Title: The Cause that Slew Me
Author: Jade Sabre
Author's note: Behold the companion-sequel piece for "Not Yet by Lightning." I wrote this about four years ago as a present for Quark, who complained about me and happy endings even after she read this, so I had to write "Falling Slowly" to prove that I could do them properly. I've started going through all the files on my computer and found this, and I'm still pleased with it, and so I'm finally biting the bullet and posting it for you to read.
The title comes from the same poem as "Not Yet by Lightning," which you can find copied in chapter two of that fic. Probably it would help to read that one first, though the references to it in this fic are minimal.
Technically AU, I suppose, but who really took that reedy voice in the Wall of the Faithless seriously, anyway? Falling rocks aren't going to stop a level-20 ranger, and neither is canon.
the Cause that slew Me
Bishop leaned back in his chair and took another swig from his mug, eying the man sitting across from him as he did so. He'd seen all sorts of people in his few years in Waterdeep, but he was pretty sure he could count the number of blue people he'd seen on one hand. The other man seemed entirely unruffled by the few stares he received—and in even in Waterdeep, there were still people who stared—sitting back just as calmly, waiting for the ranger to speak. Either he really didn't care what people thought, or he was confident in his ability to draw people's attention beyond the blue skin. He'd shown himself to be a smooth talker with the barmaid, and the way he held himself—someone a little too used to business dealings in dimly lit taverns—suggested he was an old hand at adventuring. Not the worst employer, then.
"So you're tracking a wizard," Bishop said finally, setting his mug down and crossing his arms, still leaning back.
"A Red Wizard," the other man corrected, keeping his voice low, which wasn't particularly unusual; Bishop didn't know much about magic, but he knew that Red Wizards would hardly be welcomed in a city like Waterdeep, which housed plenty of wizards of its own. "I've already got someone working on that, though. What concerns me is the wizard's slave. We tracked the wizard here, but we think he split up from his slave, because the trail he's laid—it's too obvious."
"Obviously," he said. "So my partners are going to walk right into the trap, and meanwhile—"
"You want to search for the slave." He drummed his fingers on the table. "What's so important about him?"
"Her," he sighed. "She's the daughter of an important clan leader, and we think she's been charmed into following him."
Bishop smiled, although most people would call it a smirk. "She pretty?"
"Enough, I suppose," he said, dismissive as if he hadn't considered it. Entirely possible, then, that this man was madly in love with her—"Hardly as pretty as myself."—or perhaps he was simply a narcissist. Bishop could handle narcissists.
"What's the catch?"
He shrugged. "The wizard catches us. I think I can handle him, but backup is always good."
"Aren't your partners supposed to be handling that?"
"It's entirely possible he's left the trap wide open and gone to be with the girl, instead."
"That's a lot of unknowns." Bishop inhaled—alcohol, sweat, some stale scent he didn't want to identify—and let it out in a sigh. "And what're you offering?"
"Fifteen percent of the bounty."
The other man snorted. "You haven't spent the last three months tracking them this far."
"But I'm the only person for miles around who can get you past this point."
Bishop shook his head. "I know you've talked to everyone here, and I know you know that I'm your best shot. Twenty-five."
"I need that five percent."
"For what?" Bishop eyed the man's gear—nice, not too showy, well-made, with a hint of sorcerery, for all its wild-rugged-furriness—and raised an eyebrow. "Looks like you're doing well enough for yourself."
"It's not—twenty. Final offer."
"And if I don't take it?"
He shrugged. "Then I walk into a trap with the others. We've been in worse scrapes before."
He spoke casually, but Bishop could tell that he really, really wanted to just get this over and done with. He wouldn't have volunteered so much information if he cared so little—at this point, Bishop could walk out and probably claim the bounty for himself. No, when this guy left, Bishop would be going with him.
What the hell. He was tired of being in town anyway. "Twenty, then. When do we leave?"
"Now, if you're ready." A little too casual. Obviously relieved. "The name's Gann, by the way."
"Bishop," he said, pushing back his chair and shouldering the pack he had under the table. Gann didn't offer a hand to shake on the deal, and he didn't ask; instead, they departed in silence.
She wasn't half as pretty as Bishop had expected her to be, but then again few girls were after spending days holed up in a cave. It didn't help that she spat like a hellcat and with just as much venom—he wasn't sure what kind of poison she had in her dagger, but after one scratch left Gann talking to butterflies he sure as hell wasn't interested in learning any more. After this first encounter they retreated to a meadow down the hill from the cave, and attempted to regroup.
"You didn't mention that she was fucking insane," he growled, digging in his pack for a neutralizing potion.
"She's," Gann said, only to interrupt himself with a stream of unintelligible babble that did something to upset the spirits swirling around him. Bishop ducked to avoid them—usually they were akin to invisible and he could pretend they weren't there at all, because something in him found them damn scary even if he'd never admit it to himself—and then stood, taking three strides between himself and the shaman before going back to his pack. The spirits seemed content to remain near their master as he summoned—gods only knew what—Bishop finally found the potion and rolled it over, refusing to get any closer until Gann found the potion and managed to drink it. The empty vial dropped from his hands, and after a moment the tone of his color turned from violet to its normal blue.
"Sorry," he said, as the spirits around him swirled and then settled into almost nothing. "She's a chieftain's daughter. She's probably been taught the shaman's arts, and on top of that, she's probably under some kind of spell."
"So unpracticed shaman magic and Weave magic don't mix very well," he said, coughing and shaking his head. "But at least we found her. If we could find some way to restrain her…"
"What, and call the wizard down on us?"
"The bounty calls for her to be alive."
"So say it was an accident. Or that she did it herself."
Gann gave him a look, one that veered between disgust and mere impatience, and said, "That'll just bring the wizard too."
"Well then your friends can follow us here and take care of him for us. Or did you just let them going knowing they wouldn't be able to face him?"
"It's not them I'm worried about," he said, too quickly; Bishop sneered inwardly at the blatant, if fleeting, expression of concern on his face. One of them was probably a lover or something like that. He filed this information away for future use—in the event of a betrayal, or an inability to deliver payment—and said instead, "Then what do you want to do?"
"You got rope?"
Bishop just gave him a look.
"Right." Apparently missing the utter disdain, he perked up and said, "So, here's the plan…"
"This," Bishop said, "was a horrible plan."
"Now," Gann said, from where he hung from the wall, stripped to the waist and with a veritable halo of spirits around him as the hellcat began some kind of warbling love song, "it wasn't horrible, just poorly executed."
Bishop, chained to some kind of rock and not entirely sure where the chains had come from, shook his head as best as he could. "No, it was fucking horrible. Twenty-five percent, blue."
"Twenty, if only because you didn't manage to knock her unconscious like I told you too." He was strangely calm about the whole affair, considering that she had begun tracing strange patterns on his chest with her poison-coated dagger. "Oh, this is embarrassing."
"If your damned spirits hadn't blown the arrow off course—"
"If you had thought to take them into account—"
"You said you had them under control!"
"Yes, well, her spirits are very—oh damn—" the knife was straying dangerously close to the waistline of his pants; if Bishop hadn't been so infuriated, he would have laughed "—persuasive, I suppose, some combination of—"
"Lahashara, darling," came a sing-song voice, deeply male and with just a hint of sinister intention. "What are you doing?"
Bishop wasn't entirely sure he'd seen a Red Wizard before, because he thought he'd remember the strange tattoos—strange on a wizard anyway, because he'd known a warlock once but that didn't really matter right now—and the outlandish fashion sense—or perhaps that was simply this wizard. Either way, his appearance didn't detract from the aura of power and malice emanating from him. Bishop curled low against his rock and went as still as possible, hoping to avoid notice. He succeeded, at least momentarily, as the wizard stepped past him and towards the girl and Gann.
"This isn't what it looks like, sir," Gann said, sounding for all the world as if this was just a routine matter.
"Ah, Gannayev of Dreams himself," the wizard said; Bishop nearly choked on his urge to laugh and forced it back down. "I wasn't expecting you to be here, myself. I take it dear Safiya is—"
Something happened; something warped, one of those magical moments that probably happened in the empty space in between seconds, one of those things that only wizards understood and which left the rest of the world feeling helpless—or, in Bishop's case, thoroughly pissed. All he knew was that one moment the wizard had been there, and then the next moment there was another wizard, one who cast a binding spell on the shaman girl as soon as she raised her hands to attack. He blinked, and the new wizard came into focus; a woman, with similar tattoos on her head (but not exactly the same, but did it really matter?) and a frown on her face.
"Gann, what are you doing? This was not in the plan. You were just supposed to find her so we could lay the trap—"
"I thought it would be faster if I just caught her, honestly, Safiya, I wasn't expecting her to be this—"
"You knew she was—"
"Can we make sure she's down before we all start yelling at each other?" he interrupted in a near-snarl. "And then could someone please explain what the fuck is going on?"
Safiya—if that was her name—shot an ice bolt at him so quickly he almost flinched, but instead it sliced through his chains and he stood, cracking his neck. "I have to go back," she said. "Just—get the girl and bring her to the village, okay? And please don't try anything else."
With that, everything warped again and then she was gone. Bishop chose that moment to move, snatching up the key to his chains and unlocking them from his wrists and ankles and then relocking them around the hellcat. Gann spoke to one of his spirits, and the metal reforged itself to form the perfect set of chains for keeping a prisoner secure. He looked quite pleased with himself; Bishop eyed him and mentally calculated the number of seconds he would have to kill the shaman after he made his first attack, before the spirits came to the his aid.
"Could she always do that?" he finally said, stalling for time as he tried to count the half-shadows circling about.
"Only if he did. Something about Red Wizard's magic and enclaves and…stuff." The shaman, clearly too in tune with the spirit world and the natural world to care about real magic, shrugged. "Let's get going, shall we? I need to find my shirt."
Twenty percent, Bishop told himself. Twenty percent. This is not worth fucking twenty percent.
And then suddenly it was. They were back in some tiny town, standing outside the inn they'd agreed to meet at. The hellcat was upstairs, Gann's spirits had mostly disappeared, and he was just about to ask if blue men had the same vital organs as everyone else when Safiya appeared with a head in a bag and her partner in tow. And suddenly it was all worth it, because she was there, her hair up and her eyes dark and her expression totally indifferent; a little tired, but otherwise completely composed.
He stared at her because he could, because Safiya wasn't particularly interesting, because she was there to be considered; and then she turned her head, and met his gaze, and went very still.
"Ah, you were successful, I see," Gann said, stepping past Bishop in order to take the bag and peek inside.
"Yes, no thanks to you," Safiya said, rolling her eyes. "You gave away our entire position with that little stunt you pulled in the cave. And it's going to be days before I can get us back to Rasheman."
"But we got what we came for," he said, disgustingly cheerful. "Of course, not being able to go back does interfere a little bit…" He turned to Bishop and said, "I'm afraid I'm not going to have your fee until we're able to get back. It would mean sticking around for…" He seemed to notice that Bishop was ignoring him entirely and, upon seeing why, said, "Oh, right. Safiya, Laura, this is Bishop. He tracked Laharshara for me. Bishop, Safiya of the Academy for Shapers and Binders, and Laura—"
"Farthing," she interrupted, and he felt his face twitch like he wanted to smile. She didn't offer a hand and he didn't try to take it.
Safiya looked him over once and said, "I see you escaped your chains."
Bishop finally looked away from her and gave a half-shrug of annoyance, and said, "What's wrong with my pay?"
"It's not here yet. It will be, once we're able to, er, get back. Which could be days. Which you would have to stick around for." Gann wasn't particularly subtle, which was one of the few reasons Bishop hadn't seriously attempted to kill him yet; he obviously wanted Bishop to leave without getting paid, and just as obviously seemed resigned to the fact that Bishop wasn't so easily dissuaded.
"I'm glad we have that understanding," he said, leaning back against the wall and treating Gann to a particularly nasty grin. "Just don't try to leave without telling me."
"Kelemvor take me if I try," he said, putting a hand over his heart.
Safiya snorted and shouldered past him; Laura sighed, softly, and followed, neatly dodging the shoulder Bishop leaned in her direction. Gann shook his head. "My women have no sense of humor."
"Your women?" Bishop couldn't quite identify his reaction, but he didn't have to think too hard about the thread of rage coursing through him. Which was completely ridiculous, because it had been nearly three years and if she'd decided to do other things in that time, well, hells, he couldn't say he hadn't, but he knew she wouldn't—unless she was—entirely not worth the time he would spend trying to figure it out. "The wizard looks like she'd rather spit in your eye."
"Oh, she would, but it's only because she loves me." But he didn't mention Laura, and Bishop didn't ask. "And if I'm not careful she'll arrange for me to sleep in the stables again, and frankly I'm ready for a real bed."
The invitation was unspoken; he was probably hoping Bishop wouldn't pick up on it at all. It was one of those moments in which the choice he made was going to be with him for a long time, and he knew it as much as he knew that he had made up his mind the moment he'd seen her. "I'll stick with you, if that's all right," he said, his tone making it very clear that it was going to be all right, whether or not Gann liked it. "I'd hate to have to hunt you down for my cut."
Gann sighed. "Follow me."
He didn't wait for her, exactly; he merely lurked at the top of the stairs, and decided to head to his room at the precise moment she and Safiya departed from Gann's room. He didn't particularly know or care to find out why the little triumvirate was meeting; he only hoped it wasn't for some kind of tryst (although he was pretty sure it wasn't, because he couldn't imagine her changing that much, even in three years). But then Safiya was in her room, and Gann was in his, and Laura stood in front of him as he leaned against her door.
He couldn't read her expression; that, at least, hadn't changed, and she wore her hair the same way, but there was a new kind of depth in her eyes, and a new sense of—something, weighing on her. He regarded her with something akin to disinterest on his face, but they stood there for too long, looking at each other, for anyone to think that they had nothing to say.
So he broke the silence. "You look like you need a drink."
She blinked slowly, and said in a voice that almost sighed, "You're just saying that."
"Would I lie?" he asked, his arms folded across his chest.
"Was that supposed to be a joke?" she said, and she sounded a little wry, like she wasn't entirely angry, and he decided to push his luck.
She stared at a point right past his ear, thinking, but he was pretty sure she was studying his face, as well. "All right. But just one."
Five (silent) beers later, she finally said, "What do you want?"
He took a moment to consider his answer. Though it was starting to be the hour at which only the most die-hard of revelers stayed in public, the tavern was still mostly full, and they had a side table to themselves; the voices were loud and the beer was flowing and the lamps were starting to sputter, just a little. Her hair was starting to come down, just a little, as if she hadn't spent much time putting it up; it was something that would never have happened three years ago, and something he also found remarkably sexy, which he supposed was the biggest clue to his answer.
"I don't know." He wasn't quite sure why he was being honest, but the most he had to lose was his life and the most he had to gain was…"You, probably."
She snorted and took another drink from her mug; he watched her systematically destroy her drinks and wondered if she was dependant or just desperate. He suspected the latter, and couldn't help wondering why, and couldn't help feeling a little—angry, or something, at whatever it was that did this to her, even if it meant being angry with himself. It wasn't like that was anything new.
"I mean, I'm still alive." Which was its own kind of miracle on several levels, now that he saw her again and realized—it was her. "That has to mean something."
"Maybe it just means I'm lazy," she said, her voice flat, which was better than toneless.
"You? Come on."
She gave him a look, then, a real expression, a sort of "what's that mean?" glance combined with a tired sense of irony. "It doesn't really matter, does it?"
"I'm alive. That matters to me."
He wasn't really meaning to say anything by it, and she seemed of two minds about whether or not to take his words at face value. "You don't even know what you're saying," she said, almost as if speaking to herself. "You'll say anything at this point to get what you want."
"Who says I wanted anything other than a beer?"
"I do," she said, in the same sort of you? Come on voice he had used, and he realized the problem with that voice was that it suggested—knowing something about each other. Knowing something, and then bothering to keep knowing it, to still know it now, after years had passed. It implied memory, which implied—at least a little bit of effort, in the remembering. Like she had put effort into it. Like he had, as well. "Because we don't talk, Bishop. We fuck and we fight, but we don't talk."
"Then let's fuck," he said, not wanting to remember and unable to forget.
"You have the most awful sense of—"
"Then let's not. It doesn't matter."
He was surprised she said it, and she looked a bit uncertain as well, as if she hadn't meant to say it but as if she couldn't help saying it, either, because it was what they were both thinking even if they couldn't admit it to themselves. He didn't like the involuntary nature of this conversation and couldn't figure out how to escape it, because drinking would just make him speak without thinking, and running away was—impossible, at this point, for whatever reason, had been impossible from the moment he'd first seen her eyes looking at him with something akin to relief.
"Did you miss me?" Her voice was quiet, but not tender.
"What kind of question is that? Are you going soft on me?" He narrowed his eyes at her, because one of the things he—that had made the whole situation agreeable was the fact that she wasn't soft, she wasn't some kind of needy whore who wanted attention or love—she just wanted to be well-fucked, and that was something he could accomplish.
"Maybe I was always soft." She shrugged and took another drink. "We never talked."
"You weren't soft." And she didn't strike him as being soft now, even with a lock of hair framing her face and her face a little flushed from the beer, even with the sense of unease that she couldn't quite hide, even from him. But that unease—that she would let him see the unease, or that she would be unable to keep him from seeing it—"What the hell happened?"
"Oh, little things," she said, sounding more like herself. "I got thrown across the continent and the shard got ripped out of my chest. For starters."
"The shard's gone?" He'd done a fairly decent job of not picturing her naked—sure, it had been running through the back of his mind, but he'd been ignoring it—but now he felt her silvery skin beneath his fingertips, and his hands twitched.
"Yeah. There's a new scar."
There was a long pause after that, because she wasn't naïve and because he was easily distracted; a long pause in which they both stared at each other, unable to read each other and unable to speak, either, to find some way to communicate beyond the staring.
"…want to see it?" she said, her voice a whisper.
"Yeah," he said, his mouth dry. "Yeah, I do."
He'd never come back to a lover before; everything wasn't new, or old, just familiar and different. Not that he had much time to check; despite the uncertainty he saw every time he stole a glimpse of her face, she seemed fairly determined to have him, like she'd missed him—or maybe just sex, who knew—more than she was willing to admit. He fancied he could feel the weariness in her bones as she clung to him; she felt tired and worn, like she sometimes had after a long journey, before, but now she let him feel it, bone against bone, let herself fall into his arms as if she had finally figured out how to let go, at least a little. And he was a little astonished to find his arms so full of her, and it was strangely…calming. And gratifying. And that scared him, but he didn't really have to consider it because she came with a little sigh in his ear and afterwards said nothing, only buried her face in his pillow and wrapped herself around him and went to sleep, perfectly content.
For his part, he let her wrap herself around him, but he didn't try to reciprocate; his hands were full enough just trying to figure what the hell he was getting himself into, without trying to hold her, as well. But he couldn't deny that it was comfortable, to have company, to lie warm in bed without any cause for worrying about time or money. And her hair was just as soft as he remembered, and the curve of her shoulder was still—just—right. He didn't know what was right about it—what was right about anything—but he knew that it was, and that was all he needed to know.
The second day he spent alone, in the tavern, while the other three plotted in a corner; the second night, the same as the first. The third day, she disappeared with Safiya—Gann wouldn't say where they'd gone, only that she had something she "had to do" and they'd "be back eventually." Bishop told himself he didn't care that she felt she could just leave without saying a word—it was hypocritical to think otherwise, for starters, and anyway he firmly believed in people's right to leave when they wanted—but it still irked him. The shaman left him alone for the most part, apparently flirting with the innkeeper's daughters for entertainment. He stretched his legs scouting the outskirts of town, telling himself his boredom stemmed from lack of things to kill than loneliness, restlessness rather than a sign that he was—somehow—going soft.
This didn't stop him from abandoning the outdoors early to rejoin the shaman in the common room, trying to ignore the girls' simpering over his blue skin. He had to wait longer than he'd planned for the women to return, and when they finally came through the doors, long after the sun had set, they first disappeared to their rooms to bathe. Annoyed and sick of the endless flirtation around him, Bishop didn't bother holding back his questions when they came downstairs for whatever remains of dinner were to be had. "Where the hell did you go?"
"Neighboring village," Safiya said; Laura rarely spoke during these meals, and never to him. He didn't know if she was trying to keep her companions from discerning the nature of their relationship—that was nothing new—or if she was simply determined to keep their relationship as simple as possible. "There was…an issue that needed sorting out."
"Oh, routine assassinations. You know," the wizard said, calmly tearing into her chicken leg. "Corruption at the highest level."
"Sounds like fun to me."
"It wasn't," she said.
"Was it what you thought?" Gann asked; Bishop felt a little left out, and a little jealous, and a little pissed off.
"The mayor was conspiring with the duergar," Safiya said. "Selling off the children. He isn't, anymore. End of story."
Gann nodded. "I'm sure he'll find the Underdark to his liking." Noting Bishop's expression, though probably misinterpreting it, he said, "Laura likes to make sure people get their just desserts."
"It would have been better to storm the duergar outpost and demolish it," she said, and just like that she was a cleric again, her face tightening and her arms shaking, just a little, in a manner he recognized all-too-well. Yet there was something different about her, as well; where once the tremors had been those of a girl overwhelmed, not knowing where to focus her energy, now they were those of a woman who was angry, but also completely confident in her ability to do everything she had to do, in its proper time. It was a display of strength she hadn't had, of new depths to her power and a richer understanding of it, and it made him uneasy, though he couldn't pinpoint why.
"We couldn't do that," Safiya said reprovingly, as if she was used to this anger.
"He betrayed those children," she snapped, and Bishop remembered why Laura the cleric terrified him, and felt his blood run cold. "He betrayed their trust, and the duergar took them away."
"Yes, well, if we were to go running off every time we heard tale of that, we'd never make it home," Safiya said. "We have to pick our battles."
"It would have taken approximately five minutes to cast a spell of destruction and raze the place to the ground."
"I also happen to be preparing the magic to return us home and don't have the power to—"
"I have the power—"
"Laura," Gann said, and Bishop envied him the easy, open way he said her name, as if it was just a name, and not—something that wasn't said. There was a clear sense of equality amidst these three, as if they had never had rank or title to disturb their natural hierarchy; and while he had no doubt that Laura, somehow or another, had ended up in charge, the other two were clearly unafraid to contradict her in ways that he hadn't even bothered trying, back when she was a Knight Captain of Neverwinter. He personally had no preference as to what he called her—Farthing had always been the most natural, the sort of name you called your colleague-commander-fucker, and Laura had always seemed too…soft? Intimate? More suited to the sleeping girl in bed than the warrior who commanded a veritable army unto herself, and he'd done his best to ignore her when she was sleeping and not contemplate how godsdamned beautiful she was, those few hours she spent looking completely at peace.
She didn't apologize, but she did cease talking, a look of general displeasure on her face. Bishop avoided her gaze, barely listening to Gann prattling on about something and Safiya filling in the gaps when Gann had to eat.
Eventually, however, the inanity forced him to speak. "When do I get paid?"
"Once we go back to Rasheman and get the bounty, we'll send you your cut," Gann said. "Safiya's getting very close with her preparations—" she glared at him "—and I'm fully confident we'll be there in a few days or so."
"A few days."
"You're welcome to leave at any time."
"What, so you can skip out on paying me? Not likely."
"You strike me as the sort of man who bores easily," Safiya said suddenly, pausing with her fork in hand, staring at him. "I'm surprised you're still here."
"I really, really like getting paid." He gave her a nasty grin. "And I really don't like it when people hold out on me."
"Rest assured we are doing everything—" Gann stopped, and amended himself, "Safiya is doing everything she can."
"You said that already."
"Just leave, then," Safiya said. "A man like you must have plenty of places he'd rather be."
"A man like what?" he said, stalling for time as he tried to decide where he would rather be, than here. The list was alarmingly short, and then—
"A selfish, apathetic asshole?"
Bishop stared at her, while she stared at the floor, and Gann said, "Well, there are a lot of people like that—"
"I'm going to bed," she said, standing and shooting him a glance—a strange one, the look in her eyes completely incomprehensible. "It's been a long day."
"Yeah," Gann said, finding her voice after she'd already departed. "Yeah. Long day."
"She's right," Safiya said, glaring at him. "Why don't you just leave, already?"
He smiled as insincerely as he ever had into her glare. "Maybe I really don't have anywhere else I'd rather be. But hey, I can see when I'm not wanted." He pushed his chair away from the table and stood, stretching lazily. "Let me know when you leave, would you?"
"Gladly," she retorted, while Gann sat there looking a little annoyed that everyone was being so unpleasant. That didn't really bother him; his mind was already in his room, trying to figure out what he would say when he got there.
She was waiting for him, as he'd known she would be, standing in the middle of the room with her arms crossed and a tight expression on her face. He closed the door behind him, locked it, and turned back to her with his own arms crossed. She looked—upset, well, obviously, she was upset, and obviously tired, but there was a kind of—pain, maybe, on her face, a pain he didn't recognized and one he wasn't entirely sure had anything to do with him, or the fact that they were standing here, in this room, and he saw again the cleric of vengeance with her sword raised and death radiating from her every action.
And he said, "Why am I still alive?" at the same time she asked, "Why are you here?"
They went on staring at each other; he hadn't meant to ask, hadn't even really been wondering it, and she'd sounded desperate in way he couldn't really remember ever hearing her sound. Her arms weren't crossed; she was hugging herself, staring at him as if any moment now he might say something and she might just crack, completely, and the fact that she was willing to stay in a position where she would do that in front of him scared him.
So he tried to change the subject, or lighten it a little, and said, "I should think that was obvious."
"I'm not talking about sex," she said, sounding a shade more like herself—a shade more exasperated. "I want to know why the hell you're still here, forcing yourself to spend time with people you hate for money you don't really need—"
"I don't hate you."
"Why not?" She stared at him as if he was insane—which, well, he was, to be standing here talking like this to a woman who could, at any moment, kill him without a thought. "You were quick enough to hate my uncle—"
"He did it so he could gloat." Honestly, he'd done a pretty good job of forgetting all about Duncan; sure, he'd wasted several years of his life tethered to that stupid bar, and sure it had been the original reason why he'd decided to go—but everything else was so complicated, it was easy to forget the little details, like the excuses he'd given, once upon a time. "I want to know why you did it."
"We don't talk, Bishop."
"Well we're not fucking right now, either."
"What the hells am I supposed to say, then?" she said, rhetorically. "You're alive. What else matters beyond that?"
"I'm alive because you saved my life." He studied her face for a moment, and said, "Admit it. You saved my life."
"Yes. I saved your life."
"You," he said.
"What does that mean?"
"We both know what it means."
"What do you know?" She hugged herself tighter, glaring at him as if looks could kill. "If I'm not supposed to know anything about you—"
"There's nothing to know."
"There's everything to know," she said. "You're still alive because you didn't fucking betray me because it hardly counts as a betrayal when everyone knows it's coming, does it?" She took a deep breath, ignoring how stunned he looked, and said, "There's no reason for me to come after you like some avatar of destruction because it—it was such a throwaway fact it barely seemed worth mentioning. Everyone knew you would leave. I knew you would leave."
"I broke your fucking gate."
"And Garius walked right up to us and we nearly killed him right then and there. It wasn't really a loss on our part." She uncrossed her arms and stared at him and said, "Bishop, I know why you left. And that's why I want to know why you're still here."
He tried to organize his thoughts—failed—settled with, "So you haven't come after me for revenge, fine. But that doesn't explain why you saved my life."
And they were staring at each other again, falling into that endless cycle of fighting and staring and fucking because they didn't know what else to do, and she was coming towards him and he prepared himself for—
She put her arms around him, then, and buried her face in the crook of his neck, and inhaled; and as she let her breath out, she melted into him, and he found his arms going around her and pulling her close, powerless to do anything other than hold her, tightly, exactly as he wanted to hold her—exactly as he had never really contemplated holding her before. He closed his eyes and rested his head against hers—gods, but her hair was soft—and tried to panic. He wanted to panic; he could feel his natural fight-or-flight, get-going-while-the-going's-good, don't-tie-yourself-down-you'll-just-be-disappointed instincts rising to the surface, screaming at him that this was a very bad idea, that if he held her like this, as if all he wanted was to have her in his arms, as if he wanted to do nothing more than hold her exactly as she wanted to be held, he would never be able to escape it. Because this was tying yourself down to another person; this sense of letting go to another, of giving in and recognizing that really, there wasn't anywhere else to go, that this was exactly what he wanted and that he wanted it partially because she wanted it too, and because he would, quite simply, do anything for her. Whether he gave into that fact or not was moot; the fact remained, and now that he had acknowledged it, he was never going to be able to forget it.
And he wasn't sure if he was okay with that or not, but at this point it was just easier to let go and hold her and—maybe relax, just a little bit. She sighed—he felt her chest heave against his, and the way the tension drained beneath his fingertips—and turned her head to the side, and said, "Maybe this is why."
"Yeah," he said, and he felt her start, and refused to move his head to look at her. "Maybe."
He felt shy, and he could never remember feeling shy before, not even the very first time he'd done this (of course, that had probably been with a large group of would-be assassins behind a barn on the outskirts of some nameless, forgotten village, and to be anything other than absolutely brutal in that group was to get your head handed to you on a rusty platter), but as he kissed her and rested his hands on her hips, he could feel his fingers shaking. She, of course, was absolutely still, and calm, because women loved this sort of thing, but it wasn't really fair to blame her for his own inadequacies. She was still here, wasn't she?
He traced all the scars on her chest, from the new one where the shard had been (which looked raw, and painful, but she didn't make a sound as his fingers followed the path it took, under her breasts, down towards her navel), to the lines stretching across her stomach, and he thought she looked…empty, as though there was something missing, and yet she had the same tight, powerful shape, and she made the same noise when he kissed her there, right behind where her earlobe met her head, as if it tickled.
But she was bolder, too, from the way she retaliated by flicking her tongue in the shell of his ear, to the way her hands moved of their own accord at the exact moment he thought he wanted them. He stumbled back to the bed, and the next thing he knew he was lying there, and she was stretched on top, kissing him again, and then she pulled away and cocked her head, looking at him, her hands curling around his ears even as his slid up over her shoulders, hooking her in place.
"You don't have to—" he started, and when she furrowed her brow, he finished, lamely, "—say. Anything."
"No," she said, and she dipped her head and kissed him once, so quickly he didn't have time to react. He thought he saw a flash of amused triumph in her eyes as she smiled at him. "I think it's a little late for that."
He wasn't sure what that meant—wasn't even sure what he hadn't wanted her to say (oh, he knew, but he didn't know if he wanted to stop her in order to spare her the embarrassment or in order to keep himself from blurting out the same)—but she was running her thumbs over his ears and he was starting to go a little cross-eyed. He wasn't even aware he was trying to kiss her—and then she was there, and he settled his head back into the pillow and kissed her, soundly, because it was so much easier to kiss her than to try to find the words to say what he really meant.
Afterwards, when she was naked and tucked against him and he was simply too lazy to do anything interesting about it, and his thumb was tracing circles on her bare shoulder, a thought occurred to him, and he said, "Please tell me you haven't fucked the blue man."
"Now you're going to be jealous?" she said, kissing his neck before settling her head down against his shoulder.
"I'm not jealous."
"What a lie that was."
"He's fucking blue."
"I didn't have the time to fuck Gann," she said, and he wasn't quite sure what that meant, but she sighed and said, "He's too complicated. I've had enough of that."
"So you did fuck the paladin." He could feel her glare without bothering to look for it. "I'm a simple man, Farthing. My needs are few."
"I've noticed," she said, and he felt a smile tugging at his lips, just because her voice was wry, and he mentally kicked himself for it. It was bad enough that he wanted to just lie in bed with her, maybe for the next month, if not longer (and that wasn't really anything new, but none of the women he'd had in between had quite known—whatever it was she knew—and anyway, he never stayed long enough to be charged for the sort of cuddling Laura apparently enjoyed), but if he was starting to base his moods on the sound of her voice—
"Have—did you hear anything?" she asked, and suddenly he was cold all over, because she sounded far away. "About the others?"
"Not a clue," he said. "The ruins came crumbling down, and they sent a team to investigate, and pronounced you dead before the week was out."
There was a pause, and then she said, "I'm not dead—"
"No," he said agreeably, running his free hand over her curves.
"—so they might have survived as well."
"Maybe, but none of them had quite the same level of protection you did." He hesitated, and then said, "You could look for them."
She didn't stiffen, exactly, but he stopped caressing her and pulled away enough to see her face. "You're not seriously going back with the blue man, are you?"
"And what else would I do?" she asked, not-quite-smiling, not-quite-sad. Before he could come up with an answer that didn't involve stay with me, she said, "I have to go back."
"Where the hell do you find these obligations?"
"They tend to find me," she said. "And I'm tired, Bishop. I'm tired of wandering. I want to go home."
"I thought your home burned to the ground."
"It did," she said; sometimes his own insightfulness surprised him. "So I had to make a new one. And I did, but it's thousands of miles away from here."
"And what the hell do you do there?"
"I'm a healer," she said.
He stared at her, at his dark-eyed, terrifying cleric, trying to imagine her as one of the domestic figures he could barely recall from his childhood—as someone who offered comfort and healing, rather than wrath and doom. And even now, even as she was completely soft and satiated, lying in his arms, vulnerable, he couldn't do it. The edge remained; softened, perhaps, forgotten in favor of other pursuits, but it was still there, threatening from beneath the surface.
"I am," she insisted, almost pouting, and he kissed her in order to hide his laughter. "And what do you do?" she asked, once she could speak again.
"The same as always."
She looked at him, then, and didn't bother hiding the knowing gleam in her eyes; he felt the urge to panic, to flee from the indisputable fact that she did know him, and he'd let her come to this point without even realizing it—without caring, because he knew her, too.
"You don't want to settle with me," she said. He said nothing. "You don't want to settle at all. You'd be miserable, sitting in a backwater hut while I went around dealing with old women with rheumatism."
"Why do you give a damn about them?"
"They've helped me," she said, and for a moment the distance was back in her eyes, as if some part of her was completely unconcerned with the here and now. He didn't understand this ability, to detach oneself completely from the surroundings, and figured it was probably some kind of holy cleric mechanism, though why she felt a need to use it now—it was strange, and not a little frustrating, to discover he knew her completely, only to realize sometimes he didn't know her at all. "And…I never wanted to do anything else, but right wrongs, on a small scale."
"It won't last."
"I have so many other things to do, now," she said, and she sighed and then she was back, looking at him with an expression so full of—well, full of that thing—he kissed her, because it was easier than thinking the words, and she put her hand to his cheek and said against his mouth, "You don't want to settle down."
"No, I don't," he replied, concentrating more on the particular way her lip felt as he ran his tongue across it than on the words.
"Then that's that," she said, pulling away and pressing a kiss to the corner of his mouth, sliding her fingers into his hair. The look in her eyes—something like sadness, and a longing that made him suddenly very un-lazy—drew him as irresistibly as a magnet; he leaned down to kiss her again, and she whispered, "I think I might miss you."
"No, you won't," he said, and then he refused to let her speak further, for fear that he would find himself agreeing.
And so that was that. They had two more days together—well, nights, really, since the days were spent with Gann and Safiya, neither of whom needed to know that he was sleeping with their precious cleric—two nights, in which he relearned every ticklish place on her body, and in which he learned to talk, a little. He wasn't quite sure he liked this whole talking part, the part where they weren't fucking, but while the openness required scared him, it was also…refreshing, to hear her thoughts, completely uncensored, often littered with wry observations and half-mentioned musings. She traced circles on his chest and told him of her last quest to save the world; he kissed her neck, and told her what little he did know of the news from Neverwinter.
At one point he found himself discussing Luskan; she mentioned Lorne Starling, and he explained what, exactly, you had to do to become an assassin of that level. She didn't flinch, merely lay on the bed with her head propped up by her hand, watching him with her dark, steady gaze, which he couldn't quite meet and yet couldn't avoid, either. When he had finished, she nudged him onto his stomach and ran her fingers over his back until she found the Mark she had laid on him, and said simply, "It's a good thing I did this before you told me all that."
"Yeah, well," he said, his head resting on his arms, half-aware of her caress, "that's life."
"Not always," she said, a strange note of determination in her voice. "Though if you hadn't burned your village to the ground, I might go back and strangle your parents myself."
"Strangle? Is that really the best you could do?"
She sighed, her breath ruffling his hair. "They'd die too quickly in the assassin's training for it to be a worthwhile punishment. But parents always talk about wanting to strangle their children, so it seemed a fitting reversal." She idly drew loops around his shoulder blades with her finger and said, "There's probably a statute about it somewhere."
"You just prefer razing things to the ground."
"And you're so good at it."
"Not anymore," she said, and then she leaned down and nestled her head next to his. "I'm attempting the reasonably legal, mostly positive life, now."
"It'll drive you insane."
"Hasn't so far."
"Maybe you're already insane." He stared at her, at the way she so willingly placed herself in the arms of someone who had just spent half an hour, at least, recounting all the various ways he knew to kill people, at the way she had the audacity to smile at him, like it didn't matter, and said, "I think you're fucking insane."
"No," she said, "I'm fucking you. There's a difference."
He raised both eyebrows. "Really?"
"Oh yes." To prove her point, she lowered her head and started kissing his shoulder, moving towards his neck. "Not much of one, mind you, but—"
"Shut up," he said, and she laughed.
They didn't exactly say goodbye, when they were alone, maybe because he hadn't really believed it was goodbye (but how could she stay? He wouldn't know what to do, if she stayed), but as he was faced with the indisputable fact that she, Gann (with an unconscious hellcat slave in tow), and Safiya were all standing in front of a small transportation circle, and Safiya was muttering incantations, he realized that she was leaving, really leaving—that she was the one to leave, and not him. He had given her complete control of the situation, and now he was going to be alone. This being the opposite of every relationship he could ever remember having in his life, he found he didn't know how to act.
Gann was saying something about his pay—pay, and he tried to focus on that, because it was ostensibly the reason he was still around, while the real reason was standing right behind the blue man, her face absolutely calm and unreadable, as usual. Fuck her anyway (you already did, he reminded himself, but that didn't help either) for being able to act like nothing was happening.
Which maybe it wasn't—maybe she was just going away, and that just meant she wouldn't be tangible, in his arms, but maybe she knew she had made her mark and was content to know that, no matter what he did to forget her, she would always be impressed in his skin. Literally, which gave the situation no small trace of irony. He scowled; that, at least, felt natural.
"…and it'll appear here in this circle, within, what," Gann said, looking at Safiya, "a day, at most?"
"Yes, probably," she said, gritting her teeth and looking as though she loathed every moment she wasted thinking about it.
"So, that's that." He looked him over once and said, "I can't say it's been a pleasure, but you're damn good at what you do."
"The same," he said, giving him a nod of respect, which was completely out of character but now the most important thing was—
"Try not to kill any innocents," she said, and she had said something, and he could breathe again.
"I'll keep that in mind," he said. "Wouldn't want to have some vengeance god trying to track me down."
Gann winced, but she merely said, "Oh, he'd find you," and then Safiya made a grand gesture and the transportation circle started glowing.
"Time to go," Gann said, carrying the hellcat over the threshold and disappearing without any smoke or flamboyant tricks. Safiya was a no-frills wizard, he had to give her that.
And then she met his gaze—and they looked at each other for a moment (an endless cycle of fighting and staring and fucking revolved in his mind, resolved itself in her wordless half-smile), and then she stepped into the circle, and Laura was gone.
He let out his breath in a long exhalation that wasn't quite a sigh, and Safiya gave him a warning look and said, "Before the day's out," and disappeared as well.
And he was alive, and alone, again. Which wasn't anything new.
But somewhere, a thousand miles away, she was too.
So maybe he wasn't really alone, after all.
Strangely, he didn't mind.
He didn't know how to deal with being content—he'd spent so much of his life murderously angry—but he thought he might be content, and he'd have to get used to it.
He lost track of the time he spent waiting, but eventually his pay did arrive: a bag full of gold coins, no note, no last goodbye—and that was fine. He hefted it in his hand—twenty percent of quite a lot, it seemed—and considered the endless possibilities that stretched before a contented man with this much gold in hand; he turned towards the door, and started forward. Behind him lay a dormant transportation spell, which had yet given him his prize; before him lay the world, with all sorts of nooks and crannies to explore. And if, perchance, his explorations took him beyond the borders of the Sword Coast…
He grinned to himself, and went.