The water was still for miles. Loki burrowed deep into his furs and quietly contemplated whether a death by freezing to his boat would be an honorable one. They could write on his grave - "He tried to prove his skill as a fisherman and a hunter like no other; instead he froze to death like a fool - not very original.” No one could weave a net like he, nor snare prey from the sea with as much speed and precision, but on this expedition he had become utterly lost. He had set north past waters any of his fellow skiffs would dare sail in search of new sights and trophies never before seen. Long gone were the green hills or braying of cattle close to safety. Here the hills had become mountains and the mountains had become snow-capped and the water had become black and littered with ice. As if being stranded too far out in the ocean to make it back alive wasn't bad enough, there was nothing out in this frozen waste to cut his prowess on.
Just as he was about to shut his eyes for permanent sleep, he caught a flicker of movement on the horizon. Blinking frost out of his lashes, he leaned forward, to make sure he wasn't imagining it. There it was again, closer this time - something living, with bright red scales, flashed briefly past the dark surface before disappearing into the depths once again. Loki felt his heart beat fast enough to put color in his cheeks again. The color alone was remarkable, but the size of it - the fish must be the size of a man, or two, enough to keep his name in stone for all of history. He quickly stood, his bulky furs cutting a nearly square figure in his small boat, and gathered up his net of barbed, jet black twine, and waited for the giant to show itself once more. He saw a ripple in the water and tensed to spring, his eyes wide and hungry. But when the creature surfaced, barely more than a foot away from his boat, what he saw made him momentarily forget the net in his hands.
Human hair, gold as the absent sun, strung with seaweed and studded with pearls hung down over the creature's face and broad shoulders. Loki’s first thought was the tavern tales he had heard of maids with the bodies of fish, but when the creature pulled its fringe away from its face to reveal eyes of almost glowing blue, a square jaw, and a beard that dripped seawater down its chest, he could fully appreciate the one essential difference between this stranger and a maiden. His upper body looked completely human, aside from curiously delicate red slashes across the base of his throat, which Loki thought at first were scars, but realized a moment later must be gills. Loki held his breath, struck by both his strangeness and his beauty - amidst the troubling landscape of dark and snowy mountains, an inky sea, and a sky that threatened nightfall at any moment, the man in the water glowed like a hearth. A malicious grin split the water-man's fair face and Loki snapped to his senses as soon as he began reaching a thickly muscled arm towards the boat. Without another moment of hesitation, Loki slung his net, suddenly a hunter once more, determined more than ever to make the ocean dweller his prey.
The first sling caused the man in the water to withdraw his arm and move back several feet. His glowing skin had been stung by several of the barbs, and he now had a stormy furrow to his brow. Loki heard thunder rumble in the distance, but took no notice. He balanced himself perfectly in his sturdy little boat and slung again, in a much wider arc, twisting the tarred twine in front of him as if he could direct it even without touching the net. This time he got a solid catch - his prey had been hesitating, or shocked, and the net wrapped fully around his middle, sinking its teeth in long enough for Loki to grab fast to both ends of the it, steadying himself for his prey's inevitable thrashing. The thunder grew louder as the man in the water uttered his first sound since surfacing - a guttural, furious grunt of surprise. Loki's net was designed to stretch instead of snap, bite instead of just wrap, and tangle any creature in its poisonous black claws from the smallest minnow to seafolk as large as whales. Although he wasn't drawing any blood (the half-man seemed too thick-skinned for that) his quarry did the decent, predictable thing, and began to struggle. He thrashed and churned the black water, frothing it white and green with his rage until - with one furious glare at Loki, he turned, dove beneath the surface, and started swimming with surprising power using just the strength of his thick red tail. Loki clung to the net like reins, his previously steady boat now being hurtled roughly forward.
What if he dives, was all Loki could think, I should let go, he could dive at any moment and I'll be dead, what else would he possibly do? And yet his hands refused to release, the risk of losing his prize was too great. Then, suddenly, a dark cliff face appeared out of the fog and thoughts of the creature diving were immediately driven out by the horrifying split second realization of—
The boat crashed spectacularly, its sides and deck splintering into pieces and its small mast snapping in two, and Loki was down in the water, spluttering, feeling the icy frigidness of it as if he were being burned all over, barely having the presence of mind to cling to the rapidly-sinking stern before he realized that the net was no longer in his hands. The water, which only a moment ago had been roiling with the creature's frenzied rage, was once again still, other than the soft, dreadful sound of the scraps of wood sinking beneath the surface. The silence extended for a few moments as Loki took ragged breaths, each of his limbs losing sensation at an alarming rate now that the ice water was soaking rapidly through his cloak.
"COWARD," he shouted out to the empty sea, "BEAST! At least kill me yourself, you snake! Come back and drown me with your own hand, if you even can!"
There was no response and no sound, and Loki shut his eyes, pressed his forehead to the sinking stern, and shuddered. A few moments that felt like an eternity passed before Loki pried open his near-frozen lids at the sound of a quiet ripple of water nearby. The creature was back, and his hot blue eyes were burning with such fury that Loki thought in near-frozen delusion that he could feel them on his skin. He looked down past the water-man's thick throat and saw that his net was still deeply tangled around his torso and arms, and did not bother to stop himself from laughing.
"Oh, good girl, little mermaid! Did you already figure out you need my help with that?"
"You humans and your petty tricks. I had only risen to the surface to greet you."
"I’m certain. Well, your greeting has quite killed me, I'll either be frozen or drowned in a matter of minutes. Which is terrible news for you, since that enchanted twine will keep getting tighter until it squeezes your organs out through your mouth."
He was bluffing, but he knew that net - it would feel true. He had to exert an enormous effort not to laugh in relief when he saw the creature's eyes widen in horror.
"Remove it, immediately!"
"I would, but my fingers won’t be any use if I’m in this water much longer."
"I'll get you to safety." The creature hesitated, then swam closer to Loki, enough so that Loki could touch his net-streaked shoulder if he reached out. "Grab hold of me, and hold your breath. I will use enough speed so that your puny body will not drown and my heat will keep you from freezing."
Loki wanted to protest, but he could feel that heat he was talking about, as if there was a summer's day right beside him in this waste. Besides, if he was to die anyway, the tombstone would read more impressively inscribed with “dragged to the depths by an unfathomable monster of the sea.” He first wrapped one slender arm around the man's neck, and then the other, and stifled a whimper of relief when unnatural warmth suddenly soaked into his entire body. He clung tighter, and the mer-man looked over his shoulder to make sure he was properly secured.
"Hold on tightly," he growled before he turned back to face the sea, and then, very suddenly, dove down into it.
It had not been an unwarranted warning. Water rushed past Loki's face and dragged so heavily at his furs that he felt for sure he was going to be flung back to the surface despite his almost desperate cling to his companion's neck and shoulders. After the initial dive, however, the stream became somewhat calmer, and steadily colder, and Loki became more uncomfortably aware, instead, of the lack of air, and a steady burning sensation in his lungs. The thought flickered through his mind, as his water-breathing friend dove yet deeper, that fish folk had no concept of how much air was actually needed to breathe, and this one was about to drown him out of sheer stupidity. Just as he was about to feel too faint to keep his hold, the water started to feel lighter, and then, finally, they broke the surface. Suddenly with air again, he succumbed to several undignified minutes of gasping and coughing. After he had cleared the water from his throat and wiped the salt out of his eyes, he took in his surroundings. They were in a large underground cave, lit by an ambient glow from curious blue orbs set into the floor. The walls extended high into smoky darkness, but he could make out openings to more passages high above their heads. Scattered about in unorganized heaps were items from the surface and the sea alike - ranging from useless bundles of soggy tobacco to what appeared to be a mound of gold and emeralds as tall as a man. The hodge-podge assortment was not comforting - he could only assume that he was now the latest trinket to be stowed away here by his bulky friend. He eyed him warily, and felt a small shock go through his chest when he realized that he was already staring at him, looking intensely displeased.
"You're safe now. It's warm enough here that you won't freeze, and there's air so you can breathe. The net."
Loki scowled, though the warmth he mentioned was becoming blatantly obvious - it seemed to be coming from the walls themselves, making the cave's interior feel almost like spring. He unfastened his cloak, and heaved it ashore before slipping away from the mer-man's shoulders and pulling himself out of the water as well. He sat on the edge, let his feet dangle, and made a show of looking around once more.
"What if I release you, and you drag me out to the sea in revenge? This is your realm...you have all the power here."
He saw a flash of bright blue, and it was difficult to tell whether his eyes were reflecting the ambient light, or simply glowing in fury.
"Cut the twine, and I'll forget it ever happened. You have my word."
"What good is the word of a man whose name I don't even know?" He slid his tongue over his lip, and waited, unsure if a mer-man would know enough about the surface world to suspect he was anything but a humble mortal. His eyes narrowed, but when Loki realized that it was not in suspicion as much as his gaze was focused on his lips, he let his tongue flick out again, slower. The sea creature growled shortly, and shook himself as if to clear the sight out of his mind.
"I am far more than a man. I am a Prince of the Sea, the son of mighty Odin himself, Thor."
Loki sighed in pleasure as he felt the small name spell he had inducted slide down his throat and into his belly. It wasn't enough to grant him any true power, but it was a start. Enough to pay the ‘Prince of the Sea’ back by cutting the twine free of his pale skin, at least. He drew his damp knife from the holster at his thigh and beckoned casually for Thor to join him on the shore. He glowered, but approached with only a slight hesitation, and Loki studiously got to work finding as few places as possible to slice, running his hands along his chest, back, and arms to find all the points where the net was straining to hold him the most.
"And yours, mortal?" Thor finally asked, through still-grinding teeth, clearly aware that Loki was taking his time on purpose. "What do they call you, other than a nasty—" he hissed, as Loki 'accidentally' nicked him with the knife and gave a mellow shrug as apology "—poisonous little devil?"
"Many things. Thief, cur, silver-tongued, monster, liesmith, lover..." He tugged the net free from Thor's shoulders, and brushed the edges of those curiously soft gills with his long fingertips as he did so. He folded it neatly in his lap before setting it and his knife aside.
"But when people run out of these and more colorful words, they call me Loki."
Thor tested out his now free muscles and Loki lazily took in the way the net had marked him, lashes of red and white very slowly fading as he rubbed seawater back into his skin.
“Loki,” Thor said, calling his attention back to his face, “You do realize I’m not accustomed to learning the names of my surface acquaintances, much less bringing one to my private grotto. I hope you intend to repay my hospitality.”
Loki licked his lips again, but withdrew his feet from the water, and stepped quickly away from the edge. Thor pulled himself up onto it as if to come after him, but paused after Loki was out of his reach, frowning. As Loki had guessed, he wasn’t too eager to make a clumsy fool of himself on land, however impressive he was in the water.
“This is the sea-folk version of hospitality? An empty, dead cave full of trinkets and fish bones? The people on earth whisper astounding tales of a lost city the majesty of which cannot be compared. This...is a bit disappointing.” He made a small circle in the center of the cave, as if inspecting it critically, and heard Thor’s tail thrash the water once in dissatisfaction.
“It has air and heat. Two things you begged me for back on the surface. I’ve done you the overly magnanimous good deed of saving your life, and for that you will repay me.” Loki looked over his shoulder expecting to see Thor angry, but raised an eyebrow in surprise when instead he was met with a smug, assured smile. He had his thick arms crossed over his chest and was sitting on the shore, leaning back against a rock, as if expecting Loki to come right back and straddle his scaly lap. Loki couldn’t help but smirk.
“I look forward to it, your highness,” he said, as he picked through a pile of linen and found them all to be fairly dry, and one of the furs thick enough even to make a bed out of, “but I’m extremely weary from nearly dying twice in one day, so I will have to think of a creative way to thank you in the morning. Bring me food and wood for a fire by then.” After he had assembled his makeshift mattress, he finally began to strip free of his soaked traveling clothes, starting with his boots, and ending, with another glance over at Thor as if to reprimand him for watching (which he was, unwavering and unblushing), with his undergarments, sitting in casual nudity well out of Thor’s reach as he rubbed his slender frame dry with a robe that was probably worth half a king’s crown. Thor rubbed his chin thoughtfully, then slid from his perch back into the water. He took Loki’s knife and net in one of his large palms, and turned to leave.
“I’ll see you in the morning, fisherman.”
Loki leaned forward to be sure Thor’s sleek red tail had vanished completely, and listened for any disturbance in the water several minutes after. Hearing nothing, he tucked himself between dry fur and dry linen, and lay on his side with his eyes open before slowly drifting off, hungry for the morning already.