The sun was just cresting over the ruined battlements of North Wind when Viktor at last pulled his boat up to the remains of the quay. Within the broken fortress walls, the morning mist seeped away like steam from a cauldron set too long to boil, and the courtyard in Viktor's mind glowed like beaten gold with the memory of childhood dawns long gone.
There was no such illusion for the docks, however. They had suffered from years of neglect. The pilings--where he had once wiled away summer hours with a fishing line-- were now no more than rotten timbers poking up from weed-choked shallows.
But happier memories were not the ones that had driven him from Tir McDohl's side so late in the war. The atonement he sought rested in shallow places in that sun-drenched courtyard, cradled in the tangled roots of a vast oak tree. Viktor looped his boat lead around a greening piling, and began the climb up. He made his way over mossy rocks and through the whispering leaf-litter in empty passages, down steps worn thin in the middle from the passage of feet long gone. The edge of the old courtyard was choked with grasses, poking up from the cobbles in a fine green fringe, and the oak tree was brown with the fading year, but the stones and battered crosses still dotted the ground beneath the detritus of other, forgotten autumns.
Viktor picked his way between them, a path that wove even between those graves whose markers had fallen away, careful to trod on none. He came at last to a long row of sunken indentations, where every grassy hollow had a name he knew.
"It's done," he said, with a heart only a little lighter than when he first said it there, with the earth newly-turned and his palms blistered from the handle of the shovel. "I promised you," Viktor told them, his parents, his friends, his home. "I promised I would come and tell you when it was done, when I had killed him."
His fingers brushed the crazed angle of his father's simple wooden cross. "Rest easy." In North Wind the wind sighed in the branches of the oak tree, the air was bright with birdsong, and Viktor took a deep breath, his burdens at last laid down. "It's over."
The birds had stopped singing. Viktor paused, his nerves jangling, knowing that sudden, suffocating stillness. In the silence, something wriggled, crawling beneath the soles of his boots. Viktor leapt back, but too late. The dirt of his father's grave split and ruptured, and a bony hand shot up from the earth. It snared his ankle, bringing him down hard against the tilting cobblestones, the bone and fetid tendons as cold and hard as iron clamped around his boot.
Lies, lies, said the wind, the grasses, the whole of North Wind echoing the accusation as the corpse of Viktor's father erupted from its oak-root moorings, ruined jaws scattering dirt, shriveled eyes alight with unholy fire.
Neclord lives, Viktor's father hissed, his hands scrabbling for the warm flesh of his son's leg. Our master lives. You lie. We are hungry.
"No!" Viktor choked, struggling to get to his feet, to draw his sword, but the ground beneath him had become a snare of rotten limbs and grasping hands, pinning him down. The reek of death filled his lungs as relentless fingers tore at his hair and his clothes. His mother's cadaver clawed at his belt and Daisy sought to press his face to her collapsed breast in a mockery of tenderness, shriveled lips seeking his.
Firelight burst across Viktor's vision, blinding him. For a moment he was thunderstruck, trying to get his bearings. Familiar things resolved in the room, the tankard on his bedside table, the discarded heap of leather armor in the corner, his shirt dangling from the chair. North Wind, still, but his room and his bed, years after the battle cries of the Toran War were silent. The room smelled of metal polish, newly-dressed stone, and the fresh rushes on the recently rebuilt floor. The dead of North Wind slept now in new graves beneath the castle, Kyu and Nora and Daisy, and his parents.
In the middle of the room was Flik, Odessa unsheathed in one hand and torch blazing in the other, the door flung wide behind him. Even barefoot, in only his sleeping pants with his hair mussed from sleep, Flik was ready for battle, the lighting rune on his hand sparking eagerly. From the hall a clamor of armor hinted at Matilda knights in his wake.
"Good God of Gate Runes," Flik exploded, on finding no assailants in the room. "What the hell is wrong with you, man?"
Viktor clenched his hands on the blanket, to keep them from shaking with relief. "Nothing," he said, trying to slow his thundering heartbeat, to smooth the ragged edge of his breathing. "Just... just a bad dream. One pint too many last night, eh?"
Flik made a noise of disgust, shoving the torch in an empty bracket by the door and telling the bemused knights in the doorway that no one was attempting to murder the infantry captain. Yet.
Then he shut the door, and bolted it.
Viktor blinked up at him. "Thought you knew this by now, but your bedroom is on the other side of the--"
"Tell me," Flik said, looking not a little bit threatening, sword still brandished in one hand.
"I already told you, it's just a plain old nightmare--"
"Plain old nightmares do not rouse the entire watch in the dead of night." Flik snapped. "That's three times just this week now I've come in here expecting to find you dead, and last week--"
"Sorry to disappoint you by not being dead!" Viktor shot back, lumbering up out of his bed like a grizzly roused from hibernation too soon. "You know what it is, so why do you need to ask me?"
Flik stood unflinching in the wake of Viktor's temper, knowing how rarely it was lost, knowing Viktor was as frayed at the edges as his favorite shirt. "Maybe because I want to help."
Viktor sank back onto the bed, subdued, shaggy head resting in his hands. "You can't help," He said, to the floor, to his knees, to the wrapped hilt of the Star Dragon Sword sleeping against his bedside table. To anything but his best friend's worried face. "Look, it's just something I have to--"
"Deal with it on your own," Flik finished for him. "Well right now 'dealing with it on your own' has the guard tumbling down the stairs every night prepared for full melee." He paused, waiting for his words to have some effect. When they did not, he added, somewhat more gently, "You can't keep going like this, Viktor."
"You have a better idea?"
"Go and talk to Huan. He could--"
"He could what?" Viktor lifted his head. "Drug me stupid so I couldn't wake up from the dreams? Or so I'd be lying here snoring in the middle of a night attack? No." Viktor flung himself back down in his messy bed, yanking the blanket up to his shoulder. "Huan doesn't cover ghosts, Flik. Now go back to bed. I'm done for tonight." He glared at the wall, pretending to sleep even though both of them knew it was a poor imitation of the act.
Flik stood there a long time before he swore, unbolting the door and slamming it behind him so hard that the torch guttered and died.
Alone in the dark, Viktor rolled over and stared at the ceiling. Sleep was a futile endeavor now. He lay awake, listening to the nighttime sounds of the castle until his room turned silvery-gray and then pink with dawn. Sighing, he groped for his sword and clambered up from his bed, like a revenant from an unquiet grave.
"I say," Camus said, lowering his morning glass of claret and eyeing Viktor with concern, "You look half-dead."
"Maybe," Viktor said, with something that might have been a smile on a less haggard face. He sat down, not so much a planned action as a matter of falling over with a chair luckily placed underneath him. "Don't mind if I join you, do you?" he asked, with belated courtesy.
"Not at all," Camus said, interrupting Viktor's lackluster wave for a tankard and calling for Leona to bring an extra glass instead. "Ale has its place," he said, uncorking his bottle and filling the wine glass, "and this isn't it. Here. Drink that, and when you're done drinking that, have another. That'll put the starch back in your uniform. I'll have Leona pop some dumplings in the steamer for us."
Camus strolled over to the bar as Viktor drained his glass and then refilled it as he had been told, willing it to bolster his bloodstream enough that Flik wouldn't give him That Look during the morning strategy meeting. Camus returned shortly with a patter full of shu mai and rice balls with pickles, not at all Matilda fare.
"What, aren't you having any?" Viktor asked, ignoring the chopsticks and plucking a pork dumpling from the tray.
Camus waved dismissively at the food. "No, I've had my porridge already. Help yourself." He topped off his own glass and refilled Viktor's, without comment on the lightness of the bottle. "One of my men mentioned to me that you've been having trouble sleeping," Camus said, as though Viktor had merely been wandering the halls in search of a soothing posset of hot milk, not hollering bloody murder in the dead of night. "Bothersome, isn't it? Anything I can do to help?"
Viktor swallowed, brushing stray grains of rice off his fingers. His appetite, at least, was not yet affected. "You've already been good enough to prop me back up again. It's nothing, just old ghosts, you know."
"Hmm," Camus said, tapping a finger against the stem of his glass. "We've all our share of those, though I confess I am not near the veteran you are. Let me know, won't you, if there's anything I can do?"
"You're a real knight, you know that, Camus?" Viktor kicked back from the table, picking up the last rice ball to take with him. "Thanks for breakfast. I owe you one, or ten. But I'd better get up to the main hall before Shu sends out the dogs."
A kobold just coming off watch gave Viktor a curious look from the bar, and Viktor was obliged to grunt a quick "No offense," on his way out the door.
Flik fixed Viktor with a hawklike glare the moment Viktor entered the meeting room, but made no comment as he edged into place beside Humphrey. The meeting was a routine thing to report on the status of the infantry units, and by rights Flik, as cavalry captain, had no reason to be there at all. Viktor wasn't surprised. Flik was shadowing him, waiting for Viktor to gibber and foam, or fall over twitching, or go mad in some other, equally unlikely way.
Let 'em wait, Viktor thought, meeting Flik's glare with one of his own. I'm not about to be mothered to death by Flik, of all people.
Still, by the end of the meeting both the claret and Viktor's scant few hours of sleep were wearing off. He kept his head only by long mercenary practice, shoving personal demons off to his nightmares where they belonged. He was still glad when the meeting was over. He stopped in the barracks to tell Gilbert new drill orders and then escaped up to his room to steal a few hours of sleep before the main council meeting that afternoon.
Viktor was already yawning as he opened the door. He yelped in alarm as a figure loomed ominously out of the dimness in his room. His sword was half-drawn before he recognized the blue banner of Flik's headband.
"Totally not on edge, I see," Flik growled, as Viktor thumped his chest with his fist and tried to get his heart started up again. "Camus tells me you knocked off an entire bottle of Kanakan red this morning before the meeting."
"The hell are you, a ninja?" Viktor blurted. "Scare like that right now, you could have killed me--"
"Not as fast as I could have in flat battle," Flik interrupted. "You've got to do something about this."
"Like what?" Viktor said, shutting the door behind him. "Jot off a note to Neclord, tell him to stop by the pub so I can kill him? Again? I've got nothing, Flik. Not until Marley turns up."
"You'll have to deal with it in the meantime, Viktor--" Flik broke off mid-sentence as Viktor's shirt landed in his face.
"I am dealing with it," Viktor said, kicking off his boots. "I'm goin' to sleep. And you can go down to the item shop and buy a pair of earmuffs off of Alex if you don't want me waking you up at night."
Flik tore Viktor's shirt away and flung it back at its owner. "Viktor, if this keeps up--"
"I'll never get my nap in," Viktor said, settling his shoulders down in the pillow. "Nip the shutters closed, would you?"
"Viktor," Flik repeated, with a seriousness that made Viktor open one eye, then both of them, at the look on his face. Flik braced his hand against Odessa's hilt, as though for support. "...If you keep going like this, I'm going to have to tell Shu you aren't fit for duty."
Viktor frowned, a moment of dangerous confusion, and then he lunged up, his fist closing in the yellow fabric of Flik's shirt. "The hell you will, who do you think you are--"
"Your fellow officer in this army," Flik answered, his eyes unyielding. "And your friend. You almost drew on me a second ago, for nothing more than standing in your room. How would you cope in a battle right now? You tell me, honestly, if you think you would be focused. You can't even stand up through a council meeting."
Viktor searched Flik's face, but found no answer there. His grip relented and Flik stepped back. Viktor glared out the window, at an autumn day as bright as the beginning of his dreams.
"I don't want to do it," Flik said, tugging his outer tunic together as he turned to go. "But I will if I have to. I don't want you to get yourself killed." He paused, his hand on the door handle. "I'm still trying to find out what else can be done. Try and get some sleep now, why don't you?" The door clicked shut, far more demurely than it had the night before.
"Sure," Viktor said, to the silence Flik left behind in his absence, "like I'm going to now."
The afternoon council meeting was tense for far more reasons than the cold distance that seemed to yawn--inexplicable to the others--between Flik and Viktor. Greenhill was a problem, Tinto was useless, and Shu did not cushion any of his blows. Riou sat through it without speaking, and Nanami worried the hem of her tunic into a crumpled knot between her knees.
Viktor left the dispirited group behind and made straight for the tavern afterwards, and proceeded to lose count of the tankards he emptied or the games of Chinchirorin he lost to Tai Ho. By the time he staggered back up to his room, singing softly to himself, the first watch had already been relieved by the second, and his past was the last thing on his mind.
The lantern on the table was lit when he arrived and Flik was waiting in the chair, his cape hung on a peg on the wall, Odessa gleaming under a polishing rag in his hands.
Viktor bleared around the room, stifled a belch, and turned to stagger back out in the hall. "S'wrongroom. S'rry."
"It's your room, I'm just in it, and you're pissed." Flik laid his sword across Viktor's desk with all the tenderness of a new father placing a babe in the cradle. "Get in the bed before you fall over. Mother of Chaos, I don't want to think about how much it took to get you in this state."
"Quit shouting at me, both of you." Viktor ground the heel of his hand into his eyes. "What're you doing here?" The straw mattress crunched as Viktor's weight crashed into it. "Think you're going to keep-- keep me from dreamin'... or summin..." Viktor trailed off mid-sentence, practically interrupted by his own snore. Flik shot him a look that was not without a measure of fondness, then stood up to haul Viktor's legs up onto the bed and to pull his swordbelt out from under him.
"Yes," Flik said as he shook out the blanket, though Viktor was long past hearing, "That's exactly what I'm here to do."
The birds in the ruined courtyard had just stopped singing, and the worn marker for Viktor's father's grave was teetering precariously for the umpteenth time, when a bucket of very cold, very wet water manifested out of nowhere and glooshed it all away, lying sunlight and undead whispers and dreaming.
Viktor was half-out of bed with an oath before Flik, prepared for such contingency, smacked him in the face with a towel and a dry blanket. "Go," he said, putting the empty bucket down again, "back to sleep."
"What was that for?" Viktor spluttered, toweling at messy hair that a bucketful of water had done no favors.
Flik sat back down in the chair, picking up the book that was lying open and face down on the table. "The most effective anti-nightmare advice I could find," he said primly, turning a page. "Don't worry if it happens again, I've got other buckets."
"Who did you get that advice from?" Viktor growled, shaking out his pillow. "That trickster girl?"
"My sources are confidential," Flik demurred.
"I want a second opinion," Viktor settled back down into his bed, stripping out of the shirt he had been too plastered to remove earlier that night, now drenched across the shoulders.
"The second opinion was that I use my fist, and I think your nose has enough bends in it, don't you?" Flik shot him a look as keen as Odessa's notched blade. "Either go back to sleep, or I use the other method to get you there."
"You know what you are?" Viktor said, turning his back on Flik emphatically, and yanking the blanket over his head.
"A pain in the ass."
"No, you're a pain in the-- shuttup."
When Viktor woke the next morning, the room was splashed with sunlight, and Flik was asleep in the chair, snoring gently with his book open on his knee. There were three other buckets underneath the desk, all of them still full. Viktor smiled, picked up his shirt, and tiptoed out to keep from waking him.
Camus was a man of simple but devoted habits. He was at his usual table in the tavern, bottle at his elbow, dashing out his signature on a note that Gabocha was waiting to deliver. "To Captain Freed," Camus said, shaking out the scrap of parchment before folding it crisply in the middle and passing it to the kobold. "Tell him Shu wants his unit rotated back to the castle for the fortnight, and Anita will be replacing him in South Wind."
"Yessir!" Gengen saluted, and hurried off on his errand.
"Important mission, eh?" Viktor said, watching the kobold's bouncing tail as it vanished around the corner. "Take him all of the morning to get there and back."
"It keeps him busy," Camus said, with a shrug. "Care for a glass? I've had my one for the morning, and I was going to save the rest for dinner, but if you're interested..."
"Nah," Viktor said, pulling out a chair. "I'm good, thanks. But Flik might need a glass when he comes down, I kept him up pretty late last night."
"Oh?" Camus said, raising an eyebrow in a delicate, unspoken question that Viktor's yawn entirely eclipsed. "I hope my advice was...helpful?"
Viktor pummeled the table with the side of his fist. "That was your idea, was it? Well, it worked all right, though I can't say I'm a big fan of the method. Still, if the horse takes the bit, then bridle it, eh?"
"Erm," Camus said, "I've never heard it put quite that way but--"
"Messy business," Viktor said. "Take all day to air out the mattress." He pushed himself back up to his feet and, too cheerful to take any note of Camus' startled expression, gave a jaunty wave. "Shu wants me to take Riou out to Lakewest today, so if you see Flik, tell him to get some sleep, would you?"
"Quite," Camus said faintly, and Viktor strolled off towards the warehouse, whistling. He sidestepped Miklotov in the doorway, the blue Matilda knight returning Viktor's good morning and taking up his abandoned chair across from Camus.
"He seems to be feeling more himself today," Miklotov commented, with a hopeful look at Camus' wine bottle. "Wouldn't you say?"
"I'll never understand how southerners do things," Camus said, and poured them both a glass of wine.
"Did you tell Camus something funny?" Flik asked, without preamble, when Viktor came back to his room at sunset. Flik's arms were crossed, and there was something vaguely defensive about the set of his stance, his left shoulder forward, as though bracing his shield for a blow.
"You here already?" Viktor said, shrugging out of his armor. "Phew, I hate riding in the boat all day, I smell like a kipper--"
"Nothing so appealing," Flik said, wrinkling his nose. "I asked you a question."
"You did? Oh, Camus. No, nothing. Why?" Viktor took a whiff of his shirt and made a face. "Bleah, I think you're right. I'm heading down to the baths, you want to come?"
"I've already been, you go ahead. Are you sure, about Camus?"
"'Course I'm sure," Viktor said, rummaging in his trunk for a clean shirt. "Said hello to him this morning, thanked him for his idea about the nightmares--"
"Thanked him... for his idea?" Flik repeated.
"The buckets, you know. Come on, don't try and take credit for it. You said last night someone told you to--"
"Someone did," Flik said, and for some reason now he wasn't looking Viktor in the eye, his voice very tight. "But it wasn't Camus."
"It wasn't?" Viktor kicked his dirty shirt under the bed, ignoring the muffled protests of the Star Dragon Sword. "Huh. Wonder what he meant, then. Anyway. I won't be long."
The door clicked closed behind him and Flik sat down slowly, wondering if he could manage to save Viktor's sanity without ruining his own reputation, or if it was already too late.
The baths were practically empty at that hour, with everyone else having dinner or planning to come later, and Viktor scrubbed the boaty smells of fish guts and tar out of his hair and wondered what it was this time that had put Flik so out of sorts. It didn't take long for him to realize that his comparatively restful night had come at the expense of Flik's own, and that it was no real solution if Flik was being kept up the whole night instead of Viktor.
Viktor leaned back against the tiles and pondered the situation, wondering how best to put it to rights. He had a conclusion by the time he was toweling off, but he wasn't sure what Flik would make of it. But with Flik's best interests at heart, how could he argue?
"No," Flik said, before Viktor was even halfway though his suggestion. He was sitting in the rickety wooden chair again, and for some reason it looked ten times more uncomfortable than it had the night before.
"Come on. We've bunked up before, you know I don't bite." Viktor draped his towel on the windowsill to dry. The glass panes were misted with a light coating of frost, autumn taking its work more seriously at last. The night would be chilly.
"I'm quite comfortable here," Flik said, as stiff as his back. "There's no need for any extreme measures--"
"Extreme what?" Viktor threw his scarred arms wide. "Extreme as in both of us maybe getting a good night's sleep? Listen, if I start twitching in my sleep just give me a good kick or two--"
"And what if I don't wake up in time, and you rouse the guard, and they burst in, and we're--" Flik stopped short, glaring past Viktor, out the window. His face had gone quite pale. "I'd rather lose sleep," he finished, shortly.
"Well I've already had one bath, and I'm not planning on having another in the middle of the night." Viktor flung himself down on the bed. "So either get your scrawny ass over here and get some sleep, or I'm going to use that secondary punching method on you. And it'd be a shame, seeing as how you're the pretty one."
"Don't say that," Flik muttered, with feeling, but he checked the door to make sure it was firmly bolted before gingerly settling on the edge of the mattress. Viktor had already snuggled down into his usual indentation, and Flik's body yearned for sleep. One day he could go without rest, and two if things were dire, but he wasn't as young as he used to be, when he could spearhead a revolution while fueled by nothing but his own ideals. Resigned, Flik lay down against the warmth of Viktor's broad back, and his last thought was that maybe he should be a little concerned at just how comfortable it was.
Flik woke up sometime in the darkest hour of the night, when the cold had sunk deep into the old stones of the castle and the lantern on the table had burned out long before. Viktor was shivering in his sleep, but not from the chill.
"Viktor," Flik whispered, reaching out to shake his shoulder.
Viktor did not answer, but made a stifled whimpering noise in his sleep, so small and piteous that it went right to Flik's heart.
"Viktor, wake up," Flik said again, shaking him a little harder this time. In the dim starlight seeping in through the shutters, Viktor's blunt features were drawn in anguish, his powerful frame trembling as though from some terrible fever. Flik reached out and then hesitated, wondering if Camus' advice was really more reliable than Humphrey's. Humphrey, remembering a very young and very edgy Viktor, had suggested the buckets of water. Camus, with an assumption that he apologized profusely for when he realized it was incorrect, had simply asked why Flik wasn't already keeping his lover company at night.
What harm was there to try it, Flik thought, scolding himself. There was no one here to see, to call it weakness. Was he so proud that he would not reach out to a friend in pain? What would Odessa say to that, to him placing his own ego above a companion's simplest need?
Ashamed that his compassion required such guilt to be coaxed forth, Flik placed the palm of his hand against Viktor's cheek and smoothed it back, soothing away the strained terror in Viktor's face. His fingertips found tears that he had never known the man to shed when awake.
"It's all right," Flik said, feeling a little foolish, like a fox trying to console a distraught bear. "It's just a dream."
To his surprise and subsequent alarm, Viktor quieted almost at once, brow relaxing, the tense cords of muscle in his neck going slack. The alarm part was when Viktor rolled over, flinging one arm around Flik's middle and curling them together like a pair of matched spoons. Escape was a futile notion. There was nothing for it but to settle down with his back to Viktor's chest, breathing in his not-unpleasant scents of leather and hops and something indistinct and earthy, like mown hay or just-turned dirt.
Flik leaned back into Viktor's strength and offered his own in trade, and foolish though it had seemed to him in daylight, no other nightmare breached the walls of their united defense.
It had never before occurred to Flik that he would be the subject of any romantic speculation. He passed through the castle and through his life with his sword and his memories for company. Of course he had friends, and one table in the tavern that they ringed around on for the evenings. But mostly it was Viktor that did the talking and the winking at the barmaids, while Humphrey and Flik gazed at their ale in meditative silence. The three of them had for the most part agreed that women and family were not in their dice cup of life, and although Flik wondered if Humphrey really had anything to give up in that regard, even Viktor would fall silent when someone the next table over ordered a certain vintage of red wine, or spoke the name of Annabelle Castle too lightly.
Romance was a thing for bards and storybooks, and for the elusive, red-hared shadow in Flik's dreams. He was no longer a bright-eyed boy with a blank sword, he was a man with one name engraved in steel and battles to fight in her name.
Love was a war he had fought and lost. He would not tilt on that field again.
The trouble was no one else seemed to comprehend that.
Not least of all the small, blonde, school-uniformed bane of his existence, who had a habit of turning up when least expected.
"It's not true!" Nina shrieked one morning, charging at him unexpectedly from the corner of the armor shop. "I'll prove it isn't! Sir Fliiik! Sir Flik!"
Flik groaned, inwardly, and a little bit outwardly as well. Ridley wanted to see him, he had a recon to go on with Viktor, he had a job to do and there was a war on, why couldn't she leave him alone? He didn't have the heart to throw another dubious box lunch in the pond, not after all those fish floated up dead the next day.
"Nina, really, I've got a lot to do--"
Nina skidded to a halt, and swiped her hair from her eyes in a way that she clearly thought was very mature and alluring. Eilie had hung behind, bright red in the face at the sight of Flik. She studiously examined the daggers Hans had hanging up on display. "Sir Flik, I know you'll clear this horrid fib right up. Eilie says that Tengaar says that Nanami said that she overheard Rina telling Karen that you... that you're..." Nina's face screwed up, as though it was simply too much to put into words.
"What." Flik shrugged his cloak tighter around him. The sun was bright, but the wind had a cutting edge, and Nina made him always want more armor.
"Oh, it's true, isn't it!" Nina wailed, bursting into unexpected and very practiced tears. "You're so beautiful, and so honorable, and so well-dressed, it's just like what Nanami said about Sir Camus and Sir Miklotov--"
Flik's stomach took an unpleasant plunge, because he knew something about Camus and Miklotov, something that was none of his business but that he had found out when Camus presumed (it really had been an elegant, sincere apology on the part of the red knight) that he and Viktor were in a similar arrangement.
The winds of battle had changed, and Flik, with his ranks falling in droves, scouted for a path of retreat. "Nina, I've really got to go and see Ridley--"
"Everybody said you and that Viktor fellow were lovers!" Nina exploded, in heaving despair. "But I never knew it was true!"
In the shopping square, idle conversation ground to a halt, and Flik could swear every face was turned on him. Even Jeanne was leaning lushly in the doorway of the rune shop, eyeing Flik with languid curiosity.
Nina screeched on, like some horrible incantation of doom. "I thought surely a knight of such grace and poise as Sir Flik could not be interested in that uncouth lout. If it had been Lord Shu, perhaps, or a knight of Matilda, I could have believed it, but I never dreamed it could be so!" Her tears switched off like a faucet, and Flik, though his horror, detected a mercenary gleam in her eyes. "I know it isn't your fault! After all, you hadn't met me yet! He must have forced himself on you. He was probably drunk, the brute! How awful! Though my heart may be broken, for you to be so violated--"
"Nina," Flik said, closing his eyes, wondering if his lightning rune would have mercy and backfire without warning, killing Nina, himself, or both. It wouldn't be a mercy; she would probably haunt him for all time, going on about their double suicide "Please. Stop."
Nina gasped, putting her hands to her mouth. "Oh, How could I be so unfeeling? It must be so painful for you to think about! Well, probably not as painful as when that great hairy bear went and--"
"I don't know what you heard," Flik snapped, tugging on the ends of his gloves with enough force to strain the seams, "but whatever it is, it isn't true. Now if you will please excuse me, we've got an actual war to fight." He stalked off through the shopping street and the stares, face burning with what he hoped looked like fury.
Eilie, sidling over Nina, muttered, "I bet Viktor tied him up."
Nina's eyes brightened. "Ooh! Maybe with his headband?"
When he knocked on Viktor's door that night, far later than usual, he was prepared for Viktor's curious look.
"You feeling all right?"
"Fine," Flik said tersely, shutting the door behind him before the guards at the end of the hall could turn the corner and see him loitering in Viktor's room. "Why?"
"Oh, I don't know," Viktor said, flinging his halfway-mended bag strap down on the cluttered worktable. "You trade with Miklotov so you don't have to go on patrol with me, you don't turn up for dinner or for drinks at the tavern, and you're sneaking in here at nearly midnight. Why would I think anything is wrong?"
Flik reached for the door bolt. "If you must know, there are some... unsavory rumors about us that are going around the castle, and I would prefer not to encourage them."
Viktor raised his eyebrows. "What, the ones about us fucking?"
Flik's finger somehow got caught in the path of the bolt socket, which he had pulled with violent force. His exclamation was at once pained, and horrified, and telling Viktor to shut the hell up.
"Well," Viktor said, hauling his bulk up out of the chair, "if you're up in arms about that, you're later to the game than I thought. That one's been going around since before the fall of Scarleticia."
"What?" Flik said, for the second time that day, and shaking out the stinging pain in his right hand.
"Truth be told," Viktor said, yawning as he pulled his shirt over his head, "the gossip about Alen and Grenseal was always better, but that's probably because it was true. This one night, not long before we hit Shasarazade, I was up on the battlements for a bit of air, and well let's just say I never knew Grens was that flexible."
"Scarleticia?" Flik spluttered, with considerable delay.
Viktor flung his shirt at the nail in the wall; it missed and slumped onto the floor. Viktor shrugged. It was close enough to being put away. "Come to bed, Flik. Quit standing there like a scandalized lighting-rod in a cape."
"I'm sleeping in the chair," Flik spat, without moving.
Viktor flopped across the bed, and seemed to make a point of showing off how comfortable it was. "Listen, Flik," he said, stretching. "People are gonna say what they're gonna say. And they're gonna say it whether you're sleeping in the bed, or in the chair, or all the way in Two River. Me, I'd rather laugh at rumors after a good night's sleep."
Flik glared at him, at the only set of scars he knew better than his own, at the only man he could fairly say knew all of his, as well. They owed their lives to each other more times than could be counted. It really was no wonder that there was gossip.
Viktor was already snoring by the time Flik hung up Viktor's shirt, put his own tunic on the next nail over, and crawled under the blanket.
He was roused, only a few hours later, by a soft knock on the door. Viktor was deeply asleep, untroubled. The knock came again, gentle but not tentative. In the deep quiet of the night, Flik didn't think there was any cause for alarm, or that they were under attack. He still reached for his sword before padding over to the door and opening it.
"Took you long enough, handsome."
Standing in the doorway, her smile brilliant under a russet banner of long hair, was Odessa Silverberg.
The bottom dropped out of Flik's universe. He stared at her in stunned, heartbroken silence.
"What?" she said, hands on her hips, blue eyes wide with mock-insult. "Has it been so long you've forgotten my name?"
"Odessa," Flik breathed, her name slipping out of him like the last heart's blood from a mortal wound. His denial and disbelief were overwelmed as her teasing expression became one of simplest joy. All at once she was in his arms and his lungs were full of her scent and her warmth, her mouth found his and the pale replacement of her name in steel tumbled forgotten from his fingers.
He lost himself in her, his hands caught in her hair, memorizing the shape of her face and the way she fit just so against him. He kissed her until he made himself dizzy, he whispered her name for every time he could not let himself say it, before. She silenced all his questions before he could ask them, drawing them both inside the room, closing the door behind them.
The bed, however, was inarguably occupied by Viktor.
"I see how it is," Odessa said, tugging on the ends of Flik's headband. "I guess you're too good looking to sleep alone. It'd be a waste."
"It isn't like that," Flik began, trying to explain.
Odessa lifted one eyebrow, her arms across her breasts in that way that he had never been able to argue with. "Isn't it."
"Of course it isn't!" Flik burst out, desperate to make Odessa, of all people, understand. "We just-- Surely you know there could never be another woman--"
"Viktor is hardly another woman," Odessa said, dryly. Flik knew she was teasing him, knew that reasonable tone of voice that had always undone his protests of honor and passion. "I told him to look after you, I should have known he would take that to heart."
"There could never be another anyone," Flik declared, vehemently. "Surely you know that."
"Oh, Flik," Odessa sighed, placing her hand against his face. Too late Flik realized it was more than love illuminating her face. It was the moon rising behind the shuttered window, scattering thin beams of light over her, and through her. She was fading away, dissipating through his fingers like the dream she was, still smiling. "Even a named sword has two edges."
Flik woke himself with her name, choking on his tears.
He sat up in bed, the first sob catching against his lungs, and put his face in his knees as the hollow, ragged sound of grief made its way out of him. He had only ever let himself mourn like this, in the dark after dreaming, and alone.
Or not so much alone, in this case. Viktor's arm was suddenly around his shoulders, the firm wall of his chest like the trunk of a sturdy tree as he caught Flik up against him, and said nothing as he held Flik's shivering body in his embrace. He knew all Flik's scars, Flik remembered, and this was the greatest of them.
Flik, who only a few days ago had learned how to give comfort, let himself learn how to accept it as well. Some things, he supposed, were worth a few rumors.
"I thought I might find you here," Flik said, emerging like a blue ghost out of the shadow of the withered tree. The ruin of the old burial ground, though tidier than it had ever been since before North Wind fell, was still wrapped in perpetual shadow now by the overhang of the castle and the remaining walls. "Everyone's up at the tavern, celebrating Neclord's defeat and Tinto joining the alliance. And asking where you are."
Viktor busied himself smoothing the pebbles at the bottom of the marker. "Dad died long before Neclord came here, you know," he said, and stood up, brushing dirt off his knees. "Some war way off somewhere that he had no business being in."
Flik flashed a smile as elusive as the flicker of his rune. "Doesn't sound familiar at all."
"Heh." Viktor scrubbed his glove across his eyes. "Doesn't it. I barely remember what he looked like alive-- now all I remember is what Neclord dredged up out of the ground." Viktor placed his hand against the smooth curve of stone. Winger craftsmen had deep respect for the dead and a cunning gift with marble, though they thought stone a cold thing for houses. All the rough markers in the cemetery were being gradually replaced with their simple, elegant work. Viktor hardly recognized his father's name, in letters the man himself probably couldn't have read. "I buried him again, before I left here, and then again when we came here after Muse. This is my Dad's third grave," Viktor sighed. "And now-- now it's his last one."
For a moment they stood together in silence, drinking in the dark calm of the burial ground. The only interruption was the faint snore coming from a snow-white bat nestled up in the tree nearby.
"Let's go up the tavern," Flik said at last, putting his hand on Viktor's shoulder. "I'll buy you a pint." He thought at first that Viktor might refuse, but Viktor only patted the stone one last time.
"Rest easy," he said, and then held his breath as though waiting for some response or sign. None came. The white bat yawned, stretching her wings, and the dead of North Wind slept on. Viktor looked up at Flik and smiled, as a man who at long last has come home.
"Two pints," he said, throwing an arm around Flik's shoulders, knocking the swordsman off balance. "At least."
One pint turned into three or four or more, Flik had already lost count by the time that bastard Marley brought out the brandy. When he and Viktor staggered up to the third floor, Flik was drunker than he had been in a long time, a fact that registered a slight, inexplicable warning in his brain. Inexplicable, at least, until they were confronted with Viktor's door, and the room they had shared now for several weeks.
"Well," Flik said stepping out from underneath Viktor's arm and glad the wall was there to catch him. "Goodnight."
"Bwuh?" Viktor said, blinking at him. "You're not staying?"
"There's hardly any reason for me to now," Flik said, very quickly, or as quickly as he could manage in his inebriated state. "It's over, isn't it? Your father's not the only one who should be resting easy."
"Oh," Viktor said, "Right. But what about you--"
"I'll be fine," Flik answered, too quickly.
There was a very uncomfortable pause, both of them standing in the doorway of Viktor's room, niether one willing to leave neutral ground. Flik would maintain, later, that he only meant to step aside to let Viktor pass through; Viktor would equally swear he only reached out to steady Flik, who was visibly swaying. They would repeat those assertions to each other, in the months and years that followed, until even just the mention of lingering in a doorway would prompt a smile, long after other memories of that war were faded with time.
The only thing they could agree on was that the other probably started it, by stepping too close or reaching out too far, so that somehow they wound up half-in and half-out of Viktor's door, tangled up in a kiss that neither of them had the honesty to expect.
Footsteps and laughter sounded in the stairwell, and without a word of agreement they were both inside Viktor's room, the door was firmly bolted and they were stuck in leather armor and gloves that could not be shed fast enough.
"I'm out of practice," Flik tried to explain, as he also tried to unravel the lacings of Viktor's shirt, giving up on both and just pulling the tattered buckskin garment off entirely.
"I never stuck around long enough to get any practice," Viktor answered, and Flik's headband came free in his hands. "Guess we'll have to make it up as we go."
The bed that had seemed so small over the past month was now more than enough, as they both did their level best to settle more than a few casual wagers among the members of the Unicorn Army. Those bets had been settled ever since Flik and Viktor dragged each other out of the ruin of the Scarlet Moon Empire; it was only that they were the last ones to figure out the details.
Viktor was solid earth and grounding for Flik's lightning, and both of them laughed at their unsteady hands, and admitted more than once that they had just gotten too drunk, and wouldn't it be awkward in the morning. For once it was not only Viktor's clothes in a tangled heap on the floor. And then they wrapped around each other, and knew the names of their matching scars, and in the midst of pleasure they mouthed the tracings of old pain until the memory of every wound lost its sting.