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The Deepest Secret Nobody Knows

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here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

-e.e. cummings


She lies on the plain, cotton-sheeted cot and thinks, I do not know what I am right now.

She is a woman who stands on solid ground; her head is rarely allowed an escape to the clouds. Keladry of Mindelan is sensible down to a steel core, bones wrapped in silk and supported with moral belief. She is twenty-one years old and battle-scarred, lips chapped raw and hands callused rough.

Sense allows for certain things and disallows certain others. She has learned that over the years, slowly and surely, another thing written into her skin with honor and chivalry and good kings are not always good men.

Sensibility never allowed for crushes, silly crushes on handsome comrades, but they happened no matter what she did and sometimes Kel regrets not pulling Cleon into the haystack, pregnancy charm (-her option, her choice-) dangling between her breasts, watching his eyes go wide at the sight of her. She regrets it, but he went into his marriage with his chin high and his honor intact, she thinks; that is what was important when all was said and done.

The door opens with a creak. She winces at the sound.

"You disappeared quickly." His voice is pitched low, quiet. Kel turns her head and beckons.

"There's no need to hover in the doorway," she says, swinging her legs around. "Come on in."

It could be awkward. It isn't. She is sober and he isn't drunk, far from it. His eyes are clear. "This is what you want," he says, a final confirmation, and Kel knows it, says yes.

He kisses her with lips and teeth and tongue, with longing and triumph and want. His hands are strong and callused on her skin, rough and gentle all at once.

There's a myth that kisses taste like sweet honey. Dom's kisses are heavy with the bitter taste of desire.

It started slower, if not slowly. They had kissed in a hallway almost by accident: she was there to hand in a report, or get one, one or the other, and he was there because he was simply passing by and they had collided, like an apple hitting the ground after a fall or a punch to the face. It wasn't what she had pictured when she was fourteen. Her imaginings had been gentler, not this, never this; he bites her lower lip and then licks it and her hand scratches roughly over the cotton against his back.

She remembers in that hallway how he had said, "gods, Kel," and looked down at her with an expression of such tenderness on his face, how it sent a dart of fear straight down her spine; he had no rightto give her such looks, and she would have told him, but the words turned to dust on her tongue.

Instead she had said "shh," and pulled him down to join her, preferring actions in place of words, because they were so much easier, and kept kissing him until she knew it was no accident. A collision, maybe, but one that must have been unavoidable.

"I'm your friend first," he had said. She had nodded, for this, between them, is irrefutable.

"I'm better off for it." He kissed her then, his heart behind it, and though it was very much not the act of a friend, she had allowed it, had allowed his hands to cup her face and stroke the skin behind her ear.

Eventually they were caught by a page, who sent them a raised eyebrow and smirk. Kel had frowned, crossing her arms over her chest.

"Kel-" Dom had murmured, one hand still spread over the curve of her hip.

She'd muttered, "not right now, later, we'll do this later-" and laterhad been more kissing, his sly hands and her eager ones, until they couldn't think of talking.

"This is what you want," Dom repeats.

"Mithros," Kel says crossly, "yes," and like any sensible person would, pulls off her shirt in one fluid motion.

So this, really, this is the beginning.

Half-hidden kisses in halls are nothing exceptional, she knows, having interrupted so many even during her restricted time at the Palace. Half-hidden kisses anywhere- people are good at finding dark corners, whether it is under stone arches or behind haystacks; the human tendency to wanderlust and lust go hand in hand.

But everything else- most primarily the softening of her sensibility- marks the changes.

(Changes like the bruise he sucks onto her collarbone that she hides with help from Yuki, face-paint, and her friend's knowing wink, or the shivers she gets when their eyes meet, so different from when she was fourteen. And honestly, soft is not for soldiers, but they manage, they do, and Kel never thought that was something she could have.)

Dom is not steady like Cleon was. Cleon was trained to be a lord and a knight; duty to the fief and duty to the Crown. There is wickednessin Dom that turns his eyes dark and steals smirks from his mouth, something good to have when it's your fifth week riding through dirt and dead leaves to clean up burned villages.

You have to like having mud in your teeth, Kel thinks, or at least you have to not mind it. That's how they're similar.

On their sixth week of mud-tramping Third Company returns to the fort, Lord Raoul in tow with Buri on her fierce pony, their wedding bands glinting gold and new on their hands. Kel is only there for a weekend, Neal picking up more herbs and ointments, both of them helping to figure out all the details of a war that's dragging on far too long.

Dom finds her after a dinner she can barely eat for exhaustion.

"I'd say we were ships passing in the night," he says, leaning in. Her rooms, as the commander of a fortified camp, are much nicer than the Own's camp, and no one will question him being there. At least among these men- or most of them- her virtue is intact, her reputation proven, and there are those who will fight for it to remain unsullied.

"But that's romanticizing it," Kel responds, placing down her pen. Quickly, she sends up a prayer of thanks that Tobe stayed back at New Hope with Loey and Gydo. "I'll mind him," Fanche had said, and Tobe had looked at her and seen that there was no hope in protesting, not when Kel was only going away so she could be buried in meeting, papers, and clerks.

"It is," Dom agrees. "If I wanted poetry and pretty words I'd find my cousin."

"I have some pretty words for you-" Kel stands, pulling the tie out from her hair. It's been a good summer, as good as can be when you're on the front, and she's let it grow past her ears. It curls when it gets to a certain length; it's been short so long that she'd forgotten. "-come here and kiss me."

"It's even better when they're not dressed up fancy-like," Dom grins, and perhaps once upon a time he would have been crowding her, but now she invites him in. His hands fly to the ties on her tunic. "I like you when you get what you want. And you're very good at that."

Kel half-laughs and leans, extends a leg and kicks the door shut.

Afterwards, when her lips taste like salt and skin and her breathing is unsteady, he traces her eyebrows with a shaking finger.

"My best feature," Kel quips, and Dom shakes his head.

"You can't see yourself in motion- you have no idea."

If before was a beginning, this is when it becomes a trend.

She is not scared of many things. It is stupid to say she is not scared of anything; her fear of heights, though shrunken, lingers, and she has been scared by killing machines and men who use the souls of children and utter scheming evil, but generally, Kel tries to be scared of things that she can beat.

She was scared of the way that Cleon looked at her because she thought, this is not what I want right now, and she is scared of the way Dom looks at her because she thinks, and what if this is?

It is a rare afternoon that they can escape to be together, but some trick of the light brings them under Wyldon's supervision for two weeks. New Hope is increasingly self-sufficient and Kel aches at the bit, yearns for the mud in her teeth.

"It's less glamorous when it's actually there," Dom reminds her, but the war has gone from a gush to a trickle and she knows that soon she'll be recalled to Corus.

This- arrangement- has gone on long enough that she knows him, remembers the things she'd half-forgotten from when she was a squire and has learned even more: the tilt of his head when she says something sarcastic, or the smile she only gets to see when they break apart for breath, and especially the feeling of his hands on her skin, or his mouth.

"And yet," Kel says, and they fall to the bed.

It lasts almost two years, this particular friendship, through the end of a war and the beginning of an uneasy peacetime, lasts through forests and forts and long stretches of dusty royal road.

On her twenty-third birthday they are both in Corus and everything is in bloom.

"I love that your birthday's in the summer," Dom says, and Kel nods acquiesence. They've spent the evening wandering the City, dressed in plain cotton, the only thing revealing their station the swords on their belts. He held her hand and bought her fruit juice and a small cake from a stand in the street, the happy birthdaya whisper in her ear and kiss on her cheek.

"Lord Raoul asked me what we've been doing," Dom says eventually as they round a corner to a quieter street, away from the racucous street dancers two blocks behind him. "I don't know if he just found out or if he's suspected something for a while- though he mentioned a betting pool, but I've no clue what that's about- and he wanted to know."

"Neal doesn't know," Kel says. "No. He's smart enough to not say anything."

He drops her hand and moves it so his arm is around her waist. "Do you want to know what I said?"

She breathes. "I don't know."

"I said that we're just two people who are not in love," a pause, a breath to steady himself, "not in love right now."

Kel chances a look at him from under her eyelashes. His face is earnest, and his eyes are soft, softer than they've been over the past twenty-odd months, soft enough to make her skin itch.

"I love you," Dom says. "Happy birthday."

His hand is around her waist and his heat seeps into her skin; she couldn't get away even if she wanted to. She doesn't, for it's easier- like it always has been- it's easier to lean into him and take what she can, allow herself to be selfish when she's always giving so much away.

"But you're not in love with me," Kel says.

"I can't allow myself to be-" and like Cleon, this is where it ends up, but unlike Cleon (Cleon who is now married with twin babies and another soon on the way) Dom knows enough to not fall off that cliff.

"Good," she murmurs, after a moment and a breath, because she knows as well as anyone else that the Own loses more men to marriage than to death, and Dom is needed by them far more than he is needed by her.

He kisses the top of her head then, so quick and natural that anyone watching might miss it.

"Someday," Dom says, someday, when they don't need to seek out dusty corners and can kiss under the stars because it's romantic, not because it's a necessity- and someday, because someday she will want the things he wants but that day is not today and that's fine, that's brilliant, even, because occasionally she is still scared by the bleedingly tender looks he gives her (though she will never deny that after two years he has the right) and they are both still needed by the realm more than they are needed by each other.

Kel doesn't say, "I'll hold you to that," and she doesn't say, "keep that promise," because what if neither of them can, but also because Dom knows, can read the line of her back and her thumb stroking his wrist and what it means when she lays her head on his shoulder. She can read him too, like any friend should, much the same way she can read Neal or Merric or even Yuki; but she's never been so aware to what they're thinking as she is with Dom, and she wonders, not idly, if it's the same for him.

His arm around her waist squeezes tight. I mean it, it says. We're fine, it says. We have time, it says.

She smiles up at him, and he smiles back.