CHAPTER 5

Mara examined the little tube in her hand, "Why do I need this?"

Cheryl grinned, taking it from her hand, opening it and twisting to raise a bright red stick from inside, "It makes us look pretty. And guys like it too."

She grabbed Mara's chin, using a thumb to maneuver her lips, rubbing the gloss all over it. She looked in the bathroom mirror when Cheryl sat back. Her lips were as red as blood.

"People think people with blood over their lips are… pretty?"

Valka shrugged, "People like the color red on ladies. Besides, lipstick isn't just in that color. It's got so many colors and shades of that color."

Cheryl rummaged in the bag, "And let's not forget lip gloss or tinted balms." She pulled out a little box, "Here we go."

She opened it, showing the contents to Mara, "This is blush."

"Blush?"

"Yeah, it goes on your cheeks to make them seem rosy."

"Why do people want to look like they just finished a hard day's work?"

Cheryl smirked, "Going to the gym isn't the only workout you can do."

Mara started to say something, but Cheryl started applying it to her cheeks. She set it back down and grabbed another box. When she opened it, there were little circles of color all over the flat bottom. It looked like an artist's palette.

Her mind drifted to that morning, not noticing when Cheryl said something.

She snapped to attention when Cheryl smacked her arm, "Uh, what?"

"You zoned out. What do you keep thinking about?"

Valka giggled, "More like who does she keep thinking about."

The girls laughed as Mara examined the color palette, "Really no idea what you're talking about."

"Oh please." Cheryl smirked and took the palette, rubbing a brush on a brown, applying it to her eyelids, "We know you have a thing for a certain dark haired someone."

"What?"

Valka sighed dramatically, "Do we really have to spell it out M? We know you like him!"

Mara frowned, but couldn't open her eyes, "What's wrong with that? He seems like a good person. Why is it such a big deal?"

Cheryl snorted, "First of all, he's a prince."

"And?"

"What do you mean AND?!"

Valka coughed, "C, Vanaheim doesn't really have royalty."

Mara frowned again, "Kinda. There's the King of the Wolves in the forest, the King Under the Mountain over in the Lonely Mountain. And there's the various elven kings over in Alfhiem bordering the realm. I just don't see the big deal."

Cheryl sat back and snapped the box closed, "The big deal is that no-one can get close to them. Much less have the Prince of Darkness look at them like he looked at you."

Valka grinned at Mara in the mirror, "Seriously, how did you do it?"

Mara examined the layers of green and brown over her eyes, "Do what?"

"Oh don't play coy. He likes you too!"

She patted at the delicate curls around her ears, waves cascading down her shoulder, "You think?"

Valka peered over her shoulder, "Well, it's just a guess, but from the way he was looking at you last night, I'd say it's a big possibility."

Mara frowned but kept patting her head. She bit the edge of her lip and narrowed her eyes at her reflection, deep in thought.

"Oi, stop biting your lip until you're in front of him. You're ruining the lip stick"

She sighed as Cheryl grabbed her head again and fixed the tiny line on her lips her teeth had caused, only to gargle when Cheryl stuck a cloth in her mouth to rub the red off her teeth.

"Bleh, I hate the taste of cloth."

The girls laughed as Mara stood and adjusted the emerald dress around her hips. She frowned up at the girls in their short dresses, half bent over.

"When are we expected to be there?"

Valka snorted and leaned back, "Honey, chill. Nobody is expected to be at the party until 30 minutes after it actually starts."

"But that's rude. Punctuality is very important."

"Not when it comes to parties. Things don't really kick off until a lot of people are there."

Cheryl frowned at Mara's dress for the seventeenth time that night, "Are you really picking that one?"

"For the last time Cheryl, yes."

"It's way too formal for this."

She rolled her eyes, "This is the first time we meet our classmates. And I'd rather wear something I'm comfortable with, that won't rip, than something that might rip."

Cheryl rolled her eyes, but stood up, "Alright M. It's about time to head out. You two better not have had plans for tomorrow, because we are partying till the sun rises!"

Valka cheered and the girls linked arms with Mara on either side and half dragged her from the room and out the building.

Mara groaned loudly, rolling her eyes, hiding a smirk and chuckle.

The night air was cool, and yet again, there were no clouds in the sky. Crickets chirped in the bushes and grass of the fields of the academy. A lone owl hooted, and two nightingales sang in harmony.

Still quiet, but better than the silent city at least.

They let go of her when they reached the stairs to building 2. Oddly colored lights like bursts of magic flashed through the main windows. A stream of girls was already flowing into the building. Every time the door opened, lively festival music poured out.

"You know C, when you said late, I guess you meant the last ones to even arrive."

"Shut your fruit hole M."

The girls laughed and pushed open the door. The front lobby was already packed full of people. The flames in the lanterns and overhead lights had been lit with magic, coloring them like a rainbow.

Mara looked down as she heard a crunch. A glittery substance coated the floor, and as she looked around, she noticed it flying around in the air as well, covering most of the people.

She frowned when she spotted a man, and then another.

"Uhmm, Valka, Cheryl?"

They looked over at her, grinning, the glitter already floating down on their hair.

"Aren't men forbidden from campus unless they have special invitation from the higher ups?"

Valka nodded, "Usually. But this is a school tradition. The graduating year always hosts two parties, once at the start of the year, before term, and right after, before the final grades are issued. It's pretty much the only time men are allowed on campus, especially since dorms are closer to the city than the school."

"Yeah." Cheryl nodded, her curls bouncing wildly, "And most everyone here agrees to a sort of unspoken truce."

"What truce?"

She shrugged, "It's basically be nice, have fun, don't harass or attack anyone, or… well, you know."

Mara nodded, "I get it." she looked around, "So we shouldn't expect a teacher to come shut this party down and expel everyone here?"

Valka laughed, "Probably not. There might even be some teachers here."

Cheryl suddenly grabbed Valka's arm, "Look!"

She pointed at a random group of tall women.

"Oh my Norns! The Harding group!"

"Let's go say hi!"

They rushed off, leaving Mara standing next to the door, confused. She grabbed her wrist with one hand and massaged it nervously, looking around. It was somehow dark and light all at the same time, and the sounds of the people and the music kept drowning each other out.

She coughed into her elbow, eyes watering from the perfumed air. She looked around again, slightly panicking when she couldn't see Valka or Cheryl at all anymore.

Mara walked around the edge of the room, one hand on the wall. No matter what hallway she turned down, there were people, darkness, and noise.

After about five or so disoriented turns, the music started to get quieter, and the crowd thinned. Mara frowned and guessed that it was like ripples on a pond. The farther from the center of activity, the slower things moved.

Eventually, she was alone in a hallway, with a glass door leading to a small garden. She stood in front of it and looked out. The moon shone on flower beds and oak trees. A path of mossy stone led to a ring of willow trees, and in the center, a gazebo sat in the moonlight, covered in blooming jasmine.

Mara opened the door, which obviously wasn't used much as the hinges shrieked almost painfully.

She took a deep breath and sighed happily once outside. The air was cool, and softly scented with the soft fragrance of the flowers.

It was just like…

A sudden chill pierced her, much colder than the soft, cool breeze ruffling her hair.

How long had it been since she had thought about that place?

She shuddered, clutching her shoulders.

No good to dwell on things that couldn't be changed. Focus on what you can fix today.

That's what she always said.

A smile as bright as the sun itself laughed in her mind. Bright red curls shook in glee as she laughed.

"Mara, see that tree?"

The toddler stared at the burned stump.

"That one got hit by lightning."

"Can we heal it?"

"Unfortunately not. But look at that flower over there."

She turned to look at a wilting flower.

"What's wrong with it?"

"It needs sunlight and water." That beautiful smile lit up the world again, "Think we can help this one?"

Mara giggled and helped her get some fresh dirt on the tree stump, plant the flower in it in the sun, and pour some river water over it.

The girls laughed as the flower perked up almost instantly.

"See? We can't fix what we couldn't control in the past." She brushed the petals of the flower, "But if we can help one little flower today, every day, things will get better."

She giggled and hugged her, looking up at her face.

Her face.

It was so blurry. All she could see was her smile and the red of her hair.

Mara blinked tears out of her eyes, and stared at the gazebo in front of her. She shook her head again and walked up the creaky wooden steps.

She sat delicately on one of the polished benches and looked out through the holes in the roof at the glimmering moon.

Mara jumped when she heard someone clear their throat. She looked wildly over to the shadows where someone sat, concealed.

"Uh, hello. I didn't expect anyone to come out here."

She cleared her throat, "And I didn't expect anyone to be out here."

The figure stood and moved to sit across from her in a patch of the moonlight.

His dark hair glinted in the moonlight, eyes gleaming almost like a cat's.

He leaned back suddenly, "Gardener?"

Her heart skipped a beat, "Prince Loki?"

He chuckled, "If we keep meeting like this, then the Fates themselves must be at work to push us together."

She snorted softly, "I think they have more important things to do than make two people keep meeting up in odd places."

He chuckled again, "Possibly. But who knows? Only the Fates know what they do."

She laughed softly through her nose.

Loki leaned against the wall of the gazebo, crossing his legs, "Why are you out here?"

Mara waved a hand, "oh, well… I was getting dizzy almost immediately and needed some air."

"Not used to parties?"

"Not like this. Not with flashing lights and air that could wilt the ears off an elf. And music that fills your head and mimics the feeling of being squeezed."

He nodded, "Yes, the music is a bit too loud, and several people were wearing a bit too much perfume than was good for them."

"What about you? Why are you out here?"

"Oh…." He leaned forward and clasped his hands together, "I'm… not exactly welcomed with as open arms as my brother and his friends at a party."

She frowned, "Why?"

"I don't mix well with the others I guess. They find me… fearsome."

"What? For what reason? If anything Thor is the more frightening of the two of you because of his temper and willingness to fight and kill."

Loki chuckled, "You are probably the only one who thinks that way. My brother is the golden child, the people's person, the friendly one. And I am the one that hides in the shadows."

Mara snorted loudly, covering her mouth, trying not to laugh as he frowned at her.

"Not to be disrespectful, but have you ever thought that's maybe because you sit in dark corners wearing dark clothes and don't really speak to anyone?"

His face was a deadpan as he stared at her with half open eyes.

She met his eyes for only a few seconds before turning red and looking away, "Well, it's just a thought. It could also be that the people are fools."

He was quiet for a few seconds before he burst out laughing.

"I don't think I've met anyone other than my brother's friends who would speak so boldly to my brother and me."

He stood, brushing off his pants, then holding a hand out to her.

"Uhmm, what are you doing?"

"You said my problem is that I sit in a corner and don't talk to people. So will you join me on the dance floor fair lady?"

"Oh… OH! Yes, of course."

She stood and patted the skirt of her dress, then put her hand in his delicately.

He led her gently through the gardens and the halls back to the main area of the party.

People were starting to give them a wide berth, and shot odd looks in his direction. It was easy to get to the center of the dance floor.

He turned to face her, almost lacing a hand on her hip before stopping, "Do you know how to dance?"

She sighed, pushing his hand down on her hip and placing her on his arm, unable to reach his shoulder.

"Do you?"

He snorted slightly, grinning, "It seems I've met my match with you Lady Gardener."

They danced slowly to the music, everyone around them staring. Mara felt a phantom shudder run down her spine at all the eyes watching her. Her hand gripped his bicep slightly tighter.

She jumped slightly when she heard a soft yelp, followed by softer curses. When she was faced that way, she saw someone trying to dab a dark red liquid off their white dress.

The flutes in the song picked up, sounding like birds cawing in alarm. The rolls of the drum sounded like thunder, matching the flashing lights like lightning.

The lights turned red, bathing everything with a bloodlike glow.

Mara felt her heart race, her breath coming in shudders, body going stiff.

Screams echoed in her head as she felt Loki tighten his grip and look down at her in concern from her shaking.

"Don't look honey, don't look."

She stared at the crushed white roses dripping dark blood.

Her father's hands slipped from her shoulders as he walked away to a group of adults. Her mother was weeping a bit away, holding one of her brothers.

Marcus and Flint were pacing around behind her mother, muttering to each other, hands going between their mouths and their hair in worry.

She took a step towards the lump in the flowers as if in a dream. The smell of blood and several somethings were stronger the closer she got.

Finally, Mara stood at the side of the lump, and looked down…

The song ended to much clapping, and the lights turned purple and blue again.

Loki led her away to the edge of the room as another song started and the floor filled up again.

"Hey…"

She started, looking up at his face, full of concern.

"Hmm?"

"Are you ok? You started shaking."

"Oh… uhmm, yeah. I'm fine. Just got lost in memories."

He frowned, and he started to say something before a group walked up to them.

Valka and Cheryl snickered behind their mouths as Thor nodded to the two of them.

"Brother, Lady Gardener. It's wonderful to see you here."

Valka chuckled, "Especially together."

The strange blond was there too, and giggling right with Valka and Cheryl.

Mara kept blinking, swaying on her feet. She shifted slightly into Loki, shaking her head slightly as he wrapped his arms around her to hold her steady.

The girls giggled again.

The strange blonde, what was her name, Amora?

She smirked at the two of them, "Had a bit much to drink Lady Gardener?"

Mara shook her head, "Not a drop of anything since my friends and I arrived. It was just a brief dizzy spell."

"You two were twirling quite a lot. I must say Lady Gardener, you are a wonderful dancer."

She nodded, "Thank you, I learned from my…" her throat closed up for a second, and she shook her head, "I learned from a family member of mine."

Valka tapped her shoulder, "Hey, M, can you chat with me and C over there for a sec?"

She nodded and started to walk with them before the hands holding her stopped her movement. She looked up at the prince's concerned face.

"Prince Loki?"

He cleared his throat and let her go, "Apologies. Be careful not to fall over. You may get trampled."

She smiled, "Thank you. It is indeed a tin-cupper tonight."

Mara walked with her friends to a corner not too far from the group, but far enough so they could speak quietly and not be overheard.

Cheryl grinned at her, "Look at you little miss vixen!"

Mara choked a tiny bit at the word.

Valka smiled, "Glad to see you put our advice to good use."

"And I love how you played damsel in distress. He didn't want to let you go."

Valka fanned her face, "And the face he was giving you while dancing was the face any woman would want from her lover."

Mara nodded, barely listening.

Cheryl put her hand together as one would in prayer and pointed at Mara, "So, next step is to get drinks for the two of you and always keep his full."

Valka nodded, "Not only is it common courtesy to present someone with a drink and keep it full, it will also help you in that respect."

She tilted her head, "What respect?"

The girls giggled.

Cheryl smirked at her, "Uh, you know."

"Know what?"

Cheryl leaned in, as if sharing confidential information, "You know, sleeping with him."

Mara frowned, confused.

Valka looked at her, "Is that even your plan?"

Mara looked at her feet, still confused, "I guess. Is that what I should do?"

They shrugged.

"If that's what you want to do, Cheryl and I fully support you."

Cheryl grinned, "Honestly, we'll support you with most everything. Like the two of us would support each other."

Mara smiled, "Then I guess I'll support you guys too."

The group hugged, and then the girls pushed Mara back towards the group.

"Go get your man hun!" Valka cheered softly.

Cheryl patted her back, "We're rooting for you!"

Mara smiled tiredly, but walked back towards the group, grabbing two wooden mugs of a liquid that made her eyes water and her throat itch.

They looked up when she walked up next to them.

The blonde, no, Amora¸ smirked, "Nice chat?"

She nodded, and offered one of the mugs to Loki. He took it with a mutter of thanks, bringing it to his lips. Mara brought hers to her lips, ignoring the smell and took a large gulp, only to splutter and retch, the foul liquid searing her throat, as vile as it smelled.

The group chuckled softly.

Thor's eyes gleamed brightly, "Never had mead before?"

Mara coughed, "I've never had any alcohol before now."

She covered her mouth with her wrist, hacking as the group laughed. Valka, who had approached quietly with Cheryl, patted her on the back.

Amora took a delicate sip from her mug, "It'll get easier to take with time, like many other things. It also helps to not take it all in one go."

Mara blushed, taking another drink, albeit smaller. The group chatted about various things. She drank the mead slowly, hating the taste, feeling her entire body slowly go numb, her surroundings turning fuzzy.

She swayed on her feet, and then fell into Loki, blinking wearily.

He held her gently and stroked her hair, "You ok?"

"Gugh."

He chuckled, "I'll take that as a no." he looked up at Valka and Cheryl, dancing wildly, "Do you want me to take you to your dorm?"

She nodded blearily against his chest. He wrapped an arm around her waist, said a hurried goodbye to his brother, and walked her out of the building. Mara stumbled slightly on the steps, and he swept her up off her feet and carried her down.

"What building are you in?"

She gurgled for a second, trying to remember anything, and when she spoke, it was heavily slurred, "Uhmm, four. Yeah. Building four."

She pulled the keys from their chain around her neck and showed them off.

"Ok, building four." He looked at the keys for a second, "Level six, dorm 6G."

Loki carried her up the stairs of the building, and then up all the flights of stairs to her dorm, his footsteps echoing through the empty building.

Once before the door, he set her down. Mara took the key from around her neck and tried, and failed, to put it into the lock.

He eventually chuckled, took her hands in his, and unlocked the door, walking her in, unlocking her room door and setting her on the bed.

She huffed slightly, leaning back, incredibly dizzy. She didn't notice when Loki left the room and came back with a glass of cold water.

His voice was deep and gentle, "Here, drink. It'll help you feel better."

She drank from the glass he held up to her lips, then sighed. She pulled at the earrings, wincing at the tugging feeling, but not stopping.

Loki chuckled, kneeling in front of her to take the jewelry off, "So you're not exactly a frequent drinker?"

She shook her head as he set the baubles on her desk. Her eyes blinked shut for some amount of time, starting when something cold and damp wiped across her face.

Mara hummed softly through her nose as he wiped the makeup off her face, then squeaked when she felt cold hands trail down her legs to tug the flats off her feet.

She laid back on the bed as Loki maneuvered her legs onto the bed.

"It's so warm…"

He sat next to her and pat her back, "Liquor can make you feverish sometimes."

She hummed softly, then huffed when she felt him stand.

"Wait…"

He turned back, "Yes?"

"It's late, you should stay the night…"

"Are you sure?" he leaned down and brushed the hair from her face, "You're pretty drunk."

She nodded against the pillow and patted the bed behind her, "Sleep with me."

He choked slightly, but put one knee on the bed behind her. Mara rolled slightly forward, her back still to him. She hummed slightly happily when she felt him lie down behind her, albeit stiffly.

Mara quickly fell asleep, but Loki stayed awake for a while, marveling at this pure and innocent being in front of him, and how much trust she was placing in him, barely knowing him, and somehow knowing him better than himself.

He curled up closer to her, wrapping an arm around her waist and breathed in the soft scent of her hair, smiling against her head.

This one was going to be the one.

He fell asleep, dreaming of dancing with her in the moonlight.