Taako had gotten the mongeese to take him deeper into their encampment to learn more of their language. He wished it didn't take him two months, but at least it was progress. They were still a bit wary of Lup and Barry, so he had to make the trek out alone. It wasn't as bad as he thought it would be. The baby loved him, and the adults trusted the baby's judgment, even if they didn't take their eyes off of Taako. And they didn't just teach him the language. They taught him about their culture, myths that they believed in, their history. The whole day was filled with lessons and conversations, and it occupied his mind just enough to forget the piss-poor situation he found himself in.
His entire world getting destroyed by some black opal bullshit wasn't great, but at least Taako had his sister. That was best-case scenario, vis a vis world destruction. He could set up shop anywhere, as long as Lup was there. For example, this place was tight as shit. Really cool. Taako dove into learning the language, found it fulfilling. He didn't have to think too hard about the destruction of that stink-planet he and Lup used to call home. And, sure, the rest of the crew were fine too. It was nice to have a couple other people from his home planet. But Lup was the important one.
So when she told him to take the opportunity to go deeper in with the mongeese without her, he reluctantly did as she said.
Going deeper into the forest without Lup made him uneasy. But she really wanted him to make progress on this language while she and Barry wrote down what they had learned so far. He didn't understand all of the language yet, he still needed practice, but he could keep a conversation. For now, though, he was spent. Really fucking tired. The Starblaster was a couple miles away, though, and he wanted to get there before sundown. Camping in the middle of a forest full of sentient animals was not on his to-do list. Not that any of them would eat him, but, dude preferred a bed like a civilized elf.
He walked for a half mile before realizing that he was being followed.
First, he noticed the chill. And then, the mist. It was something the mongeese warned him about, but Taako had assumed it was superstition and mythology. No, hold on, he still thought it was superstition. There was no way it was real. The mongeese said that chills and mist would come whenever death came to take them away, and no way was that real. No fucking way. Impossible. Taako didn't even entertain the thought that the myth was real.
He started walking a little faster.
The mist became thicker, and the temperature dropped even further, and no, nope, uh-uh--Taako was not going to be taken away by an evil spirit. He escaped whatever the fuck that black opal shit was on their home world, he wasn't going to be bested by a goddamn ghost. And he certainly wasn't dying in the middle of a forest where Lup couldn't find him. The further he walked, the thicker the mist became. Eventually, it became so thick that Taako couldn't even see in front of his eyes, and then--
A tree trunk manifested in front of him, surrounded by nightshade and silverpoint. A single raven perched on top of the stump. Not a live raven, but a dead one. Maybe? It was just bones, animated using some sort of magic. Dim red lights shone through the eye sockets, and it cawed once.
Great, Taako was going to die from some fantasy fairytale bullshit, and his sister wouldn't ever know.
But, surprisingly, the raven didn't do anything. It just sat there, head cocked and watching Taako intensely. He wasn't on death's door, as far as he knew, so there was no reason why this planet's physical embodiment of death should visit him. Taako backed away. Maybe if he just...left, he wouldn't be caught up in whatever bullshit this was? As soon as the stump and the raven disappeared from his sight, he tripped over backwards onto another stump, falling ass onto trunk. The raven flew onto his chest and stood there, curiously pecking at the edges of his shirt.
"Well, uh, take me out to dinner first," Taako said, with what little parts of the animal language he had mastered. He knew enough to hold a conversation by now, but his grammar and pronunciation were off.
The raven stopped pecking at his shirt. "What is this?"
Well, at least he knew the language. Maybe Taako could talk his way out of this.
"Uh, it's--" Damn, the animals didn't have a word for clothes. "A shirt," he said, in Common, and then continued in the animal language, "from my...uh, home world?"
"A shirt," the raven repeated, in the exact same voice and cadence Taako had said it in. A mimic, then. "What are you?"
"I'm a Taako," he answered. The animal language didn't have a word for elf or human or any of their species. When he understood the mongeese enough to know that they were asking what species he was, he immediately slapped his brand right on there. Now Barry had to introduce himself as a Taako to all the animals. Lup thought it was funny. Barry didn't.
"I've never seen anything like you." The raven sounded awestruck.
"Same goes to you, uh, you don't seem like you're--" Taako sat up, and the raven skid down his shirt, talons catching in it and creating a few nasty snags. He settled down onto Taako's lap, holding eye contact and studying him carefully. "Are you really a raven?"
The raven went off on what was probably an explanation, but it was full of chirps and twitters that Taako didn't understand. He might have gotten a hold of basic conversation, but whatever this raven was saying was full of specific (probably death-based) jargon that Taako couldn't get a hold of.
"Whoa, hold on, slow down. I, uh, don't understand all of what you're saying."
The bird cocked its head to the side.
"I'm sorry, let me try--" The raven hopped up onto Taako's shoulder and pecked him right in the ear. Taako screeched, falling with his back to the trunk again. His ear rang, and the bird hopped back down onto Taako's chest. In Common, it asked, "is that better?"
"Yeah, uh, much better, actually, what--" Taako pressed a finger to his ear. Did the raven use magic so that he could comprehend Taako's language, or was it the other way around? Whatever it was, it was interesting, and now Taako was invested. He wanted to know more about this weird dead bird. "What the fuck did you do?"
"I am an agent of the Raven Queen. It would be an inconvenience if I couldn't speak freely to everyone in my jurisdiction."
"The...Raven Queen." Taako actually passed his religion check, there. Cool. He didn't know a lot about the Raven Queen, but he knew that she ruled over the Astral Plane and was responsible for the balance of life and death. "You trying to take me to hell or something?"
"No. I'm genuinely curious." The raven laughed, something shrill, otherworldly, and not a sound that any normal animal could make. "Like I said, I've never seen anything like you."
Taako barked out a laugh. "So, what, you just want a tea and chat?"
"If you have the time," he said, more genuine than Taako would have expected from an agent of death. Taako meant it as a joke, but this dude took him seriously. Normally, he'd just brush the guy off, but...
Well, this guy looked fun to tease and make fun of, and Taako needed something light to do after all of the bullshit that had happened. The animals were intelligent, sure, but this guy seemed to be in a whole other league. He'd be a shitty researcher if he didn't take the time to figure out what made this guy tick. Maybe he could act as an interpreter, if they got along well enough.
"Yeah, fuck it, why not?" Taako held out his arm for the raven to hop onto. "You got a name, thug?"
"It's Kravitz." He climbed onto Taako's arm, and then came up to sit on his shoulder. "It's very nice to meet you, Taako."
"Wh--okay, you know my name. Nice. Cool." Taako laughed, more of a nervous tick than a reaction to something funny. "Is that also some kind of--kind of spooky death power you've got?"
"I have a record of all living beings on this plane, if that's what you're asking." Kravitz hopped from Taako's shoulder to his head, back and forth, trying to find a suitable perch. He opted for the shoulder. "When seven new beings suddenly appear in my jurisdiction, all of them a species I've never seen before, then. Well, yes, I'm going to remember that name."
"Huh. Guess that's cool." Taako watched the mist, worried. "Listen, I'm fine with telling you all about--what I am, where I come from, all that jazz--but I do need to get back to my ship before sundown."
"Would you mind if I followed you?"
"Why not?" Taako shrugged, pushing Kravitz off of his perch and shoving him into the space next to his cheek. "Hell, this is technically part of my job anyway. If Davenport asks, you just tell him you're teaching me the language of this planet."
"I can do that in exchange for the information you give me." Kravitz ruffled his feathers (or, he was mimicking the action--he didn't have feathers, just bones) and settled back into position on Taako's shoulder.
"Then, guess that's a deal." Taako walked forward. "Let's go, bird boy."
Kravitz stayed on Taako's shoulder and guided him out of the mist. It didn't take long for the mist to disappear completely. It seemed as if Kravitz controlled it himself, and as soon as he wanted to leave, it lifted. As they walked out, feathers filled out Kravitz' form so that he looked like a normal, live raven. Taako made a mental note to ask about how that worked later.
Once the mist fully dissipated, the Starblaster sat in front of them, parked just at the edge of a forest.
"Oh, hey, there's the ship."
"I used the mist to transport you back to where the rest of the Taakos are." Kravitz flew over towards the ship and landed on the railing. "It's the least I could do for inconveniencing you."
"You're right, it is the least you could do." Taako walked up the loading platform, offering his arm to Kravitz so they could walk in together. "Come on, let's get you in here, you look curious."
The Starblaster was a large ship, sure, but it was only meant for a two month mission. They had only been on this planet for a little over a month, and already it felt too cramped. It wasn't built for a long-term survival mission, but they made do. Right now, the common area was filled with plants that Merle had to check one by one. They needed a stable food source, and it seemed as if meat was off the table on this planet. Merle sat there checking the chemical composition of each plant, making sure they weren't poisonous, and handed the safe ones to Magnus to test their taste. Later, they would hand off the good tasting ones to Lup and Taako, so they could try and make something edible out of it.
But, whatever, Taako was about to put that little experiment on hold. He had a cool bird on his arm and he was going to freak the fuck out of his team.
"Whoa, a bird! Cool!" Magnus leapt out of his chair and a bunch of berries fell out of his mouth as he spoke.
Taako held out his arm, putting Kravitz on display. "Not really? He's the fetch boy for the Raven Queen."
"Huh, good to know that the gods and goddesses of this plane are the same." Merle waddled over to Taako, extending a hand to the bird on his arm. How he thought he could shake a bird's nonexistent hand was beyond Taako. "Name's Merle Highchurch, I'm a man of Pan."
"Oh, he's a very popular god here." Kravitz hopped onto the proffered arm and pattered up onto Merle's head. He turned his head in every direction, inspecting the ship. "You were right, it does seem like you're all from another world."
"How does he know what we're saying?" Magnus ran up to look at the bird, curious. "How's he speaking Common?"
"Death magic, I think," Taako said.
"That's kind of a dumb way to put it, but sure." Kravitz hopped onto Magnus once he got close enough, seeking the higher perch. "My name is Kravitz."
"Kravitz. Cool! I'm Magnus, that's Merle." He brought his arm in front of his face so he could get a better look at Kravitz. "So are all ravens agents of the Raven Queen, or are you just special?"
"I can make my form look like any resident of the Material Plane," Kravitz explained, staying still on Magnus' arm. "This form just fits very well with the mythology the residents have set up."
"He's doing it for the drama." Merle gagged. "No wonder he approached Taako first."
"I do enjoy theatrics, but that is not the only reason I've assumed this form." Kravitz cocked his head to the side. "Would it help if I took another form in front of all of you?"
Taako waved his hand in the air and shrugged. "Do what you want, we're chill."
Magnus looked Kravitz over a few more times. His eyes widened, and he stuck his tongue out, catching it between his teeth as he concentrated. His hand reached towards Kravitz' tail feathers. Before he could even get an inch near the longest feather, Kravitz hopped off his arm and flew back into Taako's arms. Taako held onto him like a chicken, hands over the wings. Kravitz, surprisingly, didn't seem to object.
"Oh, come on!" Magnus pouted.
"I would have let you touch if you asked permission!" Kravitz pressed himself further in Taako's grasp.
Taako considered the bird in his hands, and without thinking too hard, he balanced Kravitz' breast on his lower arm and used his free arm to pet him. Kravitz, thankfully, enjoyed this, and didn't peck out Taako's eyes in revenge.
He sat himself down on one of the couches, and Merle and Magnus got back to their work. Taako kept Kravitz in his lap, leaning over him every once in a while to write down notes about the language. Kravitz would interject with questions about their home planet, their species, personal questions about Taako--it ended up being a pretty fair trade of information. Every once in a while, Magnus or Merle would join in on the conversation, offering an answer, or had a question of their own. After an hour or so, Lup walked into the common area, half dressed (great, she got to take a nap while Taako was off doing important business), and looked at the bird in her brother's hands.
"Whoa, cool bird!" She grinned, running up and extending an arm out to pet Kravitz. "Goth as fuck."
"That's my sister, Lup. My twin sister. Guess you could say we're from the same litter?" Taako held Kravitz out so he could get a good look at her. "You know what that means, right? Does that make any sense to you?"
"I know what a sister is, and I know what twins are." Kravitz' little bird feet dangled in the air as he was held out in front of Lup. He didn't look too pleased about that, so Taako brought him back into his lap.
Lup sat down next to Taako, curious eyes watching the bird. "He can understand us?"
"Yeah, and he can also speak the fuckin' animal language, so, guess what? Taako solved this whole problem."
Kravitz ruffled his feathers. "I believe that means I solved your whole...problem."
"But I was the one that brought you here."
"...And I was the one that approached you, so really, I think I deserve the credit."
"I like this talking bird," Lup said, pointing finger guns at Kravitz. She held both her hands out and ran backwards towards the labs. "Hold on, let me get Barry in here so we can get this language party started!"
Taako closed his notebook. If Lup and Barry were going to join in on this, he shouldn't be expected to write jack shit. He set Kravitz down on the couch cushion and stood up.
"Do you eat?" he asked, walking towards the kitchen.
Kravitz immediately flew back to Taako's shoulder. "I have the ability to, but it's not necessary."
"Oh, sweet, so it won't hurt you if I give you food that birds can't eat, right?"
"I'm not exactly living, so, do as you wish," he said, preening his feathers while on Taako's shoulder.
"Nope, you've got to do that somewhere else." Taako shooed him away. "I don't want feathers in my food."
"My apologies," he said, and flew over to inspect Merle's plants. Taako blinked, caught off guard that this bird he just met listened to him, cared about his feelings enough to say he was sorry. He wasn't used to being so respected right off the bat--sure, the crew was nice to him, but they hadn't really clicked until halfway through training. And Lup loved him, but they had known each other their entire lives. People didn't usually like Taako until they had time to get used to his weird quirks. It usually took months before Taako opened up to someone enough to merit that kind of respect, but Kravitz just--skipped all that? They had one conversation together and worked together like vinegar and baking soda, curiously asking and excitedly answering each others' questions. It was weird. This bird was weird.
Taako got to work cooking, determined to get a video of a bird eating chocolate on film, in case he ever made it back to his home planet.
Kravitz came over to hang out on the ship more than he should have.
Sure, fine, he had to come over to help Taako, Lup, and Barry learn the animal language. They had lessons set up every day, and the only thing he wanted in exchange was information about their species and mission. That was something they had previously agreed upon. But once the lessons were over, he stayed behind for a few hours. He'd follow Taako around and observe his behavior. He asked more questions. Not about the mission, or about their species or culture, but about Taako specifically. How he was feeling, his hobbies, how he got to studying magic, his bond with Lup, their childhood, how he found himself on an exploratory space mission. Lots of deep, personal questions.
And (this was fucked up) Taako answered all the questions honestly.
Something about Kravitz drew the truth out of him. Not forcefully. Taako wanted him to know the truth (really fucked up), and even told him a few things he hadn't told Lup (even more fucked up!). He waited for Kravitz to use the information against him, to go tattle on his goddess or let the rest of the crew know all of his secrets.
He never did.
It didn't take long for Taako to start confiding in Kravitz without any prompting. Kravitz listened closely, knowing when Taako wanted to rant or when he needed some kind of response. He seemed genuinely interested in everything Taako had to say, hanging on every word like it was the most interesting story he'd ever listened to.
Taako was in the middle of one of these rants when he realized he didn't know that much about Kravitz. He stopped in the middle of a story about his college days, and fell into silence.
Kravitz hopped from his perch into Taako's lap, concerned. "Taako? Are you alright?"
"I'm good, man, just..." Taako ran his finger on the top of Kravitz' head, smoothing out the feathers there. "Kind of done talking about it."
"Of course." Kravitz stepped backwards to give Taako some space. "Would you like some time alone?"
"Nah, I'm good." Taako gestured for Kravitz to come back for more contact, and the raven happily followed his direction. He made himself more comfortable in his seat, holding Kravitz and absentmindedly petting him. He found Kravitz' ear holes when he moved the feathers on the side of his head, and could feel how delicate his skull was when he scratched under his chin. Kravitz chirped and leaned into the touch, so Taako knew it was welcome. He thought about everything Kravitz had asked him, and decided he wanted to know some more about this bird. "Uh, what's--do you have some kind of, uh...you got a family, or anything?"
Kravitz stopped, thought over the question for a few seconds. "I'm an emissary for a goddess, I don't...no, I don't have a family." He didn't sound very excited to answer, so Taako decided to stay away from family questions.
"Hey, that's, uh--that's fine." Taako wondered what would be safe to ask him. "Where'd you grow up?"
"I...didn't? I don't know." He hopped out of Taako's body and paced around, upset by the questioning. "I'm just a soul with a constructed body, I don't think I..."
"You've been doing this for a long time?"
"Serving my Queen? I cannot remember very far back, but yes." He puffed out his feathers a bit, which looked cute, but Taako had spent enough time around birds over the months to know that was a defensive motion unless he was falling asleep--and, from the tone in his voice, Taako knew Kravitz was very awake.
Taako could see Kravitz was upset, but his curiosity got the better of him. "You can't remember?"
"The details are a bit fuzzy, but I know I've been doing this for centuries."
"The details are fuzzy? What, are you going to, uh, forget us in a couple months?" The thought upset Taako more than he was willing to admit.
"No! No, I remember everything from this year clearly." Kravitz ruffled his feathers. "It's just, things farther back aren't..."
He trailed off, and it felt like he didn't want to talk about it at all anymore, but. Taako was curious.
"So were you always serving this goddess, or just after you died?"
"I'm...not sure." Kravitz looked down at the floor, upset. "I think I might have lived, once, but I just can't remember. That's very far back. I'm sorry."
"It's cool," he said, even though the sadness in Kravitz' voice made him want to scoop up the bird, hold him and do whatever he needed to make that tone in his voice go away. Taako clamped down pretty fucking hard on that feeling. He didn't know where the impulse came from, but it hit him like the time Lup accidentally rammed a metal baseball bat into his chest when they were forty.
"What do you like to do now?" Taako asked, desperate to bring this conversation back to a good place. He didn't want Kravitz to think he was a bummer.
"A few chimpanzees have a little gambling spot set up by the mountains," Kravitz said, mood slowly lifting as he spoke about something that wasn't his past. "They play some games out there. I'm not very good at winning, but they only bet food, and I don't need to eat."
"Well, uh." Taako stood up, reaching for his hat and settling it on his head. "Hey, why don't--why don't we go do that?"
Kravitz looked at him curiously. "Right now?"
"Yeah, why the fuck not?" Taako grabbed for his jacket and robe, pulling them on in record speed.
"That would be wonderful. Would you like to bring Davenport, as well?" Kravitz flew over and perched on Taako's shoulder. "He said something about surveying the land around the ship. I can tell you the names of all the areas around here."
"No, we, uh--we can just go alone." Taako thought for a moment, and then lunged to grab his notebook. "I can take notes."
"Don't want your captain knowing about this little gambling excursion?" Kravitz asked, a smile in his voice.
"He doesn't need to know." Taako turned his nose up and walked out of his room.
Kravitz mimicked a laugh, a habit he'd picked up from hanging around Taako for so long. Most of his habits were semi-human, a side effect from hanging around the IPRE crew for a few months. He had a voice of his own when he spoke Common, though. Taako didn't know where he got it from. It didn't sound like any of the crew, it was specifically Kravitz' voice. It sounded like a guy from Fantasy West Virginia trying to act formal, but Taako couldn't judge. His voice sounded like a dude from Fantasy West Virginia imitating a plastic squeaker toy. Kravitz' was charming, at least. But the laugh was definitely the best part of his voice.
It was cute.
Taako ignored that thought and shoved it down far into the folds of his brain.
He hoped he could get out of the ship without Davenport seeing him, because Kravitz would definitely invite him to draw a map of the area. Taako didn't need that. He just wanted a bit of a break from work. Even if he told Kravitz this was work. It wasn't. His plan was to conveniently "forget" to take any notes. It didn't matter--Kravitz could just tell someone else about the area later. And if he caught on to Taako's slacking, he could just...tell him? Probably? Kravitz would understand, and he'd already shown that he wasn't a snitch. It would be fine.
They were two steps from the door outside the ship before Lup caught them. She was out in her uniform, actually dressed to leave for once. Fuck. Fuck! So much for having some time to himself. Or. Himself and Kravitz.
"Hey, you two going out to study?" she asked, which was an innocent enough question.
"Yes, we're going to survey the surrounding area," Kravitz said, speaking from Taako's shoulder. Fuck, why did he have to be so friendly right now?
Lup smiled, running towards the pair. "Oh, sweet, can I come too?"
"No, it's, uh--we're going up to some gambling ring, see what some fuckin' monkeys are up to." Taako would usually want to stay as close as possible to Lup, but now that they were settled in this world, he wasn't afraid she would be taken from him. He just wanted some time to himself. With this weird bird. So he lied. "It would be, would be suspicious if we brought more people."
"It's already suspicious if you're there, Taako." Kravitz hopped over to Taako's opposite shoulder. "Bringing Lup along won't change that."
"I mean--there are two of us, wouldn't that be kind of--kind of weird?" Taako felt Lup staring into his soul as he spoke. Was he sweating? Shit, he was sweating. "Don't want to scare the animals."
"I don't think so, they already know the two of you."
"Oh, uh, that's fine." Lup waved her hand in the air, grinning. "I don't want to go anymore."
"Are you alright? I hope you're not feeling ill."
"Nah, I'm good." Lup looked directly at Taako, and he knew she'd want to talk about this later. "You two have fun." Fuck. Damn it. Now she thought that Taako was involved with a bird. He ran out of the ship with Kravitz. He'd deal with Lup and that fucking smirk on her face later. Which was so unwarranted and--just, jumped to so many conclusions. Hanging out with Kravitz wasn't anything salacious. They wouldn't be doing anything, Kravitz was his friend, and also a bird, and also his language partner. It wouldn't be even a little bit gay. Was she really going to judge him for going out alone with a friend?
It didn't feel right to call Kravitz a friend, but Taako chalked that up to trust issues.
"So, how is this? Do I look like a Taako?"
Kravitz stood there, arms wide open with a tentative smile. Over the months, he had told and shown Taako that he could change his form into any species of animal that lived on the planet. He usually assumed an avian form, but would turn into other animals as a form of entertainment or necessity. But, here, he stood in front of Taako as a human. Elf. Actually, it looked like he studied the physical features of each of the crew members and patched together a body using them as a template. Magnus' height and build. Lucretia's skin and hair texture. Barry's softness. Davenport's ears. Merle's beard. The ethereal, fae-like quality Taako and Lup shared. He dressed in an IPRE uniform, jacket over robe just like Lup and Taako's, but black instead of red. Made sense--that was the only clothing he had seen the crew wear, considering they only packed for a two month mission and the inhabitants of this world didn't wear clothes.
The only thing that he didn't borrow was a face. It was a face that Taako had never seen before. High cheekbones, full lips, well-defined jaw. Kind, soft eyes full of curiosity. A round, curved nose that light bounced off of at the prettiest angle possible. His face was...handsome. That was a hard thought to swallow for Taako. He didn't want to be attracted to this--well, he wasn't a bird. He'd made that clear before. But damn, he was handsome. If Taako met a guy with that face in a bar, he'd take him home immediately, minimal questions asked.
"Where'd you get that face?" Taako asked, once he realized how long he'd been staring.
"Oh, well--" He fidgeted, which wasn't a normal behavior for his default form. But Kravitz had spent enough time with the crew to adopt some of their mannerisms. If Taako didn't know any better, he'd think that Kravitz was a human (or, whatever this form was) his whole life. "None of you look alike, so I assumed facial differentiation was important to your species?"
"You assumed right, it'd be super weird if you looked like anyone else on the ship. But still." Taako stepped forward and traced a finger along the jaw, a motion that Kravitz enjoyed when he was a bird. "You made up a face?"
"This will sound strange, maybe, but..." Kravitz seemed flustered by the contact, more than he should have been. He stepped backwards, a little too sheepish all of a sudden. "There are some features that are tied to my soul, as an emissary of my Queen. Black fur or feathers or hair, red eyes, things like that."
Taako nodded. "Sure, gotta keep the aesthetic alive."
"That's one way to put it." Kravitz touched his own face, in awe of it. "Somehow, when I was deciding what to make myself look like, this face was...already there? So I decided to try it out."
"Oh, sweet, it was already coded into your soul?"
"Something like that." Kravitz clasped his hands together, not sure what to do with them. He'd have to learn some of the mannerisms that came with a bipedal body. "There's also a few marks on my arm. I can't erase them."
"Can I see?"
Kravitz nodded and didn't roll his sleeve up, but simply dissolved his left sleeve up to his shoulder (Taako gawked a bit once he saw the bare arm--but, again, he pushed those thoughts away). Two thin and elaborate white bands were etched into his skin. Thirteen circles sat in between the bands, all encircling his arm and evenly spaced together. The circles were colored, but there didn't seem to be a pattern to them--two blue circles, then three red circles, and then the rest were white. The whole tattoo wasn't very thick, about the width of a finger.
"It's pretty," Taako said, finger tracing a couple of the red circles.
"You think so?" Kravitz stepped backwards and his sleeve reappeared on his arm. "I wish I knew why they're there."
Kravitz always got fidgety when he thought about where he came from, or with unanswered questions about himself. Taako kept away from asking those questions now. But these tattoos were just another question Kravitz had about himself. New questions made more problems. Taako wished he could do something to make the problems go away.
You know, as a friend.
"Hey, gotta keep some mysteries alive," he said, electing to keep the tone light. If he could get Kravitz thinking about something else other than his tattoos, maybe his mood would lift. "Tall, dark, and mysterious. It's a hell of a vibe you've got going on."
"I suppose so." He put his hands behind his back and stared down at the floor, embarrassed. "Is it alright? Do you think I can use this face?"
"It's--nice," was all Taako could say. When Taako learned how to use a stove for the first time, he accidentally stuck his face right in the front of the oven as he opened it, and the steam seared his cheeks--the same amount of heat came into his cheeks now.
"Thank you. I was a little sad I couldn't use yours. It's--" Kravitz took in a long breath, even if it wasn't necessary for him to. "It's nice," he said, quiet and fond.
They both stared for a little longer than was socially acceptable before getting back to work.
"You like him," Lup said before they fell asleep one night, both laying on top of the covers, just airing out some twin talk. They didn't always sleep in the same bed, and Taako had his own cabin, but after their entire world was destroyed, they needed the company.
"What? No. That'd be--" Taako shrunk in on himself. He didn't have to ask to know she was talking about Kravitz. She wasn't wrong, he and Kravitz were good friends, but her tone suggested something more than that. It wasn't like he hadn't thought about Kravitz that way, but he'd die before saying that out loud. "He's, like, a bird? That'd be. That'd be weird."
"He's not a bird, he's an emissary for a goddess." She sat up, staring down at Taako with purpose. "He's a lot older than any other animal on this plane. Honestly, he's the closest thing to a person that we've met here."
Taako rolled over so she couldn't look him in the eyes. "Are you trying to give me excuses to date him?"
"You sound like you need them." Lup laid back down, supporting herself on her elbows. "Taako, we've been--we're caught in some dumb shit right now. That doesn't mean you stop being a person with feelings."
"Guess not..." Taako's feelings bubbled up to the surface just from Lup mentioning them. He pushed those down real quick. He'd gotten good at doing that when it came to talking about Kravitz. "I just--it's--he's a bird," he said, exhausted, and pulled a pillow to his face.
"He changes into a kind-of human whenever he comes to visit you." Lup pulled the pillow off his face, grinning smug at him once she saw how red his face had gotten. "He never turns into a human for us."
"Not unless we comment on it." She smiled. "He's trying to impress you. It's cute."
Taako whined and grabbed the pillow back from her, pulling it over his face again. She didn't need to see this breakdown. "I still met him when he was a bird and that's weird, Lup."
"I'm not going to fight you too hard on this, but let me say this." Lup nudged the pillow off of his face again, this time softer and nicer. "Don't deny yourself something good just because we're trying to survive the apocalypse. You've never--" She paused, and then laughed. "Well, I've never seen you go after someone this nice."
"Yeah." Taako pulled the pillow to his chest, nodding along. "Yeah, right, uh--thanks."
"Anytime." Lup shimmied herself under the covers. "Go to sleep."
He did, eventually, but it took him a hell of a long time.
"Look at this, Taako," Kravitz said, flying into Taako's room one morning. He shifted into his human form and held out a sparkling skipping stone. Completely smooth, freckled with little inconsistencies that shone in the light. "Isn't it pretty?"
"Very." Taako got out of bed. He could only pretend to be disinterested for so long, and the cute look on Kravitz' face paired with his unfiltered excitement over a rock was absolutely the breaking point for Taako. He'd been dancing around this with Kravitz for seven months, that was enough. "Uh, listen--"
Kravitz pressed the stone into Taako's hands. "Um, it's--it's for you. Keep it."
"Thanks." Taako thought back to a conversation he had earlier that year with some bowerbirds, who had told him that they impressed their mates with shiny rocks and elaborate nests. He knew Kravitz wasn't a bird, but he certainly adopted some of those mannerisms. And, fuck, getting a hand-picked gift from Kravitz did things to Taako. "Can we talk?" he asked, in a voice that he wish didn't sound so small.
"What about?" Kravitz tilted his head. "Did you hear another word that you need translated?"
"No, it's, uh...it's not about...it's not about work." Taako ran his thumb along his new rock. "I'd like to--to talk to you as. As a. Uh. Just, as a person? Sort of? An animal? Or whatever you are. It doesn't matter."
"I'm--a soul, I guess. That's the most accurate you can get."
"Sure, fine, whatever, that's great, I--" Taako grabbed his hat off his desk and placed it on his head. He liked fiddling with the edges when he was nervous. "You've got, like, a full range of emotions, right? You've got that--those good critical thinking skills, and all that shit?"
Kravitz frowned as he tried to process all of what Taako said. "I'm a sentient being, if that's what you're asking. I thought we covered that a long time ago?"
"Yeah, no, I got that, I--" He grabbed the brim of his hat and pulled it over his ears. "What's your stance, vis a vis...uh, do you? Date? Is that a thing you can do?"
A lightbulb went off above Kravitz' head.
"Ye-yes! Of course!" Even through his darker complexion, Taako could see some red undertone seeping through his cheeks. Good. Meant his circulation worked at least a little bit. "I'm! I'm very capable of that, and, I. Would like to. I'm not--taken, I'm, available, and, I--" Kravitz hid his face in his hands, emitting an embarrassed whine. "Oh, dear, I'm making a fool of myself."
"It's cute," Taako said, before he could think any better of it. "I just want to make sure I'm not. That this isn't. Okay, where I'm from, it was like, we had animals like on this planet? But they didn't talk. Well--some of them did, but not, like, of their own volition? It was. Mimicking. And since I met you as a bird, I wanted to make sure that--"
"I can see why you'd be a little apprehensive about this, but it's okay, Taako. I'm intelligent and I can make my own decisions, and...well, I've made an important one." Suddenly, Kravitz' hand was on his arm and his face was inches away. "I like you, too."
"Oh." Taako's brain short-circuited, and all higher functions were unavailable for a moment. When he came back, he tried to put back on that air of detachment. "Well, why wouldn't you? I'm a fuckin' catch."
"You are," Kravitz said, with a reverence that Taako demanded from past partners, but never actually received.
"You're not so bad yourself." With the knowledge that Kravitz was just as into this as he was, Taako allowed himself to step closer. He grinned up towards Kravitz, teasing and flirtatious. "So this is happening?"
"If you want it to." Kravitz smiled, shy and a bit warm.
"Hell, why not?" Taako wrapped his arms around Kravitz' shoulders. "As long as you don't, like, try to vomit in my mouth or anything."
Kravitz pouted. "How many times do I have to tell you I'm not really a bird?"
"You flirted with me by giving me a rock."
"I was told giving you a present might..." Kravitz moved his arms around Taako, trying to find the correct place to hold him. Taako nodded and leaned in closer when his hands got to his middle. "Well, lead to this. Seems like it worked."
Alarm bells went off in Taako's brain. "Who told you that?"
"I have to admit I went to one of your friends for advice," he said, looking off to the side.
"Would it be weird if I said your sister?" Kravitz grinned a bit too wide, nervous. "She was the one that approached me. Didn't want me to...vomit in your mouth." He rolled his eyes.
"Lup can get her fucking head out of my love life. If she tries to meddle again, cover your ears and walk away." Taako would have to have words with her later. When did she tell him? "Not your fault, though, she's pushy. You learn anything useful, though?"
He hesitated, and then quietly said, "I could kiss you, if you wanted."
Taako whined and pulled the brim of his hat over his eyes. "Please tell me you didn't get a demonstration of that from Lup."
"Well--no, I don't know what it is." He ducked his head, a bit embarrassed. "She told me it was something you would enjoy, but I didn't get any details."
"I mean, hell yeah, I'd enjoy it." He flicked the brim of his hat back up so he could look at Kravitz. "Would you?"
"I don't know. Can we try it once so I can form an opinion?"
"A'course, it's easy." Taako scanned Kravitz' face. Actually able to think about how kissable his face was, now that he wasn't shoving all those thoughts down after every two seconds. "It's probably easier if I just, do it at you and let you figure it out on your end. Just push me away if it's bad, okay?"
He nodded. "Sure, go ahead."
Taako laid two hands on the side of Kravitz' face, thinking of a strategy for this. Didn't want to scare Kravitz on the first try. "Okay, so, I'm just going to, sort of, put my lips on yours? That's fine?"
"It's alright, please, you can start whenever you'd like," Kravitz said, impatient.
"Just wanted to give you a warning." He tilted his head to the right and closed his eyes, kissed him soft and careful.
Kravitz stayed stiff as a board for a couple moments. He still held Taako close to him, but was unsure of what to do. Taako nudged him along with his lips, gently showing him what to do. After a moment, he felt a soft, tentative pressure on his lips, and that's where Taako lost his fucking mind. Kravitz had no idea what he was doing, and it was clumsy and bad, but Taako couldn't care less. He was kissing this guy he had spent months denying his feelings for--who the fuck cared if he didn't know what he was doing?
Taako pulled back, staying close enough that their noses touched. "You, uh--liked that? Was that okay?"
He stared back, stunned. Taako swore he saw hearts in his eyes. "...Can we do that again?"
"Fuck yeah, as much as you wan--"
He couldn't even finish his sentence before Kravitz had his lips up against his again, a little too forceful but very enthusiastic. Actually, way too forceful. Taako could feel his teeth starting to press against the inside of his own lips, and Kravitz' lips were puckered so tightly together it had to have hurt him.
"Hol--oh, damn, hold on!" Taako pried himself away. "Slow down, there, that's--" He laughed as Kravitz chased his lips. "Okay, wait, if you're gonna do this, you've got to learn a few basics." Taako swiped a thumb over Kravitz' lips, offering an encouraging smile. "Don't go so rough like that, it's better if it's soft."
Kravitz nodded furiously. "I--sorry, I'm not sure what I'm doing yet, just--" His eyes flicked down to Taako's lips for a moment. "It's nice."
"I like your enthusiasm." Taako spoke softly, pressed his forehead up against Kravitz to calm him. "Follow my lead, got it? We'll figure this out."
"We will," he said, more of a reminder to himself than to Taako.
They spent the rest of the morning together, and Taako delighted in the discovery that Kravitz was a very quick study.
Taako liked being with Kravitz.
Not just the kissing (which Kravitz got extremely skilled at with practice). His presence calmed Taako, and in return, he brightened up Kravitz' whole demeanor. Taako trusted him. Taako trusted him--he didn't trust anyone who wasn't Lup. But he clicked with Kravitz. Something about him felt safe. It didn't take long for Taako to be completely invested in him, head over heels in a way he hadn't ever been. Kravitz was just as bad--he was friendly with the rest of the crew, and well-liked, but he spent eighty percent of time off with Taako. They were good friends before, but after their first kiss it was as if a dam burst. Their conversations stretched long into the nights, both intensely curious of each other. It was innocent and light in a way Taako hadn't been able to experience with other partners before, similar to two teenagers learning what love was. Nothing too deep, nothing perfect, but with the foundations of something that could grow bigger, given enough time.
And with Taako's long lifespan and Kravitz' immortality, they had a lot of time.
At least, that's what they thought.
It unnerved everyone when they noticed the color in the grass and sky fading. Barry said he remembered the grass looking a bit brown before they blasted out of their planar system. Merle's magic slowed down, became less powerful. Pan didn't answer his calls. The rest of the crew chose to ignore the signs, went to their normal business. Refused to entertain the idea that something else could be wrong.
Kravitz and Taako were alone one night, holding each other as they tried not to think about it. Kravitz hadn't experienced the apocalypse the first time, but he had heard the rest of the crew's accounts of the event. Taako could feel the anxiety in every touch Kravitz offered him. He didn't admit his worry, even after Taako asked. They just planned for the worst. They'd keep Kravitz on the ship with them until everything went back to normal, and if the apocalypse came again, Taako would get to keep his boyfriend. He had already cleared the plan with Davenport, who had no problem taking a new member on board. He wasn't a scientist or a fighter, and he didn't have any skills that would help them on the ship, but the rest of the crew liked Kravitz as much as Taako.
Maybe not as much as Taako. But he was liked. It wouldn't hurt to keep another person on the ship.
That plan went right out the window when Kravitz got called by his goddess.
"It's just a call for a job, I think," he said, kissing Taako before he turned back into a bird. "Should only be a couple hours.
"Hopefully." Taako scoffed and crossed his arms. "Go on, then. Better come back quick, in case something happens."
Kravitz hesitated, turned around, and morphed back into his human-ish form. "Wait. I forgot something."
Taako rolled his eyes, but opened his arms for his boyfriend. "You already kissed me goodbye, there's not much else you could have forgotten, babe." He turned his head to the side, smirking. "Unless you want another one."
He hummed, smiled, and held Taako's chin in his hands. "I love you."
That cheeky grin fell from Taako's face instantly. He froze. Taako didn't want to be thrown off by something that was so obvious, that Kravitz had been hinting at since they got together, but here he was. It was like his brain wasn't even able to process the idea. Given his history, that was entirely possible. The only person Taako loved was Lup, and they didn't make a habit of saying it out loud. And sibling love wasn't even in the same league as romantic love.
Maybe he did love Kravitz, but he hadn't thought about it too hard. He needed some time to mull it over.
"Oh, I'm--I'm sorry." Kravitz let go of him, allowing him some space. "That was too much."
"No, it's, uh--" Taako lunged for Kravitz' hands, needing some kind of contact to keep him grounded. "You're fine."
Kravitz shook his head, concerned. "I can tell it's making you uncomfortable."
"I, uh...no complaints from me, over here, babe, it's fine, I liked hearing it, I--" Words fell out of his mouth with no logic attached. He had to stop it before he looked like an idiot. Taako let out the entire contents of his lungs in one long breath, trying to steady the shaking in his arms. "Can we talk about this when you get back? Again, I'm--I'm super on board with it, it's just--"
"You can have all the time you need, Taako. Even if you're not ready by the time I get back." Kravitz leaned over and gave him one more kiss, swiping his thumb over Taako's cheek in a comforting motion. Fuck, he played that off like it wasn't even a big deal! Like he was willing to wait a hundred years for Taako to make up his mind. Knowing him, he probably would wait. He stepped backwards, towards the window. "I'll be back soon."
"Please," he said, chasing Kravitz' touch as he moved away.
Kravitz nodded his head, turned back into a bird, and flew off into the mist.
He didn't come back the next day.
Or the day after.
A week passed, and Kravitz didn't come back.
Taako tried not to think about why. He could come up with a million reasons off the top of his head--Kravitz wasn't interested anymore, Kravitz hated his reaction to the I love you, Kravitz didn't want to deal with the Taako™ baggage--endless possibilities, all beginning with Taako's insecurities and exploding from there. He pushed as many thoughts as he could to the side as the world started to crumble around them.
Merle's magic stopped working. The grass was grey by the end of the week. The animals were oddly quiet, all on edge. The stars disappeared out of the sky at night. Taako stayed huddled up next to Lup, needing comfort and contact. She tried to talk trash about Kravitz for leaving, but Taako didn't have it in him to talk about it at all. He didn't even tell her what Kravitz said. It didn't matter. Kravitz' disappearance probably wasn't his fault. He must have gotten hurt on the job, he must have gotten cut off from his goddess like Merle, he must have died, somehow.
He had to believe something bad happened, and that Kravitz didn't get bored and leave.
Or that he was mad that Taako didn't say he loved him back.
Either way, Taako didn't want to think about it.
The crew was in the high animals' court when the black tendrils came the second time. Davenport ushered everyone to the ship. Lup had to drag Taako with all her strength, had to pull him away from his pleas to go find his boyfriend. She hated to be the one to separate them, but she couldn't bear losing her brother, either. Somewhere along the way, they lost Magnus. They stayed on the ship and waited for him, but after an hour without any sign of him, Davenport needed to get them out.
Davenport dodged the tendrils as he flew out of the plane, finally able to pass through the weakness in reality that had sent them to this plane at the beginning of the year. The rest of the crew mourned the loss of Magnus and Kravitz, and every animal on the plane.
Once Davenport secured the ship well past the barrier, time stopped. White and silver threads engulfed the ship, and everyone on the ship felt their positions shift. Merle felt a cut forming on his forehead. The dull hangover from a dive bar's cheap beer seeped into all of their brains. The threads pushed everyone to the places where they stood when they passed through the weirdness in the planes the first time.
When the threads lifted, Magnus was there.
But Kravitz wasn't.
The rest of the crew pressed their faces to the window, watching as the...thing fed on the plane they just escaped. Taako didn't gasp or scream or watch the animal planet get devoured. He couldn't focus on that. Kravitz was--gone, just, out, not here. Did he get eaten by that shadow? Why did Magnus get pulled back to the ship, but not Kravitz?
Barry knew more about bonds than Taako did, but he knew the basics. The engine was powered by bonds. That must have been how Magnus got stitched back together. The crew didn't know each other that well yet, but the bonds formed by a group that stuck out the apocalypse together was stronger than most relationships. It made sense that the engine pulled Magnus back to life. But why not Kravitz? They had only been dating for three months, sure, but they were friends the entire time before that. Did that not matter to the ship?
Was Taako's bond with him not strong enough?
Maybe they weren't in love. Maybe that was a lie.
He tried not to think about it as they landed on another plane.