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A necklace of songs

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 A necklace of songs

I seem to have loved you in numberless forms, numberless times…
In life after life, in age after age, forever.

 

This nonsense is but a fickle thing.

¤¤¤

They grew reckless, that is the root of their fall, they think in hindsight. Better safe than sorry, and they didn’t take to heart the old advice.

Before, it happened in the woods, among ancient ruins everyone has forgotten about, in distant foreign lands: while others were hunting sprightly game, they would hunt different pleasures. Pleasures no brothers should. They used to venture as far as they are allowed and a bit farther still, and their sanctuary was where no man lives. Beyond the borders of the realms, on the very tip of Yggdrasil’s branches they would be safe, they would find their own home. A world free of people.

It is a frightening idea. There are nights it leaves them suffocating.

It is not right, what they are doing, its fallacy is not lost on them but they are young and full of spirit, full of dare and full of love. Their passion is a pendulum that halts at its greatest amplitudes but for a moment, but in their hearts the moment stretches for centuries, and they cannot be anywhere else but hanging in the extremities. There is a danger in it, though, in the oscillation and the weightless levitation: bound by naught but their own limitless affection renders the world into shapeless blurs as they swing from one extremum to the other, takes the harshness out of its edges and leaves something like a child’s drawing behind, light and harmless, but it is a lie. The lie lulls them into a belief that they can go against the world but they cannot.

It is a bright summer day, just like it always is on Asgard, and they are a writhing, entwined mess of two bodies that have, they believe, always been destined to be but one.

It is a bright summer day, and it ends here when Odin discovers them in the old chamber in the Western wing they shared as children, lying on the floor under a wooden crib and gossamer veils because this chamber is where it started: the spin of their fate.

“What is this fatuity? The sons of Odin engaging in such disgraceful an act!“

And Odin is the Flashing Eye now his enemies fear as he looks upon his sons. It is in their fate, too, this moment is. Because the world can never be free of people.

“This nonsense is but a fickle thing. Ephemeral, and I will crush its seeds before it springs into full shape.”

Odin is the Terrible One among many names given, and all of them are true.

But for now, he is the Sleep Bringer.

¤¤¤

The mortals’ lives are transient, every love loved, every hurt kept would die with them and vanish.

There is an old belief, sorcery of sorts, nobody has ever dared to use, but Odin is the Allfather. He knows thoughts are stubborn things, easy to shape but hard to erase them, that is how powerful they are. But he knows means of covering an ugly blur, suppressing, replacing an idea with a new one.

He is the Sleep Bringer.

So he gives his sons the vision of a mortal life, banished to Midgard which is a volatile land in its struggle against evanescence, possessing none of the stability of Asgard, and it is a trait Odin seeks now. They are gods, they don’t die so easily, so quickly. It would be a mere illusion of a lifespan of short years, being born, growing up then withered before they would fall asleep forever and wake up in the golden halls of Asgard, young and shining and immortal again. There would be no memory left, only shadows and imprints that Odin believes would cover the seeds like the blanket of snow does.

He hopes the nonsense, the fickle thing would die with them.

He thinks his sons will learn from it, of the life of physical boundaries, a life so different from their real.

A life of separation.

¤¤¤

He finds solace in the barren sea because there are silent dawns when he can forget there is anything or anyone beyond the horizon. A world free of people. It is an idea that pleases him somehow.

He is a peaceful man, Thor is. A lonely man. He has a vessel, harpoons and nets and a forever searching heart. He doesn’t have anything else, and maybe it is good this way. Things, knick-knacks make people put down roots but he is born rootless and restless. He is a fisherman, and he sells his take on the market when he needs coins to change the staves in his vessel, or gets tired of eating fish and craves to taste something different – it is part of his searching nature, he believes.

Fishing is a simple act if dangerous and not always prosperous but he cannot think of doing anything else. At times he sails off in the distance, and the waves throw his weak vessel sometimes to a point when it all but upends but he doesn’t mind the thrill. Thrill makes him forget there is anything beyond the fear for his life. He sails to the north where the waters are cold and the fishes are wild, and ice fields are floating in the distance and he cannot tell if it’s land or still the sea. Then he turns to south and drifts across waters about which sailors talk with fear even in the safe havens, depth full of creatures and monsters, women living under the surface, waiting for someone who they can pull under, and then he passes by lands where people live in castles of sand and they ride elephants.

He fishes for fat salmon and wriggly herring, and knots his own net when it’s torn. He visits lands where he knows and understands no one, foreign lands, foreign cities, foreign tongues with letters he cannot read, but then again, he cannot read his own either. He can only follow the stars to lead him forward – not back, never back, because that raises the question of back to where? He is a fish himself, rootless, restless. He does not want to go back anywhere because there is nothing he left behind. Because he still hasn’t found what is worth to make him stay. He doesn’t think he ever would.

There is an all-consuming hunger in his guts that cannot be sated with the white flesh of fish or sweet roots he digs out in faraway fields. It is a hunger that gnaws at his insides and sometimes crawls up and farther, and he fears it would swallow his heart. Something is constantly rattling inside his chest, and it reminds him of the catfish he once dragged up. When he gutted it, he found a button in its stomach. Thor sometimes thinks if someone gutted him, they would maybe find something there, too, a button, a coin, or a loose heart.

¤

Words are delicately crafted tools, and Loki bends them to his liking, but it’s never enough, never sufficient. Letters curl into fine arabesque under his hand, and imaginary lives, sins and betrayals, love and hate, glory and fall are running from his quills in atramentum black and embed themselves in the papyrus, forever and permanent. He has stacks of stories everywhere in his home, dramas and epic poems of warriors with a lion’s heart, of gods and monsters, of predetermined fate binding lovers, of kings rising and falling. Sometimes he thinks he has written of everything, and nothing there is left, but he knows better.

There is a story he is yet to write. It waits for him, the right words and right characters, and their absence is keeping him awake at night, and he is searching, writing, and forever searching still.

They pay him fairly, and they play his stories at the open marketplace, and the crowd laughs, cries and clasps, and he can tell his writings are popular, he only doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand why there is no one who can see the holes, the wrong words, the missing characters, the failed plots. Why they cannot see that they are all failed attempts at writing something else. Why there is no one who would stand and point out that there is a story behind each, the same story behind them all, a story waiting to be pulled forth, and these plays and poems are naught but covers, sweet decoys to lure that one story to the front, but they all fail.

He doesn’t know what he would do if he succeeds once. He thinks it would be completion, and he has no idea how to deal with that. Completion is a frightening word. He fears it but he yearns for it, too, so he conjures new words and new stories but that one is always missing.

He would like to name it, the constant search, constant longing, and he twists the words but they fall on the papyrus like twigs of a laurel, dry and broken. His mind is restless, it is a place of hundreds of lives, hundreds of fates but not the right one. Never the right one.

¤

They will never meet, the fisherman and the poet. It is an incomplete life, it is an eternal search.

It is a life of separation.

¤¤¤

It is a bright summer day, and the shadows are long.

The golden tone of the world has dimmed and it’s vibrating and blinking from light into dark and back to light again. It has been so for a while, and Thor finds no peace. He rides into adventures, he goes on quests that take him far from Asgard, and he climbs the high mountains to Nidavellir, and descends to the dark valleys of Svartalfheim with a crisp taste in his mouth and a clean smell in his nose that does not belong anywhere he goes. He eats and drinks for an army until he is numb and he thinks the void within him is filled. It never is, though.

It is a bright summer day but all he sees is the shadows.

It’s in the highest tower of the palace where he finds Loki, crouching on the floor among balls of crunched paper and stacks of books. His fingertips are inked to black and they leave marks on the tome he is holding. He looks up and his eyes are the shade of green that fills the void in Thor with substance and warmth.

“I have been searching for you,” Thor says, and he is not sure if it is true (for he has been aimless in his quests so far) but it sounds so.

“Yes,” Loki says, and he closes the tome because it’s not the right one. None of the books are, none of those stories, none of those words. “I have been around all along.”

And his tone is almost a question, a faint wondering awe that is reflected in Thor’s eyes.

“For so long time I have forgotten it,” Thor muses aloud and he doesn’t understand how he could do so. These have been dark years, restless, rootless years, and they hollowed his chest out until naught but a horrible sensation was left rattling in there loosely.

“I have forgotten it, too.”

The shadows are long when they kiss, and it tastes like atramentum and salty water, but there is no more search left in them.

¤¤¤

This nonsense is but a foolish obsession.

¤¤¤

His friends warn him not to leave the territory of the Empire. They say it counts as desertion but Thor knows it better. He has heard of the stories of the savage people of these faraway lands who feed on lone travelers or their own kin when the winter stretches long and the victuals are scarce and thin. He knows the tales of dragons and fairies, too. His friends are brave men, each of them has already fought great battles but there are things that root deeper than where courage is born. They believe in dragons with iron scales just as much as they believe in the sanctity of rich sacrifice on the altar of any god in Rome before riding to a battle. To their credit they follow him still.

He smirks at them because, truly, it is not his fault that while they are riding across the land of Germania, thick fog descends upon them and navigation has the precision of a blind man. It doesn’t lift all day, and Thor suspects, even if they are not lost, they surely have crossed the borders and ventured into the land of the savage. It does not faze him. He doesn’t believe in dragons, fairies or magicians. He considers taking off his cape and feathered General helmet, though. The armor of a Roman soldier is not a welcomed sight even within most of the provinces of the Empire, let alone beyond that.

They ride until it must be twilight behind the fog, and Thor is grateful his comrades don’t ask him where they are going because he knows not. As they draw farther from Rome, though, he feels lighter. It is not his world. Not anymore. Too much wine, too much talk and too much plotting. He is full beyond belief with all of them, and even more. He thinks there is only so much a man can take of carnal pleasure, and he knows his friends would never understand it. They are still staggering from one to the other, and it is their best means to vent the terror of looking death in the eyes every time they battle. He feels no passion for food, for women, not even for men anymore. There is but one taste he knows, and it is the tang of surfeit. Rome is everyone’s whore but his. They tell him he is more of a warrior than a man, and he doesn’t see why it would be a wrong thing.

His friends tell him it is a witch’s doing, the fog is. He laughs at them, but then he spots the beacon of a campfire and he gallops toward it, not heeding his friends’ warnings.

Thor first believes it a beast, cumbersome and unshapely. Through the fog and in the dancing light of the campfire he sees furs and feathers, and its shadow is long, growing over the trees around them, shuddering, bending like a wild animal ready to jump.

It is no monster, though, and no crone, not by far. The bulk shifts and opens, uncurls. It’s the feather and fur coat of a lone traveler, and as Thor gazes down from his horseback, suddenly he believes in Fate the gods are weaving for each man. He feels it with a certainty that should leave him puzzled that he was destined to meet this man.

The other looks at him without fear, his eyes are two blinking gems in the firelight. He is young and pale, and somehow old and strong, too. Thor knows he has been waiting for him, searching for him all these years.

“What are you doing so far from your Empire, soldier?” the stranger asks, and his voice is a lullaby. “This land does not welcome the likes of you.”

“I fear not,” Thor smiles.

“You are a fool then. This land will swallow you.”

Thor hears his friends behind his back. They urge him to go back to Germania Magna, a known territory, even if they need to ride all night and all dawn. He does not mind them. He jumps off the horse, and the stranger does not even flinch.

“Maybe you can guide me through.”

The stranger watches him for long, and his eyes are now in the shadow beneath his brows. “Maybe,” he says finally, and it sounds like refusal.

“What is your name?” Thor asks, and he draws closer to the fire. He is only two steps away from the other man now. He sees hair of the color of crows, ink-black and long and untamed. He thinks he has known this color all his life, though he is also sure he has never met anyone similar.

The man is watching him, lips in a tight curl, and Thor already knows before he concedes: “Loki.”

“I am Thor,” he nods, and now he is crouching, pulling his cape around himself. It is November, and the night is crisp up in the north.

“And you don’t know where you are going.”

“Maybe I’m not going anywhere anymore,” Thor says.

They don’t say anything for a long time. Thor’s friends stand impatiently beyond the halo of the campfire for a few more moments before getting off their horses and drawing closer to the warmth.

Loki doesn’t object, only watches them with a wary look on his face. He holds his hands closer to the fire, and Thor watches the long, graceful fingers, ivory filigrees against the orange flames, almost translucent.

“I have seen you coming,” Loki says, and Thor doesn’t feel surprise. Loki must read Fate easier than he does.

Loki draws his hands back, and then they see the thin stone plates in his lap, the neat letters carved in their surfaces.

“A Rune Wielder,” his friends gasp, and they jump. “A mage.”

And Thor laughs at them. “My friends, this is but children’s stories.”

Loki looks at him from the corner of his eyes, and the smile on his lips has a feral edge to it. “Children’s stories always have a hint of truth to them.”

“You know the Runes. It only makes you a wise man.”

“And maybe a sorcerer, too. How do you know it wasn’t me who made you come?”

“I cannot know. But it means you need me here.”

“Maybe I only need the heart of a foolish man,” Loki sneers, and Thor knows how he means it. His friends know it, too, because they retreat even further.

“Maybe you will have it,” he smiles, and only he knows what else it means. “Do you mind if we spend the night here?”

Loki narrows his eyes. “You would not leave if I said so.”

“I would,” Thor’s eyes are playful and he points to the other end of the clearing. “I would strike a fire there.”

Loki only huffs. Thor watches him silently.

“Where are you are traveling to?”

“Perhaps, I am not traveling.”

There is a looming shadow in his tone, and Thor suddenly understands. “You are a lonely man.”

Loki’s eyes snap at him, and now Thor sees they are green around the black buds of the pupils. Loki is now a mistrustful wolf, and Thor knows he can anytime bite him, but he does not fear. The answer comes with an edge, quiet and simmering, and Thor discovers a hint of pride in it, but a pressure of a burden, too.

“They fear me.”

And suddenly, Thor knows the right answer. “I do not.”

“Because you are a foolish man,” Loki says, but his voice is soft, it is a lullaby again.

They settle for the night around the fire, with Loki and Thor on one side, and Thor’s comrades on the other. The fog is a thick blanket over the forest, and Thor asks: “Tell me a tale of this land.”

And Loki whispers of bog fairies and forest spirits, of wolves drawing down from the mountains, of frost giants freezing the lands and bringing the end of all things. His voice is like a song, and he tells Thor he is all of that: the fairies, the wolves, the frost giants, and Thor murmurs, I fear you not.

It’s morning, and the fog has lifted, and Thor bids farewell to his friends. They are still begging him to join them even when Thor has already followed Loki to the farther edge of the clearing, and they call his name again and again but when Thor turns back, the fog has already descended again and he no longer sees them. He thinks it may be Loki’s doing, the fog, like his friends said but he minds it not.

They walk the lands together for days and weeks, through forests and moors, through rich fields and misty mountains, and Loki tells him more fairy tales, of coward dragons which feed on the hearts of brave warriors, of lost travelers who never find their way back home again, and Thor smiles and pushes him for even more.

“There is a word,” Loki tells him one evening, and his voice is tight. Thor has just kissed him earlier, and for long hours they have been lying beside the campfire, entangled, engrossed.

“What word?” Thor asks, and he kisses the edge of the sharp jawbone.

There is a heavy pause, and then it rolls off Loki’s tongue like an unyielding rock: “Ergi.”

Thor’s lips find the dimple beside the pale throat, and he tastes the skin there: a familiar flavor, the one he has been searching for, the one the whole rich city of Rome knows not. His nose brushes against Loki’s neck, cold in the chilly air, and Loki grunts.

“You don’t know this word. Of course, you are from Rome, and Rome is a whore. These are different lands.”

“What is ergi?” Thor asks now, and he looks at Loki, but his gaze is closed now.

“It’s a label of disgrace.”

“It’s but a word,” Thor kisses his eyebrow, and pulls him closer still. Loki clings to him, and he knows everything will fall eventually. “Words are harmless.”

But they are not, Loki thinks. They never are.

When Thor kisses him again, Loki’s lips taste of gratitude and despair. They taste of shame, too.

It’s morning, and fog has fallen upon the land over the night.

It’s morning, and Thor is alone beside the campfire. He has his cape and has his sack, and nothing else but a smeared shape the thin grass has kept beside him. The wind is cold and sharp, and there is a singsong tune to it as it whistles through the bare branches of the trees, and suddenly Thor thinks of tales, children’s stories that always have a hint of truth to them. He thinks of coward dragons which feed on the hearts of brave warriors, and of lost travelers who never find their way back home again.

¤¤¤

Thor doesn’t know when it started or how because no one dares to call Loki names when Thor is present. Even now he learns it merely by accident as he overhears two servants talking about his brother in such an offhanded manner that Thor feels the urge to step out from behind the corner and punish them. Respect cannot be bought this way, though, he knows, and he would only make matters worse for Loki.

Suddenly he realizes it must have been going on like this for a while, for many years, and he has been none the wiser but Loki is aware of it, Thor is sure of that. Loki always knows everything, and particularly the rumors, the secrets, all the words that are not intended for public for Loki moves in the shadows, he is a whisper, he is the wind none can catch, Loki is fog.

They call him unmanly, and Thor can see where it comes from. Loki is rarely engaged in activities they expect of young men in Asgard, and Thor doesn’t understand why. Loki may not be as strong as he is, but he certainly makes up for it in speed and wit, and he can be a deadly opponent in battles. Thor can understand Loki doesn’t find pleasure in sparring and mindless, boisterous quests as his interests lie in arts that require rather the power of the mind than the body – Thor can understand this. What he doesn’t seem to comprehend is why Loki wouldn’t make the effort and prove everyone wrong when his honor is at stake.

Thor is now more attentive and he sees how the servants and guards are only barely respectful with Loki, and he suspects their respect is more out of fear of the Allfather. And Loki never once mentioned it to him. It angers Thor as much as it aggravates him because he becomes aware of another thing that drains him to the bones: there is not a thing Loki has mentioned him lately for a very long time now. Over the past years, so long years that he has to shamefully realize now they amount to centuries, they have started to grow apart, and he doesn’t remember how it happened and why. He cannot grasp how he could go on so long without this. The world is a place of dimness these years, shrouding under fog he knows not of what origin but maybe it comes from his own heart, and Thor thinks maybe this is why he has lost track of his brother for so long time.

He wants not to confront him because ever was Loki a reserved being, but eventually he seeks out his brother because his own heartache is a vicious thing that propels him toward Loki, and they are standing there, and it is not nice. It is fire and ice clashing and razing everything around. There is much shouting and accusation, but Thor still comprehends not the distance between them because even in their fight there is so much love, so much beauty.

“Because you are a fool if you think they would ever change their mind about me. Not even if I won each and every pitiful sparring game of theirs–“ and for all the smooth words Loki is able to conjure, his throat constricts now and he chokes on them as if they were but poison. They may be. Words can be. His face is a grimace of agony, and he spits but it is like he is spitting up his heart in chunks as he does: “Are you ashamed of the weakling of a brother you have?”

It is unimaginable pain, Loki’s words. They are resonating through Thor’s chest, and there is a hollow in him where he should have a heart. He doesn’t know when he lost it, or if he has given it away willingly but maybe it was lost in the fog along with Loki. So Thor roars at him in hurt and rage from the hole that should not be there because how can Loki ever think he would feel anything but fondness for him. There is a part of him, though, a frightened and sober part he is ashamed of, that wishes it was otherwise.

He doesn’t know, but when the next moment the fog over the world lifts and they remember at the same time that they once loved each other and that they should not have, Loki wishes the same.

¤¤¤

This nonsense is but the play of the witless.

¤¤¤

It is on a bright summer day when the travelling circus arrives to the town.

It’s Sunday and right after the mass at the church when strange kids swarm the marketplace and announce with joyous and loud words that the circus settled down on the field outside the town. They talk about animals nobody has ever seen yet, mysterious, wild beasts, and men who can eat fire and jump through flaming loops. They talk about other men diving from great heights, twirling and dancing in the air and landing unharmed. Then they tell about men brave enough to put their hands between the jaws of the unimaginable monsters.

Children from the town surround them, and they ask about the beasts, about gnomes and reckless men, and follow them around the streets back to the horse-drawn closed carriages and cages.

People are building tents there, pulling ropes to secure the poles, and others are busy around the carriages, and the children halt and stare, wide-eyed and excited, at the horrible creatures painted on their wooden walls. They want to peek inside the cages, the braver ones, but stern-looking animal trainers shoo them away so they scatter like leaves in the wind, and they carry the news around the town where they run down the street back home.

The tents are standing and the gates are open by the evening, and there is a slow drumming like the thunders of a distant storm filtering from the main tent and echoing among the houses nearby.

Thor is not a rich man, and there are a lot of hungry mouths to feed at home, his parents and siblings, his nephews and nieces, but Thor earns his coins well at the blacksmith, working as his apprentice six days a week, and he would soon to be a journeyman which is scarce at such young age. He is said to be a skillful artisan, and iron is wrought between his hands like soft clay. He rarely spends the money on himself, so he decides this he deserves for the hard work. It’s Sunday and it is his free day, so he is one of the first in the line when they open the gates to the circus.

They wait an hour but when the ringmaster introduces the company, the tent is filled with people so much that there is a lot who has to stand behind the benches in the back.

It is an unlikely performance that leaves the crowd in shock and awe, and they cheer and laugh and clasp, but mostly they watch with mouths hanging open. Thor has never seen anything like this, and sometimes he thinks it is witchcraft, no less. The children around him make guesses about the animals, one saying that what they see cannot be a lion for lions have two heads and they spit sparks and brimstone, and Thor chuckles though he has never seen a lion either. Then there are other beasts and monsters with stripes and spots, and some of them are big and grey like a rock, and there are men riding them and goading them into standing rampant on legs thick as trunks. The crowd laughs at the small people tumbling across the ring, and the children mock them, calling them midgets and gnomes. Then jugglers come and everyone is silent in apprehension as the balls and knives are flying in the air, up and down and up again.

It is already dark outside and they put out most of the torches inside the tent when the ringmaster announces the Fire Demon, and the crowd falls silent once more as a thin man walks in and halts in the middle. He is barefoot, and when he picks up a flaming torch, they can see he is very young, barely not a boy anymore. He starts to juggle with the torches, three, four at a time, and the crowd cries out as he, one by one, swallows their fire. He then saunters to the dark metal rings that are placed behind each other, no more than of three feet diameter, and he exhales loudly, and suddenly the fire bursts out of his mouth and lights the rings.

The tent is dark and quiet as they watch the man jump through the flaming rings in a graceful manner not unlike the spotted beasts before, and stand in front of them with his face pale and gaze ablaze in the firelight but completely unharmed. He swirls and, barefoot, walks on the ash, he dances a little there, in the glowing embers, and he cartwheels as if it was but a green field with moonflowers and crickets. He walks around then, the Fire Demon, with his hands held out in front of him, he walks around the ring and shows them his palms, the pale skin intact, and Thor catches his gaze, catches the flames in its depth, and it is as if the fire has spread across the air and stolen into his chest. He catches his gaze and he knows it scorched him. The Fire Demon looks at him across the darkness, or so Thor fancies, and he thinks the Demon knows. The Demon feels what he has sparked.

When the act is over, they can bring the vilest beasts and the strangest folks, Thor sees none. There is a fire ring burnt in his eyes, and everything beyond it is shrouded in darkness.

He is the last to leave the tent, hoping to see the Fire Demon again but he never comes. It is well into the night, and he is still lurking around the tent and the carriages, hoping to steal a glance at him again, but the other men send him away. Thor asks them if there would be another performance the following day, and it lights the hope in him that the circus stays in the town for a few more days, as long as they can fill the tent with onlookers.

He goes home then, but the world seems dimmed, colorless, like the clothes left too long out under the sun.

He is there under the tent the following evening, and then the other thereafter, and his days are nothing but the too slow crawl of the hours while he is sweating beside the fire and hammering the iron until it yields, and he waits for the evening.

It is on the third night that he is startled at someone’s steps behind him in the darkness around the tent as he is lurking there among the shadows, waiting and searching and hoping. It’s a low whisper in the dark, light feet against the smooth grass, and Thor twists around, and he is there, still barefoot, pale and thin under the moonlight.

“You are looking for me,” the Fire Demon says, and it is not even a question.

“Are you really a demon?” Thor asks, and he thinks it must be true because there is something ethereal in him.

He gets a smile, a tiny one. “What do you think?”

Thor shrugs, and he lies. “I think you are just a mere boy.”

“I’m a man already. Not much younger than yourself,” comes the answer and it is indignant enough to make Thor smile.

“I don’t mind if you are a demon, though.”

There is shouting and commotion coming from the camp, and the demon flinches a little. “I need to go.”

Before he can disappear, Thor launches forward and catches his elbow, and he is a bit surprised that the touch doesn’t burn him.

“Can I see you again?”

And he is apprehensive that the demon might question why he wishes to meet. He is unsure of the answer. There is no question, though, only a long beat of silence as they gaze at each other (there is not much to see in the darkness, only the faint lines of their cheeks, and the demon has thin lips with an edge of sadness to them, Thor thinks) and then a rushed whisper.

“There is a clearing in the forest, just over here. There is a mound in the middle, like a grave. I’ll be there when the sun in high.”

And he dissipates like smoke, or so it feels in its suddenness.

Thor knows the clearing with the mound that looks like a grave, though he hasn’t been there for some time, and that night he dreams of going there.

When the sun is on its highest on its route across the sky, Thor puts down his hammer and for the first time ever since he started to work for the blacksmith, he leaves with the excuse of lunchtime. The clearing is not far and he hurries.

The boy is already there, setting up a fire though it is a hot day.

“I’m practicing,” he says when he catches Thor’s questioning look. He jumps over the fire, the flames lick at his legs, and lands with a fiendish grin, and albeit fair with a shock of black locks, at that moment he looks like a demon to Thor’s eyes.

“Do you have a name?” Thor asks.

“Everyone does,” he laughs. “Even demons do. They call me Loki.”

“And I am Thor.” He watches Loki putting out the fire and leaving only the grey ash behind. “I will be a blacksmith one day,” he adds, but he doesn’t know why it is of any importance.

Loki tips his head to the side, and there is a strange glimmer in his eyes. There are green, now Thor sees it, the color of the foliage around them, sparkling and rich. The fire within them is dormant now but Thor knows it can wake anytime.

“Fire is no stranger to you, then,” Loki says. “You use it, you tame it.”

“I tame only the iron,” Thor says but it is a half-hearted protest. Taming the fire – even if it’s not entirely true, the idea warms his chest for some reason.

“Maybe this is why you don’t avoid me like others do,” says Loki quietly, and there is an underlying bitterness in his tone that Thor doesn’t dare to question. A life of isolation – it rings familiar somehow.

He watches Loki practice. He is sitting in the grass and gapes as Loki walks across the campfire, pushing himself into handstand, grinning at him upside down, with locks swaying like falling feathers of a crow. Afterwards, Thor pulls the fair hands closer in astonishment and he is surprised to find Loki’s palms only barely warm. They are almost cool, in fact.

“How?” he mumbles, and Loki smiles at him, and it’s a secretive, beautiful smile.

“I’m a demon. I was born in flames.”

And Thor believes him because though Loki’s hands are cool, there is still a scorched spot within Thor’s chest, and the burning rings in his eyes.

He goes back to work only late afternoon, and accepts the reproach with humbleness.

He is there among the crowd under the tent that evening again, and he meets Loki after the performance is over, just behind the tents. They talk and lie in the rich grass for a brief hour before they call for Loki.

He drops out of work the following days, and there is a lot of lying and promising he needs to make but he cannot stay away from the clearing.

These are golden days, the happiness he feels is like a glowing gemstone, and the flames are blazing in his chest like wildfire, wonderful and beautiful.

But wildfire is destructive, too, but he thinks little of it.

“Let me try it,” he says to Loki one day, and he kicks off his shoes. Loki jumps from the embers and tugs at his shirt, and his narrow face is a grimace of dread.

“No, it will only scar you.”

“Maybe I can do it, too. You said I can tame fire.”

“Thor, don’t!”

Slender arms twine around Thor’s waist and Loki clings to him with frantic pleas spilling from his lips, and Thor cannot look away, he cannot move.

“I will not if you give me a kiss.”

It’s not his own words, he ponders, perhaps they were born by the fire within him, but he doesn’t mind it because the next moment Loki pulls him down, and they tumble to the ground, and before they hit it, they are kissing each other like long lost lovers, and there is a true ringing to it. The afternoon is young, and they lie in the grass for hours beside the mound that looks like a grave.

Thor is there at every noon for a week, and the days are in flames, and so are their skins when they touch.

And he is there every evening, too, watching the performance because the fire in him craves it and Loki ignites it each time as he exhales fire, and he ignites it after the show when they meet in secret. It is there that they make love, behind the tents, in the darkness, and Loki whispers against the damp locks curling against Thor’s temple.

“You are my long lost lover.”

And Thor kisses the crook of his neck tenderly, and he nods because he has already known it.

He doesn’t know, though, that this would be the last time he can kiss Loki.

The next moment it is a crack of a whip against Thor’s back, it bites in his flesh and he cries out as another shout rings in the air, of a man Thor recognizes as the ringmaster.

“What is this fatuity?”

Loki jumps up, and he is pleading with a tone of fear in his voice that clenches Thor’s heart. Another crack, and this time it is Loki who exclaims in pain.

“You ungrateful useless bastard. You dirty sodomite.”

And for every word screamed there is another crack of the whip to match it. Thor jumps in, in fear and terror and pain, he tries to fight but there is a thump of a log against his shoulder, and the man shouts at him in rage.

“Get lost before I break your sinful skull!”

And Thor runs, blindly and scared and naked, he runs and he hates himself for it. The wounds throb in tandem with his heart.

By the following day the circus has packed up and disappeared without trace like they have never been there. Thor stands under the dimming sky and stares at the empty field, and it is only for the wound on his shoulder and the other on his back, that and the scorched spot in his chest that he knows it has ever happened.

Days pass, and nobody speaks of the circus any longer, only Thor thinks of a Fire Demon who walks on ash and steals flames into others’ hearts.

Days pass, slowly and aimlessly, and Thor wonders if he would ever be able to tame the wildfire in him.

One day news comes from the neighbor village down the river that they fished out a body from the current. Nobody says who the victim is and Thor never asks.

Years pass, and Thor is now a craftsman, no more the apprentice beside the blacksmith. He gets married and fathers three children but never forgets the boy who scorched his heart with fire circles and ash touches.

¤¤¤

Centuries of growing apart, living alongside yet distant, and always, always feeling cold in the bright summers of Asgard.

It is a life of separation, life of isolation.

Everyone avoids Loki, and so does Thor, too, but maybe it is rather Loki who avoids everyone else but Thor knows not why, he cannot recall a reason for it. It is not really that they fear him, no. Thor thinks they don’t trust him for ever was Loki a creature full of tricks and mockery. He makes fun of people, fools them but it is only for his own entertainment. He fools Thor, too, but he thinks there should be no amount of trickery that could make them grow so distant. He cannot even tell if it has only ever been like this, but he reckons it had to be different once for the pain it causes now, sharp like the bites of a whip.

And then only one moment of finding each other again, a moment that flares in their chests like rings of fire, and everything is in its right place again.

“There are threads binding us,” Loki says one day, a bright summer day under the golden dome of the Asgardian skies, and Thor cocks his head and waits for more because his brother is clever, so much cleverer than he would ever be.

Threads, invisible like of the Nornir, and his arm circles Thor’s waist and he asks, Does it hurt when we are apart? Thor only nods because nothing stretches the void in his chest more than their distance. Loki’s lips brush against his throat as he whispers, It is because the farther we draw, the more the threads are biting into our flesh, and Thor believes him, and then they are falling again, sleeping again.

¤¤¤

This nonsense is a vile curse.

¤¤¤

There is truth in the stars.

“They talk to us in a language we don’t understand,” Loki says, and there is something in his voice Thor not yet knows. He stretches on the ground and slips his hands under his head as he looks up at the autumn sky. The nights are mild in Tuscany, and a million candles of stars are alight.

“They are pretty,” he smirks, and Loki groans.

“I want to understand them,” he says, and neither is aware yet where it will lead them later.

“You know all these tales, Loki. What else is there to know?”

Loki laughs at him, and it’s annoying. They have been friends ever since they were but mere toddlers, and though Thor is a year older, Loki outgrew him in wisdom. They are still very young, with only a dozen summers behind their backs, and Thor still doesn’t see that wisdom can be one’s undoing if used foolishly. It is a sad paradox.

“There are more to them than mere tales of bears and cursed oracles. Constellations are not put there to be but children’s bedtime story.”

“No?” Thor quips, and Loki jabs him in the side.

“So many secrets, and I want to unravel them.”

“Secrets are to be kept, not to be unraveled,” Thor murmurs but he knows what ate itself into Loki’s head. Just today their tutor, who has consequently taught them everything about the Earth being flat, had to admit that it is, most likely, round. All of this because a Portuguese circumnavigated the Earth.

“Just think what else they can still be wrong about!” Loki exclaims as if reading Thor’s thoughts, and he has a wistful smile on his face.

He has read several books earlier, all of them contradicting their tutor, Greeks, Hellenistic and Roman, even Icelandic essays, and he had to suffer the old fool’s punishments every time he questioned the teachings. Magellan’s achievement was a bit his victory, too.

“Yes. Maybe it’s not even a bear but a hamster,” Thor snickers, and Loki jumps on him, and they wrestle under the night sky, rolling off the hill in one tangled mess.

It is the only thing that doesn’t change years later: the tangled mess of their bodies but it’s a less innocent wrestle.

They are lovers in every minute they can steal from the world and each other. It’s a secret, and Thor wonders if it is of the same nature as the secret lying in the stars. He wonders if their secret could be written there, too, and eventually could be learnt from them, if someone could come one day and unravel it, but it is a dangerous field and he doesn’t want to venture there. He suspects it is against everything he is supposed to believe in, and one sin is already too much on his consciousness.

He is the second son in the family, and as tradition has it, his father sent him to learn the doctrines of the Catholic faith. He is no fond of a career in the Church as he is more of a military man, ever the one for physical strength, but he can examine the catechism and his tutors are satisfied with his progress.

Between them, it never is a subject what they learn for it has only ever been the fount of argument. He can no more be awed by tales locked up in the stars, and Loki is far beyond those, too. He studies the skies, objects and nature, he observes plants and animals, he dissects them and writes for days without sleep. He is an astronomer and a physicist and so many other things Thor does not understand. Sometimes Loki looks at him, and Thor is not sure if he sees him or only a mass of organs he would like to dissect. Once, when he was reading the Malleus Maleficarum, he quipped that Loki could easily be accused of witchcraft but a strange glint in Loki’s eyes made his stomach churn. He didn’t suspect he would forever remember his jest.

There is so little left of what they had when they were but innocent children, and Loki sometimes wonders if it is all they are now: the sweat-soaked sheets and nonsensical moans in place of words they cannot share anymore. He sometimes kisses Thor, and he fancies they exchange those words with the touch of their tongues. Maybe they make love because this is the only language they understand, and he feels guilty for spending so much time on unraveling the language of the cold stars instead. But it is late, too late, he understands as Thor kisses the rough skin on his knees down to his feet. He knows it is the last adoration Thor allows himself before it is over. He closes his eyes and waits for the words he knows would come, maybe the last words between them, of all those words unsaid.

“Tomorrow I go to Rome,” Thor whispers against his throat, and Loki reads the words he doesn’t say, too. Thor is moved to the Church in Rome, and he stays in Tuscany.

He thinks it may be better this way. He thinks they have never spoken the same language anyway.

He doesn’t know yet that his obsession to find the truth in the stars leads him back to what he never cared to unravel between the two of them.

It is only years later that they meet again. By that time, Loki has written his theories of the stars, many studies that aroused the interest of the Church and her new institution, the Holy Office of the Inquisition. It is in an unlit, dank cell where they meet again, and their knuckles touch as their fingers are wound around the iron bars.

Thor has transgressed even by being here:  an inquisitor is not allowed to talk to the accused in private but he thinks it’s a deal God would accept if he could save a soul for Him.

“Recant!” he pleads, and Loki looks at him like he is not familiar with the word. They don’t understand each other, they never did. “Recant and you will be spared.”

“How could I? Thor, don’t you understand? I found the truth in the stars. I unraveled them.”

Thor closes his eyes because he remembers this tone from a night from long ago, a night under the skies of Tuscany so many years agone. It cannot be them, the two boys full of life, not even the lovers full of lust; it cannot be these two strangers separated by doctrines and constellations and unyielding iron bars.

Loki talks about a Tree, its branches and roots, about Earth being only one of them, he tells him about eight other worlds with an urgency that leaves Thor wondering if Loki wants to convince him to save his own life or he wants him to know and accept the truth. He fears with everything he has that it is the latter.

“Norse pantheon and mythology,” Thor cuts in. He has read all the works Loki has written. Not because he had to but because he was trying to find the once-friend and once-lover among the lines. “It is still children’s tales.”

“Not more than the tales of your one God,” Loki snaps. “How can you be sure it is but tale? Do you remember the tales of a flat Earth? Do you remember that day after Magellan’s journey?”

Thor doesn’t answer. He doesn’t even want to consider because if he complies, he fears it would obscure his judgment.

“If you talk like this, I cannot save you,” and he is pleading instead because Loki has to see it can be the end of everything.

“If you talk like this, it is you who need saving.”

“You have always been a smart boy. But not in this.” He now pleads for himself, Thor knows. It is a selfish act, springing from the fear that he cannot be sure if it would only be Loki burned at the stake. He fears it would burn him too. His hand slips in between the bars and he pulls Loki closer by the back of his neck. It’s a whisper against his lips as Thor says, “I cannot save you if you don’t recant.”

Loki smiles, and it is a genuine smile, a guilty smile. His nose brushes against Thor’s, it is a plea for forgiveness, an apology for unraveling the stars instead of what they never understood between them, and the sadness is apparent in his voice. “There are things worth dying for.”

But what Thor hears is: it’s not you, it has never been you.

He pushes himself away, and his tone is cold and final. “It is heresy, then.”

The following day he nods in agreement when they vote about Loki’s sentence. He attends the execution because he is expected to, and he thinks of the irony that eventually children’s tales could be their undoing.

Two weeks later the Holy Office accepts his resignation with a great surprise. Thor joins the army fighting in Lombardy. He hardly knows what they are fighting for, the French and the Turks and the Holy Empire but he does not care. He is in the first rank, and this is his first time he holds a real sword. It is on the third day that he falls, in a war he does not even believe in.

¤¤¤

It’s a stigma, being a wielder of seidr. It is a disgrace for any man, and his position as the Prince of Asgard doesn’t save Loki from it. He is labeled womanly, and it’s not a secret label, not a word that’s only whispered behind his back. It drives him to rub it under their noses every time he can, and Thor deems it the most unfortunate way of rebellion.

He doesn’t see there is no other way of maintaining a shred of dignity for someone who has been labeled for far too long to remember how to follow the crowd. Then again, maybe there has never been a time when Loki wanted to.

Every illusion he musters gradually turns him into an illusion, or so it feels for Thor. Every spell Loki casts digs a trench between them, wide and deep, and this is the first time it occurs to Thor, and it’s a terrible, heavy realization, that they are the opposites of each other in everything. There is nothing soothing in that thought. It brings naught but infinite clash with it.

Sometimes he thinks they talk a different language and neither can unravel the other’s.

When they find each other (again? They are not really sure, but there is a certain familiarity in the way their bodies fit), it is the clash of opposites too, and it’s just as much horrible as passionate, and still, it feels right.

When Thor jests that it is written in the stars, they are, (and it feels like a conversation they have already had once, though neither can recall it) Loki frowns because constellations are wondrous things, ominous but wondrous things. What they have is an ugly thing: a twisted being with emerald scales and a writhing body, with claws and teeth and a scorching, hungry breath.

A part of love is always selfishness.

There is truth in the stars, the words seep in his head. And truth can be a horrible thing.

¤¤¤

This nonsense is a shameful deviation.

¤¤¤

They grow up alongside: the vicomte’s son and the stableboy. Alongside but never together. Young Loki, who Thor has to call Monsieur even when they are mere children, has been warned not to mingle with the servants enough times to learn it is something inappropriate.

So he plays with Thor, the stableman’s son, when no one is around and he is in the mood to dirty his hands and soft clothes. Thor knows only games that leave stains but he goes along still.

Even later this is the only sort of game Loki can think of when he sees Thor: games that leave stains though of much different nature than dirt and mud, but he is mature now, he finally understands the inappropriateness of it and he would never let it happen. Thor grew into an attractive man, strong and tall and golden but dirty and dumb, and Loki despises him for it. He despises him for the stealthy side-glances he casts at him when he thinks Loki doesn’t look, the lingering gazes that prickle his skin and heat his groins. And he despises himself too, for the way he thinks of someone so beneath him.

They stopped the wretched secret meetings behind everyone’s back a long ago when they weren’t playful children anymore. There is nothing common in them so Loki discarded him without a second thought and Thor has never objected. It makes Loki contemn him just more.

He has friends now, suitable friends that please his parents, all of them the children of noblemen from Paris, well-read and rich. They go to plays in the theatre or the opera, they while away their time in coffeehouses, discussing everything of no relevance or importance, and spend shameless amounts of money on aught that has no worth at all. They are all his age with the same upbringing, same values and teachings.

And at times, they bore Loki to despair. At times, all he wants is to dirty himself, and for the unsuitability of it he blames Thor for spending his playtime with him when they were children. For stopping spending time with him later, for letting him go just like that.

He is a spoiled child like everyone his age and position, and he lives up to the expectations by being mean to the servants in and around the house. He thinks this is what they call the Laws of Nature, and he is the carnivore which can stomp on the pitiful powerless class of herbivores beneath him. He has always been taught so, the blame is not on him, he reckons: once a vicomte, always a vicomte – once a stableman, always a stableman. It is the Laws of Nature as well.

He doesn’t like to meet Thor when it’s only the two of them but he finds himself every afternoon standing beside the stall and watching Thor saddle his horse. Loki never calls beforehand, never orders him to prepare the horse so he only has to walk out in the yard and get on it. Every afternoon he follows Thor to the stables and stands behind him, and Loki hates every minute of it because, maybe, he doesn’t.

When they are in private, Thor, Loki and the half-saddled horse, Loki tends to forget the Laws of Nature. It seems so simple, then. He watches Thor, the straining muscles under the stained shirt, and he doesn’t see the difference. He isn’t even sure if it is he of the two of them who is the carnivore. Sometimes they talk, small talks only where Loki questions and Thor answers and never the other way around, but those minutes Thor looks at him, and when he does, something is stirred up within Loki so much that sometimes he snaps at Thor with utter contempt and orders him to unsaddle the horse and prepare the carriage for him instead. It always ends with too much alcohol and too cheap women in a brothel.

He thinks Thor could crush his skull with a single blow, knuckles shattering his body as if he was but made of chicken bones. The thought gives him a thrill that nothing else can arouse in him, and it drives him to bark at Thor in an ugly way when they are alone. He would then stand there trembling with fear and sticky excitement as he watches Thor’s muscled arms, the veins underneath and a strange brute fire in his pale blue eyes. Sometimes his knees weaken beneath him to a degree that he has to support himself against the wooden gate of the stall, and he has to send Thor away with an urgent but cracked tone in his voice. He then stays there, bracing himself against the wall as he hides in the stall and pleasures himself until he drives the heat out of his body with a keening half-sob.

Thor is different from Loki’s friends, and the most horrible in it is that sometimes he cannot tell if it is a good or bad thing. If his difference he could value more or less.

Thor is a quiet man but only borderline humble, and it irks and pleases Loki in equal measure. For him, every afternoon is about falling and shattering on his own confusion, and he wants to see Thor fall with him, he wants to chase Thor to the utmost of his patience and humbleness and then beyond, and see if he shatters too.

“Let him play it.”

It is warm outside, and Loki is lying in the grass with his friends. They insist on making readings from a mediocre novel that is undeservedly popular these days, and one of them comes up with the idea to play the scenes, each of them taking a role. They drank too much of the Amontillado his father brought from Spain. It is a boring day.

Loki’s laugh is tinted with irony as he watches them argue: there is a role of a peasant in the novel and nobody wants to take it. That moment Thor crosses the garden and Loki calls out.

“Let him play it,” he says, and the smirk is a crooked one on his face. Thor looks at him warily, and Loki feels the surge of ugly glee uncoil in his guts. “He doesn’t even need to act.”

His friends snicker lazily, and there is still some sherry to drink. Thor watches him in apprehension and glows under the sun, glows more than the whole peacock-like company in their velvet and silken garments, and Loki wants to tear at him with his bare teeth until he is as shattered as Loki feels.

“But wait,” he tilts his head, and a glint in Thor’s eyes tells him he knows what is coming even before Loki opens his mouth. “Can you even read at all?”

Loki knows he can because there were times Loki helped him with it but his friends don’t, and it is enough. The flicker of his wrist he dismisses Thor with is the waving flag of a small victory because he thinks he managed to crush Thor just a little.

He humiliates Thor, and it is like second nature to him.

He humiliates Thor but it is like a wrongly concocted ointment that first soothes his soreness before infecting everything around. He believes if he can push Thor on a lower level and see him trampled down, the deviant attraction is degraded in him, too, and thus can be disregarded easily.

There are boring wine-flavored days when he relishes in the knowledge he put a matching crack in Thor’s soul, and there are the unreasonable afternoons in the stable when none of it matters. When he stands and watches Thor work, and there is nothing else he would rather do.

And then there are too hot days when the air inside the stable is humid and sweltry and it gets into his head, and Thor is looking at him with clear blue eyes, and everything is simple. And he lets Thor come closer, or maybe it is he who draws to Thor, it never is clear, but Thor’s stubble is a sweet scratch against his chin. Thor doesn’t kiss him, only opens his mouth with the usual humbleness, and Loki whispers against his lips softly, with his own mouth catching Thor’s taste and keeping it selfishly.

“No,” he whispers, and his nose brushes against Thor’s cheek languidly. “Because I wouldn’t be able to tell if I am making love to you or a horse. You reek of them.”

Later, he thinks this was the moment he could finally reach Thor’s utmost and go beyond it, unbeknownst to him.

Later, he thinks every slight he has ever given to Thor was eventually a step toward his own damage.

It is a bright summer day, just a few days after the rabble forced its way into the prison of Bastille, and Loki understands that every slight has a price.

It is a bright summer day, and the fire scorching the chateaux and manors of the nobility all around the countryside makes it even brighter. It is the days of the Great Fear, and the gentry watches their peasants rise against them.

It happens in the afternoon in the vicomte’s household. They set the kitchens on fire first. Loki climbs out the window before it can reach the second floor.

It is afternoon, and for the first time in his life Loki tacks up his own horse.

“You should pull the girth more careful, Monsieur,” sounds from behind him, and Loki knows what is coming. The world is on fire and they are alone here. There have been too many slights coming from him, and every slight has a price.

He doesn’t heed Thor but he doubles the pace as he is saddling the horse. Thor is behind him, and now it is he who is watching closely.

“Aren’t you afraid, Monsieur, that you would start to reek of them?”

The tone Thor uses makes Loki stop his movements. It chills his blood, and the old thrill comes with a cold echo in his chest now that aught can come true. It’s a tone Thor has never dared to use with him. He grabs the saddle to pull himself up but he doesn’t get far.

Somewhere on the border of his consciousness Loki finds it ironic that it happens here, in the stables. Maybe it is fitting, too.

Thor’s hand is large and unrelenting on the back of his neck as he pushes him down in the hay. It is soft and dull-scented, the hay is, and Loki recalls long past days when they were playing and hiding in it, he and Thor. Now it cradles his face and steals into his mouth as he inhales through it loudly, grunting in pain. Thor sheds his clothes and pushes his legs apart as he brushes up against his back. He still reeks of horses, and Loki chokes on his own saliva as Thor pushes himself into his body.

“I have been waiting for this, Monsieur, for so long,” Thor growls in his ear, and Loki bites down around the hay in his mouth because he has been, too, if not like this. Or perhaps, it was exactly like this.

Thor is mounting him with ferocity, claiming him with thrusts that pour humiliation at every twitch of his hips, and the humiliation is his, is the one he has given to Thor all these years, gathered in Thor’s heart where it fermented and rotted for long, and now he is pushing it back into him. It is strangling him like bile rising up from his stomach.

“Enjoy it, you dumb fool,” he croaks between two groans, and his voice is dripping with venom but it is laced with pain too. It is his only means now, though, words, and he has nothing more. “This is the only way you can have it: by sheer force, you despicable wretch.”

Thor’s fingers wind in his hair and he pulls his head from the bedding of hay.

“You think yourself above me but you have only ever wanted to have this, yes?”

And Thor laughs at him.

And maybe it’s worse than the violation against his body.

They never meet again, the revolution chases them to different sides, but they have only ever been on different sides save for secret forbidden moments in a childhood neither remembers anymore. The only memories left are of stable-scented afternoons in a world that is no more.

¤¤¤

“When I fall asleep, I lose you. Every time I fall asleep, I lose you and I find you again to lose you once more,” Thor cups his cheeks, and it is blinding sunshine outside among the golden towers of Asgard.

It is centuries of separation, if not physical. It is oblivion that feels like sleep.

Then, the realization. It is always there, in the back of their minds, and it resurfaces like something they have forgotten but strived to remember. It comes easier each time as if they knew where to search for it.

And just one moment of bliss, one quick share of an old sin neither can recall clearly anymore, and they know it would be over soon because it always is.

“Brother, kiss me before you fall away.”

And it is hasty and rough and they sometimes take more than what they give. It is always desperate, and they are collecting these stolen moments from each other as if they wish to store them for future use when the world turns cold and a place of isolation again. Their embrace is an ancient one.

Every touch is like adoration.

Every other touch is demolition.

¤¤¤

This is no less than a twisted ulcer that brings naught but infection.

¤¤¤

Sometimes Loki doesn’t even know how he ended up there as the Colonel of the 57th Battalion of the Chasseurs à pied, sleeping in trenches, or when life is gracious with them, in tents or huts. They are somewhere in France but the landscape is no longer recognizable to tell where exactly if not for his maps. He thinks there used to be fields full of cornflowers and lavenders here when they marched across this area in the summer, sometimes he imagines he catches wisps of their scent but it’s only a trick of his mind: there can be nothing but bloodflowers here. Along with each other, they raze the land, too.

He is not that much of a military man but studying the enemy’s movements and adjusting strategies accordingly are his strength. Not that there is any room left for strategies. War is now barely more than an attempt at retreat in a dignified way but there can never be dignity to it.

They already call it the Great War, but for him, every war would be too great and too long. It’s winter. Cold and distressing, but at least the snow covers the dead. He thinks he is frozen to the bone but it’s not the weather, never the weather.

It’s years of isolation; he cannot even count how many years, it seems terribly long and nobody sees the end of it (they have been making bets in the trenches, trying to guess when it would be over but almost all of them has lost already – at least those who are still alive). The homesickness is so deep and solid within him that he is not able to identify it anymore but he knows he is aching for a home that may be no more. He would never find peace in its golden light, anyway.

He has known Thor since the war started, and Loki considers it a lifetime because whatever they have left behind fell away for good. There is only one reality, and they found the only consolation, only warmth they know. It is an escape, a pitiful excuse of a home but the only home they would ever have. When they are not lying sleepless in the trench with a riffle in hand, when there is a hut to share, they seek out each other to embrace instead of the cold metal of war.

“They will chase us to the sea, and nothing will stop them,” Thor says, and Loki knows he is right.

They are in the wild, rural area, and as they retreat and pull the German army on them, it has only one positive impact: even the enemy is getting farther from the railways and their supply routes. They can last in the winter only if they sack the nearby villages and cities.

“Do you know what the Russians did when Napoleon entered Moscow?”

Thor looks at him in terror. Of course, everyone knows it, at least the French, Loki fancies. He gestures wildly at the fort of the city they are camping beside (they need to give it up soon, there is too little of them left to fight, Loki is aware of it), and exclaims, “You cannot set a whole city on fire, Loki.”

“You are right.” Loki has a cold, humorless smirk pulling at his lips. “Not only the city but the nearby villages, too.”

“This is madness.”

“The German will starve without their supply and the loot they are hoping to find here.”

“It is our people, Loki!” Thor cries, and Loki’s voice rises as well.

“And it is our country, invaded. How else am I supposed to defend it at this point, Commandant?”

Thor clenches his jaw. Loki’s usage of his rank is the unmistakable indicator of his temper, and he knows he is not supposed to oppose. He usually doesn’t but this time is different. Maybe the war stretches too long for all of them to keep their sanity intact after a while.

“You have no stomach for it,” Loki studies him, and there is only a trace of condemnation in his tone. He arranges his face into an understanding expression if not entirely devoid of condescension. “Some plans bring gain only along with harm. These are now times when only such plans can work. It is a situation where sacrifice is required.”

“But never from you, right?” Thor snaps, and neither knows where exactly it came from but it has a hollow and painful ring to it.

“Give the order for retreat and ignite the fire,” Loki says curtly. Thor doesn’t look at him. His frown casts shadows over his eyes, and Loki realizes this disagreement put a permanent fissure between them that could eventually shatter his frozen bones and everything within him.

“Tell them yourself,” Thor says finally, and he slams the door of the hut shut.

Loki would be lying if he said it surprised him at any rate. Thor has always been known for his big heart that doesn’t leave too much space for coldly wrought strategies. If it wasn’t for Loki, Thor would have gone out of his ways many times just to save a village, willing to risk a whole fundamental area in the process. He is no different on the battlefield. Occasionally, when the red curtain of brutal bloodlust ascends from his mind, he would do the same for his men, giving up hard-fought positions just for the life of one comrade. It more than once has resulted in him being carried away by the stretcher-bearers, and luck is a wicked rare thing these days he can easily run short of anytime. They have argued about it more times Loki can recall, with words born in the shadow of imminent death. Then again, everything these days was born with the same taste, in the same shadow.

Thor’s attitude makes him unbelievably popular among the men, and maybe this is what they need to go on, someone like him, someone who seemingly knows no fear. Maybe they are willingly blind to the fact that Thor could get them all killed out of foolish heroism. Thor has told him he could be just as popular if he didn’t keep his distance so eagerly but Loki is not keen on paying that price. Leaders are no things for popularity, and he doesn’t mind it. Anything they may build here would be fleeting and short-lived, anyway. They are short-lived, too. There is no place for future plans beyond the movements of two opposing armies.

Eventually, Loki gives his own orders, and his men’s bewilderment is palpable if not entirely visible. They are soldiers, they have seen too many things over the past years. All of them are shells, nothing more, hollowed out and useless.

They retreat in as much order as possible, and as they move farther from the city and Loki looks back, there is only a faint patch of smoke against the sky.

Thor isn’t moving on his side, and for the rest of the day he stays in the rear of the battalion. Loki doesn’t call for him.

At the next village Loki sees to it personally that they set the houses on fire and take along whatever remained there for loot. He stays there watching the flames until already the rear of the army has passed him, too, and it is a lesson for him, Thor knows.

It happens in the evening when they settle down that Loki orders him into the tent. They break the desk Loki uses as sand table in their scuffle, and neither remembers who brought it to physical level. There are no more words left in them, they are not human beings anymore, only hollowed shells, only animals with blood on their teeth.

Loki punches Thor in the nose, and everything is painted red around them. “You overwrote my orders behind my back. I should remind you how disobedience is rewarded.”

They break a folding chair, too, and there is a mindless struggle as they roll around on the ground fighting and aiming to do damage. It is the mockery of how they used to be when they did so in lust, trying to steal the other’s warmth.

Chekhov said that once there is a pistol on the stage, it would be fired. It’s an eternal truth, and Thor is in his full armor.

It’s only one pull, a deafening bang and silence. Loki watches the pool of blood around them, under Thor, the shock of betrayal frozen in his eyes.

His eyes are the color of cornflowers, Loki muses with a horrible, shocked detachment, and he thinks of the razed fields, he thinks of bloodflowers and the only home he had, the home that is no more.

¤¤¤

“I have read about a spell,” Loki whispers against the bitten wound on his lips, and Thor pulls him even closer and they taste blood. His brother’s savor on his tongue, raw and vicious, is as much the part of his body as his limbs.

They figured it out eventually how their father’s punishment robs them of their lives, of their love after every time they find each other over and over again. It terrifies them, the imminent threat whenever they kiss, it taints every touch with the odor of premonition, and they are unable to recall anymore how it tasted on a never-been bright summer day when everything shook apart.

“I have forgotten you a hundred times,” Thor whispers, and it sounds like a painful lament. There is underlying fear in his tone that echoes in Loki’s chest.

Even after a hundred times they can never be sure if this will be the last time they remember.

“I have read about a spell,” Loki repeats. His smile is a wicked one, and he adds it like it was only an afterthought: “Perhaps, I know how to cast it.”

¤¤¤

Odin is the Allfather among many names given, and all of them are true.

But Odin has, among many others, another name, too: and it is Odin the Blind.

There is one thing even he cannot go against. He cannot rip the threads the Nornir weave, nor can he untie the tender and awful knots of love.

¤¤¤

The lights glow around the lithe body with neon halo, and Thor loses himself in watching the curve of a slender neck as the other man throws his head back, and is dancing with abandon. The room would be quiet if it wasn’t for the music filtering in from the other rooms of the night club, and there are a lot of people chatting at the counter with alcohol-steeped loudness. Thor only wanted to cross the silent disco part of the club to another room when he caught sight of the lone figure.

Thor has seen him already a few times in the streets, at the café just around the corner from his apartment. Sometimes they take the same bus at the same stop, and that’s all about their acquaintance. He isn’t even sure the other has ever spotted him but it doesn’t really matter. He is grateful even for this little, for a familiar face in this big city – it gives him the false but reassuring illusion as if he had here someone he knows. He is new to Detroit, and sometimes it gets lonely.

Thor cannot hear what the man is listening to but the little green light on the headphone is a good indicator, and he switches channel on his own. His lips quirk into a smirk at the tunes of Lust for life by Iggy Pop, and he moves a few steps closer. The floor is not packed, and probably this is one of the few pros he can list in regards to the concept of silent disco. The other doesn’t see him with his eyes closed, and Thor can watch him undisturbed, how his head bobs and his sways match the rhythm of the song.

He looks so different now in plain grey jeans and a V-neck green shirt. Thor has only ever seen him wrapped in his coat and scarf so much that sometimes only the graceful bridge of his nose could be seen. He is a lonely type, the other man is, but Thor has no clue where he gets the idea from with such certainty. There is a wall around him that nobody can penetrate but Thor fancies he would be able to. With a confusing notion there are moments he so much as believes that he has the right to. His isolation calls out to his own like bright beacon in the storm.

Iggy Pop fades out, and as predictable as it can get, the next is Joe Cocker and the hat that should be left on. It’s well past midnight, so probably the DJ thinks it’s about time to spice up the evening. The dark haired man snorts and his eyes open with a dramatic roll but he doesn’t cease moving, and Thor stares at him enticed, at the slow roll of his hips, the plains of his chest as his hands stay placated to the headphones as if he needed to keep them in place. The posture enhances his slender waist and the sinewy muscles in his abdomen, seen through the light, form-fitting fabric of the shirt. There is no denying in that Thor likes what he sees.

The man doesn’t catch sight of Thor first, but they are not yet at the first refrain when his eyes land on him, and it sends a shiver across Thor’s body. He looks him up and down slowly, with an almost calculating expression, but there is a hint of darkness Thor cannot decipher. A small falter, then a moment of standstill before a smirk crosses the thin lips. One refrain later Thor thinks he is dancing for him, and the movements culminate in vertigo in his head.

Thor isn’t exactly aware how it transpired afterwards but it eventually comes down to this: the man is rushing into a stall in the men’s and Thor is following close behind.

“What’s your name?” Thor shouts over the rapid electronic beats of the music filtering from the room nearby. They latch the lock closed on the door.

He gets a shrug for a reply before the thin lips move. He does not try to yell over the noise, and Thor rather knows than hears the answer: “Loki.”

He doesn’t ask for his name in exchange, and Thor is not sure what to make of it. Loki leans against the wall of the stall and regards him with a strange, wicked smirk. Up so close, Thor can smell alcohol on him, and from the lazy lull of his head he figures it must have been quite much. Not that he is any different.

They don’t talk.

In the eerie blue light of the UV, Loki looks young and unearthly somehow. His hand travels down to his own zip and he undoes his pants with a quirk of an eyebrow. Thor watches, transfixed, as the slender fingers disappear behind the fabric, and the slow rhythmic motion they pick up leaves him winded as if the fingers were treating him.

Loki throws his other arm over his head, and his mouth opens with a gasp Thor cannot hear over the blare of the music, but it lands right in his groins. He doesn’t ponder it too long, and later he may blame his own fair share of alcohol for it: he drops to his knees and frees the already hardening erection. It snugs perfectly in his palm and his thumb runs over the soft head with an admiration that should surprise him. His gaze shifts upwards and he catches Loki fixating him with unblinking, foggy eyes. His own cock jumps with excitement because Loki’s gaze is so sultry it is almost palpable, and Thor leans forward and starts to suck him in earnest.

He doesn’t know how long it lasts but at a point, Loki’s fingers twine in his hair and he keeps him from retreating in a silent command to indicate he wants to come in Thor’s mouth. Thor’s hands fist into Loki’s jeans as the cock twitches between his lips, and he swallows with clenched eyes. It tastes nastier than he has thought it would but he can endure, he wants to.

He stands then, his own erection is a hard strain against his jeans. His knees start to tremble at the mere thought of having Loki’s lips giving the same treat to him but when Loki unbuttons his pants to slip his cock out, he only palms him with a glint in his eyes that is almost ironic. The long fingers wrap around his cock and he jerks Thor off once, twice, before grabbing Thor’s hand and directing it to his own erection without a word. He feels like an idiot for a moment, standing there like a statue with his own cock in his hand, and Loki laughs at him as if reading his thoughts before he leans down and tears a long strip of toilet paper off the roll. He tosses it to Thor and with the same movement he pushes him against the opposite wall, and the indication, again, is clear. Thor complies albeit clumsily first. He watches Loki watching him, and suddenly he cannot think of a greater turn-on. They seem to pant in unison, and Loki palms himself with hooded eyes, strands of ink-black hair stuck to his face in the humid air.

Thor comes in the toilet paper with a throaty groan. Loki smiles at him but there is something predatory in his smirk. He draws closer. He thumbs the cum off the head of Thor’s cock and thrusts it into Thor’s mouth, and there is something wicked about the whole thing that resonates in Thor’s chest like an eerie echo over dark water. He licks and sucks the finger nonetheless, the taste of his own cum mixed with Loki’s makes his head reel, and he doesn’t want to not feel it again. Loki pulls his finger away, and for a moment Thor thinks he would kiss him but Loki only leans up and licks Thor’s lips before unlatching the door and leaving the stall without a glance back.

Thor stands there dumbfounded for a second, moving to follow him when he remembers and scrambles to put his dick away. The door is ajar and someone rips it open impatiently. There is an indignant yell following him as Thor rushes out:

“Get a room next time, you stupid fags.”

He fights his way through the crowd three times, searching every corner in every room of the club, but there is no trace of Loki. For a second he wonders if Loki really hasn’t ever noticed him before and naively thinks they would never see each other again. The possibility and the realization of having been used pierce his guts.

It gets under his skin in the following days, this night does. Thor finds himself distracted way too often during the day, and every evening ends the same way: with his right hand around himself but he cannot ride it out. There was something utterly right even in the wrongness of it all, and it blossoms into an obsession. Into the foolish unreasonable idea that they belong.

He spots Loki a week later, through the glass display of the corner café, and his heart ridiculously skips a beat.

“Make it two,” he calls to the barista behind the counter as Loki orders a caffè latte. He counts the money at the register and casts a sideway glance at Loki as he is watching him with an expression caught between hesitation and narrowed-eyed apprehension. There is a hint of animosity to him, too, that Thor chooses to ignore. “It’s on me if it’s okay with you.”

Loki waits for the coffee beside him as if he was contemplating an escape, and Thor understands that whatever happens in the future between them, it would be like this forever.

“Do you remember me?” he asks Loki outside. It’s started snowing with oversized flakes, and he finds it beautiful.

Loki squints at him over the brim of his paper cup, seemingly studying him for a second. His expression is tight, and Thor prepares himself for a harsh reply, and possibly another wordless departure.

Then something shifts, the darkness twirls, and a mischievous glimmer lights up in the depth of his green eyes as Loki says, “You’re the guy from the bus stop.”

Deadpanned, Thor gapes at him for a long moment, unsure of what to say before Loki’s smile turns into a full laughter.

“You’re one funny guy, Thor. It’s not like I wind up with a stranger in a stall every night.” He doesn’t add, though, that it was hardly the first time.

“You know my name,” Thor forces out, still agape.

“Heard you over the phone the other day at the bus stop. You’re not too subtle, you know. In eying someone,” Loki adds, and the wink he gives him makes Thor flush with embarrassment, yet he laughs a little at his own expense.

“Yeah, sorry. I don’t think I know subtlety at all.”

“You look like that type of guy, yes,” Loki nods, but there is something inviting behind the stings of irony. “Thanks for the coffee. Well, for the coffee, too.”

“Erm,” Thor mumbles idiotically, and he feels the flush deepen as images from the club ooze into his mind.

Loki’s eyes sparkle as if the sight pleased him, and he is like a mischievous little imp, standing there in his fingerless gloves cradling the cup of coffee between red fingers, with snowflakes sitting on his dark long eyelashes with crystalline perfection, and Thor realizes, unreasonable and improbable, he fell in love with him.

“We will destroy each other,” Loki tells him one day, maybe not even a week later. It sounds like a premonition but it’s more of a conviction Loki doesn’t know what it stems from. The first time he saw Thor at the bus stop, hands deep in his pockets, somehow glowing even under the meek autumn sun, it was like he had been waiting for him. That was an ugly drizzly day. He couldn’t sleep that night, and the intuition that his life was about to inevitably change marred itself into his skin like poison.

“We will destroy each other because we know no other way to make this work.”

Thor only kisses him because ruination has never been so appealing before.

They are different in almost everything.

Loki reads books where Thor prefers comics instead, and his movies are way too loud and boisterous for Loki’s liking while Thor calls his favorites way too artsy fartsy for a Friday evening. They agree on food, though, neither being too picky and naturally pretty open for experimenting with international cuisine. They tolerate the other’s music, too, at one point with Loki expropriating Thor’s Buzzcocks tee with the excuse that he didn’t bring anything with him to sleep in during his sleepover in Thor’s apartment. Though Thor points out that Loki would hardly wear anything during the night if Thor had any say in it, the tee stays with Loki as a token. They do their afternoon running together, and over the winter they have too much fun in the ice-rink in a park nearby.

Sometimes it feels as if there is a word they are searching for, a word hidden in the back of their minds, and it leaves them restless. Other times, on lazy evenings when the streetlight filters in the room and dust particles dance in its golden halo, the strange feeling as if they have known each other for a very long time descends upon them.

They fight a lot, too, and it is always ugly. It is always the same, of trust lost and then regained, of Loki trying to wriggle free and Thor not letting him as if in fear that if he did, one day Loki wouldn’t come back. He always does, and Loki doesn’t understand why Thor cannot see this. Why Thor cannot see that they are on a spiraling course downwards and it is too late to jump out. It has always been too late, maybe even before they met at a bus stop on a gray day.

They know what they have is unhealthy to its last bits, it is something that should not last long, it’s against all odds. But they know they can live like that forever, go on with the same cycles till the end of time – it is like an age-old knowledge in the back of their minds neither questions.

In the end fighting always seems to be a good excuse to make up again the best way they can.

One day they crack the table in Thor’s apartment and they slip to the floor in a heap of half-naked limbs.

“Goddamn Formica,” Thor grumbles, and Loki is already tearing at him, and they are kissing with the ferocity neither understands.

It is always like this, always with a tinge of desperation as if all this could fall away anytime.

They don’t make it to the bed but maybe at the rate they destroy things around them, it is for the better. Loki is all teeth and nails, and every touch is like punishment. He drills into Thor with half-mad thrusts and neither knows where the fight ends and where the sex begins but there has never been a time they could tell it. Between them, the two are maybe the same thing.

Thor’s back screeches against the tiles of the kitchen floor, and in the whiteout of his completion he cries out in blissful agony, “Brother!”

The birth of the word comes with a shock, and for a moment they stare at each other uncomprehending before the mechanism of an old spell springs to life: like clockwork after the key with the right shape is turned, it stirs and twists and clacks, and they remember.

They remember Asgard, they remember two brothers and a never-been bright summer day when everything shook apart. They remember the punishment that attempts to tear them apart each time they find each other.

Loki throws his head back and he laughs, hollow and high-pitched and deranged, and Thor is not sure if he, in fact, cries, but maybe Loki doesn’t know either. Loki only knows, as the dimensions and realities clash, that they broke the cycles eventually. That whatever new life Odin Allfather would bring upon them, they would remember what they have forgotten too many times forever.

Loki laughs, and it tastes like victory, and it tastes like something else, too, and he laughs and there is only little mirth to it.

Because what they have is a wicked, vile thing. Because what they have is an awful vicious thing that is as much a curse as it is a blessing.

But mostly because this is all they have.