He couldn't sleep.
Flik shoved at his pillow, though it wasn't at fault.
If he couldn't blame his restlessness on the pillow, Flik wanted to blame it on the war--on having grown accustomed, once again, to being in hostile territory and volunteering for the night watch. He was willing, even, to blame it on Nina; he'd adopted a nocturnal schedule for a while as part of his Nina-avoidance campaign. But he was not good at lying to himself. The war was over, Nina had been successfully evaded, and he was in familiar territory.
That was the problem. He'd been here before.
He'd stayed at this inn. He'd slept in this very bed. He'd marveled and held a lover in his arms here before.
All those years ago, Odessa had overwhelmed him. Finally out on his own, trying to make it as a mercenary, he'd been introduced to the anti-imperialist leader and his destiny was set. She'd burned with such resolve, seemed so strong in her convictions, how could any warrior not pledge his life to her? And then she'd chosen him, let him close enough to share her loneliness with him, let him close enough to share her bed...
He'd never stopped being amazed by her. Even on the night that they'd stayed at this out-of-the-way inn while on a mission together--a year after she'd first taken him to her bed--he'd stayed awake to watch her sleeping. Her spirit was always larger than life, and it seemed impossible that he should be able to contain her within his embrace. Yet, there she was, her warm breath ghosting across his shoulder, her breasts soft against his chest. He'd pulled her closer still, wrapped an arm around her waist, and held her. It was all he could do. It was everything.
He didn't know why she had chosen him. He'd feared, early on, that he bore some resemblance to her martyred fiancé, but no one would tell him what Achilles had looked like, and eventually he understood that it didn't matter. Love did not require exact reciprocation. It was more than enough that she trusted him. And what trust! A leader must not reveal her vulnerabilities, but she had, though only to him.
Their first time together, she'd kissed him. At his startled look and hasty backing away, she'd shaken her head and taken his hand. She'd kissed his hand then and whispered against his curled knuckles. "I'm sorry, Flik. I'm only a woman."
"I'm sorry, Flik."
Now, he couldn't think of a single inch of his skin that she hadn't whispered those words to. She'd never accepted his protests.
"Don't, Odessa. That's nothing to apologize for. Never apologize for that."
Flik shuddered and pressed his forehead to the back of his companion's neck. She'd never believed him, had she?
In his absence, she'd made that apology for the last time to Viktor. When Viktor had shared her final words with him, they were so familiar that he'd heard them as if she'd been speaking directly to him.
"I'm... so sorry, Flik. It appears... I've chosen to be a woman... rather than commander of... the Liberation Army."
Flik clenched his fists. Which was worse? That she'd trusted him, but never believed him? Or that he'd been mistaken all along? He'd so failed--
"Flik? You okay?" the man in his arms asked groggily.
Flik kissed his shoulder blade and tried his best to be soothing.
"Hush, it's okay. It's okay, Viktor."
Viktor's chest shook as he snorted at that answer.
"That's not what I asked, now, is it?"
"No, it's not." Viktor rolled away from him and onto his back. "Are you okay?"
"I was just thinking."
"Plenty of time to do that during the day, you know."
"I was thinking about Odessa."
One of Viktor's hands found his and drew it to his chest.
"And people think I have a weird relationship with my sword."
Flik thumped him with his free hand.
"Not that Odessa, you big lug." He thumped him again for good measure. "Now move over."
Viktor rolled onto his side, and Flik spent a long moment wrapping himself around him again.
"Skin rug on a bear," Viktor murmured.
"Better than a bear on me," he replied. It was an old joke between them, something to make light of the fact that Flik would not let Viktor hold him.
"Tell me about it?"
"Of course, I'm going to tell you. It's your fault I was thinking about her, anyway."
"Isn't it always?"
"Yes." Flik rubbed his cheek against the curve of Viktor's biceps. "I was remembering her final words."
"'Tell him that his kindness always saw me through hard times . . .'"
Flik closed his eyes. Which hurt worse? Her words? Or the gentleness in Viktor's voice every time he relayed them?
"Ah... no. Not those last words."
"Oh, sorry. I--"
Flik pressed his fingers to Viktor's lips.
"Why did she choose me? Why did she have to choose me if I was going to fail her?"
"Well, that's the wrong question--"
"What? No, it's not."
"Yes--Gah, I can't talk with your fingers in my mouth." Viktor tugged on his wrist, moving it so that Flik's palm was flat against his throat. Flik could feel the strong beat of his heart, and when Viktor began to speak again, he felt his voice before he heard it.
"How could she not choose you? You believed in her so much. You named your sword after her."
"That's just the tradition--"
"No, you named your sword for her. Choosing you was... It was choosing to believe in herself."
"Are you saying I trapped her?"
"Huh?" Viktor turned his head as if trying to look at him in the dark. "Why does everyone think I'm the stupid one in this relationship?"
"Most likely because you are," the Star Dragon Sword snapped from its spot beside the bed.
"Shit, Flik, you've woken up the sword."
"Well, it's hardly my fault!"
Flik bit his ear. Viktor yelped, but from the tone, Flik was certain he only did so to aggravate his sword.
"I've already told you it's all your fault." "Normal people would be asleep at this time of night." Flik and the Star Dragon Sword spoke at the same time.
"Normal people," Viktor said, "don't have talking swords. Now, if you please, Flik's upset and I've got to sweet-talk him for a while, maybe tell him some dirty jokes about swords."
"Please tell me you didn't just waggle your eyebrows at your sword."
"And which sword would you be talking about?" Viktor snagged Flik's hand and brought it down between his legs. "Viktor Super Plus, perhaps?"
"Oh, please," the Star Dragon Sword said. "It's hardly more than Viktor Double Minus."
Flik buried his face in Viktor's hair and laughed.
"Hey!" Viktor said. "I don't have to take you on this adventure--I can find another cave to leave you in."
The Star Dragon Sword didn't respond.
"And you," Viktor said to Flik. "It wasn't that funny."
"Yes, it was." Flik kissed him and gently squeezed the length that had just been slighted. "He's wrong, of course, but given his perspective... Well, you are shorter than him."
Flik nuzzled the back of his neck.
"If your feelings are hurt, I can tell you why it was your fault that I was remembering Odessa."
"And that will make me feel better?"
Flik shrugged. "I don't know. I want to tell you, though."
"I was thinking about how well you fit in my arms--"
"Excuse me? I fit?"
"Who's telling this story?" Flik smacked Viktor's belly. Given how tightly muscled it was, it could take the abuse. "Yes, you fit. It's not a conventional fit, but it works for me. It's surprisingly comfortable."
"Works for me, too," Viktor said quietly.
"As it should. So I was thinking how strange it is that you fit in my arms and that reminded me of how I used to think the same about Odessa."
"What? Come on. She wasn't a fragile flower, but she wasn't exactly Ronnie Bell, either."
"I'm not saying she was a giantess, I'm just saying I was surprised. She was... I don't know. She seemed bigger..."
Flik held Viktor tightly. "Yeah, she was," he whispered. He listened to the beating of Viktor's heart for a while. Viktor was a good man... and a good friend.
"Does it bother you? That I'm still in love with her?"
"God, no, Flik. You know better than that."
"Why doesn't it? Shouldn't it? I mean, you love me..."
"So?" Flik asked.
Viktor sighed. "I'm not getting any sleep tonight, am I?"
"Why doesn't it?"
"You named your sword after her."
"And that makes it okay that I don't love you?"
"Certainly not!" Viktor shifted. "I don't suppose for once you'd let me face you in bed?"
"Will I get answers that way?"
"Yes," Viktor said, and Flik loosed his hold on him. Viktor turned, kissed him briefly, then lay flat on his back. He patted his belly.
"Climb on up. The view's great from here."
Flik snorted, but settled on top of him. Viktor tried to come across as an insensitive clod, but where it counted, he was unusually respectful of boundaries.
"Comfortable?" Viktor asked.
"Okay. First things first. You love me." He held up his hand. "Don't interrupt. You love me and you know it, because you haven't tried to kill me yet."
Flik laughed. "Maybe I have tried."
"Not very well, then. Seriously, no one outside of those who loved me like family has ever been able to stand more than a year with me, right? Hell, even my sword has tried to kill me."
"I'm still mad," Flik said, "that I didn't get to see that."
"It wasn't pretty. He's a very cranky sword."
"I am still in the room," the Star Dragon Sword said.
"And we all know you could get up and leave if you really wanted to, so go or shut up," Viktor told it.
"Why, you..." The sword rattled about a bit before residing into silence.
"Maybe that's what I love about you." Flik leaned close to him. "You're so brave when you're talking to inanimate objects."
"There, see? As long as you can admit it."
"What? You want me to talk to your sword, too?"
Flik tugged on a lock of Viktor's hair. "Be serious."
"Why did you name your sword Odessa?"
"Because I loved her. That's what we do."
"Yeah, yeah, that's your clan tradition, but why did you do it?"
"I answered already. She was the woman I loved. A warrior names his sword--"
"Flik, why did you of all people choose to follow that tradition? You've already told me that when you left on your Journey of Manhood, you had no intention of returning. You said that the Way of the Warrior wasn't what it once was, that you wanted no more ties to your village, that you'd find your own Way."
"I loved her. I was ready to die to protect her--I wanted to die to protect her."
"And so you named your sword after her?"
"What?" Flik pushed away from him. "You are so obnoxious."
Viktor used his considerable strength to anchor him in his grasp.
"Listen to me. I know you loved her. I know you're still mad that you couldn't die in her place, but that's not why you named your sword after her. If you'd wanted so badly to die for her, you would have named your shield Odessa and left it home with her. Got me?"
"No. You've got me."
"Your shield doesn't have a name. But your sword is Odessa because you loved her so much, you were ready to fight for her dreams. You pledged to do everything in your power to make what she lived for--and what she died for--a reality. That's why she chose you. That's why she couldn't help but love you."
"You think?" Flik asked.
"She didn't get to see her dreams come true, but I never saw anyone die with more confidence. She knew. She trusted you. She had your promise."
Viktor's arms engulfed him. "I'd make a crack now about how I'm only god-like, but that would probably set my sword off again."
Flik choked on something that wasn't quite a sob.
"You didn't fail her, Flik. And I'm going to keep telling you that till you believe me."
"You couldn't have started telling me this years ago?"
"And miss out on the chance of getting to be naked with you? Hell, I'm dumb, but I'm not stupid."
Flik jabbed him in the side, before kissing his jaw. "You are such a jerk."
"Thank you," Flik said.