Luke was gone by the time Astrid drove them back into Ashbury. David was not sure when he had gone—one moment Luke was asleep in the back seat, and the next it was like he had never been there. David tried not to be disappointed, even though he had rather hoped that Luke would stay for a while, now that they were both free of their relations.
"Chin up," Astrid said, turning up the road to Uncle Bernard and Aunt Dot's house. "Can't you always just light a match?"
"Yes," David said, nettled, "but I don't want to bother him now."
Astrid parked the Mini in front of the house and turned sideways in her seat to face him. "I think," she said, "that you could stand to be a bit more selfish from time to time, David."
David stared at her, and Astrid stared back with a worried crease between her eyebrows. "Oh, not right this minute," she said. "Luke was run down to the rails there at the end. I'm sure he needs his rest. I just mean, you needn't always think about everyone else before you think about yourself."
It was so much the opposite of everything David had been told before that he kept staring at her, rather blankly, until she rolled her eyes and got out of the car. He followed her into the house, the idea rattling around in his head like a penny in a jar, until they both came to a stop in the hall. The house was empty and dark, but for the first time David could remember, it did not smell of cabbage and despair. It smelt of clean soap and dust, and the faintest hint of long-ago smoke.
"Bother," Astrid muttered, and went to turn on a light. "We should have stopped for supper on the road. I can't promise to be very good at this guardian business, David, but at least we've only got to stay here for tonight. Alan's mum says we can move in tomorrow, and Mr Fry—the real Mr Fry—found us a solicitor in town, so we can sell the house—" She stopped suddenly and turned around. "Unless you want to keep the house? It's yours, of course. I should have said."
"Oh, no," David said quickly. "No, I don't want it. Unless you—?"
"I don't either," Astrid said, just as quickly. "Besides, we've Alan's mum to think of. I did say we'd take those rooms."
"Good," David said. He had the idea that they were both saying a silent thanks to Alan's mum for providing an excuse. But he still felt a little lost, and guilty for wishing Luke was there to distract him from ordinary life. "What am I supposed to do with all the money?" he wondered aloud.
Astrid laughed, which was a relief. "I've no idea," she said, "but that's what the solicitor is for, isn't it? I said we'd see him tomorrow, too. There's all sorts of papers I have to sign, to be your legal guardian." She made a face. "Mind you, I can't have people thinking I'm old enough to be your mum."
"No one would believe you were, anyway," David said honestly. Astrid smiled at him, which made her look even younger and prettier, even if she also looked tired. David was tired too. He had done it—found the hammer, saved Luke, met Mr Wedding's deadline—and now, after everything, the empty hallway of Uncle Bernard's house felt like the truly unreal thing, already fading into nothingness.
"I think I'd better sleep too," he said to Astrid. "Everything else can wait until morning, can't it?"
"Yes, of course," Astrid said. There was a strange moment where they just stared at each other, and then Astrid started forward and hugged him for the second time that day, hard and warm and entirely un-Astrid-like. "We're going to be all right, David. We both are." David nodded into her shoulder, letting go of his shyness. He believed her. They were going to be all right.
David thought about calling Luke at least a hundred times on Monday, but between meeting with the solicitor, and helping Astrid pack five hundred dresses and four hundred pairs of silly shoes, and moving across town into the house on Wednesday Hill, and being shown all of Alan's cricket equipment, and meeting Alan's mum and little sisters properly, he was so busy that he never quite had a moment to light a match. He thought about calling Luke that night, too, to show him his new room with its pleasantly sloped ceiling and dormer window and round knotted rug, and the perfect corner by the wardrobe to lean his cricket bat. But he was so tired that he went right to sleep instead.
Tuesday was the kind of perfect, shining summer day that could only be spent outside on a cricket pitch. David and Alan raced each other to the recreation ground and spent a glorious day there, making up teams with the other boys. Alan knew some of the boys from his school, and one of them, a ginger-haired boy called Tom, clapped David on the shoulder and said he looked forward to seeing him on the school team next term.
"I'm glad you're staying," Alan said shyly, as they walked back to the house. "With you, we might have a chance against those prats at St Anthony's."
"Me too," David said, grinning. He was muddy and satisfied, and full of charity with the world. Two days seemed like a lifetime: he had a new home and new friends, a new school to look forward to, and Astrid, who was as helpless as David in the kitchen but laughed with him over burnt toast and cold soup.
They came up to the house just then, and David saw one of the ravens perched on the green railing. "Hello," he said politely. He still could not tell the ravens apart, but he thought he knew their names now. "Were you looking for me?"
"You're going to have a visitor soon," said the raven. "Have you got any biscuits?"
Alan looked between David and the raven, and gave a philosophical shrug. "See you later," he said, and went past the raven into the house.
David dug around in his pockets until he found a packet of slightly crushed custard creams. "Why do you talk to me?" he asked, feeding a biscuit to the raven. "Nobody seemed to think you would. Even Luke couldn't understand you."
The raven ate the biscuit, scattering crumbs on the steps. "Luke's trouble for us." It seemed to be thinking about what it wanted to say. "You're all right, though. Wedding likes you, but you're not one of his. You might be something new." Then the raven added, "Here comes your visitor," and launched itself off the railing.
David turned around. At first he thought it was Luke coming up the road, and his heart leapt a little—could Luke come whenever he wanted, without David even lighting a match?—but then he saw that the red-headed figure was shorter and rounder than Luke, and he recognised the girl who had seemed so happy to see Luke when all the rest of the tall people had not. He was interested in spite of himself, curious to meet another member of Luke's family. But far more interesting to David than the girl herself was the small dog she appeared to be carrying.
As she approached David, the dog leapt free of her arms. For a moment, as the dog moved, it seemed to be almost unimaginably huge: an immense black shadow blocking out the sun. Then both shadow and dog were normal-sized again, urgently pawing at David's grubby jeans. David knelt down on the walk and let the dog lick his face with its wet pink tongue.
"Hullo," said the girl, "I think he likes you."
David removed the dog from his face with some difficulty, and looked up. The red-haired girl was leaning against the railing. She looked to be about Luke's age, perhaps a year older than David, and she was smiling at David with the same open friendliness that Luke and the ginger-haired man—Thor, David corrected himself—had. David found that he liked her almost instantly, without even trying.
He smiled cautiously up at her. "Are you a friend of Luke's?"
"Yes," she said. "He sent me a message, asking me to come and see you. I wanted to, anyway, to thank you properly for what you did."
"Luke's my friend." David stroked the dog's silky ears, embarrassed. He was not sure he wanted to be thanked. "I couldn't let anything happen to him, whatever Mr Wedding said."
"I know." The girl gave him a serious look. "But that's why. He doesn't have many friends, so we've got to look out for each other. I'm Susan, and that's Fen."
"David," David said, "which I think you already knew."
Susan laughed ruefully. "You gave everyone a shock, letting Luke out like that. I'm afraid people know your name now, whether you want them to or not."
David thought he knew what Susan meant. Astrid had said it was over, in the car at Thunderly Hill, but David did not see now how it could be. Not with the ravens waiting for him, and the door to the Knowing Ones still there—David had looked—in the basement of Alan's house. Not with the glimpse of Mr Chew David had seen at the edge of the recreation ground, grimly trowelling a flower bed. Not with Luke, one flame away.
David looked down at Fen, who had sat back on his haunches and was gazing up at David with liquid red-brown eyes. "He's a good dog," he said, scratching Fen's nose. "Is he yours?"
"He's Luke's," said Susan. "That's the other reason I came. Luke was hoping you'd look after Fen for a while, as a favour to him. He says he'll owe you."
"He doesn't need to owe me," David said, his heart soaring; he would dare any boy to be sad with a dog like Fen licking his hand. "I love dogs." Of course Luke had somehow known that David wanted a dog above all things. He just wished Luke would stop talking about owing, as if he owed David for being his friend.
Susan laughed again. "I can tell. He's yours for as long as you want him. Though to be honest, Fen can be a bit of a handful. He's not always a very good dog, and he'll eat you out of house and home."
"Oh, well," David said, not really attending. Fen was nosing at his shoes. "That can't be helped."
"Mmm," Susan said agreeably, and reached down to scratch Fen's ears. Fen panted happily up at her, tongue lolling. "It was nice to meet you properly, David. I'll see you again."
At that moment, Fen found a stick and demanded with great urgency that David throw it for him, so he was never sure afterwards if Susan had left the normal way or simply vanished. He was too distracted by Fen to pay it much mind, in any case. They went around to the back garden after a while, and Fen chased sticks and rabbits until he wore himself out and flopped down at David's feet. David brought him inside with some trepidation, and wiped the mud off his paws before he took Fen upstairs to meet Astrid.
"No," Astrid said instantly, when Fen gave her a sharp bark of greeting. "Absolutely not. We can't have a dog." She was sitting at the table with a newspaper, circling classifieds. She was looking for a job as a typist, since even with David's money she was insistent about going back to work.
"He's Luke's," David said. "Sit, Fen." Fen sat, which David thought was clever of him: he was showing himself to be obedient and well-behaved, when Astrid needed convincing. "Luke sent his friend Susan to ask me especially to look after him."
Astrid laid down her pen and narrowed her eyes. "Fen?" she asked, and Fen bounced to his feet and went over to politely sniff the hand she held out. "Oh dear," Astrid said, visibly softening. "David, I hate to say this, but I have a terrible feeling that this dog is—well. That he's going to devour the sun. I think he's supposed to be locked up until the end of the world."
David stared at her, and then at Fen, who was just a small black-and-brown dog with floppy ears, sitting peaceably at Astrid's feet. Except when David looked at him sideways, in the gathering dusk of the summer evening, he could just barely make out the huge shadowy shape of what he could become. "He's just a dog," David protested.
"Yes, and Luke is just a boy," Astrid said, and sighed. She was looking at Fen too. "Oh hell, David. I think we'd better keep him after all."
The rest of the week was filled with Fen: walking, feeding, playing fetch, and trying to keep him out from underfoot whilst David and Alan practiced their runs. Fen was a perfect dog, fierce and friendly and delightfully slobbery, and he slept on the round knotted rug in David's room every night, just as if he had always been there. David was happier than he could ever remember being in his life.
But despite that, he could not stop thinking about what Astrid had said: that Fen was meant to be locked up until the end of the world. Everything he thought he knew was a mess of half-remembered stories he might have read as a child, mixed up with lessons from school and what he had seen of Luke and his family. He wanted to know more. He wanted to ask Luke. But he knew somehow, instinctively, that he could not ask Luke any more than he could go back through the door in the basement and ask the Knowing Ones.
It rained on Thursday, and Friday was the sort of dreary day that kept everyone inside and miserable. Halfway through the morning, David threw down the book of rather dull adventure stories he was reading for the third time, abandoned Fen to the care of Alan's eldest and most responsible little sister, and went out in the grey drizzle for a walk, down to the squat red-brick library at the bottom of Wednesday Hill Road.
David had never been to the Wednesday Hill Library, but he had gone past it on the bus loads of times on his way to Uncle Bernard's. The inside was nothing like he had expected, and he blinked as he shoved back the hood of the anorak Astrid had bought for him. Rows and rows of metal shelves ran away from the door, crammed high with books. They made the room seem vast, the vaulted ceiling higher than had seemed possible on the outside, crossed with wide wooden beams.
There was a heavy wooden desk in the center of the room, with an engraved name plate that read Mrs Frost, Librarian. Mrs Frost herself—David thought she had to be Mrs Frost—was behind the desk. Even sitting she was very tall, with a braided crown of silver-white hair, and she looked at David over the rims of half-moon spectacles. She looked so much like a witch out of a fairy story that David stood frozen, staring at her, until she said, "Can I help you, young man?"
"I'd like to read about—mythology," David said, stumbling over the word. It did not seem quite right, somehow. "Gods and goddesses, I suppose, and—and heroes, and the stories about them."
"Ah," said Mrs Frost. "Then you'll need a library card."
"Yes," David agreed, relieved. He went a few steps further into the room, as Mrs Frost took an immense leather-bound ledger out of an ash-wood box and laid it open on the desk. As David drew closer, he could see that the open page was half-full of looping signatures, with blank lines below. Then Mrs Frost brought out a small card, which she ran through a whirring machine to the left of the desk.
"When you're ready, sign here," she said, tapping the first blank line with a pen. "But be quite sure, before you do."
David paused, looking down at the page. "Sure of what?"
"Libraries are repositories of knowledge, and knowledge is a risk," said Mrs Frost. Her tone was surprisingly gentle, and all at once David knew who she reminded him of: it was Mr Wedding, Woden One-Eye, cool and deep and wise and twisty. He thought she might be kinder than Mr Wedding, but he could not be sure. "Only sign if you're truly ready to know."
David thought about that, and about Sigurd, and about Mr Wedding's eye. "Is there a price?"
"Library cards are free," Mrs Frost said dryly, but she looked approving. "The price for knowledge is always ignorance." She tapped the card against the edge of the desk. "You were only able to find a certain lost item, recently, because you didn't know."
David sighed. "You know Mr Wedding, don't you? And Luke?"
"Of course," said Mrs Frost. "We're family."
It was not that David objected, precisely, but it did seem rather as though Luke's family was not going anywhere. He was not free of them at all; they were there whenever he turned around. Mrs Frost was right: David had only been able to find Thor's hammer because he hadn't known, and he'd only freed Luke by accident. But he did not think he could stay as he was, knowing scattered pieces of the whole without knowing what he had done, without knowing what was coming.
"I think I have to," David said to Mrs Frost, a little grimly. "It's too late to go on not knowing."
"Yes, I rather thought so," she said, and held out the pen. David signed his name in the ledger and took the library card when she handed it to him. It was just an ordinary card: laminated paper with the name of the library and a barcode, and his name printed on the back. He tucked the card into the pocket of his anorak.
"You are only permitted to check out six books at once," Mrs Frost said briskly, closing the ledger and replacing it in its ash-wood box. "I recommend you begin with the 290s. The 830s may also be of particular interest." She turned and pointed down the room, to a row of shelves that seemed suddenly closer than they had before. "There you are."
"Thank you, Mrs Frost," said David, and went around the desk into the library.
The summer passed quickly, as David read everything in the library that related even remotely to Luke and his family. He started with D'Aulaire's Book of Norse Myths, with its glossy silver-blue cover, and went on from there, through the 290s and the 293s, and then on up through all the 800s. David read, and he took Fen for long rambling walks, and he played cricket with Alan and Tom and the other boys, and he kept on not calling Luke, the box of matches tucked away in the drawer of his bedside table.
Then it was nearly the end of August, and Astrid found him with his nose buried in The Golden Bough and said, "David, we haven't seen Luke in an age. Is something wrong?"
David shut the book; he was reading Chapter 61, "The Myth of Balder," for the second time. "What if I made a mistake?" he blurted, before he could think better of it.
Astrid raised her eyebrows. "What if you did? We all make mistakes." She sat down next to him on the sofa. "I married Ronald, didn't I?"
"Yes, all right," David agreed. He did not quite want to say that it was not the same thing. "But I let Luke out. Everything I've read—all these books—it all says that when Luke goes free, it's the start of the end of the world. What if Ragnarok comes, and it's all my fault?"
"You do think highly of yourself, don't you?" Astrid said dryly.
"I don't," David snapped, irritated because she had sounded just like her old pinched self for a moment, and then they both laughed. Laughing did help, but David still felt miserable. "What if I did a terrible thing, helping Luke go free?"
"You can't have," Astrid said sensibly. "Thor got his hammer back, and that was you too." She looked at David, and then at Fen, who was asleep in front of the fireplace. "Think about it this way: could you stand it if Luke was still locked up? Or if Fen was?"
"No," David said instantly.
"There you are, then." Astrid's face had that same old, sad look again, like the lady asleep in the flames. "If you can't stand the alternative, you're left with what you've got. You've got Luke."
"I haven't been—I haven't lit any matches," David admitted. "It seemed safer that way."
"Safer for whom?" Astrid demanded, and then sighed. "I don't think that's the answer, David. I thought maybe—" she shook her head. "I thought we might go back to normal, but we can't, can we? I ran into that Valkyrie of Mr Wedding's at the chemist's, last week, and those ravens are always lurking around the back garden, like they haven't given up the hope that you'll drop another side of meat. And there's Fen. We'd better have Luke, too, and keep an eye on him."
"Oh," David breathed, with a wave of relief so strong that he dropped the book. He felt as though an enormous weight had been lifted off his shoulders, everything he had been doing and thinking and working at to keep Luke away.
And then Luke was there, standing in the doorway with his hands in his pockets. There was something cautious about his pale freckled face, uncertain of his welcome.
"You can come without a match," David cried, and leapt to his feet to throw his arms around Luke. Luke was warmer than a normal person would ordinarily be, and he smelt faintly of smoke, dry grass and bonfire. He was stiff at first, and then his wiry arms went slowly and tentatively around David. David had never hugged Luke before, but it seemed foolish to stop now, and anyway he did not want to.
"I can," Luke said, a bit apologetically. "It's easier when you call me, though. I've had some close calls, dropping in on people at bad times and intruding where I'm not welcome."
Astrid snorted. "I should think you'd like that sort of thing."
Luke let go of David and turned to grin at her. "All right, yes. But I owe David too much to play those kinds of tricks on him."
"You don't," David said. "Luke, you don't owe me anything. I did it because I wanted to, and—and by accident, at the beginning. I'm sorry I didn't say so, or call you before—"
"That's why, though," Luke said seriously. "I can't ever repay the debt I owe you, because you only did it because you wanted to. You didn't want anything from me. You didn't even know who I was." He looked more earnest than David had ever seen him. "Do you still want to be my friend, now that you know?"
"Of course I do," David said. "You're the best friend I've ever had. And it wouldn't be fair, anyway, to hold it—to hold all that against you."
"All right," Luke said, and grinned again. "Then you'll have to put up with me being grateful to you."
David felt rather as though Luke had twisted his words around in a very Mr Weddingish way. He frowned, trying to find the loophole, but Fen chose that moment to come noisily awake and race over to Luke, dancing joyfully around his feet until Luke went down on his knees on the carpet and let Fen lick his face ecstatically. "Yes, you're a good dog," Luke said to Fen, and David gave it up for the moment. He would have to sort it out later.
"Do you want to see the rest of the flat?" he asked Luke.
"Yes," Luke said, and then, "down, Fen, good boy." He smiled up at David and Astrid. "Have you got anything to eat?"
"Oh, you," Astrid said, and rolled her eyes. "What'll it be this time, an entire roast boar?"
Luke was around more, after that, in and out of David and Astrid's life. He turned up in time for tea, or supper, or to talk them into going out for ice creams. He did tricks with candle flames, and lit Astrid's cigarettes with his fingers, and once he restarted the boiler by magic when the heat went out in the whole house. But he never again did anything like setting fire to an office block, and David never asked him to.
Once, David tried again to apologise for the two months he had spent pushing Luke away, but Luke only gave him a guileless look and said, "You know time isn't quite the same for us."
"Yes," David said, "but still, I—"
"Come off it, David," Luke said. "Come and take a look at these new doodles I've done. Don't you think this one looks a bit like Fen playing cricket?"
So that was that; Luke was Luke, and he would slither out of anything he did not want to talk about. David noticed him slithering more often than he had during that first week, and it worried him. He had known since the day they met that Luke was something of a responsibility; now he also knew what Luke could do when he got that red-gold gleam in his eyes. He knew what Luke had done, to get locked up in the first place. Maybe worst of all, he knew what Luke had done for him: burned down a building, held back an endlessly-burning fire, come back, stayed. He was more David's responsibility than ever.
But the new term started, and David quickly became too busy with lessons and cricket and his new friends to worry as much about Luke—who seemed, after all, to be behaving himself. Before too long, it also became evident that David had to keep Luke away from his other friends. Luke could never remember that Tom and Simon existed, and he still got vague around Alan and his sisters; as a result, David saw rather less of Luke during the term. He liked the new school, though, and the masters seemed to like him well enough. He was not a boffin by any measure, but his marks were high in Maths, and better than they had ever been in Literature and Religion.
Thor turned up at one of his cricket matches, near the end of his first term, and watched from the stands beside Astrid and Luke. Afterwards, the four of them went out for tea. Luke demolished five plates of cakes and three milkshakes; Thor ate even more than Luke, and went off whistling.
"Do you think Thor likes Astrid?" David asked Luke later that night. He was in bed, and Luke was lying on the round rug with Fen nestled into his side, making his doodles dance across the ceiling in whirls of purple and gold.
"Of course he does," Luke said. "Who doesn't like Astrid?"
David rolled his eyes. "Yes, but—I think she's lonely." Astrid sometimes looked wistful, when she thought David was not looking, and she had gone on one date with a man from her office before coming home and telling David she was swearing off the whole thing.
"Oh," Luke said. "No, I don't think Thor would do for Astrid at all. For one thing, he's always stomping off somewhere, and losing that hammer of this—"
"That wasn't really his fault," David protested.
"—and his wife hates me," Luke finished.
David could see how that would present a problem for Astrid and Thor. "Oh, well," he said, burrowing deeper into his blankets. On the ceiling, the golden swirls resolved for an instant into a woman's profile with long, curling hair, and then spiraled away into abstract shapes. David suddenly remembered that Loki—at least according to the stories—also had a wife. It was absurd to think about, when Luke looked for all the world like a boy his own age.
"Aren't you supposed to have a wife, too?" David asked drowsily. "Does she hate Thor?"
Luke rolled onto his side and stared at him. "Who, Susan?" David blinked, but of course that made sense. Luke was still looking at him oddly. "Susan likes Thor, I think. She said once he's a better drinking companion than I am, which was a bit insulting at the time. But it's been ages since we were married, since long before I went to prison."
"Oh," David said, again. He was not sure why he felt so odd—except it was odd, to be reminded so immediately of what Luke was: ancient and dangerous, the god of fire and mischief playing with his dog on David's bedroom floor. "Susan's nice," he offered, charitably. It was true, but it still gave him a sharp feeling in his stomach to say so. "Maybe it's better, anyway, that Thor and Astrid wouldn't suit. It can't be a good idea, can it? For mortals, and—and gods."
Luke was silent for a long time, while the doodles on the ceiling circled one another, turning to silver and red. "Go to sleep, David," he said at last, very softly, and David did.
Luke was gone by the next morning, but he was there again for David's next cricket match, and for supper the next Sunday. When the Christmas holidays arrived, Luke spent them in David and Astrid's flat, getting underfoot just as much as Fen. David and Astrid both liked having him there; even when Luke disappeared for a week or a month, he always turned up again—"Like a bad penny," Astrid said once, laughing—all through that year and the next summer and the year after that, as much a fixture of their lives as Fen, and Alan's sisters, and the ravens, and the clanking pipes in the upstairs bathroom.
But something kept on bothering David, like a low steady hum in the back of his mind, the flicker of a flame just out of sight. Luke was too easy, too comfortable, too well-behaved; nothing seemed to go wrong, and they never spoke about what might be coming.
Mr Wedding was waiting for David after cricket practice, on a Wednesday afternoon four years after the first time David had met him. He was leaning against his long white car as David and Tom came off the pitch. They were sweaty and laughing: Tom was covered in mud from where David had knocked him into the wicket, and he kept trying to get the mud into David's shaggy hair—longer now than Uncle Bernard ever would have stood for when David was a child.
"Hello, David," said Mr Wedding.
David stopped laughing. Tom said, anxiously, "David, do you know him?"
"It's all right," David said, resting a reassuring hand on Tom's arm. "He's a friend of the family. Go on, I'll see you tomorrow."
"All right," Tom said, but he cast another worried look back at David as he walked away.
"Your young man's a bit overprotective, isn't he?" Mr Wedding said mildly, once Tom was out of earshot.
"What business is it of yours?" David said hotly, "and anyway, he's not my—it's just Tom." It was not quite the truth. David had a sudden flash of memory of the afternoon, a few weeks ago, when Tom had kissed him behind the equipment shed. But he was still working out how he felt about it, and he was not at all ready for Mr Wedding to interfere.
"It's not my business at all," said Mr Wedding agreeably, "except insofar as everything you do is my business, David."
David rolled his eyes and went to lean against the car next to Mr Wedding. The lady chauffeur was nowhere to be seen; perhaps she was at the chemist's with Astrid. "That's true, I suppose," he said, "in the sense that everything everyone does is your business. I have done my reading, you know."
"Yes, I know," Mr Wedding said, sounding amused. "I've been to see Mrs Frost. She took rather a liking to you—we all have, somewhat to my surprise. It's not often that I'm surprised, these days, but you keep managing to do it. Why is that, I wonder?"
"One of your ravens said I might be something new," David said, a bit more cheekily than he would have dared four years before.
Mr Wedding went still. "Did it," he murmured. "Well, I suppose that would explain it."
"It doesn't explain it to me," said David.
Mr Wedding laughed, and then turned to David and held out his hand. "I tell you what, David," he said, "I'll give you this one for free, if you'll do me a favour and speak to Luke."
"That's not for free," David pointed out.
"Freeish." Mr Wedding waved his hand from side to side. "But it's a favour you'll want to do, I think."
"All right," David said warily. "But I reserve the right to refuse, if it's not, or if I think you're only doing this to get at Luke."
"Fair enough," Mr Wedding said cheerfully, and they shook on it. Mr Wedding's hand was icy cold. David put his hands in his pockets to warm them as soon as Mr Wedding let him go.
"It's like this," Mr Wedding said. There was a resonant, musical tone to his voice, and even though they were still leaning against the long white car on the road outside the cricket pitch, behind David's school, they were also somewhere else: a high echoing place that seemed to go on around them forever. "The stories all go the same way, in the end. There are three years of winter, and the earth shakes, and Luke breaks free of his prison, and the final battle comes. We face each other, and none of us survive." David shivered, even though it was a warm day. On an old instinct, he felt in his pocket for his matches—but of course they were in the drawer of his bedside table at home, where they had been for ages. Luke came on his own now.
"Mrs Frost gave me a library card," David said. "I know how it ends. I let Luke out. How much time do we have left?"
"That's the thing," said Mr Wedding, "I don't know."
David stared at him. "But you're—" You're supposed to know everything, he thought, feeling somewhat betrayed.
"Yes, rather." Mr Wedding was smiling. "But Luke didn't break out, David. You let him out. There might be a chance to do things differently, because of that. If Luke will come to me, we could end Ragnarok before it begins."
"But—" David started. The hairs were standing up on his arms. "You mean it wasn't—I didn't—I didn't do something awful, when I let him out?"
Mr Wedding laughed. "Oh, you did. Luke's quite a responsibility. But I told you before: it's better when we're on the same side. I'm fond of him too, you know."
Something about the conversation was bothering David. He was certain that Mr Wedding was not telling him the whole truth. But David did not want to lose Luke to Ragnarok, either. He did not want the world to end; he did not want Luke to raise an army of the dead, the way the books said he would; he did not want poor, wonderful Fen to devour the sun; and most importantly, and most frighteningly, he did not want Luke to leave. Whatever Luke was and did and would be, David did not want to give him up—and here was Mr Wedding, offering him a chance to keep Luke safe, and to keep the world safe from Luke. Astrid had told him to be selfish, but he had a feeling this was not what she had meant. "I'll tell him," he said, "but that's all I can promise."
"Thank you, David," said Mr Wedding. "Can I give you a lift home?"
David accepted the lift, even though it took longer than it would have to walk. They drove down winding roads that did not exist in Ashbury, through a green sprawling countryside of rivers and hills, faint snow on the peaks of mountains that David was certain would have given Mrs Adams, the Geography teacher, a coronary. He said good-bye to Mr Wedding when they finally arrived at the top of Wednesday Hill, and went thoughtfully up the stairs into the house.
Susan was in the kitchen, drinking tea with Astrid. David had not seen her since that first summer, when she had brought him Fen, but she seemed exactly the same—his age, or Luke's, and red-haired and smiling. She was prettier than he remembered. Of course, in the time since David had last seen her, most of the boys in his year had taken up with girls, and David was often called upon to admire this one's shiny hair, or the way that one filled out her sweater. David preferred cricket to girls, but he rather thought Simon and Alan would have preferred Susan.
"Hullo," David said, a little shyly. "What are you doing here?"
"I came to borrow Fen," Susan said. "It's been ages. Would you mind, if I took him out for a run?"
"Not at all," David said politely, and then blurted, "I just saw Mr Wedding."
"What did he want?" Astrid asked, pouring David a cup of tea.
David sipped the tea gratefully. "He wanted me to speak to Luke—"
"Oh," Susan interrupted, sounding enlightened, "I did wonder. The last time I saw Luke, he very nearly had steam coming out of his ears. That's why I came to see Fen now, you know—he's not quite so friendly once he goes all Big Bad Wolf."
David digested this, and then said carefully, "Mr Wedding said that if Luke came to him, they could be on the same side, and stop—well, stop Ragnarok." The tea was hot and sweet, but it tasted like a bonfire. David had gotten used to that taste: nearly all of their food was burnt, even when Luke was not there.
Susan sighed. "He always does say that," she said. "He was Luke's friend, a long time ago. But Mr Wedding is not on anyone's side but his own."
David nodded slowly, unsurprised. "I thought so," he said. "Thanks."
"Mind you," Susan said, "he might not be entirely wrong. We don't know what you've changed, by being Luke's friend—much less by letting him out ahead of schedule. Don't look so glum." She stood up. "Thanks for the tea, Astrid. I'll see you soon." She called for Fen, and a moment later they were out the door in a whirl of girl and dog.
"I like Susan," Astrid said, as David finished his tea and went to wash his cup in the sink.
"Me too," he said. "Have you seen Luke?"
Astrid gave a little snort of laughter. "One track as always, David. No, I haven't, but if he turns up I'll send him straight to you."
David frowned. "What do you mean, one track?"
"Oh, David," Astrid said. Her voice sounded strange. "I just mean—well, it's always Luke for you, isn't it? It's always been Luke."
"He's my responsibility," David said, staring down into the sink. His eyes felt suddenly hot and prickly. "I let him out, and I saved him, and I—I invited him in, Astrid. You said—well, you were right. There wasn't any other alternative I could live with."
"Are you sure?" Astrid asked. David whirled around, shocked, and Astrid's eyebrows shot up to her hairline. "Whatever horrible thing you're thinking, David, stop; I'm not suggesting you throw him to the wolves. Fen aside, I suppose." She set her teacup down with a clatter. "What I mean is: Luke isn't only part of his family, he's part of ours. That's not just about responsibility, or about making the best of a bad situation."
Mr Wedding had said that Luke was a responsibility. But Mr Wedding also wanted Luke where he could control him. He wanted Luke in a position where he could not use his powers against Mr Wedding, or against anyone else—it was another kind of prison, and he had tried to use David to get Luke there. David was abruptly and seethingly furious, because it was not fair at all. Even by the unusual rules that Luke's family played by, Mr Wedding should have offered Luke a neutral meeting ground and a fair and equal chance to come to terms.
But Mr Wedding could not do that, David realised, because he did not trust Luke. Even though Luke had stood up and taken responsibility when he had killed Balder, and even though Luke had told the truth about Thor's hammer, Mr Wedding did not trust Luke to do the right thing—or, no, not even that; it was worse than that: Mr Wedding did not trust Luke to make his own choices, good or bad, and live with the consequences. But Luke understood consequences better than anyone—consequences were the wary look in his eyes, and the way he had held the fire off David because David was only human, and every story David had read about him in Mrs Frost's library: Loki, god of fire and mischief, hated and feared. And David—David had not trusted him either.
"Astrid," David said, horrified, "what have I done?"
"Nothing you can't fix," Astrid said tartly. "Just think about this for a minute, David: what do you want from Luke?"
David did not want anything from Luke. David just wanted Luke.
Oh, David thought, like lightning striking a tree. He sat down heavily on the chair across from Astrid.
"There's always an alternative," said Astrid. "I learned that from you. But you chose Luke, and you've kept on choosing him, over and over again. I think you'd better tell him how you feel before either one of you does something really stupid."
David looked down at the table. He could not quite meet her eyes. "Is it all right?" he asked, tentatively. He did not want to disappoint Astrid, and he had been afraid, ever since Tom had kissed him, that he might. Luke was something else—strange, and complicated, and eternal, and an essential part of the life David had chosen—but on the surface, he was still just a boy.
"Well," said Astrid, laughing a little, "I'm not sure precisely what you think I would object to, David. But do try to keep him from burning the house down. Not for my sake, you understand, but for the sake of Alan's poor mum."
He went up to his room after supper and changed slowly into comfortable clothing: pyjama bottoms and a worn-thin shirt from his U15 cricket team. Then he sat down on the edge of the bed and got his matches out of the bedside table. The box from Uncle Bernard and Aunt Dot's house had been shoved into the back of the drawer, under notebooks and pencils and packets of chewing gum, and it was dusty with disuse. He turned it over and over again between his fingers, until he was ready.
The first match he struck kindled instantly. David watched the flame curl down the wood towards his fingertips until it went out—a bare second before it would have burned him—as if someone had snuffed out the flame. David looked up, and Luke was there.
"You want me for something," Luke said. His sharp smile had an edge of wariness, but he looked happy to see David all the same.
I want you for everything, David thought. "Mr Wedding came to see me," he said instead. "He asked me to tell you—he thinks that because I let you out, there's a chance for things to go differently. At the end, I mean."
"Of course," Luke said. He had wrapped his arms around himself and was suddenly very tall and very pale, his flame-red hair a shock of colour. "Of course you know about that. Who told you?"
"I went to the library," David said, nettled.
"Frost," Luke hissed. "I should have known."
"It's not her fault," David said, "and anyway, why are you so upset? Luke—"
"It's not your fault, either," Luke snapped. "You gave me the greatest gift anyone has ever given me, David. You freed me when you didn't mean to, and you helped me when you didn't have to, and you've been my friend ever since. Why would I want you to feel guilty about that? I knew you would, the way you went on about your relations. As soon as you worked out that my freedom led to Ragnarok, you'd tear yourself to pieces, and then I'd—"
David stood up, his hands balled into fists. "I've known for ages," he shouted. "I don't care."
Luke stopped, and stared at him. His red-brown eyes seemed to flicker, reflecting flames.
"I stopped caring," David said. He had not quite known, until he said it, that it was true. But he had never meant anything more truly in his life. "I read all about that, years ago. And you're right, you know—at first I was horrified by what I'd done. But then I realised—" He could not quite say when he had realised this, but he knew it now as surely as he knew his own name. "I would have done everything exactly the same if I had known. It was the only fair thing to do." He took a breath, and barrelled on. "Maybe Mr Wedding is right, and I've changed the way the story ends. But even if I haven't, and even if Ragnarok comes because of me, and because of you, then—all right. As long as I have you. I don't want to lose you."
"David," Luke said, very softly.
"Yes," David said, "and while you're at it, you can stop holding yourself back so much. You're doing it because you think you owe me, and you don't. You never have. I know you, Luke. I know what you can do. Maybe I won't always like it, if you—if you go around lighting office blocks on fire. But I'm not going to stop being your friend. I'm not going to stop being on your side." He was pacing up and down his little room, hands flailing as he talked. "I'm not going to stop, because I still—" Except he did stop, then, because Luke had caught his hands and pulled him in to kiss.
Luke kissed him gently, the first press of warm, dry lips like the whisper of a candle flame. Then David gasped, desperate, and opened his mouth to Luke's. It was nothing at all like kissing Tom behind the equipment shed. David was abruptly done wondering how he felt about that, as he clung hard to Luke's hands: he did like boys, nearly as much as he liked cricket, but he liked Luke more than boys and cricket put together.
It was a long time later when Luke finally seemed to remember that David required air to breathe, and drew slowly back. "Thank you," he said. He was looking at David the same way he looked at fires he had made: gently and fiercely, and like they were beautiful. David felt himself go slowly burning hot from his toes to the tips of his ears.
"I don't owe you anything," Luke agreed. "I'm grateful to you because I want to be, that's all. I'm grateful to you the same way I'm yours—because it's my choice. Because you chose me."
"Oh," David breathed, and put his arms around Luke. "It is worth it, isn't it?" he whispered against Luke's mouth. "Even if you might end up sad forever after?"
"I've always thought so," Luke said. "Brunhilda did too, of course. If she didn't, she wouldn't have come to me for revenge."
"Good," David said fiercely, and kissed him again.
Luke's kisses grew hotter and deeper, and his hands came up to hold David's face, his long fingers threading into David's hair. David rested his forehead against Luke's, breathing hard; they were exactly the same height. "Do you do that on purpose?" he asked, breathless.
"Do what?" Luke sounded interested, but distracted. He was trailing burning kisses along David's jaw.
"Shape yourself to me," David said. "My height, my age—"
Luke laughed softly. "Of course. What else would I do?"
David drew back far enough to look at his face: pale and freckled and sharp-eyed, with a wicked knife's curve of a mouth. He was ageless, and still the same boy David had met trying to curse—the best mistake David had ever made. Maybe he could make some more.
"What are we going to do about Mr Wedding?" he asked.
Luke's face tightened for a moment, but then he smiled. "I don't know yet," he said, taking David's hand and drawing him over to the bed. "Something very clever. You'll have to help me work out what."