"steel in your hand"

Genre: Drama, Romance
Rating: T
Time Frame: Pre-Post Movie
Characters: Sif/Loki, Ensemble Cast

Summary: For war and trickery have been entwined from time's end, until star's last light.

Notes: So, this story ate my brain. My muse, and apparently – me keyboard.

Really, this story started as a simple idea which just expanded and then wrote itself. Seeing as how it was written without cut off points, I have posted the whole of it in its entirety for you all to wade through. The length is rather . . . lengthy, but I swear, it was all my muse's fault. The pesky thing would not shut up.

And then, as to the content of the story itself - mythology has long since fascinated me, and this was a fun way to exorcise a few pesky ideas that have been haunting me for longer than I'd like to admit. I believe that I have mentioned my abusive relationship with comics before, and then, the pleasant surprise that was Thor as a whole this summer. Past that, my love for crack!pairings came out with a vengence upon seeing this film – although I swear with everything in me that there were moments between these two. Momentous moments.

And now, here we are, a ridiculous amount of words later.

This story is told in a series of flashbacks from the present time, and since fanfiction ate my formatting, I did my best to make the transition as painless as possible by having italics before the flashbacks - not the cleanest of solutions, but what can you do?

And, by Odin's ravens, a huge, huge thanks goes to Jade_eyes for looking this giant over in epic time. Deb, I want to be you when I grow up!

Disclaimer: Nothing is mine but for the words.


"steel in your hand"
~ by Mira_Jade

"Love is a war of lightning,
and two bodies ruined by a single sweetness."

~ Pablo Neruda


The bite of ice was harsh on the air.

Before her, the snow swirled in the thrall of an unnatural wind; its fat and frozen flakes turning to razors as they were torn this way and that by the storm. The gales were all frost bitten blue and unfeeling white as they rode the melee, shrieking as a demon's cry in her ears. She could see through the haze of the blizzard around her, but the reach of her sight was dubious at best. And there was only little she could do to rely on her other senses – she could not hear past the roaring all around her, and when she could steal a shallow breath, the wind swelled in her throat and tore at her insides with vengeful claws. In her hands, her shield was a warm counterpoint to the wasteland around her. Her boots on the ice anchored her – striking hard and finding purchase over the front of the glacier. Her armor had a layer of white building upon it, encasing her in a second embrace; and her hair swirling before her eyes was dotted with icy snowflakes – refusing to melt, even from the heat of her.

Centering herself, Sif took a deep breath in; balancing herself, finding her own calm amongst the storm. She swallowed the wind, and exhaled until the winds even stole the mist of her breath from before her.

Under the third root of the cosmos, the heimr to ice – the Niflheimr – was a harsh and ancient world. Her people spoke in low whispers of how the universe had sprang from ice and fire – the two extremes mingling and convulsing to spit up the most glorious of the cosmos' creations. Centuries ago, Niflheimr gave her gifts, and now she laid barren and cold in the shelter of the Yggdrasil's roots. The lost power of creation and the power that Sif herself now held onto as a most cherished gift drew on the colder elements – pushing her through the storm. This one extreme of creation - ice and waste and bright lights like trickery and magic before her and all around her shone with the power of beginnings – even though it was now home to the disgraced souls that even Odin could not accept. Would not accept. Sif could hear them howl on the winds – lost and forever searching, finding solace within Hel's gates further into the wasteland.

Her lips creased downward as in her hand, her shield pulsed a soft gold, lighting her way. The aura around the metal smelled of spring storms and verdant, growing things – overpowering the lifeless elements around her. In a way, the memory was as soothing as was the hope that knotted almost unwillingly in her breast.

The winds around her gusted, causing the golden glow to flicker for just a moment. The wind sounded like laughter – playful and teasing, nipping at the cold parts of her armor and pulling at the hollow parts of her exposed ears. Her eyes narrowed, even as her hands clenched over her shield.

Damn him, she thought. Damn him to Hel's darkest of Halls and let him rot there.

The laughter sounded louder on the winds, as if reading her thoughts.

Her shield became heavy in her hands – like lead, demanding that she stop. Sif raised a brow at the silent command, looking down to see the gold from the metal raise like a beacon in the winter night – pulsing and insistent as it led her to where it needed her to be. She looked around, but saw nothing to distinguish this patch of ice from all that which surrounded her.

With him, she knew – things were never as they seemed

Breathing the storm in deep, she braced her feet a shoulder's width apart. The ice was already cracking under the hard soles of her boots, as if reading her intent – the sound of the ice splitting was a low rumble around her, instantly swallowed by the dead howl of the wind. Her chapped lips split in a grin as she thrust her shield down with a hiss.

The ice cracked as her shield broke the shelf, and above her the sky thundered angrily – as if crying the wound for the ground below. She traced the angry edges of the growing ridges in the glacier with her eyes as the world tore itself apart in deference to the power that the gold in her shield called forth - tapping at the hidden power that the wastes held deep within themselves.

There was so much to be found in desolate places . . . One only needed to know how to look.

.
.

She remembered back centuries earlier – remembered back before so many things had torn them all asunder, and they had been young; hardly a ripple amongst a race of people who lived for centuries untold. In those beginning days, she had been the first to see him. Or rather, he had been the first to see her.

Sif had been tall for a child – not yet a young woman, but no longer an uncertain girl hiding lost behind her mother's skirts. Her hair was long and twisted, a bright gold to rival Asgard's sun above. The mass of it was braided, but sloppily so, as if the strands balked to obey the bind placed on them. Her dress was wrinkled from where she had not yet mastered the art of not-moving; much to her mother's combined pique and fondness. Everything moved in her, she had been certain at the time – her very blood seemed to thrum and pulse within the hollows of her limbs, demanding an outlet.

Her father Týr had been one of the Allfather's oldest of advisers and warriors – father to Heimdall in an ancient time, and to herself in this new age. When their father had fallen in the final Great War against the Jötunn – keeping Odin's losses to an eye rather than a heart - her mother and she had found refuge and solace within Queen Frigg's court – for such a family would not be left after they had given so much for Asgard. Sif enjoyed spending her earliest years within the palace's golden walls; she'd known nothing else, and could imagine nothing better.

As a daughter to a warrior, and sister to one of Asgard's most revered, she was no stranger to the arts reserved for the men of her people. Her earliest memories were of her mother showing her her father's most cherished spatha – a blade forged from deep within a dragon's inferno. Even at a young age she had appreciated the intricacies of the woven leather hilt, and had recognized the perfect balance of the sword from where she held it alongside her mother's grasp. Mother's gentle hands had been heavy and comforting over her own, and the singing of the blade through the air had been a music unparalleled to her ears. Her father lived in that blade; just as Sif's dreams did – far off and half realized.

When the day came when she finally understood the differences between man's arts, and woman's arts, she kept her fascination in secret – watching from the shadows as the boys her age trained to be the heroes of the future. Valhalla beckoned to those boys . . . but it sang its siren song within her ears as well.

Yet, until that melody could be realized, she simply had to use the shadows to her advantage.

There was a thick row of hedges around where a small training ring had been carved into the royal gardens. The sons of the elite trained here – the princes two, and the young men of Odin's highest circles. They would be the army defending Asgard in her centuries yet unwritten, so from a young age they were taught the value of camaraderie and a warrior's brotherhood. Such bonds would be their anchor and safe harbor in the years to come.

Sif had watched the first prince more often than she liked to admit – Thor Odinson moved with the subtly of thunder, but his attacks were all lightening and storm winds; hard to see for the speed of them, and harder still to counter for their ferocity. He was nearly unbeaten in single combat (and the rare times when Thor fell it was normally due to a well-aimed blow from his brother, who liked to watch and wait for his openings), and observing him taught her more than most of the other trainees combined.

And yet, one early morning, it was not just to the shadows which she was restrained.

From her hollow in the bushes she could see all, but none could see her. The leaves shadowed her, even as they let her see out – and the few times she had thought herself discovered had been nothing more than her own eyes fooling her. And so, it became her habit to watch silently from her hideaway while her mother would spend the morning hours with Queen Frigg, her whereabouts unquestioned, and the thirst in her so hardly quenched that she had to stop her straining muscles from copying the moves herself. Her body seemed to know the drills the boys practiced as if by instinct – and she was hard pressed to sit still by watching.

And she longed.

And from across the ring, her silent vigil did not go as unnoticed as she had thought.

Loki Odinson was the younger of the princes (but not by much, he was always quick to protest – for the brothers had been presented to Asgard by the smiling Odin on the same day; a ray of light after the final day of the Great War), but he grew taller where Thor grew broader. Where his brother was the violence of a storm, Loki was more like the rain – liquid in his movements and so soothingly graceful to watch that Sif was sure that he held a touch of the unnatural within him. The second son was moving quickly in his study of the Art of Trickery – the sorcerers secrets that the Head Mages couldn't spill fast enough for him, so voracious was his assimilation of all they taught. Loki weaved the spells into his fighting – cheating, Thor had called it, but he had done so with a smile - amused as he always was by a weapon that dared to strike him.

Loki watched where his brother merely looked, taking in and considering so much that sometimes his movements were hampered and slowed by his pondering. Sometimes she would watch him, and itch with the urge to push him – anything to see him reach his true potential with the battle arts. His opponent was not a book – and one could only learn so much from reading another before one had to move hands to attack.

And where the others were blind, his eyes saw her. At first, Sif had thought that she was imagining things once more – but when his gaze wandered, holding her own for too long to be a mere coincidence, she wondered. And when one of their opponents would be thrown that close to her hiding place she would grow uncomfortable. And when his balls of light and trick spells would go off close enough for her to taste the magic of them, she knew.

The day she acknowledged his knowing was the day that he spilled her secret.

"Don't tell?" she had finally mouthed nervously when a particularly violent blow from Thor had sent him close enough to the bushes to read lips. She had crossed her fingers, and prayed to the Allfather that her silent plea would be heard.

The second son's smile was like a knife wound – his eyes glittered a green akin to seedlings before they burst into bloom – full of a life that few could explain, only enjoy the fruitages of. He nodded sharply, but she could see the mischief in his eyes – something that twined and slithered, and a part of her tensed instinctively at it.

A moment later, a blow from Loki (accompanied by a gust of wind which was surely unnatural) sent Thor flying. The blonde youth let out a yelp even as his crash was broken by a rather convenient barrier of hedges.

And her.

Sif acted instinctively – holding her hands out, and using the force of Thor's momentum to swing him about and off of her. Her muscles strained, but her will was stronger than any lack of training, and when Thor was tossed for the second time, his cry bordered on sounding delighted – as he always was when surprised during a scuffle.

A moment passed. All ways silent in the ring.

And then: "Mother shall scold you for flattening her gardens, brother," the second son said smoothly, his eyes a wicked smirk on her as she climbed angrily to her feet – straightening her dress and brushing brambles from her hair.

"I'll show you flattened," she scowled fiercely – which, in the years to come, Loki would tell her made her look like a horse – and stomped towards the younger prince with every intention of throttling him for his underhand moves.

"And waste such a talent?" Thor interrupted her smoothly, all ease and earnestness as he blocked her way. "You had me down quicker than even Loki here can manage on his best day."

The darker one scowled, but did not counter Thor's words.

She did not blink – not nearly swayed, but then his next words brought the restlessness in her at full force, and the twang of steel that was her heart's beat quickened when he beseeched her. "Please, stay and join us?"

And she did. She didn't win at anything that day – not yet. But Thor walked away from the ring with a bloody nose, and by his side, Loki was grinning madly in approval as he taunted his brother for having his face cracked on a maiden's fist.

That day was the first of many when she joined the brothers – and soon, it was hard to utter one name without uttering all three.

.
.

Sif returned to Asgard only one step closer to her goal than when she started out, and the taste of ice in her mouth had yet to melt as her feet carried her home. Her shield only pulsed, enchanted, until Asgard's light fell over her, and then the weapon was silent and useless save for its intended purpose once again.

She was weary as she entered the palace – weary as if she had just returned from days on the battlefield instead of a scant few hours in the wastelands. There were many roads leading between the worlds, but it took time and power to access and manipulate them. Time she had much of, but power a limited amount - for her strength laid in the battlefields - in the ring of steel and the pounding of the steed's hooves as armor creaked and grown men fought for honor and glory at the price of spilled blood.

The mortals had called her War. They had called the lost one Trickery.

They had called Thor Thunder. They called him that still. Thor, who walked into a room to draw every eye and command every ear. Thor, whose allegiance to she had sworn then, and now upheld to the whole of her ability. Thor, who had questions in his eyes, but silence on his tongue as she traveled to and from the boundaries of the palace walls without aide or accompaniment.

One day he would ask her, and he would expect nothing but the truth in return as her answer. There was not the ability to lie within him. Not like there had been in his brother – not even like the ability which dwelt within her, to some extent. War was strategy as much as it was anything else. And so while Thor would always play the role of champion – hero and protector and king, he would never fully understand the meaning of a warrior. A commander of the fighting arts – looking at all angles while holding feints and double feints and surprise attacks behind his hands. She was more than the crossing of arms – she was the murmur of generals within their tents, and the scent of parchment and ink as plans were crossed and made; she was the echo of foot-soldiers, and the hopes of the people they defended. She was pride and glory and greed and loss; and as such, battle beat in her veins in a way that few could ever understand.

. . . had ever understood.

When she unbuckled the first plates to her armor, her fingers were still cold – chilled deeper than any natural winter could inspire. Slowly, she began to thaw, but the path to warmth was a slow one indeed.

When she unstrapped her shield, she let it fall to the ground with a clamor, enjoying the discordance on the air as around her the shadows quivered as with laughter.

.
.

She had been the constant companion of the princes two for many mortal years when she came to the attention of many onlooking.

It was only a matter of time before such stares fell on her, she knew – the girl-child in armor; a woman wrestling in the mud with those training for the arts of war. While they could say all that they wanted about her gender, they could find little to fault in her skill – for she was whip wired and lean, and strong enough even to take the hardest punch that Thor could throw. She had broken the first prince's nose on more than one occasion, and had been fast enough to catch the second one more times than he would like to admit. She was slippery and crafty and stubborn – and more than a match for any of the other trainees her age.

That was what Thor said to his father – proudly showing the bump he still had from his busted nose. (Loki had popped the wound back into place for him but she didn't quite believe that his words were all that powerful when he chanted under his breath to heal the wound – apparently, Thor deserved to feel a little bit of the pain, he had said.), and singing her praises as if he were a skald rather than a prince.

She was an oddity of nature, others countered. A disgrace to tradition, but an amusement to Odin, and the secret smile on the Queen Frigg's face. She was her mother's pride, though. And her father's memory. She was Thor's best friend, and one of the few Loki could tolerate for longer than a candlemark.

She was still a maiden . . . she was simply a warrior too. That had been Odin's final decree – she would be allowed to continue training, and she would rise or fall by the strength of her own hand. Archaic laws would not be the force to hold her back.

And still . . . the whispers followed her.

She did not care. Truly she didn't – she had thicker skin than that to have lasted as long as she did. And that was what she continually told herself. Often. Exceedingly often as of late.

And when her own words and half truths did not manage to convince herself, she would slip away from the practice rings, and hide off in one of the grottos in the woods at the edges of the royal city. Growing up, they had explored much of Asgard, and they had found many wonders not meant to be found – everything from a clearing of unicorns (and even Thor was moved by their beauty, his hand on his weapon stayed), to an actual dragon's nest (a fight stayed by the rippling rainbow eggs within – a lesson in mercy). The more natural wonders of their world – glittering caves, shimmering in all the spectrum's tones, and tiers and tiers of waterfalls flowing in an ancient tide – were theirs to behold and cherish.

Here the thick trees parted for a small forest pool – the water was a rich emerald from the reflected forest, and very little light from above the thick canopy above made the journey to the forest floor. Golden bugs blazed in soft patterns over the water's edge, giving the clearing a mystical feeling as the lights tangled in the mists that rose from the waters.

Of course, she should have expected for her solitude to be interrupted – for the small glade was not hers to begin with. And normally it was her interrupting the other's peace, or so he would claim whenever she wished for solitude and telling him to leave simply didn't work.

"Thinking looks as well on you as it does my brother," Loki said by way of greeting, and she could hear the challenge shading his voice – the closest she would ever get to concern from him. She turned towards him, glaring even as she scooted over on the rocks by the pools edge in order to make room for him. He sat down gracefully where she liked to fall into place, and she made a face at him.

"You are an ass," she responded to his words crossly, reaching over to tug on one ear that was still just too large for his head – like a donkey's.

"So says the horse," he returned without missing a beat, reaching over and tugging none too kindly on a strand of her hair.

He released her hair, and the long blonde lock fluttered back to rest rebelliously over her forehead. She looked at her hair between her eyes, crossing and tangling her gaze until she was dizzy from her concentration. The fall of the unbraided strands were thick and blonde and blazing golden – like everyone elses of Asgard's children. She had always been proud of her hair – and many others had been envious.

She reached up to tangle the wayward strand thoughtfully about her first finger. Considering.

In Asgard, most of the men did not even cut their hair – wearing it to their shoulders or longer, and sometimes it seemed that the larger a man's beard, then the larger their ego. Or their appetite – and Volstagg after a feast was quite the sight to behold with all of his auburn hair snarled and holding at least half of his meal.

The women never cut their hair. For anything. It was their vanity, and their status – a petty and ridiculous play of hierarchy within the realms of her sex. It was a power play she wanted nothing to do with anymore, she slowly realized, an idea rooting within her mind, and breaking to life above the soil.

Oddly determined, she reached over to where she knew Loki had a dagger hidden under the lip of his left boot. He let her take the blade, eyes lidded and lazy – curious, even. She carried a small knife on her as well, but the blade was sharpened to a fine tip – made for quick jabs and hacking. Loki had a taste for elegance, and the blade would be sharp enough for even the finest of tasks.

Sure enough, the silver of it shone in the hushed light around them. The steel sang as she tapped a thoughtful nail against it.

Loki raised a brow. "Should I dare to ask what you are thinking in this moment?"

She took a deep breath. Found her center as if she were about to do battle. "You may – for I need your assistance."

He looked from her eyes to the blade, and back again. "If the deed is of a violent nature, then I would suggest asking my brother, and not me."

She snorted. "If I ever needed something of that sort I would handle the deed myself."

"Undoubtedly," Loki agreed carefully.

Sif bit her lip as she raised her eyes to look her friend straight in the eye. She handed him the blade, and whispered with more confidence than she felt, "Can you help me?"

In explanation she gathered the thick mass of her hair in her hands, and drew it back from her neck. "I want it gone. All of it." The words escaped her mouth in clipped syllables – each one growing more determined than the last as she let them out.

"Sif, that is madness," Loki protested.

Her eyes narrowed automatically at his tone. "So what?" she retorted. "That has never stopped you before."

"Perhaps," Loki returned. "But never over something so . . . permanent."

"Last time I checked, hair keeps on growing no matter what."

"That's not what I meant, and you know it," Loki glared. He held the blade very loosely in his hands, and she fought the urge to clasp his fingers more tightly over the hilt. "You're going to regret this."

"You dare to call me fickle?"

Loki sucked in an annoyed breath through his teeth, and any other time she would have smirked in triumph. His silver tongue always did tarnish around her – and normally it was a fact that she would take great pleasure in. She was silent as she turned away from him, still holding her hair out and tilting her head expectantly.

The hairs at the back of her neck prickled, waiting for him to begin, but he never did.

"I know of the whispers," he instead said softly, startling her with his gentleness. "I know that they can travel farther than any words loudly spoken. But they are only words – they can only do as much harm as you let them."

Sif didn't like the understanding she heard there. The quiet words – almost like wisdom, falling from a mind that had pondered so over and over again.

"Such sagacity," she mocked, teasing over the sudden tightness in her throat.

"I am always wise – it is just getting my brother to listen to me that is the real trick."

Sif snorted. "Oh, and was it wisdom that led to us getting trapped by that Thyrmiir last autumn? Or wisdom that led to Thor losing Mjölnir when we were chased by that . . . what was it again?"

"That particular dragon was not my fault," Loki protested.

"And the one before it?"

"The one before that was a bloodthirsty wyrm who found himself looking for the blood of muscle bound idiots – who was I to get in his way?"

"Fandral was in the healing room for near three days."

"As I said – muscle bound idiots."

She shook her head, bemused at his words. Between her shoulderblades she could feel his stare – and her skin tingled at the imagined gaze. He always pondered everything so seriously, but in that moment she wanted him to act – to aid her whim and indulge her recklessness.

She imagined his hands, still loose around the blade, and sighed. "I am thinking completely clearly right now. I know what they say, and I know what the rest think . . . I want to acknowledge their words, and instead of just holding my head up high, I wish to throw my nose in the air as well – tell them that their opinions mean nothing. I will continue onwards, and their words will never touch me."

"And cutting your hair off will accomplish all that?" Loki's voice was wry.

Sif rolled her eyes. "It's supposed to be symbolic," she sneered, but her words were cut off by the first nick of the blade through her hair.

She tensed, even though she promised herself she wouldn't. She bit her lip in order to release the tension she felt in her very bones as she saw strands of gold flutter down – cascading over her shoulders and falling to rest on her lap, on the bank of the forest pool, on the dark green stain of Loki's cloak on the rocks all around them.

His hands were gentle in her hair – and the movements soothed her, as they did when her mother braided her hair, or when Heimdall rested a heavy hand on her head when she was much younger. Her head felt lighter as more and more of her burden fell from her – and as her hair disappeared, she could more easily feel his hands and the cool press of the blade against her skin. His hands were almost chilled against her – they were always cold, she knew, but now the contrast was a stark one against the heat that her skin was giving off. Her cheeks were flushed, though she knew not why – her breathing was slow and deep, as it was before she struck – every nerve in her body was coiled, even as she herself was strangely lethargic.

"All of it?" he whispered when there was only a short halo left fluttering about her.

"All of it," she replied, and ever so slightly she pressed back against his stilled hands – seeking the coolness of his skin and the weight of the knife in his hand.

The scrape of the blade against her skin was an odd sensation – almost unpleasant, but not. Like the electric sparks from Loki's powers when they sparred, or the feeling of falling through the air when thrown from a blow that hadn't been pulled.

The skin of her scalp was smooth when he was done, and she couldn't stop passing her hands over her head in curious fascination.

"It's so . . ." she did not finish her sentence, her tongue unable to find a suitable word.

"Different?" Loki offered.

"Light," she agreed, "weightless almost." She rolled her neck slowly back and forth, amazed when she could feel nothing graze against her skin – she felt empty, almost. She finally turned to look at the boy next to her, long strands of severed hair falling from her as she moved.

"So, how do I look? And no lies," she felt compelled to add – as was precaution around Loki.

He raised a brow. "Are you sure you want the truth?"

She glared, daring him.

"The loss of your hair only emphasizes the fact that you look like a horse," the second prince snickered.

She rolled her eyes, and reached a hand into the pool before them to splash him in retaliation. It didn't stop him from laughing. Of course.

Her reflection in the water distracted her – and she gazed at it, entranced by the difference. Loki was right – without her hair the long sweep of her nose, and the highness of her cheekbones was particularly stark. She was not pretty – not yet, at any rate. She was all long limbs and lean muscle, and the curves that had started to bloom on the other girls her age were slow to come. But, there was something almost lovely about her eyes – the curve to her mouth. She could be beautiful, when her body stopped growing like a rabid weed, and decided just precisely what it wanted to do with itself.

She traced her forefinger over her bare skull, her eyes wide and transfixed upon the water.

"You do not look completely horrid," Loki finally said after the silence between them wore off. "I doubt that Freyja would look as good without her hair. Or Sigyn." His voice turned thoughtful, and Sif turned on him – her eyes sharp.

"You will leave them alone Loki Odinson, or I will tell Thor that you cut my hair while I slept – and he will beat you to a bloody pulp."

Loki snorted, "Lies from the mouth of the Lady Sif?"

"Call it a preemptive strike," she countered dryly.

He inclined his head mockingly. "As my lady dubs it."

She tossed her head arrogantly, the movement losing some of its force as there was nothing to flutter carelessly about her face.

Loki was watching her carefully – concern in the intensity of his stare, if not in the shape of it. "If you wish, there are ways to quicken the growth of such things. I could -"

" - no," she interrupted. "I wanted this, and I will let it grow back in due course."

Loki looked dubious, but nodded at any rate.

She got to her feet, and brushed the remnants of her hair from her tunic. The gold fell away from her, landing to be reclaimed by the wild forest floor. When she turned to Loki her voice was a smirk. "Come now – I wish to show Thor what you've done for me. No doubt he will gape like a fish."

Loki snorted. "Isn't that his default look?"

Sif rolled her eyes, but when she reached down to pull him along with her, he followed her easily.

Later that night, she half awakened to feel cool fingers slipping over her bare skull. There were words chanted, and a warmth that followed where the cool fingers tread. Her scalp tingled, but her dreams were weighing her pleasantly until she had no choice but to follow their call.

When she awakened she found a small bundle under her pillow – a charm of some sort, she knew, from the classes that she had sat dutifully through. The charm stank of dwarf's magic, and a part of her wondered just how much Loki – for who else could it be? - had paid in gold for such a thing.

When she ran a hand over her bare head, still surprised to not have the weight of her hair holding her, she felt the barest hint of stubble – growing quickly, at an obviously magicked rate. She grinned wryly at the sensation – like the first blades of grass after the winter's frost – and hopped out of bed to the looking glass on the other side of her chamber.

The new hair at her head was dark – like coals and sepia bark and the deepest of wooded areas. Dark like so few in Asgard had. Dark like Loki's.

Sif rolled her eyes – knowing that the prince probably thought himself clever for doing so, and vowed to hit him later to prove that he wasn't. Not as much as he thought, anyway.

There was a note waiting for her, along with a lock of blonde hair in a dark green ribbon. The silk of the ribbon was a cool sensation next to the lock of gold it surrounded – and her skin tingled at the memory of it heavy and lovely at her neck.

The note said:

I don't see why you can't be warrior and maiden both.

His handwriting was long and looping – like a spider had slanted one of its claws in ink and had dragged it over the parchment. She liked the look of it. She liked the weight of the words before her eyes even more - the way they echoed deep within her, caressing.

Once more, her hands found her scalp, feeling the promise of more there – dark and sleek and elegant; not one or the other, merely both. Merely Sif. She felt better with the clarity in her mind, equanimity as promising as the start of something new at her scalp, heralding a future she looked to embrace.

.
.

Around her, the halls of Asgard's palace once again rang with laughter. The dining hall was filled with its favored children as the guardians of the Aesir met to feast and revel. The clang of dishes – silver striking gold and bronze - mingled with the flow of ale and mead in a time old scene as warriors and counselors and the lofty of Odin's circle gathered to spill exaggerated tales of their victories and triumphs.

For many a day after the bifröst's fall, the hall had been hushed as everyone treaded carefully around the first prince . . . the only prince, now. Thor had been unnaturally quiet as his companions carried on in a forced merriment, his heavy heart seeping out of his eyes and steadying his normally restless limbs. He had changed, she knew – Midgard had changed him. His brother had changed him. The mortal too . . . The only light shining on his grief was the knowledge that once his grief did lift, there would be a clarity about him. A refinement of spirit and mind that many had waited for so long to see. Sif was proud of her friend – of the King he would someday become, and many shared her thoughts.

But, that day was a day in the future – and for now Thor's grief hung over them all like the storm clouds over the earth. He had never been able to hide his emotions – he felt deeply, and he showed openly. He laughed loudly, he raged tempestuously, and . . . he loved deeply. Deeply and quickly and without reservations and reserve.

He had always amazed her with his ability to love so.

When Thor decided that he had been silent enough that evening, he said his farewells to a few, and took his leave. Sif followed him to the edge of the hall before staying her course, unsure of what to say, and what comfort to bring save for a quiet understanding. A silent step behind her, the Queen evidently had the same idea, for a moment later, Sif felt a gentle hand at her elbow – Frigg's soft announcement of her presence.

"You are a good friend for my son," Frigg whispered, her old eyes sad as she watched Thor depart. Sif inclined her head to the words – a phrase that she had heard many times over the centuries.

"He mourns him still," Sif muttered, her hands twisting in the long material of her dress, forever restless. "And he misses her . . . the mortal."

The mortal woman – a woman who studied the stars, and looked for answers in numbers to the mysteries that such laws could never completely govern. The mortal woman with the mayfly life – so quickly blooming, and so quickly gone, like a spark from a fire, brilliant for its flame, but hardly remembered for the waif of smoke that it left behind.

"He will continue to mourn her," Frigg said softly. "Of that I have no doubt."

"The son of Odin loves deeply," Sif muttered, her eyes falling from her retreating friend in order to smooth over the wrinkles she had created on her dress.

Frigg smiled softly. "That he does," she whispered, her eyes knowing.

She cared little for the knowing there – knowing of Frigg's visions, and the secrets silent to many, but open to a select few. Sif raised her head high, and looked the queen in the eye to ask, "And has there been any progress? Thor's hopes remain high for the bifröst's restoration."

Frigg rolled her shoulders elegantly, walking with Sif back to the end of the banquet table. When the two once again took their seats, Frigg answered in a thoughtful tone, "The bifröst was made of a magic older than even Odin. In time, he and Heimdall may be able to piece together part of it – but he doubts within his mind of the bridge ever being completed."

Sif nodded, troubled. She traced her fingers over the horn of her goblet, absently watching the way that the gold smoothed over the calluses on her fingertips. "Has the Allfather thought of looking for alternate paths along Yggdrasil's branches?" she finally asked, hesitance in her words.

Frigg's lips pulled into a thin grin – her eyes knowing in a way that reminded her painfully of Loki, even though she was not his mother by blood. "Odin moves too much in the old circles of thinking; not the ancient ones, or the new ones appearing. He will continue to look along the path that he has always walked. And Thor . . . Thor will look where his father does. It is the mortal, I think, who will surprise him, and find her way here first."

Sif blinked at the calm assurance in Frigg's voice – wondering if it was the futures she saw, or her own personal opinions that shaped her words when she asked, "Truly? The human woman?"

"She has a mind to rival any immortal," and in Frigg's voice there was a subtle reminder that Sif took and set aside to more closely examine later. "And her determination is a well suited match for my son's."

Determination? Stubbornness was more like it. In all of their years, at least, that was one thing that both sons of Odin always held in abundance. Sif took a swig of her mead to keep her snort of laughter from bubbling forth, and in the end was only half successful.

"Perhaps," Frigg answered – for apparently Sif had spoken that last thought aloud. "It is a trait that all men in the family suffer from."

Sif finally tamed the edges of her smile, her eyes casting up and down the gathering around them. From further down the table, Volstagg and Hogun both caught her eye and returned her smile. Fandral looked up for a few moments from trying to once more get Freyja to speak to him in order to wave merrily, but a moment later she was left to observe unnoticed again. Out of habit, her eyes traced over the head of the table to where Odin and Thor's chairs both remained empty. The Allfather rarely stayed for such feasts, and Thor found it harder and harder to sit still as of late. Against her will, her eyes found the empty chair beside Thor's; her eyes narrowing as if she were glaring at the one who would have occupied it not too long ago – and returned her glower with a smirk of his own. Thor had yet to have the place cleared – the chair remained, but there was no cutlery placed before it, no plate or glass – just an empty space kept like a memory. Once, days earlier, Fandral had tried to take the spot next to his friend, but Thor's silence had been thundering in the sudden cease in activity around them. Fandral had hastily backed away to his own seat, and none had tried to take it since.

It stayed empty, even these long months later.

.
.

She remembers back to when both of the princes grew like weeds, catching her until she was far from being the tallest in their trio.

They were older now – older with the weight of futures and responsibilities settling in on them. Thor was gone with Odin more often than not as of late, and Loki had sunk himself so deeply in his studies that sometimes she was surprised that he didn't unravel into the scrolls and become apart of them – the flick of an old scholar's pen, and the secret of some long gone mage. Sometimes, there were whole days when he'd disappear, and when she'd ask Heimdall, her brother would give her the names of far off places – Avalon, Babylon, Memphis, and Xanadu. Magical stains in the history of mortals that they had all grown and waited through. Upon his return, Loki would whisper the secrets he was learning to her, but she had not the mind to comprehend most of what he said. She enjoyed listening to him though, his voice as smooth as any bard's as his eyes lit with his fascination - sparking her own in return.

He did bring her a dagger back from Avalon once. She kept it hidden in the top drawer of her vanity, wrapped in a womb of green silk - the brilliance of the rubies a bloody and bewitching thing on the hilt that entranced her every time she looked at it. She honestly did not know if the blade was enchanted – she did not ask then, and she most certainly did not want to know now.

And then, one day, she was surprised at how much he had changed while away from Asgard.

It had been a warm summer day, cloudless and clear; so hot that even the cosmos at the edge of the sky was stained crimson with the thick humidity of the season. Loki always did hate the warmer months – he had ice in his veins, she had once teased, and he was only ever comfortable when his breath frosted on the air. Even she had felt the effects of the heat – the thick weather made her slow and lethargic, content to sit in the shadows and laugh heartily with her friends at how Volstagg wheezed in his armor every day before saying that he would never again fault the Jötunn for their choice in home.

On one such day, Thor had been gone with Odin Allfather on business of state on Álfheimr, the realm of the elven kind. Their times away came increasingly often as of late; and Sif knew that while Loki may not have said a word as to Thor's obvious preparations for the throne, he must have felt the unintended slight acutely. And so, when the second son could not lose his mind in his books, she took it upon herself to shield him.

She had followed him to their clearing in the forest – her glaive strapped to her back, and one of Loki's favored swords at her hip; every intention of beating the sullen gloom that had fallen over her friend away in the best way she knew how. No one noticed Loki leave – they never did, not when he could wrap the shadows around himself and disappear – and no one bothered to ask her where she went. They had no reason to.

And really, it had been too long since she had had the pleasure to spar with him – as the years wore on and they grew older, Loki joined them less and less in the training ring. When they were children and Odin's eye was upon them all, the second son had tried just as hard as the first to prove himself worthy in armed sports. But, as Thor's talent with the sword grew as rapidly as Loki's grew with spell and tricks, Loki took less and less to informal combat; and rarely joined the training ranks unless Odin specifically ordered him to. Many called him a coward for his tastes – for it was an almost unheard of oddity for one of the Aesir's preferences to run so. Even she, when she was with her sharpest tongue, had called him Loki Cowardson more often than not, drawing a chuckle from Fandral and a bemused head shake from Volstagg each time she had done so. Thor often told her to save her bite for the battlefield in such moments - for he was always as quick to shield his brother as he was to jab his own taunts. But, such was the way of siblings.

And while the rest of Asgard could whisper, the Warriors Three could only say so much – for Loki fought loyally beside them through every tussle and scrape that Thor put them through, and more often than not she had seen surprise flicker on their faces by the ferocity the second son could be moved to attack with. Their words were mighty, but all three of them hesitated before getting into the ring with the prince.

Sif liked sparring with him, and that was the honest to goodness truth – he made her think. Made her regret her split second mistakes, and made her formidable speed even more pointed as he forced her to parry more than she thrust. He showed her the weaknesses in her armor when he fought her, and she often lost track of time trading blows with him. They moved well together, even Thor had said so. Although, the last time Thor had remarked so had also been the last time Loki had indulged her by pairing off with her. She hadn't understood the flush that had colored his skin then, and she hardly did so now.

"If you keep forcing your face into that glower, it just may remain that way," was her way of a greeting. "And although it may be an improvement to your current visage, I feel compelled to warn you all the same."

"A pleasure, as always, my lady," Loki's tone scathed past his more pleasant words, and her smile stretched at hearing them.

Pleasantries aside, she came further into the clearing, stopping only at the edge of the water. By her left boot, Loki had a stack of books in languages she did not recognize, and she spared a moment to wonder how many of them were stolen. She let her toe push at one of the tomes, dangerously close to the forest pool.

His liquid eyes narrowed, daring her. "May I inquire as to the purpose of your presence?" he asked smoothly.

She shrugged. "Your brother is gone, and Volstagg is a useless punching bag in this weather."

"Far be it from me to pass aside the chance of relieving your boredom – but the weather is the exact same reason that makes me wish to remain stationary."

Sif rolled her eyes. "Come now – you've been sulking for the last two days, and I'm tired of it." She kicked the cover of the book open. The water rippled from the movement of it – only a puff of air, but enough to disturb the peace.

"I do not sulk," Loki lazily defended himself.

"No, you have a petulant pout," Sif gave easily. "Like a babe, deprived of a favored toy."

He sucked in an annoyed breath through his teeth, and she grinned in triumph. "Sif," her name was a warning on his tongue.

And she always reacted so well to calls to arms. Triumphant, she kicked the book into the water, delighted by the horrified look that crossed Loki's face as he lunged after the tome. His hands were silent in comparison to the belligerent splash the book made as it sunk into the water – and with some annoyance she noticed that his hands were dry when he pulled them out. Vexing magician that he was. For that she just may kick the rest of the books in.

When he recovered the book, the ancient pages were sodden – ruined as their thin pages buckling angrily, protesting their treatment. The ink upon the pages was smeared, and the engravings on the cover looked very soft – like moss, slippery on the bank of a river. The scent of warm leather was lush in her nose as Loki muttered a charm under his breath to repair the harm done to the book, and with an angry sort of sigh, the book started to fix the damage done at the bidding of an unseen hand. His eyes on her were as close to angered as he had ever seen when he snapped, "Do you know how old this volume is? There is not another like it in existence."

"Well then, you should take better care of it – lest it be less than presentable when you put it back wherever you weren't supposed to take it from."

He took a deep, deep breath – a sort of sigh that was normally reserved only for his brother's most idiotic moments.

She smiled, pleased. "Come now, won't you answer my slight?"

Loki snorted. "Unlike the rest of you uncivilized brutes, I do not believe that every insult has to be matched with a battle of blows to keep my honor."

She let her foot rest dangerously close to the rest of the books he had brought. "How about a preemptive strike then. Do you see the wisdom in that?"

"Is there any chance I can get you to leave otherwise?"

Sif looked thoughtful for a moment, tilting her head, and angling her eyes. "No."

He gave a long-suffering sigh before placing the tome back down on the forest floor – away from her. His long fingers smoothed over the cover of it, as if in an apology; and her eyes watched the motion of him. If he wished, she knew, he could disappear – draw the shadows around himself and melt away through the ground and she would not find him again until he wished to be found. Or he could wave a hand, and she'd forget her purpose in seeking him out – finding herself suddenly back in the palace's halls and her feet taking her aimlessly away from him.

He did neither as he got smoothly to his feet – a willow unbending.

She smiled, triumphant, before unstrapping the weapon from her back. After a thoughtful moment she placed the tall blade down next to his books. The sword too she placed down, Loki looking curiously at her all the while.

"No steel?" he asked.

"None," she answered, flexing her fists – wrapped and bound to keep her knuckles from bloodying. "I do not wish to draw your blood today."

"As if you could land a blow to do so," he mocked her, his eyes knowing – for he was infamous for his grace rather than his strength, and often she chased him more than she liked to admit.

She didn't rise to the bait, and her voice was soft when she said, "I simply do not think that that's what you need right now."

"What I need," he whispered, his eyes thoughtful upon her. She raised a brow at him, but didn't bother to say anything more as she flipped her head forward in order to tie her hair back. Her tresses had grown well past her shoulders - and their luster was unparalleled by any other girl her age - much to the chagrin of her peers, who thought of nothing but the husbands they could snare with their own charms. For Sif to leave such beauty to coat in grime and dust was unthinkable to them, and often she felt their stares on the armor that clung to her in the style of a man. The stares no longer caused her unease. They amused her.

She straightened again, and let herself fall into a loose, defensive pose. "Well then, if you are ready."

He didn't rush at her like Thor did – instead he circled her, his smile lazy and his eyes sharp as they traced over her, looking for weaknesses and openings. It was she who jabbed first, her fists quick and warning things that bid him not to treat her as lightly as he did. He danced between her blows, light on his feet, his every move like the smirk that still remained stuck to his lips – taunting her in a way that lit the battlelust in her veins. Fighting Thor was exhilarating – as second nature as breathing to her as they moved together as the sun and moon. Fighting Thor was all endless camaraderie and bright, breathless ease as they both tried to get the upper hand with moves that they knew as second nature as their own.

Fighting Loki was a constant test to prove herself; a constant test of wills and power as they slipped over and around each other like the rain drops in a storm. There was an odd fervor in her veins when she stood opposite him, a tension that made her blows that much harder, and her movements that much more complex as she tried to out think the Trickster.

He was holding back, she easily realized. And she creased her brow as she ducked, troubled – for he had never done so before. She concentrated as she looked at him – taking in the oddly blank cast of his eyes, and the tight set of his limbs. Her appraising gaze dropped down to notice a bead of sweat trailing down the long cords of his neck – not thick like Thor's, but elegant and lithe. The drop landed in the shadowed hollow of his throat, and her odd urge to wipe it away for him instead translated to her jabbing an unfriendly three fingers at his neck, trying to cut off his breath as her own came oddly tight.

He dodged her mean fingers, moving out of the way of her long arms, but instead of grabbing her and pulling her into him he simply stepped back. He never would have stepped back before.

Sif's eyes narrowed, a taunt on her lips when she saw his gaze flicker down – over the gentle swell of her chest, where her bindings still couldn't hide the form that had blossomed over the spring – before slanting sheepishly away. She didn't wear her armor in the heat, and her loose tunic clung sweatily to her – obvious over the curve of her hip, lean muscle having given way to nature's course as she merged both woman and warrior in one form. She remembered that it had been vexing when she had to be fitted for new armor at the season's start – very vexing indeed.

Thor didn't seem to notice the new curves to her figure – he still threw her easily, his hands as careless on her as they were on any other man he would have sparred with. A bruise high on her thigh was the same as her shoulder to him, and his large hands could cover her breasts as well as her stomach trying to get her into a lock, never blinking all the while – never shying from his course, or differentiating soft flesh from hard muscle.

Loki on the other hand . . . He was too careful with where he was placing his hands

"Dammit Loki, but why won't you just fight me?" she finally snapped, the heat and her thoughts making her tone sharp.

He blinked owlishly, as if surprised that she had noticed. "I thought that that was what I was doing."

She rolled her eyes, and thought of landing a dirty hit on him – jabbing her elbow back into his solar plexus to take the breath from him, or maybe in an even more sensitive place to really add emphasis to her annoyance. She wasn't porcelain – he didn't have to dance around her like she would break. And she was not some fainting maiden who would run screaming at the smallest touch.

He read her intentions easily enough, and as he spun away from her, she lunged closer to him, tripping him with her unexpected boost of speed – interrupting the almost gentle ebb and flow that they had built up before hand. She grinned widely as he steadied himself by catching his hands high on her arms – pulling her with him until she was using the momentum from him to keep them both upright. She grinned and grinned and grinned as she pushed. And he pulled.

And then his stupid books got in the way.

She realized almost immediately that they had gone back too far, and she realized too that their balance was a precarious thing tangled together as they were. Of course, no amount of comprehension could stall nature's course.

They both went tumbling into the pool.

Her startled yelp was swallowed by the water, and when she pushed herself up to break the surface, the splash from their fall was still sloshing all about them. The birds in the trees were calling angrily as their peace was disturbed, and around them, the golden bugs flickered as if in laughter.

"As always, your footwork is horrendous," Loki choked as he surfaced first – his hair slicked back from his face, and eyes glittering brightly even as they narrowed crossly on her.

"My footwork?" she protested, trying to clear her lungs and glare mulishly at the same time. "If you didn't have to leave your stupid books everywhere -"

" - if you paid more attention to your surroundings."

"If I did?" Sif sputtered, and reached over to try to force his head back under the water.

He saw her intention, and splashed her first; the water at his fingertips surged and then swirled as if possessed, throwing her all the way up onto the bank again. She yelled furiously as the water caught her, the impact of the shore on her back stealing her breath and fanning her irritation higher.

"Cheater!" she called after him when she had breath to do so.

He raised a brow, and climbed out of the water opposite her – keeping a careful distance between them. "I merely develop my own weapons – much as you practice with that monstrosity of a blade that you prefer."

Her glaive was lovely, and ten times more elegant than Loki and his bag of tricks, she'd have him know. Still, she grinned as she pushed herself upright, her palms leaving wet marks against the rockface beneath her. Loki had not bantered with her so in much too long, and it was good to hear him more like himself.

Shaking her head arrogantly, she reached up to wring the water from her hair. The water had felt good after the summer heat, she had to admit. She felt refreshed - cleansed, even.

Honoring her unspoken truce, Loki strayed closer to her as he shed his own tunic in order to pry the water from it. A spell was on his lips as she watched him, amused by his annoyance. Her eyes flickered to trace over the pale play of white skin before her – he never did tan in the slightest, not like Thor who was already bronzed and standing to grow darker still as the summer wore on. Loki wore the winter in his veins it seemed, and he fairly glowed in the shadows of their small clearing. The lean lines of him had grown over the last year, she realized in a stupid moment – the tall gangliness of him had started to settle into something elegant and smooth, and she stared more than she would ever admit to at the way his muscles moved over each other – like waves on the open water, heralding a storm.

For an odd, horrifying moment, she found her fingers reaching out as if to touch him. She snapped her hand back as soon as her intentions registered as he turned, depriving her of her chance. Her fingers trembled, and giving the traitorous digits something to occupy themselves with, she leaned forward to shake out her hair, the droplets of water glinting in the half light.

Loki looked at her long and slow, but said nothing, leaving her to her odd play of thoughts in silence. His spell completed, he placed his dry tunic back on before looking thoughtfully back at her.

Sif rolled her eyes, her tongue heavy within her mouth as she asked, "Please?"

He reached out with a smirk, and muttered his spell again. A moment later she was dry. A puff of cool air encircled her, keeping away the heat and humidity, and as they walked back to the palace the stain of his magic stayed with her until long after they parted.

.
.

Three movements of the moon after the bifröst's destruction, Odin finally honored them all publicly for their deeds in defending Asgard and the nine realms.

There had been plans in motion to do so much earlier – but Thor had asked the Allfather to wait, boasting of his confidence of the bifröst's restoration, and his preference to see both celebrated at the same time. Many had seen behind Thor's words – for the first prince was far from subtle in his best moments, and in his worst he tried little to keep his true thoughts from his words. Odin had permitted the delay, but to do so longer would be to acknowledge the defeat that they still mourned.

Still, Thor smiled to the cheering crowds, his eyes crinkling as he took in the pleasure of his people with pride. A pride that was finally completely earned, and honestly felt. Odin's eye was smiling on his son, even as his countenance stayed serene, and she was pleased for the new understanding that the two shared. Truly she was.

Behind Thor, as always, she and the Warriors Three trailed a step behind.

Thor stopped on the fifth step up, dropping to one knee and bowing his head before his father the king. At first, she couldn't decide where precisely to stand. As always, she was one step down from Thor, and to his left. Another step down the Warriors Three completed their lopsided pyramid, but the one wall of the shape was missing; an incomplete thing, unable to stand without all of its edges. She tried not to notice the missing space – tried not to miss the subtle asides that the shadow had uttered the dozens of times they had stood before the Allfather before. Tried not to miss the trace of phantom fingers – the shadow's play at trying to make her loose her composure before so many while he stood innocent and stone-faced at her side. No one had ever noticed their silent games – and no one now thought to look at the loss hiding deep behind her eyes as Odin stepped forward and proclaimed his gratitude and pride to the favored of his children.

Around them, Asgard thundered with approval, and Sif forced a smile on her face in honor of the man who would lead her people to the future.

.
.

She remembers back not too long ago, when the bards started to write the name of Thor next to Thunder, while on Earth the poets pressed their pens to parchment and gave their versions of the exact same tales.

Youthful scrapes turned to battles waged and fought and won. On Midgard and all eight of the realms in defense of the peace (and in defense of days gone wrong, and dares and youthful antics still sealed within fully grown bodies) their names became legends. And soon, their legends were stories to be whispered and revered. Applauded and reveled.

And commended.

It had been a happy day for them all – with Odin Allfather officially honoring them before the whole of Asgard and her people. It was the first that the king had done so, and Thor had strutted around like a peacock for a whole fortnight before the ceremony, so great was his pride. The second son was quieter with his opinions, and while his general words were nonchalant, she could read the subtle satisfaction in his gaze where others chose not to.

"These festivities are a waste of time," came the grim glower from the man at her side, as expected.

Sif raised a brow, her tone bemused. "They are a necessary evil, my friend."

"I believe that I agree with parts your definition – the maleficence I can see, but the necessity is what I find I must take issue with."

Sif rolled her eyes at his turn of phrase. "You know how the courts do love an excuse to feast."

"Yes," Loki returned levelly. "I know that idiotic heroics so puts me on my appetite."

"We were prayed for – Thor could only answer the call," Sif defended, her smile growing ever wider as she returned his words with words of her own – it was another kind of warfare, this bantering, and she so enjoyed matching her tongue against his in moments like this.

"By ruthless invaders so drunk on their mead that they couldn't fend for themselves when invading another man's lands?"

"You were just as eager as Thor to join the melee," Sif rebuked. "Tara, Confey, Clontarf -"

"- which had no clear winner," Loki reminded her.

Sif raised a brow. "And poor Sigurd – trusting you so."

"The enchantment held – the Gaelic forces were drawn to him and distracted. It was Leinster who could not follow through and move his forces in. Either way, the Irish King fell, and there should be a fragile truce for the next century or so. I would count that as a victory – for us. As peacekeepers of the realms." His grin was sharp and harsh – like a blade had slashed across his face.

Sif inclined her head to his wisdom mockingly. Finally, resigned, she gave: "And Thor did so enjoy playing the Wolf for the day."

"I am glad that someone walked through that battle in high spirits."

"I think," she turned to cut into his path, her smile an accusation, "that you enjoyed following your brother more than you will ever admit."

"And what gives you that idea?"

"What is war but mischief and trickery played on a fatal level?" she pressed. "It is the ultimate gamble, and we all know how well you excel at that."

"In conditions of my own making, where weapons other than steel decide the outcome," he returned.

"I believe," she continued to mock, "that that is what you so very dearly want other people to believe."

"And who am I to argue with the great Lady Týrdottir?" he bowed, but the motion stank with his insincerity.

She still raised her head haughtily, accepting the courtly gesture as if it were one owed to her. Ahead Thor's encompassing shadow could be seen filling the hall, and out of habit Loki submitted to his brother throwing a boisterous arm about his shoulders in his grand mood. He may have made many a face at Thor's affection, but there was something fond about his eyes – for all of their differences, the two were as close as kindred could be, and their back and forth warmed Sif to see. She fell into step behind Thor, Loki trailing back to allow his brother to lead their way.

When they were ready to march – helmets donned and shields gleaming, the cry of Asgard was deafening as they welcomed their own publicly for the first.

She filled on the calls as much as she did on the sound of steel striking steel, and she imagined that somewhere her father was proud of her for the legacy she was forging in his name. Ahead of her Thor pandered to the crowds – throwing Mjölnir, and winking at the young women who crowded the enchanted barriers. Behind the first prince, Loki kept his eyes averted from the crowd, but she could see them slant almost playfully across her own as if to share a long-suffering with the gathered masses. She tried her hardest to keep her pleasure from her face, but it was a hard pressed thing.

The crowd quieted as Odin bid them to be silent, and then his ancient voice rang out – speaking of honor and glory and pride. Pride. And at the last his favor was a heavy and warm thing against them all.

Thor was commended for his might. Sif for her steel. And Loki for his wits. Ahead of them, Thor raised his head to the praise – completely confident as to his right to hear his father speak so. She accepted the praise with a bowed head, knowing how she was a shadow of Týr in that moment. And beside her Loki bowed his head as if in respect to his father – but so close she could see how it was instead to hide the simple relief in his eyes; a soft word from Odin a rare thing made stronger still by the force of Asgard cheering around them. The crowds echoed with them for long after – the collective voice of the Aesir the ferocity to their fight and the force behind their blows for dozens and dozens of battles to come.

.
.

Odin rose, and the crowd did as well.

As they walked back down the aisle, Sif's smile tugged on her face until she was sure that she wore it hung on her ears.

At her back, her shield pulsed; a low sweep of magic that threw one step from her stride, but not two. The corners of her eyes narrowed, but her smile did not fall.

Not now, she hissed in her mind. Her shadow, thrown by the bright flames, was small – unable to last within so much light, but before her, she imagined that it grew. At her back her shield was like an ember, the heat of it shinning even through the plate of armor she wore. The pulse of it was a low vibration that rattled her spine – spinning her ribs and settling deep within her chest. Its call was deeper this time.

This time was different.

Mouth wet with the possibilities before her, she lengthened her stride just that much. Around her, the Warriors Three did not notice as they unconsciously matched her; and when they passed under the great arches, just past the eyes of the crowd, she finally turned to release the weapon from her back.

Under her eyes, and her eyes alone, the bronze and gold leaped into a brilliant halo – radiant like star fire, and dragon's breath; and deep within her, her breath leapt.

This time. This time was right.

.
.

She remembers back to halcyon days; remembers the lands of Svartálfaheimr, home to the silver dwarfs – the sons of Ivaldi, the master blacksmiths who forged their wears from dying stars and the liquid inferno that bloomed molten at the core of their moon.

They had all been on the moon to accompany Thor – who took Mjölnir to its creator to repair a fracture to the enchanted weapon's surface. Brokkr had agreed to heal the hammer if Thor proved himself worthy of wielding it. A quest, that meant – which Fandral and Thor had whooped at the possibility of. Volstagg had nervously reminded them about how well the last one had went. Hogun was grim, and grimmer still at the path set before them; and Loki was less reserved as he cast his eyes heavenward as if to pray for long-suffering.

Sif merely smiled, and shook her head; her hand on her shield, and her weapon ready at her back. She was content to follow – and so follow she would.

Their quest involved the usual three tier of challenges – a character test where Thor helped an old woman pay a troll's fare for a bridge – who was really a breathtaking enchantress in disguise, one of the Álfar, an ancient daughter with mysteries in her eyes as she commended Thor's simple gesture warmly. Next was a test of intelligence where they transversed an insolvable maze – and Thor subtly trailed behind his brother for this, to which Loki said nothing – but she saw that he was pleased in the way the corners of his mouth clenched. In the shadows, his eyes were very green.

It was the third task that went awry. The test of strength.

And really, it wasn't as if they hadn't fought gryphons before – they were one of those popular beasts to be sworn into servitude by a master mage – or conjured by a sorcerer. There were some of the creatures who stood apart from their brethren in that they existed solely for such tasks – testing the mettle and worthiness of heroes the nine realms wide. Normally, the general population of their ancient race were symbols of divine favor – beautiful, majestic creatures who stole the breath and instinctively drove onlookers to one knee in respect of forces higher than themselves.

These, however, had rings of cobalt on the black of their wings, and white paint stained their feathers in a sorcerer's mark. These had not been summoned, but ensorcled – driven to madness and bloodlust by whatever poison ate at their veins. Sindri, they soon realized – the brother of Brokkr, who still seethed in resentment that his brother had bested him all those years ago with Mjölnir's creation, and who sought to take his vengeance now by killing the hammer's bearer.

There were four of the beasts – two mated pairs, which presented another obstacle. For, to kill one of a pair was to drive the other even deeper into madness – for the gryphon was famous for its devotion to its life partner, and even more infamous for its defense of that said life.

A part of her ached to slay such a being, but to end the enchantments that enchained it . . .

She was never one to shrink back from what had to be done.

To fight a being with the capability of flight was always a trick – and Thor was absent of that power himself without Mjölnir at his side. His blows were powerful when the gryphons swept in low, but it was obvious that the beasts were playing with their land bound opponents. Hogun and Loki were more useful – both of whom preferred thrown weapons more often than not; razor sharp stars, and small daggers that could rip through a dragon's hide if thrown properly. If the wings could be injured from a distance, then it was a relatively simple thing to slay the beasts on the ground.

. . . or, they could find a way to attack from on high themselves.

Their battle had taken place high in the Svartheil mountains, to one side of them they were encased by a sheer cliff wall – and not even a hundred paced away the cliff picked up again, dropping down from the clearing and flaring out to complete the mountain peak. Tall evergreens grew hardy and steady on the rock-mass – dark and jutting things that reached forward to scrape the sky with their claws. They all stood in the middle of the clearing – backs to backs so that all sides were covered from the beasts up high.

Fandral had noticed the direction her eyes had taken. "Distraction?" he suggested lightly.

"Distraction," she agreed with a smirk.

Fandral tapped Volstagg with the butt of his sword, and after a pointed look, the hulking man sighed. "Next time she can be the diversion," he muttered, but nonetheless, he and Fandral charged forward, exaggerated war cries on their lips as they beat their weapons and shields together – drawing the attention of the three gryphons who weren't busy dealing with Thor's fury.

Her shadow was nonexistent on the ground as she darted across the clearing to the cover of the trees. Back in the center of the melee she could see the concentration on Loki's brow – and knew that he had spared the magic to completely shield her from the gryphon's vision. An instinctive part of her balked at the subterfuge, but the warring part of her reveled in the trickery.

Cloaked as she was, it was a simple thing for her to attack the cliff face – hoisting herself higher and higher on the crag until her friends became smaller and smaller beneath her, the tops of the pines sparse and bending things that gave to the fancy of the wind around her. She could hear the gryphon's screeches from mere feet away – from next to her, and then beneath her as she climbed higher than the gryphons hovering on the long currents of wind.

The gryphons dove in patterns – two loitering in the air as one fell, taking turns in teasing the Aesir below them. Their roars sounded like cackles – and their black eyes were glazed over, an unnatural shadow above their wicked beaks. She stared into the gaze of the one nearest her – counting seconds and heartbeats as she read the way its great wings flapped, tensing as she felt the wind whipping at her hair and biting at her knuckles, white against the strain of holding herself completely skill on the vertical stone.

The great beast tensed, as if to dive. Its wings shuddered.

And Sif let go.

She kicked mightily away from the cliff as the currents of wind caught her – tossing her like a displeased child may have thrown an offending toy. She angled her body down like an arrow through the gust, her shoulders back and her hands outstretched as if she had talons of her own. In her grasp her glaive was a natural extension of her form, an unerringly accurate thing as she landed with a bone jarring thud on the gryphon's back. The force of her fall dropped the enchantments from her skin, and her shadow fell across the dark feathers just as the beast's eyes locked on hers. It screamed its fury at her unexpected attack, and she could feel as its thick muscles corded under her feet – ready to turn and buck her from its back. But it didn't have the time as her glaive struck deep – cutting through the razor sweep of the feathers encasing it, and finding tender matter and marrow beneath.

Its second scream was more harrowing than the first, and it tore through her.

Its body convoluted, and its great wings lost their rhythm against the winds. Sif's eyes widened as she took in the great fall that was left to her as she tumbled with the beast – but that was the least of her worries as above her a harkening cry split the skies in rage. For as the lord that Sif had slain fell, its mate had noticed her – and the mare was a dark and terrifying thing against the backdrop of clouds as it dove for her.

She was helpless while falling – unable to bring her blade around, or even truly process the possibility of movement as the gryphon fell upon her. In aching clarity, she felt the enchanted claws scrape across her back, shredding her armor – which protected her spine from snapping, even if the skin beneath was not so fortunate as to escape unscathed.

Her cry echoed in the clearing, and before she met a rather undignified end, urgent strands of magic caught her – jerking her away from the gryphon's reach even as it placed her easily on the ground. Her limbs pulsed with a green aura for a moment in the mark of the second prince, even as the first one snapped into action. Her cry had awakened Thor, and now there was no fervor in his eyes as he enjoyed the battle any longer – no taunts or grins or boisterous laughter. There was only his rage as he shouted to the sky, and the clouds gathered and parted for him alone. The storms answered him – answered the call of the son of Odin as thunder bellowed in the clouds, and lightening snaked across the sky. Without Mjölnir, the storms were difficult for Thor to control; but his rage was deep, and his body instinctively summoned and spun the storm in defense of his own.

It was an awe inspiring thing to watch as the rains started to fall, striking the ground like arrows – making their footing tricky, and their armor slick. The leather of her boots creaked, slipping on the rocky ground as she braced herself to watch her friend's fury. Her armor was cracked, and she could feel the tacky flow of blood beneath the rain; and so she simply stood with her glaive held defensively before her, content to let her companions to finish the battle, but ready to assist if needed.

And her elbow, she felt cool fingers touch the leather encasing her. In the storm darkened clearing, the second prince's eyes were verdant as they carefully fell over her in a way that could have been concerned.

A few paces from them, the mare that had charged her laid with one of Loki's daggers deep within her throat. The blade still glowed green, speaking of the sheer amount of power that had been needed to fell the creature. Loki himself looked paler than normal, taxed almost; but darkly pleased.

The remaining two gryphons fell to Thor's might, and above them the sky calmed; even as the rain continued on. The deluge had turned the fertile earth to mud, and she could taste the sweetness of it along with her sweat, the soft pitter patter of it almost caressing - as all of Thor's storms were. At her side, Loki was completely dry, she noticed with some annoyance. She pressed wet fingers against the cool fabric of his arm in retalliation, enjoying the way his spell made room for her. He was not untouchable, no matter how much he may have wished himself to be.

As Thor approached them, she took a step away from Loki, standing straight with her head high, ignoring the pain that rippled angrily up and down her back.

"I believe that that is two of the beasts for me, and one for you," Thor chortled merrily in way of greeting. Behind him, the Warriors Three all looked fondly upon their leader.

"That puts you one behind me in our total tally," she proclaimed arrogantly. "Perhaps there is another beast around here for you to slay if you wish to catch me."

"There has been enough slaying for one day," Thor gave after a moment's thought. "Perhaps at another time I shall restore my honor."

She snorted at his ridiculousness. "Please."

"For now, I shall declare Mjölnir a just recompense for today's victory."

"You wouldn't have needed today's battles if you hadn't shattered Mjölnir in the first place," Loki pointed out smoothly, ever earnest in his need to get under his brother's skin.

"And now the bards will have two tales to write of," Thor brushed that small detail aside.

She chuckled at Thor's earnestness as the prince took a step forward to the clearing's edge. It was a long hike back to Brokkr's forge, and it was best to get started before the sun began to go down – the drawf's magic was what kept away the more ferocious of the creatures who inhabited the moon, and she was not eager to see how well the enchantments held under the cover of night. Forestalling the urge to sheath her glaive until her armor at her back was repaired, she took a step after him.

And stopped. Her face turned ashen as the movement pulled the skin and muscle in her back tight, reminding her of the fury of the gryphon's talons. The wounds burned unnaturally, and she bit back a curse at the repercussions of fighting a mystical creatures.

"You're injured," Loki took a step towards her, his sharp eyes having watched her for signs of discomfort, and finding it easily.

"A scratch," she waved her hand dismissively, her tone clipped to avoid seeping with the discomfort that her body was currently broadcasting to her. Loudly.

"The claws struck through your armor?" Thor asked, his warm voice concerned. She cursed Loki for mentioning her hesitance under her breath.

"Hardly," she said tightly in reply, her fists clenching.

"Completely," Loki said at the same time she did.

Thor stopped in a determined manner that suggested that they would not be leaving until it was ascertained whether or not she was fit enough to travel. She dared him with his eyes to say anything further on the mater, even as his brother ignored her lethal stare in order to come closer to her. "May I look at it? I may be able to help you enough until we return to Brokkr, and then Eir can do the rest once we return home."

"It's nothing," she said between her teeth. "Truly."

"Then this shall not take long at all," Loki returned smoothly.

Fixing him with a withering stare, she bent her head, allowing him to come closer to her. The straps of her armor still held, but the plates had cracked – the edges of the metal still glowed with a black ichor from the gryphon's claws. She winced when the metal was drawn away – not eager to see the state of her skin underneath. The leather under the metal was peeled away from her as well, and she bit her lip stubbornly at the sensation of it being parted from her skin. The remaining linen that clothed her was torn and soaked with blood and sweat, but it did the trick as she gingerly bunched it up beneath her arms – determined not to give all of her companions too much of a show.

Behind her, Volstagg sucked in a sympathetic breath at the sight revealed to them.

"A scratch, my lady?" Loki's voice was not as smug as it normally would have been.

"A trifling one," she bit out.

"Well then, I should hate to see the day when you truly come to harm," Loki mumbled. She could imagine his eyes crossing as they narrowed on the ruined state of her skin, and she felt the fine hairs at the back of her neck prickle as if in awareness. His fingers were very cool when they pressed against her wounds – she could smell mint and juniper, calming things that reminded her of the healers chamber. Her fingers clenched as she thought of Eir – and how much time she was going to be stuck with the other woman once they returned to Asgard.

"How bad is it?" Thor asked, his voice troubled.

"I do not think that the wounds are too deep," his brother muttered. "If they were she would not be standing. But there is some sort of venom in the scratches – they will effect her nerves soon if not treated. I can hold it's progress until Heimdall can open the way for her."

Thor nodded sharply. "Yes – return with her while we collect Mjölnir."

Sif sputtered in indignation at being sent home so easily. "See here a moment -"

The sharp move of her head caused her vision to swim dizzily, as if she had challenged Volstagg to a drinking game. And lost.

"Be still," Loki bid her in a hiss, his fingers pressing harshly against her skin. "I need to concentrate, and I cannot argue with you at the same time."

She snorted, but her glare had no bite as she gave into the urge to wrench her eyes closed. There was the ozone scent of magic on the air – like the memory of lightening, and a moment later an unholy feeling lanced through her as the venom sizzled in her veins. "I thought you were helping," she ground out between her teeth.

"I am not as proficient with the healing arts as you'd think me to be after so long with Thor," Loki returned, his voice distracted – somewhere, she was sure that there was an apology in there if she chose to look for it. The burning on her skin was slowly cooling – the force of the black stain upon her giving to the power of his charms. She breathed slightly easier as his fingers fell from her wounds, tracing down to linger on the healthy expanse of her skin, as if to assure herself as well as him.

Thor rolled his eyes, his tone infused with a forced grandness as he declared, "Normally, our victories are more to number than our wounds."

Loki was silent, his first finger tracing over the lowest rings of her backbone, mapping out the hollows and dips as he said, "It only takes once, brother."

"Then we shall simply have to be more careful next time."

"Yes," Loki agreed, his eyes thoughtful as his hand fell from her skin. "We shall."

.
.

Her shield was an insistent hum to her senses as she followed Thor from the Great Hall. Her boots rang out a soldier's march on the marble, sharp and clicking as she instinctively fell into step with her friend. Thor waited just for her – not pausing so much as he tapered his stride, allowing her to come to his side as they both made their way to the arsenal. Thor often shed his helmet and Mjölnir after such ceremonies – and she knew he would not be to feast long that eve. There was too much on his mind. In his eyes. Out of all the players who had walked away with losses, it was Thor whom she pitied the most – for doing what needed to be done for his people, he had severed his path to his love, and his brother's betrayal had hit him just as hard – if not harder still. Thor loved innocently, and the possibility of such a move would not have occurred to him through the centuries – not even when their days had taken their darkest turns for the worst.

There were enchanted cases holding the ceremonial armor for the royal family. Thor placed his winged helmet down upon a pedestal covered by red silk. The barrier pulsed golden and warm as it reacted to its prince's presence, and for a moment Thor smiled, as if fond for the near sentient force.

There was an empty expanse next to his helmet – a bare pedestal which held no ornament to boast of. As he always did, Thor let his hand rest heavily on the lone stand, memory making his touch weighty before he drew it away.

She had never cared for that ridiculous helmet, she tried to tell herself. She was happy it was gone. Truly so.

"You are taking your leave of us once more?" Thor finally asked once the silence stretched, one shared by ghosts and long with drawn breaths.

"If you would grant me leave, my lord."

Thor's eyes crinkled at the sides when she used a more formal address with him. "You pinned me in the mud when we were children, Sif – you need not speak so formally to me."

But the title drew a smile from him. He had a face made for smiles, she had always thought – and she now considered it her role in life to keep his side protected. He was her king to be, and she would be vanguard and general for him – and bodyguard when she could be neither of those. Friend, protecting the weakest areas of his armor when he himself could not do so.

"You're simply growing into the title," she returned wryly. "I don't think that you fidgeted once during the Allfather's speech."

"A talent born by long practice."

Sif snorted. "A talent just recently realized," she refused to let him get away so easily.

Thor smiled, but he did not counter her words – deceits, even the smallest of them, were far to be found from him.

In her hands, her shield pulsed; and she clasped the enchanted thing tighter, as if to still it. Thor's gaze dropped to the weapon in her hands before slipping away from her once more. She could not read the thought he held there.

"Return soon," he said softly, sensing her urgency even though he was blind to the shield's insistence. In the golden lights around him, his eyes were glittering – painfully bright and blue on her own.

"I shall strive to," she vowed.

Thor inclined his head, and brushed past her to take his leave – laying a fond hand upon her shoulder before leaving her alone with her thoughts.

In her hands, her shield blazed as if a flame, and finally she was unable to ignore its call for any longer. She closed her eyes, as if in prayer, and gave into the tug that she felt pulling at the very matter of her. Her time, her space, around her disappeared; and before her the gold of Asgard fell away to show her the nothingness of the wastes. But this time she was not confined to the roots of the Yggdrasil.

She walked beyond.

.
.

She remembers back to an autumn not too long ago – cool and crisp days that crackled like leaves under her boots, and harkened the approach of the winter to come.

It had been her favorite time of year on Asgard, and on Álfheimr, it was an even more beautiful experience. The woodland Álfar – the Ljósálfar, were the light elves. As creatures of the trees, their festivals to bid their forests farewell until the spring would return were particularly grand. Sif traveled with the royal family to the elven realm in order to participate in the festivities - for King Gandalf was an old ally of Odin from before the time of the Great War, and the autumn festivals were a perfect time to reaffirm that friendship. The evening fires crackled merrily on the air as the glorious expanse of night sky began to creep over them. From the fire, the wiseman's voice could be heard as he recited his poems as song in order to tell the youngest of their generation the tales of those who came before them. His tales were currently depicting the more amusing story of Thor and the Jötunn Thyrm – where he had posed as a bride in order to return Mjölnir to his side; and sitting by the Álfar children was Thor himself, comically huge next to the tiny beings, and every bit as enraptured as them as he leaned forward to hear the bard's words.

"You'd think that he'd have more shame at hearing that story retold time and time again," Loki said from her side, rubbing his temples in a tired manner, even though his gaze was fond.

Sif snorted. "Thor? Really."

"And now – the part where I take Mjölnir back and slay them all!" Thor's booming voice could be heard from the fire's ring, higher than the bell like laughter of the children as he took over for the bard. Thor stood, and in an exaggerated manner he acted out slaying Thyrm and his court. He played both parts – puffing out his chest and smirking to play himself, before miming the slain Thyrm – dropping to the ground, his eyes crossing comically as if in death. The younglings all giggled madly – the braver ones daring to pounce on Thor as if they were raising a hand against the Jötunn lord, and a moment later the bard's history lesson deteriorated into an impromptu wrestling match as Thor tickled and threw the little bodies to and fro. Someday, those young ones would be the warriors for their realm – and this would be one of the first memories pushing them down that path.

"He's incorrigible," Loki shook his head, but he was fighting not to laugh. She could see it in his eyes. "They don't speak of how Thor could not act to save his life – or of how shocked he was when Freyja refused to honor his idiocy and wed Thrym to begin with."

"There would be no fun in that," Sif countered. "And the best parts of the tale have remained – really, the best lie you could come up with was that she had not slept or eaten in eight days?"

"It was on short notice – I didn't think that Thor would eat like Volstagg after a fast at Thyrm's table when he was supposed to be playing the role of blushing maiden."

"You didn't plan ahead for every continuity?" Sif put a hand before her mouth, feigning aghast.

"You know how I so revel in chaos," his eyes glinted.

"Only when of your own making," she countered dryly.

He inclined his head. "That sounds like wisdom to me."

"Of course it does," she tossed her head breezily. His eyes fell on the flutter of her hair – left down to curl around her face and throat. White flowers – the last tokens of summer – were woven into the dark spill of it, charms on their petals to keep them from dying before the evening was through. For a moment, she felt oddly self conscious about her appearance – and she debated with herself whether or not she should press her hair behind her ears. But the thought was silly, so she shook it away. After all, he had helped her shave her head all of those years ago – there was no vanity left between a pair after that.

From the fire, Thor had noticed them. "My lady – I was preparing to tell the younglings about our glorious battles against the wolf Sköll. Here, help me tell the tale! The good bard here has not put verse to song for this one yet."

"I shall wait for your unique interpretation before penning my words," the bard agreed, amused as he watched the prince once again kneel before the younglings.

"The histories of the Álfar are to be pitied for their version of events then," Loki said under his breath. Sif elbowed him. He caught her elbow and pushed her back, and she fought the urge to step on his toes – really, it wouldn't do to act like children before the actual young ones around them. Thor was already doing enough of that.

Breaking away from Loki, she knelt down at her friend's side as Thor launched into his tale – depicting how the evil wolf chased Sol and her horses across the sky day after day. The Aesir woman was brilliant enough to be seen even from Midgard, and the humans worshiped her as the very sun, so great was her beauty. Midgard could not survive without Sol's light, Thor greatly embellished the tale – enjoying how the mortals confused celestial brilliance with their myths, and so it fell upon him to slay Sköll so that Sol's light could continue to shine.

As he did so, he had unsheathed Mjölnir, swinging the weapon in grand arches that were more for show than anything else as Sif used her shield to block the blows. She curled her brow ferociously, doing her best to appear to be a wolf – rather than the horse she was more often compared to when jesting. She could feel Loki laughing at her from a few paces away, his shadow not touched by the fire, and her smirk turned more feral of its own accord.

"And when Sköll finally breaks free from his prison, do you know what that will be?"

"Ragnarök!" one of the children whispered, awe and something almost like fear in their tone.

"Ragnarök," Thor agreed. "The end of the world. Many signs will herald it, but the day the wolf devours the sun will spell great doom for all."

"And you're going to stop it?" the children breathed, awed.

"Of course," Thor said lightly, tossing Mjölnir from hand to hand. "For you see, the wolf is never stronger than the sun."

She read the tensing lines in her friend's form, and a smile split her face as she interpreted Thor's intention before he acted. And so she lunged forward to meet him before he could get the upper hand on her – his quest to pin her to the ground in a 'victory' over the wolf thwarted as she thrust her shield up as if it was a melee weapon – used for blunt blows and ferocious hammering. Thor's smirk was interrupted, though, when her shield started to blaze an angry gold – reading his friendly intent as something malicious as it roared to life. The dead metal blazed as if possessed by the storms that snapped on the surface of the sun – long tongues of light reaching out with vengeful hands to throw the prince across the small clearing.

Around the fire, the gathering was silent.

She blinked, and looked down at her shield, stunned and bewildered.

An enchantment . . .

"And that, children, is how the sun defeats the wolf," Loki cackled from the side of the fire, his laughter a bright and delighted thing that burned furiously at her skin. Her hands tightened about her shield.

She rounded on him. "Loki Odinson, what did you do to my shield?"

He dared to look innocent. "What makes you think that I did anything to it?"

She bit off a curse – not wanting to offend the younger ears around them. "You enchanted it!"

"A latent spell," he rolled his shoulders elegantly, deciding against denying it. "It was not supposed to awaken unless you were in true danger."

From a few paces away, Thor was getting gingerly to his feet, a massive hand held to cradle his head. "That was some ensorclement," Thor wondered. "I have yet to feel its match."

"Take it off!" Sif demanded.

Loki narrowed his eyes. "No."

She seethed, and took a step towards him, brandishing her shield like a weapon. "This is not your choice," she bit out. "I don't need trickery for a victory, not like you."

His eyes fell pointed on where she still felt the heat of the gryphon's claws – the scars were silver on her back, scarring under their bandages. "Forgive me, my lady. I did not mean to slight your skill, or your honor." He inclined his head in a mockery of a bow, his jade eyes like coals in the faint light.

Behind her, she could feel the stares of the children, and she tried to cool the rage in her veins – not even completely sure herself why she was angered so. Behind her, Thor came to place a hand on her shoulder. "You see, Sif – the spell was laid with true intentions, and he shall remove it if it angers you so. Be at peace."

Loki's eyes had yet to leave hers, and she didn't like the knowing she saw there. The quiet secrets that made her want to throttle him until he couldn't force the words off of his tongue – and then secrets they would remain.

She didn't say anything more – to either prince. Instead, she threw her shield down with a great thud. The earth cracked underneath the force of her blow, struck completely – and she didn't wait to see the expression on Loki's face – if there was one. She merely turned on her heel and left.

The next morning she found her shield cleaned, and dull – waiting patiently next to the rest of her armor. Later, she boxed Loki's ears for being in her room while she slept – but she was no longer cross with him, believing the spells to have been dissolved.

If, over the years, her shield could take a hit that no shield could – or even protected her when a battle slipped away from her control, no one said a word to it. And each and every time she would be sure to hit Loki again – gratitude in her eyes even as she cursed him for depriving her the chance at a new scar.

.
.

She knew immediately that she had reached Midgard – Earth.

The planet was one that ached – it shone with an unparalleled violence to her senses, for the realm was one that screamed its warcries, and the echoes of those screams traveled in the spin of her veins, the hollows of her bones. Instantly, she could taste copper in her mouth – could smell iron on the air. Instead of the ring of steel, all she could hear was thunder. Unnatural thunder that bloomed against her ears from the unnatural contraptions that the mortals built to tear each other asunder.

For such mayfly lives, the men of Earth were determined to blaze on as quickly as they were to extinguish the other. Centuries ago, humanity's resilience had fascinated her. Their curiosity had amused her, and their courage had impressed her. Now, their rage threatened to make her temples tighten from the severity of it. Rage and hope and despair and an underlying flame that no amount of violence could ever kill.

Sif took a moment to center herself – kneeling upon the sandy ground, and pressing her forehead to her shield. No one race worshiped war more than humanity, even if their prayers were without conscious thought or appeal – and their pleas now assaulted her without mercy before she was able to close her mind off enough to continue onward. After she consciously deflected the prayers, they came with less force, but she could still hear them – a dull echo against her mind.

Her first step on the sand was a tangible awakening to her senses.

Earth.

She had made it from the heights of the Yggdrasil to the center of its branches.

Midgard.

The way had been walked, and she now found herself within the south of the northern hemisphere of the realm. A dry and dessert like place where the view of the heavens was at its zenith – the cosmos was so dim, so dull and diluted from Earth's skies, but here the corners of its brilliance could be glimpsed. Glimpsed, and studied.

Jane Foster, she remembered the human woman with something almost like fondness – attached immediately as she was to anything Thor declared as his own. The woman had been strong in the midst of battle, and even untrained she had not shied away from the edges of the conflict – even as the violence threatened to encompass her own soul as well. Sif had remembered being impressed – remembered approving Thor's choice in the little time they had before returning to Asgard once more to set things to right.

Now, peace held strong in Asgard, and the thread to unravel lied within Earth's halls. Aware of her duty – her self proclaimed quest – she set off across the sand to where she could see the glimmer of grey on the horizon. At her side her shield hummed as if in contentment, and she didn't dare check her shadow – unwilling to consider who may have been accompanying her, not yet ready to face off against the other who haunted this realm as well.

.
.

She remembers back to beginnings; beginnings she remembers now by the flashes of silver staining her skin, the mementos of war that she will carry with her always – the signs of her victories, and her first feint that would lead to the most epic of her defeats.

The scent of Eir's herbs still clung to her skin as she left the healing chambers. The circle of linen newly wrapped around her arm was pure and clean, a spill of white light against the pale expanse of her skin. If she would peak underneath – like she had before the healer's annoyed fingers had slapped her own away – she knew that the wound beneath would be putrid and angry, a truly marvelous warrior's token. It would be a worthy scar, if much of the wound survived past Eir's admittedly talented charms.

Sif picked at the edges of the linen, anxious to have it off of her skin. Like a child, Eir had told her. But her tone had been fond.

Around her, the shadows of the golden halls shuddered. She slanted her eyes to the left, then the right, scenting the change on the air as the second prince revealed himself. His magic gave off a storm strewn scent – and around her the air crackled as if it did before lightening struck.

"You know, you don't have to stick to the shadows so often – it is not good for your complexion," she informed him as a greeting, her proud smile invading her voice even as she met Loki's less than amused features.

He fell into step beside her, as was his wont, and he was quiet for many a step as they left the healer's halls for the wide expanse of vistas which circled the upper wings of the palace. Beyond them, the celestial expanse above Asgard flushed and darkened – heralding the oncoming night. Even further out, the sea sounded like thunder, a constant counterpoint to the crackling of the flames from their torches, and the echoes of laughter from the great hall even further beyond.

At long last, he spoke. "You didn't have your shield with you," Loki's voice was blank. Too blank.

"I didn't need it," Sif threw the rebuke away as she always did with his subtle chides.

He took a deep breath, and she liked to imagine that he found it hard to calm himself around her – few were the things that could get under the second son's skin, and she prided herself in being one of them.

"Yes, obviously," he scathed.

She rose her head arrogantly. "It was either I drop my shield or my glaive – and seeing as how the Eldjötnar fell to my steel, few will say that I made an unwise decision."

His look was withering. "The Eldjötnar are a race more ancient than even Father – and they are bound away because of their power and might. My brother was an idiot of unsurpassed proportions to go after one of their ranks."

Sif shrugged. "No one can steer Thor's course when he sets his mind on something – you know that better than most." Most of the time, for every dragon they faced, it was Loki who led Thor to the nest, and dared him to face the creature in the first place. Heading against the Eldjötnar had been a rare moment of caution on Loki's part, and he had been less than pleased when Thor had chosen not to heed him.

The creatures of the flame were said to be indestructible – and as one of the villains heralding Ragnarök's beginning, it was forbidden to disturb their ancient prisons. Thor had been less than inclined to abide by the ancient decree. In the end, they had slain the creature, but all of the Warriors Three and herself had spent time with Eir afterward. Loki had escaped unscathed – as he often managed to in such situations. Thor too had been uninjured – but Odin's rage at his actions had been more than enough for him to suffer through.

"You followed him too," Sif at last chose to remind him, understanding his pique, but cross enough for his childish censure to point it out.

"He's my brother," Loki snapped the old line as if by reflex. "It is my role to follow him – it's how it's always been, and how it always will be."

She tensed, not liking the topic of shadows being drawn between them. "Thor is your brother, but someday he will be my king – I owe my allegiance to him."

"At the cost of your life?" he returned, his words sharper than any sword's feint.

"If I shall die by his side, then I shall die with honor – the songs they sing of me will guide me into Valhalla."

Loki snorted, the sound almost full of disgust. "Yes, I had forgotten the hero's mentality. Forgive me."

Sif seethed. "Not all of us can fight as well as you with our words, or tricks – I merely develop the weapons that come easiest to me," she returned his words from a lifetime ago, her words full and growing fuller still.

"You miss my point," Loki sighed through his teeth. His hand twitched, as if he would pinch the bridge of his nose, or hold his head in exasperation. But he did neither, instead looking at her straight in the eye. The first part of lying, he had once told her, was in the eyes. Belief was to be found in a steady gaze; deceit in a flickering one.

His eyes didn't flicker on hers. She wished they would.

"I do not speak in riddles," Sif rounded, annoyed. "If you have something to say, say it plainly, or leave."

He indulged her. "You fight – but what do you fight for? Your battles are mindless, and your great victories reckless. My brother fights where there is no slight, and seeks out danger time and time again. And for what? The realm's defense; for honor in the name of the Allfather? No."

"He fights because that is what he was raised to do," she countered. Thor had been crafted into a warrior. Loki had had the same crafting, but shied away from it in favor of other pursuits.

As always, he saw her thoughts where she would bid them to remain hidden. "I don't slight the name of battle – to the contrary, it is needed more often than not. I simply mean to say that most of my brother's endeavors could have been stopped before they've gone too far." His eyes were heavy on the bandages at her shoulder, so close to her throat. He gaze burned there, a heat more poignant than Eir's herbs as they knit her body back together. She imagined that she could feel him look up, tracing the long line of her neck to where it was shielded by her hair, a thick curtain that she shifted to have cover the top of her bandages as well.

She didn't reply right away. Instead she paused, and thought; weighing his words and the words behind his words. The second son was so many layers where Thor was his heart open and bared on his sleeve. For many years she had read Loki Odinson as easily as he did his books, and wondered why others had found it hard to do so. So now she listened, and she understood.

"Why are you so scared?" she finally muttered, taking a step closer to him. His gaze floated from her wound to meet her eyes once more, a serpent's cautiousness in their depths as she stopped right in front of him. He was almost a head taller than her, and without her boots she had to look up to see him properly. Out of some nameless urge she took his hands in her own – they were cool, so very cool; cold even, against the heat of her.

"I'm not." His eyes flickered from her own. A lie, then. One he could not hold straight on his tongue.

"You're shaking," her tone turned bemused as she saw her victory – diving ruthlessly for the throat as she always did. Her hands clasped tighter over his own; calling his falsehood out even as she staked a truth of her own.

"So are you," he returned. He was still looking down, and when he spoke, he sounded as unsure as she had ever heard him.

She looked at him carefully, seeking out something she couldn't quite name – something she couldn't put her finger on. Whatever it was is sat like a leaden weight against her mind. Her veins pulsed with adrenaline, even though there was no battle to speak of. She wished to move, to act – the spirit within her was restless. Restless as it had been often around him as of late.

It took her a moment to understand, but finally - understand she did. And in the wake of her revelations, she only hesitated for a second – for between them, she was not the coward. Or the liar.

And so she stood up on the tips of her toes, and kissed him.

She liked the look of absolute surprise on his face – and any other time she would have reveled in it. It was her small triumph when he stayed completely still as she pressed her lips to his – her mouth searching and biting, fierce in this as she was in everything else. Hesitantly, she felt his hands rest high on her arms – as if seeking permission to touch her. She could feel one hand through the rough linen of her bandages, and the sting of his touch against her wound fed the battle like haze that she found sinking into her mind. When he finally kissed her back, his kiss was soft and gentle, and she nipped at him in return, trying to drive him to match the fervor she felt creeping up in her veins – she knew he could, and she would not settle for his half acts.

In the back of her mind, she remembered laughing at him in the banquet hall when they were much younger still – teasing him for the look on his face when Sigyn had pulled him into the shadows and kissed him. She remembered making love-sick faces in glee at the almost (but not quite) disgusted look on his face in the way that only children could. Years later, she hadn't found Sigyn's affections nearly as amusing – but that had always been the protectiveness of a friend, she had thought. For certainly it was not jealousy. Certainly not.

Now she took her little half lies from all of their years, and acknowledged the truth of them. She had wanted to kiss him – for a long time, even. Had wished that she had shy little Sigyn's boldness; the courage to drag him into the shadows and capture his silver tongue with her own. He was one of her dearest friends, and the last thing she wanted to do was ruin that. That was what she had always told herself; but even that half-truth had sounded false to her ears – she had been a coward; and as she always did when she saw a flaw that she could straighten – a rusting spot in her armor – she set out to strengthen it.

His hand curled gently at the base of her skull, his long fingers brushing the side of her neck – teasing the long strands of her hair as his thumb brushed over the square line of her jaw bone. His other hand settled on her waist, burning her even through the barrier of her armor. She smiled into his mouth as his hand traveled higher – slipping up over her elbow and then to the bandages even higher on her arm. His touch glowed with a faint magic, soothing her wounds even more than Eir's healing spells had done.

"Practicing, have we been?" she pulled away to whisper teasingly as she felt her scarring skin shudder under his ministrations. She lingered as close as she could to him - close enough to steal his breath to form her words.

"Always," he said, a mischievous smile tugging at his lips as his hand left her bandages to slip gently into her hair. He wound his fingers absently through the length of it, thoughtfulness in his eyes, even as his movements teased her playfully.

"Practice now seems like a perfectly acceptable course of action. Don't you agree?" she tried her best to look studious, but she failed miserably. And so she once again pulled him down to her in order to steal his laughter – not wanting to hear it as she kissed him with formidable purpose. She could feel his smile against her lips, and returning it with one of her own, she pulled him deeper into the shadows.

.
.

The mortal woman made a stunned sound when Sif appeared within the glass confines of the lab.

The second mortal – the one sharper of tongue - was already ready, holding an odd weapon in her hand – one that stank of mortal synthetics and of lightening, oddly enough. Her eyes lost their fierceness as recognition took in, and with fondness, Sif remembered Darcy, daughter of Lewis – who had left an impression for even the scant amount of time that she had spent on Midgard with Thor.

The first – Jane, daughter of Foster, shot a weary look to her aide. "Really?" she questioned.

"What?" Darcy's voice managed to be both petulant whine and arrogant wit in one tone. "You've seen all of the freaks who have been walking though here. A girl's got to be prepared."

"Well, she can take you," Jane saw fit to remind her. "Believe me."

"They say that about a lot of people," Darcy said in a sing song voice as she mimed blowing smoke from the tip of the weapon; and then it disappeared into the cluttered maw that was the desk she was standing before.

Their camaraderie was a warming thing, reminding Sif of Fandral and Volstagg before a battle's beginning. A part of her, still tight, eased with the resemblance as she stepped forward.

"Jane Fosterdottir, I offer you greetings and salutations from the Aesir," she came forward, and clasped her fist to cover her heart – her head bowed politely as she would an equal Asgardian. There was a faint urge to kneel deep within her breast, as she would to one higher still – which the mortal would be if the fondness in Thor's eyes spoke true enough.

Jane's hands were trembling from where she had them clasped over the back of her deskchair, but her eyes were sharp and astute. It was a stare Sif remembered well – one that she had instantly approved of. "You found a way to cross over," Jane finally let her voice slip in a rush. Her fingers were itching – as if she wanted to leaf through her readings, and press a pair of glasses to the bridge of her nose. "It wasn't the Rosen-bridge, I have been monitoring that area of space." Finally, the scientist slipped away, her hands tapping at computer keys and crossing quicker than Loki's ever had over his scrolls. Finally, she looked up. "You came from a different way," if there was awe in her voice, it was buried under a simple yearning for knowledge that made her voice bright – keen and waiting. Excitement snagged at the edges – a heady thing that Sif felt tugging at the corners of her.

In explanation, Sif lifted her shield. It sat against the mortal desks with a dull clang – hand forged metal meeting sleek synthetic iron; and the magic in her vessel shuddered as if in distaste.

"It was . . . enchanted," she let herself speak, unsure of how much Thor had spoken of Asgard and her talents. Magic and science both combined for something glorious – something fundamental that was simply the governing of all of the universes. "By a very powerful being who was able to walk through the realms without the aide of the bifröst. Or, actually – with the aide of the bifröst, but across different paths than the one we trod."

Sif took a step back, but the shield continued to stand without her hand to stay it. Under the bright fluorescent lights of the lab, the faint gold that pulsed from it was unmistakable as it let itself be seen once its purpose was already known. Jane looked at the weapon, entranced, as if she wished to dissect the whole of.

"Amazing," Jane breathed, coming close to the shield, but not touching it. Instead she stared as a pilgrim before a shrine, glimpsing a new path before her in place of the one she had been studying.

"Freaky," Darcy said at the same moment, her eyes from behind her glasses lowering dubiously.

The shield pulsed once more, and then the aura around it calmed – sensing the stay of its summons.

"Thor," Jane said his name carefully, as if trying to force her tongue to utter the one syllable. For a moment, her eyes fluttered – as if she had went very long trying not to think about the one thing that lived and breathed in everything she did. "Why did he not come? Surely . . ." her voice fell away from her, a useless thing.

"If he knew I was here," Sif chose her words as she would a blade. "Nothing in all nine of the realms would have kept him from returning here."

Jane took a breath – in through her mouth and out slowly through her nose. "And you?" she asked carefully, eyes sheepish from behind where the long sweep of her hair had fell. "You were able to walk over."

"The enchantments led me," Sif rolled her shoulders. "I am better with steel than I am with things of this nature, and I am afraid that I cannot offer you a clear answer. But I know those who could – those who have been watching your progress with great interest."

"We've come far," Jane agreed, pressing her hair behind her ear. "I am close – very close." There was no false boast in her voice, only a soft hope and fascination.

"And I can take you closer still," Sif reached out to place a hand on her shield.

"Is that what you are here for?" Jane finally asked after a long moment, her tone wary but her eyes hungry.

Sif didn't answer right away so much as she thought of how to phrase her request. "How," she finally let her question hang casually from her lips, "would you like to see Asgard? It is particularly lovely this time of year, and I know of one in particular who would love nothing better than to lead your way."

.
.

She remembers back to what seems like a lifetime ago – a world of memories that she keeps safely locked within the iron cast realm of her mind. These are her moments. Her small triumphs, and unspoken battles – these are her long agos that she mourned in secret now. In silence.

And so in silence, she kept her memory locked.

But back then, she had felt anything but quiet. Her veins had bustled with the ebb and flow of her emotions, and her mind had buckled on the wonderment of feeling so. Of first attachments – more than any experimental kisses growing up, or smiles traded in dark corners. This was a piece of herself – freely and fully given; and in those times, she had taken as well as she had gave.

She remembered that he had often slept but little, and there had been more than one night where she would awaken to the sensation of his long fingers tracing over her pulse, as if counting every heartbeat she was at his side. Sometimes, he thought too much for his own good, she had informed him drowsily in those high morning hours – for he may not have been tired, but he hadn't taken a full hit from Volstagg when his back was turned earlier that day. Such a blow demanded sleep – and a good night of it, at that. And seeing as how he had already stolen a good deal of hers - the fiend – he could very well leave her be. Really, it was no wonder he was useless in the ring against Thor when he refused to turn his mind off and sleep at night. The half murmured comments had drawn a small snort of laughter from him, even as it had pushed her further towards full awareness. Her thoughts echoed discordantly within her mind as she remembered that first night – remembered that the hands that had not been preoccupied paused to mutter a spell, casting the piles of books that had been stacked haphazardly upon his sheets into some shadowed corner at their master's command. She was glad to give his mind something else to turn to in those early hours – perhaps, someday, she would be the reason that he could turn his thoughts off completely, as well.

The thought was a heady thing, and she smiled sleepily at it. For now, they simply were what they were. Neither of them asked for secrecy or recognition in the public eye – they simply danced together like wind and current upon the ocean, content to let the tide draw them in once it chose to do so. A part of her knew that he enjoyed the play of subterfuge more than anything else. And she enjoyed seeing him smile at the whispers that spoke of Thor's preference for his warrior lady. His smile would turn even wider when Sif brushed the whispers off in what many thought to be shy dismissal. What would the wagging tongues have said, he would later ask her, if they knew that it was neither on her part – but simply a love of shadows instead? She had rolled her eyes at his smirk before finding more tangible ways of wiping the smugness from his lips, but the memory of his words remained.

She awakened in the morning alone – as she often did. But there was a mug of tea awaiting her next to a plate of golden apples. She snatched both fondly even as she redonned her clothes from the night before. It was still an hour or so before dawn, and if she moved quickly she could depart without being seen once more. As she suspected, the halls were deserted that early in the royal wing. Thor slept like a log until the first light, and Odin would have already been long gone – the Allfather kept odd hours, even odder so than his youngest. It was the wanderlust in him – an itching under his skin that Loki shared in full. Loki himself had not departed from Asgard for one of his sojourns since embarking on . . . whatever it was he was sharing with her. For a moment she let her stride skip, the thought a faint and intoxicating thing against her mind.

Around her the shadows flickered from where the cosmos were just starting to lighten beyond Asgard's horizon. She stopped on the grand vista – the one that overlooked the whole of the city. Beyond the great view, she could see the iridescent glint of the bifröst and her brother lingering as a constant guardian before it. She summoned a thought of Heimdall as she did every morning, and she could feel his gaze upon her before it turned back to the stars once more.

Behind her, her shadow was very long – an unnatural sweep against the marble floor, turned golden by the torchlight all around them. And at the sight, she felt the corners of her lips turn upwards – unsure of whether to smile or to smirk.

Ever since they were children, and Loki had first learned how to wield the shadows, he had worked at surprising her with his presence. Now she knew how to read the dark stains that the light left around her. She read his presence when a shadow lengthened – when the penumbra of it darkened, or swayed left when a candlelight would bid it sway right . . . When her breathing would be echoed, or her heart would beat just so. She shifted, and the shadow shifted as well, a heartbeat off of her movements. She turned, but her shadow did not follow her.

She raised a brow, waiting. "It is silly to consider a surprise attack when one already knows the farce," she finally called.

"Damn," she heard his voice before his shadow fell from him – unveiling with a slip of magic before her sight. "And here I thought I was so clever."

"Never nearly half as much as you think," she returned fondly.

"As always, you keep me humble."

She simply snorted there – she didn't bother to counter him.

"Well then, in all of my humbleness, there is something I want to show you."

She raised a brow. "And what has put such a smile on your face? It's unnatural enough to have me worried."

He waved her concerns away. "It is something I have been experimenting with for many years – but I finally believe that I have perfected it."

Her brow raised higher, but she was intrigued. Loki's finds had always led to their most glorious of quests, and the light within his eyes said that she would be far from disappointed this time as well.

Loki beckoned her closer, and she obliged him, stopping a step away from him.

"What would you say," he started smoothly, "if I told you that I found a way to walk the paths between the realms without the power of the bifröst?"

"I would call you mad," she spoke truthfully the first thought that entered her mind.

He gave a low chuckle. "I thought you'd say that."

"Perceptive," she raised a brow. "Now speak truly to me – what do you mean?"

"I mean precisely what I said," he refused to alter his claim, his eyes were unmoving upon her own – a truth within their depths that she could not deny. A shudder ran through her at the possibility of his words, and her mouth worked against anything she might have said in return. Such a thing . . . it was impossible. Such paths had yet to be found from the ancient times until where they strode forward – certainly, if such ways existed, they'd have been found by now.

"Impossible," she whispered, a chill in the deep of her.

"There are back doors in and out of this universe that even your brother cannot see," Loki revealed to her in a whisper. She heard the smug humor there – no doubt delighting in his secret stores of knowledge, enjoying as he always did hiding in plain sight.

"Does the Allfather know of these paths?" she asked, curious as the thought occurred to her; choosing to believe him in the moment until he was proven one way or the other.

"No," and she was not imagining it. Loki sounded insufferably smug.

She rolled her eyes, and swatted over the metal criss-crossing on his arm. "Mischief maker," she teased affectionately.

He raised a brow, but did not counter her statement. Instead he asked, "Don't you trust me?"

"Most certainly not." But there was a smile in her eyes.

He read her truths easily enough, his smirk widening and deepening into something she couldn't quite translate – the look was something wordless, and she understood it in a feeling more than a way to put words to reason. He held a hand out, not breaching the distance she had left, but offering himself to her nonetheless – everything was those subtle asides, those tricks and counterfeits with him. "Would you care to join me?" he asked her.

She bit her lip, hesitating – curiosity and caution at war within her. "If this is one of your tricks," she let herself warn.

"Never," he vowed, his voice too innocent for her to believe.

She looked at him very closely – catching his eyes on her and holding him there. "I believe you," she said softly, a lingering thing in her words that she knew he would catch and hold on to.

"Now," he whispered, his voice very close to her ear. "Hold on tight."

She obeyed him, hooking her arms around his neck as he wrapped an arm around her waist, the contact between them coming with a telling ease to anyone who may have been looking. But there were no eyes upon them as Loki drew the shadows to them like a cloak. And then even the shadows disappeared.

She refused to close her eyes as Loki's magic worked, and around them Asgard faded away - instead being replaced by a thick swirl of colors – like flames and storms and the play of the night sky beyond them all. The pine green of Loki's power played a counterpoint to the more ancient routes he was accessing – as bright and beautiful as the hearts of stars as it bent and bowed before them. It was a brilliant play of light that she had only seen equaled by traveling on the bifröst.

And suddenly they were . . .

"We are between the realms now," Loki whispered, his voice an eerie echo against the nothingness of the space around them.

"How?" her voice was a breathless exhale as she understood just what was transpiring – understood how they were floating in the empty expanse of space, full for the brilliance of the stars and the tangled play of dust and gases that made the clusters of nebula beyond them. The play of light around them afforded them a semblance of footing, and a strange pocket of air – protection against the cosmos beyond – supported them with an illusion of gravity and solid ground beneath them.

"In a way, my power to walk the ways still comes from the bifröst – you need an object with ancient magic to access the paths. I can merely manipulate it without a gatekeeper's aide. Without the bifröst, I could still travel with any magical object – but not over great distances, and certainly not with large groups of passengers. It would be impractical for a race, but perfect for one who preferred to slip around the edges."

He was wasted amongst the Aesir, she thought in a stunned moment, clarity a rotten thing in her mind. If he had been born amongst the Álfar, or the Svartálfar, or Odin forbid – even the Jötunn, his skills would be revered and held on high. In Asgard where strength of steel was valued above all else, he was a shadow of what he could have been. A part of her ached with the realization in that moment.

"I don't believe it," she muttered, her eyes wide and her tone awed.

"Your eyes do not deceive you," he sounded insufferably pleased. "Even I cannot conjure an illusion of such magnitude."

The stars flashed before them, and she held a hand out to touch the light of them as they passed – enraptured completely.

When they finally stopped, they were high on the branches of the Yggdrasil – not in any particular realm, but where the boughs split before the stars, swaths of every color imaginable encasing them as beyond the cosmos swirled in a violently beautiful way – like the ocean at the height of a storm.

"There," he pointed to where bright matter convoluted and gathered upon itself. "Do you see?"

"My eyes are sharper than yours," she reminded him playfully.

He snorted elegantly. "Of course," he said dryly. "How could I forget."

"You are forgiven." She tossed her head. "Yet, I have no idea of what precisely we are looking upon – you have your uses still."

His eyes were very bright – a sure sign that he was going to enjoy his explanations. "That, my lady, is a star being born. From Asgard's skies it is a speck in the sky, but here . . ."

Here it was a massive swirl of white fire and almost metallic light, so blinding and effulgent was the sight of it. The barrier before them was thick with some sort of magic to shield them from the heat and violence of it, she knew. For some things were not meant to be witnessed by sentient eyes, so terribly beautiful was its grace and power. She could feel her hands trembling from the awe of it, her smile widening and widening even though she commanded it not to.

Such beauty, such lustrous light; born from the most violent of births, she thought as she looked on - enraptured. War and pain combining under pressure to form something glorious. Something that would light every sky across all nine of the realms, and beyond where even the branches of the Yggdrasil reached.

"You see, the heat at the center of the star pulls," he gestured to where the mass of its core was siphoning off matter onto itself like a bleeding wound. "And draws everything around it – gas and dust and whatnot until it forms its shape. The heart of it will burn itself up for countless millennia until, finally, it burns itself out – but that is another wonder for another day."

Indeed, the birth of it was something she much preferred to see.

"It's amazing," she finally breathed when she found her voice to do so.

"Quite," he agreed, but his eyes were not on the labor pains of the star below – but upon her.

It was not the most elegant of comments – and if anything she had to swallow her teasing tongue over the cliché. But she read the sincerity in his words. He was not aiming to flatter her so much as he was expressing a truth in the simplest way he knew how. In that moment, she earnestly thought of how much she adored him. It was a hard fought battle inside of her, and its fine line in the sand was blowing away to the wind of him. It was easy to love him in moments like this. What would he say, if she told him so? Would he laugh, believe her even? Or would he look at her with that quiet contemplation that said he was thinking things over once then twice, and even thrice as he tried to make his thoughts line up into a semblance of equanimity in his mind. Would he return her words? More than silver on his tongue, but gold to her ears.

She didn't look to find out, not yet – instead she reached up to kiss the smile from his lips. The gentle movement was a lie as much as it was a truth, and he took it as such. She was never one for words, but for actions; and her actions spoke louder still.

.
.

Once her invitation was given, Jane took no time at all to prepare herself – she threw clothes zealously into a canvas bag, hardly looking at what she packed so much as feeling for what she needed. There were a few scientific instruments whose purpose escaped Sif, and then there was a writing devise of some kind – a thick binding of parchment with notes sticking out every which way. She was mumbling checklists under her breath when she wasn't giving last minute instructions to Darcy – who extracted promises of pictures and a full recap from the scientist upon her return.

Jane was just finishing leaving a message for the other scientist – an Erik Selvig, who was working with Nick Fury in New York for that eve – when her hand danced hesitantly over a dull green book that sat prominently amidst the chaos of her desk. It was a book of tales - Norse myths, to be exact. Her eyes shrank away sheepishly once Sif saw the title, her tongue between her teeth as she said, "They must seem so silly to you." But she packed the book just the same.

Sif grinned wryly. "Thor had a way of making the poets pen fly," she said, her voice dry.

Jane bobbed her head. "They certainly had lots to say," she agreed. "About many things." Her voice turned thoughtful, her eyes slanted down, as if reaching to meet her gaze but not quite sure how to make that final contact. "About Thor . . . about you."

If the poets were to be believed, then Jane had a great weight to hold behind the question in her gaze. The poets spoke of many tales which rooted from imagination – and took fact for a great many leaps at that as they wrote stories of that which they revered. Sif thought of the poet's words even as she remembered clever fingers high on her hipbone – she remembered eyes pale like starlight, and the dust of the training field hard against her back even as the moss of their clearing was soft against her hands. She remembered tangling silk sheets between her fingers as his lulling voice read to her tales of far off worlds, and she remembered hard words in her mouth like tempered steel.

Sif remembered everything. In the end, she settled for saying, "I hold Thor in my heart as my dearest friend." Jane breathed deep as if lifting a weight. "And he has little room in his heart for any other besides you."

"Oh," Jane smiled a soft smile that stained her cheeks a faint pink. She couldn't seem to decide what to do with her hands as she wrang them in her canvas bag, and then up to her hair to pull it away from her face. "Thank-you," she said, her voice painted with her relief over the awkward tone of it.

Sif smiled widely to her, hoping to put her more at ease. "Are you ready to depart?" she finally asked.

"More than," Jane's reply was one long rush of syllable as her excitement overtook all else.

"Well then," Sif gestured her closer – wrapping one strong arm about the mortal woman even as she reached out to hold her shield before them. In her mind she entreated whatever force was letting her travel to and fro, and she felt the magic in her shield respond to her plea. "Hold on," she whispered to the mortal, and Jane did so – her small hands impossibly strong in the straps of her armor as the air shivered around them, glowing gold before giving to the silver tones of the cosmos. Before them the branches of the Yggdrasil was an enchanting thing – flawless and awe inspiring as they traveled through its boughs and sweeping limbs. Stars flashed like leaves from its great expanses, shading the universe and lighting the realms with their brilliance. In her ears she could hear the dragon roar from the roots of the tree, and the eagle scream from its highest boughs – silent guardians of the universe. She bowed her head in acknowledgment of the things out there greater than her people, an ancient prayer on her lips for blessing and safe passage.

Over the undertones of her prayer, Jane's laughter was a blissful, innocently amazed thing on the air around them; and even Sif found herself smiling at her simple enjoyment. She had forgotten, how lovely the heavens could be to eyes seeing them for the first time. And a part of herself looked upon the brilliance around her with fresh eyes through the mortal. It was this, Sif thought for a moment, that Thor so adored about Midgard and her people. For such short lives, they burned on and out so very brightly.

In her hands, her shield pulsed, the magic on her skin a caress. When they broke through the kaleidoscope of stars, the bifröst's bridge was glistening in the astral expanse of space surrounding the edge of Asgard's borders. Sif took a moment, finding her balance as she steadied the mortal scholar next to her. Jane recovered quickly, stepping away from her guide with wide eyes, drinking in the glory of vision around her like she was itching to write and record all she saw. It was a look that reminded Sif almost painfully of Loki, and a part of her mourned that her friend would never know his brother's life's partner in the way that he should of. They would have liked each other, she was certain.

But her thoughts were interrupted by a coarse voice behind them. A voice she was used to hearing strong and thunderous now a small ghost of wind that hesitated to disturb the earth beneath it.

"Jane?" the voice whispered; a prayer and a plea.

Sif watched as Jane stilled. Her grin grew, a wide and childlike thing as she closed her eyes as if to better appreciate the sound upon her ears. She turned slowly, as if savoring every moment – a moment she had no doubt imagined time and time again.

Behind them, Thor was watching from next to the gatekeeper; his impossibly bright eyes studded with unshod tears – glowing in the starlight. His smile was wide and honest, splitting from his face as if to hang upon his ears as he unblinkingly traced over the mortal woman. "I did not believe what Heimdall saw," he whispered on a shaky breath. "When he told me . . . I thought it impossible."

He took a hesitant step towards her, as if he moved too quickly, she would disappear. Under his boots, the bifröst shuddered, the incandescent light of it blindingly bright in response to its prince. He stopped right before the human woman, his massive form shadowing her as he lifted her hand to his lips in a charmingly chivalrous gesture that had Sif rolling her eyes. "I think that I am quickly becoming used to impossible things," Jane said softly, lifting her other hand up to Thor's neck for leverage as she pulled him down and herself up in order to kiss him. In that moment they were consumed in each other, a curving shadow against the backdrop of the stars. Sif felt something heavy and joyous ache in her for her friend's happiness, made content by the simple fact that Thor finally was.

Sif turned away out of respect for the reunited couple, and walked the few steps closer to where her brother had already returned to the edge of the ruined bridge. Even though Heimdall's hands remained firmly clasped upon the sword of the byway, she saw the way his unblinking eyes flickered – seeking her out in his sight before straying back to the cosmos once more. The watchman had his duties, but she read his concern in the second's lapse. The concern, and the questions. It seemed that her secrets would not stay her own for much longer. She clasped her shield all the more tighter at the thought, her eyes dropping wearily.

"This was the first that I could see where you traveled," Heimdall said slowly, a question lingering in his statement.

She shrugged, the shoulder-plates of her armor creaking. "I choose not where I go or when," she said, her voice an apology.

"And the one who does . . ." Heimdall's voice flickered in cadence, if not in tone.

She refused to close her eyes completely, instead staring down at the expanse of space before them. "I do not know," she answered honestly.

Heimdall was silent, his still body not acknowledging her words. But an ancient sigh escaped his lips – the sound of a millennia of seeing every event in every realm transpire and play out before an unblinking gaze. "I will continue to watch," he said simply, and she inclined her head at the words, hearing, as always, the depth that loitered behind them.

"Thank-you, my brother," she whispered, and before them the stars flickered on.

.
.

She remembers back to the end of their light and careless days. She remembers how all of Asgard had rumbled with anticipation for the crowning of its favored prince – remembers Thor who was insufferable with his pride and Loki who was untouchable with his silences.

She had prepared for the day with more trepidation than most. Her hands did not shake as she did the straps to her armor, but there was a flicker to her gaze. Concern weighed heavy and potent upon her – something that she could clearly think of even when she could not bring herself to put word to her thoughts. She worried for her old friend – who was harder to talk to with his nose so high in the air and his ego a massive thing that struck them all as a blow. She worried for the second son, as well – who festered under his brother's shadow, and from whom she had to stay from muttering spells to bring Thor down a peg or two more often than not. There was a rift steadily growing, one she could see, but one she could not figure out how to mend.

She could merely offer her support where she could.

"You are not ready," she let her words announce herself as she entered Loki's rooms. She tried to sound light and chiding, but there was a question loitering in her words. One he would be silent as to reply.

He had already strapped himself into his armor – the gold of it blinding in the early light of the room. Forest green and black spread from the shadows of him, and as she always did she let her eyes drop appreciatively across him. He always was a sight to her – battle ready but ill for the taste of steel. She much preferred him with his sleeves rolled up and ink staining his fingers, she thought – but that was a thought that she kept to herself. He held his helmet in his hands, as if set to leave, but the top few buttons of his overcoat were not done. The small discrepancy was a more telling sign than any word on his lips.

"I would not be late for my brother's big day," Loki assured her blankly – and she listened to hear his voice turn mocking, but she could not deign the tone of him so.

"Indeed," she agreed, her voice careful. "It is turning into the event of the century."

"As Thor is ever quick to remind us," Loki's voice could have been casual humor, but she did not think so.

"He is taking to the role with . . . vigor," she did not want to besmear Thor as much as she wished for a smooth day. A smooth day included the second son accepting the inevitable in his brother's role. Over the years, the careful silence that the subject held between them all was broken more and more – and she worried for the end of the day. It was the greatest lie Loki had ever tried to tell – the lie that he was not jealous of his brother. The lie that he was comfortable and complacent in his role as second. It was a lie no one believed, but one he stubbornly carried on to every face he met – including himself.

And now the facade was breaking, and she worried for the outcome. Some secrets were meant to be merely that, some truths were false for a reason.

Loki's gaze was pointed, reaching out to hold her own. She evaded him, pretending to have great interest for the buttons she had tasked herself with fastening. "And you believe Thor is ready to be king?"

Her hand stilled on the button, her fingers curving against the pale skin of his throat as they thumbed thoughtfully against the small circle. Sif thought of her friend, then, proud and arrogant; his burden not landing on his shoulders but in his head. Sif thought of reckless battles, and thoughtless words. But Sif said, "Your father thinks he is ready."

"And what do you think?" Loki's hand clasped over her own, and she frowned.

"I think that I trust the Allfather's judgment."

Loki's eyes searched hers, looking for something – and she met his gaze boldly, shielding nothing from its depths. At long last, he whispered, "but of course," and his touch fell from her.

She swept the last button into place, and took a step back from him.

"You look suitably ridiculous," she finally declared, her eyes tangling on the tall horns of his helmet, her smile widening as if they were still children.

"And you look suitably fierce," he returned instead, eyes a heady and heavy thing as they swept over her until her breath became a catching thing in her throat. He didn't give into childhood's barbs, instead offering her his arm as if she were any lady playing token to a great knight. But his steps matched hers, and at his side she fell easily into place.

And as they walked, a part of her hope that he someday understood. That everything Thor lacked, his brother had. And Loki lacked, his brother had. They were two sides of a coin – a perfect circle. Asgard would flourish under a reign with Thor at its helm, and Loki the counselor in the shadows. It was the way of tradition – of myth, of legend. There was your King, and your magic's vessel. Your queen, your knights, your enchanted weapon. They all had their roles assigned and ready to play.

She was ready to play hers.

She was not crown or throne, but she was something only his. In the days to come, she prayed that that would be enough.

.
.

"I do not want to be here," is the first thing she says.

Around her, the dreamscape shivered, the force of her will nearly dislocating it. While she could press against the magic in whose hold she was caught, she could not govern it, and after a ripple – like a sigh, the dream settled around her. She narrowed her eyes at the edges of the spell, letting her fury feed and make them bright. It had been many, many nights since she had felt magic of this kind – when they were children it had been a game for the second son to play with her dreams so. As they had grown, the talent had evolved as well – and it had been a handy way to keep each other close through times apart. At other times it had been even more than that.

Now, the magic was a slap in the face to her. How dare he – how dare he take the memory of that which was sacred, and summon her so now. Now, of all times . . .

Sure enough, at the edges of the sphere imprisoning her consciousness, Loki stood, his face carefully blank – feigning an apathy he could not have been feeling.

Against her will, her eyes slipped over him – and she swore that the glance was not hungry. He was wearing an odd suit – black and slick and cool over his body, a long swath of green fabric tied at his throat. The mortal wear looked odd on him, shadowing the lean corners of his figure and making him seem even taller than his battle armor did. She had an odd moment where she missed his ridiculous helmet on him – anything to better associate the man before her now with the man she had known. At least he was not wearing the blue denim that Thor had spoken so highly of – jeans, Midgardians had called them. Yes. That would not have been right at all.

He was thin, and wane. Had he been eating properly? she wondered. He always did need someone to shove a plate in his face, especially when he lost himself for whole days in the library. He was always so lean – nothing he could do could put weight on him the way his brother just kept growing and growing – like a Jötunn, she and Loki had teased him when they were younger. The taunt tasted bitter in her mouth now, so very bitter. His hair was longer as well, black and shimmering, drawn into a neat queue at the base of his neck. Her fingers danced over her shield – as if fighting the urge to touch it, to free the strands from their bond to join the ones that already were loose about his face. Her body was traitorous, her mind declared stubbornly, keeping a healthy distance away from him lest she give into a less than wise urge.

His eyes were still hungry though, pale and winterswept but greedy as they took in every inch of her. He could never completely hide his thoughts from their depths – not from her.

At least, that was what she had always thought.

"Why am I here?" she finally snapped when the silence between them wore on.

"I would have thought that you would have wanted to pass on your thanks in person," Loki said smoothly, his voice falling about her like a caress. For a moment, the sound of it threatened to throw her. The words it shaped kept her grounded.

"Truly?" she let her indignation seep into the one word, overfilling it.

"Indeed," he said mockingly, inclining his head like a bow. "For the return of Jane Foster to my brother's arms – surely that alone is enough to earn thanks from Asgard. And then the imminent reparation of the bifröst at her hands. I like to think that I aided her research as well."

Sif raised a brow at that, but had too much to contend with with the beginning of his words to address it. "You are mad if you expected to summon me just to hear me sing praises."

His gaze was a taunt. "You've called me worse than that before."

"You've warranted worse than that," she returned sharply.

"How my lady wounds me," he pressed his hand to his heart, his eyes flickering like a flame about the edges.

She heaved a deep sigh. "I have no taste for tricks right now, and I care not to suffer your games – either speak your mind plainly, or let me go."

"No games," he held his hands up. "Only peace – I would have thought that you had questions, and I am here to answer them."

"You never answer a question straight, how am I to expect that of you now?" she retorted.

"I may surprise you," he smirked, the gesture cruel where she had always known it friendly and teasing. She wanted to claw it from his face with her nails.

"Alright then, Loki - why did you do it?" she finally asked. "My shield – the magic within was dormant after you fell, and I thought." Her voice failed her. "I thought . . ."

His eyes were blank as he watched her. Too blank. "I did not fall," he said softly. "You know me well enough to believe me to be completely sure of my landing to leap."

Her stare was withering. "I mourned you," she said slowly, every syllable clipped and biting. Her eyes were the lash of a whip – furious and smoldering, and she hoped her words cut him as they had her. She had wept for him – wept where he did not deserve tears. Had held her tongue when the whispers had turned to full bodied laughter once the second son was gone and there was no need to shield their thoughts any longer. Oh, but how they had finally snickered when he had fallen as all had predicted him to do so. How many times she had to keep her fists at her side, and her words deep within her throat when the whispers turned to laughter and laughter to scorn?

For how could she argue what was not completely false?

He had taken a step back, and she liked to think that her words had touched a corner of him. "I cannot walk the paths any longer," he said slowly, refusing to address her admission, and instead answering her earlier question. It was the cowards way out, and he did not even pretend to disguise it otherwise. "Not without the bifröst. The mortal woman – she, it is she who will finally be able to rebuild the bridge. She has a fascinating mind – already she has studied various power sources who can aide her in her endeavors – but she will never reach her goals while confined to Midgard. She needs the help of the Aesir."

Sif was very silent, weighing him. Judging him. "You choose a roundabout way to do so," she settled for subtly accusing.

He shrugged, still infuriatingly laid back. "Your shield has the greatest quantities of magic I've placed in any object. It was simpler for me to access that then trying to spin my own power so thin through the ways." His tone was filled with distaste – apparently he had tried to do so, and failed. The thought warmed her - vengefully so.

"I have a hard time believing that your motives were so simple," she still challenged. His words were still too controlled. Too thought out.

He looked at her shrewdly. "What would you have me say of my motives then?"

"I would expect an honest answer from you," she said bluntly. "After everything – I believe that I deserve that much."

"An honest answer," he repeated as if it were the greatest of life's humors. But she was not fooled – she could see the red encroaching in upon his gaze.

"As honest as you can be," she agreed, her voice forged iron.

She saw the moment where he gave to her blows. "What do you want me to tell you? That it was remorse that swayed me? Or penance?" and finally, the last word on his lips sounded true. The tone of it was a yearning and wistful thing, and a part of her threatened to soften at the sound of it. "Do you want me to tell you that I am merely trying to fix what I had broken – as, if you recall, I normally try to do when a misdeed goes in over my head. Or do you want me to say that I have something nefarious in mind? Want me to say that I know how to make Asgard burn and Odin beg? Do you want me to say that that is what I want?"

"I want to hear the truth!" she finally exclaimed.

"The truth . . ." he let his voice fade – lost. And the truth was that he didn't know. He was still angry and rubbed raw; but he was also remorseful and filled to the brim with a homesickness that she never would have thought to attribute to him before. Repairing the bifröst was his only way forward – for what end, he knew not.

And she could give him no answers. Only a plea. "Come back," she finally whispered, banking on the softer emotions that she could glimpse in the shadows of him. "Come back . . . apologize, let the house of the Allfather take you in once more."

"Apologize?" he said the word like a foulest of curses, his eyes crossed in distaste. "Bow and beg?"

Rage bit through her veins. "You," she bit the word out. "Tried to murder," she took quick puffs of air through her nose – like she was a dragon preparing to exhale fire, "an entire species. Your species. Your kin – even though you wish not to acknowledge the blood tie."

"I do not need you to repeat what I already know," he cut her off before she said any more.

"Really?" she raised a scathing brow. "Well then, let me tell you of what you don't know – let me tell you of everything that has transpired since you fell. Let me tell you about your mother's tears – Frigg mourns you daily, I can hear your name in her prayers. After all, this future you have forced has always been a possibility in her visions, but she always believed more of you. Now that the future she so feared is passing, she mourns for what she could have done differently. She blames herself."

Loki's mouth opened than closed, and she knew that she had hit a sore spot. Frigg was a warm and empathetic soul, and there had never been a play of favorites in her heart.

"Let me tell you," she continued, her voice a weapon, lunging, "of Odin Allfather's grief. I know you believe it not – have every reason to doubt it so – but he too mourns. He blames himself more than any other – the question haunts his eyes, and it is one that is only compounded more so every time he sees the bifröst's ruin - every time he looks out to see Thor, silent and waiting next to Heimdall. Thor waits with the watchman in all of his possible minutes – he waits for Heimdall's eyes to see – and not only Jane Foster, whom he loved and was torn away from – but he waits for sight of you. He refuses to acknowledge you dead. His faith in your abilities is unsurpassed – he believed that such a fall through the cosmos would not kill you. Not you – who dedicated your every moment to the universe and her secrets."

"Oh yes, the faith and honor of Thor – let us hear more of it," Loki scathed, cutting apart her words. The whites around his eyes were showing – and his words were not a blow so much as they were a feint. He did not want to hear of his brother's pain. He could not handle the strength of his brother's regard.

And Sif wanted nothing more than to beat him bloody with it. "He loved you!" she finally screamed, emotional a terrible thing in her voice. For the life of her she convinced herself that it was a war cry – that she screamed in fury and not for anything else. He wasn't worth anything deeper. Anything more. "Your brother loved you, and looked after you, and battled all of those thrice damned whispers so that they would never have to reach your ears. He loved you . . . and you stabbed him in the back."

She swallowed, her voice catching in her throat as she felt her emotions rising up to tear into her. "He still doesn't despise you," she spat. "You could come back right now, and he would embrace you – and I think a part of him hates that. But another part of him can't – would welcome you back prodigal rather than have you at a weapon's end from an opposite end of the battlefield."

Somewhere during her words, Loki had stepped closer to her. Somewhere during her words, she had stopped stepping away. When had she stopped speaking of Thor? When had he realized her switch of tense, of meaning?

His eyes were shadowed red – a long sweep of color that darkened the longer she spoke. "Sif," he started gently – as he did when he was not quite sure what words to use.

"No," her one word was like an axe falling – heavy and final. She knew her eyes were wild on his own – like an animal, unsure of whether to flee or fight. He took a step towards her, and she took an equal one back – they were not what they once were. Who they once were. And she couldn't . . .

She could see him cracking along the edges – could see the part of him that mourned his brother as Thor mourned him. Could see the part of him that still yearned for Odin's approval, and who grieved for how he had wounded Frigg's heart. She could see the part of him who remembered her simply by the shadowed yearning in his eyes. She wanted him to come home – to beg forgiveness before he walked a path that there would be no turning from. Perhaps, perhaps someday Asgard could forgive her son, but that someday would be further away and harder to reach the more time went by.

And while she was immortal, with forever to wait . . . She would not give him the satisfaction of doing so. She was sick of shields – she wanted naked steel in her hands, and as with all blades who were permanently dull and prone to rust, she was ready to do away with the weapon that could do more damage to the wielder than an enemy. Finally, she had no more ear for his lies. She closed her eyes, and concentrated – wishing with every part of her to drop from the dream and fall back into her sleepless night. She wished and wished and wished until, finally, the magic fell apart around her.

She didn't bother trying to fool herself into thinking that it was by some power of her, but for a moment, the thought was a comforting one.

.
.

She remembers back to not too long before; remembers back to when Asgard shuddered with ice, and Midgard rolled with thunder for the favored prince's banishment. She remembers Odin deep within his slumber, and his second son sitting the throne, more pensive than she has ever seen him before.

She remembered wanting to hit him more than anything else. If they were children, she most certainly would have. She was War, and she could feel the most desperate urge to wage it. He was Mischief and Trickery, but there was something sinister about it now – something cracked around the edges. She could see it, and she did not know how to fix it – she was good at pulling things asunder. Too good. It had always been Loki who had helped her when she needed to build and put things back together.

But now, she had only her bare hands, and her words like a soldier's feint.

In the beginning of this whole disaster, she had scoffed with the others when Laufey had spoken of traitors within the house of Odin. Laufey was King of the Jötunn, first amongst their kind – he was composed of lies, and such a falsehood would have been an easy one for his tongue to weave. Laufey didn't know the Aesir, she had remembered thinking. He did not know the might of Asgard's people past what he had felt at the end of their blade – and such a claim was an insult – one that they had answered as such. Upon returning home, and Odin's banishing of Thor . . . Hogun's grim insinuations that only a master of magic would be able to allow someone to pass into Asgard past Heimdall's watch . . .

She knew that Loki had power over the ways. She had seen first hand that power wielded. And, for the first time, the wonder of the stars left a sour taste in her mouth as she imagined him opening the paths to such monsters as the Jötunn. She hadn't been able to counter the stricken look on her face as the Warriors Three all seethed, but they were all too lost in their own thoughts to notice the troubled spin of hers. Loki . . . he couldn't. He wouldn't. And even if he had indulged in a petty spat of mischief to sully his brother's coronation, the complete persona of traitor was not one he would ever take.

Ever.

She shook as she tried to enforce the truth of that into the deep of her mind.

The truth wavered and wavered when she and the Three took their grief for Thor to the Allfather, only to see Loki on the throne. Her shock there had been real, and Loki hadn't even bothered to hold a smirk on his face at her surprise. His oiled words were mocking, but his whole bearing was heavy. The trappings of State looked awkward on him – his eyes were reddened, and his knuckles were pale from where they clasped his father's spear too tightly. She much preferred the boy with sloppy hair as he poured over his texts, dust on his nose and ink staining his hands as he tried to explain to her just what he was reading – the secrets of the cosmos, and the strange tangle of magic that governed their universe and every other.

Fandral had had to hold her down when Loki refused to let Thor return home from Midgard. She had seethed with her rage, and her enforced bow had been a mocking twist of limbs as she held the king's gaze with the fierce slash of her own eyes.

Did he not know that this was one path down which she could not follow?

. . . would he even ask her to?

Later in the day, when the bands of color across the sky turned from cobalt to violet, she had returned without the Three, almost certain of her ability to reason with Loki when an audience was not upon them. When the guards admitted her, and were subsequently sent away, she entered the throne room almost hesitantly. Loki was still exactly where she and the Three had left him – small upon his father's throne, the horns of his helmet throwing angry shadows against the wall as he stared with an unblinking gaze into the flames that lined the chamber.

"Have you come once more to ask for my brother's return?" he asked before she had crossed completely to him. His voice echoed off the gilded pillars, harsh like the crackle of the sky before lightening struck.

She did not answer until she stood before the king's dais. She did not ascend the steps as much as she did not expect him to cross down to her.

"I came for you," she said instead. Her words were honest, at any rate. "I am worried for you."

"You need not," he waved a hand dismissively. "I am perfectly alright."

She did not call his lie, but her eyes spoke enough of her disbelief. "Your father sleeping, and your brother gone," and here she forced her voice to remain calm. "You have every right not to be."

"A king has no such luxuries," his voice was harsh with reminder.

"Then honor Odin's will and bring Thor back to carry the burden," she exclaimed thoughtlessly.

Loki's eyes were sharp upon hers. "My brother is exiled to Midgard for his thoughtless start of a war with the Jötunn race. Odin Allfather had a reason for his actions, however much you may judge him to be harsh. And on that matter alone, I agree with him – Thor was reckless, and stupid, and the realm will pay in blood for his actions. Tell me truly, Sif - is that the King you wish to follow?"

She did not answer; could not, when his words rang true. But still . . . "His heart I would follow off of the world's edge. That heart will mold the king he will become."

"In time," Loki agreed. "Time which he has much of now."

"Stop this," she finally hissed, annoyance getting the best of her. "Yes – take Asgard in hand while your Father sleeps, but let Thor return to rule as he was meant to. You have never had any desire for the throne – admit it. You've always been more content swallowing yourself in scroll and ink more than you've ever been able to stand the . . . the parade of peacocks as you once dubbed them. Why this sudden usurper's role now?"

"Usurper? A most curious choice of words," Loki muttered. "Am I not a son of Odin, bound by blood to accept the throne once my father cannot hold it?"

"It was never to be your burden to bear," she finally said outright – the one thought that had lingered over them for so many years, but never having been expressly said.

Loki inclined his head. "No," he shook his head solemnly. "Father always favored Thor, it is true." There was no emotion in his voice – no malice or regret, only a quite reflection. And she dreaded it.

"There is room in Odin's heart for both of his sons," she finally protested, speaking to the core of the matter rather than the edges of it. But her words were heavy in her mouth, snagging on her tongue until she could not be sure what part of her mind finally forced the syllables into sound.

The golden shadows danced upon the forest green of his armor. His eyes were wavering, his hands clenching and unclenching as he looked at her – she had the absurd notion that he was falling apart at the seams, but she could not figure out quite how to aide him.

"Yes, there is love in Odin's heart for his son," Loki murmured.

She narrowed his eyes, hearing the double meaning there, but powerless to translate it. "More riddles, Loki?"

He was silent, very silent. He had stopped fidgeting – but his hands were still clenched, the long lines of his form discordant and braced – as if ready to snap. He took a deep breath, as if to steel himself, and then . . .

And then she asked her mind if what she was seeing was really there. She judged the possibility of a trick or an illusion, but she found both explanations wanting as she stared dumbly at the man before her. No, it was not an illusion, so much as a disappearance of one . . .

The man she had always known shifted. His pale skin – always so winterswept, bled a frost born blue. Slowly the shade darkened across him, completely natural in a horrifying way. At his eyes, the green which she had always so admired was consumed by a crimson more fiery than anything Múspellsheimr could ever think to offer. The white of his pupils disappeared, and the brilliance of his gaze was traded for a scarlet stare – like embers, burning in the middle of a glacier. He seemed larger somehow – taller and stronger, and she stared and looked to see Loki staring at her from behind a Jötunn's gaze.

A Jötunn's gaze . . .

She took a step back, and immediately she hated herself for it. Loki was studying her every move so very closely – looking for disgust. Rage or scorn or fear . . . She schooled her face to show none of that. Only surprise. Surprise and hurt on his behalf as her mind raced with the implications of what she was seeing.

"Loki?" she asked, a question in her voice.

He was only too ready to answer her. "I was stolen for the chance that one day I could be the bridge between the Allfather and the Jötunn. I was raised Aesir, but I am not in the deep of me . . . I am . . . I am one of them. The Nightmare. The Villain. The son of . . . the son of Laufey. The reason that the man who raised me always looked at me as if waiting for the day when I would turn a blade on him. But I won't . . . I can't, even now. Not even when I have so much tearing my mind apart . . ."

Her eyes widened with understanding. "Loki, what did you do . . ."

He eyed her from slanted eyes, still stained red. "I have opened the way."

Her blood ran cold at the implications. The Jötunn approaching with Thor still on Earth, and Odin deep within his slumber. An angry second son to sit the throne until one or both could be returned to Asgard's helm.

"There is no need to look at me that way," Loki suddenly snapped, startling her. "I will let Laufey bring no harm to Odin while he sleeps."

"You mean to slay him. Slay Laufey while he believes you to be a spineless traitor."

"And then Father will see that I am a faithful son. He will see that I can be trusted, that he needn't look at me like I am no more than a prisoner of war . . . A casualty that he can't bear himself to continue to grant refuge to."

A part of her mind wanted to protest. Laufey was his sire by blood, if not by heart – and any such blow would strike the bearer at the quick. Her friend already stood on the brink of so much, and if Odin were to awaken and not see the grand gesture from his youngest's broken mind, then . . .

She feared for him in that moment. She feared for him, even as she felt a spike of fear for the man that he could become. As cold as the wastes which ran in his veins, and as powerful as the Trickery that he had spent his centuries perfecting.

In that moment, her loyalties were divided. She could not stand by Loki, not while he set himself on the path of genocide, in direct defiance of their true king's orders. She could not stand by him, but she could stand up to him. Stand up for him.

"Loki," she protested. "That is madness – surely you must see so."

"Is it?" he questioned in return, his voice cracking on the edges. The red consuming his eyes flickered. She could see green shine through. "Is it really so mad?"

He wouldn't . . . he couldn't destroy the stain of his heritage even if he destroyed every Jötunn who lived. It wouldn't change who he was. What he was. It would not change Odin's opinion, and it would not tame Asgard's whispers if they ever discovered just what exactly their second son was. And oh, but that was just what Odin had in mind, wasn't it? At least, before Laufey had declared war thanks to the thoughtless actions of the first son.

Her guts twisted awfully as she stepped closer to him. She wanted to speak – to lay bare every thought on her mind. But anything that had crossed her way had certainly been thought of and dissected by him over and over again. And where was his famed patience now? His logic and steady mind? All gone under the weight of the revelations that had been forced upon him.

And so, where words would only fail her, she took a step towards him. She had always been composed of actions. Consequences and reactions a far off thing from the moment – steel meeting flesh and blows traded upon armored limbs. And so she ascended those last few steps, ignoring the distance of king's dais which Loki had been using like a shield for himself – an uncrossable line. She stood equal with Asgard's sovereign, and reached up to place both hands on the sides of his face. His skin was cold, so very cold – sweat beaded on his brow from the warmth of Asgard, and oh, how all of those long summer months were explained now . . . She ignored the icy sting of his skin under her touch, and instead she pulled him down to meet her. She kissed him with a desperate hunger – determined to show him that this changed nothing; that the truth of his blood altered no scale or perception. She prayed for it to be enough as she nipped almost cruelly at him – drawing him to meet her passion with his own. After a long moment, she could feel the hand that was not holding Gunginir fall hesitantly on her skin – as if it were that first kiss between them all over again. His caress was light, his kiss cautious, and she hated him for it.

His armor was harsh and unyielding against her, and so she sank her hands into the hair that fell from beneath his helmet. The cool expanse of the metal bumped against her forehead, just as his nose struck against the side of her own. The contact between them was graceless; it was violent and urgent, and she hoped so very fervently that it would cleanse him as the fires rebirthed the forests. His touch on her was more confident, his one hand coming up to twist at the base of her skull, tangling into the long fall of her hair and holding her to him. But she needed no such force - she hoped that he knew that. She would make him see that . . .

Stubbornly, she backed him up until she felt the throne strike against the back of his knees. She pushed him again, and he sat gracelessly down; it felt like the actions of a warrior when she leaned forward to straddle him – the harsh points of her armor meeting the sleek planes of his own. She pressed against him either way, hoping that the heat of her would thaw him. He let her try – his hand tugging on her hair and his tongue invading her mouth even as she tried to surround him – an attack on all fronts. All sides. Her fingers would leave bruises, she hoped as she tasted blood in his mouth when her teeth turned mean. She wanted something for him to remember her by – remember himself by.

"Please Loki," she pleaded as she tore her lips away from his. He was still holding her, and she had refused to drop her arms from around him. Frost bloomed on her lips, and she could feel her breath mist on the air from where it was chilled. "Please . . . don't do this. Spare Laufey. Spare your race. Spare your brother . . . let him return. Let us all fix this with you. Together."

She saw the exact moment where his eyes darkened. Saw when he closed himself off from her, the cerise cast of his eyes lightening. The green returned, but it was so much colder than anything else she had ever seen on him. "My brother," he repeated. "Even now he is foremost upon your mind."

"You twist my words," she hissed, frustrated, dropping her hands to push against his shoulders.

"And you do not understand mine," he returned. The blue was fading from his skin, answering whatever unspoken spell he had uttered. He did not push her from him, but his touch was no longer welcoming. She obliged him, getting to her feet, but still staying close.

"Loki," she tried to reach him again when he stepped immediately from her.

He shied from her touch. "You will see," he muttered, and his voice was half mad. "I will show you – show Father," for he called Odin that still. "Show Thor . . . I am worthy, no matter what I am. I will show you, and then I will accept your apology."

"Loki," she repeated, and this time his name was sharper than she intended it to be – steel sharpening steel.

"Perhaps," he said, his tone almost gentle. "You should leave, Lady Týrdottir."

The use of her title stung. Like a slap.

But she still nodded. Eyes shining – which she would later deny – she clasped her fist over the left side of her chest in the salute of a warrior to her sovereign – for, in that moment, that was all they were. When she turned, every step away felt like a retreat – but it was he who had drawn first blood, and she who was left reeling in its wake. She could only leave him with his demons – leave him and hope to find a way to bring Thor back. A way to awaken Odin. A way to stop Loki before he attempted the unthinkable.

Perhaps, someday he could even forgive her for what she was about to do – just as surely as she longed to absolve him for every deed completed and as of yet undone.

.
.

Later, Jane Foster found her on the grand vista.

The sounds from the feast still echoed – would continue to echo for long into the night, and for many nights there after. Over the ruckus she could hear Thor's laughter, and a part of her delighted in the simple face of her friend's joy. Sif though, was uncomfortable in her dress, uncomfortable the whole of the day after an uneasy night of stolen dreams. She was not much company, and she had no wish to infringe upon Thor's joy with her own melancholy.

Tomorrow she would rise and shake her grief away, and she would carry on – march with a smile on her face. It was how she always was. How she always would be. But for now, night was upon them, and she wished to watch the stars, as if searching for answers there.

Jane walked silently for a mortal – but she could not hide the hitch in her breath upon seeing Asgard's sky at night. The heavens were glorious, and even the Aesir acknowledged that – it would be centuries indeed before their appeal was lost on Jane, who had only ever seen the cosmos from Midgard's foggy skies. The scientist came to stop next to her, her horn of mead a heavy sound from where she rested it against the rail. The drink would be potent for a human pallet, and she drank it sparingly, as was wise.

"I wanted to thank you," Jane said softly once the silence wore on.

"I was helping a friend," Sif dismissed her. "I could have done nothing else."

"But still," Jane's shoulder's shrugged. "I needed to say it again."

"Your thanks honor me then," Sif inclined her head, and Jane's smile flashed before slipping thoughtfully away.

"So, I was wondering if I could take a look at your shield – a lot of my answers are being filled in upon talking to your watchman and seeing the ruin sight – but I'd like to grasp at any straw I can."

"You have my leave," Sif answered. "But I am not sure how far you will get. The enchantments are fickle, much as their enchanter was." And at that she took a swig of her own goblet, enjoying the bite of the brew against her tongue.

"Yes," Jane fiddled with her hair, tucking it behind her ear as Sif understood she did when she wanted to breach a topic she should better leave unsaid. "Thor told me about . . ." she waved a hand vaguely.

Sif understood. "Yes, he would have," she whispered.

And Jane was nothing but insightful in a way only a human could be – seeing much upon knowing how short the time they had allotted to them. "You know, there was a scientist aiding me – someone SHIELD sent, but I have my doubts there as well. His name was Luke – Luke Olson."

The name snagged at Sif. Carefully, very carefully, she asked, "and he was detrimental to your cause?"

"No," Jane shook her head, something small about the smile on her lips. "Actually, he was a great help – he disappeared a few days before you showed up, but something tells me you would have liked him."

Sif was silent, staring down at her mead.

"What I am trying to say," Jane said next, "is that I think that some secrets will reveal themselves more easily than others." With that the human woman smiled – a flickering thing in the night before turning away from her. Sif let her go – knowing that Thor would have sought her out before long at any rate, and not wishing to infringe on the couple's new found happiness.

Above her, the cosmos glowed, and Sif let their brilliance capture her.

.
.

She remembers back to mere hours after her last time speaking with the second prince. She rememberes Thor's return to Asgard, how he heralded himself a hero once again by unraveling his brother's plans.

Tales were told of Loki's fall into the cosmos – but later, it was Thor who whispered to her, and her alone that his brother had not fallen – he had jumped. Out of the general belief in Asgard that the second son had perished, only those closest knew of Loki's affinity with the things greater than them. He had leapt – and been embraced by the magicks that did so govern them all.

Asgard rejoiced.

Sif mourned in silence. And in silence she held her secrets still.

.
.

The next morning, Thor sought her out as was his wont.

Her glaive was strapped to her back, and her armor was clean – not yet sullied by the mire of the training field. "I am meeting the Three," she told him as the prince fell into step next to her. "Do you care to join me?"

The tips of Thor's ears burned pink. "As enrapturing as the idea is, I am afraid that I am meeting Jane to show her the library – apparently she has much work to complete, and she has decided that I will be an asset to her."

Sif snorted. "And she knows that you have not spent more than an hours time within the library without explicit threats from your father?"

"Apparently she sees something in me still," and here Thor's eyes turned wistful – so very much enraptured was he. "It truly is a shame that . . ." he caught himself, his eyes an apology on her own. "I am sorry that things are not as they once were." He instead said, placing a heavy hand on her shoulder.

She stood up straighter under the weight. "But," she returned, her eyes an absolving thing, "I do so look forward to the way things might yet be." Thor no longer alone, and his mortal no longer searching. The bifröst completed and her brother's full sight returned. Odin proud. Asgard joyous. And the cosmos concealing her lost son . . . And then someday, perhaps . . .

"Indeed," Thor returned. "I have the highest of hopes for the future."

She smiled brilliantly up at her friend. "Now, leave me be – don't keep her waiting for too long."

Thor gave a graceful bow. "As always, you are the epitome of wisdom."

"Oh please," Sif rolled her eyes. "I wouldn't even dare to pretend to be."

Thor clapped a large hand against her back in his humor, his eyes glittering. Behind them, their shadows were long and sweeping. As Thor turned away from her to join the human woman, his shadow flickered merrily after him. She waited a step before continuing to the training rings – and her shadow was still, silent and complete. The center of it was dark, an enchanting thing that had Sif watching it keenly. Waiting. It did not flicker, did not move – but when she walked on again, it hesitated for merely a moment, as if wishing to follow her but unsure of its right to.

And so Sif waited.

There was not another telling sign, but she knew in the way of one used to knowing. She was not alone. Her silences were not merely her own – but shared. And as if they were children all over again, she knew she only had to acknowledge his knowing for him to reveal himself.

She was War, and so she would wait for a call to march – a call to arms. He was Mischief and Trickery, and so he would linger in the shadows still. And with a warrior's patience she would await him. And perhaps someday he would let her accept him back like a comrade. Perhaps he would seek forgiveness as a friend. And just maybe, once Thor rejoiced and Odin whispered his absolution, she would embrace him once again as a lover.

But for now, she simply marched on, her steel a warm thing in her hand and her shadow a too long thing at her back.


And, for those of you who made it this far, I have a list of references and notes (and I apologize for any discrepancies – my comic canon is not as complete as I'd wish it to be, and I am not an expert in Norse paganism by any means).

Mira's Mythological Mauling Maddness:

* In the comics, and mythology, Loki did cut all of Sif's hair off – but he did so out of jealousy over how close she and Thor were becoming. (In her sleep, like she threatened to say here). When ordered to restore her hair, he did not have enough gold to get the dwarf potion that would return her hair to being blonde, she remained with dark hair from that point on. That's the comic version. In mythology, Sif and Thor were already married, and Loki most likely did so just to tick his brother off. When ordered to return her hair, Loki went to the dwarfs and not only received a golden headdress for Sif to wear – but also Mjölnir (Thor's hammer), and Gungnir (Odin's spear), and a few other things which have no relevance to the tale.

* In the legends, Sif was also the daughter of Odin. And since I didn't want to add yet another layer of crazy dysfunctional family-ness to the plot, I made her the daughter of Týr – the actual God of War. In some of the legends he is considered the be the father of the Gods, until as the legends were carried on, Odin took over that role. So, the choice seemed fitting in more ways than one. (I ignored Týr's roles in the comics, because I can pick and choose like that.)

* In the legends, and comics, Sif and Heimdall are half-siblings. I thought it fun to carry that into the movie-verse, simply to add another layer to Heimdall's annoyance with Loki.

* In the legends, Sköll is a wolf that chases the horses Árvakr and Alsviðr, that drag the chariot which contains the the Goddess Sol (the sun) through the sky every day, trying to eat her. Sköll has a brother, Hati, who chases Mani, the moon. At Ragnarök, both Sköll and Hati will succeed in their quests.

* In the legends (according to the Skáldskaparmál), Brokkr was the dwarf that forged Mjölnir – but his feud was with Loki rather than his brother Sindri. Loki bet that Sindri was the better blacksmith, and Brokkr proved him wrong by forging Mjolnir, and Loki had to have his mouth sewed shut as a result in loosing the bet.

* In the legends (according to the Thrymskvitha), Thor did pretend to be a bride, and Loki his bridesmaid in order to get Mjölnir back from the Jötunn king Thyrm. In the legend, Thyrm stole Mjölnir, and demanded the Frejya as his bride in return for the hammer. Frejya was less than inclined to play along, and so Thor and Loki donned dresses and went to Jötunnheimr. Thor couldn't act to save his life, so Loki had to develop multiple ridiculous lies on the spot to keep their cover.

* In the comics, Sif did have a sword, blessed by Odin, which could cut through the dimensions. She could also teleport without her sword when the situation called for it – think Hiro Nakumara meets Xena.

* In the legends, Niflheimr was one of the two planets that made creation possible. One was ice, and one was fire, and they were found beneath the world tree's roots. After its role in creation, Hel (ironically, Loki's daughter in the myths) took up residence on Niflheimr, and guards the souls that Odin did not protect in the afterlife (i.e. everyone who didn't die a hero's death). She was a Hades/Persephone combination with her roles.

* In the legends, Álfheimr was one of the nine worlds, and home to the light elves and was inspiration for Tolkien and his undying lands. The west. King Gandalf, in Norse paganism, was the last Álfar king, and one of the Ljósálfar– the light elves.

* In the legends, Svartálfaheimr was one of the nine realms, and home to the black elves.

* In the legends, the Yggdrasil was the great tree that supported the cosmos and connected all nine of the realms. Asgard was at the top of the world tree, and Earth in the middle – Midgard. In the roots were Niflheimr and Múspellsheimr – the worlds of ice and fire, respectively. The bifröst (what the Norse described rainbows as being) was the path the Gods used to travel the realms.

* In the legends, Loki and Sif totally had a fling! My crack!shipping is supported! Mwaha!

So says the Lokasenna, part of the Prose Edda, which I think everyone knows thanks to Rawles' awesomeness:

Then Sif went forward and poured out mead for Loki into a crystal cup and said:
Welcome now, Loki, and take the crystal cup
full of ancient mead,
you should admit, that of the children of the Æsir,
that I alone am blameless.

He took the horn and drank it down:
That indeed you would be, if you were so,
if you were shy and fierce towards men;
I alone know, as I think I do know,
your love beside Thor,
and that was the wicked Loki

Which one can't take at a grain of salt, seeing as how Loki is a liar and a cheat. BUT, Odin makes a similar accusation to Sif in the Hárbarðsljóð, and well – and, really, how else did he get close enough to cut her hair?