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Gard surveyed the bloody wreckage surrounding her. “Well. Not quite the celebration of my nativity I was planning. But certainly bracing.”

It was good to see her, but I didn’t waste time on a greeting. Instead, I jangled the chain hanging from my wrists. A moment ago it had come in useful as an improvised garotte, but I was less keen on its original function: tethering me to the floor of this dank little dungeon, like someone’s maltreated mutt. Gard didn’t leave me waiting.

She made her way over to me, striding over the fallen-- not zombies, Gard had shouted draugr, then aftgangr, and I’d have to google that later, but whatever taxonomic description was appropriate, they made piss poor henchmen and guards-- and did a quick visual check for injuries. My worst complaint was chafed wrists, or maybe the finger shaped bruises waiting to blossom over my arms and shoulders; it had taken a bit of manhandling to get me restrained in the first place.

Satisfied I wasn’t about to keel over, Gard gestured at the chain with her axe. “Trust my aim, Nathan?”

I’d never seen her miss. I knelt, pressed my wrists against the stone floor, and moved them as far apart as the chain would allow. Gard came down on me with a smile and a sharp edge. Before I had time to flinch, the chain shattered, manacles falling from my wrists in a shower of green sparks. Magicked metal, surprise surprise. Handcuffs would have held me just fine, but instead they’d added a layer of supernatural complexity, vulnerable to the runes etched on Gard’s axe.

Frowning at the shattered metal, Gard hooked me under the elbow and pulled me upright. I didn’t need the assistance, but Gard was the first living, breathing person I’d seen all day, and she happened to be a person I was rather fond of. If there hadn’t been an issue of personal pride and professional standing, I’d have gone in for the hug.

Gard already had her phone out, calling in. “Target unharmed and secure. Hostiles neutralised. Clean up requested.” She hung up, all brisk efficiency, before I could gesture for the phone. “Marcone sends his love.”

Yeah. In the form of a Valkyrie rescue party who was supposed to be on her day off. I appreciated the gesture. Monoc’s overtime bills had been known to give Johnny fits; he could afford them, but they played merry hell with his budget codes. I’d only been gone for nine hours, but that was long enough for me to get cold, and tired, and hungry, and long enough for Marcone to fret. In his silent, don’t-return-to-a-lit-firework manner.

Nine hours. He couldn’t have wound himself up too tightly in nine hours; empirical evidence suggested Gard wasn’t under orders to bundle me back to the office, or a hospital. “Debrief?”

“Noon tomorrow.”

Morning off, one of the perks of being abducted. I contemplated heading back to my apartment by myself, crawling into bed, and sleeping alone after a day spent chained up underground, surrounded by dead things. It didn’t feel like the healthiest choice.

“Want some company?” I asked Sigrun.

“Very much,” she smiled.

 

Gard had certain traditions after a fight: mead, or a suitable substitute-- which the adventurous should note does not include honey flavored tequila-- sex, maybe singing if there was enough mead, and definitely feasting if there was enough sex.

Which is how we found ourselves sitting on the kitchen floor of Gard’s apartment, staring into the fridge, surrounded by crumbs and wrappers. Basking in the bright light of the refrigerator, a thought stirred in my post-coital, mead happy mind. Nativity. It wasn’t just a normal day off.

“Many happy returns,” I said. “Should’ve said something, I’d have brought you a cake.”

Sigrun checked the digital clock on the oven, which bore witness to the fact we’d slipped past midnight. “Twenty minutes too late! I’m owed reparations, Nathan.”

I stretched, comparing happy, well won aches against my lurking souvenir bruises. I should probably get off the floor. “What would you like?”

Gard considered me for a moment. I only had a pair of boxers on, so there was quite a lot to consider. “Perhaps I would have a cake. I’ve had a sweet treat or two to mark my birth, but I’ve not tried the sugar decked sponges with candles.”

“Playing with modern traditions?” I asked. Gard’s engagement with the particulars of twenty first century life varied. She took to certain things with fascinated grace, and could, for example, fly a helicopter into a combat zone, but had some kind of aesthetic objection to manipulating data in Excel.

“It’s not that modern, by your standards,” she said. “Just not a tradition I’ve coincided with yet.”

I considered the logistics. “How many candles?” It might take an impractically large cake to meet her requirements.

“Hmm... My years might burn it down. We could eat our fill, then set it alight,” she grinned.

Usually, I wouldn’t sign myself up for a culinary bonfire. But Gard had saved my life. Granted, she was paid to do that; it fell into the extremely broad category of duties we defined as ‘security consultant’, but there was still a certain level of personal gratitude engendered by the act.

Gard was smiling at me.

I went to buy a cake.

 

More accurately, I went and found my pants, rescued my cellphone, and then moderately abused my authority in the Outfit. I don’t know how you source a birthday cake and candles in fifteen minutes on a Sunday night in Chicago, but Johnny hires competent people and pays them well, so my request was at the door in less than a quarter of an hour, complete with a box of matches I hadn’t thought to ask for. I just hoped no-one had raided a birthday party for me.

I set the cake box down on Gard’s kitchen table, and folded back the lid. It was very... pink. It had pink balloons, and sparkles, and pink candles, and Gard made a game of pressing herself up against my back to take a peek over my shoulder. Her breath teased the back of my neck, and then she fell about laughing, starting a one handed round of applause against my shoulder, other hand preoccupied with a cup of mead.

I kept a straight face, lit the candles, and cleared my throat. I’m not much of a singer, but Happy Birthday is supposed to be sung badly, and before I could get embarrassed, Gard started mangling the tune with me. I gave her three solemn hip, hip hoorays as she blew out the candles. There were only nine of them, but Gard looked suitably amused.

Possibly too amused, based on her choice of cutlery. “Let’s cut-- not with the axe!” I waved Gard away from the table, glad she was willing to be moved, and then cut two sizeable chunks with a more modest kitchen knife.

We feasted.

 

It turns out not even Valkyries are immune to eating their bodyweight in sugar, and as Sigrun collapsed onto her bed, patting at her belly, I felt like I’d made a significant contribution to our ongoing cultural exchange. And maybe got my own back for the tequila. “That was glorious,” she said. “If I ignore the nausea.”

“Traditionally, people have a slice,” I leaned against the doorway, fighting my own sugar coma. “Not the whole cake.”

“Traditions are made to be eaten,” Sigrun said, and then frowned at her own logic. “Possibly too much mead and too much cake.”

“Sign of a successful birthday.”

“True,” she yawned, and patted the covers beside her. “Warm my bed a little longer, Nathan?”

I didn’t take much convincing.

 

My morning consisted of relaxed, playful sex, a hangover cure, and breakfast, not in that order. I recommend it as a palliative for draugr abductees.

We made it to the office by 12, to find an absence of Marcone and the presence of several Important-but-not-Urgent status reports informing me he was sitting in some poky interrogation room at the invitation of the Chicago PD. It happened every now and again, if someone got brave or ambitious or wanted attention. The lawyers were on top of everything, all an unpleasant misunderstanding, happy to help with the force’s enquiries, etc, etc. He’d be fine.

‘Hurry up and wait’ was nothing new to me or Gard; I laid into a book, and Gard borrowed my laptop, claiming a desk over by the window. I spent a pleasant half hour listening to intermittent clicks from her side of the room, and it wasn’t until they trailed to a halt that I looked up, mid-chapter. Gard was staring through the screen, with the expression of someone who had accidentally started link hopping and couldn’t build up the momentum to stop. I stood, stretched, and wandered over to ask if she wanted rescuing from Wikipedia.

The rescue faltered, and I got drawn in myself when I realised Gard had landed on an article about Valentine’s Day. “That’s not a cake holiday,” I said, thinking she might still be in the mood for edible traditions. “There’s chocolates and flowers and cards, though, if you fancy them.” Not that we were anywhere near February.

Gard stretched out, tipping her head back to look at me, considering. “I think I might. But not in the way I’m told I should want them.”

I considered the bluntly gendered, heterocentric idealisation of monogamy that lurked behind the term ‘Valentines Day’, and then compared that to how Gard and I treated one another. I was intrigued. “Oh?”

“I’m the Chooser, and I find myself greedy for choices. For a game.” Her smile curved past professional and into something that reminded me why it was a bad idea to let Gard get bored.

“What kind of game?” I asked, ready to make a strategic retreat if she suggested arm wrestling, because that was only intriguing if I was in a mildly masochistic mood.

“To select my own Valentine and woo him. Choose gifts for him. That would be a pleasant diversion, wouldn’t it Nathan?”

“Ah-- ” I don’t usually go nonverbal around Gard-- I’d recovered from that tendency after the first two weeks of her assignment-- but then she’d never threatened to woo me before. I had no frame of reference for this; we hadn’t dated so much as fallen into bed together after our first shared skirmish, so I picked the safe answer. “Depends on the gifts.”

“Modern ones,” she said, with the kind of this-will-be-fun! smile I associated with violent brawls. “This is just an idle fancy; no severed heads or polar bears.”

Polar bears? I added that to my Norse Google List. “I meant, depends what they mean, Sigrun.”

She turned and whacked me across the chest with the back of her hand, playful, but I could still feel the strength in it. “Nathan, would you take me for a faerie? A love token incurs no debt; I’d have you free or not at all.”

I remembered her slicing through my chains, her grim delight in laying waste to the draugr. Gard was careful with me, when she had to be, when mortal strength wasn’t sufficient, but delighted in my strength all the same. She wouldn’t suggest a game I couldn’t play to the fullest.

I’m cautious by nature and experience, but sometimes curiosity gets the better of me. I nodded.

“Good! So, tell me Nathan, what... chocolates? Yes, what chocolates do you like?”

That was a simpler question. “Don’t eat much of it,” I said, and then remembered the last function I’d followed Marcone to; I’d had to accept a tiny plate of tidbits to keep the serving staff at bay, and I’d conceded to a fit of boredom by picking at it. Some of the chocolates were surprisingly pleasant. “Salted caramels. Those are good.”

“Hnnh,” Gard said, and waved me away in favor of Google toolbar. I got back to my book, trying not to grin as she angled the laptop away from me. The game was afoot.

 

The police kept Marcone for six hours, which wasn’t long enough to break any records, or cause any significant disruptions to business as usual, but it was long enough for Gard to get impatient with enforced idleness, and slip out the door with some mutter about wardings. Long enough for my stomach to start rumbling too, so by the time Johnny made it in, with the expression of a man who’d spent the day refusing bad coffee and poorly constructed questions, I was ready to make a break for it.

I stood up, and we checked one another over, silently.

“Debrief over takeout?” John said.

“Yeah.”

 

We stocked up on Thai food, and then reconvened in one of Johnny’s apartments. Before we even finished opening all the containers, Johnny had ditched his tie and jacket, kicked off his shoes, rolled up his sleeves, and was busy shovelling pad thai into his mouth with a fork, chopsticks ignored on the table.

“Jesus. Did the cops not feed you?”

Johnny swallowed before he answered, because he could lose the clothes quicker than the manners. “Nothing edible. How are you?”

“All in one piece,” I said, gesturing with my own chopsticks. “Unlike the things that lifted me.”

“Mm. Yes. Ms Gard wasn’t impressed that they interrupted her time off. That hasn’t caused any fric-- ”

“We’re good.”

“Good.” We both took a silent moment to congratulate ourselves on dodging a relationship discussion. “Monoc didn’t have any immediate intel on the ringleader, but-- ”

My phone went, letting me know Gard was at the door, so I moved to let her in. She was still in business dress, neatly pressed, but had one of her bags of tricks slung over her shoulder. She must have come straight from a warding. Hungry work.

“Has Marcone eaten everything?” she asked, sparing me a clap on the shoulder before darting past, answering the call of steamed dumplings.

I followed her back into the main room, and pointed at a couple of unopened containers. “Saved you some.”

“My hero,” she said, nodding to Marcone before snapping her chopsticks apart in a way a lesser man would find threatening. I didn’t laugh at Marcone straightening his collar. Somewhere deep down, he’s sensibly intimidated by Sigrun.

We ate, debriefed, and then ate some more, picking at things we didn’t really want. As I was eyeing up a cold piece of prawn toast, a yawn snuck up on me. “Hnnnnnnagh,” I said. “Ugh. Home time.”

“I’ll walk you to your car,” Gard said. John looked pleased.

I scrubbed a hand over my face and shrugged off their assistance. “Not planning to meet another undead army in the garage.” I hoped. Stranger things had actually happened to us, but there were only so many precautions you could take without hibernating in a panic room, waiting for life to leave you safely behind.

Gard stood, shot me a smile with a hint of a challenge in it. “A dozen is a generous definition of ‘army’,” she said, and then beat me to the door to hold it open. I tried to work out if that fell into the category of ‘wooing’ or just ‘walking in the same direction’.

“Give me the collective noun and I’ll use that,” I said. Gard didn’t follow me out towards the elevator.

This was probably wooing.

 

When I got to my car, I fished the keys out of my pocket and found a small package sitting on top of them, all ecologically unsound fancy packaging, cursive font and gratuitous bow. I squinted, and then realised I didn’t have to worry about a ninja bomb maker with a bad sense of humor: Sea Salted Caramel Chocolates.

...huh. I replayed the evening, trying to remember Gard getting close enough to slip something into my pocket. The door, when I’d let her in; she’d given me comradely slap on the shoulder, and stepped smoothly past me. A distraction. She was good.

Even though I was full, I got in the car, opened the packet, and slipped one of the chocolates into my mouth. That first hit of sweetness, chased by a savory hint in the caramel, worked just how I remembered, and a pleased sound rumbled out of me. It was the kind of sound Gard liked coaxing from me, and I grinned. She’d have liked that. Maybe I should have accepted the escort, found out if she was free tonight, shared the chocolates...

...except I really wanted to sprawl out across my sofa, half reading, and half watching re-runs of British panel shows until I dropped off, TV still chattering in the background. Now I could do it with chocolates. I turned the ignition, and tried not to let my surprise show when the headlights lit up the door to the stairs, Gard’s blonde head and strong smile peering through a glass panel.

I fumbled my phone out, trying not to laugh. FYI: Stalking =/= Romance, no mttr wht the kids r reading

Gard checked her messages and blew me a kiss, before heading over to her own car, phone in hand.

Mine buzzed. Then I’ll be less secretive in future. It pleases me to see you pleased, Raudr. I shall please you again. <3<3<3.

The less-than-three hearts had me snorting a laugh, because she hadn’t used them before and I had no idea who she’d picked them up from. I waved as Gard pulled out of the garage, already curious about what kind of form ‘less secretive’ might take.

Getting wooed was pretty entertaining, so far. I stuck another chocolate in my mouth and drove home.

 

Even though I’ve seen Gard fight, and I have first hand experience of her speed and commitment to action, I wasn’t expecting her second move the very next morning.

I don’t keep much on my desk. We aren’t the kind of office for executive stress toys, pictures of the family, or unfiled paperwork. We’re the kind of office with easily accessible weapons, clear lines of sight, and secure exit routes. So when I walked through the door on Tuesday morning, I wasn’t expecting to see flowers, slap bang where I usually set up my laptop.

Roses. A dozen pink roses, in a clear glass vase. I could smell them, even from the door, and it’s not like I usually keep cut flowers around, the novelty drew me in, the splash of colour in our utilitarian room in this work-in-progress building catching and keeping my eye. I was standing by the desk and still staring by the time Johnny came in.

“Thank you for Gard?” he asked me, finishing off the last of his coffee and dumping the cup in my bin. “Wouldn’t she prefer a bottle of whisky?” I shrugged, went about unpacking my laptop and feeling strangely furtive. Johnny was in a chatty mood. “Were you suitably apologetic?” he had his eye on a little card, nestled between the leaves. I’d overlooked it.

Johnny made a move.

“No.” I got between him and the flowers, Johnny’s hand planting on my chest instead of securing his objective, and frowned down at him. I had a suspicion he was going to be dumb about this. “They’re for me. Haven’t read it yet.”

Johnny blinked, checked my face to see if I was serious, and then retreated to his desk in silence. He pulled out his phone to check through his calendar. I could hear him thinking.

“Just to clarify, she bought you-- ”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

“Because I like them, that’s why.” It was true. Maybe a little confusing, because I’d never thought of flowers as personally appealing, but then I’d never really stopped to think about it either. They smelled better than coffee-and-Johnny’s-cologne, and every time I saw them, I thought about Gard grinning at me, amused at my enjoyment.

“Hmm.” Johnny made a show of losing interest, and settled in to a morning routine of vaguely threatening but legally defensible phone calls.

I picked up the card, and realised it was just the care instructions for the flowers. Oops. Still, at least now I knew I was supposed to trim the stems and pour a little packet of powder into the water. I’m not exactly experienced with horticulture, but with instructions I could manage not to mangle a pretty bouquet.

I sat down to make a few calls of my own, further down the food chain, with a lot more monosyllabic grunting and menacing silences, occasionally rolling my eyes at John when he overplayed his hand with a tortured turn of phrase. The morning passed like that, business as usual, without getting ambushed by romance.

 

I had to take a working lunch, by which I mean I ate a sandwich in the front seat of Tulane’s car. He was playing chauffeur and backup through a couple of hotspots in the city; we’d been having some unexpected clashes with competition from out of town, so it paid to make our presence more obvious. I walked a few blocks, loomed over some people who needed to be loomed at, and got invited in for a few backroom discussions with people who wanted a word in Johnny’s ear with no words written down.

When I got back to the office, Johnny was still at his desk, flicking through a folder that had appeared in my absence. “All well?”

“You’ve got trouble brewing down in Englewood. Someone’s trying to undercut you.” I settled at my desk, watching him frown distractedly at the documentation.

“We know who?”

“Not yet. I’ve put Tulane on it.”

Johnny nodded, unconcerned. “Erikson dropped off the package.”

“His op ran ok?”

“Fine. He wanted to let you know he’s free Friday evening. ...And that your flowers are pretty.”

I nodded again, refusing to take the bait. “They are.” I looked up, and Johnny was looking at me. Clearly, we were having a conversation about this.

I stood, closed the door, and then slapped one of the runes etched into the doorframe. Privacy. “Go on then, spit it out.”

“They’re a little unprofessional. It couldn’t hurt to put them on another desk, temporarily. Perhaps the one Ms Gard likes to use.”

Unprofessional. I did the math. (Johnny Lives By His Reputation + Caters to Certain Prejudices as a Shorthand for a Strong Front ) / Johnny Recruits People Who Are Very Good At What They Do = Johnny Needs to Chill the Fuck Out.

“No-one in this outfit is stupid enough to think I’ve gone soft because I’ve got pink flowers on my desk.”

“It’s the image-- ”

I smacked him upside the head with a rather clumsy analogy. “If Gard walked through that door in a tutu, you really doubt she could still kick your ass?”

I didn’t get an answer straight away, the mental image evidently causing Johnny some consternation before he could get his words back in order. “No. Though as we’ve never actually fought-- ”

“Off topic. You know she’s capable, so pink and frills won’t matter. Everyone knows what I-- ”

“Right, fine. I concede.” John huffed his surrender, frowning at me. I don’t know why he bothers; it’s a foregone conclusion every time we argue, unless he overrules me.

I left him to reflect on exactly how and why he was wrong, and tried to get back to my paperwork, doing my best to ignore a lingering sense of resentment. It would be a bad idea to stick a flower behind my ear just to try and rub Marcone up the wrong way. It probably had thorns. I’d stab myself in the head.

 

As much as the idea of poking at John’s overblown sense of machismo appealed to me, we were due to move offices, so I took the flowers home at the end of the day. Or tried to; as soon as I reached my car, I stalled, trying to work through the logistics of securing delicate flowers and a breakable vase full of water in a moving vehicle. It hadn’t come with instructions for that. Maybe if I tipped the water out, wrapped a belt around the vase--

A piercing wolf whistle distracted me, and I turned, getting ready to intimidate whichever of the construction guys thought it’d be clever to mock me. It was Gard, phone out again. “May I have a picture, Nathan?”

“Going to set me as your wallpaper?” I asked.

She smiled. “Unwise. My sisters might see it, and there are too many of us to share you peaceably.”

I considered what Monoc family dinners might look like, and imagined a lot of quaffing and smutty jokes. “Could be awkward. You free? I can cook dinner.”

“I can be free,” Gard said. Her culinary skills extended to charring meat and pouring things; I’d yet to see her turn down a home cooked meal. Gard swept the flowers out of my hands and slipped into the passenger seat.

She waited until I’d pulled out into traffic before speaking again. “You liked them?” she asked, and I nodded. “Erikson said Marcone was being... particular.”

I grunted. “Wasn’t manly enough for him. You know what he’s like.”

“You look more the man beside these flowers”, Gard said, plucking lose a petal and brushing it against the hair of my arms. It tickled, unexpectedly. “But I could find a manly gift, if it pleases you.”

“I’m already pleased,” I grinned at her. “Trust me.”

 

There was a lot of mutual pleasing that evening. I’d set the flowers safely on my bedside table before getting jumped by Gard, totally distracting me from my plans for spaghetti and meatballs. We made for a good appetizer though, breaking for pasta and then hitting the bedroom for dessert and a nap. Or at least, I was napping, and then I heard the fake-shutter-noise of a phone camera.

“Really?” I said into the pillow. “Pictures of me sleeping.”

“It’s on your phone,” she grinned. “It’s a pretty shot, Nathan.” She dropped it next to my head, and there I was, face smushed into the pillow, mostly just red hair showing, and behind me, like some bizarre kind of halo, pink roses.

She’d set it as my wallpaper. I had to change that. In the morning. Definitely.

“Mmmm,” Gard stroked a hand down my back, and then dropped a kiss between my shoulder blades. “Adorable. Sleep well.”

She left, silently, and I curled into the blankets to sleep.

I barely seemed to close my eyes before my alarm clock went off. Wednesday, we were switching offices to another of John’s projects, closer to my apartment; I could steal another ten minutes. I hit snooze, and slipped back to sleep, grinning blearily at the roses.

 

As per protocol, I got in before Marcone, double checking that the place was ready for a temporary base of operations. I waved Jackson over, the guy in charge of the construction crew. He’d been making serious attempts to look busy and useful ever since I’d got in, clutching at his clipboard like some kind of prop shield.

“We up and running?” I asked, watching Jackson try to edge out of my personal space without acknowledging he’d accidentally stepped into it.

Despite the nerves, he seemed to know his stuff. “Yep. Room’s clear, power’s on, consultant stopped by to finish up the feng shui.” That would be Gard. Anyone not cleared to know about the Baroning side of John’s business tended to struggle with her methodology.

“Good.”

“The lady left a package for you,” Jackson said, staring down at his notes. I was amused by my little burst of excitement at his words.

“Oh?”

“Yeah, it’s on the desk.”

I nodded and sent him about his business. Jackson scarpered, like he was escaping an execution squad.

I checked the office, even rougher than our previous setup, with unpainted door frames and no carpet. There it was, right on the desk I probably would have picked; a long package, maybe the length of my arm, broader than my hand, and when I tried to lift it, heavy.

I checked the note. There’s lumber in the loading bay. No one will miss it.

“This is what passes for romance between you two?” I didn’t yell, because I’m a professional, but I did nearly elbow Johnny in the nose, adrenaline-and-muscle response to the fact he hadn’t grown out of sneaking up on me.

“You can talk.” I said, a little stung, a little childish, because I was having fun, and I didn’t want to fight for the privilege. Johnny hadn’t had a healthy relationship since his twenties, so maybe that was hitting below the belt. Or maybe he should quit throwing himself his pity-evil-me party and go out on the town.

He threw me a look, and then decided to be the bigger man. For once. “Going to open it?”

I was, because death by curiosity wasn’t worth winding Johnny up. He behaved, shutting his mouth and donating a knife when I was nearly beaten back by Gard’s cellotape fetish; she’d almost managed to laminate my present in an attempt to subdue the plain brown paper.

I made my way down to a hinged wooden case, and I flicked it open.

“Now that is pretty,” Marcone said, and we both stared down at a wicked looking axe. The metal of its blade fanned out, wide and thin, an intricate series of runes creeping from haft to lethal edge. I itched to pick it up, to hear the blade cut through the air.

“There’s spare lumber-- ”

“--in the loading bay,” Marcone finished for me. “Yeah. Early coffee break?”

It didn’t take long to clear everyone out of the loading bay and secure the doors. Jackson was practically vibrating with terrified interest, clearly convinced we were conducting Top Secret Mob Business, maybe waiting on some kind of illicit shipment, but he did a good job securing the room all the same.

We ditched our jackets, and after a couple of swings ditched our shirts, because sweating through businesswear isn’t anyone’s idea of fun, and then took turns smashing up abandoned wooden pallets and plasterboard.

John laughed when I crumpled through five slats with one blow, and I knew I was grinning. My shoulders ached; I should have warmed up, should probably have requisitioned safety goggles, but doing stupid inadvisable shit is good for the soul sometimes.

I handed the axe over to John, and he hefted it thoughtfully. “Think I could hit that shelf?” he said, pointing to the other side of the room. Maybe not that stupid.

“Veto,” I said, breathing heavily. “Think we need supervision before you take up axe flinging.”

“Always spoiling my fun, Nate.” John hefted it again, fascinated by the curve of the blade, looking like he’d shuffled off a couple of decades during our little rampage. “I don’t think this came cheap,” he said, and turned an old, irritating grin on me. “Do I need to ask Ms Gard her intentions?”

“It’s a game,” I said. “Don’t worry about it, I checked. You’ve got woodchips in your hair.”

Predictably distracted, Marcone shook himself out, and then checked his watch, frowning. “We need to clean up. Check through the project plans with Jackson.”

“You might not want me in on that one,” I said.

“No. He does look like he’s about to wet himself every time you look at him too hard.” John considered his options for a moment, careful as always with new talent. “Let’s break him in easy.”

If Jackson had any sense, by the time he was broken in, he might realise it was smarter to be scared of Marcone than me.

Johnny re-suited, at a speed that surprised me no matter how many times I saw it, and stepped out the door at a brisk pace, putting on his serious business face for the benefit of Jackson.

That’s when I heard footsteps behind me. In the secured loading bay.

“Easy, Raudr,” Gard said, and I relaxed my hold on my axe as I spun. Gard eyed me up and down, my shirtlessness suddenly appreciated for reasons other than practicality. “It suits you. I knew it would.”

“Have fun watching?” There might be other people trying to creep back into the loading bay to do their jobs, so I didn’t flex for her, but I was starting to wonder if Gard had certain voyeuristic tendencies we hadn’t explored.

“A great deal,” she grinned, stepping in to clasp me around the middle, hands stroking up my back, following the contours of muscle. A good sign she knew no-one else was nearby. “You’re a fine sight, even in practice, finer in war.”

“The runes look pretty good too. Yours?”

Gard ran a hand over my shoulder, the muscles of my arm, brushed down my fingers and around the shaft of the axe. I swallowed, debated setting it down before we had an unfortunate incident. “Oh yes. Passive protections; this blade won’t shatter, or cut its wielder.”

From what she’d told me, Gard’s kind of runework didn’t come easy. This was a bit of a leap from flowers, and I suddenly felt bare in ways that had nothing to do with clothes. “Sigrun. Thank you.”

“It’s worthy of you,” she said, as if it was obvious, unworthy of the effort of pointing out. Then she cocked her head, considering me.

“What?”

“I can ask Marcone for his blessing, if I worry him.”

I tried to picture that conversation, and then cringed away from the unholy dickishness of Johnny’s eternal mockery. He’d never let me live it down, which would be fine, because I’d be forced to throttle him. “...don’t you dare. I’m not living in a paranormal romance novel, if he wants to play this liege lord bullshit he can damn well-- ”

Gard was laughing at me. Johnny’s not the only one prone to winding up his coworkers.

“That’s not funny,” I sighed.

“Oh, it is, a little.”

“Well, you aren’t a gracious winner,” I said, and trailed an innocent finger down her side in a way Gard found ticklish but wouldn’t admit to.

Her grin twitched, but she didn’t break away from me, meeting my eyes instead. “Oh? And have I won my game, Nathan?”

“Yes,” I said, voice deeper than it needed to be in the middle of a work day. “Consider me wooed, Sigrun. Deeply, thoroughly wooed.”

“You were good sport,” she said, and stepped back to look me up and down again. “I’ll be back to claim my prize tonight, if you’re agreeable.”

I was extremely agreeable.