Carousing voices rang, bouncing off of the ceiling of the great hall and out into the night. Loki wasn't far enough into his cups to find it pleasant exactly — he hadn't been quite inebriated enough for that since he was little more than a child — but it was familiar and at least marginally comforting because of it.
His parents had already retired — his mother with a kiss to his temple as if he were still a child, and his father with last congratulations to Thor on another successful campaign.
His brother sat at the head of the table, arms gesticulating wildly as he recounted again the size of the troll prince he had felled. To one side, Volstagg set off a torrent of laughter by estimating the size of a particular part of the troll's anatomy. Next to Volstagg, Hogun stared seriously down into his mead. Next to Hogun, Fandral paid little attention to any goings-on beyond the cant of the lady Dagny's shoulders and the turn of her plump, pink mouth.
Sif sat to Thor's other side, her mirth slightly more subdued. She'd switched to wine some time before, not long after Loki had migrated to the other end of the table. He preferred it where he could watch the festivities but remain out of range of Thor's enthusiastic and bone-crushing displays of brotherly affection. Sif clenched the stem of her glass firmly with her strong fingers — so firmly that Loki thought that it might snap in two — before upending the contents down her throat. Her neck worked as she swallowed. In the heat of all the gathered bodies, a bead of swear appeared at her collarbone, then disappeared just as quickly beneath the neckline of her gown.
Thor entreated her for support on some detail as she grinned up at him, and Loki looked away. Sif's voice rose among the tumult, then another wave of laughter rolled out over the room. Loki considered his own drink, clutched to his chest, then drained it and waved off the offer of more. He was verging dangerously close to maudlin and had only just caught himself, which meant he'd had more than enough. He reached instead towards a platter of fruit. Peaches, neatly sliced, were nearest and he speared one with his fork.
As he raised it to his mouth, he caught Sif's eye on him. There was tension in her jaw and something sharp in her gaze, an edge of accusation. So baffled was Loki by such regard that it took him a moment to fix his face into a suitably wry expression. He cocked an eyebrow at her, quizzical and innocent, and she pursed her lips, unimpressed. A familiar exchange.
Loki would never call Sif easily offended, but he had spent no small portion of his life practicing the fine art of stoking her ire. The only problem he saw tonight was the fact that, this once, he hadn't actually done anything to provoke her. Not today anyway. In the dense forest of Rauðreik, she'd saved him from a troll's axe. In the confusion of the battle he had not even voiced a jibe about her ferocity as she'd stood above him panting with exertion, the troll's lifeblood splattered down one side of her lean body. He'd stared, still stunned by the blow he'd taken and much more besides. They had not spoken since. What of that had so offended her, Loki could not know.
At the other end of the table, awash in Thor's shadow, Sif looked away first. Loki considered for only a moment, then felt acutely that he needed some fresh air.
The night was warm, though a breeze blew on the long curving balcony that followed the length of the hall. Positioned directly in line with one of the large pillars marking outside from in, Loki stared up at the stars, idly tracking the constellations. When he heard footsteps, they were familiar, the gait memorized from so many years of walking in stride.
"My lady Sif," Loki said as she appeared at his elbow. Her hair had been up some time ago, but now it just hung, long and dark, flyaway strands still confused about their loss of style. They framed her face, tucked haphazardly behind her ears.
"Are you mocking me?" she asked. Her voice wasn't quite slurred. It was just a bit lower, a bit slower. It could have been confused with an intimate tone if he didn't know better.
"You mock me quite often," she contested.
"Less so than you think," Loki allowed and because that was not a path he wished to walk, he said: "I think the better question, given your performance in there, is are you angry with me?" His mouth curved, a smirk.
"You're angry with me quite often," he added for good measure.
He expected her to scowl or snarl as she so often did when he turned the conversation to his liking. Instead, she looked out over dimmed Asgard and made an exhalation just short of a sigh.
"You're always hiding," she said, quietly. She turned her eyes from the city and onto him.
"It's frustrating," she declared. "You are extraordinarily frustrating."
The accusation was back, her eyes alight, the full force of her presence pressing upon him. He wanted, suddenly and quite strongly, to know with absolute certainty what was behind that gaze. He wanted to know what he had done to earn it that he might reproduce it when he had need.
"I'm not hiding very well, if I am, as you've found me," he pointed out.
"Have I?" It was nearly a whisper, but unintentional, as if she had forgotten she was speaking aloud. She shifted closer to him, angling her body until it was nearly pressed into his side. She stared at his face, her eyes bright — with alcohol, with something else — then asked as if it had only just occurred to her, and perhaps it had: "Why do you wear your collar so high?
Loki kept himself still, so perfectly still, as she lifted one hand to the collar in question and drew a fingertip along its seam.
"Oh is it fashion advice you want because-" he began.
"No," Sif said firmly. "I want to kiss your throat." The last came as if she did not expect it, as if she too was surprised at what tripped from her mouth.
"Beg pardon?" Loki asked.
"I want to kiss your throat," she repeated with more conviction. Unbidden, Loki turned towards her. Her eyes gleamed in the starlight. The strong angle of her jaw filled his vision, a muscle fluttering beneath her skin.
"Do you know what that's like?" she asked; a question he would never answer. "I watch you… and I just want to see you undone."
Her hands, her strong hands, curled at the collar of his tunic. Her mouth was a hard, thin line. He could believe that she wanted to punch him as much as anything else, more than anything else, if it were not for the things she said. If it were not for the softness of her breath against his neck and the hunger in her bearing.
"I think you've had a bit too much to drink," Loki said. He wrapped his hands around her wrists — they did not quite burn, but he expected them to — and she allowed them to be pried from his clothing.
"Were you counting?" she asked with a touch of amusement, the humor that comes with drunkenness when the most mundane of things is rendered many degrees more absurd than any other time. Or perhaps with drink the inherent absurdity of existence became clearer.
"No," he lied. "I feel it's made itself quite apparent."
"Why? Because I say that I want to kiss you?"
"Among other reasons."
She leaned in again, wolfish, though she left his clothes unmolested.
"Oh but I do. I've wished otherwise but…"
"I think you should go to your rooms and lie down." His tongue was thick in his mouth. His voice was harder than he meant it. Sif had never been cruel, and besides that, he'd always been careful enough that she couldn't possibly know how cruel this actually was. It was not, however, something he wished to test with great thoroughness.
Her eyes flashed, dangerous.
"I think you shouldn't make the mistake of thinking you can tell me what to do," she said. For a moment, he thought she might move away, but she did not grant him that mercy. The heat from her body seemed to work its way through his clothing. In the wind, strands of her hair fluttered against him, tickling his neck.
"My apologies," he said tightly. "I'll ask then: dear lady Sif, you've quite lost control of your faculties, in light of which, might you consider returning to your room to sleep it off, please?"
"Ask me again," she said and, somehow, moved closer still.
"Please?" pleaded his traitorous tongue.
"Once more," she breathed into his mouth.
"Please," said Loki and Sif swallowed it. She swallowed his words and perhaps a half-formed protest. Her teeth were sharp against his lip and her mouth still tasted of wine. She pressed into him, pressed closer. She would consume him if he let her. He wanted to let her. Her tongue traced along his teeth and then, Loki pulled away.
Sif looked at him and he thought she might ask him a question, but whatever it had been, she saw the answer in his face.
"Come on then," she said suddenly.
"What?" asked Loki. His breath would not come easily. He wanted to know the question; he wanted to know the answer. He wanted to be able to think that any of it would matter when sobriety returned to her.
"If you want me to go to my room," she said in the tone she often used when she felt that he or Thor was missing something quite obvious.
He considered letting her go alone, but one look told him what she would think of that. Even for his obvious consideration, she balled up a fist and slammed it into his arm. Where her fist struck, his skin throbbed, hot. They passed back through the great hall quickly, and Loki whispered a spell under his breath to hide them, though he doubted anyone was paying enough attention or was sober enough to remember unassisted.
There was the slightest weave in Sif's step as she walked, her body swaying as they traversed the halls. Loki felt already — still — as if his skin was aflame, and so he waited until he could no longer, until her feet tangled and she stumbled, to wrap an arm around her waist. He half-expected a complaint, but instead she chuckled lightly and draped one arm around his neck.
"Your mother's wine is very strong," she said. Her eyes were partly lidded and while he didn't believe she had the wherewithal currently to do it on purpose, she gazed up at him through her lashes, inviting. Not an invitation meant for him, he knew.
"Yes," Loki said. "This is going to be very embarrassing for at least one of us tomorrow."
Her face turned solemn and he wondered, first, if she had sobered up all in an instant, if she would rip herself away from him and go back to the normal distance they kept. A friendship still hesitant after centuries; a camaraderie stifled by the strength of her resentment towards him, choked by the things he knew it pointless to voice.
Instead, she leaned into him and her head pressed, fleeting, against his shoulder. They arrived at her door, but she made no move to enter.
"You nearly died," she told him seriously. Her fingers clenched at the shoulder of his tunic, digging in. "Today, that troll would have split you in two."
Loki swallowed; he buried his first response and then his second.
"Ah, but you were there to come to my rescue," he said lightly, strained. "Oh, the debt of gratitude I owe you. Perhaps this can count against it."
"I almost wasn't." She didn't release him. She never released him in all the time he'd known her, though he waited and wished. She turned in his grip, her hand trailing until it was at his nape. "For a moment I thought- No, for a moment I couldn't think at all-"
He would burn; he would immolate alive if he had to stay near her for another heartbeat. Swiftly, smoothly he ducked away. It was sudden enough that her hand lost purchase on him. She swayed back and he returned a hand, just a hand, to her shoulder to steady her before removing that as well.
"Here you are, delivered safely." His voice sounded hollow even to his own ears.
Sif looked at him and again he expected the sudden sobriety, the sudden return to the waking world.
"You don't believe me," she said and opened the door.
"You're drunk," he said. Then again, to make it stick: "You're drunk."
The curve of her sneer was heartbreakingly familiar.
"Loki Silvertongue who thinks everyone a liar like him," she spat.
"Sif-" he began, though he did not know what he would say. It didn't matter because she disappeared into her room.
"Don't worry," her voice floated back. "In the morning, I won't believe me either."
The door laid open. Loki turned away and did not follow.
When Loki next saw Sif, he expected any number of things. High on the list was fury. It was well-practiced between them and, indeed, he believed that few in Asgard were better at being angry at Loki than the lady Sif. Fury was what he would have bet on - fury at allowing herself to become so disposed and fury at him for being the one to witness it. Embarrassment was tied into that, but he did not expect it to make itself apparent through anything but her anger.
Another option was no reaction at all. He would not think her drunk enough to actually forget, but pretending so was a possibility. Ignoring the whole affair as if nothing had ever happened was attractive. He'd spent all night willing himself to forget the taste of her mouth and the scent of her skin. It wasn't especially effective, but the effort was worth something to him and he thought it might also be worth something to Sif. In which case they would continue as they ever had, taunt for taunt and barb for barb. She would attest dislike and he would feign injury and indifference in turn. An old dance and an easy one to slip into.
What Loki had not expected was silence. Utter and complete silence as he came upon her in the practice yard. She stared at him venomously and then looked away.
"My lady," he said. It hung alone in the silence.
Sif's anger had never been quiet, certainly not with him. It had not been so long ago that she would just as soon chase him through the palace grounds yelling invectives as she would look at him. He had rarely, if ever, seen embarrassment on her, but it did not tend to meet one head on and dare them to challenge it.
This was offense, dire and plain, and again in such a short time, Loki found himself frustrated with his ignorance. He prided himself on understanding: concepts, the universe, people. He understood Sif very well - he had worked hard for that understanding - except lately he could not decipher her no matter how he tried.
He had spoken to no one of her performance the night before. He had, obviously, made no further mention of it to her. No one had seen them, he'd made sure of that. It was one of many secrets he kept, locked away and never to be known by anyone else. Which left her only possible source of umbrage to be him, and him alone. Was it the fact that it had been him instead of- the fact that it had been Loki, even if only they two knew, was just that humiliation enough to make her hate him more?
And she would not look at him. It made him feel so young, so foolish, how it clawed at his gut. But she would not look at him.
"Spar with me," Loki said. He rarely asked; she never refused.
"No," she said, eyes on the horizon as she worked smoothly through her form. Her hair was bound in a tail at the crown of her head. It swung as she moved, catching the light.
His heart beat wildly; he wanted for control.
"Since when does Sif turn down the chance to pummel someone?" he asked, carefully weighed, carefully casual. "Or at least to make the attempt."
She paused, just briefly, but still did not turn his way.
"Since it is you," she said.
"And who am I then?" he asked, voice rising. "You do not say my name. Am I an insect now, so beneath your notice? Diminished as a punishment for your indiscretions?"
Her sword fell, the tip drooped, and at last she turned to him.
"Loki." His name on her lips was a bolt down his spine. "Why won't you just leave me be?"
"Why won't you just tell me what I did to offend you so, other than simply being." His skin still throbbed with the memory of her touch. His heart beat in his ears. "I accept your ire gladly, but only when I know how I caused it."
She looked at him, wide-eyed, before her mouth set again into a frown.
"Are you so very stupid?"
"I told no one," he objected and stepped closer to her without willing himself to. The tip of her sword trailed the ground. She did not move away. "I had and have no intention of doing so. I would have let it lie, forgotten."
"Perhaps it is not so easy for me to forget!" she yelled. She charged forward, her sword clattered to the dirt. Her fingers bunched at his collar. On his nape, the path her fingers had followed the night before pulsed.
"I humiliated myself!" Her eyes dropped from his briefly; the hazel took on green hues in the sunlight. "I acted a coward who could only find courage at the bottom of a glass and for what? For you. So that you could not even do me the courtesy of acknowledging what I had to say."
Caught in her grasp, caught in her, he curled forward towards her. He thought of Sif, bright, brave Sif, and the way she'd drank, the way she'd looked at him and drank more.
"You were drunk," he said, for he found he could say nothing else.
"Idiot," she replied, then released him. He stumbled as if nothing had tethered him but her, as if there was no force in him but what she exerted. His hand caught on her shoulder. She did not pull away.
"Are you saying that- that-"
Her brow creased; her stare was hard, unyielding.
"I will not say it again."
He needed to hear it again. He needed to hear it a thousand times, whispered and gasped and moaned. He couldn't ask, so instead, his hand trailed from her shoulder to her neck. He traced the length of it with his fingers and still she didn't pull away. It was yet a shock when her breath stuttered, when her pulse fluttered rapidly beneath his thumb.
"Do not toy with me," she said.
"I'm not," he replied, then bent to her and kissed her mouth.
He pressed soft against her, careful, devout, in the way he always refused to let himself imagine. Then she pushed back, wild and hungry, in the way he could never help but to fantasize. He bent further around her, and she wrapped her arms about his neck, her fingers pressed into his nape, tangled where the ends of his hair curled. His thumb stroked her jaw and he lifted his other hand to worry at her hair where it was bound, to wrap in the long strands and tug. The heat of her mouth filled him, and his entire body thrummed at the flash of her tongue against his.
When they broke away, he pressed his forehead to hers, eyes screwed shut, though it made little difference. She could still see him. She could still see what he'd hidden.
"You're a fool," she said and dug her nails into his shoulder. "Such a fool."
"No more so than you," he replied.
She scowled and ran a hand up through his hair, then yanked his mouth back down to hers. He swayed into her, pressed against her, and let her say her piece.