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Happily Ever After

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As a child, Kel believes in Soul Mates and True Love and Happily Ever After.

She hears so many stories from her sisters about how so-and-so met the man of her dreams and he swept her away to live with him in splendour. Her sisters have such romantic dreams often - their fief is not rich - and beautiful, rich princes are the only way out for a poor but well-bred lady.

Kel, eavesdropping while her older sisters gossip, wishes she was pretty enough that that could be an option for her. Not that she wants expensive things so much, but it would be nice to have a handsome prince fall in love with her, even though she is too tall and would prefer horse riding over embroidery any day.

Maybe there will be a prince who likes tomboys, and doesn't mind that her knees are usually dirty, Kel thinks wistfully.

As a page, she thinks her soul mate - her one true love - is Neal, her best friend.

He's the first person outside her family who takes her seriously, and doesn't think she should be learning to be a meek little wife instead. He's also very smart, funny, never treats her like his inferior even though he's older.

Unfortunately, Neal never gives any indication that her crush is anything but one-sided, and Kel is heartbroken when she sees how enamoured he is with Daine the Wild Mage. He never acts that way around her.

She never thinks it will end; this glorious, wretched puppy love.

Then they come back after the summer one year, Kel finds she can't seem to summon the same passion for Neal that she used to have. He's still her best friend and staunch supporter, but it's somehow not the same anymore. He's just familiar and comfortable and Neal.

Miserable, she calls herself fickle. What good is having a One True Love if he isn't, really? She imagines Lady Alanna was never like this. The Lioness probably loved her husband from the moment she set eyes on him, and has probably been true to him since.

How can Kel try to be brave, strong and respected like The Lioness if she can't even decide on her One True Love? It is years before Neal laughingly tells her the truth of Alanna's romances.

When she is a squire, Cleon comes along and is flattery and kindness. He is finally someone who sees Kel as a girl, a woman, a lady even; where Neal has always thought of her as a girl-shaped little brother.

It's flattering and wonderful to have someone treat her like a precious jewel, like someone worthy of unconditional love. Cleon is handsome enough and smart and funny and nice, too.

Too nice perhaps. It's hard to think highly of someone who places her on such a high pedestal. Kel hasn't gotten over the awkward teenager stage, she still feels inadequate and ugly. It's hard to think much of Cleon when he worships someone like her, The Yamani Lump – oh what an awful nickname. It makes her sound like a sack of potatoes, and sometimes she feels like it, too.

She does love him, though, and when they're together, she does feel the heat of lust rise up from the pit of her stomach. But in some ways, she thinks, her feelings for Neal were more passionate. Sometimes she can't help thinking that while she loves Cleon, she's not in love with him.

It seems much easier to feel a tiny bit of that passion with Dom, who has Neal's wicked sense of humour, but knows when to keep his mouth shut. Maybe it runs in his family, this ability to make her heart beat with desire.

Fickle Kel may be, but it's one thing to think it, and another to do it. In any case, there's no way Dom would ever look at her like that. She ties to bury the thoughts of Dom's crooked smile, and thinks about Cleon instead.

When she finally wins her shield, Cleon is up north at the border, and somehow the next time she sees him, things between them and around them have changed.

Or maybe they never changed at all, but she sees things differently now, and she can see that she never really was in love with Cleon, not in a happily ever after way. He was just nice and told her she was beautiful when no one else did.

She finds, to her surprise, that she is less upset about not being in love with Cleon than she was about Neal. Maybe she's growing up. Maybe she realises that there's no such thing as One True Love. She tries to hide her relief from him when he tells her about his betrothed.

On the ride north, Neal tells her all about Alanna, how the Lioness was going to marry Jonathan, the King of Tortall before she married George, the King of Thieves instead, that she had a sordid affair with the Shang Dragon before he died protecting Prince Jonathan at his Coronation.

So maybe love doesn't come only once in a lifetime, maybe the potential is there in many people. Maybe she did love Neal, and maybe she did love Cleon, maybe she'll love someone else one day. Maybe you love Dom, just a little bit, a naughty voice in the back of her head whispers.

She is disappointed when she realises that Fate plays no hand in love; that the gods probably don't care about the relations of most humans. Maybe the Goddess cares about The Lioness's loves (how could she not, her hand-picked human) but no one ever cared about Kel's. Certainly not the Chamber of the Ordeal. It only cares about the Nothing Man, and disposing of him. Kel is just a tool to it. She happens to be the one who will cross paths with him and have the ability to right the wrongs he's wrought.

When she's killed The Chamber's little Nothing Man, when she finally gets to be free of the nightmares, she takes a look at Neal, tired and dirty though he is, and she sees why she might have loved him.

He's someone she was in love with; he's someone she loves as a friend. Maybe her short crush on him could have stretched longer if it had been returned. It doesn't matter now, because that ship has sailed. She's not jealous of Yuki, not really. A little wistful, but Yuki is a lovely person and deserves happiness, and, well, if that happiness comes with the label 'Meathead', then so be it.

Neal could have been The One (or one of them) for Kel but the timing and the circumstances were wrong. Oh, the timing.

After Scanra, Kel doesn't see Dom again straight away. She spends two months at the new refugee camp, rebuilding and trying to get the newer refugees to behave. It's simpler, now that she knows the ropes, but it's still not easy.

Leaving the refugee camp for Raoul and Buri's wedding is hard. Kel doesn't want to let New Hope out of her sight for fear that without her there to stop it, something will go wrong.

Tobe rolls his eyes at her, conveniently forgetting that he's exactly the same when it comes to Kel.

When they arrive at Steadfast, Kel goes straight to the stables to give Hoshi a rub down.

She hears a familiar drawl behind her. Well lookie what we have here. Apparently the glory of single-handedly winning a war swells some people's heads so much they don't remember the little people anymore. You don't visit, you don't write…

She smiles before turning towards the voice. Watch out, or Neal will think you don't love him anymore, if you use up all those pretty words on me.

He grins at her, eyes sparkling devilishly, and gathers her into a bear hug. It's warm and comfortable, and he smells wonderful and familiar. Kel tries not to hold on longer than is perfectly acceptable.

Dom promises to see her later and waves good-bye, and Kel catches herself wondering what it would be like to be able to hold him like that any time she wanted. She quickly squashes the embarrassing thought when Hoshi turns to look politely but pointedly at her.

Kel shakes her head and grins. Good old Hoshi. Never lets a romantic dilemma get in the way of a good brushing. She finishes grooming her and goes to talk to Neal about how he would feel if someone, perhaps one of his friends, were to become romantically involved with one of his relatives. She fails to mention this someone might be her.

At the wedding feast, Kel sees most of Dom's squad and a handful of other friends from Third Company. Most of them are wildly drunk. Kel doesn't drink, but isn't averse to joining them while sipping something non-alcoholic as they make fools of themselves.

If nothing else, it's good to have blackmail material for later, when she needs a favour.

Hours later when it's dark, after Lerant walks outside 'for some air' looking green and Neal has sneaked away with Yuki, most of the others start drifting off to their quarters. Flyndan doesn't take kindly to hung-over, sleep deprived soldiers - even the day after their Knight Commander's wedding.

Kel finishes off her spiced fruit juice and starts to get up as well. She still needs to give Jump his dinner and it's getting late. Tobe will be cranky with her as it is. Since Scanra, he hasn't been too keen on letting her out of his sight for long, and he's gone up to their quarters hours ago, yawning.

Going already? Dom smiles at her, forehead creasing a little. It's still so early.

She gives him her (excuses) reasons. She doesn't want him to know that she would love to stay there with him til morning, just staring at him. She knows he smiles flirtatiously like that at everyone, but can't help believing sometimes that it's only for her.

He points a level gaze at her, the corners of his mouth slightly raised. Oh come on. You haven't even danced yet.

With significant effort, Kel stops her face going red. She doesn't dance. Too tall, too gangly, too used to a dance of a different sort - the kind that ends with someone's face in the dirt, usually not hers.

A drunk Merric wanders past their table and slurs out some sort of enquiry as to the date of their wedding. He seems convinced that it's the best place to meet pretty lasses, and there aren't any here that aren't already taken.

Mortified, Kel blanks her face as well as she is able, looking down, away from Dom. She couldn't bear to have him know what she thinks about his hands and his eyes and his mouth that she so desperately wants to touch to see if it's a soft as she imagines.

Oh you know, I'd have to leave the King's Own, and I'd be a poor man – how could I dare think myself worthy of this lovely lady then?

Kel can hear the grin in Dom's voice, and looks up, relieved. He's taking it as it ought to be taken, a joke.

She meets his eyes steadily, intending to say something about not being a helpless maiden who needs silks and petticoats and a big strong man to protect her, but the words get stuck in her throat as she sees the iron-hard, intense stare he is giving her. His mouth is smiling but the corners of his eyes remain un-crinkled. He's serious. He's seriously asking her.

Merric looks disappointed and stumbles away, mumbling something about needing more wine if there aren't going to be any pretty lasses.

Kel continues to stare at Dom, paralysed. Smiling lightly, he says to never mind him, he's just had a few too many.

She remembers Dom hasn't had any wine tonight. He drinks only rarely, and in small quantities.

I, well, I don't-. Kel stutters out. That is to say, I- Her Yamani instructors would bow their heads in shame if they could see the alarm and embarrassment flitting across her features.

Dom's smile widens into a grin and he claps his hand over her shoulder. Don't worry about it, its just Merric. Let's go dance.

Thankful for the change of subject, she foolishly agrees.

The musicians are still playing something, but it's quiet and slow, hard to hear over the drunken laughter and the catcalls aimed at Buri and Raoul's retreating backs. There isn't anyone really dancing anymore, but Dom doesn't let that stop them. No one still left here will be sober enough to remember anything tomorrow, anyway.

So how is Cleon, anyway? Dom asks, suddenly, after they settle into some sort of rhythm, uncharacteristically blunt. Seemingly realising that it might not be a great idea to ask her that, he looks a bit embarrassed, but continues to rock from side to side with her in his arms.

Kel is surprised but not upset. It's been a while since the break up, and while she misses him as a friend, she hasn't really thought about him like a lover in a long time. Not since before the Ordeal, probably. Oh, he's sorting out his lands, I imagine. They flooded in spring, you know. He's probably married to his betrothed by now.

She's a tiny bit hurt Cleon didn't invite her to the wedding, but can't imagine how on earth that could have worked out well. Kel, meet my wife. Ermelian, meet my old lover. I'm sure you'll get along splendidly. Kel sighs, trying to keep an eye on Dom's feet. It wouldn't do to step all over them, and thus cement her status as an ungraceful tomboy.

Striving for humorous, Dom asks if that means she's free to love him now.

Deciding to try her hand at joking and flirtatious, Kel bats her eyelashes and asks, why, don't you know, I already do?

Well in that case, Dom declares, we must be made for each other, because I desire no one other than the lovely Lady Keladry.

Kel grins, thrilled by his words even if he's only joking. Something, maybe the late hour or the dimmed lights persuades her to daringly say what she does next. Well then there remains nothing more than for the good Sergeant to kiss his beloved.

Dom looks at her, smile slipping from his lips. For a second Kel is terrified that she's made a mistake, that he was only joking, that she's read him all wrong.

Then he leans forward and presses his lips to hers, and it is as wonderful as she ever dared imagine.

A year later, unmarried but together with Dom, Kel is as happy as she's been. She only sees him sometimes; she's stuck at New Hope most of the time and he goes wherever his squad is commanded, but she's happy anyway.

Neal is horrified and appalled when he first finds out about them by walking past a shadowy figure under a tree at night to find his cousin pressed hard against his best friend. He rages and rants for an hour before Kel finally manages to get him to sit, shut up and listen. She gets him to stay shut-up about but asking him, why he would deny his friend the same happiness that he has with Yuki.

Finally Neal admits that he always sort of feared it might happen. Dom is such a ladies' man; he could charm the pants off a thief. Kel was such a naive, wide-eyed innocent that how could she not fall for his wicked tricks?

Kel smacks him on the head and asks if he cares to prove her naivety with a lance or perhaps a sword.

Years later, when Dom has left the King's Own and they are married, Kel finally realises that being in love isn't just liking someone, it isn't just lust, it isn't just getting along with them in close quarters, it isn't just wanting the same things from life. It's all of those things.

Dom was always a good friend – though Neal might always be the best, if only because he filled the position first. Kel has always thought Dom was disgustingly handsome - oh and such a flirt. Having spent years fighting by his side it's pretty obvious they can put up with each other. They both want to eventually settle down and have a child or two (not nine!).

The thinks she might finally have found out that True Love is what you make it. It is romance and dramatic gestures, but it is also patience and forgiveness. It's not always loud and attention grabbing like in the romance stories her sisters read.

Whatever the words she wants to use, Kel can say one thing for certain. She is hopelessly in love with Domitan of Masbolle, her metaphorical prince, and is living Happily Ever After.