Chapter 6

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Jarlaxle didn't like to think he was fleeing the scene with Drizzt and Catti-brie, but he was realistic enough to know that's what he was doing.

The mercenary wanted to run away before Drizzt said anything else about Zaknafein that hurt.

He'd thought he and Zaknafein were -friends-. Real friends, not lip-service allies. They had grown apart - they were both grown males! They had their own lives... - but Jarlaxle thought that their bonds mattered for something.

The sting and the startled reaction he had instantly reminded him of Artemis. He'd just left him there! That wasn't what friends did! Friends, no matter how angry they might become...

Jarlaxle had to remind himself to smile as he walked down the hallway. He couldn't let his soldiers see him upset.

And the notion of starving him? Monstrous! He would never do such a thing to Zaknafein, and Zaknafein would never do the same thing to him.

He was at least as good a friend with Artemis as he was with Zaknafein, he reasoned. Especially since Zaknafein betrayed me.

He shut his eyes for a moment. Zaknafein didn't betray me! He wouldn't do that! He wouldn't dare!

Jarlaxle passed a hand over his bald head. "I...Maybe he forgot."

He didn't realize until one of his men looked at him that he'd spoken out loud.

He grinned at him and continued down the hall without an explanation.

While the mercenary was thinking about his behavior with Artemis, Jarlaxle also realized other things. He'd been rude to Entreri. Terribly rude. And he'd been mocking. The man was right. He wasn't the sole or ultimate judge of his behavior. He had been mocking Artemis simply because he had seen someone different.

By the time Jarlaxle knocked on Artemis Entreri's door, he was feeling thoroughly repentant, and he hoped that Artemis would forgive him.

Artemis had been thinking much since Jarlaxle had left, at least once he had managed to pull himself together again after his angry outburst. He knew he had overreacted to Jarlaxle's words, to his try - however misplaced - to help him. He didn't know how to act towards the confusing mercenary anymore. Jarlaxle made Artemis want to kiss him, and to hit him only a minute later.

He flinched when he heard a knock, not sure whether he was ready to face Jarlaxle again. Artemis sighed and got up from his bed. "Come in," he called, his voice even.

Jarlaxle entered quickly and shut the door behind him. He just stood there for a moment. He wouldn't be able to stand it if both his friends hated him. He searched Artemis' eyes for any hint of hostility towards him. The mercenary didn't find any.

"Artemis, I'm sorry," he said after taking a deep breath.

Artemis was speechless for a moment. He didn't know what he had expected, but definitely not a simple apology. But as this was Jarlaxle, Artemis couldn't help but wonder if the drow's words were really as simple as they seemed to be.

Without any real suspiciousness in his voice he asked almost softly, "For what exactly?"

Jarlaxle said, "For trying to tell you who you were instead of listening to who you are when I told you my decisions. I shouldn't try to tell a man he's changed if I want him to change. I shouldn't make fun of you for wanting to be who you are, and not who I want you to be or hope you want to be for me. I'm not here to imprison you or to tell you to change. I'm not here to mock you for being different than I am. I'm here because I hope you're my friend, and I don't want you to hate me."

Artemis hesitated. He didn't think anyone had ever apologized to him like that, so honestly, so repentant. And somehow even his suspiciousness, usually so strong, remained silent when he looked Jarlaxle in the eyes. Finally Artemis nodded. He was trying to think of an appropriate reply, but he didn't know how to reply to an apology.

"I do not hate you," he said simply. His eyes found Jarlaxle's for a second before he looked away.

Jarlaxle ran to him and wrapped his arms around him. "I don't hate you either. I'm sorry when I seem to be trying to obliterate you. The things I see sometimes make me blind. I wasn't seeing what I should have. My words about change hurt you."

"Yes, they did ... That's why I ... said what I said," Artemis said insecurely, hoping that he sounded sorry, because he felt sorry. After tensing up for a moment he laid his arms around Jarlaxle, and he even allowed himself to close his eyes for a few moments.

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have tested you like that. You were right to make me leave," Jarlaxle said. "I was speaking nonsense." He stroked Artemis' hair. "The reason I was away was because I was preparing to prove to you that I do care. You need to prove to yourself again that you are worthy to be who you are. Until then, you're not going to feel any better. You have to reassure yourself you are the same - and you are, you are. I know how we can prove it."

Artemis' hands slowly moved to Jarlaxle's shoulders to bring some distance between them and look him in the eyes, but his touch wasn't rough. "Prove it?" he repeated confusedly. "I do not know what you mean."

"You need to prove it? Am I right? You won't be distraught if you can prove that you possess the same prowess, the same -ability-, that you always have?" Jarlaxle asked, suddenly doubting his own assessment.

Artemis had still no idea what Jarlaxle was planning to do. "I ... I think so ... But I already know that I ... lost it." The last word was only a whisper, and Artemis looked down in what seemed to be shame.

Jarlaxle kissed him. "I have faith in you. I know it's still there." He stroked Artemis' cheek. "I want you to see it before you give up."

Artemis didn't return the kiss, and yet Jarlaxle's caresses didn't make him uncomfortable. "I would have died if you hadn't saved me. Is that not proof enough that I lost my worth?"

Jarlaxle gave him a hurt look. "Accidents happen. It doesn't mean you haven't got your edge."

Artemis looked at him again, and he seemed almost guilty now. "If I lost once, it can happen again," he sighed and shook his head. But then he pulled himself together and asked more calmly, "What is it you are preparing?"

Jarlaxle stiffened in preparation for a beating. "Drizzt, for some undeterminable reason, came to Menzoberranzan on his own and was captured. I rescued him about fifteen minutes ago."

Artemis' eyes widened, and within seconds his expression changed from surprise to hatred to fear to hesitation. "What do you ..." he started, but he already knew the answer to that question. "You want me to fight him again."

"You have to fight him again!" Jarlaxle said, waving his hands and balling them into fists earnestly. "It's the only way to regain what you've lost - if you have lost it," he added hastily. "Try again until you succeed. I know you can succeed. Do'Urden is not invincible. I saw your fight. You were deadlocked! Even! That means a chance! A chance to prove that your introspection, your thinking here, has advanced you beyond Do'Urden's borders. Upon meeting him personally I find him exceptionally simple minded. Surely you can win against him."

Artemis backed off as if Jarlaxle had threatened him. One part of him - the strong, determined man he had been before his defeat - wanted to fight Drizzt again, to prove that his self-discipline was worth something. But to his own shame, Artemis was scared. Scared of destroying what was left of his self-esteem.

"Surely I can lose again! Of course he is simple minded, he is unbearable, but he knows how to fight. I can't live through another defeat," he said. His voice was trembling, and his eyes were almost begging Jarlaxle for some understanding.

Jarlaxle hesitated. "I - I know..."

"I can't do this," Artemis whispered. "I can't give him the satisfaction of seeing me like this."

Jarlaxle snorted. "Believe me, he won't notice. He never noticed any of the wonderful things about you. He's got his head up his skinny little arse. As long as you act confident - and I know you can - he doesn't have to suspect a thing. I certainly won't tell him of your doubts."

Artemis nervously ran a hand through his hair. "I'm a good actor, but I can't lie to myself. If I -am- not confident I won't stand a chance."

Jarlaxle asked hopefully, "Can I make you confident? What about fighting me? If you can fight me and win surely you can tackle Do'Urden. Even an empty headed dolt like Drizzt knows not to mess with me."

Artemis didn't look convinced. He had never seen Jarlaxle in a fight, and while he didn't doubt the mercenary's prowess he didn't see him as a normal sword fighter. "You would let me win on purpose to give me my confidence back," he sighed, not even reproachfully. "I still can't believe I lost once again this weakling. It shouldn't have happened."

Jarlaxle laughed. "I might be tempted, but I wouldn't send you into a real battle with fake confidence. I'm not that cruel. I want you to win. If you went in with fake confidence, you'd lose. Then I'd lose, because you'd kill yourself, and I'd be out of good friends."

Artemis looked at Jarlaxle, thoughtfully. Was there any alternative? What would his life be like if he ran away now? For once in his life he was granted a second chance, a possibility to fix a mistake he had made. "Do you really think my defeat was an accident?" he asked softly, more to himself than to Jarlaxle.

Jarlaxle snorted. "I am as positive about that as I am about my success in my business ventures. Drizzt Do'Urden may have gotten lucky, but he won't be lucky today. No, his luck has run out, and so too will his life-blood when you pierce his foolish heart. Or femural artery. Or whatever method you wish to use to dispose of the brat. He's amazingly irritating. Did you know that? Of course you did. Well, now I know it too."

A grim smile made it to Artemis' face, and he started to look intrigued. "He is, isn't he?" he said and shook his head. "He's an open insult to every sensible person with some self-esteem."

Artemis suddenly grabbed Jarlaxle's wrist and pulled him close. The short moment of anticipation had given way to doubt again. "If I fail," he whispered, "I want you to let me die." There was fear in his eyes - but now it wasn't fear of another defeat, but of Jarlaxle refusing him his wish ... fear of another betrayal.

"Oh, alright," Jarlaxle sighed. "I'll let you die. I'd be more of a bastard than I already am if I refused my friend something he truly wanted. I'll let you kill yourself if worse comes to worst." He averted his eyes, feeling like a bastard for even agreeing. He should be telling Artemis not worry.

Of course, Artemis couldn't know if Jarlaxle would really do this, but somehow he believed him. His grip on Jarlaxle's wrist softened, turned into a caress when he ran his fingers over the drow's hand. Artemis' other hand cupped Jarlaxle's chin to make him look at him.

"Thank you," Artemis whispered. He took a deep breath and added, "I'll do my best to avoid that situation."

Jarlaxle believed him. He didn't know why, given his friend's less than positive behavior during his stay here, but he believed him. He stared into Artemis' eyes. He was transfixed by the emotion he saw there. He didn't know what it was.

If Artemis had been asked he probably wouldn't have been able to say what exactly he was feeling right now. Somehow Jarlaxle's presence made him calm down ... made him more confident. His old self, the Artemis he wanted to be again, gradually managed to fight down his fear. The usual calm slowly returned to his features.

"I'll...I'll get you some dinner. You must be hungry," Jarlaxle said. "After you eat, why don't we spar? If you can beat me in a sparring match, I know you'll be ready to take on that Do'Urden."

"I'm not sure I want to spar with you," Artemis said. He didn't even know why he was so reluctant, but he refused to question his feeling right now. He didn't even realize that his hand was still on Jarlaxle's. "I'd rather get some rest. When do you ... when should I fight him?"

"As soon as you can," Jarlaxle said. "If you need rest, take rest. If you need training, train yourself." He smiled. "Oh, and, I thought you might want this." He lifted off his hat, reached inside it, and came out with Entreri's sparkling, gem-studded dagger.

At first Artemis just nodded, but his eyes widened in surprise when Jarlaxle pulled out his dagger. He took the weapon almost tenderly, fingers caressing the hilt before they tightened around it. A hard little smile appeared on his lips, and his dagger alone seemed to give him more confidence than anything Jarlaxle had said to him.

"I would also need a sword," Artemis said after a few moments, but now he almost seemed to be looking forward to the fight.

Jarlaxle laughed. "You will have your sword. I could enchant a sword to draw off of the same powers as your dagger. It would inextricably link the two, binding the power of the dagger to the sword and making them partner weapons forever." He shrugged. "Or I can just give you an ordinary sword."

Artemis' eyes sparkled a little bit - he wouldn't admit it, of course, but he did have a passion for beautiful, powerful weapons. "That sounds intriguing, but ... what would happen if I lost one weapon?" he asked carefully, never one to forget a contingency.

"Hmm?" Jarlaxle scratched his eyebrow for a moment, collecting his thoughts. He'd gotten momentarily distracted by the reaction Entreri had to his dagger. "Why, if you lose the dagger, the sword would no longer share its power, because the dagger is the parent weapon. However, losing the sword will have no effect upon the dagger."

Artemis' eyes were still gleaming a little bit. "All right," he said. "I suppose you will need the dagger back." He ran one finger over the blade before he handed the dagger back to Jarlaxle.

Jarlaxle was about to say that he could keep it, he could simply visit the mage with him, when he was struck by how much of a gesture of trust it was to give back an item that obviously meant so much to him. He closed his hand around it and looked at him for a moment. He was touched. "Thank you. I mean...I'll bring it back to you soon." Jarlaxle felt himself flush a little in embarrassment at having said something so out of context. Thank you? Where did that come from?

Artems looked confused as well. "I should thank you. For the sword," he said after a few moments of silence. It embarrassed him, but he wanted to touch Jarlaxle again. Deciding that it wouldn't be appropriate he averted his eyes again.

Jarlaxle slipped the dagger back into his hat. "Oh, the sword is nothing," he said carelessly, grinning at the assassin. "I have a million swords. I have only one Artemis Entreri. Friend. That is. One friend. I...is it warmer in here?" He felt his cheek self consciously.

"I think so," Artemis replied, trying to convince himself that it might really be warmer in here if Jarlaxle thought that, too.

Jarlaxle looked puzzled. "But... why?" He rubbed his chin. "Perhaps an air current from the southern caves?"

He took off his hat and fanned himself with it.

Artemis shrugged. "I have no idea; I don't know much about the Underdark," he said as evenly as possible. "Or maybe we've just got worked up because of that annoying Do'Urden."

"I agree!" Jarlaxle said enthusiastically. "This has to be Drizzt's fault." He grinned. It felt good to say such a thing, after Drizzt had dared to suggest that he and Zaknafein were not good friends. What did a boy know, anyway? Zaknafein had probably neglected to tell Drizzt because the annoying prodigy would ask his father why he was friends with such an unsavory character.

He rubbed the back of his neck. What he wanted most right now was a swim in one of his bathing pools. But he hated to bathe alone...He could use a public bathing pool in the headquarters, or... "Would you care for a bath? I was planning on bathing anyway, and I have a private bathing pool as part of my suite here. It would be relaxing. Afterwards, you could rest, and start preparations for the battle tomorrow."

Artemis looked surprised, and he hesitated. He had never taken a bath with anyone before ... It seemed to be something extremely intimate ... but he had wanted to touch Jarlaxle almost since the drow had come in and apologized, and he wasn't going to miss that opportunity now.

The assassin couldn't bring himself to say something, he just nodded curtly.

Jarlaxle beamed. "Great. Let's go." He paused, and his smile softened. "If you don't want to face my men, we can teleport there directly. I don't mind."

Artemis hadn't expected Jarlaxle to be so considerate, and it made him smile a little bit - although the smile was only visible in his eyes, not on his lips. "All right."

Jarlaxle held out his hand. "I need physical contact."

Artemis took Jarlaxle's hand and squeezed it softly.

Jarlaxle said, "Here we go."

That was his only warning when the room flickered, disappeared in darkness, and reappeared.

Only now it was a different room.

Jarlaxle let go of Artemis' hand and started undressing with a sigh of relief.

The room was enormous, a vast, echoing chamber with tiled floors and an uneven, natural pool taking up most of the space. They were standing in a corner with a couple of low benches. This area was framed by two long dressers. Jarlaxle opened one of the compartments and got out a towel woven from soft plant fibers.

He folded his clothing neatly on the bench, and then tossed his hat, eye patch, and boots.

He turned to Artemis to explain. "This is the most heavily guarded chamber in the entirety of my headquarters. No magic, or psionic attacks, can come through this chamber."

Artemis looked a bit disoriented at first - he would never grow as used to teleportation as Jarlaxle seemed to be. He had to keep himself from staring at Jarlaxle when the drow undressed. Feeling halfway safe after Jarlaxle's words he started to undress himself, more slowly. Still, he couldn't feel entirely comfortable, and the insecurity was plainly visible on his face.

Jarlaxle was concerned by that look. "It is safe. I promise. If it were not, I would have been dead long ago."

He gestured around the room. "This is my haven. If I really want privacy, I come here."

Artemis nodded without looking at Jarlaxle. He dropped his shirt on one of the benches and took off his boots. But although he believed Jarlaxle, the muscles in his arms were tensed up as if he expected an attack when he unbuttoned his breeches and quickly took them off before he could change his mind.

Jarlaxle gave him an almost shy, sly look. "Race you."

Artemis stared at him as if he had no idea what Jarlaxle was talking about.

Jarlaxle nodded his head. "To the pool. It'll be fun." His eyes sparkled.

"You could use a little fun."

"I doubt I would think it's ... 'fun'," Artemis replied. He had already enough things to worry about right now than try somehow to have 'fun'.

Jarlaxle came over, seeming not to notice he was naked, and gave Artemis a kiss. "Alright. I wouldn't want to pressure you." He ran away to the pool, laughing, and dove in. He disappeared underneath the surface of the mineral rich water.

Artemis just followed him with his eyes, still savoring the Jarlaxle's taste on his lips. He walked over to the pool a few moments later, and deciding that it was too late to back off now he followed Jarlaxle into the water.

Jarlaxle surfaced, looked at him happily, and swam over to him. "Now tell me: Isn't this just what you needed? Cool water helps to clear your head."

:

Artemis dove in for a moment to get his hair wet. When he surfaced he nodded reluctantly. The water felt nice on his skin, it cooled him down, even if he still couldn't relax completely.

Jarlaxle laughed and hugged him. "You can stay as long as you want."

Artemis wrapped his arms around Jarlaxle. Instead of answering he held him close and kissed him on shoulder and neck, his lips gradually working their way up to Jarlaxle's cheek.

Jarlaxle gasped in surprise.

"Are...are you sure you want this?" He didn't want a repeat of last time. He didn't want to be accused that he made Artemis do it. It hurt when Artemis said that.

Artemis pulled back a bit and gave Jarlaxle an insecure look. "Do you not want it?" he asked back.

A primal shudder raced down Jarlaxle's back. "I do, I do. I don't want what you don't want."

"I've started this ... I wouldn't have done that if I didn't want to," Artemis replied and caressed Jarlaxle's cheek.

"Alright." Jarlaxle suddenly smirked and leaned back. "Commence kissing."

Artemis grinned a little bit, but his grin disappeared quickly enough when his lips met Jarlaxle's, softly and tenderly at first, while his fingers wandered over Jarlaxle's back

No one ever kissed me like this but you, Jarlaxle inadvertently thought. The startled feeling of catching himself like that gave way to sadness.

What if this were all over in a night because Artemis lost to Drizzt the next morning?

Then make it count, he answered himself a moment later.

"Artemis, please don't be offended," he said when the kiss broke. "I think...I think I love you."

Artemis just wanted to move on to Jarlaxle's throat, but he froze suddenly. He looked at Jarlaxle with an expression somewhere between confusion, sadness, and disbelief.

"You only think that because you think it will make me feel better," he said softly, not reproachfully. He couldn't believe that Jarlaxle really felt that, but he wasn't angry. His hands resumed their slow movements on Jarlaxle's skin.

"If I thought it would make you feel better, why would I ask you not to be offended?" Jarlaxle asked in disbelief. "I thought you would be angry with me. You don't seem to share the same sentimental ideas as others of your race."

He knew was digging himself in deeper instead of enjoying what they may have tonight, but he couldn't stop himself.

Artemis sighed and put his head on Jarlaxle's shoulder. "I don't. I thought that was obvious ... I just can't believe that you can mean that," he said quietly. "I'm not even sure I know what it means," he added, his voice now so low that Jarlaxle could only hear it because Artemis' lips were so close to his ear.

Jarlaxle said, winding his fingers around Artemis', "It means that I like it when you kiss me." He stopped, afraid that it wouldn't explain anything, Artemis would deny it. "I don't want anyone but you to be with me and to do these things with me. I mean I feel as though I am the only person you've ever kissed this way, held this way. That I'm...special."

As soon as he said that he became afraid that Artemis would tell him he wasn't special, at all. He was just somebody.

Artemis was silent for a while, but at least he didn't push Jarlaxle away. He seemed to be thinking, and his voice trembled a bit when he finally answered, "You are. It's just that word ... 'love' ... Humans use it so often that it loses every deeper meaning." He snorted a bit, and pulled Jarlaxle closer. "I want this to ... mean something."

"It does. It does. It means a lot to me," Jarlaxle protested. "I am willing to give up my sexual independence for you. That is the greatest concession in the drow world."

Artemis winced a little bit. He hated how that sounded ... he had always thought that so many human couples were hypocrites, pretending they were loving each other just because they didn't sleep with others. Artemis thought that love should be more than sexual faithfulness. But he didn't say it, if it was worth so much from a drow's point of view.

Nonetheless he seemed a bit shaken when he nodded simply.

Jarlaxle was hurt by Artemis' expression. "Is there something else?"

"I don't know," Artemis said and looked up again. But he had learnt by now that so many things that seemed obvious to him were completely unknown to Jarlaxle. "I thought there should be more... Many humans are faithful to each other, without caring. But I don't want to ... belittle what you offered me."

He looked away. "I'm sorry. I don't know what I'm saying. I don't know what I'm supposed to say." He felt horribly inadequate, and he thought it was just a matter of time until Jarlaxle would get angry and push him away. He kept his arms wrapped around Jarlaxle, holding on to the feeling he was afraid of losing too quickly.

Jarlaxle, instead of pushing him away, shuddered and wrapped his arms around Artemis more closely. "I felt a lot of things. I feel a lot of things." It hurt to say that, as if he were parting with an embarrassing secret somehow. He realized it was because of what he had to say next. "I simply don't have words for them." Gods, he was so inadequate next to a human. They had words for every feeling, for anything!

"I don't know what it means to not want physical separation from you. I feel that so many times."

"And I have so many words that mean nothing to me," Artemis said and kissed Jarlaxle on the temple. "Why do you need a word for it? I don't ... I just want to have it." If Jarlaxle insisted on calling it love ... it would feel strange for Artemis, but he thought he could get used to it. He didn't say that, however; he didn't want to encourage Jarlaxle, after all.

"Because I can name it if I have a word for it," Jarlaxle protested. "It makes it real. Not just some figment of my imagination. I've been called crazy more times than I can count. Crazy for not hating humans. Crazy for not killing everyone who displeases me. Crazy for speaking kindly to servants and to little children. Crazy for giving people I like second chances. Crazy for having friends! I am tired of being crazy! I want to be accepted. I want to be able to say I have a name for what I am. Without a name, I'm just confused." He bowed his head. "Some crazy mercenary."

Artemis refrained from saying that he thought Jarlaxle had to be crazy for going through so much trouble just for him. Instead he forced himself to saying those words that still scared him. "Then call it love, if it makes you happier," he sighed. "Or call it anything else." He rubbed his cheek against Jarlaxle's.