A Plain Morning

The morning mist lies heavily on the plains of Tortall, which are gilded lightly with the glaze of the rising sun. Not yet awake, the bleary-eyed knight sweeps his gaze across the expanse of land that stretches out on all sides, surrounding him. He moves his broad shoulders in circles and indulges in a great yawn to clear his senses. If it wasn't quite so early he might appreciate the rose-coloured sky with its dusting of clouds, or the sweet, fresh smell of the morning air. A cool breeze snakes through the air and he pulls the fastenings on his cloak tighter.

It's been a long month, he thinks with a dull ache. At first when he left the fresh pain of being away was sternly disregarded as he kept his mind on his duties, but after a while it faded to the back of his mind, a faint longing for her. It was hard to be lonely there, he'd been kept occupied with his work and always had company, in the form of companions and workers. His days were never spent in idleness, so he'd find he could forget a little the pain of missing her, at least until her letter arrived in the mail and he rushed straight to his room to read it. And re-read. Until he chided himself for making too much of nothing.

Maybe it had been good for him to be away from her for a while. It gave him the chance to think about things. Before, love had been a mysterious object to him, something he parodied in his romantic fancies or something he once thought he had in abundance. Something he thought was so close but he'd been chasing ghosts really. Always chasing after something, someone, some woman he thought he could find it in but never did. The point was, he'd told himself, that she'd made him happy at that point, even if he wouldn't be happy with her now. The point was that it had been good while it lasted. Wasn't that right?

Perhaps one of the original problems was that he'd known her for too long. She hadn't ever been like a sister to him, really, but somewhere in between a sister and a close male friend. For years. A typical boy, he'd considered her at some point, but rejected the idea. There were prettier girls out there, and on a less superficial note, girls more suited for him. He'd try his hand at them. That's when the long line of love interests began, girls at banquets, girls at court, girls who were beautiful and dull-witted and girls who were beautiful and clever and beyond his reach. He tried for them all until he had gained more experience than anyone else. Or so he'd thought.

He'd always seemed to fall for the unreachable ones, engaged or wealthy or simply too lovely and perfect by far for anyone, maidens who might as well be goddesses, untouchable. He almost liked falling for that kind, because no matter how he mooned and hoped and worshiped them, he always knew they would never be his. There was something infinitely exciting about wanting them, but then at the same time a certain element, that he would never get them. Then he got older, wiser, became a man. Discovered the power and instinct he was born with, for flirting and teasing and getting attention. He was blessed with these more so than others, perhaps, and those girls he'd always longed for began to return his interest.

Like most men, he'd had a fair share of "serious" relationships, none of them amounting to anything worthwhile in the end. As he'd told himself, "It was wonderful while it lasted," but when none of them seemed to last long enough, he got frustrated. First with them, then eventually with himself.

Then there was her. Brilliant. Incredible. Maybe she wasn't goddesslike or amazingly beautiful or delicate or poised like the Untouchables. Maybe she was not the sort for deep love and breathtaking romances. Maybe she had only been his best friend since he was fifteen and maybe she'd just had a bad ending to a relationship with his own cousin. But maybe he'd try anyway.

And he did.

Another few hours of riding and he's ready to be in her arms again already. It's nice to find a pretty, fragile slip of a girl with a lady's fine white hands to smooth back your hair and a slim waist for you to circle with your hands and trim, graceful limbs that you can admire while spinning across the dance floor with her. It's nice to have that attraction that impels you to lean over and place a single, chaste kiss on her perfect lips that makes your heart race and soar like a bird, or slip your undeserving mortal hand around her porcelain, flawless one. It's nice to feel that way about someone.

But maybe having someone like her is worth more. Seeing her push on through suffering and danger means much more to him than a dozen of the most passionate kisses with the most beautiful girls. The tears she'd shed for a dozen things more important than a touch on the hand from the loveliest of ladies. The heart she has, the mind she has, the memories and experiences and scars that make his love swell like a giant ocean wave, are better than having the most admired woman in all of the world.

If she didn't have the scarred hands, the muscles few other noblewomen possessed, the honesty and security in herself, she simply wouldn't be Kel.

She could've been that beautiful, maybe, beautiful like the other women. Maybe if she hadn't insisted from an early age on strengthening her body, building her muscles to keep up with men who were born for it, keeping her hair shorn short, taxing her limits and collecting scars and bruises. Maybe that was why he loves her in the first place.

Maybe there are different kinds of love for different people. For his parents, love was finding someone who would do what you asked, help you when you needed it, supply what was required, fill a space and do for you what others couldn't. For the storybook romances that he'd seen come true, love was finding someone who was perfect for you, a soulmate. For the King and Queen, love was finding someone with the strength to carry on with you, a partner for ruling. For the beginners, love was finding someone who would sweep you away.

Was love always about finding someone?

Sometimes it was about being found.

What seems like a long time ago, there was a night when he was just a lonely, moody man who had lost his idea of love, lost his belief in himself, lost his stability, lost, lost, lost. He'd lost. He'd lost at this game of love, at life. He was lost. On that not so fateful night, a perfectly typical evening except that he was being unusually self-centered and feeling sorry for himself, he'd realised a lot of things. Pretending as if things were normal, she'd stepped up to him and initiated a conversation. He reciprocated halfheartedly. He didn't feel like doing much, he didn't feel like doing anything, and he actually hadn't, for quite some time. People were worrying about him. he didn't care. Finally, by the end of the night, she was at the end of her rope and snapped. She gave him the lecture of his life, harsh enough to snap him out of his self-absorbed daze and all the more sweet because he truly needed it. Because it was coming from her.

He remembered standing there, gaping at her, lost for words. Lost his voice. But she went on and on, first reprimanding him for being so selfish, rude, inconsiderate and obsessed with himself, then going on a long tirade about how she disapproved of how he'd treated his last few "lady friends," as she called them, not considering them worth being called "lovers," and she would've gone on all night if he hadn't stopped her, concerned with how frustrated she seemed not only with him, but somehow with herself.

A confession of sorts followed. She was forced to admit that she'd finally broken it off with Dom. Secretly relieved—he'd been happy for them both but to himself never thought they were right for each other—he took the opportunity and asked about it. She began, hesitantly at first, to tell him what had gone on lately. He realised how out of sorts he'd been, how much he had missed because he'd been feeling sorry for himself. A few short stories about lovers' spats and misunderstandings led to spending the entire night wandering the palace gardens, talking about everything from romance in general to what people expect of it to their own personal expectations and the pitfalls along the way. They talked all night and almost until dawn when he finally made his most important realisation of the night. He asked her to go away with him for a while, just to escape the pressure and stress of palace life and a knight's duties and just to forget about everything, anything at all, just for a little.

He knew it meant a lot that she smiled and said yes. Kel didn't shirk her duties, she wasn't weak, she especially never gave in to that weakness. But maybe, just this once.

He hadn't meant for their little leave of absence to go as it did.

He hadn't meant to fall in love.

Maybe it had been the third night, when she received a less-than-polite letter from Dom. Maybe it had been how, under different circumstances, she admitted it might have upset her. But instead, she'd merely put it away and suggested they go out for the night. Maybe it had been two days later, when they went out riding and ended up hearing bits and pieces of each other's lives that had never been discussed before.

Maybe it had been the last night, when they'd stayed up to watch the sunrise, sitting on the outside, on a morning much like the one today, a plain morning, a beautiful morning, a new morning. It had stirred feelings in him then as it did now. Only then, he'd simply taken her in his arms and kissed her. He couldn't do that now.

But he was coming home again.

He wasn't sure how it would go, this strange, unconventional romance of theirs. Things went a little differently when you'd been best friends as long as you'd known each other, and you'd known each other for a very, very long time. Why hadn't he loved her before? Because he'd been lost. Because he hadn't been looking in the right place.

Another cold wind swept through again, and he shivered. He hoped wherever she was waiting, she was warm and happy and content. He knew he couldn't be until he could see her again.

Who knew how things would turn out? All he knew was that this was the most worthwhile thing he'd ever done. For once he had done something right in his life.

Love is different things for different people. But he had been found and he wanted it to stay that way.

Neal spurred his horse onward, ignoring the thick, cold air and complaints from his companions, determined to make it home before the day ended.


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