Flik studied Leona's dress for a moment. It had a deceptively modest neckline. Three buttons held its high, band collar closed, while below, a deep, narrow V flashed glimpses of pale skin whenever she moved. Viktor would have shoved his hand right in, but Flik hesitated with his fingers at her collar.
"May I?" Flik asked.
"Yes." Leona tilted her head back, and the line of her neck looked so elegant, and Flik was unfastening those buttons so slowly--
And what was Flik thinking? He should just kiss her. Why waste an opportunity with someone attractive and willing--
Or would that be weird? Viktor had just kissed her, after all. Would she taste like him? That was--
Viktor shook his head. No. No, she had a beer after that. His taste was probably gone.
The buttons were finally undone, and Flik paused with his thumb against her throat.
"There's a pocket." Leona's voice was huskier than usual. "In the lining on the right."
Flik shifted to her left. He pressed the key against his palm with his thumb, and slipped his hand into her dress.
The way he was going at it, his knuckles would brush against her skin. Viktor would have gone for his fingertips against her breast and the chance to squeeze a palm-full on his way out, but watching Leona shiver, he decided that Flik had made a good choice. Sure was taking a long time, though. He would have thought that Flik would want this over as soon as possi--
"Leona, where is the pocket?" Flik asked.
"Hmm?" She lowered her head and blinked innocently. "Did I say 'right'? I meant 'on your right.'"
Viktor snorted. "You've done it now, Leona. He's going to kill us."
"I'm not worried," she said.
"Well, you should be. He's a fine swordsman--almost as good as me."
"'Almost'?" Flik said.
Leona stepped up on stool rung, reached over, and ruffled Viktor's hair. "I'm not worried, Sweetie. I'll have plenty of time to get away while he's killing you."
"'Sweetie'?" Viktor said.
"Might as well be nice to you before you die."
"What makes you so sure he'll come after me first?"
"Because," Flik said, "she's a lot smarter than you are."
"Here, here!" Leona said, then pushed her glass towards Viktor. "Now, fill 'er up while Handsome tells me what's going on between you two."
"Nothing's going on," Viktor said.
"Right. I believe you." She turned her attention to Flik. "So, what's going on with you guys?"
Flik handed her the key, and she tucked it into her bodice. They both sat down.
"Viktor's had his Fury Rune for too long," Flik said.
"You think I've had it for too long."
"I know he's had it for too long." Flik didn't even glance in Viktor's direction. "He got it embedded early in the war."
"But haven't you had yours longer?" Leona tapped the back of Flik's hand.
"Yeah," Viktor said. "You've had that for as long as I've known you. There's nothing wrong with me having mine for a couple of years."
"Lightning's an element." Flik spoke as if he was talking to a child. "Elemental runes have completely different properties."
"Since when are you a Rune Master?"
Flik ignored him. "Have you noticed how he's been... unstable lately? How he keeps overreacting to things?"
"And how his temper has gotten even worse than his sword's?"
She nodded again.
"Hey! Don't go comparing me to that piece of junk!"
"He has been moody lately," Leona said. "I figured he wasn't getting laid enough."
"What? And you didn't offer to help me out?"
"Oh, Viktor. I'm a busy woman. I can't 'help' everyone."
"Oh?" Viktor propped his elbows on the bar and leaned forward conspiratorially. "Who have you been helping?"
"A lady doesn't kiss and tell."
"So don't tell me about the kissing--tell me about the good stuff."
Flik cleared his throat.
Viktor looked at him, then back at Leona. "Oops," he said, and winked.
"I give up," Flik said, standing. "Viktor, be ready to leave after breakfast. We will be going to Toto."
"You're going. Either walking or bound-and-gagged, I don't care." Flik turned and left.
Viktor stormed after him. "Hey. Hey! Don't you--"
"Let him go," Leona told him.
"Why should I?"
Gods, listen to him. He was growling, and his hand was at his side, ready to draw his sword. Good thing he wasn't armed or...
Viktor shoved his hand through his hair. What is wrong with me?
"Give me one good reason," he said.
"I've got two. Which do you want?"
He rubbed at the back of his neck. "Better hit me with both."
"Are your muscles tight?"
"Get over here, and I'll give you three," she said.
"One, someone needs to keep me and this whiskey company."
"Story of my life. Always the chaperone, never the bride."
Leona rolled her eyes. "It's best that way, Honey, you'd look awful in white lace. Now shut up, I'm talking. ... What was I saying?"
"Right. Two, I still give good back rubs." She patted the stool next to her. "Plant yourself here."
She stood, then hoisted herself up to sit on the bar.
"A lady doesn't kiss and tell, huh?"
She wiggled a bit and fixed how her skirt had ridden up. "What, this? All the genteel ladies sit like this nowadays. It's quite fashionable."
"And that's the big news from Toto?"
"You bet. Sit down."
He sat with his back to her, and she ran her hands over the line of his shoulders.
"You're even broader than you used to be," she said.
He shrugged. "Started bulking up once I stopped getting taller."
"I didn't think that was ever going to happen." She poked at the back of his chest armor. "I thought you were going to be a giant... How does this come off?"
Viktor tugged the strap to loosen its buckle, and she peeled the leather armor off of him.
"What should I do with this?"
"It's like me," he said, taking it from her. "It can take a beating." He dropped it on the floor.
"Oh, a tough guy." She dug her thumbs into a knot of muscle at the base of his neck.
He winced at the sudden stab of pain, but knew he'd feel better in a moment. Some of the best pleasures in life came at the cost of a little pain.
She kneaded his muscles for a few minutes, then paused. "Now, don't get any funny ideas."
He felt her shift behind him, and then her knees were against his sides. He leaned back between her legs.
"You sure you don't want to 'help' me? For old times' sake?"
She rubbed his collarbone, but did not answer.
"Or should I not have asked?"
"Oh, Viktor." She pet his hair.
"You'd be welcome in my bed--for a night or two--for old times' sake..."
"If," she said. "If... I thought you really wanted to be there."
She waited a moment. He didn't say anything else.
"Exactly," she said. She took a drink of her whiskey, then handed the glass to him and continued the massage in silence.
Viktor slowly relaxed. His skin tingled under her hands, and his shoulders ached pleasantly, and her thighs were soft against his bare arms.
He breathed deeply. She smelled good... like rosemary and warm skin and good liquor and... Hmm, that was odd. Shouldn't she smell more like leather? Leather and oil and--no, that wasn't right. He was confusing her with--who?
He shook his head. Maybe that was enough drinking for tonight. Best to just finish off this glass...
He drank, then pivoted on the stool and set the glass down near her hip. "What was three?"
"You said you'd give me three reasons."
She scooched back and poked his chest with her bare toes. "I guess I did. Foot rub."
He tickled the arch of her foot. "Talk."
She kicked at him playfully. "Three, Flik doesn't want to fight with you."
"Sure he does. It's all in fun."
"Didn't seem like fun to me."
"That's just how we get along--it's a guy thing."
"That wasn't getting along. He's worried about you."
"It's not a big deal," Viktor said.
"Is he right?"
"Do I look like a Rune Master? How should I know?"
She brought her foot down hard in his lap.
"Viktor, is he right to be worried about you?"
"'Maybe,'" she repeated.
"Look, I don't know. Okay? I think you guys are exaggerating about my temper. I feel fine. But sometimes--Gods, give me another beer, will ya?"
"Keep talking," she said without budging.
"My hand burns a little sometimes, that's all."
"What, like touching a hot frying pan?"
"Like it's on fire... from the inside."
"Doesn't that hurt?"
"Nothing I can't live with."
"Oh ho! You're so stoic. Let me see." She shook her foot till he released it, then slid forwards and held out her hand. "Come on, let me see."
"I said it's nothing."
"Then why are you fighting with him?"
"I don't want to get rid of it."
Actually, his skin crawled every time Flik mentioned his rune.
He sighed, folded his arms on her lap, and rested his head on his arms. Leona stroked his hair, letting her nails lightly scratch his scalp. He sighed again.
"Shaggy old bear," she said quietly.
After a few minutes, Viktor kissed her knee. "I lied," he said with his lips against her skin.
"I can handle it, but it hurts like hell."
"Why don't you want to get rid of it, then?"
"I don't know."
Just the thought froze him with fear. Fear that was so cold, it burned.
"Maybe it doesn't want to be removed," he mumbled.
Her hand stopped. "'It doesn't want'--how does it want anything?" she asked.
"Or maybe I'm just imagining things."
"You really should tell Flik about it."
Viktor shook his head.
"You're going to have to talk to him about it," she said. "You can't avoid it forever."
"Sure I can."
"Not a chance. I know you, Old Bear. You hate keeping secrets from your friends."
"Flik's your best friend."
"No, he's n--"
He remembered their first meeting five years ago. Flik had been this quick-tempered--and even quicker-witted--boy with a wickedly dry sense of humor. Viktor loved a good laugh, and he'd been inclined to like the kid--until Flik made it clear that he had time for no one but Odessa. As a distrusted newcomer, Viktor had taken enough crap from everyone else in the Liberation Army to put up with it from a pretty boy, too. And that had been that.
He remembered the look on Flik's face after they had fought side-by-side for the first time. That had been two years later, under McDohl's command--Odessa had never sent them on missions together. When the battle was over, they had both turned to stare at each other in surprise. Neither of them had been half as incompetent as the other had been expecting. Flik had looked completely baffled, and Viktor had laughed at him. Flik had slugged him and then joined in the laughter.
He remembered how well they had fought together against Barbarossa's Sovereign Rune, and how he had found Flik later with an arrow in his gut and a pleased look on his face. He remembered his relief when Flik agreed to put off his reunion with Odessa for a little longer, their difficult passage across the Badlands, and countless moments of Flik laughing at him and his bad-tempered sword.
"Huh," Viktor said. "Wonder when that happened."
"Oh, it usually happens when we're not looking."
"But nice, isn't it?"
"Mmm." Viktor closed his eyes.
She brushed his hair back from his temple. "You going to sleep on me?"
"Come on, then. Let's get you to bed."
Viktor nodded, and Leona took charge. She scooped his armor up from the floor, dumped it in his arms, and herded him up the stairs. They were halfway up before Viktor remembered.
"My flag. I brought it down to show Flik. I left it... on a stool."
"Oh, I'll go find it for you."
When Viktor didn't move, she swatted his behind. "Go on. Get in bed. I'll bring it to you."
"I wanted to show it to Flik."
"There will be plenty of time for that later. Now go on."
Leona waited until he began to climb the stairs again, then went to fetch his flag. She brought it up to his room, where she teased him about not being able to hold his drink anymore and tucked a blanket around him. She thought about putting his boots away so he wouldn't trip over them in the morning, but decided that one of the benefits of never marrying was that she could laugh over such things when they happened, instead of worrying about them happening.
She left, taking care to close his door quietly behind her, turned, and crashed into Flik.
"Oh." She blushed. It was one thing to purposely bump into a handsome young man and another thing entirely to do it accidentally--while exiting another man's bedroom.
Flik steadied her, then drew her down the hall away from Viktor's door.
"Ah, Flik, that... wasn't what it looked..."
Flik shook his head, and her words trailed off.
"It didn't look like anything, Leona. Don't let it bother you."
Well, that wasn't very flattering.
"It could have been something!" she said, then cursed herself for speaking faster than she thought.
"Yes, it could have. You're a beautiful woman."
"But," Flik continued, "Viktor considers you as his friend--not as a lover. And he thinks those categories are mutually exclusive."
"Actually... I doubt he knows what 'mutually exclusive' means."
Flik bowed his head in acknowledgment of her point.
"You're most likely right," he told her and smiled.
They were standing in front of his bedroom now, and it was a pity that she knew what his answer would be if she asked him to consider her as a lover. He was so handsome and good-natured, so unfailingly polite to her--and so patently uninterested in her charms--that he made her nervous. But he was blocking her way as though there was something that still needed to be said.
She shuffled her feet. What was he waiting for?
"Look, I'm not one to break a confidence..."
"You're a good bartender," he said.
"Right. So you understand..."
"It's safe to tell me. I won't let him know you talked to me."
"Thank you. He said something that I didn't understand. He said..." She tried to remember exactly how he had said it. "That maybe his rune didn't want to be removed. Does that mean anything to you?"
The lines of Flik's face seemed to tighten. "Yes, it does."
"Is it... is that bad?"
"No, Leona." Flik opened his door. "Even if he is right, I'm not going to let it be a problem."
Ah, so it was bad, but Flik had it under control.
She gave him a sisterly peck on the cheek. "Thank you for keeping him safe."
He patted her shoulder. "Don't ever let him hear you say that."
He smiled. "Then have a good night, Leona."
"Yes, thank you. You too." She watched his door close, then headed back to her room behind the bar.
1. Viktor's drinking song is a translation of the Swedish drinking song, "Jag har aldrig vatt på snusen" (which I found at http://www.breitlingweb.de/PAGEBILD/SE_TRLe.HTM).
2. Viktor doesn't necessarily have a Fury Rune in the games, but I always give him one as soon as I can and never let him exchange it for another. I guess it's my fault that he's having problems with it now.
[End: Fury, Chapter 1: Never Have Something Naked Seen]