by E. K. Zoole
"Excuse me, is this seat taken?"
Thor did not raise his eyes from his laptop screen. He'd been keeping to himself lately; most of his fellow gods knew to leave the far corner booth alone. The dining room of the Academy of the Divine had a beer hall ambiance and constant rumble of sound that the Thunderer found oddly soothing; better than sitting home alone, in the great, empty halls of Bilkirnir.
The presence in front of him remained. Some small movement caught his eye - worn Tevas cradling feet that were broad and strong and the color of barley bread. He pictured Sif's dainty toes in Louis Vuitton sandals, the diamond anklets, the baby pink polish...
Thor sighed, closing his screen. "What can I do for - " he stopped mid-breath. "Athena - uh - h-hello," he stammered, color rising in his cheeks. "Sorry, I - "
"Is this seat taken?"
"No - please - sit down."
Thor ran one hand through unkempt, flame-colored hair as Athena gathered the folds of her loose cotton maxi and slid into the booth.
"You are unhappy," she observed, round owl-eyes blinking. "Why?"
"Why?" Thor was taken aback. The goddess of wisdom had presided just last month over the Divine Court on the day Sif's petition for divorce was heard. There was little that Athena didn't already know about the misery of his home life. "You need to ask me that?"
"I prefer facts to assumptions."
"Facts," he snorted. "Okay, I spent two thousand years trying to be a good husband, and I failed. Is that what you want to know?"
"Curious. It is the failure that disturbs you."
"I didn't say that."
Unwinking eyes the color of a ripe pear fixed upon him.
He looked away, face burning. Yes, I did, he thought. That is exactly what I said...
"I guess it's true, then." He was irritated, and not sure why. "No one can lie to Athena."
"Not true. I am lied to on a daily basis. The muffaletta, with fried mushrooms, please," she said to the dark-suited schlankwald who came to take her order, "the stuffed olives, and a pitcher of Zeos."
"Just coffee for me," Thor sighed.
"He will have the chicken-fried steak, hashbrowns, and a stack of buckwheats. Put the coffee and a pitcher of Guinness over vanilla ice cream. Bring one for me, too, please. You are a god, Thor," she said matter-of-factly when the waiter had moved on, "and you are hungry. It does not become you to behave like a sulky sixteen-year-old with menstrual cramps."
"I am not - "
"Not a god, or not hungry?"
"Not - not a sulky sixteen-year-old with menstrual cramps!"
Athena's rare smile, her fellow Olympians often noted, completely changed her face.
Thor's stomach did an unexpected flip-flop. Slowly the corners of his mouth rose to match hers. It felt strange on his face, both familiar and new, like pulling on a pair of boots he hadn't worn in a century or two.
"How do you like being a superhero?"
"Excuse me?" It seemed to Thor as if he was running continually one step behind in this conversation.
"You are more attractive than Chris Hemsworth," she said casually, "but he does capture many of your mannerisms. They take great liberties with canon, but in general I prefer Marvel to DC. Do you?"
"Uh - sure, I guess." Truthfully, he'd never given it much thought. He found being lumped together with the likes of Spiderman and Swamp Thing rather more insulting than entertaining.
"What do you mean, 'why'?"
"Are you thinking before you answer, or are you being agreeable out of habit?"
"What the - stop - just - stop."
Their schlankwald whipped dishes into place with arms that moved too quickly to see. Thor reached for the bucket-sized Guinness float and downed it in a single draft.
"Wow, that was really good."
With a subtle flourish, his blank face dipping respectfully, the schlankwald presented him with a refill before withdrawing as silently as he had arrived.
The aroma was divine. Thor dug into the scutum-sized platter with more gusto than he'd felt since the mid-1800s.
Athena piled fried mushrooms beneath the top crust of a muffaletta the size of a roulette wheel. "How do you define 'good'?"
What is she talking about? The Guinness - right... With a little caffeine on board, Thor felt better prepared for the pace she set. "It means that I liked it," he said, grinding pepper onto the hashbrowns, "it pleased me."
"It pleased you," she nodded. "That is your definition of good. You tried to be the kind of husband that it pleased you to be. Did you actually fail, then?"
Fail... Thor did not immediately answer. He tried again to pick up some thread of the conversation he could make sense of. More attractive than Chris Hemsworth...
"Hold on a minute." He took another slug of Guinness, coffee, and ice cream. "Are you flirting with me?"
"Not currently, but thank you for asking. It is always appropriate to clarify one's expectations."
The son of Odin sat back against the leather of the bench. The form before him was tall and broad-shouldered even for an Olympian, bare and muscular arms bronzed and glowing against golden arm rings and summer-bright fabric. Her hair was a mass of wiry mahogany curls held back with a leather thong from a high forehead and Grecian nose. The famous eyes were strikingly round and bright. The Chief Justice of the Divine maintained a down-to-earth appearance utterly at odds with the power she possessed.
Athena continued to eat, unphased by his perusal. "Allow me to clarify in turn," she said, when the muffaletta was reduced to a scattering of crumbs, "are you attracted to me, Aesir?"
Sif, brushing her golden hair in the firelight, eyes on the ever-present bronze mirror...
"You are beautiful," he said automatically, looking down at his plate.
"That was not the question. I want to know what you think, not what I look like. Try these, they're delicious," she said, sliding the platter of stuffed olives closer.
"You want to know what I think?" Thor snorted. "Really?"
"You interest me." Athena tapped her finger on the edge of his laptop. "What are you working on?"
"Do you have to bounce around like that?" Thor scooped a handful of the stuffed olives into his mouth. Sweet figs and feta, bacon and brine - like the smile, it was a taste both new and oddly familiar.
He swallowed and reached for more. "From subject to subject."
"I have spoken so far on one subject alone. What are you working on?"
"I'm not 'working' on a damn thing," he answered bluntly, the irritation suddenly returning. "I'm playing Minesweeper, if you must know."
"Because I like it. It's what I do."
Athena blinked, tilting her head like the owl that was her emblem. "Are you a good god, son of Odin? Are you the kind of god it pleases you to be?"
Thor tossed his napkin down. "I think this conversation is over."
"Please don't go; I didn't mean to frighten you!"
"Frighten? Me? Fuck off."
Red-faced, the Norseman stomped away. There was a great shuffling of menus and opening of laptops as deities of all culture and degree pretended not to watch.
"Go on, girl," muttered the one-eyed figure in the next booth from beneath a wide-brimmed hat. "Go after him!"
Zeus shrugged. "He won't get far; I had the valet give his car to Loki."
"To Loki? Why'd you do that?" Odin rolled his eye. "It'll come back trashed and smelling of lutefisk!"
"What? You said to make sure he wasn't going anywhere..."
The observation deck atop the newly-renovated PacBell building offered a spectacular view of San Francisco Bay; its signal light and storm flag could be seen by ships miles out to sea.
Thor took the stairs to the roof two at a time. Tossing a thunderbolt across the sky, he roared an icy blast towards the clouds, turning the gentle, twilight rain into a summer storm. The signal center raised a red flag, lights flashing.
The door flew open. "Well? Are you?"
Thor skipped another thunderbolt out across the bay, lighting up the night. "Am I what?"
"A good god." The wind and rain plastered Athena's dress to her form.
"Why are you following me?"
"Because I thought it might be interesting to get to know you," she said. "In order to do that, I must ask you questions."
Thor stared, dumbfounded. "And do I get to ask you 'questions'?" he snorted. "I doubt that!"
Throughout the modern era, the Olympians had risen in prestige while the Aesir had been reduced to the worship of fringe groups of neo-pagans and the skewed re-imaginings of the comic book world. Surely Athena knew this just as well as he did.
"Ask me anything you wish," she said, nonplused. "And, if you cannot think of anything you want to know," she added when he did not respond,"then you have my word that I will answer any question that I put to you. I will even do it first, if you wish. I, for instance, do not believe myself to be a good god, by your definition."
"Really?" Thor was taken aback yet again. "You don't think you're good at what you do?"
"Oh, no, I am very good at what I do," Athena assured him. "I am an excellent Chief Justice. But I have placed myself in a position of authority over my peers, and that separates me. It affects my judgement. Therefore, I am not the kind of god it pleases me to be. Are you?"
Thor sighed, looking down at his hands on the iron rail. "No. I'm not the kind of god it 'pleases' me to be. Ever since the war..."
"Still? Do you truly believe you are responsible for the evil done in your name?"
"Yes, I do." The Thunderer's voice was as heavy and dark as the clouds above them. "I was so puffed up over actually being called upon, after so long, that I bolstered their confidence before I took the time to examine their positions."
"You overestimate your guilt just as surely as others of our kind overestimate their credit."
"Don't patronize me!" Lightning seared the sky, the roar of thunder ominously close.
Athena waited, leaning against the rail in silence.
The wind softened, and the rain slowed to a drizzle. Steam rose from the asphalt seams of the roof. Thor watched a trickle of moisture wend its way down the back of Athena's hand, looking like a drop of blood in the red glow of the storm signal light. He drew in a breath that smelled of ozone and rust.
"The trouble is," he said, "no matter what kind of god I am, I'm not really sure what that means anymore."
"Well, that's the question, isn't it?" Athena tilted her head, blinking.
She does that when she's thinking, he thought. It's kind of cute...
"Can you think back to a time when you knew?" she asked.
"My meaning? Sure. To be honest, though, my role was changing long before we started losing followers. I wasn't always just the bad ass with the hammer, you know?" Thor said wistfully, looking out over the bay. "Used to be, I was the one that witnessed vows. Alliances, vendettas, bargains in the marketplace, marriages." The great arms spread wide to encompass the memory. "When you swore by Thor, that was it. It was serious; it meant something."
"I had not thought of you as an embodiment of truth and commitment," she admitted, with a fleeting return of her elusive smile. How much a sense of purpose brightens his eyes...
"Yeah, well, most people don't," he shrugged, looking back down at his empty hands, "but you asked, so..."
"Yes. I asked."
His conflict was clear to her, not just in the sky around them but in the set of his broad shoulders, the arch of back and neck, the muscles that worked in the jaw beneath the auburn stubble. It was a struggle faced, to one extent or another, by them all in these times.
He hides nothing, she noted longingly. As true as he is beautiful...
The wind shifted. A warm breeze came up from the south, bringing the smell of salt from the bay and whipping the Aesir god's tangled, fire-bright hair across her shoulder.
"Well." Athena straightened, abruptly aware of how close they were standing. In a moment of most un-Athena-like uncertainty, she took a half step back and extended her hand. "Thank you for your time."
"I thought I got to ask you questions."
Athena hesitated, then lowered her hand. "What do you want to know?"
"What did I do wrong?" he asked, turning storm-gray eyes upon her. "With Sif - what did I do?"
"You would take on the blame for this, too?"
"I just want to know what you think."
"Very well." Athena folded her arms, leaning against the rail. "You failed to establish and maintain intimacy. In this, you were equally at fault."
"Intimacy? What do you mean, 'intimacy'? Maybe our sex life wasn't what it used to be, but - "
"Allow me to clarify. You shared, within your marriage, no intimacy of mind, no vulnerability. You never truly knew her, and she did not know you. Having spoken now to you both, I know this to be true."
"You spoke to Sif. About 'intimacy'."
"I was curious. She has little capacity for it, by the way; the Norns testified to that in the dissolution of her first marriage, so that's hardly surprising. Sif sees meaning in her existence only in terms of her physical beauty. Thus, the closest the two of you came to intimacy was when Loki stole her hair."
"And I replaced it for her," he said stoutly. "Made of gold by dwarven smiths!"
Thor pictured Sif, hands clapping with joy as the magic locks took root, dancing before the fires of their hall like a flame. "I'd told her it didn't matter to me, that she was just as beautiful bald. That didn't go over well," he said, shuddering, "so I went after the damn hair and - and you're right: that was the happiest I ever made her. I could never figure out why."
"You did not ask. Closeness in a relationship is fostered by shared vulnerability; it requires sustained, on-going personal disclosure. Both parties must ask, and answer, questions."
The wind shifted again, freshening from the west. "Questions like 'are you attracted to me'?"
"Which you failed to answer with personal disclosure," Athena said, "even when I gave you the opportunity by telling you that I found you attractive. Now, if that was all you wanted to know?"
"No, you didn't."
"Didn't?" It was Athena's turn to be taken aback. "Didn't what?"
"You didn't say you found me attractive, you said I was more attractive than the actor who played me. And then you distanced yourself further by saying that you weren't flirting with me." Thor turned, his head tilted in unconscious imitation. "So tell me, Athena - have you ever 'established intimacy'?"
"No." This time she did not hesitate. "No, I have not."
"I rarely have either sufficient interest or opportunity to practice the skills required, as you pointed out." The eyes that met his belonged to the goddess both of wisdom and of war. "However, even without a desired level of expertise, where there is both interest and opportunity it is wise to seize the day."
"Oh. Oh." In later times, looking back on that moment, Thor used to say to their families and friends that he could literally feel a lightbulb go on over his head. "Got it! Disclosure time!"
He planted his feet with the kind of determined joy he used to reserve for battling Jotuns. "I like you, Athena Anemotis. I really do. I've always respected you, but now it's more."
"To start with, I like that you say exactly what you think. I like that you give a damn what I think. I like your arms, and your voice, and your eyes. I even like your feet, and I really like your breasts - I hope that's not inappropriate to disclose?"
"Not in the least. Go on."
"Good, because they look right on you - great pecs - I've seen you chuck a spear, by the way, and I like that, too," he said with frank admiration, "but I especially like that you're curious, and that you cared enough to sit down at my table, kick my ass, remind me who I am, put your finger on what it is I liked most about being me and made me feel like a god again in - what - thirty minutes flat. Now, your turn."
Athena gave him an assessing look. "I like that you are willing to acknowledge personal responsibility, even when you do not fully understand your role. I like that you contemplate the meaning of your existence, rather than reclining on your laurels. I like that commitment and honesty is what pleased you most to embody, rather than power. I, too, find your body highly appealing, Aesir. And I like your hair," she said, taking a lock of it in her hand with look of earnest curiosity. "Is it this color everywhere?"
"It is. Everywhere."
"Excellent. I should like to see that as soon as possible." Athena smiled, taking the Storm god's hand. "I have never been to Asgard. My father says you make an excellent goat curry."
"Oh, did he like it?" Thor asked, pleased. "I just made a batch last night - it's always better the next day," he said, reaching into his jeans pocket for his phone. "Let me call the garage and ask them to bring my car around..."