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A Life in Star Signs

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I. Hare
Traditionally, the lunar cycle begins with the Hare, the vibrant sign of manifest life force.  …Hares are known for their fertility, with mothers frequently raising dozens of kits each summer.  Thus, the Hare represents new life and all manner of beginnings.
- excerpt from Astrology and the Natural Sciences, 3rd edition, a standard introductory textbook at the Astreiant University

“No, Nico’s not here today.  His stars are all wrong for flowers!”

Nico stops short in the doorway, feeling something like shame settle into his gut.  He’s just back from his very first day as a runner for the courts, his face flushed and his boots still covered in dust from the road, and he’d been giddy with excitement until just this moment.  He’s known all his life that he wouldn’t follow in his mother’s footsteps, but no one’s ever called his stars wrong before.

He takes a step back, suddenly not wanting anyone inside to see him.  He recognizes the girl who’d spoken, one of his mother’s apprentices, her hands busy with wrapping a bouquet.  The customer she’s waiting on is a regular, someone who’s used to seeing Nico in and around his mother’s gardens.  Nico never interacts much with the customers, but Caro Rathe’s son is a familiar sight here.  He wonders how many times people have asked after him today, how many times his stars have been used to dismiss him.

The apprentice doesn’t actually know Nico’s stars.  She’s just passing on the same information she’s heard from the journeywomen, who have it from his mother.  But it sounds different when his mother says it, Nico thinks, and slips back outside.

Later, his mother will wrap him in hugs and remind him that his stars are beautiful, that they’ve just given him a different path to walk.  But right now, all Nico can hear is that word wrong, echoing over and over in his head.

This is not the reason he keeps his stars private, why he dodges questions and refuses to share them even with his closest friends.

But it certainly doesn’t help.

 

II. Maiden
…while Heira is in the Maiden, an excellent aspect for finance and the household. The house of individual liberties stands supported by a Pillar of Justice.  The Maiden promises to uphold her personal values, while the planet of contracts guarantees fulfillment...
-
excerpt from a broadsheet pinned to the notice board in University Point station

The truncheon fits into his hand perfectly, just the way he’d always imagined, with its firm grip wrapped in leather and its solid weight that swings at his hip when he hangs it from his belt.  The crown stamped into its handle is shiny and new.  The jerkin is older, a castoff from a senior pointsman that doesn’t quite fit him, but Nico doesn’t care.  It’s not about how he looks.  He’s a junior pointsman now.  He readjusts the truncheon with hands that shake with excitement, then takes a deep breath to calm himself.

“All set in there, rookie?”  The Chief of University Point, where Nico’s been assigned, is a tiny woman, but there’s a sharp look in her eyes that tells Nico that she doesn’t miss much.

“Yes, Chief,” he says.

She leans against the doorway, studying him, and he wonders what she sees in him.  He meets her gaze squarely, trying not to look cocky or naïve.  Then she nods at him and gives him a wolflike grin, and he can’t help but feel like he’s passed some sort of test.

“Good,” she says.  “We’ve got work to do.”

 

III. Horse
And then came bold Seidos
Astride his mighty steed!
Command lay upon his shoulders
Like a shining cloak,
And all who saw him knew his glory.
[But what does this mean? Is the cloak pure imagery, or an indication of some sort of artifact?]
[How do you define command?  How do you define glory?]
[Would that the stars had ghosts, that I might ask them myself!]
- verse 28 of “The Ballad of Seidos,” as annotated by Istre b’Estorr

The hardest part about being a junior pointsman, Nico finds, is getting people to listen to him.

The truncheon and jerkin do lend a certain amount of authority in most situations, but there are those who don’t believe a commoner should have command over the law, and worse, there are some people who just don’t care.  Right now, he’s standing at the gates of the university, being glared at by the gatekeeper.  They’ve been arguing for a quarter hour already, and he hasn’t made any headway.

“Come back tomorrow, pointsman,” she snaps at him.  “At a more reasonable hour.  Our doors are closed!”

Nico draws himself up.  “There isn’t any time to waste.  I told you, I’m trying to solve a kidnapping.  Every hour that goes by means we’re less likely to find her.  I must to speak with a magist tonight.”

The doorkeeper scowls.  “That’s not my problem.  My job is to keep the university magists from being harassed by every hopped up pointsman who thinks he can get ahead by taking advantage of his betters!”

Nico flushes.  He opens his mouth to keep arguing when a smooth voice cuts him off.

“Pardon me, but did you say something about a kidnapping?”

Nico turns to see a tall man watching them with raised eyebrows.  The gatekeeper changes her demeanor instantly, bustling out to open the doors for the man, who gives her an absentminded smile without taking his eyes off of Nico.

“Yes,” Nico answers.  “A journeywoman bookbinder disappeared this morning.  I’m surprised you haven’t heard.”  This sort of crime didn’t happen often in University Point.  The gossips will be talking about it for weeks, whether the girl is found or not.

“Ah, I’ve been down in Point of Hopes most of the day, I’m afraid.  I had a philosophical disagreement with gentleman there that simply couldn’t wait.  Why do you need a magist?”

Nico blinks and reassess the man.  A philosophical disagreement is a polite way of saying that he’d been in a duel.  Perfectly legal, of course, so long as all the formalities are followed, but it requires a certain mentality that Nico doesn’t usually associate with scholars.  Finally, he says, “There were some symbols left at the crime scene that we’d like some help interpreting.”

“I see.  I’d be happy to take a look, if you’d like.  If I don’t know what they are, I might be able to direct you to someone who does.”  The man holds his hand out his hand.  “Istre b’Estorr.  Necromancer.”

Nico grasps b’Estorr’s hand.  “Nicolas Rathe.  The points would appreciate any assistance you can offer.”  He follows b’Estorr inside, ignoring the sulking gatekeeper.

They find the missing woman two days later, battered but alive.  Nico feels the mixture of satisfaction and relief he’s coming to associate with a closing a case, and this time it’s mixed with the warmth of camaraderie as Istre shares a good Chardroni wine with him to celebrate.  Nico’s work doesn’t leave him much time to cultivate relationships, but he sits back and laughs with Istre, and somehow knows this is a friendship that will last.

 

IV. Cock and Hens
…The Moon is full tonight, and stands in the Cock and Hens, intensifying the ties of business, income, and public contracts.  But while the rooster and his flock represent trade, the Moon focuses on the private individual.  This may be a good time for those with amenable signs to seek a business deal or a promotion.  The lucky ones may find these offers seeking them instead!
- excerpt from a broadsheet sold in a market in Point of Hopes

Years later, they’re celebrating again.  Nico’s just been transferred to Point of Hopes, and the move comes with a promotion.  He’d left the junior part of his title behind after a year of service, but he is now Adjunct Point Rathe.  “It’s got a nice sound to it,” Istre says, pouring him another glass.

Nico snorts.  “No it doesn’t,” he says.  “Pointsman is much easier to say than Adjunct Point.  Everyone’s going to get the title wrong.”

Istre gives him a fond look.  “You know what I mean.”

“I do.”  He sips the wine.  It’s a good feeling, to know his work has been appreciated, to know that he’s trusted enough to be put in a position to lead his fellow pointsmen.

“Think we’ll be seeing Chief Point Rathe anytime soon?” Istre teases.

He snorts again.  “Doubt it.  Chief Points have to be better at politics than me.”  It’s only the truth.  He knows he’s already earned a name for himself with the regents. They much prefer pointsmen who will smile pretty and do whatever they’re told, but Nico’s not in this to make friends with politicians.  He’s no good at that, and if they can’t see that the best way to serve the city is to work justice in its streets, than he’s hardly in a position to teach them.

Istre smiles sourly.  “I never had much stomach for politics,” he says, and Nico wonders, not for the first time, about his friend’s short time living in the Chadroni court.  “We’ll leave the politicians to those unfortunate enough to be more prominent than us.”

Nico raises his glass.  “I’ll drink to that.”

 

V. Spider
Spider, Spider!
Caught a fly but had to hide her!
She dressed in red
And wove a web
And hoped they’d never find her!
How many flies did the spider hide?
One, two, three, four, five…!
- chant for skipping rope, popular with southriver children in Astreiant

He falls in love with an actor.  It ends terribly, of course.  He moves on.

He drags himself out of it by throwing himself into his work.  That Hanselin Caiazzo’s been making a nuisance of himself lately.  Nico sets out to catch him.

He meets Aicelin Denizard a few weeks later.  Nico bursts into a warehouse to see Caiazzo himself staring perplexedly through a hole in the rotten board of the floor.  Lying on the ground below the hole is a dead body.  Nico blinks—he hadn’t expected it to be this easy—but he keeps his truncheon leveled at Caiazzo.  “Hanselin Caiazzo, I’m calling a point on you,” he starts to say, taking a step forward.

A hand reaches out of the shadows to grab his shoulder.  “Careful, pointsman!”

Nico whirls to see a woman in a blue coat with a magist’s bar stitched on the shoulder.  He tenses, but she points to the floor at his feet.

There’s a trip wire, he realizes.  The unfortunate man below them must have hit it, landed onto the rot-weakened floor, and fallen into the basement.  He’ll wait until the alchemists at the deadhouse have had a chance to evaluate it, but given the awkward angle of the man’s neck, a deadly fall seems a good guess.

He nods at the magist and turns back to Caiazzo, who raises his eyebrows at him.  “You won’t believe me, pointsman, but I didn’t have anything to do with this.”

Nico presses his lips together, then nods again, slipping his truncheon back onto his belt.  “Actually, I do believe you,” he says.  Caiazzo isn’t know for laying traps like this.  “Tell me what you know.”

The corner of Caiazzo’s mouth twitches upward.  “Aice, why don’t you assist the good pointsman on this.”

The magist steps forward, and they eye each other warily.  Caiazzo follows his knife back into the street.  Nico has to interview them both, but there’s no reason he can’t start with the magist.  He’s heard of Aicelin Denizard, Caiazzo’s right hand woman.  Maybe he can get something useful about Caiazzo’s business out of her in addition to getting the details about this murder.  She did save him from the trip wire, after all, might have even saved his life.

In the end, Nico doesn’t get anything about Caiazzo from Denizard, but he does catch the murderer, one of Caiazzo’s competitors who’d hoped to get the merchant-venturer himself.  The victim had been a vagrant who’d unknowingly stumbled into trap.

Nico closes the case feeling mildly overwhelmed by the expert way Denizard had answered all of his questions without once incriminating herself or her employer.  He has to chuckle at himself as he finishes his report.  “I’ll catch you one of these days,” he murmurs, and goes to give his report to Monteia.

 

VI. Charioteer
The Charioteer races ‘round the track
Giving love when he comes back.
- half of an Astreiant folk saying

Nico doesn’t know, when he enters the Old Brown Dog that day, that he’s about to meet the love of his life.  Philip Eslingen is a handsome enough man, but Nico’s falling into this case—how many missing children?  How are they being taken?  Why are they being taken?—and there just isn’t enough room in his head to pay much attention to Aagte Devynck’s new knife.  Then he has a call a point on the poor fellow, and he finds him a job with Caiazzo of all people to make up for it, and the children are still gone.  It’s not an ideal situation for developing a romance.

So he isn’t expecting these emotions to creep up on him, wrap around him until sometimes it feels like all he can think about is Philip.  Running through Mailhac’s forests, riding home with the children and the Dragons in tow, dodging grateful citizens trying to buy him a drink when all he wants is to do his job.  Philip’s a steady presence through it all, even when he shouldn’t be.  They part in Astreiant’s streets and Nico honestly hopes that’s the end of it.  It’d be simpler if it’s the end.

(It’s not, it’s not, thank Astree, it’s not the end.  Kissing games on Bonfire’s Night and a hunt through Point of Knives and a hundred nights in private boxes at the theater. It is reckless and foolish and the best thing that’s happened to him since he joined the points as a lad.)

 

VII. Scales
The Scales watch the Charioteer’s plight
Earning love when the time is right.
 - other half of an Astreiant folk saying

It’s not what they would have chosen, and those first few weeks after Philip has to move in with Nico are a little contentious.  Neither of them like being forced to rush like this, and there’s a part of Nico that’s still hurting from the way Guis had left him.

In a certain sense, then, the timing is actually perfect.  Nico would never have intentionally confronted his old lover, but the Alphabet case doesn’t give him a choice about it.  Their confrontation—and the assault, and Nico might mourn Guis’ death but there’s still so much he’ll never forgive him for—it all helps him move past things he hadn’t even realized he’d been holding back.

It’s a warm morning when they finally finish the renovations to their apartment.  Knocking down the wall between Nico’s apartment and the one Philip had rented turned out to be more complicated than either expected, but they now have a room fit for both of them that no longer looks like a war zone.  Nico sits back on his heels and surveys their home.  It truly he their home, with Philip’s coat hanging in one corner and a sprig of flowers cut from Nico’s little garden on the kitchen table.

“You all right?”  Philip glances up from polishing his boots, catching Nico’s eyes.  “You’re very quiet.”

Nico nods.  “This is right,” he says, looking around the rooms.  “We did all right.”

 

VIII. Mother
The Hearthmistress is in the Mother’s house.  She looks upon her children and reminds them of their familial duties and of the ties that bind.  It’s the perfect time for a wedding or to formalize a partnership—assuming your mother approves, of course!
- excerpt from a broadsheet pinned to a notice board in the courts

There isn’t really a ceremony, not like there is with a wedding.  In truth, Nico and Philip have been calling each other lemans for months before they make it official.  Filling out the paperwork is a formality, just there to make sure the law knows what they are to each other.  Philip has no family worth speaking of, just a father in another country that he hasn’t seen since he became a soldier, and certainly no mother or sisters to stake a claim on him.  Nico’s mother supports him in everything he does, is glad he’s got Philip to watch his back when he runs into danger.  She comes as a witness and smiles when she signs the paperwork.

Istre comes, too, though he declines to be a formal witness.  He’s a foreigner and a man, and while he legally can sign the document, it will carry more weight from an Astreiant woman.  Nico’s fellow pointswoman, Sohier, obliges them.  She teases them until Nico blushes and grumbles, “Away with you.  We have an early morning patrol tomorrow.”

Sohier laughs and slips away, and Caro steps in to take her place, wrapping Nico in a hug.  “I’m happy for you,” she tells him.  “He’s a good man.”

“Yes, well.”  Nico clears his throat, still embarrassed.  He’s never liked attention.  “Thank you.  He really is.”

She presses a kiss to his hair, the way she’s done ever since he was a child, and says to Philip, “You take care of my son.”

Philip meets her eyes, suddenly serious.  “I will,” he says.  “I promise.”

 

IX. Dolphin
...The playful dolphin also represents intuition and flexibility.  It goes against the common order, but with only the best of intentions.  Don’t be afraid to try something new!
- excerpt from a broadsheet left on a table in Wicked’s

It’s a rare night out and they’re both a little bit drunk when Philip tows Nico toward a Rivermarket stall.  Nico groans and puts up a token protest, but his heart isn’t in it.  He knows better than to try to stop Philip when he gets it in his mind to go shopping.

But it’s one thing to accept his leman’s insistence on following fashions and quite another to let himself get dragged into it, so when Philip holds a coat up to Nico’s chest with a flourish, Nico just frowns.  “No,” he says.

“You aren’t even looking at it,” Philip accuses.  “This style is perfect for you.”  The stall-keeper nods enthusiastically, obviously wanting to make a sale.

Nico glares at her, then at Philip.  “I don’t need a new coat.  It’ll just get worn out like this one,” he says, plucking at the shapeless brown coat he’s wearing.  It’s serviceable, warm and comfortable, a little worn at the elbows but nothing a few patches won’t fix.  The one Philip’s holding up to him is finer, tapered, made for someone who doesn’t spend his days patrolling Astreiant’s dusty streets.

“It won’t get worn out,” Philip explains, “because you won’t wear it everyday.  You save it for something special.  Wear it to impress the regents, maybe.”  Full of Wicked’s good wine, Philip is unusually handsy.  He hangs the coat back up so as not to wrinkle the fabric, then presses against Nico, sliding his fingers up and down Nico’s sides.  Nico shivers.

“It would look good on you,” Philip insists.  His breath is warm on Nico’s neck.

Nico eyes the coat again.  It’s a reddish brown color with brass buttons, and the texture is soft when he brushes his fingers against it.  He can’t imagine himself ever wearing it, not even to see the regents.  People would stare at him in that coat, and Nico always prefers to be unobserved.

But Philip isn’t the only one who’s had a bit too much wine, and with the way Philip’s looking at him, buying a coat he’ll never wear almost seems like a good idea.

He finally says, “All right,” and shakes his head fondly as Philip kisses him and then pays the stall-keeper.

 

X. Serpent
The Sun is conjunct Sofia in the Serpent.  Law and Wisdom give way in the house of politicians and thieves alike. Whether it be hidden treasure or private business transactions, those born under the Serpent are determined to keep their secrets by any means necessary.  Beware the frightened Serpent with something to hide.
- excerpt from illegal broadsheet printed in Fair’s Point

Lying flat on his back on cobblestone, muffled voices, a roaring in his ears.  He tries to sit up and finds he can’t.

What?

Philip’s face hovers above his own, looking deathly pale.  His mouth moves, but Nico can’t quite make out what he says.

What’s happening?

It comes back to him in a rush—their first official joint operation with Coindarel’s new City Guard.  Philip, dashing enough in his uniform that Nico had ignored his misgivings and smiled at his leman’s excitement.  Hunting a landame wanted for murder, her party almost at the edge of the city when one panicked servant took off running.  Nico had given into instinct and followed.  Caught him.  Took a punch to the gut and—

He tries to sit up again, tries to remember which way the man had gone.

“Nico, Nico, stay still, you need to stay still.”  He can hear Philip this time, can focus on his face, on his voice, on his hands pressed to Nico’s stomach.  Why is Philip’s face so pale?

“I have to get up,” he tries to say.  “I have to call a point on him.”  He’s surprised to hear himself slurring.

“Sohier’s after him, she’ll call the point, please, Nico, you’re hurt, stay still.  We’ve called for a physician, just hold on...”

Confused, his head swimming, Nico forces his eyes to focus on where Philip’s hands are pressed to his belly, and oh.  Oh, that’s a lot of blood.  Hadn’t been a punch after all.  The motherless servant had had a knife.

Philip’s lips are moving again, but Nico can’t hear him anymore, and he tries to reassure him but he can’t get his voice to work, it comes out a groan, and then the world slips away.

 

XI. Anvil
The symbol of the blacksmith’s trade, the Anvil celebrates masculine professions such as soldiery…  It is also representative of passionate, untempered desire, flaring red hot like iron on the anvil before the hammer strikes.
- excerpt from Star Signs Around the World, a dog-eared, travel-worn book owned by Philip Eslingen on campaign

Coindarel paid for the surgeon, apparently.  He’d just smiled and said something about Nico being an honorable man.  Nico even believes him.  He just doesn’t think for a moment that that was his only motivation.  People like Coindarel never have just one reason for doing anything.  Winning goodwill with the points, keeping Philip happy, preserving an asset that the public trusted, probably more reasons that Nico can’t think of.

The truth is, Nico can’t quite bring himself to resent it.  People die from belly wounds.   Coindarel’s chosen surgeon had been a cut above what Nico, Philip, or even Chief Point Trijn could have afforded.  Her skill had kept Nico alive.  Bedridden and going slightly out of his mind with boredom, but alive.

“Hand me that report?”  He points and looks hopefully at Philip, who gazes back at him, unimpressed.

“You need to rest,” Philip says.

Nico holds back a sigh and gestures at himself.  “I am resting.  In bed and everything.  Now hand me that report.”

Philip huffs but grabs the report from the table.  Trijn had sent it over along with a stack of paperwork at Nico’s request.  “You’ve already read it,” he says.

Nodding absently, Nico says, “Yes, but I have a few theories that might help with this case.  It would be better if I could speak to the victim’s son in person.”  He rummages through the stack of paper on his bed, wincing uncomfortably as the movement pulls his wound.  “I’ll make a few notes for Sohier to ask when she interviews him…”

He stops when Philip covers his hand with his.  “Sohier knows what she’s doing,” he murmurs.  He squeezes Nico’s hands and rubs his thumbs in soothing circles.

Nico does sigh now.  “I know,” he admits.  “But I…”

“You’re frustrated.  I know.  Did I tell you about the time I was injured on the Chadroni border?”

He groans.  “Twice,” he says.  “And I’ve read Trijn’s reports three times, and I finished all of the books Istre sent.  I can’t stand this, Philip.”

Philip kisses his palm.  “Then I’ll have to think of different ways to distract you.”

Nico breathes in a quiet gasp as Philip nips his fingers.  “Thought I was supposed to be resting.

“Yes,” Philip says, leaning over him, carefully avoiding his bandaged middle.  “So you’ll have to lie back and let me do all the work.”

Nico has nothing to complain about for some time after that.

 

XII. Sea-bull
Sacred to Oriane, the Sea-bull is the house of fertile chaos and ongoing transitions.  The secrets of the heart lie bare before it, while subconscious desires are brought to the surface.  … In all things, the Sea-bull celebrates love received.
- excerpt from Systematic Astrology, loaned to Nicolas Rathe by Istre b’Estorr during his convalescence

On Nico’s first day back after his injury, he’s greeted at Point of Dreams station by a chorus of cheers and a few friendly claps on the shoulder.  Something in his chest eases.  He’s missed these people, his sisters and brothers in arms, the runners, even the handful of civilians here to make complaints.  The bustle of the station is familiar and soothing.  He sees the line of jerkins and truncheons hanging by the door and it feels like coming home.

He climbs the stairs to Trijn’s office more slowly that he used to, mindful of the fact that he’s still technically healing, but he feels better than he has in weeks when he can finally knock on her office door.  “Rathe, good,” she says.  “You look better.”

“Thank you, Chief,” he says.

“I need to remind you you’re only cleared for light duty for now,” she adds.  “I don’t want you wearing yourself out and winding up back in bed.”

Nico doesn’t want that, either.  “Yes, Chief.  I’ll be careful.”

“Good,” she says.  “I know you’re anxious to get back into the streets.  Sohier’s waiting for you.  Take it easy.  Try not to get stabbed again.”

“I’ll do my best.”

She nods a dismissal, and Nico makes his way back downstairs.  Sohier meets him at the bottom.  Together, they slip outside.

As they move through the streets, Nico notices that Sohier’s sticking close to him, keeping her pace slow.  She’s trying not to tire him out, he realizes.  “I’m not going to break,” he finally tells her, trying not to be annoyed.

She presses her lips together and doesn’t meet his eyes.  “You didn’t see yourself, sir.  We were all sure you were dead.  I know that you can take care of yourself,” she hurriedly adds.  “There’s just no need to rush right now.  You’re the best Adjunct Point I’ve ever served under.  We all want you back to full strength as soon as can be.”

The fact is, she’s right, and Nico knows it.  He’s spent weeks cooped up in bed recovering, and now even the walk from his rooms to the station had left him feeling drained. “I’m all right,” he grumbles, but he clasps her shoulder in silent apology.

By the time they make it back the station, Nico’s good spirits from the morning are gone.  He’s exhausted and sore.  Every movement he makes seems to pull at scars on his belly, a constant reminder of his injury.  He knows this is temporary, just until he builds his strength back up again, but it’s disheartening all the same.

Trijn takes one look at him and says, “Rathe, go home.”

He blinks at her.  “I’m just going to sit in my office and read through reports, Chief.”

“No, you’re not,” she says.  “You going to go home and sleep so that you don’t make yourself sick.  Your body’s still fragile.  It’s easy to overdo it.  Go home.”  When he sets his jaw, ready to argue, her voice takes on an edge of steel.  “Do I need to make that an order?”

They glare at each other, and then Nico deflates.  “No, Chief, that’s not necessary.  I’m going.”

“Good.  And Rathe?”

“Yes, Chief?”

“I’ll see you in the morning.”

He looks back over his shoulder and nods.

He does stop by his office to pick up a few reports, but other than that, he makes his way home just as ordered.  The stairs up to his and Philip’s rooms are almost too much for him, and he collapses into bed as soon as he makes it inside.

When he wakes, the Winter-Sun is in the sky.  He slept for hours.  He sits up, testing carefully for aches, and is pleased when his body responds without too much protest.  Then his stomach gurgles, and he remembers with a start that he and Philip have plans to meet at Wicked’s for dinner, to celebrate his first day back at work.  If he hurries, he can probably get there before Philip gets concerned and goes looking for him.

He’s halfway out the door when a bit of red in the corner of his eye makes him turn his head.  There it is, soft fabric in a color Philip had called russet, hanging by the door.  Nico hasn’t ever worn it.  He hesitates, wavering, and then makes a decision.

When he reaches Wicked’s, she startles him by coming out from behind the counter and wrapping him in a hug.  “On the house tonight,” she insists.  “You’re too thin.  We need to put some meat back on you.”  She waves away his protests and shoos him to the back room.

Philip smiles when he sees Nico, relief smoothing away the lines on his forehead.  “I was getting worried,” he says.

“Sorry.  I fell asleep.”  Nico steps closer, into the light from a nearby lantern.  He feels awkward, hyperaware of every other patron in the room, vaguely convinced that they must be staring at him.  He knows his hair is still ruffled from sleep, that his clothes under the coat are wrinkled, that he’s probably pale from all the effort he’s expended today.  The coat feels gaudy to him, nothing that he would ever have chosen for himself.  He must look ridiculous.

Then he catches the expression on Philip’s face, the way his eyes have gone dark.  “You’re wearing the coat,” Philip says.  He licks his lips.

Scratching his neck, Nico says, “Well, yes.  We’re celebrating, after all.”

“Yes.  Yes, we are,” Philip replies.  He pats the chair next to him.  “Come on, eat.  Then we can go back home and finish celebrating.”  He leers.

Nico laughs quietly, pleased, and takes the proffered seat.  Wicked plies him with food while Philip leans against him, describing Coindarel’s efforts to secure better funding for both the Guard and the points.  Nico is warm and comfortable, content in a way that’s starting to become familiar.  He’s still not certain what he thinks of the Guard, but he’s got Philip at his side and the points at his back.  Whatever changes or challenges are ahead of them, whatever the stars have fated, they’ll face them together.

That’s all Nico needs.