Hal paused a moment in his doorway to ensure that Jemis wasn’t going to open his door again, and then, overfull wineglass held carefully aloft, made his way back down the hall to Mr. Dart’s temporary bedroom and knocked softly on the door. There was a brief pause and a faint snuffling noise, and then the door unlocked with a click and swung open several inches. Hal pushed it open just enough to admit himself and slid through sideways. Mr. Dart was seated on the floor by the hearth, still in his borrowed clothes. The unicorn foal was sprawled in his lap, tail slowly sweeping back and forth in the small sea of sparks that were still spilling from the fireplace. They both had their heads tilted back to watch him, Ballory with unreadable animal regard, Mr. Dart with a patient sort of amusement, as if he had just told a joke and was waiting for Hal to get the punchline. It was clear that Mr. Dart had not gotten up to open the door. Hal lifted his hand off the stile and the door swung shut and re-locked itself.
The three of them regarded each other for a moment. Eventually, Mr. Dart inclined his head slightly. Hal leaned down to place his wineglass on the floor and then sat cross-legged in front of the chair opposite Mr. Dart. Silver sparks sprung out sideways and puffed up into a cloud, tingling softly where they touched his skin. Several went up his nose and he sneezed, feeling both like Jemis and that he had finally reached the punchline – when he recovered, Mr.Dart was grinning at him.
“Good evening, your Grace.”
“Indeed, Mr. Dart.” Hal gestured from his overfull wineglass to Mr. Dart’s empty one, and at his nod, took both glasses and carefully poured from his into the other, then handed it back to Mr. Dart, who raised it in a mocking toast. Hal mirrored him.
“Shall we toast to Jemis,” Mr. Dart asked, still looking amused.
“He certainly needs the luck,” Hal agreed, “but I rather think we should be toasting to you, on account of unicorns and oath-takings and wild magic at the dinner table.” Mr. Dart made a face.
“Fine,” Hal allowed, with the understanding that it was awkward to toast oneself, “to Ballory, then.”
“To Ballory,” Mr. Dart agreed, sounding pleased, and they both leaned forward to clink their glasses before sitting back. Hal took a small sip and placed his cup by his knee. Mr. Dart took a longer one, then pulled out his pipe and started fiddling with it, a nervous habit that Hal had noted. Hal didn’t speak.
“Do you know,” Mr. Dart started after a minute, “that one of the first conversations Jemis had with me upon his return home this summer was that he was not of the proper rank to be friends with me, and that our association would ruin my reputation.” Hal sighed, unsurprised. “I was just glad to see him alive, and he kept going on about rank and rumors. I wanted to shake him. At least this means he’s over that particular bit of nonsense.” Hal nodded in agreement. “I’m sure he’ll find new nonsense,” Mr. Dart muttered under his breath, which surprised Hal into an ungentlemanly snort. That, in turn, shocked Mr. Dart into a fit of giggles, which he drew Hal into. When they recovered, they lapsed into a brief silence, becoming more solemn (but definitely not any more sober). The sounds of the storm outside were audible, but muffled.
“I wasn’t going to hold him to it, you understand,” Mr. Dart said after a moment, meeting Hal’s eyes. “I remembered, of course. But it was a dream, first of all, and secondly, who even swears fealty anymore, I say! But….Well, you saw him. And it felt – Lady help me –” Mr. Dart cut himself off to scrub a hand over his face. “Lady help me, but it felt right. So I let him, and –” He stopped talking again, waving his arm wildly (to illustrate the entire Jemis situation, Hal figured), then picked up his wine glass and drained it, after which he stared out into space and patted his unicorn. Hal sipped more slowly at his own wine, sitting in the companionable, if mildly distraught, silence.
"I hope you know what you're doing," Hal said, eventually. Mr. Dart gave a rueful grin.
"Me too, my friend."
Hal fixed Mr. Dart with his best hard glare, the one learned from his uncle and practiced for a decade on unruly courtiers. It was perhaps somewhat less sharp than usual since Hal felt rather like he was swimming through a winey fog, but Mr. Dart straightened nonetheless, which gave Hal a sharp spike of unkind satisfaction.
“If you mess this up,” he warned his friend, “if you hurt him,” he trailed off there, floundering for an appropriate threat for an incipient great mage. “Well, I will be very upset with you. And I will do something appropriately dire.” Mr. Dart gave him the dignity of not laughing, instead nodding gravely.
“So noted,” he said. “And I will deserve it and more.” And Hal nodded back sharply, and then they both relaxed their mostly-upright postures and returned to lounging.
“I just,” Hal said after a moment, “it’s just, I’ve had people swearing fealty to me since I was five, and it started off terrible, but it’s gotten…not easier. But better, and I’m. I’ve spent so many days struggling with the whole idea of it, and I know I have a lot to learn but I think I’m a good lord. Or I’m getting there. And you didn’t even want to be your brother’s heir –” he waved off Mr. Dart’s open mouth before he could interrupt – “don’t try to lie, you think I can’t spot a reluctant heir at fifty paces? Anyways, you didn’t want that, and then Jemis just – and you –” He sputtered to a stop, and buried his face back into his wine glass.
"Hal," Mr. Dart drew his name out, incredulous and smirking, "are you jealous?" Hal felt his face heat and flapped a hand in protest.
"No! Not like that, you –" Mr. Dart chortled, and Hal glared at him a moment, then shook his head. Mr. Dart quieted, waited while Hal dragged a hand down his still warm face, struggling to find words through the wine.
"In most ways, no. Jemis is...he's so much. And I don't like to admit it but I think he's better as your responsibility than mine, if only because I already have so many and can't forever be chasing him on adventures, no matter how it might seem at the moment. But...he's so bright. And he's going to burn himself out, he already has . And you can protect him from himself, hopefully. And everything else – I couldn't even protect him from undergraduates with voting stones !" Hal's voice cracked and he stopped, gulping for breath, surprised that he had gotten so worked up. Mr. Dart regarded him calmly but not dispassionately, head tilted to the side. He waited for Hal to regain his composure, then spoke.
"Perhaps not," he said softly, "but you stood with him, and that's not nothing. In fact, it's quite a lot. Jemis has never had an excess of friends. Do not discount your friendship because it falls on even footing. In fact,” Mr. Dart quirked a humorless smile, “perhaps it is me that is envious of you…there are some things that are easier in a relationship as simple as yours.” Hal felt his eyes widen at what amounted to a bald admission of a topic it seemed like they’d been tiptoeing around since their first meeting outside the Rangor Bella post office.
“Perhaps,” he allowed. “But as Jemis put it, his life is yours. And it seems there is a certain amount of precedence implicit in such a relationship.” Hal would certainly never apply the same logic to any of his vassals…but there was the way that Jemis had looked up at Mr. Dart when he swore his oath. And the oath itself, both in words and fervor, strongly unlike the ritualistic but outdated formalities of oaths sworn to an imperial duke after the fall of the Astandalan Empire. Mr. Dart lifted his chin in acknowledgement. Hal drained the last of his own wine, then steeled himself.
“And if, perhaps, one wanted to add a little complexity to a simple friendship,” he ventured, face burning, and Mr. Dart threw back his head and laughed, long and hard. Hal masterfully did not squirm, busying himself by playing with Ballory’s tail. When Mr. Dart finished laughing and had wiped a few tears off his face, he fixed Hal with a sharply glittering look.
“Well,” he said, “I have never been accused of being a selfish man, and it would be unfortunate to start now.” And Hal grinned at him, embarrassed but relieved.
“Certainly not. Thank you, Mr. Dart.”
“Oh, for –” Mr. Dart leaned around Ballory to kick at Hal's knee. “Don’t be obtuse, man. After all that, you’d better call me Perry.”
“Very well,” Hal agreed, pleasure bubbling up. “And you will call me Hal,” and Perry nodded, and they sat there grinning at each other for a moment before both flushing (Perry a bright carnation, Hal invisibly but red-hot) and hurriedly looking away.