It took Sif a while to suspect that she might be in exile, for if that is what is was, it seemed like a remarkably soft one.
At first there was a stream of small errands to be accomplished, all of which took her away from Asgard and kept her there. And then finally she was basically set adrift (with a card that connected to an account with seeming inexhaustible credits) to “keep an eye on the doings of the galaxy.” No real guidance was provided as to where she was to do this, or what exactly she was looking for, if anything. The assignment was an open-ended one, she was told. But she would be sent for, soon.
She understood. The affair of the Dark Elves had been a an awkward one, for everyone involved. She had committed treason, after all. If Odin wished her to cool her heels in space for a time, she thought it was a very gentle reprimand indeed.
Asgard had left her well provided for. If she liked, she could settle herself in a comfortable corner of the cosmos, and wait for Odin to forgive her. But she had been raised to action, and accustomed to it for all of her life. Idleness did not come easily to her.
So she passed the time in a variety of interesting occupations. She tended bar, here and there. She spent some time working security on a space station, and she signed onto multiple multiple freight runs, which allowed her to zip back and forth across the endless gulf of ink and gold that spread between the planets of known space.
For the past three months she had been the second mate on a big, battered chunk of an ore freighter improbably named the Pixie.
Tonight the Pixie was on a two week layover, docked for repairs, and Sif was at her liberty.
The planet she was on was an interplanetary shipping hub, a place of noise and color, full of strange languages and even stranger people. Sif blended right into the masses of merchants, sailors, poets and fugitives.
The days were hot and bright with the light of double suns, known locally as the Hero Twins. The nights were warm and soft and heavy with the humid air blown in off the sea. Most of the planet was sea, dotted here and there with a few heavily populated islands.
Since this place was the closest thing that Sif had to a home base these days, she rented a villa that sat nearly at the edge of a cliff. At the foot of the cliff the sea whispered, gentle as a tame doe.
The rooms of the villa were arranged around a central courtyard, and in the center of that courtyard was a fountain, made of worn and yellowed marble. Water flowed out of a carved fish's open mouth at the top, and actual fish with opalescent green scales lived in the basin.
Around the fountain a small garden ran cheerfully rampant. Roses, azaleas, gardenias, lilac trees and night blooming jasmine all grew together in gorgeous tangles. In amidst all this color and scent, a single thorn tree grew, squat and twisted and rather ugly. It never seemed to grow leaves or to bloom, but sometimes it wept sweet golden tears of myrrh.
Sometimes a little brown night-bird sat in the branches of the thorn tree, and cast its song into the soft purple night like handfuls of silver coin.
When Sif woke in the middle of the night, she thought at first that it was one of the pure, bright trills from the thorn tree that had awakened her. Then she rolled onto her side, and there he was, sitting on the edge of the bed.
She did not have to wonder if he was truly there, in the flesh. It was very clear that he was not. For one thing, he was slightly transparent. She could just make out the dresser on the other side of the room through his profile. For another, he was strangely vivid in the darkened room, as though his skin and hair has a soft pearlescent glow to them. His clothing, too, was bright, as though his cloak and tunic and trousers all had a little starlight sewn into the wool and leather.
For a few moments she lay very still, just looking at him. The breeze blew in at the open window behind her, stirring his familiar mane of dark hair, and the folds of his cloak. Moonlight trickled in through the window too, its soft radiance blending with his.
“Why are you here?” Sif asked at last.
Loki tilted his head to one side, and looked at her quizzically. “Why do you think I am?”
The sound of his voice tightened her throat, and forced her to blink against a sudden burning in her eyes. All she could do was shake her head.
He shifted a little, turning so that he could lean against the foot of the bed.
“Let's see.” His voice was soft, and as much as part of the night as the whisper of wind in the white lace curtains, or the distant susurrus of the sea. “Why do ghosts usually come back to trouble the living? To finish something left undone. To right a wrong. To tell a secret. Or perhaps just to say goodbye.”
Sif sat up and wrapped both arms around her pillow. It wasn't much of an anchor, but it would have to do.
“You left one out. A ghost could come back to punish someone that wronged him in life. A faithless lover, perhaps.”
His eyebrows shot up to his hairline. “Faithless? Have I missed something?”
“Loki.” She blinked, and felt hot tears well from her eyes and start to fall. “How many years did you spend loving me? How long were you and I joined at the heart?”
The look in his eyes grew unfocused, and far away, as though he were looking back on those years.
“A long, long, time,” he said at last.
“And how many times did I come to see you, when you were in the dungeons?” The tears were coming faster now, blurring his bright image. She dashed them away with rough, impatient fingers. “And what was the last thing I ever said to you?”
“Sif.” He reached out to touch her hand. She did not feel his skin against hers. Instead she felt a warmth against her hand, as though a beam of sunlight were falling upon it. “I understand. What you said to me before I left with Thor for Svaltheimr was very to the point. As for the dungeons, I did not expect to see you there. Visitors were not encouraged, you know.”
“I know,” she whispered. “I wish I had found a way to see you, though, even if it was just once. I thought...I thought there would be more time. I never imagined your father meant to keep you locked away forever, no matter what he said. I thought you would be freed in time, and we would be together. I never ...”
“Neither did I.” He leaned toward her again, and this time the sunlit warmth of his touch slid over her tear-stained cheek. “I am surely not here to punish you, my love. I just wish to spend a day or two with you. Of course, if I am troubling you by being here...”
“No!” She reached for him instinctively, but her hand passed right through his and landed on the bed. “Don't go, please don't go! Stay with me as long as you like. Stay with me forever, if you can.”
“Forever is longer than I can manage, I fear. A couple of days is the best that I can do.”
“Then I will take it, and gladly. Thank you, Loki.”
He grinned his old, sparkling grin, and her heart stuttered in her chest.
“Don't thank me yet. You may not find being haunted to your liking. Now, you should really settle down and try to get some more sleep. I did not mean to wake you. I didn't have complete control over when I would manifest, you see.”
She didn't, really, but she didn't need to. “Will you stay here with me?”
Sif lay back on the pillows, and Loki curled up beside her. It was not quite like being able to nestle into his arms, but both his soft glow and the warmth that he radiated were soothing. She rolled onto her side so that they were nearly nose to nose.
“I never thought I would share a bed with you again,” she told him.
“I wish we could do more than just lie in it together, but one cannot have everything, I suppose.”
“I do have everything. I have you.”
“Sif.” She watched glowing tears well in his eyes. When he blinked, they tumbled brightly down his cheeks, like shooting stars. “What am I to do with you?”
“Whatever you want, as long as you are here with me.”
He laid his hand on her chest, above her heart, and warmth seemed to fill her, from the crown of her head to the soles of her feet.
“Go to sleep, love,” he said.
And perhaps there was some magic left in him yet, for she did just that.
Sif woke to a room filled with light. The twin suns were newly risen, and the sweet purple night was gone.
So was Loki. The spot beside her in the bed was empty.
Had he left her, despite his promises? Or had he vanished at dawn, like mist burned away by the sun?
No, she thought. The simplest answer was usually the correct one.
She had dreamed the whole thing.
Suddenly she felt unutterably weary. She rolled over, and burrowed under the covers.
“Odd. I remembered you being an early riser.”
Sif's eyes snapped open, and she jerked upright. Loki was lounging in the faded blue armchair in the corner.
By daylight he was a little faded himself. He did not shine as he had by night, and he was a little harder to see, a little more transparent. But he was there.
He smiled, his eyes twinkling in that achingly familiar way. “That's the thing about ghosts. Just when you think you're rid of them, they turn up again.”
“I think I can learn to live with that.” She stood and stretched, all of her weariness forgotten. Suddenly it was the most beautiful morning she had seen in a long, long time. “Come and haunt me while I make breakfast.”
He followed her into the kitchen, and drifted here and there as she put the kettle on, and made oatmeal.
As she often did, she took her breakfast out to the courtyard. She sat on the edge of the fountain, and Loki settled beside her like a feather coming to rest. He leaned down to admire the bright green fish, and he trailed his hand in the water. As she watched, one of the fish swam right through his palm.
“So, last night you told me all sorts of reasons why you might have come back to the world of the living, and the one thing that you did not come back for, but you never did tell me why you are here.”
“Isn't missing you enough of a reason?”
“Maybe, but I think there is something you aren't telling me.” A deeply unpleasant thought occurred to her.
“Are you here because … because the place you were before was not good?”
He stopped playing with the fish, and looked her squarely in the eye. “No! Not at all. The place that I came from is nothing like what I feared it would be. It's better than anything I had dared to dream of. No description I could give you would do it justice. It is a place of perfect peace.”
She wished for the thousandth time that she could actually touch him. She had to settle for laying her hand in the same place that his hand occupied on the fountain's edge. Her hand was enveloped in warmth, as though she had plunged it into a warm bath.
“Was your mother there?” she asked softly.
“Yes. Oh yes. And my … and everyone who had ever gone before me.”
“So you were in paradise, at your mother's side, and you left to come to me? Just because you missed me?”
Loki sighed. “I did miss you terribly, you must believe that. As for why I have chosen here and now to come to you, there is a reason, but I would rather not speak if it now.”
Now it was Sif's turn to sigh. She knew from vast and varied personal experience that if he didn't want to tell her something, there would be no prying it out of him.
Besides, it didn't really matter what had brought him to her, as long as she could look into his eyes and hear his voice. She had no intention of wasting one second of the time they had together in fretting or arguing. She would treasure every moment he could stay with her. After all, the memories would have to last her a lifetime.
“You're tired, aren't you?” Sif asked softly.
They had spent the entirety of the day together. She had taken him into town, and shown him the great steel hulk that was the Pixie as she sat in dry dock, being fussed over like a great lady in a salon.
She had led him through dusty streets, past rusty red terra-cotta roofs and stucco facades in improbable shades; blinding white, flamingo pink, electric blue.
She showed him the market place with its countless colorful stalls and its vendors crying out in sing-song voices about their wares; everything from parrots and pots to rose petals, new wine and fresh bread to love potions.
She had even dragged him into the dim and smokey interior of her favorite tavern, where he sat by her side as she polished off a plate of roast beef and a pint.
(She was not sure if anyone could see him but her. If they did, they made no comment. It was, after all, a very strange place, and people in such places learn to keep their own counsel.)
As the afternoon light turned thick and golden, they made their way to the beach, down a long staircase carved into the cliff face below her villa. Now the twin suns were sinking into the sea in blaze of lavender and mint green, pure and lucent as colored glass.
Beside her, Loki sat leaning against a large chunk of granite rising out of the milk white sand. His color and his light were growing more vivid again with the coming of night, but his face was pale and drawn. He drooped bonelessly against the stone, like an unwatered flower.
“Perhaps a little,” he admitted.
“Then it is costing you, to be here with me?”
He smiled, and his weary eyes brightened. “Yes, but it is a cost that I would gladly pay a hundred times over.”
They sat together in companionable silence as the twin suns sank away into the water, and the white moon rose from it to take their place. The last of the sunset washed from the sky, and the purple night became complete. Stars blossomed above the sea, and the breakers were frosted with silver.
Far above them in Sif's garden, the little brown night-bird began to sing. A few notes tumbled down to them on the beach. Perhaps a few of them fell upward into the plum-colored sky, to become new stars.
Then another sound found its way to Sif's ears, rising above the night-bird and the clean susurrus of the waves, and the thin silver song of the stars.
Screams. Borne on the wind from the direction of the town.
She was on her feet in a moment, her handing falling automatically to the hilt of the dagger at her hip.
Loki rose in a single fluid motion, and she felt the disembodied warmth of his hand on hers.
“No, Sif,” he said. “This battle is not for you.”
She opened her mouth to ask him what he meant by that, but at that moment strange sensations began to sweep over her. She suddenly felt sick, dizzy. Then an odd burning tingle began at her toes, and started to work it's way up her legs.
“Look at me, Sif.” Loki's tone was gentle, but it was commanding as well. She could not have looked away if she'd wanted to.
As she watched, tears welled in his eyes, and fell like drops of silver fire.
“Look at me, love, only at me. Don't be afraid.”
But she was afraid, so afraid. She closed her eyes, and felt herself loosing something, something that there would be no living without. There was a brief, brilliant pain.
And then, from one heartbeat to the next, the fear and the pain were gone. It seemed that whatever she had lost was not so very important, after all.
Sif opened her eyes, and her first thought was that Loki must have come back to life.
He still shone as if he were lit from within, but there was nothing transparent about him now. The hands so tightly gripping her own were solid flesh and blood, as real as hers.
As real as hers.
She looked down and saw that her own skin glowed with the same gentle radiance as his.
At her feet was a pile of something on the white sand. It looked like a drift of fine brown ash.
She looked back up into Loki's eyes, and suddenly she understood it all.
“This is why you came,” she said. “You are here to take me home.”
He nodded, as more tears trickled down his cheeks. “You would have been all alone otherwise and I ... I could not bear that thought. You see now why I wouldn't tell you. I wanted your last day to be a happy one.”
“Yes. Of course you did.” She could feel her own tears beginning to well hot in her eyes.
“Thank you, Loki,” she whispered.
He laid his hand against her cheek. “I have so many things to show you, my love. This is not the end. It is the beginning of forever.”
He pulled her close and crushed his lips to hers. Her hands rose to tangle in his hair.
There was a flash of white light, and then they were gone.
On the empty beach, the full moon rose higher, and drew up the tide to wash away the drift of ash, leaving only pure white sand. Above in the garden, the night-bird began a new song. And as it sang, buds began to open on the twisted branches of the little thorn tree, revealing blossoms as white as the face of the moon, with centers as bright as gold.