“Oh, Kelsey.” Merena shook her head and unsheathed her hunting knife. “You’re forgetting the rules.”
She slowly traced her blade in a path along the lacings of her armor. “Strip.”
Kelsey gave her a puzzled frown. “Umm. Come again?”
With one swift stroke, she sliced through the hide fastenings, then tossed her jerkin and the knife aside. “Talking should be naked.”
Kelsey winced. “I’m really going to pay for that, aren’t I?”
“I’m not going to let you get off easily, no. What kind of woman do you take me for?”
“A very dangerous one,” he mused. His voice turned husky. “A very beautiful one.”
“Uh-uh. That’s enough of that.” Merena slipped out of her shift. “Not when you’re clutching those robes like a barrel in the ocean.” She sat on the vanity bench and stretched in proper topless nymph fashion before extending one leg toward her husband and flexing her ankle. “Help me with my boots?”
“Ah.” Kelsey hesitated briefly, certain it was a trick question, but cast aside his doubts and robes in favor of a wait-and-see approach. “Sure, Boss.” He kneeled before her.
Merena poked him roughly in the shoulder with her toe. “Stop calling me that. I’m not the boss.”
“You’re the one giving the orders,” he countered as he took her leg in a firm grip and pulled on her leathered heel. With another solid jerk, her foot was bare. “I’m the one on my knees. Who exactly is in charge, again?”
Merena leaned forward as he set her boot aside, an incensed glint highlighting her eyes. “Did I have no idea where you were or what you were doing for four months because I’m in charge? Did I scurry across two territories, dazed and confused, because I’m in charge? Does my chest feel like dwarves are grinding an axe against my heart because I’m in charge?!”
“Fair enough.” Kelsey removed her second boot with a sharp, efficient yank. “But remember, you sent me away, because you were the one calling the shots.”
“Dear, do you want me to hit you?”
“Because it’s true?”
“So you picked up the first rag-tag band of incompetent adventurers featuring a chain-mail bra you could find out of spite?”
“It wasn’t like that.” Kelsey reached out, hooked one finger around her waistband and tugged. “Stand up.”
Merena complied but her expression remained indignant.
As he talked, Kelsey began to systematically work on unfastening her leggings. “It was a good cause from the start. The area was short on defenses, and someone powerful had to stand up and make a difference. I never intended things to go any further than ending the storm of damage the Talassans were leaving in their wake.”
“But you did,” Merena said accusingly.
“They needed me. Scoff all you like, but when a man’s wife has just shipped him off because he’s unnecessary, it’s a pretty potent aphrodisiac to suddenly be crucial. Depended on. Even if they were rag-tag.”
Merena buried a hand in his hair, forcing him to look up and meet her defiant gaze. “I didn’t do that! I never said you were unnecessary!”
“Never? I’m pretty sure I have the exact wording memorized, love. I played it over and over in my head once you set me out on the road. ‘Don’t worry about us. I can handle everything. We’ll be fine without you. I can take care of my daughter, no problem, all by myself.’ Does that ring a bell?”
He made a sound of disgust. “My daughter. Do you have any idea how it kills me every time you refer to Kylia that way? Like I offer you nothing? Week after week, letters like clockwork detailing how you had everything under control, how your daughter was growing up perfectly without me, and how you didn’t need me there.”
“I didn’t want you to worry,” Merena said softly. “I didn’t…”
“Mean it? Forgive me for starting to believe you,” Kelsey said sarcastically.
“No, no. You don’t get to be angry at me,” Merena growled. “It’s not my fault you can’t keep your hands out of any woman’s pants!”
Kelsey stared at her intensely as he eased her leggings over her bare hips. The brush of his hands threatened a caress. Merena shifted restlessly, but she did not protest. He exhaled a heavy sigh. “I realize that I did something unforgivable. The first time it happened, the next morning, I felt empty and sick. But by nightfall, the guilt faded, and I remembered that I wasn’t enough for you. I wanted to be enough for someone, Merena, and the deed was done. In for a copper, in for a gold, as they say.”
She kicked the leggings pooled around her ankles to one side and took his hands, pulling him to his feet. Merena touched Kelsey’s face tentatively, echoing, “Unforgivable,” as she traced his mouth with one callused thumb.
He seized her hand, compulsively pressing a kiss into her palm as he offered a broken, “I’m sorry.”
Merena shook her head in denial, even as she said, “You should be. But the truth is…” She trailed her hands down to rest them lightly around his throat, just for a moment to feel the throbbing beat of life there. “It’s painful.” Just a moment, then she shifted her touch to his shoulders. “Not unforgivable.”
She pushed him, and Kelsey stumbled backward in surprise. As he fell on the bed, Merena caught the end of the sheet secured about his waist and held tight. She emitted a small sound of triumph as it fell away then threw the linen aside as she moved to join Kelsey on the mattress.
He sat up halfway, propping himself with his arms. Whatever her intentions, he decided to remain open and vulnerable. “I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean.”
Merena sat cross-legged at his side, granting him a faint smile. “I forgave you for the water dryads pretty damn quickly, if I do say so myself.”
“That’s… really incredible.” Kelsey cleared his throat. “Dare I ask why?”
“Oh, come on, Kelsey. They were phenomenal. Nubile, willing and affectionate nymphs… Why shouldn’t you have been tempted? Hells, I was tempted.”
“Okay, I’ll bite. How tempted?”
“Imoen and I would probably still be rolling around the Cloudpeaks, ‘talking,’ if it weren’t for the fact that I hold a legendary dislike for Skie Silvershield that is so powerful, it surpasses the lure of supernatural tits.”
Merena shifted suddenly, straddling his waist, and thumped Kelsey’s chest until he gave up the path of non-resistance. He dropped flat on his back and struggled to catch her swinging fists.
“I hate her!” Merena shouted. “She’s spoiled and horrible and selfish! Skie grew up with everything, everything! She never appreciated a bit of it, and she’s never considered sharing one coin to help the less fortunate like Nalia, but she’s beautiful, and she can play helpless with the best of them, and you just fell for it! I hate that you fell for it!”
“Trust me, I started to notice that Skie wasn’t exactly beautiful through and through pretty quickly, but-” He broke off as Merena buried her face against his neck and started to weep. “Yeah,” he said, fumbling for the right words to say but coming up tongue-tied. Instead, Kelsey held her as she cried, offering up another helpless, “Yeah.”
Merena raised her head with a sniff, “Skie doesn’t need you, you know. She uses people. She faked her own kidnapping with Eldoth and ransomed thousands out of her family so that they could live in high style. That’s what kind of person she is. That’s what you were sleeping with.”
Kelsey frowned and wiped at the tears lining Merena’s cheeks with his thumbs. “But Eldoth was using her. Taking advantage of her. Okay, Skie isn’t an angel, but someone had to stop him from taking everything her father had built. Eldoth was running through her fortune like water, alienating the few people she had left to confide in… Skie had started to have doubts about him. She was ready to break free; she just needed someone to offer support in case things got nasty…”
“Oh.” Merena sat up in sudden discovery, realized she was gaping, and clamped her jaw shut as her mind continued to whirl. “Oh.” She sniffed again and slowly shook one finger as if she was trying to place something. “You.”
Kelsey settled his hands on her hips, giving them an encouraging nudge. “Yes?”
More finger shaking. “I really should know you by now.” Merena leaned over and gave him a lingering kiss. “I do know you. I just let it get away from me.”
Kelsey lifted his head, catching her mouth again while it was in range. “Care to let me in on what ‘it’ is? Because I’m starting to want things I have no business dreaming about anymore.”
“I was remembering your family.”
“I’d rather forget them. That’s the only subject less appealing at the moment than hashing out how I’ve failed you from every angle.”
“But it’s the same subject: your mother, falling prey to your uncle’s influence. Your uncle, taking advantage of the family business. And what did they do? They sent you away. They wouldn’t accept your help.” Merena moved, settling against his side, getting comfortable with her thoughts.
“You were bitter about that,” she said. “Bitter from the first time you said the name ‘Birinar’ to me, and I turned around and blindly did the same thing. And, Skie… yes, you had to help Skie. You had to chase away her Birinar.”
“Maybe… maybe that clouded the issue a little, but I had a choice, didn’t I?” Kelsey argued. “No memory from my youth or disappointment between us forced me to have sex with those women. I let it happen. That burden is all mine. I don’t want your pity, Merena, even if it’s the only hope I have left.”
“I’m not wiping the slate clean, so just get that out of your head. I made a mistake, too, and it’s only fair that I confess. I was so swept away by my own fears, I pushed you away. That’s not what I wanted. Kelsey,” she said. “Remember when we were falling in love? You used to compliment me on being a leader, admiring my strength, treated me like your heroine…”
He gave her a reassuring squeeze. “That never changed. That’s what you are.”
She shook her head. “No. That was the Bhaalspawn. The Slayer was the boss. I was the desperate kid trying to survive and keep the people I cared about alive in the bargain. The Slayer made me strong, gave the drive to push others… and you adored me. But I stopped being the Slayer. I gave it away at the Throne. It wasn’t like losing my soul, but it was still as if a part of what made me who I was had been taken, and this time, it really had been taken forever.”
“Where is this coming from?” Kelsey sat up, bringing her along with him, intently arranging arms and legs so they were sitting across from each other, her hands clasped in his warm grip.
“We traveled to the Deepwash, got married, had Kylia, and you never gave the smallest tip-off of any aftereffects,” Kelsey said, a hint of his frustration returning as he studied her bleak expression. “Why didn’t you say anything? I was your husband. I am your husband. I can’t claim that I have any idea what you’ve experienced, but I could have been there for you.”
“You fell in love with the whole me,” Merena countered. “That’s why I couldn’t say anything. I was afraid. I was terrified that you were suddenly going to figure it out. My instincts were gone, especially when Kylia was born.” She brushed his cheek with the back of one hand and smiled wistfully.
“I didn’t force you out of our home to travel because I didn’t need you,” she explained. “ I insisted on it because I needed you too much, and I thought I had to prove that I could be self-sufficient. That what my letters were: proof that I was worthy of admiration, and that you could still believe in me. I skipped over the tantrums and the loneliness and the self-doubt… everything awful.”
“Everything normal. Those aren’t bad things. Not by a long shot.” Kelsey sighed, leaning forward to cradle her face and feather a cherishing kiss on each eyelid, which she meekly accepted.
“Merena, we’ve been to the Abyss and back together. We climbed the ruins of Saradush together. Normal trials are a blessing in comparison to what we’ve shared. Yes, we may have fallen in love during one of the worst times the planes have seen, but death, gods, and madmen could not separate us. We are the only two people now who can destroy this love. We’ve tried our best to make that happen. You have to answer the question: are you done loving me? Because I’m not finished. I’m not finished until you tell me it’s over.”
“I didn’t have a direction,” she said softly. “I didn’t have a plan. I just knew that I wanted to be here, with you, with our daughter, more than anywhere else.”
“In that case, I pretty much have to kiss you again immediately for making me a happy, relieved man.”
“Just keep in mind we still have a great deal of talking to do,” Merena warned.
“That’s exactly what I had in mind: talking,” Kelsey assured her.
“Uh-huh.” Merena nodded dubiously. “We have to learn how to trust each other again.”
“Talking and trust go hand in hand,” Kelsey reminded her. “We’ll figure it out, even if it means making it up as we go along, flying by the seat of our pants -“
“We’re not wearing any pants.”
He drew her body closer, Merena wrapping her legs about his waist, and Kelsey whispered against her lips:
And that's how I'd end it.