Despite what people often thought about her, Keyleth wasn't oblivious. Nor was she innocent.
Yes, sometimes things went over her head. From time the time, she might not understand a joke or get one of Scanlan's comments. But it wasn't because she didn't know about things. It was just that things were different among her people. Different words, different expectations... she'd grown up in a different world, in a lot of ways.
Still, she wasn't a child. She understood more than the others thought she did sometimes.
That was a large part of why she was so surprised the first time Vax kissed her. She'd watched him flirt with Gilmore for months, after all, the two of them dancing around each other in a way that was obvious even to her. They were a good match for each other, from what she had seen of their interactions. She'd assumed eventually they would stop stumbling around each other and figure it out for themselves.
It hadn't crossed her mind that there was even a possibility Gilmore wasn't the only person Vax was interested in. Not until he'd leaned in and kissed her, the taste of blood still lingering on his lips.
And then she'd had quite a few things to consider.
She'd seen Gilmore leave the tavern, his form blurry and distorted in her eyes. She'd been vaguely aware of him saying something to Percy, a quiet murmur that she couldn't quite make out, but that had been all. She'd been too far gone to pick up anything more just then, and – by the time Pike slipped out to help remove at least some of the alcohol from her system – he was long gone.
It had been Vex who had filled her in on what had happened, the next morning.
Keyleth hadn't known what to think, if she was honest. Part of it was her hangover, admittedly. Her head had felt like it was about to split in two at the time, and then her attention had been focused almost entirely on her friends and the frustrating lack of details they were giving her about their plans for the day. But her thoughts had cleared some as they had made their way toward General Krieg's former home, and she'd been able to consider the situation.
It hadn't helped. What Vex had told her hadn't made sense, not in the least bit.
Vax clearly still had feelings for Gilmore. Even Vex agreed with that much. But Vax had turned him away, had told him that the dance they had been doing needed to stop, because he was in love with someone else.
Her. Vex hadn't said so, of course, but she'd still made it clear. It was because Vax was in love with her.
That didn't change the fact that Vax cared for Gilmore. Deeply. Whether or not it was love wasn't something she could say with any certainty, of course, but... she wasn't blind.
It didn't make any sense.
"That's the last of me," Gilmore said tiredly, shooting them a much weaker than usual version of his normal grin. "That's all I've got. Take me home, please."
Keyleth smiled at him. "Almost home," she said, nodding. "We're almost home."
Gilmore didn't say anything in reply, not that she could blame him. He wasn't even attempting to hide his exhaustion, and his bloodstained clothes were a blatant reminder of just how close he'd come to dying not even an hour earlier. Despite that, he was still trying to put one foot in front of the next, moving forward with a grim determination that she couldn't help but admire.
He'd taken on a dragon single-handedly and lived to tell the tale. There weren't many people out there who could make that claim.
She couldn't blame Vax for being in love with him, not really. And it was clear that he was, no matter what he said. Keyleth had seen his face back in the ruins of Gilmore's store, and there hadn't been any mistaking it. No matter what he felt for her – and that wasn't something she wanted to think about just then if she was honest – Vax felt something for Gilmore as well.
The conversation she'd had with Vex popped into her head, and it felt like a lifetime ago rather than just a few days. It didn't feel possible that it could have happened so recently. Everything had changed the moment the dragons had appeared in the sky above Emon.
Almost everything, at least.
Keyleth glanced over at Gilmore. His mouth was drawn into a thin line, and pain was practically radiating from him. She couldn't help but think it wasn't entirely physical, not really. There was more to it than that, something she couldn't quite figure out but that she knew was more than met the eye.
He'd gone back. That's what Gilmore had said. He'd gone back to look for them.
His mouth had said "you all," but his eyes had been focused on Vax. Even Keyleth had noticed that much. There was no question in her mind who it was he'd gone back for, when it all came down to it. It surprised her how much that meant.
"Thank you," Keyleth said quietly.
Gilmore turned his head slightly in her direction, his movement slower than she was used to seeing from him. "Whatever for?" he asked, grimacing as speaking set off a quiet coughing fit.
She wasn't a healer, not by any stretch of the imagination. Despite that, Keyleth reached inside of her and focused, trying to pull forth at least a minor healing spell. Judging by the way a few of the lines around Gilmore's eyes lightened a moment later, just a little, she thought it helped at least some.
Keyleth just shook her head and gave him a weak smile. "Just thank you."
Keyleth wasn't entirely certain how she had gotten there, if she was honest. The last thing she remembered, she had been helping Percy move a few things around the castle. There was a blank in her memories, nothing but blackness between telling Percy goodnight and looking up in surprise when Vax gently touched her shoulder.
Her face was wet. Judging by the way her eyes burned, she'd been crying for some time. It probably should have worried her more that she didn't remember. As it was, she couldn't drum up the energy for it.
"Are you alright?" Vax asked softly.
"What do you think?" Keyleth snapped back. Then she realized what she'd just done, and she clapped her hands over her mouth.
Vax flinched. The beads in his hair clicked together as he instinctively pulled away, and the sound somehow made Keyleth feel even worse.
"I'm sorry," Keyleth whispered, slowly moving her hands down from her mouth. "I don't know what—" She trailed off, taking a shaky breath. "I'm sorry."
"Hey, hey, none of that." Vax crouched down in front of her, and he reached out as if he was about to touch her. He froze at the last moment, though, as if he had reconsidered it. "There's nothing for you to be sorry for."
His hands were still held up in place, inches from her skin. Without hesitation, Keyleth leaned forward, giving him tacit approval to wrap his arms around her. She buried her face in his shirt.
"It's going to be fine," Vax said quietly, giving her a gentle hug. "Do you hear me? Everything's going to be fine."
Keyleth shook her head, her face still pressed against his chest. "You can't promise that," she said, her voice muffled by the cloth of his shirt. "Do you know how many people have died the last few days?"
Vax swallowed. Hard. "I'm trying not to think about it."
"They were people we knew," Keyleth said quietly. "If we'd been just an hour later, Gilmore might have been one of them."
She knew that she wasn't imagining the way Vax went still, or the way his breathe caught in his chest. "I'm really trying not to think about that."
Maybe, if things had been different, she wouldn't have said anything. In another world, one where she'd been a tiny bit less exhausted, or she hadn't been crying for quite so long, or she'd made it to her room before breaking down.
Instead, the words slipped out before Keyleth even realized she'd said them. "You love him."
Vax went even stiller than before, and for the first time Keyleth understood how he could disappear so easily into thin air. She didn't even think he was breathing.
"I love you," Vax said finally. Carefully. Too carefully.
Keyleth nodded. "I know," she agreed matter-of-factly. That talk could wait for another time. It wasn't the point just then. "But I think you also love him."
Vax opened his mouth. Then he closed it, his words failing him for once.
"I'm not blind," Keyleth said quietly.
At that, Vax seemingly found his tongue. "I never said that you were," he said quickly. "And whatever I might feel, it doesn't matter. I chose you."
Keyleth looked at him for a moment, taking her time to really just look at him for the first time since they'd had to flee Emon. He looked drained and exhausted, like all of them, but she couldn't help but think it went deeper. His grief didn't seem immediate, not in the same way hers did. There was something older to it, something deeper.
"I never asked you to choose," she said, reaching up to squeeze his hand.
His eyes darkened, and she knew that he'd misunderstood. That he'd heard rejection when that hadn't been what she'd meant.
Keyleth tightened her grip on his hand. "Vax," she said, "I'm used to sharing people's love. Just because Percy loves Cassandra, does it mean he doesn't love me? Or Vex? Or you?"
Vax's brow furrowed, his confusion plain. "It's not the same thing," he said. "Percy loves you like a sister. Not—" He fumbled for a moment, obviously trying to find the right words. He failed. "—not like something more than that."
"Love is love," Keyleth said simply.
It took a moment for him to realize what she was saying. She could tell the moment he understood by the way his eyes widened, his breathing speeding up.
She couldn't blame him.
Most of the others made their ways to their rooms, or – in Percy's case – to his workshop. Keyleth had a different destination in mind, though, a conversation that was long overdue running through her head.
Gilmore didn't quite manage to hide his surprise when he opened his door to find her there.
"Vax loves you," Keyleth said, without any preamble.
To his credit, Gilmore didn't gape at her for more than a moment or so. He managed to school his face fairly quickly, a somewhat wary expression flashing across it for a moment before it disappeared. "My dear Keyleth," he said, giving her a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes, "I assure you that—"
"Vax loves you," she repeated, cutting him off. "And you love Vax."
Gilmore's eyes widened, just a little, but he didn't say anything. She didn't know what he was reading on her face, but she knew there had to be something there.
Keyleth took a deep breath. "And Vax loves me, and I think—" For the first time she hesitated, the words not quite wanting to come out. "I think that I might love him."
Neither of them said anything for a moment.
Keyleth tilted her head, studying Gilmore's face as several emotions flashed across it. She wasn't that great at reading people, not by a long shot, but it almost looked like...
"He thinks he has to choose," she said quietly, meeting Gilmore's gaze and not looking away. "He thinks that's his only option. That he has to pick one or the other, or he'll lose us both."
Gilmore raised his eyebrows. "If I didn't know any better, my dear," he said slowly, something shining in his eyes that she couldn't quite make out, "I'd say you were suggesting some type of alternative."
Keyleth gave him a tired smile. "Maybe I am."
There was silence for a long moment. Long enough that she was starting to worry that maybe she'd misjudged the situation yet again, that she had managed to make things worse instead of better. That she had miscalculated.
Then Gilmore took a step backwards, into the room, so that there was room in the doorway for her to step through it.
"I think you should come in," he said, his voice more serious than she was used to hearing. But there was something else mixed in as well, something that sounded suspiciously like hope. "It sounds as if we have quite a bit to talk about."