I'll Start Tomorrow
That was a sight: A man with long, ragged black hair creeping along the hallway towards the door at the corner of the washing room, wearing a brown cloak. His tall, large-heeled books clumped softly against the russet colored carpet underneath his feet. He wore a smile that was small and gentle, like that of a person secretly trying to please someone they loved. A sheathed broadsword hung at his side. He opened the door with a gloved hand and looked inside. He saw a dark skinned figure under the covers in the four poster bed. His smile turned to a grin.
"Jarlaxle." The drow mercenary heard his name softly called. "Jarlaxle," the voice came again. It sounded far away, as if it were across the room. He stirred, his uneasy ruminations falling away from him and leaving him in a state of painful desolation that irritated him.
"I want to be alone," Jarlaxle said, lifting his burning red eyes to the figure half hidden by the door. He met the anxious eyes of Rathad, and couldn't think of anything else to say. What more to say was there, really? He'd cut himself off from other people so completely that there was no way to be able to tolerate his constant existence in other peoples' company. It was too late.
It hadn't been his choice to be this way, but it had happened anyway, and he'd carried out his own death sentence. Hadn't he taken the Matron's advice to heart? Hadn't he been the one to break up and destroy any connection he felt to anyone on purpose in order to isolate himself and make anyone who got close to him feel as though he didn't really need them? Didn't he, then, in the purest sense of the outcome, want to be alone?
Didn't he want to be standing all by himself when the time came to stare his death in the face? He'd always imagined it that way, and it was his imagination that often brought about his greatest victories. His imagination was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
He'd let Artemis in to much of his thinking, compared to his other companions, but for what purpose? He was just going to die anyway; and Artemis would die long before him, if things turned out the way he imagined.
Rathad stepped into the room, and shut the door gently behind him. "I'm not going to leave you alone," he said. "Now look at you; you're in a bad mood. You look as though you've been looking at corpses this whole time."
"What difference is there between corpses and memories?" Jarlaxle said. "They're both just as dead."
Rathad went over and sat on the edge of the bed. "But they don't have the same death," he said, attacking the problem logically. "The corpse of the dead man lies there, finished, I suppose it's been spent in a way, but the image of the corpse of the dead man can become the memory of someone else. Therefore he hasn't rotted away, even though his body has been left behind on the side of the road, because he exists as fresh as if he had just died in someone's mind. A thing caught in someone's mind is like a scarab beetle caught in amber. It's indefinite."
"I mean you no offense, Artemis," said Jarlaxle. "I do not wish to discuss philosophy."
"Rathad," Artemis said.
Jarlaxle stared at him. "What?"
"It's Rathad now," the Calishite said. "I've made up my mind. I'm going to start over as a man. Not a killing machine with a human body."
"Congratulations," Jarlaxle said. He was resigned. Artemis had made the transformation. It was a source of hollowness for him. He knew that if he were really Rathad's friend, he'd feel happy for the man, but he couldn't feel anything. It only proved his realization that he was really nothing better than a sociopath who smiled a lot. He must seem a monster to everyone here, not able to connect to anyone, always being the source of turmoil and strife wherever he went, stirring the waters.
He'd thought about his actions much since he'd realized that he'd given up his ability to trust in response to the old Matron's request. He'd meekly handed over what had been his only saving grace as a dark elf. His people were evil, weren't they? He only perpetuated that myth by being the way he was. He'd willingly played into his social stereotypes by buckling under pressure and allowing himself to be used that way. He'd irresponsibly given up his future without a second thought; shed a perceived imperfection that he since realized had been the only thing that allowed him to relate to other people. He tried to assert what he'd been left with after that sacrifice to House Bellni, but he couldn't hold against his shame. He'd willingly given up what he'd been made to feel made him defective, and now he was defective because he'd given it up. The realization, coming so long, finally tore its way out of him.
Jarlaxle felt himself shaking like an unstable cart missing a pin. He was about to go to pieces. It wouldn't be long. He could already see the affects of his eyes losing focus, and it was exactly the same flying-apart feeling he'd had before he'd decided that if he hid in a closet, he wouldn't have to see students slaughtering each other throughout the school anymore. A great sensation of guilt settled down on him.
The other man saw a change come over Jarlaxle's features with a dawning sense of alarm. "Jarlaxle," Rathad said, slipping his arms around the thin mercenary and embracing the dark elf. The only time Rathad had seen something similar was when Jarlaxle had been recounting the tale of Mistress Yanari imprisoning him for twelve years before he escaped. Rathad could see that he was overwrought. Instead of pulling himself together, he'd fallen apart. Jarlaxle's body felt slightly cold.
Jarlaxle leaned forward into Rathad, arms pinned between himself and his companion's chest. He put his mouth tremblingly to Rathad's shoulder and spoke, staring ahead unseeingly. Instead of anything in the room, he saw a dreamlike image of a dark cave. "I have been undone. Arrogance led me to believe that I knew the answers."
Rathad looked into Jarlaxle's eyes and determinedly wrested the drow mercenary's attention away from the image. He realized that he was looking into Rathad's gray eyes. "Now you know," Jarlaxle said.
The former assassin kissed Jarlaxle on the lips gently. Rathad ran a hand over Jarlaxle's bald scalp. "You don't have to be alone," he said. "You just want to be because you are too ashamed to want anyone to see your face." He paused, and then said, "Because you're foolish."
"Oh. Is that why," Jarlaxle murmured. "That isn't so bad compared to what other people have called me." A tear welled up and slipped down his cheek; more soon followed. The worst part, he thought as he cradled his head against Rathad's chest, was that he didn't even know what he was crying. He felt the top of his head bump into Artemis' chin, and the man's strong arms holding him protectively to Artemis' chest. He had to take a moment to remind himself that it wasn't Artemis anymore, it was Rathad. There was no Artemis anymore. Surprising himself, he let out an audible sound and began crying all the harder. "I never thought you'd change so much."
"I'm not going anywhere," Rathad said, looking slightly alarmed. "I'm just changing my name. It was your idea, remember?" He tried to get back eye contact. He tried rubbing Jarlaxle's upper arms to be comforting. "I'm me. It's not really a change. I'm just giving up being an assassin. I thought that was something you wanted me to do. You said it was a lie anyway."
Jarlaxle said, feeling bad about it and clinging to Artemis, trying to inject a tone of banter into it, "Ah, my friend, now you don't need me anymore. No more Jarlaxle nagging you to always sit up straighter, smile, be yourself. It's past the point where you need my coaching. I can leave you alone for a few minutes without worrying about whether or not you'll beat some poor barmaid senseless." He pressed himself against Rathad completely and savored the warmth of his friend's body. His eyes stung, and he closed them against another wave of loss.
"You're wrong," Rathad said. "I need you. Not your admonitions." He saw that his words were beginning to have an affect on Jarlaxle. At least he was getting to the drow partially. He rubbed his hands up and down Jarlaxle's bare back as he spoke. "You're the only reason I didn't try to commit suicide sooner. You're the reason I stood up against my father. If you hadn't been there, I would never have considered that the opponent overshadowing me all along was a dead man I'd never seen for forty years."
Jarlaxle wanted to believe him. I am valuable. That was what Artemis was trying to convince Jarlaxle of. The drow mercenary was valuable to him. But Jarlaxle couldn't believe that Rathad wouldn't leave him. The realization that he needed Rathad more than Rathad needed him startled, humbled, and distressed him. He tried to temper his sense of loss. He worked his fingers under the collar of Artemis' shirt, feeling the knot where the back of Artemis' neck met his shoulders. The drow mercenary kissed the exposed skin of Artemis' chest above the v-shaped neckline of Artemis' shirt and tried to close his arms around Artemis so tightly that he would never forget what the assassin's body felt like to embrace. He shut his eyes, trying desperately to take some part of this with him so that his loneliness wouldn't tear him apart as it had when Zaknafein died.
People come and go directed by their own needs and desires. If he couldn't find a way that Artemis needed him, he couldn't fight against the inexorable current that would eventually cause Artemis to drift, moving on to someone new that Artemis did need. It was inevitable – it was a fact. He needed Artemis more than Artemis needed him. Artemis wouldn't stay. He was readying Jarlaxle for his departure. He'd seen humans do it before. They said thank you. Then they left.
Then something didn't make sense to Jarlaxle anymore. He'd admitted that he needed Artemis. Why couldn't that mean that he followed Artemis? After all, people who needed the person they wanted more than the person needed them became followers. The drow mercenary had seen this form of inter personal relationship before. Wherever he went, he'd always had a line of people trailing after him in a chain, like a string of toys a child brought everywhere they went. He'd always looked back at them with amusement.
Jarlaxle's heart skipped a beat. He'd always wanted to be the one in control of the strings, making sure that he was never trapped in such a simple manner. Now, for once, he was not the leader in the Game. He opened his eyes and looked at Artemis with a strange expression on his face. He'd never had to follow anyone before. Now he had Artemis. Rathad was in charge of minding the strings.
He held himself to Rathad's chest and rested his head on Rathad speculatively. The drow mercenary stared off into space, letting the wooden frame of the headboard blur deconstruct into a meaningless shape. Rathad let him, though he knew that Rathad was looking at him curiously.
He would go wherever Rathad would go. Whatever Rathad wanted to do, he would do. He was no longer the one with the control of the string. He'd thought himself so clever, always one step ahead of everyone else, and a good fifteen paces in front of the average person. Being in charge so long had made him feel as though he knew what was best for everyone else around him. After all, he knew they needed him more than he needed them. Didn't that make him an overseer of all their goals and interests? No one had ever overthrown his position of power. No one ever would, he'd thought. No one ever could.
In trying to help Artemis, he'd probably blindly led his friend astray and gotten him lost. He'd no right to meddle with Artemis' life that way. And now he'd made a major decision based on Jarlaxle's advice. "I'm sorry," Jarlaxle said. He looked down at the pillows numbly. "I've failed. I was presumptuous. I didn't know what I was doing." Then he looked at Rathad's attentive face. "I hurt you." He knew for a fact that he'd often done that, trying to bend Artemis towards a different goal, or changing him 'for the better'. He hadn't stopped, believing there was no other way. Now he knew he did. "I tried to get you to be something you weren't." The drow paused hesitantly. He didn't know if he ought to say this. He wanted to show that he understood what he'd put Artemis through. His perceptions of what he'd done were clear. "It must have been painful."
To his surprise, his companion grinned. "I didn't know quite what to do," Rathad said, looking as though he were going to start laughing about it. "Snap you in two, or stab myself through the eye. It was a tough choice."
The drow mercenary opened his mouth, and then frowned. "But you didn't do either one."
"I'm still working on it," Rathad said, eyes twinkling. "Would you rather be snapped in half quickly, or slowly? I wouldn't want to put you through more inconvenience than you deserve." He stroked his chin as if thinking and put on a serious look. "And which do you think is my better side? In the event that I choose to shove my dagger through an eye instead, I don't want to damage my good side. People want to look at that at the funeral."
Normally, Jarlaxle would try to partake of the joke, but Rathad's timing seemed a little bit crass. He knitted his eyebrows together and said, "Rathad, I think you're insane."
Rathad took this in stride, with no more than a casual shrug and a tilt of his head, looking Jarlaxle in the eyes. Though he was smiling, his gray eyes were serious. "Then we're a pair," he said. He kicked his boots off and reclined on the bed casually, closing his eyes as if he planned to remain there for the rest of the day just because he could. "Let's celebrate by taking a nap."
"What about your code of discipline?" Jarlaxle asked.
"What code of discipline?" Rathad asked, opening one eye. The smug hint in his smile revealed that he was deliberately poking fun at Jarlaxle. "I'm a hired sword. When I can afford to be, I'm lazy." He was lying across Jarlaxle's lap, and made no move to change his position.
"I've just been through the worst day of my life," Jarlaxle said, looking down at Rathad. His expression was grim. Anger and resentment directed at the former assassin coursed through him. Artemis hadn't been there. He was too busy being a good friend. Being an obedient friend. Becoming Rathad so he could move on, while Jarlaxle was stuck in the past, trying to make sense of the mess his life had become. He instantly took it back and thought instead, The mess myself always has been. "I had to relive everything that's ever happened to me in order to make sure that I could make the right choice."
Rathad had been expecting this. He knew that Jarlaxle was making a decision about their future. That's why he left Jarlaxle alone. "What did you choose?" Rathad asked, and for a moment, he was Artemis again. He felt a tightness in his chest.
"I chose to give you a chance," Jarlaxle said. "I chose to trust people. I chose to ignore the words spoken to me by my Matron, my first caregiver since my mother sacrificed me. I chose to live by my better impulses and risk death for the sake of them. I don't expect anyone to do anything any differently in the wake of this decision, I expect to act differently on what actions they do make." A feeling of resolve made his muscles tense. He was going in the face of so much resistance that he didn't know whether he was going to get through it. He was going to put down his tricks and try to confront this world of people directly. The drow mercenary's heart started beating faster at the thought of it.
If he could. If he didn't risk his life by doing so, Jarlaxle tried to reassure himself. He wasn't going to give up his magical items and his contingency plans for the sake of the Good Deed and the Honest Heart and the Trustworthy Reputation. He wasn't suicidal. Good gods. He couldn't imagine how people like Zaknafein's son lived. They must wake up at night in cold sweats, living in a world of perpetual horror.
"I'm going to live up to the better part of me," Jarlaxle said.
Artemis froze. "How can you read my thoughts?" he said. His voice came out harshly.
The drow shrugged, his eyes dancing merrily. "I don't believe I'll answer that," he said, leaning back.
"Then what about your vow to live up to the better part of yourself?" Rathad demanded.
Jarlaxle crossed his arms behind his head. "I'll start tomorrow."