The celebration continued well after the true sun had set, long enough that even the winter-sun was beginning to fade. Rathe sighed when another grateful relative took his leave. So many people coming to the station just to thank him and his fellow pointsmen and women was a welcome change after all the suspicion and fraught nerves of the previous weeks, but Rathe knew it would be short-lived.
Eslingen, who had barely left his side all evening, took one glance at him and quirked his lips. “Better just appreciate the good will while it lasts,” he said, as if he could read Rathe’s thoughts.
“I know,” Rathe said, “but I cannot help wishing that this was the norm and not the exception.”
“It’s important to you, people trusting the points,” Eslingen said, his gaze soft.
“Trusting the law that we stand for,” Rathe corrected him, then hastened to add: “I don’t mean that I think we’re above the seigneury…”
Eslingen was now smiling. “You’ve had too much of Aagte’s beer, Adjunct Point. That was spoken just like a Leveller, and sounded like you meant every word.”
Rathe scowled at him, but Eslingen continued, unfazed: “And since I was the one who brought the beer, I cannot help but feel responsible. Let me buy you dinner to make up for it?”
Eslingen’s tone was light, but his neck was stiff and his forehead creased. Rathe realized that Eslingen was as nervous about this as Rathe himself was, but Eslingen hadn’t let it stop him. Staring at Eslingen’s handsome, determined face, Rathe wanted nothing more than to say yes, to this and to hundreds more nights like this, yet he had to ask: “Won’t Caiazzo mind?”
“My time off is mine to spend as I please,” Eslingen replied, leaning in towards Rathe. “And it would please me very much to spend it with you, Nico. We can be discreet,” he said. “But I liked working with you and I really don’t want to stop seeing you.”
Eslingen’s quiet croon and earnest eyes were making his stomach twist uncomfortably. He turned his head away, never more aware of the busy crowd of the station around them. “Interesting place to start this kind of conversation,” Rathe said.
“Less chance for you to avoid it,” Eslingen grinned, but it looked wry and he had stepped back.
Rathe considered Eslingen for a long moment. Everything he had observed so far about the soldier argued against inbred imprudence. What did it mean, for Eslingen to be pressing the matter in this way? Perhaps Eslingen wasn’t as content with being in Caiazzo’s service as he had seemed. Being Caiazzo’s knife was arguably an improvement over being Devynck’s, but maybe meeting Coindarel and his Dragons had stirred back in Eslingen the desire to hire out. That was sobering; Rathe had no illusions their burgeoning friendship would survive a long parting, and not seeing Eslingen again didn’t sit well with him either.
Unless he’d gotten it all wrong, and Eslingen was expressing interest in him at Caiazzo’s behest. Rathe almost made a face at his own cynicism; he needed to trust his judgement, not his hurtful past experiences, and he didn’t really believe such a ploy to be Caiazzo’s style. He certainly didn’t want to believe it was Eslingen’s.
“Let me warn the Chief,” Rathe said at last, “and then I’ll take you up on that offer. I know a good place that serves dinner even at this hour.”
Eslingen’s answering smile was blinding.
Their walk to Wicked’s was quiet, Eslingen seemingly sensing Rathe’s uneasiness and willing to give him space. Rathe was grateful for the respite; the eventful day was now taking its toll, and he felt tired and restless at once. But once they were seated in one of the alcoves, Wicked’s fine ordinary and finer wine chasing away the taste of the beer, Rathe found himself relaxing and having a remarkably good time.
Eslingen made it easy; he was an extraordinary conversationalist, managing to be engaging without delving into tasteless gossip or heavy topics. Later, Rathe would not be able to recall precisely what they discussed of; but he would remember being hoarse from too much talking and the pleasant tingle of Eslingen’s boot against his ankle. Eventually, Rathe was unable to stifle a yawn. “Gods, I’m sorry,” he said, appalled at his own lack of manners.
Eslingen shook his head. “You’re dead on your feet,” he said, raising his hand to softly caress Rathe’s cheek, which Rathe felt turn even warmer. “My own fault for being too impatient, I guess. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I’d gone back to Caiazzo’s without asking you to dinner first, nothing would ever have happened between us.”
Rathe licked his suddenly dry lips. “You…might have been right about that, Philip” he said, and could not meet Eslingen’s gaze. “I’m still not sure it’s a good idea. My Chief…She didn’t say anything, but she did not look pleased I was leaving with you.”
Eslingen sighed and took Rathe’s right hand in his own. “Answer this question, Nico: do you want me?”
“You know I do,” Rathe said, and was annoyed to hear the need so plainly in his voice. He made a half-hearted effort to free himself, but Eslingen held him firmly.
“I hoped so,” Eslingen said. “But you’re harder to read than you give yourself credit for, Nico. Since you do want me, however, let’s not make this more difficult for ourselves than it needs to be.”
“A casual affair, you mean,” Rathe said.
“I mean,” Eslingen said pointedly, squeezing his fingers, “that we do not need to figure everything out now. We can try and see how it goes.”
“That never ends well,” Rathe snorted.
“Just…take a chance on us, Nico,” Eslingen pleaded, pulling back.
Rathe turned his head back towards him, saw him look ruffled, regretful. Resigned. He took a deep breath.
Outside, exhaustion took precedence and they walked the empty streets in silence. It felt companionable, though, as if reaching an agreement had eased all their worries. But when it came time to part ways, Eslingen said: “I feel as if we need to seal the deal. Perhaps a goodnight kiss?”
It was spoken in good humor, and Rathe suspected Eslingen would bear him no ill-will if he refused.
“Or you could come back to my rooms to sleep,” Rathe said. It was too dark to properly witness Eslingen’s reaction, but the pause that followed could only be described as stunned.
“Literally sleep,” Rathe said. “I’m in no condition to do anything else.”
“Well, there’s always tomorrow morning,” Eslingen quipped. “Lead the way, then, Adjunct Point!”
Rathe did. In the morning, waking up in Eslingen’s arms, Rathe had no regrets.