Fic: The reign of Lodbrok


Chapter 1

One night in his cups, Thor visits the cell block where Loki was held before their last quest together – the one from which Loki did not return.

When Thor came home alone from that adventure, he found that the cell had already been cleared of the debris of Loki’s effects – which had been the gifts of Frigga, later broken in the storm of Loki’s grief. Thor could have killed the warden who had told him the debris had been discarded. He had a vision of throttling him with his bare hands, and in the vision he was filled with certainty as he had not felt since he was a callow fool of a youth who had just come into his power.

But he only said, ‘Very well,’ and did nothing.

No prisoner has been placed in that cell since Loki, at Thor’s orders. But there are inmates further down the row, and he can see their shapes stirring, noticing someone abroad in the hall. It is probably for the best that he knows himself to be observed. It may keep him from making too much the fool of himself, when he knows he is drunk and maudlin.

He operates the control to withdraw the membrane across the face of the cell, and steps within.

The cell is pristine, featureless. There is nothing to say that there is the place Loki slumped against the wall, bleeding from wounds of his own infliction. But Thor remembers well where it was.

Could there not be some trace of Loki – microscopic, as Jane’s people might call it – still there on the wall or the floor, some minuscule fragment still drifting in the air? He has an urge to sit down there himself, to arrange his limbs the way he remembers Loki’s arranged. The urge seems perilous, but works on him strong as gravity. He barely resists.

He permits himself to touch the wall, about where Loki’s head rested. He observes in himself the wish that something about that spot should be palpably different – still warm, perhaps?

He feels for himself both pity and contempt, and turns to leave.

Something moves.

It’s a little black cat, peering in at the door of the cell. He has seen it around before. He grins. ‘Don’t get caught in here!’

He makes a shooing gesture, to which the cat flicks its ear disdainfully.

Thor takes an aggressive stride towards it, hands outstretched, and then it does flee.

When he saw it before, he was walking in the hall of monuments to his fallen fathers, contemplating the gap Odin has left for himself in their company – where perhaps Frigga deserves to stand, or Loki, but surely never will. A shadow moved in the corner of his eye. It was the cat, on the corner of a plinth, upright and perfect as a figurine. It stared at him, comically alert. When he turned to look at it fully, it spooked, launching itself derangedly sideways and zipping away. This made him laugh, which was enough to break his sorry mood.

He worries for the cat, roaming at will as it does. What if it were locked in a cell? Or fell into the hands of a prisoner? He will look out for it in future. It should perhaps be caught, and given to some child. Fandral has a niece, he recalls.

There is a tournament. Coloured draperies float from columns, and golden lights drift above the crowd, turning the dust stirred up from the sand to a bright haze.

Thor fells three opponents. Then a fourth, with a mighty hammer’s blow to the jaw, that sends the youth crumpling to the sand. The boy is dark-haired, slenderly built beneath the condition he has clearly worked hard to lay on his bones. The way his body lies inert, limp as a wilted leaf, seems sickeningly familiar. Thor has no further taste for glory that day.

He withdraws with the customary gesture of tapping his own shoulder – making the movement large and clear for the crowd to see – then takes a seat. A great sigh of surprise moves through the company. At its tail are a few tentative boos. He straightens his spine and looks straight ahead. He could silence them in an instant, he knows, if he stood up and invited the culprits to show themselves. But the thought wearies him.

That night they feast the tournament champion, who is – quite rightfully – not Thor. Thor has a moment of confusion as he enters, finding himself making for the champion’s pride of place beside the king. He thinks he stops himself in time, so that no-one can have noticed.

Odin is quiet among the boisterous toasting, as often he is in these days, and withdraws when the last dishes have only just been tasted. This leaves Thor as the host. He must make several more rounds of toasts before he can leave himself, though he yearns for the quiet of his rooms.

At last his duty is done, and he takes his leave for the night. Sif and the Warriors Three farewell him merrily enough, but Sif’s gaze follows him as he goes. When he glances back from the door, she is saying something to Hogun and Volstagg, who both now look at Thor too. Thor raises his hand. Their smiles in response are effortful.

Thor wakes in the early hours of the morning. The sleepless lights of Asgard gleam through the drapery at his window, casting the room in deep twilight. He has never slept in true dark here.

All night the lights will glimmer, brighter than stars, while his people sleep snug and safe among their kin. But nowhere in all the Nine Realms do Thor’s mother or brother safely sleep.

He has wept openly in public all his life, at the wake of a fallen warrior, or at great tales of heroes’ deeds when the night is long and the mead flows freely. But private grief is new to him: this slow wasting of the spirit, these quiet tears that drain him till he can barely lift his hand to wipe them away.

Something moves near his shoulder. He is stupefied with sorrow, and cannot stir himself.

A treacherous thought: what a relief that it comes now. For he was taught to anticipate an assassin before he finished learning his tally tables.

Nothing happens. A cautious assassin, if it is one. He shifts on the pillow at last, curious.

A black shape on the corner of the mattress, by his head.

It’s the cat. He almost laughs.

The creature is accustomed to the run of the room while he sleeps, perhaps, and he has put it out by waking. It is still, crouched in affront now. The surface of its eyes reflects opaque silver.

Slowly he raises one hand, and leaves it in the air a while for inspection.

He lets it fall toward the cat, until at last it is close enough that the creature can smell him – he can feel tiny puffs of air in the hair of the back of his hand.

It lets him run the back of two fingers down the velvet edge of its ear, and nudge his knuckles into the fluff at its neck. The tips of its whiskers tickle his wrist.

When he flips his hand over to deliver a full-body stroke, it takes fright and leaps from the bed. Instantly it is invisible in the gloom. A faint patter of paws across the floor, and then it’s as though it was never there.

Odin summons Thor to his library to discuss the correspondence of the realm – a summons he has not issued in months, since Thor refused the throne. Thor, puzzled, arrives to a scene like a statecraft lesson that his father used to stage when he was a boy: Odin at his writing desk, with several sheafs of parchment before him, bundled with wooden pins, and a single, smaller, less comfortable chair pulled up facing the other side. Though previously there were two chairs, for two sons.

When they were boys, Loki once said to Thor that these lessons were lies; he claimed that Odin had falsified parts of the correspondence he showed them, so as to make it teach the lesson he wished it to teach more perfectly. They quarrelled. Thor conceded the correspondence sometimes showed no trace of official seals, and was in a hand that could conceivably be a version of their father’s, but maintained this might just mean their father had made a copy for them to learn with, lest the original be lost or damaged – like being given practice swords. Revisiting this now, Thor is almost certain Loki was right.

Thor takes his seat. There seems to be a light of mischief in Odin’s eye, as he performs his old, ponderous, ritual gesture of lifting a sheaf of parchment, removing the pin and setting it down precisely parallel to the edge of the other sheafs, spinning out the moment before he begins to speak. It is indeed as though Thor is a boy again. He is confused and annoyed.

Odin speaks to him of a farmer who has written to him inappropriately – it should have been to the lord of the village – to complain of the corruption of a tax collector. It is a perfect exemplar of the double-bind of rulership by vassalage. The matter is the lord’s to resolve and Odin would be insulting his vassal by taking it up himself. But if it is true, the lord is likely implicated, and referring it to him risks alerting him to hide the evidence of his corruption, or worse, to retaliate unjustly against the farmer. In short, everything Odin can do risks being wrong.

‘Father,’ Thor says, ‘you have many scribes. And many, many advisors far wiser than I. Why do you ask me this?’

‘Are you not my son and only heir?’ Odin replies.

‘I understood when I refused the throne, I did so with your blessing.’

‘You did, you did! But is it fair that I be left alone with these people?’ Odin flaps the sheaf of parchment. ‘Do you have any idea of the volume of sheer complaint? The burden of it?’

‘I had no idea you considered it a burden,’ Thor stammers. ‘I am sorry to hear it.’

‘No, no,’ Odin says, brows pinching together. He puts his head in his hands.

‘I fear I can be of little use to you.’ Thor could have wished the abjection were less audible in his voice. ‘I am not myself.’

‘Something ails you?’

A beat passes, in which Thor considers and reconsiders his reply. ‘Grief.’

‘It troubles you?’

Again Thor is unsure if he should reply. But he is a stone rolling downhill now, gathering speed. ‘I am sick with it.’

‘For your mother,’ Odin says.

As simply as that, Thor is crushingly angry. Since the day his brother fell from the Bifrost, Thor has never once recriminated with his father for anything to do with Loki, though Odin’s fault upon fault upon fault has become devastatingly clear. In this moment it feels as though Thor could start – as though, if he started, he might never stop.

‘For Loki. And our mother,’ he says, and barely contains himself from saying more.

Odin looks at him a long while, his hands steepled.

A crash of thunder sounds outside, which Thor has summoned inadvertently. Odin blinks.

‘Very well,’ Odin says coolly. ‘I release you from this duty.’

Thor takes his leave.

It has been one of the most perplexing conversations he has ever had with his father.

He strides back to his chambers as if pursued.

At the turning near his mother’s old rooms, something dark moves in his peripheral vision. He stops. Reluctantly, he walks the handful of steps till her door comes in view – the door to the place where he failed to prevent her death.

The cat is at the very seam of the gilded double doors, as if it thinks someone will let it in. Something about its poised, alert little head, shape sharp as a summer shadow, is amusing.

‘What are you doing?’ he says, warm and fatuous – the way, he realises upon hearing himself, that he usually speaks to strangers’ children.

The cat startles, and looks at him, very directly. Then, with lordly disdain, it stalks behind a pillar. He steps forth to follow, and there is a sudden scuffling sound – it has launched itself into a bolt. By the time he has a line of sight behind the pillar, it is long gone.

The cat, he has realised, is at present his only source of untroubled pleasure. How did it even get into his room the other night? The door is locked and guarded. Whatever its arts are, it must have great prowess in them.

He is determined that he must be allowed to stroke it. Indeed, why would it seek him out, if it did not wish him to stroke it? The withholding is a game, and he must win.

He lies awake that night and waits.

It is a subtle business. He must prop his head up uncomfortably high on a pillow, and lie half on his side, to allow a sufficiently commanding view of the floor. He flings one arm out as if carelessly. Between his fingers is a sliver of leathery dried fish.

He narrows his eyes to slits and tries to make his breathing deep and even.

It is a tiresome process, and the warmth of his skin soon begins to make the fish smell.

He is reminded of the vigil he undertook the night before his father gave him Mjölnir. He was supposed to be meditating on the virtues of a true warrior, but was diverted instead by thoughts of the virtues of mead and good company, which seemed horribly distant as he knelt in the dark on the cold stone.

Lying uncomfortably alert while pretending to be relaxed, he cycles between feeling terribly persecuted by all of existence, then beginning to fall asleep and having to wrench himself back to wakefulness.

Time passes.

When he first thinks he sees something, he presumes it’s wishful thinking – when you wait too long in ambush for an enemy, the first alarm is always false. He opens his eyes a fraction wider.

The shape of the cat is on the floor. From the way its head is tilted, alert, Thor is infuriatingly sure it can tell he is not really asleep. Nonetheless, he remains still.

The cat shape is still, also.

Thor slouches over a little further onto his side, inching his fingers, and the sliver of fish, to the edge of the bed.

He waits for an enragingly long time, till he’s on the verge of shouting and just hurling the fish at the blasted creature.

At last: a feather of breath on his fingertips. Then a brush from the fuzz of its muzzle – it is trying to take the fish away, the cheeky thing. He tightens his fingers.

The feel of its tongue – like Midgardian Velcro, but moist – is peculiar.

He withdraws his hand a fraction.

Silence – and no further sensations.

Just when he has begun to despair, he hears it: the prick of claws in the bed covers. Now breath on his fingers again. He inches his hand back a little again; the cat advances again.

At last it has climbed the side of the bed fully, and brought its back paws up behind it.

Gradually he has been easing his unoccupied hand forward as the other retreats, keeping it lax and unthreatening.

He twitches the fish in his fingers. The cat, provoked too far at last, surges forward and clamps its teeth into it with a small, wet snap. Instantly, Thor clamps his other hand over its slim back. ‘Got you!’ he cries.

It yowls low, lashing its tail like a serpent. But his hand is too large, too strong. He strokes the cat all over, enjoying his victory. He particularly likes the fuzzy belly fur, like duck down. And the tufts between the little toe-pads! Though he can only touch those a second before they are withdrawn reproachfully. Between the legs, he laughs to see two small, furry stones. ‘An admirable pair, brother!’ he cries.

‘All right,’ he says, ‘all right now. I won’t hurt you.’ He tries to stroke the cat smoothly now, soothingly. Still tension zips through its little ribcage and spine. What if he tried to hold its tail, to persuade it to stop thrashing it? But this only makes the part of the tail he’s not clasping thrash ever more wildly.

He is beginning to feel guilty, aware of himself as a larger creature dominating a smaller for his amusement.

‘I only want to be friends,’ he says. The pert, irritable shape of its head delights him. He tries to stroke the side of its muzzle with his finger. It bites him in warning, with pinpricks of teeth.

‘Oh, I give up!’ He lets it go.

It’s off like lightning, four paws hitting the floor out of time, inelegant with haste.

But it doesn’t run away. Well beyond arm’s reach, it sits on the floor and looks at him, head cocked. Still the shape of that head entertains him.

‘You’re worse than my brother,’ he says. ‘Why do you keep coming to see me if you don’t want to be friends?’

He subsides back into bed and pulls the covers up.

In the middle of that night, Thor wakes to a faint, unpleasant smell. He lies still, trying to think what it is.

Just at the edge of audibility, there is a tiny, sticky sound.

He opens his eyes. The cat is curled on the other end of his pillow, its black shape round as a pudding. It has found the sliver of dried fish again, and it is chewing on it – wafting its breath directly into his face.

‘You are exactly like my brother,’ he whispers.

The sound stops, and the cat raises its head in alert – he sees the points of its ears appear in silhouette.

When he does not move, or speak further, it carries on chewing.

He brings his hand up slowly to the pillow and lays it there, so the cat can see it.

He raises one finger.

The cat allows him to stroke the perpetually tufted fur at the point of its shoulder bone.

He hears it swallow. It gets up, and he is surprised by the strength of his disappointment.

It doesn’t leave. It stretches, its back an improbable arch. Then it steps down off the pillow and curls up next to him on the sheet, spine against his chest.

The fur tickles his bare skin, rising and falling slightly with the creature’s breath. He is afraid to relax at all, lest he go to sleep and roll over on it.

The cat begins to snore very faintly through its nose.

The next day, Thor goes down to the training yard to watch his warriors spar, that they might see he takes an interest in their progress. On a bench within the sandstone colonnade of the viewing gallery, he seats himself, and lets the clash and thump of the action wash over him.

In truth, he feels a great resistance to watching men and women practicing to slay and maim. His eye wanders into the distance: through a far archway, he can see another archway, and through that, a tiny thumbnail of the shining sea.

A small, strange movement at his flank. The cat. It has leapt up on the bench beside him, and somehow got itself between his cloak and his side.

He lays a hand on its narrow, sleek back. It tenses, as if to flee, and he pushes the side of its body into his hip, to prevent its escape. ‘You!’ he says. Wriggly as an eel, it bends its neck in two to nip his finger.

He rolls it onto its back, enjoying the way his hand spans its torso. It thrashes its tail and kicks. Its littleness delights him – and its fury, too. It is chewing on one finger like a bone now, not quite hard enough with its little needling teeth to pierce the callus. Its eyes are rolled aside, its ears jaunty. Then it wraps all four legs around his wrist and hand, kicking lazily.

He rocks his hand rhythmically to and fro within the creature’s grip, thumbing through its belly fur as he goes. It is this rhythmic touch, as last, that awards him his prize. A purring has begun, like the sound of a distant Midgardian motor. Soon the motor is in full throttle, so that he can feel the vibrations right up into his wrist.

He laughs, softly, for the joy of it. ‘Oh, you like me, really,’ he says under his breath.

The cat gives him a kick.

It is for the best that the creature remains concealed by Thor’s cloak. His pretence at interest in the training is too thin already. Indeed, when one of the men on the ground calls out to him, to ask an opinion on some point of form, the cat seems to understand. It stops purring and stills itself almost at once, allowing Thor to withdraw his hand without a fight.

When Thor – without rising from his seat – has advised the man, and the man has turned and left in the direction of the weapons hall, Thor lifts his cloak to gaze upon the cat directly. It has rolled itself up into a more dignified lying position, on its belly, and now leans proprietorially along the length of his thigh. It allows its whiskered cheeks and sleek forehead to be stroked, now, quite placidly.

He does not wish it to be seen that he is paying attention to something on the seat beside him, so he stares off on the diagonal, into the middle distance. The cat is soon purring loudly again. It likes a long, slow stroke from head to tail, he learns, and also to have its head cupped while he scratches gently behind its ears.

Eventually he registers that there is no longer any sound but the cat’s purring. The training has finished for the day, and the yard has been empty for some time.

In private, Thor and the cat are now constant companions; he has named it Lodbrok, for its furry breeches. One night he is drunk and contented, playing with the creature in bed. He touches his nose very gently to its tiny, damp one, and says, ‘There!’ It begins to lick his beard with its strange, rough tongue, and he must try to control his laughter lest he startle it. He rolls it over and rubs his face in its belly, while it bats at his temples and chin with its paws. It is strange: he almost has the urge to eat it.

He seizes it and rolls onto his back, laying it on his chest so he may give it the long strokes with a full hand, forehead to tail, that it likes so much.

The cat purrs almost violently, swishing its tail lazily, as Thor rocks a little from side to side, stroking it all the while. He is saying, ‘Yes, I shall slay you! There is no escape!’

He would like to think that had he not been so intent on this discourse, he might have noticed the other sounds in the room sooner.

As it is, a play in which he was not aware he was a player is already rushing towards its climax. There is a man in a mask by the bed, with a drawn knife.

Thor’s instinct, absurdly, is to roll away to protect Lodbrok.

The fabric of reality erupts, inverts. The world is crockery on a kicked table.

A naked man falls on top on Thor.

He’s slimmer than Thor, but strong and heavy. His black hair is in Thor’s mouth.

Thor kicks and flails, bleating.

The naked man rolls off Thor at speed. He throws the masked man to the floor, scuffles with him, takes the knife off him and drives it savagely into the masked man’s heart.

The naked man stands again, and looks at Thor.

Thor is blowing like a galloped horse.

The naked man is Loki. His hair is wild. There’s blood spatter on his face and bare shoulder.

Also, his cock is at attention.

Loki sees Thor see it. Loki’s face takes an expression of mortification.

A distant sound of running – the guards.

Loki twitches. The world goes wrong again – for a second, things sliding down some hole in the air, like a plug has been pulled.

The world rights itself. Loki is gone.

Chapter 2

A great hullaballoo, of course. His father rousted from his bed in his nightshirt, with his hair in a state. His father rousting a good three-quarters of the kingdom’s warriors from bed so he can bellow his displeasure. The dead man dragged out and the floor scrubbed. Patrols sent out, returned and then bellowed at again and sent out again. Magical wards set and checked, then reset and rechecked.

Now guards by Thor’s every window, guards by the door, and it’s nearly dawn, and he is expected to sleep.

He only sits on the very end of the bed – which none of the scuffling touched – facing out into the room and taking care not to look at the place he was lying before. When he does look at that place, he will be forced to begin investigating the question of whether he has lost his mind.

The distant call of a dawn bird. He has sat here too long. He stands, turns and looks at the bed.

It does look like two men were lying there together. It could just have been the scuffle, the panic with which Thor leapt out of bed, that made it look that way.

He has a terrible misgiving about what he is about to do next. But he cannot see how to keep from doing it. He puts one knee down the bed and presses his face into the sheets.

Yes! A whiff of Loki. He leaps onto the bed and sniffs deep, like a dog. But he can’t find the smell again. He sniffs harder and harder, till he’s dizzy.

He throws himself on his face in the bed. He wants to weep, but even that will not come.

He wishes for Lodbrok. Or did he make the cat up as well?

‘Come out! Please!’ he calls, quiet so as not to raise the guards. He waits, his heart beating.

‘Please,’ he calls.

He is mad. He is lost.

Thor rides out to a barren and stony place, to contend alone with his madness.

He stalks angrily about for half a day, thinking thoughts that begin: If only Loki had… Or: If only Odin had

Most unhappy are the thoughts that begin: If only Thor, himself, had

He has come unprovisioned, and soon becomes hungry and bored. He wishes for something to fight. He kicks a rock and hurts his toe in his boot.

In truth he cannot see how it can be that he has gone mad. How could it be that he is mad but no-one has noticed, including himself? He does not feel mad.

He sits down on a rock and stares at the ground.

There is a small, impossible sound. He stiffens.

A tiny tug on the back of his cloak.

He sees that he has summoned his madness by doubting it. He cannot breathe properly.

Further tiny tugs on the cloak – as if from the steps of little feet.

He reaches behind himself. There is the sound again: a faint, complaining meow. And then: a brush of fur. A cat is rubbing its head on the underside of Thor’s fingers.

The hair rises all over Thor’s body. He rubs the cat’s ears awkwardly, blind.

Suddenly, a shifting, a juddering, in the air. A throttlingly heavy weight lands on the back of his cloak.

The weight flails for a moment, half choking him.

An arm comes around Thor. The hand – pale and long-boned, with curiously translucent fingernails – is one he knows.

‘Will you come back to the palace, for pity’s sake?’ Loki’s voice says. ‘This is hardly comfortable.’

Thor gropes behind him, frantic, and finds a man’s bare knee. ‘Brother!’

Thor tries to turn around, but the weight on the back of his cloak stops him. He must see this creature – he must. He fights with the clasp of the cloak, which is pulled too tight against his throat to open easily.

That rushing, sucking feeling in the air – Thor knows it by now, and cries out in despair.

He’s alone again.

Thor leaps upon a tall rock and roars, ‘Loki?’ Thunder sounds in the distance.

He smashes Mjölnir into the rock and cleaves it asunder.

Thor arrives home late that night, has a meal brought to his chambers, and sends the attendants away immediately.

When he turns back from latching the door behind them, Lodbrok is there, on the floor. He strides towards the creature. It flinches, but does not flee. He seizes it and clutches it to his chest. ‘Loki?’ he demands.

He sits down on the edge of the bed and cups the little head in his hand. He is aware of his heart churning in his chest.

The cat flicks its ears free of his fingers, and sinks its claws into his tunic. Straining to focus at short range, he watches the tiny, transparent curves of the claws unsheathe and resheathe fractionally in a rhythm, as Lodbrok kneads at him.

His heart has eased a little. His food is getting cold. He carries the cat to the table.

While he eats, Lodbrok steals morsels of food and chews then scatters them, mutilated, all over the table top. He prevents the cat dragging a whole leg of fowl off his plate. It walks between the plate and his tankard so that the tankard nearly falls over. Then it walks between him and his plate and flips the end of its tail up his nostril.

When he is sated, he snatches the cat around its ribs, gets to his feet and hefts it far above his head. ‘Loki!’ he says.

He stares up at it, straight in the eye, a stare that has brought captured enemies to weeping.

The cat meets his eye. Its tail inscribes an arc of derision.

He sits on the bed again, and watches Lodbrok walk on the pillows, wallowing curiously. He lifts one end of a pillow while the cat is on the other end, sending it off balance. It bats him with a paw. Then it beds itself down, curled plumply.

He covers the remains of the meal, undresses, washes himself for bed. Lodbrok’s ears are alert.

He lies down, and lifts the cat to bring it onto his chest. It gives a small, disgruntled sound.

He strokes it, head to tail, for a long time.

Fatigue descends on him. He gives the command for the lights to dim.

Lodbrok’s purr in the dark is very loud, vibrating against his heart.

Some instinct startles him alert again. A moth is caught in his windpipe, fluttering violently. It is fear.

The air lurches.

Loki is a confusion of limbs, his whole weight somehow on an elbow that is wedged into Thor’s body. Thor is trying to kiss Loki’s cheek, but has a mouthful of hair instead. They flail.

They resolve the disposition of their elbows. Thor holds Loki against him closely. They are both panting, as if they have been fighting. Thor arranges Loki’s hair out of his face and kisses his cheek properly, hard.

‘Hello,’ Loki says, as though he is trying not to laugh.

‘Hello.’ Thor laughs too.

Thor finds Loki’s shoulders, ribs, back. He’s too thin.

There’s a terrible knot of scar – from the dark elf’s blade. Thor touches it.

‘But why don’t you have any clothes?’ Thor is laughing again. He has no clothes himself, but he is in bed, and quite justified.

‘It’s the nature of skin magic.’ Loki is embarrassed, as Thor has not heard him be for years.

Thor’s mind allows him to know, then, what he already discovered a moment ago, when he felt Loki laughing in his arms. Loki’s cock is hard, as it was that other time he appeared to Thor – before he fled from embarrassment.

‘Don’t leave!’ Thor clutches Loki. Unthinking, he strokes him as he did the cat.

All of Loki’s body seems to soften. Thor does it again, and Loki lays his head down on Thor’s shoulder.

As Thor carries on, Loki begins to sigh softly, and writhe.

It takes Thor some time to understand that they are engaged in a lascivious act. His neck and throat flush to a blaze, with terror. But it is not terror.

It is far too late to turn back. Loki calls the lights back on; he summons some slick substance to ease their sliding against each other. Has Thor ever seen him look so frankly pleased?

Thor has been obliterated. He braces his thigh as Loki directs it, so that Loki may make his slippery use of it.

They spill their seed on each other in great ribbons. The mimicry of pain of Loki’s face is terrible.

Then there is tenderness. ‘Hush,’ Loki says. Shockingly, he kisses Thor on the mouth. It is the most obscene thing yet.

Thor rolls Loki onto his back and tongues his mouth lewdly. Loki throws his legs around Thor’s hips like a woman and moans.

They still themselves. Thor begins to blush again.

‘Get off, oaf,’ Loki says gently, and nudges his shoulder.

Thor rolls away.

Loki explores the contours of Thor’s arms and throat with his fingertips, so that all the tiny hairs stand up. Startlingly, he licks Thor’s nipples. Thor’s blush has spread to the back of his knees. They kiss on the mouth again.

‘I have to go,’ Loki says at last. His mouth is wet. ‘You mustn’t tell anyone.’

‘No!’ Thor cries, and attempts to detain him by the wrists.

Loki looks at him with a look he has had cause to deploy many times since childhood. Thor releases his wrists.

‘I’ll come back,’ Loki says. ‘But you absolutely must not tell.’

‘This is not the first time I have wished for your powers of persuasion,’ Thor says.

‘Promise me you won’t tell.’

‘But you’re going to leave if I promise,’ Thor objects.

Loki looks delighted. He kisses Thor, rendering him defenceless, and disappears.

Thor spends the next day in a frenzy. He searches everywhere he has seen the cat before and, disappointed each time, charges back to his chambers, in case Lodbrok has turned up there – or in case Loki, in man form, has returned, and is in danger of being discovered. Already by midday, Thor can smell the cold fear-sweat on himself. He barely talks himself out of charging off to the stony waste – it would take hours, during which Loki could be being arrested here at the palace at any moment.

At last he lets himself into Loki’s old chambers.

After Loki’s death, his father ordered the books and sorcerous artefacts that had made the rooms Loki’s taken away. Thor put his head in the door only once around that time and, anguished, never again.

Now he sees that nothing has changed since. Still the green-and-gold bed canopy gathers dust, and the shelf where an elaborate potioner’s still once stood is empty as ever. He has bruised his heart for nothing, coming in here.

Is Loki back in Thor’s chambers now? Even now being taken by guards?

Thor dashes back. Loki is not there.

That evening, Thor orders the water drawn in the large bathing chamber that lies between Loki’s rooms and his. He wishes to float face down, alone, in the water and forget everything about his life.

The bathing pool is so large, it is seldom used. As many as eight drunken warriors and one slender, irritable sorcerer can bathe in it together, as Loki discovered unhappily on several occasions in the wilder days of their youth, when he came in and found Thor and his friends already there. Fandral and Volstagg would often be having an underwater farting competition, Thor recalls.

In his chambers, Thor strips. His bathing robe has been laid on a chair. He lifts it to put it on, and finds Lodbrok underneath. The cat sits up and stares, as if Thor has done something self-evidently unreasonable.

The attendants let themselves in with the rest of the bathing linens.

Thor drops the robe back over Lodbrok, leaving himself still naked.

The attendants wait for him to put the robe on, so that they may escort him to the bath.

Thor gathers up the robe around the cat, and holds both of them in front of his groin. Head high, refusing to meet their eyes, he starts for the bathing chamber.

One of them, a young woman, following behind, stifles a noise under her breath. He cannot think of any sufficiently princely reply.

He must take one hand off his bundle to open the door – for he does not think it wise to let the attendants step in front of him. Lodbrok’s tail escapes and lashes in the air, and Thor fears the claws will escape, too. Panicked, Thor drops his hand from the door handle to contain the tail in the robe.

The young woman cannot contain a violent burst of air through her nose. Thor hears the other one start forward, to help.

He clamps Lodbrok hard against him and charges through the door unaided. He proceeds to the far side of the steaming bathing pool and, unable to think what else to do, stands facing the wall in silence.

He hears the attendants put the linens down.

‘That will be all!’ he says. He has forgotten how the water makes it echo in here.

‘Very good, my lord,’ the male attendant says, with dignity, though perhaps a trace of tension.

The door closes.

Thor puts his bundle down on an ornate bench, then dashes to the door and locks it. He turns back around just in time to see the bundle wrestle itself off the bench, land hard and begin rolling around jerkily on the ground. ‘All right!’ Thor calls, and dashes back to unwrap it.

Freed, the cat zags into a posture of attack, captures Thor’s forearm, and sinks its teeth into the meat of his hand. ‘All right!’ Thor cries again.

A knock sounds at the door. Then a muffled voice, feminine. ‘My lord?’

‘What is it?’ Thor calls. Both he and Lodbrok are still.

A beat passes. Thor is about to call out again. The feminine voice says, ‘Is there anything I can assist you with, my lord?’ Is her tone suggestive?

‘No, thank you!’ Thor calls.

The silence stretches. There is no way to tell if she has left.

A rushing in the air.

‘She wishes to assist in the control of your, ah, rampant animal,’ Loki says, releasing Thor’s hand from between his teeth.

‘Shh!’ Thor hisses, and points his thumb at the door.

Loki makes a negligent gesture. A membrane of shimmering light expands from his hand and disappears into the walls. ‘The chamber attendant walks bow-legged from overuse!’ he shouts.

There is no response from outside.

Thor taps Loki’s side with the back of his hand in censure. Loki catches his hand, holding it against his skin. ‘I hope you’ve got some decent oil, at least.’

Loki, bare as a babe, his hair like animals fought in it, gets up to inspect a gilded dish of jewel-like vials on a low pedestal. ‘Attar of noonflower,’ he says, and shakes his head.

‘What do you –’ Thor begins.

‘Get in the bath,’ Loki says.

Thor stands up and stares at him. ‘You must explain to me how it is you are here.’

‘Get in the bath,’ Loki says.

Thor continues to stare.

Loki gets in the bath himself, and holds out his hand.

Thor gets in. The heat climbs his haunches and rises to his waist. The hair on his dry arms stands up in shock. He sits on the opposite side from Loki, on the second of the deep steps below the water, and lets his arms submerge. It is not relaxing.

‘I’m going to tell you,’ Loki says. ‘Will you let me do it tomorrow night? Tell them you’re hungry and have a large repast sent in. We’ll eat it and I’ll tell you.’

‘All right,’ Thor says. He watches the water steam for a moment. ‘Will you assure me that you are really alive, and here with me?’

‘You doubt it, after last night?’ Loki smiles.

‘I know not what to think.’

‘So don’t think, for now,’ Loki says. He stands in the water, rib-deep, and wades across to Thor.

Loki was a girlishly beautiful, creamy-skinned youth, and now he is a slender, strong-shouldered, hard-jawed, creamy-skinned man. Every time Thor has looked upon Loki like this before, he has wrestled the thoughts into a box in his mind and locked it. Now some burglar has jimmied it open.

Their sex last night had seemed some innocent accident, excused by its surely being a dream.

Loki climbs into his lap, loverly, making hot water slosh up his chest.

Loki cups Thor’s shoulder, the swell of his chest, his leaping throat, with a hot, wet hand. Thor’s pulse seems to localise itself beneath Loki’s touch.

‘I’m not your brother,’ Loki says.

‘Do you read my mind, sorcerer?’

‘It didn’t need sorcery.’

Loki’s eyes are like a woman’s. Loki’s eyes are not at all like a woman’s.

He says, ‘It was so sweet with you last night. I’ve always thought about it with you, but I never thought it would be so sweet.’

He kisses Thor’s mouth. Thor clasps Loki against him, and Loki surges in his arms.

All of Loki is available to Thor to touch; he has never been so available.

‘I want to fuck you,’ Loki says, like the reverie of a drunkard. ‘Let me fuck you. Please, I’ll make it so sweet.’

‘Yes.’ Thor’s voice is a croak.

Loki joins their mouths together, liquid. Thor is dizzy, his limbs lax.

‘Kneel up for me, on the first step,’ Loki says, and Thor, helpless, agrees, bending over the edge of the bath.

‘It’s not the best oil for this,’ Loki says, breathless. He has the vial of attar. He is applying it gently, thoroughly, with a faintly trembling finger, to an unbearably sensitive place, which has already begun to cool in the air and now welcomes a warm, wet touch.

‘Oh,’ Thor says.

At the moment of penetration, Loki gives an artless sigh of delight. It stirs Thor deeply.

The sensation is startling. It seems Thor has a place inside him that offers the very premise, the wellspring itself, of all other erotic pleasures. He has never given up the boundaries of his body this way before; it is deliciously, utterly humiliating. He finds himself sobbing, half angrily, like a child.

In the noonday marketplace, the next day, Thor is attempting to formulate a query to the navy-robed attendant – a handsome woman his mother’s age – of a velvet-curtained stall that sells unguents and cosmetics in beautiful crystalline vessels. ‘Good madam,’ he says. ‘I require an oil.’

‘Yes, my lord,’ she says. ‘What nature of oil?’

Two young women, chattering gaily, lift the curtain and enter the small space, advancing on the cosmetics. One glances at Thor, then quickly away. Their giggles turn conspiratorial.

The attendant renews the alertness of her smile.

She says, ‘Perhaps my lord will find what he seeks here.’ She lays down a tray of small bottles before him, and retreats several steps, turning her gaze mildly to the curtain.

The tray is lined with scarlet velvet. The bottles are curvaceous, their slender necks tied with scraps of black lace and flesh-pink silk.

‘Thank you.’ Thor coughs.

When the attendants knock with his oversized evening meal, Thor is lying across the covers on his bed while Lodbrok circles his head, flipping him in the face with a sprightly tail. At the knock, the cat leaps between two pillows; Thor lays a third over the top gently.

As Thor walks to the door to lock it after the attendants leave, he hears a pillow thud to the ground. By the time he has turned around, Loki is seated upright on one of the floor cushions by the fire, looking pleased with himself, in the greatest state of post-transformation dignity he has yet achieved. He reaches for a blanket from a basket, but Thor says, ‘I found you something from your wardrobe,’ and gestures to the divan where a gold-piped, green satin robe is draped.

‘They’ll wonder why it’s been disturbed,’ Loki scolds, but inspects the robe and dons it with evident pleasure.

‘Then I shall say I disturbed it, nostalgically,’ Thor says.

‘What a schemer you become,’ Loki says.

Neither of them quite seems to find this funny.

Thor goes to Loki, who stands by the divan. An exquisite shyness has come over Thor. With all his might, he forces himself to step forward, take Loki in his arms and kiss him. Loki seems afflicted with a similar shyness, his movements stilted.

The kiss soon becomes warm and wet. Loki sighs into his mouth, and they break apart. They have cured their affliction together.

They sit on the cushions by the fire.

‘Well,’ Thor says.

‘Not yet,’ Loki says. ‘You’ll be angry and you won’t want to kiss me anymore.’ He kneels up and kisses Thor.

‘What’s this?’ Loki says, with alarming enthusiasm. He has seen the oil – the one tied with flesh-pink silk – which Thor left on a side table.

‘In truth I do not know!’ Thor said. ‘She gave me a tray to select from, but I dared not enquire too closely.’

Loki gets up and retrieves the oil, gazing it at in the firelight. ‘You do know that they make oils that burn to the touch? Some people enjoy it – pleasurable torture of the most private places. It might be one, for all you know.’

‘I’m sure it isn’t,’ Thor says.

‘But you’re not sure, are you?’

‘I’m sure it isn’t,’ Thor repeats.

‘We must find out immediately,’ Loki says.

Afterwards, Loki cleans himself with magic, but Thor retreats to the bathing pedestal in the corner of the room.

There is a lot of washing to do. The oil, which did not burn to the touch, was faintly sweet-smelling, and very slippery, and has ended up in surprising places. Loki is watching him shamelessly.

‘You blush like a maiden,’ Loki said.

‘I hope you are gentler with maidens,’ Thor jokes, for he is sore from the use Loki has been making of him.

Loki’s face animates, unreadably. He steps behind Thor, out of his line of sight.

‘Was I ungentle?’ Loki’s voice asks.

‘I know not,’ Thor say. He has to instruct himself firmly not to be embarrassed. ‘In truth, I have never let a man get on me before. I know not what is usual.’

‘Never?’ Loki’s voice contains a wheeze of breath.

‘Do not laugh,’ Thor says.

‘I’m not,’ Loki says and, unexpectedly, kisses the centre of Thor’s back, and wraps one arm around him.

Thor puts his hand over Loki’s. Loki stiffens a fraction.

Slowly, as though luring Lodbrok, Thor reaches behind himself and pats Loki’s side, awkwardly, with the back of his hand.

They sit down at the table to eat the food, by now very cold, from the various plates that have been brought for Thor. There is only one tankard for mead, but they are both very hungry, and busy themselves eating in silence at first. They demolish most of a whole fowl, and several other kinds of meats and vegetables, before they develop a particular wish for mead. Then they must take turns with the tankard.

‘I keep wondering if you will bring our mother forth for me, from the air,’ Thor says at last, as Loki takes his turn.

‘No,’ Loki says. He puts the tankard down. ‘I can travel all the realms. Anywhere a flash of light, a breath of wind can go, I can go. But she has gone somewhere I cannot.’

They toast with the tankard in silence, each in turn.

Soon the mead is gone. Thor leads Loki back to the cushions by the fire. They sit, and Thor dandles Loki’s hair as though he is a woman. Loki tolerates it a while, amused, then shrugs it off.

‘Last kiss,’ Loki says. He cups Thor’s face in his hands, and kisses him, once, softly, on the mouth.

Thor is afraid.

‘So,’ Loki says, ‘I lived, on black sands of Svartalfheim. I lived, on the very brink of death, as you left me. The giant in me, I think, froze the wound and staunched the bleeding. Still, I was senseless and unable to move for days.’

‘I am sorry I did not return for your body sooner.’

‘I would be a prisoner for life,’ Loki says. ‘I am not sorry.’

He goes on. ‘At last I roused myself enough to begin to use a little magic, and recover a fraction. I’m afraid I then killed the man who Father –’ Loki’s face shows annoyance, or pain. ‘Who Odin sent to reclaim my body. I stole some of his vitality, to heal me. Then I returned here, impersonating him.’

Thor consults his conscience. ‘The cold truth is, I care far more for you than that man.’

‘I liked the speech you gave Odin in my defence.’ Loki laughs bloodlessly. ‘Not sure you would have made it if you thought I was alive, though.’

‘Perhaps not,’ Thor concedes. He puts his hand on Loki’s knee.

Loki, gently, gives the hand back. ‘And then I did something else, which is what I need to show you tonight.’

He stands up, and Thor does the same.

‘You’d be hopeless as a cat. Maybe a dog?’ Loki says. ‘No, you’d run right up to the guards and lick them.’

‘Loki,’ Thor says.

‘All right, it’ll have to be this,’ Loki says, and disappears.

‘Loki?’ Thor says.

Something is wrong. Something that Thor cannot identify, something that seems to be lurking in his peripheral vision, is terribly, terribly wrong.

He cannot see his own body.

He spins about looking for it, panicked. His sense of himself anchored in space is utterly disordered. Immediately he falls over.

‘Oh, for pity’s sake,’ Loki’s voice says, from the air.

Chapter 3

They go to the roof first, where the sentries scratch themselves, unaware of being observed, and dawdle on their patrol. Loki directs Thor by tugging his arm, for Loki has enchanted their voices and the sound of their passage away, after complaining that Thor breathed, and stomped, too loudly.

One sentry stops entirely and leans on the railing. Loki brings them forward to lean next to him, breathtakingly close.

The man begins to pick his nose with singular, exploratory diligence.

At last he leaves, and the agitation, which Thor took to be laughter, in Loki’s body – for they must keep contact lest they lose each other while invisible and inaudible – stills itself. But Loki does not seek to move from the railing right away.

The lights of Asgard are below them, and the stars above, as though one is a reflection in dark water of the other, in some vast, deep cavern.

Loki was locked in his cell underground, without sun-, moon- or starlight, a long while, Thor supposes.

Next they go to the kitchens. Some young women kitchenhands are lounging with a flagon of wine, at a fire in a smaller hearth. One of them has her skirts hiked up into her lap and is examining a large pimple on her thigh, while the others look amused.

‘No princes between these for a while.’

‘Have you even seen him recently?’ another asks.

‘Barely at all. He’s gone strange, if you ask me. I mean, a Midgardian woman. Isn’t that like fucking a child?’ She swigs her wine.

Loki’s arm twitches in Thor’s grasp.

‘He hasn’t wrestled for ages! Have you all seen that?’ another says.

‘No!’ another replies. ‘Do they take their clothes off?’

‘All of them! Or practically all of them. He just has this little loincloth,’ the first says. ‘Let me tell you: those thighs. Like a whole side of ham!’ She mimes tearing a hunk of meat with her teeth.

Several pretend to fan themselves.

Loki is now rocking back and forth, which makes it hard to hold on to him.

‘Don’t laugh, but I used to like that Loki,’ one says.

The others gasp.

‘I thought he was sweet!’

They all groan and shake their heads.

‘You can’t say he’s not handsome!’ she protests. ‘When he’s not trying to kill us all.’

The rest of them grimace theatrically.

‘He looks like a lizard!’ one of them says, hamming up her disgust. She gets up to stoke the fire.

Loki, who has become very still, slips from Thor’s grasp.

As the woman sits down again, her chair twitches out from under her, sending her sprawling.

‘Was that Nell?’ one says, in a squeak.

‘Dead Nell?’ the one on the ground squeaks back.

They all sit up like frightened rabbits.

‘I’m sorry, Nell, I know you fancied him!’ the one on the ground warbles towards the ceiling, gaze darting around in the air.

Thor strides forward to where he guesses Loki must be, and nearly trips over him – for Loki is almost bent double with laughter. He tries to hit Loki chidingly on the shoulder, but misses and strikes the side of his face. Loki retaliates with an outflung arm, and elbows him in the groin. They scuffle. Their scuffle bumps them into some shelves, sending pots and pans crashing to the floor.

The women, as one, scream.

Outside, Thor taps Loki twice on the shoulder vigorously, which was their agreed signal for Loki to give him his voice back. But Loki does not comply. He does, however, embrace Thor and pat his back soothingly. Thor chooses to take this as an apology, and pats him back, and finds Loki’s ribs are still rising and falling quickly. As Thor carries on patting him, Loki quiets.

Loki leads him on, Thor knows not where.

Then they are in a service corridor, and Thor has a terrible premonition. Behind the turned backs of some guards, they enter the hallway that serves the private entrances to the family rooms.

Thor’s premonition is right, but it is already too late. He pulls back on Loki’s elbow, but Loki carries on. Thor does not think they can risk another scuffle here.

They approach the door to Odin’s chambers. In the doorway, Loki stops. Thor grabs Loki’s hand and holds it to his jaw, so Loki can feel him shaking his head. But Loki brings both hands to Thor’s face and stills him. He kisses Thor on the mouth, off-centre and clumsy. From the puff of his breath, it seems as though he is saying something.

Loki depresses the door handle, and they must get inside at once.

Odin’s bed, thank all the fates, is empty. In fact, the covers are taut – it is unslept in. Thor bangs on Loki’s shoulder wildly. ‘He’ll come back!’ he whispers, when Loki gives him back his voice.

‘He won’t,’ Loki says. He steps away, and Thor sees a corner of the covers being pulled loose, and a dint being punched into the pillow.

‘Do you see this?’ Loki’s voice says seriously. The cover of the book of history on the bedside table lifts itself. It seems it is a secondary cover that can be lifted right off the book. The primary cover underneath is different. It’s the cover of a book of sorcery.

‘What does it mean?’ Thor says.

He is probably imagining that Loki’s invisible silence has a slightly critical air.

‘All right, there’s more,’ Loki says. ‘Have you finished talking for now?’

‘Loki,’ Thor says.

Loki takes his voice away.

Loki finds Thor’s hand in the air, and leads him away, out another door, which leads to a private stairway downwards.

It is very awkward to descend a staircase without being able to see your feet, and having to hold on to someone else lest you lose him. It is probably for the best that Loki is unable to offer comment on Thor’s progress.

They walk between oblivious guards, beneath a golden arch, and take the dark stairs to the vaults.

This was a site of childhood play on occasion, when they were brought here with Father on errands. The first rooms are familiar, though the objects in them come and go at Odin’s command.

Then a deeper chamber, plain-walled, no longer gilded or stencilled like a room in the palace. Large things lie under sheets. They once played a game of hiding here, before being scolded and sent out.

Then a deeper room again, where Thor has seldom been, which is more like a cave, and where the natural light does not rise above a deep, dark blue. The steps down into it are hewn roughly from stone. It takes a long time to stumble down them, holding hands. At the bottom of the steps, Loki stops, and places Thor’s hands on the backs of his shoulders. Thor understands he is to follow him thus, now.

They proceed into the dimness. Loki, it is clear, is now navigating by means other than sight. Where Thor’s eyes see only a wall of indistinguishable dark, sheeted forms, Loki finds a serpentine path. Only once do they come unstuck: Thor bumps his head on some overhanging thing that Loki, being shorter, has passed below. Thor reels back, losing contact with Loki. Loki must come back for him and, lacking language, pat Thor’s forehead in apology.

They carry on. Some quality of the air changes, and the last of the dark blue light is extinguished for perfect black. They must be passing through a tunnel, low overhead. Thor did not even know there was a passage here. The boy in him quails, though the man marches on.

The air moves differently – they are in another cavern. Another serpentine path, now in utter darkness. A drapery brushes Thor’s face in passing, and he startles. Another tunnel. Another cavern, empty now, for Loki cuts a straight, confident path across it.

They go on. It is long since Thor could have told which direction is sunrise and which sunset.

Loki stops. Thor almost knocks him down, and they apologise with their hands, as they have learned to do.

Loki pushes him a step to the side, and holds him there, with a clasped forearm.

There is a clank. It pains the ear, after the silence. Light lances Thor’s eyes.

Loki tugs him by the wrist through a heavy, slow-swinging door. Thor cannot focus yet. He hears Loki pull the door shut behind them and settle a bolt back into place.

Loki does something. Thor can see himself again! It is a boon beyond price. He can see Loki, too, and claps him on the shoulder. It is good to see him. Though they look absurd, still in their robes.

He goes to move down the tunnel and into the room. But Loki says, ‘Wait a second. Till your eyes adjust.’

After a moment, they move. They enter a smaller cavern, cut roughly from the rock and scattered with fresh debris, as if it was only hewn recently.

‘This is what I have to show you,’ Loki says.

It is a golden capsule bed, shining and ringed with lights. In it lies Odin, asleep.

Thor’s fist strikes Loki’s face with a sick, meaty sound.

For a second, the look in Loki’s eye has a terrible honesty: it is pure, childlike betrayal. Though he threw the punch, Thor feels sure his own face looks the same.

The second passes. Loki squares his stance. His whole body seems to grow. With a look of naked malice, he launches something, overarm, at Thor.

Thor hurls himself aside to the ground, and the freezing air of it whips past his ear and shatters into fragments of ice against the cave wall behind. Loki casts again, and Thor rolls away. The magic clips his shoulder and he bleeds there, half frozen.

He rolls to his feet and leaps the capsule bed. Loki, startled, sends a cast that goes wide. Thor lands with his fist halfway to Loki’s face. It connects like a building falling. Loki’s head snaps back. Thor lands a second to his undefended middle, bowing him over in pain. He pulls his arm back to deliver a third, to the back of the head, to fell him.

But Loki breaks from his feint, and surges from his crouch to strike Thor hard in the jaw, sending him staggering. At once Loki kicks him in the chest.

Thor falls. Loki is on him. A fist to the face rings Thor’s skull like a bell. Then another, and a third. Thor’s right eye no longer sees.

Thor seizes Loki’s robe and, with a bleary heave, rolls them over. He strikes Loki in the mouth, and wet spatter flies. Loki twitches, and some percussive magic hurls Thor off him. Thor flies several feet and lands with his robe flipped up, painfully on his bare backside, on rubble.

His predicament, or perhaps just the look on his face, stays Loki’s hand a moment. They stand and brush themselves off.

‘This is quite a good fight,’ Thor says, cheerfully, for the joy of battle is upon him.

Thor has lost time, but now he is awake. There is a woolliness in the air around his body, sharpened almost to static around his head, as if the body has become confused where its edges are. It means he is hurt, but not, he thinks, mortally.

His hair is stuck under something, and he cannot raise his head. It is a large rock, he discovers by touch. He also discovers there is almost no part of the back of his hand that is not cut and bleeding. He pushes the rock away awkwardly with his palm.

The sound of it falling a short way, then rolling and crunching, vibrates a dull, hot pain loose, deep in his inner ear.

He sits up, to a great surge of nausea that blanks his vision.

When he is able to spare the attention from his distress, he looks around him.

Loki, also in a pile of rubble, is leaning slumped against the wall, a few steps away. His face is a beaten side of meat.

‘You look like I feel,’ Thor says. His voice comes out worse than he thought; some syllables are barely voiced.

Loki looks at him dully, and lays himself down on his side in the rubble.

Thor lies back down too.

Time has passed – quite a deal of it.

Thor opens his eyes. Loki is standing, looking down at him. His face is such a disaster that it is difficult to interpret his expression. He is dirty, cut and bleeding all over, and his robe hangs open, the sash lost. A prodigious bruise blooms at his middle. But he seems steady on his feet, and calm.

Thor returns his look, and sits up. It is much less baleful to do than it was earlier. He reaches out his hand to Loki.

Effortfully, Loki manoeuvres his swollen face into an expression of irritation. Thor continues to hold out his hand.

Loki gives in and helps him up.

They are both startled, in the instant they encounter each other at eye level. Loki takes a jerky step back. Suddenly he pulls his robe closed and sticks it there with a fingerful of magic.

Thor wants to snicker, but it hurts his face.

Thor leans on the rail of the golden capsule, and looks at Odin.

‘You –’ he begins, but his voice is still difficult to operate. He pauses to clear his throat and swallow a few times. ‘You combed his hair out like Mother used to.’

Loki’s eyes are murderous for a second. He turns away, walking a few steps, stiff.

‘Is this still revenge?’ Thor says. ‘Your long revenge. Will you torture him, murder him, in time?’

‘Don’t ask me,’ Loki says.

Thor slumps, his weight on his hands. ‘Can I not love you enough that you will stop this?’

Loki’s back straightens, but he does not turn around.

‘You do not love me enough for any purpose of mine.’ Loki’s voice is terrible.

‘You have blighted our lives with that error!’

‘Oh I have, have I? Well, of course it was me. Half the reason…’ Loki does turn around now, to show Thor his face – because he has begun to weep, ragefully.

Loki stares at Thor, grimacing like an animal. ‘Half the reason I passionately wish I’d killed him… is that for years, years, I loved you as I never loved a woman. I mean that I loved you. I mean I spilled my seed dreaming of you. And I thought I was an abomination.’

He turns away again, paces, and turns back. ‘And then, it turned out I was an abomination. It was just a different kind of abomination than I thought!’

He sags where he stands.

Thor shambles across to him, his arms neutral.

Loki allows an embrace.

‘I do not have the wit to comfort you,’ Thor says, his face in Loki’s hair.

‘Now, as at so many times in life, wit is not required,’ Loki says, muffled. ‘Or else you’d be in a lot of trouble, wouldn’t you.’

Thor kisses his wet cheek, catching a place where the skin is broken.

‘Ow,’ Loki says. He pokes Thor in the ribs, where earlier he kicked him.

‘What are we to do?’ Thor kisses Loki’s hair, more carefully.

Loki breaks away. He wipes his tears. ‘There’s more.’

‘Tell it to me,’ Thor says.

Loki retreats to the cavern wall and leans on it, with an air of settling in. He begins, ‘When I brought the Chitauri to Midgard, I did so in collaboration with a very unpleasant individual called Thanos.’

When Loki has finished his story, Thor says, ‘And do you wish for this? For all the realms to be enslaved by this Thanos?’

Loki opens his mouth to speak. Thor interrupts. ‘For Asgard, overthrown and in chains? Jotunheim, in chains? Me, in chains? Me dead?’ In his heart he adds, Midgard, in chains?

Loki opens his mouth again.

‘Do not answer glibly,’ Thor says. He cannot quite pronounce ‘glibly’ right, with his beaten mouth.

They look at each other.

‘No,’ Loki says.

‘Then what are we to do?’ But this time Thor does not mean this rhetorically.

His hand twitches for his hammer.

‘If I were king,’ Loki says, with an ironic mince, standing up, ‘I would do what I have already begun to do. Which is ready our armies, for it will come to that soon. Pull back from any position we cannot defend.’

‘That, I can do,’ Thor says with relief. He remembers how helpless he felt when Odin would not act against Malekith.

‘The Infinity Stone that the Allfather entrusted elsewhere must be retrieved. But no-one but the Allfather has standing to retrieve it.’ Loki holds Thor’s eye.

The bed where Odin’s body lies is spilling golden light.

‘Well, then,’ Thor says.

The women of the palace are delighted to see that Thor of Asgard has taken up wrestling again. Once again he welcomes all challengers with the dreadful joy of one destined for Valhalla, clad in his small loincloth. His return to warriorly high spirits is watched over by his father from the galleries, who claps and shouts as though he himself has been restored to some old, lost vitality. Gone is that sense of Odin’s dwindling, of twilight descending, that has cast a shade of melancholy over the court in recent years.

Soon Thor returns to all the sports of battle, and the warriors rise to meet him, their hearts hot with the yearning for victory. All is life; all is summer. Everywhere is the flowering of valour. The mead flows till late; the toasts ring out; the songs of old are sung.

King and heir are so inseparable that even when there is not a public feast – Thor inevitably in the victor’s place, at his father’s right hand – they dine together in private, sending all attendants away so that they may take counsel late into the night.

A curious note is struck by Thor’s adoption of a small, black cat, which he has named Lodbrok. Attempts to bring it a fish on a saucer are rebuffed, for he will feed Lodbrok only from his own plate. So smitten is their prince that he cannot bear to leave the cat behind even when he goes to dine with his father. Sometimes it is seen, quite scandalously, walking upon the very table where king and prince are supping, menacing the tankards with its tail, though never, it is noted, at the precise moment that Odin is there to witness it.

There is talk that Asgard prepares for war. Frontiers long held peaceably are now abandoned for a closer position. New recruits shadow the ground in the training yards, till there is scarcely a shoulder’s width of sand unoccupied. Thor is shield-brother and scourge alike; his voice alone is thunder.

Upon the defeat of Malekith, gossip recalls that Sif and Volstagg were sent on an errand to a far world, carrying a package. Now they are sent again, this time with an escort of armed warriors. They return, days later than expected, bloodied, with two of the warriors dead, and no package. Thor greets them in the throne room with an embrace, but his face is grim. Odin seats himself taller on the throne.

One night, a horn blares out, thrilling in the air. The warriors of Asgard are summoned to feast in the great hall of Odin, the Allfather.

Their king stands straight atop the dais, age unbent from his frame as if by force of will. Gungnir shines gold in his hand. A step down, in arm’s reach, stands golden Thor, whose bare head shines just as bright.

‘Warriors of Asgard,’ cries Odin, ‘drink and feast and make merry! For tomorrow, fell deeds await.’

The company shouts its acclamation.

‘An enemy rises,’ Odin intones, like some deep bell, ‘who would lay fire among every leaf, twig and branch of Yggdrasil. Who would make slave and thrall of every living creature. Asgard will meet him. Asgard will spill his blood and cast him to the void! Are you with me?’

Thor, in his passion, summons thunder in the sky. But the roar of the company drowns it out.

End notes

Lodbrok, or Loðbrók, means ‘shaggy breeches’ in Old Norse, and is associated with the Viking Ragnar Lodbrok, who is said to have killed a serpent while wearing fur clothes dipped in tar for protection.

I was delighted to discover from research that Thor is also the Norse god of wrestling. I regret to advise his small loincloth has no particular historical justification.

Thank you all for coming with me on this journey from ambiguous cat eroticism to saving the universe.

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