The impact of her sword collides with Loki’s.
He moves left, one foot crossing over the other, eyes not leaving her. Valkyrie draws her cutlass back and bares her teeth. She springs, leaping forward. Loki meets her sword, but swivels his own, using the momentum to displace her position. Or he would have done, had she not been anticipating it, prepared to spin with the motion rather than resist it.
She stands a few feet away, faint exasperation tainting her expression. “You know you’re not going to win.”
Loki positions himself, ready to move in either direction. “I’m very aware that it would be in your best interest to have me believe so.”
Her eyes glaze over, as if this is all unworthy of notice, as if this exchange is dull. “It’s in your best interests too.” Then she adds with mocking sweetness, as if she is being considerate, “It’ll help with the bruising.”
“Give me my daggers any day.”
“Of course. You prefer to wriggle your way out of situations rather than face them head-on. You’d much rather be a blade in the dark than a sword in the chest.”
“Well, yes.” Loki feigns confusion. “Wouldn’t you?”
She takes one step forward, the deck creaking beneath her foot, and her sword arm raised to rest the tip of the blade against his chest.
Loki does not move. The feel of it renders him still; how little pressure she’s applying, just the barest trace of it, in contrast to how solid and heavy and imposing her sword is. Slowly, achingly slowly, she drags a line from his ribcage to naval and watches as he tries not to twitch.
“Hm,” she utters. “Somehow I think I’d rather be a sword in the chest.” Her eyes are still on his face, the angle of the sun giving them the illusion of tiger stone. “And besides, subtle daggers in the dark don’t tend to be of that much use onboard a ship like this.”
The reminder does not come as particularly welcome.
Loki deflects the blade with a swift motion. It provides a brief respite to use to his advantage.
Valkyrie is stronger than he is, of that much he is certain. She would have him believe her to be the superior swordmaster too, and though when they spar with cutlasses she wins more often than he does, how they fare against one another using other weaponry has yet to be determined.
Regardless, Loki is faster – not that she’s slow, damn her – more precise, better balanced. A blade in the dark, she’d compared him to. And yet cutlass against cutlass, he will likely lose. He needs to be more than his weapon, more than his technique, more than a dancer practising the same steps. He needs to lure her into a situation that better suits his strength.
He feints in one direction, misdirecting her pursuit before making a sudden veer around the foremast and sprinting across the main deck.
Naturally, she follows – he can hear her boots pounding on the wood behind him – but he reaches the mast first and begins making his way up the ratline.
“Running again, Lackey?” she taunts from below.
“Not running,” Loki says, ignoring how the speed at which he’s ascending causes the rope to burn underneath his fingers. “ Climbing .”
The rope grows taut as she places her weight on it, and it starts to sway ever so slightly with the momentum of someone underneath him.
Loki has to act quickly, before he loses the benefits of having the higher ground. His eyes flick between Valkyrie and the rope, back and forth, back and forth.
She catches the look. “Don’t you dare.” A second passes. “I mean it.”
They’re rather high up now. Bones could be broken. And then who would he have to spar with – Thor?
Loki bears a smile. “I wouldn’t do anything of the sort.”
Valkyrie gives a loud snort. “I know you better than that, Odinson.”
He opens his mouth to argue, but the words fail to come. The conviction is no longer a living thing buried inside his chest that begs to be heard. Odin is dead, and perhaps along with it is Loki’s desire to dispute his parentage – not that its voice is entirely silent, but it’s considerably quieter than it used to be.
“Ah,” Loki replies, “but do you know me well enough to anticipate this?”
By freeing a hand, he unhooks one of the strings that keep the sail rolled up, and the fabric comes tumbling down. It’s not heavy enough to knock her or throw her off-balance, but it’s enough to be an obstacle, getting in the way of her path and shielding him from sight.
While she’s blinded, he leverages himself up to the boom and edges his way along it. Balancing is a precarious matter; the wood is barely wider than the width of his foot and he doesn’t fancy testing its ability to hold his weight too far away from the centre. Had the sea been anything other than calm, he wouldn’t have ascended, but even so, from this height the slightest of waves feel more debilitating than anticipated.
It takes an alarmingly short amount of time before she joins him there, standing opposite, appearing entirely at ease.
“I wasn’t aware you were so eager to test your footwork,” she remarks, appearing unbothered by standing several feet above the deck.
“You told me it was something I did well. I thought I might as well use it to my favour.”
“No, no. I told you your footwork was better than your swordsmanship, not that it was something you did well.” She takes a step closer, the wind ruffling her blouse and hair. “And you would call this a fair fight?”
“What would you call it?”
“An incident, if I wasn’t to hold back. Thor wouldn’t be happy with me if I allowed you to fall. And the crew would be less than happy if someone fell through the deck. Not to mention that you’ll be upsetting the trajectory of The Statesman if you keep unfurling sails like that.”
“I have more faith in my footwork than you do. And regardless, I’m sure the crew can handle one or two unfurled sails.”
She rolls her eyes. “Have it your way then.”
“You sincerely mean that?”
“So long as you’re held entirely responsible for whatever fate becomes of you.”
Loki nods. “Very well.”
“We’ll make an exercise out of it. We’ll focus on combat at close quarters without you being able to run. The only rule you must comply with is that you can move however you like so long as you keep a hand gripped to the mast.”
“Myself?” She smiles darkly. “I can do whatever I like.”
Her cutlass lashes out, faster than a whip. Loki is barely able to block it before she switches her stance, coming at him from the opposite side. There’s another clash of swords, and then he wraps an arm around the mast and uses it to swing himself around it.
Without hesitation, she follows. The boom creaks beneath their feet. They’re at closer quarters now, close enough that he can see the thin layer of sweat on her face, close enough that– Is that her exertion he can smell? There’s a faint musk in the air, not entirely unpleasant, and it becomes stronger as she moves closer, so it must be hers.
The air, as it has been for the past several days, is hot, thick with moisture. It triggers the question of whether she can smell the scent of him too, whether she is close enough to see how the sun burned him, how his skin has still not yet fully healed, whether she would even look closely enough to notice.
She initiates a strike. It’s lazy, not intended to hit so much as intended to test how well he moves under such restricted circumstances. Loki forces himself to delay his reaction, his sword barely meeting hers in time. As he deflects, the ruffle at the end of her shirt brushes against the back of his hand, almost enough to cause him to fumble his retaliation: the pretence of a hit to the right of her torso, followed by a quick one to the left.
The blow lands. Incidentally, his fumbling must have added enough believability to his actions for the bluff to catch her off guard.
“The first point goes to you,” she concedes.
It’s something of a rarity – not only her admitting defeat, but also in that she is usually the one to win the first points in their practice matches.
“It must be tremendously difficult for you to accept–”
Valkyrie begins to rain down a series of blows, all hard, all fast, coming from this way and that, taking full advantage of how restricted he is by being tethered to the mast.
Loki manages to block the majority of them. The rest will leave bruises; the blade attachments will see that it will be bruises and not cuts.
One clash, two clashes, and a third that results in her sword being held to his throat.
Loki remains perfectly still, the only part of him moving being his chest as he fights to regain his breath.
“The point is mine,” she declares, the hilt of her sword rising and falling with his chest.
From the position he’s in, it’s difficult to argue. “I would nod, if not for the blade at my throat.”
“We’ll play again.”
A strike. He parries, then tries to lash out with his sword, but she knocks his arm out of the way. They’re both moving around the mast now, using it as a pivot point.
Step. Dodge. Swing. Duck. Step. Dodge again. Switch sides. Their feet lock in a competition of spontaneous choreography, moving in reflections of each other, swords singing as they collide.
Fighting like this, Valkyrie is just as solid as the steel of her blade: unbending, unyielding, unrelenting. But if she is made of rock and earth, Loki decides, then he will be the wind: impossible to grasp, too fast to see, too difficult to predict.
It is unfortunate, then, that the wind must be tethered to a mast, because here she has the upper hand. She decides when to attack, when to retreat, and which angle to approach from. What are his chances of winning if he is forced to spend the majority of his time defending himself? Therefore, he decides, he needs an attack of his own. Something she won’t anticipate.
One hand on the mast. That was the rule. There is nothing to say he needs his feet to remain there too.
Abruptly, he leaps upwards, one hand seizing the next boom, the other trailing the mast because... There. Technically he didn’t stop touching it.
Valkyrie tries to follow, but she’s too short to reach. The ratline ladder is her only remaining option if she wants to follow, and it’s the one she takes. Loki acts faster this time, positioning himself so that his sword is at her fingers the moment she tries to grasp the first rung.
Her fingers, he notes, are going to be very bruised later, should she continue stubbornly onwards.
“Is that a point to me?” he asks.
“For what, exactly? Making it difficult to climb a ladder?”
“If these were real blades, you wouldn’t have fingers to grip your sword with.”
Her eyes close. “Fine. Another point to you. Try not to let it go to your head.”
The wind is a welcome thing.
He’s been worked so hard his skin is covered in a layer of sweat, and the sea spray causes his hair to stick together in hardened clumps.
The crow’s nest isn’t a usual haunt of his, but the setting sun provides a sweet allure, the amber reflecting off the surface of the sea, combined with the pinks and blues of the sky on the highlights of the waves. Usually he’d be belowdecks, avoiding the majority of the crew and the possibility of his skin becoming any pinker than it already has done. Irritatingly, Valkyrie never seems to suffer from the same ailments.
She sits on the opposite side to him, legs dangling beneath her as she gazes at the horizon. They’ve been playing at this game of temporary peace since their last match ended.
First, it had been the best of five rounds, which Loki had won the majority of. And shortly afterwards, they’d agreed to another best of five rounds, only that had extended into ten rounds instead. Out of those ten rounds, Valkyrie was victorious in seven of them.
“This is my place, not yours,” she says, still looking out of the horizon, voice cutting into his thoughts. “But fight like that more often and I’ll reward you by letting you stay here for longer.”
“Oh, you’ll allow me, will you?” He suspects she doesn’t need to look at him to know he’s not being entirely serious. ““I’d hardly call it a choice place. The views, I’ll grant you, are better than anywhere else in the ship, but the seating is by far the least comfortable, and there’s absolutely nothing in the way of privacy.”
“Suit yourself.” She stops looking at the ocean, turning to face him instead. “But if you want somewhere more comfortable – just this once, mind you – then I have an alternate suggestion.”
“What is this for?” Loki asks, nodding to the rum Valkyrie has poured for him.
They’re in her cabin, one of the larger rooms neighbouring the captain’s, only shared between herself and one other crew member of The Statesman, who, according to her, will remain occupied for the entire duration of the night. One of the beds contains more clothing than bedding – and likely more alcohol than bedding too – while the other remains scrupulous and free of the clutter surrounding the bed he can only assume belongs to Valkyrie. The window is so grotty that, were it the middle of the day, it would let in just as little light, and there’s a small table fixed to the wall beneath it, along with a pair of chairs at either side.
“Drinking,” comes her answer.
He represses a sigh. “I hope this doesn’t come as a surprise to you, but I did manage to deduce that without your assistance. My question was referring to...” He almost waves a hand in her direction but stops himself. “... You.”
“I’m not doing this for you, if that’s what you think.”
“Did they teach you that you can’t possibly have someone think you’re doing something for them back on your island of Sakaar?”
“You’re one to talk.” She moves the bottle more forcefully in Loki’s direction, an unspoken command. “But no. I learned that lesson long before Sakaar. And in this case, I really am doing this for my benefit. See, I want to drink.”
“The prospect of drinking alone never seemed to discourage you before.”
“A few weeks ago, Thor had… a discussion with me.”
“Ah. This was after your narrow miss with an intimate meeting with the sea, I take it?”
Her scowl confirms it. “As Captain, he made me vow not to continue to drink alone.”
“I believe I understand. You are forced to choose company, and in doing so have settled upon me being the person to fulfil the requirement for you to drink without breaking your word.”
“You catch on quicker than he does.”
“Come on,” she urges. “Drink up. You’re falling behind.”
Loki wrinkles his nose. “This is hardly a race.”
“Maybe it should be.”
“I’m not fond of the sound of that.”
“No, I’m serious.” She squints at him. “Are you even tipsy? You’re going to need some kind of push.”
“I’m definitely not fond of the sound of that.”
“Let’s play a drinking game. Look. I’m being social. Reaching out. Thor will be happy. He might even be more lenient with you too if he thinks you’ve had a social interaction with someone other than him.”
“As difficult as it might be to comprehend, sometimes I do interact with people other than Thor.”
“Your duties as the first mate don’t count.”
Loki stares flatly. “And what exactly would my incentive be to partake in this game of yours?”
“Firstly, you can get Thor to stop fretting. And secondly, don’t you get curious?”
“About the person you’re partnered with.”
“Not enough to discuss anything I’d rather leave unsaid.”
“What about if I let you ask me about what happened with your sister?”
Loki eyes the drink in her hand, then her. “One round only.”
“How about this?” Valkyrie proposes, almost sweetly. Instinct says not to trust it. “Here are the rules of the game: I ask you a question. If you don’t want to answer it, you drink. You’re welcome to lie, of course. But I’m good at telling when people are lying.”
“Most people are under the impression they are,” Loki replies. “More often than not, it fails to occur to them that if someone has successfully lied to them and it isn’t discovered, then that person is unlikely to confess. The true number of lies a person has failed to detect over the course of their lifetime is something they’ll never know.”
She remains unfazed. “Sometimes lies reveal more about a person’s motives than the truth does.”
“Only if you’re able to notice.”
“I have no issues gambling with being able to notice.”
“Just as well, in that case.”
“So you’re agreeing. You’ll play.”
“Provided that I will have an equal opportunity to ask you questions in return.”
Her gaze remains cool, but her hand tightens around the handle of her drink. “Of course,” she says levelly.
“Then let us begin.”
Valkyrie remains seated opposite him, her boots having been kicked to the floor. “How long do you intend to stay onboard?”
“Ah,” Loki says. “I see you aren’t easing me into your interrogation.”
“It’s not a difficult question. I didn’t think it required easing.”
Loki leans back; the chair is uncomfortable, hard wood digging into his shoulder blades. “Very well. I don’t know.”
“I’m not refusing to answer. My answer is that I don’t know myself.”
“Then elaborate or drink.”
“I...” The instinct that his time on The Statesman can’t be indefinite and that this isn’t his crew, that these aren’t his people even if most of were previously crew members of The Æsir before it sank to the bottom of the ocean, is something he has little interest in expressing aloud. “Fine,” he concedes, and drinks.
The rum is sweet in his mouth before it burns.
Valkyrie seems to take vicious delight in it. “Passing already?”
“So it would seem.” Loki sets the mug back down.
Ever so slightly, she purses her lips while she waits for his question.
Asking about Hela had been her suggestion; while it might yield interesting answers, it’s something she must have prepared herself for. What she’ll ask in return is a mystery. He elects to ask about a different topic instead: “When did you become so… accustomed to drinking like this?”
“The phrase ‘drinking like a sailor’ must exist for a reason.”
“And you intend to live up to that expectation – is that what you would have me to believe?”
“I don’t see why not.”
“It would help you keep up with me during our footwork and balance training if you spent less of your time moderately intoxicated.”
“I can already keep up with you on both of those counts. Nine out of fifteen rounds, Loki, that’s how many I won.”
“Do you not find the thought of how many more times you would have won, had you been sober, alluring?”
“You’re almost persuasive.” She cocks her head to one side. “Don’t tell me you’re concerned about me.”
“Good.” Her eyes don’t leave him, and suddenly it feels like the chair won’t let him leave, not even if he wanted to. “Because I’d hate that.”
“I can look after myself.”
“And I don’t need anyone – least of all you – fretting.”
“I’ve been reliably informed that I don’t fret about anyone other than myself.”
A long moment passes. Her eyes are no less dark, but the sharp edge to them fades.
Loki releases a faint huff of mild amusement. “It’s rare for anyone to class my inherent selfishness as something with positive merits.”
She shrugs. “Since being on this ship, it’s rare for anyone to not be on my case. So here we are.”
The uncertainty of how far she’ll allow him to push almost causes him not to voice, “You still haven’t answered the question.”
“About when you first started excessively–”
“Your question is wrong. It’s not that excessive. Or anything in particular. What else am I supposed to drink, anyway? Nothing keeps like barrelled rum. It’s not like there are many other options this far out to sea anyway. So ask a different question.”
He could push further, he knows, but something about the way she’s poised herself screams brittleness, like she might snap back at him and exile him from her cabin. It comes with a certain degree of surprise that he’d rather that not come to fruition, that he doesn’t like the thought of not making the most of this. Because this is an opportunity. The chance to understand an opponent, to learn information of value.
Leverage. This is all about the right leverage. A calculation: time to step back to a topic she’d prefer, one that can coax her back into a false sense of security.
“You mentioned knowing who our father was,” Loki begins. “So how did you know Odin?”
“He’s the Pirate King – or he was. Everyone who has stepped foot on a ship knows who he is.”
“I meant how you became acquainted with him.”
“Then you asked the wrong question. So it’s my turn again.”
“We’re playing like that, are we?”
“Some would call it unsportsmanlike.”
“I answered your question. I went by the rules. You’re the one who wants to bend them for yourself.”
“That isn’t how I view it.”
“I only wanted to know how heavily we are enforcing the rules before finding myself being accused of pedanticism.”
“If you say so.” And yet she sounds as if she doesn’t believe a word of what he’s just said. “As for my question, Loki, I heard a rumour about you. I heard you fell into the sea and didn’t return until years later. I heard it made you lose your mind.”
Ah. So she had heard something about that.
“I assure you,” he says, “my mind remains perfectly intact.”
He hopes it’s not a lie.
It’s probably a lie.
“Right. Anyway, I want to know what you got your hands on. Because I heard that you single-handedly destroyed entire fleets.” Her tone suggests a vague sense of being impressed, so Loki doesn’t correct her on the rumour only being partially true. “That’s something not even the Pirate King would do. But you did. So what did you get your hands on?”
Not why. She isn’t asking why he did it, why countless men died as a result of his actions. She’s asking how he did it. A part of him appreciates the pragmatism.
“Not many have thought to ask,” he states.
She raised an eyebrow as if to ask, So?
“Inferno powder,” Loki utters.
“You knew the alchemists of the Black Order?”
“That would be a different question altogether.”
“I see what you mean about the likelihood of you being accused of being pedantic.” She waits for a second, then adds, with a hint of teasing, “You are pedantic, you know that, don’t you?”
Loki meets her eyes and doesn’t find them cold. “I was following the example set. And besides, isn’t that another question?”
“Alright, alright, I suppose that was bound to come around to bite me in the end. Your turn.”
“How did you come into contact with my father? Or, with Odin, I should say, if pedanticism is going to once again rear its ugly head.”
“He hired me. I was sent on board Valhalla .” She takes her time readjusting from slouching in her chair to sitting straighter, addressing the air next to his head. “We were to sail halfway around the world.”
Loki doesn’t take look away from her. “And did you?”
“That would be another question, wouldn’t it?” She punctuates the statement with another drink and the slump returns.
“If you’re that desperate to forfeit, I could always ask more difficult questions.”
“Not all of us view drinking as a forfeit, you know. As far as I’m concerned, I win either way. If I drink, I’ll be fine. If I get you to drink at the same time, I might even be entertained.”
“That doesn’t seem to be quite in the spirit of the rules.”
She waves a hand. “We made up the rules before we started. We get to decide what’s in the spirit of them or not.” Her hand slams on the table. “Anyway, it’s my question.” She takes a moment to study him. “What business did the Black Order have with you?”
“They hired me. They were... disgruntled with the disruption to their trade. They weren’t fond of the Royal Navy and their meddling, but they were less fond of their goods being stolen by pirate vessels.”
“We’re good at getting in the way like that.”
We. She means pirates as a whole, he knows, but the word still sounds oddly intimate.
“What was the purpose of the journey you took with Valhalla?”
“To transport a number of people able to influence various pirate lords. Why have you barely spoken to Thor since you boarded?”
“He’s been preoccupied relearning how to captain a ship.”
He drinks and neglects to bother denying it. The burn is easier to tolerate this time. “I don’t have the energy to argue with Thor.”
“Liar.” The word is spoken louder, more assertive.
Another drink and the burn is almost pleasant. “The Æsir lies at the bottom of the ocean because of us. I suspect Thor can’t look at me without seeing its demise.”
Her eyes narrow. “That sounds closer to the truth. Though I still don’t think that’s all there is to it.”
Loki drains the last of his drink in one gulp. “Will that satisfy you?” The volume of his voice surprises him. It’s not a shout, but it’s considerably louder than is typical for him.
Her eyes linger on the mug, and her mouth half raises. “Only if you refill.”
“You won’t have me begging for mercy, if that’s your desire.”
She smiles, a show of teeth and mischief. “You should learn to be more careful with your words.” There’s an underlying air of amusement. “I thought you had a reputation as a wordsmith.”
“And I thought you had a reputation as merciless.”
The smile vanishes. What is left is cold.
“I left that behind,” she bites out.
“Then don’t presume you’re the only person here who has left things behind.”
She glares with such intensity that it makes him concerned she’s going to tell him to leave.
Except it doesn’t happen.
The seconds that pass are filled with the sense that something should be happening, that they should be battling each other regardless of the table between them. It makes it stranger still that what settles is closer to peace than conflict – and yet it’s an odd sort of peace. Peace would require some form of resolution rather than remaining at a precipice. Speaking feels as if it might tip one of them over the edge, that it might put an end to their evening of building their own currency in the form of transacting vulnerability in exchange for information. But one of them will have to break the silence eventually.
If he reminds her of the game, if coaxes her into forgetting she was at his throat…
“Why did you work for the Grandmaster?” Loki asks.
She lifts her goblet to her mouth and swallows the contents in one gulp. “Why did you?”
“Technically, I didn’t.”
“What did you do for the Grandmaster, then? I’m curious.” She hurries her pouring and some of the liquid splashes onto the table. Then she swallows what’s left in her tankard in one gulp. “Well? What did the Grandmaster do with you?”
“He didn’t do anything.”
“I bet he liked the look of you,” she murmurs, so quietly Loki’s uncertain whether or not he’s supposed to hear.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“The Grandmaster liked to compare himself to a magpie. He said he had an eye for... shiny pretty things.”
Loki tries not to blanch. Tries to keep his features neutral. Tries to distract: “Should I take that as a compliment, coming from you?”
“Your adjective was ‘pretty’, was it not?”
“I also called you shiny, so make of that what you will.”
“I suppose it would be out of character for you to be so complimentary.”
“If for whatever reason I ever praise you, you’ll know about it. You won’t have to be reading between the lines.”
Loki takes another mouthful. “I suppose that’s one thing to be grateful for. Your… straightforwardness.”
“Look at you – drinking all by yourself without any prodding from me. It’s like you’re all grown up.”
“Do you intend to be so off-putting, or does it come naturally?”
She shrugs. “Could be either.”
“Is it your turn to ask the question or mine?”
“I... don’t know.” The realisation comes with a certain degree of alarm.
The alcohol has to be to blame; this is all her doing.
“Then I’m claiming it as mine,” she announces. “Do you still have any inferno powder left?”
“Do you mean to say the highly unstable and highly flammable substance that could lay waste to a ship if so much as stored incorrectly? You think I would harbour such a thing?”
“That answers my question.”
Good. His supply ran dry long ago, but there’s little reason to inform anyone else of it. Better those who are neither his enemies nor his friends overestimate what he has in his arsenal than underestimate it. And it does happen to be convenient that tricking her into believing so requires nothing more than silence on his part. Given the current circumstances, it’s also convenient that in this instance, at least, he doesn’t have to rely on his wits.
She’s compromised them both, damn her.
“As for my question...” Loki trails off. “Have you done this game of yours with anyone else? Thor, perhaps?”
The cocking of her eyebrow makes him regret how the question sounds, almost like he’s envious.
“That’s two questions but I’ll be generous. Yes to the first, no to the second.” She refills and drinks half of what was poured.
“You are aware you don’t have to do that, aren’t you? You answered the question. No forfeit was necessary.”
She grins, her teeth a bright white. “I told you, not all of us view drinking as a forfeit.”
“Why did you come back? You could have gotten yourself a fruitful deal with the Grandmaster, but you didn’t. You came back for The Æsir. I want to know why.”
Loki reaches for his tankard and almost misses the handle. “Principle,” he answers.
“You cared that much about who captains The Æsir?"
“I don’t think you’re telling the truth.”
“You believe I would care voluntarily?”
“I don’t think you cared that much about whether Hela commanded the crew or whether someone else did.”
For a lack of anything to do with his hands, Loki grasps his drink and takes a sip. If nothing else, it’s warming and numbing both at once. Perhaps this is why she does it.
“So?” Valkyrie probes.
“I had no desire to take my chances against The Grandmaster unnecessarily.”
Her face darkens. “No one ever does.”
It’s suddenly difficult to move, like if he brings attention to himself then she’ll be reminded of who he is and her lack of regard for him and how much she’ll hate herself for speaking this candidly with him.
There. She’s remembered herself. Loki can see it in her expression: the surprise that comes with realising how comparatively unguarded she’d just been, the uncertainty of what to do next, the beginnings of closing herself off.
“You did it,” he reminds her, and attempts not to sound bitter.
Her face flickers. “It took me long enough. Even you were quicker than me. You must have been acquainted with The Grandmaster for how long? A month? Maybe two?”
“Around that time, yes. But I had Thor.”
“You weren’t the only one who had Thor.”
“You required less… guidance than I did to cooperate.”
She leans closer, her voice so quiet it’s almost drowned out by the sound of the waves and the crew below, and Loki can’t look away from this Valkyrie, the one he never gets to witness. “Do you ever wonder,” she all but whispers, “what would have happened if we’d had no guidance at all?”
“I…” There’s a vulnerability in her he’s not used to her revealing, and looking at her suddenly feels like an invasion of privacy. “I do. Sometimes.”
Her fingers clench the tankard so hard that for a moment it seems as if she could crumple the metal. “Do you ever wonder what it means about us that we’re the only ones who needed persuading?”
It elicits a sharper inhalation of breath before he is able to consider his response. “I know what it means about me. But I don’t know what it means about you.”
Her mouth twitches. It looks both caustic and amused at the same time. “I was going to say the same thing.”
“I could assist with your understanding if you like.” Loki gestures to himself. “Cold. Ruthless. Self-serving.”
“Maybe. Then again, I’ve heard conflicting accounts. One account is that you took a blade to the gut for Thor.”
“I have a reputation for skill in the art of illusion and misdirection. I’m sure you could piece together what truly happened if you considered it further.”
Nothing changes. She remains perfectly calm, perfectly at ease. “Then lift your shirt.”
Loki almost drops his drink. “I beg your pardon?”
“If you never took that blade to your stomach, there won’t be a scar. So prove it. Lift up your shirt.”
“The removal of my clothing,” Loki says between gritted teeth, “is not at your beck and call.”
“Fine. Don’t lift your shirt. You’ve already told me all I need to know.”
“Don’t worry. Your secret is safe with me.” She winks. “Probably.”
For the first time that evening, Loki debates leaving, even goes as far as to stand, causing the cabin to sway in a manner he is only relatively certain isn’t because of the sea.
“Don’t leave.” She blanches, then alters her approach. “Please?”
Loki hesitates, remaining in place.
“I won’t tell anyone a word of what you've told me tonight.” She waits for a response but doesn’t receive one, and for the first time begins to sound uncertain. “Will you sit back down?” Her eyes render him still. “Please?”
Loki sits. “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever heard you use that word before, let alone twice.”
She gives him a mock punch in the arm, but it’s all wrong, like it’s forced, and it feels disorientating, jarring the atmosphere of the moment. “Don’t get too used to it. Anyway, I think it’s your turn.”
Oh. Of course. Back to their game of questions.
“Why do you want me here?” he asks. “Really?”
She looks at him, and just as pointedly, takes a long drink. “Did Odin ever mention the ship Helheim ?”
He tries not to stare at the small amount of liquid that now sits on her upper lip and chin. “Not that I can recall.”
“That must have come as a surprise when Hela arose.”
“Foolish of me not to anticipate a sister I had no knowledge of and her ship rising from the depths of the ocean.” He fingers the rim of his mug. “What made you decide to leave the island of Sakaar?”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time. I don’t regret deciding to.”
“Come now. There must be more to it than that.”
“Fine. I had little to lose, other than my life.” She announces it so casually that Loki is taken aback. “What? It’s not as if I was happy there. Anyway, my question. I want to know why Thor didn’t trust you.”
“That’s your question?”
“Don’t you understand already?”
“Not all of it, no. I don’t know what you think happened.”
“You mean in the past year alone, or the past five?”
“It could take numerous nights for that tale to be recounted in full detail.”
“Then it’s fortunate we have a great deal of rum, isn’t it?”
Loki’s mouth opens and closes without any words leaving it. “I… have done a lot of things.”
She lets out a small scoff. “Don’t make the mistake of believing you’re the only one special enough to have done lots of things, as you put it. You almost died for him. Surely that counts for something.” She catches the look on his face and laughs. “Don’t tell me Thor doesn’t know.” Her certainty solidifies. “Wait. Thor doesn’t know?” And then, “I don’t know why I’m even surprised.”
“My turn.” The alcohol is making him feel bolder, so he asks, “What happened while you were travelling on Valhalla ?”
She takes a drink more violently than usual, the rim colliding with her teeth. For that reason, Loki is surprised when she still answers, “The person who I loved the most in the world was murdered.”
“I… didn’t know that.”
“Why would you?” She downs another mouthful. “It’s not like I’ve told anyone else here.” She puts down the tankard, presumably harder than intended; the sound it makes when it collides with the table momentarily startles her. “Oh, and thank you.”
“For not telling me how sorry you are that she’s dead. I got really sick of that.”
It takes a long time to filter through his thoughts before deciding what to say next. “Is there something else you’d like to ask me?”
She wipes her mouth with the back of her hand, eyes boring into his. “How do you do it?”
“What are you referring to?”
“Remaining sober. Constantly. You lost The Æsir. Your entire ship. Several of your crew. And that’s only recently.”
“I’d hardly call it bravery or resilience on my part. I’m not overly fond of how it can make people be...”
“Let me guess – you were going to say ‘unseemly’.”
“Present company excluded, naturally.”
“I almost caught you there.”
“I don’t like losing control.” He lets out a breath of surprised laughter. “I’d go as far to say that I despise it, actually.”
Her eyes fall to her hand around the tankard, watching as it sways, “I think… I think there was a part of me that preferred it. Not being in control, I mean.”
“It can have a certain appeal, I’ll admit. If you’re not in control then the fault lies elsewhere.”
Her eyes light up. “Exactly.”
“Though I’m not overly fond of having to face the consequences of less than wise decisions.”
Valkyrie tilts her head. “You mean like now?”
“This,” Loki says, gesturing to the rum and various spillages on the table, “was entirely your idea. So, yes, I would call it unwise not only to drink this much, but also to have me as your primary source of company. There are plenty of others who would greatly appreciate your companionship, I’m sure.”
“Are you saying you don’t like my company?”
“I’m not saying that at all.” Too honest. He needs to stop doing that. “I’m saying you could have better company than me.”
“Maybe I don’t want better company.”
Loki finds himself suddenly having to cling on very tight to the handle of his drink.
“Maybe,” Valkyrie continues, “we’re both prone to unwise decisions.”
Both. Both. Both.
Loki swallows, hard. “What’s so unwise about two people who happen to find each other’s company not entirely intolerable spending an evening together?”
She barks out a laugh. “You’ve changed your tune.” Upon spying his empty goblet, she grabs another bottle. “Here.” She doesn’t slide it – she passes it, the warmth from her fingers touching his as she does so, and if her lack of retracting away is any indication, she doesn’t seem opposed to it.
Loki takes the bottle and pours. The bottletop meets the ceramic with a pleasant clink and some of the contents splashes down the outside.
This time, she laughs, the sound not too distinct from a giggle. Loki’s not heard her laugh like that before, not ever.
“Look at you,” she croons. “I’m proud. I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to get you this far.”
Loki can’t muster a response to that beyond admitting defeat, so instead he asks, “Whose turn is it?”
“Honestly, I have no idea. Maybe we should make a drinking game out of it.” Upon catching his expression, she laughs once again. “I’m not being serious.”
“You have your turn, then.”
“Alright.” Seriousness returns before she resumes staring at him, as if commanding the truth. “Why are you still here? We agreed to three rounds. It’s been… more than three. You’re not oblig– You’re under no obligation, I mean.”
Loki shifts on his seat. One of his knees accidentally knocks hers underneath the table, but she doesn’t move away. He leaves it there, less than half an inch away from hers, the air between his leg and hers humming like the static before a storm.
He waits for a sign that she wants him to move away, that she doesn’t want this. Only he can’t seem to find one– not yet, at least. Maybe she hasn’t noticed and that’s why. Maybe the instant she realises–
“Well?” she asks. “Why are you still here?”
Of course. He needs to answer her question. Either that or drink again. He isn’t sure how much more he can drink without humiliating himself further though.
“Maybe I was curious too.” It’s only after the words leave his mouth that he realises he should have chosen to drink instead.
But, again, she doesn’t seem to mind. The shape of her mouth is close to a smirk. ”There’s a saying about curiosity.”
“I’m hardly a cat.”
“No,” she says with mock seriousness. “You’re much bigger.”
“That must be the second highest compliment you’ve ever given me.”
“I’m not your friend.”
The next inhale of breath that he takes is a sharp one, but he manages to respond with forced evenness. “I’m well aware.”
“We won’t ever be friends.”
“You wound me.” The words are riddled with sarcasm, but might have been more convincing had there been no element of truth.
“It’s not anything personal.”
“That would make a change.”
“I just don’t like being around you.”
Loki forces a nod. “Might I recommend not inviting me to your cabin in the future, in that case?”
“You remind me too much of… things.”
“I don’t recall asking you to elaborate.”
“Don’t I remind you of them too?”
“You mean to say The Grandmaster?”
“No. Yes. Just… all of it. All the things about your past you want to leave behind. The parts of yourself you want to leave behind.”
He laughs, but it becomes hollow. “The Grandmaster was only the most recent element of my past. I have a far deeper well of things to draw from that I would like to forget, I’m afraid.” He meets her eyes. “So, no, you don’t remind me of it. Not too much, in any case.”
“Sometimes,” she says, not even bothering to wipe the remnants of drink from around her mouth, “I look at you and I just want to punch you as hard as I can in the face.”
“Your flattery knows no bounds.”
“I mean it. It’s like I can see every wrong choice you’ve made and every wrong choice you’re still making and I just want to wrap my hands around your throat.”
Loki says nothing.
“And,” she continues, not even sounding angry, just as if she is stating cold objective truths, “I can’t hate you either. You’re not me. I’m not you. We’ve both made awful decisions. I want to stay away from that, and you– You’ve made so many of them.” Her hand touches his. “I understand you, but I don’t like understanding you.”
Loki can’t meet her eyes anymore, can’t allow her touch to be so warm while her words are the opposite, and so he draws away. “If I had known you were summoning me here to inform me how little you can tolerate my presence–“
“It’s not that I can’t stand you, exactly. It’s just…” Now she’s the one who can’t meet his eyes. “Me. It’s me I can’t stand.”
Loki finishes what’s left in his cup. “If it’s any consolation, I can’t stand myself either.”
She laughs, but her voice cracks and the sound dies with it.
He risks a glance at her. “Do you still feel inclined to punch me in the face?”
He moves his hands down so they’re by his side rather than resting on the table. “Have at it then.”
“You don’t think I could hurt you? Are you intending to be that condescending?”
“Believe me, I’m well aware that you could hurt me.”
“Then… what? You want me to thank you after for graciously allowing me to–”
“I care little about whether or not I am thanked before or afterwards.”
“It won’t be the same. Not if you’re just letting me do it.”
“Would you like me to resist? I could fight back if you like.”
“It still won’t be the same and you know it.”
“You don’t want to try? Come now, what are you so afraid of?”
“If I like it, that’s a problem. If I don’t like it, that’s also a problem. Can you understand why that would be a dilemma?”
“I could punch you in retaliation if you prefer.”
She laughs and the sound isn’t unkind. “That reminds me of a game I used to play as a child.”
“You punched each other in the face?”
Another laugh. Again, not unkind. “No. We slapped each other’s hands. One person holds their palms together like this and dodges–“ she demonstrates as she talks “–and the other person gets to slap as hard as they like. If they miss then they swap roles.”
Loki holds his hands out, the centres of them pressed together. “Teach me.”
“It’s a child’s game.”
“Then that should make it easier to learn, shouldn’t it?”
“Fine.” The position of her hands mirrors his. “You hit me first, I’ll try to dodge. False starts are allowed. You can pretend you’re going to hit so long as your hands don’t completely separate. If I try to dodge a false hit, then the hitter is allowed a free hit where I can’t move.”
“It’s little wonder they say children are the most vicious of creatures.”
“Especially children who happen to be bored. Are you ready?”
He strikes with his left. Her hands move, but she fails to move quickly enough. He advances with his right. She dodges low this time and he only just catches her skin. Again with his right, another successful hit.
The sound of his skin slapping against hers sets into a rhythm. Loki feigns a hit and she dodges.
She makes a point of holding her hands still for him. “I’m out of practice.”
Loki hits, perhaps slightly harder than strictly necessary. We’ll never be friends, she had told him, though it’s irrelevant because if he was to hit lightly, no doubt she would take offence.
Another hit, except this time his hand meets nothing but air.
She grins, and her teeth make an appearance. “My turn.”
“Oh, come on. Don’t make this easy for me.”
“I’m not intending to.”
The backs of his hands are bright pink already.
She squints at him, staring at his face as if to ascertain for herself whether or not he’s lying. “Hmm…”
After another series of hits and two successful feints on her part, it’s his turn again. He plays better this time, his slaps faster, harder. He leaves long pauses between some hits, whereas others are quick successions of strikes.
Unpredictability is an asset to have in this game.
Valkyrie’s stopped staring at his hands to predict his next movements, opting to search his face for indications instead.
Loki stops. The tension is allowed to build, a long moment of her wondering at precisely which point he’ll lash out.
It’s hard to strategise – not that a game like this requires much of it – with the intensity of her scrutiny, the way she’s tracking each minuscule change in his expression. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be a problem. He’s no stranger to bluffing games, though he may be long out of practice. The problem, he realises, is her.
Maybe I don’t want better company, she’d told him. It isn’t personal, she’d said shortly afterwards.
Loki feints and follows it with a quick hit. Both are unsuccessful.
He begins to prepare himself for the barrage of her slaps. “I must admit, it’s a relief to have you going for my hands rather than my face.”
“I wouldn’t want to damage it.”
“Is that another compliment? Should I be concerned? The last time you complimented me, you shortly followed it by telling me how much you wanted to punch me.”
“I might not like you that much, but I’ll never claim not to like your face.”
She hits. Hard. The hardest hit she’s managed so far.
She looks up, suddenly amused. “You should’ve dodged that. I was slow. Am I putting you off? Is it because I called you pretty? Oh.” She’s grinning now, a mischievous knowing grin. “It is.” She slaps again; Loki is better prepared this time, and it only just glances off the tips of his fingers. “It’s part of why I don’t like you.”
“My – ow – face?”
“‘Sometimes I’m not sure whether I want to punch it or kiss it.”
“I–“ He’s cut off by the sound of another slap, and the back of his hand is shining bright red. “I beg your pardon?”
“You mean the part where I was referring to the slap or your face?”
“When I told you we won’t be friends, I meant it. We’ll never be partners other than in the sense of fighting. But if you’re up for something then I am.”
“What?” Loki still hasn’t stopped staring.
“You know,” she clarifies, giving him a look as if to question his intellect, “we could fuck. I’m sure it would release some pent up feelings.”
It takes a moment before he remembers how to blink. “You want to…”
“Right.” A long pause. “And you don’t think that it’ll be a spectacularly bad idea?”
“No, I know it’s a spectacularly bad idea.”
“I don’t know. Because it’ll feel good and neither of us will have to keep wondering what it’s like?”
“But you said you don’t like being around me.”
“Because you’re like a living version of everything I hated about myself.”
“Yes. That’s… precisely why I’m confused.”
She shrugs. “Call it narcissism. Call it wanting to own my past mistakes. Not like that – I don’t want to own you, I just want…”
“Yes. No. Maybe. Don’t do that, it’s unnerving.” She licks her lips, then rises from the table. “So… are you in?”
Did she know? Before she invited him here, did she know she was going to make this proposition? Or was it all a spontaneous idea that arose as a result of their conversations?
He should respond. It would be cruel to delay this further, except that his tongue doesn’t seem to be working, and his mind seems to be working even less efficiently.
He stares: her outstretched hand, the dirt underneath her fingernails and the grubbiness of her shirt; the way the open collar reveals a glimpse of her throat and neck that means he can see her breathing, each inhale and exhale; and the way she’s watching him, waiting for a response with such intent that he knows he won’t see again if he refuses, and that only begs the question of why he would ever consider doing so.
“Quite frankly,” Loki says, “I think it’s a terrible idea. So of course I’ll join you.”