Disclaimer: Artemis and Jarlaxle are not mine. The setting of Forgotten Realms is not mine. Faerun, then, is also not mine.
Author's Note: This is the sequel to Trying Too Hard. There is no way I'm going to recap, I am marching on. You can either proceed, or you can go back and read Trying Too Hard. I won't force you, but never let it be said I didn't warn you. The characters have developed differently than in canon, and are considering a relationship. With each other.
Artemis had refused to indulge him. For the next week, from tiny village to tiny village, even on the road where Jarlaxle was convinced no one would see them, in inviting little glades that promised privacy, wherever they went, the assassin kept as much distance between them as if nothing had happened. He saw Artemis watching him whenever they arrived at a new village, scrutinizing his reaction to every woman, and desperately, he would turn to Artemis, only to have the man avert his eyes. He unconsciously stroked the hilt of his dagger, a little gesture that made sweat bead on Jarlaxle's upper lip. He vowed not to give into it.
He knew it was a test; Artemis needed some proof of loyalty from him after their stay in Aberiss. He blocked out his lust with anger and self-righteousness in order to conquer this test, to prove his resolve when he said that he wanted a relationship, a serious relationship, with the assassin.
The day after they left Aberiss, Artemis had purposefully started a conversation. He had forced Jarlaxle to say, "I want a relationship with you. I do not want to wish this upon you without your consent; yet I am willing to set everything aside to that this can be."
And now Jarlaxle was stuck. Artemis' response had been, "I'll think about it."
'I'll think about it?' Jarlaxle seethed, glaring at him as they rode towards Perrin, reputed to be a much larger town compared to the ones they'd been traveling through. Supposedly, they would know when they came to it because of a wall around it made of pearly white stones and mortar. Jarlaxle had never been denied before. Never. If he wanted something, he could find a way to get it, no matter what the cost. He could manipulate, he could trick, he could steal, and he could hire someone else to use their services to complete his goal. It was a novelty – an insult! – to be put in a situation where his honor demanded that he not coax, trick, or coerce the desired object out of the person who held it.
The problem being, he supposed, that it's not an object I want. It's a thing. Person. Human. He ran his eyes up and down his companion's stern body. Then he reminded himself that he was supposed to be getting angry so that he didn't feel the claws of desire digging into him quite so fiercely. The drow mercenary let his eyes linger. The muscular arm, the tight line of the leather jerkin against the assassin's waist… Maybe I can resume being angry later, he thought. He found his gaze being drawn to…
Maybe not. Let's be angry. Angry is definitely safer. Yes. Um. Angry. Jarlaxle scowled. He tried to comfort himself with the scenery, which, as always, was so splendid that he was tempted to hire someone to paint a likeness of it. They were passing another copse of trees in the distance. He looked at it longingly as it passed.
"What are you wooing with your eyes now?" Artemis said, jarring Jarlaxle out of his mournful contemplation.
"I happen to be looking at the scenery," the drow said, straightening in his saddle stuffily.
"Really?" The assassin raised an eyebrow. "Since when did the scenery involve me?"
"This is your realm," Jarlaxle said. "I should think you would want to take a more active approach in appreciating its finer elements." He was trying to avoid the conversation, since he was in no mood to discuss why he was looking at Artemis instead of exclaiming over flowers or trying to name butterflies. It was a beautiful name, butterflies. But, why name such a wonderful little creature 'butter', a kind of solidified fat from livestock, and 'flies', annoying little black things with wings that buzzed around and made everyone get up and shoo it away by dancing all over fresh cakes on cooling racks? He pondered this.
"If you are talking about my alleged 'insensitivity' towards what my horses' hooves do to a bed of wildflowers," Artemis began.
Jarlaxle forced a pained smile. "Yes. I am." He hoped the assassin took this as a legitimate source of the drow's annoyance instead of reading Jarlaxle's expression correctly, which was 'Admit that you've wanted to do things to my naked body all week and stop torturing me, damn you!' He'd been robbed of his coping mechanism, and Artemis had not even promised to be the replacement. Even above such considerations of Artemis' feelings, what he may or may not be dealing with in regards to his past, and his well-deserved skepticism of Jarlaxle's motives, the drow had been using lust as a crutch for his inadequacies for centuries. Suddenly being forbidden to touch, taste, or otherwise fool around with someone else's body, Jarlaxle felt, was akin to suddenly stopping someone from taking very strong drugs. He'd heard humans call it 'cold turkey', and it didn't sound like a particularly appetizing thing to happen. He hated the taste of cold turkey. Literally, and figuratively.
"It is a plant. It is on the ground. If it does not move, then it is bound to be trampled," Artemis said. "I've heard that plants and animals can adapt as well as higher life forms. If that is true, then if a flower really didn't want to be squashed flat, it would learn to get out of the way." He looked faintly pleased with himself for having an argument ready for once. Usually Jarlaxle sprung one on him and beat him to death with the drow's point of view before he had a chance to say anything.
The drow mercenary could not bring himself to order Artemis to dismount and let him – At the very least, have a kiss. He consoled himself by imagining one, which caused him to completely forget what Artemis had just said. Five minutes passed unusually blissfully, compared to the rest of the week, as Jarlaxle gratefully sank into a soothing fantasy about how it had felt the last time they had been in bed together.
The assassin glanced at him suspiciously. Either he had just won an argument for the first time of his life against the annoyingly quick-witted elf, or Jarlaxle was ignoring him. He cleared his throat. Jarlaxle made no response. By the gods, he's ignoring me. Artemis couldn't believe it. The reality almost broke his mind. His companion never ignored him. Even when he was pretending to ignore, he was always perfectly aware of everything the assassin said or did, and remembered in fine detail if the assassin did something he didn't approve of.
A note of fear crept into Artemis' gray eyes. Maybe the drow was hatching one of his insane plans, one of the many ill-advised escapades that almost crushed them forever in the jaws of death. He'd begun to hope that he might live to see next month. Maybe he was wrong. "I expect that you have a plan for when we reach Perrin?" he asked. His manner was cautious.
That was a good question. Jarlaxle hated to be caught unprepared during the rare occasions when Artemis actually asked for his guidance, but he didn't have anything other than a handful of fantasies about cornering Artemis inside the inn and making love to him. "It is in progress," Jarlaxle said. At least that should hold him off.
That's what I was afraid of, the assassin thought. "Am I to assume that this will involve winning by the skin of our teeth, again?"
"No, not especially," the drow said absently.
Artemis remained silent, puzzled. Then what is he thinking about?
Artemis hadn't felt the urge to touch another living being once they'd left Aberiss. He'd been cut off from his body for over a decade. It had been unusual to suddenly feel. And now it was gone again. Back to the way it was… But as he thought that, he felt quivers of uncertainty in himself. He hated those feelings. Enough uncertainties pile up, and he would be crushed beneath them like a landslide, easy prey for anyone that came along. He never again wanted to be easy prey. He felt Jarlaxle making him that way, a little more each day. Did the drow plan it that way? Was he preparing for Artemis' downfall?
He said no, the assassin reminded himself, fighting to keep his pulse under control. He heard my dream, and he said no. He said he wasn't going to hurt me. Then that hideous, cynical voice said, 'A drow. Told you he wouldn't hurt you.' There was such scathing criticism in that voice that Artemis felt he would buckle under it.
"I don't believe you," he said, but there was a double meaning in his words that he tried unsuccessfully to escape.
"I – Pardon?" Jarlaxle looked up at him, his expression somewhat concerned.
You're a fool, he cursed himself. He didn't kill you then, and he won't lay a finger on you now. What is wrong with you? Did you learn nothing? That was the harshest criticism he could possibly give himself; he had survived by learning from even the smallest things, a sight, a sound, a touch, a smell, a fleeting impression before a figure disappeared from sight. He'd had a whole week in Aberiss to learn Jarlaxle's intentions, and acting as though he'd come away empty-handed, even after using himself as bait to lure the worst in his companion's mind out into the open – That was unacceptable. "I'm sorry," he said.
Jarlaxle nodded, puzzled; he clearly wanted to pursue this, but saw that he couldn't. Not without Artemis withdrawing and refusing to speak any more. "Alright," he said.
That act of compassion was enough to make Artemis sick to his stomach with guilt. "We should stop soon. It's getting late into the afternoon."
The drow hadn't noticed. "What? So it is. I guess I haven't been hungry." Jarlaxle looked around for a good place to stop along the rolling fields surrounding the dirt road.
The assassin didn't think he could stomach a meal. "I mean to rest," he said, hoping that would clarify things enough so that Jarlaxle didn't offer him any rations. His companion's good manners could cause him no end of torment sometimes. He wished frequently for company that was rude and sullen. Someone who would soothingly match his mood.
Jarlaxle scrutinized Artemis' face. He did look unusually tired. The drow hoped that it was only discomfort over the lack of intimacy between them, and not something more serious. Humans weren't impervious to illness by far. It seemed only luck that he'd chosen a human companion who didn't often get sick. Sometimes even hardy warriors had weak immune systems.
Before long, they came to a pleasant creek. They dismounted and led their horses into the field, away from where their path crossed it, arching over the river with a sturdy looking wooden bridge. The day was beginning to warm up, something that Jarlaxle didn't think either of them had noticed. The horses eagerly devoured the grass and weeds around them, snapping up little, bright yellow flowers whose hollow stems leaked a gooey white substance. Out of curiosity, Jarlaxle bent down, plucked one, and brought it up to his nose to smell. He made a face. Pungent. "What is this?" he asked.
Artemis looked over from where he was standing over his pack, a few feet away. Had he been in a better mood, he would have tweaked the curious drow by pretending not to understand. He smiled slightly at Jarlaxle's reaction to the flower. He's discovered that he can't like all flowers, the assassin thought. "It's a dandelion."
"Dandy…lion?" Jarlaxle stroked the thin petals with a fingertip, looking thoughtful. "Why didn't we see them before in other places?"
Artemis shrugged and went back to looking through his travel bag.
Jarlaxle took this as the dismissal it was and wandered over to the creek. It was fairly shallow, only shin-deep, and it was less than six feet wide. The grass dropped off, suddenly, and then there was the water, brushing past little plants that dipped into the water. A large quantity of dark, round stones were at the bottom, dark against the light gray bed.
He sat down and took off his boots, sticking his feet in the water. What an incredible sensation. The soles of his feet encountered soft, squishy material. He tilted his head. With one hand, he scraped up a handful of the earth at the bottom of the creek. It was soft and sticky in his hand. "Clay," Jarlaxle said, wiggling his fingers and playing with it. He really wasn't that hungry, so he amused himself by exploring.
They moved on without eating anything. After crossing the bridge, the dirt path stretched out straight into the horizon, and the land began to flatten into a plain. They rode in silence, the horses being allowed to go at a slow gait. Jarlaxle noticed that all horses usually walked, muscles rippling lazily, if let to their own devices. The warm weather, clear day, and large white clouds keeping the sun from becoming too hot cheered him. He allowed it to soothe away all thoughts of him, Artemis, and the smell of sweat as the white sheets clung to their bodies.
When the sun set, it was spectacular. He chattered excitedly about it, leaning back in his saddle. The sky turned a rich orange where the sun sank low, and highlights caught the clouds and turned them into floating balls of raspberry cream. His eyes stung as the sun let out one final burst of blinding light before it disappeared, leaving pink and purple in its wake.
They settled down before the light show in the sky ended, Artemis muttering about how they didn't need a fire since people could see it around for miles and how much he hated dull, despicable, flat ground.
Jarlaxle wanted to sing some songs.
Artemis wouldn't let him.
Jarlaxle sang them anyway, lying back in the short grass, his arms crossed contentedly under his head. "What do you think?" he said once he finished. He was grinning, one of those disconcerting, bright white smiles that made his skin look even blacker. "I heard it sung around Garris a few days ago and thought it worth remembering."
"Why do you care about some wench called Mollie Malloy?" Artemis said.
A slight frown passed over the drow's face. "I think, my friend, you are missing the point. The words don't matter. What about the tune?"
"Pathetic. I've heard a dozen songs that sound approximately the same."
The drow mercenary looked displeased. "You have no sense of culture."
"You're a tourist. I'm not. You're supposed to be impressed. I can't imagine a drow being named Mollie Malloy."
"I told you, I don't care about the words."
The assassin smirked.
"You just enjoy ruining my fun," Jarlaxle accused.
He gave the drow a sidelong look. "Yes."
The sky darkened and began its nightly ritual of revealing the moon, and coyly unveiling little freckles of light against the bluish purple darkness.
"Come, Artemis, watch the stars with me!"
"How can you watch something that doesn't go anywhere? You may as well watch a house. Grass. A lamp post. Concrete."
Jarlaxle looked agonized. "None of those things are beautiful."
Artemis grudgingly looked up. He didn't look impressed. "Your darkness is black. Ours has white dots in it. Aside from that key difference, it is exactly the same."
"They come far more varied in color," the drow said, glaring. "There are white lights, blue lights, and rare pink or red lights." He sounded as if he were pouting when he said, "Those are my favorite."
The assassin held back another bored comment. For some reason, Artemis lacked the heart in it necessary to really say something scathing. He looked away from the object of Jarlaxle's innocent sport and tried to go to sleep. They'd agreed that he be the first to take rest.
He didn't want to admit it to himself, but he felt safer with Jarlaxle beside him, a tangible aura prickling his skin, the drow's presence a foot away, cross-legged and looking around alertly. Artemis would give anything for the luxury of being able to close his eyes and be assured that the world was not going to sneak up on him. And now, by some unforeseen fate, he had that luxury.
Jarlaxle noted almost half an hour later that his friend was smiling in his sleep.