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Sailing Solo

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She had always pictured her first kill as an enemy combatant, or a dangerous traitor, not a soldier who had been loyal to her family for decades. It had been him or her. A necessary sacrifice. And the guard had clearly been one of those who thought of her as a loose end that needed tying off. Obviously not truly loyal to her family, only loyal to whoever was paying his salary. She had done her brother- no, the whole country- a favor in getting rid of him. It was not a bad first kill. And it was okay that it had not been as clean as she would have liked. He had bled more than she expected and her first thrust had not gone through the artery and he had tried to say something but all that had come out was a bubble of blood-

            Azula gritted her teeth as she tacked the sail. “Focus on the present. Focus on the plan,” she whispered. She had gone over this already, back in the prison. No dwelling, just focusing. She needed to stay in the present, anyway. She knew how to sail the same way she knew how to kill a man with the shards of a meal tray: theoretically. She had learned because a true leader was prepared for any eventuality, even fleeing from her country and planning a coup to take back her rightful throne. Although, she worried that a true leader would not have allowed their country to fall in the first place…

            One of the lines slipped free in the wind, causing her to shout several words she had learned during the course of her rigorous education.

            “THIS is why you need to pay attention to what you’re doing!” she berated herself as she scrambled up the mast to grab the stray rope. The wind picked up, apparently out of a desire to pull the loose line out of her reach. Well, Azula was not about to take such insolence from the elements. Ignoring the gusts now tugging at her makeshift hair tie, she grabbed the mast and hauled herself a few feet higher, leaning out over the deck.  “Get back here, you rot-bending son of a warthogsheep!”

            Lightning flashed across the sky, bright against the dark clouds rolling towards the ship. “I’m not dying on this sun-forsaken boat because one Earth-bedamned rope can’t do its fucking job while I should be deflecting a storm!” she yelled, launching herself off the mast and snatching the offending rope out of the air. She dropped onto the deck and rolled to her feet. A welt rose across her palm, but it was not the first of her voyage and she ignored the pain as she retied the rope to its place.

            “Yeah, I’ll teach you to undo my knots you pathetic, undisciplined-,”

             WHUMP

            Azula spun, bare feet sliding into a basic bending stance, palms flat, left arm in front of her to defend her body, right arm pulled back, prepared to strike, the staple of any firebender’s arsenal. Something had hit the deck behind her with enough force to splinter the boards, and burned if she was going to be caught off-guard on her own ship.

She found herself facing a frozen lump of bronze plating and black leather, all tangled in a green cape. There seemed to be a man encased inside, rigid and still enough that she almost took him for dead before bright green eyes shot open and swept over his surroundings. Blue-tinged lips twitched into a smile, frost cracking along ice-coated skin.

            “Don’t move or I blast you into the ocean and leave you to drown,” she declared with all the imperious command her royal blood could muster.

            His eyes came to rest on her. The man started to laugh. Hoarsely, wheezing, wincing in pain, but laughing. “Have at it,” he rasped out.

            Azula’s eyes narrowed, and she shifted her weight to her left leg, knees bending into a more powerful stance, one any fool would recognize as a threat. “Don’t make light of me. I am the most powerful firebender you’ll ever meet, and the last. Tell me your name and how you came here, or tell the eelsharks that Sozin’s heir sent you.”

            The laughter stopped, although the mocking smile remained. The ice was melting off him now, beading his armor with water. He remained a sickly pale, although the color had returned to his lips and his nose was starting to redden as he thawed. “My apologies, dear lady. I have been hurtling through the void between the worlds, and I am still somewhat disoriented. So, tell me, did anything you just said make actual sense?”

            “Don’t mock me, you stupid peasant! I-,”

            The man raised himself off the ground suddenly, propping himself up on one shaking elbow. “I am no peasant!” he protested, lip twisting in contempt. “I am Prince Loki Od-,” A spasm of pain that had nothing to do with aching frozen muscles crossed his face, and he fell silent abruptly.

            “I’ve met Earth’s version of royalty,” Azula said with offhand scorn, her expression making it clear that her eyes would roll at his apparent pain if they weren’t busy watching their prisoner. “Impotent, incompetent fools, the lot of you.”

            “You think I am of Earth?”

            “You’d make a better liar if those pretty green eyes weren’t so striking. You’re not in a good situation, earthbender. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s not a rock for miles and you’re lying flat on your back with a firebender ready to roast you right in your armor, so drop the act and answer my questions.”

*********

            Loki had been willing to put down his lack of comprehension to shock, at first. Finding himself solid and breathing after the fall from the Tree had been startling to say the least, he could hardly be expected to sit right up and start conversing. But his body was starting to accept that he was still alive, his faculties were returning, and yet the strange young woman growling at him was not becoming any more intelligible.

            “Perhaps you had best look to yourself, first, good maiden. Have you been in the sun very long? Perhaps feeling a bit dizzy? It is easy to become dehydrated on the ocean, and begin to speak gibberish without realizing. No need to be ashamed,” he said with a gentle smugness. He was ready to be grateful, now that his situation was setting in, to have landed on the only solid surface for miles, but not to this ragged girl who seemed to fancy herself a warrior. It had certainly not been her design that saved him. He rolled onto his stomach and pushed himself to his knees, a veritable army of bruises forcing him to move gingerly. “You rest and I shall-,”

            Before he quite found his balance, a small blue comet streaked past his face, close enough to leave his eyelashes singed. The little fireball continued over the prow and off into the storm clouds beyond, cobalt glinting off the gray-green waves as it passed over the water. From the corner of his eye he could see the girl shifting back to position.

            “I’m sorry, did I give you permission to move?” she asked, poison-sweet.

            Loki exhaled slowly, almost cautiously, in case she might fire again if he made any sudden movements. “My mistake. There seems to be a misunderstanding here. I was attempting to find Midgard and I must have taken the wrong branch at Alfheim. May I ask what world I have come to?”

            The woman paused only for an instant, then sneered the sneer that nobility sneer when they have no idea what is going on but are too dignified to admit ignorance. Loki knew that sneer well. “This is my world,” she said simply. The sneer turned to a smug smile. “Or it will be.”

            Points for style, although generally Loki did not picture rulers of the world in coarse, ill-fitting burlap shifts with clumsily-tied back sleeves. “Well, nothing would please me more than to leave you to it, so if you would be so obliging as to take me to the nearest port…” His eyes flashed around the empty ocean surrounding them, and he raised one hand as if to check himself. “This world has land, does it not?”

            She narrowed her eyes at him. “If you’re trying to pull off the old ‘exiled from the spirit realm’ scam, you’re out of luck. My family eats spirits for breakfast,” she informed him, her voice rising to be heard over the wind. Her eyes, he noticed, kept darting to the cloud bank that was closing in on them faster than the Warriors Three on an open barrel of mead. It occurred to him that the deck had not been rocking quite this violently when he first landed. Salt water sloshed over the side of the boat, washing over his legs and soaking into his cape. Of course, any journey between the Tree’s branches was likely to cause upsets, influxes of dark matter, which often dispersed as abnormal atmospheric events-

            A few fat raindrops plopped onto Loki’s face as he followed that thought to its natural conclusion. Thunder rumbled across the waves. He could see the sorceress’s thoughts as her attention split between him and the storm. This craft was not meant to be handled solo in good weather. She couldn’t manage the boat at all while keeping him under surveillance. He knew her decision seconds before she made it.

            “Do you know how to handle a sailboat, Loki Ode?” Her arms had relaxed now, although she kept them half-raised. She was barely looking at him anymore. Her eyes were on the sails, calculating the direction of the wind.

***

            The storm broke around them, rain plummeting down onto the deck with a violence better suited to a cavalry strike than a rainstorm. Through a gray sheet of water, Azula watched her prisoner glance over the rigging, the shape of the prow, saw his brow wrinkle ever so slightly in confusion. They were the only living souls for miles. The waves slamming the sides of the boat and threatening to pitch both of them into the sea left it abundantly clear what was at stake. She knew his answer before he opened his mouth.

            “I’m a fast learner!”

            She had already turned to the rigging. “Fine, just keep quiet and do what I say! Throw your boots below deck and help me lower the sails!”

***

            My boots? The ship is about to capsize and you wish to waste time with petty attire concerns! Loki turned towards the mast as he stood,but his first step upon slid him dangerously close to the railing and he decided to save questioning the girl’s authority for later. He half-walked, half-skated to the trapdoor she had indicated. Water gushed in around him as he descended, pooling around his ankles as he took off his boots, and, upon consideration, his cape, throwing them on one of the hammocks. He struggled back up the ladder, wishing there was more time to get out of the rest of his armor. The fight with Thor and the fall through the worlds had left him in no condition for this, but damned if he was going to let her know that.

“Reporting for duty, captain!” he shouted at the soaked figure hauling on a rope. The sarcasm was lost in the storm, but it consoled him, nonetheless.

***

            It had not been the worst case scenario, he decided when he finally had the chance to collapse on the deck and pull off his armor, water gushing out at the seams with every movement. The padded vest and leggings, meant to cushion enemy blows, had soaked up what felt like half of the storm, and the leather over them had kept every drop sealed against his body. A fish could have walked around in his outfit.

When he first released his grip on Gungnir, his only thought had been to escape, permanently. But if he must land on another world, a three-hour struggle against the elements under the direction of a lightening-controller was not the worst eventuality he could imagine. One of the less cruel jokes the Norns had played on him, all things considered. He could almost see the humor in it.

            “I’m all pruney,” he complained to the bedraggled sorceress propped against the railing. She should have been exhausted after their ordeal, but she was sitting up straight and watching him through sharp golden eyes.

            “Poor thing,” she said flatly. She turned to face the cloudless blue sky, just tinged orange and pink as the sun sank. The clouds had dispersed only moments after the rain had stopped, and left only the boat’s dripping crew as proof the storm had existed at all. “I don’t like this storm. It wasn’t natural. I’ve never heard of bending a whole storm into existence… you would need at least two or three different types of benders… or just the one…” She must have been exhausted, after all, because the mask she had worn diligently from the moment he had landed cracked. She looked hunted. The kind of hunted that was about to bare its teeth and take some of the dogs with it before its strength failed entirely.

            There had been, Loki recalled, four hammocks below deck. This craft was not only intended for a larger crew, it had been packed and readied for one before leaving port. Someone must be following her, and probably not only the sailboat’s rightful owners. After seeing her fling the storm’s lightning back to the gale, he knew he didn’t want her teeth bared. “You are not incorrect. This was no natural storm, as you say, but it was not…benders. It was only me. Any sort of travel between the Realms requires a great surge of energy. An accidental entrance such as mine often unbalances nature, leads to little,” he laughed bitterly as he unlaced the fasteners of his vest, “storms. No harm done. At least, none to you.”

            “No, no harm done,” she said conversationally, turning back to him with a smile like a loaded crossbow. “We’ve only been blown miles off course in the deep ocean, days from solid land, with only basic navigation equipment that I barely remember how to use, with an extra mouth to feed. And, more pressingly, to water. No harm at all.”

            Loki paused with his leather jerkin halfway peeled off his arms, eyes flashing back to his companion. “You do not know how to navigate this vessel?”

            “I do! I spent a whole summer learning to sail as a child. It was just a long time ago and I only did it to impress my father. My skills are the teensiest bit rusty,” she said in a sharp, defensive staccato. “But unless you’re an expert in other worlds’ night skies, you’re stuck depending on the native to get us ho-,” She disguised the awkward break in her sentence by ringing out her mass of dark hair over the edge of the deck, but he would not have noticed, anyway. His mind had wandered at her first answer. “To get us to dry land.”

            She stood, laboring to rise under her own power. For just a moment she swayed on her feet, but quickly steadied herself with a single graceful hand against the railing. Once recovered, she drew a water skein from the depths of her sleeve and took a quick draught before tossing it to him. Unprepared and preoccupied, he fumbled the catch.

“I can’t do anything until the stars come out,” she informed him smirking at his clumsiness. “I’m going to catch some sleep while I still have the chance. Don’t drink too much. I’m not sure how long our freshwater will last.”

            He found his voice as she pulled open the trapdoor. “Was he impressed?”

            She turned to him, the setting sun lighting her from behind and hiding her face in shadow. “What?”

            “Your father. Was he impressed when you learned to sail?”

To him, the silence that stretched between them was full of whispers and secrets and unpleasant truths. He held her eyes, or at least the shadow where her eyes should be, as if expecting some life-altering revelation. Was it just him, or was the silence long and unbearably oppressive? Why should it be? The question was merely irritating and irrelevant, of interest only to him. He was not even sure why he had asked it. Or, rather, why he had asked it aloud.

            She answered with a bow low enough to acknowledge his rank as royalty, but shallow enough to declare herself an equal, an angle too odd to be anything but a deliberate statement. “Welcome aboard, Prince Loki.”

            It was not until she had disappeared below that he stopped pondering the similarities between the worlds’ etiquette systems long enough to notice that she had not answered his question.

            He gave her a head start to make herself decent while he collected his armor in an unwieldy pile and began stripping off his undergarments, which were in no better condition than the rest of him. He squeezed out what water he could and hung everything up on the rigging before tip-toeing down the ladder. He had always been discouraged from entering a strange woman’s sleeping quarters stark naked and unannounced, but he had always been discouraged from doing a lot of things.

            The sorceress was asleep when he entered the cabin. The light was dim below deck, but he could see that she had hung her ratty gown neatly from the hook holding her hammock. She was naked now, but discreetly wrapped in a sheet as damp as the rest of the tiny room. Steam rose off the fabric as she breathed, and when he ran a finger along her side he could feel the heat pouring off of her.

            So either her control is poor and the power leaks out unintentionally, or she’s mastered it well enough to maintain a continuous spell in her sleep… He rested his hand absently against her thigh while he thought. If I knew more about the nature of sorcery on this world, I could tell if she was dangerously untrained or just plain dangerous She uses full body movements to cast, which is usually the sign of a novice, but I’ve never seen a novice redirect a lightning strike. Perhaps she is still new to storm magic. If so, throwing herself in front of that strike was incredibly foolhardy and overconfident. Not unlike other storm-summoners I know. Well, she managed it safely, possibly through dumb luck. Again, not unlike other storm-summoners I could name... But why threaten me with an art she has not mastered? Maybe because she was not armed and wished me to know she could wield martial magic. Not how I would have acted in her place, but effective enough, I suppose. I dislike showing my hand so soon against an enemy. But my training was never truly intended for open battle, while this girl- His hand was uncomfortably warm, and it took him a moment to realize why. He snatched it back. This girl would probably not take kindly to such advances, unintentional though they may be.

            A quiet rummage around turned up no miraculously Loki-sized clothes, but did reveal an oilskin bag filled with mostly dry linen hidden in one of the benches. Before settling down into his hammock, he ripped a pillowcase in two and tied it into a makeshift loincloth. He wasn’t about to wrap up in wet blankets for decorum’s sake, but he could at least make an effort.

            “Well, Loki,” he whispered, staring at the beams of light through the cracks he had placed in the ceiling upon his arrival, “What now?”

            The future had never looked so bleak. The last few days had left him exhausted, physically, mentally, emotionally. His life was a lie, his family a crueler lie, and he had not so much as a spare contingency plan to fall back on. How could he, when all of his goals, everything he had ever wanted and worked for, were gone forever, had always been impossible daydreams? It would be one thing to have failed, but to have never had even a chance at- at any of it, the throne, his father’s approval, just belonging to his family… He was finished, and the Norns were not even merciful enough to end it at that and let him go. So.

            What now?

            He was not on one of the nine worlds, of that he was sure, although the contemptuous way his new companion spat the word ‘Earth’ made him think she was no stranger to humans. But what was she? Not human. True sorcery was rare among them, and usually the result of some Aesir ancestor with loose morals and a looser belt buckle. He would have to find out her race as well as her name. He didn’t think her name would be easy, either.

            He should probably have been more concerned over why she was on the run, and if he would do better to ally with her pursuers, but that was more of a question for dry land. There were a lot of questions for dry land, or at least dry clothes.

            “This morning I was the king of Asgard. Tonight, I am in this barren, isolated realm, wearing a pillowcase, taking orders from a fugitive. What else is there?”

            He wanted to follow up on this comment by curling into a protective ball and falling asleep, but hammocks were not designed for curling up against your problems. He settled instead for pulling the one blanket up to his chin and counting the drips as water hit the pool on the floor.

***

            In prison, Azula had trained herself to sleep in short two or three hour bursts, preparing for her solo voyage across the ocean. When she awoke, her sheet was bone dry, the sun was down, and the cabin was pitch black except for a tiny ray of moonlight streaming in the trapdoor. She untangled herself from the sheet and lowered herself to the floor, scowling a little as her feet touched the water. It would take forever for the tiny room to dry. She lit a weak orange flame on her palm, enough to light the room but (probably) not enough to disturb her new crew member. She was not trying to wake him, but if she did, well, stowaways should expect this sort of thing.

            He was passed out on his hammock, a blanket threatening to fall off of him at any moment. (Agni knew where he had found a dry one. The cabin was damper than a bun steamer.) Without the sopping clothes, he proved to be a little on the thin side. Well, not really thin. The muscles were there, you needed muscles to move in full armor, believe you her, but he clearly did not work out regularly. His black hair and the fire light made him look paler even than he had during the day.  Not a warrior, she catalogued automatically. Armor probably ceremonial: I’ll buy the prince bit.

            She brought the light closer and flipped back the blanket to expose more of his skin, and, after a startled pause, flipped his pillowcase back over to expose just a little less of his skin. On examination, he had a surprising number of bruises, and big ones. Not just from the impressive fall onto her boat, not just from being slammed around in the storm, but the kind of bruises you got from being rammed in the chest by something large, blunt, and heavy moving top speed. She would have diagnosed earthbender attack, but she half-believed that he was not from her world. He did not appear to be lying. He had, after all, fallen from the sky, and she would have seen any craft… or animal… that dropped him. And then there was that storm… his answer for it was as logical as any she could think of.

            She needed him, of course. She had stolen the smallest boat she could find ready in the harbor, but five days into her voyage she was realizing just how overconfident she had been. Any storm, natural or not, would have sunk her. Her companion’s timing was excellent. And it was perhaps for the best that he knew nothing of her world.

            Truth to tell, Azula was not sure how she was going to find allies for her cause when she reached the Earth Kingdom shore. Most of her soldiers and countrymen seemed content with her brother’s rule, the ignorant near-sighted fools. No other country with its own best interest at heart would support her when her pushover brother was bending over backwards (or any other direction they request) for them. As for the Dai Li… well, they were really not trustworthy in her current position. Or very happy with her, last she heard.

            The world she was about to venture into would be very different than the one she had been born to. It would be prudent to have someone who looked so Earth with her. And as any Fire navy man would tell you, there were no mates like shipmates.

            He didn’t look tough, but he had followed her orders to a T during the storm, even with those bruises… She lifted her fingers from his chest and tucked the blanket back around him. “You’ll do.”

***

            When Loki and his pillowcase stumbled above deck, his hostess was dressed and busy near the prow, surrounded by maps and charts and a couple of oil lamps giving off only the faintest blue light and threatening to flicker out at any moment. She was lining a sextant up with some constellation he didn’t recognize. She knelt next to a chart to make a note, and the lamps flared obligingly to a warm yellow.

            “Most impressive fire magic, my Lady,” he drawled, careful to keep the appreciation in his voice tempered. It would not do at all for her to know he was actually impressed. It all appeared so unconscious, and he had not seen her fingers or lips move in the slightest. Only a faint change in her breathing indicated she had done a working at all. If her powers were anything like the arts he had studied, she was well-trained, indeed.

            She raised an eyebrow at him, irked. “It is firebending, not magic. I create and control fire by manipulating the energy in my body and in the flames.” She stood as she talked, pressed her palms together in front of her, took a deep breath, and swung her arms out in a half circle around her, twin blue flames trailing from her hands. The lamp wicks flared up above her head and lit the little deck like midday.

            He put on a sardonic grin, although he was aware that the effect was somewhat lessened by the fact that he was still squinting as the lamps died back down. “Forgive my ignorance, but how, exactly, does this differ from magic?”

            She shifted out of her strange fire-wielding stance and put a hand on her hip, continuing as though she were repeating a lesson for a particularly slow-witted child. “It’s true that we are the only benders who create our own element, but that doesn’t make it magic. It’s only a matter of understanding the flow of energy inside yourself. It’s no more supernatural than waterbending or earthbending.”

            “Of course. How foolish of me. Obviously this is as mundane than earthbending,” he said pointedly, leaning against the mast and crossing his arms over his chest. The sorceress seemed to take his meaning.

            “You’re lucky I’m used to explaining basic concepts to my idiot brother, or I might find this whole new-to-the-world routine annoying,” she informed him brusquely, as though she was perhaps not quite so magnanimous as dealing with a brother should have left her.

            “Perhaps as recompense for your teachings, I can recite the meanings of the Futhark in a catchy little rhyme that even idiot brothers can remember,” he offered. His tone was mocking but he stood completely ready to fulfill his end of the bargain should she take him up on it. It was, after all, the custom in Asgard to trade knowledge as a commodity, and Thor did owe most of his progress in school to Loki’s ability as a composer.

            She raised an eyebrow that said quite plainly, so far as Loki was concerned, ‘I have no idea what a Futhark is, but it sounds vile.’ “Trust me, we’ll find a fair trade for my information. Now, there are four elements. My people, in the Western Islands, control fire. All the lands to the East form the Earth Kingdom, although truth to tell it is more like the Earth kingdoms, for they are only nominally united.  Earthbenders use rocks, mud, dirt, clay, sometimes sand… ground, essentially. Those with Earthbending have green eyes like yours, which is why I thought you were from there. I should apologize. You are clearly much more intelligent than an Earthbender.”

“The Water Tribe, in the North and South poles, are our opposites, and control water and ice. We don’t need to fear them in these waters, but you can imagine the damage a Waterbender can do to our ships in colder water. They sometimes have healing powers, which is less to do with water and more to do with the spirits favoring them,” She looked up, inexplicably, at the thin crescent moon and pulled a face as Loki bit his lip, hoping the nervous habit went unseen in the firelight. The ice people seemed to have earned her particular enmity. Well, her people have that in common with the Aesir. Fortunate you have no powers such as that to hide from her, a little voice in the back of his mind jeered unpleasantly.

            The sorceress had continued. “And the final element is air. The Air Nomads died out a hundred years ago, although their temples still stand. There is only one left now, and, my ancestors willing, you’ll never meet him.”

            “Elemental magic then,” Loki nodded thoughtfully. His studies had been more general, but he was familiar with the concept. In the right hands, a special relationship with one of nature’s forces could be quite powerful. “I think the elves have something similar-,”

            “Enough with the magic. This is bending. Magic is for spirits and children’s tales.”

            Loki knew that he should be laying low, keeping as much of himself a mystery as possible, holding onto the element of surprise, but he had never taken slights to his talents well. It took only a sliver of power to fling his still-dripping clothing into the air over her star charts, trailing water behind them. Alarmed, the sorceress made to sweep the floating garments away from her papers, but he twitched his fingers and the water turned to black snakes, which hit the paper harmlessly and slithered in all directions across the deck, while the clothes returned meekly to their place on the rigging. As she twisted into an attack pose, one snake reared in front of her. She stomped on it, and it turned at once into a single white camellia under her heel.

            “You were saying?”

            “Party tricks,” she growled, but she had gone pale under her sailor’s tan and her fingers trembled as she picked up the flower. She held it away from her, gingerly, in case the magic was contagious.

            “Are you so sure? I could be a messenger from the spirit world, sent by your ancestors to offer you counsel,” Loki had not gotten this far in his life without being quick on the uptake. She had dropped a few hints about herself. With a bit of brazen lying, he could be the god of this little world in a few months. That, he could work with. “You have proven yourself the most worthy heir in all of Sassan’s line. Did you think your ancestors would allow you to continue suffering alone, after all you have braved in their name?” He swept a bow, hand over his heart, an advisor deferring to their sire.

            She quirked an eyebrow. “Ah. Is that it. Well, far be it from me to refuse my grandfather’s kind advances. Even if he couldn’t send me a guardian who knows how to tack a sail.” She returned the bow with a polite, but not overly obsequious nod. The trembling had stopped, but her eyes still followed him closely.

            “While I am merely a servant to your family, I must say I was expecting better manners from my master’s darling granddaughter.”

She nodded, albeit with more amusement that he would have preferred. She should be in awe of him. He would have to work on that. “Of course. I have not been a good host. Are you hungry, spirit?”

            She motioned to a tray of rather unappetizing sea-faring food set up outside her circle of charts, and settled herself down on one side of it, carefully laying the enchanted flower to the side.

            Loki tried to remember his last meal as he sat down across from her. He had skipped supper to rescue his- to rescue the king, skipped dinner before that to arrange matters with the Jotnar, skipped breakfast before that to check on his- on Odin and Frigga, skipped meals left and right in the days leading up just out of sheer lack of appetite. He vaguely recalled having an apple or some grapes pushed on him from time to time. It was not the first time he had forgotten to eat for several days whilst in the middle of something, but it was the first time he had ended a long fast by falling beyond the edge of the world. Usually he just had some cold mutton when he finally came to his senses.

            Small wonder the dried meat and hard biscuits were so appetizing.

            He was trying to chew with spiritly dignity, aware that the girl was watching him. She was a tough one to read. Playing the part of her fairy godmother was going to be taxing. Perfect. He needed a challenge, something that would keep his whole mind occupied.

            “So, Spirit,” she said when he had managed a few swallows of food. “A few more things you should know about the mortal world.” She smiled sweetly. “The ancestor you’re claiming to represent is not my grandfather, nor is his name ‘Sassan’, and I think the time has come for you to exchange some of my information for some of yours. Some real information, if you please.”

            Loki froze with a strip of jerky still clenched in his teeth. He removed it. “This… food is poisoned, isn’t it? And I suppose you have the antidote.”

            She snorted and plucked a fragment of biscuit off the tray, holding it between her thumb and forefinger. “I wish. No, the food is safe, disgusting though it is. But I am this vessel’s captain, and I do not think you want any charges of insubordination. I’m quite good at enforcing maritime law,” The biscuit cracked down the middle with a small, ominous crunch. “So, what are you, really, and where are you from?”

            The first question almost made him wince. He would gladly have answered her if he thought an answer existed. He didn’t think ‘I don’t know’ would cut much with her, either. This was someone who, when a stranger (a god, dammit, he was a god by her mortal standards) landed on her ship, co-opted him as a subordinate without batting an eyelash. How did you tell such a woman that you were uncertain of your very self? You didn’t.

            “I should have gotten my payment for the bending demonstration up front,” she said when he hesitated over his jerky. She flicked the last few crumbs of biscuit off her fingers as she spoke. “Let’s start small. Are you human?”

            “No.”

            “A spirit?”

            “I am not familiar with your world’s spirits, but I would guess not.”

            “What do you call yourselves, then?”

            “You wouldn’t have heard of us,” he informed her, figuring that would hold true, no matter what he was.

            “What…world would I have to be from to have heard of you, then?”

            “There are several- ah- options. The fairest is Asgard,” He flashed her a smile to conceal the fact that he never wanted to talk or think about Asgard ever again. “That is where I was raised.”

            “I never would have guessed. So, tell me about Asgard. Preferably the parts that relate to that hole in my deck,” she pointed at the cracked boards that marked his place of arrival, “and not so much the parts about your rosy childhood.” She smiled back at him, cold. “I’m rather self-absorbed.”

***

            “And so it would seem that I have landed in your vessel, on a world so far removed from my own that we do not even number it in our realms,” Azula’s guest finished his tale with a grimace and picked up his jerky once more.

            “Are you quite sure you tripped and fell off the edge of the world?” she asked. Loki’s face remained motionless, as it always did when Azula sprung something on him, no matter how unpredictable she was sure she was being. Had he not pushed his luck guessing her genealogy, she would be deferring to her family’s spiritual guide this very moment, and that scared her. Azula had never met a liar as good as she was. She had never wanted to. The most fantastic story she had ever heard, and she had not the slightest idea how much of it was true. But, she knew which parts she would have lied about.

            “Asgard is small and flat, and overlooks the other realms,” Loki said, lowering his jerky once again. “The cost of a cliff-side vantage point are the cliff-side drops.”

            He could not have misunderstood her. She played along, in what she thought of as her viper-rat voice, smooth and deceptive and deadly, “Oh, I can’t even imagine a place like that. Sounds dangerous. I wouldn’t want to go out there without someone I trusted to watch my back.”

            “I was not alone.”

            Azula smiled, working to cover the bitterness she felt with a sweeter expression. Loki came from a place where it seemed like a good idea for rivals for a crown to take an evening stroll along the edge of the world. The magic rainbow bridge had made more sense. “Oh, yes. I would have picked someone more reliable than my own brother, but I’m sure yours did all he could.”

            “He did,” Loki snapped, defensive and - Father of Dragons, really?- sincere.

            He pushed you. I know it. You know it. You just don’t believe it yet. Azula shook her head pityingly. “Of course he did. And even if he could not prevent your fall, at least he will be able to raise a search party. I’m sure they’ll swoop down with thunder and lightning and some proper food any day now.”

            He blinked, once, and turned his head away from her gaze, pretending to be twisting some jerky with his teeth. Not fast enough, though. She caught his expression and smiled triumphantly. She had done it, she had cracked his mask. He was not so intimidating; a good liar he may be, but not good enough.

            He whispered his response, as she would have done, to avoid betraying any emotion. “I would not count on it. We are very far removed from any of the realms they will search. Help could be a long time in coming.”

            “Then it is a good thing you are with someone who will take care of you,” she leaned across the tray and patted his hand, wishing she could feign support as well as she could confidence. The gesture seemed only mocking. “You may finish your meal in peace. I still have some charts to look at.”

            “It is about time,” Loki had recovered from her onslaught, and sounded perfectly carefree as he turned to meet her, smile twisting his mouth. He slid his hand from under hers. “I would waste away to nothing while describing Asgardian feasts to suit your fancy.”

            She should have just left him there, brooding over his meal, aware that he had not fooled her so well as he wanted, but that brief moment where he had slipped burned in the back of her mind. She recognized that look, although she had never seen it on someone else. Betrayal cut deep, and covering it with lies did nothing to soothe its sting. If she had known the cure for deceitful brothers, Loki would not have been her first patient, but… As she settled down in her circle of charts again, she called over to him.

            “You’re lucky in a way, Prince Loki. Some people plan for months to escape search parties like that.”

            It was not that she felt sorry for him, she assured herself as she returned to her measurements. It was that she was not a cruel leader, and she should not cause undue pain to her subjects when it was in her power to prevent it. In any case, she could not have him moping around the ship, convinced he was the only one to ever place their trust in fraternal love and be repaid a nice fraternal knife in the back. She had a ship to run.

***

            “You’re lucky in a way, Prince Loki. Some people plan for months to escape search parties like that.”

            I bet you did, Loki watched his new companion thoughtfully. If she noticed he was staring, she made no sign, only continued to read her charts. So, her brother was the one hunting her, and it sounded as though he had given her plenty of reason to flee him. The very suggestion that Thor would push him off the Bifrost in cold blood made his skin crawl. He wished he could picture it less clearly. He wished he wasn’t making a mental note never to stand next to a sharp drop again. He wished he could wipe that smug smile out of her eyes. He wished he had some withering comeback that would prove she was wrong, wrong, wrong.

            Was she wrong, though? Had he not been betrayed? They were not coming to look for him, after all, as his host had been kind enough to remind him. The Allfather had probably pulled his precious heir to safety and shrugged. Another plan fallen through, nothing to be upset about. Oh, Thor might suggest a search, but he would have the situation explained to him, and then… that was it. Nobody was left to keep up the charade. No more need to pretend the little foundling had ever belonged there. He may have survived the fall, but Prince Loki Odinson was still dead.

            And this girl, was he to share her fate? Utterly alone, no one to turn to for even the most basic assistance, scrambling for any half-remembered childhood skill that might stave off death and pursuit. Constantly scanning the sky for enemies, greeting any tale of family with open contempt and disbelief.

Sitting alone in her prisoner’s shift (he recognized it now, of course), her flames burning unnaturally steady around her, she was the grimmest prophecy he had ever seen.

            He leaned over the closest chart to distract himself, and distracting it was. The Norns were not finished making sport of him, it seemed. “Your world is round, is it not, Lady… Bender?”

            “Yes,” she said shortly, not looking at him. She knew what he had seen in the chart. Well, if she was allowed to make him uncomfortable, certainly he was allowed to return the favor.

            “And is our location where you have placed this marker?”

            “Give or take.”

            “Are you familiar with the doldrums?”

            “My people are island folk,” she snapped, jabbing her charcoal writing stick against a map. “We have legends about what happens to those caught in the doldrums. Songs I was sung as a baby warn about them.”

            “And yet-,” he tapped the marker, letting the mocking smile spread across his face.

            “And yet I am not immune to inconsiderate spacemen repaying me for saving their lives with course-altering storms,” she said icily, daring him to continue.

            “Of course,” Loki swung himself to his feet and swept a bow, gathering the rest of the meal as he did so. “However, Captain, it seems you will not require my assistance for some time, so I believe I will return to my bunk.”

            She glared at him, and he wondered if she would attempt to stop him, just to exert her authority, but her desire to get away from his smirk won out. He always did have the knack for making himself unwanted. “Dismissed.”

            He saluted, still grinning, before climbing back downstairs with the tray. Sleep came more easily this time, a combination of a full stomach, less adrenaline, and the soothing knowledge that his tongue had not lost its edge.

Chapter Text

The scrawny, lying prince slept like the dead, of course, leaving Azula to sit up planning a ration for their water. She half-hoped for a favorable wind at first, but that dream faded quickly as she worked. There was no breeze, no flapping sail to interrupt her thoughts. The night hung around her still as a picture. The stars shown at her from above and below, reflected back perfectly by the flat water, leaving the boat hanging in midair. Painted. Unreal. Even her skin, tanned and cracked by her months at sea, looked as smooth and flat as parchment in the candlelight.

Azula stilled until she melded into the canvas around her, only her eyes moving, darting warily around the empty scene. Nothing looked out of place, but the feeling of unreality clung to her. She closed her eyes, focusing on other senses. No sound, but there wouldn’t be, would there. What else? The salty scent of the ocean (almost undetectable, she had been out here so long), of burning lamp oil, the musty charts, and a whiff of leather and sweat that was probably the contribution from Loki’s drying underwear. Not dank stone walls and moldy straw pallets and a disgusting chamber pot. And her fingers running along the deck met only with coarse-grained wood, not worn stone.

“This is real,” she declared quietly, and the words did not echo as they would have against the walls of her cell. She opened her eyes, shuddering as a chill ran up her spine despite the warm night. She had not doubted her own senses since escaping. She couldn’t afford to start now. She couldn’t ever afford to start slipping again, but especially not now, with her new crewmate lying in wait, watching with those sneaky green eyes for the first sign of weakness.

“I know that this is not as stimulating as steering with a good wind, but drinking water is important,” she chided herself in her most sensible voice. Talking out loud helped fight the silence, helped keep her focused on the moment. “And I want this plan done before Loki wakes up. He’s larger than me and knows nothing of the ocean, he’ll want more than his allowance, so of course he can’t be allowed any say in the rations.”

With a curt nod to strengthen her new resolve, Azula picked up her charcoal and began her work once again. “I’m not happy about staying in a state of dehydration for a month… but I can keep us going. At least my hair got a washing during the storm, even if we didn’t collect any of the rainwater. And I should perhaps turn in for the night. I’ll have to cut back on bending until there’s enough water, and we are not going to be pulled any further off course in my sleep at this rate. Talking is a waste of moisture, and what if I wake Loki?”

She could wake Loki, although the thought was more soothing than cautionary. She had not doubted reality once in his presence, even during his little magic show. Were he to sit up with her, she could ask for more stories of his home, sift out what was fact from what was fiction, answer his questions of her as sparingly as possible, taking care to mislead him without letting him know she was doing so. And she could demand his help with the sails. After all, she would have to establish her dominance over him somehow. It felt good to once again have someone under her command. And someone intelligent and interesting, of noble birth and nearly her social peer. She had not had that pleasure since…

The lamp wick before her flared up suddenly, dancing above her head until she reigned in her temper enough to extinguish the light completely, before she could waste more energy on old ghosts. “This time will be different,” she assured the fresh darkness. “I was weak then, and young and foolish. I have learned.”

*********

When he woke up the next morning, the sorceress was asleep, but only for a moment. As soon as he stirred, she had her eyes trained on him. Truly a warrior, then. He wondered which she had started first, magic or martial training. Her instincts, the way she moved, bespoke a natural penchant for the fighting arts, and perhaps that explained why her sorcery was so dramatic, so brazen. He had always been taught that the two were fundamentally separate, that any sort of real mastery of sorcery required a temperament completely unsuitable to battle and vice versa. It had always proven true of his and Thor’s dispositions, and any of his teachers would have turned this girl towards the battle mages with a condescending sneer. But magic was different in this realm.

“Good morning, my fair captain,” he greeted with a jaunty smile as he stood and stretched, to let her know he found her scrutiny not the slightest bit worrisome. “And how did you sleep?”

“Well enough,” she said curtly, swinging out of her hammock and onto her feet in one graceful movement that she had probably calculated right down to the sweep of hair as she raised her eyes to meet his. He did not expect her to ask how he had passed the night. She would need to assert her dominance somehow, after all, and that would be rather hard with her stature. He had not noticed the night before, but now that they were standing face to face, the difference in their heights was comically obvious. He would have counted her short even for a mortal, while his head barely cleared the wooden beams of the ceiling. She seemed not the slightest bit cowed by his height, though. She might well have been small even among her race; she had done some very impressive acrobatics to grasp ropes that should have been within her reach during the storm. (And what race was she? She was too tall and slight to be a dwarf, too short and stocky to be an elf, too magical and intelligent to be a mortal…)

“We may each have three-fourths a scoop of water for the day,” she informed him, grabbing a small wooden cup from a hook along the wall and handing it to him as though issuing a weapon. “I’ve scored where you may fill it to. That should keep us with water for the month.”

She watched him expectantly as he examined the cup. She was waiting for him to object to so little, and he knew he needed to. To say nothing would mean ceding control over the water, and with the water, the entirety of the ship. But he had not been on a ship in an age, not since Thor had gotten it into his thick head that they needed to hunt a kraken and- well, in any case, he had never been on a voyage that had not been planned for a prince. He could find water in a forest or on a mountain, but on the open ocean? He did not know how much water would be enough to keep him able-bodied, or even how much to keep him alive. And he could only guess at how much the sorceress would require. He did not know how much they had to begin with. The cup did not seem enough, but they could conserve their strength, stay out of the sun, and he often lost less moisture than the other- than an Aesir. Contesting this woman, who had no doubt grown up with the ocean always at her back, would be foolhardy in the extreme. But letting her win?

“With all respect, Captain, this is far too large a ration,” he said, meeting her eyes levelly. Her face contorted, first with confusion, then anger, then alarm. Excellent. He had hoped that would take her off-guard. This was worse than foolish, this was mad. Well, she had not thought he would forfeit without a fight, had she? “We may be out here much longer than a month, and once the winds pick up, we will still have days of sailing to reach land. Now is not the time to pamper yourself.”

It took her a moment to recover and rally a counterattack. “The salt in the air will sap your moisture faster than you expect, Loki,” she said finally. “Any less than this and we will be shriveled husks within the week.”

There was no denying the truth in this, but he was not Asgard’s most gifted liar for nothing. “Well, if you require more, I will acquiesce, I suppose. I would not want you to feel you were using your rank to your advantage.” His lips quirked into a smirk, certain she could not block against an underhanded move like this. A servant who was merely humoring you like a child was no servant.

Her eyes smoldered for a moment, and then, against all odds, sparked with laughter. “You’re right, I should be more sensitive to the differences in our ranks. I intended to be generous and treat us as equals, but if you wish to receive less than your commanding officer, I will not stand in your way,” she said, gracious, imperious, and smug in equal parts. “You may take less if you feel it is more fitting your rank. I commend your devotion.”

The duplicitous, deceitful, magnificent wench! Now he was a loyal foot soldier to her? Or…foot sailor? Whatever the phrase for ships, it was no matter. A verbal thrust like that required a surrender or a fast parry. “Well, if we are pulling rank, it occurs to me that I am of royal blood and in line for the throne, so it is not seemly for me to have less than a mere captain-,”

“My line is as noble as any on your Asgard,” she bristled. He had drawn blood. “And I was the heir apparent, not the backup plan.”

She had drawn blood, too. “I was king!” he roared, strategy be damned. What did she know, this tiny, spoilt-

“I was, too!” she bellowed back, every bit as loud as him.

The shout died, and they both came to their senses at once, staring wide-eyed and wary at each other. Loki had not intended to tell her of his time as on the throne, and from her look, she had not intended to tell him of her time, either.

The heat and spirit behind their match died in the silence after the shouting, neither wanting to claim that last clash as a victory…. Or admit it was a defeat. Finally, the sorceress spoke, with less of the authority she usually wore like a shield. “Three fourths of a scoop per day, then.” There was no triumph. She only stated the fact. Now that she spoke to him as an equal, she sounded much younger, although he could not think how old he had assumed her to be.

“Very well,” he nodded, careful to keep his voice as neutral as hers. The tension lingered in the cabin, demanding every word be cautious. “And do we need to ration our food, as well?”

“We will be careful with the biscuits and dried meat, but we have fishing tackle,” she said in the same level voice, lifting the lid of one of the benches to reveal rods, hooks, and nets.

“Perhaps I will try to catch something today, then,” he said, picking his equipment with the same careful movements she used.

She nodded and picked up a rod of her own. “That would be best.”

Some of the sneer had crept back into her voice. Loki scaled the ladder to the sunlit deck with no doubt there would be a rematch later.