17.

Author's Note:

Happy New Year, y'all, and thanks for your patience while I lingered over repeated bouts of holiday feastings and put on at least five pounds during the holidays (cream puffs and tiramisu, I'm looking at you; and don't you think I won't be the minstrel of your incredible powers in the Epilogue of this fic, because payback is a b*tch). Ahem.

In other news, this chapter is also M-rated, just in case anyone wonders, for mature subject matters.

Her fingers still remember the shape of Cornelyan's collarbones and the lush swell of his upper lip, but the memory of his weight on her, the slight pressure of his hipbone as he shifted, and how he sighed her name into her shoulder quietly so no one hears them is fading fast. She finds that she does not mind at all, though; what replaced them today, she suspects, will be more than enough to keep her warm in the dark wastes of Hell.

Valen is very warm, all corded muscle and smooth skin, and Adele realizes that this is actually something she's never done in her life: lying entwined with a man, lost in the sensations of naked skin sliding against naked skin. Her trysts with Cordelyan were almost always hurried, wrought with the possibility of discovery: there's hardly any opportunity to frolic naked between the great shelves of the Tantras library or in some corner of a disused hall. The only time they actually made love in a bed (their second time, together, in fact) was just as quick and frenzied as their first, when they barely had opened up their clothes: they didn't even dare to light a candle because they were not exactly supposed to be in that room anyway.

With Valen, though…

"Did I hurt you?"

"Gods, why are you even asking such things…?" she asks, startled. "I don't break that easy, Valen, and you can't just…" she chuffs, but quiets down as he takes her face between his hands.

"My love." Her heart gives a slow 'thud' at him calling her that, and she knows it will be just like that for the rest of her life. "Forgive me, but given how on one unfortunate occasion I almost ripped your throat out, and since…" Adele notices with some amusement how his cheeks color faintly, "…since tieflings are…well, generously proportioned, I think it's prudent to… ascertain that no harm was done. Even though I am fairly sure I took it… as slow as possible. Khm." He clears his throat. "Also, you were quite loud, and at some point I just wasn't sure if it was, you know…"

"Sweet Sune's ribbons, Valen." Now it's her turn to blush a bit, and bites her lips. "Very well, now that we're both in full command of our facilities, regained our breaths and can think clearly…wait a minute, are you trying to have an after-action-briefing with me?" She stares at him, incredulously, at the slowly spreading joyous grin on his face, and battles the urge to elbow him very, very firmly.

"Far be from it." Valen whispers as he bends slowly over one breast, hands trailing down at her side, and Adele's mind goes all-blank for a second. "I merely wanted to be sure you were ready for the next course."

"Your skin glows in candlelight, did you know that?"

"Absolutely not."

"It does, too. Shall I take it as a definite proof that all paladins' do…or is it just your unique feature?"

"And next you'll come up with the theory that it's merely an adverse reaction to your aura by mine and become all… broody and stuff again."

"'And stuff'. There it is again. The eloquence of the holy warrior at full display. Combined with the insinuation that I can be anything but happy in my lady's presence."

"Whoa. Where did you learn the courtly manners, anyway?"

"Oh, that's pretty. When you blush, you really do blush."

"Shut up, general. Given who has the fairer skin, that's really a remark that requires payment. C'mere."

She had no idea they had this many candles stowed in this place, but apparently at some point either her or Deekin thought they could use about an armload of it and included them with the supplies it the room. With the vaguely hazy mind of someone really in need of some sleep but who only got little snatches, Adele tries to remember when or how they got lit, or if it was her or Valen finding them, or…

Not that it matters, really. She knows it will be time soon, to get ready, to go out there, to deal with Big Things, and summon Deekin and Nathyrra back, and make Plans Against Evil and be Special Errant Envoy Plenipotentiary Welters again.

But not yet.

Not quite yet.

Valen grins up at her as she twists her hips and straddles him.

"What can I say? I am yours to command."

She has never considered herself particularly attractive or desirable, even though, or precisely because, of what happened in the last year of her being a novice. She remembers how this particular subject was covered in her training with great care and precision, but with clinical detachment.

Different people react differently to the life of constant war and fight, she hears the voice from the distance of years. Amongst women warriors, there are those who channel all energies they would normally spend on the more physical aspects of love into their fights and battles, and do not even feel the need for anything else—until the right one comes along.

And it was true, too. After Cornelyan, she simply shut that part of hers down. There was the mission, then the next one, then the next… there were superiors and subordinates and allies; and there were the occasional companions after a mission, back at Tantras, once or twice, always her fellow paladins and never lasting more than that one time. She always viewed those as more of a completion of sharing than anything else: no doubt it was, judging from her studies in that direction, useful for tension relieving and renewing bonds of companionship for them as well.

This is as different from those asas a country meal, hearty and satisfying but nothing spectacular, from that ten-course Midwinter feast at your parents' house when the food just keeps coming and coming, each course better and better, everyone insisting that you must have seconds, and thirds, and…

She takes a deep breath, remembering certain seconds and thirds of the past hour that had nothing to do with food whatsoever.

Well. She's by no means a blushing maiden… Losing one's virginity against a bookshelf in the library tends to cure that rather fast, and even if that wasn't the case, paladin training does include a crash course in the most basic principles of what happens between two consenting adults in the dark. She is a warrior of the True One, a soldier in the eternal struggle between good and evil, vastly more traveled and experienced than most of her fellow paladins of the same age…

And this fearsome warrior of Good right now would really, really like to be back at that inn in Waterdeep, under about six fur blankets, instead of getting ready to face the horrors of the Eighth Plane of the Hells, thank you very much, she thinks as she burrows even closer to the warm, corded body coiled around her.

"My lady is deep in thoughts," she hears the lazy murmur in her ears. A pause. "Perhaps it means we have not sufficiently advanced your studies in relaxation and patience?"

"Any more and I'm a melted puddle of goo." She trails her hand down his spine, smiling. "Mmm. I could really, really get used to this. You make an excellent blanket, by the way."

"My lady says the sweetest things." Valen rolls to his side and leans on one elbow, blue eyes searching her face. "And you're really bad about changing the subject. Must be one of those paladin things. Time to talk, then?"

"As I hardly have the strength to do anything else…" Adele grins. "But no, you do have the right of it. As much as I wish there was a handy permanent Time Stop cast on this moment here, and as much as technically the Gatehouse isn't subject to the ebb and flow of Prime time, we do need to start making some preparations for the inevitable."

"Venturing forth to brave the icy winds of Cania." Valen shudders. "I've spent too much time with your kobold… I speak like I was in one of his horrible epic songs."

"Doesn't change the reality of it." Adele fishes for a blanket and pulls it around her shoulder as she sits up, reluctantly. "Have you…" she hesitates for a second, "…you know, been here before?"

"Yes." Valen nods. "In Baator, and, specifically in Cania as well. With troops, increasing in size as the years passed by. I told you I am very good at killing devils; my master eventually allowed me to lead large contingents of his soldiers independent of his command when he had to operate somewhere else."

"So what …what is it like?" She watches his profile in the flickering candlelight; there are memories fluttering through his features too fast for her to interpret. "My knowledge is purely academic, I'm afraid and every little bit helps."

"Back to business, then, hmm? Fine, let's… pool our resources." Adele allows him to pull her against him until her back is against his chest and his chin rests on the top of her head. "Cania, is, first and foremost, cold, my lady. One of the two cold layers of Baator, it is a land of icy wastes, almost constant snowfall, winds that can flash-freeze those who are caught unawares as they scream down from the mountain ridge the circles the central plains. Home to giant ice wolves, trolls and other monsters adapted to its climate… and then I didn't even mention the baatezu who inhabit it and are ruled by Mephistopheles." He takes a deep breath. "Last I've heard, rumors had it that he is increasing his influence on the Prime by encouraging certain cults to worship him, granting favors of command over Hellfire in exchange."

"I had encountered this very odd cult once." Adele nods thoughtfully. "Their lair was centered on a pit where they sacrificed their kidnapped victims by immolation. The fire they wielded as a weapon was different from what wizards conjure and when I submitted my report to the Primarch he seemed more disturbed than usual, but discouraged me researching the matter myself until it 'could be looked into further by experts of the order' as he put it." She pauses, and feels her teeth clench. "It would be really useful, now, if I had disregarded that suggestion, and went digging in the library."

"You couldn't have known." Valen's lips brush her hair. "As far as you and perhaps even the Primarch were concerned, it was merely a demon-worshipper cult. A lot of organizations fighting for good don't really distinguish, you know, and you very likely had other things to worry about that to follow up on a dim possibility of misidentifying some… maladjusted humans."

"But it matters!" She's not sure why she sounds so angry, even to her own ears. "And it irks me that I missed it. From what you say, and from what I've learned from Mephistopheles himself, this was all a part of this big plans, and…" She grimaces, when she realizes why she is so annoyed. Congratulations, Adele, for finally coming to terms with the fact that you are not perfect.

And that realization puts her encounter with Mephistopheles in a refreshingly new perspective suddenly.

"Thank Torm for small favors, why is it that evil so loves boasting about their deeds and plans anyway?"

"Noticed that, didn't you?" She can practically hear him grin, even though he's behind her. "So what is it that the Duke of the Eighth told you about his nefarious plans?"

Adele takes a deep breath to calm herself. It's not that she doesn't know exactly why Valen is turning this into a light banter, and it's not that she's not grateful for him for it, but the memory is still fresh, of those topaz-yellow eyes, too-long teeth and deceptively courtly accent. She shivers, and feels Valen's arms tighten around her.

"I know," he says soothingly. "To one such as you to meet one of the Powers of Baator must have been quite harrowing. I'm sorry if I seemingly made light of it: that was not…"

"It's all right." Adele leans further back into him and can almost feel the pleased rumble from his chest. "Next time I'll do better, I promise," she says wrily, and Valen laughs.

"I would bet my life on that," he responds, half-jesting, half-serious, one hand absentmindedly stroking her arm. "It is quite absurd, isn't it? A tanar'ri tiefling and a paladin in the Hells…"

"Like a tavern joke, more like." Adele agrees. "And I somewhat suspect that it actually might aid us. The inherent controversy of it, I mean. I never really dabbled in deep philosophy: I'm rather good at smiting and looking good in armor, as you know…" Valen snorts, "but even I can sense that his intricate plan to be freed and let loose on the Prime might yet be backfired on the Eighth Duke of Hell."

"It should." Valen's voice is a bit uncertain, and Adele can't help but take notice. "Like you said, we are not exactly a… conventional couple, you know?"

"Hey." Adele twists quickly in his arms. "I don't give a fig about conventionality; you should know it by now." Her smile is wide and fierce. "Valen, I finally found the other half of my soul in you; why do you think I should care about what the world says when I know in my heart of hearts that this…" and she twines their hands together, squeezing tightly, tightly, "…that this is right?"

"And so be it, then." Valen gathers her in his arms again, tightly, and Adele, yet again, feels like she could take on just about anything and anyone, up to and including said Duke of the Eighth Hell. "It is right." He kisses her, long and deep, and grins widely when they part. "It still sounds like a bawdy tavern joke, though. But I will take it."