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Balance to the Flame

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In a cave, there is a woman and a bowl.

Hands that once wove the warp and weft of the hearth tremble, for her hands are not made for this hardship, and she is not made for the coldness of the cave. The oath binding her to servitude and forbidding aught else pounds against her skull, a pain so dulled by time she scarcely notices it. Still she endures; the bowl shakes but never falters, and though the woman is tired, so tired, she never sleeps.

"Rest," her husband cajoles in one of his better moments, straining against his bonds (their son). "Sigyn, please, set down the bowl and rest. You stand vigil, but this is not your punishment."

"I'll sleep when I'm dead," she replies, and startles a laugh from his lips, once so eager to grin. Instinctively, she smiles back, a quick flash in the dark; Loki has ever been partial to grim humor, and Sigyn's own wryness has often served as a softer counterpart to his biting wit. Here, there is not much to laugh about, but what else can they do?

"But truly, I can't," she adds after a moment, and the smile slips from Loki's lips. "You remember what happened last time."

Loki looks away, the skin around his eyes tightening, though little else shows he heard her words. Last time, Sigyn had set the bowl on his chest, curled up on the floor, and slept, with Loki's promise to wake her when the bowl neared filling. She had awoken to Loki's screams and the thrashing of the earth around her, venom eating a hole through Loki's cheek and jaw, and after a panicky rush of confusion, she had finally grabbed the bowl to hold it beneath the viper's new position. The venom still in it had sloshed from the bowl to Sigyn's hands, and her flesh had corroded just as Loki's had, but she had endured, as always. Lately, Sigyn has found that to be one of her strongest skills.

"The strangest thing about that was the snake," she says finally. They are more than accustomed to the silence, but she still prefers to break it. "I swear it smirked at me before I managed to get the bowl under it again."

Loki laughs at that, a sharp slice of noise, and tosses his head back, craning his neck to get a glimpse of the viper, lazy and sedate, curled among its stalactites.

"Were you trying to get her attention?" he mocks. "'Look at what I did!' Something like that? I can't say I blame you." He gives her a sideways look, decidedly lecherous; Sigyn rolls her eyes but can't stop her lips from curving in a smile.

"Now you know," she says, sorrowful. "I'm leaving you for the snake."

"You would never." Loki gives her a thoughtful, intense look, and Sigyn feels her cheeks warm; even after all this time, all this pain, he still has this effect on her. "Do you know, I'm sure that if we tried very hard, we could find a position that allows you to hold the bowl and still lets us enjoy ourselves—"

"Loki, honestly." It is a futile suggestion; they have tried every possible contortion and more, searching for some sort of solace, some connection in this darkness, but nothing has worked or will ever work. Still, it makes her laugh, and Loki has his head tilted to the side, watching her with a pleased little smile.

Then the bowl nearly spills, full to brimming, and Sigyn gasps, gripping it tightly as Loki goes still and tense beneath her.

"It is time?" he asks. Sigyn bites her lip and nods.

"I'm sorry," she whispers, the words a litany always repeated. Loki shuts his eyes, and she takes the bowl away. He holds the screams in admirably well this time, probably having started yet another competition of silence and stubbornness with himself, but his choked cries are more than enough motivation for Sigyn. She empties the bowl, washes its sides of venom in the water dripping from the stone, and licks the walls to soothe her parched throat, all her motions swift and well-practiced.

When she returns to stave off Loki's torment once more, nothing but silence falls between them; the moment of levity is gone, broken as neatly and cleanly as Fenrisúlfr snapped Leyding. Loki's son. Loki's children, all doomed to ruin; Sigyn glances at the fetters that bind Loki to the rock and shuts her eyes. She has long since moved past the point of tears, but grief will never leave her side, a solemn twin to the rage hidden deep in her chest.

. . .

In an apple tree, there is a girl, spying on the elder gods from her perch like most children do. Though she is not the sort to climb trees without her mother's permission, this is a special occasion. Her friends, older and more worldly than she, have heard things that intrigue them terribly; gossip tells of Ásagrimmr's strange pact with a jötunn from Utgarðr, though he has yet to bring him to Asgard, and if rumor is to be believed, long ago they had gone a step farther and shared blood. Sigyn is deathly curious, for such a thing is unheard of—a jötunn, blood brother to one of the Æsir!—and when she sees Odin and his companion crest the hilltop, she leans out of her tree much farther than caution dictates.

They walk close, Odin and his jötunn companion, their heads bent together, conversing in whispers. Even from her perch in her tree, Sigyn can tell they're choking on laughter, and she recognizes in the slant of their shoulders the same thing she's seen in her little brothers and sisters: they've been making mischief, or have been thinking about it, at least. It is beyond bizarre to think of Odin as mischievous or playful, for he has always seemed to Sigyn imposing, but here it seems to come to him naturally. Is it his companion, perhaps? She'll find out soon enough. Sigyn is patient; she waits to look closely until they are nearly under her, lest she fall out and embarrass herself more thoroughly than she can even imagine.

Through the branches she can only see a little, and what she can see is depressingly uninformative. The jötunn is slim, almost boyish, with a shock of red hair in a thick braid and expressive hands, sometimes gesturing expansively, other times tucking away an errant lock flopping on his forehead with quick, irritated movements. He is beardless, which is strange, and not at all fearsome like she'd expected. Nor does he seem at all like Gerðr, solemn and lovely with a flash of fire in her eyes. No, he seems…normal. Sigyn scowls. This is not what she'd climbed up here to see.

Then, just a few feet away from the shadow of the tree's branches, the jötunn stops and turns, shading his eyes to look up into the tree. Sigyn freezes and presses herself against the trunk; everyone does it, but her parents would say she's far too old to be climbing trees, and she would hate to be caught and have to disappoint them.

"What interesting birds you have here," he says, amused. Odin looks up too, and Sigyn puts her hand over her mouth, shrinking away.

"And each and every one unique," Odin says dryly. "Perhaps we ought to turn our backs and let this one fly away."

The jötunn smiles like a knife-blade, looking from Sigyn to Odin, and if Sigyn had doubted the truth of their kinship before, she could never do so now; there is altogether too much in that look, more emotion and passion than she can comprehend at her young age.

"If you insist," the jötunn says easily. He glances up at Sigyn again, and despite herself she squints, attempting to make out the color of his eyes and failing. "Go back to your nest, little sparrow."

Sigyn waits until they have both gone on their way before scrambling down from the tree and smoothing her skirts, trembling like the bird he'd named her. Disobedience is not one of her specialties, whether given instructions by her parents or by Alföðr himself, and she runs down the path from the tree to her homestead, fleet-footed.

Later, she will learn that the jötunn's name is Loki, and that he is now Æsir by blood, but by that time she has turned to other diversions in the manner of children everywhere, and she thinks little of it, putting him out of her mind for a long, long time.

. . .

Even when she enters womanhood, Sigyn is too minor a goddess to sit at the Council of the Ásynjur, so when they are called together, she spends her time in other pursuits. In the vast golden rooms of Sessrúmnir, she sits alone by Freyja's scrying pool, weary; some forms of seiðr come naturally to her, but far-seeing has never been one of them. Still, Freyja had ordered her to master it, and so Sigyn has done her best, reminding herself all the while that once she's finished, she will never have to do it again.

The power still pulsing through her veins alerts her to his presence even before he greets her, but lost in her thoughts, she still jumps when Loki says, "Hello. You're Vár's daughter, are you not?"

"Yes, I'm Sigyn." Unlike the Æsir, Loki's magic is not based in seiðr but in himself, a strange, shifting power humming just under his skin, something slippery that she cannot quite place: jötunn magic. She stands politely, keeping her uneasiness off her face. "Can I help you?"

"Perhaps," Loki says thoughtfully. He peers over her shoulder, as if searching for someone. "Do you have a dress I could borrow?"

Sigyn blinks several times, and finally says, "What?"

"A dress." He gestures down the hall. "One of Freyja's would be preferable, but she does frown on me stealing them, so I thought I'd ask first."

"Why do you need a dress?" she asks, curious despite herself. Loki has eyes as strange as his magic, glinting first green, then gold, then indigo as he blinks and the light shifts. He grins at her with his scarred lips, and charmed, she smiles back.

"It's for Thor," he confides, leaning close as if telling her a secret. Sigyn raises her eyebrows.

"Well, he won't fit into any of mine," she says doubtfully, choosing to ignore the pressing question of why, precisely, Thor needs a dress; Loki looks slightly disappointed that she doesn't take the bait. "Nor Freyja's. But with a little effort…"

"I am very good with a needle," Loki says slowly, to theatrical effect; Sigyn suspects he tends to the melodramatic. He flashes another bright smile at her. "What say you, Sigyn? Care to help?"

"Someone has to get you that dress," she points out. "It won't be one of Freyja's, but mine are fine enough."

Loki glances her over, and nods, his lips quirking. "So they are."

. . .

In time, they become friends.

Had she been asked before that meeting in Freyja's hall, Sigyn couldn't have imagined she would soon count Loki Sky-treader among her closest companions, but the Nornir weave in patterns indecipherable to the average eye, and Sigyn chooses not to question it. Loki is dear to her in ways she scarcely dares to think about, though she is not naïve enough to think that he shows all his faces to her; he is a man of many facets, and he hides the tarnished ones away when she is there, whether to spare her the sight or to exclude her, she does not know. She suspects the former. Still, she trusts him, however ill-advised it may be.

Sitting in the garden and sewing, Sigyn's concentration is disrupted by a shadow flickering over her fabrics, over and over; she glances up to see a bird, perhaps a goshawk, soaring in concentric circles overhead. She waves at it, and the bird checks and dives, finally spreading its wings just a few feet above her head and landing daintily beside her. It puffs out its chest feathers and says chidingly, "You always look so serious."

"I'm afraid that's just my face," she replies, deadpan, and puts down her sewing, smiling at the goshawk. "You've been gone a while."

"Yes, yes." With a shiver, the goshawk begins to molt, body twisting and tearing as Loki shifts into his usual form. Sigyn looks away politely; the distortions are far from disturbing to her by now, but she knows he dislikes being caught in his liminal state, vulnerable and defenseless even against her. In a matter of seconds, he sits next to her as a man, streaked with blood and stray feathers, still speaking as if nothing had happened. "You know how it is — fools to trick, hearts to eat, monsters to birth."

"The usual," Sigyn finishes. Loki smiles at her and stretches out along the bench, laying his head on her lap. Sigyn saves her sewing before it lands in the dirt, and sets it delicately on his chest. "What sort of monsters?"

"The usual," Loki echoes evasively, and then, before Sigyn can press him for actual details, "It has been a while. You haven't married since I left, have you?"

"Ah—" Taken aback, for she can't recall ever speaking of marriage to Loki, Sigyn falters for a moment, and Loki's eyebrows arch. She licks her lips, and continues lightly, "I did, I'm sorry. It's your fault for missing the ceremony."

"Liar."

"Liesmith."

"Oh, how your words cut!" Loki slaps his hand to his forehead dramatically. "Never did I think that you would resort to such low taunts, Sigyn."

"I've learned from the best," she teases, poking him in the side; much to her delight, he squirms and huffs, slightly ticklish as always.

"Please," he sniffs. "I'm much cleverer than that."

"Did you get married on your travels?" she asks, diverting the conversation, still with that playful note in her voice. "I know you would never have children out of wedlock."

Loki gazes at her contemplatively for a moment, his hands folded on his stomach; Sigyn forgets at times how eerily bright his eyes can glow.

"Do you know," he says at last, apropos of nothing, "that you are the only one to never run in fright from the children I bring to Asgard?"

"You wouldn't have let them hurt me," she says with certainty, then lowers her eyes. "Even so, I could not begrudge them their anger. Creatures who have suffered so have reason to loathe the Æsir."

Loki links his fingers loosely with Sigyn's, silent for a moment, then exhales and says softly, "No, I haven't married."

In his voice is a tangle of meaning she wants desperately to unravel. Sigyn is no fool; she knows well how ill-matched they would be, a goddess of the hearth wedded to a god with no hall, a woman of fidelity bound to a man destined to wander—but she grips his fingers tightly, and asks, "Would you like to?"

A strange look flits across Loki's face, at once sure and hesitant and delighted, then he wipes his expression clean. Sigyn has a moment to regret her words before he rises up on his elbow and twines his hand in her hair, drawing them close.

"I believe you're supposed to ask my father for permission," he breathes against her lips, laughter in his voice, "if you truly seek my hand." She rolls her eyes, smiling.

"You need no one's permission for anything," she whispers back. Slipping his hand loose of her curls, Loki sits up but stays pressed against her, thigh to thigh, side to side.

"You realize what you're getting into," he says quietly. "No kenning of mine speaks of kindness or trust."

"Be that as it may," she says with a shrug. "I do know what I'm doing, Loki."

He grins at her, a wolf's smile, his hair and eyes the same burnished red, before leaning in to kiss her properly.

"Yes," he agrees, when they finally break apart. Sigyn clings to him like a limpet, her heart racing. "I rather think you do."

. . .

Loki has no sword for her to hold in keeping for their future son; he can pay no bride-price to her family; and the only hall he has to offer her belongs in truth to Thor and Sif. Sigyn cares not. The ceremony is consecrated by Freyja and Freyr, the marriage hallowed by Mjölnir; Sigyn and Loki are surrounded by friends and family, and she needs no other trappings to make her happy.

In bed, Loki moves over her like wildfire. Still and giving as the earth, she lets his flame consume her. She writes runes of love and protection on his skin with her fingers and her tongue, and in exchange he paints her body with the wild colors of jötunn magic, bright sparks dancing through her hair, down her neck, across her breasts; Sigyn arches, she gasps, she hooks her leg around Loki's hips and brings him closer, closer, relishing the blaze he ignites within her. Her lips find his and she swallows his cry, letting him sink against her, wrapping her arms around him as if cupping him in the bowl of the sky.

She loves the burn, chases down his heat. The soil, as Sigyn knows, is most fertile after a fire.

. . .

She has never been a seer, but in the space between the dart leaving Hod's hand and striking Baldr's heart, Sigyn knows. A thousand ill omens slot into place, the pattern suddenly becoming clear, and Sigyn knows. Frigg thought mistletoe too young to do any harm, but even the most innocent of beings can still kill.

Sigyn weeps for Baldr. Loki, no matter what form Frigg finds him in, does not.

"I don't regret it," he tells Sigyn, later. "I do not. He was infuriating."

"He was your kin by oath," Sigyn says quietly. She does not curse him, does not blame him; she understands better than he thinks. Loki's lips thin.

"Then let him brighten my daughter's hall," he snaps, and looks away. Sigyn takes his hand, and he presses a quick kiss to her knuckles, squeezing her fingers so tightly they whiten. "As a good nephew should."

"I'll stay with you," Sigyn promises needlessly. "To the end. I love you."

"Oh, wife of mine." He pulls her close, resting his chin on her head; she can feel him trembling. No scrying is needed to know they will never have a moment like this again. "I know you do."

. . .

The bowl fills.

Sigyn empties it, rinses it, returns to stand vigil over her husband's unmoving form. She stares sightlessly at the blank rock of the cave. Gods do not age, not with the aid of Idunn's golden apples, a gift given even to such wretches as them. Still, she feels unbearably ancient, withered, a crone with naught but iron at her core.

The bowl fills.

Venom corrodes; venom decays. When Sigyn is gone, Loki no longer thrashes, but allows the serpent's spit to eat holes in his cheeks and his forehead. She returns to a corpse-head with the body of a god, his skin peeled away to reveal the shape of his skull beneath. Sigyn holds the bowl and watches Loki's skin heal itself, the meat of his cheeks filling in, the bone of his nose creaking into place, the jelly of his eyes coalescing and reforming. Loki is silent. She cannot remember the last time he spoke, the last time they kissed; once, she thinks, they had found amusement here, even joy, but ages have wheeled past since then, and now there is nothing but the steady drip of venom in her cursed bowl.

Sigyn watches each droplet fall, watches them form an inky pool with a sickening sheen. A droplet falls; the pool shivers and ripples. A droplet falls. Her lips move, drier than the desert: a scrying spell, she thinks, but she had never been any good at it. What is there to see, anyway?

Ragnarök.

The voice is a whisper in her head, and the sound is so strange that it takes minutes for her to recognize it. Her own voice.

The bowl fills. She empties it, rinses it. The venom drips; Loki is silent. That isn't right. Sigyn remembers. Loki is fire, Loki is mayhem, Loki is deceit and laughter and ever-shifting skin. Loki is not—cannot be silenced.

She returns to his side. Again, she watches as the bowl fills, but this time, as each drop splash into the surface of the poison pool, she remembers—

(Blood, the growls of a rabid wolf and the frightened screams of her children (Nari, she remembers screaming, please, Nari!), the stench of a gut wound and heartbreak so unimaginable she was certain she would die.)

A droplet falls—

(A half-rotten little girl, a monstrous serpent, a wolf cub with rage-filled eyes, and Loki on his knees, Loki begging—)

A droplet—

(The Diar and the Council, circled around her with grim eyes and Skaði at the fore, casting spells to cage and fetter, a twisting snake in her hands, shining pale cords trapping Loki in place, blood and waste and Sigyn's tears on the floor—)

"Loki."

Her voice must be scraped up from her very depths before she can truly speak; she says his name once, twice, thrice, and then he answers.

"Sigyn," he rasps. He turns his head and looks at her, truly looks at her, and to her shock, his eyes are nearly the same. Still fluid, still dancing, but so bitter, so furious. Sigyn nearly drowns in the sudden flood of love those eyes coax from her heart; she nearly weeps as she asks him, "What will happen, after?"

"Rebirth," he says simply. Loki's eyes glitter and she locks onto that gaze, holds the bowl steady. "Gimlé."

"I would like to see it," she murmurs. Loki laughs hoarsely; barely a minute since she had brought him back from the blackness in which he hid, and he laughs. Yes, that is Loki.

"We won't," he tells her. "We may be gods, but we still will die."

"I know," she says. "Would you like to?"

Loki smiles.

"Set the bowl down," he says. "Pain is nothing to me anymore."

Sigyn does. Venom drips. She never was good at scrying, but only a fool thinks that is the only gift seiðr has to offer, and only a fool thinks that Sigyn would keep troth with any over her love. Odin is more foolish than she thought; or, it occurs to her, unspeakably wise.

"I love you," Loki whispers.

In a cave hidden away at the end of the world, Sigyn Incantation-Fetter raises her arms, and begins the unbinding.