Loki’s throwing knives were a stunning, if not bizarre, gift. He was really taking this whole self-defense thing seriously, but Norah couldn’t really imagine testing them out, let alone using them. Despite having joined a new dojo when she relocated to Chicago, her skill level was certainly a long ways off from integrating weapons into her training. Nevertheless, she cherished the set; it had been crafted on another world, for crying out loud! Not one to snub her nose at divine gifts, she carefully stored the box in her closet. It reminded her of the other Asgardian item she possessed and how long it had been since she’d had the opportunity to use it.
Hey Trina?” she called to her roommate. “Wanna play a boardgame?”
Norah dug out the Hnefatafl board and began setting it up on the coffee table in the common area.
“What the heck is that?” her roommate scoffed.
Norah tried to explain, but Trina’s eyes quickly glazed over with disinterest. She blew a large bubble with her gum and snapped it dismissively.
“Try the chess club, girlfriend. I’m sure those nerdboys will be more up to your speed. I was going to go meet Chad soon anyways.”
Norah huffed but forced a polite smile. She had intended on pointing out to her roommate that she had the hots for a very lovely but very uninterested gay guy, but if she was going to be a nasty witch for no good reason, she could figure it out the hard way. Truthfully, Norah had hoped she and her roomie would become fast friends, but the prospect seemed more and more unlikely. They were simply not on the same wavelength. A day ago that might have seemed disappointing, but now everything seemed different now that Loki had returned. And he’d kissed her. Sort of. Norah tried to ignore the excited, flippy feeling she had in her belly.
In the musty basement recreation room, a group of boys hunched over a chess game and animatedly clocked their moves on a counter. The basement was also occupied by a couple kids she recognized from the fourth floor playing beer pong. Judging by how sloppy their aim had become, they had been at it for a while. In the far corner, a line of laundry machines that noisily ground through their cycles, adding to the general din of subterranean noise. Norah watched the chess club from a distance before venturing up to introduce herself.
“Uh, hey guys. I’m Norah.”
“Sup,” one grunted in response.
“Can I play winner? Or is there a line?”
“Nah, you can play next,” said the boy currently playing the white side of the board. “I’m just about to win,” he boasted, slapping the timer.
His opponent made a move and he quickly tapped his king into place. “Check mate, dude.” He looked up at Norah with a self-satisfied smirk. “Name’s Zach,” he drawled lazily, adjusting his heavy, black plastic glasses.
“Hi.” Norah took a seat across from him and chewed her lip, inspecting the board.
“You look nervous. Do you play much?”
“Sort of, I mean, I haven’t played for a long time. I wanted to brush up because, well…A friend of mine is in town and I’m a bit rusty. We play a different version though.”
“Well if you don’t know the rules, maybe you should study up first. I’d feel bad totally annihilating a girl.” He turned to laugh with the other boys.
Norah narrowed her eyes at the taunt. Nothing rubbed her the wrong way worse than a sexist jerk. Thankfully, this paled in comparison to Loki’s trash talk. He would purposefully try to get a rise out of her in order to teach her how to focus the animosity caused by barbed words into laser-like determination. It was always games layered upon games with the God of Mischief.
“Oh you like to talk smack, is that it Zachary? Or is it Zachariah? Remember that in five minutes.” Norah reached down and picked off several of her black game pieces, tossing them back into the box top on the cement floor.
Whispers erupted amongst the spectators.
“What are you doing? That gives me an unfair advantage,” Zach scoffed, unimpressed.
“Everyone always thinks you’re weaker when the odds are against you. Let’s see if you’re right,” she said with a fake smile. She could almost hear Loki’s effusive laughter in her head. It felt good to stretch her tactical muscles.
They got down to brass tacks and the game progressed speedily. Several moves in, Zachary shifted uncomfortably in his dumpy lounge chair and declared that she was a “really aggressive player.”
“Aggressive? Oh, sorry, you must mean ‘good,'” she retorted, snatching another of his pieces. In a few more moves, the sandy haired boy snorted when Norah exposed her queen.
“You do know the queen’s most powerful piece on the board, right? I mean, you have actually played before?” he mocked.
Norah locked eyes with his.
“Of course. It is the most versatile piece,” she countered as he greedily snatched up her queen. “But then, you seem to be playing the board, while I’m playing the player.”
It was a perfectly executed trap. “And Zach? You forgot the most important rule,” Norah licked her lips and clicked her king into place. “Always protect your king. Check.”
Zach blanched and made a couple flailing attempts to outrun her, but to no avail. In the end, she was the one doing the annihilating. Several of the group grilled her with questions afterwards about how she was able to turn the game so quickly, having started with such a disadvantage. She did her best to answer provisionally, without mentioning the “oh I grew up playing an ancient version of chess with the God of Lies in my jammies” part. Norah went a few more rounds with the others before calling it a night. She felt satisfied that she had sufficiently warmed up for her next match and looked forward to challenging her favorite opponent.
Loki pinched the bridge of his nose in exasperation.
“You still haven’t answered my question!” Norah barked, pounding a fist on the now forgotten game board between them. The pieces clattered; several toppled. Their argument had grown more heated and she took a breath to calm herself, worried someone in the hallway might hear. “Loki, please. Enough with all your dissembling and dissimulations. Just tell me what happened.”
It was patently clear something major had happened during his yearlong absence. It had been weeks since he’d reappeared in her life and he still refused to discuss the attack in London. It didn’t even make sense as to why – no one had been hurt in the end. Moreover, he simply changed the subject when she demanded to know why his projections were stronger than they had ever seemed. He was manifesting far more physically than she could ever remember and talking for long stretches, even into the early hours of the morning. They danced around the same, worn-out question: where was he?
“Don’t I deserve to know?” she asked, feeling rather pathetic.
“Are you incapable of enjoying something while it lasts, woman?! Let it be!” he snapped finally, angrily running a hand through his long mane. Since his return, his projections wore it in a wild tumble well past his shoulders.
Norah paused, dissecting his words. “While it lasts…you mean you expect your projections to grow weak again?”
“By the Norns, she can deduce! We have a philosopher in our midst, methinks!”
“God dammit, Loki Odinson!” Norah screamed. She didn’t mean to, but he’d pushed her too far. Whatever tight lid she’d kept over her frustration and pent-up resentment cracked. “Did you come back to just to be cruel? To return only so you could push me away with your mean words? What could you possibly gain from that? From taunting one stupid mortal? Surely you have more important things to do.”
The flood of tears followed.
“I prayed, Loki,” she cried between sobs, “I honest to god prayed to Heimdall and Frigga. I was so lost without you…”
Loki’s eyebrows knit together as he watched Norah crumple in on herself, looking more like that vulnerable child he had known than the beautiful young woman she had become. She seemed to him so small on that wretched lump of furniture she called a ‘futon.’
“You…? You made exhortations on my behalf? To my mother?” he asked, incredulously.
“Loki, I was like a crazy pagan lady squirting honey all over bouquets and begging the skies to have you back. I didn’t know what else to do. I thought maybe she would hear, that maybe…”
He held a hand up, trying to digest what she was admitting. He went to say something but words caught in his mouth. He gaped for a brief moment, then snapped jaw shut with a pained look.
“Oh, my darling flower girl,” he finally whispered, sinking down next to her on the couch. His strong arms laced around her, pulling her in. She slumped in his hold and let the tears flow, hot and angry down his emerald tunic. The flat planes of his figure’s projection were smooth and lacking in both texture and warmth, but he was there – a firm presence against her. His hair brushed against her cheek like an indistinct whisper.
“How are you here like this?” she whimpered. “I don’t even understand. I…I can feel you.”
“A good meal and a bit of rest does wonders,” he sighed, running circles over her back. Norah didn’t understand the joke he was attempting and didn’t bother asking.
“Are you sure there isn’t a way to re-bedazzle the king piece? Make it stronger or make it so that you could summon me to you? I would go to you…”
“You know I cannot.”
“Are you sure there aren’t any real Midgardian sorcerers?”
He sighed deeply. “If only.”
“I wish I could do magic.”
“Me too, love. Me too.”
Norah doodled in distraction before her business writing course began. She was slumped down in her chair retracing the outline of a swooping, abstract wolf design in blue pen when Zach sat down next to her. She vaguely registered that he was asking her about next semester’s classes.
“…and so if you wanted, we could both knock out our physics req together.”
“Hnn,” she murmured.
“…especially since you’re into Vikings…Is that Viking? Or Celtic? I can never tell the difference.” Zach asked, pointing to her wolf drawing.
“No, it’s…” What? Was she about to say Asgardian? A design from Loki’s armor? Loki whom she was still arguing with?
“It’s Viking,” she grumbled.
“Okay, yeah, so you know, taking that physics class together might be fun. Maybe Dr. Foster will tell us about Thor…”
“Thor?” she gasped, now paying full attention.
“Norah! Are you even listening to me?”
“I’m sorry, Zach. I spaced out. You were asking about taking a class together?”
“Yes! Jeesh! I was saying that Dr. Foster got hired here after she won the Nobel last year and that if we wanted to register for her class, we’d have to bid really early because it’s going to be the hottest ticket on campus. It would be really incredible to study with her.”
Jane Foster. Thor’s Jane. Norah thought of the magazine covers splashed with the couple’s image. Gossip news was obsessed with the fact that she seemed to have stopped aging; theories that she’d been given one of Idunn’s mythical apples abounded. Surely Jane could put her in touch with Thor if she played her cards right.
“Zach, that’s brilliant!” she exclaimed.
Only it wasn’t.
Two months into the course, Norah was slogging through problem sets and hopelessly behind on the mathematics necessary for understanding the assignments. Dr. Foster had stated from the outset that she would not be discussing her involvement in SHIELD or her personal life and that to inquire about it was unnecessarily distracting from the class and could be grounds for being automatically withdrawn from the class. Norah respected her professionalism, but it did put a wrinkle into her plan. She should have just dropped the course straight away and taken something easier, but she’d let Zach guilt-trip her into sticking with it.
One evening she returned from a snack break to her small bedroom to find Loki sitting at her desk chair. Hearing her enter, he spun very slowly and deliberately around to face her. A look of pure rage simmered across his features.
“Whthaaat!?” she gasped in shock, her mouth still full of the goldfish crackers she was munching on.
“Do you think me unworthy of my titles?” he asked in a low, dangerous tone.
“Huh?!” she blanched in confusion.
His nostrils flared in anger. “Did you think I did not know you were keeping something from me?”
Oh shit. Norah realized with a flush of panic that she’d left some of her physics handouts on her desk – papers with the course title and professor’s name. She’d been so careful up until now.
“I knew you would be angry. I was right. Look at you, your armor’s all in a twist!”
He stood abruptly, flipping the long folds of his tunic behind him harshly, and stalked toward her. “And here I’ve been helping you with your assignments, thinking that you were putting yourself through this ridiculous ruse to impress that welp of a boy. Yet the entire time I’ve known something wasn’t quite right. How silly of me to chalk it up to your…inexperience,” he hissed.
It was true. She’d encouraged his misguided assumption about Zach as a cover. She’d lied to Loki by omission and all the while gratefully incorporated the little scribbled notes and corrections he made in the margins of her homework. If only he could have sat for her in-class exams. Even with actual divine aid she was still barely going to pass.
“Oh come on, Loki. You have to appreciate a bit of top notch misdirection. I did learn from the best.”
“How dare you lie to me, the Liesmith! What are you playing at?” he barked.
“Nothing! I thought maybe I could ask Prof. Foster about Thor. I dunno. It was a dumb idea. We’re forbidden to even mention the topic in class.”
“To what end? So you could seek out my brother?”
“No, you idiot! So he could help me seek out YOU!”
“Brilliant plan, darling,” he mocked, shaking his head in disdain. “All of my efforts to keep you safe and now you would do your best to set SHIELD’s goons back upon you. Jane Foster, indeed! That woman will sell you out faster than a whore seeking a quick coin!” he spat venomously, as though the very name was toxic.
“Jesus, she’s your sister in law! She’s not so bad!”
Loki laughed cruelly. “Jane marry Thor? You seem to be under the impression that Asgard would ever tolerate a Midgardian for a queen. No, she is his mistress, regardless of whatever farcical pomp and circumstance they may have undergone on this hunk of mud you call your planet.”
“Why are you being so heinously mean to me? Because you fear that I might have succeeded?”
“Yes!” he bellowed, shaking his fists at her.
The single word hurt. It tore deep into her chest, into the place where she held her love for the god. He could be so cutting when he wished. But she would not be deterred. She knew this routine. He only ever pushed her away when she got close to what mattered. Norah set her jaw.
“You cannot stop me,” she dared.
He took a measured breathe, collecting himself, and sat back down in the swivel chair.
“You are under the wildly mistaken impression that Thor would – or could – aid you in this quest,” he spoke quietly.
“I could convince him.”
“I’ve no doubt that you would try. But you would fail – and most likely spectacularly, getting yourself carried off by SHIELD or worse.”
He grew silent, his mouth pressed into a thin, hard line. He’d grown weary of conjuring answers for her questions. How many times had he explained that his life was, quite literally, defined by chaos? By lies? That even contact with his doppelgangers presented certain risks for her? She knew these things firsthand and yet she persisted.
“Why?” she whispered, crouching down in front of his long, splayed legs. Her hand automatically went to his knee, though he’d admitted even these strong projections could not really feel her gesture of comfort. ‘Dull, pathetic magicks’ he’d called them.
“You once told me I was yours. Did you mean it?”
His gaze snapped back to her. He narrowed his eyes, gauging her. “Absolutely.”
“Are you mine, then?”
He licked his lips. It was his only discernible tell as far as she knew; the question had most definitely put him ill at ease.
“I’m a god, darling. I belong to no one,” he sneered.
“Then you are not my god?”
“Mere semantics,” he scoffed haughtily.
“You are a god that would claim but not be claimed in return?” she clarified. “No one’s god, then.”
A shadow of pain crossed his face.