Jotunheim wasn't supposed to be like this. It should have been a confrontation, maybe a short skirmish. They would teach the Frost Giants the folly of creeping into Asgard and then go home. That was not what was happening.
It was a battle and they were losing.
After the funeral, Sif was too stricken herself to notice for several days that she hadn't seen Loki. At first, she thought he'd buried himself in the archives as he usually did when he was upset, though when she wandered in there, she didn't find him. He must have hidden himself elsewhere. It wasn't until a grieving Frigga asked her with fading hope if he had said anything to her that Sif realized that he was gone.
But Loki hadn't told her he was leaving. He hadn't said anything to her since the quest to Jotunheim had gone so terribly wrong.
He'd said no words, and he'd shed no tears. He'd stared with a blank numbness through the return to Asgard and the funeral. He'd launched his sphere of light to the heavens, his face tight and pale in the silvery light. His chair had been empty at the feast afterward, and no one had seen him since.
Neither his parents, nor Heimdall could find him. There was no trace in Asgard itself. They widened the search, though the Bifrost had been closed for the funeral, and still found nothing. He had fled and hidden himself with magic. No one wanted to speak the worst possibility: that he couldn't be found because there was nothing left to find. Had he returned to Jotunheim to avenge his brother and also bled out on the ice? No one knew, and the losses weighed heavily. Asgard's brightness faded.
Weeks and months passed and the grieving king could fight the Odinsleep no longer. Yet in that sorrow, hope sparked as Frigga found her missing son at last through her arts. His own had frayed, letting her glimpse him, yet alive. She asked Sif to go to Loki and bring him home.
Heimdall put her where the queen directed, though Loki was still hidden from his sight. Sif found herself on Midgard, on a mountain peak high above any civilization where the air was thin and the sky overcast to leave only a grey dimness on the snow in daylight. It was cold, if not the brutal cold of Jotunheim, and the world felt vast in all its deep ravines and peaks of granite and ice to the horizon. She might never have found him, despite being near, if not for spying familiar boot prints left in the crusty snow.
She tracked him to a cave which was barely more than a crack in the old glacier. Settling below a low ridge, she watched, waiting for him to emerge.
When he did, she wished she'd never come. His leathers were ragged, untended, his hair was a windblown rat's nest of black tangles on his shoulders, and his face had turned gaunt, eyes sunken. He looked more like a wild animal, creeping out of his lair, as he turned wary eyes up to the sky and searched around him, as if he felt a predator's eyes on him.
None of it looked right on Loki, who always was conscious how he looked and preferred pretense over allowing anyone to spy weakness. Was this grief? Or some worse madness?
She stood slowly, arms spread so he would know she meant no threat. "Loki?"
He recoiled from the sound, gaze darting to find her as he stepped away from her, back toward his cave. He didn't greet her, and his eyes dropped away from her, not wanting to look at her.
"Loki, it's Sif."
"Go away." His voice was barely audible, as if so unused to speaking he'd forgotten how.
"Loki, your mother bids me bring you home."
He flinched and shook his head negative. "No, no, I can't. I can't go back."
"Please, they need you. We need you," she corrected. "The King fell into the Odinsleep, Loki. Asgard needs her prince."
"Asgard lost her prince."
What was he talking about? She stopped, trying to think what she could say. This seemed more than grief. "Your mother needs you, Loki. She's all alone."
"Because of me!" he shouted at her abruptly, eyes wild. The anger shifted as his expression crumpled and his eyes gleamed too brightly. "She lost Thor because of me. I didn't mean it," he told her, "I never meant it to happen, but it did. I killed him."
"What?" she blurted, almost a laugh, she was so incredulous. She had seen it with her own eyes: the Frost Giant ice spear had hit Thor. But Loki seemed genuinely to believe it he was responsible, somehow. Sif shook her head and softened her voice. "Loki, no, you didn't. There was nothing you could do."
She saw the spear fly true and Loki shouted a warning, but Thor didn't hear or didn't heed it. The ice spear hit Thor square in the back, emerging through his chest plate two hand-spans. Thor looked down, shocked and surprised at the impalement, and fell to his knees, Mjolnir dropping to the snow from fingers that couldn't grip her handle. Crumpling to one side, he breathed his last.
Loki screamed his name again. "No!" He started running toward Thor across the icy field, and Sif followed, yelling at him to stop. There was nothing he could do; the blow was mortal, and this would only risk Loki being hit as well.
The same giant stepped closer to Loki, grinning with the opportunity to kill another Aesir as he formed a new ice blade in his hand.
But Loki formed fire in his. This was not the usual gold and green magic fire he wielded that was more force than flame. This was a blinding brilliance like the core of a star, and Sif felt the heat on her face ten steps behind him. Expression wild with rage, he launched it at the Frost Giant, setting him ablaze, like a new form of fire demon. His ice spear vanished in the heat and he screamed, burning.
Loki hurled the fire at two more before the rest fled in terror. The screaming stopped, as death took them, and the ice transmuted to steam in the incredible heat, leaving bare stone beneath them. Sif stared, aghast at the power she'd never seen him wield before, but as she was about to yell at him to stop, it ended: charred bones dropped to the watery stone, and the glow winked out from his hands. Loki staggered, exhausted, before going to his brother. He fell to his knees, splashing in the water and Thor's blood. He gathered Thor's body against him, whispering, "I never wanted this. Thor, please…"
The king arrived, Gungnir streaming with power, but too late to save his son.
"You tried to save him," Sif said, hoping he would listen. "I did, too. But that giant hit him in the back, and we were too far away to help."
But Loki heard none of her words and his voice when he spoke was strangely calm, as if he'd rehearsed this confession. "The Jotunn in the treasury was my doing. I lured him there to be taken by the Destroyer, to interrupt the ceremony. I knew Thor would want to attack them, because of course he would. He was such a reckless, stupid fool it was easy." His voice cracked and he had to gasp a new breath. "But not as reckless and stupid as I am. I killed him, Sif."
She stared at him, unable to breathe past the sudden stone in her chest where her heart had been. "Loki…" she started but didn't know what else to say. He had brought the Frost Giant inside Asgard? The invasion Thor had sought to punish, had been Loki's doing all along?
"If you want me dead, I won't fight you," he murmured. "I deserve it, I know." A dagger appeared in his left hand, and he held it up before his eyes. "I should do it myself, but all I do is look at it. I want it, but my hand won't move. I am a loathsome cowardly monster," he snarled in utter disgust, "and I can't do it. But you can."
Kill him, he meant. He had sat on this icy planet and contemplated ending his life in grief and guilt, and now he wanted her to kill him."No, Loki, no, I can't."
"You can. And you should," he said, with a disturbing enthusiasm.
"No," she shook her head, firming her resolve. "No, I won't take the queen's last son away from her."
She should have known he would react to that, but she was still thinking he was rational. Until he attacked her.
Teeth bared, he lunged. He said nothing and listened to nothing she said. He didn't feint, this was no pretense. Instinct put her hilt in her hand as he forced her to fight. He had a dagger in each hand, and he was fast, fleet on the ice. He attacked and sought blood, except it was not her blood he truly sought. She countered, whirling her blade to try to disarm him. He attacked, she defended, and she was not lured into a counter-attack. He was determined to provoke her into an attack, and she was equally determined not to do it. Her skill with a sword and familiarity with his tactics kept them both safe. It was only a matter of time before he tired and she could strip his daggers from him. He was already slowing, and she wondered if he'd eaten at all.
In the moment's break in her attention, as she settled into complacency, he made his move. He might not be her equal with a sword, but he was certainly her equal in tactics. He had her blade exactly where he wanted as his dagger was suddenly not where she expected and he stepped into her attempted block.
She saw him move the wrong way and tried to stop, but it all happened too quickly. The blade sank into his side, and the feel was terrible as the edge cut through the leather deep into the soft flesh at his waist. Frantic, she pulled back and hurled her blade to the ground. "No, Loki!"
He actually smiled, the bastard, in that moment before the pain hit him and the smile dropped away. His knees buckled and she darted forward to catch him.
"You fool, you idiot," she told him. "Loki, don't you dare die on me." There was already blood coating her left hand from the wound, as she lowered him down.
He looked in her eyes. "I'm glad it's you," he whispered. "The only valkyrie who ever mattered…"
"No, don't think that." She shook her head in dismay. The sharpness of her blade had done its work, cutting deep into his side. There was blood on the ice again, just like Jotunheim. She ripped the bottom half of her cloak off to wad it against the wound. He jerked, choking out a cry. She held the cloth tightly, trying to stop the bleeding, and he settled again, looking paler. "Loki, it wasn't your fault."
"It was, Sif, it was," he denied, panting. "I ruined everything."
"No. Listen to me: Thor didn't have to disobey the king," she told him urgently. If he didn't fight to live, her hand growing slick with his blood would make no difference. "He didn't have to stay there and fight. That was his choice."
"I knew he would. I didn't stop him."
Her eyes prickled with wet heat and she had to bite her lip to find her voice, even as she choked a laugh. "And how were you going to stop him, Loki? He didn't listen. At least you advised him to leave which is more than I did."
Her words seemed to have no weight for him, as he brushed them aside as if she'd barely spoken, intent on his own anguish. "But he would never have been there… if not for me. How do I -- how can I bear that?" His hand set over hers and his fingers were frigid and trembling. "Just let me go."
Ancestors, he was going to die. "Loki," she bent over him, face next to his and her hair falling against his neck. "How do you expect me to bear your loss, too? Do you want me to beg? I will. Please don't do this. This is just your pain, what of ours? What of the Realm? Your mother? Please, to lose you also will kill her. And what of me? You're putting the guilt for your death on me-- how can you do that to me? Knowing what it feels like?"
His fingers tightened on hers, as his brows drew together in a troubled frown. "I absolve you," he said. "It is not your--"
She lifted her head sharply to implore him, anxiety and impatience making her voice tight and loud, "Then how is it your fault? At least I wielded the blade…"
He closed his eyes, thin face drawn even more tightly. "But it hurts, Sif, it hurts so much," he whispered, and she knew he wasn't talking about the wound. For the first time since Thor's death, tears gathered at his lashes and slid from the corners of his eyes. "I killed my brother. I am no one without him, just alone…"
With her other arm, she lifted him, hoping some of her warmth could help him. He was a slight weight against her chest as if grief and guilt had worn him to nothing but bone. "I know, Loki," she murmured, kissing the side of his face. "I know it hurts. I am so sorry he's gone. But you're not alone." Her voice faded to nearly nothing, "You have me."
When the words slipped out, she hoped he might be unconscious, since his eyes were still closed and the pallor of his face was nearly as white as the snow, so maybe he hadn't heard. She hadn't meant to say it, but knowing he might die had pulled the words out of her. Thor had died, without knowing how much he'd meant to her, and she would not let that happen with Loki, too. But old habits of silence and secrets, and fear that he would mock her affection, made her want to call them back.
But he heard. His eyes flickered open again, surprised, and his lips parted to draw a shallow breath to whisper, "You?"
This was no time for secrets, and if this one could help, then she had to try. "You. Is there anyone else in all of Asgard who enjoys a good fight and a good book, too?" Her hand smoothed his tangled hair. "There could be so much more, Loki," she murmured. "If you opened your eyes and looked at what was before you."
"I saw you," he whispered. "I always saw you. But you were for him."
Wait, was he saying-- he'd had feelings for her all along? She'd buried hers, time and again, unwilling to weaken herself against him when he was barely friendly to her. He'd believed she had feelings for Thor? Suddenly everything she had seen took on different meanings: the way he'd held himself apart, the way he'd provoked arguments… Not because he disliked her, but the opposite. "Oh. Why didn't you see I never wanted more than friendship with him? You silly goose." She smiled as she bent her head down to kiss his forehead. Then she tilted her head back and called, "Heimdall! Open the Bifrost, bring us home!"
Loki stirred as if he wanted to object, but she shook her head once at him. "No. You are going home, and they will make you well."
He opened his mouth to deny that would happen, but she laid a finger across his lips. "Hush, save your strength. Hold on for me," she urged him. "Don't let go."
She had only a moment's warning to tighten her hold as the Bifrost slammed down and snatched them back home.