Flik kneels on one knee at her feet and draws his sword, displaying the blade in his gloved hands like an offering. If he didn’t look slightly ridiculous because of the red flush across his cheeks, Odessa would think him nobler than any count or general she’s ever met.
“Odessa,” he says, on breath that steadies as it goes, “please accept this, in your name and mine.”
He remains kneeling, but glances up at her and lifts the sword higher for her inspection. It’s the same sword he’s carried since she met him, and frankly she hasn’t the slightest idea what he expects her to see in it now. She peers closer at the blade--
--and her name is inscribed on the blade near the pommel, in clear and steady letters so deeply carved that no amount of sharpening could sand them out.
Well. That’s -- she’s not sure what it is, if she’s being honest.
It can’t be comfortable for Flik to keep kneeling like this, so she really ought to say something to him. She should close her mouth first, though, she’s gaping like a fish. Odessa swallows, searches for the right words, and manages to come up with, “This is--unexpected.”
“But,” he starts, then lowers his eyes, shakes his head, looks up at her with the resolve she’s seen so often in him, “but last night, we...I thought--” He tries again. “We’re married now.”
And that’s about as far as Odessa’s thoughts on the matter get. Maybe it’s proof that Uncle Leon was right and she’s the strangest sprout the Silverberg family tree has produced, because a proper Silverberg would probably be able to come up with a better response than when? but Odessa can’t.
‘Last night was magical,” Flik says, completely serious, “and I’m honored that you want me, and I accept, and hope you accept me as well.”
Last night. Oh. The back of Odessa’s neck tinges. “I’m, well, I’m flattered,” she says, and chooses her words as though she’s sifting through eggshells, “and I’m very glad you enjoyed it, too--”
“I did,” he says, “I thought you knew how much I did.”
The flush crawls up Odessa’s jaw. “Oh. Ah, yes.” Gods, please let Viktor be somewhere far far away and not listening to a word of this.
Flik probably wouldn’t notice if Viktor streaked through the room with a pint in one hand and a goat in the other. “And I love you,” Flik says. “And I want this. Please accept me.”
He looks so earnest, chin upturned and eyes as wide and blue and hopeful as a spring sky. Dousing that shine in his eyes would be like stealing a puppy’s favorite bone, but still, marriage is a bit much. More than a bit much, and that’s without taking the Liberation Army and its maintenance and campaigns into account.
He’s still waiting for her to speak. She sighs. “Flik,” she says, and thinks eggshells might be too sturdy for the previous comparison to work now, “forgive me, but this is a little--sudden.”
It’s amazing how quickly clouds can cross those eyes. “But--but we made love.”
Odessa chokes on whatever she was about to say, and presses her hands flat at her sides so she can resist the urge to bury her face in them. “Yes, but just the once.”
The next but dies on Flik’s lips, and they tremble trying to get out whatever comes next. “Oh. So I disappointed you.”
“No,” Odessa insists. Perhaps too loudly, because her voice rings from the ceiling of the cave, and she doesn’t relish the thought of a passing Imperial patrol catching her because of all this. “It was lovely, but marriage...” She trails off and shakes her head, because that’s clearer than anything else she can come up with.
Flik exhales, sharply enough that his breath breaks on the blade before he tucks it back into its sheath. “I’m sorry,” he says, already on his way out. “I shouldn’t have asked. I’ll--I’ll see you later. Maybe. Sorry.”
“Wait,” she says, but before she finishes whatever that thought was, he’s gone.
Viktor cracks his neck to the side, like he could let the answer out with the air between his bones. “And then he just left?”
“Yes,” Odessa says, and does her best not to slump onto the table, though she does give her half-finished pint a baleful look. “I tried to stop him, but I didn’t know what to say.”
“Sounds like you already said it.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt him.”
“And I don’t think you did, but I gotta say, that kid’s got big eyes.”
She should drink the beer. Gods know where Viktor got it from, and gods know when she’ll have some again, but everything in her mouth tastes sour and flat. “I know. Believe me.” She trails her fingernail through the condensation forming on the glass but can’t seem to trace an actual shape. “Humphrey says he saw Flik leave like he was in a hurry, though, and I’m worried.”
“I didn’t catch him on the way out, but I’m sure he’ll be back.”
“Yeah,” Viktor says. “Probably just needed to cool his head. Can’t imagine you turning him down after turning him on--”
Odessa’s cheeks heat. “It wasn’t like that.”
“Well, I know you didn’t turn him down. But you gotta admit, you slept with a virgin.”
Faceplanting into the table, no matter how tempting, is undignified, even in front of Viktor. “I didn’t know he was a virgin.”
Viktor just looks at her.
“All right, I suppose I should have realized that. Or given it more thought.” She rubs the bridge of her nose. She almost wants a scout to barrel in right now with reports of an Imperial raid on one of their bases, because at least she has plans in place for that.
Viktor shrugs. “Anyway, he’ll be back. And you can decide what you want to do with him after that.” He takes a gulp of beer. “So, how bad is he in the sack?”
“‘Cause yeah, that kid hasn’t been around any block I know, but he ain’t bad with a sword, so I figured--”
Odessa swats him in the arm.
“Pfft,” Viktor says. “Just asking. I figured after you take charge, like you usually do, he’d know his way around.”
She decides not to answer the second part of that, though truth be told she can’t say she has any complaints, and his sheer enthusiasm and vigor--she really shouldn’t think about this while Viktor’s smirking at her. “How do you know what I usually do?”
“Just a hunch. And thin walls. Sometimes.”
Well, that’s a point in the cave’s favor, at least.
Viktor laughs, raps his tankard against hers. “You really didn’t mean to lead him on, right?”
“Of course not,” she says. “I liked him.” She pauses. “I still do.”
“Then just hope he comes back so you can sort this out. I’d hate for the Empire to snatch him up or something.”
“I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
“Neither do I. But it would stink real bad if it did.”
“Flik’s back,” Humphrey says, and Odessa nearly drops the report she’s reading. Sometimes she forgets how silently he moves, when he puts his mind to it and when he isn’t fully armored.
“Oh.” She gives the report another cursory glance, but her eyes slide from one word to a different one halfway down the page and she can’t follow even the simplest sentences. With a sigh, she sets the report aside. “Has he said anything?”
Humphrey shrugs. “He hasn’t. Everyone else is talking.”
For a moment, Odessa’s tempted to pull her cloak over her head. She doesn’t. In hindsight, she really should have expected this. The Liberation Army may be growing, but their numbers are only so big, and while a substantial portion of them hide in this cave with not much else to do other than plan and train, word spreads faster than plague.
“I heard she hit him,” one soldier mutters to another when he thinks Odessa’s out of earshot. “That’s why he was all red in the face when he left.”
“Well, I heard she caught him stealing food.”
“Stealing food? Are you kidding? She definitely hit him ‘cause he asked to see her t--”
Odessa clears her throat, and she has to say, she’s never seen these two snap to attention so quickly before. “Is all well?” she asks, and they trip over their tongues to reassure her that no, no, everything’s fine, thank you Commander, your hair’s looking lovely today.
“Hey boss! Flik’s back,” Viktor says, emerging from one of the branches of the path.
“I heard,” Odessa says.
“Yeah, it’s kinda going around. Lot of stories too. None of ‘em are true, though, right?” He winks, obviously. Too obviously.
Odessa’s tempted to smack him again, but she’d have about as much effect as a gnat would, and there’s no better way to confirm rumors. “Nobody’s seen fit to tell me these stories,” she says, “so I really can’t say.”
“Probably for the best,” Viktor agrees. “Anyway, I’m pretty sure he’s out front. You should bring him in before someone sees all that blue and shoots him.”
Or questions him. “I’ll do that,” she says, and barely makes it to the next turn in the path before more whispers drift her way.
“I heard she caught him playing with her clothes!”
“No way, I heard he was trying to do this weird magic Warrior’s Village ritual and she threw him out of the army.”
“Is that why there were all those dead frogs speared on arrow shafts?”
“No, that’s lunch.”
This time, she waits for them to notice her presence. They don’t until she’s already almost out of sight, which doesn’t speak well for their observational skills. She might need to find posts for them that don’t require too much vigilance. Like counting arrows. Or peeling potatoes. Or scouring the cave floor for centipedes.
When Odessa finds him at the fore of the cave, Flik look only a little worse for wear, but he twitches at even the slightest untoward noise. “Commander,” he says, more bluster than nerve, “I’m sorry, but I’d like to request a few days’ leave.”
Odessa doesn’t have any reason not to grant it to him. Still, she hesitates. Are you all right? she nearly asks him, but realizes what an utterly foolish question that is in time.
He takes a deep breath, as if to force out words he’s practiced but doesn’t trust himself to say correctly. “I know I’ve already left and come back, but there’s something personal I have to take care of in Lorimar.”
In Lorimar? She blinks. Oh no, he isn’t returning to Warrior’s Village, is he? Her stomach knots, and she scolds herself for overreacting before it gets any worse. He didn’t resign, he asked for a few days’ leave. That’s all.
“All right,” she says. “Do you need an escort?”
“No, I should go alone.” His back teeth grind audibly. “Thank you, Commander.”
She nods, tries not to press her lips together too visibly. “Flik--” she starts to say, but has no idea what should come next.
He salutes. It’s hard to tell whether his hand shivers on the way up, but it’s steady on the way back to his side. He rests it on the hilt of his sword.
It’s peace-bound, tied to the scabbard with a cord so he can’t draw it.
The back of her throat stings, and she really ought to let him leave before anything else starts acting up. He’s a grown man, she reminds herself, and he managed the journey from Lorimar when he was younger than he is now. He’ll be all right.
“Milich Oppenheimer’s moved his troops close to the border,” she says. “Be careful.”
“I will,” he says. His cape snags on a bramble on the way out, but doesn’t tear.
Now, Viktor might’ve had a few pints already, but he shouldn’t have to blink twice to know it’s Flik four seats down at the tavern. But Flik’s got a couple day’s growth on his chin, and he’s spattered with dirt and rain and hell knows what else, and the blue of his cape’s weathered to a blood-brown. Between that, and the way he’s sitting hunched over with his forehead against the bar, Viktor can’t be blamed for not spotting him ‘til now.
“Hey,” he says, but Flik doesn’t so much as blink. Sighing, he gets up, clunks his tankard against the back of Flik’s thick head. “Hey.”
Flik raises one arm and swats in Viktor’s general direction, misses by a mile. “Don’t start.”
“Too late,” he says, cheerful as can be. A row of empty tankards is lined up in front of Flik--not the biggest row Viktor’s ever seen, but not half-bad either. “Besides, it looks like you’ve already got a pretty good start. Brings back memories, huh?”
“Too many,” Flik says, more to the bar than to Viktor. He taps his fingers on the handle of the nearest tankard, curls them around but doesn’t pick it up.
“Don’t look so blue,” Viktor says, because it’s too good not to, and ducks Flik’s next swipe. “C’mon, let’s grab a table, at least.”
“I don’t want to move.”
“You don’t have to,” he says. Good thing Blue Lightning Flik’s moving about as slow as syrup now, because it lets Viktor haul him away from the bar and hoist him over his shoulder. Flik sputters, rams his elbows into Viktor’s back and knees him in the front, neither of which does anything to stop Viktor dropping him into a chair.
“Fat bear,” Flik says, gripping the edge of the table to steady himself after that.
“This is muscle, you scrawny little drunk,” Viktor shoots back, and thumps Flik on the head again to prove it. “Where the hell’ve you been? You look like you’ve been through hell, anyway.”
“Had to go to the river and throw in the sword. I couldn’t do it.”
“I couldn’t do it. I picked up the sword and I tried to throw it in but I couldn’t. Not that I couldn’t lift it. I could lift it. It’s the same sword. It’s her. Odessa. The Commander. I mean. It’s her sword, not mine anymore, and she doesn’t want me, so I had to throw it in and I couldn’t. They’re right. I’m not a man.”
Now, normally Viktor’d shove a drink into someone’s hand if they got to talking like this, but he has a hunch that that’s not going to work now. “Whoa, whoa,” he says instead, and slides his beer away from Flik. “Slow down.”
“I’m not a man, Viktor.” Flik slumps in his chair, hangs his head toward the table. “We made love and I told her I love her and she doesn’t want me. I gave her my sword. She turned it down.”
“Wait a second,” Viktor says, and knows better than to mention that’s not exactly what I heard from Odessa. Not yet, anyway. “Is that really what she said?”
Flik groans, chin tucked all the way down to his chest. “She doesn’t want to be married to me. That’s what she said. We had sex but she doesn’t want to be married to me.”
“...and that’s a problem?”
“I gave her my sword,” Flik says again, like Viktor didn’t hear him right the first time. Maybe he didn’t.
“Okay,” Viktor says. “I think I figured out the problem.” Well, one of them.
“That’s a feat,” Flik says, and tries to roll his eyes but can’t focus them enough. Serves him right. Viktor feels just fine ignoring him.
“The problem,” he continues, “is this whole sword thing. What is this whole sword thing? Pretend like I’m not from Warrior’s Village for a minute, ‘cause it sounds like you never explained it to Odessa either.”
“I didn’t think I had to. She said she wanted to have sex.”
“Let’s let that part go so you can tell me what’s up with the sword.”
“All right.” Flik breathes, reaches down to his belt and fumbles to get the scabbard off. “I wrote her name on it. It means that I want to fight for her honor and devote myself to her. I know--I know she’s not like the women in Warrior’s Village now, she’s a warrior too, but she--she’s what I fight for. So I put her name on my sword. It’s hers now. Odessa. And I’m hers.”
Viktor puzzles it out. “And that means you’re married?”
“But you never actually proposed or anything?”
A flush crawls across Flik’s cheeks, shines through even under all the dirt. “I, er. I thought she’d proposed. Technically.”
“Yeah, see,” Viktor says, scratches behind his ear, “I don’t think she was thinking of that like proposing. More like--what’s that word, propositioning? Yeah.”
“So she just wanted to have sex with me.”
“So I tried to get rid of the sword and I’m an idiot.”
Viktor reaches over and claps him on the back, and at least he doesn’t stumble too far forward. “Now you’re talking. Don’t get me wrong,” he adds before Flik decides to wallow around in misery even more, “as her friend--not as her officer, but her friend, you get me, they’re two different things and she works real hard to keep them that way--I think she should’ve had this kind of talk with you before you two hopped in bed. Although she wasn’t complaining about that part, let me tell you--”
“Sorry. Look, the point is, you say you want to fight in her honor. Why? Was it just the sex?”
“No.” Oh good, Blue Lightning still has some of his spark. Heh. “No, I love her. She’s taught me so much and I believe in her and I love her.”
“I know you think you do, but--”
“Shut up, Viktor.” Flik breathes, braces his hand on the table, leaves the sword draped across his lap. “If you’re not careful you’ll start sounding like my old Village Elders.”
I’m not that old, Viktor almost says, but Flik’s not done.
“I know what I feel,” Flik says. “I don’t think you get that. I’ve had enough of people telling me what I’m supposed to be, and how I’m supposed to feel about what I am. She is the first person who’s understood that. I don’t just want her, Viktor. If I did I’d know what to do about it. You think I didn’t think about naming my sword for her? I thought about it for months. She’s done so much for me and trusted me and helped me, and I thought maybe I was just thankful, maybe it’s just because she’s wonderful, because of what she wants for this country, but no. It’s Odessa. I’d fight for her even if it wasn’t against the Empire. I’d give myself to her even if I wasn’t a warrior. I love her, Viktor.”
Huh. Well, what do you know, sometimes the kid does think before he opens his yap. No, he’s not a kid anymore, is he? And not just because he shaves more than once a week now, either.
“Let me guess,” Viktor says, “you didn’t tell her any of that.”
Flik sulks so deep into his chair that he’d drown if it were made of water.
“You should. I think she’ll be a hell of a lot more likely to hear you out.”
“You can’t,” Viktor repeats, cocks an eyebrow.
“I can’t,” Flik repeats. “I should just stop. It’s what she wants, right? Not being in love with me means not wanting me to love her.”
He should order another pint to deal with all this. He should order another couple pints to deal with all this. Maybe more than a couple. “Did you ask her what she wants? Hell, did you ask yourself what you want from her?”
“I didn’t.” Well what do you know, Flik can sink deeper into the chair.
Viktor elbows him, and doesn’t even have to dodge Flik’s bungled swat. “Why not?”
Flik mutters something that not even the mice in the walls can hear.
“I said I was embarrassed, you lunkhead.”
“Then buck up and get over it.”
“And what? Tell her again? I’m not crazy, Viktor.”
He’s not so sure about that, but that’s not the point. “Tell her what the sword means. Not the marriage part, the other part. Look, are you okay with loving her, even if she doesn’t love you back just yet? Or is that gonna make you mope even more? Be honest.”
“I don’t know.” Flik wraps his arms around himself, pulls the cloak tighter around his shoulders. “I honestly don’t know. Not if it hurts her or makes her think I want something from her. Even if I do want something from her.”
“So what do you want?”
“I want her to--” He grits his teeth. “If she let me, and she knew about it, I want her to accept what I feel. I don’t want to have to stop loving her.”
“You know what I’m gonna say, don’t you.”
“Yes. Tell her. I know.”
“There you go.” Viktor gives Flik’s shoulder a friendly squeeze. Flik winces, hisses like he just got punched, and the parts of his skin that aren’t smeared with dirt turn a weird kind of curdled white.
“Something wrong with your shoulder?”
“I tried to get rid of a hellhound,” Flik admits. “...without the sword.”
Viktor can’t help snorting, and Flik shoots him his best glare--what’d be his best glare if he wasn’t still cringing, anyway. “Tell you what,” he says, “get someone to look at that, and take a bath.”
“So you do know what a bath is.”
They’re low on arrows. Again. Odessa sighs, rubs the skin above her eyebrows, makes a note to send a pair of soldiers to scavenge for fletching. At least it’s almost time for harvest, and they ought to be able to gather enough provisions to last through winter. But she knows how many soldiers are itching to help their families in the fields and orchards, too, and she supposes she can’t blame them. She wishes she were in a position to grant leave, but frankly the Liberation Army doesn’t yet have the numbers to afford that.
Gods, going over the accounts alone can be depressing. Leave it to me, Sanchez tells her time and again, and it’s not as though she doesn’t trust him, but it’s her responsibility as commander to know these things.
It’s your responsibility as commander to sleep, too, she remembers Flik telling her, right before--
Her cheeks flush, and she pushes the ledger aside for now.
Someone raps on the cave wall as if it’s a door, coughs. “Commander,” Flik says. “I’ve returned from my leave. Thank you.”
“Oh,” she says, and knows the blush hasn’t faded at all. “Welcome back, Flik.”
“I got in last night,” he says, not coming away from the wall. “But Viktor...insisted that I get cleaned up first.”
“That’s strange advice, for Viktor.”
“Yeah, I think I said so too.”
He scuffs the floor with his heel. She watches his feet, and then his face, which is tinging as red as it was the morning they met.
“So,” he says.
She folds her hands in her lap, resists the urge to look at them. It isn’t polite or productive. “Ah,” she says, which isn’t terribly polite or productive either.
“I’m sorry,” he says, as much to the floor of the cave as to her. “I won’t say I shouldn’t have said what I said, but I shouldn’t have assumed anything. Not just about, er, what we did and what it meant, but about how you’d react because of it.”
“I made a number of my own assumptions, too,” she says. It’s only fair.
He nods. “Thanks. So I...think I should explain. Is that all right?”
He looks up, his cheeks still tinged red. “I love you. I don’t think I can change that, and I don’t want to unless it hurts you that I do. I...I named my sword for you as proof of that. It means that I want to fight in your name. That every time I draw her, it’s to protect your ideals and your hopes, and to honor everything you’ve done for me.”
Oh. Her cheeks are cooler now but the burn remains, settles somewhere deeper. The spark in his eyes is as bright as she’s ever seen it, crackling surer and stronger as he goes on.
“I know you don’t feel the way I do,” he says. “But can you accept how I feel and accept what I’ve done in the spirit I did it in?”
“Flik,” she starts, then shakes her head, stands. “Please come closer? I don’t like feeling as though I’m talking to you across some kind of gulf.”
He nods, and comes away from the wall, almost to the edge of her table. He brushes the edge with the backs of his knuckles, looks Odessa in the eye for the space of a breath.
“I--” No, she can’t bite her lip. She isn’t seventeen, for heaven’s sake. “I know I hurt you. And I’m truly sorry.” Before he can apologize, because she knows he’ll try, she goes on: “I, well, I like you a great deal. And I care for you. I wouldn’t have invited you into my bed otherwise. Please believe me.” The back of her neck must be the same hue as her tunic now, but thankfully he can’t see it.
He nods, but hangs his head like he can’t complete the gesture. “I do believe you. And I’m sorry. But I meant everything I said that night. It was--it was wonderful, and thank you, and now I know what it meant to you was different than what it meant to me.”
She half-expects Viktor and the others to pop their heads in the entrance and grin, but now isn’t the time to let her imagination wander like that. “Oh, Flik, you don’t need to thank me.”
He blushes down past the cowl of his cloak.
“What I was getting to, I suppose, is that--well, that kind of love is difficult right now.” And that’s the most ineloquent thing she’s said all week. She tries again. “Everything’s so uncertain. I don’t know where we’ll be hiding next, who we’ll be fighting next, who’ll join our cause next. With so much changing, I don’t think it’s fair to--promise things.”
Flik raises his head, and this time when he nods it doesn’t hang. “That’s fair. I mean, it’s not fair. I mean--”
“I know,” Odessa says.
He nods again, taps his fingers against the table. “So what should we do?”
We, he says. Not I, and not you.
“Let’s take things one day at a time,” she says. “I can’t consider marriage right now, but I can consider, well, letting this develop.”
“Oh.” A slight smile breaks through the flush on his cheeks. “I’m glad. Thank you. And I want that too. And if marriage ever comes up again,” he says, eyes bright, “you know my answer if you ask.”
Odessa bursts out laughing, and before any of that brightness in Flik’s eyes fades, smothers her laughter by pressing her lips against his. He staggers against the corner of the table, laughs, wraps his arms around her. The sound warms both of their mouths, makes her tongue tingle, and soon she can’t tell whether she’s laughing or sighing. She twines her fingers in his hair and he kisses her deeper, takes her upper arms and holds her against his body the way he did the other night and--
“Hey, get a room, you two!” Viktor yells from around the corner.
Flik jumps about a foot in the air.
Odessa breaks apart from him enough to shout back, “This is my room, Viktor!”
“--ha, what do you know, it is.” She doesn’t need to see Viktor to know he’s grinning wider than a cat with a saucer of cream. “You might want to hang something over the entrance, then. You know, just in case.”
“Should I defend your honor?” Flik asks Odessa, one hand on the hilt of his sword.
Odessa laughs and pulls him back toward the table. “Avenge it later, when there’s something to avenge.”
When he holds her waist instead of the sword, she knows he meant everything he said.