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And so we talked all night about the rest of our lives

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. . . . . .

The text arrives with no warning on a Thursday afternoon.

i think we should break up, it says. u can find another date to the dance, right?

And Sif sees red. Bad enough to get dumped two days before the Homecoming dance, but over text? That’s just adding insult to injury, and this will not go unanswered.

Five minutes later she’s on Haldor’s doorstep, noting with pleasure that the worm is squirming under her deadly glare. She can be pretty intimidating when she wants to be; after all, not for nothing is she the only girl in the state to ever play on a high school boys’ football team. “Two days before the dance? Seriously?”

“I thought it’d be better to tell you now,” he says weakly. “Instead of taking you to the dance and letting you think we’re still good . . .”

She tilts her head and narrows her eyes; that doesn’t sound like Haldor at all. “All right, who is she?” she demands.

Haldor’s gaze shifts guiltily to the left. “What do you mean?”

“Eight months,” she says sharply. “I gave you eight months of my life. The least you can do is be honest about why you’re ending it.”

Haldor looks like he’d love nothing more than to bolt, but Sif keeps him pinned in place with her eyes until finally he relents. “Lorelei.”

It’s what she expected, but that doesn’t keep her from wanting to punch something. “Lorelei?” she repeats. “The Lorelei I asked you about last week and you assured me that you’re just friends? The Lorelei who’s never kept a boyfriend around for more than a week? The Lorelei who’ll be bored of you by October? You’re dumping me for her?”

“It’s complicated,” Haldor says, with the tone and bearing of someone who doesn’t believe what they’re saying but can’t quite admit it.

“Seems pretty simple to me,” she says. “Seems clear that you’re as weak and shallow as every other guy Lorelei’s gone through, and that I was an idiot to waste so much time on a spineless little grub who didn’t have the guts to break up with me face to face or the decency to keep his promise to take me to the dance.” She turns on her heel, but looks back over his shoulder for one last sentence: “Enjoy being Lorelei’s next ex-boyfriend.”

The drive home isn’t anything like long enough to calm her down, and all she wants to do is go the rec room and go a few rounds on her punching bag. But when she pulls her silver Mustang around the back of the house to the garage, she sees with a wince that her dad is just climbing out of his Tesla. Not that she’s unhappy to see her dad—they’ve always been close, especially after Sif's mom died—but he never liked Haldor, and she doesn’t want to have to watch him to gloat when he learns how right he was about that jerk. She needs time to calm down before she has that conversation.

So she celebrates inwardly when she glances across the backyard and sees, through the wrought iron fence, a very familiar figure reading under his favorite tree next door. Perfect. “Hey Dad!” she says with false cheer as she climbs out of the car. “I’ll be inside in a bit; I’m going to run next door for a while.” She doesn’t give him more details, because she can’t think of what she’d say that wouldn’t be a lie, and she really doesn’t hold with lying unless it’s absolutely necessary. Her friends think it’s hilarious—they have no qualms about lying to their parents—but they all learned long ago that Sif Tyrsdottir doesn’t really care about what’s popular or cool, only about what she thinks is right.

“All right,” smiles Tyr, and heads inside while Sif makes her way over to the Governor’s Mansion. It is not, in fact, officially the governor’s mansion—their state does not have an official residence for its governor—but Fandral called it that once as a joke, just after Odin’s inauguration, and all their friends picked it up. The house has in fact been in Odin Burrson’s family since they helped found this city; Odin inherited it after his father’s death and has been living in since he was a mere district attorney. But it’s a huge and beautiful old house, pre-Civil War, with sprawling grounds; if they had an official governor’s mansion, it’d probably pale in comparison to this house.

Odin’s taken security very seriously since his first election to the senate, and the whole yard is surrounded by a high alarmed fence, with a single gate that’s way over on the other side of the house. But Sif’s been finding her way into the yard since she was six, and she doesn’t need a gate. With the ease of long practice, she climbs the shed in the corner of her yard, waves merrily at the security cameras that swivel to point at her as she puts one hand on the fence, and vaults over into the governor’s yard. The security guards hate her doing that, but Odin’s ordered them to allow it.

Loki hardly stirs when she drops onto the grass beside him. “Something I can help you with, Sif?” he asks, not lifting his eyes from his book.

“You’re already doing it,” she informs him. “You’re helping me avoid an awkward conversation with my father.”

“As long as it doesn’t require anything from me,” he says, turning a page.

She shakes her head. “I’m just killing time.”

She pulls up a piece of grass and tries to whistle through it, but the yard at the Governor’s Mansion is so well kept that all the blades of grass are too short for her to get a good grip on. So she flops backward with a sigh, staring up at the canopy of leaves overhead and listening to the soft rustling of pages nearby. It reminds her of a thousand summer afternoons spent this way when they were children—though none lately. Come to think of it, she can’t remember the last time she sat with Loki like this. Things have been different between them since . . . maybe since they started high school, and she normally doesn’t spend much time worrying about that—he’s the one who keeps turning them down when they invite him to things—but in that moment she’s suddenly a little sorry.

As the minutes tick by, she feels her anger drain away. It helps that Loki isn’t saying anything; if Thor was here, he’d be pressing her for details, but Loki’s always been quieter than his twin, and he’s content to let her have her secrets. She’s always liked that about Loki.

Soon enough, she doesn’t feel angry anymore. She should go home, but she’s too comfortable laying there in the grass. So instead she watches Loki until she sees his attention and his gaze wandering from his book, and then she speaks (she’s learned from long experience that he hates it when people interrupt him while he’s reading). “What are you reading?”

He glances over at her. “Shakespeare.”

“AP English?”

He shrugs. “My own amusement,” he corrects, but there’s a touch of defiance marring his calm expression, and she knows he expects her to make fun of him for reading Shakespeare for fun. Which, to be fair, is exactly what Fandral or Volstagg would have done.

But she’s not Fandral or Volstagg. “Anything good?”

He shrugs. “Othello. I’m still deciding what I think about it.”

“He kills his wife, right? Sounds like a downer.”

And Loki snorts.

She doesn’t know what else to add, and she expects Loki to go back to his book, but he doesn’t; he simply sits there, his gaze fixed out over the lawn, and she gets the sense he’s waiting to see if she’ll say anything else. So after a moment, she does. “Are you going to the dance?”

The corner of his lip lifts in a small but eloquent sneer, and she laughs aloud. “Guess not.”

“I suppose you’re going with Haldor?”

At that her anger returns, a soft echo of the inferno it was when she first got the text, and her lips tighten into a thin line.

Loki raises his eyebrows in surprise. “Guess not.”

“He dumped me,” she informs him. “For Lorelei.”

She’s gratified to see the subtle wince that crosses his face; she doesn’t have to explain to him all the indignities that statement implies. “Right?” she demands, sitting up. “Dumped for a junior. And it gets worse: he dumped me today. Over text.”

Loki understands—understands more than she expected him to, actually. “Is that the awkward conversation you’re avoiding with your father?”

She sighs. “I’m just not ready for him to say ‘I told you so.’”

Her companion simply nods, but his face is the calm mask that he wears when he’s hiding his thoughts or his feelings. She wonders what it is he feels the need to hide right now.

“So now I have to decide if I’m going stag, or if I’m going to try find someone—”

And that’s when Sif Tyrsdottir has an idea that, although she doesn’t know it right now, will change the course of both their lives.

“You can come with me!” she realizes.

Loki raises an eyebrow.

“You don’t have plans, right?”

“You want me to go with you?” he asks, surprise and suspicion in his voice, and she doesn’t know why he’s having such a hard time wrapping her head around this. “As . . . your date?”

“Exactly,” she says. “And I’ll pay for our tickets and dinner and everything, since I’m asking you.” She clears her throat and speaks very seriously. “Loki Odinson, will you go to Homecoming with me?”

His face has gone blank, but she’s known him since they were six years old, and though they’ve grown apart, she can still read him like a book: something about the idea is making him a little unhappy. Loki always has hated high school parties and events, she supposes. “I’ll make it as painless as possible,” she assures him. “I just . . . I don’t want to go alone, because everyone else in my group has dates, but I have to go—I already bought a dress, and besides, it’s Homecoming. We’re going to beat Vanaheim tomorrow, and then we’re going to celebrate our victory Saturday, and I have to be there.”

Loki looks at her a long time, and there’s something she can’t read in his expression. And then he nods. “All right."

And a small but determined smile turns up the corners of her mouth. “You won’t regret this, Loki.”

. . . . . .

Her father, as she’d known he would be, is a little smug on hearing the news; Sif is the recipient of more than one “I knew that boy was no good.” But he makes up for it by joining her for a very cathartic gripe session: all the things they’d ever disliked about Haldor, from the way he was late to everything to the way he chewed with his mouth open, are complained about at length.

“So what about the dance?” Tyr asks when they’ve run out of things to gripe about.

She is not expecting the enthusiastic response she gets when she says “I’m taking Loki.” Tyr nearly grins his face right off when he hears.

“I’ve always thought you should date one of the Odinson boys,” he says warmly. “Such good kids. Such a great family.” He hesitates. “But I always thought your interest lay . . .” He raises his eyebrows. “With a different Odinson brother.”

She rolls her eyes. “It’s not a real date, Dad. He’s just helping me out so I don’t have to go alone.”

“But you could date him,” her father says reasonably. “He’s single, isn’t he? And I know Thor’s most people’s favorite, but I’ve always liked Loki better myself. That boy’s got a gift for mathematics. Reminds me of a young me.”

Sif snorts.

“I mean it,” he says. “He’s brilliant.”

She blinks in surprise. “I mean, I know he’s smart, but I didn’t realize . . .”

“Brilliant,” her father confirms. “I tried to convince him to do an internship with my company last summer, did I tell you?”

Surprised, Sif can only shake her head.

Tyr nods his confirmation. “Wanted to try to get him interested in engineering, win him over to our side before a physicist or a mathematician got their hands on him.”

“What happened?”

“Odin wouldn’t let him,” Tyr shrugs. “Made him go to a business and entrepreneurship summer camp instead.”

Sif winces. “I imagine he hated that.”

Tyr nods his head sympathetically, then adds curiously, “He really never told you about that?”

And he’s got a point. How has she drifted so far from this boy she used to consider one of her best friends? He was away at a camp for part of the summer and she didn’t even notice he was gone. At least, she supposes, Homecoming will give them a chance to catch up.

. . . . . .

The Asgard High School Warriors destroy the Vanaheim High School Knights 45 to 12, with Sif scoring six extra points and a field goal. She catches the Vanaheim coach giving her a dark look as he comes over to shake Coach Váli’s hand after the game; he was one of the most vocal opponents of her being allowed to play on the guys’ team last year, and the fact that she just outperformed the Vanaheim kicker (as she did in last year’s Homecoming game as well) has clearly not made him any fonder of her. She can’t help grinning at him. The poor guy never really had a chance at keeping her from playing, no matter how much he objected; when you’re a close personal friend of the governor, it’s a little easier to get what you want, even when what you want is something as major as a statewide change in high school football regulations.

It’s a great night, and that coach’s anger isn’t nearly enough to ruin her good mood. Nor does having to scold Fandral and Thor for suggesting that they should vandalize some of the Vanaheim supporters’ cars out in the parking lot. (“How would you feel if your mother went to Vanaheim to watch a game and some jerk keyed her car?” she demands, and Thor looks appropriately apologetic.) Indeed, the only thing that puts any kind of damper on her evening is the fact that when her father, Odin and Frigga come to congratulate her on the game, they come alone. She knows she saw Loki sitting with them earlier, but he’s nowhere to be seen now, and that bothers her more than she would have expected. She’s his friend, right? Friends say hi, don’t they?

The next afternoon finds her and her father ringing the doorbell at the Governor’s Mansion, Tyr holding a camera and Sif still adjusting her crimson dress. Since Thor, Loki and Sif are in the same group for the dance—the first time that’s happened—their parents insisted on getting pictures of them together. Accordingly, Thor is bringing his date back to the mansion: Amora, the head cheerleader, who Thor will no doubt lose interest in before the month is out, as he does with most of his girlfriends.

Frigga answers the door, perfectly styled and immaculately put together as always, and her expression warms on seeing Sif and Tyr on the other side. “Oh, my dearest girl,” she says, stepping forward with her arms outstretched. “You look perfectly wonderful.”

Sif goes willingly into her embrace and inhales the familiar scent of her perfume. Frigga has been a mother to her in all but name ever since that tragic accident some ten years ago: she’s the one who started the weekly tradition of inviting Tyr and Sif over for Sunday dinners; she wiped a thousand tears and cleaned a thousand skinned knees in Sif’s childhood. And when Sif became a teenager, it was Frigga she went to when she needed advice on boys, when she’d fought with her dad, when her period started during her 7th grade Spanish class and she had no idea what she was supposed to do.

“I am so glad to see my Loki going to a school dance,” she says quietly, “and it delights me to know it’s with you. You have always been very dear . . . to our family.”

Odin’s always been more of an avuncular figure, given that she already has an excellent father, so their hug is briefer, though no less sincere. Governor Burrson strikes a rather imposing figure, with his broad build and shock of white hair and glass eye, and he can indeed be terrifying when he wants to be. But he’s also got a very warm, personable side—necessary to rise so astronomically through the political ranks—which is the way Sif knows and loves him, after so many years as a close family friend. “You do indeed look stunning,” he tells her gently. “My boy is lucky to be on your arm tonight.”

Speaking of his boy, here comes Loki now, walking down the stairs with just a hint of hesitation in his step, and Sif grins at the sight. It’s not the first time she’s seen him in a sharp suit—they’re practically a daily uniform for him, given how many galas and fundraisers and political functions he has to attend with his father—but there is one detail that catches her eye in particular.

“Loki Odinson, did you call my dad to find out what color my dress was so you could match your tie to it?”

Loki uncomfortably glances over at Tyr, who’s now deep in conversation with Frigga and Odin, and Sif knows she’s right. “I figured I ought to do this right,” he explains.

“Well, you look very nice,” she says solemnly, and means it. Loki will never rival his twin brother for obvious good looks, but he’s got his own sort of appeal, all tall and slender and angular, with his contrasting coloring and delicate features. As is usual for formal events, his jet black hair is slicked and styled carefully to disguise the fact that he wears it just a little too long to be fashionable. His charcoal gray suit is exquisitely tailored and fits him like a glove, and the scarlet tie gives a much-needed pop of color. It’s a little strange, though, to see him in red; he favors greens and blues and blacks and grays in the usual way of things. She’s always associated red and scarlet more with herself and Thor, and of course Asgard High.

But the color suits him, in a way, which is good because he’s about to get more of it. “I know this is so old-fashioned,” she says, showing him the boutonnière she carried over here in its little plastic box, “but I sort of like it.”

And for the first time since he came down the stairs, he smiles. “I thought you might,” he confesses, and walks toward the kitchen, reappearing a moment later with his own plastic box. Sif is amused to see that they both chose burgundy-colored lilies for each other.

Thor gets home with Amora just as Loki is slipping on Sif’s corsage, and the whole party troops out to the backyard to get pictures. First they get the whole group standing in front of a lovely flowering trellis, and when Tyr calls “Loki! Arm around her waist!”, Sif has to stifle a laugh at how thoroughly tentative Loki’s hand feels as it settles lightly on her hip. Then it’s Thor and Amora together while Loki and Sif stand back and watch, the former stealing glances occasionally at the latter.

Amora runs inside at that point to, as she puts it, powder her nose. Frigga looks at Sif. “Do you mind terribly if we do the boys together now? I’ve never had both my sons in the same dance group before.”

Sif assents, and Thor and Loki sigh and grumble good-naturedly as their mother poses them just so in front of the pavilion. Truth be told, it does Sif’s heart good to watch them; Loki may be spending less time with Thor’s group of friends these days, but no one who sees the brothers together could deny their love for each other, even if they do often express it with fists and cheerful insults. And indeed, that is a genuine smile on Loki’s face as Tyr snaps photo after photo. Even when Thor teases him.

“If you keep growing, one day you’ll be as tall as me!”

“One inch,” Loki grumbles, but his eyes are dancing at the old familiar argument.

Thor just pats the top of his head condescendingly.

“Okay, whole family shot!” Tyr calls, and Sif suspects Frigga might have put him up to it, given how ready she is to jump into the shot with her beloved sons. Odin grumbles a little but obediently follows his wife, and they pose together with the unconscious ease that comes from a lifetime in the public eye. They’re a handsome group, undeniably.

But . . . but odd, aren’t they? Sif, looking at the four of them, is seized with the same impression she gets every time she sees the whole family together: as Sesame Street would say, “One of these things is not like the other.” Loki always looks the odd man out in family photos, and it’s not just the coloring. The rest of the family are built on such solid lines; Thor and Odin both look the football players they are (or were, in Odin’s case), and even Frigga has powerful shoulders and strong features. Loki, by comparison, is all sharp angles and thin lines. Sif used to wonder from time to time if Loki might be adopted, but she’s seen both twins’ drivers’ licenses: they definitely share a birthday. So unless Odin and Frigga happened to adopt a child born the same day as their son . . .

When the family photo is done, Thor goes in to find Amora, and Frigga starts arranging Sif and Loki in front of the water feature. There’s something in her eyes that Sif can’t quite put a name to, other than to say that the governor’s wife looks very happy just then. “All right, Sif, now you turn this way—and Loki, you turn toward her, and put your arms around her waist—and Sif, you put that hand up on his arm—”

“Mother!” Loki breaks in, looking embarrassed and stepping back from Sif.

“Oh, come now,” she smiles. “It’s not every day my boy goes to a school dance. Indulge your poor old mother, just this once.”

Mother and son stare each other down a moment, and finally Loki cracks the tiniest smile, as Sif had known he would. Just as Thor shares a special bond with his father, Loki shares a special bond with his mother, and she’s always had a knack for getting him to do things he’d rather not.

“Do you mind?” he asks Sif, and she steps easily into his arms, having been the victim of plenty of school dance pictures in her time. She turns an obedient smile on her father, who promptly starts snapping away. Loki’s face, when she glances up, is in his practiced politician’s son smile, and if she weren’t close enough to feel the tension in his body, she might believe he’s at ease. She’s not surprised; he’s told her before how tired he’s grown of being photographed all the time.

And they’re not done yet. “All right,” Frigga calls, “now both of you lean forward a bit, and Loki, you lean your head against hers—”

“Mother!” Loki’s cry comes out just a bit strangled, and Sif can’t help it, she lets out a very unladylike snort of laughter, though she quickly smothers it, not wanting to be rude to Frigga. Loki looks over at Sif, surprised, and when she looks up at him, still grinning, his expression goes surprised and blank a moment, until a half-smile tugs at the corner of his mouth.

Click. Tyr lowers the camera and smiles. “I think that was the money shot.”

. . . . . .

The four teenagers pile into Thor’s Range Rover to travel to Puente Antiguo Grill, where they meet Volstagg, Fandral, Hogun and their dates. The guys are noisily surprised, but pleased, to see Loki there.

“But where’s Haldor?” Valstagg asks―understandably, given that Sif, not wanting to be peppered with questions and distracted from the game, hasn’t told any of her friends except Thor and Loki about the breakup yet.

“At this moment,” she says flatly, “probably making out with Lorelei in the back seat of her car.”

Hildegund winces sympathetically and leans forward. “Are you doing all right?” she asks quietly.

Hildegund is a curvy redhead with a very maternal air, who’s been dating Volstagg for as long as Sif has known either of them. The girls have gotten very close over the years, which is why Sif feels comfortable answering honestly. “Mostly just angry and embarrassed.”

“Want me to beat him up for you?” Volstagg asks, quite sincerely. And given the fact that Volstagg is the biggest linebacker on the team, that’s a serious threat.

But Sif gives him a tiny smile and shakes her head. “It’s a kind offer, but I don’t think we should ruin the basketball team’s chances at State just to soothe my wounded ego.”

“Lorelei,” Fandral says, shaking his head sadly. “That’s a path it’s better not to start down, believe me.”

Hildegund turns to him with a raised eyebrow. “You and Lorelei? I did not hear about this.”

“More like Fandral and everyone,” snorts Thor, which makes everyone chuckle except Fandral’s date, who looks slightly alarmed.

“You’re better off without him,” says Hogun with certainty. The Japanese exchange student doesn’t say much unless he absolutely means it, so Sif is inclined to take his words to heart.

“I think you’re right,” she agrees.

“Well, Haldor’s loss is Loki’s gain, eh?” says Volstagg cheerfully, slapping Loki firmly on the shoulder. “It’s not every day you get to go out with one of the prettiest girls and best athletes in the school.” He hesitates. “You are here as Sif’s date, right?”

“We’ve finally figured out how to get Loki to come to a school dance,” Fandral grins. “We’ve just got to tempt him with a date who's way out of his league.”

Loki’s retort is swift and smooth. “Maybe you could pass along some of your girlfriends when you’re done with them. Trying to get through that list would keep me occupied for years.”

Fandral and his date both look a little offended, but Thor and Volstagg laugh and Hildegund is fighting back a smile.

Not wanting this to turn into a lot of trash talking, Sif breaks in smoothly. “Loki was kind enough to come along so I don’t have to go to the dance alone. I was in a bind, since that jerk Haldor only broke up with me Thursday night.”

And that successfully distracts everyone; the discussion returns to Haldor, and Loki is free of everyone’s scrutiny and comment. He glances at Sif, and she thinks she sees a touch of apology in his eyes, for making a scene, and perhaps gratitude as well, for getting attention off him. She gives him a small smile back; she promised that she would try to make this painless for him, and she will.

. . . . . .

The school gym is almost unrecognizable, so thoroughly has it been decorated and relit, and everyone is full of compliments as they walk in; Fandral’s date Ingrid is head of the Homecoming committee, and she basks in all the attention. She’s set aside a table for their group, near the front, which earns her more praise—the other tables are already full. Loki pulls out a chair for Sif, and she smiles at him as they all take their seats.

They talk, as they did at dinner, mostly about the game last night; with the exceptions of Hildegund and Loki, everyone at the table is either a football player or a cheerleader.

“Ooh, I love this song!” Amora says eventually, and holds a hand out to Thor. “Dance with me.”

Thor happily lets himself be pulled out of his chair, and Volstagg and Hildegund follow. Fandral and Hogun go to get punch and cookies from the refreshment table.

“Would you like anything?” Loki asks, and it’s not until that moment that Sif realizes that this is the first thing he’s said in about twenty minutes. She can’t decide if she’s more annoyed with herself for doing such a poor job of making this evening pleasant for Loki, or annoyed with Loki for refusing to join in the conversation.

But she gives him a small smile. “I’m all right, thank you.” She ponders for a moment whether asking Loki to dance would make him more comfortable, as a way to avoid small talk with a bunch of cheerleaders, or less comfortable, because then he’d have to dance. But in the end it’s a moot point because Loki stands up from his chair.

“Some of my friends are over there; would you be too offended if I excused myself to go say hello?”

She wonders, not for the first time, if it’s all that reading that gives Loki his smooth way with words. “Not at all,” she says, sincerely. He’s probably bored, and perhaps talking to his friends will help.

Loki nods and makes his way to the far side of the gym, where Sif can see Karnilla and Helblindi standing.

“I forgot that Thor’s brother had such weird friends.”

Sif looks over in surprise at Ingrid, who’s watching the three of them talk with her mouth twisted in disgust. “Excuse me?”

“I’m just saying,” Ingrid shrugs. “It’s weird that Thor is so, like, cool and everything, and Loki’s so . . . not. And look at his friends! He totally hangs out with the weird kids.”

“Loki can hang out with whoever he wants,” Sif retorts firmly. Deep down, though, she admits that she’s had similar thoughts about Loki’s friends in the past. After he started spending less time with Sif and Thor, he made a group of friends that are, well, a little weird. (“Friends” might be a strong term, though; she knows he eats lunch with them, but she’s never seen them around the Governor’s Mansion, and from what Thor says, he doesn’t go out much on the weekends.)

There’s Hela, who is super goth and who’s got quite the chip on her shoulder; she’s gotten in trouble more than once for starting fist fights in the halls. There’s Malekith, who tops Sif’s list of People Most Likely to Bring a Weapon to School. And, standing there talking to Loki, there’s Helblindi, who’s rather handsome but who narrowly avoided being sent to juvie last year for putting a kid in the hospital after the kid dented his car; and there’s Karnilla, who’s one of the better-looking and smarter girls in the school, but who’s so unrelentingly mean to everyone that she’s been kicked out of basically every other social group.

Sif wonders sometimes if they can be a good influence on Loki, but then she reminds herself, she doesn’t know them well enough to make that call, and anyway Loki’s nearly 18 which is surely old enough to make up his own mind about his friends.

Ingrid looks skeptical. “Yeah, but does he have to do it when he’s here with us?”

Sif doesn’t even mean to, she just defaults into a glare. “That’s my date you’re talking about,” she reminds Ingrid in a low voice. Loki might have unusual friends, but right now he’s with Sif, and Sif looks after the people around her.

Ingrid looks suitably cowed. “Sorry,” she mutters. “I just didn’t realize you two were that close. Since you’ve barely talked to him tonight.”

That pulls Sif up short. Has she really been so distant? Well, time to fix that.

Loki is returning to their table, and Sif goes to meet him halfway across the gym. “Will you dance with me, Loki?” she asks.

He looks surprised, though not displeased. “I don’t know how to dance to this sort of—” But in that moment, the song ends, and the one that starts is slow and romantic.

She quirks an eyebrow at him. “I know you can slow dance,” she reminds him with a smile in her voice. “I’ve seen you. You’re very good at formal parties.”

He hesitates, eyes searching her face (though what he’s looking for, she can’t guess). And then a ghost of a smile touches his lips and he extends a hand toward her. “My lady,” he says grandly, and she snorts.

“Don’t overdo it, Odinson,” she says, and steps into his arms.

Loki goes immediately, probably instinctively, into an old-fashioned ballroom dance-type hold, and she has to fight back a smile because it’s just so completely him. He looks curiously at her, clearly wondering a the reason for the twitching of her lips, until Thor and Amora walk by and his brother claps him on the shoulder.

“You’re not at one of Father’s fundraising galas,” Thor reminds him before disappearing into the crowd.

Loki glances over at their clasped hands, held very properly out at shoulder height, and understanding dawns on his face. But he doesn’t move, only smiles mischievously. “It’d be a shame to let years of dance lessons go to waste.”

She lifts an eyebrow. “You know I can’t ballroom dance, right?”

His grin only widens, and he starts leading her in what she assumes is some kind of waltz; at least, her childhood piano lessons are telling her the song is in 3/4. She’s never done the waltz before and spends the next minute laser-focused on not tripping over her feet, but Loki is, as advertised, very good at this sort of thing. He keeps her upright and moving in time, and somehow manages to communicate with his hands and arms and the way he moves exactly where she ought to go, and makes her look much better than she actually is.

He spins her out and under his arm so beautifully that Volstagg and Hildegund stop dancing long enough to applaud, and Sif is smiling bashfully, both pleased and embarrassed, as Loki pulls her back into his arms.

Thankfully he stops making her waltz then, instead putting both hands on her waist and simply swaying to the music so they blend in more with the couples around them. There’s a touch of a smile on his face as he looks down at her.

“What?” she asks.

“You’re right,” he says. “You can’t dance.”

She punches his shoulder and he chuckles.

 “Well, clearly you can,” she says after a few moments. “I’m impressed.”

“Thank Father for that,” Loki says. “Have to make a good impression on the donors and the voters, don’t we?” There’s a bitter undercurrent to his tone, and Sif’s brow furrows. She’s never heard him speak that way about his father, but then it’s been a long time since they had anything like a serious discussion.

“You’re not a fan of fancy parties? I enjoyed the last one you all took me to. Very good lobster.”

“Yes, but you weren’t there as the governor’s kid,” he reminds her. “That’s a lot of pressure.”

She considers this. “I guess having Odin for a father could be a lot of pressure,” she admits.

“In public and in private,” he agrees. “The day I got my driver’s license was the best day of my life,” he says. “Now at least I can get out of the house when he’s getting too . . . him.”

“Where do you go?” she asks curiously.

“Places I can be alone,” he shrugs. “The Rainbow Bridge Overlook, a lot.”

All this talk reminds her of something. “My dad told me Odin sent you to a business and entrepreneurial camp this summer.”

Loki’s expression is very eloquent, and Sif’s expression lightens in amusement. “Not a fan of that either?”

“I’m sure I would have liked it if I’d had any interest in business or entrepreneurship. Father’s convinced that if he forces me into enough events like that, I’ll suddenly develop a love of it.”

“What are you interested in?” she asks. “If not business?”

Something eager but shy enters his expression, as though this is a topic he wants to discuss but isn’t often allowed to. “Well . . . physics.”

“Physics?”

He nods. “Maybe astrophysics.” He shrugs and her hands on his shoulders slide over the smooth, soft fabric of his suit. “I like . . . I’d like to learn more about how the universe works. And why.”

That makes sense, given what she knows about his talents in mathematics. “Maybe I should have you help me with my physics class,” she says. “A month into the school year and it’s already kicking my butt.” And then she smiles. “Dad will be so sorry,” she says in mock-serious tones, and his brow furrows in confusion. “He’s very impressed with your math skills,” she clarifies. “He’d hoped to lure you over into engineering.”

Loki looks absurdly pleased at that. “That’s something, coming from a famous defense manufacturer.” The song they’re dancing to ends, but another starts, similarly slow, and Sif makes no move to stop dancing. Neither does Loki.

“So Odin doesn’t care much about your physics dreams?” she guesses, her voice soft with sympathy.

Loki’s falling expression is punctuated by a sigh. “Father doesn’t have much use for the sciences. And he says business is a better choice because ‘it lets you do more good in your community.’” An unhappy smile twists his lips for a moment. “I don’t know if he’s worried about me doing good in the community for my sake or for his. Wouldn’t want to mess up his future presidential bid.”

Sif is sorry for the veiled pain in her friend’s eyes, but she can’t believe Odin would be so thoughtless, and show such disregard for his son’s feelings. “But he won’t make you do something you don’t want to do,” she says. “He can’t make you. What’s he going to do, follow you to college and force you to go to all your business classes?”

“He can take away any financial aid that he and Mother were planning on giving me,” Loki points out. “And he can certainly withhold his approval.”

Now the second one she actually can imagine Odin doing. “So what will you do?”

“I’m still figuring that out,” he says. “But my grades are good; if I can get scholarships and student loans, I can do it without his help. I’ve been saving money for a while for my college application fees, since Father’s not going to like it if he finds out I don’t intend on going to his alma mater. They have a very good business school but not much of a physics program. I’m not telling him that I’m planning on applying to other places.”

“So rebellious,” she says with mock seriousness. “Going behind your dad’s back to turn in college applications.”

“According to my father, that is rebellious.” But his words are softened with a small smile. “It feels ridiculous, sneaking around trying to get letters of recommendations, transcripts, copies of my birth certificate . . . I never knew I'd need so many documents to go to college.”

“Well, I hope you get into the school of your choice. And I hope your dad doesn’t mind too much about it.”

He gives her a tight smile. “So do I.”

. . . . . .

They return to their table, arm in arm—after all the dancing they just did, it’s surprisingly easy to be touchy-feely with him—and are met by Thor and Fandral, laughing and clapping Loki on the shoulder.

“Only you would waltz at homecoming, little brother,” Thor chuckles.

“Don’t you know the whole point of dancing is to get up-close and personal with a cute girl?” Fandral asks with a wink at Ingrid, who smiles and blushes very prettily. “You should definitely take advantage of this opportunity,” he goes on, and gestures at Sif. “Who knows the next time you’ll have a date this far out of your league again? Lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice.”

Loki stiffens beside her, and when Sif glances over at him, she sees his expression has become that blank mask he likes to hide behind so often.

“Oh, be nice!” Hildegund says. “Besides, I happen to know there are a lot of girls at this school who think our friend Loki here is very good-looking.”

“Who?” Fandral scoffs incredulously, although to his credit, he immediately looks very shamefaced at his lack of filter.

Loki’s expression has gone even blanker, which Sif wouldn’t have thought possible, and he stiffens even more, which Sif wouldn’t have thought possible either, and she wonders if Fandral’s teasing has always been this barbed and she’s only now noticing it.

Her innate protectiveness surges to the surface, but even though her motivation in speaking is to shut Fandral up, her words are, like nearly everything she says, absolutely true. “Me,” she says very matter-of-factly, and Fandral blinks in surprise.

“Me too!” Hildegund pipes in helpfully.

“Yeah, I could go for that,” Hogun’s date volunteers unexpectedly.

Amora nods. “I mean, he’s not Thor, but he’s certainly not bad.”

And that’s when Thor pipes in indignantly. “Loki’s got to be at least as good-looking as me,” he argues. “I mean, we’re twins.” And the thing about Thor is that Sif is pretty sure he genuinely means it and thinks it’s a logical argument.

Volstagg and Hildegund chuckle, and Loki relaxes. “I appreciate your kind words,” he says drily, and turns to Sif. “Punch?”

“I’ll come with you,” she volunteers, and they walk to the refreshment table.

As he pours her a glass of punch, he glances at her out of the corner of his eye, once, and then again. “Thank you,” he says wryly.

“I wouldn’t have said it if it weren’t true,” she says frankly.

He glances at her again, and this time there’s an expression that she can’t read in his eyes. “I know.”

. . . . . .

To no one’s surprise, Thor and Amora are crowned Homecoming king and queen. And Thor seems the least surprised of all. “I mean, after I threw the winning pass last night, the school owes it to me,” he says with a cheeky grin. Fandral and Volstagg both roll their eyes, and Sif good-naturedly throws a balled-up napkin at him. Loki, however, looks for a moment genuinely irritated at his brother’s arrogance.

As Thor and Amora go to the center of the gym for the official king and queen dance, Loki watches them go with a subtly calculating expression in his eyes. Sif is just starting to get uneasy about what that look might mean when he suddenly excuses himself to use the bathroom.

She doesn't find out what that looks means until a minute into the song. Thor and Amora have been hanging all over each other up in front of the student body, but while she’s gazing up at him, his focus in on the crowd, and on his football buddies who keep hollering at him.

“Yeah Thor!” one of them yells, and Thor grins and winks and points in that direction.

“Trashing Vanaheim!” comes another yell. “You the real MVP!”

Thor takes his hands off Amora’s waist to raise his fists triumphantly in the air. “Asgard High School football rules!” he yells back, and a second later, all the power in the gym goes out.

The sudden quiet is almost more shocking than the sudden darkness. Before the gasps and questions can get any louder, Coach Váli speaks up. “Don’t panic!” he says. “We probably blew a fuse with all these extra lights and speakers. I’ll go check it out.”

Everyone sits in the dark for a few minutes while on the dance floor, Thor, Amora and their friends trade jokes and boasts and good-natured jibes. A few minutes later the lights come back on and the music restarts. “Somebody flipped a breaker,” she hears Coach Váli say to one of the other teachers, and the seed of doubt in her mind blossoms into full-blown suspicion.

She looks around, and sure enough, there’s Loki by the refreshment table, looking entirely too innocent to be believed.

“All right, I guess the king and queen dance is over,” Coach Váli shrugs. “Go back to your regularly scheduled dancing.”

Amora looks a bit put out at this, but Thor just grins. “Go Warriors!” he yells, and the crowd gives an answering cheer as couples start dancing again.

The rest of their table gets up to dance, and Sif waits quietly until Loki sits back down with a cup of punch. “Was that really necessary?” she asks.

He looks at her, surprised, and then a pleased little smile crosses his face. “Clever Sif.”

“You couldn’t just let your brother have this moment?”

He snorts derisively. “As though Thor doesn’t get more ‘moments’ than the rest of the school combined.”

“Is that why you did it?” she asks.

He snorts derisively, and his over-the-top dismissiveness and nonchalant expression are their own kind of admission.

“Really? Just to take Thor down a peg?”

Loki sighs, but he still looks pretty unapologetic. “You know I love Thor,” he says. “No one could love him better than I do. But also, no one knows better than me what an arrogant jerk he can be sometimes. I just thought it would be good to remind him that not everyone is as big a fan of the golden-boy football-hero act as he thinks. When he leaves high school, he might find the world at large is a little less smitten with him than the Asgard student body.”

“I see,” she says sarcastically. “You did it for his own good. How charitable.”

He smiles beatifically. “That’s me. A model of charity.”

She rolls her eyes. “So instead of talking to your brother about your concerns, you decided to prank him.”

He grins cheekily at her, and she can’t help smiling just a little in return. “We both know that if Thor knew it was me who did that, he’d be more proud of me than anyone. He loves pranks—I mean, look at him, he’s actually spiking the punch as we speak.”

Sif looks over at the refreshment table to see that Thor is indeed pouring something from a glass bottle into the punch bowl while a couple of other football players keep watch. She sighs and is about to go chew him out when Coach Váli and Mr. Heimdall, the physics teacher, catch him and save her the trouble.

Sif groans as Mr. Heimdall starts lecturing Thor, who doesn’t look remotely repentant. “I really hope our star quarterback didn’t just get himself suspended.”

Loki snorts. “Not likely. You know Thor never gets in trouble.”

Despite his earlier insistence as to how much he loves his brother, there’s a touch of that same bitterness in his that she heard when he talked about his father. She looks at him curiously a moment, wondering if she’s missed a bigger change in her friend than she realized.

But just then, Fandral, Hogun and their dates return to the table, talking loudly about the attempted spiking. “Classic Thor,” Fandral is laughing. “And classic Thor to get caught. That guy is anything but sneaky.”

“Lucky for him, he never gets in trouble,” says Ingrid.

“He’d better not,” Hogun grumbles. “If he just ruined our chances at State for a stupid prank . . .”

From the look on Loki’s face, he very clearly agrees with Hogun. Sif examines his face curiously a moment before making a decision. “It’s too warm in here,” she says, and glances at Loki. “Come get some air with me?”

He agrees readily enough, and follows her out of the gym, pausing only to shake his head in mock censure at his brother, who’s still being lectured. Thor grins and waves very cheerfully back.

. . . . . .

After the din of the dance, it’s blessedly quiet out in front of the school. A couple is getting into a car out in the parking lot, but other than that they’re entirely alone. The scene is lit by the moon overhead, the streetlamps nearby, and the marquee that reads in scrolling red letters HOMECOMING DANCE SATURDAY NIGHT.

Loki shoves his hands in his pockets. “I guess it’s probably grossly optimistic to hope that you snuck me away from the dance so we could make out,” he says matter-of-factly.

And Sif lets out a very undignified snort of laughter. “Grossly optimistic,” she agrees. The bench by the warrior statue on the lawn catches her eye, and she gestures toward it. “Shall we?”

He obliges, and when they’re seated on the bench, almost close enough for their elbows to brush, he says resignedly, “I assume you wanted to lecture me more about ruining Thor’s big moment?”

She shakes her head. “Not to lecture you. But to ask: what is the deal with you and Thor?”

“I told you,” he shrugs. “He’s my brother and I love him, but you have to admit, he’s kind of a lot to deal with sometimes.”

She thinks of Loki’s distance from them the last couple of years, of how they’ve lost touch so much that she didn’t even realize he’d been sent off to camp this summer. And she decides to seize this rare chance to discuss it. “Is that it?” she asks. “Is that why you don’t hang out with us anymore?”

In the light from the marquee, she sees him flinch, nearly imperceptibly, before his expression slips into that smooth mask he uses when he’s hiding something.

“I hang out with you,” he says. “I’m hanging out with you now.”

“Yes, but before tonight, when was the last time you actually did anything with us? The fourth of July, and that was only because we physically dragged you along with us? And before that . . .”

“That dinner on the last day of school,” he supplies helpfully, and she rolls her eyes.

“Only because your mom made you come with us,” she reminds him. “And before that . . . I can’t even remember.”

He doesn’t answer; she assumes that, like her, he can’t remember because it’s been so long.

“You don’t have to hang out with us,” she’s quick to point out. “You can do whatever you want. But . . . did you stop because of something we did? Something Thor did?” She hesitates, and frowns. “Something I did?”

“Nothing you did,” he assures her, and from his tone and expression, she thinks he’s sincere. “It’s just . . .” He trails off, clearly looking for the right way to smooth it over—knowing him, to give only as much information as he wants to give, and in a way that makes him look good.

She breaks in. “We used to be good friends, Loki. And I’m really sorry we’ve lost that. And if there’s something I can do to fix it . . .”

He’s silent a moment, and then he flops back against the bench with a heavy sigh. The contrast of it makes her realize how carefully straight his posture is most of the time.

“Please,” she says. “Tell me the truth.”

He looks at her a long moment, then relents. “I guess you’re right; I don’t hang out with you guys much anymore. It’s . . . it was a lot of things.” He sighs. “You know I’ve never been like you and Thor. I always wanted to be reading, or exploring, or looking at bugs under a magnifying glass. And you two would rather be playing football or wrestling in the yard. But when we were young, that didn’t matter; we compromised. We’d combine our interests. You two were willing to help me catch grasshoppers . . .”

“And you were willing to play tag with us.” She remembers more than one afternoon spent with the Odinson boys, when they’d agree to spend an hour doing what Loki wanted and then two hours doing what she and Thor wanted.

“But then we got to high school and everything changed. You two got so into your sports, and Fandral and Volstagg came along—and eventually Hogun. I was outnumbered. All you guys wanted to do was play or watch sports, every single time; we never did the sorts of things I wanted to do, and if I tried to suggest something else, I’d get outvoted. And I got tired of it. I got tired of always doing things I didn’t enjoy, and having to pretend to be something I wasn’t in order to fit in with you.” He shrugs. “Volstagg’s nice enough, but we have nothing in common, and Fandral—well, the less said, the better.” He hesitates. “And Thor changed, to be honest. He got more selfish and self-focused. And sports and girls became literally the only things he was capable of thinking about. So when the larger student body at Asgard let me find people I had more in common with . . . why wouldn’t I prefer hanging out with them?”

She takes a moment to process this. “Have I changed?” she asks.

He glances at her, then away. “Not as much as Thor.”

She doesn’t know how to take that.

“I got tired of pretending in order to fit in,” he repeats in conclusion. “And of feeling like a charity case. Like you were inviting me places out of pity or obligation.”

She leans back against the bench and stares unseeingly at the darkened parking lot in front of them. Did they really drive Loki away by never taking his preferences into account when they made plans? Did she really alienate one of her best friends by being so focused on herself and never on him?

For a few moments she feels quite guilty, wondering if she should apologize . . . and then something occurs to her and she turns to him with a frown. “But what about all the times we weren’t doing anything sports-related, or hanging out with the others?”

Loki looks at her, surprised.

“Last month,” she reminds him, “Thor and I invited you to watch Interstellar with us, and you said no. But I know you like that movie. In fact, we chose that movie because we knew you liked it. So what was the problem?”

He blinks and says nothing.

“Or what about after Sunday dinner last week? Me and Thor and your mom played Monopoly, and you refused to play with us. Why did you turn that down? Or when Hogun invited you to go to the planetarium with him over the summer? You love that stuff.”

His expression changes very little, but he shifts in such a way that she knows he’s uncomfortable. She’s onto something.

“Again, you don’t have to hang out with us if you don’t want to. And I understand your not being interested in some of the things we do, and I understand if you don’t like the way our friend group has changed.” She shakes her head. “But stop telling yourself this story where you’re this tragic figure who’s been betrayed by your closest friends. Maybe Thor and I could have worked harder to keep from drifting away from you. But we are trying to reach out to you—all of us are. It’s a two-way street, you know; you have to meet us halfway.” She turns to face him on the bench, and one hand goes to his shoulder. “You’re not a charity case, Loki,” she says firmly. “We want to hang out with you.”

He’s still for a few long moments. And then he turns to look at her with baffled incomprehension in his expression. “You want to hang out with me?” he repeats.

“We really do,” she confirms. “Thor is always sorry when you turn him down.”

He stares at her, quiet for a long time. Finally, “I will keep that in mind,” he says a little haltingly.

“Do,” she says, and then adds affectionately, “dork.” She goes to ruffle his hair but finds it’s gelled so firmly in place she can’t move it. “That’s strong gel,” she says solemnly, and drops her arms along the back of the bench, just brushing Loki’s shoulders.

He stiffens at that, but before she can move, he relaxes so that he’s leaning up against her arm. “Maybe I should have more faith in people,” he says quietly.

“Maybe you should,” she agrees. “Especially me, and your own brother.”

They sit together in silence for a while longer, until Sif shivers in the crisp autumn air.

“Sorry,” Loki says automatically, as though the cold was his doing, and slips off his suit jacket to hand to her.

Sif Tyrsdottir does not need a man to look after her. But on the other hand, there’s a part of her that rather appreciates this sort of chivalrous gesture that never would have even occurred to Haldor. So she takes the jacket and puts it on. Loki’s so slim that she can’t comfortably close the jacket around her bust, so she leaves it open and revels in the feeling of the silky lining against her skin, and being enveloped by Loki’s warmth and scent. She didn’t know, until this moment, that she could recognize whatever cologne or body spray he uses, but it’s familiar and comforting.

With his white shirt fully revealed, Loki fairly glows in the red light from the marquee as he leans forward and puts his elbows on his knees. They sit in silence for a while longer—the comfortable sort of silence she doesn’t feel the need to break. But time is passing, and she’s just starting to think that maybe they should go back into the dance when Loki says something unexpected.

“You asked me what the deal is with me and Thor,” he says, not looking at her, his voice even. “So I think it’s only fair that I get to ask you the same question.”

“What’s the deal with me and Thor?” she repeats, baffled. “What do you mean? He’s my best friend.”

“Yes,” he says, still not meeting her gaze, “but . . . do you wish you two were something more?”

For a moment she’s struck speechless, not knowing what to say, and he adds, “It was pretty clear you had a thing for him when we were younger, but it’s harder to tell these days.”

First her dad and now Loki. Does everyone know that she had a crush on Thor? It’s that idea that spurs her to speak, eager to set the record straight and not leave Loki thinking that she’s pining after his brother. Sif does not pine.

“I did, when we were younger,” she admits.

He nods and glances at her. “And what happened after you were younger?”

Her lips twist for a moment, the memory of past hurt clanging faintly in her chest like a distant bell. “Nothing happened,” she says. “He never returned the sentiment. And then he apparently set out to date every single girl in the school except me. And I’ve got far better things to do with my time than wait around for him. So that was the end of that.”

What she doesn’t say is that telling yourself to ignore your feelings is not the same thing as getting over them. What she doesn’t say is that the fire of her feelings for Thor has nearly gone out, but the embers are still there, glowing dimly in some hidden chamber of her heart. What she doesn’t say is that if Thor came to her right now and expressed his undying love, there’s a very real chance that she would fall into his arms. Because it’s never going to happen so it’s not worth thinking about, and anyway it’s kind of embarrassing.

“Oh,” he says, and then again, “Oh.”

They sit in silence a while, both clearly lost in thought, until the opening of the front door jerks her out of her reverie. “Well, I think that’s enough talking about feelings to last me for the next decade,” she says, and stands. “Shall we?”

Back inside, they dance one more time, and they eat more cookies and drink more punch, and Loki, perhaps because Sif reminded him of Hogun’s interest in the planetarium, engages the exchange student in a very pleasant conversation about his astronomy class.

They get home late and Loki insists on walking Sif to her door. She thanks him again for coming and bids him goodbye with a quick hug. She’s normally not one for hugging, but it seems the appropriate way to thank a friend who came to your rescue after you got dumped—a hug for a stronger thank-you than words alone could express.

And the next day, after Sunday dinner—at which Frigga wants to hear every detail about the dance—Loki says yes when Thor invites him to play cards with them. And Sif can’t help but smile.

. . . . . .

Chapter Text

. . . . . .

The Homecoming dance marks the beginning of a period of change for Sif and the Odinson boys. For a few weeks, Loki goes out of his way to say hello to her in the halls. He sticks around after Sunday dinners instead of disappearing up to his room. He comes to their big game against Svartalfheim High and sits with Hildegund and goes to the diner with them for their usual post-victory meal. He accepts Thor’s invitation to hang out with him and Sif on two separate occasions, and he actually goes to a movie with the whole gang, even though it’s an action flick and he doesn’t really like those. (He does firmly refuse Fandral’s invitation to a party he’s throwing; Sif just smiles and thinks, Baby steps.)

All in all, it’s the closest Loki’s been to them in years, and Sif is surprised at how much she’s missed his company. He’s clever, he’s funny, he’s pleasant to be around (as long as he remembers to use his razor-sharp wit for good, not evil), and he’s level-headed enough that she can count on him as an ally when she needs to talk Thor and Fandral out of doing something stupid.

So the first three weeks of October are a very happy time for Sif. And later, looking back, she’ll wish she had treasured that time more. But then, how could she have known that things were about to go so catastrophically wrong?

. . . . . .

The day before everything goes wrong, Thor and Sif convince Loki to come and watch a soccer game with them at Hogun’s. It’s not as hard a sell as she’d been expecting; Loki tolerates soccer better than any other sport, and he tolerates Hogun better than Volstagg or Fandral.

And anyway, soccer games at Hogun’s are legendary. The host family he’s staying with, the Pages, are Canadian transplants who support Toronto FC with undying fervor, and they open their home to friends and neighbors for each game. But they’ve pulled out all the stops for Toronto’s first game in the playoffs: red banners and pennants all over the house, new TV in the living room, and a truly heroic amount of food on the table.

Volstagg and Hildegund are there, with Hildegund wearing red in support of Toronto. Fandral is there with Ingrid, but Thor is dateless, having gotten tired of Amora the week after Homecoming. Sif isn’t too worried about her, though; she saw her making eyes at Haldor in English class. (As predicted, Lorelei grew tired of Haldor after only two weeks, and Sif’s ex is now single again. But she’s not even tempted to try to rekindle things with him; after a month apart from him, she now can’t even figure out what she saw in the guy.)

“Welcome!” Hogun’s host father Mr. Page beams as they walk in. “And Sif, that field goal against Svartalfheim last week—amazing! What was that, forty-five yards?”

“Forty-eight,” she can’t help but correct him, and Fandral claps her proudly on the shoulder.

Mr. Page turns to Loki. “And . . . you’re Thor’s brother Loki, right?”

Loki nods. “Thank you for opening your home,” he says dutifully.

“Anything for a guy who’s wearing Toronto red!” Mr. Page says cheerfully.

Loki looks down in surprise at his flannel shirt, and Sif bites back a smile as he tries to look as though he wore the color for Toronto's sake.

The first half of the game is a nail biter, with a Toronto goal at the end of the extra time tying it up 1 to 1. Sif, who lists soccer as her fourth-favorite sport, watches the whole thing on the edge of her seat—although she's not so distracted as to not notice that Loki, sitting on the couch next to her, keeps messing around on his phone when he thinks no one is looking.

When the first half ends, everyone troops into the dining room to grab more food. The Pages and their friends stay there to chat, and the high schoolers return to the living room to sprawl across the couches. They talk about the game for a while, and then the conversation turns to school—specifically, to the upcoming AP history test.

“Why did I let my dad talk me into taking AP history?” Volstagg groans.

“I’m telling you, you should stay after class some time and ask Mr. Fjorgynn for help,” Hildegund says. “I’ve had to do that in the past and he’s really nice about it.”

Fandral snorts. “Or just ask Thor. Since apparently he’s an expert in history.”

Thor chuckles cheerfully. “Sure, as long as it’s 7th grade history you need help with,” he says, and the rest of the group laughs as well.

It had turned out that everyone was wrong when they predicted that Thor wouldn’t get in trouble for spiking the punch at Homecoming, although the punishment is fairly mild: he has to spend the rest of the semester helping out with the after-school tutoring program at the middle school, one afternoon a week. And since history is the subject that Thor is best at, that’s what he has to help with.

“How’s that going, by the way?” Hogun asks.

“It’s not so bad,” Thor says. “It’s nice to have kids staring adoringly at me.”

“That sucks to have to waste a whole afternoon each week hanging out with middle schoolers and nerds,” Fandral says in a commiserating tone.

“No, it’s cool,” Thor insists, but Fandral clearly doesn’t believe him.

“I can’t believe there are people who volunteer to do that. Like, for fun.”

“I think it might be more to look good on college applications than for fun,” Sif points out.

“Or because they think it’s important to help other people out, instead of always focusing on themselves,” Loki says mildly. “But I can see you might find that a confusing concept, Fandral.” Fandral throws a tortilla chip at him.

“Doesn’t Mr. Selvig usually have a senior help him run the program?” Ingrid asks. “Who is it this year?”

Thor hesitates for the briefest moment before answering, an expression that Sif can’t quite read flickering across his face. “Jane Foster.”

“Should have guessed,” Fandral says, who doesn’t seem to have allowed Loki’s setdown to lessen his disdain for the tutoring program. “Of course the nerdiest girl in school would want to do something like that. It’s not like she has anything better to do with her time.”

“Don’t talk about her like that,” Thor says hotly, and the rest of the group exchanges surprised looks for a moment.

“Something you want to tell us?” Volstagg asks.

“Yeah,” says Thor firmly. “I want to tell you to leave Jane alone. She’s . . . cool.”

There’s clearly more going on here than “she’s . . . cool,” but the rest of the soccer fans are filing back into the living room and they lose their chance to talk about it. But Sif catches Hildegund throwing her a concerned look; she’s the only person besides Tyr who knows that Sif still might carry a torch for Thor. So Sif gives her a quick smile to reassure her. Thor can like whoever he wants.

Even if Jane Foster is one of his more eccentric choices.

Loki, too, seems to glance at her a little more than is normal as they settle back in for the second half of the game. But that might be because a few more people have showed up so they all have to scoot closer together to fit more people on the couch, and she’s now pressed up so close to his side that if she moves any closer, she’ll be in his lap.

“Good thing we’re friends,” she chuckles as the game starts, and he glances at her a moment, something strange in his expression, before smiling at the joke. There’s not room enough for both of them to have their arms down by their sides, so she puts hers along the back of the couch, which earns her another glance.

After a few minutes of play, Sif feels something brush against her thigh, and she glances down to see that Loki has relaxed his arm enough that his hand his now resting gently right where her leg is pressed up against his. She finds it strangely sweet, actually; it reminds her of when they used to pile on the couch as kids, no sense of personal space, to watch the Spiderman cartoon together.

But she can’t catch his eye and smile at him; he’s staring so determinedly at the game that she’s not even sure he realizes what he’s done. So she leans back against the couch and smiles to herself instead.

. . . . . .

On the day that everything goes wrong, the football team has an away game against Muspelheim, which is a such a long distance away that Sif picks Thor up at 11 in the morning and doesn’t drop him off again until nearly 8 that evening.

She’s gotten all the way to her garage and parked the car before she notices that Thor left his wallet on the passenger side floor. Part of her considers just holding onto it and returning it tomorrow when they go over for their usual Sunday dinner, but it’s such a nice night—unseasonably warm for late October—that she thinks she’d rather like a walk. Besides, she hasn’t seen or talked to Loki all day; it’d be nice to pop in and say hello.

So she runs her bag up to her room, takes a moment to fix her hair, and starts the walk over to the Governor’s Mansion. It’s late and dark enough that she goes the long way around to the front door; she doesn’t know if anyone would see her to let her in if she took her usual shortcut through the backyard.

The security guards buzz her through without question, and she’s gotten nearly to the front door when she hears voices floating out through a nearby open window—the family is clearly taking advantage of the warm weather as well. She hears Thor’s voice and, very unthinkingly and as a simple force of habit, sharpens her attention to hear what he’s saying. And that’s when she overhears something she’s fairly sure the family hadn’t intended her to hear.

“How could you have not told me?” Thor is demanding in a strangled tone. And then: “And don’t you think Loki deserved to know that he’s adopted?”

And Sif stops dead in her tracks. Frigga chooses that moment to glance out the window and see her there, which Sif’s actually thankful for; she doesn’t want to go interrupt them, but she also doesn’t want to walk away and have to pretend she didn’t hear what she heard.

“Sif, dear,” she says, crossing to the window, and examines the girl standing on the front walkway outside. It must be pretty clear from her face exactly how much she heard, because a small, weary smile touches Frigga’s face. “You’d better come inside.”

“This is not a good time to have guests,” Odin says gruffly. “This is a family affair.”

“Sif is family,” Frigga retorts as she crosses to the front door. “Besides, maybe she’s heard from him.”

Still dumb with surprise, Sif moves woodenly up the front steps toward Frigga’s welcoming smile. In the front sitting room she sees Odin looking angry and Thor looking absolutely shocked.

“I suppose you overheard,” Frigga says, her kind smile spread thin over an expression of bone-deep worry.

“Loki’s adopted?” Sif repeats. When Frigga nods, she can’t help herself; she speaks without thinking. “I knew it.”

“How?” Thor demands, bewildered. “I never even suspected.”

Frigga wrings her hands a moment. “You haven’t heard from him today by any chance, have you?”

Sif shakes her head no.

Frigga gives a resigned nod. “Well, if you do . . .”

Her worry is infecting Sif, and Thor seems to be feeling the same. “Is something wrong?” he demands. “Where is he?”

Frigga sinks down on the chaise longue with a sigh. “We don’t know,” she says, and glances at Odin. He frowns, and somehow that exchange seems to make her decide to continue. “This morning, apparently he went to the county records office to get a copy of his birth certificate.”

Sif remembers him saying at the dance that he was getting all of his documents in order for college.

“But they told him they had no birth certificate for a Loki Odinson. So he came home and demanded to know what was going on. We told him the truth. He . . . became very upset and drove off, and we haven’t heard from him since. I’m getting worried; it’s been eight hours, and he won’t answer his phone or his texts . . .” Her eyes are suddenly suspiciously bright, which hits Sif like a blow; she can’t remember the last time she saw Frigga cry. “I just keep worrying— his head was not clear when he left. What if that affected his driving? What if he’s been in an accident?”

“You would have heard,” Sif assures her when no one else speaks up. “His face is pretty well known in this city. Even if he didn’t have ID on him, someone would have figured out who he is.”

It’s weird, really, how quiet Odin’s being about all this. Sif wonders if he’s less upset than his wife, and then finds herself remembering the way Loki had spoken of him at the dance. Maybe things had gotten so bad between the governor and his son that . . . but that’s absurd. Odin loves Loki, Sif knows he does. He just . . . doesn’t always show it.

“I still don’t understand,” Thor says lowly. “Why did you keep this a secret?” He turns his gaze to his father, who simply watches him, more inscrutable than usual. “Why didn’t you tell him?”

“We worried it would upset him,” Frigga says.

But that answer seems to anger Thor more. “And you really thought he’d never find out?” he demands, still looking at his father, his voice growing louder and more agitated. “And anyway, didn’t he deserve to know?”

“We were protecting him,” Odin snaps, the first thing he’s said in some time, and Sif sees that he is indeed upset, he’s just keeping it bottled up.

“From what?” Thor demands.

“From the truth!” Odin nearly yells, then deflates a little. “From the truth about his parents. If he’d known he was adopted, we knew he’d want to learn about his birth parents, and we didn’t want him to have to carry that weight with him.”

“Who were his parents?” Thor demands.

They seem to have completely forgotten Sif’s there—or maybe they meant what they said about her being family and they don’t mind her hearing. But she worries that Loki would mind her hearing.

She’s casting her mind about for a way to extract herself from the conversation when Odin answers heavily. “His father was a career criminal. He was in prison when Loki was born, for a botched bank robbery in which he’d killed two hostages. The mother died in childbirth and when the father heard, he tried to escape from jail to get to his son; he didn’t want him to grow up in foster care. He was killed in the attempt.”

Well, it’s too late now; Sif’s heard a lot more than she thinks Loki would have wanted her to.

Thor stares at him a long moment, then makes an uncharacteristically insightful connection. “You were the prosecutor on his father’s case, weren’t you?”

Odin sighs. “Yes. And I felt sorry that in getting Laufey Ymirson put away, I’d unintentionally set his unborn child on the path to becoming orphaned.”

Frigga speaks up at that, a quiet smile in her eyes. “He was born on the same day as you; we were truthful about that. And in the same maternity ward. I didn’t hear about all this until two days later, while I was still recovering in the hospital, and I couldn’t stop thinking about that poor woman—how she must be feeling, if she was looking down on her son. I kept looking at my perfect little baby boy, and I couldn’t even imagine what it would feel like to be ripped away from you, and to know you had no one to look after you. I wanted Loki for her sake. And the fact that you two were born on the same day, in the same hospital—it felt like a sign. Like it was meant to be. So we adopted him, and the timing worked out so well—everyone has always assumed I’d had twins.”

Thor stares at her a long time before sighing. “You should have told him earlier. Feeling like you’d been lied to for eighteen years . . . I’d be freaking out too.”

Odin looks suddenly very old and very weary. “We thought we were doing the right thing,” he says quietly. “We thought we were protecting him. We didn’t want him to ever feel like anything less than our son. We didn’t want him to have to live with the truth about his parents hanging over him.” And silence falls over the room.

“I should go,” Sif says eventually, standing up. “My father will be worried.” Suddenly she frowns. “My father! What should I—”

Frigga gives her a tired smile. “Tyr knows. He figured it out ages ago.”

Sif nods and clasps Frigga’s hand briefly, then puts a comforting hand on Thor’s shoulder.

“You will let us know?” Frigga says. “If you hear from him?”

“I promise,” Sif says, and leaves the house.

Her mind is awhirl as she walks home, going through the entirety of her acquaintance with Odin’s family, seeing a hundred different memories of Loki’s interactions with his family through this new filter. And she’s just put her hand on the doorknob when a thought comes to the forefront of her cluttered mind:

Rainbow Bridge Overlook.

She hesitates, wondering if she should run over and tell Frigga, but quickly dismisses that idea; she doesn’t want to get the woman’s hopes up over an offhand comment that Loki made at Homecoming.

The next best thing, then, would be to check it out herself; the overlook is only a twenty-minute drive away, and she’s worried about her friend. If she checks it out, she’ll at least sleep better, without being plagued by wondering if he was there and whether she could have found him if she’d just made the effort.

Decision made, she tells her dad she needs to run an errand, climbs into her Mustang and begins the drive to the Rainbow Bridge Overlook.

. . . . . .

There’s a black Lexus parked at the overlook, with a tall skinny figure in a hoodie seated on a bench nearby, and Sif heaves a sigh of relief.

“You’ve got everyone worried sick,” she says as she approaches from behind.

Loki jumps about a foot in the air, and she wonders how deep in thought he had to be not to notice her pulling up behind him, parking, and getting out of her car. “Did they send you?” he asks as she seats herself on the bench next to him. He doesn’t ask how she found him; perhaps he remembers telling her about this spot.

“Your mom wanted to know if I’d heard from you, that’s all. But then later I remembered you’d mentioned coming here, so I thought I’d check it out.”

He nods jerkily. It’s full dark now, but she can see his face in the light from the streetlamps, and she can see the tension pulling on it. “Have you . . . have you heard, then?”

“There was an open window,” she says apologetically. “I happened to be walking by at the exact wrong moment. And then they explained.” There’s a pause, then: “I’m sorry—I’m sure you’d rather have told me in your own time. If at all.”

His mouth pulls into a sneer. “So they won’t tell me for eighteen years, but they’ll tell anyone else who wanders along.”

She winces, partly in apology and partly at the acidity of his tone, and immediately his expression softens. “Not that you’re just anyone. And I would have wanted you to know. I just . . .” He leans forward, dropping his elbows onto his knees and his face into his hands.

Sif sits silent and uncertain. Below them, crossing the river that runs around the edge of the city, the bridge twinkles with the many-colored lights that give it its nickname. She can see why Loki would come here for escape; she’s always loved this park at night, with its hilltop location providing a view over the whole valley, and the city a golden carpet of lights below them, and the bridge sparkling blue and pink and yellow; but she’s never been here without a gaggle of noisy friends along. She’s never heard how silent it can be, with only the the gentle whisper of the river and the hum of the cars crossing the bridge to break the stillness.

In that silence the friends sit a while, Loki still hunched over miserably. Should she put a hand on his shoulder? Rub his back consolingly? Thor would want that kind of tactile comfort, but Loki’s not Thor.

But before she can decide, he breaks the stillness to say, “It finally makes sense.” He's uncovered his face to speak, but he’s gazing determinedly at the bridge, not her. “Why Thor’s their favorite. Why wouldn’t they prefer their real son?”

“You are their real son,” she says firmly. “They love you. And Thor is not their favorite.”

“He’s Odin’s favorite,” he says matter-of-factly, and the thing is that she’d love to argue that point but he’s not wrong, precisely; Odin has always been different with Thor than with Loki. And her quest to find the right words to say is hampered by her surprise at how wrong it sounds to hear Loki call his father by his first name. He’s never done that before, and the message behind it is clear.

“You see?” he says when she doesn’t respond. “You can’t even deny it! Odin has always loved Thor better, and now I know why.” A bitter smile twists his lips. “I guess in a way it’s a comfort to know why I’ve always been such a disappointment to him.”

“He doesn’t see you as a disappointment,” she insists. “And Frigga would never play favorites, but you know that if she did, she’d pick you. She adores you.”

“Yes, out of pity for the poor stupid girl who got knocked up by a bank robber and died having his illegitimate child. Doesn’t it feel nice being a charity case?” His lip curls. “Frigga does love her causes.”

“Don’t you talk about your mother that way,” she growls, her pity for Loki briefly replaced with anger, then amends, “Either of them.”

That takes the wind out of his sails briefly, but she can see in the tension on his face, the hand clenched into a fist at his side, that his silence is not the sort born of serenity.

“Loki,” she tries again, softer this time, “I’m sorry for what you're going through; I can’t even imagine what you’re dealing with right now. But your family is so worried about you—”

“‘Family’ is a strong word.”

“Loki—”

He gets up abruptly, and the suddenness of it makes her tongue falter. “Did you know I’m older than Thor?” he says, pacing a few steps away. He comes to a stop directly beneath a streetlamp, and in its bright glow she can see clearly that his hands are tightly clenched into fists.

The non-sequitur leaves her blinking in surprise as her brain tries to catch up. “Umm, no? Neither of you knew, right?” It’s sort of a running family joke; Frigga and Odin always said they didn’t want either of their sons to feel superior to the other, so they’ve always refused to tell them which twin is older—a secret that’s easy to keep because Frigga has always kept their birth certificates hidden away, and dealt with anything that required any kind of personal documents herself.

That takes on a whole new meaning now, come to think of it.

“They’d never tell us,” he confirms, “but I always figured it was Thor because Fath— Odin is always pressuring him to go to law school and get into politics, like he did—go into the ‘family business,’ basically. And also . . . when I was twelve, I asked Odin what would happen to the house after they died. He told me it would go to Thor—” there’s a bitterness in his tone that makes Sif’s heart constrict— “although they’d left me an equivalent amount of money. But the thing is, he knew perfectly well that . . .” He hesitates, then whirls to face her, and she’s surprised to see tears sparkling in his eyes. “Thor doesn’t even want the house,” he says, his expression bewildered and grief-stricken. “He’s never wanted it. He thinks it’s too old and the rooms are too small and he’d rather get his own place. But I do—I’ve always wanted the house. Odin’s always known how much I love it, and the history behind it. So I always figured, Thor must be older, because why else would Odin leave him the family estate that he doesn’t want?”

Sif can see where he’s going with this, and she finds herself grimacing in anticipation.

“But I’m older!” Loki exclaims, as a single tear escapes and trickles, unnoticed, down his cheek. “And not by a few minutes—I’m eighteen hours older than him! But that doesn’t count for anything, not for the inheritance, not for who Odin clearly sees as his successor, because I’m not blood. I’m not their real son. Because how could Odin Burrson possibly see me—some nobody that they took in out of pity, the illegitimate son of a convict—as worthy of being his heir?”

He’s been losing steam and volume as his speech winds on, and by the last word, he’s just standing there, shoulders slumped, head bowed, looking like he’s trying to curl in on himself to protect some vulnerable spot in his chest. And Sif’s heart breaks. She doesn’t know all the reasons for what Frigga and Odin did, but she trusts them enough to believe they did what they thought best, for what that’s worth. But on the other hand, the final result is this heartbreaking sadness in her friend, and that’s not right.

She wants nothing more than to comfort him, to reassure him that he is still a valued and loved member of his family. So she stands up and tugs on the sleeve of his hoodie; he woodenly follows her back to the bench and sits down. But he won’t make eye contact, so she turns on the bench, curling her leg up beneath her so she can face him fully, and takes his hands in hers. The contact surprises him, she can see from the way his head lifts so quickly and the way he stares at her. And then, apparently sensing what she’s after, he also turns as much as he can on the bench to face her.

“Loki,” she says firmly. “I know this is all so messed up right now, but there is something I need you to know: no matter where you come from or what your past is, you are so loved.”

Loki stares at her, that bewildered, pained expression back on his face. And then he stares down at their joined hands for a few moments, and then back up at her face.

And then he surges forward and kisses her.

The absolute unexpectedness of it dulls her reaction time, and she sits there in surprise for a couple seconds before her senses return and she pulls back from him, eyes wide. “What . . .”

In the glow from the streetlamp, she sees shame flood his face. “Sorry,” he mutters, standing from the bench and moving quickly in the direction of the parking lot. “Sorry.”

His exit shakes her from her stupor and she follows after him. “Where are you going to go?” she demands.

No answer.

“Your mom is so upset!” she tries again as Loki unlocks the door of his Lexus. “Will you at least let me tell her where you’re going so she doesn’t worry herself to death?”

Loki pauses, half in and half out of the driver’s side door. He glances up, just for a moment, then back down. “I’ll spend the night at Malekith’s,” he informs her, then slides into the car and pulls out of the parking lot without a second glance at her.

She stares after him, wide-eyed and reeling, then finally thinks to pull her cell phone out.

“Sif?” Frigga’s eager voice brings tears to Sif’s eyes, for some reason. “Have you heard from him?”

“Just did,” she confirms. “He says he’s spending the night at Malekith’s.”

“Should we . . . how do you think he’d feel about us going over there?”

Sif frowns a little. “I don’t know—he definitely needs to talk things out with you guys, but he’s still pretty upset. I don’t know how it would go if you went over.”

There’s silence on the other end, and Sif can just imagine the face Frigga’s making right now, the one she does when she’s considering a difficult problem. “All right,” she says, “thank you so much, dear.”

The call ends, and Sif makes her way over to her Mustang. But she doesn’t drive home yet. Instead she sits in the driver’s seat and stares out the windshield at the twinkling lights of the Rainbow Bridge for a long, long time.

. . . . . .

The older Odinson—Laufeyson?—is still absent when Tyr and Sif go over for dinner the next night; Sif feels bad for making Frigga host them when she’s got so much on her mind, but Frigga gives her a warm smile and reassurance. “It takes my mind off my worrying. So I’m glad you’re here.”

No one says much as they eat, and no one talks at all about Loki; mostly Odin asks Sif and Thor about their game yesterday, although Thor’s clearly distracted when he answers. It seems he’s reeling nearly as much at the revelation that his beloved brother is adopted as said brother is. So it’s mostly Sif and Odin talking, and Sif’s only responding because it seems polite and someone’s got to do it. She’s not completely thrilled with Odin right now, after Loki made her admit to herself that Odin does kind of play favorites with his sons, and after what he told her about the inheritance (although really, that topic is a pretty complex, prickly one). Looking back, she can see clearly now that Loki was right: Odin has always been grooming Thor to follow in his footsteps and become a lawyer and politician, in a way he never has with Loki.

(It does occur to her, however, that’s it’s a bit unreasonable that Loki was so angry at Odin at Homecoming for pressuring him to go into business, but now he’s angry at him for not pressuring him to go into politics. But then, angry people are not always reasonable.)

However, despite the careful avoidance of the subject, Sif does catch a few significant glances exchanged between her father, Odin and Frigga, and she knows that when she and Thor have left the table after dessert, the adults are going to do some serious talking.

They’re halfway through dessert when they hear the door between the house and the garage open. They all glance at each other, and then over at the hallway, where they catch the briefest glimpse of Loki, still in the clothes he wore yesterday and determinedly not looking into the dining room, stride by and toward the staircase.

Frigga is out of her chair immediately, and the rest of the group waits in tense silence until she comes slowly back to the dining room, looking defeated. “He’s locked himself in his room,” she says. Thor immediately stands, but his mother shakes her head. “He doesn’t want to talk.”

That bewildered look is back on Thor’s face, and he lowers himself into his chair. And they eat in silence.

. . . . . .

When Monday morning hits, it’s like the last month never happened. No, it’s worse than that, because at least before Homecoming, Loki would say hello if they happened to meet in the halls. Now he seems to be going out of his way to avoid their whole group, and the heartbroken look on Thor’s face when Loki catches sight of them across the commons and immediately ducks into a hallway makes Sif want to punch something.

Volstagg, Hildegund, Hogun and Fandral notice, of course, but Thor doesn’t seem to know how to answer their questions, so Sif says vaguely: “Family disagreement. They need time to cool off.” Everyone accepts that pretty easily; they all know Thor can be pretty hot-headed and stubborn, and that it doesn’t take much to earn Loki’s ire.

The pattern continues all week, with Loki managing to avoid them the whole time. His task is made easier by the fact that he doesn’t have a single class with anyone from Thor’s group of friends; his schedule’s full of AP science and math classes, and none of the rest of them are really the AP Physics type.

It’s just as bad at home, according to Thor; Loki spends about half of his nights staying over at friends’ houses, and when he’s home, he locks himself in his room and won’t speak to anyone. Frigga is apparently hoping it’s a phase that he’ll get past when he’s cooled down, and Odin . . .

“He won’t talk about it,” Thor says, eyes downcast. “At least not to me.”

Sif wonders again what’s going on in Odin’s head—is he ashamed of how he’s treated Loki? Or just angry at Loki’s sullenness? But she pushes it aside to comfort her friend. “Loki will get over it,” she assures Thor. “I’ve heard that learning later in life that you’re adopted can really upset some people, but they mostly, you know, come to terms with it.”

Indeed, her Google search history is littered with phrases like “at what age do most people find out they’re adopted,” and she’s found stories from a lot of people who found out when they were teens or adults who were pretty shaken at first, but eventually they come to terms with it. She’s hoping Loki manages to do the same.

Her vague Internet knowledge doesn’t seem to have comforted her friend. “I don’t understand,” he sighs. “I can see why he’s upset with our parents. But why is he pushing me away too? I didn’t keep this from him, and I thought . . .” Something desolate crosses his face. “He’s still my brother, even if we’re not blood. I still love him as much as I did before I knew. I thought he’d understand that. I thought he’d still . . .”

Sif takes a brief moment to chastise herself for misjudging her friend. She’d thought Thor’s shocked and hurt behavior lately is a result of the knowledge that his brother isn’t actually related to him, but in truth he’s just hurt that Loki didn’t come to conclusion that he immediately did: that it doesn’t matter, that they’re still brothers in every way that does matter. Because Thor sees the world in black and white—in simple, straight-forward shapes—which means he probably doesn’t really understand the complexity of what Loki’s dealing with right now. And because Thor feels everything, including love, with his whole being, with every molecule in his body. He probably doesn’t know how to do anything except love his brother absolutely.

Thor has always liked tactile forms of comfort, so she puts a hand on his shoulder, wishing she could do more to help. This is the sort of thing he needs to discuss with Loki, but Loki won’t talk to him. So after a moment of failing to find the right thing to say, she changes the subject. “How’s Jane?” she asks—to distract Thor, not because she’s really keen to hear about the latest in his list of loves.

The diversion works. “She’s . . . amazing,” he says with a smile.

“You asked her out yet?”

But here the diversion breaks down and his face falls. “I had been planning to after my tutoring session this week. But now, with everything . . .”

She examines him, and then sighs. “It might suck, trying to go on a date when you have so much on your mind. But on the other hand, maybe it’ll help distract you.”

Thor smiles and claps her on the shoulder. “Wise advice. You’re a good friend, Sif.”

And apparently that’s all she’ll ever be. “That’s what I’m here for.”

“It’s nice to be able to talk to someone besides my parents about all this,” he confesses. “They’re just . . . they’re too close to everything, you know? They get kind of upset when the topic comes up. But you’re removed enough from the situation . . .”

She hums in agreement, but in her mind’s eye she sees the Rainbow Bridge sparkling in the darkness, feels Loki’s lips against hers. She hasn’t told anyone about that kiss and she doesn’t plan to, largely because she’s still processing it herself—trying to decide what he meant by it and how she feels about that. Although it doesn’t seem to matter, as Loki is making it quite clear that he wants nothing to do with her right now.

“Maybe I’ll invite Jane to our birthday party,” Thor muses eventually, and Sif frowns.

“Is that still on? With . . . everything?”

He shrugs and sighs. “Depends on if Loki ever talks to me long enough to discuss it.” A sorrowful silence follows, but then he smiles at Sif. “Thanks for being here, Sif. And letting me talk through all this.”

“Any time,” she says sincerely.

. . . . . . .

The twins’ birthday—or rather, the day that Loki and Thor both happen to have been born on—is November 1, a day that Frigga and Odin have always celebrated with a family dinner at home.  When they were young, the boys would have their birthday party that afternoon, but as soon as they got old enough to stop trick-or-treating, they started having parties the night before. And with Thor’s immense popularity, the Odinson birthday bash quickly became Asgard High’s best-attended Halloween party.

Loki always attended very dutifully, although most such events found Thor partying on the dance floor with the jocks and the cheerleaders and Loki watching movies in the rec room with the music and theater kids. But when Frigga would appear with the biggest cake she could find—it had to feed half the school, after all—the brothers would join forces once again to blow out their candles.

The party is always one of Sif’s favorite nights of the year, and she finds herself very anxious to learn what’s going to happen. So her heart sinks when Thor shows up at her house a few evenings before Halloween, looking thoroughly deflated and defeated.

“Loki doesn’t want to do the party?” she guesses quietly.

“He finally answered my texts. He says we always celebrated together because we thought we were twins. And since it turns out we’re not . . .”

He looks both heartbroken and resigned, like deep down he’d suspected he’d get that answer, and Sif tends to be on Loki’s side where this whole adoption business is concerned but right now she’d really like to chew him out for making Thor look like that.

“You know what?” she says defiantly. “You don’t need him in order to have a party. It’s still your birthday, and it’s still Halloween, and your mom already ordered the cake and all the food. Tell Loki he’s still invited and you’d love to have him come if he changes his mind, but you’re still allowed to celebrate your birthday, even when he’s mad at you. We’re seniors, right? That means this is our last chance to throw the biggest Halloween party Asgard has ever seen. We have to do this. Plus you’ve already told everyone about it, and everyone’s expecting it. You couldn’t put the brakes on it now even if you wanted to.”

There’s been a light dawning in Thor’s expression as she speaks, and when she finishes her speech he grins. “The biggest Halloween party ever!” he agrees.

And so they have the biggest Halloween party ever, without Loki, although it’s not for lack of trying on their part. Thor tries to convince him through his locked door every night between then and Halloween, Frigga does the same, and even Sif texts him a few times and tries knocking on his door once. He ignores them and, on Halloween day, goes from school straight to Helblindi’s house. And so Thor celebrates their birthdays without him.

And it is indeed the biggest Halloween party Asgard High School has ever seen. The Governor’s mansion is packed to the rafters, with people spilling into the backyard as well. They even get a higher-than-usual turnout from the honors students and the academic nerds, because Thor has befriended so many of them during his after-school tutoring punishment.

And Jane Foster is there, mostly hanging with a small posse of her fellow science geek friends, though Thor makes a point of talking to them for a while and dancing with Jane several times. She’s wearing an old-fashioned high-necked dark blue dress with her hair piled on top of her head, and carrying a glass beaker. She’s got a nice face, and could probably be considered quite pretty if she dressed and wore her hair differently, but her usual getup makes her look a bit mousy, and today’s costume pulls her so far into mousy territory that she practically blends in with the walls.

But maybe there’s something to the notion that love is blind, because Thor, dressed as a Greek god, looks so admiringly at her that it leaves the rest of their group blinking in surprise and wondering if they missed something.

“So who are you dressed up as?” Hildegund asks kindly.

“Madame Curie, obviously!” Thor says, leaving everyone else behind and baffled as he leads Jane onto the dance floor.

“Okay, he’s smitten,” laughs Fandral. “I’m pretty sure that two months ago he didn’t even know who Madame Curie is.”

“I’m pretty sure that you don’t know who Madame Curie is,” Volstagg jokes.

Fandral gives him a very affronted look. “Obviously, she . . . did something related to science. And wore a lot of blue.”

It’s a great night, really. The music is good, the food is better, and Sif has the pleasure of ignoring Haldor when he tries to catch her eye across the dance floor. (His string of bad luck since dumping Sif has continued; Amora has already lost interest and moved on from him.) As long as she ignores that niggling feeling somewhere behind her sternum that tells her that something is deeply wrong with an Odinson twin birthday party featuring only one Odinson twin, Sif has a wonderful time.

(And it’s easy to do, ignoring that feeling, because all their friends accept the explanation that Loki’s just mad at his family without question, and no one else seems to notice that he’s missing, and everyone believes Thor when he says they aren't blowing out candles on the giant cake this year because it's so juvenile, and they don't realize it's because Loki's not there and Thor can't bear to do it without his brother.)

But all good things must come to an end, and some time after eleven, Sif hears Odin’s voice coming from the front entryway. She decides to go say hello; he normally locks himself in his study during Thor’s parties, and she’s curious about why he’s broken from routine. But when she gets there, she quickly wishes she’d left well enough alone.

“We won’t be pressing charges,” is the first thing she hears when she comes around the corner, the voice coming from someone she can’t see, blocked from view by Odin’s broad shoulders. But she can see the third member of the group well enough: Loki, wearing even darker clothes than usual, looking sullen and shamefaced, with his eyes darting up to meet hers and then glancing away. “We caught them before they’d actually started painting. And anyway, if we pressed charges for every stupid Halloween prank . . .”

“Thank you, Soren,” Odin says heavily. “I’ll have a talk with him.”

When this Soren turns to go, Sif finally sees that he’s a uniformed cop, giving Odin the kind of casual smile and goodbye that suggests he’s an old friend.

“Loki,” Odin sighs when the cop is gone, and Loki’s eyes dart to Sif again, and that’s when she realizes she’s been standing here way too long, and she starts backing away. “Why are you doing this?” is the last thing she hears before ducking into the dining room, where all the food is set up.

But even that’s not far enough, it turns out, because between the room’s nearness to the front door and the fact that it’s a slow, quiet song playing on the nearby dance floor, she can hear all too well when the voices in the front entryway suddenly grow louder and angrier.

“You are deliberately assuming the worst,” is the first thing she hears, in Odin’s booming voice, and she tries to pretend nothing is wrong but the other students in the room hear it as well, based on the way their heads all turn.

“Or I’m finally seeing things clearly,” Loki retorts, loud but still controlled, and the other partygoers in the dining room quickly move to the door to eavesdrop. Through the wide door of the dining room, Sif sees a few more people step out into the hallway, to see what’s going on—all close enough to hear but hidden from sight by a bend in the hall.

“You are breaking your mother’s heart,” Odin all but shouts, and that’s what seems to set Loki off.

“Don’t pretend you’re worried about her!” he yells. “Don’t pretend you’re worried about anything but your presidential bid, and how I’m going to mess it up.”

This is getting personal. “Let’s leave them alone,” Sif whispers to the other partygoers in the dining room with her, tugging lightly on the nearest two girls’ arms. “This should be private.” Everyone ignores her, too fascinated by the fight to leave.

“You are my son, Loki. That’s what I care about. This has nothing to do with—”

“I’m not, though, am I?” Loki demands. “You’ve made it very clear for the last eighteen years that Thor’s your real son, and I’m just the stray you took in off the streets!” He laughs, a low, bitter sound that makes Sif wince. “I bet you regret that now, don’t you? You should have just left me with Child Services. It’s obvious you’ve never really wanted me, and now I’m nothing but bad PR, aren’t I, Odin?”

What ?” comes a shocked voice from somewhere in the hallway, far too loud.

There’s a long silence. Then heavy footsteps move toward them—Odin clearly coming to see who was listening in—and everyone scatters, including Sif, who does not want to be on the receiving end of the governor’s fury. When she sneaks back to the front of the house a few moments later, Loki and Odin are gone.

So, with a sigh, she goes to warn Thor that the truth is out.

There’s no better incubator and transfer medium for gossip than a high school party, and by the end of the night, every single person in the Governor’s Mansion knows that Loki is adopted and in a massive fight with his father about it. Thor looks stricken when Sif finds him after midnight; according to Hildegund, he spent the last hour of the party being pestered by people who want to know all the details of the fight. Sif sighs, wondering how to comfort him, then starts in surprise when she realizes that Jane Foster is beside him, one hand gently on his arm—and from the tender way he keeps glancing down at her, apparently it’s helping.

All things considered, it’s been kind of a weird night.

. . . . . .

By third period on the day after Halloween, the entirety of Asgard High knows the gossip about Loki.

Public opinion on this is all pretty tame, really—people are mostly just curious about whether the so-called twins do genuinely have the same birthday, and wondering how they went so long with no one figuring it out—which is nice for Loki’s sake, and for Thor’s. But it’s undeniably the only thing anyone talks about all day.

That night is the family’s usual birthday dinner for the boys, but apparently it doesn’t go well; Thor calls Sif after the meal is over, with his voice as heavy as she’s ever heard it. The facts are these: Loki showed up to the dinner simply to announce that he’s moving out, as he’s now officially eighteen and, according to the law, can leave his parent’s home at any time that he likes. He’ll be living with Helblindi and his dad, who have extra space at their house, and using the money he’s saved from various birthdays and Christmases for his expenses. And Frigga is a wreck about it.

When the call ends, Sif hangs up and stares blankly at her phone, wondering how everything went so wrong so quickly.

. . . . . .

The month that follows is as bad as the month after Homecoming was good. Sif hardly ever sees Loki; he’s still avoiding everyone, but he seems especially reluctant to get anywhere near her and Thor. Sometimes she wonders whether this avoidance of her is a result of her closeness to his family or of that kiss by the Rainbow Bridge, and she goes over that moment again and again in her head: had she reacted with disgust? Was he mad about that? Because she certainly didn’t mean to. She’d been startled, and she doesn’t much like being up and kissed out of the blue by someone she’s not dating; she was going to react the way she did basically no matter who it was kissing her. But it’s not any kind of reflection on Loki—she’s certainly never thought of him that way, but she’s not—she’s not saying—

She has no idea what she’s saying.

Thor still texts him every so often, to no avail, and Frigga tries calling him occasionally, and even Tyr attempts to contact him once, worried about the young man who he’d always seen so much of himself in. Whether Odin has tried to contact Loki remains a mystery to Sif—he’s not the type to discuss such a personal matter with anyone but his wife—but he looks like he’s aged ten years since the summer. At least he doesn’t have to worry too much about the media; Sif checks the news sites each day for the story of the governor’s son angrily moving in with a friend to get away from his parents, but somehow they’ve managed to keep the story out of the press. She’s not sure whether the press hasn’t realized there’s a story yet or if Odin has some way of keeping it quiet.

As for Sif, she’s trying to respect Loki’s boundaries, but still, when she one day unexpectedly finds herself washing her hands in the bathroom at the same time as Hela and Karnilla, she hesitates, then turns to them. “Hey,” she says, but that’s as far as she gets before Hela rolls her eyes.

“Don’t even,” she says and stalks out of the bathroom, and Karnilla flips Sif off as she follows close behind.

So talking to his friends isn’t really a fruitful line of inquiry either.

In an unexpected turn of events, the only person any of them know who’s ever in contact with Loki is Jane Foster, who TAs for his 2nd period AP Calculus class. It’s through her that Thor and his parents know that Loki’s math grades have been slipping dangerously and that if he skips too many more periods he’s going to get an F in the class, and that he's gotten two days of detention for a stupid prank that he and Helblindi played on Coach Váli and for being caught with Malekith vandalizing a bathroom, which is literally all the information they have about him right now.

Thor has a direct line to this source now, having finally asked Jane out the day after the Halloween party, and Sif has never seen him so gone on a girl before. They are genuinely the weirdest couple she has ever seen, but they’re also strangely sweet: the hulking blond hunk in the football jersey carrying textbooks for the tiny slip of a girl in the cardigan. This is the most serious Thor’s ever been about a relationship; he’s even been doing his math homework without complaint these last few weeks. And Jane’s been an undeniably good influence on him; he’s calmer with her around, and she’s been able to comfort him during this trying time in a way that Sif would not have known how to do.

So when Hildegund asks privately one day whether Sif is okay with Thor dating Jane, she says yes, and means it.

. . . . . .

The Asgard High School Warriors beat Vanaheim to win state, to no one’s surprise, and Fandral wants to do something big to celebrate. So on the day after Thanksgiving, he has the whole team and all the cheerleaders over for a party at his parents’ massive cabin by the lake.

In true Fandral style, the party is set to be totally over the top; he’s even made a ten-foot-tall cardboard cutout of the Vanaheim High School knight mascot, and he’s planning on ending the evening with a massive bonfire where they burn the knight in effigy.

But also in true Fandral style, he’s forgotten to take care of the basics, resulting in a phone call to Sif as she’s getting ready for the party.

“We have to stop by a grocery store and buy cups,” she informs Thor when she picks him up for the party. “Fandral forgot to get any.”

“Of course he did,” snorts Thor.

Thor’s riding with her because Jane has a family event that will keep her busy until 9; she’s going to show up for the party after that, then give Thor a ride home. “They have a family tradition where they go out on the other side of the lake and go four-wheeling on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and she says she doesn’t want to miss it,” he explains.

“She cares about her family a lot,” Sif observes.

“Yeah, she does. Isn’t she great?” Thor sighs as they pull into the grocery store parking lot, and Sif still doesn’t know what Thor sees in her, but she’s so happy to see him so happy that she genuinely doesn’t mind that the school’s biggest nerd has somehow managed to inspire a level of devotion in Thor that Sif never managed to achieve herself.

But his happiness is shattered when they get into the grocery store and find themselves face to face with Loki.

It’s Sif who sees him first in the paper goods aisle; she’s examining plastic cups when suddenly Loki appears around the corner, dressed in that shade of dark green that he likes so much but that always makes him look even paler than usual. He comes to an abrupt halt and starts trying to back away, but it’s too late, she’s seen him.

“Loki!” she exclaims, surprised and absurdly pleased to see him. “How . . . how’s it going?” Stupid, what a stupid thing to say when he finally can’t avoid you after a whole month of doing just that —but she’s so startled she doesn’t know how else to react.

“Hi Sif,” he mumbles dutifully, his eyes fixed on a point over her shoulder. “I’ve . . . actually got to run.”

But he’s only just gotten out of the aisle—Sif following automatically after him—when Thor’s voice comes booming from around the corner. “Loki!” he exclaims with evident pleasure. “What are the odds of seeing you here?”

Sif sees Loki frown, and then he strides away, out of her sight. A moment later, Thor moves past the opening at the end of the aisle, clearly chasing him. And Sif stands awkwardly in front of the paper towels, uncertain of what to do. Thor has more of a need to speak to Loki than she does, but she’d still like to see him; anyway, they might need her as a mediator. So she pauses to give them a few moments together, then follows after them.

“I just don’t get why you’re cutting me off completely,” is the first thing she can make out, followed by Loki’s sharp retort: “Yeah, well, there’s a lot you don’t understand.”

She turns a corner to see them in the deli section, Loki’s body language stiff and tense, Thor looking like he’s barely keeping his nervous energy in check.

“Can you please just talk to me?”

And Loki actually hesitates. He stares at Thor a long few moments, his brow furrowing, and then glances over at Sif, then back to Thor, and Sif is put in mind of a deer, hesitating at the edge of a clearing, deciding whether it’s safe to go in. But perhaps the clearing is safe after all: he looks like he’s maybe about to open his mouth when his phone rings.

Sif has never wanted to smash an electronic device so much in her life.

Like a gunshot echoing through the forest, the sound seems to drive him away from the conversation he was (maybe?) about to wander into. He shakes his head and pulls his phone from his pocket. “I don’t know how I can make this any more clear, Thor: leave me alone.” And he strides off, not sparing a single look for Sif.

Thor turns around, his shoulders slumped and his eyes on the ground. Loki hesitated, Sif wants to remind him. Just for a moment, they almost had him.

Maybe. But maybe she completely misread the situation, and that possibility keeps her quiet as they grab the cups and walk silently to the cash register. By the time they get back to her car, Thor is in a proper funk, and Sif is regretting that they saw Loki at all, because maybe there was a moment where he was almost going to relent, and maybe there wasn’t, but either way Thor is uncharacteristically quiet as they drive to Fandral’s.

With this hanging over him like a raincloud, it’s no surprise that Thor’s not much fun at the party; even Fandral notices his mood, and throws himself into cheering his friend up. He plies him with food and drink, keeps up his usual stream of funny stories and clever remarks, and promises he can light the first match to burn the knight, and in time Thor's mood improves.

There’s still a tightness around his jaw and in his eyes, though, and apparently Fandral can’t stand for this. Because about an hour into the party, he hands his cup to Sif with a determined-sounding “I know how to fix this” and strides to his friend’s side. They talk in low voices for a few minutes, and whatever Fandral says piques Thor’s interest; Sif can see it in the way his body language changes and his eyes focus sharply on Fandral. A grim sort of a smile steals across his face, and Fandral leads Thor out of the room. And that’s the last anyone sees of them for a while.

While they’re gone, Jane shows up. She looks thoroughly out of place in her flannel shirt and jeans, with most of the other girls in low-cut tops and dresses, but she doesn’t act it; Sif’s coming to learn that Jane is rather fearless, in her way, and she strikes up a conversation with Hildegund as though she’s known the girl forever. Sif joins in, to be polite, and the girls talk comfortably for ages; if not for the quick way Jane glances at the door whenever someone new appears, Sif would have assumed that she was totally confident about being here without Thor.

When Thor and Fandral finally appear, their hands are splattered with red, and the look in each boy’s eyes has Sif’s stomach sinking. “What’d you do?” she demands as Thor leans down to greet Jane with a kiss.

“Nothing,” he insists cheerfully.

“Just a little redecorating,” Fandral adds.

Jane’s brow furrows. “Redecorating?”

“Well, repainting, really,” Thor clarifies.

Jane glances down at Thor’s hands; the light in her eyes that appeared when Thor walked in has started to dim. “What did you repaint in the dark?” she demands.

“And why do you look so pleased?” Volstagg adds.

“Well,” Fandral says modestly, “we just wanted to do a little community service. So you know that knight statue out in front of Vanaheim?”

“We thought it would look better in Asgard red,” Thor cuts in, grinning, and everyone within earshot starts cheering.

Except Sif and Jane. “Did you even think about how much trouble you’d get in if you were caught?” Sif demands.

Jane’s mind, however, is caught up on an even less agreeable thought, if the look on her face is any indication. “You painted the statue out on the front lawn?” she demands.

Thor grins. “Yeah, Vanaheim’s only like a mile up the road here.”

“I know,” Jane says tightly. “Because as you might remember me telling you, my uncle is the vice-principal there. What I don’t think I mentioned is that he’s the one who commissioned that statue.”

“Oops,” Thor says with an embarrassed grin. “But paint’ll come off, right? But seriously, if you’d seen it, you’d think it was funny too. Seeing that thing in red—”

“You know that’s vandalism, right?” Jane says. “It’s a crime. And it’s really rude. Even if it wasn't my uncle, it'd be really rude.”

“And stupid,” Sif adds, and Jane nods emphatically.

“It was funny!” Thor insists again.

“You don’t even see why I’m upset, do you?” Jane asks. The only answer she gets from Thor is a baffled look, and with a sigh she takes his arm to lead him from the room.

After twenty minutes, Thor comes back alone. He won’t say anything, but the devastated look in his eyes says enough.

The evening’s kind of a bust after that, at least for Thor and Sif; everyone else is still partying hard, but Thor’s walking around with a face like a burnt-out headlight, and Sif is suddenly exhausted by . . . just everything. So after they’ve burned the knight, when Thor asks how long she wants to stay, she’s only too glad to suggest they go home now.

They’ve made it halfway across town before Thor speaks. “Jane broke up with me.”

It’s what she’d expected, but still, hearing it spoken aloud hits her right in the chest. Poor Thor; he liked Jane so much. But on the other hand, he’s free; he’s . . . available.

Not that he seems to be anything like interested in finding anyone else; his voice sounds as desolate as it did in the days after Loki leaving, and his face, when she finds a moment at a red light to glance at him, is a study in hopelessness.

“She dumped you over painting the statue?” Sif asks. She’s not being skeptical, though; she’s actually impressed. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah for the nerdiest girl in school to dump the most popular boy in school over a prank that most people wouldn’t even think was a big deal. And Sif always admires chutzpah.

Thor shrugs. “Kind of.” He heaves a heavy sigh, and when he speaks again, she can tell that it’s requiring a lot of effort to keep his voice calm and steady. “She was always kind of cautious about us, you know? I could always tell that she didn’t really expect us to last.”

Given Thor’s track record with relationships, Sif thinks that shows a certain amount of sense on Jane’s part.

“And I guess this just . . . proved her right. She said that me thinking what I’d done was okay, and the fact that I didn’t seem sorry about it, proved that we’re too different from each other to be in a relationship.”

Sif suspects there’s more to Jane’s decision than that. If you go into a relationship assuming he’s going to dump you, maybe it makes you more likely to dump him at the first sign of trouble—might as well break up with him before he has a chance to break up with you.

“Were you sorry about it?” Sif asks. “About what you did?”

He hesitates. “I’m sorry it made her so mad,” he says finally, sounding uncertain, and Sif rolls her eyes. She’s siding with Jane on this one, to be honest. But she doesn’t think this is the moment to point that out; she doesn’t want to kick her best friend while he’s down. So they drive the rest of the way home in silence.

“I don’t want to go home,” Thor says when she turns onto their street. “Can we watch a movie or something at your place?”

Sif agrees and pulls her Mustang around the back of her house. But when she parks it, Thor makes no move to unbuckle.

“Thor?” she says softly.

He just keeps staring blankly ahead, in a way that tells her he doesn’t really see anything.

“You okay?”

For a few moments longer there’s silence, then he glances at her. It’s a quick look, but the lights on the side of the garage are bright enough for her to see that the smile he gives her, lopsided and tight, is doing a poor job of covering up the pain in his expression.

“I’ve just never been dumped, you know?” he admits. “I never really . . . knew what it feels like.”

Sif leans back against her seat with a bitter smile. “It sucks, doesn’t it?”

He snorts at that, and then fixes his gaze on the dashboard. “Yeah, especially because . . .” She sees his hands tighten into fists. “I really liked her,” he confesses, and his voice is soft and broken. His eyes are suspiciously bright, and Sif looks tactfully away to give him a chance to collect himself.

But by the time they’re ensconced in Sif’s home theater room, with an action movie queued up on the huge flat screen TV, he’s gotten himself under control. Well, kind of; he seems to have traded in his fragile, heartbroken state for a determinedly cheerful one that seems no less fragile, and Sif’s not at all certain that this is any better. At least he was being honest about how he felt in the car.

“This is good, us breaking up,” he says as Sif sits down with the bowl of popcorn she just microwaved. “I mean, we tried it for a month and it didn’t work out, so it’s good we’re not wasting any more time. Anyway, the same girl for a month? Me?” He scoffs. “It’s about time I find someone new.”

That would all be a lot more convincing if his eyes didn’t still have a look that puts her in mind of a child whose puppy just died.

“It’s okay to be upset,” she says quietly. “It’s not good to keep things bottled up.”

“I’m not upset,” he insists, but his voice isn’t quite steady.

“Fine,” she says. “But just know, if at some point you do feel upset about all this, that’s okay. You just got dumped, and it doesn’t make you, like, less manly or anything if you’re sad about it.”

“I’m over it,” he says firmly.

“And if you’re ever not,” she says, “you can talk to me.” And then, knowing that Thor finds comfort in being touched, she sets one hand chastely on his knee.

She doesn’t mean anything flirtatious by it, she really doesn’t. But that doesn’t stop Thor from looking down at her hand, looking back up at her face, then surging forward and kissing her.

Okay, what is it with Odinson boys interpreting her attempts at comfort as permission to launch themselves at her face?

And Thor’s seriously going for this kiss, as much as he can with no help or feedback from Sif, who isn’t kissing him back. But she isn’t pulling back either. Because yes, the sensible part of her knows that he’s just doing it to relieve his feelings about Jane, and she never has much loved being unexpectedly kissed by someone she’s not dating; but the less-sensible part of her is ignoring that because she is finally— finally —kissing Thor Odinson.

That’s the thought that makes her finally break the kiss, actually; she spent a good chunk of her life imagining this moment, but she never imagined it would be tinged (tainted, really) with the knowledge that he was thinking of another girl while he did it. So she pulls away from him, far later than she should have, and with some reluctance, because wow is that guy a great kisser.

“See?” Thor says defiantly, his eyes wild. “Totally over Jane.”

She manages to calm the tangle of thoughts and emotions running through her long enough to speak calmly and sympathetically. “I think that little display kind of proved the exact opposite.”

Thor stares at her, and then the defiance just sort of crumbles and falls away from his face, and he looks suddenly very vulnerable. He doesn’t cry, quite, but there’s a bright sheen over his eyes, and she is amazed at how the hint of red around them makes his irises look an even brighter blue—almost fluorescent. “Okay, maybe I’m not totally over her,” he confesses. He tips his head back and looks at the ceiling a moment, shaking his head slightly, then turns an apologetic look on her. “I’m so sorry, Sif. I shouldn’t have kissed you.”

“No, you shouldn’t have,” she agrees, then gives him a half-smile. “But I think I can forgive you this time.”

They sit in silence a few moments, Thor rubbing his hand over his face in a motion that screams of fatigue. “Should we call it a night?” Sif asks quietly.

“I could really use something mindless right now,” Thor confesses. “Would you be okay with still watching the movie?”

And she could really use something mindless right now too. So she agrees.

But her mind isn’t on the movie, not even as they dim the lights and hit play and dig into the popcorn. It’s on her friend Thor, now curled up on the other end of the couch, a respectable distance away, and on the kiss they just shared.

Because here’s the thing: she wasn’t as into it as she thought she’d be.

Obviously, it was a great kiss because Thor sure as heck knows what he’s doing, and the part of her that never quite gave up on that childhood crush was thrilled. (Though her knowledge about Thor’s emotional state interfered with her ability to enjoy it.) But really, it was fun, but it wasn’t much more than that. It didn’t get her pulse racing, or send any of those stupid sappy emotions rushing through her, the way kissing Haldor used to do, back when she had feelings for him.

She glances over at Thor, examining him thoughtfully in the glow from the TV screen. She’s been telling herself and others that she’s over Thor for years now. Maybe, after all this time, it’s finally true.

. . . . . .

Chapter Text

. . . . . .

The kiss doesn’t make things awkward between Thor and Sif, largely because she refuses to let it make things awkward. She can’t lose her best friend over this. (The fact that she’s realized her feelings for Thor have finally faded really helps, in terms of just ignoring the kiss and moving on.) Thor follows her lead, and they go back to life as normal.

Well, “normal life” as it existed before Jane came along; she’s gone back to hanging out with her science nerds, and Sif and Fandral and all the rest of them get to watch Thor gaze longingly across the commons when she’s getting things from her locker.

Hogun and Hildegund are sympathetic, but Fandral and Volstagg are far less so.

“Well, now you can find someone new,” says Volstagg bracingly. “That new girl in English class was totally checking you out today.”

Fandral is more blunt. “You know I love you, bro, but that was like the weirdest thing you’ve ever done. You’re way better off without her.”

Jane hasn’t abandoned Thor completely, however; apparently she’s still worried about the Loki situation, because two weeks after the breakup, she approaches Sif at her locker.

“Could you get a message to Thor for me?” she asks, a little hesitantly.

Sif’s about to say Why don’t you tell him yourself, he’s dying to talk to you, when Jane adds, “It’s about Loki.”

So it’s not a message about their failed relationship, then. Sif nods. “Of course.”

Jane sighs. “It’s just . . . if Loki gets one more absence he’s going to fail AP Calc. Which is crazy because he’s the smartest student in the class, by far, and he should be . . . he should be going to Stanford. MIT. Somewhere as amazing as he is, and he’s not going to get there if he’s slacking as much in all his classes as he is in AP Calc—his transcript for this term is going to be all F’s and Incompletes! That’s not going to impress the admissions boards! And it drives me crazy that he’s throwing all that potential away because he's angry with his parents.”

Sif raises her eyebrows in surprise; to hear Jane Foster, of all people, rave about how brilliant Loki is— Sif’s always known he’s smart, but still . . . “Have you told him this?”

“I started to,” she says. “But he wasn’t really listening. I’m just his TA, you know? We’re not close or anything. So I was hoping his family could maybe get through to him. I mean, I know they’ve been trying, but . . . I don’t know what else to do.” Her eyes light up. “Or you could talk to him! You two used to be friends, right?”

“Used to be,” Sif agrees quietly. The bell rings then, so Sif assures Jane she’ll see what she can do, and they head off to class.

And then she stews about it all day, getting as worked up as Jane is about Loki wasting his potential. She remembers the night of Homecoming, the stars in his eyes as he talked about his dreams of studying astrophysics, and it makes her angry, just as it did Jane, to think of him throwing that away.

And anyone who knows Sif could tell you: when she gets angry, things tend to get done. So perhaps it’s no surprise, what happens next.

. . . . . .

It starts with a very large coincidence, on the same day that Jane tells her about Loki’s grades. Sif realizes after 11 that night that the bracelet she wore to school is no longer around her wrist. That bracelet is a particular favorite of hers, so she tears her room apart looking for it, before a thought pops into her head: today after school, she was in the parking lot talking to Amora, who asked if she could see the bracelet. She distinctly remembers Amora handing it back, but maybe she didn’t fasten it back on well enough and it fell off.

So she runs out to check the floor of her car, and when it’s not there, heads back to the school with a flashlight and a determination to find her bracelet in the vast dark expanse of the parking lot, before someone runs it over or steals it in the morning.

It takes a few minutes of searching, but finally something sparkles in the beam cast by her flashlight, and Sif straightens triumphantly, the bracelet in her hand. And that’s when she hears footsteps pounding toward her.

Immediately on edge, in that particular way that only a woman all alone in a dark parking lot can be, she shoves the bracelet in her pocket and turns toward the sound. There’s a figure, dressed all in black, coming from the direction of the football stadium, running toward her like there are hounds at his heels. And when he passes through a pool of light cast by a streetlamp, she is somehow not at all surprised to see that it’s Loki.

She hears shouting then; she glances toward the source of it and can just make out someone with a flashlight chasing a third figure near the football stadium. And Loki’s close enough now that she can see there’s a can of spray paint in his hand.

So she supposes that answers the question of “What’s going on here?”

He doesn’t seem to have been running toward her on purpose; in fact he seems quite surprised when he gets close enough to recognize her face. They stare at each other a moment, and then Sif makes a split second decision. “Get in,” she hisses, yanking a door open on her car.

He dives into the back seat without complaint. She slams the door shut, and then, as cool as a cucumber, she gets in the front seat and drives away at a leisurely pace, as though her car isn’t hiding a vandal from the cops.

They get away clean; no one follows them. After a few blocks, Loki sits up; Sif glances in her rearview mirror to see him looking sullen and a bit embarrassed. “Thanks, Sif,” he says quietly.

“Are you okay?” she asks.

“Fine.”

“Were you vandalizing the football stadium?”

He shrugs, and when he answers she can hear the wry grin in his voice. “Well, that was the plan. We didn’t get too far, though, before the cops showed up.”

And it’s that amusement in his voice that gets her; he’s amused at what he did, amused that he could have been apprehended by the police. All the thoughts that have been swirling in her head coalesce into one clear conviction: after what Jane said today, she’d been planning on trying to find a way to talk to him, and now here he is in her very car—practically her captive, though he doesn’t know it yet. She’d say that’s a sign. This is their moment to talk.

So when he follows that up with “Maybe you should take me back to look for Malekith,” she very pointedly does not make the necessary U-turn.

“Did you talk him into coming with you tonight?”

Loki hesitates. “No, it was his idea, actually.”

“I figured,” she says. “If Malekith wants to fight the system with a can of spray paint, he can deal with the consequences when the system fights back.”

“Then where are we—”

His question is answered as they pull into a gas station—one of the big ones that stays open all night and sells gallons of milk and terrible pizza, the sort of place where a passing cop who’s maybe looking for a runaway vandal won’t be suspicious of two teens loitering just before midnight.

There’s a surprising number of people filling up out front, but she pulls around the side where the tire air pumps are, which is moderately lit but empty.

“Out,” she orders, turning off the car. “I’m not having this conversation over my shoulder.”

He doesn’t move. “Do we have to have a conversation?”

“Yes, we do,” she says in clipped tones, meeting his eyes in the rearview mirror.

He stares back at her a long moment, and then he sighs and gets out.

When she follows suit, she finds him leaning against the car, looking very nonchalant. He’s dressed in all black, undoubtedly for sneaking around purposes, and between that and his ink-black hair and the darkness behind him, his pale face shines like a beacon, by comparison. She looks at him a long moment, gathering her thoughts, and decides this is a moment to throw tact to the wind.

“I know you’re smart,” she says, and for a moment his expression brightens, but then she adds, “so why are you acting like you don’t have two brain cells to rub together?”

He rolls his eyes. “It was a dumb prank.”

But she fixes him with a skeptical look. “I’m not just talking about tonight. I’m talking about all of this—these near misses with the law and getting in trouble at school and cutting class and slacking off with your schoolwork . . . all because you’re adopted?”

His mouth tightens into a thin line, and his eyes flash dangerously. “You don’t know what it’s been like.”

“You’re right,” she agrees, taking a step toward him. “I have no idea what it’s like for you, and I don’t blame you for being upset about how it was handled. I do think you haven’t made any effort to see this situation from Odin and Frigga’s perspective, but still, I do sympathize. What I don’t understand is . . .” She gestures uselessly around herself. “All of this. You throwing your life down the drain. This self-destructive behavior, as what? A way to hurt your parents? To punish Frigga for not telling you the truth? To punish Odin for not loving you enough?”

“You’ve no right to judge me, Sif,” he says tightly. “You with your perfect life and your dad who loves you better than anything—”

“You had a great life with parents who love you,” she reminds him sharply. “But anyway, that is not what we’re talking about. I’m talking about you wrecking your chances at college with these stunts you keep pulling. You think any decent university will let you in if you have a criminal record and a worse report card than Fandral?” His brow furrows, and she presses on. “I genuinely don’t understand, Loki. You’re brilliant. You could do anything you want. But instead you’re sabotaging your own future, just to make sure your dad knows that you’re mad at him?”

He blinks in surprise.

“Like, I get being upset with him. I do. And I’m not saying you have to patch things up with your family, although I wish you would. But if you tank your chances at going to a good university, just to spite Odin, you’re the one who’s going to have to live with the consequences, every day, maybe for the rest of your life. Not him. Isn’t there a saying about that? ‘Cutting off your nose to spite your face’?”

With every word, Loki’s expression has been growing blanker and blanker. It must be surprise that’s producing that look, because after a moment he says, in a quiet, hesitant tone, “I . . . never looked at it in that light before.”

She wraps her arms around herself; even with her good coat, it’s cold out here. “What about your dream? What about astrophysics? And figuring out how the universe works?”

He’s looking out at the street, but glances at her from the corner of his eye. “You remembered that?”

“That’s going to be a lot harder if the transcript you send in with your college applications shows you failed AP Calculus. And you’re going to fail it if you miss another class period. And I assume your other classes are about the same?”

He shrugs, but it’s not the standoffish defense mechanism it was just a few minutes ago.

With a sigh, she moves next to him to lean against the car, and their elbows brush just a bit as she settles in. “I’m sure you think your dad deserves what you’re doing to him. But . . . have you thought about what you deserve?”

He says nothing, and she watches her breath fogging white in the cold air for a few moments. “You deserve to follow your dreams,” she says when it’s clear he’s not going to answer. “You deserve to go to a great university and a great grad school and become an astrophysicist. And if you don’t achieve your dreams because you’re trying defy your dad . . . then in a way he got the better of you, didn’t he?”

Loki glances sidelong at her, and then the tiniest smile touches his lips. “You were paying attention in Mr. Bragi’s persuasive writing unit last year, weren’t you?”

She gives him an answering smile, just as small. “Is it working?”

He heaves a heavy sigh and drags a hand down his face. “You . . . make some good points,” he admits reluctantly.

She gestures for him to continue, and he laughs quietly, and she’s surprised at how much she’s missed that sound. “Maybe I haven’t really been thinking about the future lately,” he admits. “I’ve just been—mad.”

“It’s not too late,” she says softly. “If you don’t get any more absences, and you do some make-up work, maybe . . . ?”

He glances over at her. “It’s this important to you that I ‘achieve my dreams’?”

Her answer is simple. “You’re my friend.”

“Even after me ignoring you for so long?”

She snorts. “Loki, we used to run through the sprinklers in our underwear together. It’s going to take more than two months of you being a jerk to wreck that.”

A wry smile twists at his mouth, and they fall back into silence. “I will . . . think about what you said,” he says finally, and it’s such a non-answer—so polite, so diplomatic, so Loki-the-governor’s-son—that she can’t help chuckling softly. Clearly he sees the humor in it too, if the soft smile is anything to go off of, and they lapse back into silence, leaning side-by-side against the car, elbows just brushing.

She doesn’t want to go, she’s finding, even though common sense is reminding her that she has school in the morning, because who knows when she’ll be able to talk to Loki this way again? And from Loki’s body language, she thinks he feels about the same way.

But his watch beeps suddenly, shattering the stillness that’s settled over them. Midnight, she’d wager, and he glances at it in what looks like an instinctive, automatic maneuver. He tries to shove his hand quickly into his pocket, but it’s too late; the real world has intruded on their conversation, and now Sif’s sensible side is winning: it’s time to go to bed.

“I guess we’ve got to go,” she says finally, and he says, “I guess so.”

In silence they climb back into the car and pull out of the gas station, and Loki starts softly giving her directions to Helblindi’s house. Soon enough they hit a long stretch of no turns, and after a few moments where the only sound is the rumble of the tires over asphalt, he speaks.

“I assume it was Jane Foster who told you about my AP Calculus grades?”

“She’s a little worried about you,” Sif confirms. “She says you’re the smartest person in the class by far, and she doesn’t want you to throw you away your chance at a good university.”

She glances over to see him looking pleased and gratified at the compliment.

“That’s high praise, coming from Jane Foster,” she points out.

Loki lapses into thought. “Turn left up here,” he asks finally. “So why did she tell you, not Thor? They’re still dating, right?”

“No, they broke up over Thanksgiving break.”

“Really?” He falls quiet a moment. “That’s . . . kind of sad. I sort of liked the idea of them together.”

“Really?” Sif glances over as they pull up to a red light.

He shrugs. “Sure, who doesn’t like an odd couple? The jock falling in love with the nerd? I guess I found that idea . . .” He suddenly trails off, his face going blank.

“You found that idea . . .” she prods.

He turns to look out the window. “Encouraging,” he says, almost too softly for her to hear.

The light turns green and she turns her gaze back to the road, but in her mind’s eye she sees the Rainbow Bridge sparkling in the distance, feels Loki’s lips against hers. He finds the jock and the nerd finding love an encouraging idea. Is he . . .

But he interrupts her before her mind can wander too far down that road. “I guess I’m behind on the gossip, if I didn’t even know they’d broken up.”

The response tumbles from her lips before she can think better of it. “That’s what happens when you cut people out of your life.” Immediately she winces, fairly certain that he is not going to respond well to that statement, and indeed he falls silent and once again looks out the passenger side window while she berates herself—although, to be fair, it’s not like what she said was untrue.

For the last few blocks, he only speaks to direct her where to go, and she worries she’s upset this delicate truce they’ve had between them tonight. But maybe she hasn’t, because when she pulls up to the house that he identifies as Helblindi’s, he makes no move to get out of the car. So she turns off the ignition and waits patiently.

“How is Thor?” he asks finally, quietly, not looking at her.

“Not great,” she says honestly. “He just lost the only girl who ever actually meant anything to him, and his twin brother won’t speak to him, so . . .”

But Loki’s face—serene, thoughtful—doesn’t change. “And Odin and Frigga?”

“You know,” she says, carefully putting on a light, teasing tone, “there’s an easy way to find this stuff out.”

He does smile a little, but his tone is serious. “It’s complicated.”

“I know,” she says. And they fall into silence, but unlike the one back at the gas station, this is a silence that she wouldn’t break for the world, not when Loki’s asking after his family.

“I don’t think it’d be easy as you think,” he says finally, “me just waltzing back into their lives.”

“I think it’d be a lot easier than you think,” Sif retorts. “You know your mom still sets a place for you every Sunday dinner? Just in case you show up?”

He winces at that, almost imperceptibly, but she’s watching his face pretty closely right now and to her it’s as loud as a shout. “Just FYI,” she adds. “Just in case you ever wanted to make use of that information.”

“How’s Odin . . . dealing with everything?” he asks after a long few moments.

She shrugs. “You know that guy. He doesn’t reveal anything more than he needs to.” But then she hesitates. “But he’s different.” How to put this into words? She considers a moment, then: “I always knew how old he is, but he never seemed old, you know? The last couple months have been the first time in our lives that he’s actually seemed his age.”

He nods, gently, slowly, for a few moments, but then his brow furrows, and the nodding turns to shaking his head—an insistent “no” at whatever question is running through his mind. “If anything, he’s worried about how bad it will make him look when this gets out,” he says. “I’ve never been his real son, as far as he’s concerned. I’ve never been good enough for him. Thor too.”

And okay, she has just about had it with Loki making up motivations for other people and then punishing them for them. “You have no idea what Thor’s been going through,” she says tightly. “I do, because I’ve had to pick up the pieces you left behind. You know what breaks his heart the most out of this whole thing?”

Loki’s silent, but he looks over at her, a sort of cautious question in his eyes. She takes that as permission to continue.

“What really kills him about this is that you didn’t come to the same conclusion that he immediately did: that none of this matters, because the two of you are brothers, no matter who your parents are. And now he’s sitting there thinking that he’s not good enough for you, beating himself up and wondering how he could have made it more clear to you that he loves you, no matter what.”

Loki’s face goes slack with surprise, and then his brow furrows in confusion, his eyes wide—it’s an expression that makes him look very much like the child she remembers him being. “Oh,” he says, and there’s a quality to his voice that she’s not used to hearing from him, something vulnerable and uncertain. He nods slowly to himself, clearly looking for words, but only comes up with a second, “Oh.”

There’s more that she’d like to say—although she’s trying to figure out the best way to approach it all without being overbearing or manipulative—but she never gets a chance, because the front porch light flicks on and Helblindi’s silhouette appears at the front window, clearly wondering what’s going on with the car outside. “I guess I’d better go,” Loki says, and unbuckles. He hesitates. “Thanks,” he says, and she hopes very much that he means thanks for the advice, that maybe it meant something to him.

And she sits in her car and watches thoughtfully as he disappears inside the house.

. . . . . .

Sif doesn’t tell Thor about the encounter—not just yet, anyway—because she doesn’t want to get his hopes up before she has better proof that this is a sign of some sort of softening in Loki. She doesn’t want to get her own hopes up either.

But maybe it did make some kind of difference, because a week later Jane stops by her locker to thank her for talking to Loki, and inform her that he’s been on time to class every day for the past week and that he’s been in to see the teacher to ask about the possibility of making up some of the work he missed.

“I don’t know if it’ll be enough to completely salvage his grade,” Jane says, “but it’s a start.”

And that’s not the only change; Loki doesn’t seem to be pretending that none of them exist anymore. In the days following their conversation, more than once she catches him in a crowded hallway or across the commons, looking at their group—always when Thor’s back’s turned, though.

And on the last day of school before Christmas break, he passes Sif, Thor and Hogun in the main academic hallway, and instead of his usual trick of turning down a side hallway or ducking into a classroom, he actually stays his course and, even more astounding, stops to say hello. “Thor,” he says, a bit formally, “how’s . . .” and here he waffles, clearly unsure of what to call her, “Frigga?”

He couldn’t have gotten a more shocked look out of Thor if he’d struck him in the face with a frying pan. “Good,” he says when he’s found his voice. “Working on her usual Christmas charity projects.”

That’s apparently all the interaction Loki wants, because he nods and keeps on walking, and Thor stands stock-still in the middle of the hallway, staring after him.

So Sif dares to hope that eventually things will get better.

But as it turns out, she could have set her hopes a lot higher than “eventually.”

. . . . . .

The 22nd of December is the last Sunday before Christmas, and therefore the fourth Advent Sunday of the season. Odin and Frigga are both of pretty solid Scandinavian stock, and they’ve kept a lot of the traditions of their ancestors, though they’ve adapted some of them for the modern day. So for as long as Sif has been going to Sunday dinner at their house, the four Sundays leading up to Christmas have been special occasions, with Christmas carols played and everyone dressed up especially nice and the children being allowed to light the candles in the Advent wreath.

And on this fourth Advent Sunday in question, they’re just digging into their sumptuous feast when the door between the house and the garage opens, and they freeze in surprise. Silence falls over the room—Sif wonders if the others’ hearts are pounding with as much hope as hers—so they can all hear the footsteps approaching the dining room.

And sure enough, it’s Loki, looking uncomfortable and apprehensive, in a crisp shirt and crimson tie, and it’s the first time in two months that Sif’s seen him in anything but a dark-colored hoodie. More importantly, it’s the first time in two months that she’s seen him in the Governor’s Mansion.

“Loki,” says Frigga with a sort of fierce quietness, obviously ecstatic but not wanting to make a scene and frighten him off.

He stands in the doorway of the room and looks around at them all a moment. “I was hoping I could join you for dinner,” he says quietly, and Frigga finally lets loose the gigawatt smile that’s clearly been lurking behind her careful facade.

“Of course,” she says, gesturing to his old chair, and Sif takes a moment to be grateful that Frigga followed her usual custom of setting a plate out for him, so he knows she was telling the truth about that.

He walks over stiffly and sits down, not quite making eye contact with anyone, while Frigga busies herself piling up his plate with food. Sif doesn’t know what she should say; should they welcome him back? Tell him how wonderful it is to see him? Or would drawing attention to the situation make him self-conscious?

Across the table, Thor is staring at his brother like Christmas morning has come early, but he seems as uncertain about what to say as she is. And Odin is simply watching his adopted son, with a contented look on his face that says his world has been set to rights; Sif hopes desperately that Loki doesn’t let the superficial placidness of Odin’s expression blind him to how clearly pleased the man is to see him.

It’s Tyr who takes control of the conversation. “So good to see you, Loki,” he says warmly but casually. “How've you been?”

“Fine,” is Loki's uncomfortable-sounding answer.

Clearly he doesn't want to talk, and clearly Tyr picks up on that. “I was just telling everyone about my last business trip,” he says, and then he launches back into the story, an amusing one about the airline losing his luggage. It’s the right thing to do; Loki relaxes as the attention shifts away from him, and everyone follows Tyr’s lead throughout the rest of the meal in keeping the conversation as normal as possible: Frigga’s annual charity Christmas tree festival to benefit foster children, and Odin’s recent trip to DC, and Sif’s struggles in physics class. (“This is the last time I listen to an engineer about which classes I should take,” she grumbles at her dad, and catches a genuine smile from Loki out of the corner of her eye.)

Loki says little, giving only one-word answers the few times he's spoken to, but that doesn’t mean he’s not always the center of attention; no matter who’s speaking, everyone’s watching him out of the corner of their eye. Often Thor and Frigga—and even Odin once—appear to be on the verge of addressing him, but they catch themselves each time, clearly coming to the same conclusion that Sif has: that Loki has alighted on this dinner party like a skittish bird on a branch, and the slightest thing could frighten him off again.

So they talk about physics and DC and pretend they’re not freaking out at Loki being there.

But eventually the meal ends, and something must be said. “We’re having gingerbread cake for dessert,” Frigga says delicately to Loki, “but it won’t be ready for a half-hour. Do you think you could stay that long?”

He’s grown calmer over the course of the meal, but at this he tenses back up again, and his expression smooths over in the way it does when he's hiding strong emotions. “Actually,” he says, so carefully still, his movements so controlled, that Sif knows he’s fighting back the urge to fidget. And finally he brings his gaze up to meet Frigga’s. “Actually,” he repeats, then hesitates a long moment, then finishes, “I wanted to know what you thought of me coming back.”

What Frigga thinks of that, apparently, is that it’s an excellent reason to burst into tears, and she moves around the table to wrap her arms around her son.

“Mother,” Loki grumbles, looking both embarrassed and pleased.

But, likely spurred on by hearing him call her by that title and not by her first name, Frigga only hugs him tighter and cries harder. Truth be told, Sif would be lying if she said hearing it didn’t bring a little lump to her throat.

And now Thor’s climbing out of his chair to join the bear hug, and Odin’s not long in following, and the family stands together, a little knot of limbs and tears, with Loki in the middle looking mostly embarrassed and a touch uncomfortable but a little bit happy as well.

Sif and Tyr stay in their seats—this is clearly a family affair—but Tyr leans over and puts his arm around her shoulders, hugging her tight to his side, and the look on his face as he observes the family tells her that he’s as happy about this outcome as Sif is.

From within the tangle of his family, Loki looks up and his eyes catch Sif’s, and over the glow of the four Advent candles, he gives her a small embarrassed smile. She grins broadly back.

. . . . . .

Loki goes to fetch his things from his car while Frigga goes to see about the cake, and everyone else adjourns to the sitting room. Thor is tense until Loki returns, and Sif can sense that her friend half-feared that it was all a prank and Loki had planned to climb in his car and drive away again.

But Loki does indeed return, and stands in the doorway of the room looking uncertain until Sif catches his eye and nods subtly at the spot next to her on the loveseat. He complies, eyes warming with gratitude for a moment, and as he engages her in a stilted conversation about her schoolwork while Thor looks on eagerly, it occurs to her that he probably views her as a safe option, a port in the storm, for him to engage with while he works up to talking with Thor or Odin.

Which he does manage, eventually. “Thor,” he says, with his tone and expression carefully bland, “I was . . . sorry to hear about your breakup.”

The look on Thor's face is almost comical: a mix of sorrow at the reminder and joy that Loki's talking to him. “Thanks,” he says. “It's . . . been rough.”

Loki doesn't seem to know how to respond to this, so Sif breaks in. “Have you tried talking to her? Apologizing?”

Loki frowns at that. “Apologize? What'd you do?”

“Nothing to her!” Thor insists quickly. “But . . . me and Fandral maybe kind of painted the Vanaheim knight statue red?”

“I knew that was you!” Loki exclaims, seeming to forget his awkwardness for a moment. “They said they didn't know who did it but I just had a feeling it was you.”

Thor smirks a moment while Sif celebrates inwardly at this gloriously normal conversation they're having, but then her friend's face falls. “Yeah, well, it turns out Jane's uncle works at Vanaheim and he's the one who did all the fundraising and everything for the statue. So she was pretty mad when she found out. We started arguing about it, and . . . then she dumped me.”

“Wait, she was the one who dumped you?” Loki asks, and then smiles a little. “I didn't know she had it in her. I'm kind of proud of her right now.”

Thor gives him a funny little smile, pained and pleased at the same time, and Loki seems to remember their circumstances and looks down at his lap, suddenly stiff and uncertain again. “Anyway,” he says quietly, “I agree with Sif. You should talk to her. Apologize.”

“If you're genuinely sorry,” Sif breaks in. “She'll see through it if you're insincere, and she'll be mad you're trying to manipulate her.”

Loki nods. “And who knows, maybe she'd be willing to give you another chance.”

“But that can’t be the only reason you’re apologizing,” Sif admonishes. “You should do it first and foremost because you think she deserves it.”

Hope lights up Thor's face, and the three friends lapse into silence a while.

It's Thor who breaks it in the end. “It's so good to have you here,” he tells Loki, so simple and so heartbreakingly sincere that Sif is not surprised to see Loki's carefully serene mask slipping. “This was shaping up to be the worst Christmas ever.”

And that's done it; Loki actually smiles a little at that—still small and hesitant, but it's progress. He hesitates, then says. “Thank you. And . . .” He looks at Thor, and then Sif. “I know we have a lot to talk about. But is it okay if we hold off for a little while?”

Patience is not part of Thor's makeup, and she can see in his expression that he'd rather not. But he's got the sense to nod. “If that's what you want.”

Before Loki can respond, Frigga comes in with the cake. Loki lapses back into silence as the adults take over the conversation, and Sif finds herself fighting back the urge to . . . to lean into his side, to nudge him with her elbow, to pat him comfortingly on the knee. She wants to comfort and encourage him somehow, but with that kiss still hanging between them, unacknowledged and unaddressed, she feels physical contact would be unkind; if he kissed her because he has feelings for her, then to do anything of the sort would look like she’s leading him on. It would be unkind to touch him more than necessary if she doesn't return his feelings.

And she doesn't. Honestly.

Even if the relief at having him back and the warmth of his body next to hers on the loveseat is . . . confusing.

But she doesn't feel that way about him, and any part of her that is wondering if things could ever possibly be otherwise is just a result of the emotion of the evening messing with her. She's sure of it.

They eat the cake and then Frigga insists on singing Christmas carols at the piano, as usual. Thor and Loki immediately groan in unison at the announcement, which makes Frigga beam.

But while the governor's wife doesn't have the physical presence or the position of her husband, she's always been a formidable force in her own right, and before long they're all gathered around the piano while she plays Hark the Herald Angels Sing. She and Loki are the only two with any musical ability in the group; Thor and Odin can carry a tune but they don't sound particularly pleasant doing it. And Tyr and Sif are both awful. But it's tradition. It feels right. And that makes their terrible little ensemble into something beautiful.

When the singing is done, Loki announces he's going to go to sleep early; Sif would wager that he's not tired so much as he is ready to get a break from the strangeness of the evening. It can't be easy, she imagines, trying to fit back into your family when you spent so long trying to get away from them.

And Frigga sees it too—Sif can tell from her kind smile. “Of course.”

Loki stands and nods at them all. He hesitates in front of Frigga, and then darts in to press a kiss to her cheek before practically fleeing the room.

From Frigga's expression, you’d think it's Christmas already.

They sit in silence until they hear the door to his old room close upstairs, and then Frigga sits down close to her husband's side and presses her forehead to his shoulder—clearly hiding her emotions. Odin takes one of her hands in his and rubs it soothingly, and Sif finds herself averting her eyes; Odin and Frigga are never demonstrative in public, not like this anyway, and it feels like she's seeing something she shouldn't.

“It's a Christmas miracle,” says Tyr with a smile in his voice.

“I'm so glad,” says Frigga softly, and Sif's never heard the woman sound so vulnerable.

“Did you have any hint he might return?” Tyr asks. “Or was this totally out of the blue?”

“Apparently he spoke to Thor at school on Friday,” Odin says. “Asked after Frigga.”

Thor nods his agreement. “Totally out of the blue,” he adds.

Sif debates telling them about their conversation; the truth is she doesn't know if that's the reason he changed his mind, and she doesn't want people reading anything into it. So she simply says, “I spoke to him briefly last week. Jane was worried about his grades in AP Calc, so . . .”

Thor looks surprised. “You never told me that he'd actually let you talk to him.”

She shrugs. “I didn't want to get anyone's hopes up.”

Thor seems to buy it. But when Sif looks at Frigga, she sees the woman giving her a very considering look, and something about that expression makes Sif avert her eyes.

“Well, I'm glad you spoke to him,” Frigga says.

“Indeed,” says Odin, and again he's got that look on his face, like all is right with the world. “Our boy is home.”

. . . . . .

he spends all his time in his room, Thor texts. ok he eats with us but thats it .

Give him time, Sif responds. It's only been one day. Put yourself in his shoes. Coming back was probably super weird for him.

UGH i just wanted this to be easier. i thought if he came home... idek

Sif rolls her eyes. I know you don't like this response, but: patience.

im glad ur coming over for xmas eve dinner bc ur better at this. oh btw im supposed to tell u, ur invited over for xmas eve dinner.

Surprised, she goes to find her father. “Thor says we're invited over for Christmas Eve dinner.”

“Yeah, Frigga called,” says Tyr. “She didn't trust Thor to remember to deliver the message.”

It's a little unusual for them to get invited for the holiday; they've only done it once or twice before, largely because Sif and Tyr often spend Christmas in a snowy lodge or on a tropical beach somewhere. “This is an interesting development.”

“They want your help with Loki, no doubt,” chuckles her father. “But I'm glad, because now I don't have to cook dinner tomorrow.”

But Sif's stuck on the first part of his statement. “They want my help with Loki?”

“Yeah, since you're the only person he's comfortable around.”

She just blinks in surprise, and he leans closer. “You didn't notice?” he asks. “Last night at dinner, he just . . . gravitated toward you the whole time.”

“I suspected,” she says. “At least some of it. I just didn't think it was that obvious to everyone.”

Tyr shrugs. “Your old man's very smart.” Sif's starting to wonder if there's a reason Loki's singled her out—and yes, there's a very particular reason that springs to mind—but then Tyr goes on. “He's probably more comfortable with you because you're not family. His relationship with Thor and Odin and Frigga is still pretty complicated, but you're not part of that. And then I'm not family either, but you're closer to him than I am.”

And that makes sense. So Sif is very happy to go to the Governor's Mansion for Christmas Eve dinner, and to be something of a shield for Loki, when he needs it. But things have improved; Sif notices it right away as they all start eating. Loki still doesn't so much as look at Odin, and with Thor he's more polite than anything. But his demeanor borders on unguarded when it comes to his interactions with Frigga, and he calls her “Mother” very comfortably. Clearly, if Loki is to be brought back into the fold, it will be through his love for his adoptive mother.

After dinner they watch the animated How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which is an old favorite from when they were kids. Odin clearly tolerates it more than enjoys it, but Thor sings along with all the songs (with more enthusiasm than skill), while Loki manages to look both annoyed and amused at the same time.

But something about it makes him look thoughtful as well, and when the video is over and they're left alone—Thor's gone to help Frigga with the wassail and Tyr and Odin are chatting to each other in the sitting room—Sif sidles up to him. “What's on your mind?”

He glances down at her. “Dr. Seuss,” he jokes.

“Seems appropriate.”

But maybe he was serious, because then he fixes his gaze down the hallway, in the direction everyone else disappeared to. “Just thinking,” he says finally, “that this is the first time I've identified with the Grinch.”

She snorts at that. “Are you going to steal Christmas?”

A half-smile tugs at the corner of his mouth. “Just . . . being angry, because everyone else seems to be having such a good time while you're not? Lashing out because no one seems to care that this system of theirs isn't working out for you? I sympathize with that.”

“Yes,” she says carefully, “but the Whos weren't reaching out to the Grinch. So that's a difference between you and him.”

“That's a good point,” he admits.

They stand in silence a moment, and then: “How's being back here?”

He shrugs. “Weird,” he says, then glances down at her and adds, “But good weird, I think. Or it'll eventually be good, anyway.”

She examines him a long moment. “I'm glad you came back.”

He flexes his fingers in a movement that seems a little anxious. “I need to thank you,” he says. “For what you said to me that night in your car. I needed that.”

“Then I'm forgiven for kidnapping you?”

His answering smile is small but sincere. “And not just because I needed the reminder about my grades and my college applications. The truth is, I'd started missing my mother—and Thor, I admit—weeks ago. But I was certain that I'd burned that bridge, that they wouldn't welcome me back, so all I could do was lean into what I was doing—pretend to be completely confident in my decision. So you telling me that Frigga still put a plate out for me . . . it made me realize I could come back.”

Again Sif has this very uncharacteristic urge to touch him, to wrap her arms around him and let him know by the certainty of her embrace that he will always be wanted here. But again, it feels like doing that would be giving him unfounded hope. So instead she smiles. “I’m glad you did,” she says. “We’ve missed you.” She hesitates. “I’ve missed you. Turns out it’s not the same around here without you.”

At that he seems to sway toward her, his whole body drawn toward her like a magnet, and she wonders if he too is feeling the urge to punctuate this conversation with a hug. But if he is, he resists the urge. “Merry Christmas, Sif.”

“Merry Christmas, Loki.”

. . . . . .

Sif and Tyr visit the governor’s family briefly on the evening of Christmas day for a little open house they’re throwing for family and neighbors, with coffee and wassail and baked goods, and then they leave the next morning for a planned ski trip in Colorado. The resort they’re at doesn’t have great cell reception, and anyway she and her father always agree that on their trips they’ll resist the urge to stay glued to their electronics all day, so she doesn’t have any contact with either of the Odinson boys over the course of the trip.

So when she shows up at the Governor’s Mansion on the 29th for Sunday dinner, she has no idea what to expect: will the family be close again? Will the boys be fond enough of each other but never spend time together, like they were before all of this went down? Or will Loki have lost patience with them and stormed out again?

The answer, it turns out, is none of the above: Loki is still not talking much to Odin, and he’s still a little hesitant and aloof around Thor, but he’s patched things up with Frigga, calling her mother and chatting comfortably with her and helping her with last minute dinner preparations. In a private moment, Thor tells Sif that Loki and Frigga had a long heart to heart on the day after Christmas and patched things up.

“Although she couldn’t talk him into patching things up with Father,” Thor sighs. “I don’t get it! What did Father do that’s so much more worse than what the rest of us did? Why is he so upset with him?”

Sif has a dozen answers she could give him, scraps of confidence she’s gleaned from Loki over the last few months, but telling Thor feels like betraying his brother’s trust. “You should ask him,” she advises. “I bet he’d be willing to talk about it.”

“I’ve tried to talk to him!” Thor insists. “It’s just . . . you know Loki, he’s always played things pretty close to the chest.”

“Then give him time,” she says. “I’m sure that he’ll be ready to open up to you eventually. And nothing good will come of trying to force him to talk to you before he’s ready to do so.”

“You’re probably right,” Thor sighs.

When dinner and dessert are finished, Sif suggests that the teens go to the rec room and play cards. Her first instinct would be to look to Thor first to see what he thinks of the plan, but maybe that’s the kind of thing that contributed to Loki feeling like Thor is everyone’s favorite. So she looks to Loki first, who seems surprised, then pleased. “Sure,” he says, and Thor nods too.

A few minutes later they are sprawled on the comfy couches in the rec room, examining their cards and, in Sif’s case, carefully keeping her face neutral so no one will guess how many aces she has.

“Yeah, I just don’t think I want to go,” Thor says, shuffling his cards into a new order as though that’ll help him understand them better. “It’d just be . . . weird.”

“Why, because you and Amora used to date?” Sif asks. “Thor, if you refused to go to a party just because it was thrown by one of your exes, there wouldn’t be any parties left for you to attend.”

Loki snickers quietly.

“Hilarious,” Thor tells him drily. “No, it’s just that it’s going to be a whole bunch of people making out at midnight, and there won’t be anyone there that I want to kiss.” Then he flinches, and shoots a guilty glance at Sif, and she knows him well enough to interpret: he’s suddenly remembered that he kissed her not that long ago, and doesn’t want her to feel bad that he’s essentially just described her as someone he doesn’t want to kiss.

She gives him a small smile to say that it’s okay, she understands what he meant, and he gives her a relieved smile in return. And then she glances over to see that Loki has apparently seen this whole nonverbal exchange, and is now looking at them with confusion touching his brow.

Her own brow furrows, but before she can ask Loki what that look is for, Thor asks, “Are you going?”

It takes her a moment to pull herself back into the conversation and realize that Thor is talking to her. “I guess,” she says. “I don’t have any other plans. Anyway, I like Amora, and the guys will be there.”

Thor nods, and Sif thoughtfully draws a card from the pile. “No one you want to kiss will be there, you say?” she asks.

He shrugs.

She glances at Loki, but he’s just watching the pair of them with an unreadable expression. “So I take it you haven’t talked to Jane yet?”

“I know,” Thor sighs. “I am going to, really. But I thought it was better to wait until school starts again; she loves her family time, and I don’t think she’d appreciate having her holiday interrupted so her ex-boyfriend can tell her how dense he is.”

There’s genuine pain in his tone, something muffled but real, something sad and resigned and tired. Loki tilts his head at hearing it, examining Thor for a long few moments. “Wow,” he says finally, “I’ve never seen you this far gone on a girl.”

Thor groans and flops face-first down on the couch. “Dating sucks,” he informs the room at large. “I don’t recommend it.”

Loki looks at the prone figure a few moments longer, and Sif, watching him, sees his expression soften. “Well,” he says after a moment, with just a touch of hesitation in his tone, “if you’re definitely not going to the party, maybe we could hang out on New Year’s Eve instead.”

Thor lifts his face off the pillow. “Really?” he asks hopefully.

“Sure,” Loki says. “I don’t have any plans; none of my friends are doing anything. Plus they’ve been kind of weird around me since I moved home.”

Now that is a statement that Sif wants to explore—are his friends really that selfish and terrible?—but before she can, Loki presses on. “Maybe we could watch a movie.”

Thor’s face lights up at that, and he sits back up on the couch. “You mean the greatest New Year’s Eve movie ever made?”

Sif has no idea what they’re talking about, but Loki gives him a genuine smile, and then they declare in perfect unison, “Ghostbusters 2!”

“Done,” Thor says with relish. “And we’ll have pizza and junk food. I’ll even let you order a pizza with mushrooms on it. But then I’ll have to order my own pizza without mushrooms, obviously.”

“Okay,” says Loki with exaggerated irritation, “you have to actually try mushrooms on your pizza before you write it off. You haven’t tried it since we were like eight, but your taste buds change as you get older—”

“Mushrooms are a fungus,” Thor says with such perfect solemnity that Sif snorts. She’s mostly quiet though, not wanting to do anything to distract the boys when they’re having such a gloriously normal conversation—for the first time in months, they sound like brothers again.

“Fine, I’ll eat the whole pizza myself then,” Loki says, clearly meaning it as an exaggeration, but Thor beams at him.

“See? Perfect! Because I’ll definitely want a whole pizza to myself.”

And Loki just shakes his head, clearly fighting back a smile.

“Sif, you should come!” Thor says, as though suddenly remembering that she’s there. “Have you seen Ghostbusters 2? Doesn’t matter, you’ll love it.”

And that sounds amazing, actually; she’d much rather watch Ghostbusters 2 with her best friends and eat half of Loki’s pizza with mushrooms than to go to a party which, as Thor astutely pointed out, would just be a bunch of teenagers making out at midnight. But the thing is, she really thinks Thor and Loki need this time together, just the two of them, to bond and learn to be friends again and, with any luck, to finally really talk about all of this, and figure out where they stand with each other. And they won’t do that if she’s there; ever since Loki came home, they’ve both been using her as a conversational crutch whenever they get uncomfortable. They need to figure out how to talk to each other without her there.

“I’ll take a raincheck,” she says. “Pizza and a movie sounds great, but like I said, I think I want to go support Amora. Maybe next weekend we could do another movie?”

And they both know why she actually said no; she can see it in their faces. But they also both look like they’re okay with it. Maybe they both want this time together as much as she wants them to spend this time together.

Maybe this will help.

. . . . . .

The party is fine, as these sorts of things go. She talks to the guys, and some of her fellow football players, and she has a good long talk with one of the other girls from lacrosse about how they’re each preparing for the upcoming season. And the music and the food are decent.

But it is indeed going to turn into a bunch of making out at midnight, and Sif is just really not in the mood for this—not for watching it, and especially not for participating. She deflects advances, both subtle and overt, from a couple different guys over the course of the evening; she just can’t muster up any interest in kissing any of the guys here tonight. So when the countdown starts and everyone’s gathered around the TV to watch the ball drop, she wanders out on the back deck to watch the stars twinkle icily in the frozen expanse above her head.

And when she catches sight of a shooting star, she doesn’t even have to think about what to wish for: I wish for Thor and Loki to be friends again .

Turns out that wishes work sometimes, apparently, because when she’s home after the party and climbing into her warm bed, her text alert goes off.

me and loki finally talked. he explained a lot of stuff. we both apologized for a lot of stuff. i think were doing better.

And Sif falls back against her pillows and grins up at the ceiling.

. . . . . .

Chapter Text

. . . . . .

New year, new start: that’s the phrase that pops into Sif’s head on January 2nd, when she climbs into Thor’s Range Rover to carpool to school and sees Loki sitting in the backseat. The Odinson boys have driven separate cars to school since the day they got their licenses, so to see them riding together tells her a great deal, and she fights back a smile.

At Asgard High, they walk as a trio into the building, and they walk as a trio to their lockers, and they walk as a trio to the academic wing, and it’s perfect; it’s like the last two months (the last four or five years, really) never happened, and it’s the three best friends together again, Sif and the Odinsons against the world.

And Thor seems to agree, because when Loki has peeled away from them to head down to the science hallway, Thor watches his brother go with a broad grin.

“So, things are going well at home?” Sif guesses.

Thor answers with a hearty side-hug, his arm thrown jovially around her shoulders.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” she says as they make their way toward their first period English class.

“Well,” he admits, “at least where Mother and I are concerned.”

“He’s still angry at Odin?”

Thor sighs and his arm falls away from her shoulders. “He wouldn’t say much about Father when we talked,” he confesses. “So I’m not sure why he’s so mad at him.”

“Don’t give up,” she advises. “I think deep down he does want to talk about it. Just give him time to work up to it.”

In one of his occasional fits of insight, Thor fixes her with a thoughtful look. “You know, don’t you?” he asks. “Why he’s so mad at Father specifically?”

She shrugs. “He’s told me a few things.”

“Why?” he demands—not angry, just baffled. “Not that it’s not great that he’s telling you things, just . . . I didn’t know you were that close to him. I mean, not so close that he’d tell you stuff but not tell his own brother.”

She shrugs, and as she has found herself doing more and more often ever since Loki came home, she remembers that night by the Rainbow Bridge, and that unexpected kiss. She remembers being his confidante that night, the way he’d poured his soul out to her in the darkness. And she wonders what she’ll say if Thor presses the subject.

But he doesn’t. Maybe it’s that they’re at their first period class now, or maybe it’s that he genuinely thinks it’s inexplicable, but Thor seems to take her shrug as the final word on the subject of why Loki’s told her so much, and drops the subject as they take their seats.

And Sif is glad the conversation is over, and also maybe just the tiniest bit disappointed.

It’s just . . .

It’s just that the events of that night have been preying on her mind for two and a half months, and she hasn’t talked to a soul about them, and she just . . . sometimes she wishes someone would make her talk about it. Because even now, two and a half months later, she has no idea what any of it meant. Maybe nothing; maybe she’s just failed to realize the obvious truth, that Loki was overwrought and would have kissed absolutely any girl who’d been there with him. She just . . . she wishes that someone would tell her that, then, so she can stop thinking about it.

But Thor doesn’t make her talk about it; he clearly doesn’t even realize there’s something he could make her talk about. He immediately strikes up a conversation with Fandral, who wants to know why he missed the New Year’s Eve party.

And Sif smiles at Fandral, and nods at what Thor’s saying, and tries not to think about anything else.

. . . . . .

Things slide quickly back to the way they were after Homecoming; Loki fits nicely back into their group, and all their friends, to their credit, are cool about it—no one makes fun of him, or, on the other side of the spectrum, fusses over him too much. Loki hangs out with them before school, and after, and goes to a movie with them on that first weekend, and carpools to school with Thor and Sif, and just generally becomes part of their lives again.

The only exception to this is lunch, which he still eats with his old group of friends, sitting in their usual spot in the side hall by the auditorium. Sif has mixed feelings about this; she’s glad to know Loki isn’t the sort to drop his old friends as soon as the popular kids start paying attention to him, but on the other hand, there’s a part of her that still worries about Loki changing his mind about reconciling with his family, and things going back to the way they were, and that part of her feels like his friends are maybe not a good influence on him. (She knows that some people might call her a snob for thinking this, but on the other hand, it wasn’t that long ago that she was helping Loki hide from the cops after Malekith convinced him to vandalize the football stadium, so . . . )

But this turns out to be a non-issue in the end, because a week and a half after they’ve returned to school, Sif leaves a lunchtime meeting about the upcoming lacrosse season and happens to see Loki sitting alone in an alcove near the gym, finishing his lunch.

“Loki,” she calls, and he seems to tense for a moment before he turns to look at her.

She glances quizzically at the lunch in his hands, and then back up at his face, and the question on her tongue falls silent because the answer is clear from his defiant expression: there’s trouble with his friends, and he is not eating alone by choice.

So instead she says, “You know, tomorrow we’re going to Volstagg’s for lunch; his mom cooks for us every Tuesday. You should come with us.”

Loki hesitates. “I mean, I don’t want to intrude—”

“It’s an open invitation,” Sif assures him. “His mom always cooks, like, an absurd amount of food—I guess you have to, when you’re used to feeding Volstagg—and she always tells us to bring anyone we’d like.”

Another hesitation, and then Loki gives her a hint of a smile. “Thanks.”

He’s clearly done with his lunch, so she waits as he stands and gathers his things, and they walk toward the academic wing in silence, Sif keeping a hundred questions locked behind her lips. In time her patience is rewarded, because when they’ve reached the foreign languages hall, he admits, “I’m not really welcome to eat with my old friends anymore.”

“Why?”

He gives a humorless laugh. “Mostly Malekith’s doing. He . . . has some issues with his own family, so when I was fighting with mine, we really bonded over that. Now that I’ve reconciled with my family, though, he’s decided I’ve betrayed him, somehow . . . anyway, he’s been turning everyone else against me. It wasn’t hard, given that they all hate Thor’s friends, so my hanging out with you guys is also seen as an act of betrayal.”

“Wait,” Sif demands, “so someone who claims to have been your friend is mad that you reconciled with your family? Then you should be glad you’re rid of him; you don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.”

“Thanks for saying that,” he says with a little smile.

He has a bigger smile the next day, when he comes out of his fourth-period English class to see Sif and Hogun waiting for him.

“Everyone else went in Volstagg’s car,” Hogun explains. “We’re going to take mine.”

Loki glances at Sif, and she smiles back, and the friends head off for lunch together.

. . . . . .

So, all things considered, things are good. Loki has been reabsorbed into Thor and Sif’s friend group, and he seems happy and not inclined to run off into the night and commit petty crimes. It warms Sif’s heart to see him and Thor back on good terms—she'd die before she'd admit this, but she very nearly teared up the first time she overheard Loki refer to Thor as his twin since his return—and Sif herself is glad to have him back around with his witty remarks and his level head, and things are good. They’re great. Everything’s perfect in the world of Sif Tyrsdottir and Loki and Thor Odinson.

Okay, maybe not quite perfect, exactly.

Still pretty excellent, definitely. It’s just . . . as January slips by, Sif can’t help but notice something: ever since that day she saw him eating lunch alone, she and Loki haven’t been alone together. Anywhere. For any reason.

Not that it’s such a weird thing; it’s not like she expects to be alone with him, and it’s not like she’s really alone with Hogun or Volstagg or Fandral all that often. But she can’t help noticing it one day, when they’re all heading over to Volstagg’s for lunch, and Volstagg’s backseat is full of stuff so he suggests that he can take Hildegund over and Sif can drive Loki, and she and Loki both insist that they don’t mind sitting with his stuff—a retort so prompt and so identically worded that it makes everyone laugh, but it also makes Sif think.

She thinks about it all day, and she realizes that she is instinctively avoiding being alone with Loki, and he seems to be doing the same with her. And it’s not super hard to guess why: a certain kiss, by a certain bridge, that they’ve never talked about, and that hangs over all their interactions like a little black rain cloud.

It’ll be an awkward conversation, but if it’s negatively affecting their friendship, then she needs to talk to him. So she will.

When the time is right.

. . . . . .

The time ends up being right much sooner than she expected: specifically, at a Sunday dinner in late January.

“One, two, three, four . . . crap.”

Sif smiles sweetly at Thor. “That’ll be four hundred dollars, please.”

“I hate this game,” he grumbles, picking up his pile of hundreds to pull four off the top. “Why did I agree to it?”

“Because you’re just as competitive as Sif is, and you love Monopoly when you’re winning,” Loki points out.

Sif snorts. “Like you aren’t just as competitive as we are,” she says, sending a pointed look at the instruction booklet, which Loki always keeps next to him while they play so he can win all their arguments about rules. He shoots her a look of wounded innocence.

“This game is a bad influence,” chuckles Tyr, dropping a kiss on the top of Sif’s head as he walks by into the kitchen. “It turns my sweet little daughter into a ruthless machine.”

“Have you seen her on the football field?” Thor chuckles. “I don’t think it’s Monopoly that makes her this competitive. I think she was born that way.”

Sif inclines her head graciously, as though Thor has given her a great compliment, and Tyr snorts.

“And she’s hardly your little daughter anymore, is she?” Frigga smiles as she takes the dice from Thor. “Eighteen years old! I can hardly believe it. It seems like only yesterday you were six years old, moving in next door.” She chuckles. “Do you remember the first time you and my boys played together?”

Sif casts her mind back, but while she remembers the moving truck, and the first time she saw their new house, she doesn’t really remember meeting the Odinson boys. They’ve just always been there, always a part of her life; if not for the fact that she’s been told otherwise, she could almost assume that she’s always known them.

So she shakes her head.

Frigga grins. “We’d set up a play date, your mother and I; my boys were so excited to have a child their age move into the neighborhood. So she brought you over, and we sat on the back porch and talked while the three of you ran around in the grass, and you hadn’t been there five minutes before you punched Thor in the face.”

The whole room breaks out in laughter, even Odin, who’s wandered in with his usual post-dinner cup of coffee.

“I assume he had it coming,” Sif says, wondering how she’s never heard this story before. (Although really, she and Thor spent as much time brawling as they did playing when they were kids; maybe this one particular punch didn’t really stand out in the vast sea of punches between them.)

“You were all playing pretend; Thor and Loki wanted to be two princes, going on a quest, so Thor decided you should play the princess they needed to rescue. You said you’d rather be going on the quest than waiting around to be rescued, and Thor said you couldn’t because girls can’t fight. So you proved him wrong.”

Sif nods. “So yes, he had it coming.”

“That’s my girl,” grins Tyr, and Thor and Loki both look equally amused, watching her with fond grins from across the table.

“You’ve always been a force to be reckoned with,” Odin says, and from the corner of her eye Sif notices that Loki’s grin drops, just a little, as he realizes his father is in the room, standing behind him. “I will never forget the moment you stormed into my study and informed me you were going to get the regulations changed, to let you play football on the boys’ team. And here you are, one of the best kickers in the state.”

Frigga glances at the clock then. “Shall we do the cake now? I could use a break from Monopoly, to be honest.”

Everyone agrees, and they troop into the kitchen to eat the beautifully decorated cake Frigga purchased for the occasion. Sif’s birthday was in fact yesterday, marked by a laid-back party at her home (she enjoys attending large parties, but when she’s in charge of them, she prefers something a little smaller and more sedate), with both Thor and Loki among the guests. But Frigga, as is her usual way, wanted to mark the day with a special cake after their usual Sunday dinner.

They eat their cake in the front sitting room, swapping stories about Sif all the while; even Thor and Loki contribute a few. Eventually the talk turns to more mundane topics, namely how classes are going for the three high schoolers. Loki mentions how much he’s enjoying his AP Calculus class, and Sif sees Thor’s face fall a little at the reminder of the class for which Jane Foster is a TA; he hasn’t delivered his apology yet, as he and Loki and Sif are still trying to plan out what he should say to her. Thor mentions that English is giving him grief, and Sif laments, once again, that she let her father talk her into taking physics.

“So you have no one to blame but yourself when you have to spend the next month helping me study for this test that’s coming up,” she jokes, and is surprised to see her father’s face fill with genuine dismay.

“I can’t,” he says very apologetically. “You know that conference I’m presenting at next month? We have to finish up this big project for that, and since we’re collaborating with this firm in Japan, I’m planning on working basically all evening for the next two or three weeks—you know, because of the time difference. I’m sorry, I thought I’d told you.”

Sif attempts to smile reassuringly at her father, although she thinks it comes out as something of a grimace. “That’s okay, I can just see if Mr. Heimdall can help me after class.”

“Nonsense,” Frigga says. “Why do that when you can be tutored by one of the best physics students at Asgard?”

Tyr catches her meaning immediately. “Loki can help you!” he declares. “That is, if you don’t mind doing a good deed for a neighbor, Loki.”

Loki’s face has gone blank, and Sif feels just about the same way. But they can hardly refuse such an obvious solution without giving a good reason—and she’s pretty sure neither of them is willing to give voice to the reason they’re both thinking about.

And the truth is, she does need help, and there’s no one better at physics than Loki.

He’s turned to look at her, some muted mix of embarrassment and apology in his eyes, and that spurs her to speak, because if anything, she should be apologetic and embarrassed for imposing on him this way. So she says to him, “I know it’s kind of a hassle and a big time commitment for you. But if you did have some time to spare, it would seriously save my life.”

As she’d expected, he looks surprised, and then the tiniest bit relieved—presumably because she’s giving him permission to end their self-imposed exile from each other. “Sure, I’ve got time, if you need it.”

“Excellent,” says Tyr. “Sif, you’ll be in good hands.”

The conversation moves on to other topics. As the hour grows late, Tyr has to leave to take a call, and Odin leaves a few minutes later to begin getting ready for bed, as he has a very early morning tomorrow. Frigga begins to gather up the plates, but Loki takes them from her. “We can do the dishes. Can’t we, Thor?”

Thor grumbles good-naturedly but he willingly gets up and follows Loki back to the kitchen, and the two ladies are left alone.

“Stay a moment, won’t you?” Frigga asks, seating herself gracefully down next to Sif and putting her arm around her shoulders. “We haven’t a chance to talk, just the two of us, in quite a while.”

Indeed, it’s been a few months since they’ve done so, so Sif is perfectly happy to curl into Frigga’s side. The older woman rests a cheek on the top of Sif’s head and begins running her fingers through Sif’s long dark hair, worn down and loose for once. Sif is not much of a cuddler, but for Frigga she’ll make an exception.

“You’ve been such a blessing in my life, my dear girl,” Frigga says. “I hope you know that. I always regretted that I never had a daughter . . . until I realized that I did.”

Sif determinedly ignores the prick of tears behind her eyelids. “And you’ve been so good to me since my mom died,” she says. “I wish I could repay you somehow.”

“No repayment needed,” Frigga says firmly. “Not between family.” She hesitates, and when she continues there’s a new kind of tenderness in her voice. “And even if I did want you to repay me, you’ve already done so, ten times over, for what you did for my Loki.”

“Loki?” Sif repeats, carefully casual.

“He told me how you found him that night by the Rainbow Bridge,” Frigga says. “How you tried to reassure him.”

And all Sif can think is, Yes, but he probably didn’t tell you everything.

“And I’m so grateful for how you talked sense into him when you saw him last month. And how you’ve been his friend since he returned to us.” Frigga pulls away from Sif so she can sit up straight and look her in the eye. “I can never thank you enough for that, my dear,” she says firmly. “For encouraging my son to return. I could never repay you for that.”

Frigga’s tone is fervid, her expression open and glowing, her eyes shining, and Sif feels a rush of affection for this woman she’s come to love as she does her own mother. “No repayment needed,” she says, echoing Frigga’s words from earlier. “Not between family. You're the nearest thing I have to a mom. And you know Loki and Thor are like brothers to me; anything I could do to help, I’d be happy to do.”

Frigga grasps her hands warmly. “My dear girl,” she says, but no more, because just then Sif sees movement out of the corner of her eye and turns to see Loki standing in the doorway of the sitting room. For a brief moment there’s something strange in his expression, something a little weary, a little sad. But then she blinks and it’s gone, so quickly that she’s not at all sure she didn’t just imagine it.

“Loki!” Frigga exclaims. “Done with the dishes already?”

Loki gives them a smooth smile, and it looks convincing but some instinct in Sif’s heart tells her there’s something he’s keeping hidden away. “Just wondering where you keep that . . . red scrubby thing.”

“I just threw it away,” Frigga says. “There should be a new one on the bottom shelf of the pantry.”

Loki nods and leaves again; his interruption has shattered the emotional mood of earlier, and Frigga and Sif talk of lighter, more cheerful topics for another ten minutes: the upcoming lacrosse season and which colleges Sif is applying to.

Finally, as the clock is striking ten, Loki and Thor reappear. “Dishes are done,” Thor announces.

“My boys are so sweet,” Frigga smiles.

“And I’d better go,” Sif says. “Thanks for the cake, Frigga.”

Frigga beams. “Happy birthday, Sif.”

Thor wishes her a happy birthday too, and pulls her into a quick hug. The natural thing to do then is to turn to Loki, standing by his brother’s side, but as soon as Sif has done so she feels awkward, like she was presuming that Loki would hug her too.

But instead of hugging her, Loki surprises her. “How about I walk you home?” he asks. “We can figure out when would be best for me to help you with physics.”

This is a perfectly reasonable idea, so Sif nods and gets her jacket and bids everyone farewell, Loki following her out the door. But he seems in no hurry to talk; they walk in silence down the front walk, through the main gate and all the way to the line that divides their yards, before Sif finally speaks up.

“So, scheduling a study session?” she prompts, glancing over at him.

He makes a face and slows to a stop, right at the fence between their yards, and she halts as well and turns to face him.

“That’s not actually what I wanted to talk about,” he admits. “I just didn’t want my mother or Thor to get curious.”

“Oh,” she says, and some part of her distantly wonders why she can suddenly feel her heartbeat in her throat. “So what did you want?”

He hesitates and looks away; even in the low light cast by the streetlamp, she can read the expression on his face: discomfort, and a bit of embarrassment.

Wait, is he going to talk about that night by the Rainbow Bridge Overlook? Is he finally going to break his silence on the subject?

Good. They definitely need to talk about it. Probably.

But further than that she doesn’t get a chance to think, because he speaks up quickly. “I wanted to talk to you about . . . that night. The day I found out I was adopted. By the bridge.”

She nods calmly, even as she finds herself suddenly very self-conscious about how she’s holding her hands. Shoving them in her jacket pockets fixes that problem. “Okay,” she says evenly, although inside she isn’t quite so calm. It’s just, she honestly can’t predict where this conversation is going to go, and it’s putting her on edge.

In the end, the answer is: not where she expected it to go.

“I just wanted to tell you . . . I’m really sorry,” he says. “You were trying to comfort me, and to be a good friend, and I misread the situation and put you in an uncomfortable position, and I’m sorry.”

She blinks. “Ah.”

He gives her a small smile: tight and uncomfortable and clearly wishing this conversation was over. “And I wanted to reassure you: it won’t happen again.”

Oh.

Well, that’s . . . good, isn’t it?

“Thank you,” she says automatically, because it sounds like the correct response.

He gives her that tight smile again and gestures toward her house; she takes the hint and turns so they can continue their walk to her front door.

“I’ve felt bad about it since it happened, and I just didn’t want it hanging over our friendship,” he says as they climb the porch steps. “Especially if I’m going to be helping you with your physics, which is just going to be, you know, us. One on one. For who knows how long. I didn’t want you to be . . . I don’t know. Worried about a repeat. I’m not going to be one of those jerks who can’t take rejection.”

“. . . thank you,” she says again, unsure of what else to say.

Apparently he doesn’t need to hear anything else, based on how he immediately starts backing down the stairs. “Okay, I’ll see you in the morning for school, okay? Good night!”

And he strides away into the darkness, his long legs eating up the distance at what seems a faster pace than usual. And Sif stands at the door and watches him go, and wonders at the hollow place in her chest that feels like . . .

disappointment.

. . . . . .

Okay, not disappointment, obviously, she thinks firmly as she goes up to her room. She didn’t want Loki to kiss her, and she doesn’t want him to do it again, so what possible reason could she have to be disappointed?

This is the best possible outcome: they’ve talked about the kiss, she knows he’s not expecting anything to come of it, they can go back to being friends and she can just stop worrying about . . . anything. This is perfect. She’s delighted.

Absolutely delighted.

. . . . . .

Okay, not delighted, maybe, because by the time she’s gotten into her pajamas and brushed her teeth and climbed into bed, that hollow place in her chest hasn’t gone away. And no position she can lay in seems to make it disappear, no matter how many she tries: left side, right side, left side, right side, stomach, back, left side . . .

After a half-hour of this, she admits the truth: she’s wide awake, and she’s not likely to fall asleep any time soon. So she climbs out of bed and changes her pajamas for workout clothes, then makes her way to the home gym in the basement. Fortunately she and her father sleep on the top floor, so he won’t be bothered by her late night workout.

This feels like the right moment for a few rounds on the punching bag, and she pulls on her gloves quickly, eager to just wail on something. And as usual, it works: physical exertion quiets her mind, and for several minutes she thinks of nothing but her form and the satisfying thud of her hands against the bag.

And when she finally stops, tired and satisfied from the exertion, her mind is blissfully blank for a long few seconds . . . until, finally, she lets herself think about, you know, it. Because she does need to think about it. She sits on the bench and starts pulling off her gloves, and lets her mind start going over her strange feelings, carefully, one bit at a time.

This is exactly what she wanted, right? They’ve talked about it, and addressed the issue; she no longer half-wonders if she made that kiss up, or at least is making a way bigger deal about it than he is. Loki has now confirmed that it did happen, and that it was kind of a big deal, and that it was weird, and he’s said that he wants to move on and put it behind them. Their friendship can be salvaged. Why isn’t she happy about this? Why isn’t she thrilled about this?

Just then, into her mind, unbidden, comes the memory of that night: in her mind’s eye, she sees the Rainbow Bridge sparkle in the distance, pink and yellow and blue, and she feels Loki’s lips on hers, feels the way his knee knocked against hers as he surged toward her, feels his warmth radiating across the still night . . . and then she blinks in dismay.

So that’s why she’s bothered.

She is, maybe, just the tiniest bit disappointed. She is a little disappointed that Loki isn’t going to kiss her again.

Not out of any romantic feeling; she doesn’t want him to kiss her, not in the way people usually mean that. They’re not like that, the two of them. But she can see now that maybe, deep down, she’d kind of expected him to try again, eventually, when they’d reconciled, and that possibility had her just the tiniest bit . . . curious.

There is some part of her—a part of her she barely recognizes, a part she didn’t know was there until this moment—that wants to know what it would be like if Loki kissed her. Properly kissed her, not that scared, defiant, tear-filled thing from before. This strange little part of her had been looking forward to it, just a little—just to see what it’s like.

That’s not so weird, is it? People kiss other people for worse reasons than that all the time. It’s not that weird to kiss someone out of curiosity, is it? It’s not that weird that some part of her wishes that her friend, in whom she has no interest, would kiss her, just so she could see what it’s like, right?

Of course she wouldn’t follow through on that wish. She’s just saying, it’s not weird of her to think it.

It’s not.

The boxing has done its trick; she’s suddenly tired, so she turns off the light and goes upstairs and gets back into her pajamas. She lays down, knowing that now she’ll be able to fall asleep, because she’s figured out why she was so unsettled earlier. Everything’s fine now, and she can shove that unexpected thought, that unexpected desire, into a little box in her mind, wrap it with string and set it on some tidy shelf somewhere, never to be examined again.

Because it doesn’t matter, her feeling this way, because (among so many other reasons) it’s never going to be relevant. He has assured her that he’s never going to kiss her again. So, it’s fine.

It’s absolutely fine.

Everything’s fine.

. . . . . .

Sif awakes the next morning determined that everything will be normal between her and Loki after this. And perhaps just from the force of her determination, things are relatively normal as she picks Thor and Loki up for school in her Mustang (relatively normal, that is, if she ignores the slight awkwardness in Loki’s greeting to her and her greeting to him). They’re normal when the gang goes to their favorite taco shop for lunch. They’re normal when she drives the Odinsons home after school.

And they’re normal when Loki comes by after school to help her study for her upcoming physics test, when he sits next to her at the kitchen table with his head bent over her textbook, with his long, finely-formed fingers gesturing gracefully at the pages. And if her sense of normalcy is marred by the fact that she finds herself, once or twice, staring at the movement of those hands just a little longer than is, well, normal . . . well, she thinks she manages to keep Loki from noticing. And for her part, she’s sure it’s just lingering strangeness from her surprising realization from last night. It’ll fade in time. She’s sure of it.

. . . . . .

“How do I look?” Thor asks.

“Fine,” says Hogun.

“Like you always do,” says Fandral.

“That’s not helpful at all,” Sif informs them, then turns to Thor. “You look great,” she says sincerely, and out of the corner of her eye she sees Loki shoot her a glance. She doesn’t return it.

There’s a touch of nerves in Thor’s response. “Really?”

Hildegund gives him a smile. “You are, as always, the best-looking guy at school.”

“Whoa,” laughs Fandral, shooting a glance at Volstagg. “You sure you want to say that in front of your boyfriend?”

“Oh, she’s right,” Volstagg says. “He’s definitely the best-looking guy at Asgard.”

Somehow that’s the reassurance that finally gets through to Thor, and he beams around at his friends. “Thanks, guys. I think I’m ready.”

“Good luck,” Hogun says solemnly. “Don’t say anything stupid.”

“And make sure what you do say is sincere,” Sif reminds him.

Loki chimes in then. “And stick to the plan.”

Thor nods confidently, and heads off in the direction of Jane’s locker.

“You made a plan?” Fandral asks as their friend disappears into the crowd.

“Of course,” Sif says. “Preparation is the mother of victory.”

“And without a plan,” Loki adds, “Thor is likely to go completely off the rails. Or get distracted by a shiny object.”

“Harsh,” says Volstagg. “But true.”

“That’s nice of you guys to help him,” Fandral shrugs. “But . . . seriously? Jane? All this effort to help him get back together with the biggest dork at Asgard?”

“Stop calling her that,” Sif says firmly.

“She’s cool,” Loki insists.

“Not to mention,” Hildegund points out, “if they do get back together, she’s going to be hanging out with us again, and it’s going to cause weirdness if it gets back to her and Thor that you’ve been making fun of her behind her back.”

By now, Fandral looks appropriately abashed. “Okay, sorry, that was rude,” he admits. “I just . . . I don’t get it. Thor could have literally any girl in the school. He could get girls who . . .” He hesitates. “He could get girls who are much hotter than Jane, and I’m sorry, I know that’s rude, but you know it’s true.”

“Jane is pretty,” Hogun volunteers unexpectedly. “In her way.”

And Sif shrugs. “And some people prioritize an emotional connection over, you know, getting the absolute hottest girl possible. And apparently Jane turns Thor into one of those people.”

“Definitely not my style,” Fandral says. “But I guess I can believe you that such people exist.”

“Luckily, I didn’t have to choose,” Volstagg says, slinging an arm around Hildegund’s shoulders. “I got the emotional connection plus the hotness.”

Hildegund gives him a fond, affectionate smile, and Sif fights down the smile that wants to tug at the corner of her own mouth. She doesn’t say this much—it’s a little more sentimental than is her style—but she’s always thought Hildegund and Volstagg are just the sweetest couple she’s ever seen. Hildegund is not the skinny blonde cheerleader type that football stars so often go for—she’s heavier than is fashionable, with a face that is sweet rather than stunning—and more than one person has expressed the same kind of surprise at Volstagg’s dating her that Fandral just expressed at Thor and Jane. But for all that, and even after their being together for years now, Volstagg still looks at Hildegund like she hung the moon.

In her secret heart of hearts, Sif has long wished for the same sort of relationship: someone who loves her, faithfully and steadily, even if she doesn’t conform to certain expectations about female beauty (specifically, that she’s a girl who’s also a tough football player, which is something that a lot of guys have trouble getting past). Someone who loves her despite her imperfections and rough edges.

With that thought rattling around in her head, it’s no surprise that when Hildegund asks “What about you, Sif? Do you think an emotional connection or physical attraction matters more?”, Sif promptly chooses the former.

“I mean,” she points out reasonably, “I went for looks when I dated Haldor, and look at how well that turned out.”

Once again, from the corner of her eye she sees Loki glance at her—or maybe she just feels his gaze. Either way, she’s strangely aware of his presence all the sudden.

“And what about you, Loki?” Hildegund asks.

Loki’s answer comes out light and teasing. “I’m just having trouble finding girls at this school who haven’t already dated Thor.”

Everyone laughs at that, even Hogun, but there’s something in Loki’s manner that speaks to Sif of a great deal that he’s not saying.

And normally, she’s content to let Loki have his secrets. But today, she finds herself wondering just what it is that he’s keeping to himself.

. . . . . .

The Jane plan goes off without a hitch: the apology goes well enough that she agrees to go get ice cream with Thor so they can talk, and the ice cream goes well enough that she agrees to a dinner date, and by the end of the week, the quarterback is once again carrying the valedictorian’s books for her. That weekend she comes to the Governor’s Mansion to watch a movie with Sif and the Odinsons, and when Thor comes down to the rec room carrying the pizza that was just delivered, he grins broader than Sif has seen in ages when his eyes fall on his girlfriend and his brother.

“This is the best night ever,” he declares warmly, dropping the boxes unceremoniously on the table so he can reach out and hook one arm around Jane’s shoulders; she goes very willingly to his side, with a sweet smile on her face.

Loki, turning from where he was getting the movie ready, looks baffled. “Why do you say—” he begins, and then huffs in surprise as he finds himself pulled into a hug on Thor’s other side.

“My brother is home, and my girlfriend is giving me another chance,” Thor beams. “And this is the first time that things have been okay with both of you at the same time. How could this be anything but the best night ever?”

Jane just keeps smiling; Sif gets the impression, from her behavior this week, that she’s been missing Thor as much as Thor has missed her. Loki has a pleased little smile on his face too, but he also looks like he’s being squeezed uncomfortably tightly by Thor’s massive arm.

Thor’s gaze falls on Sif. “And my best friend is here too, of course!” he says. “Come on Sif, group hug.”

“I think I’m good,” Sif says, at which Thor fixes her with a serious look.

“You have to join the group hug,” he insists.

Loki’s starting to look very uncomfortable with the angle he has to bend his spine at in order to fit under Thor’s arm. “Please, Sif, before he crushes us.”

“Fine,” Sif sighs, and steps forward.

Thor grins and adjusts his grip, so instead of the three of them standing in a line, it’s the four of them in a circle. Jane puts her arm around Sif’s shoulders, and after a few moments, Loki puts his arm carefully around Sif’s waist.

“First semester kind of sucked,” Thor announces. “In some ways. But second semester is going to be the best semester ever. Right, guys?”

“Sure,” says Sif, with a fond eye roll, even as some impish voice in the back of her mind points out that this is the closest she’s ever been to Jane’s face, but it’s definitely not the closest she’s ever been to Thor’s or Loki’s.

“If you say so, Thor,” says Loki with a little smile, and Sif almost jumps, because being pressed up so close to Loki’s side, with her arm across his back and his across her waist, means that when he speaks she can actually feel his voice rumbling through his upper body, and it sends a sudden sensation through her, something like nerves or butterflies, that makes something in her stomach flutter in a not-unpleasant way.

Which is why she immediately steps out of the hug. “That’s enough hugging,” she says firmly. “I want pizza and Jurassic Park.”

The others laughingly comply, and Sif focuses all her attention on getting the slice of pizza with the most sausage on it before Thor does. But she can’t distract herself forever, and as “Universal Pictures Presents” appears on screen with that familiar ominous music, she can’t stop the thought that keeps pricking at the back of her mind:

What the heck was that?

. . . . . .

In early February Tyr leaves on a lengthy business trip. When Sif was younger, she’d stay at the Governor’s Mansion when her father went away, but she’s been looking after herself during his business trips for a while now. But he’s particularly worried this time, as this is his longest trip in ages: a week in Japan to finalize things with his collaborators, a week at the defense conference, and a week in DC after. But as Sif points out, she’s eighteen years old, this isn’t the first time she’s looked after herself, and Frigga is right next door and will not let her starve or die or anything.

And as Sif predicted, Frigga invites her over for dinner every single night, which is nice because the food is so much better than the frozen pizzas she’d be eating otherwise. The lineup of attendees at these meals changes from day to day; it’s always Frigga and Loki, but Odin is often off doing important governor things, and Thor eats over at Jane’s occasionally. But that’s not so bad because the trade-off is that Jane eats over at Thor’s occasionally as well, and Sif is coming to really enjoy her company.

And it’s nice even when it's just Frigga and Loki, if she ignores how weirdly intimate it feels any time Frigga excuses herself to answer the phone or use the bathroom or get something from the kitchen and then it’s just Loki and Sif, facing each other across the table like . . . like this is a date, or something absurd like that.

Being over at the Governor’s Mansion so much means that she and Loki do all their tutoring there, but sometimes she only needs his help for a few minutes, so after a few days this morphs into her and Loki doing their homework together at the kitchen table, which after a few days morphs into Thor and Jane doing their homework there as well, and before long they have become one big study group. Loki helps Sif with her physics, Jane helps Loki with his calculus, everyone helps Thor with, well, everything, and no one knows any subjects well enough to be of any use to Jane.

“I don’t mind,” she smiles. “It’s just nice to have a quiet place to do my homework. My siblings are kind of crazy.”

It’s at one of these study nights that Thor points out that it’ll be Valentine’s Day on Friday, three days hence. He, of course, will be taking Jane out for a romantic (and expensive) dinner. “Do you have any plans, Loki?”

Loki gives his brother a very eloquent look. “Do you really think I’m the type to celebrate Valentine’s Day?” he drawls.

Thor shrugs cheerfully. “No time like the present to start!” He glances over at Sif. “You and Sif could hang out,” he suggests. “I bet she’s available.”

Now it’s Jane’s turn to give him a look; it’s not nearly to elegant and communicative as Loki’s, of course, but then, Sif thinks, who can ever match Loki for expressive looks? “Why don’t you check with Sif to see if she has plans before you just volunteer her?”

Which Sif appreciates, because she has to admit, it stings just a little to see her best friend so blithely confident that she couldn’t possibly have a date for the most romantic night of the year.

“All right,” he agrees. “Sif, do you have any plans for Valentine’s Day?” he asks in a tone that says he thinks he already knows the answer.

And she gets a certain amount of satisfaction at being able to inform him that she does, in fact, have a date, and watching the surprise and slight embarrassment on his face at his hasty assumption.

On the other side of the table, Loki shifts in his seat, his gaze fixed on his calculus textbook.

“Who with?” Jane asks.

“Leir,” Sif informs her.

“From the track team?” Thor asks, and when Sif nods, he chuckles. “You sure do have a type, Sif.”

“He’s a cute guy,” Jane says supportively.

“I think so too,” Sif says. And he really is. Of course, she’s not sure there’s much to him other than his face and his ability to run a four-minute mile, but hey, a date’s a date, and it’s not like she had other offers.

It’s not too long after that when Sif finds herself alone with Jane; the boys have been summoned upstairs by Frigga, who needs to talk with them about something. Six months ago Sif would have had no idea what to say to the smartest girl in school, but she’s been surprised to find how much she enjoys Jane’s company recently. In a way, they’re very similar: they’re both driven, and ambitious, and accustomed to having to work twice as hard as the guys around them just to be taken seriously. They just differ in their chosen fields: Sif does sports, and Jane does science.

“I feel like I should apologize for Thor being so . . . Thor earlier,” Jane chuckles. “But then you’ve known him way longer than I have, so I’m sure there’s not much he can do that’d surprise you.”

Other than that kiss, Jane’s absolutely right. Sif just smiles. “I wasn’t insulted. Thor was just . . . being Thor, like you said.” She hesitates, and then her innate sense of fairness forces her to add, “And in his defense, it’s not like I go on all that many dates, so it’s not that weird that he’d assume I didn’t have one.”

Jane looks genuinely surprised at that. “Seriously?” she asks, and when Sif nods, she leans back in her chair, eyebrows lifted. “Wow,” she says, with that blunt forthrightness that occasionally bubbles to the surface when she forgets herself. “I assumed you were dating, like, all the time. I mean, you’re so popular! And you hang out with all the popular students!”

Sif considers a moment, and then decides to be honest. Jane has become something of a friend recently, plus she suspects that the girl will sympathize. “Honestly, not really,” she admits. “On the dating thing, I mean. A lot of guys just find me intimidating, or they’re put off by the idea of dating a girl who’s stronger than them. And then the ones I’m friends with . . . I don’t think dating really crosses their mind. They just see me as one of the guys, you know?”

For a brief moment—the space between breaths—there’s that feeling in her stomach again, the one that was a constant companion when she was twelve or thirteen and not as self-assured as she is now, the one that always told her that she wasn’t girly enough, not flirty enough, not charismatic enough to ever be the sort of girl that guys went for. But the moment passes quickly and she says, confidently and genuinely, “Which I’m not really shedding any tears over. Any guy who’s put off by a girl being stronger than him, or better than him at sports—I mean, screw him. I don’t want to date a guy like that anyway.” She shrugs. “But it does mean I don’t go on all that many dates.” Then she hesitates, then finds herself adding wryly, “Haldor . . . he had some serious faults. But to his credit, he wasn’t put off by any of that, at all. He loved lifting weights with me and bragging to the other guys how strong his girlfriend was.”

Turns out she was right about Jane, because her companion is nodding in understanding. “I know what you mean,” she says, then amends quickly, “Not about sports. But I’ve had guys be seriously put off because I’m smarter than them. It sucks that we live in a society that tells men that they always have to be dominant and women that they have to be submissive. Like, I’m not going to pretend to be less than I am so that some guy gets to feel more macho.”

“I’ll drink to that,” says Sif, and lifts her glass of milk in a joking toast.

Jane follows suit and they clink their glasses together. Then she hesitates a moment, then adds, “That’s what I like best about Thor, really. He’s not bothered at all that I’m so much smarter than him; he thinks it’s amazing. So now we just need to find a guy who feels the same way about you and sports.”

“Good luck,” Sif snorts. “Seriously, if you don’t count my Homecoming date with Loki, I’ve been on . . .” She takes a moment to think back. “One date since I broke up with Haldor. Leir will be number two. In an entire semester.”

There’s a moment where Jane looks at her, a strange look on her face, and she opens her mouth like she’s going to say something, and then seems to change her mind.

“What?” Sif asks.

“It’s just . . . maybe people think you’re dating Thor.”

Sif blinks.

“I mean, I always did,” says Jane. “Before I knew you guys. Like, even when I’d see him obviously with other girls, a week later he’d be back to walking around the school with his arm around your shoulder. So I figured . . . I see now that you’re just best friends and Thor’s super touchy-feely, but it sure looks like dating from the outside. Maybe other people assume the same. Maybe other guys would have asked you out but they assumed you were with Thor.”

Sif considers this, frowning. “That could be possible,” she admits.

Jane looks at the table for a moment then, before asking in a voice that is not quite as casual as she seems to be going for, “Did you? Ever date Thor, I mean?”

Into Sif’s mind flashes the memory of that night, that one kiss with Thor, but she quickly decides not to mention it. If Jane is going to hear about it from anyone, it should be Thor. Besides, it was a momentary aberration, and nothing came of it, and anyway Thor and Jane were broken up then so it’s not like he was cheating. “Nope,” she says. “We’ve never even been on a date.”

Jane nods, but before she can speak they hear the guys’ footsteps coming down the stairs. The four of them finish their homework, but there’s something on Jane’s mind still; Sif can see it in the way she keeps getting distracted from her textbook, and the way she keeps looking up at the rest of them.

But she doesn’t find out what it is until the evening is over. Sif gathers up her things to go home, and Jane announces she’d better go too. She kisses Thor goodbye—he tries to convince her to stay longer, or to go out for ice cream with him, but she reminds him she’s got an early morning tomorrow—and follows Sif out of the house, and the two of them make small talk out in the cold dark night until they reach Jane’s car, parked out on the street.

“Can I ask you something?” Jane says, and Sif, surprised but willing, comes to a stop.

“Sure.”

“Earlier, when you were talking about how many dates you’ve been on this year, you said ‘If you don’t count my Homecoming date with Loki.’ Why don’t you count that one?”

“Because I asked him,” Sif explains. “So it doesn’t count in terms of guys asking me out.”

“Ah,” says Jane in tones of understanding. “I didn’t realize you’d asked him.”

“Have you not heard that story?” Sif asks. “Haldor dumped me two days before the dance. Over text, no less. I already had the dress and everything and I wanted to go, so I talked Loki into coming with me.”

“Oh, I’d always assumed he was the one to ask you.” She hesitates, then asks, “If he had. Asked you to the dance, I mean. Would you . . .”

Sif raises an eyebrow.

“Would you ever consider dating Loki?” Jane asks. “That’s what I’m trying to get at, really. Would you?”

“Date Loki?” Sif repeats blankly.

“Yeah,” Jane shrugs. “I just . . . I don’t know, I’ve been watching you two lately, and I think you’d be cute together. I mean, you’ve known each other for ever, and you get along so well, and you sort of—you complement each other, you know? Plus I get the feeling that he’d be the type not to be intimidated by the fact that you could totally beat him up.”

All Sif can do for a moment is blink. “I . . . guess that’s true.”

“And he makes you smile. And sometimes he just looks at you like . . .” Jane trails off, looking embarrassed. “Have I been seeing something that isn’t there?”

Part of Sif wants nothing more than to demand, “Looks at me like what?” But that would make Jane believe something that isn’t true: that there is something there. Or at least the potential of something. And there isn’t. There isn’t.

Isn’t there? asks some part of her mind, maybe the part that wanted him to kiss her again.

No, there isn’t, she tells herself; I don't think of him that way.

Why not?

And okay, this conversation has gotten uncomfortable. It needs to end.

“We’ve never been like that,” she finally tells Jane, although she fears that the suspiciously long pause between Jane’s last question and her answer is not going to convince Jane to believe her. “He’s a good guy, but he’s like a brother to me.”

And Jane doesn’t quite believe her; even in the dim light of the streetlamp, Sif can tell that much. But she politely says, “Well, I still think you should think about it. You guys would be great together. Anyway, see you at school tomorrow.”

And she gets into her car and leaves, and Sif goes home and gets ready for bed. But it’s a long time before she can sleep. Her mind won’t quiet down, won’t stop obsessively examining that conversation, repeating parts of it over and over.

Looks at me like what? Looks at me like WHAT?

Isn’t there some potential there?

Why not?

And that’s the question that haunts her, the question that she keeps coming back to: her and Loki . . . why not? She's never even let herself consider the possibility, but . . . why not?

. . . . . .