The knock on the door is tentative, but the head that peeks around it is not. She doesn’t bother with words, just waits, head tilted inquisitively on the other woman.

The large tome folds shut with a heavy-sounding thwump, some dull medical treatise that her eyes skim over and dismiss out of hand while the other woman grabs her warm coat, blows out the candle on her desk.

“Food?” Her shrug is indecisive, but she quickly takes the others’ hand and tugs her out of the College.

***

She sticks to street food and vendors, who are eager to keep business as brisk as when the armies were passing through. Each woman picks their favourites, shares a portion, occasionally delves to something new or interesting. The taller looks amongst stalls; points out interesting tokens and trinkets amongst the vendors, while the shorter’s eyes remain wider, observing everything, taking in every detail of her surroundings, but with a hint of something other in her stance, posture, bearing.

The conversation seems from the outside to stall, all one sided. The briar is not silent, per se, but mono-syllabic, short to reply, and few words pass back. But her shoulder frequently brushes against the others; she doesn’t stray very far from her side. The companionship is all that’s needed, for now.

***

There’s a street theatre that catches their eye, and they find a good vantage point to watch, hot drinks spiked with warming alcohol cradled in their hands. The drinks help to warm more than just chilled fingers, and slowly, more words are exchanged.

“I think I saw this last winter.”

“They’re not very good.”

They lean back and watch the middling performance, with only a couple more snide remarks between them.

***

She shoulders her way through the crowd, returns with a bottle in each hand to the comfortable corner they claim in the packed taverna, as night settled over Regario and bodies moved indoors to avoid the chill.

“There’s mulled red, or mulled red.”

“Not much left tonight, the armies have drank most places dry of the good stuff.”

“And the better stuff that remains is three times the price. Which I am not willing to pay. What were we talking about again?” One falls into the seat heavily, pulls the loosened cork from the mouth of the first bottle with her teeth, and makes a game of balancing it on the brim of an unknowing bravo’s ridiculously-oversized hat the next table over.

“Did Lord Frederick rejoin the Wolves again?” A quick nod. “How come you didn’t go too?”

“Didn’t feel like it.” The briar takes a long swig from the bottle, a hitch of hesitance in her expression as she swallows, debating whether to speak again. “I… thought some space would be good.”

A clatter of a broken bottle sounds behind them, and they shift their seats to better watch the brawl that clearly looked about to kick off over the price of liquor.

***

“It’s not that I am–” she ducks as a chair leg flies over her head.

“–regretting anything–” she rights herself, and the taller woman deflects a punch that would have hit her companion squarely, pushes the mountebank back into another cluster of fighters.

“–but I just haven’t ever been in this situation before!” They take a quick breather and a swig of their last bottle before it joins the other flying projectiles, momentarily enjoying the respite as the brawl perpetrators fight amongst themselves.

“I thought you and Ysabel–” the briar suddenly springs forward, kicking out at legs that get too close.

“No, wasn’t true. I cared, but it was still–” a lucky punch gets her in the stomach, and she reels back, doubles over, but not before her knee drives home a retaliatory blow, “–business. Friendship.”

“So…” Before another blow is dealt a bottle swings, clattering over a bravo’s head before a foot pushes the body back against one of the remaining intact tables. “So maybe I should have asked this first, but… Is this the first time you’ve been in love?” Her hands grab the winded woman and pull her from the fray.

There is a quick nod, as eyes meet to judge whether she is about to be teased. Their attention returns to the fight around them, a gesture pointing out that the first knife has just been pulled in this brawl.

“Time to go?”

“Nah, we got this.”

***

Back at the College, they each help the other back to Gabrielle’s office, as one readies a bowl of pure water and the other goes for the bandages and antiseptic spirits.

Vitoria climbs gingerly onto a cot, curls up with the bowl beside her, holding her side tightly. Gabrielle, with a basket of bandages and linens, sits down beside her, a vivid purple stain blossoming on her cheek as each begin cleaning and tending their injuries.

“So what’s the real problem?” She passes a gauze pad to Vitoria, who dips it in the water, holds it to her abraded cheek.

“I’ve only ever been a cicisbeOWWW!” She winces and scoots away, batting Gabrielle’s fingers away from the shallow stab wound in her side when she gets too near, trying to remove her shirt from the clotted edges.

“I have to look at it.” She thinks carefully, checks her wording. “May I?” Vitoria frowns, grumbles under her breath, then stills for Gabrielle to get near, too tired to fight. “‘You have only been a cicisbeo’…” she waited, prompting gently, finally after so many hours getting to the heart of what was bothering Vitoria.

“I’m afraid.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know what to do when it’s not pretend.”

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