Disclaimer: Cynthia, Luse, and Sanctuary all belong to Drew Hayes; Nadie, Chris, Archwin, and Cairene Whiskey all belong to me. This story's set right after Cassy's death. Somewhere around the time Luse is in the period of grieving where he wanders into bars shooting people. No shooting tonight, though.
Extra disclaimer: Real Egyptian liquor is known to be lethal, and not very tasty- it's preserved with formaldehyde. Drink at your own risk, and enjoy it while you can.
by Maya Tawi
Nobody comes to Archwin's Bar to meet people, or to pick up women. Archwin takes a novel approach to serving alcohol. No mixed drinks are served, no rich man's candy confections with a drop or two of rum; customers buy their liquor by the bottle, and are left in blessed solitude to finish it off.
People come to Archwin's for the express purpose of getting drunk and forgetting.
Apparently, nobody told that to the man who wandered in late one night in May. He swaggered over to the bar, bought his particular poison and perched on a stool to survey the other customers.
Almost near the end of the bar, a woman sat staring off into space, drinking from a tall, curved bottle. One of them damn Elves, but she was pretty enough, and all alone. The man smiled, exposing his crooked teeth. The night was looking up.
Exports from Egypt are rare, and expensive. The locals aren't friendly even to their own, and they're downright hostile to outsiders. Nadie knew this for a fact; after all, she used to live there.
Still, they make some damn good liquor, and sometimes a few bottles are smuggled out and sent to various suppliers all over Amrahly'nn. Nadie knew Archwin, knew he always had a bottle of Cairene Smoke-Brewed Whiskey behind the counter for her. She paid an exorbitant price for this particular luxury, but as it was the only one she allowed herself, she figured she might as well enjoy it.
Nadie had finished about half of the bottle when a squat glass container with virulent yellow contents plunked itself down in front of her. She squinted at the label: New Amineta Cantaloupe Whiskey. Redneck's drink, she thought dismissively; then it occured to her to look for the owner of the bottle.
Oh, definite redneck.
He resembled nothing so much as a rabbit, with his protruberant front teeth, sparsely whiskered chin and outsized ears. She imagined the cigar clenched between his teeth to be a piece of straw, and blinked at the mental image. He was a perfect caricature- "Too perfect," she muttered with a snort, then immediately wished she hadn't as a mouthful of Cairene's finest came bubbling back up her nose.
The man leered at her. It didn't sit right on his thin, pale face; one eyelid drooped. "You're awful pretty yourself, ma'am," he drawled.
Nadie coughed up the last of the liquor in her lungs and glared at him. She didn't usually speak without meaning to. She must have drunk more than she'd thought.
Ignore him and he'll go away, a voice inside her head chanted. Nadie proceeded to do just that.
The man tugged on his overall straps and grinned at her. "So what's a pretty girl like you doing drinkin' alone?"
Ouch. Alright, screw this. Nadie tapped the bottle. "See this?" she asked sweetly. "When I finish the bottle I'll be drunk."
The redneck seemed to like that idea. Without waiting for another painfully clichéd response, she pulled her knife out. Chris's knife, ebony-handled with a silver snake curled around the hilt, the blade wickedly twisted, inlaid with a black garnet. "You see this? It's fucking sharp, I assure you. When I get drunk I start playing target practice. Now are you sure you wanna stick around, or do I have to carve the message into your forehead?"
Okay, so it wasn't up to the usual standards of subtlety, but it got the point across. The man looked horrified. Probably his first trip to the big city of Mandratha, she thought unpityingly, looking for them "loose chicks". You walked into the wrong bar, honey.
The redneck beat a hasty retreat, and Nadie saluted his departure with another swig of the Cairene. Then she caught sight of a woman across the bar- thin, long dark hair, calmly pretty face- and it all threatened to come back up again.
Of course it wasn't. Half the women in the city had the same look, the dark hair, pale skin, and rags-and-fishnet clothes. She averaged about two Chris-sightings a night, and it never was her. 'Cause Chris is gone, she's six fucking feet under and the sooner you realize that, the better off you'll be, she thought bitterly.
Still, that woman did look a lot like her....
And her stomach lurched again as she realized that the Elf-woman was coming towards her.
Chris-lookalike slid onto the stool the redneck had just vacated and turned to Nadie with a ready smile. "That was pretty good," she offered. "The way you dealt with that guy, I mean. Men like him-"
Nadie drained the last of the whiskey. True to her word, she was now splendidly drunk. "Fuck off," she snapped, slamming the bottle down and turning to leave.
Halfway out the door, she hesitated and glanced back over her shoulder. The woman was still on the stool, toying with her rings and staring at the empty bottle of Cairene.
Why not talk for a little while? It had been months, after all. Nadie exhaled resolutely and marched back up to the bar.
"Look, I'm sorry," were her first words. "You just-"
"Fuck off," the woman said immediately, then broke into a wide grin. "There, we're even."
Nadie felt the corners of her mouth twitch. "Funny girl."
"I try." She poked at the illegible label on the whiskey bottle. "What's that?"
Nadie waved slightly at Archwin, who dropped a new bottle in front of her and disappeared back behind the bar. "Try it," she urged, twisting off the cap and pushing it towards her new companion.
The woman eyed it skeptically, then picked up the bottle and downed half of it in one long swallow. She emerged spluttering. "That's some strong shit!" she exclaimed, then drank again. "Good, though."
Nadie gave her version of a smile- a slight uplifting of one corner of her mouth. "A woman of taste. I like that."
"Flatterer." The woman slapped the top of the bar. "So what's your name?"
Retrieving the bottle of Cairene, she drank from it, peering at her over the rim. "You first."
The woman smiled slightly. "Cautious? Alright. Cynthia Kedrie, your turn."
She dropped the bottle to the bar and half-smiled again. "Nadie."
"Nobody. That's not a very nice name."
"Intelligent too? Be still my heart." Nadie gazed at her thoughtfully. "Well, in my line of work it helps to be a nobody."
"So just what do you do, Miss Nobody?" Cynthia inquired, waving at the bartender. A bottle of Celfam Scotch appeared at her elbow.
Nadie frowned at her. "You a narc, Cynthia Kedrie?"
"Me?" Cynthia laughed out loud at that. "Are you kidding? No, girl, I'm not a narc."
"Didn't think so. And just how moral do you consider yourself?"
"Moral?" She contemplated this, watching Nadie from beneath lower lids. People of the underworld have their own code- don't ask, don't tell, don't set anyone else up. Morachi had been an exception to the last rule; he had no qualms about turning in to the police any outside assassins that had been horning in on his turf, although generally he preferred to take care of them himself.
Cynthia, on the other hand, had never been quite so- well, honestly, anal- about exclusivety. Healers were usually an excellent judge of character- something about a heightened sensitivity- and she had sizd up the woman sitting next to her as a dealer in death almost immediately. She also knew that she could talk to this woman.
So she grinned again and offered, "I used to be a healer for a den of assassins, how's that?"
"Perfect." Nadie leaned forward. "'Cause that's what I do."
Cynthia studied her again. Maybe she was too drunk, or maybe Nadie had come to the same conclusions about her. Whatever it was, it was a relief to speak freely, and have someone else do the same.
Still, she couldn't resist needling Miss Nobody a bit. "Heal?" she asked innocently.
Nadie groaned. "No, dimwit! I," she said casually, "remove extraneous people from unnecessarily occupied space."
"I knew that." Cynthia pulled out a cigarette and a lighter. "You mind?"
Nadie rolled her eyes- the entire bar was full of smoke- and the healer winked at her, lighting up.
"So, Cynthia," she began. "Tell me something."
"Hmm?" The other woman glanced up, dark eyes huge in the dim light. She looked more like Chris than ever, and Nadie clenched her jaw, but when she spoke, her voice was casual.
"I come here for the excellent whiskey. What's your excuse?"
"This being the alcoholic's bar?" Cynthia hesitated. "Would you believe the excellent Scotch?"
"Not for a minute."
"Didn't think so," she mimicked, pulling the cigarette out of her mouth and grimacing at the lit end. "Well, that goes back to the 'I used to be a healer for an assassins' guild' thing. See, I quit last month, and I haven't found a job since. Not one that pays enough, anyway. I'm afraid I've gotten used to an outlaw's salary."
"I hear you." Nadie studied her bottle; it was disturbingly close to empty. "So why'd you quit?"
Speaking freely or no, Cynthia wasn't about to say Sanctuary's name. "The whole thing was just falling apart. The members were turning on each other, it was becoming every man/woman for him/herself, and just between you and me I think Vi- uh, the police are too close to finding it."
Nadie didn't miss the slip, and her eyes narrowed suspiciously, but she didn't comment. "So you bailed."
"Yeah." Cynthia sighed. "I mean, what was really the last straw was, they were about to let one of their own men get killed. He had an e'jja after him-"
"Well, fuck me."
"Not a pretty sight," the healer agreed. "And they were standing by doing nothing. This from a guild that promised protection and negation of past grudges, and they-were-letting-him-die. I couldn't live with that. We protect our own, we have to. So I, as you say, bailed." She sighed again. "And now I'm unemployed and I drink to my little heart's content and try to forget about my dwindling funds."
"The getting drunk part might have something to do with the dwindling funds part," Nadie pointed out.
"Don't be so rational." Cynthia eyed her speculatively. "Hey, I wanted to ask you. That knife you showed the guy, it's beautiful. Well, from where I was sitting, anyway." She smirked, then sobered. "May I...?"
Nadie hesitated, almost imperceptibly, then pulled it out and laid it on the bar. She removed her sword and laid it down too. Archwin shot her a pointed glare- in his experience, when people started displaying weaponry in a bar, it never ended well- but she ignored him.
Cynthia's expression was rapt as she ran her fingers over the sword. It had the same thorned ebony hilt as the knife, but the spikes were arranged differently, and the bottom separated into two points. The snake was curled in a different position, and the arms of the hilt were set with polished tiger's-eye stones. The blade was a longer version of the same- twisted steel, set at the bottom with a black gem.
"They're amazing," Cynthia said finally, raising her head. "Where did you get them?"
Nadie's voice was suddenly harsh. "Why, does the healer want to buy some weaponry?"
Cynthia met her eyes levelly. "I was just wondering."
The assassin lowered her eyes, staring at the bar. "A present. From a friend. She made them."
"She's very good. Does she have a business?"
"No." Nadie still didn't look up. "Chris never sold them. She said she didn't make art to be bought. She never did exactly the same thing twice."
"Did?" Cynthia's voice was gentle. She sensed some raw pain, just beneath the surface of this woman.
She swallowed hard. "She's dead now."
"I'm sorry." The healer's tone didn't change. "Was she special to you?"
The question sounded inane even to her, and as soon as it passed her lips, Cynthia felt like an idiot. Nadie didn't seem to mind, though. "Yeah. Special. Chris was definitely special." She laughed, a low, humorless sound. "It's been, what- two months now."
Cynthia touched her hand tentatively.
"I got her killed, you know." Nadie's voice was calm, cold even, and the healer's fingers tightened on hers. "I was careless. On a hit. The guy's wife saw me, only I didn't know it at the time. The bitch came after me, saw me with Chris, and shot her." She shrugged, face emotionless. "I killed her then, of course. The woman. All I got out of it was another dead body."
Cynthia let her eyes drift past Nadie, to the figure at the end of the bar. Short and well-muscled, he had given up all pretense of not listening and was now staring at them with rapt attention. She winked at him, and he started, then scowled and turned away.
"Chris never hurt anyone in her entire life." The woman's voice was still that eerie, dull sound. "She was a dancer, for fuck's sake."
"Nadie?" Cynthia said quietly. "Look at me. Take my hands."
The other woman looked at her blankly. She had amazing eyes, the healer saw for the first time- flecked gold and green, rimmed with dark brown. They were dry, tearless. That didn't bother Cynthia. She didn't think Nadie ever cried... or smiled... or laughed.
"Take my hands," she repeated. "Trust me, sweets, I'm the healer here."
Nadie stared at her for another moment; then, with a muttered curse, she surrendered her hands.
Cynthia closed her eyes and willed herself to relax. She felt the energy flowing through her, over them both; there was an all-too-familiar moment of panic, when every instinct in her body cried out, no, stop, don't do this, and then a glow started to emanate from their clasped hands. Startled, Nadie tried to pull back, but Cynthia tightened her grip.
Nobody paid them any attention, except for Archwin the bartender and the figure at the end of the bar.
Eventually, the glow dimmed, then disappeared. Cynthia opened her eyes; her face was paler than usual, and streaked with sweat.
"What did you do?" Nadie asked, eyes wide.
"I healed you," Cynthia said simply.
"You had too much pain." The dark-haired woman leaned back wearily. "You deserve the memories, but you wouldn't let yourself feel them, because you blamed yourself. I took that pain."
The other woman took a deep breath. "Wow," she murmured. "That's-"
But Cynthia was gone. Nadie turned and saw her heading, quickly, towards the bathrooms.
As she passed the figure at the end of the bar, a hand shot out and grabbed her arm. Cynthia twisted around and found herself staring into a pair of cold blue eyes.
"Well!" she said lightly, still breathing hard. "What a coincidence this is. Me, you, a bar-"
"Cyn-" Lusiphur's voice was desperate.
"I can't, Luse," Cynthia said, more quietly.
He struggled to his feet, sweeping long black hair out of his eyes and pinning her with a glare that was half-threatening and half-pleading. "You helped me before."
"This is different," she said quietly, gently removing his fingers from her arm. "Right now, you need this pain. It's what holds you to your anger. And you don't want to lose that anger, do you? What will you do if you lose that now? Go insane? Give up? I can't, Luse, the hurt is too new."
"But-" Lusiphur's voice rose.
"I'm sorry." Cynthia's large, dark eyes suddenly seemed ageless, bottomless, and he wondered briefly just how old she was. "Cassy was definitely someone special. I'll miss her too."
All of a sudden, her face contorted, and she backed away hurriedly. "Look, I have to go now. We'll talk later."
He started to follow her, then stopped abruptly as a hand closed over his arm. Lusiphur reflexively pulled out his knife as he whipped around, and the steel of the General was loudly met with the twisted metal blade of Chris's silver and ebony knife.
"You leave her alone," Nadie hissed angrily.
He angled his arm to attack and found himself quickly disarmed. He growled angrily at the Elf-woman in front of him.
"I've been doing this for centuries, honey," Nadie said coolly. "You're just a kid."
"A kid, huh?" In one move, his arm snaked around hers and plucked the knife from her grasp. Chris's knife.
Nadie didn't even think before her fist landed, hard, against the side of his head. Lusiphur stumbled back against the bar, and Nadie grabbed her knife again. She was raising it to strike when Archwin's imposing shadow fell over them.
"You wanna fight, you take it outside," he ordered. "I don't want no trouble in here."
Nadie took a few deep breaths. "Sorry, Arch. Just got carried away."
"Uh-huh." He met her eyes pointedly, then turned to leave.
She turned back to the Elf who was staring at her with murder in his eyes. "Let's talk about this," she suggested, easing onto a stool. Lusiphur looked at her incredulously, then shook his head and sat back down.
"You have 'til I finish my whiskey," he warned, raising the half-empty bottle and taking a gulp.
"What did you want from Cynthia?" Nadie's voice was cool, and he stared at her wordlessly.
It was in his eyes.
Nadie sighed and gestured to Archwin. Three in one night. I'm slipping. "You know, I think we're a lot alike."
"Do you." Pure ice, his words.
She raised her eyebrows, undeterred. "Let's talk," she repeated.
In the doorway to the bathroom, Cynthia paused and looked over her shoulder. Good. Those two needed to have a long chat.
Then she ran inside and just barely made it to a stall before the tears came. Nadie's tears, tears she never would have shed, tears for dead Christienne Dienaes, and tears for the woman who called herself Nobody, the woman who had loved her.
Cynthia cried until she couldn't anymore. Then she leaned over close to the dingy mirror, running her fingers over her splotchy, tear-streaked face. All that pain. All that pain being carried around and Nadie had pretended not to feel it.
She splashed water on her face and turned to the door with a sigh. Why did you do this? she berated herself. It had been so long, so many centuries ago that she had become a physical healer, giving up her life as an empathic, and for this very reason. Depression had been slowly creeping in, her life was becoming hell. Physical healing was so much easier- just a sting, maybe a feeling of getting shot, and then both healer and victim were as good as new.
Empathics were a dying breed. Nobody wanted to take on the pain of the world anymore.
The healer sighed again and headed out the door, prepared for another long evening at home, alone. This is *not* what I had in mind when I headed out for a drink, Cynthia lamented.
A voice called her name, and she looked up. Nadie was waiting for her at the door. Lusiphur had gone, back to whatever hell was his for the night, a hell of alcohol and tears; of anger and pain and regrets.
A hell that Cynthia left behind as she and Nadie walked through the doors together- not touching, but together.