Diath does his best to keep his heart to himself.
It’s a lesson he learned the hard way and one he tries his best to heed. It’s better, it’s safer, if he keeps to the shadows, out of sight, keeps himself to himself and all his feelings close to his chest.
He holds himself at a distance, always. Puts as much effort as he can to keep people from becoming familiar. Searching for new places becomes routine. Different inns as often as he can manage it, not talking to the innkeepers more than he has to to get a room, on the nights where he can afford to have a bed for the night. Never the same smith on the rare occasions he can afford a new weapon, nor the slightly more common ones where he needs supplies for weapon maintenance. Different places for food, no matter how much of Waterdeep he has to travel to make sure he never goes to the same place twice in a tenday. He learns names only when he has to and he always, always works alone.
But he has to.
(He didn’t, once, and he paid the price for it. The cost of alleviating loneliness hurts more than the loneliness itself does)
Then Strix happens.
It’s an accident, really. He’s up on the rooftops, where he’s far away from people and everything is mercifully quieter than the streets below. He has one leg tucked beneath him, a warm bread roll in his hands, and it more-or-less feels like a good day. The ache in his chest isn’t as noticeable. Even in Waterdeep, a city so very used to adventurers and their like, people very rarely think to look up. He can people-watch comfortably and with minimal fear of being noticed. This street in particular is good for people-watching, with travellers always coming and going, always someone new to see.
That’s when he spots her. At first, he isn’t sure what he’s spotted. A dark mass traveling through the crowd, ducking past people and moving in such a way that he can all but hear the scrabbling against the cobblestone even though he’s too far away for any sound to actually reach him without being drowned out by everything else.
Then someone bumps into her and knocks her over, flat on her back, her hood knocked askew enough that he can make out her face – gaunt and grey and scared. She scrambles backwards until her back hits a wall and tugs her hood back down and sits there in a ball and trembles. She stays there like that for a while. Eventually, her shaking lets up a little and she starts picking her way through the crowd again.
Whoever knocked her over didn’t even stop. Nobody offered to help her at all. Even now, nobody is sparing her so much as a glance.
His heart twists. He knows that feeling. He’s been there.
It’s easy to track her path through the crowd and compare it against his mental map of Waterdeep. It’s simple to figure out which alleyway she is most likely to take refuge in.
He shouldn’t. He really shouldn’t.
…but he will.
He finishes his roll and then makes his way down from the rooftop and over to a vendor to buy another.
Just this once he tells himself.
Just this once.
It’s not just once.
He keeps coming back, keeps bringing her food, and he can’t make himself stop.
He should. He knows he should. He should stop before he gets too close and everything goes wrong again.
Well, she’s never seen him yet. He’s very good at staying hidden when he wants to.
He can’t find it in himself to leave her to fend for herself.
He would have wanted someone to bring him food.
It doesn’t really count, anyways, he tells himself. Bringing her food and staying hidden in the shadows to make sure she eats it and maybe listening to some of her muttering before he leaves doesn’t really count as interacting with someone in any significant way. He’s still keeping his distance.
As long as she doesn’t see him, it’s fine.
She sees him.
She throws fire at him.
He still can’t make himself leave.
It just feels so good to actually talk to someone again. To have a conversation, to have the slightest bit of connection. He almost forgets why he avoids it. Almost.
He tells himself it’s fine, it’s okay, she’s so scared and skittish all the time, even if he lets himself get too close, she won’t.
They keep talking. They eat together. They end up adventuring together, inasmuch as what they do can be called adventuring.
They become friends. They become friends and it’s... good. Great, even.
He completely forgets why he avoids it.
Strix’s shriek echoes off of the cave walls and Diath is forcibly reminded oh right, this is why I shouldn’t make friends.
All it takes is one slight misadventure and everything comes tumbling down. He really should have known better. Of course it couldn’t last.
(He would have liked it if it could. Strix is... Strix is good and they get along well and... honestly, she’s the first person he’s ever met who doesn’t make him feel different. Even before, with- with the companions he’s had before, he still felt different. It’s nice, for once, to not feel like he’s sitting outside alone while everyone else has information that he doesn’t. Strix is just as confused by it all as he is and she’s far more open about her confusion than he’s ever managed to be)
All it takes is one bat getting close enough to her face to spook her. She panics, stumbles, falls, and her left sleeve gets torn all the way up to her elbow.
Ordinarily, it wouldn’t be a big deal. Strix gets new rips and tears in her clothes all the time.
But this one reveals skin.
And with revealing the skin, it also reveals the very distinct, glimmering image on that skin. It wasn't there last time her arms were bared, they both know.
It’s understandable that she shrieks. It’s a perfectly reasonable reaction to an unexpected change, especially to your body.
Diath’s first reaction is to get them both out of the cave just in case the noise wakes up any nasties living deeper in it. Once they’re both out in the sunlight and a reasonable distance from the cave entrance, he backs away while Strix continues freaking out.
“I’m sorry,” he blurts, not sure what else to say.
Somehow, that seems to startle her more than the discovery of the new addition to her skin. Her gaze snaps from her arm to his face and back again. Between the guilt gnawing so strongly at him that it must be showing on his face and his words, she’s obviously making the connection.
“You did this?!” she asks, shoving her arm in his face. He skitters back a few steps, averts his eyes. The fearful tone of accusation in her voice hurts. She’s never stopped being scared, not really, that was the whole reason he’d thought they were safe at first, but she’d been less scared lately and now that’s probably ruined forever. It hurts that that’s probably for the best.
“Not on purpose!” he replies, because he can’t let her think that, not quite able to keep the hurt out of his voice “It just- it just happens! I didn’t mean to, I didn’t think-”
He stops himself there because, really, that’s the end of the sentence. He didn’t think. If he’d thought, he would’ve known this would happen eventually and he would have left her be long before this could happen.
Strix is looking between her arm and him again, eyes narrowed. He opens his mouth to say something (I’m sorry, it’s okay, I’ll just go, I’m sorry, you’ll never have to see me again, I’m sorry) but she beats him to it.
“Are you cursed?”
It’s so unexpected that it takes a moment to process. He blurts the first thought in his head, very confused.
“Are you cursed?” Strix repeats, gesturing at her arm “Is this a curse thing?? Is that what it is?? You’re cursed and people around you get weird curse tattoos on their arms and you forgot about it???”
That... could be a possible explanation. He’s never really thought about the why too much before. It’s just something that happens, has always happened. It’s not like he’s had much time to figure out the details of how it works – he can count the number of times he’s actually seen it happen on his fingers.
“I don’t think it’s just people who are around me?” he says, because if that was the case he’d have seen it a lot more often than he has and he wants to give her all the information he has “I think it’s more-” people I care about, people I lo- “-my friends?”
It comes out as a question and he realises neither of them have actually said that word out loud yet. He’s been thinking of them as friends but... are they? Is he just making everything worse?
She blinks at him and something in her expression… changes.
Before he can blink, she’s grabbed his gloved hands in hers and is staring at his face – not into his eyes, neither of them are very good at that – and he realises that this might be the first time he’s ever seen her not afraid.
“We’re going to find a way to break your curse,” she says, voice threaded through with steely determination.
And he thinks oh.
“Do you want to see it?” Strix asks him later, sitting around what will be a campfire when they get it going once it’s closer to dark.
“What?” he asks, confused.
She gestures at her arm.
“The weird curse tattoo thingy,” she says “You were avoiding looking at it earlier. Do you want to see it?”
...he does. He shouldn’t.
She shuffles a bit closer and holds her arm out and he lets himself actually look at the image on her skin that she’s stuck with now because he didn’t have the strength to stay away like he should have.
It looks like a crack, running all the way from her inner wrist up to her elbow, tapering at both ends. At the right angle, one can see that the image is flat, that it is flush with her skin, but most angles seem to lend themselves to an optical illusion that it has depth. The outer edges of the crack are ringed with a darker grey than the rest of her skin with a texture to it that almost looks rocky. The inside of the crack glitters when the light catches it, almost like it really is filtering through facets of gemstone.
Geode a little voice in the back of his head helpfully informs. He doesn’t need it to tell him that the purple colouration perfectly gives away what kind of gemstone the geode is.
That doesn’t change the fact that she didn’t have a choice about it.
“Huh,” he says. He is very eloquent.
Strix draws her arm back and huddles in on herself, doing something or other with her robes. He turns his attention away and focuses on fiddling with the wood for the campfire to try and maximise heat output and time.
The sky starts to darken and he pulls out his flint-and-steel to ignite the wood. Once the fire is burning merrily, he sits back a little.
There’s a shuffle and Strix plops down beside him. The sleeve of her robe has been messily patched up with something he’s not entirely sure is string and he can see that beneath it, strips of cloth have been wrapped around her arm.
Well. He can’t blame her.
They sit in mostly comfortable silence for a while.
Eventually, Strix breaks it.
“…it’s not the worst possible side-effect of accidentally becoming friends with someone who’s cursed,” she says, glancing at him out of the corner of her eye.
He can’t help the smile that comes in response.
It becomes just a part of their lives after that, the geode creeping up Strix’s arm. They both have a brief fright when they realise that it has grown up past her elbow (“I forgot they do that!” “HOW CAN YOU FORGET DETAILS OF YOUR OWN CURSE??” “It’s been a long time and it didn’t come with instructions!”) and then Strix decides to just bandage her entire left arm up to the shoulder and be done with it.
They settle back into a routine and... things are good.
(One night, staring up at the ceiling of their room in an inn, Strix already fast asleep in her nest on the floor, despite his continuing attempts to get her to take the bed for once, he realises that for the first time in a long time, he’s happy)
The debacle at the Rusty Pommel happens and Evelyn offers them all a place to stay for the night, and one night turns into several nights, turns into tendays, turns into months. Suddenly, they are four instead of two, all of them continuing to gravitate towards each other long after the fateful night that brought them together. Before long, they are getting into troubles and misadventures in and around the city and Diath realises that he and Strix have found themselves an adventuring party.
And then Evelyn discovers a trellis of morning glories running up her right arm, bathed in soft beams of sunlight that wind around it, and Paultin finds a band of alfalfa flowers around his ankle, intersected by twirling scarlet ribbons, and Diath thinks not again. After Strix, one would think that he would learn, not get blindsided again, but here they are, at breakfast in the Spires, with this development that he didn’t see coming.
“Oh, yeah,” Strix says, utterly casual “Diath’s cursed,”
“Strix!” he protests, because she could have let him be the one to tell him, and they don’t know for sure if it’s a curse, and she just shrugs.
Evelyn gasps and asks for details and looks so worried even though she’s the one permanently marked by his carelessness. Strix hunches back and hisses a bit when she gets overeager but shares everything they’ve figured out so far nonetheless. Diath doesn’t get much of a chance to get a word in and Paultin drops into the seat next to him, stretching his legs out and examining his ankle.
“Not a design I would have chosen myself,” he says, idly, and Diath tenses. Paultin just gives him a lackadaisical smile and stretches like a cat before continuing “But ‘accidental curse tattoo’ is way less embarrassing than what I thought when I woke up with a new one. Well...” his rolls his head to look at him directly “...for me, I guess, I dunno about you,”
Funnily enough, it actually puts him at ease. Evelyn and Strix’s conversation seems to have dissolved from discussion about his maybe-curse to something about Lathander, the day is bright, and he feels... okay, for once.
He meets Paultin’s smile with a half-smirk of his own.
“Oh yes, on my end, it’s mortifying,” he says, only half joking.
Paultin snorts and shoves him in the shoulder, which knocks him into Evelyn, who promptly collides with Strix, and Paultin apparently expected more resistance because he overbalances and all four of them topple to the ground in a mess of squawking, shrieking, and tangled limbs. Diath is pretty sure he hears at least one plate break.
Lying on the floor in a pile of his friends, he laughs.
A few days later, Paultin talks him into a “boys’ night out” and they go for drinks and it, somehow, is actually fun and doesn’t end in disaster.
Towards the end, when tiredness is creeping up on the both of them, Paultin leans back in his chair, props his feet up on the table, and leans to the side to peer at him.
“So, like,” Paultin says, in the tone of voice that Diath has learned usually means he won’t like whatever comes next “What happens if you stop being friends with someone?”
It’s a complete non-sequitur and Diath finds himself squinting across the table, trying to parse the meaning. There is, he thinks, a bit too much alcohol in his system for him to figure out what that is supposed to mean without context.
“The tattoo thingies, dude,” Paultin says, gesturing vaguely to where his is hid under his boot “They’re, like, connected to your relationships with people, yeah? Strix’s is so much bigger ‘cause you’ve known her longer? So if you had a big fight with someone and stopped being friends, what would happen? Does it stay? Or change? Or just straight up vanish? I am curious about the mechanics at play here, my dude,”
Diath stares into his drink, tries to think. A heavy weight settles on his heart – or maybe it is always there and he just doesn’t notice it most days anymore.
“I don’t know,” he admits, quietly “I’ve... never had the chance to find out,”
(Relissa’s arms were coated in vines and flowers, vibrant and bright and alive. She had loved them. Gladioli she had said, tracing the petals the leaves are shaped like swords, the flowers are a symbol of strength.
Kegan’s hands had been filled with flame, red-yellow-orange, warm and gentle like a fireplace. They had shown softly in the dark and he had laughed. It’s a good thing we both wears gloves so often, eh Diath? These would earn me a few questions otherwise!)
(A blade cut through the fibres of a rope and the flowers withered and the flames guttered.
By the day that Diath was released from the dungeons, shaky-legged and alone but a free man once more, the vines were withered husks and every flower was a thorn and the flames were ash and soot that would never, ever wash away)
(The day Ashton Woodrow died, his back bore nothing but broken bones rotting from the inside out.
The feathers, white and gold, silver and grey, fell away years and years before)