A/N: whelp, here I am. writing fic with my OCs. that never happens. but this cheeky little bastard left me no choice. I fell in love with him so quickly, I had to write how my character did (or is starting to...getting there...feeling feelings...look we're still in EA and I love slow-burn enemies to lovers).
A mix of old paranoia and carefully-honed insight tell Isaniel, from the moment she meets him, that Astarion is suspicious. The only reason she even approaches the grass is because the risk of leaving an intellect devourer on the loose is far greater than the risk of exposing her back to a stranger. One is a dangerous beast that could quickly kill her or innocents if left unchecked; the other, she believes, is just an elf she knows to be wary around. He cannot do anything she is not braced for.
She is wrong. He is far stealthier than she'd expected.
After she diffuses the situation and they agree to work together, Isaniel subtly flexes her left hand. His dagger had cut into her palm as she'd struggled to pull it away from her throat. It was deep enough to merit healing, and she knows it'll scar. A lesson.
It's not an easy thing, to watch your surroundings and look for other survivors and keep someone in your peripheral vision, but she manages.
That night, everyone at camp is wary, watching each other, gauging their trustworthiness. They're all newly acquainted, a collection of cast-off captives with bombs in their heads. It's simultaneously the most ironclad and the thinnest of bonds. But gradually, one by one, they drift off.
Isaniel tries not to. Decades of learning to embrace Eilistraee and lower her guard around others have vanished tonight. She sits, staring at Astarion across the fire, and he stares back. His eyes are somehow both jeering and flirtatious, the planes and shadows of his face even more beautiful in the firelight. They sit for hours, just watching each other, her quiet declaration that she wouldn't turn her back on a stranger heavy between them.
But eventually, exhaustion creeps up on her and slips the trance over her head, and then it is morning.
His smugness is unbearable.
Isaniel considers herself a practical woman. You can't not be and survive the Underdark. She will refuse to give up on a cure until her body physically starts to change, but she knows that the second it does, she wants the others to cut her down—the same way she'd cut them down if they began to transform.
So when Astarion asks how she wants him to kill her should she sprout tentacles, she's not affronted. She sees it as professional courtesy.
After some thought, she decides on a knife. Poison is not gentle, nor quick. Neither is strangulation. A good, clean thrust to the heart or head, though, will be fast and painless. The best result for her and those around her.
His eyes light up with enthusiasm as he discusses her choice, and Isaniel remembers how quietly he'd snuck up on her. This is not just professional courtesy, she realizes. This is a man who intimately knows the art of death, and loves it. And at that realization, the walls that had started to cautiously lower, just a tad, jerk back into place.
When he finishes, she crosses her arms, cocks her head, smiles coolly. "And you? How shall I kill you?"
His teeth flash an almost unnatural white when he grins. "Oh darling, I'd love to see you try."
The night they gain some leads, she finds him stargazing while doing the rounds of the camp. When she pauses to speak with him, it is surprisingly nice. His quip about "taking or leaving" her chin makes her lips twitch, despite herself. And she can't help but approve of someone who can also appreciate the beauty of the night sky.
Her eyes seek out the moon instinctively. Her hand closes around her sword pendant for a brief moment. Eilistraee, watch over me.
For a brief heartbeat, an echo of a song floats through her mind. It's the same music that stopped her dead in a marketplace in the Underdark, so beautiful and ethereal and divine it almost brought tears to her eyes. Isaniel would later learn that Eilistraee was always seeking to touch the hearts of the drow, and had been beyond grateful she'd listened. But at the moment, all she had known was that she could not rest until she'd found that music again. Hearing it again now is a promise.
The notes fade, but she doesn't feel empty like she did that day in the Underdark. Her goddess is with her and loves her, and there is nothing more comforting in the world than that. Even Astarion seems not so bad in that moment, and they bask together in the companionable silence.
But then he wonders aloud what will happen in the future, and the illusion of safety breaks. She briefly mourns its departure; then, she straightens her shoulders and looks back at reality. And reality includes him.
She gives him a taste of his own medicine: "What? Would you miss me?" He laughs, rises, and compliments her. She accepts it, and in doing so deflects. He flirts, invades her personal space. Out of sheer stubbornness, she refuses to step back. To do so would be to admit that he has unnerved her. It's not just his proximity; it's this undercurrent of something.
The dance ends; he leaves. The tension drains out of her body.
When she emerges from a restless, unsuccessful trance and finds Astarion leaning over her, Isaniel lashes out. Her elbow catches him square in the jaw; he curses and stumbles back, and she almost attacks while he's off-balance. But she's a follower of Eilistraee, and somehow, she's become the leader of their group. Both of those factors give her a responsibility to hear him out. So, she stomps down on those old, false instincts and lets him talk.
It's almost a relief to find out he's a vampire. The secret is out, and now she can deal with it. Really, Isaniel feels like a fool for not putting the pieces together. The sun doesn't burn her eyes anymore, thanks to the tadpole—why shouldn't a vampire be able to walk in it as well? But she'd just assumed that his red eyes were indicative of drow blood somewhere in his family, the fangs some form of genetic defect.
Astarion asks her to trust him. Incredulously, she counters that he tried to bite her. He retorts that they need each other. And then he begs for a sip of her blood.
Isaniel takes a deep breath. Looking around, she realizes that their brief scuffle woke the others up. She decides to give them the benefit of the doubt and assumes that they only watch because they're too surprised to actually do anything. But that's irrelevant right now. She turns her focus inwards and analyzes exactly how much they need Astarion.
He's the best among them at picking a lock. His speed is blinding. He's deadly with his daggers. And he moves so silently…
Losing him would be bad, she has to admit. So: keeping him means feeding him. And logically, it makes sense that a vampire would not find animal blood as nourishing. Oh, she knows he's manipulative, she doubts he's telling the whole truth with his "I've never fed on humans!" spiel—but she does believe him in that, at least.
She certainly can't half-starve him, but she will not let him eat innocents. So…what other options are there? Letting him feed off their enemies? Plausible; but that is a question for the morning. Because Astarion is ultimately right: it really comes down to whether she can trust him.
Isaniel doesn't know what surprises her more: that she does trust him, or that the events of this night haven't cost him all of it.
Well, she trusts him to an extent. She gives him his share of night shifts, she relies on him in battle, and he has easy access to their food. But that's trusting him not to kill them; keeping him, knowing what he is, requires trusting him to not lose control. It means trusting that if an emergency happens and he needs their blood, he won't go into a frenzy and drain them dry.
A test, then. If he reverts to a creature of base instinct, if he cannot be reasoned with, if he tries to kill her, she will kill him. Better to discover the extent of his self-restraint now, while she's alert and prepared to stop him, than later, when circumstances might not be so fortuitous.
So she sends up a quick prayer to Eilistraee, bares her neck, and lies down.
He gets caught up in the moment, but her command to stop brings him out of it easily enough. He lets her go, breathless and smiling, thanks her, and stalks off.
Isaniel can't be angry at him; after all—and this is very hard to admit, even to herself—she almost got caught up in the moment too.
Sometimes she would catch him gazing at the sky, during the day, open wonder on his face. Now she knows why.
Isaniel can understand that. With her eyes no longer burning, she can drink in the tableau around her in a new way. There are shades of color she couldn't quite discern before, and everything seems so much richer in the sun. How many drow have been able to do this? Very few, most likely.
It's not enough to make her want to keep the parasite—it could never be enough—but it is something she can't help but appreciate.
The day the sickness strikes, Isaniel gives the order to make camp where they stand, long before night falls. They're all just too exhausted to keep traveling, even to search for a suitable place to rest.
That's not the only thing they're too exhausted for, as it turns out. Not one of them can muster the energy to scout for nearby threats, or camouflage, or stand guard. Even Lae'zel's attempt at a "mercy kill" is sloppy. They're all so pathetic a kobold could walk into their midst and kill them.
Between talking Lae'zel down and doing her customary rounds of their parody of a camp, Isaniel's low energy reserves are completely barren. As she crawls into her bedroll, for some reason, her mind turns back to Astarion's panic.
He's usually so self-assured. Smiling in the face of anything. Ready with his rapier wit. The complete unraveling of his composure is…alarming.
But before she can think much more on that, a fresh wave of tremors hits her. She squeezes her eyes shut, curls into a ball, and prays.
The next morning, Isaniel wakes up with heartache—and fury.
How dare it? How dare that parasite approach her in the guise of her dead husband? How dare it speak with his voice, ignite her skin with his touch, dishonor his memory by wearing his face? The sickness of the previous night is completely forgotten; instead, she shakes with rage as she brushes her hair, checks her equipment, gears up. Her fingers itch to play her lute and vent it all out in jagged, discordant music—but no. Astarion's pale form is up and about, but the others are still sleeping.
She pauses and subtly studies him. He looks much better now; his movements are fluid again, his step his hair somehow seems extra fluffy.
He turns, catches her staring, and winks. She rolls her eyes, but her lips twitch, damn them. Definitely back to normal.
At that, the memory of the dream rears its head. Her anger, which had started to simmer down, flares up anew. Isaniel scowls as she struggles with her sword belt, her normally dexterous fingers made clumsy by emotion. Curse that tadpole to the Hells—
"Well hello! Feeling better, are we?"
Astarions voice rings from right next to her, and she jumps. Eilistraee's sword, how did she not realize he was a vampire sooner? No one can move that silently and swiftly and still be mortal.
"I certainly am," he continues, without waiting for her answer. "This morning I find myself free of pain and with a new trick. A new power. Last night, the risk of transformation—it all feels like some terrible dream now."
Isaniel doesn't know why she opens up to him. Maybe it's because he's around and she needs to get it off her chest. Maybe it's because his witty tongue actually does make her chuckle, despite herself. Maybe it's because he draws her eyes like the moon draws the tide.
Regardless, she ends up spilling the contents of her dream, anger and pain leaking into her voice. Astarion doesn't really say anything; he just listens, eyes bright with curiosity and intrigue. But just listening is enough; she can feel an invisible weight lifting off her with every word out of her mouth.
When she finishes speaking—with an exhale of relief—he asks if she enjoyed it. Her fists clench at the memory of that intruder's touch on her skin. "No, it felt invasive. Uncomfortable."
"We had the same dream, then. The worm's trying to be…enticing."
Had he also seen someone he'd loved? But that blank look, the flat voice…there's more to it than that, she's sure. Isaniel hesitates, then pushes him to share. He lent her an ear, in his typical flippant fashion, but an ear nonetheless. It's only fair to return the favor.
The truth of what he really dreamed about surprises her. She finds herself blurting out, "Your old master? That doesn't sound 'enticing'."
"It was not," he says, voice raw and low. "I—we don't need to talk about it."
That flash in his eyes. That pain.
Her throat closes.
It was brief, but she saw it. She would never mistake it.
It's the pain of someone who has been trapped in darkness for so long they don't even know light exists. The pain of someone who lived with cruelty every minute of every hour of every day. The pain of someone who does not let themselves feel pain, does not even acknowledge they are in pain, because that would be weakness and wolves would descend on them if they admitted to that.
It was her pain, before Eilistraee.
Isaniel is not good at comforting people. She knows how to talk people into doing what she wants and how to keep their group more or less from killing each other. But put her in a room with a crying woman or a scared child, and she's just lost. Emotions are messy and difficult to deal with.
But at this moment, she wants, more than anything, to brave them. To let him know he's not alone.
She can't think of anything to say, can't figure out how to put this epiphany into words, so hesitantly, she reaches out a hand—
And he recoils like a snake. Then, he strikes like one, eyes and fangs flashing, venom flying from his mouth as he renounces her pity.
It's not pity, she wants to say. It's not pity, because I know how hard it is to survive an environment that wants more than anything to break you. To pity you would belittle your strength. It's empathy and support.
But she's so stunned that by the time she's able to begin, "It's not pity," it's too late; his retreating back is the only thing that hears her.
One of Isaniel's first memories is of her mother killing her pet bat, then slapping her until she stopped crying.
It was as a lesson, of course: that love was something that would only be exploited. The sort of lesson that every drow child learned young. Other lessons included how to think creatively, hurt others, scheme, and be paranoid—Isaniel still remembers carefully pouring poisons and potions into large, hollow glass beads and stringing them into her jewelry.
The lessons that had really struck a chord with her, though, had been how to create. Her family had been artisans, and had held a relatively secure position as employees to a well-off merchant clan. The plotting hadn't been as intense as among the nobles, but it was still dangerous. After all, there were rival artisans and rival merchant clans to watch out for or destroy, and Isaniel had done her share of participating in that.
But oh, she had truly loved art, beauty, music. Eilistraee used that to reach her, and through it Isaniel came to love Eilistraee in turn. But it took a long time. Secretly seeking information about that music, a flight from the Underdark, and decades of studying the teachings of Eilistraee, testing them, putting them in practice, before the scars the Underdark left on her had begun to heal. Decades in which she found companionship with others of her faith, met her husband, became a mother…lost her husband to the ravages of time…
And now, after such a long time away from the toxic mindset she grew up with, she has come face to face with someone who embraces it. And she is torn.
There is a part of her, one that Eilistraee has grown and nourished, that is appalled in the face of Astarion's casual cruelty towards others.
There is a part of her, one that Eilistraee has also grown and nourished, that begs her be compassionate and forgiving.
There is a part of her, one that she has abandoned but clings to her like a ghost nonetheless, that screams at her to end the threat before he ends her.
There is a part of her, one that has been with her as long as she can recall, that sees his trauma, and remembers, and empathizes.
Their experiences are not the same. But the darkness is the same.
She does not know what to make of him. She does not know what she should believe or do about him. So she watches, and speaks with him, and tries to understand.
Their travels eventually take them to a swamp, and there, they find a Gur. A monster-hunter. That in itself wouldn't necessarily mean anything, but it's foolish not to gauge his intentions, considering her company. So, in-between Astarion's light insults, she inquires.
He says he's hunting Astarion. Not to kill him, but to capture him.
Ice settles in Isaniel's belly.
Capture him. And bring him to his "associates" in Baldur's Gate. Back to Cazador. Back to the bastard who scarred him down to his very marrow. Back to chains and torment.
That's not going to happen, she thinks vehemently.
Astarion is practically vibrating in place, his red eyes hard and uncompromising, his hands hovering close to his daggers. And yet, he still waits for her order. Out of genuine respect for her authority? Trust that she'll neutralize the hunter? She's not sure, but something about it is…a little touching.
She gives the word, and he lunges.
The battle with Auntie Ethel is tough, but manageably so. They all stay away from the cliff edges and destroy her illusionary copies as soon as they appear, they put out the fires near Mayrina and keep her out of harms' way, and while the hag's spells are powerful, they all somehow manage to avoid the worst of the damage.
But Auntie Ethel is one of those types. The type that likes to taunt and mock with a loud, clear voice that rings across the battlefield. And through some hag witchery, she knows how to hit where it hurts.
"Is there still rat stuck in your teeth, slave?"
She's not near him, but Isaniel can see Astarion's flinch—then his strikes resume, much faster and more furious than before. Her own teeth grind with outrage and sympathy, and she redoubles her efforts, and soon the hag is brought down.
She is not feeling quite as sympathetic when, after bidding a crestfallen Mayrina farewell, Astarion blithely remarks that it was a pity the young mother-to-be couldn't see the funny side in her husband being resurrected as a zombie.
And yet, he voiced his approval back when they helped Karlach.
It's not like that outweighs it. Life isn't a set of scales. Helping one woman doesn't balance out being amused at another's pain. The people Isaniel hurt back in the Underdark wouldn't care or forget just because she helped someone else now. Words and actions have permanent, tangible impacts.
It's not like she wants to "fix" Astarion, either. People can't be "fixed". They can be broken or damaged by others—but never returned to who they once were. They carry the scars and lesions on their heart, like Isaniel does. With time and support, they hopefully heal, but that's only if they want to.
It's more like—and she might be projecting a bit, or biased because of her past—remembering Karlach gives her hope that Cazador didn't destroy Astarion's humanity.
Maybe it was inevitable.
Isaniel weaves throughout the party, smiles freely, even dances and sings. It's impossible not to—the tiefling's joy is infectious, the gentle warmth of the wine is infusing her body, and the moon is full and smiling overhead. All of her problems will still be there tomorrow, but tonight is a night for forgetting, and celebrating, and living.
The back of her neck prickles, again. This time she doesn't ignore it. This time, she turns, somehow already knowing what she'll see.
Sure enough, there's Astarion, lurking on the fringes of the party, a glass of wine in hand, eyes fixed on her. Under the moonlight, his hair is practically glowing, his skin silver-tinted. He looks like some ethereal king of night and winter, standing there silhouetted against the darkness. It's striking.
She has always been watching him, hasn't she? From the moment she met him. Maybe it was inevitable she would start seeing other things.
A jostle jars her out of her thoughts; she'd stopped moving right in the midst of the dancers. She mutters an apology to the tiefling couple and hastily clears the floor. Glances up again.
Astarion is still watching her.
Before she consciously decides to do it, her feet take her towards him. She falters when her mind catches up to her body, almost turns and runs. There's something in his eyes, something in the air, something between them that crackles with intensity and promise.
But it's too late to run—he's coming towards her, too. Her heart lodges itself in her throat. Stay strong, she tells herself.
Whether she wants that strength to resist the shifting currents in their relationship or to swim towards them, she does not know.