I don't even notice what the cooks are putting on my tray as I practically run to our table. I look him right in the eyes. Goddess, those eyes... "Don't you dare hurt her! If she's just another Daine or Uline..."
Neal's eyes go misty, like a cloud's crossing over them. I have to suppress a grin; that's probably the most poetic thought I've had in my whole life. "Kel, she's different. She's like no other. I..." Mithros! He's actually BLUSHING! "I've never felt this way before." He flicks his head at Merric, who's seating himself.
I grin. "It's about time we had the day off!"

I never knew it could be so hard to go to sleep. After all, I spent enough time in lectures about how to do it. But every time I close my eyes, I can see his face. Not that it helps to open them. How will I ever make it through the day tomorrow, knowing what's at the end of it? I certainly won't if I don't get to sleep, and soon...

"Ouch!" I try to ignore the chuckles as a shake my hand to get rid of the pain. I just got rapped across the knuckles in staff practice like a clumsy first-year page. I suppose my mind was elsewhere. Even the sharp pain can't bring me all the way back down to earth. Lord Wyldon, however, can.
"Such clumsiness in the field will mean death for yourself and others, Page Keladry. I suggest you try that drill again."
I sigh, shifting my grip on the staff and try hard to keep my mind where it's supposed to be.

"Kel?" I have the whole thing scripted in my head. I'll be sitting there at the fountain... "KELADRY!"
I jerk my head up. "Sir?"
Sir Myles shakes his head at me. "Wherever your head is, I'm sure it's nowhere near the Scanran War."
I look down, shamefaced. I hate to disappoint Sir Myles. After all, he's the Lioness' father, not to mention my favorite teacher. "Repeat the question, sir?"
It's only a few more bells 'till supper. I'll try to concentrate 'till then...

I can't eat a bite. I swirl the vegetables on my plate with my fork, staring listlessly. "Mithros, Kel! What's wrong with you two?"
I look up at Owen's concerned little pudge of a face. He's noticed that neither Neal or I have so much as brought a fork to our mouths. "I'm just..." I shake my head. "I still can't believe my performance in staff practice."
"Hey, it happens to the best of us." Seaver grins at me, stuffing bread into his mouth. "Even you."
"In other words, the best of us."
"He speaks!" Roald grins disarmingly at Neal.
"Oh, from time to time."
Maybe dinner won't be such a trial, after all.

"Quick!" I'm so excited I can barely stay in my chair as Lalasa brushes the paints onto me. For once, I'm not putting up a fight. After all, I won't have to wear them for long.
It doesn't take nearly as long to secure my wig this time. I want it to come off easily...
I throw a bulky cloak that Lalasa is sewing for someone or other over my regular clothes and wait impatiently for the coast to clear. I climb out my window and scramble towards the palace gardens and that fountain. I want to be there first...

Great! He's not here yet! I have time to arrange myself just so. I've been thinking of nothing else all day.
Leave it to Neal to be late to something like this. Every time a twig crackles or a leaf rustles I perk up. But it hasn't been him yet...
There he is. Mmmmm. Wearing green, too. It makes his eyes even deeper than they already are. Mithros, but I've turned into a silly girl!
He sees me and I can tell he's trying not to break into a run to get here faster. "Loreanne," he gasps, his whole face lighting up. I have to admit that mine's doing the same thing.
"Neal." His name just drips off my tongue. Mmmm.
He gently takes my hand and brings it to his lips. I close my eyes... but there isn't any contact. He's staring at the bruise on my knuckles. I'd forgotten all about it. He tilts his head to look at me more thoroughly. "Kel?" he says, wonderingly. This was definitely not in the script.
So the strategy's shot. Time for some tactics. I pull my hand back and grab some water from the fountain, splashing Lalasa's concoctions from my face. Before he's got time to react, I yank the wig from my head and pull the cloak off. "This' why I wanted to meet you here. I wanted to tell you."
He's just staring, like he's seen a ghost or something. Come to think of it, I'm sure the experience is similar. "Neal, please say something."
Goddess. I'm such a moron. I can't even say something intelligent at a time like this where it could make all the difference.
He's just staring. What if he hates me? What if he'll think this was all a jolly good joke and he'll forget about the whole thing? Mithros. I'm going to have to tell him the whole story.
"I couldn't stand it any more. Every time some pretty lady glanced in your general direction, you'd write poems to her and dream of her and lose sleep over her. I..." Here we go. This is the point of no return. "I've loved you for years." There. I said it. Now if I can only finish up... "I thought, maybe if I was the right kind of girl... If I was pretty enough, ladylike enough, if my hair and face and clothes were just right, then..."
"Mithros, Kel!" I'm too scared to look at him. I'm afraid his eyes will tell me something I don't want to know.
"Does it make that much a difference, really? Here I am. I'm the same girl you danced with and talked with and suffered over. I'm just Loreanne with the truth being told." I swallow. "Maybe I'm better. I didn't just take a fancy to you one night at a party. I know you. And I know that I..."
I trail off. He hasn't responded at all. I have to do it. I force myself to look him in the eye. He's looking back at me levelly. There's nothing to be read there. Unless I can put it there...
I reach over and take his hand, never looking away. Was that the faintest hint of the snap I saw at that dance?
What the heck. I've gambled everything I've got anyway. I'm scared three quarters of the way to death, but I lean over and kiss him right on the lips.
Nothing, he's doing nothing at all... I pull my head back, trying to hold the tears back. I am stone. No, I'm not.
I start to get up. His hand's there, putting a little bit of pressure on my arm. I look at him through my tears. I can't believe what I see...
"Kel, why didn't you tell me?" His hands are in my hair. I can't gather my thoughts enough to reply. "Kel?"
"I didn't think you'd ever take a second look at the Lump. I didn't want to ruin everything..."
My blood runs hot and cold as he takes my hand and kisses it, bruise and all. "I think I've missed the goddess right under my nose." He smiles gently. "Maybe, right in front of my nose."
He's leaning in. I send a silent prayer towards the Goddess. And the world goes away...
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Whoever suffered through both versions, which one should I keep? I sort of like both... They aren't really as different as I'd hoped. Oh, well. Suggestions? Letters of pure hatred? Maybe *crosses fingers and smiles narcissistically* worshipful adoration? :~)