—and landed, hard, on a great heap of torn rubber, scrap metal, and ripped canvas sheeting. He could have done without it, all things considered.
The whole place was industrial trash and salt-white hardpan, as if nothing grew there now and nothing ever had.
She had broken Mjolnir in her fist like a child crunching a piece of candy, with just the same smile at the sweetness when it shattered. They were not prepared for her.
He childishly resisted the urge to call out for Loki, who was nowhere in sight. At this exact moment, he was exhausted with family: with his father’s secrecy, with his brother’s selfish crimes, with his newly found sister’s apparently limitless capacity for destruction. No more. If any cousins ever surfaced, he would kill them on sight for the greater good.
Looking for him without meaning to. He always seemed to wind up doing that.
He found a path through the piles that seemed to tend towards a city that erupted from the ground in endless metal spires and sprawls. It looked as if it festered there. Aside from its height, he couldn’t find much difference between where he was and where he was going. It was that kind of snobbery, his father had once told him, that would make him a poor emissary to any other kingdom.
“Will I not have emissaries of my own?” he’d asked, laughing. “May I not send Loki?”
Fandral had slammed his hands against the table, thundering away as if he were cheering someone on in a melee. “Silvertongue! Silvertongue!”
“You are a child,” his father had said, shaking his head, but his mother had smiled, hiding the expression—though not entirely—behind her hand.
What had Loki said? He couldn’t remember, nor could he remember the look on his face.
He was somewhat grateful to have this memory broken into by what almost looked like a raiding party: a cluster of men and women in uncured leather and heavy gloves, with axes and machetes at their hips. Their eyes widened when they saw him.
“What are you, competition?” one of them said. He had a long, forked tongue that tasted the air after he spoke, as if poking at Thor to see what he thought of him.
“I’m not after anything you have a claim on,” Thor said. “I’m a stranger here.”
The snake-tongued man laughed. “There are no strangers here.”
“Well, you don’t know me.”
“He didn’t say he knew you,” a woman with pink skin said. “Just that you can’t be a stranger.”
He may have been in need of emissaries after all, because he understood none of this. He rallied. “Do any of these ships still fly?”
“You’re in the market?”
“I need to go off-world.”
This resulted in still more incredulous laughter. “Oh,” the pink-skinned woman said, wiping her eyes, “that’s the best joke I’ve heard in a long time. There’s your answer, Delcey. Addlebrained. Sunstroke, concussion, brain tumor, high on something I’d like a gram or two of myself. But look at those muscles. He’s a prime cut, isn’t he? He could flex his arms and split his sleeves.”
“If he had sleeves,” Delcey said.
“It’s a constant problem, really,” Thor said. “That’s why I avoid them.”
“We’ll get a nice little payout from him, anyway,” Delcey said, ignoring this, and then he raised a short, thick baton and shot Thor in the shoulder with a bolt of blue lightning.
He fell to the ground, his heels scraping up small clouds of dust as his feet jittered unstoppably. If he’d had Mjolnir, he could have flung this shock right back at them and then broken their heads against it if he’d wanted, but without, all he could do was try to remember that he could live through this, that his muscles were not really coming unknit from his bones. At last it stopped. He felt a slick of drool against his chin.
A ship, so battered it looked like it had only ever flown through asteroid fields, settled down almost on top of them.
“Oh, here we go,” the pink-skinned woman said, rolling her eyes.
“That’s right.” A woman swaggered—no, staggered—down the ship’s ramp, her gait drunkenly loose-jointed and as lazy as if she had all the time she could ever need. “Here you go. Or, you know, there you go.” She gestured to the empty part of the horizon. “Whatever works for you.”
Delcey put another jolt into Thor’s arm and then stood in front of him, his thumb still down against the rubber button, ready to press it again. “He’s ours.”
“And then I came, and I took him, and now he’s mine. See how that works?” She slapped at the heavy bracelets she was wearing and when one of them started glowing with a dull blue light, she lifted her arms. Behind her, the ship’s guns moved with her. A neat armorer’s trick. If Thor had to be captured by someone, he would prefer it be her. Even glaze-eyed with liquor, she held her arms steady and straight.
“You wouldn’t,” Delcey said.
“I would. I’m not so much part of the new world.” She spread her fingers and the guns behind her began to power up, generators spinning slowly.
Thor’s captors didn’t give up all at once but rather slunk away gradually, until only the pink-skinned woman was left. She gave him one last hard shock as a parting gift.
In the aftermath of it, he tried to struggle upright as the braceleted woman approached him. Silver-white chains were tattooed above and below her eyes and gave them their only bit of brightness. She was scrubbed cleaner than the other scavengers, her teeth were whiter, her muscles lean and hard from good training. But her face was just as dead as theirs. Where had he landed? What sort of people would choose to live in the midst of refuse?
She smacked his neck with the flat of her hand, planting some sort of metal circle there.
“He’s a fighter,” she called back into the ship. “I don’t know about his brain, but he’s pure brawn, and he’s brave enough. Didn’t even piss himself from the shocks. He’ll be a nice present.”
“What’s the occasion?” A dry remark in a dry voice.
“Oh, I’m sure they’ll find one. Come out and take a look. You can refine the toys later.”
The woman took hold of his hair and pulled it hard enough to tilt his head back, making the pulse throb against the circlet on his neck. She did it dispassionately, as if the idea of hurting him or not hurting him hadn’t yet come into her head, and all she was thinking of was giving her companion a better look at the goods. It put the bleached-white sun in his eyes until he closed them. He heard footsteps rattle the metal ramp.
“I intended no trespass, my lady,” Thor said, and since she didn’t answer with another shock, he went on. “I’m only trying to make my way into the city.”
“You’re in luck, then, because that’s where we’re going,” the man said. “Where else? What the hell did you do, have a rough night at a bachelor party? How’d you end up all the way out here?”
He still couldn’t see, but he knew that voice. He knew it, though it belonged nowhere near this place. He tried to look down, to rid himself of the glare, but the woman held him still with an iron strength.
Then the man said, “Thor?”
“Banner? That can’t be you, can it? It’s good to see you again--if I could actually see you, anyway.”
The hand in his hair suddenly loosened and Thor was able to look.
The wind whistled through the trash heaps like it was coming through a canyon, making the twisted metal and melted glass sing out in strange tongues. It was unearthly, but no more so than the Banner who knelt down in front of him. He was little but sinew and darkly tanned skin; his hands were black with oil or grime. He wore loose white linen and, above that, some kind of charcoal-colored flexible armor. His hair had grown shaggily unkempt and was grayer than Thor remembered. That was the only change he could understand.
“How did you get here?” Banner said. His voice was hoarse. “Where the hell did you come from?”
The woman said, “He’s just somebody’s stray, probably.”
“Where did I come from?” Thor said to Banner. “Where did you come from? How did you find your way all the way out here? Who accompanied you?”
Banner answered none of this. “How did you get here?” It was a monotone repetition, but he had grabbed Thor’s knee and was holding onto it tightly.
“Fine, me first. I fell, they grabbed me, it’s a very short story, now it’s your turn.”
Banner’s lips parted. “You fell?” He stood up rapidly and stepped back, almost in recoil. He’d gone white-faced beneath his tan and looked waxy, sallow. He shook his head once or twice. Then he said, “He comes with us. Right now, forget everything else.”
“He can’t be,” she said. This felt like the first time she really looked at Thor.
“I’m telling you either he is or he’s something we need to start getting scared about right away.”
“Why are you acting like this?” Thor said. “You know me.” He looked at the woman earnestly. “He knows me, we’re friends.”
Banner looked away at that, biting so hard into his lower lip that Thor saw blood spring to the surface, and the woman shocked him through the circlet on his neck as if that were his punishment for seeing Banner bleed at all.
“You want me to muzzle him?”
“No, and don’t give him another jolt, either. I have to--I have to think.” He pushed his fingers through his hair and then pulled something out of his pocket that looked almost like a stylus. He pushed it into the circlet and somehow dragged it around to the back of Thor’s neck and pulled him up with it. “Don’t say a word unless we ask you to. Or I really will let her put the muzzle on, and I’ve heard those hurt like a son of a bitch.”
“You should let me hold him,” the woman said quietly.
“I should,” Banner said. He gave Thor a nudge forward in the direction of the ship. “I can’t, though.”
But on the ship, at least, he hooked the other end of Thor’s tether into a bolt in the wall. He was the one who took the pilot’s chair and, as far as Thor could see from how little he could turn his head, he lifted off smoothly. Thor was left alone with the woman, who had sat down on the padded bench opposite him and was leaning forward, her legs apart, her hands on her knees. Her stare was no longer indifferent.
She said, “You either nod or shake your head. You know nodding, shaking your head?”
“You know him. Banner.”
“You know me?”
“Scrapper 142,” she said, touching her chest. “Sound familiar?”
“Sakaar. You know Sakaar?”
She pressed her lips together tightly. “Did you come from the city? Did you escape from somebody, somebody who mistreated you? We know you didn’t fall. You know what they do in the city to people who ‘fall from the sky’?” She dug her fingers through the air in clawed quotes, her grin vicious. “Out of all those questions, why don’t you answer that one.”
No. Although he could start taking guesses, if she would let him talk.
She didn’t. She stopped even asking him anything, she only leaned back and crossed her arms across her chest. She watched him the way someone would watch a fly they hoped to trap in their fist.
He had to look away from her to think. He hadn’t seen Banner for two years: he didn’t know how Banner could have found his way to some scorched, refuse dump of a world, but he had been there not even two hours and he already believed two years of it could have put that gray in Banner’s hair and that strangeness in his eyes. But the rest of it--the way Banner seemed to not entirely believe he was there, the way the woman was so suspicious of him, the way the scavengers had laughed off the idea of strangers--he could not parse even a little. It was like they were speaking two languages separated just enough that though the sounds were familiar, none of the words fit together into sense. And who did he know who delighted in that kind of disorientation?
All he could think of was that somehow Loki had come through earlier than he had, not just by a minute but, thanks to the vagaries of their fall from the Bifrost, perhaps by as much as a day or even a week; that Loki had once again found something like his scepter, the one that had poisoned Selvig’s and Barton’s minds.
But why like this? Asgard under Loki’s rule had been instantly recognizable as his fantasy. This was not.
“What are you thinking about?” 142. She shoved at him with her foot. “You can answer that.”
“My brother,” he said.
A muscle in her cheek jumped and she turned away from him.
They touched down on an open landing pad and, despite the chaos around them, neither Banner nor 142 seemed to mind leaving the ship unguarded and unsecured; as if in recompense for their trust, no one in the throng of people seemed to mind them hauling Thor through the crowd on a metal tether a little less than a foot long. Of course, 142 had called him a gift and the scavengers had called him a payout. This was a world that dealt in bodies.
They walked almost as he did on Asgard, though it took him a while to figure out why he kept thinking that. It wasn’t just the purposefulness of their steps. It was the way everyone around them fell back slightly to let them pass. He tried to see if something about either Banner or 142 marked them out as special, but aside from their battered clothes, which everyone seemed to have in common, they had no similarities.
There are no strangers here.
Suddenly they were no longer in a street but in a plaza and then no longer in a plaza but in a palace: all the spaces stayed the same bewildering, wrong-to-the-eye blend of jagged structure and open space, but the furnishings grew richer and the people grew fewer. Those that were left still gave the three of them a wide and immediate berth.
At least until they came to a huge painted door guarded by a wide-shouldered woman with tattoos the color and style of 142’s, but far more extensive, running down the center of her face and beneath her eyes until it looked like she was wearing a mask of them. She not only did not move, she seemed entirely unimpressed by them, as if people on leashes were hauled up to this door every day. Maybe they were.
“I need a private audience with the Liesmith,” Banner said. As short as Thor’s tether was, he now wrapped it around his wrist. Thor still could have ripped it from him, but he no longer could have done it without breaking Banner’s wrist in the process, and he didn’t like that. “Right now.”
What he liked still less: Liesmith.
(“Let me get this straight,” Stark had said to him once. “Your brother gave himself both his nicknames, and one of them was literally guy-who-comes-up-with-lies? And the other one was fancy-mouth? And you couldn’t tell just from that that he was a budding Unsolved Mysteries?”
“Loki made many mistakes,” Thor had said. His voice tight. “He died with honor.”
Stark’s hand landing on his shoulder, there and then gone, a butterfly’s touch.
What he had not said was that Loki had not named his own talents but had instead let Thor do it for him; had asked him for that favor even though their father had offered. He had been the one to look at Loki and see the heart of him and put a name to it. No one on Asgard had then thought it wrong, no: mischief and deceit and flattery were weapons as much as thunder and lightning. Loki’s skills were not loved, but they had never been hated.
Later, he had regretted it. Maybe if he himself had lied about what he had seen, the lies at the center of his brother would not have sickened there, would not have seemed like his best way forward.)
“Now,” Banner said again.
The guard shook her head. “He’s not to be disturbed. The Grandmaster won’t like it, not on date night.”
“I thought last night was date night,” 142 said.
“Last night and now this night. They’re in love, what do you expect?”
“I don’t know, a break for Gatorade?” Now Banner’s hand was on his bare neck, as tight as a vise. “I can’t emphasize this enough. No matter what’s happening in there, go and tell the Liesmith that he wants to see me.”
“I don’t work for the Liesmith,” the guard said. She now looked not only unimpressed but also bored. “I work for the Grandmaster.”
142 turned her feet out, planting them in a fighter’s stance. She lifted her chin. “Then tell your boss that right now his precious happy home life depends upon him finishing nice and quick. He’s not going to thank you for getting his sweet prince in a petty temper, is he?”
“And that’s if Loki ever unbends enough to turn you human again,” Banner said. “You know how he gets.”
From the skeptical yet wary look on her face, Thor was prepared to guess she knew well. Well, there was the last bit of confirmation, if he’d needed it.
He didn’t know how his disappointment had outlasted his surprise. Maybe one day even that would go.
Finally the guard said, “Any of you so much as put a foot inside this doorway, I’ll see that it gets cut off and eaten for dinner.”
“Bony,” 142 said as the guard left them. “No good meat there.” There was sweat all along her hairline and the muscle in her cheek was pulled tight again and twitched at erratic intervals. She fidgeted constantly with her bracelets.
Banner, his mouth close to Thor’s ear, said softly, “If you’re lying to us, I’m telling you right now, I won’t have a second thought about turning you over to him, and he will rip you apart and take days doing it.”
They waited in that doorway for what felt like a century, and then Thor saw his brother striding down the hall. He was tying his robe closed at the same time, his attention on knotting its green silk belt, and he didn’t look up until the last moment, though he talked continuously the whole way: “I hope interrupting our evening gave you immense satisfaction, because if it turns out that this—”
He saw them.
Thor waited for panic, smugness, wheedling, excuses, lies; Loki gave him none of any. He had never seen Loki look before as he did then.
“Is it magic?” Banner said. His voice was ragged. “You could tell, couldn’t you?”
Loki still said nothing, but he at last moved, at last arrived at their position. He was staring at Thor as if he were—
As if he were Frigga come again.
“You’re alive,” Loki said. “Thor.”
Banner’s hold on the leash slackened and then let up entirely. “You’re sure? It’s him?”
Loki said, “I know.” All the blood had gone from his face.
“Loki.” He spoke so desperately because he knew even then: because Loki had always been able to lie with words so much more deftly than he could with his eyes, because Loki had thought him dead, not delayed, not lost, not elsewhere. But if he spoke quickly enough, he could somehow outpace it. He could make up, he thought, for lost time. “Whatever you’ve done here, it doesn’t matter. We can deal with it later.” As if this world were some playmate’s room they had made a mess of, the way the two of them together--thunder and mischief--so often had. “We have to hurry.”
“No,” Banner said, and that too was how he knew: because it was not Loki who said it. Banner’s smile was awful; a tear-track ran through the dust on his face and cut a line to his mouth, to the rigidity of it. His lower lip was still bleeding. “You don’t have to hurry. You actually don’t. Hela, Asgard, Earth. None of it matters anymore. She won, Thor. It's all gone.”
Watch and be wary.
Frigga had tried to teach Thor magic. He had never liked those lessons, which were conducted in small, hot rooms and which depended upon the tiniest of details: he liked swordplay, and this was needlework, minuscule and fine. He had a little talent for it--not so much as her, but enough that he could have gone further than he had--but he had spent more effort on hiding it than on cultivating it.
After her death, he wished this had not been so; he wished he had pushed aside the headaches that had sparked traitorous thunderclouds behind his eyes, wished he had learned that he did not have to move every minute of the day, wished he had at least gone to her when he was older and asked humbly for them to try again. More than anything, he wished that he had not, back then, noticed that Loki, smaller and slighter than all their friends, slower than them all at learning combat, could easily conjure second shadows for himself and small flowers for their mother, stor nøkkeroser and white dryads; he wished he had not thought, I don’t want to take that from him. He should have his own talent.
Because after her death, it had kept coming back to him: I traded away time with her for pride for him, what a poor bargain that was.
Then, after Loki’s death, that had returned to him and tightened against his throat in the night like a garrote, making it hard for him to breathe.
And then it had turned out that Loki had not been dead after all, he’d mostly just thought, Fuck Loki, and he’d had time to think nothing else before their father had died and their sister had been heaved back into the world, before he had fallen into confusion and a new world. He was always falling onto new worlds, he was used to it by now.
He was less used to the confusion, but that was where what he did know from his mother was useful.
There is more to life than war and more to war than battle, she’d told him. If you cannot do battle, watch and be wary. A true king knows to see dangers that may become threats, lies or secrets that may become deceptions--and knows too how to see enemies that may become allies. But you can do nothing if you do not watch. This is, dearest, a request for you to stop staring out the window and pay attention.
In this new world, he forced himself to pay the sharpest of attention. He wanted to catch this world in a lie; to break it as simply and easily as Hela had broken his hammer.
This was much reflection, and he did it slowly, and he knew it looked like he was just in shock. Well, let them think so. He was sitting on a lurid velvet sofa in what he had been made to understand was the less formal of his brother’s two receiving rooms; his friend and shield-brother had seemingly turned slaver and was partnered with a woman who called herself by a number rather than a name; his father was dead, he had a surprise wicked sister, and it had all happened in a day. Even if he were in shock, he was allowed to be. The sofa was surprisingly comfortable.
He looked up. “Is this a fainting couch?”
“That’s not the point,” Loki said sharply.
“What is the point, brother? Because if I’m understanding the three of you right, there no longer is one, and I might as well distract myself by thinking about your furnishings.”
“I thought you were dead.”
Thor shrugged. “Pot, kettle. Not so much fun on the other end, is it?”
Loki raked his hair back, his face white, his muscles tight, and Thor had an unenjoyable moment of feeling guilty, which was the problem with being the better brother. “No,” Loki said finally. “No, it is not.”
“I didn’t deliberately make you think I was dead, unlike some people I could name.”
“Thor,” Banner said, “I don’t think you’re taking this seriously.”
142 raised her eyebrows. “I’d say he’s taking it about as seriously as he needs to. Like he says, what’s the point?”
“I kind of doubt he hit rock-bottom nihilism after fifteen minutes in dictatorial Xanadu! --No offense, Loki.”
Thor laughed. “I’m sorry, ‘No offense, Loki’?” So much for watching and being wary—if he weren’t so giddy with relief, he would almost be disappointed that Loki had given the game away so stupidly. “You did almost have me going.”
Banner turned to him, frustrated. “What? Who almost had you going with what?”
A kind of smile, not happy, flitted around Loki’s mouth without quite landing there. “Not this time, I’m afraid.”
If he had Mjolnir still, he could revisit his old techniques, make this a family venture; force Loki to once again yield or have his head taken off. Of course, even without Mjolnir, he had always been stronger. He could do something right now, if he really wanted to, yet he stayed sitting, his fingers spread out across the soft velvet of the fainting couch. So he did not want to know, then, not really. Was he turning into a coward?
Loki sighed and, of all things, knelt down at Thor’s feet. He of course was no human, to have aged perceptibly in whatever time they were trying to tell him had passed, but yet there was a strangeness to his face, a weariness. And—“Your hair,” he said. “You cut your hair.” Not by much, only by an inch or so, but what a strange way to sell a story.
Evidently not seeing the relevance of this, Loki simply ignored it. He said, “Hear me, brother. I am glad you’re here, and I know why you don’t trust me.”
“History, logic, common sense, basic understanding of your character.”
“But until time persuades you otherwise, believe me on this at least: for the love of everything, don’t go around talking of Odin or Asgard. They’re not beloved words here, for obvious reasons.” Then, in what was even stranger than the kneeling, he took Thor’s hand and held it in his, squeezed it hard for a second, then let go with a smile. “Just checking.” He stood. “Could the two of you be persuaded to stay for the night, let him share your quarters?”
Banner seemed to defer to 142, who hesitated and then nodded. “Sure, we can be pampered for a night or two. We’re all out of booze anyway.”
“Then I’m sure you’ll be happy for a chance to die of excitement telling Topaz I said the three of you were to have full access to the liquor stores.”
“Aww,” 142 said, “you give us the nicest things.”
“I’m only pointing this out because she’s going to ask,” Banner said, “but can you technically do that? Give blanket permission for stuff like that?”
Loki’s smile, briefly genuine, became his I’m-a-fucking-prince-of-Asgard smile. “You may tell her that if she wants to question my orders, she’s welcome to come interrupt the Grandmaster’s evening a second time, and I will make sure the moment will be even less opportune.”
So his brother has found some sort of influential lover. That, at least, was no surprise. His tendency to immediately identify and bed the most powerful person in the immediate area had been the prize embarrassment of many of their diplomatic trips when they were younger.
And now you think he’s had time to cut his hair and seduce someone, yet you still cling to the idea that they are lying and that the universe is as you last left it.
It’s immaterial, he argued back at himself. Vain though he is, even Loki could manage a haircut in under five minutes, and as little as I would like to concede it to him, he could seduce someone in under that, too.
They were back in the hall again. Had they decided to leave? Had he missed it?
You believe them and you know it. It’s Banner—what could turn him into this but the end of everything?
The quarters Banner and 142 seemed to share inside the palace were opulent, if just as gaudy as the sitting room had been. All of the furniture was either blue or gold, as if they were being made to live inside a sunken treasure chest. The two of them seemed to know the place well, though, because Banner immediately collapsed onto the bed and 142 took her boots off and flung them into a closet without looking inside even once. She stretched out on the couch and looked at him, her eyes too evaluative for her to be as drunk as she was pretending to be.
“Have a seat, why don’t you, your majesty.”
He did. “I am no majesty, though.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. You look plenty majestic from this angle.”
“And you look like—well, to be honest, you look very good. I’m not sure we’re on the same page morally, but—”
“Thor,” Banner said, coming back with a decanter under his arm and three glasses clutched in one hand, “do you want to fill me in on what you think’s going on here, if it’s not what we’re saying?”
“No,” he said shortly, taking a glass and sloshing it full, fuller than was, he knew, Earth custom.
“Because you know you’re wrong and you don’t want us to poke any holes in your theory.”
“Because you are under Loki’s influence,” he said triumphantly. Mildly persuasively.
142 snorted. “That’ll be the day.”
“You defer to him.”
“I defer to no one.”
“You know what?” Banner said. “Let’s not talk, actually. I thought today was going to go one way—had a good morning, had some tech to work on, possible shielding enhancements—and now I’ve got you and I’ve got all of the whole end of the world thing spinning around inside my head, and I just don’t want to do it right now.”
“I’ll drink to that,” 142 said, and she lifted her feet so Banner could slide to sit underneath them. Once they were back on his lap, he stroked them idly, one finger trailing up the top to trace the delicate path of a vein and then his hand curling around her ankle, comfortable and easy. As though he had been with her an eternity and never had another love.
“Sun’s going down,” Thor said quietly.
He half-expected Banner to jerk away from 142, but he didn’t, nor did he act as if he didn’t know what Thor meant. “What do you want me to say to that? I missed her like something sank its teeth into my heart.”
“And then you forgot.”
“And then I kept living.”
“Actually,” 142 said, still lying down—now with her eyes closed, even—“you know what?” She fumbled at her pockets and then—
Son of a bitch. Electricity bit into the side of his neck and set his whole body on fire. He went completely rigid in his chair and then slid halfway out of it, his heels tapping on the floor.
Banner waited longer than Thor thought strictly necessary before saying, “Val,” in a very tired tone.
“He should learn manners.”
“He’s a thousand years old, the ship has sailed.”
“Yeah, so you’d think,” she said, her voice strangely soft, and then at last the pain let up. She tossed the small controller onto him where he was still slumped halfway on the floor. “You’ll figure out how to undo it. Or you’ll turn it on and on again until you fry your brain like an egg.”
“It’s the second button down,” Banner said.
“Traitor,” 142—Val?—said. “What do I get for defending your honor?”
“Whatever there is of me,” Banner said, and just like that, Thor believed it all.
Everything was gone, and this was all that was left—whatever there was of it. He pressed the second button down on the controller and the circlet lost its quiet hum and fell from his neck, leaving behind just a single warm drop of blood. He stumbled to his feet and over to the balcony. He wrapped his hands around the railing and looked out at the night. When had the sun gone down? Had he not lost enough time for one day—for one decade?
This was an ugly place. Even its darkness was not dark, but only a greasy charcoal gray, interrupted by muddied lights and swirled with smog and dust. How could this be the last place left alive?
He heard footsteps behind him and then Banner was leaning against the railing as well.
“It isn’t you,” he said, as if he’d known at least something of what Thor was thinking. “Night comes quickly here, that’s all.”
“It seems night has come everywhere.”
Banner made some small sound of laughter, bitter and dry as wine. “Yeah. Pretty much.”
“Just as quickly?”
“No. Not slowly, but not this quickly. I’ve doubled down on atheism lately, or I’d add a ‘thank God’ just for emphasis.”
“Asgard first. I don’t know if you would be proud of this or not, but your people, they wouldn’t bow to her, even knowing what she would do if they didn’t. After that, she didn’t stop, she just never stopped. She would ask for surrenders and mostly she would get them, but it barely mattered—within a month, she would forget she had intended to spare them. So it goes.” He tipped his glass slightly over the edge, just enough to pour a thin stream of liquor down to the ground far below. “She’s gone, by the way. Hela. I don’t know how, just that she is.”
“Her strength was tied to Asgard,” Thor said. “Father told us so. If she destroyed it—she could not have outlived it very long. Its loss may even have maddened her.”
“Well, she was pretty fucking mad already.” Now he nudged the glass out and watched it fall and shatter. “So who knows. I wouldn’t hate it if you asked me a less depressing question.”
“I would if I could think of one.” He tried and failed to see stars, and could not ask about that: he would give himself at least this night to hope that the dim light on the ground had veiled them, not that Hela had wiped them entirely from the sky.
“Don’t throw yourself off,” Banner said, tapping the balcony rail. “I’m serious.”
“I don’t think it would kill me even if I did.”
“Yeah, but I don’t want to have to go back down there to bring you back through all the guards. I’ve gotten really lazy.”
“Is that why you sell people now?”
“You think that’s a less depressing question?” He exhaled. “We mostly aren’t in that market. There aren’t enough people left for it to be that practical, anyway. No new landings, besides you. So it’s been a while—a long, long while.”
“Yes. All the way back to this afternoon.”
“Technically that doesn’t count.” Val, joining them. “We weren’t going to take any money for you. And you can ignore his wishy-washy solidarity bullshit about it being a long time, because he never did it at all. I did. For centuries.” She hadn’t bothered to bring out her glass and had brought the decanter instead—a new one, at that—and was drinking straight from it. “Actually, that’s how we met. I sold him to the Grandmaster as a prize champion, once upon a time. Not exactly the start of the universe’s greatest love story, is it? I guess there’s less competition now, though.”
“I was the Hulk,” Banner said. “Obviously.”
“Obviously,” Val said. She wiped her mouth off on the back of her wrist. “Do you want some more of this, your majesty, or are you planning on impressing us with your sobriety? You should reconsider. The one upshot of it all is that the hangovers don’t seem so bad anymore.”
“Asgardians don’t get hangovers,” he said, and drank.
She looked at him with cold eyes. “My, my, aren’t we full of shit.” She took the bottle back and took another long swig. “I can see the family resemblance.”
“Come on,” Banner said. He touched Thor’s arm to guide him back inside. “You need sleep. I don’t even want to think about what three years of wormhole freefall does to somebody, even somebody like you, no matter how fast it felt.”
“Why do you act like any of this matters?” He stopped and wrenched his arm away. “Why do you—plan gifts and care about my health, as though any of it makes any difference?”
“You know, you talk differently when you get excited. More old-fashioned, the way you used to. Loki does that too, actually, now that I think about it.”
“That is not an answer, Banner. Or is that you don’t care?” He almost felt like the circle was still on him, shocking him again and again, forcing words from him that he knew he did not mean. “Your paltry little backwater world with your stock exchanges and your Slinkies and your fucking donut holes, you thought you were the center of the universe for so damn long, you were used to it feeling like just one world, one stupid little world, so now it makes no difference to you which one it is, does it? Sakaar or Earth or Asgard, who even knows the difference? Is that what you think? Because I crossed the Bifrost to all nine of the realms, I grew up playing with handfuls of stardust, I cannot dismiss this as easily as you.”
If nothing else, he thought that Val would hit him, maybe even hit him with the heavy crystal decanter, but she didn’t. It surprised him, but she only passed it to him and curled his fingers around the neck of it.
“Drink up, prince,” she said. “Drink and shut your mouth. I guess it’s not your fault you have to start grieving after everyone else has had to bury their dead, but it doesn’t mean we want to deal with you.”
“I want to deal with him,” Banner said, even though he wasn’t looking at Thor, only at Val. “He’s my friend.”
“This is why you’re not really a warrior,” she said. She leaned against him and he put one arm around her shoulder, hugging her close. “You don’t know how to present a united front.”
Looking at the two of them, Thor drank. But did not quite shut his mouth. He said, “I’m surprised I didn’t see my ugly green friend there, when I spoke to you as I did.” It was the best he could do for an apology when saying he was sorry felt ridiculous.
Banner actually laughed. “Right, yeah.” He shrugged. He was still looking out at the darkness, counting stars he could not see. “That’s over now.”
“The Hulk. I guess he died with everything else.” He shrugged again. “Or I just don’t feel angry anymore. That wouldn’t surprise me. I don't feel much at all anymore.”
Thor, remembering the only magic he could, tilted his hand above the city and let sparks fall and drift like scattered ashes.
Thor awoke to the sound of up-tempo music; when he opened his eyes, a colorful confetti of lights was raining down.
“Wake up, sleeping beauties,” said a woman’s voice with all the sounds of personhood ripped out of it, a voice made dissonantly exuberant. It seemed to be coming from the ceiling. “You are cordially invited to breakfast with the Grandmaster and the Liesmith. All invitations must be accepted. This is a great honor. Wake up, sleeping beauties. You are cordially invited--”
He was on the floor of a bedroom, and for a second or two, he was able to hold onto the vagueness of that--whose bedroom? Where?--but the joy of that ignorance broke apart like the confetti. He remembered.
“--must be accepted. This is a great honor. Wake up, sleeping--”
Above him, Banner put a pillow over his head and moaned into it and then took it off and said, “We’re awake. Son of a bitch.”
The voice and confetti died away, but all the lamps stayed at an insistent full glow, as if to threaten that they would regret making any attempt to go back to sleep.
Val was already up, sitting in the window and eating some sort of nutty brown paste out of a jar with her fingers, a bottle of whiskey at her side. The night’s drinking hadn’t touched her looks at all. She caught him staring and said, “Believe it or not, your brother’s toned him down some. There was a time when this wouldn’t have shut up when you talked back to it.”
“Who is this Grandmaster?”
“He owns the planet,” Banner said. He tossed the covers back and bent down to the floor, groping around in his pile of clothes from the night before. He found his dust-covered trousers and slid to the edge of the bed to pull them on. His bare thighs were dark against the pale sheets, tanned and muscular, the hair on them a little darker than the hair on his head; a whitened hook-shaped scar was just above his knee on the right. Thor looked away. Banner came to his feet and rubbed his back. “The planet and half the people on it. And, well, like Val said, this is him in his settled-down phase, so remember we warned you about that.”
“He can put a good table together, though,” Val said. “Especially after a night like ours. Nobody does hangover food like the boss.”
He stood, stretching. His head felt like an army’s worth of horses had stampeded through it. (And Ragnarok has come.) “And he is Loki’s swain? Does he treat my brother well?” He felt it incumbent upon him to ask--men who owned planets were not often men who were worthy of them, as his own family might, it seemed, prove--and it was a distraction, at least.
“Well, he hasn’t killed him yet,” Val said. “None of his other favorites lasted this long.”
“Also, yes,” Banner said, with a slight momentary scowl at her. “He’s infatuated with him. It’s weird. But--maybe keep in mind that everything went a little last days of Rome there for a while… and of course you have no idea what I’m talking about and of course I can’t think of another polite way to put it.”
“Your brother blew him in public a couple of times and they’re still pretty handsy with each other,” Val said.
“Yeah,” Banner said. “That about covers it.”
The breakfast room they were shown to seemed to belong to Loki more than the sitting room from the night before. Thor had not lived all those centuries cheek-and-jowl with his brother to not know his taste when he saw it, even when it wasn’t helpfully aided by immense and vainglorious statues of himself. He knew the tortoiseshell table, the dark green walls that swallowed all the room’s light, the slight chill in the air. It made him unpredictably, astonishingly homesick; a sudden knot tied inside his throat. Once again, here he was, looking at the furnishings instead of thinking about what there was to think about, and once again, he could see no purpose to doing otherwise.
He wondered when Loki had gotten such a taste for red and gold, that he’d added so many accents of it. Banner noticed him looking and said, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, huh?”
He nodded, knowing what Banner meant, for he had wintered once with Jane (who is dead), but not entirely listening.
Loki joined them first. Either the years had turned his face to glass or he had gotten much better at pretending to feelings he didn’t have, because it was tempting to believe Thor was, for the first time in a long time, for the first time in perhaps their whole lives, seeing all of his brother at once. Loki came to him at once and embraced him.
(The last time Thor had held him, he had had Loki braced against his chest, had had his right hand cupped against the back of Loki’s skull to call Mjolnir back to him through Loki’s skull, if necessary. Though he wouldn’t have done it. They both knew he wouldn’t have done it. The difference was that he could admit he wouldn’t and Loki couldn’t admit that he knew it--if he knew he was loved, what right would he have to all that famous petulance?
But Loki didn’t hug him now as though he even remembered that, let alone as though he had to hide any of this from himself.)
Thor hugged back, hard; the room blurred. This was not different. This was only a return to an older sameness.
(The two of them had been born so close together that, their mother had always told them, they’d had their first words within days of each other, walked within days of each other, Loki the first to talk and Thor the first to take a few wobbly steps. Why had he tried so hard to forget that story? Well, because it was embarrassing to think of himself as a mere babe, and then later because it was painful to think of Loki thus. Let alone to remember that their first words had been each other’s names.
Thor’s second word: Fa. Father.
Loki’s second word: No.)
“Brother,” Thor said. His voice was ragged.
Loki drew back just a little, just enough to see him. “You believe it all, then?”
“Yes.” He felt a horrible wetness against his eyes, though really, would it not be worse if he did not weep? He reached for something else, anything else, to say. “But if you’re going to want people to believe your stories, you shouldn’t set them all up to call you Liesmith.”
“That’s a long story for a different day,” Loki said, smiling.
“It’s not that long,” Banner said.
Loki looked over at him. “Long or short, it isn’t yours.”
Banner held up his hands. “Fair enough.”
“I never thought I’d see the two of you willing to be in the same room with each other,” Thor said. “Let alone twice in two days.” Let alone that he would see Banner deferring, and not, it seemed, from any fear, but from something else entirely.
“Let alone the Liesmith tucks himself up at our place and drinks himself stupid two, three nights a week,” Val said. She gave Loki a look Thor could not decipher. “But you bring the bottles for it, so I’ve had worse company.”
With no warning, the ceiling announced, “You are now meeting the Grandmaster!” in the same voice of orgasmic excitement it had used to tell them of breakfast, and a man in a gaudy bronze robe strolled in. Bright blue paint streaked his chin and lower lip. There was something Thor knew he should remember about that particular custom, but he couldn’t quite hit upon it.
“Hey, boss,” Val said, without getting up.
Banner nodded. “Grandmaster.”
“Well, hey, look at this little intimate breakfast gathering,” the Grandmaster said, rubbing his hands together. “All that’s missing is the food. Let’s have some food in here.” The ceiling flashed briefly pink in acknowledgment and the Grandmaster’s grin only widened. “And you--tall, blond, and Viking. You must be the long-lost brother. Thorold, right?”
“Just Thor,” Loki said.
“Just Thor? That’s a name? Okay, that’s a name. I always thought you were calling him by a nickname. Anyway, Thor, good to meet you, nice of you to finally join the party at the end of the universe. Shame you couldn’t have turned up a little earlier and saved a certain precious somebody a few years of hand-wringing, but what’s done is done, right? Great, the food’s here.”
It was. Four separate women arrived, each pushing a multi-tiered cart crowded on every level with every delicacy Thor could think of: smoked fish, cheese, flatbread, small cakes, slices of rare roast beef and good ham, jam, butter, rolls, coffee, small decorated pastries, fresh fruits both recognizable and unrecognizable, and a small crystal bottle of a bright green liquid that Val seized upon at once and took entirely for herself. Somehow they all ended up around the table. Thor’s plate had become loaded with food, though, in all the confusion, he had missed how this had happened.
In an undertone, he said to Banner, “Am I dizzy or just drugged?”
“Neither.” Banner patted his shoulder. “He has that effect on people.”
“Oh, I have all kinds of effects on people, don’t I, sugarplum?”
A bewildered process of elimination told Thor that “sugarplum” was meant to be his brother, and he tucked into his breakfast quickly so that he would have something on his stomach when the bloodshed started.
But Loki did not look displeased. In fact, he was smiling, and it was not a smile Thor recognized from his arsenal of false charms. “Indeed you do. Though not, I hope, on my brother. Whose name I am absolutely convinced you remembered.”
“I remembered being interrupted last night in the midst of enjoyable activities.”
“Which I believe I made up to you.”
“I won’t argue with that,” the Grandmaster said. “So, big brother Thor. Bet your head got quite a spin yesterday. Well, you couldn’t have landed in a better place. For one thing, we’re still a place, so we have that going for us, but, ah, you’ve got your brother here, got a friend--okay, the list stops there, but we’re loaded up around here with amenities. Little soaps, virtually unlimited power, things like that. You can say something, why doesn’t he say something? He’s not mute, is he?”
“He’s not mute,” Val said.
“Indeed,” Thor said, gathering together what he could, trying to use all the diplomacy Frigga (don’t think about her) had taught him. “Indeed, I am not. And I’m happy to meet the man who has helped keep his world safe from ruin, and who has brought my brother happiness.”
“I like that,” the Grandmaster said thoughtfully. “I like that a lot. Precious, he talks like you.”
“That’s what I was saying yesterday,” Banner said.
“Great minds, then. You know I do like your mind, right, Loki’s friend? Not as well as I liked having you as my Champion, but all things considered: you’re practically an official state asset.”
“I’ve been one of those before, believe it or not.”
“I believe it. I really do, yeah.” The Grandmaster took another bite of fish. “I can’t remember how much you people eat. Do I keep going or are we done now? It’s just hard to do it and talk.”
“You don’t eat?” Thor said.
“I try to save my taste for other delectable things,” the Grandmaster said, licking his lower lip in Loki’s direction. “So not so much. The breakfast was Loki’s idea, you know, have me meet the family, the part that didn’t ka-boom everything. You’re the one with principles, right? That’ll be fun, seeing how long those last. Although I guess from what I’ve heard, things with the two of you can get a little unpredictable. Zig instead of zag.”
Val slathered a piece of bread with honey and then put it in Thor’s hand. “It goes in your mouth,” she said. “Just like the booze. Actually, now that I think about it, it’s kind of pre-booze. Just chew it a little more.”
“So it’s not something you’re really into either,” the Grandmaster said.
“No, he eats,” Banner said. “He’ll clean out your entire pantry if he’s in the right mood. He’s just--trying to deal. It took me months and half a block of city pounded into concrete dust, so I think for the moment, he’s doing okay.”
The Grandmaster’s nose wrinkled. “Mood in here is getting a little heavy, don’t you think? I think that’s my exit cue, I should probably go govern.”
“Arrange some good times,” Val said, her mouth full.
“Right in one, Scrapper 142.” He kissed Loki’s temple and then stood. “Plans for the day, sweetums?”
“Since my long-lost brother has returned,” Loki said dryly, “I’d thought to spend a while showing him around what little is left of the universe. Ensuring that his breakdown, when it comes, doesn’t approximate your former Champion’s, because I assure you, it could.”
“Yeah, that’d be rough.” He curled a few strands of Loki’s hair around his finger. “Be back for date night?”
“I thought last night was date night,” Thor said.
The Grandmaster’s eyes were no longer friendly. “What, am I inconveniencing you?” The air seemed to change slightly, as if warping around him, and Thor remembered what he had thought before: goodness never won power. Hadn’t he learned that by now? The golden city itself had a history that had tracked itself in blood across every star system it had touched. And besides all that, he should have known that anyone who would make such a pet out of Loki would be at least a little mad.
“Grandmaster,” Loki said, putting up a hand. “He is my brother.”
“Adopted,” the Grandmaster said.
“Beloved,” Loki corrected. “Slightly overprotective but not, I assure you, of my time. Of course I’ll be back for date night, but it’ll be much more pleasant if I don’t have to wade through chaos to get there.”
“You like chaos.”
“And at the moment, I have more than I can properly use.”
“Wrapped around your little finger,” the Grandmaster said, with a sigh and a smile. “Fine, go gallivant. Loki’s brother, you are hereby absolved of your impertinence.”
The room seemed ordinary again, the lines and colors of it not hyper-charged. He was so damned weary of fighting. “Thank you.”
The Grandmaster went back to smiling at him. “There you go, sport.”
“Wow,” Banner said, once the door had closed safely behind the Grandmaster (“The Grandmaster misses you already!” thrilled the computer’s voice), “he really doesn’t like you. He doesn’t break out the ‘sport’ that often.”
“He is a little on the possessive side,” Loki said. He held out an open palm to Val, who tossed him a roll. There was an unusual pink flush on his cheeks. “And I do apologize for the demonstration. The--” He moved his fingers around vaguely. “For what it’s worth, he doesn’t do it on purpose. It’s just dependent on mood, so: absolutely incredible under the right circumstances, other times… not quite.”
You like him, Thor wanted to say, not quite believing it, but he held his tongue. Loki’s tastes had often run toward the baroque, after all, and there was no sign of him being unwilling; aside from that, he had to ask the same question as before. What did it matter? Let Loki make a fool out of himself with some high-powered maniac who spoke to him like he was a pet; if all it took to satisfy him was enough gemstone-glitter on his leash, what was it to Thor? (Beloved brother.) He nodded and went back to eating. The food at least stayed, evidently not dependent on the Grandmaster’s mood.
He took up some kind of soft stone-fruit in his hand and watched his fingers curl in, bruising it. “Is there anyone left from home?”
Silence, except for the tines of Val’s fork scraping across her plate.
“No,” Loki said softly. “You’re the last true son of Asgard. Hela was--most thorough. When the time comes for it, we always most hate what we had most loved.”
“I suppose you would know.”
A flicker of silver off to his side and suddenly there was a paring knife against his throat. Val. “Mind your manners.”
“He isn’t wrong,” Loki said, though he did not, Thor noticed, immediately wave her off. Petty to the end.
“Val,” Banner said. “You know how they left things.”
She made a brutal, dismissive scoffing sound and then plucked the fruit from Thor’s hand, cut herself a slice of it, and handed it back to him. She sat down again, juice dripping down her fingers and then down her mouth, her stare hard. She was a warrior, then, not just a soldier, not just a bodyguard, not just a slaver. She had once called violence her vocation: it was in the fluidity of the way she had swung against him and the ease with which she had stopped the blow just short of breaking his skin. No mercenary. Whenever she had learned to fight, she had learned it for love.
“There were some saved from Earth,” Loki said. He was looking down at his plate, cutting a slice of beef. “Only a handful in the grand scheme of things, but… Jane Foster. Though I don’t know where you would find her just now. We haven’t kept in touch.”
Now he felt juice running down his own hand, down his wrist: he had pressed his fingers all the way through, but he still couldn’t get himself to let go. “But she lives?”
“I saw her, actually,” Banner said. He sounded awkward. “Last week. Anybody around here with a science background, we all wash up in the same places pretty often--Sakaar has some recurring phenomena that… is probably not interesting to you at all. But she’s alive. Happy, if you, you know, grade on the curve. But she’s with someone now.”
“We had ended things,” Thor said. He finally loosened his hold. Val took the squashed remnants of the fruit from him and began, apparently with no reservations, to eat it herself, skin and all. “I have no right to begrudge her a lover. I’m only thankful that she survived the destruction of Midgard.” He looked at Banner. “Our friends, did they--?”
Banner shook his head, quickly and definitively. “They had a ride, if they’d taken it, but they wouldn’t leave. So goddamn pointless, there was nothing they could do, nothing anyone could do. Whatever they brought against Hela, all it won Earth was a few more minutes. The fire came anyway.”
“It was their world.” He understood that. He turned to Loki. “Only a coward would run from that fight, no matter what the consequences would be.”
“I must have been mistaken, then,” Loki said, his voice tight. “I thought before that you seemed happy I was alive.”
“It seems alive is all you ever are, Loki. Every chance you have for an honorable death, you turn it into some charade.”
“He doesn’t mean this,” Banner said, putting his hand on Thor’s arm. “Thor--”
“Don’t presume to come between me and my brother,” Thor said. “Do you know his last words to our sister? ‘Perhaps we can come to some arrangement.’ Is that how you lived, brother?”
“Have a care, your majesty,” Val said. She had not drawn on him again, though he didn’t know what had suddenly given her restraint. Then he looked at her and he did: underneath all her bristle, she pitied him. To her he was nothing more than a rabid dog, helpless to do anything but rage and bite.
He knew he was being cruel, but he could not think that he was wrong. It had the vicious clarity of battle, and he had, of course, waged war against Loki before, though never as willingly as now. “How pleased you must have been, when you realized you had fallen to the bottom of the galaxy, so far down in the well that even she would never come for you. How eager you must have been to stay. Were you busy here on your knees while Asgard burned? You’d rather rule over ashes than make apologies, so to hell with it all, was that it? It does seem like you have everything you want here. Congratulations, Loki. What a golden victory you’ve won for yourself, and all for doing nothing.”
Loki’s eyes were infuriatingly calm. He said, “Are you done now? May I speak without being drowned out by thunder?”
“If you have anything to say for yourself.”
“Only one thing. About the rest of it--I make no argument against what you say. But believe me when it comes to this, if you still love me at all: I brokered no peace with Hela. I conceded her nothing. But believe me on this, too: if I’d thought there could ever exist a treaty she would have honored, I would have tried. My honor, what there was of it, burned with Asgard. There’s nothing left of those pretty values, brother, not in me and not in anyone else. I would have done or said whatever necessary to call her away from slaughter. I just knew there was nothing to say. I aimed the Bifrost at Jotunheim myself, once--I know what it is to want to destroy everything. There is no reason that can go against it. As you said, I understood our sister very well.”
“That was a very lengthy speech for your ‘one thing.’”
“You’re the one who named me Silvertongue,” Loki said, with a smile that meant nothing. “Shouldn’t you have known I’d want to live up to my darling big brother’s praise? Bruce, Val, if you’ll excuse me. Stay here if you’d like, or go, just look after him. He’s not fit for the new world yet.”
(Always looking for him without meaning to.)
But this time he was able to say nothing, and Loki left.
“Oh, fuck it,” Val said. She pushed her chair back. “Hey. Your majesty.”
“He told us not to say anything,” Banner said.
“No, he told you not to say anything, and don’t tell me he didn’t notice the loophole there. It’s exactly the kind of thing he would do, because he knows I’d tell it with less bullshit than you would.”
Banner actually laughed. “Oh God, you’re right.”
“So listen,” she said, now speaking only to Thor. Her voice was low and impossible to disbelieve. “He told you the truth, sort of. There was no deal with Hela--how could anyone make a deal with Hela? She would never have taken it, like he said. And yeah, he didn’t go to Asgard to fight. Yeah, he’s got a cushy life here now. You know why? Because when planet after planet was falling, Loki of Asgard got the Grandmaster, the most selfish person in any given solar system, to send some of his ships to move people to Sakaar. He walked between the worlds himself and brought back that Jane of yours, others too. Maybe it’s nothing, like he said, against everybody who fell, but it mattered. And, what, you think Sakaar’s only still here because we’re the dregs Hela just didn’t get around to?”
“Why, then?” he said. He knew there were tears in his eyes again.
“Loki hid the planet,” Banner said. “That’s why they call him the Liesmith, because he made the lie that kept us alive when Hela was on her rampage. From space, we looked like nothing. I saw it for myself.”
He shook his head and that jarred the tears down. He closed his eyes, like that would hide anything. “That’s impossible. I know where his limits lie. No one has that kind of magic.”
“Yeah, maybe he didn’t before, but put him together with the Grandmaster and--you felt that, the energy that guy throws off. Loki channeled all of it. He was the souped-up redneck pickup truck at the end of the universe. People here love him, and they’ve got a reason to.” He paused. “Oh, and he stopped all the gladiator stuff. Well, he stopped the lethal parts anyway. The deliberately lethal parts. A lot of people still die, but--actually, you know what, that maybe doesn’t make for the best point. This is probably why he didn’t want me being the one to tell you.”
The strangest thing was that for him it changed nothing: love, pride, disappointment, anger, knowing, all of that had been there before they had told him what they thought was so pivotal. It was time that had defused him, not their words, but he inclined his head anyway, to be polite. He didn’t know how to explain that he could have been entirely right about what Loki had done and not done while he had been stuck in his fall, and he still would have cared more that Loki was alive than he would have cared about anyone else. He could have survived his loss--he had done it enough times already--but it was only him being there that made Thor sure he could survive the loss of everything else. Though perhaps wrongly sure. Overconfidence had always been his folly.
“Where will he be?”
“His chambers, probably,” Banner said. “You remember the way?”
There was no guard this time: Thor entered without comment. Loki was stretched out on the fainting couch, his arm over his eyes. Thor sat down opposite him.
“Val?” Loki said, without looking at him.
“Took notice of the fact that you hadn’t specifically told her not to say something. And took notice of the fact that you almost certainly did it deliberately.”
“That I did.” He lifted his arm. “I may also have deliberately let you rage at me knowing they’d defend me as soon as I was gone. You don’t mind, do you? I never get the chance to be self-righteous.”
Thor smiled. “Without a little theater to the proceedings, I wouldn’t know you. Who is this unselfish doer of good deeds, I’d wonder.”
“I did my best impression of you, within reason.”
“I could never have shielded a planet.”
“You could never have been a coward, either. As I said, all but one of the things you accused me of was true. I’d say I’m ashamed to admit to it, but you know my capacity for shame.”
“I know it has evidently grown even smaller, if you can survive being called ‘sugarplum.’”
Loki laughed. “I knew the two of you would hate each other.” He said it with great satisfaction. “I’d never had the pleasure of being so openly preferred to you. That was the other benefit of this morning. Brother, you have no notion of how good it feels to have you back again; I am, very truthfully, not myself without you.”
“Enough yourself to have somehow gotten everyone to call you a name you’ve had for centuries and be convinced they’d thought of it themselves, Liesmith.”
Loki sat up. The smile was still on his face, and still, this time, genuine, but they had never had a conversation that was entirely honest, and Thor doubted they had started now: he was sure Loki had gotten some vicarious thrill out of setting himself up to be misunderstood, but he couldn’t miss that “coward” had been the accusation Loki had returned to, the first and truest of the insults Thor had hurled at him. Even when they had fought with each other in play, they had always managed to leave bruises.
But about this, Loki was uncomplicatedly delighted. “I was hoping you’d notice that.” It was the same way he had sounded as a child when he had aimed some prank at their parents and Thor and only Thor had seen it coming--and, of course, done nothing to stop it. They had had other loyalties than their brotherhood, but, then, no greater ones.
Thor said, “The first thing I said on this planet was your name, you know. I was looking for you.”
“And as always, you found me. And that’s very touching, if slightly disconcerting.” He was silent for a moment and then said, “I’m sorry I wasn’t more like you, when it would have mattered most. I’ve always been sorry for that, actually.”
“Yes,” Thor said, because he couldn’t say anything to the rest of it--couldn’t pretend that he too didn’t think he would have done more, or at least that the two of them together might have been something more than either one of them alone--“I’d noticed all those years of you calling me a gullible fool that envy was at the heart of it. Loki, you wanted to be taller, you wanted the crown, and you wanted to be Father’s favorite. We did such different things, but that’s all I ever had that you did not. And you’re not even short, and you’re a prince of Asgard, and he loved you. I think you had advantages enough. I can’t even do magic. Look at me, all I can do is lightning, what’s even the point of it. Well, and I have a conscience, which you largely don’t, though maybe more now than the last time I saw you. I never wanted your envy. Only to have you at my side, when you wanted to be literally anywhere else.”
“Well,” Loki said, “I’m here.”
“So we’re doing a tour?” Val said.
Thor still didn’t know what to make of her. There was something in her loose-jointed swagger and her ferocity that he recognized: the flawed original of some splendid painting. He looked at her and she looked back, her eyes hidden behind dark-tinted goggles, as if she didn’t think he was so very splendid himself.
“Why not?” Loki said. “You can’t have anything better to do.”
“There’s that famous charm. No, we don’t have anything better to do, but I look at this trash-heap of a world about all I can stand as it is.”
“So close your eyes.”
She considered this. “Yeah, why not. It’ll make a change, anyway.”
Banner handed Thor a cylindrical fruit with a leathery skin. “It’s hotter than hell out there, but the juice won’t evaporate through the peel. Bite through and suck on it if you need to. We’ve got canteens, but these are better.”
Val and Loki helped themselves to the fruit, Loki showily vanishing several of them up his sleeves.
Thor remembered Asgard: a world so perfectly cooled by breeze and scented by sea-salt, a world built with care and grace. Sakaar was nothing in comparison, only dust and rust. At least the crowds parted before Loki, allowing their party to move through the city unmolested. At least there was a world at all, even if all it was was the scum that remained after the pond had been drained.
“My mood turns like a wheel,” Thor said.
“Only a wheel?” Loki said. “You’re an amateur, then. Mine turns like a gyroscope and always has.”
“One day I’ve got to synthesize you some kind of pharmaceutical,” Banner said. He touched Thor’s shoulder. “Nobody’s expecting you to remember any of this. It’s not that complicated a city anyway. Just remember that there are two gambling dens and three head shops to every one place that actually sells food and water and you’ll be set. The palace has everything anyway.”
The palace had the Grandmaster, however, a man whose company he wasn’t eager to keep.
Loki shook his head. “Elsewhere might be better.”
“I can find a place for myself,” Thor said.
Banner seemed to silently confer with Val and then said, “You can stay with us if you want.”
“For a while,” Val said.
Loki said sharply, “And what’s wrong with the palace? Do you doubt my protection? Or can’t you abide a place where my name carries more weight than yours?”
“I lived through our schoolroom days, did I not?”
(“A thousand credits says our Liesmith cheated like no one’s business,” Val said to Banner in a low tone.
He could not say, truthfully, that he trusted Loki. To him, not even two days had passed since he had last rooted out another one of his brother’s schemes. But the habit of trust ran centuries deep, and it would have equally been a lie to say that he did not trust Loki. He trusted himself to understand Loki, he supposed. A hard-won gift.
So he said, “It’s not you I doubt, it’s your bedmate.”
“The Grandmaster’s anger burns hot,” Loki said, “but not so hot as… other passions. Ultimately. I’m convinced I could dissuade him from any real wrath.”
“We don’t really need the details on that,” Val said.
“But perhaps you’re right,” Loki said. His smile was slightly false: a sheen of glamor brought up across his mouth like a hand to cover a frown. “We aren’t meant to be under one roof. In any case, I can’t always be around to offer persuasions, if you insist on making trouble for yourself. I’d only thought…” The smile tightened. “I’d just gotten you back.”
“You have me.” He touched Loki’s arm. “I’m here. I won’t leave you, not again.”
Of the two of them, he’d always been the one called upon to make promises. Loki had left him--left him how many times, now? But this was, he supposed, the duty of older brothers.
“Your word,” Loki said.
“My word. On all we held dear that’s gone, I’ll not let us lose what remains.”
He squeezed Loki’s arm tight and Loki gripped his in return.
Thor awkwardly cleared his throat. “Now, where are the statues? I can’t believe you let the city be without your likeness in it somewhere.”
Loki’s smile was real now. “Oh, brother, you know me well at last. Statues, holograms, oil paintings, busts--I do believe I’m Sakaar’s primary ornament, at least at the moment. But I’ll leave Bruce and Val to show you. Anything else would be quite gauche.”
“You don’t want to hear my jokes.”
“Not especially, no. And I’m not up for any more deeply touching moments.” He leaned forward, resting his forehead against Thor’s for a moment. Uncharacteristically, he said nothing more to him, only leaned back and said to Val and Banner, “Should he come to harm, you understand I’ll find some way to make you suffer gravely for your error. You may think you have nothing left to lose and, well, we’re all friends here, but I’ve committed worse betrayals and I can be… quite creative. Aside from that, shall I see you in a few days? The drinks are on me.”
“The drinks are always on you,” Banner said.
“Excellent,” Loki said. He disappeared.
“That’s just typical,” Val said. “This was his idea in the first place.” She tore into the fruit. After a hard swallow, she said, “You got anything else you want to see or not, majesty?”
“You aren’t fazed by--”
“What, the threats? Not hardly.”
“He’s better than before,” Banner said in explanation, “but it’s not like he’s stable. Anyway, we’re not going to let anything happen to you, so it doesn’t matter.”
“And I could take him in a fight anyway,” Val said. She gave Thor a little nudge with her foot. “Come on. Statues, yeah? There’s even one of you, if you’re into that kind of thing.”
“He grieved for you,” she said. “Set your form down in a garden so he could sit at your feet and drink mead and grow maudlin until the Grandmaster came to fetch him home. Which, for the record, isn’t something he’d usually trouble himself with. Anyway, you’re in the far garden on the northernmost end of the city, if you want to see.”
He did not much like the thought of Loki tucked up with a bottle, leaning back against cold stone.
“I’m guessing no,” Banner said, saving him from answering. “The arena?”
The arena seemed like safe enough territory, and it let Banner steer the conversation.
So much about his friend had changed. He’d achieved control but lost everything else; become comfortable with the absence of his anger and maybe even the absence of every other feeling. But a man who really felt nothing would not offer to share his home. Conscience was something intuitive to Banner, firm where his ethics had ultimately proved flexible. There was something left of him, still. Thor had recognized his voice.
And now, looking, he recognized something else. Banner had been the scientist, the Hulk the warrior. Now, at last, Banner had brought the two halves of himself seamlessly together: he had a scientist’s mind and a warrior’s walk.
Thor had always been drawn to such. First Jane over Sif, then Sif over Jane, ever unable to choose.
Though Sif was gone now. She would never have fled Hela. Would never have accepted an offer of refuge from Loki, even if Loki had ever steeled himself to make her one. The closest companion of his childhood, there and then gone, while he had only been falling.
Sif, Volstagg, Fandral, Hogun, Heimdall. Stark, Barton—
“I know what you’re doing,” Val said. “It’d be better if you didn’t. Or at least it’d be better for everyone else if you didn’t move your lips when you did.” She had fallen back into step with him, letting Banner carve out their path, and she spoke in a voice meant only for his ears. “I half-understand you, you know. Not that I’m an expert in the insides of other people’s heads, but for what it’s worth, I once lost everyone in one go. A whole way of life wiped clean off the slate. I lost myself in Sakaar, a place where no one knew or gave a damn. Fought in the Grandmaster’s arena, same as our Bruce here.”
Thor knew what question he would like to be asked in these circumstances. “Did you often win?”
“I always won. A good thing, too, because back then everything was to the death. No problem for me, that was what I was used to. Killing, seeing death.” She sucked absently at the fruit. “The slaving was new. Bad way to pass the time.”
“I would think.”
“But it got me out of the ring. Got me a ship, got me something like a life.”
“And now Banner,” Thor said.
“End of everything gave me him,” Val said. She watched Banner’s back, softness in her eyes at last. “Go figure. Anyway, all I’m saying is I know a little of what you’re feeling.”
“I mean no disrespect,” Thor said. He felt like coals had mounted up inside him, burning him from the inside-out. “But I am—was—a prince of Asgard. An Avenger of the planet Earth. In one blow, I lost each and every purpose I’ve ever had. I lost beauty and glory. I lost each and every friend.”
Val tilted her head. Her chin was hard. “And you mean no disrespect?”
Thor said, “What do you have to compare to that?”
Val eyed him. She flexed her hands, rattling the thick bands around her wrists. Then all the thought vanished from her and she gave him a stunning, untrustworthy smile. “Nothing to speak of, my prince, I’m sure. You never mind any help I offered you. And you sleep with one eye open.”
She picked up her pace and walked shoulder-to-shoulder with Banner, who touched her hand. She said something to him too quietly for Thor to hear and Banner answered in the same low tone and put his hand on her back. It was the kind of touch shared between comrades-in-arms as well as between lovers and even seeing it made loneliness sink deep into Thor’s bones.
Banner led them into the arena, where he and Val both got a courteous, respectful reception. Thor was met with puzzled glances and then immediate, thorough deference.
“They think you’re Loki under a glamor,” Banner said. “They’re used to seeing him with us.”
His voice was still friendly, so whatever Val had told him, it must not have been the substance of their conversation. Of which Thor was now—gyroscope—ashamed.
“I still can’t understand how you all came to be friends.”
“Yeah, well, it’s all on video in living color, if you ever hit upon a rainy afternoon.” Banner pressed his hand against a panel and the doors before them parted. “Welcome to the VIP box.”
“Very Important People,” Val said. “Not so important as you, though, I’m sure.”
It was a viewing gallery for the arena below, which was the same bloodstained sand as every other one Thor had ever seen. Below them, two serpent-creatures—Helerii?—were lazily battling.
“There’s popcorn,” Banner said. He snapped his fingers and a delivery chute opened up, sending bags of popcorn and a kind of puffy pink sweet flying out at them. Banner frowned. “Well, that needs work.”
“And this is how you spend your days?” Watching fights that were (often) no longer to the death? Refining food delivery services?
“This and that. Scientifically, I gotta tell you, these are Renaissance times. I do a little bit of everything.”
Yes, the Grandmaster had said he was an asset. Thor supposed that was something. Though for a man who’d once been a hero—
He smiled a tight-lipped smile. “I’m afraid I’m bad company, old friend. My mind is… unreliable.”
“I know that feeling. Here, have some cotton candy.”
Thor took the pink fluff Banner gave him. “It is cloth? Edible cloth?”
Thor took a tentative bite only to find it dissolving in his mouth into something sticky and sweet. “This is a strange creation.”
“See?” Val said. She leaned back on the padded bench and put her feet up. “Distract yourself with pleasures, majesty.”
“I’ve told you,” Thor said. “I am not—”
“Odin kicked off, didn’t he? That makes you the lucky boy.”
He could not process that, but could not deny it either. “King of nowhere and no one.”
“King of your brother.”
“Reminding him of that would be a good way to make us enemies again.”
Val tossed a piece of popcorn in the air and caught it on the back of her hand. “King of me, then. Not that I like you so very much, but when has that ever mattered to royalty?”
Thor turned his head. “King of you?”
She flicked her hand and then caught the piece of popcorn this time on a single fingernail. She licked it away and, with her hand up at her mouth, level with his eyeline, undid her armored bracelet.
“Val,” Thor said hoarsely. “Valkyrie. But the Valkyrie all—”
“Like I said.” She snapped the band closed again. “I might understand you a little better than you think.”
Banner stayed just long enough to take in the facts: what the Valkyries had been and what had happened to them. What, in short, his lover hadn’t told him in all the time they’d shared a bed, a ship, a home. Then, his jaw tight, he said he thought he could trust Val, all things considered, to get Thor back to their place just fine.
He didn’t turn back.
Val, even after standing up to follow, didn’t go after him, though she looked at the shape of the empty doorway for a long time.
“He doesn’t play games,” she said, to Thor’s unspoken question. “If he runs, it’s not because he wants to be chased. And I don’t think mine’s the face he wants to see right now anyway.” She leaned forward, her forearms against the rail of their balcony, her eyes now on the fighters below. Her mind, Thor could tell, was somewhere else entirely. “But I couldn’t stand telling him when I knew he wouldn’t feel what it meant. I was just there for him as best as I could be after the rest of the galaxy fell, and I told myself that as long as I had his back, it was fine not to tell him that my world ended a long time ago.”
“You were a legend,” Thor said. “My friend Sif—she drew pictures of Valkyries all over her walls, argued until her tongue grew numb that she should get to start them up again.”
“Father forbade it.”
“He would,” Val said. “Odin always dealt in categories. Women who fought were either Hela, who went bad, or the Valkyries, who in the end were too weak to withstand her. Why give a woman a sword again, after that, when you could say boys would have done better?”
He wanted to defend his father to her, but he had no ammunition for it. More and more, he thought he’d barely known his father: he had seen only the shadow-play Odin had cast on the wall. A pretty world indeed, but a flat and false one.
So all he said, in the end, was, “Sif fought at our sides, always. There was no question among my friends that she deserved her shield as much as anyone in Asgard.”
Val didn’t bother saying anything else to that. Thor knew why.
The Valkyries had been an army, and an elite army at that. Sif was—had been—one warrior maiden. His father had allowed her to have a shield, not a band of sister-companions.
“It would have reminded him of his failures,” Val said instead. “And for that, I don’t even blame him. What am I here for, if not for wanting to run away from mine?” Her eyes were dry, narrowed only because of the hard, harsh sun, but her muscles were tensed to the point of rigidity. As if pain had tightened her skin the way death did, pulling her smile into a rictus and leaving her paralyzed. “I was the last one. The very last. Hela rose up, we fell upon her, and she slaughtered us to a woman. To the girl who was our medic, who didn’t even carry a sword, who’d been hoping for a horse of her own for her next birthday, since she’d been riding one of her mother’s. I wasn’t the best of us, just the luckiest. That’s all.”
He had no comfort for her, but he was, horribly, comforted by her—so far from home, with so little left, he’d found his brother, a friend, an old lover. And now a figure from a childhood story-book, one of the women whose glory and grief had passed into myth. Asgard was alive still in the cracks of this world, was it not?
Or else he was denying an infinite loss because he would otherwise go mad.
Well. Six of one, half-a-dozen of the other.
“Banner is a warrior,” he said. “He understands the deaths of friends.”
“There’s no one left who doesn’t.”
“He won’t leave you over this,” Thor said. “I would swear to it.”
“He ought to, maybe,” Val said. He could tell she didn’t mean it. “I’m a killer and a liar and a drunk. Then there’s the age difference. I’ve got a few millennia on you, let alone him.”
“Now, you don’t look a day over a thousand.”
“Flatterer.” She stretched, and suddenly the ease came back into her body, like a river coming back to life after the first thaw of spring.
She was something more than beautiful. Beautiful was a word for a flower, not for the last Valkyrie. Beauty didn’t sizzle like a drop of blood on a freshly-forged sword, it didn’t move like a ripple of music, didn’t have the smoke of whiskey and the white-out feel of lightning.
Val’s eyes met his. To his surprise, her face flushed ark and she looked away; propped her foot up on the railing now and bent toward it, wrapping her hand around the dusty sole of her boot.
Without looking at him, she said, “Fancy a go in the ring yourself, your majesty? I’ll take it easy on you.”
Something to clear his head wouldn’t go amiss, that was certain. “We can just… go down?”
“We’re in the VIP box, aren’t we? We can do what we like.”
She didn’t wait for any further acceptance of her offer and instead just whistled—a loud, bell-clear sound that cut like a knife through the noise of the crowd—and levered herself up and over the railing in a graceful acrobatic drop. Was she distracting him or herself? On Sakaar, in this new world, did that question even matter? Wasn’t all that was left distraction from everyone’s grief and rage?
Gladiator fights seldom thrived at any other time.
So he went down after her, newly feeling the absence of his hammer. Its weight would be comfortable in his hand—the best, right weapon.
“Scatter,” Val said to the current combatants. Then, more insistently, “Fuck off.”
They fucked off.
The announcer recalibrated quickly. “And now entering the ring, Scrapper 142, favorite of the Grandmaster, the Liesmith’s champion, all-around danger and still undefeated, versus… this guy!”
There were uncertain cheers.
Weapons were thrown to them. Thor, either through some complex selection process or the random chance of whatever had been lying around, merited a mace. It was much shorter than Val’s sword.
She gave him a mad grin. “Feeling inadequate?”
He had never taken shelter behind Loki’s reputation before but was half-inclined to do so now.
No, fully inclined. Kept from it only by the embarrassment of what “my brother told you not to kill me” sounded like even in his head.
“I’m arguably your king” was no better.
But as they circled each other, the adrenaline soaked into him with an intensity it hadn’t had in years. It had been so long since he’d battled with a light heart, so long since he’d either been foolish enough to delight in rampant bloodshed or else unburdened with a sense of consequence, of the casualties that would come with both winning and losing. This would be as play, but with a killing brutality to it, the kind he hadn’t felt since that long-ago fight on Jotunheim. Movement. Glory. And no need to hold back. She would be able to match whatever he gave her—most likely more.
He found himself grinning back at her, feeling his own berserker-delight rising.
He said, “Take me apart, if you can.”
“I can,” Val said.
It was like a dance. The best fights always were. They were perfect reversals of each other: she would raise her arm to strike and he would fall back on that same side, swing in low on her left and find her already spinning away from him. They succeeded or failed only by being flawed; when they matched each other as closely as they did by nature, they were in perpetual stalemate. In the end, though, she did beat him, which he didn’t entirely mind. He’d been in hard training more recently, but she was a Valkyrie. Victory was what they did.
Until Hela had turned that truth into a lie.
But for right now, he knew Val was thinking of that. Her smile was ferociously alive, her body shining with sweat. She clasped his hand and drew him close in a warrior’s rough embrace.
“Damn,” she said. “I haven’t worked that hard in a century at least.”
“I was really hoping you’d say longer.”
“Buy me a drink and we’ll see if you can’t stretch the time out a bit,” Val said. “Maybe I’ll remember that, come to think of it, it’s been more like two centuries.”
Her body had bumped against his so briefly. Even freshly, happily exhausted and smiling, she was warier and more withheld than anyone else he’d ever trained with. He had fallen into bed with half his friends after bouts like that one—or no, he hadn’t, because he’d never had a bout like that, never in his life. Even when there’d been no spark of want, they had still always finished up slumped against each other. Fighting was dancing, but the aftermath of it was always the aftermath of love.
He threw the thought as far away from him as it would go. There couldn’t be a worse idea than that. Liking her was bound up in liking Banner, bound up even in liking how she was with Banner, how Banner was with her. He was enough of a disturbance in their lives already.
And even with the high of it all still in his blood, he was a little appalled at himself. He wouldn’t even have said he had enough delicacy left to be appalled, but there you go. Surprising himself even now, at the end of everything, because this was a boy’s lust and romanticism, one he should have lost by now even in circumstances where getting what he wanted wouldn’t have meant fucking among the graves of almost everyone he’d ever known.
He almost hoped that meant he was right about still not believing it, not down in his bones. With such good company, how could things be bad?
Like a dog, you pant after affection and approval, Loki said in his head.
Thor refused to argue with him when he wasn’t even there.
He and Val left the arena together. It was ringed with grungy, poorly-kept facilities, but Val shook her head when he moved towards a rusty showerhead.
“We can do you better than that at home,” she said. The peace left her eyes as she said the words, a little at “we” and much more at “home.”
He wanted to tell her again that Banner, given time, would understand and forgive her long omission, but she’d be right to tell him he didn’t know what he was talking about. It had been poor comfort to begin with and would be truly weak tea if resteeped and given again.
“I love hot water,” he said instead, like an idiot.
“You sound like an idiot,” Val said.
“Yes, I do,” Thor agreed. “I’m a little short on topics of conversation.”
“Well, I could catch you up on the news, but there’s only been the one event. I recommend walking in silence.”
“Silence isn’t what I’m best at.”
“I just defeated you at what you’re best at,” she said.
He shook his head. He liked to cheer her, and he could see their talk, inconsequential as it was, loosening her shoulders. “You’re making assumptions. You’ve been listening too much to my brother and he’s gotten you convinced I’m all brawn and no brain. I’m overflowing with talents. It would amaze you.”
“I can juggle.”
“Well, I can toss something between my hands very quickly and be sure of catching it.”
“We’ll book the arena for you.”
“You should. I can also braid hair.”
“Given yours, I’d hope so. I don’t even think you’re trying that hard to impress me.”
“Once, I was given as a rare plant as a gift and I managed to keep it alive for several days.”
Val exhaled. He’d won an actual smile from her. Or wrung one, as the case may be. “All right. I give in. That’s more than I’ve ever done.”
“You shouldn’t feel bad about it,” Thor said. “Not everyone can be so gifted. In fact, I remember—” He stopped. He’d been about to tell her about something Fandral had done, and Fandral was no more.
So it was the simplicity of that, in the end, that brought it home to him. He would no longer be able to be unguarded and yet feel no grief. Around every corner, there was some memory waiting to cut him.
He’d never again see the blue-silver gleam of moonlight on the balconies of Asgard. He’d receive no more reprimands from his father, never again feel his hand against his cheek. The combs his mother had worn in her hair were cinders now. He wouldn’t see Heimdall’s eyes again. There would be no more late-night gatherings of the Avengers, drunk on Tony Stark’s liquor and easy with another, no more contests to lift Mjolnir. No Mjolnir at all. Loki’s books, the ones Thor had sometimes kept company with when he’d thought Loki lost forever to the Void, the ones that held his spiky handwriting in the margins—all burned. No more of Stark’s sometimes incomprehensible wit. No more diners with good coffee. No more Pop Tarts. Selvig and Darcy gone. The delicate breeze of home, scented with the perfumes and oils from the baths. He would not tease his friends. Would not, when Volstagg was flat on his back after a night’s boozing, twine flowers into his beard. Would not see the funny, childish glumness in Sif’s face when she was disappointed in the weather. He had fallen, and the galaxy had fallen, and all that was left, however loved, however bewitching, was wreckage. Flotsam and jetsam.
A series of dusty corridors, streaked with blood, punctuated by distractions. A chute that led only to death.
“How do you live?” His voice was roughened by unshed tears. No, shed. He couldn’t tell and it didn’t matter. “How do you live like this?”
You were the hero of my childhood, he wanted to say. Tell me. You must know.
Val just put her hand against his shoulder and kept walking, propelling him forward with her. As if that were the best she could do for an answer. One foot after another, beating a path to whatever was left of home.
“It finally hit him,” Val was saying to Banner. “After I did, several times.”
Thor could hear them through the wall. The home they kept together was almost claustrophobically small, much smaller than the apartments they had in the palace, and even in another room, he was almost on top of them, the sounds of their voices overlapping with the patter of water against the shower floor. Steam curled around him. He couldn’t remember if he had left his clothes on because they were filthy anyway or if he had just not thought to take them off. His mind was a star covered in sunspots, dead areas his memory couldn’t touch.
“On some sick level, I almost envy him,” Banner said. “He didn’t have to go through all the waiting, all the hope--he just got the news flat. ‘Hey, it’s all over.’ Done.”
“Losing everything at once isn’t any better than losing it drop by drop,” Val said. “I should know.”
“Are you going to tell me about that?”
Thor leaned forward, resting his head against the slick tiles.
“Trust me, I didn’t tell him first because I like him better. I just could never think of a way to tell you without--talking for a thousand years at least. There were Valkyries, a fierce group of warriors, women sworn to defend the throne of Asgard. We faced Hela at her exile and died for it. All but me. I could tell you, but I couldn’t make you understand. I can’t.”
“Then tell me I can’t understand. Just don’t hide from me, Val.”
There was a long silence before Val said, “Yeah.” Her voice was raw. “I’ll give that a go.”
The hot spray pelted Thor’s body, easing some of the soreness from the bout with Val but taking away nothing else that plagued him. No escape from that.
Asgard gone. Earth gone. Avengers gone. Father gone…
Why had he not told them about Hela? Surely Loki had sped Odin’s death along by stranding him on Earth, but even surer than that was the truth that Odin had had centuries he could have spent in preparing them for their sister’s return.
So much had been lost, and those he’d loved who were left had passed years now in the company of others, devoted to them: Banner to his Valkyrie, Loki to his Grandmaster, Jane to her unknown lover.
“Does it hurt? Having Thor around?”
Val laughed. “If I said it did, what would you do? Throw him to the wolves? You’re too damn honorable to turn him out, and I--I don’t even want to. Yeah, it hurts. It kills me, seeing his father looking out from those eyes of his. But I don’t want him gone.”
Only silence followed that. Either they had stopped talking or they had lowered their voices.
Before this, he had only ever showered when he was staying with Jane. On Asgard, bathing was properly done in baths, sometimes private but most often public: marble-and-gold pools either icily, bracingly cold or so hot white steam curled off the water like waves. He disliked the oubliette confines of Midgardian showers, the tendency to take one of the greatest pleasures life had to offer and stick it in a closet and make you stand up for it and forsake all company. He had showered once or twice with Jane, her small body against his. She’d been amused that he didn’t first and foremost consider it a chance for seduction.
With no more opportunity to eavesdrop and a growing return to his own mind, Thor washed quickly and turned off the water.
“Loki sent some clothes over for you,” Banner told him when he came outside with just the towel. “There was a frog in them at first, but we got that outside. Was that just a prank or was there some weird hidden personal significance there?”
“He once turned me into a frog,” Thor said. “Aside from that, no.”
He picked up one of the shirts and examined it. He was oddly touched that Loki, offered this particular opportunity for mischief, had claimed it only by the addition of the frog: the garments themselves were all well-made and correctly-sized and even to his taste.
You’ve turned sentimental, brother.
“Bedroom for you’s on the left there,” Val said.
Like the rest of the house, it was small, but at least not so small that he felt like he would hit the ceiling or the walls when he moved. He wondered if Banner kept a lab somewhere else. He must have, if he and Valkyrie were as well-favored as they seemed to be; Jane had frequently spoken of the massive, well-equipped lab she would build in what she’d called “a world of utopian funding.”
If he were still with her, he could go to her now and lay his head on her shoulder. He could be weak with Jane in a way he rarely permitted himself with anyone else.
But now he was a houseguest, and houseguests who let themselves be torn apart by memories were not often invited back.
He was a prince of Asgard--no, king of Asgard now, Val was right. In his loss, he could be cruel, as cruelty was allowed to kings, but he couldn’t be desperate or lonely. Grief-stricken, yes, but not in such a way that would leave him useless and flat on his back.
Perhaps he should have stayed in the palace after all. He and Loki had already warred half-a-dozen times over, so they were already thoroughly acquainted with the worst in each other. Better someone who might, whatever his intentions, spitefully glory over a fresh fault than someone who could still be hurt by one. He had already wounded Banner--should he call him Bruce? Everyone else seemed to be--and Val. He didn’t want to do so again, but he was having a poor time predicting himself from one moment to the next.
A gyroscope, had Loki said? Thor could understand that now. How unpleasant.
“Whatever happened, it looks like you lost,” Loki’s voice suddenly said behind him.
Thor turned to him. A projection, no doubt, unless the Grandmaster had magnified Loki’s teleportation skills along with his illusions. “I had a bout with Val. And yes, I lost. As she can tell you yourself.”
Loki shook his head. “They can’t hear us. I wanted to speak with you privately.”
“They’ll think I’m taking so much time because I don’t know how to dress myself.”
“Well, it did take you an unnaturally long time to learn how to tell the back of your shirt from the front, as far as I can remember.”
“You kept moving the collar around to the wrong side!”
“I wanted to check on you,” Loki said quietly. “I left you more quickly than I'd intended.”
“You said it might be better for me to stay elsewhere,” Thor said. “I only agreed with what you’d already suggested.”
“Please don't add to my catalog of wrongs when I'm already apologizing to you.”
“Did you apologize? I must have missed that.”
“Learn to listen more carefully.”
“Everyone is gone,” Thor said.
Loki exhaled, though Thor knew it only from the way the shape of his mouth changed. Strange that a projection of him would make the sounds of speech but not the sounds of breath: it probably depended on what Loki put his effort into. “Yes. Everyone, but not you. I'm not such a good liar that I can tell you I receive that with indifference. Disinterested love of the peoples of the galaxy was never my strong suit, but you --”
“It's strange,” Thor said. “The day before, to my eyes, you hated me.”
“I never hated you.”
“You did a very good impression of it.”
“Yes,” Loki said, not without a horrible kind of pride. “I suppose I did. But do you believe me?”
He wanted to, at least. He had always wanted to. “Yes. I never entirely managed to hate you either. I just assumed you were more accomplished at scorn, that you could despise me. You've drawn me off the central point, brother.”
“I haven't stopped falling.” He hated the crack in his voice, like he was a child.
“Then fall,” Loki said gently. “There's nothing left to try flying for now, brother. And the ground is soft.”
Thor managed a smile. “You’re supposed to say you’ll catch me.”
Loki shook his head. “No one ever catches anyone. We only fall.”
“We’re your landing place.” His hand, made only out of light, rested against Thor’s arm, an insubstantial painting like a birthmark on his skin. “Don’t get insufferably heroic about it. Bruce and Val will look after you and keep you well-supplied with drink, which is all anyone needs these days, and I’ll come and see you soon, I promise. More than you’d like, I’m sure, at least for a while. Everything else… you’ll get used to it in time.”
You talk over me, brother, Thor wanted to say, but what was the point of it? It wasn’t like Loki didn’t know what had happened to him; Thor was nothing but the millionth recitation of a grievance everyone had already grown tired of hearing. Loki never had dealt well with boredom.
And the curse of it all was that Loki was happy. Respected by what was left of the galaxy. Adored, albeit by a megalomaniac with terrifying, reality-warping powers. At peace. And now his brother had been restored to him, almost literally with a bow around his neck. Val perhaps could sympathize with him, but Loki, for all his newfound good intentions and all his love, could not. Loki had gained more than he’d ever lost.
Should I be pleased for you, Loki, when my own happiness has only ever dismayed you?
But this was his little brother. With a light in his eyes that Thor hadn’t seen in years--maybe not even in centuries.
He made himself smile. “I’ll get used to it. You know me. Wine enough, and I’ll get used to anything.”
Loki turned his head and spoke to someone Thor couldn’t see. “Yes, of course. The leather ones, I think.”
“Do I even want to know?” Thor said.
“It’s highly unlikely,” Loki said. “Date nights are often… eventful. And I should go. But contact me as you need to, just as you could always call out to Heimdall. I’ll be listening for you.”
Heimdall is dead.
The rainbow of the Bifrost Bridge shines no more beneath anyone’s feet, lights no path between any two worlds.
Asgard has fallen.
“I love you,” Thor said. The word felt awkward; they had used it so seldom.
But Loki didn’t hesitate, and if Thor needed a reason to be glad that he had lied to protect that calm in his brother’s eyes, he had it now, in how easily Loki answered, “And I you, brother. Ever and always.”
“What happened?” Val said when Thor finally left the bedroom. “Forget how to dress yourself?”
“I told him you’d think that, but no. Loki paid me a visit.”
“Oh, yeah, he does that,” Bruce said. “He either has uncannily bad timing with it or he just deliberately likes to pop in whenever it’s really inconvenient. Do you want dinner? I was going to make dinner. We can have the thing that’s not steak or the thing that’s not stir-fried tofu.”
“The thing that is not steak, please,” Thor said. “And then liquor enough to blot out my mind for the night.”
“You’re getting the hang of this place already,” Val said. Her voice was relatively easy, but her posture was stiff: she was hunched at the table and looked all shoulders and elbows and harsh angles. He had given her bruises and cuts of her own to go along with his and they only accentuated her beauty, as they generally did with fighters, and he thought they were minor, not enough to cause her muscles to tighten up. It wasn’t pain that had her thus but something else.
Thor didn’t like being alive enough to the world to notice these things. The drink would help with that, would make him stupid and then make stupidity pleasant. He wasn’t obliged to care for her.
“Are you injured?” he asked anyway.
“No,” Val said. “Just more awake than usual, which is an annoyance. I’ve been telling Bruce about the Valkyries, too, which has me thinking of old times.”
“Older than me,” Thor said.
“Yeah, you weren’t known or dreamt of back then.”
“I don’t think it’s fair for you to look younger than me, under the circumstances,” Bruce said.
“Don’t worry, the way I drink, the life I live, I don’t know that I’ll outlast you.”
“That’s not really what I meant.”
It was his intention to let them talk and say nothing himself, so he settled down at the table and watched the two of them. The Valkyrie and the Avenger. If she had really wanted to let go of her past, she wouldn’t have called herself that. She must have had a name once, a real one.
He let his eyes and his attention drift as he listened to them. Bruce, he thought, had good wide shoulders, though he always somehow gave the impression that he’d overlooked them, that his attention was reserved for his fingertips, for numbers written down, pipettes manipulated, circuits rewired.
Dinner smelled pleasant.
Thor said, “Is this what we do, then? Drown ourselves in sensation?”
“It’s just dinner,” Bruce said. “You have to eat dinner regardless of what your entire life plan is.”
“You’re just like Loki.”
Bruce laughed. “You know, not that I don’t actually enjoy the guy’s company now and everything, but are you kidding me right now? How am I anything like Loki?”
“You’re offended when I repeat you to yourself.”
“No one ever likes that,” Val said. “And besides, no one appointed you to go around ending everybody’s hypocrisy. Who are you to question how we get by? We’ve had to do it longer.” She fetched a bottle of wine off the liquor display and pried the cork out with her teeth. She took an impossibly long drink, longer than Thor would have ever thought anyone would have the breath for, and then said, “No one’s making you do anything you don’t want to do. No one’s going to make you act any way you don’t want to act. If you don’t want to eat and drink and fuck your life away, don’t do it. If you do, do it with us. We’re not going anywhere. No one is.”
“That was almost inspirational,” Bruce said.
Val smiled at him, her lips darkened by the wine. “Yeah. I love you too.”
Thor had no argument to stand against this. He could have resisted commands, but not freedom.
Fall, Loki whispered in his head. The ground is soft.
Thor held out his hand for the bottle and Val gave it to him. Her fingers took just a moment too long to uncurl from its neck, as if she’d changed her mind.
She had removed her bracelets and the mark of the Valkyrie showed clearly. Maybe it was only that which gave her pause. An oath was, after all, the promise that you would someday make yourself do things you didn’t want to do. Like die, or live, or hope.
But she watched him drink and took the bottle back again and by the end of the night none of them were thinking anything at all.
That went on for days.
In a strange way, the debauchery made Thor homesick. He had done all this before. Drunk with friends until his head was muddled and his black mood was drowned. It was how he had lived in his youth.
“I can’t picture you like that,” Bruce said. “I should have guessed, though—royalty on Earth, it’s not like it’s unusual for them to wind up at the wrong parties. But you have…”
“Stupid hair,” Val volunteered.
“Innate nobility,” Bruce said. “If there even is such a thing.”
“Not before Earth.” He ran one fingertip in circles around the lip of the decanter. “Not before my brother’s fall. This was it, then, only less melancholy. Not melancholy at all, really. I wore the blinders of youth and arrogance very well even when I was sober.”
The three of them were stretched out across the floor. All of them were drunk and Val had smoked something that had smelled excruciatingly bitter and had made her cough, though what she’d hoped to get from it Thor didn’t know, for she seemed no more or less out of herself than he and Bruce did. Though she had looked beautiful, wreathed in light purple smoke. Bruce had rolled over to kiss her, the spark from the lit end of her rolled cigarette hot and orange between them, held up between their bodies. Bruce’s shoulders broad and square, his shirt pulling tight across his body. Thor had had another drink then, watching them, and he could still taste the peculiar crystalline coolness of that particular liquor. A memory on his tongue.
He could drink and not think but he could not drink and forget. Drinking, it seemed, made him maudlin, or at least it did now.
Val seemed to know what he was thinking. “You’re not very good at this, your majesty.”
“I can hold my drink as well or better than anyone,” he said, even though he knew that wasn’t what she meant.
She raised her eyebrows at him.
“And don’t ogle me,” Thor said. “It’s entirely possible Banner will take offense.”
“Yeah, that’s a lost battle right there,” Bruce said. He had thrown his arm over his eyes. “Maybe I’d mind if you were someone else, but come on.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Oh, don’t you,” Val said. It wasn’t a question. “Anyway, I was only looking at you because you were being deliberately thick and it’s funny, watching you try to pretend you’re stupid. Your face almost works for it, except for your eyes. You have his eyes.”
“Eye. And so you said.”
“When you weren’t supposed to be listening.”
He wasn’t surprised she remembered.
“Hey,” Bruce said, lifting his arm. “This isn’t how anybody does this. This is sitting-around-the-student-lounge-getting-stoned, it’s not Velvet Goldmine enough.”
“No one knows what you’re talking about,” Thor said.
“You’re bringing me down, Thor, is what I’m talking about.” Bruce rubbed his eyes. “Not that I ever do an especially good job of being up. We’ve been off the map for, what, a week? Maybe that’s long enough at our age.”
“I’m four thousand years older than you,” Val said. “Blondie’s at least a thousand. You should think you’d be able to keep up.”
“You’d think. But here we are.” He pulled himself up off the floor, wincing as his hand now drifted to the back of his neck and he pinched that. “I’m at least too old to be lying around on the floor, okay? I’m not twenty.”
“If you give up your complaining about it,” Thor said, “I could rub your shoulders for you.”
He didn’t know why he’d made the offer. Oh, he’d done it a time or two, of course, between friends or in the course of a seduction, but it was nothing he should be considering now, when he wasn’t sure how he meant it. Or even how it would be taken.
It was a big galaxy. If Asgard did not usually fit three to a bed, Thor knew it happened elsewhere. And he already knew anything and everything happened on Sakaar. But they were beautiful together, somehow, a gem glittering in a trash heap, and he could not go more than an hour without wanting to tear the world down around him.
“Seriously?” Bruce said.
So he had another chance to not entrap himself in something that would not go well. “Indeed.”
Great. Good job.
They moved to the sofa. Bruce’s posture started off rigid, but he almost immediately relaxed beneath Thor’s hands.
“Oh, fuck,” Bruce said. “Thor, you’re my hero. You can be the Norse god of backrubs if you want.”
“There’s no more Norseway,” Thor said, though he didn’t stop.
“Norway,” Bruce said. His voice hadn’t changed: the destruction of his planet no longer fazed him quite enough to shake him free of his enjoyment. It had not been his country, Thor knew. Midgardians were strange about those borders.
“You’ve been holding out on us, your majesty,” Val said. “We should have been charging you rent in massages this whole time if you’ve got him this relaxed.”
“I thought you said you weren’t angry anymore?” Thor said.
Bruce tilted his head back. They were still not making eye contact, but Thor could see the dark ends of his eyelashes. “I’m not. But I manage to not feel things in a tightly-wound, live-wire kind of way. All the tension of the fuse on a stick of dynamite, none of the catharsis. I could maybe summon up some anger if you stopped doing this too soon, not to emotionally blackmail you or anything.”
“I have done harder tasks for longer,” Thor said.
“Harder and longer are your operative words for tonight,” Val said. “We’ve got an invitation to one of the boss’s orgies.”
“I don’t want to go to an orgy,” Thor said. “Least of all one hosted by my brother’s lover.”
“Unfortunate for you that it’s mandatory, then.”
“You can have mandatory orgies?”
“You’re not required to sleep with anybody,” Bruce said. “You’re just required to go. The Grandmaster thinks any party below a certain threshold of attendees is, and I quote, a ‘real downer.’”
“Here, your majesty,” Val said. “I’ll substantiate that one for you.” She fetched a heavy piece of crystal off the table and held it up above Bruce’s head, right in front of Thor’s face.
It was a message screen currently emblazoned with unceasing fireworks. YOU DON’T HAVE TO COME, YOU JUST HAVE TO GO featured prominently as a slogan.
“It’s kind of unwittingly ambiguous,” Bruce said. “Don’t tell him I said that.” He turned sideways away from Thor’s grip. His eyes were serious. “Jane will be there, though.”
“That would not be how I’d choose to see her again.”
“So go say hello this morning,” Val said. “Is it still morning?” She swished her hand and the dark tint of the window vanished, plunging them all into blinding sunlight. She ignored their curses and offered up none of her own even though Thor thought she had the most right to them: she’d been drinking harder than either of them and had that smoke in her blood now to boot. “Noon-ish, I suppose. Go see her. Bruce isn’t the only one you’re bringing down. You make a poor partner in Hel. Something about that puppy look on your face, like you remember what hope is, like you’re still angry someone kicked it away from you.” She shrugged. “You never find the bottom, do you?”
“I thought I had.”
“You haven’t,” Bruce said. “And I don’t—never mind. It’s not a good thing to be getting into. Val’s right, you should go see Jane if you want to. It’d be the nice thing to do, so she doesn’t see you alive tonight with no warning.”
“And cause a scene,” Val said, “maybe cluing everybody else into you being a new arrival.”
“Why would that matter?”
She drew her finger across her throat. “Wouldn’t go over well.”
Bruce actually looked grim now, and considering all the things Thor had heard him speak of over the last few days without at all changing his expression, that meant something.
“It didn’t happen with the people Loki brought in,” Bruce said. “Everybody knew Loki at that point, so if he brought them, they were okay,, they were vouched for. But if anyone fell through one of the wormholes—people thought there was a chance they were Hela’s spies.”
“Would’ve been more of a chance, astronomically so, that they were as piss-scared of Hela as everybody else and running like hell from her,” Val said, “but people in a safe place don’t like people knocking on their door. It got bloody.”
“You couldn’t stop it?”
“Are you really asking if I couldn’t or are you asking if I tried?” There was something awful in her eyes. Not shame, or not only shame, more like shame that she felt pride. “Because yeah, perfect golden prince, I tried. And I didn’t have much help in doing it, and I was outnumbered, and I was at the disadvantage of not wanting to kill them, or at least not more than I had to. Feeling sentimental about sentient life, which I’m back to being over. Go on and tell me how you could have done better.”
“You weren’t there?” Thor asked Bruce.
“Still Hulked out. For all I know, I did half of it.”
“You didn’t,” Val said quickly. “The big guy gets angry, yeah, he doesn’t get scared of people that helpless. He doesn’t hate that way.”
Bruce leaned forward and pressed his lips to her temple, but he didn’t look like he believed her.
“Come on,” he said to Thor. “I’ll take you to Jane.”
“I would prefer to be sober.”
“Yeah, but sobriety’s a limited resource right now. I’ve seen you worse. Little bit of spit-polish and you’ll be good as new.”
“Unlikely,” Thor said.
Bruce gave him a twisted smile, half-wry, half-wary. “Somehow more likely with you than with anybody else. I’m starting to be pretty sure about that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like Val said. You don’t hit bottom. You haven’t forgotten who you were.”
“Give me time,” Thor said, trying to make it sound like a joke.
“That’s the thing, “Bruce said. “I can’t figure out if I want to.”
He mixed up some kind of vile tonic for the both of them—it was the blue-green of dried seaweed and tasted like salty buttermilk mixed with Earth’s cough syrup, but Bruce promised it would do something to help clear Thor’s head. (“Either that or I’m just fucking with you,” Bruce said, “and it’s worth it for me to drink it to see you forcing it down too.”) Thor chose carefully from among his clothes. Jane, he remembered, had preferred him in red.
“Handsome,” Val pronounced him, when his efforts were done. “Just like royalty.” Her tone was mocking, as usual, but not quite. Day by day, her face had grown more serious, more and more like one of the Valkyries painted on the walls of Asgard’s palace.
Which struck him—
I remember you.
How different she had looked in the blue cape and gray-white armor of her battalion. But she was still the same woman whose portrait had decorated his childhood: in fact, if her hair had been down when he’d met her and if she’d not had the scrapper’s marks painted on her face, he might even have recognized her. Even if he’d never expected to come upon a dream, and here of all places.
“What?” she said.
He shook his head. “Nothing. I’m just a fool, I didn’t realize—when we first met, I’d thought you had tattoos here.” He slid his finger down his cheek. “I was just baffled for a minute to realize you’d gotten rid of them.”
“Yeah. That’s what you do with paint on your face, sooner or later. I’ve got enough ink in my skin to last me a lifetime.”
Nothing more was said about it until he and Bruce were outside in the crushing heat, when Bruce said, “She’s right, you know. You aren’t a good actor.”
“I’m a phenomenal actor. I’ll have you know I led several amateur productions in my youth.”
“Pretty sure that was because you were the crown prince. So what were you really thinking about just now?”
Thor sighed. “That I had seen her, years ago, on the walls of Asgard. Commemorated in the portraits of the slain Valkyries.”
“But she wasn’t slain.”
“No. Evidently my father preferred to keep things simpler than they really were. On a number of levels.”
Bruce patted him awkwardly on the shoulder.
“You’re very bad at offering comfort,” Thor said, with a forced smile.
“It’s not my strong suit, no.” He pointed Thor down a narrow side-alley and they turned. “Fingers crossed for you that Jane will be better, I guess. We had a funeral for you, did you know that? Some guy with a greenhouse got really rich for a while there selling floral arrangements, everybody wanting to do something for all the people they’d lost, for the whole damn galaxy. And Jane and I, we both a wreath for you. This ridiculous looking thing made out of these orange flowers full of pollen that just about knocked you out if you breathed too much of it. We went to this place outside of the city, on the gulf, and we gave you a Viking funeral, or what both of us was pretty sure was a Viking funeral. Lobbed the thing out onto the water and threw Molotov cocktails at it until one of us managed to hit it and burn it up. If Clint would have been here, he could have done the whole burning arrow thing, I don’t know, I think that’s traditional. But we did what we could.”
“Thank you.” He really was honored by it, in a strange way: it was touching to think of the two of them on some silty gulf beach, cobbling together a way to acknowledge what they thought was his passing. “Loki was there, I assume.”
Bruce shook his head. “Loki was… incommunicado for a while.”
“With the Grandmaster, you mean. In your last days of Rome.”
“No—well, yeah, but he was more like a dead battery when this was happening. It was right after everything seemed to be wrapped up for good, and I guess he was just burnt out. By the way, that whole thing with the two of them, that wasn’t a huge surprise to you or anything, right?”
He shook his head. “Loki has ever had a talent for finding influential lovers.”
“The Grandmaster being a guy, though. That’s not something Asgard cared about?”
Thor didn’t know how to explain it. No, Loki’s… softness, as it were, had been the problem: not that he went to bed with men and women equally but that he somehow did it in a way that was either too intense or too decadent. His seductions were always inappropriate in some way, by Asgard’s standards. He seduced and wooed the powerful, the way women were said to; he did not wench or fuck to show off his prowess or even for the joy of it but to prove something. He was cold where he should have been warm. Soft-eyed where he should have been contemptuous. He was a creature of emotion and his emotions always seemed to be ones Asgard did not like.
He hesitated, though, to say all this. He was aware that, by Earth’s standards, it would seem cruel; perhaps it even was. Certainly it had done his brother little good.
“His romances, such as they were, were sometimes considered a bit unnatural, but not for that reason. It was more that he was never confident in his own power: always either seeking after more of it or seeking to affirm it. He faced disapproval. I wish now that I had—well, it’s done, is it not? There is no more Asgard to censure him, for good or ill. But men, women, no. I’ve been to bed with both myself.”
Bruce turned his head with cobra-like quickness. “You have?”
“And that’s not unusual, where you’re from?”
“A little, but not amazingly so. Perhaps a little more common than on your world.” He considered this. “But then less common later. It is not considered… responsible. People settle down.”
“You would have settled down with Jane.”
“Not after we’d parted from each other, obviously.” He didn’t know why Bruce was pursuing this so. They couldn’t be that short on conversation. And Bruce couldn’t want—
Unless he did.
He did sometimes have contempt for his own happiness. And I’m as good a way as any to ruin what little he’s found.
So don’t ruin it, Loki said in his head. But you could at least have a little fun, brother. This isn’t Asgard.
No. If it were, he could disobey its unwritten laws. But he was more bound to them than ever now that they were gone.
“This is Jane,” Bruce said, thankfully interrupting this train of thought. He pointed at a relatively simple house, its outer walls painted the color of sand. “Her lab is underneath, really spacious.” He sounded just a little bit bitter in a way that made Thor smile. “You should probably let me say hi before you make an appearance, okay?”
“Yes. I don’t want to startle her.”
So he waited around the blind corner as Bruce gave his name and handprint for the door-scanner. In another moment the door creaked open.
“Bruce,” Jane said warmly. “It’s good to see you.”
He had not heard her voice in so long. She sounded as she always had—like summer and excitement, like wisdom and hot chocolate and Earth. A jumble of all the good things she had brought him.
He heard them hug, their clothes rustling together.
“Come in,” Jane was saying.
“I—this isn’t that kind of visit, actually. This is a weird kind of visit. I need to just talk to you in the doorway for a little bit, okay?”
“Okay.” Now she sounded a little hesitant. She reached for a joke. “Tell me you’re not setting me up for a hit or anything.”
“No, just a surprise. A pretty big surprise. So—you remember that whole story Loki gave us about how he got knocked out of the Einstein-Rosen Bridge, how that was the last time he saw Thor?”
“It’s not the kind of thing you forget.”
“Well, we all always assumed that Thor made it the rest of the way. That what happened to everybody else happened to him first, if anything.”
“Yeah.” He could hear more rustling: her wrapping her arms around herself, maybe. “I don’t need a recap of this part, you know. It’s permanently engraved on my memory.”
“It turns out… Thor got knocked out too. And fell.”
“And landed,” Bruce said. “Just a lot later than anyone would have thought.”
“Are you really telling me—”
Thor stepped around the corner. “Hello, Jane.”
She had changed in a way that made his heart ache, but she had not changed so much as Bruce, at least: she wore her hair differently, had cut it quite short, and she was paler, as if she’d been spending all her time indoors. She wore Sakaaran garb and it made her look half-alien, unfamiliar.
Her lips parted at seeing him. “Thor?”
“I’m sorry to be so late.”
She rushed toward him, a tiny hurricane, and wrapped her arms around him, pressing her face against his chest. Something inside him gave way and he was suddenly weeping, his head down against hers. His tears dampened her hair.
“I thought you were gone,” Jane was saying. “That I’d never see you again.”
Thor could not say anything at all. She seemed to understand—she took him inside and they stood there in the warm shadows of her unlit kitchen, their arms around each other, both of them crying now. He could not let go of her, not when he had let go of everything else. She was the first he had known of crash landings, his first refuge in his greatest trouble, and alone of those he’d found here whom he loved, she had never been an enemy. They had been good to each other, even at the end. They’d not broken each other’s hearts.
Jane was safe, and he felt, like a child, very much in need of safety.
When at last they were calmer—when she had brushed his hair away from his face to see him better and they had offered each other wobbly smiles, awkward presents between old lovers—Thor took several deep breaths and pulled back. Bruce, he saw, had gone.
They sat facing each other, their knees touching.
“You look the same,” Jane said. “You look exactly the same.”
“You cut your hair,” Thor said, as if that were the only difference.
She laughed. “Once or twice.”
It made her look more vulnerable—he could see the lines of her skull, could see how the back of her head could be cradled in his palm. He’d held Loki thus, not so many days ago; had made a special point of that fragility. He could have skimmed his hand over Jane’s head and felt the soft prickle of her hair against his skin. Yet in the plainness of her look, there was strength, too. Like down, first the fluff of the feather and then the bite of the rachis. You could never tell where it would be safe to touch. Was that something he wanted to know?
Jane said, “I wrote to you.” There was a little bit of pink flush on her cheeks, two solid bars of color. “Not that I had any way of mailing the letters or anything, but I—I did do that.” Her hands twisted together: she had a small bandage on one finger, Thor noticed, and the edge of it was peeling up. “I burned them, though. Last year, I think.”
“What did you say?”
“Lots of things. That I missed you. That I regretted ending things. That I was glad I’d ended things.”
“I think we both came very naturally to a parting of the—”
“That your family is, no offense, bananas. There was a lot of that.”
“Oh, you don’t know the half of it,” Thor said, though his eyes were half-burning with tears. “I had so many stories I was going to get around to telling you someday…” He shook his head. “I planned for very many somedays.”
“I think that’s easy to do when you have your lifespan.”
She had been angry at him once for that—angry at him for not understanding her.
We never see each other, she’d said. My life isn’t what I’m doing when I’m with you, it’s—it’s everywhere else, all the times you can’t be here, or when you’re here and I’m not. Don’t you get that? We’ve become just… a series of intersections. Collisions.
I thought physicists loved collisions, Thor had said, trying to make her laugh, trying to show her that he’d listened.
There had been tears along her eyelashes, crystalline and sharp. She’d said, It’s enough for you, isn’t it? Because you still don’t get that we don’t have that kind of time. I’ll be gone before you know it.
Do you think I don’t know that? Then he had wanted to smash something, but he had told the truth when he’d said the callow days of his youth were behind him: he had learned that this world was not his to damage in a petty temper, that no world was. So he had nothing to hurt but himself, his own heart. Do you think I don’t see it? That I don’t know the gift you’re giving me, to share your days?
I don’t want to give you a gift, Jane had said. I don’t want that—to be that. This isn’t an epic, Thor, this isn’t poetry, this is my life.
Magic is science, he had said. You told me so. Epics, poems, they’re just lives, Jane.
Turned up to eleven! I don’t want that!
I don’t know what that means.
She had turned away from him then. I know, she’d said quietly. I know you don’t know what it means.
“Yes,” Thor said now. “It was. Jane, you always made it easy.”
Her mouth quirked, amused at some joke she wasn’t sharing, but not, he thought, with any cruelty: she was choosing to share his meaning rather than give him her own. He knew it was a gesture. Stark had talked a lot about gestures, especially as they’d related to his Pepper, so Thor felt, fondly, especially well-equipped to understand what Jane was now giving him.
He gave something to her, too. “Bruce said you have a… boyfriend.”
“I do. Hurich, he’s a biologist… and you probably don’t actually want to hear about that. How long has it been for you, since we broke up?”
“Not so long that I’m not consoling myself that I’m probably better-looking than he is. –That was your allotted time to deny it, so I’m right. I like him a little better now.”
“You’re funnier,” she said. “His planet apparently wasn’t big on humor. But then again, no one’s big on humor these days.”
“The Grandmaster seems to have his fun.”
Her eyes widened. “Oh, you’re scheduled to be at the party tonight, aren’t you? Of course, he couldn’t snub you, not under the circumstances. I’m glad Bruce brought you by beforehand, I can’t even think what I would have…” She shook her head, banishing the nightmare of it. “Anyway, he doesn’t count.”
“You attend these events,” Thor said. He strove to be delicate, though he couldn’t think why, when they had said much more direct and even vulgar things to each other in bed, once upon a time, vulgar things and silly things: The hammer of Thor, Jane had said, her breath a warm giggle against his cock. How he had loved her. “You’re invited often?”
“Much to my dismay, I’m part of the Sakaarian inner circle, so yeah. I don’t usually, um, participate, though.”
Usually. He couldn’t decide whether or not he wanted to try to call the suggested images to mind. Not now, certainly.
“You don’t approve,” Jane said.
He was surprised. “Your choices are your own.”
“No, I don’t mean you don’t approve of me being there, I mean… it weirds you out. The whole thing.”
“It is not what I’m accustomed to. Revelry on Asgard could be raucous, and I suppose at its heights it might not have looked any different than tonight will, but it was always… spontaneous. And not required.”
“The beatings will continue until morale improves,” Jane said.
“That’s droll,” Thor said, though without much feeling.
She looked down at her knees. “Yeah. I didn’t make it up.”
She had always been honest, Jane. She’d never made a fool out of him. Hit him with her vehicle, yes, but never truly deceived him, not even in play. It was why, even parted from her, he trusted her more completely than he did anyone else.
“Jane,” he said, “is it a good place, this world?”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know what I mean.”
“Thor, it’s the only world.” There was something unexpectedly hard in her voice, a bedrock of granite that he had only rarely come up against. “It’s the only place we have. And it’s where I came when there was nothing else, literally nothing else, because I remembered that, despite everything, somehow you trusted him. And I asked myself what you would do.”
“And so you put your faith in Loki to bring you to safety.”
“No,” Jane said. “I asked myself that, and I knew you would fight until there was nothing left. And I knew—I thought I knew—that you were dead. I didn’t want to die. So I thought—if you were that good, if you would die for this world that wasn’t even yours, then maybe you were right when you thought you saw some of that in him. Maybe you could recognize it in a way I couldn’t.” She smiled. Her lips were chapped, the lower one slightly cracked. Damn this Hurich, he should have been looking after her better. Jane forgot her own comfort when she was working. “But you don’t see it here, and I guess… I guess that should worry me. But it’s not like we have any other option.”
Thor shook his head. “I can’t see clearly yet. To you, to everyone else, this place is life. Safety. For me it is still where everything died. I don’t know, Jane.”
“It’s a mess,” she said. “But I’m glad you’re here.”
There was moment then where he could see the future as clearly as his father ever had. He would lean in and they would kiss, and the taste of her mouth would be different at first but then familiar, and she would make things simple for him once more. They would make it work this time. The days of epics were over for them both. And he had always loved her.
But he did not lean forward, and neither did she, and the future rescinded, a tide pulled back from the beach.
Jane had put a silly smile on her face, a smile of much effort. “Well, I guess I’ll see you tonight.”
“Maybe a lot of me,” he said, trying to echo her tone. “Depending on how the night goes.”
She darted up against him in another hug, hummingbird-quick. He held her in return, but it had nothing like the power of their first collision in the doorway: he did not fall and she did not catch him.
“Don’t be a stranger,” Jane said as he left, but Thor could not feel like anything else.
“I thought you two would want to be alone,” Bruce said, as his only explanation of why he had left Thor behind at Jane’s. “God knows you’re not going to be alone with her tonight. Have you ever tried finding a quiet place to talk at an orgy? Your odds are not great.” He was busying himself with something that looked like a severed tentacle. “Hey, come look at the biomechanics of this and tell me if it reminds you of anything.”
“Isn’t this the dinner table?” Thor said.
“Trust me,” Bruce said, not even looking up, “this is Sakaar. Weirder things have happened to this tabletop.”
“Just last week, in fact,” Val said.
“Weirder than a tentacle?” Thor said. “Really?”
She smirked but otherwise gave away nothing. She was, to Thor’s surprise, doing a puzzle, a two-dimensional kind made entirely from wood grain. She could fix her attention on it as avidly as Bruce could fix his on the tentacle, which Thor now went, per request, to examine.
“Biomechanics,” he said. “Its life-workings.”
“Exactly. The plumbing, if you want to think about it that way—circulatory system, alimentary canal, that kind of thing.”
Thor peered down at it. “Gelatinous little thing, isn’t it? I don’t see any blood vessels at all.”
“Exactly. Like a jellyfish.”
That sounded unappetizing.
“Only this thing, the species this came off of, is as sentient as you or me. Don’t you think that’s weird?”
“In the grand scheme of things perhaps not so much as you having some creature’s severed arm on your dinner table.”
“It’s not like jellyfish-boy was using it,” Val said. “The arena still does demand its share of blood—or, in this case, clear, viscous gunk. Anyway, the word is that he healed up nice and fast.”
“Which is why I’m interested in it in the first place,” Bruce said. “There could be something about this species’ healing process that’s connected to—”
Thor let this wash over him. He went to watch Val assemble her puzzle, and watching her hunt out the pieces and lay them together, their scalloped edges neatly fitting into a perfect lock, went well with Bruce’s backgrounded murmuring about medicine. It was oddly soothing. Captain Rogers, he remembered, had sometimes used televised golf games to fall asleep: “It’s the one thing I’ve already gotten used to,” he had said. “Puts me out like a light every time.” Though his smile had said this was not quite true.
Thor could almost hear him saying it now, could remember that they had been watching television—channel-surfing, Barton had called it—and passed some such channel, a temporary blaze of green. The light had fallen across their captain’s face and made him look sallow, ill. A strange, maudlin night. He couldn’t remember what had driven the two of them to sit up together. Funny that he could remember the quality of the light but not that. And as it had been just the two of them, if he did not remember it, he would never know.
Out like a light.
“We should get going,” Val said.
“You want me to daub you up?” Bruce said. He put down the scalpel he’d been using on the tentacle and washed his hands in the sink.
She did. Thor watched as Bruce painted streaks of no-color, pale as lightning, across Val’s cheekbones. They reflected light back into her eyes, calling up a spark of life.
“What are you thinking about?” she asked him.
“That you’re letting him get his fingers near your mouth after he had them inside of that,” Thor said, nodding at the severed tentacle.
“Oh, that’s nothing.” She took hold of Bruce’s hand and drew two of his fingers into her mouth, sucking on them slowly. “I’m not squeamish, your majesty. Anything that can be killed, I’ve killed it, and most likely had its blood all over me. Something that doesn’t even have blood? That’s practically clean.”
“Also, I washed my hands,” Bruce said, “so I doubt that’s what you were really thinking.” He grazed his thumb along Val’s lower lip. “And now I’m completely distracted.”
She smiled at him. She had an oddly innocent smile, as if she had used it so little that it had not aged with the rest of her. “Good thing it’s that kind of party, then.” Then she looked over at Thor. “You want some too? I’ve got a little pot of red.”
So he wound up sitting still as she drew red lines across his skin.
“What do you think?” she said—to Bruce, not to him. They didn’t seem to have a mirror, which meant Thor was spared from having an opinion of himself.
Bruce said, “Good. Looks good.” He cleared his throat. “Thor, tonight—honestly, the odds are it’s happening because the Grandmaster wants to fuck with your head. He likes Loki too much to actually melt you to get you out of the way—seriously, don’t ask—but you rubbed him incredibly the wrong way, which I realize now isn’t something I wanted to be talking about right before an orgy, and anyway, the whole thing, it’s a power play. Ninety percent of this place is a power play.”
“Does Loki not have power of his own?”
“Loki has love,” Val said. “The people’s, as far as that goes, and the Grandmaster’s, as far as that goes, and it does actually go a bit further than you’d think. He has friends. But he’s not the boss.”
“The Grandmaster has his good points,” Bruce said. “‘Not fucking with people’ isn’t really one of them. He’s trying to either make you uncomfortable or make you give in.”
“Give in to what?”
“To Sakaar,” Bruce said.
“Drinking, forgetting, dying,” Val said. “You aren’t like everybody else here. The boss, he’s not wild about different, not that way. If you take a couple pills, fuck a couple people, he’ll warm up to you. If you stand around looking awkward, he’ll warm up to you, because there’s nothing an exhibitionist likes more than a prude with a stick up his ass. And I have to say, it’s a good plan, really. Those are generally the two directions someone would go at an orgy. Like I said, he’s taking it easy on you because of your brother. He’s got you nice and set up to do what he wants, and it shouldn’t even cost you anything.”
“Then why are you telling me?”
“I don’t know, actually,” Bruce said. “It would probably be smarter not to, now that I think about it. But I don’t like being manipulated.”
“Neither do I,” Val said. “If you want to go along—and I’d advise you to go along—then go along. But don’t do it because you’re being led down a chute to the killing floor.”
Jane had done her share of what she called pure science, with no practical application: knowledge for knowledge’s sake. He supposed that was what they were giving him. Val was right—what the Grandmaster was asking of him was what he would have done anyway. He still did not like it.
But he had no license, no right at all, to drag Bruce and Val into whatever squabble this was, and he in fact ought to make some sort of overture to his brother’s lover. It would do no good, in any direction, to court disaster. However much he might want to.
“I will not make trouble,” he said, and added, after a moment’s thought, “unless it proves necessary.”
“Oh, that’s a much bigger loophole than I’m comfortable with,” Bruce said. He was smiling; he looked surprised to be doing it. “But I guess it’ll have to work.”
It was the same stone-faced, staunchly unimpressed guard Thor had met before. What had Loki called her? Topaz.
“Lady Topaz,” Thor said.
She flicked a glance at him like it was a crumb off her finger. “Liesmith’s brother.”
“I heard Thorold.”
“It’s really not Thorold.”
“If you say so,” Topaz said. She looked over the invitations Bruce passed to her: she seemed to wish she had a jeweler’s loupe to examine them for possible counterfeiting.
“You know us,” Bruce said as Topaz flipped an invitation over and began scrutinizing the watermark on the reverse side. “We’re here every other week. And we’re invited to all of these. Every time with this, seriously?”
“She’s hoping she’ll make me snap and try to kill her,” Val said with an unnerving level of cheerfulness. “She’s been wanting to take my head off my shoulders for years.” She smiled. “It must really eat you up inside that we’re all snug and cozy in the boss’s favor.”
“Favorites rise and fall,” Topaz said.
“Seems like I’m all rise, though. Like cream.”
“Okay,” Bruce said, “this seems like it’s going to go about as well as it usually does, so let’s just…” He gave Val a little nudge and the three of them moved past Topaz into the palace.
“We don’t get on,” Val said to Thor.
“I got an inkling of that, yes. She should not speak to you so.”
“She can speak to me however she likes, I don’t care. The life I’ve lived here, for the most part, I’ve merited her disgust, same as she’s merited mine.” She leaned over and kissed Bruce on the cheek. “I’m going to go get a drink. You want anything?”
“Dealer’s choice,” Bruce said.
“And something for his majesty,” she said. “Something pink and fizzy, I’m thinking.”
“You might think she’s kidding,” Bruce said as they watched Val walk over to the bar, “but the pink fizzy stuff will knock you on your ass. Even you, and I’ve seen you drink.” A strangely wistful half-smile twitched at his mouth. “Do you remember when we all got plastered and tried to lift Mjolnir? I mean, yeah, you probably do, given the whole… Ultron situation.”
“The last time I saw you, until now.”
“And now I’m even less worthy.”
“It matters not,” Thor said softly. “Mjolnir is gone. Hela shattered it with her bare hand.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa.”
The Grandmaster had just made his entrance, which Thor was surprised the ceiling had not announced to them for good measure. He hooked his arm around Thor’s shoulders and pulled him away from Bruce.
“Hey, there, Thorold,” he said, with the kind of hard smile that told Thor he knew damn well, this time at least, that he was getting the name wrong, “we don’t really throw the H-word around at parties, you know. It brings down the mood. I mean, I didn’t have loved ones when your big sister decided the universe needed a little redecorating, but, uh, some people did, or so I’m led to believe. Little bit of a buzzkill. So let’s just not.”
“There’s no one else here,” Thor said.
“But—you understand that there will be. Tonight’s whole gist, you’ve got that, right? So practice makes perfect.”
How did Loki tolerate this? “Yes, I understand.”
“Attaboy.” But his hand didn’t leave Thor’s shoulder, and when he started talking again, he sounded almost contemplative. “You know, I think we may have gotten off on the wrong foot. I want to like you, I do. In-laws, who’d have thought? It’s just—you spend enough time scooping the maudlin, ah, darling of your heart off a stone statue of somebody and you start to think, hey, I don’t like that guy. And you do look an awful lot like your statue, all ‘grr’ looking and with this kind of basic decency sheen on you. Really A+ work that sculptor did, I wonder whatever happened to him.”
This seemed, bafflingly, to be the end of his speech.
Yet Thor could understand it, or nearly so. “It was never my intention to make Loki think me dead.” He narrowly resisted adding, Though it would have been fair play. “And I would not have willingly left him to grieve. I do… appreciate you being there for him.”
The Grandmaster looked him over. He was mad, Thor supposed, but Loki had been mad a time or two before, even if he was not now, and so he could see, perhaps, how they did understand each other. Then the Grandmaster smiled in a chummy, completely terrifying way, and Thor went back to failing to grasp why anyone would want this man anywhere near them.
“You’re fun. You could be just a treat, and I bet Scrapper 142 and Loki’s friend think so, too. You should enjoy yourself tonight, really. Or don’t, if that’s your thing. But yes is always much more fun than no.”
He sauntered off to greet the other guests that had begun to trickle in.
Val rescued him by pressing the promised glass of something fizzy and pink into his hand. “Breathe. And drink.”
Thor breathed and drank. It was like a kerosene fire had lit up the inside of his skull. “Damn, that’s potent. Did Loki make this?”
“How’d you know?” Bruce said.
“Extremely high-proof wine was the one way he unfailingly impressed our friends.”
“Your friends,” Loki said, appearing suddenly at his side.
Thor poked him. Solid.
“Yes, I teleported. My power within the palace is significant, and—about to be recharged, if you will.”
“I would not,” Thor said.
Loki smirked. “It’s a large party, brother, I’m sure you can find a place to be where I am not once events… accelerate. It’ll be no more awkward than the time you and Hogun insisted on bedding each other and half a company of musicians while I attempted to smother myself with a pillow. For six sequential nights. Also, for what it’s worth, I didn’t invite you.”
“Well, now my feelings are hurt.”
“But it is good to see you,” Loki said, and he didn’t seem to be joking.
“You saw me not so long ago.”
Oh. Thor said, “It is good to see you as well, brother. Always.”
“Brotherly love’s not the name of the game tonight, boys,” Val said. “Liesmith, you at least ought to be able to remember that.”
Loki smiled. His smile had become more open on Sakaar, Thor noticed—here, he looked as he had not looked since they’d been children. “Oh, believe me, I do. I only came to establish a perimeter, as it were. And…” He looked pointedly at Bruce and Val.
Bruce rolled his eyes. “Loki, would you like to come over tomorrow night?”
“Why, thank you, Bruce, yes, I would.” He stole the rest of Thor’s drink—“This is your own home,” Thor said, “it’s your own party, you can find your own glass”—and drank it down in one go. “May our spirits never flag and our flagons of spirits never run dry. If you’ll excuse me, I foresee mostly being over there,” waving his hand vaguely at one corner of the room, “and of course you know where the library is.”
He vanished and popped back into existence in the aforementioned corner.
“He’s showing off for you,” Bruce said. “He actually isn’t usually too lazy to walk across a room.”
“He doesn’t usually wait for any kind of invitation before he shows up, either,” Val said, “but he’s usually drunk as fuck when he does, and he seems… better.” She looked at Thor as she tilted her hand back and drank directly from the bottle. “You seem to have that effect on people, your majesty. But for now, unless you want to start bearing witness to a good many family intimacies…”
“We adjourn to the library?”
“Well, if you want to read.”
“I know we’ve been in there a couple times now,” Bruce said musingly, “but I’m still surprised that’s there. I have literally never seen him with a book.”
“Who, the boss?” Val scoffed. “He built it for Loki.”
“Like Beauty in the Beast?” Bruce shook his head, dismissing his own question. “Never mind—I’ll just be off in my own little corner with the Earth references nobody’s going to get. Anyway, Thor, yeah, the library is the official no-sex zone. It’s this way.”
But Thor did not start walking in the direction Bruce gestured. “Do you always go there?”
Bruce lowered his hand. “No.” He dragged the word out, sounding unsure whether or not he wanted to admit it. “No, we don’t.”
“What do you do?” He should have rightly recoiled from his own rudeness, his intrusion, but he did not. The temperature in the room was high and someone had begun playing a song on a harp; the melody was strange and felt somehow like fingernails running up his spine. “I’m supposed to drink and eat and fuck my life away, am I not? I have the drink. I’m sure there’s food.”
“There’s food,” Val said. She seemed to be sizing him up. “You want to know what we usually do?”
“We don’t have a pattern, really,” she said. Her voice was low, whiskey-warm. “It all depends on the mood. Sometimes we fall into each other’s arms the moment the door closes behind us, and fuck each other’s brains out where everyone can see. Sometimes we look for a little more privacy—but to be honest, privacy’s something we could get at home, before you came along, so most often not. Sometimes we watch—and touch—” She drew her fingertips across the cup of her bodice. “Each other. Ourselves. Does that sound like something you’d enjoy, your majesty?”
She had not said, Thor made himself notice, that they ever touched anyone else. He had no right to the hard grip of that fact around his heart; no right at all to disappointment. “It does. Or could.” He wished for another drink, less for the courage of it than for something to hold in his hand. A prop in this mad little theater. “Why don’t we separate?”
Bruce said, “We can do that, if you want.” Cautious. “The whole rest of this floor, library excluded, will have… partying. It’s safe to wander around.”
“Anywhere I go is safe for me,” Thor said.
“See, he can pull off saying stuff like that,” Bruce said. “I can’t, and for the life of me, I don’t get why. Hulk could have pounded him into the ground.”
“Mm, we never had that fight, can’t really be sure of the outcome.”
“I had that fight,” Val said. “I fought the big green guy and lost and fought you and won. Transitive property says you come out the loser.”
“I won’t accept a ruling of defeat on the say-so of mathematics,” Thor said.
“I’ll concede you’re no less than the fifth strongest person here,” Val said. “So you can walk—well, not exactly unmolested, under the circumstances, but at least unharmed.” She took another drink. “See you later, then, your majesty.”
So Thor left the room.
When he was alone, Sakaar—even such segment of it as was admitted into the Grandmaster’s home—was even more itself than before. Flashy, chaotic, savage, decadent. He lost the strain of harp music that had entranced him and sought it out again, moving from chamber to chamber. In some places, the air was smoky, fogged and perfumed with incense, and if it made him cough, it also at least took the edges off of things. In the haze, everything seemed softer, more inviting. The music rippled.
Someone stretched out a hand and caught him by the wrist. A woman, her a skin a deep forest green. “You look beautiful.”
She laughed. “Come and join us.”
But he had been right—the lack of real joy to it only chilled him and made him feel lonely. If he could persuade himself to see these people as friends, to see this all as a temporary overflowing of spirits, well-timed jubilance…
“What’s your name?” Thor asked her.
“I’m Thor, son of…” Loki had told him not to say. “Son of Frigga.”
“Come join us, Thor, son of Frigga.”
She was friendly. He should have fallen into her arms gladly. And he did want—he could see it. He would start with her, parting the lips of her cunt with first his fingers and then his tongue. He would taste the fragrant, spicy perfume of the room on the insides of her thighs; some luxurious oil worked into her skin. And while he did it, some capable hand, slim or wide, rough or soft, would close around his cock—
He would smear the paint they’d put on him, he realized. The red stripes Val had given him. He would wind up rubbing it all away.
“Not—not now,” he said. He pulled gently loose from her hand. “I’m still familiarizing myself.”
“First time?” someone said from the bed. A man, fully naked and almost indecently well-endowed. “I think I’d remember seeing you before, lion that you are.”
“You have seen him before,” Illia said. “He’s the statue-man.”
“Statue-man! I thought he was a myth.”
“I really have to go,” Thor said, and went. Was it a problem, them recognizing him? Damn Loki and his statues, if this whole evening ended with him being ripped apart and he hadn’t even gotten to so much as touch—
But no one chased after him. The atmosphere was too indolent for that. They saved their bloodlust for the arena, apparently—here thoughts were slow even when bodies were quick. Thor saw people fucking each other up against walls with their hips almost a blur and their jaws slack and open, their eyes glassy with drink or drugs. He saw a coil of bodies, waxed smooth as glass, all moving together like a scarf in the wind. They were beautiful in the way such a thing was beautiful and he watched them as though they were a flock of birds in a perfect V. A comb raked across the sky.
On and on. He really did find the library eventually, but he did not stay. Jane was not there, he noted. He felt a whirlwind in his head.
How much time had gone by? Not enough for him to be hungry, but he was aware of that only because in yet another room, he was given a strawberry by a woman with glitter on her fingernails. He licked colored sugar off a man’s lips. The man was burly, muscles on muscles, with a scar that cut across the bow of his mouth. A gladiator, Thor knew without asking. The man could have picked him up one-handed. Thor hadn’t considered before whether he might want to be picked up one-handed, but then he thought of Val in the arena, glistening with sweat, and knew the answer. He kissed the man as hard as he could. He wanted to be loved until he was bruised.
He had not achieved spontaneity, nor had he achieved whatever line of thinking these people had—whatever level of play or apathy. He’d achieved only lust, and it was like a dull, greasy fire inside of him. Use this one body, he thought, to put out his desire for others.
“On second thought, actually, you can’t pull it off either.”
Thor turned around.
“I’m serious,” Bruce said. “The line about how everywhere is safe for you. You can’t pull it off either.”
“Are you in or out?” the gladiator said.
Bruce was calm everywhere but his shoulders, where he carried a tension as obvious as the kind Thor had rubbed out of him earlier. The bob of the shrug didn’t change that any. “I’m where he is, I think. So if he’s in, I guess I’m in. But I’ll need a plus one to the dance, if it’s all the same to you.” He looked at Thor. There was something way down at the bottom of his eyes, even in the dark, something the same as the tension in his shoulders. “Or we could be out.”
“What’s out?” Thor said.
“What do you want?”
“I’ll tell you what I want,” the gladiator said, “and that’s for the two of you to not be bringing your fucking relationship drama into the middle of a fucking orgy. Fuck off.”
“Yeah, that makes sense,” Bruce said.
Out in the hall, there was Valkyrie, leaning against the wall. She looked strange, and Thor realized it was because she didn’t have a bottle in her hand, and he’d seldom seen her without one, these last few days. Some of her hair had fallen out of its braid and three points of her face paint were smeared.
Bruce said to her, “I just cockblocked Thor. There’s a sentence I never thought I’d say, even in a lifetime of them.”
“I don’t need your protection,” Thor said.
“Seriously? That’s what you think I went in there for, to protect you?”
“I didn’t think it was to prove a point about what I could convincingly say or not say.”
“You’re being deliberately thick now,” Val said. He waited for her to shrug him off the way Bruce had shrugged off the gladiator’s half-hearted invitation—Come with us or don’t, it’s nothing to me—but she didn’t. She just went on looking at him. She didn’t tell him it didn’t matter one way or the other. She didn’t say he should hit bottom already and this would help.
“You never mentioned anyone else,” Thor said.
“There hasn’t been anyone else,” Bruce said. “Habit, inclination, etc. Plus I’ve never liked splitting my focus. And Val—”
“I could do this place,” she said, nodding at the palace in general, “and I did, for years. But I can’t do that at the same time as—this.” That time she didn’t nod in any particular direction, but Thor knew what she meant—whom she meant. Bruce. “It’s too different. But you—I’ve fought with you.”
And that felt like the entirety of her answer, and he understood it: it was all he had needed to know about her, too.
“I thought you were maybe going to get back together with Jane,” Bruce said.
The strange thing about Bruce was Thor had never actually fought with him, not properly, not with him as himself. So he always felt like something in Bruce was behind glass, untouchable, unknowable. He could deceive himself, and it was pleasant to do so, that that was why he had failed somehow to understand Jane, when the truth was, perhaps, that he had not tried hard enough to see the parts of their story that were not written in verse.
He and Val thought one way and Bruce thought another, the languages of their minds different even in translation, and Bruce knew it—alone with his Earth references—and still was having this conversation, making this particular offer, knowing that there would be times he would be alone.
Thor said, “I didn’t get back together with Jane. And I’ve seen Beauty and the Beast. The library in it is most impressive.”
Bruce’s mouth fell open. “Wait, what?”
“I visited Selvig’s once.” If he said it all quickly enough, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to remember it. “He was looking after his niece for the weekend. She insisted on watching it three times.”
“You always surprise me,” Bruce said.
“Let’s go somewhere,” Val said. “Somewhere without other people.”
But still within the confines of the first floor of the palace—that appeared to be the rule she and Bruce had set for themselves, because they made no attempt at reaching the quarters they kept there. Thor wondered if this was part of their attempt to play by the Grandmaster’s rules or if it was—this was the more appealing thought—a kind of desperation, a neediness that kept them from committing to such a long walk.
In the end, Val finally kicked out a group of four who were doing nothing but lying around smoking something that smelled like cinnamon and burnt roses, claiming they could do that anywhere, they didn’t need bedding for it. Thor could hear the harp again, so they must have wound their way back closer to the main room, Loki’s own place of indulgence. The notes hung in the air like gossamer.
“We’re all going to get a contact high off that,” Bruce said. “I hate that stuff.”
“What is it?”
“A local weed,” Val said. “Well, probably not, nothing’s really local here, but it came in with the Grandmaster, millions of years ago, so it’s as local as anything gets. It’ll give you a mean headache, but it increases skin sensitivity in the meantime. Very popular on nights like this, when you know the morning after’s going to be hell anyway.”
They all looked at each other.
“I don’t know how to do this,” Bruce said. “I’ve never—like I said, I always found it kind of hard to work out the mechanics.”
Val smirked. “What do you do when you think about it?”
“When I think about it I don’t waste time on the preamble. I just start at the main event. But unless you’re proposing we jump from zero to sixty—”
“Your majesty? Thoughts?”
“I am unpracticed at this as well,” Thor admitted. “You’re the one who said you’d been to these parties for centuries. You have millennia on us both, take pity on us.”
“As much as I hate to admit it,” Val said, “pity is the furthest thing from my mind.”
“Okay,” Bruce said. “Renaissance times. I can do mechanics, why not? I’ve got this.”
You don’t sound like you have this, Thor started to say, but then Bruce’s mouth was against his.
Was it the smoke, the scent of rose and cinnamon, that made the kiss both like a blow and the first bite into some delicious fruit? Or was it what always would have happened? He had never lacked appreciation for getting the things he wanted. He groaned into Bruce’s mouth and then felt Val’s hand, long-fingered and callused, against his arm, and he was given over to her by Bruce and kissed by her as well. She tasted like whiskey, campfire drinking on cold nights. She kissed more avidly than she ever talked, as if this were the only way she could tell him something she desperately needed to say. He could see Bruce’s mouth against her neck; Bruce’s mouth reddened by being rubbed against by Thor’s own beard.
Thor reached for them. It was the first time he’d been aware hands could be hungry in this way. He wanted the feel of them tattooed across his palms: the wave in his hair, the scars on her skin.
Their paint had mingled: he was silver from Val and she was red from him. Like Bruce.
Val, her voice hoarser than Thor had ever heard it, said to Bruce, “Will you suck him off?”
“Yes. Fuck. Yes.” Bruce made a strange, unnecessary gesture, shoving at his nose, and then Thor, with a feeling that was almost vertigo, realized Bruce was trying to adjust glasses he surely hadn’t worn in years. He said, in a mutter, “I haven’t done this since grad school. It could be lousy.”
But even the feel of Bruce’s hand against the front of his trousers made Thor’s head pulse. He didn’t think there was a way to do this badly.
Thor lay down because Bruce didn’t want to kneel. Kneel, Thor heard Hela saying, her voice the voice of empire, slightly incredulous that she should even have to ask—he shuddered and Bruce thankfully mistook it for anticipation.
“Sorry,” he said. “Working on it.”
He closed his mouth around Thor’s cock and the world darkened at the edges. Val slid above him on the bed and gripped his hands, leaned down and kissed him again, her mouth upside-down against his. There was something a little manic in her eyes, and he wondered suddenly how afraid she was of this, of taking a chance on him, of risking greed. I’ve fought with you, she said. She trusted him at least a little. She wouldn’t be doing this if she didn’t.
Bruce sucked and Thor let Val catch whatever moans and murmurs he made. She had taken off her top and her breasts were bare.
“Tell us what you want,” Val was saying. Thor could barely process it. “Tell us what you want, Thor, dammit, I don’t want us to be the ones who bring you down. Tell me you feel something. Tell me you want this.”
“I want this,” Thor said. “I want both of you, I—fuck—”
He expected Bruce to lift up his head, but Bruce stayed down, his mouth hot and tight and wet; he gripped Thor’s hipbones hard enough to bruise. Bruce looked up at him, his eyes dark, enthusiastic, and Thor lost himself.
Bruce rocked up into a kneeling position, wiping at his mouth. His lips were even redder than before, and slick with spit.
“I’ve wanted to do that,” Bruce said. He laughed shortly and shook his head. “I’ve wanted to do that for a while. Even back on Earth.”
“What stopped you?” Thor asked, once he could find the words for it.
“Tunnel vision, I guess. I had that dance with Nat. And you had a girlfriend.”
“You have a girlfriend,” Thor said, tracing the vein on the inside of Val’s wrist. She let him do it, too, which was unusual in any warrior. He was surprised she’d said nothing.
Bruce shook his head. “I have a partner.” The warmth in his voice was unmistakable, and Val responded to it like a flower turning to the sun: she learned forward over Thor’s head, giving him a clear view of the soft undersides of her breasts, a slightly lighter brown for not having seen the sun. The two of them kissed across the length of his body as he watched their chins, their jawlines. It made him feel cold, clammily so; too aware of the sweat now drying on his bare skin.
“I wouldn’t have said yes, I suppose,” Thor said. “Anymore than you would have asked. It wasn’t the right time and this… this is not what people do on Asgard. Not usually.” He forced a smile, as if to ask what that mattered now.
“Let me tell you,” Val said, “as someone who saw the bloody height of its glory, Asgard is what you make it. Like your heart. Though you might just be the first king to bed a Valkyrie.”
“I haven’t bedded you yet,” Thor said. “Not properly.”
“Then what are you waiting for?”
He looked down. “Twenty minutes?”
“You can keep on not bedding me, then. That’s too long a wait.”
“What are your standards for bedding?” Bruce said. “What counts?” He had his hands on his knees and, despite his hard cock, looked honestly contemplative; or would have if it hadn’t been for the slight flicker of amusement in his eyes. Only a little bit of the raggedness he must have been feeling showed through, mostly in how tightly he was holding onto himself.
Val was his partner in truth—she knew whatever game he was enjoying. “Would I settle for his mouth and his fingers, you mean?”
“Would it still be more than any king of Asgard ever won from a Valkyrie?”
“I do believe it would.”
“There you go, then,” Bruce said to Thor. “I bargained her down. Now, you know, win your victory so I can get some relief here from one of you already.”
Thor changed position as Val—the one living Valkyrie, no, Val, just Val, she had asked to be called that and she had not asked to be the only one left—if he understood anything now, it was that survival only happened to you whether or not you granted it permission—no, be with them—
--as Val rolled down her pants and cast them aside. She spread her legs for him.
She was beautiful, even in the shadows. She could not have been painted like this, because it wasn’t just the look of her but the feel, the hard muscles of her thighs and the way the skin jumped just a little with anticipation as Thor laid a hand on her, the crinkle of hair between her legs, the sea-salt scent of her in the air, sharpening the heady rose-and-cinnamon. He preferred her. She was real—not a dream, not even a memory. He needed that.
He kissed her soft, delicate cunt. Heat soaked into his lips and tongue. She was, at first, almost soundless: if she hadn’t started digging her heels into his back, bearing her body down harder against his mouth, he would have thought he was doing something she didn’t like. But then something inside her seemed to give way and for the end of it, as he slid two fingers into her and helped her into her climax, she spoke steadily.
His name. Bruce’s name. Yes.
He rolled aside and she and Bruce made love right next to him, Thor at last touching himself because he couldn’t keep from it, not anymore. But it was Val who finished him off, reaching over and taking him in her hand even as she thrust her hips up in time with Bruce’s.
Afterward, they all lay there in a heap, not quite tangled, for all he would have preferred it that way. Thor had no way of knowing if the distance between him and the two of them was deliberate or just an accident of how they had all finished up and then collapsed; he had no way of asking, either.
Outside, the harp had fallen silent.
“What time is it?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Bruce said. “It’ll go on all night. And we haven’t gone on all night. You can sleep.”
But he just wanted to know—something to hold onto. Something empirical, he thought, pleased with himself for thinking of that word, something Jane and Bruce had both said. “No, but really.”
Val groaned like Thor was killing her and rolled over and smacked something on the wall.
The ceiling came alive. “You are in the home of the Grandmaster!”
“Yeah, we know,” Val said. “What time is it?”
“By which clock?”
“Your move, your majesty,” Val said.
Thor had no idea, really, and just thinking that pulled away the illusion that this, or anything else, would be solid ground. It was all just so much sand. He didn’t know the Sakaaran clock—didn’t even know how many hours were in a Sakaaran day. He reached for an answer. “Whichever one my brother uses.”
“Who is your brother?”
“Loki. The Liesmith.”
“Congratulations on being the brother of the Grandmaster’s chosen companion! The Liesmith uses a clock based around noon, the midday height of the sun. It is currently eight galactic standard hours before noon. Is there anything else I can do for you? The Grandmaster is pleased to offer the following items to designated guests: electrolyte-replenishing beverages, pills for prolonged arousal, lubricant, vibrators, dildoes—subdivided by type, restraints—subdivided by type—”
“I think we’re good, thanks,” Bruce said. “Computer off.”
“Continue enjoying the hospitality of the Grandmaster!” the computer said cheerily.
“There you go,” Val said. “Eight standard hours before noon and we can get a vibrator whenever we want.” She yawned. “Or an electrolyte-replenishing beverage.”
“My vote’s still for sleep,” Bruce said.
“Yes,” Thor said. “Do you want me to leave?”
Bruce looked at him curiously. “No.”
Val turned her head a little, nuzzling against her pillow, and kicked one leg up over Thor’s. It was less the toss-and-turn of someone headed into sleep and more a wrestling pin. “Stay,” she said, her voice surprisingly soft. “And shut up. I think we’ve all made enough trouble for one night.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“This is trouble, she means,” Bruce said, closing his eyes. “The Grandmaster’s only going to like it until he thinks about it, and sooner or later, he’ll get around to thinking about it.”
“He all but told me to enjoy myself with the two of you,” Thor said.
“Well, it’s nice and a little off-putting to have his permission, but I don’t think he thought—” Bruce rubbed his forehead. “I don’t think he thought it would mean anything. You are just… not the kind of person who can get casually thrown into an ecosystem. I don’t know, maybe he’ll convince himself we’ll just become a cozy little unit. That’d be nice.”
Thor had trouble making sense of any of this—the smoke and promise of sleep both lulled his mind to a kind of slackened heaviness—but he understood the part that warmed him. All this meant something. Val had not argued against it, either. He turned on his side and looked at the two of them lying there next to him.
He said, as if this were entirely a conversation about politics, “I don’t want to go to war with the Grandmaster, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Neither do we,” Val said. “We’d lose. And even besides that, I’m rather fond of him.” She yawned again, shifting until more of her body was snugly against his. “It’s not his fault you’re waking us up. Fucking Asgard, fucking kings, fucking honor. I thought I’d had my fill of all that centuries ago.”
Bruce snorted softly. “We’ll figure it out. You’re lying on my arm, so I can’t say this right, but this whole airquote-‘living’-airquote business, we’ll figure it out. I mean, don’t oversell Thor. He’s not exactly perfect. I’ve seen him do a keg-stand.”
“Barton said it was a test of strength and valor.” Barton is dead, along with his family.
“I’m pretty sure you knew going in that that was bullshit. I’m just saying. There’s always a status quo, you just have to find it.” He sounded like the words were just a little bitter on his tongue. “And now let’s sleep, okay? We can save the debates for when we’re stuck in a smaller bed and keeping each other up anyway because we’re laid out like it’s a Twister mat. If… that’s something you want.”
Val opened her eyes, long eyelashes a sudden tickle against Thor’s arm, her attention on his answer.
“I think I would just as soon buy a bigger bed,” Thor said.
Bruce laughed and Val relaxed. “We can do that,” she said, closing her eyes again.
Thor slept beside them, but it took a long time—he saw in the dawn, watching the silhouette of the sun’s rising against the far wall before someone somewhere triggered the windows to shade themselves—and he had uneasy dreams. But that was not new. His dreams had been troubled before Ragnarok, too. Now they existed as ghosts, warning him of deaths that had already come. At least time faded the perfume of spiced roses; at least when he woke up in the new, artificial dark, he could breathe in the scent of their bodies next to his. It was some small reassurance.
Thor awoke as he often had in his youth—with his brother looking down at him with disapproval.
“Go away,” Thor said. “I’m sleeping.” He moved to cover his face with his pillow, but he had trouble unpinning it from beneath Val’s arm. He was therefore forced to bear Loki’s look with no intermediary.
“Honestly, brother, I leave you alone for two minutes and look what happens.”
“You’re hardly entitled to complain about my behavior at your own orgy.”
“The bliss of my particular situation is that I can actually complain about whatever I choose.”
“Just once,” Thor said, “just once I would like to go some time without seeing you and not find that you’ve gone mad with power in my absence.”
He knew all the shades of Loki’s smiles—knew how few of them meant anything like real happiness—and he knew this one, too, as little as he liked it. It said that Loki had a ship’s worth of watertight compartments inside his head at the moment and he intended to give Thor access only to the hull, only to the part that was sleekly painted just how he liked.
Thor extracted himself from the bed and started getting dressed. Halfway through, his gaze nonchalantly elsewhere, he said, “Are you in some sort of trouble?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“That’s what you always say when you are.”
“Then what, to your febrile mind, should I say when I’m not?”
“I have no idea, since the situation’s never come up.”
“It’s nothing,” Loki said, rolling his eyes. The irritation, at least, looked genuine. “It’s manageable. The aesthetics of rule can always be… tailored.”
“Can the two of you do this somewhere else?” Bruce said, rolling over onto his side.
It was a reassuring question. If Loki were gravely troubled, he would have wrapped the two of them in silence and made their conversation private; it would never have woken anyone.
“I thought better of you, Bruce,” Loki said. “You’re supposed to be intelligent. For a mortal.”
“Oh, I was smart enough to know it could be a bad idea,” Bruce said. “I just did it anyway.” He rubbed his eyes, evidently resigning himself to the idea that they were all going to be awake now. “Val—”
“I’m up,” Val said wearily, untangling herself from the covers. “I was just ignoring them.”
She had taken off her vambraces; Thor now saw Loki’s eyes fix on her bared tattoo. She saw it too, and let him look, making no attempt to cover herself. Her own eyes were cool—not uncaring, but unwilling to offer either apology or excuse. She and Loki had some kind of silent exchange which, to Thor’s slight disconcertion, seemed quite effective.
“That,” Loki said, “complicates things.”
Val nodded. “Yeah. But I thought you’d just as soon know as not.”
“I have enough of him talking in circles,” Thor said, “without you contributing to it.”
“I’d second that,” Bruce said, “and I can actually follow most of this. Let’s just talk at dinner. Does that work?”
Loki hesitated and then gave them an ironic little bow and vanished.
“I forgot to check that,” Thor said. “I thought he was really here.”
“This early in the morning?” Val moved her hand against the computer panel and brought the tint on the windows down, squinting at the sun. “Well, it’s noon at least, but it’s early for after a party. No, I’d wager he’s still curled up in the boss’s arms.”
“The Grandmaster’s kind of a cuddler,” Bruce said. He got up and pulled his pants on. “So’s Loki, actually, now that I think about it. Are either of you down for grabbing breakfast on our way out?”
Thor had hoped to linger a little. Their encounter last night had been one of messy confusion, and he had not salved his loneliness half as well as he would have liked and his want and need had surely done nothing for his conscience, which was more troubled now than before. He had, he knew, no right to take his pleasure inside a charnel house that still stank of death. But still, he would have chosen to stay in bed with them a while longer. He would have given away a little pride for a little comfort. For that matter, he’d have had Loki stay, too. Why not? They had seen each other in more awkward situations than this.
But he said, “I wouldn’t mind breakfast,” and that was the end of it.
At two banquet tables close to buckling under the weight of the buffet laid out upon them, they helped themselves—“Electrolyte-replenishing beverages,” Bruce said, pointing to some pitchers of venomously green juice—and ate standing up, surrounded by the snoring, heaped-up bodies of last nights’ revelers. One couple in the corner was still going admirably strong.
Val saw him looking. “They could have been Valkyries, couldn’t they? Sakaar’s full of people who’d be good warriors if they didn’t use up all that vigor on peacetime. Look at the muscles on her, the standing one.” She wasn’t mocking him: there was nothing in her voice but clinical assessment. She might have been evaluating the legs of a horse. But something changed in her face as the standing woman shifted position and her long blonde hair came tumbling down her back; Val turned away.
“What?” Bruce said.
“She looks like Gunvor.”
Bruce clearly knew who she meant, because he nodded and touched her arm.
But she told Thor anyway, when she might have just said nothing: “We rode together, Gunvor and I. There was no one fiercer with an ax, not in all of Asgard’s bloody history. We were lovers—wives, even. We wed each other in this rocky shithole half a galaxy away, both of us still gory from battle, because we thought we were done wasting time. Then Hela.”
Her name was its own verb, she herself an event, the period to each epoch. Twice-over, for Val.
“I am sorry for your pain,” Thor said softly.
“It was a long, long time ago. When I think back on it, I feel like I must have been a child. Or that’s how I used to feel, anyway.” She took a long drink of electrolyte-replenishing beverage and made a face. “I’d as soon go as stay, if the two of you are done.”
It was only once they were outside that either of them touched him: Val first, putting her arm through his and leaning her head briefly against his shoulder, and then Bruce, clumsily bumping against his arm but then lingering there, walking slightly behind him so that he was always there, the tide propelling Thor forward.
He had no idea what to make of them; what to make of this. But they lifted his heart.
And even if his heart ought to have been down in the ashes of all that had been and gone, Thor couldn’t help but be glad that, in their company, it wasn’t.
That gave him a strange kind of masochistic courage. “If we have no particular destination—”
“We don’t,” Bruce said.
“—then I wouldn’t mind seeing this famous statue of me. The Grandmaster called it a reasonably good likeness.”
“I doubt you’ll be too fond of it,” Val said.
“So it’s not a good likeness?”
“No, it’s good,” Bruce said. “Before you came back, I’d have said Loki went overboard on it, but I’d forgotten that you actually do look like that. Like this.”
“Someone at the party did notice I was the statue’s original.”
“That could be a problem,” Val said.
“It didn’t seem to be.”
“Odds are whoever it was was stoned out of their mind or fucked out of their mind or both, and that’s the general condition of most everybody here, but if we stand you, looking like that, next to a giant statue of yourself, even this lot might put two and two together. And then they might remember that the statue’s there in honor of the Liesmith’s dead brother, suddenly not so dead after all. We might have to make explanations at some point, but I don’t know that we’re up for them this morning.”
“And Loki will kill us,” Bruce said.
“That too. But if you want to go, we can go. Can you put a glamor on?”
He shook his head. “I never learned such things.”
But after a stop at a market stand, he succeeded in contriving a shawl. It made him look both ridiculous and conspicuous, but that in and of itself, on Sakaar, meant that he was blending in better than ever.
It was a long walk to the garden that housed his statue, and for most of it, they kept up that casual contact, the friction of shoulders, the matched gaits; while they did that, Thor felt comfortable in silence. It was only after a gulf opened up that he pushed a little for conversation. He was afraid of what would come into his head and heart if he did not busy them.
“Bruce,” he said, “tell me about your work.”
Bruce obligingly told him about his work and Thor made sure to nod often, which he remembered was the great trick of knowing scientists—first the question and then the nod—but he actually did comprehend some of it; he had, after all, had only first-rate tutors, and they would have been ashamed of him if he couldn’t follow at least some discussion of the underpinnings of the universe. Just because a thing had never much interested him didn’t mean he could not understand it.
Though he had to admit it was not intellectual pleasure he sought. He merely liked the way it brightened Bruce’s eyes and the way it created an endless tidal wave of explanation, so very good at drowning what he needed drowned.
Val worked with him on bits and pieces of it, as it turned out; she had a keenly technical mind and glowed a little as Bruce drew her into their talk. Ah, Thor thought, she was his Stark. All-Fathers help them if they built another Ultron.
He wondered if Ultron could have won against Hela—
No, for the Avengers and Vision had slain Ultron, and they had not slain Hela.
But you were not there. Perhaps if you had been, it would have been different.
I did not ask him to call the damned Bifrost, Thor thought savagely. I did not intend to run.
It had been Loki’s request that had spirited Hela back to Asgard, and it was in Asgard that she had drunk deeply of her power. If they could have fought her on Midgard, before she was at her full strength—
But he did not want to blame Loki for any of it. There was only the slimmest chance it would have mattered, in any case.
Though he had thought it before, that Loki had sped on their father’s death—sped on his death and sealed up his mind, and with it, the secret of Hela’s impending return.
No, he reminded himself yet again, Father broke his spell. He remembered all—remembered her. And… and hid away, in peace, and warned us not.
It’s all my family. We loved and we fought and we burnt the universe down.
And in that mood, he came to the garden and saw the statue Loki had built for him.
Both Bruce and the Grandmaster had spoken truthfully: the resemblance was close. Its shape flattered Thor as Loki’s own statue on Asgard had flattered him and here, though Thor hated to admit it—Asgard’s craftsmen being generally the best—the sculptor had possessed a fraction more skill.
The proportions of the pedestal, though, were strange; it was taller than Thor would have thought necessary. He had to tilt his head all the way back to see the expression on the statue’s face, which was… strange to him. He didn’t know what it meant, even when he arranged his own features in the same way to test the familiarity of it.
There was an engraving at the statue’s feet—on the top of the pedestal rather than the side, as if it were meant for the statue itself to look down and read it, as if the passerby were mere afterthoughts.
We do honor THOR,
god of thunder, prince,
beloved son and brother.
May you know peace in Valhalla
and be our consolation in war,
that we will see you again
if we should prove so deserving.
Thor cleared his throat. “He might have just said ‘beloved brother.’ ‘Greatly missed.’ He’s always been so… wordy. And the royal we…” He pressed his hand against the pedestal, closing his eyes for a moment. “You said he would come here to drink?”
“Devotedly,” Val said. “Second-best drinker on Sakaar for a while.”
“You were right,” Thor said, looking up at it again. “I don’t like it. And,” this brightened his mood, “now that I’m here, I don’t see why he needs to have it.”
“You can’t wreck it,” Bruce said. “You’re short a hammer.”
A cold heat spread up Thor’s palm, as if he’d stuck his hand in snow. He knew the feeling instinctually—had felt it back on Earth, before Hela had come—and he raised his hand.
A lightning strike cleaved the statue in two; the left half slid slowly down and then thumped heavily onto the grass.
“There,” Thor said, looking at it in satisfaction. “I feel better. Don’t you feel better?”
Val nodded. “Sure, great. Destroying public property when we’re already on thin ice with the boss.”
“Oh, we’re so fucked,” Bruce said. He pressed his fingers into his forehead, kneading it a little. “Let’s just go get this bed while we can still use it.”
“I am amenable to the plan,” Thor said, looking at the slight half-moon indentations in Bruce’s forehead from his short nails digging in. There was more stress there in that gesture than he’d seen in Bruce since his return. He did not want to regret the collapse of the statue—his day genuinely was better for seeing it on the ground—if we should prove so deserving—but he was starting to think it might have been better to press a little further on the matter of the Grandmaster and Loki’s troubles and how Val’s tattoo made them worse. He was always coming late to something quite complex.
So he said, “I am amenable to the plan, but I think you may want to explain things to me first. In case I feel called upon to destroy something else.”
Val looked around the little garden and seemed to judge it empty enough—there was one other person, but he was cast down at an angle and had snored through the descent of the statue. She said, “Briefly, your majesty?”
“Briefly would be better than nothing.”
“Briefly, you’re the king of the Realm Eternal,” Val said. “Hero of Earth. Your brother rent his heart open for grief of you. You were the lover of one of the greatest scientists alive. And now you’re here, all unbruised and fine—come back to Loki and Jane Foster, who both have reason to love you. And now you’ve taken into your bed the Grandmaster’s state asset and the last surviving Valkyrie. And the last surviving Valkyrie, your majesty, calls you her king. You’ve barely been here a week, and you already hold sway over all the most powerful people on this world but one.”
“And that one person?” Bruce said. “He already doesn’t like you.”
Thor let this sink in.
“Ah,” he said.
At home—if this really was his home now—the three of them made an urgent, rough kind of love. Val rode him, her hot wet cunt tight around him, her body lowered down until her breasts were brushing against his chest with every thrust forward, her teeth clenched, her kiss a bruise on his mouth. Thor could see another man being frightened of her. A wiser man, maybe, but when had he ever claimed to be wise? No, not him—what he was was the first king of Asgard to bed a Valkyrie, damn it all, and bed her he would, or else be bedded by her, if that was what she wanted.
Things were gentler with Bruce, but only because Bruce was human and could not push so hard. Thor sucked him, liking the taste of it, which he’d long gone without—the musk and hint of salt, the slight bitterness when he came that was sweetened by how shamefully much Thor enjoyed the unraveling of him.
They lay entwined together on the too-small bed, their breathing ragged. Thor was unsure where his body ended and where theirs began, a confusion caused less by romance and more by sweat and entanglement and half-asleep limbs.
Finally, Bruce said, “I can’t fucking believe you lightning-bolted that statue.”
“I think it would be best to let that go,” Thor said.
Bruce covered his eyes. “Oh, we’re gonna get melted.”
Val was surprisingly cheerful, elbowing the two of them to get some more space and then sitting up, nude, her back against the headboard. Bruce maneuvered so that he was turned his head on her bare thigh—her fingers lazily combing through his hair—and he put his hand against Thor’s until their fingers intertwined. Thor wanted contact with Val, too, but he settled for turning his head to look up at her.
“What are you thinking?”
“I’m planning,” she said. “It’s like using a muscle I haven’t stretched in thousands of years.”
“Planning what, the future of Sakaar? You want to run any of this by me?” Bruce said. He glanced at Thor. “By us?”
“I could.” She pressed her lips together a moment. “If you want.”
Bruce had to bend his arm awkwardly to do it, but he reached up and touched her cheek. His eyes were serious. “Hey. What I said about the status quo… my status quo is you, all right? Or you and Thor, whatever. If you’re done with rock bottom, I’m done with rock bottom.”
She raised her eyebrows. “You sure?”
Thor could see the slight movement of Bruce’s Adam’s apple as he swallowed. “Yeah. I can get some skin in the game. There was… there was a time when I was a little more like him. I wouldn’t mind getting that back even though it’s going to hurt like hell.” He lifted up his head just enough to look at Thor. “Had to come around and stir things up, didn’t you?”
Thor smiled. “You sound angry at me.”
Bruce grinned back at him, said, “I might be,” and there was just a little bit of edge there, the edge that Thor hadn’t seen on him at all on Sakaar, where he had been hardened but also blunted. Now he was dangerous again, and Thor liked it.
By the look on her face, so did Val. So some minutes passed before they were able to discuss plans, and this time they all dressed first, as if that would really be much help.
“All right,” Val said. “First things first. Where’s your head at, your majesty? You want to live? Die? Drink? Fuck?”
“Live for now,” Thor said. “Die eventually. Fuck and drink as the opportunities present themselves.”
“If you pretend to be dim, this conversation’s going to take a lot longer.”
He met her eyes. “I can’t promise not to break, not to despair. It hits me constantly, like my hammer crashing into my skull, the weight of all this, of everything that’s gone. Of all I could not do to stop it. But I would rather try to swim than resign myself to drowning.” He had not thought of that until he said it, and when he did, he wondered if he could bring his brother to see water rather than air, to see the possibility of resistance and not only the certainty of the fall.
Why should he not think of the fall, when he will feel this as a push?
I do not push him, he argued with himself, but it was unconvincing. Not because it was not true, but because he’d had cause to learn that his truth and Loki’s feelings were often miles apart. But all the same, as always, he went on wrestling with Loki when Loki wasn’t even there. If this world were under your rule, it wouldn’t be as it is, it would be better. Asgard under your hand had its faults, but I didn’t find it heedless, drunken, and enslaved. You saved Sakaar, brother, but don’t tell me you control it. I know you too well for that.
“You drowning now?” Bruce said.
Thor shook his head. “I’m thinking of Loki.”
Bruce kept his voice neutral: “Yeah, Loki could be a problem.”
“Could he change Sakaar?”
Val snorted. “Sakaar doesn’t change. The Grandmaster doesn’t change, and it's his world.”
“He changed for Loki.”
“No, Loki bent him just a little, and just for now. He batted his eyes and sucked his cock and charmed him and loved him, which is more than most people do, for all the boss likes being admired, and the Grandmaster will give his precious prince some trinkets to keep him happy. Don’t think it won’t all go away the moment he thinks Loki’s not paying attention. He likes what he likes. He didn’t live millions of years to let some upstart fucking Asgardians tell him he’s doing it wrong.”
“I’d been hoping you’d say something else,” Thor admitted.
“Like 'oh, of course, how stupid of you to even ask.’”
“It’s possible,” Bruce said, which was more lukewarm than “of course” but still something Thor was ready to consider, even though Bruce sounded doubtful. “I can’t say for sure that he’s tried that hard. He was as out of it as the rest of us, and honestly, ‘no more deliberate fights to the death’ felt like a pretty big deal to everybody, me included.”
“I don’t like it,” Val said bluntly. “It’s not us and it’s not even the Liesmith, it’s us asking the Liesmith to ask the Grandmaster, it’s too many layers and it shows our hand.”
Bruce found a leather wrist-guard on a shelf and strapped it on. On his good hand, Thor noticed, on the hand that would be most forward in any fighting; reflexive protection. Thor himself reached a little to feel the edges of his armor, hanging from its hook on Yggdrasil. It comforted him.
Bruce said, “And what is our hand, Val, exactly?”
“Good question,” Thor said. “I’m getting very tired of double-talk and implication.”
Reckless of you. It was Loki’s voice in his head again. This is Sakaar, brother, a world where no one says what they mean. My favorite kind of place. But you—you’ve never been able to get behind the idea of plausible deniability.
You lie even about lying, Thor told him. You’ve told me more truth on this world than on any other.
Have I really?
Well, if he went too far down that road, he’d go mad and not even enjoy it. Very well, so he liked the truth plain. He was the only one in his family who ever had, evidently.
Val was thinking the same thing. “You sure you’re Odin’s son?”
“My father may have lived his life turning away from what troubled him, but he did not raise me to follow in his footsteps.”
And he had not grieved for his father, not yet. He had looked upon the statue Loki had made of him and listened to Bruce talk of the wreath he and Jane had burned out on the water and yet he had not… He wondered if Loki had done something. Probably not.
“Okay. Tackling it head-on. That’s good. That’s what I like about monarchies and dictatorships, really—you don’t have to spend so much time on all the politics. So I’ll be blunt, your majesty. This is all we’ve got left of the universe, and it’s always been a trash heap where things come to die. Maybe if you clean off all the muck, there’s a real world underneath, but that’s a hell of a lot of digging to do right under the boss’s nose. So I’m not in favor of doing it. I say we grab a ship, take the people we can find who want to leave, and go.”
“Wow,” Bruce said. “When you commit to something, you really go for it, don’t you?”
“You should have known that already,” she said.
“Valkyries take what they want,” Thor said. “Always, according to the tales.”
“Oh, the tales were what we told about ourselves after long nights of drinking more fun than any I’ve ever done here. But that part’s true enough.”
“So in your plan,” Thor said, “we’ve stolen a spaceship and are out in the black with worlds full of death before us. What do we do then?”
“Found a new Asgard,” she said simply. “With you as king.”
Some part of her must have been thinking it as far back as when she had told him her name. King of your brother, she’d said, and when he had denied it, King of me, then. She had fought him. Bested him, as a Valkyrie should—their oath to the throne was such a prize because it was known by all that they could have waded through blood to claim it. Guarded him in his dissipation. She meant this, meant it with the clarity of fire, burning off all the booze from her brain and left her flame-hardened, bright-eyed. The woman from the painting on the wall.
She was beautiful. But this was not a time for beauty, not this kind of beauty: “Who here would choose a child of Odin’s to lead a new world?”
“Your brother’s a child of Odin.”
“He’ll tell you differently.”
“You can be Thor the Bastard for all I care. You aren’t my king because of your blood, your majesty. A pretty lineage is just the icing on the cake.”
“And you, Bruce?” He tried to remember what the government of America had been. “Do you not want a president, a parliament?”
“Not while we’re still putting the pieces together,” Bruce said. “Democracy and instability don’t really gel, although that’s really not my area, so I can’t say for sure. Oh, and—Congress for America, not Parliament. Not that it matters.”
Thor shook his head, though somewhere he could feel his father’s shade turning away from him. Did I raise you in a cloud of glory only so you could walk away from responsibility? Some of the light went out of Valkyrie’s eyes even before he spoke. “I won’t run from this world as though it could defeat me, and I won’t flee the Grandmaster with my tail between my legs.”
“You’ll die, then.”
“Then I will be in good company in Valhalla’s crowded halls! My death is not worth so much that we should immediately shatter this place to avoid it. If I am your king, I am your king. We stay, for now. We try. There must be life somewhere in this soil, for me to find the two of you here, find Loki calmer in his mind.”
“Oh.” Bruce’s mouth twisted sideways, a corner of it pulled by some invisible hook: he’d solved a problem but thought the solution would have complications of its own. “So it’s about Loki.”
“What’s the problem with Loki?” Val said. “He’s one of us. Our friend, your brother. I’m sworn twice-over to protect the little shit, once because he’s a prince and once because I’m his champion, I’m not saying we leave him behind. We take him.”
“You don’t know Loki like we do,” Bruce said.
Anger flared up in Thor’s chest. “And you don’t know Loki as I do. I have known my brother for hundreds of years. If I don’t want to make him choose between me and the Grandmaster, between me and this place, it is my business, not yours.”
“That’s funny,” Bruce said mildly. “I thought we’d established that this was something we were all in together.”
“He’d choose you,” Val said to Thor. “I know him too.”
But she couldn’t. She hadn’t seen the madness in Loki’s eyes, pale as flame, hadn’t felt the horror of the rock coming up off their history to show the mass of worms beneath; she hadn’t seen how he had let go and fallen rather than stand again at Thor’s side. (We only fall, Loki said. But Thor would have caught him if Loki had only let him.) And so she didn’t know how impossible it might be for him to look Loki in the eyes and ask him to cast aside his own power as something corrupt and unsafe to come stand again in Thor’s shadow.
He would go to war with Loki if he had to. But he would not concede he had to until there was no other choice. He had lost his brother twice already.
“We try,” Thor said again. “At least for right now. We try to carve out a place here.”
“I don’t like half-measures,” Val said.
“And I do not like surrender and flight.”
She nodded, but her mouth had crumpled a little. She said, “I was actually looking forward to a fresh start for a minute there. But all right, your majesty. We try it your way.” For now went unspoken. He supposed he couldn’t argue with that: he had pushed her far enough. The kiss she gave him then was hard-lipped and joyless, a dutiful thing meant to show that whatever quarrel she had with his decision, she wouldn’t carry it into their bed.
There wasn’t much afternoon left after that. Bruce went back to his severed tentacle, which was now starting to stink a little. Val slept. Thor paced, feeling like a lion in a cage.
All Sakaar had survived Hela by hiding. Was there anything different in saying they could now survive their own slow suicide by running? Sometimes fighting for life did not look like fighting. Was he running away from the decision by refusing to run? Norns, he didn’t know why anyone chose to rule when every question could be looked at seven different ways and every answer was wrong.
“I don’t like being king,” he said.
Bruce glanced up from his tentacle. He’d plugged his nose with two little balls of cotton. “Yeah, I wouldn’t either. But you’re the only one with any experience. And, you know.” He gestured with his scalpel, drawing a line in the air up and down Thor’s body.
That was a compliment, at least. “Thank you.”
“It’s flattering,” Bruce admitted, looking down at his work again. “You and her. I think for a guy in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, I’m doing all right from a dating standpoint.”
“Although you clearly have a type.”
“Asgardians who could throw me through a wall? Apparently.”
“You could be king,” Thor said, although he was enough his father’s son—It runs in the family, wanting what we don’t want, no wonder we destroy ourselves in the end—that he only made the offer because he knew Bruce would turn it down.
As he did, smiling: “I don’t exactly have the ideal temperament.” He made an incision. “Did I tell you how I got un-Hulked? How I found out Loki was here?”
No, all he had said was that it was on video somewhere, which meant he’d not wanted to tell the story then but did want to now, for whatever reason. Thor shook his head.
“The Hulk had cushy private chambers. Actually nicer than the rooms Val and I get in the palace now, believe it or not, because the Grandmaster loved the Hulk. But he also, you know, owned the Hulk, so there were cameras everywhere, security footage. And every day, Loki came in and tried to talk to the Hulk—well, to me. He thought maybe I could do… something. Not kill Hela, he wasn’t that ambitious, but… at lot of people were dying, were already dead. The news was already coming in. And the Hulk banged Loki around like a ragdoll. And Loki kept coming back. I don’t even think he knew what he wanted me to do—amplify him a little more, maybe, get his powers up to the point where they could cover a whole other planet. I don’t know that I could have, but I wonder sometimes… what it would have been like if I’d come to a little sooner. Anyway, eventually the Hulk got sick of knocking him around when he wouldn’t even fight back, and they talked—we talked—and then one day it just worked. And I don’t know why that day instead of any other day. But Loki—you could see it in his eyes, Thor. Some part of him turned off the moment I came back. It was like the second he saw me, he knew it was over, that it was too late, that I wasn’t this… superweapon that was going to save everything if he could just unlock it. And the hope just went out of him.”
What was his reaction to this meant to be? Thor knew the look Bruce meant. He just nodded. “That’s quite a story.”
“He’s been trying really hard to do the right thing, Thor. He has. And I’m his friend. But he might not be the brother you remember.”
Was that all? “He never is. He always is.” He watched a bird pass by. “I really think it’ll all work out.”
“There’s no harm in believing it, anyway.”
“I just don’t think the universe thus far would support your theory.”
“Perhaps I’m lucky,” Thor said, and watched as the bird whose flight he’d been following was plucked from the sky by a hawk. “Just checking, very casually: do you believe in omens?”
“Absolutely no reason.”
And then there was Loki, grinning at him, his hair wet like he’d just come from the bath: “None, brother?”
“You could just knock,” Bruce said.
Thor put the pieces together then and poked Loki in the chest, his hand going straight through. “Oh, you’re outside. He’s right, you really could just knock.”
“This is more fun,” Loki said. “Though now that you’ve both brought it up, you could open the door. Or I could blow it off its hinges if you’re going to be difficult.”
“You paid for it,” Bruce said, but he did get up and go to let Loki in.
“Thank you,” Loki’s projection said before winking out as the real Loki came in to meet them. Unless, Thor thought, what was real about Loki was half the question; something he would have to answer before he would know what fate was coming for them, before he would know if Ragnarok was done.
“May I see it again?” Loki said quietly, and Val once more held out her arm for his inspection, though she looked away as he studied the unfading, ancient ink that marked her as sworn to Asgard’s throne; he even traced the mark with one fingertip, though the look on his face was not one Thor understood. Awe he would have recognized. Wonder. Desire. But not this strange caution.
Loki slid her vambrace back down, giving her her privacy once again.
“It’s hard to believe,” he said. “You’re the last, I take it?”
She nodded. “The only twofold survivor of Hela. A small club with a shitty VIP room.”
“You could have told me.”
“Yeah, maybe. I almost did—I even almost did it more than once. But especially when I took an oath to be your champion. I knew who you were: the first prince of Asgard I ever swore my sword to because I halfway liked him and he halfway deserved it. I’d have protected you for your own sake, though, so why not let the past stay dead?”
“Evidently because it sometimes falls from the sky.”
“She didn’t tell me either,” Bruce said. “If that makes you feel any better.”
“She told Thor right away.”
“Yes, people do that,” Loki said with the faintest evidence of distaste. “I’ve never determined why.”
“I have innate nobility,” Thor said. “According to Bruce.”
“Bruce has clearly never seen you miss your mouth and slop mead straight down the front of your tunic after a night’s carousing,” Loki said, “or the toothmarks you left on your toy horse at what was, I have to say, quite an advanced age for that kind of thing. Or held your hair as you vomited into a gutter. A task, by the way, that the milkmaid you were endeavoring to seduce that night was strangely absent for. I could go on.”
“Clearly.” He frowned. “I don’t remember that, about my hair. Did you really?”
“With unfortunate frequency. It was as much for my benefit as your own. The one time I didn’t, I was stuck looking at the mess afterwards and it was nearly enough to make me contribute to it.”
“Perhaps I did give you some cause to dislike me.”
“A little. But not especially.” He said that last part very rapidly as though he wasn’t sure he would otherwise say it at all. “All beside the point.”
“Innate nobility be damned, you just have hair that lets everyone compare you to the sun. Every skald we ever had was half in love with you, it was sickening.”
“None of that’s the point, actually,” Val said. “And before you ask, why this whole place smells like rotten dismembered jellyfish isn’t the point either.”
“I was only hoping that wasn’t supposed to be dinner,” Loki said.
Talking to him was like fencing with a hall of mirrors. Glitter and flash and doubles everywhere you looked, and the only blows you ever seemed to land were the ones that made a screech fit to pierce your head straight through. If Loki didn’t want to talk about a thing, he wouldn’t. He would bluff and lie and joke and charm and misdirect until the sun set on whatever it was he was determined to ignore. It had been Thor who had fitted that muzzle into his mouth, those years ago, though he’d come to regret it—he had only thought then that he would not be able to listen for one more hour to Loki’s endlessly conversational refusal to truly talk to him. Well, he had only thought Loki dead once then; two deaths had made him think he would listen to Loki’s nonsense for as long as Loki cared to speak it. Though he wouldn’t tell him so, of course, that would be madness.
The surest way to cut through the haze of words Loki cast around himself was to irritate him, which Thor was proud to say he did better than anyone: “Did you hear that I knocked down that statue you made of me?”
Loki stared at him. “Beg your pardon, you did what?”
“That great big statue, you know the one. I hit it with a lightning blast. It was a little too sentimental, I thought, and you know, your poetry has never been much.”
“I am going to kill you,” Loki said, snapping each word off very precisely. “I am going to rip your idiotic head off and smack it on a plinth and call that the monument to my dear departed brother. Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”
“I do. The Grandmaster thinks I want to take over Sakaar with my Valkyrie lover and my planetary asset lover and my other assorted luminaries, yourself included, and blowing up public property did nothing to alleviate his concerns. Or will do nothing, anyway, once he hears about it. You can tell him I don’t have those ambitions.”
Loki pinched the bridge of his nose like he was trying to stave off a headache. He closed his eyes. “But I take it that you do have ambitions, brother.”
“Small ones,” Val said. She said it derisively, like she was talking about the size of a cock.
“Manageable ones,” Bruce corrected. “Incremental reform. Nothing that needs to make anyone nervous.”
“That’s not you,” Loki said seriously. He spoke to Thor like there was no one else in the room. “You cause explosions, brother. Tempered and mild and incremental—that is not your nature. It’s more a ‘hammer through the face’ approach that you favor, as I recall, and I have reason to recall that very well. But you’re not ground down, or you wouldn’t try at all, so whence this sudden desire for patience—” He cut himself off. Loki was not, perhaps, as smart as he thought he was, but he was still, Thor had to concede, smarter than was convenient for anyone else. “Ah. You think I might try to kill you again.”
“How many times did you try to kill him before?” Val said, mildly interested.
“Oh, who can recall?” Loki said.
“I can,” Thor said. “I would describe it as often.”
He had not anticipated that his compromise of gradual, grounded-on-Sakaar reform would be so quickly undone by Loki’s low opinion of his patience. Though perhaps it wasn’t the compromise itself that was undone, only the secrecy of its nature. He still could not imagine how Loki would react to being told to leave his place of fame and swear fealty to his brother. Maybe he was a coward for holding his tongue—silence was not his virtue any more than restraint, and it rankled him to practice it. But here he was, behaving unnaturally to ensure that Loki remained natural with him, remained easy and funny and companionable, as he had been for nearly all their lives.
Murder attempts excepted, obviously. Should go without saying.
“What reforms do you have in mind?” Loki said, folding his arms.
“Hey,” Bruce said, handing out drinks. “This is the part where you’re supposed to say, ‘I’m not going to try to kill any of you.’”
“I certainly don’t want to rush into promises I won’t be able to keep. Do you have any mint for this?”
“Sorry,” Val said, taking her own glass. “You used up all the froufrou the last time you were here.”
Loki rolled his eyes and drank. On Asgard, in their youth, he hadn’t been much of a drinker; wine with dinner, yes, but in revelry only enough to loosen the tension he always carried in his shoulders, only enough to blunt the edges of his tongue. He had always been downright miserable when he actually overindulged and it did not sound like that had changed—though he had more to weep over now, surely—but those indulgences had been rare. Certainly he had not had a practiced enough hand at unvarnished liquor to knock it back so deliberately and without any pause.
It was a small way to feel the years he had missed, but it was there all the same. This was a Loki who had spent a long time drinking himself into oblivion, a Loki who had the muscle memory of how to make a hard and fast turn into stupor.
“Brother,” Loki said testily. “What reforms?”
He hadn’t thought it would have to happen all at once like this—he wished he’d had more time to consult Jane, to talk over strategy with Bruce and Valkyrie. But now he was left on his own. Not to be king, because he was not king, but… advisor. It wasn’t a role he knew how to easily play.
“Close down the arena, to start with.”
“The people love the arena,” Loki said. “You fought in it yourself and smiled as you did.”
“You weren’t there.”
“You think because I was not there I do not know? I know. The arena is entertainment for a world that sorely lacks in art and good company.”
“People should not die for entertainment.”
“They did on Asgard. Only there we called it war. Adventuring.”
Thor recalibrated. “Reduce the number of glassy eyes on the street. Tighten up restrictions on their drugs, if nothing else.”
“And now you’re a temperance advocate. That’s endearing. The drugs on Sakaar are not a health hazard, for the most part. No more than anything else.”
“They’re stealing away people’s minds.”
“From people who want them stolen. Who are you to turn up, almost entirely unhurt, and tell people who have lost everything how sane they ought to be as they grieve?”
“Do you call me unhurt?” Thor demanded.
“I call you a fool,” Loki said. His voice was cold. If they had begun this innocently, they were no longer continuing it that way. This was a fight as serious as any they had ever waged with swords. “What else, Thor? Do tell us.”
“The Grandmaster has slaves,” Thor said. Blunt. His weapon was not a sword, after all, but a hammer. “How would you tell me to live with that, brother? Does that salve the people’s grief? Does it entertain them? What sophisticated rationale am I missing? Tell me.”
Loki stared at him. His eyes were wide, his breath coming hard. “Can you not—can you not see that—this is all there is, Thor. This is—”
“You are better than this,” Thor said softly.
“Because I am a son of Odin? It was Odin’s daughter who made this world our only choice!”
Then it is Odin’s son who must save it, if you will not, Thor almost said—the words started in his throat—but what came out instead was a laugh, if a half-strangled one. “You know,” he said when he was fractionally calmer, “that’s almost exactly what I said. Very nearly word for word. Loki, I don’t think your worth was handed to you, an inheritance like the crown. When I say you are better than this, I say it for the love I bear you, no other reason.”
Loki flexed his fingers in and out. “I have killed,” he said, almost neutrally. “I have tried to conquer. I have lied more times than I’ve told the truth. And in your father’s last days, Thor, I wrapped him in a cloud of confusion and stranded him friendless on an alien world. In what way exactly am I better than this?”
No matter how intensely Loki felt about it, no matter the merit of any of it, Thor thought this an absurd argument, for it was absurd to have an argument about it at all.
“Because when the universe was falling down around you, Loki, you put out your hands and did what you could to stop it. And because you care to ask the question at all. And because you’re my brother, damn you, and I know you and I love you, and so you are what I say you are.”
Loki shook his head. And then what he said was not to Thor at all but to Val: “Splendid, shining ideas and picture-perfect morality and absolutely no practical ideas about how any of it should be accomplished. He will have to be king, because otherwise no one would have him on their council.”
“You’re good at practical execution,” she said, unruffled.
“Exceedingly so.” He turned back to Thor, his eyebrows now raised. He looked almost impatient. “I assume that is the goal here, brother, is it not? Your kingship? A second Asgard?”
“More or less,” Bruce said on Thor’s behalf. He didn’t seem convinced as yet of Loki’s good intentions, because he maneuvered a little to slide to Thor’s side, to stand there with the false casualness of a guard. “And yeah. We were curious how you would react.”
Loki lifted up one hand and Thor felt the invisible curtain descend around them. Val, looking a little less sanguine now, drew a knife and held it at the ready. Bruce simply tensed, his muscles rigid.
“They can still see us,” Loki said. “Just not hear us.” He wriggled his fingers. “It is a neat trick, isn’t it? I wish I’d known that when we were children. The things I would have gotten away with…”
“I shudder to think.”
Loki’s eyes were calm now. He said, “You know you can’t have the Grandmaster’s rule for the asking of it. Nor will he tolerate you setting up a second kingdom. He’s particular about these things.”
“I had deduced that.”
“So it’s a coup, then. That’s what you want. A revolution.”
Thor kept his voice steady. “I haven’t seen you as happy as you are now in… Norns, Loki, centuries. If I ever saw you so at all. I think the Grandmaster’s a madman, but I believe he cares for you. I know you care for him. And you have your hand a little on the wheel that turns this world. I will not agitate for a revolution if you swear to me now that we’ll work together on this. You saved this place. Let me help you heal it.”
“You would do that for me?” Loki said. “It’s against your nature to go slow.”
“I am your brother,” Thor said. “It’s my nature to protect you, if I can.”
“I thought you dead. I never want to think so again.”
“So you said.”
“I thought you died hating me,” Loki said. He examined the cuff of his sleeve as if he needed to pluck some loose thread free of the weave. “Before Hela broke through to Earth, you were ready to tear me apart, and I thought you died with that as your last thought of me. Or that you died thinking I was a coward who had chosen, willfully, to let you fall with Asgard. It was unpleasant.”
“Yes, I know.”
“How can you know?” Loki said dismissively. “It’s always different with you, you’re you.”
“You’re insufferable. I know because the first time you died, it was because you chose to. We fought, and you would have killed me, and you—you crackled with hatred. And you fell into nothingness because that was better to you than we were.”
“I fell to nothingness because I had nothing at all inside me,” Loki said. “Whatever soul I had, Odin ripped it out of me piece by piece—or I tore it away myself.”
“And that’s meant to console me?”
“All those years, I felt nothing,” Loki said. “And now you’re here. And I—I can’t seem to convince you that that is the very opposite of nothing. I am nowhere near a perfect brother, even if you take the attempted murder out of the equation entirely, but if you think I would not choose you over the Grandmaster, over my own happiness… brother, you’re mistaken.” He swallowed. “My king, you are mistaken.”
Thor had almost thought himself done crying over Loki, but here again he blinked away tears. “How much of that newly-minted soul of yours did it cost you to say that?” he said with a forced smile.
“I’m certainly not going to keep saying it over and over again, if that’s what you’re after.”
“I am bound to hug you now,” Thor said.
He did. Loki’s fingers curled in the fabric of his shirt. They let go of each other only slowly.
He remembered what his mother had told him of his brother, when they were both very young, when Loki was still throwing temper tantrums almost on the hour. Thor had finally thrown his own, tired of not being attended to, and his mother had held him on her lap and stroked his hair from his eyes and said, “You are both my darlings, sweetheart. And I know your brother may seem a trial right now, but soon—very soon—you will feel his heartbeat like your own, and it will be the same with him. Your whole lives, you will have each other.”
He had thought of moment before, but never without feeling crushed by the lie of it. Now he did not feel crushed. Only disheveled—damp-eyed.
“Well,” he said, clearing his throat. “We can try restraint. If you are willing to be a spy of sorts.”
“A spy in my own household,” Loki said, giving him a strange, rueful smile. “I have been that before, I suppose.” He glanced around. “I should take this veil down before one of your infatuated court rends their garments with distress. By the way, as monstrously unfortunate this liaison is on a public relations level, as it were… you’ve done worse. Two lovers, though, I’m surprised. I always thought you so stodgy and conventional.”
“Bite your tongue.” As though he had not thought the same thing himself, and been a little troubled by it, as though he did not worry that his desire was excessive or appalling or shaped by tragedy. He loved them; he knew that. He did not like being driven to brood about it. “I was taking companions to bed while you were still mooning around writing poetry for them.”
“You swore never to mention that.”
“Oh,” Thor said in his best imitation of Loki’s voice, “who can recall?”
“You are the worst of brothers,” Loki said.
Thor smiled. “Liar.”
“Okay, you’ve clearly come to some kind of agreement,” Bruce said—loudly, as if he thought they wouldn’t hear him otherwise. “Now you’re just ignoring us. Should I just make dinner?” He tilted his head from side to side, his neck making a cracking sound, and he winced. “Yeah, I’m just going to go make dinner, sublimate into some potato-chopping or something. It’s all coming back now, you know, the anger… everything.”
“It’s just as well,” Val said, though she stood up to move into the kitchen with him, tipping a small salute at Thor and Loki as she did. “The big guy might come in handy.”
“Yeah,” Bruce said. “People always think that at first.”
“He’s right, you know,” Loki said. Thor was convinced he kept the curtain around them a little longer just so Bruce wouldn’t hear him admit that. “We’re in a bubble. My specialty now, like I said. But if you’re determined to break it, we’ll pay the price. What was your omen, anyway, the one you were speaking of when I first came?”
Thor told him.
Loki nodded, considering it. “I don’t know what it means.”
“It means hawks hunger like the rest of us,” Thor said. “That’s all. Ragnarok is done.”
“Ragnarok was a myth. Ragnarok said Surtur would rise and level Asgard with his fiery sword. I wasn’t there, but I’m fairly sure that wasn’t what happened. And Asgard was not the end of the destruction. We saw a shadow—Odin’s concealed beast coming back to slay us—and the reality was this. Now you see your hawk and bird. I say it holds meaning. I only hope we’re the hawk.”
“Here’s my concern,” Bruce said in the dark.
He and Thor and Val were all awkwardly-fitted into one bed, which Thor was half-convinced Loki had shrunk somehow when they weren’t looking; there was nowhere to turn without the furnace of someone else’s body, nowhere to get truly comfortable. He should go, perhaps. They might have planned for him to be part of their future, but that did not mean they wanted to start the future tonight.
Bruce cleared his throat and said again, “Here’s my concern,” emphasizing it.
Val sighed. “What’s your concern?”
“My concern, thank you for asking, is that I’m going to wind up washing all the dishes from tonight.”
“I thought this was going to be about the fate of the universe,” Thor said.
“No, that can wait until morning.”
“I love your priorities,” Val said. She turned on her side and lay against Banner, then reached back and grabbed Thor’s hand, settling it on her hip. “His Majesty can take a turn scrubbing up. So can I.” She fell silent then, but Thor knew she did not sleep; she only took the time to hone her words, as if they were a sword laid across her knees. “I’ve left you to keep us alive long enough, I think. I can handle soap and water only about half as well as I can handle blood, but I can handle it all the same. Call it part of the deal of the shiny new world where I drink less and we all try to believe there’s something worthwhile in having a tomorrow.”
“Keep us alive,” Bruce said under his breath. “Do you have any idea how many times you’ve saved my life?”
But Thor knew what Val had meant. Every great adventure he had ever been on, he’d had Asgard in the back of his mind all the while, a beacon, a cause, a harbor: the hardest part of the fighting was the aftermath, the sore-footed return, the send-off of the fallen, the cold-eyed look at whether or not the prize was worth it. When the answer to that was no, it was hard to live, except that home and your love for it kept you alive. Val had been short of good causes lately. Bruce must have kept her alive these last few years first just by being less battered, by being sane enough and whole enough, despite everything, to keep her in food and drink; by making a life with her that was worth her living.
He squeezed her hip and gave up on any notion of sleeping well; curved against her as she had curved against Bruce.
“Now we can all make—” Thor searched his mind for something of Earth that was ordinary, that was intimate, and landed on Jane up at five in the morning, walking around the kitchen talking her way through an idea while restlessly scrambling eggs, her hand a whir above a red bowl. He had not been able to look away from her. From the fleck of beaten egg drying on her wrist to the smile on her face as her solution made landfall. She had left the eggs runny. He had not minded, not even a little. “Scrambled eggs.” He reached for something to justify the pause and could not find it, could only think of the slight rasp of Jane’s bare feet against the kitchen floor.
He would not have such moments again. He was—or would be—king, and his lovers had put the crown on his head and knew the stakes of it. That quiet carelessness was gone for all of them now. Everything that was urgent was urgent because it truly was, not because their passion made it so.
But that did not mean there could not be eggs. He would just not remember them.
“Sure,” Bruce said. “Scrambled eggs.” He reached across Val and ran a hand down Thor’s back. “I was thinking that maybe I could fuck you.”
“You got to that from scrambled eggs?” Val said.
“Let’s not explore the inner workings of my brain. It’s a complicated place.” He dipped his thumb into the cleft of Thor’s ass.
Well, he might remember this particular moment.
“Yes,” he managed to say. “I believe I would like that.”
Val rolled back over to face him. “You’re going to look delicious getting fucked, your majesty,” she said, her voice a low purr. “I can’t decide if I want your mouth while he takes your ass if I want a piece of that myself after he’s done. Fuck you wide open.”
As close as she was, there was no way for her not to feel how much that excited him. Still, he said, “Is that how you treat your king?”
“I think it is,” Bruce answered for them both. “I think when it’s you, it really is. Besides, I’m American. I have all these rebellious sentiments to work out.”
“You’re Asgardian now,” Val said.
He chuckled and climbed out of bed, circled around to Thor, stood above him in the dark. Thor thought him comely, naturally, but he also thought him beautiful in the way that all mortals were beautiful; their flame so brief but so bright and hot that they burned blue like stars. What previous king of Asgard would have thought any Midgardian bold enough to take two Aesir to bed?
“You burn for me,” Thor said.
“Yeah. That’s one way of putting it. I burn for both of you.”
“Give him the nice lube,” Valkyrie said. “Nothing but the best for our king.”
“I should have you both executed for this,” Thor said, rolling over onto his stomach. He had not done this so many times that he did not feel a quiver of tension, but that was secondary to the unbearable, needy insistence of his arousal.
Val rose up on her knees, right in his line of vision, her ass on her heels, her hand down between her legs. “I don’t think so. Dying’s not our forte anymore.”
“Well, maybe fast,” Bruce said, “but never slow,” and he pressed one slick finger inside Thor’s body. “Warming lube. I think this is raspberry-flavored, but I’m not really going to check. Sakaar is really good at coming up with different kinds of lube and I kind of feel like I didn’t properly appreciate that until just now. Because it’s nice, seeing how easily you take this.”
Bruce went on that way, finger-fucking him open and talking relentlessly, a scientist’s bed-talk, clinical and vulgar all at once, reminding Thor—as though Thor could have possibly forgotten—that this was work to prepare him to be fucked, work to get him ready to take Bruce’s cock with nothing more than a whimper of pleasure, on and on until Val said, ‘You’re going to have him and me both coming while you’re still jerking off over getting him ready, Bruce, come on,” and her voice was ragged. “He’s—he’s the fucking god of thunder, he could be fucked by the beast himself and take it, stick it in him already.”
“She never did have any patience,” Bruce said next to Thor’s ear, and then, with no further pause, he thrust into him. “Ah, fuck, Thor.”
“Yeah, now you’re getting it,” Val said. “Fuck Thor.”
Bruce took him roughly, knowing from the start that, as Val had said, he could take it. All that temper, all that worry, all that tension, worked out in this hard use that made Thor come messily and unexpectedly onto the sheets, with a noise that sounded more animal than anything he recalled hearing from his throat before, even in battle. When Bruce was spent, Val took over. She had a glass cock she wore in a leather harness and she made the same thick noise he had when her thrusts into his body pressed the base of it snug against her clit. At least this was undoing them all.
“I wish I could get the last of that lube out of you,” she said breathily. “Fuck you with nothing more than Bruce’s come to smooth the way. Would you like that, your majesty? But not in front of everybody. You’d make one hell of a main attraction at one of the boss’s parties, but I’m selfish. I want you just for us.” She stroked him up and down and his body shook, desperate but exhausted. “Take your pleasure one more time, take it from me. I am your Valkyrie, your majesty. Do you accept my oath?”
A little nontraditional with regard to circumstances. But there was no levity in her voice. Maybe this was the only way she could say what needed to be said. So he did not joke. He spread his knees further apart to let her drive into him more deeply and, taking a deep breath that was immediately knocked out of him again as her hips touched his own, he said, “I accept your oath, Valkyrie. May—may you always serve the throne of Asgard.”
“May not even Ragnarok put an end to my loyalty to you.”
“And I, Thor, son of Odin, swear to your status and honor.”
“And I—” She was silent a moment too long, her body still. One sweat-slicked hand against his back. Her voice was thin now, but steady. “And I, Brunnhilde, daughter of Sigrid, swear to your claim and your right to hold it. I take a knee to you.”
“I give your sword to you. Rise, Brunnhilde, Sigridsdottir and Valkyrie,” and that was the end of it, it was done, they were both sworn, so he said, “Val, please,” and she touched him again, her hand hard and tight, and that was it for them both.
So he had been right. All with them now was truly urgent. Nations made and oaths taken in a bed. Bruce, who had been watchful but silent throughout that, said, “I’m going to wing this,” and lay down, his eyes even with Thor’s. “You look completely destroyed,” he said softly. “You should really see yourself, it’s incredible. I’ve seen you come out of some of the hardest fights of our lives looking better than this—not even a hair out of place. This is one of the hottest things I’ve ever seen.”
“The hardest fights of your life were not the hardest fights of mine,” Thor said.
“Oh, good, I was worried we were having a moment.” He put his hand in Thor’s hair, pressing his fingers in through it. “I, Bruce Banner, son of my parents whom you never met, which is actually a good thing considering I have no idea how I would have explained this to them—I swear to you my, um, knowledge and education and skill, for your ethical use, and I swear to you the Hulk, if he’s still alive, and I—love you, I think. Yeah. Do you accept my oath?”
Yes. “I accept your oath,” Thor said. “And offer you my heart in return. I offer it to you both.”
Val smiled. She had a soft smile, joyful and freer than anything else on this sorry world. “I swore myself to Bruce a long time ago, but—I offer you my heart, your majesty.”
The dishes waited until morning, and then until the afternoon.
Loki sent a projection of himself.
“Is this you knocking again?” Thor said, but then regretted it; he could see that Loki was ill-at-ease; ill-at-ease and either hiding it poorly or not bothering to hide it at all. Loki had sworn an oath of sorts to him last night and it was the only one Thor felt inclined to ever take from him. Their promises to each other were older and stranger and stronger than any words he could fit around them. “No, I can see those garish walls of yours behind you, I know where you are. What is it?”
“The Grandmaster’s brother is here.”
Val looked up. “Taneleer?”
“Please,” Loki said, “apparently he is only to be called ‘the Collector.’” It was an unfairly withering tone for someone whose lover called himself the Grandmaster, but Thor didn’t point this out. “This is not an ideal time to talk reform. It’s an ideal time for me to poison the soup, maybe. Norns, but I would love to kill Taneleer, it almost keeps me up at night.”
“I understand in-laws can be difficult,” Thor said, “but surely—”
But then his mind and his memory caught up with each other. He hadn’t noticed the hate in Loki’s voice because he had heard so much of it over the last few years, he had inured himself to it just to survive their conversations, but if he thought it through, he knew enough, trusted enough, to know that that hate was seldom in Loki anymore. He would not reignite that fire for a troublesome brother-in-law. So he shook his head, clearing it, and said, “What is the trouble with Taneleer, brother?”
“The trouble with Taneleer,” Loki said crisply, “is that he has the Grandmaster’s own powers and an Infinity Stone besides and that lacquered, trilling monster did not even aid us. And why did he have an Infinity Stone? Because I fucking gave it to him.” He slammed his fist out sideways into something, but his seidr did not transmit the noise of it. “I, as Odin, sent Sif and Volstagg to him bearing the Aether, because I thought to worry over Thanos but did not know to worry over Hela. If he had put that stone in my hand when I had asked for it back, I could have rent Hela apart on a dimensional level, but no, Taneleer does not involve himself in these things. An empty galaxy is a galaxy full of things, you see, lovely things to collect and polish and croon over. And for that I will see him dead.”
“For that I’m surprised you have not already,” Thor said quietly. “But if you have waited to give me the chance to share that joy, I thank you, and take it up gladly.”
“Don’t get too excited,” Val said. “Elders are almost impossible to kill. Loki and Taneleer went at it back when the dust first settled, and the Grandmaster’s the only reason our boy is still standing.”
“The Grandmaster can’t expect you to have dinner with him,” Bruce said.
“No, he can’t, he doesn’t, but—” Loki gritted his teeth. “I was hoping one of you would tell me you don’t feel I need to do it for the good of the ‘revolution.’”
“I don’t know that the air-quotes were necessary,” Bruce said.
“I would not ask such a thing of you, brother,” Thor said.
“I would,” Val said. “It’ll help the boss’s mood, and then he’ll owe you one, and you can’t have Taneleer’s head off anyway. If you could kill him, it would be different, but your icy social snub isn’t going to be any skin off his nose. Whereas you going…”
“I had hoped you wouldn’t be in the room for this.” Loki scowled. “You are too practical for my comfort, Valkyrie.”
Val shook her head, unaffected by this, or at least able to pretend she wasn’t. “That’s not Valkyrie training, princeling. That’s what a couple thousand years of salvage will do for you. Makes you work with what you can scrounge up.”
“You’re my champion,” Loki said. “If this all ends in bloodshed, I’ll expect you to avenge me.”
Thor wondered if he should take offense at this. “Shouldn’t I be your champion now that I’m here?”
“No, why? She fights better than you do.” He looked away from them, towards something Thor could not see, and Thor, somehow rankled by this thought how glad he would be when they were all once more in the same place. He had tried to explain this once to… to Darcy, actually, Darcy who had been wearing some sort of strange knitted cap an aunt had sent her, an aunt who had lived an ocean away. On Asgard, families did not part in that manner, not as a matter of course. He had always thought to share a home with his brother all his life.
And if he shared one now, he wouldn’t have to ask these questions. “What is it?”
Loki’s mouth was drawn tight. “I have to go, I think. Time for the grand reception.” He vanished.
“Should we go to him?” Thor said.
“I’m not bringing you within a mile of Taneleer if I don’t have to,” Val said. “It’d be like walking you into a trap and putting your foot down on the trigger for you. Loki can take care of himself.”
Thor was not so sure: their history together had not convinced him of this. But he found he had an odd respect for Valkyrie’s assessment of his brother’s capabilities. Of the three of them, she had been the only one to know that Loki would choose him above all else, above old resentments and jealousies, above power. She saw things clearly, and she had a high opinion of Loki nonetheless, and Thor would have loved her for that even if he’d loved her for nothing else.
“So the Grandmaster is one of the Elders of the universe,” he said. “Someone could have mentioned that before.”
Val smiled. “So you could run away screaming?”
“I have never screamed in my entire life.”
Bruce coughed something that sounded suspiciously like, “Egg-timer!” Thor thought it unnecessary.
“I only say I didn’t know the full extent of the Grandmaster’s power,” Thor said. “But his brother can hold an Infinity Stone. His brother possesses the Aether—can he wield it? He must be strong enough for that, surely. As old as he is, infinity is just another brother to him, family to be coaxed and cozened into doing his bidding.”
“He can wield it,” Bruce said. He exhaled slowly through his nose. “I’ve felt it. The Hulk’s last go-round in the arena—the Grandmaster sent in the Collector. This white-haired, fussy old man against the Hulk. If you were new to Sakaar, if you didn’t know him, you laughed, you thought the Hulk was going to leave him smeared across the sand like raspberry jam. But it didn’t happen that way. I still dream about it sometimes. My body falling apart like drops of rain. He only reassembled me because I was his brother’s favorite toy, and I guess because he’d made his point, and then he said, ‘My collection beats yours into the ground, En Dwi,’ and laughed.”
Val covered Bruce’s hand. Thor knew he should do the same—should do something—but his mind was fixed elsewhere. “Did he know he was going to fight you when he first came?”
“How should I know? I was the Hulk. I wasn’t exactly getting debriefings.”
“He knew,” Val said. She looked at him, her eyes thoughtful. “He usually keeps his collection locked up nice and tight. He wouldn’t cart around the most valuable piece of it on a lark.”
“But if he could be induced to bring it out—”
“We are not talking about this,” Bruce said. “Incremental reform, that’s what we decided on. That’s what we decided on yesterday. We’re not stealing the Aether—something I can’t even touch, by the way, so I’m sure I’d be really useful in this whole scenario. Let’s talk about gladiatorial combat or addiction treatment or literally anything else.”
Thor assented to this—there would be no way to take it now, not without a plan, not when they had no real time to make one and no way to privately talk with Loki, who would have known this Taneleer best—but he kept the possibility in the back of his mind. The Aether, Hela, the strands of reality holding the universe together. The Aether and its potential.
The Aether and Jane, who might yet be able to tell him the full scope of its power.
Bruce and Val’s home—which was now his home—abutted a small yard entirely closed off by high stone walls, though inside them was nothing more than a sandy, gravely plot where nothing would grow. You could only get into it by hoisting yourself up over the wall, but once you were in, it was, Val said, the ideal place to spar, provided you didn’t tire yourself out so much you couldn’t get out again.
“How did it get this way?” It disconcerted him: a shell with no oyster inside.
“Someone was building a house,” Val said, stretching. She wrenched a crick out of her neck. “He was building a house, which isn’t something that makes sense here anyway because there are houses everywhere, and then Hela killed—well, he was a Ribarian. They’re born in clutches and they think they have one soul shared among the lot of them. I guess he didn’t want to live only one-sixth of a soul. He took his life—what was left of it. I never got the chance to ask him why he thought it was a good idea to build the thing without planning a door.” She gave him a thin smile. “Now aren’t you sorry you asked?”
A little. But maybe he needed to know. They had borne witness to this—he could not be who they wanted him to be and be ignorant of it all.
Val strapped on leather vambraces, well-oiled ones Thor had already eyed with envy. “You have losses of your own, your majesty. I remember you telling me that, very high and mighty, and ass that you were, you were a little bit right. Don’t let the noise of our ghosts drown out your own.”
They circled each other. It was an easy bout, insofar as any fight with a Valkyrie could ever be easy. Not just a dance rather than a battle but a quiet conversation rather than a dance.
“I think of my father, more than anything,” Thor said. He ducked a blow. “I know you have no love for him. And I know he did not fall at Hela’s hand and, one way or another, she rose at his. But I had no chance to mourn him. And I can’t imagine there’s a big statue of him lurking about.”
“If there were, I’d have taken it down myself.” She made glancing contact with his side. “I don’t know if Loki said any words for him. Your father’s a touchy subject with him, though he never says why. I suppose if he went around blowing shit up, that could have made for a contentious relationship with a law-and-order king.”
Thor stopped still and was rewarded with a kick to the stomach. “Okay, clearly I had paused the bout.”
“Clearly my ass, you didn’t say anything.” She wiped sweat off her brow. “All right. Why the pause?”
“You and Loki are friends. He never told you—well, it’s very rich of him to climb on his high horse about you not telling him you’re a Valkyrie, and I expect you to lord it over him. What in Hel did he even tell you he was being villainous for?”
She shrugged. “I figured the usual reasons. It’s not like having a snit and trying to conquer worlds is exactly unusual for your family.”
Unbelievable. “And Bruce never told you either?”
“Well, if I’d have known you were on your way and I would,” and here she flushed a little, and seemed to wish she could kick him again just to have something to do, somewhere else to direct her eyes, “swear to you what I did, and if he had known the same, we would have spent more time talking about your brother, but as I didn’t, I’ve got to say I don’t think anyone talks about him half as much as you do. Or half as much as he talks about you, for that matter. So no, Bruce didn’t say. I know he and Loki fought each other a time or two—”
“A single time. I’m the only one who fought Loki repeatedly. On and on back to childhood, really, if you want to count the time he turned into a cat and clawed me half to pieces for trying to dunk him in the lake.”
“—and that’s it, really,” Val said. “I spent a couple thousand years drinking the past away. I didn’t ask questions.”
“Not even for Bruce?”
She looked away. “I love him. He pulled me up off the ground. But he was too far gone then to make me curious. I needed you—the both of us did. Do. So I’m asking questions now, provided I can have a try at beating you into the ground while you answer. What do you miss about your father?”
They fell back into the fight.
“I am at a disadvantage here,” he said as she landed another blow. “Or don’t you remember the circumstances under which you swore your oath to me?”
“I remember that oath-taking well, your majesty, and intend to remember it frequently. And if you can’t fight better than this after taking a good hard fucking, Asgard’s standards fell down into the gutter after I left. Come on.”
He picked up his pace a little. “My father loved me. I didn’t hold that as a treasure but took it for granted, as I took his pride in me, until I lost it. His opinion of me fell quite sharply once, and with good cause… cause it shames me to think of now. He banished me for my ignorance and my arrogance, and I deserved it. Also that’s how I met Jane, so, you know, that was nice. And when I came back, I took up his love and pride again, easily as anything, like picking up a ball off the floor. I learned many lessons, but not that one… not how it would feel to truly doubt his love. To truly mistrust him. I didn’t know about Hela. And in a manner of speaking, I didn’t know about Loki.”
He scored a hit on her, which he was fiercely appreciative of: she spat out a mouthful of blood and grinned at him. “Good on you, your majesty. You can almost fight.”
“I adored my father,” Thor said, ignoring that “almost” as beneath his attention. “And I was beloved of him. I don’t doubt that. But I find now that I doubt everything else—and I cannot ask him any questions. I almost think that’s what he wanted.”
She nodded. “Odin wasn’t fond of having to justify himself, true.”
“I always thought he had a plan. Now I wonder if that was ever true or if he was like Loki, acting out and convincing himself it was part of some longer game.” He wiped sweat off his brow and so missed blocking her. “Can we acknowledge now that I’ve lost? I am fairly beaten. I landed a blow, that’s the most anyone can expect against a Valkyrie.”
“Oh, don’t whine, I already said you did well.” She embraced him as she had after their first fight, but this time she kissed him too, her mouth warm and lingering and flavored like oranges. “I hated Odin myself. But he was your father, and we can have a ceremony for him if that’s what you want.”
“If we can find time between uprisings, maybe,” he said, and made himself smile—though, looking at her, that was not too difficult. “What do you think about the Collector’s stone?”
She raised her eyebrows. “That it’s something the three of us, and maybe the four of us, should be talking about together.”
Perhaps she was right, but he did not like having to say so. Instead he said, “Should I call you Brunnhilde?”
“No,” Val said shortly. “You shouldn’t. Not until there’s another Valkyrie, which will be about half-past never now.” She hoisted herself over the wall and, from the other side, said, “You should go see Jane Foster again. She’s an ally, isn’t she?”
“She is a friend.”
“A friend’s just an ally who argues with you more,” Val said. “You want us to come with you?”
He joined her on the home side of the wall. “I want a moment between crises and epiphanies.”
“Then yes, I would like it if the two of you would come with me. But Jane’s wielded the Aether, you know. I’ll still be thinking about it.”
Val’s expression didn’t change. “So think about it, then.”
She wouldn’t say so, he reasoned from that, but she was more on his side of this than Bruce’s. She had wanted to get things done decisively from the beginning. He wouldn’t press her on it—the last thing he wanted was for the two of them to form a unit that cut out Bruce—but it was good to know. Important to know.
They showered before they did anything else, her body soapy against his, her wet skin slippery and hot underneath his hands. They did not make love, but he burrowed his face against her neck. Her hair was scented like violets, which was the unlikeliest thing he could think of. Perhaps Loki stocked them with toiletries as he stocked them with liquor.
Bruce was working at the kitchen table again. “Who won?” he said absently, without looking up, and somehow from that Thor could tell he had not noticed them coming in to wash up; he thought they were just arriving now. It was endearing in a vexing way.
“She did,” Thor said. “You know, that can just remain an assumption you can make without making me having to say it every time.”
“Why are you always doing your lab things in here, anyway? Has Loki not given you space?”
“I blew it up,” Bruce said, finally glancing at him. He frowned. “Were you guys fighting in towels—oh, you showered, never mind. For a second there I thought I was going to find out about some weird Asgardian sumo tradition. Yeah, the lab’s toast. I mixed two things that really didn’t want to be mixed. I’m still looking for a good space for a new one.”
“Want to go work at Foster’s place for the afternoon?” Val said.
“Always. Are we actually invited or are we just showing up?”
“Showing up,” Thor said.
“Great. Good to know how rude I’m being at any given time.”
Jane didn’t seem at all bothered by three people showing up unannounced on her doorstep, but Thor could tell from the look on her face that it would be some time before he could pull her from her work. Halfway through greeting them, she took a pen out from her hair and started writing down an equation on the back of her hand, but Thor hadn’t even needed that to know where her mind was. He knew her eyes—knew the peculiar bright shade they only had when she couldn’t tear her mind away from a problem. Whatever it was, she folded Bruce into it until the two of them were talking animatedly and in sentences that they never quite completed.
“They collaborate a bit,” Val said. She watched them with fond bemusement, like they were two kittens chasing shadows. “Or they have these disagreements about theory that you’d think would end in one of them killing the other.”
“And you just watch?”
“I pick up on a few things from them sometimes when they’re a little less excited, or when it’s got to do with mechanics, hardware. Otherwise, yeah, I just watch, but not them. All living quarters are wired to get the vid channels. I’ll show you.”
Jane’s entertainment was staged for her in a round little room with a floor that seemed to be made from smoked glass. As soon as Thor and Val stepped on it, they were both cloaked in light. Immersive holograms—Asgard had had them briefly, what, four centuries ago? And then they’d quickly been reappraised as gaudy, kitsch. In other words, perfect for the Grandmaster’s planet.
“Entertainment sampler,” Val said to the light.
It whooshed around them and was replaced by the sights and sounds and even the smells of the arena—Thor had no idea who the market was for that last part. It wasn’t much of a show, just two sand-snake creatures locked in a lazy kind of battle, as if they were both too hot and languid to fight to injury, let alone death.
Next the hologram flipped to the annals of past glories. Particular past glories.
“All the Hulk’s fights,” Val said. “In order, first to last, played on an endless loop. Except whoever does the programming sticks this one fight in once an hour, so you always know you’ll get to see it if you really want to. It’s one where he rips his opponent’s limbs off and flings them out into the seats. Souvenirs for the crowd. From time to time, you can still turn up one of those on the black market—all desiccated now, of course. A symbol of Sakaar-that-was. I found both the legs a while back and burnt them, but the arms are still out there somewhere. I guess unless someone ate them.”
Thor had waded through his share of blood, but that still made him shudder. “Why tell me that?”
“So you’ll know what you’re contending with, more or less. We’re trying to change something that doesn’t want to get changed—it’s not just the Grandmaster holding the planet in place, it’s more than that. Ugly places make for ugly people. This is the most popular channel on the planet. There’s a thirst for blood in this place that the new contests just can’t satisfy, and the only reason we don’t have more murders now is because everyone’s too fucking lazy to get off their ass and kill someone.”
“Norns,” Thor said. “You hate this place more than I do.”
“That’s all knowing it gets you is more hate.”
“But it’s still a place where Loki’s beloved for saving people’s lives.”
“Their own lives. Anyway, I’m not even saying it’s a bad place. They don’t kill each other, after all. There’s not even that much crime. It’s just…”
“You want to be gone,” he said quietly.
She exhaled. “Yeah. You made me see all this shit, and now all I can see is that I used to live in it and like it. And not just the parts that are worth liking, either.”
“Did you like it?” Thor said. “Or did you just think it was what you deserved?”
“Don’t deceive yourself about me. There’s a lot I like that I shouldn’t.” She motioned the hologram onwards: pornography, pornography, pornography, animated pornography, pornography. She halted it. “This one’s my favorite. Watch what she does with that hot wax.”
“I can’t stop watching.” Indeed he could not. “I wouldn’t say you shouldn’t like that. I really, really wouldn’t say that. Although I don’t know that Jane would like it if we went on watching this in her house. Earth has—had—all these rules about what was appropriate.”
“I wasn’t talking about the porn anyway,” Val said, ushering in a new channel with a twitch of her fingers. He had made her smile, or at least reintroduced her to the concept: the idea of turning upwards seemed to hover around the corners of her mouth. “Easy availability of all kinds of toys is one of the things I would miss about this planet. I just meant, you know, I’m not in the way of being a good person. I stopped being a hero well before you were even born.”
“No one can change what’s past.” He could not, he supposed, deny what she had done or been, since he didn’t really know it, but he could mean this with everything that was in him. “All you can do is change, period. You try.”
“And fuck a king like I deserve his bed.”
“And fuck a king,” Thor said, “like you are his sworn Valkyrie.”
Val shook out her shoulders, as if she were loosening up her muscles before a fight—preparing to wrestle the future, he supposed. She offered him a hard and sudden grin that was just as martial, teeth revealed the way she would have unsheathed a sword. “Yeah. I am that.”
He couldn’t say they would not have to have this conversation again—words seldom put such things to bed for good, or the All-Fathers knew he would not have had to spend years battering his head bloody against Loki’s stubbornness—but he’d take such victories as he could find. Even temporary ones. Worlds didn’t stay saved either, did they?
“So what’s this one?” he said. “People are wearing more clothes.”
“Melodrama. He,” she said, pointing at one of the illuminated figures passing by them, “just escaped from the dungeons by borrowing his twin brother’s identity, only his twin brother’s actually his aunt, he just doesn’t know that yet. This is the only one where I’ve got a clue what’s going on. Loki writes chapters for them sometimes and won’t shut up about it.”
Well, that ought to provide him with enough material for at least a year’s worth of teasing.
Bruce and Jane came in, equations no longer in their eyes like stars. Jane was rubbing her head as if she’d just remembered she hadn’t been to bed lately.
Val shooed the holograms away. “The two of you get much done?”
“No,” Bruce said at the same time as Jane said, “Scientific progress isn’t necessarily measured in… okay, no. But I’ve got consolatory donuts. Homemade by Hurich.”
“Where is Hurich?” Thor said, more because he thought he should ask than because he actually wanted to meet the man. “Every time I come here, he’s never here.”
“He’s imaginary,” Jane said, deadpan. “I made up a boyfriend, like this is high school and we’re in the Brady Bunch. No, he’s just asleep. His species is crepuscular, you know, like cats, so our hours don’t always overlap. It’s great for work.” She unearthed a tin from some kitchen cupboard, smiled at its contents, and passed it around.
The donuts were disappointingly good. Still, she had said he was funnier than this new person.
He was obligated to make his own new arrangements clear, he supposed, so he cleared his throat. “I should probably tell you that I—”
“Hooked up with Val and Bruce at the Grandmaster’s party,” she finished for him. She gave him a slightly tight smile, pleased but tensed. “Gossip moves fast on Sakaar. But if you were going to tell me about it, I’m guessing it’s a… thing. The three of you.”
“We have sworn ourselves to each other,” Thor said. It occurred to him as he said it that he had not done that with her, even in all innocence of their coming break with each other, because he had thought in those days that they would simply always have time; it was only now that he knew how swiftly the end could come. How tightly you needed to hold in the meantime.
Jane, being mortal, had known more of that already; she had tried to tell him.
But she didn’t point out now that he hadn’t gone so far with her. She merely covered his hand with hers. “I’m really glad you’re happy.” Then, pulling back, she gave him a slightly impish grin. “Of course, if I’d known when we were dating that you’d be open to a threesome, that would have been useful information to have. But living in the present, I’m really glad you’re happy. All of you.”
He knew her to be sincere, but she was still rubbing at her temples, and the persistence of the gesture disturbed him.
“Does your head ache?”
“Boy, when you change the subject… yeah, but it’s fine, I’m used to it by now. It’s like when someone with an arthritic knee knows it’s going to rain—I know the Collector’s close by when my head starts feeling like someone’s wriggling their finger around in it. Not recommended.”
Thor hadn’t dwelt upon the Reality Stone half as much as he’d thought he would—you should be wary of how easily you’re distracted, his father’s voice said grimly in his mind—so he took this as a very welcome gift. “You sense the Aether?”
Bruce sighed but stayed poised against the high countertop of Jane’s kitchen, his forearms flat. Some sap-like green moved fleetingly through the veins of his arm, sunshine-bright. “Fine. So we’re doing this. It’s a mistake, but let’s do it anyway.”
“I don’t understand,” Jane said, looking back and forth between them.
“Doesn’t matter,” Bruce said. “Is he right? You sense the Aether?”
“When it’s close,” she said slowly. “Why?”
Thor gave her something of a sheepish smile and spread out his arms. “Welcome to the conspiracy to reform Sakaar—or escape from it, if necessary. I put a team together. Me, him, her, Loki. You, ideally.”
Jane took this in, her face composed. “Me and the Aether. You want a weapon.”
“I want you. If it comes down to a choice between you and the Aether, I still want you.”
“You’re going up against the Grandmaster.”
“I’m only going up against him if he insists on getting in my way.”
“Seriously?” Jane said, not to him but to Val and Bruce.
“Apparently,” Bruce said. “I swore an oath to follow him—endorphins might have played a role in it at the time.”
Thor ignored this. He took Jane’s hands in his. “You were one of the gems of Earth, and I always knew you to be one of the brightest stars in all the universe. Now there’s no contesting that, and the universe needs you, Jane. So do I. Not to tell me what you know of the Aether, because I will leave that thought here and now if that is a condition you ask of me. Just to have your support as we try to make this world not just the end of the old but the beginning of the new.”
Jane looked at him, all the intensity of her concentration and intellect on him, weighing everything he had said: he didn’t know if it was her mind that convinced her in the end or her ideals. “New. Okay, new.” She tore another donut in two. “Maybe it’s worth the risk. I never did like doing the safest thing. Just tell me we’re trying for some kind peaceful resolution first, like maybe marching in front of the courthouse, if we had a courthouse. Distributing condoms, starting a youth center. The hard parts, the non-glamorous parts. Tell me we’re doing that.”
“We’re going to do that,” Thor said, and, off Val’s look, amended it: “We’ll try. We don’t know that that any of it will go unchallenged. If it comes to war, we’ll leave and settle somewhere else.”
“I thought your people loved war.” She said it with a half-smile, and the lilt in her voice gave it the cadence of a joke, but he answered seriously.
“More than I ever knew. But my father once said that a wise king never seeks out war… though he must always be ready for it.”
She kept on looking at him. She had been fine before he’d returned, Thor knew. She had missed him, but perhaps not even so much as she had missed Darcy or Selvig, and whatever grief she had, she hadn’t grown mired in it. She didn’t need to seize his hand to pull herself up. Somehow, without doing anything very differently from Bruce and Valkyrie, she had made more of a life. He was always a sudden obstacle for her, they were always colliding, and she always had to decide, his Jane, whether she would stop or turn aside or merely keep going.
But even now it didn’t take her long.
“Here’s what I know about the Aether,” Jane said.