"No matter how fast light travels it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it."
“Loki has surrendered,” Thor says, and Sif’s hands clench into fists. Even from her friend, with his head bowed in sorrow for his lost brother, those words sound wrong.
“Bring him before me,” Odin replies.
They bring him home in chains.
Thor is careful not to let it become like a parade (the villain laid low, made to kneel before those he would have seen bending the knee to him) but with the elated buzz that ripples through the court at the news that they have returned, and with the way the guards strut a bit as they walk on either side of the brothers with their hands clasping the hilts of their swords, Sif thinks that that is what it feels like. Her thoughts are jumbled up like a child’s game of pick-up sticks as she watches them, the wind whipping the tails of Loki’s coat around his legs as the cart pulls them into the courtyard.
She’s not close enough to the Allfather and the queen to hear what passes between the four of them, though as ever Loki does not communicate with words. His eyes are wild, though, animalistic, not at all the coolly logical man she knew, or even the man who sat uneasily on the throne. He is like a predator caught in a trap, and though gagged, he speaks volumes.
Dinner that night is supposedly a victory dinner, though Thor’s face is decidedly not victorious. It hurts Sif’s heart to see her friend’s broad shoulders slumped in sadness, to watch the way his eyes flick to the empty space beside him that had always been Loki’s. Of the wayward son there is no sign, save Thor’s demeanor and Frigga’s red-rimmed eyes that no amount of makeup can conceal and the thoughtful expression on the Allfather’s face. Sif keeps her eyes on her plate, eating the melons without tasting them, one hand clenching into a fist with every burst of laughter from someone else at the table until she can’t take it anymore and begs leave to go. Thor seems about to stop her, and the Allfather is watching her carefully, but Frigga puts a hand on her husband’s arm and simply nods. Picking up the skirts of her dress, Sif starts walking.
Her feet have taken her to the edge of the city before she knows it. The palace is in the center but there are many paths, little parkways where she walked often. She has never been alone before, though; always with one or both of the brothers, where they would go and talk. It is too easy to look back now and think about all those times she saw Loki watching her as he spun some tale or demonstrated some spell, and all the times she did not mark the disappointment in his eyes when she did not acknowledge how cunning it was.
The roar of the rim sea is loud in her ears, and far above the reach of the spray, Sif tastes salt on her lips as she stares up at the vermillion swirls of Yggdrasil across the sky.
She sees Loki again several weeks after his return, from afar. A storm has rumbled around the city all day – Thor, probably, for she marked the red streak of his cape leaving the royal apartments level of the palace earlier when she was practicing with her crossbow – and after a while huge drops of rain begin to fall, so Sif makes her way back inside to one of the empty meeting halls where she can clean her weapons and watch the city, the boats paddling up and down the waterways.
She notices movement in one of the gardens far below, and for a moment she doesn’t realize just who it is. Loki is so different than the man she remembers – she barely recognized him when he was before her at his return, and now even walking beside Frigga (him in shackles still, she notes) it takes Sif a moment before she connects the dark man beside the queen in her jeweled beige gown to the boy who would juggle balls of green fire to make everyone laugh. His hair is washed at least, she thinks dully, and he looks less hollowed around the cheeks – though the servant following them nervously, staying as far back from him as possible as he reaches out and takes a banana, something fantastic from Midgard that Thor brought back recently, from the platter, might have something to do with that.
Sif watches as they pause by a little marshy area, Frigga reaching out to touch the petals of a water lily’s bloom. They are talking, and she cannot make out the words, but Loki’s shoulders are tense. Not so much prey anymore, but a creature out of place in the world he has found himself in.
Enemy, she reminds herself. Loki would have seen Asgard brought to its knees, he would have destroyed all Thor holds dear on Midgard. He may look a certain way, but Loki has ever been a manipulator, playing others around him as others play games. Not to be trusted, not to be sympathized with, not deserving of her empathy. She can do nothing from this distance, but she watches them. They seem to be arguing – well, Frigga is making emphatic gestures, most unusual for the queen, and Loki… Loki is turning away, head bowed. His lips move, and Frigga watches him a moment, then turns away herself, leaving Loki alone with his guards and the very nervous servant.
For a moment, there is only the rumble of thunder over the city, and Loki looks up at the sky with some apprehension – then he turns suddenly, looking up at where Sif watches him, and she quickly spins around to face the inside of the room, heart racing. Even so far away, the rage in that glance strikes the core of her.
She doesn’t actually speak to Loki until the fourth month after his return.
Oh, she’s seen him many times since that first one in the garden, mostly from a distance (though there was one time he was being escorted somewhere and they passed each other in the hall, and their eyes met and Sif had been so unsettled she’d been bested in the training ring by Volstagg of all people), but Loki is not yet allowed at the dinner table with the rest of the court, and Sif does not seek him out.
Part of his punishment is that he must aid in rebuilding what he has destroyed, and so occasionally he will be taken back to Midgard and, under close supervision, use his magic to reshape buildings and clear the bodies of Chitauri monsters from the streets of the place they call Manhattan. They have all taken it in turns to watch over him on these outings, and at last, it falls to Sif. With Loki bound and gagged beside her, she shivers as the eerie energy the Allfather uses to transport people between realms wraps around them both and transports them suddenly to a great park in the middle of the city.
It is morning in Midgard and fog lays thick over the city as she and Thor, each holding one of Loki’s arms, take him to where he’ll be working today. The streets have been cleared of vehicle traffic, though there are people on bicycles that stare at them as they pass by. The looks they give Loki aren’t exactly friendly.
They’re clearing the last of the Chitauri monsters away today, a giant thing of metal and flesh that has been a plague on the city and is blocking rebuilding efforts. It lies draped across three buildings, noisome in its state of decay, and Sif wrinkles her nose at it. Small wonder that Loki would throw in with such repulsive things, when that seems to be just what he has become.
Loki raises his hands to begin but Thor stops him, and with great gentleness removes the gag. “I hate this,” he says, tossing it on top of the stack of crates that’s been left for them – food, any supplies they might need – and nudges the fetters binding Loki’s wrists.
“I would see you freed of these as well, brother,” he says. Sif marks well how Loki’s jaw works when Thor says that.
“I am not your brother,” he says quietly. Thor’s face tightens.
“We have spoken of this, Loki, you know—“
“I know what I am.” Loki turns his back on Thor, the metal chains clinking softly as he raises his hands again. “Leave me with my lovely watchdog, and trouble me no further with your sentimentality.” Magic begins pouring out of him so intensely that his hands vanish in the flare, concentrated into the neon green of a viper’s scales. It makes Sif sick to her stomach to look at, so she forces herself to keep her eyes on it. She tastes copper in the back of her throat. Loki’s magic never used to do that. Thor stands there a moment watching him, then with a nod to Sif and a moment’s twirling of his hammer, flies off to some other errand, and she is left alone.
They break when half the carcass is cleared, sitting on the crates as far away as possible. The food consists of pre-made meals. Sif picks at hers, though Loki seems to eat like a man starved but trying to hide it. She watches him dutifully fork in a mouthful of lettuce and cucumber – but for his eyes which remain feral, he looks more like the prince he once was. Frigga had said that when he arrived back at Asgard, he was skin and bones. She tries to imagine it and finds that hard; Loki has never been burly. She cannot imagine how he looked under his clothes.
That leads to an embarrassing line of thought, and Sif turns her attention back to her food until she looks up and realizes Loki is watching her.
“Are you finished?” she asks, after a moment.
His smile – if she can call it that – is pointed and thin. “Clearly not,” he replies, gesturing to the rest of the stinking carcass that still needs tending. She scowls.
“With your food, traitor.”
He presses a hand to his chest as if struck. “You wound me, Sif! Your words are as sharp as your blades.”
“And yours are as worthless as your loyalties.” Her scowl becomes a glare. “Either eat or work, but do not speak.”
“Put the gag back on if my voice bothers you so much.”
Loki watches her carefully as she glances at it, then back at him, defiant. “I am a sworn warrior of Asgard,” she says. “I need pay no mind to your words, Snaketongue.”
“Ah, your devotion to your home is most admirable, Lady Sif.” He stands, setting his tray aside – it’s been picked clean, she notes. “But it matters little. The door’s been opened. There are worlds out in the darkness that you cannot even dream of,” and for a moment, there is something in his eyes, some vast desolation, and then it is gone as he turns away, the sun catching the tips of his ebony hair and turning it to silver-gold. “Enemies which even you, with all your skills and your loyalties, could not hope to stand against.”
“I could hope,” Sif snaps. “And do not question my loyalties, Loki—“
“You say mine are worthless?” There is bitterness now, anger and pain and pure darkness so deep she wonders how light doesn’t bend to be sucked into it. “Who betrayed the command of her king? Who helped unseat him?”
She bristles, tries to remind herself that knocking people off balance is what Loki does, that he is not her friend any longer. “I was not wrong, clearly,” she replies.
“You were. You were all of you wrong. I was the rightful king of Asgard, and—“
“And what, Loki?” She finally snaps, and a few of the braver mortals who have ventured closer drop their hands to their handguns. “You were a stranger then, barely hours after taking up the crown. What would you have become if you had remained king? What would you have done?”
Loki is silent a long moment, the poisonous green of his magic rippling around his hands like heat waves. “I would have finally shone,” he says. “Rather than the dark prince I would have been the glorious light, the leader. Like Odin; like Thor. I would have finally been held in high regard in the eyes of others.”
“So you care so much for what others think of you that you would destroy an entire world just to see them proved wrong?”
A moment’s silence, then Loki laughs, and it chills Sif to the core.
“Do not try to play these games with me, dear Sif, you won’t win,” he tells her. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must continue indulging everyone’s fetish for prison labor.”
He raises his hands, and Sif glares at his back. It’s the view of him that she sees for the rest of the day, from when he finishes and she and Thor escort him back through the tiny forest in Central Park to where the Bifrost takes them home, until the moment he disappears around a corner under heavy guard.
It’s not a view she can appreciate.
They are in some other part of the world, and Sif is trying out something called a parsnip while Loki scuffs his boots in the sand and peers around at the half-circle of tanks around him.
“I do so love having an audience,” he says lightly.
“You’ve worked out those performance issues of yours?” Tony Stark replies in the same tone of voice. Loki glares at him, and then turns his back.
That night, back at home, Sif dreams.
She dreams she is in the desert again, the ground beneath her boots cracked by drought. On the horizons, the sky is almost ivory with kicked-up sand. The air burns in her lungs, and Sif clutches the hilt of an axe that has appeared in her hands. Not her glaive, for some reason, but an axe, wickedly sharp.
“I would not have destroyed the world, Sif.”
She turns and Loki is there behind her. He wears what formal armor he has made for himself – he refuses to wear his old set – and it glitters in the sun, the green cape sweeping down from his shoulders to brush the ground. He doesn’t look hot at all despite wearing half his weight in leather and metal.
“My own eyes tell me somewhat else,” she replies. “I have seen the aftermath of your attack on that Midgard city, Loki. You would have seen it in ruins if it meant you had the attention of others, if it accomplished your goals.” The pebbles under her boots shift and crunch as she walks toward him, and they stand facing each other silently for a moment. “So you invade my dreams?” she asks at last. “Am I to have no relief from you?”
“I thought you might enjoy a peek into my mind.” Loki turns away from her, but does not walk away. “We used to share dreams so often, after all.”
“Is this how you see yourself?” Sif pokes the bleached desert ground with the edge of the axe in her hand. “It seems such a desolate place for someone whose mind is so rich.”
He laughs, hollowly. “Genius means nothing if nobody appreciates it,” he tells her. “Like Mjolnir, it can be a tool for building, or it can be a weapon of war, and war leads to devastation, and here we are.”
“Here we are.”
“My words against war do not offend you?”
“Why should they? Simply because I find glory in it does not mean I am blind to its effects, Loki. And you could not have been blind to what would happen either, you who have always been so far ahead of the rest of us in these things.” Sif turns in a circle, but it all comes back to Loki, who is looking at her now. “My mind isn’t the wasteland, after all.”
“It is all that suits me, now.”
“It doesn’t have to be.” She kneels, using the butt of the axe to dig under the gravel. There’s rich, dark earth a few inches down. “The desert can bloom again, Loki.”
There is that very vulnerable look in his eyes again, as he looks out to the horizons and then back at her. “I am beyond that.”
“You are not beyond hope.” She sets the axe down with an air of finality. “You wouldn’t have spent all this time helping Midgard repair the damage you have done if you didn’t want to. There is something in you that is still good, Loki, I know it.”
“Wishful thinking,” he says, but to Sif’s surprise there is a thread of doubt in his voice. Surprise, because it was always Loki who won these kinds of games. “Baseless sentiment. Why would you care?”
She opens her mouth to say Because you are my friend but that isn’t right.
She opens her mouth to tell him Because Thor believes it to be true, but that’s not right either.
“Because I want to care,” she says. It’s not right, still not right, but it’s all she’s got.
“You believe that I can simply make amends for betraying Asgard, for all that I have done on Midgard? You believe that I can turn this—“ he gestures at the desert around them, “Into some verdant paradise?”
“Yes,” Sif tells him, and means it.
Loki eyes her. “That’s not all of it, is it?”
“What’s the rest?”
“I don’t know.”
Much to her pleasure, the smile he gives her this time is not the pointed, knife-sharp one she has seen him wear all too often of late. It is shaky, and small, and so much closer to the one she remembers from what seems like an entire lifetime ago.
“Tell me when you do,” he says.
Sif dislikes being wrong.
Not that she takes extreme offense when she is – unlike Loki or Thor, she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. But as she twists in midair after being thrown by the blast from a thrown grenade and skids across the grass on the moor the fight’s found itself on, Sif wishes that she hadn’t been wrong about this.
It’s winter in Midgard now, and as Sif picks herself up off the ground and sprints back into the fray, her boots skid and slip on icy patches, half of them magically conjured as it is. Loki is not being discriminate with his magic, lips curled back into a snarl as he takes on any and all comers. The smoking remains of some Midgard harvest device, along with most of the crop of turnips it was meant to harvest, mark the path the fight’s taken since it broke out over… well, she’s not sure. Something, nothing, a stray comment of Thor’s that crawled into the cracks in Loki’s mind and festered. One moment they’d been walking along, the three of them, and Loki and Thor had been talking, and it was almost like it had been before. The next…
Loki shouts something at Thor and takes off, shooting through the air, and Thor goes after him. Sif wonders, briefly, if this is going to be the extent of anyone’s relationship with Loki from now on. Getting close enough to have hope, to think that maybe, just maybe, he’ll turn from his dark path and become more like the man they used to know and care about, only to watch him fall once more. To forever dance on that knife edge of what was and what could have been and what will be.
She isn’t sure if she can handle it.
They bring him back again (is that going to be part of the tale, too?), two sets of azure eyes ablaze. One set is sad, and Sif puts her hand gently on Thor’s arm when he sits a short distance away from where Loki is being put into shackles again. She doesn’t notice the flare of jealousy in the second set of blue eyes, and when she turns to look at Loki there is only that hard, cold expression he wears as a matter of course. It makes a place deep in her chest ache, because she can’t see any of her old friend there anymore.
When they are back on Asgard, walking toward Loki’s rooms in one of the secondary palaces where he is being put back under house arrest, she looks at him.
“You asked me to tell you when I knew what the other thing was,” she says. Loki gives her a look of haughty disdain, which she takes to be his way of asking her to continue – not that she’d have stopped anyway. Words, like actions, cannot be undone.
“More talk of the paradise you imagine in the desert?”
She turns to him when they pause outside his door. He is in the shadow cast by the play of light from the two braziers in the hall. Funny how he sought to escape that which he has cast himself deep into. Worse still that she can see how happy he is to be there, in the shadows she despises. The very thought twists her heart uncomfortably, even as she reaches out, reaches into the shadows, and puts her hand over his heart.
“No,” she tells him.
“Why do you do it?” she asks, much later.
A blizzard has engulfed the mountain palace, making passage back to the city impossible until it eases up. While hardly of princely quality, the furs on Loki’s bed are not shabby either. Frigga’s doing, doubtless. Odin would have seen his adopted son behind bars and in fetters, and Sif is fairly certain that doing that would only have made things worse. Then again, she isn’t sure that making him right his wrongs and giving him the illusion of freedom is helping either, but the thought of Loki alone with his thoughts in a dark cell is not a comforting one, and not simply because for all that his deeds repulse her she cannot rid herself of the affection she holds for him.
He stirs, stretching beside her from where he’d lapsed into a strangely companionable silence eating slices of pineapple (Midgard really is full of delicacies) off a plate. “Do what?”
“All these things you do and have done. Drop Thor out of that airship, attack Midgard, turn your rage upon those who would seek to help you. Why?”
Loki goes quiet again, and though he flicks his hand and a stream of fire shoots from it to the hearth where the fire has died low, his eyes – emerald in the light, dark and darker toward the iris like deep water sucking her in – remain on Sif the whole time.
“Because there is darkness even in paradise,” he says at last. “Every light casts a shadow, Sif. That is what I am; no warm torch, no lantern to guide humanity or Asgard or anyone out of perdition.”
“You could have been.”
“Could have been is not the same as am. I did not know what I was before.” Loki reaches out, strokes her arm. She shivers. “Now I know exactly what I am.”
“Ever were you one for word games.”
“This is not a game.” He looks away, up into the shadowed ceiling, as the winds howl around the palace. Sif feels cold. “I don’t play games anymore, Sif, and the reasons why are so many.”
A gust of wind rattles the closed doors, and Sif pulls the furs up closer around her chin, shutting out the draft, shutting out Loki, who is as cold as the drifts of snow outside the mountain palace.
“Tell me,” she says.