One of the boggling things about being The Girl in a group of boys is that you're simultaneously constantly singled out for your gender, but also a little singled out from your gender. Kel's been one of the boys for so long that she didn't think half of them remembered she was a girl. As a late addition to her friend group, Dom has always seemed more aware of it than, say, Owen, who seemed genuinely shocked when Kel experienced puberty.
But aside from Cleon, she hadn't thought any of them remembered they might think of her as a romantic prospect.
It hadn't been a comforting thought, but she's pragmatic. Dating outside of her peer group was fine. The world is full of people she can date. She would have liked if Dom was one of them, but it's all right that he's not. She'll get over him, one of these days. She's come to accept it.
Which is why his request is so alarming.
"Kel, old buddy, old pal," he says, draping his arm over her shoulders. She doesn't allow herself to thrill at the contact, because his actual words are so unromantic. That's Dom in a nutshell, really: for every flirtatious action, there is an equal and opposite platonic reaction.
"I'm busy," she says.
"You're studying," he says. "And we all know you're going to crush finals and then crush the bar, so listen to me instead."
She huffs, making a great show of indignance, but she knows she needs to take a break. Her friends know too; she half expects that Neal has a schedule set up so people will bother her at set intervals.
"What?" she asks.
"You need a break."
"I'm taking one right now."
"A real one. A vacation. And, as it happens, I need a favor."
"A vacation favor?" Kel asks, unable to keep a dubious note out of her voice.
"A vacation favor," Dom confirms. "Neal must have told you out grandmother has a beach house?"
Kel does remember him mentioning it, once or twice. "Yes."
"We're going down the first week of July. Now that Neal's engaged, I'm her disappointment of a grandson, breaking her heart with my bachelor ways."
"I'm still waiting for this tale of woe to reach a point of some kind."
"You need a vacation, I need a girlfriend so my grandmother won't spend the whole week telling me how she doesn't want to go to her grave with me alone and miserable."
"She does not tell you that."
"She does!" he says, putting his hand over his heart. "On my honor, she does."
Kel regards him, sizing him up carefully. "What exactly are you proposing?"
"You come along, spend a week at our beach house, pretend you're my girlfriend."
"You can't be serious."
"Why not?" he asks, like he really doesn't know. Like he thinks this is a perfectly good idea no one could object to.
"Because--that doesn't happen. People don't do that." Because people don't do that with me, she thinks, but she hopes he won't make her say it.
"I don't see why not. Neal and Yuki will be there. The rest of our family is nice. You like Uncle Baird. You'll have fun. An all-expenses paid beach vacation, and all you have to do is pretend to be slumming it with me for a week."
"Well, when you put it like that," she says. Of course, he chooses to ignore the sarcasm.
"So that's a yes!"
"Have you mentioned this to Neal?"
"He thinks it's a great idea. We all think you need a break. Everyone is looking forward to you becoming an amazing lawyer and saving the world, but we'd like you to have fun sometimes too."
Kel grins. "Fun was never my strong point."
"Stick with me, kid," he says, for all he's only six years older than she is. "I'll show you how it's done."
Kel never actually says yes, not in so many words. But that's stubbornness as much as anything. Dom not making her say it is letting her save face, in a strange way. It just becomes known: Kel is going to the beach with Dom and Neal in July.
The fake-girlfriend part doesn't become broadly known, and she's grateful for that too. But Neal knows, which means Yuki knows, which means Yuki knows too much.
"This is a golden opportunity," she says. She's called Lalasa in, which makes it feel vaguely like an intervention. "One week, on the beach, with Dom. You'll be expected to spend a lot of time together. Everyone will be in bathing suits. You'll probably be sharing a bed."
Kel chokes. "You don't really think--"
"They're very liberal. I doubt anyone has any illusions about--"
"I thought I'd probably be sharing with you," Kel admits.
"Even if you are. Bathing suits! Late night conversations!"
"It is a romantic setting," Lalasa offers. "She's not wrong."
"And he wants you to be his girlfriend," Yuki adds. "Let's not forget that. He didn't ask you to just come with him, he asked you to date him."
"For pretend. For his grandmother's benefit."
"He did ask you," Lalasa says.
It's what Kel was thinking herself, of course. It's impossible not to think these things. She wants it to mean something, wants it to mean all of the ridiculous, romantic things it might mean. But she can't be the one to make the argument. She couldn't bear to have them pointing out all the reasons she's being too optimistic.
She'd rather have them talking her into it.
"He doesn't have a lot of close female friends," she says. "There weren't any women in his unit. The only reason he knows me is Neal. And it's not like he's going to ask one of his coworkers to do it. So that leaves me."
"Or he was looking for an excuse to spend more time with you!" says Yuki.
"He doesn't need one. He just has to ask."
"Which he did," Lalasa says. "And whatever his motivations, I think Yuki is right. You should go, have fun, and look amazing."
Kel laughs. "I suppose if I'm going to be there, I should look as amazing as possible, shouldn't I?"
"That's the spirit," says Yuki. "Why do you think I invited Lalasa? She's our wardrobe expert."
She doesn't let herself get her hopes up, not yet. But she does let herself feel--excited. She's graduated from law school. She'll be taking the bar in the fall, and she is planning to bring some text books on vacation, of course.
But a week off to sit on the beach with her friends will be nice, even leaving aside whatever she may have to do to convince Dom's grandmother that the two of them are together. And she doesn't think she'll mind doing what needs to be done, in that regard.
"You are the expert," Kel agrees, smiling at her friends. "I'm in your hands."
Kel doesn't think she was made to seduce anyone, let alone on the beach. She's not a bad-looking woman, she knows that. At twenty-six, she's tall and broad, muscular in a way that many women aren't. She fought her way into military school and fought her way through it; even though she didn't end up joining the service, electing to go straight to college instead, she doesn't know how to stop her workout regimen. She's attractive to plenty of people, but she'll never be small or dainty, will never look like the women who wear bikinis on the covers of magazines. It doesn't bother her, most of the time. She doesn't want to be liked just for her looks.
But--she'd like Dom to like her. And she'd like him to think she's beautiful. She's not sure the beach really shows her off to her best advantage.
Still, she has Lalasa, and Lalasa is magic. Kel knows people who look at her think the same thing, are amazed by her strength and stamina, as well as her encyclopedic knowledge of international law, but that's how it should be. To everyone who lacks a skill, the person who has mastered it is a wizard.
And Lalasa knows how to make Kel look beautiful.
The house is in South Carolina, and she, Dom, Neal, and Yuki are flying down together. Neal hates the airport, so the first few hours of the trip are mostly him complaining about TSA regulations, the price of food, and the total uselessness of everything Brookstone sells while the rest of the group exchanges eyerolls.
"They sell personal massagers, you know," Yuki remarks at last, the picture of innocence. "Which can be very useful. Maybe I should get another one. You never can have too many."
The statement is enough to shut Neal up, and he nearly trips following her to advise on Brookstone's selection. Kel has to smile. She thought, when Neal and Yuki first began dating, that she'd be jealous, that her lingering feelings for Neal wouldn't let her be happy for her friends. And she is, sometimes. But more of the time, she's glad. Two of her favorite people love each other, and are good together. She can't be upset about that. And the jealousy really isn't about him. She'd just like to have someone of her own, sometimes. It would be nice.
"I don't think I ever thanked you for this," Dom says, pulling Kel's attention from their friends. "I thought the more I mentioned it, the more likely you were to change your mind, so it seemed safest to keep quiet. But I really do appreciate it."
He sounds genuine, more than Kel would have expected. She really did think he'd mostly been using the trip as an excuse to get her away from her books. But his gratitude is evident in his voice.
"Is it really such a big deal?" she asks. "That you're single? You're thirty-two, it's hardly uncommon to be unmarried at thirty-two."
"I don't like disappointing her," he says. "And I don't think she's right, to be disappointed, don't get me wrong. There's more to life than that. But--it's something I can give her. Something that will make her happy and keep her from worrying over me." He flashes her a grin. "And it worked. She's very excited to meet you. I can't remember the last time she was so happy to hear from me."
"And it doesn't bother you? That you're lying to her?"
"I didn't lie much," he says, and Kel nearly chokes. He doesn't seem to notice. "She already knew that you were a friend of Neal's and he'd introduced us, and that you're brilliant and amazing and you're going to save the world. The only lie was that you're my girlfriend."
It's nothing he hasn't said to her before, but it's different to hear as evidence of their relationship. It's always just been--what he says. He respects her; it's not news. She's just let herself consider it from this angle. "Still a lie," she says, unable to respond to anything else.
"I won't lose sleep over it," he says. "But really. Thank you."
"Like you said, I needed a vacation."
He snorts. "Just take the thanks, Mindelan. I know you hate taking credit for your do-gooding--"
"Lying to an old woman so I can spend time on a beach is hardly something to be proud of!" she protests, but she's grinning now, and Dom is grinning back.
"I'm proud of us," he says. "And so should you be. She's ninety-three; we're giving her happiness at the end of her life. She'll probably be trying to set up a double-wedding before we leave."
"As if I'd let you steal my thunder at my wedding," Neal scoffs, returning from the display of massagers. "You two aren't even engaged yet. It's honestly bad enough you're bringing a girlfriend," he adds, with a grin at Kel so she knows he's kidding. "I was finally going to be the good grandson, and now we're both the good grandson."
"What a burden for you," Dom agrees, voice heavy with mock sympathy, and Kel just shakes her head.
"You're both ridiculous. Let's get this over with. I can't wait to be done with you two."
"You'll be waiting a long time," says Neal, and Kel lets the cousins lead her to the gate.
Not the worst start.
Neal and Dom call their grandmother Nana, and she tells Kel and Yuki to call her Kat.
"It's bad enough my own grandchildren acknowledge I'm old enough to be your grandmother, I'd rather no one else do it." She surprises Yuki with a hug, and then Kel with an even longer one. "I'm so happy to meet both of you. I've been telling them to bring you for years, Kel."
Kel glances back at Dom, who shrugs his shoulders and grins. "I had no idea," she tells Kat. "I would have been happy to come."
"Neal wouldn't shut up about you for a few years. I thought he'd be the one bringing you home, but I'm not surprised it's Dom now." Kat puts her arm around Yuki's shoulders, drawing her toward the house. "Now, since I know you didn't grow up with Neal like Kel did, I'm sure you're looking forward to me telling you all of his embarrassing stories. And I will be happy to oblige you."
"Remind me why I thought this was a good idea?" Neal asks Dom.
"Because we love our grandmother and want her to be happy," says Dom, clapping him on the back. "I'm sure I'm next."
"I didn't know you when you were young, I have missed out on a lot of stories, I'm sure," Kel says.
Dom drapes his arm around her, casual, easy, and Kel lets herself lean into it. She's used to affection from all her friends, even from Dom. It's nothing out of the ordinary, not yet.
But then he shows her their room.
"I can sleep on the floor," he offers, putting his suitcase in the corner. "I know it's not a huge bed."
"No, don't be silly," Kel says, automatic. Politeness has been ingrained in her forever; she can't imagine just letting him give her the bed. "We can share. You don't want to break your grandmother's heart if she finds out, do you?"
"I'm hoping my grandmother won't be walking into our bedroom unannounced."
"She seems--interesting. I didn't realize she would have heard so much about me."
"You're Neal's best friend. One of my best friends. Of course we talk about you." He rubs the back of his neck. "I know she's a little--you know about our family. She lost two sons in Vietnam, and three of her grandchildren before they hit thirty. It's just me, Neal, his sister, and my sister. You've met her, right?"
"I was Neal's plus one at her wedding," Kel says, with a small smile.
"Right! I can't believe I forgot. That was the first time I met you. You were much smaller then, in my defense. She'll be here too, with the kids, by the way. They didn't think they were going to make it, but when Nana told them Neal and I were bringing our girlfriends--"
"And you still don't feel bad about this?"
"Maybe I'm just a terrible person," he says, easy. "Come on, I'll give you the tour."
Dom's older sister, Fiona, only vaguely remembers Kel from her wedding, but clearly isn't going to let that stop her from welcoming Kel with open arms, just like her grandmother. Kel doesn't exactly feel guilty about lying to them herself--they're Dom's family, not hers, and if he and Neal think this isn't going to blow up in their faces, that's their business. Kel's just here to enjoy some sun, some sea, and some mini-golfing.
Until she finds out that Dom's nieces? They worship her.
It starts their first morning at the beach house. Kel works up early to do her exercises, and she's halfway through when she catches Annie and Tessa watching her, wide-eyed.
"Good morning," she says, slow.
"What are you doing?" asks Annie.
"Is that why you're so big?" says Tessa.
"Part of it is genetics," she says. "That's why I'm tall. But exercising keeps you strong, yes."
"Can we do it too?"
"If you'd like," she says, and that's how Dom finds them, Kel showing the girls her exercises, coaching them through how to do pushups with proper technique.
"Never too early to get in good habits, I guess," he remarks, sipping his coffee. "Are you ready for breakfast?"
"We're exercising, Uncle Dom," says Annie, very serious. "We can't eat until we're done with exercise."
"We're gonna be strong like Kel!" Tessa adds.
"Are you stronger than Uncle Dom?" Annie asks.
"She might be," he admits. "We've never tested it. She certainly has more discipline than I do. I was just going to get all my exercise in the water."
"I'm definitely stronger than Uncle Dom," Kel tells them. "We'll do one more set, and then breakfast."
She's expecting the girls to leave her alone after that, but they chatter at her through the meal, wanting to tell her all about their favorite things at the beach, how far they can swim, and what kinds of shells they're hoping to find. Kel has plenty of nieces and nephews of her own, so she's used to it. And it's nice, to have the distraction. Interacting with them feels honest, at least.
Still, Dom follows them to the beach, which means Kel is a little bit distracted. She might be stronger than he is, but his muscles are nothing to scoff at, and the sharp lines of his hipbones could definitely draw her in, if she let them.
Which is why she's not going to. She's working very hard on it.
The thing is, it's mostly a passive thing, having a crush on Dom. In high school, crushes had really felt oppressive, like the weight of her feelings might destroy her. It isn't that she wants him less than she wanted Neal, she just has so much more to do now. She and Dom didn't start spending time together as friends until she was in law school, and she doesn't have the time to pine like she used to.
But now, not only does she not have anything else to do, but being attracted to Dom is part of what she should be doing. They haven't been acting very different in company, but it still feels different. And she did wake up with him this morning, which was--well, she might have worked out for longer than normal. Just to get some of her frustration out. Dom sleeps in his boxers, and he looks very inviting, in a bed.
He looks very inviting all the time, really.
So Kel ignores the way he looks in his swimsuit, ignores the way he laughs and splashes his nieces, ignores the way he'll help her towel her hair dry when they get out of the water, grin bright and wide. Instead she helps Annie and Tessa build sandcastles, teaches Yuki how to bodysurf, and dunks Neal under the waves when he does manage to catch her watching Dom.
As it should be, really.
Their fifth night at the beach, Neal gets a bottle of very expensive tequila and grins. "Come on," he says. "It's not a real beach trip if you don't walk on the sand barefoot and drinking."
"That is not a rule," says Kel, but of course she's following him.
The beach is cooler at night, and the sand feels perfect between her toes. Her family has never been a beach family, and it's strange to be here with Neal and Dom, who have over twenty years of memories to draw on, always teasing each other, sniping easily about that summer you totally cockblocked me and how much of a fucking cheat you were at minigolf when you were eleven. With the tequila, the arguments feel warm and familiar, and she almost feels like she was there. She can picture it so clearly.
She doesn't notice when they lose Neal and Yuki.
"I hope they aren't having sex on the beach," she remarks, scowling at the mostly empty bottle.
"I doubt it. Neal knows better. Sand takes forever to wash out of certain places." Kel giggles, and he looks delighted. "I don't think I've ever gotten you drunk enough to giggle."
"It depends on the alcohol," she says. "Wine and beer don't make me giggly, they make me quiet. Vodka makes me argument--" She frowns. "Argue--"
Dom snorts and plucks the bottle from her fingers. "Argumentative. And tequila makes you relax. But not so much you can't catalog the varying effects of alcohol on your body."
"And you made all those words, so clearly you haven't had enough," she says.
"I may not be stronger than you, Keladry Mindelan, but I am still larger," he says. "And I would bet I drink more."
"Almost certainly," Kel agrees. "So you should have more of that. I don't want to be the only one saying stupid things."
He laughs and takes a drink. "I don't think I've ever heard you say a stupid thing in my life."
He's quiet for a while as they walk. Kel thinks she can hear a song in her head, like they're in a movie, but she can't catch it. This would be the romantic scene, wouldn't it? Alone, barefoot on the beach, a little drunk. It's a classic.
"I'm really glad you came with us," he says. Maybe he's noticed too.
"Your grandmother loves me," she teases.
"And my nieces too. You're more popular than I am. But that's not what I meant. We were all worried about you, working as hard as you were. And it's just--it's nice to see so much of you. I feel like we never get enough time together." She opens her mouth, but he goes on quickly, "I don't mean it as a complaint. I know how much you care about what you're doing, and it's amazing. I've never met anyone like you before, honestly. I'm in awe, most of the time."
"I have," she says. "Met someone like you. Or I thought I had. When I first met you, I thought you were like Neal, but worse. You weren't some great revelation for me."
"Worse than Neal?" he asks, laughing. "How? I thought you liked me."
"I thought I liked him. And then you came along. Taller than him, broader than him. Better smile. Nicer eyes. And I thought--" She clams up, all at once, because what she'd thought was if I didn't have a chance with Neal, I'll never have a chance with him. And she can't say that to Dom.
She can't believe she said all the rest to Dom. Tequila is not her drink. Not at all.
"Than he," she says.
"What?" asks Dom, blank.
"I said taller than him, but it should have been than he."
He laughs, but it's happy. "Yes, that was the relevant part. So I'm like Neal, but better, is what you really meant."
"You're not just like him," she says. "You're more cheerful. More open. You care about different things. I don't just--" she starts, and stops herself again.
"I want to hear the ends of these sentences sometime."
"I doubt it."
"I do." He puts his arm around her, presses his lips to her temple. "I could have just invited you, you know."
"If I'd just told my grandmother you were working too hard and we wanted you to come down with us, she would have been happy to have you. But I thought it would be less embarrassing having her tell you how happy she was we were dating than having her you how she's rooting for us. Or having her tell me that if I don't snap you up soon, someone else will."
"They probably won't," she says.
"You don't make it easy," he says. "Cleon said I needed to be direct."
That clears some of the tequila fog from her brain, and the conversation all rushes to her at once. "You talked to Cleon?" she asks, horrified.
"He talked to me. Sort of a combination of advice and threat."
She feels herself blushing. "He shouldn't have."
"I didn't find it at all helpful, if it makes you feel better. I wish he hadn't either." He squeezes her shoulder. "Come on, I think it's time for bed."
He leaves his arm around her as they head home, and it's only when they're back in their room that she gets up her nerve to ask, "Is that it?"
"I thought that conversation would be worse." He hasn't broken her heart at all, yet.
"I'm hoping it will be better," he says. "But in the morning."
"Better in the morning," she agrees.
When she lies down, she can feel the waves under her back, a persistent tug, and her head is swimming from tequila. It feels as if she's being pulled into him and pushed away at the same time, but in a nice way. Gentle, almost.
It feels like the world is rocking her to sleep, telling her she'll be okay.
In the morning, she wakes up and drags herself down to workout. She has pupils, after all. She can't let them down, even if she's hungover and she and Dom might be in for a serious talk about feelings.
He's still not awake when they finish, so she helps Kat and Baird with breakfast, teases Yuki a little when she emerges from her own room. It backfires, of course, because Yuki just rolls her eyes. "We didn't want privacy for ourselves, we were trying to give you some. Did it work?"
Kel considers the question. It didn't go badly, certainly. She thinks it might have gone well. "We had a nice talk," she decides. There needs to be more of a conversation--a sober conversation--before she lets herself get carried away.
"Useless," says Yuki, and Kel smiles and gives her a cup of tea.
Dom emerges a few minutes later, wearing on his pajama pants, hair a mess. Kel wordlessly offers him coffee, and he pecks her cheek. "You're the best," he tells her.
"I can't tell if you're avoiding me or not," Dom remarks, flopping down next to her.
Kel is sitting on her towel, reading a textbook and trying not to get distracted by all the freckles that have emerged on her shoulders. It turns out it's very easy to get distracted on the beach. Dom is wet from the water, hair plastered to his forehead ridiculously. He's getting sand all over himself and doesn't seem to care.
"I like reading," she says.
"You like swimming too."
"But I have a much better view from here."
He laughs. "That's true," he says. "I'm sure I look fantastic coming out of the water."
"And so modest."
He puts his head in her lap, closing his eyes. Kel feels a thrill go through her at the contact, and she lets her hand drop down to test the feel on his hair, a little stiff from the salt water, but fine and soft under her fingers. "I told myself I was waiting for you to finish school," he says. "But I'm starting to suspect I'm a little bit--I don't think it's cowardice. Pride, maybe."
"It's going to be a huge blow to my ego, if you turn me down. I'm not used to being turned down. I tend to set my sights low."
Kel frowns. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"I'm an attractive guy with some natural charm," he says. It feels like an understatement to Kel; he's got more than his fair share of charm, to say nothing of good looks. But she is biased, too. "I don't put much effort into winning girls over."
"Don't brag," she teases.
"You don't either. Girls love you."
Kel laughs. "You're right, they do." She's about a two on the Kinsey scale, but women seem more inclined to think she's their type than men do. It's not something she objects to, as much as finds broadly depressing as a commentary on gender roles. Societal expectations about femininity are exhausting.
"It had been a while since I wanted to put the effort in," he says. "Since I met someone I wanted to pursue. My heart hasn't been on the line since--" He smiles. "I was crazy about this girl before I enlisted. I asked if she'd wait for me."
"And I felt bad as soon as I said it," he says, grinning. "I thought it was romantic, like something from a movie, but then I realized how awful it is, asking someone to wait for you, when you haven't even been on a date. So I immediately backtracked and asked if she wanted to get a drink when I got out of the service."
"Much better. What happened?"
"By the time I got out, she had a boyfriend. And I was a different person anyway. Not--it wasn't bad, what I did in the service. But those were my formative years. I grew up. We got the drink, caught up, it was nice. But it wasn't like it used to be."
She takes a deep breath, stares out at the sea, watching Neal and Yuki splash each other. She knows what he means, she thinks; she remembers what it was like, having feelings for him. But those feelings belong to a different person, almost. She wouldn't know how to go back. "But that's how it is with me," she says.
He laughs, smiles up at her, green eyes sparkling. "No," he says. "I told you. You aren't like anyone else."
It should feel like a line, but it makes her whole body hum instead. Because she understands, really. Back when she and Dom first started spending time together, she tried to tell herself it was a lingering fondness for Neal, some stupid, childish urge to have something like him, since she couldn't have the real thing.
But that's not what she likes about Dom.
"No," she agrees. "Neither are you, really. I was wrong about that."
"But I'm still more handsome than Neal."
Her heart still races as she leans down, even though she's sure. And that seems right, honestly. Just because she knows he feels the same doesn't mean it shouldn't be exciting. He feels the same way she does; it's the most exciting thing.
"You are," she tells him, and presses her mouth against his.
His face and lips are cold, and the first taste she gets is all salt, the flavor so strong and sharp she nearly pulls back. But his hand finds her jaw, and his mouth opens under hers, and she finds warmth and Dom. She kisses him until she loses track of herself, kisses him until she forgets where she is.
She kisses him until she realizes how much her neck hurts, and then she laughs and falls back onto her towel. "I wish you'd started that conversation when we were in a less awkward position."
"We can move somewhere else," he says. He sounds as breathless and happy as she is. "I wasn't attached to the beach."
She looks around, checking to see Neal and Yuki still in the waves, Annie and Fiona working on a sandcastle, Tessa and Baird looking for shells, Kat sunning herself on her own towel. Family, in their way.
"No," she agrees. "I'm not attached to the beach."
Dom takes her out to dinner that night, claiming he hasn't gotten enough alone time with his girlfriend. Kel doesn't flush and doesn't meet Yuki's eye, which doesn't help that much. There are very few safe eyes to catch, in this house. Even Annie and Tessa have been giggly, since they saw her and Dom kissing on the beach.
The meal is nice, though. It does feel like a long time since she's gotten alone time with him, even though they've had more of it on this trip than they have in their entire acquaintance.
It's probably that it's a date, as juvenile as that makes her feel. She's never spent time with Dom like this, with--well, not everything out in the open, but enough. He feels the same way she does. It's the beginning of something. That's all she needs.
"I still don't really understand what your plan was," she remarks, giving him a smile. "What did you think was going to happen?"
"I thought you might relax a little," he says. He nudges his foot against hers. "It was Neal's idea to ask if you wanted to come, but he was planning to use Yuki as his excuse. You know," he adds, at her frown, "you were supposed to have her back with our intimidating extended family."
"Ah, of course."
"I didn't think you'd buy it, so I said I'd tell you I needed a girlfriend. Neal saw through it in a second, of course, but he pretended he didn't. I think he thought if I realized, I'd change my mind or something stupid like that. You know Neal."
"And neither of you thought of just asking me if I wanted to come?"
"We thought of it. But--sometimes you need an excuse to let yourself take a break, Kel. You'll come to a birthday party on a night when you wouldn't go out drinking. It's not a bad thing, I understand it. I wanted to make it easy for you."
"And it's so easy, pretending to be your girlfriend," she says, smiling.
"You did a fantastic job. The family loves you, Nana is thrilled, and you even convinced me you liked me enough to make a move. I think it was a great idea. If I do say so myself."
"You've certainly had worse," Kel says, all innocence, and he laughs, demands to hear of these bad ideas, and Kel's giddiness is so great it feels almost alive in her. It's not as if she thinks she needs a relationship to be fulfilled; she's got a good life. She's lucky. She's happy.
But she didn't think things like this happened, not to her. And it's nice, to find that it can. That is is.
And they're still them, on top of that. It doesn't feel like it sometimes did with Cleon, where Kel the Girlfriend was different from Kel the Friend, that Cleon wanted them to be two separate people, almost. And it could still be like that with Dom. She's not so romantic to think that the rest of her life will be perfect and with him, not based on a conversation and a date.
But a little optimism never killed anyone.
He kisses her outside the restaurant, pretends to say goodnight, and then he takes her home, kisses her again, longer, and Kel lets herself think yes and nothing else, just for one night.
It was easier to get herself out of bed when she was worried about giving her feelings away; now that her feelings are known and reciprocated and she's waking up with Dom's arms around her, morning exercise just seems like a cruel punishment.
But she has students who are depending on her, so she drags herself out of his embraced, gets dressed, stretches a little, and heads downstairs. The kids are already waiting for her, doing their own warm-ups--jumping for Annie and rolling for Tessa--but as soon as they spot her, they stop and run to her, anxious.
"We're leaving today," says Annie. "Can we still get big like you?"
"Yeah, you can," Kel says, smiling. "You're going to have to work hard, but there are all kinds of things you can do. Ask your mom about signing up for some clubs or something. You can try a lot of things and see what you like. The important thing is to keep doing it. It's hard work, getting big."
"I'm gonna do it," Annie declares. "When you see me next year, I'm gonna be twice as big. Maybe even more."
Kel swallows, hard. The world doesn't look quite so shiny and bright this morning as it did last night; she's too practical to maintain that level of optimism for long. But she still feels warm and happy, good.
She still thinks this is the beginning of something that's going to last.
"I'm looking forward to it," she says. She straightens, claps. "All right. Ready?"
"Ready!" the girls chorus.
Kel smiles; she's still herself, after all. "Then let's get to work."