May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me: Ruth 1:17
His ears latched onto a sound. The song was unknown to him but a voice—the voice—threw his heart into a race. Ragnar didn't know what to make of it, what to do with this reaction. His brain couldn't parse it and his heart didn't care for it kept its ruthless pace. It felt as though he was being led, the singing voice a guide through a mystical wilderness.
A door was open and he halted near the threshold, spied a cluster of students tuning instruments, practicing scales, and lingered for the melody taking shape in their midst. A young man cradling a classic guitar narrowed his focus, deftly coaxing a song from its strings as his lips parted once again, making him realize he was the source of this sudden captivation. Dark hair, pale eyes, voice soft and clear ringing out to where he was, musical vibrations filling in crevices he wasn't aware he had, amplifying that burgeoning emotion devoid of description or comparison.
It was the stirring of something which had been secreted someplace within the black nothingness of a void, but now it emerged, rushing back up, finally unlocked to collide with the back of his head, slipping into the front of his consciousness to reside forever there. In his chest, bloomed a pang of longing, which seemed to him as heavy and ancient as the world itself, overpowering in a way that for a moment, he stood petrified by its raw strength, afraid of how it had swept over him so fast, so thoroughly, leaving no part of him untouched, unaffected. A mind-boggling piece of preternatural knowledge slammed into him: a core part of him was abducted and then returned irrevocably changed.
Ragnar saw him make a minor mistake, the abrupt disharmony dragging him back from his abstraction.
“Oh!” He flinched, releasing an embarrassed little laugh. “Sorry.”
“That’s unlike you, Athelstan. You look distracted,” commented a girl beside him.
Silently, Ragnar tried the musician’s name, his tongue finding nestled in between the consonants a suggestion of unexplainable familiarity.
“I might be? Don’t know really. Been feeling—out of sorts, maybe.” Athelstan shrugged, wayward curls skidding across his forehead. Then he lifted his gaze, an unexpected move, aiming it towards Ragnar.
Just as quickly, however, Ragnar stepped back, spun on his heel, and strode down the hallway, preferring to melt into the safety of anonymity; willing every nerve to quieten as he turned round a corner. His classroom a remote goal he reached feeling strangely out of breath.
(There were two opposing routes to get to his classroom, today Ragnar Lothbrok had elected to veer to the right and traverse the music department, instead of taking the usual left and pass through its straight, no distractions shortcut. Today, he began his lesson on ninth-century Viking life uncharacteristically late.
Nonetheless, Ragnar would make it a habit to stop by every so often, lean against the doorsill, and watch and listen. Only for a few minutes, to prevent another tardy arrival, but those stolen pockets of time would, somehow, soothe a wounded ragged thing he’d had inside since he could remember.)
“A wild listener has appeared,” Ragnar proclaimed, staring at the new face settling at the back. Some of the regulars chuckled, craning their necks in an attempt to pinpoint the outsider, a student he recognized as he’d seen her attending Athelstan’s class. A girl with the penchant of interrupting his lectures to add hardly veiled flirtatious remarks. “I’d say you’re gatecrashing our after-party, but I’m one of those who doesn’t really care. Will you be staying miss—?”
“Mercia, Kwenthrith,” she purred, crossing her legs. A number of hormonal stares tracked the movement. She glowed in response. “And yes. I’ll be staying, Mr. Lothbrok.”
“Great.” Ragnar grinned. “Hope you’ll be excited to know beforehand that we’ll be covering early medieval battle strategies, politics, and economics. Truly fascinating stuff. Oh, before it slips my mind, you,” he signaled a random student, the annoying responsible type who sat at the front, to lock the doors, “no one’s leaving this two-hour lecture. Not even to piss. Because, one word, ladies and gents, midterms.”
Was it his imagination or did she pale a little? “So! Let’s dive right into it, shall we?”
Petty, probably, but he had to uphold his reputation among the student body as King Ragnar the Troll anyway. Did they really think he was oblivious to that? Sadly, satisfaction of this sort could rarely last this long. Two hours and all his cute, over-stressed, broke pupils poured out of his classroom as if it were radioactive, except for one. “Is there something I could help you with?”
“Besides boring me to death? No. But, actually, this is about what I will do for you,” said Kwenthrith, wickedness breaking through her demeanor. She tugged a flyer out from her notebook, and pressing it to his chest with brazen neon-pink claws, she continued, “we’ve caught you skulking around, Mr. L. Naturally, we told Mr. A, and know what he did?” She raised her eyebrows, expecting him to bite.
Can confirm the rumors, Ragnar thought. Kwenthrith was indeed a sadistic soprano diva. “Well?”
“He blushed so hard he could’ve fainted. I think he admires you.” She flung an exaggerated leer at him, complete with a killer smirk and batting of false lashes, before strutting out in what looked like ten-inch high-heels. “Good luck, Mr. L!” she exclaimed upon her exit.
Ragnar grabbed the flyer that charming nutcase almost punctured his chest with, smoothed out the wrinkles, gave it a full scan and oh. Ragnar promptly decided he’d need a date, the kind that would neither misinterpret his intentions nor irritate him to no end. The real question was, where could he find someone like that?
“Midlife crisis already? You’re barely in your thirties,” was what Lagertha said to her dear ex-husband. “Cute, I’ll grant you that, but for your sake I hope he’s legal.” Was it a good idea to accept the invitation and come along? Well, careless digs like the one above should place both of them on the fence. Lagertha felt they were on good terms, but it’d be naïve to believe that every interaction would go instantly trouble-free.
Ragnar took a draft of his beer and pretended to be confident. “For the record, it isn’t like that. At all. I happen to like his music.”
Lagertha hummed. The subsequent silence and emphatic stare communicated her disbelief. Holding a spoon between her fingers, she stretched her arm over the table to poke at a bearded cheek. “I know you, ex-husband. I just worry that you’re doing things, or in this case people, you’re not supposed to. So, are you?”
“No? No! And even if I were,” here Ragnar paused to scowl at the bits of cheesecake dropping to his jaw, “he is very, very much legal. Miles past legal, in fact,” Ragnar assured, conveniently omitting he had wheedled all the pertinent personal info out of Torvi from Registry. Torvi who was her friend, one of her contacts, and certified gossip provider in that academic jungle he worked at.
“Athelstan’s a teacher. Music, that’s what he does, and he’s very good at it. He’s about to perform, look.” Ragnar pointed at the stage with excitement that was endearing in its transparency.
Together or not, fondness for this man was stored in a bottomless pit. She sipped at her wine to hide a smile. “Right. Got it. I’m here because you didn’t want to lone it and look creepy.”
Letting out a theatrical gasp, Ragnar placed a hand on his heart. “How could you think that? Of course not. By the way, you look amazing tonight.”
A simple cocktail dress, ears and neck adorned by twinkling little gems, long blond hair arranged in a messy bun. Lagertha was conscious of being a woman that didn’t have to do much to 'look amazing'.
“I always do,” she responded, showcasing her armor of self-assurance. But the color in her cheeks indicated her appreciation for the compliment.
Ragnar cast a deliberate glance at her cleavage, the ridiculous widening of his eyes persuading a laugh out of her. Lagertha was pleased to find they could still have an enjoyable evening, spare more than a half hour without having stale barbs from a sour past reappear and pervade. Unneeded were remainders of a bond unspooled and a ring gathering dust in the corner of an ignored cupboard.
“You never change, do you?”
“I wouldn’t know for sure,” Ragnar said, wiping off crust from his meticulously trimmed beard with a napkin.
Two taps on the mic, and a shy hi there, hushed the ever-present hubbub of mumbled conversation. A spotlight was directed to the center of the stage, where a man sat on a stool, set a guitar on his knees, and proceeded to welcome and thank everyone for coming tonight. Clearly, it wasn’t the first time he and his band performed in this venue, he appeared comfortable being bathed in white light, talking a little about the song they were to play.
He sang and Lagertha understood. There was an it in Athelstan the music teacher which he exhibited artlessly—an element of transcendence flowing through his voice clean and undiluted. It moved her deeply. She glanced at Ragnar and swallowed her astonishment. She had never seen him like this. Locked in a state of ecstasy. Eyes fixed on the man before him, gleaming with indefinite emotion. She took in the faint trembling of his hands, the flush rejuvenating his face, the air of restrained earnestness he had about him.
She usually was able to figure him out with just one look, but this defied and contested what she knew of the man who became her husband. Not a game. More than lust. Different from infatuation. Lagertha contemplated him for a moment longer and regarded whatever this was as the foretoken it might be.
It was exhilarating, to have Ragnar’s attention tethered to him; felt like having the entirety of a midsummer sky reserved for him, his to navigate and explore and conquer. “Dad’s to blame for that. Ecbert. Loved the old man but he thought it was a good idea to name my older brother Athelwulf and to decree, yes decree, that my name would be Athelstan. Supposedly, we’re descended from some posh royal line.”
Ragnar listened. Seizing his words like treasures to be cherished. He scooted closer to him, heedless of trespassing conventional boundaries and kept on listening, face bright with boyish enthusiasm.
Ragnar smiled. And his smile was, more often than not, a tad mischievous at the edges, holding a secret only he could be privy to. “Don’t know about your brother, but your name suits you somehow. Noble stone, right?”
Athelstan was glad to skip the obligatory explanation, so he nodded, feeling flattered for some reason. “Eccentric man, my dad,” he added, a tinge of sadness and affection revealing itself as he spoke.
“Sounds like someone I’d love to meet.”
Athelstan looked up, cheeks reddening ever so slightly at his statement. “He died years ago," he said, matter-of-factly. "He wasn’t exactly in his prime when he, uh, sired us.” He couldn’t help but smile at Ragnar’s juvenile grin. “He was a complicated man but something tells me he would’ve made an exception for you—that he would’ve loved to meet you too.”
Where did that certainty come from? Athelstan would be unable to tell.
He just knew there were some instances where something like an impulse, propelled him forwards to certain people and places since he was but a child. However, there had been nothing like Ragnar before. He barged into his life with the might of a thunderstorm. Implacable and overpowering, washing away the rest of the world away. His energy overflowing each and every cell, thoughts and daydreams and memories; every chord of what made him be vibrating to the tune of his constant company. How was it possible to be in harmony with another like this? It made sense and it didn’t all at once.
From up close, he could watch the minute flutter of his eyelashes, the darkening of blue, blue eyes and the anticipation and the desire he could sense expanding within, a force without equal pulling him into his space. Carting him off, a blend of sensations: strong, callused hands propping up his head, burying into his hair. Lips pressing against his, soft but decisive, melding together till breath ran out. Athelstan knew he could be an awkward, bashful mess of a human being, but in the here and now he shared with this man, he was unfettered, uninhibited.
And so it was startlingly easy to offer himself up for another kiss, as if they had done this many times before, as if they had been doing this forever.
(For anyone who cared to watch, they’d encounter two figures huddled together, whispering stories of their lives under the shade of trees and always after class, like a pair of scheming schoolboys.)
The night slipped by, as it was wont to do when they were thriving in a realm of their own making. Dawn discovered them sprawled on Athelstan’s yard, blades of grass tickling patches of bare skin.
Athelstan glimpsed at the litter of empty beer cans and food containers wiped clean, feeling mellow and content, comfortable in ways he’d never thought possible before.
He faced the man lying by him, lifted a hand to trace the peacefulness written on his features. Brushing flaxen locks aside, he noticed Ragnar’s uncertainty dwelling in the quiet between a question and a reply.
Would you like to meet them, the rest of my family?
The proposal was out there still, hanging over them, open to possible rejection. Athelstan briefly considered that maybe they’d been going about this backwards, out of order, whatever felt right first. But it wasn’t like it mattered, for everything just kept falling into place anyhow, coming together like trite pieces of a puzzle, clues of a case, stumbled upon evidence, the right solution to the cipher.
A sigh of vast relief went unheard as Athelstan wrapped a giggle around a happy yes.
Because how could he refuse after having been presented with so many colorful anecdotes? Lagertha, the proud pretty girl who hadn’t wanted to date him until he’d outgrown his adolescent hipster phase. The children, Gyda and Bjorn, hyperactive and precocious and learning an obscure martial art on their mother’s insistence. Rollo, the younger brother Ragnar hadn’t talked about much without being choked with hurt.
Impossible for Athelstan not to soak up his loves and his dreams. With his father gone, a mother he never knew, and an older brother that cared little for him, Athelstan hadn’t known he’d been yearning to be an integral part of whatever there could be for someone as adrift as he’d once been.
At times Lagertha wondered what had torn them apart. Perhaps a lover on the side would’ve been simpler to accept, as it was a tale as old as time. She would have greeted the anger, allowed it to take the reins and then rise above it all, scarred but alive. It had been more complicated than that, however. Who became the problem? The encumbrance? There had only been two of them through years of togetherness. Then nothing. A strand frayed. Love in an intermittent blackout.
A husband withdrawing from life and familial commitment; a man waning before her and their kids. What was she to do but to gather courage and let go? She at least made sure to keep the house and the two runts. He acceded without a fight, rendering the split infuriating for its honest amicability. It’d be a long while—measured in tears, guilt, and fury—before she could allow his pretty blond ass back into their atmosphere. Besides, the clamoring of Gyda and Bjorn for their father became unbearable.
Ragnar plopped himself beside her on the porch steps, breaking her out of retrospection. “What do you think?”
Lagertha snorted. “Isn’t it way past the time to ask for approval?”
His face scrunched up in exasperation. “You know what I mean.”
Lagertha turned back to the scene gracing her front yard. Athelstan had finished braiding Gyda’s hair and now was helping Bjorn with a chemistry project. They had a basic kit out, Athelstan reading instructions while Bjorn and Gyda prepared the equipment they would need.
“He’s good with the kids and what’s most incredible—they like him back.”
Ragnar chuckled a long time at that. It was the truth. The kids rarely liked anyone, so naturally distrustful, just like their parents. But then, as Ragnar reestablished contact, he also integrated Athelstan into the family; a nigh effortless progression from stranger at the door to third honorary parent. The kids would even inquire after him if he failed to show up for the scheduled visits.
“I take it back,” Lagertha said.
“Take back what?”
“You’ve changed.” Lagertha had been reflecting on such things lately. It may well be the true curse of getting older: endless rumination. “Can’t put my finger on it. But you have.”
Ragnar took a moment to recollect a conversation they had a little more than a year ago. “That a bad thing?”
She gifted him with a gentle smile. “No. What surprises me is that it seems like a good thing, and as weird as it might sound, like something it was supposed to happen.”
Lagertha tilted her head, smile turning into a smirk as she confessed, “even if I was kind of hoping you’d get with an opportunist tramp. But it’s better this way. You managed to catch the sweetest fish in the pond. Unbelievable.”
Ragnar flinched, but she detected something other than timeworn self-reproach—an atypical shyness in his body language. “Oh, hell. Are you embarrassed? That’s a first. Didn’t know you had it in you.” She could bet it was part of the Athelstan effect, would be madness at this point to cease Ragnar’s transforming into someone better, haler, but most of all, balanced.
He waved a hand, probably preferring silence over more potential embarrassment.
“I wasn’t perfect for you.” ‘m so sorry, Lagertha bit back. She felt herself burn. But it was merely a faint echo of a pain already surmounted.
He seemed to hear it anyway, for he firmly shook his head. “You were perfect. I wasn’t. And sometimes I think that I—for him—,” he faltered, clearly scared of what could come out next.
Understanding. She could do that. She’d fostered the same fear with the relationships that had since crossed her path.
Lagertha discerned adoration in his eyes. All of him transfixed by the trio on the grass, purposely botching up the project. As the sun descended, a ray of light fell onto them. Athelstan’s face was illumined with the gold of a fading star, body in a paroxysm of laughter over some silly thing Bjorn did. The odd thought that he looked like the answer to a desperate plea for salvation flashed through her mind.
Lagertha squeezed his shoulder. “For what it’s worth, I believe you two are a perfect fit.”
In the living room, a cluster of photographs stuck on a shelf. Athelstan and his father at his high school and college graduation, yes, I know, you don’t have to tell me my hair was long enough to confuse anyone; Ragnar dozing off with Gyda and Bjorn cuddled up to him and a baby goat in his lap, adorable, but really, what’s with you and goats?; Lagertha, Ragnar, and Athelstan at a restaurant, have I told you, Athelstan, you could rival Lagertha in prettiness?; Athelstan and Gyda in a moment of childish delight as she played a chord on his guitar, she wants me to teach her how to draw too; Lagertha and Bjorn imitating a wrestling move, Ragnar, remind me to never get on her bad side.
To the left, there was a storage room. Inside, between blank canvases, rested a mock-Viking shield, made that last year, Gyda and Bjorn wanted to go trick or treating. Above a set of paints and brushes, an ax hooked to the wall, relax, it’s blunt, never used it to hack off anyone’s head…not for lack of wanting though. Why are you staring at me like that? Annoying neighbors? No? You’re too pure for this world, Athelstan.
On a nightstand in the master bedroom, was a cross next to an arm-ring, family heirloom! Here, try it on—looks good. Keep it. In front of the bed, a closet whose drawers were bursting with blues and browns, blacks and greys, boots and sneakers, Ragnar’s hair ties and Athelstan’s scarfs, say, how about we look for a new one?
Here, they could call theirs the time and space they had.
Fortunate. He guessed he was fortunate. Ragnar gazed at the man beside him, warm and asleep, and felt a rush of gratitude. He stroke dark wavy strands, gently tugged at the curls on his nape. Fingertips traced his spine, detoured when finding a beauty mark here and there, reposed on the small of his back to later go back up. A sigh of contentedness rose from the depths of his lover's slumber, and Ragnar smiled, tenderness leaking out unseen.
He couldn’t take his eyes off him. Dreams where Athelstan vanished before his eyes were the worst, but as time went by, dreams where he stayed by his side increased in frequency. A disjointed apprehension he had learned to bear so long ago lessened with every night and morning spent in this bedroom. It made Ragnar be at peace with that elusive part of himself which was his and not his, familiar and foreign.
The glow of the moon shrank with his reflections. Birds began chirping, sunlight invaded their bed, spreading over their bodies, but Ragnar still had his eyes peeled, a hand anchored to a shoulder blade.
“Hey,” he murmured as Athelstan tried to blink the sleepiness away.
“Hey yourself.” Athelstan’s speech was slurred. “Another vigil?”
“You could say so.” I like watching you, Ragnar would’ve said if Athelstan had been fully awake to elicit a blush.
“Your turn then. Go to sleep,” Athelstan ordered, snaking an arm out from under the pillow, hand seeking out one of his own. Ragnar soon had pale slender fingers intertwining with his.
“Will you be here when I wake up?” Ragnar asked. A kiss was deposited on his cheek, on his temple, on the crown of his head.