Sif had been a child when she decided her future. Then she had not known the truth, the weight of her words; then it had been nothing, a taunt to Thor, nothing more than the same friendly barbs they always exchanged.
"I will never marry," she said, looking at him upside down as she swung by her knees from a low-hanging branch. Her mother had given up the pretense of putting her in skirts and dresses; if the choice was between an indecent child and one clad as a boy, the latter won. "If you believe I will, you're a bigger fool than you look, and I don't think such a thing is possible."
"Of course you will," Thor told her, confident as usual; Loki looked up at the two of them from his seat at the bottom of the tree. When Sif caught his eye, his face was sad, and she had no idea why. "You'll marry me. It's already decided. You can't take it back."
Sif made a face. "I'd never marry you."
"Too bad," Thor said. He'd have said something else, but just then Hogun ran up and hit him on the arm before running off again; he grinned at her before taking off to join in the game.
Sif swung down from the branch, landing on her feet. She walked over and sat down next to Loki. "What are you reading?" she asked.
"One of father's books," he said, marking his page with a leaf and closing it, carefully setting it aside. "It is on the history of our lineage."
"Sounds like a lot of work," she told him.
He shrugged, looking a little ashamed. "I like it."
"I know what you like," she said, and before he could react she poked him in the side. He jumped, startled, so she did it again and again, until he was laughing and squirming.
"Stop it," he said breathlessly, in between pants of laughter.
"No," she told him, doing it more just to be contrary; she shrieked when Loki started fighting back, tickling her.
"Two can play at that," he said, as they fought, grinning at each other; a particularly vicious attack and Loki overbalanced, falling into the grass and taking Sif with him.
For a moment, she lay half on top of him; as she looked down at him, she knew she felt something she'd never felt before, something new, something terrifying that she wanted more of.
Then he took her by surprise, reaching up and poking her in the sides again, using her distraction as an opportunity to flip them over so he had the upper hand. She yelped, trying to get her hands on him and get her own back, but it was fruitless. "I give," she said. "I give, I give, stop."
Loki laughed, getting one last good tickle in before rolling away, lying down next to her, her arm about his shoulders. They were very close; she rested her head against his, and he smelled of fresh grass and warm soil.
He pushed himself up on his elbow, and his face looked very serious. He reached across her, picking up her hand; drawing it to him, he lay a kiss upon it, looking into her eyes. Her heart fluttered; it was the very first, the first time anyone had kissed her, the first time anyone had ever looked at her like that.
Before he even dropped her hand, he turned his head. "Fandral's coming," he said urgently; she didn't know how she knew even then that it needed to be a secret, just that it did, that it always needed to be. She got up, dusting herself off as Loki sat up, reaching for his book again. Just before she took off to meet Fandral, she looked back at Loki; he looked bashful, and it only got worse when she grinned at him.
It was a long time before they ever kissed properly, the kind of kiss not to be seen. They'd stolen off, back into the recesses of the king's halls, back along a path Loki knew, one that led disused room full of sunlight.
Loki sat down on the bed, cross-legged, disrupting the dust sprinkled over the footboard. "No one but Heimdall could find us here."
She crinkled her nose. "I don't want to think about my brother finding us."
He smiled at her, wide and pleased. They'd come to do what they always did, talk and gossip and hold each other for as long as they could get away with it, for as long as it was safe, but there was something different that day, something about the time, something about the place. She climbed onto the bed, kneeling across from him, and she bent forward and kissed him; it was wet and sort of sloppy, not like she'd imagined it, but it was still everything she'd wanted.
When she pulled away and looked at him, he was completely amazed, staring at her; for a moment she thought she'd done the wrong thing, wrecked it all, but then he lay back, stretching out his long legs and pulling her on top of him. She laughed, more at the shock and relief of it than anything else.
They kissed for long hours, on and on, stolen moment after stolen moment, so close to getting caught, growing accustomed to suspicious looks, last-minute partings. And when she gave up her maidenhead, it was Loki above her, just as lost as she was, just as needy, their sweat commingled, bodies working together until she cried out, his lips on her throat, the breath of his moans on her skin.
They grew together, intertwined, opposite and equal. She was honest and direct where he was quick and sly, preferring her strength where he used his words. They were dark and light, such a good match and such a poor one by turns, but still unable to be separated. Down deep they understood each other, a way Sif thought no one else could ever understand.
When she was a maiden, she was sure she loved two things: Loki and the thrill of the fight.
When she was a woman, she knew that, if she was very lucky, she could have one, but never both.
When her path was chosen, she went to Thor first. She would fight anyone who dared challenge her courage, but faced with the thought of Loki's face when she told him, she felt none of it. The moment would come; she did not need to hasten it.
She found him alone on the training grounds, a rare moment between bouts. She took a deep breath. "Our parents expect us to wed," she told him.
He put his hands on her arms, leaning down to kiss her forehead. "I do not want to marry you."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "Why? What's wrong with me?"
He laughed. "If you wanted to marry me, I would marry you a thousand times over," he promised. "But you don't want to. You never have."
She sighed, feeling incredibly relieved. "That was far easier than I expected."
"You are a fine warrior, Sif, and ballads will be sung of you," he told her. "But if you live in the shadow of your husband, the mighty Thor-" He grinned, flinching away in anticipation, and she punched him solidly on the arm.
"Come and fight me then, oh mighty Thor," she taunted.
"I never turn down a chance to do battle with the fabled Sif, warrior of Asgard," he said.
"It will be your undoing one day," she told him.
"Never," he swore. "I trust her more than words can say." He shook his hammer at her. "As long as she promises not to break my arm a third time."
"Learn to move faster," she said, grinning, and they prepared to fight.
In the end, she did not have to find Loki, to force herself to undertake such a task. He found her first, alone as they ever were, sequestered for what she knew would be the last time.
"You always said you would never marry my brother," he said, clearly trying to hide his joy and not succeeding. "I can't say I'm particularly sad that your prediction has come to pass."
"I will marry no one," she said softly, gazing upwards, not meeting his eyes.
His brow furrowed. "But there's nothing stopping you from marrying anyone you want." He swallowed. "There's nothing stopping you from marrying me."
Her heart broke inside her chest. They'd never spoken of it before, never said it out loud, only ever danced around it; something about it was treacherous, dangerous, too much to hope for. "I cannot," she told him. "I will live and die a warrior. I will not be a wife."
His face was stricken. "It wouldn't- I wouldn't-" It wasn't often that Loki's silver tongue failed him, and it was painful and worrying to watch. "I would never make you give up what is important to you just because we were wed."
"Everyone else would," she told him. "Loki, everything is going to be hard enough as it is. Asgard has never had a female warrior, not one who did more than defend her husband's home. If I can prove that one exists, then there will be a hundred after me, daughters of Asgard to defend and strengthen her. I am a danger to start with, but if I were to go to war and abandon my husband's house, leave him to run it alone, leave him alone with-" She shook her head, sad but resolute. "You can have me be happy or you can have me to yourself."
He looked at her, his mouth set in an unhappy line. "That is no kind of choice," he said.
"My life is not full of choices at the moment," she replied.
"I love you more than anyone else could," he said fiercely. "I deserve to have you."
She gave him a cold look. "If that is how you think, then you do not."
He sighed, deflating. "Forgive me," he said. "I misspoke."
"You never misspeak, Loki," she said, pursing her lips.
"Then it's my thinking that is in error," he told her. "You don't have to marry me," he said, very close to begging. "No one needs to know. We have come this far without anyone knowing."
"Someone could find out," she said, shaking her head. "Not marrying and becoming a warrior, people will disapprove of me. If they found out I had a lover, then they would disapprove of all female warriors to come. I might be the first and last."
"So that's it, then," Loki said, he hands balling into fists. "I get thrown aside for the cause of the greater good."
"It isn't like that," she protested.
"It is exactly like that," he said angrily.
"I don't want you as an enemy, Loki," she said pleadingly, trying to keep this from going to pieces.
He took a step forward. "No, you don't."
Her face hardened; her heart raced and questions flew into her head, but she stared him down. "Leave."
He gave her a look of hurt and anger, a poisonous look, but he turned and walked out without another word. When he was gone, she sighed, dropping herself heavily into a chair. This morning she'd had everything; at the end of the day she had nothing at all.
And then she got up, and she picked up her spear and shield, and she went to her new life, her warrior's life, the one she was born to, the one she was left with.
There was no going back; the tie between Loki and Sif was severed, the love between them turned to ash. He didn't try to persuade her and she didn't offer a retraction, and so there was nothing else to be said. There was nothing to be done, nothing but sit and watch as bitterness filled up the space between them, walling them away from each other.
They spoke when necessary, but civility was a thing of the past. She did not notice that her friends had stopped mentioning him in her presence until long after it started; she was momentarily outraged, but only momentarily, the feeling swallowed up by gratitude. His very existence was a thorn in her side that was twisted, a sore pressed on hard.
And then, very suddenly, Thor was banished and Loki was king and Thor was dead and Thor was alive and the bifrost was destroyed and Loki, Loki was gone, gone forever. She did not weep for him, for that time had long passed, her tears dried up for good. She laughed and joked when they feasted, even though she felt hollow inside, something of her missing, never to be replaced.
Hours later she stood alone, looking out over the broken sea, the sun long since set. A cool breeze drifted in, and she shut her eyes, letting it soothe her.
"I am so sorry," Thor said behind her.
She turned to look at him. "Sorry for what?"
"For Loki," he answered.
"I don't know why you should be apologizing to me," she said.
"I knew, Sif," he said gently, and her breath caught. "I always knew. When you chose not to marry me, I thought you were going to marry him."
It hurt so badly when he said that; he didn't know how many times she'd thought about it, how many ways she'd seen it in her head- their fingers entwined at a feast, a kiss shared without fear of discovery, their children running rampant through the palace. Perhaps she could have sat at his side and tempered him, kept him straight and true; perhaps none of this would have happened if he'd just had her.
But those dreams hadn't died with Loki; they died long before, and Sif had killed them.
"I'm glad I didn't," she told him.
He sighed. "Maybe we all are."
"I couldn't have stopped this," she said fiercely.
"No one expected you to," he told her. "I'm just grateful he did not harm you."
She turned away from him. "So everyone knows my shame."
"If anyone knows, they did not tell me," Thor said, shaking his head. "We all loved him. We all grieve for him. There is no shame in that." He put his arms around her, holding her close. "He was my brother, and I trusted him. I loved him, and nothing will ever change that. Whether he was deserving or not, none of us can ever take any of it back. We did everything we could."
She shut her eyes, resting her head against his chest. "I miss him," she said softly. "It feels like treason."
"Then we are all traitors," he told her, holding her tighter. "We may always be."
The wind kept blowing off the sea, calm and quiet, and the stars shone down upon them.