"You've made progress since we last met," Kelle said. She was leaning her chair back to balance on the back two legs as she watched Ash. "Professional-level work, really."
Satisfied, Ash dropped the spell she'd been demonstrating. "You'd say that even if it wasn't," she guessed.
Kelle shrugged. "I might. Positive reinforcement is more effective than negative reinforcement, I find. But in this case, it's true."
"I find that hard to believe."
Kelle smiled her wide, gap-toothed smile. "Believe it. You're a natural. Like me."
Kelle's apartment in Neverwinter was smaller and shabbier than Ash had imagined. It was a tiny, narrow thing stuck between two larger buildings in the bad part of town, with an upstairs neighbor who stomped whenever he walked. But none of that seemed to bother Kelle. And it shouldn't have, because once you got inside, it was cozy and clean, if a little disorganized. It was filled with all kinds of strange-presumably wizardly-objects. The bones of some unknown animal in a frame on the wall, a glass orb filled with something swirling and ethereal propped on her desk, a large collection of vials all filled with different powders and liquids on a shelf on the wall. Things Kelle had collected on her travels, and components for casting advanced spells. It would have taken Ash a day to take it all in properly.
The part she enjoyed most, though, was the hand-painted sign outside the front door that read: Adventurers for hire | No job too small, and below that, in smaller letters, Cash only | Price negotiable.
Ash picked at a stray thread on her jacket. "So...you'll teach me?" she said tentatively.
Kelle stood up from the chair and strode over to rest her hands on Ash's shoulders. "As if there was ever a question," she said. "You could come see me, oh, let's say the first and third of every week. Can you do that?"
"That often?" Ash asked, surprised.
"Is that too much?"
"No! Of course not. Whatever you want. It's just…" She hesitated, afraid to bring up the next part-but it had to be mentioned. "I suppose people usually pay for tutoring?"
"Do you have money?" Kelle asked, suddenly hopeful.
"Oh." She shrugged, disappointed. "Bit of a moot point, then." She waved a dismissive hand. "You'll return the favor someday."
Ash looked away, uncomfortable. Giving and receiving favors was rather new to her, and still didn't feel quite right. She should get used to it, she supposed. It was happening more and more often, now. Having friends meant trading favors.
"I'm glad you decided to come back, Ash. I hoped you would, but I didn't think I'd be seeing you again. After everything that happened—" Kelle glanced toward the ceiling, choosing her words deliberately. "Well. I'm glad none of us has decided to hold a grudge," she finished.
"None of us?" Ash said, raising an eyebrow. "Even Erith?"
"I didn't say we'd all be best of friends, but it's a start, isn't it?" Kelle said, raising her hands defensively. "Do you have somewhere to stay, by the way? The Lucky Crown Inn over on the south edge of town isn't bad, if you don't mind the noise from the bar."
"I'm staying outside the city."
"In the woods?" Kelle guessed.
"I told you I don't have any money."
Kelle looked skeptical.
"I don't mind," Ash said, sensing the worry in the expression. "I'm more used to camping than sleeping indoors, these days."
"You should be careful out there. All kinds of things lurk in those woods."
"They should be worried about running into me-not the other way around," she joked.
"That's the spirit. But, you know, it's going to be getting colder soon."
She shifted. She'd been trying not to think about that. "Yes."
"The Lucky Crown-" Kelle said, a little quieter, "-they aren't the most discerning about their clientele."
Ash's eyebrows came together.
"I'm saying that if they see anything-or anyone-that they shouldn't, they aren't likely to report it." She shrugged. "A bit of a rough place, but I'm sure you can take care of yourself."
"Thank you. I'll think about it."
"Good." Kelle stretched her arms up, then reached them side to side, then cracked her knuckles. "Shall we begin, then?"
"Well, you're already here, aren't you? There's no time like the present."
Ash bit back a grin. She set her bag down on the ground. "Alright."
Neverwinter was full of noise and motion. Someone had told her that watching everything in the city so closely made her look like a tourist, and therefore marked her as an easy pickpocketing target. But she couldn't not look. Everywhere she looked, something was happening. There were more different kinds of people than she'd ever seen, speaking all different languages and wearing strange fashions. Everyone else seemed to know where everything was and how everything worked, and Ash felt like the lone outsider. It was fascinating but it was also exhausting, and she was looking forward to getting out of the city.
She lost track of how many wrong turns she took while trying to reach the exit of the city-she asked three separate people for help before giving up-but eventually she found herself at the city gates. The guards posted at the gate nodded politely to her as she passed. She nodded back and then quickly averted her gaze. She couldn't shake the feeling that she didn't belong in the city, and that someone might call her out and demand she leave at any moment. Passing by the guards made her inexplicably nervous.
When she finally made it onto the road, she was relieved. Outside, under the open sky, with broad plains under her feet and only the breeze in her ears, things were more comfortable.
A lone, cloaked man stood off the side of the road some ways from the entrance to the city. Ash veered toward him. He didn't move or look up, but waited for her to approach.
"Can you see anything from under there?" she asked, stopping in front of him.
Drizzt peered out at her from under his hood, and smiled. "It keeps the sun out of my eyes." He looked behind her, at the gates to the city. "Those guards have been watching me."
Ash glanced back at them. Drizzt's face was covered by the hood, but their eyes were indeed focused on him-and now her, as well. As she watched, their hands moved cautiously toward their weapons.
"I look suspicious," he said. "Dressed like this. Waiting for so long. They are wondering why I am here."
"I didn't mean to make you wait so long," Ash said apologetically.
"I was starting to worry."
"You don't have to worry about me."
"I disagree," he said good-naturedly. He looked up at the guards, tipping his head up a little to see them properly. "I wonder if it would be simpler just to unveil myself and be done with it," he mused.
Ash glanced back at the guards, then at Drizzt. They were far enough away that the guards probably wouldn't feel overly threatened by such a reveal. If they reacted badly, she and Drizzt could still run.
"Do you want to try it?" Ash said with a shrug. She knew they would have to eventually.
He hesitated a long time, watching the guards.
"No," he decided, and looked a little disappointed in himself for the answer.
Ash took his hand. He looked up at her and smiled, drawn out of what had been about to be a soured mood. Ash pulled him into the road, away from the city.
They walked down the road a ways before turning off into the tall grass and hiking up a steep hill. There was no path, but Ash found her way far easier than she'd found her way through the city.
"What did you do with Kelle?" Drizzt asked as they walked.
She blushed a little. "Well...we discussed which things I already know, and what I might be interested in learning next. Then she taught me a spell for dusting, and I practiced that for a while."
"Dusting?" he asked in the tone he did when he was uncertain of a word's meaning.
"For...picking up dirt around the house," she explained.
He slowed, looking up at her. "So...you cleaned her house?" he asked, a little disbelieving.
"It was for practice," she said defensively.
"She agreed to help teach me for free," she reminded him.
"How generous. I am sure she does not mind gaining an unpaid servant in the process."
"Next time, she's going to show me some of her spell components. With those components, you can prepare complex spells ahead of time and then cast them quickly on demand. It's very useful, actually-not that you would know anything about it."
He thought for a few moments, then gave her a mischievous look. "We could sneak into her house, and take another one of her books. Then you can learn on your own, and not have to do her chores for her."
She raised her eyebrows at him.
"We will return it, of course. When you finish reading it."
"I can't tell if you're serious or not."
"I would do it with you if you wanted to."
She actually considered it for a second before saying, firmly, "I don't want to."
"Enjoy your dusting, then."
At the top of the hill, under a copse of trees, was their modest camp. They came to a stop, and Drizzt finally removed his hood. The light of the setting sun behind him caught his hair in a way that made her pause to stare for a few moments.
"Did anything happen while I was gone?" she asked, sitting on the ground and facing the sun. The sky was glowing rose and bright orange against dark grey-blue clouds.
"Many humans passed by on the road. I have never seen so many." He sat down beside her, wrapping his arms over his knees.
"Just wait until you see Neverwinter," Ash said, shaking her head. "It's crowded beyond belief. I couldn't have imagined…" She caught the tiny spark of sadness on Drizzt's face, and stopped. He could not see Neverwinter-not without finding a way to hide his heritage, and even then it was a risk.
She wrung her hands in lap. "Things won't always be like this," she said. "Today I saw people of nearly every race wandering the city-so why not a drow?"
"Maybe," he said, humoring her.
"I like it better out here, to tell you the truth." She was quiet for a moment, watching the sunset. Drizzt did the same-watching for a few seconds at a time before he was forced to look away again.
"There's a market for people like us here, you know," she said, catching his eye. "People who can use swords and magic. People who can make their way in the wilderness. City folk don't know about any of that, or if they do, they're too afraid of getting hurt to go out and do any of it themselves."
"People like Kelle and Erith," Drizzt guessed.
Ash paused, thoughtful. "We could be like them," she said.
"Maybe not exactly like them," he muttered wryly.
"But we could be...you know. Adventurers. We could do that. Why not?"
"And do you think anyone will want to hire a drow?"
"Maybe not. But they won't have to hire you. They'll hire me, and my mysterious but skilled associate." She cocked an eyebrow at him.
Drizzt was quiet, but Ash could tell how much the idea appealed to him. He wanted to see more of the surface. He wanted to help people, and prove to himself and to the world that he was worthy of being a citizen of the surface.
It was the first time Ash had really thought of what their lives could be like, in the future. Until recently, she had not been able to envision any kind of successful life for her or Drizzt. But lately, it had begun to seem more possible.
Maybe they didn't need to search for a place in the world for themselves. Maybe they had already made their own place.
"I will go where you go," he said. "Where we go together, there can be little to fear."
Something warm prickled in her chest. She leaned forward and kissed him. And now that she had been the one to initiate it, he gladly wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her closer.
A few seconds passed before she felt something hard poking into her ribs. She looked down, and found the hilt of a sword pointedly pressing between them.
Ash sighed and dropped her arms away from him. She remembered, with sudden dismay, that she'd asked him if he would teach her to use a sword, earlier that day. Drizzt grinned, handing her the sword.
"I already regret this," she grumbled as she reluctantly accepted it.
He looked hurt. "I was looking forward to this all day."
"Good. Your opponents will not go easy on you just because you are tired. You should get used to fighting in any circumstances."
"You are far too excited about this."
He smirked, and drew his other sword as he got to his feet. He paused, giving her a measured look, as if making sure she wasn't really upset. "More of...that later, yes?" he said, tilting his head toward where they'd been sitting.
"Yes. In fact, let's hurry this up so we can get back to that."
He smiled, and backed a few steps away from her.
Ash raised her sword. Drizzt gave her a look. She hesitated, trying to figure out what she'd done wrong. She raised the sword a little higher, and moved her feet slightly further apart. He gave an approving nod.
"Ready?" he asked.
She gave a small smile, only a little nervous. "Ready."
A/N: This is the longest story I've posted in a very long time and it's been a journey-about ten months since I first started writing it to when I finished posting it. I've been looking forward to completing it because I have other stories I wanted to move on to, but now I'm sad that it's over.
Thank you so, so much to everyone who read, commented, kudos'd, lurked, etc. I always write kind of off-meta, non-canon-centric stuff, and I appreciate everyone who is able to humor me and my weird ideas, and latch on anyway. I hope you all enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. ❤