Chapter Five

A week had passed since the graduation ceremony, but Zaknafein hadn't left the Academy since then. The experience still haunted him, not to mention that he had been exhausted and injured. While the noble graduates had returned to their houses for a few days Zaknafein had stayed at Melee-Magthere, sitting in his room most of the time.

He hadn't wanted to see Jarlaxle. The mercenary would only ask him again to leave, and Zaknafein was tired of arguing with him. He had graduated as first of his class, and he was even looking forwards to the next weeks - on the patrols through the Underdark he would be able to vent his anger and his frustration.

But as they would leave tomorrow night Zaknafein had decided to spend one last evening in town, drinking in a tavern, and maybe he would find himself some pretty young student when he returned to the Academy. He only hoped that Jarlaxle had better things to do tonight than wait for him.

Zaknafein left the Academy in the evening, much earlier than usual, hoping that Jarlaxle wouldn't expect him at this hour.

Jarlaxle was sitting on the planter.

Zaknafein couldn't suppress an angry growl when he spotted his friend. Should an ambitious mercenary not have work to do? At least sometimes? Zaknafein continued on his way, and when he passed Jarlaxle he grumbled, "I'm not in the mood for your games."

Jarlaxle opened his mouth, comically paused, and then asked, "Games?"

He looked like he wanted to hop down from the sill of the planter, but he wasn't sure he should.

"Yes," Zaknafein growled, as if it should be obvious what he was talking about. But at least he finally stopped. He had a scratch on his cheek, almost healed, but still visible. He wore a new chain mail, more decorated and of a better quality than his old one. A servant had brought it to him two days after the graduation - a reward from his House for being first of his class.

Jarlaxle hopped down from the sill. "That is quite a fine shirt of mail you have," he said, cautiously admiring.

Zaknafein managed to hide his smile. He was quite proud of his new armour, too, but he didn't want Jarlaxle to know.

"Apparently House Do'Urden has decided that I am worth it," he said nonetheless, and his voice sounded quite proud and self-confident now.

"You were always worth it," Jarlaxle said quietly. "It is the fools who see you differently now instead of appreciating who you are and have always been."

"You know, that is why I didn't want to see you," Zaknafein snapped back, his pride once again replaced with grumpiness. Couldn't Jarlaxle just congratulate him, say something nice? "What do you want?"

Jarlaxle recoiled, taking a step back automatically. He bowed, kneeling, and took off his hat. "Forgive me, Master Zaknafein. I did not mean to anger you."

Zaknafein just snorted. "Yes, mocking me is a wonderful idea," he said sarcastically.

Jarlaxle looked only at the dark stone of the street. "Of course, Master Zaknafein. You are right. I was not being properly respectful. Please, forgive me." He didn't sound as if he were mocking him.

That made Zaknafein hesitate, but then he decided that Jarlaxle was probably just a good actor. He had to be.

"I don't know what you think you are doing," he said, sounding more confused now. But then he simply turned around as if he wanted to leave.

"Nothing, Master Zaknafein. I am not thinking." Jarlaxle didn't get up, and he didn't move.

Zaknafein turned back, now thoroughly confused. This wasn't anything like Jarlaxle ... Zaknafein sighed and grabbed Jarlaxle's arm to make him straighten up. "Stop this, damn it. Did someone hit you on the head since I've last seen you?" He glared at him, but he looked slightly worried now.

Jarlaxle stood up immediately, looking at him with wide eyes. "Yes, Master Zaknafein. I have sustained no head injuries, Master Zaknafein."

Now Zaknafein was getting positively scared. This wasn't his Jarlaxle, the ever confident, independent, smiling mercenary, but some impostor.

"This is ridiculous, Jarlaxle. You're acting like some brainless slave, not like yourself. What do you think you will obtain like this?"

Jarlaxle's gaze flickered down to the ground again. "How do I act like myself, Master Zaknafein? I do not hope to obtain anything, Master Zaknafein."

"Stop calling me Master Zaknafein! Where's the independent Jarlaxle who says what he wants to say, who tells me not to act like you are acting now? I think they brainwashed you instead of me."

Zaknafein felt hurt. Jarlaxle was his only friend, the only person he could trust at least to some extent. And now his friend and lover behaved like a slave, for no reason Zaknafein could possibly imagine. Yes, he was angry and grumpy, but not for the first time since he had first met Jarlaxle, and the mercenary had never been like that.

Jarlaxle looked at him, smirking smugly. "You do like me." He straightened his hat prissily and opened his arms wide. "The self-same male who stands before you is that independent Jarlaxle, my friend. Didn't you recognise me?" He winked. "Or were you fooled by the fact that I was treating you like every other client? Or ... like a young Weapon Master in the making?"

He grinned. "Do I get a hug?"

Zaknafein blinked stupidly, but then he punched Jarlaxle in the chest - not as hard as he could, but hard enough to hurt him without doing serious injury.

"No, damn you! You scared me," Zaknafein grumbled, but he looked less angry than before. "What a stupid idea! As if I were any other client, or any other young fighter you don't know."

"You could have been," Jarlaxle said. He didn't even look as though that hurt him. Based on his performance, though, Zaknafein could have set him on fire and his expression would not have changed. He waggled an index finger. "You could have been just like any other student. That's the Academy's goal. You went through their very worst. I had no right to expect you to come out again."

"That's absurd. They didn't manage to change me in nine years; why should they have managed to change me in the last few weeks? Especially as I kept your words in mind," he sighed. "Anyway, as you refuse to go away ... Where will we go tonight?"

Jarlaxle's expression glittered with anticipation. "I think it's time to take you to the premiere gathering spot for post-graduate males. The Four Masks."

He chuckled and whispered gleefully, "I don't think I'd ever get in, even with my connections as a mercenary, but with you ... you were first in your class. Getting in will be as easy as squashing spiders."

"Wonderful, first you play games with me, and now I have to get you into a tavern where I will meet my annoying classmates. You must hate me," Zaknafein said.

"You pay. I want their best wine and the best room." He looked rather serious, only his eyes twinkled in amusement.

Jarlaxle bowed, and his smile, just barely able to be seen with his head tilted down, turned mischievous. "Yes, Master Zaknafein."

"I might just like it if you use that name in bed," Zaknafein replied quietly, his voice husky. "Master Do'Urden sounds even nicer, don't you think?"

Master Do'Urden ... a name a commoner like Zaknafein could only acquire as patron or Weapon Master.

Jarlaxle straightened, his expression turning serious. "Master Do'Urden."

He looked as though he were pondering the weight of that name and the consequences it might have.

"Yes," Zaknafein said with a smile. "I would like that. Weapon Master of House Do'Urden. It has a nice ring to it, no?" For a moment Zaknafein looked almost happy. "Let's go, shall we?"

The Four Masks was, in fact, the shadiest of all hangouts, an enormous, sprawling building partly underground. It was built into a slope in such a way that the ground floor on one side was the second floor on the other. Decorative stalagmites stuck out all over it, and the stone used in its building was exclusively black in colour, both in infravision and in normal vision. Few ordinary graduates would choose to be there, also, because of the rumours that Vhaeraun's worshippers liked The Four Masks for meetings and clandestine exchanges. It excited Jarlaxle to no end.

Zaknafein sighed softly. He could think of nicer places to be, but now that he had agreed there was no way out. The doormen gave them - and especially Jarlaxle - a more than suspicious look, but apparently they knew enough about the recent graduates to recognise Zaknafein and let him and his strange companion pass.

Zaknafein took a look-around in the tavern once they had entered. He did his best to ignore several of his classmates and decided to let Jarlaxle do the talking when a pretty half-human, half-faerie slave walked up to them and bowed, waiting to take them to a free table.

"A secluded table for my lover and I," Jarlaxle said, glowering at her. He gestured at her impatiently. "We are hungry, and we do not want to wait all night."

She took the harsh words without a change in expression and began to lead them to their table. The room was honeycombed with booths built into the wall, and crowded with tables all through the walkway. A chaotic growth of stalactites and stalagmites formed the core of the circular dining space. Black rock that shone all the colours of the rainbow made up the walls, and the high ceiling was lined with glittering geodes.

They wound their way past many crowded tables, males talking and laughing. Jarlaxle inhaled deeply. The wonderful smell of succulent roasting meat was in the air.

They ended up walking all the way to the back of the room. There, large booths were screened by spider silk curtains. The female slave stopped at one such booth and gestured.

Zaknafein didn't say anything and just followed Jarlaxle and the slave. He managed to appear bored and indifferent when many curious eyes followed them on their way through the room. Zaknafein smiled at the sight of that perfectly secluded booth and immediately sat down, winking at Jarlaxle.

It was only when they were alone that he said, "Your lover? Does everyone need to know that?" He didn't sound angry, rather disbelieving that Jarlaxle was so careless.

Jarlaxle looked at him curiously. "This place is full of lovers. In addition, Zaknafein, things so easily admitted to tavern slaves, in the open, in front of everyone, are usually discredited by anyone that listens. You are alarmed because of the lack of layers. The strangers here will assume layers and come up with something far better than anything I could have - a satisfying explanation for each individual listener." He held up an index finger. "Learn, Zaknafein: the truth is sometimes the best cover."

"You're probably right," Zaknafein sighed. Unfortunately, in a world as twisted as theirs, these words made perfectly sense. He softly took Jarlaxle's hands and ran his thumb over the mercenary's palm. "Did you really think I would forget about you after the graduation? Nobody else can give me this."

"I didn't think you would forget about me, Zaknafein," Jarlaxle said carefully. "I knew that would not happen. But I thought that you might not see me the same way. You might not want me anymore."

"Why would that be?" Zaknafein continued to caress the mercenary's hand. "Just because I graduated? I was ... I'm not exactly good-humoured, that's why I didn't want to see you."

He looked away and suddenly drew his hand back. He didn't know how to explain himself. He had been extremely unfriendly to Jarlaxle earlier that night, but still ... Jarlaxle should know that Zaknafein was just difficult sometimes.

"I know, but..." Jarlaxle trailed off. "When you graduated you were subjected to one more pain, one more torture, before they gave you the power you deserved. The potent combination of pain and power ... It can change people. Could change you. When you gave me those unfriendly words, I didn't know if...they had done something to you."

"They did things to me," Zaknafein said sadly, and he touched unconsciously the scratch on his cheek. "I don't know what would have happened if I hadn't met you ... But this way, I had your words to think of. It helped. In a way, it made everything worse, but it helped. I just didn't want to see you because ... it's not an experience you can easily forget."

Jarlaxle wanted to leap across the table and hug him. But he contained himself. This wasn't the place for it.

"What did you think of?" he asked quietly instead.

Zaknafein wasn't looking at him anymore. He stared at the wall over Jarlaxle's head. "I thought of what you had told me ... that I shouldn't be a slave, a toy. That I shouldn't let them decide what I had to think and believe. I thought that you were right, that I didn't want to become some obedient, weak soldier."

Jarlaxle reached out and took his hand. "It must have been hard."

Zaknafein didn't react to Jarlaxle's hand on his, but he looked at him again. "It was hard. Painful. Humiliating. And they were angry because they saw that I wasn't ... broken. They saw that I had still a personality left. That I was still me and not just a strong, nimble body, useful and entertaining. But I didn't let them reduce me to that ..."

He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. He didn't remember everything that had happened that night, but he remembered more than enough.

Jarlaxle trembled in spite of himself, thinking of the chilling female eyes searching Zaknafein's face, the horrible moment when they knew and he knew they knew.

He left his side of the table and slid in next to Zaknafein so that he could put his arm around him. Zaknafein flinched, but then he leant against Jarlaxle, resting his head on the mercenary's shoulder.

"I survived. They didn't kill me because I still ... pleasured them. But they were hardly gentle, even less so than usual," he whispered and closed his eyes for a moment. He opened them again almost immediately, as if the memories would return too strongly if he kept his eyes closed.

"Because they got you to do things, even though it didn't mean you gave up," Jarlaxle said almost inaudibly. He ran his hand through Zaknafein's hair.

"I need you so much. Please don't let the memories do what they couldn't do. Please don't let their efforts be a slow poison."

"I won't lose now, I've come too far to give up," he replied softly and cuddled up to Jarlaxle. "I will be fine as long as you're here. I just don't want to be alone with these memories."

Jarlaxle cradled him. "I won't ever leave you as long as you need me. I'll always be here. I care about you deeply."

"Without you I would have become like the other soldiers ... I was already so close." Zaknafein paused for a moment. "Maybe it would have been easier. But it's not what I want. I'd rather have them beat me every day than be like them."

Jarlaxle kissed him on the forehead. "I was so close to losing you, I know. I was frightened. I was afraid that they would take you away from me, that they would kill you and leave ... a doppelganger in your place. Someone I didn't know."

Jarlaxle paused, pained. "But they will beat you every day."

"Yes, they will," Zaknafein sighed and smiled sadly at Jarlaxle. "But that's the price I have to pay for remaining who I am. You didn't want to lose me ..." His voice wasn't reproachful - he hadn't done this for Jarlaxle, Jarlaxle hadn't made him do this, he had only reminded Zaknafein of what he wanted himself.

"I like you," Jarlaxle said. That's all the explanation he had. It was sort of a paltry thing to have in his pocket, but he didn't have anything better.

Zaknafein frowned for a moment - that wasn't much of an answer, but then again he wasn't going to complain about these nice words. He kissed Jarlaxle on the neck and whispered, "You saved me." He knew he shouldn't say something like that, but it was true ... and right now he felt so safe and content that he couldn't bring himself to be worried and suspicious.

Jarlaxle sniffled loudly and held Zaknafein in his arms. "You had to do the rest. I only started. You can't - shouldn't - say that I rescued you when you're so young, and I'm not much older, and so many things can happen. I did what I could for the time being. The time might come when I'm supposed to do something again and I don't know it because I didn't see it coming."

He felt like crying. "There's nothing that scares me like that."

"You already did more for me than anyone else." Zaknafein didn't feel like comforting Jarlaxle - he was still feeling horrible, he was the one who needed comfort and reassuring words. Still, he said in a soft voice, "You saved me for the time being ... and that's more than I could have expected. Don't be scared. I'm out of the Academy now."

"Okay." Jarlaxle stroked the scratch on his cheek. "I won't be worried. I promise."

Zaknafein closed his eyes again, and this time he seemed less tensed up. "One of the priestesses wanted to leave a scar," he whispered when Jarlaxle touched the scratch. "To remind me of my place, to give me a lasting punishment, not only wounds that would heal. But another one held her back ... said I was too pretty for that ..."

"That's equally terrible," Jarlaxle whispered.

"Maybe." Zaknafein shrugged. "I'm a toy either way; I'd rather be a toy without scars. And you wouldn't have liked that scar, would you?" He opened his eyes and gave Jarlaxle an insecure look. "You think I'm pretty. Otherwise you wouldn't want me."

"I like you for what's inside your pretty body," Jarlaxle said. "That's what I like." He kissed Zaknafein, running a finger over the scratch and cupping his chin.

"That's why I said the day we met that I was particular about who I had vith with."

"I'm sure you don't only have vith with people you like, or you'd be alone too often. Or you just like many people," Zaknafein argued, but his voice was still quite soft and low. "And if you just liked what is inside my body, you would just spend time with me, not have vith with me ... you do that because you think I'm pretty."

"If I spent time with you doing other things, you wouldn't talk at all," Jarlaxle said, sounding hurt. "Not about important things. You'd be posturing for the crowds and the spies. I like vith because I can take my clothes off and relax."

"That's it?" Now it was Zaknafein who sounded hurt. He straightened up and gave Jarlaxle a half confused, half vexed look. "You do it only to make me talk? I thought you enjoyed it ... I thought it brought you real pleasure, not just relaxation." He felt almost betrayed; he thought that Jarlaxle had only pretended to enjoy it as much as Zaknafein.

"I like vith very much," Jarlaxle said. "If I didn't, wouldn't I be content to sit around in nudity, talking with you?"

He squeezed Zaknafein's waist. "You make me feel so much pleasure. How can I not want to do vith with you every time we meet? It's special."

Zaknafein looked almost suspicious now. "That's not what you just said," he grumbled, but he didn't push Jarlaxle away. He wasn't sure why he felt so hurt. It was humiliating that the priestesses reduced him to a pretty toy, but the thought that anyone, that Jarlaxle might not find him attractive and want him was almost as humiliating. Zaknafein felt that everyone should want him.

"I don't know what you want me to say or what I should not have said that makes you think so," Jarlaxle protested. "If I just liked what is inside of you, I would just spend time with you. If I just liked your body, I would just have vith with you. I do both. I don't understand why that doesn't explain how I feel about you."

"I don't know. I'm confused," Zaknafein admitted and pulled Jarlaxle closer. He kissed him on the cheek and sighed. "It just sounded as if you only had vith with me because I want it ... I like you, too."

Jarlaxle mischievously nibbled on his ear. "I know. I have proof you like me. All of you."

"That's hardly a proof," Zaknafein grumbled, but he failed miserably when he tried to glare at Jarlaxle. "And if you keep teasing me, I might decide that I don't like you that much." His eyes were twinkling now, and he smirked a little bit.

"This is a bad place to decide you don't like me," Jarlaxle teased. "You're in an unfamiliar establishment, surrounded by a horde of lustful males."

"If I decide I don't like you, you will be kicked out, not me. And I have quite a few experiences with lustful males ... I wasn't innocent when you met me, and I didn't become innocent afterwards," Zaknafein said with a wink. "I'm sure I could find someone I would enjoy. Maybe not as much as I enjoy you, but still."

Jarlaxle laughed.

"Thank you for the compliment."

"Don't think too much of it." Zaknafein punched him in the side, but once again not very hard. "I said 'maybe'. And I said that I wouldn't mind going with one of those lustful males... or with several of them." Zaknafein grinned and kissed Jarlaxle on the throat, nibbled at the smooth skin. His hand moved to Jarlaxle's bare abdomen and caressed him softly.

"So you'd better make sure I like you," Zaknafein concluded. His voice had dropped to a seductive whisper.

Jarlaxle suppressed a whimper. "How do I do that?"

"I don't know ... I know you're clever and creative, you will think of something ... something very nice and irresistible." Zaknafein kissed Jarlaxle, quickly and teasingly, before he drew back.

Jarlaxle put a finger on his lower lip, blushing, brow furrowed. He looked like he was trying to think of something, but it wasn't working very well.

He stuck his arm outside the curtain around their booth and waved it, calling over a servant. When he found one, he said, "Crab. Whole crab. One. Largest one you have." The servant, another female half-faerie, stared at him. "Now!" She scurried away.

Jarlaxle looked at Zaknafein. "Ever had crab?"

Zaknafein waited with a little smirk on his lips, but he flinched in surprise when Jarlaxle suddenly called the servant. He would have expected anything rather than this. For a moment he was too taken aback to answer.

"No," he managed finally. "But ... all right, you said you were hungry." And Zaknafein had to admit that he, too, was hungry. "Still, this isn't going to make me like you," he admonished him playfully.

Jarlaxle straightened haughtily. "You're not supposed to like me yet. You're supposed to wait until the crab arrives." He leant back in the cushioned booth. "In the meantime, I'll entertain you."

"I think that will make me like you much more," Zaknafein said happily and grinned. For a second he looked quite young, but only until his grin disappeared. "How are you going to entertain me?"

Jarlaxle took off his hat and set it down on the empty side of the booth. Then he grinned, slipped way down on the bench, and disappeared under the table. The mercenary tugged one of Zaknafein's boots off, and then the other. He began massaging Zaknafein's ankles.

Zaknafein's smile grew wider and wider. He laid his head back, but he didn't close his eyes - he still wanted to see Jarlaxle. "Good idea," he said and chuckled. "I definitely like where this is going."

"Your humble servant," Jarlaxle said cheekily.

His fingers moved up, beginning to massage Zaknafein's calves. They were incredibly tense, hard knots of muscle.

Zaknafein smiled again. He liked games as long as he knew the rules. Jarlaxle had scared him with his strange behaviour earlier that evening, but now Zaknafein simply leant back and enjoyed. He moaned quietly when Jarlaxle started to massage him, a moan that was more an expression of pain and tension than of lust. He realised only now that he hadn't relaxed properly since the graduation ceremony.

"Shhh-h-h-h," Jarlaxle soothed. "It will be all right. You will begin to feel better soon." His hands travelled from Zaknafein's calves to his ankles and back, gently rubbing.

Zaknafein's next moan sounded indeed more relaxed, if only a bit. This felt incredibly good ... Zaknafein had never got a real massage in his whole life. He decided that he would have one every day as soon as he could afford it. "Oh, you ... That's nice ..." Zaknafein stammered, unable to say something more sensible.

Jarlaxle nuzzled Zaknafein's shin and continued massaging. When he was satisfied, he moved up, to Zaknafein's knees, paused, and moved his hands further up still, to his thighs. He lay down under the table in such a position that Zaknafein's thighs were easier to reach, and pulled on his knees, gently, to get him to sit more on the edge of the bench.

Zaknafein slid forward on the bench, while he still leant against the backrest, his position somewhere between lying and sitting. He spread his legs a bit and closed his eyes. This was so comfortable that he didn't even notice how vulnerable he was right now.

Jarlaxle slid his hands over Zaknafein's thighs, feeling the strength in them. He could also feel the tension. He began slowly massaging Zaknafein's left thigh, at the same time nuzzling his shin.

For a few moments the massaging hands were almost painful, but the pain turned into soft pleasure as soon as Zaknafein relaxed. He twitched when Jarlaxle's hands moved up his thigh, closer to his groin, but he tried to ignore any lustful thoughts for the moment and just enjoy this massage.

Jarlaxle's hands consistently moved up his leg, circling ever closer, rubbing in tight little circles. Then he finished with Zaknafein's left thigh and moved on to his right, starting down at the knee again.

Zaknafein was going completely limp under Jarlaxle's hands. He had shut out the other voices and smells in the tavern, he only focused on what he felt. It was such a strange thing to be touched so tenderly, to be touched by someone who just wanted to make him feel better.

Jarlaxle worked his way up Zaknafein's thigh, rubbing and soothing hurt muscles. He brushed higher, retreated, higher, retreated. He massaged Zaknafein's thigh from all sides.

Zaknafein simply enjoyed this for what seemed a wonderfully long time to him, but then he finally opened his eyes and reached down to cup Jarlaxle's chin. "I think you convinced me ... you don't have to stay down there that long." He felt suddenly guilty for taking so much and giving nothing back.

Jarlaxle grinned and moved his head, kissing Zaknafein's hand. "I don't have to ... but I want to."

He slid his hands up Zaknafein's thighs and tugged at the strings of his breeches.

Zaknafein smiled and ran his fingers over Jarlaxle's cheek and neck, but he didn't hold him back. "You're worth putting up with the rest of this hell," he mumbled, and his voice took on an unusually tender tone.

Jarlaxle leant into that touch. He loosened the strings of Zaknafein's breeches. His hands lingered there teasingly, and then he slid Zaknafein's breeches down his legs.

Zaknafein was only looking at Jarlaxle, almost mesmerised, while his fingers kept up their tender movements. A shudder ran through his body when air touched his newly exposed skin.

Jarlaxle began licking and sucking Zaknafein's calves. He worked his way up to the back of the fighter's knees. There he lingered, licking and nipping the sensitive skin.

Zaknafein drew his hand back and grabbed the edge of the table instead. He didn't want to force or pressure Jarlaxle. He shivered again, this time in pleasure and anticipation, and his eyes fluttered shut. Jarlaxle was teasing him, but it was a delicious torture that didn't bother Zaknafein in the least.

Jarlaxle licked his way up Zaknafein's shivering thighs ... and stopped. "Do I have permission?" he asked, looking up at Zaknafein slyly.

"What?" Zaknafein gasped. He looked shocked, as if he expected Jarlaxle to get up and leave him like this. But Jarlaxle's sly look made him grin again, and he gave him a soft slap on the cheek, so light that it was more like a pat. "You do have permission ... Actually, I wouldn't expect anything less from my 'humble servant'," he said in a halfway serious voice, which was still filled with lust and at the same time amusement.

Jarlaxle managed to take in his entire erection at once, and didn't waste time being coy now. It was after his stage of teasing.

Zaknafein gasped and clutched the edge of the table. His breathing accelerated within a few moments. He bit on his bottom lip to keep his moans quiet, and only stifled whimpering left his lips. Zaknafein closed his eyes, his vision was getting blurry anyway. Pleasure made him tense up again, but in an entirely enjoyable way.

He didn't manage to remain silent when he climaxed, but in those moments he didn't care if anyone might pass by their booth just in that moment and hear his still not very loud moans.

Jarlaxle stayed still for a moment, then withdrew and gently pulled Zaknafein's breeches up. He redid the strings, tightening and then tying them. "Are you satisfied?" Jarlaxle whispered. He leant against Zaknafein's legs.

Zaknafein looked at him as if Jarlaxle wasn't even speaking a language he understood. He was still far away in that beautiful world of pleasure and satisfaction. Unable to say something he pulled the mercenary onto his lap and to his chest, nuzzling his neck.

Jarlaxle curled up against him, satisfied with that answer. "I care about you a great deal," he whispered again.

Zaknafein held him so tight that he almost crushed the smaller drow in his arms. He kissed Jarlaxle on the neck before he slowly lifted his head. "I really like you," he said in a rough voice, but the words just sounded wrong. He didn't like Jarlaxle, he felt something much stronger, but he had no word for it. "I want to have you with me."

Jarlaxle almost said that he could still be a mercenary, but he clamped his mouth shut. His remarks only got him in trouble when Zaknafein was in a good mood, like now. He would think Jarlaxle had only done what he did to make him agree. Jarlaxle's insight didn't include why Zaknafein would feel this way, but he didn't have to know to shut up.

"I want to have you with me, too. I feel ... purposeful when I am with you."

"I feel happy when I'm with you. At peace. It's like the world finally left me alone for a while." Zaknafein sighed and looked Jarlaxle in the eyes. He wondered suddenly why he hadn't wanted to see the mercenary earlier - he doubted that he would have been able to forget the graduation ceremony even for a few moments if Jarlaxle had not distracted him.

Jarlaxle ran his hands over Zaknafein's back. The urge to say something - to do anything - to offer to take Zaknafein in - was overwhelming. He just knew Zaknafein would refuse. He wouldn't want to give up his hard earned power - not after going through so much to get it.

Even if that power was going to kill him someday.

Jarlaxle wanted to bang his head against the wall of the booth. He wasn't like Zaknafein. He couldn't shut everything out and only see this day. He saw entire decades ahead of them, full of suffering because Zaknafein wouldn't join Bregan D'aerthe.

"I really care about you," he said, desperately trying to say anything that intimated what he wanted to ask without having ask it and ruin everything.

As Zaknafein's senses were returning to him, he could imagine what Jarlaxle was thinking about. It was nothing new, after all, and Jarlaxle had never given up his hope of convincing Zaknafein.

"I know," he replied softly and rubbed his cheek against Jarlaxle's. "I know you'll be there when I need you. Even thought we can't be together all the time. We're too different. We want different things." He didn't want to start this argument again, he just wanted Jarlaxle to know that Zaknafein hadn't changed his mind.

Jarlaxle's lower lip trembled. "You are not mad at me?"

"Do you really think I could be mad at you right now?" Zaknafein smiled, but his smile wasn't as happy as a few minutes earlier. Reality was always catching up with him too quickly.

Jarlaxle nodded rapidly, like a child. "I was thinking about something while you were talking that you didn't want to talk about and you already told me no, and I wanted to ask again. It would have made you angry with me if I had asked again and I wanted to anyway, and I was thinking about it while you were talking."

He looked at Zaknafein with wide eyes.

Zaknafein blinked several times, slightly confused by this stream of words, before he shrugged. "Maybe. Just don't ask again. Things are going to be fine ... You won't lose me, and that's what counts, no?"

Jarlaxle kissed him, desperately.

Zaknafein returned the kiss tenderly, still holding him close. He wanted Jarlaxle to know, to feel that he cared just as much, even if he didn't know how to show it.

They parted only a minute later when they heard the female slave return. Jarlaxle quickly withdrew and sat down next to Zaknafein, winking at him. The young fighter just grinned, but he said nothing. They could continue this after their meal.