Episode 15.

CW: Alcohol.

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Kayn wasn’t shocked by the request. He knew what he was asking of him. They all wanted Sal back, but the places he looked were more dangerous than most. It would be hard not to go out again. To just stop looking. Jed’s heart would break, the final confirmation that even if she wasn't, she might as well be dead. He supposed he might miss the money too, but all the stars in the sky knew now that Axel had the softest touch of anyone he’d ever known. This would be a hell of a trade-off, and he hoped it would be worth it.

Usually, his admirers, if they'd be called such a word, demanded more from him than he could ever give. While organised Mage factions were dangerous, Paladins were the actual worst. Calling him names, cruel, they'd tell him they'd get their money’s worth out of him one way or another, and more often than not he’d ended up a punching bag for them. He'd defied them all, telling himself he was the one in control, that he'd take anything they threw at him, that they were only making him stronger, and they would never win, but they always had, ever since he could remember.

The clients who'd approach him first weren't all bad – they knew what he was and what they wanted, and were happy to get it from him. He'd been taught to keep himself safe, but ever since he could remember he'd had a... thing for the more perilous situations. Throwing himself into his rescue mission and purposefully seeking danger out, his new scar was in good company with the others that told his tale. Axel was right to fret and worry.

Immersing himself – shutting the doubt out – the memory of his kiss washed over him, and indulging himself, a contented sense of relief settled within. He'd felt out of control, but Axel knew what to do. Knew what to say. How the fuck was kissing him better than he'd ever daydreamed? If he was trying to impress him, he snickered, he'd outdone himself. Intense as he could be, there was still his softness, and that gave him patience. Kind words and the way he looked at him could turn him into liquid honey. And damn, that blush... Despite being able to put his foot well and truly in it, Axel knew him, understood him, and he’d known that all along.

Though, he couldn't deny it was selfish of him to choose his own comfort over Sal’s return, he wondered if it could still be worth the trade? He wanted to believe he'd done enough to look for her. He wanted to believe he could stop searching and still deserve this good thing. He hoped upon hope that Jed would see things his way. And as relieved as he was, he also couldn’t deny it felt odd to relish the feeling of staying in bed, invited to, rather than kicked out onto the street.

Cold, empty and alone, wanting home and Reed’s painkillers, he was used to cursing himself for being too impulsive yet again. He'd scold himself for reverting to type while totting up the coin in his pocket, yet the hard metal was reassuring in his palm. He was everything they said he was, but their words meant nothing. And after all his pissing and moaning about how awful they were, he still took pride in relieving them of their gold.

But again. If Axel wanted him enough to ask him to call off the pursuit and ask him to stay with him? And only him? To demand that much straight out of the gate? And be serious enough to back off and relinquish his control of their situation just like that? He smirked, in spite of the solemn thoughts in his mind, a sudden picture formed of how and when their leader would lose all that well-disciplined patience, and what it would take for him to demand that power back from him.

The decision was already made, long before his request was. Out there, they weren't real to him, and in here, now, Axel was. They weren't bundled up in his arms, and snoring softly, he was. His heart flipped inside his chest at realising it. He could keep a promise not to go out there again.

The new pair emerged several hours later, ravenous, looking for food and grinning together like jackasses – yet Kayn still stood a little behind, and eyes darted to the floor as a flash of paranoia crossed him, telling him to escape. Instead, he reached for Axel's hand, clasping it, to his surprise. Something was different. The room wasn’t the same as how he'd left it. Yet another thing in the sea of change around him. The tables moved, two were pushed together to form one long one now. And – she was still here.

Aware of this but with bigger things to worry about, he muttered, “Tables are wrong.” as he trailed behind. Following Axel, he sat in the furthest spot from everyone, his back to the wall, a safe position, with plenty of cover. Taking the next spot up the bench with him, Axel sits ahead – glad to provide a buffer from the others – which made Reed shuffle down, allowing them room. Jed and Tristin on the bench opposite gave him a place to hide out in the shadows, and all the outliers are casual, pretending not to look or notice them together at all, while they join them. A prank Jed thought would entertain them – in truth, no one was sure what to say.

Indeed perplexed, and looking them all over but getting nothing back, Axel grew tense. Plain as day, something had been going on in that room since morning, and here they were now, right in front of them. Together. This should have been big Sanguine news, so he couldn't work out why they were ignored?

Predictably, Jed ruined the façade first, unable to keep his utter joy inside any longer and he others groan as he spoiled his own joke. Turning to the pair he cracked, leering in the sort of fashion that would send a bolt up a lesser man’s spine. Having waited for this moment forever, hearty, congratulating them, he poured more cider in celebration. “Well, fuck me sideways. Axel and Kayn, everybody. Please welcome the happy couple.” Seeing Kayn's chin at his shoulder, their hands clasped under the table, he shook his head. “It’s about bloody time you two finally admitted the truth to each other, isn’t it?” Drinking his toast, he slammed his cup down onto the table, too hard. “Now. Can we please get on with going back to our usual business? You know, getting on with what we’ve actually spent all this time setting out to do?”

“You?” Axel’s suspicion carried a tinge of surprise. “Even you knew for absolute one hundred percent certain how he really felt? But... How?”

“Oh, ho-ho, now there is a question and a half. How did I know? Well let's see. Oh, we can start with all of those lingered glares. The outbursts, with just a dash of sullen sulking, maybe? Passive aggressive singing? Jealous rage, anyone? Urgh, and not forgetting the pining from both of you? Classic love story, Axel. Something left unsaid, blatant, and obvious. And, you know, to top it all off, I opened my mouth and asked him myself...” He looked across the room and nodded in her direction. “Oi, Issané? How long did it take you to work it out?”

Keeping herself well out of the way by preparing food by the hearth, she came forward from the scullery shadows. At the edge of the candlelight, the opposite end of the tables from Kayn, she kept well behind Tristin. Holding up five fingers, she drew an ‘M’ on the table, with Reed letting out an uncharacteristic hoot.

“Five minutes. Ha! Quicker than you, Jed.”

“So, like, I was the only one of us who didn’t know he definitely wanted me back? Like, for sure, sure? And none of you thought to tell me?” Turning back to Kayn, he is genuinely shocked. “How on earth did it ever take me so long to twig it? And how the fuck did Jed of all people work it out before I did?”

“I dunno Axel.” His reply was hushed, only for him. “I must be super good at hiding my feelings.”

“Oi, now. That’s a bloody cheek from all three of you.” Jed interrupted, pulling a face. “More than likely I was the first to know, actually. I knew before you because I don’t spend my life with my face in a fucking book. For someone so smart, you truly are asinine, Axel. We’ve all been telling you for months now. You couldn't hear us. Wee Issané here just about managed to get through to the pair of you and make you listen, and she don't even talk.”

Axel did not miss the vice-like grip on his hand, nor that Kayn had put himself at the end of the bench away from everyone. He knew he was acting as a shield between him and the rest of the room. Turning, he tried to convey a message that this is okay, that this will be alright, but his telepathy didn't work on him, and stars, how hard he’d tried it. Kayn was exceptional at numbing himself to how he honestly felt – it wouldn't have counted as a secret, if it didn’t really exist. Smiling at his joke, and his slightly worried expression, he leans in for a kiss, smiling wider at the effortless return. We will be alright.

Simpering and pressing his fingertips together under his chin, eyes wide, Jed squealed. “Oh my actual stars! If that’s not the cutest fucking thing! You two together.” He thumbed at Tristin. “And this one with Issané. Axel, get this. He was smiling earlier, you should have seen him. It was hilarious.”

Not smiling now, Tristin had a sharp eye on Kayn, noting how Issané was still careful to stay well out of his arm’s reach. Satisfied there'd be no trouble tonight, his idea to move the tables and give Kayn space working, he was careful to dissipate any more tension – though he'd resolved not to let his guard drop. “Yep. Me and her will team up. And before any of you start, I didn’t let her out of the cell. She did that on her own. And I’m fucking glad she did. All of that whole business was so messed up. That is the worst thing we have ever done, and I will not hear another word from any of you about her being in there or not.”

They nod in agreement, but Axel weighed her up. “On her own? That, I can believe. Issané is it, yeah? And you don’t talk? Actions do speak louder than words, or so they say. Step into the light here. Let me see you up close.”

She brought the food she’d made with her, two plates, setting them down for Axel to pass one to Kayn – his hand up at her approach, at arm's length, a clear signal to come no closer. Dashing back for cider, she filled his cup. Leaving the rest for them to pour their own, before presenting herself to him, she bobbed a curtsey like a serving maid might. The difference being, she looked straight at him, even grinning, and Axel regarded her, considering – as subservient as she was acting, he knew a brute strength of will, that tenacious defiance, and a talent for magic when he saw it.

“Don’t eat that, Axel. You said about poison?” Kayn had relaxed at her keeping her distance, but his voice was still strained.

“Unlikely.” He tried a spoonful, scrutinising her face as he did. “Is it, Issané? Is the food poisoned?”

Sitting again, she screwed her face up. Its not, but she knew her cooking wasn’t the best, and pickings were lean in the hideout. She’d done the best she could manage, and signs so. “No poison, but no seasoning either. Sorry.”

Once he'd read her as genuine, he laughed when Reed piped up. “Of course, it’s not gourmet by any stretch of the imagination, you know, or even a solid example of cooked food. But we’ve all eaten. And, we’re not dead. Yet.”

Axel snickered, eating a bigger spoonful. “Not like you to be critical, Reed. This isn’t bad, considering there was almost nothing here, and you all know damn well we have eaten some things in our time...” He turned to her. “We should have been long gone by now. You’ve done us a gooden to feed us all. Thank you.” He grimaced, realising he is still chewing his first mouthful. “Although I suspect there are other talents you are stronger at. Butchery, maybe?”

He snorted again at her thumbs up while Kayn sniffed at his dish, full of mistrust. Putting it back down and pushing it away from him, disdainful, and supercilious, he reached for the cider instead, and Issané covertly prods Tristin in the arm, so he remembered the message he was supposed to give him.

“Right? Knife skills like that are gonna come in handy on the hunt, eh? But you lost a fair bit of blood there, Kayn. You should eat something...”

He looked at him, then to Issané and back again, sneering that they thought they'd fool him that easily. “Think I’m following her advice? Fuck that. Cider will do me.”

“Fine, then.” Axel chirped, happily grabbing the spare dish. “I’ll easily eat both. I’m bloody starving. We'll get something later if you want, yeah? Stop at the inn on the way out?” Kayn nodded, shrugging, and satisfied, after watching the others with Issané his mind was made up. “Tristin, empty your cup and pass it to me. Issané, come here.”

Axel welcomed her to The Sanguine, swearing her in, the group toasting her, explaining they have sworn to each other to follow a kind of prophecy of sorts. A distinct distaste for the word and it’s divine connotations, he stated that the mission they are on was more of a theory. One they were hell-bent on proving true, based on scientific fact, something Reed was vocal about agreeing with. The Continuum. “... and for that, we need money. But we don't kill, alright. We don't do that. We just make it so we don't get caught. So that we can get away.”

“From who?”

“Bandits, mainly. You know 'em, always on a damn quest for treasure or whatever. Well, wherever there's a poor town, any area with high levels of poverty, there's always one of these rich pieces of shit with a choke hold on the cash flow nearby, like they fucking own the place. Doesn't take much to whip up a little rumour here and there, cause a little scene, you know. Plant a little evidence. All legit, mind, we just give them enough rope to hang themselves. They all do eventually. Most of the time the villagers know what's up anyway, and they've already had enough. We just confirm who it is causing trouble for them. Before the sun's up – bam. Basement's cleared, resource problems in the market down the road ended, kids are getting fed again. Pitchforks back in the shit-heap. We just take the cream off the top. A service charge, if you will, to see us on our way. Sometimes, people are even grateful.”

“Yeah. Instead of glad to see the back of us.” Jed cut in. “We were doing alright with the Clerics round here, nothing more than exposing 'em to their own locals and making off with our fair share. That was, until...”

“The Baron's son.” Reed finished what he could not say.

“And now you're on the run.”

He nodded. “We've pissed the wrong people off. And now we're offski. Sharpish.” As he tells her everything he knew, Axel's amazement is clear when he found her nodding along and gesturing to him she understood what he was talking about. Most would nod and smile in a vague way until he shut up, but she was enthused, finishing sentences, which surprised Tristin too, given permission to chip in helpfully here and there. Axel discovered himself breathless again, when he realised the missing link he'd been looking for has been in front of him this entire time. “You know? Then... Do you... Do you know where we should be headed?” Daring himself to look up at her, afraid of what her answer will be, he cannot believe she is still in the affirmative.

She does know. Tilting her head somewhat, and screwing up her face again, he watches her flip her hand this way and that. “Kind of. I mean, more or less. At least, I know why it is you can't find your way.”

“Why?” His heart was in his throat at the simple question.

“You've been going round in circles. There's a pass in the mountains. It's not on any map.”

“How do you know?”

She tapped the side of her head. “All up here.”

The truth dawned on him. It wasn't a new book or a diagram or clue he should have been looking for – it was her. He hid the disarray this made him feel. “If that is true, then as part of your pact with us, you will swear to do whatever you can to help us, as the others here have done.”

Animated, more than ever, she readily agreed she will.

“Then, from this day,” He continued, completing the initiation, “You others are of the understanding that she is with us and we are with her. We have chosen to fight on together, and she is under our protection, one and all. And we are under hers, unbelievable as that might be.” Grinning at his newest recruit, he paused, giving Kayn’s hand a squeeze. “I doubt I’m the first to underestimate you, though.” Addressing the group, he finished his decree. “I’m gonna need you all to swear that back to me.”

“So say The Sanguine.” Bitter, still defiant, Kayn answered first, for nothing but the benefit of the others.

She read his cadence, loud and clear while the others agree with him. That one isn’t promising anything. Not one single shred. Concurring only for Axel’s sake, she struggled to keep control of her expression, and she let the subject drop. It didn't matter. For now.

“Good. And, by the same token, no one must come between Kayn and I.” Axel glows at saying it aloud at last. “He is mine, and I am his.” Careful, gauging Jed’s reaction, and punctuating his vow, Axel lifted their entwined hands from under the table. Planting a firm kiss on the back of Kayn’s, he felt the action break his death glare at the girl, and for a moment, he hid, shy, just a squeeze in reciprocation which pleased him all the more.

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