The Lothbroks are the only family where Athelstan leaves after a night of babysitting with bruises.
Everything about the Lothbroks kind of punches you in the face, actually: from Ragnar, who’s about a billion feet tall with eyes that pierce, to Lagertha with her I will punch you in the face perpetual expression, to the way they struggle to keep their hands off each other; not to mention their gigantic, impressively decorated house, brutally boisterous children and habit of yelling at each other instead of talking.
Athelstan has been reliably but secretly informed that he’s the only person who’s agreed to babysit for the Lothbroks more than once. The last time the agency called him to let him know that the Lothbroks needed someone to watch their kids, the woman on the other end of the phone sighed, observed: “damn, you must really need the money.”
He used to; he’s not in a bad position financially, now, as long as he’s careful, which means that the reason is something much, much worse.
“Athelstan!” Ragnar says when he opens the door, like any of this is a surprise, like he’s an old friend who’s casually dropped by. “Come in, come in, my wife’s still getting dressed.”
“I think I’m a little early, actually,” Athelstan allows; he’s not as nervous around Ragnar as he was when he first met him, but the fact remains that his bicep is about as wide as Athelstan’s waist and that’s kind of terrifying.
Ragnar waves a hand to show that it doesn’t matter, herding him down the hall, decorated with photographs of the family, and into the kitchen that is about the size of Athelstan’s flat. “Want a beer?” he asks.
“I’m about to look after your children,” Athelstan points out.
“True.” Ragnar laughs, a rich, full-bodied one, and adds: “something stronger then?”
It’s the usual kind of night where Bjorn attempts to kill Athelstan a handful of times but also goes to bed when he’s told, probably to carry on plotting yet more dangerous ways to spend his time, and Gyda is always unnervingly quiet so he can never tell if she’s also trying to find a way to poison him slowly. Either way, it’s nothing he hasn’t learned to handle, and he’s feeling quite pleased with himself as he sips his tea with a book in his lap and waits for Ragnar and Lagertha to get home.
He startles a little when he sees Bjorn standing the doorway, seeming more childlike in his pyjamas, studying him in a way that might not be entirely homicidal.
“Do you need anything?” he asks, closing his book.
Bjorn shrugs with one shoulder. “Are my parents back yet?” he asks.
“Not yet,” Athelstan replies, “but they should be soon. Do you want a glass of water?”
Bjorn shrugs again in that way that means he would, so Athelstan takes him to the kitchen. Bjorn fiddles with the tea box Athelstan hasn’t put away yet, expression vaguely mutinous.
“Do you want some?” Athelstan teases a little as he hands over the water, getting a mumble that might be thanks in return.
“It looks horrible,” Bjorn says bluntly. “They only keep it here for you.”
He turns and goes back upstairs before Athelstan can reply, can point out that he shouldn’t be taking drinks to his room in case he spills them.
Athelstan doesn’t know what to do with that information, it still struggling with it when Ragnar and Lagertha get home, a little drunk, the strap of Lagertha’s dress sliding from her shoulder.
“You don’t have to leave if you don’t want,” she offers, heels kicked off, getting a bottle of wine out of the fridge. Her hair is falling out of its chignon, and Ragnar’s lips seem quirked into a complicated smile every time he looks at Athelstan.
“I’ve got class tomorrow,” he stumbles, even though it’s not until the afternoon, but his Masters is the best shield he has, and it works every time.
“Get home safe, then,” Ragnar tells him, clapping a warm hand against his shoulder that Athelstan tries not to feel, and it’s almost worse when Lagertha presses a kiss to his cheek, smelling of perfume, of Ragnar’s cologne.
It’s a relief when he’s out in the cold, fingers knotted in the strap of his messenger bag, breath misting in front of him: he needs it to get his head cleared.
It’s times like this that Athelstan regrets moving to an entirely new place to do his Masters degree; it would be really helpful if he had someone to actually talk to. The people at his church are nice, really nice, and often invite him to things on Sundays, but no one is the kind of person he’s going to be able to say: so, there’s this couple I babysit for, and… He’s not even sure where to go with it after that; not without being branded at best a slut and at worst a homewrecker.
He tried googling it once, but frightened himself and confused himself and hastily deleted his web history after that.
They’re friendly, he tells himself, he’s become a semi-regular fixture in their home so they can continue going out and enjoying what seems to be a really successful marriage, and the fact he apparently has no self-control isn’t something he wants to bother them with. They pay him to look after their children for goodness’ sake.
He refuses the next time they call up and ask him to babysit for the Lothbroks, citing the fact he has an essay due as an excuse. He actually finished the essay a few days ago, because he’s nothing if not organised, but no one needs to know that. And then he curls up with tea and his books and feels sorry for himself, because there doesn’t seem to be anything else to do.
It never occurred to him that the Lothbroks do anything so normal as grocery shop, so Athelstan is entirely unprepared when he runs into Ragnar and Lagertha having a knock-down row over a jar of sauce, standing in the middle of the pasta aisle, overflowing trolley shoved to one side. They stop in unison when they see him, identical grins breaking out on their faces.
“Athelstan!” Ragnar booms, and Athelstan becomes uncomfortably aware of people turning to stare, and also that his basket is largely full of coffee. “Bjorn and Gyda missed you last time!”
He’s pretty sure that Bjorn was only sad that he couldn’t come up with a host of new ways to try and murder him, but he doesn’t point that out.
“I’m sorry,” Athelstan offers, “I had a really important essay to do.”
Ragnar waves one massive hand. “Of course, of course. But you’ll come next time?”
Athelstan swallows, his throat suddenly tight. He could probably tell the agency that he’s sick of getting damaged by the Lothbrok kids and he’d never get sent there again, and that would be better for everybody involved.
“I will,” he says.
Lagertha grins with too many teeth and Ragnar says: “excellent”. They pick up their argument again without missing a beat, and Athelstan quickly steps back from the shouting, heart pounding for no reason that he will name.
The house is strangely quiet when he’s called over about a month later; Ragnar and Lagertha are both there to open to door for him, dressed nicely but not as elegantly as they usually are for a night out.
When they lead him to the kitchen, there’s already a warm mug of tea made just the way he likes it, waiting for him.
“Where are the children?” he asks, perching on one of the stools at their kitchen island.
“Oh, they’re staying with friends,” Lagertha replies lightly, as Ragnar liberally pours them both glasses of wine. “We thought you could take care of us for once.”
Athelstan feels the blood drain from his face, his heart shuddering in his chest.
“Lagertha,” Ragnar scolds softly, “we weren’t going to scare him.”
Lagertha sighs, but she sits down opposite Athelstan anyway, swinging bare feet, oddly intimate, and he has to look away.
“We’d like you to spend tonight with us,” Ragnar explains. “We’ll make dinner, talk…” he waves a hand, indicating a handful of things Athelstan can’t think about.
“Am I being paid for tonight?” he asks, relieved at how his voice doesn’t shake.
Ragnar and Lagertha exchange looks that Athelstan can’t read, and he stands up, pushes his mug away from him. “I think I should go, I don’t… I’m not…”
Ragnar catches him before he can get to the door, curling fingers around his arm, firm, but loose enough that Athelstan could pull away if he wanted to.
“We’re not explaining ourselves well,” he says quietly, “but we’d like you to stay, and we’d never pay you for the pleasure of your company.”
Athelstan looks from Ragnar to Lagertha, who smiles encouragingly, a softer expression than he’s used to seeing on her face.
“Oh,” he murmurs, feels his face flush.
Ragnar lets him go, trailing light fingertips from his elbow to his wrist before he steps away from Athelstan altogether.
“Will you stay?” he asks, something in his eyes that Athelstan’s never seen before.
He doesn’t even have to think about it; “yes” tumbles out, real and ragged, and Lagertha’s laugh is nothing short of delighted.