A/N: Thanks so much to mskaityw for the beta!
Sif hated dancing.
One, two, three. One, two, three. Do not step. On Thor's toes. One, two, three.
The banquet meal had been lovely, with many succulent courses, full of laughter and talking with her friends, as were all of Odin's grand banquets. Since she, the princes, Fandral, Hogun, and Volstagg had begun training together, they had been permitted to sit together at such occasions, just down the table from the king and queen themselves. It was a great honor, and given that there was no one at the table whom she did not love dearly, Sif always throughly enjoyed herself. But that joy was always shadowed by the dark anticipation of what always followed the meal.
One, two, three. One, two, three. Stop spin-ing. Diz-zy now. One, two, three.
It was not even the fact that she was not one of the realm's most talented or graceful dancers that bothered her the most about the occupation. It was the concept of it, and the stereotypes behind it, that drove her insane. She was very nearly a warrior, the first woman warrior Asgard would ever have. To get this far in her training, she had needed to be strong, self-sufficient, and fiercely independent. She had never accepted anything from men offered because of her sex-she staunchly refused to lower herself to that level, to give in to what was automatically expected of her just because she was a girl.
But in dancing, there was one leader and one follower. And who always had to be the follower? Sif. Why? Because she was the girl. She had no choice in the matter. Whoever her dancing partner was would spend the song stepping and spinning around the floor in whichever way he chose, and she was expected to respond to his every move. It was terribly insulting.
She had cunningly managed to avoid participating in the first two dances this night, and had been quite proud of herself for doing so. She had stepped out of the banquet hall to use the water closet and purposefully taken a painstakingly long time doing so, and then on her way back in had passed one of the chefs in the hallway and complimented him profusely on the lovely meal. But still, all that had only taken up two songs. She had sat back down at the table in what she had hoped was an inconspicuous manner, but Thor, who had never been terribly wonderful at taking hints, had taken the opportunity at the beginning of the very next song to offer his hand to her and ask her to dance. The insufferable clod. Charming, and dashing in his red formal attire, but an insufferable clod all the same. But she could not hardly deny the first prince a dance, could she?
Thor was the same way in dancing as he was in everything else-strong and forceful (he almost pulled her off of her feet during a couple of turns), but not particularly elegant or graceful. He was much better at it than she was, though, she had to admit. She supposed that, being a prince, he didn't really have a choice in that matter.
Thankfully, she survived the song without injuring either of them. Thor released his hold on her and thanked her for the dance. Then he grasped the tips of her fingers gently in his calloused hand and kissed them, shooting her a smile designed to give heart palpitations to all the women of Asgard. Sif merely rolled her eyes affectionately at her friend.
She turned to go back to her safe haven-her place at the banquet table, and when the musicians began to play a slow, intimate song, she hurried a little faster. She hated dancing to slow songs most of all. They implied romance, something at which she was woefully inadequate in all forms. She was not sure which was worse-dancing to these types of pieces with her friends, which was terribly awkward and occasionally ended in embarrassing and inappropriate fits of giggles, or with total strangers, which was just plain terribly awkward.
She almost, almost made it back to the table. But then she felt a touch, ever so gentle, upon her right arm. She could not not turn around-she might hate dancing, but she would not be rude at a royal banquet. When she did turn, she found herself face-to-face with Loki, his green formal attire not nearly as bombastic as Thor's, but suiting him very well all the same. While Thor's eyes had been joyful and confident when he had asked her to dance a few minutes before, Loki's were soft and inquiring, more as though he was asking if he might be granted with a privilege than expecting something to which he thought he was entitled. He reached out his palm, his long, slender fingers cupped slightly, and asked in his smooth, soft-spoken manner,
"I was hoping you might allow me the pleasure of dancing with you, Lady Sif." He dipped his head the tiniest bit in respect.
Damn him. Damn him and his shining green eyes and well-fitting robes. Damn him and his silver tongue.
She placed her hand in his and accompanied him back onto the floor.
They swayed in place for a few moments while they found the tempo of the music, and then transitioned into the steps of the dance. Although Sif had never thought herself particularly adept at any of the traditional Asgardian dances her mother had forced her to learn, including this one, for the first time in her life, suddenly dancing seemed like a natural state of being. She felt here like she did in the training ring-confident, collected, not knowing precisely what was coming next but being fully aware that she could successfully face it.
She also realized that while Thor was a good dancer because he had learned out of necessity, Loki was naturally talented. Where Thor's movements had been rough and directed, Loki's were smooth and graceful, the lines of his slight figure curving into hers so that they moved as one person. He was also a much less forceful leader, but in being so, he was a far more effective one. He did not pull her around the banquet hall floor the way his brother had. Instead, it was as though he was showing her where to go, guiding her in the right direction with his touch and his subtle movements. For once, she was not afraid of stumbling or tripping or injuring her partner. She could feel secure and enjoy herself.
When the song ended, Loki bowed to her as befitted the end of that traditional dance, and she curtsied back, for once not needing to suppress a sarcastic eye-roll at the action, for it seemed to flow normally out of the situation. It was not that dancing with him made her feel more feminine-only comfortable and safe in something in which she had not felt that way before. Loki did not make so grand a gesture as Thor had as to kiss her hand-such was not his way. Instead, he simply smiled softly and thanked her for the dance, and whereas Thor's smile had been meant for all the women of the kingdom, Sif thought that Loki's was designed only for her.
A lighter, more upbeat tune was struck up, and Loki turned away to seek a new dancing partner. Sif saw Fandral approaching, his classic charming and overconfident smile plastered immovably beneath his blonde mustache. His strut was purposeful and jaunty. She wondered how many women's hearts he had already broken tonight, and how many more he would before it was over.
"Good Lady Sif, may I have this dance?" he asked with a sweeping bow.
She rolled her eyes at him. She really did not wish to dance with Fandral. For one thing, he was not as good of a dancer as Loki or Thor, and the less apt her partner was at the occupation, the less comfortable Sif tended to be with her own dancing. And then there was the fact that, although Fandral was her friend of many years, he was the type of man to try to dance with every woman in the ballroom, and that fact nagged Sif whenever she had to be seen dancing with him. But cocky though he was, he was her friend. She did not wish to harm his feelings.
"Oh, very well."
"Then it is my lucky night!" he exclaimed as he pulled her onto the dance floor. Oh, please. As if you haven't just inserted my name into a script you've used on countless other girls tonight. You don't fool me for one moment, Fandral the Dashing. More like Fandral the Droll.
They fell out of step twice within the first few measures of the song, but then, miraculously, Fandral got them back on tempo and they stayed that way. After a bit, Sif began to relax just a little. The feeling was nothing close to the one she had encountered while dancing with Loki, but she was less afraid of making a mistake or breaking someone's toes than she had been before.
Then she began to feel Fandral's hand slip lower. It came away from the middle of her back and moved along down her spine until, before she could move to swat it away, it was caressing the tight curve of her left buttock. And there it lingered, purposeful and exploratory.
Feeling hot bile rise in her throat and her cheeks burn red with anger and embarrassment, Sif wrenched herself from Fandral's grasp, pulling away from him to stare, furious and hurt, into his eyes. He looked quite surprised, yes, but there was also an undeniable hint of laughter and pride of his success. And very little, if any, apology.
All she could do for several seconds was just stand there in the middle of the ballroom floor, while other couples stepped and spun around them, going about their own business and pretending not to be interested in what was happening between the only two people in the room who were no longer dancing. They were all secretly looking at her, she knew. They were just pretending not to. It was doubtless that everyone in the room had seen what had just happened. She wanted so much to slap Fandral as hard as she could across that face of which he was so proud. She wanted to leave a red mark in the shape of her hand, to disfigure him. But she could not move. It was as though her humiliation had paralyzed her. And when she finally could make her muscles work, all she could do push through the crowd and make her escape.
He followed her. The slimy, no-good bastard followed her. He spoke, suddenly interested in making amends now that the contact of his hand with her rear was no longer so fresh in his mind.
She kept going, coming to the edge of the crowd.
"Come back, Sif! I meant no harm!"
They were far enough away from the dancers by now so that she could whirl around to face him, and that was exactly what she did. She turned on him with the full intention of giving him a piece of her mind, and lecture about respect and chivalry and friendship, for the Norn's sake. But she found that her mouth ran dry and she could form no words. Instead, she fiercely blinked back the tears that threatened to leak out of the corners of her eyes and then overwhelm her, and turned on her heel and ran out of the banquet hall.
She ran until she reached the gardens, and there she sank down onto a bench and allowed herself to give in to the tears, alone and illuminated only by the light of the nearly-full moon. She wept, her cheeks still burning, but now only with the fires of humiliation, hurt, and betrayal. Amongst all of those things, there was no room left for anger.
How could he? Yes, Fandral always had eyes on every girl in the kingdom and was constantly pushing boundaries with them, but she was not just any girl. They were friends, and had been for many years. She had trusted him. Now she did not think she could ever look him in the eye again.
With her face buried in her arms and sobs shaking her body, she did not become aware of the other presence in the garden until it was almost right up on her. She startled at the soft rustle of the leaves of the shrub next to her, feeling nauseous as she expected to see Fandral there, come to continue his meaningless display of apology.
However, it was not Fandral who gazed at her now, but rather Loki, watching her quietly. His viridian eyes seemed to reflect all of the pain she was feeling, as though he had absorbed her hurts and made them his own. She did not say anything-she could not, for her tears had fully compromised her ability to speak. Instead, she just looked at him, sobs making her breath and shoulders hitch uncontrollably. He remained as silent as she, and they simply regarded each other for a few moments before she turned away, unable to hold the gaze of another person for any longer.
A couple of seconds later, she felt a gentle rush of air as he sat down on the bench beside her, and then the softest of touches upon her arm. Normally she would have forced away any attempts at comfort from anyone. But her independent nature seemed to have crumbled in this situation, so unlike any she had ever dealt with before, and in the back of her mind she remembered how safe she had felt as she and Loki maneuvered together across the ballroom, moving and flowing and functioning as one. She did not push him away.
She fully expected him to speak, to put to use his silver tongue as he had earlier that night and weave words of comfort, or at the very least to say something biting against Fandral. She knew that Loki and Fandral held at best a strained relationship. Fandral's boisterous manner, flippant self-assurance, and constant boasting about his exploits with women irked the quiet, brooding Loki to no end, and he passed up no opportunities to make life miserable for Fandral. In the past, Loki had turned Fandral's wine into vinegar, magicked his sword so that it did the opposite of his bidding in the training ring, and hidden all of his hair supplies, and that was only to list a smattering of the pranks. And he could never resist an opportunity to say something that would get under the vain romantic's skin because he knew full well that Fandral could not physically retaliate-Loki was a prince, after all, and assaulting him in any way would no doubt lead to dire consequences.
But Loki said not a word. He just sat there, remaining a constant, silent presence in the starlight. After a couple of minutes, his hand moved off of her forearm to rest on top of her hand, which was lying on the bench. She felt him begin to sweep his thumb over the tops of her knuckles, the motion slow and methodical. In the back of her mind, she was aware that the Sif she knew herself to be should by all rights have not allowed this, especially after enduring one form of intimate touching this night. But she realized that she did not want him to stop, nor did she wish for him to slander Fandral or even speak soothingly to her, although she knew he was probably more capable of that than any other person in her acquaintance. Nor did he take her into his arms, for the last thing she wanted now was to feel smothered, even less in control than she already did. It was as though he somehow knew precisely what she needed.
They sat there for a long time on the bench in the warmth of the garden on that summer's night, the moonlight filtering through the hedges and playing on the flowers and the water of the fountain and Loki's black hair. Eventually, Sif's sobs quieted and her tears dried, and their silence morphed from one person giving comfort and the other receiving it to a silence that was companionable on both ends. They did not look at one another, choosing instead to observe the beauties of the grandest garden in the universe in the grayscale, interrupted darkness. But his hand remained resting gently on hers, and, much to her surprise, she found herself unwilling to remove it.
After a time, Sif heard a rustling noise from the direction of the palace, and then the distinct sound of footsteps, made by a woman's heeled shoes. She felt Loki's hand leave hers as he turned to face the direction of the sound, and a moment later, Frigga appeared on the path. Sif thought she saw a brief look of apprehension flit across Loki's face, but her eyes, still sore from the tears, could have been mistaken. The queen smiled gently at them as she approached, and Loki politely rose to vacate a place for her on the bench.
"I do not blame the two of you for coming out here-what perfect weather!" Frigga motioned with her hand to indicate the garden as she spoke. "It is so stifling in the banquet hall. I have told Odin year after year to postpone the banquet until the weather cools, but never once has he listened. Might I sit next to you, Sif?"
"Of...of course, Your Majesty," Sif responded, stammering slightly. She hoped that the remnants of her tears were not too obvious in the moonlight-she did not wish for the queen to know that she had been crying. Although Frigga had always been something of a second mother to her-Sif had always been at odds with her own mother, who had disagreed staunchly with her decision to become a warrior from the very beginning-she was humiliated enough without even more people knowing of her plight.
The queen took the place Loki had left and then turned to look up at her younger son, who now stood on the path, his expression mildly curious.
"Actually, Loki, I was wondering if I might have a private word with Sif, now that the banquet is over." Her voice was full of hints, on which the quick-thinking Loki immediately picked up.
"Of course, Mother." He dipped his head respectfully to her. "I bid you good night. And you, Sif." With that, he turned and traced the path back into the palace. Sif called softly after him.
"Good night, Loki." And thank you.
Frigga watched him go for a couple of seconds, an affectionate smile playing on her lips before turning to Sif. She rested her hand, adorned with many rings, on the bench next to Sif's and regarded her with something Sif interpreted to be as a mixture of love and sympathy.
"My dear child, I hope you will forgive me for being so forward with you. Now, I do not know the specifics of the situation, but between my observations and the use of my judgment to fill in the gaps, I think I have a fairly accurate idea of why you spent most of the evening out here in the garden rather than dancing in the banquet hall with everyone else."
Sif was horrified. Was it really that obvious? She knew everyone had seen what had happened! She would never, ever live this down.
Frigga obviously caught the dismayed expression on her face, for she quickly countered Sif's worries. "Do not fear. It is easy to assume that embarrassing moments are observed by everyone present, but I can assure you that everyone in that banquet hall was far too occupied with trying not to step on their partner's feet than whatever it was that Fandral did to humiliate you."
Sif took a few seconds to allow her heart to slow and quiet its pounding before speaking. "But then, how did you...?"
"I am very observant, child. I was dancing right next to you, and while I did not see exactly what he did, between your body language and his as you left the ballroom, I was able to guess the nature of the event. Would you like to talk about it?"
And suddenly Sif realized that she did wish to talk about it. It was easy to open up to Frigga. Sif spent the vast majority of her time surrounded only by males, and she had forgotten how nice it was to talk to another woman, particularly one as wise yet gentle as the queen. She nodded slowly in response to Frigga's question.
"While we were dancing, he...he touched me in a way that made me feel uncomfortable. I was so humiliated." She stopped and bit down her bottom lip, cheeks burning as she recalled the shame. "You are right-it did seem as though everyone was looking at me."
"Did he apologize?"
"He tried. I would not let him. I was too angry...and hurt."
"And are you angry now?" Sif paused, considering her own emotions. It was not something she did regularly, and the action felt strange to her.
"No," she said after a time. "I...I just feel...betrayed, I suppose. I thought he was my friend, I trusted him and felt safe around him. And then he turned around and...objectified me."
"My darling girl." The queen's voice was affectionate and empathetic. "While there is no excuse for what Fandral did, you know what a slayer of women's hearts he perceives himself to be." Sif snorted softly, and then found herself immediately feeling embarrassed for making a noise that the queen might consider to be rude, but Frigga did not react. "He is just a boy exploring what the opposite sex has to offer. His actions should not have come as a surprise to you. And, as unacceptable as they were, I beseech you not to let this mishap sever your friendship. Fandral, as...wayward as he is, has a good heart, just as you do, and it would be a shame to see what you have spent years building all go to waste."
Sif sighed inwardly. She knew that there was wisdom in Frigga's words. She ought to allow Fandral the chance to apologize, but she honestly did not know if she could face him again after tonight. Ever.
"What should I do?"
"You must let him apologize for his actions, and forgive him. I know you can find it in your heart to do so-a warrior you may be, but never cruel. But, you must let him know that what he did was intolerable and that he must never, ever attempt anything of the sort with you again. We women have a duty to keep the men in our lives on the straight and narrow path, don't you agree? They tend to stray so easily." Frigga smiled, her eyes twinkling with fond amusement.
Sif allowed herself a small smile. "I suppose I have never put that thought into words before, but yes, you are right."
Frigga's golden laugh rang out through the gardens, and after a moment, Sif joined in her merriment, feeling increasingly at ease in her presence. Then the queen smiled warmly and reached up to run her hand gently along Sif's cheek.
"My dear girl, I must say just how proud I am of you. It has been such a pleasure to watch you grow up to defy the expectations of everyone who said you could never accomplish what you needed to do to see your dreams fulfilled. Not only have you shown everyone in the kingdom just what you are capable of, but you do it while dealing with five boisterous young men on a daily basis." She paused, smiled fondly, and then amended her statement. "Well, four boisterous young men and one very mischievous one. I hope that my younger son did not follow you out here tonight merely to gather knowledge of Fandral's misdoings."
Sif shook her head quickly. "No, Your Majesty. He was..." She paused, realizing suddenly that this was one aspect of the night that she did not wish to discuss with the queen. That period of silence, there in the moonlight-punctuated darkness in the garden, seemed sacred, in a way, as though it should be treated with the same reticence that had taken place within it. It had been such an aberration for the both of them, and yet so needed and necessary, and Sif felt that those characteristics were reason enough not to analyze or dwell on it. It had occurred, and she would remember it. That was all.
"Loki was a good friend to me tonight. I am very grateful for his kindness."
The warm, affectionate smile returned to Frigga's features. "I was both hoping and expecting that you would say that, my dear. Now, if you are all right, I will take my leave. The hour grows late, and I believe that you should allow yourself a good night's rest and refreshment before you make amends with Fandral in the morning."
"Yes, Your Majesty. I thank you, both for your valued advice and your kind words." Sif lowered her eyes respectfully, but when the queen reached over to squeeze her arm, she felt warmth radiating from Frigga's touch to spread throughout her entire body.
"It was my pleasure, dear Sif. Good night."
"Good night, Your Majesty."
The gentle knock on his bedchamber door turned Loki's attention away from the spellbook he was studying. He recognized Frigga's voice calling softly from the other side of the wall.
"Loki-dear, may I please speak with you?"
He sighed internally. He had been expecting this. When his mother had come upon him and Sif in the garden, his sharp mind had not failed to register the glint in her eye. But he could hardly refuse her.
"Of course, Mother."
She entered, closed the chamber door behind her, and glided over to sit on the edge of the bed next to him. She did not speak for a couple of moments, so Loki, apprehension gnawing at his stomach, broke the silence.
"Is Lady Sif all right?"
His mother nodded. "Yes, I believe that she will be just fine. She is going to make amends with Fandral in the morning." The queen reached up to tuck a stray lock of Loki's black hair, having been dislodged from its normal neat, slicked position by the summer breeze, behind his ear. "Loki, I believe you have something you wish to tell me, do you not?"
He sighed. He ought to have known that it would not take much effort for his mother to trace the origins of tonight's doubtlessly wild and entertaining events back to him. There was no use in denying or trying to conceal it. He turned his eyes sheepishly on his comforter and fingered its threads thoughtfully.
"Would the thing that I might wish to tell you have anything to do with the possibility that a certain warrior-to-be acquired the face, ears, and tail of an ass just after Sif and I left the banquet tonight?"
"Loki." Frigga's voice held a motherly warning twinge, and Loki sighed softly, running his long fingers along the wrinkles in his quilt.
"Yes, it was me, as I am sure you suspected." He did not sound particularly ashamed of his actions, for he did not feel that way.
"Loki, I do not approve..."
He looked up at her then, his viridian eyes flashing with anger. "Did Sif not tell you what he did to her? That vulgar, rude bastard! I saw him touch her, and how upset she was. He deserved to be humiliated, just like he humiliated her."
"And so you cast a spell that would make him take on the features of an ass just after you went after Sif? You know, Loki, fleeing the scene of a crime only makes you look more guilty." Frigga's voice was not condemning-on the contrary, there was a hint of amusement there.
Loki shook his head. "It isn't as though he does not know it was me. Who else in that banquet hall could possibly have done it? And it is not like it is permanent. Fandral ought to have reverted back to the form of which he is so fond by now." His tone was bitter.
"But not before everyone laughed at him. You know how much care he takes with his appearance. And the poor boy could not even speak without braying." A wicked smile curled at the corners of Loki's lips, but Frigga squashed it with a sharp glare. "How would you like it if someone did that to you, Loki?"
"I would not have done that to Sif," he retorted obstinately, crossing his arms over his chest and looking and sounding very much like he was a mere three centuries old again. Frigga swore to herself that she had raised the two most stubborn boys in all of Asgard, and had to police herself to keep from smiling.
"Be that as it may, my dear, you know what I expect of you."
Loki rolled his eyes. "Mother, I will not apologize to Fandral."
Frigga's voice became stern now. "You will apologize to Fandral, or I will have your magic lessons suspended until you do so. Are my words clear?"
He sighed, defeated. Of course his mother would always win in the end.
"Yes, Mother." He stared down at his blankets. He knew he was pouting. He cared not. But then he felt his mother's fingers stroking his cheek.
"You did not allow me to finish my earlier statement." He looked up at her curiously. "While I do not approve of your prank on Fandral, I am proud of your actions tonight concerning Lady Sif. I understand that you were very kind to her when she needed it most."
Loki's ivory cheeks flushed pink. "I was just trying to be a better friend than Fandral was." He scoffed. "Not that it took much effort."
Frigga shook her head with love and a hint of disapproval. "But that was not the true reason, was it Loki? You could just as easily have stayed behind and watched as Fandral was laughed at by the entire banquet hall. But you went immediately after Sif, and you did not even try to show her the effects of your mischief. You chose helping Sif over further punishing Fandral. Am I wrong?"
Loki searched her loving gaze with his apprehensive one for a moment, and then shook his head. "Sif had just had her trust betrayed by one friend. She needed to see that she still had someone who cared for her. I don't know how I knew, I just somehow...got the feeling that she needed me just to be there with her. A bit like I do for Thor when he is upset because he fails his history lessons. Except...different." He furrowed his brow, considering the events of earlier that night. Frigga smiled understandingly at her normally very articulate son's sudden confusion.
"If I were to suggest that perhaps you are harboring a bit of affection for Lady Sif that goes beyond mere friendship, would I be correct?" Her voice was gentle and warm. Loki flushed an even darker shade of pink.
"Peace, my dear. You forget my powers of observation. I saw the way the two of you danced tonight, although I suspected it long before then. Do not worry. I will not meddle, and your secret is safe with me."
Loki chose not to deny the existence of this secret. He remained silent as his mother placed a loving kiss upon his forehead.
"All pranking aside, I am very proud of you, my sweet Loki. Good night, my dear."
"Good night, Mother."
After the chamber door clicked shut, Loki remained sitting in bed, his book open across his lap, but he did not read. Instead, he leaned back and stared at the canopy of the bed, imagining that it was the moonlit sky, and remembering the warm breeze and the feel of Sif's hand beneath his own.