The worst part is the boredom.
The forced silence is unexpectedly restful; he is relieved of the interminable burden of pretending, of playing along, as well as what had become the equally dull chore of acting the part of the villain. It had been a good bit of fun in the beginning, but terribly tiresome by the end. Without words, however, he finally has some semblance of what other people might call peace.
But the endless boredom is another matter entirely; if he had a mind to lose, it would be gone by now, after all these centuries of sitting and staring, interrupted only by the occasional round of pacing or the dreadful food that they periodically allow him. It is hardly food: it is imbibed, not eaten, so that the mask never need be removed, and something in it, he is given to understand, keeps him from boredly exploring any latent abilities he might discover that would enable him to freeze things. They can keep him alive for millennia this way and never need hear him speak again, nor ever fear his magic: the mask has something to do with that, too, though he knows not what. That is more annoying than the words, in the end-- any fool can learn to wield words like a weapon, but the magic always made him special. The mask puts an end to all that. For a pathetic race of mortals, the Midgardians certainly know their tortures.
They are dead long before he steps out of his prison, but such are the short and useless lives of mortal men.
After two thousand years or so, if his mental accounting is still to be trusted, without any warning or fanfare, the door of his cell opens and Sif steps through. When she takes out her sword, he raises an eyebrow: if he was to be killed for his crimes, he would have thought the time for that would have been long past. And if he is to be killed, here, now, he's more than slightly offended that it won't be a public spectacle: Asgard hasn't executed a traitor in all its glorious history, and if he is to be the first, he would have it done in front of all of them, if only so he could look at them while they did it, so they could carry with them the memory of the look on his face until the Realm Eternal was at last no more.
Sif sits down almost casually, as though she's come to have dinner with an old friend, and balances the sword on her lap.
"I'm not here to kill you," she says. "I stopped contemplating that a few hundred years ago. Besides, the King would be most displeased. He thinks there's still hope for you, you know."
He snorts, and she actually smiles at that, though it's one of her more dangerous expressions. Thor never learned, when they were children sparring on the training ground, just what that smile meant, but he's always known, and the memory of what she could do with that smile on her face makes him sit back a little farther away from her.
"That's more like it," she says, and she begins to sharpen her sword.
She sits in silence for a time, working away at the sword, and then at length Sif begins to speak. If she has an agenda, he cannot ascertain what it might be: she speaks about Asgard, about herself, about the sword she's polishing, vacillating occasionally between mundane inanities and real, visceral emotion, and to all of it, he can say nothing, so he listens. He doesn't have much of a choice in the matter, but he could always choose to drift away into some old fantasy. He can always do that, no matter who is speaking to him: the machines holding him here aren't that clever. They can stop his body; they cannot stop his mind.
But this is Sif, and she will have his attention, so he gives it to her, and he finds as he listens that it is not unpleasant to hear a familiar voice after all this time, perhaps especially hers.
So she talks, and he listens. She does not come every day, but there are weeks when it seems as though she does. As the centuries tick past, he learns to gauge her moods by the line of her jaw; after only a few years of study, he can tell in a moment if the day will bring a mirthful retelling of someone's spectacular failures on the training grounds, or if instead he is to be treated to yet another long lecture on the many ways he has failed her personally and Asgard entirely.
After many years have drifted by, he's beginning to think that perhaps, perhaps, he deserves some of the lectures.
Still, he prefers her laughter to the lectures, and he prefers both to her disappointment.
He learns about her, but it isn't like it would have been before: he isn't cataloguing weaknesses or waiting to deploy some targeted, biting remark. He sees more of her than he saw when they were children, when he thought she was after Thor and after the crown, just another in a long line of people waiting around for the chance to please his brother.
Whatever Sif is waiting for, it does not seem to be Thor. She is a riddle, and he has all the time in the world to solve her. He looks for clues in her words, in the way she sits or stands or paces, turns all of their one-sided conversations over in his head after she goes.
Sif, it seems, has a wicked tongue in her head, and he marvels that he never noticed before. If she says something particularly cutting and he looks over, surprised, she only lifts her shoulders and says, "That was unkind, I realize. Perhaps it's the company I'm keeping."
His answering laughter may be silent, but it is still genuine.
There are days when she tells him things that she probably shouldn't: her fears, her worries, her frustrations. When he looks at her curiously, as if to say, You would tell your secrets so willingly to someone who betrayed you?, she laughs and says, "You're not getting out of here any time soon, and if you did, well. Who would they believe, Loki? You? Or me?"
Her point is well-taken, and he shrugs. Always you, my lady, he would say, if he could speak.
She's never been his lady, of course. She's never been anyone's lady but her own, not even Thor's, for all the many whispered rumours that one day she would be his wife and their queen. He started a good deal of those rumours himself, but it never failed to irritate him that people were so receptive to that particular lie. Long ago, Loki desired her for no other reason than to interfere with everyone else's plans, to prove he was every bit as worthy as Thor. He's not sorry for that, not exactly. It's complicated, much more so now than it was when they first brought him back here.
The mask is more of a nuisance now than it used to be, now that someone talks to him regularly, even if she doesn't seem to want a reply other than eyerolling or a raised eyebrow.
He has questions he can't ask her, chiefly, why she comes to see him at all, why she makes time for this when she should be sleeping or training new warriors. Thor has put her in charge of something to do with Asgard's armies, and though she won't say, he surmises that trouble is brewing, somewhere, and for once he is not responsible for it.
That's only mildly annoying.
For all her confessions, Sif is careful never to tell him anything she shouldn't about Asgard, about life outside this realm, though he reads between the lines well enough, and he's starting to suspect that she wants him to, because the universe is slowly unraveling; he can feel it in the air, and he knows she can, too. He reads it in her face more and more of late, in the taut line of her shoulders and the growing number of cuts and scrapes and bruises on her arms where her armor does not protect her.
He sees all of this, and in spite of himself he worries, if not for Asgard, at least for her. Sif can protect herself far better than perhaps anyone in this realm save Thor, but there is no protection from the end of all things, there is no sword or shield to save any of them from Ragnarok, though he knows she would fight even the inevitable apocalypse until her very last breath.
He is beginning to hope that he does not live to see her draw that breath. Oh, he could lie, surely, he could tell himself that her fate makes no difference to him at all. It wouldn't even be a difficult lie, but it would be a boring one, and he's had enough tedium.
After centuries of this strange one-sided conversation, he has finally started to care about someone other than himself, and so it is that he finds himself holding his breath when she appears one dark evening dressed in her full battle armor. She does not have the guards open the cell, not this time, and he takes his time meeting her eyes.
"War is finally upon us," she says, her voice heavier than the armor she wears. "We ride out tonight, and it may well be that we will not return."
Then don't go, he would say, if this damned thing would let him. Stay here and live.
It would not matter; there are no words in his arsenal that could stop her. Still, it chafes that he is denied the opportunity to try.
"I know that you do not understand, but Asgard is my home, and these are my people. There was a time when Asgard did not understand us, Loki, they did not understand why a maiden would seek to wield a sword, or why a prince would seek to be a magician. But we have our own strengths, you and I, and though they may not have understood, our people have always loved us. I will defend them because they have need of my strength now, but not mine alone." She reaches through the bars, her fingers curling over his own.
It is the first time in all these many centuries that she has touched him, that anyone has touched him, and the heat of her hand against his own is such a shock that he can do nothing but stare at it as she continues.
"This is still your home, Loki. Its people loved you, once; they could do so again, if you would but let them. And for my part, I--" she stops, then, though he would beg her to continue if he could. She looks away, taking her hand from his. The air is cold on his skin without her hand to warm it, and he watches her face, trying to read the shadows there. "Goodbye, Loki. If I do not return to this realm, think better of us before the end."
He has played at heartbreak before, shed tears that were nothing more than watery lies, and he has watched what damage those emotional maneuvers have wrought without ever understanding the weight of it, but now, too late, he feels it for himself, he feels it for her, and for the Asgard she loves, even if he cannot.
There are few tortures they could have devised for him that would amount to the pain of this realization.
He closes his eyes; he will not watch her walk away if he cannot shout for her to remain.
He hears nothing for weeks. His guards are always silent, but now he imagines that their silence is as much mournful as it is cold, and every night he expects to hear a lament for Asgard's fallen lady warrior, the woman who should have been their queen. No song is forthcoming, and when sleep takes him at last, he does not fight it.
When he wakes, Hogun stands in front of the bars. His heart may always be cold, but now it feels like winter has come and frozen him utterly until he is nothing but ice; if Hogun speaks the words he most fears, he thinks he will shatter.
"Your guards have reported that you have been restless," Hogun says, his voice as impassive as always. "The King was concerned."
And yet the King could not come himself, it seems.
"Thor thinks you fear for the safety of Asgard," Hogun continues. "He would have you know that the realm is under attack. He would have you know that Asgard needs all her warriors."
I am a warrior now, am I, he longs to say, his tongue sliding hard against his teeth, but even as he thinks the words, he thinks also of Sif.
They have need of my strength now, but not mine alone, she said.
Would they want his strength if they could have it? Have they ever even understood the strength there is in a lie?
"I think you are perhaps more concerned with the fate of the Lady Sif," Hogun continues, and his head snaps up. "Am I correct?"
There is little utility in dissembling; it will not get him what he wants, and what he wants is information, some kind of confirmation that there will again come a day when she will sit here with him and live. He nods.
"Be at peace, then, Prince, for she lives," Hogun says. "For how long, the healers cannot say. She was badly wounded in battle. We all owe her a great debt. I will take you to her, but only if I am certain that you are not lying about your concern."
If he could speak, he would curse this prison and all his fruitless planning that pushed him into it and locked the door. He would apologize for all of it now, he would practice sincerity and play at remorse, if they would let him out, but he has no words to say this, only actions, and if he has no silver with which to barter then he will give away the only thing he has that remains and trade even his considerable pride for half a moment with the one person who has always known who he was, even before he wanted her to. Before he can consider doing otherwise he falls to his knees, kneeling as he once tried to force others to do, thousands of years ago.
Even now, he understands that this too is an exercise in manipulation, and perhaps there is little he could ever do that would be guileless or honest; he is not Thor and he will never wield Mjolnir, for the hammer knows what his brother can never quite seem to accept: Loki will always be at least a little bit wicked. Sif knew, though, and still she sat by his side and told him stories, offered him words and company without price or promise of repayment, without expectation, even, of change.
Hogun watches him, careful and calculating, the minutes ticking by as somewhere, Sif is living or dying and he is not there. His hands clench into fists.
"Enough," Hogun says, and surely that is all, hope is lost, but then Hogun nods at the guards and the door swings open. "I will take you to her, but know this: I will kill you before you even think of escaping."
He nods again, standing, and Hogun steps aside to let him pass.
Around them, Asgard is burning, but all he sees are the number of steps it will take him to get to the healing rooms. Sif would bid him have a care, but there is only so much good in him, and what he has he will give to her and no one else.
The healing rooms are overrun with fallen warriors, the dead, the dying, and the pale shadows of the living; the sight of it is sobering, even to someone like him.
He passes a young man in armor with no visible injuries and wonders briefly how he can be sitting here and not out defending the city that Sif nearly gave her life to make safe, but then the warrior bows his head and Loki can see the awful red-black of a burn stretching across his back.
"Fire demons," Hogun explains, following Loki's eyes. "That is the enemy we face. Sif did not tell you?"
He shakes his head, eyes wide as even badly wounded warriors bring their hands up over their hearts as he walks past. He looks at Hogun, questioning.
"You are of royal blood," Hogun says, shrugging. "Asgard remembers that first."
Its people loved you, and they could do so again.
Did they? he asks himself.
If you will but let them, she said.
Perhaps for her sake, he can try to let them, but if he cares about them at all it is an illusion, and even that only exists because she loved them first, and he-- well, he cares about her, and to admit even that is enough, surely.
Sif's condition is both worse and better than he had expected. Her face is paler than his own, and half her body from the shoulder down is swathed in salve and bandages that hide her wounds.
"Sit," Hogun says, pointing at the chair beside Sif's bed, and he follows the order, though he had no need of it: he will leave here when she does and no sooner, whether she leaves to go to Valhalla or to go and rejoin the others in battle.
"She fought Surtur, the leader of the fire demons, alone," Hogun says, and Loki sighs. With abundant caution, he reaches for her uninjured hand.
Hogun places a careful hand on his shoulder, and now, finally, with Sif's words still in his ears, he sees it as what it is meant to be and not what he might once have made it. This is the steadying hand of friendship, and there is no slight intended in it, no malice or mockery, only comfort for those who are willing to accept it, for those who see truth and not lies, even lies of their own making. He is, it seems, the first and final victim of all his illusions. He will never have an abundance of love for these people, if any at all, and he will never want to tell them the truth, but if he cannot love them, he can stop telling himself lies about their motives. His brother and his friends may not always have been the best of people, but neither were they to blame for the many years of imagined injustices he has heaped at their doorsteps, for he brought the monster with him.
Think better of us, she said.
I do, he thinks, and bows his head.
Hogun leaves them shortly thereafter, seemingly satisfied that Loki will remain with Sif. He is sorely tempted to violate this fledgling trust, just because he can, but his heart isn't really in it at the moment: all his energy is currently devoted to an almost blinding hatred for the beings responsible for Sif's injuries. Whether or not she survives them, those responsible will answer for it, and to his satisfaction, not the King's, for Thor never truly learned to be cruel, and surely that is what these creatures deserve. He decided long ago that if he could not have dominion over Asgard, he would rule over cruelty instead, but now he will put his talent for it to work not for himself, but for her.
He stays by her side for days; the healers do not move him, though eventually someone comes in and gives him a hurried Asgardian salute before leaving more bandages and salve.
"I apologize for the intrusion," the healer says, bowing slightly. "Long ago, you fought alongside your friends. Am I correct in thinking you know how to dress a wound?"
"Then I fear I must beg your help. We have hundreds of wounded to tend to, and though for her valiance and bravery the Lady Sif would be cared for before all others, we must first care for those who can go back out now and defend the city. Will you help us?"
For answer, he reaches out and takes the bandages from the bed, and the relieved healer salutes again before disappearing through the thick curtains. They must truly be at the end of their resources if they would ask for his help-- Hogun may be correct about the salutes, but Asgard cannot have forgotten all his misdeeds.
He holds the bandages, remembering how he learned to do this as a child, after he and Thor had stolen away an explosive device from the armory. Truly, they had been lucky to come away with only minor injuries. Mother had been most displeased; Father had insisted that they learn to dress their own wounds, because it would be a useful skill for his sons to have.
He hears, finally, the pride in his father's voice, echoing back across the centuries, the warmth of it as much a shock as Sif's hand had been.
The lies Odin told him are still frustrating, but he has hatched his share of schemes in his lifetime, and all for his own gain, never for the good of others. If he cannot forgive, he may at least understand what his father had wanted: Odin's boys, together, bringing peace to the universe, equals, in some strange sense, and brothers, but not in arms, apparently, and not in blood.
He hasn't felt like anyone's brother since long before that fateful trip to Jotunheim, but perhaps there is more to brotherhood, more to family, than blood alone.
He looks at the bandages again, thinks of Thor wrapping them around his leg and telling him not to worry, they wouldn't be in too much trouble. It had, of course, been his idea and his idea alone, but when Mother demanded to know who had started it all, it had been Thor who stepped up to take the blame.
Behind his mask, he smiles at the memory, untainted now by centuries of invented persecution. He sees now how it might have gone differently if he had stepped forward instead of remaining silent, he and his brother presenting a unified front that none could break.
They loved you once, Sif said, and perhaps they did. Perhaps they saw only what they wanted to see just as he did, only they saw a brother, a son, and he saw only the child who was always the second choice. If he has regrets, he regrets not correcting that particular lie.
He might still have ended up in the cell, but he wouldn't have lost as much time to misery.
He sighs and begins to dress Sif's wounds, hating Surtur and his minions a little more with each passing moment.
Sif wakes, finally, a few days later. He is still holding her hand, and though he makes to release it, she reaches out again.
"Asgard?" she says finally, and if he had the words, he would lie to keep her here and keep her safe, but his eyes betray the horrible truth of the situation: Asgard is all but occupied, and she has a swiftly dwindling number of warriors to defend her. The city is full of shadows and flame, the people murmur whispers of defeat.
Sif struggles to try and sit, but her tired body will not obey her commands, and there are tears of frustration in her eyes when the pain forces her to stop moving. "This is a fate worse than death," she says. "To be forced to lie here while my home is destroyed."
He has no reply to make, but he squeezes her hand, hoping to convey some measure of comfort or support, though he has no idea how to do that.
Sif sighs and closes her eyes, and for a moment he thinks she has fallen asleep once more, but then she sighs again and twitches restlessly and looks over at him, studying his face, until finally she extends her hand and strokes his cheek, her fingers brushing over the mechanism that would release him from this portable prison. He frowns, and she cups his face with her hand.
"I could--" she starts, and he raises his eyebrows, surprised. He had thought only Thor could deactivate this device, but he supposes it would be wise for them to have programmed alternates, just in case.
So they lied. Well, good for them.
At this particular moment, however, he is uncertain of the wisdom of removing it: it's less of a burden than speaking can be, and if Sif should die, there's really no one else here he feels compelled to speak to for the remainder of existence. And, too, he's not entirely certain he could be trusted if he had his voice back, which could be a good time, but Sif would be angry or worse, disappointed, and he might have to drum up some barely half-hearted apology for whatever it was and really, he's exhausted just thinking about all of it, so he takes her hand and gently moves it away from his face.
"As you wish," she sighs, a lost, forlorn sound that he would never have thought to hear her make, and then she slips back into sleep once again.
The healing rooms fill to capacity and more while she sleeps, and in the end they ask him to help with the wounds of others as well.
He wouldn't do it at all, but he imagines that Sif would want him to, so he follows the healers to the main floor. More than half the army must be there, in varying states of disrepair. As his eyes drift across the sea of battle-weary soldiers with their haunted faces, he remembers Odin's words to his sons.
A wise king never seeks out war, but he must always be ready for it.
A fair point, possibly, he sees now. A pity he had to see this to understand that. He wonders if Thor has learned the same lesson.
He does what he can to help the wounded. It isn't anything he does out of the goodness of his heart, what little of that there may be, but does at least pass the time, and if it gains him some measure of respect from the rest of them, so be it: life and lies are easier when they like him, anyway. These are young warriors; they must have been children when he committed his crimes, and now they are men fighting for a place in Valhalla. Eventually, they bring in two warriors he knows very well: Fandral and Volstagg, both burned and unconscious. He is with them when Sif appears at the foot of the stairs leading into the main room. She stands with her sword drawn, scanning the room, but when she sees him, she relaxes.
I wouldn't leave you, he thinks. The rest of them, well, that's a different matter entirely. He can accept that he might have been wrong about all of them, but that isn't the same as wanting to share their company.
She comes to stand next to him, limping slightly as she walks, and he glares at her, but she ignores him. This would be easier if he could speak. Perhaps it would have been a good idea to have her take the damn thing off, after all. When she reaches his side and sees who it is he is tending, her proud shoulders lose a bit of their poise.
Volstagg does not stir, but Fandral opens his unbandaged eye and smiles thinly up at her.
"Good to see you on your feet again," he wheezes. He coughs until he can barely breathe, and both Loki and Sif reach down to steady him. "Sif, when you fell--"
"It doesn't matter," she says quickly, before Fandral can work himself into another coughing fit. He never did learn to hold his tongue, apparently. "Rest, my friend."
Afterward, she goes to stand on one of the balconies looking out over the city, and though she does not speak, Loki can read her frustration and anger in the white of her knuckles as she clenches her fingers into fists around her glaive. He knows what she's about to do: she will leave to go and fight, and she may be well enough to stalk around the healing rooms, but she is certainly not up to a battle.
"Come with me," she orders, and he follows, reluctantly: she should be resting, not fighting, and he can surely do more here than he can back in his cell.
He realizes with a start that he's actually just thought about helping other people, and all of his own accord, but before he can really contemplate the implications of that, Sif has grabbed him by one shoulder and shoved him up against the nearest wall. Her thumb flips the switch on the side of the device and the mask retracts.
"My lady?" he asks, but he gets no further; he temporarily cedes control of his mouth to Sif, who kisses him like their world is ending, which, he supposes, it might well be.
Not an altogether terrible way to meet the end of the world, really.
"I need your help," she says, stepping back and wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, and if he leers at her a little, well, she has just shoved him up against a wall and kissed him, and surely there isn't a being in any of the nine realms who wouldn't do the same. "Not that manner of help," she adds, rolling her eyes.
"I think what you need is to be back in bed," he begins, which earns him a quick punch to the arm. Wrong thing to say. Damn. Words used to be so easy; clearly he is out of practice. "That isn't what I meant!"
"Of course not," she says.
"You are still injured," he points out, arms crossed. "You cannot seriously be thinking--"
"Look around you," she says, waving her good arm out across the city. "Asgard is burning. While there is breath in my body, I will defend it. If you will not help me, I will go alone."
She does not wait for a reply before she stalks away.
"Sif," he says, and she turns, waiting. "I will come with you."
"We need to get to the armory, and quickly," she says. "Preferably without being seen."
"Leave that to me," he says.
It is good to do magic again.
In the armory, she tosses him a set of daggers, and he looks down at them, surprised.
"You're trusting me with weapons?" he asks.
"I gave you back your tongue, did I not?" she replies.
"Fair point," he says. "What, if anything, is your plan?"
"Take them by surprise and kill them all," she says, tucking an extra dagger into a sheath in her boot.
"Oh, well, if it's that simple," he says, but she ignores his jibe. "I haven't fought with anyone in thousands of years. Won't I just get in your way?"
"We're fighting fire demons," she says, shrugging. "Someone with your particular heritage might be especially useful."
He stares at her.
"Thor told me," she says. "When they allowed me control of the mask that bound your tongue."
He bristles. After all of this, all of these centuries, he is, apparently, still no better than the weapons in this vault. "So I was an assignment?"
She sighs and puts down her sword. "No, Loki. I volunteered," she says.
"Because I knew who you were, and they didn't. Thor is too trusting; the others aren't trusting enough. And none of them save Hogun truly knows the value of patience."
"And you do?"
"I am war," she says simply, polishing away a smudge on her armor. "That is what I know. Do you think war does not know how to wait and scheme and plan, how to win? I do know that, and I know, too, that sometimes war is won not with the quick honesty of battle but by the slow subtlety of deception."
"I'm not an assignment, I'm a strategy?" he says scathingly. "Wonderful."
"There was another reason," she murmurs.
"And what was that?"
"I missed you," she says, her voice unexpectedly soft. "We were friends, once, long ago, were we not?"
"When we were children," he reminds her. "What, did you think your friendship would convince me to see the error of my ways? Or was it more than friendship? Surely this isn't love."
"Oh, I am not foolish enough to think that love or friendship would have stopped you," she snorts. "Not mine, not Thor's, not anyone's. You never wanted for love, Loki. That didn't matter."
"Love is for children," he says slowly.
"War is not," she says, unsheathing her sword. "Fight with me."
"I will, but my lady, I care little for what happens to Asgard," he confesses.
"I know," she replies, and she studies his face for several moments before adding, "but isn't love for children?"
Damn. He really is out of practice, or possibly he wants her to know him a little more than he's comfortable admitting, even to himself.
"I never said anything about love," he says, and she leans up to kiss his cheek.
"You'll never have to," she promises.
"Thank you," he says, and she nods.
"Don't thank me yet," she says, handing him her sword.
He blinks down at her. "What are you doing?"
"Congratulations," she says. "You captured me. Let's go."
"Oh no," he says. "No. No, no, no, and once more, with feeling: no."
"It's a good plan."
"It's a terrible plan."
"What part of it is so terrible?"
"I don't know, it's difficult to say. Possibly the part where they kill both of us as soon as I hand you over, because we have absolutely nothing that they want. Or possibly the part where the entire plan relies upon you trusting me not to actually hand you over to Surtur, which is, well, let's just say that Thor had some better ideas when we were children, Sif."
"Loki," she begins, but he won't hear it.
"No. I won't do it. I don't even know that I can."
Sif arches an eyebrow. "I refuse to believe you can't lie your way into their camp. I have seen you do it before."
"Do you also refuse to believe that trusting me is a terrible idea?"
"What part of God of Mischief do the rest of you continue to misunderstand?" he mutters.
"There won't be an Asgard left for you to make mischief in if you don't help me now."
"Be it on your own head, then," he grumbles, taking her sword. "We need to make another stop. There's something else I need."
The room containing the casket is unguarded, a symbol, he supposes, of just how bad things have gotten. He gives her back her sword for the moment and walks slowly toward the pedestal where the casket sits, the mocking blue glow of it shining out.
"A pity we don't have the Destroyer," he remarks, gazing past the casket to the bright light beyond.
"So it is," she says, lifting an eyebrow.
"Perhaps I owe you one," he sighs.
"Yes, yes," he says, waving his hand. "I have had some time to meditate on my shortcomings, I don't need them articulated."
"I wouldn't dream of it," she says, but the quirk of her lips says otherwise, and he snorts. "Get on with it, Loki."
"You're enjoying my discomfort, aren't you," he grumbles, and at that, she grins. "You should look to the company you're keeping, my lady."
"Oh, I do," she says, and there is a promise in her voice that he dearly hopes he has not imagined.
"Very well," he says, sighing theatrically, and reaches out to lift the casket from its pedestal. He almost expects to hear Odin's voice echoing down the chamber, but no one tells him to stop, and Sif taps her foot impatiently, so he does not give it any more thought.
"Last chance to take my advice and do something else," he says, vanishing the casket away.
"I do need one thing from you."
"Now?" he says, and she rolls her eyes. "Yes, yes, what?"
"Swear to me that you won't believe a word of what you say to Surtur."
She would know to ask that.
"I know the difference between the truth and a lie, Lady Sif," he says, and the statement is not entirely untrue, not after all this time. "Does war?"
"War is undeterred by your distractions," she says. "Now swear."
She gives him little time to reflect on any of it further, and they reach Surtur's encampment in short order. Before he can argue with her again about the relative idiocy of this idea, she makes enough noise that the guards spot them. He glares down at her, but she only gazes defiantly back, and there's a challenge in her eyes that he won't ignore.
He never said anything about love, it's true.
"Here we go," he says.
His silver tongue gets them past the guards; he may be out of practice, but the day he cannot talk himself past a few minions will be a sad day indeed, and they are escorted-- well, marched-- in to see Surtur. He had wondered what had become of Thor and Hogun, and here he has his answer: he can see the two of them chained beyond the guards, with Mjolnir encased nearby in what looks like hardened lava.
Oh, this will be great fun if it goes badly.
"What do you bring me, Mischief-maker?" Surtur sneers. "Have you come to bargain for your brother's life?"
"Kill him," Loki says flatly, waving his hand dismissively. "I have no use for him. I come to you to bargain, but not for the good of Asgard or for my brother. I bring you this woman--" he pauses to shove Sif to the ground at Surtur's feet, and there is a sickening crunch from her injured knee as she falls. "-- as proof of my offer."
"And what do you hope to gain from this? Asgard will be mine, and I will do with it as I see fit."
"Midgard," he replies. "Give me Midgard, and I will aid you in the infiltration and destruction of this realm."
From behind them, Thor makes a strangled noise, and Loki cannot resist the urge to turn and give him a grin, just for the thrill of it.
No one ever accused him of being a good person.
"As my brother knows," he continues, turning back to Surtur, "Asgard is not without its hidden defenses. Thor will die before he tells you our secrets, no matter what tortures you may have for him, but I offer them willingly. Do what you want with Asgard. By all means, let it burn to the ground, if that is your wish. It hardly matters to me."
Surtur studies his face for a long moment, but Loki knows there is nothing to see there but what he wants Surtur to see, and he stares impassively back.
"And this one?" Surtur gestures to Sif.
"I heard her boasting about the scar she gave you," he says grimly. "I would think you had plans of your own for her."
"So I do," Surtur says. "Very well. I accept your offer, and your gift."
He turns, then, to gesture across at the vast expanse of Asgard, speaking of his plans for it.
This is likely the only moment they will have, if they are to succeed, but now that it's come to it, it would be so easy, so very easy, to take this deal and leave Asgard to burn in his absence. Sif might never forgive him, but nor would he have to remain here to suffer her disappointment. He glances over at Thor, and it's Thor's face that nearly convinces him to do it: the accusation and sense of betrayal written there are expected, even welcome, as that is the part he's playing, but for all his outrage, Thor hardly seems shocked to see him here, to hear him hand over his home to the hands of the enemy, and it's the absence of surprise that sets his teeth on edge.
But then there's Sif, kneeling at his feet, waiting for him to make his move. He thinks of her injuries and the creature that gave them to her, the creature who has just unwisely turned his back on both of them, and his hatred for Surtur far outweighs any lingering bad feeling he may harbor for this place.
He may never be a good man-- he doesn't even want to be-- but on this particular day, at this particular moment, he is doing what might be called a good thing.
Besides, Surtur is a terrible liar, and he rather obviously intends to kill Loki as soon as his usefulness is at an end. At least this way Loki is on the winning team, though if anybody ever brings this up in conversation, they will find themselves walking back from the farthest reaches of Vanaheim. He has a reputation to preserve, after all.
He wonders, just before he pulls out the casket and freezes Surtur in an icy blast of magical energy, how many tricks it's going to take to ameliorate the effects of this little act of do-goodery.
Too many, that much he knows, and he sighs as he aims the casket at Mjolnir, pretending, at least, that he's not doing it so that Sif can slice through the ice with her sword, freeing the hammer for Thor. And it's satisfying, right up until she does that. Mjolnir sails through the air and into Thor's waiting hand, and after that the battle is over almost before it's begun: with Surtur frozen, they make quick work of ending his unhappy existence, and Sif and Hogun dispatch the guards just as swiftly.
"Loki!" Thor cries, pulling him into an embrace and pounding him on the back. "My brother, I thought you had forsaken us."
"Yes, well," Loki says uncomfortably. "I lied."
People really ought to expect that, by now.
Thor releases him, finally, and raises Mjolnir in a gesture of victory. "My friends, let us rid Asgard of these demons," he says, and Sif and Hogun raise their own weapons in response.
"If we must," Loki sighs, and Thor only laughs and slaps his shoulder on his way out, Hogun following behind him. Sif lingers for a moment.
"If you're planning to say, 'I told you so,'" he begins, and she smiles.
"I was going to congratulate you, but now that you've reminded me--"
"Do please forget again," he says, though he seems to be smiling in spite of himself. He'll have to trust her not to include that small detail in any future retellings of this particular moment of glorious battle.
She grows serious for a moment. "I thought I lost you," Sif murmurs.
"You did," he admits, and he'll have to trust her with that, as well.
She raises her eyebrows at him, but then her smile returns, and she reaches out to grip his arm. "I'm glad you returned, then."
Thor steps back in. "Brother! Sif! Come, there is more fighting to be done before Asgard is safe. Songs will be sung of this day, friends!"
Loki sighs. "I'll never live this down, you realize," he tells Sif. "Apparently not even in song."
"Tell them I made you do it," she suggests.
He looks down at her, amused. "And how exactly shall I say that you convinced me?"
"Like this," she says, and kisses him.
Good deeds do occasionally have their own rewards.
"There will be time for that later," Thor's voice calls, interrupting them, and when they turn to look at him, he's grinning at them both. "Come, fight!"
"After you, my lady," he says, and Sif draws her sword.
"We go together," she replies, and they do.