I want to forget how conviction fits
Mm, but can I get out from under it
Can I gut it out of me?
—The Underdog, Spoon—
Goat To Be Kidding Me
Strange did not immediately regret telling Loki he was hungry. The words had just rolled off his tongue without a thought. They’d been standing in the foyer of the Sanctum and it was a little after twelve in the afternoon; ime for lunch; maybe his blood sugar had been low and he hadn’t been thinking clearly.
Loki said he was hungry, too. It sounded casual. But before Strange could offer him some leftover Chinese out of the fridge, Loki was talking about a place in Norway.
Strange had chuckled, because it sounded exactly like the exit he’d been expecting. They weren’t friends, even though they were trying to work together, do a few good things for the planet—Loki’s idea, weirdly enough. Strange was even trying to connect the dots between New Asgard and New York, so Loki could travel more easily, but this was still his first visit and they’d spent enough time together for one day. Mostly, they’d toured the Sanctum, and Loki had a girlfriend in Norway, anyway. A girlfriend who owned a cafe.
And who had once given Strange a nasty black eye, but that was unrelated.
“All right,” said Strange. He’d lifted a hand to...wave? Shake hands? Something like that. He wasn’t sure what it would turn out to be, but his right hand had been on the move, ready to bid Loki farewell.
Loki just kept talking. He had a penchant for doing that, Strange was discovering, as well as rubbing his hands as a sort of...anxious habit. Seemed everyone had those, even demigod aliens, although Strange could not possibly have fathomed what Loki was about to suggest.
“I’m sure you’ll be able to find something to eat,” Loki had said, and then he’d paused and looked like he was waiting, and that was when Strange realized he was being given an invitation to come along.
“Oh.” Strange knew he’d visibly hesitated. He’d flinched, and that was being generous. If Loki noticed, he hadn’t commented, which in retrospect had probably been intentional, because Strange knew he’d deserved to be called out.
Instead, Loki combed an errant dark strand of hair behind his ear, which had only made him look all the more stressed. “My treat. To repay you. For your time this morning.”
So he was making an attempt to be nice—or if not nice , then polite. Loki didn’t seem to give a damn about too many things, but decorum he apparently cared about, and he had real reasons to be grateful to Strange, but...
Strange knew none of what he was currently doing for Loki erased what he had done to Loki, so if Loki wanted to offer lunch—or if Loki wanted to ride him out of town on a rail—then he was pretty much obligated to accept.
“Do you like goat?”
Strange had eaten goat once at a work party and not hated it, so he supposed that counted. “Sure.”
Loki smiled. Not with his eyes. Honestly, he just looked relieved he didn’t need to keep asking.
Goat for lunch, then.
It was in Norway itself where Strange felt the first true pangs of regret. Not the kind like a sinking stone, more like the buzzing sense of going the wrong direction in a corn maze. Survival wasn’t the question. Nobody died in a corn maze. But there was the high probability of taking the long way to a dead end or, worse, walking back out the way you came in.
This working relationship he and Loki were attempting to forge was tenuous. Fragile. And Strange still wasn’t sure what Loki’s newfound affection for humanity was all about. He was following along and hoping things didn’t turn sour, but the odds weren’t exactly in their favor.
So it unnerved Strange, just a little, when they did not turn up where he’d expected, which was the fishing village where Loki’s girlfriend worked. For a few seconds, Strange had no idea where the hell he was. Somewhere deep in the mountains. A winding path led the way down to a tiny village in the valley.
“I thought we were going to Seine,” he said.
Loki wrinkled his nose, as if Strange was being stupid. “Why would you think that?”
“Because you said we were going to a Norwegian cafe.” Seemed like a pretty reasonable assumption.
“We are.” Loki gestured down the road to nothing in particular, but it was easy enough to imagine what was down there. And they were in Norway, as far as Strange could tell, assuming he knew a fjord when he saw one. It was about twenty degrees colder than it’d been in New York. Strange lifted the hood of his parka against the wind. It looked and felt more like dusk than midday, being so far north.
Loki nonchalantly conjured a knit hat and pulled it over his ears. Apparently that was the only adjustment he needed to make.
“You really thought I would bring you to Cora’s?” Loki’s heavy brows had gone high, disappearing into his new hat. He looked as though he might laugh, although Strange would have hardly called the expression mirthful. More just...sardonically amused. “Last time you saw each other, she attacked you. You want to revisit that?”
Strange rolled his eyes, but he didn’t comment. Truthfully, he’d been kinda looking forward to going to Cora’s place, if only to make some scientific observations. Psychological ones, mostly. He had questions, one of them being what did such an seemingly sane woman see in Loki? Seemed worth studying.
Not that the guy was totally devoid of...charm? Was that what Loki possessed? Strange was still waiting for that charm to work on him. He wanted to believe Loki was being sincere about this change of heart...and to be honest, he kind of did...but…
He was wary. He had to be. Making sure he didn’t do stupid things was as much a part of his job now as it had been when he was a surgeon. People’s lives mattered.
They started down into the valley. The wind nipped at Strange’s face. The village seemed ancient the deeper they got into it. Some of the scattered houses looked abandoned, but they gave way to a few paved roads and farms and goats . Good god, there were hundreds of goats! And they all seemed to be moving around as though fence was a dirty word.
“What’s this place called?” Strange finally asked.
“Ørdon,” said Loki. One of the smaller animals brushed up against his leg and he gently patted it between the ears as he passed, a gesture which caused yet another spring in Strange’s brain to leap out of place.
“When you asked me if I liked goat, I thought you meant, you know, to eat. For lunch.”
“I did. The cafe is right over here.” Again, Loki motioned generally, but Strange’s eyes landed on the right spot: a little brick structure with a picture of a cheese wheel outside. In New York, the place would have been called a luncheonette. There was a patio with a nice view of the fjord, but it was too cold and the chairs weren’t out. And the sun was setting, anyway.
Strange pushed down his hood as they entered, more grateful for warmth than he had been even on the coldest days in Greenwich Village. The place was surprisingly modern inside, but Norway had a flair for that, didn’t it? There were a few Christmas decorations, too. Loki pulled off his hat and fluffed his hair back to life. He claimed a seat at one of the empty tables and Strange followed.
They hung their coats over the chairs. Strange felt a little too American in his old college sweatshirt. Loki looked like a native Norwegian in the black Nordic sweater he’d been wearing all morning. There were condiments on the table which Strange had never seen before, but there were laminated menus between the salt and pepper, half in English, thankfully.
Strange pulled out his reading glasses. They were scratched and dirty from lack of care. He wasn’t especially fond of needing them, although he really did need them whenever he was eating out. He ticked through the menu, going side-by-side between the Norwegian and the English. He didn’t want to be the American ordering the most American item he could find, but even with the translations, the descriptions didn’t paint the clearest picture: Danish pancake balls...reindeer feed...cloudberry jam…
He glanced at Loki, who seemed engrossed, like he was reading something far more important than a menu. Was Loki...a foodie? Didn’t exactly look like one. Strange also noticed, for the first time, that when they sat down they were roughly the same height. He didn’t need to crane his neck, which was a nice change, because Loki was one of the few people who could make Strange feel short.
Seeing eye-to-eye, even if just literally, couldn’t hurt things, he supposed.
It was actually a little funny how much height the guy lost when he wasn’t standing.
“What are you ordering?” Strange asked.
Loki looked up. He drew back his head, scowling, appearing startled.
“What?” asked Strange.
“You wear spectacles?”
Strange felt his eyelashes flutter against the lenses. Spectacles? He wanted to laugh. He thought better of it, but hell, what year had Loki learned that word? “I wear glasses, yes. Sometimes.”
“If you only wear them some of the time, how do you see the rest of the time?” Loki seemed genuinely concerned about this, or at the very least, deeply confused. Strange was pretty sure he had never seen either look on Loki’s face before.
“I only need them to read. Do Asgardians never need glasses?”
“Of course not,” Loki scoffed.
“Yeah, well, humans do. Especially us old ones.” He turned his attention back to the menu, only to realize Loki had completely ignored his question. “What are you ordering?”
Loki shrugged. “Well, I was thinking fried goat and cheese, but now that I’ve walked past all the kids...”
Strange looked up again. Loki was having second thoughts based on...cuteness? “Um. Yeah. Feels a little like eating someone’s pet.”
“Thor would think so.”
“Thor loves goats. I think if he hadn’t been born a prince, he would have had a very rewarding career as a shepherd.”
It was possibly the oddest, most unexpected thing Strange could have imagined Loki saying about his brother. And on top of it, Loki was smiling. Not his usual, vaguely unnerving grin, either. This was just a little one, like a wisp, like he was chuckling to himself—affectionate and, dare Strange think, warm .
But Loki’s eyes were pointed down and he probably had no idea Strange caught it.
“Thor the Lonely Goatherd, eh?” said Strange.
"Lonely? I suppose it can be. It is solitary."
“No, that’s a...thing from The Sound a Music…"
"Hm? Like a shepherd's pipe?"
Strange stared at him blankly. "Nevermind. Why in the world would I have thought you’d seen that movie...?" His voice dissolved into muttering as Loki shrugged, but it occurred to Strange that there was a question worth asking here. " Have you seen any movies?"
"Of course," said Loki with another shrug. “There wasn’t much to do when I was in New York.”
Strange felt himself blanch, all the warmth pooling in his throat—the house arrest, the locks around Loki’s magic, the illness...the months dragging by. All of it flooded him, the hours he’d spent observing Loki watching inane things on TV while he slowly wasted away. It turned his stomach.
Could Loki really talk about it so casually, like it was mostly forgotten? Had he really stopped caring? Because Loki seemed to remember and care about everything.
"Any movies you liked?" asked Strange, clearing his throat.
"Hmm... A Lion in Winter comes to mind."
Strange raised an eyebrow. Top-notch writing, sharp wit, family drama—why did it feel like he ought to have guessed?
“And you?” Loki asked. “Are there any movies you like, Strange?”
For some reason, the question took Strange by surprise, as though he had forgotten they were just making conversation. “Uh, Tootsie . That’s my favorite movie.”
A Lion in Winter and Tootsie ...yeah, not much to springboard off of that.
And Loki didn’t ask any follow-up questions.
“I believe I’ll have smoked mackerel,” he said abruptly. Strange felt jolted back to reality. He needed to pick a sandwich. Smoked mackerel, eh? He’d seen that on the menu. It came with peas and apple and dill, which sounded good—but unfortunately, it also came with smoked mackerel, so...
Strange decided he was just going to order the Egg Smørrebrød, which he was pretty sure meant egg salad sandwich . It probably was the most American thing on the menu, but he was way past taking any more risks with his lunch today.
Strange set his glasses to the side, but no sooner had they touched the table than Loki picked them up and put them on. No questions asked. He just grabbed them.
What possessed people to do that? Aliens, too, apparently. See glasses, try on glasses.
“These help you?” Loki asked with an air of disbelief, blinking with exaggeration.
“Here.” Strange grabbed a sugar packet and tossed it across the table.
Loki’s eyes settled. They shifted back and forth as he read the fine print. “They’re simply magnifying lenses.”
“That’s exactly what they are.” Strange leaned back and folded his arms. Loki’s beady eyes looked enormous, like a lemur.
Loki took them off and studied the sugar packet again. “I suppose I can appreciate the benefit, although I can still read perfectly fine without them.” He folded the glasses and handed them back to Strange, who clipped them to the front of his shirt.
“Thank you for your endorsement.”
Neither of them were reading the menus anymore. The clerk behind the counter asked if they knew what they wanted, in English. Loki replied in Norwegian. Show off. Strange ordered his egg salad. Whatever it turned out to be, he’d force himself to eat it, because he was starving—although once Thor had tricked him into ordering some truly disgusting fish in a Norwegian tavern and that had tested his resolve.
This was before everything else that unfolded in Seine, including the black eye.
Strange’s arms, still folded, were starting to become stiff. He felt a little like he was guarding himself, now that he no longer had a menu to hold or glasses to blur everything past the length of his arm. He was simply sitting across from Loki, who looked equally uncomfortable, honestly. His hands were doing that twitchy thing and his smile was starting to look pasted on.
Regardless of Loki wanting to repay Strange for his time and effort, they hadn’t magically become friends in the past few hours. From outside, the bleating of the goats grew louder, filling the lull, and Strange simultaneously became aware that there was music being played. Some Norwegian pop station. Everything sounded loud.
“So, Thor and goats, huh?” Strange repeated himself, but someone had to say something. "Or were you just kidding about that?"
Loki didn’t react.
Stange winced. It had been worth a shot. "Kidding. Like a goat. Get it?"
"No, I got it."
"Sorry. Baaaad pun. Heh." He cleared his throat. “Um, how did you find this place, anyway? Feels remote.”
“I think we covered half of Norway. There’s a stave here that’s ghastly, though. I wouldn’t recommend it, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.”
“They tried to fix it up roughly a century ago, as it was explained to me. Should have left it the way it was.”
“You prefer the old style?” Although Strange didn’t really know what the old style was. The only stave he’d seen up close was the first Loki had visited, back when he was Ross’s spy.
“Torgunn was my favorite,” said Loki.
Yep. That was the one Strange had seen. Suddenly, he didn’t want to talk about staves anymore. He changed the subject. “I assume you’re going back to Seine after this? Back to your girlfriend? How long are you—”
Swift as one of his daggers, Loki’s brow narrowed. If the reaction had been any sharper, Strange would have been left bleeding.
Right. The guy hated that term for some reason. Was girlfriend an offensive thing to say out in space? “Your, er...what should I call her? Just Cora?”
“Doctor Eriksen feels more appropriate.”
“That’s a little formal, isn’t it?”
“Well, I’m a little formal.”
Strange stopped there, in part because he was at a loss, but also because the clerk had circled around with two glasses of something red and bubbly. And then Strange was doubly at a loss because he had never ordered anything to drink. He’d been too focused on not accidentally ordering fish cakes.
He gestured to the glasses in confusion, trying to get the clerk’s attention, although his hands, as usual, moved a little more slowly than he would have liked. “Excuse me,” he called “Sorry, I’m not sure—”
“Lingonberry soda,” said Loki, waving the clerk away.
Strange shook his head. “But I didn’t order—”
“I know. I did.”
A dozen questions came to mind, actually. Loki had just castigated him, and now he was being given a beverage? How did Loki intend to pay for all of this anyway? Did Loki have money? Was all of this actually leading to an elaborate, goat-themed prank?
Loki picked up his drink and took a long pull through the straw. “Similar to cherry in flavor, I would say.”
Strange scratched the back of his neck. He drank some, too. It was, as Loki said, similar to cherry in flavor. “S’good.” A little syrupy, but it was fine. He’d rather have a coffee this time of day. Strange was pretty sure he’d had the same soda at an IKEA once. “Thanks.”
Loki seemed pleased by the approval. He folded his hands over the table and sort of smiled. At the very least, he wasn’t glowering anymore.
“So…” Strange attempted to take the conversation from the top. “How is Dr. Eriksen?”
The glowering returned. “Why do you keep asking?”
All right, this was getting annoying, now. Strange brushed back his hair, tugging at a few strands along the way. “I’m not . I mean I am. I’m just making conversation.” Did Loki not know how to do that? Wasn’t he a prince? Weren’t princes extensively trained in banal etiquette?
“I’d prefer to keep my private life private.”
“Okay. That’s fine. But she’s basically the only thing I know about you, so I thought...”
Strange didn’t finish the sentence. Honestly, he didn’t know what he thought, because he hadn’t been thinking about anything, really. He’d just been trying to come up with something to talk about.
He sighed as his back fell against his chair. Dammit, he genuinely liked the guy, shocking as it was. At least he wasn’t the most acerbic person in the room when Loki was around. Maybe Loki liked him, too. He suspected Loki didn't bother with people he hated these days. They might actually get along if they could break through the surface...
Though he couldn’t exactly blame Loki for wanting to keep everything on the surface, could he?
“Sorry,” said Strange.
Loki acknowledged the apology without showing much emotion. A stiff nod. He’d started to toy around with the sugar packet. Strange hadn’t noticed him pick it up, but he also hadn’t noticed him put it back after reading it, so maybe it had been in his hands the entire time. He turned it over and over, never looking at it. He flicked it with his fingernail.
Hell, the guy’s hands were twitchier than his sometimes. Bad poker players, the both of them.
After everything Ross had done, why wouldn’t Loki’s hackles go up at any mention of the one human being he cared about? Ross had threatened Cora. Strange had almost gone along with it.
But he’d walked away when the cost of his integrity had grown too high.
Maybe it didn’t matter, but he hoped it did. He believed in redemption. He believed in changing course.
Strange felt the urge to take a drink. The cold bubbles burned his throat on the way down and he coughed to clear his chest. “I swear, I was just making chit chat. That’s all. We don’t have to talk about her if it still makes you uncomfortable. Hope it’s going well, though. I really do.”
Loki drew back his head. He looked like he was gnawing on the inside of his mouth. He stared off to the side.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
Strange cut him off. “You don’t have to apologize.”
Loki scratched at his palm.
Again they were interrupted by the clerk, this time with their sandwiches. They murmured their thank yous. Frankly, Strange was just happy to have a distraction.
The sandwiches were open-faced. Strange hadn’t expected that. Was he supposed to fold it together, or…?
Loki picked up his knife and fork and began to cut his sandwich. It looked decidedly weird, but he was the Scandanavian expert. Strange decided to do the same, even if parcelling his food wasn’t the easiest thing for him to do these days. He took a bite. It was possibly the best egg salad he had ever eaten. Heavy on the dill, but he liked that, and there were little bits of apple in there, too.
“The food here is very good,” Loki commented, far more subdued than before.
“Yeah. Really good.” Strange finished swallowing and cleared his throat. “Was this village your favorite, of the ones you visited?”
“This food was my favorite.” At that, Strange chuckled. Loki did, too, though almost too quietly to hear. “They also give a cheese-making demonstration. I’ll have to do that one of these days.”
“For the inevitable cheese samples,” said Strange.
“Obviously.” Loki looked up, smiling the slightest bit, still not with his eyes, and then he grimaced. “Listen, I know you didn’t mean anything...but it’s in my nature to be protective of...that which I care about...”
The goats must have wandered away from the window, because it was suddenly very quiet. Even the radio had turned to an uninteresting commercial.
“And the people I care about,” Loki continued. “Paranoia, perhaps, but it is what it is.”
“I’m sorry I’m part of why you to feel that way,” said Strange. “I really am.”
Loki waved a hand. “You’ve apologized enough. I’m tired of hearing it, actually. It’s not as though I wasn’t paranoid before we met.”
Strange lifted his shoulders at that. He wasn’t going to argue or agree, even though he sensed Loki was trying to lighten the mood. “Well, I hope one day you can learn to trust me, if that’s what you want.”
“Trust you with what, exactly?”
Answering a question with a question was starting to feel like Loki’s MO, but it felt less annoying, now. “I don’t know. Just generally. If you need someone to trust.”
“And do you trust me, Strange? Generally?” Loki lifted an eyebrow. Strange couldn’t tell if he was being sincere or slightly facetious, but with Loki it might have been both. His guard was still up. It always was.
“Yeah, I guess I do.” Strange reached for his soda.
Loki laughed. At least the guy had a sense of humor, lack of appreciation for goat puns aisde. That was going to work in their favor.
They ate. Loki was less neat about it than Strange would have thought, but maybe that was an Asgardian thing. He ate like he was ravenous, really. Like he was...comfortable.
He was fastidious about his napkin, though. He refolded it every time he used it.
“Where was it you attended school for healing, Strange? Or would you prefer I called you Doctor Strange?” he asked, after a little while.
“Doctor Strange is fine.”
“No, Stephen is fine, honestly. I went to Columbia. It’s in New York.”
“Is it a good school?”
Strange grinned. “The best.”
“Naturally.” Loki returned to his food. He was almost finished; he took the last bite, chewing more thoughtfully than before, and swallowed. He fidgeted with his hands for a moment. “Cora is well. She’s, erm, in the midst of donating some of the things she’s collected to the museum where she used to work. The authentication is a more complicated process that I realized.”
Strange nodded slowly. He picked up his napkin and dried his hands. “Uh, yeah, I had to sell off a bunch of things...when I moved. Tedious.”
Loki glanced up from his plate. Strange knew he was stealing a look at his hands, but he didn’t say anything about them. Some people would have been offering to help cut his food by now, but Loki wasn’t the type.
That was another point in their favor.
“So," Strange set his fork to the side, "egg is egg in Norwegian, but how do I pronounce the word for sandwich?” asked Strange.
“Erm…” Loki tilted his face toward the ceiling in thought. “Smur-broth.”
“Smur-broth,” repeated Strange. “Egg smurbroth. I’ll look it up. Oh, hey. Did I see that they have coffee here? I could use a cup.”
“They do,” said Loki, “But...I know a far better place for coffee.”