It was either very lucky or very unlucky that Sif happened to be in the throne room when Heimdall's messenger came to the king.
The messenger laid one fist over his heart and kneeled. At Thor's prompting he said, "The Gatekeeper requests your presence immediately, Your Majesty."
As they rode out down the rainbow bridge – newly restored this month past – Sif could sense Thor's anxiety. He had not been able to visit Midgard again, not since his return nearly a year ago. The kingship had been thrust on him when Odin had fallen back into the Odinsleep not long after his confrontation with Loki and the bridge's destruction. His duties did not allow him to visit his Midgardian lover, and Sif knew he missed her. She also knew he asked Heimdall about her from time to time, to inquire about her safety and well-being, and that that was what was troubling him now.
Her brother looked as solemn as ever, standing at his golden gate.
"Heimdall," said Thor, dismounting as soon as they arrived. "You sent for me. Does this concern Jane Foster?" At his side, the king turned Mjolnir over and over with his hand, without seeming to notice. Sif remembered the anxious gesture from her childhood, though it had been many years since she had seen it.
"No," said her brother. "Jane Foster is well."
The hammer slowed. "Well, then? What is this about?"
"It is about Loki." Heimdall's voice was grave.
Thor and Sif both stared at him. "Loki?" said Thor weakly. "What of -?"
"He is alive. I caught a glimpse of him on Midgard."
"He is alive," Thor repeated, his voice full of disbelieving amazement. "Loki is alive."
"Yes," said the Gatekeeper, though his voice held little of the same joy.
For her part, Sif found she was unable to say anything at all. She had more bewilderment than either happiness or anger: Loki? On Midgard? After all this time? It was like listening to one of Loki's riddles, where no word meant what it seemed.
Mjolnir made a humming sound in the air as it was moved faster. "I must find him," Thor said eagerly. "As quickly as possible. Heimdall, open the –"
Heimdall looked down at Thor. "Your Majesty," he interrupted, though not ungently. "The Realm needs its King."
Sif watched, wide-eyed, as some of the hope extinguished in Thor's eyes, albeit reluctantly. It had not even been one year since Odin had fallen back into the Odinsleep, and Thor was still learning that being a King was different from being a warrior, that ruling from a throne was a very different skill set from leading the charge on the battlefield. Sif, on the other hand, had no such responsibilities tethering her.
Sif stepped forward before she could think better of it. "Send me," she said, finding her voice unexpectedly.
Both men looked at her then, Thor with rekindling hope and Heimdall with disapproval. The latter was a look she had ignored since she was an adolescent. No reason to break with tradition now.
"Send me," she repeated. "I will bring Loki back, Thor – Your Majesty – I swear it."
Thor looked torn. He clearly wanted to go himself, and if it had been a year or even six months before, he might have done so anyway. But the weight of his responsibilities as king had begun to sink into him.
"Not as a criminal," said Thor finally. It was almost a plea. She could see the hope flare back to life, though now it was more guarded.
"Sister . . ." Heimdall said, his tone a warning.
She turned to him, hand on her sword pommel. It felt good to have something new to do, after months of being in the king's retinue. "I have been to Midgard before. There are few warriors who can say that, and none with my ability to track. Is that not so?"
Heimdall did not answer – he would not lie, and neither would he admit the truth – but she felt the force of his disagreement strongly.
Thor was grinning, irrepressibly, and Sif found his enthusiasm contagious. "You will need provisions. Supplies."
"Take the page back with my horse, then. I'll go as soon as he gets back." Sif rattled off a list of things she would need to the messenger, who bowed low and swung on to her mount.
"Sif." Thor's voice turned serious, and so did his expression. His hand clasped the back of her neck and squeezed. In his other hand the hammer was rotating again. "You were not there, on that last day. You did not see him."
"Thor, I will be fine."
Thor didn't let go of her, and his eyes searched her face. Anxiety tinged his words when he spoke. "He believes you to have betrayed him."
They had never spoken of this, not during the entire year since. There had been no word of treason whispered, neither by Thor, nor by anyone else in the court. Strangely, that had bothered Sif more than she had ever dared admit aloud.
"He also . . ." Thor licked his lips, and then forged ahead. "I am sure it would not come to this, but he made mention of Jane Foster during our last . . . conversation. It was not a kind mention. Some might call it a threat."
Sif gave him a reassuring smile. "I will see to it that your lady is safe, Your Majesty."
He looked relieved. "Please, Sif. I must return to the palace and tell Mother."
"Of course." She bowed and watched as he mounted his horse. "I will be back soon!" she called after him. The king shot her a grin over his shoulder and spurred his mount on.
That left her alone with her brother.
"I know you wish to say something," said Sif, circling the dais in her agitation, but not looking up at him. "You have that look about you." It was an old joke of hers, but the atmosphere was too tense for laughter.
"You have always forged your own path, regardless of anyone's advice," said Heimdall blandly. Sif snorted.
"True, brother. And I do not seek your advice now."
"Then I will not give it."
Clasping her hands behind her back, Sif continued pacing. "But I do need information. You said that you caught a glimpse of him, correct?" A glimpse of Loki, she reminded herself: it seemed so unreal. Loki, he whom she had thought lost forever. Loki, who was apparently doing Norns-knew-what on Midgard, of all places. Fear tightened her gut.
The smallest inclination of his golden helmet. "I saw him neither before nor after. He has had ways of hiding himself from my sight for many centuries now."
One of Loki's favorite tricks. He had used it sometimes to aid in a few of their more illicit quests, and then later, many times, to hide them both during their more private interludes. It had been many years since then, however, and she couldn't dwell on that now.
"How was he?"
"He crashed to the ground, in the desert. He was unconscious for some hours; it was as if he had taken a great fall."
Sif shivered, remembering what Thor had told her through his tears of what had happened on the Bifrost. A great fall indeed.
"When he woke, he was disoriented, but it was not long before he drew his cloak around himself and was invisible to me once more."
Sif was silent for several moments. "Did you know?"
Heimdall stared ahead impassively.
"You know what I mean," Sif snapped. "Did you know about his heritage?"
Sif expelled a breath. "Of course you did," she muttered. In his grief, Thor had told her, after Loki's death – his fall – had told her everything, still reeling and trying to work out what had happened, and he'd sworn her to secrecy over the matter. But it made perfect sense that the Gatekeeper would take note of anyone who entered Asgard. Perhaps that was why he had been so eager to let them go down to Midgard to retrieve Thor, because he knew what – who – Loki was. She pressed her lips together.
"I watched the final battle with the frost giants," her brother said unexpectedly, eyes still fixed afar. "After it was over, Odin found the babe in the ruins. When he picked him up, the child's own magic transformed him into Odin's likeness."
Sif stared at him. Heimdall did not engage in chitchat, nor offer up unnecessary or unrequested information. He was ever strong and silent.
Unnoticing of her regard, he merely continued to look into the void. But before she could ask him what he meant, at that moment the page returned with her equipment in tow. She had her sword and her armor already, but there were other supplies she would need to track Loki promptly. And if his hiding from Heimdall was any indication, he didn't want to be found. Sif held back a grim smile, perversely glad that he was going to make it a challenge. She would not have expected – indeed, would have been insulted by – anything less.
The page had retrieved her shield from her quarters – she hefted it on one arm – as well as a store of rations and useful artifacts. Nodding to dismiss him, Sif turned to Heimdall.
"Well, brother," she said. "Open the Bifrost."
* * *
Two figures emerged from the vehicle, clearly excited. One was clutching a piece of equipment of some kind.
"Hello?" came a shout. It was Thor's lady-love, Jane Foster.
Recognizing her dimly, Sif held up a hand in greeting. The third figure let out a cry of victory and punched the air. "Spring break, baby!" she shouted, although Sif didn't understand the reference.
"Hi!" Jane Foster ushered Sif out of the circle in the sand, instructing her apprentice to take photographs, and then to Sif's surprise, hugged her.
"Hello," said Sif, more measured but still pleased. Encountering Thor's lady was convenient.
"Come on, come on," Jane said, gesturing Sif forward. "Tell us what you're here for. And let's get out of the sun."
As she climbed into the van, Sif explained that she was following someone, someone from Asgard, though she didn’t say exactly who that “someone” was for fear of their reaction. It was possible they would see it as a rescue and refuse to help for the harm he had done; it was just as possible they, or these SHIELD people, would kill him – or try, likely to their own detriment – out of vengeance. She would not blame them for that, but neither would she have her quest deterred.
He had not used the Bifrost, so their equipment had not detected his arrival the same way Jane had detected hers. Jane volunteered that she had received some “wonky” readings the week before, but confessed that she had thought it was a malfunction of some sort. It didn’t matter much: Sif didn’t need information about his arrival, after all.
As Darcy and Jane sat in the front of the vehicle, debating Sif’s best course of action, Sif leaned back in her seat and looked out the small window. The dunes rushed past; it looked to be a harsh and unforgiving climate. She wondered how Loki was faring.
It all seemed very real now that she was on Midgard, in a way it hadn’t earlier. In the rush of the announcement and the scramble to prepare, it hadn’t seemed quite real that Loki was still alive, that she could see and talk to him once again. She had thought him dead, gone from her forever.
She had felt anticipation and excitement before. Now that her feet had touched the ground, and she was really on his trail, dread crept into the corners of her heart. What would he say? How would he react? What would she say? She imagined his anger, or the tyranny she had heard in his voice in the throne room. Betrayal, Thor had suggested, as if she were a traitor. (She rebelled against the idea, but his judgment in this matter made her nervous.) Of all her friends, Loki knew how to feel slighted and hold a grudge for it the longest and fiercest. She could not imagine what words would pass between them.
But she could worry about the future when it arrived, she told herself, and she sat forward to listen to the conversation.
Jane turned to look at Sif over her shoulder. “I’m not pro-SHIELD in most circumstances, any of them actually, at least usually, but they might be –“
“JANE,” Darcy said in a surprisingly commanding voice. Jane’s attention snapped to her. “Eyes on the road!”
The vehicle swerved as she did so; Sif braced herself with the end of her scabbard. “But do you think they know anything?” asked Jane anxiously.
Her legs curled under her, Darcy seemed to sink even lower in her seat. “Doubtful. You’re, like, their interplanetary travel expert numero uno. If they thought someone came through from another world, you’re first on the list to know. Aren’t you?”
One of Jane’s shoulders shrugged in a move that looked at least a little guilty. “We haven’t been . . . on the best of terms lately. It’s possible I maybe told them to go to hell last month?”
Darcy laughed, pulling her sweater around her. “Best spring break ever. So glad I didn’t decide to go to Cabo after all.” There was true merriment in her eyes, although her words were sarcastic; Sif had often seen the same look on Loki.
“Hey,” added Darcy a few moments later. “You said you got some readings around the time he arrived, right?”
“Yeah, but I don’t know how that’s going to –“
“Just listen. He went invisible, right? Magic? So what if some of those measurements are his magic or whatever? Couldn’t you, like, trace them?”
Jane seemed doubtful of the possibility; she and Darcy continued to debate its possibility and the suitability of their equipment for such a task.
“There are ways of tracing magic,” Sif broke in after a few minutes’ thought. “As L – as the sorcerer learned about them, he would have learned all the ways to hide from them. I am no sorcerer myself to untangle such threads. But it is possible he would not be prepared to hide from a means he had not yet encountered.”
Darcy grinned and raised a fist in triumph. “See, I’m totally a genius.”
“That’s debatable,” said a sudden voice from the speakers, breaking through the music. Jane shrieked in surprise.
“Dr. Foster,” the voice continued, “you should know that we know you just picked up a visitor in the desert. Without telling us.”
“Agent,” said Jane in a dark voice; it sounded to Sif as though there was a history there. She banged one of her hands against the console fruitlessly. “I can’t believe the nerve of you people, bugging my –“
“Don’t you know mystery machine science vans are sacred?” complained Darcy, even though she was smiling. “Not cool.”
“We’re waiting for you,” said the voice, and then the music began again.
* * *
She was at the base, feet planted wide in a stance that was sure. Despite that, her mind felt less steady. Loki was alive: she tested the words on her tongue, rolled them around in her mouth. They did not feel sure.
The Midgardians had warned her that no human had ever made a successful summit of the peak to her right in winter. Given that Sif was much hardier than humans, and the mountain's low height compared to the mountains she'd scaled in her youthful adventures, she wasn't concerned about danger. No, some other thought weighed and measured her footsteps.
She couldn't see anything from the mountain's base, of course, but she squinted up regardless. There was no convenient figure or flash of green magic alerting her to Loki's location. He would be difficult to find: he had drawn his magic around him so that he was unseen by Heimdall. Her brother had spotted him only for a few moments before he'd disappeared, and no doubt he would hide his presence in other ways as well. That did not make her nervous either.
At some point she would have to think of what she would say at their meeting, she thought. That made her think of what he would say to her, when he saw her. She did not know, on either count. She had her questions to ask, but he would have his questions too, ones she was not sure how to answer. Loki's questions – the real ones, not the ones designed to distract and irritate – when he allowed himself to ask them, were often sharp and bitter.
But speech was not her task. She had been sent by Thor – by the King – to retrieve him, the fallen prince, and return him to Asgard. For that she needed her eyes and her hands and her feet, not her words.
Loki was alive: The thought was only now starting to sink in. There was joy in it, yes. But there was something else, too. She cast the thought aside.
The river was surrounded by a forest of pines that would serve as suitable camouflage, she observed approvingly.
The Midgardians she had consulted – or, to be more accurate, who had consulted her – had advised her of several possible paths to scale the mountains. She did not know exactly what Loki was searching for, which made her task all the more difficult.
The simplest way to catch him would be to wait for him at the nearest source of water, for he was guaranteed to need some. Loki had told her once that it was impossible to conjure something from nothing, she remembered. There are laws and rules for magic just as there are for combat and war, he'd said, a half-instructive, half-defensive note to his voice. She'd laughed, not unkindly, but his expression had tightened all the same.
Regardless. She looked out over the river, winding its way through peaks and valleys. If he had devised some method for, for – drawing droplets from the air, or something similarly clever, it might set her behind a few days. But he would need bathing, too, and he was fastidious about his appearance, slicking his hair back and always standing so straight, even when he was annoyed. Especially when he was annoyed. Sif blew out her breath in a huff.
According to the Midgardians, the traces of his magic had last been detected here, at this mountain range, and had remained there steadily for the past two days. Perhaps he was not moving on.
The nearby valley served as an acceptable camp. She had provision for some days yet, and if she ran out, there seemed to be an abundance of wildlife around.
For the next day and a half, Sif was bored beyond belief. She found herself wishing for the company of the man himself, for the tricks and games he had devised to pass the time. (She almost missed the sharp sting of his tongue during a bout of flyting. Almost.) The landscape never seemed to change, and the creatures here were, on the whole, slow-moving and unintimidating. The creatures in the area seemed wary of her presence, perhaps accustomed to Midgardians and their presence. This setting, so placid and unruffled, was unsatisfying to Sif, who craved adventure and novelty. As had Loki. Surely, she thought, he could not be satisfied here, just as she was not.
Nevertheless, she knew what became a good tracker, what skills heralded success at the hunt. Subtlety, silence, patience: these were all good traits, useful traits, and she had learned them well, some from Loki himself. Still, she waited tensely for some sign of his presence.
There was no sign of Loki the first day and night. She had climbed a convenient tree, one that allowed her to observe most of the riverbank unnoticed, but fickle as he was, he made no appearance. Every creature that moved caught her gaze, but none were the object of her hunt.
Not until the second evening did she dare to emerge into the open. Her boots were silent on the ground as she followed along the edge of the riverbank. She had in her pack some stones to aid in the hunt that would alert her to any disturbance. These were ordinarily protection stones, spread around a dwelling or camping-ground to alert the user of disturbance, but they had other uses as well.
Marking one of these with a drop of her blood, she crushed it in her hand. She tiptoed along the bank and let the dust spill out between her fingers, a fine line settling, unnoticeable, into the silt there. If Loki – or a creature of similar size – crossed the line, or indeed disturbed so much as a grain with the toe of his boot, she would be alerted. The blood made the stone hers. How such things worked, she did not know; perhaps Loki would be able to explain it to her, later.
Sif could not light a fire for fear of being found out. If it were another season, any but winter, and if the humans were present in numbers, she could hide among them and achieve a kind of invisibility. But such was her luck, she reflected, and somehow the situation seemed to reflect Loki's sense of humor as well. Instead of lighting a fire, she cursed the cold and wrapped herself in a gryphon's-fur for warmth as the darkness on the second day grew.
The result was loneliness. Many times had she undertaken a similar quest: sometimes with friends, sometimes alone. But there was a special kind of loneliness that took hold when one was not precisely alone but was still unwanted. Somewhere out here – likely up that mountain – was Loki, and all his tricks so far said he wanted neither company nor help.
Sif climbed back into her tree, selecting a sturdy branch that would carry her weight. If he came out nearby in the nighttime, he wouldn't see her, her figure too hidden by obscuring branches. Leaning back against the thick trunk, she sighed and closed her eyes, hoping sleep would come quickly.
It did, though perhaps not as quickly as she would have liked. Her dreams were full of Loki. In one scene he was pressing her back against the ground, and he was kissing her with some urgency. She sighed into his mouth. The smell of freshly cut grass grew stronger as they moved.
Alfheim, she thought dimly; it was a dream, but of something true. A good memory. His wrists were bare, the green of his sleeves riding up. His warm fingers slid up her abdomen, questing, rucking up her hem. Their armor lay abandoned nearby. They were in some trouble if a troll happened upon them.
"Loki," she protested, his name breathless on her lips. She turned away from another kiss with a laugh, her eyes falling closed.
So at first she did not see the way he pulled back. But almost immediately Sif missed the heat of his body where they were no longer touching. Frowning, she squinted up at his figure: behind him was the mid-afternoon sun, cloaking his face in shadow. He was perfectly still, like the air before a storm.
"What?" she asked with another laugh. She reached for him, felt the taut muscle in his arm. He did not move. "We're out in the open. Anyone could see us. Not to mention –"
"Oh?" His voice was deceptively mild; it harbored danger. "You don't wish to be seen with me?"
Was this how it had happened? Her memory grew fuzzy so that she could not recall. "That's not what I . . ."
"Have you no loyalty for your king?" he spat, and his face twisted so that it was unrecognizable. "Lovely, traitorous Sif."
What had been desire was kindled all into anger in a moment. "Me, the traitor?" she snarled. Now they were on their feet. "What of you, Loki?"
He did not answer, his mouth bared in a depthless rictus. Sif felt a sharp pain lance through her head and startled. Had he hit her? It took her a few moments to understand that her environment had shifted. At first she could not understand where she was – why it was night – where Loki had gone – before she regained her senses.
She lifted a hand to rub at her throbbing temples. The protection stone, she realized fuzzily, belatedly. It had woken her. Her other hand pressed over her heart, willing its wild pace to slow, as she looked out over the wilderness.
There – some ways down the bank, well within her vision. A figure crouched by the water. It was dark and, more troublingly, still. Had he noticed –? But then he went on to lean over the edge of the water, likely filling skins or somesuch.
Then the fates smiled on her. He shed his clothes and stepped into the water. Sif let out a deep breath. He would be easy to catch, if she hid herself well and moved quickly. She removed her boots, stashing them in her pack, and dropped to the ground toes-first, flexing to chase away any lingering stiffness. It would be easier to move silently. To avoid being seen she would have to let Loki out of her sight and keep behind the treeline. Fortunately Midgard's sole moon was near full and afforded her some vision as she made her way down the river.
A few minutes brought her near to his location. She did not fancy venturing into the water herself, so she paused behind a tree to watch and wait for him.
He emerged from the water, throwing his head back and running his hands through his hair, over his face. Water dripped from him. He gleamed in the moonlight.
He was blue.
At first Sif thought it was a trick of the light and tilted her head to try and make it go away. But the color remained. Her breath was caught; she could not exhale. She watched as he finished washing himself and strode onto the bank, shameless. Of course, he didn't know she was there. She caught a glimpse of his eyes, so very red.
He seemed a stranger. Was this truly Loki? She could not reconcile this blue silhouette with the man she'd known. Everything about his appearance screamed danger to her warrior's mind. Her hand was on her sword-hilt without thinking, the muscles in her thighs tensing.
It was some trick of his, she thought. Perhaps he – But she could not think of a reason she would not rail against. Still, a whisper in her mind suggested, Perhaps he has forsaken Asgard altogether. Perhaps he has embraced his true heritage. Perhaps he knew all along, and his whole life has been a massive trick, a laugh at your expense -
Abruptly she realized she'd lost sight of him. Her eyes were wet. She blinked it away with haste and refocused. While she had let herself become distracted, he had dressed and was disappearing into the treeline. Her tactical advantage was fading quickly with each step he took, and she felt his presence like a hook at the base of her spine, pulling her forward. She gathered her thoughts and packed them away tightly, where they could not be felt; she would have time to think later. Now she only had to follow.
Fortunately for her he was difficult to lose. The line of trees between the riverbank and the foot of the mountain was not thick, and there were not many paths up the mountain's base. He moved silently, but so did she. She would have to stay far behind him to remain unseen. His blue color made him stand out against the dirt and grass and snow, although pale skin might have served better.
His path up the mountainside she charted with her gaze, until he disappeared behind a rock formation and was visible no more. For a moment panic rose a gorge in her throat – as if his disappearance was permanent once more, as if her glimpse of him had merely been an illusion, a wraith, and she had never seen him at all – but then her sense reasserted itself.
Letting out her breath, Sif tugged her boots back on and began to walk.
* * *
She came to what looked like the end of a path, if there was a path. To one side was the drop-off of a cliff; to the other her jutting pathway came to a close. Loki must have come here – it was the only way forward – but perhaps . . . Chewing her lip, she touched the stone next to her. It did not disappear, to her disappointment. Nevertheless she dragged her fingertips along the wall, and her guess was rewarded: after some feet the stone seemed to melt away from her touch.
Behind it was Loki.
Sif nearly started in surprise. Her hand went to the pommel of her sword before she could stop it, but she did not draw, instead waiting to see what he would do. He looked menacing, his face half in shadow. His arms were crossed and his pose confident. The air was very still and cold up here. Even with no overcoat, he betrayed no shiver.
"Loki," she said first. Her voice seemed very small, yet loud in the stillness. Instinctively her shoulders stiffened and her back straightened.
He did not say anything.
"Loki," she said again, but this time there was a little bit of a plea in it. She licked her lips, trying to draw the numbness out of them. "I've come to bring you home."
Even if his face was unfamiliar, his sneer wasn't. "Home, you say?" Then he looked disgusted, as if he'd rather not have said anything at all. His voice croaked, as if from disuse.
"Yes, home," she repeated, drawing a step closer. He eyed her approach warily. "Home, to Asgard. Your home."
His snort might have been half a laugh, half a sound of despair. "There is no such place."
"What -" began Sif, but he cut her off.
"Did Odin send you?" His words became, if it were possible, colder with the mention of the Allfather.
"No," she said, caught off guard and beginning to grow irritated. She had imagined many things, anger among them, but not this frozen wasteland between them. "Thor – the King – we discovered you were alive -"
The sneer seemed permanently attached to his face. "The work of your brother, I am sure. He has never liked me."
"Loki," she said, and tried to return to the main point. "I've been sent for you."
His brow rose. "Returning with the traitor back in chains, are you?"
Remembering Thor's words - not as a criminal - she shook her head emphatically under the hood. "I'm not your jailer. I'm your, your escort."
Loki did laugh at that, a dry, gravelly sound that bit at her heart. "Semantics. They do seem," he added offhandedly with a sharp smile, "to be making much prettier jailers these days. I suppose it would make the job easier, wouldn't it. What criminal could resist . . ." He waved a hand at her. "- all this?"
Her fingers tightened around her sword's hilt, just a reflex, but he seemed to catch the gesture, his eyes narrowing. "I'm trying to help you," she growled.
"Am I so lost a creature, that I require help from the likes of you?" he spat. "Asgard has cast me out. Is that not punishment enough? Am I to endure more than this? Do yourself a favor and leave me be." With those words he turned his back to her and rounded the corner.
Sif followed him. But after a few feet she found herself blocked by an invisible wall, no doubt his creation. She smacked a hand against it as Loki ducked into a nearby cave cut into the stone.
"Don't ignore me, you – you little -" Sif groaned with frustration. "I know you can hear me! By the Norns' hairy eyeball, Loki, I swear -" He gave no response or indication he was listening at all. "You can't stay in there forever. My stubbornness will outlast yours, I will see to it."
She had her anger to warm her, at least, and a few faery-lights. It was growing colder by the moment. Best to conserve her body heat. She sat, as if a guard, with her back to the stone and tucked her knees into her chest. The gryphon's-fur she pulled over herself like a blanket, and from her pack she pulled one of her faery lights. They gave off some warmth; all she had to do was squeeze one, and then hold it in her hands. They had been an invention of Loki's, she noted with irony.
She was back to waiting. Her fingers itched despite the warmth. Something wet and cold landed on her cheek. She looked up; it was snowing. The Midgardians had told her to expect it. She pulled her hood over further her face so that the fur tickled her nose.
While she waited, she told herself the saga of Brunhild. It was one of the longer tales. As she thought through every line, the voice in her head grew gradually to sound like Loki's, the words smooth and cadences rhythmic. He had had a special skill for it, Sif remembered. She was thinking of Brunhild's marriage to Sigurd when she drifted off under the stars some hours later.
She woke to another sharp pain in her head.
"You're going to die," came a voice clear and cold. It was Loki's voice, the same voice that had been telling her the story, the same one she'd heard in her dream. He had slapped her, she realized.
She opened her eyes and nearly sounded an alarm – frost giant! - before she remembered where she was and who she was with. At her reaction his lips curled downward. He was squatting in front of her. Still blue.
Her lips were so stiff they could barely form words. "Oh?"
One of his hands knocked the snow off her hood. "'Oh,' indeed, she says. I always knew you cared nothing for your own safety, but this -" He cut himself off, pressing his lips together into a thin line. Grabbing her by the elbows, he stood and yanked her to her feet with him. He was not gentle.
"Faery-light," she protested, the words coming out thick. She squeezed her hand reflexively. But – oh. It had dimmed. Several hours had passed, then. The moon was in an entirely different part of the sky.
"Idiot," Loki muttered.
He led her to his cave. A few inches of snow had gathered on the path down; he waved it away, so it slid down the slope of the mountain. His other hand did not let go of her arm. She used her free hand to cup her mouth.
"You're exceedingly stupid," he added, his voice tight. "They say wisdom accrues with age, but clearly not in your case."
Sif wanted to smile, but her cheeks hurt. She settled for bumping her arm against his side.
"Get in," he snapped, pushing her forward. "I will not have you die, not this day."
"One might think you cared," Sif said, the words less garbled this time.
He scowled. He was looking more like Loki with every gesture and expression. "If you died I would answer for it, and they would only send another."
"Probably a less pretty one," she added, to his snort. Together they ducked into Loki's hidey-hole. The jagged walls told her it was naturally formed. There was enough room to sit and lay down comfortably, though not quite stand. They knelt in the gravel, Sif laying her sword and pack down.
Now that she was sheltered, her teeth began chattering. Sif tried to clamp her jaw, but it was no use. In the dim light she saw his hands reaching for her face and pulled back instinctively, remembering what hands like those had done in Utgard. She thought she saw his throat work for a moment.
"Fine," he said with disgust, his shoulders straightening.
She looked at his hands. They were the same size and shape, just as elegant as she remembered. There was a silvery line across one of his knuckles, a scar she realized she recognized. "Will it not -?"
"'It' will not do anything to you. Or for you." He snatched his hands away from her regard.
Exasperation followed his words. "That's not what I . . ."
He shook his head once, an abortive gesture, and she fell silent. She breathed warm air on her hands instead and rubbed them together. Then she remembered her pack. She should have another light. When she retrieved it, squeezing and feeling the slight warmth in her palm, he leaned forward and reached out. His red eyes glared at her, as if daring her to retreat again.
Then he gestured over the faery-light and it grew hot in her hands, suddenly too hot to touch. Her hands opened, dropping it, but his magic caught it before it hit the ground, and it rose to hang suspended in the air in front of her, radiating heat like a fire.
Sif leaned forward, warming her nose and lips. They tingled alarmingly. "Thank you," she said stiffly. He jerked his head again: an acknowledgment, a dismissal, or something else entirely, she could not tell.
"Fool," he muttered. The more fool him; her plan had worked, after all. He was enough of the Loki she remembered that he would not let her die of frostbite. Still she tucked the gryphon's-fur around her shoulders more tightly.
"When daylight comes, you'll come with me and we'll return," she continued, undeterred.
His mouth tightened. "Think you that Asgard would welcome a frost giant into its midst?"
"You'll change back, won't you?" she said, as if it were self-evident. Heimdall had said it was his own magic.
His lips thinned and he looked away.
"I understand you are trying to frighten me," she said with only slightly less confidence, gesturing to his body. "I'll have you know, it won't work."
His expression was a dangerous thing. "You understand nothing."
Sif bristled. "Enlighten me, then. Since you are so wise."
There was a short silence. "You wouldn't understand," he finally said, shortly. One of his hands was picking at the other absently. He did not seem to notice.
It was Sif's turn to snort. "How typical. You accuse me of ignorance, but it is your silence that creates the problem."
His head hit the back of the cavern wall. "I should have thrown you off the side of the cliff. Perhaps then I would get some peace."
"Silence is not peace," she said, determined to get the last word. To her disappointment, he let her have it.
* * *
For once, she had outpaced Loki: he was still asleep, breathing shallow and light. His face looked blank. Sleep wiped away all the anger and dissatisfaction and disdain, though it did not make him look quite innocent. He had never been able to manage that, at least not with her.
Sif took the time to consider her course of action. She supposed she could simply ask Heimdall to call down the Bifrost on them, and truthfully she was tempted. That would be the simplest solution. But she had told the truth when she said he was not her prisoner; she would not bring him back unwilling, like a dead creature to feast upon. Her hunt was more subtle than that.
Behind her his breathing deepened, became more deliberate. She let him lie for a few minutes – let him have his silence – before she said, "I know you're awake."
He only grunted and rolled onto his side to face out.
Rummaging in her pack, Sif retrieved breakfast. Dried salmon and hard tack; perhaps the strong savor of one would make up for the utter blandness of the other.
Loki made a distinctly unenthusiastic noise at the sight of the biscuit. "Perhaps the snow will soften it," he suggested, his voice blurry with sleep. He reached for it.
"Get your own breakfast," she snapped, pulling it out of reach and breaking a piece off with her teeth.
"Why are you even bothering? I'm surprised we're still here at all."
Sif tried to let the biscuit soften in her cheek, but it was no use. It would taste terrible either way. Swallowing, she answered, "You're not my prisoner. I told you."
Loki was silent for a few moments. Then: "You're a fool." He did not elaborate, just flopped back against the stone.
"So you've said," she said dryly, focusing instead on the landscape. Several inches of snow had fallen overnight and the world glittered, crystalline, below them.
"Are you going to hound me until I give in?" He propped his head up on his hand, watching her out of the corner of his eye. He probably thought she wouldn't notice.
"I will dog your footsteps relentlessly," she promised, biting off a few flakes of salmon.
Uh-oh. She recognized that tone. It was his eminently reasonable voice. It took some effort not to look over at him, sharp-eyed and suspicious.
"Surely that is not how you would like to spend your time." Some quality of his voice had changed; it was now smooth and unctuous. It was the voice he used when he needed to convince someone, not only that he was right, but that he had their best interests at heart. "I assure you that I do not wish to return. Surely you can respect that?"
Sif remained silent, chewing.
"This is not the proper duty of a warrior of Asgard," he said, and this argument was more persuasive. "Particularly one so decorated as yourself. Sif. This task is below you. I understand you consider it your duty. Truly, I admire your dedication and perseverance. But I release you from it in all good will."
It's not your place to release me, she thought, half-furious at his dissembling, but still she did not say anything.
At her silence, he grew impatient. He hated such silences, she knew, though he was skilled at controlling himself. Most other people had little such control and so he had typically won these contests of will. But without the exposure and vulnerability of someone's words, there was no easy way to bend them to your will.
"Will you waste away your many talents?" Now his tone was mocking rather than earnest. He was done attempting to persuade her, and had moved on to driving her away with his horrible personality. But it was a millennium too late for that."You could be sawing the horn off a bilgesnipe at this very moment. Surely there is a troll with a face suitable to be pounded in, somewhere. A frost giant, or some other mindless beast, to be subdued."
Sif did not miss his implication. She swallowed the salmon, her nostrils flaring.
Loki's voice grew softer. "Such monsters have ever been Sif's enemy. Why have you come to play nice with one?"
"I don't have your talent for wordsmithing, Loki," she said, and her voice caught ever so slightly. She hoped he didn't notice. "I am Sif. You are Loki. That is why I am here."
"Who is Loki?" he asked quietly, musing, and Sif did not know whether he asked her, or himself, or some larger cosmic entity, as if there were any answer that he himself did not make with his own hands. She could not answer him, so she didn't.
"Who could answer? I only know that I recognize him." Sif gnawed off another section of biscuit.
His voice was deep and gravelly when he responded. "In this skin?"
"The color has changed, it is true," she said carefully, turning round to face him. "Blue is a strange hue on him. But his features are all the same."
A muscle in his jaw flexed, his skepticism apparent. She touched one finger to him, and his skin did not burn her.
"His brow, which folds in disdain, or worry." She drew her finger down his forehead, smoothing away the crease there.
"His nose, which is royalty in its own right." He scrunched up the organ in question as her finger drifted down its prominent center.
"And his mouth," she finished. Her finger caught on his lower lip, dark blue, pulling it down slightly.
"What about it?" His voice was husky.
Sif gazed at him solemnly. "I've heard it does wicked things."
For a long moment they looked at each other. The moment was full, ripe with potential, and Sif thought he might nip at her finger in a demonstration of such wickedness. Warmth spread through her at the notion. But he did not, instead pulling away from her touch and pushing himself up. She found herself disappointed; the moment was lost.
Her attention turned back to her pack. "I should not eat any more of my rations," she said after a pause.
"You intend to be here for long, then?" He posed his question casually.
"Until the end of my quest," she said stiffly.
"A fool's errand," he said, but he did not continue trying to dissuade her. That was that.
* * *
"You should join me," he shouted, though he did not look over.
"Need someone to relieve you already?"
"Oh, no." There was a smidgen of good humor in his tone, something Sif had craved. "I mean not for fishing. Bathing, more like. I think it has been some time since milady -"
"And how would you know?" Despite their yelling, the valley as a whole seemed so still that Sif felt she was disturbing something.
He did not answer verbally, but gave an exaggerated sniff. Even if she could not hear it, she could see it in his expression, the lout. If she'd had something to throw at his head, she would have. "And catch cold-sickness? I think not. I am quite content here."
Loki rose, his hands dropping to his sides. "I can solve that. If you like." His expression was a clear challenge, daring her not to.
Her fingers toyed with the hem of her tunic, tentative. Not in centuries had she and Loki -
"Well, if you're afraid," he said, and there was his reasonable tone again, and that settled it for her.
"This had better not be," she muttered as she stripped off her breastplate and tunic, "some kind of low trick -"
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Loki hold his hand up to his ear. "What was that?" he called, the picture of innocence.
"Get over here!" At her holler he came wading over, the goal of fish forgotten entirely. She hesitated at the last piece of clothing, but – to Hel with it. There was no turning back now. She wrapped her arms around herself, not for modesty but for protection from the elements.
"You must come at least some ways into the water," he said mildly. He did not seem to notice either of their nakedness at all. At the shoreline, she dipped her big toe and cursed.
"Loki!" she said, outraged. "How am I supposed to -?"
"Trust me," he said, holding his arms out. Then he seemed to realize what he had suggested, and after a moment of consternation his face went carefully blank.
Sif pretended not to notice. "Oh, fine," she grumbled.
She waded into the river's current, and every step gave her another set of shivers. By the time she reached him, the water nearly covered her thighs. "That spell," she said through her teeth, "had better be good, and fast -"
He was laughing at her, the obnoxious little … "There are rules for everything, including magic," he murmured, drawing her in by the elbows. "Did I not tell you?"
"And what rule does this satisfy?"
"The rule of my amusement only." The corner of his mouth rose. Glad as she was to see it, Sif did not neglect to punch him savagely in the arm for his offense, and perhaps in a less dignified manner, squawk in dismay. But his hands rose to cup her shoulders, and where he touched her a warmth began to spread through her. His palms stroked down her arms, rubbing gently, and Sif could not help a different kind of shiver that ran through her. She remembered the moment that had passed between them that morning, and the years she had thought long since past, and closed her eyes.
When the tingling had reached the top of her scalp and the ends of her toes, his hands fell away and he stepped back. His voice was more formal when he spoke. "There. It is done."
He spoke true: she could feel the chill of the water no longer. Experimentally she ducked her head under the waterline and then came up and examined the fading gooseflesh across her skin. The water was not quite warm, but it was tepid; she could barely feel it, unlike the strong current that tugged against them both. Sif combed her fingers through her wet hair, before she realized -
"You forgot to bring soap, didn't you." He sounded amused.
She huffed. "I was distracted."
"I wouldn't dare do such a thing," he said silkily, and he was so annoying that she couldn't think straight. But he made a gesture with his hand in the air, and a bar of soap fell into it. Sif lunged for it, but he held it just out of reach.
"Oh, are you going to wash my hair?" Pushing her hair back over her shoulders, Sif turned her back on him: a dare. "Then get to it."
His laugh was a little disbelieving and tentative. "Well, if you are sure -"
She tossed her head back, her only answer.
He was never one to back down from a challenge. The first touch of his hands in her hair was tentative. They had done this, and things like it, before, but in the light of recent – and not-so-recent – events it seemed like something new and fragile. His fingers pulled apart the wet, heavy sections of her braid and ran through them.
Loki soaped up her hair one long section at a time. He was not precisely gentle, being no masseuse or maid, but in truth she liked the way his nails scraped lightly across her scalp and how the tug of his hands pulled her head back. Finally, after she had ducked under to rinse, his fingers drifted through the ends of her clean hair and rested on her back. He had moved closer during the duration, so that she could feel his body directly behind hers. Water drifted down her back in lazy rivulets. One of his hands stole around her waist to rest on her belly, stroking lightly.
His skin was very dark against hers. "Loki," she whispered, not even sure he could hear her over the river's rushing. The knuckle of his thumb brushed the underside of her breast, making her nipple pebble. She could feel him hard behind her.
His nose pressed into her hair and she heard the intake of his breath. "If I could but overcome this curse -" she heard, slightly muffled.
She turned slightly, her shoulder pressing into his chest. "What do you mean? This curse?"
Immediately she could see that he regretted saying anything. "Odin's curse," he said with great reluctance, as though each word was being dragged out of him by Hel-hounds. "To appear . . . in this form."
Sif frowned, remembering what her brother had told her of Loki's own powers as a mere babe. "But -"
His breath quickened, and he cut her off. "Let's not. Speak of this, I mean." Loki slipped away from her, slippery as an eel, and Sif was at a loss.
"We should speak of it," she said suddenly, unwilling to remain silent. "Of whatever it is you don't wish to speak of."
His voice was very measured and even, not at all what it had been moments before. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Tell me," she urged, stepping toward him. He took a step back to compensate. "Why do you think your father has placed a curse on you?"
Anger erupted from Loki where there had seemingly been none. "Because he has!" He sounded agonized. "From the moment of my capture he has laid a path at my doorstep for me to follow. Whether I liked it or not. He has deceived me, about my origins, about my very nature . . . it only follows . . ." His words choked off and a scowl twisted his face into something unrecognizable.
Sif felt suddenly afraid, for what she would say. "He hasn't." At Loki's disbelieving look, she repeated fiercely, "He hasn't. Heimdall said . . . He told me it was your own magic that changed you, that made you an Asgardian at your adoption. That you wanted . . ."
"No," said Loki with wide eyes. "No, no, no. That cannot . . ." He swallowed, hard, and Sif watched his throat bob. His arms, blue, turned over as he examined them with horror. "I would not, I would not," he insisted, and his voice was ragged with anger and fear.
"It's true," she said, so softly that her words were stolen by the current. But he heard them anyway. Of course he did.
When she stepped forward, he did not move away, though she thought that was because he did not notice, not because he did not care. Sif grasped his wrists firmly before he could notice, pulling him toward her.
"Why are you blue?" she asked.
"I don't know," was his only response. Her grip on him tightened.
"Why?" She wanted to shake him, to make him see – whatever it was he was hiding from himself.
"I don't know," he said again, his voice ragged and hollow.
She gave him a sharp push. "Tell me!"
"You tell me, Sif!" he cried finally, overcome. His voice was a menacing growl, but Sif was not afraid of any monster, and certainly not of her friend. "It is my own skin, after all! Am I not a monster? Do I not deserve this? I was going to go away. Let me be punished, let me be . . ." He pulled his hands away from her to press the heels into his eyelids. Whatever other words were in his throat choked and he seemed hardly to be breathing.
Clutching him by the shoulders, she did not know exactly what to do. "Loki, please," she said, and then she was frightened. "Come with me to the shore." She looped his arm around her neck so that if he decided to drift away she would be carried with him. Hopefully that was incentive enough for him to struggle toward life.
When they reached the riverbank they both sat down, heaving and naked. "I have – I have betrayed -" He took a deep, straggling breath and ran his hand through his hair, again and again, till it curled at the ends, like he hated.
Remembering the Destroyer, and its task, Sif flinched. She could not reassure him on this count, or absolve him of his wrongdoing all by herself. Instead she put her hand in his hair at the temple. "Yes, you did."
His hands covered his face. "What am I to . . ."
"I betrayed you too," Sif whispered, before he could finish. Loki's words halted, stuttering, in his throat. "I did, and I am sorry for it."
The words seemed torn from his throat, and all the more sincere for it. "So am I."
Sif asked the question that had long been stuck in her throat. "Why?"
He shook his head once, again. His hands had come away from his face but his gaze, looking out over the water, was bleak. He laughed, a harsh sound. "You'll get no answers from me. I would have to know them before I passed them on. I suppose I thought - well. It does not matter now. I was angry. That was all."
There they were: the objects of Sif's hunt. An explanation and even something of an apology. She did not feel triumphant having obtained them, merely tired. "And now?"
Loki examined his hands, turning them over and over. They were still blue; they did not change. "It was a very long fall," he said distantly. "Anger can only burn so long before -" His hands closed into fists as if snuffing out a candle flame.
Sif set her jaw. "Very well, then. I will call the bout. We are tied."
There seemed to be nothing more to say about it, at least not to each other. Sif listened to the sounds of their breathing easing, after a long time. Finally, without words, they dressed and returned to the cave. It was a long, silent walk, and their footsteps were heavy. They had caught no fish, but they had stores.
* * *
The next morning, she woke to find Loki curled around her, his arm about her middle. He was already awake, she could tell. They lay for a long time in the still silence of winter.
"I suppose we had better get going," Loki said finally, his quiet voice almost lost in the wind. His chin rested on her shoulder, where it rose and fell with the rhythm of her breathing. He held his hand out beside them both, and she saw how it flickered, from Jotun-blue to the pale skin she was familiar with. It was as if she were seeing him for the first time, again.
"In a few minutes," she said, leaning back against him. She was willing to take her time.