A/N: There is no canon version of a large part of Jarlaxle and Zaknafein's friendship, only a mention in The Silent Blade that they were friends. This is one version of their friendship. Our story starts when Zak is in his graduating year at Melee Magthere. That makes him about thirty. Jarlaxle is a century older. In this version, Jarlaxle has only been a mercenary for the past fifty or so years.

Jarlaxle is all Chi's, and Zaknafein is all mine. (I wish. ;))

Chapter One

Zaknafein had decided to leave the Academy as quickly as possible after today's lessons, mainly to escape the unwanted attention of one of the teachers. His time at Melee-Magthere neared its end, and as he didn't know yet what life would await him as soldier of House Do'Urden the young fighter tried to get as much out of his last months at the Academy as possible. Nobody cared where the last-year students went in their spare time, especially not when it came to commoners whose death wouldn't interest anyone.

His hands stayed close to his simple, unadorned swords - he wouldn't be surprised if some of his class mates would try to kill him now and leave the Academy as first of the class ...

Once out of the Academy Zaknafein headed directly for one of the main streets that led to the poorer parts of the city - he couldn't afford the classy taverns around the Academy, nor did he want to run across one of his teachers or fellow students.

A melodic voice assailed him. "Where are you going?"

The voice belonged to a young male dressed in the most splendid - and somehow the most awful - finery, sitting on the sill of a garden planter. His piwafwi - if that's what it was - shone with all the colours of the spectrum. Juxtaposed with those bright colours, the rich crimsons of his vest and breeches and the punchy purple of his wide-brimmed hat seemed like fire. In complete contrast, he wore knee high black boots that shone with fresh polish. But most oddly for a young, unmarred male, he wore an eye patch.

Zaknafein stopped immediately when he heard the voice and gave the stranger a surprised look. For a moment he wondered if the other male was really talking to him, but there was no one else near them. The hood still hid his hair, but his handsome face was clearly visible. He didn't know what to think of this gaudily dressed male, but he had to be rich, and Zaknafein had learnt that it was a bad idea to be too disrespectful to nobles.

The colourfully dressed male chuckled at the look on his face.

Zaknafein frowned a bit, but instead of ignoring the stranger or snapping at him he said in a wary, but not aggressive tone, "I do not know why that would concern you."

He was curious, but he preferred to get away from this odd drow as quickly as possible.

The male broke out in a grin.

"It wouldn't - except if you wanted a free drink at the Twirling Blades. I know you'd like to go there. Why not? You're a talented young student, and I'm a Gynassi Street mercenary." He winked. "You've got the better of me, surely." He also held his hands' palm up for inspection. His hands were uncalloused. Not the hands of a fighter.

Zaknafein looked, if anything, more suspicious than before. The mercenary looked even more untrustworthy than other drow, but then again, he was probably not worse than the drow Zaknafein often spend his evenings with. And a mercenary was still preferable to some haughty noble from the first houses.

These thoughts crossed his mind in barely two seconds, until he just nodded. He had never been a coward, although it usually caused him only trouble.

The male hopped off of the garden planter and clapped his hands together.

"Splendid! I do hope we get to be friends - but I'm getting ahead of myself." He dropped onto one knee and swept off his hat. His head was completely shaven.

"Jarlaxle D'aerthe, of Bregan D'aerthe, at your service, young master Zaknafein."

Zaknafein stared at Jarlaxle as if the mercenary was completely insane - and judging by what he had seen so far, he had to be insane. But then an amused little smirk appeared on Zaknafein's lips - at least he could be sure that his companion for the evening would be entertaining.

He ignored Jarlaxle's odd first sentence - unless he meant allies, it just didn't make sense - and asked suspiciously, "Why do you know how I am?"

Jarlaxle got back to his feet, twirled his hat, and placed it back on his head with a grin. He gave the young swordfighter an astonished expression.

"Why, everyone knows who you are. Have you not yet grasped your fame, Zaknafein? You are the most celebrated young talent in Melee Magthere. Priestesses make bets on who will have you." He waved his hands. "All the Weapon Masters are talking about being deposed by you. I just had to come and see you."

He gave Zaknafein admiring looks. "You are simply fantastic in the flesh. I would wager on you." He winked. "I never wager on people who don't win."

Before Zak could say anything, he said, "Then why am I just a Gynassi Street mercenary?" He cupped a hand to the side of his mouth as if being conspiratory. "I'm on the up and up."

He walked closer, and circled around the young student, rubbing his chin. "Yes, yes, simply marvellous." He stopped, cocked his head, and asked, "You have a future, do you know that?"

Zaknafein tried to suppress a proud little grin at the mercenary's words, but he didn't manage completely. Despite his skill his teachers were always quick to remind him that he was only a filthy commoner who would never be more than a soldier, or the Weapon Master of some tiny house. Jarlaxle's words were like music in Zaknafein's ears.

"You are exaggerating," he said nonetheless. "The high-ranking Matrons have their own sons; they don't need me."

There was anger in his unusually deep voice, but he grinned again when Jarlaxle circled around him. Zaknafein stayed wary, always ready for an attack, but he knew those looks Jarlaxle gave him all too well.

"You might just tell me what you want. If you want me in your bed, I can understand that, but I doubt that's why you're here," he said, his voice cocky.

"Oh? Are you so sure?" Jarlaxle actually sounded as if he were teasing him. The mercenary's visible eye twinkled. "I'm not that old myself, and I'm sure from the moment you saw me you noticed my beauty." He posed and gave a little pout.

"Two beautiful young males, one bed ... what could be better?"

Zaknafein gave him an almost lascivious look - maybe one of the most important things he had learnt at the Academy - and pulled back his hood, revealing a long, silvery-white mane. "Either way we should hardly discuss - or do - this on the street. You promised me a drink," he said, his eyes now glistering in amusement.

"So I did," Jarlaxle said, not seeming surprised in the least. He smiled, tapping his lower lip, eyes hooded in thought. "Is the Twirling Blades all right?"

"Anything where I get a free drink is all right," Zaknafein replied with a shrug, and the smirk was now almost constantly on his lips.

Jarlaxle put an arm comfortably around his shoulders and walked down the street, past the Academy, and into the large, well kept tavern known as Twirling Blades.

Inside, it seemed he already had a table ready, for he avoided the goblin servant waiting on new customers and sat down at a secluded booth. It was circular in nature, crafted so finely that it looked like a natural pocket in the wall. The table and seats were of the same stone as the floor and looked like a natural part of it as well. Jarlaxle knew it was only an illusion, a preferred dark elf aesthetic. Small pink and gold lights drifted softly in the alcove.

Zaknafein did his best to appear calm, as if he wasn't impressed at all, as if such fine beauty was nothing special to him. Still, his eyes widened a bit as they entered the tavern, and he felt somehow like a curious child, looking around after they had sat down.

Jarlaxle leant forward on the table and folded his hands under his chin. "How do you like it?" he said softly. "I think it is quite beautiful."

Jarlaxle's voice interrupted Zaknafein's staring and made him look at the mercenary again. "Yes, it is ... nice," he said, trying to sound neutral.

Jarlaxle smirked. "Get used to it. You'll be seeing a lot of it after your graduation. I won't be the only one offering you free drinks. You'll be successful and beautiful - and if you're not careful, very, very dead. I don't make it my mission to talk to children about the dangers of growing up, but it seems that no one else cares to mention to you what things lie ahead for you ... and you are the most important young male in Menzoberranzan - despite what teachers are duty bound to tell you out of loyalty to their own Houses."

Zaknafein's face became immediately serious again, and he seemed to have forgotten the beauty that had fascinated him so much seconds earlier.

"I assure you, I wouldn't have survived the first year at the Academy if I didn't know that pretty much everyone wants to kill me. A skilful commoner isn't likely to make it out of the Academy alive. I am grown up," he replied sharply, and in that moment he looked indeed older and more mature than most drow his age. There were few things Zaknafein hated as much as some rich, haughty drow talking to him as if he was a naive child.

Jarlaxle looked at him with an expression of sadness. "That is what I mean," he said softly. "You will make it out of the Academy alive. So much the worse for you. You need to understand that everything they have told you is a lie. Commoners are no less skilful than nobles. Proper schooling is the only method by which nobles stay on top of the lower classes. 'Commoner' means nothing. If you are to survive, you must throw that word away. It will only hurt you."

He straightened, and took on a more business-like appearance. "But you have no reason to believe me. I am nothing to you. I can offer you a job, a well paying and highly skilled job, the moment you walk out the Academy doors a graduate. If I thought you would settle for less, I would try to convince you to come right now." He steepled his fingers. "Of course, I know you won't blindly accept an offer. You don't know if I am any good."

A lithe half gold elf maiden appeared in the opening of their alcove, carrying a silver serving tray with a menu on it. Jarlaxle smiled at her, but she wasn't even looking at him, and so couldn't see his expression. "Two goblets of your finest wine, and a plate of clams, please."

She departed as silently as she'd come. Jarlaxle turned back to Zaknafein expectantly.

The anger had slowly disappeared from Zaknafein's eyes while he listened, but he still looked suspicious. He was too focused on Jarlaxle's words to look at the elf and just ran a hand through his unruly hair.

"What does your experience tell you about me?" Jarlaxle asked.

The young fighter didn't answer immediately to Jarlaxle's question, he seemed to think about it for a few moments.

"You are definitely insane," he started with the most obvious thing. "And as you say yourself, I have strictly no reason to believe you. I've never heard of you, not as a mercenary and not as someone who could offer me a well paying job of any kind. But most importantly ... if it is so irrelevant that I have no name to help me, why should I want to become a mercenary? If the priestesses really want me enough to keep me for more than just one night, if they'd rather have me as their Weapon Master than their own sons or brothers, why should I give away the opportunity to earn myself a name?"

After all, Zaknafein knew that Jarlaxle was right - he knew that some commoners had managed to become more than simple soldiers.

Jarlaxle stared at him hard. "You say you know what I mean, but you don't. You assume you are an adult, when if you were an adult you wouldn't have such petty desires for names. 'Commoner' doesn't exist. Neither does 'noble'. I had and lost a name, and gained another, and ran away from that one. You don't have to believe me, I won't lie to you and tell you so, but I know the worth of a name."

He swept his hand across the table as if clearing it. "It is nothing!"

"So you say, but I can see every day that it's not true," Zaknafein snapped back. "A name opens countless doors at the Academy. And while nothing can protect us males from the priestesses, there are some males they have to treat at least with a minimum of respect. It's better than nothing! It's better than getting kicked around by every scum who calls himself a noble."

Jarlaxle shook his head. "Still you do not see. Mercenaries are removed from the world of nobles and commoners - removed by one step. A step you must take if you are to see yourself as independent. Vith the Academy! Vith the priestesses and their unkind words."

He clenched his fists, and spat, "'Better than nothing' is the stupid, contented ramble of a brainwashed soldier! You are the most talented young male in Menzoberranzan. I interview the most talented male in Menzoberranzan, and he says, 'I want a name, because it's better than nothing'." Jarlaxle narrowed his eyes to slits. "You can't have 'better than nothing'. You can have everything! Can you not see?"

"Do you really believe that I am going to buy this? We cannot have 'everything'! You can't! If you work for a priestess, do you not have to grovel and please? Do you not have to get on your knees and pleasure her if she demands it? There is no such thing as independence. I worked hard to come to this point, I am not going to throw it away for the empty promises of a madman!" Zaknafein hardly managed to keep his voice down, and to keep from yelling at Jarlaxle his voice dropped to a harsh hiss.

"I'm not mad," Jarlaxle said, first looking hurt, and then sad. "Your senses are deadened by years of abuse and training."

He wrapped his arms around himself, and sighed. "You have never heard of me because no one wants to speak my name. My organisation is headed by me, and peopled by all male mercenaries. Do you see? If you worked for me, it would be for me, and not a priestess. You would not be forced onto your knees. Or any other strange positions. Your body would be your own, and I am not so proud or cruel that I make my mercenaries grovel and please my every whim. You believe there is no such thing as independence because a priestess told you so."

Zaknafein bit on his bottom lip and looked away for a moment. He wanted to believe that it was true, but he knew it wasn't. It sounded too perfect, too easy ... Perfect and easy always meant that it was a lie. He took a deep breath and stared again at Jarlaxle.

"I don't believe you. And why should I? Would you believe you in my place? Believe a stranger rather than every experience you've ever made?" he said, his voice softer. Jarlaxle fascinated him; he was so different, so ... free ... But Zaknafein did not only want independence; he wanted recognition and respect.

"You ask that of the person telling you strange things because you want to believe it," Jarlaxle said with a half smile. "And because you want to believe it, a small part of you already does. I don't have anything to convince you other than obvious logic: would a priestess want you talking to me? would a priestess mention a subversive mercenary? If I have just said 'vith the priestesses', why aren't I dead?" His smile broadened. "Or, you might ask yourself, would a priestess want you to believe me? If you have any of the same experiences I have, you know that all the most painful lies you have ever lived flowed from one source: a priestess."

"Just because I want to believe it doesn't make it true," Zaknafein sighed, an odd sentence coming from a drow. "Even if you have this much freedom, why would I believe that I would get it as well? In my experience powerful males are hardly better than priestesses, often even worse. You will need more than a beautiful rhetoric and promises if you want me to do something insane like that."

"How do you think you will fare once you get a name for yourself?" Jarlaxle asked. "What were you planning to do with it? You want to be able to oppress commoners just like nobles do." He smiled sardonically and folded his hands on the table. "That's why it appeals to you, Zaknafein. Not respect. Respect comes from within."

Zaknafein frowned a bit, uncomfortable with the fact that Jarlaxle read him so easily. While he definitely wanted respect, the prospect of having power over others appealed to him just as much ...

"I don't care what you call it, Jarlaxle, but it is the only thing I can realistically expect to obtain," he said. "If your offer is serious, let me think about it. Don't expect me to make a decision based on nothing, because if you do the answer is no."

"I never expected an answer today," Jarlaxle said. "I am going nowhere but up, as I said, so I will have ample opportunities to see you again."

"Fine," Zaknafein said simply and nodded, almost relieved that the mercenary had stopped giving him such pointless hope.

Their order arrived. Their server placed one goblet in front of Zaknafein, one in front of Jarlaxle, and placed an enormous platter of still-steaming, fried clams in the centre of the table.

Again, Jarlaxle tried to smile at the half elf, but she still wasn't looking.

She left without comment.

"These priestesses," Jarlaxle mourned, cupping his chin in his hand. "They are way too hard on new converts. I've seen her for months and she refuses to even speak. Lloth knows what they did to the poor girl."

He flashed Zak an apologetic smile and lifted a handful of clams as if he hadn't said anything. He licked his fingers. "Fried clams." He blushed a little. "A failing. I know they're no good for me." Still, he started eating his handful of clams one by one with obvious relish.

The fighter sipped at his wine, smiling a bit at the fine taste. Jarlaxle's words about the half elf almost made Zaknafein drop the goblet. He had never, ever heard a drow express concern or even pity for a slave. He was so surprised that he couldn't even say anything.

"So," Jarlaxle said, watching him closely. "Are you still agreeable to sharing a room tonight? Perhaps upstairs, in the lavish guest rooms of this very tavern?"

Zaknafein blinked and pulled himself together. He smirked again, slightly surprised that the mercenary didn't seem to mind his refusal, but he was far from renouncing what would probably be the more pleasant part of the evening. "I never said I was, just that I could understand it if you wanted it," he teased, before he added, "But it does sound like a great idea."

"Do clams displease you?" Jarlaxle asked a little anxiously. "I could order a palate cleanser."

"What?" Zaknafein couldn't remember that anyone had ever asked him if something would displease him. After the initial moment of surprise Zaknafein found, however, that he liked it. Although he didn't mind, he suddenly felt the childish urge to test if Jarlaxle's words were only an empty act of courtesy.

"Why, that would be nice," he said, still smirking.

Jarlaxle tried to smile, but his embarrassed blush came back. "All right."

He made a hand motion, and a goblin server came over. "A palate cleanser, please. I prefer h'denza root. Is h'denza root available today, or is it only seasonal?"

The goblin bobbed its head. "Yes, good master. In stock. Coming right up." It scurried away.

Jarlaxle gave Zak an uncertain look. "Is it all right if I finish my clams?"

Zaknafein just stared at Jarlaxle in utter fascination. Embarrassment, uncertainty ... these weren't things he was used to seeing in fellow drow, but he found them strangely attractive. Zaknafein had forced himself so early to suppress them, but he remembered too well what they felt like. To think that Jarlaxle might indeed be different from all the other drow Zaknafein had met so far ...

"Yes, of course," he said finally, as if he suddenly remembered that he hadn't answered yet. "Why wouldn't it be all right?"

Jarlaxle shrugged. "You might be in a hurry. Not for me, of course, since you didn't know this was going to happen, but for other things, precisely because I interrupted you. You might have set up a rendezvous with a friend from class, or might have more training scheduled - or you might want to sleep early. I've never been to the Academy, but I heard students rise early."

He absently took another handful of clams and nibbled on them between thoughts.

"I like to take my time. Unless I'm with a priestess, of course," he said with a joyless grin. "So, no, I'm not in a hurry."

"Splendid." Jarlaxle paused. "How do you like the wine?"

He took his first sip, only now remembering he had ordered it.

"It's amazing," Zaknafein admitted and took another little sip, licking his lips to enjoy the taste a little longer. He didn't even want to know what such a wine would cost, but Jarlaxle didn't seem to worry about money.

Jarlaxle chuckled. "Don't be so cautious. Savouring it is fine, but it would take two days to finish your glass at this rate. I just pulled off a significant job for a duergar merchant who paid me in emeralds." He beamed and waved an index finger. "Don't underestimate the duergar. They may be ugly little things, but they do have a modicum of intelligence. Cooperating with them is very lucrative."

"I see," Zaknafein said, but in fact he had no idea - he had only seen a few duergar slaves in the city; that was all he knew about them. He, too, looked a bit embarrassed by Jarlaxle's comment on the wine, and he quickly brought the glass back to his lips.

"I'll never finish these clams by myself," Jarlaxle lamented. he gave Zaknafein a pleading look. "Do try some."

That look made Zaknafein even smile a bit, and he nodded and started to eat.

"Actually, I do like clams," he said and winked at the mercenary.

Jarlaxle grinned. He winked. "You just don't want to kiss them."

He took a sip of his wine and rolled the goblet in his fingertips, watching the wine swirl in his glass.

"Not really, no. But usually I don't really have any say in that," Zaknafein said. An almost dreamy expression appeared in his eyes when he looked at Jarlaxle's hand ... slender, nimble, soft. A promise Zaknafein could actually believe in.

"I know," Jarlaxle said softly. "I do know. I am not an optimist for no reason. You are still young enough not to have heard about my past, but I don't have the resources to stop all the gossips from telling anyone and everyone they please. You will no doubt look into my background - any smart, intelligent person would - and I will be the first to tell you what you will find. For all of my adult life up until fifty years ago, I was the Patron of a powerful priestess. I am here because I escaped. An escape that you can do, too, and much sooner than I..." He sighed. "But no more of this. It is not something you are listening to."

Zaknafein couldn't hide his surprise at this - he had difficulties imagining someone as independent as Jarlaxle as a priestess' patron, not only an occasional toy, but someone who had to tend to her every whim at every time. Once he had pulled himself together again he just nodded, "It's nothing we should waste our time talking about."

Jarlaxle glanced over at the patter of scurrying feet and saw the serving goblin come up to the table. "Palate cleanser." The goblin bowed and set the plate on the table. He ran away as if expecting a kick in the behind. Jarlaxle opened his mouth, but nothing came out, so after a moment he just shook his head.

Zaknafein cocked his head a bit. "What is it?" he asked in a surprisingly soft voice - as soft as his harsh voice could get, at least.

"Nothing." Jarlaxle absently picked up one of the pale green sticks the root had been chopped into and chewed on the end. It released a bitter juice that made him wince, but the taste quickly went away, leaving only a faint, cool taste.

Zaknafein frowned, but he didn't say anything. Instead he just finished his wine, and after thinking for a moment he too took on of the sticks. It just seemed like the right thing to do. He started to chew on it and grinned a bit.

"It tastes terrible," he stated the obvious.

Jarlaxle grinned. "It's the aftertaste that you should be looking for. The taste will fade in a moment. I like it compared to other cleansers because those go from innocuous to worse. They cleanse, but leave a bad taste in my mouth."

"Ah, if you say so." Somehow Jarlaxle made him feel stupid at some moments, reminding Zaknafein too well that he hardly knew anything but the slums he had grown up in and the Academy. Still, he continued to smirk, looking forward to what awaited them tonight.

The half elf maiden came back to deliver the check for the meal. This time, Jarlaxle didn't try to catch her eye.

He looked down at the check, calculated the sum, and grinned. "Easy enough." He counted out gold coins from his belt pouch. He drew them one at a time, without pause, and made a neat pile of them. "Thank you." He sent her away with the check and the coin on her tray.

Then he turned to Zaknafein and smiled engagingly. "Shall we away? I have paid for the room just now. I have a room reserved here for when I come, so it's always ready." He gave Zak a look as if the young student had said something. "Usually I am without guests."

Zaknafein managed not to stare at the pile of gold coins, but just looked at Jarlaxle. The drow's words made him smile.

"You are? Somehow I don't believe you. You shouldn't have difficulties finding guests." He winked and slowly stood up.

Jarlaxle sighed as he got up and stretched. "It is not my guests who are the picky ones."

"You invited me ... and there are enough handsome males in this city, if that's what you like," Zaknafein stated, a bit confused.

Jarlaxle started walking, across the room and towards a staircase that disappeared behind a corner. Zaknafein took a quick look-around in the tavern, wondering if someone he knew was here, but then he just followed Jarlaxle.

Jarlaxle walked up the stairs without a word and went through the third door to the left that they came to.