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Lying Tongues

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In the morning, as was his routine, Loki slicked his hair back. The ends turned at his neck. He'd never got the trick of pulling all the spring out. Twisting the curls in his hand, he knotted them together with a ribbon. The effect lacked dignity; his hair was too short to really tie back. But for his purposes, would it do? He smiled at his reflection.

Thor waited, impatient as ever, in the small antechamber which looked out on the city. At Loki's approach he lunged off the sofa and came for him with an outspread arm. "Brother!" said Thor. Loki suffered the pains of familial affection with accustumed grace. The warriors three were not quite so expressive in their welcomes.

"We have been waiting for you," Thor went on cheerfully. He slapped Loki's shoulder again. "Now we must need only await Sif's arrival, and our party will be ready."

"Is she not here yet?"

Loki made a point of looking about the room. Volstagg lounging before the fire, Fandral tossing his sword about, Hogun ever grim looking ever grimmer in the shadows.

"How odd," said Loki. "I would have thought her to be the first to arrive."

"Do you think perhaps she's ill?" asked Volstagg, worried. He'd looked up from the fire at this. "She has been awful slow to rise in the mornings of late."

"I'm certain she's well," Thor assured them both. "If she were sick, she'd get up even earlier so no one would know. You know how she is."

"Know how who is?" demanded Sif from the door.

As Thor left Loki to box Sif about her shoulders, which demonstration she repelled with a box of her own, Loki allowed a moment to assess.

Face flushed, but that was the last of the sunburn from the week before. Her eyes were their usual plain hazel, no notable feverish glitter to them. She'd pulled her hair back, knotted it high but inelegantly, dark wisps at her cheeks, throat. Sleep rumpled her eyes. Loki turned a yawn into a muted sigh and flicked his gaze away.

"Then as we are all accounted for," Thor said, "let's be on our way."

Fandral threw his sword up so it flipped and caught it by the ornamented handle. He sheathed the blade.

"At last. I was beginning to think we'd be waiting all day for you two to show."

Loki bowed his head. "My sincerest apologies for making you wait."

"I have nothing to apologize for," said Sif archly. She glanced sidelong at Loki, as if to throw him over, then her mouth tightened. The redness of her cheeks deepened.

"Your sunburn is terrible," said Loki with such sincerity even his own tongue curdled. "Have you spoken with Eir's healers?"

"Please," said Thor, "no fighting today, not with each other. Save your swords for the beasts."

Loki brought his hand to his chest then tipped it out, acknowledging the incredible wisdom of Thor. Sif only frowned.

"My friends!" Thor threw his hand out to encompass them all. "Let us not keep the hunt waiting any longer."

The warriors three rose from their places to join Thor, and Loki followed. Sif lingered. Her wide mouth bunched. She paced him down the corridor. Their shoulders neared but did not brush.

"And what bothers the lady Sif on so fine an occasion?" murmured Loki.

She faced forward. Not once did she look at him. Had Thor or any one of the three warriors who flanked him glanced back, what would they have seen? Only Sif walking beside Loki, and a silence which was more than distance between them.

"You've worn your hair back," she said lowly.

"As have you," said Loki. "We should hurry, lest we be forgot."

He lengthened his strides and took his place amongst the others, the lean shadow at the farthest right. Sif joined Hogun and Volstagg at Thor's left. She showed in glimpses between them. The angle of her jaw was harsh. A loose strand of hair shivered along her nape.

Oh, yes, he thought. The ribbon had done quite nicely.


The northern continent of the second satellite of Svartálfaheimr was a dry, barren place but for the swath of rainforest which cut down the eastern coastline and protruded into the continent's heart. A charm for cool air was on Loki's lips the moment the Bifröst left them. Even that small magic was not enough. Ten steps into the vicious undergrowth, the humidity a sweltering thing crushing him in its thick embrace, and Loki had never more desperately wished to stick his head in a bucket of ice.

"Do you see now why I and Hogun dressed so lightly?" asked Fandral.

Volstagg, puffing, straightened under his armor. "When we face the beasts and you scalliwags have nothing to guard your chests--" He exhaled violently.

"You need not overexert yourself," said Hogun.

Sif drew near to Loki. She'd walked second to Thor for a distance, shadowing him between the twisting trees, like a jungle cat prowling the riotous green before she'd dropped back. Sweat blistered her neck, her lip, her jaw which still peeled at the corners from her burn.

"Are you wilting?" she asked. "Would you like for me to call Heimdall that he might rescue you?"

"Your concern touches me," said Loki, "but I'm afraid it's misplaced. Unless, of course, you are questioning the wisdom of this venture."

Sif smiled at him. It was the particular predator's smile which showed just a hint of her top front teeth, the sort of a smile a jungle cat might show before it went for the throat. Loki had worn a low collar in deference to the heat.

"I enjoy it," she said. "Your brother enjoys it, too."

Thor marched on through the underbrush, Mjolnir at his side. If either the heat or the humidity bothered him, he didn't show it.

"Thor enjoys many things," said Loki, in such a way as to make it very clear what he thought of a number of things Thor enjoyed. The rainforest was but one.

There were her teeth again, a little sharp flash at the rightmost corner of her lips. Right for the jugular, he hoped. She was ever so efficient.

"And what is it Loki Pestertongue enjoys?"

"'Silvertongue' is the preferred nomenclature," he said respectfully.

He'd the pleasure of her mouth turning upon itself at that. A lean muscle in her throat went leaner. Her eyes had narrowed: a warning, perhaps. Or perhaps an invitation. He pitched his voice lower.

"Surely you know there is little I enjoy so much as the present company."

"And surely you know this is not the place," said Sif.

"Hm?" He blinked owlishly at her. "Oh. I referred to our full retinue."

"Your hair's curling," she said. "You might as well take the ribbon out."

He demurred. "It's so much tidier this way." He thought to say, And the ribbon? How do you like it? but there was no subtlety to that. Instead he said, "I like what you've done with your hair. Though I'm afraid you missed a few strands."

Loki touched the wisp nearest to her ear. As if burned, Sif snapped her head away from him. His finger rested a fractional moment in the air where her cheek had been, then smoothly he withdrew his hand.

"You should see what Thor's up to," he said. "He'll need someone to keep him from falling headfirst into a bog."

"You're his brother," said Sif.

"Ah," said Loki, "but you're his dearest friend."

Sif snorted. "The heat is getting to you," she said, but she did leave Loki then. She did go to Thor, passing between the tightly wound trees, so light on her feet, her hair shining darkly in the shadows.

The heat stuck to him, the wetness in the air clinging. As Sif had said, the curls at his neck had begun to thicken. If it was not already useless, the ribbon would be soon. He left it in. Would that he'd worn white instead of a darker shade of green, but white stood out and Loki had no wish to. The grounds were thickly shadowed, the layers of the canopy so tightly woven twilight prevailed even in the brighter hours of the afternoon. In the trees small things scurried, and in their scurrying they set the fat leaves to trembling. Water droplets spilled out of one leaf. Loki caught a few on his hand. He rubbed the water off on his brow.

The jovial mood gave way to the hunt and to the crushing jungle. Even Fandral's mustache began to droop. Hogun, watchful, kept pace with Volstagg, who pushed on in spite of his armor. Earlier enthusiasm made for a more difficult trek. Whatever beasts may have lingered after the Bifröst's thunderous discharge had fled before Thor's noisy approach. Caution, Loki would have said to Thor and perhaps Thor would have listened, but Loki'd other thoughts at the time, ones with long, dark hair and square jaws.

Loki slid his hand about the back of his neck, sweat-slick, unbearably hot. The ribbon's tail rasped beneath his thumb. Chilling, he whispered, and the relief as it slithered out of his fingers and into his skin was such he fluttered his eyes closed. Oh, to be somewhere cool again. He thought of his bed with its crisp, clean, cold sheets, then he thought of another thing entirely, then, as this next thought threatened to undo his charm, a certain quiet caught him.

The scurrying in the trees behind them had gone. The small beasts, which had walked on in the lower canopies above their party, had stilled. Loki flicked a finger out from his nape. His shadow slimmed and extended, then a portion of it split off and darted into the undergrowth. The others walked on.

The scout dropped out of a tree and rejoined his shadow. Something was stalking them. Loki had an idea of what.

He hooked his fingers and his shadow leapt up to him. Loki wrapped it around himself as a cloak; to the eye, he would look to be but a trick of the light, an elongated shadow thrown by a warped branch. In silence, in shadow, he cut through the trees to Thor, nearest, and touched his shoulder.

Thor began to turn. When he saw nothing, he made to speak.

"Save your breath, brother," Loki whispered quickly. "Something large is following us. I would suggest you draw your hammer before it's upon us."

The fight kindled in Thor. He spoke as quickly, if not as quietly. "You are certain? What size? Does it travel alone?"

"Large," said Loki again. "Perhaps more than one, but I couldn't tell."

Thor bared his teeth in a grin. "Let us hope it brought its own company. Tell the others. I will hunt for it."

"Try not to do anything stupid," said Loki, though he knew it a lost cause. Experience had taught him as much, and if it had not, the way in which Thor set out before Loki had even finished would have showed him the error of his well wishes.

"I know you're there, Loki," said Sif at his back.

Loki turned. She could not see him, he knew - her eyes flicked about, searching - but when had that ever kept Sif from finding him?

"Perhaps you only imagine I'm here," he said. "You brought water, but how much of it have you drunk?"

"I'm not the one melting into his own shadow," said Sif, who would never be so foolish as to forsake water in heat. "What is it Thor's gone off to do?"

"To hunt," said Loki. "You would do best to follow him. I've the warriors three to speak with."

"I don't need you to tell me to go," she said sharply, but the fight was upon her, too, and she drew her glaive free of the strap on her back. The muscles thick in her arms tensed. "You did remember to bring your knives?"

He had meant to vanish coolly, to leave her wondering if she'd spoken to only the air. The thin light which slipped through the canopies painted her face in spots. The line of her smirk was teasing.

"Be careful," he said.

Her nose wrinkled. Her left eye creased, pinched with her smile.

"Oh, please," she said.

Then she pivoted on her toes and threaded through the trees, hot after Thor. Traces of light flashed off the blade of her glaive; they caught in Loki's eye. He turned.

"See!" said Volstagg when Loki spoke with the warriors three. "I told you our quest was not in vain."

"You said no such thing," said Fandral. "You said you hoped it not a fool's errand."

"The sentiment is the same," Volstagg declared.

"Thor has gone ahead," said Hogun: statement, question.

"You know he would not wait," said Loki.

"Then we go," Hogun said, and Fandral and Volstagg went, too.

The heat was so very oppressive. Loki ran his hands over his brow, his hair which pulled in the humidity out of its careful slickness and into the lazy curls which he'd so neatly straightened before the mirror. Vexing, to lose control over so little a thing. Sweat spattered the inside of his collar.

He hung back and counted out ten seconds. The jungle was silent about him and still but for a pattering above where water fell from one leaf to another. Sif would have assumed point, scouting ahead while Thor remained behind. What Thor lacked in stealth, Sif made up for with grace, and what a lovely little team they were.

Loki frowned. The heat had made him short-tempered. Another bit of control, lost. He sighed and picked at his shadow where it had slipped under his skin. That hadn't been the game at all.


He turned sideways and slithered into a pocket, a bit of empty space which halved the distance between the point at which he stood and the point at which Sif, who showed bright like a candle at a bend in the pocket, crept forward. The rainforest dug its roots into the pocket. Life teemed in its rawest, purest form in the spaces Loki walked. A haze surrounded him. A group of pale lights shivering together: that was a family of small marsupials, hiding in the juncture of a tree. Thor was a stormlight, Sif a fire. The beast as it crept through the brush was a dark thing, like something nearly dead.

Loki came out at Sif's side, four steps ahead of her. She'd her foot in a canker bursting out of a tree. In a moment, she'd ascend. Her thigh tensed, muscles bunching. Loki set his fingers on a low-hanging branch. A leaf shuddered under his thumb.

Sif snapped her head about. In full shadow now, she looked even more the wild thing, but she was too collected, too certain to ever be so feral. The wisp of hair at her jaw had begun to twist in the humidity. He held the distance between them.

"Wait," said Loki.

Her eyes flicked up, almost to his face. A minute tension in her face eased. She twitched her fingertips at him. Obliging, he leaned toward her. Her gaze had fixed somewhere near his throat. A thicker suggestion of shadow, perhaps, something on which she could focus. Loki kept his breath even.

"Glad you could join us," she whispered. "Why am I supposed to wait?"

"The creature is already here." He gestured to the west, at the undergrowth between a set of trees some few yards from them. A little tremble ran through the leaves, the vines. "It's plated on the back. Getting up high won't do you any good."

She tapped her glaive to her shoulder. "How plated?"

"Heavily," he said.

"Damn." Sif scowled. "I hate running distraction."

He drew closer to her. The shadow slipped from his skin, just a moment, and she turned back to him at the pale impression of his jaw emerging from it. Her lips were nearly at his nose. A muscle in her throat tautened. She did not blink.

"If it's any comfort," he said, "I've never found you at all distracting."

"Take that ribbon out," she said, "or I'll cut it out."

Loki pulled the shadow over his face again. "Promises," he said.

Then Thor shouted, for the beast had exposed itself, its scaled hide flashing dimly in what light there was between the trees. The plating was its great advantage; its size was another. A small wyrm, fully grown, would have matched it. As low to the ground as it walked, its shoulders stood equal to Volstagg's waist, and it was nearly as wide. The armor, which gleamed a beetle-blue, stretched over its ribs. It was a beetle, grown monstrously huge.

It was also, Loki noted, injured. That would explain the emptiness of it through the glimmering haze. It moved weakly, favoring its left side. A thin, yellow liquid leaked out its carapace, back and to the right.

Thor stormed out of wherever he'd hidden himself. With a great roar, he brought his hammer down upon the beetle's armored head. Volstagg and Hogun were next, the only others bearing heavy melee weapons. By necessity, Fandral and Sif held back. Till the beast's unlined belly was exposed there was little which they could do.

"It isn't fast," Volstagg huffed, "but that armor is quite thick."

The beetle snapped its jaws at him. Volstagg took an abortive half-step to the side. The jaws closed on his thigh then opened again: his plating had stopped its teeth.

"Much like yourself," Fandral suggested.

"If you will not help, then be silent!" said Volstagg.

Sif slid out from her hiding spot. "Thor!"

He'd Mjolnir raised. At her cry, he turned. Too many trees to call down lightning without flash-burning them all. As she said, "We need to flip it. See if you can toss it over by working its weak side," Loki turned his attention elsewhere.

Blood out the carapace, dripping down its legs. What was strong enough to beat something so large and so thickly defended on its armor and still cause it injury? They hadn't penetrated deep enough into the rainforest to run into the larger and more dangerous beasts. Loki had kept those from Thor. Something had given it injury. Something - someone? A prickling sensation started at Loki's throat. He hadn't considered whether it was possible the beast, rather than following them, had been running from another. And who would live here in the forest?

"Oh, shit," Loki said.

He darted into another pocket and ran through the twists, the turns, following the crannies till he popped out again in the trees looking down upon a separate company closing quickly on his own. Svartálfar, dressed in the ceremonial war garb of a hunting party. A grimly anxious-looking youth led them. Yellow blood stained his boots.

Loki darted back to Thor, to Sif, the warriors three. Please don't have killed it, he thought. If he'd believed in anything strongly enough to pray to it, he would have prayed. That tightening about his neck, that was a noose. A curl fell into his eye. Loki scraped it away.

When he dropped back out of the pocket, he rounded the tree, stopped, and said, "Oh, shit."

Sif twisted her glaive in the beast's head and jerked it free. A gout of yellow blood, flecked with brown, spurted over her chest. She'd her foot planted on its side. Arch, she tossed her hair and looked at Thor.

"That's three for me."

"I weakened it for you," he protested.

Volstagg, bent over his axe, only looked relieved. He'd gone an alarming shade of red around his leathers and his armor, and Fandral had an arm tucked discreetly about Volstagg's shoulder.

Loki yanked the shadow down to his neck.

"You idiots," he snapped. "Didn't any of you notice the thing was already weakened?"

"Of course we did," Sif said, laughing. "Don't think us stupid simply because we aren't half so clever as the clever Loki."

Her eyes were lidded. Blood speckled her throat, her angular jaw. In another situation, perhaps -- but it was not another situation, and this situation was increasingly unworth any of the risk.

"We need to leave," Loki said. "Now."

"Not until I've a prize of my own," Thor protested. "I can't allow Sif all the glory."

"And I've still got to cut my trophy out," Sif said, still bright with pleasure at her victory.

Loki advanced on the two of them where they stood over the kicking carcass. Nervous tremors shook the enormous insect, misfed signals from the dying brain telling it to run, run, run even as the rest of it lay dead. Sif met his gaze. A question shaped her brow. She tipped her head to one side.

"Yes, head of Loki?" she asked politely. Fandral stifled a laugh.

"You don't understand," he shot. "There isn't time for you to cut out any trophies. We need to go, all of us, right now."

"Why?" Her smile was languorous, a cat's smile flicking. The angle of her cocking eyebrow was a challenge, an invitation. "Squeamish?"

"Loki's never cared for bugs, it's true," said Thor, amused.

Loki rounded on him. "A party of Svartálfar approaches. They were hunting this." He stabbed a hand toward the bug and too late realized they couldn't see him do so.

"And so we've killed it for them," said Thor. "They should thank us."

Loki dragged a hand through his hair that he wouldn't grab Thor by the ear and shake him. Sif followed the movement of his arm, his fingers as they drove through his curls.

"Well, they won't! They were dressed for war," he said.

"You said they hunted," Volstagg called.

"They do," Loki snapped, exasperated, "but I have reason to believe we've stepped into a, a rite of passage ceremony, and--"

Then a shout, a strange shout, rose between the trees. Loki squeezed his eyes shut and pulled the shadow back over his head. The Svartálfar had come upon them. The youth at the lead looked both relieved and outraged. The man at his back showed no such emotional conflict: fury was the order of the day. Oh, they'd bungled this one up nicely.

"Hello," said Thor cheerily. "We've taken care of your pest for you."

And Sif, yellow in the beast's blood, her glaive still at its segmented throat, bowed her head.

The rest of the Svartálfar grouped alongside the youth and the man at his shoulder. They were stocky and short, as all dwarves were stocky and short, but Loki knew as Thor knew that this did not mean they were anything less than capable fighters. The man who wore his rage as clearly as Thor wore his ignorance lowered his axe.

Shit, Loki thought again. He stepped back into the shadows.


The cells were small and dark and dank, set low in the loamy earth. Spells of a dwarvish manufacture ran through the stone walls, a sort of blunt magic the creation and application of which escaped Loki, alien to his sensibilities. Regardless. He found a way in, slipping between one spell and another in a place where they overlapped but did not intersect. The edges dragged at him, pulling him thin. Loki dragged harder and pulled free.

His brother and their companions, they were shadows in a cell at the bottom of the stairs. No guards. The Svartálfar weren't fools; they would have something set to watch prisoners. Bespelled eyes in the darkness. Ears, too, perhaps.

"Wake up, Thor," he snapped at the lump nearest to the barred door. He hoarsened his voice, made it low, rough.

Thor was on his feet in but a moment, quick for all his lumbering greatness. He pressed to the bars, his fingers spreading flat across them. A ward, blocking the spaces between the bars. A surprising bit of thoroughness, Loki thought, and if he'd time he would have explored it. As it was:

"Who speaks?" Thor demanded.

"Oh, for--" Loki brought his voice higher again. "You idiot, it's me."

Thor did not relent. "Show yourself truly. I hear my brother, but I cannot see him. I will not be deceived."

"Honestly," Loki snapped, and he tore the shadow from his face as he would a hood. "There. You see?" He flipped the shadow up again. "Now that I've jeopardized the entire rescue by exposing myself to whatever eyes the dwarves have in their walls--"

"Rescue!" said Thor. He grinned. "I knew you had not left us."

"Hogun said you had run off," called Fandral. Hogun, crouched on the other side of Volstagg, did not deny it.

"Brother," Thor said urgently, "you must free us. We've none of us the head for magics, otherwise we would have freed ourselves."

"Good thing you don't," Loki snapped. "You know I cannot violate the sovereignty of the Svartálfar. We must play this game by their rules."

"What of their rules!" Thor banged his hands on the door. The spell flared in Loki's senses, like a light burning briefly hot. "They cannot keep us here. They cannot keep the son of Odin imprisoned!"

"They will until I've talked them into letting you go," said Loki as to a child. And Thor was the favored son to inherit all Asgard, to be made guardian of all the realms. "What would the kings of Svartálfaheimr think of one prince of Asgard breaking another prince of Asgard out of their prison when he committed the crime?"

"Thor did not commit the crime," said Hogun.

Thor's face tightened, creasing not with shame or injured pride, but with something else entirely. Loki thought of Sif, yellow with the bug's blood. He had not heard her in the cell, not her breathing, not a snide remark. He leaned into the bars.

"Where is Sif?"

"They put her in another cell," said Thor. "I don't know which."

Loki turned, looking. The shadows were vast in the underground prison, but the cells were few, the way short. A door showed at the end of the corridor, little more than a suggestion in the dark.

"She is hurt," said Thor quietly with rising heat. "You must free us that we can take her to Asgard and have her healed."

Loki said, "I will do what I can," and left them.


A pocket burrowed beneath the door. Loki melted through it and rose again in a wet cell, a dark cell. He heard her breathing. She sat in a corner with her back to the wall.

"Sif," he said.

She turned to his voice. Her breath caught. A little sound escaped through her teeth.

"What took you so long?"

In the dark, what did it matter if he dressed in his own shadow? He knelt beside her. In the dark, Loki touched her face. Her cheek was slicked with sweat. She licked her lip. The tip of her tongue brushed his palm. Her breathing was careful, shallow.

"You're hurt," he said. "Where are you hurt? Tell me."

Sif turned her face from his hand. She stilled. Another sound, dragged out her throat.

"Ribs," she said shortly. "Broken. At least three. Left side."

He dropped his hands to her chest. Her breasts trembled, rising and falling in small waves. His palms settled beneath them. Sif whispered, "Don't get fresh."

"How little you think of me," said Loki.

She made a noise like a laugh. It died on her tongue. Gently, he palpitated her sides, spidering his fingers over her ribs. Four ribs on the left fractured. One had cracked twice, at the side and again before her lung. Another rib high on the right had broken, but only just.

"Aside from the pain," he said, "can you breathe easily?"

"Aside from the pain," she said, "more or less." She drew breath again and groaned. "Less, with the pain."

He curled his fingers around her sides, holding her. If he'd more training in the healing arts-- He hadn't.

"I don't think you've punctured any organs," he said.

"If I had," she said dryly, "I'd likely be dead."

He smoothed his hand down her right side. "You aren't yet."

She huffed through her nose again: as close a laugh as she could manage.

"What a touching bedside manner you have, Healer Silvertongue."

"Lift your shirt and I'll see what I can heal," he told her.

Another huff. Then Sif rose stiffly, and Loki leaned back to allow her room. In the dark - in the dark - she pulled at her leather armor, loosening the stays at her sides. Would that she would allow him to lend her his hands, but he knew she would not. Cloth whispered across her skin. Sif breathed painfully. She rucked her shirt up.

Loki pressed his hands to her ribs. He'd seen the blow, a particularly hefty dwarf bringing his club down upon Sif's side as she turned to strike at another. She'd staggered but stood, and Loki had thought her well.

He felt for the spots where the bones had given way. The breaks pulsed beneath his fingers, jagged and hot to his senses. All he could offer her was a rudimentary fix until they made their way back to Asgard.

"This may sting," he said.

"Just do it," said Sif.

Loki set his fingers to her ribs, one finger to each broken bone. Slowly he dragged his fingers along each curve. Bone shuddered under his hand. As he drew his fingers along, the breaks snapped together again. Sif choked. Her hand rose; it clasped his shoulder tightly. Nails dug through his tunic. His skin ached with her touch.

"One more."

"Fine," she said, "fine, do it, I don't care," and her fingers bit into his shoulder muscles, bit hard, deep.

He ran his thumb over the cracked rib on the right. It, too, popped into place again. The fracture smoothed superficially.

Sif pressed her head to his collar. Her forehead was sticky, laid over with sweat and with hair plastered to her skin. Her hand tightened about his shoulder and then released.

"Was that all?" Her voice betrayed her. It stuck on her teeth.

Loki turned his head so his lips brushed her hair. He passed a finger through the wisps at her ear.

"Thor never stood a chance against the beast," he said to her.

She snorted. Her hand slid down his arm. At his elbows, her fingers were light. Her breath puffed against his jaw.

"Shut up and use that tongue of yours for something useful," she said. "Starting with getting us all out of here."

"Oh, but no pressure," said Loki.

Sif squeezed his elbow. "Some pressure," she murmured.


Loki retreated to the outskirts of the Svartálfar city, back into the deeps of the rainforest. He stripped his shadow off and let it fall again to his feet where it lay lifelessly in the brush.

Hair: a mess. Nothing to be done for that. He pulled the ribbon out and fluffed his hair so at least it stood out evenly. Dress, that he could change to something befitting a formal party. He stretched the collar to his jaw and flicked his sleeves down to his wrists, made it black. If he cast a charm to make it look as though he walked in the company of guards-- The moment anyone tried to touch one, the illusion would fall through.

Well, this is as dignified as it's going to get, he thought. He pocketed the ribbon. His face was wet, dampened with sweat. Loki rubbed his sleeve over his face.

Turning, he held his chin high and walked out of the rainforest and into the city as if he'd every right to be there. Oh, he hoped they hadn't got a look at his face in the prison. Sweat popped up again. A bead ran down his throat. What a miserably hot place. Why had he ever suggested it to Thor?

The city was a small one, and it stood alone in a great clearing the Svartálfar had cut out of the forest. A great moat accounted for the city's borders: a deep, brackish water, channeled from a river which ran to the north. Everything in the city was made out of shining red stone quarried from the north-western deserts, which were as much rock as sand. The Svartálfar were artisans, masters of the earth, versed not only in how to shape it but how to make it beautiful in their shaping.

At the bridge, the two soldiers who stood guard brought their spears together. Loki approached them with his bare hands spread that they might see them as such.

"I come unarmed," he said, "but for my intentions, which are peaceful."

Asked the first guard: "What are your intentions that we should allow you passage?"

"I would speak with the high judge," said Loki, "on behalf of a number of prisoners, as per the request of Odin Allfather."

Asked the second guard: "Who are you that we should allow you passage?"

And Loki said, "I am Loki, son of Odin, second prince of Asgard."

He held his left hand out to them and the emblem of his station, the mark of the sun of Asgard, showed in his palm. The first guard took his hand and drove her thumb into the heart of the sun. A burst of heat spiraled into his fingers and up into his wrist, then she dropped his hand. She stared up at him. Her eyes were dark, flinty, specked with red. The guard looked to her fellow.

"He speaks truly," she said. "He is the son of Odin." To Loki, she said: "You may enter. The high judge resides in the temple of the second quarter. He will see you. Do not speak with another."

And they parted their spears for Loki Odinson. He bowed his head, most polite, and walked on with deliberate slowness, as if he were part of a full retinue. His hand itched where the guard had held it; his palm itched most strongly. How very fortunate that he was so accomplished a liar. He hadn't anticipated a truth-teller at the gate.

Perhaps the guard had marked him, for no one else spoke to him. Their eyes, though, he felt that weight. A different thing, to be marked as unlike and looked at as such, than to be looked at as a prince in the company of his brother or his father. Loki held his chin steady, kept his gaze forward. The sun beat fiercely upon him, and as he ascended the steps to the temple, he found he was all but drenched in sweat.

He punctuated each step with another word in a promise: Never, he thought grimly, ever will I ever, ever again complain of summer in Asgard. Ever. He thought it again and a third time for sincerity, then he gave it up as the steps stretched on. At last, at last, they leveled out.

Another pair of guards stood at the mouth of the temple. These guards were taller, standing nearly at his elbows, and graver than those at the gate. They bore no arms, but shields, and these they brought up before the doors. Sunlight danced off the metal.

"You may speak," said the guard on the left.

He hadn't time. Sif, alone in that cell at the end of the hall, breathing through her broken ribs. Loki shoved impatience, ever costly, down.

"I am Loki, son of Odin, second prince of Asgard," he said. "I have come to speak with the high judge upon the request of Odin Allfather, king of Asgard."

He gave to them his hand. The sun flared in his palm, and a dark spot in the shape of the truth-teller's thumb showed at the center. The guard on the left nodded, and the righthand guard stepped to the side.

"You may pass."

Loki inclined his head to them. A bead of sweat dripped from his nose. His hair twisted at his brow. Carefully he raised his head again, and without looking to either guard he passed through into the sanctuary. He found religion in the temple's chilled shadows. A simple charm for cool airs had been laid in with the mortar. Loki paused only a moment to let the cold curl at his throat.

The Svartálfar, or at least this particular collective of Svartálfar, laid their public centers out plainly. It was a straight shot from the door to the audience chamber, where the high judge spoke with a stout farmer and her son. Small globes of light punctuated the walls at even intervals. Loki lingered at the door where he could be seen but would not intrude.

The dwarvish tongues were not beyond Loki, who had worked throughout his youth to learn as many of the language in the realms as he might, but nor were they easily given to him. The farmer spoke heatedly. Absently, Loki translated it as: land ownership complaints. Trivial. He dismissed them.

Loki glanced about the chamber as he waited, sketching out the deeper pools of shadows, the places where the protective spells were thickest. What a disorganized legal system. Anyone could simply walk up to and talk with the judge. The Svartálfar valued forthright honesty as much as tradition, throughout all their collectives and kingdoms. He could only hope this particular judge valued truth so highly he couldn't comprehend dishonesty in another.

The lie was already ready on Loki's tongue. It wouldn't be a complex one, and it was only half a lie at that. If the judge were a truth-teller, though. You'll just have to lie exceptionally well, he thought. As lying was something of a specialty of Loki's he supposed he hadn't much to worry about. He could not stop thinking of how Sif had sucked in breath and arched against him as he unbuckled her buckled ribs. He rolled his tongue against his teeth. The lie sat like a stone.

The judge spoke: "Druvvm khuzaad ulshgimat," which meant -- Loki chased the translation around in his head and caught it -- what has been said here will be remembered (literal), or, less formally, I'll think about it, but don't get your hopes up. Perhaps he'd read too much into it, for the farmer didn't look too upset when she turned.

Loki looked up to the judge in his chair, which was set unlike a throne at the level of those who would speak to the judge. The peculiarities of the Svartálfar were many.

"Belnid ghruvik," said the judge. Name yourself which also meant name your purpose, for the self and the self's purpose were the same to a Svartálfa.

"Ulkh gumma," said Loki carefully. First, greetings to you, in the formal which implied, as well, esteemed personage. The second consonant fell flat from his lips.

"Speak in your own tongue," said the judge.

Well. That was one thing taken care of, he supposed.

Loki held his hands out to the judge. "I am Loki, son of Odin, second prince of Asgard. I would speak to you of the Aesir you hold in your cells, of their crimes and their release."

"Approach," said the judge.

The stones were bare, naked of cloth but not of ornamentation. A mosaic had been set into the floor, colored caps placed on the quarried stone. Loki slipped over them. His heels stuck slightly. The stone was not so polished as that of the palace in Asgard.

The judge was of average height for a Svartálfa, which meant his head was level with Loki's thighs. He'd a hard face half-obscured by a beard he'd forked and braided. There was meaning to that, but Loki did not know it, and his ignorance bit at him. And what, he thought, would that have to do with anything you're going to say? Still. He liked to know the meaning of everything.

"The Allfather sends a high one to barter," said the judge. His accent was rough, but his voice strong. "Then the yellow Aesir spoke truly when he claimed to be Thor Odinsson."

Loki made show of curling his lips in, as of despair for a wild brother. It was not a difficult show to make. Silkily, soft-voiced, he said,

"I'm afraid my brother isn't always as tactful as would befit his station. Whatever he has done, I assure you the Allfather will offer you complete recompense. The friendship between our peoples is of such long standing that he could not bear to see lasting offense caused to you."

The judge tapped a finger on the arm of his chair. "It is not Thor Odinsson who has caused offense. A woman journeyed with him."

"The lady Sif," Loki said swiftly, "a most beloved daughter of Asgard and an irreplaceable member of the court," which latter claim was not precisely true from one angle but very true from another. It was the sort of half-truth which truth-tellers so often missed. If the judge were a truth-teller, and as Loki bore the weight of the judge's unchanging regard he rather suspected him to be such, then he could only hope the truth outweighed the lie.

Loki went on:

"Naturally the Allfather's intention to make amends holds true for her deeds as well as those of Thor or any other companions with whom he traveled."

"Do you know what it is she has done?"

"Ah," said Loki. He touched his tongue to his teeth. His lower lip pulled down. He hedged. "Not precisely, no."

"Your lady Sif has slain the gulvit," said the judge.

"For which the Allfather and myself extend our sincerest apologies." Loki touched his fingers to his breast, his palm arched.

The judge's aspect did not change; he did not yield. He spoke and resonated throughout the chamber.

"The gulvit is sacred. They are few and long-lived, as we are few and long-lived. The killing of a gulvit is an honor reserved for our children when they would pass into their maturity."

"I see," said Loki. He did. He saw very clearly that it had been an outrageously terrible idea to have suggested the rainforest to Thor. Briefly he wished he'd just broken them all out of jail, but that was the sort of half-brained idiot's quest he preferred to leave to Thor, who never had to deal with consequences.

"The crime your lady Sif has committed is a great one," the judge continued. "She is not a Svartálfa yet she has taken a Svartálfa's prize. The gulvit are less one, and the youth who hunted it must remain a youth until he has chance again."

"I can say truly that neither Sif nor Thor nor any of their companions knew of the gulvit's significance," said Loki. "Had they known, they would never have dared take this prize from a child of the Svartálfar."

"Yet they came here," said the judge. His eyes were hard. "They came to our land to hunt. What right have you to our land and our hunts?"

On his tongue: We are Aesir. Had Asgard not protected the Svartálfar from the clutches of the insatiable jotnar? Had the Allfather, in his immeasurable benevolence, not granted the Svartálfar kings the peace within which they might rule their little kingdoms?

"We have no right at all," said Loki smoothly. "My brother acted out of ignorance, as did all his company. You must know that the Allfather and Asgard would never mean you disrespect. We give you only our friendship. What my brother and his companions have done today--" He gestured, hand out. "The actions of children."

"Regardless of ignorance," said the judge, "or of intention, what was done has been done. What would the Allfather give to us out of friendship to atone for the deeds of another?"

Loki dropped his hand. "What would you ask of him?"

"To stay out of our lands," the judge said harshly, his accent burring. His mouth was a jagged line. His hands had bent over the arms of the chair. The distance between Loki and the judge was small, hardly anything at all.

Loki dipped his head, just so. He did not turn his eyes from the Svartálfa.

"Of course. Asgard would never wish to jeopardize the peace between our peoples," said Loki. "Naturally I must speak with the Allfather and he with your king, but if I may speak for him, then please, rest assured knowing he will agree entirely with your request."

"There is more that you want," said the judge. "Out with it."

Lightly, Loki touched his chest again. He held the judge's gaze.

"As a token of our good will, would you not allow me to bear my brother and all his company out of your lands? I should so hate if we were to linger."

"You would take the lady Sif who has slain the holy gulvit," said the Svartálfa.

"She is Aesir," said Loki. "Or would you keep her?"

"We would not," said the judge. "The slaying of a gulvit by an unworthy hand is a crime which necessitates expulsion from our lands."

A tension rising from the small of Loki's back subsided. He bowed over the hand on his chest.

"Then allow me to speed her from you, as a gesture of good faith."

"I do not care for the quality of your faith."

Loki looked up under his brow. The judge was impassive once more. The rage had withdrawn.

"Speak with your Allfather," said the judge. "Have him speak with our king. Take your brother and your lady and your companions three. Druvvm khuzaad ulshgimat."

Delicately, Loki straightened. He slid his hand down to his side.

"Ilsgik denaivik," he murmured. Our thanks, rendered to you manifold.

The judge raised his hand. Out of the shadows, a guard with a hooked blade stepped. Loki stiffened then forced his shoulders to ease. He had not seen the guard at her place.

"Fetch the Aesir from their cells," said the judge in his tongue.

The guard bowed low. Her blade rose from her shoulder. Without once looking to Loki, she slipped back into the shadows and then away.

"Belnid ghruvik," said the judge.

A blocky man at Loki's back came forward and said, "Dunnair belncha." So Loki found he'd been dismissed entirely.

An eviscerating damnation slithered down his tongue. The words were sharp in his gums. Who was he, Loki, son of the Allfather, to be ignored by one so small in estimation? He swallowed it down. Grace, then. Patience.

He spun on his heel and stalked out of the temple.


The guard brought his brother, their company, to him at the gate -- just the one guard with her blade which turned viciously, but they did not fight her. Why should they? Loki had won their freedom. He did not like to think of how he would have to explain it to Odin. And whose fault was it, truly? Loki sucked on his tongue.

Fandral and Hogun bore Volstagg, Fandral to his left, Hogun at his right. Volstagg's armor had held, though he limped on one leg. His face was red as his beard, and his breathing was labored still. Sif walked on her own, though Thor kept his hand between her shoulders. Loki sucked harder yet on his tongue. The sun was hot upon his nape.

"Your company," said the guard.

Loki bowed incrementally to her. She laid her blade on her shoulder, nodded curtly, and left them. He waited until she had passed across the bridge, over the moat, and through the gate again before he turned on the warriors three.

"How lucky you all are that I'm here to save you," he said.

"What I want to know is what took you so long," said Fandral waspishly. "Do you think they just gave water to us in the cells?"

Sif cradled her left side. Her shoulder bent.

"And how is Volstagg?" asked Loki.

"Well enough," Volstagg huffed. "Better when I've got out of this accursed armor."

"The armor saved your life," said Hogun.

"Sif is the one who needs most to see the healers," said Thor, to which she rolled her eyes.

"They're only cracked," she said. "I don't know what you're so worried about. As if you've never broken a rib before."

Thor looked amused. He'd broken many ribs. "Regardless. To the healers with you, first thing."

Sif's fingers were in her hair, raking. Thor grinned down at her. Sweat clung to Loki's chin, to his throat; it dampened his collar, pulled it fast against his skin.

"If we're all ready," he said.

"Exceedingly so," said Volstagg wearily.

Sif turned from Thor to Loki. Her hair had fallen wildly about her face. Loki turned to the sky. The rainforest, colossal and riotously green, looked down upon him. The canopy so far above shivered, thrown into disarray by a breeze which ran through the sky.

"Heimdall," he said, "if you please."

The Bifröst split the sky.


Eir and her healers released Sif. In the late afternoon, she returned to her room. The window was open, and a wet breeze pulled at the curtains, dragging them out like wings. A storm welled up from the sea.

She stripped out of her shirt easily, ribs knit, all the muscles in her back pulling up, her shoulder blades arching. Like wings. Without armor, without her tunic, she was bared. Her breasts, drawn up in her shirt as she dragged it over her head, settled roundly, sloping down and cresting. She ran her hands through her hair once, again. Like the hanging branches of a weeping willow, it fell, tangled, about her shoulders.

Loki stepped out of the shadows. He scraped his heel on the floor. Sif turned slightly. Her jaw flashed through her locks. Then she turned from him again and gathered her hair in her hands.

Wordlessly he came to stand at her back. Her fingers twisted her hair. He touched her wrists, stilling her, and slid his arm around her. The ribbon unfolded from his hand; it dripped from his thumb.

"I believe this is yours," he said.

Sif let her hair tumble freely again. Strands brushed his face; they tickled his lips. She smelled of sweat and earth and alien blood, still spattered across her shirt where it lay on the floor. Loki wanted to bury his nose in her nape.

She caught his hand. The ribbon folded between her palm and his wrist; the cloth rasped over his skin. Turning, Sif fit against him. The nearness of her was a blade fitted to his ribs. Sif twisted a finger in his curls, low on his neck, and tugged. His scalp pricked.

"And what was that about?" she demanded. "What if someone had seen my ribbon in your hair?"

"Do you mean Thor?" he asked. "Yes. My brother's keen eye for fashion will find us outed."

Her lips flattened. Under her arching brows, ever severe, her eyes were beautifully dark. The finger in his hair crooked. She pulled at his head and Loki bent to her. He slid his free hand down her side, her long, naked side, her ribs faint suggestions beneath corded muscle.

"You're the one who wanted it kept secret," she said against his lips. The warmth of her breath shivered along his chin, a promise.

"And you agreed to it," he said. He ran his thumb back and forth along her lowest rib, tracing the curve of it beneath skin and muscle. "Why is that?"

"You're changing the subject," she said. "I won't let you."

He turned his head and nuzzled her cheek, the long angle of it. His lips grazed her jaw. In the cell, he had put his hands on her, felt the fractures in her ribs, and wanted to steal her away, diplomacy be damned.

"I only wanted to tease you a bit," he said to the corner of her jaw, where it hinged, where it locked.

Another finger in his hair. She tightened her grip on his wrist. Her lips at his cheek, mirroring him. When he breathed in, he smelled the salt dried upon her throat. Her breasts rose warm against his chest. The hand in his hair tightened, tightened.

"Everything's a game to you," she said. "Something you can play with others whether they want to or not."

He stroked her side, the swell of her breast.

"Not everything."

She pressed against him, and he retreated before her. Her leg slid between his.

"So what did you think would happen?"

"I didn't mean for you to be hurt," he said. But he'd known, hadn't he, how a tiny distraction could set everything off, how one small and unrelated thing could contribute to something larger.

"Please," she said, amused. "Don't assume everything is about you." She rubbed the heel of her palm over the ribbon pinned between their hands. "All I'm talking about is this."

The edge of her bed caught him unawares, Sif had so consumed him. A shock ran through his legs. His knees buckled. Sif bent him back over the bed, and she was warm against him, hot, leanly muscled and so very deliberate. How long had she been alone there in the cell, in the dark, the memory of his hands on her? Even more so than the realization that he'd lost awareness in the smell of her, the heat of her, to think of how Sif might have thought of him in the cell burned his skin.

Her knees pressed into the bed on either side of his thighs. Her hair fell, a shadow across his chest. He wanted to run his thumb across her lips, see what she'd do, if she'd part for his thumbnail, if she'd turn her lips in to her teeth. The hand in his hair loosened, and her fingers wandered round to his collar.

"What did you want?"

The possibilities flooded his throat. The flush in her cheeks. How she would have looked at him and avoided him in equal measure. To see what she would play in turn, how she would retaliate. To see if she remembered that she'd lost the ribbon when they'd fucked in his study, under the desk, Sif's nails calling blood out of his shoulders. That she'd moaned his name, guttural, each syllable scraped out of her throat like a concession won, when he licked at her throat and pulled her knee higher up his side. He'd drawn the ribbon out of her hair and tucked it in a drawer as she bit at his ear. Tongue slick on the skin under his earlobe. Breath hot on his cheek.

Her hand was at his throat. His collar parted under her fingers. He'd layers, still.

Loki turned his free hand and ran it down her flexing spine, down again to the hollow at the small of her back. Clutching her hand, the ribbon twisted, he rose and pressed his cheek to her cheek and whispered, "And what is it you want?"

She kissed him brutally. Her teeth snagged in his lip. Their noses bumped, and her hand on his throat was hard, pushing him down again. She dragged his hand forward and pulled the ribbon from his fingers.

"I want you to stop playing," she said. "For once, no games."

"Oh," he said, "I would never play with you."

He pressed her hips down and raised his own, which wasn't terribly subtle, he supposed, but he was hard, achingly so, and dizzy with her heat. A twitch in her cheek. Sif snagged the hand at her back. Her fingers worked quickly, and the ribbon pulled tightly across his wrists. Ah, he thought. That was another little shock.

"Do you think I can't free myself?"

Sif looked down on him. Something calculating showed in her eyes. How well, he wondered, could any one person know another? Whatever she saw in him, it wasn't everything.

"Will you?" she asked him.

He tested the knot. It tightened, the thinness of the ribbon strengthening the bond. If he really tried, he could slither right out of it. Sif, eyes narrow, ever the hunter, waited for him. He licked his lip. Sore, there where her teeth had caught. He showed his own teeth.

"Why don't you find out?"

Her eyes darkened. Her lashes were an inky smear driven across her cheeks. He wanted to slide his fingers between her ribs and feel her lungs expanding, her muscles drawing sleekly over bone. How well could they ever truly know each other, he thought; and she was a mystery still.

Perhaps it was that she held it against him, that he'd left her there in that cell with her broken ribs inelegantly put together, and that was why she kissed him as if she would make war, teeth on his tongue, her fingers digging into his sides. That couldn't be it. Sif was a pragmatist; she knew reason. She pushed her hips down against him and pushed and pushed, never rolling, not relenting, till the thought broke apart and he gasped into her mouth for how his cock ached, too hard.

She kissed his jaw, and oh, how that hurt, so gentle. Her lips parted. He felt her breath in his skin. Loki squeezed his eyes shut. His vision spotted. His hips jerked once before he got them under control again. Sif murmured,

"What do you want?"

He caught his breath. "Where would I begin?"

She did roll her hips then, a delicate undulation against Loki, pressed into her bed with his hands bound before him. He flattened his tongue in his mouth. Everything a game. Everything a battle. His heart was queerly heavy. If he were to say, I love you, would she laugh? Would she leave him?

"And what does Sif want?" he asked. "Now that she has the second prince at her mercy?"

She opened his tunic. Her calluses rasped over his chest. Sif stroked her thumb over his nipple, and it tightened. She was smiling, and it was sweet, almost, for all the sharp edges.

"I'm not known for my mercy."

His breath was ragged. Her hair was on her breasts, the dark ends turning, lipping at the pinkish-brown areolas. She'd a composure he didn't understand. He touched his bound hands to her belly, spread his fingers across the smooth plane there.

"Oh, but if some poor soul were to appeal to you," he said, "surely you would hear their prayer."

Her fingernails shivered down his chest, to his belly. Lower, then.

"And who am I, that you should pray to me?"

He raised a kiss to her clavicle, that line of bone which showed so strongly across her chest. Into the hollow, he said, "You are my lady Sif."

She laughed, and when she laughed, she did so with fondness. Was it fondness? His fingers itched, his palms hot. He wanted to touch: her throat where the laugh thrummed, her belly from which it rose, her teeth as they flashed. She kissed him recklessly then, her mouth wet, warm, open to his. Her tongue darted over his lips.

"And why should I be your lady?"

The laugh lingered. Her hands were at his trousers, her fingers at the laces. She yanked them free. When her palm slid down the length of his cock, he knotted his fingers together. His knuckles hurt, pulled.

"Oh, my lady." He breathed it. How it burned his lips. "My lady."

The slight drag of her calluses over him, the weight of her thumb as it dug: he jerked into her hand. Sif fisted his cock and drove her hand down about it. Her hand, Sif's hand. His hips stuttered once more. Another loss. Her hand drew up again. Loki held his hips still. His right thumbnail bit his palm.

Sif sat upon his thighs. She tossed her hair back - it showered darkly; her breasts, naked, trembled - and undid the stays of her own trousers. He watched her fingers, how her nails picked at the laces, the slight pressure of her little finger at the crease of her thigh. His mind was very clear. His lady, he'd said. Oh, that vaunted coolness of his, that famed self-control. At least he had not professed love for her.

She rolled her trousers down her hips, her muscular thighs of which the one slid up along the other as she stripped from each trouser leg. The dark curls wound between her legs flashed. His breath held steady. He dared not blink. He would see her. What a fine thing, control. How very fragile. She dropped her trousers off the bed.

"I'll ask again," she said, leaning over him.

Her breasts were warm on his chest, warm and soft. The inside of her thigh grazed his erection. He flexed his fingers, again, again. Her lips brushed his chin. Her eyelashes fell low, but she did not turn from him. She'd green flecks in her eyes. In her pupils, he saw his own face as a pale thing, half-formed.

"What is it Loki would ask of me?"

Mine, Loki thought. To possess her, to be possessed. He wanted her flushed and wild, wanted her laughing and looking only to him, only to Loki, his hand at her shoulder and her lips at his throat. His lady.

She rubbed her thigh deliberately against his cock. She burned, and he was bound, and he said, "Sif," and rose against her. Her mouth opened readily to him. He licked at her teeth, her tongue, all the weapons she would turn upon him. Strike before struck. His heart was a treacherous thing, poisoned against him.

He had gone to her. The game had been his idea. The secret had been his idea. If no one else knew, then she could be his. That was his greatest lie, the one he'd spun for himself: the lie that Sif loved Loki. Like all lies, it was delicate, dependent upon so many things, and he'd known as he reached to touch her elbow, to draw her eye, that it could not last if acknowledged. And why had she agreed to silence? Why, but for what he already knew?

Sif took him in her hand again. Her teeth closed on his tongue. Trapped, caught in his own lie, Loki closed his eyes to it. She sank upon his cock, swallowing him. To be swallowed like that, to be engulfed-- The lie surrounded him. Loki's lady Sif. Sif, pulsating around him, so tight and slick and agonizingly hot, and strong, ever strong, and thinking of her, unable to think of anything but her, Loki said, "Fuck," and bucked into her.

Her hips snapped, driving him down. He scrabbled at her belly, fingers tracing lines of muscle, thumb in her navel. Graceless, inelegant--

She squeezed around his cock. He bent, shoulders curling off the bed, and caught the soft nub of her clit between thumb and forefinger. Sif's fingernails scratched his ribs. Blood in his mouth, where she'd nipped his tongue. He worried her clitoris, teasing it, pulling it, dragging a groan out of her long throat. He smiled but so shortly, for she pressed relentlessly on, fucking him back into her mattress.

She kissed him again and there was a tenderness in it, an awful tenderness. Even with his blood in his mouth, his blood on her teeth, such a terrible tenderness. His gut twisted. He couldn't bear it, how she breathed over his lips so softly. Loki scraped his nail over her clit.

A pressure built in his spine; it slithered up from the small of his back. He rocked up, quicker. The gentle touch of her tongue to the corner of his mouth, how she snapped her hips down hard, grinding so it echoed up his back, so his own hips hurt with the force of his answer: what did she want of him? Why had she turned at the feel of his fingers brushing down her elbow? Why had her eyes darkened as they did when he asked her if she wished to play a game?

Loki bit at her lip. He was close now, so horribly close, everything in him tightening as Sif pulled her victory out of his skin. She laughed breathlessly and her hands cradled his face; her fingers slid across his cheeks, tracing the ridge of bone beneath each eye. She kissed him deeply, roughly, sweetly, her tongue so hot and thick in his mouth. She kissed him as if, as if she--

He groaned and jerked up into her and came, his hips twitching out of rhythm, emptying into her.

"Cheat," Sif said.

The roaring in his ears, how his skin itched-- But he pinched her clit and pulled at it again, again, flicking it and rolling the nub between his fingers till Sif, still bucking, said, "Loki," and threw her head back and came so wetly about him. He leaned up and spattered kisses where he could, on: her arching chest, the soft underside of her breast, the hard suggestion of a rib beneath muscle and fat. Whole again, unbroken.

Sif moved her hands down his neck; she knit her fingers at his nape. Her thumbs traced the corners of his jaw, and holding him so she slid down to lay upon him. Loki, sore, slid free. The air in her room was cool, the storm winds strengthening as the clouds advanced on Asgard. Sif, curling about him, her head on his breast, her hair in his throat, was hot and sweat-sticky.

She stirred. A kiss, left over his heart. His heart beat dully, as if bruised.

"Your hands," she said.

He lifted them. Bound, still, at the wrists. His fingers were sticky, her come drying on the tips.

He turned his hands and hooked his little fingers about the ribbon. He thought of: tearing, ripping, things falling apart. The ribbon frayed and fell from his wrists. Red lines marked his wrists, where the ribbon had tightened.

Sif caught his hands and brought them to her face. Her lips were warm on his knuckles. A smile curled her mouth.

"Mayhaps you should go to the healers next," she said.

She kissed his thumbs, the left first and then the right. Her face glowed, reddened with exertion. He curled his fingers, grazing her jaw.

"My lady's kind thoughts are all the healing I need," said Loki.