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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A Valentine's gift from Dreamspinner Press's Kate Pavelle



BY THE SWORD
A Sean and Asbjorn Story (takes place one year after “Swordfall”)

 A Free Read
“It’s Valentine’s day, guys! Those of us with a significant other have places to be.” Ken said. He was kneeling in seiza on the tatami mats of the remodeled quadruple garage where they practiced Japanese sword. The modest heat given off by the small pot-bellied stove in the corner was reinforced by a hint of woodsmoke and sandalwood incense in the air. Ken dusted the shiny blade of his katana with a bit more powder as they all cleaned their swords after practice.
Asbjorn rolled his eyes. “That’s what you get for being in a het relationship.” He, too, picked up the fabric-covered drumstick full of talcum powder and tapped it up and down his sword on each side. Just a few taps would do. Then a soft cloth to wipe the power off, and with it incidental fingerprints and moisture that might cause rust marks on the antique blade.
“Yer kiddin’, right?” Ken gave a quiet laugh. “You seriously think you can blow off Valentine’s Day and Sean will just pass it over?”
Would Sean just pass it over? Damn. Asbjorn wasn’t sure. There had never been a good cause to celebrate this stupid holiday before. Last year, maybe... but last year was complicated in so many ways, and then they eloped.
“If Sean didn’t want a big white wedding, he’s not gonna want a big red Valentine’s day. He’s not a girl.” Asbjorn tried for a confident tone, but he couldn’t help look up and scan the room. Ken’s eyes were on the blade he was cleaning. Razor sharp – attention was good.
Jeff snickered. His shoulders shook with barely suppressed laughter. His partner George glanced up, thought.
“Um... I hate to spoil Sean’s surprise, but he’s been after me for recipes. You better not stop for a slice of pizza on the way home.”
“Shit.” The cuss slipped out of Asbjorn on an exhale.
Nobody laughed.
“The florist will be closed by now,” George said. “Maybe a Supermarket desperation bouquet...”
Ken just snorted. Jeff put his sheathed blade into a padded gun case, stowed away the cleaning supplies, and nodded. “That’s right. A Desperation Bouquet. That’s gonna go over real big.”
Mindful of the fact that the best defense is an offense, Asbjorn shut his own sword case, slid the locks with a resounding click, and shifted on his knees to face Jeff. “So if both of you are already here, what did you do, eh? It’s not like you’re falling over each other to get home and cook dinner or anything.”
Jeff smiled. “We did Thai for lunch. George got me a box of ammo. Ammunition got real expensive, and he sprung for the good stuff. Hydroshocks.”
Asbjorn looked at George. “Yeah?” That wasn’t a chick gift. “And what did you get?”
“Flowers,” George said. “Sort of. I a whole armful so I can arrange them myself.” He grinned in anticipation, as though arranging flowers was something to savor.
Shit.
“There’s no way I’m getting Sean a ratty Desperation Bouquet,” Asbjorn said with a huff and got off the floor. He bowed on his way out of the room. “Bye, guys!” Swordcase in his hand, headed for the warm clothes he’d left in the men’s dressing room.
“Avoid drugstore chocolates!” Ken called after him. Echoes of laughter chased him out of the warm dojo and into the snow.

Sean heard the tread of Asbjorn’s feet up the stairs, heavy and familiar. Asbjorn was a bit early – fortunately, so was Sean and his dinner. The stew was hot and on the stove. The table was set a bit fancier than usual, but no candles. Candles would mean Sean was expecting something for the dreaded V-day, and if Asbjorn forgot, then Sean would feel like a fool. Using a tablecloth was a nice compromise.
Valentine’s Day had always been a tortuous experience. Sean’s high school had a “Carnation Day” where students could send each other flowers. They had been delivered during homeroom and Sean had always been one of the lone kids who never got any. It’s not that he didn’t send any – his friends were the adults at the nearby aikido dojo, not kids at school.
“Hey, Sunshine!” He heard Asbjorn holler from their little foyer as he kicked his winter boots off and hung his jacket. Soon, Asbjorn’s tall frame filled the door of the dining room. “Good day?”
“Yeah.” Sean answered as he set a bowl of cut limes and chopped cilantro on the table. “You?” He forced mirth into his voice. Asbjorn couldn’t have known about his Carnation Day history.
“Pretty good. Sword class was short today.” He saw Asbjorn glance at the table, then at back at him. “So... what’s for dinner? Something smells real good!”
Sean had been building up defenses against disappointment, but even so, he felt his heart sink. “Yucatan chicken soup. I got a new recipe from George.”
A good recipe, which produced a good soup. Salty, fragrant, with chipotle in adobo giving it just a bit of a kick.
“That was delicious. Is there enough to freeze?” From Asbjorn, a desire to dedicate their limited freezer space was high praise indeed.
“No, just leftovers.” Asbjorn rounded up the dirty bowls after dinner while Sean reached into the refrigerator and pulled out a plate. He set it on the table. “There’s dessert, too.”
Asbjorn finished cleaning up, turned the water off, and reached for a dish cloth to dry his hands. “Dessert?”
Sean watched him toss the dish cloth on the counter and come back to the table.
A tart was sitting there, heart-shaped and dolled up with fresh raspberries.
“Happy Valentine’s Day.” Even Sean could tell that the cheer in his voice was a bit forced.
“Wow, did you make that?” Asbjorn leaned closer. “No way. That’s store-bought, right?”
“Nah... I made it. I bought a heart-shaped tin with a removable bottom. The crust  is just a patè sucrè, and the filling is chocolate ganache. No big deal.”
Asbjorn straightened and turned to him. “Of course it’s a big deal. It’s gorgeous!” He pulled him into a hug. “I wasn’t sure if you were going to do this whole V-day thing...” Asbjorn lifted his chin and brushed his lips against Sean’s jaw, trailing kisses until their lips met.
They broke for air.
“But I got something just in case... wait here.” Asbjorn let go of Sean’s shoulders and crossed the distance to their front door in several long strides. Sean heard the door open and close, open and close.
And then Asbjorn was back, and in his hand he held a shrubbery. Plain branches and twigs stuck out to the side in crazy shapes. No leaves on them at all – just thin, greyish bark and the barest hint of buds.
“For you. They need to go in warm water.”
Sean’s gloom was blown away like winter snow. “Really? Branches to force?” He took the handful of branches from Asbjorn carefully, for they took up a good bit of space and he didn’t want to poke an eye out. “That does look like cherries! Are they?”
Asbjorn shrugged and threw his hands in the air, palms up. “I don’t know. You’ll be able to tell once they bloom, right?”
No vase was big enough, but moving the pickles out of the economy-size jar provided a container big enough.  Once the branches were set in water, Sean found them a home on a spare chair, which he set against the wall. “Once these come out, they’ll be gorgeous. Just wait three weeks!”
“Okay,” Asbjorn said with a smile. “So, how about that ganache tart?”

Two hours later they were in bed, sprawled and spent, limbs tangled and almost drifting off to sleep, when Sean stirred.
“Hey, Bjorn... where did you get those branches? Fess up. You forgot, right?”
Asbjorn was too content to even think of lying. “Yeah.” He turned to spoon Sean’s side, skin against skin. “The guys were talking about it. They told me to avoid what George called a ‘desperation supermarket bouquet.’ And Ken said not to get cheap candy.”
A bubble of laughter escaped Sean. “So... those are pretty massive branches. Where did you get them? And... how?”
“Um... “ The hesitation in Asbjorn’s voice was unmistakable. “Y’know, if you walk down by the river, in the park... right past the lock? The ones where we had that picnic.”
“The ones in a public park.”
Asbjorn cleared his throat in a self-conscious way that usually spelled embarrassment. “Well I don’t know, I hope it’s public. It’s not like I’d cut branches form a private property.” He paused, thinking. “That didn’t sound good, did it.”
Sean chuckled.
Asbjorn rallied. “Remember... remember those pink cherry trees by the Charles River? The ones you liked so much  last year?”
Sean flipped in his arms like a fish and rolled on top of him. “You’re an incorrigible vandal!”
“Only the best for you, Sunshine.”
“Arrgh.” Sean flopped onto his back again, nestling his head against Asbjorn’s arm. All seemed to be good for a while.
“Hey, Asbjorn.”
“Yeah?”
“Those were some big branches.”
“Uh-huh.”
“They were cut pretty clean. “
Asbjorn sighed. The silence stretched until Sean nudged his calf with the ball of his foot.
“Um... I’m kind of new to some of these things, y’know.” Asbjorn’s voice was barely audible. “Like holidays and shit. And, cutting cherry branches with a katana while knee-deep in the snow? In the dark? Man... I had to time it, duck out of sight every time a car rolled by.”
The way Sean stiffened next to him indicated stern control.
“Yeah, an’ I had to make sure not to get the big ones and chip the blade. So aiming was kind of hard...”
Sean’s control was failing. More bubbles of laughter welled out of him, and it was the best sound ever to Asbjorn’s anxious ears. “I love you. I love the cherry branches, and I love you’re such a caveman barbarian type.”
“I love you too.” Asbjorn rolled onto his hip, looming over Sean in the dark.
“But, hon... “ Sean’s voice filtered through the cool darkness of their bedroom. “That’s Tiger’s old blade. An antique. You could’ve done serious damage to it.”
“I’ve already chipped it before.” A small flake of ancient, folded metal had remained embedded in Sean’s stalker’s wrist- or what was left of it. “I figured...” Asbjorn’s voice clouded, and he coughed to clear it. “I figured this blade can bring pleasure as well as pain, y’know?”
“But...” Sean knew about swords. Cutting branches with a blade of such quality was barbaric. “Musashi would’ve never done that!”
Asbjorn leaned in the dark, inhaling Sean’s still-hot breath, kissing his chin, his lips. Musashi, the founder of nitto tenshin ryu kenjutsu. ‘The art of killing with two swords’ was the English name of the style Musashi had founded centuries ago, and it was the style Asbjorn was learning from Ken now.
Stories abounded.
Some of them might even be true.
“Musashi won a sword duel by cutting off a flower once,” he whispered into the dark. “His opponent saw him cut it so clean and so smooth, he chickened out and left.”
“But your sword, Asbjorn.” Sean’s concern was palpable, and that he’d be so worried for the one item Tiger left Asbjorn after he died warmed Asbjorn’s heart. He dipped down for another kiss, and this time his voice was a raspy growl.
“You’re worth hundreds of swords, Sunshine.”
He felt Sean wiggle into him as he snuggled closer. The movement spelled comfort and contentment. “You, too.”



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