2: “Always protect your king…”

He came to her often in those first years. Loki spoke little, as it seemed to tax him to conjure sound. He could manipulate objects, but that tired him out even faster. Norah was happy to burble away at him, telling him about her friends, her secrets, her dreams. Sometimes he would disappear for a length of time, only to return and exhaust himself by reading her to sleep with their favorite book of fairytales. On other occasions she could simply feel him in the air. She recognized the crackling signature of his energy and knew he was around, keeping an eye on her.

On her eighth Christmas, she awoke to find a heavy checkered board game on the bedroom floor, wrapped with a huge satin bow. It looked like chess, but was organized with a green team in the middle surrounded by a larger force of red. It had all the pieces save one – the king at the center of the board was missing. She happily realized she had the game piece all along, secreted away in her dollhouse. It was a relief to finally understand where the statue belonged. She giddily placed it into position.

“The concept is simple,” Loki had explained in his velvety voice. “In life, we always begin at a disadvantage. What you do next is both a matter of choice and skill. How will you gain the upper hand when you’re flanked by enemies on all sides?”

“So I’m green?”

The diaphanous illusion rolled his eyes and nodded.

The child shrugged. “Okay. But this is just a practice round. It doesn’t count if you win.”

“Fine. Now, you must always protect your king…” he said silkily.

Loki taught her the rules of play and in time she would become a formidable opponent in the old Norse game called Hnefatafl.

 


 

Her parents ignored her monologues then, assuming they were the idle chatter of an only child and her imaginary friend. As she grew older, her mother and father would argue at night when they thought she was asleep. Norah was just immature, her father pointed out. No, her mother countered, there is something wrong with her. She talks to that man. The ugly way she uttered those words curdled in Norah’s mind.

“The books say you are a bad person,” she dared to utter one afternoon when Loki appeared lounging in her bean bag. Norah was then eleven years old.

He shrugged and threw aside the horse camp novel he’d found and had been thumbing through.

“This is trash. I’m getting you something useful. Perhaps you’d like Aeschylus?”

Norah was too agitated to be distracted from her war path.

“Did you do it with a horse?”

He shot her an unconvinced look.

“Hmm. Okay. Did you ditch your wife and kids?”

A shake of the head.

“Do you now or did you ever have a wife and/or kids?” she clarified, mimicking the lawyers she’d seen on tv. Norah knew too well how Loki could twist the truth around the edge of a single misspoken word, let alone a poorly phrased question.

Another firm shake.

“No? Are any of the stories true? Did you cut off all that girl’s hair?”

He looked confused. What girl, his expression seemed to say.

“Sif? I read about her too.”

A headshake, this one a little too smugly confident.

“Liar, liar pants on fire,” she retorted. “You did!”

He laughed in his beautiful, carefree manner. Leave it to a little girl to pick apart the master of deception’s fibs. Norah couldn’t help but giggle along with him. The breathy, bell-like ring of his laughter was contagious. It was also easily one of her favorite sounds in the world.

“You are real, even like this, right?” she asked, growing sullen.

Norah dropped her voice to faint whisper. “No one knows what happened after the war. I’ve tried to Google you. I think the government covered it up. There aren’t even any pictures of you, just weird websites that swear you were in Germany. Where are you, Loki?”

He gave a wry smile and waved his hand.

“Oh, you’re around? You dork! You don’t take anything seriously,” she sighed.

 


 

In the late spring of her fourteenth year, she nursed a huge crush on a ginger-haired boy in her biology class. When Norah finally wound up enough courage to ask him to the 8th grade dance, he laughed in her face. She bravely carried her broken heart back home without shedding a single tear. It was perhaps the single longest bus ride home in history.

Only once she had collapsed in the respite of her bed did she let herself cry for hours at being so cruelly rejected. Loki lay next to her, listening. Though his eyes darkened angrily when she described the gut-wrenching part where the boy had called her a ‘fat bitch,’ he didn’t pour honeyed words in her ear in some feeble attempt to make her feel better about the meanness of the world. Instead he offered her the solace of a perfect confidante. He didn’t think it necessary to mention the enchantment he had woven as she talked through her feelings. The boy would be cursed to a year of severe acne the moment she next laid eyes upon him.

“I wish you could be my boyfriend,” she complained with a huff, wiping her smeary face.

Loki quirked an eyebrow in disbelief.

“Well, okay. You are way too old for me and that’s totally disgusting. Like a couple thousand years too old. But still, you’re cute for an ancient dude, you’re mostly nice, and you’re a god, so you’re prolly rich as hell. You have an actual castle. Too bad my Prince Charming is just a magic beam of light.” She dramatically smacked her arm through the spot where he lay, just to emphasize her point.

Loki narrowed his eyes. “Too bad my flower girl is a spoiled brat!” he teased and popped out of sight.

A few days later she discovered a stunning green gown in her closet. The plunging back was daring, but tasteful. A note attached read:

You’ll be Belle of the ball; no need for a loathesome Beast. Save the first dance for me? L

It was always like that between them. They talked, they bickered. They teased one another and laughed far too hard. He was her constant and closest friend and she was his, at least she liked to think that.

She told him everything and he told her many things, albeit in brief spurts as his energy allowed. Some topics were taboo, as always seems to be the case with adults. Loki spoke fondly of his rowdy and mischievous childhood, but would not discuss his relationship with his brother later in life. He spoke of his mother with the greatest tenderness, but grew clammy when asked about his father. Norah’s imagination was so full of Loki’s incredible descriptions of Asgard that she felt she knew it as well as her own hometown. She dreamed of it often, picturing her raven haired prince looking out of one of the gilded palace’s shining towers. And yet when she demanded to know Loki’s present whereabouts, he would smile and distract her with a riddle or a tale, or sometimes, he would simply disappear.

 


 

Though she was careful to keep their conversations private, Norah occasionally slipped up and spoke a little too loudly or forgot to close her door. One day her mother overheard one too many times. It was the poor woman’s breaking point.

Then there were trips to the psychologist, to child development specialists, and finally, to doctors who strung her up to bleeping, buzzing machines. The so-called “experts” entreated her to admit her invisible friend was pure fancy. At first, she defended herself. They did not relent. Give up the childish games, they said. She calmly explained she talked to a god.

That lovely confession earned her a short stint at an in-patient treatment facility to rehabilitate her “fixated” personality. It was a miserable experience. Apart from the short-tempered nurses and self-important doctors, when she finally admitted which god, precisely, she spoke with, SHIELD descended on the hospital and unleashed their full wrath upon her. Two agents dragged her into a relentless, seven hour interrogation about her knowledge of the God of Mischief. They had been watching her – tracking anyone who had any contact with the supposedly non-existent Loki Odinson. SHIELD had done a fine job at covering Loki’s involvement in New York, erasing his every trace, though to that very day a staunch group of conspiracy theorists and outliers like her claimed otherwise. Finally, they deemed her knowledge too superficial to be significant and cleared her as a non-threat, but not before submitting a strongly worded recommendation that she continue her psychotherapy treatments.

“Crazy fangirls,” she heard one agent quip as they packed up. “Why do they always go for the bad boys? Why can’t they just get obsessed with Steve? Sure would make our lives easier.” He cast a dirty look back at her over his shoulder.

The worst insult was that Loki never once appeared there to comfort her. She lay in a cold room bunked with several other ‘nutty’ girls, utterly alone and beginning to question her sanity.

When she finally returned home, months later, it wasn’t long before Loki showed up. His complexion was wan and he had a crazed look in his eyes.

“Where have you been?” he hissed, shoving an accusing finger in her face.

“Where have I been? In a loony bin where they lock up psychos who think they talk to god! Where the hell have you been!”

Norah flew into an irate rage, hurling everything she could get her hands on straight through his illusory form. She railed at him, tears free flowing.

“They wanted me to believe I’m crazy! I’m not crazy!” A piggy bank she’d had for ages smashed against the wall, sending an explosion of copper pennies and porcelain shards in every direction. Loki held his hands up for her to stop.

“You shithead! You left me all alone!” she ranted. “It’s your fault I was locked up there to begin with! SHIELD had a field day with me. They were ready to drag me off to their lair until I convinced them I didn’t know anything – which of course I don’t. You’ve ensured that, haven’t you!? I had to lie my way out! Thank the gods you’ve taught me that much!” she spat hatefully.

Loki closed his eyes and steadied himself as he often did before conjuring his person more vividly. Instead he disappeared, but a sudden pressure wound around her arms, solid and squeezing her into a gentle, invisible hug. He’d rarely ever mustered the magic to touch her before and Norah broke down into sobs.

“I am so sorry, poppet.” Something pressed into the palm of her hand. It was her king game piece.

“I don’t feel like playing.”

He pushed at it again, purposefully.

“What, Lo? Use your big boy words,” she snarked irritably. She really didn’t feel like dealing with his mischief after what she’d endured.

“The gateway,” he said, sounding spent.

Norah stared at the figurine, running a thumb over its familiar surface. The realization dawned on her.

“Oh my god,” she gasped. “You can’t find me without it…” He hadn’t abandoned her, rather she too had been lost to him in the strange hospital so far from her usual haunts. Norah had been uprooted so quickly she’d never even had the chance to tell him where she was headed. All this time she had been cursing him when he had no doubt felt the same.

“You never explained,” she wept, full of regret at their misunderstanding.

“I thought you knew,” he replied somberly.

From that day forward, she never left home again without the king piece.

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