"Have you not considered children?"
The wind was blowing hard from the north, and even here, sheltered against the leeward side of a mountain's bulk, it was taking all of Sif's considerable experience to coax a fire from her kindling. Loki could have ignited the fire with a thought, with a word; but he had long ago learned that Sif would offer him no thanks for his interference. As a child, she had tried to teach him that lesson with her fists. As a grown woman, she had used first words and then, later, after their marriage, indifference. It was indifference Loki hated above almost all else. Sif was not indifferent, but she could cloak herself with indifference well enough that not even the Lord of Asgard could see through her lie.
"I can't tell if you're trying to flatter me or insult me."
Laughter licked in his eyes. "Why not both?"
The spark from her flint finally caught and held in the dry pine needles she had gathered, and she bent close over it, trying to keep it sheltered from the wind. It flickered and dimmed more than once, but Sif was patient, feeding it more kindling until it started to grow of its own accord.
If the wind touched Loki, it brought him no grief. She wasn't entirely sure he was present as more than a trick of the light, a sending that walked out of the night to haunt her; his cloak snapped behind him, certainly, and his feet left tracks in the snow, but his illusions were good, they were very good, now that he ruled from Hlidskjalf. No. Be honest. They had always been good, but they were better now, after his long fall off the edge of the world.
Sif snorted. "I see your favorite subject for flattery remains as constant as ever."
—After his long fall off the edge of the world.
He was standing just outside of the mouth of the cave. The firelight warmed the gold of his trappings and cast the green as a darker shade, but even that was an illusion—the appearance of warmth, but not warmth itself. The snowflakes that settled on his head and shoulders did not melt as they would melt against Sif's skin. She was very much his opposite in that way, giving the appearance of cold but burning hot on the inside.
Had she considered children? Of course she had.
He was tired of her silence long before she was ready to speak, though, and he finally took a step into the cave, and then another, and then he was swaggering past her, back into the depths, showing no caution, acting like a conquerer surveying some newly-claimed territory. "This is no place for you, you know," he said, and then he had the temerity to clasp his hands behind his back and tilt his head as he pretended to study what was little more than a hole in the ground, if an impressively large one. "Huddled in the woods like some poor attendant—"
"I like the woods," said Sif, and fed another piece of it to the fire.
"Do you?" said Loki. "Do you really?" He circled behind her. "Is this dank place fit for a lady of your stature?"
"Don't presume to know what is or is not fit for a lady of my stature." She was forgetting to feign indifference; too long away from his court did that to her. When they were children who came to each other freely, the political machinations, the games, had only appealed to him as an abstract study, a minor diversion from his preferred pursuits of studying with his mother, getting into trouble with his brother, and needling Sif. She hadn't minded the needling, or at least hadn't minded it much, and had without fail given as good as she'd got. In their peculiar way, they had been bosom comrades, certainly friends—perhaps, even then, more than friends.
His footfalls slowed and then resumed their steady tread. "Is this a place for you, my queen?" he said. "Hiding in the wilderness, when all of Asgard would swoon at the sight of your face—"
"How dramatic," said Sif, and, judging that the fire was stoked enough for her purposes, she settled down on her haunches and began digging through her pack. She wore not her silver armor nor the fine dresses of a queen, although around her shoulders was her thick cloak with its ruff of wolf's fur. Beneath it she wore her oldest and warmest hunting leathers, and over those her sword belt. Her sword itself was beside her pack; she'd resheathed it so she could fit two of her fingers alongside the blade between the top of the sheath and the bottom of the hilt. It would draw easily at need.
Loki watched her as she produced a flask and two small cups made of beaten copper. On her own, she drank from the flask directly, but Loki had earned the hospitality of her campfire. She filled the cups and held one out to him. His display of hesitation was almost certainly for show, but that didn't mean it wasn't genuine; he could use his open heart like a weapon, too.
After a moment he came to her and took the cup from her hands. His skin was warm. Not an illusion, then.
"Thank you," he said. He waited until she had taken a sip of her cup to drink from his.
"Can you imagine a marriage between us only as some mean, wary truce?"
"Was there ever hope it could be anything else?"
Sif was unwilling to answer that question; she settled back against the wall and waited for him to continue.
"And sit down," said Sif. "I won't crane my neck to look up at you."
"Indeed, I wonder if you have ever looked up to anyone in your life—" Loki said, but then he broke off; perhaps he was thinking, as she was, that she had once looked up to his mother. "Well," he added, "it's no throne, but I suppose it will do," and then he settled himself onto one of the low, flat rocks that ran along the northwest side of the cave.
Had she ever considered children? Of course she had, when she was old enough to swallow some portion of her pride but still young enough to think marrying him a good idea. That, of course, was long before they had actually married; by the time of their wedding, Sif had known for years that only ruin lay between them.
They would have hard, hungry sons and clever, dangerous daughters; there was no give in either of them, no ability to yield, no sense of sacrifice at all or too much of it. Sif had bled to earn her station; her joy in adventure had never been the untempered joy of her companions, and now she had no joy in her life whatsover, tempered or otherwise. She persevered, because she was Sif—
She snorted. "Thank you."
"You told me to be honest with this one. How did you put it? 'Nostalgia is the most dangerous and unseemly of feelings,' that was it."
"I must have suffered a fit of delusion to ask that of you."
"Then let me tell you a pretty lie instead."
"Yes," she said. "What you asked earlier—my answer is yes. I have thought of our sons. Of our daughters."
At some point while she was thinking, his cloak had faded to the long, leather surcoat he preferred when he wasn't trying to make a show of himself. "And?" he said.
"They would be the sons and daughters of Asgard," Sif said. "Her future queens, her future kings… they wouldn't be of Bor's blood, but they would bring glory to the realm nonetheless."
"Is that so?" said Loki.
"Or else they'd be a complete disaster."
"Have I done so badly?"
"No," said Sif, "you only wanted it too much."
That hurt him, she could tell; besieged as it was, Asgard had fallen from its former heights, but she was now able to admit that the fall wasn't entirely Loki's fault. He had wanted the power of the throne, but he had not shrunk from the responsibility that came with it.
He wasn't entirely whole, though, either; he'd seen too much, maybe, and it made Sif wonder how long they could endure in their current states. Behind his back they called him the Magpie King, for the bad luck he brought with him. There was an old rhyme that said that magpies could be counted like portents: One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy—
"Perhaps I did," said Loki. "But you… ah, you were talking to me of heirs. I want to know about children."
If he meant to cut her back, he had succeeded. "Did you ever want them?" she said. "Children, not heirs. I did. Not as a girl; I had other dreams. But there was a time, a brief time, when I thought of what… of what…"
"Of what they would look like," Loki said. "Of how much they would be like us, and how much they would be like only themselves."
Sif closed her eyes.
"Yes," she said.
"They would be tall and dark, you know; there's no chance we would produce short, fair-haired children," he said.
"My hair was fair when I was born," she said. "You of all people should remember."
"Ah," he said. "That's right. It was yellow like piss, wasn't it?"
She laughed. It was little more than a low, startled huff, but it was the first time she had laughed in an age. "So it was," she said. "Someone must have done me a favor by stealing it away."
"So they did," said Loki. "We're left with tall, then—"
"No," she said. "Tall and dark, lean and strong." It was like a glimmer of her brother's foresight had come to her; she could see him, their son, with the sneer he got from his father and the glare he got from his mother and the hunger he'd inherited from them both. And then he smiled, the young man of her vision, and there was something so sweet and genuine there that she wondered that he was theirs at all.
What had he been like as a baby? Had Loki doted on him that way Frigga had doted on her sons? Had he taught the boy his art? Or was it instead Sif who passed on what she had learned, who took him to the training yard to play at swords?
"A son," said Loki. She couldn't tell if he had shared her vision, or if he could simply read her so well.
Sif blinked. "A son," she said. The warmth leeched out of her all at once, and even the nearness of the fire—even the nearness of Loki, who stirred her in ways she would rather not admit—couldn't keep the cold at bay.
"A son, a son, a pretty dream," Loki sighed.
"I will bear you no children," Sif snapped. "Not now and not ever."
"Oh," he drawled, "I am aware. What child wants a mad king for a father? Certainly not I."
Sif looked away. "It would be different," she said. "If we weren't each other's shackles, it would be different."
"Of course," he said, and that was the prettiest lie of all.
She opened her eyes, and Loki was once again in his cell, sitting on the floor with Sif opposite him on the other side of the barrier.
She came every night. Sometimes they spoke. Sometimes they didn't. And sometimes Sif asked him for stories.
"Are we ever happy?" she said, and then started when she realized she'd voiced the thought outside of her head.
Loki regarded her with a flat amusement that would have read as indifference to anyone but Sif. "That's a child's question," he said. "Do we know how to be happy, you and I?"
"No," said Sif.
"No," Loki agreed. And he was right; there was no satisfaction in either of them. It was one of the things that had drawn them together in the first place. Sometimes, though… sometimes Sif thought she would be sick to death for yearning.
"Tell me another," she said, and he did.