A/N: Dear readers, thank you so much for reading and reviewing Chapter I of this story. You are amazing, and I thank you for taking the time do read and review this fic. A number of you have favourited/put this story on story alert; thank you as well, this means a lot!

I am very, very sorry for the long wait. December is always a bit of a crazy month, but the update is finally here and there is only one more chapter left till the end of the story. I added a few explanations at the end.

Enjoy! Sincerely, Lorien Urbani


II.

Sif spent the evening drowning her confusion in sweet wine and strong mead.

The valkyries had left, at sunset, to continue with their duties and as they were leaving, everyone was watching with reverence, knowing that yet another bloody battle with the nightly-resurrecting beast awaited the shield-maidens.

It was the first time Sif experienced the state of inebriation. Before, she would have laughed at her comrades for losing their heads to wine; now, the tables were turned. The Warriors Three teased her and she swatted at them as if they had been a threesome of cumbersome flies.

At least the recent resentments were forgotten. Hogun's broken arm and Fandral's bleeding head-wound had healed, and so had their bruised pride. Her chaotic behaviour of a few days ago was forgiven and forgotten, and the Warriors Three and the Lady Sif were friends once more, united in drinking now as they always were on the battlefield.

Once, Thor would have joined them. Once, Thor would have made a competition out of this drinking game. Now, he was watching them from across the table, his arms crossed over his broad chest, his face dark and stern. Sif caught his eyes with her own and swallowed down a gulp of wine in shame, the liquid becoming a rock that pained her flesh as it slid down her throat.

How can you? the blue of his orbs seemed to accuse. It has only been a month since we lost him.

Sif knew – he would have expected it from the others, but not from her; not after he confided in her, revealed his very heart to her, an emotional extremity for a warrior of his strength and reputation. She knew he still mourned and would mourn for a while longer, if not even forever, yet she was making merry in front of him and he did not deserve it.

Sif set her goblet on the table with shaking hands, trying to be as graceful as she could. She placed her palms on either side of the goblet and pushed herself upward.

"Thor," she spoke, looking at him, her eyes dancing so strangely, "might you accompany me to my room? I hope to leave the banquet hall with my dignity intact."

She gave a feeble smile and then a sigh of relief as the warrior of thunder rose on his feet and walked around the table to join her.

"Are you done with mead?" he asked, smiling back, and she could not help but grin at him. He did not resent her for forgetting herself!

"For a while, at least."

She accepted his proffered arm and their elbows linked. With the other hand, she clutched at the soft fabric of her silver dress, lifting it up ever so slightly, so that she may not trip over the folds pooling on the ground around her feet. She could not wait to be rid of the dress; it was armour that felt like her second skin, not silk and gossamer.

For a while, they walked in silence. Sif could not guess Thor's reasons for remaining quiet, but she knew for herself that she was at a loss for what exactly to say. Ever since the day that the bridge was broken, a shadow had hung between them and it had a name.

Loki.

In Thor's presence, she was always aware of the Trickster, for she knew him to be in Thor's mind and heart even when he fought; when he ate; when he slept. Every conversation led to the past, the past led to memories and the memories always culminated in at least a mention of the fallen Asgardian's name.

No, not of Asgard, but of Jötunheimr. She could never forget, but she tried – to understand, to accept, to let go. For Thor's sake. And it had been hard to do.

Sif stole a glance at Thor. She observed the tension in his jaw, the uncharacteristic pallor in his cheeks, the weariness around his eyes. None of it was natural, yet it was now a part of him. He had been her closest friend, her beacon, her everything for centuries, and now he felt foreign to her. The notion made her extremely sad and she felt inclined to weep, but she did not. Sif never cried; no one could ever make her cry; not even Thor. Fighting the strange discomfort she had never felt in his presence before, cursing the shadow that kept them apart, she continued to walk by Thor's side, trying to ignore the silence and the tension between them.

She would ask no questions; she would not beg for a few words, even if her traitorous heart wished it. She was Sif, born a goddess and forged a warrior, fearless and strong, baptised in the tears of her enemies. She would never beg for anything, not even her life.

They reached the doors of her room and Thor broke the silence.

"I hope you sleep well, dear Sif."

Sif was disappointed in herself for feeling happy over the fact that, finally, he spoke to her and that he had called her dear Sif.

Dear Sif. Dear sister. Sif, Thor's sister in spirit, and Jane Foster, the mistress of his heart.

But the knowledge of it did not sting anymore. The only thing that stang was the fear of losing him to grief and she could repeat a thousand times that she was a stranger to fear, but the brutal truth was that Sif had fears to harbour.

"Thank you, dear friend," she replied and kissed his cheek, a sister's kiss for her brother.

Once, she would have hoped for a different kind of kiss to give him who wielded Mjölnir; once, she was led to believe that he would be hers and she his, but nothing had happened the way it had been promised. Her first kiss had been claimed by a man far less worthy than Thor and her infatuation reserved for the warrior of thunder replaced by a sisterly love. She was not quite certain why she was disappointment by the fact. Perhaps because it made her ponder on the sort of affection she had held for the one that died, and Sif never wanted to feel anything for the other one.

How hateful it was that her wishes did not quite coincide with reality.

"I apologise for appearing so grim at the banquet," Thor said.

"I did not expect you to make merry," Sif replied. "I am only sorry I behaved so shamefully. It was disrespectful to you, Thor..."

He shook his head. "Do not say it. You have every right to drink and make merry, if such is your wish. After all, you do not feel the loss as I do, for I lost my only brother. I know you do not mourn and I do not expect you to, either. I certainly do not wish to force you. I would never want that. How could one ever want to subdue the fierce spirit of Sif?" He gave a quick smile.

There, the shadow again, thought Sif, and it managed to stir up guilt inside her.

"I did care for him," she spoke, shocked by her own honesty, "and, despite appearances, I was his..." Friend did not quite seem the right word, for she had no idea what he truly was to her, or she to him, yet she used it. "Friend. But I only mourned for my mother, Thor, and I never mourned again."

Thor gave a short, breathy laugh. "You would not mourn me then, Sif?"

Immediately, she punched his shoulder, quite hard. "Fool! I would mourn you, but I hope I shall never have to. You shall be king one day and you shall live long, as long as Odin, and I will be there to protect you, if you will have me by your side."

She expected him to laugh again, but Thor did not laugh this time. Instead, he squeezed her shoulder with one warm, strong hand and kissed her brow, ever so gently and with much emotion. He had never done so before and Sif stood still, completely stunned.

"Thank you, Sif. At least I still have you, and I always will. Thank you."

And Sif knew, in that moment, that although she was born with the blood of a valkyrie, her destiny lay with Thor.

He lost Loki and she could not allow herself to become lost to him, too. Not now. He was a formidable warrior and no one was better than him, yet such a thing could fell him and Sif would have none of it.

She would mourn her final rejection of Brynhildr the following year, but she had always been meant to serve Thor, she realised now, and she always would, gladly, even if abandoning her dream of becoming a valkyrie like her mother might well break her heart. But she loved Thor more than any valkyrie and that held more weight with her. Brynhildr would be severely disappointed in her, but Sif could not help it. She was not strong enough to fight her other calling.

She wanted to serve her brother in spirit and in arms, her very true brother.

Sif had always been one of Thor's closest warriors, but now, she began to realise that she would have to expand her role; she would now have to step into Loki's shoes and become to Thor what Loki had been to the warrior of thunder.

As she bid goodnight to Thor, Sif felt tears in her eyes and angrily, she swallowed them back. For good measure, she let out a scream into her pillow and then, she felt better.

xxx

Thor had never been late to the training grounds.

Thor had never been absent from the training grounds.

Today, he did not come at all to train the warriors and Sif worried.

He had never been a recluse, yet now it seemed he sought voluntary seclusion more and more often and he sequestered himself even from Sif.

Sometimes, Sif worried that Thor, the mighty Warrior of Thunder, was growing too silent. Sometimes, in the dead of night, she feared that he was fading, shedding the Thor she loved and disappearing into someone she did not know, or did not wish to know. The concern stole away her sleeping hours and with him, she slowly began to fade as well, not sleeping, not eating; not training as hard as she should have been; too preoccupied with the desire to save him.

Ignoring her fellow warriors, Sif left the training grounds. She sheathed her dagger, for she always carried a weapon on her person and, clutching at the leather-wrapped hilt, the familiarity of the object seemed to soothe her, if only a little. She searched Thor's favourite haunts. She started with his chambers, where his manservant informed her that he had not seen his lord since the early morn. Sif proceeded to the royal family's private dining hall, to the armoury, to the stables. Thor's horse, Gullfaxi, was there, munching on fresh oats in its gilded bucket. It lifted its head upon her arrival and whinnied in recognition. Sif petted its mane with a crease marring her brow.

"Where is your master, Gullfaxi?" she asked, then let out a deep sigh.

The last place left for her to search was The Twin Princes, but the two volcanoes were located far up North and Thor would not have gone there without his horse.

Sif sighed and patted Gullfaxi one last time before releasing the white thoroughbred's golden mane. It truly was a magnificent horse, tall and immensely strong, with a snow-white coat and a mane that was a mass of golden-looking locks. It was a horse truly worthy of an Æsir prince and their future king. As she released it, Gullfaxi snorted and another horse repeated the sound, then added a whiny to it.

Sif turned to look at Léttfeti, the newly masterless dark-coated horse that once belonged to Loki. Its place had always been in the stable next to Gullfaxi's and the animals had never spent a day apart. Once upon a different time, the same could be said for their owners. A very long time ago. Sif watched as Léttfeti stretched its sinewy neck over the fence separating the two stables and nudged Gullfaxi in the mouth. Léttfeti was restless; it had been for more than three months now, since its master's shameful – and tragic, she admitted – fall, and Sif felt sorry for the animal. She buried her fingers in its nearly black mane and the horse that once let her pet it freely now made to bite at her arm. Sif's warrior's reflexes saved her from Léttfeti's sharp teeth and she glowered at the animal with resentment.

"Beast," she hissed. "Just like your master," she added bitterly, twisting her mouth in a grimace of resentment.

She knew the animal had been described as difficult since the day the Bifröst was broken and she knew it was the only way that the horse knew to grieve, yet still she did not wish to comfort it, or forgive it, out of spite. She looked at a bucket of fresh red apples in a corner, then back at the horse.

"No more treats from me, you terrible beast," she said and was about to leave when she saw Gullfaxi nudge Léttfeti fiercely and the dark horse neighed, then hit the ground several times with its front right leg and lowered its head in submission. Still, it peristed to abuse the ground, as well as its hoof. Again, Gullfaxi pushed at its dark companion, neighing, and the restless horse stopped hitting the ground with its hoof. Finally, the dark animal was calmed and it snorted, then proceeded to eat from its own bucket of oats as if nothing had happened.

Sif stared at the scene with her mouth agape, then smiled in disbelief, not entirely certain what to make of what had just transpired before her eyes. It was clear, however, that the horses's minds were connected and the animals seemed to easily understand each other. The horses communicated, and the horses were friends. They were so close and it pained her to remember how close their masters had been before pride took over one of them and jealousy over the other one. It was what happened, she was ready to admit to it now.

No, she must not think of it, she must not, and she would not.

Left with no other alternative, Sif decided to visit Heimdall and consult his all-seeing eyes for Thor's whereabouts. She had to find Thor, make certain that he was safe and well. At the very least safe, for he had not been quite well and himself in a while.

She looked at the two horses one final time. Both animals had calmed down and took turns in leaning their heads against one another, their version of an embrace, or perhaps a pat on the shoulder.

How she missed that ancient scene, the scene of two men patting each other on the shoulders after a good hunt; of two men sharing a brotherly embrace after a dangerous battle. Yet everything had changed and Sif felt that she would be willing to give anything for the old days to return. For everything to return to its place.

A strange feeling wrapped itself around Sif's heart and soon, she found herself running from the stables and towards the Observatory.

The harder she ran, the faster the cold throbbing of the ice lump between her ribs ebbed away.

xxx

"He is in the library, Lady Sif," Heimdall spoke calmly, his hands resting on the hilt of his magnificent sword, before Sif could find a chance to open her mouth.

As her ears accepted Heimdall's words, Sif frowned, then parted her lips in utter disbelief.

"He hardly knows where the library is, my dear Heimdall," she replied, regretting her words immediately, for although true they were, they sounded like an insult. Her cheeks coloured, but she found comfort in the fact that Heimdall understood what she really meant.

She knew Thor to be a clever man and he had read all the books that during his childhood, his masters demanded of him to peruse and learn. Later, he lost any interest in books, replacing it with his intense focus on the art of war, and she had never seen him visit the library to search for a tome to entertain himself with. He only sought the solace of the library when he was on a mission to tease his brother out of it and force him to go on a quest with him. That had always been a sight to behold, Loki sauntering out of the library with a scowl and Thor laughing at him, explaining to him with loud enthusiasm the fun they would surely have slaying Bilgesnipes or some other dangerous creature from other realms. Thor was a master of persuasion, as much as Loki had been a master of manipulation.

However, the library had always been Loki's place, his sanctuary.

And now, it was occupied by Thor.

Sif gnashed her teeth; in concern, not in anger. Thor was not only mourning; Thor was losing himself and becoming someone else. She knew Loki's spirit was not in Helheim or Fólkvangr, and most certainly not in Valhalla, for Heimdall did not see him in any of the places (although she would have put him straight to Helheim), but in whichever lost void his spirit was stranded, he had a far-reaching grasp, for he successfully tormented Thor even from Beyond.

Damn you, Loki, damn you to Hel and back.

"He does now, Sif," Heimdall said.

"But why?" Sif demanded and she had to suppress a whimper.

"To read about Jötunheimr," Heimdall replied with his calm matter-of-factness. "He wishes to educate himself about the realm and the race inhabiting it. He has been through a few scrolls and books so far."

To better understand Loki, was Sif's first thought. Thor wants to understand.

Not too long ago, Thor would have destroyed the jötunns; he would have punished them with the force of thunder for the offence they committed on the day of his failed coronation. Now, he was trying to understand them, for the sake of the one who betrayed him and would have smitten him down in a heartbeat. Loki tried that and naturally – luckily – he failed, but Loki tried and that Sif could not forget.

Yet now, everything was different. Somehow, everything was different and this time, she did not think Thor was a fool.

He is hurt and he only wants to understand. He wants to make certain that his brother loved him; that Loki could love.

This time, Sif wanted to understand. Finally, Sif wanted to understand what had happened to Loki, long before the fall. He was born of ice, but had the ice always been in him, even in Asgard?

Sif wanted to understand and she did not want to fight the urge; not anymore. She had grown too tired of fighting everything that was connected to Loki. This time, she simply wanted to know and then comprehend. She needed to grasp this, just as Thor did. If she did, then she could help Thor. And herself, but that was beside the point. It was Thor that mattered.

"Heimdall," she began tentatively and sat herself on the stairs of the observatory, determined not to rise to her feet until she had learned a little bit about the land of blue ice and devastation herself.

Heimdall's lips quirked in a barely discernible smile. "Yes," he said simply, waiting for Sif to say more.

"Tell me about Jötunheimr, Heimdall."

There, she said it, and it did not hurt. Relieved, Sif breathed in, then released a shuddering sigh.

"You have been there, Sif. What is there to tell that you have not seen with your eyes?" Heimdall replied with slow politeness, gazing into a far-away place that only he could see. No one's eyes travelled as far as Heimdall's, not even Odin's.

Sif refused to feel frustrated by Heimdall's lack of co-operation. "Yes, I have seen it, as it is now, as it has been since the loss of the Casket of Ancient Winters. What I would wish to know is, has it always been so bleak, so grey, so..." She bit her lip, searching for words. "So sad a sight? Cold and uninviting. And have they, the jötunns, always been such a... cruel race?"

Was he born cruel? She wanted to ask, but she knew she could not.

She could only hope that Heimdall would give her a clear answer. When she was younger, she would come to him, to listen to his tales about other worlds, and he always spoke only of the beauties that blossomed from Yggdrasil, never of the horrors.

Heimdall looked at her and she braced herself for questions. Instead, Heimdall focused his gaze into the distance again and spoke. Sif closed her eyes in amazing relief, happy that Heimdall remained Heimdall: observant, yet silent; wise, kind and obliging.

"Eons ago," Heimdall told her, "Jötunheimr was a place of cold beauty that shined like the deep blue of an Asgardian ocean. You see, Jötunheimr is the land of primordial ice and cold, and in those lands, in those mountains and on those plains, ice has always felt like home, and to those who dwell there, the beautiful ice has become warmth."

Sif frowned. "How can ice be warm?"

"It can, Sif, if it is the same temperature as one's skin, for the jötunns are born with ice in them. They are half ice and half flesh. And before Jötunheimr's fall from grace, the ice was magnificent, looking like crystals and glistening in the same inviting manner. It does not do that anymore, not without the Casket, and not with its people filled with bitterness and hate. Ice must be loved and nurtured, and it has been suffering from severe neglect."

Sif nodded, captivated by the tale. "They... they were not born monsters?"

Heimdall moved his head and began to peruse another distance. He did not look at Sif, but she felt that he was completely aware of her presence.

"They were not. No race bears monsters, but it may raise itself into one. That happened to the jötunns. They were overtaken by greed and that greed cost them everything, but when their race first came into being, they were made to live in the ways of benevolence, and for many a millennia, they did."

Sif was shocked by Heimdall's words. She expected him to chastise the jötunns, to speak badly of them and to stress to her the importance of avoiding them, of fighting them. Instead, he presented them so... so very objectively, and Sif could barely follow the revelation. Never before has she even considered seeing the race of Jötunheimr as anything but evil and monstrous. She had known the jötunns as the destroyers, the haters, the enemies, and the enemy they still were. But ice – ice was not evil. It could be shaped and chiselled into evil, but it was not evil.

"Heimdall, I am going to ask you something and I ask you to reply, but nothing more. Would you promise me that you will not inquire further, or imagine things?"

In reply, Heimdall chuckled. She took that as a yes.

Sif took a deep breath and took the wild plunge. "Loki's betrayal is not connected to his true origins."

It was a statement, not a question, really, and Sif awaited Heimdall's fierce attempt to dispute it.

But Heimdall said, "No, although it would be simpler and less hurtful to say that it is."

The cold lump between Sif's ribs stirred and she swallowed hard.

"Please, tell me more about Jötunheimr, about its beauties that existed before Laufey squandered them."

She desperately wanted to ignore the lump and give her whole attention to Heimdall. She could not bear to think about Loki, not about Loki as the man he was before he fell, not about Loki at all.

And Heimdall did speak, telling her of the thick and dark pine forests, covered in snow and shrouded in gossamer mists; the forests that were no more. He told her of the royal palace made of black marble and blue ice, located on the glistening planes of Glæsisvellir;the palace that was now in sad shambles, a tomb and a macabre reminder of the distant bright past. He told her of the azure river Ifing that separated Asgard from Jötunheimr; the river that was destined to never freeze, but which was now immobile under thick layers of gray ice.

Sif felt that finally, she understood the tragedy of Jötunheimr, and the tragedy that had presided in Loki.

When Heimdall finished his narration, she thanked him and left, walking away from the Observatory with slow, heavy steps.

xxx

Almost two centuries ago, Loki presented Sif with a flower.

The flower was a white lily, which he conjured from the remains of torn grass, only to chase away the cloud of her bad humour and the pain of a broken heart.

On that day, she had seen Thor kiss a lady and Sif sought Loki's company instinctively, never asking herself why she felt that she needed him in that moment. Sif embarrassed herself, speaking of kisses and asking for one, immediately mortified.

Loki listened; Loki teased; and then, Loki made her smile, and in that moment, Sif believed that nothing would ever change, which she would not have minded.

Sif kept the flower and it stayed in her drawer when everything else had changed or stole away before she noticed it.

Now, in the middle of the night, unable to close her eyes and drift into sleep, Sif opened the drawer and took out the flower, ever so carefully, for the white petals were extremely fragile after two centuries and any careless movement might grind them into dust. For a long time, Sif had been asking herself why she kept the lily that was born of Loki's magic. There were times when she was angry with Loki and she was tempted to throw the flower away, but she had never been able to complete her intentions. And so, the flower survived through time, a delicate reminder of the day when Loki gave Sif a gift, without ulterior motives, quite selflessly.

Now, Sif understood why she had kept it.

She sniffed at the petals gently, but of course the sweet scent was long gone. Still, she liked to imagine that it was still there, wafting from the flower and tickling her nostrils. Now, it was dust that was tickling her nostrils.

Sif removed the flower from her nose and chuckled bitterly, the lily trembling between her fingers for a brief moment. And then, it happened – a petal fell to the floor and was pulverised immediately. Sif gasped in shock and reached for the white dust on the floor desperately, but by doing so, she accidentally crushed the lily against her chest and the crunching sound made her jerk to a horrified stop.

She straightened herself up very slowly, lowering her head so far that her chin touched her chest, and she looked at the lily, the flower destroyed against her skin. Sif gasped and opened her fingers, the remains of the magical flower falling to the ground, quite dead. So very dead. In that moment, Sif would be willing to swear that the sweet smell of the flower, the smell from two centuries ago, caressed her nostrils and then disappeared completely in less than a second.

Sif was gaping at the dust of the flower and the cold lump between her ribs began to melt. She could not hold it back, not any longer.

The lily he had given her was dead.

He was really dead and she did not hate him.

And then, the brave Sif, the fiercest shield-maiden of Asgard, let out a heavy breath and began to cry.

She had only cried for her mother and Sif promised herself it would stay this way, for she had sworn never to cry for anyone else.

Yet now, Sif was crying hot, fat tears.

Now, Sif, too, was mourning her own loss at last.

xxx

In the morning, Sif did not fight at the training grounds.

She watched the Warriors Three in silence and judging from the sour expression on her face, they knew better than to ask her what was amiss. But if they had asked, she would have given them one answer: everything.

Thor was absent again, but this time, Sif did not worry. For the first time, she barely noticed that he was not there with them. She was preoccupied and she could not share her distress with anyone. It had blossomed from resignation and it had a name; Sif was not surprised that she had named it Loki.

She took her dagger out of its sheath and began to draw skewed circles in the sand, thinking about the night she spent in tears. She felt deeply ashamed now, but she could not erase her tears, not the way she made the circles disappear with the palm of her hand. It happened and she had to acknowledge it. Luckily, no one had to know, and no one ever would.

Suddenly, there was shouting, growing louder with each second, and the fighting stopped. Sif stood up swiftly, her dagger at the ready, and every warrior turned their heads in the direction of the shouting.

Soon enough, Sif recognised her name and Thor's voice, and she began to run in his direction, her heart beating in frantic rhythms. She was scared and she had to find Thor soon.

In a few moments, their bodies collided as Sif rounded a corner of the palace wall and Sif flew to the ground, the impact knocking the breath out of her lungs with a painful umph. Before she could recover, Thor hoisted her to her feet none too gently and shook her shoulders violently, and Sif had half a mind to shout at him. Then, she really looked at Thor and frowned.

Thor was grinning.

"Thor?" she asked weakly, but she shook herself and punched him in the shoulder, so hard that she yelped in pain. "Agh!" she exclaimed, cradling her injured hand in the other, and rebuked him. "You nearly killed me, you oaf! What is wrong with you?"

In reply, Thor embraced her face with his large palms and planted a loud kiss on her forehead.

Now, Sif was terrified.

"You have lost your mind..." she concluded with a whisper. "Thor..."

Thor shook his head. "No! Sif. Oh, Sif. Heimdall has just seen him. Heimdall has seen him."

"Whatever are you saying?" Sif was growing impatient.

Thor looked at her in the eyes, deeply, and he spoke,

"Loki is alive."

The breath was knocked out of Sif's lungs for the second time in the matter of a few short moments.


Explanations: The names of the places and the horses are taken from mythology, as are the descriptions of those places. Some of the information was changed by me for artistic purposes. In mythology, giants lived in Jotunheimr and Nilfheim, and I joined both the realms into only one, namely Jotunheimr. Gullfaxi was a horse that was originally owned by a giant, but when Thor defeated the giant, he got the horse (and later passed it on to someone else). I chose this horse for Thor because its name means golden mane and it seemed like the perfect horse for a future king. Lettfeti is another great mythological horse and as its name means light-foot, I thought it was a perfect horse for Loki. I didn't want to put Sleipnir in; in Thor, it's Odin's horse, anyway, and not crucial for this chapter.

The characterisation of the Frost Giants is mine alone, pure fiction, as is most of this chapter. If you have any questions, let me know.

As always, you are cordially invited to review.