Lines of Defense

by Tenshi

Viktor never really did anything by accident. Oh, he could pretend he did. He could scruff up the back of his hair and pass it all off as a bluff, as blind luck, or as something he just thought was worth a shot.

But Flik knew better. Just because Viktor would rather be sitting by a tavern fire with a full tankard on one hand and a credulous audience on the other didn't mean he was not, on the battlefield, a canny and deadly opponent. The blows of his sword then were not by chance or at random. But unlike Flik, they were not by training and honed strategy, either. Viktor in combat was a solid wall of instinct and hard-won experience, and it made him formidable.

It was a trait of his that it took Flik a long time to notice, and longer still to appreciate. He should not have been surprised, then, to find that Viktor's methodology of battle carried over into dueling of an entirely different sort.

The first time, he could have passed off as a solitary incident. They were alone and camping in someone's abandoned hayloft, on the border of the city states. Viktor had just carried Flik on his back through the last five miles of the badlands, while Flik's body burned with fever and he fumbled through visions of those he knew to be long dead. The arrow wound in his side had closed badly, and it had been foolish to attempt the crossing that time of year. Flik had been the one who insisted he was fine to travel. Viktor never brought that up, anymore than he mentioned what happened the morning after Flik's fever finally broke.

An accident, Flik thought. A chance happening, unplanned and unintended. Except that Viktor didn't work that way.

The second time was in winter, in the mercenary fort. Its newly-hewn timbers smelled like pine tar and metal polish; the main entrance was a frozen slurry of snow and mud and the war was on hold for the winter. Viktor said something the next morning about too much of Leona's spiced cider, but Flik knew he hadn't been remotely drunk, and Viktor's excuses were only for Flik's sake.

It's cold, Flik said, the next time, when it had been pouring the rain for days and they had forgotten what it was like to be dry and unmuddy. The fort had swollen and none of the doors wanted to shut; everything had a faint smell of wet dogs. It's cold and I've drunk too much and they haven't finished the fireplace in my room and night comes on too early and my old wounds are aching and a man can only polish and sharpen a sword so much and any excuse you want you can have. Any ploy, any cavalry feint, any dodge and parry and strategy fine enough for a Silverberg it's yours, take it, I've more of them than I can count, but I need reasons to take what I want and I can make them if I have to, anything other than the truth.

But Viktor only smiled into the bottom of his tankard, swirled the contents once, and said that was fine. "But," Viktor said, "truth is I don't want to be alone tonight either."

After that, Flik made a futile effort to stop bothering with excuses. Viktor just unraveled them without even trying.

After the last battle with Neclord, Viktor stumbled back from Tinto, sunburnt and triumphant. Flik had reports ready to tell him, a meeting with Shu planned the next day, and Riou had finally approved the uniforms with the green kerchief. He hadn't gotten two words out before Viktor flung away his rucksack with one hand and dragged Flik towards him with the other, and stifled all the minutiae of war with one hard and hungry kiss.

Their traits of personality and warfare extended even to their clothes. Viktor was undressed with the loss of battered leather vest and more battered tunic, but Flik was five layers of cape and armor and tunic and undertunic. Sometimes Flik thought to make an excuse for the defenses he wore, muttering about the drafty castle or having just come off watch, but deep down they both knew how Flik built up walls for himself, and how much Viktor liked to peel the layers away.

And then there was only skin and scars and the sweet, summer smell that came up out of the straw mattress when their combined weight crunched down on it. I need a reason, Flik sometimes thought in desperation, when his body was burning and Viktor's hands caught him just so around his hipbones. I need a reason why I need this, I need a reason why I don't say no, I need more than just his hands his heat his smell his voice I need I need oh, god--

But Viktor was all the reason there ever was.


The sun was setting over the island nations, and Viktor's boots were abandoned in the sand, along with a stained shoulder bag, and an empty scabbard that had once held a sword more powerful and more annoying than any legend ever said it was. Flik's cape had been packed away weeks ago, along with most of his other layers; he wore his studded shirt open over his old, pale scars. It blew back in an ocean wind as Flik watched the sky turn crimson beyond the silver and black streak of Viktor's messy ponytail.

"They're doing a play up at the tavern," Viktor said, knee deep in the surf, thumbs hooked in his belt. "'The Defeat of Neclord' or somesuch, supposedly based on Marlowe's own account. Got some skinny girl in blue tights playing you."

Flik waded in behind him, but not so deep. "I wasn't even there," he said, with only the faintest amount of dismay.

"I did try to tell them that," Viktor said, "without letting on who I was, you know. Little slip of a thing, had your attitude down pat. Talked at me with her left shoulder all the time like she had a mind to cross blades. Know what she said?"

Flik made a soft noise of half-fondness, half-exasperation. "I can guess."

"'No offense, old timer,' she said, 'but everyone knows Flik of the Blue Lightning and Viktor the Bruin always fought side-by-side.' Went on to tell me there'd be a revolt if they dried to do it otherwise. Then had the nerve to ask if I wanted to buy a ticket."

Flik sloshed forwards a little, out of the line of Viktor's shadow. Their outlines stretched out over the beach, getting distorted on the dunes. "Did you?"

Viktor tugged at his ponytail; Flik couldn't recall when he'd last cut his hair. "Yeah," he admitted. "Poor kids. Even their costumes were third-hand."

"Authentic, at least," Flik demurred. "But I guess you're not actually going to the show."

Viktor turned around to him at last, and the setting sun softened the crags in his face, easing away the rough affection Time had shown him. "Hey. I know how it ends."

"Off into the sunset, is it?" Flik sighed. His headband snapped behind him like a battle flag, but for once the wind was not cold. "Not sure what happens after that."

"Nice little town, this," Viktor said, as though they had just arrived, and hadn't been idling there a full week already. "Play's raising money for the inn, you know. Owner's put it up for sale."

Flik eyed him askance, knowing full well what Viktor was saying. "Thinking of settling down? I didn't think you knew how."

Viktor shrugged. "Still young enough to learn. But I guess you think it's a bad idea, that there might be storms here, that the inn needs too much work, that we're too old to--"

"All right," Flik said, stopping Viktor's prediction. "Let's do it."


"You want to buy the inn, right? Hire a nice flouncy barmaid, finally retire? I'm all for it." Viktor stared at him, and Flik, in the silence that followed his honesty, said at last, "I'm tired of being cold."

Viktor grinned, and flung one sinewy arm around Flik's shoulders, nearly knocking him into the surf. "I'll be damned. You can ask for something outright. Maybe we should go up and see the play after all, while we're having miracles."

But there was no attention paid then to the rising tide, much less to a rising curtain. Flik finally gave up on strategy, and somehow he knew that Viktor had been planning for that all along.


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