Steam curled off Taako’s coffee and hung in the air, reminding Taako it had been but minutes and not the hours he felt like must have passed. Before him was the sketch of a man he’d seen in his dreams. “Don’t go,” the man in his sketch could practically breath at any moment. Taako touched another freckle near his dimple.
Other Reapers sat around him, trying to occupy themselves in the newspapers splayed across the coffee table. Some of them were in full regalia, feathers dripping down their hair. Others were dressed like Taako, with a suit or business skirt.
“Taako? Dr. Ginger is ready to see you now.”
Taako snapped his journal close and stood automatically. He followed the nurse back to the cozy little room nestled in the corner, passing other closed doors. The office was more of a sitting room that happened to have a desk. Somehow, it made him hate the place even more because it was pretending to be something it wasn’t; a cozy little room and not a therapist’s office. He took a seat in the nesting chair across from Dr. Ginger.
“Nice to see you again, Taako,” Dr. Ginger greeted him and held her hand out to shake.
He gave her a perfunctory shake and sat back. “Yeah, sort of mandated to be here,” he answered airily and looked out the window.
She smiled weakly, thinly. “Bad month?”
“Interesting month,” Taako allowed, leaning his chin on the palm of his hand.
“Started having dreams yet?” Taako must have given it away somehow, tensing or his ears or his face. “I’ll take that as a ‘yes’.” Another stretch of silence. Taako glanced at the clock. Fifty-five minutes left. “Remember, I’m here to help you,” Dr. Ginger added lightly.
“With what?” Taako countered without any heat. He only felt resignation.
“Your dreams are troubling you. We’re trained to help Reapers recover their memories, not be haunted by them.” He scoffed and tapped the top of his journal impatiently. “Really bad dreams, huh?”
“It’s not real,” he hissed in frustration, hating himself for giving that much away.
“Why do you say that?”
Taako kept his eyes fixed firmly on the faraway city outside the window. “It’s not me. Whoever that guy was isn’t allowed to have my life. It’s mine,” he filled the emptiness twisting around him. “That guy, he’s dead and I’m not. He doesn’t get to be me because he stuck his stupid memories in my head.”
Dr. Ginger was quiet. Taako sent a glare her way and looked out again out the window. This high up, it seemed like the buildings were huddling together for the coming night as the artificial sun began to dip to rest. One of the few days they bothered to even make the sun rise and he was stuck in this stuffy office with tinted windows. “You’re worried about losing yourself to your past memories?”
“They’re not mine!” Taako snapped, turning to her again. She visibly startled. He gnashed his teeth and quieted himself. “I’m not hers either. Not because that guy gave himself to her,” he hissed, low and dangerous and blasphemous. Dr. Ginger blinked, too surprised to speak. “I’m Taako. I’ve always been Taako. The other Taako thought his second chance to live was shoving his memories into my egg. This is my life and I will not live it with his regrets because he fucked up.”
Shadows highlighted the angles of his face, drawn feral with a fear he had no mirror to see. His claws left indents in the leather journal. Under his fingers, he could feel the man in his dreams. His eyes dropped to his hands and a charcoal smile lay across his palm, blurry where he had unknowingly smeared it along his chin.
It took Taako twenty minutes to walk home. Eternal twilight reigned once again in Shadowfell. A Wednesday meant a meeting with Assvitz. He wanted to blow him off, still angry after his session. Kravitz was the one who mandated all Reapers had to go to therapy. It was his fault he had to sit there and feel his energy drain with each pedantic, patronizing question meant to make him confront something that wasn’t real.
He opened the door and stared into the darkened, empty apartment.
Two cups of coffee sat steaming on the counter. He’d only just missed Lup, and apparently she’d had someone else over. Quietly, Taako dumped what remained in the sink and washed the mugs out, staring out the kitchen window. Fireworks burst against the dome, lights making shadows of the hundreds of Shadar-kai in the streets, and jazz shook each dancer as if they were burning. Taako had a flash like a memory; an image of the city on fire, a clocktower like Kravitz Castle’s falling under a dome and the earth splitting before his feet.
‘And we all die again,’ Taako thought.
He jumped back from the image, pulse quick and frightened. The mug he was holding shattered against the tile. He pinched the bridge of his nose at the oncoming headache, taking a deep breath through his mouth. After a moment, he tiptoed over the mess and went to his bag. Inside were two daggers. He held one in each hand and clicked them against each other so they sparked. He blew the spark at the glass and it swirled together, pieces fitting undamaged.
At least there was one good thing about all of this.
Taako picked the mug up and returned it to the sink, eyes downcast so he didn’t glance again at the city burning in his mind over and over and over again. He put his hands on the side of the sink to hold the counter in place and keep his life from fading into the fire of his memory. Finally, he loosened his grip and looked up.
Shadowfell stood as it had for hundreds of thousands of years. The clocktower struck its time and the world stayed where it belonged. Slowly, he went to the bathroom and took a bag of supplies. Shampoo, lotion, combs, sweet-smelling bath salts and candles.
Considering the way the day went, Taako doesn’t even feel sorry about being half an hour late. Kravitz was already barefoot, sitting on the couch and glaring openly at Taako as he came through the door. “I know, I know,” Taako warned and held up a finger. “I needed some shit, babe.” Whatever complaint Kravitz had died on his lips as his eyes fell to the bag in Taako’s charcoal stained hands.
Taako watched him for a moment, then dropped the bag in his lap. “You are going to draw me a hot bath. Use the lavender epsom. You will undress me, wash me, and braid my hair afterwards,” he ordered and walked to the window, looking out at the spotlights dancing across the top of Shadowfell’s dome. “This is a punishment for daring to glare at me.” He turned back to look at Kravitz, eyes cold.
Kravitz’s throat bobbed as he swallowed and nodded.
“Good bird,” Taako smirked, brushing a curl of hair from Kravitz’s cheek then traced the shell of his ear. “Clean everywhere. You’re not allowed to touch my dick. Don’t talk to me.” Kravitz’s lips parted, looking between Taako’s eyes and his mouth. He nodded slowly.
Pleased with his victory, Taako strutted into the bathroom and held out his arms for Kravitz to take him apart. The couch creaked as Kravitz stood. His breath touched the back of Taako’s neck, one hand gliding up Taako’s back and resting on his shoulder. Taako suppressed a shiver. Kravitz slid his hand down Taako’s spine and Taako almost snapped at him to get on with it already.
He wrapped his arms around Taako, hands tugging his blouse free from his pants. They fell to the bottom button as Kravitz pressed a kiss to Taako’s smile-stained palm. Taako inhaled sharply. He felt the bastard’s grin there against his skin. “Stop dawdling,” he complained, trying to swat at Kravitz with his free hand. He only ended up squirming awkwardly against his chest. Kravitz chuckled and popped the second, then third button in quick succession, throat rumbling at Taako’s wrist.
Asshole, Taako thought viciously, and held himself back from pulling away to do it himself. Away fell the fourth and fifth buttons, the tips of Kravitz’s claws scraping Taako’s chest. The touches lingered, warm against each beat of Taako’s heart. Mercifully, Kravitz finally turned Taako’s collar up. His thumbs rested at Taako’s collarbone as he fumbled with the last button, mouth now against the corner of Taako’s jaw. Taako could still feel his sharp teeth on his palm, the claws chasing buttons up his chest.
Then his warmth faded with the blouse, sliding easily from Taako’s arms. Taako took a deep breath as Kravitz’s thumbs slipped into the hem of his pants. He put his hands over Kravitz’s and Kravitz turned them with his finger and thumb encircling Taako’s wrists, guiding Taako’s hands to the zipper of his slacks.
Taako blinked down, trying to figure out what Kravitz wanted. “Oh, fuck, right,” he mumbled, hastily undoing the button and zipper. Kravitz wasn’t even going to get close to brushing his cock even clothed.
Well at least he was listening; Taako swallowed thickly. His slacks hit the floor and he stepped out of them, Kravitz following close behind his steps. “Hmm,” Kravitz hummed somewhere close to his temple, hands tracing Taako’s bare hips.
“Like you’ve never gone commando into work, my guy,” Taako scoffed, rolling his eyes. The corners of his mouth twitched at Kravitz’s little laugh against the point of his ear. “I know because I’ve stolen your underwear to wear when I couldn’t find mine.”
Kravitz laughed, startled and amused, “You what?”
“Oh-h,” Taako crowed, hands clamping around Kravitz’s wrists, arms criss-crossed. “Fell for my lie and broke your vow of silence.” He spun like a dancer to face Kravitz, Kravitz’s hands now in his, crossed at the wrist. “You woulda noticed your underwear missing,” he chastised lightly.
“Odd you haven’t noticed I only wear underwear on days I’m to meet with you,” Kravitz snorted.
“Bold for still talking but I’ll allow it, handsome,” Taako snickered, tiptoeing closer a couple of steps so he was looking down at Kravitz. “Why ever would I have figured you out on our off days?”
Kravitz smirked like he’d caught Taako in a trap. “As if I don’t notice,” he explained with a little wave of his hand. “You ogle me when you think I’m not paying attention to you.”
Scoffing, Taako pushed Kravitz back lightly with a leer, leaving a finger on the center of his chest. “I could be casting a curse on you, babe,” he told him, starting to circle him, finger trailing Kravitz’s skin.
“For all that dexterity our goddess gave you, I’ve yet to see you in the office with your daggers,” Kravitz told him, tracking Taako with his lips parted.
“Are you really sure I need foci to make you trip over your feet?”
Taako stopped in front of Kravitz, tilting his head and pressing his hand flat against Kravitz’s sternum. “That’s what I thought, pretty bird.”
Kravitz dropped his gaze, feigning his bashful submission even as he opened like a flower under Taako’s hand. His eyes shone beneath his lashes, smile slipping across his pursed lips. He could step closer if he wanted, steal Taako’s breath and reduce him to rubble. Instead, he bowed his head and went to the bathroom.
Closing his eyes, Taako took a deep breath and sat at the little vanity. Water started running from the bathroom, the old copper pipes rattling above Taako. He unpacked all the things he’d brought, setting the epsom off to the side. Kravitz appeared silently behind him and took it, disappearing back into the bathroom.
He crossed his legs and turned toward the door, waiting for Kravitz. From his seat, he could just see Kravitz, leaning over the tub, stirring the epsom into the water with his hand. Water rolled down his forearms and Taako was suddenly reminded how physically strong Kravitz was. It was probably the only way he fought, given Taako hadn’t ever seen him with foci.
Every now and then there were tournaments in the scattered cities. The biggest was, of course, in Shadowfell, where the Reapers competed for glory. It’d blare on the radios in taverns; each city would have their own tournament, with the local Reaper the last fight.
Lup and Taako had always paused to watch on their journeys. Taako had been studying Reaper magic longer than he’d been on the road. Reapers always won, but the point was to see how long you could last. If you managed thirty seconds, the elderwoman would clap you on the back and tend to your wounds personally. Most couldn’t get that far.
Reapers carried ancient magic they said was from their past lives, but Taako had never thought this was true. He’d seen Reapers bend the sand to their will, breath in the spirits under the Sea, score themselves with their claws and twist into cat-like beasts. They fought with something ancient, but it was too specific to Shadar-kai, to their ways and stories to be anything but things hoarded by the Reapers and lost to its people.
He had been right, of course, when he’d finally undergone his own training. Reapers each went into a room filled with objects and were told to wait. The wait depended on the Reaper. Whatever object they activated first became their Path and supposedly told them all they needed to know about a person. It determined how you fought, what you could do, which school you trained at.
Taako had wandered around the room for all of five minutes before running his hands over a bejeweled knife on a serving plate and then reaching for a key. The rest had been part of the formula. He wondered what Kravitz had picked in the great room of objects as he watched the muscles in Kravitz’s arms flex and work.
Something old, Taako thought to himself, chin resting in the palm of his hand. Something old and entirely practical.
Finally, the water turned off and Kravitz stood in the doorway with a smile on his face. Taako was tempted to hold his arms up and make Kravitz carry him, but that would be giving him far too much control. He stood and followed Kravitz, stepping into the bath slowly and leaning back with his head turned towards Kravitz. “Well?” He prompted, arms sliding to rest on either side of the tub.
Kravitz rested a hand on his cheek. It slid down to his jaw and Taako looked away from Kravitz to the water. The water lapped at the side of the tub as Taako watched him carry through the motions of wetting a rag. He stood and Taako dared to peek.
The rolled sleeves of his shirt were already wet. They dripped water onto the tile, a scattered trail from Taako to him. Taako licked his lips, breath hitching as he thought about those strong arms around him from behind like they’d been before. He could practically feel a kiss against his ears, which dipped as if in response. Kravitz turned around and caught Taako staring, tilting his head in an unspoken question as he approached again and set a dry towel down next to the bath. Taako flicked an ear out of annoyance with himself, glaring down at the water instead of at Kravitz, his cock twitching in traitorous interest.
Lame, he told his libido. He was over here just getting worked up all by himself. This was a no-sex night, Kravitz didn’t deserve either him or his libido. He tried to purge the thought of how good it felt to ride Kravitz.
He nearly shouted in surprise when Kravitz put a hand on his cheek, making Kravitz snort in amusement. Taako turned away again, ears low as his face heated up. Somehow without doing anything particular at all, Kravitz was still making a fool out of Taako.
Kravitz tilted his face towards him with a soft nudge on Taako’s jaw, but Taako kept his eyes downcast to the water. His thumb came to rest on Taako’s bottom lip, forcing them to part. Taako closed his eyes, knowing how hot his breath was against Kravitz’s skin. The rag brushed Taako’s cheek and he almost flinched away. It ran over his eyes, across the powder on his cheeks, back down his temple to his jaw. He barely cracked one eye open, watching between his eyelashes as Kravitz splashed away the mascara and color clinging to the rag.
His heart was starting to beat faster than it should have. Taako damned himself for having put on makeup that morning; damned himself for giving Kravitz the excuse to run his thumb along Taako’s lips and smear the lipstick on the corner of his mouth. He swallowed thickly, throat working as Kravitz brought the rag to his cheek again. Water ran down his neck, down his mark of service and across his collarbone. His chest had dried since Kravitz washed his hair and he felt each rivulet of hot water intimately; the prickling of his skin as it began to dry. Another splash and Taako closed his eye.
He could feel Kravitz’s breath barely against his cheek. It was already cool when it ghosted over his wet skin and Taako suppressed a shiver. He wanted Kravitz and he didn’t want him to know. Ever.
The rag slid over his jaw and down his neck. Taako’s eyes fluttered open and he met Kravitz’s inches from his own. His breath stopped short at the intense focus Kravitz directed at him like he was the only thing in the world that mattered. He knew he was romanticizing it, but it scared him that romance was even a thought. Taako closed his lips over Kravitz’s thumb and swallowed again. The rag rested at the nape of his neck, Kravitz’s other thumb over the point of his pulse beating hard in his throat.
Taako snapped his head away and leaned forward, taking a deep breath. He tried to say something witty to dispel this as nothing, but his racing mind couldn’t find anything. Nothing but Kravitz’s eyes, the curve of his smile, the touch of his fingers.
Kravitz shifted behind Taako and the rag skated across his shoulders and down his arm. He pressed it into Taako’s hand and Taako took it for lack of anything better to do. His damp feathers tickled between Taako’s shoulder blades as Kravitz leaned over, guiding Taako’s hand between his legs.
Gods. Taako almost told him to stop, but he held his tongue. This was Kravitz doing what he was told. He’d told him he wasn’t allowed to touch, to wash everything, here’s the string to pull to undo me.
Kravitz’s cheek pressed against the side of Taako’s head. He could feel Kravitz’s shirt soaking through as he pressed himself flush against Taako’s back. The very edge of Kravitz’s rolled-up sleeve dipped in the water as the rag touched Taako’s aching cock. He turned his gaze away from watching Kravitz guide his hand through the suds and rose petals. One of his ears twitched, thumping against Kravitz’s jaw.
Kravitz laughed, breathy and low so close to that ear. Taako squeezed his eyes shut and bit his lip, muffling a moan as the rag slid down over his balls then between his cheeks. He let go of the rag and his reservations and fisted his dick loosely. Kravitz’s hand covered his, tightening the grip.
“Shit,” Taako hissed and threw his head back against Kravitz’s shoulder. He panted for breath and Kravitz guided Taako’s hand up his shaft. The water splashed as Kravitz stroked him.Taako watched the flickering candlelight on the ceiling. He flung out his arm to find Kravitz’s, fingertips skating down his wrist and pressing his hand into the palm of Kravitz’s. “Fingers,” he murmured. “Use them.”
Kravitz pressed forward, bending Taako with him. He was forced to sit up and watch Kravitz’s hand and his dip under the water. Moaning, Taako pushed two fingers into himself. Two of Kravitz’s joined his and he gasped, pressing his forehead against Kravitz’s hair. Kravitz kept it leisurely of course, the bastard. Fucking him with his fingers and stroking his cock like they were taking a stroll in the park. He meant to order— command Kravitz faster, tell him, ‘Get me off right now.’
All that came out was a half-gasped plea of, “Please.”
He heard and felt a sharp intake of breath next to his temple. The water splashed against the side of the tub as Kravitz picked up the pace.
Taako swore and pressed kisses and incoherent praise to Kravitz’s neck. “Pretty, babe, handsome, good so good, more,” he babbled. It didn’t take much to bring Taako off, shaking and curling inwards with a cry that might have been Kravitz’s name with his hips twitching down on their fingers.
He went limp, gasping for breath. Kravitz caught him before he could fall in the water, holding him by his upper torso. He grabbed the rag and cradled Taako to his chest as he washed both their fingers. Taako hid his burning face in the corner of Kravitz’s jaw.
Kravitz lifted him and Taako scrambled for purchase, throwing his arms around Kravitz’s neck. He knew he shouldn’t have been surprised that carrying him was effortless. Kravitz set him on the towel he’d laid aside, getting another out to dry Taako off. Water rolled down Kravitz’s body, but he didn’t even seem to mind his pants and shirt clinging to his skin.
“Shit,” Taako swore under his breath, trying not to look and only managing to ogle. Gods but Kravitz was gorgeous. Annoying, insufferable, patronizing and gorgeous.
He snatched a towel out of Kravitz’s hand and scrubbed it over his face. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “Didn’t think about the logistics of how weird it is to have someone else dry me.” Kravitz held his hands up in surrender and sat back in a puddle of water, just watching Taako.
“Hey,” Taako said to fill the silence instead of staring at Kravitz. “What’s your Path?” After a beat of silence, he laughed nervously and then covered his mouth. “You can talk to answer me.” He dared to look at Kravitz.
“Rain,” Kravitz answered with a smile. “There was a leak in the ceiling and it was raining. I held up my hand to catch it.”
Something old and entirely practical.
Taako had never seen rain and yet he saw Kravitz in a storm, holding his arms out to Taako to dance. “I’ve never seen rain,” he whispered, feeling stupid and scared.
“You will one day,” Kravitz said and stood, smiling down at Taako in a way that made him feel real and seen. Not a smile from a dream for someone else seeing past Taako. He blinked away the image and all that was left was Kravitz, holding out a hand to pull Taako to his feet.
Slowly, Taako took his hand and squeezed, letting Kravitz help him.