A Penitent Heart

Elhan of Suldanessellar, general of the armies of the Heartwoods, ducked into his tent to gather his thoughts. He was satisfied that they were not spies, at least. The denials on that point had be vehement, profuse, and, in the case of the blonde one, a bit vulgar. No, they were not agents of the drow, of that he was convinced. But they were not just adventurers who had taken a wrong turn in a dark cave and wandered too deep, either. They had been down there for a reason. According to their belligerent leader, they had put a stop to a drow plot that would have spelled the utter destruction of the elves' defenses. She had said their ultimate goal was finding Jon Irenicus, and his blood had chilled at her words. What had he done, that human adventurers were following him through the black of the Underdark, after his heart? How far was the Exile willing to press his vengeance? Was there anything he wasn't prepared to do destroy them all?

He sat heavily at his camp desk. There was something about the group that unnerved him. The woman who spoke for them knew far more about the Exile than an outsider should (the knowledge that the drow had been a breath away from summoning a demon at his behest had almost made Elhan's heart stop), and the questions she asked were even worse. And there was something in her dark eyes – a disturbing mix of bitter self-recrimination and incandescent rage that set his nerves to jangling. She was young, even for a human. He knew he was two centuries her senior at the very least. But her eyes looked old, and they unsettled him.

But he knew that even an uncomfortable opportunity was better than none. Despite the young human's disquieting eyes, after the reverses and dismal news of the past tenday, the fortuitous appearance of her party might be just the break he and his exhausted, overextended forces had so desperately needed. If she truly wanted Irenicus, surely she would see the wisdom in working with him.

His attaché scratched at the tent flap as a courtesy before entering. "General," he asked, "If they are not our prisoners, what shall we do with the adventurers? It's getting late, and if we're going to assign a watch to them, I need to know."

"No," Elhan said. "No watch. I think we can trust them that far at least, they obviously have no love for the drow. But more than that, I think we can use them. They may be the solution to our most pressing problem."

Elhan stepped back out of his tent, and Maera looked up at him from her cushion on the ground. The elves were edgy and distrustful, but they were still good hosts. "So where do we go from here, General?" she asked.

"We help each other."

"Ah. The old tit-for-tat, back scratching routine. I never get tired of it."

"There's no need to be flippant," he responded. "You say you want the Exile. So do I. But neither of us can have him now."

"You keep calling him that. Why?"

"That is not something I feel it necessary to discuss with an outsider."

"You could always try climbing down off your high horse and see how that works for you. Or maybe just pulling the stick-"

"Maera!" Jaheira admonished. "For the last time! Show some respect."

Maera inhaled deeply and closed her eyes, willing herself calm. The elves had descended on them seconds after they exited the cave, brusque, mistrustful, and armed to the teeth. In her heart, she couldn't blame them. That hole had been coughing up their worst nightmare; of course they would imagine the worst of anyone who emerged from it. But their suspicions irritated her, rubbing at her nerves like sandpaper. What did she have to do to convince them she bore them no ill will? She didn't give a damn about their little spat with the drow in the first place, growled the angry little voice of honesty in the back of her mind. If the elves knew anything of use, they could tell her and let her go. Being forced to play houseguest felt like a waste of time. "My apologies, General," she said stiffly. "What do you propose?"

"We are cut off here. We cannot return to Suldanessellar, because he has hidden it from us."

"Hidden? How do you hide an entire city?" Imoen asked.

Elhan shrugged, the gesture of a man for whom the specifics were unimportant. "Some manner of illusion. An incredibly powerful one. It is as though the city has vanished from the face of Toril. Our scouts have returned reporting nothing but empty forest. Which means he has Suldanessellar, and all its people, at his mercy now, and we can do nothing." His face hardened with the last word and Maera felt a quick pang of sympathy. For one accustomed to action, there was no feeling worse than helplessness, and she found her temper softening. "There is still one way to return, but he was prepared for that as well. The Rhynn Lanthorn is the most sacred relic of our patron Rillifane, the Leaf Lord. It is bound to his temple, and no magic, mortal, divine, or diabolic, can prevent it from lighting the way back to its home."

A flash of understanding lit Maera's mind. "Phaere said they defiled a temple. He took it, to ensure the illusion. If someone in the city were able to sneak it out, they could get reinforcements."

"So if he wanted to be sure it couldn't fall back into the elves' hands…" Jaheira mused.

"Boo says he would give it to Bodhi," Minsc interjected decisively.

"Boo is right," Imoen replied, thoughtful. "And if Bodhi has it…"

"She's gone back to Athkatla," Kelsey said. "She already has a base of operations there, and the elves can't follow her. There's no way they could march into Amn without provoking an incident."

They all looked up at Elhan. "And you want us to retrieve it for you," Maera said. The General nodded. "I see. We do this and we'll get a crack at Irenicus?"

"Most assuredly. We will need all the help we can get, once we can get back into the city."

"Then I guess we have ourselves a deal." Elhan bowed, and was about to speak when she asked, "One question, though, General, and I promise I'll hold my temper this time. What did he do to your people? Why do you call him the Exile?"

"I'm afraid you must earn that knowledge." He bowed again; the interview was clearly over. "Accommodation will be provided for you; crude, but better than the ground. In the morning, you may approach my quartermaster and we will re-supply you as best we can. Thank you, and good night."

They retired to a cluster of rough huts that skirted the edge of a small lake down the slope from Elhan's headquarters. Kelsey saw Maera sitting on a rock, her bare feet kicking idly at the water, her face turned upwards towards the stars. "I missed the stars, down there," she said as he approached.

"I know I have a new appreciation for fresh air," he replied. "And I much prefer seeing your face, instead of Veldrin's."

"I think I was a little too good at being Veldrin," she said. "I'm glad I'm not anymore."

"Now that you aren't, may a humble male speak to you again?" The jest fell flat, and they both stared into the water. A silent moment passed before she spoke, still looking up at the sky.

"I owe you an apology, Kelsey. I haven't been fair to you. Or anyone, for that matter. I feel…I feel like I'm flying apart at the seams. Like something's trying to push its way out of me. I hear it in my head, I see it in my dreams, I... It got in once, and now it's lurking at the windows, waiting for me slip up, and let it back in. I feel like I'm putting you all in danger. Especially you." She laced her fingers together tightly, and said, voice faltering, "Considering that…I would completely understand if you decided that what's happened between us in the past should stay there."

Kelsey watched her anguished profile. He wished she would look at him. "I wouldn't want that."

She mulled over that in silence, then asked, very softly, "Why?" Her head half-turned. "I tried to kill you, Kelsey."

"No. The Slayer tried to kill me."

"Don't split hairs. That's not how it works." She stood stiffly, and turned away, rocking slightly as if she could not decide to start walking or not.

Kelsey faced her tense back, feeling oddly belligerent. Too many opportunities had already passed him by since Spellhold, too many silences, too much aversion. He had not planned on them having the matter out right at that moment, but there they were, so why not? "Explain it to me then. I've got all night."

She swung back towards him, eyes slitted. He recognized that look, but he'd never been on the receiving end of it before. "Explain it? Really? Which part would you like me to explain first: the part about having the overwhelming desire to rip you in half, or the part where I did my damnedest to make it happen?" Kelsey gritted his teeth and forced himself to stare back. He would not give her any ground. He couldn't. "And don't try to smooth it over and tell me that it's not my fault," she said, her voice rising in frustration. "Irenicus may have taken my soul, but he didn't didn't put the Slayer in me. It was always there. It has always been a part of me. So what if there's no going back to the way I was? What if this is the way I have to live the rest of my life? And what if sooner or later, even the little bit of control I still have disappears? Then what? What happens then, Kelsey?!" She cut herself off, rubbing her face. "And why am I yelling at you?"

"I'd rather you yell at me than ignore me," he retorted.

She tried for a chuckle, but it hovered somewhere tears and derision. "Gods, are your priorities screwed up."

"I think we're all pretty screwed up right now." He folded his arms, neck tense, mouth set tight, and he realized he was angry with her. Normally, his first instinct would be to conciliate, but the anger made him reckless, and he let it carry him. He pushed again. "What are you so afraid of, Maera?"

She did laugh that time, but it wasn't a very pleasant sound. "I'm sorry, were you not there a minute ago? I tried to kill you. It wasn't an accident. It wasn't a mistake. I wanted you dead. How am I supposed to feel about that, Kelsey?"

He remembered the cold light in the Slayer's eyes. He had been nothing but a victim in those eyes, not a person, just a thing to be cut down, blood to be shed. But those had not been Maera's eyes, and he had to make her realize that. "Do you want to kill me now?" he shot back. She started, caught off guard by the question.


"Do you want to kill me?" he repeated. "Right here, right now."

"Keep this up and I might," she grumbled crossly.

"Very funny. Please answer the question."

"Kelsey, I…" She sighed, a heavy, defeated sound. "No. No, of course not." She looked down, her brow furrowed sadly.

"That's why I'm not afraid of you," he said. She continued to stare at the ground. "Maybe the Slayer's always been there, but so have you." He chanced stepping closer to her. Close enough to touch, but he wasn't going to press his luck. "That night in Brynnlaw, you said we'd come into each other's lives at just the right time. I still believe that. I can't speak for you, but I know that what I feel for you…it's real, and it's not going anywhere. And neither am I."

She looked at him, parted her lips as if to speak, then simply shook her head. "You know what I said before about you being normal? I take it back. You're crazy." She smiled at him. It was weak, and a little sad, but it was still the most beautiful thing he had seen in weeks. "What kind of lunatic doesn't run away screaming when they've seen what you have?"

"I'm not sure," he admitted. "I still don't hear talking hamsters, though." Her smile deepened by a degree, and finally, it touched her eyes. His spirits soared.

"Maybe you need a weasel," she suggested quietly.

"Maybe I do."

She glanced down again, her lips still faintly curved. Instinct told him to touch her, but reason kept his hands at his sides. That smile would have to be victory enough for one night. "I'm gonna go to bed, okay?" he said. "I'll see you in the morning."

She nodded, still not looking at him. "Good night." He ducked his head to catch her eye.

"I'm not giving up on you, Maera," he murmured. Vague surprise crossed her face, followed by an expression that looked almost like gratitude. He smiled at her and turned for his hut, taking advantage of his resolve while it lasted. He had to leave this in her hands, he told himself firmly. He could take her hand at the cliff's edge, but she was the only one who could choose to reach back.

The first thing Jaheira saw when she exited her hut the next morning was a pair of familiar figures, one quite large and the other equally small, lying in the grass a few paces away. She marched towards Imoen and Minsc, prepared to employ her full anti-stupidity arsenal if necessary. Hands set firmly on her hips, she stared them down. "And what do you two think you are doing? Imoen, are you all right?"

Imoen beamed up at her somewhat blearily. "Oh, I'm fine, Jaheira. I don't even have a headache!"

"We are looking at the sun," Minsc supplied helpfully.

That was not quite the answer Jaheira had expected. "Not directly, I hope?"

"Oh, no!" Minsc looked scandalized at the thought. "When it gets too bright, we do this!" He covered his eyes with one hand, and placed the other over Imoen's. It covered the majority of her face, and she giggled.

Jaheira shook her head with a small, eye-rolling smile. They were like children together, they always had been, and she knew she should probably scold them for wasting precious preparation time. But it was so good to see them back in their natural element she just couldn't bring herself to. And Imoen, so pale after weeks of sunless confinement, was smiling again. Seeing the pair of them together felt almost like normalcy. Sanity, even, as odd as that sounded.

Kelsey walked by, absently adjusting the straps on his pack. He glanced down at the horizontal pair as he passed. "Should I ask?"

"It would be unwise," Jaheira said.

"Okay." He kept walking.

"I assume you are prepared to depart shortly?" Jaheira held out a hand to help Imoen up.

"Of course," Imoen said tartly. "We've been ready for hours. Haven't we, Minsc?"

"Boo and I packed all night!" The big ranger clambered to his feet, brushing bits of damp grass off his armor.

That left only Maera unaccounted for, and she emerged from her own hut a few moments later, looking withdrawn but resolute. She flashed a quick, muted smile at Kelsey as she passed to take her place at the head of the line, and he could not disguise the unalloyed hope in his eyes as she did. By Silvanus, Jaheira thought, I would not be so young again for the world. But she found that she too felt strangely hopeful. Amazing what the daylight could do.

They kept a hard pace back to Athkatla, but they were all so enjoying the novelty of being under the sky once more that it did not seem as bad as it could have. They followed the forest roads north, and within a day or so, the trees thinned and gave way to rolling Amnish farmland. Maera had no idea how many days behind Bodhi they were, but they could not afford her the luxury of time to re-establish herself. Speed of was the essence, and they knew they would need help. Fortunately, there was someone in Athkatla they could count on to take Bodhi's return just as personally as they did.

But if Aran Linvail was surprised to see them again, it didn't show. He had not gotten to his current echelon in the underworld by being easy to shock. He bowed in elegant fashion over Imoen's hand when they were ushered into his chamber. "And you would be the famous, long-sought Imoen," he smiled. "None the worse for your captivity, I hope?"

"Well, Irenicus and Bodhi did steal mine and Maera's souls, but other than that, I'm pretty good. Thanks for asking."

The unflappable veneer cracked ever so slightly. "Souls?"

Imoen nodded as if making teatime conversation. "Yeah, they had some kind of ritual that killed six people and sucked our souls out through our noses. At least, I hope it was our noses…"

"Maera!" Sime entered, looking both reproachful and delighted. Linvail, for his part, simply looked relieved, the conversation having gone to a place he had not anticipated. "What happened to you? You were gone three days, then Havarian shows back up at the Monkey looking like a kicked puppy, mutters something about the Underdark, and the next thing I know, I'm on my way back here."

Maera extended her hand to clasp the other woman's forearm. "Sorry about that, Sime. There wasn't really any time for detail. But it would seem the good captain actually did as he was told, which is a relief."

"Oh, he was very attentive the entire trip back," Sime said. "What did you do to him?"

"I scared him."

Sime snickered darkly and seated herself on the edge of Linvail's desk as the Shadowmaster sat down behind it. "Since you are back, I suppose this means I'll have to cancel the contract I had out on him," he said with a sigh. "Shame. I was looking forward to receiving his head with little bows tied in the hair."

"Aran, he was in your employ, and he crossed you. What happens to Saemon Havarian is between you and your occasional conscience," Maera replied.

"This is very true." His lips quirked wickedly. "Bows it is, then."

"As exciting as a conversation about Havarian is bound to be, you know I'm not here to talk about ship's captains with highly negotiable loyalties," Maera said. "Bodhi's back."

Linvail's smile became pained. "So it is her. I'd been getting reports the past few nights - thieves not reporting back, figures in the shadows that weren't us, that sort of thing. I was hoping against hope that it wasn't her, but obviously I should have been more pessimistic. When will I learn?" He cast Sime a rueful glance, and she patted his shoulder with mock sympathy. "So why has she returned? What's her game?"

Maera outlined what they knew thus far, from Irenicus and Bodhi's own admission in Spellhold, from Phaere and Ardulace, and from Elhan, and he shook his head grimly. "Drow on the surface, hidden cities, stolen relics? My gods. And she and the mage more closely connected than I ever imagined." Linvail tapped a forefinger on his desk. His face was calm, but Maera could see the whirr of activity behind his eyes as he recategorized all things Bodhi-related into new mental files. "This is far deeper just a guild war."

"Aran, I'm afraid your guild war meant nothing to her," Maera said. "She had no real desire to overthrow you and run Athkatla's streets. It was a game to her, something to keep her amused while she stockpiled for her brother."

The Shadowmaster's eyes went cold. "We're just parts to them, aren't we?"

Maera nodded, unable to keep a small, slightly vengeful smile from her face. She had known Linvail would understand. "That's what they seem to think."

"I think I disagree," Linvail said. "She has to be put down. Permanently. And that's why you're here, isn't it?" Maera nodded again. "I think we can make arrangements to that end. It's high time someone disabused our bloodsucking friend of her superiority complex. Come back tomorrow and we'll talk business." They stood and turned to depart when he said, "By the way… Maera? It's good to see you again. I was worried."

Being back in Athkatla meant Maera could finally do something she had unfortunately had to put off for longer than she had wanted. After seeing them all ensconced for the evening at the Five Flagons Inn, she came down the stairs into the common room, a small oilcloth bundle in hand, and was halfway to the door when she heard Kelsey's voice.

"I knew you were bluffing!"

She stopped, and stared, as her world executed a perfect half gainer and landed gracefully on its ear.

Jaheira and Kelsey sat opposite one another at a little card table near the wall, playing cards and a small pile of copper coins between them, which Jaheira began scooping towards her side. "It is your deal," she said. Kelsey sighed and gathered up the cards. Jaheira glanced up and spotted Maera. "Ah, there she is. Good evening, Maera."

Maera blinked hard. "Are you…playing cards?"

"Poker, to be exact, yes." The druid watched patiently as Kelsey shuffled.

"You're playing poker."

"Imoen is having another of her headaches; I gave her some tonic and sent her to lie down, and Minsc is keeping her company. You were nowhere to be found, so Kelsey and I have sought our own entertainment."

"So you're playing poker."

"As best we can between the two of us." Jaheira calmly collected her cards and began ordering them in her hand. "He counts cards, by the way."

"I do not," Kelsey objected. "It's basic math." He glanced at Maera, and his eyes softened as he noted the oilcloth in her hands. She felt inexplicably embarrassed, as if she should have been more secretive. "Which shrine are you going to?" he asked quietly.

"The one of the roof of the Copper Coronet's closest, isn't it?" He nodded, and she did as well. "Then that one."

He set down his cards, stood, and faced her. "I'll come with you."

"You don't have to."

"No, but I am." She inhaled to protest, but his shoulders moved back resolutely. "I am."

He was putting his foot down, she realized, blank with surprise. When had he started doing that? And what was that little smile on Jaheira's face about? "Um…okay. Company might be nice after all."

It was an hour or so before sunset, but the streets were already darkening. A low, complaining pall of clouds hung over the domed roofs of Athkatla, threatening rain with every gust of wind. Maera and Kelsey walked in silence from the Bridge into the slums. There didn't seem to be much to say. They turned a corner, and the sprawling bulk of the Copper Coronet loomed before them, the torches on either side of its doors already lit against the approaching stormy night. Stairs near the main entrance led to the roof, and the shrine of Ilmater, a small, rickety lean-to of a building, tucked against one of the Coronet's great chimneys, borrowing its warmth. The thin, shabby priest tending the fire looked up. "What may the Painbearer offer you, my children?"

"We've come to perform a penance," Maera said quietly.

"For yourselves, child?"

"The penitent is already dead. He won't be able to find peace without Ilmater's intercession."

The priest's eyes flicked from the bag in her hands, to her tired face, and there was understanding in his kindly eyes. "That is his heart?" Maera nodded. "Then come. Pray for his peace and for your own. You will know when to cast the heart into the fire."

He busied himself with some small task, allowing them relative privacy to kneel on either side of the brazier. Maera stared into the flames, and in his mind's eye, she could see it all again – Yoshimo's blood soaked side, his body limp in her arms, the tight sensation of dried blood on her face. He had asked her forgiveness, but it had already been given, the instant Daystar entered his body. Kelsey's voice broke her reverie. "Maera," he said softly, "you couldn't have saved him."

"I've killed a lot of people," she whispered, "more than I care to think about. You'd think it wouldn't bother me anymore."

"Don't you think it's a good thing that it does?" They sat in silence for a moment longer before Kelsey spoke again. "You know, when we first met, I was a little jealous of him."

Her brow furrowed. "Seriously? Jealous of Yoshimo? Why?"

He shrugged, as if acknowledging his foolishness. "I didn't know where things stood with you two at first. I mean, it didn't take long to figure it out, but even then…he flirted with you all the time. All that 'fair friend' business."

"He was very charming," she replied, smiling gently, then looked at him sharply. "But he was not flirting."

"Oh, yes he was. Maybe you didn't notice, but he was."

She stuck the tip of her tongue out at him. "And maybe you were seeing things that weren't there. At least Yoshimo wasn't out to get into my pants." The priest coughed - it was most certainly not a choked laugh - and she blushed.

"I think he would have been more than happy to be there," Kelsey replied. "Any guy with sense would be." There was no heat to his words, just a smile, and she shook her head at him, giving her eyes a roll. It felt nice to banter with him again. But then he sobered, and the next words were soft, almost under his breath. "I was a little jealous of him when he died, too. He got to die in your arms. There are worse ways to go."

The words struck like a blow to the chest, and for an instant, she couldn't breath. She stared at him, stricken. "Kelsey, don't say that."

He shrugged again, looking intensely self-conscious. "He and I didn't see eye to eye about most things. The merchant and the thief…natural enemies, I guess. We were never going to be friends. But you and he were, and I know that was important to you."

She rolled with the subject change, even though the awful compression of her heart took a moment to ease. "We got along. Maybe it was because he had been there too, in Irenicus's dungeon. He could understand, but he wasn't so close that he was suffering under our losses, too. Of course, now I know he had planted there for us." A flash of anger washed over her, sudden and hot. "Irenicus used him. Like a chess piece. A living, breathing human with a mind and a heart, and he placed him under a death sentence without a thought. Because it was convenient. I don't know. Maybe I'm being too generous. Maybe I should have been more suspicious, but I do not believe he would have betrayed us if he hadn't been under that compulsion!" An image flashed in her mind – Yoshimo with his hands pressed against the glass cage, anguish in his eyes. Do you know what happens when you disobey a geas?

"No," she said, more softly. "He wouldn't have."

"Then your trust wasn't misplaced," Kelsey offered.

She nodded vigorously. "Exactly! It wasn't! And that's why I have to do this for him! I don't have so many friends I can afford to treat any of them poorly." The second the words left her mouth, her anger was gone like a doused flame. There was the heart of it, and hearing herself say it aloud drove it home. "But I have. Oghma's books, but I have."


She gently hefted the oilcloth bag, suddenly unable to look at him. "I've been so afraid of myself. Of what I might do. I've been so scared, I've pushed everyone away. I am such a coward." Her head dropped, and she stared down at the wrapped heart in her hands. Maybe it knew something she didn't.

"You know," Kelsey said, breaking the lengthening silence diffidently, "I've heard that courage is the acceptance of fear. Apparently, a really wise man used to say that."

Her throat tightened, and yet a laugh was trying to force its way through the lump. He really did astound her sometimes. Despite the fear and anger and uncertainty, he was still there, still somehow knew just the right thing to say. How did he do that, and how could she ever repay him for it? She looked up at him across the fire, wiping at her wet eyes with the heel of her hand. "What did I ever do to deserve you?" she asked softly.

The flush started at his ears, before spreading down his neck and across his face. "You didn't do anything. You're just you."

Her mouth twitched bitterly. "Yeah. Me. In all my dubious glory."

"Yes, you." He sounded almost frustrated. "You, the fighter. The hero." His voice softened as their eyes met. "The woman who comforted a dying man, and promised him she would do everything in her power to ease his suffering. And here you are."

She looked down at the bag again, and his words at the lakeshore came back to her. Maybe the Slayer's always been there, but so have you. "Here I am," she whispered. She lifted Yoshimo's heart over the fire. "I'm sorry if I've kept you waiting, Yoshimo."

Kelsey's hands moved of their own accord, slipping beneath hers. It was strange, he thought, how small a human heart really was, when it mattered so much. Their eyes met across the flames and held for a moment, before she closed hers. "Ilmater, Painbearer, Crying Lord, hear me," she prayed. "Hear the supplication of the wounded. Our friend died a traitor's death, but he was betrayed himself. Ease his suffering, I beg. Free him to his rest." As she spoke, the air seemed strangely light. She was good at praying; Kelsey supposed it went with the divine territory. "Be with him, and with all who suffer, great Ilmater. Be with us. Be with Imoen. Be with me." They lowered the heart into the fire, and Maera sagged suddenly as the flames flared, as though exhausted.

"Are you okay?" Kelsey asked, helping her to her feet. She nodded, and placed a handful of gold coins in the surprised priest's hand with a faint smile of thanks. She was quiet and distracted as they crossed the roof and carefully negotiated the rickety stairs down to the street, thoughtful contemplation writ large across her face. When their feet were safely back on the cobblestones, she turned and looked at him for a moment, her eyes strangely hesitant as words formed on her lips. But she said nothing. Kelsey cocked his head slightly. "Um...Maera? Is something wrong?"

"You've given me a lot to think about."

"I have?"

"Yeah." She bit her lip. "Like what you said about dying in my arms."

He glanced down at his boots. "Well…that was overly dramatic. I shouldn't have said that."

Her own boots came into his field of vision, and he realized she had stepped very close to him. He looked up, meeting her eyes. Something was burning in them, behind the shyness, something that made his breath catch and his heart pound. "Maybe it was a little. But it made me think. About you and me. About how fragile this all is. If either of us died tomorrow, what would we have to show for it?" She took his hand carefully, as if afraid he might disappear, pressing their palms together and lacing her fingers with his. "You said you're not afraid of me, and if you aren't, then I guess I shouldn't be either."

He swallowed hard and shook his head tightly. "No, you shouldn't."

"I don't know what's going to happen, Kelsey. I just know I can't take anything for granted anymore. Definitely not you."

A patter of rain suddenly rattled on the Copper Coronet's eaves, the clouds no longer willing to wait. The few others out in the streets grumbled and made for whatever shelter they could, but Maera and Kelsey stood still, looking into each other's eyes as the fine mist made halos around the flickering street torches. Her hair clung to her forehead in wet tendrils, and the raindrops sparkled on her pale eyelashes. He wasn't sure what he would say, but he moved his lips to speak anyway, and he didn't realize he had leaned forward until he felt them brush hers. He was almost certain he heard her whisper his name, but speaking was quickly rendered insignificant as the touch became a kiss.

At first, they were hesitant, and careful, lips moving gently, neither wanting to overstep or assume. But a strange, heady mix of desperate need and spirit-buoying relief overcame them, and heedless of the rain and any watching eyes, the doubt slipped away, replaced by a surety as solid as the stones beneath their feet. It felt like the warmth of a sunrise after a long, dark night, like the respite of soft ground after a long day's travel, like the taste of cool, fresh water in the heat of the day. It felt like coming home. Everything else in the world might be wrong, but this, at least, was right.

When they finally parted, Maera rested her forehead against his breathlessly. "I've really missed you," she whispered.

He wasn't going to cry, he told himself. That would just be silly. But then he met her eyes again, and the light was there, the fire that he had seen in them in that first moment on the Promenade, and it was there for him. What the hell. It was already raining anyway. "I've missed you too."

She took his face in her hands, following the rain down his cheeks with her fingertips, smiling softly. "Maybe we should go someplace drier."

"Yeah…I guess we should head back."

"Actually, um…" She glanced off to the side, looking almost bashful. "I was thinking we have some catching up to do."

Yes please. He inhaled quickly, trying to sound as if that was not the most amazingly brilliant idea he had ever heard in his entire life. It probably didn't work. "Or we could do that."

A half hour later, a wet and bedraggled messenger arrived at the Five Flagons Inn from the Copper Coronet to inform Jaheira, Imoen, and Minsc that Maera and Kelsey would not be rejoining them until morning. Imoen, feeling much recovered after her evening nap, responded to the news with typical tact and subtlety.

"Good! She needs to get laid."

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