Cross the street. Dodge the knife sharpener coming by with his cart. Don’t make eye contact with the prostitutes on the corner. Avoid that puddle.
A strange fellow almost ran into him but stopped short. Sand muttered an insult, got an apology, and shouldered aside to continue on his way home. It wasn’t until he had rounded the corner that he realized what, precisely, had been strange; a hag spawn? Not many around Neverwinter.
Not that it matters.
Exhaustion dogged his steps these days, not curiosity.
The door shut and Sand locked it behind him, allowing his shoulders to sag. Walk to the counter. Hang up the cloak. Dodge cat. Put keys away.
He made it to the base of the stairs without incident. Jaral had not run to greet him. Odd. Where was that cat? He could sense the animal close by, in the building and not run off through the open window again. Sand brought it closed before he forgot. But for once he hadn’t tripped over his familiar on his way to hang up his cloak.
Sighing, he tossed his keys onto the counter. He really should re-open his shop one of these days. The rent had gone up after the repairs to Neverwinter’s docks had been completed. But…. he just couldn’t summon the energy to care.
He debated about making something to eat but on closer inspection his cabinets were rather bare and he couldn’t handle the thought of going back out to buy food. Duncan would ask how it had gone. Disappointment and numbing lack of progress in their search for Allia had worn him down to this; hiding from his few friends and allies. Besides, Duncan was drinking too much again, driving his customers away, not bathing, letting his inn fall into disrepair. It was too depressing.
They had won. Why did this feel so much as though they had lost? Casavir dead. Zhjaeve had returned to her own plane without so much as an apology or offer of help. Elanee had returned to her swamp, promising to send out word to other druid camps. Which yielded nothing. Daeghun had returned some weeks ago, restocked, and promptly gone straight back out. No word yet.
At least Sand didn’t need to try and maintain his composure under her foster father’s flat stare as he failed yet again to scry or discover anything of use.
He had been forced to admit that he had run out of ideas. Patience, which he had counseled to so many, his strongest virtue, was wearing thin. The finest mages and the best trackers Lord Nasher had to offer had all come to the same conclusion time and time again; she was simply gone. No remains. No trace. All they had was the sworn certainty of the dwarven monk who claimed to have seen gargoyles making off with her unconscious form.
Weeks had stretched into months. The seasons where changing. He’d once loved the fall. Looked forward to it every year. The colors, the crisp musk of fallen leaves, the way the water turned dark and the sunlight bright. But somehow, the prospect of it now held no interest. He had dared to dream; something he had learned a long time ago never to do. And he had lost. Knowing there would be no long walks holding her hand, no candlelit evenings lost in discussion over fine wine, no nights spent before the fire, no...
He snorted in irritation. This maudlin line of thought served no purpose. He had known better, hadn’t he? The risk of all they had fought against had been in favor of one or more of them dying. He had known, and still….
He busied himself getting Jaral’s dinner ready. A familiar and mindless routine. The clank of the bowl and spoon, the iron rich smell of chopped meat that wrinkled his nose, should have brought the little fur ball running.
Where is that cat? If he swatted my potions onto the floor and got himself stuck in the anti -theft ward again, I swear I’ll…
He climbed the stairs, bowl of cat food in his hands. Past the door at the top. No cat.
He kept looking, around the corner to the living area. And stopped dead. He held still. Held his breathe. Held the bowl of food until his knuckles lightened. Because there, sleeping on the sofa, on his sofa, was Allia.
And Jaral; curled against her hip. His familiar looked up at him through eyes squinted in utter feline bliss as he purred; little toes spread and flexed as the cat kneaded at the blanket she had pulled down of the sofa’s back.
Slow, deliberate, Sand crouched down and set the bowl on the floor by his desk. He stared; eyes stinging, throat too tight, afraid if he blinked she would disappear. That she was an illusion. But…an illusion would have looked as he remembered her; she looked different. Thin. As if recovering from an injury or illness. Her hair was shorter, the long braid he had so longed to undo, slashed off above her shoulders, stray strands tickling the corner of her lips as she slept. But there was no mistaking the tiny wood elf.
Cautious, he raised his hands and began to murmur, casting every detection spell he knew. No magic other than a few minor items; clothing or jewelry. That was normal enough. But…No shard?! He checked again. Alright, that was quite different. No curses. She wasn’t possessed. Or undead. Or diseased. Or….
Jaral stopped his purring and merfed at Sand, as if to say ‘Stop. You’re being ridiculous.’
Am I? Sand regarded his familiar. The spotted cat licked a paw to wash half his face, stretched, and then hopped down, bumping against the mage’s ankles on his way to eat. Clearly not a care for potential danger.
So, it really is her.
Swallowing against the lump in his throat, he moved until he sat there gazing down at that perfect heart shaped face. Fingers trembling, he reached out and brushed the dark hair back from her face. She turned into his touch. He cupped her cheek, relishing the warmth and softness, the reality of her. There was a small fresh scar across her eyebrow on that side. Long dark lashes fluttered as she came awake. Her slim fingers reached up to curl around his wrist.
“Sand.” Her voice was sleep husky. “Hi.”
“Hello, yourself.” He didn’t sound as shaky as he felt. Good.
Refusing to let go of his hand, she shifted to sit up. Face to face, he fought the urge to kiss her. He stroked his thumb across her cheekbone, feeling the too- sharp shape of it. No telling what she had been through. She was clearly exhausted, to have fallen asleep waiting for him. The last thing she needed was him making any demands of her in regard to their relationship. He could wait. Patience.
“You’re alive.” Her brown eyes shone with joy. Turning against his palm again, she pressed a quick, soft kiss to the inside of his wrist.
His breath caught. And just like that, he was aroused. Heat flared beneath his skin and slid to coil in his belly. How had she…? Was he really so touch- starved as all that? Well, yes, probably, but that still didn’t excuse…He broke off the internal argument. It was pointless. And his patience was about to go up in flames. Time to refocus.
“Of course, I am alive.” Sand snorted faintly, shaking his head. “Whatever put the fool notion in your head?”
“Those awful gargoyles, they told me…” She bit her lip, not wanting to say it.
“Well, the deceitful creatures did abduct you. They were hardly a trustworthy source. Now, I believe it’s my turn for a question. My dear, just where in the nine hells have you been?” Heart pounding, he tried and failed to keep his voice from breaking.
He heard the shaky intake of her breath.
His brows shot up. Well, that would certainly explain why they hadn’t been able to track her. Even if they had known, the witches guarded their borders, both magical and mundane, all too well.
And then the words were rushing out of her in a torrent.
“I was cursed, and I couldn’t come home until I got rid of it. As soon as it was gone, I came back. I didn’t know what had happened; how I got there. And I missed you all so much. But then being back in the city was overwhelming and all the memories…I haven’t even stopped to see Uncle Duncan yet. I just… I needed to know you were alright.”
“You came back alone?” He choked back the directionless anger at not having been there for her.
“No. My friends came with. They wanted to see Neverwinter. I told them not to say anything until I see them tomorrow. I promise, I’ll tell you all everything, tomorrow. I only wanted one night of peace before I had to deal with it all. Is that too much to ask?”
He was going to tell her that no, it most certainly was not, when she leaned close, her nose brushing teasingly against his before cutting him off with a kiss. And then his thoughts were a whirl, scattered and lost to the soft heat of her lips. She pulled away with a devilish scrape of teeth, tugging his bottom lip. He chased her, leaning in for more; quick hungry nibbles and longer breath -stealing, tongue- stroking ones that left him dizzy and wanting.
Allia sat back, licking her lips. “Sand, I love you. I do. But if you were about to tell me to be patient…”
“Mm. As I love you.” He felt the rush of those words overtake him. Gods only knew how long it had been since he’d felt this way about someone. Since he’d dared to say it. “I would suggest, given all that has happened, that perhaps we have been patient enough.”
A small smile tugged at her lips before she leaned in to kiss him again. He swept his hands down her back to her hips, pulling until she resettled over him.
They spent long moments kissing, tasting, breathing, touching. He nipped her bottom lip and made his way down her jaw to her throat; she leaned her head back with sigh. She worked his outer tunic loose and got him down to the shirt he wore beneath. His hands worked up under her loose thin blouse, kneading her hips and stroking up her back. She arched into him, her hips pressing, hands tangling in his hair as he mouthed the fabric over her breasts, teasing her nipples tight through the cloth. Her grip in his hair tightened and she groaned under her breath.
Blood running hotter by the moment, he started on the buttons of her blouse, wanting her skin bare. She moved to help, making short work of it. The material was tossed to the floor. She tugged his shirt loose and pulled it up over his head, taking advantage of his momentary blindness to rub her bare breasts against him. As soon as he was free of it, he pulled her to him, tongue slipping in circles over her nipples before sucking each one. She gasped his name, nails digging into his arms.
Shifting his weight forward, he pressed her back until she was under him, trailing his way down with his hands and following with gentle bites, kisses that left her tense and trembling. He paused at the ties to her leggings, pulling them free with his teeth before his hands removed them the rest of the way, caressing and stroking her legs as he did so; noting in passing the lighter lines of old scars.
She wriggled down under him, nimble fingers undoing the fastenings to his pants. He caught her hands before she could undo him. Settling between her thighs, he pressed kiss after kiss to the damp gossamer fabric of her panties, stroking his tongue across the silk and feeling her hips roll and how her thighs strained before he swept his fingers under the edge of the fabric and slid them into her wet slick heat, steady and then faster, watching her come undone. She was moaning now, panting and pleading with him to hurry. Gods, she was beautiful.
Just a little longer.
Curling his fingers, stroking her inside until she was arching up under him, fingers clenched in the blanket. He stopped then, his own tension too high, too close, fumbling to get his pants the rest of the way off. She sat up enough to help, hands slipping around his hips, his cock, sliding the last layers of clothing just far enough, before pulling him to her. Not willing to tolerate any more delays, he slid the fabric of her panties aside and pressed himself in with a groan that she swallowed into a kiss, biting his bottom lip to stifle her own cries as he thrust, building into the rhythm their need demanded.
Her hips worked under him, meeting every lunge, her forehead against his as they moved faster, deeper; desperate, sweat damp, and glorious. Her climax hit, she bucked under him, helpless and reckless; head back, mouth open, calling his name. His breath caught at the sight of her and his release caught up to him; he broke apart, unaware of his voice calling out to her in return.
They drifted for a long while after in the euphoria, tangled up and comfortable. Eventually, they slept, wrapped up more in each other than in the blanket.
Around sunrise, Sand startled awake in confusion at finding himself not in his room. Then Allia shifted next to him, one hand stroking his side as she snuggled closer to stay warm where the blanket had slipped. Memories of the night before settled into place and he smiled, kissing her forehead. She made a pleased sound and tipped her face up so he could kiss her again, properly. And again, because he could. Hands began to wander as desire grew.
She was astride him, her mouth over his, his hands holding her hips as she moved slow and deep, taking their time, teasing each other with the buildup, when some rude soul saw fit to pound on the door downstairs.
“Were you expecting someone?” Lia frowned, pausing in her motions.
“I most certainly was not. Whatever oaf is out there will go away.”
The knocking came again, if it could be called that. Someone was banging on his door loud enough to wake half the neighborhood. Sand thought up several of the worst curses he knew in very short order, ready to cast.
“Sand! I know you’re in there. Open your damn door!” The man’s yelling would wake whichever half of the neighborhood his knocking hadn’t.
“Shit! Sand, it’s uncle Duncan!” Allia cursed and got up, searching for their clothes. “He’s not going to go away!”
Hopping about to get his pants back on, throwing on a shirt and hoping it was his, then finger combing his hair into a ghost of its usual neatness, Sand scrambled to get downstairs before Duncan could break the door in. Lia wrapped herself in the blanket, scooped up the rest of the clothes, and disappeared into the bedroom.
“Hold a damned moment!” He let the wards down, threw open the bolt, and wrenched the door open, making the best effort he could at intimidation. Being a wizard usually helped. Unfortunately, that had always been lost on Duncan, who had a head and half on him height wise and more than twice the weight. The innkeeper glowered down and shouldered his way in.
“Why are you in my shop? It’s closed, in case you missed the sign.” Sand pinched the bridge of his nose against the urge to summon an elemental to ‘escort’ Duncan back out. Preferably right off the docks and into the water.
“Get your beauty rest later, wizard. I have news. A traveler came in last night. Odd looking fellow, that. Anyway, he met up with one of them Red Wizards. Can you imagine! In my tavern.” Duncan shook his rant off and continued, “I overheard them. It’s Lia. She’s in Rasheman! Are you coming or not?”
Sand stared at Duncan for a long moment, until the innkeeper began fidgeting.
“What do you mean, no?!” Duncan’s brows shot up. “I’m not blind. I saw the way you two started looking at each other after her trial, all those late nights and dangerous situations. I was an adventurer, too, I know how it happens. But if you abandon her now-”
“No, she is not in Rasheman. She was.” He clarified.
Duncan frowned and opened his mouth to protest so Sand continued before he could.
“You are not the only one with news. Mine, however, is infinitely more reliable. As usual. Now, if you are quite finished behaving in your typical brutish fashion, I have something to attend to. As soon as all is ready, I will head over to speak to you. ”
“Now, if you don’t mind?” He gestured towards the still-open door.
Duncan wandered out as if he was having trouble processing what had just happened. Sand slammed the door, locked it, reset the wards, and skipped steps on his way back upstairs. He found Lia still in the bedroom, half dressed.
“You heard all that, I presume.”
“Yes. Gann or Safiya must have said something.” She rubbed her forehead. “We should go over there before he gets angrier. I feel terrible for not telling him.”
“I thought we might head over for breakfast, but that was before he interrupted us.”
“Hm. He did, didn’t he.” She dropped the pants she was holding back to the floor. “Where were we…”