I watch his Adam’s apple travel up and down while he doesn’t reply.

I switch gears. “Why the hell did you follow me for four years?”

He opens his eyes, and his head swivels toward me. “Your father asked me to.”

This is more than I’ve allowed myself to think about my family in three years. I’m not sure I’m ready for the story I’m asking for. Maybe on some level he knows this and that’s why he’s just staring at me.

But I have to toughen the fuck up because this is not optional.

“Why would he do that?”

He blinks. “Because he loves you.”

I scowl at him again, but I feel moisture seeping toward the corners of my eyes. “I know that, asshole. But why did he think I needed a highlander for a shadow?”

“Viking. Technically.”

My eyes go wide and I shake my head. “You are one weird dude. Can you just answer the goddamn question?”

He takes a slow breath, in and out. His voice creaks with fatigue as he rolls out a longer reply. “He predicted what was coming. He wanted you to survive. He told me he’d break me out of Paladin if I’d look after you. But he didn’t want you to know unless it was necessary. Yesterday it became necessary.”

One tear slides down my cheek. I ignore it as I try to figure out which end of this to take hold of first.

“What is Paladin?”

“Military-funded project your father was working on. They were trying to manufacture superheroes.”

That I have no trouble believing. “Special clearance” always meant military, right?

“Did he make you?” 

Red shakes his head. “I was engineered in a lab in Iceland, using DNA recovered from Viking tombs. There were unexpected results. I was eventually acquired by your father’s company.”

I stare at him. “Acquired?”

He turns to contemplate the ceiling.

“You’ve been watching me all these years?”

He gives a slow nod.

“Watching me fight and starve and barely survive for three fucking years.”

“Your dad would have been proud of you.”

Incredulous. That about sums it up. I shake my head. “You’ve got a bizarre sense of loyalty.”

His lips twitch and almost smile. His throat works as he struggles to swallow. “There’s a bottle of water by the stairs. Would you bring it?”

I’m grateful for the request because it gives me time to run all this through my processor. My dad freed a lab rat to be my bodyguard. That’s basically it. No, sorry, a genetically engineered Viking. And something more . . . unexpected results.

I return with the bottle. He struggles to rise on one elbow, and I hold it to his lips. He tips his head and I pour, managing to dribble only a little down his stubbly chin. Then he sinks again onto his back.

“You healed me, didn’t you?”

His eyes meet mine.

“It’s why you’re so weak.”

“Yes.”

“Well shit.”

I’m in it now. This guy has just become my responsibility. Because for four years I’ve been his. And he’s saved my life. Maybe more than once.

Just for good measure, he’s the last thing my father gave to me.

“The world ended,” I mutter. “You must know it’s crazy that you’ve taken my dad’s request so literally for all these years. Through everything that’s happened. We could have helped each other.” I could have been less scared. My throat thickens and I clamp my jaws together.

He shrugs. “I’m used to following orders. I’ve never had a family, or needed one. It was all the same to me.”

This pokes into my gut like an icicle, but I don’t know why. And then I do. He sounds like I’ve sounded for the last three years.

“Your father was kind to me,” he continues, softer. “He treated me like an equal.” His gaze comes again to rest on my face. “His devotion to you deserved to be rewarded.”

I work my throat muscles against the lump that seems to have permanently lodged there. “You got a real name, Red?”

“Your father called me Levi.”

“Then I will too. Unless you’re figuring on going stealth again after this.” A rogue particle of hopefulness bounces against the wall of my chest.  

“We can talk about that later. Right now we’ve got a problem.”

A loud thud travels up the winding stair that leads to the top of the tower, and I jump to my feet. “Can they get in?”

“Eventually.” Levi sits up slowly.

“Is there another way out?”

He nods at the window he’s sitting under, confirming my earlier assessment. It's more than a hundred-foot drop.

“What else you got?”

“We need to go down before his friends show up. Assuming they haven’t already. Give me your knife.”

I take a step backward. “Your short-term memory is shit.”

“You take my sword. I’m not strong enough to use it.”

Sword?

He nods toward the stairs, and another thud sounds, vibrating the metal railing. “In my pack.”

“I’ve never used a sword, Levi.”

“We’ll call this a growth opportunity.” He rises to his feet with a groan.

Thud. Bang.

Move, Mila.”

#

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