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Atlas in Mourning

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Lucretia's walk to the Sunburst Cafe is uneventful. The new streets of Goldcliff are broader than they need be, and eerily quiet in their spaciousness. In the off season, the fresh crop of shops and restaurants sit silently on either side of a great river of terracotta bricks. Doors stand locked, chairs rest overturned on tables with their legs skyward, like defensive spines or the peaks of many crowns. Velvet ropes guard patios and entryways from no one at all. Sparrows nest in the closed umbrellas.

This is the only one open before noon, she realizes. She can't tell how much of the boulevard was built in an effort to pace the television boom and simply came too late, or what stores patiently await their patrons in the coming months when the film crews and starlets will once again crowd the frontier of the modern era.

She is still greeted by a valet at the door.

“Reservations only until eleven thirty,” he tells her.

“Lucretia,” she guesses. He thumbs through some paper for a bit, looks back up with an expression between lost and stern. Feeling her nerves, she continues; “...On invitation. Under Burnsides.”

There's a spark of acknowledgment, more flipping. “Right, right here. Right this way, miss.”

He doesn't take her inside. He leads her through a small metal gate into the outdoor seating and pulls away a chair in the middle of the courtyard, taking her coat as she sheds it. He doesn't offer water or a menu before he retreats back into the building. The whole thing is so odd, as odd as the city that's become around it; if she were the only one here, or if she knew less about the new Goldcliff, she might even be suspicious. But two other tables sit with two guests each, drinking icewater with cucumber slices. In the corner, a small fountain babbles, and up the walls climb delicate vines with small, fragrant blossoms. And she knows very, very much about the new Goldcliff.

If this is a set-up, it's a nice enough place to be outsmarted in, she thinks.

She momentarily feels the tug of a habit to pull out a journal and write, but the pang that follows cuts it quickly away.

It's a while longer before her appointment arrives, precisely fifteen minutes past the time on the monogrammed invitation she'd been mailed last week.

First he's a shadow across her shoulder and the sound of nice shoes striking cobble, a twist in her stomach. Next he's a swaying shape at her right, then a figure standing by his own seat and untangling from the strap of his bag.

Taako. A much different Taako than the one that had crawled out of the well in Phandolin, or even the one she had last seen a little over two years ago. A Taako in pearl silk and mulberry ponte, emerald earrings and a wide brim hat to block the sun of the desert spring. As soon as he sits, the mysteriously absent waitstaff reappear to fill a pair of glasses with water, which he lifts to his lips casually.

“So. You came after all, huh?” He leans back, rests one leg over the other. “Merle owes me fifteen bucks.”

She waits through an awkward moment. They assess each other; she can't know what conclusion he might come to about her, but in her own eyes, Taako seems... fine. Slumped comfortably in his seat, versus her straightened posture. Decorated and glinting, from his golden eyes seeking her out of the shadow of his hat, to his bright teal nails teasing at the edges of his freshly shorn hair. His clothes are clean and new and in vivid colors, a pair of sunglasses tucked into the valley of his shirt.

“Not talking, eh?” he offers. And she's not, she finds. To resist a complete breakdown, she's tunneled into the moment like she's already trying to read it through retrospect, scour it for a useful conclusion. “Good. This is how it's going to go; I'm going to do the talking. Until I'm done you're going to sit there, have a nice lunch, and listen to somebody for once in your life.”

She supposes there's no use in doing this any other way but his, while being here on his invitation. Her eyes wander in search of their waiter.

“Don't bother, I already ordered for you.” he waves his hand dismissively and shakes his head, blonde hair bouncing at its new length. “Listen,” he prefaces, and she does despite the sinking feeling in her gut. “Lucy, I've been an ass.”

She's disoriented by the words. But she doesn't say so, because she's already numbed herself with panic before coming here, and Taako doesn't give her the room.

“Everything, all at once like that.” He settles forward onto his elbows, gesturing with both hands. “I couldn't handle it, and I took it out on you because I could.” He slows then, even seeming exasperated at himself. “Because nobody was going to hold me to any better.”

She squints, leaning back. “Taako. You don't have to... apologize.” Is that even what this is, she wonders?

“Y'know I do, actually.” Now he's got his head rested into a curled palm, fingers over his brow. His nail traces shapes on the table with condensation from his water glass; she spots figure eights and looping spirographs. “You were trying to stop this whole place from going up in smoke. You had that... thing messing with your head.” He gestures vertically, symbolizing the white oak staff. “I can't pretend it was all your fault. And I knew that. I've known that for years, and I just... I didn't care.”

She feels nearly ill. As ill as she always is, remembering those two years. Taako steeps in his confession for a moment of sheepishness before the cafe staff reappears with food, depositing two small plates in front of either of them. He seems at first like he might speak once they leave, but pokes a bit at his salad instead.

“...So why now,” she ventures.

“Magnus,” he says instantly. Still prodding his food, then taking a quick bite that inspires her to dare a spoon at her own bowl of rich, silky soup. “That idiot. He's marrying me, not that I haven't tried to get him to come to his senses.”

I thought I heard you proposed, she could say. If they were there yet. For now she follows the rules, taking a bite of her lunch. It's marvelous, which she expected. She hadn't expected it to be exactly what she wanted, without anticipating her own appetite. That was a skill she'd lost some time ago. She thinks now of all the food she must have neglected in the last week-- month-- year. Longer than that.

“So yeah. He's marrying me, and I'm sitting here realizing, shit.” More prodding and gesturing at the mess of green and colors with his fork, now, like they're old friends just having a chat. “The old Taako? I can't be him. I'm not him. I can't act like that shitty, lonely, bitter old man like it's good enough.” They meet eyes briefly, and she knows he's completely earnest. There's a brightness in that look that she can't remember seeing before. “Magnus... he's got the biggest heart of anyone I know. He's not mad at you at all. And I don't know if I ever was, really. I can't do things I know are wrong if I know-- if I know he's there, loving me through it all. Does that make sense? That if someone is looking at you every day like you can spin gold out of straw, that you feel the need to at least, I don't know, give it a fucking shot once in a while?”

She doesn't. But she's managing not to crumble, at the feeling that comes from imagining it. She cannot do that here, and she cannot do it now. “I'm happy for you.”

He ughs, rolling his eyes. “Yeah, my life is great. This isn't about that, Luc.” And he averts his gaze, now, staring away and tilting his hears for the sound of the fountain. “Point is, I'm sorry. And he really, really wants you to come to the ceremony. And I wanted you to know that you can. That I want you to. Like, honestly. I do.”

She nods, feeling the cracks in her composure. He politely doesn't stare as she contains herself, giving her some room for nearly watering eyes and one shudder that passes through her chest. But she can't fairly allow herself to cry in front of him, and so she doesn't.

“I never held it against you,” she says. “I always understood.”

That there would be consequences, one way or another. That she wouldn't get out of this with even half as much as she went in with.

“That's just like you,” he mutters. “That's the problem, Lucy. You thought you had this, but you're just a scared little girl. You took the whole world on your shoulders, then you dropped. The fucking. Ball.” Most syllables punctuated with a tap of his fork into the air between them. “But y'know... so fucking what? When have I ever done anything for anyone in my whole life?”

It sounds alarmingly unsarcastic. She turns the words around in her chest but can't quite slot them anywhere, not now. The words sting, and baffle, and confuse, and even spark an anger she both hasn't felt in years and is immediately able to spot as nonsensical. She doesn't archive any of it into a model worth extrapolating off of. Not yet.

There's a pause while he chews and swallows, then sips his water again. Even in this moment, at the peak of his life he's a constant flurry of activity, never truly at rest. And around them, there's the bright spring day, the beat of the sun on her back, and the twittering of sparrows.

“...We're worried about you, y'know?”

She stiffens her shoulders, mediates herself back to calm. “You're generous, but that's not necessary.” she says finally. And when she searches for something more to offer, quickly finds it. “Magnus is lucky, too.”

“Don't console me, it'll just piss me off.” But his tone is easy, and he hasn't paused his lunch once. “You're too young to be putting yourself through this. Not for an old bastard like me. Just-- tell me you accept my apology and eat your damn bisque. I'm done moping around about this.”

Despite herself, she chuckles at eat your damn bisque, and chills faintly as she raises a hand over her mouth. But Taako smiles.

“See? Everything turned out fine.” He cools a bit, fidgets again with his new hair. “So, uh. Are we good?”

She blinks, not used to having only gotten the answer so soon before the question. But she does have it, after all. Even if she only understands what's happened as soon as she's tasked with describing it.

“Of course.”

“Great,” he answers, with a grin as bright as the sun. “Cause I need a wedding planner.”

–-