"Are you making a wish for Midwinter?"
Kel looked at him over the cheese platter she held. "What are you talking about?"
"Oh, does your family not do that?" Neal shrugged, making his own platter of champagne glasses tilt dangerously. "It's a tradition, of sorts. Before -" he hesitated.
"Before?" Kel smoothed the velvet of her tunic with one hand.
"Before my brothers died," Neal said, more quietly, "we - me and Graeme and Jessamine, especially - we'd all get together and make a wish that we'd hope would come true next year."
"Oh," Kel said. Her heart ached for Neal. He hardly ever talked about his brothers, but his usually amused face turned somber when he did. "I'm sorry."
He made a gesture with his elbow that was most likely equivalent to waving it off. "Don't be," he said brusquely. "Anyway, we'd wish for something. Jessamine always wanted new dresses, and Graeme..."
Neal swallowed and Kel's knuckles went white on her platter as she avoided reaching out to pat his shoulder. A noble walked by and selected a champagne glass as Neal searched for words. Kel didn't rush him.
"He'd want a sword. But Father would only get him wooden ones."
"Probably safest," Kel said.
"Maybe," Neal agreed. "But Graeme wished so hard for that sword, and he was so happy when he got to go to page training and start working with real weapons."
Kel didn't know what to say to that. She kept her face blank - too blank, judging by the questioning looks Raoul threw her from his spot by the curtain, across the room.
"I never knew what to wish for," Neal said. "When I was very young, I wanted toys, and then I wanted books. But those were all just children's dreams, really."
"What do you want now?" Kel said. It was strange, to talk so seriously with Neal. Strange, that he wasn't hiding his thoughts under a layer of sarcasm and deprecation. But she wasn't complaining.
Neal took a hand off his wobbly platter and ran it through his messy hair. Kel's fingers itched to smooth it down, but she just met his green eyes steadily.
"I don't know," he said. He licked his lips. "I want my family back, whole and happy like nothing's ever torn us apart, but I know even the gods can't give that back to me."
"I know," Kel said, thinking of Anders' leg and Patricine far away in the Islands, and the looks of her sisters-in-law.
"But there are other things I want," Neal said.
She looked at him, but he looked away.
"Like what?" Kel said.
"Other things-" he said again. "Like my knighthood."
"You'll pass the ordeal."
Neal handed a glass to another noble, who wandered off without a "thank you." Kel took a step closer to him, surreptitiously. It was only to hear his soft voice better in the crowded ballroom, of course.
"I want a lot of things," Neal said. "And some... some that couldn't be classified as things. People, I guess."
"You want people?" Kel said, puzzled. Images of chains danced behind her eyes.
"No!" Neal said, too loudly.
Merric raised his eyebrows at them from his station. Kel ignored him.
"I want," Neal said, "love."
Of course it's another of Neal's crushes, Kel thought. She was being silly to think differently, anyway. She smiled at Neal, somewhat shakily.
"Who is it, then?" she said. "That you're wishing for?"
"See, that's the thing." He looked down, his hair falling in his eyes and his platter shaking slightly. "I think it's another child's dream. Something - someone- I want, but I'll never have, because I'm not worthy of it." He paused, and added, "Yet."
"Neal, you're worth plenty!" Kel said, suddenly more passionate. "Just because this noble girl, or whoever, has more gold or better blood or something - although you're a Queenscove, so I don't see how - doesn't mean you're not worthy of her. Any girl would be lucky to have you."
"Do you think so?" Neal said. His voice was still missing its usual sharpness.
"Yes, I do," she said staunchly.
He didn't say anything, but looked at her for a long time, and the silence began to get uncomfortable. More people drifted by, taking lots of champagne but little cheese. Kel might have been somewhat offended, if she weren't Kel.
The silence stretched on and soon, they were taking their platters to the kitchen and heading back to their rooms.
"Happy Midwinter, Kel," Neal said, stopping with her by Raoul's rooms. He took a shaky breath. So did she, although she wasn't quite sure why.
He leaned forward and her mind raced. But his lips just grazed her cheek, even if they lingered a little long. It was a friendly sort of gesture. And if she was a little disappointed by that, she kept it in check.
"Good night," she said.
"Good night," he said, very softly. "Sweet dreams. Make a wish, for me, okay?"
She closed the door behind her and slid slowly to the floor, touching the cheek Neal had kissed. I am stone, she thought determinedly, and it was just a friendly gesture, just between friends.
She still smiled.