A Good Kind of Insanity
Artemis wondered if Jarlaxle had anything to eat. He considered their tenuous pact. He considered what an ally probably should do if the other were hungry. He asked the question. "Do you have food?"
"Why?" Jarlaxle asked, looking curious.
"Nearly dying makes me hungry," Artemis said dryly.
Jarlaxle chuckled. "Ah. Yes, I have food." He reached into a belt pouch and pulled out a packet bound with oiled paper. He held it out to the assassin.
Artemis internally sighed and took it. This can't be a show of weakness because Jarlaxle proved I already depend on other people for survival. At least I know he won't judge me. He untied the string holding the package closed and found it contained crackers. They seemed crisp. Artemis looked at them for a moment, picked one up, and bit into it. The cracker crunched, which was familiar at least. What wasn't familiar was the odd, pungent taste – a cross between a potato, blue cheese, and a carrot. This was the oddest thing he had ever tasted. After a moment, he decided it wasn't that bad, and took another bite.
Jarlaxle fished out another package. "Meat, if you want something to go with it. Dried, of course."
Artemis accepted the package of jerky, too. His stomach growled. "What about you?"
Jarlaxle shrugged. "I am content to watch you eat."
Artemis was dissatisfied with that answer. "I mean, are you hungry?"
Jarlaxle's face lit up. "Consideration! You do make a good friend."
Artemis instantly wished he'd swallowed his words without saying them. "Never mind." He ate half the crackers and half the jerky.
"Does this satisfy you?" Jarlaxle asked. "Would you like some water?"
Artemis stared at the mercenary. Then he bound the packages up and shoved them across the cave floor between their bodies. "I'm not going to eat it all. It's your food." He thought about that instinctive response. His distaste at the thought of crossing that boundary. "It would be…inconsiderate." No matter how he looked at it, he had to admit that was his concern.
A smile spread across Jarlaxle's face. "You're welcome. As I said, would you like some water?"
Artemis didn't have the energy to resist kindness at the moment. "Yes."
Jarlaxle handed over his canteen. Their hands briefly touched. For some reason, this did not make Artemis immediately want to kill the drow.
He unscrewed the cap and drank from Jarlaxle's canteen, washing down the crackers and dry meat. He drank half the water, then screwed the cap back on and handed the canteen back.
Jarlaxle looked at him with an expression of affection Artemis wasn't sure one could fake. "I didn't want you to die, you know."
Artemis' stomach lurched with instant discomfort. He couldn't completely cover a wince. "What do you mean? Why?"
Jarlaxle secured the canteen to his belt. "I like you."
An illogical answer like that was undefeatable. Artemis didn't even know how to begin poking holes in that response. One could not help whom one liked. That was a fact Artemis Entreri was well aware of. After all, he'd liked Dondon Tiggerwillies. A short, snarky halfling with an annoying smirk and a bad habit of spending all his earnings on food and women. There was no reason he should have enjoyed Dondon's company, or felt any kind of kinship with the halfling. Thieves did not share some magical kinship. The fact that they'd both grown up poor and battered on the streets of Calimport had nothing to do with it. A shared past did not make a friend.
Artemis winced again. There it was: that word. Friend. And applied to a traitor, no less. He realized with a sense of horror that he had actually been betrayed. Not merely professionally. Somehow, Dondon had gotten to his heart and injured him. Perhaps it was just a bruise, but perhaps…
The assassin stared into the fire, discomfited.
Perhaps it was a fatal blow. Perhaps he would slowly bleed to death from the emotional trauma. The emotional wound. Though Artemis didn't like to admit it, his emotions could be hurt, they did sustain injuries, and they could bleed. If he didn't staunch the bleeding…
Artemis' head snapped up. He stared at Jarlaxle. Can he see my emotional wounds? Is that why he offered me friendship? His face went slack. He doesn't want me to die. He said that. Does he mean emotionally, too?
The assassin looked away. Why would Jarlaxle care?
His mind whispered back: He offered you friendship. Friends care.
"No," Artemis said aloud.
Jarlaxle blinked, appearing startled. "'No' what?"
"I'm not going to do it." I'm not going to make myself vulnerable for you.
Artemis looked at the cave floor, watching the flickering light and shadows. "Friendship is a stupid idea." Why did that disappoint him so?
"Why?" Jarlaxle asked softly.
Artemis felt his chest tighten, felt his expression harden with anger. "It gets one hurt."
"Bad friendship does," Jarlaxle said, his voice still soft. "That's why I'm not going to offer you that kind. I offer you the good kind: good friendship. Healthy friendship. Healing friendship."
Artemis felt the last words like a blow to the stomach. "Why? Why? Why, Jarlaxle? Why heal me at all? Why not leave me to die?"
"Because I don't want to," Jarlaxle said.
Artemis reluctantly turned to face the drow mercenary.
The expression of concern was back on Jarlaxle's face.
Artemis glanced away. "Stop that."
"Stop wasting your energy on me."
"I'm not receptive."
"Hmm." Jarlaxle leaned back, altering the play of light and shadow in the cavern. "I think you are. You wouldn't be having this conversation otherwise. You would be leaving. You would go back into the dark from whence you came. But you stay by my fire."
That evidence again. That damned evidence. He's going to cling to that, isn't he? Artemis refused to meet Jarlaxle's gaze. "I can't leave because…" He never finished that sentence. He knew it was a dead end. Instead, he ground out, "Your concern…is not necessary."
"It isn't?" Jarlaxle questioned.
"No." Artemis made the denial as firm as he could. "It's a wasted effort."
Jarlaxle shrugged. "That's alright."
Artemis looked at him, startled.
Jarlaxle gave the assassin a slight smile. "It's my concern, after all. I can waste it if I want to. Wouldn't you agree?"
Artemis found himself completely disarmed again. His mouth fell open. "Who are you?"
Jarlaxle chuckled. "You will find that out in time. If you listen well enough." He winked.
Artemis scrambled for some belated defense. "Why would you wish to waste your concern on me? On anyone?"
Jarlaxle grinned. "Does concern have a source?"
"Yes." Artemis looked at Jarlaxle warily.
"What is that source? Does it dry up? Does concern come in limited quantities? Once 'used up', does it ever return? Does it replenish, like the charge in a magic wand? Or is it gone forever?" Jarlaxle tilted his head. "What do you think, friend Entreri?"
Artemis felt stymied. He hardly knew what to tackle first. It was like feeling an object in the dark one had never touched before. His only answers were unsatisfactory: concern came from people, he thought concern did 'dry up' and 'come in limited quantities', he had no idea what happened after the concern was 'used up', but he thought it was probably defined as abuse, and he had no intention of ever letting that happen to him.
Finally, he said, "I don't want your concern to be exhausted because I don't want the aftereffects. Alright? Is that satisfying enough an answer for you?" Why do you have to ask me all these questions?
"My concern cannot be used up," Jarlaxle said quietly. "If you hurt me enough times, I can simply choose not to share it with you anymore. But once I start caring, I will always feel concern for you, Artemis Entreri. Concern is not the part that goes away. Neither is caring. What goes away is the outward expression of these things."
Artemis felt a cold lump of ice in the center of his being. "So how come it went away?" he whispered. "What did I do to make it disappear?" He saw something else in his mind's eye, something other than himself and a drow mercenary having this conversation. Another place, another time. The pain was frighteningly raw, even with all of his neglect over the years. He'd buried it, and yet it was still there. So it's my fault?
"I don't know," Jarlaxle said kindly. "Sometimes, these things happen to other people, and they're not our fault. Someone else makes the expression of concern or love disappear, and we feel the results. One person is deprived, so we are all deprived. A blanket blackout of all expression. It's not our fault."
Artemis felt some of the iciness ebb away. "You don't even know what I'm talking about." Nor would he ever share. That he was sure of. It didn't matter how Jarlaxle prodded him with questions. He would never reveal the source of that wound.
Jarlaxle shook his head gently.
"Then why do you care?" Artemis asked.
Jarlaxle looked into his eyes. "I like you."
Back to that again. Artemis felt the loop close and knew their conversation had truly been circular. "I'm tired."
"Go to sleep," Jarlaxle responded.
Jarlaxle looked incredulous. "Did you not say you were tired? Is this not reason enough to sleep? I am unaware of many other reasons one should wish to rest."
"I don't trust you," Artemis pointed out blandly.
"Will you trust me more if you pass out?" Jarlaxle asked.
Artemis glared at him.
Jarlaxle shrugged. "I'm just asking."
"I don't think you ever 'just ask' anything," Artemis said.
Jarlaxle glanced away, smiling. "He learns."
Artemis snorted. "Quickly, too." He lay down on his side. "Don't try anything, drow."
Jarlaxle tipped his hat to the assassin. "I certainly will not. I will always succeed, or I will fail. 'Trying'? That is not particularly in my habits."
Artemis groaned. "Enough."
Jarlaxle chuckled. "Good night, Artemis Entreri. Pleasant dreams."
Pleasant dreams? Artemis closed his eyes uneasily. What are those? I have never understood that phrase. He jerked awake several times on the edge of sleep before finally succumbing. The crackle of the fire dimmed to nothingness, and the sensations of his body numbed.
When Artemis woke up, he instantly knew something: Jarlaxle had stirred up his emotions with a stick. He'd spent years attaining a kind of calm, clarity coming from all the pain in his life settling to the bottom of his mind like sediment. Now, everything was all mixed up.
Foremost was a pang of need, a feeling, a desire like hunger but much less easily satisfied. Jarlaxle could feed him, but could Jarlaxle love him?
Of course not. Artemis sat up and rubbed his eyes. He was stiff from sleeping on stony ground. Don't be stupid. Don't allow yourself to be fooled, led astray by some foolish drow with a flashy cape and too many words of advice for comfort.
He glanced over, honestly expecting the drow to be gone and to have been robbed. Jarlaxle sat against the wall of the cave, looking asleep himself. Artemis patted himself down. He wasn't missing anything. All of his possessions were still on his person. He hadn't been touched.
The mystery, and Artemis' discomfort, deepened.
He'd always liked Jarlaxle. He'd liked Jarlaxle from the moment he laid eyes on the drow. From the moment that Jarlaxle opened his mouth. Jarlaxle was fun, confident, outgoing, clever. Jarlaxle was an opportunist, but not in a way that made him feel threatened. Artemis considered himself equally an opportunist.
Friendship is an opportunity. Artemis tried to push away the thought. It didn't work. Friendship is an opportunity. I am an opportunist. Can't I turn this to my advantage? Don't I want a friend? Isn't this something I want? If it turns out not to be what I want, I can just leave. I've done it before. People have tried to befriend me before. When I decided I couldn't stomach them, I left. I am in no danger. There is an opportunity here. Am I truly too cowardly to take it?
And then: What if this turns out to be real?
Artemis couldn't handle it. He couldn't handle the idea that he would walk away from something that he wanted more than anything because for once he wasn't man enough to take a risk. He always took the risks. He was Artemis Enteri. Life was dangerous.
Less so with a friend.
Artemis cursed to himself. Damn it, damn it, damn it. He took a deep breath. I can go now. I think I can go.
Why am I trying to run?
He held his head in his hands.
"Headache?" a soft voice asked.
"You had quite a fall," Jarlaxle continued, sounding concerned.
Gods. Concerned. There he goes again. "I noticed," Artemis mumbled.
"You might have a concussion," Jarlaxle said. "I hadn't noticed the night before, but perhaps you still have one – a small one, for if it were any worse you wouldn't be able to jump about the way you did before. Still, friend Entreri, it might be best for you to lie down and rest."
"I'm not going to rest." I'm not going to lie down like a corpse.
Jarlaxle sighed. "I wish for you to rest as long as necessary. And – truthfully – I have my own reasons for wishing to remain here."
Artemis slowly lowered his hands. He looked at Jarlaxle suspiciously. "Yes?"
"I have a broken leg," Jarlaxle said matter-of-factly.
Artemis stared at the drow mercenary. "You were standing."
Jarlaxle shrugged. "A drow with a broken leg can still stand. We have levitation capabilities. Limited abilities, but they can be amplified with crests." He took the corner of his cape resting over his shoulder and flipped it. There, pinned to his vest, was a golden crest. It had a mysterious coat of arms on it. "My family crest. Its special powers make it easier for one to levitate – and do a few other things one may find useful in battle."
"Why are you telling me this?" Artemis asked.
Jarlaxle leaned back against the wall of the cave. "So you understand I am vulnerable." He shrugged. "If you need to rest, by all means do so. I am not going to move around much. I needed to get you back on your feet, but to do so I certainly needed to brave a little pain. I am used to pain. There is nothing special about pain, friend Entreri. It is rather a constant of drow living."
Artemis furrowed his brow. "But do you enjoy it?" He really just wanted to keep Jarlaxle talking while he thought, his thoughts taking a completely different tack. How could Jarlaxle have a broken leg if he had the capability to heal me from a fatal fall?
"I don't enjoy it." Jarlaxle shook his head. He looked a little confused by the question. "I am not insane. I will never be that insane, Entreri. Pain is not lovely or enlightening. It is merely pain. Pain is something I try to avoid." He shifted and winced slightly. "I think sleeping in this cave has caused my leg to stiffen overnight. I might be experiencing swelling." Jarlaxle probed his leg with slender fingers, pouting with the discomfort.
"Why didn't you heal yourself?" Artemis asked suddenly. He couldn't keep his thought to himself after all.
Jarlaxle looked up, staring at the assassin with a strange expression. "If I healed myself, I would leave you to die."
Artemis felt a painful tightening of his chest. He momentarily could not breathe.
"It's just a broken leg," Jarlaxle said. "I've had worse. In the academy, in my childhood days, I was regularly beaten until I could not stand. A broken leg is simple in comparison. My injured state is not going to overwhelm my ability to fight. I merely wish to rest for a while. Is this wrong? Does this bother you, to remain still and stay in this cave with me for a few more hours? Menzoberranzan is nearly six hours away, and this is if we are making top speed. I don't predict that we will reach the city today. Tomorrow, at the greatest."
Artemis stood, brushing off his knees. He didn't know where his need came from, but it was paramount. "Let me see."
Jarlaxle looked up at him, taken aback. However, the drow didn't protest.
Artemis crossed the small cave and knelt in front of the mercenary. He gently worked off Jarlaxle's tall boot. It was snug. Too snug. When he got it off, he saw why. "Your ankle's swollen." He shook his head. "It's not just your leg."
Jarlaxle watched him silently.
Artemis felt Jarlaxle's ankle as gently as he could. He shook his head again. "Your ankle is broken. It's not just sprained. You're in more trouble than anticipated." He glanced up at Jarlaxle. "You're not going to walk on this. Levitation is irrelevant."
Jarlaxle's lips parted, but no sound emerged.
Artemis returned to his examination, resigned. "Your leg is swollen, of course. It couldn't not be under these conditions." He was mildly relieved that Jarlaxle's broken tibia hadn't pierced the skin. "It's a bad fracture." He could tell by the kind of swelling and the give. "I think your bone's been snapped in half. What did this?"
"A panther." Jarlaxle's voice was drained of emotion.
Artemis looked up, startled. "A panther?" He put it together. "Do'Urden? That – Guenhwyvar?"
Jarlaxle gave a single nod, watching Artemis warily.
Artemis uttered a curse. "Why attack you?"
Jarlaxle's visible eye widened. Then, a smile of amusement and pain wavered on his lips. "I was running away."
Artemis choked. He didn't think he could get any more shocked, but he was wrong. Adrenaline coursed through his veins. He instantly saw himself tracking down Do'Urden and killing the drow, dissolving the stupid statue in acid, and being done with it. He was angry. Angry on someone else's behalf. The new emotion was uncomfortable and frightening. "Running away?"
Jarlaxle shrugged and let out a small laugh. "Who knew that would set him off? I would never attack such a bloodthirsty fiend, I assure you. I have fought enough drow to know when one's bloodlust takes over. Whenever Drizzt Do'Urden fights you, he is assuredly not thinking with his head or his heart. He is thinking with his blood. It's a very drow pitfall. Our blood is hotter than most."
"So he attacked a running enemy who has never attacked him," Artemis said tonelessly.
"I think that sums it up." Jarlaxle shrugged again.
"If I see him again, I'm killing him."
Jarlaxle looked startled. Then he looked away. But Artemis thought Jarlaxle looked pleased. Comforted. "I would rather you not do that. Drizzt Do'Urden is a valuable asset to the world."
"His fighting prowess," Jarlaxle explained. "If he were to have children, a valuable talent would be passed down through his blood. We should wait until he has children, at least."
Artemis snorted. "More Do'Urdens. A good thing?"
Jarlaxle shook his head. "Everyone is their own person. There is no guarantee Do'Urden's children would have that temperament. They might turn out to be perfect angels – perfect angels with fighting ability." He spread his hands. "It's important. Traits need to carry down. Where would the world be without people who can fight? Longevity is important to elves. Not just the personal kind. The societal kind, also. I want society to live on after I am dead. Society needs warriors."
Artemis couldn't argue with that. At the same time, he was dubious that Do'Urden would ever have children. I don't think he should, at any rate. He'd make a terrible father. Of course, most people made terrible fathers. Do'Urden was not special in that respect. Artemis knew he himself would make a terrible father.
"This doesn't change the fact that a six hundred pound black panther broke your ankle and snapped your leg in half," Artemis said, deadpan. "What are we going to do about it?"
A smile spread across Jarlaxle's face. "We?" He closed his eyes for a moment, resting. "You are a good friend, Entreri."
Artemis didn't know how to reconcile Jarlaxle's obvious sincerity with his own complete lack of confidence and experience. "Well? You can't stay here. That is a foolish idea. You should be trying to return to Menzoberranzan more quickly, not waiting for your injuries to get worse. That is denial, pure and simple." He stood up.
Jarlaxle opened his visible eye and looked at the assassin. "Perhaps you're right." He thought for a moment. "However, I just don't have the energy. I'm going to have to recover on my own, or I am going to die. I don't relish the idea of dying, so I hope that by sleeping, I may regain a little –"
Artemis didn't wait for Jarlaxle to finish that ridiculous speech. He grasped Jarlaxle's thin, muscular arm and pulled. He draped Jarlaxle's arm over his shoulders, supporting the drow's weight. "I'm carrying you."
"Ah." A slight smile played about Jarlaxle's lips, a sad, contemplative echo of the smile a few moments ago.
"You're not staying here. You'll die." Artemis walked out of the cave. "Which way?"
Jarlaxle pointed him in the right direction.
Artemis started walking. He had no idea where they were going, what this city of Menzoberranzan was like, but he knew they couldn't stay in that cave forever. They couldn't afford to waste any time.
Jarlaxle's weight against him, the warmth and solidity of another being, was strange to Artemis Entreri. Strange, but not unpleasant. Jarlaxle didn't protest this treatment, so Artemis decided he wouldn't worry about it. Maybe this is what friends were for. He'd certainly fantasized about a friend who would care if he were injured or unwell, and care enough to make some proactive effort to heal him. Get him help.
If he followed his instincts about what a friend should be, perhaps he wouldn't fail. For he realized that he could fail. Friendship was a two-way relationship. Jarlaxle could be his friend without his ever being Jarlaxle's – but that wasn't what he wanted. That wasn't a viable option for happiness, to him. And Artemis had decided he wanted to be happy. He woke up this morning strangely knowing that. He searched for happiness. Jarlaxle was his company on that journey. Perhaps his key. He didn't know why, but he felt that was true.
"Thank you," Jarlaxle whispered.
Artemis reluctantly revised the severity of his opinion. Maybe. He pretended not to hear Jarlaxle's thanks.