Notes: This was written for Mischief and Mistletoe: Loki/Sif Exchange hosted on AO3. Beta read by Artyartie and bluejbird
Summary: In the very first stories Yggdrasil was also called heart-tree, growing from a heart-seed planted before living memory. It is a poetic name that has stuck with Loki through his life, reflected in the gifts he gives to Sif -- each decorated with an engraving of the sacred ash tree. It is only at the beginning that he will remember that Yggdrasil grew from his still beating heart.
Can also be read @ AO3 & @ DW
all the world to ashes turning
In the end as in the beginning. That is how a circle ends, by returning to where it had begun. And this circle had been started with ice and fire, built with blood and bone. And so the universe burned. The dead fighting alongside the living. A great darkness swallowing the sky as the stars faded from sight.
Loki stood at the base of Yggdrasil and could only watch. They had known -- at the first they had known -- that how they created the universe would be how it ended. They had shaped reality many times before this cycle, and they knew how the story would end. But they could never have anticipated finding each other as they had. Born to bodies and hearts that would come together with love and affection, binding them with gentle hooks and delicate strings.
In the end as in the beginning.
They had stitched this reality together and so he would pull it all apart. Ripping the seams and tearing through the folds. He would unmake the universe by unraveling the weave. And as the fabric of existence came undone in his hands, Loki could only hope that this time Sif wouldn’t tear out his throat to start the new beginning. There were so many more pleasant ways to beget new life than with a wash of blood.
The First Gifts
“The weapons master is not a fool,” Loki told her. “Even if I were to give you what you ask, he would know you by your hair.”
“Then cut it off,” Sif replied calmly. She stepped forward and held out her hand. The hilt of a knife rested in her palm with the blade pressed along her wrist. “Without my hair and with the items I have asked for the weapon’s master won’t know me from any other noble son entering the training yards. Not with so many families returning to court.”
Loki looked down to the simple, sturdy knife that she held and considered the ramifications of her request. He knew Sif would have carefully considered them as they applied to her and how she viewed the world at large, but he doubted that she would have thought beyond the goodness and belief in truth that she saw. She would not have considered what would happen to him when it inevitably came out that he had done the deed. Her mother was a high ranking lady of the court with a great deal of ambition. He was certain her mother had aspirations of a strong alliance through marriage for her daughter. And Loki was also certain that he did not figure into the formidable lady’s plans.
“Why?” he finally asked. If he were to pay the price for her choices, Loki would know her reasons. Why this path, why ask him, why now?
“Who else could I trust to ask?” she countered. She used her words as tools, and she knew which would strike him true. Trust was a dear coin when, hardly in his adolescence, he was already called Trickster and Silvertongue, and those he might call friends tried to find the lie in his words before the truths. Her trust a precious gem. “Who else but the friend who has taught me archery and sword play and the beginnings of wrestling? You have helped me see I could be more than I was named to be, Loki. How could I not trust you with this?”
The sincerity of her gaze, the earnestness of her words, they were but pretty adornments to her trust in him. To train to become a warrior was her deepest wish, this he had known for many years. It was the reason he had begun to pass on his learning of weapons in secret to her, because otherwise it was a wish that would have been denied to her. Denied because of her gender and because of her mother’s commands.
“Very well,” Loki sighed, stepping further into his rooms. “But I would make a demand in turn.”
Sif followed him, relief and delight equally bright in her smile and eyes. She reached out to him, her fingers grasping his hand to stop his forward movement and draw him to a stop next to her. The touch of her hand on his made his heart race and a flutter start in the pit of his stomach. His reaction to her touch was the reason he had only shown her the basics of wrestling. To come in more contact with her body would have betrayed these softer feelings of his. And so, when she said, “Name it,” he could not be helped for the directions his thoughts turned.
A kiss, he thought. Give me my first kiss.
What he said was: “You will accept a charm to speed the return of your hair.” When she did not look pleased with his condition he hastened to add, “Not all at a once, but faster than it would return on its own.”
of blood and thicker things:
He had been tried and convicted of attacking a protected realm with an army and magic. Because the heroes of Midgard had taken care of the invading army with their tiny weapon of mass destruction there was only the magic to deal with. Weregild had been negotiated and paid for the lives lost in Loki's attacks. And as a personal punishment Loki's magic had been bound by the Allfather in open court upon completion of his trial.
Thin silver bracelets, richly engraved with runes, had been placed about his wrists. The magic and commands engraved with runes served to act as a barrier between Loki and his magic. It felt much like a missing limb. Not painful but as though he ought to stumble when he tried to walk. It was disorienting and for the first few days it had actually left him feeling ill.
There had been no time limit set to his punishment. Instead the bracelets would fall away only when he had learned his lesson. A lesson Loki doubted he would ever learn -- least of all in Asgard. But he was forbidden to leave the Realm Eternal without escort and without his magic he was unable to defy this command. Besides, he found that he had little taste to travel with others.
It had been more than a full turning of the seasons since Thor had brought him back to Asgard. And in that time Loki had found some small bits of peace. Learning that Odin's mother had been a Jotun giantess had been a start. Having his mother box his ears for letting her believe he was dead after being embraced for his safe return had given Loki a moment of pause. But her acceptance of him had always been unconditional.
Learning that the Warriors Three and the Lady Sif had been forbidden to bear arms for their acts of treason and been stripped of their honors and titles as warriors in exchange for their lives had been sweet on his tongue. Their humiliation at being removed from the caste and stripped of their privilege had felt like a victory at the beginning. Thor had been surprisingly forthcoming with this information. After a visit to Jotunheimr to offer what aide would be accepted all but the healers and Lady Sif had been turned away. Fandral had gone to visit his sister for a time while Volstagg had turned his attention to his wife and many children. Hogun had retreated to a small cabin he had been given when Asgard had taken him in.
But it was seeing Sif without her armor or customary shield and blades that had left a sour taste in his mouth. She had fought and trained to be accepted as a shield-maiden. She had lost the favour of her family to make her vows as one of the Einherjar. Loki had four long thin scars on his back from when he had been whipped for cutting off her hair to trick the weapons master into training her. She had been stripped of her rank among the Einherjar and been left only with a social rank of Lady.
The first time he had come across her after his return had been in one of the private gardens. Loki had taken to reading under the shade of the trees as he had in childhood. The private gardens had always been a sanctuary of sorts for them. These were the places he had once taught her how to hold a sword and string a bow. It was where they had met in secret when childhood friendship had developed into affections in their adolescence and deeper ties in their youth.
"Lady," Loki had greeted when he came across her sitting under his favourite tree.
Sif had glanced up at his approach but hadn't risen. She was dressed in her usual leathers though the outfit looked oddly incomplete without at least a dirk in her belt. "Prince," she replied, pulling her knees up to her chest.
Loki hesitated for only a moment before taking a seat under the tree next to Sif. He was aware that Sif knew the tree she had selected was the one he read under. He had often read to her from whatever book he had brought with him. Or he would bring a book for her to read to him. But where there had once been a companionable ease between them there was now only silent tension.
Settling himself against the tree Loki tried to ignore his unlooked for companion. He had hardly begun to read when Sif shifted next to him and asked, "Why did you not tell me?"
"Tell you what?" he questioned without looking up from his book.
"Of what you learned on Jotunheimr," she said with such calmness. "Why did you not tell me what you had suspected on our return? Or how the Allfather had confirmed that you were Jotun by birth?"
Loki shut his book and turned to face her. "What reason would I have had to tell you?" he snapped. This was not a conversation he meant to have. Not with Sif, not with anyone. "What purpose would my confession have served?"
Sitting as they were Sif was much closer than he would have liked. The sharp hazel of her eyes burned with anger when their gazes met. "Who else here would have understood such knowledge?" she demanded. "I told you of my own mixed lineage just before my mother denied me at my majority."
Loki sneered at her words. He remembered that night well -- a conversation they'd had under that very tree. "And you think your mother’s infidelity is even remotely comparable to learning that you are the discarded bastard of a race you had been raised to believe monstrous?" Venom dripped from his every word. He had thought her more intelligent than this, to have learned the lessons he had once paid for with his own flesh and blood.
She was up on her knees now to face him fully. "It is not the degree of comparability of our parents' wrongs," she fired back. "It is being the victim of their well meaning lies. You could have told me what you had learned of your heritage."
"And would you have believed me?" Loki hissed. "Trickster and Liar that I am, would you have believed me?" The surprise that flashed through her eyes gave him a moment of pause but he pushed on regardless. "Or would you have done as you had been taught and cut me through the heart?"
"I have always believed you," Sif bit out. "You were my dearest friend even after you began to slip away. I would have stood by you if you had but told me. I would have threatened to cut the Allfather's lying tongue so that you would have gotten only truth from him."
Loki used the distraction of her frustration to search her face for a lie. His fall through the void had twisted many things in his mind, but he was certain that his memories of their relationship had not been mutilated. "Why would you have committed such treason for a Jotun?" he asked. Because this was where reason failed to make sense to him.
Sif could be sentimental, but she had learned a level of practicality with her training. Why she would sympathizes with a monster was beyond him.
"Because," she started and glanced away from him. Loki prepared to dismiss her words. If she could not look at him and say then she would speak lies and mockery. But she turned to face him again and the sincerity and naked brutal honesty in her eyes pinned him in place. "Because you helped me see that I could be more than I had been named to be when we were but children. I would have helped you see the same about your parentage."
"I do not need your pity," Loki snapped. "Not now and not then, Lady. You do not know of what you speak."
He turned his gaze away from her but he couldn't turn away his attention. She had always held the center of his focus simply by being nearby. And even now when he would end the conversation or walk away he found himself unable to do either. For all that she had refused him in the end he could not deny her.
He heard her stand up before she spoke. "I do not know what it is to be thought of as unnatural.” Her words were soft as silk, sleek folds hiding sharp blades. “I do not understand what it is like to have whispers slither across my back and to have conversations stop at my entrance. I could not know what it is to be shunned or feel inferior and different from all those around me. You are right. I know not of what I speak."
She walked away without giving him a chance to respond. But she paused near a bush that blocked the garden path. Glancing over her shoulder at him she added, "You told me once that beauty could be deadly. Do you wish to know what the Jotun believed about Laufey's son?
"He was not a discarded bastard left to die in a temple. He was to be their sacrificial prince. An offering to the Norns and their ancestors -- a magical child meant to return the Jotnar to greatness."
Loki was summoned to his parents private receiving room not long after Sif’s mother returned to court. Odin stood behind Frigga while Sif and her mother stood to one side. He only had a moment to take in the frustrated flush to Sif’s face and what looked to be a darkening handprint on her cheek, before his attention was called by his father’s voice.
“Did you cut the Lady Sif’s hair?” his father asked.
Loki answered, “Yes.”
“Did you give to her clothing to disguise herself as a boy?”
“And have you taught her archery and swordplay in secret these last months?”
“Very well,” his father sighed. “Four lashes as punishment.”
There was an outraged shout from Sif. Loki looked over to see her being held back by her mother who was struggling to keep hold. “No!” she shouted and twisted out of her mother’s grasp. Half a dozen steps and she was at his side, grasping his wrist tightly, tugging to turn his full attention to her.
“Why do you not tell them?” she demanded.
“Tell them what, Lady?” Loki asked. “I have answered truthfully the questions asked of me. Or do you say that I lie in this?”
“You speak a half truth,” she snapped.
“I was asked did I cut your hair, and I did,” Loki pointed out. He kept his voice calm and reasonable. He had known the moment he had agreed to cut off her hair that this was the most likely outcome. Her trust in him had been reason enough to risk the punishment to see that she got what she wished. That she had not seen this happening was both a mark against her as a warrior and mark in her favour as a person. Though, Loki was certain she would learn in time that greed and ambition would nearly always win above truth and wishes.
“But you do not tell them that it was my idea,” she nearly shouted. Her grip on his wrist becoming truly painful. “I am the one who asked you to cut off my hair, Loki.”
“But it is my agreement to perform the act that is in question,” Loki explained. “Not who’s idea the act was.” He was aware of the adults listening to them. Aware of the way Sif’s mother fumed quietly at her daughter’s rebellion and how his own parents listened with interest. “This is the price to be paid. Do you say it is too great?” he asked. “Would you have me undo what was done and take from you the chance to train as a warrior under a master?”
“No,” was Sif’s soft answer. “But the price should not be yours to pay.”
“Mayhap,” Loki conceded. Sif’s hold did not loosen even when he gently turned his hand so his fingers could brush the fragile skin of her wrist and feel the wild beat of her pulse. “But today I will pay the coin for your wishes.”
in some sacred place:
He has lain with her a thousand, thousand times. Touched every part of her with every part of him. He has pushed and pulled, coaxed and encouraged sighs and moans, cries and screams from her lips. He has known her in every way it was possible for a man to know a woman. He had offered up bits and pieces of his heart and soul into her keeping. But meeting Sif’s eyes now, Loki has never felt so naked in her sight.
She had been his first. His first kiss, the first woman he had touched and tasted. He had trusted her with his innocence and vulnerability and been given the same in return. All the arts he knew to pleasure a woman he had first learned on her body. And all the pleasures that could be had from his own body she had shown him first.
But for all that knowledge, all that history, this time was different. Laying her back on the bed and covering her body with his own Loki felt more connected than any past encounter.
Meeting Sif’s gaze as their naked bodies touched Loki felt exposed, open. As though his skin had been peeled back and suddenly there was light where there had only been darkness and shadows. He had given up bits and pieces of himself to her over the years, but now, now it felt as though he were giving all of himself. Every damaged, misshapen, mutilated piece left of his soul given up into her calloused hands.
And as their bodies joined -- surrounding him in slick, tight, heat -- Loki felt hesitant. Where it had always been his habit to tuck his face against his lover’s throat and shoulder Loki had never hidden anything from Sif. So even when his eyes fluttered and Sif sighed under him from that first sweet slide, Loki kept his gaze locked with hers. And for perhaps the second time in his life, Loki made love with his eyes open.
Every weakness, every doubt and insecurity, every shade of vulnerability he offered up with his need and desires.
With her legs wrapped around his waist and his knees bracketing her hips, their movements were slow. Bodies rocking gently against one another like the ocean against the shore.
Loki had one arm holding her under her ribs, his other hand cradling her skull. His brow pressed to hers, so he could watch her pleasure and feel her sighs against his lips. All the while feeling her hands moving over his back and shoulders. Her fingers kneading muscle and bones, moving along his spine and over his ribs, pressing into the flesh of his shoulders and neck until her fingers tunneled through his hair, holding him close. Holding him in place.
She was giving back all the pieces he had placed in her keeping. Fitting the edges together like cut outs from a cloth and stitching the wounds closed much like she had once done to his back. Inelegant rows of black thread slowly pulling him back together, putting the torn pieces of his soul back into the semblance of a man again.
Sif may have been a fierce warrior -- with hands skilled in destruction and bloodshed -- but she was also a woman -- whose body was the cradle of creation and life. That she could offer life to the man he had been, offer shelter and solace to the wounded creature he had become was a gift. To be made whole once again.
He could feel his release building in a burning line down his spine, a heaviness low in his gut that made his breath stutter behind his teeth. Sif’s soft gasps against his lips made him fight to hold on, the way her body clenched and fluttered around him nearly had him breaking stride. But they had built this slow sweet pleasure in gentle motions like the softly coming tide. To see her through her climax with the same gentle touch, to feel her come part under him even as she put the pieces of his being back together.
When her breath fell heavy between them and Loki watched as she slipped her skin in pleasure he could feel his release build. The burn settled at the base of his spine, a tightness pulling at his groin, and the slow, shallow thrusts of his body against hers weren’t enough to push him over only to force him higher until he trembled against the exquisite pleasure. As Sif came back to her skin under him he shook and shivered, trapped by the understanding and the light in her eyes.
While the parts she had stitched back into him rattled about in their new old homes Loki curled his body tighter over Sif. He pressed himself against her, clutching her close until his heart raced frantically against her breast. He wanted to fall into her, to wrap her flesh and bone around himself, to be consumed and sheltered in the light of her gaze and her fierce will. To be reborn of her body and return if not the man he had been then at least better than what he had become.
In the moment when pleasure bordered on pain, when to climb any higher would turn ecstasy in to agony, Loki tumbled over that sweet, burning edge of release. His breath caught on the back of his tongue, and even as he forced his gaze to remain locked on Sif’s he surrendered himself completely. Her legs held him tight as her hands pressed him close while his body shivered and trembled, as though he had truly slipped his skin and fallen between the spaces of her ribs to be sheltered in the hollow next to her heart.
Safe. Protected. Home.
The libraries were exactly how he remembered them to be. The stacks and shelves lined with leather bound books and heavy tomes, carefully preserved scrolls and reference volumes. Witchlight providing illumination in the evenings or in the sections where sunlight from the large windows did not reach. The tables and cubbies where they had always been. The quiet hush of turning pages and the smell of parchment was soothing for its familiarity.
Loki had spent many afternoons reacquainting himself with old favorites. Escaping the gossip and whispers just as he always had.
The fact that it had taken this long for him to be unable to locate one of those books was impressive. He had already gone through the shelves in his rooms and the small library in his study to no avail. His frustration had mounted as he combed through the stacks of Asgard's libraries only to come across tables and ledges piled high with misplaced books.
He had begun to organize and return the misplaced books as he came across them while he continued to search for the thin volume of dökkálfr poetry.
He was elbow deep in a table littered with books when Sif found him. His mood was already dark and foul by that point. So when she called for his attention Loki ignored her at first, focusing on his self appointed task.
When she called more insistently to him, Loki spun about on his heel snarling "what?" with such venom that she blinked.
Her moment of surprised hesitation made Loki consider what he must look like. His shirt sleeves had been rolled back with the throat ties loosened. He had a half rolled scroll in one hand and a book with corners that had been folded back by some careless scholar. Four days without sleep had likely left his eyes bloodshot and his hair was certainly wild about his face with only his fingers for combs.
"What are you doing?" Sif asked frowning at him.
"I was searching for a book," Loki replied. "But it should not be a surprise that I have yet to find it with the mess of books that have yet to find their proper homes on the shelves. Now I am left with the task of returning the misplaced tomes and can only hope that I will stumble across the book I am searching for. Barring that I would dearly like to know which idiot left this pile behind so that I can flay him for folding back the page corners-"
"Is there writing on the edges of that scroll?" Sif asked.
Loki dropped the book back onto the table and pulled the scroll up for a closer inspection. "Where?" he hissed. There would not be a place safe enough for the inept scholar to hide from both Loki and the master librarian if they had written on a scroll.
His search for the evidence of defacement was cut short by the sound of Sif's stifled laughter. Her eyes danced in the witchlight that hovered over the table. She had her hand covering her mouth in an attempt to silence her laughter.
"You mock me?"
"No. I'm sorry," she said waving her hand. "It's just been so long since I have heard this particular rant and you have always been so easily riled about the proper care of books." Her mirth lit up her face, flushing her cheeks and making her eyes dance. Her smile still managed to make his stomach flutter when directed at him.
"Books are precious," Loki said coolly. Keeping his expression schooled from showing how she still affected him was taking more effort than he remembered. He was glad she had stopped grabbing hold of his wrist to judge his reactions by. "The disrespect some scholars have for them should have them banned from the libraries for a lifetime."
"Which book were you looking for?" Sif asked. She neatly sidestepped what had always been one of Loki's most passionate subjects.
Rolling up the scroll Loki concentrated on his actions. Sif may have had his full and undivided attention but he preferred that she not know how much she still possessed him. Knowledge such as that could be dangerous in her hands if she ever chose to be cruel. "I have been looking for my volume of dökkálfr poetry," he answered.
In truth he had been avoiding looking for the book since he had come across her sitting under the tree. It had been one of the books he had read to her from once they had become lovers. The dark and sometimes erotic imagery had been sensual when read from her lips.
"The one with the brown leather cover?" she asked in reply.
"Yes." He could feel how uncomfortable remembering the book made her. It made him wonder if she had always been such and he had simply been too blind by his own desires to see or if it were simply being reminded of the relationship she had ended that made her so. "I have been looking for it for the last several days."
"Yes," she said dryly. "Your absence has been noted upon by your mother and brother. Just as your continued presence in the library has become common knowledge."
He just stood there staring at the table full of books for another moment. When he felt Sif reach out for him, to grasp his wrist as had once been her habit, Loki flinched away from her touch. He knew she did not mean him harm but he couldn't, wouldn't, let her know how much he still craved her. How much he longed for the easy moments of her company and the sense of belonging he felt, even now, in her presence.
Her hand fell away before she made contact. "Did my mother or Thor send you searching for me?" he asked. For all that he would claim Frigga as mother he still could not fully bring himself to acknowledge Thor has his brother or Odin as father. But he knew they took it as a small sign of healing that he no longer spat their names when he spoke of them.
"In truth, no," Sif answered and shifted on her feet. "I came looking for you for myself."
That captured his interest as nothing else could. Since their first conversation in the gardens they had exchanged nothing but courtly pleasantries when necessary until today. "For what reason?" he inquired. Curiosity lit his voice as he leaned back against the table to watch her.
"A delegation from Vanaheimr arrived the other day," she told him. Loki waited for her to continue. Her father was a Vanir lord of some respect -- even if the man could not truly claim to be Sif's father in blood Loki knew she had accepted him in name and deed. And he understood now why she had sought him out.
Of all their group she had only told Loki of her mother's affair with Tyr. Thor had always known there to be some tension beyond what he knew between Sif and her mother and the Warriors Three had never thought to question her about her family. No, those confessions had been given to Loki alone. Evidence of her trust on him then. Perhaps evidence of returning trust in him now.
His heart skipped at the thought. Why she would trust him after all he had done. After he had sent the Destroyer to kill Thor and by extension her, he could not fathom. And she seemed oblivious to the train of his thoughts when she ran her fingers through her hair and told him: "My father sent me a message that he had given me a cottage and land on Vanaheimr with all of its incomes.”
“Why?” Loki asked. It was not as though Sif would need the incomes from the property. When she had started adventuring and questing with Thor and himself, she had begun investing in businesses and trades with enough success. She was more than capable of providing for herself and her own needs.
“Because it is equal to what he would have paid for my dowry,” she told him. “I had only recently begun to converse with him again and this is what he does.” the anger that flashed in her eyes told him more than her words. The way she held herself tightly, careful to keep her hands loose at her sides, but muscles coiled to strike.
“You feel insulted,” Loki stated, covering his amusement.
“I can provide for myself,” she snapped. “I do not need the incomes. And that he would give to me my dowry as though - as though-”
“As though you will never marry?” Loki asked. He kept his tone light and softly mocking to see the fire leap in her eyes, to watch the way her hands clenched and she restrained herself from striking him. The knowing smirk he felt tugging at the corners of his lips was meant to goad her further, but before she could throw a right hook that would surely bloody his nose he pushed on with his words.
“Have you not considered that your father gave the cottage and lands to you so that you might make your own choices in a mate?” Loki asked. He had Sif’s attention then, her eyes narrowing thoughtfully as he continued. “Between your own investments and the added incomes, surely you would be able to set a rather substantial bride-price. Which incidentally would go to you since your mother disinherited you. Which properties did he deed to you, out of curiosity?”
When Sif named the land that would have been her dowry, Loki nearly choked on his tongue. Where Asgard was rich in minerals and ores from the orbiting debris Vanaheimr was rich in livestock and fertile lands. Her dowry would have fetched a king’s ransom for a bride-price. “You will have every lordling sniffing at your skirts when this reaches the court’s gossips,” Loki told her.
“They can all go hang themselves,” she bit out.
“And likely they will when they realize they cannot hope to meet your bride-price,” he added.
Frowning at the way she bared her teeth at his words, Loki quickly revisited their conversation. He had not been particularly active in court life since his trial and he had been completely absent from the activity and gossip for the last several days while he searched for his book. If the delegation had arrived the day before last... “Have they already begun to pant after you, Lady?” he asked with a deadly calm. He had no claim to protect her or her honour and held no illusions that she needed that protection, but she had still been forbidden the right to bear arms and stripped of her rank among the Einherjar. It wouldn’t matter to some of the more sheltered lords that Sif had once been a warrior of great renowned. They would only see a woman rich in monies and lands with no family ties to protect her.
“It is as though they have forgotten,” she seethed. Pulling her hands through her dark strands of her hair she began to pace. “They see only a woman and forget that I have spent most of my life putting them on their asses or bloodying their noses in the training yards.” Loki watched her move stiffly about the confined space between the stacks. Her frustration rolled off her in waves.
Loki was certain that if she hadn’t been removed from the warriors caste she would have been in the training yard even now with her sword or a staff in hand. She would have practiced her forms or engaged in a sparring match to sweat out her anger. There had even been few instances when she had sought him out for a wrestling match when the other men would refuse to risk their necks to her claws. He was one of the few opponents who was not afraid of hurting her in the fighting sands.
“Did you mean to seek a bout with me?” Loki asked curiously as he prepared to return to his tasks. If the Vanir had sent a delegation there would be feasting and celebrations for several more nights to come.
“Yes,” Sif answered promptly and then changed it to, “no.” When Loki only raised an eyebrow at her contradictory responses she sighed and finally came to a stand still. “Perhaps. I thought it would take me longer to find you in the libraries,” she admitted. “I meant to avoid the feasting tonight.”
“In my company,” Loki said derisively. “Lady, I call you a coward.” And with that Loki picked up an armload of books and prepared to return them to their rightful homes on the shelves.
He knew Sif would follow him. She always had when he went about the library with her for company. This was his domain, a fortress that only he knew the secrets to. Even without his magic to call upon, he felt more in control within the libraries.
“You call me a coward,” Sif called from behind him. “You, who continue to break your mother’s heart by avoiding your family, and make excuses to avoid attending to your duties at court as the second prince. You would call me a coward when you hide yourself away in your books and the private wings of the palace?”
“Disgraced second prince,” he pointed out. “Most of the court holds me in deep disfavour, Lady, or must I remind you of the whispers that pass from lip to ear behind cupped hands?”
“You are no more disgraced than Thor was for his banishment,” Sif sighed. She accepted the book he handed to her without comment and continued to walk along the edges of his shadow. “There have always been whispers about the magician prince. You used to arm yourself with words against the gossips.”
“And you once wielded beauty like a weapon,” he countered. "If I am not disgraced I am still disfavoured and would rather save my mother's dignity by avoiding embarrassing her in public with my presence."
"Did you not notice when Lady Randvé all but placed her daughter in you lap less than a fortnight ago?" Sif asked curiously when Loki reached up to slide another book back on a shelf. "The court does not hold you in disfavoured, prince. But you do not give them the chance to prove this fact." There was a slight pause in her voice before she added, "Sigyn has returned to court."
The level tone she used did not completely disguise the animosity she felt when she spoke Sigyn's name. "I never did understand the animosity you felt towards Lady Sigyn."
"It was not animosity I felt but jealousy," Sif snapped. She was once more on the defensive with her arms crossed under her breasts and shoulders squared. But at least this time it was for a verbal match instead of a physical bout.
"What reason did you have to be jealous of her?" he asked. He had never understood why Sif had drawn away from him when Signy had begun attending court. There were many things about the nature of women that Loki had never completely understood.
"What reason did I not have to be jealous of her?" Sif demanded. "She is everything I am not." When Loki only gestured for her to continue he washed a flush creep up her cheeks. "She is well mannered and graceful, adept at those talents prized in women, a scholar after a fashion, and a true beauty as well. We had made no promises of fidelity and she was a novelty. But I found it nearly unbearable to be compared to her and found wanting."
His frown deepened on her explanation. The realization that her mother's declaration of her beauty being ruined had stuck with Sif as she had grown from adolescent to woman. She was confident of her skill as a warrior and fighter, confident in her physical strengths. She had been confident in their shared bed, confident of her ability to please and pleasure him. But aside from when he had given her the hairpins or when he described her beauty as a weapon Loki could not recall simply telling her she was beautiful.
"You had nothing to be jealous of in Sigyn," Loki told her. "I never strayed from your bed in mind or body while we were together."
"You say you did not bed her?" she questioned.
"Oh, no. I bedded her," Loki answered. "Only the once after your last rather public rejection of me. She offered comfort and I did not refuse. While she was a delightful conversationalist about court gossip I had no interest in her as a potential bed mate."
He watched while she rearranged the pieces of their past with the new information. Saw when she realized where she had misinterpreted his actions. But at the same time Loki wondered how he could have gone so long with her as his lover and never have told her that she was lovely. If he had done so, if he only spoken plainly of how he found her desirable, perhaps her insecurities as a woman would not have been their ending. She might have trusted in her own appeal enough to remain with him. No other lover had compared to her.
"There is to be feasting tonight?" Loki asked when Sif's arms gradually uncrossed.
"With a skald and musicians as entertainment," she confirmed. "Your mother meant to entice you to join the festivities."
"Would it shame you terribly to arrive on the arm of the silver bound prince?"
"That depends," she replied with a slightly wicked light in her eyes. "Will you use words like a weapon this eve?"
"Only if you will wield your beauty as a shield."
"Then I would find no shame in being escorted to the feast on the arm of Asgard's second Prince."
He had been whipped the following day before the inner court. A compromise between Sif's mother who had wanted a fully public punishment and his parents who would rather have had the entire situation handled in private. He had also been forbidden the use of healing stones or a healer's attention. When Sif had informed them that Loki had given her a charm to hasten the return of her hair another compromise was struck to allow him the use of numbing agents to help with the healing after.
The whipping itself had been over quickly but not nearly fast enough. A hooded guard had carried out the actual punishment. He had been brutal in his efficiency, breaking skin and drawing blood with each lash. It had taken everything in him to keep from crying out when the lashes fell across his back. The pain exponentially worse because he was bound between the whipping posts and unable to defend himself to minimize the damage. Only Sif's unflinching gaze had kept him silent. The punishment may have been meant for him, but the lessons had been for her to learn.
The world was not made of goodness. His body jerked against his bindings when the first lash fell. The pain had been sharp and unexpected and stolen his breath from his lungs.
Choice have consequences. When the second lash fell pain had blazed through him. Where the second lash crossed the first on his shoulder it was like salt in the wound.
Everything has a price. Loki's world narrowed down to two points. The strength he found in Sif's unflinching gaze and the knowledge that there was only one more lash to take.
You will not always be the one to pay that price. Those were her lessons to learn written in his flesh and blood. When the final lash fell across his shoulder and ribs Loki offered himself up willingly to the pain. He felt the world narrow and expand around him. As though something fundamental had changed in that moment, as though a great ship had abruptly changed course.
Once he had made it back to his rooms Loki wondered at what he had felt at the end. Sif had strode into his rooms, dismissed the servants and commanded his guard out the doors. It wasn't until she had smeared a numbing ointment across his back that he was able to think clearly. The pain fading as the ointment began to take effect.
He was laying on his stomach on a chaise while Sif strung a needle with gut. "I was forbidden a healer's attention," he said.
"I am not a healer," she pointed out. "I have a fair hand with embroidery, though I feel that your flesh will make for a poor fabric."
"You don't need to do this," Loki said. With the absence of pain and the numbness of the ointment left him feeling as though he floated.
"Yes, I do," she replied. With her needle strung Sif leaned into his back. "You have paid the price for my training. I will tended to these wounds that should have been mine. Now stay still," she added just before he felt the first pinch of her needle. "I wish to make a neat job of these stitches."
Loki closed his eyes and sank into the quiet. He could feel the needle pierce his skin and tug his flesh back together. It was a strange sensation to feel his body be pulled back together like a piece of cloth. Without the use of healing stones Loki knew the lashes would scar even with Sif's careful stitches. He could feel her hands on his back. Even with the numbing ointment he could still feel the pressure and heat of her fingers pressing into his muscles and flesh. Loki felt desire stirring in his belly under her touch. Even when she meant only to mend his injuries he found her touch appealing.
When she finally leaned back with a satisfied huff Loki opened his eyes to watch her. To watch as she set aside her needle and retrieve the jar with the ointment, adding more to his back now that she was finished piecing him together. She stretched when she stood, her body bending this way and that to loosen muscles that had likely grown stiff from stillness. Even bald like she was there was a beauty to her, a grace in the lines of her body, a strength to the womans curves beginning to take shape.
"Did you feel it?" he asked when she went to wash her hands. "At the end, did you feel that..."
"Shift?" she suggested. "As though the course of the world had changed?"
"Yes," Loki answered when Sif sat back down next to him. Something profound had happened during his punishment, and whatever it was that had changed Loki was relieved to know that he was not the only one to have experienced it. In this he would not be alone.
“You should rest now,” Sif told him. “Eir told me that the numbing agent would last for perhaps half a day before it need be reapplied. I will return later to put more over the lashes for you.” She laid her hand on his bare shoulder, the warm weight more comforting than anything else at that moment. Loki closed his eyes and let himself fall into that feeling of security.
And then he felt her lean forward, felt the warmth of her breath on his cheek and her shadow fall across his face. When her lips pressed against his in an awkward kiss Loki felt as though the entire world had stopped. And as uncomfortable as the kiss was to hold, the bend of his neck and the stretch of the fresh stitches in his back, Loki turned himself into the taste of her on his lips until she pulled away.
She was flushed but smiling when she drew back. “Rest now, my Prince,” she told him. And as much as Loki wanted to reach for her and kiss her again he could feel his eyelids drooping in exhaustion. She would return later, and once his back was healed enough for him to stand he meant to kiss her again.