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Creature of the Deep

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Castle Gladsheim was impressive to Sif's eyes as she rode with her escort to present herself to court. The town circled a bay, wall protecting it from the land side, while the castle seemed grown out of the rock promontory itself on the north edge of town. Its high towers loomed above the water, and as her horse clattered over the drawbridge, she saw a long drop to the water below and shivered.

Prince Thor came to greet her himself, and she swung down to offer a curtsy, but he halted her with a jovial clasp of the arm. "Nay, Lady Sif, I shall greet you as the warrior you are."

"My thanks, my lord. I do have a gown in my baggage, but it is so much easier horseback in riding gear."

"I imagine so!" He agreed with a hearty laugh and escorted her to the chambers assigned to her. It was small, rather chill bedchamber, but her own. It had a casement window overlooking the water. She opened the window and leaned out to look. The waves crashed far below, a peaceful sound though probably would be quite loud in storms. Then she frowned and leaned out. This window looked northwest, on the opposite side of the town harbor, and there seemed to be another small bay or cove below.

She squinted; it was hard to see at this angle but it appeared to have a net or chains across the narrow gap?

"What is that?" she asked Thor. "Down below? Do you have your own harbor below?"

"The royal cove," he answered shortly. "It is private."

She blinked at the brusque denial. "Oh. Of course."

Figuring it was a forbidden topic, she changed the conversation to discuss her presentation to the king. Thor brought her to meet his other friends: Fandral she'd already met with Thor, Volstagg and Hogun, his other companions.

Later that night, when the men were comfortably in their cups and the others had been called to referee a wrestling match in the courtyard, but Fandral lingered with her, possibly hoping to get a kiss. She leaned closer to him and when he started to lean back toward her, smiling hopefully, she said, "So tell me of the royal cove. Why is it private?"

Fandral froze, and looked elsewhere. "We're not supposed to talk about it with outsiders..."

"I'm not an outsider, Fandral. I'm in the kingsguard, and a Lady of some station myself. C'mon, you can tell me..." she coaxed and refilled his cup with the wine jug.

He took a deep draught, and warned, "You can't tell anyone. We'll be in terrible trouble."

"I understand."

"Well, you know the war?" he started.

She frowned, hoping he wasn't too drunk to get to the point about the cove eventually. "Of course."

'The War' could only mean the war against the Jotnar. It had happened before her birth, but it could be the only war he meant. The Jotnar had attacked two of their ships, sinking both with all men aboard. Odin had fought them in return, in stories of great magical blaze and deeds both dark and heroic, until they'd been defeated. The Jotnar had gone away, and all that was left were stories of vicious ocean beasts that some sailors claimed to see.

"We have one," Fandral blurted. "That's what's in the cove."

"What?" she demanded, a bit too loudly.

"Shush, are you trying to get us killed?" he hissed at her and threw back more of his wine. She leaned closer to him, forcing a smile as if she was issuing an invitation.

"Tell me."

"I've never seen it myself," he admitted. "But that's what Thor says. The reason the war ended was the king managed to take one captive. A hostage."

Her lips parted, as she stared at him in amazement. "There's a... there's a Jotunn in the cove?" she whispered. "Ancestors."

He shrugged. "That's the secret."

Later, she leaned as far as she could out her window, trying to see. The Jotnar were said to be huge sea creatures, with serpent tails, blue skin, and human faces until they opened their mouths full of vicious needle teeth. She had no idea how much of that was true, but she saw not a splash in the shard of the cove she could see. But now she understood why an iron net stretched between the rocks.

Her father had died at the hands of these creatures when they had sunk his ship. And she wanted to see one in person. Demand why they'd started a war against the land-dwellers.

Her plan took two weeks to formulate, as she scouted the castle in between her other duties. She took walks, explored, to have the other guards accustomed to her being around in strange places.

Then, knowing her position in the Guard was forfeit, if not her life, if she were caught, she headed below. Two weeks had only made her more anxious to see the creature.

A dangerous walk on the northern rampart had shown her that the cove itself was almost entirely encircled by high rock walls, but she found out there was a sheltered part beneath the castle itself where the king docked a small tender.

There were no guards past the wine cellar, only a locked door. Sif had learned how to pick locks at a young age to get into the armory when she wasn't supposed to, and this lock was no challenge to her at all. Closing the door behind her, she turned up her lamp and headed down the narrow passage. It was uneven on one side, carved from the bedrock, and the narrowness made the ceiling feel low even though she couldn't touch it when she tried. The door at the other end was not locked and she went out to find a dock.

More a cave than anything, the ceiling was low and round, above the water, like a bubble had popped long ago and then filled in half with the sea. There was a masonry pathway along the wall near the door, and three wooden piers like fingers over the water. Against the far wall, lifted from the water, was a small row boat. It had probably been used to take the king to larger ships in the sea, but the rust on the chain suggested it hadn't been used in quite awhile. There were no other boats in the chamber, only the wooden walkways.

Each walkway strangely held furniture: low tables, chests, and things covered in oil-cloth. The center walkway held a comfortable chair at the end, positioned to look toward the mouth of the cave that led to the deeper, larger cove outside. It was also surprisingly well lit, with burning torches at the end of each pier, and two lanterns lit at the end of the northern pier.

Sif looked around, but saw no one. She walked out the end of the pier where there were lanterns, and frowned curiously. There was a book, open on a reading desk between the lanterns, down near the floor.

It took a moment to figure out the odd position was so someone in the water might be able to read it.

The creature could read? She was astonished, even more so when she knelt down to take a closer look at the book and saw it was in an older, difficult hand, and appeared to be philosophy?

There was a towel between the book and water's edge, and other towels scattered around between the water so the creature could turn pages without wetting them. Many of the storage containers that held more books.

The whole place was a library.

She was trying to read some book spines, her head craned to one side in an awkward position, when a sudden voice demanded, "Who are you?"

She gave a gasp and startled so hard she nearly lost her balance and fell in the water, if not for a frantic grab at the book shelf. Then she turned around to confront the male voice, expecting a guard to have crept in behind her.

But no, in the water between the piers, she saw it. Him. Her jaw dropped open, because this... wasn't what she'd expected at all.

They'd said Jotunn skin was blue, but that wasn't true. His was pale blue-grey, like the sea, and he had hair, that was black and long, wet and sleek falling behind him into the water. What she could see of his torso was sleekly muscled but little different besides the color and a few darker lines like tattoos that swirled on his flanks. His face, despite a few odd ridges in his forehead, could have been anyone; he had a high forehead, defined cheekbones and a firm jawline and a noticeable lack of needle teeth. His eyes were not the burning fire she'd heard, but ordinary except for the red irises. Yet the color only made them seem sharp as blade with incisive intelligence and no little hostility. From the waist up, at least, he wasn't so much a creature, as an oddly colored human.

"You talk?" she exclaimed in surprise. And not just talk, his voice had been without any accent at all, as if he was at a feast upstairs, not a sea creature of the depths.

He rolled his eyes. "Obviously. But your intelligence seems lacking. I'll say it again. Who. Are. You?"

"My name's Sif."

"Sif. I am Loki. What the hell are you doing in my room?"

She wanted to repeat your room? But held it back in time, to answer, "I- I uh, wanted to see you."

"Oh, am I castle entertainment now?" he returned scornfully. He spread his arms, somehow not sinking into the water. "Here I am. The terrifying creature of the deep." The mockery in his voice was vicious, making her wince at the echo of her own thoughts. "Now you've seen. Go away."

She turned toward the door, heeding his ill-tempered command, but then he called after her, "Wait. Sif." She faced him again. "Please don't go," he said in a softer voice. "That was rude. I'm not used to visitors. You were … a shock."

She wanted to laugh, that she was the shocking one, when he wasn't human. She walked slowly down the pier toward him, but stopping out of reach to look down.

"I wanted to know why," she said, blurting it out. "Why did your kind attack my father's ship? Why sink it? Why kill them?"

He hesitated, eyes hooded until he flicked them up to meet hers. "Did you put these questions to Odin? He has more answers than I do."

"I'm asking you."

He shrugged, a graceful motion that captured her gaze with the flex of his muscles. "I don't know. It was a long time ago."

"Not that long. You must remember."

"I don't," he answered flatly. "I was young, and I made myself forget all of it."

She frowned in confusion. "But-- why?"

He looked at her as if she was stupid, and sounded as if he were quoting something, asking, "If you were an eagle in a cage, would you want to remember that you once could fly, or would you tell yourself that you never had wings at all, so you don't pine for flight?"

That struck her in the heart, and her lips parted, as the truth settled on her of twenty years in this cove, blocked from the open ocean by a metal net he couldn't pass. Her voice was ragged as she admitted, "I would forget, too."

He looked around and her eyes followed. The torchlight gleamed on the surface of the water, giving a warmth to what would otherwise have been a dim, chill cavern. He forced a smile. "It's not that bad," he said. "After they opened the cove to me to swim in, it was better. And of course, I have books. That helps."

It seemed rude to keep talking about how he was a prisoner so she forced a smile. "Yes, the books. What a vast library you have."

"I've learned a great deal about you land-dwellers," he said, tone a bit sardonic. "Thor brings me those so I know what your animals look like." He pointed to a collection of wooden animals sitting on the farther pier. "He even brought me a hound and pig to see real ones, but I still find it odd you have beasts with four legs on land."

She chuckled. "Well, you don't have legs at all, right? That seems odd to me."

"Do you want to see?" With a quick motion beneath the surface, he jumped out of the water, arching over to dive in, and she gasped. Unlike the stories of serpent tails, his lower body tapered to a tail more like a dolphin's, broad and thick, that smacked the water with a sound louder than the small splash suggested it should have been. He dove beneath the pier and came up on the other side, tilting his head back to his hair stayed out of his face. "There," he announced, and there was some defensiveness in his tone as if he was expecting to see disgust. "Now you've seen."

"Amazing," she said, smiling.

He approached nearer to the pier and folded his arms on the edge to look up at her. "You're not afraid?"

She sat down on the wood, close enough they could have touched, and she shook her head. "No. It was interesting. Beautiful in its own way, I think. I'm glad to see the story about fish-tails or snake-tails is a bunch of bunk."

He frowned at her. "I expected a stranger to be more bothered by it. That's what I've always been told, that humans would be afraid. Or at least see me as nothing but a freak to be pitied." He wrinkled his nose and shook his head at the idea.

"Well, I guess some, maybe? But not me. And I don't think I'm all that special."

A warm smile grew on his lips. "Oh I think you are. Do you know how many visitors I've had, who braved the king's displeasure to see me? You're the third. Not that I want an audience gawking, but new people to talk to are welcome."

She spread her hands in invitation. "What do you want to talk about?"

"Where are you from? Tell me about your family, where you come from?" he asked. "A new story would be nice."

"All right." Her voice halting at first as she tried to find interesting things to say, but after some of his questions, she realized it was all interesting to him. Some of it was hard to explain when he'd never seen so much that she took for granted. It was possibly the first time anyone had ever listened to her with such eager interest, interrupting her only when he needed clarification, and otherwise soaking in her words like a dry sponge.

Time passed, until her stomach rumbled, reminding her that she was missing supper. She put a hand on her stomach and laughed, embarrassed. "Luncheon was some time ago."

"I'd offer you a crab, but you land folk like to put your food in a fire first." That meant he ate his food raw. Vile. He chuckled at her disgusted face. "You realize fire underwater is a problem, right?"

She chuckled. "I suppose that is a bit difficult. But if you have a crab, there is a fine torch there--"

A sound outside the door made her jump with fright, and he was only a slightly bit less alarmed. "Get down," he hissed, and she had just time to throw herself flat behind the trunk as the door opened.

He dove again. Tense, Sif waited to be caught, at the sound of shoes on the stone.

"Good evening!" The queen's voice echoed cheerfully, and when Sif peeked around the edge of the trunk, she saw Queen Frigga walking on the northern pier, heading for Loki who had surfaced at the reading table.

"Evening."

She was carrying a tray. "I brought you tomatoes and cheese," she announced and set the tray on a low table next to the reading table.

"Oh, my favorites." He grinned at her. "And I see something else."

"A letter for you, dear." She handed it to him, hesitating while he dried his hands on one of the towels.

Sif heard that with some incredulity. A letter? How did he have someone write to him, when hardly anyone knew he was here?

He broke the seal and scanned it. "It's from the Abbot of Puente Antiguo. He confirms the abbey has a copy of the Principia Mathematica. I am invited to see it for myself, but it doesn't travel." His shoulders slumped and he set the letter on the reading desk with care so it wouldn't fall in the water. Then he settled lower, perceptibly disappointed that the book he wanted wasn't coming to him and obviously he couldn't travel to it.

"Well...." Frigga started, settling herself on top of one of the book trunks with a graceful swirl of skirts. "Maybe we can make a contribution to the abbey sufficient to have them make a copy for you?" she suggested with a warm smile.

He perked up. "You would do that?"

"Of course. And maybe you could introduce me to your guest?" she asked.

"My... guest?" he temporized. "I was reading aloud, and--"

The queen held up a hand halting his words. "I don't mind. The secret stays with me."

Hopefully she meant it, but even if not, it was too late to continue to hide. Sif sat up to reveal herself. "Your Grace, I-- I was curious."

Frigga smiled to see her. "I had wondered, if it might be you. The door was open so I knew someone had got in. I'm not angry, Sif. I'm pleased that Loki has more company."

"So why keep him a secret and lock the door?" Sif asked, as she walked to their pier to join them.

"The king's decision not mine. He fears if word spreads, someone will try to harm Loki."

More harm than keeping him a prisoner his whole life? Sif wanted to ask, but didn't speak aloud. It was not the queen's choice, and she was the one who brought him books and had tried to make his captivity as pleasant as possible.

Loki shared his tomatoes and cheese with Sif, while the three of them discussed Loki's current reading on the the transience of matter. He seemed rather attached to the notion that matter was merely a circle of birth, life, and decay, while the queen argued that this life was a transitory existence on the way to another, better one of the spirit. Though Sif more agreed with Loki, she found herself unable to argue against the queen's position, because how could she tell someone whose entire existence was a large pond that there was nothing more for him in any life? Once she realized what the queen was doing, she argued the same, until he gave up with a laugh. "Peace, I cannot debate you both! Double the visitors means you team up against me!"

Sif grinned. "It seems to me we must team up or your wit destroys us separately. But I thank you for being willing to debate me at all."

He glanced at Frigga. "She encouraged me, from early days, to question and learn."

The queen reached down to clasp his hand. "Because so much brilliance deserves it, my boy." She looked to Sif. "Can you imagine? He neither spoke nor read when he first came to us. And now? He is a scholar of some growing fame."

"Thanks entirely to you." He brought her hand to his face, and her fingers cradled his cheek as he closed his eyes to feel her touch. In the queen's face, Sif saw affection for this outlander, a mother to a child not her own, and he returned that love. It made Sif's heart ache, thinking it might be the only gentle touch he'd known.

When it was time to head upstairs, Sif bid him good night and said, "I hope to return soon."

"I hope you do," he said with an eager smile that he then tried to wipe away as if he didn't want to seem too eager. "I will understand if you cannot, though."

"I will," she promised. "I enjoyed talking to you."

"And I you, Sif. I look forward to seeing you again."

Her last sight of him was to see him watching her and he lifted a hand to wave goodbye, and somehow despite the different skin and different eyes, and even that he had a tail, somehow all she saw was the sadness in his face as he was left alone.

On the stairs as she and the queen headed up, Sif asked, "He gets letters?"

"Lord Wulfen is a scholar and shut-in his apartments in the western tower." She smiled at Sif. "He also died five years ago, so I get his letters. Most believe 'Lord Wulfen' is a name I use."

"Oh, clever. So Loki uses his name to communicate outside."

"Yes. When he wishes."

Sif thought of that as she followed the queen to her own apartments. Frigga took note of her expression and murmured, "You disapprove."

"It is not my place to disapprove," Sif said carefully. "But it does make me sad to see any person kept a prisoner so long he's forgotten being free."

The queen's stumbled on the doorjamb and she stopped. "He... said that?" At Sif's nod, Frigga shut her eyes in pain. "He tries to hide it from me. He's happy when I'm there. But I sense … a slow decline. He used to read a new book in a day or two; that book he has now he hasn't finished in two weeks. He says it's difficult, but that wouldn't have stopped him before. He only eats a little of the treats I bring, and his skin is turning more grey than it used to be."

"You think he's dying."

Frigga fell heavily into her arm chair, staring into the fire. "Slowly, but yes, I think so," Frigga whispered. "His spirit withers in too much solitude and confinement. I will beg Odin again to let him go."

That happened sooner than either expected as the king came to Frigga. Sif hid in the queen's wardrobe to listen when she confronted him. But it went poorly. He rejected Frigga's proposal outright, that the safety of his ships outweighed one life.

"But he is in our care! Our foster son," Frigga implored. "He is unwell, you would see that if you visited him again... You have not been in months, and he misses you..." she coaxed.

"Do not seek to soften my heart," he told her harshly. "The decision was made long ago, that he remains here for life. I will let him die, before I risk our sailors and our trade to the attacks of those vicious creatures again!"

He stormed out and the door slammed shut behind him. Sif emerged from the wardrobe again, and the queen slowly turned to meet her eyes.

"My queen? Is there aught we can do?" Sif asked.

"We will set him free ourselves," Frigga declared in a quiet voice, but a set jaw. "Odin will not even notice for weeks, if we do it quietly enough."

"How?" Sif asked. "Can we lift the net?"

"No. But it is anchored by bolts to either side of the cove mouth. If one is undone, I think enough of it will collapse that he can jump over what remains."

"All right," Sif agreed and realized Frigga was entirely too prepared for this plan. "You have considered this before?"

"So many times," Frigga admitted. "But the bolts are high on the cliff face, and need one far better at heights and climbing than I am. I hope you are?" she asked.

Sif thought of the wall outside her window and the hazardous trip across the rock to the promontory where the metal netting was held. She swallowed, but nodded. "We will need to plan. And to test a similar bolt. I would hate to climb out there and not know how to break or open it."

They worked together well, and in the meantime, Sif crept in a few times to visit Loki. He was always pleased to see her, and was willing to talk to her as much as she wanted. He was eager for the company, which helped her keep her resolve, recognizing how lonely he was when he didn't have one of his few visitors.

But she didn't tell him what she and the queen planned, not wanting to raise his hopes if she couldn't do it or to make him anxious for the attempt. He seemed to know something was happening, and tried to wheedle it out of them, but they refused. "Now, don't pout, sweetheart, it's a good thing." The queen cupped his cheek. "But it needs a little more preparation."

He leaned his head into her hand, and Sif felt a heat of sudden tears prickle her eyes at the sight. He professed not to remember his early life, so she had no idea if he truly didn't recall his parents, or if he refused to remember because the memories hurt too much. But at least with Frigga he found affection and Sif was glad for it, thinking of how much worse this captivity might have been without her willing to touch him or fulfill his eagerness to learn.

On a clear autumn night when the moon was full, Sif donned her riding gear, some thin shoes with roughened soles for purchase, tied up her hair, put on her small pack of supplies, and let herself over the wall onto the rocks. Staying low to keep as out of sight as she could, she crept at the base of the wall out to the northwestern promontory.

This part at least was fairly safe. There were cracks she had to be careful not to put her foot in, but otherwise it was easy-going. The edge though, that was frightening. It seemed sheer at first, a straight drop down to the mouth of the cove. The moonlight shone on the cove, and as she peered over, she saw the water's surface shimmer with movement that seemed apart from the wave action. She'd seen him swim a little, but in the protected, shallow cave there was little room. She smiled, hoping maybe she'd get a better view below.

Soon, you'll have the whole ocean, my friend, she promised him silently.

There were some rough steps cut into the stone, where the masons had chipped away to make a path. Her heart started pounding hard, as her feet dangled before she found a ledge. This was not safe. There was no railing, no safety rope, nothing to keep her from falling....

She waited until she'd calmed down and then felt for the shallow little steps again, slowly lowering herself down. Step by step, slow and steady, she didn't let go to find the next handhold until she was secure with her feet and other hand. One by one. She was feeling better about this plan as her left foot found a wider ledge and she touched where the heavy net of thick metal chain had been anchored.

It was a simple mechanism of pin and socket. She had a metal bar in her pack that she took out to pry out the head of the pin.

It was rusted, with lichen growing in the small gap as well. She pushed on her makeshift lever, trying to force the pin to move. Gritting her teeth, she pushed as hard as she could, using her foot against the rock wall as extra strength. No, I will not come all this way for nothing.

With a tremendous crack, the head of the pin flew off under the pressure. She lost her footing and, with a startled shriek, tumbled right off the ledge.

She had a moment to glimpse the water of the cove beneath her and to straighten her body to land as feet-first as she could manage, and then she was plunging in.

Cold. So cold. The shock of the water was overwhelming, as the water closed over her head. Then she felt something touch her, grab her around the waist, and for a moment, she panicked, not knowing what was happening.

But of course it was Loki who had grabbed her. Those were his hands that were grabbing her around the waist, and his body she felt behind hers.

With tremendous force, she was brought to the surface, falling back down, but not all the way back in, his hands still clutching her. "Sif, Sif, are you all right?" he was calling urgently, holding her high against his chest with her face well out of the water. "Answer me! Did you drown? Are you okay?"

She spat out the little water and coughed, but was able to say, "I'm okay."

He turned her around to face him and he shook her lightly. "What in all the hells were you doing up there?"

"I was – I was trying to take out the bolt," she answered.

"Are you insane!" he demanded. "You could have died!"

"I was trying to set you free, Loki," she told him. This close, his eyes were beautiful, striking ruby in the irises but the rest was the same as hers. And his hair swirled in the water around him. "I want to set you free."

"No," he refused. "I don't want you to risk your life for that, Sif. It's not-- it's not worth it."

I'm not worth it. My life is not worth yours. That was what he was saying, and she shook her head, disagreeing with that. "It is," she whispered. "It's not right that you're trapped here."

Her hands clasped his shoulders. He felt good under her hand, like skin, not scales or anything too odd. The skin felt thick, pulled taut over his muscles. He stilled, except for an idle motion from his lower body that kept them above the water. "Sif?" he asked, his voice hoarsening. His hands were strong and firm, clasping her at the hips to keep her safe. She felt each finger and his palms where they touched as if she weren't wearing anything at all. His eyes flicked down to see where the fabric of her tunic was plastered to her, leaving very little of her breasts to the imagination. "I-- I should bring you to shore. You're shivering," he said.

"Because I'm touching you. Like I've wanted to from the moment I saw you," she whispered and brought her fingers down his chest, and down farther to the flat muscled plane of his abdomen, all sleek as he flexed to move his lower half. He had a navel, like she did, and below that, though, there was a little ridge interrupting the flat plane. He gasped when she touched it, eyes flaring wide with shocked surprise, and smiling, she kept her fingers there, exploring.

It wasn't a ridge, it was a flap, and from the flap, his member grew, feeling very similar to those men she'd lain with in the past.

"Sif, oh Sif, what are you doing? I—don't – I feel--" His voice sounded strangled and his fingers gripped her so tightly she knew he'd leave bruises, but she didn't care, wanting to give him this.

She smiled at him, coaxing him firmer into her hand, "Hmm, not so different," she whispered. "It appears pleasure is universal."

He jerked violently as he came. His head fell back, mouth dropping open, as the feeling rushed through him, giving a low moan. When his head lifted again, it was with the most wide-eyed amazement she'd ever seen on someone's face. "What – what did you do?" he asked her, catching his breath.

"Exploring this body," she answered with a bold smile. "I like it."

"I never thought I could-- that anyone would ever...." he stammered before swallowing back the rest of the words. "No one's ever touched me like that before," he finished quietly.

She framed his face with both hands, so she could look into his eyes. "Then I'm doubly glad I did."

He shook his head in confused denial. "You shouldn't have... I don't know what to do in return," he confessed, not meeting her eyes. "Books are somewhat vague on the details."

"I can help you with that," she offered and leaned forward to touch her lips to his. It was a tentative touch, but felt good. His lips were cool to the touch, much like his body. "How is that?"

"That's all?" he asked, lifting his brows. "That seemed rather... brief."

"We can do it some more." She tucked her legs around his waist and seized his mouth with her own, eager to kiss him more deeply, to taste this strange wonderful brilliant man.

He was a quick study, as he'd already proved, learning how to kiss her with only a little practice, and she didn't want to ever stop. The water felt warm and his touch was warm, and everything was perfect.

She didn't even realize she was shivering, until Loki pulled away. "I think I need to get you to shore," he said with regret, and when he touched her face, the drip of the water made her teeth chatter suddenly. "The water's too cold for you."

He brought her inside where the water was no warmer, but at least it was sheltered from the wind. With unexpected strength he lifted her and set her down on the wooden pier.

She rubbed at her arms, now much colder out of the water than she'd been in it, and picked up one of the towels to dry her face.

There was silence for a moment, broken only by the gentle thump of the water against the pier before he spoke. "I saw you fall," he said. "I thought you would die, right in front of me."

"It wasn't that far."

"And if you'd fallen on the chain itself?" he retorted. "You'd be dead. Please, Sif, promise me you won't try again.... I couldn't bear to watch you die. Please," he implored her

But she wasn't going to promise not to try again. "Loki, I don't know how, but I promise, I will free you." She beckoned him close, leaning down.

He came nearer, shaking his head, "Not at that price, Sif."

She grabbed him around the back of the neck and pulled his mouth back to hers, wanting one last touch before she left. "Yes. That price," she told him, not letting him go so she could promise, "I will bring that net down, somehow. And whether you go out there and come back, or if you go out there and never come back, you deserve the choice."

The lock on the door rattled and Sif pulled away as Frigga hurried in. "Oh goodness, are you all right, Sif?"

"Only a little wet, Your Grace. I fell in but Loki was there to make sure I got to shore safely."

"You must be freezing. I'll be back after I warm her up, Loki," Frigga told him, and bundled Sif into her own long cape.

At the door Sif looked back over her shoulder at Loki. He was watching her go, and touched his fingers to his lips as if to keep the memory of her kiss locked safely inside.

When their eyes met, he smiled at her. And though it was an uncertain sort of smile, that was all right. She was uncertain, too. They could face their uncertain future together.