“Don’t be such an infant.”
“An infant? You are making my skin smoke!”
“It’ll hurt worse if I don’t. Here. Bite down on this if you’re going to whine about it. I’m almost done.”
The protest on the tip of Loki’s tongue was roughly shoved back by a coarse wooden block. For a moment, he gagged on it. The girl in front of him had her face hidden as she kept her eyes focused on the deep gash across his lower arm, else Loki would have glared at her. But maybe you wouldn’t have seen it then, either. The cozy bedroom was utterly dark. It had to be. No one was to know who was visiting this healer in the dead of night—many nights, for years now. The darkness was for Loki’s benefit, and yet he found himself annoyed by it more often than not.
You were prettier in the moonlight. That had to be it. The shadows turned your [color] hair inky blue, and when you looked back up at him, your eyes were full of starlight. Loki’s mouth turned to sand long before you’d even taken the block from his mouth. “There,” you said, and surely it was Loki’s imagination that made you sound a little hoarse. It did things to his body and his head, being so close to you, seeing you like this, things Loki should not like to admit. A peasant girl had no right to be so enchanting. He had to get a handle on things, sooner rather than later.
“If this is how you treat your rulers, I should hate to see how you treat your other patients,” he said—but he had to force the snideness that always came so easily to him otherwise. Was the look you sent him irritated or knowing? The latter. It must have been the latter. You took his arm so tightly that that was the only option, and you did not look away as you began to loop a bandage around his recently repaired flesh.
“Princes mend the same as peasants, I’ve found.” Finally, you looked away. This allowed Loki to swallow the worst of his nerves, or try to. It did not help as much as he had hoped. “They pay better, too, or at least tell other people they should come by.”
“It should be—”
“—‘honor enough to house Loki Odinson,’” you finished for him. Loki glowered stonily at you until you shot him a grin. “You take everything too seriously, ‘your highness.’” The way your lips quirked up around his title made something burn in Loki’s chest. Frustration was what he decided to convey.
“I could have you locked up for that.”
“And then who would patch you up after your midnight trips to Jotunheim, my liege?” The last word seemed to end on a purr, but Loki was too startled to notice. His eyes went wider than he wished them to; he blinked as he battled off the desire to shout.
“How did you…” he began, but by then you had looked back down at your work and he was distracted once again by the way the silver moonlight flowed across your skin. This you did not notice. All you did was shrug.
“I know you,” you answered. Loki let out a scoff, the sound of which was so softened that it sounded much more like a low chuckle. Damn him. He was letting himself get lost here; he should not have ever allowed himself to come back. Unfortunately, you were like a magnet: no matter how many times Loki swore to never return to this cramped home in the middle of a tiny Asgardian village, there would come some time, some wound when he could no longer resist your pull. Then you had to go and ruin the moment by adding, “I thought you would have learned your lesson the first time you went there.”
Loki stiffened, his fingers tightening around his knees. Your voice had been mild enough, but that did not stop him from feeling the sting of betrayal in your rebuke. Did you presume that he enjoyed spending his time with those monsters, freezing his bones to the core in the constant snow while the Frost Giants lumbered about his plans with all the grace of those half-wit carnivores sitting at their gate? That you were so far removed from court that you could not understand politics was a given, but Loki had thought you had some grasp of tact.
“You do not understand,” he snapped. Being quiet was the farthest thing from his mind, his voice rising as he continued, “There is so little time. Thor’s coronation is two weeks away. If I don’t do something, no one will. I cannot stand by and let him have the throne. You know Thor, [Name].”
The tirade might have been shorter than most of Loki’s speeches, but he spoke it with such feeling that he was breathless by the end of it. A faint feeling of chagrin flashed through him at the sight of your reaction: None at all. In fact, once he was finished, all you did was lean forward to wipe his brow with a soft cloth and answer, “No.”
“No?” Loki repeated.
“No.” You shrugged again and settled against the back of your hard wooden chair. “I have never met your brother, Loki. I do not know him at all.”
For a moment, Loki was nonplussed. Not know Thor? How was that possible? And then he remembered the important detail that kept slipping his mind: You were not of high or noble birth. The people of Asgard in this distant corner of the realm weren’t likely to hear much other than the codswallop spread by the rest of the populace, all about Odin’s golden child, winner of a thousand battles, worthy wielder of Mjolnir. He felt certain that if you just met Thor, you would be on Loki’s side—which shouldn’t have mattered, but somehow did.
He allowed himself to imagine for one moment. In his mind’s eye, Loki saw himself taking you to the palace, introducing you to his family, declaring his intentions. Father would throw a fit over your low birth, to be sure, but Mother wouldn’t mind, and what could they do to stop him? Thor would have the Realm; Thor would need to marry for the good of all. Loki could stop this plan of his right now and take you home. Assuming you were amiable, his happily ever after was right within his grasp.
“[Name]!” This illusion shattered like glass underneath the insistent fist against your door. Despite himself, Loki started and felt blood rise to his face in embarrassment. Whether this embarrassment was due to his thoughts or his jumping hardly mattered. You, too, had frozen, one hand still gently holding Loki’s wrist as you twisted toward the door. “[Name], are you alright? I heard shouting.”
“Fine, Father,” you called back. This was not the first time Loki had nearly been caught in your bedroom after the moon had risen, and he was not surprised to hear your cool lie next. “I had a bad dream. I’ve calmed down now. I will try not to wake you again.”
There followed another long silence. Though Loki could not be in any danger from a man like your father, he still found that he could not force his tensed muscles to relax until he heard your father’s tired response: “Very well. Let me know if you have taken ill and need anything. Goodnight, [Name].”
Loki’s ears strained to hear the sound of bare feet softly padding back up the hall. At last it did, and at last Loki could let out his long-held breath and relax. When he looked back at you, your eyes were still glued to the door. “[Name].”
Blinking, you turned your face back to him. Once more he felt as though he had been punched in the stomach. You really were so beautiful. Perhaps he was being foolish, trying to take the crown for himself—or delay Thor getting it until he had matured a little. There were fruits that could be enjoyed only by those that did not have the weight of an entire realm on their shoulders, after all. Could it be that Loki had not thought his play all the way through?
Loki’s shoulders tightened once again. He could not simply stand back and let Thor be king. Thor was every kind of reckless under the sun, and hardheaded and ignorant to boot. He would have Asgard at war with all nine realms within the first nine months of his reign, Loki was sure of it. To choose his own happiness over the good of Asgard would make Loki every bit as selfish as his brother.
As though you could sense that he had come to this sort of conclusion, you let you a short, soft sigh and smiled as you released his arm. Loki pulled it protectively to his chest and your smile widened slightly. Then you turned away, hiding your face again to put up the rest of your healing supplies.
“Well, your highness,” you said once you were finished, “it will be difficult to sneak out of here, now that my father will be listening out. Will you be wanting to stay the night?”
For once, Loki did not answer. He merely gazed at you, wishing that he had never made the mistake of coming here. Why did this choice have to be so difficult? You were not worth this sort of heartache, except that you were, or else he would not feel heartache to begin with. When Loki did not speak, you moved past him to settle on the bed he was already sitting on.
“Suit yourself,” you murmured as you pulled the sheets back over your shoulders. “Do keep in mind that there is room on the bed here, if you are not averse to sharing with a lady.”
He did not point out that you were not a lady. Loki did not even point out that, as he was the prince, you should have been happy to take the floor while he slept on the bed. Instead, he wordlessly slipped into the blankets next to you, as he always did on such nights when escape became impossible or undesirable. As he listened to your breaths lengthen in the dark, Loki thought that you had been enough of a lady to him from the beginning. Always you had been there to patch him up and hear his troubles, without pay and always with a touch of sarcasm. He knew that your attitude wouldn’t change even if he did continue his secret meetings with Laufey. It was just that now he realized that couldn’t matter. The realm came first, and Loki’s heart second.