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the game is already lost

Chapter Text


Life is essentially a chess game. You have to plan and calculate and I am so lonely.

(If you play the opening wrong, the game is already lost.)

- A Softer World, Emily Horne and James Comeau

Magnus Burnsides is a human furnace and, quite frankly, it is insulting.

Taako first discovers his companion’s preternatural talent for heat emission the day of their first official Bureau assignment, after the three of them encounter an unfortunately located swamp and need to get hosed off in a stranger’s backyard before boarding a train. While relieved to no longer be crusted in swamp muck, Taako had not enjoyed the part where he then had to walk to the train station dripping cold water and shivering every time so much as a breeze accosted him.

Apparently, he must have looked just as miserable as he felt, given Magnus’s decision that the appropriate response to Taako death glaring at nothing in particular as he walked down the street was to drop an arm around the dripping elf’s shoulders and inform him, “You look a little chilly there, buddy.”

For his part, Taako nearly jumped out of his skin. He sputtered and tried to figure out how to respond, what he was supposed to do about the situation he unexpectedly found himself in when all of a sudden they’d reached the train station and Magnus deigned to take his own arm back where it belonged. All in all it’s a weird, unwelcome moment of Magnus being Magnus, and far be it from Taako to suss out the guy’s motivations for doing what he did. He’s lucky Taako didn’t throw him off or burn a spell slot on him. Except.

Except that, unwelcome though it may have been to begin with, Taako was mildly horrified to discover that the feeling of having an arm around him, pulling him against someone’s side and squeezing him lightly, wasn’t… the worst thing ever. His brain had cycled fairly quickly through several iterations of ‘fuck, what is he doing, why did he do that, I think he’s hugging me ’ before arriving at the conclusion, shortly after Magnus let him go, that he hadn’t actually wanted Magnus to let him go.

Which is how Taako finds himself once again drenched in cold water, this time thanks to a poorly constructed bridge and a river he had to be fished out of, much to his eternal humiliation. He, Magnus, and Merle have decided to stop until morning in the relative shelter of a rocky cave, carved into the side of a mountain by a mining expedition that has long since abandoned the area. There’s a fire going, but Taako doesn’t find it particularly helpful, and all in all, his night is going spectacularly badly. He’s cold, wet, irritated, just having disgracefully fell into a river, and in the equally embarrassing position of wishing Magnus freaking Burnsides would hug him already. Cause the thing he discovered in Rockport? Magnus radiates heat like it’s his job. And that is absolutely the only reason Taako presently wants him to do that thing he did on the way to the train station. It has nothing to do with a desire for affection, or a belief that he and Magnus are friends.

After firmly establishing that this was a situationally necessary desire to no longer be freezing, Taako confronts the next problem in his elected mission of stealing Magnus’s body heat - how to actually get the man to hug him without literally outright asking him to do so, which would completely destroy the reputation Taako has built for himself of firmly not giving a shit or having any feelings.

Steadfastly ignoring the fact that he’s for all intents and purposes trying to find a way to trick someone into giving him a hug and the levels of pathetic that reaches, Taako decides that his most reliable strategy will likely be to play on Magnus’s frustrating inability to stand by and not help someone. It’s been pretty obvious since the beginning, this particularly vexing aspect of Magnus’s personality. Therefore, all Taako needs to do is make it seem like he’s in some kind of trouble, the solution to which is being held against someone warm while they wait out the night in this shitty, dingy cave.

Which, if you want to get technical about it, is not actually necessarily totally a lie. He is, in fact, very cold, and still damp from his stint in the river. Taako does not enjoy being either cold or wet. Elves are not designed for this kind of thing. They are not creatures who are fond of water being on their person. That, combined with the stiff breeze sneaking occasionally through the mouth of the cave, has resulted in an incredibly displeased elf who would very much like his circumstances to change, preferably right now immediately. So it’s with absolutely no qualms whatsoever that Taako begins to complain about his situation. Loudly and extensively.

“-then I wouldn’t have ended up in a river , and I wouldn’t presently be freezing to death with no extra coat or anything , so thanks a whole lot, you two were super helpful . Great work, team.”

“Hey Taako,” Magnus says, breaking into the string of kvetching coming from the shivering elf sitting closest to the entrance to the cave.

Shit, dude, finally, it took you long e-fucking-nough , Taako thinks, folding his arms and glaring at Magnus. “What?”

“Do you want to move or something? You're kinda far from the fire.”

“Excuse me?” That’s not at all what Taako had been going for.

(Merle, for his part, is paying no attention to all of this going on across from him, choosing to focus solely on keeping the fire going. He’s ignoring both Taako’s complaining and Magnus’s concern with truly impressive success, given the vigor of the former and the proximity of the latter.)

Magnus doesn’t elaborate on his suggestion, just sighs and gets up. He walks over to Taako, who is watching him with raised eyebrows, and drops down between him and the cave opening. Then he proceeds to pull a sort of shuffling ooch maneuver wherein he scoots to the side, shoving at Taako to get both of them further into the cave, closer to the fire and farther from the wind. When he’s decided he’s satisfied with their positioning within the cave, Magnus pulls Taako close, tucking him firmly under his arm and doing the same little squeeze thing he’d done in Rockport.

“Better?” asks Magnus, sounding proud of himself and satisfied with his choices.

In the name of not appearing like this had been his endgame the whole time, Taako blusters his way through some indignant muttering, but gets over it pretty quickly. He settles into the situation, leaning against Magnus in a way he hopes is subtle. It turns out the phenomenon of Magnus being literally a warm person as well as figuratively so wasn’t a mistaken observation or a fluke due to a fever - he’s annoyingly comfortable to lean on, and Taako can feel the grip the cold has on him lessening.

From the moment he’s first touched, he’s braced for Magnus to decide this has gone on long enough, to decide he’s been sufficiently warmed up and go back to where they’d previously been sitting. It doesn’t happen, though. Right up until Merle puts out the fire and they set the first watch, Magnus sits there and holds Taako in a sideways hug like it’s the most natural, easy thing in the world. Like it isn’t completely ridiculous that Taako doesn’t want it to end.

Which. Of course it’s ridiculous. After not to long in his new place next to Magnus and closer to the fire, Taako has dried almost completely, and he’s warmed significantly. That was his point to begin with, nothing to do with being hugged in itself, obviously.

Obviously .

Chapter Text

Life is essentially a chess game. You have to plan and calculate and I am so lonely.

(If you play the opening wrong, the game is already lost.)

A Softer World, Emily Horne and James Comeau

None of this would be happening if Magnus hadn’t decided to hug Taako in the first place. It’s been a while since Taako fell in the river and had the subsequent experience of being held for an extended period of time by a person who seemed to give some semblance of a damn about him, a least enough to not want him to freeze when there was another option. It’s that experience that provides the context and build up to where he presently finds himself, given there’s no way he’d be in this situation if it weren’t for Magnus and his penchant towards hugs.

Taako is lonely. There’s no other way about it. He’s been wandering around his room all morning, trying to figure out where the weird empty feeling in his chest came from, the one gnawing at the edges of his awareness. He picks up books, flips through them, puts them down, pokes at things scattered across his desk. Nothing seems interesting to him, not the right answer to the problem he’s suddenly contending with. It’s only when he wanders out over to the living area and sees Magnus sitting on the couch hacking at a block of wood with a pocketknife that Taako is able to slap a label on what the hell is going on with him.

So, Taako is lonely. He got up this morning and has been walking around so far feeling alone and isolated, desperately wanting someone to hang out with. And then the solution to his problem pops up right in front of him, whittling on the couch. It’s all terribly convenient: here he is wanting company and there in front of him is a man who has a demonstrated track record of willingly spending time with him on a regular basis and even going so far as to be affectionate with him with a degree of regularity suggesting it wasn’t some kind of accident.

Now all Taako needs to do is figure out how to take advantage of Magnus’s presence without clueing him into the original loneliness problem. Taako doesn’t do lonely. He doesn’t do feeling like someone’s gouged a trench in his soul with a rusty spoon. He definitely doesn’t do seeing someone who keeps calling him ‘friend’ and feeling a stab of pain in his chest accompanied by the urge to curl up on the couch next to him and lean against his side until that horrible hollow ache goes away.

So obviously he can’t just say any of that, given he’s  Taako and he doesn’t have friends or feelings. Which means it’s time to science the shit out of operation: get Magnus to spend time with him without admitting that’s what he wants. First things first, inventory the situation.

Magnus is on the couch, this has been established. He’s whittling something or other that Taako can’t make out from here, and there’s some kind of documentary playing on the Fantasy Nature Channel. There doesn’t seem to be anybody else around, and Taako himself is several feet back behind the couch where Magnus hasn’t caught sight of him yet. It’s a very comfortable couch, one Taako has spent considerable time on, and as this thought drifts idly through his mind, he comes up with a plan.

Telling Magnus ‘I’m lonely, please let me sit on the couch with you while you do whatever crafty shit you’re doing right now’ is out of the question. Goading him into some kind of light bickering, however, that’s definitely doable. It’s amazing how easy it is for them to set each other off, and then circle around arguing about pretty much nothing until before either of them is aware of it it’s been an hour and they’ve forgotten the original point of contention. It’s not fueled by any kind of actual anger, or a genuine dislike of one another, merely two combative personalities and a whole lot of nothing much else to do.

Having made up his mind, Taako resolves to go about this as obnoxiously as possible, which is only fair given Magnus started this whole ‘getting used to having people around and being nice to me’ thing in the first place, and walks over to the couch. He takes a deep breath, then flops dramatically onto it, colliding into Magnus with a solid thump . Magnus looks down at him with arched eyebrows, and Taako gives an elaborate sigh.

“Dude, you’ve stolen my favorite seat,” he complains, more than the edge of a whine in his voice. Magnus’s arm is warm and solid where Taako is slumped against it and Taako hopes, for a selfish moment, that he won’t move immediately.

“...Alright,” Magnus says after a beat. “Suit yourself, I guess.”

Then he does move, and Taako is disappointed until he notices that Magnus isn’t getting up, he’s just moving his arm. He lifts it and turns himself so that Taako tips half into Magnus’s lap with an undignified oof. Magnus then calmly wraps his arm around Taako and continues what he was doing, albeit in what must be an awkward position to whittle in.

Taako freezes. This is… definitely not what he’d been expecting. He holds perfectly still for several moments, trying to get a read on the situation, and comes to the conclusion that he is essentially now being cuddled on the couch by Magnus Burnsides. The edges of the ragged empty feeling in Taako’s chest are stinging, and he’s finding it a little hard to breathe. After he’s determined that Magnus doesn’t seem to have anything else planned and isn’t abandoning the goof and shoving him off, Taako deliberately relaxes his muscles until he’s given up the responsibility of keeping himself semi-upright entirely to Magnus. Magnus appears unbothered by this.

Okay , Taako thinks. Not how I planned on solving that problem but, this works I guess.

All in all, it’s not the worst situation he’s found himself in. Not by far. Actually, it’s kind of nice, and the longer they stay there, the less Taako’s chest hurts. He chalks that up to time passed since the onset of this ridiculous episode, rather than the fact that he can feel Magnus breathing under his cheek.

Taako guesses that Magnus can tell he’s a little taken aback by this turn of events, to put things mildly, because he stops with his woodcarving after a bit and says, “If you’re uncomfortable or something, I can just move.”

“...Nah, I’m cool,” Taako answers, turning his face towards Magnus’s shirt and closing his eyes so he doesn’t have to chance eye contact while voting for the ‘let’s just stay like this’ option. “If you move I gotta move, ‘n’ effort, ‘n’ energy, ‘n’ shit…” He feels Magnus shrugs, and they don’t really talk after that.

Just when he’d decided nothing about this could get any stranger, it does. Magnus puts the whatever it was he was working on onto the short table next to the couch and starts… Well, he’s petting Taako’s hair now, is the only real way to describe it. There’s a sharp stinging at the backs of Taako’s eyes, and there’s a sudden hitch in his breath. He feels intensely betrayed by his own response to the feeling of Magnus’s hand brushing over his head, fingers combing gently through his hair.

A part of Taako wants to get up, to throw Magnus’s hands off him, to shut down this whole friendship thing right here and now before it ruins either of them. He’s horrifically vulnerable right now, in all sorts of ways that he doesn’t want to think about, and it’s a kind of danger he can’t believe he’s deliberately putting himself in. Because a larger part of him wants this to last as long as it possibly can, before he loses the first source of kind, affectionate touch that he’s had in a while . So he decides to take advantage of the successful con he’s just pulled in getting Magnus to stay with him, quashing the isolation that’d been gnawing at him all damn day with a pretty smooth trick if Taako does say so himself. After all, who knew when- if he’d find himself getting hugged like this again.

Chapter Text

Angus McDonald is ten years old and knows how to look both ways before he crosses the fucking street. Or, at least, that was the assumption that Taako had made, taking him into town and deciding against making the kid hold his hand at the corner of the road by the shops as they prepare to cross it. Clearly, he’d made a miscalculation somewhere along the line there, as Angus proves himself incapable of so much as crossing the street without putting himself in danger seconds after the decision is made.

(To be fair, it’s not Angus’s fault. The cart comes out of nowhere , and the driver is clearly not in very much control of it, probably inebriated, and Taako plans to have strong words with whoever is in charge of things around here about keeping an eye out for drunk fools with carts in their possession. There are kids here, hel-fucking-lo . However, Taako is a little too busy feeling the sharp bite of a very close call to worry so much about ‘fair’ at the moment, so he’s pretty solidly okay with dubbing the whole ordeal proof that Angus can’t be trusted to walk ten feet without almost getting himself killed.)

The cart barrels down the dirt road right as Angus turns to say something to Taako, leaving his back to the oncoming vehicle, and Taako the only one aware of the impending accident. He doesn’t have time to shout for Angus to get out of the way. There’s only one thing to do. Taako moves completely on instinct, lurching forward and hefting Angus up into his arms, out of the way of the cart.

“Hey, watch it, asshole!” Taako shouts after the clearly incompetent cart driver. He can feel his heart hammering in his chest, the one he’s currently clutching Angus to. Seconds pass during which he stands by the road, holding the kid tighter than he has an excuse for and longer than is strictly necessary for lifesaving purposes. His breathing is heavier than usual, maybe a little ragged, though obviously from the effort of snatching a ten year old off the ground not from any kind of panic that might still be coursing through him at the sight of Angus nearly getting run down.

When he’d been picked up out of the way, Angus had flung his arms out automatically, catching them around Taako’s neck to find some kind of stability. Now he’s leaned back slightly, studying Taako’s face with a mix of surprise and concern.

“Um, sir?” he asks in a voice that’s somehow even squeakier than his normal octave. “Are you alright?”

“What?” Taako startles into action, setting Angus down like he’d only just realized that he’d still been holding the kid. “I’m aces, pumpkin, what kind of a question is that? You’re the one that almost got made into a boy detective shaped pancake, I’m totally fine.” He shakes himself a little, looking away back to the road. “Keep an eye out, will you? Don’t want a repeat of that, one near run-down in a day is enough for me, thanks.”

As Taako sets off down the street, away from the corner they’d originally been planning to cross, Angus has to scamper to keep up with the pace he’s set. Taako has a hand set firmly on one of Angus’s shoulders, keeping himself between the boy and the carts on the road the entire time. Figuring that he’s not likely to get a useful answer, Angus doesn’t ask where they’re going.

With a single minded focus, Taako aims the both of them towards a pastry stand down the street a bit, one he’d seen Angus eyeing from the moment they got into town. He tells himself he’s not doing it solely to make the kid happy, definitely not as a response to almost watching him die.

(Which feels like an exaggeration of what’s just happened, a minor scuffle at most relying on Taako’s superior reflexes, and everybody is totally fine. Except that every time Taako blinks all he sees is Angus’s body in the road, glasses broken on the ground next to a bloodied face staring, sightless, up at the sky. So, yeah. Near death experience is what we’re chalking this one up to.)

Taako can tell himself that all day long though, but when Angus realizes where they are and whips his head around to grin up at Taako like the elf has personally hung the sun in the sky, he’s got to admit, struck by the glow of that smile, that this was exactly the result he’d been after in diverting their course. Feeling a hand tugging on his sleeve, Taako kneels down, putting himself on eye level with Angus.

“What’s up?” he asks, moments before Angus throws his arms around Taako’s neck for a second time that day, hugging him tightly. Taako stumbles back a little, bracing a hand on Angus’s back. He returns the hug fully after a full three seconds of processing what’s going on, closing his eyes and forcing himself to breathe normally.

“Thank you for saving my life, Taako!” Angus’s voice is bright and full of admiration in Taako’s ear, and it makes the elf’s heart constrict painfully. “I’ve been having just the best day, and I appreciate you bringing me here so much, and then with the cart just there you pulled me out of the way before I could get hurt and- I think you’re absolutely the greatest thank you so much.”

“I-” Only one word of that sentence makes it out before Taako’s throat closes off and he has to swallow hard to regain the ability to speak. He tightens his grip on Angus and tries to ignore the fact that he wishes he could keep the kid there forever, right there in his arms where he’s safe and Taako knows nothing can happen to him. “Well that seems like overstating things a bit, Ango.” It’s not the most convincing rebuttal he’s ever given, but it’s been a stressful five minutes.

Before Taako has to make himself let the kid go, the line makes the decision for him and the half-elf in front of him steps up to the vendor’s counter, and he has to move to avoid pissing off the people in line behind them. The first thought that pops into Taako’s mind as he stands back up, hand coming back to rest on Angus’s shoulder, is, Well, fuck. This shit kid is really, really important to me, isn't he. How the fuck did that happen. His second thought is, Somehow, I’m not sure how, this is Magnus’s fault .

He can’t explain how right at this moment, but hey. Give him some time and he’ll figure it out.

Overall, Angus seems unbothered by the near miss. He runs about with as much enthusiasm as he approaches everything, Taako watching and rolling his eyes affectionately. Nothing else goes wrong, by some kind of miracle, but Taako’s got an eye out the whole time, watching diligently for any more rogue carts. He shepherds Angus around protectively, keeping himself between the kid and the road the whole way. They’re on a bench by the edge of town when Angus, tired from running around all day, falls asleep, slumping gently against Taako’s side. Taako looks down at him, startled, and freezes.

The debate on whether or not to wake Angus up is short, only a vague consideration of the idea crossing Taako’s mind before he realizes he genuinely doesn’t have the heart to shake the boy awake. Instead he shifts around and picks Angus up, sure he’ll wake on his own upon being moved. He doesn’t, and Taako is left standing by the bench, cradling Angus, who remains dead asleep the whole time.

It’s a kind of trust that scares the absolute shit out of Taako. The fact that this child has so much faith in him - that he can know what’s out there, know the kind of danger that can come upon you in an instant, and still lay passed out in his arms, head rolled against Taako’s shoulder, not jerk awake even when moved around - is enough to stop his breath in his lungs. The trust scares him, and more than that, Taako knows it’s unfounded.

The truth is, he’s done nothing to deserve this. He doesn’t deserve this much faith from this boy, he doesn’t deserve the way Angus looks at him like he can solve anything with a snap of his fingers. Angus is sure Taako can protect him - it’s clear in the way he sleeps so soundly now. It’s the third time today Taako has found himself holding Angus against his chest, feeling absolutely bowled over by the way this smart, idealistic, brave kid sees him, and here’s a small, panicked part of Taako’s brain currently screaming at him that allowing Angus this close will only hurt the kid, dirty him with the kind of poison that infects everything else Taako touches.

Right now, though, Taako deliberately and harshly shoves that part of his brain down and tells it to shut up. In this exact moment, there’s nothing he can do about that, so he hefts Angus up higher, and sets off towards the rendezvous point he’d set with Magnus and Merle earlier that day. As he walks down the road, Angus stirs slightly, murmuring something in his sleep.

“Hush, bubbeleh,” Taako mutters absently. “Settle down. I gotcha.” Even if it’s a hollow promise, Angus stays asleep, which has to count for something, right?

Chapter Text

Being stabbed, slashed, or otherwise wounded with sharp bladey things is a fairly unmistakable feeling that, by this point in his life and career as an adventurer, Taako is more familiar with than he’d like to be. It’s the more… creative methods of injuring a person that sometimes take him a second or two to work out the damage of when applied to his person. That’s why it’s somewhat of a surprise when, after the latest in a long line of things that have tried to kill them has been solidly beaten, Taako tries to take a step and finds himself nearly bowled over by a wave of pain radiating from seemingly every square inch of his torso.

Things hadn’t seemed so bad, when in the midst of the fight itself. Now that it’s over though, and the adrenaline’s worn off, Taako is rapidly finding remaining upright to be an increasingly unattractive option. He stumbles a little, trying to get a feel for where the worst of the damage was, and from the rest of the angry nerve endings covering his body comes the cherry on top of the injury pie. Something is seriously fucked up in the region just below his ribs, and Taako clamps a hand against his stomach. It comes away wet, and he grimaces. Oops. Well. Guess there’d been some sort of sharp bladey thing involved after all.

Taako looks up from examining the blood on his fingers to gauge where Magnus and Merle have gotten to. They’re about a dozen feet away, both with their backs to him, not yet noticing his current state of possibly, maybe, just a little bit dying. That at least is going his way. Now he can assess the situation and decide whether or not he’s close enough to death to warrant telling their healer or if this is something he can wait until a convenient moment to get taken care of.

Experimentally, Taako attempts to walk again. This time, his left knee buckles before he’s made it two steps, sending him nearly sprawling on his face as shocks of renewed agony ripple through him. He can’t help but let out a small, wordless cry of pain, trying to find his footing. Now, Merle and Magnus definitely know something’s up. Shit.

“Taako?” Merle asks.

Taako would’ve looked up or tried to answer had black spots not been eating at the edge of his vision, and had all the breath not already been sucked out of his lungs. He’s barely still upright when Merle reaches him. Merle’s hand is on his elbow before Taako even realizes he’s there, and the moment Taako does realize he’s there, he gets the strangest urge he’s ever had in probably his whole life. He’s bleeding, hurt, in an immense amount of pain, and for some inane reason , all he wants to do is fling his arms around Merle and bury his face in the dwarf’s shoulder, hide in his embrace until he’s not so damaged that just about anything that’d try and kill him right now would definitely succeed.

Things like that didn’t happen before these two idiots showed up in his life. Safety used to mean isolation, a secluded corner to crawl into and hide. Now shouldn’t be any different, but the desire to run away and hide seems to have been superseded by the desire for someone to hold him, someone who will protect him while he can’t protect himself.

Noting that Merle is now standing right next to him and that he’s probably only going to manage to stay on his feet for mere seconds more, Taako decides to take advantage of the situation, and execute a strategic collapse, right onto the cleric standing next to him. If he’s gotta contend with the newfound equation of pain equals stupid emotional need for physical comfort, he figures collapsing from blood loss and internal damage is as good of an excuse as any to get some semblance of a hug out of this disaster.

Sure enough, just before Taako loses consciousness completely, he feels Merle’s arms around him, catching him and slowing his descent before he can fall.

There’s a metaphor there somewhere, but Taako is a little too busy blacking out to ponder it.

Cognizance comes back slowly. Hearing is first, a faint buzzing prickling at the edge of Taako’s awareness, melting eventually into a voice. Two voices, having a conversation somewhere above his head. What comes next is the realization of where he is. The only thing preventing Taako from going stiff as a board is the fact that he hasn’t really regained control of his body yet. The last thing he’d felt before passing out was being caught, directed to slump against someone’s chest, one of their hands stabilizing his head. One of Merle’s hands, Taako remembers now, a hand that’s still at the side of his neck, holding up his head with a degree of gentleness contrary to the gruff, grumpy nature the dwarf likes to show off most of the time.

Situations in which Taako passes out, in so much pain he can hardly think, don’t usually resolve themselves by a return to consciousness to the discovery that someone is holding him. This is… definitely new. He takes a moment, eyes still closed and breathing still even, to catalogue everything about this bizarre situation that he possibly can register without giving away that he’s woken up. So, he’s being held. By Merle, given the voice he can hear closest to him. There’s a weird pressure encircling his right hand, and concentrating hard through the fog still clinging to the edges of his mind, Taako puts together context clues and comes to the conclusion that Magnus must be holding his hand.

Merle is holding him, and Magnus is holding his hand.

Oh, those sappy motherfuckers, what the fuck.

In line with multiple recent situations Taako has found himself in, he can’t say it’s exactly an objectionable set of circumstances. It’s actually kind of frustrating, and definitely embarrassing, the extent to which he wants to stay there, soaking in the care with which his friends are touching him right now. The moment he admits he’s awake, this ends, and Taako at least goes through the motions of telling himself he’s eavesdropping on the conversation going on above his head rather than taking advantage of the contact while he has an excuse to.

“We almost lost him.” That’s Magnus’s voice, and it’s layers more serious than Taako ever hears him sound.

“I know.” Merle’s answer is clipped and rough.

“He almost died, like for real almost died.”

“I know that! His blood was all over my hands, Magnus, I know.”

They’re quiet for a few moments, Magnus’s hand tightening around Taako’s while the elf tries to process the very real fear he’s hearing in their voices. He thought that’d been the end of it, until Magnus chimes back in with something else that would’ve bowled Taako over had he not already been on his back.

“We can’t lose him.”

Equally as shocking comes Merle’s response. “I know.”

I’m here to make dick jokes and occasionally save your asses with wizard shit, Taako thinks, eyes squeezed tightly shut. What is the big fucking deal, you overemotional jerks.

It’s long enough after they’ve spoken that Taako figures he’s pushing the bounds of still being ‘unconscious’ and can get away with presuming to have not overheard what they were saying. He makes a big show of blinking his eyes open, giving them a second to adjust to the light, then looking up at his friends.

“Hey guys,” he says, bracing himself to be dumped onto the ground the moment it registers that he’s conscious. Realistically, he knows Merle wouldn’t be that rough with him, not after he’d just almost died, but still, he can’t help but force himself to be ready for that just in case. It’s instinct, too deeply ingrained for a few hugs and some worried conversation to undo.

“Do not,” Merle says, looking at him and shaking him a little, far from unkindly, “ ever do that to us again.”

“...Yeah. Sure,” Taako says, bewildered, for lack of finding anything else to say. He’s got no idea what Merle is talking about, anyway.

Chapter Text


Life is essentially a chess game. You have to plan and calculate and I am so lonely.

(If you play the opening wrong, the game is already lost.)

- A Softer World, Emily Horne and James Comeau

It’s the middle of the night when Taako finds him. He’s been wandering around restlessly, only occasionally bumping into another equally insomnia riddled Bureau employee. One circuit of the base is enough to prove to Taako that the solution to his racing thoughts doesn’t lie in wandering, so he returns to their living quarters fairly quickly. That’s where he finds Magnus.

One foot inside the door, Taako stops in his tracks. Magnus is sitting on the couch and he doesn’t look good. His face is in his hands, shoulders shaking just enough to be visible from across the room. Magnus must have woken up and come to sit on the couch some time during Taako’s fruitless meandering.

Now, taking in the situation he’s found himself confronted with here, Taako has two options. He can do the easy thing, which would be to slip past into his own room, using his superior elven sneaking abilities to avoid Magnus ever knowing he’d seen anything at all. Or he can do the right thing, which would be to go over and try and do something about how obviously distressed his friend - and when did he start thinking about these people like that - is right now.

Taako walks fully into the room, crosses the floor, and sits on the couch next to Magnus, because words like ‘loyalty’ and ‘conscience’ have taken root in his brain deeper than he can dig out.

“Hey,” Magnus says, lifting his head up and swiping a couple of times at his face. “Heyyyy, hey, hey. Everything okay, dude?”

Oh that’s just fucking typical. I find him crying on the couch in the middle of the night and he asks me if I’m okay.

“Just chillin’, Magno. You, though, you’re not looking so great.” Taako bumps Magnus’s shoulder gently with his. “What’s up?”

“Just, ah…” Trailing off, Magnus squeezes his eyes shut tight. His back jerks a little, once, like he’s choking something down. “Just a dream. It was just a dream.”

Now, Taako is five hundred percent of the way into internal panic. Magnus is most definitely not okay, and Taako is the only one presently around to manage that particular situation. He wishes that Merle was here instead, hell even Angus would probably be more useful to Magnus right now. But nobody else is here, and it’s time for Taako to get his act together and do something, rather than just sit here and watch his friend - alright his friend , are you happy now, Magnus? - suffer. Well, now that Taako has decided to do something, he’s just gotta overcome the small matter of figuring out what to do.

In Taako’s repertoire of skills with which to comfort an upset person, there is… nothing. Taako has no comforting skills. Magnus is the one who’s good at this shit, and he’s the one who needs it this time. It’s that thought that gives him the idea. Taako might not know much about comforting people, but he’d like to think that by this point he knows at least some things about Magnus. And if there’s one thing about Magnus that’s fairly obvious, it’s that this guy likes hugs.

Taako shifts on the couch, trying to pretend this isn’t going to be the most awkward thing he’s ever done in his life. He extends his arms a little, holding them open in Magnus’s direction.

“Do you, um…” Taako trails off, hating how stilted he sounds right now. He’s Taako , he’s smooth and cool and doesn’t trip over his own words offering someone a hug. “I could…”

Luckily for Taako, Magnus doesn’t make him finish that sentence. He accepts the offer immediately, tipping over into Taako’s arms with a wordless heave of breath that only might be a sob. Magnus, Taako is discovering very rapidly, is the kind of person who, when offered a hug, clings to you. His grip is tight and his face is tucked into the side of Taako’s neck and it’s like he’s trying to hide from whatever’s tearing himself up inside by sheltering in Taako’s embrace.

Frankly, it’s more responsibility than Taako ever asked for. Even as he thinks that, though, he remembers the times Magnus has hugged him, hell, the times Merle has, remembers that feeling of safe and protected that he’s never quite been able to replicate anywhere else. He remembers feeling like no matter how much that weird place in his chest aches and gnaws at him, he’s cared about. Wanted. It’s weird and unnerving and he’s still not used to it, and Taako can feel his throat closing up thinking about it.

The least he can do after everything Magnus has done for him is give some of that feeling back. Taako might be terrible at comforting people, might be awful at giving hugs, but he owes it to Magnus to try. He brushes a hand awkwardly at the back of Magnus’s hair, feels the man shake in his arms, and hopes he’s not totally fucking this up.

By the time Magnus gathers his wits about him, leans back and rubs at his face with his wrist, Taako is feeling slightly more confidant about this ‘offering consolation via holding someone’ thing.

“Sorry, I’m probably not very good at this,” Taako comments lightly, laughing a little.

Magnus isn’t joking when he responds, reddened eyes dead serious. “No, you… Thank you. It- thank you.”

Taako looks at his hands, feeling a small burst of pride.


Not even a week has passed when Taako finds himself in a similar situation, albeit with very different inciting circumstances. This time Magnus isn’t sitting on the couch after having some kind of nightmare. This time he’s laying on the ground several feet away from where Taako is currently sitting on a sideways log, covered with a blanket after just barely surviving several mortal wounds thanks to several healing spells. There’s blood on the blanket and on Magnus’s face, and Taako is trying very hard not to think about it.

It’s hard, when that same blood is also on Merle’s hands, where the dwarf is sitting on the other end of the log, firelight dancing across his face. Night’s fallen, and it’s just as well, as Magnus shouldn’t be moved just yet. It’s impossible to overstate exactly how close to death Magnus had been, exactly how far over the brink he’d been before Merle and his magic had yanked him back into the land of the living. Taako had stood by the whole time, helpless to do anything but stand there and watch as Merle did everything he could.

Magnus survived. The healing magic had been enough - just barely enough - to save his life. Now Taako and Merle are left sitting tensely on the log, waiting for Magnus to wake up.

Taako is looking anywhere but at the unconscious human, which leads his eyes to alight on Merle, who seems to be taking the opposite approach. He’s been unable to stop watching Magnus this entire time, like the instant Merle takes his eyes off him, he’ll stop breathing, choke on his own blood, die in the split second it takes Merle to blink. Merle looks… bad. Sure, Magnus is the one that almost died, but Merle looks like hell. His mouth is pressed into a grim line, picking at the flaking blood on his left palm. It’s clear the close call has left him rattled.

Suddenly, Taako feels very, very helpless. A question occurs to him, flitting to the forefront of his mind before he gets the chance to analyze it. What would Magnus do? Which is a thought Taako is never, ever, in the entirety of his life going to admit to having considered as a valid decision making strategy. He’s gotta do something about it though, and thinking of every time he’s witnessed Magnus deal with things like this, Taako makes up his mind.

Scootching stiffly down the log until he’s right next to Merle, Taako clears his throat. Merle doesn’t react, just keeps staring at Magnus. Taako sighs, dropping his arm across Merle’s shoulders and trying not to make a big deal about it.

Merle must have been seriously rattled, if the way he doesn’t shrug Taako off and mock him mercilessly is any kind of indication. If anything, he leans against the elf a little.

“At least one of you two idiots managed to keep yourself in one piece,” Merle grumbles, glaring at Magnus.

“Mhm,” Taako hums, finally letting himself look at the friend they both just nearly lost. He finds himself leaning back against Merle, though refusing to admit this awkward sideways half-hug might be for his benefit too.

For all that neither of them is going to admit to finding this useful or comforting, to be able to feel a teammate next to you while the other one lies nearly dead on the ground nearby, neither of them moves either. Taako decides to call this a success, and leans against Merle fractionally harder.

The first thing Magnus does when he opens his eyes and sees them both, crouched next to him, is smile.

Chapter Text


Life is essentially a chess game. You have to plan and calculate and I am so lonely.

(If you play the opening wrong, the game is already lost.)

- A Softer World, Emily Horne and James Comeau

Taako is mad. Who, a discerning individual might ask, is Taako mad at? Well, several people, for various reasons.

First, there’s whoever designed his room so that it was possible to, immediately after rolling out of bed, walk immediately into a wall and bust his nose up. He’s swiping blood off his upper lip and muttering under his breath when he runs directly into the second person he’s angry at, who is a Bureau employee he doesn’t even catch the name of before they’ve disappeared off down the hall.

Then there’s Angus, who he’d been giving a lesson on magic when he’d accidentally upset the kid, leaving Taako convinced for a terrible moment that he’d made his apprentice cry. The problem there wasn’t the interaction itself. No, Angus had forgotten about it within five minutes, after Taako had ruffled his hair and directed his attention to something else. The problem there was with the extent to which, noticing the look on Angus’s face, Taako had felt like the literal worst person on the moon or, for that matter, any other planet, as a direct result of hurting Angus’s feelings. It is just not fair, exactly how far into Taako’s life this rugrat has entangled himself, and it’s definitely doing a number on his aloof cred.

So, the wall, whoever designed the wall, the random Bureau employee, Angus and Taako’s overabundance of feelings thereabout… There’s a lot to be mad at, and it continues downhill from there.

It’s not raining, planetside, but it’s colder than Taako would like it to be. A couple of failed spells and the way Magnus and Merle seem to be competently successful at everything they’re trying just puts the cherry on the bad day pie, and all Taako wants is to crawl into bed and stay there until the world has decided to revise its opinion on what kind of luck he deserves to have. (The fact that this is exactly the kind of luck he deserves is beside the point.)

Well. That’s not the only thing Taako wants, which brings him right to the top of his ‘list of people Taako is mad at today’: himself.

There’s been a cloud of weirdness hanging over Taako’s shoulders since he got up this morning. Something in him feels brittle. His breathing keeps going all shaky for no reason, and he absolutely hates the general sense of fragility that’s been clinging to him all day. It had been a… rough night. It’s not like those have never happened before, and there hadn’t been anything particularly special about this time. What’s different about this one is how he hadn’t been able to shake it off as easily as he’s been able to in the past. Bad nights are bad nights, they happen, you’ve just gotta get up and move on.

This time, he’d gotten up and been taken aback by his first instinct, which was to go find Magnus and tuck himself into the human’s side until he feels safe again, or track down Merle and sit in front of the couch while the dwarf braids his hair until he feels cared about enough to drive the dark cold clinging to his mind away. He’d been so appalled at himself for thinking that, he’d lost focus on his surroundings, leading to his very literal run-in with the wall.

What Taako wants more than anything right now is for one of his friends to give him a stupid fucking hug, and he's mad as hell at himself for it. They have better thing to do than sit around and hold him because Taako is being too pathetic to manage shit on his own when he’s been doing that for as long as he can remember. He can want them to all day long, but everybody wants things they don’t deserve sometimes, so now it’s time to buck up and deal with it.

(Also he’s already tried a couple of times to manipulate Magnus or Merle into hugging him, to no avail. His usual tricks haven’t worked, so he’s up the creek without a paddle, left to drag himself after Magnus and Merle with that horrible cold ache in his chest.)

Apparently, along the way, Taako’s been something of a, well, you could call it a nuisance. Taako prefers to call it color commentary, but Magnus and Merle aren’t amused. So much so that, once their scuffle with a supposed informant who turned on them two minutes in concludes and Taako makes one too many snappy remarks, Merle rounds on him in frustration.

What the hell is your problem today, Taako?” he demands.

Everybody involved forgets that Merle, about two and a half minutes ago, not trusting the informant, cast Zone of Truth on the area they’re still in the perimeter of. Therefore, when Taako answers, he does so with much more forthcoming honestly than he’d necessarily planned on.

“My problem,” Taako answers in a near shout, “is that I had a really shitty night followed by a really shitty day and I walked into a wall and got tripped and messed up with Angus and it’s cold and I can’t even cast spells right and everything sucks!

“Taako-” Merle starts. He’s cut off by the elf in question before he can say anything else.

“And, and! And, my problem is I’m tired and stressed and upset and I want a goddamn hug because somehow you assholes have fucking conditioned me to want fucking physical comfort,” Taako spits the words like they're poisoned stones caught in his mouth, “when I’m fucking upset! And I’ve tried whatever I can think of to trick you into hugging me, and I’m usually pretty good at that, but it’s not working like it usually does and you won’t just fucking hug me already!”

In the silence that follows his outburst, Taako is left facing his friends, shoulders heaving with every harsh breath he forces through his lungs. The huffs of air sound ragged and choppy, and Taako is ignoring the burning feeling in his eyes, the blur at the edge of his vision with truly herculean effort. His hands are balled into fists at his sides, and there’s a steady stream of an angry tirade blazing in his mind, calling himself every awful word and cruel name he can think of for admitting that to them, Zone of Truth or not.

Now he’s standing there causing a giant scene over nothing, and this is just too much to ask Magnus and Merle to deal with. They’re going to leave, he’s really done it this time, and now-

“So,” Magnus says, and the amount of cautious concern on his face is painful to look at. “Do you want that hug right now, or…”

“Yes!” Taako snaps, humiliated by the way his voice breaks on the word.

In the first moment of good luck that’s happened all day, Magnus has reached him, pulling Taako in gently against his chest and settling his arms around the elf’s shoulders and back, before the tears actually break free. Taako unclenches his fists, settling his hands against the back of Magnus’s shirt. He plans to very deliberately act like this is no big deal, to keep his reciprocation of the embrace as superficial as possible, but he soon has his hands clenched in the fabric, fingers digging into Magnus’s back. It’s a losing battle Taako is presently involved in, trying to keep himself under control, struggling with keeping everything he’s been feeling wrestled down and locked up somewhere nobody else can see it.

It’s hard to pretend everything is just fine when Taako is fighting like hell to keep himself from crying while Magnus holds him tightly. As Taako’s breath hitches, Magnus moves a hand to the back of his neck, thumb rubbing in small, gentle circles. He’s got absolutely no right to be this good at hugging people, Taako decides in a fit of annoyance. This wouldn’t be happening if this dumb human didn’t have this dumb hug magic. He feels cared about, like he could completely lose it right now, break down sobbing in Magnus’s arms, and Magnus wouldn’t even mind, and it’s scaring the hell out of him.

“This is stupid,” mumbles Taako, pretending his voice doesn’t sound damp. “I’m being stupid.”

“No you’re not,” Magnus replies, giving him an extra squeeze.

Taako makes a wordless sound, chin digging into Magnus’s shoulder.

"You’re allowed to want things, Taako.” The voice, just above Taako’s ear, is quiet and kind. There’s a note of pain in it that Taako just makes out, a veiled anguish that Taako hates himself for being the cause of. “I’m so sorry you thought you couldn’t just come to us, to me, when you wanted a hug, of all things. I’ll hug you every day if you want. You don’t need to trick me into it. I love you, we love you, you're our family."

And I think I love you guys too, that's why this is so fucking scary! Taako almost shouts at him, barely managing to keep the words inside with a heroic effort involving burying his face in Magnus's shirt.

Of course, Magnus takes this opportunity to completely misinterpret the silence. He pulls Taako gently back from the embrace, though maintaining contact lest Taako perceive it as some kind of rejection.

“We do!” he insists, holding eye contact and giving the shoulders beneath his hands a tiny shake. “You matter to us so much, you’re our family. We love you. Right, Merle?”

A couple of seconds span between when Magnus directs the question to the cleric and when Merle answers. Despite the pause and the hard look leveled at Merle by Magnus, Taako can’t even manage to brush Merle’s gruff response of ‘yeah, right’ off as coerced or to make him feel better. If there’s one thing Zone of Truth is good for, it’s circumventing your own brain’s frantic scrambling to prove to itself that you’re worthless and unwanted.

Magnus nods, satisfied, then turns his attention back to Taako.

“You believe us, right?”

When Taako averts his eyes and nods his head, saying, “Yeah, I think I do,” it’s mostly to make that awful anxious concern on Magnus’s face go away. In his justifying the answer to himself, he neglects to factor in that the whole Zone of Truth thing still applies to him, too.

Another nod from Magnus. “Good, good.” He surprises Taako then by pulling him back into a hug, tucking Taako into his arms, making him feel small in a way that would make him nervous enough to bolt if it was anybody else.

Unbeknownst to him, there’s an argument going on above Taako’s head. Magnus and Merle are silently bickering, mouthing back and forth and glaring at each other.

‘Come over here,’ Magnus is telling Merle, who rolls his eyes in response.

‘Do I gotta.’

‘Yes! Now come! Here!’

It’s too frail a situation, Taako too vulnerable and upset right now, for Merle to bluster his way through protests for too long, and he gives in after that.

Merle walks over to the two of them, and Magnus stoops enough to bring him into the hug as well. Taako doesn’t say anything, just shifts as one of Merle’s stout arms wraps around his lower back. Neither Magnus nor Merle moves to break contact before he does, and it means more than Taako will admit that they wait and allow him room to decide when to pull away.

“From now on, Taako?” Magnus says, catching Taako by the arm as they turn to resume their journey. The smile on his face belays the slight chastisement in his tone. “All you’ve gotta do is ask.”