I wrote this back in February of 2018. This has spoilers for Story and Song in it, and features your regular canon typical character death. I'll leave the original author's notes at the end. Until then, I hope you enjoy, and thank you for stopping by!
As the seven members of the Starblaster crew turned to look back at their retreating home, Lup screamed.
A darkness was enveloping their home, swallowing the plane they came from whole. They all had friends back there. They all had family back there. They were all crying, they were all screaming.
But Lup didn't just lose people back there; she'd barely ever had anyone in her life that stuck around or mattered. Lup didn't just lose a home back there; she'd never really had one in the first place. Lup was losing everything she had. Lup was losing her heart.
Lup was losing Taako.
"We have to go back! Taako!"
Everyone else was too busy grieving as well to remind her they couldn't turn around. They didn't need to anyway. Lup knew that, but that didn't mean she had to like it.
Davenport kept piloting ahead silently.
In their first cycle, as the crew began dividing up their work, planning out how they'd spent their time in this plane, Lup had a hard time putting her heart into it.
She couldn't bring herself to dive into the search for the Light of Creation, the thing that had separated her from her twin brother. She didn't care to find out more about it or even talk all that much about it. Lup wanted nothing to do with it at all right now. She volunteered for something minor: learn more about the local animals, maybe learn their language while she was at it. Taako wasn't here and these animals could never replace him, but they still mattered, too. Maybe she could still save someone else's family.
Barold Bluejeans volunteered for that too, of course. Nerd that he was.
"Ma'am?" Lup looked down to see Angus gently tugging on the sleeve of her red robe. "Is it, um, is it okay if I come, too?"
Angus McDonald was...an interesting addition to the team. He was a tiny, ten-year-old boy who always carried a notebook around with him (much like Lucretia did), and was dressed very professional under his own red robes. He may have seemed like an odd addition to the team for their original, temporary mission, but despite his age Angus held the distinction of being the world's greatest detective. (A title that was entirely accurate, but also one he was very modest about.) If there were any mysteries beyond their own plane, the IPRE had figured, it would help to have an accomplished detective on the ship as well. He was a smart boy; Lup held a lot of fondness for him since the crew had originally met.
The crew wasn't Taako, either, and they could never replace him. Lup wouldn't let them. But they were still important people. Lup resolved not to allow her grief to hurt any of them in any way. That included Angus.
"Sure thing, Ango," she replied, ruffling his hair a little. "We could definitely use your help on this one."
Lup, Barry, and Angus soon befriended a family of mongooses, and learned their language as they learned about this plane's culture. The three of them giggled over their practices of the language. Lup made numerous delicious, vegetarian meals over the course of the year, constantly earning high praise from her crewmates. The entire time, she tried to smile as much as possible.
She still had a job to do here. People still needed her here.
When the darkness they would come to know as the Hunger struck, Lup went down fighting alongside Magnus. It wasn't like she had a strong need to rejoin Taako again. Of course she missed Taako, it was hard to go on without him, but she knew she was still needed among the living. Taako would understand. No, she went down trying to save everyone in this plane. She didn't make it to the ship in time, and all the animals here deserved to live. Maybe since she was more prepared to fight this time, she figured, she could take the darkness down now.
The second cycle hit, and she hadn't expected to wake up on the ship again. Neither had Magnus.
Eight years pass, eight cycles pass, and life without Taako still hurts a lot.
The others understand. Maybe they can't truly and completely understand, but they try. They know that Lup and Taako were all each other'd had. They knew how close the twins had been, how there were times that they were the only thing keeping each other going, that neither would have ever made it as far as they had alone. They knew how harsh life was for the two of them. And so the other six members of the Starblaster crew didn't blame Lup for her pain and her grief, or for the times she accidentally let it get the best of her and lashed out. They were patient with her, kind with her. She appreciated it, she truly did.
But eight years had passed, and it wasn't any easier than it had been at that first plane they'd stopped at.
Merle was planetside, starting some sort of church with some mushrooms, or something like that. Someone was out looking for the Light, Lup couldn't remember who and honestly didn't really care. All she knew was that she'd elected to stay with the ship for the cycle, keep it safe. She needed a break from this routine the seven of them had been forced into.
She was flopped on top of a couch they'd thrown in a common area on the ship at some point, staring up at the ceiling. She wasn't trying to do anything, to think anything. She was simply trying to be. Lup had yet to figure out how to live her life without her twin brother.
At some point, after who knows how much time had passed, Lucretia approached her. Lucretia was, of course, electing to stay with the ship as well. That's what she was doing most cycles. Lucretia was a chronicler, her strengths weren't in searching for the Light or speaking with people on the planet. She left that to everyone else, and wrote it all down. She wrote everything down.
Lucretia stood next to the couch, staring both at Lup and away from her at the same time. Her hands fiddled with the notebook she was holding, a pen tucked behind her ear. After a moment, it was clear Lucretia wouldn't speak up, so Lup did it for her.
"What's up?" Lup asked, somehow unable to muster up her usual attitude.
"I...I'm not sure how to say this," Lucretia admitted. "But...would you like to talk about it? About your brother, I mean. I know it's still hard for you, and it's hard for all of us, but you've certainly gotten one of the worst ends of the deal." She paused when Lup arched an eyebrow, but continued when Lup offered nothing else. "Your brother was certainly...an interesting individual, and I would love to learn more about him, if not today then someday. I thought, maybe if you talked to someone about it, about him, maybe it would help. I could write about him, or I could just listen. But if not, I understand, I just...wanted to do something to help. Anything to help you get through this."
A few cycles ago, the other crew members had stopped trying to offer Lup their condolences, stopped telling her he was happy and safe now and that they'd meet again someday. Those words didn't offer the comfort intended, it just stung, reminded her of what happened. She hadn't wanted to talk about it then. But now? She gave it some consideration, and tried to smile.
"Maybe it is time to try to talk about it," she decided. "And yes, please, write down anything and everything about my brother. He'd love that. He always wanted to be immortalized like that somehow, to have some sort of claim to fame. He wanted everyone to know who he was."
Lucretia chuckled. "Of course. And if you find this doesn't help, we can stop whenever you wish." She opened the notebook to a blank page, wrote some sort of code only Lucretia knew the meaning of, and pulled the pen out from behind her ear. "I'm ready to start whenever you are."
Lup tried to recall some of their happiest times together, their best memories. Together, she and Lucretia smiled, and laughed, and cried. It wasn't a call for hope, or a reminder that she and Taako would meet again. It was just...Taako. Remembering Taako, loving Taako. It was okay to think about her brother, to remember him and to grieve for him. And it did feel better afterwards.
It wasn't about living life without Taako. It was about living life for the both of them.
On the beach world, when Barry gathered the courage to confess his feelings for her, Lup gave an immediate rejection. Ran off. She felt bad about it, in hindsight. Her rejection was nothing personal to Barry Bluejeans, who was one of the greatest people to ever grace the planes with his presence. Barry was great, deserved a lot better than her grieving ass was good for right now, and she liked him a whole heck of a lot. But getting together with him would be like a betrayal. She couldn't make a new family for herself here.
Everyone else on the Starblaster wanted that, apparently! They were all trying to be like a new family together, and Lup was having none of it. She loved them all, sure, and they were incredibly important to her. She cared about them, would fight to the end for them. But they weren't her family. She already had a family. Taako was her family, her whole life, her heart.
Lup's family was dead.
In Tesseralia, there was a monastery. It was a monastery for peace, for finding ineer peace, for resolving conflict. This monastery trained people from its own members up to world leaders on ways to find peace, to end war and conflict with the people around them. And when the Starblaster arrived at Tesseralia, during the thirtieth cycle of their journey, the monastery held the Light of Creation.
If Merle proved himself, if Merle trained with the monastery, they could get the Light of Creation. After some deliberation, Merle accepted. And that's the year Merle learned the ability to Parley.
As part of his graduation from the monastery, Merle was to initiate Parley with his own enemy. As Merle sat down and made his preparations, he focused everything on their biggest enemy: the Hunger.
The next thing Merle knew, he was in a giant kitchen. There were several fantasy ovens and fantasy stoves and fantasy pots and pans. and more kinds of fantasy kitchenware than Merle could ever dream of existing, all over the kitchen. It was all boiling and baking and cooking all kinds of food, nothing Merle could identify from where he sat on a stool at a kitchen island in the middle of everything. Delicious smells wafted through the air. Strings of magical lights hung from the ceiling, lighting up the entire room. As Merle looked around, trying to take it all in, he noticed someone off to the side attending to all the dishes being made. Eventually, this person turned around and seemed to notice him for the first time, too. Merle did a double-take.
Because standing there was Lup. Or someone that look like her? The elf wasn't dressed in the clothes Merle had seen her wearing only moments ago, but that definitely looked like Lup's face. That looked like Lup's hair, maybe styled a little differently. All the food around him smelled just as heavenly as the dishes Lup had made over the past thirty years. And over the past thirty years, everyone on the Starblaster crew knew each other well. Like the backs of their own hands. Merle definitely knew Lup just as much as everyone else in their little makeshift family. His shoulders slumped. Did he accidentally bring Lup into Parley instead of the Hunger? How had he managed to screw that one up? What a mix-up, this was going to be embarrassing when they had to tell the others what happened.
But the elf's ears perked up. They twirled around to pull out a stool across from Merle and sit down. "You know Lup?" they confirmed.
This elf even sounded like Lup, but from that reaction alone, it was clear that this wasn't actually Lup. Wait...
Merle leaned forward, squinting. "Don't tell me. You're, ah..." One of his hands made a circular motion in the air as he trailed off, before he pointed at the elf with the same hand. "You must be Taako, right? Lup's twin brother?"
"The one and only!" Taako's tone stayed cheerful as he crossed his arms, staring Merle down. "You know Lup. You look familiar, too. You're, um, you gotta be...you're one of the people from that trip. With the spaceship and stuff. I'm pretty sure there was only one dwarf..." He snapped his fingers together. "Earl Hightower!"
"Merle Highchurch," Merle corrected. "But you're right about the rest of it."
Taako wasn't a part of the Starblaster mission. Of course he wasn't, otherwise he'd be in the monastery right now with everyone else, right? But Merle and Taako had met before. Before the mission, before the Hunger struck, the seven people selected for the crew had met together several times, for everything from details on the mission to silly bonding exercises. At least one of those missions they'd been invited to bring family along with them. Their families could meet the other members of the crew, see what they were getting into. Some of them had brought parents, others siblings, or even a mixture of both. Lup had only brought Taako. He was the only person to bring, for her. Taako had gotten to meet the other six people selected for the mission before. He'd been perhaps one of the hardest people to read on that mission, left a lasting impression on most of the people there.
And then the day for them to leave had come, and the seven of them left, and everyone else on the planet was at the mercy of the Hunger, including Taako. Yet, somehow, here Taako was. How was he here, why was he here? Could people who were gone be brought into Parley? Merle still had no idea how he'd managed this.
"Well, Merle," Taako started. He gazed down at Merle, and Merle still found him as hard to read now as he'd been thirty years ago. "You're alive. You know my sister. Somehow you brought me here, wherever this is. So, does this mean my sister's still alive out there, somewhere? You guys got away?"
"She's alive. Your sister's still alive," Merle told him. He didn't say anything about the cycles, about how sometimes Lup (and the rest of them) would die, but would later come back, always come back. It was far too complex for this. Taako needed to know Lup was alive. That she was out there. And apparently, it seemed like Taako was still alive, too? Lup would need to know this later.
Taako's eyes filled with tears. He seemed to notice as soon as Merle did, and quickly wiped them away. "She's alive..." he whispered. "I can... I've been looking for her here, well, not here here, but I'm not going to find her here. She's still out there..." Taako calmed down, seeming to give himself the comfort that Merle wouldn't offer. If he was anything like Lup, he would reject it, trying would only make things here worse. "Merle, right? Can I ask you another question?"
"Shoot," Merle replied, nodding at him.
"So, like, where the hell are we, anyway?" Taako asked, gesturing to the kitchen around them, with a laugh. "Like, what is this? Don't get me wrong, I love it here. Mad props for style, you're clearly living it up. But I definitely wasn't here a few minutes ago, I definitely feel like I shouldn't be here, so like? What?"
"This is the, uh, Parley room? I can summon people here to meet with, it's intended for like, making peace. I guess this place takes its form based on whoever I call here?" Merle shrugged. "I have to admit, though, I'm a little curious about something myself. Don't get me wrong, though, you're a wonderful guest to have here. It was a nice surprise. But that's what it is, a surprise. I don't think you're the person I was trying to call here, so I'm not really sure why you're here, or like, how you got here."
One of Taako's ears flicked as he maintained steady eye contact with Merle. "Well, who were you trying to bring here, homie?"
Taako frowned. "I'm not sure what that is," he said.
"It's, the, uh," Merle tried to explain. "Do you remember when we left our plane? When that big dark storm thing hit?" He knew Taako understood about planes and some general planar science. It was one of the main things he could remember about Taako; Taako had been the most knowledgeable of any of their family members about the mission and some of the science behind it. Taako had been studying some of it, probably interested through Lup, as they'd all prepared for the mission. Taako knew about planar systems, that there were multiple systems, and while he hadn't known much of the specific science behind the bond engine, he at least knew of it and some general knowledge. He didn't need to explain further, understanding wasn't going to be an issue for Taako. It was just a matter of how far recently Taako's memory stretched.
"Yeah, I remember that." Taako leaned forward on the table. "You guys gave that thing a name? You're calling the thing that absorbed our plane the Hunger?"
"Uh..." Merle blanked. He didn't have enough first-hand, in person experience with the Hunger to know if it was, well, like a thing or a force or what. He didn't know what to call it, really, other than just the Hunger. And he had no idea what the Hunger had done to their plane, whether it absorbed it or destroyed it or what. But, Taako was on their plane when the Hunger struck? He must've saw it first-hand? He had a better idea than Merle did about this?
Taako's eyes narrowed. "I think I know how I got here."
"Yeah? What happened, then?" Merle asked.
"I don't know how much you'll like my answer," Taako warned him. "And I don't think I like what this means."
"Try me," Merle insisted. "Any answer has to be better than not knowing."
"You asked for it. Don't say I didn't warn you." Taako breathed. "The, uh, 'Hunger'? It didn't absorb all of our plane, but it got a good portion of it. It left before it got the whole thing. But I was in that portion of our plane when it happened."
"You were..." Merle felt a chill inside. "You were absorbed by the Hunger?"
"I don't know why calling the Hunger here specifically brought me," Taako continued as if Merle hadn't spoken. He tossed a bit of his hair over his shoulder. "Maybe I'm the part of the Hunger you're the most familiar with, have the most of a bond with, and that brought me here. Maybe I was brought here because right now I'm still one of the parts of the Hunger that's kept the most individuality. Maybe it was dumb luck. But you said this place is for making peace. That you can choose who you bring here."
Merle could only nod.
"You don't make peace with someone if you don't have some kind of conflict with them, homie. You wanted to bring the Hunger here."
Merle stayed silent.
"Sounds like we're enemies, or something. Or at least, that you think we're enemies." Taako slammed his hand on the island between them and stood up. "It's been chill and all, Merle? But I want to get the fuck out of here."
Merle dissolved their Parley meeting as quickly as he possibly could.
The second he was back, everyone crowded around him, asking how it went. He stared around at all of them nervously, and locked eyes with Lup.
Merle frowned up at her. "Uh, maybe it would be a good idea if you and I talked in private, first, Lup? I, um...you should probably be the first to know. Alone."
They hunkered down in a remote corner of the Starblaster, sitting next to her. Merle couldn't even begin to figure out how to tell all of this to her. There really was no good way, he figured, just..as long as he didn't leave anything out. So he told her. He told her who he met. He told her that her brother wasn't gone, not yet. Then he broke it to her why he'd met Taako in the first place.
Lup stared down at him, taking a deep breath. Finally, she forced out, "Thank you, Merle, I, uh...thanks for telling me. I...need some time alone, now, I think."
He understood completely. He kept his distance for a few days, made sure the others did the same. They all made sure she had space, had time.
That, of course, wasn't the only time Merle spoke to Taako. He went back into Parley. This time, he did summon the Hunger, focus on the Hunger, but a little bit of him was focused on Taako, too. If Taako was part of the Hunger, Merle wanted to continue to speak to him. And it worked. They reappeared in the kitchen, Taako and Merle noticing each other immediately this time. Taako frowned.
"So we're back here," he noted.
"So it seems!" Merle agreed.
Merle was seated in his own stool. Taako took the time to curl up on a ball on his. "I don't want to do this, Merle. I don't want to talk."
"Why not?" Merle leaned forward, over the island. "Last time we got along pretty well for awhile. It was fun!"
"Yeah, until you...I...ugh." Taako ran a hand down his face. "Just, if we're doing this, okay. What's your deal? Why is the Hunger supposed to be, like, your enemy?" He held up his other hand in front of him. "And no, I know the shit about it attacking our plane. And it's fine that you don't like it for that. But, like. Peace, enemies, it's a two-way street, homie. It implies the Hunger has a problem with you, too. So I gotta be missing something here. What's your deal?"
Merle curled on of his hands over the other, stared down at them. "Well, the Hunger has been hunting us down for years," he said.
"The thing is, the Hunger's been kind of been, well, chasing me and my friends, my team as we've kind of hopped, skipped, and jumped around to different planes," Merle explained. "And well, I kind of wanted to get to know who tracked us down and killed us a buttload of times. Maybe figured the Hunger would want to get to know us, too."
Taako sized him down, blinked. "That was you? That was you guys, all the time?"
Merle frowned. "You didn't know?"
"See, it's not like the Hunger really goes after people! We only really get to know about anyone if they get absorbed by it. We only get to know about the planes absorbed by it. I mean, sure, the Hunger knew someone kept showing up in every plane we visited for awhile now, but..." Taako stared down at the island. "Damn, we had no idea who."
"So, the Hunger's not after us?" Merle mumbled. He stared up at Taako. "What is it after, then? What does the Hunger want?"
"We want to grow," Taako replied simply. And then he explained. Explained how the Hunger wanted to grow, how the Hunger wanted to grow beyond the limitations of life. How the Hunger needed the Light of Creation to do that. Taako explained this, and Merle listened.
"You've said all this 'we' stuff," Merle told him. "And you answered what I asked, yeah. But I also wanna know: what do you want? What does Taako want?"
Taako drummed his fingers on the island. "I'm...not...don't..." He stared at the ceiling. "Gonna pass on that one. I'm good to go now. I want to be done."
The next time they met, Merle sat down. Taako remained standing.
"Last time, you mentioned something about the limitations of life? What's that about?" Merle asked Taako.
Taako glanced down at him. "Life sucks, Merle."
"You think the time you spent with Lup sucked?" Merle pushed.
"That's not what I meant," Taako shot back. He looked away again, watched a pot boiling nearby. "Lup? She's great. We kicked ass together, we tried to make what we had good. But we deserved better, we deserved so much more. Everyone does." As he continued to speak, Taako walked over to the pot. He removed it from its hear source and began to stir whatever was inside. It smelled wonderful. "We're all forced to deal with this shit in life. People who treat us like dirt for no reason, not having enough to get by, unreasonable expectations thrust upon us. We live a life with all these limitations, and then we die." Taako added a dash of salt to the mixture. "And whatever happens in death, we're stuck with it forever. We don't get to fix things, or try to do better. We're just stuck, for all time. We deserve better, because life, death, it all sucks."
Merle watched him carefully out of the corner of his eye.
"Everyone absorbed by the Hunger knows this, we all learn this, we're told this. We all listen. And we're all left...wanting. We all want more. To break these lives and deaths and rules forced upon us. No one gets to choose any of it. And it's shit. So if we become more than the laws of life itself, more than life itself, we can change that. We can make it better," Taako finished. "No one has to grow up starving or alone or feeling worthless. We can bring real meaning to life and death. In the big picture, nothing really matters, and we can change that. That's why we chase after the Life, why we consume and grow. Because life sucks."
Taako put the pot back over its beat source and flopped down in front of Merle. "Well, there's yoir answer."
"I'm not sure I like it," Merle admitted.
"No one does," Taako responded with a shruh. "So, change of subject them. Tell me. How's Lup?"
"She's something," Merle said with a snort. "She's, well, trying to be okay. I don't think she ever really got over when we thought you were dead and gone forever, she took that hard. She was trying to be better, though. Trying to deal with it as best as she could. We all tried to help, and she appreciated that. She makes a big impression in oretty much every plane we visit. She's learning more and more powerful spells by the minute, she's one of the strongest forces she has. She makes all kind of good meals, but insists they'd be better if you were there to help. She gets along well with everyone, we're all good friends, but the second anyone brings up the word 'family' she shuts down. Wants nothing to do with that. Wouldn't you know, she and Barry are head over heals for each other, and she can't bring herself to do anything about it. She's a bit of an explosive mess, but then, she was also explosive."
"That's my sister," Taako agreed with a smile. "She...means the world to me. We're everything to each other. She's the reason I'm here."
"Here?" Merle tried to do the math, concentrating. Taako used that word to mean multiple things in their conversations. Was here supposed to be inside the Hunger, or in the Parley room?"
"Here." Taako tapped his hands on the island idly. "I figured, one possible reason you were able to call me here was because I've been keeping more of my individuality than most people that are absorbed. Most just become another faceless blob in the storm, becoming the storm itself. Being separated from Lup is one of the worst things living has done. I'm...a lot more resentful towards life for that than most other reasons. So being separated always has me really close to losing myself here. But...I can't resign myself to that, somehow. Not without Lup."
"So you looked for her in the Hunger," Merle commented.
Taako nodded. "I figured she had to be there somewhere, or she would show up eventually," he recalled. "Now I know she won't. None of you will, the Hunger's becoming aware of that. So...maybe I'll just be stuck in this kind of state forever."
"Doesn't sound much different from how you described death," Merle said.
"It does, I know. And on that one I disagree with the Hunger, keeping me more myself," Taako noted. "But not much else. At its center, the Hunger is very dissatisfied with life and its limitations, and I find myself very dissatisfied with my life. I'm just...also kinda dissatisfied with this, I guess."
"You don't want to be part of the Hunger?"
"Can I go now, Merle?"
That's when Merle began to conspire a way to save Taako from the Hunger. When he relayed this information, the rest of his crew joined him on that.
When the Hunger strikes, when the Hunger reaches a plane, it attacks in very specific ways. Pillars of darkness, with colorful ribbons of light interspersed inside, strike the plane. And forms of darkness begin to take shape on the plane. These forms are not random, nor fictional. It's always the forms of people who have been absorbed by the Hunger, have assimilated with the Hunger. They have the same strengths as their former selves, the same abilities and power. The only thing they are missing is their thoughts. Their free will. Instead, all that's left is the wants of the Hunger.
And when the Hunger reaches a plane, the plane undergoes a slow absorption process. Colors in the plane fade first, before anything, until everything's black and white like an old fantasy movie. Sounds become dull and muffled. Smells weaken, the taste of food all starts to become the same. As these things fade, the Hunger speaks. And everyone listens, because everyone always listens. They learn the truth of existence, and they too become unsatisfied. Then, the Hunger takes it all. The only people who didn't ever listen were the members of the Starblaster crew.
There's a cycle where Lup's walls start to relax a little. It helps immensely to know that her friends all want to save her brother. She realizes that the crew being a family isn't about replacing the family she had before, but expanding it. They save Taako, and they become his family, too. She becomes less guarded, starts to let the rest of them in a little more, and she becomes truthful to herself about these strong bonds the seven of them have.
There's a cycle where Lup accepts Barry love for her, and she accepts her love for him. There's a cycle where they start dating, far later than they should have.
And then, there's a cycle where the worst happens.
The Starblaster crew knows the pattern of how the Hunger strikes, they know the truth behind these forms the Hunger attacks with. It doesn't take them long to find out, since they recognize some of these as inhabitants of planes they previously visited. Still, it comes as a shock when it happens. They couldn't truly bare themselves to face the worst.
Davenport's piloting the Starblaster to get them out of there. No one else made it to the ship in time. The rest of them were still on the plane, fighting the Hunger off. They stuck together, covering each other's blind spots like a fine-tuned machine. It's Barry who first sees it, while the rest of them are turned away.
"It's him," Barry whispers, unable to say anything else. The rest of them look. And there, in a cloud of darkness filled with streams of color, they see Taako.
"Taako?" Lup asks hopefully. None of them are sure what to do, or how to act in this situation. None of them are sure what this Hunger-Taako will do. Lup wants to have hope.
The Hunger-Taako raises an outstretched hand. For a few long-stretching moments, nothing happens. Then, they all watch as Barry turns into crystal before their eyes.
The rest of the crew act quickly. Merle casts Flame Strike between the rest of them and Taako. Angus, the team ranger, does his best to shoot Taako using his crossbow, but to no avail. He'd already been low on ammo, and now he's out. Lucretia casts a shield around all six of them, including Barry, and keeps the shield going and up until they're pulled back to the Starblaster. Magnus grabs Lup and pulls her into a hug. She hugs him back.
"Taako, he...he'd never," she mumbles. "That's not Taako. It...it can't be."
"I know," Magnus whispers. "We'll bring him back, Lup, don't worry."
When Merle arrived in the Parley room, Taako was on his hands and knees, gasping for air.
Merle sat down on his stool. He folded his hands together and stared down at Taako. "That's what I'm wondering myself, personally."
"I...Everything went dark, for a minute," Taako muttered. "I didn't...I couldn't see or hear anything, I just, knew. Knew what was happening and somehow knew what I had to do? But...but I wasn't there. I was gone. It was just..." He took a deep breath. "You were there."
"We were," Merle affirmed. "Most of us were. You killed Barry." Barry, of course, had come back at the beginning of the cycle, like the rest of them. But the damage was already done.
"I didn't want this...any of this...to happen," Taako said. "The Hunger...realizes now. You're the ones who keep taking the Light of Creation. But...the Hunger needs it. It's a little, um, upset about it? But I didn't...I never wanted you to be hurt."
Merle shrugged. "We can let bygones be bygones. Barry got better, I'm terrible at holding a grudge."
Taako snorted from the floor. "You're a weird old dwarf, you know that?" Carefully, he got himself up from the floor and sat across from floor. "You know...it's easier to be me, here. I miss the old brand. I'm glad you brought me back here. If you didn't, I don't know what..."
"Happy to help," Merle said with a smile. "I enjoy our talks, too. It's good to get to know the real deal."
They sat in silence for awhile, Taako getting a hold back on himself, Merle just watching. His eyes wandered to the rest of the kitchen as he waited; it was a lot more chaotic today. Dishes were burning, pots leaking everywhere, a few spills of random ingredients on the floor. Taako didn't seem to have noticed, so he didn't bring it up.
Eventually, Taako cleared his throat. "I... Can I ask you something?"
"Go ahead." Merle waved for him to continue.
"How do you do it?" Taako asked. "When the Hunger talks, everyone listens. Everyone gives in, everyone gives up. But the seven of you don't. You're just like, 'no thanks', you just leave and keep going? How do you like, do all that? On our plane, I...I couldn't do that."
"You just gotta choose joy," Merle told him. "You can choose joy, in everything you do. Even when life sucks, and everything you know is gone, and you don't know what to do...there can still be joy. I find joy everywhere. We all do, or, well, we try." Some of them were more successful than others; Lup had probably the hardest time finding and choosing joy. "And at the end of the day, that joy is all I got. So when the Hunger says that life isn't good enough, I look at all the joy I've had, and I disagree."
"Must be nice," Taako replied. "Growing up for Lup and I sucked. We didn't have anything or anyone else but each other. A lot of the time we almost didn't make it. There...there wasn't any joy to find in any of it, Merle. Life just sucked. It was hard, we didn't deserve what we got. How could I possibly choose joy out of that? How could I possibly choose joy out of being separated from my sister?"
Something in Merle's head clicked. Suddenly, he felt like he understood better how Taako had gotten to this point.
"But you had each other, didn't you?" Merle asked. "You weren't alone. You were an unstoppable team, made life bearable for each other and kept each other going. You gave each other joy then, chose joy for each other." He'd heard enough stories from Lup, they all had, to know this was the case. Taako meant everything to Lup, he was the source of a lot of the joy she chose. Even now, she tried to choose joy from knowing they'd bring him back.
"And what about now?" Taako leaned back in his stool. "We don't have each other anymore. We can't do that for each other. How am I supposed to choose joy in this?"
"If you can't find joy in the present, remember the joy from the past," Merle answered simply. "Or if that's enough, look for joy from the future. You won't be apart forever."
Taako leaned forward, eyebrows raised. "What are you..." he whispered.
For a moment, Taako still couldn't choose joy. Not in his confusion. But he allowed himself to hope. For the briefest moment, not nearly long enough, Taako hoped.
Then something in the Parley room shuddered. It was a moment too long. The next thing Merle knew, Taako was gone.
He tried to call Taako back into the Parley room after that, multiple times, but he was never successful again after that.
When they arrived in the final plane, things still mostly played out the same. They created the seven Grand Relics, with some differences. (Angus made the divination relic, the cup that controlled time. Magnus made the transmutation stone. In honor of Taako, he said.) The Relics were distributed, the Relic Wars started. Lup decided in secret to seal hers away in a place that it could never be attained.
Lup died, her lich form was trapped in her umbrella, and she seemed to have disappeared.
Everyone lost their memories to Fisher. Lucretia created the Bureau of Balance. Davenport stayed by her side. Angus was introduced to a silver dragon that had long outlived the need for a name, and the dragon took on a sort of grandfather role for the boy. Angus lived happily with the dragon, and began (re)building his reputation as the world's greatest detective. Barry, Magnus, and Merle gathered the Relics, and slowly the Light of Creation was reformed from its seven pieces. And then the Hunger struck. Everyone regained their memories. They split up to put a plan into action: Magnus and Merle ran to Fisher.
And then suddenly, Merle was back in the Parley room.
Since he was the one summoned here, the room took its appearance from him this time. Merle didn't bother to look around, see what it looked like. Instead he stared at who summoned him.
Standing on the other side of the room was Taako, covered in darkness from the Hunger.
"Don't give me that look, Merle," Taako told him with a roll of his eyes. "Eighty years is long enough to learn any spells, even this one. The Hunger swallowed that monastery a long time ago, you know."
Merle didn't know what to say to that one. Instead, he said the only thing he could think of. "Awhile ago I asked you what you wanted. Not the Hunger, but you, Taako. You left after that. Did you ever find an answer?"
Taako looked down at him, his expression guarded. "I didn't," he answered. "I couldn't."
But that wasn't an acceptable answer. There was a way to get the real answer out of Taako, and maybe it was the only way. Holding the Extreme Teen Bible in his wooden hand, Merle cast Zone of Truth.
The room filled with light.
The Hunger was forced to look at the truth. The truth that living wasn't horrible, that joy was a choice, that life was worth it. Unable to look away, not here where the truth was everywhere, the Hunger fled.
When the light cleared, the Hunger was gone, but Taako was still there.
Taako was also forced to look at these truths. But rather than run from it, Taako embraced it. Taako saw hope again, Taako chose joy, and with that choice, Taako was free. There was no Hunger here, only Taako.
Merle walked up to him and lightly patted his arm. "You okay, buddy?"
"Yeah, I think...yeah." Taako held up a hand to his own head, blinking rapidly. "I...I don't think I've felt this good for a long time."
"Good to have you back," Merle told him with a grin.
Together, Taako on their side, the Starblaster crew (plus one, and a few more beyond that) defeated the Hunger. Together, they won.
And Taako and Lup were reunited at least.
Hoo boy, this ended up being...a longer one than intended. A lot longer than intended. But that's okay, I think it's better for it. I've been toying with this type of idea for awhile. See, John describes the Hunger as discontent, dissatisfaction. And if you look at Taako at the beginning of Story and Song, knowing his memories were taken from him, knowing how that lead to his fall when Sazed framed him for murder, knowing his sister was taken from him...what was he, if not dissatisfied? I wanted to write something where Taako wasn't the Hunger itself, he wasn't what started it all, but he did become a part of it. I wanted Taako to become a part of the Hunger, and then I wanted him to be redeemed and pulled out of the Hunger again. It needed a happy ending. Thing is, it just didn't work. I couldn't find a way for it to fit. Then I got the right inspiration, figured out how to go about this. And here we are! Ango's here too, kinda, because I love Ango lots. It let me include some fun AU Ango-related headcanons.
Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed!