Spoiler: OOC: The Good, the Bad, and the Content WarningsShow
Chapter 0: The End of a Beginning
80 Phoenix, 1330
"Nakoa? It's me."
Nakoa crouched on the floor of her apartment in the Black Citadel, shedding pieces of crimson armor all over the floor. Her head snapped up at the sound of Shareth's voice and her teeth clacked together hard enough to make her jaw smart. "Aw, hell." Chunks of armor still clinging to her massive frame, she muscled open the door. "Give me one good reason not to put my fist in your teeth," she demanded before Shareth could even say hello. Nakoa flexed her fingers for emphasis, the armored joints of her gloves clinking.
The Black Citadel hulked skyward--an iron behemoth of a city, its metal joints clanking and whirring in the smog. A vile place. Nakoa felt right at home in all the worst ways. She'd rented a room--well, squatted in one, really--so deep in the city's industrial bowels that she saw the glow of the smiths' fires more often than she saw the sun. How Shareth had found her down here, outside the dump where she'd been living, was beyond her.
Shareth crunched her chin to her chest as if to make herself seem smaller. She was still a full head taller than Nakoa. Skinnier, yes, but not by much--and anyway, plenty of things were skinnier than Nakoa. She was trying to look contrite, Nakoa guessed.
It was eleven months too late for that. Shareth bobbed, auburn curls spiraling out of their braid and falling against the elegant line of her cheek. "I need your help," she said.
Nakoa busted out laughing. "I thought you were a twelve-tongued, snake-faced lying bitch--not stupid."
Shareth flinched. "Now, that's not fair--"
"Isn't it? Sugar, you oughta see the scar." Nakoa slapped her thigh. Beneath the layer of plate mail, a thick, knotted rope of scar tissue climbed from the outside of her knee nearly to her hip. "It was near on two months before I was walkin' right again, and the docs said that was lucky."
Shareth stared down at her boots. All around them, the city rumbled like an engine and gasped black smoke. "I didn't know."
"'course not. You lit out on me. What'd you think I was gonna do--send you a postcard? You still wouldn't know iffn you'd had the good sense to stay well enough away."
"He's comin' after me, Ko."
Nakoa sneered and turned her face away. Nobody much called her "Ko" anymore. Nobody she'd talk to, anyway--or nobody who'd talk to her. "Don't call me that."
"Did you hear me? Thayne is coming after me."
"Betcha that sucks." Thayne was a violent, powerful, terrifying man--well known (in places where such things are known) for running a weapons racket. Not quite a year ago, a smuggler named Sorinne sold him out and then hired Nakoa and Shareth to protect her as she fled Thayne's retaliation. Nakoa had completed that assignment. Shareth had not.
Nakoa turned to go back inside.
"Nakoa!" Desperation crept into Shareth's voice. "I know you know how Sorinne got out. Where she went to be safe."
Nakoa paused with one hand on the door frame. "So what? Whaddayou think I am, Shareth--sentimental? You think I care what happens to you?"
"I know you do."
Nakoa winced. "You think you know a lot, huh? You're screwed. Don'tcha come knockin 'round here no more--if you survive."
Nakoa shut the door before Shareth could wedge in another word and set the lock so fiercely the door rattled. She forced herself to stare into the trash-strewn gloom, ridding herself of the last pieces of her armor and thinking about how she should clean up, she should really at least try--a decent person wouldn't have all those beer bottles lying around, that sweaty heap of laundry wadded in the corner. For a long time, she felt Shareth's presence heavy on the other side of the door and saw her shadow moving beneath it. Nakoa ignored it. She ignored it until she couldn't, and then she wrenched open the door with an insult on her lips--Fuck off ya godsdamned backbitin--
There was nobody there.
Nakoa didn't sleep much that night. Maybe she had eaten too much. Maybe she'd gone a little too hard on the liquor. Maybe not. When she did sleep, her dreams tumbled back through all those dusty-booted days, before the business with Thayne and Sorinne. They'd beaten a lot of miles into the road together, she and Shareth. For almost two years, they'd made a pretty good team. A warm, steady confidence filled Nakoa's memories. The smell of those smoky campfire nights. Shareth's laughter. It was good to have someone who could tell a joke on nights like those.
She awoke alone in the black, nauseous, listening to the grumble of the city. "Shit," she muttered, and rolled out of bed. Eleven months was not such a long a time that she didn't know where to search for Shareth. She buckled herself into her armor, packed the things she knew she'd need, and plunged into the smoggy twilight of the Black Citadel.
There was a bar at the bottom of the city--the Chipped Claw, a greasy, dingy rat-hole of a place where no decent folks ever went. Nakoa and Shareth had been regulars there when they happened to be in the Citadel. It was one of the few places they could go without worrying about the charr, because the charr who went there had worse things on their minds than heckling humans, and the humans who went there weren't worth heckling anyway.
The Chipped Claw didn't abide by any seemly schedule. It must have been pushing four in the morning by the time Nakoa got there, but people crammed the bar anyway. She stood for a moment on the outskirts of the crowd, squinting through a haze of pipe smoke. No Shareth. She pushed past the hustlers and gamblers to the counter. "I'm lookin' for..." She hesitated. Shareth would know better than to use her real name. "For Teona Shingle."
The bartender was a massive, wiry charr missing one ear and the tip of the opposite horn. He snarled at her. "None o' yer business."
Nakoa had expected this. She laid a gold piece on the counter, making sure he saw it but keeping it pinned beneath her palm until he said, "Upstairs, third door on the right."
"Hah." People were cheap--or maybe it was just poverty that made them that way.
The stairs creaked under her weight as she made her way to the building's second story. People lounged in the hallway, blowing clouds of blue smoke and watching her pass with hungry eyes. "Need a hand out o' that armor?" someone offered.
Nakoa ignored them. She raised her fist to knock on the third door to the right--and stopped. It was already open. An inch of lamplight shone between the door and its frame. Maybe she was too late. Her stomach did a flop, and she tugged her sword from its sheath, edging the door open with her toe.
The room was in shambles. Someone had slashed the mattress, straw bleeding out onto the floor and bedsheets dripping off the frame. A splintered dresser lay on its face in a pool of water. Chunks of the smashed washbasin scattered the floor. The bathroom door stood ajar, blood seeping from beneath it.
Nakoa raised her sword and inched towards the bathroom door. "Anyone hidin' in there, you best come out while you got the chance, hear?"
There was a clatter and a scrape from inside the bathroom. Someone hitched open the door. "Nakoa?"
Shareth stood in the bathroom doorway, a knife in her hand, drenched to the elbow in blood. More blood splattered her chest and the tops of her thighs. Nakoa could see the outline of a body on the ground behind her. One of Thayne's people, she guessed. Someone sent to kill Shareth.
Nakoa lowered her sword, letting the tip come to rest near her feet. "How mucha that's yours?"
Shareth looked down at herself. Under the layer of blood, she was pale, shaken. Her hair clung to the sweat on her forehead. "Not much."
"You really are in deep shit, huh?"
Shareth lifted her chin and narrowed her eyes. Nakoa could see how scared she was--and how much she didn't want to show it. "Don't tell me you came all the way out here at this hour just to badger me."
"Hah. Serve ya right if I did." Nakoa swung her sword back into its sheath, turning away from Shareth to push closed the door to the hallway. "Clean yourself up--we got a long way to go, and fast, before someone comes up here askin' questions."
Shareth did her best to scrub the blood from her skin and armor, but there wasn't much to be done about the mess that had soaked into her clothes. She was running light and hadn't packed any extra--and Nakoa's nerves stretched thinner by the minute. Thayne was no one to toy with; Nakoa didn't relish the idea of running into him or his goons in the confines of an inn room. Or at all.
In the end, they stripped a blanket from the bed and fashioned it into a crude cloak for Shareth. The Black Citadel was a city used to violence, and Nakoa had never met a charr surprised by blood, but it couldn't hurt to minimize the curiosity. They left the body where it lay: Shareth had rented the room for the whole night, and they hoped no one would find the corpse until the morning. Neither one of them spoke about it. They'd killed a lot of people in their lifetimes--it was too late now to reckon with conscience.
The Chipped Claw had seen stranger things than Nakoa and her hooded companion. No one spoke to them on the way out except the same hopeful in the hallway, who offered a second time to help Nakoa out of her armor. Outside, the air hit their faces like a blast from an oven. The sky was only just beginning to fade from black to gray, and already the day was beginning to heat up. A breeze carried the tang of hot metal from the south, where the Imperial Smelter belched gasses to the sky.
Thayne clearly knew that Shareth was in the Citadel; he would have eyes on the asura gate. So they would travel the old-fashioned way--by foot, following the path Sorinne had taken into the Shiverpeaks. From the moment they stepped into the street, Nakoa set her teeth and did not unclench them until they'd passed the city gates. The temperature fell beyond the walls, smoke and fumes dissipating into the lightening sky. The sun was coming up, the great red rim of it flaming along the bottom of the eastern sky.
For a long, long time, they walked in silence. A year ago, that would have been neither strange nor uncomfortable--they had spent so many lazy, companionable hours together without a word spoken between them. This was different--a thorny silence that worked its way under Nakoa's armor and prickled on the back of her neck.
"Why did you come back?" Shareth asked at last. The sun was well up, now, staring out over the Plains of Ashford. Beneath it, Nakoa felt like a rabbit with nowhere to hide.
Nakoa didn't look at her. She was walking in front, her eyes doggedly fixed on the metal toes of her own boots, doing her best to keep her mind blank and empty of memories. "You oughta know better'n to question your own good luck."
"Let's pretend I don't." Shareth had such a pretty way of speaking, her syllables trimmed and sculpted, almost laughably prim--a rich girl on the wrong side of the garden wall. Toughest princess I ever met, Nakoa used to tease.
Nakoa chewed the inside of her cheek. Licked sweat from her upper lip. "Don't push it, Shareth. It ain't too late for me to turn right back around and leave you out here, and I've already got more'n half a mind to do it."
Shareth shut her mouth, then, and wisely kept it shut for a good long while.
Nakoa was used to walking long distances in her armor--you could never tell when you'd need to be wearing it--but even so, it was high summer, and by noon she was feeling it. Perspiration dripped between her shoulder blades and off her forehead. Her breath thinned to rough mouthfuls of hot air. Only a smattering of crooked trees forested the Plains, and by now they'd passed beyond most of those into broad, meadowed hills. There was no shade, and there was no water, so when they came across a thicket of low-lying shrubs, Nakoa stopped and said, "Rest here."
Shareth stopped, too, her eyes flicking across the empty landscape. Green eyes, dark and uneasy as the sea. "Rest?"
Nakoa had already gotten down on her knees, shucking off her pack and wriggling into the brush. She could see a wide swath of the landscape through the tangle of branches. Good--if Thayne showed up, she'd have a chance to spot him coming. "Well, I'm gonna. It's hot, and I ain't hardly slept. If you wanna keep walkin', that's your choice."
She knew Shareth well enough to picture her frown and the crease it made between her rust-colored eyebrows. "I don't know where I'm going."
"Oh, huh. Mebbe you should wait for me, then."
Shareth sighed and knelt with a clatter of armor, wedging herself into the scrub beside Nakoa. Not close, but not far enough, either--the thicket wasn't big enough for that. Nakoa shut her eyes, but she couldn't sleep. She couldn't relax. Shareth's breath--steady, even, too familiar--rasped like sandpaper on her nerves.
They'd lain like this a year ago, side by side on their backs in the Plains of Ashford, staring up at the night sky. Not on a job, then. That was before Sorinne. Shareth gazed up at the stars, pointing out constellations and spinning out of them all the myths that Nakoa had never been interested to learn. Nakoa, listening to the rise and fall of Shareth's voice, feeling soft and peaceful, still wasn't interested. Little, ordinary things filled Shareth with wonder--stars, bugs, the wind in the grass. Nakoa had long since lost the knack of that.
In the bush, now, with the sun glaring down on them, Nakoa tugged off her gauntlet and laid her bare palm over the metal that concealed the scar on her thigh. Their friendship was gone. Ruined. Better not to remember how things had been before. Enough to do what she'd come to do and wash her hands of the whole thing.
"Where are we going?"
Nakoa thought Shareth had fallen asleep, but apparently not. Maybe her thoughts ran the same way Nakoa's did. Nakoa took a moment to answer, wondering if she could pretend to be asleep, and decided against it. Shareth knew her too well for that. "Kletturborg. Some village in the Shiverpeaks," she said. "Friend o' Sorinne's, Heoden, can disappear you. You'd know that if you'da been there."
There was a little hiss of air between Shareth's teeth. "Friend of yours, too?"
"Well enough. I was holed up there for two months healin' after what you did."
Shareth was quiet for such a long time that Nakoa thought for sure she'd fallen asleep. Then she said, "I'm sorry--about what happened."
Twigs crisscrossed the sky over Nakoa's face. She blew out a breath and watched the leaves shudder with it. "Hah." Even to her own ears, her bravado sounded forced. "It's a lot too late for that, sugar."
"Oof." Shareth made a sound like she'd been hit. Then she rolled over, a clamor of metal armor and stung feelings, and maybe she finally did fall asleep.
They stayed in the brush until the sun began to sink and the earth began finally to cool off. Then they wormed their way out into the open again, counting on the twilight to hide them as they finished the trek to the Shiverpeaks. It wasn't far--not by the standards of any ordinary travel--but with the threat of eyes at their backs, it seemed like an eternity. By midnight, they'd passed from the foothills into the first of the mountains. The wind rose and the temperature fell as they climbed. One minute it would be silent, and the next a great blustery gust would come howling out of nowhere, roaring up from a chasm or ripping so fast along the cliff face that they had to stop and cling to rocks or roots until the gale stopped for breath. The trail banked sharply skyward as the land tilted at drunken angles on either side of it. It was narrow, barely broad enough for the two of them to edge along single-file, and in some places it had eroded to little more than a series of footholds. No sane person would have walked it at night. Not unless they were desperate.
They paused again when the path wheeled around a bend and brought them into the protection of a cleft in the rock. The remains of someone else's cookfire scattered the ground, and Nakoa stood longingly looking down on it. They couldn't risk lighting one of their own. Instead, she slung down her pack from her shoulders and rooted around in it until she found the little pouch of trail food that she'd brought--jerky and nuts and a few pieces of dried fruit, things that wouldn't spoil. "Here." She held out a handful to Shareth, who almost smiled, looking hopeful. Nakoa scowled. "I know how you get when you're hungry, and I don't want to deal with it. Eat, asshole."
Even in the dim light of the moon, Nakoa saw Shareth's optimism sour. "You know what? Fuck you." She slapped the food out of Nakoa's hand and peanuts went flying off the rock face, skittering down into the ravine below them. "You want to go, you go. I tried to apologize."
"Yeah, well, sorry don't cut it in this case."
"What does, then?"
"Nothing. Not one damn thing. Go on, if you think you can make it without me. This ain't my problem."
Shareth turned away, and for one terrible second Nakoa thought she would go and almost called out to stop her. Then Shareth spun back around. Gravel crunched beneath her feet. "Why'd you come back for me then? If you don't care, why not just let me die?"
"You left me behind." It wasn't what Nakoa had meant to say. She'd meant to fling back some other acerbic insult, something else pointless and hurtful. Instead, her voice was rising, getting higher, echoing off the mountainsides around them. She hated it when her voice got high. "Thayne's guys had us there, Sorinne and me, and things got hot and you turned tail and ran away. What the hell am I supposed to say, Shareth? 'It's okay'? 'I forgive ya'? 'Cuz I damn well don't. I almost died. Two years. Two years we was a team, and you just up and went and didn't even look back?"
"There were too many of them." Shareth's fingers flexed at her side, her eyes bright and fixed on Nakoa's. "You said it yourself--don't you remember? We thought we were all going down, and I've never been on the hunt for a noble death."
"Well guess what? I ain't dead. I finished that godsdamned assignment and got Sorinne alive where she was s'posed to go. I thought we was friends, you'n me. I thought you had my back."
"Since when have you given a turd about honor or loyalty? I've seen how you handle your friends."
"It could have been me."
Nakoa could feel the blood rushing through her hands. She balled them into fists and slammed them against the rock. "It wasn't. It wouldn't've been. Eleven months. You never came back in all that time. Did you even know if I was alive?"
"No." Shareth said it so readily, so baldly, that Nakoa dropped her hands to her sides and just stared. "I didn't know you were alive until I saw you yesterday."
"Did you wonder?" Nakoa asked--and immediately hated herself for asking. Her voice sounded so small, so fragile. She was not small or fragile.
Shareth's face closed as swiftly as if someone had pulled the drawstring. She turned her head away, exposing the elegant line of her profile, aquiline nose sketched in a spear of moonlight. "Are you staying or going?"
Nakoa grabbed up her pack and crammed a fistful of food into her mouth. "Yeah."
Shareth wedged herself out of the cleft without looking to see if Nakoa followed her, and Nakoa, wishing she wouldn't, did.
Gradually, the path leveled out--gentled and broadened, working its way onto even ground and away from the edge of the cliff. That was good for navigating by moonlight, but Nakoa almost wished it would stay treacherous. Safety left too much of her mind free to wander. The wind had died down, too. The night was quiet. Deep. Even the singing of the insects had fallen to a muted whistle--maybe they didn't like the altitude. The dull, rhythmic tramp of their own footsteps filled Nakoa's head: thud, thud, thud. No resolution and no relief. Thud, thud. An hour, maybe more, passed that way. Nakoa watched the moon work its way across the sky, her chest as heavy and tight as if her lungs had filled with sand.
"I did wonder," Shareth said at last. "If you were dead."
Nakoa said nothing--just kept walking, thud thud thud, letting Shareth's words drop into the dirt.
Shareth kept talking anyway. "I went back to Smokestead. Stayed there for a good long time. I knew you wouldn't go there--you'd go back to the Citadel, if you survived--and I thought so many times maybe I'd run into you by chance, or I'd even come to look for you..."
Something in Nakoa's gut twisted and curled over on itself. All this time, Shareth had been a forty-five minute walk away. "But ya never did."
"I knew how angry you'd be," Shareth said, quietly.
Nakoa laughed a little. She couldn't help herself. It wasn't a funny laugh--a broken-bottle sound that clattered on the rocks. Too many sharp edges. "Damn straight."
"And I knew how hurt you'd be."
Nakoa didn't have anything to say to that. She didn't want to be hurt. All these layers of armor, the years of training, her arms corded with fighting muscles, the sword strapped to her back. She should be untouchable.
Then Shareth stopped and turned around and said, "I'm sorry, Ko," and Nakoa felt all the air go out of her. She stopped, too--just stood there, doughy and blank and such a long way from untouchable. She dropped her gaze. Cleared her throat. Her anger had abandoned her, and all her words went with it.
A shot split the night, hard and familiar as the edge of a blade. Her sword was in her hand before she'd made a decision to draw it--"Shareth, get down!"
Shareth was already down, lanky body folded and tucked behind the cover of a boulder. A second shot followed the first--Nakoa heard the bullet whistle overhead. Four figures appeared over the rise behind her: booted, narrow, all smaller than she. Sylvari, maybe. It was hard to tell in this light, and at this distance. Moonlight traced the barrel of a rifle, skipped off the muzzle of at least one pistol. The men scuttled up the path--bent nearly double, hunting. Their leather armor made not a sound. They must have heard Nakoa and Shareth a mile off in their platemail: Nakoa loved her armor, but there were times when it didn't do her one lick of good.
She flung herself down beside Shareth, clutching her sword and blaspheming under her breath. She owned a rifle. She'd left it at home, like any shithead idiot would do, and anyway, she wasn't much of a shot. Especially not in the dark.
Shareth glanced at her and lifted her brows. Nakoa could just see it in the gray haze of the moonlight, and she felt a split-second flash of the old camaraderie between them. They'd complemented each other perfectly--Nakoa with her greatsword and Shareth, who could beat a sniper at a game of darts. Shareth was already working her pistols loose from the leather holsters on her hips, struggling to keep her body crunched behind the bolder. "I'll cover you," she whispered.
"Hah. Like old times?"
"No time to be bitter now, Ko."
Shareth rolled one way, and Nakoa went the other, scrambling out from behind the rock. She could see Shareth from the corners of her eyes, running, firing at the men with both hands as she bolted for the twisted tree that offered the only other scrap of cover. The men ducked and scrambled closer, keeping to the grassy side of the path. The other side dropped away into the gorge below.
Nakoa came to her feet in a crouch, working in the other direction, hugging the edge of the cliff as she skimmed towards the men. Shareth had distracted them, but one of them turned as she got close, shouting a warning, swinging his gun around to face her--bang. The bullet clipped her shoulder pauldron. Shrapnel fanged her cheek and her skull rang like a bell.
Nakoa had two decades of hard training under her belt. Step--pivot--lunge--and then the familiar hot wash of blood working into the joints of her gauntlets. Human, then. Her sword went through him to the hilt, the leather armor useless as a nightgown against four vicious feet of steel. She twisted the blade--for efficiency more than cruelty--and shed his body from the sword with a foot on his chest.
The shot to her pauldron had wrecked her hearing. Her head felt muffled, lopsided. Someone shouted something, but she couldn't make out the words. Then one of the other men was in front of her, rifle butted to his shoulder.
Nakoa flinched--but it was Shareth's gun. Nakoa's attacker toppled, Shareth behind him by ten or fifteen feet with a pistol in her hand and a corpse crumpled at her feet, her voice swimming down to Nakoa through the headache of static--"Ko--look out!"
Nakoa raised her sword and spun around--too late. Something hard--the stock of a gun--crashed into her head. Light exploded behind her eyes. She went down, the world reeling, sword slipping from her fingers even as she fumbled for it with both hands. Blood ran down into her eyes. She could just see the last gunman stepping over her, the black maw of his weapon aimed at her face, and a flash of Shareth's heels as she ran in the opposite direction.
Nakoa woke up fighting, a fist lurching blind and meeting nothing but empty space. Pain zigzagged through her skull. A sound came out of her, loose as vomit, more of a gurgle than a groan.
Then a hand on her shoulder. "Quit it. You'll make it worse."
She collapsed under the weight of that hand. It didn't take much pressure to do that to her--her strength was gone, swallowed by the pain. With effort, she assembled the sounds in her mouth into a word: "Shareth?"
"I can't see."
"Your whole face is tied up in bandages. Doc says it's better that way."
There was a rustle of fabric, a wooden scrape as Shareth adjusted something. The hand lifted from Nakoa's shoulder, and she missed it immediately. "Some norn. I don't know."
Nakoa worked her jaw, feeling all the places where it hurt. Her teeth felt too big for her mouth, and the whole right side of her face throbbed. "We safe?"
"I think so. For now."
It took a lot of effort for Nakoa to lift her hands to the level of her face, but she managed it and began to tear at the bandages.
"If I ain't dead yet, I don't reckon takin off this godsdamned blindfold's gonna do it." Light seared her eyes, stinging tears. The world was a watery blur--warm colors, firelight, wood. She blinked, wincing, and gradually her surroundings pieced themselves together: a lodge, ludicrously oversized to norn scale. Nakoa was a big person, and the bed she lay in would have fit three of her. Shareth sat on a stool by the bedside, still wearing her bloodstained armor, her eyes shot and runny from stress or exhaustion. A bruise purpled one cheekbone, her chin crosshatched with gravely scrapes.
"Don't tell me ya carried me here," Nakoa said.
Shareth didn't quite smile--a pathetic twitch of the lips, as though she lacked the energy for real humor. "Thayne's guys had raptors, you lucky bastard. I found them tied up down the hill. That's how they caught up to us."
"So now you're a raptor thief and a turncoat, huh?"
The not-smile vanished.
Nakoa, feeling awful about it, pressed ahead anyway. "I saw you run away, sugar."
"Well, sugar," Shareth began, her white-picket accent filed down short and sharp, "I guess you took that blow to the head pretty hard, because clearly you saw wrong. If I'd run away, you wouldn't be here. You'd be dead. You're welcome."
"You ran away, and then he shot me," Nakoa snapped back. "What'm I supposed to be thankin you for again? Havin too much of a guilty conscience to let me bleed out there?"
Shareth leaned forward, her fingers bunched in a fist, and pounded the edge of the bed. A dull ache reverberated through Nakoa's head. "He didn't shoot you, Ko, I shot him. You fainted."
Nakoa squinted, blinking when another wash of tears filled up her vision. "I...fainted?"
"Yeah. You took that knock, and he was going to shoot you, but I got him first. You passed out."
"...Huh." Nakoa deflated, shutting her eyes to parse this information in the relative comfort of darkness.
"You could say 'I'm sorry,' jerkwad."
"To you?" Nakoa put in a derisive snort because she felt uncertain and hated admitting it. She was not good at apologies.
Shareth held fast. "The same," she said.
Nakoa dawdled just until the silence turned sour, until her last shot at grace had curdled and gone bitter. "I'm sorry," she muttered, and for good measure added, "Thanks for savin me. This time."
Shareth sighed. Nakoa could picture the slump of her shoulders. "You never do change, Ko," she said. "Listen--I'm sorry, too. I know you don't believe me--"
Nakoa interrupted her. "I do believe you."
Shareth blew a slow breath between her teeth. She was silent for so long that Nakoa opened her eyes and hitched herself onto her side, grunting. Shareth had her hands folded in her lap. She sat with her head bent, looking down at her primly stacked knuckles.
"Hey. Look at me," Nakoa said, and Shareth did. "I don't think I can forgive you for whatcha did."
Hurt flashed through those stormcloud eyes. Shareth's chest rose--fell. She nodded.
"But I accept your apology."
"Then..." Shareth's voice faded to a question mark.
"Did you get us to Kletturborg?"
"So I'll talk to my guy Heoden and we'll get you disappeared."
"And you and I..?"
Nakoa fell onto her back again, aching, a terrible scooped-out hollowness lodged between her lungs. "I reckon it's best that that's the last of us."
"Sure," said Shareth, softly, and left it at that.
Nakoa was concussed, but not seriously injured. She spent a day and a half in bed, under the care of a very stern norn healer who threatened to tie her down if she didn't stay put. She believed him, and so she stayed put.
On the afternoon of her release, Nakoa and Shareth walked out of town to a scrubby farmstead wedged in a cleft between mountains. It had been built for norns--the door frame towered high enough that Nakoa could have carried Shareth through on piggyback--but somewhere along the lines it had been taken over by Heoden, a rangy, wild-eyed human with a crunchy scribble of dark hair. He met them at the door, turning his head first one way, then the other, the way a rooster looks at the world through one eye at a time. "I know you," he said at last, flattening his wiry unibrow at Nakoa. "Sorinne's friend."
To call Nakoa and Sorinne friends was a stretch. They had been closer, perhaps, after Shareth skipped out--Sorinne had had enough of that in her own life to empathize--but Sorinne was Nakoa's client, and Nakoa Sorinne's contractor. At some point, real friendship became impossible.
Still, Nakoa arranged her bruised face into some impersonation of a smile and said, "Yeah, that's me. Look--I need a favor. We can pay for it."
One end of the unibrow tilted up. "I think you'd better come inside, then."
Heoden made tea--something dark and earthy that Nakoa didn't drink. She left it steaming on the human-sized table, which seemed as lost as a life preserver in the gargantuan kitchen. Shareth, seated too close beside her, took dainty sips between sentences as she explained her situation--leaving out the part about abandoning Sorinne and Nakoa.
Heoden didn't ask for more information. Sorinne had trusted him for discretion, and now Nakoa trusted him for the same reason. All he said was, "I can do it." Then he accepted his payment, and that was that. Shareth would stay and become someone new and unknown. Nakoa would go back to the Citadel.
Nakoa pushed to her feet. Her untouched tea had gone cold. "Guess that does it, then," she said, trying not to look at Shareth. "I'll--I'll see myself out."
Shareth got up, too--too quickly to be casual, her chair skidding backwards from the table. "I'll walk out with you."
"My sense of direction ain't that bad."
Shareth walked her outside anyway, and for a moment they stood awkwardly facing one another at the bottom of the steps.
"Well," Shareth said. She shuffled her feet. "Good bye."
"Yup," Nakoa agreed.
Shareth bit her lip. She turned to go back inside.
Shareth stopped. "Yes?"
Nakoa stripped off her gauntlets and tucked them into her belt. Then she grasped one of Shareth's hands between both of her own, their skin rough and warm where it pressed together. "Good luck," she said.
Shareth folded her own fingers over Nakoa's, tight. "You too," she said.
They broke apart. Nakoa gave herself just a minute more to look into Shareth's face. Then she turned and trudged back down the path towards town.
Nakoa returned to the Citadel, nursing her concussion, elbowing through burly crowds of charr to the door of her hovel. It smelled of old beer and her own sweat. She didn't care. She locked the door behind her and drank herself to sleep, and in the morning when she woke with a hangover she told herself the world was back to normal. Nothing had changed. Life would go on.
It did. A nosy stranger came to the door asking about Shareth, and Nakoa said she didn't know and didn't care. A rumor from Kletturborg told her that a mercenary had been found murdered on the slope outside town. A tall, redheaded human. Nakoa guessed that meant Heoden had worked his magic.
Or maybe not. Shareth could really be dead. That was possible, too, but she tried not to think about it.
Almost half a year after the whole ordeal had finished, Nakoa woke to the sound of a fist on her door. She rolled over, dislodging a line of beer bottles from the edge of her cot with a crash and a shatter. "Who's that?" she screamed at the door. "What the hell fuckin time is it?"
"Almost noon," someone called back. A human someone, high and thready. "I have a message for you."
"What?" Nakoa rolled out of bed, groaning, rubbing gummy sleep from her eyelids, and stumbled towards the door. "What message?"
The messenger was just a teenage slip of a boy. He startled back when she wrenched the door open, eyes wide, and Nakoa placed a silent bet that he wouldn't last another month before leaving the Citadel for someplace tamer. He thrust a battered envelope at her and disappeared down the alleyway.
"Fuckin kid," Nakoa grumbled, tilting a shoulder against the door jamb to rip into the envelope. A piece of rumpled paper fell out, spiderwebbed in looping script that Nakoa struggled to read. Thank you, it read. Then, in parentheses, (I know you care). A fluid letter S coiled near the bottom of the page.
"Hah." Nakoa chuckled. "You still think ya know a lot." She started to tear the page in two.
Then she stopped, folded it, and put it in her pocket instead.