“I would’ve never imagined us ending up like this,” Kel said, looking up at the dark autumn clouds. It was getting chilly in northern Tortall; winter came quickly on the Scanran border. Storms came abruptly, too, developing rapidly on the large plain between the ridges of mountain ranges. She knew that it would be better to go back to New Hope sooner than later. Too much longer and they would get caught in the cold rain.
Neal flopped backward, crushing the tall grass under him. He held his hands up to the sky, blocking the sunlight that peaked through storm-clouds to beam directly on his face. “You didn’t expect us to be leading a town of feisty refugees?”
She grinned. “Well, certainly not that. But look at us – you’re practically married. I’ve gained my lord’s confidence. It’s a far stretch from where we began.”
“I don’t know about that. I was destined for great love from a very young age.”
“Of course,” she agreed, her true opinion betrayed by the inability to contain a laugh. She, too, lay back in the prairie grass.
“You don’t understand romance,” Neal objected.
“Not the way you manage it,” Kel acknowledged. “Poetry, love-songs – it’s easier to go about your day and simply revel in the warm feelings love gives you.”
He looked over at her, his expression curious. “Did you ever consider yourself in love with Cleon?”
She said nothing, weighing the question.
“You gave him up fairly easily.”
“I was focused on Blayce.”
“So protecting the world trumps true love?”
She swung an arm out to hit him, but he caught her fist in his own hand. And didn’t let it go.
“When we were pages, I sometimes thought that you and I – once we had our shields….” He trailed off, seeming uncomfortable with where his sentence was leading. But he kept hold of her hand.
She didn’t know what to say. Eight years ago this statement would’ve made her heart race. But it was too late now for this conversation. The hand he held didn’t tingle with excitement, the way it would’ve before.
After a long moment, she looked at him, frowning. “You know, you were the first person I ever fancied myself in love with.”
The words lay between them, as heavy as the storm clouds that were brewing above them.
“Really?” His voice was low. Uncertain.
“But you loved Uline, and the queen, and any other beauty you could moon over.” Her voice was sad, though she no longer harbored those kinds of feelings for her best friend. It was a mixture of nostalgia for an era long gone, and the wistfulness of old-but-deep wounds.
“They weren’t the only ones.” He squeezed her palm in his. “I always liked you, too.”
“You never said anything.” She looked back up at the sky, watching the swift movement of the clouds. Any minute now, she thought, the raindrops would fall.
“I never said anything to any girl I liked. Not until Yuki.”
She grinned. “I guess we’re not the complementary opposites everyone thinks we are.”
“If I’d said something,” he began, haltingly, gently tracing lines over her palm with his fingers.
“Who knows?” she interrupted before he could ask the questions.
He released her hand and propped himself up on one elbow, leaning over her. “You don’t even wonder? Especially now, knowing that we felt the same way?”
She shook her head, rendered speechless by his intense gaze. He gently brushed a stray lock of hair out of her eyes, then left his hand to rest against her cheek. Almost a caress. She held her breath, waiting for him to pull away.
But he didn’t move his hand away from her. Instead he leaned down to her, pressing his lips gently against hers. She hesitantly parted her lips, wondering if this was what their first kiss would have been like, if it had been done so many years ago. Would it have felt so… awkward?
He drew back, laughter in his eyes. “All right, maybe not.”
Pushing him away, she smiled. ”See, there’s no point in regretting, if you’re happy where you are now.” She stood and brushed herself off before turning to offer her hand to him. She could feel the first few cold raindrops on her shoulders.
“I disagree,” he said, his tone turning scholarly. He let her pull him upright. “Exploring the notion of ‘what if’ makes it easier to appreciate what we have now, and understand how our lives could be different. Just think – how many ways could your life be different if things hadn’t gone the way they did? For starters, what if the Stump had kicked you out of page training?”
Kel sighed. “You’ll never change, will you?”
“You wouldn’t want me to.”
She threw another smile his way. “No, I wouldn’t alter a thing between us.”