A/N: Ouch. Okay, okay, I know it's been like seven years, and I'm not even in school, etc. etc. Don't kill me! Haven't we established already that I'm a horrible updater, and need to BURN, baby, BURN? (Disco inferno!)
Aww, c'mon, you guys. You know you love the anticipation. This one's extra long, too. Think of it as a Christmahannukwanzaakawintersolstice present.
Well, without further ado: the twelfth chapter!
Kel strode down the hallway in the direction of Neal's rooms. She no longer cared about being silent; the force of what Tobe had just revealed occupied her thoughts. Neal wouldn't have gone back to sleep already, would he? She wanted to talk to him—no, she needed to talk to him. She was so inwardly focused that she didn't see the shadowy figure step out from a nearby hallway until it was too late.
She slammed into a hard surface and staggered back, thinking at first that she had somehow walked into a wall. She looked up, startled, into Dom's sparkling blue eyes. "You all right, Kel?" he asked, brow creasing. "You looked in quite a bit of a hurry."
"I—I'm fine," she stammered, dismayed at his unwitting intrusion on her mission to find Neal. "It's—just—" Unable to come up with a passable excuse for her narrowed eyes and determined expression, she trailed off, hoping he would drop the subject.
Unfortunately, he did not do anything of the sort. "So what are you doing out wandering at this time of night?" he asked, flashing his white teeth in a grin. "I thought I heard someone out here."
"I couldn't sleep," she half-lied, wishing that she had waited until morning to approach Neal. She realized, in retrospect, that he was probably still cooling off from their argument not an hour ago, and wouldn't be in any sort of mood for heartfelt confessions. "I had to take a walk—to clear my head. You understand."
"I do," he agreed. "Perhaps I can be of help," he suggested, cocking an eyebrow. Before she had had time to process the implications of this, he had leaned down and pressed his lips to hers, backing her up against the wall.
Her heart thudded out of surprise, and her eyes widened. She let him kiss her for nearly half a minute, warm mouth against hers, before she managed to push him away. "Dom!" she gasped breathily, realizing with dismay that she sounded exactly like the seemingly helpless, vapid court maidens that she despised for leading men on. She inwardly grimaced. She hadn't become like them, had she? Yes, she had kissed Dom before, but…yes. She was exactly like them—pretending to be attracted to one man while really loving another. How could she have let this happen?
Utterly disgusted with herself, she cleared her throat, saying firmly in her normal, most no-nonsense voice, "Dom. What are you doing?"
He grinned at her. "I should have thought that would be obvious," he said, brows raised playfully.
"Yes, but, but—here?" Kel stammered, unable to think of a valid excuse to explain to him why she'd kissed him with such fervor only earlier that day, and now had no desire to do any such thing. She knew why, of course: any passion Dom might have felt in her lips that morning had been completely forced, in an effort to convince herself that it was him she loved, and not his green-eyed cousin. She could feel her self-hatred growing even more now; how could she have been so blinded? If she had only stopped trying to fool herself, perhaps Neal wouldn't hate her now. Concerning that, there was no doubt in her mind: perhaps he had been fond of her once, maybe even loved her, as Tobe had said, but he most certainly loathed her now, especially after that scathing confrontation on the outer wall. She sighed, trying to focus on Dom rather than her pathetic errors in relationships.
"Why not here?" he wanted to know, the impish glint still in his cerulean gaze. "Who's going to see us? In case you haven't been told, Kel, it is dark outside."
Kel glared at him. "Yes, I realized that," she said, trying to extinguish the spark in his eyes that made her feel increasingly patronized. "But—it seems improper, to just roam the halls doing—doing that sort of thing." She chided herself mentally for the weakness of her arguments, willing herself to simply say it. Dom, I love Neal. Easy. Four words. Then no more of this horrible deception that went against her every nature to do.
She was just opening her mouth to come out with it—that she didn't love Dom, hadn't since her first years as a knight—when he stopped her words by placing his mouth over hers again. This time she showed no hesitation in firmly pushing him away. "Dom. I mean it."
Now he looked much less cheerful. "What's the matter with you, Kel?" he asked, expression mulish. "You had no problem kissing me earlier." He crossed his arms and stared her down, waiting for an explanation.
"I…" Kel searched for the tactful way to tell him. Finding that there was none, she exhaled loudly and said quickly, "It was a mistake."
His eyes widened. "Excuse me?"
"A mistake, Dom." His disbelieving and increasingly angry expression did not change, so Kel felt she had to go on. "I had just woken up, and I was confused, and—" She interrupted herself. If she was going to tell the truth, she had to tell the entire story, not a tale assembled from various half-lies. She swallowed. "And—I—I—"
He cut her off. "A mistake." His sapphire eyes, far from being playful now, were hard and stony. "Really." Before she could go on, to tell the truth, to expel the lying bile that had been building up for days, perhaps even years, he snapped, "Well, frankly, Kel, I for one do not like hearing that it was a mistake to toy with my affections. I don't like hearing that it was a mistake to kiss me the way you did, and I don't like making the mistake of regarding you as a sensible, capable knight."
"Dom, wait, this is—" she stammered. In a way, this was a relief, a gasping, weak-at the-knees relief, but she hated leaving things like this. She had at least regarded Dom as a friend, if not something more; now their relationship was no more than a few bloody and broken last words.
"No, Kel. This is nothing." He turned to walk away, then stopped. "Wait. It's not nothing, right? It's a mistake."
She gaped after him, aching for something to say. "Dom—" He kept walking. "I—I'm sorry…"
His angry footsteps were the only reply.
Kel leaned her head against the wall, feeling her legs tremble slightly from a head-spinning mixture of relief, sorrow, and adrenaline. She exhaled slowly, releasing a quivering breath, and slid down the wall to contemplate the stony, mud-encrusted flooring. Perhaps she would just sleep out here tonight, rather than face angry Dom or optimistic Tobe or (she gulped) Neal in the morning. Long dispelled were her plans to talk to him about what Tobe had said; after the confrontation with Dom, she was in no mood to drive the pain in her heart in deeper.
She hugged her legs to her chest, resting her chin on her knees in thought. Now that she thought about it, she missed Neal. Not just as a potential lover, but as a friend. With him hating any glimpse of her, she had no one to joke with, to flirt with.
To connect with.
She sighed and closed her eyes. If only she could take it back—take it all back. She ached to recapture that easiness she'd had with Neal, that unquestioned reassurance that they were always there for each other, through life and beyond. That playful interaction that thinly masked the bone-deep loyalty for each other that lay close to their bones. Neal was the only one who could always, always, always see straight through her placid Yamani mask to the Kel—the true Kel—who lay dormant beneath. He wasn't afraid to scold and reprimand, but he was also a source of true comfort whenever it was needed. Kel dearly missed their relationship, which spoke of not shallow courtship or mere friendship, but something deeper. Maybe something like love.
Burying her head in between her knees, she felt unbidden tears slip down her cheeks. That undemanding, comforting camaraderie was lost, and she had no idea how to get it back.
She must have dozed off, sitting there, because the soft hand on her shoulder nearly made her jump out of her skin. Inhaling sharply, she grabbed the offending wrist, ready to defend herself from any attacker, but relaxed when she looked into emerald eyes.
He half-smiled gently, messy hair flopping on his forehead. "I suppose when a woman sleeps in a hallway, she has to be ready for anything."
Kel tentatively tried a smile, heart still beating wildly from the combination of her scare and his proximity. "H-hello, Neal."
"So, Kel…" he said a bit awkwardly, sliding down on the wall to sit beside her, "What are you up to at this time of night? You should be in bed, you know." His tone was teasing, but his eyes were caring.
She couldn't help staring at him, baffled. Was this the same man whose eyes had blazed pure, untamed fury less than a few hours ago? He had seemed so ready to forsake her, to reject her, to forget that they were ever friends; yet now, his unassuming, good-natured personality had returned? She couldn't help wondering what had caused this change in passionate, opinion-driven Neal.
Neal sighed as he saw her doubtful glances. That strange half-smile played about his lips again, only this time, it was more wistful than compelling. "I suppose you're wondering why I'm out here, too."
Kel nodded, not trusting herself to speak, what with all the unasked questions surging up from deep within the pit of her soul.
"I mean, after our argument last night…well, you know." The smile disappeared, replaced by a yearning regret in his countenance. "I'm sorry, by the way. I shouldn't have yelled. Not like that."
She shrugged, trying to hide her own hurt and suspicion deep beneath a shield of indifference. "Well, if that was how you truly felt, then I suppose it was good that you yelled."
He half-turned to face her, eyes pleading. "But Kel—it wasn't how I truly felt. It's just—at the thought of you kissing my cousin, I just—went crazy, I guess. I didn't mean the things I said. You have no idea how much I regret them now."
Kel remained silent, trying to keep her conflicting emotions under control.
He sighed again, sliding further down the wall. "After you left last night, I got to thinking." He glanced at her, as if to gauge her reaction, but she kept her face carefully placid. "I decided that no matter what, Kel, you will always be my friend. I may not like the fact that you're kissing my relatives,"—here, something like disgust flitted across his features—"But if that's what you want, I can respect that. I suppose."
"Neal, I—" Kel began, feeling as if a great load had been lifted from her shoulders, but he plowed on.
"I just wanted to let you know that it doesn't matter if you love Dom, or me, or Tobe, or--" he began to speed up, his gentle façade slipping off and voice growing all the more unsteady, "I-I don't know, Peachblossom, that I'll always be here for you as your friend first, even if I can't be your—"
"And I realized that when you're not around, Kel, I feel like dung. Just dung. I need you at least as a friend to keep me grounded through the good times and afloat through the bad times and somewhere in the middle the rest of the time. And that if we parted ways badly, Kel, I couldn't live with myself. A-And I know I acted like a complete prig last night and that if I were you, I wouldn't like me anymore, either, except I need you to like me, Kel, because if you don't, I don't know what—"
Realizing there was no way she could reach Neal now that he had been set off, Kel turned to face him. As he rambled on, the worried, heartfelt look in his eyes became almost irresistible, and more and more of his hair began to flop in his face. These small details, for some reason, gave her the courage to do what she normally wouldn't. Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she gently pressed her lips to his.
This silenced him quite effectively.
As she pulled away, she saw that his green eyes were round and disbelieving. "You—but—Dom—and—yesterday—" he stammered, running a long-fingered hand through his hair.
Kel shook her head violently, wisps of her short hair clinging to her cheeks. "Neal, what you saw yesterday," she began uncomfortably, "It—it wasn't anything. I know I sound like a harlot saying this, but—" she felt a smile tugging at the edge of her mouth, "—it was never Dom I wanted to kiss."
His high brow was slightly furrowed. "Then—you—" Suddenly he looked up at her, vision clearing. "Oh." A smile to match hers appeared on his lips. "Oh."
"'Oh' indeed," Kel told him, brushing one of his bangs out of his face.
Joyous and relieved green eyes met laughing hazel ones, and Kel felt a reverberation of electricity tingle throughout her limbs as Neal leaned forward to meet her—or perhaps she leaned forward to meet him—and their mouths collided in what could only be called a kiss.
Kel felt passion surge through her as his warm lips pressed against hers, and all of a sudden, everything that had been sharp and hard and pain and suffering was just so right. It had to be right, because nothing could be wrong, not now, with the two of them in each other's arms after so long.
When they finally broke apart, panting slightly, Neal's hair was, needless to say, even messier than before. He let himself slide down the wall onto the floor, dragging Kel down on top of him with a squeak. "Now, Lady Keladry," he said teasingly, encircling her with muscular arms, "That was a kiss."
She smiled at him impishly, feeling a little giddy. "I'm not sure, Sir Nealan," she said, matching his tone. "Domitan of Masbolle has quite a kiss as well."
"How dare you, chit?" he demanded, face screwed up in mock outrage. "I assure you, Domitan's boorish handling of his romantic affairs is much less refined than my own."
Kel raised an eyebrow playfully. "Really," she said, seemingly unswayed. "Perhaps I need a little more convincing."
He grinned at her unabashedly, green eyes alight. "Perhaps you do," he said, pulling her towards him.
She let him, only halting herself an inch from his nose. "Sir Nealan?"
That ever-charming half-smile was back. "Yes, Lady Keladry?"
There was no need for her to elaborate; he knew exactly what she was glad about. He smiled up at her. "As am I, dear Keladry. As am I."
I don't think words are needed.
Fluff is my friend.
Oh, and look forward to an epilogue chapter. I hate to leave loose ends (i.e., Dom) hanging. –wicked grin-