Kel leaned against the smooth bark of the kinparo tree that supported her back. The kinparo was a native Yamani tree that Shinkokami had given to her when she became a knight. Kel had chosen to plant it at her family's fief Mindelan, where she could easily see it when she visited her family, as she was now. She would only be able to stay a month, but even a month was a joyous holiday for her.
She sighed and stretched her legs in front of her. It was rare those days to receive a leave of absence, as she had. Even though the Scanran War had died down, Carthaki raiders from the south had been troubling Tortall along the coast and Kel had been kept occupied dealing with them. She rarely spent much time with Dom anymore, and now that she was visiting her family in Mindelan, she missed him even more.
But that's the way with being a warrior, Kel reflected. You don't have much time for anything else. That's why I won't marry him—not yet. Not until I'm ready.
He had asked for her hand in marriage, but she had refused. She wasn't prepared to make such a commitment yet. Marriage, Kel thought, would tie her down in a way that she didn't want. Kel needed to have served her realm for a time before she married.
Kel gazed up at the pale pink blossoms above her. Why was everything so complex? She wanted to marry Dom, but at the same time, she felt that it would disrupt her life as a lady knight. And what of children?
She sighed, remembering the conversation she'd had with Neal after Dom's proposal. Remembered his confusion.
"Why'd you say no?" he asked, perplexed.
Kel sighed. "I'm not ready, Neal."
"Not ready? You love him, don't you?"
"Yes," she replied hesitantly. "But I'm too busy. I'll never have time to be with him."
"You spend time with him now," Neal pointed out.
"Neal! That's different. Marriage would…"
"Tie me down, that's what," she explained, growing impatient. "I'm not ready. I haven't served the Crown enough. I want to fulfill my duty before I settle down."
"Marriage doesn't mean settling down," Neal told her. "It merely means making a commitment."
"Exactly!" Kel exclaimed. "I told you: I'm not ready."
"Yes, you are!"
"No. No, you don't understand," Kel burst out.
Neal crossed his arms. "Kel,I'm married. I understand perfectly."
"That's what you think," she retorted.
Neal sighed and slung an arm around her shoulders. "Just don't worry. If you want to wait, that's alright. But don't put it off too long, or you'll find all the joy is gone."
Kel raised her eyebrows. "You said something intelligent, for once."
Neal grinned. "I know. Aren't you proud?" He became serious once more. "I'm here, Kel, whenever you want to talk."
Kel chewed her lip in thought. He had been typically blunt with her, and yet she had drawn comfort from his forthright words.
A memory flew, unbidden, to her mind. The months she had spent as a page when she'd had an immense crush on Neal. A faint blush rose in her cheeks. The giddiness, the tingles, the quickening of her heartbeat that had afflicted her when she was in Neal's presence were still remembered, though not experienced.
Her forehead creased. What would have happened if Neal had returned her affection?
Kel laughed aloud. The thought of Neal being romantically interested in her was amusing.
Or was it?
He was her best friend, and married to another of her friends. Kel had not thought of Neal romantically since she was a squire, when she had lost her interest in him as a sweetheart.
And yet, he many good attributes. He was a wonderful friend, loyal and reliable, despite his sarcasm and dry sense of humour. And Kel loved him—as a friend might. She felt so wonderfuly relaxed around him, after twenty years of friendship, but not in the same way that she felt in the presence of Dom.
Neal. Sarcasm and loyalty, caring and honesty.
Dom. Much like Neal—so much, occasionally Kel found herself annoyed when she had spent the day with Dom in order to flee from Neal's sarcasm, only to experience the same irony in Dom's company. Determined, playful, mischievous. Sweet, yet at times he was forced to form his own assumptions from Kel's Yamani mask—assumptions which often proved wrong. At such times, Kel would be exasperated with Dom's conjectures and try to convince him not to guess at her emotions; he would reply, demanding her not to use her mask around him—saying that she didn't need it. Then they would both be hurt by the other's actions and would usually attempt to behave in a cold manner to the other until one of them would realise how completely daft the whole thing was and Kel and Dom would be reconciled. It was an odd relationship at times, Kel reflected, but definitely one that she enjoyed.
Love wasn't perfect, nor was it enjoyable at all times. No love was without flaws, but Kel and Dom's love for each other had brought perfect delight to the other, and Kel never doubted that it would last forever.
Kel began to wonder what would have happened, had she and Neal been in love. Despite their shared traits, Neal and Dom were very different at the core. Neal tended to conceal his true feelings behind a satirical veil, whereas Dom's variable emotions were entirely readable. Neal had always taken Kel's Yamani mask as a natural protection device, but a cause for this was most likely his own concealment. Dom was often frustrated with Kel's blank face, for he could not understand why she felt the need to hide her feelings from him.
Neal and Kel were best friends. And although she certainly loved him, that love was the loyal affection of a friend. Her love for Dom was completely different. Strong, tender, romantic in a way that she could never imagine in a relationship with Neal…they were simply two very different men, despite family relations. Neal would always be her friend, for she accepted his sarcasm and satire along with his loyalty and friendship.
But it was his cousin who would always dominate Kel's heart.
A/N: Well, Cricket is making me write an author's note. Yes, she is abusive. Yes, she is threatening to hurt me unless I write this A/N. Yes, I do love her dearly. Yes, she is forcing me to say that.
For those of you who think that Kel would accept Dom's offer of marriage, well, I beg to differ. She doesn't seem like the type who would marry so soon. Not necessarily settle down, but even marriage is something that I think she is slightly afraid of. So that's why I wrote this fic, a sequel to my "Rays of Sunlight" in which Dom proposes. So if you're reading this, I'd appreciate it if you would click on the little blue letters that spell out "Starlit Niphredil" and check out my other TP story. And, of course, review.
Are you happy, Cricket?