Songs of the chapter: Higher Love, by James Vincent McMorrow & Hold You In My Arms by Ray LaMontagne

Torchlight flickered across the blind faces of statues that lined the hallways as Loki paced past, lending an eerie sense of life to the cold stone. A pair of Einherjar, burnished gold by the warm firelight where they stood guard outside the entry to the throne room, nodded respectfully at his approach. Was it his imagination that their obeisance was deeper than usual? An absurd notion, but he couldn't quite banish the ghost of Thor's words from that afternoon.

His boot-heels echoed through the gallery, silent and empty at this late hour. The courtiers had dispersed, off to revelries and merrymaking the same as every night, but even from this distance he could see that at least one person had yet to join the festivities. Odin still sat in the throne atop the dais that overwhelmed the far end of the room, his white hair and beard stark like patches of snow lingering atop a mountain - just where the servant Loki had flagged down had said he would be. His head was bent, engrossed in quiet conversation with Frigga where she sat beside him in a smaller chair, neither aware of his approach.

"All-Father," he said, voice tight and unhappy. Choking on his own tongue might be preferable to having this conversation.

Odin's good eye blinked up in surprise at the interruption, focusing on Loki with an intensity that he still fought the urge to squirm beneath. "Loki," the All-father rumbled, settling back into the depths of the throne - as if Loki needed a reminder that he dealt with the king right now, and not the man he'd once called father. "You have found your way out of the library, then. To what do we owe this visit? "

Frigga's gaze swung between the both of them, but she seemed content to keep her peace.

"I have come to ask a boon of you," he ground out, even that small show of humility grating like a file over his pride. "I think myself owed that much."

"Do you?" Odin asked, and the quiet cant of his voice was a clear warning if Loki had ever heard one. "And which of your actions is it exactly that we should be grateful for, Loki?"

The unspoken accusations struck truer than darts. Loki bit down on the urge to rebut them all, because the knee-jerk reaction no longer seemed as sterling as it once had. Keeping Thor from the throne? He'd certainly succeeded at giving Asgard a better version of the future by engineering his brother's humbling, but had that been the only way to go about such a venture? And convictions that had once flared so brightly with regards to the Jotnar had guttered in the face of grief.

He drew himself straight, spine stiffened with pride. "I have paid for my crimes, in blood and in flesh. This is not a matter of my mistakes, but of yours."

"You refer to your parentage."

"No. I refer to your deception," Loki shot back.

Odin nodded in grudging concession, his face shuttered. "Then what manner of reparations is it you feel entitled to, Loki?"

"Something small, and inconsequential to you." Loki smiled, humorless and strained, the scarcely civilized baring of teeth. "I want one of Idunn's apples."

"Ah." Odin's small sound of comprehension was half a sigh. "This is about the mortal then. Surely Thor told you that I had denied his request already."

Silence crystallized in the space left behind his words, sharp and dangerous as shards of glass. Loki dared not even open his mouth to reply, lest those fragments find a way inside to cut apart what tenuous self-control he still had.

Even now, even here...even in this. Thor's shadow was long, indeed. He spun wordlessly on one heel, legs graceless and clumsy with ire, and began stalking away.

"Loki," called Odin. "Stop."

The All-Father's words rang rich with command through the empty hall, and Loki's feet stuttered to an unthinking stop. Not even two years of fury could wash away entirely a millenia of blind obedience, it would seem.

"Please, Loki," He caught a flicker of motion from the corner of his eye as Frigga half-stood from her chair, hands folded before her in entreaty. "Hear your father out."

"He is not my father!" Loki roared with sudden rage, but the words seemed silly and petulant even as he said them. The vocal equivalent of stamping his foot, a spoiled prince's tantrum, and he was immediately chastised by the reproach on Frigga's face as he turned back.

"Enough!" she said, and he blinked at the uncharacteristic anger in her voice. "Whether he is or not, you remain here in this palace and in Asgard by dint of Odin's goodwill, and he is still your king. I thought that I had raised you better than this."

Jaw tight, he turned back to the royal pair but made no move to close the distance he'd put between them. "I offered you a courtesy by coming here and asking. We all know that I could have simply lied or stolen to get what I wanted. So why is it then that my civility is so arbitrarily rejected, and in such an insulting manner?"

"You are always so quick to find injury when none is intended," Odin said quietly.

Loki narrowed his eyes. "You have always favored Thor, don't you dare say otherwise. If he has been denied, what hope is there for I?"

"Because I told Thor no that day, so that I could say yes on this one."

Loki's brow furrowed. "That makes no sense."

The firm set of Odin's shoulders bent, ever so slightly. "When I sleep, and when your mother weaves, the Norns sometimes see fit to give us glimpses of what might be. What patterns are made from the skeins of lives."

"No." Loki's denial was flat. Uncompromising. "I will not believe in fate. I have changed what was foretold as mine, broken what should have been. You cannot convince me of its existence, not anymore."

Frigga spoke up then. "Fate is not immutable, Loki. Nor is the future fixed. It is like the fibers that I spin into thread, a multitude of paths that can be chosen at any moment, until they twist together in the present moment to make a whole."

"So...this day? This question, my meeting Jane, all of these were outcomes you saw?"

"They were choices you might make. No one could know if you would," Odin said.

Against his will he drifted a few steps closer, his mind chasing circles about itself. "I don't understand. You're saying that you denied Thor on the infinitesimal chance that I might stand here today and ask the same favor? For the same woman?"

Odin inclined his head, his mouth pressed in an unreadable line. "I did."

The smooth marble seemed to tilt beneath Loki's feet, just the tiniest of fractions, and he scrambled for composure. "But why?"

"Because he is easy to love, for he gives affection as freely as he receives it. He shall never want for companionship." The barest of smiles touched Odin's mouth, bittersweet and fleeting. "You and he have ever been opposites."

"I told you once before that there is a reason behind everything your father does," Frigga reminded him gently. "Why should his actions towards you be any different?"

It was too much, too soon. There were a thousand things he wanted to say, wanted to ask, but like fish in a shoal he couldn't pick any single one out.

The All-Father rose to his feet. "I cannot deny that I hoped things would turn out this way, despite the painful path you've walked." A sigh breathed low from Odin's lips, like the slow shift of mountains, and he lifted the polished helm from his head. Set the shining length of Gugnir aside, and in the space between one breath and the next became just a man. White of hair and seamed, and looking so very tired as he made his way down the steps of the dais. Loki held his ground defiantly as the All-father approached.

"In the end, all that any father wishes to see is his child happy," Odin said quietly, as he drew within earshot. Not the booming command of a monarch at all, but the hollow sound of a man worn threadbare. "Take the apple, and take my blessing Loki. A king is never allowed to make a bedfellow of apology, but that does not mean he is a stranger to regret."

There was something wrong with Loki's eyes, the familiar lines of Odin's face blurring softly about the edges as he stared. He blinked, sending warmth tracing down one cheek, and to his horror his fingers came away damp when he touched them to his face.

Odin had the good grace to look away.

"I -" His voice broke before he managed to glue it back together with stubborn pride alone. "Thank you."

Loki sketched the barest of bows before taking his leave...and if the calm face he showed the world on the way back to his rooms was woven from illusion, that was a secret he would take to his pyre.

The light that trickled in from outside was all wrong, slanting grey through the unadorned windows like iron bars across her face as Jane blinked awake. Not at all the hot angry yellow she was used to, relentless even this late in the year in the desert. And if the odd lighting hadn't been enough to convince her that something strange was going on, the shock of cool air curling about her as she threw back the pile of covers was impossible to ignore. It was always cold at night in the desert, but this went far beyond the usual morning chill.

The frigid concrete was a harsh slap on her bare soles as she swung herself out of bed. Her thin nightgown was little better than bare skin, and Jane shivered her way through throwing clothes on. She was just stuffing her icy feet into socks and slippers when she finally glanced outside, and the view framed by the window dropped her jaw and set her heart into slow somersaults, one sock still dangling forgotten from her fingers as she stood to press her hand and face against the glass.

On the other side of the pane frost curled in delicate patterns of lace, melting beneath even the slight warmth of her touch to run in droplets down the surface. She had a clear view of the valley as it flung in all directions, unbroken until the rocky buttes and hogbacks pushed up from the earth in the distance. Usually the landscape was painted in an unrelenting palette of browns and greys, with a smudge of green and black breaking up the monotony.

But this morning it was a flawless, blinding white.

Fat flakes like feathers drifted lazily down from a silver sky, dancing on stray drafts before joining with their siblings into a thick blanket that muffled the angles of every rock and cholla. The rational part of Jane's mind knew that snow in the desert wasn't unheard of, even if it was rare. The irrational part of it, however, had her thrusting her feet into a nearby pair of boots, entirely heedless of the fact that one was still missing a sock. She threw open the door of her closet, her hands first reaching for a thick down jacket she had squirreled away in the back. But her fingers paused on the luxuriant cloak she'd been gifted by Frigga, and in the end it was a swirl of emerald and black fur that she settled about her shoulders as she strode to the door.

The breeze outside was even colder, racing playfully around the edges of the hood to pinch color into her cheeks and nose. Her eyes fluttered shut as she tilted her head up to the sky, flakes tangling in her lashes and melting on her lips. The moisture she licked away tasted of clouds and the sharp bite of balsam.

"Loki?" she called, for any lingering doubts she might have had about the source of the weather were dispelled by that pine-touched mouthful. The heavy snow swallowed her words, and for some moments the only answer she heard was the soft whisper of landing flakes.

"Hello, Jane."

Squinting against the merciless glare she turned in the direction of his voice, craning her neck upwards. He stood on the edge the roof, black as a crow against the pallid expanse of concrete and snow, looking entirely nonplussed by the cold. Distance and the wind robbed him of detail, but his lean lines were familiar to her now.

"Hi," she answered. It was about the only word she could dredge up at the moment.

He shifted slightly, rocking his weight from one foot to another and folding his hands behind his back. A few strands teased loose from his smoothed hair as he tilted his face down towards her. "You did say that I was welcome anytime."

"So I did." Her face split in a grin, and she shaded her eyes with one hand. Was it only a trick of the light that cast a faint blue wash over his face? "Are you going to make me climb up there?"

His only answer was an easy leap down, making the fifteen foot drop look like a mere step. The snow came up to his ankles but it did little to steal his grace as he measured out a path towards her. There was something about his deliberate pace, some predatory hint that pushed her heart a beat faster.

It took her two tries to find her voice. "This is your doing?" She waved a hand about to indicate the incongruent weather, forcibly squelching the thousands of questions that clamored for answers.

He came to a stop a few feet away and tilted his head, his eyes never leaving hers. "That depends, I suppose."

Jane frowned. "On what?"

A smile slanted onto his face, so boyish and sly that she didn't understand at first just how dangerous it was until it made off with her breath completely. He drifted another step closer. "On whether or not it pleases you, Jane."

"Oh." Eloquence had never been her strong suit, least of all when she was drowning in sea-green eyes. She took the opportunity to look about once more, avoiding his gaze long enough to string a sentence together. "It's very beautiful."

He nodded. "I seem to remember you preferring Norway over this desert." He glanced about himself, holding out a hand to catch a particularly wide snowflake as it drifted past. It sat perfect and whole as a white blossom on his bare palm, while faint ridges rose and fell on his brow and azure ghosted across his skin like a window of cloudless sky. "The snow seems far more tolerable than it used to be."

She smiled and reached out a finger to nudge the snowflake about his open hand, marveling at its intricate shape. "I can see that." And she truly could. There was something to the ease with which he sat in his skin now, something that spoke of a certain self-possession he didn't seem to have before.

He trapped her fingers in his free hand, pulling them open before tipping the frozen crystal into her own palm. It still stubbornly refused to melt, and she laughed with delight as she turned it this way and that, admiring the elaborate patterns.

"So easily entertained," he murmured, amusement warm enough in his voice that Jane couldn't truly take offense at the patronizing words. She lifted her head to shoot him a narrow look, only to realize he'd taken advantage of her distraction to close the gap between them, near enough now that the rippling edges of her cloak clung about his legs, as if the very material itself was reaching for him.

The snowflake was forgotten entirely as Jane froze, all of her attention consumed by the slight space that separated them as she swallowed thickly. He reached out and touched the minna blossom clasp at her throat, trailing from it down over the embroidery that swirled along the borders where the two sides of the cloak overlapped.

"I had almost thought this garment a figment of my imagination. Some dream I'd conjured in my misery," Loki said. He buried fingers in the thick fur that curled affectionately around his hand just over her sternum, and the first flush of heat began to creep up Jane's cheeks. There was no way he could miss the quake of her heartbeat, shaking her chest with its force beneath his touch. "You were like a valkyrja that day, Jane. Fierce and righteous, and beautiful. I can't recall everything clearly, but I know I remember thinking...that if it were you come to take me, I would not mind Valhalla so much."

She licked lips that had gone dry as bone. "I read your notes," she blurted out, and immediately winced. How could anyone as smart as she was be so phenomenally bad at talking?

His hand stilled on the fabric. "Did you, now? I was beginning to wonder."

"I don't think that you're a coward, Loki," she said softly.

"I'm starting to reconsider my position on that as well. Being a coward will only go so far towards getting what one wants." He paused for a beat that ripened with meaning as his eyes found hers. "And there are a great many things that I want, Jane."

She drew a lungful of bracingly cold air. "I was going to come see you, you know. But I couldn't bring the generator on the plane when I flew home, so Tony said he'd come with it, only I guess he just hasn't gotten a chance to - probably busy with his own prototypes I'd imagine, and -"

"Jane," Loki broke in.

She was babbling, damn her tongue. Her mouth snapped shut on the nervous stream of words, and the silence that followed felt like electricity prickling along her skin.

Loki's hand was on her elbow, coaxing her closer. "I'm going to ask you a question, Jane. And I know you will answer me honestly, because that's who you are."

She nodded mutely, not trusting herself to speak.

"Do you love Thor?" The skin of his face was flawless and smooth, and if she didn't know what to look for Jane would never have seen the way it tightened about his eyes or the tension that skated across his lips.

"You know that I don't," Jane forced out around the lump in her throat.

Avarice lit a fire in his green eyes, like a handful of copper thrown onto open flames. "I want to hear you say it."

"No," she whispered, scarcely more than the motion of the word. Then again, louder this time. "No, I don't love Thor."

His smile was immediate and breathtaking, fierce as a battle-cry and full of triumph, and sparks flared in her belly like a swallowed coal at the sight. Snow fell harder around them in sudden flurries, swirling to spangle her head as he pushed her hood back and cradled her face with those long, clever fingers.

"Once I mocked you Jane, for daring to dream yourself queen." Lips that were shockingly warm brushed the faintest of kisses against her cool forehead, replaced by the solid weight of his own brow pressed against hers. Their hair mingled in the breeze, falling about their faces in dark curtains that shut everything out but the sweet sound of his breath, rough as if he'd run a mountain to reach this moment. "But that was wrong, so very wrong. For I would heed none other than you, and what is that if not the definition of a queen?"

Something flooded her chest at that, like blood rushing back to a limb too long constricted, both exquisite and painful in its intensity. The bespelled snowflake fell forgotten from her hands as she flattened them against the leather and brass of his torso, felt his lungs working like bellows beneath her palms. "I don't want to be anyone's queen, Loki."

He jerked away with a hiss, as if she'd pinched him, and she snatched desperately at his arm before he could draw away any further. "Stop, stop," she said. "I don't mean it like that!"

His efforts to retreat stopped, but he wouldn't meet her eyes. Cautiously, Jane slid her grip down his arm until she reached the bare skin of his wrist, weaving her fingers between his own and startling him into looking up. She let the heat he'd kindled in her belly fill her gaze, willing him to see how he affected her. "I don't need to be put on a pedestal. You can't get a thing done up there. I want to chase answers and see everything this universe has to offer, consequences be damned. And I want you with me when I do."

A slow grin spread on his face, melting the ice that had glazed his features. "Jane, you sound so delightfully delinquent when you say that."

She shrugged, suddenly shy. "No one ever got anywhere by following all the rules."

Something that hovered between a laugh and a purr rumbled low in his throat, and the green of his eyes grew a shade darker. "In that case, I have another gift for you." He untangled his fingers from hers and twisted them in that complicated gesture she'd seen him use before, the one that seemed to draw items from whatever pocket dimension he stowed them. Ribbons of light knotted about themselves in his palm, compressing at last into what appeared to be an apple.

Jane thought of it as an apple because it was the closest comparison she could draw, but this was to an apple as a pony was to a stallion. It was tiny, barely larger than her balled fist, but the surface of it shone in the watery light - not the yellow color that people often described as gold, but burnished as if it had been literally gilded. When she dared to touch it the skin was warm beneath her fingertip, like fruit just plucked from a sun-drenched tree.

"What is it?" she asked. Then a story from the Eddas jostled her memory, of a maiden that tended the orchard which fed the gods, and her mouth rounded into a soft circle of surprise. "Is this…"

"It is one of Idunn's apples." Loki turned it slowly in his hand, and Jane could see her face reflected in its flawless surface. "It will bestow an Aesir's lifespan on whomever eats it."

Jane eyed him with playful wariness. "You know, there's a long tradition of stories warning women against accepting fruit from unknown sources."

He chuckled, but there was a tension that hummed along beneath the sound at odds with his relaxed appearance. "You don't have to decide now. It will not spoil, if you wish to think it over."

She took in the whole of him then, letting the minutes slide quietly past. Did she want this man badly enough to step outside the stream of humanity? Pride was stiff in his spine, and stubbornness in the cant of his jaw as he bore the weight of her perusal. Nothing would ever be easy when it came to him. But wit and humor were traced in the lines on his face, and his brilliant eyes were full of mysteries. She might live ten lives and never come close to solving the riddle of Loki.

But she had yet to back down from a challenge.

Her hand stretched for the fruit, only to have him pull it just from her reach. "Careful, Jane." His smooth voice had gone ragged around the edges, like snagged silk. "Five thousand years is a long time for anyone to live, and if you take a bite you will never be rid of me."

Her only response was to wrap her fingers around the wrist that held the apple and tug it to her lips. Against her fingertips his pulse fluttered like birdwings as she sank her teeth into the fruit he cradled, the firm skin resisting ever so briefly before parting sweetly to flood her mouth with juice and crisp flesh.

Sunlight and nectar sang in her mouth, accompanied by the buzz of hummingbird flight and the drone of bees in her ear. She was blinded, chewing reflexively because her mouth was full but too caught up in the bursts and patterns of light that ruptured before her eyes to be aware of doing so. Dappled green and white danced at the edge of her sight, the pattern of sunshine through leaves, and the hard edge of winter on the breeze was blunted by the cloying fragrance of clover.

She swallowed, and heat crashed giddily through her veins like brandy. Perhaps it made her drunk like brandy too, greedy and bold, for before her brain had time to register any shame she'd touched her tongue to the beads of juice that trailed over Loki's skin, eager for another taste. The strangled noise he made brought her back to herself and she rolled her gaze upwards, mouth still pressed to his hand, to find his eyes fixed on her. The beautiful green of them had bled to bottomless black, his pupils blown so wide it was almost impossible to see what color they had once been.

Jane knew she had to be drunk. Punch drunk, or apple drunk, or maybe just Loki drunk. Otherwise she never would have been bold enough hold that wild stare and let her tongue linger, tracing wetly up the length of his finger before darting back between her lips. Never would have been shameless enough to laugh huskily as the column of his throat tightened, worked as he struggled to swallow.

The sound of the apple shattering against the concrete wall of her lab echoed like an explosion.

She had time enough to blink, just once, before his fingers were tangled almost painfully in her hair and his lips were slanted over her own, her toes brushing the snow as he crushed her effortlessly against his chest. Her hands clung to the lean strength of his back, anchors to ground her as the brush of his mouth and tongue over hers threatened to sweep her away, kisses like sparks dancing up from a fire. She caught his lip between her teeth, bit down, and was rewarded with a growl that settled between her thighs like a caress.

"Inside. Now," she managed to gasp, her head falling bonelessly back as he strung kisses down the arch of her neck.

His lips curved at that, wicked and ripe with promise - the satisfied smile of a man that was already imagining the shuddering perfection of his lover's release. The door of her lab swung open without touch as he slung her into his arms, as effortlessly as a song, and his long stride ate up the distance to her bedroom.

It was legs and limbs and hot purpose then, clothing strewn like cherry blossoms on the wind. The vivid defiance of muscle beneath teeth, and the honeyed slide of sweat-beaded skin, sticky and sweet. Constellations traced between them as they moved over, under, within - until the stars they strained for were fragmenting through their blood.

And afterwards, as they lay curled together, the tattoo of his heartbeat against her back was a lullaby.

"I love you," fluttered from her lips like a dove set free, a truth she could no longer keep caged.

She heard the sharp intake of his breath. "Sentiment," he scoffed, but the blade of his voice was soft and nicked by emotion. Fooling no one. And the kiss pressed beneath her ear made a lie of his words - a truth she could always count on.

It was all the response she ever got, as their lives unfurled together over the years.

It was all the response she ever needed.


And here we stand, at the end of this long journey. I could never have reached it without you, dear readers. In a million years I would never have believed that I could have written something long enough to be considered a novel, and I owe it to the encouragement and interest of all of you. You inspired me, and gave me the confidence to see this thing through.

Thank you.