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at the end (and beginning) of the war

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“Do it!” Loki screamed. “Do it, Sif, do it and free us both!”

Sif was a warrior, a hunter, and now a killer. 

She had Odin’s arms pinned beneath her knees as she straddled his chest, and Sif stared into his eye as she neatly dragged her dagger across his throat. She dug her knees in harder and didn’t move from Odin’s chest until a good time after he stopped moving. Odin was dead before Loki had finished screaming—and why was he screaming, she wondered. 

She sheathed her dagger, wiped her hands on the bed sheets, and climbed off. 

“You cruel girl,” Frigga’s voice said behind them.

“Oh,” Sif said, cold and calm and ready. “I wondered where you had gone.”

There was Frigga, too stupid to run, holding a sword she had likely taken from one of the dead guards outside the bedroom. Sif couldn’t help the unbidden mental critique of her stance and form.

“That’s not how you hold a sword,” Sif said as she stepped towards her. “Relax your shoulders, keep a firm grip—it’s a tool, Mother, don’t let it control you.”

Frigga gasped as she looked past Sif at Odin’s still form on the bed. “What have you done? Sif—Sif, how could you?” 

Me?” Sif yelled. “How could you raise me as your daughter and then sell me off to your son like a bitch made to bear him litters of children?”

“You loved him!” Frigga said. “You loved Thor—you loved your father! Did it have to come to this?”

“Yes,” Sif snapped. “Yes it did. I’m sorry we disagree on the price of my freedom—”

“Oh, Sif, it was never—”

“And my worth!” 

That was enough, Sif decided, feeling the anger boiling behind her eyes, turning her body red-hot. She stepped forward and grabbed Frigga’s wrist, clenching hard until the sword dropped on the ground. Sif kicked it away and grabbed both of Frigga’s wrists in her hand before she could scratch Sif’s eyes.

“Loki,” Frigga pleaded as Sif took out her dagger again. “Loki, don’t let her do this to your family.”

“She’s not even family now? Oh, Mother,” Loki sighed. “Well, to be fair, I’m not either, due to my pre-existing condition as a Frost Giant. By the way: were you ever going to tell us that?”

Frigga stilled in Sif’s grasp, looked to Sif, and then back to Loki. 

“Loki, my darling boy, we wanted to tell you—we were waiting. We always—”

“Enough,” Sif said as she twisted Frigga around and locked her arm under Frigga’s chin. She leaned close to her ear and said, “I need you to remember all the good that your patience, kind smiles, and doing your duty has brought you.” Frigga struggled as Sif slid her dagger across her throat, and then for good measure, Sif snapped Frigga’s neck before letting her body fall to the ground. 

After that, the only sound in the room was Sif’s own breathing; outside, the corridor was silent, the night’s guard dead. Below Odin and Frigga’s window, Sif could hear the Frost Giants they enlisted for their cause stealing what they could. She thought she heard Thor yelling outside, fighting them off before the Giants could kill any more of the palace staff. 

“Well done, dearest,” Loki said. 

Sif halted in her calculations and looked at Loki. It felt like she was seeing him for the first time. A short time ago—when they entered this room to do their work—she had loved him, hadn’t she? They had a vision for a new world, a new Asgard, that they would create together. They had led each other through the Nine Realms, gathering their power, their numbers, for this night. 

Here they were, triumphant, and Loki walked towards her with his eyes traveling along her body until they fixed on her mouth. His pale hands rested on her waist and pulled her in so his mouth could press against hers, his tongue attempting to breach her lips. She lifted her hands and pushed him away.

“You idiot,” she hissed. “We’ve done what we came to do; now, the war.”

“The war?” Loki laughed. “Who’s left to fight? Thor? Go downstairs and kill him now; I’ll wait here.”

He had the audacity to smile and sit at the foot of Odin’s bed, of his parents’ bed (adopted parents, they had since learned, kidnappers really, but parents all the same, parents to both of them), and cross his legs, his hands resting on his knee. He looked ready for a holiday, waiting for a groom to bring him his horse. Sif stared at him for a long moment before she strode forward and boxed one of his ears, bile rising in her throat like it would never run out.

This, she thought, may have been a mistake, but she shoved that thought away.

He shot up and stepped towards her, looming to threaten her or scare her, as if he had just killed both his parents among dozens of others, rather than her. She said, “If we’re to have any honor left—”

Loki scoffed.

“You don’t care for it, Loki, but those people of Asgard, the ones you want to rule? They care for it very much. They’ll see our claim as legitimate when we—both of us—kill Thor and win the throne from him. No one will bow and scrape to usurpers who stole into the palace at night and murdered an old man and his queen.”

“Then come,” Loki said, extending his hand, the boxed ear forgotten. “Let’s kill our brother and take our throne.”

*

The moment Sif thought she could feel Loki’s hand grasping hers, she woke up from her dream. 

She heard her own gasp as she sat up and looked around the room, taking in her surroundings. Her bedroom in the lake palace, the door in front of her that adjoined to Loki’s room firmly shut, a door with a heavy plank of wood across it sealing it against the other side. While she thought he was more powerful than a plank of wood, it had served her in keeping him out for some time so she didn’t question it.

(She had never thought of this before, not in the very long time since they had taken their separate rooms, but perhaps the door was enchanted to keep her out of his room. Sif was stunned by the idea and wondered how she could test it without letting Loki know.)

Sif climbed out of bed and, off in the distance, she heard the low murmur of an army camp, too far away to be her own. She dressed quickly and left her bedroom for the war room below.

The heel of her boot sounded in the room and those in the room rose to attention, except those handling communications. They worked frantically, taking notes and muttering to each other out of her hearing range.

“My lady,” Eir, her counselor, said. “We’ve received reports—”

“Thor or Asgard?” Sif asked. “I heard the troops from my room: which is it?”

“Thor, my lady,” she replied.

“How long do we have?”

“They will have settled on the northeast curve of the river by evening. He sent a small group of scouts ahead and we captured one, but two escaped and, we believe, rejoined Thor.”

Sif nodded and walked to the map table on the other end of the room. Small figures had already been laid out to represent Thor’s troops, their strength and positioning. “Only this many?” Sif asked as she pointed to the figures. “I see Loki’s plague worked.”

“We’ve sent our own scouts out already,” Eir replied. Sif kept her eyes fixed on the map and the positions of the figures as she processed this new information and what Thor might be planning. “They have taken my lord Loki’s devices to communicate their findings to us before leaving their position around Thor’s troops, in case they should be captured before their return.”

“Ingenious little things, aren’t they,” Sif murmured. She was caught off-guard by one of the figures on the map, a soldier on a rearing horse except the horse was missing its two front legs. She and Loki had made Thor break them off and eat them on a dare when they were young (though Odin had argued they were old enough to know better.)

Everything here, everything in this place, reminded her of him, of the three of them. 

“Keep me informed,” Sif said. “As soon as they return—”

“My lady,” a guard announced as he rushed into the room. She and Eir turned; he saluted them before speaking again. “My lady, an envoy from Thor has arrived at the gates. He waits below, down there in the yard.”

This envoy was no random, timid boy. No, this envoy knew where to stand in the courtyard so that she could see him perfectly when she looked out of the war room. Unless it was a coincidence, this envoy knew she would make her headquarters in a room that, when the royal family used this as a holiday palace, was still called the war room because it had all the equipment necessary for reconnaissance and governing the realm while still enjoying a vacation away from the city.

Sif looked into the courtyard and trained herself not to appear startled when the envoy looked directly at her, his face obscured by his distinctive helmet. She stepped back from the window and looked at the guard who had come in to announce the envoy. He looked young, very young—he would have no idea why she would be startled by an envoy.

“I’ll see him,” she said. “Take him to the library on the ground floor. I’ll be there shortly.” She turned to Eir and asked, “Is there anything else?”

“No, my lady,” Eir said. “We’ll find you when we have a report from the scouts.”

“Yes, of course,” Sif replied.

“Is that all you require of me?”

And the thought occurred to her: “And Loki?”

“I believe he’s in his library, my lady. We’ve yet to see him here this morning.”

“And does he know our brother approaches the city with a troop that may threaten to destroy our fortifications?” Sif asked.

Eir looked startled, but Sif smiled, a little cold for Eir, her sweet Eir who was the best of her staff, who truly believed in her and Loki and the better Asgard they had made—even if that Asgard didn’t extend beyond the immediate vicinity of the palace walls.

“If he asks, tell him, but let him know we’re taking care of it,” Sif said. “He’s very busy.”

“Of course, my lady. Will that be all?”

“Yes, thank you. I’ll be downstairs with the envoy.”

“Yes, my lady.”

Eir was wonderfully devoted, but had apparently been raised on the cusp of tradition and revolution, so she took to Sif as devoted as a daughter, as fierce as a soldier, yet here in the war room it was all yes my lady and no my lady. With every iteration, Sif remembered Frigga, her own foster-mother, Loki and Thor’s mother, who she had slain with her own hands so long ago. She thought in doing so, she and Loki would create a new world where there would be no more lords and ladies, no more inherited titles, only strength by merit and wisdom!

Unfortunately, their language still had some limitations and the most economic way of conveying all that with regard to Loki and Sif was with my lord and my lady. It was one of those minor annoyances that Sif thought they could conquer later, once they had won the war.

She still didn’t know when later was, exactly.

Outside the war room, another guard waited to escort her to the library. She took a good look at his face before they began towards the library and smiled to herself. This guard, and the one who had announced the envoy, were both young. She had been right before—they wouldn’t know why this was no ordinary envoy.

Not only was that Thor in her courtyard (all right, the courtyard, as it was a bit late now to begin arguing whether it was hers by victory or his by inheritance), but he was dressed like Volstagg. 

Not only was he dressed like Volstagg, but he was in the last outfit Volstagg wore before Sif had killed him. That had been one of her first acts of war, and Thor had either kept the clothes all this time or had a remarkable memory for the last outfit they saw him wear while he was alive.

It was meant to haunt Sif, to scare her. She smiled at the thought—Thor standing in the library, in clothes that had to be fitted to his relatively smaller arms and shoulders, all so he could bring the ghosts at the back of Sif’s mind to the forefront, haunt her, guilt her, because he thought the pain she caused him could never do that. As though Thor hadn’t haunted her every step, her every decision, her every deed all this time. As though Thor wasn’t her constant, the only one who could ever best her and end this—end Loki, end her, once and for all.

Her sword at her side, her daggers in place, she let the guard open the door to the library and announce her entrance.

*

Sif has difficulty remembering the time before the war. Her memories are a golden haze in her mind where light always shone so brightly, she and Thor and Loki were always laughing, hunting, swimming, mocking their tutors, exploring. Now, she was old enough to know it was a flaw of adulthood: one enters into responsibility and, before leaving, glazes those carefree times in something beautiful and impermeable. The best one could hope for was building somewhere new where others could experience the same.

Others. “Children.” 

Sif cursed the day her foster parents pulled her into adulthood, but cursed herself more for  never seeing the signs that it was coming.

Frigga found Sif and Thor in the weapons shop—not the weapons vault where Odin kept the relics of war from his many battles, but the much more boring maintenance room where Sif and Thor would retreat every day for solitude from everyone around them. Frigga had taken Sif away, and Sif didn’t have a chance to see Thor or Loki until everyone had retired for the night. 

As was her habit (and had been her habit for as long as she had lived with her foster family), she changed into her sleeping attire, stepped out onto the balcony, greeted Weland, her evening guard, and walked to Thor’s balcony to let herself into his bedroom.

Thor was already in bed, half-asleep with an unopened book on his bare chest. She closed the door behind her and that woke him up with a startled, “I was reading!”

“I’m so glad you’re discovering new uses for your chest,” she replied. She crossed the room to his bed, removed the book to his nightstand, and climbed on top of him so she straddled his hips. “Tell me what kind of day you had. Was it as maddening as mine?”

Thor threw back his head and laughed, his hands moving to her hips to hold her steady as he sat up against his headboard. “You should define maddening, then I’ll tell you.”

“I want to yell,” Sif whispered as she leaned in, pressing her forehead against Thor’s. “I want to scream and rant and rave about all the things your mother said to me today, but then our guards won’t be able to pretend that they don’t know we come here every night.”

“Think of it as a challenge,” Thor replied. Sif closed her eyes and could feel the heat of his mouth against her cheek and so close to her mouth, his lips brushing against her skin as he spoke. “We’ve done it before—how loud can we get before Gerda knocks at the door?”

“I think Gerda would be intrigued at how articulate you had made me,” Sif laughed. As she laughed, Thor kissed the corner of her mouth. She skipped all pretenses of being gentle with him and cupped his face with her hands, her tongue parting his lips and licking into his mouth. Thor groaned in surprise and tightened his grip on her hips. His fingers dug into her skin and urged her in rocking against him. He was hard underneath her as he rubbed against her cunt, all the better and worse with their clothes between them, but Sif couldn’t bring her mouth away from his. She rode by his side, fought by his side, sparred with him, yet none of those could compare to Thor here, left breathless by her, only her, and she intended to hear it. 

And she got her chance quicker than she thought as the doorknob turned over her shoulder. She rolled off Thor instantly and fell to the other half of the bed, sitting up and crossing her legs at the ankles as if that would help any. As the door opened, she fixed her clothes and listened to Thor’s heavy breathing, far too pleased with her good work. 

It was only Loki, though, and he smiled as he let himself in and closed the door behind him. Since he was the last one, he secured it for the night before making his way over to the bed. “Starting without me?” he asked, dropping his book on the nightstand on top of Thor’s and climbing into bed with them, taking his usual sitting place at the foot of the bed. 

Sif raised her eyebrows and sat up with her knees pulled up against her chest. “Dearest, I had a ridiculous day.”

“Stress relief,” Thor added.

“Dearest, we all had ridiculous days,” Loki replied. 

“Did you have the intricacies of womanhood and your duties as a queen explained to you over milky tea?” Sif asked. “No? Then shut up and put your mouth to better use.” 

“All right,” Loki laughed. “Fine, exploring the intricacies of milky tea and womanhood with Mother and Sif does sound hilarious, but Father intends for me to study at the healing rooms.” He looked annoyed for a moment before he added, “As soon as possible.”

“The healing rooms?” Sif asked. “That’s all well and good, but has the All-father met you?”

“I’m to apply my talents with substances and magic there, or study further and advise Thor.”

Sif looked at Thor, suspiciously quiet this throughout this. “You never did tell me how your day went,” she noted.

“It wasn’t maddening,” he admitted. “I’m to begin training for... kingliness. King...kingdom? That’s not right.” He sighed and rubbed at his jawline before he met Sif’s eyes. “Apparently I’m to oversee our forces and learn to run an army, then oversee the running of the kingdom with the All-father, and then I’ll... be king.”

Sif wrapped her arms around her knees and leaned against the headboard, her face turned to Thor. “And we’re getting married.”

“Excuse me, I missed that part of the orientation,” Loki interrupted. “Married?”

“Before I take the throne,” Thor said, looking from Sif to Loki. “And sooner rather than later, according to Mother, to show I’m committed to the kingdom.”

Loki raised his eyebrows in Sif’s direction. She smiled back, too wide and too cold. 

“To show that we’re committed,” she corrected, “And if we could not discuss the awkward moment when your mother laughed at me for suggesting I meant to marry you both, that would be wonderful, thank you.”

“You said that to her?” Thor asked. She blushed and hid her face in her sleeves, coming out again when Thor rested a heavy hand on the nape of her neck and brushed his fingers against her hair. Sif sighed and leaned into it before she looked at Thor and then Loki, who both watched her closely.

“She made it sound as if she knew about this.” Sif licked her lips and added, “If not this, exactly, then at least—I said I couldn’t choose between you, and she said I didn’t have to.”

“Am I being married off to you or not, Sif?” Loki asked.

She pursed her lips and shook her head. 

“Thor and I are to help you find someone you like, preferably in time to see us all married together. Greater unity, Loki, isn’t that what matters above literally everything else?”

“Nothing has to change,” Thor said. Sif looked at him, and she saw Loki did, too. For all that Loki and Sif had their independence and stubbornness, that rarely mattered when it came to Thor, who made decisions for all of them.

Still. Sif watched Thor, felt his reassuring hand on the nape of her neck, and wanted to believe him when he said that nothing had to change, but something in the pit of her stomach wanted to protest that this was different. He and Loki could laugh off their new responsibilities (or accept them graciously, as Thor seemed to do), but she couldn’t. There was more to what Frigga assigned her as the next queen of Asgard. It worried her in ways she couldn’t articulate, and ways Thor couldn’t soothe with his simple declaration, nothing has to change.

“It’s been a long day,” Sif said. “Loki, weren’t you feeling left out before?”

Loki smiled, every inch the predator. He crawled across the bed and tipped Sif’s chin up, kissed her, and then took her place on Thor’s lap. “Is this where you were?” Loki joked as he straddled Thor’s hips. He splayed his knees and thighs out, sinking onto Thor’s lap so they could slot themselves together. Thor gasped and leaned in to bite Loki’s chest through his shirt before removing the shirt entirely, throwing it on Sif’s face with a careful, adorable toss.

Sif balled up the shirt and threw it to the foot of the bed, then shifted closer to them. As Loki and Thor moved against each other, Sif leaned back and slipped her pants off, content to watch Thor pull Loki’s hips against his own as Loki supported himself with one hand on the headboard, making sure Thor could hear every filthy thing he had to say while they got each other off for Sif’s pleasure. 

The next evening, after everything had been settled for the three of them, after they all discussed the upcoming developments over dinner as a family, Sif retired to her room and felt content. Loki would continue his studies and said he enjoyed the thought of becoming a scholar-adviser to Thor, as that would allow him more time to read and learn, which was what he really wanted (no more of that nonsense about the healing rooms, please). Thor had always been interested in Asgard’s military (so he said), and the opportunity to have his own troops and learn how to organize and command appealed to him greatly.

Sif still wasn’t exactly clear on her responsibilities, or what training she would begin to fulfill them aside from the marriage, but it was enough to have her foster-mother’s word for now.

She changed into her sleeping attire and opened the door to her balcony to enter Thor’s room, as she always did. However, when she opened the door, said good evening to her usual guard, and stepped along her balcony toward Thor’s room, he blocked her path. 

“Weland, why won’t you let me pass?” Sif asked as she tried to step around him. 

“Apologies, my lady,” he replied. “I have orders from the All-father that you’re not to leave your room during the evening.”

“But you’ve had those orders my entire life,” Sif said. “Why do you enforce them now? You know I’m only going to Thor’s room to meet him and Loki. We do this every evening.”

“The circumstances have changed, my lady,” Weland said. “Again, my apologies, but they are my new orders and the All-father has asked I enforce them strictly.”

“Then let me go to Thor and Loki and tell them to come to my room. Or I will stay here and you can go to them and tell them to come to my room.”

“It’s—my lady, it’s not that simple,” he said. “No one is to enter your room, either. You’re to remain alone in the evenings or we’re to summon one of your lady’s maids to keep you company.”

“Weland, please,” Sif said. “It’s Thor and Loki. You know we go nowhere else, and his room is as well-guarded as mine!” Past Weland’s shoulder, Sif saw Loki emerge onto his balcony. She dove against Weland and screamed, “Loki! Loki, tell Thor I’m not allowed in anymore! Loki, do something.”

Weland held her arms as he turned to look at Loki, who had on a perfectly neutral expression, except Loki had already nodded to Sif. He entered Thor’s room without question, without argument from the other guards on the balcony.

“My lady, please,” Weland said. “Please, go back to your room. It’ll be morning soon.” He released her arms and blocked her view of Thor’s door. “Please. You can discuss this with the All-father and the queen tomorrow.”

“And what will they say? Why do they keep me from my brothers?”

“You know why, my lady,” he said. “Your engagement. This isn’t proper now.”

Sif returned to her room and slammed the doors shut. She entered her dressing room, the closest connecting point with Thor’s room. Even now, if she pressed her ear against the wall, she could hear Thor and Loki talking, but the wall between them meant she could only hear murmurs. 

Suddenly, against her ear, was a knock and she jumped back. She knocked, too, and there was another knock next to the first. She knocked again in response and leaned her forehead against the wall because she could not believe they had been reduced to this. Adults, indeed.

*

Sif entered the library and nodded to her guard. They left and shut the doors behind them. Once they were closed, Thor turned around and removed Volstagg’s helmet, revealing the marshal he had become. His face seemed leaner, his body heavier, yet that laughter that always made him Thor was still around his eyes, gathered in the lines at the edges that she saw, too, when she woke in the morning.

Thor laid the helmet down on a table (Volstagg’s helmet, then, not a replica if he treated it with such care) and stepped towards her. She took in as much detail as she could, the same as he did: they were soldiers and had been all their lives, and that mentality didn’t stop here. He stopped, though, some distance from her and finally stopped dissecting her. Thor offered her a smile and motioned at the room around them.

“You knew,” he began. “You knew there was one place I would go to find comfort and regroup, and you and Loki beat me to it.”

“I chose it for the mountains’ natural defenses,” Sif lied. 

He raised his eyebrows.

“Though I suppose we did have some good times here,” she added.

“Sif,” Thor said. “How will this end?”

“I could kill you here,” she replied. 

“You could,” he said. “I know you could.”

“Surely it would be worth losing the war here in favor of eternity with your mother and the All-father in Valhalla,” Sif said. That earned her a glare from Thor, the one he had given to beasts, creatures, and enemies alike before he slayed them. 

Sif thought for a moment before she said, “There’s two things I don’t think about anymore: the beginning of the war and the end of it.”

Thor looked down, almost abashed; so it was the same for him. These were the marshals Odin, the greatest warrior, the All-father, had raised and trained, the third locked up alone upstairs with his books and spells. 

“How did we get here?” Thor asked. “I don’t remember anymore. One moment we were about to be married, and the next—”

“Don’t ask me that,” Sif said, because that she remembered. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“You never tried to explain, Sif! You never took my hand, sat me down, and explained what made you so angry!” He was louder and more flustered than she had ever seen him, and she realized why: he had no hammer. Mjolnir had not made the journey with him, and why would it? It would have given him away immediately, a common envoy carrying in one hand that which no one but the mighty Thor could wield. 

Without the hammer? Thor was adrift, gestured more than she remembered. He was vulnerable and truly at Sif’s mercy, because while he was excellent with all other weapons at their disposal, Sif was better. Thor was unmatched when he wielded that hammer, but without it? He was no match for Sif.

“Would you tell me now?” he pleaded. 

He pleaded, Sif thought. She tilted her head slightly and looked at Thor as if seeing him for the first time. She didn’t doubt his sincerity; she just had never known a Thor who could want something enough to learn how to plead.

“You wouldn’t understand,” she repeated. 

“Tell me!” he demanded. “Tell me what secrets the great Sif and Loki keep from me, what they ran away from—what they murdered in order to hide.”

“Murdered? Hide? Ran away? Of course you’d think like that; we hardly lived in the same Asgard, for all you invoke our family.”

“You’re not making any—”

“I told you that you wouldn’t—”

“Speak already! Not the lies Loki has used to blind you.”

Sif laughed. “No, Thor, you’re the one who’s completely blind.”

“Blind to what?” Thor stepped into her space and, without thinking, held her arms in his huge hands and looked into her eyes. “Did someone hurt you? What did they do to you? Tell me. If this was something I could have prevented—Sif, please, you must tell me.” 

She froze, having forgotten this Thor from so long ago, the elder brother who grew so much taller before she and Loki caught up, the one who saved her life more than once in the little battles that they never thought would lead to this war. Her brother who didn’t realize that no one could hurt her without her consent.

“You did,” she said, her voice quieter than she had heard herself in a very, very long time. She felt Thor’s hands tighten on her arms and she wrenched herself from his grasp, taking several steps away from him. “You and your mother and father, you lived in a world that Loki and I could only see and never join except on your terms.”

“How could you say that?” Thor asked. “You and Loki were always my equals—”

Sif yelled, “How stupid are you? How long did we all live in the same house, but under completely different rules? We were all groomed to appear regal, how to hold the sceptres if they came to us, but you were the special one, Thor, and only you.” Frigga came back into her memory in terrifying relief, as intimidating as Sif remembered her, and something rose in her throat ready to choke her. “Raised as equals, except that your mother always referred to my time as a warrior as a phase. You’ll see, she would say knowingly. You don’t have to be a warrior to win my son’s heart, Sif, she said. You would be so becoming to Thor, and to all your friends, if you only—never hearing what I told her.”

“My mother always supported you,” Thor protested. “She admired you as a warrior.”

“Of course she did,” she replied, unable to keep the sneer from her face. “I am a great warrior. That doesn’t mean she didn’t undermine me and try to wear me down at every opportunity. Did you think that wedding dress was my idea? Did you think that wedding was my idea?”

“The wedding—we had to do it, Sif, you know that.”

“Easy for you to say. What would change for you afterwards? You would be a king, but I would be a wife. What then? Did you even think about that?”

“No,” he admitted. “But if anyone could have made a marriage work—Sif, it would have been you.”

*

A celebration followed: the coming-of-age for the three of them, Sif and Thor’s engagement, and the quiet search for someone suitable to marry Loki. 

They were dressed in their finest and shoved into the crowds to meet and mingle, discuss all their upcoming plans—Thor and Sif were also put in charge of watching Loki to ensure he didn’t scare away every eligible Asgardian. Sif didn’t notice until the feast was over and the drinking and stories had begun that Thor and Loki had taken turns going into another room and each returned looking—well, rather grim.

Thor approached her and rested his hand on the small of her back. She touched his arm and asked, “What happened?”

“Father and Mother wish to see you in the adjoining room,” he said, low in her ear. “They have gifts for us to celebrate our coming of age.”

“What was yours?” 

“An old, old weapon, one that no one has been able to wield in ages,” Thor replied. “Mjolnir. I can use it well enough, I suppose. Did I mention it’s a hammer?”

“...interesting choice,” Sif said. “You’ve shown absolutely no proficiency with a weapon of its kind, so that gift makes the most sense for you.”

“These are our parents, Sif,” Thor sighed. “They gave Loki ancient volumes for his studies, because all they know of him is that he likes to read. For me, another weapon for my arsenal—thrilling. I dread to think what misguided tokens they’ll present to you. New shoes? A hat? Perhaps the mighty embroidery hoop, lost to history, forged in the heart of the laundry room.”

“I’ll let you know,” Sif laughed as she squeezed his arm and took a step away. He reached out and held her elbow for a moment before she could leave. 

Thor leaned in and whispered in her ear, “Loki is still working on creating some portal between our rooms while I work on threatening the guards; if worse comes to worst, this hammer may prove more useful than I thought.”

She laughed loudly, right into his ear, and apologized when he flinched. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist thinking—pounding your hammer through a wall just to be able to get to my room and pound me through the bed. It’s very sweet of you.”

He stood up straight and smiled at her, the goofy idiot smile that made him so... that made him Thor. “You, Sif? Easily bedded and forgotten? You don’t know what they’ve done to us. We can’t function without your chatter at night—your laughter, your sprawl. When we’re married, we can do as we wish.”

“Let’s certainly hope so,” she replied. “Now let me go get my presents.”

When Sif entered the adjoining room and the doors shut behind her, she noticed that Frigga was no longer there; it was only her and Odin. He stood in front of the fire and looked up when she entered. “Come, daughter,” he said. “I’ve asked the queen to leave us. I wish your gift to remain between us.”

“Is there a reason why, All-father?” Sif asked as she stepped towards the firepit in the center of the room.

He smiled, as much as he ever did, and turned to pick up something from the couch behind him, draped in a velvet fabric. “For the simple reason that the queen would have wanted me to give you something more in keeping with your responsibilities as a lady of the court, the traditional wife, mother, and sovereign she hopes you will become.”

She felt her lips press into a thin, tight line, but she smiled for her foster father all the same. “And what would you have me do, All-father?” 

Odin removed the fabric then and presented her with a sword and two daggers, all in their own well-maintained and plain leather scabbards. “The daggers are fine weapons to keep on your person, because you must always be prepared for anything. Asgard has been at peace all your lives, but that may not always be the case. You must always be prepared.”

“Why me?” she asked as she pulled the sword completely out of the scabbard and held it up in the light. “Why did Thor get a hammer, Loki some books?”

“For the simple reason that you would use this responsibly, and they needed their gifts more than this,” Odin said. “Hand it to me; I’ll have it brought to your room so you may return to the celebration.”

She sheathed the sword again and embraced Odin, thanking him quietly. She pulled away, but he stopped her with his eye fixed on hers. She didn’t lower her eyes, a decision she thought all the better when he lifted her chin, his whole palm underneath her jaw, as though her head required all the strength of one arm to lift. They searched each other’s faces for a long moment, his one eye boring into her two.

“You are the only one I would see as the next queen of Asgard,” Odin said, half-muttered and half-projected directly at her.

It didn’t startle her, not after all the endless discussions on the subject with Frigga, but it reassured her to hear it from him. She swallowed and said, “I will do my best.”

When she stepped out of the room, she immediately spotted Loki, who turned to Thor and motioned in her direction. They departed from their group and descended on her like ravens.

“Thor wagers you received the embroidery hoop of song and legend,” Loki said, “But I think the All-father put more thought into something for his only daughter. I think you received something disgusting to wear around your neck in order to conceive an heir the next time Thor speaks to you.”

“Like a dried rabbit’s liver stuffed with the finest kitchen ingredients and perhaps a tiny baby turtle,” Thor added. “There, I spoke. Are you pregnant yet?”

“No, definitely a placenta in these reproductive matters,” Loki said with a sure nod. “So: which is it? Hoop or dried placenta stuffed with rancid-smelling things?”

“I know this will be difficult for both of you to accept,” Sif said, “But you’re both wrong. You very much underestimated how much more Odin loves me than both of you, his sons.”

She told them about the gift; Thor looked annoyed that she had received a gift that catered to her strengths, while Loki wondered why the All-father thought he didn’t need to defend himself personally at any point for the rest of his life. However, they both agreed that all their gifts were disappointments, as far as coming-of-age gifts went. 

“He trusts both of you with weapons far more than I ever would,” Loki joked.

“I believe I’m to use my new hammer to build you an enclosure where nothing could ever hurt you,” Thor said. “And Sif will use all her new daggers to murder your potential suitors. Speaking of which, has anyone struck your interest?”

“Anyone in this self-congratulatory horde we’ve known all our lives? ” Loki scoffed. “No, not yet, and Mother never did clarify whether I was allowed to marry a man or whether it had to be a woman for maximum heir-producing capabilities.”

“This is when I leave so you two can discuss the secrets of winning a woman over,” Sif announced.

“You’ll leave me with Thor?” Loki asked. “He’s as qualified to advise on meeting new people as—”

Thor walked away and joined a conversation nearby, ingratiating himself with enviable ease. Sif and Loki could only exchange a look between them.

“It’s just because he’s the prince. The crowned prince,” Sif said. She wrapped her fingers around Loki’s wrist and smiled when he clasped her hand. “Obviously, we’re chopped liver.” They walked back to the long banquet table in the center of the room where most of the guests sat exchanging tales and drinking, both of them making sure to keep Thor in their line of sight.

“Like so many conception charms hanging around your neck,” Loki mused as they sat down near the center of the long benches, away from the stories and from Frigga and her company. Sif squeezed his hand, as threatening as she could seem in public, and he laughed. “Sif, go among the people and find me a wife, would you?”

“I don’t think you’ve ever told me what you’re looking for in a spouse,” Sif said. She realized they were still holding hands, but if he wasn’t going to drop her hand, she wouldn’t, either. “What are Thor and I looking for?”

Loki took a sip of his drink and someone leaned behind his far shoulder to refill his glass, taking care not to step between them. Sif tightened her fingers a little to make sure he knew she was still there. He propped an elbow up on the long feast table and watched her for a moment. “I don’t know,” he said.

“You’ve never thought about it?” she asked. “Even when Thor and I talked about it?”

He rolled his eyes. “You and Thor spoke about who you would marry in the most abstract terms possible. One could be very romantic, as I’ll be at your wedding feast telling Asgard the story of your undying devotion, and say that you didn’t bother coming up with dream spouses because you were always sure that you’d be together.”

She could feel her smile darkening a little, sadness pulling at the edges, especially when Loki didn’t meet her eyes anymore.

“Truth be told,” Loki said, “Thor’s descriptions were so abstract at times that I thought he would marry the first mare that would let him.” 

Sif burst out laughing and hid her mouth against her fist. She ignored the looks from Frigga and Thor (one suspicious, the other jealous that he had missed something) and turned to Loki again, lavishing him in all her attention.

“I think only of you,” Loki began. “You and Thor, but if I must spend the rest of my life with only one, I’d rather it be you.” He considered what he said for a moment and offered Sif a grin. “If Thor asks, I’ll tell him you lied and it’s been him all along.”

“I’d expect nothing else,” she replied. “Though I don’t know what to say.”

“Say nothing,” Loki said with a wave of his hand. “I don’t pine for you—I’ll always have you. We’ll always have each other.” Sif edged closer, hoping Loki would look at her again. He could lie to so many people right to their face, even Thor’s, but never to hers. 

(At least, she liked to think he couldn’t, but even if all this was an act, wasn’t it an act for her benefit? Wasn’t that kind of effort worth being denied the truth?)

“It’s very difficult, having you for a sister,” Loki said. “I’ve had you and Thor for my entire world almost as long as I can remember, and then Mother sends me into the crowd, thinking I can find anyone to keep my interest the way you two have my whole life.” He took Sif’s hand again and clasped it tight in both of his. “It’s very unfair to everyone else that you’re my basis for comparison.”

Sif raised her other hand to touch his cheek, but Thor cleared his throat over her shoulder and the moment was gone. She lowered her hand and turned to see Thor with a tall woman, lightly built, golden hair pinned and shining in the lights of the hall, a warm smile and eyes only for Loki. Sif’s hand dropped to Loki’s arm and they stood from the long table to greet the newcomer.

*

“Instead,” Thor said, “You ran from me.” 

Sif stared at Thor. His expression was pained, the way he held her look before he turned away from her. He didn’t slouch, not quite—they had been raised too well for that—but his bearing had a weariness that reminded her so much of the All-father while he still lived. He looked tired, and she never thought she would see that coming from Thor.

“You ran from me and you never said why, never hinted that you would, or could, do such a thing,” Thor added.

Sif watched him and the moment between them, here in the library, felt old and new at once. It was old and new, she realized. They had had this conversation before.

In the course of the war, there had been countless battles and skirmishes, and she and Thor had met on the battlefield more than once. She didn’t know how many times; time had stretched so thin in her memory she couldn’t tell anymore. She only knew that it had happened more than once.

Loki would engage Thor’s troops first, weakening them with something—a spell, a trick, anything to throw them off. Sif and her troops would then head out of the palace and fight, except something saved Thor every time they met on the battlefield. 

As Sif stood in the library with Thor and saw him turn his back to her, defenseless except for his brute strength and the daggers he had hidden on his person, she began to think that something was her.

More than once, she and Thor met on the battlefield and attacked each other, their respective troops fighting all the more fiercely so no one interfered with their single combat. Each time, they thought a victory between one of them would strike the decisive blow in the whole war and they could all go home and begin their lives in a new Asgard; each time, the survivors would return home, confident they would have the advantage next time.

Except each time, their blows would come to screams and sloppy, half-hearted maneuvers, like they were sparring again and the only urgency was someone calling them to lunch.

“You ran from me!” Thor yelled over the crash of the swords and shields around them.

He said that, he said it every time they met in battle. Sif had killed his parents and their closest friends, driven him from their home and city, destroyed the world they had both known, but Thor’s grievance was that she had left him.

Sif struck his side with her sword and given him a flesh wound. He winced and struck back with renewed strength, but he favored his other side all the same. She saw it—she knew his body as well as her own. She could have fought one-handed with her sword and pulled out the dagger at her side, shoved it into his organs on his weaker side. She could have lifted her boot and kicked him in the wound, driving infection inside, making him double over in pain for a moment, and then stabbed him in the neck so he would bleed out like his father. She could have killed him. She should have killed him.

“You didn’t follow!” she yelled back as she raised her shield against him and shoved him away. “I always followed you, Thor, but that one time, you didn’t follow me!”

“You ran from me!” he repeated. He struck harder, sliced her leg, too low to do much damage, too much to the side to bring her down into the dust. “I never thought you would leave.”

“And I never thought you would leave me to the wolves!” she screamed. “You did this to yourself, Thor, and I alone am blameless.”

He yelled louder, struck harder, battered her shield and her body as though he would actually kill her, and she fought back with her grievances renewed. Every meeting with Frigga to fit her into a wedding gown; Frigga’s sharp, disgusted look when Sif returned to the palace with Thor, Loki, and the Warriors Three as dirty and sweaty as the rest of them; the All-father beginning to introduce her as the Lady Sif, betrothed to Thor—a far cry from what he used to say, the Lady Sif, Asgard’s greatest shieldmaiden, unmatched in her skill and bravery, surely you have heard of her; Loki’s distance when the All-father and Frigga made it clear that he should spend less of his free time with them and more time finding himself someone to marry.

Then Loki would appear on the palace’s ramparts and unleash some new mischief to turn the tide of the battle. Sif’s guards would urge her back to the camp while Thor’s guards did the same. Her guards reassured Sif that Thor looked weakened, he wouldn’t last the night, this had been a decisive battle, they would be ready tomorrow, perhaps Loki’s latest trick would leave Thor dead in his tent by morning—

Sif always looked back and she always saw Thor’s face as he was led away. These people around them knew them too well because they were raised in the public eye. They allowed them to play at war with their lives for far too long.

Back in the library, Thor turned to meet Sif’s eyes again. She wouldn’t take out her sword or her dagger and kill him there. She lifted her chin and he did the same. Out of sheer reflex and memory, she wanted to laugh, but she had too much anger to bring herself to smile.

“You didn’t follow,” Sif said calmly. “I always followed you, but you couldn’t follow me.”

Thor looked away again and was about to say something, but Sif interrupted:

“Why are you here?”

“That,” Thor said. He might have sighed, Sif thought as she approached him. “I want to make a deal, Sif.”

“A deal?” She did her best to keep the sneer out of her voice, but she wasn’t entirely successful. “What kind of deal?”

“A deal.” Thor inhaled sharply and said it all at once: “You and I kill Loki—quietly, away from prying eyes—renounce our claim to the throne and live in exile together.” Thor looked down at the ground and Sif thought she saw the pain in his face, his hunched shoulders, at the reality he was agreeing to: killing his brother, his only brother who could betray him hundreds of times but never stop being his brother.

That was his personal guilt and what he thought he could live with for the rest of his life if it came to killing Loki—except he had written Sif out of the story completely.

*

She can’t remember how she and Loki decided that they should go to war against Asgard, against their home, but she can remember when she and Thor and Loki became she and Loki. 

Ironically enough, it happened during her wedding to Thor.

Frigga escorted Sif down the aisle of Asgard’s great ceremonial chamber, in place of Sif’s dead mother. Loki waited some distance before the steps to the throne, ready to take Sif from Frigga and lead her to Thor. He stood there as something archaic and patriarchal where a mother would raise a daughter and a father would step in when she was ready to be sold (so she and Loki had joked at the rehearsals—Odin had woven a nonsense story about the true significance of the gesture, but Sif had forgotten it in favor of her and Loki’s version). Sif’s father had died during the engagement period and she knew that only Loki could stand there and presume to take her and present her, give her, to Thor. 

Loki stood out among all these excited faces with a frown carved into his features, firmer than any of their stone busts that littered the palace. He watched her as she approached, his eyes taking in every inch of her. The momentary burst of joy she felt as his eyes appraised her, starved for her, disappeared when she wondered why he didn’t show even a hint of happiness for her.

When they reached Loki, Frigga gently handed Sif’s hand to Loki and kissed both their cheeks before she sent them on their way. Loki took Sif’s hand, linked his arm with hers, and they stood there for a moment, looking straight ahead. She didn’t have to look at Loki to know he was frozen in place, just as she was.

“Dearest,” Loki said, leaning down and speaking low in her ear. “You have on your breastplate. Mother let you have a breastplate on your wedding day.”

“She let me have my sword on my wedding day,” Sif added. She could feel her breathing quicken, her mind crowding with thoughts. She tightened her arm where it linked with Loki’s and tried to slow her breathing. “She’s been so good to me.” Frigga had been good to her, but she had also been cruel, forcing Sif to become this—this thing that paraded down an aisle in someone else’s skin and pretended to Asgard, to her future subjects, to Thor, that she was this creature who belonged in a gown and train with an impractically decorative scabbard at her hip.

“You’re dressed for war in that breastplate,” he said.

“I’m a warrior,” Sif replied. “I’m a warrior,” she repeated.

“And your warrior awaits,” Loki said.

Sif finally focused on the steps leading to the throne. Fandral met her eyes and leaned across the way to say something to Thor. That was when Sif gripped Loki’s hand and said, “Run.”

“Yes,” he answered, and they turned and ran.

Thor yelled her name as they ran and she looked over her shoulder.

Thor didn’t run after them. He stood there on the steps to the throne and watched them leave.

If he wouldn’t even follow them, then they were right to leave.

She and Loki burst out the doors of the hall and into the cold air outside.

“Where will we go?” Loki gasped as they looked around them. People who hadn’t been able to enter for the ceremony were gathered behind barriers and when Sif and Loki emerged, their cheering was automatic until they realized it was Loki gripping her hand, not Thor. 

“Where will we go, Sif?” Loki yelled.

She dropped his hand and unsheathed her sword. The crowd around them gasped and Sif saw the guards approach them. She yelled and brandished her sword until they backed away and she could take Loki’s hand again.

“Where are we going?” Loki asked, pleading now. She didn’t know why he sounded desperate when they had done nothing wrong—it may have been the first right thing either of them had done in their entire lives.

“Away, away,” she replied. She adjusted her grip on the sword and cut into the air at that angle that she couldn’t name but her arm knew was right—there in front of them, in the middle of the air, a dark and starry sky gaped at them, a grassy hill at their feet. Sif stepped through and tugged on his hand to silence his stammering. He followed after her and she closed the portal behind them.

“Where are we?” he demanded.

“Alfheim.”

“How did you do that?”

“The All-father’s gift to me on my coming of age,” she replied.

“Yes, a sword—”

“Your father didn’t mention it could cut doors into the other realms?” she asked, half-teasing, half-curious. “I wonder what else he keeps from you.”

“So do I.”

Loki sat down on the grass as Sif finished sealing shut the door between the worlds with her fingertips. She turned back to Loki, who looked so lost, so unmoored, a Loki she hadn’t seen since they were children and she defended him from those who picked on the smaller son of Odin.

She wasn’t sure she liked this boy now, and the way he reappeared when she least needed him.

“Get up,” she said. “We have to keep moving. We don’t know where we are on Alfheim, what lurks here at night, or—”

“Get rid of your ridiculous dress,” Loki snapped. “Have you forgotten already that you’re still dressed like a bride?”

“Forgive me,” she snapped back as she unbuckled and slipped off her breastplate, revealing the gown beneath. “You and your mother are cut from the same cloth. Help me out of this.” Loki rolled his eyes and stood up, moving to her back and beginning to open the long line of buttons. “You’re both wicked tricksters. We had agreed on something much more to my taste; then, this morning, she woke me up before time with an army of maids and proceeded to begin lacing me into these ridiculous things while lecturing me on how to please Thor.” She turned her head and raised her eyebrows at Loki. “Sexually.”

“Really,” Loki said, using his thickest ironic drawl. “I’m surprised she didn’t know the extensive studies we’ve all been of each other in that area for some time now.”

“That’s what I can’t figure out,” Sif said. “Whether she used that to get me out of bed, or whether she genuinely thought she was doing me a favor.” His fingers finally neared the end of the line of buttons and she slipped off the gown. Underneath, she had trousers and a sleeveless shirt, over which she slipped on her breastplate again. She stepped out of the gown and took a long stride away from it, watching it on the grass as though it would rise up and attack her if she wasn’t careful. It certainly felt like that with its strange power she had felt all day as it sat on her body. 

“We can’t do anything with it,” Sif said. “Except find a place to camp for the night and burn it.”

“It isn’t that cold,” Loki said.

“It’s a conspicuous traveling companion,” she replied. “Go on, pick it up. I’ve had to wear it all day.”

“I don’t recall agreeing to be your packhorse on this little journey we’re embarking on,” Loki said as he scooped up the dress in his arms and brushed some blades of grass off it.

“We’ll take turns carrying it once you’ve carried it as long as I wore it.” Sif walked ahead, but turned to flash Loki a grin over her shoulder. “Deal?”

She took his long-suffering sigh for agreement and walked towards the sound of rushing water.

*

Sif opened her mouth to respond to Thor, but the door to the library opened. She turned to see Loki enter and close the door firmly behind him.

“Ah,” Loki said. He leaned against the closed door and tipped his head back, baring his neck. “Dear, you had been here a very long time with this envoy—too long, I think, so I decided to check on you.”

Sif swallowed hard as she looked from Loki to Thor. Thor’s hand clenched into a fist and she expected Mjolnir to crash through one of the windows so their final battle could begin right then and there.

There was no hammer, though, only Loki’s relaxed smile, his cold eyes, and Thor burning to tear him apart.

Only him, though, Sif realized. Only Loki. Why did Thor still think her blameless? Or, not blameless but irreproachable? 

“Dear,” Loki said, his eyes still fixed on Thor. “Why haven’t you killed our enemy yet?”

“I was never your enemy, Loki,” Thor said. “I have always been your brother. I never stopped. I never will. You—the two of you—will always be—”

Please, Odin, save us from the aggrandizing speeches,” Loki moaned. “You idiot. You only live because our sister harbors some mislaid affection for you.” Loki laughed as Thor looked to Sif. “Even that night our parents died—”

“When you killed them,” Thor corrected.

When our parents died,” Loki said. “Even then, I said, come, Sif! Let’s kill Thor! And she babbled on about honor and a warrior’s death. And hundreds of times since then, I’ve told her, Sif! The time is right! We can kill Thor, we can claim our throne, end this war once and for all, and she’s put it off every time.”

Speaking of killing her last loved ones left alive—Sif gripped the handle of her dagger tightly and stared at Loki, her jaw clenched. She hated when Loki talked like this to her, about her as though she wasn’t there. Though, what truly troubled her was how she was torn between killing Loki to stop his mouth and killing Thor because Loki was right. What was she waiting for? He had always been right about her stance on Thor—she could have ended this so long ago if she had killed Thor the way she killed Odin and Frigga. Something always stopped her, something Loki’s intelligence and goading couldn’t pierce. 

“She has some idea of honor, Loki, and you know nothing of that,” Thor replied.

“If I never hear that word again,” Loki sighed. “Sif! I’ve perfected a poison—we could send a scout to sneak into Thor’s camp and pour this into his drink, then wait for him to die. No, she said, that was not an honorable death for a warrior like the mighty Thor. Sif! A plague—of my devising, if you care to know—tears through his camp. Thor’s weakened with it, too. We can kill him now and he will thank us! No, she said, that was not an honorable death. Sif—”

Thor turned to Sif and asked, “Why do you let him go on like this?”

“What are his words worth,” Sif said as she met Loki’s eyes, “When he’s always waited for me to do our bloody work for him?”

“What a relief to see, after all this time, where your loyalty truly lies,” Loki said, barely able to keep the snarl out of his voice. “You stand there and lecture me on honor, all the while giving Thor a winsome smile that has killed more men than I can count.” 

“I hope, Sif, he was worth it,” Thor said. Sif looked back at Thor and realized both brothers were bearing down the full weight of their disapproval on her. “I hope murdering our parents, those who loved and raised you as one of their own, was worth this.”

“Don’t pretend your parents were anything but the keepers of a gilded cage for us, with you the only one allowed outside,” Loki said.

Sif closed her eyes as they continued to bicker—there was no point to any of it, as if yelling over each other would solve anything. As if there was a solution to what they had done to each other, to their family. There had to be an end to it, there had to be, and she would have to do it.

*

Things changed when they entered Jotunheim. They had seen all the realms known to Asgard but that one, so they snuck into a village by night, stole warmer clothes, and cut their way into the barren waste of Jotunheim.

“This is a temple,” Loki said as he walked towards the structure in front of them. “Crude architecture, cruder art beneath the frost, but it feels like a temple, doesn’t it?”

Sif nodded in agreement and listened carefully for movement or voices within; satisfied that there were none, she led the way into the temple.

They took their time examining the place. Loki realized it had featured in Odin’s stories of the last battle for Midgard against Jotunheim. The temple was where they had kept the Casket of Ancient Winters, the weapon the Jotun used against the mortals and other realms, before they brought it to Midgard for the battle. Midgard had been such a point of contention between the two realms because of its dual nature—warm, pleasant like Asgard for one part of their “year” and frozen like Jotunheim for the other. The Jotun wished to keep it frozen, like their realm, until Odin stopped them. 

“Here,” Loki called to Sif. “Here’s their story of how they created the Casket.”

“This wall is different,” Sif said, ignoring the facts of the story and concentrating on the wall itself. “It’s not frosted over at all, not like everything else here. The Jotun must have treated this differently to stop the frost from covering it completely.”

“You mean a literal treatment with some kind of substance,” Loki said as he stepped closer to the wall. “You’ve seen the Casket in the weapons vault,” Loki added. “That little box contains, supposedly, the fury of a thousand killing winters with no effect to its outside and no effect to whoever holds it. It’s likely a rare substance and used sparingly.” Loki looked at her and grinned. “Shall I touch it?”

“If you lose your hand to the frost, you'll still have to cook,” Sif replied.

It was never cold enough on Asgard or the other realms to affect Asgardians, but the cold that powered the casket had destroyed cities and everyone in them. Legend said that no one except Frost Giants could even touch the casket without dying of frost, but Sif thought that couldn’t be true, or how could Odin have brought it back to Asgard? She watched Loki mutter an incantation as he extended his hand to the wall, and for good measure (or, in Sif’s eyes, a useless and stupid measure) he pulled his sleeve over his hand and touched the wall. 

“Hmm,” Loki said. “I feel nothing. The cold doesn’t penetrate through my sleeve.”

“Touch it with your bare fingers, then, but do it lightly so when your skin freezes I won’t have to peel too much of it from the wall,” Sif replied as she took out her smallest knife. “I’d offer to touch it with you, but I need my fingers very much.”

“And I don’t?” Loki asked as he glared at her, offended that she doubted him, but he did as promised. He turned away from her and flicked his hand upward so the sleeve fell back and he could touch his bare fingertips to the wall. 

“You’re not screaming,” Sif said after a moment. “That’s a good sign, isn’t it?”

Then Loki turned around, revealing his blue hands, the blue flush spreading up into his face, his eyes redder than anything she had ever seen. His skin was darker now, blue and changed completely. She knew his body as well as her own, and these scars and bevels, veins creating patterns along his forehead that echoed the art on the wall—where did these come from?

Sif covered her mouth to see him so changed and whispered, “Oh, Loki.”

“Did you follow the story on the wall?” Loki asked. Sif looked from his face to his hand on the wall. She thought if he lifted his hand, his skin would shift back to how it was; perhaps that was why he pressed the whole of his palm to the wall. He looked away from her and down at his other hand, marveling at the change in his appearance. She shook her head and looked at the art on the wall behind him. From the corner of her eye, she could see him lift his hand and touch his fingertips to his forehead to trace the new marks that had appeared. She had to look away as his look of horror pierced her heart.

The story was too long for her to follow all of it, the walls of the temple rising above their heads and the darkness hiding the beginning from their eyes, but the relevant parts were at their eye level. She wondered if that was a deliberate choice of the artist; she wondered if that mattered when Loki’s father, their king, had lied to all of them, especially Loki, all their lives. 

“You think this is you,” Sif said.

“Who else could it be, Sif?” Loki asked. “An old man on an eight-legged horse arrives in a pillar of fire, murders countless Frost Giants, drives them back into this waste, sacks a temple of its most valuable artefacts, and then steals a child for good measure. Laufey’s child, as you can tell from the very distinctive marks on this wall and my fucking head.”

“I’m sorry,” Sif said, because there was nothing else to say. “I’m so sorry. How could he lie to you like this?”

“We can’t return to Asgard, Sif,” Loki said. She saw his hand clench and try to dig into the wall. She stepped forward and took his free hand in hers. How could Odin have hid this from them, she wondered as she looked down at his changed hand. How could Loki’s own skin have hidden its secrets from him, from her? She held his warm hands (Loki’s hands were always cold, always, but not now) and its skin felt tougher, raised in distinctive patterns Sif had never seen outside a book, or ever touched in all the time she had known Loki. 

“Loki,” she sighed. “Loki, we’ll—I don’t know, but—”

NO,” he yelled. He dropped her hand and stalked further into the temple, towards the altar that once held the casket. The echoes became louder the further inside the temple they went until Sif could only hear Loki’s footsteps and his breathing. 

“Loki, don’t—”

“Don’t what?” he shouted back. He turned and took a step towards her before he stopped and dug his fingers into his hair, scraping them along his scalp. She came closer, but stopped when he yelled again, a guttural scrape from his chest that brought tears to her eyes. They had run away from Asgard thinking the paths laid out for them, their unhappiness, were enough to justify escape, while this lurked beneath the surface of their entire world and would follow them forever.

After all that, what pained Sif was Loki’s pacing up and down that aisle like an animal in a too-small cage, ready to claw his own skin off, all while both of them knew there was no fixing this, no way to make this better in any way.

Loki finally spoke and said, his controlled voice still shaking through his clenched jaw, “Think of a nightmare, Sif—your worst nightmare. Think of yourself as a child, in your bed in the palace, completely alone, and think of the monsters that woke you, screaming, from your sleep.” Sif lifted her hand and wiped her eyes—what could she do but nod? She couldn’t even speak, hearing him come undone as he remembered a night from their childhood, worlds and lifetimes away. “Think of the nightmare that drove you out of your room that night when you were young, the one that sent you running to my room before you dragged me into Thor’s room so the three of us could stay awake until morning and fight the monsters off together.”

“Loki,” she said when she had found her voice. “You’re still—Loki, nothing could ever—”

“Be that child again, Sif,” Loki said. She could see his throat moving as he swallowed hard, his eyes fixed on the floor and unable to meet hers. “Take yourself back to Thor’s dark room, huddled in his bed with both of us, and make that little girl realize that the monster was there with you all along.”

No,” she protested. “You’re not a monster. You’re Loki—”

“And you’re the little girl, crying for her brothers to hold her and stay awake with her, and never leave her behind,” Loki snarled at her. “But my nightmare, that you’ve dragged me out here to meet in this waste? It’s that every mocking, bullying idiot we ever knew as children was right. I was no son of Odin, no prince of Asgard, but some abandoned creature Odin found and pitied, and even though those idiots couldn’t count their own fingers without assistance, at least they had fathers and mothers that were their own!”

“You have me,” Sif pleaded. “You’ll always have me.”

He fell quiet again, eyes still fixed on the floor. His breathing had become shallow, his lips firmly shut as he exhaled through his nose, the breaths crystallizing in the cold. Sif watched him look at his hand again, the one he pressed to the wall—it had turned pale and pink again, and she took that distracted moment to step towards him. 

“Loki,” Sif said. “Let’s leave this place. We’ll return to—”

“How could we ever go back,” he asked, “Knowing what we know now?”

“We can’t,” Sif agreed. She had been thinking of returning to Alfheim or Vanaheim, somewhere they could get lost together and never hear of their old lives again.

He finally looked up and met her eyes—no longer dark red, but clear and shining from the few tears he had allowed himself as he yelled in the temple. She took another slow step towards him and chose to interpret the slight nod of his head as a yes. Sif lifted her arms and enveloped Loki in them as tightly as she could manage, and rested her head on his shoulder. She closed her eyes, remembering how they would hold each other like this so often, sometimes for no reason at all, until the wedding got too close and Frigga insisted on clearing her throat whenever she felt they were behaving in a manner that would cause people to talk, even though Loki and Thor were everything to her and Sif would damn well show it however she pleased.

Loki seemed to remember this, too, or he needed her comfort more than he could admit with words. He held her close, his cheek cool against hers, his fingertips digging for purchase on her shoulders. 

“We can’t go back,” Sif repeated in his ear, “Not to the way things were—but we can return, Loki. We can make Asgard ours, and make a life without Odin or Frigga—without Thor, even, if that’s what we need.”

Sif closed her eyes as they held each other, kissed in the winds that blustered through the abandoned temple and swept up the edges of their hoods, and she didn’t think about the ways Loki would interpret what she said.

*

Sif opened her eyes again after a moment, and found Thor lunging as Loki extended a hand, ready to cast a spell. She stepped between them and held out her arms, planting one hand firmly in the center of Thor’s chest and one directly in front of Loki. She didn’t have to touch Loki to make him stop. 

“We’ll bicker until the end of worlds at this rate,” Sif said. “We must end this.”

She had to do it; she was the only one they would both obey. 

“End what?” Loki asked.

“The war,” Sif answered. She turned to Thor and dropped her hand from his chest, and stepped back to stand with Loki. Thor lifted his hand to try and catch hers, but she pulled away from him. “Thor Odinson, I challenge you to single combat.”

Loki turned, standing too close and too much in her space, and spat out, “What?”

“Leave here and bring your troops to the gates,” Sif said clearly. “When you arrive, we’ll fight and end this once and for all.”

“You’re not going to fight her,” Loki said to Thor, asking more than commanding.

“There was never a better warrior,” Thor said as he looked directly into her eyes. “We will end this. I’ll gather my troops and return by—”

“And terms? Anything? Is anyone concerned about—”

“Loki, what do you think single combat means?” Thor asked. “The winner takes all.”

“The winner will take the throne,” Sif began, “And will return to Asgard as its rightful ruler.”

What?” Loki demanded. “You decide to do this now? Why not, I don’t know, ten lifetimes ago when I suggested it?”

“I’ll leave you,” Thor interrupted as he took up the helmet. “And I’ll return with my troops.”

“It’s been long enough,” Sif said to Loki.

“Don’t you think I know that,” Loki hissed at Sif under his breath. “That doesn’t mean we forfeit everything we’ve fought for to satisfy your need to eviscerate each other publicly.”

“That’s not what this is about,” Sif replied.

“Then kill him now!” Loki shouted. “He’s right there. Kill him now and end it! Why parade, why drag everyone outside and force them to watch this spectacle—behead him now and let the crows eat his eyes!”

“Don’t touch him,” Sif said as Thor passed her and Loki, Volstagg’s helmet on again and obscuring his face as he departed. “Kill an envoy, never mind an envoy who happens to be Thor, and his troops will murder everyone here before you notice the palace is burning.”

They stood in the library, listening to the great doors open and close for Thor. Once they closed again, Loki stalked away from Sif walked to the other end of the library. 

“I can’t believe you’ve done this,” he said. “I can’t—I should kill you, and then kill him myself.”

“You couldn’t lead a starving man into a kitchen for a meal,” Sif replied. “You could never have led battles and run an army without me; if you could, I would have died long ago.”

Loki turned from the windows and stared at her, giving her that sharp and dissecting look he used to interrogate and break spies. 

Sif was immune to it. 

She remembered her dream where she relived the night she murdered Odin, and the disgust she felt at Loki immediately after. That moment captured whom they had become in this endeavor—Sif the decisive, practical one with the blood on her hands while Loki made a scene and little else.

Had they loved each other once? The door was open, Loki’s insults likely reaching the guards outside and giving the impression that they weren’t the inseparable team they presented to their troops; she could only think of how to save face in front of them and not whether Loki meant anything he said.

Sif looked down at herself and straightened out her clothing, made herself presentable before she returned to the war room. “I expect he’ll return tonight and announce himself at the gates tomorrow, so you should begin to settle your affairs.”

“And what,” Loki began. She marveled at the emotion he struggled to keep out of his voice. He couldn’t even meet her eyes and if this was ages ago, if they were still those people who hadn’t destroyed their homes in a war of their own design, she would have taken his hand, stroked his cheek, kissed him. If this was at the beginning of the war when they were sure they would defeat Thor with their eyes closed, when they kept themselves running on passion for each other and spite for Thor, he would have fought her, turned this into a screaming match because they wouldn’t submit to Thor, not now, not ever.

They weren’t those people anymore. 

She felt so old, and so beaten. Strangely enough, the thought of winning brought more dread to the forefront of Sif’s mind than losing. After all this time, did ruling matter anymore?

Loki refused to meet her eyes as he asked, “And what happens to us?”

Not our troops, not their families, not the children who had been born and raised within the grounds, not their soldiers’ wives who kept life in the palace running—no, Loki would never think of them. What happens to us, to Loki and Sif, and she took it for what it was: at the heart of all things, Loki was still the selfish prince who had never cared about others a day in his life, and as long as Sif took care of him, he would never have to care.

“If I win, I don’t think I’ll take the throne,” Sif said. “If I win, we’ll release the troops from our service, renounce our claim to the throne, and live in exile.”

Loki looked furious, so Sif added, “If I lose, Thor will kill you.”

Loki glared at her and then stormed out of the library. Sif thought carefully—she should follow him, talk him down and win him back to her side, remind them of those early times when they had no one but each other and winning the war was somehow less important than the fact that they were fighting the war together.

Then Eir interrupted her with new reports from their scouts. She didn’t have time to placate Loki and for the first time, she allowed herself to think that if Loki didn’t like her arrangements and her decisions, he should just leave.

*

Their problem was that their parents had raised them together and then divided them against each other, so they simply could not function for any significant length of time without their third. 

After one particularly vicious bout with Loki, at that point in the war when Sif knew it wouldn’t be over soon and Loki refused to help her impose some kind of productive order in the chaos they had made, she threw herself into a spare bedroom and tried to sort their situation out.

She and Thor, without Loki, were completely without vision. They were very much present-thinkers, whereas Loki would interrupt whatever they were doing to point out they had wasted x amount of time doing one thing and they had to stop stagnating (“enjoying themselves”).

Without Sif, Loki and Thor were both unable to see the other’s strengths. It was, strangely enough, the distance Sif created between them that allowed them to get along: Sif was like a prism, throwing the light to show each of them the other’s worthy qualities. 

And she and Loki without Thor—they made and destroyed each other. When Thor was with them, he was the leader: he was the eldest, the strongest (in most areas), the most persuasive (where Loki was the most manipulative), and Sif and Loki fell in line. They argued with him, of course, but Thor led them and together they accomplished things. Without Thor, Sif and Loki found themselves locked in endless petty arguments and fights as to who would lead, who would be the dominant one, and it was only Loki writing off all sense of responsibility for the operations of the camp that allowed Sif to get anything done.

Except if she took charge of everything, they would appear divided to their troops. They couldn’t have that, not if they wanted to win this and defeat Thor.

She let herself back into Loki’s room and found him sitting in a window seat, staring in the general direction of where Thor had made his camp, though it wasn’t actually visible from the palace.

“If we can’t work together, we’ll have to work separately,” Sif announced.

“I thought that’s what we were doing,” Loki replied.

She stood at the window seat, where his feet were, and when he didn’t pick up his feet to let her sit, she slapped his ankle hard and pushed it off. He glared at her, sat up with one knee tucked against his chest and his other leg lowered to the ground, where he could kick Sif in the shin for good measure. She glared right back until he turned his attention to the window again. She inhaled sharply, unable to fucking believe the child she had been saddled with—all in the attempt to ensure no one saddled her with anything in the first place. She couldn’t believe, sometimes, this awful joke life had played on her.

Sif opened her mouth to speak, but thought about what she was going to say and stopped. She couldn’t fight with him, not anymore, not like this. They had to present a united front and the adorable sisterly thing she almost said to Loki would have ended in a civil war within their civil war. She leaned her head against the window pane and looked outside, too, ignoring Loki’s eyes as they flickered to watch her next move.

“So many seats in this palace, but you and Thor always managed to find mine,” he noted.

“That was deliberate,” she replied. “I don’t think we could have beared the thought of you being content without us.”

He hummed to himself, considering it, and then kicked her again. She and Thor deserved that.

“I need your help,” Sif said. That got Loki’s attention. “I need you to do two things while we’re in this conflict.”

“Do you now?” he asked.

She nodded and looked down at her lap, her trousers, finding a thread to pick at while she spoke. Sif was so careless with words. Not only did they not come to her as easily as they did to Loki, but he also was a trickster; whatever she said, he would find a way to manipulate and make himself the victim. She had to tread carefully, both around Loki’s defensive streak and the pit that sat in her stomach because she couldn’t just speak to one of her brothers. 

He huffed a little—he knew she was stalling for time. She swallowed hard and met his eyes.

“I think we would work better at this—at everything we’re doing—if we divided the responsibilities,” she said. 

She let that sit between them for awhile, watching Loki consider her too broad and completely vague offer of civility, but this was how one had to live with Loki. One had to cater endlessly to his vanity, ensure he always felt secure and special and cared for, even when teasing him. She needed Thor to wield some influence over Loki; to announce that he and Sif and the kitchen people were going into the storerooms to take stock of everything, and if Loki wanted to help in any way he could because he was much smarter than the two of them and would know of easier ways to do such a tedious task, he was welcome to join them.

Here in this place she had made for herself, for her and Loki, away from Thor, she realized she needed Thor more than ever. 

It was another thought she had to push away, or she could never do what she had set out to do.

“Let me take charge of the practical side of living here,” Sif said to Loki, nudging his ankle with her foot. “Food, ammunition, general supplies, assigning living spaces—we may need to build an addition to the palace as our army camp becomes more like a town and less like barracks.”

“What will I do?” he asked.

“Design us a war,” Sif replied. “Why we’re here, why we’re doing this, why we must continue, how we can do it. Spying, intelligence—we can do this together. We can win.”

Loki looked out the window again, but she didn’t count that as good or bad. He leaned against the windowpane, too, and she mirrored him. Their eyes met again and it was like they were back home, taking a respite for themselves in each other’s presence, where it was actually quiet for once. He seemed to sense that, too, but he didn’t smile. His smile had become something cruel as of late, a weapon that genuinely put fear into Sif’s heart when it was directed at her; she was reassured by the slight tug of his mouth into something she couldn’t quite name.

“I think you’re a better strategist,” he said. “When it comes to troops and battles. I can create stories to make them fight, to win people to our side—to discredit Thor and the All-father. Moving soldiers on a board could fall to you and your practical side.”

“It could,” she agreed.

After that, they fought less. 

They saw each other less. 

Sif moved into her own room so she wouldn’t disturb him when she came to bed late from her battle preparations. 

They were cordial associates who happened to team up in order to destroy their brother. 

It was the cool, distant arrangement Sif dreaded from the moment she agreed to marry Thor, but now they had done it to themselves. 

Worst of all: she couldn’t even tell Thor.

*

It grew dark, as dark as it ever did on Asgard, and Sif left the war room. She stopped at the door to her room and continued on to the Loki’s study. She strained to hear through the door and when nothing came through, she knocked.

The door opened without assistance. Sif looked around, suspicious for a moment as it closed behind her. It had been some time since she had come in here. She glanced around, trying to identify what had changed since she had last been here, but stopped when she saw Loki sprawled out in an armchair, a bottle of liquor on the floor and a glass hanging from his fingertips. The windows has been thrown open to let in air and the light fading outside.

“A stupid question, I’m sure,” Sif began, “But: are you drunk?”

“Incredibly,” he replied. “You see, after Thor left and we argued, I came here to devise a battle stratagem of my own.”

Sif offered him a smile, a tiny crooked one from the corner of her mouth, and sat in the armchair across from him. He seemed too loose to mind where she sat. 

“So I sat down right in this chair,” Loki declared, “And had a drink or seven, and said, HOW can I ruin my brother and sister’s stupidly noble plans and reap the throne for myself?

“I expected you might,” Sif said.

He finished his drink and pointed at her, sly and knowing and drunk. “Of course you did, my circumspect Sif. Of course you did. And I thought, well. What if I returned to Jotunheim, persuaded the Frost Giants of my victory in the final siege on Asgard, recruited some of their best though admittedly not-so-brightest, murdered the lot of you, and I took the throne?”

“How could you get into Jotunheim?” Sif asked.

“Not so difficult as you might think,” Loki said. “I’ve done a bit of reading on Odin’s favor, the one he gifted you—your sword that cuts through the realms. It’s an ancient weapon, but one not studied in recent memory because you’ve hoarded it all this time. Yet, there’s enough in the annals that I could have forged a replica, swapped it with yours, and practiced escaping to and from the realms.”

“I know the feel of my sword in my hand,” she said. “It wouldn’t have worked.”

“That’s why I didn’t do it,” he said. “And the part where really, forging something? Not only that, but secretly forging an exact replica of your very distinctive weapon? No, I could do better, so I called back some magic I had all but forgotten, and made sure I had what I needed to attempt crossing the worlds.”

Sif stared at him and asked him, “How many Frost Giants are in this room?” 

He stared at her, his drunken amusement gone—

Until he laughed and rolled his eyes at her.

“None, you idiot,” he said. “You see, I realized something as I gathered my power and prepared to cross into Jotunheim to gather a force of my own to return here and murder you and Thor.”

She said nothing, only waited for him to speak. A part of her—the part that had seen Loki with scraped knees and sulking in corners of libraries all their lives, laughed with him behind people’s backs, seen him at his bravest and his most vulnerable, really seen all of Loki there was to see—hurt at how he could speak so callously. 

That part was small, though, and knew that she couldn’t take Loki at his word. 

Her silence threw him off, apparently, so it took him a moment to continue. “I realized,” he said, “That I don’t care.”

She raised her eyebrows and his eyes met hers. He grinned and laughed, and twisted in the chair to pour himself another drink from the bottle on the floor.

“You two,” Loki said, “Can have Asgard and each other. I can’t be bothered anymore. I would go out onto the ramparts and surrender myself there, for all to see, if it wasn’t something that would take me away from this very comfortable chair.”

“You’re a prince of Asgard,” Sif reminded him. “That should at least be worth the chance to stay in this room and keep yourself in a drunken stupor until the end of worlds. A solid plan, Loki. Well done.”

“Oh, nothing will be done well again, dear, not in my lifetime and certainly not in yours,” Loki replied. He stopped and stared at the bottom of his glass, and he said, “I promise you, Sif, that neither of you will take the throne.”

There it was, her fleeting thought from earlier, the one she had to bury underneath her responsibilities to her people and what she thought was the sure knowledge that she would win the throne for them, all of them, even if ruling was far from her mind at the moment. She took in Loki’s posture again—legs slung over one side of the armchair, neck on the other, glass resting on his stomach—and met his eyes. She was reluctant to believe anything he said, yet did she have another choice?

“Oh, did you not think about that?” Loki asked. “As you marshaled your forces together and prepared for the morning, did you even stop and think why Thor would come to you now with this offer?” Sif bit her lip, remembering Thor’s offer of a deal that sounded more appealing the drunker Loki seemed. “His resources are running dry and his troops desert him. Ours won’t stay much longer once they notice that even Thor can’t keep his ranks together.”

Yes, Loki could always see further and better than she did. She didn’t move in her chair, choosing instead to stare at him and see what he would do next. 

“And not just that,” Loki added, “But did you even think about how you would be received, returning to Asgard as its rightful ruler? While we’ve spent all this time battling each other, Asgard has rebuilt without us. We’re psychotic aristocrats fighting a war for spoils that no one wants anymore.” She refused to meet his eyes, but she could see his bright teeth flashing at her. 

“You’re so serious,” Loki laughed. “Come, Sif. Drink a little. Live a little. We’ve been in the war business for far too long.”

“There’s nothing worse than a drunk man trying to liven up a sober woman,” Sif replied. “Pathetic and, I have to say, a little infuriating.”

Sif thought she was too angry to be amused, but she saw that her comment had reached Loki through his drunken fog and annoyed him; that was an occasion to smirk. “Right,” Loki said. “There’s nothing worse than that. Nothing worse in the entire Nine Realms—”

“I didn’t say—”

“You did, Sif, so admit that you said this judgmental and stupid thing, and that you started a war with no intention of winning it, and—”

“Sleep well, Loki,” Sif said as she stood up and left.

“Poor little princess,” Loki called out behind her. “The mighty Thor returns, but not for her.”

She slammed the door shut and returned to her room, ignoring Loki’s voice ringing in her ears.

*

Sif woke from her restless sleep to murmurs outside in the courtyard, her troops and staff preparing for Thor’s approaching army. It was barely morning, but she could hear Thor’s troops settling closer than they had ever come yet. She climbed out of bed and called for her armor to begin dressing for the battle.

Eventually, Eir came to her, already prepared, holding Sif’s armor. Without speaking, Eir helped her dress, slipping the leather vests and plates over Sif’s body, adjusting the straps as Sif showed her range of movement. Eir then sat Sif on the edge of the bed, Eir on her knees behind her, and began to comb and collect her hair to tie it back. 

“High or low?” Eir asked as the comb brushed through her hair and relaxed Sif entirely too much.

“Which do you suggest?” 

“You tend to spin quite a bit when fighting, so something high may have the tips whipping into your face and eyes at a critical moment,” Eir replied. “But low will gather heat on your neck and your armor will pull at it. I could pick it all up into a bun?”

“No, they have to see my hair,” Sif said. “High. Gather it high.”

Eir did so. Sif asked, “What will you do when this is over?”

“Many speak of returning to the cities—”

“I asked what you will do,” Sif corrected.

“Yes. Well. I’ll fight, if it comes to that. Should I survive that, and should the land here survive what follows, many of us plan on remaining and expanding this into a proper town.” 

Sif could hear Eir’s hesitation behind her, her mouth opening and drawing breath to speak, but nothing came. It wasn’t hard for Sif to guess—Eir was practical, and that was what Sif admired about her, why she had kept her close. Eir had likely planned this new potential settlement ages ago, not should Sif and Loki fail, but when they were ready to move forward with a real life, real governing.

Sif had never had quite that kind of vision, its range and scope; Loki did, but there were so many other things he would rather do than use it. When it came down to it, neither of them could actually rule.

It was pointless to think about the quality of their life after her death. Now, though, as she prepared for what could be her final battle, Sif wanted to know everything: what the mood was among the troops, the staff, among Thor’s troops, what Eir thought would happen after the battle. She wanted to know how life would go on after her—and the answer was, of course it would. Life may have stopped for her and Loki, perhaps even for Thor, but it bustled on around them and paid them little attention.

“You’ll do well,” Sif said as Eir finished her hair and stood up from the bed. She stood in front of Sif and looked her up and down, adjusting final touches here and there.

“As will you, my lady,” Eir said. A final kindness, Sif thought, a final lie.

The peace was interrupted by a horn sounding outside. Sif took a deep breath, ready to head out, but stopped when she saw Eir’s expression.

“That’s our horn,” Eir said. “Not Thor’s. Who would sound it?”

They went to Sif’s window and saw the heavy double doors of the courtyard opening onto the field outside as Loki stood with a sword at his side, flanked by a small group soldiers, waiting to walk through and meet Thor and his troops. 

While the question waited on Eir’s lips—did you plan this without telling me?—Sif stepped away from the window, collected her sword and daggers, and walked downstairs. The doors of the palace were still open and she turned before stepping outside—there was Eir, the best of them, holding out Sif’s shield for her. “Do well,” Sif said to her, one foot outside and one foot in the doorway.

She stepped outside and the horn sounded again, this time for her. Sif saw the wide-open doors and Loki standing between them, now turned towards her. Further still was Thor and his guard, red cape moving with the breeze. She nodded, more for herself than either of them, and turned back to the palace entrance with the people slowly gathering to see her (and Loki, she supposed) off. 

“You have all been so dedicated, so loyal to us,” Sif announced, since Loki had likely done no such thing. It was, literally, the least she could do. “We thank you all.”

Sif wanted to say more, but she could only think of awful “encouragements” to live their very best lives now that they no longer served two spoiled children with too much access to weaponry. She bit her lip and turned to the courtyard again. Loki waited, and watched, as she stepped out into the light and walked towards them.

When she arrived and took her place next to Loki, Thor opened his mouth to say something, then only pursed his lips together and nodded to her.

She looked at Loki and tried to read his expression. That lasted only a quick moment, though, as she noticed his clothing. He wore his battle gear, the closest thing to armor he had: heavy leather shoulder guards, his coat, and nothing that looked like the armor Thor and Sif wore. He fought with stealth and tricks, and always liked to say that if he needed plated armor to defend himself, he had already lost. Try as she might, she had never dissuaded him of that idea.

Sif turned back to Thor and opened her mouth to challenge him officially, but her brain halted—I challenge you or we challenge you? It made all the difference and yet, simply because Loki was here didn’t—

“Thor Odinson,” Loki began. “We challenge you to combat for the throne of Asgard. The winner will return to the capital and resume governing the realm.”

“Alongside the existing government,” Sif added. Loki glanced over at her, annoyed but not... not really annoyed. No, he smirked at her and turned back to Thor, saying nothing, so she continued. “The other will live in exile the rest of their lives. No matter the outcome, all the forces here will swear oaths of faith and friendship and go free of each other at last.”

“We accept your terms,” Thor replied.

And there was nothing left but to fight. Sif adjusted her shield and drew her sword, then saw Eir quietly bring her spear out, should the half-dozen blades on her person not be enough to bring down Thor. 

Of course, that moment Sif looked away was the same moment smoke began to rise from the ground between her and Loki’s side and Thor. She watched Loki pull a pair of small daggers out from the depths of his coat and what good was this smoke when she couldn’t make out Thor’s shape through it? 

Except Loki may have planned it that way, she thought. Sif watched him swirl the smoke around himself and Sif with his hand to block out Thor and the watching soldiers. She turned to Loki and elbowed him in the side hard. 

“And what was all this?” she whispered. “What happened to your comfortable armchair and liquor? You do realize we’re outside and about to fight for our lives?”

Thor yelled, demanding Loki and Sif show themselves. Loki ignored it and fidgeted with his dagger in his hand. He didn’t meet Sif’s eyes. “You said something once—that no one would respect us if we didn’t fight for the throne and win it from Thor. At least, that’s what I remembered, once the alcohol cleared.”

“I did say that,” Sif said before adding, “A very long time ago.”

“I still think it’s impractical, archaic nonsense of Odin’s worst kind, but there’s a certain logic to it.” Loki ran his thumb over the (not even sharpened, Loki, that idiot) point of his dagger and said, “So I’ll join you in the fight for our throne or exile. Where you go, I will follow.”

“All right,” Sif said. “Clear the smoke. Let’s fight.”

Once Loki cleared the air and revealed Thor, disoriented and with his back to them, the battle began in earnest, complete with all their troops clanging swords against shields and far more commentary than Sif thought was warranted.

The three of them fought clumsily, with both Sif and Loki seeming to take turns attacking Thor while Thor beat them off. They could have trapped themselves in that stalemate with none of them injuring each other or being injured—

Except Loki had put himself through only a fraction of Sif and Thor’s physical training and had even less of their endurance. He stepped back from attacking Thor and cast the beginnings of another magic trick. Thor coughed and blinked through whatever Loki had cast into his eyes, but Mjolnir couldn’t be fooled by magic and flew at Loki, knocking him to the ground. 

Sif thought she saw her advantage and dove at Thor, but Thor turned, grabbed her by the shield and her arm that wielded it, and threw her bodily across the battleground. The hammer returned to Thor’s hand and he rushed at Loki, slamming him in the ribs with the hammer and pushing him towards the edges of the battleground where the troops were gathered. Loki began to stand up again, but Thor knocked Loki to the ground with the hammer and left the hammer on his body. 

Faster than Sif thought he could move, Thor rushed at the soldier holding Sif’s spear and tore it from his hands. He drove the spear through Loki’s chest once, twice, and would have done it a third time except Sif screamed as she never imagined she would. Thor withdrew the spear and tossed it aside as Sif leapt to her feet. She stood and saw Loki writhe on the ground, blood beginning to spread out and sink into the earth beneath him.

She ran towards them and shoved Thor aside. Her sword still in her hand, she brandished it and bared her teeth as she circled Loki’s body, keeping Thor and her men away. “Give us a moment,” she said. Her blood burned its course through her body and her heart pounded, the only sound she heard in the entire world except for her own voice. She had never felt more primal than at that moment when Loki was dying on the ground at her feet. “A moment. One moment.” 

“Do as she says,” Thor said to the men around him. He stepped back first, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand, the hammer at his side. Sif waited for the others to step further back before she felt it safe enough.

Then, she sank on one knee and cradled Loki’s face. She felt his cold sweat against her palms, the dirt and blood from her hands sticking to his face. 

“You idiot,” she said. She wouldn’t cry, she knew she wouldn’t, but something rose in her throat all the same, determined to choke a tear out of her before they were done. “Oh, you idiot, what were you thinking? It’s always the smartest who prove the stupidest in the end.”

“I’m so glad I proved you right,” he muttered. She looked around her again to make sure the soldiers kept their distance and then she leaned in closer to hear him mutter, “Tell me.”

“Tell you what? That you’re an idiot? You know that, you just—you didn’t even sharpen your knives.”

He writhed and smiled, a look she had seen so many times before except the scene was all wrong. They should have been in bed, he should have been under her, his lank hair pressed into a white pillow, that full-body flush making him so warm to the touch, his wiry strength struggling underneath her as she pinned him, took him inside her, rode him slowly until neither of them could bear it anymore. This scene outside in the dirt, this was all wrong.

She brushed the hair from his forehead and thought she liked him better when he was like this: dirty, as if he had seen the outside once or twice in his life. She’d never see it again, she thought, and something in her chest tightened, beneath her armor where she couldn’t reach it. 

“Was it worth it?” Loki asked. “Tell me it wasn’t all for nothing. Please, tell me that.”

It slipped from her lips before she could stop it: “Dearest.” She hadn’t called him that in so long; she hadn’t thought of him like that, either, in a very long time, but now at the end it came to her so easily. His face, still cradled in her hands, brightened as he smiled. 

“Dearest,” he repeated. He couldn’t believe it either; here, now, he wouldn’t tease her for it, wouldn’t shame her for saying it. He closed his eyes and relished the word for a moment. He was going colder and soon, he would close his eyes and not open them again.

“At the end of worlds, when the Ragnarök comes, and everyone has died and returned, ready to live again,” Sif said, her thumbs stroking along his cheekbones, getting more dirt on his face and for once he didn’t care. “We’ll do better.”

He met her eyes and smiled again—damn him, damn him, he never smiled this much in his life, never this sweetly and without malice or spite. She didn’t know what to do with all this joy he was giving away now that he had no use for it anymore.

“You,” he had to catch his breath, then laughed a short, awful laugh. “Sif, you couldn’t even try and lie to me?”

She laughed and shook her head. Loki closed his eyes and he was gone.

She bowed her head for a moment, then stood up to face Thor again. She could feel her grief and pain lurking nearby as she stepped away from Loki’s body. They threatened to overtake her, bring her to her knees; she met Thor’s eyes and all she wanted was to wrap her arms around him and scream, muffled into his chest, until her throat was ruined. They had killed their brother, the smart one, the sneaky and manipulative one, the one who smiled when he was with them and never anyone else. Whatever came of this, they would never see him again, and they had done it.

In a flash, she saw what she had to do: Thor would not leave this place and neither would she.

They began to circle each other, taking in each other’s wounds and weaknesses. Sif noticed the blood darkening the edges of Thor’s clothes, the torn shirt showing skin through the movement spaces in his armor. She knew the solid spaces between the metal circles were only leather, that the sparse mail armor under his arms to protect his heart and lungs was indestructible, that the protection charms on his upper arms, the ones he activated with the hammer before going into battle, would disappear if she cracked open his gauntlets with her sword. She knew his weakest point was the belly, the strap between the two lowest circles of the six that made up his breastplate, and if she could drive her sword under the strap and into his body, she would impale him internally and he would die quickly.

Sif knew that her armor was strong, but not stronger than Mjolnir. She’d taken a beating already, especially on her left side. Her armor was more constricting, but she was more protected. Still, her weakest point was also her belly—if Thor drove his sword into the leather separating her central and side plating, she would be done.

Faster than Sif realized, Thor roared and threw the hammer at her. It wasn’t the speeding hammer, though, but the roar that had her half-roll on the ground towards him. He had his unsheathed sword in his other hand and she took that moment of shock to drive her sword into Thor, right under the strap and into his body. 

It was horrible how comical it looked, she thought as she kneeled up and drove it higher, deeper into him. His arm fell to his side, outstretched, and he dropped his sword, looking like a puppet on a stick. 

She stood and pulled out her sword, but she took too long, staring at Thor and the shock on his face. The hammer returned and struck her lower back, smashing into her with all the fury of its dying owner. She groaned and lifted her right arm to attack again. Before she could strike, Thor’s other hand buried a dagger into her shoulder joint, then pulled out and stabbed into the gaps of her armor, slicing up and into her, the pain so blinding it wasn’t like pain anymore. The shock stopped her movement and he did it again, stabbing on the other side of her armor’s weakness, slicing up and into her, digging in hard until she fell to her knees and then to the ground.

Could she hear his gasps? Could she hear anything but her own breathing? She was so out of breath, all from this little fight.

She heard Thor drop to his knees in the dust beside her, then fall next to her. She was exhausted, so damned exhausted, but this was good—he was down, too, and she still had her dagger at her left hip, she could still move her wounded shoulder, probably, and finish him off. What was a little more pain before victory, a little more hurt before the finish?

Thor turned on his side and she stopped thinking about making the killing stroke. She looked down at him and the blood that darkened his already dark clothes, soaked them and collected the dirt that blew up around them. He looked into her face, down at her still intact armor—she felt the blood, though, wet against whatever skin was left unbroken, and she felt it rushing out of her faster than she would have liked. She should apply pressure, she thought, and lifted her hand to her stomach. It was difficult to press down, though, and even when she did, she could feel blood seeping out between her fingers, making her hand sticky and warm.

“I’ve done it, Sif,” Thor whispered to her. His hand dropped on hers and clutched it weakly. She thought she clutched his hand, too, as hard as she once had when she was injured and Loki had to stitch the wound in her leg shut, but maybe not—maybe this wound was worse. Thor didn’t seem to notice.

“I’ve killed you and I’ve killed my brother,” Thor said. “Unforgivable crimes.” 

She lifted her eyes and met his; she wondered if she should tell him how much effort it took.

“I’ll never be allowed into Valhalla, Sif,” Thor said, looking only into her eyes, “But where you go, I will follow.”

She blinked at him, blinked again, and suddenly felt tired—tired and out of breath, as though they had just come in from running, like when they were younger and the three of them would come in from outside and go straight to Thor’s bed, filthy and disgusting. They would groan at how sweaty they were, how hot their clothes were, but they would arrange themselves into a pile on the bed and sleep would come quicker than they thought. Servants would come in and drag them each to baths, and they protested the whole way—just a few more moments of sleep and they would be fine to go down to dinner, as if sleep could erase the grime that covered them. 

Breathless and tired, Sif tried to clutch Thor’s hand, but she could barely move her fingers. His eyes met hers, as they had every night they fell asleep together, Loki’s weight against her back, his hand curled on her front, his breath at her shoulder. She looked at Thor’s face and closed her eyes, finally drifting off to sleep.