Natchua indulged in a slower approach on the way home to Leduc Manor, shadow-jumping only enough to avoid people or a trip that would have taken much of the day. She did enjoy a little time spent walking in the mountains, and approaching the half-ruined mansion from its switchbacking access road gave her a few minutes both to savor the view, and to think.
Melaxyna was out in front in a simple human guise, her own customary features with a less eerie coloration and her wings and tail hidden, whittling a chunk of wood with a rusty-looking knife.
“That took a good few hours,” she observed as soon as Natchua came into view. “I was on the verge of getting worried.”
She kept walking up the path. The succubus had called out once Natchua was within the range of elven hearing; she opted to approach closer rather than try to have a discussion while shouting back and forth. It was a small thing, and she didn’t regard Melaxyna as hostile, but it did not escape her notice that this placed Mel in control of the conversation’s dynamic. Holding her peace until she arrived at a position of her choosing was another small thing that served a similar purpose. She would probably never come to enjoy thinking in terms like this, but it was an unfortunately important habit to acquire, and Natchua was starting from behind.
“I had a really peculiar moment today,” Natchua said as soon as she was close enough to do so without raising her voice. “Kind of an epiphany. There was this one point during the…generally pretty difficult discussions I had to have, where suddenly these two incredibly clever, powerful women I was trying to wheedle just visibly dismissed me as a concern and focused on verbally fencing with each other instead. Like I obviously wasn’t smart enough, or important enough, to be a player in that game. And what made it so strange was that I was pleased by it. That’s usually…enraging.”
“Reputation is a powerful thing,” Melaxyna said sagely. “No matter what it’s a reputation for, there’s always some way to leverage it. And being thought of as less smart than you are is always crazy useful, I’ve gotten great mileage out of that one over the years. So, how’re our girls getting along?”
“They’ll keep each other busy for a while, that much I’m confident in. I’m going to have to separate them again before too long,” Natchua continued with a contemplative frown. “If Kheshiri actually messes up Malivette’s situation it’ll mean major problems for me, and likely everyone in the province. And if Vette decisively wins that… Well, actually, that would solve the Kheshiri problem neatly, but then I’m right back to needing to do something about her, and it might be better to still have Kheshiri around to help with that. Well, anyway, hopefully this’ll buy me a few days without either of ’em underfoot, and a chance to see what they both do under pressure.” She paused, then drew in a breath to steady herself. “How’s it looking on the home front? Awful quiet in there…”
“Most of the others are over in the north wing,” Melaxyna said, turning to nod in the direction of the half-ruined arm of the house. “The hobs have pretty well reached the end of what they can do in the front hall, here, without a lot of materiel and supplies, so they’re surveying the damage in the next section. They seem to be getting along well with Xyraadi, now. She’s surprisingly down to earth when she’s trying to make an impression; I was expecting more snobbery, what with all the gratuitous Glassian, but nope! Sweet girl, really. Probably due to her history with adventurers. The chapbooks lie, Natchua. Adventurers were usually filthy hobos who went off to kill things in dungeons because they couldn’t hack it in actual society. Classy, they were not.”
“Right,” Natchua said impatient. “And…?”
Melaxyna gave her a knowing little smile, which she repressed the urge to slap. It was in the nature of a succubus to needle, and she was beginning to think this one in particular was deliberately training her in self-control.
“Jonathan seems steadier with something to do with his hands. We took a stroll down to the nearest lumber camp. They don’t actually cut the trees around here, I think their roots are what keeps the mountainside from sliding down on Veilgrad, but there’s a lot of logging in the province and there are a couple of sawmills pretty close by. We got some price estimates on what the girls will need, and picked up a few bits and bobs. He’s currently up in my little improvised kitchenette, fixing it to be a tad less improvised. I do appreciate a man who’s handy around the house,” she added, putting on one of those little succubus smiles that was a hair’s breadth in every direction from becoming a smirk. “What with one thing and another, I never had the chance for a cozy domestic life.”
“A cozy domestic life would drive you gibbering insane,” Natchua said flatly. She knew too well how right Mel was, though. Jonathan liked working with his hands; having a project would do a lot to settle his mind. “Right, well then… I guess I’d better go deal with this while I have a reprieve from Kheshiri sticking her nose into it.”
She swept up the stairs to the ruined doorway, or tried to. Melaxyna reached out to stop her with a hand on her shoulder.
“You’re a flawed person, Natchua, and this is going to hurt,” the demon said softly. “Don’t be afraid of either. You will be okay. Getting there may be a bitch, but you’ll be okay.”
Natchua could only stare at her for a moment, finding no ready reply to that. She reached up to squeeze Melaxyna’s hand, then gently removed it and continued through the doorway.
With the space defined by the broken remains of its outer walls, the once-grand front hall of Manor Leduc was effectively a courtyard, now, with a gaping hole in its floor leading to a basement. There was certainly little in the way of privacy separating it from the front steps, ensuring that her conversation outside had been audible to the shattered room’s sole occupant. Natchua had, of course, known she was there, having reached out to locate her unique infernal signature along the faint lines of magic that connected them, and being aware of her presence, it was easy to hear her breathing.
Hesthri was perched at the edge of the room, near the doorway opening onto the corridor to Sherwin’s kitchen apartment, squatting on her heels in the way hethlaxi often did. The way the armor plating covered their joints made it more comfortable to adopt a slouch, but they were quite capable of standing up fully straight, as Hesthri now demonstrated on Natchua’s arrival. She rose smoothly to her full height, putting her head up, shoulders back, and chest out. The posture served to accentuate her figure, and by this point Natchua was certain she did that quite deliberately. Hesthri watched her approach for a moment before stepping forward to meet her, holding out her hands in a position that sought Natchua’s own.
She, however, kept them at her sides, maintaining her own straight-backed posture and drawing the cloak of Narisian reserve back over herself. Hesthri stood right in the middle of the narrow lip of navigable space between the wall and the hole; an elf was more than agile enough to slip past her, but Natchua didn’t intend to evade this discussion.
“I’m glad you’re here,” she said, coming to a stop and projecting calm. “I take it Xyraadi and the horogki are getting on well enough that—hey, what are…”
Natchua having failed to reach out to take Hesthri’s hands, the hethelax instead raised them to gently cup the drow’s cheeks. Natchua started to pull away from her, but didn’t try very hard or very fast, and failed to escape before Hesthri stepped closer, raised her own face, and kissed her.
She stopped trying to move. It was barely two more seconds before she stopped pretending to be stiff. The breath leaked from her, mingling with Hesthri’s own, and her eyes drifted shut.
Hard and soft, just like Hesthri’s rapidly switching behavior. Her strategic plates of natural armor were as smooth and cool as iron, as if to emphasize what an otherworldly creature this was in Natchua’s arms. Elsewhere, though, she simply felt like a woman, at least in shape. She was so very warm; it was like embracing the coziness of a hearth. Her skin, where not armored, had an unusual but pleasing texture not unlike a snake’s scales. And her lips were just…
Natchua was the one to pull back, slightly, eventually, though by that point she had lost her grasp of how much time had passed. Her forehead rested against the unyielding armor of Hesthri’s, their breath still mingling. The hethelax’s blunt claws still cradled her face in a tender grasp, but Natchua found that she had at some point pulled the demon close and wrapped both arms around her.
Melaxyna, she now understood, had been entirely right. Her weakness wasn’t about a desire for sex, at least except as a means to an end. It was just the closeness, the warmth, the addictive feeling of another person touching her with tenderness, so sharply sweet it was nearly painful, like the first taste of candy on an unprepared tongue. She was just so unaccustomed to being loved that even the pretense melted her like butter in the sun. This was something she absolutely needed to fix, somehow. Kheshiri would make easy pickings of such a vulnerability, and after Melaxyna’s warnings Natchua well understood that even seeing her coming wouldn’t be enough to stop it.
“I don’t know you that well,” she said aloud, her voice rough, but soft. Hesthri’s eyes opened, regarding her own from inches away. “I don’t…truly know what it is you want.”
The demon’s smile was warm, and sad. “I want what’s best for you, Natchua. And I’m hardly surprised you’re wary, given how much I tend to disagree with you about what that is. Luckily for you, our pact requires my loyalty rather than obedience. I can’t decide if you’re the cleverest fool I’ve ever known, or the other way round.”
Natchua had to smile back at that, if somewhat bitterly. “What’s best for me, is it? Even at the expense of what’s best for you? Or Jonathan?” She hesitated, then pressed. “Or Gabriel?”
“I can’t say how I would handle it if you brought those loyalties into conflict,” Hesthri murmured, sliding her hands slowly down Natchua’s neck to her shoulders and making her entire spine tingle as if she were standing too close to an arcane spell matrix. “It hasn’t come up, Natch. If you and Jonathan will just stop being difficult about it, there’s no reason at all this cannot work out equally well for everyone.”
“Difficult,” she huffed, finally pulling back. “No reason to put yourself out, if it’s—”
“Of course there is. I love you.”
It hurt to hear. It was so unexpectedly blissful that it actually hurt. Gods, she was in so much trouble.
Natchua drew in another steadying breath, only belatedly noting that her reserve was long since in tatters. “Hesthri… It’s been days. We don’t actually know each other.”
“Intimacy takes time, and work.” Hesthri agreed. “But falling in love is easier than falling down the stairs. Faster, harder to do on purpose, and usually makes even less sense. Haven’t you studied any martial arts, Natchua? You lean into a fall. You get hurt by trying to fight it. Dear heart, I wouldn’t compel you even if it was within my power. If you truly want to struggle against this every step of the way instead of trying to see if we can make something good of it… Well, do you?”
Natchua backed up fully, out of her grip, and roughly dry-scrubbed her face with both hands. “I can’t decide whether we should have this out between the two of us first, or just go get Jonathan and see how much of a spectacle we can make of ourselves all at once.”
“Second one,” Hesthri said immediately. “This is a mess for everybody involved, and the three of us need to resolve it. It’s not fair to come at him as a united front. Jonathan deserves to be treated as an equal in this.”
“Your relentless logic is beginning to annoy me,” Natchua grumbled. Hesthri smiled at her with simple affection, and leaned forward to press a light kiss to the corner of her mouth. Natchua, despite her better judgment, let her.
“Come on, then. Let’s not put it off any further.”
Sherwin must have been off with Xyraadi and the hobgoblins; at least, there was no sign of him in his apartment, for which Natchua was grateful. She needed the entire walk through that space and up the stairs to the landing in which Melaxyna had cobbled together her little kitchen to settle her own mind. Despite what Hesthri claimed to intend, she had her own thoughts on how this situation needed to be settled. The sound of hammering grew louder as they climbed, each blow tightening the knot in her stomach, but at least the approach gave her the opportunity to pull back ahead of Hesthri and compose her features again.
Jonathan was kneeling with his back to them, pounding what looked like the last nail into a counter he had assembled along one wall of unfinished planks. The whole thing looked rough, but less so than Melaxyna’s arrangement of boxes and mismatched old furniture.
Their footfalls weren’t particularly heavy and it wasn’t as if he had elven ears, but regardless, he stilled as soon as the two of them emerged from the stairwell.
“Jonathan,” Hesthri said quietly.
Finally, he turned around, straightening upright and laying the hammer down alongside a handful of spare nails atop the surface he had just assembled. He was, Natchua found herself suddenly reminded, really tall, and much broader across the chest and shoulders than any elf. And, with his previous anger under control, dignified in a way that contained an emotional intensity, which she had always seen as more worthy of respect than the cold aloofness she had been taught in Tar’naris.
“So,” he said after a pause, looking back and forth between the two of them. “I guess we’re doing this, then.”
Steeling herself and clinging to every shred of her reserve, Natchua stepped forward before Hesthri could say anything.
“It’s time for you to go, Jonathan.”
His eyebrows shot upward. “Go? Excuse me, but—”
“Yes, yes, I know, you figured you were good and blackmailed into this, and at the time I was flustered enough to let you get away with it. But you aren’t really going to set the Empire and the Church and whoever else after Hesthri, are you? No matter how mad you are at me. And now that would drag Xyraadi into this, not to mention the three hobgoblins, who you know don’t deserve that trouble. So that’s enough of this, Jonathan. You’re going—”
A sharp blow to the back of her head made her stagger. Natchua caught her balance, whirling to glare at Hesthri, who was scowling right back and lowering her hand.
“I can’t decide which of you is more ridiculous,” the hethelax snapped. “Honestly. All of this could be so easy!”
“I can’t see any damn way it possibly could,” Jonathan exclaimed. “She’s right about one thing, this entire business is built on lies, blackmail, and infernomancy. Nothing about it is easy in any respect!”
“Because you make it hard! The both of you!”
“I am trying to make it easy!” Natchua shouted. “I don’t know how you’ve got this worked around in your head, but he has no business here and he’s just going to get killed.”
“I thought we all were,” Jonathan retorted. “Wasn’t that the entire plan, Natchua?”
“It doesn’t need to include you!” she yelled back. “Goddammit, haven’t I done enough to you? Would you just let me protect you?! Can’t I do one good thing?”
“Oh, Natchua,” Hesthri sighed. Jonathan was staring at her in something akin to shock, blinking rapidly.
He rallied, though, squaring his shoulders. “You should know I’m not afraid of death or pain, especially not when the end goal is to help my son. Because you weren’t totally wrong, Natch, despite being so amazingly wrong-headed about every detail in between here and your ultimate conclusion. You are in a unique position to mess up whatever Elilial is planning and that will be a way to protect Gabriel. Considering the kinds of powers he has to contend with now, it’s about all I can do. So, no, I’m not leaving. We are doing this stupid bullshit scheme of yours. Especially since, somehow, you’re actually making it work.”
“You do know if I decide to just send you somewhere, there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.”
“I think you’d be surprised what I can do,” he retorted, stepping toward her. “Do you think I got tangled up with a hethelax demon and protected her on this plane long enough to have Gabriel without being pretty damn resourceful? Has she told you the full story yet?”
“Oh, vrasksha sknithal!” Hesthri shouted, throwing both her hands in the air. “Enough! Get in the room, both of you. Come on!”
She grabbed each of them by an arm and harried the pair across the hall to the nearest accessible doorway, which luckily was to Natchua’s bedroom. Jonathan and Natchua exchanged a look past Hesthri even as she was dragging them, mutually deciding to submit to this with good grace rather than engaging in a pointless scuffle with her. Anyway, she was right; there were a number of ways the rest of this discussion could go, and they were all better done in privacy.
Hesthri didn’t give either of them a chance to start in again, however, whirling on them the instant she had shut the door behind.
“All right, we could hold an entire lecture series on everything Natchua has done wrong here, but by all the gods, Jonathan, she’s twenty.”
“Twenty-one—” Hesthri reached out and clamped a clawed hand over her mouth, by which Natchua was so astonished that she allowed it to happen.
“But you,” the hethelax continued, pointing accusingly at him, “are being purely thoughtless and selfish about this, and it’s beneath you. I expect better.”
“Selfish!” Jonathan’s voice, uncharacteristically, climbed an octave and a half, along with his eyebrows. Natchua finally pulled Hesthri’s hand off her face as he turned his incredulous stare on her. “Did you put her up to this?”
“Don’t look at me, I have no idea what she’s talking about,” Natchua protested. “Come on, Hes, he’s the only one of us who makes any sense. That’s why I want him away from all this!”
“Natchua, shut up a minute,” Hesthri said with a sigh. “And Jonathan, stop making all of this about yourself, because none of it is. Despite how Natchua mistreated you in the process, the truth is you were caught up in the edge of something that was never meant to involve you, by a combination of chance, her terrible ideas and your own damn stubbornness. Yes, she used and lied to you, but ever since she’s been trying to protect you. And she did all of this to protect Gabriel in the first place!”
“Thank you!” Natchua explained.
“You shut your mouth,” Hesthri shot back. “I know you’re trying your best, but you seduced and deceived the man so you could recruit his own former lover into your suicidal crusade. Never mind facing off with Elilial at the end of all this, between that and your general pattern of decisions it’s astonishing you’re not dead yet! Can the pair of you honestly not see how badly you need each other? Jonathan, you were moldering away in Mathenon while Gabriel is out risking his life for the Pantheon, and I know that was eating away at you. It’s not like you to accept your own helplessness that way. Say what you will, Natchua’s nonsense has gotten you back moving, working, and helping, and you love it. And you!” She tried to swat Natchua’s head again, but this time the drow saw it coming and ducked away. That did nothing to stop Hesthri’s tirade. “Why is every idea you have just convoluted and outlandish enough to be completely unworkable? Are you honestly under the impression you can outmaneuver the goddess of cunning with the power of sheer daffy nonsense? That will work right up until she actually notices you. Natchua, Jonathan Arquin is the best thing that’s ever happened to you and the way you keep trying to get rid of him is the dumbest thing you’ve done yet. That is really saying something.”
They both stared at her in shock.
Hesthri sighed heavily. “You need her energy. You badly need his steadiness. She inspires and pushes you; it’s her influence that’s returning you to the vital, driven man I knew and fell in love with. He has so much to teach you about life, and love, and his influence is so exactly what you need to even you out. This man is exactly the one who can help you grow into the enormous potential I see in you. You’re a charming enough kid, Natch, but it’s the woman you are trying to become…” Her voice hitched, but she steadied it and continued. “…that I fell in love with. You need each other. It’s time to forgive, let go, and take the risk. Yes, we’re all going to get hurt. But if we’re together, we’ll get over it. That’s what people do.”
Another few seconds of silence passed between them before Jonathan cleared his throat roughly. “And…are you suggesting… How exactly do you fit into this, Hes?”
“In all the spaces between you,” Hesthri said, smiling now. “I’ve been a servant my whole life, Johnny. I am comfortable letting others take the lead. It’s… What I’ve never had is someone I respected, someone I loved, to dedicate myself to. Somehow, the three of us are a ridiculous, perfect couple. That is, if you two clowns will stop fighting it.”
He shook his head. “I don’t…that’s just too weird, even for—”
“Selfish,” she interrupted, but more gently this time. “We represent three different cultures here, Jonathan, and yours is the only one where it’s not completely normal to have multiple partners.”
“I don’t have a culture,” Natchua muttered. “Narisian anything is a vicious nightmare.”
“Even better, then,” Hesthri replied, taking her by the arm and pulling her forward. “This will just continue to be a wreck if we keep trying to be where we’re from. Can’t we just be who we are, instead? Everyone in this room is stupidly in love with everyone else. I’m not trying to claim this will be magical, or easy, or not prone to dramatic episodes like this. But it can work. And even if it doesn’t, it’s worth trying. Life is short, and often bitter, my darlings. You have to embrace whatever warmth and sweetness you can find. Even if it fails, take a chance on love. Even in Hell we know that.”
“It’s not that…” Jonathan swallowed painfully. “That wasn’t easy to get over, Hesthri. The way she—”
“Stop,” Hesthri ordered. “Say it to her, not to me.”
His expression turned wry for a moment, but he complied, shifting his eyes to Natchua’s. “It hurt me, Natch. It wasn’t just…being conned by some smooth operator. I know we didn’t talk about where any of this was going, in Mathenon, and I was content to just let things develop as they would, but…but she’s right. I loved you.” He hesitated, breathed in and out once, and corrected himself. “I love you. And you betrayed me.”
“I’m sorry.” Her voice was ragged, but she had to say it anyway. “I know that…that’s not enough, nothing is. It’s all I can say, Jonathan. I knew it was going to hurt you, and I hated myself for it, but I did it anyway. I thought…it was important enough. I didn’t have a better idea. I’m just sorry.” She had to stop talking, mostly because the lump in her throat was too painful, but partly because trying to babble out her feelings wasn’t getting her anywhere.
Tears, she noticed belatedly, were running down her face. This was a bad day for Narisian reserve.
“Look at her, Jonathan,” Hesthri all but whispered, stepping next to Natchua and wrapping one arm around her waist, leading her gently but inexorably toward him. “Isn’t that just Natchua in a nutshell? It was stupid and hurtful, but she didn’t have a better idea. She did what she could think of, because it was important, and it doesn’t really matter to her whether she gets hurt. Look at your girl. Your brave, selfless, reckless, beautiful, dumb, clever girl. What the hell is she going to do without you?”
“He doesn’t owe me anything,” Natchua mumbled, looking away.
“That’s for damn sure,” Jonathan sighed.
“Exactly. You’re better off hating me.”
“Oh…hell.” He sighed heavily. “Never once did I hate you. I was… Goddammit, Natch, it’s hard even to stay angry at you, no matter how much you deserve it. At times I downright resent how hard you try to do better. I’m just…I’m not even mad, anymore. It just still hurts.”
His callused fingers took her chin, gently moving her face back toward him. She let him, finding he had stepped close enough to embrace.
“You are not getting rid of me, Natchua. So all that leaves is…how are you planning to make it up to me?”
She opened her mouth, producing exactly as much useful commentary as a fish.
“You’re so focused on everything you do wrong all the time,” Hesthri said softly, gently stroking her back, “I don’t think you’ve ever even noticed how you bring people alive around you, Natchua. Everyone in this house is a better person because you lit a fire under them. People are loyal to you, even after knowing you for just a few days. It’s not because you have any particular idea what you’re doing, and you know it. It’s because your stubborn effort to be better, to accomplish something with the limited and horrible tools you’ve got, inspires people. You showed me the importance of my own potential. And Natchua, you’ve brought my love, the father of my child, back to life. He needs you, too.”
“This…is crazy,” she whispered. “I’m just going to fuck it all up again.”
Jonathan’s hand was still on her chin, and now shifted to caress her cheek. “Yeah…I’m pretty sure you will. You’re kind of a dumbass. Natchua…the hell with it. Hesthri is right, anything breakable is still fixable. I have no idea how this is going to work out, I really don’t. But doesn’t it beat the alternative?”
“I…I don’t…” She could barely breathe out the words; there were no more thoughts forming behind them. Just his face looming right above her, gazing down at her with that gentle expression she had fully expected never to hear again. Everything inside her was cracking under the weight of it.
Hesthri shifted to position herself between them, wrapping an arm around each to push them closer. One clawed hand took each of them by the back of the neck, pushing them the last few inches together.
If not for the both of them holding her up, Natchua probably would have collapsed when he finally kissed her. She slumped against his broad chest, barely held in place by one of his arms and one of Hesthri’s binding her to him. It felt as if she were molten, a warm jelly of sunshine wanting to dissolve into their embrace.
Hesthri nuzzled her cheek when they came up for air. Then the demon lifted her chin as the embrace around them shifted, to be the three holding each other in a circle more than Hesthri pulling them together. Jonathan’s lips met Hesthri’s, and Natchua watched from close enough to taste their shared breath. She looked for jealousy inside herself, and found nothing. She was too close, too much a part of this.
Jonathan pulled them both against his frame, his big hands caressing up and down both their backs, gazing down at them avidly as Natchua and Hesthri kissed deeply in his arms.
Hesthri was the first to hook a claw in Natchua’s robe, insistently tugging the garment aside and slipping in, blunt claws tracing over the soft shape of her. Hands caressed bodies, touching light brown skin and slate gray skin and chitin plates over snakelike scales, catching in the edges of fabric and pulling clumsily.
They shuffled backward, Jonathan’s knees coming to the edge of the bed, and Natchua wasn’t sure which of them giggled as they staggered down onto it.
It was awkward, and uncomfortable, and at moments embarrassing, and somehow, it all worked.