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The Wizard's Tale

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It’s nice to get away from the bustle of Abadar's Promenade, and honestly nice to be seen on the arm of a respected merchant as they pass into the more self-important parts of the city. They do indeed swap gossip, and Vax’ildan is more than a little surprised to find the name Vox Machina has been on the tongue of many interesting people while they were away. He tells Gilmore a little about the Underdark, about Clarota, and even a little about K’varn - not entirely ready to discuss the horn out in the open.

Gilmore knows exactly where he’s guided them, a quiet little spot in the garden where it’s usually free of prying eyes this time of day. It’s as good a place as any to settle down and open a bottle of fine Syngorn wine to welcome Vax back to Emon. He listens intently, letting Vax spin the story as they forgo cups in favor of gradually larger sips from the bottle as it’s passed between them.

After the better part of an hour, Vax has relaxed more than enough to lean against Gilmore, at first simply placing his head against the man’s arm, but quickly reclining downward when he realizes they’ll likely be staying there a while. “Anyway, it’s good to be back home.” He says, tracing a finger in the debris of the tree they’re enjoying shade from.

Gilmore chuckles, and then nods as he takes another drink. “Mmm, I don’t miss that life. Give me a warm bed, a hot meal, and some good company and I’ll be just fine.”

Sometimes he forgets that before he was a merchant, despite his shrewd business sense, they weren’t so different. Gilmore was an adventurer, slayer, a wizard on the move. “Tell me about before,” Vax murmurs, leaning his head into Gilmore’s lap as they lounge under the late-season blossoms of a fragrant tree.

Gilmore catches a pretty pink blossom tinged with red in his outstretched palm, rolling it over on his fingers before offering it down to Vax – a smile curving his lips until he feels the corners of his eyes crease. Vax’ildan’s fingers linger on the delicate petals, and then on his hand, drawing it against his lips before blowing the blossom into the gentle, cool breeze. “What’s done is done,” Gilmore answers, fingers threading through soft, dark hair that curls around his knuckles with the gentle touch. “Sometimes the past should stay forgotten.”

Vax sighs, tilting his head to look up at Gilmore and flashes him a broad, irresistible smile. “C’mon Gil… just a story. I want to hear about the mystery behind the man.” He lifts a bottle of sweet, fruity wine to his lips and lets it trickle down his throat; the bottle’s nearly half gone between them but it is divine . “For me?”

Considering it, considering all of the things he left behind when he gave up the life of adventure, Gilmore gives a sigh of resignation and takes the bottle when it’s offered up to him. “I’m starting to think you’re a horrible influence on me, darling.” He murmurs, taking a long drink before leaning down to press a kiss on his forehead, soft rivulets of purple and gold surrounding Vax’s delicate features until he once more leans back into the tree’s thick trunk.

“I’m the best influence.” Vax smirks, licking sticky pink wine from his lips.

That slight dart of pink against Vax’s lips lures him into another subtle trap and Gilmore can’t help but lean down again to brush a kiss against them, collecting the sweetness of wine that mingles with the essence of Vax’ildan’s warmth bewitchingly. He could get used to those kisses, he thinks, if there weren’t always the likelihood of them being stolen away. “For you…” he musters another dreamy smile, letting out a low sigh as he relaxes back against the smooth bark. “I’ll tell you the story of the man I loved.”

“I want to hear about you , Gil.”

“They are one in the same, his story changed me to the man I am today.” He chuckles under his breath, admiring the youthful fire in Vax’s eyes. “Listen, and you will know all that you need to know about the man I was.”

***

Let it not be said that in my youth I was a truly good man. Much like you, my dear, I felt I had the weight of the world on my shoulders… that it was my task to solve Exandria’s ills with what little power I wielded. I studied extensively, I trained, I travelled the sea and the land in search of ever bigger challenges to conquer and knowledge to be gained. I learned the secrets of the arcane delving into tombs that had gone untouched for centuries. I read voraciously, fought valiantly, and was always left wanting for more. In those days the lure was not of the coin, my success could not be measured in wealth but in the wear of my boots and the weight of my spellbook.

That desire for a challenge is what led me nearly to ruin in the end. I’d become over-confident, reckless… and dared to lead a group of slightly less powerful adventurers that I’d fallen in with for the time being. We were exploring a sorcerer’s tower, long fallen into ruin according to the tale we’d been told. Now, you know I’ve no keen eye for traps – unlike yourself, unfortunately – and despite the plea of a well-meaning party I had written off as inexperienced, I ventured out ahead of them and into the sorcerer’s forbidden library. Now, I know you have travelled quite far in your adventures, and you have learned the skill and cunning of those with such arcane gifts both friend and foe, but one has not truly experienced the wrath of a sorcerer until they’ve breached their innermost sanctum. There hadn’t been time for me to react once I had seen the sigil I so foolishly activated – the fire consumed me, licking up my robes like cheap kindling as the powerful spell held me in paralysis.

***

“A trap?” Vax asks, opening his eyes to look back up at Gilmore’s sad, drawn expression. “You should have sensed the magic.”

“I should have.” He answers with a slow nod; “But the tower radiated magic, it breathed arcane essence.”

Vax’ildan’s face is hardened stone when Gilmore lowers the bottle, tilting it against Vax’s lips to encourage a drink he doesn’t accept. “I can’t believe you’d be so careless!” His eyes soften, even as he says it, and he adds; “I’m the careless one here.”

“You’re young…” Gilmore chuckles with little humor. “But even now I can see the mistakes you have made weighing heavily on you, we learn as we fail.”

“Not much younger than you.” Vax remarks, knowing full and well that he can’t deny the weight of errors he’s made and those he knows he will make protecting his sister, his friends, his loved ones. For them, he would gladly blunder into any death.

“Hush.” Gilmore presses the bottle to his lips again and this time Vax drinks, a long deep swallow that leaves a small trickle of pink wine rolling down his cheek in an eerie image of the man he loves displayed on his lap. He can’t help but feel the ironic sting of the possibility that he may indeed one day hold him as something much darker trickles from his lips. Shaking away the mental image, he draws a sigh. “Should I continue? I’m sure Vox Machina is envisioning all sorts of things we could be up to.”

Finally, Vax smiles and Gilmore feels the lightness return to his heavy heart. “No, keep going.”

***

I perished in those flames; not just as an adventurer, but as a concept… everything I thought I knew died that day. My self-reliance had failed, along with my lust for the challenge of another monster and another day. The party left me behind when they fled, to this day I don’t know if it was to leave me for dead or because of the sorcerer’s defenses that they did not revive me. Honestly, I think it was punishment for my own hubris.

Some time later, it could have been hours or days, I woke screaming – still feeling the fire climbing my body and licking at my face. He quieted me, a slim palm was pressed over my mouth as I stared at this stranger who clutched my prized spellbook to his chest. He was beautiful , and you know I do not use that term lightly. His skin held a nearly alabaster paleness to it I had never seen on human flesh, and his eyes spoke of long-held suffering that pulled at my very soul. “You are alive.” He said, surprise overshadowing his whisper. “You may talk, but soon the master will return. If you are found still living, he’ll do far worse than kill you.”

I was at a loss for words, for the first time in my life there was no way to adequately say the multitude of thoughts that washed over me. This pitiful man had saved my life. He told me in hushed tones about the sorcerer who had transcended death itself. The sorcerer who had held him prisoner since he was a child – now grown into a man of at least twenty-five – and whom he had served his whole life out of fear of things worse than death, things he had seen in horrific detail at his master’s right hand. After the better part of an hour, he would speak no more and I watched him work in hurried silence, still unable to move my limbs after the trauma my body had been through.

He dressed me in red linen robes that matched his own, covering my scarred flesh with the rough touch of someone who had not touched another in a long time after his strong hands worked powerful salve over my wounds. He did not say another word through all of it. The arrival of his master came with a powerful presence that I felt in my core, terror washing over his kindly face before it slipped into a dim blankness and then he left without a word.

For weeks, he tended to me in this manner and not a word passed between us. I could hear his master’s work in the bowels of the tower; the screams and the clatter of metal and glass always with the dark scents of sulfur and blood. He fed me and brought water, he healed my burned body with salves and silent incantations in the darkest hours of the night until he dropped from exhaustion only to leave for his master’s side come morning. When I could move, I did so always with great fear of this sorcerer – and also great loathing. This soul, whose name I did not even know, had somehow seemed to retain his goodness through a lifetime of horrors . I stayed even after I had healed enough to escape because I knew that I had to return the kindness in a manner only the foolish man who had entered the tower could.

***

“Did you fall in love him then?” Vax asks without subterfuge, the drink loosening his lips as much as the sad story. “This man?”

Gilmore nods, twisting fresh curls in Vax’ildan’s dark hair. “You’re getting ahead of yourself, my dear. You wouldn’t want me to spoil the fun, would you?”

The smile that crosses Vax’s lips is hesitant, uncertain if fun can really come of a story that begins with the death of an adventurer he’d come to feel quite a bit for. Certainly the look of true pain on Gilmore’s face when he speaks of the prisoner has no echo of fun in it. “Sorry, just curious.”

Another small blossom falls from the tree, drifting on the breeze until it lands on Vax’s forehead. His eyes cross, attempting to see it there, and Gilmore chuckles before once more being overwhelmed with the desire to kiss him again. His lips linger too long, he knows, but when he breaks away the half-elf’s smile is warm and welcoming of another. “I could do this all day…” Gilmore murmurs against his lips, adding; “and all night just to have another day.”

“Romantic.” Vax answers with a wary chuckle, the lingering truth of their uncertainty loud and clear in his voice. “Please, tell me more?”

“About the pleasures of spending all hours wrapped up in my favorite wanderer?” Gilmore laughs, knowing his meaning full and well but rather enjoying the pointed grin it draws to ask. His fingers trace down the buckles of Vax’s leather armor, aware of it far less than he’s aware of the vitality of Vax’s chest beneath. “Perhaps eventually earning my way into your…” he pauses dramatically, and Vax’s lips stretch even wider still, anticipating the far less romantic answer; “…heart.”

“Oh, Gil…” he laughs, genuine this time and with the ruddy flushed skin of too much drink and too many fond kisses. “You know you’re already there.”

“Well…” he offers a sweeping gesture of his arm over Vax’s chest; “perhaps other places then.”

He rolls his eyes, but the groan in Vax’s throat is all affection. “If your grand plan was wooing me with wine and story, you’re doing quite well.” It’s an honest admission, he doesn’t know where the afternoon will lead, but in the quiet pocket of Emon they’ve somehow found he’s increasingly certain anything is possible.

“Woo?” Gilmore repeats, pitching his voice higher as though incensed by the very thought. “I believe you were the one who asked me to take the afternoon off.”

Vax tilts his head into him more firmly, then turns his face to rub it affectionately against the soft robes pooled in Gilmore’s lap before looking back to his sweetened face. “Please? I want to hear more.”

“But of course.”

***

We did not speak again until the sorcerer had once more left the tower weeks later. Some hours after I felt his presence diminish the prisoner came to me. He was shaking, his hands stained with blood. “He knows you’re here.” His whisper rattled like a hard breeze through dry leaves. “He felt you, tonight. While he was…” The man’s face lowered and a shudder ran through him; “as he fed.” My mind went back to the screams I had heard that night, three – perhaps four – voices, men… dwarves, I think, it doesn’t matter… one by one they were silenced as they cried out to Kord for strength and salvation that apparently did not come.

My voice cracked, dry with disuse, but I said; “He’s a monster.”

He nodded, sadness clouding his eyes as he held up his bloody hands. “I’m a monster.”

I refused to believe it, that someone so kind and good could participate in what I knew without details to be evil. “He will burn, as I burned. I can destroy him. I will destroy him.”

His eyes went to the spellbook I had begun studying with new eyes once I was able to, and then he shook his head. “I’ve read your book, wizard. True though your power exceeds what I’ve learned in my time here, you cannot beat him. Nothing can. No holy man, no fighter, no wielder of any blade or magic could.”

“Gilmore.” I told him, “My name is Gilmore and I am no simple wielder of magic.”

***

Vax’ildan laughs, Gilmore’s voice ringing in his ears with all the pomp and ego he’d come to know well. “The Glorious .” He murmurs, swallowing back further comment behind another drink.

“Not then,” he chuckles once more, eyes shining with the memory of the man that he was. “In that moment I was as furious and wild as you and your friends on the battlefield.” His voice drops to a teasing coo and he says; “Gilmore the Ferocious.”

“The Fierce .” Vax adds, nuzzling into his robe to press a kiss against dark purple trousers. “The Untamed .”

“You should have seen me fight, maybe someday you will.”

The thought of Gilmore in danger twists the ever-uncertain dagger in his gut, it’s the last thing he wants to see… another loved one that could fall. “I hope not.” He says, all joviality gone from his voice. “I can’t afford to lose my favorite purveyor of fine blades and enchantments.”

Gilmore understands the words as what they really are – I don’t want to lose you – and it aches deep inside. For all the frustration their dance has brought him, he knows that regardless of where their path leads there will always be love between them. “You won’t.” He says firmly, one hand cupping Vax’s warm cheek as he runs his thumb over wine-stained lips. “I promise.”

“I’ll try to protect you,” Vax’s voice wavers only slightly as he shifts on the ground – pushing upward until he’s sitting on Gilmore’s thigh, leaning against his shoulder. “If you’ll let me.”

Gilmore feels Vax hesitate when he kisses him again, the slight stiffness in his back before he gives into it wholeheartedly. “I wouldn’t dare refuse,” he answers in all honesty, truly hoping he’ll never need to call in that promise. Vax’s fingers find their way into his hair, pulling free the blue and pink ribbon that holds it back to comb his fingers through the thick strands. It’s the one he’d given Gilmore what seems like ages ago, and he’s a little surprised to see that he still wears it. A simple rogue sign, blue for a trusted ally and pink for a rogue’s love - paired and on the right side for his own right hand.

“What did you do?” He asks, securing the ribbon around Gilmore’s wrist before adding; “Did you kill the bastard?”

***

We planned. Well, I planned. Mostly, he went over the pile of scrolls I’d scribed in the silent hours and to my surprise could actually read and make use of them. He told me his name was Ta, but that he hadn’t heard it in many years – his master simply called him ‘bond’.

“You will be free again, Ta.” I told him; “I owe you a life debt for what you’ve done for me.”

“You’ll die before I’m free.” He said, but I refused to believe that. I armed him with scrolls and with what little enchantment I could provide under such circumstances. I steadied myself and then once more went back to my spellbook until the evil presence was once more upon us.

There was blood shed that night, my dear. Much of it was mine, and Ta’s... but at the end of the battle, my own abilities tapped and my long-disused sword failing to make purchase on the monster’s scorched and battered hide, Ta was the one who felled the sorcerer. He stepped forward, hands shaking as he unfurled a scroll at arm’s length like a shield, and read aloud my own arcane words. A single wall of ice was enough that what was once a living, breathing man who had been corrupted by the lure of evil moved no more.

I burned his twisted, deformed corpse and scattered the ashes to ensure that he would not rise again. That night I escaped the sorcerer’s decrepit tower with a prize far greater than the treasure and knowledge I had come for. I had my life, and perhaps more importantly I had Ta beside me.

***

“Aww…” Vax’s smile wanes as he looks up from Gilmore’s shoulder. “That’s sort of amazing… a wizard and an adept slaying a corrupted evil… you must have been so strong .”

Gilmore nods. He lifts a hand, an illusion of blue flame dancing over his fingertips as he draws it closer to Vax. “I still am.”

“Of course.” Vax’ildan takes a deep breath, eyeing the flame until it jumps to his shoulder – no heat coming off it when it dissipates into the black leather. “I would never doubt that.” He shifts, turning toward Gilmore until they’re nearly chest to chest, his knees bent over Gilmore’s thigh comfortably. “What did you do after that? What happened to Ta?”

Hearing the name on Vax’s tongue draws a heavy sigh out of him. Things then had been so simple, they had none of the complications he’s come to endure and enjoy in their own way. Such vastly different men that have influenced him in ways they will never know. “We travelled,” he answers; “for months we walked on toward the Stormcrest Mountains, toward the place he called home.”

***

He didn’t talk much, and when he did it was often of the many years he was held captive – enslaved. He taught me the basics of alchemy, brewing simple potions by campfire light when the road was too dire to travel and our bodies ached from living rough. I taught him what I could of the arcane – we poured over pages of my spellbook I had long deemed useless that I found new relevance in.

We made love, and he clung to me as a man who had never known light that did not come from within would. I won’t lie, I had known my fair share of men across Exandria… but until those long months I hadn’t truly understood what it was to love another - to fight and to win alongside someone I was willing to die for well beyond the questionable bonds of valor.

His color returned with the kiss of the sun and regular meals nourishing him, though he claimed it was all my doing. As we walked we often spoke of what would come of our blossoming romance when he was returned to the village he hadn’t known since he was a child. He asked if I would stay… if he should stay. It didn’t even occur to me until we were less than three days travel from his old home that he was asking me not to advise him, but to tell him what to do.

***

“He traded one master for another.” Vax says calmly, still looking up as he hangs on to every word of Gilmore’s story, watching the smallest shifts of emotion on his expressive face.

Gilmore’s face slackens slightly and he nods. “So I believed. I figured he’d never learned how to truly live. While I’d spent a lifetime running from bonds, he’d lived in them without protest.”

Vax had learned to read body language better than any spoken tongue, and he knows when someone as easy to read as Gilmore is after half a bottle of wine needs to be held. Shifting against him, fitting down into Gilmore’s open lap with both boots finding purchase on the ground behind his generous hips, he wraps his arms around Gilmore’s solid middle and squeezes tight. “You did the right thing, though. Saving him.”

For a second, Gilmore’s stunned silent. Slowly, his mind and body acclimate to the unexpected affection and he encircles Vax with both arms, drawing his flowing robes around him and fitting Vax’s head under his chin. “Thank you.” He murmurs, letting his fingers caress the worn leather armor down his back, content to simply drink him all in. He’s well aware this is the closest they’ve ever been, and can’t help but think his own candid tale gives away secrets Vax’ildan will hold dear.

***

I couldn’t be that man to him. Perhaps the man that died in that tower could have taken him as an apprentice, maybe even travelled with him until the time came when we perished in some romantic battle against a savage foe. The man that saved him, the man I have come to embrace in my years, and the man you know intimately, could not make his decision for him. He didn’t take well to that answer.

It was a simple alarm spell that roused me from my slumber well after midnight, I had suspected he might try to slip away in the night, he’d been distant since hearing I wouldn’t make his decision for him, and it appeared I had been right. I trailed him, but as you might guess it’s not exactly my strongest skill. By the time I had caught up to him he’d already made it to a small camp of adventurers we had passed shortly before making camp ourselves. They had wounded, and spoke of owlbears in woods, but asked us to move along when we offered what little aid we could give.

Two men stood watch, strong men bearing greatswords with heavy armor. I hid in the shadows, wondering if he might be able to assimilate into their crew, perhaps even hoping that he would despite the tug of loss I felt at the thought of him abandoning our own personal adventure. He was leaving, and I had to let him have that… you do those things when you love someone, right?

***

Vax’s face softens against the warmth of Gilmore’s chest. The things you do, indeed. It’s a sensation he’s all too familiar with. “So you just let him go?” He leans back to ask, looking up at closed eyes

Gilmore doesn’t realize he crying until a tear slides down the side of his nose, reflexively he squeezes tighter around Vax and lets go of the old fear, the old loss, as best he can. “I wish I had.” He whispers, his voice catching in his throat. When Vax kisses him again, he’s caught off guard, the unexpected press of his lips and sweep of his tongue drawing out a soft sigh.

Part of him wants to think it’s a natural response, someone he cares very deeply for is clearly hurting and he wants to make that hurting stop, but he knows part of it is just letting himself give in to how easy it is to be with Gilmore… to kiss him, to love him. Either way, Vax nimbly opens the buckles of the thick leather between them, shrugging off his armor to allow the steady hand against his back, his sweaty shirt barely a barrier with the gentle contact. “It’s the past,” he says firmly, once more keenly watching him after breaking the kiss. “We’ve all made mistakes.”

“I haven’t finished the story yet.” Even as the words leave his mouth, Gilmore can’t help but wonder if he’s only stalled the progression of whatever’s happening in this moment. Still, he thinks Vax should know how the story ends. “It wasn’t quite as simple as just letting go.I had been a fool.”

***

I watched from the shadows as Ta approached them, I wasn’t close enough to hear but he spoke to the men keeping guard and one took him under his arm and brought him closer to the large tent that served as the shelter for the injured. They didn’t make it inside before… before…

It wasn’t anything I could have imagined in my worst nightmare, and I’d had many since facing the sorcerer. The soldier beside him drew his sword and brandished it toward Ta. I ran for him and stumbled, looking up to see what I had failed to see for so long.

Ta wasn’t the man I had fallen in love with. He quaffed a dark black potion, one of the few I had seen in his pack and written off as alchemical components I hadn’t yet worked with, and before my eyes his deep red robes shredded to tatters. He grew, sunkissed skin stretching over bulging muscles and claws, black scales shining in the torchlight. A dragonborn.

He slew them, all of them. The guards, the wounded, even their pack horses. He bathed in their blood, tearing into them with claws of flame and acidic mist. I couldn’t think, couldn’t move in my disbelief.

It wasn’t until he turned to me that I truly understood whom I had chosen to travel with, the one I had let my adoration of cloud my judgement. “You.” He hissed, pointing a gnarled finger to where I was hidden, the familiar paralysis taking me by surprise. “You shouldn’t have followed me, Gilmore.”

The voice in my head was the same soft whisper I’d heard in the dusty chamber where he’d nursed me back to health. I forced it back, I willed my body to move and stagger toward him. “Sorcerer.” Was all I could croak.

“You were to live.” He answered, his voice still sweet in my mind. “You have earned your gifts.”

“No.” I forced the words to come with another staggered stap before shaking his hold on me. Arcane energy swept over me as it often did then, uncontrolled. But he wouldn’t be swayed, it was only when I activated my old ring of true seeing for the first time in… years, I think... that I saw what had been underneath the harmless face of the man I loved.

His eyes were pale yellow, pupil-less, rimmed with black and staring back at me. His hair was a short shock of wild white, his skin, ashy gray flashes beneath the tattered robes stretched over a gaunt, nearly featureless form. I had thought that changelings were a thing of myth, and perhaps they were… stranger things have come to pass.

“You were not meant to see this,” he hissed at me, his voice a clicking cacophony of pitched voices that rang into my ears, attempting to shatter my very mind. I reached out to him, understanding and afraid, and my magic spoke for me. He was enveloped in my strongest spell at the time, a cloud of cinders and ash, flames licking up his robes in the very sensation that had slain me back in that tower.

***

“You killed him?” Vax whispers, his own eyes heavy with wetness he refuses to let come. “You burned him?”

“I had been deceived,” Gilmore admits, swallowing back the lump in his throat. “I’d believed for so long that he was a sliver of purity and goodness after being under the influence of corruption for so long.” His hands shake when Vax reaches back to them, taking hold and bringing them to sit between their chests - he can feel the throb of Vax’ildan’s heart, slow and steady against his fingertips, and it calms him enough to finish his story. “I went to his village, a small group of simple dragonborn who wanted only to live their lives away from the society of their people. They spoke of the sorcerer and when he had come for an apprentice, a black dragonborn orphan, one who had never had parents that even the elders could recall and left them all unsteady, the child had been chosen and taken from their band never to return.”

“He was seeking vengeance?” Vax asks, unguarded. His fingers caressing Gilmore’s many rings as he strokes over his knuckles.

Gilmore nods again; “I think so. I think… I think he saw me as a means to lead him home. I don’t know, maybe he felt nothing for that village. Maybe there was an even bigger scheme I couldn’t piece together.”

“Gil…” Vax’s voice cracks when he leans into Gilmore’s broad shoulder again, forcing back the pangs of rage and sadness at the thought of someone trusted and beloved betraying him.

It takes a moment to regain himself, but after a time Gilmore presses a small kiss to the top of Vax’ildan’s head and continues; “But it has a happy ending. After all, that was what drove me to the simple life of a merchant… I’d finally had my fill of adventure. And without that pain, I never would have come to Emon, to you.”

“To where we are right now,” Vax smiles, looking back up at him. “Still,” his countenance darkens slightly; “How could you ever trust anyone after that?”

He takes a moment, considering his words carefully. “Trust is a difficult thing.” He sighs. “For a long while, I didn’t. But… you know how these things go. One day you’re minding your shop, working on a project when some dashing younger man comes in and flashes you a smile you can’t refuse. And you know that he’s about as full of shit as a farmer’s boots, but after a time you start letting him.”

“Aww… Gil… I-”

Gilmore cuts him off, continuing; “Maybe you have no reason to trust him, maybe underneath a charming smile and silver tongue he’s one false step from a dagger in your back.” He chuckles, his smile spreading as he looks Vax’ildan in the eyes, spilling far more truth than he intended to; “But maybe you see a shining gem hiding underneath the swagger and little white lies, and you see that deep down he bears as many scars as you do and your heart makes the decision for you.”

There are no words. Vax’s face feels warm but he can’t bear to look away from that stripped down admission. “I… I guess you caught me.” Gilmore laughs, and his ears burn, but Vax doesn’t look away. “You have a point.”

It’s a confusing, touchy place - and Gilmore can’t think of anywhere else he’d rather be than right where he is with Vax’ildan holding him and looking at him with those sweet, soulful eyes that he thinks perhaps are saved only for him. Vax leans into him then and he can’t help but sigh, feeling the warm beat of the rogue’s heart pressed against his open robes as nimble fingers slide inside and fold themselves along the waist of his trousers. “I like this,” he answers casually, a truth he’s spoken many times in their strange courtship that may well never lead anywhere near where he likes to dream that it will. “Being close.”

“I know,” Vax answers, his brain still working over the complexity that he knows is entirely on his end. He’s thought about it definitely since they found their way to the nice quiet resting place where the blossoms fall; likely since he walked into the shop and asked for some time alone, and maybe even longer than that. There are just so many ‘what if’ questions that he has no answer to; and he can’t bear the thought of ruining the trust that has been built over the last couple years. Still, when Gilmore gently leans in, obviously hesitant to draw him further into whatever it is that they’re doing, a part of him breaks. Perhaps it’s time, perhaps it’s worth the risk. He allows the kiss, the barely felt brush of lips that he deepens with a sweep of his tongue; once more tasting sticky sweet wine and elements that are uniquely his . “I do too,” he finally admits, casually stroking his fingers along the hidden pockets under Gilmore’s robe  - a pouch of coins and two glass vials, he knows without thinking - before grasping at his shirt and tugging it free.

It’s the touch of Vax’s palms along his exposed back that draws out the first genuine moan, an unexpected sound that bubbles up from Gilmore’s chest at the meeting of skin against skin. Vax noses up against his braided goatee, and then slides his cheek along the robe’s softness to find warmth at his throat that he kisses tenderly, and then caresses with lips and the tip of his tongue.

His skin is warm to the touch and responds readily to the unexpected tenderness, gooseflesh prickling up along Gilmore’s arms underneath the supple drape of his voluminous sleeves. “Nothing has to happen,” He whispers, his voice far steadier than even he expects in the moment. “Be certain of your intentions, Vax’ildan.”

Part of him wants to say that he is never uncertain , but it’d be a lie - he’s made a habit of recklessness that always seems to work out alright in the end. This is perhaps one of the few situations he’s found himself in where he fears that uncertainty. It’s not that he doesn’t want, he wants … has wanted for some time, but who’s to say where things will end up when that line has been crossed? “I want this,” he says, knowing full and well he’s not even convincing to himself.

Gilmore’s arms squeeze tightly around Vax’s waist, mirroring the act and tugging his shirt free of the serpentine belt but he doesn’t stop at just access to bare skin - he pulls until Vax is leaning backward in his lap and allowing it to be stripped off of him, allowing him to see the things he’s only imagined. Vax’ildan’s chest is lean muscle scarred with the remnants of battles he probably doesn’t even remember - both faded and new. In time they’ll be gone, and replaced likely a dozen times over. Some things even magic can’t fully repair, though he suspects Vax wouldn’t want it to.

“Good?” Vax asks with a coy smile, a slight blush coloring the edges of his throat. When Gilmore doesn’t respond right away, he adds a soft; “Shaun?”

His face lights up, just a little delighted at the sound of his name on Vax’s lips. “Sorry, admiring the view.”

Relatively self-conscious, Vax looks down at the freshest of the marks; “It’s been a rough few weeks.”

Gilmore leans into him, using his weight to guide Vax down against the blossom dotted grass, his lips finding that same scar and pressing affectionately against it. “It suits you well.”

The soft sound that escapes Vax’s lips betrays his calm acceptance of the shift, but his hands once more find their way to the thickness of Gilmore’s long hair, encouraging the sensation. He’s still not sure he’s ready to give in, if he really ever could be, but in the moment it feels right. “Nothing like a good day of nearly getting killed,” he chuckles awkwardly, raking his fingers down to Gilmore’s throat where they linger.

Vax’ildan’s touch is more than enough to encourage him further, despite the tension underneath his lips as he kisses lower; each scar a little closer to the dip of his navel before skin disappears under black. “I think I rather prefer wine and kisses.”

His laugh creeps up almost as unexpectedly as the rise of Gilmore’s lips coming up to kiss him once more, as though punctuating his statement. Yes, there was certainly something to be said about wine and kisses. “Are… are we doing this, then?” Vax asks hesitantly. A nervous chuckle closes his throat when Gilmore’s dark eyes meet his.

“Are we?” He murmurs, relaxing down onto his side. He reaches out, stroking his fingers across Vax’s lips before cupping his cheek, his thumb lingering at the corner of Vax’s mouth. “I’ve more than enough patience if needed.” He would wait to the end of time if need be, perhaps not exclusively , but whether he likes it or not the half-elven face has made an indelible mark in his heart.

His pulse quickens, Vax’s throat suddenly dry when it’s turned back on him. He reaches out to the forgotten wine, smiling against the opening when Gilmore guides it against his mouth and allows a long swallow. It’s not going to his head quite as much as he would like, not that he needs an excuse - it just makes it a little easier to act on the impulse pushing him off the edge. “I think we are.” He can’t hide forever, even though he knows all too well that come evening the sensations flooding him will once more dip into the shadows.

Gilmore can see the worry written in Vax’s eyes, the fear. He can’t pretend to understand the thoughts that lead him there, the secrets that haunt him and still his obvious desire. The Erudite Quarter feels still in that breath when it occurs to him that beyond the weariness written across Vax’ildan’s face there is a sincere truth. He does not hesitate to kiss him again, hearing the clatter of glass on well worn earth as the bottle of honeyed wine is cast aside. It’s his moment, he thinks, and his arcane focus flexes, his fingers stroking the smoothness of Vax’s cheek for several long moments.

Stilled, watching the glimmer in Gilmore’s eyes sparkle and then spread outward from him, Vax’s breath catches in his throat. The intensity of Gilmore’s power washes over him in a way that’s both amazing and terrifying - his robes flutter in a breeze that seems to whip around them and he utters something in a language that sounds of an almost divine voice speaking not from his lips but from his very essence.

And then there is nothing. A single heartbeat of terror washes over Vax and he clings to Gilmore’s now bare shoulders, embracing him fully as those familiar fingers slide from his cheek through his hair, down the back of his neck. “Open your eyes, darling…” he whispers; “it’s beautiful.”

When he does open his eyes, raising his head from Gilmore’s thick shoulder, he only finds focus on dark depths looking back at him. “You are.”

“All the glory of the Ethereal Plane and you’re looking at me?” He grins wider, a deep laugh bubbling up in his chest. “I’m suitably impressed.”

“You are an impressive man,” Vax whispers, leaning up to kiss him again. He doesn’t stop the intuitive descent of his hands down newly bare arms, though he’s admittedly a little disappointed to find that only the robe has gone and his fingertips meet the flat satin of Gilmore’s vest. “And rather more dressed than I had anticipated after working your little… arcane thing .”

“Hey now, gimme a break,” Gilmore chuckles, lifting a hand to snap his fingers theatrically - a small puff of dark purple smoke enveloping them for only a second. “How many men do you think can say they’ve had the pleasure of being transported to the Ethereal Plane for a tryst with a wizard?”

The tight constriction covering him is gone, and for the first time in what feels like ages, Vax blushes up his cheeks to the points of his ears. “Four?” He teases, experimentally pulling Gilmore’s chest against his, drinking in the subtle differences between their physical response to the sensation of skin against skin. Gilmore groans, long lashes fluttering against his cheeks as Vax draws in a deep anticipatory breath.

“Not even close,” Gilmore murmurs, leaning fully into him, allowing every inch of his skin to take in the new heat, the smoothness of elven lineage with thick hearty muscling of a man who has honed his craft diligently. When Vax kisses him again, the doubt melts away. There is intent, and delightful substance to his kisses, hunger… desire. Stirred arousal prods against his belly, and Gilmore rewards it with a subtle shift of his hips, covering Vax’ildan with his body as those strong arms hold him once more.

“Gil…” he whispers, closing his eyes at the unexpected push of arousal - his senses heightened beyond expectation. No, he thinks, this has transcended the man he sees as Gilmore - proprietor of Exandria’s finest magical shop, master wizard, and terrible flirt. He says more firmly, his mouth sliding against the smoothness of his freshly shaved cheek to the curve of his ear; “Shaun.”

A shiver runs through him and Gilmore’s hips slide against the angle of Vax’ildan’s thighs again, fitting them together. “Say it again…” he whispers, swallowing the lump of lust in his throat. “Please?”

“Shaun…” Vax murmurs playfully, lifting his hips to drive against the softness of his belly again as he groans; “you glorious, magnificent bastard.”

The hiss of delight in Vax’s voice races from where it gasps against his ear straight to his cock, sending another heady shiver through his body as he delights in the sound, tilting his cheek toward it to catch his mouth with a deep, lingering kiss. Answering that gentle dig, Gilmore rocks his hips in slow, even strokes that slide his length along the cleft of Vax’s thigh as though proving his investment in what they’re doing.

His head leans back into ethereal softness, he doesn’t want nor need to know just what, and Vax opens his eyes to see soft color all around them - pinks and purples and the deepest blues - that coalesce in the depths of Gilmore’s eyes, drawing him back  in again. “Tell me what to do…” he whispers, licking his kiss-bruised lips. “Anything…”

“Shh…” Gilmore permits himself to take the lead with the stroke of confusion on Vax’s face; “just relax, allow me…”

When Gilmore shifts, at first Vax is at a loss… and just a little concerned… and there’s the tickle of a braid along his smooth belly, and then warm kisses leading slowly downward. And yes… right… “Yes…” Vax sighs, pushing up on his palms just to watch the sight of dark curls draping over his thighs as Gilmore’s kisses find the root of his hardness without a hint of hesitation. There’s nothing but love in the eyes that look up to him, nor the smile that creases their corners before the length of his tongue follows up the underside of Vax’s cock, drawing out a low, shaking groan.

It’s worth taking his time, worth the delight of Vax’s hand stroking back his hair behind one ear as he offers tender licks and kisses until the rogue’s hand shakes and each small sigh turns to a dull, breathy whine. When he envelops Vax’s cock it’s the taste of sea and warmth and tenderness against his tongue, just a taste at first, and then deeper, more.

Vax’s fingers clench of their own volition, tugging gently at the thick strands under his palm as he lets out an unexpectedly soft cry that’s barely stifled by his throat. It has been too long, far too long since he’s trusted anyone enough for any sort of physical intimacy. “Gods….” he whimpers, closing his eyes only a moment before forcing them open again to watch the slow, deliberate movements of a man that knows how to unravel him thread by thread.

Steadying himself with both hands on Vax’s strong thighs, it’s easy to give himself over completely. He can hear his own soft, throaty sounds of pleasure mingling with his lover’s voice and it’s almost too much to bear. He swallows hard, feeling the pulse well before the taste of Vax’s cries has meaning. He’s there, fully, taking in each raise of Vax’s hips against his hands as he strains to hold back the urge to push even deeper into Gilmore’s throat.

“Oh shit… shit…” Vax gasps, the gentle tug now a hard yank as though he could somehow pull himself back from what’s already happening. “I can’t… I’m… oh my…”

It’s another slow, forceful swallow before he looks back up with a dreamy-eyed smile, his tongue darting out to collect the last small drops across his lips. “You did… marvelous.” He murmurs, not without a slightly haughty sense of delight that he could bring Vax over the edge with so little effort.

“I’m sorry,” Vax flushes darker, lowering his head with a soft chuckle. “That’s, uh… that’s never happened before.”

“Then I’ll take it as a compliment,” Gilmore purrs, pushing up on his knees and once more he leans into Vax, cupping one cheek with a delicate touch to nuzzle fondly against the other. He whispers against Vax’s ear; “And you’ll make it up to me when you’re ready.”

Tilting his head, Vax answers the vague challenge with a barbed; “Oh, I’m not through with you yet… that was just a warm up, right?” When Gilmore chuckles, Vax encircles his broad waist with both arms, dragging the man into his lap with greater strength than his frame implies. “C’mere…”

He’s not exactly used to being manhandled, but it rather is the sort of thing he could get used to. As gracefully as he can manage, Gilmore finds his arms around Vax’s neck and his feet braced behind Vax’s back - clinging to him in a reversal of fortunes. “Oh?” He manages, shifting himself in a vain attempt to not feel that he’s about to break anything he can’t mend.

“Stop wiggling…” Vax laughs under his breath, one hand on a generous hip as the other strokes down Gilmore’s side. “You’re not hurting me. Believe me, I have been hurt . You won’t.” He knows the look of someone uncomfortable with the situation well, and is pleased to see it melt into resigned affection on Gilmore’s face. “I just want to feel you… everywhere.”

“Well, I mean…” Gilmore smirks, only to have his innuendo cut off flat.

“Not like that… well, maybe like that. For now, this’ll do.” Vax’s hand shifts, gliding over Gilmore’s thigh, squeezing the softness over a layer of sinewy muscle. “You know, you’re a very handsome man.”

If he could blush, if he had the sense to know someone might blush at the compliment, Gilmore would. Instead, he accepts the praise with another gentle kiss that allows Vax the freedom of shifting his lighter weight against his torso - leaning him down to the floor of his illusory pocket of privacy before mirroring exactly the pose he had held moments before. When the kiss is broken, he opens his eyes to the sight of Vax’ildan kneeling between his thighs and just… looking . Taking him in visually as one might assess a foe in battle. He’s almost at a loss for words… almost. “You’re welcome to touch, if you like.”

“Oh, I like…” Vax quips, one eyebrow cocked as he leans just enough to trail his fingertips over the coarse black hair on Gilmore’s chest, following it down to the rise of his belly with a tickling touch that draws a twitch of his hips. “Just thinking.”

“About?”

“How much of a fool I’ve been,” Vax’s eyes soften and his fingers slide down to a warm palm that strokes lazy circles over his lover’s paunch. “How much of a fool I’ll always be.”

“A certain degree of caution is always understandable,” Gilmore answers in all honesty. He won't pretend to understand, but knows he doesn’t need to. There’s more to say, but again he finds the words escape him when Vax embraces him around the middle - pressing his face into the roundness of Gilmore’s belly as he rubs against it.

He’s relieved, really, to feel the same pulse of joy taking in everything that is Shaun Gilmore stripped down to the barest merits. His softness is overwhelming, joyous in and of itself, and the steady fingers twirling curls against his cheek make him smile when he looks back up. “Sorry, I’ve always wanted to do that.”

“By all means,” he replies coolly, brushing his fingers along Vax’s cheek. “Feel free to indulge.”

That easy, giving tone is enough to draw Vax once more into his arms - finding it easy to lie down on top of him and let himself get lost in another series of small kisses and wandering fingers that warm him head to toe. When Gilmore’s fingers dip into the dimple above his ass, Vax flushes warm again, but doesn’t move to stop the touch that lingers there before sliding down the delicate cleft. “Go ahead,” he whispers, shifting into a better angle - chest to chest as he watches Gilmore’s eyes go from a sedate sparkle to a warm, sexual flame. “I trust you.” It’s the hardest thing to admit to anyone, particularly someone who could easily hold sway over him should he wish to do so, but that doesn’t make it any less truth. “Please, Shaun.”

His fingers hesitate then, and he watches the clear intent on Vax’s face. He knows what he’s asking for, what he’s allowing. And Gilmore knows what that trust means to Vax and that it’s a gift not easily given. “Thank you,” he murmurs, a single long finger tracing that cleft one more time before a flick of his wrist draws a vial into his open palm.

There are words, words that Vax knows should be said, but they’re lost when the sensation of smooth warmth follows Gilmore’s fingers, sliding down his cleft purposefully this time - and then pushing against his opening. A husky oof is all the sound he can manage, and his eyes close when he buries his face in the nape of Gilmore’s neck. It’s a strong pressure, and then that smooth heat is inside him with the thickness of a single finger stretching him gently open.

“You’re doing quite well…” Gilmore whispers, focusing intently on the way Vax’ildan’s body responds to him, the way his heart pounds harder with each deeply drawn breath let go with a calculated sigh as he adjusts to the sensation of being penetrated, being stretched. “More?”

“Yeah…” Vax groans against his throat, following it with a gentle kiss along the sweet flesh. “More.” Subconsciously, he opens his hips wider, a tremor of deep arousal running through him when the first finger is joined by a second - pushing into him with little resistance. The tenderness is nearly maddening, his knowledge of desire has always come with hard edges and determined force, this… this is something entirely new and it makes him feel almost innocent again. Beloved, adored.

Indeed, Gilmore’s adoration is nigh worshipful - an acolyte at the temple of the uneasy God - and he can’t imagine having this moment any other way, only with the kindness of a delicate lover. When Vax’s hips bear down against him, he can feel the dig of hard arousal against his belly again spurring him on, guiding his hand to stroke deeper and faster until Vax’ildan’s easy breaths become jagged sobs stifled into his skin. “When you’re ready… if you’re ready…”

Bracing both hands against Gilmore’s broad chest, fingers catching on thick gold chains to steady a mild shake, Vax doesn’t need him to finish that thought. “I’m ready…” He answers, looking intently into dark, lust filled eyes once more - seeing through the depths of them to the very heart of the moment. “Please, Shaun…” he draws another deep breath, beads of sweat forming on his brow. “I need this.”

Gilmore nods once, searching for thoughts that aren’t there beyond yes and beyond please and finding only raw need. “Yes…” he steadies himself, guiding his hardness against the slick curve and then with an eager tilt of Vax’s hips they’re joined. He thrusts into that warm embrace, the sound seizing his throat a cry worthy of the ethereal silence of their hiding place.

It’s just as gentle as before, and Vax holds his breath until the thick root of Gilmore’s cock fills him. The pleasure ripples down his body, and then back up again with each slow, deep thrust. “Gods…” he whispers, biting down on his lower lip to hold back the urge ask him for more… harder… faster, to overwhelm him. It’s different this way.

Pushing up against Vax’s hands, Gilmore shifts his weight again - sitting up to wrap his arms around his lover, holding him even more tightly when Vax decides to takes the initiative to control the situation. Vax’ildan hesitates only in embracing him, arms slow to wrap around Gilmore’s thick chest as he tries to create his own rhythm of needy, short smacks of skin against skin.

He doesn’t know when the tears came, but when he rubs his face against the coarseness of Gilmore’s hair, he finds wetness streaking it. It’s transcended sex, he thinks, the mingling of trust and need with things he dare not think about himself… things that terrify him to his very core. Clinging to him, Vax delights in the sensation of fullness, the softness of lips on his skin and then the gentle rake of teeth against his shoulder. With each breath, he feels their connection deeper and that scares him almost as much as the disconnected thrill he’s felt with other lovers; there’s something there, something deeper than the throb of his balls as he’s rocked in Gilmore’s loving embrace.

Gilmore moans low and loud, each tingle of pleasure coursing through him as familiar as the surge of arcane energy. His fingers grip tightly at Vax’s muscular thigh, digging into him as they shift against each other. Awash in things he hasn’t felt in far too long, his free hand caresses the hard lines of Vax’s bicep, up to his shoulder before once more cupping his cheek and guiding the searing heat of Vax’ildan’s kiss to his lips.

His only warning is the deep moan rumbling against his open mouth, and the tightening of fingers on his flesh as Gilmore’s hips slam suddenly hard against him - rooting his cock deep and hard as he tips over the edge. “Yes… fuck… Shaun…” he groans, squeezing him tighter with the first hot pulse inside him.

An unexpectedly small whimper escapes Gilmore’s shaking lips, followed by a low and desperate cry. For a moment, all he can see is flashes of arcane color and light, and then the pleasure written plain as day on his lover’s face. When he kisses Vax again, for that brief moment they are as one, flesh against flesh; two souls laid bare with no limits of physical or metaphysical between them. When warm wetness smears his belly, Vax cries out for him, dragging Gilmore out of his own mind with the caress of eager kisses on his cheek.

For a long moment they are still, intertwined fully in a nest of their limbs and emotions. Vax’ildan lets the moment wash over him and allows small silent tears to be spilled into Gilmore’s dark curls. He’s not even sure why he’s crying, just that in this moment he needs release beyond sex. Gilmore’s steady hand strokes his back in small circles, understanding him… loving him for reasons he can’t even begin to understand.

It is done, and Gilmore finds himself in a not-too-different place than he had been when they begun. This has changed everything , he thinks. And then; this has changed nothing . He leans back, letting Vax take the lead in disengaging - a little surprised, but pleased when Vax chooses to curl up beside him on the soft ground he’s created. For a long moment, he lets himself simply be - listening to his lover’s content breathing against his throat.

“I don’t want to leave,” Vax whispers, and Gilmore knows what’s coming next… indeed, the rest of Vox Machina has no doubt left his staff befuddled and frustrated as they emptied the group’s coffers; “but it’s getting late.”

“I am all too keenly aware…” Gilmore sighs, taking the hand that rests gently on his chest and holding it tight. Righting things to where they were is simple enough; he closes his eyes and allows the incantations to come. Cleaning away the evidence, and then - quite against his desire to simply lay skin to skin with his beloved for an eternity - familiar fabrics coalescing against lust-warmed skin.

When the shell is broken, Vax watches over the edges of Gilmore’s robe with great interest as the Ethereal Plane shifts back to the well kept garden. Soft earth hardens underneath him and the sweetness of fresh blossoms crushed underneath them mingles with Gilmore’s woody, special smell. “Another drink?” He murmurs, brushing a kiss behind Gilmore’s ear. “One for the road?”

Sitting up, leaving the moment behind them, is one of the hardest things Gilmore thinks he’s ever had to do. But he does, with a soft chuckle that drops into a sigh. “Indeed, one for the road.” He produces matched chalices from his robe, if only for the delight of Vax’s grin after the bottle is retrieved.

“Eventually you’ll have to tell me how you do that.” Vax murmurs, filling the cups to the brim before polishing off the last of the bottle with a deep swallow.

He laughs, the sound a rolling thunder in the stillness as they clamber up on unsteady feet, spilling small splashes of wine amongst the crushed remnants as Vax collects his leathers. For a long moment, Vax’ildan clasps his hand, their fingers intertwined. “Magic…” he answers coyly.

Unafraid, Vax allows his arm to be wrapped around Gilmore’s waist as they make their way back toward the shops - passing by strangers with fond drunken smiles and cries of revelry. “One day you’ll have to tell me another story,” he murmurs, leaning heavily on Gilmore’s arm.

“What sort of story?” He asks, fingers tracing lines on Vax’s neck where there had not long ago been kisses.

“I think, perhaps, another love story… one with a better ending.”

Gilmore chuckles again, feeling his face warm when he admits; “Vax’ildan, my dear, the greatest tales of love and desire are the ones that have no ending.” He hesitates, uncertain if the other man will understand through his haze of alcohol and satiated urges. He thinks that in the long run, even if there is no official story of their grand romance; it’s one that will continue despite them. “The ones that need no ending.”

He understands, it’s an out. Gilmore’s way of telling him that there is love no matter what may or may not come of it… and in a way that’s more comfort than he’d ever hoped for. “I think you’re right.” The fingers clasping his chalice flex, but he will not let them shake. “Thank you, Shaun.”

When Gilmore looks down at him again, there’s a wet sparkle in his eyes. Smiling fondly, he says; “But of course.”