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A Broken Hero

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Gilmore opens his eyes, the pain slowly abating with the familiar warm feeling of magic – divine, his mind acknowledges as he draws unexpected breath. Somehow, it's not surprising that the first thing he lays eyes on in his moment of life when there should surely be death is Vax'ildan's tearstained face. Vax's fingers thread through his hair and he hitches a sob.

Then he wakes again and he's on an unfamiliar bed amidst the swarm of refugees in Grayskull Keep. He's sweating, shivering, and aches from head to toe. Death, it appears, really takes it out of you. Even when you're blessed with the healing of Sarenrae's angel, the pain is only abated not abolished. Holding back a soft cry, swallowing it as he sits up, Gilmore's surprised with slender hands grasping his and Vax once more at his side.

"I step away for five minutes and you're trying to get up again?" Vax says with a weary sigh that draws a hint of a smile to Gilmore's lips. "You're resting tonight, darling. You almost died."

"In your arms," he replies softly, surprised at the weakness of his own voice. "I'd say 'don't remind me', but I'll take the pain with that small gift of knowing that Vox Machina lives on." That's not it, not what warms his soul and they both know it, but for the moment it suffices. Vax's fingers slide up his arm and then across the slashed and bloody vestments across his belly – tracing the small scar that remains despite divine intervention. "It's fine, not even a flesh wound."

"You're a lucky bastard," Vax whispers, his touch lingering as he looks up and catches Gilmore's eyes. He looks exhausted, eyes rimmed with red and dark crescents running deeper.

Gilmore catches his hand again, folding his fingers over Vax's with a sigh. "You need rest too; you can't be expected to act on your feet if you've barely slept."

Vax's hand turns and laces their fingers together without hesitation. "I'll sleep when this nightmare is ended."

Nodding as best he can, Gilmore lets it go. Vox Machina is, and he knows always will be, tenacious in the face of danger. "I need some quiet, can we find somewhere quiet here?"

His face remains stoic, but the slight lift of his eyebrows gives Vax's thoughts away. He's concerned, possibly about everything if the creases at his mouth are to be believed. "Yes, of course. Here, let me..." He stands, one arm outstretched to shoulder part of Gilmore's weight. They weave through the gathered refugees at a generously slow pace. Vax's sure steps steady his own and despite his strength coming back to him slowly he's glad to have the help.

"I always wanted the grand tour, but I think this will do as a stopping place." Gilmore offers more of a smile than he genuinely feels, reminding himself that there's no ulterior motive to Vax's kindness. The temple is busy, Gilmore noticing both Pike and Keyleth tending to the injured and terrified as a stranger with a crossbow keeps watch. Vax guides him through a side door, signaling the guard that all is well, before finding them a quiet, unoccupied alcove. "Ah... I never thought I'd be glad to have silence."

"I understand." Vax nods, crouching at his knee instead of sitting beside him. "How do you feel?" He adds; "Don't bullshit me, I want the honest truth."

"I'll be fine," Gilmore finds himself admitting; "it still hurts a good deal, but I'm alive after losing my shirt to an ancient red dragon." Allowing himself the small comfort, knowing Vax will not shy away in this moment, he reaches out and cups a stained hand over the curve of his cheek, his thumb traces upward to catch a stray strand of dark hair as Vax relaxes into his palm.

"Alive is good." Vax's lips curl upward, clearly genuine this time – the sort of smile that makes Gilmore feel lighter than air as he mirrors it reflexively. "I... I thought we lost you back there. Thought I had lost you."

Taking note of the sad shine in Vax's eye, Gilmore reaches out and takes his hand again, ushering Vax up beside him. "Afraid you're stuck with me a while still."

Vax squeezes his hand tighter and leans into him, burying his face in Gilmore's sweat-damp collar. "It's an honor to be stuck with a true hero."

"Hero?" Gilmore laughs, fighting the urge to wince at the heavy ache across his belly. "I was foolish."

When Vax looks back up at him, the smile has faded and is replaced with stern neutrality. "Why did you do that? You should have run..." He cuts himself off, swallowing back a soft sound as he looks away. "If we hadn't have been there. If we had waited one hour..."

"I would have died a hero. I would have had my moment in the sun and gone out with honor."

"And what of those you left behind?" Vax chokes up mid-sentence, looking back at him with a heavy tear dripping down the side of his nose. "The people who love you."

Gilmore closes his eyes, taking a deep breath to still the lump in his throat. He knows he needs to be strong, he needs to give Vax this much. "You can't save everyone, Vax'ildan... especially in these trying times. Sometimes even love can't save us all." Vax's grip on his fingers tightens painfully and he realizes that Vax is trembling. If he had the strength in him, he would do something more... glorious... to break the tension, but all he can do is loop a tired arm over Vax's shoulder and draw him in closer.

Slowly, Vax stills and Gilmore realizes that he's crying into the bloody velvet on his lapel. He was broken, they all are... body and spirit in the shadow of the Dragon. After a long moment, Vax swallows audibly and looks back up at him. With a solemn tone, he admits; "I do, you know. Love you."

Before, he might have let the bitterness win and remind Vax that clearly it wasn't enough. But, that moment is gone and with it the shame of not being the first choice. Instead, Gilmore whispers; "I know."

Vax gently kisses his shoulder and whispers into a crisp blood stain; "Gil, I'm scared. For my sister, for you... for Emon. For all of us."

"We all are." He has more on his tongue, but Vax cuts him off with a gentle, sincere kiss. For a moment, in their quiet alcove, all stands still and he's content to be afraid and to be loved by a broken hero.