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Not Falling But Walking

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There’s a dagger above his head.  That’s important.  That’s important, Drizzt tries to tell himself, tries to cling hard to that fact, even though it’s difficult, between one syrup-slow moment and the next, and he almost loses track. So many other things clamber for his attention—his arms twisted and bound behind him, his knee a searingly painful mess and below that he can’t really feel anything, which seems bad.

 

This whole situation seems bad—and maybe bad is an understatement, because the dagger—remember the dagger—is clutched tight in a slender hand, and that hand belongs to a High Priestess of Lolth, her beautiful face twisted into a fanatical rage so ugly and familiar it almost makes Drizzt homesick.

 

But no, not really, because Drizzt’s home has never been here, in the depths of the earth, cool stone at at his shoulder blades, unyielding against his arms where they’re bound behind him and he’s on his back, isn’t he?  Staring up at a stone ceiling, and in the blurred edges of his vision there are at least a dozen more drow—mostly soldiers and one other priestess. 

 

Oh, this isn’t good.  This is a bad angle to accomplish anything.  He has one working leg, maybe—think Drizzt, how to make use of this?

 

She’s holding the dagger improperly, he thinks, too tightly and too low on the grip.  It seems a bit insulting that this is how he’s going to die—at the hands of someone who wouldn’t even be much of a challenge if he weren’t so wounded and so very drugged. His fingers feel clumsy as he inspects his bindings. Rope, not even proper manacles.  And now that he’s looking, the High Priestess’s robes are well made but not the finest material. This is not a house that’s in favor with their fickle and vicious goddess.  This is an act of desperation.

 

He blinks, and it feels like an age goes by. Partially because he keeps losing track of time, and partly because he closed his eyes and has to have a serious talk with himself to get them back open again.

 

Then the high priestess grabs a handful of his hair and pulls, exposing his throat.  The pain is—overwhelming.  Disproportionate to the action.  So maybe his head is muddled with a concussion in addition to whatever they gave him to force his complacence.  He resists instinctively to the pressure of her grip and she yanks back hard.  His vision whites; his ears ring.  But despite that, the pain is clarifying and he thinks, this is it; if you’re doing to do anything do it now.

 

He doesn’t want to die here.  He thinks of Catti-brie; he thinks of Bruenor; he thinks home, and as the bright flash of metal arcs toward his throat, he uses all of his not inconsiderable strength to wrench himself sideways, and the dagger strikes stone.  It drops from her hand as she screams in outrage and falls back.  Drizzt rolls off the dais he’d been laying on and tucks his legs.  It’s not neatly done—his entire body part feels like it’s on fire, but he gets his arms in front of him and the dagger in his hand.

 

He’s still going to die.  There are more enemies than he could possibly fight and live, but if this is the end, then he’s going to do this on his feet with a weapon in hand.

 

There’s noise—a buzzing frenzy around him.  He hears a crash somewhere, distant, or maybe very nearby, it’s impossible to tell.  His focus has narrowed to the weapon in his hand, his own breath loud in his ears, the enemy ahead of him. His shoulder blades itch, braced for a retaliation from the other drow in the room, but there’s none yet. He still has time for this. His injuries make him sloppy and his hands are still bound, but he’s deadlier than she thinks he is, and he’s right inside her space before she has a chance to recover.

 

The priestess’s face is a a contortion of fury, then of sneering contempt, then an O of shock as the dagger nicks a rib and before sliding in, all the way to the hilt.

 

It turns his stomach, as it always does, when the blood spurts hot across his hands and he sees in her face the moment she knows she’s going to die.

 

With her final breath, she snaps a word with a force of magic behind it.  He feels it like a blow and staggers with it.  The power can’t last long beyond her last exhale, but it hits him with a pain so deep it feels like a driving wedge splitting him in half.

 

And when it cuts all the way through him, it lances open something dark and quiet. 

 

Drizzt Do’Urden falls back against the dais, eyes shut reflectively against the agony, but savage focus follows in its wake, like the ripple of a lake but in reverse, leaving only stillness behind. 

 

The Hunter opens his eyes, straightens, takes a measured breath and finds balance.  The pain recedes, or more accurately becomes inconsequential, only important as a feedback, telling the Hunter how much weight his leg can probably take before it collapses, how much strength he can put behind a blow without getting winded.

 

A drow warrior, young, male, slashes at him—panicked, sloppy, and the Hunter catches the blow on the rope between his bound hands, turns into it with a twist, uses his attacker’s own momentum to overbalance him—and then, the Hunter is the one with the sword, and he completes the spin, carrying his opponent with him until he’s a living shield, taking the dart meant for the Hunter from another drow.

 

His first enemy goes down and is replaced by another, and another.  Weak, idiot soldiers with no leader, a spider spasming with its head cut off.  And yet, and yet, more and more of their attacks find their mark.  His hands are slick with blood.  His brow wet with sweat.  His movements are slowing and his stolen sword feels heavier in his hands with each parry and riposte.

 

Then his leg gives out entirely.  He catches himself on his bad knee and the whole world whites out.

 

He comes to.

 

That’s the first surprise.

 

The second is that there aren’t any drow bearing down for the kill.  At least, not in his line of vision, which is, admittedly, limited.  He’s staring at the ceiling, again.  He thinks he should get up.  The Hunter knows he should get up and fight, but all of that is far away, the Hunter no longer completely in control, and the cool rock is surprisingly comfortable.

 

Then, hands brace against his bad leg and pull.

 

He yells, jerks reflexively into a near-sitting position, and locks eyes with Artemis Entreri, who’s crouched over his leg, constructing what looks to be a sturdy splint.

 

“If you kick me I will knock you right the fuck back out,” he promises in a low rasp, hands holding steady on the splint despite the warning, flat stare both utterly familiar and utterly foreign in this setting.  He is surrounded by bodies and the whole room smells like recent, violent bloodshed. They appear to be the only two left breathing.  That is also very predictable and yet utterly surprising in these specific circumstances. 

 

The dregs of the Hunter doesn’t want another predator so close, hands on his person.  He bares his teeth in warning.

 

Artemis seems content to wait him out, expression neutral but radiating a curdled exasperation, nevertheless.

 

“What are you doing here?” Drizzt drags up with bare amounts of civility, trying not to bite into each word.

 

Artemis doesn’t bother with words, just maintains eye contact while pointedly knotting the cloth ends he’s holding, cinching the split tighter.

 

“How did you find me?” Drizzt tries again.

 

Artemis’s silvered gaze flicks to just over Drizzt’s shoulder and the drow tenses, suddenly aware of a presence coming near-silently from behind.  His heartbeat spikes but he holds still, though every instinct tells him not to.  Anyone helping Artemis in this moment will have to be someone Drizzt considers an ally, at least for the time being.

 

And then—impossibly, amazingly, a low and rumbling purr and a giant, furry, beloved head bumps gently but firmly into his shoulder.

 

“Guen?” he gasps, ignoring Artemis’s hiss of warning and the wrenching pain as he turns and throws his arms over the great panther’s furred neck.  Guenhwyvar leans into it, solid and warm.  Drizzt feels dizzy with relief.  Or possibly that’s the drugs or the blood loss or the head injury. In any case, there are several compelling reasons for Drizzt to lie back down, but before he can give in to that compulsion, he makes a massive effort to pull his face away from Guenhwyvar’s shoulder and fix Artemis with a firm though blurry glare. “If you hurt her—“

 

“Why would I hurt her? We’re a team.”

 

Drizzt wants to ask if it’s part of the fever dream that Artemis names himself a team with anyone, even with the slight sarcastic undertone Drizzt can hear.  He also wants to point out that Artemis has used Guen as a hostage before, and that they were, more often than not, on opposite sides of a conflict, and that there is little reason for trust between them, but his tongue and thoughts feel too sluggish to string that into coherent sentences, so he settles for letting a bit of the Hunter rise to the surface behind his eyes, something he knows tends to unnerve.

 

Artemis, however, just scoffs, a subtle pinching of one corner of his mouth. “She’s a giant celestial panther with a great deal more free will than the average summoned beast. She’s perfectly willing and able to bite me in half if earn her displeasure.”

 

Even as he says that, he picks up Drizzt’s hand and drops a familiar figurine into it and holds on until he’s sure Drizzt is steady enough to grip it by himself.  As soon as Artemis lets go, Drizzt can’t help but inspect the statue closely for damage. Finding none, he feels the last anxious curls of tension around his center unwind.

 

“Thank you,” he says, reverent and sincere.

 

Artemis makes a face and resumes binding Drizzt’s leg.

 

Drizzt feels a swell of fondness that startles him, but then he’s almost immediately distracted by the edges of his vision wavering and smearing.

 

“I believe I will pass out, now,” Drizzt announces.

 

“Probably for the best,” is the last thing Drizzt hears before the swallowing dark takes him.

 

He feels a bit like a leaf on a churning river, the undertow sometimes pulling him down, but sometimes he bobs to the surface.  There’s too much pain and not enough sense of safety.  He holds onto Guenhwyvar’s statue like a lifeline, but the thought of accidentally loosening his grip and losing her is horrifying and keeps startling him awake.

 

A companion travels with him. Drizzt can’t remember who, but the quiet-sure steps, the wary feeling of someone familiar but perhaps not particularly trustworthy at his back, and the calloused fingers that occasionally check his pulse stir a memory, deep and old.

 

“Dinin,” he says, and the grip on his wrist tightens and stills. Drizzt squints, but the angle is wrong and his eyes won’t focus, so he can’t make out his brother’s expression.  He can guess it isn’t a happy one. “How bad is it?”

 

“Bad,” comes the reply, low and harsh, even though the hand anchoring him remains almost gentle, hold tight but not painful, even while everything is painful. “We should see about getting a healing potion in you—thankfully, that priestess bitch had a few on her.”

 

Panic surges—Dinin would never disrespect a priestess of Lolth, not where others may hear—would he?  Unless—something is very wrong, here.

 

Drizzt tries to sit straight, tries to see who might be within hearing range. But when he looks over, it’s just Artemis, alone, kneeling at his side, fingers digging into Drizzt’s pulse.

 

“You with me?” he asks, grey eyes steady on Drizzt, gauging.

 

He tries to hold that intense gaze, but it slides out of sight as he tips forward. “You shouldn’t be here,” he mumbles into the assassin’s shoulder.

 

“Neither should you.”

 

The shoulder under his face is too firm and armored to be comfortable, and yet, Drizzt feels comforted by it. “You should blame me.”

 

“Sure.  For what?”

 

“If they come to punish us, blame me.  I am a known troublemaker. They’ll believe it, and I can keep you safe.”

 

“You can’t even sit up without passing out. Besides, no one in my entire life has ever thought that I’m someone who needs saving.”

 

“I do.”

 

Artemis is so still and so silent for so long, that Drizzt wonders if it’s Artemis who has fallen asleep this time.  Drizzt is gathering the energy to raise his head and check, when Artemis speaks.

 

“You’re an idiot.” But it’s said softly, without the usual hidden blade in the tone.

 

Drizzt has a reply to this, somewhere in the dregs of his thoughts, but then a hand comes up and cups the back of his head, and he can feel the tension seep out of him at that tentative touch.  He knows he should stay awake, but in Artemis’s embrace, there’s no resisting the pull into unconsciousness. 

 

At one point there’s a damp cloth touching his brow, cool water touching his lips.  He gulps greedily and someone chastises him to drink slower.

 

“Catti-Brie?” he asks of the darkness behind his eyelids.  He hasn’t bothered looking.  His eyes feel gummed up and heavy.

 

There’s a pause.  A snort. A distinctly male voice that says, “I’m not sure which of us should be more insulted.”

 

Drizzt ponders that and maybe thinks about it too long because when he finally says, “It’s because of your kindness.”

 

Artemis says, “What?” Like he’s completely lost the thread of their dialogue.

 

Maybe that’s because time has passed, again. There’s trickling water nearby.  There wasn’t any before, but now there is.  The air is cooler.  Drizzt opens his eyes and squints into the darkness and realizes he’s on his back again, on some sort of make-shift stretcher, Guenhwyvar strapped into a cobbled-together harness.  Artemis leaning against a wall nearby, curled in on himself slightly.  It makes Drizzt frown.  When he sees Drizzt looking he straightens and approaches.

 

“Think you can swallow a potion without choking?”

 

Drizzt nods, trying not to show how much that small movement makes him nauseous.

 

“The kindness you’ve shown me,” Drizzt tries to clarify. “It is not unwelcome but it is also not expected.  I must be in truly dire condition, to have earned such compassion.”

 

Artemis is doing his best to keep his face neutral, but he’s not particularly good at it, or perhaps Drizzt is just particularly good at reading him, but either way,  it’s clear he thinks Drizzt is being ridiculous.

 

There’s a bit of a dance before they both realize Drizzt is still too uncoordinated to handle the potion himself. Then the assassin takes Drizzt’s chin in one hand and uncorks the healing potion with his teeth, and Drizzt feels his mind go quiet. Artemis tips the vial against Drizzt’s lips and watches him swallow with a single minded focus that possibly should be alarming, but Drizzt is wrapped in the soft intimacy of the moment.

 

Then Artemis leans down and say, “If you ever call me ‘kind’ again I will leave you here to the rats and the damp and the miserable dark.”

 

Drizzt thinks, No you won’t with another swell of fondness, and then the healing potion surges, too fast and bright for his mind to process, and it shuts down in response.

 

The fever shakes him awake.  He’s too hot, and then too cold, and the trembling of his bones won’t stop.  He doesn’t realize he’s whimpering until someone presses a hand over his mouth and whispers against his ear.

 

“You have got to be quieter.” The voice is a rasp in the dark. Drizzt can’t see who it is from this angle, but the voice is familiar.  He doesn’t struggle but stays tense, waiting for the other to elaborate on the danger.  He has the vague idea that they’re sitting, propped on a wall. “You’re drawing attention to us and we’re not in a particularly defensible position, here.  Your cat had to go home and we can’t call her back, yet.”

 

Home, Drizzt thinks. Is this home? He thinks he recognizes it, if only a little. But he’s outside of the Do’Urden compound.  Has he been kidnapped?  His sister warned him that this might be something that could happen, should he stray too far.

 

The hand eases from his mouth and Drizzt says, “She won’t give you anything.”

 

There’s a pause, and Drizzt curls tighter, trying to make himself small.  Why do his limbs feel so large?  Where is his father? His father is swift and clever and he will come for Drizzt, if he can manage to slip away.

 

“Who won’t?”

 

“Matron Mother of House Do’Urden.”

 

“Your mother?”

 

Drizzt shivers harder and says softly, “You shouldn’t call her that.  She doesn’t like it.”

 

There’s another pause, this one longer, and even through his muddled thoughts, Drizzt can sense the cold anger that radiates from his companion. It should make Drizzt more afraid, but instead it makes the dread recede a little.  There’s something in that rage that feels like walking into a house where he knows he’s welcome.

 

“Drizzt, listen to me,” the other says. “No one is going to hurt you, I promise.” It’s strange, but Drizzt believes him, even before he wraps Drizzt’s hands around cool glass and continues, “You’re going to drink this, and then you’re going to get out of here, and everything will be as it should be.”

 

Even as a child, Drizzt knew better than to drink potions given to him by strangers, but there are no strangers here.  Drizzt tilts the the vial and swallows the contents and at the grip of gloved hands over his is a warm reassurance, one that soaks into his bones and blood, or maybe that’s the healing potion starting to work.

 

Drizzt loses more time.

 

When he comes to he knows where and when he is, and even why. His leg and his brain are no longer on fire, the world no longer spinning and strange. He’s fathoms below Waterdeep, having taken a job to clear out a giant spider infestation, and run into much more trouble than he’d been prepared to find.

 

There’s the aftertaste of magic on his tongue and a weight slumped against his side, too still.  Drizzt shifts carefully, wary of being on the receiving end of one of the assassin’s sharp blades, but Artemis doesn’t stir at all as Drizzt maneuvers him into a prone position, head pillowed on Drizzt’s thigh.  That’s alarming, but even worse, is the strong smell of blood that hits Drizzt’s senses.  They’re both covered in it, patches drying sticky-scratchy, but this is new.  A wound reopening.

 

He tamps down panic and reaches for the pouch on his waist, instinctively.  Fortunately, the panther statue is in its place, and Guenhwyvar is quick to respond.

 

“Hello, friend,” he says as she rumbles a happy greeting and butts against him gently.  She guards his back as he kneels beside Artemis and does a quick assessment of wounds, staunching the blood flow as best he can and searching for additional healing potions, finding none. “He had me drink the last one.”

 

He looks at Guenhwyvar, who looks back at him, patient, as Drizzt presses a bunched corner of his cloak to Artemis’s sluggishly bleeding side and studies the assassin’s pale profile.  He remembers—vaguely—the mention of possible enemies nearby, but he also knows that they’re close to the array that had sent him down here and will take them home if only he can reach it.

 

His knee aches, and his head still feels a bit like it’s full of spiderwebs, but he picks up Artemis’s rapier and feels its balance settle something inside him.

 

“It looks like we’ll be doing the last leg of this rescue, my friend,” he says to his panther companion, who answers by standing and loping off into the dark.

 

It takes a moment to maneuver Artemis over his shoulder while keeping one hand on the sword before he following after her. The dark is almost a comfort in its familiarity, but he’s ready to return to the surface where he belongs.

 

~*~

 

He comes to.

 

That’s not a great surprise, considering who he passed out next to.  Still, Artemis has never been happier to see the faded paint on the walls of a mid-tier inn and smell the faint, ever-present fish-and-sea scent that permeates all of Waterdeep.

 

The scrape of a boot against wood is deliberate.  The drow is too good to make that kind of noise accidentally—as long as he’s not dying of blood loss and delirious out of his head, anyway.

 

Artemis turns his head and considers the elf that is sitting in a chair pulled up close to the bed.  He looks—fine, Artemis thinks with relief, and then resentment at that relief. Drizzt’s clothes are no longer bloodstained, his hair neat, his violet eyes clear and steady.  Perhaps it’s the warmth of the room, or in his companion’s eyes that loosens his tongue, but the first thing he says is, “They couldn’t put you someplace nicer?” The words feel rough in his throat, like gravel.

 

“I pay my own way,” Drizzt says, voice melodious and quiet and hiding a velvet burr of humor.

 

Artemis tries a sneer but that seems to just make the other more amused, before his eyes slide over Artemis, assessing damage, and his expression sobers.

 

“You gave me the last healing potion.”

 

It’s more of a gently posed inquiry than an accusation, but Artemis can feel himself bristling, though he tries not to show it. He finds himself flat-footed and clumsy in this conversation, and not well enough, yet, to fling himself out the window to avoid it. “What of it?”

 

Drizzt studies him, radiating a peaceful calm that makes Artemis immediately want to kick him in the face.

 

“If you lecture me,” Artemis warns, “I will stab you in the throat.”

 

If Drizzt asks why—why he’d nearly gotten himself killed attempting an ill-conceived and badly planned rescue, Artemis may have to stab himself in his own throat, rather than admit that he’d heard that Drizzt was in trouble and had run to get him out of it with little to no regard for his own safety.  It’s not something that he’s looked at too closely himself, afraid of what he might find at the heart of his motivations.

 

“Perhaps I shall save that for another time, then,” Drizzt says, humor returning, much to Artemis’s dismay. “And for now I will simply say—thank you.”

 

And that—that kills all the arguments spinning themselves hot and sharp in his chest.  A dust devil whirling into and then immediately out of existence before it gets a chance to fully form.  He slumps a little against the pillows that have been expertly fluffed, and glances at the clouded glass of the window.  It’s late morning, by the light.

 

“I’ll go as soon as I can,” he says.

There’s a beat of silence, and then another deliberate sound as Drizzt shifts in his chair to lean closer.

 

“You can,” he says, “if that’s what you want.”

 

There’s more to that sentence, some hook to pull him out of the safety of the cold depths and onto the bright surface.  If Artemis turns and looks at Drizzt, he knows that he won’t have enough strength to resist that pull.  He sets his jaw and glares at the morning, doing his best to ignore the presence behind him, who is all at once very quiet and too loud.  But Artemis has never been particularly good at resisting Drizzt’s pull.

 

He turns.

 

“But you don’t have to,” Drizzt concludes.

 

Drizzt’s eyes are luminous, the planes of his handsome face well-suited to the light.  Artemis finds himself staring.

 

“Why wouldn’t I want to?” It’s only the natural rough cadence of his voice that prevents him from sounding a bit breathless.

 

“Well, if we traveled together then perhaps neither of us would need a rescue.”

 

Artemis holds out for as long as he can, but then Drizzt smiles, and it knocks all the air from his lungs.  He looks away and tries to pull in a subtle breath.

 

“I guess that wouldn’t be terrible,” he concedes.

 

“Thank the goddess.  I was worried I would have to order Guenhwyvar to sit on you.”

 

Artemis replies with a snarl, only half-meant, and the laugh that pulls out of Drizzt, soft but sincere, feels a little bit like coming home.