The trees about them began to whisper, leaves thrown in disarray; then the sky split open and it began, tremendously, to rain. In a moment they were all of them drenched. Sif threw a hand up over her head and spat water out her mouth. She squinted. Through the downpour, Thor and Loki showed as shadows, blurred.
Thor slogged ahead, unmindful. Loki called up to him:
"Oh, well done, Thor. You couldn't wait till we got back to camp, could you?"
"I do not command this storm!" Thor protested.
Loki clicked his tongue, or she thought he did so. The storm worked too loudly for her to hear the tick of his tongue on his teeth. A muscle in his cheek had ticked in such a way, though.
"A likely story," he said.
Sif caught up to Loki. She knocked her elbow with his. He staggered in the mud. His collar, wetted, stuck to his throat. The lip pressed into the soft underside of his chin. Loki threw her a shaded look, all dripping eyelashes and thin lips.
"Your storm or not," she said to Thor and with a look to Loki, "I, for one, am glad of it."
Loki's hands flittered. He encompassed: the woods, the rain, the mud below. His eyebrow turned.
"You're glad to smell of mud and this wretched rain?"
"No," said Sif, for the rain was quite foul, "but there are other things for which I'm thankful."
"Oh, pray tell. And what is it you're so grateful for?"
"How out of sorts it puts you."
"That's one thing," said Loki.
She looked to his hair. The ends, curling, had turned up; they gleamed wetly. Her fingertips itched. She pinched them to her thumb.
"How silly your hair looks when it's wet like that," said Sif.
"That's another," he said.
Thor had pressed on to a rise between the trees. Now he turned back to them. In the hazy rain, he showed mostly as a series of brightly colored blocks stacked one upon the other.
"If you are finished quarreling--"
They ascended the rise, Sif at Loki's side. He turned his arm out. She ignored it and pushed on. The muddied earth flaked away in waves beneath her feet. At the top of the rise she paused. Camp showed between the trees, a collection of tents and awnings erected against the storm.
"Finally," Loki sighed. "Civilization."
"If you would call camp civilization," said Sif.
The other side of the rise was slicker still. Largely bare of trees, no growth stood there to hide the earth from the rain or to keep it there. Sif, lightest, descended with her feet turned sideways, that she might not skid the length of it down. Thor stomped on quite easily, but Loki, who was slighter, hung back by Sif.
"After spending the entirety of the day with you two brutes," he said to her, "I would call a cave civilization."
"And you should have the bears to keep you company," Sif said, "and to talk to you of poetry."
Before them, Thor laughed. He grinned up at them through the rain.
"I should like to meet so accomplished a bear."
"Oh, honestly," said Loki sharply. His hair, which had curled earlier in the humidity, lay plastered flat against his neck. "I should wonder you haven't already. You need only look in a mirror, brother."
Sif took it up. "He would dine with his littlest claws pointed out--" She stuck her pinkies out to demonstrate. "For he is dignified, unlike we brutes."
"That doesn't sound at all productive," said Loki. "The other bears must laugh wildly."
The rain let up, but only just. The earth had given way entirely to mud. Sif's ankle twisted beneath her.
"Come, Loki, tell us," said Thor. "Does he not sound like fine company?"
At her side, Loki turned so his shoulder faced her--his arm as well. She straightened her foot out and went on. A little twinge bit at her, then that faded. Her ankle held.
"Not fine enough for his princeliness," said Sif. "Loki has such exacting standards for his conversational partners."
The camp rose before them. The slope gave way to level ground. Sif turned fore-ways again and stomped so the mud fell from her boots. Loki slicked a hand back over his hair, dragging it flatter still. The curls low on his nape coursed with water, pressed out. The elegant, folding line of his arm hid his face. He dropped his hand.
"It appears you've no need for my judgment," said Loki, "so if you've no objections, I intend to retire to my tent."
"I have no objections," said Thor generously. "Sif! Have you any objections?"
Loki plucked at his collar, pulled tight about his throat. His finger was long; it curled delicately.
"I have no objections," she said.
Loki bowed with aggravating sincerity before turning from them. He shook his sleeves out as he went. The rain swallowed him.
Sif looked down to her chestplate. The cloth beneath had molded to her skin. The task of stripping it all off loomed darkly before her. Loki would have more layers to pull from his skin. She tugged at her undershirt.
"I must change as well," she said. "Get out of this awful rain."
"I like it," said Thor.
Her lip curled. "You always like the rain."
"Not so much as my brother does," he said.
"You are lucky he's already left," she said, "or he would punish you for that."
The creeping hand of night stretched over the camp. Dusk settled as a blanket cast over the trees. The rain had slowed and then stopped, its work done. The campgrounds were more mud than anything else.
Sif stooped and parted the tent's flaps. Bent over his lapdesk, poised to write, Loki looked up. He'd dried his hair. It twisted now in curls. His long throat was naked, bared by the low collar of the dry tunic he'd put on. A pulse beat lightly there in his neck.
"What would you have me do with my boots?" she asked.
He pointed with the pen to the corner. "I'd rather you didn't track mud into my tent."
The tent flaps murmured as they closed again behind her. She rolled her eyes at him as she bent to her laces.
"Please. As if I would sully the great prince's tent."
"The great prince's tent is to the north," said Loki.
She glanced at him. He was watching her fingers at the boot stays. The pen rolled between his finger and thumb. Sif stepped out of her left boot, then the right. She curled her toes against the air. Loki looked back to his little desk. He tapped the pen to the paper.
"If you would that I go to his tent instead of yours and spend the rest of my evening talking of swords, then tell me that I might go."
His eyes dropped. A small muscle in his throat drew out then stilled. He began to write.
"Since you've already taken off your boots," he said, "you might as well stay."
She crossed the tent. He'd a small light set upon the desk. The shadows in the space were thick; her own melted into them. Sif sat beside him on the cot. His skin was flushed where he'd scrubbed at it. His ears stuck out.
"You need not have come."
He did not stop his writing. The corner of his mouth hooked.
"Oh, and what son of Odin would not leap at the chance to go on the hunt?"
Sif had thought to touch that ear, to brush a wayward curl behind it. Now she drew her hand back. Her shoulders squared.
"You know I did not mean it that way," she said.
He drew a dash. The pen wavered in his hand. Loki exhaled. His eyes closed.
"I am sorry," he said. He looked at her again, up through his black lashes. "It's the weather makes me short."
She let him his lie.
"Have you reached a stopping point?"
"As good enough a one," he said. He turned the pen over and clasped it between his hands. His knuckles paled and then relaxed. "Why? Have you come to ravage me?"
The tunic's sleeves were too short on him; a length of arm stood out from each. Sif slid her hand up his wrist. Her fingers closed about the joint.
"I believe that, properly, it's called ravishing," she said.
"Oh, well, then," he said. "That changes it, doesn't it?"
Loki set the pen down. Brushing his hand across the lamp, he pulled the light from it. The shadows came together. In the darkness, Sif drew him down onto the cot. He was long and bent beneath her, and rumpled, too, still damp. His legs folded up on either side of her. She cupped his right knee in her hand.
"What difference is there?"
"Between ravaging and ravishing," he said.
His mouth was dry. He'd forgot to drink again. He was like that when he got an idea, all forgetful of the little things. He'd have a headache in a bit. She'd have to bully him into drinking before she snuck out again.
Loki sighed into her mouth. He ran his hand up her tunic. His fingers were long and cool as they spread wide between her breasts.
"One of them implies violence," she said.
She nipped at his lip, caught it and dragged it between her teeth. His neck arched. She heard him swallow, dryly. At her breast, his thumb traced the shape of her areola.
"And which one is that?"
His lower teeth were crooked under her tongue. She pushed her hips against him. He did not jerk or stutter; even his breathing remained even. His little finger twitched beneath her breast. The nail scraped. She licked at his teeth and ran her hand up his thigh.
"Which of the two would you ask of me?"
His fingers curled. The tips pressed into her sternum; the first knuckle of his thumb pushed into her breast. He made to kiss her again. Sif withdrew. His hand followed, his palm going flat against her chest. She would have him say it. Like pulling teeth, getting him to say what he wanted or what he meant.
In the thickening dark, he shifted; his shoulders rolled. His throat arched again, a long and pale incline. Sif ignored the bait.
"I'm afraid I am still a bit vague on the meanings." His little puzzled frown was a suggestion, filled in from memory. "Was it ravishing that was the dangerous one? Or was that ravening?"
She pinched his nose between finger and thumb. Loki fell back against the cot, trying to pull away. The arch of his throat collapsed. She let his nose go.
"You forget I am an accomplished hunter." She tipped her head. "If you try to run, I will only catch you."
He touched his nose. As if to himself, he said, "Not ravening. Though I am quite ravenous."
"And why shouldn't you be?" she asked. "After so long a hunt, and nothing to show for it."
"Oh, not nothing," he said. He stroked her left breast, measuring it, weighing it. His fingers fit around the swell. "I'm hardly empty-handed."
Sif pressed into his palm. She pressed into the cradle of his hips. His breath caught that time, only a small hitch in his throat, quickly smoothed over.
"And I have no trophy at all."
"Only what you would take," he said.
She leaned into him. Lightly, Sif ran her fingernail up his throat. He was very still. His pulse twitched against her fingertip.
"What am I to take?"
His chin tipped up. His throat curled. She dragged her nail down that long, long column. Langorously, his fingers flexed about her breast.
"Whatever you desire to take. Naturally. For the hunter," he said, "the spoils."
Night had fallen fully outside the tent. If he looked on her, she thought he saw her only as she saw him: a shadow, little else. She bent and kissed his chin. He breathed out, and she bit it. Loki's back bent.
Once more, she withdrew.
"You never did answer my question. Should I ask again?"
He settled. He set his other hand on her hip. His fingers laid neatly together over the bone. Lazily, he said,
"If you must. I can hardly be expected to remember everything you ask of me."
She pressed another kiss into the underside of his chin. She kissed softly this time, no bite, and lingered. He tasted of salt. She brushed her lips together slowly. The knob in his throat jerked.
"Ravish," Sif said, "or ravage."
She heard the scrape of his tongue over his lip. Like pulling teeth, she thought. The tooth had nearly come loose. Another breath, and he would unspool. She drifted down to his throat. Sif touched the tip of her tongue to his pulse. His shoulders hitched, then straightened. The hand at her breast slithered down to her belly.
"I believe," he said. "Earlier. I spoke of ravaging. That will do. If you must."
She flicked her tongue over the pulse and said, "I must."
He fanned his fingers out from her hip: then get to it.
Sif bared her teeth and bit at his pulse. Loki made a small sound, strangled on his tongue, and turned his throat up to her. She bit again, harder, and then licked a long and soothing stripe over his skin before she brought her teeth down on that spot. Salt there, too.
His fingers bent and scraped down her belly. She recoiled and then pushed into that touch. His thumb fit to her navel; he crooked it so the nail dug into her skin. Sif pulled at his throat, pulled skin between her teeth, and sucked violently in reproach.
"Ah," he said. It shook in his throat; she felt it reverberating in her front teeth. That was all he said. His teeth clicked together. His lips closed about them. He'd allow nothing else.
Sif pulled again at his throat and then, with a popping sound, she let go. She brushed her thumb over the mark. Too dark to see it, but the skin was hot under her thumb, hot and wet, and Loki breathed in sharply through his nose. She nipped at the soft juncture of his chin where it met with his throat. He tipped his head back.
She opened her teeth then snapped them together over his skin. He swallowed; the muscles in his throat worked in waves, rising and then falling.
"Please," he said.
Sif licked over the bite. Her lips brushed that tender, vulnerable expanse beneath his chin. The fingers at her hip dug into the swell of muscle below.
"What would you do if I were not careful?"
The thought had occurred to her before: Loki, with Sif's mark, a small bruise turning purple, somewhere his collar could not hide it. She knew it would have occurred to him, too. Loki was ever prepared.
He shifted his legs; the right hitched higher. He'd hardened beneath her; the evidence pressed between her legs. His fingers parted across her belly.
"There are always glamours," he said. "Things with which other things may be concealed."
Of course. He would sooner be unseen than walk around with her teeth imprinted in his throat for all the camp to see.
She leaned into him again. Her weight pushed into his groin. She rolled her hips against that, dragging pleasure from the friction, and in answer, his hips twitched. She followed his chin to his jaw, to the high line of his throat where it would peek over his collar. Her lips parted over his throat. His fingers worked like a spider's legs over her buttock.
"So use them," she said.
She sank her teeth into his throat, his long, smooth throat, so graceful and sleek. Like the elongated neck of a deer, full of such stillnesses, such careful intent. Blood, only a little, on her tongue. Another sound, buried in his throat. Loki scrabbled at her belly, her hip, his fingers biting into her flesh. He raised his neck to her mouth.
And what manner of deer would turn to the hunter, would offer his jugular to the knife? He pulled at her hip. His thumb pressed into her side. Loki was as much a hunter as Sif. He hid his knives and walked in shadows, but he, too, hunted. She sucked bruisingly at the corner of his jaw. Blood dotted her tongue.
A light pattering started on the tent. The rain had returned with the night. Through the canvas, lanterns showed where those few unfortunate enough to be caught without stumbled for shelter. Loki was dark, still. He arched soundlessly against her. Like making love to a shadow sometimes, or to a phantom. She could drag some things out of him but others he would not give. Sif bit a line down his throat. His breath stuttered. That, she could pull from him.
"I wanted to do this to you earlier," she whispered. "When it started to rain, and your collar stuck to your throat."
His hips jerked. That, too: another concession. She heard him breathe out through his mouth.
"Well, I'm glad you waited," he said. "I would have hated to get mud on my clothes."
She thought to say: And Thor would not have appreciated it, but she did not want to speak of Thor. He would not want to speak of Thor.
Instead she ground her teeth into the hollow of his throat, where it gave way to his clavicle. Her tongue darted between her teeth; she slicked his skin and then bit it again. The hand on her belly stilled, his touch marked only by the minute shiverings of breath. Then his legs spread wider and rose higher, and he lifted his hips. Sif pushed down, not meaning to.
She lifted her head from his throat, bruised in the dark. His face was a shadow, but the shape of it was known. His breath rasped. My prince, she might say to tease him.
"Loki," she said.
A footstep sounded at the tent flaps. Loki surged upright. In a moment, he had flipped her. Sif closed her throat around a shout. He grabbed for the blankets and hauled them over them both, and as the flap parted and light spilled in, Loki made as if he were rising.
"Ah," said Fandral, "there you are. Have you seen Sif?"
Loki yawned. "Do I look as if I've seen Sif?" His voice stuck as if he'd just awoken.
"No, not really. Say, Loki, what's--"
The light bobbed; the tent brightened. Sif stared up at Loki, his tunic drawn to one side, a stretch of his shoulder bared. She held herself very still.
"Have you got something on your neck?" Fandral asked.
"Have you got something in your eyes?"
"No need to snap," Fandral said, affronted.
Sif rolled her tongue to keep from laughing. She shook anyway. Loki's hand on her chest pressed down, warning, and she pinched his wrist.
Loki rubbed at his eyes. "I'm sorry. Truly. It isn't you. The storm's given me a bit of a headache."
"Well, then, by all means," said Fandral. "Sleep. Please."
Loki waved his hand. "Good luck with your search. Sif, was it?"
"Oh, yes," Fandral said, "the lads and I wanted to play a game of cards, but we need a fourth. You wouldn't--"
"I would not," said Loki firmly.
"Thought I'd ask," said Fandral.
The flap fell again, and Fandral, and the light, moved on. She blinked, but in the absence of light, the darkness was absolute. Sif reached up to where she'd seen Loki, and her fingers found his throat. He turned to her.
"All your vaunted glamours," she said.
"And if you had laughed--"
"Then his search would have ended much sooner."
A hum in his throat.
"Oh, you are playing a dangerous game, my lady," he said.
"Not dangerous enough for my tastes," she said, and she dragged him down again.
Hogun was first to look up at their approach. He and his most constant companions had taken up games at a table sheltered beneath an awning. The rain had settled into a drizzle. Sif pulled the overhang up and stepped beneath it; the edge fell again.
"Here I find you," Sif said, "playing at cards on a hunt.
"Ah!" said Fandral. He leaned forward, and his chair settled on all four of its legs. "There you are. We looked all over for you. Well, near enough as."
Some few short steps behind her, Loki stooped beneath the awning. He straightened. The awning shivered, ruffled against his shoulder. Sif turned left, and Loki went the other way.
Sif took an unclaimed stool at Hogun's side. He made room for her at the table, gathering cards as he slid over.
"Tis a good thing you did not look all over," said Sif, "as I was taking care of my toilet."
Fandral made a face. "And in this weather!"
"The needs of the body must not be ignored," said Volstagg sagely. "Loki! You are here as well."
"Under duress," he said. He claimed a chair apart from the others.
"Thor would not want you to sulk in your tent all night," said Sif. "Have you cards enough for five?"
"We have enough," said Hogun. He collected the deck. "What game would you have us play?"
"Let's with Demagg two-face," said Volstagg, "now that we've hands enough to play it."
As no one protested, Hogun began to deal.
Fandral squinted at Loki. "You have got something on your jaw. It looks like--"
Loki touched a finger to his jaw and slid it down. Sif glanced up from her cards as they multiplied, Hogun passing her another as he circled the table again. The bruise she'd left high on Loki's throat vanished under his finger, like wine rubbed off a stone.
"Has that done for it?"
"Well, it's gone now," said Fandral. "But I could have sworn it was--"
"Your hands," said Hogun, "gentlemen, lady."
He set the rest of the deck at the center of the table. Loki's finger left his throat. Any other marks, his collar hid. Loki's eyes had turned down to his cards. His lashes showed black on his skin. He drew the fronts of his cards up, considering them. The backs bent beneath his thumb.
"And what," asked Loki, "do we wager?"
Sif took up her cards. "Whatever you wish to wager," she said. She looked around the table. Loki, having also taken up his hand, selected one card and put it before another. The line of his collar pressed crisply to his neck, just beneath his chin. She looked to Volstagg.
"That is how we usually do it, is it not?"
"Quite so," said Volstagg.
"Then I shall play first hand," said Loki, and he set two cards upon the table.