even know my own religion."

"Oh... So who do I talk to then? Dorothy isn't really Jewish and Joe is... Joe."

"You can still talk to me, of course. I have a ton of books on Judaism that my observant family members gave to me and I know a ton of websites with articles and resources. Some of these books are even specifically for conversion students and conversion prospects, which says a lot about how my family thinks of my Jewishness." He gave an awkward chuckle, looking genuinely embarrassed. "But it's working for us now, so I'm not going to complain."

"I'm not looking to convert! At least, I don't think I am, but... I don't know anymore."

Ethan just smiled at her gently. "Don't worry, you don't have to decide any time soon. For now, let's take it slow and just focus on learning. If you decide that you still want to look into converting a month or two from now, then we can email a rabbi and set up a meeting for you or something. Is that alright?"

"Yeah, that... that sounds good." Her voice was getting stronger as she gained confidence, but then she wilted again as something occurred to her. Will you help me? During the research and all that, but also when I tell my family if I decide to convert? I don't... I don't think I'd want to be alone for that."

"Of course I'll help you! You're one of my best friends and I'm so happy that you're trusting me with this. Honestly, I think this will be good for me too. I've been wanting to get more into my faith and this might be the motivation that I need. I was actually planning on going to Shabbat services tonight, if you want to come with me?"

"Yeah," she said, slowly starting to grin at her friend's excitement. "I think I'd really like that. Now, let's see these books you have!"

Chapter Text

"Are you serious? We have to finish three essays, study for the two exams next week, prepare for our meeting with the goblins, and plan for our bonding ceremony, and you're sleeping?"

Harry groaned and cracked one eye open. He wasn't particularly surprised to see his fiancé standing above him, framed by the soft light coming through the doorway. unfortunately, the angelic look was ruined by the rather fierce scowl on Tom's face.

"I was sleeping. And having a lovely dream too, until you interrupted me. Now either nap with me or leave me alone."

Somehow, Tom's scowl managed to get even deeper and when he spoke, his voice was sharp and icy. "We have work to do and you're napping in a broom closet. Not even in your bed or on a couch in the common room, but in a broom closet! It took me almost an hour to find you!"

"Why didn't you just use a Point Me spell?"

"That is not the point!"

Harry frowned, quickly realizing that the other boy was genuinely upset. "You don't need to worry about me. I've finished all my homework, I'm going to ace the exams whether I study or not, I've already finished getting everything together for the meeting, and I can't plan for the ceremony without my the input of my fiancé, now can I? Now," he said, patting the floor next to him,"calm down and tell me what's wrong."

There was a long beat of silence, and then Tom's shoulders slumped in defeat. Swallowing down his dignity, he sat down on the dusty floor of the closet, finally letting the tension leak out of him. "I suppose... I've been feeling rather stressed. There's so much going on, and it's... frightening to think that in just a few short months, we'll be graduates and Lords, and then we'll be married. Then we'll start our apprenticeships and we'll both be so busy with work and finances and politics. How will we be able to balance everything? What if we can't? What if it all falls apart? What if—"

Tom's voice had been steadily rising and it was obvious that he was talking himself into a panic. Harry wisely decided to cut off, pressing a soft kiss against his mouth. "Deep breaths. Breathe with me." The next few minutes were spent in silence until, finally, Tom's breathing was steady and calm and his head was tucked into the crook of Harry's neck.

"Are you feeling better now?" Harry waited until he felt the older boy nod against his neck. "Good. I understand why you're stressed. Hecate knows I'm stressed too, I'm just better at hiding it. A lot of things are changing, and they're changing really quickly. Our lives in a few months are going to radically different than they are now, and while I'd love to promise that everything will be fine, I can't. I'm not a seer. I can't see the future, and I have no idea what sort of obstacles are waiting for us. But I can promise that I'm here for you, and I'll always be here. You don't have to carry this worry alone anymore."

He stood up, pulling Tom up with him. "Now, we are going to go the library. You can finish your essays and we can study together. Then we can make a game plan for the meeting with the goblins and finalize some decisions for the ceremony. After that, we are going to take a nap."

"Seriously?"

"Yes, seriously. We are going to curl up in my bed and sleep for at least an hour. When we wake up, we'll have slow, sleepy sex and make inane pillow talk until we're ready to actually get up and get dressed. And then we'll play a game of chess or two before worrying about all that other shite on our schedule. Sound good to you?"

"You'll just cheat."

An unashamed shrug was the only response Tom received. "Maybe. But that's what makes it interesting! Now come on. There's an armchair in the library and a bed in the dorms that are calling my name, and I refuse to deprive them of my presence any longer."

"You know, for a Slytherin, you are remarkably unambitious. You just spend all your time sleeping."

"I'm ambitious! My ambitions just happen to mostly involve living a life of lazy luxury where I can sleep and watch the clouds all day while my successful and incredibly handsome husband takes over the world."

Tom chuckled and pressed a kiss to Harry's head. "Fair enough."

Chapter Text

Tom had faced down countless countless and come out victorious. He outsmarted manticores, tamed basilisks, even forced giants to bow to him.

But this might be his most dangerous quest yet.

The cave he stood in was massive, and so oppressively dark that even the light of his magic could only illuminate a few feet. The little light he had revealed glimmers in the stone floor, hinting at priceless treasures hidden just below the surface. He had no doubt that the cave was filled with precious gems, diamonds and sapphires and rubies, enough to make even the most experienced adventurer cry from awe.

But that was not what Tom was here for. Instead, his focus was on the imperfections in the floor, massive grooves that revealed what sort of creature lived in this cave and claimed this mountains.

A dragon.

A beast of smoke and flame, with a hide that is near impenetrable and a set of claws strong enough to cut through diamonds as if they're paper. A beast that is so powerful that lesser creatures think of it as a god. A beast that many would run away from before they even get a glimpse of it, the smell of smoke and the thundering beat of its wings enough to drive any but the bravest knights away.

And Tom was standing in the den of one of those beasts.

Perhaps, if he was smarter, he would've never given thought to the rumors of flames in the far mountains. Never journeyed to a tiny village at the base of said mountains, where every home contained a statue of a dragon, surrounded with offerings of flowers and stones and whatever else the home's occupants could spare. Never climbed those mountains, with their snow-capped peaks and seemingly empty caves. Never approached the entrance of the highest and largest cave, the cave that no other creatures would step foot near, as if there was a barrier surrounding it. Never stepped foot into that cave as if he couldn't feel every part of him screaming to run.

Thinking about this, about the fearsome beast he was about the encounter, Tom was struck with a bone-deep terror that he hadn't felt since he was a child, that left him paralyzed in place. His mind was screaming at him to run, run, run but even if he could have, it was too late.

The shadows surrounding him had started to shift and a soft, pulsing light was cutting through the darkness. And from that darkness, an eye peered out at him.

The face the eye was set in was impressive on its own, with a long snout, a powerful maw filled with massive teeth, thick fur forming a beard, and hint of piercing antlers that disappeared into the shadows.

But the eye... It was the most beautiful thing Tom had ever seen, so stunning that he could actually feel himself relaxing just a tiny bit. The pupils were so dark that they seemed to absorb light, while the iris was faceted, as if it was cut from the finest and most brilliant emerald in the world.

For the first time in his life, Tom understood why poets were so obsessed with the beauty of dragons.

And then the beast opened his mouth.

"Tell me, little hatchling, what brings you to my mountains?"

Tom gathered his nerve, straightened his back, and forced himself to gaze directly into that massive eye. "Great Dragon Lord Hyperion, I come bearing a gift of obsidian and diamond for you in return for a favor. I have heard that you and I share a common enemy, a wizard who has stolen a part of your hoard from you and stolen my life from me. A wizard who calls himself the Lord of the Light. Who goes by the name of Albus Dumbledore."

Tom could see the dragon, Hyperion, was becoming interested and with newly found vigor, he continued speaking.

"He is hidden in his castle, a fortress that he disguises as a safe haven, but those who enter must swear fealty to him or else they are turned away and left for dead. He uses them as soldiers, canon fodder for the battles that he starts. And then he dresses them up as martyrs, as if they made the choice to sacrifice themselves for a just cause. He hides the truth, that he has manipulated and lied to every single one of his followers in his attempt to gain more power. I was one of his many victims, but I was one of the few fortunate enough to see him for what he is before it was too late. And now I want to save the others caught in his web.

"If you help me kill him and reclaim what he has stolen from the both of us, then there will great rewards awaiting you. You will receive more riches than you could ever imagine. You will be regarded as the most powerful and fearsome being in the lands, able to end the rule of the most powerful warlock in history. Temples will be built and offerings left in your honor. You will become a god. And, most importantly, you will regain the missing piece of you beloved hoard and get the revenge that you have sought for decades.

"Now tell me, Great Dragon, do you accept my proposal?"

Hyperion watched him in silence for several long, tense moments until finally, a grin split across his face.

"I think, little hatchling, that this is the start of a beautiful partnership."

Chapter Text

Pearl was numb, feeling like she was watching herself from above. She didn't know how she felt when she looked around, saw the pink walls and gossamer curtains and the unnamed pink Gems watching her. She definitely didn't know she felt when she looked into Steven's eyes and, instead of warm brown and round pupils, she saw a familiar set of pink with a diamond center. She didn't know how she felt, but she guessed it would be close to horror.

Before she could gather herself after that horrible bombshell he'd dropped on them– he couldn't have joined their enemies he couldn't have betrayed them like that why was he hurting her like this – Steven spoke. "Pearlescent, please show the Crystal Gems to their quarters. My Sapphires are expecting me."

The slim figure peeled herself off the wall, gazing at adoringly. Her salute was elegant and refined, as if she had been doing it for centuries instead of only months. Pearl felt sick looking at it. "Of course, my Diamond. I hope your meeting goes well."

With that, Steven– Pink Diamond, her baby boy, what was happening – strode from the throne room, leaving them alone with his silent Court. The Pink Pearl, her hair in a sleek bob and her gossamer skirt gently floating around her, twirled towards the door, her movements all effortless grace. "Please follow me. Your quarters are this way."

Pearl barely registered moving, barely noticed the other Crystal Gems walking with her (or Greg and Connie, oh stars, why did they have to see this?), but some part of her wept at the sight of the pink crystal walls and stained glass roses surrounding them. The journey was almost finished, everyone still silent, when she finally found her own emotions. And since Steven wasn't there, she focused on the person who was.

"You don't have to do this!"

The Pink Pearl– Pearlescent, as Steven had called her– turned towards them in surprise, not expecting the outburst. "Of course I do, my Diamond gave me orders to show you to your quarters. Now, if we could continue–"

"That's not what I meant!" Pearlescent's calm demeanor and sweet smile was doing nothing except make Pearl more upset. "You don't have to continue being a slave! You can run! Right now! You're a Pearl, everyone would just assume that you're following orders and no one would question you if you went to a hangar! You could be on Earth in just a few hours. You could be free."

Pearlescent just watched in silence as Pearl talked, but her smile had become strained and the skin around her eyes was tight. When she spoke, her voice was colder than ice. "I will not abandon my duties, or my Diamond."

"But–!"

"Because, unlike you, I am not a traitor." The corridor wasn't empty, far from it, but Pearlescent was not afraid, had no worries that her Diamond would punish her for her words. "Everyone knows about you. You were the original Pink Pearl, the Pearl who failed her Diamond by leading her astray. You are nothing more than a defect, and I will not allow you too influence my Diamond. I will not allow you to take him from me."

With that, Pearlescent spun on her heel and continued walking, motioning for them to follow her. She could feel the weight of the gazes of other Court members, and she didn't care. This needed to be said.

The group continued in silence until they reached an empty corridor, set aside from the other sections of the palace. Before she left though, she had one final thing to say to the renegade Pearl. "I hate you for failing your Diamond, for causing the other Diamonds pain. But I am also grateful to you. If you hadn't failed, then the original Pink Diamond would still be here. And I wouldn't have my Diamond."

The Crystal Gems stared at her in silence, growing horror on their faces. She gave them a sickeningly sweet smile.

"Now, here are your quarters. I hope you have a lovely stay on Homeworld." And with that, she strolled away.

Chapter Text

He couldn't speak, couldn't breathe, couldn't think. It was as if his entire body had gone cold, his universe shrinking down to center around one thing, a single sentence that just running through his mind in a never-ending loop.

"Brad, I'm. . . so sorry."

It was supposed to be a routine mission, a search for a relic that the Director was almost positive was a dead end but wanted to check anyway, just in case. It should've been over with by now, a quick look through of the town and the surrounding area for any signs of relic activity before it was declared to be another false lead. Taako should've been back home by now, lying on the couch with his feet in Brad's lap while he complained about the weird things that Merle and Magnus had gotten up to while they were on-planet. They should've made dinner together, messed around with each other while getting ready for bed, and then fallen asleep curled up around each other.

Instead, Taako was cold and stiff, a hole in his chest that Brad couldn't unsee, even after just a glimpse.

It had been the Red Robe, the Director had explained. Taako had gotten separated from the others during the search and while Merle and Magnus were fine, their wizard was desperately trying to fight off an opponent that he hadn't expected and had no hope of beating. One hit, from a spell that would've taken down something much larger than a wispy Moon Elf, and Taako was down. When the others had finally found him, he was lying still on the forest floor, his breathing soft and wet, with a terrifying figure hovering over him until it vanished moments later. The wound in his chest would've been too much for even the most experienced healer to fix, and his friends were left to watch him take his last few wheezing breaths.

As the Director relayed all this to him, he could barely hear her over the rushing of blood in his ears. His entire world had been pulled out from under him, and he barely noticed her own grief and poorly concealed fear. Merle and Magnus were nowhere to be seen, as if they had brought the news to the Director and then bolted as quickly as possible.

And now, Brad was alone in his too-large and too-quiet apartment, the same apartment he'd been sharing with Taako on the Moon Base for months now. Before Taako had moved in, Brad had felt it was too big for just him and now it felt terrifyingly vast and empty, only recognizable as his home because of the pillow that smelled like Taako and the little things scattered around the apartment that prevented him from forgetting, even for just a moment, that he was alone now.

A book on the use of transmutation magic in scientific research, resting on the coffee table with a purple bookmark shoved haphazardly in the middle.

A bottle of silver nail polish on the bathroom counter, left there from a late night nail session when neither of them could sleep.

The edges of a pink skirt peeking out from under their bed, dropped and forgotten after a particularly amazing date.

A little black box hidden in the drawer of the table on Brad's side of the bed, waiting for its owner to finally gather up the nerve to ask the question that been hovering on the tip of his tongue for weeks.

A question that he'd never get the chance to ask now.

Deep down, Brad knew that he had things to do, a funeral and services to help arrange and a Bureau to help run, he couldn't bring himself to move from his position on the bed, too scared of leaving everything he had left of Taako and coming back to find it all. . . gone, somehow. As if those little pieces were there never to begin with.

As if Taako was never there.

So he stayed in his bed, curled around a pillow that smelled like moonflower perfume and nail polish and electricity and Taako, and for a moment, he let himself pretend. He imagined that it was all a horrible dream, a nightmare dredged up from his deepest fears. That he'd wake up in the morning to the smell of pancakes and syrup and the elderflower tea sitting in their cabinet. That he'd spend the morning curled up around a smaller body, soft and cool like an autumn night, as he recovered from a bad dream.

He imagined having another chance.

It wasn't his reality, but for just a moment, he could pretend it was.

Chapter Text

For just a moment, inside that ancient temple, surrounded by stone and the ever-pressing danger of Corypheus's templars, Feynrith closed his eyes and shut everything out.

He stopped noticing the Bull's worried gaze trained on his form, the disapproval radiating from his hahren, the nervous twitching of Cole's fingers, and the cool stare of Abelas. He even managed to block out the rage-inducing presence of the sneering witch for the first time since they stepped foot into this sacred temple.

(That smug, infuriating shem, thinking she has more of a right to his culture, to his people, than he does. How dare she—)

For just a moment, a split second of time, Feynrith shut all of that out and just felt. He felt the pulse of the earth beneath his bare feet, the age of the stones he was surrounded by, the magic that flowed through him and coiled in his chest, warming him like the sun and giving him the strength he so desperately needed. But, most importantly, he felt the glowing threat connecting him to his patron, the thread that has guided him since he first touched a book, since he first listened to a story, since he first got a taste of knowledge.

("He has chosen you, da'len," Hahren Deshanna murmured to him, with the two of them tucked away in their aravel, far from prying ears. Her fingers traced the stinging lines of his fresh vallaslin, her eyes dark and somber, but oh so warm. "He has chosen you to guide and to cherish, to always watch over, and you must prove to Him that He has chosen well. Do Him proud, mir banal'ras, and always listen when He speaks to you. He will not lead you astray."

Her words stayed with him that night, and by the break of dawn, they had woven into his dreams and embedded themselves into his heart. He would never forget.)

With just a thought, Feynrith touched that thread, and was gently enveloped in the soft embrace of his Creator. A whisper was carried to his ears on the breeze, in a rasp of a voice that only he could hear, that was only meant for him.

Go, it whispered to him, surreal and familiar, as cold as a winter morning and as warm as the magic inside of him. Reclaim the knowledge that was stolen from us, da'len. Reclaim what was stolen from our People. Give it back to those it belongs to. Go!

And with not a trace of doubt in his heart, Feynrith opened his eyes, braced himself for what was to come, and stepped into the well, ignoring the shouts and cries of those around him. He felt the knowledge of millennia weave into his mind and memories, the voices of elves long-dead crying out to the first person to listen to them in countless years, and he let himself relax and smile. There was no fear in his heart, only the warmth of belonging and a sense of rightness in what he had done.

After all, Dirthamen would never steer him wrong.

Chapter Text

It started, as so many things do, in bed.

The two of them were curled together, just basking in the warmth of the room, the touch of skin, and each other's presence. Brad's hand was slowly running up and down Taako's slim back, the motion soothing until he realized that could feel every little bump of bone. Each vertebra was clearly defined, so sharp against his hand that it was almost like they were trying to burst through Taako's skin.

Brad's hand stuttered to a stop, but quickly started moving again when Taako's purring broke off into a questioning trill. The sharp lines of his back were not brought up, and the evening continued as usual.

***

But once he noticed, Brad couldn't help seeing the other signs, little things that he hadn't noticed (or maybe he hadn't cared to notice). He became hyper aware of the angles of Taako's form, the curve of his back, the thinness of his wrists. His odd relationship with food.

He started realizing that, in the year or so they'd been together, he'd only seen Taako eat a few times. Even during the meals they shared together, he just cut his food into smaller and smaller pieces, a constant and mindless movement while he chattered about his day. When he did eat, it was tiny pieces of raw and unseasoned fruit or vegetables, carefully sliced apples or plain celery sticks brought to his mouth by shaking hands. Unsweetened tea or coffee were staples in Taako's diet, with the occasional smoothie.

Their pristine kitchen was run by Taako with an iron fist, something that Brad had always thought of as endearing but could only find worrying after his realization. It wasn't normal to clean the kitchen from top to bottom every day, using a bleach mixture that was so strong that they had to open all the windows in the apartment to air it out. It also wasn't normal to wash every dish twice, to freak out at the slightest threat of food contamination, to become so stressed and upset over the slightest change in his organization. None of it was normal or healthy.

Worst of all though were the sharp angles of Taako's body. Brad had always been aware of that incredible form, for a variety of reasons, but now, that lust and love was threaded with worry and an ever growing sense of fear. Long after Taako had fallen into his meditation, Brad would still be awake, tracing his large fingers over the veins in his lover's arms and the jutting edges of his ribs. The few times he tried, he could almost fit his hands around Taako's waist, the elf's body so frail that it was like he was made of glass.

Brad feared the day that he would start seeing cracks.

***

Their lives continued on as normal, filled with love and laughter. Soft kisses were interspersed with compliments and declarations of love and adoration. Meals were made together and shared over the table, conversation flowing easily. Days and nights passed in a contented haze.

And Brad continued watching Taako wither away into nothing, not knowing what to do to keep the love of his life from slowly wasting away, feeling like their shared happiness was on a time limit. Every second that ticked past was part of a silent but looming countdown in his head, nights filled with dreams of a skeleton in a box, leaving his gasping into the darkness of his bedroom. The soft breathing of the form next to him did little to calm Brad down on those nights. He wanted desperately to reach out, to beg Taako to fight or to at least acknowledge that there was a battle going on, that there was a war going on and Taako's life was on the line.

But he didn't have the words, didn't even know where to start. What could Brad possibly say or do to fix this? What if he just made things worse? What if he caused the life they built to come crashing down around them? What if Taako bolted, forced Brad to the sidelines to watch as his love continued to waste away and being unable to do anything about it, not even provide comfort?

And so his fear kept him silent, kept his worries tucked inside his heart and in his hands, offering food and comfort and love and silent pleas.

And life continued on.

Chapter Text

"There's seventeen frequencies on the fridge in case anything happens, and nine of them are emergency services. We also have four fully stocked first aid and healing kits, but if she gets hurt, call Merle immediately anyway and maybe a hospital. Each kit contains—"

When Angus agreed to babysit baby Zaagichigaazo for the night, he was expecting a lot of things. Brad hovering over him and telling him about the seven kinds of bandages they have in excruciating detail was not one of those things. Taako was with baby Zaagi' in the other room, having very happily left Angus to be cornered by his worrywart of a husband.

"—Lup and Barry are both available if you need them for anything, but I'd really rather you call Davenport first. I think Barry is trying to teach Zaagi' some basic rituals and I'd really rather not have my toddler become a necromancer, so—"

"Babe," Taako swept into the room, his black and gold dress impeccable and Zaagi' cradled in his arms, happily cooing at her gizhaa. "Agnes is a very capable young man, he doesn't need a two hour long lecture on how to take care of a baby. If you're so worried, then go check the baby proofing spells again."

Brad wrung his hands for a moment longer, but when Taako made a shooing motion at him, he gave a defeated sigh and left the living room. Taako looked at Angus and rolled his eyes, fondly exasperated.

"He always gets like this whenever we leave her with someone. You should've seen him the first time we let Mavis and Mookie babysit; I thought he was genuinely going to have a heart attack from the worry." He quickly pushed Zaagi' into Angus' arms, adjusting the teenager so that he was holding her correctly. "There's bottles of milk in the fridge and the warmer is in the cabinet above the coffee machine, just be sure that they're not too warm before you give them to her."

Brad quickly poked his head in from the room. "Splash some on your face! Most people say the wrist, but they're wrong, the skin is too tough."

Another eye roll from Taako. "There's plenty of food in the kitchen, but if you're somehow not in the mood for any of my amazing leftovers, the top drawer to the left of the sink has delivery menus so just order whatever. Charge it to the emergency card, it's on the desk in the office. The guest bedroom is also all set up for you, and if you sleep on the couch again, I will know."

Angus nodded quickly, trying to remember everything he was being told while Zaagi' giggled and babbled at him, tugging on his curls and trying to grab his glasses.

"Zaagichigaazo is way more durable than Brad thinks she is, and she's also a curious little shit. As long as she isn't trying to open the door or play with knives or drink chemicals or doing anything else like that, you can leave her to her own devices. She also has a ton of toys scattered literally everywhere, so she'll be easy to amuse. She's also teething right now though, so make sure that you always have teething toys nearby; it's really important that she has things to chew on right now so that her tusks grow in correctly."

When Brad walked back into the room, he looked much calmer. His face was a bit damp, like he'd splashed himself with water, but the braids in his ponytail were straightened out and he'd found a tie at some point; the gold and black crane pattern matched Taako's dress perfectly. The smile he gave Angus was strained, but genuine. "I know I'm being a bit difficult right now—"

"A bit?" Taako scoffed from where he was fixing his hair in front of the hall mirror.

"— but I'm just worried. I trust you, of course, but it's hard to leave your baby alone."

"I understand, sir," Angus assured. "I would never let anything happen to Zaagi' though, I promise."

Brad's smile softened, but when he opened his mouth to reply, Taako stalked back towards them and grabbed Angus' shoulders. "Angus, pumpkin, I trust you with my life and, more importantly, my child's life. Don't disappoint me." Taako's grip tightened and his gaze became more intense. "But rest assured, if you call us for anything less than Zaagi' going to the Fantasy ER because she's literally dying, I will murder you. I need this night off, Angus."

"I—"

Taako leaned in closer, almost brushing his nose against Angus'. "I need it."

Angus swallowed heavily. ". . . I understand, mister Taako."

The elf finally let go of his shoulders and stepped back, smiling brightly. "Wonderful! Now give me my baby so that I can say bye."

After they'd peppered her face in kisses and murmured to her about a variety of things ("Gizhaa and mazcha have to go, but you'll be good for gisayenh Angus, won't you moonlight? Of course you will, you're literally perfect."), Taako and Brad finally leave. Even after they'd said goodbye and pulled on their shoes and coats, Taako was tugging on Brad's arm, dragging him away from where he was anxiously reciting all of their emergency information to Angus again.

"Have a nice anniversary!" Angus called to them.

"Oh sweetie," Taako winked. "We will."

When the door finally clicked shut, Taako threatening to file for divorce if they miss their reservation, Angus turned back to babbling toddler sitting on a blanket in the middle of the living room. When he smiled, she squealed and giggled at him.

"So, little Zaagi', what do you want to do tonight?"

Chapter Text

"Do you know what I see when I look at you, Nisha?"

The Overboss's voice was soft, nearly gentle, and yet it still managed to cut into Nisha like a blade. His constant smile, marred by those horrific scars, and cold, blank eyes always made her shiver, but now, she felt like a radstag that had managed to catch a deathclaw's eye. Every part of her was screaming that she in danger, that she had to get away, and yet she was pinned there.

She wouldn't show it though, wouldn't give that smug and sadistic bastard the satisfaction of knowing he got to her. Some upstart boss who laid with the mutts was no match for her.

So Nisha smiled back at him with all her teeth, meeting his eyes like she didn't have a care in the world. If he wanted to play predator, she would rise up to the challenge and make him regret it. "A badass and powerful raider boss with a lethal gang? Because that's what I see in the mirror every morning. I wouldn't judge you for being intimidated, everyone is."

Fuck. Not even a blink from him. He just kept smiling, like nothing could touch him.

"No Nisha," the Overboss said, voice still so soft and gentle. "What I see? Is someone disposable."

( ice in her veins, run,, run, GET O—)

"I see a brat playing dress-up," he continued, casually, like he wasn't cutting her down in front of the other Nuka-World bosses. "I see a child who has real confidence in herself or her raiders. I see a supposed 'boss' whose gang would turn on her in a millisecond if it meant surviving for just a few minutes longer. I see a cornered dog too busy snapping at everyone else to see the situation she's in for what it is."

He leaned in close, his face nearly touching hers. Nisha knew that Mags and William were smirking at the display, that Mason was looking like this was the greatest day of his life, but she couldn't even bring herself to pay attention to them. All she saw was that mouth, the shiny white teeth and the endless smile cut into it. That was a mouth that went for the throat, teeth built for ripping into a jugular and tearing apart muscle, and she was intimately, terrifyingly aware of how close they were to her neck.

When the Overboss spoke again, his voice was nearly a whisper, meant only for her to hear.

"I see a weak link in our otherwise perfect chain. I see a liability. And we all know what happens to liabilities in Nuka-World, don't we?"

It wasn't a question.

He smiled at her one more time, his eyes still so cold and hard. "Think on it, Nisha."

With that, he turned on his heel and stalked away, completely unconcerned with exposing his back to her, Mason on his tail like a bitch in heat. Gage, Mags, and William each looked at her for a long moment before following.

That night, when Nisha over her gang and their domain in Fizztop Mountain, she thought about demanding retribution. She thought about sending her raiders after him, telling them to bring his head back to her on stake, his filthy mutt neutered and both of them finally put in their place.

Then she thought about the Overboss's words. If she made the Disciples choose between her and him, would they actually side with her? Or was she playing a fool's game, trusting such cutthroat people to have her back? So instead of seeing her mistake for herself, she retreated into her cabin, a gun tucked under her pillow, Dixie's watchful presence outside the door leaving Nisha more paranoid than secure.

She didn't know who she could trust, not really, but she sure as hell wasn't going to put her faith in this place now. Not anymore.

It was time for a change.

Chapter Text

The kitchen wasn't silent, but Angus didn't expect it to be. It was quieter than usual, with only him and Taako in the house, but it was still full of life; the low thrum of the oven, the clicking of the utensils against metal and stone, and Taako's soft humming all filled the room with a life that Angus had come to cherish. It wasn't often that he was able to visit this house, between work and school, but in this moment, with that alien song and the smell of lingonberry jam filling the room, it felt like he had never left.

But not even that feeling of comfort and happiness could completely ease the turmoil in his head.

When Angus had first come to the house, he wasn't expecting it to be practically empty, with Barry, Lup, and Kravitz on an assignment and the rest of the crew off doing their own things. Even Brad was out, having been called into work on his day off. The only one home was Taako, who had taken one look at his protege and immediately ushered him into the kitchen, announcing that they were going to make the “best damn jam this side of the Séngíroll River.” Angus didn't know what that meant and assumed it was something from Taako's mysterious homeworld, but he went along with it anyway.

And now here he was, standing at an oven, watching a pot of water and lingonberries slowly come to a boil. A couple feet away, Taako was patting dough into tiny cups, jars of salmonberry jam by his side, waiting to be added. “The lingonberry jam'll be too hot for the tarts today,” he'd told Angus earlier. “We need to let it cool and set before using it. But it's gonna be so damn good when it's ready.”

Every time he walked past Angus to get something, he would gently drag his fingers through the teenager's curls, the touch brief but reassuring. That quiet show of support was what gave Angus the confidence to finally speak up.
“Sir? How do you. . . how do you handle it?”

Taako gave a questioning hum, not looking up from the dough.

“The changes, I mean.” Angus stared at the pot, as if he was waiting for it to answer. “How do you handle all the changes?”

When Taako didn't respond, Angus could feel himself spiraling. His thoughts had already been a torrent, but now they were a tsunami, overwhelming everything else in his head.

“I just— Everyone tells me not to worry, that everything will be okay. But it's all changing so fast! And I don't know. . . I don't know how to handle that! I don't—“

Angus was cut off suddenly by a pair of arms, one going around his shoulders, the other turning off the stove and moving the pot to the back burner before wrapping him up in a hug. The smell of coconut and electricity was a familiar comfort, and Angus felt himself going limp in Taako's embrace. In the blink of an eye, they were in the living room, curled up together on the loveseat.

“You okay, pumpkin?” Taako's voice was soft and calm, a port in the storm. Angus nodded into his chest, but didn't speak. “Can you tell me what's wrong?” A head shake this time, and still more silence.

Taako hummed and started running his fingers through Angus's hair. “Alright, that's fine. You can talk whenever you're ready.”

Minutes passed and, at some point, Taako started humming that same song from the kitchen, one that was apparently something he'd carried over from his home, a lullaby his aunt used to sing to him and Lup. For all that Angus couldn't understand it, couldn't even begin to comprehend the language it was in, he could understand the meaning. He could understand the love behind it, the message Taako was sending.

He pulled back and curled into Taako's side, staring at the wall across from them. He took a deep, bracing breath. “I was talking to Shaimra recently.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. And she was telling me. . . She was telling me that my aging is starting to slow down.”

Taako gave a thoughtful hum, something Angus felt more than he heard. “That sounds about right. Dragons age differently when they're living in a different form. I'm honestly surprised that it took this long for yours to slow.”

Angus nodded. “I knew that. I knew it would happen. But. . .”

“But?”

“It's different knowing that someone is going to happen and that thing actually happening, you know? I don't. . . I don't want everything around me to change while I stay the same.” His words were coming faster now. “I went to visit Lucretia and Magnus the other day and— and— Lucretia has more wrinkles than I remember! And Magnus has gray hair! And they're both getting older and they're not going to be around forever and I don't want them to leave! I don't want to have to bury my family!”

By the time he was done talking, Angus was nearly shouting. But even as Taako's ears pressed against his head, the elf himself never flinched, never drew back. Instead, his arms tightened around Angus and pulled him closer, and that meant that the boy could feel all the breath leave his mentor in a heavy sigh.

“Yeah, pumpkin. I know.”

When he pulled back, it was to turn himself and Angus so that they were sitting cross-legged on the couch, facing each other. His face was serious and when he spoke, his voice was somber. But his eyes stayed gentle, and Angus anchored himself in that.

“The thing you have to realize, sweetheart, is that things change.”

When Angus went to interrupt, Taako raised a perfectly manicured hand to stop him.

“I know what you're thinking. 'Oh great and powerful and oh so beautiful Taako,'” Angus giggled, “'of course things change! We all know that!' But things don't always change how you expect them to. There are things in the world that you think are permanent and even they change. Empires rise and fall, gods are born and they die, and even the mountains crumble eventually.”

He broke himself off with a smirk. “I was once in a mountain that started collapsing. Believe me, it was not a pleasant experience. 2/10, would not recommend.”

Angus giggled again despite himself. “Two whole stars? For a mountain that was literally falling apart? Seems generous.”

“Not the worst place I've been in, hun. That dubious honor still goes to Magnus's room on the Starblaster.” His smile shrank a bit, but didn't disappear. “But seriously, things change and it's something you need to accept now before you spend the next 5 centuries fighting it.

“People are going to come and go. Sometimes that'll be their choice, sometimes it'll be yours, and sometimes it'll be something that neither of you have control over. And it fucking hurts, but that's how life is. You'll see new places, learn new things, fall in love and get hurt. One day, you might look up at the night sky and realize that it's different from what you remember, from what you know.

“And I hope, beyond hope, that when that happens, you'll be able to smile and think about how incredible this world is, to always be changing in ways you never expected.

“You need to be open to change, not just from what's around you but also from yourself. The people you meet are going to change you. So are the experiences you live through, whether they were wonderful or painful or just plain weird. Let those changes happen. Even if, after centuries, you don't look like you've aged a day, you'll still be a different person. Even dragons change, Angus, and that's okay.

“Things change. Maybe they change for the better, maybe for the worse. But no matter what, you can always be sure that nothing stays the same and find comfort in that, if nothing else. The only constant in life is that there are no constants.”

Finally done, Taako gave Angus a moment to think that over, graciously pretending not to see him furiously wiping his eyes.

“Thank you, sir. I don't understand now but. . . . Hopefully I will. One day.”

Taako gave him a bright smile. “Don't worry, pumpkin. You're a smart kid and you'll get it eventually.” He stood up, brushed nonexistent dirt and lint off his clothes, and offered Angus a hand. “Now, let's go see if we can salvage that jam. I really don't want to have to start over; the berry stall owner is a shrewd bitch and I cannot deal with that sooner than I absolutely have to.”

When Angus grinned and followed him back into the kitchen, it felt different. It felt like he was walking into something new, into a brighter future.

Maybe things would be alright after all. The only way he would find out was by moving forward.

Chapter Text

When Brad found out that the Reclaimers had been sent on another mission that morning, he was. . . disappointed to say the least. He had been looking forward to spending tomorrow with Taako, curled up on the couch or in bed, sharing meals and just talking and laughing. It's not like Brad had told Taako what day it was, wasn't willing to put himself in that sort of vulnerable position. But even if Taako didn't know the significance of the day, Brad would have and that alone would have made it special.

But it didn't matter. It was fine. Brad was fine. Everything was just fine.

Which is what Brad was still telling himself as he unlocked his door that night, after a long day of paperwork and interdepartmental mediation, all with the knowledge that the Reclaimers had left that morning. And then he walked into his apartment kitchen and found a box sitting on his counter. There was nothing particularly special about it, except for the fact that it was definitely not there this morning. It was a glossy white, large enough that he would need to hold it with both hands, and topped by a shiny purple ribbon with a card leaning against it. He realized, with a jolt, that the ribbon matched the one on one of Taako's favorite hats.

When he opened the note, recognizing the showy cursive handwriting, all it read was two words: Happy Birthday.

The box itself contained a cake; one topped with dark green powder, cutting into it revealing layers of green cream. It looked incredible, and Brad's chest felt warm at the fact that Taako had pushed against his fear of cooking for others and his fear of showing vulnerability enough to do this for him.

They'd been together for a while, though, “together” was pushing it. What had started as casual hookups had morphed into spending the night together, sharing meals, taking long walks through the base and even in various cities. The sight of them together had become commonplace, very rarely earning a second glance, and yet they still hadn't put a name to it. They were still in a weird stasis, somewhere between lovers and acquaintances, and Brad was afraid to cross that line even after months. He wanted more though, longed for it with an ache in his heart, but kept himself silent out of fear of scaring his flight risk of an elf.

But now, sitting in his living room, a plate of cake in one hand and the taste of matcha on his tongue, Brad allowed himself to consider that maybe he wasn't the only one who was scared. Maybe he wasn't the only one who wanted more.

When Taako got back from the Felicity Wilds, Brad decided, they would talk. Put all their cards on the table, get everything out in the open, and see what would grow from that.

It was worth a try, at least.

*

It didn't quite work out the way he had expected it to.

A few days after the Day of Story and Song, Brad found himself alone again, though the circumstances were entirely different. Instead of Taako being out on a mission, he was curled up somewhere with Lup, taking “twin time”, and Brad was in his apartment, mulling over 100 years' worth of memories that didn't belong to him.

There was dust in his hair still, the smell of blood on the base cloying, a stain that they would never be able to wash out. And yet, all he could think of was Taako and the four very different versions of him that Brad now knew.

There was the Taako he met at Camp Goodfriend, all flinty eyes and sharp snarls, biting comments designed to dig at their targets as deep as possible. He was thorny and filled with so much anger at the world that Brad recoiled from it.

There was the Taako he got to know later, the one that was soft and warm in his arms, whose eyes rolled back when he laughed and whose smile was still sharp but softer somehow, kinder. That was the Taako nipped at his lips playfully and hummed as he worked and gesticulated so wildly that talking to him was a safety hazard. He was still angry, but the edges rounded out when they were together.

There was the Taako that showed after he returned from Refuge, the one who stared out blankly into space, gaze glassy. The Taako who would spend an hour braiding and unbraiding his hair, who looked at the kitchen like it was a beast he had to conquer, who muttered about seeing a memory specialist but wouldn't say why.

Then there was the Taako that he had only seen secondhand, the interdimensional hero who had created a weapon that devastated their world and then turned around and saved all of existence. The Taako that was angry in a different way, all impenetrable walls and icy coldness, but who loved deeply when he allowed himself to and would do anything to protect the ones he cared about. The Taako who had never been alone, not truly, who was distrustful but familiar with what it was like to be loved.

Parts of Brad rebelled at these contrasting images of the elf that he loved, not understanding how one person could be all of those things.

Then he remembered the taste of matcha on his tongue, the smell of lilac shampoo during long nights, the sound of snorting laughter, and those four different images finally clicked together. Their edges didn't match perfectly, didn't let Brad see the full image of who Taako really was, but that was okay.

The worst was over now, and they had all the time in the world to rediscover each other.